Friday, July 24, 2015

On Writing #67 : George Stanley

Writing Old Age
George Stanley

Old Age foresees an end, but need writing have an end in mind?

The end Old Age foresees is non-specific.  Old Age has no apprehension of the way it might end; it's just a thought, a persistent thought.  For the last year or so it's come to attach itself to whatever else may be happening, to insinuate itself into any other thought, or wrap around it.

So when Old Age thinks of himself (does a 'selfie' as he calls it), it's never without that sense of an ending being part of it.

But now Old Age is writing, and he goes back to his initial question, does his writing also have to imagine coming to an end?  And as if in obedience to an underlying intuition, his persistent thought of an end departs from the present moment and goes off sort of like a dog and lies in its corner.

It doesn't leave the scene, no, by no means, it keeps an eye on Old Age from its corner.

Writing answers the question: Sure, Old Age, writing will come to an end, this piece of writing we're engaged in now will come to an end, but that's never what's on my mind.  When I'm Writing, my sense is always one of beginning.  I'm on my way somewhere, somewhere I've never been, or have even imagined.  I'm beginning even if what I'm writing has already begun.

Whatever's already been written is past, even if it was just five seconds ago.  If there's something I'm writing, I only know it as the to-be-written, the way it's going.  What's on my mind, the mood I'm in, is one of beginning.  I lift my pen to begin the next sentence.

The next sentence:  I never think of old age.  I don't care about old age.

Wait!  I don't mean you, Old Age.  I care about you.  I've written poems about you, whole books.  But I can't live with thoughts like the ones you're describing, thoughts wrapped around other thoughts.  Sheesh!  Give it a rest!

What do you care about then, Writing?

I care about, I wait for, a true line.

A true line.  To hear it in language, bypassing thinking.  But lately I'm less able to do that.  My hearing has gone bad.  I admit it, for the last year or so, even though I want to write, I find myself thinking instead.  Sitting here, stuck, thinking, not writing.  My name is not just Writing.  It's Writing Old Age.

Yet you've been writing, writing sentences.

But the sentences are about thoughts.  And just like yours, Old Age, one thought inserts itself into another, or wraps around it.  I'm hoping for a true line, and a thought comes and lays itself out alongside a few random words I've written – like a dead body.

People are crying for the sentences!  But not for sentences about thoughts.

George Stanley [photo credit: Mark Mushet], born in San Francisco in 1934, emigrated to BC in 1971. He taught English in BC community colleges for twenty-six years, and has published eight books of poetry; the most recent are After Desire (2013) and North of California St. (2014), both from New Star Books. He lives in Vancouver.

Monday, July 13, 2015

On Writing #66 : George Fetherling

On Writing
George Fetherling

A memoir of mine named Travels by Night, a book that could be called a story of growing up in Canadian publishing, is very much a product of its time. This defect may also help account for its surprising (to me, in fact, almost miraculous) longevity, for it has reappeared recently from Quattro Books in a 20th-annievsray edition with new material added. In his famous work Enemies of Promise, the English critic Cyril Connelly speculated about how difficult it would be to publish a novel that would still be alive in both the marketplace and its readers’ hearts once a whole decade had gone by. As though unwittingly proving the point, his only novel, The Rock Pool, failed that particular test spectacularly. Of course there are limitless exceptions to Connelly’s statement; they’re called classics.  Travels by Night is not a classic and it’s certainly not a novel, though its language and structure have certain novelistic qualities. The Quattro edition is the fourth appearance of a title that, alone among my books, has been uninterruptedly read, taught, cited, debated and denounced for 20 years.   
The tale of how Travels came into being is told in piecemeal fashion in a much more recent work, The Writing Life: Journals 1975─2005, which I rely on here for my summary. In the late 1980s, two decades after moving to Toronto from New York, I was working as a literary journalist in Kingston, Ontario. My life was in a troubled period and I conceived the idea of writing a memoir for both relaxation and therapy. Few people anywhere, certainly no one in Kingston, knew that I had grown up in violent poverty in the lower reaches of the old industrial culture that was quickly dying. Or if they did, they were too polite to remind me to my face.  I wanted to show how my early life, as described in the first two chapters, led, logically, inexorably and yet implausibly, to my life in Canada, the subject of the final three parts. Many memoirists and autobiographers who grew up someplace other than where they grew old have tried to paper over the big seismic fault that runs through their narratives. The results are not always convincing. I took the opposite tack, emphasizing the shift by showing how stark and sudden it was.
In purely literary terms, I had this temporal matter in mind all along once I began drafting Travels in Kingston and finished it later, in the early 1990s, in Toronto. But my attempt to reinforce the kind of structural seam that runs through bifurcated life stories turned out to have a disadvantage, in that many readers seemed to believe that I was writing a political manifesto. The book was and is nothing of the sort, but rather an account of a young fellow trying to find his true home, one that happened not to be the place he was born.
When I had finished, a literary agent I knew first seemed enthusiastic about the manuscript in the abstract but did an about-face after starting to read it. She stopped by my home in the middle of the night, leaving the bundle on my front porch, like an abandoned infant, along with a note stating that representing the work would ruin her business. Something similar happened with a prominent Toronto publisher who specialized in high-end non-fiction. At the beginning she was very encouraging. But after seeing the finished pages, she stridently changed her mind, telling me that she wouldn’t publish such a piece of trash even if it came with a hundred per cent subsidy. I imagine she must have been offended by the fact that the book mentions sex, as seems to me perfectly normal in a memoir of youth. She may also have been horrified to learn that I had never attended Queen’s University or McGill and may not have believed that the Vietnam War had been a noble crusade. Other Canadian-owned publishers declined politely while the big American-owned houses, for their part, turned it down smartly, one after another, even though in the two most important cases the Canadian editorial executives in charge later went out of their way to praise it in private. The orphan finally found a home in 1994 with Malcom Lester, that brave independent Canadian publisher, and shot to No. 2 on the Globe and Mail’s bestseller list.
It received a good many reviews, several of them almost rapturous, it seemed to me. David Macfarlane, for example, called it “a wonderful book […] by a man who, for most of his life, has been thinking about what makes good writing, and it shows.” Philip Marchand wrote of it as “everything a memoir should be—revealing, witty, erudite, beautifully written. Of more literary weight than the vast majority of novels.” Robert Fulford understood how it captured for reflection and study the most creative period in Toronto culture; he was kind enough to call it “a work of literature [and] a valuable work of history as well.” It did so well, I suppose, because people liked reading about Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, Gwendolyn MacEwen and other figures, and recalling events associated with the early days of Canada’s literary renaissance—or hearing about the birth of House of Anansi or the notoriety of Rochdale College. In short, Travels seemed to speak directly to a certain generation. But it was controversial because it was perhaps the first such full-throated memoir of the arts scene and certainly the first one to deal candidly with people’s personal lives. Because of such frankness and sheer unexpectedness, as well as because of my background, it provoked unintended controversy. There was a spontaneous protest when it didn’t get shortlisted for one award or another—and then again when it did.
Only with the new edition have I had the opportunity to expand a number of scenes, shorten a few that needed shortening, and make other emendations, such as correcting small errors. To do this of course I had to read the text again. I found it an odd experience, in my mid-sixties, to look back at what I wrote in my mid-forties about events that took place mostly during my adolescent and teenage years—indeed to look back on a time that now seems downright historical. Doing so has taught me a lesson about style. I wrote the book quite carefully but was at some pains to make it conversational, with word choices and sentence patterns that deliberately mimicked the way I normally speak, almost as though I were dictating my own story to myself. Time has changed everything else about me but I still recognize the way I spoke. The effect is a little like shaking hands with one’s ghost.

George Fetherling is a poet, novelist and cultural commentator who lives in Vancouver and Toronto. Among his most recent books are The Sylvia Hotel Poems (Quattro) and the novel Walt Whitman's Secret (Random House).

Friday, July 03, 2015

On Writing #65 : Gail Scott

Gail Scott

I cop here the title of Charles Bernstein’s essay Attack of the Difficult Poems to talk briefly about Difficult Prose. I am not inclined to use the word fiction; if there is fictional transformation in certain prose that I and others make, it borrows heavily from poetry and collapses distinctions between text and commentary. Nor is this prose part of the wave of currently much discussed aggregate computer generated text, although all work--even when falsely parading under the rubrique of individual artifact--is now generally acknowledged to be dependent to some degree on some form of collectively generated language. But then any work has always been dependent on some degree of collective generation--which is why sometime in the early 20th, well before the intersection of the making of art and digital technologies, people started questioning the position of the hero author.  It is important to remember that that questioning of authorship was enhanced in the heat of the collective radical politics of May 68, etc. So why, of all “creative” writing forms, does the novel still dominate the collective literary palate with requisite author and narrator heroes or anti-heroes, gathering reader energy into the transparency of their imposing narrative arc? I want to say--actually I want to scream--when I try to read media reviews—inevitably about novels ultimately programmed to passify or distract, marketed with tags of “brilliant,” “soaring,” “poignant”--I want to say: take your thumb out of your mouth. Marguerite Duras is more elegant: There are often narratives but very seldom writing.  And Bernstein, more empathetic: …I see the fate of all of us as related to a lack of judgment, a lack of cultural and intellectual commitment, on the part of the PWC (publications with wide circulation). It is possible that online media is already ringing mainstream market-oriented criticism’s death knell.  Still, I long for the time when writers thumbed their noses at bad “criticism.” There is a hilarious interview of Margaret Atwood, dated 1977 in the CBC archives, suggesting on national TV that interviewer Hana Gartner would be better off reading Harlequin romances. This, in response to Gartner’s gripe that she cannot empathize with Atwood’s depressing stories. Atwood is no difficult writer but she is a rare Canadian literary figure who has not hesitated to don the mantle of bitch when the situation required.

I am fascinated by the question of intersections between codes, languages, genres, genders, classes—if there is an intersection, there I am in the middle. To think about the little-travelled crossroads where Bernstein’s fated “us (poets/difficult writers)” intersects with a sparse public uninterested in writing that is formally or otherwise strange-making is to underscore how to write is to converse, whatever the platform. The enviable conversations I imagine among such Canadian poets as, say, Wah, Zolf, Robertson, Bök, Cree poet Halfe, Neveu, and so on re: form, practice, politics--has little parallel in Canada’s small dispersed experimental prose field. Fortunately the digital revolution allows for countless variants of aggregate authorship--including nurturing influencies across geographies. My writing and thinking about prose is continually renewed as a result of immediate textual connections and displacements with experimental prose writers mostly to the south. These writers, in their writing and in their criticism (Renee Gladman, Bob Gluck, Stacy Szymaszek, Carla Harryman, Rachel Levitsky, to name a few) are, one way or the other, lifting the novel, a heavy thing, into a space closer to both poetry and the essay. But conversations across borders do not a critical milieu make as regards the cultural specifics and issues in the corner one occupies ; I worry that the fragmented nature of culture north of the 49th functions as an impediment to a form of prose potentially heuristic regarding notions of citizenship here.

It is true that I have a very specific notion of what makes prose experimental--and that is the formal dispersal of the writing subject. On either side of the border, queer, feminist, and anti-racist concerns have borrowed poetic and rhetorical devices to challenge the old fashioned and politically questionable (anti-)heroics of the official novel; and, on both sides of the border, there is a serious reader-reception problem.  As the younger gay New York writer Douglas A. Martin writes: "In reviews of my I-driven works, I am put to defend my use of (a) conceptual self, provisional, in a way a poet would not be...." Ergo, the reader (hugely abetted by PWC criticism) will not tolerate language that gets in the way of reassuringly transparent identitary-in-all-senses-including psychological narrative logic. Curiously, the intersection of queer/feminist and other minority issues with aesthetic and literary genre issues has opened a post-identitary prose space in which the subject, the speaking ‘I’, the “narrator,” is in fact not stable, has at the very least burnt edges, is shredded, is hopelessly porous, is conceptual. In other words, Martin, in his writing, positions his writing subject in diagonal to his personal identity issues. In my own work, in all my novels since Heroine, the breaking down of the writing subject has been critical to the shape of the work.  It is a mighty struggle to accomplish this “poetic” writing subject when working with a sentence, including a sentence not necessarily contiguous in the narrative sense. But some of us feel this effort is a socially and aesthetically essential exercise in our era. I am drawn by the elegance, the rightness of that writing that both searches out [reflects on] BUT ALSO devours [destroys] its identity issues, which are its every day.

To work with sentences is to imply a wish for some kind of “working out” over the length of the text—a working out that vaguely suggests a somewhat embodied subject. But it is to be stressed that “character” and “narrator” in the prose I am talking about are written into the structure, the grammar, the syntax of the work—they intersect with rather than represent or describe the “real.” I find the poet Rilke’s experiments with reading coronal suture, as reported by media theorist Friedrich Kittler, a useful figure for the author of experimental prose. A trace or a groove appears where the frontal + parietal bones of the suckling infant have grown together, wrote Rilke. As if, commented Kittler, the discoveries of Freud and Exner had been projected out of the brain onto its enclosure, so that the naked eye is now able to read the coronal suture as a writing of the real. All you have to do is apply a gramophone needle—I am thinking here of the needle as a writing tool--to these coronal sutures, or to any anatomical surface (says Kittler) and what they yield, upon replay, is a primal sound without a name, music without notation, a sound ever more strange than any incantation for the dead for which the skull might have been, originally, used. Instead of making melancholic associations using the skeleton as metaphor, like, say, Hamlet—the sounds—initially traced by Rilke as markings on a cylinder, could then be reproduced analogically. These physiological traces implied, for me, in the wake of Rilke, that our own nervous system, “our own body is a map of the outside world.” With its street markings, its dark corners, its multiple identities, its white noise from the past; and its repressed, denied, sometimes scurrilously resuscitated desirata, my so-called narrator, ever on the cusp between “inner” and “outer,” is destined to be endlessly recomposing as she ostensibly moves towards a future novel end. In what we are currently calling experimental prose, the projection of a conceptual-provisional speaking subject still rubs, both in pan-national and minority discourses, against an apparent need for solid identity tropes. As a poet friend, who is also an arts adminstrator, put it recently:

I used to think poets had it bad. Now I believe that experimental prose writers are at the bottom of the barrel.

Gail Scott writes experimental prose and essays and Fred Wah calls her a poet. Her last novel The Obituary was a finalist for the Grand Prix du Livre de Montréal (Montréal Book Prize).

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

We Who Are About To Die : a rawlings

a rawlings responds to systems.

Where are you now?
beyond the corner of rue Morand and Parc de Jules Verne

What are you reading?
an asemic braille of light devised through the intersection of leaf cover and metal fence

What have you discovered lately?
an asemic braille of light devised through the intersection of leaf cover and metal fence

Where do you write?
beyond the corner of rue Morand and Parc de Jules Verne

What are you working on?
an essay on Eros, erosion, loss, and landscape

Have you anything forthcoming?
an essay on Eros, erosion, loss, and landscape

What would you rather be doing?

See here for a recent poem posted at h&