Books In Conversation
Aaron Angello’s The Fact of Memory
The Fact of Memory: 114 Ruminations and Fabrications
(Rose Metal Press, 2022)
Aaron Angello’s new collection of lyric essays, The Fact of Memory, is the result of a daily practice stemming over some four months. It consists of one short meditation for every word in Shakespeare’s twenty-ninth sonnet (“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”), written every morning for 114 consecutive days. Alongside its emphasis on structure, Angello’s collection revels in the gap: the open space without a railing, the leap readers must make on their own, without the help of explication or transition.
We spoke at his dining room table one Saturday in March, with a bottle of wine, a bag of popcorn, and our two dogs running around in his backyard.
Amy Gottfried (Rail): This is very much a book of and about discipline: a daily practice. But it’s also a book about the unknown (maybe all good books are): you sat down every day not knowing what you were going to write.
Aaron Angello: Yes, the writing process was very constraint-based. I had a six-by-nine sketchbook, and I wrote the whole sonnet, one word, on top of each page in sequential order. I would sit in the same place every morning, and I would just wait until I was ready to start writing. My two self-imposed rules were that I couldn’t stop writing until the whole page was full, but I couldn’t continue once it was. Beyond that, I wanted to make room for whatever sort of weird associations that might come, to allow for strangeness to happen. There’s a lot of disjunction within the individual pieces. Even though they look like essays, I’ve always thought of these pieces as poems. Really, they’re proems.
Rail: Speaking of disjunction, so many of these pieces give us an intimate glimpse of the speaker’s life, and then immediately pull away to something totally unconnected, as if to undercut the notion of autobiography. I think the ending of “Remembered” does this most overtly, when the speaker says, “This is not a confession. I made all this up.” It’s a moment that seems to overturn a lot of what we’ve just read, and reminds us that it’s a piece of crafted writing. Were you ever thinking deliberately about how these go together?
Angello: I don’t know if I was consciously doing this, at first. In creative nonfiction, one of the characteristics is the veracity of the speaker. We know the author is telling the truth, but the truth is always subjective. So one of the things I was exploring was how memory and truth co-exist, and are not necessarily the same thing. And also how a writer can diverge from “the truth” of memory and get closer to an actual truth.
There are a couple of times in the book where I say, “None of this is true, I’m making all this up”—and usually that’s because I’ve said something really true and I’ve thought, “Maybe I’d better lie about it.” [Laughs] But there are other times when I’ve said, “This actually happens; it’s true.” And that’s also true.
This wasn’t intentional, but the entire book comes out like a weird sort of memoir. Initially, I was thinking of these as individual pieces connected only by the practice of writing them. Sometimes I wrote a completely fictional piece; sometimes I wrote an entire account of an experience. But as a whole, the book functions as a long lyric essay exploring a life through the author’s memory. And I’m perfectly comfortable not separating myself from the speaker throughout. The one thing that determines creative nonfiction as a genre—if you want to call it a genre—is that the I is associated with the writer. That’s not the case in fiction or poetry; only in creative nonfiction are we saying, “Well, this is me, folks.” And that’s why this book becomes a lyric essay. I make up a lot of stuff in the book—if anyone thinks differently, they’re not reading it very closely—but overall, this is one hundred percent a book about Aaron Angello. It’s my story. It’s my stories.
Rail: And so many of these essays take real risks, which is what makes them so powerful. You said there’s nothing that makes you uncomfortable: how did you overcome that fear?
Angello: I wouldn’t say there’s nothing that makes me uncomfortable. In fact, everything makes me uncomfortable. Having a book like this published is terribly uncomfortable. And then when galleys are sent out to possible reviewers, or people you know and respect, I hate it. I’m so concerned that someone will say, “Oh, this isn’t good.”
Rail: Isn’t that true of publishing in general? There is a real joy in not being published: you’re safe. Whatever you do, you’re still doing the work, but it’s not so scary. There’s no public judgment.
Angello: But art is about communicating, and connecting between people. You can write in a journal, but I don’t think that makes you a writer. You can do Hamlet monologues in a mirror all day long, but until you get up in front of people and do it, you’re not really an actor.
In terms of taking risks in this book, there are clearly things in my past that I feel uncomfortable about. For example, the piece when I’m walking down the street in New York City with my girlfriend at the time. This big guy came up and spoke rudely to her, and I said something like “You don’t talk to a man’s woman that way.” I don’t think that way about women at all today: I don’t subscribe to that ownership of a person. I would hope the reader understands that this was a particular way of being at a particular time in the past. But I don’t want to shy away from things I did that are unappealing.
I don’t think you can write anything if you’re trying to make yourself look good. That doesn’t work. I teach actors this, too: if you’re concerned about looking good as an actor, you’re not going to do good work. What makes actors compelling is their complexity, who they are as human beings. So, I left material in that doesn’t represent me in the best light, with the hope that the reader will understand that it’s part of a very complex person who grows and changes.
Rail: Certain images and moments recur from essay to essay: the orange peel on the coffee table. Sitting on the rooftop in NYC drinking wine. It’s clear that these are powerful memories, though not always remembered in the same way. They’re metaphors, too. Even New York itself is a metaphor, maybe more so than any other place in the book. The orange peel I find particularly evocative and complicated. I still don’t know what “the lyric is an orange peel on the coffee table” means, but I know it means something.
Angello: I don’t know if I can tell you what it means, either. I recently taught Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” in my course on experimental forms, and her basic thesis is that the analytic approach to literature is such a systemic, patriarchal way of reading it. I don’t think Sontag is arguing against analyzing literature—she does it so well—but rather, she’s asking us to look at what literature is doing, rather than figure out what it means. Analyzing what it means turns it into something we master, we control, instead of something we experience.
The end of her essay advocates for what she calls an “erotics of art”—essentially experiencing art. I love that. That’s what I hope is occurring in those moments where the orange peel appears. You can sit and try to think of what the peel represents, but it’s not about trying to intellectualize what’s happening. It’s about the sensual, bodily experience of the orange peel: the scent, the weight, the shape of it. That’s what resonates for us. And losing that is what makes so many people—like college students—say they hate poetry. But so often people don’t hate poetry. What they hate is feeling like there’s an answer that they’re supposed to be able to come up with, and they can’t come up with it, and someone tells them they’re wrong. That’s not what poetry’s about. If you can write next to a poem what a poem means, then get rid of the poem and just write that. The purpose of the poem is not to explain itself: it’s to have a sensual experience.
Rail: I think that’s one of the things the book does so beautifully: by getting rid of the connections, by not explaining. The orange peel appears when the mother and the boy are together; she sings a song to him, the song is an orange peel on the coffee table, and we don’t need to know any more than that. But there’s also a way in which I see the orange peel and I too enter into the memory.
Angello: Yes! That’s what should happen when we read good literature. We experience it. It’s one of the things I try to teach creative writing students all the time: the reason we use specificity and details is that we’re trying to create an experience for a reader, and the more surprising that description or image is, the more the reader’s going to have an actual experience. I think that’s what literature’s for. That’s why we do it.
Rail: So, earlier you called these “proems,” which brings up the question of genre. What is a proem: a prose poem? A lyric essay?
Angello: Well, this manuscript can attest to the fact that I think genre is a very limiting concept, a false way of thinking about things. Genre is constantly undermining itself. I think everything is poetry: writing began as poetry, and it was tied to music, and the original epic poems of Homer. It was always poetry, and I think it still is poetry. Some people write poetry in prose, and some write in short blocks of prose, and some write in one hundred twenty-five thousand words of prose. But finally, generic distinction to me is not all that interesting. It’s much more interesting to let the content determine what it needs out of that piece.
Rail: That makes me think of your “And” essays, or proems. One of them you call an aggregate, and a number of them follow that pattern.
Angello: The “Ands” are very prose-poemy in their approach. I approached them really thinking about the form, and working—I might be contradicting myself now—but this is what the content was dictating. I was starting with form here, deciding to work with this kind of accretion.
Rail: A chair, and a table, and a book: there’s almost a folk-tale quality to this.
Angello: I had a specific image from childhood. A lot of these are early childhood memories, so a lot of the imagery comes from being in Cripple Creek, and things I saw and thought there. But not always. And I rewrote a couple of pieces entirely, using the same process, and added a lot to some other ones, just in the last year, based on my editors’ requests. And I’m in such a different place now. Revising this manuscript has been tricky because part of what gives it its coherence is the place it was written and the way it was written. When that shifts, then it’s difficult to get back to it.
Rail: I wonder if the “And” pieces are saying that this is what your life is: it’s an aggregate, it’s this and this and this. The rest of it you make sense of, and you change what it means, and you change how you make sense of it.
Angello: Starting with “And”: what do you do with that? The “Ands” are some of my favorite ones. And is a kind of connection, a collection, and it makes for a fun way to think through something.
Rail: Moving on to your endings : I’m really interested in how you get from A to B to Z. I’m a sucker for a good ending, and I have 114 here. Every single one. So few of these proems have clear endings. For instance, “Such”: “There was no levity in her face. She would not accept.” This was the apology. It’s one of the more brutally honest pieces, you actually take us all the way through an event here, which is unusual in this text. The connections in the other pieces are more shadowy for me; for example, “Then” on page 106 closes like this: “The bodhisattva sleeps in the slow-moving air,” which—whatever else it is—is definitely a poem. Or “Cries”: “A coldness on the skin in the room where that thing happened.” And also “Disgrace.” So, how did you get to these endings? When did you know a piece had found its ending?
Angello: I don’t know if I can answer that question, but I can tell you how I feel about endings. And it’s not just me; most people who take poems seriously think this way. Allen Grossman’s The Sighted Singer has this idea of poetry of aperture versus poetry of closure. That really resonates with me. I’m much more interested in poems that open up at the end instead of the ones that close down. I don’t like things that wrap up in bows; I’m much more interested in a poem’s opening up a space for more questions and more thoughts. I never try to get to a point where there’s an answer that’s given. As far as how to get to endings, I don’t think there’s a prescription for how to do it. It’s intuitive.
What I try to do is this: to find something that resonates with me. How do you identify what that is? How do you define it? You can’t: it just has that kind of resonance. I allow the piece to go where it goes.
Rail: Now that we’re thinking about endings, let’s go back to the beginning: can you talk about the title?
Angello: When I was working on the title with the Rose Metal Press editors, Kathleen Rooney and Abigail Beckel, we came up with The Fact of Memory, which is a line from one of the pieces, and we realized, “Oh of course, it’s about memory, self-narrativizing.” But that’s clear only when you look at the entire book.
And every time you re-engage a memory, it’s another act of creation. Apparently, the more you remember an event, the farther you get from the actual truth of that event. It’s like the game of telephone: the more people repeat it, the farther we get from the original thing. The implications of that are huge—in the criminal justice system, for instance. Our experience of the world is entirely subjective, and then recounting the subjective experience, makes it more and more subjective the more you do it. Part of the fun of the whole collection is acknowledging constantly that it’s not all true, and letting the reader try to figure out what is true, and what isn’t. Honestly, I can’t say that I know what’s true and what’s not true.
I think I’m telling the truth, but I may very well be lying. Or I know I’m lying here, but is there some truth in the way I’m lying? The whole thing is so weird, trying to work in truth. My God, how do we even determine what’s true?