A few weeks ago my agent, Anna Stein, told me she was sending a collection of essays by one of her clients, the poet Brian Blanchfield. She said she thought I might love the book, and—bonus—Brian lived in Tucson, Arizona, my hometown, but was originally from the South. She thought we might have things to talk about.
Hoo boy, was she right. I read the book—Proxies: Essays Near Knowing—in three sittings, with a thrilling flutter in my gut. The essays are intimate, profound, and always startling; the language feels recalibrated, somehow, in syntax and cadence, a kind of found music; and the book as a total project is unlike anything I’ve read before.
Proxies was released in April by Nightboat Books, who calls it “part cultural close reading, part dicey autobiography.” Before the book was even out of proofs, it received a 2016 Whiting Award. Brian and I had the following conversation via email.
So besides sharing a kick ass agent, you and I have another connection: you grew up in the South and live in Tucson; I grew up in Tucson and live in the South. We both had a bunch of stops in between, for grad schools and teaching gigs. Want to talk about that westward migration? How has the transplantation changed (or not changed) your writing? Anything you miss about living in the South? I miss that premonitory smell of creosote, just before a rain in Tucson.
Jamie, yes, our journeys, if we had been holding two ends of a rope, would have tied a pretty tight knot by now. We pull it taut in Tucson and Chattanooga. I grew up in Winston-Salem, Charlotte, and Patrick County, Virginia, up and down the Piedmont, and also in Paris, Tennessee.
The tug of the South: well, it’s only from time to time that it’s strong for me; but there are many things I came to value about it after leaving twenty years ago, things that are hard to duplicate elsewhere—most especially a kind of everyday accommodation of eccentricity. A presumed dignity of the odd. A comfort with the paradoxical. That, and the landscape, to which I do feel my imaginative life is native. I miss access to the woods.
In one of the last essays in Proxies, “On the Understory,” I speculate about this a bit, about what it produces to have grown up under a constant canopy and then (now) to live in the desert and mountain west with so few trees. The default condition here is to be exposed, uncovered, with a sight line largely uninterrupted. I wonder if obscurity and pretexts and conjecture and even prurience and shame flourish back east in a way that the spatial openness here discourages.
My poetry over the last few years has moved outside and upcountry and relaxes into series, which I think of as more horizontal. And my nonfiction has tended toward disclosure and candor and finds new pleasures in suddenness, which is very Sonoran, if you appreciate the mode of wildlife here.
Right, wildlife just sort of . . . appears, doesn’t it? No rustling about in the underbrush to signal the imminent emergence of bird or rabbit or lizard.
And about the movement from beneath the canopy into spatial (and personal) openness: I can relate, in reverse. After we moved from Los Angeles to Williamsburg, Virginia, and then up to Princeton, I told my husband I didn’t think I was “dressed enough” to thrive in the East. The comment was somewhat tongue-in-cheek—I was born in San Diego, grew up in Arizona, and went to college in Malibu, so it’s no exaggeration to say I’d spent half my life wearing only a swimsuit—and people back east did tend to dress up a bit more. But I meant something deeper, too. I felt chronically exposed, emotionally and verbally: I smiled too much, talked too much, spoke too openly with people I’d just met. I wondered, then, if my tendency toward excessive candor was a weather-related problem—I’d never had to bundle up and rush past other people to get from here to there. As you say, topographically, the shade of trees and lush “hiddenness” of the understory lends itself to mystery, secrecy, pretexts, and shame. Though I also wonder if those of us raised in a “skin culture” learned to mask our shame and prurience with false candor—a practiced “openness” that functioned as the protective layer we lacked externally. (Which seems worse, to me; a more insidious thing.)
On one level, then, Proxies is an exercise in unearthing and exposing the topographies of your own “understories.” Each essay has the subheading “permitting shame, error, and guilt.” You wrote resisting self-censorship, tending always toward disclosure and candor, as you say. The book is also a kind of epistemological query, a “repeatable experiment” in which you refused to look anything up as you drafted, turning off the Internet and intentionally resisting any recourse to sources other than yourself. How did you decide on this approach? As a poet, how’d you come to the essay form?
I like the way you characterize it: a progression made of resistances and refusals. Sounds like a kind of demonstrative funeral march.
When I initially set myself the constraint you describe, to write analytically about a particular object or phenomenon or concept, one at a time, without access to outside authority, I didn’t have the sense this would be a book, much less a book that could be called a memoir. I merely trusted, in a dry poetry writing spell, that the go-it-alone exercise would get me “languaged” in the morning, and I knew that concentration on a primary subject often will give onto a secondary, sometimes larger one. It’s true of the work of writers who perform the act of thinking in their essays, from Guy Davenport to Chris Kraus to David Antin to Maggie Nelson, and true of course of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies, which was formative. I borrowed a sort of scientism from his method.
But rather quickly I understood that the prose project also satisfied a need I was feeling in my mid-late thirties: to say what I knew, and, I suppose, also to account how I knew it. For me that meant what I knew as a queer intellectual poet, but also as the son of a truck driver and a Primitive Baptist, as a gay man who came of age at the height of the AIDS crisis, and as a class-conscious professor perennially at the margins of academia and occasionally employed, even in middle age, at entry-level administrative work. I drew on and drew together those and other incommensurate subject positions. So epistemological under this charter routinely gives way to intimate, as my personal reckoning enters into studies of Br’er Rabbit or minutes or dossiers or frottage.
You talk about that Primitive Baptist upbringing in “On Foot Washing”—another thing we have in common. I was raised Church of Christ: no instruments in worship, adult baptism by full immersion, literal interpretations of scripture; laymen as preachers, able to administer the sacra-ments. Now that I’m no longer a part of that particular religious tradition, I’ve been able to recognize a residual gift to me, as a writer: the idea that the written word mattered. Words, written in a book, could be of life and death importance. But the legalism was crushing. Saved by grace, we were told, but it seemed the only way to keep that salvation was by performance: behave well, repent quickly. Though I now attend a church with a more nuanced understanding of the Reformational Solas, I still wrestle with a habitual tendency toward self-incrimination and feelings of guilt. Thank God for writing. Can you talk about finding yourself as an artist, coming out of your particular religious background? Is there anything you’ve retained, or found illuminating, from your upbringing? Anything you still struggle with?
It may be that the answer to this question is 183 pages long and retails for $15.99. I mean, before I started Proxies I had no sense of a lineage running from my Old Baptist up-bringing to my poetry and teaching. But, the essay on confoundedness, which considers the language of my childhood in church—the frustrating obscurity of predestinarian salvation logic and vinegary King James rhetoric and each Sunday’s profoundly moving but coded prodigal narratives of perdition and unworthiness—winds up unhappily accounting similar qualities in my own poetry. And in an essay on abstraction and another on the reset function—that is, the two pieces most explicitly about poetics and pedagogy—I come out as a spiritual beginner, speculating about, even testifying to the deific power in words them-selves and our preternatural impulse to “propositionize” and (re)arrange reality in language.
When I still attended church, there was a boy my age—we were the only two boys my age: about thirteen or fourteen when I stopped going—who notably sat up with the elders and deacons, stout and compact and natural in his suit, very self-contained, quiet, courteous, moderate, sure, even sage. He had seen the light and had been saved (unusual for children), and furthermore it was rumored he was being groomed to be a preacher, a child preacher, or that’s my recollection. I concentrated on him from our pew in the back (where we sat because my mother had been divorced), and my attention wasn’t carnal, as it were, but it was jealous: I often wondered what he had that I did not. He spoke the language; he sought a closer walk with God, and so forth. Sermons were both predictable and vexing to me, whereas he seemed so content and relieved by the “good news” that perilously could call me out as abominable. It was a private triumph for me if I ever saw him suppress a yawn.
Now, on certain days in the classroom, cultivating propitious conditions and prompts for others’ fleet revelations in a practice of poetry, it’s unclear that I have avoided answering the call.
A surprising side note: a young minister in Kansas City recently spoke about my book on a podcast on sermon preparation, remaining quite clear that it was a lay text and he could not in any way recommend it to parishioners, but nonetheless valued it as a model for, I think he said, authorial transparency. I’m still processing.
At the end of the book you include a 21-page rolling endnote—a list of “corrections” to the text. I assume you only began this list once you’d finished the entire collection. As a reader, I mimicked your stance as a writer: I didn’t turn back to consult the “corrections” until I’d finished the book. Interestingly, the endnotes didn’t alter what I felt I “knew” after reading the book; nor did I think, when you admitted you’d misattributed or misquoted, “Brian didn’t really know that bit.” You seem to be suggesting something about the nature of knowledge itself—that the kind of knowledge which can be “verified” in an endnote might not, in fact, be the kind of knowledge that matters essentially; or that there are different modes of knowing. Is knowledge only ever approximate? Is there something about one kind of knowledge—an actual quote, say, versus a remembered version of that quote—that somehow gets in the way of another?
I actually added to “Correction,” this endnote of non sequitur facts, directly after each essay was finished. An essay on occasion took weeks and weeks to complete, so it was a little pleasure I was saving for myself each time: finally to consult Wikipedia or the Collected Laura Riding or The New York City Subway Map from 1996 or a record of the Country Countdown or what have you, often requiring resourceful research, to redress what I got wrong. In the end I had ninety-nine entries (and just found a hundredth: a reader in Athens, Georgia, told me I use the term commensalism when I mean mutualism, and he’s right—saving it for the new printing), and I think of it as the book’s afterlife, after the reckoning, after the memoir. I’ll agree it doesn’t controvert any of the larger truths of the book and may not be useful as errata. Is it better considered as its own singular text, a paratext, or a peculiar map to the terrain of the book, generated by and corresponding to the fallacies and imprecisions of what precedes it, with a certain kind of deterministic inevitability? Flawless but strange. It was crossover Country singer Sylvia, not Juice Newton, who recorded the song “Tumbleweed.” James Boswell traveled with a card of introduction he himself wrote. It wasn’t Samuel Johnson in his pocket.
It’s interesting, what you say the endnote might suggest about the nature of knowledge. I’m not sure I can claim that among my intentions; but it might indicate that supposition and speculation and extrapolation and associative memory-sifting are the natural muscles of essaying, more demotic in the end. Research and corroboration may in fact be anathema to the free intellection that is part of writing nonfiction.
Speaking of Samuel Johnson: to paraphrase him on the metaphysical poets, your essays accomplish that yoking together, in violence, of heterogeneous things. The connections were continually startling, and deeply pleasurable in their resonance. I’m thinking of “On Frottage” (a word which, I will say here — admitting shame!—I had to look up), where you’re talking about a standoff at gunpoint, two men at opposite ends of the subway car, and then—in six words—you succinctly, beautifully connect that moment with a cross-country ex-lover. Another occurs in “On Authorship.” You buried your stepfather’s round bristle brush after he died—handle-first—but left its “penny-sized, honey-brown button” exposed above grade. You say that button had “a touch of authorship,” the button there as a kind of signature. I’ve been pondering that particular yoking all week: signature with button. The death of the author, dying so that one’s work can live . . . can you elaborate? Am I completely off base?
“On Authorship” is the shortest essay in the book, and I’d like to elaborate, but I’m not sure I can. If your question is who is the author of that little risen wooden bump in the ground in southeast Charlotte, it is I, me, I put it there, following Frank, posthumously; but the instrument was his, he authored himself with it in some small daily way, and something of him belongs to it. Who is having a say, if it says anything still? My irrational act in secrecy, in grief and in fury, at the end of a difficult relationship and a tragic family dynamic, was honorable and sacred and vengeful and self-satisfying and weird. I think maybe the very most deeply human moments we have alone, especially in the natural world, are ones in which we’re testing a magic we don’t understand.
And if it sounds like I’m describing poetry itself, I’ll only add that I think Johnson’s latent critique of the Metaphysicals is that in their violent yoking they contrived too much, they postulated and proved so strenuously there was no openness to discovery and maybe no validation of disharmony and quandary, which, hello, is where we mostly live.
“Contrived” is the last word I’d use to describe these essays; you place yourself deliberately in Barthelme’s state of Not-Knowing, writing into each subject with—what is it he says?—nothing more than a slender intuition, an itch. I’ll look up my favorite line: “The combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveals how much of Being we haven’t yet encountered.” This seems an apt description of what you’re doing: allowing unlikely bedfellows to take a tumble in the sheets, even if nothing is “proved” in the act, or the “performance” ends not in unity, but in a sundering—disharmony and quandary, as you say.
Yes, excellent, thanks for retrieving that, and it chimes with one I like (not looking it up!) from Roland Barthes, who says when he chooses a word, he selects it not for its aptness or for this or that sonorous quality, but for its “quivering” potential, in which “a future praxis” is suggested, its readiness to be “put into play” with other words around.
You talk about poetic voice and performance in “On the Locus Amoenus,” and mention how after a poetry reading someone will inevitably ask some version of “But why does what you write not sound like how you talk?” (I love your cut-to-the-chase answer, by the way: “you don’t tell a dancer that’s not how you normally move.”) I get this too, usually from friends or acquaintances or distant relatives who read my book, this kind of suspicion: how did you, oh person we know, write this? Who are you really? Do you think writers, in particular, are subject to this kind of response?
Probably, yes. The wonderful poet and essayist Ed Pavlić and I were just talking about this, in James Baldwin’s work and in, it seems, his experience. If a writer whom you know, a writer who has talked to you, seems then in her writing to be speaking past you, it’s got to be disconcerting. Reading or receiving lyric speech, and I suppose narration too, there is a sense that you are not so much hearing as overhearing what is being said. It has the quality of soliloquy, which may just be the quality of the literary. If you’re unaccustomed to that and it’s coming from this person that you know, you might be put off or even insulted by the pretense. Come to think of it, Baldwin, the child preacher inside the life-writing novelist and activist and public intellectual, knew very well what it was to feel a sermon was directly “for you”—as if others are listening, but only you are attuned. I wonder if selection is inherently Judeo-Christian. And God said to Moses, Moses!
“On Man Roulette” examines identity in the context of an online video-chat site: You and Partner encounter one another, sexually for the most part, in the virtual realm. The essay examines identity as performance, at least partially; how one learns one’s own identity through another (“I learned I was an older man;” “Partner: ‘You are not like other guys’”). It also posits that digital relations are no different, in some respects, than physical—you still find your position, socially and sexually, vis-à-vis another. We’re perhaps the first generation that has had to ask, Can physical love between two people be real if it is only enacted digitally?—if You and Partner have never touched? Is one “cheating” if the encounter doesn’t take place body-to-body, in the same physical space? Are there degrees of cheating, love, lust?
Or degrees of trust, permission, mutual support, and independence? I don’t know; or it depends on the couple, I guess. I like what you draw out here about relationality, that you attain or occupy identity relative to others. Man Roulette, which no longer functions, was around for four or five years, I think, and afforded a sudden window onto men around the world in all kinds of contexts, in all kinds of rooms, who wanted to see and be seen by men, and was an extraordinary experiment in relationality. Because it was customary to have your microphone off, the text box, which recorded the conversation between You and Partner, was illuminating to read after a date, attaching as it would to your memory of his smirk or sigh, a mercy, a surrender. For a summer it was my favorite genre.What are you reading right now?
I’m reading in manuscript, a beautiful, agile, poignant, furious, fragmented memoir by the poet Zach Savich. It’s coming out in the fall. I just finished Sarah Schulman’s new novel The Cosmopolitans, which is a fascinating rewrite of Balzac’s Cousin Bette, and I’m turning back to the final book of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy, which across a thousand pages recovers his walk, at age eighteen, from Rotterdam to Constantinople in 1936, a year which measured his maturation and was meanwhile the beginning of the end of the ancient, precarious communities he was passing through. It’s like he reinvents the English language to say what he needs to say, sentence to sentence. I’ve adored it. And Ed Pavlić's stunning book on Baldwin, Who Can Afford to Improvise? Plus (always, for my radio show Speedway and Swan): new books of poetry, right now standout collections by Robyn Schiff and Evan Kennedy and Sarah Vap.
Ooh, I’m currently reading Schiff’s A Woman of Property—a gift from my friend Megan Mayhew Bergman, who told me she carried it all over Paris with her when she was a Fellow at the American Library last spring. I sent her Proxies in return.
And: Speedway and Swan! Crossroads of import in Tucson—the intersection we’d drive to reach what I called the “rich mountain” part of town. All the beautiful twinkling houses nestled in the foothills. Even the street names got prettier as you went up Swan: River, Sunrise, Skyline. In the other direction it was 5th, Broadway, 22nd, 29th. Pedestrian names, squat houses. Does the name of your show have anything to do with this divide?
And don’t forget Limberlost, Cloud, and Prospect. (Prospect: every city with any elevation has one—which underscores the implicit caution that if you don’t have a view, then you might be the view). Right, it’s named for the city’s key intersection (though the radio station is rather far from those coordinates), because I wanted a Tucson stamp for the show, which has more listeners online than over the airwaves, and because I wanted some (okay, faint) suggestion of a junction of poetry and music, the show’s dual ingredients. Swan: classical, symbolic, and that’s the poetry part? Speedway, vroom, modern: that’s the music. Though as a site it operates as a kind of cultural threshold (also marks the civilian / airbase divide in town), there is nothing at the intersection terribly suggestive of literature. A Pizza Hut, a tattoo parlor, a coin-op laundry, check-cashing place. But you don’t want your poetry sitting pretty up at Sunrise and Linda Vista.
When you come back to Arizona, we can make some site-specific radio, do a remote from the more felicitous intersections. We’ll wear our bathing suits, out in the open.
For more pleasurable and provocative reading, order the Summer 2016 issue.