[Emily Post-Avant is an ongoing column that answers everything you always wanted to know about poetry but were afraid to ask. Write Emily with your questions, at the Dispatches from the Poetry Wars email, listed at the Masthead. The Editors will forward it to her.]
Dear Emily Post-Avant,
Back in 2010, I wrote Mr. Lorin Stein, then the Editor of the Paris Review, to ask him a question. My question and his answer were posted as the very first installment of “Ask the Paris Review,” a popular, semi-regular column that continues still, albeit written, of course, by another person, now. I share the exchange below, because I did try to follow Mr. Stein’s advice by “pulling the plug” on my relationship and being, as he encouraged, an “asshole” about it. So, I hurt her as much as I could, just to be sure she got the message. My girlfriend left in tears, befuddled. Both my life and hers (so her friends tell me), have been disasters ever since. In fact, she tried to harm herself and was later hospitalized, and what with all my guilt over the whole affair, I haven’t been able to land another girlfriend since. Should I sue Mr. Stein? Or maybe the Paris Review as a whole? Anyway, here is what I wrote and the answer I got. It’s still there in the Paris Review Daily archives, June 11, 2010:
I am leaving my girlfriend and I keep trying to be “nice” about it, but I don’t think it’s helping either of us. In fact, it’s just making this painful process take longer. I really need to be an asshole and steep myself in assholedom. Any suggestions for where to start?
—E. Stigler, New York City
[Dear Mr. Stigler]
“Where to start”? Where to start? What kind of asshole are you? You could try to pick up another woman and install her in your apartment, like Jean-Pierre Léaud. This will require a sidewalk cafe. Or you can nerve yourself up with Leonard Michaels’s novella Sylvia, all about a “nice” young man who stays in a miserable marriage, with disastrous consequences. Some guys swear by The Genealogy of Morals or the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld, or you could wallow in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, or that godawful Neil LaBute movie In the Company of Men. But if assholery doesn’t come naturally to you (and clearly it doesn’t), I recommend the eccentric but wise (and utterly absorbing) study Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love by the late Dorothy Tennov. Dr. Tennov argues persuasively that the kindest breakups are those that leave no room for hope. Be a mensch—pull the plug.
Dear E. Stigler,
Hm. And ahem.
In any case, sorry to hear. And, even more, to hear about the situation of your former girlfriend. It does seem that lots of men really don’t give much of a fuck about women. Or maybe that should be that lots of men don’t give much of anything about women except a fuck. I’m afraid I don’t have any advice I can provide in the arena of love-finding, lonely and forlorn as I myself am. But I would suggest you speak to a lawyer about the possible pursuit of damages, yes. Sue the East Coast Lit Elite fuckers. But only if you are committed to giving every cent you win to your former flame, asshole.
Dear Emily Post-Avant,
I am writing to you from a steamy, little café in Rome. I am spending the winter in Europe, as I always do, triangulating between Prague and Paris. By way of introduction: I am the recent recipient of a highly regarded poetry prize (though discretion is part of my nature, so I will not flaunt which one).
I was just re-reading I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say, the first book of the quite successful and very handsome poet Mr. Anthony Madrid. His book was all the talk for a couple years among many of the younger, in-the-know set of U.S. avantists (I can confirm because I spend summers in Brooklyn, and the buzz on it bumped any talk of mine, published around the same time). No doubt his book was all the rage among the editors of the Paris Review, too, uptown, where Mr. Madrid was hired on as a regular correspondent, soon after the book’s rave reviews. May that venerable institution come through these difficult times, no less frolicsome and vigorous, though in updated ways.
Anyway, after re-reading his book, I looked up “ghazal” on Wikipedia, for this Slave book I mentioned is all about ghazals, and this is the first paragraph:
The ghazal may be understood as a poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain. The form is ancient, originating in Arabic poetry in Arabia long before the birth of Islam. It is derived from the Arabic panegyric qasida. The structural requirements of the ghazal are similar in stringency to the Petrarchan sonnet. In style and content, it is a genre that has proved capable of an extraordinary variety of expression around its central themes of love and separation.
Something’s been itching at me, therefore, though maybe there’s no reason to scratch at it, I don’t know: But given that the poems in this book seem to have very little at all to do with this time-honored “expression” of the ghazal (except perhaps in an Americanized trendy-haughty-smirking version), should not the poach—in this case a virtually weaponized, satirical filch of a venerated Islamic tradition–be considered grossly Orientalist? Not least because the hijack is put at service of what is evidently a hand-on-hip, ego-strutting, “naughty” white-boy performance? (Madrid is very fond of “Madrid” in the third person–and of his alter ego, “Madrud,” when he slips into the minstrel mood–and of semi-mockingly tossing about the names of various Middle Eastern poets, real or imagined.) Forgive my overuse of adjectives, it is a tic I can’t seem to shake.
I guess what I’m wondering (in summa) is why, given all the Sunday School ruler-spankings going on of late, do you think Mr. Madrid is getting a total pass from the usually thorough Poetry Police, now five years after publication? Isn’t this smirk-ridden ghazal stuff perhaps a more immediate transgression than that old Yasusada scandal, even, especially since Arabs, of late, have been undergoing a lot more discomfort, in the main, than most Asians (especially in Trump Amerika), and are among the most aggrieved major grouping of peoples on the planet? Could it be “Madrud” gets a pass for appropriation and Arab-face minstrelsy because his legal name is Madrid, and Spain once had, up through the 15th century, a glorious Islamic heritage, until the Moors got kicked out, along with the Jews? So that maybe people are unconsciously thinking Madrid is Arab, when he’s probably descended from Castilian ancestors who kicked out the Semites? Just saying. (Or is he Arab? Maybe he is, in which case ignore this question.) My faithful waiter, Giorgio, now approaches, with my late-afternoon aperitivo, so I will leave it there, thanking you in advance for whatever insight you might provide.
–Earnestly Wondering about the Contours of Orientalism, from Rome
Dear Earnestly Wondering about the Contours of Orientalism, from Rome,
Wow, two letters related to the Paris Review in one day! Listen, I see what you’re saying, and more on that below, but it is relevant to note that the ghazal, in Arab literature, has long been a vehicle for a spectrum of rhetorical tenors, including some that are closer to Mr. Madrid’s than to the traditional topoi. In addition, it’s pertinent to note that self-naming by the poet, in the Arab tradition, is a common convention. The deployment of that convention, in this case, might be suspect, but Mr. Madrid does know his sub-genres and forms.
And let’s be clear: Still-young (though not for long, alas, as the ghazal poets like to say!) Mr. Madrid is rambunctiously over the top, colorful, humorous, and, even if by virtue of his own audacious strangeness, a thrill to witness. This first book by him is a collection of poems declaimed through a flesh megaphone atop a mountain where someone is manufacturing dirty bombs in a hermit’s cave. In this way, and without even remarking on the connotations of a mystic Middle Eastern voice from an American poet in the age of “terrorism” and revolutions and near-genocides throughout the Arab world, these are poems of our time. I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say is truly contemporary, “un-fucked-with fountains” and all. (My sister, Susan, who lives in Andalusia, wrote to say all that.)
Yes, true enough, the book does pack an “Orientalist” cast, as it were, and in ways, one would have thought, that more than a few in the field (given current atmospheres) would find objectionable, if not downright scandalous. Maybe doing Arabface in the U.S. is not as bad as doing blackface yet? Or maybe it has to do with getting top reviews before anyone can say anything, and then no one wants to? Or maybe it has to do with no one wanting to get on the vengeful bad side of Madrid’s Sancho Panza, the William-Logan aspirant of the nouveau arrivistes? I mean, who knows why some get accused of “improper” attitudes and others don’t? The Poetry World is mysterious and even hilarious, isn’t it. So, your questions are fair ones. But that whole matter of “Orientalism” is one thing, and the deep talent of Mr. Madrid is another. Indeed, did you know I was the first person to champion his work in public before the book in question came out? (He then sent me a copy of the fat manuscript, thanking me for the support, writing about how much it meant and that he would “never forget it”). And I certainly stand by the recommendation I made those years back.
Even if Mr. Madrid/Madrud does strike me, at times, as a bit of a bumptious and spread-tailed peacock.