Guest Post, Matthew Lippman: Michael Morse’s Void and Compensation: Poetry and Friendship

PoemI met Michael Morse on the roof of Dia Center for the Arts in the early 90s.  A mutual friend introduced us.  It was summer or spring and the sun was going down over The Hudson River.  Neither of us knew anyone at the party and so we were forced to drink our beers together.  I remember, vaguely, not being too impressed with Michael.  We were both poets who had, 2 years earlier, graduated from The Writers’ Workshop at The University of Iowa.  I had recently moved to Brooklyn.  His mother had recently died. Both of us, although I did not know it at the time, were adrift—floating on the docile waves of our mid-twenties with high aspirations undercut by low frequencies.  What we had in common, we would soon find out, were many things:  A deep love for The New York Mets, mothers with the same name, Carol, Roslyn High School (he, an alum; me, a teacher), Brooklyn, jazz, single malt scotch, and, of course, poetry.

What’s interesting to me about my relationship with Michael is not that we have stayed best friends for almost 30 years or that we both love spring training and have endless amounts of hope in our hearts whether it be directed at The Mets or in our poetry trajectories, but that so much of our relationship has nothing to do with poetry.  I suppose, in many ways, the reason we have stayed so close is that on the totem pole of what is important, poetry is down there at the bottom.  Yes, when we first began to build our friendship we would wake early on Sunday mornings and meet at Harvest, a breakfast joint on Court Street, and share our work.   But, it wasn’t the work that so much mattered—it was the grits, the hash browns, the occasional cup of coffee, the western omelette.  It was the feeling, some indescribable geyser of love that grew out of necessity (as love always does), and a shared desire for a certain connection to the world.  A world that always felt deep with possibility and horror.  That kind of Existential horror that lead us to the F-train, to Coney Island, to the Boardwalk, to the beach, with a copy of Alan Dugan’s Collected Poems in our shared back pocket.  There, at the shore, at the edge of the East Coast, we read out loud, to one another, “The Sea Grinds Things Up” completely shattered by that last line, “It’s a lonely situation.”  And, ain’t it?  But we had each other then like we have each other now.

This is a tale of poetry and friendship, a tale of friendship and poetry.

It took me 14 years to get my first book published after I left Iowa.  It has taken Michael 21 years.  21 years after Iowa.  Can you imagine? That’s an impossibly ridiculous number of years given his talent. Thank god for the folks at Canarium Press who, in their deep wisdom, decided to publish Michael’s first collection, Void and Compensation.  As Michael’s friend it might seem disingenuous to speak on his work.  He is my best friend.  That might make speaking on his poems doubly disingenuous.  Truth is, I don’t give a shit.  They just floor me.  Take for instance, “On Reading.”

On Reading

    for Larry Levis

1.

When I read in bed, the book above me 

held high, arm extended, I hold 

the top right corner with my left hand

and let the finished pages rest on my wrist— 

as if I’m denying the rays of a small sun

or keeping the printed word at bay.

It’s Chekhovian, how everything descends, 

the protagonists, their stars and their sun.   

This morning it’s my friend: I haven’t learned 

to say his name in death since what he left

of his life on paper—tuberculin ink 

spit up and out as darker rubies that 

his body couldn’t keep and went to pages—

stains that snow crystal-by-crystal, persistent

and held above the head and kept at bay. 

2.

It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m reading in bed.

I’m with my lover and we’re breaking up

although neither of us knows it yet—

I am reading and she is sleeping.

The book is still above me but I’m gone

(prescience disguised as daydreaming): 

I’m at my lover’s apartment years later

and I’m holding her baby, not mine and yet

a ruby of my making, my ambivalence.

Love’s less and less about someday and more         

of a resuscitation of someone:

Come, friend or lover and child fast asleep, 

come dawn, all clock-tick and sparrow-chatter

and daylight starch waiting for ink and wanting—

The books are by the bed, and they are dead and ready. 

The first time I read “On Reading” I got jealous.  You know, that good kind of jealousy that starts—Oh fuck, I wish I wrote this but then slowly fades into appreciation and awe.  I remember reading “On Reading” in Ploughshares where it was first published and feeling like I was stupid and in love at the same time.  I kept thinking, How can you write a poem like that?  So, I called him up to ask him.  But, I didn’t really care; I just wanted to talk smack, that boy banter that makes us feel free. The love thing.

That’s how it is with Michael, with a Michael conversation—we talk poems which leads to sports which leads to Coleman Hawkins, which leads to Felix Milan, which leads to stupid banter.  That’s the progression and the one that makes most sense. It’s one that I count on and cherish because it provides a holding, a containment that, on the surface, is built out of words but originates, if you will, out of the soil.  I am lucky that Michael is a poet but if he weren’t a poet we’d still be best friends and that is why this friendship of ours has lasted.  But, the poetry is a piece, no larger or smaller, than everything else.  Shouldn’t that be the way it is?  His poems are a celebration of that kind of everydayness that is the everydayness of human interaction, of friendship, of love, of romance and family.  Take for instance “Bake McBride,” or “Tsimtsum,” or “Facebook.”  Check this out:

Facebook

My friends who were and aren’t dead

are coming back to say hello. 

There’s a wall that they write things on. 

There are status updates. What are you doing right now? 

For the most part, they seem successful. 

They have children, which I can only imagine. 

The hairy kid we called Aper, I haven’t heard

from him and wonder if in every contact

there are apologies inherent

for feelings hurt and falling out of touch.

You know what’s funny, once, a long time back, we were in a little guest house in Sag Harbor, 10 years ago, looking at all these poems on the floor.  They were spread out like the ocean a few miles away.  We stood over them trying to make sense of how they might fit together in a collection.  10 years later, here is that collection.  10 years.  That’s how old some of them are, like whales, like accordions, that sing on and on over miles and years.  All of them now in his first book, some of them go as far back as the ocean of Iowa.  That’s history.  It’s a history of his poetics and it’s a history of our friendship.

Void and Compensation is a triumph of perseverance.  More than that, it is a triumph of love and words—the lasting power of both.  It’s one of the great poetry books of the last quarter century.  I say this as Michael’s best friend; I say this as someone who is a Poet; I say this as someone who has a general dis-taste for poetry.  But, don’t take my word for it.  Go get the thing and put it in your back pocket.  Walk around the countryside with it.  Get on the F-Train to Coney Island with your best friend and read “Rand McNally” at the ocean to make your own road map of love and friendship.  These poems of Michael’s, you see, are about finding one’s way; they are all about the breaking of the waves, and the sound barrier inside the chest, broken in half.

Michael Morse is my best friend and so none of what I have written matters.  It’s tainted with Technicolor subjectivity.  But, I don’t give a shit.  I sing the love songs I sing.  You sing your own.  That’s what’s important.  That we sing them.  Alone. To one another. I love Michael’s songs.  The ones he has sung to me at The A&G Pork Store, at Shea Stadium, from the car on his cell, asleep on rocks in the middle of rivers in Pennsylvania, where and whenever.  I love them as much as the ones in Void and Compensation– it’s own set list, concert, at The Garden, sold out performance, sung to 15,000 screaming fans, one after another, as lonely as they’ll ever be and never more thankful.

Hell, I am lucky to be in the front row, my left hand in the air, my right hand gripping tight a BIC lighter in this long and graceful encore that just keeps on going, shining the light.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Writer Sean Prentiss

Sean Prentiss

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Sean Prentiss.

Sean Prentiss spent years working for trail crews in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the memoir, Finding Abbey: a Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave. Prentiss is also the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction, a creative nonfiction craft anthology. He lives on a small lake in northern Vermont and serves as an assistant professor at Norwich University.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.

 

Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction

B.J. Hollars provides a multifaceted approach to nonfiction that has a direct application to the writing classroom.  Contributions from leading literary nonfiction writers like Michael Martone, Wendy Rawlings, and Dinty Moore make this book a must for any literary nonfiction class.

BlurringBlurring the Boundaries                                              

Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction

Edited by B. J. Hollars

Paperback

2013.280  pp.

978-0-8032-3648-6

$30.00

 

Contemporary discussions on nonfiction are often riddled with questions about the boundaries between truth and memory, honesty and artifice, facts and lies.  Just how much truth is in nonfiction?  How much is a lie? Blurring the Boundaries sets out to answer such questions while simultaneously exploring the limits of the form.

This collection features twenty genre-bending essays from today’s most renowned teachers and writers—including original work from Michael Martone, Marcia Aldrich, Dinty W. Moore, Lia Purpura, and Robin Hemley, among others. These essays experiment with structure, style, and subject matter, and each is accompanied by the writer’s personal reflection on the work itself, illuminating his or her struggles along the way. As these innovative writers stretch the limits of genre, they take us with them, offering readers a front-row seat to an ever-evolving form.

Readers also receive a practical approach to craft thanks to the unique writing exercises provided by the writers themselves. Part groundbreaking nonfiction collection, part writing reference, Blurring the Boundaries serves as the ideal book for literary lovers and practitioners of the craft.

B.J. Hollars is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He is the author of two books of nonfiction, Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa, as well as a collection of stories, Sightings.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Writer John Messick

 

John MessickEach Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by John Messick.

John Messick’s work has appeared in Tampa Review, Rock & Sling, Cirque Journal, Alaska Dispatch News, and other publications. His essay “Discovering Terra Incognita” was awarded the AWP Intro Journals Prize in 2013. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, teacher, fish researcher, and sled dog handler. He earned his MFA from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and currently works as a freelance journalist covering Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. He lives on the Kenai Peninsula in southcentral Alaska.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.

Guest Post, Heather Foster: Sh*t My Students Said: In Memory of Teaching

Now’s as good a time as any to announce it: at the ripe old age of thirty, I’m retiring. Well, I’m preparing to change careers. In 19 months, I’ll have my BSN, and hopefully, a nursing job. There are many reasons why. I found it nearly impossible to write while teaching Comp; the adjunct scenario is a racket; and when I wasn’t grading a stack of 78 disastrous essays on Flannery O’Conner [sic], I was dreading the next stack of 78 disastrous essays on Flannery O’Conner. I love helping people. I love science.

teacher-mistake_2837991bThat’s not to say there aren’t things I have loved about teaching. I have learned from my students. Just this semester, a girl who studies Victorian floriagraphy taught me something new about a poem I’d have sworn I understood inside out. Sometimes I was fortunate enough to have students—usually a handful each semester—who made me intensely happy with their smart contributions to discussions about literature, and especially their ability to follow essay guidelines. I’d strategically place those students’ papers in the pile, a reward for the halfway mark, a reset button in the seemingly everlasting hell of circling comma splices.

And sometimes a poem would do it—after days watching dozens of eyes, glazed and confused, stare into the distance while I explained again that “so many good times” is not a concrete image, so please try again (some students took more than SEVEN attempts to come up with one single image until I finally yelled, “Brass lamp! Accordion! Cowbell!” and the room went silent like in one of those movies where the crazy person finally loses their shit and I stood there breathing hard, regretting most of my life choices)—finally we’d read Allison Funk’s “The Lake” and I’d see the lightbulbs switching on and I’d hear them talking about poems in the hall, and I would know that this, this feeling of showing them something they might never otherwise see, this was why I signed up for this gig.

Nevertheless, I’m moving on. But not before I take a look back on some of the craziest things to ever come out of my students’ mouths. Those who are teachers will probably not be surprised by anything they find on this list. College students are notoriously lazy and shameless, and since I taught mostly dual enrollment high school seniors, I dealt with my fair share of both. They are, in many of their ideas about writing, the polar opposite of me, and so listening to this stuff for days on end can be maddening, but I have to admit there’s a kind of ridiculous charm in their words as well. Behold:

  1. “Writing poems is so easy for me. They use hardly any words.”
  2. “The next line says that he died before she had time. She is talking about killing her father. This could mean that he died before she had time.” Meanwhile, Plath is rolling over in her grave.
  3. “I am writing about the Galway Kinnell poem, because it’s got a really long title. If I mention it a few times, I’ll hit the word count sooner.”
  4. “Can you type up everything you said in class today and email it to me? My alarm didn’t go off, but I want to pass the midterm.”
  5. “At first, I thought I hated poetry. Then I discovered the secret to writing the perfect poem: listen to music. But not just any music. Something really deep, like jazz. As you can see, the results are amazing.”
  6. “Can you read my 6 page rough draft, fix my errors, and tell me exactly what grade it would get before and after I fix each thing?”
  7. “The fact that the paperhanger accomplished his goal inspires me to believe that no matter what people think you can or cannot do, you can do anything you set your mind to.” I won’t spoil William Gay’s tale for those who haven’t read it, but the paperhanger is maybe not the best role model.
  8. “I didn’t do my homework because the guideline sheet you gave me blew away in the wind.”
  9. “I never thought I could like poetry. Then your class changed my life.”
  10. “I haven’t been in your class for the past 6 weeks because my fiancé faked his own death to get out of having to marry me.”  What else is there to say?

Guest Post, Dinah Lenney: One Step Forward, Two Back: On Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence. It reanimates, revives, subjects everything to its needs.  

 

That’s Elena Ferrante, the Italian author of the much-lauded Neapolitan novels, in an interview just published in the Paris Review. And I’m sure she’s right—that is the truth about literary truth. You can’t have it, not in any genre, if, as she earlier states, “the writing is inadequate.” But say the writing is not only adequate, but exquisite! What about the actual truth—the truth-truth—in a work that claims to be nonfiction? Does it matter at all? For how long? And who gets to decide?

I’m thinking about In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Beautifully written, right? But is that what mattered when it was first published? Is it all that matters now? Why did he call it a “nonfiction novel”? Was he inventing a genre, or only wanting it both ways? And—if that’s what it was (the latter)—so what; what’s wrong with that?

Backing up—I get regular emails (A.Word.A.Day, almost daily) from Wordsmith.com: wouldn’t you know the day I was scheduled to talk about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (at the AWP Conference in Minneapolis), the word for the day was “expurgate”— and its definition: “verb tr.: to remove parts considered objectionable.” Hilarious. There I was in my hotel room putting the finishing touches on my tiny talk—this had to be a sign, a directive; for me, of course, not for Truman Capote. If you were to expurgate In Cold Blood, it’d have no blood at all. The best parts are the objectionable parts, right? But are they objectionable? Or are they only the best?

In Cold Blood, billed by the author (as noted) as the first “nonfiction novel” (although his assertion is debatable—just about everything about Capote is debatable, after all), was published half a century ago this year: hence the occasion—the AWP event—an opportunity to consider the book’s legacy and relevance today.
Truman Capote - In Cold Blood CoverBut let me back up again: it was 1969. I was 12. The Clutters had died ten years earlier; the book had been published three years before. I read on my back in a sun-filled room (mine: I had a big bay window, and a chintz bedspread pulled up over my knees); it was one of those days when your parents keep urging you to go outside, get on your bike, get some fresh air…but I was cooped up with Truman Capote. I could not get enough. I read the way we read fiction—or the way we did when we were kids, which is why we fell in love with writing in the first place, yes? I mean to say, if Capote had ruled out first person presence and point of view (a requirement, said he, of his brand-new form), I had not: I believed in what was happening in that farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas as if I were dreaming it up all by myself. It was Nancy Clutter who got to me, of course—Nancy, who was 16 and perfect. She had a horse and a boyfriend; she was good at everything; everyone loved her. Nabokov has counseled us against identifying with characters. That isn’t our job he explains in his invaluable essay, Good Readers and Good Writers. And even so that’s how I read fiction back then, and how I still read it when I get lucky: for the duration (at the very least), I claim it as my own.

I knew, of course I did, that Capote’s book was not just “based on” a true story (that’s Hollywood parlance by the way—based on, inspired by—these are the phrases screenwriters and producers use to let us know they’ve fudged the facts): that was undoubtedly part of the lure—that this terrible thing had happened to a real girl, a girl just like me (okay, nothing like me—no horse, no boyfriend, not dead—poor Nancy… I ached for Nancy). But not only “based on,” that’s my point: According to Gerald Clarke, Capote’s biographer, the author “publicly boasted” that “In Cold Blood may have been written like a novel, but it is accurate to the smallest detail—“immaculately factual.””  Clarke goes on to say, “Although it has no footnotes, Capote could point to an obvious source for every remark uttered and every thought expressed. “One doesn’t spend almost six years on a book,” he said, “the point of which is factual accuracy, and then give way to minor distortions.”

But he did give way to distortions, that we know. And he had to have invented—because he wasn’t there! So—does it matter? Once a work is part of the canon—once it informs the culture as this book has, is it, perhaps, a waste of time to worry about the rules? In any case, I can tell you, if you’re 12 years old, and you’re death-obsessed, as very many of us 12 year olds were (for me that was also the year of A Separate Peace, Death Be Not Proud, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Roald Dahl’s macabre Kiss, Kiss) the rules (not that you knew them at the time, but say you had—Genre, wtf, who cares, you would have said then—and here’s an awful thought: were you more enlightened then?) would seem not to apply.

Flashing forward (I hope I’m not giving you whip lash): Every time I went to jot down my thoughts about the book I got stuck in just this way—as if I’d been chosen, me of all people, to come at the book from this particular angle. But of course that wasn’t why the moderator (smart, insightful Kelly Grey Carlisle) had contacted me—it couldn’t have been; she had no way of knowing how strident I’ve become about genre blur—about the responsibilities of writing nonfiction. What she did know, she must have, was that I’d written about a murder, my father’s, in a book called Bigger than Life.

And yet. I wasn’t willing, at first, to zoom in from that perspective—as if I have some particular purchase, or privilege, or prescription for writing about trauma. How long, how many times, I asked myself, can a person milk a trauma? And so, this time, for this panel—and this was an act of avoidance, I guess—I resolved I wouldn’t resort to that strategy. This time I’d change it up. Therefore I engaged in an informal survey. I emailed a bunch of my colleagues—a dozen smart, successful writers—and asked them to tell me in a line or two what they thought about In Cold Blood.

The first responder, a journalist in her mid-50s, who, like me, had read the book as an adolescent, wrote that she was (again, like me) “swallowed up in the story.” When I asked if it occurred to her that Capote had made any of it up, she answered that it was  “written with such authority that I believed in it.”

Another friend—a guy pushing 60 who pens novels and writes for television—had read much more recently, as a middle-aged man. He was “blown away,” he said, “by the prose, the storytelling, the essential invention of an entire genre.”

And another novelist, who remembers the book from high school in the 70s, told me that, having to do with the title, perhaps, she’d felt cold as she read, and “a little sick, the way you feel when you suspect yourself of prurience. The narrative distance probably also contributed to that feeling.” She added, “I believed every word.”

Two more: First, from Nathan Deuel, a young nonfiction writer (he has to be named, because I can’t take credit for his answer, though I wish I could): “It’s a beautiful book! But it’s also a big hash, right? I could imagine a great course that involved Capote, D’Agata, Dillard, etc. Details, Danger, Destiny, and Deceit.”

Last, from a New Yorker staff writer, also in her 30s, who read the book a year or two after she graduated from college: She was “thrilled” by the writing, she said, though she remembers wondering, “How is this NON-fiction?”

Good fun, my survey, though it didn’t change anything for me; it only confirmed my misgivings, which have more to do with my own way of reading, I fear, than with the book, itself. I found myself wondering over and over: Did Capote get away with something when he published In Cold Blood? Would he get away with it now? To even entertain the question makes me wonder when exactly I became so rigid in my expectations and standards? And now: face to face with In Cold Blood, do I have the courage of my relatively recently-cultivated convictions? Are my notions about genre worthless to me in the face of art? (At what point in time do we decide it is art, whatever it is? I want to know that, too.)

Here’s another quote, this from a 1957 interview in the Paris Review, two years before the Clutters were murdered. A writer called Pati Hill asked Capote if he had “definite ideas or projects for the future?” He answered:

“Well, yes, I believe so. I have always written what was easiest for me until now: I want to try something else, a kind of controlled extravagance. I want to use my mind more, use many more colors. Hemingway once said anybody can write a novel in the first person. I know now exactly what he means.”

Hmmm.

As flattered as I’d been by the invitation to join Kelly Grey Carlisle’s AWP panel—it’s always flattering to be invited—as the months ticked by I began to suspect I had no business weighing in, not really. I’m not a journalist. Nor have I yet challenged myself to write about the experience of anyone I do not intimately know—which was the realization, in spite of my intentions, that prompted me to make a connection of sorts: because, come to think of it, back when I finally sat down and imagined murder on the page, I did, in fact, write in third person. But if it was the absence of an emotional attachment that allowed Capote to choose omniscience, it was just the opposite for me. I felt cornered. I chose third because I didn’t trust myself, not because I did.

The most frustrating thing about what happened to my father isn’t that it was unimaginable—though it was—it’s that I have to admit, first and always, before anything else (this is the problem of writing about your own dead, the ones who are real to you) I will simply never know. What was it like? Did he believe he was going to die? Did he have time to be afraid, or angry, or sad? Because I actually knew him—my father—I was unable to convince myself (as Capote had) that I could ever come close to knowing. And I judged myself harshly—still do—for pretending I could. I called the chapter “Conjecture.” And if I’m not sure what I think about In Cold Blood (not to compare myself to Capote, please don’t mistake me), neither am I sure how I feel about my own pages—about how, with the truth up for grabs (but forever out of reach), I nonetheless allowed myself to “reanimate, revive, subject” for the sake of “literary truth.” If “literary truth” is the end-goal in fiction, in nonfiction, even and especially when it’s the best we can do, it perhaps comes up short.

With all that in mind, and continuing to prep, I ran into an essay called “Ghosts in the Sunlight: The Filming of In Cold Blood,” written by Capote himself, in which he talks about his sense of disconnection on the set; how odd it was to watch actors impersonating murderers in the Clutter house—that’s where they filmed the movie!—at the actual house: “…eight years have passed,” writes Capote, “but the Venetian blinds still exist, still hang at the same windows. Thus reality, via an object, extends itself into art; and that is what is original and disturbing about this film; reality and art are intertwined to the point that there is no identifiable area of demarcation.”

Although he admits, on first viewing the movie, to experiencing a “sense of loss”: “Not,” he says, “because of what is on the screen, which is fine, but because of what isn’t.”

Ironic, no? As if the filmmakers were the ones who compromised? As if he did not?

You tell me.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Poet Chance Castro

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Chance Castro.

Chance CastroChance Castro is an MFA Poetry student at CSU San Bernardino where he has served as poetry editor for Ghost Town Literary Magazine. He is the founding poetry editor for The Great American Literary Magazine at www.thegreatamericanlitmag.com. He is previously published or forthcoming in RHINO, Santa Clara Review, The Pacific Review, Tin Cannon, The Chaffey Review, and elsewhere.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.