“I don’t understand this talk of Coltrane being difficult to understand. What he does, for example, it to play five notes of a chord and then keep changing it around, trying to see how many different ways it can sound. It’s like explaining something five different ways.”
It’s a slippery slope, down (or up) from poetry to prose poetry to the essay to so-called lyric and experimental essay to personal essay to memoir-autobiography to romans a clef to novel to movie to kitchen sink novel to miniseries.
“Genres are not to be mixed.
I will not mix genres.
I repeat: Genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix them.”
—Jacques Derrida, “The Law of Genre.” Critical Inquiry, Volume 1, Number 1, 1980. Translated by Avital Ronell
I do remember those days in Virginia when I first met Reamy and we started talking about writing essays. I would see his light on. I started writing at night, a seperate project from writing capital-P Poems, writing at night for the love of it. I’m writing about Queen, I whispered to him one day. I brought him in my writing room, an old milking stall from the building’s farm days, showed him my records and CDs. I remember not wondering nor worrying what genre my writing would end up, or if it would end up at all; rather, whether the writing gave me pleasure.
I wasn’t writing about Queen per se; rather, what I speculated about the subject and my relations with it. There were no beginnings and endings; there were no line breaks; sometimes there were no methods. I was, in short, writing essays.
“Nature,” Gertrude Stein once said, “is commonplace. Imitation is more interesting.”
Don’t get me wrong: I fall firmly in the form-is-nothing-more-than-an-extension of content column. It’s just that more than once I was referred to as one of writers without any content at all, a “writer without a subject,” who wrote for the language only. As if there were anything wrong with that. But I knew I had several subjects. I just so happens that one of them is a post-glam period rock band who wrote anthems still sung in football stadiums.
I don’t know if that was the winter when I stopped being “just a poet” and or if I just became a “writer.” What I do know is that I suspect all these obsessions over genre, over what’s-in-a-name, are simply more of those neverending either-or writer conversations that exist for writers to write more.
Do you write with a computer or in longhand?
Are you raw or cooked (Robert Lowell)?
Are you a fox or a hedgehog (Isaiah Berlin)?
“Like many others, I grew up in an age which preached liberty and built slave camps. Consequently, reformers of all varieties terrify me. I only need to be told I’m being served a new, improved, low-fat baked ham, and I gag.”
—Charles Simic, The Poet’s Notebook
Many poets seems to need these either-ors to get them started, some reassurance they’re standing on someone else’s common ground. It’s not enough they write poems; instead they need to know they are writing the right kind of poem. Poets Like Us.
Daniel Nester is the author of God Save My Queen (Soft Skull Press, 2003) and God Save My Queen II (2004), both collections on his obsession with the rock band Queen, as well as The History of My World Tonight (BlazeVOX, 2006). He’s working on an essay collection and a memoir, and works as an assistant professor of English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. Find more about him at http://www.danielnester.com.
Reamy Jansen is Professor of English and Humanities at Rockland Community College SUNY. He is a past Vice President of the National Book Critics Circle. For fifteen years, he has been a Contributing Editor to The Bloomsbury Review of Books and is co-editor of its new, short prose section, The Out of Bounds Essay. His poetry and personal essays have been published in a variety of literary magazines and he has received several nominations for the Pushcart Prize. He can be reached through the Poets & Writers Directory.