Against my own intentions, I wrote you all something. Depending on your reading habits, it may prove long for an email in spite of its fundamentally abbreviated nature, but unfortunately I can’t post letters from my current location. It may not be an email or a letter anyway. Its writing needed no occasion, and I don’t believe it came from one point in time, but I can’t ignore the fact I wrote it the day after learning grad school is not in the cards and I won’t be returning to the U.S. any time soon. All the same, I do have good news, and I wanted to share it.
I used to think that a writer’s style was best developed by toiling in obscurity. I thought that career deflected a writer from a true course, and publication created a feedback loop which caused the writer to perform circles instead of forging into the darkness. I thought that rejection does for the writer what exile does to a citizen: propel her into new frontiers with new strength.
But I’ve found the opposite to be true. I’ve found my style growing weaker. A little while ago I wrote an essay called “Poetry Must Be Prose” which was broken into long, metrical lines. There was a breeze blowing through the stanzas to remind one (hopefully) of the easy style of O’Hara. I threw in a joke or two. On the page, it looked like a poem by James Tate –though better comparisons would be the poetry of Michael Fried, or Michael Kelleher. Stanza by stanza, I elaborated the notion that just as Truth is that which flees, poetry is never where you look for it; that Kocik is wrong: that poetry can assume any substrate except for poetry; that in order to arise in the pursuit, poetry must remain far away and so can better exist in prose about poems than in poems themselves. The one editor kind enough to respond wrote me: “Interesting idea. Would benefit from more formal presentation.” In turn, I spent weeks culling quotations from Adorno, Benjamin, Barthes, Heidegger, Badiou, and others. I inserted them into the essay, and in the process labored over transitions, introductions, and other ancillary constructions as I removed line-breaks. The effect rippled through the essay: I toned down assertions, I closed the doors to the breeze of O’Hara, and I rearranged my argument around luminaries whose cited works became the new backbone of the piece. Some quotations made good “zingers” as Damian used to say, but they didn’t add to what was already there; they merely added to the literary capital accumulated in names like Adorno and Benjamin (both of whom I really like), like investing in the S&P 500 adds to the capital of the economic ruling class.
That essay is just one example. I found myself making similar compromises throughout my work as I thought ahead to publication, and I was sick with it. And so, when I quit my job and quit New York and quit the States, I began a literary experiment. I began to write something with the promise I’d never let anyone see it. I swore to myself that even if it turned out to be the best thing I’d ever done, I’d never show it to a single person, and that I must write without thinking once how anyone would react. My first attempts were failures. At the end of a fortuitous phrase, I found myself thinking “Oh man Jaye’s gonna love that,” and had to throw it in the bin and start again. I wrote about sex but the thought popped in my head that I was being “too stereotypically masculine,” and I had to start again. A suspicion that that “people will think I’m imitating Bolaño” meant I had to start again. A moment’s waffling over the identity politics of pronouns –into the bin. It wasn’t until the fifty-second draft that I was able to compose a piece without regard for any imagined interpretation of any imagined audience. The result was two-and-a-half pages long and it was the best thing I’ve ever written.
It was my fear and my hope of course, that it would finally be the one thing I wrote that justified all my early ambitions. I remember back in the House Press days of 149 Lisbon how Tawrin said that all we really wanted to do was write “killer poems.” It wasn’t even tongue-in-cheek, it was the plain and simple truth: we wanted to write poems that were just absolutely killer. I don’t know if my two-and-a-half pages is a poem, but it is definitely killer.
I bargained with myself and looked for loopholes in my original promise. I told myself that in just this one case I could show it around, and then I could do the experiment again. But if I did that, I’ll never be able to repeat the result. If I know I can go back on my word, it’s over. On the other hand, if I don’t let the piece see the light, I can continue to create killer poems or whatever they are.
So I didn’t let it see the light, and I repeated the experiment, and the result was more killer poems. I have five –or maybe six — of them now. Some of them assume a paragraph form, and are closer to my ideal of poetry-within-prose. Two of them resemble the pieces in my Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday manuscript, where I write real-time stories that turn into intoxicants. The first two required dozens of drafts. I had to scrap attempts because of bullshit anxiety that I was writing for effect or that I was merely writing a poem of experience. But I got through it. Whereas in MTWRF I was careful to make myself understood and labored intensely under the gaze of an imagined and generic reader, I don’t give a damn here, and I go full tilt into an inner-space that doesn’t fit into any psychology generic or eccentric. At one point, reading the one piece, I’m shocked into a foreign body –the experience is so intensely alienating and exciting it reminds me of Thomas Nagel’s paper “What is it like to be a bat?” where he asserts that a human subject can never know what it’s like to be something it’s not, not even an intelligent, social mammal like a bat. I agree with Nagel, and I don’t believe the piece projects into a specific animal subjectivity, but I achieve a projection into something other, maybe generically other –but definitely positively other than anything I’ve ever been or dreamed before. Maybe something like a pre-rational human. It’s dark. It’s dusky.
The second piece isn’t dark at all. Every time I read it, I feel like I’m seven-years-old again, and I’m running full speed, in pure joyous sport. My legs are going so fast the sidewalk blurs under my sneakers, my feet are light and fleet, the world’s a blur, I slow down just to feel myself speed up again, I bound a broken slab but I’m going so fast I’ll never manage the landing but my feet touch down and go into a new and even higher gear, springing, catching air with each stride, until I jump-stop on the driveway, and I’m not even out of breath. I go up three stairs at a time . . . . It feels so good. It’s almost like I realized the artistic promise of eternal youth.
The other three pieces are harder to describe. One of them, as funny as it sounds, is mostly about the handwriting. I used to dream about a font so beautiful or perfect that anything written in it would strike the reader as being true. It was kind of a religious dream. It was like the font hypnotized you. Like when Herzog was making Heart of Glass and he hypnotized a boy who cleaned the police stables and told him “you are setting foot on a foreign island overgrown with jungles, and on the island is a gigantic cliff, and on closer inspection the cliff is made entirely of emeralds, and hundreds of years ago a holy monk spent his whole life with a chisel and hammer to scratch a poem into the wall, and open your eyes and you will be the first one to see it, and you will read it to me.” The font is like that. And the things it says are all too good to be true –yet they are true, in that font, and reading them you are overcome with such joy as I’ve only felt one other time in my life.
The last two pieces are the hardest to relate. One of them is entirely circular. It reminds me of my early attempts to write something that was exactly what it appeared to be, like a one-ounce gold coin engraved “one ounce of gold.” Or, imagine a person who does and says exactly what he means at all times: it’s impossible, because fundamental to subjectivity is the ability to lie. I wanted to accomplish this impossibility in writing. So I went back to the idea of a coin, inspired by the coincidence of facts that A) that coins were the first widely circulating publications and B) that this would never see the light of day. I reflected how some Pythagorean coins have a convex side and a concave side with images and words that describe each other, intelligible both together and separately, so both design and inscription are perfectly integrated. I filled my piece with doubles: obverses and reverses. I wanted to trap everything in a circle, so that the same text could be read forward and backward, and although I wasn’t able to achieve that on a word-by-word basis, I was able to do it on a phrase-by-phrase basis, and although the backward reading is not identical to the forward reading, it is complementary like the sides of a coin. The work isn’t long, but it feels heavy like a physical object. It reminds me of the poems in Christian Bok’s Eunoia that feel exactly like the book Eunoia feels in your hand (like the first time you held an iPhone). It’s one hell of an example of the problem of representation. It’s not very long, but for what it is, it’s pretty killer.
The last poem differs from the rest in that it’s personal. I used to write about myself all the time (as you know) and then I went through a long phase where I refused to write about myself, but in this piece with nobody watching I get as personal as I can possibly get. The resultant poem doesn’t produce the elation of the other pieces; it actually makes me sick to my stomach. It’s an uninterrupted, unpunctuated confession which is obscene (a la Pierre Guyotat) in its extreme overexposure. By a supersaturation of light, the inner shadows of an objectifying, fame-seeking, cowering, power-serving being emerge, punctuated with a few glimmers of light which somehow pierce through the blood, muck, and self. I do one thing right, I stay true to a point of faith that reason doesn’t get you anywhere; that paradoxes and mise-en-abymes and ouroboroses and all the house of mirrors of philosophy and theory and poetics is ultimately just a house of mirrors and that eventually we’re going to have to exit and die in the tenebrae with none of those puzzles to protect us. I was recently faced with a life-changing disease, and the effect was similar to this poem’s effects. They help me face the fact that in the end we’ll have nothing to light us –only our skin and our organs as they die with us inside, in a blind crawl over rotting seeds. We will go earless noseless senseless, sliding in a bag toward a black hole, a one-person abyss. The piece inspires me like a life-changing disease, and it makes me nauseous, and it wakes me up into a clarity I can describe as spiritual.
In the end, the five short works would constitute a slim volume –only about fifteen pages –hardly worth publishing anyway. But, I feel tremendously relieved to have written them. They contain so much of the energy and music which I’d thought I’d lost even as I’d gained the sophistication that comes from twenty additional years of reading and writing. An artistic product isn’t necessary to justify what is a Way of life and a Way of thinking. I believe in the Way first and foremost. Still, it’s good to have a little treasure.
The sixth and final piece is a maybe because it wraps up all the others – a guilty pleasure in a place where there’s no guilt. Why resist desire when writing for yourself is a question that answers itself, perhaps, and yet the sixth piece was a near impossible task within the confines of the self-imposed contract. The sixth piece is a dedication of the pieces which I can never show to anyone. In it, I forgo self-deprecation and irony, and plainly say how thankful I am for my friends, and how in spite of years and distance that may separate us, I think of you often (though I didn’t at that moment) and with feeling. I reflect how you have shared some part of these last twenty years with me, likewise struggling with your art and with your identity as an artist, and I conclude with the hope we will share some part of the next twenty, even as our art remains in the dark. The poem may sound saccharine, but it is as plain as bread and the sincerity of it expresses a feeling whose simplicity preserves me.