Friday, December 6, 2013

An Exemplary Sentence #3/Marvelous Statements Concerning New York #3

At night, when the big Broadway lights go on, when the lights begin to run around high in the sky and up and down the sides of buildings, when rivers of lights start flowing along the edges of roofs, and wreaths and diadems begin sparkling from dark corners, and the windows of empty downtown offices begin streaming with watery reflections of brilliance, at that time, when Broadway lights up to make a night-time empire out of the tumbledown, makeshift daytime world, a powdery pink glow rises up and spreads over the whole area, a cloudy pink, an emanation, like a tent made of air and color.

                                                Maeve Brennan, "A Snowy Night on West Forty-Ninth Street"

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Small parable about authenticity and the imagination

A few weeks ago, driving back home from a residency in Florida, Alex and I were taking our time, poking around along the way. The South is old home territory for me, but I left Tennessee when I was seven years old, so it seems a remote world, and -- at least in the country, on the backroads that echo the South of my childhood, there's a certain enchantment or mystery about it for me, a sense of depth and of lost intimacy. I feel it in the scent of bacon grease in an iron skillet, in old foxed Bible illustrations, musty quilts, jars of buttons, fruitcake tins full of old photographs, a South quite erased along the highway.

Not wanting to let 95 hypnotize us, I pulled off at an exit in Georgia -- which seemed to me the most richly quirky of the Southern states we passed through this time, as well as the most friendly and open -because there was an antique store in an outlet mall by the road. The Southern Picker, it's called, and the place was wonderfully stuffed with a bounty of finds, from Buddhas to old whiskey jugs collaged with buttons,  folk ceramics, odd bits of furniture, a stuffed squirrel, framed photographs of somebody's glum ancestors. (Okay, I'm not sure these particular things were actually there, but you get the idea.) There was a pleasant sense of both incipient chaos and a discerning eye,  a combination I like.

A black portfolio caught my eye; when I opened it, there was a page or two of photocopied text at the front, which I ignored, drawn to the images in their plastic sleeves. Alex came over, and we knelt down and turned the pages together. These were amazing: prints from the 30s and 40s, all signed by the same artist, African-American presumably to judge by the subject matter, especially of the earlier images here, WPA-style woodblocks or linocuts of black women and men, often frankly sexual, beautifully stylized. Images of work and prayer and song, and then as we turned the pages a new set of images, more urban -- Chicago? then New York for certain then Europe. A narrative began to emerge, an artist traveling from the South toward greater possibilities, absorbing influences from German Expressionism, American scene painters like Reginald Marsh, elegantly stylized illustrators like Rockwell Kent. In fact, these images of rowing men looked a LOT like Kent's work -- were they inspired by his edition of Moby Dick? The stylistic variety was a little dizzying, and I started to wonder if this was the work of a skillful printmaker who never quite found his own way, but kept adapting practicing the styles around him. It was a thick portfolio, and the work was often beautiful, and we found ourselves wondering, as we came to the end of it,  how this man could have such a rich, wide-ranging life, and who was he?

Which sent us back to the beginning, to the typed page I'd skipped over before. The artist whose name was pencilled beside a date at the bottom of each page never existed; he was a fiction concocted by a forger, who'd lifted images from a range of artists (Kent and Marsh among them), developed a story about how he's come to possess the artist's work, and then marketed prints to dealers around the country with some success, until the deception came to light. The prints, which had been three hundred each a few years back, where now thirty dollars.

We found ourselves going back into the portfolio, re-reading the images with this new information. It struck me that they were no less interesting; replacing the narrative of how this struggling black artist had found his way in the wide world with the narrative of how a white forger had concocted this portfolio and the life it seemed to represent was equally engaging. We had imagined the original story as we first looked at the collection of prints, just as the forger had wanted us to do, and we could imagine the second story just as well.  This is perhaps a parable about authenticity, about how, at least when it comes to pleasure, it may not matter so much, but also a story about the imagination, which doesn't discern between the real and the false, since for the imaginative faculty all is invented, elaborated, made into a tale.

Now we own three of the prints: a Deco-looking cityscape, a crowded and raucous image of people going out clubbing in Times Square, and an angular figure rowing a boat alone under a sky full of stars. I couldn't really have afforded the real thing, but the handsome fakes are well within my budget, and they come with an additional layer of story, in case anyone asks.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sky Lanterns

You'll notice that I have not titled this post "On Turning Sixty." The title I've chosen is a small act of avoidance instead, or maybe a way of sidling up to my subject. Or a nod to the reader? Would I want to plunge into "On Turning Sixty"? It's been a long time coming, this year, and so I'll allow myself a while to come closer and back away, creep up to the edge and then stand back and reconsider.

Rounding a new decade feels momentous, especially as that first digit clicks higher. When I turned forty I wasn't at all bothered about it; I didn't, in truth, have much time to think about it, because we were in the grip of the epidemic then, my life entirely shaped by my lover's illness and the wildfire crisis around us. At fifty, I felt stronger than I ever had, and absorbed in my work as a writer and teacher, and if it was a little startling to find myself suddenly at the half-century mark, I didn't spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about it. 

But sixty has been looming on my horizon for a while now. I wish that I could say I haven't given the number power. Let me hasten to say I know sixty doesn't mean what it used to, and that plenty of the most vital people I know, those compelling ones most engaged in what they're doing, are in their sixties, or older. I don't especially want to be young again, and I don't find that I am attracted to younger men per se, or that I've fallen into that general category of invisibility older people, and perhaps especially older gay men, fear is their lot. No way.

But the fact remains that all my life sixty has been a demarcation point, a line in the proverbial sands of time, and when I try to visualize a person at sixty what comes to me are received images, old news. I suspect I'll be struggling with this for a bit. Five years ago, when I was a guest at Stanford, I wandered into a thrift shop in a neighboring town and found a sweater I liked, a copy of a vintage black pullover with a nice coppery stripe around the collar. When I took it up the counter, the woman behind the cash register said, "Would you like the senior discount?" I imagine my face crumpled a bit, because she immediately said, "You only have to be 55," and then I found myself fighting back tears. It's a little theatre of mortality, that sort of moment. It asks you to attend to the cumulative changes in your own body, to the odd experience of  that current that seems barely to move at all and then -- as a perception so universal as to constitute a cliche of aging goes --  suddenly there you are. My sister just wrote this to me in a birthday card: I work up one day and I was old, how did that happen?

My sister is 70. That little four-word sentence feels so unlikely to me.  I write it and immediately I am on the school playground in Tucson, in 1962; my sister has come for a visit, with her two very young children, and this morning early they have gone back home to Tennessee. Under the wide desert sky with its unshielded sun in the radiant blue, I am suddenly filled up with her absence. I am a fourth grader at recess, and she's a young mother, and though we share much in her bodies and in our language and knowledge she's nowhere near. That feels just as real to me as this moment, when I am sitting across the table from my lover, he at his laptop and me at mine, the dogs asleep on the couch, one of them whistling a little in his dream, and my sister far away, in Las Vegas, an old woman now. 

Alex and I have been talking about an addition we'd like to make to this house, to make the tiny kitchen a little bigger, a version of a Philip Johnson-style glass box from which we could look out at the garden, the autumn sky unveiling as the leaves fall, the astonishing moonlight here that some nights seems a white substance, a solid occupying every unshadowed space. Just today I thought about the kitchen, and found myself wondering if there's time to make the change. I don't think I have ever thought that way before, not quite so directly. How many more books will I write? I will see my beautiful dogs grow old, too -- I know I have that much time.

But I don't mean for this to feel saturated in self-pity; the motion through time is the lot every person and therefore you can't completely lament it without feeling self-indulgent. Before the birthday, I felt as if I were clenching a bit, bracing for the day, When it arrived, I thought I'd do things that would shape or predict what I might be doing during the year ahead, but in truth I pretty much slept the day away, unable to lift my attention toward some brighter things. But late in the afternoon the weight started to lift. Alex and I were going to an art opening, and he'd invited some neighbors over for drinks after. All a convivial and cheering time, and once it was dark two of our friends  came with us to a deserted bay beach for a thrilling (and illegal) celebration. We launched five "sky lanterns", also known as fire balloons -- a gift from Alex --  out over the dark water, one at a time, one for each decade of my life thus far.  Two of us would hold the fragile construction of colored paper and bamboo steady, while another lit the wax-soaked paper square beneath, and as the flames took the hot air released would fill the empty paper sack, and soon it would begin to tug upward at our hands. Released, it would go flying up into the night in a great rush, the fueling flame below the bell of  orange or green or yellow paper like a burning skirt. How wonderful to watch it spring to life and sail high, safely out over the dark water. I felt i'd been lifted up out of my low place, newly eager to witness the arc of the new decade,

The next day I woke feeling pretty much the same way; an interest, a curiosity, was growing where the sadness had been. I can't say I am fine with the motion of time; who among us could honestly claim that? A Buddhist saint, or one who believed the best way through this world was to get it over with in favor of the next. I was appalled, a week or so later, to be hit with the bald thought that in ten years I'd be seventy. Ten years seems like no time.

But then. So many I knew died in the plague years; so many never had the time I've had already, much less the time to come. And Eileen, a lovely acquaintance here in The Springs died yesterday, in her midfities, of cancer -- a bright spirit who'd have brought her characteristic inventiveness and joy to decades more. Something like what I hope to be doing myself, though my guess is you don't get to go there without at least a bit of self-mourning. Is it particularly difficult for gay men, or perhaps for people of my generation in general, to come to terms with our situation in time? Or perhaps for people without children or grandchildren? Is it just as hard for everybody? Whatever the case, my work's the same: to be here with my eyes open as wide as possible. To remember Galway Kinnell's essential "Prayer":

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A few things the imagination achieves

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.

                                                                                     J. G. Ballard

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Happiness of Being Nearly Finished

I've been working away this summer -- not so much with a steady, deliberate focus, but paying attention to when the moment and spirit seem right for writing. I seem to be cultivating a serious offhandedness. When I was trying to explain this to an audience who were asking questions about my working methods a couple of weeks ago, I found myself talking about not wanting to come at the poem too directly. That is, not wanting to approach the image that's triggering it or the core of feeling it contains as if I'm going to seize hold of it, but rather sort of sidling in, relaxing with it, maintaining a certain sense of the casual. I know perfectly well that's a sort of elaborate game; poems matter to me immensely, but sometimes the best way to bring them into being is to take some of the pressure off and work as if you're dashing off a note, or scribbling a line or two on the back of an envelope. To write without one hand knowing what the other's doing.

This feeling came to the fore while I was working on the bestiary I made with Darren Waterston. Because that lyric sequence had to be done in a very short time, I found myself writing in scraps and bits, not trying to fit anything together. I was just writing lines and notes to show to Darren, and increasingly I liked feeling that I wasn't doing my "real work" -- a liberating sense if ever there was one.

I took an early train from the city out to Amagansett a  couple of weeks ago. I slept for the first hour and a half, then woke with a lucid sort of energy and took out my laptop. I'd been carrying around three poems in various stages of revision; one nearly there, one with a couple of rough spots, and one that was barely a sentence stem. In the hour it took to make it to the small platform (which, in July, smells like mown grass and blooming privet) I finished all three of them. I can only remember a few times before like that -- once in a coffee shop in Hayes Valley, where I wrote three new poems in a morning. Once or twice before, years ago. That fountaining energy doesn't come with a manic edge,  though I've certainly known those states too. It's a kind of calm, continuous lift. Three poems, the train doors open, and that's the end of that.

I have three drafts yet to finish and then I'll be done with a new book, DEEP LANE. I love this feeling, this sense of something-about-to-be-whole. The book has the force of selfhood, by now; it is, I mean,  itself, its direction ineluctable. It's mine to be the craftsman and the witness, to help it come to light, polish it for presentation. The happiness of it lies underneath everything I'm doing. As if  I have a secret, a treasure. Later for doubt, I know, and for uncertainty. I'll only stay in this state a little while. But for now, pleasure.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Three days into June

My garden, the third of June, 2013, in The Springs, East Hampton, New York. This season's off to a splendid start.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Swarms and Flocks and Hosts

From the New York Public Library, here's a link to a podcast of my recent appearance there with the wonderful visual artist Darren Waterston. We're discussing our new bestiary, A SWARM, A FLOCK, A HOST, which has just been published as a superb letter press portfolio by the San Francisco Museum of Art, and in a startlingly stylish trade edition by Prestel. Click here to see more about the Library program, or view the podcast.

Friday, May 31, 2013

How Editions Mean: Walt Whitman Redesigns his Book

It's Walt Whitman's birthday, and today Sally Keith and I read at the Library of Congress to celebrate. I was especially delighted that the Special Collections Librarian had prepared a display of marvelous materials: editions, correspondence, and rarities such as a volume of the Calamus poems combined with Whitman's letters to Peter Doyle -- a most telling combination -- actually signed by Doyle! And printed in an edition of all of five copies, in the early years of the 20th century; those must have been intended for a very special audience.

I have a reproduction of the first edition of Leaves of Grass from 1855, but my copy doesn't do justice to the subtlety of the original: the gold lettering on the cover, with the title branching into roots at the bottom of the letters, and the embossing on the cover are more subtle and handsome than I knew.

But what really excited me was seeing the 1856 edition, which Whitman had boldly self-published after the first edition of the previous year sold not a bit. I'd always assumed it followed the same design, but far from it: the new version is small and thick, and it's been trans-formed from a coffee table book for the parlor to a sort of testament -- a volume smaller than the average contemporary paperback, but quite thick. And still green. Just the thing to fit in a good-sized pocket, and looking very much like a testament, which leaves me thinking about how the poet must have understood his book differently, after that year. The new design seems to reflect a new sense of purpose; by 1856, Whitman was going to get that thing into readers' hands.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The misery of self-googling

This morning I made one of those mistakes it seems nearly impossible to avoid now and then.  A Whitman fan asked me about some essays I've published -- parts of a book-in-progress -- and I went searching to see if I could find links to them online. In other words, I googled myself, at least in reference to some particular pieces of prose. If you even a shred of a public life, self-Googling is risky business.  You may turn up a pleasant surprise or two, but it's almost inevitable that you'll stumble upon something you'll wish you hadn't read.

I found myself reading responses to an essay I published in GRANTA, a piece called "Insatiable" that centers on  Whitman, Bram Stoker, the character of Dracula, and the notion of desire as a continuous hunger for what the world has to offer, a hunger that can become boundless and self-perpetuating. It's a frank essay; I'm working, in this book, on a kind of liminal turf between criticism and memoir, and in order to use this method of reading (looking at one's own life through the lens of the poems that matter most to one) I have to talk about my own experience, and place it on the page next to what I read. I am finding this a peculiar balancing act, exhilarating when it works -- and then, every now and then, I find myself thinking, Oh, why am I talking about me?

To my considerable surprise, "Insatiable" was chosen for THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2012, a nifty honor that brings a wider readership. So there I am, in a widely distributed anthology that many people teach, talking about my own sexual adventuring, and the sometimes uncomfortable feeling of "feeding" -- like the hungry poet or the ravenous Count  -- on the energies of others. As one who has written often in affirmation of desire, and on the transformative powers of eros, it seemed important to examine a darker aspect. Why would Bram Stoker say that he based his famous character on "The Good Gray Poet"?

I myself don't think I said anything terribly shocking, but then I live in an urban gay culture in which frank talk is an everyday matter. There's nothing in my piece than isn't mentioned in "Howl," or in the writing of many others. And yet there are elements of the essay that seem to trigger a fair amount of discomfort for some readers, and thus the dollop of online vitriol I wish I'd skipped. Reading it feels like sipping a little dram of poison.

So I find myself trying to think through some of the questions the experience raises.

First, why do I care? I know perfectly well that -- as the wonderful fiction writer Gladys Swann once said -- if you stick your head out of a hole someone will either give you roses or swing at you with a baseball bat. It's in the nature of putting work out into the world, and therefore one just has to find ways to ride out the rough spots. My nature is to more-or-less dismiss the praise and pretty much memorize the condemnations, an old habit and not a useful one; because I know this about myself, there are negative reviews of my work I've never read, and don't plan to. Those voices get stuck in one's head, and truthfully I say enough negative things to myself already,

What I read today were tiresome, homophobic screeds. I know on a broad level there is nothing personal about homophobia; someone who's disgusted by the content of my work isn't disgusted with me, per se, but with me as a representative of a loathed, unacceptable category. But it feels personal, especially when one is writing openly, speaking with the sort of vulnerability that feels to me required for the making of art.

What is summoned up by random nastiness on the net is my own old, stubborn, never-to-be-entirely erased sense of shame. How could it not be? In a time and family where I grew up, the particular transgression that seemed written on my face was somehow simultaneously invisible and declared completely unacceptable. That was written in my nervous system very early on, and to this day there are moments when I feel a kind of internal tensing, a cringe, when I pass a guy on the street in tighter-than-anything pants and elfin boots, carrying aloft a shining aura of gayness. I used to think my response was some relic of internalized homophobia, but when I looked a little deeper I understood that what I felt was fear; I was afraid that boy wasn't safe; he was too visible, too endangered; to be like that was to be hurt.

Probably one of the ways I've responded to the climate in which I grew up -- and to that sense of worthlessness programmed into me -- was to make myself charming. Not an unusual strategy, to seek to overcome prejudice by making oneself likable in spite. There are times when I've viewed this, especially as a performer, as a political strategy. I speak and read in high schools sometimes, and it feels like a kind of mission, not entirely apart from the work of poetry, to say to those audiences, Here I am, a man who loves other men, committed to being direct and emotionally forthright with you. I know from experience that this can change attitudes, and that it can mean the world to a queer kid in Ft Worth or Omaha, who's never had anyone like me show up at school before.

But there are clear dangers in the quest for approval. Allow the decisions one makes about one's work to be shaped by what an imagined audience will enjoy, or worse, approve of?  In that direction lies sentimentality, false witness, and the denial of complexity. You simply have to put in the poem or essay what the piece requires; there is no way around that, though sometimes I wish there were. Actually, that moment when I find myself saying, somewhere into a draft, "Oh, do I have to say this?" is often a crucial one: when I begin to resist what I'm writing, when it feels unnerving or overwhelmingly charged -- well, that's when it's beginning to work.

But one price of that is living with a degree of disapproval, something I find easier to do in some parts of my life that others. When I go out traveling as a visiting poet and memoirist, giving readings and talks,, no one says anything homophobic to me. I'm sheltered by my position,  by politeness and social convention. If there are undercurrents of prejudice, I don't have to hear them. But go online, take a lok
at the anonymous comments, and there are. I'd be curious to hear about the ways others manage this, or fail to; it's a sticking point, and probably a potential place of growth, too. How not to be sideswiped by the nasty stuff,  how to accept a little battering and move on?

The single obvious conclusion: no self-Googling, particularly before noon.