After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography edited by Kate Sontag and David Graham

June 27, 2010 at 9:45 pm (book review, books, essays, literary criticism, literature, nonfiction, poetry, reading)

Being a poet who writes primarily confessional poetry I was stoked to come across After Confession, a collection of critical essays discussing the technical, aesthetic, and ethical considerations unique to confessional poetry. With essays by some of the biggest names in contemporary poetry including Alicia Ostricker, Billy Collins, and Louise Gluck, After Confession offers a remarkably well-rounded look at the possibilities and pit falls of the form.

The book is divided into four sections: “Staying News: Critical and Historical Perspectives” looks at autobiographical poetry from antiquity to the present. “Our Better Halves: Autobiographical Musings ” examines the self within confessional poetry. “Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical and Aesthetic Considerations” is self-explanatory. And “Codes of Silence: Women and Autobiography” shines a spotlight on women in confessional poetry.

Sontag’s and Graham’s arrangement of the essays is almost conversational, each one responding to arguments put forth in previous essays. This back and forth makes it feel as though you’re listening in on an active debate rather than reading a book.

Though the book as a whole is incredibly rich, I enjoyed part three, “Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical and Aesthetic Considerations” the most. Ted Kooser’s essay “Lying for the Sake of Making Poems” in which he lambastes autobiographical poets who stretch the truth and advocates the inclusion of some sort of note or clause at the start of poems indicating whether or not they are true, had me so furious I covered the margins in back talk. I didn’t need to though. In the following essay, “Self-Pity,” Carol Frost highlights the many subtle ways confessional poets use syntax, timing, innuendo, and word choice to indicate what is true and what is false, and basically makes Ted Kooser look like a lazy reader.

In his amusing essay “The Glass Anvil: The Lies of an Autobiographer” Andres Hudgins maps out ten different types of lies ranging from white to red hot, and points out where, why, and how he used each of them in his poetry book The Glass Hammer. And Kimiko Hahn’s “Blunt Instrument: a Zuihitsu” examines the intersection of truth, half-truth, and memory in confessional poetry as a whole through a poetic form that allows one to clearly view each fragment, each thought, by itself  and in relation to surrounding truths and untruths.

Each section has its stand out essays. In section four’s  “The Voices We Carry” Kimberly Blaeser talks about the social construction of individuality, and how our sense of self is cobbled together through membership to various groups, and relationships to other people.  In section two Stanley Plumly’s remarkable “Autobiography and Archetype” makes the argument that archetype is what connects autobiography to something larger than itself, and autobiography is the medium through which archetypes are continually renewed.

No matter how you feel about confessional poetry – whether you love it, hate it, write it, or sneer at it – After Confession should be on your bookshelf. The essays offer ammunition to anyone looking for a way to explain why confessional poetry is awesome or why it sucks, and contains loads of food for thought along the way.

More than anything, the critical ideas and personal views expressed in After Confession reminded me of the possibilities inherent in the poetic form; that a poet can never learn enough, can never stop trying new things, and must never stop pushing the boundaries of poetic expression.

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Big in Japan by M. Thomas Gammarino

October 16, 2009 at 12:04 pm (ARC, fiction, literary criticism, literature, novels)

Big in Japan was the second book I managed to snag from Library Thing’s Early Reviewers Program. Considering how I felt about the first one, I did not have high hopes for M. Thomas Gammarino’s debut. But this character driven rumination on the relationship between physical desire and spirituality was a delicious surprise. At turns crass and cerebral, Big in Japan captures the distinctive blend of ambivalence and desperation that characterizes the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Big in Japan follows the exploits of twenty-four year old Brain Tedesco, guitarist for the Philadelphia based progressive rock band Agenbite. When the group realizes their independently released debut album is selling slightly better in Japan than in the States they convince their manager to send them on a promotional tour of Japan to boost sales. As the band tours Tokyo, playing venue after empty venue, they are forced to admit the tour is a failure. But having fallen in love with a Japanese sex-worker named Miho, Brain is too distracted to care. When Brain suddenly quits the band, deciding to stay behind and marry Miho rather than return to Philadelphia, the story kicks into high gear.

It’s risky to place an emotionally stunted character at the apex of a novel, and Brain Tedesco is nothing if not stunted. At the start of the story he is still living with his parents and working a crappy minimum wage job stocking shelves at a local pharmacy. He has never had a girlfriend, his deep anxiety, insecurity, and social awkwardness having paved the way for rejection after rejection.

The problem with emotionally stunted characters is they’re incredibly difficult to render sympathetically. All too often they’re immaturity and lack of self-awareness make them come off as whiny and annoying. And even though Brain is whiny at times, I never found him annoying. Gammarino imbues him with a naked vulnerability that is endearing and relatable. Even when Brain’s behavior crosses the line from self-defeating into selfish and cruel, I couldn’t write him off as just another man behaving badly. His motivations were far too complex and his psyche too broken for me to turn on him, and that says a lot coming from a person who is always prepared to turn on a character she feels is acting like an idiot. Gammarino deserves a world of credit for creating a character whose humanity is never eclipsed by his moronic behavior.

Brain is also kind of OCD. He is obsessed with order and routine; the kind of guy who has a place for everything and  insists everything remain in its place. Initially, Brain is not happy about going to Japan. The trip is a major deviation from his normal routine; a disruption on par with leaving a magazine that belongs on the coffee table laying haphazardly on the couch.

But Brain’s desire for order also translates into a taste for purity. Brain is a virgin, and a typical one at that. He is a total horn dog consumed by sexual thoughts, yet reveres the idea of love. He believes love and sex to be neatly and inextricably linked, one following naturally on the heels of the other. So, it’s no surprise that Brain is automatically taken by the pristine beauty of Japanese women – women so physically and behaviorally different from women back in the States. On page 19 as his band mates discuss the pros and cons of sleeping with easy women, Brain thinks, “Horniness dried you out, made you haggard and ugly. These japanese girls weren’t that. They were so pure.” Drawn in by what he perceives as the unsullied beauty of the natives, Brain begins to view his trip to Japan, its alien language and culture, not as a disruption but as a coming home of sorts. He sees it as a place where his hunger for purity and order can be adequately satisfied.

Early in the story Brain visits the Tokyo National Museum where he comes across a series of scroll paintings of “hungry ghosts.” They are described on page 67 as “…[D]enizens of one of the Buddhist Hell realms. They had mountainous bellies and needle-thin necks that made it physiologically impossible for them to sate their hunger. In each of the scrolls, the ghosts…could be found squatting in latrines, trying and failing to gorge themselves on human waste.”

It quickly becomes apparent that Brain himself is a hungry ghost. His insatiable desire to do and be something more than the anxious, insecure, angry boy that he is leads him to a life of debauchery. He gluts himself on sex until the activity becomes toxic; a mechanical act that he no longer enjoys but can’t bring himself to stop.

This compulsion to internalize that which is poisonous stands in stark contrast to his search for the pristine, though both spring from the same well of insecurity and both shield him in some way. By accepting only perfection Brain kept himself from having to engage the material world, whereas consuming only the profane prevents him from having to fully engage others on an emotional level. It is only as Brain learns to balance the needs of the body with the needs of the mind and spirit that he begins to grow up.

Gammarino’s writing is strong and evocative, if a little self-conscious at times. Big in Japan maintained a sense of urgency throughout that had me rushing to turn each page.

Normally, I’m a serial reader. I finish one book and dive straight into another. I couldn’t do that with Big in Japan. I had to take two days to emotionally process the story before I could bring myself to start a new book, that’s how much it got to me.

Haunting, sad, and unflinchingly honest Big in Japan will leave your mouth watering.

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The Unbinding by Walter Kirn

February 21, 2007 at 11:43 pm (essays, fiction, literary criticism, mystery & suspense, novels, walter kirn)

The UnbindingIn January 2006 acclaimed author Walter Kirn began writing a serial web novel for Slate.com. Almost a year later the complete work has finally been printed, bound in an eye catching orange cover with the title The Unbinding splashed across the front, and made available in hard copy.

When I ran across this slim volume in Borders several weeks ago I was rather surprised. Kirn is easily one of my top ten favorite authors in existence. How could I not have known he’d been writing a serial web novel? I had to give myself a slap on the wrist for being a bad fan girl. Even though I wasn’t particularly fond of Kirn’s last two novels he had yet to satisfy all the criteria necessary to make me stop purchasing his work all together. My criteria is entirely subjective; if an author I admire writes two novels in a row that fail to bring me pleasure I quit buying their books.  Since Kirn has only written 1 1/2 novels that fit the bill when I plucked The Unbinding down in front of the cash register I did so with the knowledge that this book would either make of break my relationship with Kirn. To my great relief Kirn managed to whip up a story of suspense and intrigue that renewed my faith in him.

It is told by three different characters: Kent Selkirk, the reclusive paintball enthusiast who works for Aidsat, a company described on the back cover as “an omnipresent subscriber service ready to answer, solve, and assist with the client’s every problem.” Kent tells his side of the story through personal blog entries. Sabrina Grant is the sweet and emotionally unstable young woman Kent has his eye on, whose story is heard through letters and telephone conversations. And Rob Robinson is the mysterious man who just shows up one day and begins acting all chummy with Kent and Sabrina. Soon after he starts sending reports on them back to his employers. His side of the story comes through a series of office memos. This format gives the reader the sense that he or she is spying on this trio of neighbors, perhaps even flipping through a top secret file of their questionably acquired communications.

The novel sets a lofty goal for itself by attempting to look at the ways national security, celebrity, consumerism, and information technology intersect. Kirn finds a perfect tool for such examination in the act of gazing. On page 4, Kent declares that “everyone is interesting enough to be watched.” This statement proves true as we observe the many ways Kent, Sabrina, and Rob watch one another.

As Kent and Sabrina prepare for their first date they each spend an enormous amount of time and energy gathering information about the other. Since Sabrina is an Aidsat subscriber Kent is able to access tons of personal information on her; everything from her work history, educational background,  and previous addresses to her vital signs which are constantly being monitored by Aidsat.  Though not as well connected as Kent, Sabrina is able to cull a load of information about Kent by calling in a favor from a friend, as well as tracking his electronic paper trail on the Internet. By the time they finally go out they both already know everything there is to know each other. So, when Sabrina tries to make herself sound more worldly by telling Kent she is divorced, Kent knows she was actually granted an annulment on the grounds of non-consummation. And when Kent tells Sabrina he went to college at Berkeley, she knows the school has no records that he ever attended.

With such extensive personal information available to anyone with a computer and a healthy amount of curiosity there is no reason for Sabrina and Kent to trust each other, not when they can run home and double check the accuracy of each assertion the other makes. And with no trust there is no reason to be honest since they both know the other will tease out the truth without them ever having to say it. As their relationship progresses the reader is forced to reflect on the necessity of trust in forming attachments, without which there can be no intimacy or depth.

The relationship between Kent and Sabrina illustrates a desire to both gaze and be gazed at. They both actively watch and monitor each others lives through their research, and they each continue to lie about their pasts knowing the falsehoods will ensure that the other continues to gaze at them. In this way they participate in each others lives without actually participating in each others lives.

On page 29, Kent muses about how great it is “to gaze ungazed upon.” He goes on to say “It sounds depressing, but when you think about it, it’s the same deal the creator gave himself, and the creator had all the deals to choose from.” It would sound good if the assumption weren’t so incorrect. As Kent himself observes, everyone is interesting enough to be watched, and God is perhaps the most scrutinized of all celebrities. Not even the creator can remove himself from the gaze of those he created.

The very act of gazing isn’t even as passive as it first seems. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “Gaze” as to fix the eyes in a steady intent look often with eagerness or studious attention. To gaze is to study with intent, and study requires undivided attention and focus. Such focus denotes intense involvement with the subject. On page 74 Rob Robinson states in one of his memos that “to observe is to disturb,” hinting at the way gazing can create change in the subject. We see this change everyday as the hot young starlet of the moment poses, dresses, and postures herself for the barrage of media observing her every move. People who are not subjected to such scrutiny aren’t as self-conscious. Furthermore, the act of gazing effects those who gaze. Rob also observes on page 20 that “[t]he more of yourself you show off to the wrong people, the more they eventually demand to see.” The more involved the gazer becomes in their subject, the more they want to know about them; the more they feel they have the right to know. And in this way the gazer and the subject of the gaze feed off of one another, both knowingly and unknowingly shaping the life of the person they hold in thrall. 

As the story unfolds the reader learns that none of the characters can escape being gazed at. Not only is gazing a predictable result of having eyes, it is an inescapable part of life. No one can avoid the gaze of family, friends, and with the explosion of user created Internet content, even total strangers. As they scrutinize our looks and behavior so do we manipulate the image we project in order to present ourselves in the best possible light. All three characters come to this realization in their own way.

The novel is fast paced and, thanks to Kirn’s engaging style of writing, a fast and easy read. I breezed through it in four days and spent the next several weeks analyzing it. It is thought provoking, and while I’ve only focused on a single aspect in this review/make shift essay there are enough threads running through this novel  to spawn dozens of essays.

In the introduction, Kirn mentions that because the story was written for the web it originally contained pictures and interactive content.  Sprinkled throughout the text are words and phrases printed in bold lettering. In the original online text these words were links to other web pages that Kirn used to enhance the text. Not wanting to completely throw out all the content that made this novel a web novel, readers can go to Walter Kirn’s website and find a chapter by chapter index of all the bold words leading to their original links. Kirn recommends “performing the labor” of looking at the links, and I must admit, doing so greatly enhances the text. There are alternate themes running through the articles, videos, and pictures Kirn links to that are not even hinted at in the text itself. I’m not saying you have to remain tied to your computer in order to enjoy this book, I certainly didn’t. I tend to do the bulk of my reading on the subway going to and from work. Unable to access the web content while I was actually reading, at the end of the day I would go to Kirn’s site and click all the links up to where I’d read. It was well worth the effort and I don’t think I would have entirely understood the final chapters of The Unbinding without the help of those links.

An ambitious work, The Unbinding shows off Kirn at his punchy, ruminative, quit-witted best as he engages the reader to actively unravel this intricately laced work.

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