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Posts Tagged ‘e.e. cummings’

Mysterious Skin: The Realia of William Gaddis

December 24, 2013 | by

-1Most people with scholarly inclinations will visit a novelist’s literary archive to follow the paper trails, as manifested through gathered correspondence, stray postcards, marked-upon stationery, and scattered drafts. A couple of months before the recent publication of his collected letters, I visited the William Gaddis Papers at Washington University in Saint Louis in search of something near the polar opposite.

I had harbored a minor obsession with the novelist for years, even before reading a single word of his writing, probably due his reputation as a writer who crafted a string of unapologetically dense works while almost entirely avoiding the fickleness of the literary limelight. I had bought a used hardcover of Carpenter’s Gothic, one of Gaddis’s shorter novels, at a library booksale just after my early-twenties Pynchon obsession had tapered off a bit. That book sat unread on a shelf for a few years until I decided to make the plunge into Gaddis’s work after seeing his specter, both his name and the titles of his books, floating through David Markson’s great anecdote—and allusion-heavy novels.

More dilettante than scholar, I was on the hunt for certain pieces of the novelist’s realia, that archival category of physical, three-dimensional objects rather than the usual rectangular flatland of manuscripts. Gaddis—who wrote “only” five books over the course of a forty-odd-year career (though amounting to around 2,640 pages in total), with each tome encompassing every possible spectrum of American vernacular and obsession; who won a MacArthur Award and two National Book Awards; and who was famous, as Cynthia Ozick once put it, for not being famous enough—had one object in his collection that I had never seen in a library catalog before. I found this particular entry buried deep within the online finding aid for the Gaddis Papers:

“Box 166.2/- : Zebra Skin, (1 item), Stored in oversize; box on order.”

After scanning across this listing while doing cursory research for something else, I instantly became obsessed with the idea of the zebra skin in the library. What, exactly, did it look like? How was it stored among Gaddis’s papers? Why had he owned it? What was it doing in the special collections of an academic library? Read More »

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House of Poesy: At the Grolier Poetry Book Shop

February 26, 2013 | by

2344815284_eef84104c5The Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is both a misnomer and an anomaly. It has long dedicated itself to the task of promoting the reading and writing of poetry and has, for eighty-five years, served as a niche for poets the world over. While its reputation has bloomed over the years, thanks largely to word-of-mouth praise, it has never fared well financially, partly due to competition from larger stores and the Internet, partly because poetry has never been popular with the masses, and partly because its founder seems to have done everything in his power to ensure that his store not be turned into a business.

Located on Plympton Street in Harvard Square, the Grolier occupies just 404 square feet of space and is dwarfed by the neighboring Harvard Book Store. A white square sign with meticulous black lettering juts out near the top of the store entrance. The font size decreases from top to bottom, much like on an eye exam chart, and one can just make out, at the very top, a finely done illustration of three cats (or is it the same cat?) dozing, grooming, and turning their backs on the viewer.

Upon ascending a small flight of steps, one is greeted by the sight of an abundance of colorful spines—approximately fifteen thousand—neatly arranged against nearly every flat surface of the shop. These volumes are neatly balkanized into several categories, including anthologies, used, African-American, early English, Irish, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Indian, Latin, classical Greek, Japanese, Korean, East European, Spanish, and Catalan.

Above the towering shelves are approximately seventy black and white photos (many courtesy of the photographer Elsa Dorfman) of poets and other members of the literati for whom the Grolier has served as a meeting place for well over half a century. Among the Grolier’s most illustrious visitors, most of whom are smiling or gazing sagely and serenely ahead in the photos, are T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, e. e. cummings, Marianne Moore, James Tate, Donald Hall, and Helen Vendler.

Off to one side at the front of the store sits a lean shelf of chapbooks and a donation jar; a small note says that the chapbooks have been generously donated by the author and that monetary contributions to the shop would be greatly appreciated. Directly across this bookcase is the cash register, propped up on a desk and flanked by sundry items, including bookmarks, promotional literature, pamphlets, business cards, and commemorative pens. On the wall right adjacent to the register hangs a certificate from Boston Magazine honoring the Grolier as the best poetry store of 1994. Read More »

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All My Real Estate Agents Have Always Been Writers

November 2, 2010 | by

Patchin Place, off 10th Street at Sixth Avenue, where e. e. cummings once lived. Photograph by Berenice Abbott.

Some writers learn by practicing their craft alone in their rooms, some by a mentorship with a beloved teacher, some by M.F.A. committee. I have always tried to learn by osmosis: by placing myself in the physical location of genius, on the off chance that some greater force clinging to the chandelier would attach itself to me and give my writing a cosmic boost. Though I did spend many nights in my early twenties at the Cedar Tavern (where there was certainly some cosmic mojo to be had), the easiest path to absorbed genius always seemed like the real estate section of the newspaper.

I found my first apartment a couple of months after graduating from college—a studio on Perry Street, at the curious point in the West Village when 4th Street finds itself between 10th and 11th Streets. Though I knew the neighborhood a bit from my own teenage explorations, there was one simple reason I wanted to move to Perry Street. Ted Berrigan, one of my favorite poets at the time, wrote this in 1963:

I think I was thinking when I was ahead I’d be somewhere like Perry Street erudite dazzling slim and badly loved contemplating my new book of poems to be printed in simple type on old brown paper feminine marvelous and tough.

Feminine, marvelous, and tough. I wanted it tattooed on my forehead. Never mind that in 2002 a pair of Marc Jacobs stores sat around the corner from Perry Street, and I was too intimidated by the salespeople to walk into either of them. I was tough and feminine and absolutely convinced that living on Perry Street would make my writing more wild, which it did: I wrote a long, messy novel that took Wuthering Heights and put it in my high school. There was incest, in a sexy way, like Flowers in the Attic. I forced my boyfriend to paint the entire room a shocking shade of pink and shoved my tiny desk against the oven, which was good for two reasons: The first was that I never used the oven, not once, and the second was that an entire family of mice soon took up residence inside the oven’s walls.

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