Chronic: Poems

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The Millions Interview: Lan Samantha Chang

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I finished All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang on a Sunday afternoon at my local coffee shop.  The sun bathed the high-ceilinged room in gorgeous light, and my cappuccino had me nicely buzzed.  I was not going to cry for the beauty of the small book I held in my hand, nor for the sadness of time passing and friendships lost or changed, but I wanted to.  I’d started Chang’s novel with the expectation that it would be a book about three poets in writing school and their magnetic teacher.  It was about that–but only at first.  The story spans many years, and many concerns, including what it means and takes to make art, and to love someone.  It basically slew me, and I read it a second time a few days later, to get that feeling again.

Chang’s first year as the Director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was my last year there as a student.  I was lucky to have her as my thesis adviser.

The Millions: I decided to read this book a second time soon after I had finished it, something I rarely–if ever–do.  On my second read I saw so many more connections, echoes and motifs in the novel than I did on my first.  The subjects and ideas that the novel is soaked in, poetry and love, yes, but also mortality and aging, marriage, and success, can be traced through all three parts. What’s introduced thematically in part one, when Roman, Bernard and Lucy are students at The School (and when Roman has his affair with Miranda), ripples through the entire book. These ideas deepen and complicate and change with each part, as the characters get older, and that development is stunning. How did you come upon this structure, and how did you conceive of each part, both on its own and in relationship to the other two?

Lan Samantha Chang: The structure came instinctively.  After finishing my first novel, Inheritance, I was unproductive for a few years.  I’d reached the end of a creative period. There was almost no desire to write, and when I wrote, the work did not feel vital.  Then in summer, 2006, a 50-page sketch of this novel tumbled out in the space of two weeks.  My husband Rob, a landscape painter, and I were living at a painting school on a small farm in France. I opened my laptop one morning and began a classroom scene, not knowing who the characters would be.  The writing felt unusually urgent and went at a feverish pace. By the end of our two weeks in France, the sketch contained the dance and graduation scenes from Part One, the final scene between Roman and Lucy in Part Two, and the final scene between Roman and Bernard in Part Three.   I had a strong sense of what I’d need to fill the white space, but wasn’t entirely sure.  I put the work aside.

Then two years went by when I didn’t touch the sketch. I felt the subject matter was esoteric and controversial.  Although the story isn’t about writing programs, it begins in a program setting.  I assumed many readers would not see beyond their own opinions about the setting in Part One.  Moreover, the work felt very private, and I had started two other projects that seemed more socially acceptable.  I’d also fallen, suddenly, into mid-life, with its responsibilities: my new job as director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was demanding and, to complicate things, Rob and I had a daughter in 2007.  After she was born, I realized I would not be able to get creative work done without taking a leave from work.  The next year, I was fortunate to be given a Guggenheim Fellowship, enabling me to do so.

There’s something about having a family and full-time job, about always being aware of the needs of others, that can give the act of writing an illicit, desperate feeling.  Every hour is bought by denying other people.  During the Fellowship period, I tried for weeks, then months, to work on the two “more acceptable” projects, feeling more and more frantic.  I got nowhere.  Finally, my husband suggested I spend just one month of this precious time on the poets’ manuscript.  During the month, I set up Bernard’s visit in Part Two; I wrote the long flashback between Roman and Miranda. Then I gave myself “just one more month” and wrote the long scene, set in the parking garage, between Roman and Bernard.  The project had taken on, for me, the feel of a guilty secret.  The hours of work were intense and concentrated, with very little time to doubt what I was doing.  I was spending precious fellowship time on a story that gave me enormous pleasure, but one I assumed no one would ever want to read.  When I had finished a draft, in fall 2008, I showed it to a good friend and then to a former teacher.  They told me to keep going.

I see I haven’t answered your question, which is about the form of the novel.  The form grew organically from the story.  I wrote the story for my own pleasure, and I put it together entirely on instinct.  I hardly tinkered with it and I never doubted it.

TM: In the past year or so, I’ve also interviewed Michelle Huneven and Jennifer Egan, whose recent novels, like yours, depict the passage of time in ways that have startled and moved me.  What went into covering this much time passing. How thrilling was it compress whole years into a single sentence?  Did you realize this would be necessary before you began writing?

LSC:  I wanted to write about characters whose adult lives’ defining moments took place in relatively concentrated sequences.  To portray those defining moments required skipping a lot.  I did take great pleasure in the leaps through time, as I was writing; there was a thrill in the ruthlessness of it.

TM: The language of this book is beautiful in its simplicity and there’s an elegance that comes with the slightly elevated third person perspective that’s able to distill consciousness in crisp, perfectly-articulated phrases.  What was your approach to the sentence-making in this book?  Since you were writing about poets, did the poetry of the language seem more important than usual?

LSC: I’m personally convinced that the authority of the “slightly elevated” third person comes from my having learned to write in the voice of “Workshop Director.”  In the last five years, the University of Iowa has gone through a budget crunch, and I had to write a lot of documents in order to protect our program’s funding.  It was imperative that I learn to write in a third-person voice with a weight of authority behind it.

It was not a goal to write poetically; the poets I know are so far beyond me in that arena that I tried to capture only their desire to write beautifully.  But I do think there was a special pressure on the language in this project, a pressure related to its brevity.

TM: Bernard is such a compelling character to me. In Part Two, Roland observes in his friend’s gaze: “that startling blue clarity, veering toward judgment, which Roman, feeling weary, now recognized as the extremity of innocence.”  Throughout the novel, Bernard is a figure of purity, an artist who labors in the pursuit of truth until he reaches what Roland calls “a piercing clarity of feeling” in his poetry.  Bernard contrasts with Roland, who is so ambitious, and doubtful about his own work, and often quite selfish.  How did Bernard’s character emerge for you?

LSC: During the composition of the first classroom “bludgeoning,” Bernard appeared in his red tie, quoting Emily Dickinson.  I was happy, even relieved, to find him.  (I’d been writing from Roman’s point of view, sitting inside Roman’s malcontent.)  Bernard’s “purity” felt familiar to me.  In graduate school, we used to sit around asking ourselves, “If you had the choice between writing several decent books, and writing one great work, which would you choose?”  Bernard would choose the one great work.  Implicit in our discussion was another question:  What would have to have sacrificed one’s life in order to make that work?

TM: Roman is also compelling to me: unlikeable, incredibly vulnerable, and often utterly devoid of self-knowledge.  I was most interested in his relationship to women in this novel.  Was that a big part of creating his character?  What do you make of Roman, both as a man and a poet?

LSC: Roman is Roman.  I can’t critique him or his relationships to women.

I wanted to write about a powerful feeling I’ve had as an adult: the sense of becoming aware of a truth long after it was too late to do anything about it.  This feeling, akin to waking up after a dream, is central to my experience, and it seems to come after periods of great blindness, or lack of attention—periods that can last for decades.  If anything, Roman’s defining quality—his awareness of his own desires, his needs, and the consequences of his actions far too late—requires that he be self-involved, also inattentive.

TM: Early on, Miranda tells her class that “few outside our world read the poetry that is written.”  Nowadays, this could be said not only of poetry, but short stories, maybe even literary fiction in general.  I certainly felt a connection to these poets, even though I myself am a fiction writer.  Why did you decide to write about poets and poetry?   Was it a big leap from your own process and struggles as a prose writer?

LSC: At the risk of making gross generalizations:  The lives of poets seem to distill and illuminate many of the questions all writers face.  Because poets never write for money, the art-vs.-life choices they make are brought into sharp relief.  Most of the poets I know are keenly aware of mortality and survival, they know we are all living on the edge of an abyss. This awareness brings them joy, and anger, and the ability to see clearly.  Poets are the canaries in the coal-mine of our collective consciousness.

TM: Much of this novel is concerned with the question of whether poetry can be taught, and what makes a good teacher of poetry.  It also considers the ways we become poets beyond instruction in the classroom—be it through romantic relationships, friendships, suffering, loneliness.  You studied writing at Iowa and have been the director of the Workshop for a few years now.  Do you have a particular philosophy of teaching or a way of considering writing in the classroom?

LSC: Every workshop is different, and what works well in one classroom conversation fails utterly in another.  I don’t have a set philosophy about teaching, but more of an awareness that things are always shifting in the world and in the classroom, and that over the years it is the instructor who must adjust. At Iowa, I’m also highly aware of the limitations of teaching.  The students are so gifted that the sources of their creative leaps, and of their periods of productivity, are internally discovered as much as they are externally provided.  Why does one strong writer fail to grow, and how does another find discipline?  It’s certainly not something over which I, as the instructor, have much control.  Sometimes I feel I might achieve the same results as I do now if I were simply to gather my students and feed them chicken soup. I do see things very differently as an instructor than I ever did as a student.  I’m aware now of the instructor’s vulnerability in a way I never was as a student.  I’m fascinated by the academy’s current discourse about power dynamics that assumes the instructor holds all the power.  It’s been my experience, as a teacher and director, that the students hold much more power than this discourse allows.

TM: Because this is a site primarily about books, I must ask you what the last great books you read were–one book of prose, and one of poetry.

LSC: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and Chronic by D.A. Powell

Ask a Book Question #76 (Good Readers, Good Readings)

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Traci writes in with this question:
I’m working to establish a really great reading series in Indianapolis, and I’m wondering whether you have suggestions for readers who really own a stage. I’m looking for someone lively and personable (and, of course, someone who writes great prose).

Have you seen anyone who really knocked your socks off?
Emily St. John Mandel: Reading one’s work aloud is a difficult art. Doing it well requires a certain stage presence, and a small degree of talent as a live entertainer: in other words, more or less the exact opposite of the skills you needed to actually sit down and write your book in the first place. Given that the skillsets involved in writing and reading aloud are so different, I’ve found that it’s a rare writer who can give a memorable reading. (By “memorable,” I mean “memorable in a good way.” I’ve been to some memorably bad ones.) More often than not we speak too quickly, or in a monotone, or way too dramatically when the material doesn’t call for it (“and then… she poured the coffee… into a cup.”)

I go to a lot of readings. The ones I like best are assured, understated affairs, where the reading style doesn’t get in the way of the prose, and I think the best reader I’ve come across in this vein so far is John Wray. I went to a reading of Lowboy in a bookstore in Brooklyn a few months back; Wray’s full-back Sharpie tattoo of Michiko Kakutani (“MICHIKO 4-EVAH”) was certainly striking, but I was more taken by his reading style. He reads very calmly and quietly, fairly slowly, with a pause after every sentence. The effect is mesmerizing; the audience in the bookstore was perfectly still.

Andrew Saikali: A great writer, a podium, bookmarked text on the stand, glass of water on the side. Microphone, lights, hushed audience. You’d think this would be the perfect recipe for a literary evening. Far too often it isn’t. The best readings I’ve been to have all deviated, in some way, from this formula.

Many authors are captivating on the page, but lack a magnetic personality. Without it, without that way to connect with the audience, the reading is doomed. That’s not a slight on their work. But let’s face it – a reading is performance. And some do it better than others.

I saw Irvine Welsh a couple of years ago at the Harbourfront reading series here in Toronto. It was a packed house. Welsh has a big, loyal fan base and they all seemed to be there. It fueled him, and he gave back in kind. He read from his novel Crime and also did a Q&A. That’s always a nice touch. An author’s personality comes out when he goes off-script. Add a Scottish burr and a known and fascinating personal history – this was, after all, the man who wrote Trainspotting. His background chronicling young Scottish lives on the margin comes through his wit and his attitude, and that attitude seeps into a novel like Crime set in the United States, a world away from Scottish junkies.

The legendary Ralph Steadman, illustrator and partner in crime with the late Hunter S. Thompson, was in town a few years ago with his book The Joke’s Over, chronicling, in words and drawings, his friendship with the gonzo journalist. His presentation wasn’t even a reading – it was a slideshow of his illustrations, with off-the cuff commentary and anecdotes. It was fascinating and hilarious – a slice of cultural history and outlaw tales.

Top prize though, for me, goes to novelist, artist and designer Douglas Coupland. Having only read his novel Miss Wyoming, I saw him read back in 2005. jPod was the novel he read from, but I don’t actually remember that part. I remember him talking to the audience, doing a Q&A like I’d never heard before, dripping with dry wit (yes, dry wit actually drips. I’ve seen it). Admittedly, Coupland was high on codeine at the time, but I’ve heard him interviewed since, and he’s always extremely articulate and with just the right amount of sarcasm.

Edan Lepucki: I’ll admit, I prefer to read an author’s book on my own than have it performed to me–that way, I can follow the story at my own pace, pick it up or put it down at my leisure, and let the prose suggest a voice to me, rather than have the author’s own monotone, or murmur, or over-enunciation, flung at me. And yet, I attend readings all the time, as if I actually like them. The most memorable one I’ve attended, by Deborah Eisenberg in the spring of 2006 in Iowa City, had nothing to do with her. It wasn’t that she wasn’t a strong reader, she was, but that hail so raucous and terrifying stopped her a few minutes in. The more adventurous among us (not me) ran outside to witness an ominous and greenish cloud coming for our heretofore sturdy university town. A tornado! Before she’d begun reading, Eisenberg had announced that her story would take approximately 40 minutes to read aloud, start to finish. That struck me as too long, and so, when we were interrupted, I felt as if I’d willed the tornado into existence, to rescue me from all that sitting-still. However, after we waited in an interior hallway for over an hour, we were herded into a smaller lecture hall to finish the performance. Eisenberg chose a different story this time, and only read the opening pages. I am sure it was marvelous, but with the winds still howling outside, I was distracted.

The only reading I’ve attended where I was truly riveted from start to finish was also in Iowa City when I was a graduate student. D.A. Powell read from his collection of poems Chronic with such a feisty and comic theatricality that for weeks afterward I found myself reenacting the event, as if I’d seen a dance performance and wanted to try out the steps for myself in my living room. I loved how playful Powell’s poems were, and how this playfulness left you unprepared for their beauty, which made them all the more delicious. D.A. Powell’s reading was followed, and matched in greatness, by Edward Carey’s. Carey is a small English fellow with a flop of boyish blond hair, and his novel Observatory Mansions, is delightfully off-the-wall. He was a masterful reader–it felt like we were gathered around the campfire, or listening to a ye olden radio play, with Britain’s preeminent actor flexing his talent just for the fun of it. That night felt like real theatre.

Garth Risk Hallberg: As an undergraduate in Missouri, I learned as much from the surfeit of on-campus readings as I did from any class. One of the most memorable featured Ben Marcus performing parts of his novel-in-progress Notable American Women. I use the term “performing” advisedly; Marcus had concocted an elaborate conceptual framework in which he was not himself but (I think) a secret agent shadowing “the author Ben Marcus.” Equally performative, in his own canny way, was David Foster Wallace, who delivered an hour-long reading from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men still talked about by those who attended. Wallace’s prefatory remarks played up his ineptitutude at public speaking – “I seem to have misplaced my saliva,” he said at one point – but what followed (B.I. #20; the one about the rape) was beyond ept. Indeed, in a twangy shambolic way I’m finding impossible to describe, it was riveting.

Later, I got to hear the late Kenneth Koch – a hero of my semi-rural adolescence – read from New Addresses. Usually, I get impatient with explanations about a poem’s composition, strategies, place in the author’s oeuvre, etc., but Koch was a wonderful storyteller, and as the reading went on, poems and exposition began to bleed into each other: witty, philosophical, and humane. And in 1999, I saw William H. Gass, whose International Writers Center (IWC) had sponsored the above events, read a scarifying section of The Tunnel. (Readers can now hear the entire novel as an audiobook.)

In larger cities where authors appear like summer fireflies – nightly, and en masse – it’s easy to come to see readings as transactions: obligations (from one side of the ledger), or as promotional stunts (from the other). But those irruptions of literature into the flat gray Midwestern winters remind me – as Deborah Eisenberg and Péter Esterházy would later, in New York – that a great reading is a singular communal experience. Indeed, as a way into the minds of other human beings, declamation predates literature. Maybe this is why I get misty-eyed every time I hear that old wire recording of Walt Whitman reading “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” – even if the occasion is just a Levi’s commercial.

Sonya Chung: The other night, poet/performance artist/novelist Sapphire – author of the novel Push, on which the feature film Precious is based – did a public reading at the National Arts Club in New York to kick off the Poetry Society of America’s Centennial. The event was also the opening reception for an impressive and seemingly exhaustive exhibit of drawings, photographs, and oil portraits of distinguished poets (living and dead), and was preceded by a benefit reading featuring Galway Kinnell, Marie Ponsot, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Richard Howard.

Sapphire opened with a poem by Etheridge Knight and went on to read her own work. Remind me to wear tight jeans and spike heels and to use my whole body and every register of voice I can muster the next time I do a reading. She sang, she incanted, she channeled and grooved. She read a poem about Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, another featuring Raskolnikov and Katerina, and the penultimate of the evening – a poem called “Survivor,” named for the reality show – that you’ll really just have to see/hear her read in person sometime. She stood in that venerable Gramercy parlor with 100 years of poetry creation and community welling up behind her, those venerable poets of yore looking on from their immortalized frames on all four walls; and one couldn’t help but be reminded of another kick-off event: January 20, 2009. Sapphire’s performance – both elegant and no-nonsense – and its spark of contextual incongruousness, made the reading utterly memorable.

Anne Yoder: The bookish should take a cue from our more extroverted playwriting brethren and remember that an audience needs to be entertained. Literary readings are performances, people. This fact is too often forgotten, and readings frequently resemble reversions to grade school story time, or are reminiscent of lay readings at church services, where the nervous race to finish and the serious, often zealous, overdose on sincerity and didacticism. In terms of material, light, funny, and sexy generally goes further than complicated, sentimental, or sorrowful. But what stands out more are the readers themselves. Readers with oversized egos, with larger-than-life personas, or even a dollop of theatricality, know that impudence, playfulness, and ego make for a good show, and often, a memorable reading.

The most remarkable readers I’ve seen have hewed to this rule. At a New Yorker Festival reading, Martin Amis made heads spin when he claimed that when he was younger his idea of a good time was lighting a joint, swigging a bottle of wine, and spending an evening reading his own writing. T.C. Boyle was endearingly cocky and wore suitably matched hot-pink Converse high-tops when he read at the 92nd Street Y last fall. Memory recalls hot pink, though my mind may be playing up his already eccentric appearance (loud shirt, gaunt face, and thin though voluminous hair). When artist Tracey Emin read from her memoir during Performa 09, her racy tale of an oversexed drug-addled visit to New York became so debauched she refused to read the passage to its end. She stopped short and exclaimed, “Schoolchildren in England read this?!” Emin’s infamous shamelessness made her obvious discomfort and subsequent omission all the more enticing.

Playwright Edward Albee takes the prize, though, for his dramatic command in an impromptu performance. Albee read at a PEN reading to protest silenced Chinese writers on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, and began by remarking that many countries continue to violate their citizens’ rights and imprison them unlawfully, most notably the United States and the People’s Republic of China. At which point, a man wearing a red T-shirt and bandana started shouting, “Long live the People’s Republic of China,” and, “PEN is the CIA.” At first Albee tried to engage the man’s remarks and said that China should be allowed to continue on with nothing but severe criticism, and then lost patience and ordered him to be quiet. The protester was swiftly escorted outside where he continued his protest. In an apt denouement, Albee remarked that he was happy he lived in a country where people are free to say such things and continued reading.

Millions readers, let us know about your best experiences at a reading – who are the best you’ve seen?

Surprise Me!