Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Jan Clausen

Jan Clausen’s writing has spanned numerous genres. In the 1980’s, she focused heavily on fiction, publishing a story collection and two novels with the Crossing Press (U.S.) and The Women’s Press Ltd. (U.K.). Her memoir Apples and Oranges: My Journey through Sexual Identity was issued by Houghton Mifflin in 1999. Two new poetry collections, From a Glass House (IKON) and If You Like Difficulty (Harbor Mountain Press) appeared in 2007. The recipient of writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, Clausen has published her creative work in Bloom, Fence, Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time, Hanging Loose, The Kenyon Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, and many other periodicals and anthologies. Her essays, book reviews, and literary journalism appear in Boston Review, Ms., The Nation, Poets and Writers, and The Women’s Review of Books. Since 1989, Clausen has taught creative writing at Eugene Lang College, Manhattan, and in the Goddard College MFA Writing Program.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Darktown Strutters, by Wesley Brown (Cane Hill Press 1994), offers a mordant and moving vision of 19th century African-American life, straddling the horrors of slavery and post-Emancipation turmoil. Among the things I love about this book are its gritty humor, its deft embrace of several sorts of American vernacular, and its re-creation of a moment when popular theater had an umbilical connection to grassroots politics, both for good and for ill (minstrel programs featuring white performers in blackface alongside an African-American dancing genius named Jim Crow are dramatized as volatile occasions that might spark a slave rebellion or a lynching, depending on audience and mood). Wesley and I exchanged copies of our books in February, after a coffee date prompted by a short conversation we had at a benefit reading for Gazans in the wake of the latest Israeli attack.

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan (Arcade Publishing 2006, translated by Howard Goldblatt). Brilliantly combining elements of traditional mythology with a satire of recent Chinese history, Mo Yan takes as his premise the idea that a “rich peasant” executed for his sins against the revolution is reincarnated as a farm animal in his old village. We then get a slow lope through the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the transition to a profit-based economy in the 1990’s, told from a combination of animal and human perspectives. There’s a lot of sadness here, but little clear-cut victimization, as people work the system to make the best of some very bad bargains. The reader is invited to laugh at human folly as seen through the eyes of (successively) a donkey, an ox, a pig, and a dog; but the laughter is cut short when one reflects that the human dramas—for instance, that of a boy torn between his father’s noble refusal to join the farm collective and his own adolescent attraction to the “mainstream” of his rural society, with its tractors and perks for the collectivized—are versions of a reality experienced by millions of Chinese people over the last half century.

Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 by Susan Sontag (Farrar Straus Giroux 2008, edited by David Rieff). I’m reviewing this first of three projected volumes of Sontag’s diaries and notebooks for The Women’s Review of Books. I was completely enthralled by this highly self-conscious, tantalizingly fragmentary record of the adventures of a young Jewish lesbian intellectual in mid-20th century America. Mainstream reviewers seem to have been floored by the revelation of a passionate body attached to Sontag’s celebrated mind. I read the book as a thrilling lesbian novel, strikingly devoid of any interest in “curing” a “deviant” condition such as one frequently finds in accounts of gay and lesbian experience in the period. Sontag did undertake a brief and mostly miserable marriage to Philip Rieff, the father of her only child. Editor David Rieff’s posthumous “collaboration” with his mother allows a fascinating oedipal sub-plot to be superimposed on the text by the reader who’s so inclined.

A Susan Sontag Reader (Farrar Straus Giroux 1982, Introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick). I’m skipping around in this one, collecting my thoughts for the Reborn review. Favorite bits include the essay “Against Interpretation,” a brilliant polemic against the reduction of literary texts to a single determinate “meaning,” and “The Aesthetics of Silence,” on 20th century writers’ preoccupation with the limits of articulation as a theme and structuring principle.

Big Sky/ Little Bullet by Maurice Paterson (apparently self-published 1992). This is a Grenadian journalist’s account of the political cross-currents surrounding the 1983 killing of beloved revolutionary leader Maurice Bishop and comrades by members of an opposing faction within the People’s Revolutionary Government, an event that gave the Reagan Administration the excuse it wanted to invade the country. The book is poorly copy-edited and frustratingly sourced, but its home-grown flavor and reliance on eye-witness accounts provide an eloquent complement to more distanced official histories (which, in any event, largely remain to be written). I discovered Big Sky on a shelf in NYU’s Bobst library while looking for a novel by the Grenadian poet and novelist Merle Collins, whose Angel I read and admired many years ago, particularly for its wonderful use of Grenadian vernacular and its depiction of women’s networks; Collins’s more recent The Colour of Forgetting was missing from the shelf, but I hope to read it soon.

Small Axe, Vol. 11, #1 (February 2007) issue on Grenada. After reading most of this issue on line, I’ve ordered my own copy from the distributor, Indiana University Press. It contains important articles on the situation of Grenada many years post-invasion and only a couple of years post-hurricane disaster, including “The Silence People Keeping” by David Scott (about the ambivalent, fearful response to historical trauma on the part of Grenadians who have not forgotten their grievances but feel powerless to express them safely or effectively) and a personal/political narrative of Grenada from the 1950’s to the present entitled “Tout Moun Ka Pléwé by Merle Collins (the title means “Everybody Crying”).

Paterson by William Carlos Williams (New Directions 1963). I’m in love with the humble hubris of the poet’s effort not so much to describe as to lay down language alongside the incredibly complex physical and social reality of a place. To do this, Williams fearlessly interweaves found texts, lyrical inventions, moments that invite questioning about the autobiographical content of the work, and public documents; he addresses geology and hydrology, working-class movements, popular culture, “the beautiful,” in a work that holds up a particular, loved place “like the Eleusinian hierophant holding up a single ear of grain” (Adrienne Rich).

I’m revisiting three amazing books for this semester’s writing classes. The opportunity to keep re-reading such gorgeous texts, discovering new dimensions each time, is one of the big treats of teaching:

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson (Alfred A. Knopf 1998). This “novel in verse” plays gutsily with form but never gets so carried away with its own cleverness that it forgets to be deeply serious about the contemporary coming-of-age story it fashions from fragments of Greek classical poetry about a red winged “monster” named Geryon, whom the heroic Herakles supposedly killed in the course of his celebrated labors. In the updated story, Geryon and Herakles are two boys in love, “two superior eels/at the bottom of the tank [who recognize] each other like italics.” Then Herakles moves on, leaving Geryon with a broken heart and the task of fashioning an artist’s sensibility from his penchant for “confusing subject and object.”

Call It Sleep by Henry Roth (originally published 1934; Picador edition 1990). Originally published in 1934 and rediscovered in the early 1960’s, this beautifully wrought novel explores the complexity of coming to full consciousness as a sentient, searching being in a brash, utilitarian world that has no time for metaphysical depth. It is also a classic of New York immigrant experience—for that reason newly relevant now, in a city that has just seen the biggest wave of immigration in a hundred years—and a prodigy of the “dialogic imagination,” with its amazing and unique handling of the Jewish immigrants’ language-worlds, as they navigate between their native Yiddish and heavily accented street vernacular. Using repeated images and dramatic psychological plotting—the plot centering on the oedipal triangle—Roth managed to create a unified work with an astonishing range of narrative approaches, incorporating lyrical prose, realistic dialogue, and stream-of-consciousness.

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata (North Point Press 1998, translated by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman). These brief stories by the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature were composed intermittently over the course of his long creative life (he died in 1972). The pieces are extremely various, some based on dream imagery, some in epistolary formats and depicting the raffish popular culture of Tokyo between the world wars, some thrillingly “plotted,” and others more dependent on lyrical devices that make them feel like prose poems. One late piece even “condenses” the text of Kawabata’s famous novel Snow Country into an elliptical, image-driven narrative.
Read excerpts from Clausen’s recently completed novel, The Company of Cannibals, and learn more about the author and her work at

--Marshal Zeringue