The Poetry Center asked, "Which books made you, and which books are making you now?" Poet Brian Blanchfield offers this annotated bibliography to his literary DNA.
By Brian Blanchfield
So, rather exclusively these days, I am writing short-form nonfiction prose, essays in a book-length project whose full (working) title is Onesheets: Brief Studies, Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source. Part cultural semiotics, part dicey autobiography, they are short, single-subject essays in which I “think through” the topic at hand, suppressing all recourse to any authoritative sources: perhaps more literary therefore, and certainly erroneous. (The book ends with a long running endnote, of several dozen entries, entitled “Correction.”) On a miscellany of subjects—from Br'er Rabbit to housesitting to sardines (the hiding game) to the locus amoenus to Man Roulette (the speed dating site) to confoundedness to the leave (in billiards) to tumbleweed—I offer what it is I know, estimate, remember and misremember, until some greater personal stakes avail themselves. Then stand that ground. It’s rather more revealing, disinhibited, than either of my books of poetry. I can trace the books that were formative examples early on and that have been fuel for this practice. These are a few.
Roland Barthes, How to Live Together. tr. Kate Briggs. Columbia University Press, 2012.
Though his semiotic analyses in Mythologies and Empire of the Signs are the godparents of my entire project, it has been important more recently to read his three posthumously published seminars. People more spiritually mature than I prefer The Neutral, of the three, but my clear favorite is How to Live Together, whose topic is Barthes’s fantasy of “idiorrhythmy” (in Kate Briggs’ translation): historic or utopian arrangements wherein several individuals at some retreat from civilization each live alone but with common spaces of voluntary and nonfamilial togetherness. Select early Greek monasteries, for instance. (Or Casa Libre en la Solana here in Tucson?) Written (or, rather, prepared and notated) in 1979, the book anticipates notions of queer family, and connects them for me to the pastoral tradition, among others. Mostly it is the form of the book that appeals to my current work: Barthes addresses and unpacks one after another discrete aspect of his topic, and continually says of his method, forfending exhaustiveness and permitting digression, “I’m merely opening a dossier.”
Eileen Myles. The Importance of Being Iceland. Semiotext(e), 2009.
I love the energy in Eileen Myles’s essay prose, and these art reviews and travel accounts and quick reflections (on flossing, for instance) and articulations of poetics often retain the forward-leaning towardness of talk, and many were commissioned and delivered as talks. Talking to you: performative and contingent, in the same way (for me) that David Antin’s i never knew what time it was is. Was is, yes.
Sir Thomas Browne. Enquiries Into Common and Vulgar Errors. from Selected Writings, ed. Sir Geoffrey Keynes. University of Chicago Press, 1968.
Item by item, the esoteric middle-late 17th century writer takes on common misconceptions (that Jesus had long hair, that a mother pelican feeds her brood blood from her breast, that drowned women float prone but drowned men face up, etc) and systematically contradicts each. Fussy and haughty, and deliciously stylish, and weird, these correctives are well versed in the literature on each matter but also somehow radically empirical, as are—one hundred years earlier and one hundred years later, respectively—Michel de Montaigne and Gilbert White of Selbourne. True about all three touchstones, here is writing in which the thinking is evident and pleasurable. The subjects are secondary.
Adam Phillips. On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored. Harvard University Press, 1993.
In addition to being psychologist Donald Winnicott’s best reader and interpreter, Phillips in these short essays is agile and surprising and provocative. This book, and its original offerings about holding environments and transitional objects, is more influential now than it was twenty years ago when it was published, thanks in part to his brightest scion, the brilliant graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel, whose Fun Home and Are You My Mother belong in this list too. Spotting them on my new therapist’s shelves was signal enough that I should continue with her.
Yale Journal of Criticism, vols. 3-8, ed. Wayne Koestenbaum, 1991-1997.
Wayne Koestenbaum, in his own essay prose (Cleavage, Warhol, My 1980s, Humiliation) is acute, idiosyncratic, permissive, and daring—indispensable really, there’s no one on this list I’m more grateful for. But his role as editor of a journal, whose bound annual volumes I devoured one summer each time I schemed into the NYU Bobst library (“I’m here to review government documents in your holdings, yes ma’am, the Dayton Accords”), is even more pertinent here. The discovery was formative for me. It was possible to behold there how Barthes’s tradition of “text” analysis (professional wrestling was a text, Pachinko a text, Garbo’s visage a text) was developed further among young (especially queer) critics and writers. I think a single issue contained a study of Carl Van Vechten’s homoerotic photo collection, Lydia Davis’s introductory essay to her translation of Michel Leiris (and a gorgeous self-scrutinizing excerpt from Scratches), and Bruce Hainley’s sensational speculative essay on Paul Lynde—as good as Samuel Delany on Hart Crane. I find nothing like it today.
Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table. Counterpoint Press, 1998.
Of the many things I love about Guy Davenport, (born in Anderson, South Carolina, fifty miles southwest of my hometown—where he was a high school dropout not five years before attending Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar), a writer and critic and translator and correspondent of infinite variety and terrific instincts, two stand out: his ability to trace and deduce history in what presents itself here now, and his seeming determination that one can be expert in whatever it is one is regarding very closely. In his case, Balthus, First Corinthians, Sappho, table manners, city infrastructure, Sears catalogs, Shakers, Eudora Welty, Buckminster Fuller, early aeronautic exhibitions, Theocritus, blue jeans, and Ezra Pound. This elegant book, effectively his last, is a set of close readings of still lifes, their technique and their arrangement, and the practice itself. One essay holds forth with impossibly resourceful erudition that the pear is the fruit of friendship.
Daniel Spoerri, An Anecdoted Topography of Chance. tr. Emmett Williams. Something Else Press, 1966.
This book is something of a stand-in for many that demonstrate the practice—in Fluxus, Situationism, and conceptual art—of generating paratext, writing that is ancillary or even incidental to a performance. Scores, documents, instructions, annotations. The influence of this art practice on literature hasn’t been fully reckoned, I think. I have a romantic relationship with this particular book, which completely turned my head and reoriented me the day it seemed to find me in the Bryant Park library reading room maybe ten years ago. Essentially, this is a multi-authored book of annotations, and nested annotations on annotations, that itemize and expound on the leavings of a simple, ordinary breakfast one morning in Paris in 1966. Replete with topographical map of the breakfast table. Item 9a, “egg cup,” might generate a small disquisition on ovoid forms or the Bourbon dynastic line or the clerk at the market where it was purchased. The book as a whole also manages to document and derive (from a ludicrously insignificant starting point) the lives of artists in the Sixties in Paris, their concerns and pressures, and the buoyant, supportive nature of friendship there and then. I like teaching this work alongside Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day. It occurs to me, now, that the Davenport book and this one could swap titles without raising any eyebrows.
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts, forthcoming, Graywolf Press, 2015.
Increasingly fearless, Maggie Nelson’s forthcoming book brings together her critical acumen and her self-baring candor in a roving consideration of the queerness of motherhood. Maggie’s example, from Jane to The Red Parts to Bluets to The Art of Cruelty, has been a steady influence and inspiration to me. I feel less alone when I read her. A student herself of Koestenbaum and Myles, as well as Eve Sedgwick, and Annie Dillard, she has gone places in her prose that I think none of them anticipated. And neither did her poetry. Like Bluets, The Argonauts is bodied and brilliant. No short cuts; suffers no fools.
Hervé Guibert, The Compassion Protocol. tr. James Kirkup. George Braziller, Inc. 1994.
Hervé Guibert, the prolific, provocative young novelist who died in his mid-thirties in 1991, was for me the most absorbing writer to chronicle the terror of sickness with HIV and AIDS. Guibert was—like several contemporary French life-writing authors unconcerned with genre—an influence on the New Narrative writers in the U.S. and Canada, and he has had excellent translators: foremost the late (and once equally scandalous) James Kirkup, whose loving work can be felt in this urgent, unfiltered account of a dying man up against not only the disease but also the inscrutable systems that promised or blockaded elite life-saving treatments. The mix of brisk narrative and (literally) searching inquiry is a lasting achievement, like the other three final novels of his life.
Chris Kraus, Video Green. Semiotext(e), 2004.
Chris Kraus—the American artist, critic, publisher (of Semiotexte), and novelist—foregrounds and investigates her own weakness, wrongness, banality, and bewilderment in her (more or less) autobiographical prose. It’s what makes her first novel I Love Dick (about an inappropriate desire to impress visiting scholar Dick Hebdige with the progressiveness of her intelligence and her open marriage) a transgressive punk classic. In Torpor, her even better third novel, she manages to make even property-ownership abject. Her essays on art and the politics and commerce of the LA art world (as well as sexual domination, the more poignant machinations of international parcel post, and the poet William Bronk) include narrative when she feels like relating a story, and their combination of piercing insight and wending account is weird and winning. Get your permission here.
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia. tr. E. F. N. Jephcott. Verso Books, 1985.
I have an insufficient understanding of Marxist theory and a highly selective appreciation of the Frankfurt School in particular. Purists will object to my inclusion then of this 1951 collection of very short readings, little position papers, judgment morsels, on a variety of topics: zoos, patriarchal marriage, Hedda Gabler, men’s clubs, class mobility, among them. The atrocity of the Nazi regime runs beneath them all; so do Walter Benjamin’s perambulations. The writing seems to cut through the heaviness of historical aftermath, unburdening one fraught sign at a time, without the scientistic approach that attends Barthes’s Mythologies. This book is like a whetstone. I was reading this when I wrote the first Onesheets. I read it again recently in Berlin. I’m sharper for it.
Kenneth Koch, New Addresses. Alfred Knopf, 2000.
And one book of poetry, for its example of repeatable experiment, and the structural intelligence that comes with it. This book, Koch’s last, which he wrote as he knew he was dying of throat cancer, is in fact an autobiography. A portrait of a life not according to any chronology but rather to a catalog of concepts and abstractions that his life comprised and encountered and defined itself within and against. Each is addressed in these apostrophes, and some answer back: “To Jewishness,” “To World War Two,” “To the Ohio,” “To Orgasms,” “To Carelessness,” “To My Old Addresses,” “To Jewishness, Paris, Ambition, Trees, My Heart, and Destiny.” It is a silly and spirited and somehow deeply moving book, eschewing the anxiety to be comprehensive. Breezy even in its final poem, addressed to the matter of his own imminent end, “To Breath.”
Brian Blanchfield is the author of two books of poetry—Not Even Then (University of California Press, 2004) and A Several World, (Nightboat Books, 2014), which received the 2014 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and was longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award for Poetry. He is also the author of a chapbook, The History of Ideas, 1973-2012 (Spork Press, 2013) and a collection of essays, provisionally titled Onesheets, forthcoming from Nightboat Books in early 2016. He is the recipient of a 2015-16 Howard Foundation Fellowship, and his work has appeared in The Nation, Chicago Review, The Brooklyn Rail, A Public Space, Lana Turner, The Paris Review, Brick, Conjunctions, Guernica, Harper’s, The Awl, and The Poetry Project Newsletter, among other journals and magazines.