Saturday, October 09, 2010

C.P. Cavafy and His Histories of Desire

His mind has grown sick from lust.
The kisses have stayed on his mouth.
All his flesh suffers from the persistent desire.
The touch of that body is over him.
He longs for union with him again.

Naturally he tries not to betray himself.
But sometimes he is almost indifferent.
Besides, he knows to what he is exposing himself,
he has made up his mind. It is not unlikely that this life
of his may bring him to a disastrous scandal.

The overwhelming thing that you take away from the poetry of Constatine Cavafy, a part-time clerk and Greek poet of the early 20th century, is desire. It’s his sustenance, nurturing him in the dark alleyways of Alexandria, where he lived for most of his life.

The impulse of his needs, skin on skin, human connection, is greater than all of the expected punishments of inevitable scandals. Dishwashers, tailor’s assistants, grocery boys briefly and passionately interrupt the loneliness of Cavafy’s nocturnal landscape. They’re the air he breathes.

But in the mix of these drives of desire are historical poems that trace through the old histories of the Hellenic period. Cavafy viewed himself as a poet-historian, which meant that he viewed all human conduct, his own included, through the lens of recorded time.

The juxtaposition of such intense personal narratives alongside the probings of Greek history create a unique commentary on life, brief sexual trysts in the shadows mixing with the grand, tragic sweeps of Greek history.

Cavafy was a man who lived in the background—even preferred obscurity as a simple clerk—so it’s no surprise that he’s drawn to the stories of the insignificant and uses “insignificance” as a backdrop and counterpoint to “significance,” altering the traditional notion of history.

When reading a collection of Ptolemaic inscriptions he discovers “a tiny,/insignificant reference to King Caesarion”:

Ah, see, you came with your vague
fascination. In history only a few
lines are found about you,
and so I molded you more freely in my mind.
I molded you handsome and full of sentiment.
My art gives your features
a dreamy compassionate beauty.

It’s art, the ability to mold his desires, to transform life into something dreamy and compassionate, that saves Cavafy, even though its salvation is a lonely affair. Later in “Caesarion,” he imagines that Caesarion enters his room:

You seemed to stand before me as you must have been
In vanquished Alexandria,
Wan and weary, idealistic in your sorrow,
Still hoping that they would pity you,
The wicked—who murmured “Too many Caesars.”

As his desires wend through battles and conquests and downfalls, Cavafy almost celebrates human foibles in his recognition and identification of them. His poems force questions about the very record of history and how it so frequently leaves out the nuances of human imperfections and desires as a way to understand life.

Cavafy wrote unwaveringly about his homosexuality and embraced the possibility of scandal. It’s interesting how gay literature often puts our prim moral code in question these days—begging the question of why straight literature seems unable to do the same (there are no more Henry Millers, Charles Bukowskis, only middle-class domestic dramas).

Straight people, white straight people in particular, have to live vicariously through others’ decadence—truly “othering” such impulses—pretending, it seems so often, to possess no decadence of their own.

Shame on you Bill Clinton, shame on you Eliot Spitzer. It’s easy to bash our scandalous public figures, and although Clinton and Spitzer might not deserve any accolades for their transgressions, after reading Cavafy, I can imagine our contemporary history being written by a poet-historian in the far future, and perhaps the narrative will be of simple lost souls seeking a moment of tenderness, a connection between heart and life that’s forbidden—the part of the story left out of CNN's coverage.

Cavafy’s poetry has this effect of providing the subtext of history, of life, that all too often we don’t want to acknowledge or explore because it’s easier to damn (at least as a good American).

In his poem, “In a Famous Greek Colony, 200 B.C.,” Cavafy writes,

To be sure, and unfortunately, the Colony has many shortcomings.
However, is there anything human without imperfection?
And, after all, look, we are going forward.

In a culture that so often strives for perfection and chastises others for their “blemishes,” I wonder if we are going forward. Cavafy shows that a life lived within one’s imperfections instead of one’s perfections (if that’s the right way to put it) might be the more meaningful one.

Perfections tend to have a sharp, bright glare after all. There’s a peace to find with a life in the shadows. Nuances. A realization that we’re unable to see everything clearly. Humility. Even progress perhaps.

For in the end, our imperfections create a life of surprises, explorations, a life that is worth examining. In “Their Beginning,” Cavafy writes of two lovers rising from the mattress, walking furtively and uneasily on the street afterward, knowing that their “deviate, sensual delight/is done.”

But how the life of the artist has gained.
Tomorrow, the next day, years later, the vigorous verses
Will be composed that had their beginning here.

For more, check out Daniel Mendelsohn's new translation, C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Literary Magazines on the Make?

Writers tend to be a gullible, desperate lot. They’re easy to pinch for a few bucks even if they’re broke. At least when it comes to the prospect of getting published. Or finding out how to get published. Or paying for the idea that their work might, just might, be considered for publication.

Just look at the writing section in any bookstore. It seems as if everyone on the planet wants to be a writer and will spend ten bucks on a seemingly infinite number of how-to-write-fiction books written by previously unpublished authors (I’m currently working on book about how to buy how-to-write books…kidding, just in case some poor sob of an aspiring writer was getting ready to contact me for an advance copy).

(But if you did want to contact me about such a book, I’d love to talk with you about any number of ventures I have in mind, such as the funding I need for my “How to Write Like Grant Faulkner Workshop” that I have planned next summer in Paris.)

Don’t worry, this is all leading up to something….

Literary magazines have long been the tireless mules of publishing, except that unlike mules, lit mags breed like rabbits on Viagra. That’s a good thing (although they die like lemmings). Whether funded by universities or by grants or by love—or all three if they're lucky—lit journals have had the responsibility of slogging through submissions of every soon-to-be great author and every wanna-be poet. Thousands of them. Millions of them.

But really, who thanks them in the end? Answer: nobody.

So I don’t begrudge lit mags for trying to make ends meet or even to make a buck. But I’d like to see them do it in a legitimate way—e.g., people paying for the product they produce or the advertising in that product or the writing classes they put on or something that seems like a service.

Unfortunately, some lit mags are now focused on making a buck from the desperado writers (present company included) who keep the whole boat afloat by buying the how-to books, the novels, the lit magazines.

Take Narrative Magazine, which charges $20 for a prose submission, but for that fee you don’t know if they’ve read the first sentence, the first paragraph, or the first page. You don’t know that with any magazine, of course, but for $20, the magazine should include at least a single comment about one thing they’ve read. Otherwise, well, I’m not so sure that they’re just not publishing their friends or the writers they want to sleep with.

I’m sympathetic, yet suspicious.

Tin House has a much better approach. It requires “writers submitting unsolicited manuscripts to the magazine to include a receipt for a book purchased from a bookstore.” That’s a policy for the general good of publishing and doesn’t charge a writer for, well, writing.

Likewise many lit contests, such as the Missouri Review’s Editors’ Prize, give a one-year subscription to the mag for the entry fee. Fair enough.

But I’m worried about a trend where those writers who are without the lit connections, MFA degrees, etc., pay to have their submissions read. These are the people who are likely funding the whole shebang. They’re desperados, beautiful hopeful souls who are easily suckered because they have a dream or an urgent (likely self-destructive) need to put life to words.

I’m one of them. So please don’t charge me $$ just for wanting to be a writer. Or at least give me something in return. A mug? A t-shirt?

The New Pages blog has some good perspectives on this as well.

Good luck 'ye of much faith.