What’s the difference between poetry and other writing?
Poetry is writing minus the traffic lights, bridges, and boring parts.
What’s the difference between poetry and other writing?
Poetry is writing minus the traffic lights, bridges, and boring parts.
Maxine doesn’t only love men’s bodies. She wants to grasp the logic
of their internal organs. She craves blueprints, circuit diagrams,
sewing patterns. First time she saw Frankenstein she wasn’t afraid.
She wanted to know how the mad doctor did it,
where to get dead people parts, which graves were best
for culling, whether a whole family of ladybugs
could live inside those zombie bellies.
When the high school guidance counselor
asked the inevitable career question, she told her
all she really cared about was weaving back and forth
between the inner and outer life of people, what you could see,
what you couldn’t, writing down what she found there,
taking ideas apart and putting them back together
to make them more ecstatic.
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October 27, 2016
“To be without a feeling for art is no disgrace. A person can live in peace without reading [novels] or listening to [music]. But the misomusist does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it. There is a popular misomusy… The fascists and Communist regimes made use of it… But there is an intellectual, sophisticated misomusy as well: it takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic… The apocalypse of art: the misomusists will themselves take on the making of art; thus will their historic vengeance be done.”
–Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel
“Misomusist: n. rare A person who hates learning (also, in recent use: art).”
With Kundera’s strong opinions and talent for rhetoric come a penchant for overstatement, even hyperbole; an inclination that causes him to contradict himself from time to time. This is the problem with broad pronouncements—statements of absolutes, even from a master like Kundera—there is almost always an exception to the rule, whatever the rule. In this instance, Kundera’s work, and its focus on the political, provides the exception.
Kundera’s concept of the novelist as someone who poses questions (rather than answering them) is a notion I return to often, and his idea on the misomusist’s hatred of learning and art seems linked to that, even though it might not initially appear so. When Kundera speaks of misomusy, he’s speaking metaphorically, not issuing a metal-clad prohibition against “any vestige of the political in art,” even though it sounds as though he’s suggesting just that—that if we want to save poor, little Art from the encroaching idiot hordes we’d better stuff it in a covered wagon and get the fuck out of Dodge.
If we peel back Kundera’s hyperbole, he’s speaking of a problem of degrees, the way too much focus on politics, religion, or commerce (as examples) might negatively impact art. Though Kundera almost certainly wouldn’t approve, you might even extend the point to include too much “artistry,” suggesting that if you are too concerned with pursuing beauty as you see it, whether out of some overly idiosyncratic aesthetic or a lack of more visceral narrative elements like plot and story, you could damage your own art, create something unrecognizable to anyone but yourself.
Set deep in literature’s make-up—perhaps essential enough even to qualify as its DNA—are the ideas of knowledge and progress as identifiable, worthy concepts. We read not only for aesthetics and entertainment, but to expand the scope of our worlds. We read to engage with other cultures and people, to live other lives. And, to some extent, what I want from a writer is their unvarnished perspective on the world. If that view is heavily informed by politics (whether they be governmental or those of race or gender), so be it.
Several of the books I’m covering this month could be considered political, though some are certainly more overt in their politics than others. As someone who writes about politics at times, who has his own strong opinions, I’d say the challenge is (as Kundera has suggested elsewhere) to avoid absolute certainty in your fiction, to maintain some level of impartiality, even though as human beings demanding perfect political neutrality of ourselves is a doomed proposition. Ultimately, you must do what makes sense to you, regardless of what the great Milan Kundera or little, old me say. The only test of success is the reader’s response, the impartial (though always partial) answer to the question, “Does it work?”
Here’s an extended metaphor, and it’s the best I can do. Say you’re taking a canoe ride on the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio (where I once lived) to Louisville, Kentucky (where I have visited). Distance approximately 100 miles. You know Cincinnati and to a lesser extent your destination, Louisville. You know the larger towns and cities along both banks, and the major tributaries. You intend to get to Louisville, that is, your ending of your novel, and you have certain characters and certain events (those towns and tributaries) in mind. But you have never been on the river. The currents, snags, small islands, smaller tributaries, the drudgery of day to day paddling—the dispiriting drudgery, the innumerable temptations to give up. You know it all in the abstract, but you don’t know what it’s actually like. Everything could change in a day, and Louisville, if you ever reach it, might not bear much resemblance to the city you have in your mind. That combination of the mapped-out and the powerfully and subtly unforeseen is, metaphorically, how I’d describe the writing of a novel.
But there were moments. I do remember moments. Judy says you add them up and get nothing. She says every child is entitled to make up her own burdies. And I say if the memories are real and you add yours up, you’ll get a sum. One and one make two.
I remember as a little boy being with my father in Uncle Raymond’s furniture store. It was just possible my father had been working there for a while, perhaps selling used furniture out of the dusty, dimly lit back of the store while Uncle Raymond worked out of the shiny and wax-scented showroom up front. It’s possible my father had taken me to work with him that day. Anything is possible. In my memory I am crawling around on the floor, exploring among the old dining room tables and chairs and somber dark chests while my father waits for his customers in an easy chair, like a bear sitting back in his lair. I must come on him unwittingly for when he says, “Where do you think you’re going?” he takes me by surprise and I don’t have an answer. The light is so dim back there that he seems to be part of the chair. The armrests are massive and end in what look like an animal’s claws, with deep grooves between the fingers. The chair’s fabric has a staleness about it I’ll later associate with the staleness of caves. My father sits there, almost daring someone to come in and give him reason to rise. One foot is planted squarely on the floor, and there isn’t another, of course. His hand briefly grazes the top of my head. “Where do you think you’re going?” may be the first words of his I remember, a rhetorical question, for surely he knew the answer. I was going to him.
What is a favorite story you would recommend to everyone?
“Honey Pie” by Haruki Murakami. Oh, it just crushed me.
I think this is the best possible experience a person can have with fiction – to be crushed by it. Or maybe “tenderized” is a better word for this.
What is the most challenging part of writing a book?
I like this quote by E.L. Doctorow: “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re writing is not writing. Writing is writing.” To sort of echo this idea, for me the most challenging part of writing is just doing it. Writing is incredibly frustrating a lot of the time, so making the daily choice to do it instead of doing anything else is the great and ongoing challenge.
One specific challenge that I faced with this book was how to use coincidence to bring characters together without it being too distracting or implausible. Around the time this had me stopped-up, I was reading something unrelated and encountered the “Birthday Paradox” – which states that in a room of only 23 people, there is a 50% likelihood that two of those people will share the same birthday. In a room of 70 people, that likelihood is over 99.9%. Isn’t that incredible? I know nothing of math, so had to stare at the explanation for this statistic for a while to understand (vaguely) that it’s true, and why it’s true. And although it didn’t relate directly to my work, this line of thought about probability and the “overlap” of people helped me push through my misgivings about writing coincidence.
October 25, 2016
A kid answered the door. He wasn’t wearing pants. He had on a white Buffalo Bills T-shirt over light blue boxers, and a pair of men’s suede slippers that hung two inches beyond his heel. He was skinny and sandy-haired and pimply. His eyes were small and the whites were cloudy and yellowish but the blue iris was very bright. The warmth of the house met Tracy’s face and softened it.
“Hola,” Tracy said. She was shivering from her waist and her lips wouldn’t meet.
The kid stared at her.
She took her hand from her pocket and jerked her thumb backward over her shoulder in the direction of her truck. “I’m in a ditch,” she said.
The kid wasn’t tall enough to see over her shoulder, so she stepped to the side so he could gaze out around her.
“I don’t have my phone on me,” she explained.
Over the weekend of June 25, 2016 at the Bronx zoo, two separate individuals were arrested for trespassing after they crossed posted boundaries and entered two exhibits separately—the snow leopard and red panda. One of them, a reporter for the New York Post, was just trying to get some good pictures for a story. On May 28, not even a month earlier, a four-year-old boy slipped away from his mother and fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati zoo, and the tragic ending to this story suddenly made everyone in America an expert on parenting, gorilla behavior, and zoo design.
While troubling and often shocking, these stories are hardly new. Instead, they partake in a long history of sublime and violent encounters between humans and zoo animals, a history that resists easy explanations and online punditry, a history that repeats itself.
October 23, 2016
Terry Wolverton: Douglas, I first spoke with you about the dis•articulations project at the opening for “Oasis,” an art exhibition at Descanso Gardens in which poets and artists made work that responded to the landscape. I described to you how each month I was asking a different Los Angeles poet to collaborate with me on a series of exchanges that would result in new poems by both of us. The process was this: We would each find four poetry prompts in the media (print, broadcast or social), something we did not generate. We would exchange those prompts and use them to do four different segments of “fevered writing” (timed writing, without specific intention, a word spill for 3 minutes.) Then we would exchange the fevered writing, and write new poems using the words given to us by the other. So your poem would be comprised of words I had given you; my poem would be comprised of words you had given me. We didn’t have to use every word we were given, but we couldn’t add any words.
I remember feeling shy about asking whether you might consider participating, and was over-the-moon thrilled when you said you would. What made you decide to say yes?
Douglas Kearney: We’ve known each other for a minute, Terry, and I remember fondly our discussion about your adaptation of Embers for opera. I think it gave us an insight into each other’s ways of approaching language. At the time of your invitation, if I recall correctly, I had been kind of off-the-grid, locally. Holed up. It was a good way to get back out with someone I respect but hadn’t worked with in a creative capacity for some time.
I mentioned at a Dis•Articulations reading that I connected the approach to sample chopping—like say, Bob James’ “Nautilus” as sampled by 9th Wonder on “Murray’s Revenge.” Were you drawing the project frame from any particular aesthetic traditions?
we’ve places in our properties for them,
lots for growing them into lots more for us.
in the places, there, we can watch them,
our faces like hands having want. we, beaten
by a cooler outside, said they got a coat kind-of-
a-skin sewn up on their body until—beaten
by the cooler outside—we slip them out it
to wear it on us and so we
are we, for we wear their skin for us.
I came in with janky mojo,
head peppered with hard thoughts,
face painted with Kaiju’s blood,
skeleton in a spooky suit.
Who was that vampire in a red cape,
its song tracing through my pulse,
heckling my impatient choices,
talking shit about God?
When did I become a cold machine
that breathes frost and coughs dust?
My bone cage jumps
in the attic of my disappointment.
October 19, 2016
I imagine that many things will be said about D. Foy’s highly anticipated novel, Patricide, over the next few months. There will be much hushed and head-shaking praise levied, not only at the arresting way in which it’s told but also about the subject matter—surviving an unsurvivable childhood.
And yet while this is very much the story of one man’s colossal, cyclonic attempt to remake himself from the shards of an annihilating boyhood, I think that it is much more than that. It seems to me that the true subject of this narrative, is the collision of dreams. The lengths to which parents and children break and remake each other and themselves on this contested terrain, this no man’s land of lovesick, homesick, heartsick dreams.
Okay, I know you’ve been really nervous about this self-interview, but why don’t you just drink a cocktail, grow a pair, and I’ll ask you some questions.
(The author makes a vodka gimlet.)
So, who are you, Micah Perks?
That’s exactly why I didn’t want to do this. I knew you were going to be like that.
Previously in our story, our parents had failed five months in a row to make a baby, and Father had grown frustrated. He couldn’t figure out what our mother was doing wrong. For his Christmas/Chanukah present she gave him a skiing vacation in Steam Boat Springs, Colorado. She secretly thought it would give her a break from him, but he insisted she join him, so he could continue his spermatazoon campaign.
On their second day out, Mother was buried in an avalanche. She waited for our father to rescue her, and when he failed to do so, she thought she would just give way for the last time. But then she remembered there might be life inside her. She bucked and shook her head and arched and reared up into blue, blue sky, gasping and crying, covered in powder.
And not alone. Because that is the moment we came to consciousness in an explosion of bright, bright blue. Not one, but two mouths opening in perfect synchronicity. Twins startled into being, we immediately knew every thought our mother ever had, her past, her present, everything that is, except our future.