Saturday, November 6, 2010

On Jason Schneiderman's "Striking Surface"

With so many people scurrying for an English department job, and creative non-fiction vacancies the most available, you see a lot of poets padding their resumes with unimaginative memoir. Not very many applicants truly move beyond the idea of creative non-fiction as autobiography. It’s easy to make the useless claim that “good” creative non-fiction blurs boundaries, or even worse, that the genre can’t be truly defined. It’s an embarrassment to hear someone claim that they don’t want the label to pigeonhole them or ask why allow your art to be categorized, packaged, and then ignored anyway.

One of the many wonderful things about Jason Schneiderman’s second book of poems Striking Surface is that it single-handedly provides new areas of exploration for the genre. I can imagine that some people may say the book is too prosaic or frigid, but those people would most often be the typical anti-intellectuals, afraid of anything that doesn't offer plot and characterization. The irony is that the most heartfelt poems in Schneiderman's book are the ones that don’t deal with trademark autobiographical subjects, or in fact, avoid the blatantly personal altogether.

It’s easy to identify the collection’s best poems: “Susan Kohner (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life),” “Pedophile,” “Carmen Miranda,” “Symbolic,” “First Mouse,” and “I Love You and All You Have Made.” His gutsy elegies to his dead mother try to recast the elegy as schtick —an ambitious, but unsatisfying, project. I do hope another poet, or even Schneiderman, continues that intellectual endeavor. I love when characteristically pejorative words find new meanings and reveal unexpected value.

It’s always annoyed me that the term "creative non-fiction" was most likely invented as a way of marginalizing scholarly writing. You can still hear the underlying arguments from the artistic camp: we academic and create writers may be both engaged in non-fiction but artists don’t rely on that theoretical gibberish-- what those hacks study who can’t get their own art published. We. Are. Creative.

In the excellent poem "Susan Kohner (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life)," Schneiderman analyzes the issue of race in the film. The four-sectioned poem begins with the guiding question:

If it’s true that what it means to be black
is inextricably bound up with what it means
to be white, that whiteness is ultimately
a byproduct of the production of blackness,
then what should I have learned
about Sandra Dee and Lana Turner?

As the poem continues to evolve, the poem becomes more special for not only what it includes, but what it chooses to omit. The poem doesn’t rely on a more predictable analysis of white liberal guilt—its self awareness comes through in the faux self mockery of lines like these:

I’m a bad person, always wanting
the expedient, the practical, the easy.

At the end of the movie,
when Sarah Jane comes home

for the funeral, and the flowers
are everywhere, and Mahalia Jackson

is in full voice, I want Sarah Jane
to go-to get back in her car,

to go be white. She fought so hard
for it. It seems like she ought

to get to keep it.

It would be incorrect to see this poem as one that could be as effective if written in prose. Or as one too many critics claim about more discursive poetics works: “it’s prose broken into lines.” As if brokenness is a bad thing, or that brokenness can’t be of value still. Here, there is more than a singular instance, of the break advancing and complicating the line of inquiry: the “wanting” signifies an attachment to the camp element of the movie; the intriguing cross identification with race and gender; a simple advance of the fun machinations of the plot; and a smart disclosure of his own complicity in the subtle, aversive racism. Furthermore, the line breaks intensify the complications of these feelings with the sense of simultaneity it creates.

Schneiderman’s poems show a way of subverting that limited way of thinking, producing poems that are a hybrid of the artistic and theoretical. Perhaps no other poem in the book does this better than “Pedophile.”

It deals with a narrator and his presumably graduate school friend who are engaged in an uncomfortable political discussion: should a thirteen-year-old boy convicted of a crime and given a life sentence, tried as an adult, be able to have legally consensual sex with a grown man?

His friend argues yes: “...if killing someone is the kind of adult action that makes you an adult, then what the hell is a blow job.”

What is remarkable about this poem is that it doesn’t merely present what some people may see as an intellectual-gamesmanship argument based on a hypothetical, but, as the poem continues, does something completely different. It reveals the paranoia gay men internalize involved in talking about the subject--the self-censorship created in talking about certain subjects, precisely because of homophobia. If a gay man mentions the word, there is always the fear-- even by gay men themselves-- foisted on them through years of bigoted false accusations, that their gay identities will be conflated with such an act.

As the poem evolves, the narrator forces himself to disengage from the valid intellectual inquiry. He can’t help to give in to an unethical and unkind pathology of his friend. Irrationally, the narrator struggles with the idea, even though there is absolutely no evidence for any sort of assumption, that his friend, Kevin, may be broaching the subject for personal reasons. The tragic-comedy of the self-enforced queer anti-intellectualism is summed up in the deadpan closure: “I’m also wondering how I can get out of this conversation. There’ll be no more coffee dates to discuss Derrida, at least not with Kevin.”

In the second section of the book, eight different elegies to his mother, Schneiderman goes for a sense of artlessness, which he may understandably be trying to convince himself is a form of emotionalism. He writes, “...I can grieve/you forever. But I wanted you here in the middle/of my book. Not a complaint about what I lost/or what it feels like to lose it. But you. Your smile./Your denim dress.” Schneiderman’s implicit exasperation with being unable to capture "the real" through the mundane feels a bit false. In these elegies, he seems to be trying too hard to create a counterpoint to the more intellectual endeavors in the book.

I prefer the parts of the elegies which are deliberate schtick—a simultaneous embrace and dismissal of dealing with the emotional matters at hand. Here’s an ending to one of the sections: “...I Asked if Dad knew/you were punishing him, and you said, No,/he just thinks I’m lazy. And I said, “How’s/that working out for you, and you said, Just fine.” With these particular elegies and the consideration of Schneiderman’s strengths, the punchline offers a tragic-comic resolution to the grief, or at least temporary relief, and what more can you ask for, when speaking to ghosts? I think when he relies on pure wit, the desire to entertain, he honors the ghost of his mother much more effectively than when he attempts to coddle her spirit with mushy sentimentalities—a deliberate false, even if sincere, artlessness.

Aside from those minor problems, I can say that Schneiderman’s book is one of the most exciting I’ve read this year. And I hope that award committees which often find themselves wary of intellectualism for intellectualism’s sake, find that the act of rigorous thinking may be the most sincere kind of emotionalism of all.

Jason Schneiderman's Striking Surface is available by clicking on the book image (above) or through Ashland Poetry Press


  1. In what world are Nonfiction jobs the most available? There are easily twice as many Fiction jobs...

  2. nice article...

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