12 Winters Blog

When Not to Edit

Posted in May 2015 by Ted Morrissey on May 18, 2015

I’ve been writing for publication since high school (I graduated, ahem, in 1980), and I’ve been editing publications since then, including scholastic publications and the literary journals A Summer’s Reading and Quiddity. In 2012 I founded Twelve Winters Press, and I’ve had a hand in editing each of the books we’ve published (we’ll be releasing our ninth title next month). Editing a book is different, of course, from editing a piece for a journal — but no matter the context, I’ve come to believe that there’s a right time to edit someone’s work, and there’s most definitely a wrong time.

It’s the latter that has prompted me to write this post, and in particular an encounter with the editor-in-chief of a well-respected literary journal which ended in her withdrawing my piece due to “Author unwilling to cooperate with editorial process.” About two years earlier I had a similar encounter with a literary press — but in that case I had signed a contract allowing the press editorial control of the piece, never imagining how far its editor-in-chief would take liberties.

I’m not going to identify the publications and their editors.  Even though I disagree with their approaches, I respect that they’re doing important and largely thankless work.  I have no interest in blackening their eyes, but there are a lot of editors at work — what with online journals and print-on-demand publishers springing up daily — so I think it’s worth discussing when the right and wrong times to edit are.

I had very similar experiences with the journal and the publisher, so I’m going to focus on the more recent experience with the journal.  Last week I received in the mail the issue that my short story “Erebus” was supposed to appear in (I generally try to support the journals that publish my work by buying subscriptions).  It’s an attractive little journal, which no doubt contains some very good pieces.  It would have been a nice feather in my CV cap.

The problem, as I see it, is one of timing.  The story was accepted for publication with no caveats whatsoever on November 29, 2014.  Months went by, during which time I supported the journal by including the forthcoming publication on my website and in my bio to other journals — some free publicity if you will.  Then I received the following email with my edited story attached:

[March 21 — 7:16 p.m.]

Dear Ted,

I’m sending out copy edits for the upcoming issue, and have attached yours to this message.

My edits are made using the track changes feature, and comments/questions/suggestions are included in comment balloons in the document. Please make any changes within the document with track changes turned on. Please do not accept any of my changes or delete comments, as I will need those to remain in place as references. If everything looks okay to you, please let me know by e-mail (no need to send the document back unless you have made changes).

Thank you and I look forward to including your work in the upcoming issue! Just let me know if you have any questions.

It was obviously a generic email sent to all contributors (which is understandable) because when I opened the document I found there were numerous changes and requests for changes — so “[i]f everything looks okay to you, please let me know by email (no need to send the document back unless you have made changes)” didn’t even apply because there were places here and there where the editor (or another editor) wanted me to replace a word or revise a section to make some other aspect of the story plainer — things to that effect.  Also, someone must have read Stephen King’s On Writing and really taken his disdain for adverbs to heart because every adverb in the 3,300-word story was deleted, regardless of how it impacted the meaning of the sentence.  Moreover, I’ve developed a style for my literary work that uses punctuation (or doesn’t use it) in nonstandard ways; and the editor had standardized my punctuation throughout.

I was flummoxed.  Here are our verbatim exchanges over the next few weeks:

[March 21 — 8:31 p.m.]

Hi, [Editor]. While I can see some improvements here and there, in general the editing is too heavy-handed, for example, the addition of quotation marks and tinkering with italics.  I’m well aware of conventional rules, and I’m breaking them.  I’m not sure why journal editors accept pieces for publication, then find so much fault with them before publication.  I’m ok with considering a wording change or two, but I’m not comfortable with this amount of editing.

If you didn’t care for the story in its original form, you should have rejected it.  I’m not sure where that leaves us.  Thank you for the time and thought you’ve put into my story, but I disagree with much of what is suggested here.  Not angry, just disappointed and a little frustrated.

Ted

* * *

[April 1 — 12:09 p.m.]

Hi Ted,

While I’m aware that you were intentionally breaking stylistic conventions, I added things like quotation marks because they were needed for clarity, i.e., to separate narrative from dialogue. There were some sections where the distinction wasn’t clear without them. Many of the other changes I implemented were for our house style. However, those edits are minor in light of many of the other edits that are suggested, notably in the comments. I edit every piece before publication…that’s what editors do. So, that is to say that the edits aren’t personal, and in my experience, that is the reaction of many new writers, to take edits personally somehow. So the bottom line is that if you’re not comfortable making any changes to your work, then I’ll withdraw it from the issue and you’re free to shop it elsewhere.

Let me know.

* * *

[April 1 — 1:42 p.m.]

Edit “Erebus” however you see fit, [Editor]. Thank you for including it in the journal.

* * *

[April 1 — 1:50 p.m.]

There are editorial suggestions in the comments that require your feedback. I have attached the piece again. Below are the instructions for editing in track changes:

Edits are made using the Track Changes feature in Word. Please look over the edits and changes I have made, and let me know if you accept these or have any questions. Of course, if there is anything you disagree with, please let me know and we can discuss it to try to reach a mutually agreeable solution. If you make any further changes, please make sure that you do so with Track Changes toggled on, so that I can be sure that your work makes it into the final copy; otherwise, I may not see it.

Please have edits back to me by 4/5, if possible

* * *

[April 1 — 2:09 p.m.]

Gosh, [Editor]. You guys seem to be making this as difficult as you can.  I don’t agree with any of the editorial suggestions/questions, so it’s difficult for me to find a better way of saying things.  I did all that work before I sent it to you, so now we’re into potay-to/potah-to, and I don’t know how to say things the way you want to hear them.  I looked at your comments again to see if I could get into the spirit of things.  I’ve been publishing my writing (fiction, poetry, academic writing, essays, reviews) for thirty-five years, and I’ve been editing and publishing other people’s work for nearly that length of time, and I’ve never experienced a process like this one before.  I disagree with your comments on the story, but I’ve given you free rein to edit it however you like.  If you feel like you can make the story better, please do so.  I’m generously putting my faith in your editorial skills.  I don’t know what more I can do than that.

* * *

[April 1 — 2:10 p.m.]

You can consider “Erebus” withdrawn from the issue.

* * *

[April 1 — 2:40 p.m.]

Thank you.  That’s been my inclination too.

All the best,

t

In offering her carte blanche, I wasn’t trying to be a smart-ass (ok, maybe a tiny bit).  After all, her original email said I didn’t need to return the edited document.  But, truly, I didn’t see the point of attempting to guess what wording would make her happy, like trying to sell shoes to someone — “Something with a heel perhaps?  No, a loafer?  Maybe a half-boot?”  There were two aspects of the exchange that I found particularly baffling (and they parallel the experience I had with the literary publisher a couple of years earlier).

One thing I’m baffled by is her surprise (and irritation, I think) that I would take the edits personally. She characterizes it as a shortcoming of “many new writers” (rather condescendingly, I feel).  Well, I ain’t no new writer, so that’s not the problem. I think all writers and poets of literary work take their diction, syntax, and punctuation choices seriously, so why wouldn’t they be emotionally invested in those choices?  And having those choices edited to conform to “house style” is especially irksome, which brings me to the second thing I’m baffled by:  house style?!?

Why in the world would a literary journal have a house style that applies to the actual content of its stories and poems?  Of course they would have a style when it comes to things like the font they use for titles and authors’ names, and they should be consistent in placing a translator’s name at the head or foot of a published piece — things like that.  But a style for the content of the literary work itself?  It’s, well, ridiculous.  “Dear Mr. McCarthy, please insert quotation marks in your dialogue … and Mr. Joyce, no more dashes in your dialogue … and Mr. Shakespeare, stop making up words! — if it’s not in the dictionary, we won’t publish it … Sorry, our hands are tied, house style and all.”

The publisher I had a run-in with two years ago insisted on editing my literary book according to the Chicago Manual of Style.  The CMS, really?

All right, so I disagree with editors imposing arbitrary styles on literary work, but that’s their prerogative, I suppose.  What I find downright unethical is accepting a piece for publication without any reservations, waiting several months, then making significant edits that the author is supposed to accept or else (the publisher flexed her contract language and forced CMS on my work, while the lit journal editor-in-chief withdrew my story, in something of a snit I think).

A better approach, I believe, is the one we use at Twelve Winters Press.  Our editors and readers offer authors feedback — food for thought, as I call it — but the decisions when it comes to the final presentation of the work rest with the writers and poets.  If there are reservations about some aspect of the work, those should be ironed out before it’s formally accepted.  There should be no surprises and heavy-handed editing months and months later.  When our contributing editor John McCarthy was reading submissions for his Extinguished & Extinct anthology, he had some suggestions for authors in a few instances, but they were made up front, before offering publication.  Obviously there are many editors and publishers who operate this way, and as a writer I’ve had the good fortune to work with several of them.

What is more, in the case of the literary journal editor, she took my story out of circulation during the peak reading months of the year, from November to April.  Most lit journals, due to their being affiliated with universities, follow an academic calendar and many begin folding their tents for the year in April or May.  It seems odd to me, also, that the editor felt I was over-reacting to changes that were, in her view, minor — yet she couldn’t see fit to letting the story run in its original form when I expressed my strong preference to leave the story be.  Pulling the story after five months due to a disagreement over minor edits could be seen as an over-reaction too.

It’s my impression that with both the literary publisher and the editor-in-chief, the problem arose in part because another editor had acquired or accepted the work; then someone else took charge of it before it was published.  If so, then the problem is in-house.  If the readers and editors acquiring and accepting work have different artistic sensibilities from the top-dogs on the masthead, it’s going to create problems for the authors they’re publishing.  Ultimately, though, I’d like to see all editors respect their authors and their authors’ work enough to give them the benefit of artistic doubt.  In the commercial, mass market world of publishing, I can see where publishers and editors may feel the need to pull rank since capitalism drives their decisions.  They may well know better than the author what phrasing, what title or what cover image may enhance sales.

But literary publishing isn’t about sales — and don’t I know it!  It’s about being true to the work and respecting the author’s artistic vision . . . or at least it ought to be.

The Celibacy of Joseph Skizzen and the Principles of “On Being Blue”

Posted in February 2015 by Ted Morrissey on February 27, 2015

The following paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, Feb. 26-28, 2015, as part of the panel “Sexual Manners,” chaired by Mariah Douglas, University of Louisville. Other papers presented were “‘A world of bottle-glass colours’: Defining Sexual Manners in Subversive Spaces,” by Bonnie McLean, Marquette University; and “Sex as Border Crossing in Anglophone Labanese Fiction,” by Syrine Hout, American University in Beruit. For other Gass papers at this blog, search “gass.”

The Celibacy of Joseph Skizzen and the Principles of On Being Blue

One of William H. Gass’s first publications was the highly experimental novella (?) Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, which appeared as a special supplement in TriQuarterly literary journal in 1968 and was republished in book form by Dalkey Archive in 1989. The experiment revolves around the titular character Babs Masters, whose sexual history and growing sexual arousal are represented via a variety of signifiers, including bawdy and explicit diction, typographical features and nude pictures.  In fact, the book’s cover features a neck-to-navel photograph of the nude model portraying Babs with the title and author’s name projected onto her pale chest:  the word “Wife” is distorted in the cleavage between her breasts, and “BY WILLIAM H. GASS” runs in a straight line beneath them. Appropriately the back cover features a close-up of Babs’ nude backside above a paragraph-length synopsis of the book which reads in part:  “Disappointed by her inattentive husband/reader, Babs engages in an exuberant display of the physical charms of language to entice both her new lover and the reader.”  Every page of the book features either an erotic photograph of Babs and/or sexually charged language, both explicit and implicit.  (As an aside, earlier I called Babs the titular character.  I don’t find that funny, but I wanted to point it out for those of you who are less evolved than I am.)

willie-masters-lonesome-wife1

By Gass’s own reckoning, Willie Masters’ was for the most part a failure.  “I was trying out some things,” Gass said in a 1976 interview.  “Didn’t work.  Most of them didn’t work. . . . Too many of my ideas turned out to be only ideas. . . .  I don’t give a shit for ideas—which in fiction represent inadequately embodied projects” (LeClair 22).  It so happens that 1976 was also the year that he published his novella-like essay (or essay-like novella) On Being Blue, subtitled “A Philosophical Inquiry,” in which he discusses at length various manifestations of the word and concept of blue, especially so-called blue language.  It seems that one of the chief lessons he learned from writing Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife was that writers should avoid at all cost writing about sex:

Art, like light, needs distance, and anyone who attempts to render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writhings which comprise it are ludicrous without their subjective content, that the intensity of that content quickly outruns its apparent cause, that the full experience becomes finally inarticulate, and that there is no major art that works close in. (19)

He concludes the section by saying “a stroke by stroke story of a copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew by chew account of the consumption of a chicken’s wing” (20).  What is more, “the sexual, in most works, disrupts the form; there is an almost immediate dishevelment, the proportion of events is lost” (16-17).  In sum, according to Gass, an explicit description of sex is inherently unartful, and the insertion (sorry) of an actual sexual climax in a story counterbalances and therefore diminishes the plot’s narrative climax.  (Since the Louisville Conference is devoted to literature and culture, I will make the rather low-brow observation that Gass’s analysis may be borne out by the number of television series that quickly fizzle after the flirtatious main characters finally have sex, dubbed “the Moonlighting curse.”  Recent examples include Bones, Castle and New Girl.)

Allow me to raise my brow again to critic H.L. Hix, who has suggested Gass’s fiction writing since Willie Masters’ “can be read as an attempt to restore events to proper proportion” (72).  Writing in 2002, Hix cites Gass’s mammoth novel The Tunnel in particular.  I agree with Hix’s assessment.  The purpose of this paper is to suggest that Gass’s most recent—and presumably his final—novel, Middle C, is an even more overt representation of the principles that the author delineated in On Being Blue.  In 2013’s Middle C, the protagonist Joseph Skizzen has several opportunities to pursue romantic relationships with female characters, but in each case he retreats into his safely insulated academic life as a professor of music theory.  What is more, Gass frequently alludes to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, and the sin-bearing serpent could be seen as sex attempting to slither its way into Gass’s narrative and corrupt the pristine text.  Indeed, in On Being Blue Gass discusses the “five common methods by which sex gains entrance into literature . . . as through French doors and jimmied windows”; and the “commonest, of course” is “the direct depiction of sexual material—thoughts, acts, wishes” (10).

Middle C keeps its focus on Joseph Skizzen from his birth to retirement age, and twice in Joey’s youth older women attempt to seduce him.  Joey’s reaction in both cases suggests perhaps the level of alarm serious writers ought to exhibit when their narratives begin to flirt with describing sexual scenes.  The first such episode in the novel involves Joey’s college French teacher Madame Mieux, whose “laughter preceded her like a warning siren” (100).  In the word siren, of course, Gass describes Madame Mieux as both a temptress and a warning.  Joey’s grades are mediocre, but Madame Mieux invites him to her house on the pretense of listening to music, promising him a “trombone concerto,” and Gass writes, “He made a mistake.  He accepted her invitation” (103).  Madame Mieux beckons him into a room filled with pillows, where she is lying at its center smoking a joint.  She invites him to make himself “comfy,” but instead he flees from her.  Outside, “[h]e realized already that he was not embarrassed or repulsed, he was terrified, and that terror was not the appropriate response:  amusement maybe, disdain perhaps, a sense of superiority or a feeling of pity” (104).  Metaphorically, Joey is akin to the writer who is tempted to narrate a sexual scene but saves himself from the absurd—what Gass calls “Madame Mieux’s pillow party.”

Later, Joseph lands a job as a librarian at a public library run by Miss Marjorie Bruss, a middle-aged woman who also has a room to rent next to her house, so she becomes both Joey’s boss and his landlady.  Marjorie gets in the habit of leaving milk and cookies for Joey in his room.  One night, Marjorie comes to him wearing only a robe.  Gass writes, “She seemed zipped into a towel, her wild hair terrible to behold, and sat upon the bed with the familiarity of one who has made it” (286).  Joseph stares at her, “transfixed.”  She rises from the bed, telling him that he is a “[g]ood boy . . . [who] deserve[s] a nice surprise.”  She then bends over Joseph and puts her hands on his face.  Joseph says, “Unhand me, Madame, you forget yourself, . . . frightened from the world into a novel; and Marjorie recoiled as though struck by the book from which he had unconsciously taken the phrase” (286-87).  The comically melodramatic scene continues to unfold, becoming more and more ridiculous.  Joey’s milk is knocked over when Marjorie is repulsed, and she begins screaming the cliché phrase “Unhand me” louder and louder.  She goes outside in her robe and scuffs and removes the blocks from beneath the wheels of Joey’s beat-up car so that it rolls down the drive into a utility pole.  At which point the humiliated woman orders him to leave, both his rented residence and his job.

Again, Joseph Skizzen’s extreme reaction to a woman’s attempt to seduce him reflects how authors might best respond when their characters try to seduce them into writing a sexual scene.  In the case of Madame Mieux, Joey was invited into her pillow-filled boudoir, whereas Marjorie Bruss invited herself into Joey’s room.  In both cases they are women who have power over him, his teacher and his employer/landlady, suggestive at some level perhaps of the strong draw toward the sexual in fiction.  In On Being Blue, Gass points out that other extreme acts which are often the stuff of fiction can be controlled by the author—but not so with sex once that path is chosen.  He writes, “As writers we don’t hesitate to interrupt murders, stand time on its tail, put back to front, and otherwise arrange events in our chosen aesthetic order, but how many instances of such coitus interruptus are there in the books which speak to us so frankly of the life we never frankly lead?” (20).  The comedic nature of the scenes that result from Madame Mieux’s and Miss Bruss’s attempted seductions are deliberate on Gass’s part, but perhaps no more comedic than if he had attempted to render serious sexual scenes—or maybe it would be more accurate to say Gass would find such scenes tragic as far as his success at fashioning them into literary art.

Combining the sexual with the comic has been typical for Gass since the writing of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.  In particular, he’s interested in the writing of bawdy limericks.  His ponderous novel The Tunnel is filled with limericks of the bluest sort.  For example,

A nun went to bed with a sailor

Who said he had come from a whaler.

It was like Moby’s dick—

His blubberous prick—

with which he promptly assailed her. (172)

There’s a second verse to this particular limerick, but I imagine you’re trusting me on this point.  Gass has said that he writes limericks because he’s unable to write longer poems.  He told LeClair in the 1976 interview, “I can get away with a limerick because it is a very short form.  I can turn out couplets, too, but not enough of them to make a whole poem” (31).  More significantly, the limerick encapsulates Gass’s attitudes toward writing that involves sexual language.  In another interview, Gass said that he’s not interested in writing about sex, but he’s very interested in “the language of sex”:  “[T]here’s very little sexuality in my work, but there are a lot of sexual words.  I have very few steamy sexual scenes, if any.  The metaphor is fundamental, sure.  But my interest in the subject and my use of a character’s sexuality are almost invariably either symptomatic or metaphorical, whereas for a great number of writers sex is the direct object” (Brans 107-8).  By symptomatic he means that the sexual references represent “some larger quality in the character that isn’t directly sexual at all—dominance, power, or what might be called the verbal sexualization of the mind” (108).  These statements were made nearly thirty years prior to the publication of Middle C, but his approach is clearly represented by Joseph Skizzen, who finds himself the locus of female domination throughout the novel:  Madame Mieux, Marjorie Bruss, his sister Debbie, his mother Miriam, among several other female characters.  In fact, Joey dreams of a pre-Eve Eden, an Eden before the Fall.  Gass writes, “He did dream of strolling naked as Adam through a garden [. . .] No . . . rethink that . . . he would be more naked than Adam, leafless as a winter tree, untroubled by any companion, Eve or angel. [. . . H]e’d be free to do whatever he chose to do, to his blame or to his credit [. . .]” (254).  Joey’s Edenic daydream ends, and he returns to the real world in which every woman in his life is the cause of some sort of anxiety.  He ticks off a list of them and the troubles they cause him.

The prelapsarian world that Skizzen fantasizes about would be one free of the absurdity of sexual situations, and he creates the closest thing he can manage, eventually living with his mother in a rambling and poorly maintained house on the college campus where he teaches.  Here, free of any opportunity for a romantic encounter, Professor Skizzen pursues two of his favorite hobbies:  collecting newspaper clippings and making notecards that record the daily atrocities of humankind, and writing and revising a sentence regarding the human race.  Gass, via his main character, returns to the sentence he is composing and reworking repeatedly throughout the novel, which he finally perfects near the end:  “First Skizzen felt mankind must perish, then he feared it might survive” (352).  The evolving sentence is in fact a sort of central character in Middle C, which reflects one of Gass’s unusual theories regarding writing fiction:  that anything can be a character and people don’t make for the most interesting ones.  In his essay “The Concept of Character,” 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” (49, 50).  Skizzen’s finally perfecting his sentence about the inhumanity of man serves as a kind of climax for the novel.  It is obviously an understated sort of climax compared to most works of fiction, and one can see that scenes of sexual climax would certainly tend to eclipse a music professor’s perfectly worded, perfectly balanced sentence—thus bearing out H.L. Hix’s observation that since Willie Masters’ Gass has been working to “restore events to proper proportion.”

Given the subject of my paper and its timing—with all the hubbub in recent weeks about the release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey—it seems appropriate to refer to E.L. James’s mega bestseller, which has a sexual scene on virtually every page.  Last fall, I read through most of Fifty Shades in about an hour in anticipation of teaching a workshop on writing about sex—or rather on not writing about sex—and based on that experience I was loathe to return to the book for this paper, so I’ll rely on Anthony Lane’s review of the movie in the February 23 issue of The New Yorker.  In comparing the film to the novel, Lane writes,

Above all, we are denied James’s personifications, which are so much livelier than her characters. . . . No new reader, however charitable, could open “Fifty Shades of Grey,” browse a few paragraphs, and reasonably conclude that the author was writing in her first language, or even her fourth.  There are poignant moments when the plainest of physical actions is left dangling beyond the reach of [James’s] prose.

Beyond the vapid prose, James’s problem, according to Gass’s theory, is that it is impossible to create an effective narrative climax when there is a sexual climax described in detail on every other page.  As Gass said in one of his most recent interviews, “[T]hat’s what ninety percent of bad literature is.  It’s just referring to these scenes in so-called real life that would be quite shattering, or pornographic, or whatever.  And it isn’t art” (Gerke 43).  Sadly, more than a hundred million people have bought copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (Andrew Lane’s figure)—which helps to explain why it’s so difficult to publish a literary novel in the United States, and if one does, it’s a challenge to get a hundred people to read it, let alone buy a copy.

Middle C will almost certainly be William Gass’s final novel, but the ninety-year-old author has a new collection of novellas and stories coming out in October, titled Eyes, which will no doubt include material that he said he was working on in the mid-1990s.  In fact, Middle C was titled that in part because it was supposed to be the second of a trio of novellas, all with titles beginning with “C,” but the story of Joseph Skizzen kept expanding until Gass had a complete novel on his hands.  Presumably the novellas included in Eyes will be the companion pieces to Middle C.  Very little of that work has seen the light of publication, so not much is known about it.  One can rest fairly certain, however, that it will feature sexual language but no sexual scenes—unless they are absurdly comedic ones.

Works Cited

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

Brans, Jo.  “Games of the Extremes:  An Interview with William Gass.”  Ammon 96-110.

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

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

—-. On Being Blue:  A Philosophical Inquiry.  1976.  Boston, MA:  David R. Godine, 2007.  Print.

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

—-.  Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.  1968.  Champaign, IL:  Dalkey Archive, 1998.  Print.

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

Hix, H.L.  Understanding William H. Gass.  Columbia:  U of South Carolina P, 2002.  Print.

Lane, Anthony.  “No Pain, No Gain:  Fifty Shades of Grey.”  The New Yorker.  23 Feb. 2015.  Web.  15 Feb. 2015. [link]

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass:  The Art of Fiction LXV.” 1976. Ammon 17-38. [link]

Note: I would like to thank Craig Saper, who sent me a pdf of his art book On Being Read, published in a limited edition by Diane Fine in 1985, as it was inspired by Gass’s On Being Blue.

Interview with Beth Gilstrap: I Am Barbarella

Posted in February 2015, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 20, 2015

In 2011 Beth Gilstrap, an MFA candidate at Chatham University, contacted me by email about interviewing me (ironically) for The Fourth River literary journal. My first novel, Men of Winter, had been released at the end of 2010, and I was anticipating my publisher bringing out another book, the novella Weeping with an Ancient God, so our conversation focused mainly on writing those two works. Beth and I exchanged a few emails, and then wrapped things up with a phone conversation. My publisher reneged on bringing out my second book, and things ended badly between my publisher and me — but it was the proverbial final straw in convincing me to establish my own press, which I did, Twelve Winters, in 2012. I eventually brought out a revised and expanded edition of Men of Winter and also Weeping with an Ancient God. I wanted to reprint the Fourth River interview in each of the books, so I contacted Beth asking for her permission. I checked in on her website in 2013 and again in 2014 to update her biographical information that I included when I reprinted the interview, and I noted each time her growing list of publications.

I Am Barbarella front cover

Then, in 2014, I was reading fiction submissions for Quiddity literary journal, and a familiar name popped up in my Submittable queue, Beth Gilstrap and her story “Juveniles Lack Green,” which I admired very much. And I obviously wasn’t alone in that opinion, as it was given the thumbs up by several readers and ultimately the fiction editor, David Logan. The story ran in issue 7.1 of the journal. Beth’s story appearing in my reader’s queue was serendipitous because not long after that I was scouting around for projects for Twelve Winters, and I recalled Beth’s story. Given the number of published stories that she’d accumulated I figured she must have a collection ready for publication. I emailed her to see if that was the case . . . and the rest, as they say, is history. I was impressed by the composite collection that she’d created, and I’m very happy to say that I Am Barbarella was released in print February 19, 2015. Digital editions for Kindle and Nook soon followed, and Beth is working on an audiobook as well.

Turn about is fair play, so I sent Beth some questions about her collection and the writing of it. What follows are her unedited responses.

Beth author photo

I Am Barbarella is a composite collection (or short story cycle), where we have a fairly large cast of characters who show up in various stories, or are alluded to, or events in their lives from other stories are alluded to.  What drew you to this form for the book?

I went into my MFA program with a novel chapter and an idea for a fairly complicated story told in the first-person plural point of view. It was an attempt to capture a sort of Southern noir small town groupthink as I saw it. As you might expect, there was little left of my self-esteem or the story by the end of my first workshop. I still like the idea of that story, but I was nowhere close to being able to tackle something so left of center. Then, my mentors (Sherrie Flick, Diane Goodman, and Robert Yune) suggested reading books like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat and that was when I decided I loved this approach to longer works. This type of book is a hybrid form. I set out to write stories that would be able to stand on their own and have been able to place a number of them as short stories, but they also work thematically in the collection.

It was my intention from the beginning to explore the impact these characters’ actions had on each other, the sort of ripple effect of secrets and heartache. Even the stories that aren’t interconnected on a character level are spiritually connected. I fell in love with the mosaic form. I like how the picture looks when you pull the camera back to reveal the structure in its entirety and I like moving in and looking at the individual tiles such as the elderly neigbhor’s lifelong secret from her best friend or the Dad’s desire to finally leave now that all his family duties have been fulfilled. It felt more playful than a traditional narrative form and I hope I structured it in a way that builds tension — a sort of slow reveal of each character.

How do you think a composite collection differs, in the writing of it, from a collection of independent stories, or a full-fledged novel?

I think it’s an extremely difficult form for a first book. It’s a bit like juggling and having someone on the sidelines who keeps throwing other objects into the mix. Maintaining consistency with such a large interconnected cast of characters and a broad timeline takes major organization and commitment. It is something you must set out to do. What I lacked in organization in the beginning, I made up for with a general idea of what I wanted to achieve and a rabid determination to make this book in this form work. This is my first book and writing it taught me so much about how to approach the novel I am working on now. In some ways, it made writing straight short stories more difficult because I tend to get attached to characters and want to spend more time with them.

You were rethinking the order of the stories up until a few weeks before the book went to press.  How difficult was it to come up with what you felt was the proper order?  What were some of your guiding principles in ordering the stories as you have?

It was all about the tension for me. I had a handful of other stories from the Loretta/Hardy/Janine cycle, but once I took those out and put in some of the shorter flash pieces, I liked the conversation the stories had with each other. These stories move along a continuum of existential angst. I originally had “Spaghettification” last because I felt the last line of that story was a hopeful way to end. Last lines matter as much as first lines. I tend toward the dark side of the force, but not always, and I wanted to highlight that fact, but in the end “B-Sides” was the natural ending of the book. Thematically, the book needed to end with Janine’s point of view. There’s a line in an earlier story, which reads, “You can get so much from B-Sides.” How can you not end with the story with a title built from that line?

How much time have you spent with these characters?  In other words, when did you start writing about them?  Do you plan to return to some of them in future projects?

I wrote the first draft of the first story (“Paper Fans”) in 2010. Four and a half years. I am finished with most of these characters, but my novel does include Dim and Sunday from “Yard Show.” It’s a tiny story that has led me into writing a rather large book.

Charlotte, North Carolina, where you were born and raised and still live, is a common setting for the stories.  Some of the characters have also spent time in Pittsburgh, where you earned your MFA.  How important is “place” in your writing?

For me place is as much a character as a walking, breathing person. It shapes everything: plot, character, atmosphere, you name it. I grew up reading Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, and Alice Walker so place was already vital in the literature I loved. Chatham’s emphasis on place-based writing was one of the reasons I chose their program. My bones, my heart are the South, for better or worse, whether I like it or not. I am built of this land and all the ghosts that accompany it.

Sometimes a character says things that aren’t kind about your hometown.  How much of that criticism of Charlotte is purely fictive, and how much is your own sense of the place?

Some of it is fictive and based on the perception of Charlotte as nothing but banks, barbecue, and Nascar (Even The Onion did a piece on Charlotte), but a great deal of it comes from a natural desire to break away from my hometown. Most people I grew up with have moved away. When I meet someone and tell him or her I’m from Charlotte, I am usually met with shock. Most folks who live here aren’t from here. I started this book immediately after our plans to move to Pittsburgh fell apart. I was heartbroken. As I wrote the book, I realized I had not ever committed to my town. I had not tried to find kindred spirits here or participate. I no longer take my beautiful city for granted even if I still long for more of a literary community here. As a vegetarian artist who has never been terribly interested in sports, it has been difficult, but I also recognize how much I tend to isolate myself. That’s the tough thing about connecting with other writers. I know there are some here, but we’re all so terribly introverted we never socialize.

How do you think the book will be received by residents of Charlotte?  Perhaps even family and friends who may see themselves reflected in your writing?

I hope people will recognize the truth in the book’s (and its author’s) complicated relationship with Charlotte. As far as friends and family, I hope if they see themselves, they’ll recognize that I’ve tried to draw each character with empathy. Most characters are not based on any one person, though. These characters are processed in my brain blender. They are little bits of me and everyone I’ve known swirled together into a version of truth. This is why I love fiction.

Music plays an important part in many of the stories — and in fact you compiled a playlist to accompany the book.  Where does that emphasis on music come from?  Are you a musician yourself?

I am not a musician, but I’ve always wished I’d learned to play an instrument. My older brother is the musician in the family. He got his first guitar when I was ten. His learning to play and compose and write was my background music. I watched and wrote in my notebook. There were times, like when he went through his black metal phase, that I wanted to take a chainsaw to his guitar, but now I am so grateful for it. It was such a unique experience. We were alone a lot since we were children of a single mom and we challenged each other to be creative. He encouraged me to tell stories. I listened to everything he did and all the records he played. I dated his band mates as a teenager and went to their gigs and though I rarely talked, I listened and wrote. I wrote my first album review for the high school paper. I married a man who worked in a record store when he was young. Music is vital in our home. I cannot write, cook, drive, or take a walk without it.

You’ve taken on the role of editor-in-chief of Atticus Review.  How does that role impact your own writing, or your artistic sensibilities?

Well, as I’ve adjusted to the job and addressed a submission queue of greater than 600, I’ve definitely spent less time on my own writing. I’m still trying to find the balance between being an editor and being a writer. I am a work in progress, but I am proud of what we’ve done at Atticus in a short time. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to put other people’s work into the world, to give back in that way. It is so exciting to discover a story in the slush pile and to be able to make someone happy. It has taught me to be more patient with my own submissions and it has also taught me patterns in what types of stories are overdone. I won’t be writing any dystopias anytime soon. And I always valued personal rejections before, but now that I’m an editor myself I value them even more. It really is a big deal to receive one.

Describe your writing process.

When I am at my best, I am extremely diligent about my process. I have a schedule for myself and I stick to it. I read early in the morning, walk my border collie (when it’s not in the single digits outside), and write for the rest of the afternoon — usually 4-5 hours. Lately, it’s been taken up with editing work. I hope to get back to my regular schedule once I have my sea legs as an editor.

You’ve been working on an audio edition of I Am Barbarella.  Do you tend to read your work aloud usually?  Describe the experience of recording the stories.  Do you think they’re well-suited to oral performance?

I always read my work aloud. It’s part of my editing process. If I trip over words or don’t like the way a sentence flows as I read aloud, I revise. Recording is frustrating, but I think the final product will be great. I don’t think my book would sound right read by someone else. Maybe that means I have control issues, but most of my favorite recordings are author-read — they’re these little time capsules. Nothing compares to being able to hear that rare recording of Virginia Woolf’s or Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” And yes, I think most “Southern” literature is well-suited to oral performance. My grandfather never learned to read, but he was the best storyteller I knew. We’re trained for it, whether we realize it or not.

Beth Gilstrap’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals, among them Ambit, Superstition Review, Quiddity and the minnesota review. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Chatham University in Pittsburgh and serves as editor-in-chief of Atticus Review. She was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she still lives with her husband and enough rescue pets to keep life interesting. (Author photo by Tatyana M. Semyrog)

Interview with Rachel Jamison Webster: The Endless Unbegun

Posted in February 2015 by Ted Morrissey on February 19, 2015

In the fall of 2013 I attended a reading at Edwards Place, an historic home in Springfield, Illinois, and one of the readers that evening was Rachel Webster, who read from her poetry collection, September. I was very taken with her poetry and her presentation of her work. My fiancée (now wife) Melissa and I were anxious to speak with Rachel afterward and to get a copy of her book, which I ended up admiring very much. The following year I was looking for projects for Twelve Winters Press, and I heard via the literary grapevine that Rachel Webster had a manuscript she was interested in publishing — but it was not an ordinary collection, which of course piqued my curiosity even more, since the Press’s main mission is to publish literary work that is especially difficult to place because of its risk-taking nature.

The Endless Unbegun front cover

I contacted Rachel via email, and she graciously sent me the manuscript, under a different title, and I discovered that it was a hybrid collection of both short prose pieces and poems, and that it told an ambitious, multi-layered story that took place over several centuries. In a word it was wonderful, and exactly the sort of project that seemed tailor-made for Twelve Winters Press. Email exchanges began, and we worked out an agreement to bring out the book in print, digital and audio editions. Rachel wanted to revise the manuscript further, which she did over several months. Then late last fall, 2014, she sent the Press a significantly reworked book, including a new title, “The Endless Unbegun” — and the editors at Twelve Winters and I began the very rewarding process of bringing the book to print, working closely with Rachel at every phase.

Publication was delayed a bit when Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program interviewed Rachel for their upcoming issue, 8.1, and Rachel floated the possibility of including the interview with the book. I thought it a terrific idea, so with Quiddity’s editors’ permission, we prepared the interview for inclusion in The Endless Unbegun. The Quiddity interview focuses in large part on the philosophical and theological ideas that are at the heart of the book, so for the below interview, I deliberately turned my attention to other issues.

The print edition of The Endless Unbegun was released February 5, 2015. Editions for Kindle and Nook soon followed, and the audiobook is in the works as well. I emailed Rachel some questions, and here are her unedited responses.

Rachel Webster 2

You’ve said that the book began as a novella and eventually became a hybrid collection of short prose pieces and poems. I’m wondering if, for you, certain subjects lend themselves to prose expression more naturally, and others to poetry? And if not subjects, then perhaps themes . . . moods?

Yes, definitely.  When I write prose I am combining voices — the voice of the artist, as well as the voice of the teacher or friend.  I know that I am talking outward to another, and so my understanding of that audience is invariably woven into the form and content of the prose.  In this sense, I usually write prose in a way that is reflective of some wider societal or temporal situation.  Even if I am writing prose from my own experience, I am connecting it actively with what I suspect is a shared experience.

Poetry also reflects shared experience, but that connection is trusted in a more intuitive, subterranean way.  It happens way beneath the ground.  So the act of writing poetry — for me — feels like talking deeply to myself, tracing my own subconscious or dreams, my own deepest memories or questions.  I don’t write poetry thinking about audience at all — I just follow the rhythm of the words, and I really interrogate my own feelings and questions in the poem.  There is no “other,” because the self is the aperture to the other.  That was especially true of the poems in The Endless Unbegun, which are elemental and very physical in their rhythms and knowing.  When they do talk to a “you,” they are love poems, and meant to share my deepest being with the “you” as beloved, who only late in the game becomes the reader.

I think of this poetic space of connection as pretty unusual and rarified, and so my idea for this book was that a prose novella would sort of walk the reader into a more and more poetic, metaphorical space, and that in this way, it would be like walking deeper and deeper into a relationship.  The fact is, we meet on the level of persona and appearance, and then we move further and further into knowing one another (and ourselves, ideally!) in an elemental and soulful way.  Eventually, we are at the archetype — the repeating pattern, where we realize that all of our deepest, most individual experiences are not original at all!  They are human, and therefore shared.

Is there a piece in the book that was the one that led you to realize you were beginning to write this book — as opposed to simply writing another related piece that would eventually be published as a stand-alone narrative or poem?

This one was always a book, which was why it was tricky to publish many of these poems individually in journals.  The book came on in a torrent, and held me in its sway for months as I wrote and rewrote its first drafts, and the poems in it were always deeply intuitive, somehow merging story and poetry, self and other.  It was like they needed their own space, their own book, to make sense.

I experienced this book as a crossing over into a new wavelength.  I learned to write more from my own intuitive power, and less from some expectation of form or audience.

You made some significant changes to the manuscript after it was taken by the Press for publication. Did thinking of it as a book that was actually going to be out in the world — as opposed to simply an ambitious creative project — influence how you approached revision? And if not that, then what led to the major changes in the manuscript?

Well, because the book was so intuitive I felt that I needed to do some rearranging and clarifying to externalize its themes a bit more, and guide the reader through its movements.

I also put the prose novella back in. I had been taking that out as I sent out the manuscript, because it didn’t fit most contest guidelines.  But when Twelve Winters accepted the manuscript and I thought about what I most wanted to share and explore with this book, I knew that it was important for me to have this strange, layered shape, and these characters who are recognizable to us, and who also have rich universes within — like any of us.

And finally, I took out a couple of love poems and added some new ones — simply to make the emotional experience of the book present to me again.  A book that was important to me for many years is Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes. It is a book about elemental feminism, and the creative process in which Estes retells fairy tales and folktales to track archetypal shapes in a life.  She talks about the woman as creator and says that when a project feels stuck, or stalled, we should just take something out, get rid of something, in order to lighten its energy and renew it again.  I really experienced this phenomena with The Endless Unbegun.  I took out some poems, added three new ones, and then changed the title, and the book was made new again — like, finally, it had found its moment in time.

What’s the manuscript’s history as far as publication? In other words, how long did you work on it as a book-length project? Had you approached other publishers? What made Twelve Winters seem like a good fit for the book and for you as an author?

I worked on this as a book-length project for a decade, and I always believed in it, but I suspect there was too much going on for editors to see it clearly or to trust its voices. The poems themselves seem more performative, archetypal and intense than a lot of what is being published right now.  It was a semi-finalist for the Dorset Prize a long time ago — maybe in 2007.  And its poems inspired the creation of a band in 2008 — called the Very Small Quartet. I read many of these poems and musicians in the quartet set them to original music, and we performed them live around Chicago. Then Dancing Girl Press published some of its poems in a chapbook called “The Blue Grotto” in 2009.

Twelve Winters was wonderful to work with because the relationship was always founded on respect and understanding of the author’s own experience.  I did not feel that I had to fit this book into any one container, or even one genre, but could really present it in its best possible shape and form. That has been a thrilling opportunity for me as an author, and the entire process of finishing this book has been a pleasure. The Twelve Winters readers and editors were respectful and encouraging, but also meticulous in editing, crediting and proofreading, and so I knew that we were releasing a book that we could all be proud of.

You’re working on an audio edition of the book. One can imagine that poets especially are interested in performing their work for an audience, as opposed to offering it in print only. What are your thoughts or hopes regarding producing an audiobook of The Endless Unbegun

I love reading my poems aloud.  They are usually woven together by sound, and I think when I read them, the listener/reader can really enjoy that and get swept into a more physical, subconscious rhythm.

I am seeking a grant to pay for a really strong recording of this book, because I want to be able to share it in an audio form, in my voice.

What are some of the challenges of recording your poetry, besides any technological ones? 

Well, none really.  Just little technical things, like don’t wear bracelets that jangle, and don’t lisp.  Oh, and the technical glitch of the ego, of course.  I never like my voice when I hear it again.  It is embarrassing. It always sounds too slow, sad and deep to me.  But it is my voice, and I am the one to vocalize my poems.

I co-produced a radio series on poetry for WBEZ a couple of years ago and had to listen to so many hours of my own voice during the production process that I learned to detach from it, much like the way you have to detach as a writer from the idea that an experience is yours.  In the end, these are just two more tools — the voice, the experience — that you can use to share with others.

You teach courses in poetry at Northwestern University and you’ve worked with younger writers as well. Teaching is time consuming of course, and it can be energy draining, but how does teaching influence your writing in positive ways?

I feel so fortunate that my day job is to talk with 20-year-olds about poetry!  And what they teach me, more than anything, is that all of this work is relevant, even necessary.  I mean, if you are just out and about reading the billboards in this country and watching the sitcoms, this stuff we are doing seems pretty anachronistic and irrelevant.

But in my classroom, I get to see how deeply we seek meaning, how much we crave the kind of relational intelligence and emotional awakening that poetry creates.  I watch students embark on this experience of creating and evolving consciousness, and they help me to evolve my consciousness, as well.  My students come to poetry classes, because they want to, because poetry provides a space for us to talk about these ideas of relationship, of creation, of trusting the intuition, and acknowledging the deeper self, and we need these conversations — now more than ever.

And the Jon and Marisol sections, especially, are dedicated to my students.  I put them back in because they represent a kind of atrium in life where we may find ourselves, maybe especially in our twenties or early thirties — the sense that we want to drop down deeper, we want to relate to people soulfully, but our coolness and our intelligence somehow prevents us from sharing all we know and sense.  I think my students are weathering those situations quite bravely, and their earnestness and intelligence gives me hope.

What are you writing now?

I am working on two projects.  My prose project is a book of personal essays that circle experiences of birth and death.  They take place during the first years of my daughter’s life, and during the illness and passing of her father from the disease ALS, when I was caregiver to both.  These experiences were simultaneous, which led to many personal challenges, but also to rich reflection on what we consider opposite — birth and death, heaven and hell.  I now experience these states as related, even interdependent.

My poetry project is a collection of poems written in the voices of Native Americans who can verbalize a very earth-centered, relational consciousness.  Some of these voices are not unlike Radegunde’s, who, as a Pagan, had a different relationship to time and to the earth, but they are taken outside of the context of Christianity, and placed in another time in history.

Rachel Jamison Webster is the author of the full-length poetry collection September (Northwestern University Press, 2013) as well as two chapbooks, The Blue Grotto and Leaving Phoebe, both from Dancing Girl Press. Her poems and prose writing have been published in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poetry, Narrative, Tin House and The Paris Review. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Northwestern and edits universeofpoetry.org, an international anthology of poetry. (Author photo by Richard Fammerée.)

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)

 

 

The Loss of Intellect by Ted Morrissey

Posted in April 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 15, 2014

I appreciate NAR’s invitation to contribute to its blog.

Morrissey blog pic

My review of William H. Gass’s novel Middle C for NAR was a warm-up for a longer critical paper that I’ll present at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, and in preparing to write that paper I re-read several of Gass’s essays and interviews, including an interview from 1995 that was published in the Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 3.1 (1997), and reprinted in Conversations with William H. Gass (2003), edited by Theodore G. Ammon.

The interviewer, Idiko Kaposi, asked Gass his view on emerging (mid-90s) technologies and how they would affect writing, reading, and ultimately, thinking. As a teacher, mainly of eighteen-year-olds, looking back at Gass’s remarks from nearly two decades ago, I find his insights disturbingly accurate. Gass, besides being an award-winning novelist and literary critic, was also a professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, since retired.

Gass suspected that the…

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Anthology released by Twelve Winters Press

Posted in April 2014 by Ted Morrissey on April 6, 2014

I’m pleased to report that [Ex]tinguished & [Ex]tinct: An Anthology of Things That No Longer [Ex]ist was released last week by Twelve Winters Press, which I founded in 2012. The anthology is a collection of poems, prose poems and flash fiction all dealing with the theme of extinguished and extinct, from animals to plants to languages to eras, and much, much more. The anthology was edited, and in fact the project was directed, by John McCarthy, with much support from the Press’s associate editor Pamm Collebrusco.

Extinct cover - front

John and Pamm received thousands of submissions last fall and eventually narrowed it down to work by 37 writers and poets from the US, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore: Elmaz Abinader, Majnun Ben-David, Lauren Camp, Jennifer Clark, Rebecca Clever, Susan Cohen, Meg Eden, Frances Gapper, Damyanti Ghosh, John Gosslee, Laura Hartenberger, Parul Kapur Hinzen, Daniel Hudon, Douglas Jackson, Zeke Jarvis, Amanda Larson, Christina Lovin, Mark McKain, Sarah Fawn Montgomery, Elizabeth Deanna Morris, Travis Mossotti, Ezra Olson, Lynn Pedersen, Cindy Rinne, Matt Rotman, Freya Sachs, Susan Sailer, Danielle Sellers, Mary Senger, M.E. Silverman, Judith Skillman, Darren Stein, Ursula Villarreal-Moura, J. Weintraub, Lenore Weiss, Laurelyn Whitt, and Lee Tyler Williams.

I had nothing to do with selecting the work and in fact didn’t read the pieces until they were already laid out in the proof of the anthology. Perhaps I’m biased, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how exceptional the work is. It’s literary and accessible, and provides incredible variety in both focus and form. The link above is to the anthology on Amazon; however, it’s available from a growing list of global sellers, including Barnes & Noble and Espresso Book Machine. Check the Poetry Titles page at the Twelve Winters Press site for a complete list (which will be expanding daily for a while).

Currently only the print edition of the anthology is available. We’re working on digital editions (complexly structured poetry and e-readers are not always happy bedfellows, so it’s taking longer to get the digital editions out than we’d hoped — but we want them to be as readable as possible and to do justice to the original work).

My thanks to John and Pamm, and also to my partner in all things, Melissa Sievers, for her support and assistance, especially with mailing out the anthology copies to contributors.

Keep an eye on Twelve Winters Press as we have several exciting things in the works, including J.D. Schraffenberger’s forthcoming poetry collection, The Waxen Poor, with a tentative release date in August. Follow the Press @twelvewinters.

tedmorrissey.com

 

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.

TWP taking submissions and Beowulf book makes its way in the world

Posted in September 2013 by Ted Morrissey on September 15, 2013

I’m happy to announce that Twelve Winters Press, which I founded last year, began taking submissions today for its first anthology:  [Ex]tinguished and [Ex]tinct:  An Anthology of Things That No Longer [Ex]ist, slated for a spring 2014 release.  I’m also happy to acknowledge that I’ve been joined on the Press’s masthead by two of my oldest Benedictine University and Quiddity friends and colleagues, John McCarthy and Pamm Collebrusco.  In fact, John will be serving as editor of the anthology, while Pamm will be a reader and ultimately do what she does as well as anyone I know:  edit and proofread the book before it goes to press.  Pamm has generously edited and proofread my last three books, and is at work on the galleys of my latest novel, An Untimely Frost, probably even as I write this blog post.  (Her work on my monograph, The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters, with all of its technical terminology drawn from a host of disciplines, copious citations, and its Old English, was nothing short of herculean — more on the Beowulf book in a moment.)

The anthology will consist of poems, prose poems and flash fiction (up to 1,000 words in length), and John is accepting submissions through November 30.  Please check out and share the submission guidelines.

My monograph, The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters:  A Trauma-Theory Reading of the Anglo-Saxon Poem, came out in March, but with the advent of the new academic year university libraries have started to add it to their collections (nearly every day a new library or two pops up on WorldCat — and, yes, I’m checking its progress, just like you would a child who’s beginning to make his way in the world).  To date, libraries that have added either the print edition or ebook edition to their collection include Notre Dame, Duke, Purdue, Pepperdine, Nebraska, South Dakota, Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin, Loyola Notre Dame, Lewis and Clark, Smith College, and Australian National University.

Beowulf Poet cover

The book actually grew out of my doctoral dissertation, which I completed in 2009 (Zeitgeist and the Zone:  The Psychic Correlation between Cultural Trauma and “Postmodern” Literature).  My primary focus was American postmodernism, but I included quite a bit of research on Anglo-Saxon history and culture, and the poem Beowulf in way of support for my thesis.  As almost an appendix to my dissertation I also wrote a trauma-theory reading of Beowulf; however, the Anglo-Saxon scholar on my committee wouldn’t accept my theory about the poem, so I ended up cutting that chapter.  Anglo-Saxonists are notoriously uncomfortable with post-structural criticism (they tend to prefer analysis of a more traditional philological nature), so it wasn’t a big surprise that she didn’t care for my reading.  Nevertheless, I’d put a lot of time and effort into it, and I felt it was valid (even revolutionary — hey, sometimes you have to toot your own horn).

Even as I was cutting the chapter, I had vague plans of bringing my theory out somehow or another (perhaps in an article). After successfully defending my dissertation, my mind switched gears back into creative writing, and I spent the next three years working on the novel that would become An Untimely Frost.  I teach Beowulf every fall, so I continued meditating on the poem and my analysis of it.  Then in late winter 2012 I met with an editor from Edwin Mellen Press who encouraged me to pursue writing a monograph about Beowulf and my trauma-theory reading.  I accepted a contract, and in May of 2012 I began work on the project in earnest.  I transported home from my classroom three copy-paper boxes of books and articles, transforming my bedroom into a Beowulf and postmodern critical theory library (it was a mess, and it was a good thing I was living alone because if I hadn’t been, I soon would’ve been).

I thought I could knock out the project in three to five months; I was wrong.  I pulled quite a lot from my dissertation, but it was now three years old.  An important book or article on Beowulf appears once a week or so, according to the University of Toronto, which is the epicenter of Beowulf scholarship, and to say I’d been keeping up only at my leisure would be putting it rather kindly.  So I had a lot of reading to do.  Also, I’d done a little translating of Old English for my dissertation, but for this monograph I felt that I needed to analyze the original language of the poem, so I set about translating numerous key sections.  Much of the summer of 2012 was spent with my nose in the poem, various Old English dictionaries, and translations that I admired.  I was often at my kitchen table entombed in stacks of books.

The project that I thought I could finish by September (2012) dragged on into the fall … and winter.  In the meantime, two of my three adult sons had moved back home for various reasons, and it became a running joke as nearly every day they’d ask me what I was doing, and I’d say that I was finishing my Beowulf book (or I’d ask them, “Guess what I’m doing today?” to solicit their groans of skepticism), as I was in the process of finishing it for about six months.  There were a thousand details to attend to to get it right.  I was not a known Beowulf scholar, at all, so I was determined to make it as solid a piece of scholarship as I was able to produce.  When I needed to procure supporting reviews before sending it to the press, I sought opinions from the most respected Beowulf scholars in the world, and I was grateful that James W. Earl and Robert E. Bjork, both of whose work I’d admired for years, agreed to review my manuscript.  I waited, a little anxiously, for their reviews — and was considerably relieved when they were returned so favorably.  (See my Beowulf book’s page to read blurbs of their reactions.)

It ended up taking ten months for me to complete the project.  Shortly after its publication, Edwin Mellen’s editor-in-chief awarded it the press’s D. Simon Evans Prize for distinguished scholarship.  Considering I had to cut from my dissertation the chapter on which the monograph was based, I was especially pleased with Earl’s and Bjork’s good opinions, and then the Prize.  In fairness to the Beowulf scholar on my committee, my chapter paid little attention to the poem’s original language, and my analysis of the Geatland/dragon section of the poem, I knew, was undercooked (in writing the monograph, that was the section that received the most new material and most extensive revision — by the time I wrote the book, I had a clearer idea what I’d been wanting to say all along).  Also, her reaction inspired me to make my scholarship as airtight as possible as it represented what the mainstream of the discipline was likely to say about my rather wild reading of the poem.  I thank her in the book’s acknowledgements, and my thanks is sincere.

The press is just beginning to solicit reviews of my Beowulf book in scholarly journals, and I don’t know of any that have appeared so far. As I said, I’m gratified that universities are adding it to their collections, so hopefully some Anglo-Saxonists will begin to pay attention to it (as well as scholars and doctors in psychoanalysis and neuropsychology, which are also important aspects of my trauma-theory reading).

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Notes from the Illinois Education and Technology Conference 2012

Posted in December 2012, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on December 2, 2012

(It’s been several months since my last post.  I’ve been writing a monograph on the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, and it’s soaked up a lot of my time and writing energy.  In particular, Sunday mornings have been my preferred blogging time, but that has also been the best hours to work on my Beowulf project, which is now far enough along that I can start to devote some thinking-writing time to other pursuits, like this blog.  I know:  Hooray!)

I’ve deliberately restricted the subject matter of this blog to my reading and writing life, which means I’ve deliberately avoided writing about other things that are important to me, like education.  But I’ve been a public schoolteacher for 29 years, plus I’ve also been an adjunct instructor at two universities, one public, one Catholic, for 15 years — so I have a lot of opinions about education (informed opinions, I like to believe).  I’ve avoided blogging about education-related issues for a couple of reasons, most likely.  One, so much of my life and my being are devoted to teaching, it’s a pleasant break to blog about other pats of my life that are important to me.  Two — and no. 2 is the more practical matter — to write about education is to, inevitably, critique education, and since my experiences are limited to specific faculties and specific superiors, that means I must at times critique my colleagues, my administrators, and my school board members.

I believe no. 2 is the reason that one hears so little (i.e., reads or sees via interviews, etc.) from actual practicing teachers:  all the power and authority flow in one direction, from the top down.  Quite frankly, a school board or an administration that decides it wants to make a teacher’s life miserable can quite easily do so.  I know that the media makes it sound like “teacher unions” are these all-powerful entities, but the truth is there’s very little associations can do to shield teachers from their superiors’ day-to-day ire.  New tenure/seniority and evaluation laws in Illinois make it fairly easy for administrations to circumvent tenure protection — but even before such laws were adopted, administrations could always rely on the oldest trick in the book:  perhaps they couldn’t very easily out and out fire a teacher they didn’t like, but there was nothing preventing them from making his life so miserable that he opted to resign or retire ahead of schedule.

Consequently, the ones who know education best — the classroom teachers who are in the trenches day in and day out — are left standing silently on the sidelines of debates, allowing their associations to speak for them en masse (associations, a.k.a, unions that have been demonized in the media as all that is wrong with education in the United States).

In my long layoff from blogging, while the presidential campaigns burned with rhetorical fury, often misrepresenting teachers and their collective mission, I decided to lift my own ban on writing about education … and I’ll begin by writing  about the 19th annual Illinois Education & Technology Conference that I attended in Springfield November 29 and 30.  To set the stage, I have been a long-time critic of technology’s powerful role in education.  I’m not a Luddite, not by any means.  I love technology.  I maintain multiple websites, I write two different blogs, I’m on Facebook (too much), I began tweeting before 90% of the world had heard of Twitter, I Skype, I have a smart phone, a netbook, a school-purchased iPad, and this desktop on which I’m writing this post; I love Netflix and Hulu, I have a YouTube channel, I’m on Vimeo, I’ve been into desktop publishing since the mid 80s. . . .

But at the same time, I believe our society and our schools have gone overboard with their worshiping of technology and their advocacy of its use in all circumstances.  Quite simply, when it comes to developing the mind via reading, writing and thinking skills, ancient, time-tested (non-computer-technological) ways are still the best — by far.  (Now that I’ve lifted my moratorium on discussing education-related issues I’m sure I’ll post more on these specific issues in the coming months.)

So I went to the conference as a devout skeptic, but I was truly hoping to find some reason for hope:  some concrete method for employing technology with my students that seemed to be beneficial, or at least some sense that technology would one day be viewed as a tool to be used when circumstances warranted, and not an idol who required daily pacification.

In a word, after two full days of conferencing, I was disappointed.

First of all, there were very few sessions that even pretended to offer practical advice on classroom pedagogy.  Many, if not most, of the sessions were conducted by school IT people, the people who bring technology into their districts then keep it running (and expanding). It’s not universal of course, but many IT people seem to view teachers as impediments to their getting the coolest technology into the hands of students.  One presenter (who I’m sure is a nice guy in the regular part of his life) even complained about teachers who have the audacity to ask “Why?” — that is, teachers who aren’t willing to embrace every piece of hardware and software that appears at their classroom door, but, rather, they respond critically (as in critically thinking) by asking what the potential benefits and drawbacks are.  (One notable exception was Jon Orech, of Downers Grove South High School, who said that asking why is, in fact, the most vital question when it comes to new technology, not what and how as so many seem to think.)

Another IT-person presenter referred to some teachers in his district as being “rock stars,” that is, teachers who use a lot of technology with their students — which of course suggests that more circumspect and more traditional teachers are, sadly, what, Fred Rogers-like? This presenter’s co-presenter expressed what also seems to be a common theme among the pro-tech folks:  That if all teachers would simply embrace all that the newest technologies have to offer, then students could finally reach their full potential.  Sounds great, except I don’t know what it means, in a practical sense, to embrace the newest technologies.  What would that look like in the classroom on a daily basis?  How would teachers have to change their approaches to unleash this revolution?  No one can seem to say.  For that matter, what sorts of potentials in students are we talking about?  It seems to have something to do with making them more creative.  Achievement is a popular concept; students using technology will achieve more or higher … or something.

Although, the gentleman who made the “rock star” comment also stressed to his fellow IT-ers in the audience, do not — repeat, do not — tell your administration that students will do better on achievement tests, because they probably won’t and then what do you do?  He was specifically referring to the concept of one-to-one computing, a trend in education that features giving each student a device of some sort (usually a laptop or a tablet, especially these days an iPad) and having them do just about everything via the device, avoiding traditional textbooks, and paper-based exams and projects, etc.  “Rock-star” man also advised his fellows not to count on saving some money in the budget by reducing the amount of paper being used, because this, in essence, “paperless” approach seems to use just as much paper as always.

One-to-one computing, or at least the idea of it, is big right now, especially in the Chicago suburbs it would seem.  Schools on the east coast started the trend several years ago, and most have already abandoned it — which isn’t stopping us Midwesterners from giving it a spin around the dancefloor.  “Rock star” guy’s co-presenter — both of whom, by the way, seem like very decent and funny human beings — said that their administrator wanted to go to one-to-one because neighboring superintendents were doing it, and he didn’t want to seem out of step.  This is another problem in education:  many school boards and administrators make decisions out of, basically, peer pressure, and not because of solid research results that support the approach, whichever one we’re talking about.

My final observation:  The iPad is extraordinarily popular right now in education — in spite of the fact no one seems to know how to use it in a classroom setting very effectively.  It doesn’t easily integrate with existing equipment, like other non-Mac computers, projectors and printers; plus its on-screen keyboard is awkward to use.  Teachers really, really like it, but they appreciate what it does for their professional and private lives, not for what it can do in the classroom, which doesn’t seem to be much.  I count myself among them.  I like my school-purchased iPad a lot and use it every day … at home.  I’ve found almost nothing that I can do with it in the classroom, in spite of wanting to find useful applications, which was one of the reasons I attended the conference.

Don’t get me wrong:  There were several sessions focused on using the iPad in the classroom, and I of course couldn’t attend all of them — so maybe I just missed the best of the best (my life can be like that) — but based on their descriptions and the sessions I did attend, the suggestions are pretty elementary, and consist of using the iPad in lieu of something else that’s more traditional and more common.  For example, use the iPad to make pictures, well, cave children made pictures on their school-cave walls; or use the iPad to make music, well, … you get it.  In other words, it seems like a lot of the pedagogical suggestions for the iPad are about playing.  And playing, I agree, can be very beneficial and even very educational, but since when did every kid need an iPad to play?

Let me just end by saying that I know tech people are good people, and teachers and administrators who fervently promote technology are good people — it’s just that too many people in education in general are working under the assumption that society has sold them:  that technology is inherently positive, and the more schools use it, the better those schools will be at teaching students.  We used to think smoking was healthy, too, and that asbestos was a wonderful, life-saving product.  Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we’re wrong; and we have to acknowledge it, and re-think and re-shape what we’re doing.  I’d like to believe that time is coming soon in education, but I suspect we’ll be lounging in our asbestos-tiled rooms  taking drags on our unfiltered Camels for decades to come.

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