Thursday, December 29, 2016

NO CURIOSITY

NO CURIOSITY: the present as the future after a visit to the University of Notre Dame

ST. PATRICK’S DAY another day in Dublin is the 2016 Notre Dame Review Book Prize winner and as such was published by the University of Notre Dame Press.  Additionally, I received $1000.00 and there was to be a reading at the university for which I would receive $500.00, a round trip airplane ticket and, at first, only one night in a motel that was extended to two nights. 
Originally, I had been scheduled to fly out Wednesday (the day after Election Day in November) have a meal with some people from the university, do the reading and then fly back to New York on the 6AM flight Thursday.
Looking back, I guess, I should have stuck with the original plan.  But I suggested it might be nice to meet with students and I had wanted to hear Nuala Ni Dhomnaill read on the Friday as she was a very old friend and been kind enough to be a very early supporter of my book, so my host William O’Rourke offered to put me up in his own house for the third night.
WEDNESDAY.  
Flight from Newark to South Bend is fine.  The room where I am to stay is in an extended stay motel, the perfect setting for slow suicides by solitary drinking or just a quick slash of the wrists in the bathtub: you know the sort of place, re-modeling going on, low ceilings and desk clerks always on the phone…  the place is definitely off-campus…there is a very nice hotel on campus but that is only for big contributing alumni and IMPORTANT PEOPLE (something I was told in a sort of consoling tone of voice)
So quickly to dinner.  A fancy restaurant on campus: French, I guess, expensive… okay, Nuala and her daughter were there, which was nice, the former chair of the creative writing program was there and a recent hire, a war veteran from Princeton… the former chair, Steve Tomasula, was under treatment because of Donald Trump’s victory and has asked to be excused and it is possible other people were asked but…
We had to eat quickly as the reading is coming on…  The veteran bails out before dessert.  I had bought his book WAR PORN [Roy Scranton] and thought it would be interesting to talk about Ernst Junger... but he ate and ran.  The former chair had gone to Columbia a few years after I had gone there.  We probably have at least 50 friends in common as she came from the South and with so many other overlapping interests but she couldn’t come to the reading and no coffee or anything was suggested.  The busy provincial lives, I was thinking.

 [on a break from re-writing this piece I stopped into Mercer Street Books and found a copy of Valery Sayers’ most recent novel THE POWERS. Published by Northwestern in 2012, from the pages inserted: Northwestern University Press got it reviewed by Publishers Weekly and Booklist and it was not done as a print-on-demand book so it at least had the chance of finding an audience, something my own book was denied.  This book buying is an act of curiosity I cannot believe would ever happen with any current student or faculty at Notre Dame]

My host who had given my book the prize took me, Nuala and her daughter to the reading in the bookstore, which is part of a Chicago based chain of college bookstores and Notre Dame stuff was obvious the biggest seller.  We were behind a series of folding screens which separated the reading from at least 25 cash registers just waiting for a footfall weekend… 
Maybe 15 people showed up.  The event was recorded for You Tube  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4MHAYOXTwo&t=3s //
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRbIFem-zRI&t=44s  //     with a stationary camera…the noise from the bookstore was constant.  
My host made a good introduction and I read and tried to present the book.  
Two people bought books and woman from the press—the only person at the press to have read it as she did the proofreading came and asked me to sign a copy of the book. 
There were no questions.
No one lingered, no one hesitated.
It was over with. 
No one from the creative writing program, no one from the English department as far as I could  tell.
William drove Nuala and her daughter home (a squalid looking Cape Cod house on a dark street that Notre Dame must have gotten in a mortgage default sale) and me to the extended stay motel. 
Later, I ventured out across these wide empty dark streets to the gas station to get some Coke…  the broad deserted roads with only the bright lights of a gas-station.., the eyes of the clerk showed he was glad just an old white man and not a guy with a gun in hand… as was more likely.
So to come this distance to read in a chain-store bookstore and not in a proper academic hall. 
Such is… places like Notre Dame are run by people always alert to the reality of dollars and cents and to nothing that can be claimed as some higher purpose, I guess…
THURSDAY.
The next day I wasn’t invited to the university press to meet the book acquisition editor or the publicity director or anyone. 
I was not invited to any classes and I was not asked to stop by to visit with faculty or the new editor of the Review. 
But a lunch had been arranged so I could meet any interested students who had been told of my reading, told of the lunch and had even been provided with a selection of my writings that I had been asked to supply.
A large not too noisy sports bar on campus.  My host, Nuala, her daughter were there and two students showed up.  I guess free food and drink is no longer a sufficient lure for today’s students.
Two students: the guy sat on my right and the woman on my left. They had not been to the reading, they asked no questions… so I asked what they did… the young man said he was writing a novel about killing a father…I asked really, yes, I kill him 56 times—I might have the number wrong…but that was that… he already had a graduate degree from a university in Kansas and was getting another one from Notre Dame as it was more prestigious, it seems.
           INTERUPTION
           AS can happen after I wrote the post the following was brought to my attention so I take the liberty of here including it

Today, I had the opportunity to have lunch with visiting author Thomas McGonigle; poet and Patrick B. O'Donnell Distinguished Visitor, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill; MFA candidate, Bailey Pittenger; and ND's MFA founding director, William O'Rourke. Over the course of the ranging conversations we had, I came to the realization that I don't think a true creative writing education comes from workshops, but from an accumulation of intimate moments between writers.
And I am including the little biographical statement he has on the page of the Creative Writing Program at Notre Dame:
After graduating high school in northern Michigan, Daniel Tharp attended Kirtland Community College for a year before moving half way across the country and graduating from Pittsburg State University with a Bachelors of Arts degree. A Teaching Assistantship, over a hundred students, and two years later, Daniel Tharp graduated from Pittsburg State University with a Masters of Arts degree with emphasis in fiction. His thesis entitled “Home,” which is currently under review for the Distinguish Thesis Award at his Alma Mater, depicts a complex and brutal world where characters struggle not with outside forces but with themselves and what it means to be human. Tharp attends the University of Notre Dame’s MFA program on a Prose Fellowship.

A life story of an atomization so terribly typical of the age we live in...        (back to the original version)
The woman to my left, the same questions… she asked did I know the writer Clarice Lispector?  I said  of course doesn’t everyone?.Did I know of the biography of this woman which had come out?  I did.  It was by a man, she said, so I have decided to write the real stories of this woman, aspects of her  no man could write…  I did not ask if this woman had read Lispector in Portugese, maybe I should have.
I asked if she knew Nelida Pinon? No.  I say, Nelida was Clarice’s last protégé… and then I probably made the mistake of saying I had heard about Clarice from Nelida back in 1971 and knew actually of her work from before then thanks to a book translated by Gregory Rabassa…
I  even went on to mention THE REPUBLIC OF DREAMS by Nelida  as having both a wonderful story and a perfect title for everything we try to do but I guess I was being intimidating as both the woman and the man got away from the lunch as fast as humanly possible.
Am I wrong to think all the students at Notre Dame are so busy, so lacking in even being curious about a book that has at least the minor qualification of getting the designation of the Notre Dame Review Book  Prize… but maybe… who knows? 
All students in the graduate writing program are fully funded as they say so they do not have to work at some disagreeable job in order to eat.
I did run into the distinguished critic and professor, Declan Kiberd in the bookstore of Notre Dame… he has one of the big chairs at the university and I know his books and I mentioned after being introduced that I too had gone to UCD where he had taught--- but I then made what I was told later was a fatal mistake thus triggering BEGRUDGERY--- that I had studied with Denis Donoghue and still visit with Denis who lives in North Carolina…  a provocation that can not go unanswered even though Declan has a very big and lucrative chair at Notre Dame he did not become the Henry James Professor at NYU…
Later that day Bill took me to the Studebaker museum, the art museum at the university and sand dunes up on Lake Michigan… we went to a nice Italian restaurant and talked of the years gone by and how few to come. The last time I had been to the shore of Lake Michigan was in 1968 when I had gone to visit my parents in exile in Menasha, Wisconsin and Lilia and I had to go to see the Lake… but there were no dunes along that shore.
FRIDAY 
I went to Nuala’s reading in a beautiful hall and while not packed, a decent size crowd…  A polite introduction---a recital of her real fame and a listing of the translators (a roll call of all the well known names) as she writes only in Irish and then Nuala read both in Irish and English.  She read from THE FIFTY MINUTE MERMAID.  It is probably the most provocative and emotionally demanding  books in modern Irish poetry, equaled only and then in English by the Peppercanister Poems of Thomas Kinsella.  She was well received.  Questions were asked for and I asked both Nuala and the person introducing her—I think he is the director of the Irish Center---////  It has to be always understood such centers while usually extravagantly funded by Irish Americans have institutionally zero interest in that group known as Irish American or as American Irish--- whose only purpose to is to supply the cash to be spent on THE IRISH(this is not unusual as the same goes for Polish and even in a much more smaller way Estonian centers///    why in the litany--- which it seems like--- of the famous Irish poets who have translated her work into English the name of Michael Hartnett had not been mentioned as he was her first translator… Nuala answered and very  kindly profiled Michael and revealed the reason why but only I knew this is why he was not mentioned:  Michael Hartnett, Nuala said, sadly drank himself to death.
You must understand that such reality is never allowed in any established Irish center—one is never to talk of the consequences of the drink.  The only things more taboo are the high unacknowledged suicide rate and a pervasive criminal underworld in Ireland (north and south) funded by the drug trade in which all the now dormant underground para-military organizations have always been involved.
There was a reception with very good food and drink. 
Declan Kiberd did not talk with me…
I did ask a graduate student what he did?  I am working on Post-colonial Irish and Libyan literature to give it a broader than usual dimension… I felt like bringing up Gaddafi and the IRA but thought better of it…
 No one else approached me or I them---who can blame them—just another old guy--- and since none of them probably knew of my book…who could blame them…everything is so compartmentalized…  why would an English language journal do a book with a title like ST. PATRICK’S… that’s not their territory… 
So, I sat on the sofa and was joined by a woman in the uniform of a domestic worker…. To make longer a story… Nuala a few years before had given this woman  a copy of her book and they had become friends as both were widows…  this woman had been the cleaning lady for the apartment where Nuala has stayed two years ago…  she had seen the signs and came to the reading directly from work… she asked why I was there and she asked after my book so I could say it grew out of the using of the little money from the death of my father to go back to Ireland and we walked about how she and Nuala both being widows knew something and she said it was hard and we both know it.  I am proud Italian woman and my husband was a proud Black man and we had two proud MIXED children… the vehemence of her  voice was so filled with a delicious defiance of a refusal to choose.
         Later, I thought only one person was curious about me and my book and that was a house servant.  Little did she know I was the grandson of two people pushed out of Ireland at age 12 to be servants in New York, and I was still there comfortable really only with this woman…
NEXT MORNING
Up at four A.M. to think and then to get the 6 A.M. flight back to Newark.  It would be useless to remember that more than 50 years before even at a small college like Beloit,  writers like Dickey, Kinnell, Rexroth, Spender, Auden came and had lunch with students and we read their books, sought them out… they seemed to have time… of course people can say: those people are famous but not back then: Dickey and Kinnell were just starting … but the past as L.P. Hartley has it, is foreign country…
My host was very kind but he is retired from Notre Dame so none of this now matters… he has his own books, the memory of his friendship with Edward Dahlberg and I guess the lesson comes from Dahlberg: it takes a long time to understand nothing. And I must, as they say, remember  I was lucky to have 15 students to the reading and those two students were two more than after another reading 20 years before at U of Illinois at Carbondale where no one came to meet me for lunch… after I had read from GOING TO PATCHOGUE.

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And the woman on the couch had a more glowing reality within her life than all the…  she is probably one of the very very few at Notre Dame who can say she is pretty happy with her life… as she knows the sure brevity of all human happiness.

9 comments:

Steven Moore said...

I alternated between shaking my head in disgust and laughing at your blackly humorous account (the description of the motel, that house, etc.) The literary world ain't what it used to be, is it. I just finished reading a new book published by Contra Mundum Press (Pierre Senges's "The Major Refutation") that is likewise a POD publication and will probably get 0 reviews, and yet is more ingenious and creative than most books being published these days.

Anonymous said...

I've tried twice to post some comments about this most interesting post Tom. When I get to the end, I am beaten back by my inability to conqueror the I am Not a Robot gatekeeper. So here goes again. Ever more briefly. I think your expectations of what students at Notre Dame would have been like--intellectually curious was probably exaggerated. You are thinking of the model of who you were at Beloit or what students were like in Hollins in the 1970s. I am sure that world still exists. You probably also were expecting too much from the English Department faculty. Even on campuses where faculty live nearby (as opposed from living in NY and commuting to New Jersey or to upstate NY), my experience has been that faculty aren't concerned with anything they didn't organize and that they are not terribly intellectually curious. When I was teaching, we would assign students to attend readings or art openings on campus and write up one event for "extra credit." I fear that the reality of book publishing has radically changed from your first experiences and my first exposure to publishers. Today academic publishers ask for the writer to help find funding, authors are expected to be engaged in finding reviewers and to organize their own book tours. In short, publishers are providing an imprint. I imagine that is why so many authors have turned to POD--they probably wind up with print runs equal to or greater than standard publishers. How did we arrive at this state? Is it a result of the decline of book stores and knowledgeable staff? Is it the rise of social media? I post therefore I've read? Yes, I agree with Steven Moore, the parts about the motel, the meals, and the wonderful housekeeper turned reader is fascinating and worthy of an expansion into a piece of memoir-fiction. Best for 2017

Anonymous said...

Your musings are always interesting, but they almost always display your elitism. Here's what I mean. I assume from your posts that you are in your 70s. You go to South Bend, and you expect that the students you meet are going to have read everything you have read. You've got 50 years of reading on them. Your comparing your tool kit of writers with a student's. Wrong focus. You meet someone who asks about Clarice Lispector and you are shocked that they don't know Nelida Pinon. Frankly I've never read anything by her either. A touchstone for you is whether people you meet agree that Ernst Junger is a touchstone of one's cultural / reading rating. Yes, Storm of Steel is an astonishing memoir that people should eventually come to. I recently read We by Zamyatin, I wouldn't judge people by whether or not they had read it or not. I'd only say to them that sometime soon you might want to read this fascinating exploration into a totalitarian state. I hope you find it as compelling as I did. You are disappointed by the students you met. Well that is neither here nor there. You judge them by your standards. Did you ask them if they were reading Kathy Acker, David Foster Wallace, Gloria Naylor, or the Tamil novelist Charu Nivedita (I've never read her--she's on a list I have for 2017.) I think your disappointment comes from your expectation that the people in South Bend should have read the same books you have read.

Thomas McGonigle said...

Hardly, elitism when i asked what the two people were reading.
I was in no rejecting the woman's interest in Lispector...but the foolishness of thinking that a man just because he was a man was not fully capable of understanding Lispector...
it would have been as foolish of me to have asked what would Helene Cixous (one of the early readers of Lipspector have not been able to read in the life of James Joyce since she was a woman and had written an 800 page book on him...

As to the veteran who had done his PhD at Princeton on war writings...it is hardly elitist to have expected him to have read Junger...though Princeton is now one of the most provincial universities in America with the probably less curiosity than at Bob Jones University...

I have been teaching as an adjunct in the CUNY system for more than 25 years... always either the first and/or second semesters of Freshman comp and introduction to literature and am quite happy to say that I enjoy reading with the students writers like T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Natalia Ginzburg, Ingeborg Bachmann, Harold Brodkey, Hal Bennett, John Rechy, Hannah Green, Turgenev etc... and we have even watched movies like THE GREAT BEAUTY and ANGEL-A

Anonymous said...

I'll agree that Storm of Steel is one of the great memoirs of WWI. Junger has the astonishing ability to record what he saw and heard during the Battle of the Somme. The book (and the diaries on which it is based) remains controversial because Junger believed that the war was a purifying test for the individual and a test for national strength. Although he kept his distance from the Nazi Party, it is important to raise the question of why he was celebrated by the party. I don't think any of the English memoirists of WWI, Sassoon, Owen, Graves, Richards (pseud of Philip Woodruff), or Blunden rise to the level of Junger's perceptions, but their works take a different approach, they see the war as a disaster for the individual soldier--and they understood the consequences the war had on the psyche of the solider. Something I don't think Junger deals with.

Thomas McGonigle said...

Baudelaire argued there are only 3 real vocations for a man, priest soldier and poet.
Junger is not responsible for what Nazis did with his work... he resigned from the war veterans group when the Nazi purged the Jewish veterans...the English writers are deeply pathetic...and of no interest... of course they prepared the way for the rise of pacifism between the two wars... but finally people who go by the designation anonymous ... are always suspect

Uncle Kirky said...

The motel room fascinated me. The microwave may have had old crusty pizza sauce clinging to the sides. The lamp above swinging to and fro like the bulb in "Psycho." The scratchy television was sputtering and spattering with the memories old porn burned into its rotted cathode ray tubes. The bed was saggy and stained multiple times over with sperm from others mixing with your own.

I can see you shuffling aimlessly, back and forth, from the frosted window to the bathroom in your tighty-whities and tank top undershirt. You're thinking: "Why do I use the ellipsis mark so frequently when it's not really appropriate?"

Thomas McGonigle said...

i do not have tighty-whitIes or tank top undershrt

Uncle Kirky said...

(Just kidding)

: )