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Creative Writing

Butch Geography
by Stacey Waite
Tupelo Press
ISBN: 978-1-937797-25-7
Paperback, $16.95, 72p

“God made gender a plaything.”—Stacey Waite

Butch Geography is the first full-length book of poetry from Stacey Waite, award-winning author of three chapbooks and assistant professor of gender studies and creative writing at the University of Nebraska. The poems of Butch Geography explore gender as a role and gender as a body. In a voice both lyrical and narrative, they attempt placement and identification, and are both the reflection and the act of locating and understanding the other in our midst. But Waite isn’t trying for the diagnostic or the definitive. We see in these poems the conundrum of the human animal: as others try to place us—figure us out—we are trying to place ourselves, too. And in our efforts are all gradations of grace, error, and exasperation. By looking at the questions of gender Waite is able to ask the questions of self. As the title eludes, we are creatures who need guidance, who depend on our ability to navigate complexity and difficulty by reading maps and its indicators. Translated to the body, both physical and social, our attempts to know ourselves and the other are not so different, and often as problematic.

Several poems appear in Butch Geography entitled “Dear Gender.” This series ignites then sustains the momentum of the book, for these poems—some of the most uninhibited in the collection—grapple with the primary source of being and its relentless, impossible question: who am I? “Gender, I want you to turn me to chain. / I want to bleed you out without dying.” There is desire for constancy, for static nature, despite the contradiction of human fluidity, “bleeding” evocative of this, evocative of one wanting to reject that which gives life. And in another poem in the series: “Gender, rise out, an exorcism, from our too-scared skin. // Let us make the sounds we were never meant to make.” Is this not also a task of the poet, to exorcise with sound? Waite succeeds in the task, by creating a narrative arrangement that aids and allows space for the more concentrated, emotional movements in the book. So many things are done well in Butch Geography, and simultaneously, it’s staggering. And disarming. Waite’s dexterity with line and language, the confident movement between lyric and narrative, invokes faithfulness in the reader. We will follow this voice anywhere. “She knows better / than to cry so spits again. She learns / to live in halves.”

A map is useless, ambiguous, without names, boundaries, intonation, and direction. Despite a map’s simplification of landscapes—and therefore our simplified understanding of those landscapes—they help us navigate the strange and the unfamiliar. They also guide us efficiently through known roads. But we shouldn’t come to understand the map as authoritative. We must honor the landscape, foremost. Otherwise, we risk dogma, the naïve dependence on systems. “The doctor looks mostly at his chart. He wants me to disappear, to put back in order his faith in the system of things. He wants me to react correctly, to be ashamed.” The human animal, its body, and its idea of body are always in flux, “alive and inevitable.” Knowing this maybe doesn’t give us control or power, but better, a sense of empathy. We can see the other as strange and in that strangeness, see ourselves. “I carry this to our bed, / where each night the body / loses its memory, and / for a moment, is able to give.” This is not to be understated. Memory’s influence is startling and often upsetting. How are we to know and care for our own bodies when they are so infused with memories that bring shame and confusion? Is a body not geographical—a map of memory, impulse, and synaptic response? Waite is refreshingly, albeit cautiously, hopeful. “…survival, the anthem / of those places we’ve always been.”

The poems of Butch Geography are subversive, deconstructive of culturally dominant paradigms, but they also challenge our individual response to those paradigms, prodding readers to examine our own constructions as well. Waite moves us beyond one-dimensional stereotypes and pigeonholes. The people populating these poems are intensely human. Through a voice that is at once humorous, poignant, and tragic, we are offered an enriched way to see each other.

Let the poems of Butch Geography be a guide. Waite, with generous hospitality and rare humility, will lead you into intimate and unfamiliar landscapes, and once there will help you see yourself in the strange.

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Sometimes I no longer desire to teach the way I have been teaching–not because I am ungrateful, but because I wish to do a fair day’s work. I wish I could have nothing but independent studies, work from the morning until the late afternoon–9 conferences a day (One hour for lunch) five days a week. By the end of the week, I could see forty five students in an intensive, close hour where they would get far more from the experience, and so would I. Once a week, for another two hours, I could meet with them all together and we could break bread, have a reading and a party–maybe even a dance.

Everything about my life, all its pains and losses, its odd twists and almost impossible paths, has been a call to communion. I have something to teach, but not in this sad thing we call a “class room” where it is so hard to break down the wall between talking head and passive recepter. I would like my young men and women, and occasionally older men and women coming to my office to show me a poem or story, and I could truly respond to it–like a friend who is also an expert on this particular thing–and I could give them tea or coffee and pull books down from my shelf and loan them the books. And if the conference went over an hour, I’d have the next person come in anyway, and we’d all have a brief chat–and we’d look at this next poem or poems together.

First, I have true solitude so that I never really need to be alone. I always am. Second, I could do all my reading and editing right there–and the student would get my response immediately, and I would have my time away from the school truly free and so would they–in terms of my class. The other professors would hate this. It makes no sense for lecture classes, but for writing workshops–or creative writing students, this would be the best of worlds. I would be on campus from 9 until 6, with an hour lunch, or I could eat lunch in. If the weather was nice, the student and I could take a brisk walk and read the poem under the trees. Literature is learned through friendships–by building a rapport with another mind so that you know when it is hitting its stride or getting caught on a snag. If you leave me alone with all the free time I have , I never do any work, because I am always writing or thinking, except working on what I should be working on. For me, this “free time” is no good. I am not self-motivated. Left to myself, I can sit still all day and do nothing but stare, or walk for miles. I need a routine, a series of relationships that fill my day.

If I ran classes this way, I could take as many as forty five kids, and they would get a vast amount of attention, and still meet once a week for a reading, and a party (optional). They could workshop each other’s poems through e-mail, or get together for a cup of coffee.

My perfect life: I would “sit” in prayer five days a week–from 7 in the morning until 7 at night at my house, which would be my hermitage. Part of my prayers would include recieving visitors all day who could bring me a poem or poems to look at and work shop, or simply need me to listen or pray, or have a cup of tea. I would live on donations, and a small reading fee ($3 a poem). After 7 I would write my own work, or pray my rosary, and relax. On weekends, I would see friends or attend readings and exhibitions. I would be a “poetry monk.” I think I’d like to wear a robe–the color called “ashes of roses.” I want my life to be simple, and completely not my life at all.

Perhaps I would do this seven days a week–when I needed to journey, a novice would take my place until I returned. I love to go to the eucharistic adoration chapel at St. Patrick’s in Binghamton. It is silent, and I adore the eucharist for an hour. I don’t want “peace.” I want true engagement, the opportunity to give back whatever God has given me. I want this with all my heart, but the world is stubbornly in love with its gadgets of control. The world is always trying to complicate the simple, and make simplistic the complex. So my monk’s life is out the window, and I remain a “fuck up” in this system. I feel so bad. I want to be used, but I have to figure out where my handle is, so then I can convey to others: this is how I am most useful. This is how you pick me up and pour.

April 11th, 2012: I wake up at 5 am, inspired, and begin to scrawl some hasty haiku on the back of an envelope. It is rare that I am awake before my husband. It is still a kind of grayish-dark outside, and I am lonesome that I’m the only one awake, but also secretly luxuriating in this time alone, which is unlikely since I’m usually either teaching students or spending time with my husband. It’s peculiar: the house so tranquil and quiet, the world still dead with sleep. The haiku I’m writing are ambitious, a bit philosophical, perhaps a tad macrocosmic. I’m pleased with them. As I finish with the last one, the coffee-maker sputters to a halt, drips, and emits a breath of steam. I pour myself a cup of coffee.

I have had the nagging suspicion that I might be pregnant for days now; in fact I felt it the day after my husband I made love while I was certain that I was ovulating. It occurs to me that today would be the first day that a pregnancy test would show a positive result, if I had conceived. So I take one, sit down on the toilet lid, and wait three minutes. My husband is snoring faintly in the bedroom. He has no reason to wake up yet. In an hour I’ll have to leave the house and drive seventy minutes east to the colleges where I teach expository and creative writing to undergraduates.

Suddenly, two pink lines appear. Yup. Absolutely pregnant.

When I was in graduate school, a professor once casually stated, “Every baby you ever have is a novel unwritten.” Needless to say, it felt like a warning. It scared me to death. At the time, nearly everything in my life, no matter how momentous or insignificant was destined to be distilled into my daily writing. Writing was not only a passion, but also a necessary obsession. I felt the weight of time urging me to get as much writing done as I could in as few hours as possible. After all, I could die at any time; what would happen if what I really wanted to say most of all never got said? That was my logic for why I couldn’t spend any social time with anyone, why I seemed severely introverted and withdrawn, why cleaning and cooking were of ancillary importance, why the rent was never taken to the landlord on the day that it was due.

When I began seeing my husband, (the poet, Joe Weil), initially I was on a birth control shot called the “Depo.” It was easy to just have sex on a whim, not worry about ovulation, or the responsibilities that getting pregnant would entail. Joe and I were hotel whores. He always seemed to have a poetry gig somewhere in New Jersey, or Philly, and sometimes, we just felt like getting away to some city, seeing some museum, ducking into some unlikely restaurant where the food was French (or something of the sort) and the wine was plentiful. Afterward, we’d fall as easily into the hotel beds as autumn leaves. Things seemed inconsequential, both in terms of sex and of the future. But I had some vague idea.

Joe is Catholic, and eventually, he took me a few masses. We were married in October of 2010, civilly at town hall, with a couple of witnesses and a modest dinner afterward at a Japanese restaurant. But the masses intrigued me. Something felt familiar (although I had been raised Jewish), comfortable, and also reassuring. We didn’t attend on a regular basis, but I was certainly interested in the faith. By January of 2011, I had discontinued the birth control shot, but I was told that I wouldn’t begin menstruating again on a regular basis for at least a few months. By September of 2011, I had signed up to begin my conversion process to Catholicism. I began menstruating again that December, and thus was once again capable of baby-making. Since we were both Catholic, there was no reason not to be “open to life.”

I was surprised at first to see how easy it was to quit smoking and drinking. In the past, these two vices combined had been my primary musing devices. Before I would write a poem, it would be necessary for me to drink a couple glasses of wine, smoke a couple cigs, and get sufficiently delirious. This, I believed would allow the inspiration to flow more freely. It was just what I had become accustomed to doing. So the first concern I had once it had been determined that I was pregnant was how do I write without getting intoxicated and high?

It was difficult at first, but the truth was, the writing seemed to emerge in a bit more of a focused and organized manner. My grammar had improved; there were less typographical errors. Things made more syntactical sense, in general. The focus of the poems had shifted to more spiritual matters, matters of fertility, love, and imminent motherhood.

I am roughly five months along as I am writing this. It is summer, so there is very little responsibility aside from daily worship, cleaning, writing, and watching my belly gradually grow larger and larger. Last night, I felt for the first time the baby’s squirm (and perhaps a little kick?)–it was determined a week ago that I should be expecting a little girl. Sometimes I wonder whether the unborn baby (Clare) has any sense of what I am thinking. There has been very little research conducted on the cognitive connections between mother and fetus, but nevertheless, still I wonder sometimes if she can sense what is on my mind–if someday her creative impulses will derive from a similar place to mine.

They say that dreams are more vivid when you’re pregnant, and that you dream sometimes in symbol about birth. Last night I dreamt about a very large zucchini. I don’t know what it meant, but whatever it was, it turned up in an early morning poem. And I couldn’t ask for a better inspiration than that.

The best art school I ever attended was my childhood friend, Marco Munoz’ studio above a Florist shop on Elizabeth Avenue, Elizabeth, New Jersey, circa 1977 to 1980. We were kids, the sons of factory workers, and immigrants/exiles from Cuba and Peru and, by all the usual expectations and social indicators, we were not supposed to exist. I was the token white American Irish Catholic guy. Marco had known me from grade school at St. Mary’s, but had left to attend what was then Jefferson High school. I didn’t see him from 8th grade until the end of my senior year. By then, he had taken classes with a charismatic high school art teacher called “Tags” (an Italian name shortened with affection). Tags hipped his students into Jazz as well as Jasper Johns, Pollack, Mondrian, Braque, etc. So Marco had this crew of artsy kids who smoked pipes, talked poetry, music, and painting non-stop, and occasionally wore fedoras. The main hang was Fernando Gonzalez, Arthur George, and this guy from Cuba, Alejandro Anreus, a self proclaimed Catholic leftist and hypochondriac. Marco told them about me, so they walked down Dewey Place one June evening, with the intention of ringing my door bell. At the same time they were coming down my street to meet me, I was being carried by a group of friends from a party at which I had downed a bottle of Vodka, a bottle of Gin, and a pint of Jack Daniels. They had me on their shoulders–more or less comatose. This was only a few months after my mother died, and I was in love with a girl named Mary Ientile, and I drank in order to obliterate all boundaries standing between me and my grief which was epic, extroverted, and a great trial to my friends.

According to Marco, they reached my front stoop just as I was being deposited there by my pall bearers. Marco turned to Alejandro and Fernando and Arthur and said: “that’s Joe Weil.” Somehow, I woke from my stupor and replied: “yes it is.”

So began my tenure in the greatest art school I ever attended. What happened there? We hung out. This is the one thing art schools do not teach. It is not constructive. It wastes a lot of time. Inappropriate behavior is likely to transpire. This is how a typical hang would go: we’d get into Marco’s black pick up truck, and drive around Elizabeth, playing Charlie Parker and Dizzy, and Monk, or Wagner–at top volume, the way street kids play hip-hop now-a-days. We’d buy a whole bunch of cheap cigars and put them in the mouths of stone lions–any stone lion we saw. We once covered fifty miles, looking for stone lions. We’d go back to Marco’s studio which had been given to him by a florist shop owner named Ted, who also taught art, and we’d scat, argue about Nietzsche, and Alejandro would complain about both his various stomach ailments, and the latest existential crisis with his girlfriend. Mostly, we’d scat and look at Mondrian, Johns, Pollack, Braque. I had never heard of these guys in school. I learned quick and faked what I didn’t know. The studio was full of stolen or discarded art books and reproductions of great paintings as well as the group’s paintings which were flung everywhere. We used the head of Socrates as an ash tray (we drilled a hole in his skull). The conversations, and scatting would go on for hours, accompanied by cheap wine–gallons of Gallo. We’d paint and my new friends would laugh at my paintings, but I could scat way better than them so I got even. We were pretentious, and arrogant, and naive, and that’s good because, before you are significant, you must be stupid enough to believe you are already significant. I am treating this lightly, but some of the conversations on art were the best, most extensive symposiums I ever attended. Alejandro is now the chair of the art department at William Paterson University. Marco continues to exhibit his work. Aurthur George actually makes a living in commercial art. Fernando married the beautiful daughter of a Spanish general and has a steady gig as a history professor at some college in the Berkshires. I went to work in a factory for twenty years, but I came out a lecturer at Binghamton University somehow. Go figure. This is all miraculous because Elizabeth is not an artsy town. The mayor at the time tried to ban Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” from local cable TV. He said no one could speak Spanish at city hall in a city that was already 40 percent Hispanic. He was an old machine Democrat. He’d say something dumb like that to please his bigoted cronies, then wink at the leaders of the Cuban community and get their kids jobs. Mayor Dunn had heeded the call to take in Cuban exiles after the Bay of Pigs invasion and had received major money from the government for doing so. He was also no doubt heeding the request of DeCalvacante family members (their head quarters were in Elizabeth, and they are the rather loose model for The Sopranos). A lot of former chums of the mob down in Cuba were given refuge, and with them, a lot of Cuban intellectuals who had fallen foul of the system (I met Herberto Padilla later and he published my first poem–in Linden Lane magazine).

It was through Fernando that I became familiar with philosophy. Alejandro introduced me to the Spanish poets, Hernandez, Machado, Paz, Otero, Neruda, and Vallejo. Marco was the one with the great collection of Jazz. So I learned far more than I bargained for. I had to drop out of college because of my family disasters. I lost my parents, the house I grew up in, all within a couple years, then spent 20 years in a mold making plant, but I survived just as these Cuban exiles and immigrants survived: because I had the rope memory of something greater, and this made all those years in the factory not only bearable, but useful. I was an emotional train wreck, and these guys gave me some sense of sanity and a political/philosophical context for what I suffered–albeit in a way any “normal” American consumer would consider crazy. They gave me the notion that it didn’t matter if you were in college, or worked in a factory–that all this culture belonged to me as well as the elite, and without me having to betray my neighborhood and become a snob. If I had gone to grad school, I would have had to abandon my own mixed registers of speech. I would have had to embrace “professionalism”–that merciless neighborhood in which, all too often and all too sadly, only the semiotics of excellence seem to matter–not excellence itself.

I guess this brings me to my point: my pedagogical approach to creative writing is digress, digress, follow the nose of your longing. Be 100 percent present to all possibility. Learn to hang out and waste time with anyone of like mind or of unlike mind who intrigues. Don’t be too picky. Read lots of books, see lots of pictures, listen to music, and be suspicious of all “official” channels of knowledge. More is learned by being among artists than by attending their craft talks. I hate well-structured craft talks. I didn’t attend a single work shop until I was near forty. I now see there is some merit in it. It seems to me the best thing about work shops is the opportunity to be among other writers, which leads me to this idea:

A young artist needs to hang out and be a little arrogant and cocky, and re-invent the wheel. Most of my best students know they will learn far more from me by hanging out than by official structures. When I taught at arts high, I brought Arthur and Fernando, and Marco, and Alejandro with me. I took the energy of that brief three year period and incited its return among my own students. I worry about an art world given over to seminars, and work shops, and official lessons from the “masters,” but I don’t worry too much because I am smart enough to know that most of the valuable stuff students learn has nothing to do with me. A good teacher does what Tags did: he or she exposes and points out, incites and shares his or her passion, and then gets out of the way. As much as possible, the teacher plants the explosives in just the right place, then watches things blow up. Professionalism is a lie. I am often taking some former students with me on a Dodge gig. I don’t need to, but I want to. We will be going to Newark, and we’ll be winging most of what we do. They will learn more about the art scene and about poetry by actually performing with me than they ever will through my classes. These are former undergrads. Grad students are too busy and they are forced to be professionals. They are underpaid, and they have been taught not to show too much enthusiasm because, I guess, enthusiasm might be deemed the way of the bumpkin, and no one wants to be seen as an bumpkin.They probably think me a fool. They’re absolutely right, but I like being a bumpkin.

When I go to Newark, I will keep the late night scats, and joy of hanging out in mind, and I will try to present some small sense of that–of communion. An artist must show up and be present in every sense of the word. All else is secondary. A teacher must know that what he or she thinks he or she is teaching may not be the real lesson at all. I have no idea what my real lesson is. I am in the back of a black pickup truck, with tears in my eyes because I’ve just heard Beethoven’s Last Quartets for the first time, or I am laughing and scatting to Salt Peanuts. This is my being. It would be nice if I could convey some of that to my students–if a little of me could travel with them in years to come. That might suffice. The rest is official lesson plans. Those things scare the shit out of me.

Photo by Marco Munoz

Dear James,

Everyone here is talking about you—myself included. Most of it is the expected back-and-forth, will-he-won’t-he sort of thing, though, personally, I like to imagine you will, and that (because you are, I assume, exactly like your character on Freaks and Geeks), you’ll be slumped over in the back of Intro to Doctoral Studies carving something like “Disco Sucks” into the faux-wood desk with a penknife. We look over at each other all like “whatever” and after class we get some beers and talk about the Astros or Hart Crane or Anne Hathaway (Coming to visit? Really? That’s awesome! I guess we can all get together and go bowling or something). On the other hand, fantasies of us being best friends aside, I have what feel like legitimate fears of you stealing my girlfriend or having no one ever want to talk to me at parties. Either way, for better or worse, the idea of you coming here seems to imply that if you do everything about being here is going to change.

Why is that? I mean, you seem pretty cool and I like your movies, but you’re really just some dude like everybody else, right? Being in workshop with you isn’t going to make me famous, nor am I going to end up on Judd Apatow’s speed dial, no matter how good the on-screen chemistry between me and Seth Rogan might be… So, again, I ask, why does it feel like you are about to change everything for all of us just by showing up? And why do we all care so much if you do?

The obvious answer, James, is that you will bring each of us a little closer to a world we can’t help but feel simultaneously excluded from, enchanted by, and critical of, that is, the world of celebrity. Like you are going to show up and give each of us a membership card and some dark sunglasses and we’ll all have to start dodging paparazzo on our way to have lunch or to teach comp in a windowless room somewhere on campus. And sure, I think everybody wants this a little bit, that is, to be recognized, but at least in my mind as writers we are inclined to want this a little bit more.

Of course, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think I’m safe in saying that writing is a public endeavor, especially the writing we do here; we write for our friends and our teachers, the members of our workshop, journals and presses, and even when we write for ourselves, we often write with some public image of ourselves in mind. Perhaps more than any particular aesthetic or literary tradition, we are a generation of writers struggling with the legacy of self-mythology, of having to construct—intentionally or unintentionally—a public identity for ourselves as writers in a culture that seems largely uninterested in the construction of our identities as writers. This “tradition” goes back, to my knowledge, at least as far as Whitman, who staged photographs with cardboard butterflies, posed with children, grew a beard, dressed to fit the image of the “everyman,” the version of himself he wanted us—yes, us—to remember. And when we read Leaves of Grass we can’t help but feel like the task was to build a self so deeply into the culture surrounding it that the two became completely inseparable.

Lyn Hejinian has a great essay about this—maybe you’ve read it—called “Who Is Speaking?” In it she reminds us that, “At stake in the public life of a writer are the invention of a writing community; the invention of the writer (as writer and as person) in that community; and the invention of the meanings and meaningfulness of his or her writing.” Here, Hejinian suggests we have an awful lot of responsibility as writers to be the masters of our public selves, which is surely something that’s been on your mind recently, hasn’t it? Maybe more than anyone else I can think of, James, are you confronted with “the relentless necessity of inventing [yourself] anew as a writer every day.” We already “know” you, or at least the “you” that you’ve chosen to share with us; we cried and cringed with you in 127 Hours; we laughed with you when we watched you laugh as you watched episodes of 227 in Pineapple Express; and we made our serious face when you made your serious face at Toby Maguire in Spiderman—“Now let’s see whose behind the mask”—right?

So, to be honest, I don’t know why I’m even telling you any of this; I’m sure when you get here we can have a long conversation about post-confessional writing and the conflation of autobiography and self-mythology or J.D. Salinger and how refusing to participate in the creation of a public image can become a public image in itself. You already know, I’m sure, how we have become so aware of ourselves as potential members of this mythologizing that we are completely helpless to our participation in it. I saw you the other week on The Colbert Report, you said it yourself, we need to be skeptical of celebrity, there’s something seemingly dangerous about it; we might lose sight of ourselves, get lost, or take advantage without ever really intending to do so.

I think the real reason why we all care so much about you is not that we all want to become famous writers, but that we have all been struggling to accept that we won’t, not because we are not good enough, or that we are not deserving, just that it’s improbability is a part of our everyday lives. Even just in terms of this program, there are a ton of super-talented, brilliantly gifted writers here, but are we all going to “make it”? Will each one of us make our mark in literary history? Will any of us? How could we?

America is filling up with post-MFA-ers (I am about to become one myself), small presses, journals, blogs, and people generally convinced that their decades of diary writing qualifies them to be the next Emily Dickinson; which is to say, now, more than ever, is there an abundance of people interested in writing, no matter how (relatively) small the writing world might sometimes seem. The writing community we are responsible for inventing, and inventing ourselves within, seems to be constantly growing and in every direction imaginable.

The response to this is that we have started to accept that our ideas about “making it” will have to change. Success can no longer necessarily mean having your poems or stories in The New Yorker or getting a teaching gig at Iowa; it’s become about finding (or even inventing) a community in which your writing has meaning and is meaningful. So, maybe we’re all so interested in you coming here because we’re worried your presence will remind us of the thing we’ve been struggling with the most; our continual extinction within our abundance; our wanting to “make it”—whatever that means—and knowing we can’t, at least not in the way that we once believed we could, and that you, James Franco, already have.

And I’m not trying to accuse you of anything. It’s pretty normal to get a few MFAs and PhDs, ones that have landed a story in Esquire, poems in Lana Turner, and published a collection of stories on the same press as unknowns like Vonnegut and Hemmingway. We all want to be students forever, James; no one can blame you for that. If anything, the person most implicated in all of this is me; I am writing this hoping that you’ll actually read it, that you will send me an email saying something like, “Hey, I read your letter. Let’s get together sometime and drink beers and talk about the Astros and Hart Crane.” That one day I’m flying out to California on your private jet, book deal in the works, and everybody, and I really mean everybody, will be talking about me.

Sincerely Yours,

Eric Kocher