To launch the Slag Glass City’s new interview series, Seven Questions about Essaying the City, I asked the authors of the forthcoming longform essay trilogy, Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration, to say a few words about how and why they find cities at the center of their work. –Barrie Borich, ed.
~ Why write about cities?
James: It’s hard to avoid writing about cities, and why would one want to? Philip Larkin said that days are where we live—that is, in time—but now, in America, we mostly live in cities—that is, in a particular kind of space, specifically bounded yet still mythically urban. Larkin added that the question of what days are brings officials running in their odd flapping frock-coats across the fields. In other words, nobody knows what it means for us to live here, even the authorities, who remain, nonetheless, alarmed. So who comes running now, befuddled and dismayed, when we try speak of cities? Well—everyone, however much dignity may be sacrificed in the effort.
Jean: Writing “about cities” has been, for me, a way of understanding the larger picture of my own past, insofar as it was mediated and shaped by the cities I lived in—usually in ways I couldn’t have comprehended at the time, but which research and writing enabled me to understand in retrospect.
Mary: As you know better than anyone, Barrie, because the city writes itself on our bodies, and the body demands that we write back.
~ What is your connection to the city
or cities in your book?
James: Buffalo is a quintessential city of the end of the previous century because you still see in every corner there, coexisting, the beginnings of industry and the ends of industry. Each section of Buffalo Trace meditates on what it means to think in a space where making is at an end, where the old antithesis between reflection and action starts to seem a little ridiculous. We all “lived” in a space—the Buffalo English department—that was a pride of the city yet still defined by its marginality. How to think in a location where subsistence itself might always be, somehow, in question? That is a key concern of the book.
Jean: In the book, I call Buffalo a “Paris of the Rust Belt,” partly because SUNY Buffalo was a kind of “port of arrival” for French deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, and the French feminists; but also because it was there that I immersed myself in Samuel Beckett’s fiction, in French and English, via the infectious tutelage of metafiction writer Ray Federman. Odd as it may seem, Buffalo was my intellectual portal into l’amour et le mort, even more so than Quebec City, where I had lived the year before.
Mary: For the past 30 years, Jean and I have kept a framed map of New York state in our dining room. It has three dots we’ve marked in red on it—one in Buffalo; the others in Rochester and New York City. Buffalo is the place of our having found one another, and where the three of us—Jim, Jean, and I—converged, since we’d all come to pursue our Ph.D.’s in SUNY/Buffalo’s English program. Rochester was the place where I got my first job (at U of Rochester), while Jean’s first job was at Fordham University in the Bronx. These places birthed us in so many ways. I realize now that Buffalo was the first place I ever in my life traveled to by air! I have been buoyed ever since by the people I met there, the thinking and writing I did, the teachers, the friends, and lovers, oh and the snow, let’s not forget the snow.
~ What are your favorite books written from or about cities?
James: In Buffalo Trace, as always in my work, I spend a lot of time thinking about modernism, and the modernist monuments to urban space are among the movement’s great achievements. They may comprise the first generation of books that really take their life force from cities, from T. S. Eliot’s “unreal city” to Jean Rhys’s too-real ones (in every book but Wide Sargasso Sea), to Joyce’s paradoxically phantasmagorical documentaries of Dublin.
Jean: Malcolm Lowry’s Hear us O Lord from Heaven thy Dwelling Place (1961) or rather the story therein titled “The Forest Path to the Spring”—a rambling meditation on why one would want to squat at the tidal fringes of a city rather than live legitimately within it. D.J. Waldie’s spare and devastating Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (1996); I love this book for its formal discipline, and for some kind of magic it performs in seamlessly linking the intimacy of the author’s lived experience of his family home in Lakewood, CA with the sweeping history of postwar suburban housing tracts. Vikki Warner’s Tenemental: Adventures of a Reluctant Landlady (2018); what’s not to love about a memoir of feminist homeownership in my current hometown of Providence, Rhode Island? Warner bought one of the city’s West side triple-deckers and then perched on the top floor while maintaining affordable dwelling places below for tenants of modest income. The book also paints a vivid portrait of a small city on the verge of gentrification.
Mary: Henry James’ Italian Hours and all of the ways that James finds a language for a city’s textures, the city as failed love affair, or as epitomizer of refracted consciousness. I never tire of returning to James’ novelistic or diaristic cities. But more recently, thanks to Marc Lowenthal’s marvelous translation and his press (Wakefield), I’ve fallen in love with Georges Perec’s minimalist experiment, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Lowenthal’s afterword brought me to a writer I somehow missed all these years, to Daniel Spoerri and his Anecdoted Topography of Chance, which I experience as a collection of objects that make a city of the mind. I love anything and everything that Mary Beard writes on the daily lives and real people of Pompeii. I can never get enough of Natalia Ginsburg’s Rome, or Dacia Maraini’s Bagheria. Valeria Luiselli’s “Manifesto A Velo,” (from her collection, Sidewalks) is a beautiful argument for the necessary displacement of the modernist flaneur by a contemporary cycleur. As I love everything that Vivian Gornick writes, The Odd Woman and the City is a new favorite. Then there are children’s books that bring me back to all that is charming and devastating about cities—for instance, scale, noise, other people. I’m thinking of queer writers, Margaret Wise Brown’s The Noisy Book, and, more recently, Mike Curato’s Little Elliot, Big City. It’s not fair, I know, to bring in films (!), but Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary, Sacro GRA, a portrait of the people who live along the highway that forms a ring around Rome, is incredibly important to me. I’d love for some of Rosi’s deeply humane and unusual sensibility to rub off on me.
~ Why this book, about this city? What led you to write this book?
James: Among other things, Buffalo Trace is about what it means to pursue the study of a discipline that might be seen as a whimsical pursuit, in a location where just getting around is a struggle half the year. The upshot was that you had to think constantly about what was at stake. In Buffalo, where getting too comfortable could suggest a moral failing of sorts, it’s hard to take much of anything for granted.
Jean: Mary led the way for this project, having already completed her essay grounded in Buffalo. She inspired me to raid my diaries of the eighties to reconstruct what it was that made Buffalo the perfect place to pursue the “life of the mind”—or the lives of our minds together, as it turned out. Jim, Mary and I decided to make it a triptych of essays, and, over shots of a felicitously named bourbon, the book was born.
Mary: The death of my father led me to reach out to a former mentor from Buffalo, Martin Pops. I’d lost touch with him, but when I called him, I learned that, he, too, was in the last days of his life, and he asked if I’d come to see him. Jean, Jim, and I made this trip together after many decades away from the city. I had stolen a book from Marty when I was a grad student, and decided to bring it with me as a parting gift, as a sign of my love for him. The relationship between queer desire, love, and theft in Buffalo served as my essay’s starting point. The creation of a trialogical suite of essays, one by each of us, seemed like the natural next step.
~ What about writing the city gives you joy, and what gives you trouble?
James: Perhaps the same answer to both questions? To capture something of a city’s essence can be joyous; to try to can be agonizing.
Jean: I rejoice and am also troubled by the conundrum of whom I’m addressing in the two projects about cities that I’ve just completed. In the case of Buffalo, is it any city’s temporary inhabitants, like myself, who know it only through its institutes of higher education, but not as its long-term citizens? In the case of Vancouver, is it present-day Vancouverites who cherish a certain fantasy of past squatters on the waterfront, even as they forget their own status as “settler squatters” on what is rightfully First Nations territory? Is it city dwellers anywhere, who could draw analogies to their own lives from my recreations of these specific cities? Is it “today’s young people” in search of a glimpse of the city youth of a former generation?
Mary: The joy is in being taken unawares by a city’s rhythms, its music and its movements; the way that people or things dispose themselves in cities; a city’s requisite anonymity or expressivity; the allure of the city one can never see, the city inside the city. I often write toward or from states of alienation, so I suppose what gives me trouble is a city’s tendency to ask its inhabitants to identify with it or merge. Cities call for citizens, and I guess I’m trying to resist what is foreclosed by that relationship.
~ Why do you write nonfiction and do you write in other genres as well?
James: I write fiction, critical and scholarly nonfiction, and creative nonfiction. Each provides a different angle on the same set of questions, having to do with selfhood and otherness, self-consciousness and unconsciousness, mortality and transcendence—and the bracing impossibility of both.
Jean: I write researched critical books and essays as well as nonfiction. Sometimes I feel like the world behaves in such fictional ways that, for a nonfiction writer, the biggest challenge is to make it believable.
Mary: I was trained as a poet, and literary nonfiction allows me a poetics of witnessing. I work in a number of nonfiction genres from speculative essay to psycho-biography and cultural criticism, memoir and personal essay, from long-form, even book-length essay to short experiments in prose, assemblages, narrative and non-narrative nonfiction, and more recently something I’m calling “studies” in the manner of literary etudes. I’ve written some very odd fiction that, if I were ever to make it public, I would publish under a pseudonym.
~ If you could live and write in any city in the world, what city would that be, and how do you like to imagine yourself writing in that city?
James: I’ve lived for substantial periods of time in four great American cities—in the Midwest (Detroit, Michigan), the northeast (Buffalo, New York), the southeast (Raleigh, North Carolina), and the southwest (Los Angeles, California). Each of these has a not-quite status—the two rust-belt towns are really neither quite Midwestern nor quite northeastern, though they have legitimate claims to both; Raleigh is not-quite southern (note the NORTH in North Carolina!); Los Angeles is not-quite-anywhere, a space of manufactured fantasies and images without referents. These places live in my work as concrete fragments—every piece of fiction or creative nonfiction I have written has a specific locale in the geography of my imagination, most of them distinct composites of these composite places (as they all blend together in certain corners of my mind). America as the Not-Quite Place—that is when it’s bearable, when it hasn’t already hardened yet again into its old self. At least in my writing, I’ll continue to live in all four cities; their not-quite-ness defines me and my work.
Jean: For years, I longed to return to the city of my youth, Vancouver, British Columbia, precisely as an environment and an archive for writing; and I did manage to get there for a few months of research (ironically, during the Occupy Vancouver movement). My own personal nostalgia fed the original impulse to do this, but the finished project turned out to be more of a probing of Vancouver’s own nostalgia for a myth about itself, born of a utopian community of squatters on its tidal north shore, squatters who were mediatized and documented before their shacks were torched and bulldozed in the early 1970s. Mudflat Dreaming (New Star Books) is the result of my “return” to a city that exists no more, or that exists only as a foreclosed fantasy of what it could have been.
Mary: Since I’m convinced I write best in the uncluttered quiet of a summer cabin in Maine with nothing but Jean, my garden, and our cat for company, that’s a hard one to answer. Right now, too many of my favorite cities have been overrun by new forms of conservatism, and then there is the grotesque privilege of one’s own mobility to reckon with. Dreaming myself as a writer citizen into those places seems a bit colonialist, and it’s hard as an American not to be a tourist no matter where we go. I most enjoy going to the “place” that other people’s art provides while teetering precariously on the scary scaffolding of my own imagination. I don’t need to leave home to find those places. But, if I must: I want to be in a place where I can hear a voice, language, and sensibility other than my own. I believe I could write contentedly in any of the towns in the Madonie mountains in Sicily.
Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration
Mary Cappello, James Morrison, Jean Walton
ISBN 978-1-947980-16-7 pbk.
ISBN 978-1-947980-18-1 hdc.
Buffalo Trace Publication Date: September 4, 2018
Click here to read the Slag Glass City publication of excerpts from Buffalo Trace and bios of the three authors.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 4 · August 2018
Image Header: “Redevelopment” by Payton Chung..
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