25 March 2011

Camille Roy's Sherwood Forest

A new book by Camille Roy is always something of a literary event: it's been 13 years since her prose work Swarm and some 16 years since her last set of "poems" (though, as is the case with all of Camille's work, these clean genre distinctions don't always hold); as such, a new book of poems by Roy is certainly something to celebrate (and these are indisputably poems, though I'll have more to say about that claim later!). Futurepoem is right on the cusp of releasing Sherwood Forest, a gloriously subversive new volume of poetry, and, in order to celebrate, Camille and I have been chatting about the book and her practice writ large. I'll start posting segments of the conversation serially over the next few weeks, but I thought to post her brilliant statement of poetics "Experimentalism," originally published in the seminal online journal Narrativity (and recently reprinted in Biting the Error), in order to pave the way for our discussion. If it's been a while since you picked up Swarm (Black Star Series) or The Rosy Medallions (Kelsey Street Press) or Cold Heaven (O Books), I invite you to do so now: we'd love to have you join the conversation (feel free to use the comment stream liberally, or you can always send an email to michaelthomascross/at/hotmail{dot}(com)).

Here's the entirety of "Experimentalism" to get us started, and do check back early next week for our first exchange:

1. Methods

Writing I find exciting often gets called experimental. In America this is another word for marginal. It's patronizing. Other countries distribute legitimacy in literary culture differently. For example, when in the U.K., Kathy Acker wrote for the Times Literary Supplement. Can you imagine Acker writing for the New York Times Book Review!? Just the experience of reviewing her work in the NYT Book Review caused several reviewers to spontaneously combust. On the other side of the Atlantic, debates on literary aesthetics are part of public--not just academic--life. Not so here, which means the conventions of representation that underlie mainstream fiction in this country can't be effectually critiqued. (I don't consider academic debates to be part of public life.).

So what conventions of representation am I talking about? Consider identity. Mainstream fiction tends to assume separate and coherent individuals, each with a single body and character which is built , rather than destroyed, by conflict.

I believe it is possible to have one identity in your thumb and another in your neck. I think identities can travel between persons who have an unusual mutual sympathy. Let's not even mention multiple personality.

But what I want to talk about today is the manipulation and construction of social distance. Mainstream fiction assumes a position not too close, not too far away. A situation is implied, an entire social horizon, which is speckled with white individuals who maintain distance from one another and from social 'problems.'

Containment. Segregation. A narrative structure which covertly mirrors the growth of white suburbs since WWII, where there is no discomfort around racism because only white people are present. Breaking this long chain of social convention at any link can easily result in personal and literary deformity, which is another term for experimentation.

"My sister was older, and kept her drugs and screwing in the basement the same way she kept her jewelry there. Her lovers were thin white men whose trouble was drug-related. When Paul got out of Cook County Jail he carried an odor of rape and had large nerve spots in his eyes. Fear moving like a breeze in a prison yard, I could feel that in my stomach when he was around; otherwise I didn't care. I thought about Monica. Her sharp teeth and brown cheeks. The way her greed slid across my hips could be scary but her palms were narrow as slots, that made it okay to have sex with her."

The well-modulated distance of mainstream fiction not only distances social conflict, it also doesn't represent lesbian relationships very well. Mainstream literary forms reflect conventions of identity that are dominated by the masculine and the heterosexual. I am not arguing for femininity in literature here. I don't find those essentialist positions very interesting. But I think relations between women have the potential to strain conventions of representation. HOW exactly. Consider the characteristics associated with women: weak boundaries between self and other, heightened capacity for intimacy, identification of self with other, and a more fluid sense of self. In mainstream contexts, these capacities are exploited until you reach, at the limit, erotic positions which have been emptied of subjectivity, e.g. BIMBO/CUNT. I think it's quite difficult, perhaps impossible, to represent a dyke as empty in that way. The corollary in the lesbian world to the empty sexual object is an erotic position I think of as invaded subjectivity.

"I was her idea, the fix for a wife with lesbian dreams. She never told me the details but I could feel them pushing out at night, in the way that there's a ghost town inside every city. It made her ferocious but not personal. Once she wanted me to tell her my sexual fantasies. Confession is good information, she said, stroking my clit with her finger. I shuddered, then recoiled. What could I say? My mouth was unconscious. I should have whispered, It feels like your nostalgia."

I take it as a given that the well-modulated distance of mainstream fiction is a system that contains and represses social conflict, and that one purpose of experimental work is to break open this system. But experimental work can require a context of aesthetic ideas which many people who might otherwise be interested in it don't have. In this context, intimacy, autobiography, and direct address don't function just as content but are strategies for pursuing a reluctant audience. So are genre narrative forms, such as sex writing or horror.

There are many roads into the succulent interior. How can the mechanisms of genre fiction get us (the cabal of experimental writers) there?

Consider porn narratives. Usually people do not appreciate being taken apart. They rely upon having an ego, enjoy feeling integrated and in control, and experimental work that questions this can arouse distaste. What is so interesting about pornography is that loosing it is the point. People want to be taken apart so that ego control (resistance to pleasure) is subverted. Where there was distaste, there is now desire mixed with dread. Pleasures of the rupture, rack and screw. The audience becomes an unwitting collaborator in its own disintegration, in the interest of pleasure, or just feeling, period.

Genre fiction is not about representing experience but producing and organizing feeling---sexual excitement, horror, mystery, fear. The aim is to invade the reader's subjectivity. To control, and then to release. The desire of the reader to be aroused or to otherwise escape is the key hole through which all the mechanisms of the narrative operate (note this turns the writer into a kind of spy!).

Because genre writing deals in something as low as feeling, these forms are relatively easy to use in other contexts and for other purposes. They are already degraded, so their resistance is weak. Experimental writers using genre forms are like drag artists.

My mistress cuts & tucks one silicone 38D into my chest and
then another, while I'm bound to our massive brass bed. Her
kinky breath is soft as suede.
When I cry she tells me,
The best titties are raised on the farm.
When I scream she says,
Pain shreds & relaxes. You'll stumble over the real thing.
Think of scrub brushes and the perfect ending.
When I sob in agony she comforts me,
Later we'll take a tour of the castle.
My mistress is cruel. She's bright as breath. She whispers
to me as she cuts,
I'm a fan of the flesh -- tits, stuffing, sweetmeats.
I suck the juice from the roast, I'm a pig with a straw.

How to pass suffering, eroticism ... from one person to another? Where does coherence fly apart? The answer to these questions does not lie in one or another particular strategy, but in the sensual devotion of the writer, taken to formal extremes. We explore our narrative tools, discovering exactly how they manipulate or release the contorted social body--because it's the one we live in, the one which feeds off us, the one which has swallowed the visible horizon.

2. Monsters

One of the forms of narrative I write is software. It can be lucrative. About four years ago I used stock options to buy a house right around the corner plus one block from one of the worst housing projects in San Francisco. A couple thousand people live there. It gives my neighborhood the highest child hunger rate in the city. Our first night in the house someone got murdered, just before midnight . It was a block a way but the shot sounded like it was in our back yard. One shot, a pause, then another. Purposeful. Somehow I knew it was intended to kill, and not just a couple of kids shooting at the moon. Plus the neighbor told us he'd had his car stolen 3 times.

Impenetrable poverty plus dumb fuck rules, class and race segregation: I'd moved into the only San Francisco neighborhood that duplicated on a smaller scale what I grew up with. It annoyed me.

Locality, forever. Skewed. Something huge gets mutilated as it slides through a stuffy tube. We're on the beach very far to the west, watching what pops out. It contains all of American culture. I came here so tightly wound, born on 43rd street south side Chicago & haven't been back to that neighborhood since I left the hospital.

From my dining room window, at the rear of the house, the project looks strangely vacant. There just never seem to be many people around. The buildings proceed down the hill towards the old industrial port like giant shabby steps, but there is never anyone on the racks of balconies. I've rarely driven through it. Structurally, it's sort of a dead-end place, the way it's laid out, like a suburban subdivision: streets point into it, then twist up like spaghetti. The few drive-through streets are dotted with dealers scoping out the passing cars.

When I first moved in I often found myself dreamily staring out the dining room window. I wanted to check out one of those balconies. The view would be amazing, they practically hang over the bay. Developers have been salivating over that piece of land for years. Nowadaze they are nibbling at the edges of the project, building expensive live work lofts for software designers on adjoining vacant industrial land. It's weird. Different economic classes get spliced together via crimes, their mode of interaction being criminal. So one day I mentioned to a friend that I didn't get it, how did dealers get kids to work for them--playing courier, or delivery boy. What would a dealer have on a kid? Why get involved with some jacked-up, scary asshole? I felt like an idiot as soon as the words left my mouth. Patiently, step by step, my friend explained how it was done, until I could have done it myself, as obviously he had. All I had to do was ask. Knowledge. The getting & taking and the tearing up. Did I want to go there?

Of course I did. One day I walked in, took a place on the balcony next to all of my friends & drank their salty water. I listened to the radio. I watched as a crack lady ran down the street behind a white dog. Then the dog was scratching at the door. When I woke up that sound was the shade, bumping against the window frame. And I was thinking, as I am always doing and my thinking told me this: This is what I want. It's inside my system of attractions. I'm penetrated by the present and it's always the same: chronic anger. Awful but refreshing.

I walked into the projects a couple of weeks ago. It's right around the corner, why not just walk? It was a friend's birthday. She told me where she lived, but it wasn't easy to find. The apartments didn't have numbers on them, you had to just know. I asked a bunch of people. Kids were running everywhere. How come I hadn't seen them from my back window? I look whiter than usual, I thought, looking at my hand. People looked at me skeptically. I felt skeptical about myself, but slick, as in greased. I wanted to fall off my little ledge: bored with what had gotten dished up as myself. With the backwash of swallowing it.

The balcony was great. I hung with my friends and listened to the radio. They played that song I like, the one about money. Later we went out to eat birthday steaks.

California is shallow. That's true. Though it thrills me that I can walk across the city without getting beat up for crossing some invisible dividing line of racial turf. Of course I could get beat up for something else. I'm so easy to please.

I'm supposed to write about narrativity but these problems of locality are where I get started. For me writing grinds itself into what's familiar yet unbearable. Add mobility to that and, voila, narrative. Disjunction is the formal consequence of this ripped & torn social life, and it's packed with information, almost to the point of being insensible.

The streets I walk measure me. They measure you too, through mechanisms both criminal and friendly. Writing that knowledge is a kind of spectacular innocence---the moment of saturation feels dazzling, but there is probably no point. Still I love it, formally and erotically. It's all about nested structures. I entrust my twisted little pieces to the warm nest of the sick social body, and I feel our bond. It nourishes me.

To theorize my point of view, to pursue critical formalism as a ritual and as a grasp for power, let me put it this way. Narrative provides context so that the rupturing of identity is recognizable. We are impossible beings, ruthlessly evading scrutiny. Yet recognition (linchpin of narrative) is the beginning of transformative emotion.

As a narrative writer I improvise recognition. It's a location from which mutant beings emerge. This feels true, in life they never stop emerging. Look---they even swarm through this text. I allow it because I'm terrified and seduced. To encounter them via narrative is to formalize a moment of surrender.


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