“This is not a Wells Tower Interview” & The ‘Receptive Experience’

On a freakishly sunny day in early November I kidnapped Wells Tower and took him on an impromptu tour of Pittsburgh (fueled by my lack of knowledge of the city) and we had a conversation and some whiskey. We talked a lot about the dangers of the internet, kittens, whiskey, bicycles, Foucault, tombstones, Lydia Davis, beach houses, Samizdat, favorite childhood books, what it takes to write well, punk bands, PDX, writing letters, Iceland, kayaking, having brothers, revising, Post WWII male writers, Amy Hempel, future writing cabins, key lime pie, the love of tiny dogs adopted out of guilt, ‘The Loss of the Creature,’ New Orleans, the history of Zines, Thin Lizzy, chocolate chip cookies….and much more. I wrote it all down, typed it out, cut and pasted it, added original artwork from a wonderfully talented Los Angeles based artist and filmmaker, some clip art, and I old school Xeroxed the thing. The great thing is that you can actually HOLD this interview in your hands, you can read it. It’s awesome. (via Hot Metal Bridge)

My publicity copy of “This is not a Wells Tower Interview” arrived with a handwritten note from Jen Howard, the not-interviewer, asking that I refrain from directly referencing any of the zine’s content on the Internet.

When I first read about “This is not a Wells Tower Interview” (via Vol. 1 Brooklyn), I knew right away that I wanted a copy. I didn’t love each and every story in Tower’s collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, but I return to certain stories (“Executors of Important Energies,” “The Brown Coast,” “Retreat”) to study the construction of his “fiery, ecstatic word[s], Molotov cocktail[s] against syntactic dreariness.”

I have no experience with zines. Punk rock has only recently started making sense to me, its communitarian message and spirit finally loud and clear above all that noise. In the zine, Wells Tower offers sage and slightly-ecstatic words (which I’m not permitted to quote here) about how all zine cultures are informed by democratic ideals, as well as a sort of informal apologia for the selective (perhaps even exclusive) communities they create.

Meghan Daum’s recent essay, “Haterade,” about how the Internet is uniquely suited to infectious (as well as democratic) forms of invective, has some relevance to this unusual small-press venture:

Whereas the old-fashioned letter to the editor involved crafting a letter, figuring out where to send it, springing for a stamp, and knowing that its publication-worthiness would be determined by an actual editor who might even call and suggest some actual edits, today’s readers are invited to ‘join the conversation’ as if the work of professional reporters and columnists carries no more authority than small-talk at a cocktail party. And although some sites are making efforts to weed out the trolls by disabling anonymous posting, filtering comments through Facebook, or letting readers essentially monitor themselves by flagging or promoting comments at their own discretion, most are so desperate to catch eyeballs wherever and however possible that they’re loathe to turn down any form of free content.

Later in the article, Daum writes:

Ugly commentary doesn’t just litter the internet, it infects it. It takes the act of reading an article or watching a video or listening to a podcast and turns it from a receptive experience into a reactive one.

“This is not a Wells Tower Interview” provides its reader with a purely “receptive experience.” It doesn’t send one flying quick-fingered or high-and-mighty to the keyboard. Instead, in its analog beauty, the zine functions as an intimate document about Jen Howard’s experience talking, and drinking, and self-reflexively thinking about talking and drinking, with Wells Tower. Its form partly resembles a personal essay, utilizing chapter marks to indicate Howard’s various digressions from the original assignment: an interview.

Yesterday, The Rumpus announced a new service called Letters in the Mail. A subscription guarantees letters from founder Stephen Elliott, Marc Maron, Jonathan Ames, Nick Flynn, Peter Orner, among others. In his “Daily Rumpus” e-mail, Elliott writes:

They’ll be letters, just like the kind you remember getting from your more creative friends twelve years ago or so. I’ll write some of them, longer letters that I would have sent as a Daily Rumpus maybe, but Letters In The Mail will not be available online. Ever. This is a totally print only publication […] Nick Flynn has already agreed to write one, as well as Wendy MacNaughton. I’ve also asked Tao Lin, Lidia Yuknavitch, Emily Gould, Dave Eggers, and Steve Almond. Any of those people might say no, but I have a good feeling.

In that “I have a good feeling,” I sense not cheap nostalgia for a bygone era of print media and letter-sending, but an unwillingness to submit totally and completely to screens, and the vast wasteland — immeasurably vaster than television — of the Internet.

A large part of “This is not a Wells Tower Interview”s appeal is its limited availability. It won’t be filed invisibly away, archived, like every keystroke or piece of Internet writing. The owner of the zine enters a small community of dedicated, well-informed, and, it must be said, necessarily Internet-hooked (copies sold out from Hot Metal Bridge’s online site relatively quickly) readers. It resists existing solely as a novelty, or an arch example of neo-Ludditism, by offering incredibly original and high-quality content. It rejects the notion that “sleekness” is an indicator of quality, and instead fools the reader into believing that he could have designed the zine himself. This grateful reader, however, isn’t fooled; I’m simply awed by the wonderful work Jen Howard and Hot Metal Bridge have put into this special and inspiring product.

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Just Kids by Patti Smith

150 pages into her National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids, Patti Smith expresses an interest in alchemy. She recalls working on an illustrated poem called Alchemical Roll Call, a present for a friend. Just Kids is a work of alchemy, too, a personal account of her time spent in New York in the 1960s and 70s, focusing specifically on her incredible relationship/creative partnership with fellow artist and spirit Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith’s hasn’t been an easy life, especially during the time of her creative flowering. Financial worries, as well as social anxiety within the mythical art and poetry scenes, marked her young adulthood. But so did bliss. Smith somehow makes the reader feel attracted to the lifestyle she candidly describes, even though it’s filled with risks, occasionally deprivation. The only kind of security Smith ever knew wasn’t financial, but personal: the love and support of fellow artists, her family, and, most of all, Robert. She writes about him, about the world entire, with boundless compassion and love. Her writing makes a great case for the divine. Just Kids is told with great wisdom, hard-won, by one of America’s finest and truest voices. It’s a gift I can’t wait to open again and again.

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TRBC: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Like Daniel Orozco, Tayari Jones deserves respect for her willingness to take narrative risks. Her new novel, Silver Sparrow, follows the young lives of two sisters (Dana and Chaurisse), the bigamist father they share (James), and their respective mothers (Gwendolyn and Laverne). Bigamy isn’t something that much gets talked or written about in this country. It’s not a practice common enough to be part of the American dialogue. Exploring the implications of living the bigamist life, or, more accurately, the bigamist’s daughter’s life, Jones examines the emotional and social consequences of a lifestyle burdened by secrets and lies of omission.

The most remarkable part of Silver Sparrow is its pacing. The novel moves at a very steady rhythm, Jones’s words on the page like musical notes. While the subject matter could have easily inspired some over-the-top, Lifetime Original Movie-worthy writing, that’s mostly not the case with Silver Sparrow. There are scenes of melodrama, but they aren’t without subtlety, as Jones, in her writing style, often opts powerfully to suggest rather than spoon-feed. This is especially true of her fascinating characterization of James’s best friend, Raleigh.

One of Jones’s many accomplishments with Silver Sparrow has to do with persuasiveness. Her story isn’t one that many readers will be able to literally relate to. Jones’s gift for writing authentic-sounding dialogue, as well as her frequent appeals to universal human fears and desires, make Silver Sparrow an incredibly approachable and weirdly convincing book. Convincing in the sense that, chapter to chapter, one develops a sort of trust with the author, that no matter which strange, unfamiliar places her story goes, no matter what takes place, she will be able to eke out the essential truths of that particular moment. She’ll direct light on them. Reading Silver Sparrow, especially its suspenseful second half, is an eye- and heart-opening experience. I never doubted Jones. I think this is what it means to be “won over” by a book. To totally believe in it.

A bigamist’s love is necessarily boundless. Is it a greedy love? Perhaps. But more importantly, it’s a love that must be divided. A bigamist’s love is never total. To his secret daughter, Dana, James gives love that needs hiding. Identities, one’s idea of self-worth, are challenged, opportunities denied. Jones achingly chronicles a particular vision of a lifestyle that rejects convention and complicates ideas of love and family in its effort to enlarge them. The story of James Witherspoon and his life as a father split unevenly between his two families seems at times mythologically big, so extensive and rich are the Southern family histories Jones concocts for her characters. Her story’s themes, too (family, morality, truth) are literature’s oldest and biggest. High in spirit, heart, and grace, Silver Sparrow soars.

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TRBC: Orientation and Other Stories by Daniel Orozco

I should read fiction only at night, before bed. I’ve found that reading mid-day, before meeting with a friend or answering to this or that responsibility, can take a small toll on my mental health. It is sometimes a challenge, navigating between my world and the worlds I visit in print. A good story, one rich in detail or suspense or heart, will, upon completion, invariably stay near the fore of my consciousness, distracting me from, among many other things, finding solutions to my real-life problems. I dedicate myself to the stories that I believe deserve my dedication. This means mulling over a story’s meaning(s), looking for consolation or comfort in an author’s words. It can feel like a job in the sense that, when I read a particularly moving or revelatory or flat-out beautiful story, I feel as though I’m giving myself up to something greater than myself. The mission of the job of reading, I think, has something to do with this cosmic awareness of one’s smallness. (Notice how Orientation’s cover features not one but a flurry of disembodied, multi-hued heads, each dependent on one another for support.) The self needs constant reminding that love, happiness, and security can’t ever really exist without the help of others: co-workers. The daily grind a kind of means to whichever ends one has set up for oneself: fulfillment, contentment, peace.

Daniel Orozco’s long-awaited story collection, Orientation, begins with its title story, which saw publication in 1995. So Orozco’s book, from its outset, demands some workerly dedication. Using second-person narration, Orozco walks the reader through their first day of employment at a comically transparent workplace, rich with life. “Rich with life” accurately describes all of the stories contained in Orientation. Each of Orozco’s characters is made real by his vivid and sharp characterizations, and they’re each burdened with pain, prettified by his prose.

The story collection is made up of moments, one after another, of startlingly poignant yet ostensibly ordinary interactions. A woman shamefully, self-consciously buys cookies for herself and only herself. Bridge painters change their attitudes toward the youngest crew member after he experiences trauma on the job, their every word or gesture toward him charged with new meaning, and profound sorrow for the kid’s lost innocence. In “Officers Weep,” Orozco shows his playful side, using a police blotter template to illustrate the private thoughts and feelings of his characters:

5600 Block, Fairvale Avenue. Traffic stop. Illegal U-turn. Officer [Shield #325] approaches vehicle. […] Officer tucks errant lock behind ear, secures it in place with a readjustment of duty cap […] Officer [Shield #647] observes intimate sequence from his position behind wheel of Patrol Unit. Officer enthralled. Officer ascertains the potential encroachment of love, maybe, into his cautious and lonely life. Officer swallows hard.

The collection’s final story (though it feels wrong calling it a single story), “Shakers,” is a devastating depiction and deconstruction of the effects wrought by a (minor) California earthquake.

Orozco took many years to complete Orientation. Its slimness (160 pages) would be dispiriting, if they weren’t 160 carefully-constructed pages that bear all but a physical mark of the love and hard work and serious thought that Orozco put into each and every line. They are the best 160 pages they could be. Time has been a friend to Orozco, who seems to have used the years of pre-publication to cut away the fat that fills too many story collections today. The stories where he goes out on a narrative limb (such as the formally daring “Officers Weep,” or “Somoza’s Dream,” a fictionalized [to what degree, one is unsure] account of the assassination of former Nicaraguan President “Tachito” Somoza Debayle) don’t fall under their own experimental weight. They are skillfully contained and whole. Orozco takes risks, and spins stories in directions new to me, as I’m confident they’ll be new to many readers. What makes Orientation so significant is that the forms Orozco’s stories take, while fresh and newly-imagined by its author, feel somehow already perfected. The nine stories in Orientation are stunning models of how to excitingly breathe life into a process (the telling of stories) that too often feels tapped of new possibilities. For this reason, Orientation is one of the most inspiring books I’ve read this year.

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How To Be A Great Artist: A 16mm B/W Short

Here’s a short film I made this semester about mimesis, and the artist’s need to actively engage with the world.

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The Gospel of Anarchy by Justin Taylor

What would Anarchy look like if we simply started calling it Faith?

To the best of my knowledge they haven’t yet been labeled. “They” are Justin Taylor, Joshua Cohen, Blake Butler, Mike Young, Zachary German, Tao Lin, Stephen Elliott, and others. I think of these talented contemporary writers as a collective of artists linked not by geography or, really, style, but by techno-proximity, their strong online/virtual presences. They write for similarly hip, erudite, and engaging websites (most notably HTMLGIANT and The Rumpus, pages that Rumpus editor Stephen Elliott has referred to as “sister sites”). One doesn’t have to wait for an author interview to learn their influences; an early excitement of reading Taylor’s fantastic new, debut novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, comes from reading the G.K. Chesterton epigraph. Seeing it, my mind traveled back to the fall of 2009, no doubt when Taylor was writing/finishing/polishing his novel for submission to his editor at Harper Perennial. On HTMLGIANT, he posted a series of Chesterton “Power Quotes” (the epigraph not among them). I didn’t know it at the time, but by reading a blog I was seeing the gears turning in the great machinery of creation, creativity. I was watching part of the process: an author attempting to understand and define his own work through the words of another. This special access granted by the Internet, along with their formidable talent, make this group of writers distinct from any previous.

The Gospel of Anarchy knocked me flat, and signals Taylor as a prominent voice of the unnamed movement referred to above. I had read most of Taylor’s short fiction from last year’s much-heralded collection, Everything Here Is The Best Thing Ever, and liked them enough. His voice, though, carries exceptionally well, better even, for the novel-length.

The novel’s rambling story (and it does ramble, from an ontological investigation of 90s internet pornography to dumpster diving, orgies to politics, this character to that) surrounds a group of desperate, young, and possibly divinely-inspired anarchists scrounging about northern Florida, just before the turn of the twenty-first century. Drugs are ingested, sermons sermonized, relationships formed and anarchically destroyed. The story takes an abrupt turn after a talismanic journal, written by a revered punk-runaway, is unearthed. The titular “gospel” contains, mostly, ponderous rhetoricals, circular statements, and theses for “Anarchristianity” (“Joy is a better form of prayer than prayer, but prayer is also a better form of joy than joy.”) From there, Taylor explores the paradoxes of belief, the peaks of passion, and the rewards (or lack thereof) of living according to one’s wants.

The book’s acknowledgments page cites Joshua Cohen, whose tome Witz is recalled toward Gospel’s end, when it is suggested that one character has begun to think himself a savior. Cohen expressed his artistic ambition with his book’s epic length, “scope,” as Taylor’s characters often say. The Gospel of Anarchy is, at a compact 238 pages, ambitious, too, but Taylor simply lets his big themes dictate his book’s grandeur. His book actually seems to call for a narrowcasting of vision. His characters dabble in the supernatural so long they lose sight of the natural, physical world. As the novel’s stunning cover evokes, Taylor’s characters frequently don’t see the forest through the trees. What they see may actually be nothing at all.

If Taylor’s plot sounds jejune, as if Gospel is a book only a writer as young as Taylor is permitted to write (or worse, enjoy), one will still find something to like in his prose. Influenced in equal measure by Barry Hannah (“Nobody ever meant for here to be anyplace special”) and DFW (pitch-perfect dialogue), his style is a pleasure to read.

A criticism of Taylor’s novel that’s been expressed at least twice (1, 2) is that his narrative voice is lazily or ineffectively inconsistent. While the third-person shifts that infrequently occur are occasionally jarring, they have the delightful quality of a God-ly, holy distance from the novel’s action, as if the sections are being writ by God himself; not the Judeo-Christian God, but instead the deity whose infinite wisdom and eminence Taylor’s “drunkpunks” spend most of their time lionizing.

Taylor’s novel doesn’t seem to have made as big a splash as his story collection made last year. It should. It’s much better. While he wears his literary influences on the page perhaps a bit too clearly in both books (with Everything… his hero Donald Barthelme, with this novel a host of writers, including blurber Sam Lipsyte), Taylor’s talent is something to closely watch out for. (Besides, I’ve learned from the Internet that Taylor’s a huge fan of Harold Bloom’s criticism, and so is likely very much aware of the “anxiety of influence.”)

In a scene from The Gospel of Anarchy, one of Taylor’s Floridian punks rides her bike around a “solar walk,” a series of sculpted models arranged to resemble the solar system. She thinks: “The sculptures themselves are not especially impressive, but like so many other things in this world, their value is not in what they are so much as in what they represent, or better — point toward.” The Gospel of Anarchy is valuable for what it is, as well as what it points toward, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in 2011.

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Books That Shook

I tried to live cautiously — or eventually learned to live — in a spirit of regret prevention, and I could not see how Bonnie could accomplish such a thing in this situation. Regret — operatic, oceanic, fathomless — seemed to stretch before her in every direction. No matter which path she took, regret would stain her feet and scratch her arms and rain down on her, lightlessly and lifelong. It had already begun.

I like a lot of books, but truly love only a few. Or maybe that’s not quite right. The thing is that there are only a few books that I would choose to re-read. It’s easy to re-watch movies you simply liked, but fully re-reading a novel or story collection or book of nonfiction can be a serious investment of time and mental energy, especially if you, as I do, have difficulty reading multiple books at the same time. While Nabokov famously spoke about the importance of closely revisiting literary texts, re-reading, for someone like me, always wanting to dip into something new, something fresh, some author’s work I haven’t yet read, can be a tiring labor of love. There are, of course, books that I find are worth the effort. These are the books that have shook me. I read three such books this year: Nox by Anne Carson, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, and the devastating Bluets by Maggie Nelson. The two Lorrie Moore books I’ve read (A Gate At The Stairs, Birds of America) have each shaken me. I’m in the process of re-reading A Gate At The Stairs, my favorite novel from 2009, which still shakes.

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