An Entirely Queer Plane of Existence
When I was little and in the beginning stages of an obsession with novels, I used to narrate the affairs of my own life in my head. She opened the cupboard, glancing around nervously for signs of her mother, I would silently recite. Confident that she was alone, she removed the chocolate from its wrapper, folded the wrapper into a tiny square, and slid it under the sofa cushion. I used to visualize the gigantic product of this endless stream of narration, a book hundreds of thousands of pages long that would magically appear on the event of my death. Nobody would read it, I humbly acknowledged, but still, it would exist.
In 1933 Gertrude Stein decided to write herself into history with the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Last year, the Belgian conceptual artist Filip Noterdaeme did the same, lifting concept, structure, style, and even whole sentences from Stein in his Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart––a bold move befitting a tribute to the woman who liked to describe herself as a “first-rate genius.” Noterdaeme—who was kicked out of Hunter College for “plagiarizing” the work of other artists—clearly finds great pleasure in appropriation, and readers of the Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart will find this pleasure contagious.
Notes on the Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart
When I was fifteen, I began my first significant epistolary relationship. It was with a Canadian boy of my age that I’d met during the summer. Our correspondence wasn’t romantic—or at least it wasn’t moving us toward any kind of typical boyfriend/girlfriend situation. We didn’t talk about it then, but he was pretty clearly gay. We were both in love with writing, and that was what we did together—or rather apart, but addressed to one another. He was some kind of boy genius and he went to Harvard the next fall when we were both sixteen. I went to visit him, and we went to the Harvard Coop where we bought Gertrude Stein’s How to Write because we liked the way it looked—a fat white paperback with plain black serif type on the cover. We took it back to his room and stayed up late reading it like a primer. We took the title literally. And that’s how I learned to write—in an intimate collaboration, guided by Stein’s weird and yet completely sensible observations about how language works, and how to reflect on those strange truisms even in the act of putting words down. The famous one is: “A Sentence is not emotional a paragraph is.” But there are so many good ones.
A sentence should be arbitrary it should not please be better.
It should not be disturbed.
A sentence has colors when they mean I liked it as selling salt should be very little used in dishes.
That is one of the best I have done.
That taught me that it was okay and maybe even sometimes charming to acknowledge that you’d just made a pretty good joke, or written something a little poignant, or perceptive. Please excuse me if you don’t find that particularly funny, or poignant, or perceptive. I find it a little of all three, though not a lot.
Permanent Creation: An Interview With Filip Noterdaeme
This interview was commissioned for our iOS app, which you can download (free) here.
Erin McMonagle: What came first—the idea of doing something along the lines of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, or the idea of doing a memoir?
Filip Noterdaeme: For quite a while, I had felt that the story of my life with Daniel was worth telling. It’s when I stumbled on The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that I knew I had found a structure to tell our tale. Daniel, when I told him of my idea, thought I was completely out of my mind.
EM: But then he came around.
FN: Eventually he came around, but in the beginning there was an active resistance on his part because he didn’t think it was possible to do such a thing. Personally, I loved the challenge of working within the structure of an existing book. John Cage said, “We need a structure in order to get lost.” The restraints of writing my memoir this way gave me license to dare to do the impossible. It’s how I wanted to celebrate that part of my life with Daniel, and I couldn’t think of a better model than the strong relationship of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
EM: When you say you needed a structure to get lost in, did you really lose yourself and start to pull from other things?
FN: Oh, I did. It was just so exhilarating to let memory somehow guide and misguide me. All of a sudden, things come back to you that you never thought would ever matter. Daniel is my memory, in a way. I’m always dazzled that he remembers things with minute details that I’ve completely blocked out. Maybe that’s also one of the reasons I chose him as the narrator and vehicle for the story.
EM: In some ways, it sounds like he’s the structure that allows you to be free, within which you can create.
FN: Yes, and that mirrors very much our shared life and distinct personalities. In Nabokov’s last novel, Look at the Harlequins!, the protagonist recounts the moment someone gave him license to invent reality, urging him to “Invent the world! Invent reality!” I read this as an invitation from one writer to another to carve out a space for adventure, to defy genre and convention, to be subversive, and to welcome contradictions and paradoxes. For me, what’s often lost in the equation of writing a memoir is the pleasure that lies in the playfulness, in the freedom of inventing a life that happens to mirror your own, almost as if by coincidence.
EM: Let’s talk about how your art project, The Homeless Museum of Art, came into being.
"Wanting to kill yourself is so banal."
Ben Fama Talks to Trisha Low
Trisha Low’s first book, The Compleat Purge, came out last fall from Kenning Editions, and when the package came in the mail, I expected to find it bound in sandpaper. I’d seen Trisha perform on the Lower East Side around when the book came out. She drew out long-damaged feelings and confrontations, which all showed through her apparent manic nervousness as she wept onto the floor. I introduced myself to her after she’d finished while she was cleaning up after herself (she’d politely declined my help). She had not published the book by then, though still my interest in it bloomed.
The “I” of The Compleat Purge functions in a lineage that includes Simone De Beauvoir, Kathy Acker, Elena Ferrante, and Ariana Reines. A production in three acts, Purge is filled with suicide letters to friends, articles of her will as written during various stages of her life, and fantasized rough sexting between Fabrizio Moretti of The Strokes and Anthony Rossomando of The Dirty Pretty Things. This is an awkward time to be a Poet, no?
I had the chance to talk to Trisha once the book came out, and we discussed her relationship to craft, her writing on Hello Kitty band-aids, tattoos, Fabrizio Moretti and how “pop culture is all about ‘being in love.’” The result is as follows.
I. SACRIFICE AS SELF-CONSTRUCTION
THE BELIEVER: Can we talk about craft? In the first part of The Compleat Purge you’ve embedded epistolary form within the structure of a will and testament. Is suicidal ideation a big part of your life?
TRISHA LOW: Actually, let’s talk about The Craft (the movie) because, unlike craft, suicidal ideation is not something you perfect, it’s something that becomes you, like really good red lipstick. There’s this part in the film where Fairuza Balk decides to force the other girls to do this spell called “Invocation of the Spirit,” after which she becomes super greedy for power. As she gains more and more spells, her body also begins this weird process of molecular declension. Her eyes get wilder, her fingers and her joints get looser, and her hair gets limper and greasier.
The Craft is really about scapegoating. About becoming yourself vis-à-vis destroying yourself; the ultimate sacrifice-as-self-construction. Of course, that sacrificial economy always turns its back on you. It’s the same kind of reversal in Purge, only there’s one Trisha Low that’s Fairuza and another version that’s Robin, the witch who kills her.
I like vacillating between victim and aggressor. Wanting to kill yourself is so banal.
BLVR: Purge starts with an epigraph from Jack Spicer’s Admonitions, which reminds me of the occasions when you invoke it during the first section of Purge. What’s your relationship to Admonitions?
TL: Oh well, Jack Spicer is one of my one and onlys—he’s truly the whore’s whore. Rather than Robert Duncan’s giving oneself up to love, Spicer is more insistent about how love ate the red wheelbarrow, it’s all-consuming—and yet he positions it as a formal device. Love for Spicer is ultimately an artificial framework, a posture to manipulate. He’s a total liar in the strength of his flip contempt—he hates everyone but will say anything to get them into bed.
The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart by Filip Noterdaeme
I want to address the elephant in the room: yes, this is the first Emily Book by an author who identifies as male. Scandalous! After two years, though, we thought it was time to become slightly more inclusive, and we look forward to picking and publishing books by people of all genders. :)
Filip Noterdaeme’s work came to my attention via his friend and mine, Bennett Madison, who assumed, correctly, that I would love to read a book about how two artists in love have dealt with working life and real estate in New York City during the last couple of decades. It’s Filip Noterdaeme’s playful homage to Gertrude Stein, though, that makes this book more than an ordinary memoir. As Barbara Browning writes in her essay about the book, included in our iOS app edition, Noterdaeme not only pays homage to Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, he improves upon it:
The feminist in me often resists narratives driving toward a resolution of coupled domestic bliss, and charmed as I’ve been by some of Gertrude and Alice’s weird turns on that ideal (their scatalogical love notes to each other are almost impossibly beautiful), even that version makes me uneasy, because its success seems predicated on someone’s subservience. But Filip’s Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart gives you a very different sense of the possibilities of working together,
In an interview, also included here, with his friend Erin McMonagle, Noterdaeme elaborates on that idea, explaining how his relationship with Isengart informs his life and art:
What is most important, what I hope comes through in terms of a message in my book, is this common desire Daniel and I have to nurture each other’s talent for life. In the act of performing this autobiography—because it really is a performance—it dawned on me that everything I’ve learned about the secret to permanent creation, these tools of innocence and imagination, is supported through my relationship with Daniel. He is the one who’s nurtured these essential tools and helped me refine them. I like to think of the book as a love letter. When you’re in a partnership, you can’t go around every day, saying, “I love you. I love you.” It would become a banality. So you have to find another way of saying it. This is my way.
I hope you love this book as much as we do.