Tag Archives: Winter 2018

16 Pills

Carley Moore
Tinderbox Editions ($16)

by Celia Bland

Buyer beware! Carley Moore warns her readers that “I plan to wallow and wander, to get stuck and linger over painful moments and difficult texts. I am trying to figure something out here and to name it for myself and for you my dear friend.” These essays are close to Montaigne’s Essays—“I withhold judgment” was Montaigne’s motto and his essays are often ideas on around-the-block test drives, personal explorations that don’t always come to a decisive answer. Similarly, Moore’s essays are like quicksilver; they move from pithy pronouncements to TMI moments of confession to acute observations. She is attracted to the quick fixes of self-help manuals and yet explodes their pat positivism with well-placed zingers. Hers aren’t the pristine stylistics of E.B. White. Indeed, the very ambitiousness of Moore’s essays necessitate an almost insistent messiness; they are “an anti-palliative, a recipe for pain, and an invitation to cause trouble.” She asks: “How can we make space for sadness, for bad feelings, and for being unhappy?”

Let’s consider some of the dominant voices of the current essay. Eileen Myles’s writerly voice is confident, quirky, experienced; Leslie Jamison’s is measured and nearly scientific in its accounts; Maggie Nelson’s narratives flex with intellectual swaggering. 16 Pills exhibits elements of each of these and also something different: a dedication to teaching. Let me explain, Moore tells us, what I have tried so hard to learn. Here is what I’ve read, and this is the community where I have chosen to live, where I have found shelter.

At times, Moore’s essays can be baggy as blog postings—topical and diffuse and bright with the hard varnish of political self-consciousness. “The Sick Book,” the collection’s opener, describes a childhood crippled by illness, laying the foundation for Moore’s sense that powers beyond her control have dictated her life. She connects her own congenital illness with the metaphorical malaise of family structures and societal ills. Instances of isolation and frustration are detailed so vividly that we begin to wonder what’s going unstated. Who, by extension, are her readers, her “dear friends”? We too, she suspects, wake up crying. We march against Trump. We medicate for anxiety. We lie with our sleeping child while swiping Tinder for possible hook-ups. Voltaire’s quip in which he compares self-regard to sex—“it is necessary, it is dear to us, it gives us pleasure, and it must be hidden”—comes to mind; Moore sees self-love as a form of resistance, but we must learn to let the act give us pleasure, and it must no longer be hidden. She rejects assumptions about what is sick and what is healthy, even as she searches, essay by essay, for cures for loneliness, frustration, and mortality.

But what if we aren’t who she thinks we are—that is, what if her readers are more than mirroring personas? Moore’s reliance on short sections and weak transitions creates curious linkages between the sexually liberated ex-lovers, the motif of the dating site, and the frequent crying fits. Contemporary life, as Moore astutely asserts, is prone to group-think but lacking in community. Dancing and writing become in these pages far more intimate than sex, although the author’s search for answers is paralleled by a naked desire to be sexy, to be admired, to display risky behaviors like dirty sheets. Determination, intelligence, a need to reveal herself (the collection’s lengthy acknowledgements begin “For Clonazepam, Lexapro, Midol, Sinemet, and Zoloft”) seem linked to her idea of herself as a leader. If she has “used sex to disassociate from my life, as a salve for wounds I couldn’t name, to claim power, and to stop thought,” she has also used narrative for the opposite impulse, promoting rather than stopping thought as she considers nit-picking, breast-feeding, racial transgressions, and Disney movies. “The narcissism of the personal is embarrassing, and still I persist in the belief that I have something to tell myself and maybe you.”

“My Pills,” for instance, uses the occasion of withdrawal from Lexapro to speak about our addicted society. Statistics and anecdotes are quilted together with such quotables as “Pill of weight gain. Pill of constipation. Pill of always full no matter what I ate. Pill of bloat and fat.” But one begins to wonder: if Moore’s essays are pills, how are they altering our perceptions, our digestions, our shapes? She works against the American insistence upon self-help and self-improvement, an easy answer, a cure, at one point quoting Leslie Jamison: “I do believe there is nothing shameful about being in pain, and I do mean for this essay to be a manifesto against the accusation of wallowing. But the essay isn’t a double-negative, a dismissal of a dismissal, so much as a search for possibility.“

“In the end with Lexapro,” she tells us, “it was a contest I called ‘Fat Vs. Sleep.’” Are we to understand that vanity has won over sanity—that the only reason she is going off a drug that helps her sleep, levels off her emotionalism, stops her endless tears, and allows her to enjoy her daughter’s company is that it made her bloat? One hopes not, but Moore’s intentions often remain obscure, buried in details. As she struggles to see, to claim a vision provoked by intense emotion, we too struggle to rise above spiraling identities.

Most vivid are the essays that describe Moore’s classroom. Her students clearly trust her, look to her for answers, and enjoy her company. With them, one sees her brilliance, her struggle against authority, and a kind of iconoclastic gaiety: “What makes me happiest in the classroom is when we manage that kitchen-table feeling . . . Politics, love, laughter, sadness, and schemes—all stewing together on the stove top.” She nurtures, too, her young daughter as she begins her own journey into the wider world: “Eventually that small person can talk about her feelings and is living with her dad half the time in Brooklyn and when she is with you, she treats your big animal body like a rock in the ocean. She washes up onto your shores. She scrambles somehow up the side of you. She hits you like a wave you’ll never stop surfing.”

The child’s growing maturity prompts the mother’s reluctant acceptance of her own pain. In the final and perhaps most powerful essay, “Small Animal, Big Animal,” Moore comes to a tired wisdom that resonates: she’s “been walking around like a wound in search of a bandage or maybe just another wound.” When she tells herself, “You don’t need a map anymore. You know the way,” it is certain that she has traveled far to discover who she is. Perhaps, by extension, her journey allows us to know a bit more about who we, her dear friends, are as well.

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The Bird Catcher
and Other Stories

Fayeza Hasanat
illustrations by Chitra Ganesh
Jaded Ibis Press ($17.99)

by Laura Nicoara

Once upon a time there lived a bird catcher. He captured a beautiful bird and adorned her with precious jewels to coax her to sing, but she would only sing if she were free—so he ripped her to shreds with great violence. Long after her death, her song, last sung thirty years before her capture, made its way to a recluse. He had been given the bird’s gifts willingly, but, even more violently than the bird catcher, refused to return them when she asked to have them back. Still, the recluse made good use of them: he finally found freedom from his own needs in the bird’s timeless world of pure thought.

Thus ends Fayeza Hasanat’s collection The Bird Catcher and Other Stories. This eponymous tale is stylistically odd in its allegorical, quasi-mythical tone, coming after the seven starkly realistic stories that precede it. Yet thematically, nothing could be more in keeping with the rest of the volume. The collection presents us with Bangladeshi (and Bangladeshi-American) women (or people who don’t fit comfortably into the male category, as in “The Hyacinth Boy”) who have their lives determined, directly or indirectly, by men and their power to write narratives about what women are and should be.

In many of the stories, Hasanat draws on her expertise as a literature professor to create compelling intertextual layers that add depth to the narrative and help characterize her female protagonists: “The Anomalous Wife,” “When Our Fathers Die,” “Darkling, I Listen,” and “Make Me Your Sitar” all feature main characters who experience literature, both Indian and English, as the locus of their rebellion against the norms that stifle their personhood. For instance, the protagonist of “The Anomalous Wife” is committed to a psychiatric facility because she has attempted suicide by “walking into the ocean.” The villain of the story, if it can be called that, is how American and Bangladeshi cultures both share a love of materialism. Addressing herself to her husband, the wife muses: “You always gave me everything I needed. Safety, security, happiness. A paid-off house and a solid retirement fund. Social Security benefits once we became senior citizens. . . . All we have to do is live the American Dream and die like true Muslims.” She underscores both her intellectual independence and her alienation from this world by speaking to the administrators of her perfunctory treatment mostly in incomprehensible literary references.

Two of the stories, “Bride of the Vanishing Sun” and “Darkling, I Listen,” deal with women who are “defective” in some way: the protagonist of the former is too dark-skinned to be a desirable wife, while that of the latter is infertile. They contrast the possible paths a woman in such a situation might take: reject the tradition that turned her into an outcast, even if this can only end in self-annihilation, or integrate herself within it, perpetuating it alongside the men and coming to resent what it does to women without quite being able to articulate why.

But female resistance is not confined to the creation of subversive identities in the Platonic space of literature. The protagonist of “Make me Your Sitar” is a woman who “firmly believed that women’s contentment depended on the strength of men. She never considered herself strong, nor did she believe in the existence of any such woman who might have the courage to stand up without holding the supporting hands of a man.” She strikes up an unlikely friendship with her rebellious daughter-in-law and eventually turns into the latter’s protectress and mentor. The main character is pushed by empathy alone to go against her values in order to fight back against an injustice entirely consistent with these values. Despite the darkness of the story, this strikes an optimistic chord: change can come slowly, but reliably, from within an oppressive system, without needing to be prompted by the injection of alien elements.

A different kind of power dynamic at work in the background of the stories is that between Bangladeshi immigrants and the American Dream. At home, the U.S. remains a land of promise, while immigrants consider the country as much their home as their place of birth. Hasanat chooses to focus mostly on how protagonists realize communication and reassert their identity despite language barriers (“Mother Immigrant”) and across ages and cultures, via literature and universal human experiences (“When Our Fathers Die”).

Like the recluse in the first story, we are privileged hearers of the women’s voices, situated outside their worlds but able to meet them in thought. The closing fable also contains what I take to be a description of the ideal reader of this collection, a reader who treats the stories not as a product to be consumed, but as a way of life to be understood: “What you feel is the willingness to surrender to whose existence you have never been aware of,” Hasanat writes; “It is your willingness to surrender to this other . . . that drives your heart and makes you different from all the bird catchers of the world. This feeling is therefore not love, but knowledge.”

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Red Clocks

Lena Zumas
Back Bay Books ($16.99)

by Julia Stein

Lena Zumas’s Red Clocks brilliantly combines the forms of speculative fiction and thriller to tell the intertwined stories of four women in an Oregon fishing town. Two years previously the United States Congress had banned abortion with the Personhood Amendment, and a second law, Every Child Needs Two, will go into effect in three months banning single people from adopting.

These new laws and the repressive culture they mirror make the four women of Newville desperate. Ro is a 42-year-old single woman and public school teacher who wants a child so much she’s undergoing fertility treatments. Mattie, Ro’s student, finds herself pregnant at fifteen and is desperate for an abortion, but the anti-abortion law says women who try to get abortions should be imprisoned. Susan didn’t finish her final year of law school when she got pregnant; she married and had a second child, but now can’t stand her marriage and life as a stay-at-home mother.

The fourth woman, Gin, is a non-conformist healer who lives alone outside Newville using her herbs to mend people. When the townspeople became frightened of a seaweed plague that harms the marine life on which Newville economically depends, and then of twelve sperm whales that run aground, they blame both events on Gin, whom they call a “witch.” Newville is known as the “whale-watching capital of the American West"; the town depends on tourists who come to see live whales, not dead ones.

The novel brilliantly dramatizes how the four women take heart from the history of rebellious women. Gin’s aunt Temple tells her that in 18th-century Massachusetts, her ancestor Goody Hallett fell in love with a pirate who deserted her when she became pregnant. The villagers called Goody a witch who “rode on the backs of whales” and who suffocated her baby; in reality she gave the baby to a farmer’s wife to raise and lived by herself in the forest, foreshadowing her descendent Gin’s independence and courage. Ro praises Gin’s remedies as “thousands of years in the making, fine-tuned by women in the dark creases of history, helping each other.” Also, Ro is writing a biography of Eivor Minervudottir, a pioneering 19th-century polar explorer; short passages from Ro’s biography come between the chapters, as if to remind the readers of heroic women who stand behind us.

The heroism of the past is needed in the novel’s present when Gin is arrested, jailed, and put on trial for conspiracy to commit murder: she is charged with helping the high school principal’s wife abort. Mrs. Fivey was regularly beaten up by her husband, who threw her down the stairs, but Mr. Fivey told the police that Gin’s abortion potion caused Mrs. Fivey’s fall. Zumas compares the historical bad old days, when they burned witches, to the novel’s present, when the government wants to imprison Gin for the abortion she didn’t do. During the trial, Mattie, Ro, and Susan discover their ability to act courageously as they watch Gin do the same; one by one these women stand up for each other and for themselves.

Red Clocks shows how the women’s rebellion leads to their getting justice for Gin, getting Mr. Fivey fired from his job, and getting freedom for themselves. Gin returns to her forest home, where she feels alive in her closeness to the “bleat of the owl, chirp of the bat, squeak of the ghost of the varying hare.” Mattie touches a whale’s eye on the beach as if she’s touched freedom, and plans to go on to study marine biology. And as Ro comes to the end of writing her biography of Minervudottir, she discovers a wealth of new freedoms in her life: can she become a writer? Or a school principal to replace Mr. Fivey? Or a foster mom? Zumas asks the reader to fight for a world in which women have choices.

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My Struggle: Book Six

Karl Ove Knausgård
translated by Don Bartlett and Martin Aitken
Archipelago Books ($33)

by Chris Via

“So much in life is unspoken.” The full impact of this assertion hits the reader with the force of 3,600 pages, this book being the capstone of Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-volume cycle of autobiographical novels. Apprehending and articulating the unspoken ephemera of life is this author’s obsession, and the form in which he dredges it out is a unique blend of diary and realist novel. The resulting commitment to telling exactly what happened, using real names for people and places, has presented no end of controversy and prompted a close investigation of the nature of truth.

So why read a book about the minutiae of some guy’s life? Because he has forged a literary representation for the layers that make up conscious experience. What has, in some circles, been panned as boring, plodding, and mundane is, on the contrary, “the shadow on the soul, the ordinary man’s private little hell, so inconsequential as to barely deserve mention, while at the same time engulfing everything”—an observation which perhaps finds an antecedent in Thoreau’s “quiet desperation.” One may wonder at the literary value of extended passages of drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, but in the end, Knausgård’s aim is to produce writing “not shrouded in literature’s pall . . . but described in full daylight, swathed in reality.” It is precisely because the moments of epiphany are embedded within the quotidian that we readers are brought within and offered the chance to find ourselves.

We have journeyed with Knausgård through his fear- and shame-filled childhood on Tromøya; through his first glimpse of freedom as an eighteen-year-old teacher in Northern Norway; on to Bergen where he attends a writing academy and enters an alcohol-infused downward spiral; from the defining moment of his father’s death; to his friendship with Geir, and meeting Linda. Now the forty-year-old husband and father of three lives in Malmö, Sweden, embroiled in controversy over his emerging novels. These are, of course, the broadest strokes of the chronology. What brings it all out into “full daylight” are the meanderings, the puerile curiosities, the irrational fears, the procession of amorous blunders, the blind egotism, the addiction, and, above all, the shame. Indeed, it is tempting to circumscribe the novel cycle to a chronicle of shame, but this would be to deny the breadth of its scope.

The turmoil with his uncle Gunnar, who views Karl Ove as a quisling set on traducing the Knausgård name, overshadows this volume. The anxiety of the situation sparks an exhaustive investigation of the concept of a name, and, more generally, the nature of truth. Knausgård is stunned to think that his project may, after all his labor, be compromised. (One is reminded of the controversy regarding James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.) As other reactions begin surfacing from people from his past who appear in the novels, Knausgård realizes that, in his mind, “the places I had left, and the people who populated them, died away after I was gone. For that reason it had not been them I had written about, but my recollections of them.” This leads him to conclude “the truth of any past situation is elusive, it belongs to the moment and cannot be separated from it, but we may ensnare that moment, illuminate it from different angles, weigh the plausibility of one interpretation against another . . .” If this sounds like backpedaling it is not; he goes on conclusively to state his record of the events in an authoritative and resolute dénouement.

The choice to include the exhaustive 450-page essay “The Name and the Number” in the middle of the novel is bold, but rewarding for the patient reader. One way in which to approach the essay is as the author’s commonplace book, included with his self-proclaimed swan song to illuminate all that consumed him and shaped the now notorious novels. Throughout the course of the essay we encounter a multifaceted Knausgård: the literary critic who parses everything from the ancient Greeks to the Bible to Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Goethe, Hamsun, and Joyce; the philosopher who contemplates the concepts of Relevance, Quality, Memory, Truth, Identity, and Culture; the Longinian aesthete with meditations on the sublime; the World War II scholar; and the memoirist recounting his autodidactic education with an exegesis of Celan’s poetry.

Up to this point in the cycle, little has been mentioned of the work’s provocative title, appropriated from a monstrous figure in whom Knausgård finds many affinities. Building on the dialectic framework from his preceding literary criticism, Knausgård analyzes the language of the Third Reich, using August Kubizek’s book The Young Hitler I Knew, Sir Ian Kershaw’s biography, and Mein Kampf itself as his main sources. Many historical accounts present Hitler as a Messiah to a post-World War I German people under the oppressive thumb of the Versailles Treaty, but the drive to discover the locus of what made unthinkable acts such as the Holocaust possible exposes the degree of political indifference and middle-class torpor of the times. The most prescient and provocative line of the entire effort comes toward the end: “At the same time we know, every one of us knows, even though we might not acknowledge it, that we ourselves, had we been a part of that time and place and not of this, would in all probability have marched beneath the banners of Nazism.” The turn of the screw for this argument is Knausgård’s ability to sit through nine hours of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah relatively unmoved in contrast to his unshakable sense of belonging (a sense of “we” as he calls it) and the need to take action in response to the mass shooting at Utøya in 2011.

One cannot imagine the pressure of bringing to a close a project so fraught with anticipation, controversy, and pressure. On the one hand, there is an undeniable readership eager for the next novel. But on the other hand, there is a family member keen on pursuing legal action with a libel suit, a wife grappling with mental stability, and a publisher with a deadline. Certainly Knausgård has achieved his friend Geir’s prophecy: “It would be a statement, something there would be no getting away from, Norway’s longest novel.” But not without significant sacrifice: “This novel has hurt everyone around me, it has hurt me, and in a few years, when they are old enough to read it, it will hurt my children.” Knausgård closes the project with a renunciation of his role as writer, and although he subsequently has produced a Vivaldian quartet of books, it will be My Struggle that defines his career and leaves its mark on world literature.

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We Step into the Sea:
New and Selected Poems

Claudia Keelan
Barrow Street Press ($24.95)

by Brian Evenson

One of the strengths of Claudia Keelan as a poet—and a strength that is wonderfully showcased in her new and selected poems, We Step into the Sea—is that she remains restless and never predictable. Evincing a great curiosity, she engages in formal variation not to show off, but to see what tinkering with a form until it begins to buckle will reveal. This ends up being coupled, often surprisingly, with Keelan’s abiding interest in faith. But in this too she is hardly predictable, with a meditation on faith or existence opening up into shards of familial moments, the natural world, social justice, or collisions with the words of other writers. Keelan is not monkish in her approach to faith—or if she is, she’s more like a secular worker-priest, living among fellow workers and sharing their day-to-day concerns. Throughout, Keelan is committed to a carefully considered formal exploration which, as she suggests,

must not be experiments interested only in the ‘materiality’ of language but experiments dedicated to finding, at the level of the syllable, what life has been left out or erased in a dominant culture’s acceptance of conventional language modes. Such poetry is made of notes, without hierarchical but strictly relational value, a poetry whose ethos, like music’s, is indiscriminate in the best sense.

That is from “Debts: Before the Afterward,” originally in her book Utopic (Alice James Books, 2000) but relevant, I think, to the poems published both before and after. Often when I read a new and selected volume, I feel that it is something abbreviated, a kind of tasting menu meant to be a sales pitch for the earlier books. We Step into the Sea, however, feels like a carefully crafted volume, with its own considered shape and satisfactions. This is partly because of the way the poems talk to one another—the way a poem from 1994 can find echoes in one from 2009, for instance. Unexpected ligatures appear as Keelan’s concerns surface, submerge, and then reappear torqued in a different way, and this occurs both between sections and within them: Keelan’s assured language, verbal clarity, and her commitment to finding the life that has been left out make this a book more than a sampling.

That’s not to say there isn’t a variety of forms here. There’s a crown of poems, for instance, though the poems’ forms themselves shift even as they take their titles from the poems before. There are poems that begin to use the page as a field, poems that make the most of an irregular furrow running through them, poems that take on the form of plays or the shape of waves, lyrics of all sorts, poems that operate primarily through wordplay, ecstatic poems, poems whose lines stretch long enough to take on many of the strengths of prose, and so on.

The new poems take up almost the first third of the volume, and Keelan arranges them carefully, in four sections. The first section is a crown of linked poems, the second and third are more various formally but are still actively talking to one another. The fourth section consists of the long title poem, a haunting meditation on women known and unknown moving physically and metaphorically into the waves and through life, and this long poem is set against “Such Little Things,” a distilled five-line poem which insists that “I have swum      all my days      a little cold.”

Keelan’s new poems have the heft and the feel of a book in and of themselves, and when I first read them I found myself tempted to stop there, to absorb them as a unit. The poems that follow, taken from six earlier books in chronological order, initially seemed to fray the shape that the new poems create, but as I read more I began to understand it to be a partial rearranging of the initial pattern, an expansion of it, a progressive shifting of the book’s center in a way that shifted the light. That was most evident for me with “Bluff City,” a long poem written in Memphis in 1996 which moves from reflections on being to social issues and human (specifically female) suffering, and does so all in the careful consideration of a particular place and particular injury.

Indeed, by the time I finished the final section of the book, the poems from O, Heart (Barrow Street Press, 2014), which are thematically connected to one another and seem to assert their own sub-orbit, I found myself compelled to return to the beginning and reread the new poems. When I did, I found them even richer and more resonant than they had been on first read—with the “ventricles of a single sound” early in the book calling to the pumping of the heart late in the book and the “Swim swim” from later bringing me back to that moment of the I swimming all her days. It strikes me as a real achievement to choose poems that cover such a span of time in a way that allows them to talk to one another across decades and to still feel alive.

“I      miss the mark      draw bow & try again” says Keelan in “Such Little Things.” In We Step into the Sea, she almost never misses the mark, and she persists in striking the target in vivid and unexpected ways. This strong book distinguishes itself by feeling so much like a living, organic, unique thing rather than a baggy monster made of other beasts, and it is a wonderful introduction to Keelan’s unique voice.

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CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos & Sourcebook for Creative Writing

Edited by Rita Banerjee
and Diana Norma Szokolyai

C & R Press ($20)

by Greg Bem

The relationship between the writer and their practice is ongoing, and this collection feels like a generous gift to those who already write, those who may be dabbling, and those who may be completely stuck in either newness or crisis. In CREDO, this relationship the individual has with their act is explored via three different forms of writing-on-writing: manifestos, statements on craft, and writing exercises. Each section in the anthology contains contributions from different writers, fifty in all, who are connected to one another via the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, an ongoing project which serves to “create a global network of creative writers, artists, and intellectuals who actively bridge their private aesthetic philosophies with their public forms of art.” The spread is, to some degree, diverse; the writers come from different styles and backgrounds and identities, and we see intricate and personal relationships between the writers and their works through the book’s three sections.

The first section, of manifestos, is as one might expect: a series of grandiose statements on the spiritual underpinnings of how the writer becomes the writer and what the role of the writer (and of the writing) becomes over time. These works are perhaps the most eclectic. Thade Correa’s “Manifesto: Aphorisms on Poetry” opens: “The world is a continually-unfolding dream made of desire, never complete, never to be completed. Endless voyage. The world is poetry.” Later, Laura Steadham Smith describes “Where Stories Come From” in an effective stream-of-consciousness ramble: “I write because I might be the worst person I know. I write because azaleas bloom in spring. I write to remember what it felt like to run through the woods as a kid. I write to become someone else.”

“What is a ‘trans poem?’” asks Stephanie Burt in arguably the most intensely present piece of the entire anthology. Her work “The Body of the Poem” directly speaks to the trans experience and explores the process of gender that sprouts out of these otherwise repetitious conversations on the act of expression. Other noteworthy manifesto contributors include a powerful meditation on skin color and blackness, “You’ll Never Be an Artist!” by Nell Irvin Painter, as well as a memoir on curricula, “Collage and Appropriation,” by the obsessive and scholarly David Shields.

CREDO’s second collection of writings concerns craft. While most of the works on craft concern prose and storytelling, the lessons learnable here could apply to any genre or form in the literary universe. Most important are the snippets of wisdom that fill spaces between relatively endless and rigid anecdotes on what writers should or should not do. “Poems are made out of words, and these words need to be your own,” writes Jaswinder Bolina in “What I Tell Them,” a Zen-like impression straight out of the darkest recesses of the writer’s workshop. In the following “Holding a Paper Clip in the Dark,” Matthew Zapruder writes: “I really like the simultaneous centripetal and centrifugal feelings of these words that want to go in different directions, but also somehow always seem to, in the end, belong together.”

Often the craft statements blend together with the manifestos, especially in tone and approach to writing, but editors Rita Banerjee and Diana Norma Szokolyai should be commended for their efforts to categorize. Other strong writers whose sprawling voices move in so many directions have found a situated place in CREDO—writers like Lisa Marie Basile, Maya Sonenberg, Ellaraine Lockie, Kara Provost, Allyson Whipple, and Nicole Walker—each with a strong voice, and so much to offer.

The final section of the anthology is its most practical; “Exercises” is filled with page after page of idea-generating explorations leading back to the book’s subtitle. If none of the other works served to inspire, certainly the “sourcebook for creative writing” section of CREDO has higher potential. Some exercises are clever and fun, such as Anca L. Szilágyi’s “Summer-Inspired Writing Prompts,” while others like Rita Banerjee’s examination “Rasa: Emotion and Suspense in Theatre, Poetry, and (Non)Fiction” are rooted in the fantastic qualities of language, cultural tradition, and history.

While the book is, as one would expect, creative at its core, this final section is also very rigid both in its contents and the overall tone. Where a flexible, guiltless approach to writing is just as acceptable as the “sit down and write at the same time every morning” mode, it does not make much of an appearance here. Some contributors do emphasize sleep, meditation, breaks, and the possibility of not finding success until one’s midlife, but the book overall maintains a very Western sense of productivity.

Also disappointing is the lack of conceptual and experimental nods and influences (though the Oulipo does make an appearance, as does the occasional Eastern sourcing a la yoga and meditation). Many of the writers appear to be coming out of a uniform MFA/collegiate Creative Writing space, one that carries an air of privilege. Ultimately this leaves the book feeling incomplete and without a full representation of a larger space of serious personal, semi-professional, and professional writers that exist throughout the world today. Still, anthologies like CREDO are helpful collections of reflection and critical insight that often don’t make it beyond the classroom or workshop space.

Despite the shortcomings of the anthology, it can offer much to the general reader. The echo chamber effects of those who appreciate writing may push their own methods and approaches to writing in surprising new directions—or, alternatively but as supplement, inspire greater and more complex degrees of reflection and understanding of how to examine writing as a passionate, invigorated, and intentional practice.

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Freedom Hospital: A Syrian Story

Hamid Sulaiman
Translated by Francesca Barrie
Interlink Books ($20)

by Jeff Alford

In the comics medium, the border between well-wrought artistry and political authenticity can be an uncomfortable one, as form and content tend to jockey for position. Because journalism requires an immediacy that comics cannot easily support given its visual gestation period, many questions arise: Is authenticity more important than artistry? Can these two pillars share command of a story? Why tell a political story this way at all?

Created over four years, Hamid Sulaiman’s ambitious book Freedom Hospital may suggest some answers. Set in Syria in 2012 amidst the tensions following the Arab Spring, this graphic novel tells the story of a secret hospital set up to help wounded protesters. Although the work is fictionalized, it’s clear that Sulaiman writes from first-hand experience; harrowing, honest, and politically embedded in a way that Western readers will find devastatingly illuminating, Freedom Hospital tells an important modern story in a fresh and unconventional format.

Yasmin, founder of Freedom Hospital, is joined by her friend Sophie, a documentary filmmaker. Together, while protesters continue to take to the streets and casualties increase daily, they try to save lives and chronicle the political evolution of the region. Tertiary characters fill out Freedom Hospital with curious vignettes, but an inpatient named Salem provides the requisite intrigue: suffering from memory loss, Salem’s origins (and allegiances) are slowly revealed during his year-long convalescence.

Sulaiman’s monochrome drawings showcase a blotchy chiaroscuro that feels like rotoscoped photography. His settings are strikingly rendered in beautiful, busy detail like a furiously carved woodcut. While his prose descends from the work of Joe Sacco, his illustration is more in line with creators like Chris Reynolds; Sulaiman is a master of light and shadow, tuned into the power of inky black fields. His pacing, too, is exceptional: while hyper-detailed panels establish drama, these backgrounds disappear as characters speak. His cast frequently monologues over blank backgrounds, a tactic that ultimately accentuates the words spoken—by leaving chains of speech bubbles to float in voids, Sulaiman quite literally gives these stories a space to be heard.

With such strong artistry, it’s unfortunate that the plot and characterization of Freedom Hospital is so thin. Sulaiman has a gift for vividly communicating the trauma of war, but outside of the realm of reportage, his characters seem wooden: friendships and romances grow at an unconvincing clip, and feel like unnecessary turns of plot when considered alongside the more journalistic elements of the novel.

As Freedom Hospital unfolds, its action speeds up to a convoluted fog. It becomes less important who says what or feels what feelings; what matters, broadly, is the content of what’s said and who survives. In one scene, a character explains to Salem that he could consider his memory loss a gift:

You don’t know your luck. . . . You lost all your memories, even the bad ones. You needn’t weep or worry about anyone. I lost my brother five months ago. I have four other brothers fighting. I don’t know where they are or if they’re still alive. My wife and daughter are displaced and I’ve lost all trace of them. These are memories I’d gladly do without.

A passage like this could be spoken by nearly any character in Freedom Hospital and the novel wouldn’t change. While this may be indicative of the region’s widespread conflict, it also reveals shortcomings in how Sulaiman tells his story. One wonders if Sulaiman would be better off working entirely in the realm of nonfiction and pulling away from the temptations of a narrative arc, so as to let his visually striking work focus on the stories he needs to tell.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2018-2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Preserving Fire: Selected Prose

Philip Lamantia
Edited by Garrett Caples
Wave Books ($25)

by Patrick James Dunagan

“Not to have this fact seem too important, in relation to my poetry, I state nevertheless that I am fifteen years old.” So begins Preserving Fire: Selected Prose by poet Philip Lamantia (1927-2005). With entries dated from 1943 to 2001—the span of his entire writing life—it is a gathering of material as eclectic and slim as it is essential. In addition to Lamantia’s work, editor Garrett Caples lays out an extensive introductory overview and collector extraordinaire Steven Fama provides a fascinating bibliography documenting the provenance of each piece, several of which are previously unpublished.

Many poets suffer from lack of recognition; in the case of native-born San Franciscan Lamantia it arguably speaks to a rather arbitrary antipathy: Surrealism is broadly panned as a literary sub-genre, especially in the MFA classroom, and Lamantia’s work is decidedly Surrealist. As Caples ventures, Lamantia “was a major American poet, if not the preeminent American surrealist of the twentieth century.” At sixteen his poetry appeared in both VVV and View, the two key New York, based Surrealist publications of the day. This led Lamantia to drop out of high school in San Francisco and head to New York, where he worked in the View editorial office and became the only American-born poet to receive official sanction from Surrealism’s head honcho Andre Breton.

Responding positively to poems submitted to VVV, Breton requested that Lamantia “state [his] position on various matters of importance, mainly on Surrealism.” In responding to Breton, Lamantia holds nothing back voicing a fully formed Surrealist mini-manifesto celebrating a Rimbaud-inflected refusal of conforming to society’s whimsical orders:

To rebel! That is the immediate objective of poets! We cannot wait and will not be held back by those individuals, who are the prisoners of the bourgeoisie, and who have not the courage to go on fighting in the name of the “idea!” The “poetic marvelous” and the “unconscious” are the true inspirers of rebels and poets!

“To rebel!” may seem a stereotypical stance of many an American teenager, yet this is anything but run-of-the-mill teenage angst for a fifteen-year-old in 1943. For all the riotous energy of its content, Lamantia’s communiqué is also assertive, precise, and methodical. In an enthusiastic show of support Breton published the letter in full along with poems, and “a photograph of Lamantia, in the style of a yearbook portrait, appears at the top right of the page on which his statement/letter is printed.” The photograph will be recognized by readers of Lamantia as it appears on the cover of Touch of the Marvelous (Oyez, 1966); it is reproduced here with several others, and these images along with the wide-ranging contents make for, as Caples promises, “a thumbnail intellectual biography.”

Lamantia’s belief in poetry’s alchemical powers to transform the individual through resistance to the most deadening effects of society shines through Preserving Fire. This is a matter of passion and emotion over study and bookish pursuit: “It is not through the intellect that an individual becomes free, but through a spiritual understanding of the purpose of life, which arises from a physical, non-intellectual communion with the world.” Nonetheless, it is difficult not to come away struck by Lamantia’s erudition, perhaps nowhere on fuller display than in “Radio Voices: A Child’s Bed of Sirens,” his testament to the poetic induction radio adventure serials of his childhood offered. Here Lamantia discusses how “rich thematic matter was ritually repeated and latent messages were received and often recreations of exceedingly subversive and mytho-poeic information were heard as if for the first time.”

Another possible count against larger recognition of Lamantia has been his association with the Beat Generation. At times he lived the quintessential “Beat life” replete with drugs, jazz, and international travel—exemplified in “RevelatNewsPort,” a piece spun from his stay in a Moroccan jail:

Passing time in joint two middle class/type spades & I chat ecstatically about Black Muslims pro & con . . . . . and . . . . . is Cecil Taylor our greatest jazzman or not? & how Jazz Music can someday get to CONSTANT SWING LEVELS not unlike—in their way—Indian Raga Music is on ReCrod doing NOW! i.e. after 5,000 yr traditional evolution Feeling & Teckne having achieved point of universal musical superiority Paul Bowles & I recently agreed “Raga Music definitely Greatest music in existence” I say: mebe 300 years from now by consciously-controlled non/commercial Evolution & Dremevolutions Jazz MIGHT COULD make it to SUPER/PERFECT CELESTIAL LEVELS OF CONSTANT SWING . . . .

Lamantia’s “Beatness” represents what is in actuality a minor affair in the broader context of his life’s work. After all, though he participated in the infamous Six Gallery reading where Ginsberg debuted “Howl,” Lamantia presented poems of his recently deceased young friend John Hoffman rather than his own work. Where the Beats were consistently courting fame (even if rather despising of it at heart), Lamantia soared instead towards an inward exploration of the imagination with a religious fervor and not a thought of popular recognition.

A tactful downplaying of one’s own importance to poetry is perhaps Lamantia’s essential teaching. You, the poet, are but an ephemeral momentary instance of language use in the history of the art. Don’t overestimate your importance. Reach beyond it.
“What is proposed ultimately and permanently: the Promethean gesture, the gesture that supersedes the cultural commodity, “the author,” “the artist,” “the poet,” and dialectically subsumes these vain and masochistic inventions of our elders, the obnoxious enemies of desire and human freedom, who are parasitically ranged around and within us.”

There are larger stories worth unfolding here as well: the competing influences upon Lamantia between the Surrealists and Kenneth Rexroth, accompanied by his likewise ducking in and out from under the spell of Catholicism (he ended up, finally, with his own unique mixture as a sort of Surrealist Catholic). Lamantia also offers a systematic critique of Ezra Pound and the poets of Black Mountain College (Olson and Creeley), and considers his place among North Beach poets, the “post-Beat babies” who are still there writing, continuing on. Finally, there is at times his expressing the simple love of beauty, as in his piece on Clark Ashton Smith: “Smith gives us a timeless land, a feeling for the form of the earth, the Pacific, the oak-covered knolls of the Coast Range, the fog-shrouded tip of the San Francisco peninsula, the huge skies and sunsets, the Sierra Nevada’s rustling foothills.”

In the end, Lamantia’s is a voice of rebellious freedom. He always returns to what remains central, the unknowable fullness which inspires his work: “mystery illuminates the marvelous in all things and surreality inhabits the marvelous mystery at the core of all and any reality.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2018-2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019


Jindrich Štyrský
translated Jed Slast
Twisted Spoon Press ($28.50)

by Paul McRandle

“Where should I flee? . . . My childhood is my country. My dreams are my country.” So wrote Jindrich Štyrský following the invasion and destruction of his native Czechoslovakia by the Nazis. In encapsulating his situation, he also encapsulated his art. Dreamverse isn’t so much the atlas of Štyrský’s inner world as a set of picture postcards—often scandalous, just as often intoxicating—sent from this land of imagination. The most complete collection of Štyrský’s writing in English, gathering dream accounts, poetry, and essays, it follows on Štyrský’s essential work Emilie Comes To Me in a Dream, an artists’ book comprising prose poetry and photomontage that was published as part of Štyrský’s series of erotic works, Edition 69.

In 1925, Štyrský and the painter Toyen arrived in Paris. There they created art, devised Artificialism (manifestoes of which are included in Dreamverse), and Štyrský began recording his dreams. They didn’t associate with the Parisian Surrealists, and on their return to Prague three years later they rejoined Karel Teige’s association of avant-garde artists, Devetsil. There Štyrský crafted a series of prints for the 1929 Czech translation of Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror, and the following year he launched the Erotic Revue. It wasn’t until 1934 that they joined in the formation of the Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia, with the poet Viteszlav Nezval taking the helm—an event solidified by a visit from André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba, and Paul Éluard in 1935. Four years later Nezval bowed to pressure from Moscow and attempted to dissolve the group, yet Štyrský, Toyen, Teige, and others kept on, perpetuating a Surrealist movement in Prague that has continued to the present day.

Of the three sections that make up this collection, Dreams is the longest and most remarkable, though this is not to slight the poetry or the many important essays gathered here. When Štyrský died of a congenital heart condition in 1942, the manuscript and layout he’d prepared for Dreams sat unpublished; it wouldn’t appear in Czechoslovakia until 1970. Wisely, Twisted Spoon has retained Štyrský’s layout, presenting Jed Slast’s sharp translations interspersed among drawings, collages, and paintings that develop and resituate the objects of his dreams. The prologue opens up the heart of his work:

As a young child I saw in the color supplement of a magazine the image of a woman’s head, exquisite with golden hair, whose pale hue will always suggest azure to me. Her lips, red with lipstick, looked like a moist chasm, though silent, slightly parted, and mute. Eyes of violet—in them pride, sin, and weakness—blazed in a pallid face. The head was perverse, yet full of compassion, damned, yet full of kindness. It was the head of Medusa, the whole of it in a pool of blood. . . . The head was a perfect fit on my sister. . . . Thus I instinctively created my CHIMERA, my PHANTOM OBJECT, on which I am fixated and to which I dedicate this work.

On the facing page is Portrait of My Sister Marie (1941), a charcoal drawing in which a bust of a young woman emerges faintly from the background, only her dark eyes vivid within the outline of a face, the whole image cracked and split like an old poster peeling off a city wall. Here is the older step-sister that Štyrský lost at the age of six to the heart condition from which he would later suffer.

Dreams borrows its epigraph from the opening sentence of Gérard de Nerval’s Aurelia (“Our dreams are a second life”) and “chimera” also derives from Nerval, for whom love offered itself in the chimeric figures of women compounded of dreams and memory. As for the “phantom object,” it is drawn from André Breton’s Communicating Vessels, and signifies a dream object with no waking world counterpart, like the “envelope-silence” sprouting eyelashes and a handle that Breton analyzes. The power of poetic suggestion in such objects derives from their imaginary uses—how they might be employed, on what occasions, and by whom.

Eyes obsessed Štyrský. Throughout Dreams they float against backgrounds suggesting stucco, greenery, pubic hair, fog, mica sheet, scales, and more. In Emilie Comes To Me in a Dream, Štyrský writes, “I am tormented by the sighs of women, by eyes contorted in convulsions of orgasm.” Here such eyes find their complement in the “Dream of Books” in which Štyrský relates searching for a book for Toyen among the bouquinistes on the Seine; he buys several 18th-century works with engravings of tropical plants, then at Notre Dame he finds an old, leather-bound volume at another bookseller:

When I look at it, I see a crumpled ear on the front cover, and when I take the book from its row, the ear straightens out. I steal a glance at the bookseller sitting behind me. In front of him is a stool with a laver of water. He removes one eared book after another from the shelves, dusting off the ears and then giving them a good washing, after which he dries them with a clean towel.— — — — The ears flower — — —

In most of these dream accounts there’s no need to hunt for sexual subtexts; it’s what Štyrský does with his strongly sexualized images that matters. Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream is a playhouse of pornographic imagery and as he says here of one of his Emilie dreams: “I make love like a child.” Like a child in that sex is mysterious, powerful, and full of secrets that undermine the reign of adult control. But more than that, dreams allow us to see and to speak with the dead, so we cannot be surprised that Štyrský follows this intercourse to erotic ends. The imaginative world of childhood is also the birthplace of sexuality, and it is this world which Štyrský so deftly explores in Dreamverse.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2018-2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

When I Think, I Listen the Hardest:
An Interview with John T. Lysaker

Interviewed by Scott F. Parker

John T. Lysaker is a professor of philosophy at Emory University and the author of several books, including the recently published Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought (University of Chicago Press, $35) and Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports (Oxford University Press, $14.95). I met John when I was a student and he was teaching 19th-Century Philosophy at the University of Oregon. As an unruly junior, I had blown off the first week of the term to take a long spring break visiting friends in the Midwest, but I regretted my brazenness severely as I came to appreciate what a committed and caring and good teacher John was. Eventually I got enough credits to graduate and left Eugene, but I kept reading John’s books, which run counter to much of what most people find frustrating about academic writing. John’s writing is scholarly, to be sure, but never merely so; he takes philosophy as we all should—personally. His prose is full of personality, wit, self-awareness, even self-doubt, and always good will. When I learned that philosophy writing was to be the subject of his new book, I sent him an email. The following interview should make clear why I’m glad I did.

Scott F. Parker: Let’s start right at the beginning. Tell me about your use of “character” in the title. A reader might expect “nature” there. But character has important implications for you, right?

John Lysaker: Let me start by thanking you for the opportunity to discuss the book, and for your thoughtful questions. Nature is apropos, but it lacks some of the resonances that character provides. Like nature (or essence), character names something like a general way of becoming or living, as in someone’s character as opposed to a passing reaction. I am interested in the character of philosophical thought, how it comes to pass, how it relates to others, and how it engages various historical situations. And a central claim is that different genres and logical-rhetorical operations influence that character, which is why we ought to be concerned with them. But a second sense also operates, that of dramatic character. I think the character of one’s writing stages or enacts philosophy, and in fairly definite scenes: voice, those cited and ignored, how those cited are engaged—carefully? generously? polemically? I think many are comfortable with reading Socrates as a character of philosophy. But the genre of the dialogue is also a way of characterizing philosophy, of exemplifying it. It suggests: philosophy comes to be in discussion. And if that flies, I think we should read other philosophical texts as staging something similar. Aristotle suggests that a tragedy is an image of an action (or two). The whole play presents an action in its dynamic unfolding. I now approach philosophical texts as images of acts of philosophy, and I wanted to write a book that imaged the character of philosophy in a very definite way even as it made that issue its principal, thematic concern.

SP: You offer The Republic as “a philosophical and literary masterpiece . . . with such a degree of integration that [it] resists the opposition.” Is that opposition typically methodological? How do you distinguish between philosophy and literature? Or how do you understand the relationship between them?

JL: This is a thorny question, and I can imagine a long road and shorter one, though neither would end satisfactorily. The longer one would return to the last essay in After Emerson, where I imagine different ways of receiving a thought, organizing it, and addressing it to another. Using that schema now, I would say that at each pivot, philosophy, poetry, the novel, the short story, and so on have a different character, and some could be better described as literary, others philosophical. Critique is a quintessentially philosophical way to receive concepts. One tries to locate their origin and determine the rules that govern their use. The lyric poet does not interrogate the muse. Emerson’s address favors provocation at the expense of demonstration, and that renders him more a poet in prose (his words) than a philosopher, at least at various points. And so on, working from paradigmatic examples. But that is a long road, and there will be exceptions at every turn.

The shorter road lies with thinking about how a text organizes whatever it offers readers. In the remark you quote, I have in mind how The Republic is a rhetorical whole whose parts relate to one another in modes other than the elenchus Socrates directs toward Cephalus and Polemarchus in Book One. But those other modes, and not just the allegory of the cave, but also the ways in which the dialogue discusses and enacts the making of a city in speech, or how the account of acceptable narratives in Book Three frames the Myth of Er in Book Ten, seem integral to the overall goals of The Republic. And so, at the outset, I am willing to call the elenchus or the theory of the soul in Book Four philosophical because of their explicit theoretical and inferential character and the other modes “literary” for their lyric trust and indirection. But I also want to take back that distinction at a later point because, at least in the context I’ve assembled, “literature” is such a loose and unhelpful term. It smashes together too many different genres and logical-rhetorical operations. Moreover, many hear “literature” and think it gives them a kind of license, and that is precisely not what I have in mind. The book is thus working through the philosophy-literature distinction from a standpoint of dissatisfaction, both for the distinction it seems to make and for all that it fails to distinguish. But, it—the distinction—is a way to get the ball rolling, so I provisionally employed it at the outset and chose to employ it in order to remind us that The Republic, a text at the heart of the philosophical cannon, relies on inferential demonstration and evidences extraordinary literary ambition, meaning it expects readers to pay attention to more than its thematic content and scenes of linear argumentation.

SP: More and more I’ve found myself thinking of philosophy as a branch of literature. I read its concerns as common with poetry, fiction, essay: what does it and what could it mean to be human? What varies are the conventions one follows, and who are the authors one responds to and is influenced by. But, then, as your book reminds us, philosophy is not a form of writing but perhaps a cluster of concerns that can inhabit all sorts of forms (the journal and the treatise, but also the poem, the story, the essay). Even so, I want to see philosophy as an aspect of that larger project of interrogating humanness.

JL: But art too, no? Isn’t that project shared across the humanities? To interrogate and disclose humanness, one moment curling back into the other? Philosophy remains the most radical form of interrogation I’ve found, but we are, fundamentally, beings of response, only one of which is interrogation, which leaves philosophy haunted by moments for which it cannot fully account. Moreover, philosophy is neither the only nor the most powerful mode of disclosure; that falls to . . . I’m not really sure. Different art forms run down different paths. (And this is why I am so inclined to run after them.) But when the interrogative mode (or mood, or manner) is let loose, I think we run into philosophy. And when we abandon ourselves to disclosure beyond what interrogation can secure, I think we run into art. Now various forms have settled near the end of both paths; critique in one pole, the lyric poem another. But Parmenides wrote a poem and meta-fiction has been around for long enough to leave us with a hybrid typography. Moreover, one text can do both. In fact, since the onset of the 19th century if not well before, both moments have been operative in high water marks of philosophy and art. I suppose that is why I now think of myself as a humanist before any other designation. I’m committed to the conversation, to interrogation and disclosure, and no one discipline or practice can carry that burden on its lonesome.

SP: Can you talk about your interest in literature as we usually understand the term. Your books are full of literary references. Your first book takes its title from Rilke and explores how poetry creates meaning. When you were at the University of Oregon you sometimes taught in the comparative literature department as well as in philosophy.

JL: I insist that we can learn from artworks, not just learn about them, and I have tried, at least since 1996, to write in such a way that I staged dialogues between philosophical and literary texts, particularly poems, and lyric poems at that. I keep turning to poems (occasionally paintings as well, and more recently Brian Eno’s ambient music) because they take me to thoughts that I would not have found otherwise, and I want to acknowledge the discoveries and the kind of discoveries that have propelled my thought. More generally, I have always resisted a complete embrace of Kant’s critical project and opted instead to allow myself to be claimed by what seems to be an insight and to follow its lead, testing it as I go, even essaying it, rather than, ahead of time, trying to secure safe passage for its operations and commitments. And this involves embracing a kind of lyric event at the deepest level of one’s thought, which leads to an unusual experience. One finds oneself less the author of one’s thoughts than claimed by them. This can be taken in a general way, of course, but in my case, poems have often been quite generative. For example, a somewhat recent piece, “In the Interest of Art,” travels a good distance with Adrienne Rich’s poem “Tattered Kaddish” after a shorter trip with Auden. And something I’m working on just now, an extended meditation on hope, is moved at various points by particular poems from Lucille Clifton, Anne Sexton, and Terrance Hayes, and Hayes helps me think through the multifaceted whiteness of Wallace Stevens’s poetic imagination. And my next project, which concerns friendship, will throw in with several poems. Maybe I could say something general at this point: poems are not ornamental in my work—they co-constitute the kind of conversation my work aims to exemplify.

SP: How uncommon are attitudes and approaches like yours in philosophy today? And in addition to Hayes, who are some of the contemporary poets you’re into? I remember Simic was an important reference for you.

JL: Not too common but not unique, except in a narrow way, meaning, the book’s weave of the aphorism and essay, the aphor-essay perhaps, is mine. At the level of the sentence, Stanley Cavell opened a path for those who want to make words count above and beyond their grammatical position and definable intension (and intensity). John Stuhr’s recent Pragmatic Fashions (Indiana, 2016) offers essays in expressivist pragmatism that exemplify personal visions from various standpoints or what he terms “vistas,” stressing their situatedness (as opposed to simple subjectiveness). And John Kaag has experimented with philosophy through/as memoir, e.g., the recent Hiking with Nietzsche (FSG, 2018). (Maybe the banality of the name “John” drives one to act out?) Megan Craig has been writing essays that move in their own way, touching notes that are similar to mine, but her voice is so much her own that her pieces don’t remind me of anybody or anything else. I think too of Vincent Colapietro in this context, who is drawn to improvisation as a thematic focus and performative slant, though his solos are long form, punctuated by quotation.

Outside of academic philosophy “proper,” Fred Moten, poet and theorist, is on his own path, running down and against shorter lines of thought and expression. Black and Blur (Duke, 2017) is incredibly stimulating. But a generation ago, several French women were setting the bar, particularly Irigaray and Cixous. There have always been countercurrents, therefore, at least for those willing to swim. Regarding poets, I still swim in Wallace Stevens and some of his lines and thoughts have been integral to various essays, both by way of embrace and contestation. Simic was the subject of my first book, You Must Change Your Life, and he remains someone I read, both his new and old material, and there are traces of him in Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought. Finally, Alice Notley’s Certain Magical Acts is also helping me think more about voice, and I just love the short lines in All We Saw, by Anne Michaels. Lyric concentration—it just draws me, in and thus out.

SP: You wrote somewhere that no one gets into philosophy because they want to write journal articles; they get into philosophy because they want to write like Nietzsche. While your writing has always demonstrated a literary sensibility, your books have moved increasingly in the direction of the personal and, by my reading, the ambitious (to draw a contrast with your characterization of most philosophy writing). You’re really going for it as a writer in this book, aren’t you? Do you feel freer writing in this style? Was this a fun book to write?

JL: It was a tricky book to write. I kept losing the life of it. At one point I thought, and this ended up in the book: what a mistake to write the book on the aphorism. But once it settled into its chapterless collusion of short essays, concentrated arguments, and the occasional aphorism (and all of the titles), it became fun to write, to worry about things that usually don’t come into play in professional articles such as rhythm, punch, just the right amount of learning on display. I often would prepare material for long discussions and keep condensing it until I had the roux just right. Or thought I did. I thus don’t know if it was or is freeing way to write. In a way, I find it an even more disciplined way to write. But I get what you mean and can answer affirmatively—writing this way has let me say things I couldn’t otherwise say. And those things do involve “really going for it,” the “it” being something Thoreau imagines for himself—a kind of writing that leaves rather than simply records an impression. Though this has always been a goal—to reach the thought of others where that thought lives, where they live. And to provide them with meaningful company in the selfsame place.

I suppose I also wanted to really write in English, not write in an English always looking over its shoulder toward German or Greek. Not in order to be “American” in some way, but to exemplify the labor of inhabiting a language with deep care, which is something Cavell’s writing impressed upon me. Also, a reading of Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse helped me to see how an approach from many angles, and varied angles, might keep the complex objectivity of my subject matter front and center. I could go on. So many lines of influence, and so many possibilities other than Nietzsche, though his texts, particularly Beyond Good and Evil, remain near the heart of the project and of me. But I don’t want to hold Nietzsche up as the best alternative. I thus like your language of “go for it.” If you really went for it, how would you write? That is the question I’d like to press, and I suspect the character of each reply will unfold somewhat differently.

SP: Do you have any ambition to move farther in this direction? To write something that a reader might pick up and not immediately recognize as philosophy (with all the baggage that carries with it)?

JL: The current piece on hope may be like that, I don’t know. I sometimes think that a chunk of philosophers don’t consider what I do as philosophy whereas most non-philosophers do. I like to argue, to clarify and pass judgment in a considered and considerate manner, to employ “therefore” and, importantly, to have earned it. And I think it vital to stage examination in conversation, to show that one has learned and that one is still learning, and accounting for oneself along the way. If all that continues to characterize my writing, I think it inevitably tips my hand, particularly given that my learning, even in the company of poems, is still coursing through texts by Hegel, Beauvoir, and Aristotle, and with regard to very philosophical topics: the good life, justice, the nature of the self, etc. But I’m quite happy with that. I have never wanted to leave philosophy, only to find my own way into it and so better exemplify it.

SP: In thinking deliberately about how philosophy is written aren’t we led to bigger questions about what philosophy is and is for?

JL: Absolutely. In the book, I argue that once one begins to deliberate about one’s writing, the why clarifies the how. In fact, one can’t have a cogent how without a why. So again, absolutely, which is why I insist that writing is a praxis. Not that it should be; it is, even Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. But there are many whys orienting the bearing of philosophical texts: truth, maybe just insight, personal transformation, social change, the refutation of another view, etc. I am thus less interested in settling the why of philosophy than in allowing one’s why, whatever it is, to organize the way in which one writes. (This is why the book’s beginning drones a bit with regard to “praxis”; a good deal hinges on making that turn.)

But hearing myself now, I sound coy, too neutral. A certain sense of ethics seems integral to philosophy, one that valorizes examination in the company of others, in conversation, as well as a politics that refuses to recognize authorities as genuine authorities if they do submit their rule to examination in conversation with those they govern. This is one thing (and only one thing) that is so troubling about the Trump Administration. Whether through silence, refusals to respond, or lies, the current president announces, with his conduct, “I am not answerable to the American people.” And this manner is only intensified by his tweets, which eschew all justification. From an ethical and political point of view—and I am always in that register—it is an outright shit show. No one remotely committed to the examined life can be heartened by it. But they might be called to intensify their own commitment to and enactment of it.

SP: I think it was during the W. years that you said in an interview that the U.S. is a “stupid country.” In this book you say that many Americans would consider philosophy anti-American. And you write, “Our moment is thoughtless, even in those corners where genuine discoveries occur. How does one converse in a public where an anti-science stance is political capital and sound bites seem to satisfy the desire to know? Where everyone has their button words?” (138) Yes, how do we?

JL: I wish I hadn’t said that back then. (Or maybe I wish you hadn’t remembered it.) In many ways, the United States is inhabited by millions of incredibly talented, smart people. But that intelligence seems to diminish when it comes to the kind of questions that compel me, and when it comes time to deliberate about political matters. We love slogans and are driven by anecdotes, and that doesn’t even include people who believe utterly fantastic things, such as with Pizzagate, which alleged that Hilary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi helped run a child sex ring out of a D.C. pizza parlor. That’s just bat shit crazy, and if one lets it drift into allegory, despair ensues. But that’s not the whole or even the largest part of the nation, so I now regret my earlier generalization. I should have been less arrogant and more nuanced.

Concerning the line from my book, the weight of the thought falls on “converse,” with the threat marked as “button words,” calling to mind having one’s buttons pushed as well as sloganeering as a mode of faux interaction. As a teacher, I have ways of slowing down and so empowering the conversation, which is key, I think, as is stressing the larger task at hand: finding the most compelling position as opposed to winning or losing arguments. So we ask: what are we actually saying? What reasons can we offer on its behalf? What reasons are offered on behalf of contrary and contradictory positions. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the more common positions? Are there other, less common positions we might consider or imagine?

But of course, I can’t and shouldn’t turn public discussion into a teacher-student relation. That’s a philosopher-king pose (or character), and that runs counter to the kind of positioning I champion in Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk and Benjamin’s One-Way Street. So the question becomes—how can we slow down the exchanges that seem to push so many buttons, and can we cultivate the ability to view conversation as a practice of joint discovery and transformation? I think hosting exponentially more public conversations in K – 12 schools, libraries, bars, and coffee shops would open one route. And to do that, we would need to pry academics from the genre of the editorial and opinion piece, which is too close to the pulpit for my taste. I also believe that introducing philosophy into the K ¬– 12 curriculum would be wildly transformative and help establish certain habits of and capacities for reflection and dialogue. (Philosophy for Children is a movement with just these ends in mind.)

Of course, neither of those proposals valorize writing, and for broad scale change I think writing comes too late. Not that one can therefore quit the game when one writes, that is, the game of impacting the deliberative capacities and habits of one’s readers. But one should write with a sense of the weakness of one’s efforts. (I take the term from the philosopher and artist Megan Craig, who inherits it from Gianni Vattimo, I believe.) In this context, acknowledging weakness means acknowledging much of what underwrites author-reader relations, including learning, energy, and time. It also means recognizing that writing, philosophy, these are two-way streets. They offer possibilities to as well as operate on readers, and so they leave a great deal up to readers.

That said, weak thought is not powerless; one always has one’s example and the non-coercive force (or moral charisma) it wields, which brings us back to the character of thought. Each bit of writing, by way of tone, citation, quotation, example, etc., signals to readers a path of interaction. I find the polemic so troubling because it engages in order to wage war, and often in a total way. Similarly, I am troubled by texts that do not quote or quote poorly. They exemplify a kind of narcissism that undermines transformative conversations. And then there is disagreement; is it even imagined, staged in generative ways, or encouraged? What does writing do before push comes to shove? Such moments are telling and possible scenes of provocation, even instruction through exemplification. But thinkers of all sorts should spend more time in the community, and not in the role of the “expert.”

Universities, which present themselves as producers of knowledge, are inclined to favor public scholarship that better distributes the knowledge it produces. That model, a technical one (in a technical sense), serves philosophy poorly. Also, there are just too many talking heads. Rather than pour more “content” into the quickening circulation of purported facts, opinions, and histrionic performances, let’s find ways to slow cognition down, and to cultivate a capacity to face cognitive dissonance, endure it, and respond creatively.

SP: Early in the book, you write, “What is in doubt, however, is what I choose when I commit to a manner of writing.” Let’s talk about the form you use: short chapters comprising short (sometimes only a sentence) essays and occasional aphorisms, each with its own bolded title—I thought of Nietzsche first. You were greatly influenced by Benjamin’s One-Way Street. What considerations were you taking into account as you committed to this form?

JL: I committed to the form over time, so I more found my way into it then established it whole cloth. The form emerged because I wanted to preserve for the reader the intensity that the thoughts had in their occurrence and to acknowledge that my topic, writing philosophy (or just philosophy, and then, as we just saw, the examined life more generally) will not be found in a single form, manner, or bearing. Irony required a longer discussion, but some thoughts resonated best as aphorisms. And I needed to find a non-polemical way to take the polemic to task, and that required a more careful reading of a particular case. But not only subject matter determined the length. I often thought—who would still be reading after this many pages? And I mean genuinely reading, not skimming for the basic point. (In my first book, I spent about fifteen pages on a very short poem. Cool, I thought. Not so cool, I later heard.) I thus wanted to write in a way that not only held but also stimulated attention and might be worthy of rumination. But I wasn’t sure I had even managed the half of it (and I’m still not).

So, for the first time, I sent the book to two friends before submitting it for review: Michael Sullivan, my colleague at Emory, and Rick Lee, who teaches at De Paul. At a few points, Rick said: I could really use a few punctuated, incisive remarks here. And so I added them. As you can see, then, I followed my own deliberative model while writing the book. That is, the form reflects concern for how my thought might unfold, the kind of relations it establishes with readers, and how it might resound in the present. Concerning the latter, I wanted some discussions to employ sophisticated scholarship and to evidence careful reading because I find contemporary American life hostile to theory and reflection more generally. (Hence footnotes as well. Insight can flow from learning and should flow back into it.)

All that said, I also had examples, and Benjamin’s One-Way Street was certainly one, and a central one. It combines so many ways of objectifying thought, and it was while writing an article on One-Way Street that the idea for the book came to me, although I elected to omit dreams, which Benjamin records. Not because I object to his use of them, however. Rather, dreams simply have not been a generative part of my thought process (even after reading Michel Leiris, whose dream-record was more than worth my time).

SP: I don’t know of many philosophy books that situate themselves quite like your does. You’re not writing for a popular audience in a way that this book will likely end up in a lot of bookstores. But neither are you writing only for other professional philosophers. Some of your chapter titles—“Message in a Bottle,” “The Secret Addressee,” “Unknown Friends”—give a sense of who your audience might be. I read the book as an opening gesture in a mutual exchange between friends. There’s this heartfelt concern for your readers on the page and this trust that they are up to the task of doing philosophy with you. It’s frankly unusual for philosophy. I take it you’re following Emerson in this, that you’d rather provoke or entice than simply explain.

JL: I love this: “There’s this heartfelt concern for your readers on the page and this trust that they are up to the task of doing philosophy with you.” Thank you. I have always sought a kind of intimacy in my voice, in part because I hope to intimately address the reader, as I suggested above. And this requires a certain kind of vulnerability and trust on both sides. And as you note, this operates in Emerson, and Nietzsche too, which may be his biggest debt to Emerson, the intimacy of his address. I suppose this is also my way of saying: I’m not fucking around here and I expect the same from you. And that is very much a mode of provocation. But I stop short of Emerson’s de facto insistence on provocation over demonstration. I still embrace the latter, but not in a manner that tries to exhaustively address an issue, as if one were writing for the last word. I’m not, which is why I am so drawn to the image of the friend in your remark, and to Emerson’s sense that he writes for unknown friends. But I am offering them views and defenses for them.

I recently had the luxury of a scholarly session devoted to After Emerson, whose last chapter, “Emerson and the Case of Philosophy” I wrote as a passageway into Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought (which was already underway). Because After Emerson is a book of essays, I had that form in mind, but the overall sensibility, which I inherited from Cavell, carried over into this book, and I hope to maintain it in future books. I have committed to a philosophy that aims at a certain kind of representativeness without assuming that it is representative, and without taking itself, once and for all, to have proven its representativeness, even after it says its piece. Such a philosophy thus commits in a manner that awaits a reply. It thus strives to render itself legible and plausible, even compelling. But it does not purport to speak for any and all rational agents, or even for some “those in the know.” It is provisional, but not just in a fallibilistic sense; it also provides food for thought, language to be taken up into further experiments.

In short, and somewhat unlike Cavell, I’m happy to offer theories, make particular claims, and to keep elaborating and/or defending them if questions or objections arise, and I hope they will. I want academics to engage the book. But not just them. I also wrote it for anyone who has found themselves in the grip of a philosophical question or text, to offer them some company and to cajole them into joining the fray.

SP: How does the interview as a genre relate to your concerns in the book?

JL: As I’ve said, one of my goals was to articulate a determinate space for considering experiments in genre. How will thought unfold in this genre (which is a way of asking, how will this genre enable me to address the issue that has claimed me)? What relations will this establish with addressees? And how will this resound in the contexts in which texts and addressees meet? One might be drawn to interviews in the interest of accessibility, that is, broadening the range of one’s addressees. But depending on the interviewer (and the venue), one might not be invited to work into the heart of various issues. And that may reinforce worrisome cultural trends, such as an over fondness for the authoritative voice, sound bites, “the big picture”—as if it weren’t full of several smaller pictures, each a bit smudged. To be clear, I am thinking as a philosopher here, by which I mean, someone pursuing questions and claims about the good, justice, truth, the nature of art, knowledge and error, and the basic character of existence, human and otherwise.

But all that said, I am drawn to the fact that an interview involves two, and if the questions are thoughtful, as yours have been, they can prompt new formulations, even thoughts. And there have been interviews that I regard as primary texts. One of Foucault’s discussions with Deleuze, “Intellectuals and Power,” comes to mind. In English it appeared in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (Cornell, 1980). Their discussion concerns the intellectual as a social category, and to my mind, it is essential reading, particularly in the context of Lenin, Luxemburg, Gramsci, and Mao, though I would also include “Theory, Pragmatisms, and Politics,” by Cornel West, which was collected in his Keeping Faith (Routledge, 1993). Regardless, the interview with Foucault and Deleuze, which is also a dialogue, is both rich and engaging and it has stayed with me far longer than many other more polished bits of prose. And it offers some interesting exemplifications as well—both are acting there as public intellectuals. Thinking about that interview now, I wonder whether interviews aren’t always enroute, at least to some degree, toward the dialogue, meaning, I could pose you questions and you could take issue with how I reply to what you’ve asked. Would that realize more fully the capabilities of the interview? (Christopher Long explored this through his podcast, Digital Dialogues.) If not, I want to think more about what interviews enable along the three lines I indicated. I very much like how your questions have brought me back into my project from various angles and reanimated various thoughts. But I can’t help feeling like I need to shut up and return the favor. I thus wonder how you see the interview, whether at the points I’ve marked, or in other terms?

SP: Now that you’ve turned this question around on me, I’m appreciating what a big category “interview” is. Let’s take the case at hand. Most of my questions would have to be scrapped or drastically revamped if we were here primarily to promote you and move product. So, venue matters greatly. As the interviewer, I’m trying to balance several interests: mine as a curious reader; yours as someone whose time I’ve asked for and would like not to waste; Rain Taxi’s so they will want to publish this without trimming excessively (surely we’re pushing Mr. Lorberer’s word limit pretty far here); and, ultimately, the readers’, whom I very much would like to hang onto until the end of the interview. More practically, I orient myself by asking what are my curiosities about you and your work that Rain Taxi readers are likely to share. So the genre is lined with constraints.

But you asked a general question: What opportunities does interview afford? One answer is personality. You might read a poetry collection and ask yourself what it would be like to talk to the author. Interview gives the impression of more direct access to the consciousness behind the text and that that access is more immediate and less artificial than what comes across in the written text. I’m suspicious of the idea that a real self emerges more in an interview than in, say, a novel, but I’m susceptible to the impression even as I consider one of my favorite interview subjects, Bob Dylan, who excels at frustrating the search for the self behind the text. We can easily imagine (or possibly name) writers for whom the interview is their best genre. But good interviews bypass the trap of personality and stand as a form of public conversation. There’s something exciting about watching someone think out loud. An interview is like an essay in its ability to dramatize that process. But unlike the essay there’s someone else provoking (hopefully) the subject’s thinking. And I think that kind of intersubjective space tends to be more alive for the audience than subjective space, and very often for the principals too.

JL: Interviews as public conversation, very much so. And I agree that interviews can offer a kind of spontaneity and personality that goes missing in a lot of writing, and then in an intersubjective space, which, while always operative, is often buried. Foucault gave many interviews, and many were incredibly illuminating. They show him thinking, which is why I am draw to them, as opposed to getting at the consciousness behind what one reads elsewhere. They are their own thing, like Emerson’s journals and letters, and I want to read them as such rather than as keys to other texts. With the interview, I think we find thinking in response, and that is my attraction to them, thought venturing replies that are willing to be more vulnerable than any book can be given how many times it has been revised, edited, etc. (Of course, this has been revised; it is a matter of degree.)

Having said that, I realize that some interviews occasion evasions rather than responses, particularly with artists. It thus dawns on me that philosophy slides into the interview rather easily whereas most artists are jumping ship when they agree to be interviewed. And I can appreciate their frustration if questions drift into: what did you mean here? That question misses how artworks mean, I think, as does the common reply: it means whatever my readers think it means. But I think questions about the social value of art, meaning in music, or the nature of creativity, etc. are fair game and worth considering. One might reply, “Those sound like philosophical questions.” They do because they are. But philosophy percolates wherever any practice begins to interrogate its ends and basic character, and most folk are led to those corners at some time or other. And that’s what I would want to hear from Dylan, or the painter Anselm Kiefer, or comedians like Maria Bamford and Amy Schumer. I think Schumer’s television show, by including interviews, exemplified comedy confronting its own reliance on types. And Bamford inhabits language and the lingua franca with such an exquisite sense that it seems akin to philosophy and poetry. I would want to know: what does your work ask of people? How do you take up other modes of expression? Are there other modes you admire? Why? Is the commodity a threat to what you do? But maybe that’s not the most productive tack. Can one interview an artist and let them remain an artist in their reply? I’m not sure. As you can see, I’m hopeless; philosophy has me.

SP: There’s this horrible phrase that’s used all the time now that says we “consume content.” People who use it are usually taken with computer metaphors. They think of hardware, software, and downloading information. As long as you have the information and/or argument, the means of acquisition are irrelevant. But even “acquisition” makes a lot of assumptions. You consider writing (and I think reading) praxis. What do we lose by treating writing and reading as information exchange?

JL: In some ways, I addressed this above, and my impatience with “it means whatever you think it means” begins to reply, but further specifications are necessary. First, casting texts into an economy of information exchange reduces everything to content, and in a way that treats it as separable from form (or form from content). And that just flat misses the performative dimensions of texts, which is a loss for readers and writers. No Plato. No Montaigne. No Hegel. No Emerson. No Du Bois. No Beauvoir. No Luce Irigiray. No thanks. The medium isn’t the only message or even separable from some message, stated or not; the medium or mode of presentation is very much integral to whatever a philosophical text has to offer. Even texts that aspire to limit themselves to inferential forms offer more than information: That Y follows from Z is not just another bit of information, it is principally a way of justifying Z. Patterns of justification are obscured when we treat everything as “information,” so a particular form seems to sneak in—the opinion—which from an inferential standpoint is just an assertion. And when only assertions abound, a more general social pattern operates: consumption. Here is some content. Use it or not, however you like. You have your opinions, I have mine. It’s a coward’s détente. But what if an author and reader meet in a place where we’re not sure how things should be used or to what end, or if they should be used, or what “use” even means? More generally, what if the question at hand concerns the origin and limits of the idea that we are first and foremost consumers? How is that conversation going to get off the ground if the scene of reading and writing is already bought and sold? In the book, I wave at this with an aphorism: “The marketplace of ideas—the metaphor’s success proves its bankruptcy.” Validity is not a popularity contest.

SP: I’m thinking of realists like Steven Pinker and Sam Harris. They seem to have such a hard time reading someone like Nietzsche who isn’t simply making claims about the way things are.

JL: Nietzsche is a particular conundrum because he interrogates the will to truth, finds untruth as a condition of life, and expects that finding to transform the will to truth from the inside. Telling the truth about truth transforms what we take “truth” to entail and what value we place upon it. I’m not sure authors like Pinker and Harris can digest that kind of thought, one that ventures claims about the way things are with regard to claims about the ways things are. But that is the way in which Nietzsche is an experimental writer, meaning, he sets in motion inherited operations whose result cannot be completely foreseen. These experiments neither verify nor falsify, however, but generate new thoughts, e.g. that the self might be a multiplicity of souls. Moreover, they do so within a new way of receiving and measuring the validity of such thoughts, namely in terms of their ranked value. Does that mean I don’t want to read Pinker or Harris? No. But I approach their texts from a different position than the one from which they were written.

SP: How do you read? I don’t think you’re someone who reads straight through. I see you as keeping up a conversation, flipping around in a book, seeing how one part reads against another, and so on. I’m inclined to think you make texts meet you when/where you’re ready for them.

JL: I remain a slow reader because, as you surmise, I track part-whole and part-part interactions, and so read cumulatively rather than straight through. From the vantage point of a current word, sentence, paragraph, chapter, even book I am always circling back and marking congruence, tensions, repetition, omissions, etc., treating the whole as a vibrating, expanding web. (A good deal of re-reading thus transpires before I reach the end.) But webs are designed to catch flies, and so I also read for an author’s why. What prompted this inquiry? Is something being negated, defended, both? Wittgenstein is trying to liberate himself from a certain kind of philosophy, perhaps through the labor of another. Beauvoir is offering a version of humanity that could come into its own without a god and without dissolving the ambiguity that underwrites a term like “humanity.” And so on. If I have a sense of what orients the labors of a text I find it much more rewarding to read. And I want the orientation of this text not simply another version of my own. I thus don’t want a pragmatist Heidegger or deconstructive Adorno or the Butler who is more Foucault than less. Emerson says of the friend: I love him because he is not me. I thus want a chorus of texts that resist euphony. That is why there are so many voices in Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought. I come into my own through the interaction of others and the friction thereby generated, which is a way of saying that a question about my reading will lead to my thinking even as a question of my thinking will lead to my reading.

SP: One of the writers I kept thinking about while reading your book was David Shields. His Reality Hunger shares some of your formal concerns, and his I Think You’re Totally Wrong (with Caleb Powell) is one response to your question, “But why don’t we write (or cowrite) actual dialogues?” Are there contemporary non-philosophers whose work has shaped your thinking about writing?

JL: There aren’t, but that’s on me. To the degree I have an excuse it lies with my own effort to keep expanding my philosophical education (and to renew my education in poetry). And of late I’ve been reading so-called Afro-pessimism, particularly Fred Moten and Christina Sharpe, and doing so in the context of the kind of Black Democratic Perfectionism being articulated by Eddie Glaude, Melvin Rogers, Chris Lebron, and Paul Taylor. But no doubt there are smart, smart books I’ve overlooked. For the recent piece on hope I read Rebecca Solnit, who is brilliant, concise, and engaging. And I have also read Lisa Robertson’s Nilling, although it eluded me. But that just led me to order some more of her work so I can try again. At this point, I want more to think about, not less. Since receiving your questions, I also began reading David Shields, and I see the point in your question (and not just because Emerson is all over Reality Hunger). So thank you for the introduction. I’m only halfway through Reality Hunger, reading in the manner we discussed above, tracking recurrent issues such as montage and Shields’s fact/truth distinction, which reminds me of Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” from The Things They Carried, where he suggests that truths, maybe all truths, are only articulable through selection and omission, and thus contra fact.

Moving from thematics to performance, I found his voice casual, and in a way I often admired. That way of just saying it, a way that Solnit also has, leaves me feeling that my own prose is rhetorically overheated. But maybe those temperatures lead to something that would otherwise go missing; I don’t know. And I’m not above admiration and envy. Strangely, while reading Reality Hunger in the context of this discussion, I keep thinking of Kierkegaard, thereby situating Shields in an aesthetic mode and my text in the ethical. In the parts I’ve read, it seems like a kind of aesthetic truth is orienting him, which includes an honesty about how elusive it is, and a concerted effort to sort through what must be done (and avoided) if one works toward truth in this way. (Lukács’s long, early essay on Kierkegaard, “On Poverty of Spirit” seems apropos, particularly its exploration of the effort to bring life under the dominion of meaning-giving form). I on the other hand, keep returning to what one could regard as pedagogical matters—what will facilitate learning, for a writer as well as for readers, particularly under social conditions that frustrate such efforts, or insist that they conform to definite modes of being in the world. And that is why Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought concludes with discussions of historical bearing, which returns us again to character and exemplification. That sense of representatives (rather than representation) doesn’t seem to concern Reality Hunger. But I’ve another half to go. I’m curious to see where it takes me. I know I’ll take it with me (O’Brien as well) into two papers I have going, one on error, the other on truth.

SP: You are the co-founder with Rick Lee of a journal, Circles. I take it the name comes from Emerson. What are your hopes for it?

JL: Still hopes at this point. I’ve been so busy writing my editing has floundered, though Rick has kept it afloat on-line. The journal aspires to be a home for philosophy written from any tradition and in any form, although Rick and I expect excellence in all cases. I think one should venture different genres and logical rhetorical operations because what called for one’s thinking needed something different than a journal article. But I suspect that we mostly will publish journal articles, although we hope to have an interview in every or every other issue. Regarding the Emerson connotation, it is in full force. Philosophers work in circles, conversing and progressing within those confines. That is not only inevitable but generative, and so we want work that situates itself in and advances some kind of conversation. But each circle is also bounded in ways that genuine thought will eventually rub up against and, if it’s strong enough (to paraphrase), thought will transgress that limit and think anew. The journal’s name thus conveys a commitment to established lines of questioning, the belief that there are a legitimate plurality of such lines, and an invitation to experiment in ways that contest what has, until now, seemed sufficient. I hope we can bring this about.

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