12 Winters Blog

Interview with J.D. Schraffenberger: The Waxen Poor

Posted in July 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 19, 2014

I don’t recall the exact year that I met Jeremy Schraffenberger (2005? — give or take), but it was definitely at the University of Louisville during its annual literature and culture conference. I chaired a critical panel on which Jeremy was presenting a paper. As the day progressed and we ran into each other here and there, we discovered that while we both enjoyed academic writing, creative writing was our true passion — mine, specifically, fiction, and his poetry. Over the years we often met up in Louisville, and when my first novel, Men of Winter, came out in 2010, Jeremy was kind enough to help me set up a reading in Cedar Falls, Iowa, as part of Jim O’Laughlin’s Final Thursday Reading Series. By then Jeremy (who publishes and edits under the initials J.D.) was on the tenure track in the English Department at the University of Northern Iowa and part of the editorial masthead of the North American Review. In the summer of 2013 I was able to return the favor and arranged for Jeremy to come to Springfield, Illinois, to be a “Poet in the Parlor” at the historic Vachel Lindsay Home; while he was in town, he also gave a fascinating talk on the history of the North American Review and its fast-approaching bicentennial (in 2015) — the talk was hosted by Adam Nicholson at The Pharmacy Art Center.

In 2012, I established Twelve Winters Press with the intention of using it to bring out my books, or keep them in print, and to bring out the literary work of others. Last winter I contacted Jeremy about possibly working with the Press on some sort of project under his editorial direction — and much to my delight he informed me he had a collection, The Waxen Poor, that he was interested in publishing. He sent me the manuscript, which I was able to read (again, much to my delight) before meeting him in Louisville for the conference this past February. After his reading in the beautiful Bingham Poetry Room in Ekstrom Library, we sat down to cups of coffee in the Library’s Tulip Tree Café and discussed his collection and made plans to bring it out this summer.

I’m happy to report that The Waxen Poor is indeed out. See Twelve Winters Press’s Poetry Titles page for full details.

The Waxen Poor - front cover (1)

I interviewed Jeremy via email about his intriguing collection, which includes poems published in such notable journals as Brevity, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Notre Dame Review, and Prairie Schooner, among many others. What follows are his unedited responses to my questions. When I had the honor of introducing Jeremy at the Vachel Lindsay Home, I said that I always enjoyed his readings because he was the sort of poet that I respected most: one who takes his poetry seriously but not himself. I believe this engaging combination of qualities is apparent here.

Jeremy for The Waxen Poor - 400 (1)

What’s the time span represented by the poems in The Waxen Poor? That is, how early is the earliest poem and how recent the most recent?

The earliest piece in the collection — and the one that really sparked this whole project — is the prose poem “Full Gospel,” which was originally published in the summer of 2006 in Brevity and was later reprinted in Best Creative Nonfiction. I bring this up only because I find the question of genre interesting. I originally wrote “Full Gospel” as a poem, but then as I started to revise, I became less and less interested in lines and line breaks and more and more interested in segmentation or braiding as a way to craft the piece. I can’t say that I was consciously blurring generic boundaries — I was just trying to write something true — but I’m still not quite sure how to categorize it. Is it an essay? A poem? A prose poem? In the end, I suppose, that’s not terribly important, but insofar as it might reveal something about the composition process — in this case, I think, how memory is organized — I think it’s an intriguing question.

Two other early pieces are the first one in the collection, “Brother Tom,” and the last, “Born for Adversity.” It was important, I think, that I knew where I was heading as I wrote and revised. I would certainly not consider The Waxen Poor a novel in verse, but I did feel that there was something of a narrative arc, if not an actual plot — even if it remained subtextual — that guided me along as I worked. I had a clear sense of the beginning and I knew the end, and so the challenge became what to do with the long expansive middle. As Margaret Atwood wrote, “True connoisseurs … are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.”

The most recent poem in the collection is the sequence of “Judas” poems, which came as something of a surprise to me as I wrote them. I hadn’t expected to cast “Brother Tom” as a Judas character, but there it is. Sometimes you can’t — and maybe you shouldn’t — control your characters. You can see that I’m trying to complicate Judas/Tom, though, by calling him “A man of tradition, assassin of the ages, / My translator, my traitor, my Judas, my friend” — the same kind of complication I’m attempting to bring to the entire collection. These “Judas” poems came to me about three years ago, and so The Waxen Poor represents five years of work.

Did you set out to write a collection around the topic of “Brother Tom,” or did the concept of collecting them develop over time? Either way, can you describe the thought process behind the collection?

In my mind The Waxen Poor was always a cohesive project. After “Full Gospel” I began organizing individual pieces around the character of “Brother Tom.” I wanted to explore this fraught relationship between two brothers, each of whom is like the other but also quite different — one a poet, the other struggling with mental illness. The poems are meant to be both personal and more broadly mythological, and I’ve tried to balance (or “harmonize” might be a better word) the experiential with the imagined, the everyday with the elevated. You could also say that the project is in some ways a coping mechanism, like Eliot’s “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” That is, how are we to deal with the pain and suffering in the world but through our art? When trying to understand and contend with something like mental illness, some of us turn to art, to poetry, for answers.

Many of the poems seem to be highly personal in their subject matter. Can you discuss the process of tapping into those emotions via the creative process?

As I said, I see the collection as something of a coping mechanism — but then in some ways, all art functions as a mechanism of this kind, even if you’re not dealing with emotionally fraught subjects. What do we make of this world around us and all of the various experiences we have? How do we give our lives any kind of meaning but by forming it, shaping it? Even the most experimental, appropriative forms of conceptualism in which all subjectivity has been evacuated are ways to cope.

That said, there are some poems in The Waxen Poor I can’t read in public anymore because they’re too emotionally difficult for me to get through, but I think that probably means something important is happening. I try to tell this to my creative writing students, that if something is too painful to write, you should write it, not for the sake of therapy — though that might end up being part of it — but because when a poem is difficult in this way, you’re getting near something that you care deeply about, even if it’s in ways that you can’t quite articulate yet. When we find a form for our pain or confusions, we’re allowing others to identify with it, with us. We’re letting our readers in.

The form of these poems varies considerably, and there are even some prose poems included in the collection. Can you discuss the interplay between subject and form for you as a poet? For example, how much one influences the other?

I’m a formalist insofar as I believe that form is meaning. To sever the two is to do a deep violence to the poem — and to misread it entirely. I think it takes a long time before this insight, which is easy enough to say and understand intellectually, sinks in deeply enough for it to be true as a writer. Or at least this has been the case for me. The prose poem is a perfect example of this fusion between form and meaning. I never set out to write the prose poem sequences you find in this collection. Rather, I discovered that this was the form the poem had to take — especially the somewhat surreal ones in which the thoughts and images and phenomena all seem to tumble forth, like consciousness itself. Likewise, some of the unrhymed sonnets in the collection were discovered. That is, as I began writing, I felt the rhetorical movement of the sonnet happening, the turn, and so I began shaping it accordingly. This means paying attention to more than just the “subject,” more than what the poem is supposedly “about,” and opening yourself up to different ways of knowing.

But there are a handful of exceptions. The poem “Abecedarian Advice” is a received form that I didn’t “discover” but rather imposed on myself as a challenge. And the four “Meds” poems are acrostics that spell out the names of the antipsychotic drugs “Haldol,” “Thorazine,” “Zyprexa,” and “Lithium” down the left margins of the poems. I like the way these formal experiments turned out because I found that I ended up thinking about things I never would have thought about before. The somewhat arbitrary restraint can ironically be very liberating. In fact, I think the acrostic is the most underrated form. With other forms, like the sonnet, for example, you’re dealing not only with external characteristics like rhyme and meter but also an internal rhetorical shape that isn’t always the right fit for the poem. The acrostic, though, can accommodate absolutely anything. It gets a bad rap and seems unsophisticated because we’ve all written them in elementary school. But I think there’s something refreshing about the form’s simplicity.

Several of the poems in the collection had been published individually, but it seemed that you hadn’t been circulating the collection for a while. Can you discuss the history of the collection in terms of your thoughts on its publication as a whole?

Well, I did send this manuscript out into the world for a while, entering it into contests and open reading periods at a handful of presses that I like. But I’m a constant and somewhat obsessive reviser, so I pulled it back and have been working on it periodically for a few years. I’d add a poem, remove a poem, tinker with the chronology, worry over line breaks. Was it Valéry who said that a poem is never finished, it’s only abandoned? I guess that feeling had something to do with it — a desire not to abandon the poems. And because it’s a collection that I care deeply about and is in some ways very personal, I felt it had to be just right — and it had to find the right place, too, that would present it in the way I think it needs to be presented. I’d say it’s finally ready for the world, and so I’m excited now that it’s found a great home with Twelve Winters.

You play with both Christian and Classical allusions (and bring these together in the title and cover illustration, which you found). Why overtly connect these two traditions?  What do you think is the effect of their interplay in the collection?

First, I’d say that even though I am not a Christian, Christian symbols and metaphors are culturally inescapable. And so these stories and images live with us and inform our very identities quite deeply. To deny them is to deny a rich vein of cultural and personal meaning. So, too, with the Greeks. As much as the Christian bible, the Iliad is a foundational text that we should allow to enter and affect our work, even today. In this way, I’d call myself a traditional poet — though that word “tradition” rings vaguely conservative, doesn’t it? What I mean to suggest is that I’m traditional in that I attend to the past — this great gift of literature that has been left to us — and try to make meaning of and from it. I’m reminded of something Barry Lopez wrote: “If art is merely decorative or entertaining, or even just aesthetically brilliant, if it does not elicit hope or a sense of the sacred, if it does not speak to our fear and confusion, or to the capacities for memory and passion that imbue us with our humanity, then the artist has only sent us a letter that requires no answer.” I suppose I’d say that what I’m trying to do is in this collection — and in all of my work, really — is to respond to the letter that’s been sent to us from the past, while writing a letter of my own in the present. Not to mix my metaphors, but I believe artists are not so much influenced by tradition as they exist at a confluence, where the past meets the present, like two rivers meeting.

With your wife Adrianne Finlay being a novelist, you’re a two-writer household. I suspect that creates an interesting dynamic. Can you discuss what that is like, and how it may affect your own creativity?

My wife is always my first reader — and my best. Having another writer in the house is always beneficial for when you want to know if something makes sense or sounds right. But also because there’s a mutual understanding that we each need time to do our work, and so we make time for each other in that way. Of course, a big difference is that she deals with long narratives while I deal with shorter lyrical pieces, and so we’re often trying to accomplish much different things. For Adrianne, I think, clarity is very important — as is plot — whereas I might value strangeness or obscurity in a poem. As a poet, I also think the form is just as important as the meaning — as I said before, it is the meaning — but writers of novels I think tend to be less interested — not uninterested, just less interested in the overt music of language. Or they want to foreground something else. To dwell too decidedly on sound and language might interfere with the story. That said, we both teach fiction and poetry, and so we’re each well enough acquainted with the other’s genre to be good readers. And so, while The Waxen Poor is, indeed, a collection of lyrical poems, I do think that my work slips in and out of narrative and dramatic modes, too. That’s something I think I pay more attention to because of Adrianne.

What projects are you working on now?

What’s been occupying a lot of my creative energies lately is my work as associate editor of the North American Review. The magazine was founded in 1815, so we’re about to celebrate our bicentennial, which is really quite remarkable. I mean, how many things in the United States get to celebrate a bicentennial? It’s exciting but humbling. At any rate, I’m directing a conference to mark the occasion. We have so many great events planned, including keynote readings by Martín Espada, Patricia Hampl, and Steven Schwartz. People can find the call for papers here.

I’m also editing a book called Walt Whitman and the North American Review, which collects the seven essays Whitman published in the NAR in the last decade of his life, along with the many reviews, essays, and articles on him and his work that appeared in the magazine’s pages. Editorial work is challenging but also deeply gratifying.

J.D. Schraffenberger is the associate editor of the North American Review and an associate professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He’s the author of the collection of poems Saint Joe’s Passion (Etruscan), and his other work has appeared in Best Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Mid-American Review, Notre Dame Review, Poetry East, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa, with his two daughters and his wife, the novelist Adrianne Finlay.

(Author Photo by Adrianne Finlay)

 

 

Theory into Praxis: William H. Gass’s Middle C

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 20, 2014

My paper, “Theory into Praxis: William H. Gass’s Middle C,” was presented Feb. 20, 2014, at the Louisville Conference on Literature Culture Since 1900 as part of the panel “The New Adventures of Old Debates: Postmodernism and the New Sincerity,” chaired by Nick Curry, University of Louisville. Other papers presented were “‘Everything is ending but not yet’: Post-Modern Irony and the New Sincerity in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Katherine Leake Weese, Hampden-Sydney College; and “Liminality and Dialogism: Dreamscape Narratives in Donald Barthelme’s Postmodern Paradise” by Nicholas Sloboda, University of Wisconsin-Superior. (A much abridged version of this paper appeared as a review in North American Review, 298.4. Search this blog for other Gass papers.)

Middle C image

Theory into Praxis: William H. Gass’s Middle C

by Ted Morrissey, University of Illinois Springfield

A long and complex novel, or series of novels . . . may present us with a world complete through every principle and consequence, rivaling in its comprehensiveness the most grandiose philosophical systems. (Gass, “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction” 9)

With the release of Middle C in 2013, William H. Gass’s third novel, one imagines that Gass has attempted to do just that:  present us with a world complete.  For the past half century, William Gass has been one of America’s most prolific essayists and literary critics, as well as one of its most receptive interviewees.  Consequently, his ideas about writing, especially about writing the novel and what makes a great one, are well documented, and they’ve remained amazingly consistent decade after decade.  Middle C, even more so than his previous two novels, is a praxis of his most heartfelt theories—which makes it a deliberately challenging read, deliberately aimed at a rapidly disappearing readership.  What is more, given Gass’s age, Middle C may prove to be the final argument in his legendary debate with John Gardner in which aesthetics was pitted against morality as the rubric for assessing great literature.

Gass, who was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1924, is a self-acknowledged slow writer of his own fiction.  Therefore, his novels have appeared with great gaps of time in between:  Omensetter’s Luck (1966), The Tunnel (1995), and now Middle C—with an iconic collection of stories, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), a highly experimental novella (?), Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968), and a collection of novellas, Cartesian Sonata (1998), rounding out his books of fiction.  Meanwhile, the professor of philosophy, retired from Washington University in St. Louis, has published ten collections of essays and criticism between 1970 and 2012.  Conversations with William H. Gass, a compendium of just some of his copious interviews, was released by University Press of Mississippi in 2003.

This paper will deal with Gass’s concept of narrative structure that he refers to as layering, his views on characterization, and his sense of morality’s proper place in fiction.

In Middle C, via the novel’s singular focus, music professor Joseph Skizzen, Gass demonstrates the narrative elements he believes to be essential to great fiction, but also the ones that have prevented him from being a best-selling author—though they have garnered him numerous honors and accolades, including the American Book Award for The Tunnel, a ponderous novel twenty-six years in the writing, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Though not a musician himself, Gass has long been fascinated with musical composition and has tried to structure his novels as if they were orchestral arrangements.  More important, Gass’s nonlinear structural technique that he refers to as layering mimics musical composition, he believes, because the goal of a great novel is to affect the reader as a whole creation:  “[T]he linear element in fiction is inescapable and must be dealt with, used just as it is in music, but there are other elements too, equally important.  So I have a kind of view of a work as being layered:  certain layers, or certain aspects of it, are nonlinear and certain aspects are linear. Then what becomes interesting is the tension, the contrasts, contradictions between the layers” (Janssens 60-61).

The result of layering is a narrative that shifts relentlessly between Skizzen’s childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and beyond to nearing retirement age, forcing readers to acquire their temporal bearings with each new section.  It is useful that each phase of Skizzen’s life tends to take place in a distinct setting with different casts of characters (except for the professor’s mother, Miriam, as she is a constant throughout).  Gass also provides some assistance in how he references Skizzen as either Joey or Joseph, but ultimately the two names appear side by side in the novel as if the young and old versions of his character become conjoined twins and experience the world through dual perceptions.

The merciless shifting in time is due to the thematic elements in the book. Gass writes in “The Concept of Character in Fiction,” “But there are some points in a narrative which remain relatively fixed; we may depart from them, but soon we return, as music returns to its theme” (49).  In The Tunnel, Gass employed a twelve-part structure suggestive of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone pattern.  “That is how I began working out the way for the various themes to come in and out,” said Gass. “It’s layered that way too” (Kaposi 135).  In Middle C, Gass has returned to the concept of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system but even more overtly.  For one thing, Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples, like Alan Berg and Anton Webern, are discussed at various points in the novel via Professor Skizzen’s lectures; and Skizzen himself effects the aura of a Viennese intellectual, reflective of Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School of musical composers.  Also, throughout the novel Skizzen wrestles with a sentence, or series of sentences, having to do with the destructive nature of the human race, as he continually composes the thought, critiques it, and revises it.  Skizzen believes he is on the right track when he writes the sentence in twelve beats, and near the end of the novel he feels he has the sentence perfect:

First    Skizzen           felt                   mankind         must                perish

then     he                    feared             it                      might              survive

The Professor sums up his perfect creation:  “Twelve tones, twelve words, twelve hours from twilight to dawn” (352).  Gass, through his narrator, does not discuss the sentence’s direct correlation to the Second Viennese School’s twelve-tone system, but it does match it exactly.  The twelve-tone system has four parts, described as Prime—Retrograde—Inverse—Retrograde Inverse.  As such, the primacy of “First Skizzen felt” is represented literally with the word First, while “mankind must perish” suggests the retrograde movement of the species from existence to extinction.  “Then he feared” marks the inverse of Skizzen’s initial impression, and “it might survive” is the retrograde inverse because it reverses his belief that mankind will become extinct and concludes that it will actually persist.

In a microcosmic sense, Skizzen’s capturing of the perfect expression of his fears about the human race reflect Gass’s overarching strategy of novel composition, which he expressed in a 2012 Tin House interview:  “You want to organize and make sense out of it on a conceptual level as well as a physical, or musical, level.  And indeed, a spatial level.  Like a parking garage, there are a bunch of levels” (Gerke 41).  On the page, Gass, as he often has, uses typographical features to suggest the multilayered nature of Skizzen’s expression, by indenting, tabbing and boldfacing the words, so that visually they draw attention to their deeper meanings and associations. This evolving thought about humanity is associated with another reoccurring element in the novel, Skizzen’s Inhumanity Museum, which is a collection of newspaper and magazine clippings, and handwritten notecards that detail horrific human actions:

The gothic house he and his mother shared had several attic rooms, and Joseph Skizzen had decided to devote one of them to the books and clippings that composed his other hobby:  the Inhumanity Museum. . . . Sometimes he changed the [name] placard to an announcement that called it the Apocalypse Museum. . . . Daily, he would escape his sentence to enter yesterday’s clippings into the scrapbooks that constituted the continuing record. (55)

And just as Gass returns to the evolving sentence throughout the novel, he also references the Inhumanity Museum and its growing record of atrocities.  Hence, the motif of humans’ inhumanity to other humans demonstrates one of Gass’s other important theories about fictional narrative:  that anything can be a character and people don’t make for the most interesting ones.  He writes, “Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. [. . . A]nything, indeed, which serves as a fixed point like a stone in a stream or that soap in Bloom’s pocket, functions as a character” (“The Concept of Character” 49, 50).  Perhaps Gass’s interest in developing ideas as characters and not people stems from his most fundamental affections.   In the Tin House interview, he acknowledged that he “hate[s] the species” and aligns himself with Spinoza’s advocacy of “lov[ing] ideas” (Gerke 33, 36).  People, he says, are less trustworthy than objects, and the singular focus of Middle C, Joseph Skizzen, reflects that lack of trustworthiness in that the music professor is a complete fraud who constructs his career, and his very life, from forged documents and fabricated CVs.

Gass said that Skizzen was based on a real history professor at Wooster College in Ohio who was living under a false identity and on the run from both the English and Canadian authorities.  Gass remarked, “I want to talk about—or deal with—somebody who’s a counterfeit of that sort.  Professor Skizzen obtains his position with false CVs [. . .] but he gradually expands his dreamland to include the classes he starts to teach” (Gerke 37-8).  Skizzen’s falseness even extends to his supposed admiration of Schoenberg, whom he chose as a pet topic because no one knew much about him.  Perhaps Skizzen’s irreverent strategy reflects to some degree Gass’s own choice of Schoenberg’s twelve-part system to use as a controlling structure for his fiction.  In writing criticism, Gass had to stay within the boundaries of expectation, he said, but for his fiction, which has been more important to him, “there are no expectations, there is no job to fulfill,” allowing him “to be more outrageous, or daring” (32).

Gass’s emphases in Middle C on inhumane behavior and on Skizzen’s profound falseness represent another of his theories about artistic, versus popular, writing.  On the one hand, Gass has said that significant novels need to be about significant themes.  In the essay “Fiction and the Figures of Life,” Gass writes, “[T]he form and method of metaphor are very much like the form and method of the novel. . . . [T]he artist is able to organize whole areas of human thought and feeling, and to organize them concretely, giving to his model the quality of sensuous display.” He goes on,

[T]hen imagine the Oriental deviousness, the rich rearrangement, the endless complications of the novel conceived as I suggest it should be, as a monumental metaphor, a metaphor we move at length through, the construction of a mountain with its views, a different, figured history to stretch beside our own, a brand-new ordering both of the world and our understanding. (68-9)

Yet this world-altering effect must be executed via mundane plot details.  Gass said, “. . . I want to avoid as much as possible situations, extreme situations whose reality is strong because then the reader is reading it like a newspaper or something.  If you’re going to write aesthetically about it, you have to defuse its power in order to get anybody to pay any attention to the nature of the prose” (Gerke 42-3).  He said that “ninety percent of bad literature” was due to writers focusing on the sensational act itself, the part of real life that is “quite shattering, or pornographic, or whatever.  And it isn’t art” (43).  As such, Professor Skizzen’s achievement of the perfect twelve-part sentence about humans’ inhumanity acts as a kind of climax for Middle C, and Skizzen’s feared defrocking, which occupies the final pages of the novel, is a sort of anticlimax juxtaposed against the truly climactic narrative event.

This avoidance of the extreme situation has been practiced by Gass ever since his very first written narrative, from about 1951, the novella “The Pedersen Kid,” which carefully sidesteps descriptions of child abuse, molestation, kidnapping, rape and murder, leaving them merely implied on the fringes of the plot.  And in The Tunnel, Gass’s most ambitious work, the Holocaust remains in the background while the novel’s protagonist secretly digs a hole to nowhere in his basement.

Gass is in his ninetieth year, and it’s all but certain that he will not write any other novels.  He’s said that more novellas, stories, essays and literary criticism could be forthcoming, so Middle C may well be his closing argument in his famous debate with John Gardner, who died in 1982.  Gass and Gardner’s debate regarding the chief aim of fiction was often carried out in private, but it also became very public, being transcribed in various interviews and even fictionalized by Larry McCaffery in The Literary Review as a Point-Counterpoint-style “confrontation” (135).  At the risk of oversimplifying their positions … Gardner believed that literature’s highest calling was to put forward a moral, life-affirming message, while Gass believed that literature’s highest calling was to be something beautiful, a work of linguistic art.  Gass said in a 1978 interview, “There is a fundamental divergence about what literature is.  I don’t want to subordinate beauty to truth and goodness.  John and others have values which they think are important.  Beauty, after all, is not very vital for people.  I think it is very important . . .” (LeClair 55).  Gardner’s view was that “you create in the reader’s mind a vivid and continuous dream . . . living a virtual life, making moral judgments in a virtual state” (49-50).

More than a decade after Gardner’s death, with the publication of The Tunnel, whose narrator, history professor Frederick Kohler, seems to sympathize with the Nazis, Gass was still clarifying his position on morality versus art in literature.  He said that his “position [had] been frequently misunderstood, almost invariably” (Kaposi 122).  He went on,

Ethical, political, and social concerns will be present in every writer’s work at every point.  The question is not that; the question is how you write about them. . . . My view is that you don’t judge a work to be beautiful because it’s morally uplifting or tells the truth about things.  And it’s perfectly possible for a work to be beautiful and not tell the truth, and in fact to be morally not a very nice thing.  Ideally of course it would be all these things at once. (122)

Unlike Kohler, Joseph Skizzen is clearly appalled by human behavior, like the Holocaust.  In his lectures on Schoenberg’s Moses und Aaron, Skizzen contemplates how Jews were able to reconcile “the Almighty’s malevolence . . . a punishment long in coming and therefore most deserved” (209).  Thus, in the context of a novel in which nothing much happens, certainly nothing earthshattering, Gass interjects significant moral issues, especially involving humakind’s inhumane treatment of itself.  In The Tunnel, Gass created a character and a book who were “morally not a very nice thing,” and it seemed to distract many readers from its artfulness, its literary beauty.  In a 1998 interview, Gass responded to critic Robert Atler’s assertion that The Tunnel was an immoral book because of the way it treated the Holocaust by saying that it must be “to some sorts of reader an immoral book.  I want it to be for them.  I want it misread in a certain way by certain people.  It’s for me the proof in the pudding” (Abowitz 144). Gass said that he considers Middle C “a much lighter” book (Gerke 38), even though he deals with many of the same issues as in The Tunnel.  What makes it seem lighter, perhaps, is the first-person narrator’s posture toward atrocities like the Holocaust.

In the end, then, Gass has found a way to create a work of literary art while also taking the higher moral ground that his friend John Gardner advocated.  Gardner said in 1978 that his “ambition in life is to outlive Bill Gass and change all of his books” (LeClair 55)—maybe he managed to change Gass’s final novel from beyond the grave.

Gass is adamant that he’s written his last novel as a matter of practicality—after all, eighteen years elapsed between The Tunnel and Middle C (“I can’t live forever,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch)—but he’s working on a collection of essays, a collection short stories (alluded to in the mid-1990s and still not complete apparently), and he’s planning another novella or two.

Let me end on a personal and professional note:  I’m planning to edit a series of books on Gass’s work through Twelve Winters Press, and about a week ago I put out a call for submissions (of abstracts) for the first anthology, titled Critical Perspectives on William H. Gass: The Novellas.  Please visit TwelveWinters.com/submissions for details and to access the submissions portal. You can also follow my 12 Winters Blog and ReadingGass.org for updates on the project.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” 1998. Ammon 142-48.

Ammon, Theodore G., ed. Conversations with William H. Gass. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Gass, William H. “The Concept of Character in Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 34-54. Print.

—. “In Terms of the Toenail: Fiction and the Figures of Life.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 55-76. Print.

—. Middle C. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

—. “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 3-26. Print.

Gerke, Greg. “Many-Layered Anger: A Conversation with William Gass.” Tin House 14.2 (Dec. 2012): 30-45. Print.

Henderson, Jane. “William Gass: At 88, Gass Has Written Last Novel—But Not Last Book.” 10 Mar. 2013 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Janssens, G. A. M. “An Interview with William Gass.” 1979. Ammon 56-70.

Kaposi, Idiko. “A Talk with William H. Gass.” 1995. Ammon 120-37.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass and John Gardner: A Debate on Fiction.” 1978. Ammon 46-55.

McCaffery, Larry. “The Gass-Gardner Debate: Showdown on Main Street.” The Literary Review 23.1 (fall 1979): 134-144. Print.

Chapter One of An Untimely Frost

Posted in January 2014 by Ted Morrissey on January 28, 2014

Below is the first chapter of my new novel An Untimely Frost, published by Twelve Winters Press earlier this month. The story was inspired by Washington Irving’s rumored courtship of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Listen to an interview by WUIS’s Rachel Otwell.

from An Untimely Frost copyright © 2014 Ted Morrissey. All rights reserved.

an-untimely-frost-front-cover

Chapter One

The London streets confounded me. I had the address of her residence, obtained via my London publisher—how difficult could it be to find, 261½ Wicker’s Lane? How difficult indeed! The cut of my suit was like a giant flame for the moth-like streetpeople, hawking their wares directly in my face, so that I smelled their rotting teeth and breakfasts of spoiled turnips and onions. And solicitous women . . . at ten in the morning? Even Old New Yorkers waited until after a proper luncheon for such engagements, I would think.

In spite of the distractions I found the inauspicious house on Wicker’s Lane. I stood across from it and gazed somewhat in awe: here was the residence of Margaret T. Haeley, authoress of so many of my fretful nights. For months after reading Dunkelraum, before I could settle into sleep, I would check under my bed and in the wardrobe for Mrs. Haeley’s monster—ridiculous, I knew even then, for a giant to be lurking in such small places. But if it were possible at all for her monster to exist, my still childish mind must have reasoned, then it was equally possible for him to break the physical laws of space.

My wonder at Mrs. Haeley’s monster contributed in no mean part to my wanting to take up the pen myself. (Which reminded me, I still needed to finish the proof-sheets for Andersen’s Romance; Murry—that was Mr. A. B. C. Murry of Claxton House—was, I imagined, growing impatient as he wanted to capitalize on the renewed interest in America in Sunnydale, my second book and first full-length novel; there was a stage play in the works, rumored to be starring none other than Mr. Junius Booth. Murry had had the proof-sheets delivered to the hotel and the stack was waiting in my room upon my arrival. No rest for the weary, they say.)

The thought of the house’s occupant quickened my pulse but the narrow-shouldered structure itself was remarkably unremarkable: brown-stained boards (in need of fresh stain) which led one’s eye to black-shuttered windows that were too small for the house’s two and a half storeys; the windows gave the impression the old house was squinting. I recalled the boyhood trick of squinting at an object until the act of only partial seeing—of shutting out more and more light—transformed the object into something altogether of another world. I was tempted to narrow my eyes at the old structure. . . .

Church-bells’ pealing in the neighborhood broke my reverie. I was readying myself to cross the lane and call on Mrs. Haeley when I noticed a slightly built black fellow approach the house with a leather tote of wood—wood, yes, I realized, but not split logs or kindling as such—rather broken pieces of furniture: a severed table leg protruded conspicuously from the tote, which the fellow balanced quite easily on his narrow shoulder. He bypassed Mrs. Haeley’s front steps and instead went to an alternate door to the side, below street level, that I had not observed at all. A moment to fiddle with the lock and the black fellow with his sticks of furniture disappeared from view.

I waited for a dray to pass; the malnourished beast pulling it deposited a fresh dollop of manure in the lane. Then, dodging the droppings, I went to Mrs. Haeley’s front door. There was a bell-key positioned beneath a pane of stained glass, glass which was too smudged and greasy for me to make out its figures. I turned the key and heard the rattling chime within. I imagined its echoing in the empty foyer of a haunted and abandoned house. . . . Thinking of Mrs. Haeley’s monster had worked its old spell on my fancy.

I waited, listening to the noises of the streetpeople behind me. I did not want to appear rude but I turned the bell-key again. After all, I knew someone was inside. Another long period elapsed. I took my card from my vest pocket (beforehand I had added the name of my hotel, The Saint Georges) and I was intending to slip the card through the postman’s slot when I heard footsteps inside, then the bolt . . . bolts (four!) were moved aside, and the door slowly and creakily receded but only about a hand’s length. “Yes?” came a man’s voice, English but not a Londoner it seemed. It was gloomy inside Mrs. Haeley’s house but with the little daylight leaking into the narrow space I realized the gatekeeper (I thought of Macbeth’s jocular one) was the slightly built black fellow.

“Hello there; I’ve come to pay my regards to Mrs. Haeley—a mutual friend recommends me.” Friend was a bit strong as I wasn’t certain that any true ones existed in the book business but I hoped the innocent embellishment would gain me admittance.

“Mrs. Haeley is not receiving callers today, sir. Thank you . . .” and he began to close the door.

“Wait—please—I’ve come such a long way—” It was true, and my feet were starting to pain me again. “Will you at least present her my card?” I held it in the narrow opening and felt the foyer’s draft on my fingers. The fellow’s hand came up, perhaps reluctantly, to take it. The realization struck me that there was no proper servant in Mrs. Haeley’s house, just this taciturn handyman or whatever he was, who completed the task and shut the door without further word. The bolts were slid back into place.

I stood a moment at Mrs. Haeley’s door, nonplussed at being turned away so unceremoniously; then I began my descent of the five steps but halted when I heard the bolts again. The door opened more fully this time and the black fellow stood in its frame. “Jefferson Wheelwright—author of Sunnydale and the Old New Yorker stories?”

I had turned and was looking up from the second step. “That’s correct, my good fellow—at your service.” I put a finger to my hat brim (a high, round-crown affair I was informed was the epitome of London vogue, though I had not seen a one since stepping from the Chaos, an old packet whose crew made certain she was aptly named).

“Mrs. Haeley is not taking callers but she would not wish me to turn away a man of letters without some refreshment. Won’t you step indoors, sir?”

“Most kind; thank you.” I was still disappointed at not meeting Mrs. Haeley, but I was feeling most fagged and some tea and a taste of biscuit sounded quite glorious. I went in and removed my allegedly fashionable hat (it was chocolate brown velveteen made from the same bolt as my coat lapels, vest and cuffs—I was sparing no expense for my tour of England and the Continent). When Mrs. Haeley’s man closed the door the foyer was plunged into a profound gloom for which my eyes were ill prepared.

“This way, Mr. Wheelwright.”

“Your name, sir?”

“Mrs. Haeley has always called me ‘Thursday.’”

“Like Crusoe’s Friday.”

“Yes—but one better, she says.” The pride in Thursday’s voice was evident. From the foyer we went into a long narrow hall. The irregularity of the walls made me think they were in sad disrepair; then my adjusting eyes discovered the appearance of irregularity was due to the fact the walls were lined with books, stacks and stacks of books, each reaching close to the fourteen-foot ceiling. Actually it was my nose that helped my eyes to interpret clearly: the wonderful smell of old books permeated Mrs. Haeley’s house. There were hundreds of books just in the hall—perhaps thousands!

Thursday paused for a moment and deftly removed a book from the middle of a stack, about eye height, and handed it to me before turning a corner into a room I soon discovered was the parlor. Daylight filtered in through slightly ajar shutters and sheer curtains—enough light to allow me to read the spine of the book: Sketches of the Old New Yorkers. The volume, I was happy to see, was well thumbed.

Thursday took my hat. “It’s very nice—I’ve not seen one quite like it.”

“So I’m beginning to suspect.”

He placed the hat on a coat rack in the corner from which a long woolen scarf and a dark jacket already hung. The room was of good proportions with several couches and armchairs and low seats of the Ottoman style. A large oval table occupied the more or less center of the room. It all gave the impression, however, that though it was a place to welcome guests, none had been welcomed there for some time.

Thursday invited me to sit while he fetched “a nuncheon of tea and crackers.” I took a couch opposite one of the room’s three windows. I smelled the dust that was unsettled by my sitting. There were no pictures on the walls, though there were darkened rectangular spaces where ones had been hanging for years. The motif of the book continued as there were stacks here and there in the parlor, none as prodigious, though, as those that stood in the hall.

My eyes had adapted totally and I perused the volume of Sketches Thursday had handed me. I opened the cover and there was the India-ink portrait of me rendered by young Melissa Blackwood, my neighbor’s daughter during my Albany days (the Blackwoods had moved to Brussels and I planned to visit them on my tour). Little Miss had done a remarkable job on the portrait for such a youthful artist but the likeness was not perfect. Her affection for her “Uncle Jeff” had caused her to widen the space between my eyes and to thin my lips and to tuck in my ears (the ears which had acquired for me the grammar-school nickname of “Chimp”). I realized that the inclusion of my portrait rendered by such a juvenile hand was apropos in so much as the sketches themselves were unpracticed in their way, too—though at the time I considered them the masterpieces of the age. Only two years elapsed between Sketches and Sunnydale, yet they were worlds apart in craft. I trusted that my new work demonstrated a similar advancement in my technique, but I wasn’t so certain: I’d often felt in something of an artistic rut.

The musing reminded me of one of my chief reasons for calling upon Mrs. Haeley. Like the rest of the literary world, I wondered if the authoress was at work on something new. Other than the posthumous volume of her husband’s verse that she had edited and for which had written a touching introduction, nothing had come from her pen, save, I supposed, for letters to family and friends (I held out hope of becoming one of the latter).

Thursday returned with a silver tray and pot, both slightly tarnished, two delicate-looking cups, and a plate of crackers. I wondered then if Mrs. Haeley would be receiving me after all. But Thursday, after pouring my tea and adding a spot of cream at my request, fixed himself a cup and sat in a chair adjacent to my couch. I was not used to such behavior from a domestic, and it occurred to me that maybe Thursday was more than that to Mrs. Haeley. When did Haeley drown? It’d been more than ten years. Sipping at my tea, I tried to examine Thursday’s features more acutely in the parlor’s poor light: his nose was somewhat broad and his lips thick, but his hair, which was brushed straight back, was more Italian in appearance than African; so he seemed of mixed parentage.

“The tea is very good. Thank you for it.” I took a cracker from the plate. It proved stale but was tolerable (and welcome) with the tea. “When might Mrs. Haeley be receiving?”

Thursday lowered the cup from his lips. “It is difficult to say. She does not see many visitors so there is no regularity to it.”

I would imagine journalists were a constant bother to the household. She had been, after all, notorious in her youth, before Haeley’s yachting accident. I recalled the headline in the Post: Celebrated English Poet Dead! / Stephen Hæley’s Yacht Capsizes During Storm. A romantic teenager at the time, I immediately fantasized courting and wooing Haeley’s young widow, of taking his place at her side, a new King with the Queen of English literati. I had not thought of all that for years but perhaps the notion lay on the underside of my mind when I made my plans for the tour.

We sat in silence for a time with our tea and crackers. I was trying to think of something to say when there was a creaking overhead as if someone were walking about upstairs. I looked to Thursday, perhaps to confirm it was the lady herself.

“Old houses and their rheumatic joints.” Thursday smiled, his teeth as white as alabaster in the gloomy parlor.

“Indeed.” Then I had the crazy thought that Mrs. Haeley was not there at all . . . that Thursday was an invader of her home, had murdered the famous (infamous?) authoress and buried her in the yard. There were instances of actresses and opera dancers having overzealous supporters who would not leave them be and who sometimes broke into their rooms—even a case or two wherein the worshipper did harm to their chosen idol because of their twisted devotion. To my knowledge, authoresses did not generate such a following (nor authors for that matter), but there is always a first case. “How is Mrs. Haeley?”

“Oh Mrs. Haeley is fine. I make certain she gets her meals and her rest.” There was more of that pride in Thursday’s voice, though it sounded as if he were referring to a prized equine and not the lady of the house. On the one hand, I had no reason to doubt Thursday’s assertion but on the other my first impression of Mrs. Haeley’s house was not of its being a place of sound health. It seemed like a home from her fiction, a birthplace for a monster. Perhaps her upstairs apartment was all light and cheerfulness, a place she could revel in the sort of vitality Thursday implied. After all, Mrs. Haeley was still a young woman, only some eight years my senior. It was just that she achieved literary fame at such a young age, her novel the buzz of New York City, London, Paris, Brussels, all coinciding with her twentieth birthday. Quite remarkable really.

I finished my tea and crackers, feeling somewhat refreshed, which was good as I would likely have to hike up to Fullham Road on aching feet to find a cab. I had been dropped there, wishing to walk the remaining blocks, to take in the sights and sounds of the OldCity. My head was filled with London stories—of the strolling gentlemen and ladies, of the fancy carriages, of the gay chimneysweeps. This idealized tableau was not the London I found. Perhaps it was somewhere else, in another district. I wondered at the impression of Old New York my book created and whether visitors were taken aback by the genuine thing. I was no doubt giving myself and my pen too much credit.

“Well,” I said, placing my cup upon the tray, “thank you, Thursday, for the refreshment; it worked wonderfully and I feel quite able to return to the hotel.”

“I’m sorry, sir, you did not see Mrs. Haeley, but I will tell her of your visit and present your card.” We both had risen and Thursday was crossing the room to retrieve my hat.

I appreciated Thursday’s politeness but it wasn’t the same thing as insuring me a future audience with Mrs. Haeley.

He handed me my hat. “One thing more, sir, if you would.” He went to a small writing desk in the corner of the parlor and returned with a pen and ink-bottle. I understood, and sat on the edge of the couch to autograph the volume of Sketches. It took me a moment to decide what to write but after turning to the cover page I inscribed: “To Mrs. Haeley and her ‘inmates,’ Best Regards, J. Wheelwright.” The “inmates” remark, of course, was meant as an allusion to her novel, where the childhood Hans mistakes the word intimates for inmates, and it proves ominous foreshadowing. I wondered though if my cleverness—my wanting to illustrate my level of familiarity with Mrs. Haeley’s work—would be grasped . . . and appreciated. It was done now. I used the ink-bottle to hold open the front cover and first pages until my inscription would dry, and I lay the pen besides.

A moment later I was on the stoop listening to Thursday quadruple bolt the door. And the sounds and smells of Wicker’s Lane were instantly upon me. I began making my way—sore feet and all—toward the hotel, resolving to hail the first cab I saw. I felt the old melancholia beginning to stir. I hadn’t a clue what a visit to Mrs. Haeley’s home would yield, but my experience was a disappointment of the first order.

The novel is available from Amazon (print and Kindle), Barnes & Noble (print and Nook), Espresso Book Machine, and a host of global booksellers. See the Twelve Winters Press Fiction Titles page for a complete list.

Anthology submissions, Joyce quote and other stuff

Posted in September 2013, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on September 22, 2013

Last week Twelve Winters Press began accepting submissions to our anthology [Ex]tinguished & [Ex]tinct:  An Anthology of Things That No Longer [Ex]ist, and the global response has been enthusiastic.  Submissions are pouring in from everywhere (jut this morning we received a submission from the orbiting International Space Station … just kidding, that’d be cool).  Contributing editor John McCarthy has done a great job of getting the word out via various venues, like NewPages and Duotrope, but nevertheless he was anxious that we’d get enough submissions.  I knew his worries were unfounded.  And, according to John, we’ve already received some really terrific pieces.  We plan to take submissions through the end of November.  We’ll see if the pace slackens at all (or increases!).

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading, off and on, Gordon Bowker’s biography of James Joyce (see NYT review), especially the section regarding the release of Ulysses and Joyce’s starting to ponder what would become Finnegans Wake, and I came across a Joyce quote that’s particularly meaningful to me:

A book, in my opinion, should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality. (to Arthur Power)

I like this quote especially because it reflects my own ideas about creative composition (which I’ve discussed before in this blog more than once, and also in the Preface to the new edition of Men of Winter). Also, it fueled my musings about the creative project I’ve been working at for about eighteen months (minus the ten months I devoted to writing my Beowulf book), which is a collection of related stories that I think of as “the village stories.” I wrote three stories (and some other experimental thing) in 2011, and they were picked up pretty quickly (except for the experimental thing).  Since finishing the Beowulf book I’ve written two more stories (homeless to date), and I’ve just started working on another.  Anyway, I’ve been working under the impression that these stories would coalesce into some sort of loosely held together, but held together, narrative.  So far, though, the only thing that ties them together is that they have the same geographical setting, and several characters, or their relatives, appear and reappear from story to story.

So I’ve started considering moving on to another project, conceived of as a novel from the start, that’s been on my mind, in embryonic form, for a few years now.  I think I’ll finish the story I’ve just begun (about five ms. pages into it); then turn my attention to this new novel, which will require some historical research — but that’s right up my alley.

Speaking of Men of Winter, A Revised & Expanded Edition, Twelve Winters Press (a.k.a., me) released the Kindle edition yesterday — Nook to follow in a few days. Other related issues, like copyright and lost royalties, are being hammered out with Amazon and Barnes & Noble as we go.

Also, I heard from Battered Suitcase Press, and they’re planning a November release for my e-novelette Figures in Blue, which TWP will bring it out a print edition by the end of 2013 or beginning of 2014 (possibly a signed, limited edition).  Meanwhile, I’ve decided to hold the release of An Untimely Frost, my new novel, until after January 1.  I’m just not going to be able to get everything pulled together in the way I want it this fall.

tedmorrissey.com

Men of Winter Redux

Posted in August 2013, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 11, 2013

My novel Men of Winter originally appeared in 2010, brought out by a new press, but I was never very happy with the end result, and overall my experience with the press was pretty frustrating.  Not surprisingly, the press went out of business last year, leaving my book “out of print,” at least in paperback (the digital versions represent a different tale of woe).  Because of this event, combined with the extreme difficulty of getting challenging work in print, period, I decided to start my own publishing business, Twelve Winters Press, which I founded in 2012.

Men of Winter Front Cover

Twelve Winters Press’s first order of business was to make Men of Winter available again (for one thing, I wanted to use myself as a guinea pig, before approaching others about publishing their work).  However, as long as I was troubling to bring it out again, I decided to release a revised and expanded edition of the novel.  New to this edition are a Preface (written by me), an interview by Beth Gilstrap (an abbreviated version of which originally appeared in Fourth River), an Afterword by Adam Nicholson, and discussion questions designed to make the book better suited for book clubs and classrooms.  In terms of revisions, I’ve made a few wording changes and corrections here and there, but the most obvious revision is the addition of epigraphs at the head of each chapter from either the Iliad or the Odyssey.  For the cover art, Gina Glover generously allowed me to use her pin-hole photograph, Amandine, Usedom, Germany.

Men of Winter, A Revised & Expanded Edition, is currently available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Espresso Book Machine.  It will soon be available from Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and NACSCORP.  Please note that the Kindle and Nook editions are the 2010 version of the novel, of which I haven’t received a royalty payment in more than two years (folks are making money off the book, but I’m not among them).  I’m currently in communication with Amazon and Barnes & Noble regarding the situation and plan to have new digital versions available in the near future.

I’m working on getting my newest novel, An Untimely Frost, ready for publication, projected release this fall.  Meanwhile, I have the good fortune of my talented and enthusiastic Quiddity colleague John McCarthy coming on board as a contributing editor, and John is going to spearhead some special projects so that Twelve Winters is not simply my own self-publishing venture.

Twelve Winters Logo Maximum

Many of you reading this blog, may have read Men of Winter in its earlier incarnation, and I would encourage you to spread the word regarding its re-release.  And if you haven’t read the book … well, your support would be greatly appreciated.  I’m hoping especially to market the novel to book clubs, with whose members I would be honored to join in conversation either in person or via Skype.  So if you have any book-club connections (or aspirations), again, I’d greatly appreciate your spreading the word.

Please visit tedmorrissey.com.

In the Heart of the Heart of the Cold War

Posted in March 2013 by Ted Morrissey on March 12, 2013

In celebration of the release of William H. Gass’s novel Middle C, I decided to post a couple of the conference papers I’ve presented on Gass’s work in recent years–something I’ve been meaning to do but have put off for one reason or another.  Following is the paper I presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 in 2010, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Cold War:  Cultural Trauma and the Fiction of William H. Gass.”

In the Heart of the Heart of the Cold War:

Cultural Trauma and the Fiction of William H. Gass

In a writers’ symposium on postmodern literature held at Brown University in 1989, Robert Coover, in his welcoming remarks, gave the impression that the writing style which became known as postmodernism sprang up in the 1950s and ’60s almost by sheer coincidence.  Among the symposium participants were Leslie Fiedler, John Hawkes, Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Donald Barthelme, and William Gaddis.  Coover said, “[T]his group sought out some form, some means by which to express what seemed to them new realities” (“‘Nothing’” 233).  However, Coover goes on to suggest a remarkably thin theory as to why so many writers, all working in relative isolation, began constructing narrative in uncannily similar styles:

We felt we were all alone.  No one was reading us, nor was anyone writing remotely like the sort of writing we were doing until, in the little magazines, we began slowly to discover one another.  Few of us knew one another at the time we began writing.  There was a uniform feeling among writers at that time that something had to change, something had to break, some structure had to go.  And that was, I think, what most united us.

Even though the panel was intended to be a debate, and not merely a discussion, not a single writer challenged Coover’s explanation for the emergence of postmodern style.  At first this assessment may seem startling—that some of the keenest and best-educated minds who were at the forefront of producing and (many) critiquing literary postmodernism accepted the premise that postmodern narrative style more or less just happened; essentially that individuals writing in isolation on various continents, including North and South America, and Europe, just all happened to begin writing in the same sorts of ways, all in a narrow time span, from about 1950 to 1965.  According to Coover, writers, with virtual simultaneity, decided to abandon modernist realism for something fragmented, repetitive, largely unrealistic and illogical, and highly intertextual.

A more cogent explanation, I believe, rests with trauma theory:  The trauma of the nuclear age, which was experienced by the entirety of Western culture (not to mention Eastern), affected the psyches of these writers in a way that resulted in postmodern literary style—a style, according to theorists like Anne Whitehead, Cathy Caruth, and Laura Di Prete, that reflects the traumatized voice.  Meanwhile, historians Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell have made several provocative assertions regarding twentieth-century zeitgeist as it suddenly evolved after the Second World War.  One is that the “[s]truggles with the Hiroshima narrative have to do with a sense of meaning in a nuclear age, with our vision of America and our sense of ourselves” (xvi).  Another is that Americans were deeply and immediately conflicted with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that they experienced the “contradictory emotions of approval and fear the bomb evoked, a combination that has continued to disturb and confuse Americans ever since” (33).  A third assertion is that “[o]dinary people [. . .] experienced their own post-Hiroshima entrapment—mixtures of nuclearism and nuclear terror, of weapons advocacy and fearful anticipation of death and extinction” (306).  And all of this internal conflict, much of which resides in the unconscious, has contributed to a “sense of the world as deeply absurd and dangerous” (335).

It is quite possible that Coover and the other postmodernists at the Brown University symposium experienced the same sort of repression and dissociation that individual trauma victims frequently do.  It is not uncommon for people suffering the symptomology of posttraumatic stress disorder to have no conscious recollection whatsoever of the traumatizing event, or to have a dissociated recollection.  Coover also discussed writing as “a kind of therapy.”  He said, “There are things you have to work your way through.  There are issues that have to be confronted[. . . .]  So you work that out in fictional forms, and you do feel that Freudian answer, that kind of power over what would otherwise be your impotent life” (242).  Hence Coover recognized the unsettling cultural climate of post-Hiroshima America and how it contributed to narrative style; also, his view of writing-as-therapy is consistent with trauma theorists who suggest that postmodern techniques are akin to victims’ struggling to transform traumatic memory into narrative memory.

In his examination of the apocalyptic temper in the American novel, Joseph Dewey theorizes about the literary community’s response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he describes as “slow in coming.”   Dewey writes, “[T]he literary conscience of America did not seem ready in the 1940s and even in the 1950s to engage the menace of the mushroom cloud” (8).  At first, writers, along with the rest of their culture, experienced a “psychic numbing [. . .] in the face of such catastrophe.”  In the ’50s, notes Dewey, “the American literary community pondered the bomb only in tentative ways.”  He references “a glut of forgettable speculative fiction” that appeared during the decade.  In the early ‘60s, however, “the American novel began to work with the implications of the nuclear age” (9).  Dewey speculates that the Cuban Missile Crisis—“the nuclear High Noon over Cuba”—may have acted as a catalyst for writers in general to “begin to think about the unthinkable.”  Dewey does not approach his subject in this way, but he seems to be accounting for the dual starting point for American postmodern literary style, which some trace to the mid 1940s and others to the ’60s.  Nor does Dewey tend to speak in psychological terms, but he seems to be suggesting that American writers were by and large repressing the atomic blasts for nearly two decades, until nuclear Armageddon loomed in 1962, which caused the cultural literary psyche to begin to confront the source of its trauma, if only dissociatively.  The scenario that Dewey suggests corresponds with the way many individuals respond to a traumatic event.  Perhaps the fear of nuclear Apocalypse was part of the American psyche since 1945, but it seemed unreal until 1962’s standoff with Cuba and its ally the Soviet Union.  It is also useful to recall that groups—entire nations even—can respond to trauma just as individuals do.  In fact, Neil J. Smelser, in his work on cultural trauma in particular, notes that societies can undergo a delayed response to trauma akin to the Freudian notion of a breakdown in repression, which “only succeeded in incubating, not obliterating the threat”—though he qualifies the analogy as not being perfect (Alexander et al. 51).

While evidence of a link between post-Hiroshima trauma and postmodern technique can be found, with greater or lesser conspicuousness, in the work of all writers who occupy the established pantheon of postmodernists, I think the connective tissue is most apparent in the fiction of William H. Gass, one of the writers at the Brown symposium, and, interestingly, the writer Coover called “our real living biographer of the human mind” (242).  In his work, which was begun in the early 1950s (when Gass was in his late twenties) but did not start to appear in print consistently until the 1960s, Gass often alludes to trauma and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (though not specifically by these labels), and he cites directly and indirectly the nuclear age as the source of widespread anxiety.  It must be stated upfront that Gass’s childhood was, by his own description, miserable, raised by an alcoholic mother and an agonistic father; and one could certainly point to these influences for his prose’s negativity.  There is no question that these facts have affected Gass’s writing, much of which is overtly autobiographical; however, I believe that the Cold War zeitgeist had an even greater impact on his storytelling.  One might even conjecture that the insecurities caused by Gass’s childhood made the fear associated with that zeitgeist even more potent.  The psychological community has long recognized that individuals respond differently to trauma due to a variety of factors, including their mental health when they experience the trauma, and even their genetic predisposition to dealing with traumatic stress.

In any event, a good place to begin is Gass’s well-known short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” which appeared in New American Review and then in a collection by the same title in 1968 (though Gass says that it was written much earlier, implying the beginning of the decade (Bellamy 39)).  The oddly and disjointedly segmented story features a disillusioned poet-teacher narrator living in a small Indiana town, called simply “B,” a town which represents (it has been widely noted and in fact acknowledged by Gass) W. B. Yeats’s Byzantium from the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927).  The short story has generated a fair amount of critical attention over the past forty years, and much of that criticism examines the psychological underpinnings of the narrative.  In one of the earliest studies, in 1973, Frederick Busch writes, “[Gass’s poet-narrator] is caught in the heart of the country, he is fallen.  And the country he has come to is his mind. [. . .]  This little story is a saga of the mind” (99, 100).  Similarly, Charlotte Byrd Hadella says that the “narrator/poet is miserable, lonely, and lost in a fragmented world, much like the world of Eliot’s The Waste Land, because he fails to participate fully in either art or life” (49).  As such, “the narrator has left one world and entered another—the world of his own imagination.”  What is more, Hadella claims that “[w]ith the fragmented structure of his story, Gass conveys a subliminal message of isolation, loneliness, and departmentalized perception of his narrator” (50).  Both critics are unwittingly keying on psychological components of the story that are mimetic of posttraumatic stress disorder—the unbidden merging of real and unreal worlds, profound feelings of disconnectedness with one’s self and others.

These analyses are useful to be sure, and in fact I want to look at some of the same passages in the story that these critics cite, but I believe even more can be gleaned from the story via a trauma-theory paradigm.  Given the insightfulness of these critics’ observations, I am struck by an omission that they and other commentators have committed in their readings of the narrative.  No one has paid any attention whatsoever to a passage that I see as key to understanding the narrator’s disjointed psyche.  In a section subtitled “Politics,” the narrator criticizes his fellow townspeople (and Americans in general I would say) by stating, “I have known men [. . .] who for years have voted squarely against their interests.  Nor have I ever noticed that their surly Christian views prevented them from urging forward the smithereening, say, of Russia, China, Cuba, or Korea” (197).  Here the narrator makes direct reference to using nuclear weapons against Cold War enemies—attacks which would be squarely against American interests (as it would provoke retaliation, including nuclear retaliation) and which contradict the Christian morality that the majority of Americans claim to advocate.  This atomic-bombing reference does not come out of the blue, so to speak.  In an earlier section also subtitled “Politics,” the narrator alludes to “the Russians [. . .] launching [. . .] their satellite” (186), and in “Education” he says that at school “children will be taught to read and warned against Communism” (187).  Taking into account these Cold War references, the narrator’s disposition and the townspeople he describes sound very much like the divided, post-Hiroshima psyches that Lifton and Mitchell discuss:  “By the 1960s, Americans were living a nuclear ‘double life’:  aware that any moment each of us and everything around us could be suddenly annihilated, yet at the same time proceeding with our everyday, nitty-gritty lives and conducting ‘business as usual’” (351).  Americans, in short, were divided in two, with their measured self (which was interested in making a comfortable and meaningful life) being in constant conflict with their apocalyptic self (which accepted that the nuclear end was at hand and therefore every action was irrelevant).  Hadella is noting this conflicted duality in the story when she writes that “the narrator’s mood is a perpetual winter.  The poet/narrator avoids thinking of spring as the season of rebirth and renewal.  Thus, even when he does mention spring rain, the rain mentioned is only a memory, and it is not associated with desire or awakening to life” (51).  It is as if Gass’s narrator, with his measured self, desires a future (the coming of spring rains), but will not allow himself to believe it will arrive because of his apocalyptic self, the self that envisions a spring rain that causes “the trees [to] fill with ice” (181).

Hadella’s careful study is mainly concerned with Gass’s use of weather imagery, especially winter.  In the context I am framing, the winter and its snow become even more psychologically significant as mimetic of a nuclear winter and its radioactive (or dirty) snow.  Before looking at winter/snow references in way of support, I want to turn to the “Weather” section that describes a summer heatwave in B as Gass uses language suggestive, I think, of a nuclear blast.  The passage is lengthy but well worth examining:

In the summer light, too, the sky darkens a moment when you open your eyes.  The heat is pure distraction.  Steeped in our fluids, miserable in the folds of our bodies, we can scarcely think of anything but our sticky parts.  Hot cyclonic winds and storms of dust crisscross the country.  In many places, given an indifferent push, the wind will still coast for miles, gather resource and edge as it goes, cunning and force. [. . .]  Sometimes I think the land is flat because the winds have leveled it, they blow so constantly.  In any case, a gale can grow in a field of corn that’s as hot as a draft from hell, and to receive it is one of the most dismaying experiences of this life, though the smart of the same wind in winter is more humiliating, and in that sense even worse. (180-81)

On the one hand, this is a wonderfully apt description of a Midwestern heatwave, but Gass’s language as it relates to a nuclear blast cannot be easily dismissed:  melting, even liquefying “bodies”; widespread devastation  by “hot cyclonic winds and storms of dust” driven by “cunning and force”; a flattened landscape, “leveled” by “a draft from hell”; a “dismaying” life experience, but the “wind in winter” to follow is in a “sense even worse.”  Then there is the winter and its snow that are so closely linked to death.  The narrator says, “I would rather it were the weather that was to blame for what I am and what my friends and neighbors are—we who live here in the heart of the country.  Better the weather, the wind, the pale dying snow . . . the snow—why not the snow?” (191).  Images of winter/snow connected to death continue in this “Weather” section.  He says, “Still I suspect the secret’s in this snow, the secret of our sickness, if we could only diagnose it, for we are all dying like the elms in Urbana” (192).  The passage ends with the narrator’s assertion “[. . .] what a desert we could make of ourselves—from Chicago to Cairo, from Hammond to Columbus—what beautiful DeathValleys.”  Again, viewed through the prism of the Cold War mentality and how the unconscious must have been affected by the sense of impending nuclear doom, it is reasonable that at some level Gass is describing atomic annihilation and the aftermath for those lucky or unlucky enough to survive the attacks.

An important aspect of the conflicted post-Hiroshima psyche is the sense of responsibility and guilt associated with bombing Japan, combined with pride in American resolve and ingenuity, and an acceptance of the “Hiroshima narrative” propaganda that claimed the attack to be necessary, even justified—and Hadella picks up on these vibes in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” as well.  She writes, “Through the narrator’s obsessive attention to weather, Gass emphasizes a controlling irony in the story:  though the narrator complains about the weather, he is the one who is responsible for the world in which he lives.  His complaints suggest that he does not accept this responsibility” (51).  Hadella’s analysis reflects to the letter the psychological turmoil Americans found themselves grappling with, according to the research of historians Lifton and Mitchell.

There is much more that could be said of “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (indeed, all of Gass’s work) via a trauma-theory paradigm, but in the interest of time I want to shift my focus to the author’s masterwork, the long and difficult novel The Tunnel, published in 1995 but begun in 1966.  The plot of the novel, in a nutshell, involves the narrator, history professor William Kohler, sitting down to write the introduction to his masterwork, a book titled Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, but instead writing a memoir about his unhappy childhood, mediocre career, and loveless marriage.  He writes in his basement and at some point, for reasons that are never crystal clear, decides to start digging a tunnel beneath his house to make a surreptitious and superfluous escape.  The novel is especially intriguing when viewed through the lens of trauma theory, but in the interest of brevity I’ll focus mainly on a section of The Tunnel that appeared as a stand-alone piece in The Kenyon Review in 1979, titled “The Old Folks”; it was retitled “The Ghost Folks” in a section of the novel (on pages 128-142, Dalkey Archive edition) with few, but significant, changes.  Kohler and his wife, Marty/Martha, along with their two sons visit his parents, returning to his childhood home and all of its unpleasant memories and associations.  Kohler’s mother is an alcoholic and his father a quarrelsome racist.

The story is set in approximately 1950, and Kohler says that the emotion he feels when he sets foot in his childhood home is rage.  When his boys act up, for which he can’t blame them, he says, “[W]hat I need is total obliteration, now—now that we have the bomb, we can all be blown back into our original pieces with one clean disintegration, instead of being pulled apart slowly with dental pliers” (161; 130 in the novel).  He goes on to speak of the inevitability of nuclear annihilation, saying that when a child, “I believed in doom in those days.  Now, when the world ends, I doubt it will even whimper” (167; 135).  Interestingly, the latter sentence, expressing the inevitability of annihilation, is deleted from the novel, which may reflect Gass’s, as well as the country’s, waning certainty that nuclear war with the Soviets was just a matter of time.  In fact, direct references to the Second World War, to Japan, to Hiroshima, to the bomb, and so forth are frequent in the first half or so of the novel, and virtually nonexistent in the last half.  I am attempting to determine the stages of development of the book, but it seems, at this point, that the overall structure of The Tunnel does follow, by and large, the chronology of Gass’s composing it.  This study is aided by the fact that several parts of the book appeared in print as stand-alone pieces over the decades.  Also, in a 1971 interview, Gass claimed to have written 300 manuscript pages of The Tunnel (McCauley 11).

The idea of responsibility, especially shared responsibility, for a ruined future (or perhaps no future at all) is expressed in various ways in “The Old Folks.”  As Kohler and Marty are traveling with their children to his parents’ home, he says that the children “cannot realize to what profound degree the adults are conspiring against them” (159; 128).  Specifically, Kohler is referring to himself and his wife, but much of the story deals with human history on a broad scale, as Kohler mixes in sparring theoretical conversations he’s had with his colleagues in the history department, so there is a sense that humanity in the twentieth century has conspired against itself.  Twice in the story, including its opening words, Kohler asks, rhetorically, “Who is not in league?” (159, 172; 128, 139).  On the most superficial level, Kohler is suggesting in the first reference that he and his wife are in league against their unsuspecting children.  But given the facts that the question is repeated in connection with a conversation between Kohler’s history department colleagues and that Gass’s attention to linguistic nuance is second to none, the iteration is especially provocative.  The word league of course means, among other definitions, conspiring with others for questionable purposes; but in the context of the story, league may be suggestive of the League of Nations, formed in 1920 in an effort to strive for world peace.  Even though Woodrow Wilson put forward the initial idea, the United States never officially joined the League.  So one way of interpreting Kohler’s question may be “Who is not working toward world peace?” and one legitimate answer would be “the United States.”  This reading is bolstered by the fact that immediately after the repetition of the question Kohler morbidly describes his colleagues as mere “skulls [whose shadows] drifted across the opaque glass” (172; 139).

My final point concerns the image of the atomic mushroom cloud, which Joseph Dewey calls a representation of “the last crisis in human history,” as “humans [. . . rather than God] would plot, construct, and then execute their own demise” (7).  Gass seems to dissociate the mushroom-cloud shape as tornadic rather than atomic, meaning that he often writes of tornadoes, cyclones, and whirlwinds, and of their destructive abilities.  Kohler refers frequently to a childhood episode when a tornado passed so near the house that it blew the shattered windows inward.  In “The Old Folks,” Kohler refers to himself and his wife as “whirlwinds” who have taken their children from a place of happiness and contentment to set them down here in his parents’ cheerless home (161; 130).  More interesting, still, is Kohler’s discussion of a reoccurring nightmare in which he is falling toward the sea, anticipating his own painful death.  In the novel, Kohler visually represents his falling—bomb-like—via text that takes the shape of a tornado, or a mushroom cloud:

it was like falling into the sea

to pass that open door

a wind like cold water

space a cold glass

flights of fish

surprise

my nose

my ah!

breath

goes

f

a

s

s

s

t

and all this has happened before (86)

The “terror” of the dream “wakes” Kohler, who feels “as if I were back in the army and my fall were a part of my duty” (85).  It seems significant that Kohler connects the image to the military, the arm of the government most associated with the use of atomic weapons.  There is no time to develop the idea further, but this tornado/mushroom-cloud shape also seems to represent the process of moving from chaos (life) to entropic order (death) that Kohler alludes to throughout, directly or indirectly, and it also suggests the overall shape of the novel’s narrative structure, as we move from broad, global, historical issues toward an ending section that focuses quite concretely on Kohler’s tunneling project in his basement, and his wife’s discovery of what he’s been doing these many months behind her back.

To bring this to a close, I will remind us that the first-wave of postmodern writers seemed preoccupied with bombs and the act of bombing.  A few examples would be Pynchon’s V. and Gravity’s Rainbow; Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night; Heller’s Catch-22; and DeLillo’s Underworld.  These and other postmodernists may have been responding to their culture’s traumatized psyche—a psyche that was conflicted between nuclearism and nuclear terror, a psyche that was attempting to move the Hiroshima narrative from traumatic memory to narrative memory, and thus come to terms with what the United States had unleashed on the world . . . and on itself.  Kohler seems to conclude that the most optimistic thing that could be said about the bomb is that it “will probably bring neither extermination nor peace, but prolong the life and use of conventional arms” (515)—an idea that he sums up in the limerick:

There was a professor of history

who explained to his class every misery

of our human state:

1 war is man’s fate;

2 hate pays for hate;

3 all help comes too late;

4 our lives don’t relate;

but why this is so stays a mystery. (535)

Works Cited

Bellamy, Joe David, ed.  The New Fiction:  Interviews with Innovative American Writers.  Urbana:  U of Illinois P, 1974.  Print.

Busch, Frederick.  “But This Is What It Is to Live in Hell:  William Gass’s ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.’”  Modern Fiction Studies 19 (1973):  97-109.  Microfilm.

Dewey, Joseph.  In a Dark Time:  The Apocalyptic Temper in the American Novel of the Nuclear Age.  West Lafayette, IN:  Purdue UP, 1990.  Print.

Gass, William H.  In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories.  1968.  Boston, MA:  Godine, 1981.  Print.

—.  “The Old Folks.”  The Best American Short Stories of 1980.  Ed. Stanley Elkin.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin.  Print.

—.  The Tunnel.  1995.  Champaign, IL:  Dalkey Archive P, 2007.  Print.

Hadella, Charlotte Byrd.  “The Winter Wasteland of William Gass’s ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.’”  Critique 30.1 (1998):  49-58.  Print.

Lifton, Robert Jay, and Greg Mitchell.  Hiroshima in America:  Fifty Years of Denial.  New York:  Grosset/Putnam, 1995.  Print.

McCauley, Carole Spearin.  “William H. Gass.”  Conversations with William H. Gass.  Ed. Theodore G. Ammon.  Jackson:  UP of Mississippi, 2003.  Print.

“‘Nothing but Darkness and Talk?’:  Writers’ Symposium on Traditional Values and Iconoclastic Fiction.”  Critique 31.4 (1990):  235-55.  Print.

Smelser, Neil J.  “Psychological Trauma and Cultural Trauma.”  Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity.  Ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander et al.  Berkeley:  U of California P, 2004.  31-59.  Print.

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Thoughts on plot for Pharmacy-VLA workshoppers, and more

Posted in June 2012 by Ted Morrissey on June 10, 2012

Throughout this summer my writing compadres — Lisa Higgs, Meagan Cass and Tracy Zeman — and I are leading a series of workshops at The Pharmacy in Springfield, Illinois, co-sponsored by the Vachel Lindsay Association (of which Lisa, Tracy and I are board members, with Lisa being president of the VLA).  We’re having six sessions all together:  introductory and concluding sessions, and alternating in between sessions devoted to fiction and poetry.  Just this past Tuesday, June 5, Meagan and I led the session focused specifically on characterization and plot.  Not surprisingly, two hours was barely enough time to express anything meaningful about characterization, and plot received very short shrift indeed.

So it occurred to me that I should use the private discussion board set up for the workshop at Google Groups to share a few thoughts about plot — or risk being charged with false advertising by the intrepid workshoppers — but I also recognized that it’s been some time since I’ve posted to this blog (due to a plethora of other events and obligations); so I’ve decided to kill the proverbial pair of birds with a single stone.  I’ll jot down some thoughts on plot (followed by a few updates, etc.), and I’ll post this entry’s link to the discussion board.

Here goes, then.  Having taught creative writing for a number of years, and having been a part of innumerable workshopping sessions, either as participant or leader, it seems to me that the most common plot-related problems that inexperienced writers of fiction (and, I suppose, creative nonfiction) encounter have to do with where to begin a story and where to end it.  Certainly there are problems related to conflict and resolution, especially when it comes to plausibility, but those tend to have to be worked out on a case-by-case basis; that is, it’s difficult to offer any general sort of advice regarding how plausibly one has worked out a narrative’s plot and resolution.

When it comes to starting a story, most novice writers begin their tale too far away from the conflict, in terms of narrative temporal distance.  For example, the conflict in a story may be that the protagonist’s prom date and presumed girlfriend, Julia, dumps him (Bobby, short for Robert because no modern American male name sounds much like Romeo) the morning of the big dance (tux rented, limousine scheduled, dinner reservations booked, and beautiful courtship, engagement, marriage, family and retirement in their golden years with Julia obsessively fantasized).  However, the novice writer begins by telling us about Bobby noticing tanned and golden-haired Julia in study hall three months earlier; then we get several pages of (what we would term) his stalking her at cheerleading practice, at the pizza place where she’s a part-time hostess, at church youth group (Bobby miraculously has been born again), etc., etc.

Finally, on page 10 of the manuscript (printed, incidentally, in 9-pt. Calibri with 1.5 line spacing), Julia dumps Bobby via an emotionless text message, coupled with an inexplicable and unceremonious unfriending on Facebook.  In such a story, only the most dedicated of instructors and fellow workshoppers would ever make it to page 10 to experience Bobby’s heartshattering disappointment and profound confusion (perhaps summed up via a scribbled note in the margin of the writer’s manuscript by another workshop participant: “wtf?”).  wtf indeed — heck, I just made all this stuff up, and I’m reasonably curious as to what happened with Julia.

With such a story, my most basic advice to the student would be to begin with the text and the unfriending — the rest of it (who Bobby and Julia are, how they met, how Bobby was so in love that he followed her around, just two steps behind an order of restraint, how Bobby spent his life savings — earned by cleaning the kennels at the local veterinarian clinic [I just made that up too] — on his tuxedo, the limo, the flowers, and so on) should be parceled out to us after this teenage boy’s heart is shattered in the first few lines of the narrative:

Bobby McFarland was overjoyed when his phone alerted him to Julia’s text — she must’ve been as anxious and happy as he, sending him a message before six a.m. the day of Prom, the day he’d been looking forward to since he’d summoned the nerve to ask Julia Gunderson, the prettiest girl on the Wakefield High School varsity cheerleading squad, the girl, he could barely admit to himself, he intended one day to marry, and, impossibly, she had said “yes,” nearly bursting his 17-year-old’s heart with utter happiness. . . .  Still lying in bed, smiling at the thought of his beautiful girl, he pressed the icon to read her text:  i cant go with u 2 prom. sorry 

Even when we think that we’ve begun as close to the conflict as humanly possible, there’s an old workshopping experiment (perhaps invented by Aristotle — I’m kidding) that newer writers are encouraged to perform, and that’s to look at the third paragraph and see if perhaps the story would be stronger if it began there, with the third paragraph; in other words, the writer should try to determine if the first two paragraphs are superfluous fluff best relegated to the cutting-room floor.  Also part of this old experiment is to look at the next-to-last paragraph of the story and see if perhaps it should be the final paragraph; that is, the writer should try to figure out if the current draft’s final paragraph actually weakens the emotional impact of the story.

The reason why the second part of this workshopping experiment is often successful is due to the key word in the sentence above: emotional.  What often happens when we first start writing fiction (and, likely, creative nonfiction) is that we feel duty-bound to conclude the narrative, just as we are taught in school to conclude an essay or report or analysis, and in the act of concluding we explain to the reader what she or he is supposed to have gotten out of the story.  Commonly we knock the reader over the head with the theme we believe we’ve been developing throughout.  When it comes to theme, my best advice — and it took me years to believe in this advice myself — is that theme is the reader’s prerogative.  The writer’s job is to write a compelling story; the reader’s job, should she or he be so inclined, is to judge the story’s theme.

Many years ago I reached a beautiful place as a creative writer:  I don’t care at all about what my writing means.  And the moment I reached that place, the quality of  my writing improved exponentially — and, frankly, it became a lot more fun.  Therefore, the reason the workshopping experiment about the next-to-last paragraph works is because very often the action of the story ends there, and, subsequently, the emotional pitch of the story is wrapped up in the protagonist’s final action (that we’re allowed to see):  Bobby’s picking up Julia to drive her to an LGBT conference, for example (your brain’s already filling in the narrative in between, isn’t it? — brains are wonderful things that way).

To clarify a point, however:  Just because I don’t worry about meaning and therefore try to achieve a particular one, it doesn’t mean that my work is without meaning.  As the master, William H. Gass, said in a 1978 interview:  “You hope that the amount of meaning that you can pack into the book will always be more than you are capable of consciously understanding. . . . You have to trick your medium into doing far better than you, as a conscious and clearheaded person, might manage” (Conversations p. 47).  What is more, in his classic and widely anthologized paper on the literary merit of the monsters in Beowulf, “The Monsters and the Critics,” first presented in 1936, J. R. R. Tolkien said that if the anonymous poet’s theme had been “explicit to him, his poem would certainly have been the worse.”  In sum, then, writers shouldn’t be too concerned or, even, concerned at all about their own theme(s) because thinking about meaning is counterproductive to creating a meaningful piece of work.

That’s it; had we had more time last Tuesday I would’ve said some things like I just said here.

The heading of this entry claims there will be “more,” so let there be.

I have a couple of short stories floating around out there that will be a bit challenging to place — one is highly, highly experimental (“Season of Reaping”), and the other is very, very long (“Figures in Blue”).  Meanwhile, my story “Crowsong for the Stricken” came out in the Noctua Review this past month.  Incidentally, Duotrope’s Digest also recently posted an interview with the journal’s editor-in-chief, Meg Cowen.  Speaking of “Crowsong,” I’ll be reading it this weekend, June 16, in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, at Wirepalooza, a semi-private festival put on by Ft. Wayne Metals, where my brother Mike works (his band, Plastic Deformation, will be performing too).  In addition, my story “Beside Running Waters” is due out soon in Constellations.

The manuscript for my novella and story collection, Weeping with an Ancient God, is finished and in the hands of my publisher, Punkin House.  More about this, I’m sure, at a later date.

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Men of Winter

Pathfinding

Campbell, Smith and Stein — not a law firm but a great National Poetry Month

Posted in April 2012, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 22, 2012

April, as everyone knows, is National Poetry Month, and here in Springfield, Illinois, we’ve had a great one.  Among the highlights have been the visits of Bonnie Jo Campbell, Marc Kelly Smith and Kevin Stein. At the risk of doing each an injustice, I’ll mention here their readings in summary. First, though, I’ll point out that while it’s National Poetry Month, I prefer to think of poetry as Aristotle did: as writing that is imaginative and creative in nature — therefore, fiction and creative nonfiction are forms of poetry as well.

It makes perfect sense then that Bonnie Jo Campbell, known mainly as a novelist and short-story writer, kicked off a terrific string of events by delivering the John Holtz Memorial Lecture April 20 at Brookens Auditorium on the campus of University of Illinois, Springfield. (For you purists out there, she did read a couple of her poems as well). In addition to attending her reading and lecture, I had the good fortune of being able to sit in on her craft talk with creative writing students at the university, and also to be among those who accompanied her to dinner before her event. Even though she did deliver the memorial lecture, calling it a lecture is a bit misleading because Campbell was so down-to-earth with her audience, the word lecture isn’t right in terms of mood as it implies a certain amount of stuffiness, and she was anything but stuffy (in fact, she abandoned the podium on the stage to literally come down to the floor of the auditorium so that she could speak more intimately with the audience). Her plain cotton shirt, faded blue jeans and well-worn boots added to her folksy and completely genuine charm. However, if one thinks of lecture as meaning a vehicle by which to deliver insightful wisdom, then lecture is precisely the right word.

In addition to the poetry, Campbell read from her short fiction and from her latest work, the novel Once Upon a River. In between readings, she would discuss various topics, including her writing process (which she describes as hard work), and the joys and perils of publishing. Interestingly, she read the manuscript version of her story “The Solutions to Brian’s Problem” which is notably different from the version included in her collection American Salvage — not because she prefers it, but because she likes the idea that writers, like visual and musical artists, can have multiple perspectives on a single subject.

With Bonnie Jo Campbell after her reading and lecture at Brookens Auditorium, UIS, April 13. Photo by Shannon Pepita O'Brien.

I’ve been to a lot of readings, but Bonnie Jo Campbell’s was truly one of the most engaging that I’ve had the pleasure of attending. My thanks to the university in general (notably the English Department and Brookens Library) but especially to my friend and colleague Meagan Cass, who did the extensive leg work and made sure the copious i’s and t’s were dotted and crossed to bring this extraordinary writer to Springfield.

A week later, on April 20, The Pharmacy hosted an event with the Father of Slam Poetry, Marc Kelly Smith, who had the dual purpose of performing (and I mean performing) his own poetry and also educating the audience as to the origin and tenets of slam poetry (I’ll be the first to admit, I needed an education). Smith was, in a word, fabulous — even though I was the first “victim” he took from his seat for some spontaneous (and totally unanticipated) audience participation, for which I was prevailed upon, among other things, to spit on the floor and imitate a train whistle.

Smith emphasized that slam poetry is rooted in bringing poetry from some sacred altar, where only the well-educated are allowed to espouse it, and return it to the people, whose feelings, ideas and experiences are just as worthy as the tweed-wearing academic Poet’s, and whose appreciation of language is just as great. Smith conducted a competitive slam so that neophytes, like yours truly, could see how one operates — although he underscored that the efforts of the inexperienced newcomer are just as valid as the veteran poet’s, because slam poetry is about inclusion, as opposed to the university brand of poetry that tends to be exclusionary.

Many thanks to the fine folks at The Pharmacy who made Smith’s visit possible, especially Adam Nicholson, who among other things took the lead in advertising the event, and his efforts paid off as The Pharmacy was packed to its plaster-flaking rafters.

Doing some unexpected audience participation with slam poet Marc Kelly Smith at The Pharmacy April 20. Photo by Shannon Pepita O'Brien.

Last but certainly not least was Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stein’s reading and presentation at the Vachel Lindsay Home yesterday, April 21. I’ve had the pleasure of attending Stein’s readings on two other occasions so I knew the enjoyment that was in store. As poet laureate, a post he’s held since 2003 (following Gwendolyn Brooks), Stein, like Smith, has been focused on making poetry accessible to everyone, especially children and teenagers. Stein discussed his efforts to encourage students to write poetry, via his Illinois Youth Poetry project, telling stories about some of his experiences working in schools and also reading some of the poems written by young poets. Speaking from the parlor of the historic Vachel Lindsay Home, Stein also read some of his own poetry and from his most recently published essay collection, Poetry’s Afterlife.

Though not a “tech guru” himself, Stein said, he’s been focused on using technology to promote poetry since he first became laureate, encouraged in large part by his own children, who knew that their peers would more readily respond to audio and video of poetry being recited and performed, more so than plain words on a page or computer screen. They apparently were right because data from his website show that visitors are much more likely to watch and listen to poetry than to simply read it as print text; and, moreover, the video and audio with the most hits are also the texts of poems that have the highest number of hits, suggesting that visitors are more likely to read poetry if they’ve first seen or heard the piece recited.

As with the other writer/poet visitations, bringing Kevin Stein to the Vachel Lindsay Home was a group effort, but special thanks go to Home manager Jennie Battles as well as my friend and colleague Lisa Higgs, president of the Vachel Lindsay Association.

Just a personal update (though not that personal): I’m starting to put together some readings and talks for the summer of my own, and so far only have one date on the calendar, June 16 in Ft. Wayne, Indiana (details to follow). My publisher, Punkin House, is planning to have my novella and story collection Weeping with an Ancient God out by the end of summer. I’ve just finished writing a long short story, “Figures in Blue,” and am starting to send it out to meet people; meanwhile, my stories “Crowsong for the Stricken” and “Beside Running Waters” are due out this spring in the Noctua Review (see the cover) and Constellations, respectively. Also, I’ve accepted a contract with Edwin Mellen Press to write a scholarly monograph  (very tentatively working-titled “The Beowulf-poet and His Real Monsters”) on the poem Beowulf, the manuscript of which I hope to have completed by September 1.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly (certainly most fun-ly), my friends Meagan Cass, Lisa Higgs, Tracy Zeman and I are working with Andrew Woolbright and Adam Nicholson to offer a series of fiction and poetry workshops this summer at The Pharmacy, co-sponsored by the Vachel Lindsay Association — much, much more information to follow.

tedmorrissey.com

Men of Winter

Pathfinding

Notes from the Louisville Conference and AWP 2012

Posted in March 2012, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on March 18, 2012

The transition of February into March was exceedingly busy for me as I attended both the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 (Feb. 23-25) and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Chicago (Feb. 29-March 3). I’ve been a regular attendee and presenter at Louisville the past eight years, but I’ve only attended AWP twice, the other time being Chicago 2004. Hecticness aside, the conferences were well worth the effort, and for this post I’ll record some thoughts and observations about each.

This year’s installment was the fortieth Louisville Conference, and it was typically excellent. I presented a paper on William H. Gass’s novel The Tunnel and how the fallout-shelter phenomenon of the 1950s and ’60s may have affected its writing. The novel, which won the American Book Award in 1996, took Gass nearly thirty years to write, and he published 19 excerpts of The Tunnel in literary journals, commercial periodicals, and as small-press monographs between 1969 and 1988. Given my paper’s focus and the necessary brevity of the presentation, I concentrated my analysis on the two earliest published excerpts: “We Have Not Lived the Right Life” in New American Review (1969) and “Why Windows Are Important to Me” in TriQuarterly (1971). My paper was essentially a companion to a paper I presented at Louisville in 2010 on Gass and nuclear annihilation in general, focusing somewhat on The Tunnel but mainly on his classic short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (1968).

My paper was part of a prearranged panel for The PsyArt Foundation, organized by Andrew Gordon. My scholarly interests have been associated with literary trauma theory; that is, looking at texts, especially postmodern texts, that may have been significantly influenced by the writer’s traumatized psyche. And I’ve been especially interested in cultural trauma, whereby an entire nation or some other large group of people has experienced the zeitgeist of trauma (e.g., fear of nuclear annihilation). When my interests in literary trauma theory began around 2008, it was not an area that a lot of scholars were exploring; however, the theoretical paradigm seems to be catching on as I was surprised to find that at the 2012 Louisville Conference there were numerous papers involving trauma-theory readings of texts. In fact, in the online program I found 23 panels and papers that contained the word “trauma.” Unfortunately, the Conference doesn’t seem to archive its past programs online, and this link will likely go dead in the near future.

The overall quality of the presentations at Louisville is always excellent, but here are some papers or readings that I found to be especially engaging: The panel on “Modernism & Experimentation” was very thought provoking with presenters Lindsay Welsch (on Forster’s A Passage to India), Elizabeth J. Wellman (on Djuna Barnes), and — especially — Christopher McVey’s paper “Book of Lief, A Comedy of Letters: Finnegans Wake, Historiography, and the Heliotrope.” I also learned a lot from Carolyn A. Durham’s paper “The Spy Novel Parodied: Diane Johnson’s Lulu in Marrakech.” In a panel that I chaired, there were two exceptional papers on films: Patrick Herald’s “I Have Lost Something: Fantasy in American Beauty” and William Welty’s “‘That Rug Really Tied the Room Together’: Why The Dude Is a Lacanian.”

In the creative panel that I was part of, reading “Crowsong for the Stricken,” I had the pleasure of hearing Don Peteroy’s entertaining short story “Too Much Anthropology” and the spellbinding poetry of Cecilia Woloch.

In mentioning these few, I have omitted countless excellent others, but in the interest of everyone’s attention span I’ll move on to some words about AWP 2012. I’d never attended a conference that had literally sold out, but AWP in Chicago did, as there were more than 9,000 participants this year. Besides presentations and readings, one of the most notable aspects of the annual conference is its bookfair, where hundreds of presses (especially small and university presses) and literary journals display the fruits of their labors (of love). I attended AWP as part of the “Q crew” (as I call us), the editors, readers and interns of Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program, housed on the campus of Benedictine University at Springfield, Illinois. Frankly, I enjoy hanging out at the Quiddity table and telling passers-by about the journal and radio program, but I also attended some very interesting panels and readings.

Among the interesting panels that I attended were “The Fiction Chapbook — A Sleeper Form Wakes Up” (by Nicole Louise Reid, Eric Lorberer, Diane Goettel, Keven Sampsell, and Abigail Beckel) about how the chapbook, known mostly as a format for poetry, could become an excellent way to get short fiction into the hands of readers; and “The Science of Stories: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Making Narratives” (by Jack Wang, Andrew Elfenbein, Tim Horvath, Austin Bennett, and Livia Blackburne) about how and why readers respond to various aspects of storytelling.

I also attended an excellent reception/reading hosted by Ruminate Magazine, Rock & Sling, and WordFarm. Then following that reception was one of the historic moments of the conference, a reading by U.K. and U.S. Poets Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Philip Levine — I mean, how often does one get to hear a national poet laureate, period, leave be the current U.K. and U.S. poets on the same stage?

My double conference extravaganza was a bit taxing, but both were well worth the time and effort. Just a couple of other quick notes regarding my own writing and publishing: My story “Primitive Scent” appeared in the fall 2011 issue of the Tulane Review. Also, on the day I was to read “Crowsong for the Stricken” at the Louisville Conference I received an email that it will appear in this spring’s edition of Noctua Review. Moreover, just before leaving for AWP I had an email that Constellations will be publishing “Beside Running Waters” in its forthcoming issue. And finally, I’ve heard that the issue of Pisgah Review with my story “The Composure of Death” is out. (The Pisgah website is a bit behind and still featuring the winter 2010 issue.)

The publisher of Men of Winter, Punkin House, plans to bring out my novella and story collection Weeping with an Ancient God. Originally it was slated for spring 2012, but there’s been no movement on it, so that time frame is probably not very realistic. If interested (or even if not), see my website tedmorrissey.com for updates regarding its publication and other news.

The Pharmacy has quickly become a site of literary energy

Posted in December 2011 by Ted Morrissey on December 18, 2011

The Pharmacy art studio, located at the corner of Pasfield and South Grand in Springfield, Illinois, has quickly established itself as not only a site of visual artistic energy but literary artistic energy as well. In addition to hosting readings, often in conjunction with University of Illinois at Springfield’s creative writing program — in recent months poets Stephen Frech and E. E. Smith, and UIS’s undergraduate and graduate creative writers — The Pharmacy has hosted and/or organized writing workshops and open-mic events. Spearheaded by Andrew Woolbright and Adam Nicholson, The Pharmacy Literati have already had a profound impact on promoting and producing literature in Springfield. And all this, of course, is in addition to The Pharmacy’s primary mission to promote visual artists.

Most recently, The Pharmacy hosted novelist (among many other things) A. D. Carson, who read from his novel Cold. I’ve italicized “read” because it was really more of a performance than a simple reading, including wrap, slam poetry, and often accompanied by recorded musical tracks, composed and in large part performed by A. D. In fact, Cold has companion CDs and MP3s (see A. D.’s Amazon page). A. D.’s multifaceted reading was emblematic of The Pharmacy itself in that it’s a creative space which places no boundaries on imagination, regardless of form or content. Art, some completed, some in progress, adorns the walls and various nooks; here, there and everywhere are the various implements and supplies for making art, plus manual and power tools, food stuff, a hodgepodge of furniture, and, of course, books, books, books … on shelves, on tables, on couches. In addition to the artwork, the walls are also home to graffitied quotes.

In sum, The Pharmacy is wonderfully, beautifully messy — it’s sort of like the bedroom of a hypercreative teenager. In other words, it’s like the mind, both conscious and unconscious, of the true artist — whether an artist of images, of words, of sounds: they all come to The Pharmacy to play, and incredible things happen. If you’re creative and/or crave the fruits of creativity, you have to find The Pharmacy in Springfield. (I suspect the name “The Pharmacy” was chosen largely because the old building was indeed a pharmacy, but the founders chose wisely in that it has once again become a place of healing [spiritual and soulful], and the name further suggests the mind-opening and mind-altering effects of certain kinds of pharmacology [some legal, some not].)

I mentioned the readings done by UIS’s student creative writers, and I should add that they were quite good and made for a most enjoyable evening, especially when combined with macaroni and cheese lovingly prepared by the students’ teacher, Meagan Cass. Meagan recently received the good — and much-deserved — news that her story “Girlhunt, Spring 1999” was nominated by Devil’s Lake for a Pushcart Prize. Treat yourself right, and take a few minutes to read “Girlhunt, Spring 1999.”

On my own writing front, since completing the manuscript of my novel “An Untimely Frost” back in June, I’ve been writing a series of loosely connected short stories (four thus far), and one, “Primitive Scent,” was picked up by The Tulane Review, while another, “Crowsong for the Stricken,” was accepted for presentation at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 this coming February. I’ll also be presenting a paper on William H. Gass’s novel The Tunnel at the conference as part of the PsyArt panel. In other news, my publisher, Punkin House, has added Barnes & Noble to its sellers, along with Amazon, and as such a Nook version of Men of Winter is now available. Punkin House’s CEO Amy Ferrell has also informed me that an audio-book edition is in the works.

Meanwhile, the article I was invited to write for Glimmer Train Press’s Writers Ask series has come out in #54: “Researching the Rhythms of Voice.” I wrote about using the collected letters of Washington Irving to assist in capturing the narrative voice I wanted for “An Untimely Frost,” whose first-person protagonist is Washington Irving-esque. Also, the interview with me that Beth Gilstrap wrote for The Fourth River has come out, thanks in no small part to the journal’s fiction editor Robert Yune. Beth talked to me about both Men of Winter and Weeping with an Ancient God, a novella that Punkin House will bring out in 2012, paired with a collection of twelve previously published stories.

I’m at work on a fifth short story, though not of the same fictional ilk as the previous four, but I also need to get my Gass paper shipshape for the Louisville conference. Once those two projects are completed, I’ll turn my writing attention in full to the next novel I have in mind, a work that will be connected with “Primitive Scent” and “Crowsong for the Stricken.” So many tales to tell, so little time … but hopefully enough.

tedmorrissey.com

Pathfinding: a blog devoted to helping new writers find outlets for their work