Living Room by Geoff Bouvier. Copper Canyon Press, 2005; 96 pages; $14.
FROM THE DUST JACKET: "Readers may be voyeurs, but the subtler gifts are not for the fast glancers. Take a good slow second look at Geoff Bouvier's Living Room." So begins Heather McHugh's introduction to this award-winning first volume. Inside, boxes of typeface materialize from white space -- literal boxes with proportions and corners where visitors might recline comfortably, or discover they're trapped. Each piece brims with industry and restless attention, and the dramas they contain are manifold. Here a solitary mind and there a whole social sphere are cross-sectioned for observation at moments rife with emotional collisions -- awesome tediums, mad reliefs. As McHugh states, these works are "bravura performances, both accessible and elegant, both immediate and subtle, both hilarious and serious.... With virtuoso reversals, switches of vantage, changes of scale, inside-outings, they accomplish metaphysical, not only physical, effects." In style and substance, Living Room enacts the urgency one feels to stretch out against cramped quarters of any dimensions. Acoustic, evocative, Bouvier's multilayered writing unsettles perimeters: the margins of the page, and the limits of cognition.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: John Ashbery: The narrating voice in Living Room is insistent but quiet, though it sometimes achieves loudness without any apparent effort. At other times it seems to continue in the reader's mind even after stopping for the day. It is an important new presence, faintly disturbing and endlessly attractive.
David Shapiro: Poetry is being born. It is even perhaps the desire for a new poetry that is at the heart of poetry like Bouvier's. Not experimentation or finding, merely, but a whole resolution to think of what experience and discovery might mean in a bleak time. Bouvier is athletic, accurate, and burgeoning. Too often we think we are in a bad way, stranded between ancient feuds between abstraction and figuration, but the iconomachia is finished. The joy of this volume lies in an unarmed escape at Cythera, where we do not even know whether we are coming or going there, but poetry, fresh and free, is being born.
Lydia Davis, author of Samuel Johnson Is Indignant: They are funny. No, they're not all funny -- some are even disturbing. Let us say they are by turns funny, contemplative, angry, bewildering, witty, mysterious, whimsical, solemn, lively, gentle, outrageous, and stern. What's sure is that these tight and explosive paragraphs of Bouvier's have an unfailing and diversified energy all their own, riveting our attention and showing us the unfamiliar within what we thought we knew.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Geoff Bouvier's first book, Living Room, was selected by Heather McHugh as the winner of the 2005 APR/Honickman Prize. His writings have appeared in dozens of journals, including American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Jubilat, New American Writing, Western Humanities Review, and VOLT. He received an MFA from Bard College's Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts in 1997. He currently lives in San Diego, where he waits tables at Tapenade Restaurant and publishes journalistic prose for the San Diego Reader .
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: In a good and simple house, surrounded by San Diego bloat, lives a man who writes tiny stories some people call poems. He lives alone -- no pets, no wife, no plants -- just the man and the living breath of his work and a few pesky lines of ants that he says move him to consider murder. He waits evening tables at a chic French restaurant and plays afternoon basketball at a local university gym. Geoff Bouvier tells me these things as we share lunch, tells me about his smart animal telepath friend, about his dreams of teaching at a small-town university. He speaks in a quiet sure voice, a man comfortable with his solid decisions about life and love, only losing a hint of sureness when he speaks about his new book, Living Room , winner of the 2005 APR/Honickman First Book Prize.
Living Room consists of 56 small works, each one a fully realized and stand-alone island, yet together they form this amazing story arc(hipelago) of self-discovery.
You published many of these individual pieces in a variety of venues. Did you plan Living Room before you wrote any one work, or did the pieces, in a sense, dictate to you the direction and need for a book?
I began Living Room with no view at all, only a single, giant, blaring, overriding vision, which I'm still trying to see my way around in, more or less. A line here, another there, an idea, a perfect word, a full-scale thought, a luminous image, and so on, and then I'd hang them all together in independent coherent cascades. I started Living Room when I started writing, I now realize.
But officially, the first discrete work that got into the book was the one that I placed at its end. The Milton Avery Graduate School at Bard College has this program where you only meet and make art in the summers and then you leave and go on about your life, and after my first summer there, I taught high school in the East Bronx and didn't write a word for myself for almost nine months.
But the experience of teaching nonwriters how to build sentences gave me this idea about how a sentence is basically an incredible cultural architecture, like a stamp of understanding or currency, along with so much else. And I sat down in the month before my second summer at Bard (this is 1997) and suddenly conceived of this idea that I had to make my poetic strands and kernels submit to the test of the sentence.
Everything started clicking then. I wrote, and the pieces came to me as they came, depending on what I was thinking about or doing or reading at the time (a lot of Kafka and Blanchot, and Lydia Davis, who was one of my teachers at Bard, and others whom I considered and usually still consider to be great makers of sentences, like Joyce, Beckett, Hemingway, Proust, Woolf, Thomas Bernhard, and so on). I have this problem in that I read very adversarially, and almost never for enjoyment. As a result, I rarely read things end to end. I get whatever fuel I want for my own fire and then strike out for different camps.