Propeller NOVEMBER 2010
books music art film life
Mary Rechner Sees Patterns “I do want my stories to feel a little bit like you’re overhearing a conversation you shouldn’t be hearing.”
Ben Greenman on Rounding Up Rebels Alexis Nelson on Flaubert’s Novel Workshop Nightmare At Container Corps, Print Still Matters Michele Glazer’s On Tact, & the Made Up World Stalking Hodgman at The Bookmill Forgotten Providence: A Photo Essay FICTION BY JESSE LICHTENSTEIN | POEMS BY ANDY STALLINGS & BLUEBERRY MORNINGSNOW
Propellercontents 24 | The Mary Rechner entrance
42 | Gustave Flaubert survives the workshop
30 | Ben Greenman rounds up the rebels
74 | At Container Corps, Print still matters
The author of Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women talks about stories, novels, and what is meant by “The Mary Rechner Exit.”
The author of What He’s Poised to Do discusses correspondence, false immediacy, and smashing characters’ computers.
Gary Robbins used to do book design for big publishers, but he quit to start Container Corps. He has his reasons. By Rachael Wilson
92 | Forgotten Providence
In Rhode Island’s biggest city, forgotten freeways and abandoned buildings hold out against the ravages of time. Photography by Sarah Kruse
In 1849, Flaubert read the first draft of his first novel to two trusted friends. It didn’t go well. By Alexis Nelson
74 | Container Corps
â€œI started the press at a time when everyone has been calling for the death of print for forty years.â€?.
Propellercontents 8 | Store The Montague Bookmill
At The Bookmill, it’s all about the angle of implication.
16 | Aisles Bernard DeVoto’s The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto
Discovering a stylist. In liquor. Review by Alan Limnis
20 | Aisles Michele Glazer’s On Tact, & The Made Up World
Poetry that presents us with a gorgeous, almost religious materialism. By Wendy Bourgeois
88 | Fiction “The End of the Evening” By Jesse Lichtenstein
62 | Poems Andy Stallings
“Foundation Ruin,” “Image of the Catcher,” and “City of Weights.”
112 | Poems Blueberry Morningsnow
“Whale in the Woods” and “Blue and Galen.”
“The only things Mick and I disagree about is the band, the music, and what we do.’” — Keith Richards
Propeller Volume 2, Issue 4 October 2010 Editor Dan DeWeese Managing Editors Lucas Bernhardt Benjamin Craig Contributing Editors Alex Behr Sheaâ€™la Finch Matthew Hein Evan P. Schneider Lisa Sibbett Keri Thomas Design Context Information News www.propellermag.com Archives Store Letters firstname.lastname@example.org Submissions email@example.com Publication January April July October, supposedly
THE BOOKMILL IMPLICATIONS • BOOKS • GRIST • STRATEGICALLYCHOSEN TABLES “THE MOTTO OF THE BOOKMILL IS ‘BOOKS YOU DON’T NEED IN A PLACE YOU CAN’T FIND.’”
By Bryan Beck
1) The motto of The Bookmill is: “Books you 5) It can be assumed that John Hodgman (Amerdon’t need in a place you can’t find.” ican author, humorist, television personality, and former personal computer spokesperson, b. 2) The Bookmill is located in Montague, Frank- 1971, Brookline, MA) wrote the entireties of his lin County, Massachusetts. The town of Mon- bestselling books The Areas of My Expertise and tague comprises the villages of Montague More Information Than You Require, as well as Center, Turners Falls, Millers Falls, and Lake nearly all his finest pieces for Public Radio InPleasant. At the time of the 2000 Census, the ternational’s “This American Life” and Comedy population of Montague was 8,489. Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”— not to mention the substantial body of work 3) The adjoining Lady Killegrew Café serves an contributed to such fine outlets as McSweeney’s assortment of sandwiches (both breakfast and and The New York Times Magazine—at his usugrilled), house salads topped with their house- al creekside table, adjacent the Lady Killegrew’s made maple balsamic vinaigrette, as well as the self-serve tap water dispenser. generally expected café faire and an assortment of beverages both alcoholic and non. 6) Although technically accepted, you will receive “dirty looks” if attempting to purchase 4) The books the Bookmill sells are used. books with a debit card at the Bookmill.
“According to a sign near the village entrance, Montague is ‘Thickly Settled.’” 7) A majority of The Bookmill’s patrons—and an even higher percentage of those frequenting the adjoining Lady Killegrew Café—are familiar with the work of American author/humorist/television personality/former personal computer spokesperson John Hodgman to an extent beyond his work in the popular “Get a Mac” advertising campaign for the American multinational corporation Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL), and will often feel a general sense of intellectual superiority and “culturedness” in comparison to those familiar with the work of said author/humorist/television personality/ former personal computer spokesperson (i.e. John Hodgman) solely through the “Get a Mac” advertising campaign.
8) Figure I: Photograph of sandwich available at adjoining Lady Killegrew Café. 9) According to a sign near the village entrance, Montague is “Thickly Settled.” 10) In a study of personal laptop computer usage conducted by the author at various business hours between 12 July and 25 August 2010, personal laptop computers manufactured by the American multinational corporation Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) outnumbered personal laptop computers manufactured by all other companies combined by a ration of 12:1 at The Bookmill’s adjoining Lady Killegrew Café, confirming not only the superiority of the
Figure I: Sandwich
“The Bookmill is located at the site of a formerly operative gristmill. What ‘grist’ is remains unknown.” Apple product, but also the obvious success of the popular “Get a Mac” advertising campaign, due—not in small part—to the portrayal of the humorously hapless “PC” character by John Hodgman. 11) The Bookmill is located at the site of a formerly operative gristmill (est. 1842) that supplied much of the area surrounding the small Sawmill River. What “grist” is remains unknown. 12) Often while browsing a book recently purchased at The Bookmill over a cup of coffee or (on special occasions) a sandwich purchased at the adjoining Lady Killegrew Café, I will look up
from my strategically-chosen table toward the self-serve tap water dispenser-adjacent table of John Hodgman (Figure II) at a time when said opposing table-sitter finds need to take recess from his work of bringing joy to the hearts of all well-educated middle-class liberal Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 and, looking up, meets my eyes with a look implying, “I know it would be particularly wonderful for you if you could ask me a simple question about this bookstore/café to use in your brief bookstore profile for an online magazine I am unlikely to read, but I have much important work to do if I am to maintain my status as a premier American author/humorist/television personality/former personal computer spokesperson (b. 1971) and
Figure II: Look of Implication (Angle)
American author/humorist/television personality/former computer spokesperson John Hodgman.
continue to bring joy to the hearts of all well-ed- strategically drop said paper while preparing to ucated middle-class liberal Americans between quench your thirst by filling up at the self-serve the ages of 18 and 34.” tap water dispenser at The Bookmill’s adjoining Lady Killegrew Café in a way that would go 13) The Bookmill has, on at least one occasion, unnoticed only by an individual very recently been known to carry Journeyman’s Wages by removed from a culture (possibly Amazonian) Clemens Starck. that left him or her completely oblivious to modern Indo-European social decorum, how 14) Hypothetically, if you were to write your long would you wait for John Hodgman to call name and phone number on a small piece of before trying something more direct? paper with obvious references to American author/humorist/television personality/former 15) During the summer months, the drive to personal computer spokesperson John Hodg- The Bookmill affords one many opportunities man, say, plans for a performance art piece in- to purchase fresh-cut flowers. Ω cluding 700 hoboes of names mentioned in The Areas of My Expertise (Dutton Adult, 2005), as well as an additional 100 hoboes to correspond The Montague Bookmill with the subsequent paperback edition, or, say, 440 Greenfield Road a reference to a regionally- and demographically-popular podcast recorded at a video store Montague, Massachusetts 01351 only blocks from your house, and were to then montaguebookmill.com
A COCKTAIL MANIFESTO • STYLE • WIT • MISTS OF TIME
“I HAD AT LEAST THIS BREAK FROM FATE, THAT I GOT HERE IN TIME TO KNOW THE KNICKERBOCKER.”
The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto Bernard DeVoto Review by Alan Limnis
nd then one day, one stumbles yet again upon a stylist previously unheard of, and is surprised and delighted. To wit, the following paragraph from The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto: All those decades, all those bars. The Holland House or the Astor House or the St. Nicholas toward which the Englishman on tour made by hackney coach from the boat, so that the magnificence of the New World could burst on him in his first hour—such acres of mirror, such mountains of glasses, such gas chandeliers tipped with a thousand points of flame, and all the ryes and bourbons of a continent to cleanse away the peat-taste of his Scotch. The Knickerbocker...I had
at least this break from fate, that I got here in time to know the Knickerbocker. It has been exactly reproduced in the most beautiful corner of paradise, with the starry heavens stretching away, admission by card only and saints to serve a probationary period before they can get cards. The Murray Hill, the Parker House, the Planters House, the St. Francis—the Silver Dollar, Joe’s Place, the Last Chance Saloon—river boats and tents at the railhead and tables set up under the elms when the clergy met in convocation or the young gentlemen graduated from college—the last Americans in knee breeches, the first in trousers, deacons in black broadcloth, planters in white
linen, cordwainers and longshorement and principals of seminaries for young women and hard-rock men and conductors on the steam cars and circuit riders and editors and rivermen and sportsmen and peddlers—twenty-two hundred counties, forty-eight states, the outlying possessions...Nothing stopped us from sea to shining sea, nothing could stop us, the jug was plugged tight with a corncob, and we built new commonwealths and constitutions and distilleries as we traveled, the world gaped, and destiny said here’s how. That is from a chapter entitled “American Spirits,” and it is by Bernard Devoto, winner of a 1948 Pulitzer Prize, a 1953 National Book Award, and writer, from the mid-1930s on, of the Harper’s column “The Easy Chair.” Every generation loses many of its excellent writers to the mists of time. This is probably unavoidable, and maybe preferable—we each benefit from the sense that the world, or a voice from which to approach it, can be newly discovered. But it’s not true. And thank God, because one also needs to meet friends. The gravity, style, and humor DeVoto brings to writing about liquor bear the marks of a man who already knew every style dictum William Strunk handed out
“We each benefit from the sense that the world, or a voice from which to approach it, can be newly discovered. But it’s not true. And thank God.” to E.B. White, who had read Rilke’s letters and heard in their tone the chance for laughs, and who was being seriously playful and earnestly arch sixty years before the invention of the McSweeney’s website or “The Office.” DeVoto takes crazy risks—is the paragraph above about whiskey, patriotic hyperventilation, or just sheer brio?—but zips right through the peril. Zipping along with him, one laughs aloud, breathless. And then one thinks: All right, Bernard. Maybe I will have that drink. Ω
THE SHIMMER’S GOT TO BE THERE
ON TACT, & THE MADE UP WORLD • TIGHT FOCUS • TRANSMUTATION • LILIES
“THIS IS A GORGEOUS, NEARLY RELIGIOUS MATERIALISM.”
On Tact, & the Made Up World Michele Glazer Review by Wendy Bourgeois
udging by title alone, you might predict something whimsical or even fey from Michele Glazer’s new book, like the blown glass flowers from the titular poem. Not so. These poems, although certainly elegant, are gritty, precise, and utterly unsentimental. Those glass flowers, for example, come from a guy who used to make glass eyeballs, and he and the poet both “show (their) allegiance to decay.” This is not to say that the poems lack tenderness, but rather that the extreme closeup methodology of this project makes romance impossible. In the opening line of “On religion, war, nature, and the horse,” the speaker begins: “John’s unabstracted death for me.” It seems that death has “unabstracted” the whole world of On Tact, rendering it too painfully clear. But this tight focusing starts to make objects in the visual field behave oddly, or, as the speaker puts it: “The closer you get, the more abstract.” The eye is “led to some conclusion,” and these ocular tricks, moments where “sight fails and love comes,” reveal that there is no such thing as a passive gaze. Looking changes things, both for
the looker and the looked-at, and Glazer seems determined to pinpoint the precise moment of transmutation. How does one thing become another? How does a living person become matter and memory? How does a self become a landscape? How does the slow, unconscious work of worms and fungus (and poets) make a “glowing consolation”? In the mind? These questions are turned over in the tumbler of language, until the polish gleams and you can see your face in it. We see how this works in the poem “Worm (to a rumor of lilies).” Like the Oregon Giant earthworm, Glazer digests the material of syntax into “earth casings” that are the leavings of the body, not due to anything personal like will or desire, but rather the animal “solace of repetition.” This is a gorgeous, nearly religious materialism, but it has no discernible motive and no purpose. The grandiosity of human personality—what some might call the soul—actually comes from the rankest stuff. Apparently ephemeral things like poems, familial love, and the smell of lilies (which, incidentally, have a base note similar to rotten ham) don’t burst from the ether in a spec-
tral bouquet, but instead are “secreted,” meaning both gross inevitable digestion and also the necessary secrecy of the mechanism the poem seeks to uncover. In one poem, “Untitled,” a voice casually announces “I am not fond of it.” The it is an unnamed organism the speaker is feeding, mothering, in her lap. I pictured it as a baby bird, but there is no description of the thing beyond “Its eyes have no interior when looked at straight on in uncertain light.” Notice again how vision is central, and how it arrives through somewhat grim means, a confrontation between squeamish bits of organ and “uncertain light.” The speaker feels she “should like it better” and we feel her mild guilt and disgust, but then she says “attachment is curious” and “I should like to get under it”—not over it, because the speaker seems determined to squarely face the revulsion and wonder she feels. This thing goes in her lap, and she describes a “passing of pleasure...the flutter of affection.” In the last line, though, this affection is dismissed as only “human, a trespass.” The speaker examines this primordial baby-thing thing very closely and with such attention that this reader feels the experience grating against the self ’s foundations—as if true communion with another being is so raw that emotion might sully it, or crush it under the weight of clumsy compassion. This is the kind of poem
about motherhood no one writes: one so utterly stripped of the treacle we’ve come to expect and rely on to make motherhood’s attendant fears bearable that it borders on the obscene. Over and over again, the poems tremble on the verge of something. Words are written and then crossed out on the page, so they feel reluctant, in transit. Sentences are incomplete, as if the unsayable is always hovering, threatening to eradicate what remains. The images and the language pull toward the inert, and yet the inert, upon closer inspection, teems with life. The poems remind me of those corrugatedplastic-over-cardboard images of saints and landscapes that can look like two different pictures, depending on the angle. In the poem “Mattress,” an object seen by two people appears as three things: a mattress “tossed by an angry sea,” a mattress “dragged by some sonofabitch,” and a slab of sandstone. Each vision flickers just long enough to reveal some nuance of character before it disperses into silence. This instability enamors the speaker; she is “troubled by belief ” because belief seems to nail things down, and erases the transfixing shimmer of ambiguity. The shimmer’s got to be there in these poems— it feels like the one essential thing, a magic trick designed to make the “inextinguishable sadness” of birth and death tolerable. Ω
STAYING ALIVE NINE SIMPLE PATTERNS
• SHORT STORIES • RETROSPECTIVES • EXITS
“I HAVE A FRIEND WHO USED TO TEASE ME IN COLLEGE FOR MAKING ‘THE MARY RECHNER EXIT’—OF JUST BEING LIKE, I’M OUT OF HERE.”
n October, Propeller began a print division, Propeller Books, with the goal of publishing projects—especially those more profit-oriented publishers may choose to skip—by writers we’ve worked with and admire. Mary Rechner has been publishing fiction in magazines and journals for a number of years, and we’ve always admired the risks she takes in her stories, as well as the intelligence and humor with which she captures characters in moments of disorientation. Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women, Propeller Books’ first title, is also Rechner’s first collection of stories, and we probably can’t craft a compliment superior to the one Malena Watrous gave Rechner when reviewing the book for The Believer. “With no frills, no gimmicks, just a gimlet eye and quicksilver prose, Rechner defamiliarizes the mundane and makes it marvelous,” Watrous wrote. We sat down with Rechner in a small recording studio recently, to ask her how she became a short story writer, who she reads, and how she views her own work now that it’s between cov-
ers rather than scattered among various magazines. The following transcript is just a few minutes of a longer conversation, more of which can be heard on the Propeller podcast. Propeller: There are nine stories in the book, but I know that you’ve written more than that. How did you decide which of the stories belong in a collection, and which stories don’t make it? Mary Rechner: Well, some of the stories I started, they never really gelled. One of the big realizations that I’ve had is just when to let a story go. There might be something good about the story, but if you can’t figure out, over a year or two of coming back to the piece, how to make it really work, then I think I just have a kind of cut-my-losses perspective, and just feel like I need to write a different piece. Maybe I can come back to whatever was preoccupying me when I have the chops to write the story, or have all the different elements I need to write the story, but if after a couple years the story’s not coming together, and I’m losing interest in
the story, and the story feels like it’s losing energy instead of gaining it, then it’s time to let it go. I was thinking about this, where I do want my stories to feel a little bit like you’re overhearing a conversation that you shouldn’t be hearing. That’s why it’s interesting. Because if you know something that someone doesn’t really want to be known—not gossip, per se, but I do want the stories to have that intensity of privacy. I want the reader to feel like they’re privy to something that they normally aren’t privy to. Propeller: You said that you worked on a novel at one point, and then you wrote these stories, and now I know that you’re working on a novel again. Is there a different process when you’re working on a story as opposed to working on a novel? You mentioned one or two years for working on a story before maybe deciding it’s not working. What is your process for creating a story? How is that different from trying to write a novel? Mary Rechner: It’s sort of like the different process of reading a story as opposed to reading a novel. When you’re reading a novel, you’re going to pick it up, you’re going to put it down, you’re going to read it at different places, at different times—it’s this much longer-term relationship that you have with the work, whereas with a sto-
“With a story, even though you might write it over a period of years, you’re not spending years ‘writing the story.’” ry, even though you might write it over a period of years, you’re not spending “years writing the story” the way that you’re spending years writing the novel. There’s just so much more production of language in writing a novel, and also the sustaining of a narrative that goes into writing a novel. For me, right now, writing stories is more fun. It’s really challenging to write a novel, but it doesn’t feel as pleasurable to me. Propeller: What’s more fun about writing stories? Mary Rechner: I think just getting to introduce and create lots of different characters. And also just not spending too long in any one place. I
propellercraft “I do want the stories to have that intensity of privacy. I want the reader to feel like they’re privy to something that they normally aren’t privy to.”
have a friend who used to tease me in college for making “The Mary Rechner Exit”—of just being like, I’m out of here. And I think there is an element—I’ve actually been married for a really long time, and I have friends that I’ve known for a really long time—but there is an element of my personality that is a bit fickle or impatient, so I think as a writer it’s very hard for me to stay with a narrative for several years. It’s more fun, for me, to create a bunch of characters, have interesting, weird, strange, sad things happen, and then be able to be finished. I think, too, I like the compression of language in a story, which probably to me is more evocative of poetry, whereas in a novel there’s a little more drudgery. Like, Oh, I have to explain more, I have to tell more. Maybe there’s more exposition. Maybe it’s just not my forte—I don’t know! We’ll see if my novel comes together or not.
Mary Rechner: Well, when you have a collection where the stories are quite possibly being read together, it is fun to think about the way that the stories speak to each other. If you go to an art exhibit that is a retrospective, and you get to see a bunch of an artist’s work, it’s a really different experience than going to a group show where you just see a piece or two of a bunch of different people. So when you read a literary magazine and see your piece in it, it’s surrounded by work of other people, and there’s a certain pleasure in that. And the reader-who-isn’tthe-writer, there’s a certain pleasure in reading lots of different things. But I think there’s also a pleasure in seeing what a writer’s trying to do in a book, and seeing the ways that the stories speak to each other, echo each other, disagree with each other, amplify each other—that’s kind of fun to see. And I think in this collection the stories, thematically, are pretty related.
Propeller: Is there anything that has changed for you in the way you think about your sto- Propeller: What’s that theme? ries since the collection has come together and you’ve seen it, as opposed to back when these Mary Rechner: The theme is...trying to stay were stories individually appearing in journals, alive. Ω or individually living in your computer?
ROUND UP THE REBELS Thoughts on
LETTERS • IMMEDIACY • CONNECTION
“I don’t mean that I redacted them. I mean that I aggressively imagined the characters without it. I took it from them. I smashed their computers. I turned off the circuit breakers and cut the power cords.” PHOTO BY DOROTHY HONG
“It’s a rare pleasure to encounter prose as supple and lyrical as Greenman’s. He shifts seamlessly from the terse dialogue of a Midwestern housewife to the playful musings of a lovesick academic to the brutal banter of a jaded literary groupie,” Steve Almond wrote in the L.A. Times when reviewing What He’s Poised to Do, Ben Greenman’s collection of stories released earlier this year. The collection follows on the heels of Greenman’s 2009 novel Please Step Back, and has already been followed by another collection, Celebrity Chekhov, which came out in October. We asked Greenman these questions about letters, technology, and What He’s Poised to Do as summer wound down. Propeller: This collection grew out of a smaller, previous collection published by Hotel St. George Press called Correspondences, and maintains that collection’s theme: we’re reading
letters-as-stories, stories that include or hinge on written correspondence, etc. When you first started working on pieces that were letter-asstory, did you find yourself up against challenges, when writing in the form of a letter, that are different from writing fiction in its more “standard” form? How did you solve or respond to those challenges? Ben Greenman: The challenges of writing the stories were the same, I think, though the challenges of managing them were different. What I mean by that is that every story has a few levels, even if the technique is applied subtly—there are narrators or characters who get to tell their stories with their own writings and words, and in that regard they’re not entirely controlled by the story. I think that if the stories had all formally been letters, it would have been easier, but this was often a game of Find The Minor In-
Ben Greenman at the National Arts Clubâ€™s tribute to Donald Barthelme, 2008.
“The stories were about...letting the girl get under your skin and then finding out, to your horror, that you didn’t get under her skin.” surgency, or Round Up the Rebels. And as the names indicate, those can be dangerous games. Propeller: Each story here has a postmark on the title page that tells us the year and location it takes place. “Hope,” a story that’s both beautiful and funny, is built out of unmailed letters a man writes over the years to a long-lost love. Its postmark reads “Havana 1940.” When you’re writing a character from another time and place, do you do research first, and then craft a voice for that character? Or do you have a voice and story first, and then decide upon a time and place that fit the voice? Or is the process more complicated than that?
Ben Greenman: If anything, it’s the second of those options. Sometimes there are phrases that belong to a certain time. Sometimes I get a mental picture of a person and that person doesn’t seem to belong to 2010, or even 1910. In this case (and in the case of lots of the stories in this collection), I knew that I had a number of similar plots, at least thematically. The stories were about romantic disappointment, about not getting the girl, about letting the girl get under your skin and then finding out, to your horror, that you didn’t get under her skin. They’re about unbuttoned blouses and zipped-up pants. Given that, I was pretty conscious from the start about making sure that I distributed that masterplot through time and space. “Hope” takes place in Cuba, starting in the forties. “To Kill the Pink” is in Harlem in the sixties. “A Bunch of Blips,” which reverses gender (the protagonist is a woman, and she’s frustrated with men) takes place in Paris in the nineties. Part of the fun of putting the collection together was to show how the particulars of each narrative reflect (or correspond with) the universal themes. Or, to put it more simply: People are sad and funny no matter where you find them. Propeller: The story “The Hunter and the Hunted” opens with a letter-writer writing “I
“I think that in the era of email we’ve become deceived as to the immediacy of correspondence.”
keep—I mean physically, as a possession—my side of the correspondence. I send it to you and you keep it. You sit with it. You think thoughts about it. To me, it is more accurate to say that you are writing to my letter. Obviously, it’s also a literary device that shines a light on or near the way that people read books—they’re not interacting with me but rather with the text. When they feel something from it, or nothing, or review it, or hurl it across the room, it’s not really about me. Or is it?
Ben Greenman: I think that in the era of email we’ve become deceived as to the immediacy of correspondence. You write me. I write you right back. You write me right back. Fairly quickly we believe that we’re having a conversation. But letters hold that process in abeyance, or at least illustrate its artificiality. For starters, I don’t
Propeller: There’s definitely a way in which the ambiguity bound up in the “Or is it?” is probably part of what we call “literature.” There’s a song (“We Used to Wait”) on the new Arcade Fire album that includes the lyrics “It seems strange / How we used to wait for letters to arrive / But what’s stranger still / Is how something so small can keep you alive”. It seems like the false immediacy of email—or maybe of electronic communications in general—is something all sorts of people are thinking about right now. When you say, of holding someone’s letter, “You sit with it. You think thoughts about it,” what kind of dynamic between people—or between characters in a story—do you feel is allowed to emerge in that period where you sit with someone’s writing? In other words, if your characters
am not writing to you. I am writing to your letter.” There’s a long history of epistolary novels in which we are invited to read correspondence as the rough equivalent of an ongoing conversation, but that distinction between responding to a person versus responding to a person’s letter was intriguing to me. What do you feel is different about the act of writing to someone’s writing, as opposed to other forms of communication?
were emailing each other, what story potentials think that it could destabilize it, but that people would you lose? from that era had slower-evolving identities for this very reason. If I sent you a letter that said “I Ben Greenman: I think I’d lose most of it. I sup- am upset” and you got it four days later, you had pressed emails in many of these stories. I don’t to believe that I was still upset, and so did I. In mean that I redacted them. I mean that I ag- this case, I wrote only one side because I wanted gressively imagined the characters without it. the reader to be, in some sense, the other side. I took it from them. I smashed their comput- I wanted the reader to experience receiving a ers. I turned off the circuit breakers and cut the letter and deciding how much they wanted to power cords. People want connection and so, if credit it with honesty, insight, urgency, and I can’t give it to them, I can at least confirm their whatever else. I am suspicious of books or stosuspicion that they are not getting it. ries that profess to tell the entire story. You’re only ever telling a sliver. Propeller: So it’s really not only that the characters are writing to each other’s letters—“I’m re- Propeller: And it seems like by selecting the sponding to your words, not to you”—but that right kind of sliver, you’re able to awaken that there’s something that happens in the time that need in the reader to make these decisions. In a passes between correspondences. The passage story like “From the Front,” for instance, which of time destabilizes what was in the letter, be- is a single letter from a father to his daughter, we cause maybe the person I’m writing to no lon- have a sense right from the start that the father ger feels the same by the time I respond. Do you is writing from emotion, and that this emotion feel this is why epistolary novels or stories are colors, in some way, the claims he makes about often only one side of the correspondence? Or his friend/collaborator Delvigne. At the same did you have thoughts, when working on your time, there also has to be a part of the reader stories specifically, as to why it worked better, as that’s just wondering what the hell the father is a story, to only write one side of the correspon- talking about—we’re reading a personal letter dence? about ammunition development postmarked “North Africa 1851.” Part of the allure of many Ben Greenman: I think you’re right, but wrong. stories in this book is the entertaining disoriI think that time stabilizes what is in the letter. I entation of being dropped into a situation we
time stabilizes what is in the letter. I think that it could destabilize it, but that people from that era had slower-evolving identities for this very reason. If I sent you a letter that said â€œI am upsetâ€? and you got it four days
know nothing about. Were there times you felt the disorientation in any of the stories was too extreme for readers to find a way in? Was the degree to which you worked exposition into these letter-stories a consciously-calibrated decision? Or do thoughts of how much “help” a reader might need not figure into a project like this collection? Ben Greenman: No, I never worry that the disorientation is too extreme for a reader. Or rather, it’s different for different readers. Some people will be entirely put off by “Atlanta 2015.” Some people will be right at home with “Lunar City 1989.” But the stories are all written separately, even if the set is then pieced together and reordered.
from readers to help complete the title story. For this one, we knew we couldn’t really do that, given the kind of book it was, and the kind of publisher that Harper Perennial is. Instead we created Letters With Character (letterswithcharacter.blogspot.com), which invites people to write letters to their favorite fictional characters. It’s gotten lots of good publicity and lots of good letters.
Propeller: You’re completing projects at a torrid pace. Your novel Please Step Back came out in 2009, What He’s Poised to Do arrived in June, and your next book, Celebrity Chekhov, comes out in just a few weeks. You also have a day job as an editor at what sounds like it’s maybe a smallish alt weekly (?), The New Yorker. How have you managed to complete so many projPropeller: In another interview, you mentioned ects in such a short amount of time? Have you that the second phase of this collection—writ- no decency? ing stories to add to the ones that appeared in the Hotel St. George edition, in which the stories Ben Greenman: I have no decency. I also have came in a box—“worked like a correspondence little kids who wake me up early. I write in the between me and the original box.” How do you mornings. The iPhone, annoying in some ways, feel the second-phase stories are different? lets me take notes on the subway. I write in the backs of books and on the backs of receipts Ben Greenman: Well, there are more of them. from restaurants. Some of those things turn They are more expansive in the ground they into books. Ω cover. And they are less interactive. For the box, for Correspondences, we collected postcards
THE LONG ROAD
GUSTAVE FLAUBERT’ WORKSHOP NIGHTMA
FROM ST. ANTHONY TO MADAME BOVARY • ROMANTICISM VS. REALISM • ROUEN VS. EGYPT • FLAUBERT VS. FLAUBERT
“IF YOU DON’T HOWL WITH PLEASURE AT THIS, YOU’RE INCAPABLE OF BEING MOVED BY ANYTHIN
By Alexis Nelson
n September of 1849, Gustave Flaubert finished the first draft of his first novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of the same subject—in which the hermit-saint is tormented by a wide range of hellish creatures—The Temptation of Saint Anthony was an orgiastic outpouring of romantic historical drama, and a complete failure. In a scene sure to make any would-be novelist cringe in recognition and quiver with hope, Francis Steegmuller, in his book Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait, describes how Flaubert read the five-hundred-and-fortyone “large” pages of his manuscript out loud to his two most trusted literary companions: His hands were trembling, his voice was at first unsure…with his manuscript before him on the table, about to begin, he suddenly startled them by waving some of the pages in the air over his head, and uncontrollably crying: ‘If you
don’t howl with pleasure at this you’re incapable of being moved by anything!’ Then he calmed himself, and began.
Four days later, he finished. Before the final reading, his audience—Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouillet—discussed what they should tell their friend, and agreed that they must be completely honest with him. “He was in great danger and it would be wrong for us to allow the danger to continue,” Steegmuller quotes from Du Camp’s memoirs. Flaubert’s future and reputation were at stake. His romantic tendencies had led him astray, toward wordy abstractions and self-indulgent pathos. Flaubert’s friends had no choice: they had to save him from himself. Du Camp recalls: Close to midnight that night, when he had finally come to the end, Flaubert pounded his fist on the table. ‘Now!’ he cried. ‘Tell me frankly what you
The Temptation of St. Anthony, Heironymus Bosch.
Daguerrotype of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Whipple & Black, c. 1850â€“1855.
“Style and bombast are two entirely different things,” came the reply. “And you have mistaken one for the other.” think!’ Bouillet was naturally timid, but no one could express himself more fearlessly when he had once made up his mind to speak. It was he who replied. ‘We think you should throw it in the fire, and never speak of it again.’
Flaubert was appropriately devastated by his friends’ response to Saint Anthony. His first reaction to Bouillet’s pronouncement was to “[jump] from his chair in horror.” What followed was basically the worst workshop experience imaginable, as “knife after knife was plunged into the poor author.” Flaubert did his best to defend his vision, but with little success. At one point, when Bouillet and Du Camp criticized Saint Anthony’s plot—or lack thereof—
Flaubert cried out, “But style!” “Style and bombast are two entirely different things,” came the reply. “And you have mistaken one for the other.” ustave Flaubert was born in Rouen, a small medieval city in the north of France. At the center of town is a cobblestoned square where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake, as well as a massive cathedral that Monet painted over and over again, trying to capture the shifting light and shadows. When I was twenty-two, I spent ten months there, and to me, Rouen represented a fairytale, a dream. Since childhood I had longed for far-away lands and earlier eras, and now my soul thrilled at the sight of halftimbered houses leaning at impossible angles over narrow streets, down which one could easily imagine landous and barouches (horsedrawn carriages) rolling. How happy I would have been, I imagined, riding in a barouche! For Flaubert, however, Rouen was a pit, a trap. “Old Rouen,” he calls it in a letter to the best friend of his youth, Alfred Le Poittevin. “Old Rouen where I have been bored on every sidewalk, and yawned with depression at every street corner.” Flaubert rode in plenty of barouches (and even, in Madame Bovary, set a brilliant sex scene in one), but he dreamed of Roman chariots. “The love of antiquity is in my
entrails,” he writes in another letter to Alfred. Though he would come to be seen as the father of French realism, as a young man he was a romantic to the bone, his mind’s eye fixed on ancient scenes of battle and triumph, and his heart overflowing with the verses of Hugo and Chateaubriand, the great romantic poets of his day. Like me, he believed he had been born in the wrong place and the wrong time. If only he had lived in the age of Caesar and Nero, he laments (again in a letter to Alfred)—“Then it was possible to breathe, and breathe a true poetic air.” Yet even as a young man, Flaubert knew that the fulfillment he longed for was not likely to be found in the material world. “Things have been fairly good with me,” he quips at the tender age of twenty-four, “ever since I resigned myself to their always being bad.” Romantic though he was, even in his most effusive early letters to Alfred we can detect the first smoke-wisps of the master realist to come: “Ah, some day I will get drunk on Sicily and Greece,” he concludes one such letter. “In the meantime I have boils on my legs and keep to my bed.” It was not that master realist who wrote the first draft of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, though. “Throw it in the fire, and never speak of it again”: aren’t these the very words that haunt the nightmares of every aspiring author? We expect to hear them any time we dare share
“Things have been fairly good with me, ever since I resigned myself to their always being bad.” our work, though at the same time we also expect, as Flaubert did, to be told that we have at long last produced our “thunderclap”—that great work before which the world will bow its head and recognize us. But while Du Camp and Bouillet spoke honestly and at length about Flaubert’s shortcomings in Saint Anthony, they also proposed solutions. To avoid vagueness and excessive lyricism, he needed to ground himself in concrete, specific detail. And one way to steer away from his danger zones as a writer was to take as his subject ordinary people living ordinary lives—not a third century saint battling supernatural forces. Steegmuller’s Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait beautifully documents Flaubert’s transition from romantic to realist—and
La CathĂŠdrale de Rouen, Le Portail vu de face, harmonie brune. Claude Monet, 1892. MusĂŠe d Orsay, Paris, France.
from an unknown and rather unpromising young man to one of the most enduring novelists of the 19th century. The book is divided into three parts: “Romanticism,” “The Purge,” and “Realism.” Its basic thesis is that in order for Madame Bovary to be written—and for Flaubert to become Flaubert—he first had to purge himself of the romanticism that marked his youth and, in many ways, defined his life. In effect, the disaster that was The Temptation of Saint Anthony helped reveal the path to Madame Bovary.
efore he could begin working another project, though, Flaubert had to get away. He needed to forget about his literary ambitions for a while and try to put the horror of this first failure out of his mind. Du Camp had been planning an extensive “Oriental Journey”— a trip that would last two years and take him through Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Armenia, Persia, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. Flaubert had long been dreaming of these very places. Now his friend offered him the opportunity to realize his dreams. About six weeks after the reading of St. Anthony, in November of 1849, Du Camp and Flaubert set sail for Egypt. I would argue that there is no better letterwriter than Flaubert. His letters are by turns descriptive, philosophical, bawdy, furious, hilari-
“The disaster that was The Temptation of Saint Anthony had, in effect, revealed the path to Madame Bovary.”
ous, and tender. Those to his mistress, Louise Colet, are sexy and infuriating, while his later correspondence with George Sand and Ivan Turgenev give fascinating insight into his ideas about literature, but his letters home during his “Oriental journey” are my favorites. Behold this nugget of raunchy, romantic lyricism: Among the pieces of sculpture found on the Acropolis I noticed especially a small bas-relief representing a woman fastening her shoe. There is only a fragment of
“Good God! What a breast! It is apple-round, solid, abundant, detached from the other; you can feel the weight of it in your hand.” the torso, just the two breasts, from the base of the neck to above the navel. One of the breasts is draped, the other uncovered. What breasts! Good God! What a breast! It is apple-round, solid, abundant, detached from the other: you can feel the weight of it in your hand; the fecund maternity and the sweetness of the love which it invokes make you almost swoon. The rain and the sun have turned the white marble to yellow, a tawny colour, almost like flesh. It is so tran-
quil, so noble! It seems about to swell; one feels that the lungs beneath it are about to expand and breathe. It knew how to wear its sheer pleated drapery! How one would have lain upon it, weeping! How one would have fallen on one’s knees before it, hands joined in worship! A little more and I should have prayed. Steegmuller makes the daring and inspired choice of allowing the second part of his Double Portrait (“The Purge”) to consist almost entirely of Flaubert’s travel diaries and letters home during his journey. From the Pyramids, from the banks of the Nile, from the steps of the Acropolis, he writes to his mother, to Louise, to Louis and Alfred and other friends. Steegmuller rarely interrupts the flow of Flaubert’s words with commentary of his own. He doesn’t need to. As we follow Flaubert’s physical progress through these letters, his progress as an artist also becomes clear. At first, he dwells on the disappointment of Saint Anthony. In a letter to his mother, he wonders, “Was I really mistaken in it, or was it perhaps the others who were wrong?” He is shaken and uncertain, “full of doubts and indecisions.” And he fears that he may die before “writing anything that would have shown me my capabilities.” But a few months later, his tone begins to
change. He writes tentatively to Bouillet that he thinks he may be maturing. “From one day to the next I feel myself growing more sensitive, more emotional.” And the desire to write has begun to overwhelm the misery of failure and the fear of another rejection. “Now and again I have great waves of literary ambition: I promise myself writing orgies when I return.” What’s more, the excruciating conversations with Du Camp and Bouillet that followed the reading of Saint Anthony have been working on him. He is developing new ideas about how and what he will write during those future orgies. To his uncle he explains, “To return to the antique in literature has been done already. To return to the Middle Ages has also been done already. The present is the only hope for literary subject matter.” He has begun inching his way toward Madame Bovary. The other thing that becomes apparent through Flaubert’s letters home is that this voyage is completing the work that the writing—and failure—of Saint Anthony began. It is shaking Flaubert loose of his obsession with the exotic (at least for the time being). For on this trip, he learns the lesson that travel so often teaches: that of disillusionment. Despite moments of transcendence, as when he stands before the Parthenon and feels with greater certainty than ever that “Art is not a lie,” he finds that being
abroad neither reveals much, nor satisfies his longing for that ineffable Something Greater. His mind is often a blank. “I generally think of nothing at all,” he writes, “despite the elevated thoughts one should have in the presence of ruins.” He already senses that he will come to regret not profiting more from his travels. “How I shall keep reliving them, how I shall keep repeating the eternal monologue: ‘Fool! You did not enjoy it enough!’” And he grows homesick. As he drifts in a boat along the Nile, past palm trees and pyramids, his mind wanders back to his mother’s country house: Somewhere, far away, on a gentler river than this, I know a white house, and I know that its shutters are closed because I am not there. I know that its poplars, stripped of their leaves, are trembling in the cold mist, and that cakes of ice are drifting on the river and being thrown up against the frozen banks. I know that the cows are in their stable, that the espaliers are covered with their straw, and that from the farmhouse chimney white smoke is rising slowly into the grey sky. Flaubert’s Oriental journey has accomplished the unthinkable: it has made him long for Rouen.
laubert began writing Madame Bovary on September 19, 1851, shortly after his return from abroad. Bouillet fed him the idea for the book. It sprang from the true story of Madame Delamare, a beautiful young Rouennaise who married a mediocre medical officer, quickly sank into “debt, boredom, and nymphomania,” and finally poisoned herself. Although Flaubert was at first revolted by the prospect of taking on such a vulgar, unromantic subject, Bouillet convinced him to think of the book as an exercise—one that would teach him the power of precision and simplicity. Still, unlike Saint Anthony, which Flaubert had written in a frenzy of enthusiasm, Bovary was a painstaking project. He might spend an entire day carving out a single sentence, in furious pursuit of the right rhythm, the right image, or the mot juste, the right word. And the stakes couldn’t have been much higher. He had already failed once. “This time,” he told Louise Colet, “it is a question of succeeding or jumping out of the window.” Fortunately, suicide proved unnecessary. Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s thunderclap. Even before the final chapter had been printed in the Revue de Paris, talk of the book rumbled through French society. As the installments appeared, Steegmuller writes, “all the critics, littérateurs, and salon habitués were talking enthusiastically about it.” Public prosecutors swiftly
“Public prosecutors swiftly attacked Flaubert for promoting immorality with his tale of a nice bourgeois wife gone wild.” attacked Flaubert for promoting immorality with his tale of a nice bourgeois wife gone wild, but the brief obscenity trial he faced only fueled public interest in the novel. (He won.) When Bovary finally appeared in book form, the most important critic in France, Sainte-Beuve, secured Flaubert’s literary reputation with a rare favorable review. Certain scenes, Saint-Beuve wrote, were so finely drawn that “if they were painted with the brush as they are written, [they] would be worthy of hanging in a gallery.” Yet even Saint-Beuve did not come close to predicting how profound an influence Madame
Gustave Flaubert, Pierre Francois Eugene Giraud (1856).
The Death Bed of Madame Bovary. Albert Auguste Fourier.
Bovary would have on literature. In The Art of Fiction, Henry James says that it was this book that raised the novel’s status in Europe to that of a great artistic form, on a level with poetry. Mario Vargas Llosa, in his The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary, calls Bovary the first modern novel. And in How Fiction Works, James Wood tells us that “Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank the spring: it all begins again with him.” Indeed, books filled with realistic details about ordinary people living ordinary lives dominate American fiction to this day. A novel that satirizes the insipidity of bourgeois life and captures the aimless dissatisfaction of the upper-middle classes living in small towns and suburbs: couldn’t this just as easily describe a Jonathan Franzen bestseller as Madame Bovary? One of Bovary’s greatest innovations is its use of the style indirect libre—or free indirect style—in which a third-person narrator conveys a character’s thoughts as if from a first-person point of view. This technique liberates the writer to present a character’s internal monologue without the use of quotation marks or an intrusive “she thought.” It also allows the writer to ironically point out a character’s foolish or flawed way of thinking without saying so directly, as when Emma contemplates the fact that she has taken a lover: “So at last she was to know those
joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired! She was entering upon a marvelous world where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium.” This is Emma’s perception of her situation, not the narrator’s. The narrator is aware, as we are, that Emma has once again been swept away by fantasy. Through the free indirect style, Flaubert simultaneously gives us Emma’s musings and his own cool analysis of them. The free indirect style has become not just a hallmark of contemporary fiction, but so pervasive that we don’t even notice it anymore: it is simply the way stories are told now. Pick up any contemporary literary journal or fiction anthology, and you’ll find countless examples. Here is Richard Ford using the technique in his story “The Womanizer”: Martin Austin, a travelling salesman from Chicago in Paris on business, is considering having an affair with a Frenchwoman. Ford writes, “He wasn’t looking for a better life. He wasn’t looking for anything. He loved his wife, and he hoped to present to Joséphine Belliard a different human perspective from the ones she might be used to.” Using the free indirect style, Ford shows us how his character justifies his affair to himself. At the same time, he invites his readers to scoff along with him at Martin’s self-deception (“he wasn’t looking for anything”) and his dopiness (“a different human perspective”).
But I don’t think any of Bovary’s technical achievements really explains its power. For me, the novel’s true genius lies in Flaubert’s articulation of Emma’s longing—that roving, bottomless longing. It’s this that Flaubert shared with his creation, and that I share with both of them. Emma is undone by her yearning, of course— she’s an ignorant and unreflective victim of romanticism. Yet whatever nobility she possesses is bestowed on her by the same yearning that also condemns her. As Steegmuller writes, “the essence of her tragedy was her disgust with the surroundings in which she found herself, and beyond which she had somehow learned, however futilely, to look.” In Bovary, Flaubert put his finger on an aspect of the human condition that hadn’t quite been named before: that habit many of us share of turning—longingly and almost always in vain—toward other places, other times, or, as in Emma’s case, other lovers. Flaubert himself never lost the habit. After Bovary, he turned with delight to his next project, Salammbô, a historical novel set in Carthage during the 3rd century BCE. Eventually, he even published a heavily revised version of The Temptation of Saint Anthony—and it was this work that, despite the unparalleled success of Bovary, he referred to as “the book of
my entire life.” In spite of the romanticism that Flaubert shared with Emma, though, a big difference between them is that Flaubert was an artist. Unlike Emma, he had his work as an avenue of escape from reality, from what he called “the stupidities and ignominies of existence.” His longing for transcendence resulted not in a series of unfortunate love affairs, nor even, after his Oriental journey, in extended voyages to exotic lands. Instead, Flaubert’s dogged pursuit of the ideal resulted in works of art. Yet there is always a breach between our fantasies and the reality of their fulfillment, regardless of the form those fantasies take. A relationship looks very different after a year than it did during the first heady days of romance. Expensive new curtains don’t quite manage to transform one’s suburban living room into a Parisian salon. Ten months spent in France, however joyful, fail to solve the riddle of one’s life. And a novel, however successful and enduring, still falls short in some fundamental way of the masterpiece that made the author swoon as he sat at his desk, dreaming it up. Ω
ANDY STALLINGS Three Poems
Foundation Ruin Today begins spring the beginning of fall. Familiar heat and thunder. Once begins the toppling, ever over, waves unending, resembles a hiveâ€™s effortless orbit moving down the hour or a crumbling like reading inside an ember, a process of turns on the point of an inward-collapsing star. I move through cities defining, farm for song, where flooded furrows end, head aswivel in convenient oxygen.
Image of the Catcher Our condition is that of friends on a porch talking. Coffee, late night. Slight rain incisive. Anything with an edge dissolves, as though light stopped at the surface, not the core. So to stay indoors propped up with intention – Nokes The decade’s passing wonders in remainder bins. What was not to be, what was never again performed, arrived as collision. Detroit – convalescence of orange and blue. Your thunder, prodigious rumble, an urban rattling.
Thirty-two jacks in ’87, and last night you came up in conversation. This morning, a tremendous instance of despair. You have entered a solitude that is bearable only. Turns out we all have numbers on our backs.
Water drums suddenly, waking me. Where are the children. There are none. Where is the rain. What rain.
On the porch railing an unopened letter rests. An example of “the consequences of wind on a field,” a trim fellow explained.
Santiago Whatever elicits memory is a blindness.
Nostalgia’s the drag on each moment’s explosion. Not only weather’s undone by a change of direction. The bat dangles overhead like an echo. We are as in a brightness approaching the face, like a word not quite recalled. Fog on McCovey Cove and a school of tail lights dispersing. The city seems to rub itself out in the bay—
Who chooses solitude glances up halfway across the field to find anyone in a noisy vehicle and rolling-in heavy weather emergent.
A man steps from the dugout, A man steps from the dugout, A man – Starts to rain.
LaValliere It might as well be a painting. Every single pitch this afternoon – like a word we don’t yet know. We have dreamed of southpaws slinging curves in perfectly lettered suits. And you arrive. Somehow the crowd explodes. Sid Bream rumbles perpetually around third base. It is in our lives to burst from the grid, not to break it. If you want to know the shape of darkness surrounding, turn on a light.
Anyhow insufficiency arrives and never has it seemed so cold, so dead a summer, scrambling eggs for late breakfast. (Not liking to hear that anyone has “managed the impossible.”)
Steinbach Not yet dust over all but the promise of dust where the left-field bleacher lights – good night! – duly darken despite me, who’d have the world as it is and
as it might be.
City of Weights I tried lightness first, when all had drained of the ripeness that pooled and poured in us as between two tumblers. I drifted down the walkway beside the canal where, back and forth across the bridges, bicyclists tapped their bells in a gearworks I could not quite touch. My condition was that of children washing opposite sides of a window, eyes avoiding. I was under ice. At last I understood: it was you I’d meet – beside the fountain, with someone’s hand in yours, it might have been mine. You passed the cafe window and seeing you, I stopped so abruptly, the croissant flew from my hand, my mouth empty. It was then I loved you. Years passed, as you dreamed elsewhere of voices gathered in nooks I could not interpret. We live as in the slackness between slow handclaps. We tear at the pulse. I will lie down now, for a while, and pretend I am covered completely with wet cedar.
AT CONTAINER CORPS
PRINT STILL MATTERS A CONVERSATION ABOUT • CULTIVATION • LOCAL CANONS • THE RURAL STUDIO
“IF I WANT PEOPLE TO READ BOOKS AS A PART OF THEIR EVERYDAY LIFE, THEN THE CONCEPTION AND DESIGN AND PRINTING SHOULD BE PART OF THAT SAME EVERYDAY LIFE.”
By Rachael Wilson
n a basic level, books are containers for culture. At least that’s what the polychrome poster on the back wall of the Container Corps workshop proclaims. Beside this poster, two others—similarly striated in hot pink, yellow, and blue, and emblazoned with Gary Robbins’ own Container Corps font—remind me just a little of the warm but stern library posters of my childhood, which exhorted me to “Read” or to “Go Anywhere...With a Book.” In the terse diction of political slogans, the signs at Container Corps half-opine and half-implore: “Books Are Containers For Culture,” “Print Still Matters,” and “Cultivate a Local Canon.” The space is a small storefront in North Portland, Oregon, and you might easily overlook it for the minimalist aesthetics of one white neon
sign in the shape of the press’s logo—a trapezoid—and the thin lettering on the window that reads “Publishing Workshop and Gallery & Store.” Inside, the room is partitioned exactly so. The front half houses a modest shelf of publications and “xylobooks”—journals made from salvaged hardwoods with guts that can be replaced in-house when needed—ephemera, tapes from Eggy Records, and more publications. On the walls hang pieces from Alisha Wessler’s book Der Struwwelpeter, and an illustrated edition of cautionary children’s verses penned by German psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann in 1845. This is the most recent project coming out of Container Corps. To the back, in a space adjoined to the gallery/storefront (looking something like an open
kitchen) we find the workshop: the imposing offset printing press, the tools and accoutrements of printing, and a few shelves and tables made by Robbins with scrap wood from the Rebuilding Center and the instruction of a simple design book, Autoprogettazione by Enzo Mari. Back here are the works-in-progress. On the walls: a few flyers for Appendix, a “renegade exhibition and performance space.” On the desk, a prototype for Robbins’ forthcoming newsletter, The Dagger. “What’s The Dagger?” I ask Robbins. It’s a newsletter on the arts and art criticism with a focus on Portland, he tells me. “There isn’t a big venue in Portland for art and art criticism in a printed format,” he explains. “It’s about cultivating a scene I’m interested in.” Cultivating is the word. With its dual signification of preserving and creating—of tending to what’s here and what’s been here while still bringing forth the new—cultivating is exactly what Robbins is up to in his printing and publishing venture. “I started the press at a time when everyone has been calling for the death of print for forty years: ‘Print is dead. It’s a dead medium [they say]. We need to move beyond it.’” But print has its advantages, Robbins insists. “Print is good
“I started the press a ing for the death of p dead medium. We ne its advantages, Robb tion. Print can remain for preservation. Print can remain outside of corporate interests. The mainstream presses are good at distributing in a massive way something that has mass appeal,” he admits, but a small press serves the needs of a “fringe audience... who can’t be catered to by mainstream presses.” In Robbins’ opinion, corporate publishing houses just aren’t qualified to decide what is culturally relevant for everyone, which is what we license them to do when we buy all our books on Kindle from the Kindle library owned and maintained by Amazon. “I don’t think we can trust Amazon or Google or whatever to do that [to preserve culture],” Robbins says. I ask Robbins about his influences and he talks a bit about Eric Gill, a typographer from the 1920s who criticized the division of the once-
at a time when everyone has been callprint for forty years: ‘Print is dead. It’s a eed to move beyond it.’” But print has bins insists. “Print is good for preservan outside corporate interests.” unified printer-publisher’s job into the distinct tasks of designer and printer. In Robbins’ summation, Gill argued that the division of labor led to “designers who are technologically incapable and blue-collar workers [e.g. printers] who are intellectually irresponsible.” Robbins used to work in book design for large publishing houses, but says his personal design process has changed since operating his own press. “Playing around with the press contributes to the design process,” he says, and explains that in large-press projects the designer works exclusively on the computer, handing a finished product to the printer to be printed. With a cottage industry set-up like the one at Container Corps, though, “the production process feeds into the design process,” and this contributes to
the emergence of a more deliberate product— one in which the ideas of the artist/author and printer/designer receive fine-tuning and clearer expression as they move along the continuum of the production process. The process is about craftsmanship and artistic control, and about closing the gap between designer and printer, author and publisher. Working on this scale, with his particular method and ethos, it seems Robbins gets to have his cake and eat it, too—which is to say, he exercises more control over the printed matter while at the same time fostering more-involved, meaningful collaborations with the authors and artists whose work he prints. This model for local control and collaboration, Robbins says, he partially gleaned from his
second major influence, an experimental school of architecture in Auburn, Alabama, called The Rural Studio, where student architects live and work in the same place, creating structures and dwellings for people in the community and for the community in general, using salvaged materials and creative design to forge a more vital physical and cultural landscape. Robbins emphasizes that the school is located in Alabama’s Black Belt Region, that the students and professors live there, and that this fact makes a difference. For one, it keeps the students sensitive and responsible to the quality of their own work. When architecture possesses this quality of sensitivity and responsibility to its environment, people become more responsive to the work. Or, as Robbins puts it in terms of printing, “If I want people to read books as a part of their everyday life, then the conception and design and printing should be part of that same everyday life.” It’s yet another reason why “Print Still Matters” and, more importantly, why how we print still matters. Robbins doesn’t need to persuade me that there is an ethics to production or to printing, and neither is he trying. He just happens to hold the opinion that print is better for cultural-historical preservation, that print allows for greater artistic control and expression, that print encourages micro-cultural expression and
visibility, and that it has the potential to build communities through collaborative effort and cultural exchange. A small press printing project, Robbins continues, also holds the potential to facilitate a kind of cultural exchange that eludes corporate profit motives. Though the Internet is surely a blessed thing and wonderfully aids the gratis spread of loads of information, Robbins reminds me that electronic print formats may also have the reverse effect of inhibiting the circulation of a text. While there are sites like Project Gutenberg (or e-rags like Propeller!) that contribute to the free distribution of media, electronic formats may also discourage exchange and distribution in the form of borrowing and lending between readers. “You can’t take an e-book down from a shelf and hand it to a friend,” Robbins remarks. Robbins contends that with electronic formats like Kindle, what gets encouraged is the flow of revenue rather than the flow of information. On the other hand, you print. You have a voice when it comes to what counts as culturally relevant, and you also direct the kind of life this material will have. “If you think the written word is something culturally important, then my project is in a small way—symbolically, I mean, hopefully—reminding people that these moments in our culture are important to preserve.” Others might call Robbins a luddite, a print-
fetishist, or a bibliophile, but he doesn’t back down. “Besides all the nuance you get from sitting down with an actual object, the fact of the matter is we haven’t come up with a better way to preserve information. Ink on paper is a pretty indelible thing. You don’t need batteries, and to keep it so dust-free and away from magnetism, and you don’t need a fancy operating system. The operating system is just language. It’s pretty embedded in us.”
Oh, I can already hear the reasonable objections. They are surely many and they are surely very, very reasonable. But I don’t care anymore. I want to hold something in my hands. I want to press and crease and lug something heavy and impractical around with me. Suddenly, sitting there with Robbins, I feel older than I really am, and I sense that like print, I myself am becoming obsolete, my desires prudish. This seems to me to be the special condition of our twenty-
first century lives, different than the last one in the variable of speed, in exponential velocities of change. It was getting late. Robbins and I parted ways outside the downtown Multnomah County Library. As I walk, “Print still matters” rings around in my ears like a mantra. Ink on paper, indelible, he had said. I passionately want to believe him, but in back of this passion, I discover the suspicion that I may be resisting change for
the sake of resisting—out of fear, or laziness. I examine the quality of my skepticism and lay it aside; this seems more than a personal problem. It appears to me that we almost universally regard reflection of a kind that slows production as a luxury—one we are unwilling to afford. If this is true, however, and if there is any moral imperative to think before acting, our collective enterprise would seem on course for magnificent failure.
At Powell’s Books, I plodded up and down the aisles of the Blue Room, looking for out-ofprint, small run editions of post-war American poetry. I didn’t find anything I was looking for, but did pick up a wonderful little pocketbook of Edward Dorn’s Songs Set to a Two-Count and another old City Lights edition of Diane DiPrima’s Revolutionary Letters. Then I thumbed through of copy of Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, thinking of Olson’s letters to the Gloucester Times, of his desperate “Scream to the Editor”: Bemoan the present which assumes its taste, bemoan the easiness of smashing anything
oh city of mediocrity and cheap ambition destroying its own shoulders its own back greedy persons stood upon, stop this renewing without reviewing loss loss loss no gains oh not moan stop stop stop this total loss of surface and mass... I think I’m not crazy to love these little objects, these events in space and folio. In a time when the future is ever encroaching on the present and all but threatening to annihilate the past, a small press may be a lifeline. Ω
The End of the Evening Jesse Lichtenstein
he had liked the feel of his hand on her skin. When he’d reached across the table to touch her she hadn’t expected it, but she hadn’t been surprised, either. His hand, his fingers—they had been warm, she’d felt their warmth against the cool September evening. They’d sat on the back patio of a bar, across a narrow table from each other. She’d chosen the drinks and he’d paid for the round. She’d warmed with the alcohol, too, warmed with the conversation, which was about her, her lost years of drugs and expulsion, which, in describing, she could not bring herself fully to regret. “How’d you stop with heroin?” he’d asked. “It wasn’t hard. I didn’t like it,” she’d said. “But I met weird, amazing people. They’re still some of my closest friends.”
And she’d turned sideways as she spoke of these friends, put her feet up on the bench, and looked out at the hedge that framed the patio, and the lights winking through its patchy growth. And then he’d reached across the table to touch the back of her neck. Now she sat on a blue plastic seat in a row that faced the front of the bus. She couldn’t abide the sideways-facing banks of bus seats, or backward-facing seats on trains—they made her ill. She stared out the window as the bus slowed for a red light, passing a small strip of yard with tomato plants on raised beds, the stems straining under the fruit, or vegetable, or whatever it was. The bus passed steps leading up to a walkway that had been framed, like an entrance to a rural ranch, by three large pieces of driftwood paint-
ed bright lavender and floodlit from below. The next yard was mostly obscured by a jumble of rotting sawhorses and blue tarps. This was what she loved about her city, how it looked so entirely different from one moment to the next. She picked out shapes in the jumble, like spotting farm animals in a line of clouds, until the traffic light changed. The man was older than she, although how old she couldn’t be sure. He moved like a young man but there were little flashes of silver in his hair. The two of them worked in the same office, on different ends of the same floor. These were complications. Whenever she’d glanced at him, on the patio, he’d looked at her so intensely. There was gum on the seat next to hers. Dried gum, the color of dirty canvas. Someone had tried to scrape it off but had given up. Some people try to make things better for everyone else, she thought. Some people don’t even try. And some people try not to make things better. She had never been the last, but too often she had been the second. Yet as a child she’d picked up litter on their street with her mother. As a teenager she’d not been shy—she’d made it a
policy to smile at strangers, particularly older people. She had been a contributor. What had happened? He’d asked to drive her home, pleaded when he’d learned that she would be taking the crosstown bus—“You have to let me drop you off, this isn’t optional”—but everything was optional. She’d wanted the evening to end there, with that warmth, the brush of arm against arm as they walked from the bar and passed a bus stop, and not in the dark of his car as they pulled in front of her house, where decisions would be more difficult to make, weightier to carry out. There was an elderly man two seats in front of her on the bus reading a small book with big yellow lettering on the cover. The title read, Training the Mind. There was a woman whose child slumped against her side, fitfully asleep. There were two teenage boys behind her, busy with their phones. She took a pen out of her pocketbook, took the lid from the pen, and used the lid to scrape at the gum on the seat beside her. She kept scraping until it was gone. Ω
â€œThe next yard was mostly obscured by a jumble of rotting sawhorses and blue tarps. This was what she loved about her city, how it looked so entirely different from one moment to the next.â€?
Photography by Sarah Kruse
Previous spread: Exit sign on closed section of I-195 east, originally built in 1964. A new I-195 now bypasses downtown Providence.
This page: View from the Point Street Bridge. The building in the background is the Narragansett Electric Company, former powerhouse for the streetcars of Providence in the 1930s and 1940s. Previous: Exit sign on closed section of I-195 east, originally built in 1964. A new I-195 now bypasses downtown Providence.
Right: A meridian guardrail rusts on a closed section of the former I-195. Previous, left: The George C. Arnold Building, on Washington Street in downtown Providence. Built in 1923, it is known as the narrowest building in downtown, but may soon become a parking lot. Previous, right: Abandoned cakes slowly melt in the front window of The Panaderia Bakery, a closed business at the corner of Pearl and Broad Streets.
View from the concrete meridian into the westbound lane of closed I-195. In another 700 feet, this section of freeway drops off into nothing.
Grove Street Elementary School stands in a half-demolished state, rain seeping in through a gaping side of the building.
Left: Grove Street School, second story, east side. Following, left: Grove Street School, lower east side entrance. Following, right: Grove Street School “door to nowhere.”
Left: Historic sign on the Leader Uniforms building. Previous, left: Pigeons sleep in an upper-story window of the Grove Street School. Previous, right: Back entryway of the 1888 J. P. Hawkskin Building, on Summer Street in South Providence. The former mill and factory is currently the home of various artists and students.
BLUEBERRY MORNINGSNOW Two Poems
Whale in the Woods thereâ€™s a whale in the woods flattening the grasses, weeds, and saplings
big as a building of fat and skin his breath going out and nothing to do abou canâ€™t drag him back to the blood rippling from his throat grooves his eye trapped up there small and scared
grim as teeth or numbers
the ooze of weird he is crushing a whole patch of bluebells
ut it ocean
hen he dissolves his bone-cage will jut the air smell of salt and split open flower stems
d pain everywhere
the woods canâ€™t absorb it
Blue and Galen the baby bird happily hopping like a tiny abandoned brain in its own crush of grass and then our teen marriage happening down past the father who yelled out in anger while you, his son, you didn’t die and it wasn’t august you weren’t detasseling corn neither was the sun staring down on you full of hate full of hate nor were your shoulders aching nor did I leave your body nor the basement bedroom where we lay while your father beat the punching bag outside the door don’t move you said try not to move we will lie here you said until we are ghosts with our brains of course wet and caught in our eyes but how not to move? I asked and can you not die. and it was not calm remember after awhile your ghost left the room with great gnashing of teeth and began circling the house in a sonic youth shirt
Contributo ALEXIS NELSON’S essays have appeared in journals such as The Iowa Review and Tin House. She also helps write and direct an educational soap opera for ESL learners called “As The World Learns” that will soon be airing in China.
RACHAEL WILSON wrote about Brooklyn bookstore Hermitage in our April issue. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English at New York University.
WENDY BOURGEOIS lives, writes, and teaches in North Portland with her small dogs and big kids. BLUEBERRY MORNINGSNOW is a writer of poems, and a mother to Finnegan, and a teacher of composition, and she lives in Iowa City, Iowa. SARAH KRUSE wrote about Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the July issue. Her article on Albert Camus appears in the current issue of the International Journal of Zizek Studies.
ors ANDY STALLINGS lives in New Orleans with Melissa Dickey and their daughter Esme.
JESSE LICHTENSTEIN is a poet, journalist, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Paris Review, the New York Times Magazine, Octopus, and Slate. He coruns the Loggernaut Reading Series in Portland, Oregon.
BRYAN BECK is Propellerâ€™s Pioneer Valley correspondent. He is in the MFA in poetry program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
ALAN LIMNIS has written, most recently, about the work of Ezra Jack Keats. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
Published on Oct 29, 2010