Memoir and Essay
Michael Gottlieb’s recently-published Memoir and Essay arrives at a moment when the alternative literary memoir of the late 20th century has been dominated for several years by a multi-volume West Coast project called The Grand Piano, an exercise of collective literary autobiography by 10 of its Bay Area practitioners. That project, naturally, exposed a huge vacuum on the East Coast regarding similar undertakings. What, no interest? With all of that monomania sloshing around the literary scenes in New York, one might expect more literary memoirs would have been published by now, even among avant-garde movements represented here in the Rust Belt.
More specifically, it comes as a surprise to receive this book from a member of the so-called Language Poetry movement (or “tendency,” if one insists on using that term), a group of writers in whose work any reference to the author’s personality, or popular tendencies of narrative and symbolism, are explicitly avoided. As Bruce Andrews stated at the 2007 “Language Poetry and the Body” panel at the Bowery Poetry Club, “It took a pass on most of that.” Additionally, the writing studiously eschewed the self-mythologizing agendas of some of the more vocal Beats and second-generation New York School poets. In their view, one Frank O’Hara was enough; it was unnecessary to turn him into a cottage industry. Ditto for “speech-centered” poetry and direct polemical, expository “talk.”
In “The Empire City,” the memoir part of Memoir and Essay, Gottlieb lands us in a particular period in the history of the literary practice of the author and his colleagues: from his college years in the late 1960s, on through the 1970s, when several writers began to coalesce in the usual ways; meetings in apartments, bars and restaurants; correspondence; publication in early Language-centered, mimeo-and-stapled magazines; and plenty of mind-blowing readings. It begins with a sort-of-disclaimer in the form of its introduction, where Gottlieb delineates his motives, doubts, and qualified acceptance of his present position with which to embark on a possibly uncomfortable task; his joy in feeling the freedom to paint a subjective representative portrait of an exciting decade in literary innovation; and his desire to share certain vignettes that would have been unlikely to have been written by his colleagues. One wonders if the shadow of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” motivates a memoirist to recount the incidents Gottlieb does in his eloquent manner, wondering aloud if future poetic movements are even possible (notwithstanding the existence of “post-avant” movements like Flarf and Conceptualism). This is an anxiety worth discarding in any case; Hannah Weiner, the only clairvoyant on the New York literary scene, is long gone and has not been replaced as of this date.
Beginning with his college years, his fear of conscription in the Vietnam War, and his literary growing pains at Bennington, Gottlieb traces his steps to New York and details the survival-related issues a would-be artist continues to experience in a city that resembles a perpetual motion machine, from the perspective of one of its modules. But the focus of Memoir is all of the joy of the beloved bookstore (Gotham Book Mart), archetypical Manhattan eatery (Chock Full o’ Nuts), emblematic West Village drinkery (The White Horse), awesome landmark Soho reading space/eatery/drinkery (Ear Inn); and the igniting influence of great artists in all media who were in such proximity as to negate one’s fear of penury and marginality wafting around a sometimes cruel and indifferent, yet pathologically dynamic New York City. Merce Cunningham and protégés like Douglas Dunn; Agnes Martin and her profound influence on a young writer’s desire for the universally sought-after permission slip to create as one pleases, not to feel strangled by tradition; and as well, the artistic dedication and excellence of Jackson Mac Low, John Cage, and many more innovators who challenged one’s personal and artistic perceptions; and the colleagues who feed off one another in sometimes uncomfortable but ultimately constructive ways: Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews when they were editing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Ray DiPalma, Ted Greenwald, and most centrally, Alan Davies, Gottlieb’s first publisher and later his dear friend. When this reviewer met them as a college student in the late 1970s, they appeared, in attire as well as temperament, as inseparable Siamese twins, conjoined at the seltzer bottle and watercress sandwich.
The representative cast of characters show up in Memoir in a manner that gives a realistic and joyful depiction of what it is like to be somewhere in a decade when something is palpably happening. As in any honest recounting, Gottlieb does not sanitize his writing to suit present political winds. If his circle of writers includes few, if any, women, one is justifiably uncomfortable in reading this, but one must place it in its time. Soon enough, feminist theory and practice would, in many artistic environments, dispense with the old boy’s club for good; so that by the 1980s, even unintended misogyny seemed quite faint in literary circles. In between the collegial and intellectually head-butting encounters, there are the apartments, jobs, and the curious obsession with image and wardrobe (for those uptown non-schlumps who bothered with such things). One need not criticize the latter; New York can push a person into multiple channels, and ultimately it doesn’t matter in a literary memoir, because a serious writer’s life’s work should properly trump his/her work life.
So why—as Gottlieb admits freely and nervously in his introduction—is there little about the actual content of the work being produced by the early Language poets? To use the metaphor of the “Chinese wall”, intended to isolate investment banks from their brokerages, it is perhaps a strategy to allow the writing to be the writing, and the life to be the life. And since Language-centered writing had no interest in the personal, mingling the two would have provided an inaccurate picture of what was going on inside the head of a Charles Bernstein, an Alan Davies, or of the author himself. To use another tired metaphor, the scene in Gottlieb’s Memoir of the 1970s resembles nothing so much as a bee colony, with necessary forays into the world to take care of sometimes annoying, sometimes pleasant survival activities (jobs, dinner, attending readings of poets who belittled their work); then the return to the hive for the serious business of pulling apart the English language, reconstituting it, and throwing it back at the producers of official newspeak, advertising, all the rest of mainstream media’s verbal content, and—whether intended or not—those literary circles who were, in the view of the Language poets, constrained by the mucky normative language of personal narrative and overwrought lyricism.
The smaller “essay” part of Memoir and Essay, titled “Jobs of the Poets”, is intended, as the author recounted in a phone conversation, to be a kind of “letter to a young writer.” In form, it consists of 32 brief, numbered sections, almost all of which are posed questions, printed in italics at the top of a page. In each section, the questions are answered by—more questions. It is in “Jobs of the Poets”, that Gottlieb slams the young reader (presumably a recent arrival to the Matrix) with all of the excruciating challenges s/he will face for his/her foolishness at the decision to move to New York and be a poet. Here, Gottlieb really pours it on: every doubt about pursuing poetry as an (unpaid) vocation; every anxiety about approval from older, more experienced writers; the reality that unlike the visual artist, musician, or filmmaker (who can sell out anytime), poets rarely achieve rockstar status, so one had better be prepared to accept marginality in the public’s ever-more-distracted eyes. This is what you will face: if you are willing to sacrifice public fawning to practice serious letters, your colleagues’ respect will nourish you and you will be satisfied.
Gottlieb states in “The Empire City,” in interpreting the motivations of his older colleague, poet Ted Greenwald:
“I want to think that he saw something in me that reminded him of himself.
And I want to think it was that which accounted for the stories he told:... Back when people took poetry seriously, and folks got hooted down if they couldn’t cut the mustard, when no quarter was offered or given, when favors were offered or denied, and nothing was forgotten. It was a tough-eyed take on the poetry world, unblinking, unsentimental, unforgiving. It was a perspective that was new to me and while shocking in some of its details, the sooner I acquainted myself with it, the better off, or at least, the better armed, I would be...”
As a fitting allegory, anyone wondering why a rabbi is supposed to thrice turn away the potential convert, “Jobs of the Poets” pretty much nails it. This is what you will have to deal with; this might not sit well with your parents up in Westchester. The passage quoted above may be looked at as hyperbole by members of other literary circles, past and present, but Gottlieb cares enough about good writing to want to leave something for a young poet to chew on. If Ted Greenwald has never articulated in print the views the author attributes to him, the latter certainly has put his experiences with the former to good use. It is a moving tribute to an elder who made a deep impression. And Greenwald is not the only one: “The Empire City” places those important relationships with colleagues and predecessors front and center.
Michael Gottlieb’s Memoir and Essay is packed with nostalgia for the energy of his early years in New York, and at times slides into regret and all sorts of self-questioning, but that in no way equals buyer’s remorse. Why else include the “Jobs of the Poets” section, if not to employ a little face-slapping to toughen the greenhorn?