Because I Wanted To

Last night I finished reading Mary Gaitskill’s Because They Wanted to, at long last. I’ve been working through it for a few weeks, stealing chances to read now and then. I enjoyed it about as much as I enjoyed Don’t Cry, which was a lot.

Gaitskill’s narrators tend to have a detached objectivity, which I think would normally turn me off because it gets “cold” and “robotic” if overdone, but she tempers it with gorgeous descriptions and unique, unlikely metaphors and similes. I’ll never forget how in “College Town” in Don’t Cry, she described one character as having the “face of a greyhound,” which I thought was simple and brilliant.

On the one hand then, in Gaitskill’s work you get the very sort of high-intellect descriptors mixed with very reflex-oriented, gutteral metaphor. While the body and the mind don’t necessarily coexist in her fiction, they share the burden of the story telling. It’s an interesting give-and-take.

A lot of the stories are about intimate relationships. Gaitskill’s objectivity, when applied to sex and sexuality, is somewhat uncanny, but it also feels very honest and true to me in a way that doesn’t at all glorify or memorialize the sex act in any way. There’s no sentimentality in her work. That’s what I’m trying to say. But it is emotional. The emotional effect of her work is cumulative, and many of the stories are burdened by lonesomeness, by characters who are, like their narration, almost fully detached from the world itself, held on by the thread that tethers them to the story (which sometimes breaks off at the end, letting them drift off into nothingness).

Of all the prose writers I’ve been writing, I think it’s she who I admire most. The craft of her language is, to me, exquisite and interesting and challenging in a lot of ways, but always true.

The Hell of Form

I wrote a poem last night. An honest-to-gawd poem. It hasn’t been happening often lately, partly because I’ve been so busy, partly because I’ve been more interested in going on dates with short fiction, and partly because I’ve been putting too much pressure on myself.

The title of this post comes from a Beckian Fritz Goldberg poem that you should read in a book you should also read (Lie Awake Lake) because it would be good for you.

I’m teaching a workshop at The Writer’s Center right now called “The F Word: Poetic Forms,” exploring primarily non-traditional forms (although to do so hefty discussion of traditional forms is obviously involved). Last week, my students took a traditional form and altered it to suit their purposes, which I think helped them see the possibility of “play” in their poems.

Not that their pieces were “light”; in fact, it was quite the opposite. But several of them sought out restriction that helped them.

When I was writing last night, I let a form establish itself in my first stanza–a loose form, mostly involving number of words, a first-line simile that dictated the next lines’ content, and a shift out of the stanza into the next prompted by a who or the word “where.” I also gave myself the loose premise that the poem would be about the idea of flickering, which ultimately kept it close to the idea of light and vision.

I’m not unhappy with it, although it feels like an evolution.

The last poem I wrote was a sonnet about the movie The House on Sorority Row (1983), which uses only sight rhyme and no sound rhyme on its otherwise traditional rhyme scheme (the last couplet, for example, uses “laughter” and “slaughter”).

But I miss the feeling of being swept up by the hand of a sequence of pieces. This piecemeal work is less fun for me.

I’m trying to bring my obsession with form into my prose, but it’s more difficult for me there. In my last story, I tried working with the idea of “negative space storytelling,” where the backdrop of the narrator’s story is sort of the “true narrative,” but it is lensed through the narrator’s more immediate experiences and concerns during that time, and the events are shuffled out of order, since the narrator is too young to understand the causality of one event leading to the next.

Writing is fun. I should do it more often.

Like Tiger Woods, I Too Had an Affair

and it was with David Leavitt, and it only recently ended.

But unlike Tiger Woods, I am not sorry.

I spent the last several months reading Leavitt’s Collected Stories from cover to cover. I loved it. I hope it’s no secret that I love a short story. I do. If I cheat on poetry, it’s always with a short story. I love their brevity, like single windows in a hallway, each with a private and discrete view. And now, I love David Leavitt.

I heard him read once, at a conference, and he is foxy. His prose is also foxy. And, sometimes pretty ballsy.

Stories that stand out to me:

“Alien,” in which a mother comes to terms with the fact that her young daughter is convinced she is an alien waiting to be reunited with her people.

“Dedicated,” in which Celia and Nathan first appear (more later), exploring the complicated dynamic of the queer peer/gay guy relationship.

“The Infection Scene,” in which the story of a modern-day bug chaser is compared to a historically fictional account of Oscar Wilde’s traitorious lover Lord Douglas.

“The Marble Quilt,” in which a linguist is interviewed by Italian police about the murder of his ex-lover, a marble thief.

“My Marriage to Vengeance,” in which a woman attends the wedding of her ex-lesbian ex-lover.

“Houses,” in which a married man emerges from the wreckage of his marriage to a woman and his affair with a man.

“Black Box,” in which a man comes to terms with his lover’s death in an airplane crash in a very unusual way.

I could definitely feel the stories come together as stronger and more forceful works in each subsequent collection (there are three collections in this volume). The third collection I read in a weekend and could not stop, the stories were so beautifully written and so compelling.

What I truly loved about this, though, were Nathan, Celia, and Andrew.

Nathan and Celia, really. The three characters are introduced in “Dedicated” and come back again in subsequent stories and collections. Mostly we see the world through Celia’s eyes, checking in with her as she slowly but surely becomes her own person, stepping out from behind Nathan’s obscuring shadow. It is a joy to spend time with her, to see the world as she sees it. She is level-headed, a little insecure, but good-hearted, warm-hearted, and astute.

It was surprising to me as I first encountered the two of them in “The Wooden Anniversary,” a novella from Arkansas, and read first how they ended up in life, then went back and got the back story.

This is a book I’ll want to read again.

It’s not too late anymore…

…for you to read Matt Bell’s The Collectectors, which is now available free via Issu in a special extended version.

Bell’s prose chapbook tells the story of two very strange brothers whose home becomes both a sanctuary of beloved objects and a repository of needless things over the course of their lives. Bell’s short, lyric sections alternate between lists and inventories and brief narrative passages with confidence and ease, braiding the tale page by page.

It was a fun, interesting, and compelling read–and, I hope, a preview of what’s in store when Bell releases his first short story collection in the near future…

The Vacuum of Thought

Have not been writing much new poetry, but have been enjoying some revision work and also reading a lot:

Nothing Right, Antonya Nelson
Don’t Cry, Mary Gaitskill
Collected Stories, Amy Hemphill
Chapters from an Autobiography, Samuel M. Steward
Sight Map, Brian Teare
National Anthem, Kevin Prufer

National Anthem is a book I wish I’d written. It’s strange and satirical and sincere and has odd recurring tropes–snow, parachutes–and is altogether very smart.

I wasn’t loving the Teare book…until I got about four or five poems in and then WHAM! Teare does what he does best, using form inventively to surpass all my poetic expectations. It was just a smart first section. I haven’t gone further than that yet, biding my time…I’m happy because he’s coming to Fall for the Book in VA in September, so hopefully I’ll get him to sign that and his other book.

You all know I love Mary Gaitskill like nobody’s business. “He had the face of a greyhound.” Brilliant. Don’t Cry is awesome. I think I enjoyed Veronica more, but it was so great to be in her work again.

Another reason I love Mary Gaitskill

She was twenty-five. I was thirty-three. She was already editor in chief of a venerable avant-garde press, a veritable circus of caged monsters and their stylish keepers. She spoke with a combination of real confidence and its flimsy counterfeit. Monsterless, I barely knew how to speak at all, and what I could say was timid and unctuous. It didn’t matter. She wore a heavy silver necklace over her white T-shirt, under which her small breasts gave off dark, glandular warmth. Behind the bar, a mountain of green, blue, and gold bottles glimmered before a murky mirror lake. On the television above the bar, a rock star in an elaborate video drew a door in the air with a piece of chalk, smiled, and stepped through it. Jukebox music rose up, making a forest of sound, through which young girls traveled on their way to the bathroom. Above us, the fog traveled, too, laughing and quick. The bathroom door creaked loud and long; slim thighs went past, along with a swinging little wrist loaded with shining jewelry. We were hungry for this, all of this, and for each of us, “this” took form in the other. We ate each other with our eyes and, completely apart from our inconsequential words, our voices said, How delicious. We impulsively kissed, and separated quickly, laughing like people who had accidentally brushed against each other on the sidewalk. Then with a nervous toss of her head, she glided in close again. Soft heat came off her face, and then there was the dark, sucking heat of her mouth. She said, “I’d take you to dinner, but my girlfriend is expecting me.”

Mary Gaitskill, “Today I’m Yours,” Don’t Cry

Bonus points if you can name the video referenced above.

Finding Fiction

I made a quick trip back to Phoenix to spend time with my family on Mother’s Day (some of you know my mom has been fighting an illness for the past few years, so these things have become more important) and had a fantastic time with everyone. While it makes me homesick to exist so fully in two different places, it’s part of the process for now.

Aside from the personal, the interesting part of the trip was that I spontaneously wrote a short story called “Rhinoplasty.” I conceived of, wrote, and finished 18 pages of prose over the weekend, writing most of it on the plane home and then finishing it up once I was back in my apartment.

Is it good? I don’t know. But it felt good to do something different, to work in a longer form, to tell a story (lyrically, to some degree) and inhabit characters in a different way. I have another story in progress about small-town zombies that I hope to get back to soon as well.