To Old Friends and New

It is hard for me to avoid feeling nostalgic on St. Patrick’s Day.  My interest in Ireland has only grown since I finished my semester abroad in Dublin, so much so that now I have trouble recalling how depressed I was during that time, although I know intellectually that I was miserable.  This sort of regret happens to me a lot.  Molly and I returned from Kaua’i two weeks ago and though we did almost everything we could on the island, since then I have read about the history of Hawaii obsessively and with the compulsion to return.  It also happens when I go see shows.  The first time I saw Titus Andronicus I was nowhere near as familiar with the band’s music as I would become in the ensuing year.  Same thing with the first time I saw Bruce Springsteen.  I used to listen to his greatest hits CD on my yellow discman while I walked to the bus stop on the corner of Wallace and Hertel every morning in high school, the sun rising over Shoshone, and every minute I enjoyed was tinged with a desire to relive the concert I had gone to when I was 13, but with my newly acquired encyclopedic knowledge of the lyrics to all the songs, and the parts where his voice cracks, and the notes to the guitar solos.  By the time the subway pulled into the Summer/Best station, “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” was just reaching the pretty keyboard part at 3:55.  “Did ya hear the cops finally busted Madam Marie / For telling fortunes better than they do?”

That’s how desire works.  You want something more once it has been and gone.  Nothing is more compelling than desire tinged with regret, a sort of icarian self-loathing.  “If only I had appreciated what was in front of me!”  “Hubris!”  You know how everyone says that smell is the sense that is tied strongest to memory?  My friend used to say that that was nonsense– that music has the greatest power to evoke a memory.  I agree.  The song above, “M’appari,” from Flotow’s Martha, reminds me so much of Ireland that it makes my hair stand up.  The aria is the subject of my favorite sequence from Joyce’s Ulysses, which was the whole reason I went to Ireland in the first place.  I thought about Leopold Bloom’s itinerary through Dublin as I wandered around at night, and though I never walked it, I did meet a drunk Swedish businessman in a bar who told me about his children before vomiting on the steps outside.  I recently found his business card while I was cleaning out my wallet, which should give you a good picture of what I choose to save.

Remembering things (I can’t believe it was five years ago already that I was there) is sometimes painful because we compare our memories to the way things are now, and one or the other comes up wanting.  I feel grateful this year, however.  This afternoon I will head to the high school where I teach English and I’ll get to talk to my Irish literature class about J.M. Synge.  An entire class on Irish literature.  And I get paid for it!  And the kids are smart and pleasant and bright.  I get to share with them the literature and music that I love.  I am a fortunate person.  We started the semester with Romanticism in Ireland, one of the richest periods in the country’s robust literary tradition.  The students have been especially interested in how Irish literature in the 19th century is essentially guided by a dominant, oppressive sense of nostalgia.  But you don’t have to dispute the existence of faeries and nymphs to see that the old Ireland the poets lament never really existed, at least not in the “Song of the Happy Shepherd” way.  I am excited to show them the “happy shepherd” of Patrick Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger”:

Patrick Maguire, the old peasant, can neither be damned nor glorified:
The graveyard in which he will lie will be just a deep-drilled potato-field
Where the seed gets no chance to come through
To the fun of the sun.
The tongue in his mouth is the root of a yew.
Silence, silence. The story is done.
He stands in the doorway of his house
A ragged sculpture of the wind,
October creaks the rotted mattress,
The bedposts fall. No hope. No lust.
The hungry fiend
Screams the apocalypse of clay
In every corner of this land.

One of the great final stanzas.

I want to mention also that I finally got into graduate school.  In September I will enter the PhD program in English at SUNY Buffalo as a Presidential Fellow.  I did not want to say anything about this for a while, but now that I have signed and sent the papers I think it’s time.  I am sensitive to all of the people who applied to graduate school this year and years previous and who did not get in.  These four years since I graduated from Amherst have been the most humbling and, in many ways, the most difficult time of my life.  As I near the end of this weird, uncomfortable, purgatorial period, this is my record: Of the 28 applications I completed (10 MFAs, 12 PhDs in English, 6 PhDs in Comp. Lit.), with their 28 application fees and their 28 GRE score reports, etc. etc., I was accepted into a grand total of one (1) program.  (A statistic of note: including my undergraduate application, I have been rejected by Cornell an impressive four times.)  And I am proud of that.  Every step of the process felt like a racket and a lottery and I learned nothing of substance from my rejections except that I am rejectable (which was, to be sure, a valuable lesson the first 26 times, but come on– 27?).  To everyone I know who spent the latter half of the worst winter in thirty years getting impersonal thumbs down e-mailed to them, I feel for you and I support you and believe in you.  You should never take these admissions decisions as reflections on your personal worth or academic strength and curiosity.  I learned more from the fact that I was able to cobble together the beginnings of a career as a teacher and writer, with the invaluable help of my parents and Molly and my friends and professors, than I did from any “no.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how much more this acceptance would have meant to me last year when I got laid off or the year before when my prospects felt especially dim.  The letter made me cry when I got it last month, even though I had finally found a job at a place that seemed to want me around.  How would I have reacted if I had received it three years ago while I sat in my room in my parents’ house petting my cat and looking through my pictures from Ireland?  But again, that is how desire works.

A Dispatch from the Cold Front

After many months of unemployment, I was hired to teach English part-time at The Park School.  I am excited to start working there next week.  For one thing, I’ll be able to stop collecting unemployment.  For anyone who finds himself without a job, I would recommend applying for unemployment assistance– it feels like free money and it can be extremely useful.  The money I received allowed me to continue living the way I had been and it gave me some room to entertain the inevitable letters of rejection without falling into a state of despair.  I will say, however, that there is something vaguely bruising about the whole process.  For instance, I had to meet with a reemployment advisor on three occasions at nonnegotiable times (“What else do you have to do?  Work?”) to discuss my “skills.”  Also, every week for the last six months I had to enter online every “work search activity” I had done, at least one of which had to be a job application.  I was freelancing the entire time, but of the many articles I published, I was paid for only two of them.  Whenever you earn any money, you have to declare it to the Department of Labor, which I did, and which uncharacteristic honesty the Department rewarded by sending me a form that I had to fill out and mail to them within five days detailing why, exactly, I had not asked for all of my benefits for that week or else they would suspend my benefits entirely.

But I really do feel thankful.  The only thing that my unemployment cost me (besides countless hours I might have spent feeling happy that I instead spent feeling like a complete loser) was my car.  The new job will not pay me enough for me to be able to afford a new car, but the next academic year looks more promising.  If things go well at Park this semester, my position may be expanded, which is an exciting possibility.  I also submitted eight applications to graduate programs during this cycle: one MFA and seven PhD programs (some are in English departments, others are in comparative literature).  For those keeping track at home, I would not have been able to afford to apply to those programs ($75-$90 for each application, plus $25 for each GRE score report) without my unemployment assistance.  Hopefully one of those two irons in the fire will bear some sort of iron fruit.

I have been very fortunate in the meantime to be able to write for The Public, which has taken off spectacularly.  This past week, my review of Becoming Richard Pryor by Scott Saul was published.  The biography was certainly interesting, but I did not particularly like the review I wrote.  It is difficult to write about a biography, especially one that does not seem to want for anything.  Maybe it’s because I was up against a deadline, but when I sat down to write the review, I wanted to just say, “Richard Pryor was a funny asshole who had a painful life,” and leave it at that.

My review of Miranda July’s The First Bad Man will be in next week’s issue.  July’s publisher sent me an unsolicited review copy, which was a big surprise considering my review in Artvoice of her last book.  I do not like Miranda July’s work very much at all, and I have written about that a lot.  The publisher of her last book even requested that I send her the review once it was published, which I did.  So someone read this and either forgot to take my name off the reviewer list or decided that I should still write something about her new novel:

This is not to mention The Future, the film she struggled with writing. Have you seen it? I watched it in preparation for this review and it is not very good. The two main characters, Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater), look and act like caricatures out of Portlandia, with more matted hair between them than a bichon frise. But the biggest problem with The Future is its only barely questioned self-seriousness, as if the problems of these two boring, unkempt, mumbling balls of quirk are really a metaphor for the obstacles we all face. And we are asked to gasp at the sincere profundity of it all when she unplugs her computer, or when she tries and fails to do some weird stilted dance alone in her apartment, or when he reignites the passage of time by pushing out the frozen waves on the beach. (Whatever, just watch the movie.)

I struggled with the question of whether or not to review The First Bad Man.  I do not enjoy writing negative things about writers or their work.  I felt like I would be too biased against July (based on everything else she has done) to judge the book in a fair manner, and with so much great new literature in the world, why should I waste time being a jackass?  But the book has so far generated reviews that vary widely.  Michiko Kakutani at The New York Times had mixed feelings.  The A.V. Club, which I love and read every day, pronounced it “the first great novel of 2015.”  That could be because the book is great, or it could be because it was published on January 13th, which makes it one of the only novels of 2015.  The A.V. Club has extraordinary coverage of television shows, but I think its book reviews tend to be bizarrely weak.  The two most frustrating novels I read last year, Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (my review, their review) and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (my review, their review), both got A grades and glowing reviews from Noah Cruickshank.  I wish I could write for AVC, but their FAQ says, kindly, “No. The A.V. Club does not accept outside submissions of any kind.”

So, we’ll see.  I used to hate it when people would say entire years had been bad, like, “Oh, 2009 was the worst.”  How could you say something like that?  Each day proliferates inconceivably with innumerable moments.  All of them were bad?  And yet, here I am, and I’ll say it: 2014 was not a very good year for me.  I lost my job, lost my car, worked my ass off for little to no pay, had my novel rejected three times, etc.  But things were never so bad.  And I got a job.  And I decided to start writing a new novel, which I finally started writing and which I enjoy writing.  I also found this incredible album of Irish music that I had been looking for for the last couple of years.

Also, I just finished reading Going Clear, and incredible book about Scientology by Lawrence Wright.  I woke up yesterday at 3AM and read it until the sun rose.  Then I ate some toast and had a cup of coffee.  It was divine.

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 dailypublic.com.  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.