May Picture, Paul Klee, 1925
. . . the act and the potential in the space of
the event, in the event-ness of the event.
—Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx
I was twelve or thirteen years old when I became—quite without my knowing it—a musician. My age and education being what it was, I would not for many years have access to (or possess the intellectual faculties necessary to access) conventional semantic content: my ideas were musical ideas; my vocabulary was a harmonic vocabulary. In ninth grade, after I performed an original solo bass composition, a woman asked me, “What was that about?” Such a question—about my own or any other non-vocal music—had never occurred to me. It was like being asked, “What was your lunch about?” To say my composition was about an emotion(s) struck me as pompous: I knew even then that artists don’t feel more or less deeply than anybody else. And, anyway, the words for emotions (“happiness,” “sadness,” etc) felt—still feel—embarrassingly inadequate. So. I blinked at the woman. “I dunno,” I shrugged.
The art that matters most to me (and probably to you, too) deepens and enlarges us, teaches us something about the world, and therefore can easily answer the question above. Easily can I produce thumbnail descriptions of favorite works: Steve Reich’s Different Trains powerfully enacts the experience of traveling in Holocaust trains; Do Ho Suh’s Seoul Home/L.A. Home is about homesickness and displacement; Samuel R. Delany’s Time Square Red, Time Square Blue is an intelligent and fiercely lived denunciation of gentrification—and so on and so forth.
Nevertheless, the texture and affectivity of living intimately (a phrase plucked from Delany’s Heavenly Breakfast) with a given artwork is also part of what it communicates and what it means. I realize now that my twelve- or thirteen-year-old composition was about just this—the sensuous particularity of existing with a few dense minor changes, in a certain region of the fretboard, which is a certain region of the mind, almost imperceptible vibrations spreading from the fingertips outward like rills of warmth . . .
I aim to explore in this notebook-in-vignettes the phenomenology of my writing—“you think with your body,” writes William Matthews in his poem “Masterful”—and to bestow prominence to the experiential impact and life appeal of the compositional process, the many series of events in and outside of language that so often lie hidden, for the general reader, in plain sight. An aesthetics caught between act and art. “The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice” (Wallace Stevens).
Last week, over the phone, I asked my father about his erstwhile obsession with rock climbing. (When I was a kid, he climbed nearly every weekend. One of my earliest memories is of him on the toilet, very upright, very focused, practicing knots with a length of neon-green or -yellow rope.) “Sometimes,” he told me, his voice dreamy and faintly staticky on the other end of the line, “I felt an insatiable desire to touch rock, to smell sunlight on rock and lichen.”
For a few moments the only sound was the squeak of the porchswing on which I slowly swung—phone pressed to my ear. Which reminded me: In high school, my friends and I loved a skate video called Listen that was soundtrack-less, that featured the raw, unadulterated, unbelievably satisfying sounds of skateboarding. I would sometimes just close my eyes and listen. In college, poet and visual artist truong tran told me that I possessed an erotic relationship to poetry. He conjectured—correctly—that I would like to nuzzle certain words.
It is an obvious but much-ignored fact that characters, plots, settings, and speakers are mere illusions, are only as “alive” as their author-creators can convincingly depict them in language. The production and/or consumption of said language, however, constitutes a genuine experience—very much alive (no scare quotes) as it happens. When one of my students asks, as they invariably do, what a particular text is about, I tell them: “For the reader, the text is about the experience of reading the text; for the writer, the text is about the experience of writing it.”
Or not writing it: Years ago, on our way to an open-mic poetry reading, my friend and I found the user manual to a DVD player on the sidewalk. When he was called up to read, he stared straight at me, slowly unfolded the manual, and began to read: After plugging in the DVD player, press the POWER button . . .
In Tomoka Shibasaki’s Spring Garden, an illustrator and comic-strip artist named Nishi is obsessed with a “sky-blue house” documented (along with its long-ago residents, a well-known artist couple) in an out-of-print photobook—-Spring Garden. Taking up residence in a nearby apartment, Nishi stalks the house, later befriending its current residents, in an urgent attempt to behold in person and then to recreate in her art the house’s many rooms. As the surrounding Tokyo neighborhood is systematically demolished and rebuilt, Nishi undertakes her updated version of Spring Garden and also transmits her obsession to her neighbor, Taro, the novella’s protagonist.
Though the book mostly emanates loneliness and loss, I find the iterations of the sky-blue house enlivening. Rather than occupy Shibasaki’s characters, the house occupies them, and so survives—a “garden” amidst aggressive urban renewal, a blossoming amidst contemporary urban alienation. Their obsession with the sky-blue house may reveal their lack of satisfactory human engagement, but accumulating versions of it partially eclipse our investment in traditional notions of plot and character, so that readers (or this reader, anyway) partially experience Spring Garden as variations on a theme—an unexpectedly warm-blooded exercise/experiment that blurs the divide between art and artifice, between the work (the novella itself) and what philosopher Kendall Walton calls the “work world” (the relevant artwork’s imagined world: the dollhouse for the dolls). Variations on the sky-blue house reach beyond the book’s fictional domain, creating a palpable interdependency between reader, author, and characters, because they—the variations—are plainly discernible not only as obsessional output arising “naturally” from character and plot, but as compositional input, as one of Shibasaki’s central compositional engines, too.
In my mid-twenties, when I began to reallocate my artistic energies from music to literature, I found myself drawn to work that reveals or gestures toward its compositional process(es), that makes the texture and affectivity of the writing experience a discernible ingredient of the reading experience. In my own writing, this was and still is an attempt to reignite some of the sensorial mystery and wonder I felt as a kid learning to play electric bass in his bedroom or listening to Coltrane on his father’s record player. “I became content to feel,” writes Baudelaire in “The Exposition Universelle,” “I returned to seek refuge in impeccable naïveté.”
I’ve written a number of poems “after” other poets (Marvin Bell, Ronald Perry, C.D. Wright, Jack Gilbert, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) that strike me as especially (poly)sensuous. Not only do they evoke for me the gazillion hours I have spent on the floor of a dimly lighted room, practicing scales, patterns, exercises, and études; not only is my love for these poets discernible as ghosted materiality, as language haunting formal systems—they also very nearly abandon meaning for sound. I think often, in fact, of a dream (an actual dream: I keep a notebook beside my bed) in which my laptop keyboard was a piano keyboard, and words were chords, and each letter could be sharped or flatted at will.
I am reminded again and again that what distinguishes my current poetic practice from the musical practice of my youth is that, today, I no longer regard practice as a means to an end (i.e. a way of perfecting or maintaining skills) but rather as an end in itself. The above-mentioned poems in particular are not unlike improvisational exercises recorded late at night, over a demitasse of espresso or a snifter of cognac, one take after another, imperfections and all . . .
Mark Strand: “It is the oddity of our poems, their idiosyncrasy, their lapses into a necessary awkwardness, their ultimate frailty, that charms and satisfies” (“A Poet’s Alphabet”).
In Chapter 17 of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Huck examines an unfinished crayon drawing by recently deceased Emmeline Grangerford. It features “a young woman in a long white gown, standing on the rail of a bridge all ready to jump . . . looking up at the moon, with tears running down her face.” However, because Emmeline died before she could finish “her greatest picture,” this young woman has “two arms folded across her breast, and two arms stretched out in front, and two more reaching up towards the moon”: Emmeline planned “to see which pair would look best and then scratch out all the other arms.” Though Twain was clearly satirizing the comic seriousness of popular 19th-century tragic romances, E.W. Kemble and John Harley’s original illustration (see below) of this young woman is neither tragic nor comic. Instead, it’s metamorphic: a woman with six semi-transparent arms—“so many arms it made her look too spidery.” Emmeline’s failure to settle on one pair of arms inadvertently produced a new and decidedly unromantic heroine. She is a spider woman and a plural subject reaching simultaneously in different directions.
Maya Catherine Popa: “I learned to listen to variations” (“The Song of Male Aggression”).
E.W. Kemble and John Harley
“Art is the manifestation of choices in a charged field,” contends Dean Young in The Art of Recklessness, and I relish writing that pluralizes those choices, that “fails” to construct the illusion of a literary world in which only one pair of arms ever existed or could exist. “[I]n our time, to perceive, comprehend, or apprehend any object, the preceptor must accumulate a variety of perspectives upon that object. He must ‘see’ it”—-I’m quoting from Sharon Spencer’s Space, Time, and Structure in the Modern Novel-—“from as many points of view as possible.” When Marvin Bell told me that he’d once borrowed Donald Justice’s office and there, in a desk drawer, found numerous sheets of paper on which a couplet had been obsessively written and rewritten and then rewritten again, I knew I was supposed to be impressed by the older poet’s patience, care, precision: the time-honored “struggle” for perfection. Instead, I found the (imagined) record of the couplet’s composition—its accumulation of perspectives—far more captivating than any single “final” couplet could be. “The house of fiction has . . . not one window, but millions” (Henry James).
An editor once remarked upon my own repetition of words: dark, body, hair, shadow, night. I had to admit I do love these words, even if—or maybe precisely because—it makes me feel like a brooding teenager plunking minor chords on a piano, sustain pedal to the metal.
When writing an ongoing series, “Lineage: 7 Variations,” John Coltrane is often on my mind (and stereo). Specifically, I think of his talent for extending phrases beyond their expected conclusions, for broadening and/or artfully complicating the improvisational units of which his solos were composed. In one well-known anecdote, Coltrane, defending the length of his solos, tells Miles, “I can’t find a way to stop,” to which Miles replies, “You might start by taking the horn out of your fucking mouth.” Channeling the spirit of Coltrane, each “Lineage” variation is a single-paragraph story (with one exception—I cannot refuse the opportunity to break “rules”) comprised of extended, hypotactic sentences, which I rather fancifully regard as “sheets of sound,” the now-famous term Ira Gitler used to describe Coltrane’s solos. Each “Lineage” variation is loath to place periods or close paragraphs, is loath to take the horn out of its fucking mouth.
Some fifteen years ago, I recorded a duet with my longtime childhood bass instructor, Mike Kelly, entitled “Audio Wallpaper.” It featured a technique known as “tapping” in which both hands engage the fretboard—imagine each of us playing his bass as though it were a piano—and repeated subtle melodic variations ad infinitum. In truth, the composition reflected our predominant practice method: we would repeat a riff in unison until we entered a trance-like state in which we (I’ll speak for both of us here) felt the mental “stress” of the activity slowly dissolve and our minds awaken inside the music—“the strange world of sounds,” wrote Borges in “Blindness,” “—the strangest world of art”—two figures floating perfectly still inside a storm cloud. In this way, too, the sheet-of-sound/audio-wallpaper impulse (not to mention the degree-of-difficulty calculation that contributes to my pursuit of it) is quite deeply engrained in me.
Can readers discern in this prose text the spirit of Coltrane specifically? I doubt it—and I don’t care. Art is chockfull of present absences. Yet readers can indeed discern that the sentential maneuvering of “Lineage: 7 Variations” is rooted in the practice of jazz improvisation. The basic sentence structures of each variation are almost identical; together, they form the chord progression over which I can solo, the skeleton over which I can drape sundry clothes.
Once, over coffee, M. asked me why didn’t I write more poems about jazz? Though jazz and jazz musicians receive occasional spotlight, my poetry is unequivocally dominated by classical music. Gazing down into my half-empty mug of coffee, I proceeded to tell M. that I loved classical music and that I grew up on the Russians: Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Shostakovich. Which is just to say I didn’t answer her question. I didn’t tell her that Miles listened almost exclusively to classical music, as his records with Bill and Gil Evans attest—“He played Khachaturian, Debussy, Chopin,” says Frances Taylor Davis, Miles’ first wife, in the 2001 documentary, The Miles Davis Story—or that my go-to process of composition is essentially bop-derived:
Owing to my background as a workaday jazz musician (I played out of a fakebook in the DeWald-Taylor Quintet for over a decade), it feels perfectly ordinary for me to open a “finished” text and improvise, so to speak, over its changes. Our charge as musicians was to—-in accordance with Pound—-“make new” tunes we’d played, let alone heard in recordings, ten thousand times. “[I]nstant variety and instant repetition,” wrote Italo Calvino in his introduction to Italian Folktales. Every instantiation of a tune must be a new tune and the same old tune, both.
Several months ago, I decided to show my son and daughter a made-for-TV movie I’d watched again and again as a young child—-Ewoks: The Battle of Endor. I hadn’t seen it in over thirty years, and watching it now between my kids on our overstuffed gray sofa, I realized that I remembered nothing about plot, character, or dialogue; yet the sound of pie tins and of actors eating with wooden spoons and bowls was intensely evocative, issuing as it was from the past and the present at the same time.
If a traditional lyric poem (“the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility,” as Wordsworth so famously put it) is a memorial to a single human’s experience of a discrete moment on earth, then I’m interested in a hall-of-mirrors lyric, in a lyric for collectivists, in the lyric as a site in which one can repeatedly access, tranquilly or no, discrete moments on earth, understanding full well that one has been here (or somewhere all too like it) at least once before.
Vladimir Propp: “The names of the dramatic personae change (as well as the attributes of each), but neither their actions nor functions change. From this we can draw the inference that a tale often attributes identical actions to various personages.”
Or the same personage, à la Chris Marker’s La Jetée:
A 28-minute photo-roman composed almost entirely of black-and-white film stills and narrated with spare, trickily precise voiceover, La Jetée concerns a nameless man (Davos Hanich) who travels back in time in search of the moment in which he, as a child, witnessed the death of a man on the pier of Orly Airport, Paris. Yet he realizes only years later that he had witnessed a man dying; what he remembers—the image that has “marked” him and thus made him a candidate for time travel—is a woman’s face at the end of the pier, a seemingly ordinary, if beautiful, face that would remain with him throughout World War Three and beyond, “a unique image of peacetime.” At film’s end, having traveled back in time to his childhood afternoon at Orly Airport, he runs toward the woman at the end of the pier, but is suddenly shot and killed by a man from the future secretly trailing him: Our protagonist had, as a child, witnessed his own death.
Which reminds me: Also in 1962, Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg published a book of essays called Le Piccole Virtù (The Little Virtues). In her essay “He and I,” she relates how her husband, the scholar and screenwriter Gabriele Baldini, drove them for hours through foggy identical suburbs in search of a cinema “showing a film from the 1930s, about the French Revolution, which he had seen as a child, and in which a famous actress of that time appeared for a moment or two.” Fifteen minutes into the film, however, the actress had come and gone, and already Baldini wanted to leave, despite his wife’s wish to finish the film—they’d driven all this way to watch it, after all. On the drive home, when Ginzburg asked him how the film would end, he told her that “the story wasn’t at all important, the only thing that mattered was those few moments, that actress’s curls, gestures, profile.”
When I first read Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale–a study in which Russian fairy tales are broken into and analyzed as thematic and narratological chunks that tend to be, Propp discovers, sequenced in particular ways—I thought of the gazillion hand-me-down phrases/patterns that jazz musicians lean on (mostly for practical reasons, as when a player needs a brief mental or physical break from intensity, a gulp of air before diving back down into the depths) during solos. I glimpsed in Propp’s Morphology a way to produce narratives that excused stock phrases/patterns as part and parcel of a general practice. Rather than attribute “identical actions to various personages,” however, “Lineage: 7 Variations” attributes various actions in identical or almost identical sentence structures: “My grandmother’s alone, more alone than I, though less alone than my grandfather . . .”; “I’m handsome—a bit handsomer, I think, than my brother—but perhaps not quite as handsome as our father . . .”; “My father’s a very fine musician—a better musician, at least, than my uncle, who will strum his guitar and croon to old wide-hipped ladies in the subway, like a troubadour—though he’s not nearly as fine a musician as my wife . . .” And so on and so forth.
Repeated, the technical elements acquire an uncanniness: one senses the present absence of an urtext—“something,” to quote Freud’s “The Uncanny,” “which is secretly familiar.” And indeed there is an urtext. In 2012, I published a very short story called “Lineage” that contained the “original” sentential skeleton of the series. Though the story itself was forgettable, the movement of its sentences gnawed at me, haunted me, as though the form was always already uncanny. Here, I intuited, is a template for producing plot and conflict—two essential narrative elements for which I have little to no natural ability or interest. Still, for reasons unclear to me, a number of years would pass before I, bored and alone in a fluorescent-lighted college computer lab (“boredom,” claims Carmine Starnino in “Lazy Bastardism: A Notebook,” “is the highest state of creativity”), wrote the first “Lineage” variation.
I disclose the mechanics of “Lineage: 7 Variations” in the text(s) itself so that readers will reflect on the act of writing even as they engage with character and plot; that they will regard the disclosure as indiscreet and in conflict with the supremacy of autonomous finished texts; and that they will seek narrative connections (Are these characters members of a single family, each variation a branch of one big family’s tree?) as well as morphological connections (Do particular words, phrases, and sentence structures appear and reappear like strands of linguistic DNA across the series? Are these variations quite literally blood-related?)
In Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods of Jazz, Langston Hughes includes an afterword, “Liner Notes,” which consists of an “informative” prose paragraph for each poem in the collection. Addressed to “the poetically unhep,” these paragraphs read like prose poems, so rich are they in Hughes’ rhymes and rhythms: “Because grandma lost her apron with all the answers in her pocket (perhaps consumed by fire) certain grand- and- great-grandsons play music burning like dry ice against the ear. Forcing cries of succor from its own unheard completion—not resolved by Charlie Parker—can we look to monk or Monk? Or let it rest with Eric Dolphy?” Instead of over-explaining or speaking down to “the poetically unhep”—a white audience ignorant of his many black cultural references—Hughes refuses to “speak” inauthentically. Because the tinge of anger and frustration is arguably more apparent in the afterword than in the lineated poems, “Liner Notes” extends the book’s genre and emotion, a series of corresponding prose poems in a darker mood: a shadow of the book as a whole. In Hughes I rediscovered that structure and form can facilitate, in the rep-and-rev tradition, not only a more expansive range of emotional and tonal registers, but a more intricate blurring of poetry and prose.
“‘Repetition and Revision’ is a concept integral to the Jazz esthetic,” writes Suzan-Lori Parks in “From Elements of Style,” “in which the composer or performer will write or play a musical phrase once and again and again; etc.—with each revisit the phrase is slightly revised. ‘Rep & Rev’ as I call it . . .”
There is an opening from one room to the next . . . Barbara Tomash’s “Home Stead,” from The Secret of White, contains a final, coda-like stanza. Separated from the poem proper by an asterisk, this “coda” is also tonally distinct: observational, existential, and slightly formal in its use of the first-person plural: we walk between the two without thinking, we cross the boundary between living and dying . . . “Like commentary on the poem itself,” I told her one afternoon in her office. Barbara looked at me and nodded. She said many rabbis believe a text does not exist unless it’s been commented on.
Tuscan proverb: “The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it.”
Composing from scratch—creatio ex nihilo—is neither the greater method nor the greater skill; it’s instead a different method and skill, one in which each decision is guided by (1) a large-scale conception of the urtext, (2) an intuitive inkling of what the in-progress text will be, and (3) the real-time communion of risk and grace (i.e. the ability to gracefully maneuver formal attributes as well as surprise, break expectations, reach “beyond your formulas” [Charles Mingus]). Though my writing is not, strictly speaking, improvised—language doesn’t pour spontaneously out of me, à la David Antin’s “talk poems”—my baseline compositional process foregrounds skills and tenets particularly revered by the jazz improviser. I often pursue highly formal/structured poems (and prose texts) solely for the fun of “playing” against their rules.
Because language occurs, unlike music, non-simultaneously—-“The story is what happens in the reader’s mind as his eyes move from the first word to the second, the second to the third, and so on to the end of the tale,” writes Samuel R. Delany in his essay “About 5,750 Words”—the kind of risk-taking mentioned above is only discernible via juxtaposition: the juxtaposition between the poems in Hughes’ Ask Your Mama and their corresponding liner notes, for example. To discern the riskiness, to register the extent to which this or that decision challenges/strays from the predictable, the reader has to approximate simultaneity by reading the urtext (or any previous instantiation of a text) behind or alongside its variant. Each compositional decision bears a history. Thus, alternative versions of the text are discernible palimpsestically—a palpable present absence, or extra-textual energy, affecting our reading experience. The texture and affectivity of living intimately with a given artwork, indeed.
Cassie Donish: “The memory is a beautiful ghost” (On the Mezzanine).
At the center of truong tran’s four letter words are four barely visible poems—ghost poems—printed on both sides of two sheets of transparent vellum. Are these dead poems? Poems “abandoned,” as Valéry might put it, too early? Were they once (or once intended to be) something else? And perhaps most importantly: What are they now, together, layered almost illegibly one upon the other?
Jeff Wall, The Storyteller, 1986
I first encountered the cinematographic photography of Jeff Wall at his SFMOMA retrospective exhibition in 2007. Even more than his imaginative ideas (The Flooded Grave, 1998-2000) or technical prowess (A Sudden Gust of Wind [After Hokusai], 1993), the uncanniness of his pictures utterly overwhelmed me. Approximately life-sized but mounted in brighter-than-life lightboxes, Wall’s photographs are almost exclusively set-constructed. Chancing upon an event or location of pictorial interest, he does not photograph it, but rather stages it and hires actors to inhabit the space. Hence, his well-known mantra: “I begin by not photographing.” Which is just to say that Wall doesn’t march lockstep within a documentary-based tradition of photography, shooting the world as it exists. Instead, he behaves as a documentary photographer of collaborative semi-controlled environments, merely observing, merely waiting to “capture”—well, something. In photography as in poetry: “What the poem is,” as John Ciardi writes in How Does a Poem Mean?, “is inseparable from its own performance of itself.”
With the exception of several centerpieces (a koi pond, a brick patio, a few well-placed canopy trees), my father’s backyard has been continually reimagined. At present, it’s a veritable rainforest featuring two ponds, three waterfalls, a stream, three patios, one sunken patio, cushioned benches, hanging lanterns, windchimes, a labyrinth of stone paths, a quivering overlay of shadow—in short, not what one expects of a modestly-sized, tract home backyard in the middle of suburbia. And yet, despite its many relaxing, transportive properties, I’m most intrigued by the yard’s history and perpetual as-yet-unfinishedness, the way in which family and friends cannot not experience the yard as process rather than as product. Because earlier versions of the yard are visible palimpsestically—I can still see the gazeboed hot tub over here, the chain-linked dog den over there, and over there the wooden footbridge—the (re)experience is one of fullness and of absence, both. Variability contributes as much to my father’s backyard as water, light, or air.
To reimagine a text is to challenge traditional notions of closure, totalization, finality, perfection—aesthetic tenets in which I put zero stock. If I did believe in them, then perhaps I would relinquish art altogether and be satisfied replacing batteries in my children’s toys. As Marvin Bell likes to tell his students (I was one of them—one of ten thousand to have crept out from under his overcoat): “It’s not work, and it’s never finished.” I want to create art that engenders a sense of never-endingness. Like Michael Ondaatje’s “Elimination Dance (an intermission),” a seemingly endless litany of peculiar descriptions: “those who have pissed out of the back of moving trucks,” “those who have woken to find the wet footprint of a peacock across their kitchen floor,” “those who, after a swim, find the sensation of water dribbling out of their ears erotic,” and so on.
I’m currently writing another ongoing series, “To an Imagined Us,” the component parts of which are neither numbered (suggesting linearity) nor titled (suggesting independence), but rather separated by glyphs (suggesting assemblage—a series of parts, or [re]movable pieces, quite various in my case, gathered under a single banner). My hope is that “To an Imagined Us” will be read kaleidoscopically—the second part echoes the fifth part, the eighth part echoes the fourteenth part, the sixth part echoes the eighteenth part, and so on—with the understanding that neither the order nor the quantity of parts/pieces matters. “There’s no truth,” writes Deborah A. Miranda in her poem-story “Formula,” “in the old formula of beginning, middle, end.” My hope is that its component sections are interchangeable, are what Sharon Spencer would call a “mobile construct”—its structure “constitutes a denial of linear chronology” and is “dependent upon juxtaposition [as] the chief means by which the impression of ‘mobility’ is attained.”
From Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s poem, “Salt”: “Nothing is unrelated.”
In March, Mike Kelly, my bass instructor, died of pancreatic cancer at the age of fifty-seven. After I heard the news, I lay on the floor of our darkened bedroom with my bass flat across my chest—not performing for him, but practicing. (It turns out grief, too, is a sheet of sound.) Trying to make him proud. As though I would arrive, once more, at his house after school on Tuesday.
When I was an undergraduate at San Francisco State University, Camille Dungy took a prose poem of mine and reordered all of its sentences—an experiment that taught me so much about part-whole relations and the importance of angular “turns.” It was like listening to Thelonious Monk play stride for the first time: the experiment revealed to me that Dungy dug my poems (very heartening indeed), but also poked fun at a certain quaintness or tidiness they possessed. I thought of this event the other afternoon, at the playground sandbox, when my son sang the Alphabet Song at the top of his lungs—“A, B, C, D, F, I, G . . .”—-and two older girls stared up at their mom, wide-eyed, then pointed at my son and shouted: “That’s wrong! That’s wrong! He’s singing it wrong!” Wrong? Protectively, I wanted to inform them that the order of the letters scarcely matters. More importantly, anyway, he sang the song correctly—in rhythm and right on key.
A great many of my poems are what my friend d. calls “rectangles”—that is, poems with lines of uniform length, thus resembling near-perfect rectangles. Though this constraint initially arose as a poetic manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder—rectangles are written on a word processor, in Times New Roman, with a margin ruler (no justified margins)—I loved the contrast between the subjectivity of a poem and its objective appearance on the page. In content, the poems were radically different. In appearance, they seemed to emerge as from a factory, a succession of rectangular text-objects. Variations on a visual theme. Maybe, I thought, I would print them on cardstock, cut them out, and collect them as I used to collect baseball cards as a kid.
Josef Alber, Study for Homage for the Square: Beaming, 1963
Working so meticulously with the margin ruler, I made-believe these rectangles had one foot in a minimalist tradition. Geometric “studies” such as Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series (1950-1976) induced me, in fact, to write poems with different sets of lines of uniform length and/or with unconventional layouts. In time, however, even though I’ve grown far less interested in line-length uniformity than in the unexpected results the constraint incites (writing lines of uniform length does indeed ignite the imagination and invite the proverbial muse), one of the chief reasons why I’ve written so many rectangles is because I simply relish the tactility of measuring, the treatment of language as physical material, and texts that are as much (set-)constructed as they are composed.
William Matthews’ poem “Unrelenting Flood” opens thus: “White key. Black key. No, / that’s wrong. It’s all tactile.”
Somebody once told me that Allen Ginsberg frequently and experimentally altered the size of his notebooks. The size, he claimed, would often determine the length of his poetic line. Because improvisation often grows out of random gambits—the indelible five-note opening phrase to Keith Jarret’s Köln Concert was an imitation of the opera-house bell informing his audience to please find their seats—it feels quite natural for me to follow an arbitrary line-length, whether it be predetermined (à la Ginsberg’s notebooks), established by an opening line, or both.
If I were to spread a smattering of my poems here before you, dear reader, would you be able to identify which are the rectangles and which are not? When I received the galleys for my first published rectangle, I frowned, I sulked. It was not a near-perfect rectangle. Improvidently, I hadn’t realized that the uniform line-length of these poems, when set in almost any font other than Times New Roman, would be entirely lost: they would no longer resemble rectangles; they would no longer exhibit any discernible constraint at all.
Now, however, I love that my poems possess a “secret” methodology. I look forward to the moment when I, as opposed to an editor, set a new poem in a different font, suddenly creating the jagged right margin—instant erosion of a vertical rockface. I feel like my son, who builds humungous multicolored block towers (“Sooooo tall,” he exclaims, standing on tiptoe, stretching up his arms) solely for the fun of knocking them down.
This reminds me: Bookending truong tran’s four letter words are “paragraphs” of some dingbat font (numbers, images, unintelligible glyphs) with short phrases appearing, erasure-style, throughout. Asked about it, truong said these pages were not-so-successful poems that nevertheless contributed greatly to his understanding of the book. Rather than excise them, he performed an erasure on them and disguised them as idiosyncratic (and mostly visual) front and back matter.
If one denies, as I do, totalization and closure, if one “resist[s] a notion of art as capable of seeing beyond,” as Jack Halberstam writes in The Queer Art of Failure, then one ought to reframe one’s relationship to one’s art—one ought to empower art’s confined space (a backyard, a “rectangle,” a reconstruction of an event not photographed) by equating movement within it as emancipatory. Like a jazz musician, one ought to treat the limitations or boundaries of one’s art less as confinement than as an opportunity to challenge, transform, expand, resist, reinvent.
For me, this “confinement” is also a mindfulness technique whereby the lack of physical space has forced (or tricked) me into an embodied awareness of the present moment. As one might expect, the sensuousness of writing becomes dramatically heightened.
A few semesters ago, in a literature-based composition course, my students and I discussed the queer, uncanny space of Jim and Harriet Stone’s apartment in Raymond Carver’s “Neighbors” (1970). More Twilight Zone than Dirty Realism, “Neighbors” is the story of Bill and Arlene Miller, “a happy couple” who agree to “look after the Stones’ apartment, feed Kitty, and water the plants,” only to discover, separately, that the apartment changes them: they re-costume themselves (“He stepped into the panties and fastened the brassier”); become distracted, removed from ordinary time (“‘I didn’t feed Kitty or do any watering.’ She looked at him. ‘Isn’t that stupid?”’); and carry the trace-marks—the psychosexual aftereffects—of it back to their own apartment/lives:
She let him use her key to open the door. He looked at the door across the hall before following her inside.
“Let’s go to bed,” he said.
“Now?” She laughed. “What’s gotten into you?”
“Nothing. Take your dress off.” He grabbed for her awkwardly, and she said, “Good God, Bill.”
He unfastened his belt.
I regard the story as a metaphor for the excitement and artistic possibility (and felt potentiality) of entering extant narratives. In the uncanny alternate reality of the Stones’ apartment, Bill and Arlene’s allegiance to their own narrative promptly malfunctions, and Carver commences a close study—a Jeff Wall-like observation—of characters over whom he holds, or pretends he holds, no dominion: “[Bill] moved slowly through each room considering everything that fell under his gaze, carefully, one object at a time.” Rather than escape his aesthetic proclivities by looking out, Carver queers the fictive space of the Stones’ apartment: he “resist[s] a notion of art as capable of seeing beyond.” Though the Millers, at story’s end, accidentally lock themselves out of the Stones’ apartment, Carver has nevertheless made contact with his (non-realist) literary “neighbors,” has already freed himself, however briefly, from the limitations of realism’s prevailing aesthetic conventions.
In high school, my friends and I skateboarded from the instant the last bell rang until it grew dark outside, moving from one “spot” to another only when we bored of it or when (more commonly) we got kicked out. Twenty years later I still maintain a skater’s view of the world: stairs, rails, ledges, gaps, well-lit empty lots—indeed the entire urban landscape—is a skate park, a series of spots. For street skaters, concrete jungles are charged not only with possibility (what has been or can be done) but with potentiality (what can be imagined or may be done in the future).
“If you can’t dream up worlds that might be, then you are limited to the worlds other people describe,” write Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein in their book Sparks of Genius.
Or, as José Esteban Muñoz puts it in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity: “Possibilities exist, or more nearly, they exist within a logical real, the possible, which is within the present and is linked to presence. Potentialities are different in that although they are present, they do not exist in present things. Thus, potentialities have a temporality that is not in the present but, more nearly, in the horizon, which we can understand as futurity. Potentiality is and is not presence . . .”
My rock-climbing father would understand. Once, in midtown Sacramento—I must have been seven or eight years old—I watched, enthralled, as he began to scale the rock façade of what was, if memory serves, a frozen yogurt shop, which reminds me: Once, for a week or so, my high school skater friends and I played a video game, a race car game, in which we never raced, but instead played SKATE (the skateboard equivalent of basketball’s HORSE) by variously flipping our cars on steep hills well outside of the prescribed racetrack.
I view a page of text, too, as a series of spots—a site in which to attempt possibilities and to evoke, in readers’ and writers’ minds alike, potentialities: “the warm illumination of a horizon” (Muñoz), the ghostly presence of what is not written. “For each work of art that becomes physical,” said Sol Lewitt in “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” “there are many variations that do not.”
In David Huddle’s novella Tenorman, there’s an “historical consultant” named Whitney Ballstom (a not-so-subtle evocation of jazz critic Whitney Balliet) who comments upon the titular tenorman’s sudden blossoming: “There’s even a new way he’s using silence, letting half or three quarters of a phrase stand and then picking it up out of nowhere as if he’d been playing a whole sequence of notes in his mind without putting them through the horn.”
I once wrote a short story called “The Rosebud Variations.” In it—in what might have been a climactic scene—the narrator’s invented fairy-tale heroine discovers what she believes to be a note left to her by her late mother, though it turns out to be an unfinished pencil drawing: “a self-portrait in which the left eye, the right half of the nose, the upper lip, and the very tip of her Woolfian chin had all been so often sketched and erased, then sketched again and erased, and again sketched and then erased again, that the face was nothing but a tornadic lead-gray blur littered with eraser dust—a face disappearing behind a mask of smoke.”
“[S]ome space in which mystery might still exist,” said David St. John, a former teacher of mine. Or as my partner, Kali, told me last Sunday on an afternoon drive (we were trying to get our kids to nap and have, for once, an uninterrupted conversation): “You are interested in voids.” Which reminded me: I once had my creative writing students write a text to which no one could relate. Is it even possible, I wondered, for a text to be void of relatable experience, emotions, or language? As expected, we all failed—fascinatingly. My own attempt grew into “Nachträglichkeit (or, Landscape with Adventurers),” a poem in which a community awaits an unknown sound that they believe will signal a journey of transcendence into their town’s surrounding ash trees. Quite relatable—even to those for whom transcendence is a chimera, a fool’s errand—because most of us have felt a desire either for the impossible or for what Ernst Bloch termed (in his introduction to The Principle of Hope) the not-yet-conscious, the not-yet-become.
I’ve long bristled at “relatability” as a rationale for an artwork’s success. In the classroom, students will all too often describe a text as “relatable” because it’s valid, true, and tends to foreclose further questioning from educators hesitant to pry into their personal lives. More importantly, however, I feel it rationalizes people’s desire, consciously or un-, to remain safely within their own domains of experience; it rationalizes people’s desire to read (and write) only “what they know” or what their sociocultural milieu tells them they should know.
“Cries of succor from its own unheard completion.” Hidden in plain sight.
I hope readers of my work and of the work that matters to me (Wall’s photographs, Hughes’ Ask Your Mama, Shibasaki’s Spring Garden, Carver’s “Neighbors”), can feel not only the provisionality of each compositional decision, but also the present absence of even prospective, untaken decisions—the not-yet-decisions. Ghost arms. Anticipation of the sensuous: words in the mouth or notes under fingertips. “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (Wallace Stevens).
A new way he’s using silence.
An invitation for you, too, to invent . . .
Jaydn DeWald is a writer, educator, jazz bassist, and the author of the essay collection Sheets of Sound: Notes on Music & Writing (forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books in 2020) as well as several limited-edition chapbooks, including The Rosebud Variations: And Other Variations (Greying Ghost, 2017) and A Love Supreme: fragments & ephemera, winner of the 2019 Quarterly West Chapbook Contest. His poems, stories, and critical essays have appeared in Australian Book Review, Best New Poets, CV2, Fairy Tale Review, south: a scholarly journal, West Branch, and many other publications. He is an Assistant Professor of English & Director of Creative Writing at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia.