Sometimes I need to slip out of my own head and into someone else’s straitjacket. Ergo cameo.
Since this is hard to read, I’ve attached a PDF at the bottom. Download it. Have fun with it. Cameos are the perfect compositional form for traffic.
Sometimes I need to slip out of my own head and into someone else’s straitjacket. Ergo cameo.
Since this is hard to read, I’ve attached a PDF at the bottom. Download it. Have fun with it. Cameos are the perfect compositional form for traffic.
Because sometimes I read an article like this one by Sanjiv Bhattacharya, published in October 2016, prior to Trump’s election—and I don’t know where to go except into the raw knuckle breath of a poem.
“I do not advocate violence, but I will give my life for my blood…. And for the honor of my ancestors.”
The Beach Goys fraternize at Manhattan Beach. The racism of lulz is real. The fist’s color is livid. All colors oppose the rainbow in equal division. Diversity equals white genocide. Abortion equals black genocide. Inter-racial marriage equals race-traitor type shit. Should I be silent and stay avidly cute? Maybe watch the men argue over land while sowing old seeds inside female bodies? Since there is a white supremacist who loves Jimi Hendrix. There is a race realist who treats everyone with respect on a micro level. There is an evolutionary psychologist who brews coffee for his wife. There is a pastor who teaches the macro to his flock of seagulls. There is a granny who knows different races will never get along. There is an activist who only sees hope in Balkanization. There is a donor who invests in racial conflict to get to the end more quickly. There is a time of separate but equally hateful bodies when neo-Nazis brew kombucha and sell solar panels. There is an article where a man takes offense at being called a neo-Nazi just because he admires Hitler. He is also a Buddhist who lived in Japan. More than anything, he wants to inspire people. To choose a side. Pick your color. Declare yourself chosen. Let those ancestors do the rest.
Jean Luc Godard’s film, Masculin Feminin (see trailer above)
The song, “Visions of Johanna,” by Bob Dylan on repeat.
A sexual superstition you’ve heard or experienced (i.e. women can’t get pregnant if they’re on top). And why. And all the rest.
That time you did or did not try Ecstasy.
A moment in which you felt a slight gap between yourself and the world.
Rilke’s belief “in the possibility of love in a climate of death.” And how that looks.
The fact that Karl Marx’s favorite virtue in women was weakness while his favorite virtue in men was strength. Using this as the basis for a dialogue between Marx and Jenny von Westphalen, his wife.
That moment when Jenny Laura Marx and Paul Lafargue committed suicide together.
Something in response to Nelly Sach’s one line poem: “But silence is where the victims dwell.”
A poem or story for which the secret, unrevealed epigraph might be Sigmund Freud’s 1915 statement: "Our own death is indeed, unimaginable, and whenever we make the attempt to imagine it we can perceive that we really survive as spectators."
Grateful to my middles grill for taking this fancy video… and to Art Town in Birmingham for providing a space for readings and art.
P.S. I am SO HUNGRY to read and share these poems. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re looking for readers and strange Romanian-Alabamians for your event or attic.
In her “Afterword: Reflections on the Grotesque” to Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, Joyce Carol Oates writes:
“I take as the most profound mystery of our human experience the fact that, though we each exist subjectively, and know the world only through this prism of self, this ‘subjectivity’ is inaccessible, this unreal, and mysterious, to others. And the obverse—all others are, in the deepest sense, strangers.”
She reflects on the lure of the grotesque, the charm of the vampire as evidence that evil can be as seductive as it is repulsive—that it can render us not just victims but accomplices in its destruction. There is a sense of horror or dread bound up in the grotesque, a sense of perversion in which we can feel how something good begins rotting.
The stories in her collection include range the gamut of grotesque topics, including dolls, haunted houses, child abductions, rape, sexual violence, white cats, repetitive games and game worlds, murder of a child.
I’ve excerpted a bit of “Extenuating Circumstances,” my favorite short story from this collection below. You can download the entire PSF using the link.
Because I feared loving him too much, and in that weakness failing to protect him from hurt.
Because his crying tore my heart but angered me too so I feared laying hands upon him wild and unplanned.
Because he flinched seeing me. That nerve jumping in his eye.
Because he was always hurting himself, he was so clumsy falling off the swing hitting his head against the metal post so one of the other mothers saw and cried out Oh! Oh look your son is bleeding! and that time in the kitchen whining and pulling at me in a bad temper reaching up to grab the pot handle and almost overturning the boiling water in his face so I lost control slapping him shaking him by the arm Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad! my voice rising in fury not caring who heard.
Because that day in the courtroom you refused to look at me your face shut like a fist against me and your lawyer too, like I was dirt beneath your shoes. Like maybe he was not even your son but you would sign the papers as if he was, you are so superior.
(Read the remainder of Joyce Carol Oates’ story below. )
“Extenuating Circumstances” is structured as a legal apologia, with first person narrator confessing why she killed her child, and addressing it to the (absent) biological father.
Like a legal document, each paragraph begins with the word “Because…” followed by an extenuating circumstance.
The first paragraph: “Because it was a mercy. Because God even in His cruelty will sometimes grant mercy.”
Oates adds dread and suspense in both the formal framing and the resolute punctuation. Although some paragraphs include questions to the father, no statement ends with a question mark. The lack of question marks propels the dread forward, giving us the sense that the answer does not matter, the conclusion having already been acted upon. Like the verdict of our culture on single mothers.
It’s a fantastic story—and a fictional model for writing the grotesque in motherhood under patriarchy. There is a continuing sense that the mother is damned no matter what she does—damned by the child, damned by the role, and damned by the man.
For my friend, Ruth, who urges me to make an appointment for the Sacrament of Confession
Concerning your letter in which you ask
me to call a priest and in which you ask
me to wear The Cross that you enclose;
your own cross,
your dog-bitten cross,
no larger than a thumb,
small and wooden, no thorns, this rose—
I pray to its shadow,
that gray place
where it lies on your letter ... deep, deep.
I detest my sins and I try to believe
in The Cross. I touch its tender hips, its dark jawed face,
its solid neck, its brown sleep.
True. There isa beautiful Jesus.
He is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef.
How desperately he wanted to pull his arms in!
How desperately I touch his vertical and horizontal axes!
But I can’t. Need is not quite belief.
All morning long
I have worn
your cross, hung with package string around my throat.
It tapped me lightly as a child’s heart might,
tapping secondhand, softly waiting to be born.
Ruth, I cherish the letter you wrote.
My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are:
for the greedy,
they are the tongue’s wrangle,
the world's pottage, the rat's star.
Anne Sexton, “With Mercy for the Greedy” from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981). Copyright © 1981 by Linda Gray Sexton and Loring Conant, Jr. Reprinted with the permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.
To me, this poem is the ars poetica of confessional poetry. It was written in the brief span of time after Anne Sexton’s illegal abortion. Although Anne feared the child might not be her husband’s, she also feared the demands that another child would make on her writing life. We still find it easier to talk about abortions in terms of paternity rather than female personhood.
Loss was Anne’s muse, and with this abortion she discovered a new form of loss to write, a loss more damning for the silence that surrounded it. She started keeping a journal, inspired by Dostoevsky’s line: what filthy things the heart is capable of. Although she was close to WD Snodgrass at the time, it’s interesting that Anne didn’t share this news with him or any other male poets. Instead, she confided the abortion in a letter to her Catholic friend, Ruth Soter. In response, Ruth mailed a tooth-marked wooden cross and an encouragement to seek spiritual counsel.
“With Mercy For the Greedy” came from this exchange. I’ve always suspected the title has to do with the mercy Anne sought in her choice of writing over new motherhood—the “greed” and hunger to write for which this world does not forgive us. The poem itself presents two alternate forms of mercy: one found in religion, the other found in writing poetry. Both forms of mercy rely on the act of confession.
My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are:
for the greedy,
they are the tongue’s wrangle,
the world's pottage, the rat's star.
I don’t think it’s an accident that the last stanza burns itself to the surface of our minds. I don’t think it’s strange that abortion is fugue which structures the piece. I don’t think it’s ironic that confession alienates female poets from gendered femininity that privileges the act of mothering over the tempest of writing. This is what poems are: an admission, a savaging, an out.
*The last line is also an allusion to Anne’s favorite palindrome: “rats live on no evil star.”
In her 1652 literary salon, Madeleine de Scudery introduced the word “roman a clef” to describe a genre of writing that is autobiography overlaid with fiction. Now also called by various names including auto-fiction, nonfiction novel, autobiographical novel, etc.
“So ask me again now—what is autobiographical about my novel—and I will talk about fidelity to emotional effect and contextual variance. About level shifts and category shifts and the impossibility of exact equivalencies. I might discuss the translatability of the source material and then take you through the reconstruction of sound or image or structure. I will mention how inner becomes outer, how sometimes all you can do is convey meaning or form but not both. I will talk about the tension in word choice and metaphor, the gift of plenty and the risk of nuance. I will invite you to wend with me, to wander through the words. Because I am always in the work and outside of it. I am and am not the story.”
- Michelle Bailait-Jones, “On the Impossibility of Locating the Line Between Fiction and Non” (LitHub)
Example of nonfiction novel: Amitava Kumar’s Immigrant, Montana.
Multiple epigraphs, pictures, footnotes (academic and digressive), references to pop culture, explications of literary theory. Stories structured by associative leaps and hops from digression to digression. Dedicated to Teju Cole, whose style inspired it.
Kailash uses two voices to tell his story. There is his older self, speaking from twenty years’ distance with the help of his journals and notebooks, and then there is his guiltier, younger self. That’s the voice that the newly arrived, inauthentic-feeling Kailash uses to address an imaginary judge who wants to kick him out of the country.
- Joanna Biggs, “Erotic Exploration in Immigrant, Montana” (New Yorker)
Kumar explains early and forcefully why these subjects—geopolitics and sex; geography and desire; history and lust—should share pages. In an enormously funny yet simultaneously dark recurring device recalling Roth’s Portnoy addressing his psychiatrist, Kailash speaks to an imagined immigration judge whom he pictures adjudicating both his status in America and his libidinous proclivities. Sex, Kailash tells us, is the “crucial part of humanity denied to the immigrant. You look at a dark immigrant in that long line at JFK…you look at him and think that he wants your job and not that he just wants to get laid.”
-Sanjena Sathian, “Geopolitics and Sex, Geography and Desire: On Amitava Kumar’s ‘Immigrant, Montana’" (The Millions)
Teju Cole: “To be a writer in exile is a great thing. But what is exile now, when everyone goes and comes freely?”
Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti practice an auto-fiction in which the book turns in to the self while Alice Sebold and Teju Cole write novels that turn to the world.
The difference between fiction and memoir may be the difference—when it comes to meaning, that recyclable plastic thing we crave in our lives, and without which we become despondent and ultimately inert—between metaphor and referential mania. They say the truth shall set you free, but it seems rather to be the case that fiction, or, Stories About Fake People, who can be understood by means of the empathic engine of metaphor to be yourself, shall free you from that intolerable freedom we call meaninglessness.
- Rebecca Wolff, “Our Sense of Truth” (Lithub)
Phillip Roth’s view of selfhood as perpetual performance with a character in a book being only one variant of that enormous possibility.
“People constantly change their story… we are writing fictitious versions of our lives all the time, contradictory but mutually entangling stories that, however subtly or grossly falsified, constitute our hold on reality and are the closest thing we have to truth.”
- William Gass quoting Phillip Roth, “Deciding to Do the Impossible” (New York Times)
Tim Parks on Leo Tolstoy’s use of life for fiction. After Anna Karenina, Tolstoy chose the performance of goodness and sainthood over the writing of fiction, which felt to him like an indulgence. His relationship with Sonya, his wife, and their thirteen children, kept him rooted in the flesh and the material. Then in 1887, Tolstoy returned to fiction to write The Kreutzer Sonata (my personal favorite novella), in which protagonist holds his views on abstinence and material world and kills his wife in a fit of rage when he discovers she is having an affair with the violin teacher. Six years later, Sonya fell involve with her younger piano teacher but Tolstoy did not kill her. It’s not clear whether he wrote the script for the affair or predicted it. A character is not a steady state so much as a tension between various poles and forces. The problem is being anyone at all.
“Let’s offer this formulation: a certain kind of writer, for whom the day-to-day performance of self—the interaction of personality with the world—is complex and conflicted, invents multiple fictional selves who deal with the same predicament in different ways. Rather than establishing any ultimate truth about identity, such a writer explores possibilities that might be dangerous or incompatible in real life. In short, the writing becomes an extension of the living.”
- Tim Parks, “How Best to Read Auto-Fiction” (New York Review of Books)
In “Corn Maze,” Pam Houston talks about the blurred lines between fiction and nonfiction. When she toured for her first fiction collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness, the question she was asked most often was how much of this really happened to her? She answered honestly: “A lot of it.”
Houston maintains that truth can never be an absolute. The instability of truth automatically locates creative nonfiction between genres.
“When it was decided (When was that again, and by whom?) that we were all supposed to choose between fiction and nonfiction, what was not taken into account was that for some of us truth can never be an absolute, that there can (at best) be only less true and more true and sometimes those two collapse inside each other like a Turducken. Given the failure of memory. Given the failure of language to mean. Given metaphor. Given metonymy. Given the ever-shifting junction of code and context. Given the twenty-five people who saw the same car accident. Given our denial. Given our longings. // Who cares really if she hung herself or slit her wrists when what really matters is that James Frey is secretly afraid that he’s the one who killed her.”
The line of acceptable imagining in blurry. Houston gives example of three Italian kayakers which she loosely invented for an essay which the editor removed because they weren’t “real” in the sense of being verifiable. Maybe they were Spanish. On the other hand, the same editor added a fog to create atmosphere.
Her novel of 144 chapters does not purport to be nonfiction. And yet, as the James Frey scandal blew up, Pam Houston revisited her naming strategies.
“In past books I have used Millie, Lucy, and Rae. For the sake of sentence rhythm, I was leaning towards something with one syllable, but it would also be convenient to the book if the replacement name meant something as embarrassing as what the name “Pamela” means: which is all honey. I had considered Melinda, which on some sites means honey and could be shortened to Mel. I had considered Samantha which means listener, and could be shortened to Sam. But in the car with the elk in the pasture and the snow on the road and Jeff Tweedy in my ears I was all of a sudden very angry at whoever it was who put all that pressure on Oprah Winfrey. This book was in danger of missing the whole point of itself if my name were not Pam in it. If my name were not Pam in it, who was the organizing consciousness behind these 144 tiny miraculous coincident unrelated things?”
In naming characters for fiction, the conventions don’t always make sense. You can write fiction that resembles a real person more than the nonfiction that names them and proceeds carefully.
“Speaking only for myself, now, I cannot see any way that my subsequent well-being depends on whether or not, or how much, you believe what I am telling you—that is to say—on the difference (if there is any) between 82 and 100 percent true. My well-being (when and if it exists) resides in the gaps language leaves between myself and the corn maze, myself and the Las Vegas junkies, myself and the elk chest-deep in snow. It is there, in that white space of language’s limitation that I am allowed to touch everything, and it is in those moments of touching everything, that I am some version of free.”
Her writing tends to avoid didactic statements because she feels like she can’t speak for everyone.
“I have never felt comfortable speaking for anyone except myself. Maybe I had been socialized not to make declarative statements. Maybe I thought you had to be fifty before you knew anything about the world. Maybe I was afraid of misrepresenting someone I thought I understood but didn’t. Maybe I was afraid of acting hypocritically. Maybe I have always believed it is more honest, more direct, and ultimately more powerful, to tell a story, one concrete and particular detail at a time.”
And finally, in loose sum, a writing prompt of sorts from Alexander Chee’s essay, “The Writing Life,” found in How to Write An Autobiographical Novel: Essays:
“The writer Lorrie Moore calls the feeling I felt that day ‘the consolations of the mask,’ where you make a place that doesn’t exist in your own life for the life your life has no room for, the exiles of your memory.”
Lia Purpura recommends carrying an intermediary little pad as a catch-all that you can transcribe into your journal at the end of the day.
Found journals include the artifacts of daily life, the to-do lists, the odd objects, the sudden observations.
Review your journals for “patterns of thought” or “patterns of image.” Note recurrences and memories that keep begging to be addressed. Set tasks or writing habits for yourself in the journal. For example, “I’ll look out this window every morning for 3 months and record what I see.” Note the patterns that emerge in a single day of your life. How do these patterns juxtapose against the rhythms? What patterns emerge in a week? What obstacles continue to arise that thwart you?
David Shields describes “appropriation art” as “when you steal but make a point of stealing, because by changing the context you change the connotations.” How is this true? How does it apply to fashion? Give a few examples of writers and artists that create appropriation art.
It is late enough for your whiskey-broke baritone
to ask how long this stew should simmer, how much longer
the kitchen needs.
After that, how much longer
will it take me to finish the story,
to write open the ice I can't crack.
How much longer
I love you
when language stretches
We lack a verb
that asks nicely
No honesty unbludgeoned
by longing when we crave an equation
one can hold against an other.
A record of wrongs
becomes a recipe.
If fear is a failure
to thrive, wherever we stand
four feet remain outside a circle.
Two pairs of wanting-in.
I touch a clementine rind coiled atop
the counter. Witness carrots bubbling,
bobbing like toddler fists. You stir the pot
as my pen pickaxes paper.
Celebrate the bond & the
bondage, these marks round our wrists,
fresh singe of chains we jangle together.
I tell you, Chickadee
I am afraid of people
who cannot cry
Tears left unshed
turn to poison
in the ducts
Ask the next soldier you see
enjoying a massacre
if this is not so.
People who do not cry
of soul mutilation
paid for in Marlboros
Violence does not work
except for the man
who pays your salary
if you could still weep
you would not take the job.
Sometimes it’s terrible.
Then there are times when you kiss your way to heaven until your lips ache and you realize the guy you’ve been drooling with is named Dwight. Which adds a different dimension to the kisses and makes you wonder about his mother, who is suddenly present in the kiss, inserting herself between your lips and his, altering the fullness, the swelling ardors. Dwight? What the fuck? Oh God.
I can’t whistle or remember the really cute hopscotch rhymes. My mom doesn’t buy soda. We don’t even have cable. I’m not allowed to play with Barbies, shave my legs, or get a perm. You can seriously do better.
He doesn’t need any. Even if he did need habits, he would fall asleep too quickly to remember them. He has a steady regimen of sleep accidents, coincidences, and uncanny events. But not habits. No habits ever.
Terry Baker. I just need to say his name today. Because he was beloved. Because I can’t escape our complicity in his death. We of the not-us yet.
Other things I need to say to the wild without expecting an answer:
Montaigne thought the best way to attack death was to think of it constantly—to imagine its presence when a horse stumbled or a tile fell from the ceiling. A constant imagining of death frees you from the yoke of mortal servitude by bringing death close, making it intimate and familiar.
Death is so intimate and familiar that sometimes I feel as if I’m cheating on my husband or neglecting my children by speaking so frankly to possible ghosts.
The writer’s role in selling the book, so different from the famish that leads you to write it. What do we redeem by getting published? Is there something to prove—some part of ourselves we’ve been excusing all these years only to suddenly discover it accepted?
Alternately, what do we redeem by being published? is another way of asking the simple question: What do we want from this world?
All of it.
Advice: Read Greg Jackson’s short fiction to practice juggling the freight of complex ideas with the shifting demands of scene and character. We are partly what we say but mostly what we think.
Revision: Be careful with conditional verb tenses that don’t contribute to tone. The conditional moves the action away— “would be” makes an action occur continuously, for all time, and therefore less poignantly. The generalization reduces the immediacy of the moment. Sometimes it’s better to remove the conditional when describing something hard because it makes it immediate and leaves space for forgiveness afterwards. Let it burn and die. Let it be truth.
Warning: Be mindful of the way in which female characters operate from passivity or powerlessness. Ask yourself questions that honor those complexities.
Poetry prompt: Read Naomi Shabib Nye’s “Famous.” Notice how the poem is structured around the definition and circling of the title word. Write a poem that turns on the reframing of a certain word. Use that word as the title.
Poetry prompt: Read Czeslaw Milosz’s “Conversations with Jeanne.” Notice how Milosz breaks the stanzas and makes use of patterned white space. Think about the effect of cutting that one line alone in the middle of the poem. Now think of friends or family with whom you maintain an ongoing disagreement about a specific ethical question (maybe divorce, abortion, end of life, etc.). Write a poem addressed to that person. Try to nurture the same level of distance that Milosz deploys in his titling of the poem as a “conversation.” As you write, think about the difference between a conversation and a dispute.
“Let the stars stitch you to sleep.”
Writing what love makes of us demands the courage to abandon cynicism, regret, and self-help-friendly shields. I'm deeply grateful to Mantis for publishing this poem from a series of compositions--and grateful to other journals in which future pieces from this series are forthcoming.
Kudos to Slate for republishing Geoff Dyer's essay, "Sex and Hotels." I looked forward to re-feeling those first-read frissons when I settled into our tackiest loveseat with Dyer onscreen. Edging into the second paragraph, I was startled to find the shoulders stiffening, the head shaking slowly, the lips tightening for a scrimmage. Frequently the female sitting on her hands to keep from asking the speaker that please-please-answer question, I am also the one who keeps a pen and notebook nearby to extinguish mental brush fires. The scribbler, the wilderness, the riot.
What follows is my dialogue with Dyer's piece across the interim between first read and present.
"A hotel room is horny because it is clean: The sheets are clean, the toilets are clean, everything is clean, and this cleanliness is a flagrant inducement to—what else?—filthiness. Ideally, the room is so clean as to suggest that it has never been used. It cries out to be defiled. If the room is, in a sense, virginal, then the act of breaking the seal on bars of soap and other stealable accessories has something of the quality of breaking its hymen. Slightly archaic it may be, but to speak of “taking a room” is, in this context, pleasingly suggestive."
"In a sense" is like a cotillion skirt in that one can hide a cannon beneath it. Upon examining the metaphorical sense in which a room is "virginal", we are presented with the likelihood of hymen. Considering the hymen-optics wherein cracking the seal on bars of soap and other cheap bathroom accouterments resemble the act of breaking a hymen, it becomes less clear which virginity is being tainted. I don't understand the virgin metaphor unless the hotel room is a born-again virgin of the megachurch type, in which case I don't understand what business the fetishization of mega-churchings has to do with the illicit, furtive sex we seek in hotels.
The immaculate cleanness of the hotel room isn’t alluring for its virginal connotation (especially since sex with virgins tends to be the least erotic and satisfying variant) so much as the blatant knowledge that I played no part in the work of spotlessness. I didn’t have to clean it and I won’t be responsible for any wine stains or disasters thereafter. Unlike sex with a virgin, the mess may be mine but the responsibility is on the house.
(Note: Dyer mentions this in passing but glosses over it as a form of luxury akin to having someone turn the sheets. The fact that I can't mention it in passing suggests a difference, perhaps, in the way Dyer and I experience daily household life. That difference is a minefield of untouched sex bombs.)
Maybe a hotel room is “horny” because it asks nothing of me except imagination tangled with banality, the perfect Moravian moment. And maybe a hotel room is thrilling because it’s secretly filthy; ultraviolet light would reveal splatters of sperm and bloodstains, a woman screaming while biting a hand, all the ways in which patriarchy follows us into the private spaces. This is the undertone of actual. Stanislaw Lem’s story floats through my head like a love letter I won’t share with my partner. My head is always a little dirtier than his, always more fascinated by the grime beneath the shiny American smiles.
"In international hotels, however, the passage through the lobby—a process of which checking in is the ritualistic expression—is also a passage from place to non-place. By checking in and handing over your credit card or passport, you effectively surrender your identity. By becoming a temporary resident of this non-place you become a non-person and are granted an ethical equivalent of diplomatic immunity. You become morally weightless."
Humbug. A hotel lobby is sexy not for its “moral weightlessness” but for its reckless, bureaucratized complicity in the exchange of transactional sex.
There I am, waiting in the brutal splendor of a hotel lobby where personal emptiness is magnified and reflected back from every gleaming surface-- I am breathlessly lonely, horribly aware, compressed by the emptiness spun into the architecture, the codified professional displays, the silent confession that all bodies in this lobby are missing something that going upstairs will not relieve. All the stairwell sex in the world will not unlonely us as we stand in the hotel lobby. When else is our weakness ever this stark?
"In the confines of the hotel you are no longer Mr. or Ms. Whoever, you are simply the occupant of a room. You have no history."
It’s not the relinquishment of identity that feels liberating—it’s the permission to fully inhabit the multiple, ever-mutating selfhood. To be Mrs. Someone and Mrs. None simultaneously. To be authentically doubled and dislodged from the strictures of rigid social roles.
Is there anything more volatile than a married mother who just turned forty and finds herself without a kitchen to clean, a dinner to cook, a family of mammals to over-feel and tend?
As a Romanian-Alabamian, I don’t play singles when it comes to identity. I need a polymorphous closet for all the costumes.
Basically, the more expensive the hotel the more arousing it is. There is, in other words, almost no distinction between the building itself and the prostitutes who ply their trade in it.
Money and price are a measure of preference, especially with respect to risk. For some of us, the lure of the thirty dollar motel room with vibrating beds and possible parking lot shoot-outs is more enticing than the platitudes of the fancy hotel. I need the sort of sex that acknowledges my desperation—the feeling that I’m risking my life for a moment of pleasure. The urgency matters. I don’t want to be insulated from the costs of my desire—I want to feel them panting down my neck.
Of course, it helps when the motel lacks an internet connection or a working television--because there is literally nothing left to do except sex. And conversation. And more sex. And not a single damned American Express card machine in sight.
Note: This isn't exhaustive. And many could fall under multiple categories.
Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, Found Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts, edited by David Shields and Matthew Vollmer, is hot in my head right now. Shields and Vollmer define “fraudulent artifacts” as “a text purporting to be a particular form of writing… which also tells a story, stirs thoughts and emotions, inspires inquiry, initiates action, and/or calls into question that which is—or has purported to be—real.”
Here's the frame: An artifact is by definition an object constructed by a human being. Every artifact arises from a series of decisions taken by its maker. These artifacts are governed by social conventions and how we use or abuse them, how we fill the box. Conventions are nothing if not a way to create expectations. These expectations are a primary tool in the writer’s arsenal.
A fraudulent artifact infuses a received form with a story, thus creating an object “more authentic than the original upon which it was based.” The deceptiveness is self-reflexive as well as confessional.
Notice where risks can be taken in each form or genre and then "redraw the limitations." Use the form as vehicle to carry narrative. Make sure artifact reveals something about the narrator, generally the maker of the artifact. And, if you're smart, read the introduction to the book online in PDF for free, where the authors lay this out more cogently.
Other must-reads in my innovative fiction craft bible:
And a few things I've never seen which may possibly exist but would still be very cool to read at some point:
And, of course, it's always a tough call when deciding where to submit your innovative form fiction. Some literary magazines nurture a special affinity for formal and genre innovations. Take the time to learn more about the editors and the landscape. Then pick your best piece and roll the dice.
I'm finally stealing the time to learn a dance that my mother used to love--"it's the most feminist dance, Alina, no man to worry about pleasing, no fellow that needs to feel like he's leading". My writer side can't resist the urge to string those steps into a story, a series of Spanish instructional words describing parts of the body as well as flameno steps. The list form feels natural in stories trace new discoveries of knowledge or half-developed skills.
Though the feel is contemporary, list stories actually borrow from a classical rhetorical device, enumeratio, which divides or segments a big idea into navigable, numbered parts. We are hella fortunate to have so many incredible models in this form--Deb Olin Unferth’s “Things That Went Wrong Thus Far” comes to mind. In this flash, Deb uses the numbered list to narrate a couple's vacation from the first person POV. Each number makes further use of letters to expand the details. The strategy reminds of Benjamin Fondane’s “cine-poems” in that the list is structured by discrete emotional events rather than punctuation.
Since I'm not a fundamentalist about text or rules, some of the "enumerations" aren't as clear or numbered but the feel was somehow "listed." Without further ado, a long list of enumerated stories of various veracities that I admire and love. Because what's so great about having a cool list if you're not going to share it?
Tangentially, a flashback to one of my list attempts: "Seven Stories About Girl Scars" (Tinge)
(Lots of thanks to Wigleaf, where I first discovered so many of these stories.)
Bonus: a few list stories forms I haven't read and someone should maybe try.... lists that might be fun and somewhat summer-tasty... lists I'd love to see or read:
Phantom Hour. By James Meetze. Boise, Idaho: Ahsahta Press, 2016. 83 pp. $18.00.
James Meetze's Phantom Hour embraces metaphysical uncertainty. In this collection which Meetze inscribes "for my father and for his memory", we encounter a poetics of amnesia and absent memory. The geography is immediate, located within the human body, its failings, and the mind which negotiates time through memory. Poetry becomes a vehicle to bear absence, to speak silence.
For the son who aims to paint a portrait of his father, dementia offers a heavy brush painting over the curves, erasing beloved details and particularities, obliterating perspective and light, leaving vague shapes and abstracted loss. "Memory is the architect of forgetfulness", but also the agent of preservation, the palette in which we hold one another captive, the curator of what is to come. The language reveals memory's antipodal nature, a back and forth, erase and rewind, interrupted by the way in which objects render the absence of memory palpable.
To convey this dizzying motion, Meetze makes use of form, alternating between lineated stanzas and lyric into heavy prose blocks.
This drifts between his father and memory of the person his father was when he had the ability to say it. The poems are his "profession":
to record the trail of our flesh: this.
When he offers "lyric as lineage", Meetze addresses his father as a son who writes in order to remember-- "to know the narrative of our blood." The flesh is a staging ground for embodied history, and the narrative of blood is filled with the stories of others:
I address myself in reference to what I remember.
This address includes multiple audiences-- the father he knew, the face behind the phantom, and the fear of ghosts dwelling in our own blood. While the science of genetic mapping can offer us new certainties about the origins of Alzheimer's, it provides no exorcism, no cure for genetic haunting. The phantom in the gene code-- this "genetic disposition"-- the science of what we cannot prevent. These are questions which others must answer for us. In our name.
Family history hides inside a surname-- "a noose", by Meetze's metaphor-- which renders us subjects, a place in our common past from which the serialized self is "hung", simultaneously extinguished and eulogized. Meetze seems to suggest that mythologies provide a way to incorporate the change and transform surprising events into safe, holy, untouchable spaces.
Want and story and loss inhabit me
speaking words aloud to make them real things.
The phantom hour is marked by the absence of the human and yet the memory which intervenes re-builds this absence into a physical fact, solid as "gray matter". Meetze's muse expands to include the mind itself, our place in that mind, the rituals of entry and exit. And the risk inherent in writing for phantoms.
Unlike automatic writing which transcribes the words of the absent, we are faced with the terror of possible forgery. Fear of forgetting, of wronging, of perverting, is present. Love tempts us to idealize our parents as parts of a usable past. This temptation lies in the hollows of Meetze's half-shades:
Look, ghost, you too are legend, madman
a stanza in our longer story.
The ethics of remembering hinges on this blurred boundary between remembering and rendering. When a body is rebuilt or re-membered, it is an approximation of an original, at best. We see this ethics at work in the construction of memorials and public monuments in which a certain valiant aspect of the memory is rendered solid and immovable.
The ghosts this poem is written for
are the ghosts of the poem.
Neuroscientific studies show memory to be a process of constant revision. Each time a particular memory is accessed, the mind rewrites and revises. The violation of lived reality is inescapable in the act of honoring the past. In Meetze's use, honor is not merely verbal but "perpetual condition". He juxtaposes the rigidity of his father's honor--its diligent manners, its formal gestures-- against the fluidity of memory itself.
Everything is not what we assume
and this is the problem; the body in this world
moves between challenges and finds its way
to that other world in which the ghosts say.
The saying and the said. the careful use of syntax to reverse expectation, as in the line: "The specters of our past are with us to say." Our loved ones cannot stay, Meetze acknowledges, while asserting a greater privilege, the possibility of "saying".
"Sacred to the memory" it says.
If only, like this, the mind
were a stone
and the story its engraver.
This distinction between saying and speaking is a fascinating ontological question which deserves further poetic treatment.
The liturgical aspects of poetic longing emerge in Meetze's interspersed incantations of holy words ("Here is the body, and here the blood."), and the pulse of fear released by careful caesura and lineation.
My prayer is narrative; it too is a form of song.
Those hold together everything we remember.
We abandon the chronological linearity of historical time to for the multiplicitous memories and associations of neurological time. How to deal with an end to our linear, earthly lives?
These questions are not meant to be answered.
I think existence hinges on our unknowing.
The poet's challenge is to acknowledge the awe in these questions rather than depict their tidy resolution. The tools of the human spirit, the poet's screws and hammers, have not kept pace with scientific discovery. We are left with the same broken techne:
When I asked, a caesura
where an answer should be.
This house could be.
You or I were not yet there, were,
in some small way, lacunae,
imagined in absentia.
Meetze's assertion--"I am nonlinear"-- dangles between response and proposition. This interstitial, in-betweening spirit is the poet's voice. Giving up the things we have memorized and known in exchange for the things we cannot believe-- the phantoms, the nonlinear time, the material insistence of placed objects-- we permit the memories to speak for themselves. Meetze acknowledges: "These memories comprise my council." But the council does not absolve us. We are left with the responsibility of reconciling our family histories in the larger context of current life.
Meetze flirts with Jean-Luc Godard's suggestion that art has no obligations to memory and no duty to render reality truthfully, since truth is an outcome inherent to the process of well-made art. Despite this implied freedom, the placed poet, the poet charged with family history, struggles with the intimacies of memory, or how it becomes a process of negotiation within families, a narrative woven and rewoven by different voices, a "we" that unthreads into separate strands:
No one wants
to be a river
more than we.
"Remember lest you be haunted" is the twentieth century's warning, the vestige of totalitarian regimes, gulags, and nationalisms. But Meetze remembers in order to be haunted, as if the haunted is one emboldened by courage to hunt forbidden images. The poet becomes the haunted hunter of memory. We trust him for being loyal to the memory rather than the world which makes use of it.
As the cycle winds down, Meetze returns to absence. Rather, he returns to the absentia of poetry:
The phantom is in the hour of the book, it is the book, and the work the words do in the absence of their author.
Though Meetze doubts his role as son, progenitor, and patriarch, he establishes his bearings in a poetic vice. His father did not trust the poet to tell a true story. Yet, when Alzheimer's arrives, it is the poet who is best equipped to bear this journey towards loss.
In the moving finale, Meetze gives his father permission expand the boundaries of what we see. A simple envoi for an unfathomable journey:
I hope it is sound.
Poised between wine and the blood, the invisible act is transubstantiation. This transubstantive space that lingers between the shadows of synapses is Meetze's lodestar. It is courageous, metaphysically transgressive-- utterly shameless in its sublimity.