Staff Roundup: May 2015
What we’re loving this month: Julie Carr, E. L. Doctorow, Slate’s Culture Gabfest, & David Mura’s essay on being a student of color in an MFA program.
For the past month I have been calling around to lower Manhattan bookstores – desperately trying to avoid the behemoth Amazon – to get my hands on Think Tank (Solid Objects), a new book-length poem by Julie Carr. I finally purchased a copy at McNally Jackson last Friday, and have spent a good portion of my weekend grappling with the book’s finely textured and non-linear language.
“To tank thought” – as Carr writes in her chapbook The Silence that Fills the Future (Essay Press) – “is not simply to seek irrationality. It’s instead a mode of desire, but one that doesn’t yet know, and may never know, its desired object. Think Tank, then: a love poem with no object, an imperfect giving over to the other of sound.” Though Think Tank operates on this relationship with “the other of sound,” it is certainly not devoid of narrative or lyric moments. The refrain of “A man walks into…” recurs throughout the work. It ostensibly points to the set-up of a joke, but the lines that follow the appearance of “man walks into” subvert narrative expectations: “A man walks into a table/ onto a wind-driven/ drive// have come closer even now to streaks of water between panes of/ glass–” (2). By focusing on the physiological act of hearing, more than the psychological act of listening (as she states in The Silence), Carr weaves the sounds of her hearing into a “net of branches or an unidentified language” with which “the couple couples” (2).
Think Tank is a book that actively investigates the materiality of language without sacrificing intelligibility. Lines like “Gripping onto the self, eating it from the inside” and “Shadows under cars. Grief under/ summer’s leaves” resist immediate comprehension, but draw me in with their magnetic sound and loaded implications. Though I have only had Think Tank for a couple days, I suspect I will return to it regularly as a model for how much one can let “breath surround my book” while maintaining a level of poignancy that shines “[n]ot by concrete but by owl-light.”
– Nicholas Fuenzalida, assistant layout editor
I have a standing appointment with the Slate’s Culture Gabfest, a weekly discussion of trends both pop and academic between a couple of total snobs who also happen to be insightful and funny. Slate’s Editor-in-Chief, Julia Turner, and its movie reviewer, Dana Stevens, do great work as panelists. But the show’s host, Stephen Metcalf (a critic whose writings have appeared in, see if you can spot the pattern here, the New York Times, The New York Observer, and New York Magazine), speaks most directly to my sensibilities. This gem on modern personality was occasioned by a discussion ostensibly about the rising normcore fad:
“Once upon a time people were born into communities and had to find their individuality. That describes the entire trajectory of the novel as a literary art form. Now people are born individuals and have to find their communities.”
And here he is turning a conversation about online dating into a much broader observation about how the internet poisons personal growth:
“My takeaway is that the internet really does produce a kind of psychosis against the notion of finitude, against the idea that you need to choose, that your horizons are small and limited, which is the essence of the mature personality that’s ready to make a commitment. I just think that internet dating sites are the disease for which they purport to be the cure.”
But my favorite is his endearing apology for The Bachelorette:
“[The first two-thirds of the season] seems entirely debased and contemptible and silly and exhibitionist and all the things that reality tv is. In the last third of the show, something very bizarre happens, which is, in spite of everyone’s better nature, some degree of real emotion gets engaged, and then you think, well, kind of every relationship is a bizarre, I mean, every relationship is basically backfilling on a leap of faith, a completely absurd leap of faith, right? There’s no circumstance under which two people find each other the right way, or the natural way. Why couldn’t it be that you would do it in something out of a dystopian novel, right? I mean, we’re all kind of living in a dystopian novel, where we’re acclimated to just these kinds of bizarre conflicts where we’re unsure whether our relationships to other people are purely instrumental. We’re unsure whether the way we present ourselves to one another is entirely performative. We don’t really know in our own lives, and so, bizarrely, this show over time has come to me to seem oddly, trenchantly analogous to the way we actually live now.”
(Julia Turner: “Whoa.” Dana Stevens: “That sounds so much better on paper than the experience of watching the show.”)
The show posts on Wednesdays to your preferred podcasting platform, and the experience of listening is just as good as it sounds on paper.
– Michael Sarinsky, assistant interview editor
I would not trade my MFA experience at NYU for anything. The professors and students at NYU always have and continue to inspire me, and I am incredibly grateful for them. I also appreciate that the MFA program at NYU is relatively diverse – the key word being “relatively.” Still, a space where the majority is white will most likely see tensions and (micro)aggression toward people of color. I recently read this essay by David Mura http://gulfcoastmag.org/online/blog/the-student-of-color-in-the-typical-mfa-program/ which recognizes that “[s]ince writers are generally a liberal lot, the white faculty and students in these institutions profess the most progressive views on race. They see themselves as people who are generally without racial bias. Racism and racial bias can be found in the country, yes, but presumably that would be in the Republican Party or the Tea Party, not in a population of liberal white artists … Unfortunately, that is not the experience of many MFA students of color.” I’d like to share this article for other students of color in MFA programs and other spaces, to say that we are neither crazy nor alone.
– Emily Yoon, award editor
In working on a long project, a series of linked poems, I’ve been struggling to find the right voice. The majority of the poems are in the third person, but then something changed, and I couldn’t shake the implacable I. I turned to an unlikely poetic source – E. L. Doctorow’s 1971 novel The Book of Daniel. Loosely based on the story of the Rosenbergs, Doctorow imagines what would happen to the children of a couple executed for treason. The story begins with Daniel at 25, driving with his wife and baby, to visit his sister in a sanatorium after a failed suicide attempt. Daniel is a graduate student, supposed to be working on his PhD dissertation, but he cannot stop writing about the past. Profoundly damaged and ruthlessly self-aware, Daniel is almost unbearable at times. Basically he’s a terrible husband and father, both outright abusive and subtly cruel. But one of the reasons that he remains continually fascinating is how he throws his voice. Whenever he slips into the third person, the reader is aware that Daniel is still holding the pen. I first read this book when I was 18, the summer after high school – and I was relived that six years later, it’s as good as I remembered. Multivalent, repellent, radical, and sympathetic, Daniel Isaacson Lewin is Doctorow’s best and most enduring creation yet.
Without saying much of anything, without even caring if he was there, Susan could restore in him the old cloying sense of family, and suggest that his wife was not in the same class and his child a complete irrelevance. That it was their thing, this orphan state, and that it obliterated everything else and separated them from everyone else, and always would, no matter what he did to deny it. Actually I don’t try to deny it. But I reserve the right to live with it in my own way, if I can. In Susan resides the fateful family gift for having definite feelings. Always taking stands, even as a kid. A moralist, a judge. This is right, this is wrong, this is good, this is bad. Her personal life carelessly displayed, her wants unashamed, not managed discreetly like most people’s. With her aggressive moral openness, with her loud and intelligent and repugnantly honest girlness. And all wrong. Always wrong. From politics back to drugs, and from drugs back to sex, and before sex, tantrums, and before tantrums, a faith in God.
– Laura Creste, web & public relations editor