Tag Archives: Interdisciplinary Aesthetics

(On apologizing only when necessary) From The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson

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A stunning and exceptional book from Graywolf Press

I’m so grateful that my dear friend Melissa Tinker gave me a copy of Maggie Nelson’s amazing and gorgeous work of humanity otherwise known as The Argonauts. I adore this book, for about a million reasons. I have so much to say about it, and will, when time and thought allow. For now, here’s what I have stolen from the book today.

Sometimes as a writing warm-up, it’s useful to type up someone else’s well-written words. Today I typed up from p. 98 of The Argonauts.  As someone who has struggled all my life with equivocating and unnecessary apologizing, this passage speaks to me.

Maggie Nelson writes:

 

“Afraid of assertion. Always trying to get out of ‘totalizing’ language, i.e., language that rides roughshod over specificity; realizing this is another form of paranoia. Barthes found the exit to this merry-go-round by reminding himself that ‘it is language which is assertive, not he.’ It is absurd, Barthes says, to try to flee from language’s assertive nature by ‘add[ing] to each sentence some little phrase of uncertainty, as if anything that came out of language could make language tremble.’

My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later an slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.

At times I grow tired of this approach, and all its gendered baggage. Over the years I’ve had to train myself to wipe the sorry off almost any work email I write; otherwise, each might begin, Sorry for the delay, Sorry for the confusion, Sorry for whatever. One only has to read interviews with outstanding women to hear them apologizing. (Monique Wittig). But I don’t intend to denigrate the power of apology: I keep in my sorry when I really mean it. And certainly there are many speakers whom I’d like to see do more trembling, more unknowing, more apologizing.”

—Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts, p. 98

 

Prince (& how it still seems impossible)

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Purple prose, to be sure.

His music was the color of the sky of my coming of age. His potency and unapologetic thrust toward LIFE made room for us to do the same…and by “do,” I don’t only mean do the nasty…he named things we could only stumble through feeling, back in our half-formed days…he was able to let the quivery bits of being a vulnerable human shine through, but refused to let that vulnerability stop him…when I think of the iconic flirtation in the geometry of his mouth…he was such a beautiful gamester…I don’t want to make him into a messiah…but there’s something about a world where Prince’s style of shiny permission-giving could be part of my teenage life so casually, so almost accidentally, that makes me believe there COULD be a messiah like Prince…

My essay at The Rumpus

 

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I made this.

My essay “Hot Thing” (about menopause) was published last Sunday on The Rumpus. (You can read it here.) In the literary community, The Rumpus is a big deal, and I’ve never had anything published there. And to any woman, writing an essay about something as personal as menopause is a big deal. (Theme emerges; to me, this whole event is a big deal.)

(I’m grateful to Zoe Zolbrod and Martha Bayne, editors at The Rumpus, who asked thoughtful questions and helped me fortify the essay and say what I meant to say. May all writers have the experience of working with such helpful editors along the way!)

It’s also a big deal because they chose to use my original art alongside the essay. I was glad to be asked what I wanted them to use. To answer, I thought about the essay, extracted themes and images.  Flames, visibility and invisibility,  beauty, mess…The day before I sent the final revision, the image of Venus rising appeared. When I should have been working on edits, I printed the Venus image. On tracing paper with a felt pen, I sketched her lines and contours, placed the paper over various backgrounds, finally settling on a painting of the moon which I made decades ago. And from a photograph of autumn leaves torn from a discarded Glen Helen calendar, I cut flames. Pieces arranged but not glued down, I took a photo and sent it. I felt self-conscious about presenting the art (because I’m an amateur) but blazed ahead anyway. That they chose to use this image validated what I tell my students: Trust your instinct.

So that’s part of the story of this essay.

Another part is that that publication of “Hot Thing” inspired a 2:30am craft essay about writing the essay, which I am now hatching. Not sure where it will end up, but I’m holding on to the tail of the kite.

Another—maybe most important—part is of the story is that I am claiming this new phase in my life. As I put words and images into the world, I am no longer practicing the art of invisibility.

Reading Krusoe

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Jim Krusoe’s newest novel from Tin House

“If a person will only think about it, the first fountain pen was
undoubtedly the human body itself, with its seemingly endless
(till death do us part) supply of ink.” —p. 165, Parsifal

“A fountain pen forces no one to read its words.” —p. 224, Parsifal

As I read Jim Krusoe’s writing, which I’ve been doing for a decade and a half, I find it simultaneously familiar and strange. In his work, I hear a persistent drumming behind the prose, a call. My ears strain to grasp the sound; it’s just beyond my reach. It occurs to me that it’s similar to how the musician Bill Frisell allows his past themes to reemerge and weave into the texture of the new, Don’t I recognize that from somewhere? Familiar, strange. By these haunts, I’m both lulled and awakened. What does that memory mean this time?

In Krusoe’s work, that mystery gives me permission to dream while I’m awake. Or, perhaps, as Krusoe puts it on p. 75 of Parsifal: “Somewhere there must be a word, some technical term, for a combination of anticipation, nostalgia, and dread.”

Then there are the pens. The protagonist of his last novel, Parsifal (Tin House, 2012) repairs fountain pens. (Reminiscent of the protagonist in his first novel, Iceland, who repairs typewriters.) This persistent loyalty to archaic means of capturing story on page is a comfort in our era of disembodied ones and zeros. In the narrative weave of Parsifal, a sort of Aesthetics of The Fountain Pen emerges:

“‘In my experience,” Parsifal tells those who ask, ‘there are two kinds of people: those who enjoy complications and subtlety, and those who do not. If you are not the sort of person who enjoys complications and subtlety, then a fountain pen is not for you.’”—p. 191, Parsifal

I write first drafts on paper. The fountain pen is my primary tool. Wait! Am I “the sort of person who enjoys complications and subtlety?” Am I really? Or do I like things more tidy? Complications and subtlety are so messy! So uncomfortable! But evidently so appealing, so attractive. As a person who (apparently) enjoys complications and subtlety, the fountain pen thread was one of the primary pleasures as I read this novel. If we can trust the narrator of Parsifal:

“During the first years of fountain pens, prior to the actual Golden Age, which was roughly from 1910 to 1950—prior to the invention of the ballpoint, in other words—it is a little known fact that no fountain pen came with the small clip that holds it snugly inside a pocket of a shirt. That was invented by George Parker, of the Parker Pen Company, and ever since then it’s hard to imagine a pen without one (though some pens are still made this way, primarily for the Japanese market). So it is possible for something to come from nothing: no clip for many years, and then suddenly, a clip. And now, with the fountain pen practically extinct, the clip lives on, attached to ballpoints, and roller balls, and mechanical pencils, and laser pointers.”—p. 246

Jim Krusoe was my mentor in graduate school, and since then has continued to be a significant influence, inspiration, and support. In the classes I teach, we sometimes discuss why different writers write. I’ve never asked Jim why he writes, but I wonder if there’s a clue in Parsifal on p. 181, “Who was it that said our sole glory as humans is to leave behind a record of our crimes and desires?”

(Was it Jim Krusoe?)

His next novel, The Sleep Garden, arrived at my house yesterday. I cannot wait.

Necessary minor celebrations

 

Writer with a stink bug (Antioch College Olive Kettering Library)

Writer with a stink bug (Antioch College Olive Kettering Library)

This week I set the goal of finishing a solid revision of my novel.  Thanks to the wise and generous writers who read and gave feedback on this round (Kristin Walrod, Melissa Tinker, and Robert Wexler), and the stink bug who showed up for the final lap, I made it.

Now to celebrate!

(That this is my life…)

Who knows where it will lead.

Who knows where it will lead.

Here’s what happens when I see my friends Deborah and Karl Colon (of Changeling) play their music: My heart, having usually been trapped inside my body (where it lives) for some number of days, weeks, or months, sneaks through the sonically-opened window (the one attached to my soul) and my heart unfolds its tired wings, and rises upward or outward, to wherever it is that beauty lives. Yes. This. The heart goes for a visit to Beauty. It’s a tactile sensation. At the first few strains of their music on Thursday night, I felt it, and realizing that this, this, watching the gamboling and frolicking of our children together, this diamond-making that my musical friends do, I thought, and could hardly believe, “This is my  life…that this is my life…”

Feet don’t fail me now…

from Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!

from Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!

Imagine that!  Again I am thinking about self-doubt as fuel for writing. (I blogged about that idea here.)

In that way that interdisciplinary aesthetics happens inside a (my) human body, I was thinking of self-doubt as seemingly insurmountable…music came to me…as Funkadelic used to say, “so high, you can’t get over it…so low, you can’t get under it…” and here I go, dreaming up some funk to play for the dance breaks I’m planning for the advanced creative writing course I’ll teach next term at Antioch College…and thinking about Lynda Barry’s Two Questions (“Is this good?” “Does this suck?”) thinking about all the things we must surmount to be the “keepers of the groove”:

The groove is so mysterious. We’re born with it and we lose it and the world seems to split apart before our eyes into stupid and cool. When we get it back, the world unifies around us, and both stupid and cool fall away.
I am grateful to those who are keepers of the groove. The babies and the grandmas who hang on to it and help us remember when we forget that any kind of dancing is better than no dancing at all. —Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!

Mike Thiedeman, artist and professor (an appreciation)

I wrote this in 2012, about Earlham College art professor, Mike Thiedeman.  At the time, I meant to post it on my blog, but forgot.  Recently I started re-reading a book that I read back then, and realized my omission.  I post this now because it’s never to late to express gratitude.  (Thanks, Mike!)

I graduated from Earlham with a Theatre Arts major in 1988. While at EC, I took a painting class and a drawing class with Mike Thiedeman. I wasn’t majoring in visual art, and I felt intimidated but welcomed into the rigorous studio environment—in part because Mike was so respectful. I recall painting a still life featuring a red enamel teapot with a black handle. The painting I did was up close so that most of the canvas paper was full of redness. It’s hanging in my kitchen now. It looks very little like that actual teapot (which I still remember well). At the time, Mike admired the painting, and offered to trade one of his ceramic pieces for it. I declined the trade, which I regret now, but I think I declined because his valuing of my painting made it have more value for me. In this simple act, he made me see that what I made had meaning. Mike had a real respect for students, and this came through in his teaching. As a teacher in a graduate creative writing program, I know how important it is to balance support and challenge, but above all, to do everything so that you don’t kill the creative spirit. Mike was an early guide to me in how to be collaborative and treat the student artist with respect. These years later, I still think about those classes and some of the principles I learned: that the artist has choices about how to frame the work, not only literally, but in terms of where the borders are, what to include and exclude from the narrative of the piece. For some reason, I became really fascinated with a certain kind of close focus, and also with its (possible) contrast: white space. I still am haunted (in a good way) by those kinds of considerations. One charcoal portrait I drew of a friend who was also taking the drawing class had almost all white space in on the page, with the line of his arm and inner elbow on the left side of the paper. This kind of seeing, this kind of visual meaning making, was something I had never considered before taking Mike’s classes. My own creative focus has taken the form of writing fiction and personal essay. In some ineffable way, that idea, that way of examining perspective and how to play with it to make meaning, translates to my words on the page, and I see it in most good writing: what we leave in, what we leave out. Absence as presence. I’ve continued to be fascinated with how each of the arts can inspire the other, this idea of interdisciplinary aesthetics. Though creativity in its many forms has been a core of who I am since childhood, I think the start of this conversation—of the finding of words to articulate these inklings—began during my time at Earlham. Mike Thiedeman’s teaching and aesthetic was a formative essential.

Incantations

Jack Hardy and his daughter, Morgan Hardy, in 2006

Jack Hardy and his daughter, Morgan Hardy (2006)

Two of my short pieces (a story and an essay) that will be published within the year include lyrics from Jack Hardy’s songs. (Read some posts about Jack here.) In my response to his family’s  granting permission for me to use his words, I wrote:

His music has been (and continues to be) the tea in which my soul steeps, often, almost without thought, which must be why the lyrics make their way into my writing.  I know that part of what he intended with his songs was that they be incantatory.  I hope that in immortalizing them in these short pieces, his incantations will ripple outward…

This is how life works. And what glorious tea in which to steep!

(What are you steeping in right now? How does your life-tea suit you?)

When the image is enough

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Painted and unpainted (Ohio, 7/19/14)