This is a very brief excerpt from the opening of my new hybrid novel in progress: Squid on the Barbie.
What is relationship between your environment and happiness? Influenced by the classical philosophy of the Epicureans and Buddhists, as well as the revolution of the surrealists, Pineapple and Don Whiskers move to Spain for a more simple existence. How can they reconcile traumatic pasts, in Poland and N. Ireland, with their new life in Spain? This is their love story. A revolution of everyday existence. Inspired, in part, by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, as well as the playful surrealism of Leonora Carrington, and the expansive minimalism of Lydia Davis, Squid on the Barbie is a nomadic surrealist journey, from countries and states of being, magic and alchemy, a novel of vignettes, travelogues, flash fiction, and prose poetry.
Squid on the Barbie is the third novel of a trilogy. The first novel, Never Mind the Beasts, is being released in April 2020 by Dostoyevsky Wannabe.
(art: Maria Cerminova Toyen, “Fardée pour Apparaître,” 1962.)
Super happy to have my poem “Feedback” in Poetry magazine. It is part of my manuscript The Green Monk, forthcoming from Boiler House Press in November 2018. It was composed while ingesting everything written by the great Lydia Davis. I can’t help wondering if some of her approach to writing leaked in there, but also other writers of course, there are always others, and also whatever was happening around me, the influences, how can we frame them. What is influence anyway? It accrues and accrues, but does it disappear? Who gets to decide who is influenced by whom? Readers feel some influence of maybe something else they have read or watched or experienced, the writer feels the influence of some writers. We need an audience to hold up the mirror. And also the artist is a mirror. We are all mirrors reflecting each other’s influences. Of course art, like everything, never occurs in a vacuum, it is interdependent. You can choose how you want to frame the influences. Forget about the isolated romantic genius. Originality is a collaging of influences.
It seems maybe there is red hot writing and there is cool writing, and then there is lukewarm. Or maybe a better way to think of it is some distance. This poem “Feedback” has some distance, via the style and framing of feedback, although the content has some fire, some lyricism. It was partly collaged from feedback on a friend’s slipstream novel in progress. William May and I met in Greensboro, North Carolina, during our days in the MFA programme, and have kept in touch, on and off, since 2005. His novel in progress is a nomadic surrealist journey, with many great mysteries. Without worrying about creating a poem I collaged some of the feedback I wrote for his novel, added some more layers, allowing for some chance operations, and called it feedback.
Isn’t feedback a kind of influence. I am also thinking of feedback in terms of sound. That rumbling, whining, or whistling sound resulting from an amplified or broadcast signal (such as music or speech) that has been returned as input and retransmitted. As in a feedback loop. Our brains are a feedback loop. How do we get out of the loop. That wheel of samsara, as Buddhists call it. And what about the connection between the inside and outside. We have a brain. It goes and goes. And also there are various stimuli happening outside of us, all around us. What do we do with it? Does all it get in there, either into the so-called conscious or unconscious brain. The surrealists, inspired by the breakthroughs of Freud, wanted to tap into the unconcious and create a holistic person. It was an optimistic avant garde movement. How many layers does it take to get to the centre of the onion. I don’t know what is behind our layers, or our words.
“Feedback” is out there in the world now, echoing, maybe reverberating with all the other sounds of poetry, and I hope some folks find some use with it. I hope the words are touchstones for the creation of a reader’s journey.
And yet, how much time do we have, really, to read words. It is my main activity, in terms of my art and life, and yet I get so tired of them. These words. They are never enough.
At a panel on Polish poetry, with the poet and artist Grzegorz Wroblewski, one of the audience members, clearly annoyed, said he was sick of the idea of the artist as outsider. The theme of alienation in art. I replied that yes some artists and writers in history are also insiders, movers and shakers, but that artists and writers, by being outside in some fashion, have something valuable to contribute to society, as the observer, and perhaps trickster, and can provide new ways of seeing and questioning, an aid against inflexibility and rigidity.
When I read some poems from The Spirit of the Bathtub later in the evening, a lecturer of Polish culture and literature, a little drunk and very annoyed, complained about my poems written about Poland. If “about” is really the right word. She said that Polish people were already exotic enough in London and my writing was exoticizing them more. I looked at my other writing later and I could see it was not limited to Poland. The speaker in my poems is a kind of outsider in many cultures and countries. Also, what is culture and is it always sacred? Yes, of course there are power dynamics to consider sometimes, the domination and destruction of less powerful cultures by more powerful cultures, but I do not find culture sacred, it is often another commodity, traded and sold, usually, or used for nationalistic purposes.
In a well written review of my new book The Spirit of the Bathtub, the reviewer mentioned the theme of alienation and also individualism. They also talk about some existential bummers.
All of this is on my mind because tonight I am teaching “Sasquatch,” a short story by Tao Lin, at the International Institute in Madrid, and the main character, Chelsea, is clearly an outsider, alienated. The narrators of the stories of Sam Pink are also outsiders. I gravitate towards outsiders. Why? What can they offer?
Well, I don’t think being an outsider always means being alienated for one. Or at least painfully alienated. They don’t always have to go hand in hand. But sometimes they are clearly outsiders in great pain.
The artist as an outsider in great pain has become a stereotype, just look at all the movies about writers and artists as alienated loners. We could of course point to a culture that does not value the artist, unless they are in the service of capital. The artist as shaman is certainly of little value for capital. So yes we could move in that direction. The alienated artist because of society. And that is certainly true. But this is of course problematic and I think that is partly what the audience member during the Polish poetry panel was referring to. The self reinforced stereotype of the artist as self destructive. There are of course many books about writers and alcoholism, writers and depression, and there does seem to be an unusually high number of writers and artists with so-called mental health issues. The danger is assuming that in order to become an artist, in the romantic sense, you need to become self destructive. Or, if you are generally happy and adjusted to the mores of society, why write or create art?
But I think it is, in part, not an either/or. You don’t have to be completely adjusted to society (does such a case exist) or completely alienated. By being somewhere in-between, and helping to keep the borders porous, maybe some artists provide a great service. Can it be measured? Probably not.
Existing outside as an observer, as well as inside, is a common technique of meditation. The difference is perhaps that you don’t need to react, just observe, accept, let go.
For such a long time, I tried to jump to letting go. But that just created repression of my emotions, desires, fears etc. Maybe art, as Aristotle suggested with drama, can act as a kind of purging. We just need to know how to let go, and to do it skilfully. If we don’t observe and accept, we might repress, but if we only observe without letting go, we might spiral and end up feeding the emotion, helping them grow larger and larger, out of control.
I think a lot of my favourite artists are outsiders, or outlaws, and also skilful at letting go, at least in their art. I cannot speak to their so-called personal lives. I mean artists like Bernadette Mayer, Frank O’Hara, Eileen Myles, Lydia Davis. They can see the world as outsiders and outlaws, but they are not clinging to this, not weighed down by it in their writing. They have a lightness of touch as observers and outsiders. I think that is the kind of outsider art I am drawn towards. Why? Well, for me at least, it makes me fee less alone and more connected with other human beings, in other words less alienated, more accepting. Also, with looking from an outsider position, everything becomes less serious, and there is less clinging. All of this can be done with a light touch. The artist as trickster, crossing borders, another form of the shaman in modern culture.