September 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
The strange thing is, I read Leaving The Atocha Station, a novel by Ben Lerner about a twenty-something poet on a yearlong fellowship in Madrid, exactly two years since I was in Madrid myself. Every August, my husband and I crave experiences that remind us of the feeling of being in Spain. It’s a subconscious thing that creeps up, till we’re searching out a certain al fresco spot; the familiar architecture of a building; or the effervescence of a Spanish wine.
I remember how, on our trip, Michael blew our budget with his obsession for Hendricks & Tonic: served in giant goblets with plenty of cucumber slices. Each cocktail cost 16 – 20 Euros, while a bottle of wine was never more than 4. We reveled in masses of art at the Prado, Reina Sofia, and Thyssen museums. Every day, the same waiter at the same restaurant in our small neighborhood got my order for Iced Espresso wrong. I couldn’t seem to master proper Spanish pronunciation.
In Mallorca, we weren’t sure how to get to the beach, so we followed bikinis onto a bus and got off where they did, ending up in a luxurious spot, eating Tuna Tartare and drinking more Gin before joining all the topless bathers. I wanted to go topless as well, like I did at a nude beach in New York, but being a newlywed, I was still struggling to figure out my new identity.
Mainly a poet, Leaving The Atocha Station is Ben Lerner’s first novel. It’s hard to tell where he ends and where his protagonist begins.
The magic of Lerner’s character, Adam, is that he is a complete anti-hero. Adam thinks all the thoughts that I often feel, but would never actually admit to. He’s been offered a prestigious fellowship, but cowers from his superiors, has no intention of writing on the topic of the Spanish Civil War (like he claimed in his application), and spends most of his time smoking hash and hoping that one of the two women he spends time with will suddenly feel passionately for him, which of course, they never do.
“I had a policy of keeping Isabel away from Arturo and Teresa, not because I didn’t think they’d like each other, but because I wanted them to believe I had an expansive social life (Lerner, 53).”
Adam shrinks from responsibilities, putting all of his energies towards being wanted. His melt under pressure as a young twenty-something reminds me of an episode of Girls, where Lena Dunham’s character gets a deal for an e-book that she’s told must be written in one month. The stress drives her crazy, reigniting her past struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, resulting in a punctured eardrum due to her over-zealousness with a Q-tip.
Who can write a book in a month? I’m sure that even Kerouac’s claims were doctored up a bit. In my early twenties, everything that involved pressure under fire in the grown-up world brought on the worst kind of anxiety. I set myself up to fail. I learned quickly that the only jobs that worked for me were the ones that allowed time to write with a thoroughly interesting nighttime life. I lived for stories, not for security. I also lived for being wanted and affirmed.
At full-time day jobs, I fell apart. Sick all the time, anxious, creeping further and further within a figurative turtleneck. I freaked out 24/7 that I would say the wrong thing, and I often did.
Since I’ve been married, I often run the risk of losing my mojo, because having mojo is no longer life or death. I have Michael to cushion life’s blows. In sixteen years, when he retires, the weight may be all on my shoulders again. What will I be at that point? Will my books ever take off? Will I ever be able to make a living as a writer? I need all that mojo to make something of my dream. But instead, I am planning exit strategies, just in case. Real Estate is always in the back of my mind. Could I do that and everything else on top of it too? Could I write, sell houses, and grow a human? Or can I live on this writer cliff for the rest of my life – where total uncertainty always gives way to food and shelter working out in the end.
The poet in Ben Lerner’s novel thinks about becoming a lawyer when he returns home. Do all poets, writers, artists, musicians have these thoughts? Probably.
“But in certain moments, I was convinced I should go home, no matter the mansion, that this life wasn’t real, wasn’t my own, that nearly a year of being a tourist, which is what I indubitably was, was enough, and that I needed to return to the U.S., be present for my family, and begin an earnest search for a mate, career, etc (Lerner, 163).”
Never giving up on your creativity is a daily battle. The anti-hero of the book barely attempts it, and yet things magically fall into his lap, thanks to connections. It’s so good to feel like a winner. That feeling you have when you know what you can give has value, and people show their appreciation, and you show your appreciation right back, and the world feels like the weave of a basket, never ending, interconnected, supportive; even when you fuck up and never write that poem about the Spanish Civil War.
What is a life of poetry, but an endless journey through dense portals of thought that barely connect and keep us in the place of philosophical quandaries?
“Poetry actively repelled my attention, it was opaque and thingly and refused to absorb me; its articles and conjunctions and prepositions failed to dissolve into a feeling and a speed; you could fall into the spaces between words as you tried to link them up; and yet by refusing to absorb me the poem held out the possibility of a higher form of absorption of which I was unworthy, a profound experience unavailable from within the damaged life, and so the poem became a figure for its outside (Lerner, 20).”
The same is true for Adam’s experience of the Spanish language, the culture, his general distance from the alternate reality of living there, a place that can never really be his.
In Spain, everything feels different, while nothing feels different at all. It’s an odd feeling. Spain has modernity, while still retaining old world graces and sophistication. I felt like a gypsy next to the polished style of the locals. I knew I would never fully understand the language, no matter how long I lived there. Not the language exactly, but all of the meanings behind the language. All of the movements of their fans, which they handled with so much panache, it was like they’d been flipping them since infancy. I could easily live there for the rest of my life, but not in a million years could I ever master the culture. How can you, unless you grow up in it?
“I have never been here, I said to myself. You have never seen me (Lerner, 178).”
November 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
““You don’t really want to be a poet. First of all, if you’re a woman, you have to be three times as good as any of the men. Secondly, you have to fuck everyone. And thirdly, you have to be dead.” – a male poet, in conversation (Jong, 43)”
I recommend the poem that follows in Erica Jong’s book of poems, Fruits and Vegetables, first published in 1968.
The other day a photographer, James Arzente, came to my apartment to photograph me for a book he’s doing on artists and writers. After a long email dialogue, we came up with a concept, and piled all of the physical remains of what it took to write my memoir (piles of notepads filled with chicken scratch, journals, photographs, music, books, costumes, pens, mementos, and postcards) onto the kitchen table. The photographer wanted to get at what’s inside my head, and I pulled out as much physical evidence as I could possibly find, but it wasn’t even the half of it.
He pried further and further to figure out what makes me tick. On one hand, it made me understand the intensity of what it must feel like to be a celebrity. On the other, I was exhausted by it, and exhausted of being the sole focus. I grew sick of myself, ill with the knowledge of my current unsatisfactory state.
“You will never really be understood,” he said, “And you have to be okay with that.”
We talked about what it means to be a woman and a writer. I want to celebrate my womanhood, but being female has always felt like a strike against me. I’m working through it, towards a love and acceptance of my own gender. It’s difficult when I’ve been attacked for being a woman, not only by strangers, but also by friends and lovers. My healing comes from strong female role models, who repair me through their wisdom and our shared stories.
“Who do you feel you are on the inside?” James asked me.
“I feel like an outlaw. I feel like I’m fighting against the roles prescribed for me by others. I feel invisible. I’m in a chrysalis phase, and working non-stop to create my body of work. It’s killing me that my book isn’t out there yet, when I have so much more to give. I’m waiting for recognition, when in my mind, I am already known for what I do. In reality, I’m a drifter that no one really knows all that well.”
The truth is, I feel more like a Hunter S. Thompson, a Henry Miller, a Charles Bukowski, a Norman Mailer than a woman. None of my heroes understood women at all, and didn’t care to understand. But women inspired their stories. They almost had an unhealthy worship of the women that castrated them in a sense. Scared to death of the great goddess that might reach up and snuff them out.
Right now, at the Seattle Art Museum, the Elles exhibit of twentieth century women artists, is here from the Pompidou in Paris. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about the show. Some are angry over the feeling that women’s art is segregated. Some felt it was too political. Some were disturbed by the empty pockets of history, where women really weren’t allowed to fully partake, as in the Bauhaus movement.
For me, I found the exhibit to be enormously invigorating, and at times disturbing. Throughout history, women have been told that their life should be a sacrifice for the family. In much of the art, I found that same sense of sacrifice, but it was an angry outcry against prescribed roles. A gigantic woven bee hive/cocoon – enormous and frightening, like death hanging from a hook in the ceiling. A film of a naked carefree woman on the beach, hula hooping with barbed wire, each turn ripping her abdomen to shreds. Marina Abramavic’s performance piece, “I must be beautiful, I must be beautiful, art must be beautiful,” as she rips at her scalp with a brush.
Grouping all of this art together is enormously satisfying and powerful. It tells a narrative, fighting to redefine what it means to be a woman, determined to have equality and a voice.
“To create is an act of liberation and every day this need for liberation comes back to me.” – Louise Bourgeois
I think as well, it would be impossible for the art to not be political. In an article by Robin Held in City Arts Magazine she states, “Only 5 percent of the art on display in U.S. museums is made by women, although 51 percent of U.S. visual artists today are women.” And this is the current state of the art world. Just today I walked through the art section at a bookstore, and the only female artist I saw on the shelves, was Georgia O’Keefe. I never even noticed the disparity before.
All this week, I have been enmeshed in talks with women artists on how they feel about the exhibit, and how they feel about their role in art today. The women of the sixties and seventies had a lot of wisdom and history to offer. One woman spoke of how she couldn’t sign her real name to a piece, because if they knew she was a woman, she wouldn’t get a show. She used her initials instead. To be a success, she had to deny the feminine. But now, because of political battles that have been won, she is free to sign her real name, and wears her womanhood like a badge of honor.
Strikingly, the women of my generation said that they don’t identify as women. One felt that anything written before 1980 was a “dinosaur text.” They were firmly planted in the here and now, living dangerously outside the context of history. I sensed abhorrence within them of their femaleness. The same abhorrence that existed in society in the 1950’s, when my mother was raised to think that being a woman made her unclean – doomed to keep cleaning, just to make up for it. Back then, household appliances were sold as devices to cure psychological ailments.
Young women artists want to shed their femaleness like a dead skin. And then they are shocked when those issues subconsciously come out in their art. One was disturbed when people found the feminine in her art. It made her angry. She might clothe herself with male-dominated activities to feel stronger, but she is still facing the unavoidable fact of her existence as a woman.
This same aversion to the female, I believe, has created a large disconnect among young women. I know I am at a difficult stage of life for female friendships – babies, work, lack of money, flakiness, geographical distance. But even so, all of the women I know look at each other with a deep sense of mistrust until proven otherwise. I am just as guilty as everyone else, and I’ve practically given up. Yet when I do find that closeness with other women, I find my confidence blossoms.
Women seem to feel sick of the issue of equality, and what that means. The issue has always been there, and it’s not going away anytime soon. It’s a constant struggle. And if we let go of it, there are plenty of men waiting in the wings to take back their control over our bodies. If your own body makes you ill, and you want to avoid it, then why not hand over the control?
In the young women, I saw myself, and I didn’t like what I saw. This week has changed me. I want to embrace who I am within this body within this world. But I also demand that society embrace my mind even more than the visual elements that I might express. Yes, I am a woman, but first and foremost, I am a human being.
August 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is so rich with lyrical prose that I had to read the first page three times before moving on to the next. She flips back and forth effortlessly between a deep southern African American dialect into literary narration. I found myself speaking out loud in the tone of her dialogue, just to listen to the way it rolls in and hangs there, like humidity in the calm before a storm.
The plot follows a woman named Janie as she struggles to find herself through imagination, love, and experience. When the book was first released in 1937, it was attacked for not fitting within the African American protest tradition of the 1930’s. The lives of Hurston’s characters are rich and varied; not the diminished, victimized culture portrayed in other works of Black fiction at the time. The main focus is on a woman’s right to life, while race is merely the framework of her culture.
As Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it in the Afterword, “… the social realism of the thirties, and the cultural nationalism of the Black Arts movement – was the idea that racism had reduced black people to mere ciphers, to beings who only react to omnipresent racial oppression, whose culture is “deprived” where different, and whose psyches are in the main “pathological.” … Socialists, separatists, and civil rights advocates alike have been devoured by this beast (199).”
This is an idea that shouldn’t, but still does, persist in some ways today. When I was a poet in New York City, I grew tired of listening to the African American poets perform angry diatribes against racist white people. At every single reading, it always happened. Rather than action, it was reaction. I deal with my own kinds of anger, and I understand how difficult it is to exorcise that as an artist. A part of the process in expressing anger is to move forward, but it’s easy to get stuck. By playing the role of the victim, you avoid personal responsibility. You cannot always blame someone else for your lot in life. You must take action, no matter the obstacles.
Zora Neale Hurston’s voice is extremely relevant for today. Rather than fighting for or against race, she celebrates culture, which is something different entirely. She shows us, that regardless of outside factors, we all search for the same thing – for life, for soul, for the full human experience and the freedom to have it. She brought more humanity to the Black experience than any of her contemporaries.
Janie is on a search for love from the time she blossoms underneath the pear tree. “She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was marriage (Hurston, 11)!”
Janie’s grandmother wants her to sit and do nothing – the ultimate achievement for a 2nd generation woman past the time of slavery. Her grandmother arranges a marriage to an older man who is stingy and has plenty of land, but Janie doesn’t love him. She escapes with Joe who is on his way to the first all-black town to build a life and community. But in his efforts to be a successful businessman and mayor of the town, he fails to recognize Janie as a human being and sees her only as the object of his possession. He desires the ownership he was denied before, from all things and people. Janie is not allowed a voice, and Joe’s accomplishments (in his mind) serve to make her a great woman.
“… Ah told you in de very first begginnin’ dat Ah aimed tuh be uh big voice. You oughta be glad, ‘cause dat makes uh big woman outa you (Hurston, 46)”
At his death, she finally transitions, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it, from “object to subject.” She is rich with an empty life. Leaving it all behind means nothing to her if she can have what the pear tree knows every spring. A young gadabout named Tea Cake sweeps her off her feet. He loves her, and lets her be exactly who she is. They go fishing all night, shoot guns, and take off to work “on the muck” all summer long in Florida. She goes from wearing fancy dresses to overalls, and everyday feels brand new and alive.
But nature is a brute force, and a massive hurricane destroys their new life together. In the end, it doesn’t matter as much that Janie loses Tea Cake, as much that she experienced what everyone is looking for – love. She is fulfilled by experience, complete and refined in her own self. Now, just sitting there doesn’t seem so terrible, when her mind is full of beauty.
“Dey gointuh make ‘miration ‘cause mah love didn’t work lak they love, if dey ever had any. Then you must tell ‘em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore (Hurston, 191).”
Anyone who dares the world for love can relate to the character of Janie. I spoke to a poet the other day. He told me that when he was younger, he didn’t finish his PhD. because he went through a divorce. But in the process, he fell in love and became a poet. When I told my husband this, he said to me, “Heartbreak is better for writing poetry than love.”
I replied, “But first you need love to experience heartbreak.”
It’s true that I wrote my best poetry when I was broken. All of my best poems were inspired by men who could only see me as an object, not a human. Likewise, I could only see them as my teachers and not my equals. I was in the chrysalis phase that, Janie as well, took so many years to fly out from.
What I thought was love was only fantasy. And when you live inside of fantasy, reality is not allowed to exist. Nighttime is the only time for this sort of love, in the daytime there are too many reminders – that I was an object left behind on the bed for more important things, a side-note, a thing whose roots to the earth must be ignored since mothers and fathers and even friends remind a man that a woman is a subject and not just an object.
Zora Neale Hurston was a prolific writer until she fell into obscurity in the early fifties. Her work could not be simplified, her ideals could not be categorized, and this made her ambiguous. She was accused of molesting a 10 year-old boy, though she was in Honduras at the time of the crime. Still, the charges damaged her career.
She worked as a maid in Florida, and failed at a string of jobs. Ten years later she died in a welfare home. She was virtually forgotten until the writer, Alice Walker, wrote an article for Ms. magazine in the early seventies, on how she went in search of Hurston’s unmarked grave to give her the recognition she deserved. Since then, Hurston’s work has gained popularity and been recognized for its importance.
But her obscure death and eventual poverty are upsetting to me. I relate to the string of miserable jobs that never work out. Her financial struggles and the fight against what she wrote in an essay entitled “What White Publishers Won’t Print” demoralized her, and diminished her output. Hurston did not feel like a human being without pen and paper – the curse and the gift of being a writer. If you are truly a writer, there is nothing else for you, but to write. In the end, she did her best to give us the keys to understand ourselves. I am grateful to Alice Walker, for bringing Hurston’s work back from the dead.
June 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
I am feeling vulnerable. The pitch for my memoir is about to be sent out to editors, and I have spent the last ten years pouring everything I have into this book. It has evolved and grown with time, and thanks to rejections of past versions, it has become more refined, more complete, more honest.
Though I try my best to not take rejections personally (having worked in publishing has helped me a lot with this), it is still always a hard blow to the ego, with days spent feeling like a failure. I know my book has enormous potential, now I just need people in the publishing industry to see that too.
In vulnerable writer moments, the best author to turn to is Erica Jong. “Only if you have no other choice should you be a writer (Jong, 6).”
I have just finished reading her book, Seducing the Demon – Writing For My Life. The stories from her life are all hilarious, and told in nonlinear fashion. Most memorable would be how she broke up Martha Stewart’s marriage when it was already falling apart (picture Stewart’s husband as an emasculated chore boy).
Humorous stories aside, it seemed that Jong was speaking directly to me and everything that I am dealing with right now – death and the struggle of trying to capture life in words.
“Life is a dream, but the dream disintegrates unless you write it down (my father) reminds me (Jong, 253).”
I first began writing because I wanted to end my life. It was a common theme throughout my adolescence, but escalated when I was twenty-one. I always knew that I was not the person my family wanted me to be. Within my core, I was not a Christian, but I was told by everyone around me that if I did not follow I would lose their acceptance. I would be fallen, lost, going to hell. I did everything to make God real to me. But instead, I began to see that everything I’d been told was false.
In the process of all this, I was prone to deep depression and would fall into trance-like states where I left my body and began to ponder how I could destroy it. Looking back, it was symbolic, since the Christianity I was raised with denies the body.
Eventually, when that mode became an everyday issue, I had to enter therapy. The therapist didn’t sort my issues since I was still stuck within my Christian university and didn’t feel free to speak what I was really feeling. What really changed my life was writing.
“Writing is tough, but it’s a lot less tough than depression. Which basically leads to suicide. Unless you make a joke (Jong, 232).”
At first the writing was not good. It was melodramatic, sickeningly romantic, full of unnecessary flourishes and old-fashioned language. Through hundreds of poems, I attempted to express what I was feeling.
I experienced a real breakthrough while reading Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. Here was a man who bravely and beautifully wrote about gay sex in the 1950’s. If he could do that then, than I could celebrate sensuality in my poetry, turn it in, and risk getting marked down or reprimanded. Surprisingly, my teacher raved over the poem I wrote.
We normally looked at each other’s work anonymously. But at the end of analyzing my poem the professor said, “And the girl who wrote this…” (Everyone looked around since there was only one other girl in the class) “Ope! Sorry Lauren!”
The room full of boys twittered in embarrassment. But then my professor continued, “This is the first poem I’ve seen all semester that is ready to be published.” I sat there red in the cheeks, but brimming with pride that this professor who was such a tough nut to crack, who was known for yelling at people for using the word “deep” because it didn’t express anything, was now telling me I had potential.
“For the poet, the lover becomes the world. The exploration of love becomes an exploration of life (Jong, 66).”
Before poetry, I painted portraits, then realized I had more to tell. Poetry was vague enough to feel safe writing what I had to say. But then I wanted to tell the whole truth and share the whole picture.
To write I have sacrificed money, jobs, relationships, and security. But I have no choice, and wouldn’t be happy any other way. My book sits there like the holy grail, full of promises that might not be met. When I first tried to publish it, I was cocky, with no doubt that the first agent would snap it up and put it on auction, scoring a great book deal which would lead to it becoming a bestseller with a movie deal in the works. I literally did not doubt this one iota.
In it’s earliest version (not nearly as fleshed out as it is now) it was rejected by over a hundred agents and editors. Back then it was just a novel about a girl who parties too much. Now it’s a memoir about a girl trying to forget an oppressive upbringing through an underground subculture that turns dark quickly.
“People who most crave ecstasy are probably least capable of moderation (Jong, 134).”
The people I write about in my book will be both horrified and gratified to see themselves frozen in time. But the only reaction that really concerns me is that of my parents. I hope they can forgive the fact that I need to lay them bare to understand my life. Like many parents, it’s painful for them to allow their child to be their own person. They will never fully accept who I am because it doesn’t fit into their worldview. I am the reality that they find hard to face.
“If you want to be a nice person, don’t write. There’s no way to do it without grinding up your loved ones and making them into raw hamburger (Jong, 239).”
Now when I actually see the living people who embody the other characters in the book, I hardly know how to look at them, without only seeing our past. To me, they have become caricatures of themselves, mythology.
“Time and again I have found that once I have frozen a person in a book I can hardly remember what the real person was like (Jong, 268).”
At a memorial, I saw them all two days ago. I realized, that they feel the same way about me. They are completely unable to understand who I am now, unable to listen, and can only speak in jokes or insensitive diatribes. They have frozen me in time. I didn’t want to be there, but in coming together over the death of our beautiful friend, I came to the ending of my story.
“You are not doing it all alone. You are standing on the shoulders of the dead. You are writing love letters to the grave. The word is a link in a human chain (Jong, 61).”
I’m in those last years where you can be considered young. But I don’t feel young at all. I feel like time is too short and I have too many stories to share to fit into that shortness of life. Ideas keep popping into my head. I want to write them all, to share this thing I cannot stop. To live, I must write.