Imagination and Prison
This version of the introduction to Blue Fire, concentrating on process, was published in Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles, ed. L.Timmel Duchamp.
Sexual Stealing: On the Gothic Novel
This essay presents some of the material I discovered while researching my work-in-progress, the poetic nonfiction Sexual Stealing (see below). I discuss Beckford’s and Lewis’s homosexuality as an ancillary source of stress driving the creation of the Gothic novel, and the political trauma behind the works of Charles Brockden Brown, America’s first novelist, another master of the Gothic. The bibliography may be useful to the reader who wishes to delve further.
“Herzog’s Aguirre” (1992) was written for an anthology, never realized, of essays by writers on particular films. The selection of the film was left up to the writer.
Balthus’ Picture-Book, four essays on that painter’s immersion in narrative, offers a reading of the major paintings and some minor ones, as well as two sets of illustrations. I wrote these essays in response to the retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984, and to satisfy myself that the unusually widespread puritanical reaction to the work (revived in Metropolitan’s 2013 exhibition title, “Balthus: Cats and Girls– Paintings and Provocations”) was invalid.
The first essay presents the scaffolding of ideas that Balthus used and upon which he endlessly elaborated. The second goes further along that road, dealing primarily with his “self-portraits.” The third essay analyzes his illustrations for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and the fourth looks at his childhood production, the picture book Mitsou, while using it as a lens to consider some more paintings.
My attempts over the years to publish these essays failed partly over the prohibitive cost of image reproduction. I have tried to obviate the problem here by making the work available but not for sale, and by providing URLs for all the images discussed, insofar as that was possible. The images discussed in each essay and their URLs are listed at the end of each essay.
An abbreviated version of the first essay, without images was published in Ironwood.
Balthus’ Picture-Book, Chapter 4 to follow
Sexual Stealing is a long work in poetic nonfiction that uses a constraint I first practiced in Blue Fire (Proteotypes, 2009). Authors often produce texts that know more than they do; the text’s greater knowledge of itself can be elicited by submitting the whole to some method of thinning such as mesostic selection. Sexual Stealing has grown out of my understanding that British Gothic fiction of the late eighteenth century found the source of its horror in plantation slavery, specifically the sugar plantations of Jamaica and San Domingo (Haiti). William Beckford and Matthew “Monk” Lewis both drew their fortunes from such plantations. The violence with which slaves had their freedom and every libidinal object taken from them (hence my title) was displaced to other settings—the Orient, Italy—but the language of the plantation is there to be found. I have extracted it from Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, taking one word from every line of that novel, in order, and forming a secondary text that I have then tried to amplify and contextualize with texts and images from my research. Excerpts have appeared in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, ed. Bergvall, Browne and Place, and in Re:Telling, ed. W.Walsh. The excerpt offered below consists of the first twelve pages of the book.
Cut-ups provide an instant closed system of lexical elements. One can shape the system by choosing to use one text alone or to merge several.
“In the beginning was my wishing… ”
In the example offered here, a collaboration at a distance with the writer Gretchen Henderson, I took one of the texts at her Galerie de Difformité and cut it up into segments of two, three or four words. Gretchen’s text (which can be downloaded here and in print from Lake Forest College Press) is itself built around quotations using the word you. Limited to her language and the language she had appropriated, I let the segments magnetize each other.
It was with the cut-up form that I first tested my idea that every literary work contains its own critique, like a statue hidden in a block of marble.
The primary value of constrained writing lies in the way it liberates the writer from her agenda, literary superego, and the ever-replaying internal tape loop. You cannot intend to say any particular thing when you write with constraints; you see what the constraint allows you to say. With many constraints you start by finding the words or phrases that obey the arbitrary rule, and then arrange them according to how they magnetize each other. The great delight is one of surprise and of discovering what you didn’t know you knew.
Constraints also offer a way to think about literary form that is not tied to and enforced by traditional merchandising categories, that escapes political ideologies set into ordinary language-uses. When you have familiarized yourself with some of the better-known constraints, you are ready to deploy them, or some variation of them, or simply what you have learned from them about language on another occasion. Lipograms (writing with a restricted set of letters) sensitize you to the emotive power of certain phonetic sounds by completely eliminating others; these musical properties, once learned, can then be deployed for dramatic effect in so-called “normal” writing. Filigranes (deploying all the connotations of a word left unspoken) make you see that every word implicitly contains numerous stories. “The Only the Wholly the” (barring signifying words such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives) shows how much thinking is done independent of identity and description; and so on.
Many people, when they first hear about this approach to writing, assume it is a kind of parlor game, fun perhaps but essentially trivial. The case for constraints’ value in the production of great fiction has been proved, but I believe they can also be used to open up new ways of investigating serious intellectual problems. For instance, I have an idea that every text contains its own critique. I first used this idea to compose “critical fictions,” a form where essay and narrative, or argument and poem blend. Later I applied this notion to the writing of history, particularly to investigations of those moments when the “normal” literature of the day and an historical event collide, forcing up new genres to deal with new experience. Whether these works of mine succeed is of course for the reader to decide, but they do show that constraint-based writing, considered by some to be apolitical and frivolous, may be quite otherwise.
As the composition of a novel must build on a firm understanding of sentence structure, the extension of constraint-based writing towards new long forms depends on some ease in the practice of its basic grammar.
The piece printed below was written using “The Prisoner’s Constraint.” The writer limits herself to letters without risers (such as h, b, k) and descenders (such as p, j, g). Imagine Houdini tied up in his strait jacket, curled inside a box.
ann a cosmos, sam a mess
ann is a universe
sam reveres ann
ann swims in waves, a venus in a scenic cove
sam roars in verse
ann is moon, sun, summer, music
i, a mere swain, mirror ann in rime
ann weaves roses, sews sam ear wear,
ann never muses on coins or norms,
ann seasons wearisome arizona,
ann rescues sam in zoos, museums,
mixes sam oreos in nacreous ooze,
ere ian, a con man, arrives in a van,
serves ann moose mousse, norse wine, orca nose in rain
some women swoon over mere caviar or cream
ann murmurs, move over, sam, moans, i am won
sam crosses rivers, meres, moors, ice masses, azure seas, some more moors
soars, an arrow in air, nears sami acres, veers, moves in
soon, as sam sami, a circus emcee, earns raves, seems sane
sam erases ann, curses ian, erases ian, woos zoe, snares ravens, amasses visions, answers voices, snares unicorns, sirens
as ann evanesces, sam measures rum in vain
now sam wears armor, rouses a seer
same seer reserves sam a mission, war on asia
sam murmurs mexico— i miss mexico…
enormous maize mazes, icons on canoes,
mines, worms, uranium, cousins in caves …
Abdelkrim Tabal and Distant Flames
I met the poet Abdelkrim Tabal through my friend Rabia Zbakh during the year I was living in Morocco. Tabal, one of Morocco’s best-known and best-loved poets, is unusual among his colleagues in that he writes in Arabic, not French. His work is closely tied to the winding streets of Chefchaouen, its mountain locale, Andalusian-style houses and revolutionary history. He composes his poems as he wanders the narrow streets; to walk is an essential part of his process.
After I returned home, Rabia and I decided to collaborate on a translation of Distant Flames, one of Tabal’s more recent books. Another friend, the artist and printmaker Florence Neal, thought we should turn it into an artist’s book. The resulting bilingual text, some pages of which are shown below, was exhibited at the Center for Book Arts and Proteus Gowanus in NYC and at the Atelier Lacourière-Frélaut in Paris. The translations were also published in 26, Circumference and Marginalia.
With Tabal’s permission I have made available a pdf of the poems shown below with their translations. Download Distant Flames excerpt.
The Writhing Society
The Writhing Society is a salon/class devoted to writing with constraints. It meets every other week at The Commons on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and is open to anyone interested in language and serious play. We explore constraints invented by the Oulipo and others, and invent some of our own. If you would like to be put on the mailing list, let me know.
Proteotypes began as the publishing arm of the wonderful Proteus Gowanus Gallery, now history. Many of our books were imaginative translations into print of some event or project that happened at the gallery. We continue to publish, and favor unexpected juxtapositions. Our pamphlet series of experimental writing, the Libellulae, is printed in house and hand-sewn.