Me, On Strangers

One of the best things about working at The New School, apart from all the bathrooms I have access to around Union Square, is getting the chance to be a part of programs like New Talks. Was honored to read along with other academics on the theme of Strangers. Check out the livestream of "Strangers" here and read an excerpt from my talk below.

In her essay “On Being Ill,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “…always to be understood would be intolerable.” And at first I did not believe her. Thought she must have meant the opposite. A facetious joke.

After all, who can resist the gooey indulgence of feeling understood? As if knowing were a kind of loving.

It was access to a kind of love that drew me to nonfiction in the first place. As a teenager I began obsessively recording observations of strangers and of those who for whatever reasons I’d deemed un-strange, because it filled me with empathy, both for myself and for others. I believed the act might illuminate some connective tissue, creating a net that could catch and include me in a world I felt mostly outside of, mostly alone in, curating to some degree what Mark Doty calls, “A collector’s catalogue, a record of the body’s travels…”

“How else will I know the world,” he asks, “if not by finding, in the bodies of my lovers and fellows, my coordinates?”

As an essayist I am fascinated by the constant negotiation between the world and the self,  between watching and being watched, hiding and parading. As a woman I inevitably also consider the ways in which I, too, am observed, both IRL and on the page. I think of female poets and artists I admire, how they’ve exposed their abject, vulnerable properties on varied creative planes. Performance artist Marina Abromovic, for instance, literally uses her body as the vehicle of expression, even risking her life in the process of connecting with the audience, whom her curator considers, in effect, “a lover she needs like air to breathe.”

Perhaps this is what we can and want to do in autobiographical writing: at once risk our own lives while saving them. Like any stranger, readers are vessels for both real and imagined intimacy. Which is to say, a real and imagined sense of being seen and then—or still, or now—being loved. A Lacanian desire, driven by lack. As Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary, “If people could see through me, they could not stop loving me, forgive me.”

But in truth maybe I don’t actually want all that, at least not so completely. Maybe Woolf wasn’t messing around. Maybe we only look at the other to gauge the mileage, the outlines, the distance, finally unattainable in our separateness. And maybe there is power in that mystery, a power that seems to speak to the churning undercurrent of my female experience, my own sense of otherness, control, sexual identity, desire, loneliness, and fatigue.

Poet Paul Lisicky writes of Walt Whitman: “His listing, his habit of naming what he sees, high and low, monumental and minuscule, raw and cooked—isn’t he in fact inscribing boundaries in language? Isn’t he saying ‘you’re not me, and you’re not me, and finding delight in that? The exquisite loneliness of the poet striding down the sidewalk. How else could intimacy happen if we don’t carve boundaries between us?”

Excerpt from "The Tuesday Evening Train" - Los Angeles Review, Fall 2015

Once the train pulls away the market is quiet for nearly an hour. I dust wine bottles and drink coffee alone. I hold a mug in both hands until my warmth takes all its warmth away. I think about the boy with the dead mother. I think about how we do that, how our bodies pull the heat from other objects until those objects are cold. The adiabatic cooling of touch, of a substance decreased as it does work on its surroundings. And imagine, how hot the liquid must feel to the air.

I bite my lips until they are hard and ridged on the inside like wet dunes at low tide.

And then there is my watch, and the wind, which I do and don’t ignore.

For writers, the most dramatic relationship in life is probably with their own writing. I love you I hate you I love you I hate you good riddance where are you forget you come back.  Some days I'm all: "Thanks for nothing, asshole!" But when my writing takes me places like this, The Kenyon Review Writer's Workshop, where I get to spend a week as a fellow with other writers, I'm all: "Thank you thank you thank you! I'm sorry! Never leave me and I will never ever leave you!"

For writers, the most dramatic relationship in life is probably with their own writing. I love you I hate you I love you I hate you good riddance where are you forget you come back. 

Some days I'm all: "Thanks for nothing, asshole!"

But when my writing takes me places like this, The Kenyon Review Writer's Workshop, where I get to spend a week as a fellow with other writers, I'm all: "Thank you thank you thank you! I'm sorry! Never leave me and I will never ever leave you!"

BAE Notable

So excited to have my prize winning Redivider piece, "I'm Trying to Tell You I'm Sorry," included on the "Notable Essays" list in the forthcoming Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen this year!

Or later how I’d tell another boy—the one whose parents hated me because I was in high school and he was twenty-two, still living at home, stinking up their certain kind of organized garage—to drop me off at the top of my street, nights when we’d been out doing stuff in empty corporate complex parking lots and in the wet grass. I’d wait for him to drive away and I’d walk to my neighbor’s house in the dark, this really beautiful guy, and scratch at his bedroom window. We’d smoke a little joint and my eyes would close and I’d let him do his thing.

This is how I did everything. A few in my pocket. My secret entourage.

Good press.

The non-fiction winner, “I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry” by Nina Boutsikaris is a brave and lyric memoir. It’s sexy and revealing and honest. “Meaning I was born, like most of you who are born this way, with certain desired commodities, maybe the most desired commodities.” Reminiscent of a young Mary Gaitskill, Boutsikaris explores boundaries; the link between sex and power. With a rare candid lust, her prose jumps off the page. I sped through it. Yes, I googled her. Yes, now I’m a fan. Yes, I’m metaphorically in line for her collection of intimacies, real and imagined, which I doubt will have trouble finding a publisher.
— The Review Review

Check out my interview on The Nervous Breakdown with poet Eleni Sikelianos. We talk genre fluidity and the creative potential of hybrid memoir...

In You Animal Machine, that picture of my grandmother in her leopard costume probably tells about 90% of the story. At some point, I realized I was trying to gather her up, as if she’d been dismembered by time and trauma, so I took that picture and chopped it up into parts and scattered them throughout the bookleopard girl, like weigh stations, stations of the cross, or lost oases in the desert, until we get to the final, full picture of her at the end of the book. In that picture, we can see her as hiding behind the mask, or as suited up (like a super hero). Either way, the image has the last “word” in the main body of the book. It took me a lot of language to scratch at the other 10% of the story. I’m not saying a picture is worth a thousand words. A picture can over-fix reality, we can get stuck in an image’s interpretation of the past; language is a way to mobilize it.
— Eleni Sikelianos

Book Review: The World is On Fire by Joni Tevis

My review of Joni Tevis's latest essay collection, The World is On Fire: Scrap Treasure and Songs of Apocalypse

‘There is a crease for grief in any day, but usually we turn away from it,’ Tevis writes. Perhaps it is this very act of not turning away, of staying curious and vulnerable, that saves her and in turn us. The World is On Fire masterfully questions, rummages, and connects the obscure with the universal, uncovering truths about faith and resurrection we had been waiting for, whether we knew it or not.

Beacon Street Prize

So pleased to have won the Beacon Street Prize for my piece "I'm Trying to You I'm Sorry," judged by the very awesome best-selling author Susannah Cahalan. Cahalan says: “The essay was poetic, haunting, disturbing, and powerful. The imagery, word play, and propulsive rhythm of language gripped me from the first paragraph to its gorgeous last sentence. This was a highly unusual and unforgettable essay.”

Blushing.