Nick is a dear friend. Fellow Nebraska alum (though later), fellow Sewanee alum (we were suitemates). You’re not going to get an objective review here of a collection that is gorgeous in its compassion, and in the compassion it made me feel for its characters.
Maybe it’s not compassion I want to write about, because the OAD has it as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others,” and that’s not what I felt reading these stories. But I don’t want to write about empathy because I’m bored of talking about empathy in fiction.
Let’s try this: Nick’s writing made me feel feelings toward made-up people I have a very hard time feeling in my waking day-to-day life.
I’ll start with his final story, and I think his best: “The Last of His Kind”. It’s about a family in Mississippi, a somewhat bare-bones family of son, dad, and grandmother. The inciting event is a woodpecker hammering away at the house at early hours, which bird turns out to be the last Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (hence the title). Family lore has it they’re under the spell of a Choctaw curse, and it’s the task of the son, Henry, task to try to rid them of it.
The story comes at the end of the book’s second section, which is a story cycle centered on the life of the dad, Forney, and much of its wonderfulness comes from Nick’s skillful way of tapping into the histories of these characters we’ve been dipping into over the past 100 pages. Many of the passages felt buoyed by the culmination of lives I’d seen so much of.
The wonderfulness also comes from the wide range Nick allows himself in the POV, dipping even into the woodpecker at times. Here’s a moment, for instance, I loved:
She turns the record over, and George Jones’s duet with Tammy Wynette, called “Golden Ring,” fills up the house. MeMaw sings over the Wynette parts, her voice and achy. She imagines the little bird inside her being nudged awake. She sings and sings, her throat opening. She pictures the bird clawing up her rib cage one curved bone at a time, then, seeing light, flitting out of her mouth hole and soaring away. Oh, to be a bird! To shed this wrinkly skin and become all feather and claw. Nearly reptilian.
The boy, becoming braver, swigs the beer. Some of it fizzes down his chin, and MeMaw roars with delight. He wipes his face and comes in close, his face inches from hers, his eyes large and brown.
“I thought birds fly south for the winter. Why don’t it fly south?”
MeMaw takes the boy’s face in her hands and kisses it. “Because, baby, we are the South.”
I loved “mouth hole”, but mostly I loved the simple grace here, and how much love emanates from the scene. It’s one of Nick’s gifts. He’s got a heart bigger than anyone’s, and a vocab more colorful than a Cezanne.
You can buy Sweet & Low here.
I can’t imagine what it must be like not to feel unusual every waking day, and whether or not I ought to believe such people exist, I do. Maybe they’re not online. Or maybe they make online unbearable. The Internet is good when the loneliest person who feels like a freak clicks somewhere and reads someone else also lamenting the same lonely freakishness.
For years I’ve convinced myself that I’m the only person on the planet who, when writing by hand, leaps ahead a letter or two before they’re supposed to. I’ll start on “the” and go “t” and then “e” and then stop, rewrite an “h” over the “e”, and then go do the “e” again. I do this on the board when I write on the board in classes, and I know my students notice and I always pretend I’m not freaking the fuck out.
I do this when I speak, too, in that my thought comes to me faster than my mouth can form it, and so I rarely enunciate. My brain moves too fast. What an arrogant problem to decide I have! And yet: what else is the Internet for than googling one’s shameful arrogant problems?
Last night I found this forum discussion: Does Your Brain Go Faster Than Your Mouth/Hands? That I found it on a discussion board for people on the autism spectrum is something I’m continuing to ignore. Here’s what I was made to feel less lonely and freakish by:
I can’t sort out my writing though – I’m constantly thinking way ahead of myself when I’m writing, and sometimes I find that because I’ve been thinking about a particular word I’m going to write a bit later, I’ve actually half-written one word and merged it with the word I was thinking about. My handwriting is a terrible mess.
My handwriting is a terrible mess. I think of all of these things—my clumsy leaping ahead while writing, the general mess of my penmanship, my froggy voice that fails every time to be clear and project—as failings. They are ways I disappoint and come up short.
Whether or not this is a good way to see my behaviors, the Internet, when it’s good, shows me that other people struggle with the same problems. Solidarity. Solidarity gives me objectivity. These aren’t necessarily failings if successful people manage them. Now: what do I want to do about these features, if anything?
It struck me that one useful project might be to start writing into or about the things that make me feel alone and freakish, because I have to believe from all the evidence shown that I’m going to reach someone like me, and maybe we in our distance can help each other out.
Incidentally, on looking around for voice specialists (yes, it gets this bad sometimes that I’m willing to pay another expert to fix me in this other way), I came across what speech pathologists call the “Rainbow Passage” which from what I can tell comes from an old voice articulation textbook from the 1960s. I’m becoming obsessed with it:
When the sunlight strikes raindrops in the air, they act like a prism and form a rainbow. The rainbow is a division of white light into many beautiful colors. These take the shape of a long round arch, with its path high above, and its two ends apparently beyond the horizon. There is, according to legend, a boiling pot of gold at one end. People look but no one ever finds it. When a man looks for something beyond his reach, his friends say he is looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Once or twice a month, toward the end of the class period, Frau Griffith would announce that we’re gonna play Was Lieben die Deutschen? which wasn’t so much a game as a call-and-response lesson. “What do the Germans love?” Frau Griffith asked, in German, and we answered, in German.
The Germans love flowers.
The Germans love coffee and cake.
The Germans love hiking.
The Germans love sunshine.
They were outdoorsy, these Germans, and so gemütlich! I learned certain nouns during Was Lieben die Deutschen?, but I also learned that a culture of people in Europe all loved the same things, and that by the nature of their being European these things became in my mind un-American things, not in a way that meant I had to avoid them, much less somehow disavow them, but just that they didn’t seem to be for me.
I was 13. Still today, though I love coffee and cake, I don’t care for hiking or flowers or sunshine.
The Germans love regular exercise? That one can’t be right. The old litany is lost to memory, and in its place is a question: what can we know of a whole people?
Yesterday, the morning after the election, it was clear that no amount of dreaming about pending mail-in votes was going to change the fact that Californians, of whom I’ve been a part for 5 years now, said no to expanding rent control protections. The arguments my fellow Californians bought into claimed that more communities with rent control would lead to less development (an easily stoked fear in a state with a massive housing shortage), or that what they called “mom and pop” landowners would lose so much money they’d have to sell their buildings to some faceless company.
My city’s big daily newspaper profiled such a mom a couple months back, with big color photos of her in front of her building and a tone of “I just don’t know what I’m going to do if I can’t set whatever rent prices I feel I can get away with.” It was one of a number of reasons I canceled my subscription, all of them about the predictability that the Chronicle sided with money, believed in money, and covered any contest or opposition to moneyed-interests with skepticism.
I thought we renters were the majority, but it turns out just 45.2 percent of Californians are tenants. Somehow, in this state that leads the nation in highest median home costs, the majority of people own their home. In a democracy, we can’t ask for minority rule (though we have it, the ruling GOP repeatedly unable to win popular votes), but what still makes me angry about the defeat of Prop 10 is how we weren’t even asking the majority for sacrifice.
Just help. After living for 10 years in Nebraska and Alabama, moving to California felt like coming up from the depths of a pool. I could breathe, relax. It was like coming out of the closet. I felt that I had finally found my people—here, a gay person had rights; here, Neal and I could be legally recognized as partners; here were real investments in green energy and publicly funded healthcare and easy(er) access to abortion services.
But what I didn’t expect (stupidly) was the unimaginable wealth I was going to live among. And I didn’t know that the liberalism that so many Americans deride California for only went so far. Rights for us gays and gender-neutral bathrooms cost Californians very little and made them feel very good. But long-term residents staying in their homes when newly arrived workers will unfussily pay twice the rent? That sort of thing is unacceptable to a Californian. The principles of liberalism, I saw, got quickly tossed out the window when there was money to be made.
This is probably true to all of the U.S. these days, which is why the happy news from election night was the success of billionaire Marc Benioff’s campaign to support the tax on corporate profits to fund homeless services in San Francisco. I can’t remember the last time I saw a billionaire not just accept having to give up some of his profit to help the rest of us, but actively work to make it happen.
It’s a shame our corporate-moneyed mayor couldn’t get on board.
This just hit me: I’m writing as a wealthy person with rent control. I moved here five years ago and paid the astronomical rent I was charged, albeit with much fuss. If I’m not part of the problem I’ve been writing about, I’m an example of it. Maybe it’s because of this that I volunteer with the San Francisco Tenants’ Union and donate to the Coalition for the Homeless. Or maybe it’s because of this that I vote the way I do, and have turned far more progressive and pro-union since moving here. I recognize that many people need help, and I see that I have help I can give.
Also: I might have a rotten and tiny idea in my head of what is a Californian. What do the Californians love? Money, is the first thing I’d say. Feelings of superiority toward the rest of the country and its citizens. These are true. I’ve had them myself. But Californians also love sunshine. They love coffee and cake and hiking and flowers. It’s hard to believe that you can get a read on A People by looking at their loves and desires, because desire is so apolitical and a people are a polity ruled by laws and custom.
This is why it’s easy for me to be friends with a Republican and hate the Republican Party. I’m not looking past a person’s politics, I’m looking at a person, and a person is not their politics. I worry that, because the TV show American Politics is so thrilling these days, more and more people are taking sides—Team Edward!—because taking sides feels good, or it feels like a way to know you Are Good. You’re on the Good Team. I’ve never been a good team player, and yet here I am: Team California. The best way I think I can play for that team is to lead from my desires, my loves. Going in the opposite direction—choosing what I desire based on my politics—is a trap I’m afraid to fall in, showing fealty to ideas some people have paid millions of dollars to make me believe.
Welcome back. I took some time off to redesign the website, and I want up front to thank Beth Sullivan for the outstanding (and very patient) work she did on it. You should hire her.
While things were under construction, I was keeping up with my year of queer reading. To catch you up, here’s the list since Humiliation:
- Are You My Mother? – Alison Bechdel
- Andy Warhol – Wayne Koestenbaum
- Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde
- Caroline, or Change – Tony Kushner
- Less – Andrew Sean Greer
- The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir – Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
- How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays – Alexander Chee
- Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl – Carrie Brownstein
- Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl – Andrew Lawlor
- Abandon Me: Memoirs – Melissa Febos
I’m also a slow reader. Expect a post or two about these once I’m back from the NonfictioNow conference. I’m happy and relieved to have this space back to work out ideas about books and queers and teaching and guitar tabs and whatever messes I get into.
Today, I’ve got an essay up at Lithub about the choices I made to become queer, an essayist, and an artist. Its title was taken from a panel at last year’s NonfictioNow Conference, which got me thinking about how these three words were related in my own life. Thanks to editors Tim Denevi and Emily Firetog for shepherding it out into the world.
It’s unconscionable that it’s taken me so long to discover Wayne Koestenbaum’s essays: he’s writing in the precise mix of intellectual, critical, and personal that I aim for. A role model. I read his My 1980’s and Other Essays, a kind of omnibus of recent shorter pieces, earlier in the month, and it made me hungry for something longform. Humiliation is a booklength essay on that topic in the shape of 11 fugues.
It’s the sort of book I hope this book I’m writing might turn out like.
Here are just two of the things I loved (of so much in the book worth loving, like Koestenbaum’s writing on shame and the body and the queer body and porn and desire). One is what he calls “the Jim Crow Gaze”:
The eyes of a white person, a white supremacist, a bigot, living in a state of apartheid, looking at a black person (please remember that “white” and “black” aren’t eternally fixed terms): this intolerant gaze contains coldness, deadness, nonrecognition. This gaze doesn’t see a person; it sees a scab, an offense, a spot of absence.
It’s a useful term for a look I’ve seen on faces my whole life. A face we see every day on the president. A look I imagine I’ve worn more than once.
The other thing is the entirety of page 171, from the book’s final fugue, listing humiliations from Koestenbaum’s past:
23.I gave two of my poetry books, warmly inscribed, to a major poet. A few years later, my proteg? told me that she’d found those very copies, with their embarrassingly effusive inscriptions, at a used-book store.
24.At an academic conference, a student stood up, during the question-and-answer period, and accused me of assigning only white writers in a seminar he’d taken with me. Some audience members, appreciating the student’s bravery, applauded.
25.After the panel ended, a colleague?whom I considered culturally conservative?came up to hug me. I told him not to hug me right now; I didn’t want my revolutionary accusers to see me collaborating with privileged humanists.
26.The next day, I called up this colleague and asked him out to lunch. At first he refused. He said, “You shunned me.” The next day, at the cafe, he told me about a lifetime of being shunned.
27.Later, this colleague died of AIDS. I didn’t visit him in the hospital.
This litany of humiliations piled on each other makes me feel terrible. I feel Koestenbaum’s humiliation not just for having been an unsavory person, but for recounting these humiliations on the page. (This feeling of mine he expects and accounts for and speaks to throughout the book.) It’s so brave, which is a word I’ve tended to hate applying to essays.
Lately, I’ve been auto-sending a tweet each morning asking for suggestions of Twitter accounts that intentionally embarrass themselves or don’t try to appear likable or admirable or aggrieved. None have come in. Unsurprisingly, the only suggestions I do get are of parody accounts, or folks tweeting as some kind of funny character.
I read Humiliation, especially its final fugue, and trying to imagine it as a series of tweets I find myself dumb. My mind blank. To be a whole person online feels almost anatomically impossible, righteousness inhering to that experience as grammar does to a sentence. These days I’m seeing any such denial or avoidance of my embarrassments and private humiliating miseries to be a kind of self-treason.
A new favorite. I didn’t know that all my life I’d been looking for a fable about queers loving and working together as they prepare to destroy the patriarchy. Or “the men” in Mitchell’s parlance:
The first revolutions destroyed the great cultures of the women. Once the men triumphed, all that was other from them was considered inferior and therefore worthy only of abuse and contempt and extinction. Stories told of these times are of heroic action and terrifying defeat and silent waiting. Stories told of these times make the faggots and their friends weep.
The second revolutions made many of the people less poor and a small group of men without color very rich. With craftiness and wit the faggots and their friends are able to live in this time, some in comfort and some in defiance. The men remain enchanted by plunder and destruction. The men are deceived easily and so the faggots and their friends have nearly enough to eat and more than enough time to think about what it means to be alive as the third revolutions are beginning.
It’s a short book. Over the course of it, the faggots and their friends help each other stay alive and sane in Ramrod, a place run by the men. These friends include the women, the [drag] queens, the [radical] fairies, the faggatinas and the dykelets. Even the “queer men” who dress and walk among the men, “using all the tricks their fathers taught them” and at night go out and cruise the faggots.
One of the beautiful things about this book, which is full of beauty and wisdom and even pretty line drawings, is how generous it is with its spirit. It is easy as an out and proud faggot to hate on the closeted “queer men” in this book. I’ve done it myself: big vocal public anger at Larry Craig types who work to protect and maintain straight power, and then try to also reap the joys of queer sex.
You don’t get to have both unless everyone gets to have both. You pricks should be locked up for life.
Mitchell, as I’ve said, is more generous. Here’s how he ends the page on the queer men:
It’s the most beautiful book I’ve read about solidarity.
That it’s a book everyone should read doesn’t, probably, go without saying. Maybe isn’t readily apparent. If I’m making it seem like this book (from 1977 and out of print, but any easy googling will turn up a PDF) isn’t for you straight friends of us faggots, if I’m making it seem like something niche, or a relic, know that this book gave me the clearest lesson on what the patriarchy is, at heart, and not just why but how to fight it.
I’ll leave you with one more bit to inspire you, one I’m planning to hang over my desk at work:
Abandoned halfway through. This book is Not For Me. I think I failed to take its title literally enough: this is a how-to book for folks between their quarter- and mid-life crises. If All Advice Is Autobiographical, this book is a memoir, but one directed at a You I couldn’t quite step into:
Breakups make me feel old and haggard, all used up. Getting a new hairdo or a shot of Botox lifts me out of dumps. Even a mani-pedi and an eyebrow wax remind me to take care of myself?an outward manifestation of all the inner self-care breakups require of you, and a continuation of the declaration of self-love that you made when you dumped that fool. Oh, wait?the fool dumped you? As we say in 12-step, rejection is God’s protection! The Universe is looking out for you by taking away someone who was bringing you down. Give thanks by getting a facial.
What makes this Not For Me has little to do with gender (I like mani-pedis and restorative skincare treatments). It’s got a little more, perhaps, to do with age, but mostly it has to do with my looking for wisdom these days beyond 12-step bromides and This Worked For Me So It’ll Totally Work For You advice. But here’s where I’m trying to take this post: I can recall a time when I would’ve finished this book and set it aside a satisfied customer. Tea’s book’s being Not For Me is all about me, not her book.
Reading it brought me back to my first term teaching at USF. I had a student who wrote flash essays in this Tea-ish/How-To vein, specifically about how the reader might go about self-treating their depression without needing drugs or therapy. Self-care tips. Streetwise, This Worked For Me anecdotes. Assumptions that the reader’s life/background/belief system were in line with the author’s.
I was a shrewd, ungenerous reader of this work, aiming in my feedback to bring it all around to what I knew as Classic, Universal Essay Form: lengthen and enrich the structures, deploy more psychic distance between the narrator- and character-selves, etc. I wrote honest marginalia about how the You being spoken to was not me and was presuming things about me I couldn’t agree with.
The student protested: maybe I was reading it wrong, or unfamiliar with the style.
I counter-protested: how else can I help you but by reading this as I am, and gearing my feedback/revisions toward The General Reader?
Reading Tea, I saw at last an example of how I was wrong. If pushed in that classroom to describe The General Reader, I imagine I’d describe a man with a background and reading history closely aligned to my own. It is clear on every page of Tea’s book that whatever her notion of The General Reader might be, it’s not a 40-year-old professor who stays mostly at home and distrusts even the slightest interest in fashion and material objects.
The General Reader doesn’t exist. Not universally. It’s something I always try to keep in mind in the classroom: how is this work asking to be read? What do I know of the writing process (not The Essay Form) that can help this student see their work more deeply and develop it to the end.
I don’t know what I would do if handed Tea’s book in a workshop, but I know I wouldn’t do or say anything without listening to her first about what the work is, to her, and where she wants to go with it.
A graphic memoir about a young girl in the world of mid-level competitive figure skating, who comes out as queer and comes to realize she has to leave skating behind. What’s beautiful about it are Walden’s colors and her use of rhythm and pacing, how she moves from small and tight panels to wider and more expansive ones. Examples are hard to quote, so to speak, but here’s a couple of JPGs I could find.
It’s just that deep violet color throughout, unless there’s light in the scene, and contrasting light: the sharp angles of early morning sunrises, or the glow of litup windows in a dark evening, car headlights at dusk. When that yellow appears on the page it’s like a trumpet or melodic refrain you’ve been waiting for.
The matter-of-factness about her queerness and coming out to family and friends was a smart touch, because this is a story hanging its narrative on other ongoing conflicts. And as with all coming-out narratives I felt that same pang of envy and self-loathing. To have even known I was gay at Walden’s age….
Much less had the guts to tell others.
I was amazed by the insight into the power and purpose of memoir from an artist just 20 years old at the book’s publication. Here she is in her author’s note:
I think for some people the purpose of a memoir is to really display the facts, to share the story exactly as it happened. And while I worked to make sure this story was as honest as possible, that was never the point for me. This book was never about sharing memories; it was about sharing a feeling. I don’t care what year that competition was or what dress I was actually wearing; I care about how it felt to be there, how it felt to win. And that’s why I avoided all memorabilia. It seemed like driving to the rink to take a look or finding the pictures from my childhood iPhone would tell a different story, an external story. I wanted every moment in this book to come from my own head, with all its flaws and inconsistencies.
I like this idea of how researching the facts/memorabilia of one’s life can push a story to the exterior, rather than keeping it true to feeling, which is to say true to emotion, intellect, and art.
you either love the world
or you live in it
I love the sad wisdom in these lines, which is a sad wisdom that runs throughout this collection. I’d only before heard Sax’s poems, at two readings here in San Francisco, where he spent a number of years. He’s from the performance poetry school: some poems were memorized, some asked the audience to woop at certain breaks, all seemed to draw mysterious things out from his body, which is sturdy and self-possessed about how it fills the space it takes up, like a dancer’s.
Echoes from his past performances came to my ear as I read certain poems, that voice, but on the whole these pages were filled in a variety of ways. Space and line working toward effects beyond what the voice alone can do. The concerns throughout are with mental health, physical health, ailments, drugs, addiction, sex, and the body and its transactions. Sax is younger than me by a number of years, but smarter than me in a host of ways about queerness and ways of being queer in the world we, as above, find ourselves just living in.
how technology can move
from its corrupt origins
i have to remember the internet
began inside the murder
corridors of a war machine
each time i link to a poem
or watch two queers kiss
“Queers” and not “men”, note. Also that cleaving of sex to poetry, or poetry to sex. “[T]he homosexual since his invention has been a creature held captive in the skull,” he writes in “On Trepanation” (the practice of sawing open a hole in the skull), and it’s a sentiment I felt in my bones. What made this book a gift was how readily Sax found salvation within this world, the one here, outside the skull. Because “heaven’s a city / we’ve been priced out of”, his speakers are here to make as much of this life as they can, no matter the costs.
spare me the lecture
on the survival
of my body
& i will spare you my body
Buy Sam Sax’s Madness here.