Small press book reviews and local author interviews
For someone hooked up to Thou,
the world may have seemed a kind of half-finished sentence.
- Anne Carson, "the Glass Essay"
Talking about someone, even in a loving way, can be fatiguing, the way receiving good news can still be draining. After experiencing a particularly severe episode of something like Holly Golightly's mean reds, a query of mine was answered promisingly: an editor I admired wanted to see my portfolio. Even this unexpected good news disintegrated me because it meant more work, more lurching towards another person where I was going to be vulnerable and where I would disappoint. Sometimes I feel like this, and reading my favorite books goes a long way towards undoing that feeling, and when it does, I want to shout it from the rooftops. But I want to be direct in explaining the impact of this author's work on me, because it deserves better than fireworks. I want to address specifically my relationship to her work and how the existence of her work has functioned in my life.
Kate Zambreno has a new book coming out this winter from Semiotext(e) called Heroines, a critical memoire, and I am freaking out. She has written two novels that I love, O Fallen Angel (Chiasmus Press, 2010 - also available as an ebook from Dzanc) and Green Girl (Emergency Press, 2011). When I'm talking about books that I want others to read so we can talk about them, so we can reference them surreptitiously, little conspirators of pleasure, I will bring up O Fallen Angel and Green Girl. When I'm talking about holy visions - the mystical and the revelatory - what I want art to do, I talk about Frances Farmer Is My Sister, and I do it in a squealy crazy voice.
In college, in my technically junior year, I committed myself to studying writing, a decision about which I was still of ninety-nine beclouded minds. The literature courses I was inundated with discouraged my affection for reading - my love of books is by no means all-inclusive - and the writing workshops emphasized discipline and unceasing critical interrogation. As necessary and positive every aspect of my time in college turned out to be, I did not find a role model. I did not think I wanted for one until I desperately needed one, when I realized how self-alienatingly serious I was about writing. This decision to study it was motivated in part by my feeling that unlike other forms of art I loved, no writer had accomplished specifically what I wanted to accomplish. But when I devoted myself to it, and bonded to it, and was confronted by so many models that endangered the writing I loved or demonstrated feelings and belief I felt antithetical to making art, it became a high priority that I find someone writing things I felt fiercely about in the face of all this. I became aware of a lot of writers like that: Roxanne Carter, Jojo Lazar, Bhanu Kapil, Kate Durbin, Joanna Ruocco, Roxane Gay, Gina Abelkop. Some of the writers I became aware of had presses through which they published other writers, like Lidia Yuknavitch. Her press, Chiasmus, threw a contest called Undoing the Novel, which was won by Kate Zambreno.
I started reading Frances Farmer Is My Sister. Living alone, experiencing a plague of anxiety attacks, and having the few novels in the literature curriculum I did enjoy ruined by a passive aggressive teaching method that drove my investment in my work into the ground (I am an extremely reactionary student), reading Zambreno's blog was a radiantly sustaining exercise. The form allowed her to build posts - several at a time, more once and again later - on themes and ideas I wanted desperately to read about. And the way she kept circling and dragging back to things - an image I am ripping from her conversation with Kate Durbin today on Twitter, "a woman is dragging her shadow in a circle" (Plath) - that was exactly how I was reading, too: beclouded and corralled. She pointed me in the direction of so many writers - Anne Carson, Anna Kavan - whose work kept me together as I was trying to complete coursework. My affairs after graduation were enough to consume me with unseamly spiritual paralysis, but I was also worried about art: I wanted to make it, and I was going to have to be okay enough to pay my student loans back, develop a career, and write. In school, I was urged to disregard every pressure that was not to be a better writer, and this included being vigilant about works that did not advance and challenge one's relationship to one's art. One of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me, which is nearer to my heart than anything I list on my resume, was in a discussion about interviews given by writers in the Paris Review. One classmate read Dorothy Parker's interview and said she sounded just like me. Our professor agreed and asked her if she thought Parker's poetry was anything more than clever and if she really needed it in her reading life. I thought of how a year before, when the few relationships I had made disintegrated in my being placed in physical danger and abandoned, and with no support I had to relocate myself and accomodate the significant time it took to avoid making the situation worse, having Dorothy Parker's "Sanctuary" in my head at all times made things bearable.
Not only did reading Frances Farmer Is My Sister make me feel better about how the work of certain writers makes me feel better, but Zambreno makes observations that have real, powerful implications for writers while also expressing doubt, anxiety, and extreme fear and vulnerability that is reassuring and terrifying in someone whose ideas are so urgent and vital. Doing what is most necessary is usually the worst and that is why nobody else has done it. When I became aware that people living, now, today, are writing things that are as and even more important than the books I grew up loving, and that I am lucky enough to have become familiar with those writers through their internet presences - blogs, Twitter accounts, hyper-current interviews - I still encountered a lot of endless streams of accomplishments and good fortune that did not really speak to the fact that behind those things is work. I have a flashbulb memory of the first time I read Zambreno's blog and realized her writing meant something significant to me, when referencing Maggie Nelson's Bluets and a recent failure to meet a deadline she thought of BLEW-ITS and not a day passes when I do not need to think of BLEW-ITS. I can do with one comparison to a Paris Review-vested poet, I need the gift of BLEW-ITS every day. Like I am nothing else I am honored to be Kate Zambreno's reader.
Kate Zambreno in conversation with Kate Durbin at Her Kind
Kate Zambreno in conversation with Edith Zimmerman at the Hairpin
Kate Zambreno is asked: What is Experimental Literature? at HTMLGIANT (older but tremendously worth it, as are the rest in this series of interviews)
Published in Very Literary: A community blog