Dances Danced on Country Roads

by Sven Birkerts

Every summer for some years now we’ve been taking our family vacation on Caspian Lake in northern Vermont. Most of our rentals have been along the same little peninsula, and have had the same basic amenities—lake access, kayak or canoe, grill, internet. This year we were late in reserving and ended up taking a new place on the far shore and I’ll confess I did a little double-take when my wife inspected the rental sheet and announced that this year’s house had no internet. What quicker way to get a read-out of my convoluted psyche. I was at once relieved and anxious, idealistic and craven. Wonderful, I thought, I’ll read, I’ll walk and think, I’ll shed the news-cycle toxins…And then: Shit!

I had brought enough reading to see me through the week-long blackout. I had two books for eventual reviewing, John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 and a novel by Laurent Binet called The Seventh Function of Language, and then the book I’d been saving as my special reward, Adam Zagajewski’s new memoir, Slight Exaggeration.

But about that internet issue…Critical as I have been—and in my deepest convictions remain—I am as enmeshed as anyone, checking e-mail and Instagram, tweeting, tracking the daily outrage. I do this mainly in syncopation with the ongoing work of writing, and editing, both of which have me at the screen. So this week away was going to be a deprivation, never mind those ‘deepest convictions.’

One summer, early on, we had also been “without,” and back then we had dealt with what internet needs we had by parking outside the Greensboro library and borrowing its signal. We were not alone. Whatever the hour, you could always find a row of cars idling in the small library lot, see the silhouettes of summer people getting their fix. I supposed I would be doing the same thing this time when I needed connection.

The day we arrived it was drenching rain and nobody stirred. The next morning, though, the sun was out, and I set out to check out our new, unfamiliar place. Taking a left at the drive, I walked down the road toward the lake. After a few hundred yards the road ran out and became someone’s yard. Stopping, I looked over to my right and saw a beautiful stretch of pastoral. I took my iPhone from my pocket and framed a few shots. Then I headed in the other direction, back up the hill toward the bigger road.

I had gone only a few yards past our driveway when I felt it—a distinct burst of vibration in my front right pocket. I stopped and once again took out my phone. Where all along there had been no reception, the little abacus now showed one bar of reception. Showed it, and then, as I took a small backward step, disappeared it. Up again, back again— anyone watching me at this point would have thought I was practicing a dance move. I could not figure it out. Sometimes a single bar appeared, then it disappeared. Yes, no, yes, no, no, no…When it was on, I checked my internet. I saw I had a few new messages. One opened for me. But when I wrote a few words in reply nothing happened. No little whooshing sound to signify ‘sent,’ no small arrow icon indicating success…

Next I checked Instagram. There I had slightly better luck. I selected the picture of the field I’d just taken and tapped. The image posted.

FullSizeRender (1)

I could make my way further into this realm of psychological minutiae, but life is short. The point I want to make—the upshot—is that into my long-anticipated break from the agitations of daily modern life had arrived the whimsical and irrational goblin of signal. Standing on the side of a rutted dirt road, with woods on one side and a open field on the other, I was, by turns, connected to he world at large, the universe of all potentiality, and then abruptly barred (or “unbarred”) from it. And, fool that I was, and remain, I persisted, stepping outside again and again to try my luck, each time hoping that the exact right location, or angle, or some mysterious shift in atmospheric ions, would plant me inside the signal. I did this intermittently for a full week, and I was in every attempt both tantalized and frustrated.

I certainly don’t want to make it seem that I did nothing but dance from side to side in my flip-flops looking for deliverance. No, I did also make peace with the contemplative man. I sat for hours in an overstuffed armchair, reading. Lessened screen activity made for heightened concentration. I finished the Binet, and then, rather than turning right away to the McPhee, I decided I could treat myself and picked up the Zagajewski instead.

And what a delight that was, to be inveigled by degrees into the mentality of a truly poetic sensibility—observant, psychologically shrewd, alert to idiosyncrasy, brooding in the best ways. The pages were filled with Zagajewski’s reflections on the artistic vocation itself—on beauty, on what might be the proper expressive balance between the material and the ethereal.

And then this. Zagajewski is writing about inspiration, its unreliability—the great good days when it comes, and the bleak days when the “tremendous plans, the expansive hopes from those moments when everything starts afresh, all quickly deflate, leaving you to protect your abruptly diminished empire in despair.” I closed the book around my finger. I could not help but make the link. Between the all-too-familiar sense of the writer at his desk, waiting to see if the word-fall would happen, if the spark of cadence might arrive, and—

No two things could be more different than internet connectivity and artistic inspiration, yet I confess that after reading Zagajewski I found myself making analogies. Which is both ridiculous and untenable. The internet signal is a thing outside, a projected energy that reaches its user through specifically engineered channels. Artistic inspiration, meanwhile, manifests mysteriously in the psyche, opaque to psychoanalysis and neurobiology. Freud famously wrote that “before the mystery of the creative artist, psychoanalysis must lay down its arms.”

I don’t intend to settle the matter here, far from it. But I want to bring into momentary focus the particular feelings, the anticipation and doubt—the anxiety—that we register in the face of our larger unknowns. Not just creative inspiration and connectivity, though these have been prominent in my thoughts, but, via the most basic extrapolation, our anticipation day by day—moment by moment—of the unknown future. We often forget our existential situation, and it is our hubris as well as our salvation that we do, but inevitably there come moments, sometimes little dances danced on country roads, that remind us once again.

agni blog logo smaller

FullSizeRender Sven Birkerts is the editor of AGNI. Formerly director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, he is now a member of the Core Faculty in Nonfiction. He has published ten books, most recently Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf). 

Advertisements

My Heroes Haven’t Always Been Real

By Andres Rojas

My father learned chess as a political prisoner in Cuba. (The metaphors practically write themselves.) Once out of jail at age 26, he read as many chess books as he could and got to know and played against just about every chess player in his town of 30,000. He got pretty good at it, too.

I was little more than a month old when he had a chance to be in Havana for a few days during the 17th Chess Olympiad, held in late October and early November, 1966. He desperately wanted to meet Bobby Fischer and get an autograph—my father had just turned 28; Fischer was 23 and had already become the U.S. chess champion at age 15. On his last day in Havana, my father went to Fischer’s hotel and camped out in the lobby, keeping an eye on the elevators. Unfortunately, it was a Saturday, and being Jewish, Fischer stayed in his room all day. My father never got his autograph.

Or so goes my father’s story.

Playing chess against my father was an exercise in frustration: he beat me, badly, always. He did love to talk about chess, when he was in the mood, and I had his José Raúl Capablanca stories memorized by the time I left his and my mother’s house. Over the years, I continued to read about chess, being more interested in its history and mythologies than in the actual gameplay. I did play my father a few more times before his death in 2003, but I lost every time.

In mid-2013, I read Frank Brady’s excellent Fischer biography Endgame. Even before I had finished the book, a poem about Fischer announced itself. I finished writing the poem, “Fischer in His Island Kingdom,” shortly after finishing the book. No journal I sent it to (over 30) took it, but that’s a different story.

It took reading a book about him for me to write a Fischer poem. My father’s stories didn’t do it. My playing his games over to try and learn from him didn’t do it. Listening to the Chess soundtrack ad nauseam didn’t do it. Watching Bobby Fischer Against the World didn’t do it.

It took reading about him in a book.

**********

I grew up in a religious household and was raised on the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Old Testament and the apostles and disciples of the New. I also grew up in a communist society, where the martyrs of the Cuban revolution (Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and of course, José Martí) were a daily presence in schoolrooms and billboards, on TV and on the radio, and on newsreels at the movies. Growing up, I was surrounded by heroes and a few heroines (not enough), both mythical and historical. They were as real to me as my family and friends, perhaps even more so. Though I loved stories about Abraham and King David and later Alice (of Wonderland) and Sherlock Holmes, I came to be most fascinated by history, that is to say, by stories about real people.

In retrospect, I can see that as I began to study and try to write poetry, I was most attracted to poems I perceived were about actual people: I preferred “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to “The Waste Land” because I intuited, rightly or wrongly, that the former was about a real person: its author. Eventually I realized the later was also about Eliot, but its many voices managed to fool me longer. The same rationale attracted me to the confessional poets, who were clearly writing about themselves, and, later, to poems about poets. (Debra Greger’s “Envoi” still resonates.) Among my early favorites were Anthony Hecht’s “The Cost” (Trajan, Dante, Gregory the Great); Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” (“Colonel Shaw and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry”); and Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” (herself, her father, the Nazis, Hitler by implication).

Naturally, I emulated the poems I loved. Among my earliest was “Carlos Gardel Sleeps Under My Bed,” an impossibility, since Argentina’s definitive tango singer died thirty years before my birth, but perfectly acceptable in poetry. The first poem I wrote for my M.F.A. workshop was “What Vallejo Calls Notre Dame Bridge.” My thesis had poems invoking Alexander the Great, St. Augustine of Hippo, Emily Dickinson, Keats (living in St. Augustine, Florida), Chekov (visiting Venice, Italy), Verlaine (and by extension Rimbaud), Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Caroline Forché. I’m pretty sure there were others, but I no longer have a copy of my thesis. It wasn’t particularly coherent, but that also is a different story.

**********

Other than poetry, I overwhelmingly read non-fiction. Consequently, the snippets of text I carry in my memory are overwhelmingly about real people. Those are the words—and ideas—that tend to trigger my poems or graft themselves onto them as they grow. Not surprisingly, fictional characters almost never show up in my poetry, though I once wrote a poem with the Biblical Cain as its speaker. I tread with due care here: Gardel or Rimbaud (or Fischer) can be as much creatures of myth as Adam and Eve.

Almost without fail, I most desire to address real (meaning at least demonstrably historical) people, to talk to them, or at them, or through them. Or at least about them. I want them to inform my world, and the best way I have of doing that is to put them in my poems. My poetry is my very own social network where I can interact, however obliquely, with Matías Pérez and Hannah Arendt. Alternatively, I think of it as a sort of fan fiction.

But really, I am most interested in including the world as it is outside my life—the world of Syrian refugees and Black Lives Matter—in my poetry, at least as best as I can perceive and understand that world. And that means writing about real people. Iago may horrify me, but my lessons in treason are drawn from Arnold and Quisling, and of late, maybe even from certain of our elected officials. I love Jane Eyre, the character, but my poems gravitate towards Ada Lovelace and Allegra Byron, or for sheer heartbreak, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland. Life doesn’t imitate art. Art massages bloody life into edible morsels. I’d rather go to the source. But, of course, my poems aspire to art and can’t help but turn the real into something else: in a poem, is a real person not part of the poem now?

That leaves me with an image of the ouroburus and all that it entails. I well know August Kekulé first dreamt of a snake devouring its own tail, and then (and only then) did he manage to draw the circular structure of benzene. Producing a model of a given molecule may not be art (I say it can be) but it’s certainly the work of the creative imagination. And one constrained by fact, no less. I prefer my imagination to be so constrained. Having real people in my poems does that for me. It’s a kind of formal structure, even if applied to content.

**********

At a recent reading, someone did in fact note how frequently my poems name-check historical characters.

“That’s because,” I answered, not altogether unseriously, “my poems are the only place my name is ever going to be alongside theirs.”

And, at least in my Fischer poem, I brought my father along to the gathering. His name was Oscar—as in Wilde, who, as best as I can tell, cared little for chess, either as art or otherwise. He (my father) died at 64 of hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver. Fischer died five years later, also at 64—one year for each square on a chessboard—after refusing life-saving treatment. Reputedly, his last words were, “Nothing is as healing as the human touch.”

agni blog logo smaller

RojasAndres Rojas was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. at age 13. He holds an M.F.A. from the University of Florida and is the author of the audio chapbook The Season of the Dead (EAT Poems, 2016). His poems have previously appeared in AGNI, and have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in, among others, Barrow Street, Colorado Review, Massachusetts Review, Mid-American Review, New England Review, New American Writing, Notre Dame Review, and Poetry Northwest. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

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.

agni blog logo smaller

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.

agni blog logo smaller

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.

agni blog logo smaller

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.

agni blog logo smaller

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.

agni blog logo smaller

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.