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.
Anyway, after my degree, I moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, to become a successful, widely published writer, and instead became a frustrated, mostly rejected one. But I'm not the dispirited type, and there were enough little successes to keep me from getting too discouraged along the way, so I kept with it and in fact grew more and more disciplined, which is the kind way to put it. More and more obsessed, maybe. I mean, I still write every single day, and if I don't, I usually don't feel very good. I sit down to it in the mornings mostly, except I'll have a couple of night sessions a week as well, after I get home from waiting tables.
Finally, getting back to the subject of your question: I started trying to form a book out of the material in Living Room as far back as 1999. I've always been a maker of books, ever since I stapled together a bunch of words and pictures at four or five years old. After staying with a slew of ideas for a number of years, you start to hear how they've been talking to each other, even if you weren't in tune enough to listen previously. I noticed how certain writings seemed like perfect answering palinodes of other pieces I'd penned literally years before (and almost completely forgotten about). Lines buried, lost in notebooks, bore resemblance to other lines from summers later. And there were so many other relationships between verses that I didn't catch until I began recycling ideas and tracing images and organizing things, putting the works in order.
Originally, I wanted to call the book Whiteness , with a nod to the Jabes quote that still leads it off, and I wanted an all-white cover and this whole Beatles-White Album thing, except that too many people thought the title was too racial, which honestly wasn't even an association I'd been aware of at first. So back then I'd had the book divided into sections for the colors of the prism that make up white light, but I really couldn't take that too far, because what makes a red piece of writing different from an orange one?
When I hit on Living Room, with my sister's help (Courtenay and I often brainstorm; she's a Ph.D. candidate at Iowa and one of my best readers), it suddenly occurred to me that I could lead off each subsection with one of my "littlestories," as I used to call my very short, single-line pieces, which would kind of thematically tie together the longer works ("Concrete Prose") that followed. (Incidentally, I'm not in love with either one of those names anymore, littlestories and concrete prose, although they might be almost accurate.) Anyway, after a while I started to see this arc(hipelago), as you eloquently called it; I started to discover what exactly my concerns were (and are), in essence by singing them and stopping and listening to how those concerns were hovering together in the air.
Sometimes, when I would come to a new level of understanding while I was reading through Living Room, and I would shift some pieces around because they seemed to resonate better with other pieces before and after them, I say sometimes, sitting there at my computer late at night or in the early morning, I would half expect to hear my manuscript begin humming, literally, because I'd finally gotten the arrangement just right. The fact that I never actually heard any music spontaneously murmuring out of Living Room only means that, happily, I have more books to write! (Or it means that such a thing can't actually physically happen, although I'm not one hundred percent willing to admit that just yet.) So here I am putting together a second manuscript now, which I'm calling Glass Harmonica , and the writings in it are strung together (based on the actual physical form of this curious musical instrument, the glass harmonica) in a much more predetermined way, thanks, in large part, to what I learned by my piecemeal making of Living Room.
Incidentally, when it comes to putting a book together, I've always been a fan of what I consider to be the ultimate literary arrangement of all time, Wittgenstein's Tractatus. That man could sense the precise analogical distance between each one of his thoughts, and he measured their conceptual lengths and put corresponding numbers alongside each ideological burst. In Glass Harmonica , I'm taking that as my example, in a way. That, and the progression of harmonic frequencies.
But for Living Room I was still very much in the throes of the mythological way of making sense. I'd absorbed my Graves and Joseph Campbell and Dungeons & Dragons at a young age. I wonder if Living Room is a kind of farewell to mythology, the record of my own shamanistic journey to a personal Paradise-alternative. A living room.
And now that I'm in that room, so to speak, and because I've always wanted to make something crystalline and perfect, I'm building a second book based on my conviction that language holds a code that unlocks some kind of secret. Something essential about the fault where figurative and literal relate.
On this note, when I was very young and had just discovered what death was (my Aunt Bernadette had passed away unexpectedly), I immediately thought that everyone must have this death thing all wrong. Many years later, I would find out that Freud had put words to my very thought: "Death is a failure of the imagination."
Anyway, even when I was that young, say, three or four, I was certain that someone had discovered the answer to everlasting life and inscribed it into a kind of code. I didn't care what I was told. If my family (which is a pretty well-read little crew) didn't know anything about it, that was only because they hadn't read deeply or widely or well enough. But then, of course, the more I read, the more I realized that everyone was just searching, and no one had found anything. Humanity had pretty much come to accept its mortality, and writers were only winning small and equivocal victories.
It wasn't until 25 years later, when I was at Bard, and just before I began teaching, that I discovered Kafka and realized finally there was someone who'd been on to the same thing I was. So that's where I am, right now. Not that I can write as well as Kafka, or think as well as Wittgenstein, which is to say my gifts may not ultimately measure up to the challenges required. But I can see the challenges (giant and singular and overridingly blaring), and I've never seen them met the way I think they can be met, which is why I'm one of the ones striving.
You talk about your childhood intuition and understanding -- now carried into your adult work -- that language can both hold and crack open essential secrets. As a reader, I felt as if Living Room captured me and shoved me into some kind of sweat lodge where my own human expectations were burned, one by one, as the fuel for achieving some kind of heightened awareness. I felt quite naked and able to touch capital-T Truth without all those messy filters we typically hold in front of our eyes when I reached the end. What kinds of universal secrets do you hope the reader unravels? And why are these things so important for us to grasp?
You've touched upon an accurate definition for wisdom, I think, in that trade-off of elevated expectation for unadorned awareness. How the burning feelings usually just end up melting things (but then you hope to be in tune enough to notice what's refinable in the after-ore). I think it's important, no matter what, to take more life upon ourselves -- to bear up and bear witness, as it were, and never to give up. My writing always tries to rediscover paths into that vivacity. Whatever sacrifices we're required to make, throughout life, giving over isn't giving in, so to speak. In Glass Harmonica , I'll deal a little more with the dangers of cynicism. But Living Room is a luminous place, or it wants to be, and we all need to remember and revise our luminous places. Keep in touch with the sun, as Wallace Stevens might be rejuvenated to say, or something about the distinctive world of the happy person.
As someone who comes across as having a desire and need to be tender with language, like a gardener, really, in the way that your little stories and concrete prose feel nurtured, watered, loved, it seems that it's not only your personal life and luminous places that you continue to revise. Tell me about your writing process, the way you conceive and polish each piece into such intricately faceted yet smooth gems.
Here's a paradox for you: Writing endures, whereas life is momentary and fleeting. Yet, once something is written, it can be changed, tweaked, fiddled with, reworked, and endlessly reinterpreted and readjusted, whereas once something happens in life it's "in the books" indelibly and forever. Isn't that strange?
So writing outdoes life on two, nearly opposite, counts: flexibility and permanence. I'm a huge fan of the flexibility part. You might call me a chronic editor. I reread and reread and reread.
Many of the poems in Living Room are "about" this, sort of: "A Happy Hour" warns us "never to look back too soon over what it is that [we've] finished," and "Trying Fire" melts "everything that I might forget" into "a singular white point of pure hot." And then there's "Revisionary Traffic," of course, and the mapmaker in "All Roads Lead" who maps over "the experience of the traveler-in-the-place, instead of merely the place itself," in other words, mapping instabilities, instead of rendering rigid properties.
One method of editing I've employed for many years subjects my paragraphs to poetic tests (introducing line breaks and stanza breaks) and then transposes them back into often very different paragraphs. Likewise, on the other side of it, sometimes I'll compose a piece that's very much a poem, with short lines, capital letters all along the left margin, and no punctuation, and then many days or weeks later I'll rearrange the piece into paragraphs and subject the syntax to what I've called (and I think I'm echoing Ron Silliman, echoing Louis Zukofsky) "the test of the sentence." I've learned a lot over the years by doing this. (A lot about good writing, as opposed to good poetry or good prose.)
I've got pieces that were 50 words long when they were first published, or accepted for publication, that have since swelled to over 300 words. "No, No, Never Nothing" and "The Last Viewpoint" come immediately to mind. Over the years, with Living Room, I've also done very specific rewrites, for instance, where I'm only looking for etymological puns (and there are dozens in the book) and making sure they're both intentional and subtle. Or one time when I read solely to make sure I intended every instance of "the" or "a." You know: is it a specific object or abstraction warranting "the," or just one of many, and so merely an "a" is required?
I've always been kind of a crazy perfectionist, ever since I'd erase and erase and slash holes in the paper during first-grade spelling tests, and not because I wanted to make sure the words were spelled right, but because I wanted the words to look right (the tails on the p's all the same length, same degrees of roundness on all the o 's, etc.). Over the years, I've tempered my drive for perfection somewhat. Now what I'm looking for is harmony and rhythm. I want beauty in the timing of things and beauty in the confluence of details and daily events.
In the meantime, I've learned that perfection doesn't have to mean some absolute untouchable ideal. I like the kind of perfection that accepts the imperfect and then provides the counter-gesture that "fixes" it, like someone with a limp: one foot doesn't work right, but the other swings along to save it into locomotion. Looking at it in terms of capital-T Truth, on the one hand (or foot), I'm hardly very sure what Truth is, and unfortunately I live like someone who is unsure, flailing and fearing and lying and losing myself in appearances. But then this other motion sweeps through me and I'm carried forward by a sense of depth and rhythm and harmony running under things, and spots of solid beauty well up where my foot can find purchase, and I move forward with the sense that my path is somehow true. Although, and of course this often happens, the analogical links between my metaphors might have become hopelessly mixed, in which case I'll look at them and re-look at them and look at them again from a different perspective, and I'll edit them and perfect them.
I always remember to italicize those founding words that have accompanied, and might even exemplify, our potentially great country: "in order to form a more perfect union." As though perfection were a noble aim for our whole ongoing process, and not some unconditional, and therefore frustrating, end.
After deliberately crafting, navigating, testing the islands of Living Room, and then charting them, sending them off -- letting them go -- as connected points on one poetic map, what effect do you think it will all have, not only on readers, but on you?
Well, it's like anything you've put your heart and soul and faith and time and everything else into, you hope it'll be well-received and fully understood and loved and vastly appreciated and genuinely needed. But you're ready for flat disregard, misconstruction, cruel disparagement, and general dismissal, of course. Plus, there's always a host of potential futures in between.
But when I start to think about all this, instead I drift to an old favorite image of mine, the image of the air inside a balloon. You can ask all these questions like, "Who blew it up?" or, "Does the balloon waft on carbon dioxide?" or, "Is it floating with helium?" But to me, those details are just details, more or less beside the point. (As an aside, I generally don't care much for facts or data, which is why I'm not a very good journalist and I'm not at all rich.) There are also practical issues, such as the way the air inside the balloon helps it achieve its joyful connotations, not to mention that graceful, decorative, colorful, spherical form, but this is not what interests me most.
What interests me most is the act of abstracting the air, so to speak, and considering the stuff in itself. If you got rid of the balloon's body, that plastic casing, but you could still keep together all of the air that had been inside it (literally, the balloon's spirit), and if you gave that air consideration, and let the small volume of it retain an identity once it's free, a molecule of former balloon, instead of merely scattering into lungs and clouds and winds, what then? (And I have to mention that I find simplistic, surrealist answers dissatisfying; please, no ghosts; let's keep it real.)
So now that that's out there, I can think of what effects there might be for a reader of Living Room, insofar as it ever gains many readers. The effects for them, as they shed themselves and drift into the book, will echo whatever they brought into it in the first place, before faucets started dripping and clothes came off and guards were dropped and stories of silence and nothingness started to enliven the trappings and spaces of the everyday. We are still what we were, having lost or let go of what we thought defined us, but some balloons and books might help us remember what we can become, when we aren't as we are anymore. How syntactically twisted, yet mythic, withal! Ha!
On my own personal trip through this book, making it, I learned that it's important to understand the size and shape and tensile quality of my enclosures, to better understand the fleeting spirits that hang together within. It's why we plot and map the areas around incommensurate quantities, getting precise reads on whatever might be readable. Only in that way can the Irrational (as I call it) come somewhat to light. You've inscribed its shape in negative, as it were, a tangible circumference versus the impalpable center. And then, voila! Thou knows thyself. The silence after the period, before the next capital letter, sits still for you in its elliptical arc and becomes an almost identifiable quality. At least until the next sentence begins, and then it all floats up in the air again, hopefully beautifully, half-limply along.
The prospect of having a book in the world brings me an unspeakable joy. But regardless of whatever happens, finally, as Kafka might have said, "It's all good; just not for us." And so we're taught to laugh, albeit grimly. I want to learn to laugh grimly with good nature. To practice mobile perspectives, appreciations, and turning existential weaknesses into poetic strengths. To keep seeking and noticing and laughing...and learning to read! And, more importantly, to write! I think everyone should write something challenging and read something challenging every single day. Imagine that world. The world of writing people would be different from this one, wouldn't it -- more perfection!