Books In Conversation
JOHN REED with Elizabeth Trundle
(C&R Press, 2016)
When I hear younger, single folks talk about marriage as if it were an end zone, a pearly departure gate from the waiting room of unsigned love, I often butt in with a passionate (and unwanted) speech about what really happens after the honeymoon. In my view, the wedding, or commitment ceremony, rolls out yearly from that initial, kissy contract. Every day asks you to commit a little more of your soul; if you’re a person like me, who finds commitment painful and perhaps even life-threatening, staying married can involve years of crossing romantic Rubicons.
Feeling the way that I do, I find myself particularly drawn to John Reed’s sonnets, which appear alongside a mysterious “pathological memoir” in his new book Free Boat (C&R Press). The book offers a medley of reading experiences: raw emotional response, perplexed amusement, empathy for the true and actual, confusion about what that true and actual might be. I find there’s something dangerous here, especially in the sonnets. Because it’s risky, when you’re married, to construct odes to the suffering inside the institution, even when love and passion bloom there as well. John Reed’s response? “Well, if it’s safe, why bother.”
Elizabeth Trundle (Rail): Reading this book reminded me of watching a play where three or four actors play different characters who wear the same costumes in every scene. So you have to figure out, based on the actors’ vocal tricks, facial expressions, or even the way their hair is brushed, who they are playing. In Free Boat, there’s S.S. Eleman, in Cuba, and then later in jail. And then there’s the writer of the sonnets, the narrator, who knows Eleman. He’s writing letters to his agent?
John Reed: Who might be his first or second wife, or his girlfriend, or his mistress.
Rail: All these characters appear in what I would call the interstitial prose, a “pathological memoir” that wraps around the collected sonnets. Are these multiple identities a protective device? Do they guard the teller of these very personal poems?
Reed: People presume a lot with poetry, that it’s you entirely. And I suppose it’s usually a fair assumption, but—
Rail: At one point your narrator says, “I guess there’s no getting around it. These poems are all about me.” Is that a joke?
Reed: When I decided to do the prose element, it occurred to me that I could tie them together with identity. Identity is like a kernel of corn in your mouth. It feels really big to you, but it’s nothing to anybody else. I wanted to pull the reader through the pages with an identity that was like a bag full of sand.
Rail: I can see that, because in the beginning, S.S. Eleman is very present, as is Carnevale, his lover. And also, an adult “you” is in the mix. At least I thought it was “you,” because I know “you” spent time in Cuba. And gradually these characters start to fall away, and we find ourselves in scenes voiced by another self, stories of a childhood in New York City. That’s not John Reed, either?
Reed: I feel like each of us, every day we wake up: the first thing we reach for is our identity.
Rail: Or does it reach for us?
Reed: We put a lot of effort into keeping our identity intact.
Rail: And how do our relationships tie into that? Because the other dominant and shifting character in Free Boat is the wife/ex-wife/girlfriend/agent, a mysterious female who inspires many of the sonnets, which often lament and/or celebrate the highs and lows of romantic love and marriage. If we do habitually reach for our identities, do the people in our lives help lock us into them? Or do we project our identity onto them?
Reed: Both. The people that we’re with are simultaneously the best way to incite personal change and the people most likely to demand you stay the same. I think it was you who said to me that they’re the most able to help you change and the least likely to want you to.
Rail: I did say that. But I didn’t make it up.
Reed: I don’t know if that’s exactly it though. Unfortunately, I’m not really sure that when you sign onto a long-term relationship with somebody, change is even in the contract.
Rail: Maybe it depends. As a married person, I find myself very affected by the thorny feelings expressed in these sonnets. I’m asking: Is this sonnet about an adulterous husband? Or an adulterous wife? Or neither partner is adulterous, and that’s the agony. Do they wish they were adulterous, but they’re just too scared? These blurry betrayals frighten me.
Reed: It’s very hard to write a sonnet about anything but love. Occasionally someone writes an angry sonnet. Occasionally you write one about a friend. The nature sonnets are not my oeuvre. There’s something about the form. They’re western arguments, which is the basis for the structure of stories. And love stories tend to be structured. Love stories. It’s just the way that sonnets are shaped.
Rail: And you make these sonnets up in your head?
Reed: I make them up in my head. Usually I would have the first twelve lines before I wrote them down. That’s all but the last line: most of them are thirteen lines. I wanted to make them thirteen line-sonnets for good luck.
Rail: Is a sonnet a feeling?
Reed: It’s a feeling that’s arrived at through a series of actions or associations. And it’s a feeling that can be arrived at through no other series of actions or associations. And that’s true in prose, too. But we also attach meaning to prose, to narrative. So in the prose element of this book, I wanted to achieve that poetic thing, where you arrive at an emotional state through associations and actions, but there’s no real narrative.
Rail: In the book you say that coming up with a sonnet is like being struck with the chicken pox.
Reed: Do I?
Rail: Yeah, you do. “One doesn’t slave day in and day out on a sonnet. Or shall I say, not on a good one. They strike like the chicken pox.”
Reed: You find an argument and you think, “Oh, that’s a sonnet.” There were a bunch that I abandoned along the way. Far more than I kept.
Rail: Let’s look at Sonnet 65, subtitled “valentine:” “Momma, Am I your only wooden child? The others momma, are they more alive? Do the meat children offer you their hearts?” Do you remember where you started with this sonnet?
Reed: What’s the argument on that one? In some ways, that one doesn’t feel so utterly contemporary, but it’s a very contemporary feeling, that depersonalization. To feel like you can offer someone everything, and be made of wood.
Rail: That’s interesting what you say about the feeling of a sonnet being contemporary. Because I associate the form with love poetry from circa Elizabethan London. You’re time traveling with a spare form; it’s almost skeletal in today’s fat word landscape. Your narrator writes: “Just sonnets, a perfect gift for everyone. I don’t want to involve myself at all. If I could offer less than nothing of myself I would. ‘Take all of me away,’ I sometimes find myself saying.”
Reed: Real love is a gift of emptiness. The best kind of love you can offer somebody is one where you don’t put yourself in it, somehow. Just that pure emotion. And also, that’s what you want. That’s what you want in a relationship, to disappear into it. We make too much of ourselves.
Rail: You mean the same way that you meant in the beginning, about identity?
Reed: Yeah. And we have this dueling drive in love and romance; this dual inclination to make ourselves disappear, and to assert our self-importance.
Rail: Sonnet 16—(a long night): “Never came the nevermore, the sorrow / for the lost cold war, the bickered, battered bathroom sores, mascara charred and marrow bored.” I read this as the voice of a husband nursing his wounds on the battlefield the morning after an epic marriage fight, what my husband and I call a “divorce fight,” although we’re still married after sixteen years. Does the sonnet try to pull these lovers, or as I read it, spouses, back together?
Reed: Yes, but of course it’s incredibly imperfect. The idea that you’re going to pronounce that is artificial in itself.
Rail: I don’t know about that. There’s raw truth in these sonnets. Your narrator says: “this novel, book of poetry, memoir is not a ‘hairball,’ as I’ve thought of it, but a ‘precision instrument.’” I agree.
Reed: Sonnets are very good love letters. But I didn’t want them to feel like Shakespeare’s sonnets. To me, those feel very written; they feel like they were put on paper and sent, delivered. I wanted these sonnets to feel like I was sitting with you, and I was speaking with you. That’s where I arrived at. Until I broke the form, they still felt written. At around #20, “John John Automaton,” I interrupted the Shakespearean form and the sonnets starting feeling spoken.
Rail: I find that sonnet to be very sad.
Reed: “John John Automaton”? Yeah, that was a desperate time. And that one was hard—to get the rhyming to work and to sound natural. Some of the sonnets came out of having to compress myself psychologically into a form that I could work on during the course of the day. I think of Forrest Bess, who would work on his paintings all day while he was fishing—he was a shrimp fisherman—and then come home and have one really composed. I would look for that. I would be working on a sonnet for quite a while, carrying it around in my head. And then finally when it was finished I would write it. But I actually feel like the best way to talk about these sonnets would be to pretty much remain pathological.
Rail: I don’t want you to.
Reed: I know. But it’s hard not to.
Rail: So can you try not to lie?
Reed: Yeah. [Laughter.]
Rail: Well, I’m nervous to ask you about memoir-ish aspects of this book because I don’t want you to lie. But then again, you stop yourself short of calling it memoir many times in the manuscript.
Reed: A huge amount of it isn’t even close to true.
Rail: Okay, well, let’s explore that a little. There was an essay that you wrote, “Something Witchy for Leslie Van Houten.” It went live on The Believer website, and then a couple of days later you wrote on Facebook, “This essay is not about you.”
Reed: Yeah, well, some people freaked out. Someone got really upset about the essay, and the essay was not about that person. The essay wasn’t even about Leslie Van Houten.
Rail: It was about you.
Reed: Yeah, it was. That essay was about—and it’s apropos here—the fact that each of us personifies death as someone that we’re attracted to. I think that’s very often the primary “type” that each of us has, a personification of death that happens through childhood experiences and, secondarily, adult experiences. A personal essay and a sonnet hold a lot of things in tandem. A good personal essay is about something beyond what the writer is writing about, but the writer is using him or herself as an example of that argument. That’s what a good sonnet is doing. You’re making an argument, and you’re using yourself as an example of the argument, because you’re the best example that you have. Oh, and if you don’t apply the argument to yourself, you’re a coward. If I put together an argument saying that we personify death and that personification is someone that we’re attracted to, and I don’t use myself as an example, then it’s a bullshit argument.
Rail: Someone got upset because they inserted themselves into your essay; they thought it was about them and it wasn’t at all.
Reed” It wasn’t at all.
Rail: Following from that, the “other you” says in Free Boat that in just one sonnet, sometimes five or six women might appear, at least as a fleeting muse or in what I’ll call an emotional cameo. Is it surprising that someone might mistakenly “read” his or herself into your story?
Reed: You’re right to call me out on being perverse about it, but the fantasy element of tying all those things into one package, into one neat bow, is part of why I think other people can relate. Because if you leave your experience this loose, shaggy thing, you can’t throw it at somebody else. They can’t catch it. You’re trying to round off this thing that is not only a memory of your own experience, but an invitation to future experiences, and an invitation to the experiences of others. That’s what I’m hoping for.
Rail: So we read our own love stories, real or imagined, into the open spaces between the lines of your sonnets.
Reed: The poems I like feel a bit like footprints or empty wells. When you read them, you want to watch them fill up with your own thing, whatever it is. And you’d think it would just be chaos to travel down a pathway of fantasy, but it’s not. There is a kind of purity to it. It’s very hard to fake, somehow. In the same way that it’s very hard to fake a dream. It’s very hard to fake a fantasy. They’re both beyond the ability of conscious manufacturing.
Rail: From Free Boat, and about Eleman: “I suspect he was entirely loyal to his wife, despite his marital travails, and his supposed indiscretions were en vérité fantastical—and, as such, all the more tragic.”
Reed: There can be something damaging about introverting too much in fantasy life. It has this other side to it that can be Procrustean.
Rail: What is that word? Procrustean for Dummies, please.
Reed: Procrustean. The guest of the king came to the table, and King Procrustes asked him, “Did you sleep well?” And he said, “Yes, but the bed was a little short.” The king said, “Oh, well, we can take care of that.” And that night, he had the guest’s feet chopped off.
Rail: Better to stay in reality, maybe, and keep your feet. But that can be difficult: sometimes, even when you love each other, it’s just hard to be faithfully married. I feel like the solution, in some way, for you in the sonnets, comes back to the element of expressive art and fantasy.
Reed: Yeah, it’s an escape hatch, for sure.
Rail: All in a day’s work for a writer, so it’s harmless. But S.S. Eleman, this alter-self-narrator in Free Boat, is involved in a double suicide. Someone ends up in jail. So someone did something wrong.
Reed: I don’t think that fantasies are perfectly benign or perfectly imprisoning. But I don’t think other people have a right to judge you for a fantasy.
Rail: Right. So the Free Boat narrator’s wife can take comfort in all this.
Reed: His first wife or his second wife?
Rail: [Laughter.] Exactly. The shifting identities.
Reed: It’s really, really difficult to justify these self-imposed identities that we walk around as. On the other hand, if you discard them, you’re left with a joker’s void.
Rail: To complicate matters, there are seemingly thousands of “John Reeds” on the planet. You include several pages of John Reed mugshots in the book, which made me laugh out loud, especially when I saw you snuck your own photo into the gallery.
Reed: The mugshots. Yeah, those are real. So that was funny?
Rail: I thought so. But there’s a rule in stand up comedy that for a bit to work, if it’s autobiographical, the audience has to know you’re okay.
Reed: Oh, really?
Rail: For example, if the comedian is joking about his neglectful mother, maybe how he had nothing to eat when he was a kid, the audience needs to know he had a good dinner that night, that’s he not starving now, that he’s super okay. If they’re going to let go and really laugh. It’s a “rule.”
Reed: I totally break that rule.
Rail: No, I don’t think so. Because you create these characters and you slide between the identities. If the narrator’s girlfriend commits suicide, or he’s in jail—in other words, he’s not okay—the reader’s not sure exactly who it’s happening to or if it’s really even happening. Likewise in the sonnets, the wife and the other women shift around and switch places. So there’s plenty of room for comedy.
Rail: You’re more of a teaser than a punchline guy, I think, even though there are plenty of funny lines. (“If he weren’t me, I’d resent him.”) In fact you come right out of the gates at the start of the book with a trick; there’s no first sonnet.
Reed: That’s right. And there’s no last sonnet either. The sonnet that I promise all the way through, that will answer everything. It’s never there.
Rail: All right, so the teller of the sonnets, and the prose that wraps around it—he makes promises that aren’t delivered on.
Reed: All the promises are answers. We’re always promising each other answers.
Rail: Then the reader is being strung along by the writer. Are you trying to seduce the readers by teasing them and making promises that you don’t fulfill?
Reed: That’s always love, right? You make these promises you can’t keep. And I didn’t want a divide, like I’m the writer and you’re the reader. I wanted it to feel, even for someone that I’ve never met before, that I could walk into a bar and they could start chatting with me about it, and we’d be old friends. I wanted to try and forge a relationship with the reader that was unnaturally close. You want to be a little bit in love with your reader and vice versa.
Rail: Well, this reader wants to know that “you” are okay. And as a wife, and maybe a sentimental sap, I want to know that the reader, whoever it’s supposed to be, is okay, too. After the sonnets and the sonneteer have been read and bled and stabbed or even self-poisoned, or locked away in the vault with Juliet, they bow to the audience and take off their costumes, wipe off their makeup. They go home to that hot meal and a good night’s sleep in the marital bed. Right?
Reed: Yes, of course. But the bed’s a little short.