address delivered at the annual Associated Writing Programs
convention in New York City, February 1, 2008
The kind of fiction I am interested in is the kind of fiction that those who control the literary establishment (publishers, editors, agents, reviewers, booksellers, etc.) brush aside because it does not conform to their notions of what fiction should be, or how it should be written, and consequently has no value (commercial, that is) for the common reader. And the easiest way for these people to brush aside that kind of fiction is to label it, quickly and bluntly, as experimental.
- Raymond Federman, The Supreme Indecision of the Writer:
I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.
Call me U. Some years ago, nevermind how long ago precisely, having little money, and nothing particular to interest me on the surface, I decided to live underground. U have heard writers, whether Dostoevsky or Ronald Sukenick, invoke life underground, but I am speaking of something different. I literally went under the ground, to live among the woodchucks. I am always put in mind of them again this time of year. They are burrowed well into the earth, heart rhythms all but suspended, nestled into one another to keep warm across the barren months at the beginning of the year here in the Northeast. Of course, the woodchucks I was in with had it particularly bad. They lived here in Manhattan, a couple dozen blocks north of our present location, at the edge of a pasture in Central Park. Life is hard for the Central Park woodchuck. Days, we would keep a low profile. Leave it to the rats to get the press. Still, woodchucks are not entirely unwelcoming to the visitor who makes the effort. Their hidden wish, their secret underground wish is to communicate something to the world about gun violence. Woodchucks know a lot about gun violence.
They are sleeping right now, but each Spring I get the urge to join them again. Maybe I will if one day I’m able to obtain a sabbatical from the small college where I work as a creative writing teacher. I make a passable living telling sad, goofy, oddball stories of underground life. Eventually, and the time is coming soon, I will run out of ideas and need to do more fieldwork. The interest others have in these stories pleases me, but has always left me puzzled. Maybe it’s the interest I have in them myself, but I can never be sure. Maybe it’s as Walter Benjamin had it, that literary audiences draw warmth from experiencing miseries that they will not be as sanguine about when it is themselves perishing. I teach the requisite general education classes each semester and read my stories at occasional college assemblies. Sometimes we even skip the assemblies; it seems more important to those who pay me that I provide the campus with the potentiality of art than its actual practice. Such are the terms – for this I get health insurance and enough for food and bills. My years underground seem sometimes like an unusual dream.
Leave this room. Go down to the first floor and walk out into the main lobby of the hotel, and then out the front door. Make certain to have your manuscript with U. U are now in Manhattan. Give up all other pursuits for the next year – do not work; eat and sleep only enough so that U can continue to appear presentable to others, as presentation is important. Spend all of your time talking to everyone U can about your manuscript and getting them to read it. Call in every favor possible. If before the end of the year U are able to sell your manuscript, then U are not a writer of experimental fiction. Experimental fiction cannot be sold in Manhattan.
If U have read my pieces in The Brooklyn Rail, though there’s no reason U would have, U will know that the woodchucks have a cultural hero, Woodchuck with a capital double-U. Capital-double-U-Woodchuck is very important to the people, which is what the woodchucks call themselves; he was made by God to avenge the people, and the people believe it was Woodchuck who killed John F. Kennedy. Woodchuck also carries his penis in a box, for no reason that is clear to the people, and he never locks the box, so his penis is always escaping. Woodchuck is a wanderer, as he’s always chasing after his penis, which causes trouble if not caught. At one point in the early 1960s, Woodchuck seems to have wandered to Dallas. You have heard, of course, of the Grassy Knoll? One of the things that annoys Northeastern farmers most about woodchucks is how a woodchuck burrowing its hole in a farm field, will pile the dirt up beside it in a large mound. These mounds or “grassy knolls” catch tractor tires and, on steep hillsides where farmers have planted alfalfa, wheatstraw, and timothy, can upend the unwary farmer. Someone was once killed this way, and the farmers have never forgotten it. Everyone remembers where they were that day.
When I lived with the woodchucks, I learned it was important to keep down low in our holes. A woodchuck is naturally curious, and will sit up on its grassy knoll, but it does so at its peril. It was not only farmers but sportsmen who came after us, and the sportsmen were even worse. Every year they brought rifles that shot more accurately, from further and further away. Every woodchuck knows the sight, from having seen it themselves or heard it from others, of the swift bloody felling of a relative or a comrade. Death arrives a moment before the explosion is heard, and then the deafening crack a fraction of a second later hits and repeats, bouncing back and forth off the facing mountains. To give another human parallel, it is like the wedding party strafed by US aircraft three years ago outside Ramadi, in Iraq. A moment earlier U are lost in the celebration and intensity of your own life, and then from out of the sky, where no one is looking, comes the thing no one saw coming. The murder happens before the sound. The white formal robes of the bride and the partygoers are shredded and doused in blood. Death that comes out of the sky, suddenly, where its victims are not soldiers and have no means of defending themselves, was a particular abhorrence of one of our greatest anti-war novels, Slaughterhouse-Five, by the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Vonnegut self-published his first novel. But I am straying from what I began to say, which is that woodchucks learn at an early age the dangers of sticking one’s head too far outside one’s hole. This is wherein capital-double-U Woodchuck, the cultural hero, is most celebrated – he refused to keep low to his hole. Woodchuck did what he wanted, in open pursuit of his desires and dreams, living out abroad on the land, a brown animal against a green field, easy pickings for a gun-toting sportsman. For defying death, Woodchuck is praised, and his adventures laughed over. If he managed to kill the president of the United States, any president, wouldn’t he be in some sense justified? But no, the woodchucks don’t see it this way either. They make no such sweeping judgments or claims. They hunch down in their holes and gather most of their food at night. Then they return to their burrows. Soft ululations of grief are sometimes heard deep in this darkness.
On one of my visits to New York in the past few years, I attended a memorial for Ronald Sukenick, who had recently died. As many of U know, Sukenick was one of the founders of the Fiction Collective, forerunner to FC2. After retiring from the University of Colorado at Boulder, he lived downtown on Rector Place, near Battery Park. I’d studied with him at Boulder in the 1980s. While I was there, he was writing his book, Down and In: Life in the Underground, and by underground he meant the avant-garde of the 1950s and early 60s in Greenwich Village. Both Ron and I grew up, a generation apart, in these environs, though my parents weren’t of such an artistic milieu and left Manhattan and Brooklyn to raise me safely on Long Island. I miss Ron. I always liked the strangely factual manner he had about various things. Once, I was in a meeting room when another professor told Ron about a manuscript that he’d read by the dead son of one of his non-traditional students. John Kennedy O’Toole-like, he said, it was wonderful, and FC should give it a look. “But can a dead person be part of a collective?” Ron wondered aloud. He also had a great name: Ronald Sukenick. U don’t meet many people whose names are so dactyllic or whose surname features so prominent a long U. He could be a bit obtuse, but was a good teacher. He planted what Benjamin, in the same essay that I mention above, called “germinous seeds” – things U didn’t get immediately, which sat there vexing U, but then sometime later on sprouted. For instance, I recall him saying that we shouldn’t buy the notion, common among us then, that time as a student or as an artist wasn’t “real life.” It’s all real life, he said. U should write about everything that U live. No separations.
Let me return to my years living underground, with the woodchucks of Central Park. I will spare U naturalistic accounts of the daily indignities, the foraging for scraps in competition with rival gangs and the need, against all costs, to evade being seen by Upper East and Upper West Siders. U would hardly believe it, but the same person who sends a $1,000 check each year to the Sierra Club will be the first on the phone screaming at City Hall to pump 10,000 gallons of poison into the ground the minute they see our sorry asses. Truly, we spent most of our time in the dark, among ourselves. I don’t remember this part very clearly now, but I believe I must have physically shrunk to the size of a woodchuck to fit so easily down inside their holes, as it is said capital-double-U Woodchuck himself, the great hero of the people, was able to change sizes to full human proportion when he walked around in the upper world, in disguise. However it was, my time with the woodchucks was spent for the most part in creating things, to pass the time. We had the most limited of materials – dirt, hair, rocks, worms, insect husks, vegetation, sticks, and garbage we brought down from the upper world; for tools, only our own claws and teeth. Woodchucks, incidentally, do not chuck wood, so please do not even mention this to me in the question and answer period. But many times in our deep burrows, in the huddled darkness, I myself experienced, or experienced in others, an incredible and powerful transformation, where, after noodling around making lines in the dirt or somesuch there would be a tremendous agitation or charge, like amphetimines, so one could hardly sit still, and it would be all around us but there was nowhere to go, one was confined, so one had to remain right there and deal with it, wherever it was coming from, whatever it was. It was dark, we were unknown, there was no one to see us or know what we were doing, but something was happening, and it was true, and we all knew it. Who would wish to deny something like this in favor of what can be brought to market and sold each day, because U know the people have a taste for it? That’s McDonald’s. Is it not the play of the mind we are after, citizen – that shows us a mind is there at all? Otherwise, U have your dollar by the second, your daily hamburger, your weekly New York Times Book Review, your yearly gun. Vote for the candidate endorsed by Chuck Norris. Sorry, but I get a little excitable. In those old days, with so much fat and fur surrounding us and part of us in that darkness that was suddenly electric with light, the sizzle would be absorbed back within us. It would provide the energy with which we kept ourselves going, as well as our entertainment. I suppose it was a way in which we expressed our love for one another. Today, in the experimental fiction community, love is most commonly and helpfully expressed as donations which are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law.
At this point, someone might tell a tale of the hero, Woodchuck, how he fought against a country musician who had died and returned as a zombie, or how his friend Elk had once slept with his own wife by mistake, or how Woodchuck had wanted to adopt as his own son the poor suicide boy, or how Woodchuck befriended a lemur from Madagascar, or disguised himself as a trooper on the New York State Thruway in order to stop motorists from running down the people on the roads so mercilessly week upon week, year upon year. There would be no need to turn out the light at the end of the night or the end of the season. Someone would simply be the first to stop talking or listening and everyone would drift into themselves. Soon there was nothing but quiet and hushes. Then, as the days shortened and the others’ heartbeats began to decelerate to near stasis, then it was I most knew I couldn’t stay. I liked it here, but it didn’t feel right. I wasn’t the right size. There was a world of my own kind elsewhere, that I had come from, and even if I didn’t much like it I knew I could no longer avoid living there. They were my own people, even if they disgusted me and I could hardly bear to look at them at times. U go away and then U return home and U tell the tales while U do your daily job, settled into the community, isn’t that it, Double-U Benjamin? U look to others, U teach some extra classes U don’t as much like, U occasionally get some time off at which point U really work at it, U write, U make time when U can, U do your best to try to live fully in your own life. U try to have it be unlike all the others. Unique, uncommon. U look to others, U try, U don’t much like, U live underground, U surface, U do your daily job, U see the clock, U know it’s time to go....