Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Response to Conrad's Q's about Bukowski, fiction, etc. 

Conrad, other folks,

Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to yr questions about my comments on Bukowski, fiction, & the rest. Life, you know, intrudes. Looking back at this entry prior to posting it, I feel like an egomaniac having written at such length about me, me, me, but since you proposed the questions to me via blog, I figured my response should go the same route. Hopefully that was the right call.

Anyway. I don’t know that there was one single moment where I started to find Bukowski less engaging, but the progression was pretty far along by my mid-20s, so trying to recall the reasoning behind it is already a wee bit tricky. I think there are a couple of reasons for the relative lack of interest, tho. For one thing, I probably just overdid it w/ his work, reading everything I could get my hands on, which is an almost certain recipe for burnout – esp w/ a figure like him, who’s seen every seemingly every scrap of paper he’s ever scribbled notes on come into print at some point. Reason two: he appealed to me most when I was an angrier person more prone to all manner of self destruction – it’s easy to use his work as a distorted mirror if you’re in that mental space. But seeing as how the last X number of years of my life have been a continual effort to get healthy in every sense of the word, his work rarely seems useful to me now on a personal level – the way I read him, there’s a vibe there, if I can get a little hippie-sounding, that I don’t want to be around very often, just like I have no interest in being around really riled up or boozed up people anymore (explaining, of course, why I disappear from LaTazza these days just as the party gets cooking by most standards). It just does nothing for me.

In terms of the “sloppiness” that I referred to... I got bored w/ most first-person narrative poems somewhere along the way, & Buk tends to fall into this camp. To keep me engaged, something really fresh has to be happening w/in the form of the poem itself – I think of Brett Evans’s work as an example there. His poems may be telling tales about working in an office or dancing at a party, but the presentation is always sharp & engaging, & there’s attention to torquing the language that’s pinning the narrative together for me – it’s like Brett creates this great screen that I’m trying to peer into, & even if I can’t quite make out the details, I’m intrigued by the shadows at play. Plus, I think working as an editor & simply making myself read more closely has made me really nitpicky about issues like line break, word choice, etc., & there are times where I don’t see Buk’s logic in those areas, & that tends to trip me up.

Overall, there’s much for me to admire in his work, but on a certain level, I feel like after the first reading of one of his poems, you’ve got it, you know? & I’m generally looking more for an aesthetic / intellectual challenge than a quick fix these days. I’ve read fewer poets in the last year than I’ve probably ever read before, but I’m making an effort to read more closely & really study the person’s work as a whole – in terms of more established writers, we’ve already talked Craig Watson a bit… but just to give you some context, it’s also been Rae Armantrout, Norma Cole, Michael Palmer. In each of those cases, I need to keep going back & circling around the work to feel like I’m making headway. I feel like there’s a continual process of intellectual payoff for me there, whereas Buk for me tends to be primarily a quick emotional burst.

Keep in mind: this is all my personal reading experience. I absolutely hate poetics statements that’re written prescriptively – “You must do this as a reader or writer b/c I do this!” Not my goal here at all. To each his / her own reading pleasures, guilty or no.

Fiction: You’re not the only poet I know who has some apprehensions about the genre, but I’ve personally never had those reservations. I mean, I guess I don’t care for most fiction, but I don’t care for most poetry, either. But here's my pitch for what I like. In addition to reading fiction by poets, I do tend to favor authors who I think bring a poet’s attention to language, whatever that may mean. These days I’m especially fond of writers like David Markson, Laird Hunt, Ann Quin, W.G. Sebald… I think Gil’s fiction pieces in “Pact” are extraordinary as well. Beckett’s short fiction is astounding to me. Poe & Kafka, to pick two other names from the ether, point in some interesting directions as well, right? There are so many options beyond the 1950s-era “New Yorker” story, you know? All that said, I’ve always taken great pleasure in a solid straight-ahead narrative, & my last two reads have been just that. Read Richard Yates’s “Revolutionary Road” recently, which is a sharp-eyed critique of mid-20th Century suburbia & the discontent that was already brewing there. Nothing avant-garde about the book. Completely astounding to me how he set up & knocked down the characters like a true pro – a tightly constructed, really satisfying book. Also just finished Walter Mosley’s “Devil in a Blue Dress,” which I’m teaching this semester in Intro to Lit. Great characters, plenty of action, a real bang-up pleasure.

I’m curious to hear the thoughts of other folks here, esp in terms of prose / fiction / whatever. Is there an aversion to the entire genre? If so, where does that feeling come from?

Chris McC

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