Stranger on Baile’s Strand

I am reading Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster to review it for a new local weekly newspaper.  Last spring, the former editor of Artvoice, Geoff Kelly, left the paper.  I had written book reviews, features, and interviews for Artvoice ever since Geoff first agreed to publish my work in the spring of 2012.  When Geoff left, though, I was happy to jump ship as well.  He is responsible for publishing the vast majority of my work and if he hadn’t taken a bit of a leap of faith with me, it would have taken much longer for me to get anything published elsewhere.  It’s sort of a snowball thing: it is hard to get anyone to publish anything of yours unless you have a substantial portfolio of published work, but it is hard to build that portfolio unless someone is willing to take a chance and give you space to show what you can do.  And Geoff did that for me.

He is starting a new paper, The Public.  It will be online next week at  The print edition will be a weekly, just like Artvoice was, and will be distributed for free all across Western New York.  I am beyond excited for the launch.  For my part, I will have book reviews and features in the print edition and a column online that I will write two or three times every week.  It’s going to be great– thousands of words on topics as diverse as this one thing I know nothing about and many other things I also know nothing about.

I have three reviews that will be published at The Rumpus starting I think in mid November.  The first is a review of This Is the Water by Yannick Murphy, which I did not like very much at all, then Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark, which was entertaining and fun, and finally Man V. Nature by Diane Cook, which was a unique, original triumph that I have been recommending to everyone I know.

Back to Nora Webster, though.  It is a strange, sweet, soft-spoken novel.  It takes place in Ireland in a town called Enniscorthy, about 60 miles south of Dublin.  The characters all speak a believable sort of English, bereft of the distracting apostrophes and diphthongs that usually dominate attempts to write an Irish accent, but with certain turns of phrase that only Irish people use.  “Fair play to you,” for instance, or using the word “after” in a different way, as in, “Someone’s after smoking in the bar.”

Every page of the novel reminds me of the six months I spent in Dublin, a time that was so many things at once to me that even writing a sentence about it seems like an insurmountable task.  I started keeping a journal the day before I left for Ireland and I wrote in it obsessively while I was there, sometimes several times a day.  It was a way to stave off the immense loneliness that seemed to follow me around the city during that semester.  I would go to a pub around the corner called the Ginger Man almost every night, whenever I could, and I would sit and get quietly hammered alone in a corner.  This was actually much more enjoyable than it sounds now that I’ve written it.  It is not weird or obnoxious to show up to a pub in Ireland with a journal and a pen or a book.  Or maybe I did look weird but no one ever told me.  I don’t think that’s the case, though.  I made friends with a bartender named Michael Carey and we would go out drinking every couple of weeks.  He never told me I looked like an idiot, although he did not seem to like my massive Carhartt jacket, the only jacket I brought with me.  I wore it every day and on my last day in Dublin, he said, “Are you going to burn that terrible fucking jacket, then?”

It was an alienating, weird time.  Before I left, a professor of mine at Amherst College named Jack Cameron told me he lived in Ireland for a while and it was the most miserable period of his life, bar none.  That was not my experience, but it felt a bit like moving to New York City with very little money, a couple of friends, and an acute lack of awareness of certain large, important things that everyone else knew about.  Bank holidays, for instance: days chosen apparently at random on which nothing you want or need can be found or purchased and everyone in the city disappears.

The memorial on the Liffey to the Great Famine.

The memorial on the Liffey to the Great Famine.

Many of the assumptions I had about Ireland turned out to be correct.  People drink a lot and often, though alcohol is extremely expensive there, mostly as a result of taxes designed to curb the country’s epidemic alcoholism.  There is live Irish music all over the place all the time.  It is universally pentatonic, rousing, mournful.  Every weekend, we’d go to the Stag’s Head, a famous pub that has been open since 1894, to see the Blahgards play in the basement.  That was also the first place I went after arriving in Ireland.  An old friend of my parents’ named Frank Kendlin picked me up from the airport and we went to the Stag’s Head and had a couple of pints at 2PM– I hadn’t slept in more than a day and I was smoking a brand of disgusting Irish cigarettes.  I later learned that all cigarettes and all coffee taste terrible in Ireland.

Dublin is very proud of its literary history.  In America, we assume Ireland is stocked with poets in woollen Paddy caps wandering up and down the quays thoughtfully.  That is not the case, although people wear Paddy caps and Irish writing is woven into the fabric of life in Dublin.  Beautiful book shops everywhere, readings in cafes, talented writers all over the country.  People exist who knew Patrick Kavanagh when he was alive and who talk fondly about how much of an asshole he could be when he was drunk.

The statue of Patrick Kavanagh at the spot where he wrote the poem "Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin."

The statue of Patrick Kavanagh at the spot where he wrote the poem “Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin.”

So I have been thinking about Ireland lately.  I miss it a lot, but not in the way that one misses a time of great joy.  I miss it in a pulling, visceral way, as if I want to return to a place where I learned a great deal about myself.  Which I did.  Not discrete facts (e.g. “I enjoy potato farls”– I do), something larger and less definable.  Maybe I grew while I was there.  I didn’t sleep with a pillow for the first three weeks because I couldn’t figure out where to buy one.  When I did find a department store, I balked at the price of one.  I went to the Ginger Man and the bartender told me I was a lunatic for even considering not buying the pillow.  That sort of learning.


Black Stars

A fast, tumultuous several weeks.  I have been busy with a mess of un- or barely-paid assignments, but this, as the man sitting next to me at a bar last night said, is what cutting your teeth feels like.  And it’s not exactly unpleasant.  I spoke this morning with my friend Corey about all of this.  We lived together at Amherst and he has been teaching English in Korea for the last year.  In the three years since we graduated, we have both experienced the strange, destabilizing mixture of malaise and dissatisfaction, a lurking sensation that the other people you know seem to be doing quite well for themselves, but that you have somehow managed to screw it up and miss the opportunity to achieve the same heavily retweeted acceptances and awards and sundrenched brunches.  My friend Dave, who was also in our class at Amherst, told me that though he is employed in a position that is challenging and rewarding, and which is related to his career, he often feels unfulfilled, as if he is on a track that is doing more to obscure happiness in his life than to lead him to it.  Something about all of this makes me want to address the claim that this is vain somehow– that it is selfish to be preoccupied with your own lot in life and whether or not it meets your expectations.  I understand that.  Often this conversation leads to an obsession with feeling jilted or ripped off, as if someone promised you something and the world has not delivered on that promise and now you’d like to take it up with the manager.  But I also cannot pretend that there is not value in discussing an experience that I think many people across the social spectrum are enduring and will continue to endure.

I am applying again to graduate schools, a project that I face with conflicting feelings of dread and hope.  I have applied twice before; first in the fall of 2011 to eight MFA programs and then in the fall of 2012 to eight English PhD programs.  Neither year bore fruit.  This was demoralizing and frustrating, especially because the admissions committees that rejected my applications were never very forthcoming with their reasoning.  In the absence of a concrete explanation (e.g. “We found your score on the GRE silly and lame.”), I obsessed for a long time over why, exactly, I had not been allowed to reenter the arcane world in which people demand to read what you write.  I still don’t know the answer, though one faculty member who saw my application told me his committee did not like the fact that my writing sample had mentioned Dostoevsky, who of course only wrote in Russian and therefore apparently has no bearing on the work done in an English department.  But this year I am applying to SUNY Buffalo, which is so strong in psychoanalysis that I am amazed at the fact that I didn’t apply there two years ago.  These past three years have been full of truly impressive moments of ignorance and oversight like that.  For instance, it simply didn’t occur to me that I could file for unemployment insurance until three months after I was laid off.

My memory, too, has been getting weird.  I feel like I forget things often.  Corey mentioned the incredible wealth of detail in Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle, a series of six autobiographical novels.  I wondered what I could remember about my youth, or about the last year, or about yesterday.  I forget events I said I’d attend, letters I said I’d write, creative impulses so strong that they made my hair stand on end.  I wonder what else has been preoccupying me.  I can tell you that I have had several dreams lately, the most recent of which concerned me teaching a class full of middle schoolers who all refused to stop smoking electronic cigarettes.  I went in the dream to the bathroom to gather my thoughts about why they were being so obstinate and when I looked in the mirror I saw that my hair was grey and I was wearing a bathrobe.

I am also not sure that I am actually forgetful.  I remember lots of things, I just only ever realize I have forgotten the things I have forgotten.  I don’t quietly give thanks for all of the things I have remembered because remembering things rarely has consequences as severe as forgetting things.  And anyway this is probably related to the dream (in which I have suddenly gotten old, and in which I have apparently forgotten that I, too, used an electronic cigarette for years) and its portrait of my anxieties about growing up, and to the feelings of isolation and exceptionality (i.e. “No one is experiencing this except me; everyone else is doing great all the time.”) that seem to accompany the years after graduation.

I finally found a part for a watch that I had been seeking for the last three years.  That was a satisfying feeling.  I searched for it on the internet, at yard sales, at flea markets, everywhere, for three straight years and last week, I stumbled upon an old post by a man in California who was selling this part.  I put it on my watch using the lid of a tin of Carmex, which just happened to be exactly the right circumference so that I could apply force equally on all sides at once.  This is the part.


This Friday, the newest issue of Block Club comes out, which has in it my feature on the Canadian Rust Belt.  Buffalo is about as close to Canada as you can get without crossing the border (it would take me no longer than thirty minutes to walk from where I am right now to the Peace Bridge) and yet much of the conversation about the situation in Western New York and the Rust Belt omits any mention of Canada, which, it turns out, experiences the same sorts of things but deals with them quite differently.  The project was fun and interesting to research and I hope the essay is successful at conveying that.  Within the next two weeks, my review of Yannick Murphy’s tiring, frustrating novel This Is the Water will be up at The Rumpus and my investigation of the MOOC will be in the Massachusetts Review.  For now, though, I am reading Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark in order to review it for The Rumpus.  I also just got a review copy of The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt in the mail.  The thing weighs maybe six pounds.  I can’t wait.