March 21, 2011 § 6 Comments
I’ve been having trouble writing recently. My degree is in English Language & Literature, and there’s no creative writing element. Fine, traditional, why should I need to study creative writing etc. etc., and there’s a lot of debate at the moment whenever these courses are mentioned as to whether they’re valuable, whether they’re harming literary culture or whatever. Obviously there is some value to being in a formal creative writing teaching environment, if you pick a good course – time to work/write, time to discuss your writing with other engaged people, which can be otherwise hard to get if your friends aren’t into the same things as you or you know. But my problem isn’t so much that, and if I’m honest I’m not so interested in the courses’ inherent value, since it’s just a mixed thing – my problem is that I’m having difficult connecting what I read with how I write.
I’ve never been a very political writer of poetry, although I’m into politics and am fairly critical of the way that broadcast/print media in particular tend to represent women (and other groups that are often marginalised – people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, people who identify as lgbtq…). This didn’t translate well across to how I read for a long time. I think this partly comes from reading for a degree that is mostly based on texts that are pre-1830. The debate usually becomes, to crudely generalise, “in what ways is this misogynistic and racist and in what ways is it progressive for its time” rather than “is this misogynistic/racist”. Obviously this is the appropriate way of approaching a lot of medieval/early modern/romantic texts, and it’s all fairly relative, and it doesn’t stop me from necessarily enjoying all of my favourite old poems. After a while, you get kind of used to it – and with plays in particular, you look at how they can be reinterpreted to suit modern ideas and purposes. But you surrender to the idea that characters/personas/people who aren’t privileged straight white men will probably be treated with less respect than the characters that are privileged straight white men. Which is often most of them, really.
So this isn’t a problem in itself, since I think you really have to read sixteenth century poetry with an awareness of sixteenth century issues if you’re planning on writing well on it. Obviously if you’re reading for fun you can do whatever you want. But then it meant that when I started reading poets that were writing much, much more recently than all of the other writers that I’d studied, I discovered that they were still at it in the mid to late 20th century, still writing all this hateful stuff that I was, by now, used to – most memorably, Ed Dorn’s sequence ‘Oxford’, which starts with a description of all the women he sees on the train and their legs, nationalities and cunts shining at him or some shit like that. It might even be a good poem, I don’t know, but I read the whole thing and all I can remember is him leching at these women’s legs and all and it makes me feel kind of disgusted. Is that my problem? Should I not care? Should I say oh well, it was the 1960s which is in the past even though it was a few years after The Feminine Mystique and almost two decades after The Second Sex and at the same time that Lorine Niedecker was writing and the year that Veronica Forrest-Thompson published Identi-kit and actually maybe he was the one with the problem? Or maybe he’s being ironic? Maybe I’m just not in on the joke. Except, mostly, jokes are more funny when they’re not just saying exactly what everybody else has been saying for hundreds of years and nudging you in the ribs and telling to you to just fucking laugh. Like all the Facebook groups that people were joining about a year ago where men ironically pleaded with women to stop talking over Modern Warfare and make them their lunch. Why do you think that’s funny?
Also, I don’t hear Ed Dorn laughing.
But because I haven’t been reading or writing about modern poetry for the past year and a half (and I wrote very poorly about it in first year when I did try my hand at it) I’m now stumped. I don’t know how I’m meant to respond to this. I feel too stupid in the monolithic face of it – like right now I’m worried about even saying all that about Ed Dorn because I feel I don’t know enough, like some Black Mountain warrior is going to come and sit on my hands and tell me I know nothing worthwhile. In Emily Critchley’s little piece before the poem she has in Infinite Difference, she talks about how her thesis:
concentrated on understanding socially the dominance of the Language scene by its male writers, while claiming feminism as one of their key political concerns
& she also talks about these problems rearing their heads once again in Cambridge, decades on. So what’s changed? I don’t want to have to say I find this poem sexist, therefore it is Bad Art. Hundreds of years of poetry that’s sexist has shown me that that’s not true, or wasn’t until recently, and there are probably still some sexist men writing Good Poetry. But do I want Good Poetry? What do I want to spend my time writing, even if I read all of the sexist and non-sexist stuff that I can get my hands on, because mostly reading anything good/interesting/weird/bad should help me improve? I have never really been able to think of my own writing in the way that I think about the texts that I read – I can barely rhyme, despite being obsessed with rhyme’s development across the centuries (ever want to discuss Byron’s use of polysyllabic rhyme? drop me an email). I don’t feel comfortable shifting margins about or splitting lines across the page or even using typography to express much, despite having written a 2000 word essay on Chelsey Minnis’s use of the ellipsis for a language paper in my second year here. And I think this is tied to why I feel afraid of pointing out poets that are sexist. It doesn’t mean they’re bad.
It doesn’t mean I should have to stand for it, either. I should be able to write about it. And I need to start feeling like I can write like the people I read, or from the same place as them at least – I shouldn’t just be stuck writing how I wrote when I was sixteen just because a few people liked my poems when I was sixteen. It’s only my own fault if I don’t. No more timidity, and no more cowering at Charles Olson’s feet.
March 4, 2011 § 1 Comment
Towards the end of January, I posted a couple of very short stories that I wrote a few years ago. I haven’t been posting much recently because of essays and extended essays and reading and stuff, and I’ve got a short story that I always meant to do something with but never quite did, and so I’m going to post it here, just in case anybody’s interested. It’s a couple of years old, and not anything like what I would write now if I had the time – but the friends I showed it to at the time seemed to quite like it, I think. It’s about a girl. It’s one of the only short stories I’ve ever attempted – as I’ve said before on this blog, I don’t really get on with prose fiction, most of the time – and it’s not very long (although it is the longest thing I’ve ever posted on this blog). I hope you like it, but if not, hey, why not tell me what’s wrong with it in the comments.
The only gift Madeline gave me before she left was a pair of gloves that were far too small for me. I managed to squeeze one of my hands in and sat there, inspecting my palm, and the stretched stitching became like a map that I couldn’t quite get the right way up. Madeline smiled at me and rubbed the soft back of the glove on my hand, then told me that they’d never kept her warm and she wouldn’t miss them, so she didn’t mind that she had to leave them behind. The gloves had probably originally cost more than anything I own, so I kept them, but didn’t bother trying to wear them again. Madeline wouldn’t have liked me to.
After Madeline left, I’d find things that she’d owned at some point or another everywhere. The gloves were the only possessions that she had directly bequeathed to me, but there were three glittering bottles of mascara on the windowsill, a bottle of perfume that had barely been opened stashed at the back of the medicine cabinet, and five vegetarian meals in the freezer that I didn’t even remember her buying. A year later I found her glasses caught up in dust and rubbish under my bed, and a few years after that I found a single crystal earring, winking at me from a dusty eggcup. Though there was no way I could get these things back to Madeline, and I knew she wouldn’t want them anyway, I couldn’t use any of them. I was hardly likely to want perfume or mascara, anyway, but I also didn’t want to pass them on; Madeline was strong, like glue, and I couldn’t quite remove her from the objects that she had so carefully hidden, or unthinkingly left behind. Her name carries power, even now; Madeline, Madeline. I can’t imagine anyone else smelling like her, or dressing like her. Madeline was like nobody else.
The last time I saw Madeline, she was fifteen and I was eighteen. Too old. When she first came to stay I was seventeen, and she was fifteen, just, but she looked older than me, small but wiry, and her hair was permanently set in perfect waves. We had no mutual friends, no relation to each other, but through an advert for a lodger on a website on my end and a strangely-worded letter of enquiry on hers (one of only two enquiries I received, and I was fairly desperate for the money) she ended up living with me for the best part of seven months. Why was I living by myself at seventeen? A number of reasons, none of them interesting, but I had an inheritance that was running out and the bills were rising. I did not want to move in with my only nearby relative, an uncle who had last cleaned his flat fifteen years before, and so advertised excessively for lodgers and did any kind of work I could find in my spare time, no matter how demeaning. Madeline first met me on my way back home from a call-centre, and I think forever saw me as destitute and willing, perhaps, to do too much for money.
Legally, Madeline could do nothing. Fifteen year olds cannot work, smoke, drink, have sex, live apart from a legal guardian, drive, vote, marry, buy lottery tickets, buy scratchcards, buy knives or fireworks or pretty much anything that could be in any way dangerous. Madeline, of course, was above the law. Madeline swore blind to anyone that asked that she was nineteen (eighteen was too obvious, she told me once) and only drank red wine, didn’t work (as far as I knew), never mentioned anything about parents or a guardian of any kind and wasn’t into gambling or playing with knives. Madeline acted more like she was thirty than fifteen. I never asked where the money that she paid me came from, but there was no lack of it; she paid more than she needed to, and covered the bills more than once when I was having a particularly difficult month. She came to me in February so she was around through my exams, and didn’t mind that for two months I was barely bringing in any money or food. She had wanted a place to live where she could pay with cash and without a contract, and I gave her that. The rest was unimportant.
I replied to her enquiry letter the day after I received it, and despite the fact that on paper she’d sounded fairly odd, I’d asked if she could move in at her earliest convenience. I can’t overstate enough how much I didn’t want to give up my independence. I’d arrived back from the call-centre at about six, and had seen a small figure just standing by my front door with a trunk and a glimmering purse in the shape of a clam. I’d received no phone call warning me that she was coming, let alone a note, but I took in the thin dress and stockings, her perfect hair and beret that seemed firmly held in place, and realised straight away that this was my lodger, the girl who had signed herself Madeline. She didn’t have a surname.
“I’ve been here for an hour,” she said, in a fairly deep voice for a fifteen year old girl.
“You must be Madeline,” I said, still slightly taken aback, and reached out to shake her hand.
Later that evening, I knocked on the door of her room to ask if she wanted coffee, and to see if she wanted to order fast food with me or (more likely) if she wanted me to show her how the oven worked and perhaps cook her one of the meals involving aubergine that I had stacked in my freezer. She opened the door and I saw a room transformed; there were small, carefully clipped photographs of her and various well-coiffed girls in rows on the walls, new purple curtains, and large maps of both North America and Europe were hung up, perfectly straight, in faded browns and turquoise. Everything she owned looked like it had belonged to some other girl more then fifty years earlier. She chose the fast food.
That evening ended with us both on my sofa, a small pile of foil containers that had once held noodles and sweet meat and rice now under the table in front of my television, which was playing a terrible late-night chat show that neither of us could be bothered to turn off. Madeline had used chopsticks, slowly and badly, but she had used them and had eaten everything in front of her. I was impressed, since she’d apparently never tried chopsticks before. I ate with them deftly, and fast; my mother grew up in Hong Kong and I’d lived with her until I was ten. There are some things you can’t help picking up. I caught Madeline watching me, her eyes darted from my hands when she realised that I’d noticed, but then she looked at her own hands, and the television, then my hands again. She didn’t like that I was better than her at even the smallest, most inconsequential thing.
Madeline didn’t go to school. I wasn’t surprised (it was clear even from the beginning that she was from out of town; she had a northern accent, and at the start asked directions almost daily), but it was strange since she was so young and obviously wanted to learn everything. She only told me that she was fifteen when I asked why she didn’t want a contract, and that was in a clipped, unwilling voice. She didn’t invite questions. I’d come back from college, or a call-centre, or whatever other workplace had hired me on a temporary basis and would often find her reading some difficult philosophy book from the library, an expensive fashion magazine written in another language, or sometimes just the newspaper that I had delivered. She read all the business stories, all the shit about economics that I knew I should have cared about but really didn’t understand. She also spent too much time looking at the clothes people were wearing in photographs, and sometimes kept the magazines that came in the paper on Saturdays just so she could clip people out and keep them. After she left I collected the things left in her drawers, mostly pressed flowers and broken kirby grips, and in the bottom one found dozens of photographs of women in powerful dresses and oddly-coloured silk just scattered across, their edges curled, faces blank.
Madeline never came with me when I went on infrequent trips to cheap restaurants or bars with my friends, and never met more than two or three people that I knew, but they all became aware of her pretty quickly; one often dropped by my house to watch television or sleep on the sofa when his parents were fighting (which was at least once a week, often more) and others called at various times. Almost everyone was jealous of me for living as I did, but they all kind of pitied me at the same time, and so mostly I was left alone, and people soon gave up on trying to have endless parties at mine when I made it clear that I lived here and had no parents to bail me out or smooth things over with the neighbours. I didn’t actually like many of my friends, and they treated Madeline like a curiosity; she took great pains to present herself as something crystal, or, no, that’s not quite right. Madeline wanted to be made of something like crystal that was impossible to shatter, and something that you could never quite warm to. They were all too willing to believe that, but worse; they joked about her, bitched about her, played with the hairclips and scarves that she left scattered on the coffee table or wrapped around the handle to the fridge. I wasn’t in love with Madeline, understand that. I just thought she deserved more respect than people were often willing to give a girl of fifteen.
“Why’d you choose to move here?” I asked Madeline, once, late at night after a few drinks, huddled up on the windowsill while she curled up on the sofa which was slowly falling apart beneath her.
Madeline shook her hair out and looked at me. “I needed to get away from people I knew,” she said.
I ran a hand through my own hair, which was curly and a bit too long, but the only barber in town was a friend of my parents’ and liked to ask me difficult questions. “Okay,” I said.
The sofa finally broke a week after that, and Madeline helped me choose a new one. It was second-hand and the colour of peaches. She’d been with me for sixth months at this point, but it felt like forever. I turned eighteen a week after that, and her sixteenth birthday was soon; I knew that she was leaving soon, and so we went out for a meal for the first time. She somehow knew of a Vietnamese restaurant on the outskirts, and that time she was faster with chopsticks than anyone I’d ever seen.
“I’m moving,” she said, when she finished her ice cream, and smiled at me. She smiled a lot, but this smile was kind of sad. I can’t quite pinpoint the distinction, come on, she was fifteen and pretty and she smiled at me a lot, I was just happy that she knew me and didn’t know anybody else. But usually there wasn’t really an emotion there. This time there was.
I didn’t help her pack, she would have hated that. I knew that she only wanted to take the one trunk she’d started with, and it was small, so for the last week she’d always leave the house with things to donate to charity shops, and on the last day she started throwing broken or worthless things away. For a few weeks after she’d left I’d see a hat of hers, or a pinafore, or a string of pearls that I’d last seen her twist between her fingers on a mannequin in the window of one of the shops, like they were trying to entice me in. I bought the pearls but didn’t know what to do with them, kept them for a few years, then gave them away to a friend who didn’t even wear jewellery and passed them on herself.
Despite all this we weren’t really friends. I never really knew her. Madeline said few things to me that weren’t superficial; one was the reason that she’d moved to our town, the second was “Madeline isn’t really my name but it’s all anyone in this town’s going to get” and the third? Maybe I’ll tell you later. That one actually did mean something, and I’m not going to give it away like she gave away those gloves.
The morning she left I helped her carry the trunk to a taxi and watched as it went to the train station. I found a lot of money in a container in the fridge, and a column of coins on my bedside table. I don’t count these as gifts because they were just more debris, like the jewellery and makeup, but because I had no way of contacting her (I didn’t know where she was going, after all, and she obviously had no forwarding address or phone number) I kept it, and it helped me pay the rent until I found another lodger. The house was full of debris, some of it was just more useful than the rest.
She sent me one postcard, a month later. She didn’t sign it, but her handwriting was the same as in that first letter she’d sent me what felt like a lifetime before. Hey, eight months can contain a lot of changes. Imagine how different Berlin was one month before the wall fell and eight months after that. Our lives change quickly, and I was a different person after she left, although she’d directly done very little. I asked my friends to call me Isaac, which is my real name, instead of Ivan (which is not, and is a fairly illogical nickname that I never quite shook off since I acquired it at ten) soon afterwards, but nobody ever remembered, and eventually I gave it up as a lost cause. Madeline had the right idea; if you’re going to change your name, or anything substantial, you probably have to get away from the people you once knew. Madeline started out named Frances, or Deborah, or Karen, but she chose differently for herself and the name she chose became her completely. Everything she did was Madeline, the tights she tore when cooking late at night, the dresses she wore in inappropriate weather, and the lipstick she applied even though there was no need for purple lipstick when watching tennis on the television. I could be Ivan, or Isaac; it doesn’t matter. I’m boring, I’m barely even a person. Madeline was one of those girls she stuck on her wall, just allowed out to stretch her legs and eat food sometimes. You ready for the third real thing now? She told me the night before she left that she was really twenty, she’d just wanted me to think that she was naughtier than she was, or more otherworldly, or stranger, or something. She was just wary of contracts. I reject this, though, and believe that this was a different girl talking, someone named Susan, maybe, or Kristen. The last time I saw Madeline, she was fifteen. I was eighteen. She will never grow any older, but I’m sure she’s out there, somewhere, standing awkwardly in a series of photographs, looking blankly off camera left in silk and some uncomfortable town where nobody knows what name to call her.