This week, cast your eyes upon a contemporary piece with an age-old feel and soak up the rich, provocative fiction that is Trudy Lewis’ “Mother of Animals.” Reminiscent of, and partly inspired by, Native American folklore, this piece was originally written and performed for a production of “Screenplay” and appeared in DB 10.
“Now, in these times, the older men of the tribe had hoarded all the women to themselves, and left the young men no proper occupations but hunting and war making. Seeing that they were lacking female age-mates, the brothers determined to strap on their sandals and go out in search of wives on their own…”
Trudy Lewis is a widely published and active writer with a collection of short stories and two novels under her belt. Her second novel, The Empire Rolls, is set to release November 1st. She teaches a range of undergraduate and graduate classes in both English and women’s and gender studies at the University of Missouri. For more info. on her new book, click here.
End of the City Map by Farhad Showghi, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop (Burning Deck, 2014). http://www.burningdeck.com/catalog/showghi.htm
This is an entry for Open Letters Press’ Best Translated Book Award in poetry this year, for which I am a judge.
A series of prose poems, composed of short, clipped sentences and fragments. A navigation, a knowing. Cityscape at a human pace. Passing through a memory transparently. A way of entering the memory obliquely. The memory of inhabiting a place. The strangeness of inhabiting a self. The joining of the self and the city. Where things and people and chestnut trees overlap and blend. A movement toward the idea of the city. A repetition of gesture, of place. Toward but not arriving. There is no city, really. Something else, a collection of light.
Manhattan Luck by Alice Notley (Hearts Desire, 2014). http://aletteinoakland.blogspot.com/2014/10/announcing-publication-of-manhattan.html
Published on the occasion of the Alette in Oakland conference, put on by The Bay Area Public School at The Omni.
Four early, long poems, previously uncollected. Polyvocal, a slipping, vast self. This “I” that keeps scattering. I, I keep hearing the way she read them, the pacing, the intensity. No, it’s momentum. They carry away, along. A shifting that happens when her gaze is fixed on herself, on others. No hiding it, no obscuring the self. The source is clear. It’s affect is the space of the poem.
Who That Divines by Laura Moriarty (Nightboat Books, 2014).
“And which wave of feminism is this?” Short poems, short lines, concentrated language. “I am not a luminist.” The appropriate appropriative gesture. The poet gestures outwards. The poems pass quickly through the eye. They are little, but the language is not. The short lines extend into the silent space of implication. The self implicated by the words of others.
Deformation Zone by Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012).
Possession, possibility. Translated texts, bodies desiccated or reanimated. The corpse, the corpus. The translator possess, or is possessed. The translated text is possible or impossible. “The wound of translation makes impossible connections between languages, unsettling stable ideas of language, productive ideas of literature.” And “[…]”translation” involves a saturation of one body by another and ultimately consists of the degradation of all constitutive borders […]”. The violence of the original on the translated text, not just the other way around. But these are generative acts, the deformity of the translated text is not just something lesser but something new, something bigger and varied by its constituent parts combinations. A new body, a new form.
Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate by Christine Overall (The MIT Press, 2013). http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/why-have-children
Begins from the assumption that you have to justify the decision to procreate, and that the choice is ethical (not merely personal). Reproductive freedom, feminism, biology. Consent is part of this: a child cannot consent to be born. “If we fail to acknowledge that the decision whether to have children is a real choice that has ethical import, then we are treating childbearing as an unavoidable fate and a mere expression of biological destiny. Instead of seeing having children as something that women do, we will continue to see it as something that simply happens to women or as something that is merely ‘natural.’” Every choice has ethics to consider. It seems as though we could go mad, looking closely at everything. But here is a guide, a start.
Some initial thoughts on creative writing and community.
A writer needs some time alone to write. This seems like an agreeable enough starting point. It’s a belief that plenty of writers have had something to say about. Virginia Woolf’s “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” comes to mind pretty quickly. Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility” might not be as quoteworthy as that bit just before it about the spontaneous overflow, but it’s just as important to the poetic process laid out in the “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.” And while different writers throughout history have come at this idea in different ways and for different reasons, both of these examples point to a specific kind of space that seems central to our ongoing understanding of a writer’s craft and identity.
Some tenets of this space might look something like this: 1. A real distance between the creative self and the rest of the world allows for some kind of creative self-actualization. 2. After this actualization, a certain amount of solitude is necessary for the true measure of this self’s thoughts and feelings in relation to whatever its subject matter might be. 3. A continued element of unhindered reflection is then required for that creative self to go about the actual task of writing.
Maybe tenets like these have made the writer’s persona more negotiable for everyone and more navigable for writers themselves, but where do they really leave us? One might wonder about the writer’s actual relationship to this space and the kind of writer’s persona that comes with it. One might ask whether this space can adequately address all the needs and concerns of contemporary writers, and if not, then what can.
Sometimes this space can seem overwhelming when you’re inside it and when you’re outside it too. As a constant source of clarity, in terms of the writer’s identity, purpose, and practice, this space can become too central; as the single mark of your writerlyness, too absolute. In these capacities, the writer’s alone space can throw the vague shadow of need over everything else: Whatever you’re doing right now, you shouldn’t be doing it. You should be writing instead.
Let’s play with this some more. What happens when the writer finally does sit down to write, with all of the onus placed on that writerly space? Maybe she/he is faced with the innumerable distractions already built into every nook and cranny of our contemporary experience. Most writers today do their work on a computer, where they’re only a click away from the internet and God knows what else. Maybe she/he ends up on Netflix for the next eight hours. This kind of inundation is almost unavoidable on at least some level; our attentions are flooded daily by short, simultaneous, and often convoluted (text messages, social media, BuzzFeed, YouTube) stimuli. These forces can frustrate the purpose and clarity of that writerly space, and by extension, throw a writer’s identity and abilities into doubt. It can become difficult to make the leap from compulsive, passive consumer to thoughtful maker. The alone space is suddenly too perverted for the creative self to even be creative, and already too central for the writer to turn anywhere else. What’s a writer to do? There’s always more Netflix.
I believe this kind of alone space and its corresponding self will always be necessary, but I think there also needs to be some kind of balance. Nothing can serve as a replacement for a writer’s private reality, but some things can compensate for the kind of problems mentioned above. A writer needs more than just a writing space to mark her/him as a writer. A writer needs other writers.
Maybe the rise of the MFA has contributed to the normalization of the workshop mentality. Maybe it has more to do with the kind of interconnectedness that technology has made almost inescapable. Maybe the current shape of identity politics speaks to a wider and more detailed incorporation. Maybe the type of difficult contemporary solitude mentioned above has simply driven more writers out into the open. Whatever the case may be, if you’re a writer now, you most likely belong to some kind of social context that somehow marks your writerlyness, whether you’d like to admit it or not.
There just aren’t too many ways around this kind of integration. You’ve brought a poem to a creative writing class, a slam event, a coffee shop, or some kind of online space to share. You’ve sent a short story to a literary magazine. A rejection letter can be a profound and multivalent social interaction; it’s just not the one you’re looking for, but it might be the one you need. You’ve tried to explain to your parents and yourself simultaneously why you’ve decided to get a degree where you write fiction instead of, well something where you do something, anything, else.
Some of these social contexts are obviously more important, consistent, and/or intentional than others. Here we could draw a distinction between a writer’s insider (writer+writer) and outsider (writer+non-writer) engagements when it comes to the subject of writing. The latter usually involves feigned curiosity on the part of the non-writer and a mutual distrust of one’s own understanding or purpose regarding the topic at hand. A lot of these outsider conversations turn toward some hint at, or outright acknowledgement of, creative writing’s uselessness. Perhaps that’s the only thing we can all agree on at this level, and aren’t these conversations mostly just about establishing some kind of easy common ground anyway. Or if not its total lack of apparent utility, then some kind of general confusion about what people are writing these days and why is usually brought into play. These types of conversations may not integrate you fully into a social context as a writer, but they still situate, or even center you, dear writer, as a writer in a social situation.
Well, what do these more fully integrative social contexts look like and what are the ways they function, considering the things we’ve already brought up? What does an insider interacting with another insider enact? Let’s talk about something a little more structurally intentional and consistent here. In an essay titled “Who Is Speaking?,” Lyn Hejinian writes, “At stake in the public life of a writer are the invention of a writing community; the invention of the writer (as writer and as person) in that community; and the invention of the meanings and meaningfulness of his or her writing.” Keep these three fundamental relationships in mind as we continue. All of the writers’ communities we’ll be looking at (no matter how seemingly different) share these major throughways, and I’ll be returning to them throughout the course of this blog series for the sake of some consistency and to sharpen and enrich our investigation.
Hejinian emphasizes the word ‘invention’ throughout this essay. She cites ‘reciprocal invocation’ as the central dynamic through which this invention takes place, and insists, “It activates a world in which the act makes sense. It invents.” Everything is prism to everything else. Think Foucault’s understanding of power. We’re dealing with two potentially unstable variables as they deal with each other: the writer, the writing community. This type of reciprocal invocation can function in different ways and at different strengths, according to different levels of invention. This could all account for differences across different communities, but regardless of the actual results, the kind of reciprocal invocation Hejinian is talking about remains the essential creative force behind any invention of this sort. The community invents the writer. The writer invents the community.
This kind of invention by way of reciprocal invocation can address another contemporary difficulty: the self itself. Any kind of true self just seems like less of a sure bet these days, and as a result, less equipped for any kind of productive alone time. It’s 2014. With all this relativity and fragmentation floating about, can anyone spend any kind of quality time with whatever’s left of their self? It’s liable to bore you, give you the creeps, or do something worse, like fall apart if you touch it. It should probably be put in some kind of a home before it has a slip and fall accident in a puddle of bandwidth somewhere. We’d rather be distracted than considerate if we do have to give the self any kind of a good look at all. It should entertain or at least amuse us in some way without inciting any real passion. Any kind of genuine interiority has been replaced by a half-eaten emoticon. The self as a creative center seems bankrupt, suddenly inept, or at least troubled in some new ways. What was once a functioning component to the solitary writing process is now more problematic, but the type of community envisioned by Hejinian can do something about this.
Let’s focus in on Hejinian’s last two points. The writer is invented as a writer, not before, or outside, but through this community, and the value of her/his writing is invented there too. Some things may be just as difficult, murky, or mutable in one of these communities as the type of working solitude discussed above, and this is mostly thanks to that fluidity, but other things are given a new concreteness, a clarity, a kind of consensus, if you will. Things are agreed upon, individual positions and roles are relationally situated (if however tenuously or unintentional). Aptitudes are acknowledged and put to whatever use is deemed coherent with the community’s purposes. Thus, the writer and her/his work are given a new kind of facticity in order to be better integrated into a group that in turn is actively solidified through that integration.
Well, what does this kind of facticity really mean and where does it leave you, the writer, and your craft? Let’s turn to another contemporary writer/critic for some further insights. In his essay “Self-Consciousness,” Tony Hoagland talks about the individual writer and her/his relationship to all the other great writers she/he has been reading. The more a writer reads all of these masterpieces, the more she/he realize how poorly her/his own work stacks up. Hoagland calls this “initiation into knowledge” the infection point for “the virus of self-consciousness,” and it’s what gives you some sense of yourself (i.e. facticity) as a writer. A writing community could be said to enact the same kind of self-consciousness in even more active, definite, and powerful ways. With Hoagland’s self-consciousness, it’s mostly you, the writer, re-contextualizing your own work in relation to all these literary giants. With a real community, you’re no longer dealing with just yourself and a body of literature. You’re dealing with actual, opinionated, emotive, articulate beings, who have something to feel and think and say about your work. You’re dealing with a whole body of re-contextualizers. This is where that reciprocal invocation comes back into play. A surge of invention shifts all its collected energy to Hejinian’s third point: the invention of the meanings and meaningfulness of a writer’s writing.
Sure, most of the very real task of writing will always require a room of one’s own, but this kind of self-consciousness, a facticity created through the community, can never be entirely left at the door. It will always bring something more definite (and hopefully beneficial) to bear on one’s personal space. Hoagland later goes on to write, “Self-consciousness in writing, as it does in life, opens up a kind of delay between impulse and action, between thought and word. That pause … offers the opportunity for calculated intensifications and angularities that would never occur in ‘natural,’ uniformed speech.” These are the very openings in your work where a community becomes influential, informing the uninformed speech. These are the openings where the facticity of reciprocal invocation can give shape and direction to an incomplete or ineffective singular self-consciousness. Here, Hoagland’s self-consciousness meets group-consciousness and the results are essentially a matter of craft.
Perhaps, this all seems a little forced. How can any true creativity thrive under such conditions? If the moment of epiphany is replaced by the community’s mantra, then what, if anything, of the individual genius is left to assert itself? The central fear is that a mere repackaging of party slogans is liable to replace or be mistaken for real poetic invention. But far from always being stifling or overly restrictive (I’m not saying it can’t be), these instances of self-consciousness can actually trigger moments of greater creativity. More often than not, the self is never actually pacified here. Rather, it is forced to work with and against a group that defines and is defined through it. The fluidity of such a dynamic allows for the kind of resistant elasticity that can work the writer’s creativity in just the right way. Instead of the potentially dysfunctional suck of a totally free and fragmented self that is left dangling a few words over its own abyss, we have a working contextualization that gives an individual the level of facticity and friction necessary to move forward with their work.
Hoagland would also have us remember that this kind of self-consciousness is not all bad: “Yet that very knowledge, which can inhibit and choke, can also inspire and challenge. Self-consciousness is the necessary border crossing of craft, skill, and even of poetic ambition.” The best kind of communities could be said to help you cross this border in a more systematic, enriching, and resourceful way than you ever could by yourself. Some of the worst communities could be said to do very little of this, where too much emphasis is placed on ambition or the wants of one individual at the expense of all others. Regarding the latter, the kind of literary domination comically laid out in Jim Behrle’s “24/7 Relentless Careerism” comes to mind.
Ultimately, we would do well to remember what Hejinian has to say when she writes, “A demanding community can be exhausting, to speakers and listeners alike, and its participants must be allowed private experiences as well as public ones.” This constant awareness could then be coupled with what I see as Hejinian’s most essential point: “To be simultaneously permissive and rigorous is the challenging task that a highly functional community must attempt.” This is not to say that this or any other kind of particular writers’ community will be the best fit for you. Writers are people. People are different. People aren’t perfect. There is no such thing as an ideal social configuration. What this means is that you probably shouldn’t try too hard to find one, but you probably should start thinking critically and asking some questions about the writers’ community you’re already involved with (or would like to be involved with) if you haven’t already.
Painting: “Woman Writing a Letter,” by Gerard ter Borch, 1655.
– JIM REDMOND
Jim Redmond used to live in Michigan. Now he lives and writes and does a few other things in Austin, TX. Some of his poems have been published or are forthcoming in PANK, reDIVIDer, Columbia Poetry Review, Weave Magazine, inter|rupture, RHINO, TYPO, and NANO Fiction, among others. His chapbook, Shirt or Skins, won one of Heavy Feather Review’s chapbook prizes.
Yesterday Lisa Russ Spaar made an appearance on Living Writers Radio to discuss “The Hide-and Seek Muse,” London, Dickinson, ineffability and experience. All the good stuff, obviously.
Check out her reading tonight!
This Throwback Thursday, get ready for a pick that will warm you from the inside out. Susan Lilley’s “Aging Bride Considers Her Checkered Past” is a beautiful poem that is all at once humorous, poignant, and hopeful; a great example of how something as simple as a list can be the basis for a moving piece of poetry. Lilley’s poem originally appeared in DB 13, Winter 2010-2011.
“The one who stole my underwear
for his collection. The one who taught
me to make cornbread. The one who left me
for the hula dancer…”
Susan Lilley’s work has been published in numerous literary journals and her collection of poems, “Satellite Beach,” is available for purchase through Finishing Line Press. She is the recipient of the 2009 Rita Dove Poetry Award and the Florida Individual Artist fellowship. She currently teaches literature and writing at Trinity Preparatory School, and is an adjunct professor at Rollins College. To view Lilley reading some of her work, including “Aging Bride Considers Her Checkered Past” (6:28), check out the video above or click here.