A Little History of Whatever: The Big picture
“But he knows my nakedness, my goose bumps, my snot, my tears: is that what it is to know well?” —Hervé Guibert
“Would I ever tell it as a story? / What if I just write it? Would you know?”—Lightsey Darst
“I feel writing is an occurrence, a happening, an intersection of the writer and time and place.” —Joanne Kyger
To anyone following along, the differences between this post and the last may seem small. Last month I wrote about gap-making and this month I’ll be looking at authenticity and curation. To my mind the difference is that gap-making is an activity concerned with the perception of others; authenticity and curatorial impulse, as paired concepts, are concerned with internal logic and the relation between the creating self and the living self.
Toward the end of Mausoleum of Lovers, Guibert relates a story:
These past weeks, we dined several Wednesdays in a row with Barcelo the painter, whom we would pick up from his studio with Sophie. Since we had told him we admired his library series, he told us he intended to have a copy made in a tiny little format by an Iranian painter who does a very good job, to gift it to us, and that he would see to it himself that this fake would be beautifully framed.
When we read a journal which one do we receive from the writer? The original picture, the big picture? Or the small, the reproduction? And maybe most importantly does it matter, especially if whatever we receive is, as Guibert says, “beautifully framed.”
What’s most interesting is that Guibert seems the most authentic when his frames are simple: “Sometimes it happens that a bird, pushed by the wind, is projected full force against the rear-view mirror, leaving the red stain of its little heart there, I don’t like that.” “His gaze, to which I can attribute no color other than that of attraction.” “The scribblings of the young dead electrician had remained on the ceiling: why would I seek to erase them?” Where is the beautiful frame here?
Perhaps we are to understand the authentic is what we give up for the frame. “As I write, I am lying, I hope.” Curation in journals, or any nonfiction, does seem a kind of deception, doesn’t it? Intentionally framing something a certain way requires that one leaves out a lot, sometimes context that would completely change how the reader interprets a scene or interaction. I felt this often while reading Guibert’s accounts of moments with his family. It all seems so theatrical, so Beckett, that I am constantly left wondering what else had happened before these moments of oddity Guibert cherry-picks.
The expectation that I’m projecting on Guibert, that he will tell me as much as possible about everything, is probably unfair to him to a certain extent. Any writing requires focusing on one thing in favor of another. Honest writing would be unutterably boring. But one must ask if “honesty” is the same “authenticity.” We find ourselves in the realm of any MFA nonfiction workshop: what difference is there, if any, between “truth” and “fact.” To write one’s truth is not necessarily to give a factual account. It is to communicate some unspoken atmosphere, some emotional pull that sits just beyond the reach of language. In that earlier quotation Guibert says in a factual way, ”I don’t like that.” There are ways in which this communicates abstractly his feelings about the birds hitting the back window, but it doesn’t necessarily evoke that feeling in the reader, which, in contemporary writing, is the more-prized end.
Perhaps there’s some clarity to be found in how Guibert describes being photographed by a friend, “I allow myself to be photographed, not like someone who is still alive, but like someone who was still alive at the moment of the photograph.” Here we see the death of the author. The Guibert represented in the photographs, and perhaps too in Mausoleum as a whole, is beyond being held accountable for what is on the page. The dead don’t have to be honest; perhaps they can’t be honest. They can’t revise falsity or clarify. We must read the dead through the lens of their authenticity.
Of our three friends in this series, I think the closest we come to a purely honest account is Kyger. She warns, “Memory of the immediate present lasts only a few days before the selection process sets in, so get it while it’s hot.” Kyger’s practice is more gathering than active curation. She states elsewhere:
[In a journal] one locates oneself. And this act produces words, which may or may not be “luminous” but are “there” in black on white space. And it’s an absolutely free space. Writing in past time, and present time, but always IN time, now time. . . . This is a record of entering into history, and however one writes, is writing one’s history. One day happens after another.
I want to point out that “luminous,” because I think it’s where we find the difference between Kyger and Guibert. Guibert seems obsessed with pursuing the luminous as an aesthetic experience he evokes in the reader. It’s all very romantic. Kyger, however, recognizes that an honest account will not always glow for the reader or writer. But Kyger doesn’t care, her goal is not to find the luminous but to find what is here, “IN time.”
With this in mind we can see that while Guibert’s writing is perhaps authentic to his experience, Kyger’s is authentic to the world as it is, or as authentic as it can be since she writes, as we all do, from a place of certain ideas, assumptions, and conditions. The difference between Kyger’s curatorial effort and Guibert’s is Guibert ultimately uses his conditions to shape the work into something luminous while Kyger only wishes to get down what has happened, luminous or not.
But how does this translate to poetry? Isn’t this the blog for a poetry center?! We see in Darst the best of both these approaches, a comingling that is perhaps uniquely powerful in poetry.
When Darst asks, “If I can’t reshape my experience for good is that a failure on my part?” we might be able to agree that this seems like a curatorial failure, though we could also ask what she means by “for goof?” Is this “luminous”? Or “IN time”? Or is it regarding civic duty? Arguments could be made for any of these when we look at Darst’s work. Her poems seem simultaneously luminous and deeply invested in an informative, fact-based accounting. The poems feel like they come from the very heart of the moment, but that they were placed carefully in a certain context, as Guibert says, “beautifully framed.”
Darst shows some potential doubt about poetry as the frame she wants to use for this project. She asks, “Would I ever tell it as a story? / What if I just write it? Would you know?” What would happen if she let go of the lyric as frame and simply relayed, in a linear, narratively complete fashion, the arc she covers in Thousands? What if she didn’t even shape it? Just wrote it, stream-of-consciousness, and left it to the reader to shape?
There is something about this doubt and how it has been incorporated into the body of the work that sets off a sort of light in my head as a reader: there’s the authentic and the honest, the truth and the fact. We are allowed to see Darst’s genuine battle with what it means to curate these thoughts, these happenings, in this form. The transparency allows us some of Guibert’s “I don’t like that,” as well as Kyger’s “IN time.”
What Darst gives us, which is so essential in writing a journal, is play. Even in dealing with life-altering moments and deeply important issues, Darst is sees language as a set of rules to use and mess with. And what better place than a journal to do that? Even if you choose to take work you’ve written in a journal and shape it into something to be read by others I think it’s so important to retain as much of that sense of play as possible. Play indicates a certain intimacy; it’s like being in on a secret. A journal doesn’t take itself too seriously and neither should we.
Speaking of ways we can think about how these posts can affect our writing and even our lives, the next and final installment of the series will deal with the ways we may (or may not) journal now. What would Guibert have been like on Facebook? Or Joanne Kyger on Twitter? How can what we have learned about journals and making the private public be used in our lives today? What has our ability to jot down notes on our iPhones done to change the ways we chronicle our lives? More soon!
Trevor Ketner holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota. They have been or will be published in Best New Poets, Day One, Ninth Letter, West Branch, Pleiades, The Offing, Lambda Literary, Devil’s Lake, Boxcar Poetry Review, Memorious, and elsewhere. Their essays and reviews can be found in The Kenyon Review, Boston Review, The Rumpus, and The Bind. Their chapbook Major Arcana: Minneapolis won the 2017 Burnside Review Chapbook Contest judged by Diane Seuss and will be published in 2018. They live in Manhattan with their husband Cormac.