May 152010
 

Herewith it’s a huge pleasure to introduce my friend  Bill Gaston, a writer of poignant and sometimes Rabelaisian family stories, plays, novels, and a fine sports memoir Midnight Hockey. He teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island (way to the left if you’re looking at a map of Canada). “The Night Window” can be found in print in Bill’s story collection Gargoyles. It’s a story I know well because I included it in Best Canadian Stories the last time I edited the annual anthology (during my ten years as editor, I picked Bill three times).

dg



The Night Window

By Bill Gaston

Tyler’s librarian mother has brought two home for him. He hefts them, drops them onto his bed. One is on fly fishing. The second is Crime and Punishment. Tyler suspects Dostoevsky is a writer he will read only if made to, for instance if it’s the only book he brings on this camping trip.

Tyler knows that what he is actually weighing here is his degree of insubordination. Yesterday his mother’s boyfriend–Kim–went through all their gear, inspecting wool sweaters and cans of food. Peering into Tyler’s hardware store plastic bag he shook his head and pointed in at the new reading-light with its giant dry cell battery.

“It’s a natural-light camping trip,” he said, unpointing his finger to waggle it, naughty-naughty, in Tyler’s face. Tyler saw how he could fall to an easy hate of his mother’s boyfriend, except that Kim was just always trying to be funny. His mother had explained this early on.

“Umm…no lights?” his mother began, half-coming to Tyler’s defense. “If I have to pee in the middle of the night? Kim, you want some on you?”

It was this kind of statement (which had Kim laughing over-loud) that made Tyler turn away blank faced, that made him not want to go camping, and let his mother go wherever she wanted without him. It must be exactly this sort of statement that offends her co-workers at the library; it’s the reason she fits nowhere, and dates someone like Kim Lynch.

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May 132010
 

Proctor

 

This past  month I’ve read and re-read fifteen short pieces, each of which  might be called a list essay. I say this with the confession that before last month I didn’t even know such a form existed. I did, though, find myself writing in it and blindly starting to lay out some basic precepts as I wrote, then trying to identify them in other essays. I can’t precisely identify  the methods I used in finding the essays I chose, except to say that I searched through my non-fiction anthologies for essays that looked like the ones I was writing (and I mean “looked” in the most physical sense – I tried to find essays that resembled lists), googled the term “list essay,” and asked everyone I knew if they could think of possible examples. Perhaps rather haphazardly, I found and read the following “list essays”:

  • Leonard Michaels, “In the Fifties
  • Wayne Koestenbaum, “My ’80s
  • Jonathan Lethem, “13, 1977, 21” [from Lethem's The Disappointment Artist; also the anthology The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction]
  • Susan Allen Toth, “Going to the Movies” [from Harper's Magazine, May 1980; also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Carol Paik, “A Few Things I Know About Softball” [from Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Volume 9, Number 2, Fall 2007, also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Debra Marquart, “Some Things I Know About That Day”
  • Wendy Rawlings, “Virtually Romance: A Discourse on Love in the Information Age”
  • Nancy Lord, “I Met a Man Who Has Seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and This Is What He Told Me” [from Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Volume 9, Number 1, Spring 2007, also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Michele Morano, “Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood” [from Morano's Grammar Lessons, also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Meriwether Clarke, “The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay
  • Sei Shonagon, “Hateful Things” [from Shonagon's Pillow Book, also The Art of the Personal Essay anthology]
  • Christopher Smart, “My Cat Jeoffry” [from Smart's Jubilate Agno]
  • Brenda Miller, “Table of Figures” [from Miller's Blessing of the Animals, also The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol.3]
  • Anonymous, “(names have been changed)” [from The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol.3]
  • Dawnelle Wilkie, “What Comes Out” [from The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol.3]
  • Tim Bascom, “Community College”

In reading at these essays I tried to establish certain “rules” that the pieces seemed to share, and found that in fact this motley crew did have some common characteristics.  I also should note that I’m looking at the pieces in terms of their connections to this form, not as individual pieces, so all references to them will be in terms of how they illustrate the precepts of the form. So here’s what I learned:

1.

That the term “List Essay” might not be precisely correct. Early on this semester Doug posted a link to David Blakesley’s review of Reinventing Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story by John D. O’Banion. In this review  Blakesley sums up  O’Banion’s admixture of the list story like this:

List is the form of discourse utilized by logic or systematic thought; story is the form utilized by narratival thought… In their application, “List records scientific truth, with logic providing tests of a List’s accuracy and universality. Story embodies aesthetic ‘truth’ (meaning), with narration providing guidance in revealing and discovering such situationally bound meaning.”

It’s important to point out here that the list essay is a different entity than the list story, since technically the essay is a non-fiction form that usually contains elements of both systematic and narrative style. So by this reasoning, almost every essay is to some degree  a systematic-narratival or list-story essay – the only “list essays” would be the ones that don’t employ any narrative. With this in mind, I’d propose the title systematic narrative essay. Aesthetically it’s not as concise as “list essay,” but I think it actually rolls off the tongue quite nicely. And the process itself of reading a bunch of unrelated essays and attempting to delineate precepts that they all follow is itself an example of the tightrope walk between narrative thought and systematic application, as each of these essays does tell a story, most of them intensely personal, and my attempt here is to figure out some analogous connections between their systematic methods of telling those narratives.

2.

That the force that drives the essay is at least as much concept as plot. In a 2/10/10 blog post Doug posed the question, “Has anyone got a clear idea what a concept story is or know of a source that talks about such a thing?” The list essay could be called a non-fiction concept story. In eleven of the 14 essays I read, the concept was even stated in the title:

“Community College”

“Table of Figures”

“Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood”

“A Few Things I Know About Softball”

“I Met a Man Who Has Seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and This Is What He Told Me”

“Going to the Movies”

“My ‘80s”

“In the Fifties”

“The Search for Marvin Gardens”

“The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay”

“Virtually Romance: A Discourse on Love in the Information Age”

And in the other three the concept was subtly, almost secretly  implicit:

“A Few Things About That Day” [about an abortion]

“What Comes Out” [about an abortion clinic]

“(names have been changed)” [about an 11-year-old girl with HIV, presumably from her stepfather or uncle)

The importance of this is that not just the action, but the structure itself of each essay revolves around the concept. And “revolve” is a good word for it, as very few of the list essays I’ve read follow a linear narrative, and even the ones that generally do, like “A Few Things I Know About Softball,” “Community College,” and “The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay,” break up the narrative with systematic stylistic devices. In “…About Softball” Paik breaks up the sections with headings like “Lesson1: Put your body in front of the ball,” “Lesson 2: Catch with both hands,” and so forth. “Community College” reads like a log book of a college lecturer, with headings for each of the 16 weeks of the semester. “The Grimm Brothers” injects social, literary, and historical critique into a skeletal summary of the brothers’ lives, attempting to draw conclusions as to how they wrote the fairy tales that have become part of Western culture’s collective unconscious.. In Jonathan Lethem’s “13, 1997, 21” he tells the story of watching Star Wars twenty-one times at the age of thirteen when it came out in the summer of 1977, and even the form serves the content – it’s told in twenty-one short, concentric sections.

3.

That they can be panoramic in scope or ultra zoomed in, sometimes both at the same time. The panoramic view  allows essayists to think of their subjects  on a macro level. In Michaels’s“In the Fifties” and Wayne Koestenbaum’s “My ‘80s,” both writers use the decade to frame events in their own coming-of-age stories. Both relate literary and cultural touchstones associated with the respective decades – Michaels using Dylan Thomas, McCarthyism and Greenwich Village bohemians  and Koestenbaum using Tama Janowitz, AIDS, and the Greenwich Village gay subculture –  to private events in their own lives. This juxtaposition gives these private events  an epic scope. Conversely, in “The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay,” Meriwether Clarke uses 53 ultra-short paragraphs (1-3 lines each) seemingly to remove the epic-ness of the Grimm Brothers’ legend, simply relaying fact after fact about their lives and work.I’ve found the zoomed-in approach less common in list essays. But, like on Debra Marquart’s “Some Things About That Day” in which she lists everything she remembers about the day she had an abortion , the process of listing everything one remembers about one event can reveal to the writer and the reader why this event has defined the writer. The essay is only two pages, eleven paragraphs of 4-6 lines each. In the third paragraph, she finds it “difficult to remember the order in which things happened.” In the seventh paragraph she recounts telling her husband she was pregnant and him asking, “Is it mine?” And in the last paragraph she arrives home from the procedure to find him watching the NBA playoffs and telling her how brave she is. This isn’t the only action of the short essay, but I point it out because it reveals the importance of this day as a reflection of the days before and after it. Also, in “13, 1977, 21” Lethem attempts, through the prism of the systematic retelling of his pre-teen obsession with Star Wars, to come to grips with his mother’s death at the time and his own budding sexuality. Which brings me to the next thing I’ve learned:

4.

That the form is a great way for the writer to get grip on material, how it fits together. So many of the essays I read seem to be working themselves out either implicitly or explicitly in the process of listing and arranging all the individual parts. In “Going to the Movies,” Toth, in three brief numbered sections, tells of three different men she goes to the movies with, how they watch movies, and how she watches movies with them. Each of these is reactive, starting with the men’s names (“Aaron takes me only to art films.” “Bob takes me only to movies that he thinks have a redeeming social conscience.” “Sam likes movies that are entertaining.”) and portraying herself only in her semi-romantic relationships to them. Then, in the fourth and final section, she tells of going to the movies alone, putting her feet up, and singing along to musicals with happy endings, where “the men and women always like each other.” It is through the systematic, quantified analysis of the men she goes to the movies with that she finds her own place in the narrative.In “The Subjunctive Mood” Morano employs a 2nd-person perspective to simulate a Spanish language lesson, which she beautifully interweaves with her on-and-off relationship with a suicidal man while living in Spain: “This is the when, the while, the until. The before and after.The real and the unreal in a precarious balance…But at least the final rule of usage is simple, self-contained, one you can commit to memory: Certain independent clauses exist only in the subjunctive mood, lacing optimism with resignation, hope with heartache.” “Community College” also uses this teacher’s perspective to frame his narrative in time and space, logging his students’ actions strictly from their interactions with him as their writing teacher. By Week 16 – Finals Week – he knows probably more about the students’ personal lives than he wants to, and the Week-by-Week log of their failures, excuses, and minor triumphs shows as well as any essay I’ve read the unique relationship a college professor has with his or her students.

5.

That they’re generally pretty short.  The title of one, “I Met a Man Who Has Seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and This Is What He Told Me,” is nearly as long as any of the nine sections. The longest essay here by far, “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” clocks in at a whopping eight pages, and is by far the shortest piece by John McPhee I’ve read. I’m going to test this precept this summer in reading what seems like a book-length systematic narrative, The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs, in which he writes about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica for a year and arranges the book as A-Z mock entries.

6.

That the language of the form is generally spare, implying connections that the reader must infer from the systematic framework the essay sets up.  A good example of this is the pair of essays, “What Comes Out” “Some Things About That Day.” As stated earlier, both center conceptually on abortion. But they deal from opposite sides of the plate glass window, Marquart  recounting her own experience getting an abortion and Wilkie recounting the life of the health care worker assisting with the abortions. Both are short, unassuming, and quietly heartbreaking, and neither says what is implied. Wilkie even starts the essay by telling the reader, “We do not talk about What Comes Out,” then clinically and unsparingly  takes the reader through the process the health care workers go through in removing and disposing of it. Marquart, in two brief pages, reconstructs from hazy memory the same process , stating that “My friend tried to soften it for me afterwards. Just say you had a procedure, dear.” So, for both, perhaps the United States’ most heated contemporary political debate becomes simply a procedure to get something out. The human narrative is embedded in the systematic procedure.

7.

That the form, while contemporary, is not without antecedents. I recently discovered “Hateful Things” from the “pillow book” of 10-Century Japanese matron and snob Sei Shonagon, which as advertised is a list of things she hates, including pretentious people, inkstones that malfunction, and men who leave after overnight trysts without saying goodbye. She even states, “Sometimes one greatly dislikes a person for no particular reason – and then that person goes and does something hateful.”

“My Cat Jeoffry,” technically a poem, is perhaps the piece I remember most from  my undergraduate early English literature survey course.  Its systematic structure is rigid – 74 lines, every one starting with “For,” all praising his beloved cat. Smart was obviously insane and did in fact spend a good portion of his life in an asylum, but the 74 lines of “My Cat Jeoffrey” do give a loose, loving, altogether unique narrative portrait.

Coda

I went out to lunch this week at Hunan Delight, my new favorite place in Park Slope for cheap Chinese, and when I opened my fortune cookie at the end of lunch it read:

Digital circuits are made from analog parts.

I’m not usually one to assume meaning in mass-produced slips of paper, but this one spoke to me. I come from a family of electricians and mechanics, and though I can barely keep the oil changed in my car and frequently need my wife to help me operate my Macbook, I know this much: Digital circuits work in bits of information, each bit working into the systematic logic of the circuit; if any bit doesn’t logically fit, the circuit will malfunction. Each bit, though, works in a continuous  strain, and thus has its own infinitely variable narrative order. I teach a class on convergent media, and one of the things we talk about is how digital (online) media have changed the way we read, and think. With the rise of non-fiction as a predominant form in publishing market, perhaps the systematic-narrative, or list essay, is both a response and a reflection of this change.

—by John Proctor

 

May 122010
 

I wrote this a few years ago as part of a letter in support of Victoria‘s candidacy for something or other (I forget what). No doubt filed forever in some selection committee folder, it’s never going to see the light of day otherwise, and Numéro Cinq seems like a good home for such lost pieces of writing and thought. Victoria and I have taught together at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and she has two sons (as I have two sons) and we both have a past with Gordon Lish—much in common.

dg

On Victoria Redel’s Swoon

Hazlitt said, “Every word must be a blow.” And that’s the way Victoria Redel writes. Every word and phrase a hammer blow, crafted along the edge of a twisty syntax that is taut, teasing, emphatic and lascivious.

Swoon is something else, is gorgeous, a complex triptych of a book, a classic three-step structure held together by the strings of eros and femininity and point of view (that woman poet) and the technical threading–the repetition of the italicized “Such Noises” prologue poems and the smaller linguistic and image parallels (see, for example, how “…bend into the microphone…” on p.4 in “Somewhere in the Glorious” transforms into “And with that she’d sing, tilting and leaning into/ the purpled head…” on p. 71 in “Tilted Woman”; and how Akhmatova, the “Russian woman” and “my mothers” in “Such Noises” on p. 3 return as the “old Jew” who kvelts in “Noisy Woman” on p. 77). And so, though the book moves through its sequence–the young lover in the throes of eros the bittersweet, to the mother, to the multiple female characters of the austere, Chekhovian prose poems in the last section–it is one complexly woven whole.

In Swoon, Redel has hit her form in a spectacular fashion. She is alive in language. She’s a mature poet, a knowing poet, a wild, romantic poet. But, in the end, what she is most besotted with (what the poet in the poems is besotted with) is language itself.

Look at that second poem already mentioned “Somewhere in the Glorious”; two lines in the middle go: “I have only all my waiting. For what have I waited/ by cross street and elbow, for what gadget of transformation?” Then, two poems later, in “Cabin Note”: “We are still waiting./ But for what?” And then in the next poem “Damsels, I”: “If not for paradise then for what/ do I rut, incorrigible in the palm of your hand?” Nevermind that I’d give anything to have written any of these sentences myself with their insistent and erotic parallel constructions, their open-ended and endless interrogatives, their theological and sexual weavings, their surprising turns of phrase. But Redel has actually managed to thread and suspend the thought through three different poems over several pages so that the mind of the reader, in the middle poem (with its acute exploitation of white space, the emptiness of waiting, quite specific to this poem), is really suspended, in suspense, unconsciously waiting for the syntactic pay-off. And the pay-off is spectacular, not because of the thematic surprise (the connection between desire for spiritual transformation and for love is an ancient theme) but because of the language, the bull’s-eye perfect “what”/”rut” rhyme in the third poem. It goes straight to the heart and the mind. It’s what makes Redel a masterful poet.

I love things like this: “What we do we do in this life with our clothes still mostly on.” A line I could write an essay on, an epigram made poetry by the atypical verb placement. Think how a line like this gets built up. It starts with the idea: We do what we do in life with our clothes on. (A slightly anti-romantic, pretty realistic view of what life is like after you’re grown up.) Redel inverts natural word order–”We do what we do” to “What we do we do”– to make the line surprising, give it rhythm and zing. What we do we do in life with our clothes on. An interesting idea but still not a line Redel would write. She adds the word “still” so that we get: “What we do we do in life with our clothes still on.” Which builds in the antithetical picture of what we do with our clothes off which, accordingly, is not what we really do in life. And finally she adds the amazing “mostly”–”our clothes still mostly on” which twists the whole sentence with a wry, ironic tweak. The epigram becomes story, it becomes the image of a couple doing what they do in life but half-in or half-out of their clothes, that sad, comic moment of struggling, half-dressed transition from passion to so-called real life.

—Douglas Glover

See also “Swoon.”

May 112010
 

I recently started reading Steven Heighton’s essay collection, The Admen Move on Lhasa, after discovering his writing on Numero Cinq.  The title essay elegantly compares a work of art to a “living and visionary” city, in this case, Lhasa, Tibet.   He contrasts art (and Lhasa) with advertising and schlock (and modern, planned cities.)  There were many illuminating points which I will not be able to do justice to here.  The following are just a few quotes, the ones I underlined and double starred.

…art usually involves an invitation and solicits the entry and collaboration of the audience, while advertising usually implies a threat.  Or, to continue this meandering trip towards Lhasa: art invites you into the city along any available road, while advertising dictates where you enter.  And when.

Perhaps artists can begin to suspect they’ve created a memorable city, a god-haunted world or visionary town—some site worthy of a repeated pilgrimage—only when responses to the work are unpredictably  and ungovernably divergent, diverse, off the wall, missing the point that good artists do sometimes try to make but without ever quite succeeding—always seeming instead to convey something else.  Something impossible to signpost.

Schlock makes us understudies loitering in the wings of our own lives.

It’s not that art cannot be entertainment, the way schlock is, or is advertised to be, but rather that art, while entertaining us, also unsettles.  For whatever sedates us is shuffling us off towards the great sleep of death.  Art, on the other hand, is a persistent wake-up call, the setting off of a quiet siren in the heart.

This entire collection is filled with great essays, insightful, honest and so well-written.  I hate to be simple-minded and say, This is really good, go read it, but…This is a really good collection.  Go read it!

See also Heighton’s poem and novel excerpt on Numéro Cinq.

May 102010
 

My brother Philip and I have been working on films in some form since we were four and eight respectively. My show business career has gone on hold since starting the MFA program nearly two years ago, but my brother is doing a Creative Arts major at Siena College, so his output has been considerable in the past year and a half. His latest effort is a short film, around fifteen minutes, for his Ancient Epics class, which I’ve decided to share with you on Numero Cinq.  The film is called Kleos Aphthiton. It’s a period piece concerning the ninth year of the Trojan War, during which Achilles refused to fight and sent Patroclus in his place (wearing his own armor) to frighten the Trojans into believing Achilles had returned to the battlefield. My brother stars as Sarpedon; he designed the shots as well as adapting the script, doing all the fight choreography, and editing.  The narration is spoken in Ancient Greek by Michael Sham, a professor at Siena.  My personal involvement included location scouting, helping out with some dialogue, putting together one of the sets, and playing two small roles as Glaucus (on the Trojan side) and as one of the Greek Myrmidons.  The footage was filmed over two Saturdays, and we went through a large amount of sunburn and near-injury to reach the end result.

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