Description and the senses: a masterclass by Devin Johnston

Visiting US poet and essayist Devin Johnston gave a masterclass at the IIML on 8 June 2018. MA workshop member and poet Tim Grgec provides a round-up.

Image of writer and publisher Devin Johnston (source: Saint Louis University)

Poetry, for American writer Devin Johnston, eludes categorisation. It simply exists as a form in which writers extend beyond themselves—wherever that might lead.

Central to Johnston’s poetics is the musicality of language. His poems (which achieve an enhanced meaning when read aloud), illustrate the reflective possibilities of the lyric. Image and sound are inseparable. His work offers what poet Forrest Gander describes as  a ‘rich and particular lexicon’, with consonants—as well as vowels—carrying their own distinct ‘music’. In this regard, Johnston’s work follows in the tradition of Basil Bunting, whose poetry, in its demand to be read aloud, also provides a satisfaction in enunciation: a delight to be both heard and spoken.

For Johnston, the satisfaction of writing poetry comes in its testing of idiom. The ‘give and take’ process, to use his phrase, of sounding particular words, phrases or lines, is a test of a writer’s language against what is being described. Writing, then, becomes an exploration of the ways in which words circulate in both meaning and sound, of precision and gesture.

Johnston’s essay ‘Creaturely’ observes the English language’s insufficiencies in describing smell:  ‘We have little language proper to smell, only makeshift analogies that take on a currency through volatility.’ Rather than favour visual representation, Johnston’s workshop component of the masterclass also aimed for participation in the sensory experience. He began by handing out stems of rosemary. We were asked to describe the herb’s smell, both metonymically and metaphorically, then turn these descriptions into a poem. The second exercise involved describing a scene entirely by sound. Johnston encouraged us to consider the two components of a metaphor, tenor and vehicle. The former refers to the object or phenomenon being described, the latter the associated image of comparison. Successful poetry negotiates between the two, finding a middle-ground of both descriptive precision and metaphoric surprise.

Cover image for Creaturely and Other Essays by Devin Johnston (Turtle Point Press, 2009)
Johnston writes poems almost entirely in his head before putting them to the page. Early drafts on paper or Word documents, he claims, prompt the poet to agonise over concerns (such as line breaks, punctuation and formatting) that can be considered much later in the creative process. The poetic material remains fresh and malleable in Johnston’s head. His methodology, then, can be viewed as an attempt to avoid stale or overworked writing. He reassures us that one’s writing process is not entirely mechanical, much less formulaic. More importantly, writing should be an enjoyable exercise.

 

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Terese Svoboda masterclass – Laura Southgate

UnknownOn 16 May, the MA students were honoured to attend a full day masterclass with Terese Svoboda, the author of six novels, a short fiction collection due out next year, seven poetry collections, a book of translation, a biography and a memoir. Her novel Cannibal was named one of ten best westerns of the year and described by one reviewer as ‘a female Heart of Darkness’. Her video work is also award-winning and she’s received a Guggenheim.

Our day consisted of readings, conversations about Svoboda’s work, discussion of others’ work and an in-class exercise. During the first session of the day, Chris Price introduced Terese to us. What followed was a lively conversation full of insight and refreshing (sometimes daunting) writing advice. Below are a few of many highlights.

Mother burns the bridge

Terese reads us ‘Bridge, Mother’, a poem powerful in its sparseness. Simple words (‘mother’, ‘burns’, ‘bridge’, ‘other side’, pronouns, articles and the like) are arranged in declarative sentences to produce different, sometimes contradictory emphasis or information. This stark unemotional language produces a startling emotional effect.

How to achieve this powerful simplicity? Terese tells us she had twenty constraints in this exercise – it’s an exercise Chris knows, it turns out, so she can share it with us. And it took a mere ten years to write. So get to work everybody!

Cannibal

Terese began her writing life as a poet, but an experience in her young adult life with a social anthropologist filmmaker boyfriend in Sudan cannibalmade her want to write fiction. This became Cannibal, her first novel. It was fifteen years in the making, during which time she grappled with some of the differences between poetry and fiction. Poetry occurs in a single moment on a white page, whereas fiction, she was told, emphasised character development and plot, and she was always bored with how to open and close doors in the prose. She says if she weren’t always ‘rebelling against these things’, she would have learned earlier that ‘story is a magical thing that you unearth and discover’ – but magic takes work.

Gordon Lish

lish-classicA turning point in Terese’s writing life was attending Gordon Lish’s famed writing workshops. She describes these in riveting detail. Lish looked ‘like a Presbyterian minister’, she says, ‘but kind of evil, like Sam Peckinpah’. You weren’t allowed to pee at any point during the sessions, even Terese, who was pregnant at the time. Not only that but the sessions were very long: it wasn’t unusual to finish up at 2am. People would break down, there would be people next to her on respirators, people with two weeks left to live. He made you believe fiction was worth devoting your life to. It was like EST or brainwashing, you emerged believing that.

It wasn’t all mind control though. Lish was welcoming to poets. He liked the ‘torque’ that words by themselves could lead you to, he encouraged people to stop and see how a text could unfold, one word at a time, as if he were ‘pulling a pearl necklace out of his mouth’. He didn’t believe in conventional plot. The only challenge for him was to get the reader to turn the page. Plot for Lish was like the Native American practice of shooting an arrow toward the sun, going to pick it up and then shooting again. A feeling of not knowing where you’re going was important to him. Because of this, he encouraged the use of first person, present tense. It allows things to unfold for the writer at the same time as the reader.

These lessons were liberating for Svoboda. ‘Fuck it, I didn’t have to do anything the way I was supposed to.’ She discovered what she needed to do with her novel: start again and proceed word by word. She never looked at any of the previous versions. ‘I thought nobody would ever publish it and that was a relief.’ (Of course it turns out she was wrong on that count.)

The Ps of writing

Play is what you’re in it for, not just for the dopamine rush when you’re really ‘in it’, Terese says. Her novel Pirate Talk and Marmalade was developed out of the considerable constraint that the entire thing would consist of nothing but dialogue between two or three people. ‘I was told I was very good at description so I decided to do this book without any description,’ she says. ‘Just say no to me and I’ll do fine.’

In light of this, Chris suggests that perversity is another writing tool. ‘Perversity and perseverance – the two big Ps, yeah,’ says Terese. If you get stuck, turn to another form. The constraints of one form can enliven another. It also helps to leave things for a while. ‘I’ve got drawers,’ she says.

On anger

Revenge can be an important motivator for your first book, Terese tells us. Anger is what helps get you through all that learning. But it’s hard in that mode to make the character you’re trying to describe sympathetic – so that’s especially where the fiction comes in.

One helper in this regard is the compression of memory. Detachment helps too. This is why hardly anyone writes a good deathbed book. Everyone starts with their traumatised childhood because everyone has one.

Anger is also often the driving force behind political poetry. A political poem is harder to write than a love poem, she says, ‘and that’s pretty darn hard to write’. ‘Let anything that burns you come out’, she quotes Lola Ridge as saying, and tempers this exhortation with a warning: find something to support your position with regard to anger, be sure to contextualize it. Speaking out with anger is seldom considered acceptable. An Adrienne Rich obituary described her as a ‘poet beyond rage’, not an angry poet. The New Critics hated women and regarded them as ‘shrill’ rather than angry. A contemporary example is Hillary Clinton.  Terese’s suggestion is to ‘flex the muscle of anger, don’t KO the reader’. But you have a responsibility to express anger. Poets are the only holders of truth. ‘I don’t wanna remain silent,’ she says. ‘Do you have a problem with that?’

Lola Ridge, ‘bad girl’

lola-ridge-coverTerese wrote a biography of Lola Ridge, an anarchist Modernist poet and committed activist. Her second book was from the point of view of a little Australiasian bad girl.  She was born in Dublin and emigrated to New Zealand as a child and spent 23 years here before emigrating to New York City, where she received very favourable critical attention as a writer and was an editor at avant garde literary journals. She had a personal relationship with all the big names in New York at that time (between the wars): Marianne Moore was one of her best friends. At her death, the New York Times declared her “one of America’s most important poets.” Despite this, she’s been largely forgotten in New Zealand and the United States. Why is that? Part of it has to do with the politics of the canonisers, Terese argues. Influential Elliot and Pound were elitist, whereas Ridge was vocally and uncompromisingly for the radical left. Women poets were also perceived as a threat during the time Ridge was active, following the immense publishing success of Edna St Vincent Millay. As a result, women poets were widely denigrated. She was also experimental at a time when poets looked for form. Others have seen her perspective with regard to her radical interests in those who were lynching or executed as ‘maternal’, but Terese argues that Ridge always writes from a female point of view and that’s so rare it’s seen as maternal.

Ridge wrote one of her books on a drug called Gynergen, an amphetamine. This was a time in the United States, she reminds us, when no one drank (or at least, not legally) because of prohibition, but drugs were freely available everywhere. (And when Terese says everywhere, she really means everywhere. 7UP had Lithium in it until the 1950s!)

Ridge was also very ill with anorexia, only 69 pounds (31kg) at one point. She was hospitalized and sometimes bedridden as a result, which Terese thinks was not entirely a bad thing for Ridge’s work, as it gave her more uninterrupted time to write, and made her seem like a woman of leisure, more similar to her patrons’ lifestyles.

‘I’ll never write another biography’

‘I’ll never write another biography,’ Terese says. ‘It’s the drowning in the middle of a sea of facts.’ Some of the challenges of writing Lola Ridge’s biography in particular were: getting threatened with legal action for plagiarism; not having access to all the papers; and not knowing much about modernism (and the balance of making what she did learn about it accessible while also to making it readable for people who already knew about it), and having to craft information in a certain order so that the reader will already know one fact in order to understand another. The most Oulippian thing you can do is write a biography, having to stick with the facts, and support each sentence with a citation, she says. In the end, she couldn’t wait for Lola Ridge to die. The death scene, however, was miserable, but mitigated by the fact that her husband brought her breakfast in bed a few days earlier, a luxury she craved.  Ridge had found strength in isolation, despite the sad circumstances of her demise. ‘I am my own citadel,’ she quotes Ridge as saying.

Writing Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, her uncle’s story of being a GI in post-war Japan presented different challenges. It’s both a personal story and a family story, and secrets surfaced that some of her family were unhappy about her sharing. However, she cautions us against worrying too much about family when writing from life, because you don’t always know what relatives will be offended by. She wrote terrible things about her mother in her first book, Terese says, and the only thing that offended her mother was a depiction of her wearing an ill–fitting sweater.blackglasseslikeclarkkent2.jpg

Svoboda was also uncovering secrets the US military didn’t want people to know when she was working on Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, about executions by the US military of their own soldiers. Getting information was hard. A mysterious fire at a remote archive in 1973 was often blamed for the inability to produce records. Terese says a librarian friend of hers recommends her book to anyone who’s doing research, because it keeps meeting dead ends and she had to find new leads. Writing a biography became similarly obsessive. You see your subject everywhere you go. It’s also expensive, because you have to travel to places physically in service of the obsession. She says that the trick with this memoir was to find a mystery that would lead the reader deep into the book.

The exercise

Our in-class writing exercise was as follows:

Select one word that has significance to you. Produce a lyric essay in five parts. Parts 1, 3, and 5 are personal memories in present tense, not necessarily chronological. Parts 2 and 4 are intellectual, analytical. They could involve quotes, myth, words used in literature or film, word derivatives, and so on.

We had a half an hour to write something based on this prompt, with access to an internet-bearing device for research if we needed it. We were to write for ourselves (it wasn’t collaborative).

Afterwards, Terese went around the room picking out people to read what they had written. Word choices were as diverse as ‘ontology’, ‘homeless’, ‘night sweats’, ‘yellow’, ‘doubt’ and ‘daughter’, and the resulting essays were as interesting and varied. In the end it turned out nobody was exempt from reading their essay aloud, including Emily and Chris. Perhaps had she warned us of this beforehand we might have made more cautious, self-censoring choices. After each reading, Terese provided an instant commentary on the work and often some more general writing advice, for example, ‘a way to get energy into a prose piece is to contradict yourself’. She also spoke about complexity in a character. We all contain the elements of a Dostoevsky character, a murderer or great lover, because we are all human. For a character to be believable, we need to know how they are like us.

Terese produced some more Gordon Lish nuggets in the course of this session. Lish made people confess to the worst things they’d ever done in their lives, she revealed. Somebody would break down making these confessions, and then he’d say ‘you didn’t have to tell the truth’. A work ‘has to make us cry, not you’. We’re to look for what makes us human, what moves us, for guidance. Fiction, according to Lish, is a sacred torch that’s been handed to us by someone else.

Faith and Will – Carl Shuker

carlshuker

INTERVIEWER
So, how do you write, exactly?

BALLARD
Actually, there’s no secret. One simply pulls the cork out of the bottle, waits three minutes, and two thousand or more years of Scottish craftsmanship does the rest.

Obviously the Ballard here is J.G., in his Paris Review interview. Here is the author of, at his death in 2009, 18 novels and by my count 22 assorted collections of short fiction. In 1984, when he said this, James Graham was 54 and had published 10 novels and 15 of those collections. What lies behind this perfect little quote is an enormous lived treatise on the faith and will of writing.

J.G. is turning irritably in his grave right now, but hear me out.

In 1964, three novels into his career, Ballard’s wife died of pneumonia. In his joyous, playful The Kindness of Women he rewrote his own biography such that she dies after a fall at a Spanish beach resort. He is forced to drive his three children home to their dusty semi in Shepperton, TW17. Imagine that drive.

JG-Ballard-outiside-his-h-007

J.G. Ballard outside his house in Shepperton.

Shepperton, to his readers, is an otherwise banal London commuter circuit suburb luminous with his fiction: its reservoirs clasping drowned light aircraft in their waving weeds; its leafy green über-English foliage poised trembling ready to explode into a precisely and passionately observed tropical rainforest; its residents walking as if lost in a dream, ready for their deviating sexualities to emerge and find their fullest expression on church pews and dashboards.

What he did, just three novels in, his wife dead, age thirty-four, was to drive home to Shepperton with his three bereaved children, and commence the unimaginable task of bringing them up alone and writing his life’s work. And though Miriam died of pneumonia, not of a mysterious concussion in the back of a Catalan ambulance, whether or not he verifiably drove those children home doesn’t matter. Because that is what he did. He drove them home from the place of their mother’s death, and then he drove them to school in the morning, every morning, and came home, poured himself a large Teacher’s at (I like to imagine) about 9:15 (elsewhere in a very generous and humanising admission he talks of it calming his nerves), and commenced on the next 500 to 1000 words of some of the most devastating, numinous, repetitive, terrifying, sad, monotonous, prophetic, hilarious fiction we keep from the latter half of the twentieth century. (Martin Amis called Ballard’s fiction “at once totally humourless and entirely unserious”: his persistently strange work always rewards the paradoxical juxtaposition, and like all the biggies, he always reveals his reviewer.)

This is an act, behind his—and any big writer’s—apparent bravado, Godlikeness, unassailability (I don’t ever think of McCarthy sitting down to Blood Meridian and murmuring “Oh, I just can’t enter into this imaginatively today”): an act of faith, and of will. Because the weird catch-22 or ouroboros of novel writing is that to do the creative, imaginative work of making a piece of prose ring in a reader’s imagination, to raise and fire an undoubted world with bounce and blood and passion such that the reader has total faith in it, you must have faith in yourself. It’s a requirement.

It may sound trite. But consider this: out of nowhere, you’re say 24 and haven’t hardly finished a proper emotion let alone a thing we might call a book, you’re required to have faith that this tiny two-inch corner you’re painting right now will form an inevitable, essential, closely examinable and yet seemingly seamless and unremarkable part of a huge, huge canvas (you know only it’s really big) that you don’t know the exact dimensions of yet. (There’s a not-small element of bluff.) Because if you don’t have that faith then the brushstrokes, the mark making, will be incongruous; tiny, perfect details here; broad evocative strokes out there when you got confident but ran out of time/material/story/whatever. Pacing all wrong. Result: “Patchy”—L. Patchett, Listener. “Uneven”—Michiko Kakutani, NYT.

So because it’s me and not, well, you, I’m actually talking about, back to the first person: the catch: in order to do what I need to do and what I know I can’t do, or certainly have no prior evidence I can do, I must have faith in myself that I can indeed do this miraculous thing. Faith is a synonym here for love of self. But also, over time, as the fiction progresses, for me, faith in the people of the fiction. Faith in the world as it is transformed into the fiction. Faith as synonym for love of world. (Of course what also works is support of community, of family etc., apposite energies or obsessions like anger, loss, love, big passions which can be channelled, etc., Scotch.) Will is the element of getting myself into the position to have faith. “I will, every day, be here at this time doing this thing and if you think I won’t and that I will fuck this up like I fucked those other things up you’re about to get a lesson in will.” Or something equally self-exhortatory, vociferous, not to say strident. This is our only time and our only time in the sun; bitching about publishing and about debt and stress and hard work and tiredness and failure and dumbing down of this and that are just ways of not doing what I really have to do.

Don DeLillo has a lovely bit about will, in Underworld:
“Have you come across the word velleity? A nice Thomistic ring to it. Volition at its lowest ebb. A small thing, a wish, a tendency. If you’re low-willed, you see, you end up living in the shallowest turns and bends of your own preoccupations.”

It’s a Jesuit talking to a young man. And I can see it’s kind of scary in isolation from the big sepia warmth of that book. It’s not just about set teeth and application of trouser seat to chair, as Kingsley Amis has it. Here’s Ballard, at his desk every morning in his, let’s face it, filthy house, his three children (three children) off at school, with his glass of Scotch, commencing on the next page of the novel, of his alternative affirmation of the psychosexual horror-comedy of the twentieth century.Drowned_World

And before I tell you what he does next, looking down at what he’s written, there’s another thing I might mention, apart from writing, and books, that is the result of this exercise of faith and will. Bill Manhire reports on always feeling like the youngest person in the room. And it’s written all over his face. Seamus Heaney said, “All poets are young poets really, that’s the beauty of it.” It was written all over his face too.

There are writers out there, and unhappy, frantic-seeming people with intense inner lives who haven’t found their work, who only calm under the weight of a task. I think of them like certain teenagers, all power and energy and no direction. Give them a task, give them a weight to bear, precisely calibrated just above their expectations of themselves. And they may bitch and moan, but the weight must be such they are forced to concentrate, and calm. There is a peace.

And there’s more. Because here’s Ballard, 34, with his three children, his debts, no doubt, and his memories of murder, atrocity, torture and starvation. His lost wife. He looks down at what he’s just written and chuckles.GetImage

Carl Shuker is the 2013 Writer in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. His books include The Lazy Boys and The Method Actors. His latest novel is Anti Lebanon. Asked to recommend Ballard titles, Carl writes: ‘For new readers I’d say definitely start with the canonical Crash, or for those more squeamish, The Drowned World. And for the wonderful transmogrification of Shepperton: The Unlimited Dream Company.’

Carl is representing the MA year 2001 at the IIML Alumni Reading on Sunday 29 September from 7.30pm at Circa Theatre, Wellington.

Research and Improvisation – Amy Head

 

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For the first time in a while, recently, while I was packing up to move, I put my hands on the folders and clear files relating to each of the stories in Tough (a collection set in the past and present on the West Coast). I’m far less likely to happen on digital files in the same way, and it was the first time I’d looked at this material together as one record. Each story had its own spiral-bound notepad. There were photocopies from library visits and pamphlets from tiny museums in the middle of nowhere (more like sheds, some of them, supervised by no-one). I found an exhibition catalogue and a promo DVD from Solid Energy.

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The folders were filled out with print-outs of past drafts – three or four per story. Flicking through the old versions reminded me of entire sections of stories that had been scrapped, like the deleted scenes in DVD extras. It reminded me how unexpectedly modular the stories had been, allowing me to shift paragraphs around when I’d finished the first draft and could see more clearly what the story was about. It was all there: characters whose names had changed, the story I had to rewrite after being burgled.

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I especially enjoy the research and discovery phase of developing an idea for a story. At its most ‘method’, this has meant persuading a friend of a friend, a textile historian, to let me try on her collection of hoop skirts. At its most leisurely it meant tracking down and watching old goldrush movies.

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Sometimes these diversions were justified. After all, I have to inject the language with my own energy and commitment. I have to make the first draft sparkle enough to keep me interested in all the subsequent drafts, when I’ve switched the paragraph order and changed my mind about tense and point of view, and it’s all an unpacked mess that has to be put back together somehow.

But often, when I’ve forced myself to stay at my desk and write past the point at which the day’s writing began to feel stale, I’ve eventually arrived at an idea or image I’ve liked. I’m not sure that all of the preamble, my holistic approach, which I hoped was building up a unique world, attitude and tone for each story, was actually necessary. Although it may have given the stories the occasional sentence or image, the language and style is far more likely to have been enriched by what I was reading. On my MA year in particular, I was reading more, and more widely, than usual, and being encouraged to try new things.

During an interview for ‘In the Actor’s Studio’, Robert de Niro said he often found he got to the same place in his characterisations by skipping most of the fastidious preparation, instead starting to improvise and rehearse as soon as possible. I wonder if, when I start out in my next project, I’ll find a better balance between preparing and doing from the outset. If I start writing earlier, my subconscious can continue the work while I’m skiving off watching YouTube footage of the world’s highest waterfall, a demonstration of how to put my hair in victory rolls, or Roberto Begnini performing his one-man show about Dante, in Italian, in front of the Duomo.

Amy Head’s first book of stories Tough is published by Victoria University Press. She appears in the Writers on Mondays lunchtime series at Te Papa on 29 July.