April 16, 2012 § 3 Comments
On his blog, Joe Bonomo interviews Judith Kitchen about her new book Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, and about what can be found in our old family photographs. Great insight from a brilliant mind:
I see the family tree stretching backward and sense the patterns of immigration, the various individual hardships that add up to my own fairly easy American life. I see larger patterns of history, and the way my family did—and didn’t—participate in some of the shaping events of the last century. I see a tendency toward perverse individualism that, I now suspect, can be encouraged in a family like ours. And of course some photographs opened questions, hinted at, not secrets so much, but other lives that had their own fascinating trajectories. Most of all, I found lots of photographs that revealed humor—the sheer good spirits in which they were snapped. That honestly surprised me.
November 15, 2011 § 1 Comment
The titles below are clickable:
A Fiction Writer Takes Off Her Shoes, By Caitlin Horrocks
Teeth, By Dylan Nice
There Are Distances Between Us, By Roxane Gay
Incisions, By Lori Jakiela
Into The Fable, By Joe Bonomo
October 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
We were a bit late getting our copy of Best American Essays 2011 because the donkey mail cart got stuck in the mud outside of Coolville, but we have it now, and are pleased to see so many Brevity authors represented. Steven Church’s brilliant essay on sound, “Auscultation,” made the front of the book alongside Lia Purpura’s meditation on changing land, “There are Things Awry Here.” A joyful number of Brevity authors made the Notable section in the back as well, including Marcia Aldrich, Susanne Antonetta, Joe Bonomo, Barrie Jean Borich, Brian Doyle, Gary Fincke, Kim Dana Kupperman, Margaret MacInnis, Patrick Madden, Lee Martin, Dinty W. Moore (Brevity‘s founding editor), Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Anne Panning, Joel Peckham and Ira Sukrungruang. We keep good company, we think.
September 20, 2011 § 3 Comments
Joe Bonomo meditates on memory, experience, and the uncertain impulse behind his Brevity 37 essay “Into the Fable.”
“We store in memory only images of value,” Patricia Hampl writes in I Could Tell You Stories. “The value may be lost over the passage of time…but that’s the implacable judgment of feeling: This, we say somewhere within us, is something I’m hanging on to.”
Like many smart observations about the nature of autobiography, Hampl’s has as much to do with what it means to be a human as with what it means to be a writer. Like all provocations, it invites argument and skepticism. I’ve been silently quarreling with Hampl for years; I want to believe that she’s correct, that when I scroll the mental files and land on that one image repeatedly, it’s meaningful beyond me, that it’s personal, not merely private. But I can’t be sure. Even images that have lived in me for decades — a sibling’s facial expression, a friend’s walk, a girl’s eyes, that tree stump, those buildings in a row — may be, from the writer’s perspective, meaningless.
But part of me needs to believe Hampl’s assertion. Writing “Into The Fable,” I trusted an instinct very close to hers: this must be valuable because it lingered. Is John D.’s image saying something to me, in a language that I don’t know, or have lost? And is that something valuable, or inessential? I like to believe that when an image tattoos us, the ink stain is a kind of Rorschach test: its mystery may at first be untranslatable, but with time and curiosity, and plenty of side-glances away, it’s articulated, saying something that, if I’m lucky, broaches epiphany. Have I successfully translated John D. in “Into The Fable”? An image sometimes struggles with MSL issues: Memory as a Second Language. I think I get the gist of him. But Walter Benjamin writes, “Any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information — hence, something inessential.” When you’re converting a memory-image — that soundless .gif file — you’re working at an even greater disadvantage, paraphrasing music, interpreting moving but noiseless mouths, the transmitted information received as intuition, or as guesses. You stake your belief on the value of the image when it may be memory’s equivalent of a found photo: intriguing, mysterious, ghostly-narrative, vaguely urgent, but ultimately pointless.
Annie Dillard says, “Fiction makes sense of imagined experience; nonfiction makes sense of actual experience.” But of course actual experience is reimagined every second, even, arguably, as it’s happening. Why distinguish between imagined and actual experience? (Charles Lamb’s “Dream Children: A Reverie” is maybe ninety-eight percent fiction — that is, imagined — and all the more wrenching because of that.) Plagued by a recurring image of a school friend, I’m tempted to fill in the blanks, to imagine, as a fiction writer might, the surrounding narrative details and context, the back story that brought John D. to that trivial spot in time. Instead I write about what isn’t there, trusting in actual experience, however limited and partially-known. The image says, if I’m hearing it right through the static, this is all you need.
August 21, 2011 § 1 Comment
Joe Bonomo, an interesting, fresh, often of the music essayist and Brevity veteran, blogs this week about how his Last.fm music account (and by association, the myriad ways that we socially network our lives) is perhaps just one more way of assaying a life. His opening is quoted below, followed by a nifty link to his full post:
The decade-old Last.fm is a music website that, among many other features, allows me to “scrobble” my iPod and iTunes, so that whatever I’m listening to is entered in my music profile under my “Recently Listened Tracks”—updated in real time, if I’m scrobbling at home while listening to iTunes or to last.fm’s Internet radio, or later after plugging in my iPod. This provides a very cool and utterly accurate record of my listening habits and tendencies, allows me to see what my lastfm friends (many of whom are actual friends) are listening to, or have listened to, and gives me the opportunity to sample recommended playlists or to dip into said friends’ libraries, opening up a vast array of artists and songs and albums that I otherwise wouldn’t hear. It’s all very 21st Century, all very amazing, something that, though it’s unimaginable now, will one day seem quaint or archaic, like so many lid-lifting advancements on the web.
What interests me about lastfm beyond all of this is its conspiring role in shaping persona, that is, my persona. I’m an autobiographical writer and essayist; my persona is shaped, rendered, consumed. Last.fm and sites like it provide a profile and recommender system that together behave as a kind of digital self-portrait. Is this the new autobiography? “Profile data,” indeed. Provided that I’ve enabled scrobbling, anyone who wants to can eavesdrop on what I’m listening to now, or if he really wants to, discover what I was listening to on, say, January 19, 2009 (among other songs, the New Pornographers’ “It’s Only Divine Right” and Shoes’ “Shining.” Hmm, a pop day). Remember listening to records, tapes, or CDs alone, with headphones, on a rocking chair in the rec room or up in your bedroom, eyes shut tight against the music and the world? Through last.fm I can now invite anyone in, friends and strangers, and say Hey this is what I’m digging now do you know it do you have anything else by them who else sounds like them?
But what if I don’t want you to know what I’m listening to? The Recently Played Tracks feature is a cracked window into my life: what you think you’re seeing is distorted. As in an autobiographical essay, I’m in charge, confidently, shamefully. I see what I want you to see. I’ll confess that I sometimes disable scrobbling if I’m in, say, a helpless Paul McCartney mood, lest I look lame; other days I say, Who am I kidding, McCartney’s great, who cares if I get to “Maybe I’m Amazed” via “Only Love Remains”?
June 9, 2011 § Leave a comment
We don’t have the energy to re-write the press release, and anyway, all of the info is here, so excuse us. If anyone wants to rewrite the press release in the comments section, feel free:
No matter what you call it–flash fiction, prose poems, micro-essays–send us your work of 500 words or fewer. The winner will receive $1,000 and will be published in the issue of Gulf Coast due out in Spring 2012, along with the two runners-up.
Last year we were happy to publish three excellent pieces of short prose by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram (2010’s winner), Benjamin Glass, and Robert Thomas. These three pieces, along with an introduction by last year’s judge Joe Bonomo, are available on our website.
Entries are due August 31, 2011 and each entrant will receive a one-year subscription to Gulf Coast. We’re asking that all entries this year come to us via our easy-to-use online submission manager.
This year’s judge will be poet, essayist, and story writer Sarah Manguso.
May 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
It gives us nostalgic pleasure to see our rock & roll memories (via Leslie Conway Bangs’ kick-ass writing in Rolling Stone and Creem) tied to the gritty essayistic tradition of old “Blood and Guts” Montaigne. Joe Bonomo loves a good rock memoir as much — no probably more — than the next guy, and he digs the classic essay, so here he is making the case on his ever-lucid blog.
We’ll start you off with a little bit, but take the leap to the full article, we tell ya, take the leap:
Anyone who turns his prime attention onto himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice” (Montaigne). Which I why on days when I’m feeling the pull toward the petty confession, toward the shallow but no less human end of things, I turn to Lester Bangs. I don’t know that there’s a greater example of Montaigne’s “obedient servant of naive frankness.” Patricia Hampl writes of listening to Fats Domino at a freshman mixer, of the intimation of sex’s “heavier pleasure” there but denied her; Bangs heard sex and rock & roll too but he barreled right in, decorum be damned. Made a career of it, in fact.
April 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
The obsessively brilliant essayist Michele de Montaigne focused on the self like no writer before him, inventing the essay and opening a new literary realm. Contemporary essayist Joe Bonomo joins M de M’s relay team, baton firmly in hand, with his latest blog post, titled, At What Point:
does a self-portrait fully portray the self? When I supplement pen with keyboard? Keyboard with video camera? Video camera with POV shot? Video camera with POV shot with audio track? Audio track with scratch-n-sniff? Scratch-n-sniff with memory card? Memory card with abstractions? Abstractions with stories? Stories with others’ versions? Others’ version with my version? My version with my versions? My versions with faulty logic? Faulty logic with calendar truths? Calendar truths with narrative truths? Narrative truths with a photo album? A photo album with pictures missing? Missing pictures with reasons why? Reasons why with defense mechanisms? Defense mechanisms with sober discoveries? Sober discoveries with wishful thinking? Wishful thinking with denouement? Denouement with the messy beginning of something else? … .. and more here.
July 6, 2010 § Leave a comment
“All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candor,” wrote Walt Whitman. I wonder if he’s right. I’m thinking of the public disclosures of autobiographical essayists. Readers prize the light shone into corners the writer might have preferred be kept dark. We quickly sense the inauthentic, fearing, when a writer indulges, the quick tip from earnestness into solipsism. We want the essaying to be truth-seeking in the old Saxon sense of truth as faithful — in this case faithful not only to the author’s biography but to the artistic imperative to render and interrogate one’s life meaningfully and memorably.
What interests me in Whitman’s claim is the danger of self-indulgence. “There is, of course, such as thing as a rhetoric of sincerity,” Phillip Lopate insists, “and the skilled essayist can fake a vulnerable tone.” The result of manufactured openness, Lopate warns, is revulsion on the part of the reader. Essayistically, candor originates in one of two sources, self-interest or self-effacement. In Riding Toward Everywhere, his recent Kerouacian memoir of hopping trains, William T. Vollmann mines both sources dangerously (and entertainingly); in the book’s best moments, Vollmann blends the contemporary confessor’s desire to be center-stage with the artist’s recognition that a fault-finding vulnerability is a humane gesture toward the universal. That’s a hard balance to strike, and Vollmann’s book characteristically falls over itself in a lot of places. But I appreciate the tumble-and-get-up energy that propels it.
Though nearly three centuries separate Whitman’s preface from Montaigne’s, the similarities are striking. Montaigne: “Here I want to be seen in my simple, natural, everyday fashion, without striving or artifice: for it is my own self that I am painting. Here, drawn from life, you will read of my defects and my native form so far as respect for social convention allows….” And Whitman: “I will not have in my writing any elegance, or effect, or originality, to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains…. What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.” Two writers, two impulses to essay the self, and some coyness: both are consumed with the formal properties of their writing, both knowing that there’s value in editing as well as in confessional sprawl.
What’s Whitman’s “perfect candor” anyway? I’m interested in an imperfect candor, hesitant, skeptical of immodesty, equally concerned with the rigors of art and the illicit pleasures of confession. My faults are interesting and worthy in as much as I can essay them artfully as landmarks in human topography, permanent things that outlast the weather, that will be here for the next generations to be troubled by, maybe care about. An imperfect candor might know when to shut up, or when (and how) to unpack a fault and rummage inside, and find something beyond the shock or the titillation of confession. The autobiographical essayist dwells in the differences, and the distance, between frankness and art.
March 12, 2010 § 1 Comment
Amidst the ongoing brouhaha over truth in memoir, guest blogger and rock and roll biographer Joe Bonomo — author of the forthcoming Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series, 2010), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found (2009), and Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band (2007) — reminds us of how even a biographer’s personal relationship with his subject will influence the text. Joe teaches at Northern Illinois University:
We know the word art derives from the joining and fitting together of parts, and that a well-wrought biography is shaped and disciplined over messy, shapeless history. But there’s this: “There is properly no history,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, “only biography.” And Phillip Guedalla: “Autobiography is an unrivaled vehicle for telling the truth about other people.” Emerson and Guedalla seem engaged in a battle of definitions. What of the biographer’s own history? Every writer has a personal relationship with his subject; try as you might, you can’t be outside the work. What’s interesting is how much truth biography tells about its author.
When I wrote Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, I decided that I’d stay off of the crowded stage and out of the book (only near the end of the process did my editor ask me to write the autobiographical material that appears in the epilogue). In Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found I worked my way to the Killer Myth by essaying a scintillating performance that I didn’t witness, yet “my story” of loving that show’s recording was backgrounded, and became context, was context all along for my greater understanding of Lewis’ vexed and unique career. In my book-length essay on AC/DC’s 1979 album Highway to Hell, I intuited that that rocking paean to adolescence was composed of more voices than Bon Scott’s and mine: I tracked down my classmates from Catholic school during the 1970s and asked them, too, to talk about the album, about how they’ve changed or stayed the same. I asked them to fit their history into someone else’s biography. Their voices, perspectives, and memories changed the book’s landscape. The actual act of reconnecting with these kids (adults) took me away from a biographical reckoning of the album and back to the country of the personal, back to the past and to the vernacular and aesthetics of my autobiographical essays.
Emile Zola reminds us that “Art is nature as seen through a temperament.” A writer engaging his world biographically imagines a kind of cinematic construct: camera here, subject there. You think you’re creating an objective community outside the lens, but simply by placing that camera eye where you choose you’re altering and personalizing that community, you’ve worked your way in. I’m led to my subject by desire; that desire changes the subject and, ultimately, my search. If I write a critical biography of All In The Family, the curious fact that Archie Bunker wore the same pajamas my dad did might raise the stakes for me, might be my way in. Every biography is on some level a secret autobiography.