Failing at Great Length: What I’ve Learned from Writing Bad Novels

by David Ebenbach

I can’t figure out how long it took me to write my first novel. It might have been two years—or it might have been twenty-five.

I mean, in a certain sense it obviously took me two years; in 2013 I sat down to write a short story about a woman on an erratic personal quest for well-being, and that story quickly ballooned until I accepted that it was a novel-in-progress, and I worked and worked until I finished the final draft of Miss Portland in 2015. So that’s two years.

But then I wonder: maybe the only reason I was able to write Miss Portland and have it be any good is because of all the work that happened before 2013—work that consisted of (among other things) seven bad, failed novels, work that went all the way back to 1990. Maybe each one of those failures was part of the process of learning how to write a novel. Learning, in fact, what a novel even is.

I definitely did learn some things along the way. From my first two novels, written in college and full of teenagery emotional hand-wringing, I learned that my personal ennui is not enough to justify several hundred pages of fiction. From my next four attempts—one of which was a magic realist novel with flat characters and the other three of which were very strained allegories—I eventually gathered that some ideas are so difficult to pull off that the manuscript ends up reeking mainly of the author’s effort, and that, in fact, ideas are not novels. Not on their own. I also learned from one of those tries—my fifth—that you can’t expect a reader to wade through hundreds of pages of unwavering misery. (In that one, structured as a metaphor for the Biblical Exodus story—fun, right?—the book was confined to the week or so after the protagonist’s wife died, meaning that he was at peak grief on every page.)

But the big moment came around my seventh novel. I was determined to get my seventh novel right. It was going to be rooted in feeling, in something I cared about, but it wasn’t going to be an angsty spill. There was going to be a range of emotion. It was going to take on something big and important, but that big and important thing was going to be an experience, not an idea. There wasn’t going to be any allegory at all. I set out to tell the down-to-earth story of a single woman who was newly a mother, and scrambling to adjust.

That’s when plot ruined everything.

Really all I wanted to talk about was the enormity of becoming a parent—I had just become a parent myself—but because I knew I was writing a novel, I felt like I had to keep jacking up the stakes as the story progressed. The main character was freaking out a lot about all the changes in her life, which is natural enough. And so she started fantasizing about leaving the baby alone in her apartment to go get a drink, which is also natural enough as a fantasy—but then she did it. She left the child alone and got a drink. And that was only the first step; then she started going out again and again, for longer and longer periods. The novel had started out as a realistic portrayal of a new mom, and rapidly became the story of a really dangerously off-balance and neglectful parent.

A nice agent read the book and, in her email response, basically told me, I think you meant to write a short story, and you’ve blown it all totally out of proportion. And I instantly knew she was right. I had been worried about that same thing, deep down, myself.

Here’s the thing: if your material wants to be a short story, it needs to be a short story. You can’t turn a motorcycle into a freight train. So I broke that book into pieces and made it the basis for a short story collection.

In sum: I had spent twenty-three years learning what doesn’t make a novel. Honestly, they were tough lessons, full of rejections and disappointment, and I basically gave up on trying to write novels for about five years after that seventh try.

Like I said, when I started to write the thing that ultimately became my novel Miss Portland, I thought I was setting out to write a short story. Just something simple about a woman upending her life in a desperate grab to fix everything. I had her step off a bus in Portland, Maine, having just given up her whole life in Philly in the hopes of starting fresh, and I imagined there’d be a few scenes—she had this dicey guy she was going to see up there—and she’d get back on the bus and head back home. But it didn’t go like that. Miss Portland the novel snuck up on me. This woman’s journey was bigger and more involved than I had expected. And she wasn’t me, spewing angst. And she wasn’t an idea. And though her journey was full of challenges, external and internal, Zoe had a resilience and earnestness and sense of humor that provided a range of emotional experience to put on the page.

And so I wrote a novel—a real one this time.

It took eight tries, but I did it. In either two or twenty-five years.

And here’s the next question: does this mean I’m all set now? Lessons learned and ready to write my next novel?

I’m not sure. Part of me thinks that things are never that easy. Maybe now I’m going to have to learn a whole new set of lessons. Maybe I’ll have to write seven new failed novels before I can write my second not-failed one. Or maybe not. I don’t know. I only know one thing, really:

I’m going to do whatever I have to do in order to learn to write whatever I need to write.

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2017-03-23 01 King JoeDavid Ebenbach is the author of seven books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at davidebenbach.com.

Repetition as Conjuring, as Litany, as Prayer

by Cecilia Llompart

(1)

The inimitable Annie Finch said, “Repetition is a physical force, not a mental one…” I doubt my ability to put it more concretely, but I’ll add that I definitely find repetition to be the most powerful physical force in a poem. The one which grounds us to the earth whenever the imagery and other forces at play would have us lingering in the clouds. It can make a poem more tactile, more responsive to the touch. It’s important for a poem to exist out in the world, rather than just in our heads. Important for it to have legs to stand on, as well as the wings on which it will rise. Perhaps a repeated word acts like a series of weights holding the rest of the bright canvas down.

(2)

The truth is, we learn nothing if not for repetition. The human brain is hardwired to respond to it above all else. A soldier’s drills rewire the instinct, train them to run towards the battle rather than—as sense would have it—away from. An actor’s rehearsals sync up every step with every word, so that the show can—as they say—go on despite the most rattling disturbances. A musician’s recitals introduce them to muscle memory, the only reliable way of remembering, the idea that we can count on our fingers and hands and sinews and bones even when the mind—as it so often does—fails us. From infomercials to meditation to rituals to sermons. . . Repetition—be it tedious, or soothing—has been used to teach us things, to sell us things, and to help us remember them in a real way.

(3)

I navigate my poems by instinct rather than by intention. I guess you could say I follow my ear. Every so often, while working out a line, I’ll find myself ending or beginning the following line with the same little flourish. I don’t set out to do it, and I don’t always see it coming. When it happens I tilt my head as if to say: I’m listening. At this point, the poem is trying to tell me something. I’m no longer holding the reins. I’m holding a metal detector and I’ve stumbled upon a mine. And the repetition will feel refreshing if it connects the writing to some deeper truth that exists—that reaches—beyond the work.

(4)

In the case of my bat poems (in AGNI issue 85), I closed my eyes while writing them and, instead of envisioning an existence for the animal in which everything was dark, a world in which it had no alternative but to swim through the absence of light, or to dodge the many shadows of things, I saw instead a world in which everything was a distinct shade of blue. As such, the word “blue” is referring to an ultimately different color each time it appears in the bat’s catalogue of sights (some of which are, obviously, also sounds). I hope the reader can see that—that a color can be more than a color, can be a variation unto itself.

Call it a disability, like blindness, or a disorder, like synesthesia, if you like. But the fact that a being uses its senses in a way we don’t understand doesn’t make that creature’s way of interacting with the world inferior to ours. I suppose that’s what I was trying to express in the other poem, with the string of “I see you.” Call it echolocation. Call it dreaming, or delusions of grandeur. The bat makes a point of seeing, of its ability to see, whether or not we share a definition of seeing, whether or not we underestimate the small prophet. This animal is a visionary, it sees beyond seeing, it knows that what is essential is invisible to the eye, that sight itself can be blinding, can distract us from hidden truths.

I can’t say whether the repetitions will achieve all of this.

But I’m content if the poems stay with you longer than a poem usually does.

(5)

I don’t remember when I first learned the word litany, but I do remember how beautiful I thought it sounded, and I remember how right it seemed that a thing like the use of repetition in poetry should have its very own word to reference it. The exact definition of litany involves other words meaning “supplication” and “prayer.” The word please comes to mind, as a word that comes to us when all other words have left us, when we are feeling hollowed out. A word that leaves us humbled even as it escapes our lips. Please. Perhaps repetition itself serves to humble. Perhaps it serves to bargain. But I think it can also serve to empower. To give us courage in a moment of fright to brave the flight.

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Author PhotoCecilia Llompart was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Florida. Her first collection, The Wingless, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in the spring of 2014. Her poetry and prose have been published in numerous anthologies and journals. She is the recipient of two awards from the Academy of American Poets, a fellowship from The Dickinson House, was a finalist for The Field Office agency’s 2016 Postcard Prize in poetry, as well as a finalist for the 2016 Tomaž Šalamun Prize given by Verse journal, and lastly a winner in Neat Streets Miami “Growing Green Bus Stop” Haiku Contest. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Idling on the Highway

by Kelly Cherry

I am now older than I ever expected to be, though not as old as I hope to get. What this means in terms of my reading is that I am often exhausted by the work by younger writers. Yes, they are talented. Yes, I appreciate their accomplishments. Yes, I’m interested in the changes they are making in the literary landscape. But sometimes I want to pull a sheet over my head and rest my eyes. And my brain.

Contemporary fiction seems to have become snappy and cute. Now, I am not exactly against snappy and cute. In the forties and fifties there were a lot of movies that relied on snappy and cute, and they were fun to watch. Also, it’s true that as people age, they begin to struggle with the idea of death in a more personal way than they did a few decades back, and surely that tends to shorten the laughs, although continuing to be creative, whether as a fiction writer or a poet, composer or visual artist, craftmaker or glassmaker, makes the creating person smile again. And again. Doing snappy and cute can sometimes be a lifesaver.

So perhaps there’s really nothing to object to. We do what we can as long as we live, and we love what we do. Moreover, no one is required to read new work. One can always write one’s own new work. So stop reading new work simply because it’s new work, say I to myself.

But the world moves on. It changes. And changes almost impossible to imagine are quite likely forthcoming, given AI and the galloping pace of technology. Not to mention global warming and growing populations. And the exploration of space. And the threats of various pandemics.

Are you beginning to feel slightly sleepy? Has it occurred to you that you feel rather as if you are balancing numerous weighty bundles atop your head?

And what about that particular bundle that is Donald Trump? That bundle you so want to set aside? Including his atrocious “policies,” such as denying women the rights to their own bodies.

But we began with contemporary fiction, so I ought to return to it. It seems to me that I have recently read a number of American novels that are just too cute for words. Sentences are packed with more information than any reader can remember, every description so detailed that to visualize it requires time, and by the time you’ve visualized the details, you’ve forgotten them.

I am absolutely not saying that these books are bad or confusing. In fact, I admire their ingenuity, their remodeling of syntax, their collaborating, extended clauses.

What I am saying is that I miss the long drawl of the storyteller. Thomas Mann layered his novels with questions and answers that make us think. I just finished reading Neil Jordan’s book Shade, and though I have long loved his work, Shade, narrated by a dead woman, took my breath away: the lush sentences, the lengthy conversations, the Irish rhythms: nothing rushed, nothing left out, time to absorb every interesting, often captivating, detail. Or remember Joyce Cary: his novels are hilarious and allow us time to laugh to our hearts’ content. Funny doesn’t have to be fast.

I like funny. I like quirky. I like, sometimes, a touch of cuteness. But I also want to think. I want to understand these words that fly by me at the speed of light. And truthfully, I sometimes wonder if the speed is meant to obscure a lack of faith on the writer’s part. The faster we go, the less we actually see.

Then again, I worry that maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m too slow.

I wouldn’t feel right exposing writers whose sentences smash into each other like cars on a highway, which, after all, may on occasion raise the tension in a story or slip something shocking into it so slyly it registers with the reader only after the reading. These are useful conceits.

Then again again, read this from Shade:

“I would blame her, for many years, for a state of things engendered by him. His corduroy trousers, his tweed jacket, the military belt I loved to finger with its copper clasp, the linen shirt with its blue and red tracing pulled tight beneath it, the studded shoes that touched the gravel as he helped her out, all concealed something as banal and Victorian as a secret. And secrets, he should have known even then, will always out.”

This straightforward paragraph pulls us so deeply into the book that the reader can only keep reading. It enthralls. It covers us with a hood that leads us blindly into the plot. Jordan is patient, not in a hurry to spill everything; instead, he takes the reader by the hand and, as if the reader cannot see for herself or himself, shows every single and singular detail and its relation to the rest of the book. In the space of a paragraph, we find ourselves in the very early twentieth century, with its wars to come, the changes it will wreak, the lingering demise of the Victorian era. The reader aches to know what will come, wants to breathe the new year’s air, and at the same time recognizes the boundaries of manners and morals that will either hold or break.

One paragraph, not from the first or last page, undramatic in itself, but enfolding: these words enfold us such that we are reading not at a distance but in the midst of the events that have occurred, are occurring, and those that may someday yet occur. Jordan makes us live in the present tense even as time is passing. That’s what I mean by the long drawl. It takes us to a kind of heaven, the heaven in which we relax on a cloud, happily reading a marvelously convincing book.

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KellyPhoto1EditKelly Cherry’s most recent poetry collection is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. She has also recently published Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories (Press 53); A Kelly Cherry Reader (SFASUP); A Kind of Dream: Stories (U of Wisconsin); and a poetry chapbook titled Physics for Poets (Unicorn Press). Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

 

The Reader’s Quest for Authenticity

by Samn Stockwell

Whether it’s about an appropriation of experience or an outright fabrication, the demand for authenticity frightens me. It’s the rightful concern of editors, and an ethical expectation of authors, but poems and memoirs appear and are embraced by readers because they are the authentic story of someone who has suffered greatly. Then the story turns out not to be true—it was written by an imposter—and the audience cries I wuz robbed and the work is discarded.

Writing is shaped by the intentions of the writer, regardless of the genre, and therefore, no matter how raw or immediate a work may appear, it’s a creation shaped by the tools of art.

It is not that authors should lie. It is reasonable to expect that writers represent themselves honestly. It is the idea of authenticity that troubles, as though the provenance of a work certified its value. I realize true is a far more difficult concept, but if the real story of Elmer Magoo was riveting and insightful before it was revealed to be fiction, isn’t it still riveting and insightful?

It is not that authors should trade on the status of being in a minority, for example, if they are not. Our origins determine the shape of our lives, with its attendant sufferings and grace. I am sure there is someone out there impersonating a lesbian to gain access to the tiny audience for lesbian poetry. However, if we as minorities claim sole ownership of experience, does that mean the experience is exclusive and beyond imagination? How authentic must oppression and suffering be to qualify? Oppression, violence, and exclusion are not rare experiences and not limited by class or race.

A friend from the Midwest told me about how successful selling dream-catchers was for a Indian tribe. They were so successful they kept selling out and had to farm out the work to some white women living nearby, white women with a serious meth problem. From the standpoint of authenticity, the safe assumption of the consumer was that, by buying directly on the reservation, they were buying an authentic product, certainly more so than a dream-catcher made in China and sold at a dollar store, although surely someone working in a factory in China might be imbued with the need to catch dreams and reveal them in twists of plastic beads?

In this case, authenticity is the idea that a defined group of people, by virtue of history and genetics, can create a talisman out of those entanglements of lineage that will transmit to the recipient some especially good aspect of that identity. It’s a borrowing of what seems like a richer, more powerful culture—the same impetus that makes us admiring tourists of other religions and lifestyles. It’s also profoundly sentimental.

Much to my disgust, in Vermont, photograph books appear of the ‘natives,’ which means elderly farmers. The photographs are carefully composed in front of old tractors and crumbling barns with not a cell phone in sight. And what casual skier from New York or Connecticut would not find that more ‘real’ than their own lives, and by this mean utterly foreign, a distance that could not be crossed?

A reader or a shopper wants an authentic property, even if the sense properties of the object are indistinguishable from the sense properties of similar products, whether it’s dream catchers or poetry from the survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima. The desperate search for something true and enduring, one of the sweeter aspects of human nature, is diverted into shopping for pedigrees of experience.

The authentic work is also a presumption that the other has an identity formed in secret from the world that surrounds us, despite the works’ participation in contemporary discourse. Rousseau raises his head and finds this ideal in the description of subversive voices—a genuine voice subverting the dominant paradigm, a voice of someone poor, black, disenfranchised, queer, as close to the wilderness as possible. With all that subversion, surely the dominant paradigm should be completely reversed by now. How much subversion is needed to subvert?

(And that is an interesting hope, that someone is going to say something that will reveal/dismantle some existing stereotypes or sentimental constructions. Or perhaps it has been done already in a book languishing in the remainder bin. The truth will out, but it is likely to be slow and fitful.)

Because of this idea of authenticity, the voices a poet houses can be evaluated for their authenticity: a way of saying you can know this, but not that—the voice of your native speech, the voice of your ancestral lullabies and war songs: mined for in distant regions, weighed, and elevated. Authenticity is a search for dislocation by the reader, a work wrenching the present to another perspective because it offers an opposing face. Identity cannot be the marker of that kind of authenticity.

Voice is malleable, democratic, and expansionist. Identity does not come in discrete, bound units. Although personality tends to be largely stable over time, it does not have a single, fixed perspective. Identity shifts, mixes, absorbs and repackages. However much the fiction of an identity may warm us (my race/gender/religion never does That!), it does not develop in isolation. It is a mirage to search for a conversation comprised of one voice reared in isolation. Voice is the result of conversation.

And if some voices are authentic, and others are not, then some lives are more ‘real’ than others. I hear this said: he really knows, he’s real, she is so much more real than I am. I mean I hear this from people who teach English and it saddens me. The time when I was sleeping in a car was not more real than the times I was reading Middlemarch. Poverty is not more elemental than art, violence is not a more human act than caring.

Much of what motivates the search for the ‘authentic’ work is the search for authentic suffering. The abused child, child soldier, raped woman, the exiled, the enslaved, the oppressed of any flavor…the hunger for these narratives seems blinding and voyeuristic. And they happen ‘out there,’ so they need not disturb our lives. They may induce guilt, but guilt only changes behavior when the source of the guilt is close enough to touch. At the worst, they encourage the cheapest of emotions: outrage and pity.

Readers must value their own suffering and use it to understand themselves and others. It is not less real because it is less horrific. Life is lived in its dailyness and the constituents of that bear examining.

A deeper problem I have with some of the authentic poetry and prose is how cloying and easy it feels. Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle is thinly constructed—if you don’t believe she has nearly perfect recall of her 3rd year as recounted in the opening chapter, the memoir falls apart. The ideal of authenticity ends any discussion of value—the authentic work, no matter how simplistic or reductive, is valued because of its pedigree, a reversal of the old hierarchy, when the right pedigree was male, white, and preferably landed. It is the same mistake. Experience cannot sound one note and be true, however real it may be.

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Face shot 8 20Samn Stockwell has been widely published, and her two books of poetry, Theater of Animals and Recital, won the National Poetry Series and the Editor’s Prize at Elixir, respectively. She has an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College, and has taught poetry and English at the New England Young Writer’s Conference and Community College of Vermont. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Peddling a Poetry Chapbook

by Joan Michelson

To peddle. To go from door to door. Or as I am, from person to person selling a signed poetry chapbook with a cover drawing of a cane and a walking frame. Behind me stands the memory of my mother’s father, a Hebrew scholar, who escaped service in the Tsar’s army by fleeing Russia for America. Landing in Boston, he travelled twenty-five miles west and started selling things he could carry. It was his first experience of peddling. A century later, this is his granddaughter’s.

From a Poetry Peddler’s Journal,
London, 25 March 2017

The first catch this morning is the new counter girl in the Health Food Shop. Paying for my sauerkraut, which is on offer and drew me in, I ask if she has any interest in poetry. She says that she loves poetry. I ask her if she writes it. She says no but that she is studying poetry at school. Now I notice how young she is, her face soft and open. For English they are reading Edward Thomas and Robert Frost. Robert Frost is her favourite. I tell her I aspire to write in simple language like Frost, only I don’t rhyme. I show her “Bloomvale Home.” She opens to the first poem and reads aloud, “everybody’s mother and her own.” She says, “This is beautiful. This is like my granny.” I’m moved and gratified. “Your granny must be special.” “Absolutely,” she says, while looking for details to order the book. I tell her the publisher told me I had to sell it. It’s £3.60. She can have it for £3. I look at her, uncertain, and lower my voice, “Or is that too much?” She says she has no change on her. But tomorrow she works at the Cancer Charity Shop. Could I bring a copy there? I think she’ll read the poems. I think they’ll speak to her. My thoughts seesaw between selling and giving. I wish I had given it to her in the first place. “Take it.” I say, pushing it at her. “Please.”

In the supermarket, I spot Steve, a fellow American who has also lived in the area for most of his adult life. His glasses lenses have thickened and he holds a shopping list close to his eyes. Could I show him my little poetry book? He is not interested in poetry. Does not read it. I say that people who do not read poetry like these poems. Diana Athill likes these poems. She was surprised she liked them because she sees herself as a difficult reader of poetry. He doesn’t know who Diana Athill is. “She is a ninety-nine year old literary critic who lives in a Home like Bloomvale.” He shrugs. Why oh why do I go on? Praise the line drawing on the cover. Praise the artist. Show him the book. Now he is with me. He’s seen it around the house. My heart sinks and I feel embarrassed as I recall selling his wife a copy. A few weeks earlier approaching on her bicycle, she’d pulled up to chat. She had not yet seen the dental implant surgeon I recommended but she had had one of her hip replacements, and she wanted to buy the book.

I am grateful for the crowd on the Broadway and the gusts of cold in the wind. I breathe the cold in and collect myself.

At the bank I deposit the week’s takings from sales: £20 in coins. The teller has been reading my poems to his aunt on Sundays. I tell him about my blunder with Steve and about the schoolgirl who reads poetry and giving her a copy. Not for the first time, I tell him I’m happier giving it but I have to keep to my rule: sell three and a half for each give away. Today I am in the red by half a book. He laughs. “You have your work cut out.”

Heading home, I keep a look out for one more person to try. I meet another American. Ken is younger, not on the road to a Bloomvale Home as might be said of Steve, his wife, and me. The last time our paths crossed, Ken was on his way to play squash. But today––to the cleaner’s and walking the dog—he has time for my schmooze. We stand where we meet on a street corner in the fitful wind. I’m well-wrapped up, hat, scarf, thermal gloves, winter coat but, a fit fifty, he’s bare-headed in black zip sweatshirt with the hood dropped back and, as if anticipating summer, his sunglasses are propped on top of his head.

He puts his clothes-collecting bag on the pavement, propping it against his leg, and he keeps hold of the dog’s leash. The dog seems happy to wait and look around. I pass Ken the chapbook and stand odd-angled half facing him, half looking away. I hug my daypack against me protectively. He goes straight to the middle of the book and reads two poems. Then he opens to the first poem, a first stop for Home visits, “The Receptionist.” His face is composed and closed, his hand, fisted with the dog’s lead, covers his mouth. Whatever he is thinking or feeling, he is keeping to himself. Save for a single interruption, he reads steadily to the end.

By now I am focused on his reading and worried about his response and his judgment. He is an international journalist in a senior position. Journalists are writers who write every day, who think about words and let them flow, who can’t and don’t redraft for years, creating files of rewrites to be rewritten, and surely they don’t have time to write themselves into a corner. My doubts about my work surface. My stomach knots, unknots, rises, falls, squirms, takes in the thumps of my heart. I swallow against dryness.

Now I start noting his progress and mentally reading along. I am overtaken by the people in the poems, people reimagined from those remembered, my father’s fellow residents from his years in a Home. Although he can’t know my love for the people and how many times I reworked the poems hoping to bring the community to life, as if he might know how absurdly my feeling are rising, tears burning behind my eyes, he lifts his head and points his finger to a line break. “This one,” he says. I lean forward to read, “the other woman” and hear, without really taking it in, his comments on line breaks and how important a role the break has taken on since free verse came in. I say, “I have so much trouble with line breaks. I am never sure.” He says, “This one works.” And turns back to his reading.

I look at him and, to give him space, I look around. A gust catches an empty beer can and pushes it over the kerb with a thud. The sound reverberates in me as if it’s a bang. The can rolls to a stop against a car tyre. It is silent. But nothing in me is quiet. Here and now the bang of the beer can. Here and then the shuffling of the Bloomvale Home organist moving up the carpeted hall in his slippers. Though it can barely be heard, and it is long past, I hear it. Beside the organist, leaping from a different page, is the thirties’ refugee from Berlin. She is sitting at dinner in the Home with her tablemates, seeing far away the grapefruits she picked as a kibbutz pioneer when Israel was Palestine. She makes no sound but I hear her sigh. And I hear the scrape of her chair as she pushes it back to leave to be alone with her past. Now Judge Daxon is stirring his oatmeal before he too pushes back his dining chair. As his heart gives out, I hear the chair fall over with a loud knock. It happens all at once—the lives in different poems unfold before me, crowd into my heart, which is beating everywhere, and into the life in which I am standing in the March wind, bonded to my reader. Ken has arrived at the last poem, “The Reader.” His fist moves away from his face and something like a smile edges in. He would love to buy it. He looks at the price. “That’s outrageous!” he says. I say that the publisher is in rural Wales, and he is a non-profit, as if that might explain the bargain rate. The next words rush out like sales patter. “Five years work,” I say. “A ten minute read. The cost of a coffee. That’s poetry for you.” We laugh and part. In my pocket, the envelope coin bag to bring to the bank next week. In it two £2 coins.

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AGNI JMJoan Michelson’s book publications include: forthcoming, a poetry chapbook, The Family Kitchen, The Finishing Line Press, USA, 2018; prize-winning collection, Landing Stage, Sentinel Press UK, 2017; Bloomvale Home, Original Plus Books, UK, 2016; Toward the Heliopause, Poetic Matrix Press, USA 2011. ‘Self-Portrait with Secret’ won Poetry Society UK quarterly prize, 2016; ‘Stories’ won first prize in the Bristol Poetry Competition, UK, 2015; ‘Daxon Fraser’ first prize in the Torriano Competition, UK, 2014; ‘Muslim Girl’, the Poetry Society UK Hamish Canham prize, 2012. Her writing has been selected for British Council and Arts Council anthologies of New Writing. Originally from New England, Joan lives in London, England. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

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:

A KNOCKER
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
yes—yes
no—no

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
yes—yes
no—no

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:

PERPLEXITY

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.