Thursday, January 31, 2013

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Conversations about Conversations

Over at, I sat down virtually with Scott Woods to answer a few questions about my experience of editing Conversations With Greil Marcus:
I’ve always admired [Marcus's] mind. From the start, I loved the way he trusted his instincts that, say, Object A and Person B and Event C, no matter how disparate they are, or appear to be in conventional terms, might share something intangible, might intersect in a way that’s surprising and meaningful. Plus, he obviously gets rock and roll. As the years passed and my tastes in music and art deepened, I recognized that fewer and fewer of Marcus’s and my records and CDs overlapped. I don’t agree with everything he likes, and as someone who tends to look for art in art, not in rock and roll, I’ve been skeptical of some of his explorations, but I’ve never lost my admiration for the way he thinks, the Keatsian “negative capability” nerve of it, that he walks into dark rooms without knowing where the furniture is and may crash into stuff until his eyes adjust. I learn a lot by reading him. And, simply at the levels of sentence, paragraph, and argument, he’s a real pleasure to read, no matter what he’s writing about.
Full interview here.


A couple of recent interviews here and here.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The past, constantly

I've always been interested in the idea of shape constancy: our perception of an object remains constant even as our perspective on it, or sensations of it, changes. In short, we adjust to changing stimuli so that the world remains knowable and rational. Our apprehension of a door is an oft-used example; I remember it from a Psych class in college. Here's an image from Wiki:
Regardless of how distorted the image of the door becomes—narrower as it's opening or closing—we still perceive the original rectangular shape; the third image above doesn't freak us out, and we don't think the door is melting or somehow shape-shifting. We know it's the door, only that it's shape changes relative to our distance from it and the degrees it swings on its hinges. All of this, of course, happens beneath our rational consciousness, and happens with light and location, as well, and with music and speech. From Wiki:
In music, subjective constancy is the identification of a musical instrument as constant under changing timbre or "conditions of changing pitch and loudness, in different environments and with different players." In speech perception this means that vowels or consonants are perceived as constant categories even if acoustically, they vary greatly due to phonetic environment (coarticulation), speech tempo, speaker's age and sex, speaker's dialect, etc.
You know it's your dad's voice, whether he's in the room with you, on the phone, on tape, Skyping, or yelling over a hill.

Is there such a thing as memory constancy? Our recollections vary widely (wildly), changing shape and size, re-told and amplified, and though the essence of a memory might stay the same, the archetypal story that it tells, so many of the particulars fade and are replaced. A door doesn't have a story to tell; we have a story to tell about the door; the door remains a door no matter how it's perceived; a story of the door changes depending on when I'm telling it, to whom I'm telling it, and on what I need from the story. There's very little constancy in memory, it seems, apart from its obsessive nature.

Take dad's voice: though I know it's him across the various iterations above, my recollections of having heard him might change. When I was 8, my dad worked temporarily in Germany. I think it was for a month and a half, which at my age was an enormity. Before he left, he recorded himself reading one of my and my younger brother's favorite Curious George books. A week or so after he left, my mom sat with us in our living room with a tape recorder and the book, and issuing from a cheap Certron cassette was my dad's voice. Delighted, we read along with him (I remember distinctly the sound of the pages turning on the tape). Psychoacoustics: I knew that it was my dad, though he'd been pinched down to quarter-inch tape, reduced to a sonic signal, invisible yet present everywhere in the room for the cherished half hour or so as we listened to the tape. My memories of that event, however, have changed considerably as I, and my brother and father, have grown, as the event has receded into the past and grown mythically, as my love for narrative and sound and my obsession with adolescence and domestic spaces and family has deepened. What has remained constant is the event; what's morphed, depending on my mood, my desires, my needs, is my emotional attachment to the event. Vivian Gornick writes of the difference between a situation and the story that we make of it. (Art: to put together.) Perhaps the only constant in the past is the past itself.

I used to think that a .gif file was a good metaphor for memory. I'm less sure about that. True, a memory has no fixed start or finish, and a memory is an obsession in that it plays constantly as a .gif file does. But too much of a .gif remains too constant: the particulars remain the same as the story is told and re-told. That may be my past, but it's not my memory.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Help Kickstart Orphan Press

In March, Orphan Press Books is publishing my collection of essays, This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Again. The press has started a Kickstarter campaign to assist the print run and distribution. Lots of swag on the table, including a signed copy of the book, very cool t-shirts, a limited edition print (based on the cover image) by artist and Orphan Press editor Greg Larson, the opportunity to have a custom-designed book cover, and more! Above is the Kickstarter link, which includes this video of me reading some excerpts from the book:

About the book, Dinty Moore, author of Between Panic & Desire, says: "Joe Bonomo’s This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began is an arrestingly beautiful collection of brief meditations on family, faith, and the intricate splendor of everyday life. Bonomo is a natural storyteller with a poet’s ear for language, and his fresh, quirky, and exhilarating view of our communal experiences is pure pleasure."
And David Lazar, author of The Body of Brooklyn and Truth in Nonfiction, writes: "Imagine reading the story of a magician with a box, except the box is a body, and what is conjured, differently each time, is the nocturnal magic of memory, strange escapable birds flying past our eyes. Joe Bonomo seems to have a Cornell box for each difficult, lyrical moment he remembers. He is a theorist of the self’s construction out of the past, full of resistance and the heartbreaking urge to yield. You’ll want to lose yourself in his utterly necessary 'Margins of the Body'."

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Beyond the book

Over at Music Tomes, Eric Banister has listed this site and three others—David Menconi’s, Preston Lauterbach’s, and Peter Guralnick’s—as among his favorite writer blogs. I'm happy to be in such good company. Thanks, Eric!

"There is always some good stuff happening here." I hope so!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

What’s left but a re-imagining?

I recently contributed to Essay Daily with a piece on Luc Sante's "My Lost City," one of my favorite essays about New York City. Alfred Kazin's perambulatory shadow was lurking about:
While I was re-reading and considering “My Lost City,” I happened upon Alfred Kazin’s gorgeous memoir A Walker In The City, first published in 1951. Kazin’s ecstatic reminiscences of growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, though a half century older than Sante’s, share with Sante’s a bittersweet tone and the rapture of novelistic, sensual detail. Kazin, too, catalogs a litany of urban memories only to see them ultimately slip through his fingers, lost to time, renewal, and personal widening perspective. Walking toward Highland Park one day in the early 1930s, Kazin experienced a leap of clarity:
I had made a discovery; I had stumbled on a connection between myself and the shape and color of time in the streets of New York. Though I knew that brownstones were old-fashioned and had read scornful references to them in novels, it was just the thick, solid way in which they gripped to themselves some texture of the city’s past that now fascinated me…. I had made a discovery: walking could take me back into the America of the nineteenth century.
But for the glow of the lyricism, this passage might’ve been written by Sante (who’s generally more circumspect with his gushing). Every generation, it seems, mourns the beauty of its surroundings, no matter how shabby or troubled, certain already of its vanishing to the next generation, which will continue the process of loss and discovery. Meanwhile, while recognizing with a twinge of pain our own, minor losses, we come closer to understanding the grand sweep of history and our small but essential place in it.
My interview with Sante here. More on Kazin here

Thursday, January 10, 2013

An Origin Story

A scratch on a 45 or an album was the uninvited bully, the mean kid who shows up at your party, a little gouge you'd see with a sinking stomach as you held the album up to the light to reveal the chip, the dent, the cut. We'd try to shoo away the skip by placing a penny on the tone arm or, when that didn't work and we were feeling bold or desperate enough, by pressing down ever so lightly on the needle as the skip approached—right after the chorus or right when the solo starts or during the first line of the bridge, the interruption you'd come to know as a wound that never healed right—my finger shaking slightly, and I'm hoping for just the right touch, just the right balance between pressure and lift so when that skip comes the needle would move right through him, unafraid, and the next time we'd play the album the needle would play right through him again and eventually he'd get the message and skulk away. Or if I didn't succeed, if I lost my Zen-like poise there in basement or if the gouge was just too deep, no magic touch could finesse that scratch out of the room, he was there for good, the unwanted step-sibling, the weird cousin who came for the summer but stayed, blinking at a past of melancholy at which you could only guess—there for good, to trip the song into permanent disability. Yeah, a scratch was like that, a figure out of bad dreams who showed up one day and stayed. No amount of gentle laying-on-of-hands or Windex or dusting or praying would ever get rid of him, and the world would go out of focus and back into sharpness and something would change for good, though you couldn't name exactly what it was.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What I said. Or didn't.

Several years ago in The Wall Street Journal novelist Lionel Shriver wondered about the vogue among some fiction writers of eliminating quotation marks around dialogue. Citing the work of Cormac McCarthy and others, Shriver worried about the strain this might put on readers already challenged by the difficulties of much contemporary fiction. She says: "To the degree that this device contributes to the broader popular perception that 'literature' is pretentious, faddish, vague, eventless, effortful, and suffocatingly interior, quotation marks may not be quite as tiny as they appear on the page." She concluded:
Surely most readers would happily forgo "elegance" for demarcation that makes it easier to figure out who's saying what when their eyelids are drooping during the last few pages before lights-out. The appearance of authorial self-involvement in much modern literary fiction puts off what might otherwise comprise a larger audience. By stifling the action of speech, by burying characters' verbal conflicts within a blurred, all-encompassing über-voice, the author does not seem to believe in action—and many readers are already frustrated with literary fiction's paucity of plot. When dialogue makes no sound, the only character who really gets to talk is the writer.
Shriver's argument is not terribly strong to me; I think that she underestimates the ability (and desire) of the average reader to navigate among rhetorical devices, as those devices might allow for the pleasures of engaging multi-dimensional reality. I've been thinking about quotation marks in nonfiction, especially autobiography. The dilemma occurs when you consider the time-and-date-stamp nature of quotation marks, the rhetorical and visual insistence that what was said was said precisely this way. This is worrisome, of course, since I can't remember what I said to Amy over coffee this morning, word-for-word; any attempt on my part to construct a scene of dialogue between us would involve inherent shaping, and this of a remembered activity that occurred no more than an hour ago! To the degree that I use dialogue in my essays, I use it sparingly; for one reason, I think I'm less interested generally in what people (including myself) say than in what they do and think. I tell my writing students that if you were to record a conversation between you and someone else, or surreptitiously of a couple behind you on the bus or next to you in the elevator, and went home and transcribed that conversation you'd likely be met with a surprising amount of uhms, ers, pregnant pauses, half-finished sentences and thoughts, not to mention the difficulty of translating essential body language. Many fiction and nonfiction writers are masters of dialogue: but in a sense they're painters with language, not realist documentary makers. Putting aside the nuisance of the disconnect between what I thought I said and what I thought you said, the real dilemma for autobiographical writers is what did I—or you, or she—truly say, that is, what words, in what order. Ultimately this doesn't matter in the day-to-day. Phrases like You know what I mean! and That's not it exactly, well, mean that we all get it: language is brutally lacking most of the time. Hence our drift toward fiction, in language and in film, where we can refinement and precision and elegant language (or lack thereof, but no less crafted) can be inserted into others heads and mouths.

In autobiography, not so much. Among other writers, John Edgar Wideman (in Brothers and Keepers) and Nick Flynn (Another Bullshit Night In Suck City) eschew quotation marks around dialogue, and these days that seems among the more honest gestures that an autobiographical writer can make. Enough with the tailor-made memoir or essay that looks like fiction—fiction looks little like the real world, after all, which is why, in part, we flock to it. In my everyday—and yours—what's said drifts into the ether of memory nearly instantaneously, to be retrieved via the messy process of remembering, itself shaped by desire and hunger and self-abnegation and wish and willful mishearing. That messy stuff. I call for the end of quotation marks in autobiography. (You can quote me on that.)

Marble quotation-mark bookends via Timeless Modern Tactile Functional.

Monday, January 7, 2013

A few of my favorite sirens

Sirens in rock and roll songs can be thrilling, propulsive, scary, and ominous. Sometimes all at once. A siren itself can be literally alarming, and figuratively, too, raising one's pulse and putting the night on edge, and on notice: there's danger out there, and three minutes might be just long enough to allow you to escape, or three minutes might be too short. Pull the switch, warning, head for the hills, RUN!

Here are a few of my favorite tunes that evoke the power of sirens.

Kris Dollimore's intense vaulting up and down his guitar neck in The Godfathers's great early single "This Damn Nation" sounded to me and my friends like a call to arms. We thought that the Godfathers were going to save rock and roll there for a while. (Alas.) 

The Godfathers, "This Damn Nation," single (1986)

Mick Jones's lead in the Clash's streak through Eddy Grant's "Police On My Back" stirringly channels the anxiety and dread that a pursuing siren can create. 

The Clash, "Police On My Back," Sandinista! (1980)

And speaking of paranoia, as an acid-addled John Lennon was plunking away on a keyboard at his house in Weybridge one afternoon in August of 1967, a passing police siren inspired the opening notes of a song that became his obscure, iconoclastic, nose-thumbing, and wounded "I Am The Walrus."

The Beatles, "I Am The Walrus," b-side (1967)

To my great disappointment, the fine folks at the Harry Fox Agency, Inc., UMG, and UMPG Publishing have blocked the video of Public Enemy's "Lost At Birth." The intense, convulsive opening salvo from Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black (1991) is one of my all-time favorite siren jams.

Too bad. Stream it here. WARNING: If you've never heard it, listen in a controlled environment.



Yeah, I forgot about R.E.M.'s "Leave"...

Saturday, January 5, 2013

"The shape and color of time": Kazin and brownstones

"... Every image I had of peace, of quiet shaded streets in some old-time America I had seen dreaming over the ads in the Saturday Evening Post, now came back to me as that proud procession of awnings along the brownstones. I can never remember walking those last few blocks to the library; I seemed to float along the canvas tops. Here were the truly American streets; here was how they lived. To get that near to brownstones, to see how private everything looked in that world of the cool black painted floor and green walls where on each windowsill the first shoots of Dutch bulbs rose out of the pebbles like green and white flags, seemed to me the greatest privilege I had ever had. A breath of long-stored memory blew out at me from the veranda of Oyster Bay. Even when I visited an Irish girl from my high school class who lived in one of those brownstones, and was amazed to see that the rooms were as small as ours, that a Tammany court attendant's family could be as poor as we were, that behind the solid 'American' front of fringed shawls, Yankee rocking chairs, and oval daguerreotypes on the walls they kept warm in winter over an oil stove—even then, I could think of those brownstone streets only as my great entrance into America, a half-hour nearer to 'New York.'

I had made a discovery; I had stumbled on a connection between myself and the shape and color of time in the streets of New York. Though I knew that brownstones were old-fashioned and had read scornful references to them in novels, it was just the thick, solid way in which they gripped to themselves some texture of the city’s past that now fascinated me. There was one brownstone on Macdougal Street I would stop and brood over for long periods every evening I went to the library for fresh books—waiting in front of it, studying every crease in the stone, as if I were planning its portrait. I had made a discovery: walking could take me back into the America of the nineteenth century."

Alfred Kazin, A Walker In The City (1951)


Many decades later. Sketch of Brooklyn brownstones by Claire Bonnor via The Boho Bandwagon from Boheem Design, a graphic design agency based in Sydney, Australia: "Ahhh, Brooklyn. Take me in. It's all too easy to whip out the digital camera to try to capture the charming streets of Park Slope. A few days ago I hopped aboard the F train with sketchbook, pen, coffee and bagel in-hand, and parked myself opposite a row of these quintessential Brooklyn abodes for about 2 hours."


On a related note, I recently contributed a piece to Essay Daily on Luc Sante's "My Lost City," one of my favorite essays about New York City:
Every generation, it seems, mourns the beauty of its surroundings, no matter how shabby or troubled, certain already of its vanishing to the next generation, which will continue the process of loss and discovery. Meanwhile, while recognizing with a twinge of pain our own, minor losses, we come closer to understanding the grand sweep of history and our small but essential place in it.
    “My Lost City” is Luc Sante’s sobering tribute to a city he barely knew.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Boundaries, Ctd.

I recently photographed the semi-abandoned Wurlitzer factory in DeKalb, where I live. Skulking around outside, I noticed a window with a hole punched in it; I stood on my toes and leaned my camera over the lip, hoping to get a glimpse of the inside the factory which is, of course, closed. What I saw was a brick wall and some exposed pipe, hardly exciting, romantic stuff. Now as I look at the photo, above, it appears to be an image of the boundary between nonfiction and fiction.

Standing outside of the building, I thought: what lies behind the window? I can guess, I can imagine, I can (try and) photograph it. What if I dropped the camera through the window and, finding an entry, went inside in the half-dark to retrieve it? What would I discover? Probably little of interest: leftover tools; trash; the odd rat. But how fun to imagine more lurid discoveries: a band of homeless marauders; exotic wildlife; a treasure left behind. Etc.. Where in those imaginings does nonfiction end and fiction begin? Were I to discover that the inside of the factory is dull, holding few surprises, I could then go home and start a story about a guy who drops his camera through a window of an abandoned factory, breaks inside to retrieve it, and the excitement begins! Because I can give myself in fiction what life sourly refuses me. Meaningful action, driving plot, theme, epiphany. Entertainment.

But my outside-the-window imagining is reality—and plot—of a different sort. I could take a step outside of my imagining self and essay that self, adopting the persona of the essayist, not the fiction writer. And there my imagination becomes less a vehicle for a made-up world than for the real world and the man who imagines inside of it. I was put in mind of Charles Lamb's great tragic essay "Dream Children: A Reverie." I won't do the math, but the piece is, what, ninety-eight percent "fiction"? The Elia persona waxes nostalgically with children at his feet who are listening raptly to a warm story of adolescence and family, until it's revealed at the end of the essay that the speaker was imagining the whole thing, waking from his reverie alone, childless, in his grieving bachelor chair. I love Lamb's essay because it reminds us that an essayist's interior life is, in a sense, all he has; everything, "real" or imagined, is filtered through his particular sensibility. Don't we all dream? Don't we all get lost in reverie? Don't we mourn for what never happened? An imagined, "what if"  world is sometimes the most vivid, cherished world that a person owns.


limit, bounds, confine, enclave, term, bourn, verge, curbstone, but

pale, reservation; termination, terminus; stint, frontier, precinct, marches; backwoods


Al Pacino, Glengarry Glen Ross, 2012.
I was thinking about these things recently after I watched Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway. The production was fine, but it wasn't until the final third of the play that I fully bought Pacino as Shelley "The Machine" Levene (the desperate, sad-sack salesman played so well by Jack Lemmon in the 1992 film version). Film observers have often remarked that at some point in John Wayne's career, the actor stopped playing characters and started playing "John Wayne." I wrestled with this syndrome a bit while watching Pacino in an ill-fitting suit spin and dance and gesticulate his way through the role of the beaten-down Levene. And I found that I had trouble separating the character from the man portraying him—or more accurately, from the stagy Cultural Figure portraying him. In the play's final moments, when Levene is to be escorted into the manager's office where he will confess to the crime around which the play revolves, Pacino slumps in a chair—he's caught, his fate is assured, he's lost, and all of the actor's signature actorly moves vanish: Pacino's playing a man who had nothing left. Somehow, he was able to find that place and in the process remove himself from the character while at the same time embodying him fully. It was brilliant, the boundaries between Pacino and Levene, between celebrity and nobody, vanishing, as in all great acting, as in all great metaphor.


I obsessed over this door as a kid. Pretty ordinary looking door, right?

It's on the side the U.S. Post Office on Amherst Avenue in Wheaton, Maryland, less than a half-mile from the house where I grew up. Once, as my older brothers and I walked by on the way home from the 7-11 next door, one of my siblings told me that the Post Office kept a wild tiger behind that door. I never thought to ask why the local Post Office would be in possession of a tiger. I simply believed, dutifully following Job Description of Younger Sibling. From that moment on, for several years, I half-jokingly gave that door a wide berth, hearing in my head the tiger's roar, its manic pawing on the door, the whine of the weak, straining door hinges. That door marked a particular boundary: between real and imagined, plausible and implausible, fact and fiction. A line I straddle daily.

I took the above photograph last week. I never discovered what the door leads to. And in my many, many journeys past that door over the course of many years, I never once saw it open, never once saw anyone going out or in.