A Little History of Whatever: Introduction
Joanne Kyger - “I like notebooks just for the mundane stuff you can put down, like addresses and telephone numbers and also lists that you can make for yourself—the endless list, the eternal list! [laughter]. . . . And notebooks are good because they are books and when you’ve finished writing one you’ve written a book, it’s already bound up. It’s the only copy of it.
Lawrence Nahem - What happens to them?
JK - Just put them on a shelf. . . . It’s a little history of whatever you choose to write down, whatever you chose to put in, paste up.
Most poets, when they begin to write seriously, are told by their elders-in-poetry that they should always carry a notebook with them. They are told they should use it to capture snatches of conversation, lines that materialize out of the air: to collect, to compile, to keep close. In short, they are told to follow their writerly intuition and to devote not to memory, which can be so unreliable, but to the page these everyday sparks that so often lead, eventually, to a poem.
For better or worse, I know a great many creative writing teachers who actually require notebooks with regular entries as part of their seminars and workshops. They check them. They tell their students they aren’t reading for quality, in fact some of them don’t even read the entries so much as simply check to see that they are there. It’s about learning the habit of keeping a journal, an exercise in sustained receptivity and openness to possiblity. I’m not always so sure how well this method works (it never worked on me as a student), but it is widespread.
One can understand the impulse, though. It seems to follow when, in light of further study, a precedent is set by nearly any poet or writer you can name who has, almost inevitably, left in their wake a raft of notations and syntactical scraps, seeds for unfinished projects, short character sketches of people real and imagined—in short, volumes of every various kind of good, bad, and random writing any one of us can do, student or not. (In that way, like the deaths that end them, journals are one of life's great levelers.) More often than not, these notes would be, or would have been in the case of writers who have passed, transformed into discrete poems, their quotidian origin usually polished out in the crafting.
But what happens when we use the journal as an explicit structure for a published work? What do we achieve when we leave some of that framework, so commonly the genesis of the poem, exposed enough to glint and catch the reader’s eye?
In this series I hope to poke around the connections and chasms between three examples of just this sort of transformation of journals from organic, private records to fixed, public documents. Each installment will look at a specific thematic concern of these works, their processes, and how we read them.
There’s magic to be found in the messy, vulnerable, lyrically disjointed form that is the journal—it is, in many ways, one of the liveliest forms, I think. Novels have their scale. Poems have exactitude. Essays, which are perhaps most closely related to journals, have their argument. But a journal, even a transformed one, has the wetness of life in it, slipping, shining, getting into everything it touches.
In looking at the themes of voyeurism/exhibitionism, gap-making/-leaving, and curation/authenticity, we will be spending time with the following books, using them as nodes for conversation and reflection:
Hervé Guibert’s Mausoleum of Lovers: Journals 1976-1991 (Nightboat Books, 2014) is the first English translation of the journals of Hervé Guibert, a gay, French photographer whose health would eventually, as outlined in the journals themselves, deteriorate due to AIDS. His death in the 90s followed from complications after an attempted suicide. Translator and writer of a number of notebook-based projects, Nathanaël captures the voice of this idiosyncratic, larger-than-life figure. At 584 pages, one spends a great deal of time with Guibert, combing through what feels, especially in the present poetic landscape, like a cloud of prose poems, constantly attempting to delineate between moments of vulnerability and shocking performance. Written initially as a kind of close-range correspondence to be read by his lover T., the journal’s entries float, undated, from block to block in an uninterrupted stream. One is quite sure of the general passage of time, tracing the rise and decline of Guibert’s many relationships—with T., with friends, with lovers, even with his elderly aunts, the decline of their health almost parallel to Guibert’s own illness. However, even as one experiences this within-ness of time, one has no idea when exactly one is. You simply read each lyric, prose block or line and the next and next like looking from one photograph to another and another. You are left to your own devices to build an epic film large enough to encompass a life from what feels like a drawer full of stills, slowly collected over a lifetime. It is shocking and sad and utterly beautiful, Nathanaël’s translation maintaining a cinematic, sophisticated, high style that feels faithful to the man we meet and get to know on the page.
Lightsey Darst’s Thousands (Coffee House Press, 2017) is an opening into parts of life, even now, usually left tightly shut. Darst intimately shares with the reader the unfolding of an affair, the unraveling of a marriage, and the culmination of pregnancy. Her poems twist and pivot around the immediate details of her experiences all outlined in five dated, chronologically ordered sections. This order is embodied even in the marginalia that give us specific dates and places as well as attributions for quotations to lend context and a general sense of where and when we are. This offset citation allows for the free flow of time across the line throughout the collection without the sense of completely aimless wandering we see in Guibert. The collection as a whole is searingly honest and moving, leaving the reader in a space of deep and intimate closeness to the speaker. In the back matter, Darst acknowledges this collection’s place in the great tradition of notebooks by citing Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, the editor of which even gave Darst some notes on Thousands. These poems are utterly feminist in that they are utterly human—unapologetically clear about what happened, how it happened, and how Darst felt (or didn’t). A radical account relayed with utter and beautiful transparency.
And finally, Joanne Kyger’s There You Are: Interviews, Journals, and Ephemera (Wave Books, 2017), the first in a new interviews series being put together by Wave, is a compellation of various kinds of documents including scans of actual pages from poet Joanne Kyger’s many papers compiled by her longtime friend Cedar Sigo. Kyger is perhaps best known, though perhaps unfairly since her poems are remarkable in their own right, for the company she kept—Ginsberg, Kerouac, Snyder, Olson, Spicer, Duncan. One of her better-known works, The Japan and India Notebooks, 1960-1964, excerpted in There You Are, records her four years spent in Japan with her then-husband, poet Gary Snyder. Kyger often published in notebook and journal form and the insights in There You Are elucidate the importance and possibilities of the form. We see letters to Kyger and interviews with her alongside poems, photos, and reproductions of various ephemera (programs, postcards, handwritten poems for friends), lending this book a special sort of materiality that brings the reader, with dizzying immediacy, into the physical circle of Kyger’s world, opening out onto the vast and intellectual, emotional, and spiritual landscape of her life.
Having now spent so much time in these books I feel I’ve spent days, years even, with the poets behind them. (Note: Guibert for all his whinging about poets along with his professed commitment to novel writing is, without any hesitation, a poet-at-heart.) All of these volumes are, one way or another, painterly—still lifes, tableaux, portraits of the self, and portraits of others (which sometimes reveal a great deal more about the person who paints the portrait than even they imagine). In reading the journals, notes, and correspondence of others, which is to say the private documentation of a life, one can’t help but feel the messiness of a living thing—the damp of sadness and humidity of anger, the cutting green edge of jealousy, the seemingly bottomless well of regret, even the earthen warmth of contentment nearing joy—on each page. Reading these pages, one finds tacit instructions for a true spell of resurrection and commemoration. I’m excited. Ecstatic. Let’s begin.
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.