Eds. Rob Halpern & Robin Tremblay-McGaw, From Our Hearts to Yours: New Narrative as Contemporary Practice (ON Contemporary Practice, 2017)
Review by erica kaufman
Editors Rob Halpern and Robin Tremblay-McGaw open From Our Hearts to Yours: New Narrative as Contemporary Practice with a reflective and informative introductory essay, “A Generosity of Response’: New Narrative as Contemporary Practice.” Rather than labeling this entryway an introduction, Halpern and Tremblay-McGaw set a generous and inclusive tone, as readers are welcomed into this volume, “the first comprehensive anthology of essays regarding New Narrative writing and community practices by a younger generation of practitioners and scholars.” My own exposure to New Narrative writing came via moments like hearing Camille Roy at an early Belladonna* event or listening to Gail Scott read from My Paris at The Poetry Project. These readings led to conversations that led to my own voracious reading, which then led to more conversations, and the cycle continues to continue. This ethos of text as an occasion to connect and correspond is one of the many things that From Our Hearts to Yours foregrounds. Rather than define New Narrative,Halpern and Tremblay-McGaw curate a space for readers to interact, asking ourselves, “Why New Narrative now? Or, What are the stakes of New Narrative for our contemporary moment?” (8)
The essays included in this volume approach these questions through various lenses, many beginning with the kind of “storytelling” that is central to any understanding of New Narrative past or present— what Halpern and Tremblay-McGaw refer to as “the criticaland imaginative values of identity and storytelling for a formally innovative and activist writing” (7). Cathy Wagner’s contribution comes in the form of “A Letter to the New Narrator,” making use of the epistolary form to explore “what you are trying to do when you name names” (17). Arnold J. Kemp’s “Situations” offers a lyric essay approach to Kathy Acker’s influence, as well as a reflection on “the 1991 exhibition Situation: perspectives on work by lesbian and gay artists” (49). Kemp describes his own experience of these “bridges between artists and writers and sensibilities and concerns that were queer, local, and rooted innarratives that probed collective fictions of persons, personality, and sexual politics” (51). Through the sharing of these experiences, the reader gets a sense of New Narrative both experientially and theoretically. Kemp’s recounting of first meeting Acker evolves into a “hope to convene a studiobased seminar” that would involve “collectively author[ing] a character who is both an artist and a passionate aficionado of Acker”—this is kind of plot that reverberates with the vital collaborative and communal power of New Narrative. Instead of writing about Acker, Kemp follows the influence and associative threads his own experience with this work sparked in him, ultimately situating an ongoing engagement with the work in the present tense of a classroom/studio.
Out of the twenty-four essays included in From Our Hearts to Yours, nineteen include the first person pronoun, “I,” within the first few sentences of the piece. Stephanie Young’s “My Bad Education” begins, “I heard Camille Roy read from An Alien View at a 2015 release event for Amy Berkowitz’s Tender Points” (85). Amanda Davidson’s “My Walk With Pussy” begins, “I am interested in the moment, or a series of moments, around which a life, or a narrative, or a culture, pivots and changes course…” (97). Kathy Lou Schultz’s “Gender and Genre in Dodie Bellamy’s Academonia begins, “To tell the truth, I momentarily considered calling this essay: ‘I rode in the back of a pickup truck with Barrett Watten!” (167) This first person litany could continue–these excerpts are only a small sampling of “I”-driven “sutured subjects” (to borrow Gail Scott’s term) that create the rare book of “criticism” that actually enacts the ethos of the subject/ topic/movement it engages.
In “Steve Abbott’s Lives of the Poets,” Brandon Brown presents a lyrical and nuanced reading of Abbott’s text while continuing to foreground the relational importance of how narrative forges connections. Brown writes, “While the non-hierarchical structure of Lives brings the world famous into direct relation with the anonymous stranger, adjacent lives are often connected by a shared experience or imagined sympathy” (45). This close reading of Abbott’s text is almost a close reading of close readings of the Lives of Poets—an essayistic form that, again, enacts an opening up of the normative subject. Brown also points importantly to the political, radical, maybe even democratizing impact of New Narrative—it is “non-hierarchical”—collapsing the boundaries between real and imaged, famous and unknown, sentence and fragment.
Tremblay-McGaw’s “New Narrative Remix” continues to probe and push at the boundaries of what prose makes possible through a focus on “New Narrative practices” by way of a window-like essay— each section vividly engages a specific inquiry, opening the reader’s eyes again and again. Her text is transparently framed:
I want to explore some New Narrative practices—the insistent attention to social location, the practice of open appropriation, self-reflexive narrative and exegetical framing, a commitment to witnessing and to action in the world. I want to suggest these practices are a means (a “how” in Stengel’s terms) for an ethical, critical inquiry into one’s own and others’ entanglements in identity, community, privilege, racism, sexism, desire. At the same time, I want to honor the fragments, gaps, inconsistencies, missed arrivals, uncertainties, and failures with which this essay is riven. (112)
Tremblay-McGaw continues by weaving together readings of her own autobiography, Robert Glück’s work, Pamela Lu’s Pamela, and many others—as the essay progresses, the rigorous readings of other texts proliferate and build on one another in unexpected ways. I’m reminded of a quote from an interview with Glück cited by Tremblay-McGaw—“Experience itself is a collaborative effort” (117).
In keeping with the social nature of experience, just as From Our Hearts to Yours begins with a letter from Cathy Wagner, the last piece in the book is another letter, “This is a Letter About Noise, Distinctions, Names, and Language, with Notes on The Obituary by Gail Scott,” written by Carla Harryman and addressed to the editors, Rob Halpern and Robin Tremblay-McGaw. She writes, “My commentary about Scott’s work will not be about New Narrative, even as we note certain ploys in my letter that one might associate with New Narrative already enacted…” (311). Harryman is at once interrogating the practice of New Narrative while also sharing a piece of the origin story of their friendship and a glimpse into Harryman’s own process writing about Scott’s work. It is “the sentence itself that gives access to a ‘more democratic’ experience of the novel,” Harryman writes of The Obituary (317). And, in many ways, it is this commitment to thinking carefully, queerly, experimentally about the work a sentence does that helps me to think about how From Our Hearts to Yours works as a collection.
What I’m trying to say is that reviewing an anthology, let alone an anthology of essays/essais is scary. It feels like there is so much to say in such a small number of words, but From Our Hearts to Yours shifts this dynamic. Instead of being overwhelmed, the reader feels genuinely invited into an ongoing conversation, one that is eager to embrace new interlocutors. Of course, there is no denying the fact that this review barely scratches the surface of the myriad of texts collected in this volume, let alone mentions the stellar online compendium that includes interviews and archival materials. Instead, my hope is that you will feel compelled to join the community of readers this book extends its arms toward.