Award-winning poet and essayist Brian Blanchfield paid us a visit last month to share a selection from Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, a brilliant and astonishingly candid collection of 24 single-subject essays, out this year from Nightboat Books. Following his visit to Las Cruces, the Tucson-based author and recent Whiting Awardee in Nonfiction was kind enough to exchange ideas with me on the composition process he calls “independent intellection,” the merits of introspection and subjective knowledge, as well as his response—as both a poet and a citizen—to the results of the presidential election.
The author of three books of poetry and prose, Brian also hosts a poetry-and-music radio show and works at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in Tucson. This spring, he will be Visiting Poet at The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Emily Alex: In discussing Proxies elsewhere, you’ve described it as “nonacademic.” I wonder if you could elaborate on what it means to write a nonacademic (or even anti-academic) text, and why this was a project that interested you.
Brian Blanchfield: Well, here and there in Proxies I brandish (& maybe I burnish) my uncredentialed status, taking back as a lay person the authority to write on topics that may well be the niche specialties of academics. I mean, I am untrained to write on the locus amoenus in the pastoral tradition (I do not have a Ph.D in literature or classics) or on peripersonal space (I am not a psychologist or a kinesiologist) or on foot washing as a sacrament (I haven’t studied religions comparatively). But for various—as it turns out, personal—reasons, these are three topics that interest me. Likewise, frottage and tumbleweed and the ingénue and house sitting and the leave, in billiards, and so forth. What we have as writers, essayists especially, is attention, first. Being present to the subject at hand, writing as an expression of ongoing familiarization. Expertise is not a prerequisite; I have friends writing dissertations completely constipated (creatively) by the anxiety of repeating or overlooking relevant scholarship or critical lineages.
In a way I took the opposite approach. I gave myself a kind of constraint, a total suppression of recourse to outside authority (internet off), so that I would have to draw only on what I know, estimate, remember or misremember about the topic at hand. I see now, I was requiring myself to think, “permitting shame, error and guilt.” It generated a kind of writing that could not be scholarship, because I was not mounting discourse on other discourse. I could not consult facts or cite precisely. So the prose sounds and acts differently. Independent intellection? That’s a term I think I’ve coined here and there in interviews—it’s what I admire in Maggie Nelson, in Guy Davenport (whom I just wrote a long essay about), in Hilton Als, in Chris Kraus, in Wayne Koestenbaum. In poets, too: Chris Nealon, C. S. Giscombe, Bhanu Kapil, Ed Pavlić …
I’ve dabbled in compositional improv, and lately I’ve been thinking how sound the choreographer Katherine Ferrier’s principles for movement improv are, and how good for literary nonfiction writers: Show up. Pay attention. Tell the truth. Be open to outcome.
EA: Who is the primary audience for a work such as this, which eschews conventional notions of authority? Are these readers within academia or without?
BB: As far as audience goes, you and I met at a university, where I was giving a reading; but I’ve been hearing from readers in all kinds of communities, glad to feel it’s passing hand to hand. You’re right however—and I’m not above feelings of vindication—I relish knowing certain academics overhear what I am doing and raise a reassessing eyebrow.
I’ve also been hearing from readers who found it because of its mention on best-of lists in Esquire and The Guardian and other places, and it has been reviewed in larger outlets catering to general readers of literary nonfiction and memoir. I think it’s my first book to be acquired by more public libraries than university libraries, and that’s been very cool—unusual for me and maybe most poets. An early interview with NPR’s Michael Silverblatt and then the Whiting Award back in late March were very important to widening its readership, and opening up some opportunities. Now it’s forthcoming in the UK with Picador Books, and I’m eager to know whether and which readers overseas will be drawn to it. This morning after an invitation from India I looked up Guwahati on a map.
A number of young queer writers and readers well outside of academia have written to me, and also some who, like me, came of age under the specter of HIV/AIDS. It’s been really moving.
An AI scientist in Australia was interested in the book’s aversion to Wiki-knowledge, and wrote about it for TED Talks. A minister in Kansas talked about the book on a podcast called Sermonsmith, about sermon preparation—that was surprising and uniquely gratifying. Friends and friends of friends in the film industry—for some reason it’s passing around in those circles. A couple of physicians have responded to certain essays—there’s a little anatomy and a lot of body and bodily instinct in the essays. Who else? People who grew up fundamentalist like me, people from the South, people of the precariat class like myself, and more generally people who themselves find courage to speak from the middle of their struggle rather than after surmounting it.
EA: Do you see this improv-based approach and the type of literary essays which can result from it as capable of offering something vital at this moment in history, when we are inundated with information that is often contradictory and irreconcilable? This is a question about the internet, really: What’s it doing to our notion of truth, and do you see the literary essay as a means of responding to or rectifying this?
BB: It’s a good question. As relates specifically to movement or dance or compositional improv, there is nothing better for feeling present to other human beings, and nimble in situations. And whatever makes you feel bodied is important to practice. Yoga, hiking, lying in the rubble and letting beetles and moths investigate you, whatever it is. For me, it’s crucial for perspective.
But I think you mean, specifically the project in Proxies, to go it alone, to write without access to outside authority, even to explore a subject until you can derive there an area of personal uneasiness, and report from the middle of that, naked as it were. I can only say, for myself, I absolutely know when I am reading something that risks both thinking—open inquiry—and feeling. It feels active, alive, even a little dangerous, if its independence is real. We need that engagement, that traction, I think, from artists and writers.
Paradoxically, the internet, especially when organized and “personalized” into feeds—and social media specifically have a homogenizing effect, I often think. When I confront its distorting and reductive effect, and the perforce narcissism of my giving notice to your notice that someone noticed you, I find myself rejecting it: I don’t want to know what everyone knows. Or approve what everyone approves. It feels like shopping for a thought, instead of thinking.
EA: In the case of Proxies, how did this idea of completely shutting out the internet occur to you?
BB: The idea for that constraint occurred to me when I decided to write the first of these essays, “On Owls.” It was initially a way to feel sort of liquid in language first thing in the morning, without the internet. And, having been thoroughly influenced by Roland Barthes’s midcentury cultural criticism, in Mythologies especially, and also Theodor Adorno’s Minimia Moralia (the cover design of my book is a cross between my old Verso edition of his brief essays and Patti Smith’s Just Kids), I wanted the form to be these sort of definitional semiotic readings of one phenomenon or object or concept after another. A repeatable experiment, to write “permitting shame, error and guilt, myself the single source”—I wrote that as a banner across the top of the page for the first, and then each of the subsequent essays I took on. Inviting myself to home in on uneasy territory for me, if it were part of the archive I were exploring, to not avoid difficult personal truths and or physical and especially sexual experience if they were part of how I knew what I knew about a topic. Knew or estimated. Proxy, as if short for approximate, and proxy, as a stand-in or avatar or appointed emissary: an essay that might be braver than myself in thinking and feeling through a topic.
EA: How easy or difficult is it to follow those improv principles you mentioned? Proxies is very personal and unguarded, but I wonder if in applying this technique you ever found yourself headed in a direction you were not willing to go. “Tell the truth” sounds simple enough, but I expect the process of actually doing this can be terrifying and perhaps in some cases impossible. Any drafts left incomplete?
BB: The drafts I left incomplete, and there were in all maybe ten essays half-written or mostly finished and discarded, were ones that were, to me, unsuccessful. Either the taproot of personal stakes never found water; or there was something contrived in the maneuverings I was making, and so I lost trust; or the writing for whatever reason wasn’t especially outward-reaching and would be uninteresting to others. One I dropped because what I’d written was legally actionable, and I didn’t want to put Nightboat in a spot.
It was and continues to be difficult to share something of my experience where it overlaps with someone else’s. There are real-life consequences. That’s been hardest. My own penchant for candor where there is personal shame is apparently pretty hardy, despite my being basically a furtive, circumspect, private person. Indeed disinhibiting that person was part of what I needed to do.
I think you know when you’ve read a book that quivers still with a lived imperative, like it could be (and sometimes was) the last book the author writes. If it’s good, that’s the sort of book that ends up on a narrow shelf of writers you can trust in your own need. I’m untrained in nonfiction, but they are the authors I learn from.
EA: Most of this interview was conducted before November 9, and I wonder if I can ask you a final question now that the election has happened. Your collection’s final essay, “On the Near Term,” brings up Election Day, which you and your partner John consider to be your anniversary. What was your experience of Election Day 2016? As a queer poet and self-proclaimed member of the “precariat” class, how does the result of this election impact your notion of the “near term,” which you define as “an expression whereby the open indefinite future is parceled so as to be more manageable”? Given the near presidential term, I wonder how near-term thinking and near-term living manifests itself politically. Is this a form of resistance—evasion via Deleuzian rhizome—or a means of survival, or both? Are you resigned to this condition of existence, or do you hope for a day when you will no longer feel the need to parcel your life into discrete episodes? To what extent does the country’s political climate determine this?
BB: You ask the right questions, Emily. Inside this citizen’s hurt is a private hurt and I’m grateful that some readers of Proxies have remembered us especially this week: yes, you’re right, John and I celebrate our anniversary on Election Day each year, we re-elect each other for another year of togetherness, we even campaign for it a bit, sort of as a joke. Tuesday night was not amusing in our house, unsafe-feeling, damaged, and sleepless in our bed. (The next day, as is custom, we completed the exchange of “ballot initiatives”—the notes to each other are private, but I’ll share an image here—from my smudgy phone.)
As to being resigned (to healthcare precariousness or any other menacing or incompetent policy implementation), no, I’m not. I reject that. Accepting and moving on is not an option when your country has just supported plainly fascist threats and fascist ideology. I haven’t been able to watch any media this week and especially nothing advising that we essentially normalize this outcome and move on. Like many others, I have been powering up in small private ways and speaking out in increasingly public ways. In my smallest downtime moments, I find myself re-playing the youtube video of Aretha Franklin singing at the Kennedy Center, her opening notes at the piano bringing tears to the eyes of thousands, including President Obama. A president, history’s tears, and the closing refrain A woman, a woman, a woman. As John will tell you, it is my charm or my antidote, reversing the spell. It kills me.
I feel dispossessed and insulted and endangered and hurt, and that’s how most people who voted for Donald Trump want me to feel, me and queer people like me, me and my friends who are raising African-American and Latino children in this country—who drove them to school crying and scared Wednesday morning—me and my friends whose wellness and medical needs are more imperiled than ever, me and the fiercely courageous Dreamer kids who took the stage and took the streets with me and John at a powerful demonstration in Tucson Saturday night and again yesterday on the UA campus.
It seems to me there are two parts to this all-too-fathomable national self-betrayal and self-sabotage:
One. A man who presented himself as racist and misogynist and cheaply cruel absorbed the hatred and resentment that was drawn to that messaging. Anti-intellectual and anti-elite, yes, but shot through with white nationalism. What happened is, America just spitballed the teacher, and we have saliva running through our hair. America just farted in the elevator and snickered. Should I say it prettier than that? We stand in that stink, and that is the signalled intention—to make as foul a public violation as possible, and many Trump voters relish the image of who withstands it. The more elegant or long-suffering and dignified the black grandparent born before the Civil Rights Act, the better; the brighter and more conscientious the immigrant continuing her studies here, the better; the tougher and healthier the gay couple newly or lastingly in love, the better—this is no different than the Jim Crow environment I grew up in, in North Carolina and Virginia. I know it well. Sneering cultural retrenchment, malicious and corrosive and spiteful and clenched.
But, also: Two. Even more shameful. To behold Donald Trump for any five consecutive minutes is to be privy to at least four minutes’ solid evidence that he is shockingly empty, completely unreflective, that his reasoning and ethics are that of a child’s, that he is incurious and uninformed, that he is narcissistic and craven, and—perhaps worst of all—that he is exceptionally suggestible. He is a fake. He hasn’t read a book in twenty years and is unfamiliar with the basic foundations of American government. He admires despots, and is stroked by their apparent approval. I have no sympathy for, and no brotherhood with, the otherwise competent or well-meaning person who chose to overlook this in casting their vote. It has been for the last eighteen months and still is now plain as day: the leader we are choosing is alarmingly impulsive, and acutely dangerous, leaving our country and its citizens more vulnerable than at any point in my lifetime. It is humiliating. I am furious with my fellow Americans. We deserve better.
I live in Arizona. In my state, the eleven electors may, without penalty and led by their conscience, cast their vote for whomever they deem fit for the presidency, vested with the authority to act in our best interests. They cast their vote in December 19 according to some sources. I’ve written to all of them already, respectfully and firmly making the case. Their appallingly hard-to-come-by names and addresses are:
Bruce Ash: email@example.com
Walter Begay, Jr.: @walterbegayjr (Twitter) PO Box 35 / Kayenta, AZ 86033
Sharon Giese: 10855 Shepperd Avenue / Mesa, AZ 85212
Robert Graham: @RobertSGraham (Twitter)
Alberto Gutier: Executive Tower, Suite 430 / Phoenix, AZ 85007 (602) 255-3216 or (877) 355-3216
Jerry Hayden: 10306 E. Calle De Las Brisas / Scottsdale, AZ 85255
Carole Joyce: 1029 W. Solcito Lane / Phoenix, AZ 85013
Jane Lynch: firstname.lastname@example.org 518 Why Worry Lane / Phoenix, AZ 85021
Foster Morgan: https://www.facebook.com/foster.morgan.58
James O’Connor: 9220 North 15th Avenue / PO Box 31490 / Phoenix, AZ 85046 (602)-216-6200
Edward Robson: 9532 East Riggs Road / Sun Lakes, AZ 85248 (480) 895-9200