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1. “John Billy,” which begins, “Was me supposed to tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nunn Junior done wronged the man that wronged him and fleen to parts unguessed,” and is the fifth of 10 stories that appear in Girl with Curious Hair, strikes me as starkly different from most of Wallace’s work. This is, for example, one of the very few of his short stories that feature or is focused on lower class characters. There is also the tailor in the story “Say Never,” in Girl with Curious Hair, and the last piece in Oblivion involves some poor Midwesterners, though it’s not about them, and there are some stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men where, it seems to me, it’s ambiguous. But, for the most part, Wallace’s world is made up of well-educated, gainfully employed, could-go-to-therapy-if-they-wanted, upper middle class whites. There is no one in his short stories who mows the lawn, or stocks shelves at Wal-Mart, or drives a truck for a living. There is no one who would appear in a Raymond Carver story or in the worlds Cormac McCarthy writes about, but “John Billy” is an exception to that, and this story actually could have been told (differently, obviously) by either of them. From the moment it opens, “John Billy” is dramatically different.

2. In his later work, Wallace is primarily interested in ethics — human relationships, solipsism, sadness, etc. — and some of that comes through in Girl with Curious Hair, but in this story he seems primarily interested in language. “John Billy” most clearly owes a debt to McCarthy, who Wallace praised a number of times and in a number of places, my favorite being the three word recommendation/review of Blood Meridian that reads, in entirety, “Don’t even ask.” In an interview somewhere Wallace said he didn’t know how McCarthy “gets away with it,” and that’s the part of McCarthy’s project that Wallace focuses on here: how to make the anachronistical and anarchic, mythical, biblical, dirt poor, ungrammatical, spoken language work.

Some of it works and works amazingly well, like:

And was me told the table how except for the eyes, the jaw, and the pelvis, which to our community relief all healed up, prime face, in just weeks, leaving good luck bad luck Chuck Junior a sharper shot, wickeder dancer, nearer to handsome than before, how except for that, the major impact and damage from the accident had turned out to be to Nunn’s head, mind and sensibility. How right there in the post-accidental car he suddenly got conscious but evil …

and:

Now the buzzards outside the Outside Minogue Oklahoma Bar was down, sitting row on straight and orderly row on the edge-of-Minogue land stretching off toward dirt. Appeared to us through the window like fat bad clerics, soft and plump, teetery, red-eyed, wrapped up tight in soft black coats of ecumenism and observation. Had orange beaks and claws.
Was a good thousand orange beaks out there. Double on the claws. Lined up.

But other attempts seem to me to still be too far away and condescending, informed more by Deliverance than by any actual contact with poor whites. More bad joke than interesting use of language. An example is the title character’s use of the phrase “interjaculated,” for “interjected,” which is funny, but in a snobby, snickering way. It has the same attitude as The Jerry Springer Show.

And Wallace is really better than that.

3. There also, curiously, some sentences with cadences that could fit into a Bob Dylan song. The names all seem like something from Dylan — T. Rex Minogue, Glory Joy duBoise, Simple Ranger — and there are passages that could be narrated in his nasal, for example:

T. Rex Minogue was asking us to drink to his death.

or:

We passed the jars around and unscrewed Minogue’s bootleg lids.
We was silent at our table, expected T. Rex dead, or at least twisted, traumatized, Nunn-struck.
“Hi,” he said.

4. Which — 2) & 3) — is not say this piece is in any way derivative or merely imitative. What is exciting here for me is precisely the way Wallace is experimenting and pushing himself and trying to use language with which he is unfamiliar. There are some parts of this, too, that are very traditional. For example, “John Billy” is told as a story being told, a style that goes back to Chaucer, was used by Conrad, and wasn’t, in 1989, experimental. But Wallace finds ways within this form to experiment and does a number of things that seem to me to be original. For one, it’s narrated as a story told to us about a story told about a story, which makes the traditional style more complicated, and, for two, Wallace starts introducing prosodic elements like line breaks into the prose narrative, which I’ve never seen anywhere else in fiction.

For example:

How right there in the post-accidental car he suddenly got conscious but evil,

“evil,” I emphasized, and there was shudders from civilians and Glory Joy,

and how a evil Chuck Nunn Junior fought and cussed and struggled against his spinal restraints, invected against everything from Prime Mobile to OU Norman’s head football coach Mr. Barry B. Switzer hisself; how even slickered in blood, and eyes hanging ominous half out of their holes, Nunn’d laid out two paramedics and a deputy and shined up my personal chin when we tried to ease him into an ambulance …

Or, the same thing with stranger punctuation:

She told how Nunn come more or less to, in his little wrap-around car, his torch-lit busted eyes in blood like bearings in deep oil;
“Remember the eyes of Nunn,” I interjaculated, and Simple Ranger give me a watching look
; and as Glory Joy finished up communicating anger and justicelessness she felt, upon seeing T. Rex’s brother V.V. Minogue, listing far to port up against the largely unharmed cab of his IH liquor truck, weepy, shitfaced, scratchless …

5. Stylistically, there’s something constant in Wallace’s work, which can be found in his non-fiction and fiction pieces, which can be found here too, even when Wallace is writing in a voice that isn’t the one that comes to him most naturally. I don’t know exactly what it is called but it is a hyper-accurate, very technical language. The sense, which Wallace conveys with this almost-sometimes-stilted voice, is of someone struggling to express what’s hard to express, what’s delicate, struggling to do justice to the complication — a very careful, cautious, circuitous way of speaking (common in therapy and the best of continental philosophy), which is sometimes criticized as obfuscationism but is, in fact, normally an attempt to be ethical verbally, to be fair to that which is not simple.

To me it seems like it’s the texture of Wallace’s writing, but while this texture is vital to the kinds of questions Wallace asks in Oblivion‘s “Mister Squishy,” or Brief Interview with Hideous Men‘s “The Depressed Person,” it didn’t have to happen here, in “John Billy,” which points to this being something essential about Wallace and the way he writes.

He has this ethico-linguistic texture, here, with his use of,

– coordinating modifiers (“at an ominous and coincidental point in time”)
– compound nouns and modifiers (“a climactic and eternal chase-down-the-field and catch-from-behind” and “the runner-plus-interference problem,” respectively)
– extended and sometimes doubled non-defining relative clauses (“V.V., stepped in post-explosion guilt and self-loathing, plus not a little eau d’sweet potato, was speeding away”)
– very specific, technical or speciality-specific vocabulary (“near-gerunds confrontation,” “vis a vis,” “institutional-caring facility”)
– irregularly-used works, such as brand names as verbs (“to arrive and gawk and Kodak”)
all of which express the kind of carefulness that emerges later, when Wallace returns to fiction, as explicitly ethical, and shows, even this early, the impulse towards writing as a kind of ethics.

This is how I usually go to Kramerbooks. I arrive in Dupont Circle in the pre-dinner hour, emerging from the Q Street exit of the Metro and heading shortly down Connecticut Avenue and through the glass door by the shop window. Immediately you are inundated with wood shelves and stacks of all the books you’ve been reading about in magazines and online in recent weeks. Moreover, the smell of the place – coffee and pastries mostly, but pervasive and richer; it seems to have seeped into the pages – is most inviting. I browse the stacks of new releases, reading first pages and blurbs, getting a sense of what the reviewers have been talking about. The large wall to the left of the entrance comprises the fiction section, while smaller, chest-sized shelves in the foreground display titles in philosophy, religion and spirituality. In the back, facing the entrance, are travel and foreign language titles, as well as politics and history. Neighboring the back wall is the entrance to Afterwords cafe, with one of the best menus in Dupont, and not just for a bookstore.

When you enter the store and gravitate toward the fiction wall, there is an entrance adjacent to it to another room that houses poetry and local titles, as well as a shelf of recent anthologies from The New Yorker, Paris Review, and “Best American” series. Also in this second room is a cozy bar, where you can order a Rogue Dead Guy Ale, which, especially for $6.50, is up there with The Big Hunt’s House Amber as one of the best bets for beer in Dupont. Grab a book from any of the copious shelves and saddle up to a two-person table to peruse and sip before heading to happy hour or dinner.

Typically, I browse for a good quarter of an hour, before friends arrive and we head to another spot for drinks and dinner. During this short interim, I indulge fantasies of ownership, lament the limited capacity of my wallet and shelf space to accommodate all the books I want. But I gird myself and leave with nothing, happy to have looked, touched, but saved myself again. After wine at Circa or beer at The Big Hunt or vodka at The Russia House, grab a meal at any of the incredible restaurants in the Circle and surrounding areas. Maybe head to Gazuza for a nightcap, hookah, and some of the best downbeat jams in the city. Then, when you’ve had your fill of eat and drink, head back to Kramers for the best after-hours atmosphere in town. There is low-key live music every Friday and Saturday night, and the restaurant is open well into the early morning. Wind down the evening with friends over brownie sundaes or any one (or two) of their gourmet pies.

And then the coup de grace. Inhibitions and apprehensions disarmed, I return to the bookstore, at last ready to purchase. A night of full indulgence sufficiently dulls the pain of $27 for a Zizek or new fiction. Bargain books Kramers is not. But the massaging of the senses, physical and intellectual, makes for a great city night.

Visit kramers.com for menu options, music schedule, and hours.

I tell my students that sentimentality is the appropriate emotion at the most predictable time rendered in the most obvious weather, and all of it covered with a thin scum of false compassion. But you can get away with all that, yes, even a tear falling for a dead mother on a cloudy day, if you let it be what it is, in its full poverty, if you don’t wield it like some huge club of sensitive “feeling” with which you knock the reader over the head. True feeling has the force of grace; sentimentality has the stench of morals. The word “should” and “must” cling to its fat cherubic legs. Half comprised of self regard, and the other half a mixture of cliche, the sentimental is close to the feigned regard of the funeral director: appropriate, and grave, but with one eye on the itemized bill. Hitler wept when he watched a pair of boiling lobsters, but showed no particular compassion for those he exterminated.

A mind too utilitarian and selfish, too unable to see its own contradictions, too willing to be its own hero will often have an undeveloped feeling sense. This might go a long way towards explaining why a man might cry at his spoiled brat of a daughter’s wedding (my baby, my little girl) and not even slow down to drop a quarter in the cup of a beggar. He has scenarios for his emotions: beggars are all worthless pieces of shit who cause their own troubles, but daughters getting married are video worthy–extensions of his delusion that all is right with the world, and he is a wonderful daddy. Much of what we call sensitivity is no deeper than Madame Bovary’s fantasies about being a cloistered nun. It’s horseshit.

The difficult, the ambiguous, the nuanced call for an integrity of equivocation: this does not mean we should blunt all emotions or feelings when we write. Just as some people like sappy stories, others consider any direct feeling to be a sin against their aesthetics. Both represent different species of limited. I tell my students compassion and feeling are not in the feelings themselves, but in the artistic selection of details that bring them to life. In a story where a man comes home to find his wife in bed with another man, you might create a far better feeling sense if you have him peek through the half opened door, see his wife’s clothes holding a press conference with the man’s belt and neck tie, and, instead of having the husband break in and attempt to kill the wife and lover, or having him break down in sobs, he quietly goes down stairs, and sets the tea kettle to boil, very carefully removes his eye glasses, wipes them, waits for the kettle to scream for him, a whistle that will no doubt alert the lovers that he has arrived. Good actors know that emotion can be implied through a procedural of small actions, none of which are spectacular in and of themselves, but which, cumulatively, achieve an effect of the genuine.

It is also important to remember that subtle is not always better than overt and obvious.Some writers, especially those trained in writing programs, go overboard being nuanced. I call this Chekhov syndrome. They never met an emotion they liked, and yet, their stories (or poems) can be so understated that they never show up on the page at all. This is just as god awful and boring as being maudlin, and, worse, you may even win awards for it! Others of an equally “nuanced” bent might see themselves and their values reflected in your work and consider you a “subtle” artist even when it is actually a case of you being a cold hearted snob ass. Cold hearted snob asses too often run the arts. Chekhov, unlike his followers, knew how to be openly emotional and direct. I love Chekhov better than almost any other artist, but many of his followers bore me. They almost make me want to watch “The Sound of Music” (Love Richard Rogers, hate that musical.) So what to do?

Einstein said: “Things are as simple as they are, and no simpler.” I think this applies to the feeling sense in poems and stories as well. One of the safest things you can do is teach students to “show don’t tell,” but that can lead to two errors: one, overly describing and indulging in detail for its own sake. Two, the sort of “overly nuanced” feeling sense I mentioned just a paragraph ago. I prefer: “make sure your telling shows, and your showing tells, and that the two are not so easily separated since it is the miracle of art that showing and telling be one living force, just as character and plot be one living force.

This morning, I was very happily sipping coffee, eating a hard boiled egg, and reading Nabokov’s lectures on Russian literature. These lectures are as much an aesthetic pleasure to read as a good novel. At any rate, Nabokov recognized Tolstoy as the greater artist, but Chekhov’s stories were what this great writer and, yes, snob would have taken with him if exiled to another planet. He went on in great detail about the story usually translated as “The Ravine” (Nabakov prefers “The Gully”). Nabokov’s love and admiration for Chekhov were so evident that I found myself moved to tears. I was quite pleased with my noble soul. Then I went outside to smoke a cigarette and stare at the snow swirling in thirty mile an hour gusts. Tree branches were strewn about the yard. My garbage can had made it half way down the drive way and looked as if it might hurl itself at the next available Volvo.

Still full of my artistic sensitivity, I spied a slate grey Junco hopping about near the porch. I said: “hello, Mr. Junco.” I approached it, thinking it would fly off, but the Junco only hopped rather less than frantically, and I noticed its left wing was broken. I chased that Junco half way through my yard, determined to catch it and mend it, and show how compassionate I am. He tried to escape my kindness by making a run for a Lilac bush. This exposed him to a sharp shinned hawk who swooped down and put the pretty pink billed bird out of its misery. I may have covered my eyes. I may have hated the hawk, or myself, but I watched fascinated. The grace and ferocity, and the snow swirling all about gave me a sense that this moment was memorable, that I must witness it without judgment or editorial prejudice. The Junco gave forth only one small cry of distress, and then it was dead in the talons of the hawk, and I thought of the character Lipa in Chekhov’s story, how her child is murdered by a miserable woman who throws a cup of boiling water on him. At the end of this story, long after the murder, Lipa gives a piece of buck wheat cake to the senile and cuckolded husband of the murderer, her former father-in-law. She then dissolves into the story’s end, singing a song into the evening light. I thought how mercy and ferocity might be difficult to parse out, how they might fall upon each other in such odd and frightening and glorious ways. I thought that my recent feelings of self ennoblement for being such a sensitive reader had been foolish and petty, and that the “gift” I was being given was exactly this moment in which nothing in my heart or conscience could be clearly agreed upon. This is the truth of feeling. This is where I must begin.

I received a very important lesson from my father. We were driving around in the part of New Jersey he grew up in–a once rural area called Chester that was now suburban. He was sad because the street he had lived on so many years before was much smaller in reality than in memory and he mistook it for a driveway. We stopped by a field of sunflowers. He was staring at the nodding heads of these enormous flowers, and I was throwing pebbles at a stop sign. Two people joined us. One had a camera. Out of the head of the sunflower, exploding from the head, came a bird that had the same color scheme as the sun flower: bright yellow, with black markings. It made an undulating flight over the road into a thicket of trees. “Sun sparrow.” My dad said. “You mean Eastern gold finch” the lady with the camera interjected. “No lady, I mean sun sparrow. That’s what we called them.” My dad then provided the scientific name for the bird, and said: “Come on kid let’s get out of here. The smell of experts makes me sick.”

I had three names now for a bird I didn’t know. I don’t remember the scientific name, but I remembered sun sparrow, and Eastern Gold finch. I found out it was the state bird of New Jersey. You would think the state bird would be all over the place, but we lived in the urban area of Jersey–what some have called the armpit of the universe: Elizabeth. In Elizabeth, starlings and Eurasian tree sparrows comprise the niche Eastern Gold finches or sun sparrows might otherwise fill.

It was ten years before I saw another–the day after my father died. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be away from my family, so I took a walk along deserted railroad tracks, where there were thickets and weeds. I looked up from my shoes, and there was my dad’s “Sun sparrow” perched on a slender stalk of Queen Anne’s lace. It made me cry. I got down on me knees, and held my stomach. It was as if I had been shot–the arrow of love, of memory, of how this accident could shake me to my core. I said “sun sparrow” out loud, and the bird undulated away from me into a dense tangle of brush. I thought about the smell of experts making him sick. As a teenager I had often thought my father an idiot. I now understood how much of an idiot I was.

Names have power, especially when they are linked to memory and emotion, when they act as a part for some vital whole. They stand in for existence. All names are misnomers. Exactitude is the myth we concoct all too often to exclude, to prove we are experts, to prove we own something that can never truly be owned. Used well, names allow us to enter, to understand, to raise our sense of wonder and awe ever higher. Used badly, they become the stink of experts, the rank odor of snobbery and exclusion.

I tell my students that education can do the work of evil: it can make a bunch of aleatory systems with PHDs think they have a right to be superior to the Rocky Weils of this world. They can make a son misunderstand the wisdom of his own father. They stink of torture and snobbery, they are rank with the odor of exclusion and bias, and we call this “truth” or “Dogma” or “terminology.” If we are not careful, the knowing of names can be substituted for wisdom. They become a false wisdom. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me….” sure. Names kill. Names distance us from the stupidity of our actions. When we can call people collateral damage, we no longer have to confront them as a child with a soccer ball, who like your child, wanted to play, who, unlike your child, stepped on a mine and was blown into a thousand pieces.

As a teacher, I worry about power more than anything else. If I arm a student with names and terms, and so called knowledge, and forget that wisdom is not a slave to any of these tricks, I may be doing great harm. I may be perpetuating the very snobbery that allows professors at cocktail parties to call my father, who I loved, “White trash.” I may be allowing the student to think he or she is better than someone else when the truth is, at ground zero, we are all the bitter comedy of aleatory systems: we eat, we shit, we die. Some of us, because of our names, our use of names, our semiotics can eat and shit and die in the better places. My dad had a saying that summed up our human lust for status very nicely: “If life were nothing but a bowl of shit, there would be a whole group of people feeling superior because they lived in the corn section, and a whole other group doing whatever they could to get to the corn section, and then there’d be a group of people feeling lousy because they lived near the peppers.” It’s disgusting, but true.

The beginning of wisdom is the knowledge of ground zero: What is the ground of my being? If I think it is all aleatory, then it is hard for me to feel better or worse than others. If I think it is God and that I am saved, then I can circumvent the equality of the aleatory, and make distinctions. If I don’t believe in God, this does not save me from distinction because I will believe in things: having certain things, a certain reputation, a certain status will become my God. I will serve it–often bitterly. I will obey my lust to mean, even when, at my core, I feel meaningless. If I feel meaningless, I will find a group who feels the same way, and look with scorn at those who believe they are meaningful.

Equality does not flourish except in theory. In the day to day and the minute to minute, we are reading signs, and being read by signs and making distinctions between signs, unaware that, we, ourselves, are a sign. We are signs reading signs, and almost all of it is inexact–a measure, not a truth. Read a sign wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Be read wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Call an Eastern Gold finch a sun sparrow, and you are likely to get corrected by some lady with a camera. The lady was correct, but she showed little wisdom correcting a father who was sharing a moment and memory with his son. Some forms of incorrectness have greater depth than the correct. Science can use the exact, but poetry, especially great poetry can make of imperfections the kingdom and mercy of heaven. It can also get people killed. To die for an idea, or because you are an idea, or because you get caught in a certain cluster of ideas is the meaning of both war and of a university education. Ideas and names kill. We should never forget this. They also help us to live. We should not forget this, either.

So with this in mind, arm yourself with literary terms. Used well, used in order to enter or understand a text, these terms may provide you with some deeper sense of joy or wonder, or knowledge. Used badly, they might allow you to look smart and superior at some boring party. It’s up to you.

I hate when poets are called brave. Gets on my nerves. Fearless is another term I find dubious. Poets win grants. They are professionals. Most poetry festivals are lamer and more sedate than Star Trek conventions. If I pick up a poetry book and see the words “brave” or “fearless” in any of the blurbs, I think twice about buying it. No one is brave or fearless if they live in the suburbs, have tenure, or inhabit parts of Manhattan that have been made safe by the police force. This is not brave. Being fearless in a poem is along the same lines as being an aggressive grandmother expressing road rage in an old Buick sedan. Spare me. Being “brave” in a poem is like those snide one liners people zing you with from the safety of a Facebook comment.

But, sometimes, poets write poems that aren’t being considered for an award. Sometimes they are writing out of some necessity beyond the latest AWP bullshit. (anyone for the “long poem” or the “poem of place?”) Sometimes poets are good in ways no one gave them permission to be. No one kissed their bums at the work shop, or published them in some glossy university magazine that is full of “brave” poets. They just wrote something that was fully cooked (Hate the term raw) and happened to contain your children. They served it up to you, and you ate it, and asked for second helpings, and, only realized later when you went back to your part of the world where police make it unnecessary for you to be brave, that you ate your own future. They make you complicit in a crime. They made you destroy the evidence. They feed you something you hadn’t counted on, and it goes beyond your usual dietary restrictions. These poets are sneaky, and lethal, and kill you with stealth, and have the skill for abomination. Abomination—true abomination—takes great skill. All true burns are controlled burns. All the knives are sharpened to such perfection that the victims can voice no cry. Such poets don’t need to be brave or fearless because they scare the shit out of you. After reading them, you know your pantoum sequence is a lie, and your ears are made of tin, and it does not matter if you won six grants, and had a blurb from Jesus: you know you’re a liar, and a hack, and you better step up your game. The poet I picked for this week is like that: a skilled assassin, a pro in the way pros ought to be, taking what she thought was useful from American poetry, and leaving the rest with its throat slashed on the floor.

I first read Ai when I was a teenager and didn’t know any better. She didn’t whine, even when she was dumped, or ignored, or had to suffer fools gladly. She got them back. Her poems had sex in them, but not as a recreational activity. They were driven by some inner magic I couldn’t forget, and which stayed with me for days, and it made me rip up two notebooks of poetry. She was intense in a way that made the comedians and the clever keep their mouths shut. They’d never say to her: Ai, where’s your sense of humor? Compared to her, Christopher Walken was a fucking nun playing Lady of Spain on a mandolin. She tossed all the buildings out of the way, sent cars flying, and made me stand alone to face her, and, being street smart, I got the hell out of there.

I would have never wanted to meet Ai. Her poems have a fierce precision that precludes any literary lunches. Ai’s work reminds me that poets don’t need to be brave, or fearless. They need to be good, and, if possible, ferocious. I know she’s dead, but if I was near her grave, I’d walk carefully and I’d take off my hat. You can never be too careful. A friend of mine went to Monk’s memorial service and had the bad taste to ask Miles Davis for an autograph. “Man,” Miles said, “we’re at a funeral.” My friend said: “I’m sorry, Miles.” Miles Davis said: “Don’t be sorry; be careful.” This seems like an Ai poem. She was not brave and fearless. Great birds of prey don’t have to be brave and fearless. They just know what they’re doing, and they eat you.

Salomé

by Ai

I scissor the stem of the red carnation
and set it in a bowl of water.
It floats the way your head would,
if I cut it off.
But what if I tore you apart
for those afternoons
when I was fifteen
and so like a bird of paradise
slaughtered for its feathers.
Even my name suggested wings,
wicker cages, flight.
Come, sit on my lap, you said.
I felt as if I had flown there;
I was weightless.
You were forty and married.
That she was my mother never mattered.
She was a door that opened onto me.
The three of us blended into a kind of somnolence
and musk, the musk of Sundays. Sweat and sweetness.
That dried plum and licorice taste
always back of my tongue
and your tongue against my teeth,
then touching mine. How many times?—
I counted, but could never remember.
And when I thought we’d go on forever,
that nothing could stop us
as we fell endlessly from consciousness,
orders came: War in the north.
Your sword, the gold epaulets,
the uniform so brightly colored,
so unlike war, I thought.
And your horse; how you rode out the gate.
No, how that horse danced beneath you
toward the sound of cannon fire.
I could hear it, so many leagues away.
I could see you fall, your face scarlet,
the horse dancing on without you.
And at the same moment,
Mother sighed and turned clumsily in the hammock,
the Madeira in the thin-stemmed glass
spilled into the grass,
and I felt myself hardening to a brandy-colored wood,
my skin, a thousand strings drawn so taut
that when I walked to the house
I could hear music
tumbling like a waterfall of China silk
behind me.
I took your letter from my bodice.
Salome, I heard your voice,
little bird, fly. But I did not.
I untied the lilac ribbon at my breasts
and lay down on your bed.
After a while, I heard Mother’s footsteps,
watched her walk to the window.
I closed my eyes
and when I opened them
the shadow of a sword passed through my throat
and Mother, dressed like a grenadier,
bent and kissed me on the lips.

I still have my 4th grade book bag. Alone, at five in the morning, I picked the rusted lock with a paper clip, and discovered the 10-year-old Joe Weil’s first literary efforts, all crumpled up, in my terrible hand writing, but the meters of the poems were perfect. I remembered using that bag as a make shift sleigh, sliding across the parking lot at the acme super market. The entire route to school, and the voices of my friends turned to smoke in the winter’s air, returned to me. The weirdest things survive. I lost my parents and some of those friends also died: Eric, who introduced me to vampire comics and Henry Miller novels, his brother Greg who netted the biggest trout I ever caught, Huey who threw a good fast ball, and liked jamming with me on the piano. I found a poem in which I’d written about a guy who shoots into the wrong basket and scores two points for the opposing team. Back then, basketball was a minor god in my life. I wasn’t good, but I played it like football–I played street ball, tripped, shoved, bulled my way through. In 1968, there were basketball courts in the convent parking lot. If you were good, you played on the courts where the hoops had nets. If you were really good, the nuns left the lights on, and, except for bingo nights, you played full court on the netted baskets under the lights. I would play after school, in my uniform, before the bigger kids showed up and chased us off. A little later, after my mom ragged on me for tearing holes in all my uniforms, I’d run home, change, and come back to hang and play with friends. When the Magic fountain re-opened in Spring, you’d get a frosted drink if you had the money. If not, you’d go to the acme and carry some shopping bags for old ladies to make the change.

I’d play until nearly six, then race Eric on our bikes to get home in time for supper. The angelus bells would be ringing from all the churches. Old men kept homing pigeons, and they’d fly over the steeples of St. Mary’s, and St. Vladmir’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in perfect formation.

Sometimes, we’d cut across the tracks, and pop wheelies in front of oncoming trains. Sometimes, we’d go and steal a couple orange crates or wood from the back of acme to use for forts.

I thought about Eric, how his father would take us to the pro wrestling matches at the old armory, and how the Amazing Mulah, the woman’s world champ, threw a leg kick at us once when we crowded her outside her dressing room. I thought about how he died of a heroin overdose, and the friends he was with rolled him for his cash, and dumped his body off at the emergency room entrance. I thought about my mother’s face being eaten away with cancer, how she taught me to cook for the family before she died. I thought of standing in that kitchen, 18, her bald head hooded, her dimming voice instructing me to put the chicken in the bag with the bread crumbs and shake. I shook the bag so hard that it broke, and the chicken, bread crumbs, and seasoning all spilled to the floor. She laughed, and felt my bicep and said: “I can’t believe how strong you are Joseph.” It was the last time I heard my mother laugh.

Memory is painful because so much I loved was lost or damaged beyond repair, yet to only move forward like some idiot juggernaut is worse; it might spare me  pain, but at the cost of a sky full of pigeons, and my mother’s laughter. I write to raise the dead, and when I stop writing, they go back to their graves, but this book bag that I kept for no good reason all these years is like the mouth of hades. I can descend into its dark, pull out its scribbled text, and, for a few moments, recover the 10 year old with delusions of literary grandeur. No one had died yet, except for a couple of gold fish. My terrible “epic” called “Big Time Game” contains the lines:

Oh world tossed forth through endless space
I pray no rim, two points, pure lace. 

It was a good prayer, even if it wasn’t answered. My wife is still asleep. Eric, and Huey, and my mother and father are asleep. It is snowing as usual here in Binghamton–and maybe it is snowing in St. Gertrude’s cemetery back in Jersey where my parents, and my uncles, and aunts, and the whole of my childhood is buried. Now I understand why Gabriel forgave his wife in that story, and everyone else, and why the snow fell on both the living and the dead. Now I feel what it is to be born into loss. Now I know what it is to have my love and my futility raise me above the glory of angels.

Tom Waits’ work started with a moon.

His very first song on his very first album is “Grapefruit Moon.” In the song, the title image, along with “one star,” is “shining, shining down on me.” It’s a lovesick ballad played slow on the piano. A pining song that’s that close to cliché. It teeters on the edge, almost sappy, almost silly, a song built around that lunar fruit that almost drips with saccharine.

It’s the first moon in a career of moons, and like a first crush, it’s clumsy and, in retrospect, maybe a little bit embarrassing. He wasn’t done, though. Waits has a thing for moons, and has been working on lyrical variations of this one metaphor for gong on 40 years.

Waits tops most lists of great living songwriters today. On March 14, he’s being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When critics talk about him, they talk about his voice and his use of odd instruments, his wide range and experimentation, his cult following and how he’s a musicians’ musician. They talk about his junkyard, Salvation Army aesthetic and his originality and theatrically and how his wife is the not-so-secret force behind his artistic originality.

And they talk about his 38-year career of lyrical genius.

In his long career, Waits has returned regularly to this image of the moon. It is, in many ways, central in Waits’ work. There are other common images and tropes across his corpus — Waits likes rain, and names of towns, people’s names and food to eat — but to me it’s the moons that stand out. Everything there is to say about Tom Waits’ work can be said about his metaphors for the moon.

There are 93 moons in Waits’ songs, according to the Tom Waits Library. 93 moons — it’s a lot of commitment to one image. A lot of work on one turn of phrase. Surveying them reveals a lot about his work, and also shows how one man has grown, artistically, writting this one metaphor and hanging in the skies of his songs again and again, but doing it better, as he gets older, and making it more interesting as he improves as an artist.

In his first album, 1973s’ “Closing Time,” the moon is pretty much the hackneyed, romantic rock in the sky it has been for bad poets for forever. Except that Waits really wants to describe the moon with a fruit metaphor. It’s almost like he went shopping with the moon on his mind. There’s the grapefruit moon and a bananna moon, both of which are shining in the sky. Then there’s the third moon, towards the end of the album, which the narrator sees the morning after a long night of pining for a lost love. It hangs there, in “Rosie,” “all up, full and big” along with “Apricot tips in an indigo sky.”

It’s not a bad line, but it does feel more than a little bit belabored.

Waits was in his James Taylor phase. Overly romantic, a sap singing ballads and mooning over girls named Martha or Melanie Jane. He croons lines such as:

And it’s you, and it’s you
And it’s you
And it’s you
And it’s you
Shoo-be-doo, ba-ba-da

.
And:

Lonely, lonely, lonely,
Lonely eyes, lonely face
Lonely, lonely in your place.

His moons, at first, are really not that sophisticated, not that complicated, not that lyrically interesting. Moons equal mooning, is about the whole of it.

Waits was interested, in those early years, in the work and the lifestyle of Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski — down and out and bumming among the tramps, romanticizing winos, saying the city was jazz and the night, music. As is common with over-earnest young men trying to imitate the Beats, though, sometimes he sounded a little too much like John Denver. The Beat idea in these early works is both the limitation, and the inspiration Waits needed to imitate to push himself, artistically.

As he went on, in the next couple of albums, he tried to get away from that balladeer style, and went more into a full-out jazz-bum routine. When Rolling Stone wrote about Waits for the first time in ’75, they described him as he did his Kerouac act: “Looking like an emaciated Skid Row refugee in a rumpled black suit and undone greasy tie, he would do a wino shuffle to the microphone and open each set with the jazzy talker.” He created a musical world, Rolling Stone noted, of “muscatel moons and naugahyde bars, cruising Oldsmobiles and used car salesmen with Purina checkerboard slacks.”

His lyrics could be interesting, in this period. Could be creative. But there was also a lot of it that was too much an act. Too much trying too hard. And that shows in his moons. They’re all just not-quite clichés. Overstrained. Overwrought. Worked at too hard. They’re too close to the expected, and sound a bit like parodies of what a Beat on the street in night of Jazz might say.

“I thought I heard a saxophone / I’m drunk on the moon,” he sang in his second album, “The Heart of Saturday Night.”

The next year, in his next album, he comes to that image again in his song, “Better Off Without a Wife.” It’s an ode to “bachelorhoodism,” Waits said. He preformed the piece in ’75 with cigarette lit and a cloth cap cocked to the side, a growl in a voice that wasn’t there a few years before. He sang:

I like to sleep until the crack of noon
Midnight howlin’ at the moon
Goin’ out when I want to,
And comin’ home when I please.

His moon metaphors, in the early years, are just about atmosphere. There’s not a lot of craft to them, but Waits isn’t done yet, and the idea of this turn of phrase is lodged in his aesthetic craw, and he keeps working at it. Even before he grows out of this phase of romanticized drunks and Beat imitations, Waits starts to show some of the lyrical creativity he’s known for now.

Still working with the edible metaphors for moon, he gets past the fruit connection and creates something interesting in “Nighthawk Postcards,” a jazzy, spoken-word piece. He offers up “a yellow biscuit of a buttery cue ball moon / Rollin’ maverick across an obsidian sky.” It’s overworked, this metaphor, but it’s also more interesting.

He goes on in the song (an “inebriated stroll”) to expand the metaphor in a deliciously weird ways. He sings: “I know I’m gonna change that tune / When I’m standing underneath a buttery moon / that’s all melted off to one side.”

He’s not done, either. In that one, extended riff, Waits works in two more moons. One is “a moon holdin’ water,” and the other is, “a Dracula moon in a black disguise.” In some preformances, too, Waits switched out his one edible metaphor for another lunar allusion, saying he’s “underneath kind of a stray dog moon in a tenderloin sky.”

He kept on that Beat imitation shtick for a while after that, perfecting it, but never breaking new ground. He was afraid, he later said, to push himself to do something more. Afraid to experiment and grow and change. It had worked in the past, so why not do it some more?

There’s a “bloodshot moon” and “now the moon’s risin’, ain’t no time to lose / Time to get down to drinkin’, tell the band to play the blues.” And that’s about as good as it gets, with those early Waits moons.

Waits is artistically aware enough, though, to know he can’t really just repeat his maudlin songs. He can’t recycle sappy moons that stand in for the emotional state of the narrator-bum. He doesn’t seem to know where else to go, with his moons, but he knows he can’t keep them coming like they have been. So he starts messing with them.

In “Small Change,” in ’76, which is really the pinnacle of this period of Waits’ career, where his work feels like it’s more than an imitation and he’s made the style his own, there are two more moons. Both of these though, show some awareness of what his moons have been doing in his songs. There’s a consciousness that he’s going to need to develop, and to do something more.

In “Tom Truabert’s Blues,” one of his best-known songs, Waits starts out by noting, “it ain’t what the moon did,” dismissing it’s influence, it’s romantic power.

That, he later told a journalist, was the first song he wrote where he felt he was “completely confident in the craft” of songwriting.

The other moon on the album is Waits first attempt to take this image that he keeps coming back to, and turn it upside down. Certainly a lot of artists, a lot of poets, have found themselves repeating lines and reusing images, and, wanting to grow, they make themselves a rule, like “no more moons.”

Waits does something different.

He doesn’t abandon the image, but starts to try to use it in another way. To not just use it and reuse it but, instead, subvert it. He keeps the image, but refutes and refuses the sap, the romantic cliche, committing himself to try something else.

“No, the moon ain’t romantic,” he sings, “it’s intimidating as hell.”

 

Waits frustration with the moon metaphors is maybe starting to show, at this point. There’s a frustration and an unhappiness with these hackneyed moons. Simple sappiness that’s “so maudlin it seems.” In ’77, Waits has a song where a woman drops her drawers and gives “the finger to the moon,” an act of aggression that doesn’t seem far from the artist’s own feelings of frustration at the limitations of his artistic power.

Waits is moonless, after that. The lunar metaphors wane out of his work.

For two albums, three, then four, there’s no moon. For three years, four, then five, the man doesn’t sing a single shining moon in the sky. He just avoids the metaphor altogether.

Then he meets his wife, Kathleen Brennan. They fell in love. She said yes. She had wanted to be a nun but he “saved her from the Lord.” She saved him from himself. And from his artistic stagnation.

She got him sober and got him to listen to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Captain Beefheart, Bertol Brecht and Georg Büchner. It was a revolution for his music. Radicalizing to his art. By ’83, Waits was experimenting, and pushing himself. He had the confidence to bust up his routines and his easy tropes. He had a newfound willingness to make music that was really original, take the risk to do something interesting, which is also the risk of failing horribly.

Waits said of his wife, she “pulverises me so that I don’t just write the same song over and over again.” He said, “A good woman will push you beyond your normal restricted safe area. My wife kind of pushed me out into traffic in a stroller … She’s much more adventurous than I am. She’s always trying to disrupt the whole thing and take it apart and put it back together with its tail in the wrong place.”

This is evident in what happens to Tom Waits’ moons: they’re not just subverted, after he marries Brennan, they’re perverted. They’re twisted, reshaped, made weird, reworked and hung hodge-podge in the sky.

In the first album after his marriage, “Swordfishtrombones,” Waits opens with a moon that isn’t even a moon, but just an empty spot in a scary sky.

“I plugged sixteen shells from a thirty-ought six,” Waits sings, the music a rattle and chug and scream, now, his voice now a distinctive gargling bark. “And a black crow snuck through a hole in the sky.”

 

By his next album, “Rain Dogs,” Waits was able to come back around to his moon metaphors with a deftness and originality only hinted at in his early work. He returns, in ’85 album, to his edible metaphors, but now he does it backwards. Instead of there being a bit of good-looking fruit hanging ripe in the sky, now it’s the moon that does the eating. In “9th and Hennepin,” “the moon’s teeth marks are on the sky.” It’s a startling image and a very different world.

Now, in the sky of Waits’ songs, even normal-appearing moons that might, in the past, have been purely romantic, are quickly shown to be different and downright abnormal.

“Outside another yellow moon,” starts one song on that album, with a line that seems like it connects directly back to the grapefruit allusion of 12 years before. Another one. A yellow one. Kind of like a bit of fruit. Except that now, newly experimental, he takes it apart, and does the moon differently.

“Another yellow moon,” Waits sings. “Has punched a hole in the nighttime.”

In his recent works, Waits has built whole weird worlds in his song. His imagination is gothic and grotesque, cousin to Flannery O’Conner and Cormac McCarthy, nephew to Irving Washington and Charles Brockdon Brown and the original, twisted versions of Brothers Grimm. He stages worlds of weirdness and evil, where

a man with missing fingers
plays a strange guitar
And the German dwarf
dances with the butcher’s son

as he sings in the first song on “Bone Machine” in ’92, giving the critics the character they always talk about when they talk about Tom Waits’ song.

In this world, where men are alienated by the ground on which they stand, he repeatedly comes back to images of abnormal moons, repeating the idea often enough that this image, by itself, seems to express the world Waits wants to express. He taps into the American gothic idea, where it’s not the strange things that frighten us, but the things that seemed normal.

“The moon is a cold chiseled dagger,” in “Black Wings,” in ’92, “And it’s sharp enough to draw blood from a stone.” In “Earth Died Screaming,” the same year,

There was thunder, there was lightning, then the stars went out
And the moon fell from the sky, it rained mackerel, it rained trout
And the great day of wrath has come, and here’s mud in your big red eye
And the poker’s in the fire and the locusts take the sky

In ’93, in the song “November,” there’s “a moon that’s the color of bone.” In ’99, on Mule Variations, “the moon is broken and the sky is cracked.” In ’02, on Blood Money, there’s a “Bloody moon rising with a plague and a flood,” and in ’04, “The moon climbed up an empty sky,” in the song, “How’s it Going to End.”

Instead of overworking the orevewrought romantic moon, Waits plays with phrases that evoke terribleness and apocalypse. He’s working, to be sure, on one idea, but each of these is rendered simply. There’s a deftness and originality that’s really remarkable. These are moons one will remember.

This continues in his most recent album, Orphans. Waits puts freakish moons in freakish skies to preside over the world that it us. The moons have twisted faces — there’s something wrong with them — and he crafts moons which, by themselves, contain the contortedness of these songs.

He sings, for example, in “Jayne’s Blue Wish,” which is set to a lullaby tune:

The sky holds all our wishes
The dish ran away with the spoon
Chimney smoke ties the roofs to the sky
There’s a hole over head
but it’s only the moon.

He returns again, too, to the food allusions, but here, now, after years of working at this metaphor, Waits can turn this phrase without appearing to try at all, slipping the moon into the song, into the sky, and in a way that feels fresh and creative, and evocative without being overworked. In “Bottom of the World,” he sings:

Blackjack Ruby and Nimrod Cain
The moon’s the color of a coffee stain
Jesse Frank and Birdy Joe Hoaks
But who is the king of all these folks?
And I’m lost, and I’m lost
I’m lost at the bottom of the world
I’m handcuffed to the bishop and the barbershop liar
I’m lost at the bottom of the world

That might be my favorite of all his moons, since it’s such a simple way to put it, and seems so effortless, yet captures, too, the lunar shape and slightly sickly color, while, at the same time, rendering a mood. The moon is the color of a coffee stain, but one wouldn’t have seen it that way without Waits’ song.

I really like Waits’ horrible moons. Each one is different, twisted a new way, and interesting. What’s more impressive, though, is that, while Waits has worked with this one type of lunar metaphor from ’83s’ Swordfishtrombones to ’06s’ Orphans, he hasn’t he hasn’t simply been satisfied with it. It could have been the case that Waits just inverted the romantic use of the moon, made it horrible, and then did that to death, and nothing more.

But, with all this experimentation and twisting of the moon, Waits finds a freedom to sometimes just let the moon be the moon. That might actually be harder, artistically. To let well enough alone. To be subtle. To know when enough is enough.

Waits’ later work has plenty of moons that aren’t anything but moons. Starting with Mule Variations, he has these moons that are liberated from metaphors. On “The Low Side of the Road,” “The moon is red and you’re dancin’ real slow.” In Real Gone, which came out in ’04, the narrator “stood by the window until the moon came up.” And it just comes up. That’s all it does. In “The World Keeps Turning,” Waits has a totally literal moon that is “gold and silvery” “in the meadow” as “the world keeps turning,” and he has, in Blood Money, in ’02, a song where the “moon is yellow silver / On the things that summer brings,” implying, maybe, that it’s the moon that’s drunk, where, the first time he had the moon this color, it was the singer who, in a belabored metaphor, was “Drunk on the Moon” of this color.

Were this all that Waits did with his moons, he would well deserve his place atop the list of contemporary lyricists. Waits goes further though. He retakes the romantic moons of his youth, and works them back into the music. In “Night on Earth,” in ’92, Waits sings,

“When I was a boy, the moon was pearl
The sun a yellow gold.
When I was a man, the wind blew cold
The hills were upside down.

He reuses the sappy moons but, now, puts them in the context of the experience of characters in the song. Now, instead of just buying wholeheartedly into the idea of the romantic, the moons are used to show an entire experience, and he does it in a way that re-inscribes his developmental arc, from crooner’s moon to apocalyptic ones, back into the image of the moon. In “Big in Japan,” a song of crazed braggadocio, the singer shouts “I got the moon, I got the cheese / I got the whole damn nation on their knees.” The moon acts as this representation of “it all,” the “it all” that everyone wants, and risks everything for, but can’t ever quite get. In “I’ll Shoot the Moon,” from Black Rider, the phrase is used as a promise of everything. A promise against odds. A promise to fulfill every promise. It’s undercut, though, the other promises in the song:

I’ll shoot the moon right out of the sky
For you baby
I’ll be the flowers after you’re dead
For you baby

In “Green Grass,” on ’04s’ Real Gone, the narrator describes the moon as “on the rise,” but, since it’s sung from the point of view of the dead and buried, he goes on to beg, “Don’t say goodbye to me / Describe the sky to me,” making the moon at once just simple, just the moon, and, at the same time, something romantic, something to reach for and long for and pine over, and, wrapped up in that, and the distance between the one thing and the other, horrible too.

Maybe my favorite example of this last twist of the moon, where Waits works the metaphor both ways, romantic and horrible, is in the song “Dead and Lovely”:

She was a middle class girl
She was in over her head
She thought she would
stand up in the deep end

He had a bullet proof smile
He had money to burn
She thought she had the moon
in her pocket

But now she’s dead
She’s so dead
Forever dead and lovely now

I don’t know of a better way to put that: “she thought she had the moon in her pocket.” It’s heartbreaking, and sweet and sad. It’s also immediately memorable, and recognizable, so familiar and yet so new, too. It is a master touch, a perfect use of a metaphor moon, and shows how Waits has, for almost 40 years now, been working on these phrases. He puts so much into the idea of the moon. He says so much, with the moons he hangs in the skies of his songs.

There are 93 moons in his body of songs. Shining and falling and cracking. Aching and breaking and just there. Out of reach. In pockets. Tantalizing and drawing out obsessions, insanities, and expressions of the emotions that make up frail, frail humanity. Tom Waits has many, many moons.

The last one, the 93rd moon in his 38 years of work so far, is borrowed. It’s not his, originally, but one he found and repurposed and made his own. He takes it from Georg Büchner, the 19th century German writer. It comes on the third part of Waits’ latest album, Orphans, a spoken word piece about a small child, called, “Children’s Story.”

Once upon a time there was a poor child,
with no father and no mother
And everything was dead
And no one was left in the whole world
Everything was dead

And the child went on search, day and night
And since nobody was left on the earth,
he wanted to go up into the heavens
And the moon was looking at him so friendly
And when he finally got to the moon,
the moon was a piece of rotten wood

Isn’t this, though – this horrible little story that’s pretty much the worst bedtime story imaginable – also the story of growing up? The question isn’t what the moon is made of, but, as Waits found, I think, what one does with the material of the moon. Of course it’s rotten wood. Or green cheese. Or sappy and overly romantic metaphors. But can you make art with it? Can you make art with the rotten moon?

We have Waits’ answer.

Special thanks to Dorota Majzer for letting us use her wonderful photography! Find her Flickr here.

Oh, love. Why is it always the hardest topic for writers to talk about, yet one we want to talk about the most? We still write about it, of course, in our many oblique ways—but, like religion or politics, part of us wants to just avoid it altogether. Something with the power to make us feel both so vulnerable and so high inevitably keeps us wary of expressing our emotions. But at the same time, it’s impossible to avoid: You can’t talk about being human for very long without talking about love.

These past few months in India, I’ve found the same is true of awe. No one wants to appear childlike and vulnerable to others, but everyone (everyone who seeks out new experiences, anyway) wants to feel that way—along with love, awe is the one of the emotions people seek most deeply. And for writers, whose job is to express the inexpressible, the hidden, these two aims can feel at odds.

Or maybe they’re not, and we’ve just become too cynical and guarded to bring them together. In Mathilde Walter Clark’s latest novel, Priapus, the hero’s father reveals to his family his feet—perfect specimens in the realm of feet—and exclaims simply, bluntly, “Look! Look what God can do!” This is ironic and funny—but why can’t perfect feet (or even just interesting feet!) expand our spiritual worlds? The beauty of awe is, they can! We usually describe it the other way around, but awe is provoked by us and our state of mind, not by an external source.

One afternoon at Sangam House I went to see the Odissi dancers rehearse. These people could control their every movement—even their facial expressions—with astounding precision and strength, inhabit the roles of classical mythological characters, and, holy shit, do it in time to live music. And the musicians—every tremble in their voices, every motion of their hands on the tabla exact. And later, they’d do it all in costumes and makeup and a cloud of jasmine, in front of an auditorium of people who actually knew whether they were doing it right.

*

To my surprise, in the middle of the rehearsal I suddenly felt compelled to get up and leave, totally overwhelmed and needing to escape. Not the way you get overstimulated after walking through Times Square and should leave before you harm others or yourself—but a strange sense of both being in the place too fully and not being there at all. It was as if while watching the performance and absorbing it I had actually gone inside it and forgotten who I was. For a few moments, the membrane to the soul was completely permeable and unfiltered… or that’s what it felt like, anyway. Which all sounds really beautiful (sun shining, unicorns singing, etc.), but was actually kind of unnerving. We all want to have experiences that make us forget ourselves, but at the same time we shy away, afraid of that forgetting. If we can forget ourselves so easily, what are we really made of?

One reason (and, I think, the reason) we seek out awe (and love) so fervently—and why these emotions make us feel so small and inarticulate and intoxicated—is that they fundamentally alter our sense of self. Discovering what God can do—or what humans can do, or just what is possible in the world—enables us to discover our own potential (and limits). We simultaneously see the world expanding and ourselves growing ever smaller in proportion. Logically you’d think this would create an ego crisis, since we all need the illusion of significance to feel purposeful—but somehow, it ultimately doesn’t. In fact, just the opposite—even though we fear forgetting ourselves, or dislike feeling small, we feel greater in the end for being humbled. The possibilities in the world, however remote or vicarious, are what keep a lot of us going on this little march toward death.

Being at Sangam House wasn’t the same kind of awe as standing in front of the Taj Mahal or inside the Sistine Chapel or seeing a person herd thousands of baby ducks from a canoe. But the foreignness of being in India, and the experience of creating community with a bunch of international writers, provided a sort of mental tabula rasa where awe could grow wild. Not knowing the basic details of life, like how to get hot water out of the shower or the proper way to eat your food, is disorienting. This disorientation makes you feel stupid (childlike?) at first, but in that space between forgetting about oatmeal and feeling comfortable with idli and poha, something transforms in the brain. The slate of the old is briefly wiped clean, yet there’s no way to absorb the new quite yet. Even before the mind processes the idea of Indian breakfast and starts measuring the self against it—before questions like “Do I like this?” and “Can I eat it?” slowly turn into “Who am I?” and “Am I a person who eats Indian breakfast?”—there is a clearing. And for me, that clearing made a path for the new images and ideas—the ones I was too jet-lagged to know I was processing—to flood into poems without my knowledge or will. Suddenly, my work was like a bunch of little kids spouting phrases their parents didn’t know they understood.

What I appreciated most about being awed at Sangam House—besides its effect on my writing—was how small the “source” of that awe could be. That it didn’t require the Taj Mahal for me to say, “Look what God can do!” The environment and disorientation allowed me to fully appreciate the intrigue of other people’s feet (sorry, co-residents)—not just what was interesting about their work, but what was interesting about their lives. One writer had taught herself 10 languages. Another could samba like a madman (a Brazilian, of course). People could play instruments, start political campaigns, act or draw, or even just think me in circles. And it was easy for this awe to continue once I started traveling around India—really, that woman can carry 20 pounds of fruit on her head? That man can make a statue of Ganesh by hand, with only a chisel? The funny part is, I see amazements of this caliber every day in New York—I just don’t register them as such. Here, I did.

In the end, of course, you never really forget oatmeal. The disorientation passes, you grow accustomed to the new surroundings, and all the wonders that seemed so strange or amazing get downgraded to “impressive” or maybe even “day-to-day.” Still, I like to think that the same way love sticks with us over time (in one form or another), some awe-inspired humility and impressions sink deep enough into our consciousness to make themselves a little nest, grow, and emerge again.

*Dancer image courtesy Bala from Seattle, USA, via Wikimedia Commons

James Copeland is a tall man, who rides a tall bike, drinks tall drinks, and writes tall poetry. To My Plants is a tallish, stiff chapbook of words arranged by James, printed on cellulose by James, and containing a DVD of a short film shot by a friend of James, from which the still photographs interspersed throughout the chapbook originate. The cover is two-sided, both unassuming, without any words to indicate title or author. You get clouds and mountainous valleys at first glance, but the sleuthy reader will check under the flap and be delighted, or maybe teased, with a string of automobiles as silent as any natural wonder.

You’re right, I’m stalling, but only because To My Plants already says everything that needs to be said about itself. It’s a book that delights in a cat-like batting about of your preconceptions: Plants, oh, James is a hippie, or: “Science arises from the green and yellow star, / ready for panoramas, radiant with facts”, oh, James thinks he’s smarter than me. Which is where he gets you, feeding us lines we think we get (or don’t) but seconds later instinctively reconsider. It isn’t slippery so much as twisting, squirming, revolting, linguistic revolutions around the star that bore us.

Plants and science greet us throughout this slim book/tall poem. The long lines mirror time’s inconstant rhythms (despite what the atom says) and throws everything into transition.  The “Children, too, are present, looking at their final bowls of cereal / before being called into service.” From plant to paper, child to servant (soldier? cubicle drone? janitor?), things are shifting throughout. Mountains are unsettled, lions act like men, “The sunlight washes over the mustard on the man’s fingers / like the visions of violent wealth that wash over the young girl’s sleep.” There’s our yellow and green star again.

But if everything is moving, where is it going? Even random paths, viewed from far enough out, can’t help but cough up a pattern. To My Plants offers the returning lion, which may be us, unless we are the plants, or the men and women, or maybe the “dollop of carbon”  left on the fingertip. There are animals, and plants, both are carbon-based and can’t help but be. We can’t help ourselves, “We are part of the ocean, the gorge, we lurch into the surrounding smell / to know nothing except volume.”

There is hardly an “I” to be found in this book amidst the swirling patrons of planet Earth, but James slips, shows us that he is human, that “Like anyone else, he enjoys the feeling of corn syrup running down his forearms. / And by enjoy, I mean he swears by it.” We are what we enjoy, even if, at this point, that enjoyment is bringing the whole works down. James is no prophet but his poetry is a telescope turned on this place we call home. Sitting on this messy, throbbing rock, overrun with planets and animals, James gives us the pattern in one fell poem. Would that we may learn something about ourselves by it.

Photography must be the most self-erasing of arts. The most self-effacing: it makes itself invisible. The texture of photography is invisible and it has an authority that’s so great as to seem not to be an authority, but just to be a natural state. It is just there. Of course we take photographs to be more than record, but to be, actually, evidence: they are not just most in line with our idea of actual truth, they are what we mean by the word and idea. The photography itself erases itself for us, and leaves us just the real.

Or so we think.

The photographic nature of photographs, the photographic qualities of photographs, the photographic characteristics and texture of photographs … they all evaporate before us. We can’t see them. They disappear for us and we see only the referred to, only that which is signified. The sign is see-through, the referential transparent.

A question I’ve been toying with, though: can one photograph in such a way as to make that invisible visible? In such a way as to make the photography part of the photograph? To show the texture of the thing, and not erase it, not embrace the “myth of photographic truth,” which is this invisibleness, with the photograph, but to acknowledge the mediation, induce meditation on the mediation — and even appreciate it?

Which is how I ended up taking pictures of windows.

The pizza shop called home

Other arts, as much effort as there is to erase — ars celare artum — the texture is still there. It is observable even, to some extent, by the casual reader. The narrativistic nature of narratives, the painterly qualities of painting, the writerly texture of writing, the rhetorical texture of speech — all are noted, even by some unsophisticated readers, and are praised or bemoaned accordingly.

Even the concept of “reading” a photograph, in contrast, seems strange. The photographers we do know, commonly, the one’s we have heard of and have thought of as artists, are famous, note, either for shooting nature, where their technique is more or less ignored and considered incidental, as they “captured” what “was there,” or for posing the people they shoot, where this, and not the actual taking of the photograph, is considered the art.

Put it another way: amateur poets write poetry to express themselves, while amateur photographers take photographs to document their lives. We still basically always accept the idea of photography as promoted by Kodak so long ago with the slogan, “You push to the button, we do the rest.” That is, we think of photography as a mechanical act of recording the real, rather than as an art, as an act of seeing, and the mechanical, being mechanical and nothing more, becomes transparent to us.

Even criticism of the idea of photographs as truth generally tend to focus on manipulations, which reinforces the idea that photographs are truth, are supposed to be truth, and are truth unless they’ve been manipulated.

My real concern, here, with the invisibility of the photographic quality of photographs, with our allowance of the erasure and self-effacement, is primarily ethical. In that I think ethics is acts of awareness, requires the thoughtful attention that such erasure makes impossible, and that violence of all sorts, from ideology to acts of brutality, proceeds only from structural exemptions of our own innocence, that we are not culpable here, that what is, is natural, and normal, from the kinds of ethical “fourth walls” that assure us we are not involved. In this way, for me, analysis of these structural edifices is an attempt to be ethical.

With other arts, there are experimental artists whose work calls attention to its own texture: Abstract painters like Pollock and Rothko, for example, or even the Impressionists, and modernist literature, like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons or William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury, and the metaficiton of John Barth or the anti-novels of David Markson. Photographs can do this too and there are photographers, for example, Lee Friedlander, who have done this. Friedlander is known for shooting street scenes where his own shadow falls into the frame, making the invisible photographer a presence.

Other self-referential strategies of calling attention to the photographic character of the photograph include:

Self portraits.
-Pictures that include cameras (e.g. self portraits in mirrors).
-Photos of photographers and meta photos. Mechanical failure photos (e.g. out of focus, over exposure, double exposures, etc).

I first started noticing the possibilities, though, of photographs that reveal the concealment, with Andrew Sullivan’s View From Your Window project. In the context of Sullivan’s blog, the photos function to reach out to the readers and give them the sense of being a part of something, and something global. Beyond that rhetorical function, though, I found them interesting. I wasn’t sure why, at first, but I liked, I knew, the limitation of photos taken from windows, the restrictions inherent in them, and started taking some myself.

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielsilliman/4843786012/” title=”Indiana in the morning (welcome back to America) by What is in us, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4106/4843786012_d330d724a5.jpg” width=”500″ height=”312″ alt=”Indiana in the morning (welcome back to America)” /></a>

Pretty quickly, I decided that what I liked about those fist window photos was actually excluded from them. I liked the effect of the pre-existing frame, which was lost in the way I took the picture. I realized, kind of slowly that I was shooting windows in both directions, both in and out, and that I wanted, specifically, to keep the elements of the window: the frame, the glass, and that specific sense of space that implies (sometimes uncomfortably) that one is looking.

There are others, of course, who have done this before. Saul Leiter has a whole series of through-window photos which are completely great and inspiring. I’m very much discovering this as I go along.

These photos I’m taking, I think, can work to establish a kind of imagistic stutter: the window works to repeat some elements of the photographs that are normally concealed, normally invisible, and because of the repetition, the photo can act to call attention to the photographic texture of the photograph. It’s these three elements that are repeated:

1) The frame: Photography is, first of all, an act of selection. Things are included, and things are excluded. The presence of a frame within the frame of the photograph serves to point to that, and it can act to make us aware that this is not a picture of the world, but an act of framing. There is, implied by the window, more there that we cannot see.

2) The glass: There is always a distance intrinsic to a photograph, and there is a lens between the viewer and the viewed. That glass is transparent, but when it’s made visible it acts, kind of dramatically, as a denial of access. It shows the barrier that was always there, and the distance, and that one does not have the thing, the reality. One is blocked in, in a sense, by the glass.

3) The voyeurism: photographs should make us uncomfortable. There’s a kind of viewing going on that’s more than a little invasive, more bold than ordinarily acceptable. There’s an objectification and a flattening that goes on with photographs, and that’s part of the characteristic texture of photographs, and a photograph through a window can remind us of the kind of invasion that’s happening here.

I wouldn’t say that I’m totally sure that what I’ve done actually works. It’s possible that I’m the only one who looks at these photographs and sees photography in them, sees them as making the normally-insivisibe photographic texture visible. It’s an attempt, though, to induce meditation on the nature of this mediation, to isolate the act of looking, to be more thoughtful about photography, and to show and point to that which is normally, in photography, erased by photography.

Introduction

If we want to call Yahia Lababidi’s work since Trial by Ink fiction, we should do it for lack of a more accurate term. Like Trial, the following, titled “Underground Revisited,” exists between genres. We have an invented speaker and audience, and a steady flow of ideas and verbiage. But we don’t have a manageable Aristotelian plot, or any sort of substantial tension between characters (except for the occasional thrown shoe). This is man v. himself. Sounds more like a long poem.  On the surface, “Underground Revisited” is a hardy homage to Dostoevsky, a stylistic parody, in the Hutcheon-esque postmodern (i.e., aesthetically and theoretically productive) sense of the word, that, as a good parody does, reaches beyond mere play with form, that says something about that form via repetition and imitation. Here, Lababidi continues the aim of his major work, namely, that of answering big questions. As he told me, literature hasn’t changed that much. It’s still people trying to deal with living in their own skin and among others in a society. That’s precisely what’s going on here. Notes from Underground is so timeless because it, as Dostoevsky’s novels so masterfully tend to do, poses fundamental questions about human existence. Lababidi is up to much of the same. His speaker, like Dostoevsky’s, is self-loathing, but attention-starved, deep-thinking, but obsessed with action. He feels trapped between personal codes of being, imploring his (in this case, literal) audience for advice and understanding. Both stuck and unstuck, he struggles to put one intellectual foot in front of the other. This uncertainty cuts to the core of what it means to participate in a discourse, but, more importantly, of what it means to try to get along in one’s own life.

Underground Revisited
by Yahia Lababidi

Abominable Ladies and Gentleman, thank me for coming!

Tonight I empathize with every one of you. I’m overcome by a peculiar affection encompassing all and, almost myself. I do not lie.. now! Just how long I shall continue to experience this curious condition, I do not know. There are no constants and there are no certainties. Yes, there are none, certainly. We are merely figures of fun moved by unseen forces, which have no right to make any claims to knowing ourselves. (Nor can we assume any credit for our actions, only blame). It is important, therefore, that we recognize the notion that we should accept ourselves, fully, for what it truly is: a fallacy. We most certainly should do no such thing. To accept oneself, fully, is to assume responsibility for all that wanders in the wasteland of our heads and, that is a most dangerous thing to do. Instead, one should only judge oneself by their actions, and not for their thoughts. Thought is thwarted action, impotent action, unactualized action; active but not action. The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others, the ones we don’t define us to ourselves. Only partially, of course, for one can never fully know themselves, nor should they want to. The over examined life is even less worth living than the unexamined one, trust me. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, true, but a lot is absolutely fatal … particularly self-knowledge.

It is a wonder then that people are able to identify on any level at all with others -family, friends, or lovers- when they are unable to identify with themselves. How they do it, I shall never know. Which is not to say that I should not care to know but, the truth is, I do not care to know. I care much more for extraordinary personalities than I do for ordinary persons; and I shall continue to be consumed by character until the day I live (which must account for my most shameful self-absorption). But, I do hope you don’t believe every word I’ve said, however, even I don’t. Or, perhaps, especially I don’t. But more likely, affectations aside, I don’t entirely. Believe every word I’ve said, that is. You see, I most certainly do not ‘see the world steadily and whole’. Rather, I see it oscillating wildly and fragmented. But, everything is difficult to see when one will not open their eyes. I know that. I’m aware that I am walking around with one eye firmly shut, and the other half open. Don’t be alarmed. I’m all too aware that I only say half-truths, and that I’ve lived even less than what little I’ve seen, all theory and hardly any practice. With me, there can only be so very little life in my life for it to be livable; any more life and I could not continue; any more light and I would go blind. Yes, I’m all too aware of that. I am aware. I have the suffering of awareness, though, and not merely the awareness of suffering (which is only its offspring). But, please, don’t take me too seriously – it’s enough that I do.

I’m sorry if you do not find the programmed amusing so far -I did not intend to depress you, I only meant to impress you- but the truth is that I don’t either. And, why should I make myself amusing to you when I can’t find myself amusing? Why should you be able to enjoy me, when I can’t enjoy myself? Don’t answer me! An answer would rob me of my uncertainty, and that is all I have left. Without it I am left with nothing. Please, don’t answer me. But, believe me, I wasn’t always this way. I wasn’t always a haunted man. You would not have recognized me then, just as I do not recognize myself, now. You know, the metamorphosis of others from friends to strangers is not so tragic, even if it occurs overnight. To become a stranger to oneself, until one no longer knows who they are … that is. Still, one ought not to be suspicious of change, for it might be the only constant. And if history books are littered with instances of hardened sinners becoming selfless saints, then why can’t a clumsy, careless clown exchange his costume for the cloak and crown of a sad, thoughtful philosopher? Just why not? But, it is not proper to discuss such matters with strangers. I can see you’re already uneasy.  There’s no reason why you should not be able to enjoy yourselves, individually and collectively.

You sir, the one with the divided nature, can enjoy yourself twice, or thrice, or however many times you are unable to identify with yourself. I, on the other hand, shall continue exploiting my selves. Why? Because I am an entertainer, first and foremost, and I am not to forget that ever again, if ever I hope to become a human being, secondly. What does he mean by that you might ask, if I permit. You see, I am not altogether human. Humane, yes. Human, no. But, how can you see? If you could, then it would not be a curse and, I am cursed. Cursed to find differences where there are none, and to ignore the differences that exist. I am the abominable one. Really, it’s a shame. No doubt you came counting on being amused, astounded with witticisms perhaps, and, instead you have been abused by being made to witness a savaging, of one abusing himself. Perhaps I should recite you some sublime passage from one of the unassailables, those immortal untouchables, and charm you with the breadth and width of my learning…

I apologize, again. I’ve merely forgotten my place, that is all. Yes, in deed to forget one’s place is most certainly all. It is the single greatest crime one can commit against oneself and one’s fellows. And, I have done so, repeatedly. But, believe me, when I say that I do so against my will. I am the victim of a virus which deforms and defiles and destroys. No, I am not that. I am the virus itself. So, lest it prove catching, I ask you all not to listen too closely. My origin is unknown, my destination unavoidable. In a void, able. I am. In a void, I am able. Inavoidiamable. There, that is something at least. If nothing else, I have given you a new word: “inavoidiamable”. Now, tell me where you have heard such a thing? Nowhere, I am sure, for I have not heard it before. I’m sorry, that is another fault of mine, that I can not imagine. To assume that you have not heard of a word simply because I have not is arrogant. To not imagine, that is the single greatest crime one can commit against oneself and one’s fellows. The fact of the matter is, I have tried to concentrate on the world within to the exclusion of the world without, for some time now. That is why I cannot imagine. But, I have only tried, and failed. All along I was aware of -no, I impatiently awaited- the world without. And even when my vessel began to sink I only waited aboard, bored, not to learn a lesson in survival but so that I might tell a tale later. Not share, but tell a tale, like the sole survivor of a shipwreck. No, like the soul survivor…

Honorable ladies and gentleman, I have a confession to make: I have no soul! None whatsoever. And it is very likely that, due to disuse, I stand to lose my body soon. For, just as Evolution suggests that we lost a tail for which we had no use, I am to lose a body I cannot use. Already, I have witnessed my soul silently slipping away from my body, disgruntled and disgusted, unable to play another (false) part except the one written for it -whose language I could not, or did not want to decipher. Since then, I have forgotten my place as I’ve said. I have borrowed from other souls, much finer, nobler, than the one I do not possess; and, I continue to do so even now. In exchange, I have loaned myself, only to realize I was over-drawn and artificially propped up on bounced reality checks.  That is why I must stand here, and you must sit over there. I must not allow myself to get any closer to you; it would not be fair to either of us. So, please, do not approach me; do not answer my questions; do not even look my way, lest you pity me. You may however, ask me questions -although I feel obliged to warn you: I have far more questions than answers

Yes, madam, you in the corner without a blouse. What is it you wish to know? No, I do not own clothes, anymore. That does not mean we are the least bit alike. You do not wear a blouse for a reason, no doubt, not because of doubt. You have either forgotten to do so, or you have chosen not to for some ridiculous reason. Or, perhaps you are poor and cannot afford one. In short, you have a reason. I have none. You have conviction. I have none. You have a belief in something or other:  be it a Cause, or your Self. I have none. There are others like you: counterparts, representatives, similar specimens. I am not even like myself.

Yes, sir, in the front row, in the middle. What? How dare you say you are in my position when we do not inhabit the same imaginative universe?  I have accessed regions of my soul you do not possess.  I have traveled landscapes of the mind you cannot fathom. I have had rarified sentiments you are not entitled to. What do you say? You want concrete evidence. With all due respect, sir, I am not a construction worker! I do not deal with the concrete. It is the abstract I traffic in. But, if you must, I will give you clear and irrefutable reason why we are not in the same position. You, sir, are comfortably seated. I am standing, always, and uncomfortably at that. What’s more is that you are in the front row; I need not say where I am, but it most certainly is not there. Finally, you are in the middle, balanced, moderate. I, my good man, am an extremist. I would sooner be beneath that seat in the farthest corner than exchange places with you. I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten my oath, to myself really more than anyone else: to empathize. Believe me, I do not mean what I say; if I did, I wouldn’t feel the slightest need to say it. It is but an act, though I am not an actor, per say. I can only act offstage, before close acquaintances or distant friends. Still, I ought to at least try and act naturally. Really, it is only that I’m in love with my own voice. I am like the bird that, seduced by her song, cannot stop singing throughout the seasons and catches her death of cold in winter, if not of exhaustion beforehand. No, I am not in the least like a bird. The bird is as beautiful as its song. I am as vile as my venom. I apologize; I shall not lapse into such extravagant indulgence again.

Thank you, sir, for throwing your shoe in my face. I don’t deserve it. You are far too kind and considerate to throw only one shoe. Really, you show such restraint. Yes, madam. You, without the arms, in the arms of the furry fellow. Well, what about Love? Yes, by all means, I believe in it. What it does not create in us, it compliments. It is perhaps the last of the miracles. Its chief allure is how unrealistic it is, and yet how senselessly we pursue it. Then, when we think we’ve found it, how senselessly we chase it away. What is that you say? Oh, no! No, my good lady. You have entirely misunderstood me, and I’m sure that is a fault of mine, since those who are consistently misunderstood must be to blame somehow. No, I do not believe in the possibility of love in my situation. I very much feel I am denied this possibility. Unless, of course, I were to find one who were constructed, and then deconstructed, in a similar vein. And, frankly, I don’t think it at all possible since I’m doing all I can to avoid looking for, or being found by, such a non-person. I say: I will never fall in love and, I don’t. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Now, tell me, who says there are no more prophets when there are prophesies? Just as, who says there are no more miracles when there exists even the idea of Love? I tell you, whoever says anything at all has spoken too soon, for they are bound to discover the inverse truth -sometime after- perhaps when it is already too late to benefit from it. That is why it is best to say nothing, or else everything, if one possibly can. Personally, I never mean what I say when I say it. I might mean it tomorrow, or yesterday. But, never today. That is why I feel that the only thing I cannot endure more than being misquoted is being quoted at all. It is simply maddening. You can quote me on that.  Actually, please do. It would do me a great deal of good to have my words echoed by strangers. It might even restore my faith in humanity, and bring me to embrace the person who uttered those dear, dear words. Yes, sir, with the broken spirit. What is it?

0! My God … my goodness! What a startling question. I don’t quite know how to respond, or if I ought to at all. It is important to refuse to answer certain questions, on principle, since one can’t speak lightly about absolutely everything. But wait. I’ve already answered your question indirectly, which is the best way to answer any difficult question, anyhow. Your answer is “my God… my goodness.” The two are interchangeable for me. No, they are not. That is far too simple an answer to such a complex question. Certainly, I believe there is injustice and there is imbalance; there is evil and wrong doing; there is sickness and suffering; poverty of the body and spirit. How then can I, or any intelligent, seeing human being say that God is all good, or even that there is a Heaven and a Hell? He is not all good. Rather, He is all: good and bad.  If we are created in His image, therefore it should follow that He is capable of greater good, and bad, than we are. We are limited, He is limitless.  ‘The greatest leap of man’s mind is to realize its limitations.’

What’s that, sir, you say about heaven and hell? I have not made myself clear on that point? Does that mean I have been clear on all others! Please, see me after this is all over and explain it to me, will you. Yes, heaven and hell, there’s no denying them. Only not in the next world, Heaven and hell are here.  Every Day is judgment day.  If you go unrewarded in your life, then, you must be good; and that, in and of itself, is your reward (and punishment). Yes, it is all absurd and senseless, particularly for the sensitive few who would like to believe otherwise.

Yes, Miss, with the bookcase on your back. One must think everything and do nothing? Are you suggesting then, learned lady, that thinking is not doing? Now, you must be sounding like me to amuse me. But, believe me; I am not amused to hear you repeat such things when I do not fully believe in them myself. I may amuse myself with such folly, you may not. You dishearten me. I did not think it possible to influence persons before and, I do not still. We receive only the stations our antennas attract, which is why we should keep our antennas out at all times in the hopes of picking up all of our stations. Otherwise, I cannot persuade you of what you do not already believe in the dawning of your knowledge. I cannot awaken in you what is not dormant. I cannot plant a seed where there is not fertile soil. And that is why it disheartens me that you should be like me in any way. Not that I feel I have affected you, for if you had not heard my words now, it would have been any incident or accident later that would have stirred you to those words. Yet, I wish it were not my words, and that you had heard them elsewhere. You are far too clever to join the daily increasing ranks of the overfed and undernourished. That is what it means to be overeducated.  But, it is not a fault that cannot be undone (sadly, it takes far longer to ‘unlearn’ than it does to learn, just as it is nearly impossible to ‘unsee’ what one has already seen). It can be achieved, however, and I am living proof of it. Although, perhaps “living” is too strong a word. Still, I am proof of it, nevertheless. You must not quote any more of those journals or ‘important’ authors, however. Or at any rate, if you must, then do so with some feeling. Where is your passion? Without it, you are merely a corpse with a borrowed mouthpiece, an ass carrying a bookcase, that is all. Intellect without sentiment is a cold, concrete structure without either doors or windows. Structurally solid, it is uninhabitable to the occupant, and impenetrable to the passerby.

Yes; the elderly gentleman with the black tears and the soil in his hands. No, sir, I could not possibly make light of your grief. What you hold in your hands is the Body of God. Yes, the Body of God is not invisible, it is Nature. How can we be in awe of one and not the other? It is the land, the sea, the air and the Infinite Universe. In which case, Humanity must occupy God’s nether regions. I apologize, that was careless of me … but not thoughtless. And, I’m not sorry. I do see the stars in space as His upper body, which can only mean…. God is not dead. Nature is independent of us yet, we are dependant on it. It goes about its natural cycles as it did before we came to be and, will continue to do so long after we cease. We have not tamed nature, we have only maimed it:  with electric blades and metal claws that pierce, tear, torture and spoil the air, the earth and its waters. Or what we call:  travel.  And, then monstrous machinery that devastates and contaminates its skin and soul. This we call: the cost of our living. And, next to those weightless clouds, Industry has contributed their own leaden clouds to choke the skies. Yet, we shall pass and It shall remain, majestic and mysterious, mocking us who have named it and so think we have known it. So, sir, I share your grief. For all our private and public worlds -and the monuments built to honor our accomplishments, thought forms and inventions- we are no more than a passing intervention, insignificant in the laughing eyes of Eternal Nature. Yes, Nature is God, and to be natural in thought and deed is divine. I, however, cannot be natural even when I sleep, or view nature except with envious eyes in my waking hours. There is no hope for me. But surely you, young man with the clear glass eyes, can see that it is not too late for you to be saved, provided you do not grow any further.

No, most certainly not! You should not wish to grow like me, mine is a malignant growth. I speak since I am not at peace with my silences. My words are elaborate because my thoughts are unclear. You speak with such simplicity and sincerity. Why you would want to emulate me worries me immeasurably and reminds me of the poisonous charm of words. Please, not another word or I shall expose myself! I must forget all that I am to be happy, you must only remember it. There is no use denying that yours’ is the superior state. Do not think that because you have the knowledge of happiness then, I must have the happiness of knowledge. Happiness and Knowledge are not to be wed in my world. For the feeling person, Ignorance is Happiness; and for the thinking person, Happiness is Ignorance. This I know. Ignorance on the first, simple, and natural level of existence is the prerequisite for Happiness, while on the second, more complex (hyperconscious) level of existence, it is the contrary: Happiness is considered Ignorance. But there exists a third level where Happiness and Knowledge can coexist. The selfless few who arrive at this state are those who ‘see the world steadily and see it whole’. But, I’ve already spoken ad nauseam on where I stand in relation this notion…

All of a sudden, I realize I am weary with fatigue, and I’m sure you feel the same. Thank you for your patient audience. What’s that? One more question? What a terrific trick that is you are performing, sir! Or, is it madam? What do you say? It is not a trick, it is a talent? A gift from God? No, I beg to differ. Look where you are seated, my dear ma… friend. The seats by your side are vacant, though there is a shortage of seats. You are all alone. Lately, I am of the opinion that a talent is not a gift but a curse, or at the very least, a hindrance. Any remarkable ability, as such, which differentiates one from the herd, that is talent, true. But, as a result of it, you will not be viewed with tenderness and understanding; and perhaps as a result of it, too, you will not be able to view others with tenderness and understanding.  You call that a gift? No, I must differ with you. I must be allowed to leave, now. I am too tired to continue this charade any longer. Also, I have already said too much although, to some of you, it might seem like I’ve said nothing at all. Whatever the case … Honorable ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming.

Wait! Don’t go…. I do not wish to be alone, anymore. I have nowhere to go. There, I have said it! And I have said it with neither trembling lip, nor quivering voice. I have said it rather bravely and matter-of-factly; because in fact, I do have enough energy to continue. I have to have enough energy to continue. And, sir, when I am done -when I am truly over and done with, and no longer of any use to anyone- then you may throw your other shoe in my face. In fact, please, do so now, I cannot stand the suspense. Thank you! Now, where was I before I so rudely interrupted my selves? Oh yes, talent is a curse. Yes, I’m sorry I stand by that. Forgive me, but I cannot take any more questions. Why? Because for every question of yours I entertain, I ignore one of my own. So, the format shall continue to be question and answer; only I shall be asking the questions and answering them. And, it shall be better this way for all of us. Believe me. But, please, stay a while longer. I require your presence for inspiration. I’m afraid if you leave, my muse shall, too. Also, if you stay, I promise to be more honest than I have been before, within the confines of the impossibility of honesty, of course.

What then, is the impossibility of honesty? Simply, it is to say that complete honesty with oneself is impossible and, with others improper. What one can do however is to bridge the gulf between what is said and what is done. (Perhaps also between what is thought and what is said). That is the utmost extent of honesty anyone can afford. How very polite of you, sir, to nod so understandingly while I am speaking. Really, manners are everything. Manners and Morals, and all the more so if they are natural (and not the product of some pretentious finishing school). More than anything, manners simultaneously express respect and self-respect; and morals enforce them. Which brings one to ethics. What of ethics? Can ethics exist outside of society? Absolutely! One is ethical for one’s sake. In fact, not only do ethics exist outside society, they exist only outside of society, since the ethics within society are simulated and inauthentic. For God’s sake, ethics exist outside of organized religion, as well, which accounts for the irrefutable goodness and non-judgmental stance of some atheists. All that is well and good is not found without, but within, irrespective of whichever club one is a member of. It is important not to lose sight of that in one’s lifetime, just as it is important never to lose sight of one’s death during one’s life.

What do I mean by that? “Death destroys a man: the idea of death saves him.” To realize the day shall come when one will lie beneath the earth they tread upon, and to realize that day may be tomorrow, is very wise indeed. Such a realization either endows one with a sense of urgency or futility. As always, the answer lies not in the middle, but in the continual excursion to either extreme. Yes, the senselessness of life and the senselessness of death, that is what one should preoccupy oneself with. Nothing else is of the least importance, other than Art, but certainly not Science. What a bore Science is with its relentless insistence on evidence and proof and, how unrealistic that is. There is no proof, and there are no guarantees! Proofs of purchase and guarantees accompany appliances, not us. Which is all the more reason never, ever, never, to lose sight of death or attempt any number of ways of maintaining a firm foothold in the quicksand that is life. Make no mistake, we are sinking, and we shall all soon be submerged. There is no avoiding it. Why the startled look, how could you have thought otherwise? Or had you simply not thought? Still, that’s no reason not to live because you must die. There is life to live for, and Art. What is Art? It depends on whom you ask:  the artist, or the public. To the artist, Art is the act of clearing his/her throat to find a Voice, silencing the voices in their head, and luring from it’s lair all that is secretive or mysterious. It is the act of dressing the invisible, of giving Form to the formless. And, only by becoming a slave to Art can the artist ever hope to master Life. To the general public, Art is a beautiful translation of the transition that is Life, rendering it more possible to endure. But, Art is not reserved to artists alone (and many artists are poor artists at that). Some people live artfully and fill their lives with art, while others artfully live and fill art with their lives. Ultimately, to burn brightly with one’s own Art, that is the purpose of life, if indeed there is one.

What then, is the greatest crime one can commit against oneself and one’s fellows? Desistance. To recognize one’s passion and not pursue it: to realize and refuse. Ignorance is bliss, to ignore is heresy. In which case, I must be damned… But, never mind me. Please, never mind me; I mind me enough as it is. Anxiety-ridden and doubt-driven, I am. I wonder: if one forgets about themselves, will they be forgotten? I don’t know. I know I don’t know. I also know endless self-scrutiny is fruitless. To concern oneself constantly with the endless possibilities of one’s growth, and in which direction is, as sure a way as any, to stunt one’s growth. But what can one do? We are not free … to do anything. We are free, but not Free. We suffer from a restricted freedom. We are free, from within a cage, yet we are also given a key -not to the cage, of course, but to ourselves. This way, we have the possibility of being free, to surprise others and ourselves. But, the true surprise is how hesitant we are to act. And when we do, just how helpless.

Excuse me, may I ask you a question, sir? What is the difference between you and that horse you are riding? There’s no need to take offense, an answer will suffice. No, I mean other than that it is an animal, and that it is mounted, since both of those conditions apply to the human condition. What do you say? There are no differences, then? No, sir, you are mistaken, again. There is one; one difference you have overlooked. The difference between you and your horse is that his blinders are removable. What do I mean by that? Just that his blinders are external and can be discarded; whereas ours are not and cannot. Don’t be so surprised. We all wear blinders which determine what we see and what we don’t, and accordingly, what we respond to and how. Some of us only see what is ahead of us, while others only see what is around them. The rest of us are looking at our noses. I do not see anything since my eyes are not in accord. But, I promised not to discuss myself, further…

How much time and energy we exhaust discussing ourselves, as though we were existing beings when, in truth, we are merely symbols. Collectively, we are a physical manifestation of the complex character of Creation, that is all. For, just as Nature is the Body of God, all of Human Nature is His Soul. That, I believe, is why we are here -to act and interact in such a way as to make manifest to Him the possibilities of His Being. But, this is not a solemn sermon -much as it may sound like one- since I am not in the position either to be solemn, or to present a sermon. Perhaps, I should speak of something else, then. How about aesthetics and insects? Yes, insects and aesthetics, it is. And, 0, what a frightful emphasis in our infinite vanity do we place on aesthetics!

You do not agree? Look at the cockroach. Now, look at how you recoil in horror! Look at your lips, upturned in disgust, and how your eyes long to recede to the back of your skull. Now, look at the ladybug, and look at your delight. Look at the fly, now, look at the butterfly. What is it about appearance that allows us to dismiss creatures so carelessly, and approach others so eagerly? What do we know of the nature of the black beetle that depicts it as any less loveable than the lady bug, or the butterfly? It is not harmful, nor is it lacking in usefulness; it only commits the unpardonable crime of not being pleasing to the eye. Likewise, why am I addressing myself to the attractive members of the audience, the more visually arresting of you? Is it because we assume, somehow, that Beauty is a kind of benediction, while ugliness expresses varying degrees of sin. Or, is it more superficial, but more meaningfully revealing, than that? I don’t know. Whatever the case, it is a temptation that must be avoided. No, that’s wrong. Can you tell me what is wrong with that sentiment? I’ll tell you. Temptation is not to be ‘avoided’, it is to be resisted. To be present and resist, not to distance yourself and avoid, that is noble. But, I have nothing in common with nobility. I tremble before temptation. I must avoid it, since I’m not strong. Okay, sir, you may now throw your other shoe in my face; I am over and done with. You already have? Very well, then, I shall exit unclimactically. At least, it is closer to the Truth that way. Thank you again and, please, remember me in your prayers.

The first poem I ever loved was The Raven.  Specifically, one line from the poem haunted me when I was young, and still does: “The silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.”

Writers today might say that the line isn’t a very good one, now that it has become the fashion of writing workshops to balk at any overuse of adjectives.  But in this line the words used to describe this minute detail suggest that the mind perceiving the rustling curtain (the mind that is obsessed by the loss of Lenore) is frantic to most accurately describe and interpret the fleeting details of his life.

A world that is indifferent to our sorrows and our ecstasies produces these details, but we can’t help but infuse them with our own meanings.  These details are what the mind attaches itself to, are what move us, and—when we are privileged enough to even frantically attempt to record them, even as the wind dies and the sad uncertain rustling stops—they are what sustain us.

I like art museums. I’ve been to the museums and frequented museums in every city I’ve ever spent any time in. Seeing Jackson Pollock at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was like a religious experience, a moment of revelation, and I saw what I never could have seen in the art book reprints and cheap, dorm room posters of Pollock’s drip paintings. The Howard Finsters at Atlanta’s High Museum are amazing. Toledo has a surprisingly good museum, for a little industrial city, and Portland has some really good examples of American painting, including Albert Bierstadt‘s Mount Hood, and George de Forest Brush’s paintings of Native Americans, including The Sculptor and the King. I got to see Gustav Klimt‘s work in Vienna, and discovered and immediately loved HAP Grieshaber‘s woodcuts in a castle that’s been converted into a museum on the edge of the Bodensee.

I worry about museums, though. They can add a seriousness that weighs a work down until it’s dragged down to the ground. They can add a weigh that’s like chain mail on a sparrow. Sometimes the seriousness and officialness, the somber formality of a museum, means art is void of joy.

And joy is good in art.

Art can be light, and it can be fun. It can convert one into a child with surprise, and I like art that does that.

I like art that’s like a sudden laugh. Art that’s unexpected joy.

The thing that bothers me about museums occurred to me when I was in a museum. I was in the one in Philadelphia, the one with the famed “Rocky Steps” — by any measure one of the best museums in the US — and there was a group of people standing around one of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. It was the bike wheel that’s attached, upside down, to a kitchen stool. A couple of more people were peering carefully at the plaque where the title of the work, which is the most self-obvious title in the history of art titles, was duly inscribed. The whole scene was very somber. People weren’t stroking their chins and saying in faux foreign accents, “very interesting,” but they could have been.

Then, walking away, I heard a woman say to her friend that she just didn’t get it. “It’s just a bike wheel,” she said.

I really wanted to say, “exactly!” I could be wrong, and maybe some disagree, but to me, for me, Duchamp’s work is hilarious. I like Dada and early Salvador Dali specifically because it’s so unserious. Lobster phones are funny. Signed toilets are funny. I don’t think you’re supposed to “get it,” but just supposed to laugh. This is a ridiculous situation we’re in, being human, and to “get it” is to laugh, at least sometimes. The hush of a museum can make that hard, though. It all seems so high art.

If I had a bike wheel screwed in to a stool in my apartment, I think it would be fun, sometimes, to just give it a whirl. I think that’s the point, and I think it’s too bad that sometimes, in museums, the presentation of the art what makes it great.

To some conservative tastes that silliness means the art is not art. It doesn’t strike the right tone. Yet, I find that the ridiculousness of this art is liberating. It allows me to see things in new ways, and think about things in different ways, and always makes me want to go out and create. Which means, for me, it does exactly what I want art to do.

One of my favorite sculptures is Leo Sewell’s Rolling Suitcase. There are personal reasons for this — I used to live right by the airport, so close the airplanes would fly about 50 feet overhead, the jets overwhelming everything with their roar, and I could drive by the sculpture every day — but I love the fact the whole idea of the permanent installation is art as surprise. The suitcase is made out of old road signs: INTERSTATE, and STOP, ONE WAY and WARNING CHANGED SIGNAL AHEAD. If you sit outside the airport and watch people as they wheel their suitcases from the parking garage to the Delta counter, sometimes they stop and stare at the sculpture, sometimes they laugh, or point, or sometimes they take pictures.

I got to talk to Sewell, once, and ask him about the suitcase. He said he liked the idea of his art at the airport because he liked the idea of art as unexpected. People don’t go to the airport expecting to see art; they’re in a rush, with things to do, and they’re thinking about their ticket and boarding pass and passport. They’re hoping the line won’t be too long and the security check will go smoothly and they’ll get off the ground on time. And then, right there, in the midst of all those practical worries and everyday concerns, maybe they’ll see the giant suitcase made out of road sign scraps, and maybe they’ll smile.

All of Sewell’s work is like this, fun and inspiring, full of the joy of a kid at the dump. I think it’s great:

I wouldn’t want to suggest that art should never be serious. I find Cormac McCarthy more compelling than almost anything, and I love Flannery O’Conner and William Faulkner. I think Michael Herr’s Dispatches is a work of genius and find I cyclically need to re-read the part of Roberto Bolano’s 2666 that most people found too violent to bear. Whether dark or light, though, I want art to surprise me. I want it to put the world off kilter, and to make me think, and to make me think about what it is to be human.

Sometimes, I know, this idea of art works out to odd ends. For instance, I think the world’s largest ball of twine is really interesting. I know why it wouldn’t normally be considered art, but I don’t really know how not to take it as art. It’s not like I disagree with any of the points one might make in dismissing it as ridiculous, but I look at it in its ridiculousness and think, this is us, this is human. This is what it’s like to be alive. On the other hand, I find a lot of poetry readings unbearable. The stilted, self-serious, breathless and constipated style of reading so common among contemporary poets has, I find, almost nothing to do with world I know. If anything, that imbued seriousness insulates the listener from any serious thoughts: rather than surprising us out our normal torpor, it confirms in us our own sense of being serious.

Too much poetry is designed as a kind of hush, meant to evoke self-satisfied feelings of being poetic, and that’s all.

If all art does is make us stroke our chins and say in somber tones, “very interesting,” then art isn’t worth it to me. I worry, sometimes, even though I love museums, that what they do is lay this hush down over art, smothering it with the kind of officialness. A formality. There’s something about the space, the lighting, the tone of the presentation, that can, too often, be inhibiting instead of liberating. It’s as if the art communicates its own artness, and the aura of high culture, and we’re ensconced in that like bugs in amber. There’s something about it that makes it so we can’t laugh, even though, look, it’s a bike wheel on a stool! Even though, look!, the title of this work is “Bicycle Wheel,” and it’s not even the original one, like that would matter or be extra special, it’s a replica!

I still love museums. There’s all sorts of really amazing work I never would have had access to, without them. In a world without museums, all the Vermers and Rembrants and Twomblys and Picassos would be owned by the rich, and I would have only ever seen photos in books. Without museums, and their guiding idea of democratic access to art, a person like me might never have been exposed to great art at all.

I’ve also learned to really love the kind of art that thrives outside formality, though. The stuff that will never be and can never be enshrouded in the hush of officialness. I love the extra crazy art that exists outside of art environments, the art that’s “out there,” in the wild, so to speak, ready to surprise. There’s something liberating and wonderful about the junk sculptures at the airport in Atlanta, something liberating and wonderful about the skittery strandbeasts on the beaches of Holland:

If anyone wants to say what Theo Jansen’s doing isn’t art, then I say let’s all give up art and do what he’s doing instead. It would be, I think, a wonderful thing to see his giant bug-devices centipede-stepping up the beach, wings aflutter in the wind from the sea. We wouldn’t have to “get it.” There would be no hush or stilted seriousness, but I think if I was walking one way on a beach, and Jansen’s art went walking the other, then I could rightly say, “this is what it’s like to be alive.”

I think it’s a plausible mission for artists to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit, to steal from something Kurt Vonnegut once said. I think it’s good for art to surprise us, and that might be the only way to make us appreciate what it is to be human. If I had to name a living artist who pulled that off, I might reply, “Leo Sewell and Theo Jansen did.”

I have a copy of Milosz’ Facing The River, which is translated both by the author and a poet I greatly admire, Robert Hass. In it, there is a wonderful and spiritual dance between memory and effacement, and, yes the effacement of memory, for anyone who has ever lost a person, or a country, or a language knows that there is a double hell: the effacement that transpires when one must “move on” from that place, or language, or person, and perhaps worse: the effacement that memory assures since to remember anything is to distort it, to make a sort of selected works out of that which once had full life and depth, and which breathed independent of one’s own consciousness. Kafka, speaking of writing, said: “the minute you write, ‘she opened a window’, you have already begun to lie.” Memory is lie, but it has an ethos, a virtue and grace in that one feels this awful gap, one does not tread lightly as one remembers. Nostalgia has no such conscience which is why it ought to be feared as a sort of sociopathic order of memory. It lies without caution, without even the slightest troubling of the waters it fouls with “the happy good ole days.” Memory, especially, in its intimacy with loss, has the terror of the angelic and the beautiful, but it is a distortion, a much more covert yet more powerful form of effacement, and, the best way a poet or writer knows if they are affecting memory rather than mere nostalgia is if they feel this weight, this sense of effacement.

Proust’s great work is neither of memory or nostalgia since these are exactly the forces which adhere the final death masks to all that is vital within consciousness. Proust is in search of lost time, not remembrance. Remembrance is effort. The Proustian moment has no sense of effort, but is grace: for a brief thunder clap, one has recovered the exact co-ordinates of lost time, and, by this recovery, time itself is made unstable. It sputters, and loses its death grip. Time and space flicker, and, in the flicker, time is shown for the inconstant fraud and cheat it is. So let’s make a distinction between memory, nostalgia, and Proustian invocation, which, though most finely delineated in Proust’s great work, is not Proustian at all, but is at the source of all great poems: invocation, the raising of the dead, through style, through verbal ceremony, through the liturgy of man’s ontological fear of oblivion. We must remember that even the triumphs of a great poem are temporary. This is what gives them the power of the sacred: we go down into the underworld, perform the rites just so, the dead speak, yet, when the poem ends, the dark that has surrounded the poem floods back in. In the poem, “A Certain Neighborhood,” Milosz plays with all three registers of nostalgia, memory, and invocation. Like many fine poems, this work by Milosz, is a hortatory act—a meditation on the registers of nostalgia, memory, and invocation, and the great dance of intimacy and distance between restoration and effacement. When I first read this poem I was reminded of my father making a thirty mile detour to show his children and my annoyed mother the street he once lived on in Chester, New Jersey. We complained. We grew bored, but he was a man on a mission. He wanted us to see, but what he wanted us to see was not possible: the sudden longing to collapse thirty years of distance, to reclaim a landscape that did not exist, and, perhaps, had never existed as he “remembered” it. The “driveway”, he kept passing turned out to be the street. Memory had distorted space, expanded, enlarged what was small, and nondescript, and far less attractive to us than the diner nearby where we could pee. I will never forget the look of shame on my father’s face, and of stunned grief. My brother laughed at him, and he turned on my brother, and, seething, hissed: “you’re a smug little bastard.”

We must always be as careful with nostalgia as we are with most forms of vulgarity: it is too close to the whore’s heart, and can be used by politicians to promote a “purity,” an Edenic return that supports the most vile sense of the volk. Nostalgia carries the worst ideas of the purgative. It is amoral or immoral, but true memory is moral in that it proceeds with caution, and Proustian invocation is pre-moral, the origin of consciousness and of our sense of the beautiful and the good. At any rate, the poem:

I told nobody I was familiar with that neighborhood.
Why should I? As if a hunter with a spear
Materialized, looking for something he once knew.
After many incarnations we return to the earth,
Uncertain we would recognize its face.
Where there were villages and orchards, now nothing,
fields.
Instead of old timber, young groves,
The level of the waters is lower, the swamp disappeared
Together with the scent of Ledum, black grouse, and adders.
A little river should be here. Yes, but hidden in the brush,
Not, as before, amidst meadows. And the two ponds
Must have covered themselves with duck weed
Before they sank into black loam.
The glitter of a small lake, but its shores lack the rushes
Through which we struggled forward, swimming,
To dry ourselves afterwards, I and Miss X, and one towel
dancing.

At a party last Thursday night after a full day at this year’s AWP conference, I broke one of my own absolute rules – never, under any circumstances resort to quoting The Big Lebowski. Out of some mixture of awkwardness and that day’s hang over, I recited a line from my high school idol the Dude to another poet. I was simply passing a good piece of advice along, a bit of practical philosophy – some times you eat the bar, and, well, sometimes he eats you. It seemed appropriate, as she’d just finished a tirade, and we’d both lost interest in the subject. By the time I got to bar, she was speaking the line loudly, with panache. She was in on the joke, eager for me to know it, which is what I continually find so gross. At some point in the last 5 years (maybe longer?) seemingly everyone was let in on a joke that I once selfishly held as my own. In turn, The Big Lebowski stopped being the reference-pantry raided by me and my small circle of friends, the endless source of weird one-liners good for boggling those unhip to the film. It’s now become collective knowledge, and worse, quoting the movie has become a norm for so many people my age (who hit puberty mid to late 90s) who probably, I assume, have no understanding of the Cohen brothers’ meticulous talent, or worse, in fact appreciate it as deeply as I do, making it that much less special. So many voices right now across North America are attempting their best Donny or Walter, again trying to remake that initial Edenic moment when someone dropped a burrito down their T-shirt and their friend turned, laughed a little, and coughed out, this a bummer man…that’s a bummer. In that first instant—a miming of the already dramatic, immediate recognition, and thus a new context invented. Lebowski became a movie not only to buy late at night in a Wal-Mart bargain bin, to watch again and again noticing new congruencies and minutiae, but a movie to quote. And in that instant, that quotation became the thing to mimic, rather than the movie itself.

So how does one function in a post-Lebowski world? A world where the thing you loved growing up—the sense that a unique moment is possible, the comradery built around the surprise of both responding to a new joke and remembering it all at once—feels played out? Do you take it to the next extreme, attend an official Lebowski Fest donning shooting-range glasses and a canvas vest? Would you find those beloved people waiting there for you, the real fans, or would you still feel that sense of competition and frustration?

The next day was Friday, and I was prepared for a repeat—hung over, sitting through panels and readings at my first ever AWP conference, conveniently set in my home, DC. I would greet even casual acquaintances warmly, stalk my favorite publishers, push myself to try and drink in all the poetry I could stomach, given my nausea from the last night. I had avoided the conference in past years for practical reasons like money and semester workload. I’d also pictured a monster: a sea of writers confined to a single space all vying for attention. I had imagined the conference as one long stretch of feeling bad like you do when a guy by the metro asks for change and you keep walking, or when a shiny BMW full of laughing college kids pulls up by you at a red light. Pity in the first, envy in the second. Self-deprecation on both fronts. I imagined being sick of people selling me their artistic ethos and ranking it against mine.

In part, I was right. By the end of Saturday, I had a strange feeling, uncanny, some mixture of confidence and deflation, of me and not me. I felt a sense of writerly persona, but also the sense that I had to recoup something important. Some good college friends were in town for the conference, and so there was that—the long, nostalgic nights of bar hopping I so often drunk-dial demanding. There were wonderful readings by some of my favorite writers, and even better by writers I’d never heard of. And there was the realization when I first arrived on Thursday that in a moment I’d be surrounded by thousands of like-minded people, all scraped from the floor wearing similar dirt.

But there was also the feeling that somehow the nametag around my neck stood as a two-word resume, making me easier to read. People cut in line after readings to pass a card or book to a speaker, and subsequently drew out conversations while the rest waited. There were questions after panels which included mostly credentials and never actually reached a question mark. There was the too-muchness of the book fair in an endless basement of  rooms busting with people. There was an air of emptiness to so many that sprang from more than beer or jet lag. People who seemed large to me in the past now looked tiny.

The writers who convinced me to believe in writing were Kerouac and later Ginsberg. In college when I was so ready to be moved by something and directed, I found ‘On the Road,’ which preached no direction, and ‘Howl,’ which celebrated revolt. I had my first transcendent experiences walking through crowds of students who I imagined couldn’t possibly understand the world’s beauty at that moment. I read and believed in what writers do: drink and yell together, break the past, push their every limit, and sing each others’ praises. So I helped a friend edit a home-made journal and organized a reading series in the back of a bar. I read and reread Bukowski. I caroused with and debated the poetry kids. Got smashed like any college student. I took every possible poetry workshop and then applied to MFAs looking to continue in that same vein. I’ve now lived in DC for almost 3 years honing my craft, attending readings, meeting the local writers. All of this under the assumption that I’m following my love, that poetry is my creative vehicle, and that along with my few acquaintances, I’m pushing this thing forward, keeping it alive. It sounds ridiculous, but how else to go on in a medium that favors the individual, without on some level believing you’re an individual?

So this past weekend, walking into my first AWP, the conference that consistently draws a wealth of today’s talented writers and teachers of writing, what should I have expected? Culture or the mime of culture? Ginsberg first reading ‘Howl’ in 1950s Frisco while Kerouac passed cheap jugs of wine and shouted? Or that moment’s retelling in the recent film Howl with its more gorgeous Ginsberg, its less gorgeous Kerouac? Poets like so many thousands of Jeff Bridges decoys, all in matching white v-necks, pacing like lunatics, uttering the same 10 lines back and forth? I think as a poet and person, I often live too much in the imagined past, reliving memories, idolizing personas invented through literature, saving friends in my mind as they once were. But that doesn’t mean I believe the present isn’t real, and that poetry should accept its place as just a teacher’s art, though teaching is incredibly important. There is a reason so many poets are right now budding in MFA programs, and it’s not simply the push for professionalization, the economy, etc. Nor do I think, looking back on my full experience, that AWP should be cornered as some sort of backwoods, yet fancy, family reunion, rife with inbreeding, as was my initial cynicism. I did hear moments of life, feel excitement, swallow poetry and sweat it out. On Friday, Sonia Sanchez stood up during the Split this Rock panel on Langston Hughes, for which she presented. She paused to keep from crying, and said something to the effect of: You don’t understand what this is all about; you have to read Langston Hughes, I mean really go back and read him. I knew she really felt it, even if she couldn’t explain fully just then—just like any good artist really means what they make, no matter the layers of irony we’re asked to sift through. The dramatic voice, fragmentation, wrenched syntax. The CVs, business cards, mingling. Underneath, there must be sincerity, and so often there is. Most writers I meet really believe in the vitality of their craft, even if it doesn’t immediately show. Not everyone’s confident, and not everyone’s talented. The next poet will always on some level be the competition; it’s there in the edicts of contemporary art. But I think we all savor those moments we don’t have to suspect, that just happen, really happen. Those moments you can’t manufacture, which make all the bullshit tolerable. If I have the money, I’ll be in Chicago this time next year doing it all again.