Excited to be reading at Buffalo Street Books (The Dewitt Mall, 215 N. Cayuga Street, Ithaca, NY) with one of my favorite people and favorite writers, Shena McAuliffe, whose first novel, The Good Echo, came out last year from Black Lawrence. If you’re in the area, stop by!
What a super show. Sometimes I forget the transformative power of music when it surrounds you, in a sweaty ballroom, each instrument building ebb and flow individually, in dialogue, between songs. Great musicianship, genrebusting, smarts…
It is with deep sadness and ambivalence that I finally watched Saltwater, the final film by teacher, friend, and mentor Lise Swenson, who passed away in 2016. It’s an amazing achievement, a full-length, independently produced and funded film. But it’s hard not to watch what is clearly a labor of love and community-building through the lens of its content – difficult inter-generational relations, mental illness, the potential for creation (of art) as a way to transform after trauma. Lise, to all who knew her, was a force, a passion, a compassion. I miss her.
Saltonstall is beautiful. I’m here for a two-week residency. What to say? It is gorgeous here, in late summer, with all kinds of wildflowers, out in the countryside, 8 miles from the utterly charming Ithaca. Deer, chipmunks, mostly deer. I learned that wasps can have underground nests. I love my studio, which looks out onto a meadow, south-facing, the clouds rolling languorously by. It’s an intimate residency, with 3 artists and 2 writers. Each morning, I walk, check out the abandoned barns and fenced-in gardens, make coffee.
As for writing: I’m finishing off the longest chapter in the book, Countermapping, and cross-referencing that to another chapter, while trying to create various maps and research Missouri gun laws and Voltron. A typically eclectic me writing week!
I have four amazing talented companion residents: here are their names and web sites:
In advance of Two Californias, I’ll be reading, along with other C&R authors, in Brooklyn (sometime Sat evening). Can’t wait! NYC friends, please mark your calendars! Details: 6pm, Concrete + Water (485 Driggs Ave, Brooklyn, New York 11211). I hope to see you there!
I was lucky enough to see Toni Morrison speak in Amsterdam, some 10 or 15 years ago. I hope that she did not suffer. There will be no new books or lectures from such a talented and powerful writer, talented and powerful person, and that is a sadness for us all.
I have Professor Abdul JanMohamed to thank for introducing me, in 1988, to Toni Morrison’s novels, to their beauty and sadness and joy and complexity, particularly The Bluest Eye and Beloved (which won the Pulitzer that year). From my earliest days writing, I wanted to tell emotionally powerful stories in different ways, using unusual structures and languages. I have Toni Morrison’s radical forms and lyric sensibilities to thank for this: the ways in which Manichean allegories (one of Professor JanMohamed’s fields of study) inflect Morrison’s work, the ways in which the ghost story and the stories of American slavery are entwined.
So thank you, Toni Morrison, for everything that you are. You have had a huge impact on me, and I can only hope to pay your influence forwards in meaningful ways.
Lance Olsen, Dreamlives of Debris. Dzanc Books, 2017. Novel
Disclosure: Lance was my Ph.D. Committee Chair and Mentor, and I owe him so much in my development as a writer, a thinker, a reader, a humanoid, as someone who breathes this world.
Some things for me to learn/mull:
As I’ve read Lance’s work over the last 12 years, I’m startled, in Dreamlives of Debris, how startling and lyric Lance’s sentences have become. In earlier works, the sentences, even the shard/fragments, felt more raw – and now I’m struck by how each small module, less than a page (what he would call a narraticule) leaves me breathless, striking in language, as scattered in flight as Daedalus and Icarus and Debris, of whom he speaks. This language-heavy work has the added bonus, I think (occasionally, curse) of decentering my pleasures in the narraticule rather than in the whole, because the density seems to risk diminishing the whole. I felt this, recently, when reading Shelley Jackson’s Half-Life as well – that the intensity of small sections comes (inevitably?) at the risk of larger effect.
(I wonder, too, if my writing is similar, not in its quality but in the kinds and amount of work readers need to address.)
The effect of this book is like mining a very beautiful field of debris (no pun). It risks fetishing the language gems. I love the ways in which this book, like many of Lance’s extensive works, undermine what we expect from a novel. I find myself straining against the apparent (trope-driven) lack of pathos in the novel, which leaves me to wonder: is this pathos an ancient, outmoded concept? How can one break the laws of fiction and still retain pathos, or does it the entire taxonomy need a total reconfiguration?
Startling juxtapositions, detournements of language, especially verbs. A radical ontology, in the Beckettian tradition, where one constantly is reborn, afresh: a collage mind, which liberally quotes others, creating a chaos chorus; a narrator that can traverse history, allowing for a greater expense/expanse/depense of knowledge and language bits; a deep reliance on theory, placing Olsen in lineage (Nietsche, Bataille, Beckett come to mind); a conception of the novel as curation rather than as inspiration. I wrote, at first, that this book promotes a radical ontology that is pathological, but now I have no idea what that meant, and I’m keeping it.
The danger of a book like this, I think, is something that I recall from Lacan: that we tend to see all the objects in the worlds as versions of ourselves. It’s not point/counter-point (In talking about this book with Anne, I invoked Middlemarch – which seems ridiculous), but a refracted version of an ur-point. You wind up seeing yourself in everything, which is both blinding (making sightless) and blinding (the lightest light): every tree, every idea, every noun. It’s a kind of language-based narcissism, which is perhaps inevitable. If we are constantly remaking and reconstituting ourselves, minute by minute, then we may, filled with anxiety, have to reconfirm our presence in the external world, time and time again.
Fortuitous last-minute opportunities: I’m excited to be reading/teaching/crafting next week at the Chautauqua Institution‘s Literary Arts Program. I’ve always loved their programming, their commitment to writing and justice. Looking forward to spending some time with Atom Atkinson and chatting about the tyranny of linear time! It’s also curious to be self-reflective about my own processes, how to think, in particular, about revision in creative ways. I wish the binary opposition between creation and revision didn’t exist!
When I was younger, I dreamed of going to Portugal. I had no idea why; perhaps it was my friend Tristen, who had Portuguese roots. 25 years passed. And now I’ve been lucky enough to come here three times in the last two years. What to say about Portugal, or at least about the bits I know? Quiet, stylish, fun, where there’s a poetry and theater book store down the street (A Lovers’ Discourse in Portuguese, Glass and God in English), and brunch all the time, and a Californianish ecosystem full of brightness and honeysuckle. Tomorrow, here in Porto, I start teaching Digital Creative Writing to RIT students, where, under the auspices of Professor Rui Torres and the Universidade Fernando Pessoa, I’ll grill the students on the short story form, and they’ll be learning StoryMapJS, a digital storytelling format. In part, this means that I get to give the students a location, and they show up, and I introduce some kind of challenge, much like America’s Next Top Model. Follow that litter of feral cats. What’s different in the supermarket? Go steal sugar packets for me, because I don’t want to buy a whole thing of sugar.
Life is rough (and Anne Royston, meanwhile, gets to do whatever she wants).