Recommended Reading: Berger, Herrera, Poetry via Robert Hass, Abstract Expressionism

Some things I’ve read and liked recently.

A Little Book on Form by Robert Hass — For my full thoughts on this book you can just read my review in the San Francisco Chronicle. Here I’ll say that this book is equally an education in poetic form and in Hass’s remarkably, idiosyncratic literary mind. This is a primer of sorts, but it’s also a book you can just read straight through, it’s that engaging, and interesting on every page.

The Fate Of A Gesture: Jackson Pollock And Postwar American Art by Carter Ratcliff — This is basically a bird’s-eye of the American art world in the wake of Pollock, as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism, along with American art, took over the art world from Europe. It’s thorough, cover a lot of territory, and doesn’t sacrifice depth to do it.

Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera — I don’t want too say too much about this, as I’ve got a review on the way, but it’s good, as were Transmigration of Bodies and Signs Preceding the End of the World. More congrats to Lisa Dillman on the translation.

To the Wedding by John Berger — People recommend this book to me so much. It’s a strange, very tragic love story. A memorable read (only Berger could have written this), and reminded me very much of the things I like best about Michael Ondaatje—the imagination, the surprising turns, the fleetness, the energy, the tone.

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún — this one won’t be out in the States till September; I received a copy of the UK edition from the author himself while in Houston earlier this year. It’s a short lyric, incredibly taut novel about a disgraced filmmaker who worked with Leni Riefenstahl, and then left his life behind by taking his family to Bolivia. Also it’s also not about that at all. It’s a strnge, compelling character study of this man’s two daughters, one of whom fought with Che’s army in Bolivia (Habsún is a Bolivian). But it is more about life, the choices we make, being a daughter, being a sister. A strange, very interesting novel—I liked it so much I’m in the middle of an interview with Hasbún. And an excellent translation by Sophie Hughes.

Some Thoughts on Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits

Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut, The Fits (2015), is one of those movies wrapped around an impossible-not-to-speculate-about mystery that seems to destine it for cult status.

Sitting comfortably between realism and allegory, the movie is negative capability at its finest. It starts with Toni, a tomboyish 11-year-old girl who is seen training fiercely with her older (but still teenage) brother to be a boxer. They are inside a gym that seems either to be part of a school or a community center, and they are both Africa-American (as is virtually every character in this movie).

One day Toni becomes intrigued by girls training to be dancers in an adjacent gym room, and when she decides to try out for the dance team. She is not a very good dancer at first, and she is clearly intimidated by the slightly older girls, who in addition to being much better dancers are also much more accomplished in the ways of hair, makeup, fashion, and other forms of beauty that make up a big part of the adolescent female identity. Toni is clearly intrigued (and even begins making some attempts to emulate the older girls), but she also feels the pull of her brother as role model, and still very much feels more at home in the boxing ring than n the dance floor.

The Fits seems to be headed in a clear trajectory: it will map the push/pull of masculinity and femininity in a girl’s life as she discovers her adolescent identity. And indeed, just as this movie seems to be slipping into complacency, Holmer throws us for a loop: in the middle of practice, one of the dance team’s leading girls is suddenly thrown into a seizure. 911 is called and she is carried off on a stretcher.

As Toni and some other girls her age continue to battle the questions that come with incipient adolescence, the outbreak of what is termed “the fits” continues. One by one, each of the older girls experiences her own seizure. Toni and her young friends can only surmise that they are next, and, right on schedule, one by one they experience their own fits. The movie concludes with an eerie, musically choreographed, slow-motion, and quasi-first-person point of view scene as Toni—who is last of all—finally succumbs to the fits.

If I have abandoned my usual rule of avoiding spoilers and summarized the general plot of The Fits, it is only because I have little doubt that knowing what happens in this film cannot undermine the strangeness and mystery of seeing it and the pleasure of attempting to figure it out. One likely explanation for these seizures—mass hysteria—is the one that Holmer herself said intrigued her to originally create this film. Of course there are many other plausible explanations, and part of the fun of the film is mapping its allegorical surface onto whatever you are bold enough to argue for. Ultimately, what makes The Fits such a success is that this central mystery is in service to expanding the film’s interpretation of Toni’s life and the situation of herself and her friends. Holmer put it well in an interview with Vogue:

You were inspired by real examples of these fits of hysteria. Any in particular?

I was doing research, and one of the stories that came up was about a more recent case. I started to think back on historical cases, like the dancing disease. As I researched, a pattern emerged. It was not exclusively female or adolescent, but that was the trend. I started to think about why.

What was the dancing disease?

It was in the Middle Ages, I think in mainland Europe. Hundreds of people were struck by this mania. It was really fascinating to think about dancing, which is such a powerful intentional release, being something uncontrollable, from this other area of consciousness.

I think that the dancing disease may have actually been poisoning. But some people who weren’t poisoned also came down with symptoms, because of how we look to each other. It’s why we smile when we see someone else smiling. We want to belong. There’s something really powerful and simple in that.

This is not a horror movie, but you co-opted horror tropes (movies like Carrie came to mind).

Why lend that element of creepiness to what is ultimately, I thought, a very good-hearted movie?
We’re saying that there is power in collective identity. And it should not be conflated with conformity. There is that fear, though, and it’s real. What Toni is struggling with is fear of herself. Not knowing her own body, desires, insecurities, limits. That’s what adolescence is about. It’s pretty scary.

The entire film is really about putting the audience in Toni’s headspace and physical bodily space, and that’s fraught with anxiety and tension.

In other words, to only imagine this film as a sort of poetic allegory would be to shortchange it. The Fits has a very strange texture: for one thing, it almost exclusively takes place at the gym. Although a few parents are mentioned, we never see any of the children’s family or authority figures (there are one or two shots of administrators, but that is it), and any vestige of life outside of the gym is almost totally effaced. In addition to that, the dialogue here is very minimal, in particular Toni’s dialogue (she is a remarkably shy, quiet girl), and what replaces it are the beautifully kinetic movements of her and the other children’s bodies throughout the movie. This is all toward creating Toni as a fascinating and singular character, one that is intriguing enough to hang the movie on and that defies the stereotypes that film generally brings to child stars (particularly ones who are members of disadvantaged minorities). While the film does not ignore these aspects of Toni’s character, it also does not reduce Toni to them, letting the talented Royalty Hightower instead inhabit Toni as an individual person who communicates her character with her entire physical presence.

The film also has a very pleasing visual texture. For a movie that largely takes place in a handful of rooms and hallways, Holmer manages to keep the imagery fresh and surprising. She gives Toni rich spaces to maneuver through, and her camera manages to let her and the other characters define these spaces with their movements without over-embellishing what is happening on the screen or otherwise getting in the way.

The “talked about” central aspect of The Fits will, of course, be the titular fits, but there is very much else here to see this central mystery through. And it is these other layers of complexity that ultimately make this movie more than a typical, B one-trick-flick and that make these 72 quick minutes watchable again and again.

The Fits was made on a very tiny budget—reportedly just under $170,000—and one could very easily see this film alongside such other minimalist cinema, such as Richard Linklater’s Slacker (budget: $23,000 in 1991), that allowed original, quirky, and idiosyncratic directors to establish their name in film circles and gain access to greater and greater sums. I very much look forward to seeing Holmer work on a larger and larger canvas, and I will greatly anticipate what she does next.

Two Views of Richard Diebenkorn: From Figuration to Abstraction

In the spring of 2015 I was in London, where I had a few days to aimlessly stroll, browse the bookstores, and examine the world-class art that is all over the city (and still largely free, even in these austere times). One of the things I discovered entirely by accident was a retrospective of the American artist Richard Diebenkorn.

I don’t recall where I first heard of Diebenkorn, but the name and work had stuck, for as soon as I saw the name I could conjure up one or two of his figurative canvasses. I immediately went in to see the art, spending a couple of hours. At that point I thought of Diebenkorn as a figurative artist, the landscapes being the images that had most stuck in my mind.

I also knew that he had done some portraiture that I enjoyed very much.

What I did not know about Diebenkorn was the painting in the “Ocean Park” series, which were to make his biggest reputation internationally, and which were wholly abstract. These I came to at the end of the exhibit, and stare and stare as I might at them, they left me cold.

I didn’t know what to make of them, although recently—two years after I first viewed Diebenkorn’s late abstractions—I had the opportunity to try looking at them again.

Diebenkorn was known for having three major periods to his work: an early abstract phrase, a middle figurative one, and then the late work, which again became abstract. When he was a young artist, Abstract Expressionism was the dominant form, so it was natural for him to start there. But he grew disenchanted with what he felt was a straightjacket on his work, so in the 1950s he abandoned it for figurative work, by no means an each decision at the time.

Diebenkorn was a California artist, living almost his entire life in various parts of the state, and he was deeply influenced by the work of Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse, among others. It is said that Hopper’s influence can be seen in his figurative work—I see it most in the mood of the pieces, the deep contemplation that his subjects generally seem immersed in, the somewhat distanced feel that the viewer has from the scenes.

It was in 1966, after a move form the Bay Area to Santa Monica, that Diebenkorn abruptly became an abstract painter once again. In an interview quoted at the MOMA exhibit, he explained it, “Maybe someone from the outside observing what I was doing would have known what was about to happen, but I didn’t. I didn’t see the signs. Then, one day, I was thinking about abstract painting again. . . . I did about four large canvases—still representation, but, again, much flatter. Then, suddenly, I abandoned the figure altogether.”

As he returned to abstraction, he became most famous for his Ocean Park series. These are said to be in part influenced by Matisse’s French Window at Collioure, which the painter pushed into an abstract direction when he blacked out the view through the windows, leaving four rectangles of color.

Looking at Diebenkorn’s entire body of work last weekend at the SFMOMA’s major retrospective (which brings in several paintings of Matisse’s to better show the influence), I had a chance to survey Diebenkorn’s entire body of work in an hour and a half. To my surprise, I found myself pulled in most powerfully to the late abstractions, although my appreciation of the middle-career figurative work very much remained. Clearly the desire to resolve the geometry and the palette of the figurative work remains (you can almost see a Diebenkorn landscape in the one below), but this is also clearly very different work form the figurative paintings.

I wonder what had changed in my mind in the two years between my first experience with this work and my second. What I was struck by when I viewed these works a second time are their clean lines: the outlines of the shapes have none of the Impressionistic fuzziness that characterized Diebenkorn’s figurative phase. Also it seemed that the angles of the lines—always on the sharp side—here grow most refined and dynamic of all. What can’t really be seen in these images is the texture of these paintings, which is very rich and again highly refined, especially when considered against the texture of the middle works. They seem to me to be communicating in a very cool, controlled, quietly elaborate, ascetic language, a feel not that different from the minimalist work pioneered in the 1970s. For instance, something like this:

As to myself, I can say that my life in the space between spring 2015 and spring 2017 corresponded to some significant (although gentle) identity shifts, as well as new directions in my work as a writer and in the sorts of books that I most admired and enjoyed reading. The shift from Diebenkorn’s middle to late work makes sense to me, even if I can’t give a very satisfactory explanation of it right here in this small space.

8 Questions for Jeffrey Angles on The Book of the Dead by Orikuchi Shinobu and the Yomiuri Prize

I recently received a mysterious and very fascinating book: The Book of the Dead by the great Japanese modernist Orikuchi Shinobu, published by University of Minnesota Press. Though written in the 1930s, the book draws from the history of 8th-century Egypt, and it is a short, allegorical, surrealistic work, definitely one of the strangest and most striking titles that I have seen in a while.

To learn more, I reached out to the book’s translator, Jeffrey Angles, who is very well-respected in the translation community for his translations of such authors as Itō Hiromi and Takahashi Mutsuo. In addition to containing the text of The Book of the Dead, this edition also contains a very lengthy introductory essay by Angles, as well as numerous other essays by Japense critics and scholars, making it a really nice edition.

I also spoke to Jeffrey about a recent honor of his: Japan’s prestigious Yomiuri Prize, for his original Japanese poetry. This is a major, hugely prestigious award that any Japanese author would be happy to receive, and it is even more remarkable that Jeffrey, an American, has received it, a this is a very rare occurrence. In the interview we talk about what it’s like to write a such a high level in a foreign language.

Jeffrey kindly answered my questions over email.


Scott Esposito: In your introduction to this edition, you note that The Book of the Dead is “provocative and open-ended” and has been the subject of very much critical interpretation. You later describe it as a “writerly” text in Barthes’ use of the word. I would also add that this is not a terribly long work—just under 100 pages in this edition. What are some of the things that make this book so broad?

Jeffrey Angles: Orikuchi’s novel is a dreamy, mysterious, and exquisitely wrought novel. The main plot features an unusual romance between a woman and a dead prince who suddenly finds himself waking up, resurrected from the dead inside his own tomb. From the very first lines of the novel, we find ourselves in a seemingly magical world, in which myth and reality are constantly intermingling, characters are having mysterious visions, and language is transforming reality in mystical ways. Yet as the novel progresses, our understandings of what is happening to the characters changes as we gather more information.

One of the reasons that readers have found it so provocative is that the novel is extremely open-ended. The plot subtly suggests why things are happening but rarely explains anything directly. Moreover, the plot does not unfold along chronological lines. It moves backward and forward in time, juxtaposing scenes that do not occur at the same time. Also, important characters might appear for a few scenes, then vanish from the story, leaving the readers to figure out what happened to them through small hints dropped in other scenes. In a sense The Book of the Dead is like a big modernist, experimental mystery that only makes more and more sense through multiple readings.

SE: Although this book was written in modern times and first published in 1939, it takes place in the 8th century, and its title and other elements reference the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Why do you think the author, Orikuchi Shinobu, chose to set his book in such a far away time and invoke such ancient tropes? Is there any particular relevance to the dates he has chosen for this book?

JA: In addition to being a prominent poet and novelist, Orikuchi was also a scholar of Japanese literature and specialized in the ancient Japanese past. Orikuchi once wrote that novels provided him with a way to bring the ancient past to life in a vivid, emotionally complex way that would supplement his more scholarly work.

Orikuchi was especially interested in the eighth century because that was really the time that Japan was emerging as a coherent nation for the first time. During the eighth century, Japan established its first permanent capital in the city of Nara. Buddhism, which had been introduced from China in the preceding centuries, was finally taking root among the Japanese population, and the Japanese were busily developing their own writing system and recording the very first books in the Japanese language. In fact, one of the main characters of the novel is Ōtomo no Yakamochi (ca. 718-785), a statesman and poet who compiled the first-ever collection of poetry in Japanese: a massive compendium known as the Man’yōshū (The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves). In other words, this was a time that the Japanese state and Japanese sensibilities were being born for the first time, and Orikuchi wanted to explore what that era of so change was like for people who were living in it.

Orikuchi’s own studies of ancient Japan reveal that he was believed strongly that in ancient societies, language (and by extension, storytelling) had a mystical power that could shape the experience of real people. He seems to have been drawn to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, not only because it is the most important literary product of one of the world’s earliest civilizations, but because the Egyptians believed the text had a mystical power that could imbue the dead with new life and usher them into a new existence. This is an idea that he addresses in many forms over the course of the book.

This is a bit of a tangent, but one additional thing I should mention is that Orikuchi wrote the first edition of his novel in 1939, then revised it in 1943. This was the era that Japan was trying to refashion itself into a pan-Asian empire. There are subtle parallels between the eighth century when Japan was first emerging as a nation, and the mid-twentieth century when Japan was developing into a militaristic empire. Some scholars, including me, find in the novel a subtle commentary on the rising militarism of Orikuchi’s own era, but because it was set so far in the distant past and involves so many supernatural elements, the novel made its way past the scrutiny of imperial censors without any trouble.

SE: Although Orikuchi is a venerated figure in Japan, he will likely be new to most Westerners, even those seriously interested in translated literature. Can you tell us a little about him and what made him so special?

JA: As I mentioned a few moments ago, Orikuchi is a well-known poet, so famous in fact, that one of the most important prizes for tanka poetry (the short form of traditional poetry in which he excelled) is named after him: the Shaku Chōkū Prize. (Shaku Chōku is the pen name that he used when publishing his poetry.) He had a strong poetic sensibility that shows up in every chapter of the novel, both in the creative, open-ended, and evocative ways that he shaped the material and also in the richly textured language he used.

Another thing that makes Orikuchi special is that he wrote about his homosexual feelings in an era when most authors who preferred members of the same sex kept their preferences hidden. Unlike some of his other novels and poetry which currently remain untranslated, The Book of the Dead never overtly features love between members of the same sex. However, at the end of his own life, Orikuchi admitted that the main plot of The Book of the Dead was inspired by his own love for a deceased man whom Orikuchi had loved. In the book, I include my own introduction and a translation of a commentary by the Japanese scholar Andō Reiji. Both of us touch upon the ways that the novel seems to reflect Orikuchi’s own sexual history.

SE: What were some of the pleasures and challenges of translating this book?

JA: Because Orikuchi was a scholar of ancient Japan, he had a voluminous knowledge of the distant past, which infiltrates every paragraph—or perhaps every sentence—of the original. He writes in modernistic, fragmentary sentences, but sprinkles in countless words and expressions from classical Japanese. Moreover, he makes frequent reference to people, places, and things that are not necessarily even familiar to modern Japanese readers. Orikuchi often quotes poems and remarks upon historical events without referencing his sources or providing much explanation.

Tracking down some of those things was a real headache! As a scholar who specializes in modern Japanese literature, I had to spend a huge amount of time reading about ancient Japanese history and culture to try to represent the world of ancient Japan as accurately as possible. To help out Anglophone readers, I added an explanatory introduction, footnotes, and a glossary of people and places mentioned in the text.

SE: What are some works of world literature that you might place alongside The Book of the Dead, and what contemporary Japanese authors has Orikuchi influenced?

JA: One might compare The Book of the Dead to Gustave Flaubert’s 1862 novel Salammbô and Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play Salome. This comparison might seem odd at first, since they were all written at different times and in different genres, but all three of these works are set in formative moments in the ancient past when new sensibilities were emerging. Plus, all three authors hoped to explore of the distant past to suggest new aesthetic directions for their own eras. Andō Reiji, the scholar who wrote the commentary also included in the same volume as my translation, believes that Orikuchi shares a common sensibility with André Breton, who also was writing about the same time as Orikuchi and who also drew upon the myth of Isis and Osiris for inspiration.

I have to say, however, that Orikuchi is a distinctly unique author. He died in 1953, before his most important novel The Book of the Dead had earned its rightful place as one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature. During his life, his work did not foster a new generation of Japanese novelists directly. (He was better known as a scholar and a poet while alive.) Those influences came posthumously.

The prominent, contemporary avant-garde poet Yoshimasu Gōzō counts Orikuchi, and the avant-garde experimentalism of The Book of the Dead as one of his greatest influences. Asabuki Mariko, a genius young author who has not yet been translated into English, also bears traces of Orikuchi’s influence. I’ve never heard Murakami Haruki reference Orikuchi, but I think that there are some parallels there. Both authors feature strange, illogical plot twists, but describe them in relatively realistic ways.

I should note that Orikuchi has also influenced people working in different media. Kawamoto Kihachirō did an absolutely gorgeous stop-motion animation version of The Book of the Dead that won critical attention around the world upon its release in 2005. And in 2015 and 2016, the graphic novelist Kondō Yōko did a wonderful manga adaptation of the novel that I’m hoping to translate into English.

SE: I also wanted to ask you about your own creative writing, as you recently received the extremely prestigious Yomiuri Prize for Literature in the poetry category, the first American to ever be awarded this poetry prize. Your winning book, Watashi no hizukehenkōsen (My International Date Line), was written in Japanese. Can you tell us a little about how long it took you to develop your Japanese language skills to a level suitable to do this kind of literary writing, and how you came to begin writing poetry in Japanese?

JA: I have been studying and reading Japanese for thirty years, but even so, every time I sit down to write, I have to admit I feel the interference of my first language, English, acting upon my second language, Japanese. I think and write directly in Japanese, but nonetheless, there is still a quirkiness in my Japanese that comes from having learned it as a second language when I was a teenager, thirty years ago.

I have always loved to write—stories, diaries, poetry. In graduate school, however, I learned that there are many first-rate, world-class poets in Japan haven’t yet been translated, so I turned my literary aspirations toward translation. For more than a decade, I translated poets like Tada Chimako, Itō Hiromi, and Takahashi Mutsuo, but at the same time I was translating, I was also studying their stylistics and methods. However, it was after I earned tenure and was living in Japan doing research that I finally felt the freedom to take the time away from the demands of the scholarly life and try writing my own poems.

To my surprise, the poets whom I showed my earliest poems were stunned. They all seemed interested in the fact that although I was using Japanese, I didn’t necessarily use it quite the same ways as a native Japan-born author would. In one of my recent readings in Japan, Takahashi told me that my writing had an unusual, quirky logic to it that a Japanese author couldn’t imitate even in they tried. Of course, that’s perfectly okay with me. After all, I feel like I live between two nations and languages, and it only makes sense to use a language that reflects that!

SE: What sorts of poetic forms did you use for this book? Did you attempt to work within the forms of the Japanese tradition, or did you use more Anglo forms, or some combination thereof, or something entirely different?

JA: All the poems in the book are in free verse. I have experimented with writing in traditional Japanese poetic forms such as haiku and tanka, but both of those have such a long, weighty history with so many conventions, set phrases, and ritualized modes of expression that I feel much freer and happier when unconstrained by meter and form. There are lots of poets who write in free verse in contemporary Japan, and so I am more akin to them to figures like Orikuchi, who drew upon the classical traditions in their poetry.

SE: As someone who has long translated from Japanese to English, you must be sensitive to the differences between the languages and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Are there certain things that you feel you are better able to express when writing poetry in the Japanese language, in contrast to working in English, be it as a poet, essayist, or translator?

JA: I don’t know if this is a direct answer to your question, but as a translator, I’ve always been intrigued by expressions that differ between the two languages, and those differences often form the point of inspiration for my poems. For instance, in one poem, I drew upon the fact that the simple English word “return” has many possible different translations depending on context. A return to the start, a return of an undeliverable letter, and the return key on a keyboard are all different words in Japanese, and so I weave some of those different words together to make a poem. Another poem was inspired by the fact that the words for bedroom and for ventricle (the chamber of the heart, that is) are homonyms in Japanese: shinshitsu. I don’t think that these are things that a monolingual Japanese person necessarily pay a lot of attention to, but those things make my imagination race.

I think it was because of this interlinguistic play that the prominent novelist Ikezawa Natsuki, one of the judges for the Yomiuri Prize, selected my book for the award. In his comments, he wrote, “This book of poetry taught me that there are special territories that only people who have two languages embedded deeply within themselves can reach.” When I read that comment, I couldn’t have been happier.

New Acquisitions: Two From Japan, John Berger, Argentina, Michael Wood

Here are some of the latest books that I’ve added to my stacks.

The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán. Fresán first came to my attention when I published this piece in the Quarterly Conversation, approximately 10 years ago. He’s been a writer of interest ever since. This latest, just out, is a major release of some 750 pages. If you like Pynchon, DeLillo, Bolaño . . .

And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger. One of Berger’s stranger, more poetic books.

The Book of the Dead by Orikuchi Shinobu. A short, allegorical, modernist classic from Japan. Along the lines of Kafka and Bioy, maybe even a little Borges. It’s amazing that this book has never been translated before.

The Face of Another by Kobo Abe. Kobo Abe’s book about a face transplant. What more is there to say?

The Road to Delphi by Michael Wood. As much as I love Michael Wood’s critical essays, I’ve never read a book by him. I’ve just started this one, and it’s pretty good. It’s all about the Oracle at Delphi and the role that oracles play in our civilizations, past and present.

6 Questions for Laura Raicovich on At the Lightning Field

photo credit: Michael Angelo

A couple of weeks ago I recommended the book-length essay At the Lightning Field by Laura Raicovich, recently published by Coffee House Press. It is a beautiful example of a long essay that responds to a work of art in a uniquely linguistic manner, the sort of thing that I myself enjoy writing, and which I feel we should see more of from creative nonfiction writers. In addition to deploying various ideas around memory, mathematics, and aesthetics, the book combines quotations from authors like Vladimir Nabokov, as well as Raicovich’s own descriptions and thoughts, often made in enjambed free verse.

Since I made that recommendation, I was able to interview Raicovich to find out a little more about her lengthy fascination with The Lightning Field, how her book came together, and some further reflections on some of the ideas found therein.

In addition to being the author of At the Lightning Field, Raicovich works as the president and executive director of the Queens Museum. She is also the author of A Diary of Mysterious Difficulties (Publication Studio), a book based on Viagra and Cialis spam, and an editor of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books).


Scott Esposito: Your book revolves around your experiences with The Lightning Field, a work of art left in the New Mexico wilderness by sculptor Walter De Maria. How many times have you visited The Lightning Field? (if you could, please elaborate a little here as to the time frame you’ve made these visits over, how long it takes to get out there from where you live, etc)

Laura Raicovich: I made at least 7 trips to The Lightning Field over a ten year period. At the time, I worked for Dia Art Foundation, the entity that maintains the Field, and part of my work involved ensuring the continuing isolation of the Field. At the time, there was interest in development of the high dessert throughout this area of central, western New Mexico. Many of the old school cattle ranchers were retiring or moving to ranch in areas that were literally greener and less challenging to ranch. During this period I learned a great deal about what it takes run a cattle ranch in the high desert, and eventually we were able to create some long term protections for the land surrounding the Field by partnering with the State of New Mexico and a third generation ranching family to purchase a conservation easement on their land that would ensure they could ranch for at least another generation, and that a major piece of land just south of the Field would be protected from development in perpetuity.

From where I live in Manhattan, it takes a fair amount of time to arrive at The Lightning Field, and this became, for me, a part of the process of shifting from NYC tempo to something altogether different. There were no direct flights to Albuquerque so I usually switched in Atlanta. From Albuquerque, I would arrive, stay overnight, and depart the following day by car. Getting to the Dia office in Quemado was a few hours’ drive, and from there another hour to get out to the cabin in the truck with Robert, the main caretaker. Each leg of the trip had a different texture and vibe, ending (or beginning?) in the austerity of the high desert and its unexpectedness.

SE: Why were you continually drawn back to The Lightning Field, and when did you know that you wanted to write about it?

LR: My first visit to the Field changed the way I experienced the world around me. I loved being there, recalibrating the relationships between sky, earth, poles, landscape, weather, and all of the ideas and thoughts this process evokes for me. Of course, I was lucky that some of my trips were necessary for my work at Dia.

I began to think seriously about writing about my experiences in graduate school. I tried to write some straight-up art history, and in the process located some compelling coincidences of history. I then took a class with Wayne Koestenbaum, and as we wrote homages, or parallel texts, to some of the works of literature we were reading, I began to wonder what writing something similar in relationship to The Lightning Field would look like. It seemed like the coincidences and my experiences out there could combine in compelling ways.

SE: The Lightning Field has been identified as a work of Land Art, an artistic movement based in interacting with the landscape, and of which perhaps Spiral Jetty is the best known example. Could you tell us a little about this movement and how The Lightning Field fits in?

LR: There were a number of artists who came to prominence in the 60s and 70s who decided to leave the confines of big cities to experiment in the landscape of the Western United States. Among them, Donald Judd went to Marfa, Texas where he created a complex of architectural and art installations. Michael Heizer made drawings with his motorcycle on dry lake beds, and started a monumental project in Nevada called “City”. Nancy Holt created her miraculous “Sun Tunnels” in Utah’s desert. And Robert Smithson envisioned and built “Spiral Jetty” in the Great Salt Lake. De Maria had been making artworks in the desert for some time, including his Mile Long Drawing from 1968, before searching for the location for The Lightning Field.

SE: In the book you talk about the poles being “a device for seeing something larger, infinite.” This comes in the context of a discussion of certain irrational, or maybe disorderly, systems that The Lightning Field made visible to you. For your text, did you want to mimic this effect at all, in terms of making your writings a gateway toward the perception of things adjacent to the text?

LR: Yes, I wanted to do this both literally and lyrically. In fact, it happens formally with some of the line break choices. If you look at some pages (like 14, or 42, or 82) and turn the book on its left side, the lines of text mimic the poles in the desert. Sometimes the lines appear in an almost-pattern like the work does when meandering off the orthogonal within the grid of poles. And of course, there is a lot that is left out, not recorded, omitted, and left to another imagination.

SE: In a discussion of memory and your engaging idea of “the curve of memory,” you remark that “There is great pleasure in looking at the infinitesimally / small aspects of an experience / as well as the infinitesimally large.” I think I have some idea of what the infinitesimally small aspects of an experience might be, but I wonderful if you could elaborate on the idea of the “infinitesimally large” and how they might relate to your experiences at The Lightning Field.

LR: Infinitesimally large means to me connection to the cosmos, to the expanding universe, to really, really big things that are difficult to comprehend in our day to day frame of reference. Maybe it is because I have just finished Cixin Liu’s Three Body trilogy, these things include the unknown space of black holes, and space in more or fewer than 3 dimensions. Being at the Field decidedly connected my thoughts to the heavens and where this particular artwork sits on the surface of the Earth, and its relationship to the universe.

SE: Much of At the Lightning Field consists of beautiful poetic renditions of your phenomenological experiences of The Lightning Field. Did recounting these memories as poetry revise your experience of them? Did they lead to certain discoveries?

LR: Recounting them certainly changed them. Particularly as I left things out, inadvertently or intentionally, and as I edited the text over time. I realize now that there emerged very specific rhythms that I kept returning to in the text, as well as my desire to make connections that felt important to me, like to calculus, chaos theory. But I also wanted to make an invitation to anyone reading it to make their own associations. My discoveries, and the coincidences of history that drove me to write about The Lightning Field are really just a small gesture or homage to a work of art that has changed the ways in which I experience the world.

Interesting New Releases — May 2017

Here are some new releases I’ve got my eye on this month.

As always, this list is taken from my Interesting New Books page, where you can find many more of the 2017 releases I’m watching out for. And you can follow me on Twitter for even more book recommendations.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin. May 2. Her other book (Last Words from Montmartre) got deserved comparisons to Lispector.

40 Sonnets by Don Paterson. May 2.

Hadriana in All My Dreams by René Depestre. May 2. An icon of Haitian literature who has been underappreciated in translation.

Milena, or The Most Beautiful Femur in the World by Jorge Zepeda Patterson. May 2. I would definitely check out anything Adrian Nathan West translates.

Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami. May 9.

House of Names by Colm Toibin. May 9. A new novel by Colm Toibin. That’s a big fucking deal.

General Intellects: Twenty Five Thinkers for the 21st Century by McKenzie Wark. May 9. A lot of thinkers to know about in here.

The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán. May 16. Fresán is a huge talent, and this is a huge book.

Prose Architectures by Renee Gladman. May 16.

Broken River: A Novel by J. Robert Lennon. May 16.

Wolf Hunt by Ivailo Petrov. May 16.

Nest in the Bones: Stories by Antonio Benedetto. May 23. Never-before-translated stories by the author of Zama. Need I say more?

The Illustrious House of Ramires by José Maria de Eça de Queirós. May 23. Eça de Queirós was a god, and this is a translation by another deity (Margaret Jull Costa), so make sure to take a look.

The King in the Golden Mask by Marcel Schwob. May 23.

The Table by Francis Ponge. May 23.

The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof by César Aira. May 30. More Aira.

Recent Acquisitions: Long Essays, Bolivian Literature, an Italian Discovery, Paz’s Poetry

While I was traveling in Texas, and then upon my return home, I picked up many books, as I tend to do generally, regardless of where I am or why I’m there. Here’s a rundown of the latest.

The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz — having long been a fan of the essays of this Nobel laureate and major Mexican author, I decided to fully embrace his poetry. This book was purchased at Deep Vellum Books in Dallas, which packs a remarkable collection of indie press literature into a compact space.

A Vittorini Omnibus — this was a new discovery made in Deep Vellum. Vittorini was famously admired by Ernest Hemingway, and he discovered Calvino as an editor. Vittorini was himself discovered by James Laughlin, during his legendary run as the publisher of New Directions. If the first of the three novels in this omnibus is an indication, Vittorini is a force to reckon with.

Thomas Bernhard: 3 Days — found at Moe’s Books. An account of the irascible Austrian’s experiences with a film made about himself, with photographs. What fan of Bernhard could resist this beautiful book?

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard — Also found at Moe’s. So many trusted friends have told me that this is an absolute masterpiece that I must finally check it out.

Wild Goods by Denise Newman — also at Moe’s. Denise is a colleague and the masterful translator of, among others, Naja Marie Aidt. Knowing what wonders she has worked with Naja’s prose, I obviously had to eventually read her poetry.

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbun — I was fortunate enough to meet the Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún during my time in Texas. People there spoke very highly of this book (and in his short career Rodrigo has received enough honors to equip a trophy room). His translator is the very estimable Sophie Hughes, another good sign. Pictured above is the Pushkin Press edition of his book. Simon & Schuster will release this title in the U.S. soon.

Junkspace with Running Room by Rem Koolhaas and Hal Foster and Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment by A.J. Lees — two Texas acquisitions from UK press Notting Hill Editions, one of the great homes of the essay to come about in recent years. Soon its titles will be distributed in the U.S. from NYRB Classics. I can’t wait to dig into these.

Recommended: At the Lightning Field by Laura Raicovich

I’ve recently finished Laura Raicovich poetic essay At the Lightning Field, just released by Coffee House Press. The book revolves around Raicovich’s experiences at The Lightning Field, a major work of Land Art constructed in 1977 in New Mexico (see more here).

In this book, Raicovich combines poetic narratives of her experiences at The Lightning Field with reflections on mathematics, the nature of memory, artistic theory, and poetry. The result is a substantial, spare long essay that at times functions more like poetry than prose. It’s a delightful little book, the sort of response to works of art that I wish more essayists would make.

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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