Tag Archives: Winter 2019

What Shirt Color is Left?

Fado, Salazar, Pessoa, and Saramago
A Report from Lisbon’s DIS/QUIET Literary Program

by Mike Schneider

Lisbon, aka Lisboa, lies at the expansive mouth of the Tagus River—one of the best big-ship harbors in the world. It has been home to a sea-faring culture since before the Middle Ages and to ship captains like Vasco da Gama, who in 1498 was the first European to complete the perilous voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. His journey to India opened trade for cinnamon, ginger, and other spices such as prized tellicherry, the King of Peppers, from the Malabar Coast.

From this commercial bonanza, as we learn in school, Portugal became a world power. Its empire grew to include Brazil, from which Afro-Brazilian traditions of music developed that in the 19th century seeped back across the Atlantic to Lisbon. This musical gumbo, a byproduct of the slave trade, became known as fado. At least a couple hundred years old and often thought of as Lisbon’s traditional music, fado — the Portuguese word for “fate” — can be compared, imperfectly, to the blues. Sung by fadistas accompanied by Portuguese guitars (think 12-string mandolin) fado expresses unattained desire, deep longing, and passionate sorrow.

Not well known—according to ethnomusicologist Rui Vieira Nery, who spoke at the 2019 DIS/QUIET Literary Program—is that fado’s deep yearning for something better, something more than reality is also, inseparably, an expression of radical politics. By the late 19th century, this included Marx, anarchism, and the union movement. By that time, says Nery, Portugal’s leading historian of fado, “fado was essentially a working-class song—very politically committed. You had fados talking about Kropotkin, Bakunin, Marx—and even Lenin later on.”

Now a recognized style of world music as well as a Lisbon tourist attraction, fado arose from a subculture of poverty and violence, adds Nery, in sailors’ bars and brothels, in the back streets of Lisbon’s harbor night-life. Students and intellectuals mixed with working-class Lisbonians, men and women, leading to, for instance, a fado from 1900 that begins: "May 1st!/Forward! Forward!/O soldiers of freedom!/Forward and destroy/National borders and property."

It comes as not much of a surprise, then, that fado went into hiding, became an underground culture, when Antonio Salazar came to power. Taking control in the late 1920s—through a military coup that overthrew a shaky republic—his regime lasted until Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution” of the mid-1970s. Less well known than Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, and more subtle in wielding tools of oppression, Salazar was the 20th century’s most enduring dictator.

A well educated, staunchly Catholic, fiercely anti-communist professor of economics and life-long bachelor, Salazar gets historical credit for sagaciously managing Portugal’s economy, which had been on the brink of ruin before a 1926 coup. Harry Potter fans can unknowingly be reminded of Portugal when they think about “Salazar Slytherin.” Not only the reptilian sound of the words led J. K. Rowling to this name for her ultimate antagonist; Rowling taught English as a foreign language in Portugal in the early ’90s and drew on Portugal’s fascist past in creating her fictional world.

As in Spain, where people are still learning, literally, where the bodies of Franco-ist state terrorism are buried, Portugual is still documenting repression during nearly fifty years of Salazar’s regime. How did it happen that most democratic institutions dissolved? The story unfolds in an effectively curated exhibit of photographs, audio, video and original documents at Lisbon’s Aljube Museum of Resistance and Freedom. A Moorish word meaning “waterless well,” the Aljube is a gray, four-story building behind the main cathedral in central Lisbon—almost unnoticeable except for its imposing iron-barred door. Once a Muslim prison, a jail during the Inquisition, the Aljube re-opened as a political prison in 1928. In cells barely big enough for one person, the PIDE (International and State Defense Police) held Lisbonians for interrogation.

Of the more than 3,000 people brought in over several decades, usually for short stretches of a few days that served as firm warning, some were never seen again. Usually identified by informants as “enemies of the state,” often on the basis of overheard conversation, these detainees underwent electric shocks, sleep deprivation, beatings and isolation.

Pessoa’s Disquiet

Until the last months of his life, none of this registered in the literary work of Fernando Pessoa. Still relatively obscure outside the Portuguese-speaking world, Pessoa has gained wide regard since the 1980s as one of the great writers of the 20th century. Until he died in November 1935, likely from a used-up liver, he lived in Lisbon amid the nascent Salazar regime’s increasing authoritarianism.

Pessoa’s most original work, The Book of Disquiet, is a gathering of disconnected ruminations he wrote over more than two decades and left unpublished in a steamer trunk. “This book is the autobiography of someone who never existed,” said Pessoa, writing as Vicente Guedes, one of his many “heteronyms”—fictitious personalities who spoke through him. At various times, Pessoa used more than seventy of these heteronyms in his writing, providing many of them with a distinct backstory.

You can think of them as adult imaginary friends, said Richard Zenith, a leading Pessoa translator and critic who also spoke at the 2019 DIS/QUIET program. The heteronyms, he said, are a mode of self-expression and self-expansion. “They are beings with a sort-of-life-of-their-own,” wrote Pessoa as himself, “and opinions I do not accept. While their writings are not mine, they do also happen to be mine.”

Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock comes to mind as a parallel, expressing a related sense of self-alienation. Insistently paradoxical, self-abnegating non-affirmation characterizes The Book of Disquiet: “I am the ruins of buildings that were never more than ruins that someone, in the midst of building them, grew tired of even wanting to build.” Even to regard this as an attitude seems overly affirmative. “Anything that involves action, be it war or reasoning is false, and anything that involves abdication is false too. If only I knew how not to act and how not to abdicate from action either!”

Seldom does an exclamation point exclaim with greater indifference. For a writer whose writing abjures personality, seeming almost to flee in fear of it—and in this way, ironically, attains its distinction—it’s marvelously apropos that pessoa is the Portuguese word for person. “My scorn for everything is so great that I despise myself; for since I despise other people’s suffering, I also despise my own, and thus I crush my own suffering beneath the weight of my disdain.”

Despite such grandiloquent misanthropy, something that sounds almost like civic pride, if not happiness, radiates on occasion from The Book of Disquiet—usually in passages observing the sun and sky, rain and clouds. “Nothing in the countryside or in nature can give me anything to equal the ragged majesty of the calm moonlit city seen from Graca or São Pedro de Alcântara. For me no flowers can match the endlessly varied colors of Lisbon in the sunlight.”

Frequently compared to San Francisco as a seaport city of hills, vistas, morning fog, and streetcars, Lisbon is a changeable presence in The Book of Disquiet, often vividly rendered. This becomes more apparent in the book’s second phase, begun in 1929, when Bernardo Soares, a different heteronym, still pungently embittered if more connected to worldly reality, takes over from Guedes:

The trams growl and clang around the edges of the square, like large, yellow, mobile matchboxes, into which a child has stuck a spent match at an angle to act as a mast; as they set off they emit a loud, iron-hard whistle. The pigeons wandering about around the central statue are like dark, ever-shifting crumbs at the mercy of a scattering wind.

While writing a trunk-full of pages that didn’t see print until well after his death, Pessoa made a living translating business documents. His flair with words in this professional capacity led to an interesting run-in with the puritanism of the Salazar administration. In 1927, the owner of the business Pessoa worked for acquired exclusive rights to market Coca-Cola in Portugal and asked Pessoa to come up with an advertising slogan.

The story is dramatized in a French short movie with a fado soundtrack, “How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal.” Long before the English-speaking world learned that “Things go better with Coke,” Pessoa arrived at Primeiro estranha-se, depois entranha-se. Literally, “First you’re estranged, then you’re entranced.” More idiomatically, “At first you don’t like it, then it possesses you”—an idea, as Lisbon’s Minister of Health noticed, that sounds like addiction. The result: Coca-Cola was banned from Portugal, which then remained until 1977—after the return of democracy—the only European country where you couldn’t enjoy “the pause that refreshes.”

A more serious intersection between Pessoa and Salazar-ist authorities occurred during the last months of his life. About politics in general, Pessoa the Lisbon citizen maintained a stance largely consistent with his Disquiet heteronyms, Guedes and Soares: indifference to worldly affairs in the manner of Oscar Wilde’s “art for art’s sake” credo. In The Book of Disquiet, politics and current events aren’t merely unmentioned, they’re scorned: “All revolutionaries are as stupid as all reformers.”

Nevertheless, friction developed between Pessoa and Salazar’s New State (Estado Novo). The sticking point was censorship. Strict laws instituted in 1926 required fado lyrics to be approved before being sung in public, reducing the social content of fado to a whimper. Likewise newspaper and magazine articles were subject to pre-screening and several Lisbon publications were shut down.

Pessoa was paying attention, and over his last few years scribbled extensive unpublished notes on Salazar as documented by University of Lisbon historian José Barreto. Though initially accepting, if never enthused, Pessoa arrived in February 1935 at a personal critical mass. Moved as much by anti-Catholicism as curtailments on free speech, the trigger was a bill in the National Assembly, promoted by the Catholic Church and Salazar, to ban Freemasonry in Portugal.

With an inflammatory article in one of Lisbon’s daily papers, Diario de Lisboa, Pessoa left no doubt of his stance not only against state-sanctioned Catholicism but also more broadly—as an unpublished note makes plain—in support of “Man’s dignity and freedom of Mind everywhere in the world.” The Salazar-promoted merger of religion with the state had brought Pessoa to the limits of his aestheticist elitism and forced a deep-seated democratic idealism into the open.

As Barreto observes, the government had been aiming to enlist Pessoa’s intellectual prestige on its side. The state ministry of propaganda (set up in September 1933, six months after Goebbels organized Germany’s Reich ministry of propaganda) had recently given him an award for his poem “Message,” which draws on the faded glory of Portuguese sea-faring and empire to limn a vision of Portugal as a world-leading nation. Probably for that reason, although without explanation, his article wasn’t censored. Titled “Secret Associations,” it ran in a special, sold-out edition of Diario de Lisboa and, at a time of rare open debate about government, had a huge impact.

“I’ve manufactured a bomb for the first time in my life,” wrote Pessoa in another unpublished note, indulging a rare tone of self-satisfaction. After the newspaper special edition appeared, a cultural weekly, O Diablo, one of few remaining public voices of democratic opposition, paid silent tribute by printing Pessoa’s photo on its front page.

In its official newspaper the government ridiculed Pessoa—even though they’d praised him a few days before. “This is what we get when we trust poets.” Articles Pessoa wrote to further explain himself were censored, and he lived the last months of his life feeling he’d been silenced. His writing from that point on became actively hostile to Salazar.

Saramago Looks Back

Forty-nine years later, in the ominous year of Orwell’s title, Pessoa came back to life. With The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, José Saramago created a rich, historical tapestry of Lisbon in the 1930s, embedded in the sweep of European events, lurching toward fascism. His novel inscribes Pessoa himself, along with one of his main heteronyms, Ricardo Reis, as fictional characters.

By the time this novel was published in 1984, Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution” of the 1970s had displaced Salazar’s authoritarian regime. Looking back almost fifty years, the novel tracks European events of 1936, such as the outbreak of Spain’s civil war and Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). It is a ghost story and a tale of befuddled romance as well as historical fiction.

Fundamentally, the novel is intertextually rooted in the writing and literary status of Pessoa: The central character, a medical doctor, returns to Lisbon from many years in Brazil to visit the grave of Pessoa the fictional character. Pessoa, whose funeral occurred before Reis arrives in Lisbon (so as a presence in the novel is an unexplained lingering spirit), appears at will to converse with and sometimes annoy his friend. As readers we know, though the character Reis does not, that he’s a Pessoa invention, doomed to non-being with the author’s passing. In his visits, which occur unannounced and unpredictably, Pessoa seems to goad Reis to question his existence. As Reis (or is it Pessoa?) puts it during their first conversation, “None of us is truly alive or truly dead.”

Within this unusual narrative framework and with an ironic sensibility fitting with fado and The Book of Disquiet, Saramago builds an epic comic satire. Among his targets: middle-class mannerisms, conservative Catholicism, police-state surveillance and 20th-century European fascism. In day and night, rain and sun, Reis wanders Lisbon’s streets, its harbor and neighborhoods, which Saramago renders evocatively.

In a Kafka-esque sub-plot that drives the narrative, Reis out of nowhere receives a police writ requiring him to report for interrogation. As he arrives at police headquarters, he’s perplexed:

They send him up to the second floor, and up he goes, holding the writ like a lamp before him, without it he would not know where to put his feet. This document is a sentence that cannot be read, and he is an illiterate sent to the executioner bearing the message, Chop off my head. The illiterate may go singing, because the day has dawned in glory. Nature, too, is unable to read. When the ax separates the head from his trunk the stars will fall, too late.

His questioning proceeds with understated foreboding—a scene that extends over pages and echoes Raskolnikov’s encounter with his detective inquisitor in Crime and Punishment. As he leaves the station, Reis gains surveillance by a stooge named Victor whose presence is always signaled by the reek of his onion breath.

Saramago’s tone throughout is as if society’s drift toward fascism is a comic opera that will play out because people are occupied with their love affairs and gossip and poets with convincing themselves of the greatness of their verse. Literary critic James Wood praised the tone of Saramago’s fiction “because he narrates his novels as if he were someone both wise and ignorant.”

Gradually, the story advances toward a stadium rally for Salazar’s New State. Reis, in a fog of disappointed romance, caught in the flow of people and events, finds himself among the stadium throng. A speaker proclaims the urgency of the need for a national militia; the crowd roars approval. All that remains is to decide shirt color. Realization sets in that black (Mussolini’s Italy), brown (Hitler’s Germany), and blue (Franco’s Spain) are taken. What’s left?

Enough. Let me not reveal too much of this fascinating novel, in which one feels connection to Latin America’s “magical realism” and the meta-fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis evokes not only a perilous period of European history that calls out for wariness in 2019 America, but also many moods of an enduringly beautiful city.

Differently from but with parallels to Pessoa in 1935, Saramago eventually pushed the limits of official tolerance. Politically far left, he leaned toward anarchism and was critical of the Catholic Church, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund. His controversial 1991 novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, reinterpreted the New Testament as an indictment of God. Government disapproval of this work led him to voluntary exile in the Canary Islands for his last twenty years.

Saramago—who, like Pessoa, was not well known outside the Portuguese-speaking world—won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature, which cited him as a writer “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality.” Saramago died in 2010, but not before prominent literary critic Harold Bloom in 2003 dubbed him “the most gifted novelist alive in the world today.”

* * * *

Notes

Sources include: Simon Broughton, “Secret history,” New StatesmanAmerica (Oct. 11, 2007); José Barreto, “Salazar and the New State in the writings of Fernando Pessoa,” Portuguese Studies 24 (2): 169 (2008); Adam Kirsch, “Fernando Pessoa’s Disappearing Act,” The New Yorker (Aug. 28, 2017); “Fado: Portuguese Soul Music,” The Forum, BBC News, World Service (May 5, 2019).

BBC fado program: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csyp4m

DIS/QUIET Literary Program: http://disquietinternational.org/.

Quotations from The Book of Disquiet are from Margaret Jull Costa’s 2017 translation.

Quotations from The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis are from José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, translated by Giovanni Pontiero (New York: Harvest, 1992).

* * * *

Mike Schneider, who won the 2016 Robert Phillips Prize in Poetry from Texas Review Press, attended the DIS/QUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon, June 23 to July 5, 2019.


Click here to purchase The Book of Disquiet
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Click here to purchase The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2019/2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Things That Go

Laura Eve Engel
Octopus Books ($17)

by Greg Bem

The first book of poetry by Laura Eve Engel, Things That Go, is on its surface framed around the biblical tale of Lot’s Wife, who infamously was turned into a pillar of salt as she looked back upon the city of Sodom. The story is both adapted and used as a thematic frame by Engel at various points throughout the collection, though some poems relate more directly than others to the inspiring story.

It takes the book a while to get there, but after a handful of “Lot’s Wife” poems (sharing the same title and interspersed from the beginning of the book to its end), “Lot’s Wife Speaks” brings the metaphor and framing to its greatest elevation: “what is sitting too long at a desk / in the world without moving / what is a burden // to move and keep moving // to be taken / by the blast / by a stillness // by our looking” it reads, sending the poet’s musing out to the reader as a call, a revelation, and a beautiful epiphany. The poem continues to its close with: “is it a burden, god // how / we may become changed.”

The metaphoric use of Lot’s Wife is a subtle experiment concerned with the greater meaning behind that story. Things That Go is further concerned with human movement through time and the tension we humans have when seeking to understand growth, loss, and gain. Movement, as well as the surrounding moments of rest and reflection, can best be understood through Engel’s focus on several connected images, most importantly the desert. Often the deserts of Engel’s visionary world are those within New Mexico (in the book’s “Notes” section, she admits to being inspired by Tony Hillerman’s The Spell of New Mexico and other writings about the place). In a poem arising from Engel’s attraction to the piece of landscape art “The Lightning Field,” she writes “Light makes the desert look like the known desert.” Clarification is what Engel seeks when she talks about moving from place to place, from moment to moment; it is what we do with that movement, how we know, that pushes the book and its focus on Lot’s Wife even further.

In the poem “White Sands,” she writes again of this observation and its importance: “the shifting marked in slowness / or too speedy to be looked directly at // if I were to follow the sun directly / if I were to whirl like what’s left behind.” Moments like these offer a geographical and tangible center to the motion of humanity. Engel utilizes her space and effort for the ever-present poetic “witness,” which in this case is holistic awareness over morality, judgment, and the simplistic allegory of the biblical influences.

In Things That Go, the entirety of the world is moving, and our understanding along with it is moving too—often to our surprise and overwhelmingly beyond full comprehension. At times, the moment itself is enough to think about: “it’s not a bad place to be / out of my own hands // in the dry season / or a love that knows no next move // beyond repeating dunes sections / break apart // the horizon steady” The desert, in other words, is still there, and though out of control, it provides for us, and provides us with itself.

Aside from desert poems, Things That Go features poems about buildings and the built environment, about navigating adulthood and trying to find a belief in the complexity of relationships. The subject matter is enjoyably collected and collectivist: the poet moves through the world and finds value in it. The here and there. The then and the now.

While most of the poems feel accessible in language and tone, some are more prosaic, scrawls for the notebook: “In a Museum, I Am Moved to Contemplate Pack Animals” opens “Lately I’ve been looking at things that hurt me. / Caring, as I do, not at all for art.” There is also occasional abstraction indicative of the poet’s lyrical leanings, as seen in the middle of “Burden of Belonging”: “to whom do some of us / not belong / who hurt some of us so // but here they come again / this history of men.” And then there are poems that flutter across the page with endearing catharsis. In “First Things,” one stanza reads: “on a day like today / with weather / I have you-thoughts”; moments like this charge the book with a holistic human feeling.

A dense and lengthy collection, Things That Go makes a valiant effort at a contemporary reinterpretion of Lot’s Wife, and its strands of imagery, including that robust Southwestern landscape, offer the book an impressive cohesion, providing balance and focus to an excessive range of topics. It is exciting to think about Engel’s next work, which hopefully will continue to provide the reader with exquisite opportunities for their own reflection and sense of wonder.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2019/2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Writing Sontag's Life and Work:
an interview with Benjamin Moser

photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Interviewed by Allan Vorda

Benjamin Moser was born and raised in Houston. He graduated from Brown University and received his Ph.D. from Utrecht University. Moser’s first book was a biography of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector titled Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (Oxford University Press, 2012); he subsequently edited a series of translations of Lispector for New Directions, and has published translations in Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Based on his biography of Lispector, he was invited to write a biography of Susan Sontag which took seven years to complete. Sontag: Her Life and Her Work (Ecco, $39.99) is the fruit of this labor; the book is a revealing, in-depth portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most powerful intellectuals.

The following interview was conducted in October of 2019 at the ZAZA Hotel in Houston, while Moser was in town to give a talk about the book.


Allan Vorda: How is the tour going, what has been the reception of the book, and what is it like to be back home in Houston?

Benjamin Moser: The tour is great. This is the tenth city I’ve visited, and it’s always great to be back in Houston, where I grew up. I’m lucky the reviews have been good. Sontag was so polemical I thought I would get more negative reception; I’ve received some, but I thought it would be 50/50, when in fact it’s been more like 90/10. That’s a great thing for a writer, especially when you know you’re playing with fire with someone like Sontag. The opinions can be so ferocious—people hate her, people love her, people hate that you love her, etc. It was great to write about such a controversial person.

AV: You received your B.A. from Brown University and a Ph.D. from Utrecht University. How did you wind up in the Netherlands to do your graduate work, what was your dissertation on, and why did you decide to become a biographer?

BM: Ending up in the Netherlands had nothing to do with my graduate work. I met a Dutch person when I was living in New York, and I moved to Holland because of that.

Typically, in America, you enter a graduate program and do your years of misery for a Ph.D., but I had already written Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, which became my first book. A Dutch friend of mine was writing a biography of a Dutch writer, and he was submitting it as his Ph.D. at a Dutch university to the Dutch department. He suggested I submit Why This World to the Portuguese department. Why This World was never meant to be a dissertation, but it was long enough and substantial enough to be one; I had to do some bureaucratic stuff and I had to take some classes, but basically your dissertation is your Ph.D.

AV: Why did you choose to write biographies about Lispector and Sontag?

BM: Because of my work on Why This World, I was asked by Sontag’s son, her agent, and her publisher to do her biography. I didn’t really decide to become a biographer—basically, I had written one biography I thought I was finished with biographies, but I realized I wasn’t because it’s an irresistible subject. It was a big honor to be asked to write about Sontag.

AV: Sontag moved to New York from California and began writing essays, yet at age thirty-two she ends up dining with Leonard Bernstein, Richard Avedon, William Styron, Sybil Burton, and Jacqueline Kennedy at a New York restaurant. Everyone looking at this table would have had to wonder who the hell is this beautiful, young woman? How do you explain Sontag’s fame that seemed to rise from out of nowhere?

BM: This is a hard question to answer. You think, okay, she’s good looking, she’s interesting, and she’s smart, but there are a lot of good-looking, interesting, smart writers who never end up hanging out with Jackie Kennedy. Sontag enters the world as this nerdy, grad student type. She spent several years writing a book on Freud with her husband, and then suddenly she becomes very famous. I think what put her over the boundary between well-regarded young writer and famous person was the essay “Notes on Camp,” which was published right around the time Jackie Kennedy’s husband was killed in Dallas.

“Notes on Camp” seemed to tap into something very subversive and very surprising. It basically had to do with the emergence of both women and homosexuals into a broader awareness. It was scandalous. It’s hard to imagine. So much has changed since that time. Diane Carroll just died and she was eighty-four years old—she was the first black person to ever be on television and not play a servant—so you can see how far we’ve come. To write about gay culture in public was completely shocking at that time, and it made Sontag seem dangerous, and sexy, and subversive. Suddenly, she was catapulted to this level of celebrity which she occupied for the rest of her life.

AV: You state Sontag’s “equation of sleep with death would never change” since she viewed sleeping as sloth and “tried to avoid it, and was often ashamed to reveal that she slept at all”; she became a chronic user of amphetamines in order to write longer. Sontag also stated: “My desire to write is connected with my homosexuality.” Sontag had a lot of issues in her life, including a fractured relationship with her mother; a pathetic marriage; the use of drugs and alcohol; smoking two packs of cigarettes a day; lack of hygiene for days at a time; and her sexuality. Yet this was a driven woman. What do you think were the driving forces behind Sontag’s desire to write and be famous?

BM: I don’t think her drive existed despite these issues, I think the drive existed partly because of these issues. She was someone who was in flight from death in a certain way, as we all are. She was nervous about being gay, and she was always nervous that she was falling short in various ways. But I think that feeling motivated her. If she didn’t have those qualities, she wouldn’t have been the person that she became. If she had lived happily in Tucson or Los Angeles, she would not have been Susan Sontag.

AV: Philip Rieff was twenty-eight when he married the seventeen-year old Sontag after knowing her for one week. Briefly describe their marriage and the likelihood that Sontag, and not Rieff, should have been credited as the author of the book Freud: The Mind of the Moralist.

BM: This was something that everybody knew, because Sontag had always said it privately. But she gave up this book because she was trying to get divorced. Rieff was threatening to her. She had a child with him, and at the time you could easily get your child taken away from you if you were gay. She wanted to be rid of Rieff, so she said just take the book, let me have my kid, leave me alone. I don’t think this is something she did immediately, but it’s something she arrived at because she was sick of the whole situation.

She regretted it for the rest of her life. She would always talk about it. I worked on the Sontag biography for seven years, and I think she worked on Freud for eight or nine years. The thought of someone taking away a piece of work after all those years is maddening. So it doesn’t surprise me that she was resentful.

AV: Since you have a Jewish background, as do your subjects Sontag and Lispector, did this prove helpful and give you a better insight into writing these biographies?

BM: On Lispector, definitely. For Sontag, not really. Sontag was an American Jew like I am—it wasn’t a big issue for her. I think you can overstate these similarities, like I’m Jewish and she’s Jewish. I’m gay and she’s gay. I’m American and she’s American. I think her Jewish background is pretty standard, and in New York it’s not a disadvantage. It might have been a disadvantage if she were like Lispector, who came from a place of deathly anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, but that wasn’t the case for Sontag.

AV: Irene Fornés, a Cuban-American playwright and director, became Sontag’s lover in 1959. Despite having been married and having a son as well as a lengthy affair with Harriet Sohmers, you state that “Irene introduced her to the orgasm” at age twenty-six. Sontag wrote: “I feel for the first time the living possibility of being a writer. The coming of the orgasm is not the salvation but, more, the birth of my ego. For me to write I must find my ego.” How important, both sexually and intellectually, was Irene Fornes in transforming Sontag’s life?

BM: It’s so funny: when I got to the UK to do some publicity, which was three weeks ago, people immediately asked me about the orgasm. Everybody was really interested in this, and I thought it was fascinating because it’s one of these things that you see has changed so much. Now there is so much more awareness of sex, but a lot of older women told me: “We really didn’t know about this, no one told us!”

There was no sex education. It was unspeakable in the media. I think what the orgasm represented for Sontag is a possibility of freedom. She’s locked into this marriage and this conservative society and all these ideas, and suddenly she has an orgasm with this incredibly sensual and sexual woman. This was really appealing to someone like Sontag, who had always been living in her own head.

Sexual liberation, if you want to put it that way, was extremely exciting, and in fact she starts writing more after that. She had already written the Freud book, but she starts writing with a lot more excitement. She starts looking for that thrill you get from certain forms of sex—and from certain forms of art.

AV: Another person who heavily affected Sontag’s life was Roger Straus, of the Farrar, Straus, Giroux publishing firm: “He published every one of her books. He kept her alive, professionally, financially, and sometimes physically.” Without Roger Straus, would Sontag have achieved the heights she reached?

BM: That’s a good question, and it’s hard to say. Straus provided unstinting support, and not a lot of writers have that. He loved her, and he saw her through some of her more reader-unfriendly phases. He would take care of her son when she was on vacation. He would pay her light bills. He protected her. She didn’t have a father; her father died in China when she was five. So Straus was a father figure, and a lot of other writers were jealous of this. That sort of relationship is rare for a writer, and she found it at a young age; I think it was incredibly helpful.

AV: You state that “hidden in ‘Notes on Camp’—not, it must be said, well hidden—is a still more aggressive contention. Camp, as Sontag posited it, was not about leveling: au contraire. It meant the establishment of a new hierarchy. The true ‘aristocrats of taste,’ she proclaimed, were homosexuals.” How important was this essay, which was a bold statement of homosexual superiority?

BM: It was extremely aggresive, in a way we can’t really imagine now. If you look at the letters to the editor, they were absolutely outraged. It’s almost hilarious to read these letters; they were saying it’s the death of America. What they meant was if gay people were allowed to exist without shame, then culture would collapse, moral value would collapse, and consequently the whole country would collapse. You can see how long and how obsessed the right wing has been with these things. Since we are both from Texas, we know the right wing is still at it.

“Notes on Camp” was very aggressive in a way I don’t think Sontag thought it would be. I think she thought it was kind of prankish. It was almost a joke to her. But as Freud tells us, jokes reveal deeper truths, and the deeper truth she revealed was that there was a whole restless movement in America. There was a desire to not conform, not just live the life that your parents live. She gave permission for that, including a sexual acceptance for people, and it was very exciting.

AV: Can you tell us a bit about Paul Thek, whom Sontag said was “the most important person in my life”?

BM: Thek was a part of the movement in her life of which Fornes which also a part. Neither was educated, while everybody Sontag knew was a super-refined Jewish intellectual. I think Fornes had a fifth-grade education, and I don’t think Paul graduated from high school. Yet they were both geniuses. They didn’t need all the books. They could just create, and they gave Sontag permission to extend her curiosity into areas that wouldn’t have been approved by academia, or by the official voices of the critical-intellectual patriarchy. She was absolutely turned on by him, including sexually. He was hot. This was something completely different from her professors at the University of Chicago.

AV: Sontag was derided for her essay “What’s Happening in America,” where she stated the “white race is the cancer of human history.” What were the short-term and long-term effects of this statement in regards to Sontag’s reputation?

BM: Long-term, zero. To my sadness and pain, I haven’t had any right-wing haters for this book. I thought more right-wingers would come out and attack Sontag, but the right wing now has no intellectual component. It did; there was a completely legitimate conservative school of thought in America. For example, the culture was against expanding the canon of great books; it was a discussion that Sontag was a part of. But now? Does Donald Trump care about Aristotle? One suspects he does not.

“The white race is the cancer of humanity” is really a statement from and about the age of Vietnam. I think it was hard for people to imagine how maddening the Vietnam War was, until Trump came along. Even if you didn’t like Obama, for example, whether from the right or the left, he seemed like a reasonable guy. And then all of the sudden the whole country gets flushed down the toilet. You see the reactions people have. I think Sontag’s real contribution comes when she gives up radicalism, with statements like these that sound so over the top, and embraces liberalism, which is about progressive, democratic change. It’s not about overthrowing the government. It’s not about tanks in the streets. It’s about what she does later in her life, like in Sarajevo.

AV: Your analogy between Trump and the Vietnam War is perfect. I grew up during the ’60s and every day you turned on the television there was horrible news, and people kept asking themselves when it was going to end. And now it’s the same with Trump; every day there is breaking news and you think when is this nightmare going to end.

BM: That analogy helps me understand Sontag. When I first started to research her, I thought it was kind of crazy of her to say things like that. But looking through that lens, I don’t think she was crazy at all. It makes perfect sense.

AV: In the ’60s, Sontag had affairs with Richard Goodwin (her first orgasm with a man), Robert Kennedy, and Warren Beatty; yet she had no real interest in these men. These affairs were merely “amusing” to her, but afterwards “it was back to the monastic cell.” Is this how Sontag spent a good portion of her life, with brief affairs with both men and women?

BM: Her affairs with women were not brief. Her affairs with men were often with men who turned her on because they were so remarkable. The men you listed were fascinating people, but the sexual aspects were often one-night stands, or maybe two weeks as was the case with Warren Beatty. Her emotional involvement was with women; there is not a word in her journals—and there are one hundred volumes of her journals—where she’s tearing her hair out about a guy. It’s all the women that she’s emotionally attracted to.

Mostly, though, I think she did spend a lot of time in the monastic cell. She wouldn’t have produced as much as she did otherwise. There was no way you could write those books if you were screwing around all day. You have to work to write all those books.

AV: Sontag’s son said, “I don’t think Susan ever loved anyone the way she loved Carlotta,” in reference to Anna Carlotta del Pezzo, Duchess of Caianello. The painter Marilu Eustachio said of her milieu that everyone did something, but Carlotta “was the only one who did absolutely nothing.” The poet Cavalli added: “I don’t think she ever read a book in her life.” And, when Eustachio reproached Carlotta for her languor, you state that Carlotta bristled: “So you think it’s easy, doing nothing?” It seems unimaginable that Sontag, a noted workaholic, could be so in love with a woman like this.

BM: It’s like a fantasy for Sontag. Carlotta was beautiful, aristocratic, and fascinating to Susan. There’s a moment in the book where someone says, she’s not the type of person who thinks, “Instead of being at this party in Capri, I should be writing a play.” And that’s exactly what Susan was like—always feeling like she should be doing something important. Of course, Carlotta’s life was not enviable; she’s what the British call a waster. Carlotta hung out and got drunk. But it was precisely this kind of indolence, taken to an extreme degree, that was attractive for someone like Sontag, who was always working so hard.

AV: Another person who affected Sontag’s life was the actress and director known as Nicole Stéphane, but whose real name was Nicole-Mathilde-Stephanie de Rothschild, a member of Europe’s greatest banking family.

BM: Nicole comes after Carlotta. She was connected with all these famous people. She was also a motherly figure for Sontag. I don’t think they were really in love with each other, sexually. But Nicole adopted Susan and took care of her and made sure she bathed and made sure she got in the taxi on time. This was at a time that Susan was really falling apart, and Nicole gave her the strength to pull herself back together.

AV: If it were not for Sontag’s son, David Rieff, needing a physical to enter Princeton, she would have never had her physical in which “a metastasized cancer, stage 4” was discovered in her left breast. This fortuitous event gave Sontag almost another thirty years.

BM: Even with the discovery, she almost died—it was stage 4, and it was forty years ago, when cancer treatment was a lot less effective than it is now. She survived by a miracle.

AV: In what ways did the poet Joseph Brodsky, with whom Sontag fell in love, change her life?

BM: He had come out of the Soviet Union, and he insisted how bad communism was, which she didn’t really understand. I think she knew it intellectually, but she didn’t know it emotionally until she met him.

And, of course, he was a great artist, and she was always extremely attracted to great artists. He bullied her, which is interesting because she was known as a bully herself. When she met some of these stronger forces, she reacted in a completely opposite way, as a lot of bullies do when they meet a stone they can’t move.

AV: You recount how in a Town Hall meeting, Sontag said, “Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of Fascism. Fascism with a human face.” What was behind her shift from a radical stance to a liberal one?

BM: This is what Brodsky brought about, and it was also the result of Vietnam. Living in a very small, New York, left-wing, Jewish, intellectual world, Sontag didn’t quite realize that communism wasn’t really part of the conversation in the rest of the country. I think this was the moment where she became a real liberal. She stands up for someone like Salman Rushdie, working at PEN to protest the imprisonment of writers in Korea, and starts going to Sarajevo.

I think communism is attractive as an idea because it promises a complete elimination of injustice. But that’s not what liberals believe. Liberals think maybe you can’t improve everything, but you can open a kindergarten for underprivileged children and help twenty kids get a better education. This requires a bit of humility. The world needs to be changed, and we all know it. But it’s easier said than done. So should you give up and do nothing? Or should you do your little something in your own little place?

AV: In your chapter “The Word Won’t go Away,” you discuss how Sontag, who was gay, failed to address the AIDS epidemic. Why didn’t she address the issue, and do you think she regretted her silence?

BM: That’s a really tough question because of the speed with which these things have changed. My dad grew up in Houston, and he said when he was a kid it was unthinkable that a black guy and a white guy would eat at the same table. It was just something that did not exist. Gay rights were like this in a certain way, but the change was very radical and very fast.

Sontag grew up in a world in which lesbians were considered man-killing dykes, and gay men were guys who flashed little boys on the playground. There was no gay representation, no ideas, no discussion. It was totally taboo. If you were discovered to be gay, you could lose your home, you could lose your job, and you could lose your child, which almost happened to Sontag.

She was someone who was called upon by the community to make a huge change in her life, and she wasn’t able to make the change that quickly, even though she was fifty at that time. Sontag always had relationships with women, but there was an internalized homophobia which kept her from playing a role in certain areas. This isn’t to say she didn’t play a role. The fact was she was gay and everyone knew she was gay, but she never talked about it. I can’t tell you how many lesbians have told me how inspiring she was. She embodied the idea that you could be gay and be an intellectual and write and be respected. Being gay didn’t have to mean the end of your life. This was really meaningful to a lot of people.

AV: Your comments make me think about Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, in which he discusses a poll breaking down the chances of being elected President of the United States. At the bottom of the list is being black, gay, and an atheist. Since that short time ago we have had a black President, and Pete Buttigieg is running for President. Perhaps in our lifetime we will have a President who is an atheist, and remove that last prejudicial issue.

BM: I think Americans are sick of having religion shoved down their throats. I hope it won’t even be a question in the future. No religion? Who cares? Let’s talk about healthcare.

AV: How instrumental was the great photographer, Annie Leibovitz, in helping Sontag both emotionally and financially? Their long-lasting affair was bizarre in that Sontag would often ridicule Leibowitz in public, yet Leibowitz put up with the humiliation and gave Sontag a lot of money during their relationship.

BM: This was hard for me to understand, because I heard shocking stories about their relationship, none of which were a secret—it was all in public. Susan would say terrible things to Annie. Annie, on the other hand, was not a pushover. She has now been at the top of her profession for fifty years, and was someone who was powerful in her own right. It made me wonder how she could put up with Sontag’s ridicule.

I finally talked to Annie after a couple years of trying to reach out to her. I was actually walking along the street in Paris when I got a phone call from one of her studios. Some woman said, “Annie wants to talk to you, can you come see her tomorrow?” I said, “Sure. Where?” They gave me an address in the West Village of New York. I got on a plane and I went the very next day.

I talked to Annie all day, and I really understood that despite all these negative stories, Annie is a tough cookie. She didn’t really mind as much as other people thought she did. She’s can hold her own, and she really loved Susan.

AV: Sontag was a natural beauty, but you indicate she never took care of herself, which included not brushing her teeth or taking a shower for several days. It makes me wonder why people were attracted to her, especially the physical relationships. Why did Sontag have such little regard for her own hygiene?

BM: Sontag’s sister said this was a problem even in elementary school. I think part of the attraction was it didn’t look like she was trying hard. She was just different. It’s a mystery as far as the hygiene goes, but she had star power that is hard to quantify.

AV: If Sontag didn’t address the AIDS situation properly, she definitely exceeded expectations regarding the Serbian-Bosnian conflict. Do you think this was the best moment in her life?

BM: The other night when I was in Los Angeles for a reading, there was this old guy in the audience. I was so excited because it was Merrill Rodin, who went with Sontag to see Thomas Mann in 1949. They had this game called the Stravinsky game, in which you would ask yourself how many years would you give Stravinsky in exchange for you dropping dead right here on the spot. They concluded that they’d be willing to die in order to give Stravinsky four years of life.

So she always thought culture and art were worth dying for. She thought art made human life more than the sum of pain and suffering and misery. She found a place where she could put that idea into practice. This is the story of what she did in Sarajevo by putting on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in 1993.

I can tell you all those mixed feelings people might have had about her in New York, or Paris, or wherever—none of those mixed feelings existed in Sarajevo. People loved her for what she did. They named the square in front of the national theatre for her. She found the thing she was meant to do in her life, and that was to stand for culture and art and civilization and tolerance and antiracism and antiwar.

AV: Sontag had a lot of occasions that helped her to project “her own desire to be reinvented.” In this she was a precursor to someone like Madonna. How was Sontag able to stay in the limelight for roughly fifty years? Do you think her prominence will diminish over time?

BM: It’s interesting you mention Madonna, because reinvention is often a word that comes up with her. The thing is with Sontag, when you look at her life, and her process of going from one thing to the next, it’s not a reinvention that comes about because she has a new album, which is the impression you get with Madonna. That’s not to belittle Madonna; I think she’s more interesting than that. But with Sontag she was always trying to find something to do with herself, and it often comes out of pain and longing and failure. She’s propelling herself, and finding a way to get back on her feet and do something new. I think it’s really American in a certain way, and really courageous. This is a woman who almost died of cancer twice. A woman who was always struggling, who was often unhappy, and who was nevertheless able to keep going and produce this incredible amount of work. One of my ambitions for this biography is that I want people to come back to her work. I realize this is probably romantic, but I really hope people will start reading Sontag.

AV: What plans do you have for your next book? Will it be another biography, or perhaps something else?

BM: I have no idea, but it’s not going to be another biography. I really don’t know what I’ll do, but I think about it all the time. I’m waiting for the love of my life to come along and explain it all to me. It will happen, but for right now, I just have to let Sontag flow out of my system.


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Shit I’ve Cried About

Volumes One Through Five
Smeyer
Meekling Press ($15)

by Michael Workman

Originally published by the author as a zine from 2016 through 2018, Shit I’ve Cried About is that special kind of micro-press release the world desperately needs. Centering on queer love and offering an outline of the struggle for visibility in a nihilistic culture, this pocket-size volume gives us remembrances and recognitions of the author’s sadness over the span of these years.

In part a chronicle of Smeyer’s life with her partner Andy, Shit I’ve Cried About reads like a roadmap to the moments that give rise to sorrow and tears. Sometimes, the entries are simply internal meditations on her emotional state, stating straight-forwardly “I was nervous,” or “feel like a failure.” At other times, Smeyer presents works of culture that have moved her, such as George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, or that delightful moment when she takes a page to muse on the undercurrent of female empowerment in the 1994 film Corrina, Corrina.

Notable in a similar vein, Smeyer often mentions performances by the Chicago black lesbian burlesque performer Jenn Freemann, who frequently appears under the name Po’Chop. This recognition serves as a validation of not only the author’s identity, but that of others; when Smeyer writes about attending weddings for two of her best friends a few weeks from one another, she nots “what an important thing ceremony is, and remembering how hard these queer lives can be, and watching your friends find love, and thinking of the people who died so that we might not feel the need to hide.”

Death, of course, is an occasional subject, as is the form of it Smeyer encounters in a powerful moment on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, when her girlfriend’s sister bans her from contact with her family. “She wasn’t allowed to see or talk to her nieces ever again,” the author writes, “After 14 years of loving them, they were gone. It felt to her like they had died. She felt more alone than she’d ever felt in her whole life.” She pauses, and at the bottom of this page, offers this touching realization: “And I couldn’t do anything to fix it.”

While Shit I’ve Cried About certainly evokes sorrow—for our society and world, for our lost loves and the devastations of indifferent bigotries, for the struggle not only to be seen but to matter—this slim volume is also full of great joy (Smeyer frequently turns to her beloved feline, Ghostbusters T. Cat, for that steady dose of heartfelt uplift). A brave, thoughtful, and mournfully reflective book, Shit I’ve Cried About doesn’t succumb to myopia but looks beyond the imperfections and discouragements which limit what may blossom in our hearts.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2019/2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

The Poet Who Hated Poetry
But Wrote It Anyway:
An Interview with Jose Padua

interviewed by bart plantenga

I was always the con man without a clue,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
the poet who hated poetry and poets and pretty much everything
else as well.

—Jose Padua, “New York,”

A Short History of Monsters (University of Arkansas Press, $17.95) explodes like a cluster bomb of hilarious, acerbic, menacing, satirical, clear-eyed, and self-effacing poetry that uncomfortably lays bare Washington, DC poet Jose Padua’s experiences growing up as a Filipino in a white world and an outsider-bohemian in an overly ambitious culture where Asians are herded “naturally” toward the sciences and away from the arts. He casts a harsh, black-humorist light on our hypocrisies, foibles, and missteps, while still managing an oddly generous manifesto that incites chuckle-groans usually associated with authors like Céline, Baudelaire, or Bukowski. “The monsters,” as Padua points out, “are corporate America, warmongers, cheap cultural trends, overindulgence, addiction, and, of course, me. I’m a monster beast too.” Monsters covers the period from the early 1980s to the late 1990s and was compiled long ago, with the manuscript subsequently floating around in a no-fly zone for some twenty years before finding a sympathetic publisher.


bart plantenga: Would you describe yourself as an autodidact? Someone who constructs verse and lines in direct reaction to what you’re experiencing?

Jose Padua: Although I was an English major in college, I never took any creative writing classes. One time I did speak to one of my professors about writing poetry, and she gave me some tips. A couple of years after college, I applied to a poetry workshop conducted by an established poet, Rika Lesser, but I wasn’t accepted. That was the last time I ever tried to get any poetry instruction. Still, there was one workshop I did take, conducted by my friend Jeff McDaniel. I didn’t have to apply and I only took it because Jeff was running it (so I knew it’d be fun) and because a friend of mine who was also a poet, Heather Davis (who later became my wife), was taking it.

bp: I took some creative writing at U of Michigan, and, encouraged by others, I did apply twice to writing retreat places. It was like I was writing to Mars. I didn’t get in. I’m reminded of this Robert Coover quotation from a 1987 interview he gave: "The proliferation of writing programs has been something of a disaster, a kind of parasitic growth on the college curriculum, once thought benign, now visibly threatening to universities and literature alike . . . literature is losing its variety, its distinctive voices. Divine madness does not go over in a workshop.”

JP: Yeah, I could see getting into a writers’ retreat and just staring out the window at the scenery or at the other writers and getting nothing done. That kind of retreat from the world doesn’t appeal to me—it’s certainly not the sort of thing that would help my work. I think part of why I wrote so much in Front Royal, VA was precisely because I was plopped into the middle of what for me was an alien, uncomfortable place.

I first started writing in grade school. It was a story about a magic stove. I guess I liked to eat and I still do, obviously. College was when I started writing poetry. As I got older, writing became my way of understanding the world, in particular an America where I was a minority/misfit/eccentric. At first it was perhaps a defense against all the attitudes and institutions and systems that deemed me an outsider. Not until later did I take it as a means of celebrating being an outsider. Besides, what always appealed to me about writing was that it was an art I could do alone.

bp: Me too. It’s discreet—pen in one pocket, a notepad in another, and you’re set. Although I am jealous of musicians. Pull out your instrument and in no time you’re communicating with complete strangers . . .

JP: I get jealous of musicians too—how they can put it all out there and see the high people are getting from their art.

bp: Who is your favorite musician?

JP: The most transcendent live performances I ever saw were by Sun Ra and his Arkestra. I’ve gone to his shows feeling sick and depressed and came out feeling healed. And he wasn’t some tall, handsome, glamorous looking guy—he looked like some regular guy you’d see sitting next to you waiting for the bus.

bp: It’s like Sun Ra was responding to four voices at once. I think what musicians reach is often a different, loftier high Poets who engage in chant and repetition can sometimes get you there.

JP: Poetry audiences never seem to head bang or dance while someone’s reading and, of course, if they did, one would go: “What the fuck is wrong with them?”

I remember right after high school I tried to make a film with some friends of mine. I found working with other people problematic, and I started to hate these people, even though they were my friends. Luckily, they started to hate me too. Then, as it happened, the person who was developing the film lost half of what we’d shot. He tried to fool me by giving me back the same number of rolls I’d shot, but when I started looking at them I saw he’d included rolls that had nothing to do with the movie—reels shot when he was a kid, riding on a rollercoaster, that kind of shit. I hate rollercoasters. Anyway, we never finished the film. I went back to writing.

bp: I like the idea of film, but collaboration is so difficult. What movies have inspired you?

JP: One I go back to time and again is Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road.

bp: I love that film! It’s been showing on my brain screen for years. Definitely in my All-Time Top 10.

JP: It’s slow, in black-and-white, doesn’t really have a plot, and the only action is what’s going on in the two main characters’ heads—their moods, memories, thoughts. Watching it is like being alive in their world and being fascinated by it. I find it so much more compelling than any superhero movie. Though I can enjoy a Spider-Man film or something similar, what stays with me are films like Kings of the Road, Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels.

bp: So you grew up in DC, a white place full of shakers and takers, with its other side of the street where the poor, those discarded by the elites, live. Was that blatant divide between have and have-not your kid-view experience? And was that ultimately why you needed to flee for a place where you could find your truer self?

JP: I was born and grew up in Washington. I went to a Jesuit boys high school in what was considered a rougher part of town. Still, I was one of a fairly small number of kids who lived in the city and not the suburbs. I’d always be amazed at some of the stories they’d tell about getting hassled on the bus on the way into town—or having some kind of confrontation with the “locals.” The kids from the suburbs must have stuck out like steak on Good Friday and probably looked real nervous or afraid. Hell, if I were already a drinker when I was in high school I probably would have messed with them, too.

Part of this, I imagine, was wanting to destroy any possibility that I might be seen as an example of any “model minority” or some other kind of stereotype. It’s probably also why I wrote quite a lot about drinking and being kind of beastly. Writing was an act of revenge against a culture that considered me an afterthought. It was also what helped me get over any yearning I may have had to be like some regular “all-American” kid, and enabled me to relish that I was odd.

bp: You didn’t want to be pigeonholed as the “ethnic” poet? Which meant people listening extra hard with sensitive looks on their faces? Weighing the work differently with some kind of asterisk? Well, it sounds a bit like Rimbaud: wanting to be ugly-beautiful-outrageous to tweak your nose at the straights.

JP: Ah, like Rimbaud! I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an “ethnic” poet—the kind of writer who strikes a tone that’s invariably earnest and serious. On the other hand, I do want to show that as a person of Filipino heritage who grew up in the United States in a family and social setting that reflects and celebrates that heritage, my experience can be of great interest to anyone, no matter what that person’s background. And that my work is serious but also by turns funny, shocking, wide-ranging. Certainly ugly and beautiful, and yes, thumbing my nose at anyone who thinks experiencing art of any kind should be something akin to going to church.

Still, when I first started writing early in high school in the ’70s, the impression I got from my teachers was that a writer was a prim and proper intellectual. That was something I could only pretend to be; although I read a lot, I couldn’t carry myself like some upper-class dickhead. Then, later on in high school, I started reading the Beats, Hunter S. Thompson, etc., and I realized I could be myself and say whatever I wanted, and people would read it. Well, it took a while, and it wasn’t until around 1984 that I was published anywhere, but I think that helped me develop my own style and approach to writing.

bp: What’s the single best book for you?

JP: I keep coming back to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s another one of those works where there’s very little action, with the greatest battle taking place in the narrator’s head—the battle between what’s real and what isn’t, between what he wants America to be and what it refuses to be, between the clarity of a sober mind and the strange beauty of inebriation and altered states of mind. Out of simple language, he creates this poetic vision that reaches outward as well as inward and is incredibly funny, which is always important to me. It brings to mind that Emma Goldman quote you hear over and over: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” I agree with that, but what the hell does that mean? I’d also add that if I can’t laugh, I don’t want to take part in anything. Because what’s more transcendent than that moment when you laugh at the absurdity of it all, when you see something that’s incredibly beautiful and your reaction is to giggle joyously?

bp: Yes, that’s your gift—laughing at absurdity. Emma Goldman never actually said this, by the way. It’s a paraphrase, I think, of: “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. . . . I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” What’s the routine of your writing day like?

JP: Oh, I like that! The popularized version just doesn’t say enough. As for my daily routine, because of my OCD there’s always some pattern I have to go through. Back in Front Royal, I’d take the kids to school, come home, have breakfast, then open up my laptop on the dining room table. Paying work I’d usually do first. But whatever I did, I’d always have to check my emails, roll up one particular blind in the dining room, turn the ceiling fan on medium, etc., then let my mind wander for an hour before finally settling down to any sort of work. Now in DC, I work at a desk in our bedroom.

bp: Did writing insulate you from idiots? Myself, I chose obscure/obtuse poems and the library as insulation from the idiot-bully world.

JP: I was mostly shy and quiet at that point and hadn’t discovered, as I did later when I started reading and sometimes “performing” my work, the joy of fucking with people from on stage. But I always wanted to get away from the standard realm. I remember in grade school, when my teacher said we were going to start reading “literature,” she said the word “literature” in this breathless sort of way that immediately had me thinking it was going to be like a long, dreary tour of the FBI building. I remember on that field trip being most impressed by the things we passed by on the street, like the places that showed dirty movies. Eventually, I realized that literature did cover both the serious earnest subjects and all the dirty, grimy stuff as well. And that the literature I liked the best covered both those things at once.

bp: I’ve saved this apropos Frantz Fanon quote: “There are too many idiots in this world. And having said it, I have the burden of proving it.”

JP: Certainly, at least early on, it was a way to keep the idiots away—the idiots being not so much people who lacked education, of course, but people who lacked imagination. I probably also reveled in levels of obscurity in my own writing as a means of keeping people who lacked imagination away from me. My reason for this wasn’t that I hated them so much as I had nothing to say to them. Being around them was uncomfortable, but I didn’t always know this. I think the most crucial part of my early education was the realization that so-called “normal” people kind of scared me—that it was the weirdos and oddballs I had more in common with. And so it was with the first job I had during high school where I worked at a church rectory answering the phone and the door and doing clerical work. The people I enjoyed talking to the most weren’t the priests, for Christ’s sake, or the church secretaries or parishioners or anyone like that. It was the poor and homeless people who came for help. I could go on talking with them for hours, while if, for instance, the archbishop came in, all I could do was sort of stare at him blankly and maybe nod once in a while.

Of course, when I did start hanging out with the weirdos, I found people I had nothing to say to as well. There’s one poet in DC, for instance, who introduced his part of a reading by saying all seriously, “I haven’t written a poem in over a year, which I think tells you something about the state of poetry in DC.” I mean, what would I have to say to him other than, “No, that only says something about the state of your poetry, you stupid fuck.” In the early ’80s I didn’t know any interesting writers in DC, which was how I ended up moving to New York. It was there that I met a lot of people who inspired me. Then, when I went back to DC in the mid-’90s, I finally met writers there who moved me.

bp: So much writing is tailored by writing-group-therapy-committee rewrite exercises to maximize demographic clickbait type crap. That is not you. Why not?

JP: I’ve always mistrusted anything that seemed too restricted or by the numbers. And, since my younger years, whenever I was told how to do something, I was intrigued by the possibilities of doing something different. Real artistic exploration means heading out there and doing something not because you know it’ll work, but because you know it might not work. It means taking that risk. And, for me anyway, it also meant not listening to too many suggestions. I always wanted to make things work my way, and not the way someone else had done it before. Not that I haven’t been inspired and influenced by friends and writers whose opinions I respect. But what I look to them for is never how to make something I’m working on more popular, accessible or smooth, but how to take it further out.

bp: I read a lot of poems—or let’s say parts of poems before tuning out—that seem to have been crafted by a flower arranger; they’re so self-consciously “I am political or I identify as this or that,” as if poetry is just wearing some stinking identity badge. Do you get what I’m digging up here?

JP: Poems that are earnestly or obviously political tend to be dull. And even though I may agree with the sentiments expressed in a poem, it still needs to proceed as a work of art and, as such, should show us some new angle, some new approach. I have ADD, Tourette’s, and am always trying not to give into various levels of depression, so I want my own work and any work I read to keep me awake and give me some sort of lift. And, of course, any revolution that’s without humor is a revolution I don’t want to be a part of.

bp: It’s probably not really about revolution anyway . . . I think Frank O’Hara was a big influence on me in how poetry reflected the everyday, how the ordinary began to sound extraordinary. And if I hear anyone in your poems, I hear Bukowski and O’Hara. Who did you emulate?

JP: Frank O’Hara was perhaps my first and biggest influence. Then, later, Bukowski. Then I met Heather in the DC poetry scene; she wrote so much about family and relationships, and from that I found a way to blend my influences and come up with something much closer to my real personality. Before then, my poetic persona hid a lot of things—now I tend to just put it out there.

bp: Food and drink are common themes of yours, often used to comic effect but also to ridicule our culture’s weird relationship to food and drink.

JP: Food and drink, for me, go back to an exchange between Samuel Johnson and Anna Williams, a poet who lived in his house and was going blind. She’d told Johnson that where she’d had dinner the previous night there was a group of drunken men, and remarked, “I wonder what pleasure men can take in making beasts of themselves.” Samuel Johnson replied, “I wonder, Madam, that you have not penetration to see the strong inducement to this excess; for he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” You usually just hear the last part of this exchange, and not that it relates to the consumption of food and drink—which for me is always a reminder that we’re animals or beasts, and sometimes monsters . . . our lack of awareness of our weaknesses allow them to propagate, to the point that we behave monstrously and start putting children in cages, for example, or making billions of dollars while your employees work for pennies in a warehouse with the atmosphere of a swamp.

This also brings to mind a recent article by the marvelous poet Bob Hicok, where he notes that while he celebrates the rise of poets of color and the diversity that seems to be coming to the forefront in that world, he feels a bit sad that his own status is diminished—that he’s not as important a poet as he once was. Of course, so many people pounced on him for admitting his weakness.

bp: The PC police are so brutal. One can lament and celebrate something simultaneously.

JP: Exactly! I don’t know Bob Hicok, so it’s not like I’m defending a friend, and, in fact, the one time I tried to see him read, he apparently bailed because he just wasn’t into it that night. It was a rare date night for Heather and me, and we went out just to see him at this bar. I should be mad, but no—I’ve bailed on readings when my mood and circumstances converged to the point where I just wasn’t into it. I think that’s what made a lot of us poets—that we have issues with the world at large. That’s what makes us interesting. Me, if there’s anyone I want to pounce on, it’s some head-held high, neatly coiffed prick who acts like he has it all together. Especially if he’s on a scooter. They ignore the traffic signs and all look like they think they’re hot shit. Maybe they are. Me, I have poems and a book. Maybe I could sell one to a scooter guy: “Hey, scooter guy. There’s a stop sign, you’re supposed to stop. Hey, want to buy my book?”

bp: Ah, you’ve weaponized your metaphors . . . Redemption through a kind of comical purging?

JP: Yes, metaphors are, uh . . . things with sharp edges that can hurt you. One more thing about Samuel Johnson that interests me is that he is suspected of having had Tourette syndrome, along with the frequently accompanying symptoms of OCD. I look upon him as a bit of a kindred spirit. I have the big, fat volume of Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, which I’ll leaf through every now and then, but put down pretty quickly because it’s too big and fat. I’d rather go back to eating, or having a drink. Though I can’t drink the way I used to. I wouldn’t be alive now if I’d kept up my old pace. Nowadays, I’ll have a drink or two a week and that’s it. Which I suppose means that I’m spending more time feeling the pain of being a man. Maybe that’s why I write more than when I was drinking so much—it goes from pain to poem.

bp: Didn’t “A Short History of Everyone in the World,” with the line “I cut my spending in half / by eating my own shit,” piss off certain peeps?

JP: I don’t remember people getting pissed off. What I do remember people getting pissed about was a piece I wrote in the New York Press about playing Scrabble at the now-gone Milady’s in Soho and getting drunk and out of control. People were aghast at the image of me tossing Scrabble pieces around the bar. It was one of those instances of being a beast. Of course, if I’d been sober, my OCD probably would’ve prevented me from tossing those pieces around. I’d be too obsessed with having a complete set of letters to play the game with. I’d be very serious. And very sad, as well.

bp: Throwing a Scrabble piece—that makes you almost an honorary member of Led Zeppelin, what with all their drunken exploits. Maybe food and drink serve as snobby hipster status accoutrements or as symbols of dissipation, like heroin did for the jazz guys? To deal with society’s ridiculous obsessions, you often invoke food, drink, and excess, but also symbols of triumph such as writing, jazz, film, and sarcastic wit to repel the consumer blight of terminal apathy, which allow you to recuperate a kind of authenticity in a society that sees no profit in the genuine.

JP: Ah, well, we do need to make a living and put food and drink in our beastly bellies. Even though most of us have to supplement our literary activities with various labors that pay more reliably, the thing with genuine literature, art, etc. is that it pays us back itself. It doesn’t always feed us, but it helps keep us mentally healthy. I think that’s one of the reasons I started writing furiously when we moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, an area full of natural beauty. But it’s also—we discovered—very backwards in so many ways. Writing continuously was a way of doing battle with the racism and willful ignorance we found there. Both Heather and I found ourselves writing so much more than when we were living in DC or its mostly sane suburbs.

bp: Interesting that you wrote more there—many who live surrounded by beauty are miserable, as if the beauty is oppressive or we’ve forgotten how to bring it into our lives. For me, it was the 24/7 never-leave-you-alone aggressiveness of extreme urban living that disallowed entry points for me to make sense of my experience, because it was like the garbage not getting picked up—it just keeps piling up. By leaving the city you can deal with it on your own terms.

JP: I wasn’t expecting this. I’d always found the concept of writers retreats rather horrifying, so I thought it wouldn’t be conducive to me getting any work done. And when we moved to Front Royal, with its mountains, winding rivers, and gigantic sky, I thought this would be an obstacle for my work. I’d just be too relaxed, too much in awe of the landscape. I thought I’d just wake up in the morning, look out into a distance I was never able to see before on a daily basis, and go, “Shit, this is cool.” Then maybe turn on the stereo, listen to some Kenny G, some Michael Bolton, some shit like that, and just forget everything. Maybe I could get in shape, get serious about some sport. You know, be some normal sort of fuck.

But then we started to notice the Confederate flags, the guy with a white pick-up truck whose license plate said “PRO GUN,” bumper stickers like “Proud Descendant of a Confederate Veteran” and “God, Guns, & Guts Keep America Free.” There were stores where, when I was paying with a bank card, they’d ask to see my I.D., but no one else’s. Ice cream shops—which, you know, are supposed to be cheerful places, especially when you’re walking in with your kids. Instead, we’d be greeted with some sort of death stare or everyone would suddenly become quiet, like we’d killed their good time just by being there. It was stuff like that that that got me writing furiously.

bp: Some of your tales remind me of the redneck diner scene in Easy Rider . . . By the way, your essays about these daily confrontations that appeared in places like Vox Populi are worth another book.

JP: I mean, we did meet a lot of good people out in the Shenandoah Valley, but it took some work to find them. Still, there were many Easy Rider moments. That’s another project, and I do have one manuscript of essays that I’ve started sending out. Oddly enough, we moved to Front Royal soon after Heather won a prize for her first book, The Lost Tribe of Us, and we left shortly after I’d heard about my prize for A Short History of Monsters.

bp: Nicely choreographed.

JP: We’ve been going back regularly, lately, because we’re finally trying to pack up our old house to sell. And whenever we go I find it hard to believe that we were out there for almost eleven years.

bp: Time flies when you’re ruining other people’s good time.

JP: Ha, yes! My presence did ruin it for some people out there. But, even without these literary prizes, the writing itself is a great reward. Not that we don’t care about the money. Which brings to mind something else Samuel Johnson said: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” The poet Max Blagg reminded me of that before a reading at some art gallery in New York. It was one of the first readings I’d ever done where the poets were getting paid. A lot of times that’s what you have to do: You have to fight to get paid.

bp: Don’t get me started. Remember pay-to-play in NYC? We’d have to put money up to read in some places.

JP: There’s all this bullshit out there that’s valued by the dominant culture. Tailgate parties, sports bars, fast paced thrillers (except for Speed, that was okay), Katy Perry, reality TV, the Jenner sisters, Access Hollywood, Disneyland—fuck all that shit. Here’s my poem, it’s good and it’s real: listen to it, read it, pay me. Please.

bp: It’s like those naughty situationists pointed out so presciently: Everyday experience has been replaced by mass media, branding, and ads so that active participation in our lives is replaced by the passive gaze—or more modernly, the paid-for workshop or guided tour where we are told exactly what to see. We entrust intuition to an expert to tell us what to add to spaghetti sauce or look for in a Rembrandt, to the point that we’re only as much as we can afford to invest in ourselves. GPS has replaced intuition. You seem to lament that often in your own way, such as in “The Complete Failure of Everything”:

Out on the rollercoaster people are yawning
while on the merry-go-round children
are screaming in terror.
In the suburbs a man has decided
not to build a deck on the back
of his new house.
His neighbors are at the mall
attending the grand opening
of a multiplex porno theater.

JP: I’m always aghast whenever I run across some article advising poets on how to create their brand. Branding and poetry? Fuck all of you dickheads, just go jerk off and be a hedge fund manager. You should go into poetry because you want to do something real and original. If you spend time thinking up a branding strategy for your verse, I can guarantee that you’re not going to come up with anything original. You may make money, mind you. I recently saw that the Canadian poet-performer Rupi Kaur goes on tour and sells out venues; I think she sold out the Lincoln Theater in DC. She’s probably a nice person, but as far as art goes, she’s adding about as much to the world of art as a cast member of the Real Housewives. It’s like art as salve: soothes a little, washes away, and you forget about it.

bp: Blindspot oblivion has its perks—I was unfamiliar with Kaur. Having quickly (how else) read a bundle of her work, I assume it’s influenced by Wellness Platitude Workshops or Suzanne Somers or a castrated Basho writing pithy Hallmark self-help bromides that alleviate the anxiety of having missed two Bikram yoga sessions.

JP: Yes, it’s a shock to discover that this is what has gotten big! Bookstores feature shelves or end racks with Rupi Kaur and similar poets spawned through Instagram/Twitter. But stores have to feature the stuff that’s sure to sell to stay alive. Real art heals, but leaves a bit of a scar. And the better the work of art, the more likely that you’ll feel at least a phantom ache from that scar for quite some time. That’s what I mean in my poem “New York,” which I close by saying, “I too suffered for my art. Now it’s your turn.” Of course it’s presumptuous to say that people are suffering from reading my work. It’s just that I hope they are.

bp: Yes, you and Rupi are in different leagues: like Sun Ra to Kenny G. Your poems are not branded online tricks of Emotional Monetization. The Situationists would’ve been all I-told-you-so-shocked-but-not-really by Facebook and Twitter, which basically monetize our friendships, photos, emotions, lives.

JP: I’ve been reading Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, which explores her times of isolation in New York City using artists like David Wojnarowicz, Klaus Nomi, Henry Darger, etc. as ways toward discussing her own experiences. One thing you see with folks like these is how they took their isolation and created something totally theirs. Nowadays, with social media etc. on top of things like television, the chance of doing something new—or at any rate, something that speaks of one’s own personality—is just so diminished. Corporate forces keep bombarding you with images of what you’re “supposed” to be, what you’re supposed to feel. It’s becoming part of our bodies like plastics, this sort of reflexive behavior. Some people notice it, some don’t. The problem being that when people feel the need to be original, they now have the means to do massive amounts of harm.

bp: This can-do spirit is great, except when it becomes: no time to think, we gotta DO something. This is lynch mob anti-intellectualism. I’d say informed action is better than headless doing—just listen to how informed by history and philosophy activists like Angela Davis, the Black Panthers, and MLK were.

JP: And if that person, for example, has been feeding off the racist fear that Donald Trump has glorified, it creates a very dangerous situation indeed. Not that America hasn’t always had this racist side, of course, but Trump is drawing his power specifically from that side, empowering it, making it something to be proud of. After all these years of failed schemes—Trump University, Trump Airlines, Trump Vodka, etc.—he wants to make it to the top with Trump brand racism. Yeah, he always ends up failing—even his casinos have gone into bankruptcy numerous times—but right now things are looking scary.


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Doomstead Days

Brian Teare
Nightboat Books ($17.95)

by John Bradley

“I touch through rhythm, / notebook open as I walk, / strike inflecting script // with wobble & slant,” writes Brain Teare in his poem “Toxics Release Inventory (Essay on Man),” describing his writing-while-walking composition method. It’s hard not to think of Henry David Thoreau while reading the eight long poems that make up Doomstead Days. Like Thoreau, Teare possesses a sharp eye for the environment, whether it’s the land, water, or wildlife. He’s equally gifted with his use of language and poetic structure. His poems offer an honest (which is to say bleak) account of what we’re doing to our planet, while somehow never resorting to despair.

Wherever Teare wanders, whether California, Pennsylvania, or Vermont, he finds evidence of devastation. In “Clear Water Renga,” he witnesses a Western grebe, coated in oil from a tanker which, on November 7, 2007, unleashed “fifty eight / thousand gallons of bunker // fuel oil.” In the title poem, he notes that even during a drought fracking continues: “millions of gallons // of toxic wastewater // injected into earth // or kept in open ponds // prone & porous.” In “Convince Me You Have a Seed There (Johnson, VT),” he studies red pines and wonders what the wind wafting through a genetically engineered pine might sound like:

the loblolly

bioengineered
by ArborGen®

its genes spliced

with a Monterey pine
mouse ear cress

sweet gum

& even e. coli
to become

disease resistant

a SuperTree™

Yes, there really is such a “super” tree. Yet the author somehow remains calm, even enthused, in the face of the anthropocene. In “Olivine, Quartz, Granite, Carnelian,” he notes: “So I walk the way // enthusiasm means / I’m possessed by some god,” and near the end of the poem he uses the oxymoron “laughable enchantment.” Even while he understands the land is “the sort of ruin / that seems livable // until it isn’t,” he doesn’t convey despair.

Perhaps it’s language itself that buoys Teare, as well as the reader. Here’s how he describes a coyote: “on the trail I encounter // for the first time a coyote / exactly the color of July.” His ear for ambient sound is just as vivid:

I can hear, my ear
an eye in dilation :: there
the city’s center

seizes my senses
with noise total as weather ::
gate slam, garbage can,

bus brakes, a waitress
complaining on her smoke break,
two small shrill dogs thrilled

into conniptions
in the pet shop’s front window

Another element that sustains this book is the intricate structure of each poem. In “Toxics Release Inventory,” for example, the author employs haiku, with three lines of five-seven-five syllables. Each page has six haiku (except for the first page, which has five, to allow space for the poem’s title), and this poem goes on for fifty pages! The tension of tight form and expansive length allows Teare’s poems a depth and range, a sense that the poems can go anywhere and discuss any topic, whether the health of the biosphere or his own body: “my gut // a bloom of fungus, / my blood an arsenic sleeve, / a lead reservoir, // a wet rose loaded / with mercury.” Note how even this toxic inventory feels lyrical.

Teare reminds us over and over in these poems that we are not removed from our world at large. In fact, his descriptions of his body mirror the way he sees the environment. Here he’s receiving care from a “healer’s hands” as he surveys his body: “OKAY I’m awake now // rowdy with trout // psoas relaxed // my body’s a conduit // it roars with water // passing from past // to present through // pipes & riparian // ecotones alike.”

Given the havoc of climate crisis around the world, Doomstead Days is an all too timely book. While its title may invoke a sense of doom, Teare’s poems accurately report what he finds on his walks, and yet at the same time inspire us to act with tenderness. Here is how the book closes, after the author uses the phrase “men with weaponized // genders” for those who believe they can survive any catastrophe in their bunkers:

the world is awake

be careful my dears

it is the gender

that remembers

everything


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Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead

Bill Griffith
Abrams Comic Arts ($24.99)

by Christopher Luna

For half a century, cartoonist Bill Griffith has thrilled many and confounded others with his surreal comics featuring an absurdist commentary on the chaotic ebb and flow of pop culture. Griffith’s memoir of his mother’s secret romance with a cartoonist, Invisible Ink (Fantagraphics Books, 2015)—a sweeping, emotional tour de force of autobiographical comic storytelling—was a tough act to follow. However, he has succeeded in doing just that with Nobody’s Fool, the story of the sideshow attraction who inspired Griffith to create his most enduring character, Zippy the Pinhead. Zippy is a jolly microcephalic who wears a muu muu and a topknot and constantly spouts non sequiturs; both his look and his signature behaviors owe a debt to the pinheads found in Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks.

Schlitzie worked in sideshows from the 1930s through the 1960s. A succession of caretakers “billed [him] as a female . . . though he was clearly a male,” under a variety of names, including Last of the Aztecs, Julius, the Missing Link, The Monkey Girl, and Last of the Incas. An entire page is dedicated to different versions of Schlitzie’s origin story. As Griffith explains, “the sideshow, after all, is a world where the truth is malleable & exaggeration is rampant.”

We learn about the strange set of coincidences that led Griffith to name his underground comic protagonist Zippy. Zip the What-Is-It? was another sideshow pinhead with whom Schlitzie worked while being handled by Ted Metz in the late 1920s. The pair played violin and piano onstage at Coney Island. After Zip died, “Metz took Schlitzie back to California.” It is easy to trace the connection between Schlitzie’s unique behavior and mannerisms and his fictional counterpart’s non sequiturs and peculiar dietary preferences. Zippy sometimes repeats phrases, reveling in their sound and their randomness. Schlitzie often imitated others. If he liked someone, he would ask if the person was married. When agitated, he repeated the phrase “Y’see?” Schlitzie enjoyed beer, chicken, red hots, and washing the dishes. Zippy has a fondness for ding dongs and taco sauce, and spends time at laundromats watching the clothes spin because he believes that laundry is the fifth dimension.

One of the highlights of the book is Griffith’s behind-the-scenes look at the production and marketing of Tod Browning’s Freaks, a film unlike any other before or since. A dark tale of revenge with an unmistakable statement about the dignity of all human beings, no matter their physical or mental differences, Browning’s follow-up to the success of Dracula starred a bevy of actual sideshow performers; the director had first seen Schlitzie when he himself worked in carnivals. Griffith’s meticulous research allows us to witness Schlitzie’s foray into Hollywood; his wild imagination permits us to experience Schlitzie’s dreams and unconventional thought process.

As in the Zippy comics, Griffith appears as a character in the graphic novel. We meet him as a young artist who was both disturbed and fascinated by what he saw in Browning’s film: “I left the theatre in a half-awake daze, unable to shake the film’s potent images . . . I felt as if I were still inside the movie, living the story, the sideshow freaks refusing to let me go, urging me back into their black & white, 1932 world. None of them were actors . . . which further heightened the feeling I’d been through something very real.” Griffith began painting and drawing Zippy soon after seeing Freaks for the first time in 1963. Zippy made his debut in Real Pulp Comics in 1970 and was eventually syndicated in newspapers around the country.

Although the story has many humorous aspects, Schlitzie and his fellow sideshow attractions lived tough lives filled with mistreatment and humiliation. Griffith has such control over the line that he imbues his characters with the entire range of emotions; we are pulled into their reality so completely that we soon forget that we are looking at a two-dimensional drawing. The skill with which Griffith recreates Schlitzie’s environment works against the tendency to rush through graphic novels. The design is so intricate that the reader is compelled to proceed slowly, getting lost in the details of each panel. Just like Zippy and his many companions, Schlitzie gets under our skin and becomes as real as an old friend.


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Utopian Trace: An Oral Presentation

Peter Lamborn Wilson
Logosophia Books ($16)

by Richard Kostelanetz

Peter Lamborn Wilson first entered my mind a quarter-century ago when he broadcast two-hour monologues on various subjects weekly over the local Pacifica radio station. What caught my attention was not only his verbal facility and impressive learning, but the depth and originality of his anarchism. As he synthesized the classical curriculum of Manhattan’s Columbia College (before he dropped out) with certain exotic interests and experience, he thought like no other American intellectual. Thanks to a modest inheritance from maiden aunts, PLW, as he is known, became one of those rare congenital independents who could spend all day in a library reading, remembering, and rethinking.

The publisher of Logosophia Books, a small press in Asheville, North Carolina, decided that one of these broadcasts, an appreciation of Manhattan’s Central Park, should become the subject of a thin book that regards its architect Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903) as “a hero of the people.” In PLW’s printed interpretation, this American practiced the thought of the French philosopher Charles Fourier (1772-1837) and influenced a New Jersey commune called the North American Phalanx.

For the epithet “utopian trace,” PLW draws upon two posthumously published (and assembled) texts by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin—not only the famed The Arcades Project, but a shorter fugitive text literally titled “Central Park” (though it’s really about something else and its author never actually visited New York). This resonance informs the text in ways that readers of Benjamin will appreciate.

While PLW finds a mellow anarchy (and libertarian heaven) in his subject matter, in focusing upon New York City’s magnificent parks, he fails to appreciate that NYC is also a great beach city, on the same rank as Rio de Janiero, Berlin, or Tel-Aviv—all of which have several public beaches that are easily accessible by cheap public transport. I’m speaking not only of Coney Island, which has been a proletarian playground since the 19th century, and Orchard Beach in the Bronx, both situated on protected bays, but the Rockaways, which offers several miles of sand along an Atlantic Ocean that can often be unruly.

While Utopian Trace is well and good, it scarcely represents the breadth of PLW’s interests, which have included Sufi traditions, Islamic art, pirates, peaceful secession, angels, American anarchism, and much else. Under the pseudonym Hakim Bey he published T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone (Autonomedia, 1991), his single most influential text; the work is a paean to chaos that has had surprising influences, as the strongest books do as they make their way in the world. Influence notwithstanding, nearly all PLW books have come not from profit-minded commercial publishers but from smaller presses whose governing editorial principle is not profit but love.


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“A very full, large,
and luminous space”:
the poetry of Amanda Berenguer

an interview with Kristin Dykstra and Kent Johnson


Interviewed by Peter Boyle

Born in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1921, Amanda Berenguer is among the many outstanding 20th-century poets from Uruguay and Argentina. Alongside such writers as Olga Orozco, Alejandra Pizarnik, Marosa di Giorgio, and Silvia Guerra, Berenguer is part of a constellation of poets surely deserving of more attention. Editor-translators Kristin Dykstra and Kent Johnson have opened the door for U.S. readers with the publication of Materia Prima (Ugly Duckling Presse, $22).

Berenguer published her first book of poetry at age nineteen, but came to prominence in 1966 with the collection Materia prima. Striking for its imaginative engagement with science, Materia prima features long, inventive, cosmic poems that speak of Moebius strips, the Magellanic Clouds, and UFOs. While other poets who have found a successful voice and subject matter in their mid-forties often settle comfortably into that mode, Berenguer reinvented herself many times over throughout her long life. In preparing this first edition of Berenguer's poetry in English translation, Dykstra and Johnson have chosen a selection from six later books to sit beside samples from her 1966 collection—so the reader will find, as well as the “scientific” poems of 1966, visual poems from Composición de lugar / Composition of Place (1976); more personal, often humorous, poems from Identidad de ciertas frutas / Identity of Certain Fruit (1983); a range of experimental and ekphrastic poems from La dama de Elche / The Lady of Elche (1987); a mix of mock aphorisms and iconoclastic anti-poems in Con el tigre entre las cosas / With the Tiger Among My Things (1986-1994); a study of real and imagined inner spaces in La botella verde / The Green Bottle (1995); and the brief, intimate poems of her posthumous collection La cuidadora del fuego / The Keeper of the Flame (2010).

Kristin Dykstra is the distinguished translator of nine books by the contemporary Cuban poets Reina María Rodríguez, Omar Pérez, Ángel Escobar, and Juan Carlos Flores. She is principal translator of The Winter Garden Photograph by Reina María Rodríguez (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019). She guest-edited “Out of Alamar,” a dossier about poet Juan Carlos Flores (1962-2016) for Chicago Review in 2018, and her translation of Cubanology, a book of days by Omar Pérez, appeared the same year.

Kent Johnson grew up in Uruguay and has a prolific track record as a translator, poet, and provocateur of poetic theory and practice. In collaboration with Forrest Gander, he is the translator of two volumes by Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz: Immanent Visitor (University of California Press, 2002) and The Night (Princeton University Press, 2007). He is also co-editor, with Uruguayan poet and critic Roberto Echavarren, of Hotel Lautréamont: Contemporary Poetry from Uruguay (Shearsman, 2011).


Peter Boyle: What especially drew you to the work of Amanda Berenguer? What was the source of your initial enthusiasm? Did you find that changing focus as you went along?

Kent Johnson: Years back, I edited an anthology of poetry from Uruguay, the country where I spent most of my childhood and adolescence. The book was published in the UK, in 2011, by Tony Frazer's singular press, Shearsman Books, and is titled Hotel Lautréamont: Contemporary Poetry from Uruguay. On a trip to Montevideo, in 2008, to gather materials for the book, I met with the leading poet and critic Roberto Echavarren and the literary scholar Amir Hamed. Echavarren would become my co-editor of the anthology and Hamed would come to write a note of introduction for it. Echavarren had been a close friend and publisher of Berenguer, while Hamed had featured her, some years before, in his key anthology of the country’s innovative poets, Orientales: Uruguay a través de su poesía. Both of them spoke of her as one of the greatest writers not just of Uruguay, but of twentieth century Latin American letters. So they were the ones to place the work in front of me, though the poet Silvia Guerra (whose wonderful, moving interview with Berenguer concludes Materia Prima) had spoken to me of the poet at a conference in Chile, in 2005. The name didn’t register, then. Like virtually all U.S. poets at the time, I was ignorant of her work. But as soon as I read it (I remember the night, at one of Montevideo’s historic boliches [old taverns] in the Ciudad Vieja), I knew I’d encountered one of the greats.

Kristin Dykstra: To build on Kent’s remarks, this anthology took more than a decade to compile, and I wasn't initially an editor. I was the translator working with selections from La dama de Elche. That first exposure showed me that Amanda Berenguer is a spectacular example of someone whose work should have been more widely translated during her lifetime. She really deserved a significant anthology. After Kent asked me to become a co-editor, I wanted to combine a commitment to Berenguer—the insistence on the anthology as a statement against her near-absence from the English-language zone—with an acknowledgment of those few translators who had given attention to individual poems in the late twentieth century (publishing them in magazines and anthologies). With Berenguer’s quality and the particular group of translators interested in joining us for this next round, I never doubted that our eventual twenty-first-century anthology would be strong.

PB: How did you decide on the selection of poems to be translated from Berenguer's various books? What was the process? It's an enormous responsibility as the selection offered shapes the way readers outside Latin America will view her work. For example, with La cuidadora del fuego, on the basis of the selection provided in Materia Prima, I thought La cuidadora would be a book largely of ekphrastic poems, or at least poems concerned with high culture figures, as well as poems influenced by Emily Dickinson, but in fact there are also a lot of very intimate, confessional almost, poems in it. Often quite funny poems that do a lot of shifting in tone. What kind of criteria did you use in making the selection? Was it purely personal taste, were you aiming at diversity, or were you conscious of selecting poems that are radically unlike what you might find in a poet from the United States? Did you perhaps feel you were selecting the poems you would most like to have written yourself?

KD: Kent had the initial contact with most translators, and perhaps he could say something about how he thought about selection at that time.

Later, after I agreed to co-edit the anthology, we decided to take a risk on the visual poems. I say “risk” because we didn’t have a publisher lined up in advance. We didn’t know how many publishers would be open to including this section, not just because of the formatting challenges, but also Berenguer’s use of color. If we had just left these poems out without pitching them to a press, though, we would have felt we failed Berenguer. So eventually I went to Urayoán Noel with the translation request. He created a sample, rather than a fully finished set, due to the time, difficulty, and uncertainty involved. Once it became clear that Ugly Duckling Presse would include these poems, we had to go back and fill in a memorable item from the set. In “Trazo (Derivado 1),” Berenguer’s handwriting is hard to read. After Ura created a draft, we realized we were interpreting her words in the original differently. I asked her son Álvaro to review a transcribed version in the Spanish, before we settled on a final version.

As Ura has remarked, Berenguer was probably treating handwriting as an unstable “trace” upon the page. From the editorial side, I’d say that an attempt at clarification remains an important procedural step. In this case, I asked her son to serve as our “authority,” which is not an inevitable choice, but we took his guidance. It’s only through the process of wrestling with traces that you fully experience the ambiguities at stake, when dealing with tracings literal and metaphorical. With this idea in mind, I encourage readers to look closely at the original. Grapple with her writing for yourself. Try writing out your own transcript in Spanish, as Ura and I each did, because the print anthology doesn’t reveal that intermediary step between “original” and “translation.”

Another editorial issue that arises around poetry is that word or page count so often fails to capture the density of the work. Since Berenguer created such diverse pieces across her career, striking a balance required discussion. How many pages of short, dense poems are comparable to one visual poem? To prose poems? To prolonged cosmological effusions? Anna Deeny Morales and I both prepared more poems than we needed for Materia Prima, having taken an interest in translating our whole books in the future. We trimmed our selections down to achieve more balance across the various books represented in the anthology. My poems were longer, so as I was talking with Anna about how many of her poems to include, I decided to stop at four from The Lady of Elche to her final ten from Identity of Certain Fruits. It was tempting to include more from Anna, since her beautiful project unfolds as a series. But we can look forward to seeing the entire collection someday.

In each of these examples—Ura, me, Anna—one factor in choosing individual poems was the leaning of the translator, while another was editorial response after initial work by the translator arrived. As for Cuidadora, if memory serves, Kent had already done some poems from that book but hoped for more, so I later went in to see what else would round out that selection. The book can be read as a sort of retrospective. With that vision in mind, I thought we should include the Ducasse poem, and "Practically Supernatural" echoed off other poems spanning her career. At the same time, I thought about the fact that Berenguer had numerous very short poems interspersed with the longer ones in Cuidadora. These help to create the variety that characterized her final collection; I think of them as perversely slight. I mean: deliberately slight, in contrast to her baroque moments, yet still echoing against them in knowing retrospective. Amanda Berenguer is funny in more than one way.

On the question of differences/resemblances to U.S. writers, I try not to be influenced by expectations about nation or culture too heavily, especially at the start of a selection process. I like to think about the writer’s range in a prolonged way as I translate. It’s a way to avoid traps of exoticism and excessive dependence on interpretive nationalism, and perhaps more important: I like to be surprised by affinities that leap into view. Especially when working on a writer with so much material that was not previously translated into English, it’s a joy to see how a pile of different translators can process the poems.

KJ: Peter, you ask, “or were you conscious of selecting poems that are radically unlike what you might find in a poet from the United States?” The marvelous thing about Berenguer, and there are very few poets like her in this regard, is how “radically unlike” herself she is from book to book. Each book from which we selected for the Materia Prima gathering is as if written by a wholly different author. It seems bizarre that the same person who did the wild (and sharply political) visual material that Kristin mentions, the Neruda-echoing odes of Identidad de ciertas frutas, or the non-Euclidean-geometry meditations of La botella verde, for example, is the same poet who wrote La dama de Elche or Cuidadora del fuego. In fact (and Cuidadora is a fine example), Berenguer often dramatically shifts voice and register within single books. So we didn’t have to think about Berenguer sounding or not like someone else from the US; she doesn’t even sound like Amanda Berenguer, as it were, from work to work! I think of her, in this regard, as a kind of Fernando Pessoa who chooses to sign her own name to everything she writes. It’s like she just accepts her multiple heteronyms as natural realities of “Amanda Berenguer.” You apparently intend to translate the complete Cuidadora del fuego, and given your serious engagement with the channeling of various voices in your own work, Peter, I can’t imagine a better person to take on that singular book.

PB: Of the poems you translated yourself, is there one you could comment on, maybe one that presented special difficulties and how you resolved those? Or perhaps one that surprised you as it opened up for you during the process of translating?

KD: I began those translations from The Lady of Elche years ago. Given the passage of time, what I remember most vividly from my section is the surfacing of more global issues.

Berenguer creates self-portraits and images of family. She references her home and garden in Montevideo. But she fuses personal anchors with other places and times. In the poems we included from this book, you can see landscapes of classical mythology; sites from her ancestral history; the museum housing the “Lady of Elche” sculpture (which is associated with Iberian identity, but she explicitly bridges it to Machu Picchu); and a more subtle terrain of twentieth-century violence, which I find in smaller fragments throughout the book instead of concentrated within any single poem—in the section from Lady of Elche, for example, you can see her reference to Hiroshima.

I remember wondering, as I moved through those poems, how their displacements would add up in my mind. I had read the poems in the original, of course, but constructing poems in translation activates a different perspective. I wondered, Where is Amanda Berenguer? She includes an explicit conceptualization of her local river as “mestizo” in “Day of rain,” for example, a word that’s often a cue to look for cultural fusion. That move somewhat unsettles the prominent classical and European references—they become a little more relative, a little less absolute.

In the end, as Kent suggested, I see the query about location becoming central to her poetics. Part of the satisfaction for me materializes in the glittering array of replies.

In her interview with Silvia Guerra in the back of this anthology, Berenguer responds to a question about image and metaphor with language of location and self. This entire section of the interview jumps into relief for me now. She says, “What’s extraordinary about metaphors is their ability to connect distances, to relate images instantly like a ray of light without any space in between.” I have a distant memory of pausing over her prepositions and conjunctions, words structuring the incremental motion of any given phrase. What is this space in between? How does that ray fall through the distances between solid objects?

During the editing stage, I went through Mónica de la Torre’s translations for the anthology, which she revised substantially last fall. I remember noticing that she was often addressing these questions of connectivity too. Mónica had some of the long, cosmic poems channeling the neobaroque, and she was often forced to rearrange the order of words within them. One example appears in a poem dealing with unidentified flying objects. This meant transitioning a four-letter acronym, OVNI, to a three-letter acronym in English, UFO. And the words in the acronyms appear in a different order in Spanish than in English. She had to rearrange entire segments of the poem from the get-go. We got a lot of questions about that obvious element of this poem from readers along the way, but actually, I think the more interesting choices came when Mónica considered ways to handle more ambiguous terms all throughout the complex grammar activating these poems, opening or especially compressing spaces between components.

KJ: My own translations are out of Cuidadora del fuego, her last, posthumous book. Most of the poems in it are very lyrical, reminiscent of the Russian Silver Age, which Berenguer loved (in fact, I have discovered that one of the poems I translated, her “Leonardo da Vinci y yo,” is very possibly influenced, in its gentle pronominal play, by Marina Tsvetaeva’s famous “The Desk,” though it might just be coincidence). But these serene, Acmeist-resonant classical poems in the book—with the partial exception of a few outliers among them, like the ones directly channeling Dickinson’s elliptical cuts and swerves, dashes and all—did not present the kinds of conceptual conundrums for the translator that other sections of the book do. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t challenges of a subtle, quite tricky nature that present themselves in these syntactically straightforward poems. Of course there are. Speaking of those outlier pieces, certain passages of her near-pornographic “Los culos de Bosco” drove me nuts, for example. But nothing like what Mónica de la Torre had to deal with in the OVNI/UFO poem Kristin mentioned. That translation should really win some kind of award. As should Urayoan Noel’s renderings of the visual/concrete poems. And as should all of our translators. I just want to note it, and I know Kristin agrees: We couldn’t have been luckier with our translation team, every brilliant compa in it.

PB: You have both emphasized the immense variety of styles and poetries within Berenguer's work—and it's a massive work, more than sixty years of continuously writing poetry, her first book in 1940, her last in 2009. Kent, you've mentioned how the differences between her books are consistently so extreme other poets might have invented heteronyms for them. Yet, reading the interview with Silvia Guerra at the end of Materia Prima, Amanda Berenguer seems to be convincingly one person. How would each of you see the commonalities, the recurrences in her work, perhaps a particular vision of the possibilities for what poetry can be, or certain recurrent obsessions or themes? I'm thinking of things that she mentions in the interview, like her experience of seeing a dead dog by the side of the road and feeling something opening up in her, "a fall into nothingness."

KD: At our New York launch event, Mónica observed that some of Berenguer’s poems are modular—you could move components around, and the poems would still work well. This makes sense to me. For my part, I’ve come to imagine a scenario while working with her poems. I envision her acts of attunement to the energies operating in and between her words. Then, an attunement to building those energies into the larger energy fields of a complete poem and eventually the collection. (Essentially, I’m imagining her poetic process retroactively as a tool for enabling my own attunements. Maybe that’s an unconscious facet of the reading of poetry. Anyway, it’s helpful for the making of translations.) Berenguer has a characteristic ability to concentrate the energy level in her lines, or to restate that idea in some of your language above, an obsession with creating vibrant lines of sight and sound.

Differentiating amongst her books remains essential, for the reasons we’ve been giving—each collection centers on its own separate concept, and she activates different dimensions of intelligence. So she channels more humor in one place, and she dials up the sensuality in the environment of a different poem. She tunnels into an intense curiosity about the nature of the universe, adopting scientific or mathematical language; then she pursues the workings of the same universe through mythology. Serial obsessions, let’s say, that she’s able to maintain and convert into their own structures: the length of her lines and other visual qualities also vary amongst books, and some pieces will be more accurately described as “modular” than others. But to return to your emphasis on recurrence, I’ve come to think of her as using a particular tuning fork to calibrate her poems, always with the purpose of calling “a very full, large, and luminous space” into being, something she explicitly references in that interview.

KJ: Yes, Peter, it seems a paradox at first glance, I suppose: The multiple styles and voices coming from a single, perfectly sane, down-to-earth person, as Silvia Guerra helps us see her in the book’s interview. Wouldn’t you have loved to spend a few hours over a gourd of mate amargo with Amanda Berenguer? Both Roberto Echavarren and Silvia described her presence to me as that of a calm, deeply kind, singularly wise friend. But, then too, Pessoa, whose writing corpus might lead one to think he had dissociative-identity disorder, was, despite his alcoholism, apparently quite normal in daily life, too, even outwardly unremarkable, in person. Kierkegaard, who produced so much of his philosophy under a cast of different-sounding heteronyms, was a perfectly bourgeois and respectable figure in Copenhagen, in most ways. Or Cervantes, whose Don Quixote was first presented as if a translation from a work written by an Arab author—what would stand as a transgressive forgery for us, today—was supposedly a very esteemed person in social circles. So to me that tonal multiplicity in Berenguer’s work, which includes the open borrowing of voices (as with her channelings of Dickinson, or the Russian poets of the Silver Age), stands as a perfectly natural and mature quality of deep poiesis.

PB: Reviewing Materia Prima in the Kenyon Review Paul Cunningham speaks of Berenguer's poems as “expanding structures” and “alchemically forged.” Scientific and alchemical preoccupations seem to run through all of Berenguer's work, yet her poems are also politically and personally charged. Would you like to comment on how you see these two often opposed tendencies, the abstract, and the personal, working together in her poems?

KD: For me the best way to comment on the slide between the abstract and the personal, their organic interconnection, is to highlight how palpable Amanda Berenguer’s curiosity feels in her various explorations. One senses that she is drawn to complex geometries because she wants to know what it feels like to bend your mind around them.

The example I’ll use doesn’t appear within the anthology. These are lines I’m thinking about now, in continuation of the anthology’s mission: one of my post-anthology projects is the completion of The Lady of Elche. Rather than adopting scientific vocabulary in this collection, she adapts mythology to the lifequests she depicts. The poems serve as entries in her personal logbook. Another frame for these poems: they are navigations. Here’s an excerpt from the opening poem, forthcoming in full in the next issue of Stanford’s literary magazine, Mantis (thanks to Melih Levi). You can see Berenguer’s speaker thinking through a landscape using a lens both personal and obviously crafted, abstracted with mythologies in mind. Note her emphasis on wonder. This poem is actually set where land and sea meet, in beaches that Berenguer locates around the Uruguayan city of Montevideo:

I could only think
through smoky or yellowed haze
garlanded with violets
which looked like ill-proportioned medusas
sailing on the deceitful breeze
the breeze?
waters from the flat fold the sky
pale with wonders
in the place of birth
of false birth
the more I walked the more I aged

Berenguer has placed this activity in threshold sites, traditionally powerful in mythology. In the original Spanish, the word I’ve rendered above as “wonders” is “prodigios.” The entire original phrase is “pálido de prodigios,” describing not a person but the space energized around her. This is the liminal space she’s actively navigating when she thinks and walks and ages. I may end up trying to capture the pattern of consonants differently at some point (the duplicated “p” sound), but in this rendition, I was thinking about the importance of asserting wonder, a quality that Berenguer is attributing to the world. Wonder is outside her, wonder is within her. She survives on this wonder, and she makes me want to survive by channeling wonder too.

KJ: Let me work off from Kristin’s superb comments and mention another work, which we’ve touched on previously: Berenguer writes and sculpts the remarkable abstract and personal/political works of Composición de lugar in 1976, three years after the military coup in Uruguay, when many of her friends have been imprisoned or worse. These poems are both abstract/experimental and also deeply personal, no less than many “abstract” works of Mallarmé and Apollinaire fuse those supposed contraries. Berenguer’s visual works (along with much of her other writing) are at once poems of private mourning and encrypted social hope—a brave and surprisingly successful attempt to sneak past the very earnest labor of the military censors, who were maybe the toughest of all the southern-cone regimes, insofar as press and literary control were concerned, given their direct inspiration from the contemporaneous fascist Greek junta of the ’60s and ’70s. I’d propose that Berenguer, who chose to hunker down in Uruguay during the years of the dictatorship (Composición de lugar / Composition of Place is surely not a randomly chosen title), deserves every bit as much admiration as any of the many fine writers who expressed their more publicized opposition in exile.

That continuity of the abstract and conceptual with the personal and political emerges again, in the 1980s—though this time in a more classically feminist, hilariously satirical vein—immediately after the fall of the dictatorship, with A Study of Wrinkles: A Contribution to the Field of Cosmetology, part of a work (With the Tiger among My Things) that nearly gets lost in the immediate aftermath of the dictatorship years. It’s included in Materia Prima.

No, Amanda Berenguer has no problem shuttling back and forth across thematic or tonal “poles.” She does it freely, contradicting herself in multitudes, and in the most joyous and inspiring ways. We eagerly encourage American poets to check her out.


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The Enchanted Ring:
A Romance of Chivalry

Philothée O’Neddy
Translated by Brian Stableford
Snuggly Books ($12)

by Olchar E. Lindsann

Rare would be the reader who recognizes the absurd name Philothée O’Neddy, exclaiming, “O’Neddy in translation? At last!” Ever since his own day he has been not only a footnote in literary history, but a footnote to other footnotes such as Petrus Borel or Gérard de Nerval—his tiny output valued by a miniscule readership rarely touching the anglophone world. For those who know him, and even more for those ready to discover him, this charming tale is a long overdue treat. Though not the ideal introduction to O’Neddy’s work, it is a clever piece of literary subterfuge that yields much when read in light of the author’s context and constraints; sifting through its soil, we find the seeds of avant-gardes to come: Lautréamont, Decadence, Symbolism, and Surrealism.

The Enchanted Ring was originally published serially in 1841, in the popular newspaper La Patrie, under conditions of considerable official and unofficial censorship. It was a kind of trojan horse in which O’Neddy adapted the conventions of the most outwardly conservative of genres to infiltrate the emerging mass market with aesthetically and politically progressive undertones.

Brian Stableford has translated and edited many underground texts over the years, and is one of the few anglophones with an intimate understanding of O’Neddy’s community and its literature. He gives pertinent and insightful observations in the Introduction and notes, although more expansion on the author and the radical nature of his work would better prepare the uninitiated. O’Neddy’s poetry was unpublishably experimental in its day, and he was among the first to call for the merging of art, life, and political action that has characterized the avant-garde since his time; the leaders of the Dada and Surrealist movements cited the Jeunes-France collective that he co-founded as one of their key models. He ceased publishing under the pseudonym O’Neddy after 1833 in the wake of political disenchantment, financial hardship, and unrequited love, and adopted publishable formats in which to smuggle in the themes that his unpublishable verse dealt with more directly. With this context, even the apparently conventional aspects of this novel begin to shake upon their seemingly firm foundations.

O’Neddy rides into this battle against convention protected by the armor of a deep-seated irony that at times merges into pathos. As with many in his generation, cheap Chivalric Romance were the pulp fiction of his youth and guilty pleasure of his adulthood, and he referred to himself on at least one occasion as Don Quixote, a hero of the French Romantics. We must therefore read The Enchanted Ring, and the nostalgia that it invokes so insistently, through the lens of this complex irony, which permeates his lifelong engagement with the chivalric genre. O’Neddy often hides his closest intentions in sarcastic asides, and in parts of the novel (especially in conjunction with his other work, mostly unavailable in English) one can perceive a sketch of a re-invented egalitarian notion of chivalry, in which aristocracy designates allegiance to the sociocultural Ideal, adventure rather than profit motivates and organizes life, and trials and combats are those of amorous relationships or intellectual and creative exploits.

The novel intensifies the chivalric delight in the fantastical and absurd, its deification of love (aptly left untranslated by Stableford as Amour), its utopian aspirations, its sense of adventure and infinite possibility, its values of courage balanced by moderation, its blurring of lines between history and legend, and the hints of nightmare where the seeds of gothic fiction had been planted. It diminishes to a minimum the genre’s inescapable hyper-nationalism, its aristocratic and religious overtones, and its emphasis on combat and machismo.

Anachronisms are tossed about like grenades. The bizarre first chapter features an affable sentient bronze statue throwing sarcastic jabs at the French Academy, and his protagonist is a brazenly fictitious wife of Charlemagne. The marriage is narratively built into the lacunae of history, its secrecy explained away with a vaudevillian grin typical of the Romantic parlor game of “paradoxes” which would evolve into Jarry’s ‘Pataphysics. Such anti-logic intervenes sporadically; after “spoiling” the end of a chapter in its title, he argues that his presumably angry readers “have judged, in accordance with the primordial and chivalric mores of my tale that, in order to be logical, it ought to persevere in its series of consoling and cheerful implausibilities.” The narrator becomes a main character of the book by means of frequent, ironic, and rhetorically elaborate asides, apostrophes, and tangents—sometimes addressing the reader, sometimes directed at representatives of the status quo, and occasionally at the characters themselves, merging and diverging continually with the incidents being spoken, and disclosing O’Neddy as a link between Sterne and Lautréamont.

As a poet ten years earlier, O’Neddy had been a leading representative of “Frenetic” Romanticism, an extremist tendency incorporating gothic fiction, Byronic Romanticism, and leftist politics; it was the subgenre appropriated so radically by Lautréamont twenty years later. In the later chapters, gothic tropes percolate through the medieval tapestry, foreshadowing the Decadent literature of the later 19th century: Pausing in the adventurous clip of questing adventure, the narrator’s gaze catches and lingers rhapsodically on the lineaments of the corpses ringing the dragon’s cave, then on the horse being strangled and devoured by a horde of poisonous serpents.

O’Neddy was a student of medieval hermeticism and Masonic and Egyptian iconography, and combines their logics here with those of popular legend, Voltairian satire, gothic tropes, and onieric imagery (he claimed to sleep in his glasses in order to see his dreams more clearly). The major magical scenes—many of which occur in weird caves, caverns and vaults—evoke more than a touch of what the Surrealists call “convulsive beauty.” All of this is embodied in a prose that is engaging yet unpredictable, and defiantly self-referential. The translation conveys the novel’s charm and eccentricity well, though the heterogeneous aspect of the style could have been pushed more vibrantly: From clause to clause, smooth readability is rejected by means of an eccentric mixture of archaic medieval, poetically proto-Symbolist, jocularly informal, and sarcastically acidic tones, vocabularies, and rhetorical modes generously spiced with neologisms and resurrections of Old and Middle French. Even on the level of syntax, O’Neddy swims in irony, hiding poetry within his prose.

Other continuities with his poetic project also lie underneath the surface. Along with his close collaborator Théophile Gautier, whose career and legacy went on to much better fortune than his own, the atheist O’Neddy had developed a theory and practice of the deification of Art, broadly defined: the societal sublimation of the search for the sacred away from organised religion and dogma, and into cultural activity. By the very fact of its conventional appearance, The Enchanted Ring can be seen as part of O’Neddy’s crafty response to this sense of personal failure and social despair, reminding us again that its irony is more bitter than mocking.

O’Neddy was directly or indirectly engaged with most of the major leftist currents of the early 19th century, and his political stances were influenced by Liberalism, neo-Jacobinism, revolutionary occultism, the predecessors of militant anarchism, and Fourierist and Saint-Simonist socialisms; both of the latter, moreover, were inseperable from Feminism. None of these discourses could be allowed in the mainstream context for which The Enchanted Ring was produced, though they almost break the surface on occasion, such as an acerbic tirade in which O’Neddy compares the institution of marriage to the militarization of the state—then sarcastically apologizes to his readers and loudly disclaims any satirical intentions for the novel.

Nonetheless the book fails in some ways to escape the blind prejudices of its time, most spectacularly in the wholesale adoption of Orientalism that dominates the first chapter and never entirely disappears; in some sense it is the spacial counterpart of the self-conscious nostalgia that is projected onto Europe’s past in the bulk of the novel. The “East” is portrayed in the first chapter, and partly personified for the remainder via the central character of Libania, in the mode of the Thousand-and-One Nights by way of Voltaire (one of O’Neddy’s greatest heroes since childhood). In the idyllic dream-land of “the Orient” we find the typical Romantic fetishization of exotic opulence and pleasurable indolence. We do not, however, find the prevalent associations with “barbarism” or sexual promiscuity, much less any self-conscious racism.

Gender, too, is largely locked into a problematic status by the conventions of the Chivalric Romance genre, and the female protagonist Libania is no exception insofar as she is beautiful, rich, and lacks a male protector. But she also subverts many conventions and is quite explicitly the novel’s strongest character, in every sense of that word. She is an acute scholar, a wise and ethical woman who refuses to reclaim her aristocratic inheritance yet navigates the world with confidence and reliance. While she never picks up a sword to fight, at no point does she desire or need a male protector, and when she accompanies Charlemagne on a perilous quest, she is motivated by her desire to protect him by means of her magic ring; the conventional gender roles have been reversed, and a good deal of ironic humor arises from the King’s self-satisfied assumptions to the contrary.

In many ways Libania manifests the merger that O’Neddy sought of the political principles of the Enlightenment progressive with the utopian fire of the Romantic imagination, and it may not be insignificant that he chooses to embody this ideal in a non-European woman of color. While technically Muslim for most of the novel and technically Christian at the end, her ethos comes off as humanist-pantheist, or atheist; the narrator notes that “the pagan—or, rather, the unbeliever—is a consummate thinker.”

These subtle subversions emerge with more force in the final chapters, in a kind of slow twist of the genre. The serial’s weekly unfolding for readers bears comparison with televised serial dramas today, and once the novel’s reader have been hooked by the earlier idyllic episodes, the subtexts begin to boil up. This twist brings the conflict between O’Neddy’s anti-clericalism and the genre’s Christian roots onto center stage. Religion is not directly attacked—neither the genre nor the newspaper would allow it. Rather, Christianity is treated as simply one genre convention among others, as part of the “local color” of the Middle Ages and not a living ideology. Libania does technically convert to Christianity in the end as a matter of conjugal convenience, satisfying convention, though without any ecstatic experience or fundamental change of perspective implied. But the narrator now becomes more intrusive and opinionated than ever, launching into several bitter invectives and arguments against “the theologians” and clergy over the course of the final two chapters, particularly over matters concerning marriage and love.

The magical ring acts as a test, offering its wearer supreme power, albeit power exerted through the force of love. Only Libania, long before her exposure to Christianity, has the character to wear and wield the ring calmly. On the other hand, the admirable Bishop Turpin—a heroic figure of Chivalric Romance and Charlemagne’s closest advisor until Libania’s advent—is assailed by this temptation in a scene which provides pretext for a long tirade against religious institutions. In this parody of Saint Anthony, the Bishop becomes a symbol of religion as a worldly power, as the devil’s voice tempts him to use the ring’s influence to claim the throne and create an all-powerful theocratic dictatorship. In fact, Bishop Turpin is the only flawed character in the novel, the only one whose actions are explicitly criticized by the voluble narrator, who blames him for his actions and condemns the xenophobic bigotry that motivates them, yet excuses him as deluded by his own ideology and committed to delivering Charlemagne from the world of dream, returning him to the world of action and practicality—the world of prose.

At the remove of more than a century and a half, it is possible that O’Neddy’s disguise may work too well on us, appearing merely as a droll, eccentric tale too trite or idyllic for our age of bigotry, doubt, and impending disaster. Yet it too is the product of a political and personal context in the grip of the forces of reaction, permeated with anxiety and flailing hope, and it proceeds from the pen of one of the most formally and socially progressive poets of his generation, diligently hiding that very fact. If we can read the novel from that shared historical space of cultural crisis and malaise while contemplating the conditions of censorship under which it was written and which are never immune from a return, we can be rewarded with a threefold blessing: an instructive demonstration of literary camouflage, a masterful example of stylistic experimentation and genre-play, and a damned fun fantasy tale.


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