12 Winters Blog

The Celibacy of Joseph Skizzen and the Principles of “On Being Blue”

Posted in February 2015 by Ted Morrissey on February 27, 2015

The following paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, Feb. 26-28, 2015, as part of the panel “Sexual Manners,” chaired by Mariah Douglas, University of Louisville. Other papers presented were “‘A world of bottle-glass colours’: Defining Sexual Manners in Subversive Spaces,” by Bonnie McLean, Marquette University; and “Sex as Border Crossing in Anglophone Labanese Fiction,” by Syrine Hout, American University in Beruit. For other Gass papers at this blog, search “gass.”

The Celibacy of Joseph Skizzen and the Principles of On Being Blue

One of William H. Gass’s first publications was the highly experimental novella (?) Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, which appeared as a special supplement in TriQuarterly literary journal in 1968 and was republished in book form by Dalkey Archive in 1989. The experiment revolves around the titular character Babs Masters, whose sexual history and growing sexual arousal are represented via a variety of signifiers, including bawdy and explicit diction, typographical features and nude pictures.  In fact, the book’s cover features a neck-to-navel photograph of the nude model portraying Babs with the title and author’s name projected onto her pale chest:  the word “Wife” is distorted in the cleavage between her breasts, and “BY WILLIAM H. GASS” runs in a straight line beneath them. Appropriately the back cover features a close-up of Babs’ nude backside above a paragraph-length synopsis of the book which reads in part:  “Disappointed by her inattentive husband/reader, Babs engages in an exuberant display of the physical charms of language to entice both her new lover and the reader.”  Every page of the book features either an erotic photograph of Babs and/or sexually charged language, both explicit and implicit.  (As an aside, earlier I called Babs the titular character.  I don’t find that funny, but I wanted to point it out for those of you who are less evolved than I am.)

willie-masters-lonesome-wife1

By Gass’s own reckoning, Willie Masters’ was for the most part a failure.  “I was trying out some things,” Gass said in a 1976 interview.  “Didn’t work.  Most of them didn’t work. . . . Too many of my ideas turned out to be only ideas. . . .  I don’t give a shit for ideas—which in fiction represent inadequately embodied projects” (LeClair 22).  It so happens that 1976 was also the year that he published his novella-like essay (or essay-like novella) On Being Blue, subtitled “A Philosophical Inquiry,” in which he discusses at length various manifestations of the word and concept of blue, especially so-called blue language.  It seems that one of the chief lessons he learned from writing Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife was that writers should avoid at all cost writing about sex:

Art, like light, needs distance, and anyone who attempts to render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writhings which comprise it are ludicrous without their subjective content, that the intensity of that content quickly outruns its apparent cause, that the full experience becomes finally inarticulate, and that there is no major art that works close in. (19)

He concludes the section by saying “a stroke by stroke story of a copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew by chew account of the consumption of a chicken’s wing” (20).  What is more, “the sexual, in most works, disrupts the form; there is an almost immediate dishevelment, the proportion of events is lost” (16-17).  In sum, according to Gass, an explicit description of sex is inherently unartful, and the insertion (sorry) of an actual sexual climax in a story counterbalances and therefore diminishes the plot’s narrative climax.  (Since the Louisville Conference is devoted to literature and culture, I will make the rather low-brow observation that Gass’s analysis may be borne out by the number of television series that quickly fizzle after the flirtatious main characters finally have sex, dubbed “the Moonlighting curse.”  Recent examples include Bones, Castle and New Girl.)

Allow me to raise my brow again to critic H.L. Hix, who has suggested Gass’s fiction writing since Willie Masters’ “can be read as an attempt to restore events to proper proportion” (72).  Writing in 2002, Hix cites Gass’s mammoth novel The Tunnel in particular.  I agree with Hix’s assessment.  The purpose of this paper is to suggest that Gass’s most recent—and presumably his final—novel, Middle C, is an even more overt representation of the principles that the author delineated in On Being Blue.  In 2013’s Middle C, the protagonist Joseph Skizzen has several opportunities to pursue romantic relationships with female characters, but in each case he retreats into his safely insulated academic life as a professor of music theory.  What is more, Gass frequently alludes to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, and the sin-bearing serpent could be seen as sex attempting to slither its way into Gass’s narrative and corrupt the pristine text.  Indeed, in On Being Blue Gass discusses the “five common methods by which sex gains entrance into literature . . . as through French doors and jimmied windows”; and the “commonest, of course” is “the direct depiction of sexual material—thoughts, acts, wishes” (10).

Middle C keeps its focus on Joseph Skizzen from his birth to retirement age, and twice in Joey’s youth older women attempt to seduce him.  Joey’s reaction in both cases suggests perhaps the level of alarm serious writers ought to exhibit when their narratives begin to flirt with describing sexual scenes.  The first such episode in the novel involves Joey’s college French teacher Madame Mieux, whose “laughter preceded her like a warning siren” (100).  In the word siren, of course, Gass describes Madame Mieux as both a temptress and a warning.  Joey’s grades are mediocre, but Madame Mieux invites him to her house on the pretense of listening to music, promising him a “trombone concerto,” and Gass writes, “He made a mistake.  He accepted her invitation” (103).  Madame Mieux beckons him into a room filled with pillows, where she is lying at its center smoking a joint.  She invites him to make himself “comfy,” but instead he flees from her.  Outside, “[h]e realized already that he was not embarrassed or repulsed, he was terrified, and that terror was not the appropriate response:  amusement maybe, disdain perhaps, a sense of superiority or a feeling of pity” (104).  Metaphorically, Joey is akin to the writer who is tempted to narrate a sexual scene but saves himself from the absurd—what Gass calls “Madame Mieux’s pillow party.”

Later, Joseph lands a job as a librarian at a public library run by Miss Marjorie Bruss, a middle-aged woman who also has a room to rent next to her house, so she becomes both Joey’s boss and his landlady.  Marjorie gets in the habit of leaving milk and cookies for Joey in his room.  One night, Marjorie comes to him wearing only a robe.  Gass writes, “She seemed zipped into a towel, her wild hair terrible to behold, and sat upon the bed with the familiarity of one who has made it” (286).  Joseph stares at her, “transfixed.”  She rises from the bed, telling him that he is a “[g]ood boy . . . [who] deserve[s] a nice surprise.”  She then bends over Joseph and puts her hands on his face.  Joseph says, “Unhand me, Madame, you forget yourself, . . . frightened from the world into a novel; and Marjorie recoiled as though struck by the book from which he had unconsciously taken the phrase” (286-87).  The comically melodramatic scene continues to unfold, becoming more and more ridiculous.  Joey’s milk is knocked over when Marjorie is repulsed, and she begins screaming the cliché phrase “Unhand me” louder and louder.  She goes outside in her robe and scuffs and removes the blocks from beneath the wheels of Joey’s beat-up car so that it rolls down the drive into a utility pole.  At which point the humiliated woman orders him to leave, both his rented residence and his job.

Again, Joseph Skizzen’s extreme reaction to a woman’s attempt to seduce him reflects how authors might best respond when their characters try to seduce them into writing a sexual scene.  In the case of Madame Mieux, Joey was invited into her pillow-filled boudoir, whereas Marjorie Bruss invited herself into Joey’s room.  In both cases they are women who have power over him, his teacher and his employer/landlady, suggestive at some level perhaps of the strong draw toward the sexual in fiction.  In On Being Blue, Gass points out that other extreme acts which are often the stuff of fiction can be controlled by the author—but not so with sex once that path is chosen.  He writes, “As writers we don’t hesitate to interrupt murders, stand time on its tail, put back to front, and otherwise arrange events in our chosen aesthetic order, but how many instances of such coitus interruptus are there in the books which speak to us so frankly of the life we never frankly lead?” (20).  The comedic nature of the scenes that result from Madame Mieux’s and Miss Bruss’s attempted seductions are deliberate on Gass’s part, but perhaps no more comedic than if he had attempted to render serious sexual scenes—or maybe it would be more accurate to say Gass would find such scenes tragic as far as his success at fashioning them into literary art.

Combining the sexual with the comic has been typical for Gass since the writing of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.  In particular, he’s interested in the writing of bawdy limericks.  His ponderous novel The Tunnel is filled with limericks of the bluest sort.  For example,

A nun went to bed with a sailor

Who said he had come from a whaler.

It was like Moby’s dick—

His blubberous prick—

with which he promptly assailed her. (172)

There’s a second verse to this particular limerick, but I imagine you’re trusting me on this point.  Gass has said that he writes limericks because he’s unable to write longer poems.  He told LeClair in the 1976 interview, “I can get away with a limerick because it is a very short form.  I can turn out couplets, too, but not enough of them to make a whole poem” (31).  More significantly, the limerick encapsulates Gass’s attitudes toward writing that involves sexual language.  In another interview, Gass said that he’s not interested in writing about sex, but he’s very interested in “the language of sex”:  “[T]here’s very little sexuality in my work, but there are a lot of sexual words.  I have very few steamy sexual scenes, if any.  The metaphor is fundamental, sure.  But my interest in the subject and my use of a character’s sexuality are almost invariably either symptomatic or metaphorical, whereas for a great number of writers sex is the direct object” (Brans 107-8).  By symptomatic he means that the sexual references represent “some larger quality in the character that isn’t directly sexual at all—dominance, power, or what might be called the verbal sexualization of the mind” (108).  These statements were made nearly thirty years prior to the publication of Middle C, but his approach is clearly represented by Joseph Skizzen, who finds himself the locus of female domination throughout the novel:  Madame Mieux, Marjorie Bruss, his sister Debbie, his mother Miriam, among several other female characters.  In fact, Joey dreams of a pre-Eve Eden, an Eden before the Fall.  Gass writes, “He did dream of strolling naked as Adam through a garden [. . .] No . . . rethink that . . . he would be more naked than Adam, leafless as a winter tree, untroubled by any companion, Eve or angel. [. . . H]e’d be free to do whatever he chose to do, to his blame or to his credit [. . .]” (254).  Joey’s Edenic daydream ends, and he returns to the real world in which every woman in his life is the cause of some sort of anxiety.  He ticks off a list of them and the troubles they cause him.

The prelapsarian world that Skizzen fantasizes about would be one free of the absurdity of sexual situations, and he creates the closest thing he can manage, eventually living with his mother in a rambling and poorly maintained house on the college campus where he teaches.  Here, free of any opportunity for a romantic encounter, Professor Skizzen pursues two of his favorite hobbies:  collecting newspaper clippings and making notecards that record the daily atrocities of humankind, and writing and revising a sentence regarding the human race.  Gass, via his main character, returns to the sentence he is composing and reworking repeatedly throughout the novel, which he finally perfects near the end:  “First Skizzen felt mankind must perish, then he feared it might survive” (352).  The evolving sentence is in fact a sort of central character in Middle C, which reflects one of Gass’s unusual theories regarding writing fiction:  that anything can be a character and people don’t make for the most interesting ones.  In his essay “The Concept of Character,” he writes, “Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. [. . . A]nything, indeed, which serves as a fixed point like a stone in a stream or that soap in Bloom’s pocket, functions as a character” (49, 50).  Skizzen’s finally perfecting his sentence about the inhumanity of man serves as a kind of climax for the novel.  It is obviously an understated sort of climax compared to most works of fiction, and one can see that scenes of sexual climax would certainly tend to eclipse a music professor’s perfectly worded, perfectly balanced sentence—thus bearing out H.L. Hix’s observation that since Willie Masters’ Gass has been working to “restore events to proper proportion.”

Given the subject of my paper and its timing—with all the hubbub in recent weeks about the release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey—it seems appropriate to refer to E.L. James’s mega bestseller, which has a sexual scene on virtually every page.  Last fall, I read through most of Fifty Shades in about an hour in anticipation of teaching a workshop on writing about sex—or rather on not writing about sex—and based on that experience I was loathe to return to the book for this paper, so I’ll rely on Anthony Lane’s review of the movie in the February 23 issue of The New Yorker.  In comparing the film to the novel, Lane writes,

Above all, we are denied James’s personifications, which are so much livelier than her characters. . . . No new reader, however charitable, could open “Fifty Shades of Grey,” browse a few paragraphs, and reasonably conclude that the author was writing in her first language, or even her fourth.  There are poignant moments when the plainest of physical actions is left dangling beyond the reach of [James’s] prose.

Beyond the vapid prose, James’s problem, according to Gass’s theory, is that it is impossible to create an effective narrative climax when there is a sexual climax described in detail on every other page.  As Gass said in one of his most recent interviews, “[T]hat’s what ninety percent of bad literature is.  It’s just referring to these scenes in so-called real life that would be quite shattering, or pornographic, or whatever.  And it isn’t art” (Gerke 43).  Sadly, more than a hundred million people have bought copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (Andrew Lane’s figure)—which helps to explain why it’s so difficult to publish a literary novel in the United States, and if one does, it’s a challenge to get a hundred people to read it, let alone buy a copy.

Middle C will almost certainly be William Gass’s final novel, but the ninety-year-old author has a new collection of novellas and stories coming out in October, titled Eyes, which will no doubt include material that he said he was working on in the mid-1990s.  In fact, Middle C was titled that in part because it was supposed to be the second of a trio of novellas, all with titles beginning with “C,” but the story of Joseph Skizzen kept expanding until Gass had a complete novel on his hands.  Presumably the novellas included in Eyes will be the companion pieces to Middle C.  Very little of that work has seen the light of publication, so not much is known about it.  One can rest fairly certain, however, that it will feature sexual language but no sexual scenes—unless they are absurdly comedic ones.

Works Cited

Ammon, Theodore G., ed. Conversations with William H. Gass. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Brans, Jo.  “Games of the Extremes:  An Interview with William Gass.”  Ammon 96-110.

Gass, William H. “The Concept of Character in Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 34-54. Print.

—-. Middle C. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

—-. On Being Blue:  A Philosophical Inquiry.  1976.  Boston, MA:  David R. Godine, 2007.  Print.

—-.  The Tunnel.  1995.  Champaign, IL:  Dalkey Archive, 2007.  Print.

—-.  Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.  1968.  Champaign, IL:  Dalkey Archive, 1998.  Print.

Gerke, Greg. “Many-Layered Anger: A Conversation with William Gass.” Tin House 14.2 (Dec. 2012): 30-45. Print.

Hix, H.L.  Understanding William H. Gass.  Columbia:  U of South Carolina P, 2002.  Print.

Lane, Anthony.  “No Pain, No Gain:  Fifty Shades of Grey.”  The New Yorker.  23 Feb. 2015.  Web.  15 Feb. 2015. [link]

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass:  The Art of Fiction LXV.” 1976. Ammon 17-38. [link]

Note: I would like to thank Craig Saper, who sent me a pdf of his art book On Being Read, published in a limited edition by Diane Fine in 1985, as it was inspired by Gass’s On Being Blue.

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Interview with Beth Gilstrap: I Am Barbarella

Posted in February 2015, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 20, 2015

In 2011 Beth Gilstrap, an MFA candidate at Chatham University, contacted me by email about interviewing me (ironically) for The Fourth River literary journal. My first novel, Men of Winter, had been released at the end of 2010, and I was anticipating my publisher bringing out another book, the novella Weeping with an Ancient God, so our conversation focused mainly on writing those two works. Beth and I exchanged a few emails, and then wrapped things up with a phone conversation. My publisher reneged on bringing out my second book, and things ended badly between my publisher and me — but it was the proverbial final straw in convincing me to establish my own press, which I did, Twelve Winters, in 2012. I eventually brought out a revised and expanded edition of Men of Winter and also Weeping with an Ancient God. I wanted to reprint the Fourth River interview in each of the books, so I contacted Beth asking for her permission. I checked in on her website in 2013 and again in 2014 to update her biographical information that I included when I reprinted the interview, and I noted each time her growing list of publications.

I Am Barbarella front cover

Then, in 2014, I was reading fiction submissions for Quiddity literary journal, and a familiar name popped up in my Submittable queue, Beth Gilstrap and her story “Juveniles Lack Green,” which I admired very much. And I obviously wasn’t alone in that opinion, as it was given the thumbs up by several readers and ultimately the fiction editor, David Logan. The story ran in issue 7.1 of the journal. Beth’s story appearing in my reader’s queue was serendipitous because not long after that I was scouting around for projects for Twelve Winters, and I recalled Beth’s story. Given the number of published stories that she’d accumulated I figured she must have a collection ready for publication. I emailed her to see if that was the case . . . and the rest, as they say, is history. I was impressed by the composite collection that she’d created, and I’m very happy to say that I Am Barbarella was released in print February 19, 2015. Digital editions for Kindle and Nook soon followed, and Beth is working on an audiobook as well.

Turn about is fair play, so I sent Beth some questions about her collection and the writing of it. What follows are her unedited responses.

Beth author photo

I Am Barbarella is a composite collection (or short story cycle), where we have a fairly large cast of characters who show up in various stories, or are alluded to, or events in their lives from other stories are alluded to.  What drew you to this form for the book?

I went into my MFA program with a novel chapter and an idea for a fairly complicated story told in the first-person plural point of view. It was an attempt to capture a sort of Southern noir small town groupthink as I saw it. As you might expect, there was little left of my self-esteem or the story by the end of my first workshop. I still like the idea of that story, but I was nowhere close to being able to tackle something so left of center. Then, my mentors (Sherrie Flick, Diane Goodman, and Robert Yune) suggested reading books like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat and that was when I decided I loved this approach to longer works. This type of book is a hybrid form. I set out to write stories that would be able to stand on their own and have been able to place a number of them as short stories, but they also work thematically in the collection.

It was my intention from the beginning to explore the impact these characters’ actions had on each other, the sort of ripple effect of secrets and heartache. Even the stories that aren’t interconnected on a character level are spiritually connected. I fell in love with the mosaic form. I like how the picture looks when you pull the camera back to reveal the structure in its entirety and I like moving in and looking at the individual tiles such as the elderly neigbhor’s lifelong secret from her best friend or the Dad’s desire to finally leave now that all his family duties have been fulfilled. It felt more playful than a traditional narrative form and I hope I structured it in a way that builds tension — a sort of slow reveal of each character.

How do you think a composite collection differs, in the writing of it, from a collection of independent stories, or a full-fledged novel?

I think it’s an extremely difficult form for a first book. It’s a bit like juggling and having someone on the sidelines who keeps throwing other objects into the mix. Maintaining consistency with such a large interconnected cast of characters and a broad timeline takes major organization and commitment. It is something you must set out to do. What I lacked in organization in the beginning, I made up for with a general idea of what I wanted to achieve and a rabid determination to make this book in this form work. This is my first book and writing it taught me so much about how to approach the novel I am working on now. In some ways, it made writing straight short stories more difficult because I tend to get attached to characters and want to spend more time with them.

You were rethinking the order of the stories up until a few weeks before the book went to press.  How difficult was it to come up with what you felt was the proper order?  What were some of your guiding principles in ordering the stories as you have?

It was all about the tension for me. I had a handful of other stories from the Loretta/Hardy/Janine cycle, but once I took those out and put in some of the shorter flash pieces, I liked the conversation the stories had with each other. These stories move along a continuum of existential angst. I originally had “Spaghettification” last because I felt the last line of that story was a hopeful way to end. Last lines matter as much as first lines. I tend toward the dark side of the force, but not always, and I wanted to highlight that fact, but in the end “B-Sides” was the natural ending of the book. Thematically, the book needed to end with Janine’s point of view. There’s a line in an earlier story, which reads, “You can get so much from B-Sides.” How can you not end with the story with a title built from that line?

How much time have you spent with these characters?  In other words, when did you start writing about them?  Do you plan to return to some of them in future projects?

I wrote the first draft of the first story (“Paper Fans”) in 2010. Four and a half years. I am finished with most of these characters, but my novel does include Dim and Sunday from “Yard Show.” It’s a tiny story that has led me into writing a rather large book.

Charlotte, North Carolina, where you were born and raised and still live, is a common setting for the stories.  Some of the characters have also spent time in Pittsburgh, where you earned your MFA.  How important is “place” in your writing?

For me place is as much a character as a walking, breathing person. It shapes everything: plot, character, atmosphere, you name it. I grew up reading Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, and Alice Walker so place was already vital in the literature I loved. Chatham’s emphasis on place-based writing was one of the reasons I chose their program. My bones, my heart are the South, for better or worse, whether I like it or not. I am built of this land and all the ghosts that accompany it.

Sometimes a character says things that aren’t kind about your hometown.  How much of that criticism of Charlotte is purely fictive, and how much is your own sense of the place?

Some of it is fictive and based on the perception of Charlotte as nothing but banks, barbecue, and Nascar (Even The Onion did a piece on Charlotte), but a great deal of it comes from a natural desire to break away from my hometown. Most people I grew up with have moved away. When I meet someone and tell him or her I’m from Charlotte, I am usually met with shock. Most folks who live here aren’t from here. I started this book immediately after our plans to move to Pittsburgh fell apart. I was heartbroken. As I wrote the book, I realized I had not ever committed to my town. I had not tried to find kindred spirits here or participate. I no longer take my beautiful city for granted even if I still long for more of a literary community here. As a vegetarian artist who has never been terribly interested in sports, it has been difficult, but I also recognize how much I tend to isolate myself. That’s the tough thing about connecting with other writers. I know there are some here, but we’re all so terribly introverted we never socialize.

How do you think the book will be received by residents of Charlotte?  Perhaps even family and friends who may see themselves reflected in your writing?

I hope people will recognize the truth in the book’s (and its author’s) complicated relationship with Charlotte. As far as friends and family, I hope if they see themselves, they’ll recognize that I’ve tried to draw each character with empathy. Most characters are not based on any one person, though. These characters are processed in my brain blender. They are little bits of me and everyone I’ve known swirled together into a version of truth. This is why I love fiction.

Music plays an important part in many of the stories — and in fact you compiled a playlist to accompany the book.  Where does that emphasis on music come from?  Are you a musician yourself?

I am not a musician, but I’ve always wished I’d learned to play an instrument. My older brother is the musician in the family. He got his first guitar when I was ten. His learning to play and compose and write was my background music. I watched and wrote in my notebook. There were times, like when he went through his black metal phase, that I wanted to take a chainsaw to his guitar, but now I am so grateful for it. It was such a unique experience. We were alone a lot since we were children of a single mom and we challenged each other to be creative. He encouraged me to tell stories. I listened to everything he did and all the records he played. I dated his band mates as a teenager and went to their gigs and though I rarely talked, I listened and wrote. I wrote my first album review for the high school paper. I married a man who worked in a record store when he was young. Music is vital in our home. I cannot write, cook, drive, or take a walk without it.

You’ve taken on the role of editor-in-chief of Atticus Review.  How does that role impact your own writing, or your artistic sensibilities?

Well, as I’ve adjusted to the job and addressed a submission queue of greater than 600, I’ve definitely spent less time on my own writing. I’m still trying to find the balance between being an editor and being a writer. I am a work in progress, but I am proud of what we’ve done at Atticus in a short time. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to put other people’s work into the world, to give back in that way. It is so exciting to discover a story in the slush pile and to be able to make someone happy. It has taught me to be more patient with my own submissions and it has also taught me patterns in what types of stories are overdone. I won’t be writing any dystopias anytime soon. And I always valued personal rejections before, but now that I’m an editor myself I value them even more. It really is a big deal to receive one.

Describe your writing process.

When I am at my best, I am extremely diligent about my process. I have a schedule for myself and I stick to it. I read early in the morning, walk my border collie (when it’s not in the single digits outside), and write for the rest of the afternoon — usually 4-5 hours. Lately, it’s been taken up with editing work. I hope to get back to my regular schedule once I have my sea legs as an editor.

You’ve been working on an audio edition of I Am Barbarella.  Do you tend to read your work aloud usually?  Describe the experience of recording the stories.  Do you think they’re well-suited to oral performance?

I always read my work aloud. It’s part of my editing process. If I trip over words or don’t like the way a sentence flows as I read aloud, I revise. Recording is frustrating, but I think the final product will be great. I don’t think my book would sound right read by someone else. Maybe that means I have control issues, but most of my favorite recordings are author-read — they’re these little time capsules. Nothing compares to being able to hear that rare recording of Virginia Woolf’s or Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” And yes, I think most “Southern” literature is well-suited to oral performance. My grandfather never learned to read, but he was the best storyteller I knew. We’re trained for it, whether we realize it or not.

Beth Gilstrap’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals, among them Ambit, Superstition Review, Quiddity and the minnesota review. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Chatham University in Pittsburgh and serves as editor-in-chief of Atticus Review. She was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she still lives with her husband and enough rescue pets to keep life interesting. (Author photo by Tatyana M. Semyrog)

Interview with Rachel Jamison Webster: The Endless Unbegun

Posted in February 2015 by Ted Morrissey on February 19, 2015

In the fall of 2013 I attended a reading at Edwards Place, an historic home in Springfield, Illinois, and one of the readers that evening was Rachel Webster, who read from her poetry collection, September. I was very taken with her poetry and her presentation of her work. My fiancée (now wife) Melissa and I were anxious to speak with Rachel afterward and to get a copy of her book, which I ended up admiring very much. The following year I was looking for projects for Twelve Winters Press, and I heard via the literary grapevine that Rachel Webster had a manuscript she was interested in publishing — but it was not an ordinary collection, which of course piqued my curiosity even more, since the Press’s main mission is to publish literary work that is especially difficult to place because of its risk-taking nature.

The Endless Unbegun front cover

I contacted Rachel via email, and she graciously sent me the manuscript, under a different title, and I discovered that it was a hybrid collection of both short prose pieces and poems, and that it told an ambitious, multi-layered story that took place over several centuries. In a word it was wonderful, and exactly the sort of project that seemed tailor-made for Twelve Winters Press. Email exchanges began, and we worked out an agreement to bring out the book in print, digital and audio editions. Rachel wanted to revise the manuscript further, which she did over several months. Then late last fall, 2014, she sent the Press a significantly reworked book, including a new title, “The Endless Unbegun” — and the editors at Twelve Winters and I began the very rewarding process of bringing the book to print, working closely with Rachel at every phase.

Publication was delayed a bit when Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program interviewed Rachel for their upcoming issue, 8.1, and Rachel floated the possibility of including the interview with the book. I thought it a terrific idea, so with Quiddity’s editors’ permission, we prepared the interview for inclusion in The Endless Unbegun. The Quiddity interview focuses in large part on the philosophical and theological ideas that are at the heart of the book, so for the below interview, I deliberately turned my attention to other issues.

The print edition of The Endless Unbegun was released February 5, 2015. Editions for Kindle and Nook soon followed, and the audiobook is in the works as well. I emailed Rachel some questions, and here are her unedited responses.

Rachel Webster 2

You’ve said that the book began as a novella and eventually became a hybrid collection of short prose pieces and poems. I’m wondering if, for you, certain subjects lend themselves to prose expression more naturally, and others to poetry? And if not subjects, then perhaps themes . . . moods?

Yes, definitely.  When I write prose I am combining voices — the voice of the artist, as well as the voice of the teacher or friend.  I know that I am talking outward to another, and so my understanding of that audience is invariably woven into the form and content of the prose.  In this sense, I usually write prose in a way that is reflective of some wider societal or temporal situation.  Even if I am writing prose from my own experience, I am connecting it actively with what I suspect is a shared experience.

Poetry also reflects shared experience, but that connection is trusted in a more intuitive, subterranean way.  It happens way beneath the ground.  So the act of writing poetry — for me — feels like talking deeply to myself, tracing my own subconscious or dreams, my own deepest memories or questions.  I don’t write poetry thinking about audience at all — I just follow the rhythm of the words, and I really interrogate my own feelings and questions in the poem.  There is no “other,” because the self is the aperture to the other.  That was especially true of the poems in The Endless Unbegun, which are elemental and very physical in their rhythms and knowing.  When they do talk to a “you,” they are love poems, and meant to share my deepest being with the “you” as beloved, who only late in the game becomes the reader.

I think of this poetic space of connection as pretty unusual and rarified, and so my idea for this book was that a prose novella would sort of walk the reader into a more and more poetic, metaphorical space, and that in this way, it would be like walking deeper and deeper into a relationship.  The fact is, we meet on the level of persona and appearance, and then we move further and further into knowing one another (and ourselves, ideally!) in an elemental and soulful way.  Eventually, we are at the archetype — the repeating pattern, where we realize that all of our deepest, most individual experiences are not original at all!  They are human, and therefore shared.

Is there a piece in the book that was the one that led you to realize you were beginning to write this book — as opposed to simply writing another related piece that would eventually be published as a stand-alone narrative or poem?

This one was always a book, which was why it was tricky to publish many of these poems individually in journals.  The book came on in a torrent, and held me in its sway for months as I wrote and rewrote its first drafts, and the poems in it were always deeply intuitive, somehow merging story and poetry, self and other.  It was like they needed their own space, their own book, to make sense.

I experienced this book as a crossing over into a new wavelength.  I learned to write more from my own intuitive power, and less from some expectation of form or audience.

You made some significant changes to the manuscript after it was taken by the Press for publication. Did thinking of it as a book that was actually going to be out in the world — as opposed to simply an ambitious creative project — influence how you approached revision? And if not that, then what led to the major changes in the manuscript?

Well, because the book was so intuitive I felt that I needed to do some rearranging and clarifying to externalize its themes a bit more, and guide the reader through its movements.

I also put the prose novella back in. I had been taking that out as I sent out the manuscript, because it didn’t fit most contest guidelines.  But when Twelve Winters accepted the manuscript and I thought about what I most wanted to share and explore with this book, I knew that it was important for me to have this strange, layered shape, and these characters who are recognizable to us, and who also have rich universes within — like any of us.

And finally, I took out a couple of love poems and added some new ones — simply to make the emotional experience of the book present to me again.  A book that was important to me for many years is Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes. It is a book about elemental feminism, and the creative process in which Estes retells fairy tales and folktales to track archetypal shapes in a life.  She talks about the woman as creator and says that when a project feels stuck, or stalled, we should just take something out, get rid of something, in order to lighten its energy and renew it again.  I really experienced this phenomena with The Endless Unbegun.  I took out some poems, added three new ones, and then changed the title, and the book was made new again — like, finally, it had found its moment in time.

What’s the manuscript’s history as far as publication? In other words, how long did you work on it as a book-length project? Had you approached other publishers? What made Twelve Winters seem like a good fit for the book and for you as an author?

I worked on this as a book-length project for a decade, and I always believed in it, but I suspect there was too much going on for editors to see it clearly or to trust its voices. The poems themselves seem more performative, archetypal and intense than a lot of what is being published right now.  It was a semi-finalist for the Dorset Prize a long time ago — maybe in 2007.  And its poems inspired the creation of a band in 2008 — called the Very Small Quartet. I read many of these poems and musicians in the quartet set them to original music, and we performed them live around Chicago. Then Dancing Girl Press published some of its poems in a chapbook called “The Blue Grotto” in 2009.

Twelve Winters was wonderful to work with because the relationship was always founded on respect and understanding of the author’s own experience.  I did not feel that I had to fit this book into any one container, or even one genre, but could really present it in its best possible shape and form. That has been a thrilling opportunity for me as an author, and the entire process of finishing this book has been a pleasure. The Twelve Winters readers and editors were respectful and encouraging, but also meticulous in editing, crediting and proofreading, and so I knew that we were releasing a book that we could all be proud of.

You’re working on an audio edition of the book. One can imagine that poets especially are interested in performing their work for an audience, as opposed to offering it in print only. What are your thoughts or hopes regarding producing an audiobook of The Endless Unbegun

I love reading my poems aloud.  They are usually woven together by sound, and I think when I read them, the listener/reader can really enjoy that and get swept into a more physical, subconscious rhythm.

I am seeking a grant to pay for a really strong recording of this book, because I want to be able to share it in an audio form, in my voice.

What are some of the challenges of recording your poetry, besides any technological ones? 

Well, none really.  Just little technical things, like don’t wear bracelets that jangle, and don’t lisp.  Oh, and the technical glitch of the ego, of course.  I never like my voice when I hear it again.  It is embarrassing. It always sounds too slow, sad and deep to me.  But it is my voice, and I am the one to vocalize my poems.

I co-produced a radio series on poetry for WBEZ a couple of years ago and had to listen to so many hours of my own voice during the production process that I learned to detach from it, much like the way you have to detach as a writer from the idea that an experience is yours.  In the end, these are just two more tools — the voice, the experience — that you can use to share with others.

You teach courses in poetry at Northwestern University and you’ve worked with younger writers as well. Teaching is time consuming of course, and it can be energy draining, but how does teaching influence your writing in positive ways?

I feel so fortunate that my day job is to talk with 20-year-olds about poetry!  And what they teach me, more than anything, is that all of this work is relevant, even necessary.  I mean, if you are just out and about reading the billboards in this country and watching the sitcoms, this stuff we are doing seems pretty anachronistic and irrelevant.

But in my classroom, I get to see how deeply we seek meaning, how much we crave the kind of relational intelligence and emotional awakening that poetry creates.  I watch students embark on this experience of creating and evolving consciousness, and they help me to evolve my consciousness, as well.  My students come to poetry classes, because they want to, because poetry provides a space for us to talk about these ideas of relationship, of creation, of trusting the intuition, and acknowledging the deeper self, and we need these conversations — now more than ever.

And the Jon and Marisol sections, especially, are dedicated to my students.  I put them back in because they represent a kind of atrium in life where we may find ourselves, maybe especially in our twenties or early thirties — the sense that we want to drop down deeper, we want to relate to people soulfully, but our coolness and our intelligence somehow prevents us from sharing all we know and sense.  I think my students are weathering those situations quite bravely, and their earnestness and intelligence gives me hope.

What are you writing now?

I am working on two projects.  My prose project is a book of personal essays that circle experiences of birth and death.  They take place during the first years of my daughter’s life, and during the illness and passing of her father from the disease ALS, when I was caregiver to both.  These experiences were simultaneous, which led to many personal challenges, but also to rich reflection on what we consider opposite — birth and death, heaven and hell.  I now experience these states as related, even interdependent.

My poetry project is a collection of poems written in the voices of Native Americans who can verbalize a very earth-centered, relational consciousness.  Some of these voices are not unlike Radegunde’s, who, as a Pagan, had a different relationship to time and to the earth, but they are taken outside of the context of Christianity, and placed in another time in history.

Rachel Jamison Webster is the author of the full-length poetry collection September (Northwestern University Press, 2013) as well as two chapbooks, The Blue Grotto and Leaving Phoebe, both from Dancing Girl Press. Her poems and prose writing have been published in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poetry, Narrative, Tin House and The Paris Review. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Northwestern and edits universeofpoetry.org, an international anthology of poetry. (Author photo by Richard Fammerée.)