Poetry Is Dissent

by Richard Hoffman

Poetry is political. Period. It has often been remarked that the so-called “apolitical” poem, the objet d’art, is of course political in its acceptance of the status quo. But while I agree with that view, that’s not quite what I’m getting at here. I believe poetry is political because a poet is always both working with and straining against language. That may seem like a truism, and you may ask “What’s political about that?” Well, for starters, the question of what to accept about how the world is represented in words, and what to reject. In some respects it is a poet’s duty to reject the verbal and rhetorical formulations of his or her moment in time. In other words, a poet is always on a quest for originality, which is not a question of trying not to sound like anyone else, a question of what these days is called “branding,” but a return to the great storehouse of language, to see what can be found there that is useful and true to this moment.

The part of me engaged in that process is the oldest part of me—or maybe I should say the youngest since I started doing it before I can remember anything else.

As a child, words come from a world that was there before you arrived, and you presume, because you must, that there is some correlation between the words and the things and actions and qualities for which they stand. This is the original suspension of disbelief required to acquire language in the first place. And then you go about choosing among the words offered. You try to match the right one with the right thing. You try to say it correctly. You test out the words on other people, usually your parents. Sometimes they think you’re cute, other times they threaten to wash out your mouth with soap!

But soon enough and before you’re even aware of it, you are toughening your spirit on the successive disappointments that you suffer as you learn, again and again, that the words are inadequate. You must find new ones, or combine them in a new way. Many, if not most people, make some peace with the inadequacy of language. I think what makes a person a poet (whether they write in verse or prose) is an abiding commitment to try again, all the while knowing that it is in the nature of language, and of the essence of the whole enterprise, that you will fail.

This is, at heart, a moral commitment, or so I believe, because one of the reasons words have come to disappoint has to do with their deliberate misuse, with their having been poisoned by dishonesty. Here is where I could rant about the ubiquity of advertisers’ and politicians’ designs on us, but it is enough, I think, to simply make the point.

Let me give you a favorite poem of mine, by the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, as a way of describing the act, the ethical and political act, of writing poetry:

by Zbigniew Herbert
translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott

There are those who grow
gardens in their heads
paths lead from their hair
to sunny and white cities

it’s easy for them to write
they close their eyes
immediately schools of images
stream down from their foreheads

my imagination
is a piece of board
my sole instrument
is a wooden stick

I strike the board
it answers me

for others the green bell of a tree
the blue bell of water
I have a knocker
from unprotected gardens

I thump on the board
and it prompts me
with the moralist’s dry poem

Maybe in another time, a time when the world had not been poisoned by a century of genocides and mechanized murder, and before the continuing threat of ecocide, a poet could trust his or her culture’s assumptions about what it means to be good, or powerful, or heroic, or simply human. We do not live in a time like that. And so, we are “moralists” or ought to be, as Herbert unapologetically suggests he is. But it is not the finger-wagging moralism of the self-righteous Herbert’s talking about here; it is instead the weighing of words, and a rigorous attention to how these same words have been used before. Because the discourses of the past have brought us to a sorry spiritual state, we can take nothing for granted, nor can we be silent.

Here’s a recent poem of my own — not great, way too simple, but at least short—that asks a similar question about the poet’s relation to the received world:


In my seventh decade
I have not been able to decide
if we have made a mess of everything

because we have turned away
from what the old stories, poems, rituals
sought to preserve by teaching us,

or if we’ve learned those lessons all too well.

Though I’ve railed against Caesar
and raged against the gods,

I am still unable to decide.

If, as poets, we do not fear the misrepresentation of the world, if we do not guard against it, work against it when hunched over the page, then what are we doing? What is being accomplished, and whom does it serve?

It seems to me that poets are of little value who aren’t trying to see through the fog of stereotypes, untruths, half-truths, and alienating narratives that profit a few at the expense of the rest of us. How do we address the racism, or racialized oppression, that has deeply injured our ability to see one another clearly in America? Why should we continue, as writers, to acquiesce in our own infantilization, as if literature were a playground where what happens is of no consequence in the world?

Here’s how the post-WWII critic George Steiner put it “…any thesis that would, either theoretically or practically, put literature and the arts beyond good and evil is spurious. The archaic torso in Rilke’s famous poem says to us ‘change your life.’ So does any poem, novel, play, painting, musical composition, worth meeting.”

And yet, without beauty—in the case of poetry the satisfying and pleasurable play of language, the bodily, erotic tongue caressing the thrilled ear—the soul remains asleep while the intellect goes on chewing its flavorless daily bread. I’m reminded of Yeats’ comment that some poets have pulpits but no altars and others have altars but no pulpit—his version of Aristotle’s charge to the poet to both “delight and instruct.” The temptation is to try to oppose the pulpit-less deco-poets by leaning way out over your own pulpit with an excoriating index finger in the air. But the real alternative is to enact the poem in beauty’s sanctuary, the heart thereby opened to hear words that challenge, inform, and refresh us in the struggle for a just future.

Far from being a luxury, poetry is the essential medium. It is because poetry is handmade, because it does not require a great deal of money to perform its artistry and effect its influence, that it can save us. Most people find poets archaic, quaint, maybe charming, like candle-light. But think how useful candles are when the power goes out. And think about the gathering storm, and the darkness that has begun to fall.

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AGNI HoffmanRichard Hoffman is the author of seven books, including the celebrated Half the House: a Memoir, published in a 20th Anniversary Edition last year, and the 2014 memoir Love & Fury. In addition to the volume Interference and Other Stories, he has published four collections of poetry: Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the Sheila Motton Award from The New England Poetry Club; Emblem; and Noon until Night. A former Chair of Pen New England, he is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.


On the Desire for Future Biographers

by Josh Gidding

I sometimes imagine my life from the point of view of a future biographer. For instance, concerning the months my parents and I were living in India in 1961, I imagine something like the following:

“From an early age he showed sensitivity towards the miserable and downtrodden. This was dramatically evident in an incident involving the ‘untouchable’ Natu, the household ‘sweeper.’ One morning the child, in front of Natu, took his mop and began to clean the floor with it. The intention was apparently to show solidarity with the sweeper. But Natu, appalled at this transgression of caste boundaries, or perhaps simply afraid that his job was being taken away from him, grabbed back the mop, and the seven-year-old burst into tears. He was often afraid of—and even, it seems, ashamed before—the beggars that were a common sight on the streets of New Delhi, hiding his eyes from them when they would approach the family’s car stopped at a light. But there could also be occasional shows of cruelty, as when he spent an entire afternoon decapitating ants in the driveway, or when he would pull on the restraining leash of ‘Tiger,’ the worm-ridden Alsatian that the family’s rental agent, Mr. Singh, had procured for him after endless entreaties to his parents….”

However, this is misleading, because when the “biographizing impulse” strikes me, it is never in full sentences—or any kind of sentences, for that matter. It comes as a momentary consciousness, the wish for a biographically-shaped pattern guiding the shapeless here-and-now of my daily experience. An awareness that this life—the rainy-day train ride into New York City, for lunch with an old girlfriend; the prolonged Instant Messenger flirtation with same, which went on for three years, which my wife found out about, and which caused her pain, anger and humiliation—a sense that my life, in its daily delinquencies and partial fulfillments, may have a larger meaning and unity, which remain elusive to me, but will not prove so to my future biographer.

I know what you are probably thinking, and yes, there is surely some grandiosity in all of this. But let us make a distinction here. The desire for future biographers is less grandiose than the desire for, say, present biographers. The kind of biographers (they are really no more than intrusive personal reporters) who might hang around the house, watch you make breakfast, follow you to work, to the market, etc. I don’t want those kinds of biographers. I try to imagine them as little as possible. (Though sometimes I just can’t help it.) When the thought of present biographers comes to me, I nip it in the bud, and tell myself—in the words of Waymarsh to Strether in The Ambassadors—to just “stop it.”

(Speaking of Henry James, how nice it would be to have a Leon Edel as a future biographer! How alluring are the titles of the separate volumes of his magisterial biography, especially to those of us prone to such fantasies: “The Untried Years,” “The Middle Years,” “The Treacherous Years”—and finally, as if inevitably, “The Master.” To know that your life can be said to have had such a thing as “untried years,” “middle years,” “treacherous years”—culminating in the triumph of being “The Master”—how cool is that? Ah, the gratification, the posthumous gratification of it all! I realize, of course, that there can be no such thing as “posthumous gratification,” because when you are posthumous, you are in no position to be gratified by anything. But to imagine future biographers while you are still alive—is that not already to be living, as Keats put it, a “posthumous life”? And in a posthumous life, can there not be such a thing as posthumous gratification? Grant me then this day, O future biographers, my posthumous gratification!)

The idea behind the wish for future biographers is really quite simple, and perhaps more common than supposed. It is merely this: that someday, someone will care enough to ascertain how it all fits together. The task is beyond me, but I have seen it done many times before, in the literary biographies that I read. This doesn’t mean that I still hold hopes of becoming a famous writer. Those days are over; I know better. This isn’t about fame, or riches, or greatness. It’s about understanding. Understanding and forgiveness. And vindication. Understanding, forgiveness, and vindication. And the greatest of these is vindication.

Future biographers, you see, get it. They understand; they forgive their subject his trespasses; they set the record straight. They see pattern and sense where the subject seemed to live only muddle. They are wise and knowledgeable in the ways of one’s life. They discover purpose and meaning in it. That is their job—and they are better at it than shrinks. Because while shrinks might very well understand, they tend also to condemn—tacitly, subtly—ever so subtly—to condemn. Even the most understanding of shrinks—mine, for instance—tacitly condemns. They are in a superior position to us, at least for the duration of the therapy, and it is their job to whip us into shape. I read this as an implied condemnation, however well-intentioned. Paranoid? Maybe; then again, even paranoids have real shrinks! They need them as much as the rest of us. (More, actually.)

Future biographers, on the other hand, never tacitly condemn. Though they may, indeed they must, criticize judiciously. That’s very important in the matter of future biographers—their judiciousness. A balanced assessment of motive and action is something most of us aren’t normally accorded in our daily lives; which is another reason it is so important to enjoy it through our future biographers. It is their job to bring an informed understanding and forgiveness to the study of our lives. That’s what makes them good biographers. Needless to say, I don’t want bad biographers. Who does? Bad biographers can do a whole lot of damage. They can really screw things up. Bad biographers understand nothing, and so are in no position to grant forgiveness, let alone vindication. Give me good biographers, or give me … no biographers at all. Actually, that’s not true. I’d be willing to settle for a mediocre first biographer; but he or she must then be followed by a distinguished second biographer (preferably, Leon Edel) to set the record straight and vindicate me.

Because remember: of the three most important things a future biographer can give you—understanding, forgiveness and vindication—the greatest of these is vindication. When, through the unstinting efforts of our future biographer, our true, underlying motives are seen for what they were, and understood, and we are forgiven our trespasses, our lives will have been vindicated. (The future perfect tense, by the way, is the preferred tense of future biography. It is the tense of anticipated completion, of a promise already fulfilled, of the already-done deal. And who of us does not secretly wish for the already-done deal?) We will be found to have been living, all along, lives with a structure and purpose, lives that made sense. Our decisions will be shown to have been the right ones: made in the context of principles and patterns we could not possibly have envisioned at the time, but that our future biographers can now discern and lay out clearly, dispassionately, judiciously, in the wisdom of biographical hindsight. Our lives, apprehended now in full, at last, through understanding eyes, and in the light of biographical truth, will not have gone unappreciated by those who really know.

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good jojay photoJosh Gidding is the author of Failure: An Autobiography (2007). His essay “On Not Being Proust: An Essay in Literary Failure” (AGNI 67) was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays (2009). He taught writing and literature for many years at Dowling College on Long Island, and before that at Holy Cross and the University of Southern California. Before entering academia, he worked as a script reader at Warner Bros., MGM, Columbia, and Paramount. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.


by Rick Bursky

Great clowns move seamlessly between sadness and humor and understand the influence they exert on each other. A clown is grotesque, colorful, outlandish. Isn’t a poem? Though few people have ever hired a poet to read at a birthday party. In medieval Europe clowns could say things poets would be executed for. They probably still could.

I was in a bank in Hollywood, California. Standing in line next to me, a man with a white painted face, red rubber ball on his nose and shoes that extended six inches past the toes and curved up. Other than that the rest of his clothes were typical—khaki pants and white collarless shirt. In most other cities the police would have been called. I’ve unsuccessfully attempted to write a poem about this on at three occasions. I wonder if a clown, after reading one of my poems, ever attempted to perform in the smaller ring at a three ring circus while a man poked at a lion with a chair in the largest ring and a chimpanzee juggled in the other. Clowns seems to exercise better sense than poets. And unlike poets, most clowns have little to say. Body language, expressions, and props carry the performance. The narrative is based in image. Often there’s music like in a poem, music does more than contribute noise.

A poet is like a clown except not nearly as brave.

“Writers are a little below clowns and little above trained seals,” John Steinbeck.

The white-faced clown is often the serious member of the troop. A sonnet would be this clown. A traditional sonnet is in iambic pentameter as a traditional white-faced clown has red ears. The similarities between clowns and poems are numerous. Prose poems would be Auguste type clowns, he is the fool and lower, much lower, down the clown social scale than white-face. As there are forms of poems there are other forms of clowns.

I considered compiling a list of poems about clowns but what would be the point? Though I did compile a list of poets who at one time or another performed as clowns, make-up and all. The length of the list did not surprise me. Subsequently, each wrote to me asking not to be included on this list. This also did not surprise me.

The oldest clown registry in the world is the Clown Egg Register in England; hundreds of years older than the International Poetry Registry and Administration in Geneva, Switzerland. Fear of clowns is called coulrophobia. Fear of poetry is more prevalent though without a name. I plan to create one soon.

There is much to be said for location. One of my favorite places to write is at the kitchen table at night. Something should be said about dress. What if put on baggy pants held up by suspenders and painted my face? What if I dressed like that while I wrote?

The man holding defibrillator paddles hunched over the heart attack victim has bright orange hair, a bold striped shirt and sad black lips painted on the bottom of his face. Saturday night, two clowns sit in a movie theater holding hands. In the jury box, three people in white-face with red ears and rubber noses. Without saying a word, image changes narrative.

The expression “clowning around” deserves more respect.

“A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast,” Groucho Marx. A poem is like an anti-depressant except it has more side-effects. A poem is liquor except the hangover lasts longer.

A man wearing a white shirt with a large frilly red color stands at the back of a bus slowly making its way through the early evening traffic in Brooklyn. He juggles bowling ball pins. Everyone on the bus watches. Three rows up from him a woman is writing a poem in a notebook. Just a guess, she could be writing a story or the explanation as to why she’s leaving her boyfriend. I am convinced she was writing a poem. The way her face lifted from the notebook and momentarily started at the passing streets, a poet looking for an image. I missed my stop, was busy watching her write.

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bursky_bio_photo BIO Rick Bursky teaches poetry for the Writer’s Program at UCLA Extension. His most recent book, I’m No Longer Troubled By the Extravagance, is out from BOA Editions; the previous book Death Obscura, was published by Sarabande Books. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

Save the NEA: One Poet’s Story of How the Arts Build Community

by Patricia Traxler

I wish the Trump administration had some understanding of how essential the arts and humanities are to civilization, but I don’t have a lot of hope for this realization to strike them, because Trump is a philistine and he’s got a lot of company these days—philistinism seems to be a burgeoning thing in America. Several years ago, Kansas (the state I live in) became the only state in the Union to have abolished its arts commission (one of the first acts of far-right Tea Party pet Gov. Sam Brownback, whose tax cuts for the rich have also decimated the public schools in this state). Now the US may end up the only developed nation in the world to have axed its national arts endowment. The White House budget office has drafted a hit list of programs that Trump and his advisors would like to eliminate, and that list includes the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps, and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.

Just to give some idea of what killing the NEA will (or more aptly, will not) accomplish, the $146 million budget of the National Endowment for the Arts represents just 0.012% (about one one-hundredth of one percent) of our federal discretionary spending. According to 2012 NEA figures, the annual budget for the arts per capita (in dollars) in Germany was $19.81; in England, $13.54; in Australia, $8.16; in Canada, $5.19, and in the United States just $0.47. Yes, 47 cents annually per capita. For all the arts combined. And the new POTUS feels that’s too much.

It would be impossible to enumerate all the programs that will likely die when the NEA and the NEH are killed, and the many people these cuts will deprive of things like public television programming and National Public Radio; school enrichment programs in the arts; and community programs to encourage music, dance, theater, visual art and literary art, literacy, and the pleasure of reading.

Just speaking from my own experiences as a poet and a teacher of poetry in the wide-ranging community work that I’ve been privileged to do in California, Kansas, and other states across America over my long (I’m old!) career as a poet, nearly all of my community work has been supported directly or indirectly by the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities through local, state, or regional arts organizations.

Contrary to popular perceptions, artists working in their communities all across the US are not doing “fluffy” projects. Here’s a list of just some of the work that I’ve had the opportunity to do as a poet in my community, with support from the NEA, NEH, and state or local arts agencies:

  • For four years in the late ‘70s, I ran poetry workshops for inner city San Diego kids, the message of which was that poetry can be an expression of personal power. (Funded by the California Arts Council’s Poets in the Schools Program and the NEA.)
  • A five-year project teaching deaf and hearing-impaired elementary school students in Salina, Kansas, that writing is the great equalizer. Had to learn sign language for this job (although, according to the kids, my hands never quite lost their “accent”). (Funded by the Kansas Arts Commission and Salina Arts & Humanities, with support from the NEA.)
  • A writing class I taught for nearly twenty years at a local senior center in Salina. These people, ranging in age from sixty to their nineties, were eager to tell their stories in both poetry and prose, describing lives of making do during the Great Depression, the devastating Midwest dust storms of the Dirty Thirties, and two world wars. Fresh into Kansas from California, I learned more about my new community and its history from those seniors than from any other source. The end result: the publication of Vintage, an anthology collecting their vivid memories in both prose and poetry, dating back to World War One. Yes, One. All of these people have since died, so I love that their memories are on the record. (Local and state arts commissions, with support from the NEA.)
  • A second personal history project, this one for people of all ages and from all over the state, resulting in the publication of another anthology, In Our Time, which was reviewed in and lauded by the Chicago Tribune. (Funding: local and state arts commissions and local public library, with support from the NEA and the NEH.)
  • Decades of writing projects in the Kansas public schools, K thru 12, including individual writing sessions for students with learning difficulties, as well as classes for gifted and mainstream students, and one-on-one mentoring sessions with students who already had their own writing projects in progress. (Local, state, and NEA funding.)
  • As an outreach project during my stint as Thurber Poet at Ohio State University, a 2-month workshop with nine formerly-homeless women who had been given shelter at the Columbus, Ohio, YWCA. Most of these women had previously been incarcerated or institutionalized for mental health disorders. I’ll never forget the pride on their faces at the end of our two months together when they read their poetry on a National Public Radio station in Columbus. (NPR: another of Trump’s targets.)
  • A five-year project in which I was privileged to work with inpatients and outpatients at Salina’s large regional hospital, using creative writing exercises I had designed to fit their particular issues: stroke patients who were experiencing memory problems and expressive difficulties as well as depression; people in recovery from substance addiction; clinically depressed mental health inpatients who were in many cases emotionally isolated and suicidal but found hope and strength in expressing their most difficult and private feelings in writing; terminally ill patients who felt alone and frightened but found a measure of peace in writing or recording their thoughts, feelings, and memories for their families during our sessions. Patients’ families often read those last words from their loved ones later at their memorial services. (Funding from local and state arts commissions and the NEA, with matching funds from the hospital.)
  • Classes at an extension school called Opportunity Now for at-risk teens who have dropped out of public schools (or have been expelled), the goal of which has been to show these struggling kids that in writing they can find a trusted companion, an outlet for their fears and angers, and an expression of their own very real personal power. (Sponsored by the local art center, with funding from local and NEA sources. By the time this project began, there was no longer a state arts commission.)
  • Poetry-writing sessions for boys at a local military school, many of whom had been transferred there from across the US against their wills, sometimes because of their own behavioral issues, but just as often because of the break-up of their families by divorce, a family tradition in the military, or the world travel of wealthy parents. Many if not most of these boys were suffering feelings of abandonment and loss, and they approached the unfamiliar process of poetry-writing as if it were a weapon of self-defense, coming to see their finished work as a source of deep pride. (Sponsored by the local art center, with funding from local and NEA sources.)
  • Salina’s Spring Poetry Series, which I founded in 1983, and which has brought national and international literary figures into this small community each April for thirty-four years. More than one US Poet Laureate has read in the series, as have state poets laureate from around the US and an impressive number of Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winning poets. John Villani’s The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America listed this annual poetry series as one of the five reasons for Salina’s inclusion in the book. (Series sponsored by Salina Arts & Humanities and the Salina Public Library, with funding from the NEA and the NEH.)

Some of the many other community projects I’ve had the opportunity to do with arts funding have included grief-journal workshops for children who have lost a parent or adults who have lost a spouse; a breast-cancer survivors’ writing workshop that left me moved and inspired anew after each session; a journaling workshop for recent amputees who were struggling to feel fully themselves again after the surgery that had profoundly changed their physical sense of themselves; a reminiscence-visitation program to assist seniors in nursing homes with memory issues and their social isolation.

These are just some of the community projects that one poet has been allowed to do, thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, both of which have been suggested for elimination by the Trump administration.

I feel such an urgent need to say this: Art isn’t just dessert, the cookie at the end of life’s daily meal—it’s an essential nutrient for the human spirit, and for the spirit of community that is really what makes America great. Not great again, mind you, but always and ever great, just as communities all around the globe are great in their own individual ways. We never needed anyone to come along and presume to make us great again—our communities have never stopped being great, and the collective sum of those distinct and cohesive communities is America itself. We just need the new administration to leave in place the agencies whose function it is to feed and enrich the human spirit that thrives all across our land. Leave us our NEA, NEH, and other vital programs. We can take it from there.

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TraxlerPatricia Traxler was born and raised in San Diego and now lives in Salina, Kansas. She has served as Hugo Poet at the University of Montana, Thurber Poet at Ohio State, and was twice named Bunting Poetry Fellow at Radcliffe. Her poetry has appeared in The Nation, The Boston Review, Agni, Ploughshares, Ms., Slate, The LA Times Literary Supplement, and in numerous anthologies including Best American Poetry. She has published a novel and four poetry collections, most recently Naming the Fires (Hanging Loose Press, 2016). Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

(photo by Stephen Hébert, Newsweek)

Rely, Rely

by JP Grasser

Poets are, by nature, unreliable. Or so goes the stereotypic vision: we’re a clattering of penniless loafers. Mercurial, if winsome. Far from the pragmatists professionalization might’ve whittled us into, we’re more interested in taking stock than in taking stock options. We’ve got our heads in the clouds and cotton balls in our ears.

(Note: I do have my head in the clouds right now. Specifically, clouds of smog—the winter inversion in Salt Lake City—the worst air quality in the country. On bad air days, my friend wears a gasmask to ride his bicycle.)

In the weeks immediately following the election, I thought there was a great irony to the road that had led us here. How ironic, I thought, that embracing radical subjectivity, self-reliance, & individualism—you can be anything when you grow up (even a poet!)—had seemingly spiraled into a dark state of post-truth. How ironic, I thought, that the same worldview that nurtured my creativity likewise served as catalyst to the alt-fact landscape, a place where the anecdotal supersedes the verifiable, where everyone’s opinion is equally valid, if unequally true.

On the first day of class, I often ask my creative writing students to list their favorite novels. Invariably, someone throws out The Great Gatsby. Invariably, I ask if they can differentiate reliable narrator from unreliable narrator. Same difference, they say.

My mentor in college, Wyatt Prunty, once relayed the phrase “the mutual dependency of apparent opposites” with regards to Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” What happens, he asked, if we are unreliable narrators of our own lives? What’s true fiction, false truth? This is, of course, always the case; it’s not exactly breaking news that memory distorts reality. Same difference?

(Note: after some quick digging, I’ve determined this quotation appears in Dr. Prunty’s book Fallen from the Symboled World: Precedents for the New Formalism, which is listed under—prescient, eh?— Political Science on Google Books.)

The writers I know are incredibly reliable. When my dog tore off his dewclaw during a particularly rowdy round of fetch, a poet-friend dropped everything (uh, job interview prep) to drive him, bleeding in the back seat, to the puppy-ER. She & her husband also let me sleep on their futon for a week. Maybe this is just what friends do. But, take a quick tour of the pop-culture sphere, and the unreliable friend seems a sturdy trope of the millennial generation—they flaked on drinks, they flaked on the movies, they flaked on the birthday party, ad infinitum. These flake-friends sound like a box of Idahoan Instant Spuds.

Apparent, bolded in the quotation above, suggests multiplicity over binary structures. Love and Hate are not true opposites, but perhaps points on an ideological spectrum. Perhaps this spectrum exists in four dimensions, like life. Perhaps this is finally the best operational definition of Keats’s “Negative Capability.”

The etymology of “reliable” comes, in part, from the Latin “ligare”: to bind. See ligament, the OED says. I like this. I like to think reliability might be as integral to the architecture of one’s being as fascia and sinew.

Perhaps an unintended consequence of the New Criticism’s desire to discount authorial intentionality is a supreme ambivalence toward truth. The syllogism works like this:

  • The text is a self-sustaining entity; all that matters is the text.
  • Any reasonable explication of the text is a valid reading.
  • Any reading is merely an opinion.

Unbound Opinion = Truth.

This is a faulty syllogism to be sure. But hey, same difference, right?

Intentionality matters now more than ever. Subjectivity might only be the apparent opposite of objectivity; there is, per force, a Utilitarianism to the writing life: we tell the small lie to expose the big truth. Perhaps the rules have changed though, perhaps we must now tell the big truth to expose the big truth.

All narration is unreliable. All memory is unreliable. Truth can, perhaps, only be approached asymptotically. Still, we must try to reach it.

I used to think that radical subjectivity led us here, to this place, where “post-truth” deserves a dictionary entry. I thought that my artful deceit wasn’t all that different from deceit in general. But that was before I understood that absolute self-reliance is pure myth.

Even the doomsday-preppers, the hardline self-reliers, (who are looking smarter by the minute), relied on others to grow, harvest, and can their corn, to parboil their rice, to dehydrate their boxed potatoes.

It’s a deleterious strain of narcissism which tricks us into believing we’ve done something alone, based purely on merit, hard work, sweat and blood and tears, etc. (Of course, ligaments don’t figure into that cliché.)

These days, I’m reminded often of the scene from the Odyssey in which, as their craft approaches the Sirens, Odysseus fills the ears of his crew with wax. In which they lash him to the mast. In which they bind him.

(Note: in legalese, a Ulysses Pact designates a freely made decision, which binds one in future action, as in an advance directive.)

If the ship is sinking, it must, I think, be our intention to navigate toward the fundamental veracity of humanity: different sameness, to rely on the spectrum of possibility. The act of creation is still an act of love. Pursuits of the creative imagination, by their very nature, are pursuits of happiness, even if tinged with pain and sadness. And joy must be the truest thing around, even the small joy I see in my students, as they recount Gatsby’s green light, across an expanse of water, symboled as it may be, dimmer now than it was before.

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Headshot_Grasser (1)J.P. Grasser currently lives in Salt Lake City, where he is a PhD candidate in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Utah, and where he serves as Managing Editor of Quarterly West. J.P. will begin a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry in September 2017. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

The Pistol Sign Pointed Right at Me

by Peter LaSalle

It’s happened to me twice recently. And in light of the ongoing and always loud controversy about gun control turning louder now with our utter political polarization, it seems to haunt me even more.

The first time was in Istanbul, where I’d traveled to meet with the translator and also with the Turkish publisher of one of my books of fiction, a short story collection. I’d set myself up in small family-run hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, a yellow-stuccoed place on a quiet dead-end street thick with flowers blooming and not far from the almost bluer-than-blue waters of the Sea of Marmara. The spot proved perfect for my blending some taking in of the nearby sights of Istanbul’s landmark mosques and the ancient Grand Bazaar, as well as conducting my literary business via a short walk across the Galata Bridge to the city’s commercial center.

There was a shop, the equivalent of a corner deli, in Sultanahmet that sold cold beer. At the end of one day of much walking, heading to the hotel, I stopped by. I figured I would take the can back to my room and relax for a bit, sip a refreshing beer and read some before dinner.

Mustached, toothily smiling, the guy behind the counter asked me with what little English he had where in America I was from. While I am, in fact, from Rhode Island and usually spend summer months in the state, I’ve lived a good part of my adult life in Austin, where I teach creative writing. To make things easy, I replied, “Texas,” as in many years of traveling I’ve learned that to say Rhode Island will only elicit bafflement from most people abroad.

Handing the blue can of Efes Pilsner in a plastic sack to me, the guy grinned, just looked at me with a larger smile; he said “Texas,” nodding, then offered me the universally understood pistol sign with his hand—thumb cocked for the hammer and forefinger out straight for the barrel, nodding some more.

And then, just last summer, I was in Lisbon. I was on another literary errand. This time it was to match up some of the places in that true gem of a city of steep hills, endless red-tiled roofs, and such impressive imperial architecture on the wide Tagus River with the work of Portugal’s giant of modernist literature, Fernando Pessoa, who died relatively young in 1936 and near thoroughly unknown then. I planned to write an essay for a literary magazine of the sort I have been writing lately on going to a place where a favorite author’s books are set, to see, through exploration of the setting, if I can better experience the work that way.

With Pessoa proudly honored by Portugal today, he has emerged as perhaps the defining cultural image for Lisbon itself, site of much of his poetry as well as the eerie, posthumously published prose ruminations of a fictitious Lisbon office worker, his acknowledged masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet. There’s now a much-photographed life-size bronze statue of Pessoa seated amid the umbrella tables outside the popular Café A Brasileira. Pessoa had been a regular there, often discussing literature with friends at the ornately classic place in the heart of the city’s Chiado district, today a busy pocket of trendy shops and usually clogged with tourists.

In my reading about Pessoa, an odd fact I came across was that the Café A Brasileira, famous for its literary ties, once had also been frequented by members of Portugal’s feared secret police. During the repressive 36-year rule of the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, they operated under different names, the most notorious acronym being PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado); their headquarters had been only a street or so away, back then known as “The House of Torture.” After some checking around online, it was easy enough to find the exact location of that former headquarters on Rua António Maria Cardoso, a narrow street with gleaming rails for the yellow Lisbon trolleys, sloping steeply down toward the city’s extensively redeveloped dockside.

As I stood in front of the building on this hot and deserted summer Sunday late afternoon, I took notes on the look of the place, thinking I might use such details in my future writing. The four-story stone edifice—impeccably sandblasted and with fine, iron-railed balconies—was now, after complete remodeling, the home to (and this is pretty ironic) very chic central-Lisbon condos; an upscale designer furniture store occupied the ground level. Which was when a barrel-chested guy approached me, seemingly of African ancestry and thirty-five or so, in shorts, T-shirt, and sandals. Friendly, quite animated, he asked in his melodically bellowing voice if he could help me, maybe answer any questions.

Bic and little red-marbleized notebook in hand, I said I was just looking at the building, checking the plaque now affixed there by the government, which, with proper repudiation, does fully own up to a most tragic chapter in the nation’s past.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “this is it, and this is where people were locked up in cells, where they were tortured in all sorts of ways for too long, even murdered, and now look at it”—he histrionically waved his hand as if to take in the whole street—”a home for the rich.”

We casually chatted. He explained that his mother was Portuguese and his father from Angola, the former Portuguese colony that suffered in the 1960-70s through a drawn-out war of independence, a foreign conflict unpopular at home and for many the equivalent of our painful Vietnam episode. He said he’d learned most of his English, very good, from TV, and he offered more of his opinion on how the rich were indeed ruining the world, how his dear Lisbon itself was being bought up by the rich, and “Money, money, money!” Eventually he introduced himself as João; I gave him my name. And when he asked me where I was from in the U.S., I again, without thinking, simply said, “Texas.”

And with that it did happen again, more or less an automatic response on his part. He pronounced “Texas” slowly, as if tasting the syllables on his palate, and, yes, slowly he raised his hand to make the pistol sign, now not with a nod but just a rather hopeless, apparently pitying shaking of the head.

I really didn’t know how to answer, to be honest. Or, to put it another way, in Lisbon on such a pristine sunny Sunday afternoon and in Istanbul that other day, both times the exchanges left me embarrassed, if not a little depressed.

OK, here’s where I am going with all of this.

I don’t think that what appears an automatic reaction from people abroad linking guns and Texas can be summarily dismissed and just pegged to the influence of Hollywood’s Western movies over the years, though that obviously is part of it. Still, in a larger sense, it could be more that Texas, loud and brash as it is sometimes seen, does become for many outside our country an icon for much of what they consider wrong in America in general. (It’s a recurring trope in movies and literature, admittedly a cliché, to portray a noisy American buying up artifacts of old world culture, with no understanding of that culture, as a drawling, ten-gallon-topped Texas oil millionaire). And I suppose there is a certain sadness in the way that frequently when those abroad do think of America in general, easily tagged with that stock image of Texas, they readily associate it with guns.

I mean, concerning gun control in general, it wasn’t just these instances. And how often I have found myself with friends in France, where I have taught at universities on faculty exchanges, or in Brazil, where I have gone a couple of times to do research for my writing and give lectures, and when the subject of life in America came up, it was soon accompanied by amazement, or incredulity, about a situation that to those in other countries can be the sheer absurdity of the full availability of firearms here—anything from the cheap Saturday-night specials used to bloodily resolve family arguments to high-tech, military-style assault weapons capable of wiping out entire classrooms of school children in mere minutes. It does little good to attempt to explain the enormous power of lobbies in America, also to say how a good number of my faculty colleagues and I have vocally opposed the Texas legislature’s enthusiastic recent decision to allow “campus carry” at my own university: explanations—or outright excuses—fail.

So, as grateful as I am to a state that has provided me with a fulfilling university job that has allowed me exposure to bright, wonderful students in a long teaching career, plus the so many good people I’ve known throughout Texas and the countless other undeniably fine things about the state, too, I think I’ve learned my lesson—in travel abroad from now on I don’t need an accusatory pistol finger pointed directly at me anymore. When somebody asks me where I am from, I will always say emphatically “Rhode Island,” granting that experience has taught me that my very small New England native state will more than likely be confused with—if recognized at all—New York and, well, Long Island.

Further, and maybe more seriously, I will keep trying, both as a writer—with whatever outlets for words are at my disposal—and merely as an everyday citizen, to take a stand the best I can against the madness of present gun laws, or shameful lack of them, as the effort clearly does become increasingly challenging amid this current political rockiness.

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lasalle-photo-for-usp-brazil-visiting-lecture-1Peter LaSalle’s most recent books are a story collection, Sleeping Mask: Fictions (Bellevue Literary Press, 2017), and a collection of travel essays, The City at Three PM: Writing, Reading, and Traveling (Dzanc Books, 2015). A longtime AGNI contributor, he has a short story, “Where I Was When My Older Brother Died,” in the current issue (84), and his essay “Walking: An Essay on Writing,” which appeared in AGNI 70, was selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2010. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, both in the English department and the Michener Center for Writers. See all of what he’s published in AGNI here.

A Thousand Kisses Deep: On Rereading Virginia Woolf

by Ioanna Carlsen

Lately, I have been unhappy for both personal and political reasons, and at this stage in my life I don’t think either is going to go away. When this has happened in the past, it’s also happened to my books, to my reading: a lot does not ring true, much is unbearable, a lot is just boring.

And then I get lucky: I find the one book that just fits, is so right, I really look forward to getting into bed at the end of the day. The bliss of being by yourself with a book; I have loved this moment all my life; it is now my greatest joy, the moment I long for. I get up from it later and later.

So I found this book by Nick Hornby, Ten Years in a Tub, and I loved it—and as it was a book about reading I found a lot of books to look into in it. When reading such a book, I make these lists; it’s very enjoyable—not everything pans out, but there’s so much promise.

And besides new books, Hornby gets into rereading the classics—and I have had that idea for some time. Laboriously, I burrowed into The Past Recaptured (probably my fifth attempt to reread it); but this time, maybe with a little help from Hornby’s essay about it, I suddenly got into it. I mean I’m not saying it’s not a good soporific, if you’re not careful, or that you can’t use the endless paragraphs for that purpose when you need to…and America is “troubling my sleep” (Ezra Pound), and I do use it for that. But then there’s also Denys Finch-Hatton’s response to Karen Blixon in Africa: “you don’t fall asleep reading Proust.” The psychology, the depth of it…it’s often “a thousand kisses deep” (an idea that haunts me of Leonard Cohen’s), and in the middle of plodding through it and trying to pay attention, suddenly there’s an amazing phrase, a metaphor that, to quote Virginia Woolf, “fits like a glove.”

And speaking of her, I turned to her when I needed a break from Proust; I have all her books and a number of books about her; I haven’t read them in years. I went through a Virginia Woolf period the way you go through a Japanese cooking period and then go on to other cuisines.

But, lately, after the political backdrop of our lives turned into a nightmare—everything my generation thought we won since our coming of age, lost all over again, and to the worst kinds of politicians—I have found the contemporary novel and much of contemporary poetry are not holding up for me, or… are not holding me up.

Rereading the classics and discovering new contemporary work that doesn’t pall is something Virginia Woolf herself writes about. I can just see her in front of the fire at Monk’s House, (where of course I made a pilgrimage), a book in her hands, smoking, grimly elegant, frighteningly beautiful, taking notes for the essays she worked on in the afternoons…

I started with the essays, and found to my amazement that she is as fascinating and compelling as she ever was. Of course she is mad—you feel ashamed to say it considering her bouts with the direst insanity—the birds outside her window speaking Greek—and nothing to treat it but hot milk. But here she is, spooling out flight after flight of fancy:

In the middle of an essay on reading, you come upon this: “if, at this moment,…I could go back through the long corridor of sunny mornings, boring my way through hundreds of Augusts, I should come in the end, passing a host of less-important figures, to no less a person than Queen Elizabeth herself. Whether some tinted waxwork is the foundation of my view, I do not know; but she always appears very distinctly in the same guise. She flaunts across the terrace superbly and a little stiffly like the peacock spreading its tail. She seems slightly infirm…” and it goes on, until we get to “She breakfasts off beer and meat and handles the bones with fingers rough with rubies.” And then she still goes on, until you have the Elizabethan age itself, what makes it live, right before you.

Because it is her, and because her reading is so deep and broad, there are essays that eighty years later we are not interested in, like who really wants to read about The Faery Queen or the Duchess of Newcastle, but sometimes you think I better check, what if I miss some flight. And always you want to know what she thinks of Dickens, Austen, our own classics. I look forward to the diaries after the essays, and because it is her, I will never have to worry about a moment’s boredom. Her thoughts and her feelings, are, how can I say this, compared to what is going on around us, always the best, “a thousand kisses deep” compared to this, the farthest thing from lies and distorting the language.

I don’t know about the novels. I reread The Years a few years ago and disliked it. Of course, it’s not her at her best or even original—but I daresay if I read the middle passage on Time Passes in To the Lighthouse right now, that takes you back through hundreds of summers and rooms until you end up with no less a figure than life itself, and what it is to leave it—and none of it has anything to do with money and power, nothing at all—I believe it would break my heart.

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Ioanna self portrait croppedIoanna Carlsen’s poems and stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including AGNI, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train Stories. She received the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award for Poetry, and won the 2002 Glimmer Train Poetry Open. In 2014 she published a poetry collection called The Whisperer. She lives in the country outside Santa Fe, NM. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.