The New Yorker
March 23, 2011
Justin Taylor has just published his début novel, “The Gospel of Anarchy,” and is also the author of the story collection “Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever.” We asked him to tell us what’s on his nightstand.
Recently, I began to feel that it was time to reacquaint myself with Raymond Carver, so I took my old marked-up copy of “Where I’m Calling From” (the selected stories) on a trip to visit the University of Kansas and ended up reading it almost entirely in airports and on planes. He’s far stranger than I remembered—like the brief cross-dressing episode in “Neighbors,” the horses in the fog in “Blackbird Pie,” or the fact that the story “Fat” exists at all. Also, I realized that his women and men are prone to monologues. They give these blustery speeches that last for paragraphs. It’s kind of a reversal of Hemingway—instead of the stoic withholding, Carver goes for the outburst, and the exaltation and terror that comes from saying what you really mean, and from being heard. Some of my favorite stories this time around were “Vitamins,” “Feathers,” “Cathedral,” “Whoever Was Using this Bed,” “The Student’s Wife,” and “Gazebo.”
The last novel I read was “Inferno: A Poet’s Novel,” by Eileen Myles. I finished it before starting the Carver, so at least two weeks ago, but it’s still stuck in my head. Contra the subtitle, the book is (a) not just for poets, and (b) seems to be all true—at least I hope that it is. “Inferno” jumps around in time a lot, and characters and situations flash in and out of the narrative sans introduction or context. You might choose to read this as carelessness, but I prefer to think of it as some kind of higher-order chaos, in the same vein as what Bob Dylan got away with in Chronicles Vol. 1. Myles is an idiosyncratic observer who delivers her insights in prose that is a deadpan marriage of aggression and ease:
No one asked me to have a life like this, to be a poet. It was my idea. I mean and I would definitely say poetry is a very roundabout way to unite both work and time. A poet is a person with a very short attention span who actually decides to study it. To look. To draw that short thing out. It’s an old, feudal idea. Finally what you are seeing is the thing you have in common with everyone else. That’s the great riddle. It’s not about poetry at all. Like Jimmy Schuyler once said, the writing the poem part is easy, it’s the rest of the time that’s the problem.
I guess you’d say that Inferno is about coming of age—as a poet, as a lesbian, and as a transplant New Yorker in the 70s—but it’s also about what happens after: how (and why) to survive a poet’s life.
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