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Far From Flatbush

Remembering Francine

Francine du Plessix Gray, shot by Irving Penn, on the cover of Vanity Fair, November 1983.

It was a long time ago, and the memories are starting to fade, but when I heard last week that Francine du Plessix Gray had died, at the age of 88, it reminded me, once again, of the best piece of writing advice I ever got. It's advice that I've adhered to since that autumn afternoon in 1975, in her office in the English department, at the City College of New York, when she showed me a spiral-bound notebook, the latest volume of the journal she'd been keeping since the summer of 1951, and said, "Keep a journal; write in it every day."

 

It was, she explained, how a writer finds his (or her) voice—by making writing as natural as breathing.

 

There were other bits of useful advice that Francine—we called her "Francine," not "Professor Gray"—shared with her students, advice of the sort you wouldn't normally get in a CCNY writing workshop. Like (and I forget her exact words, but the message was clear): Edit your own work when you're stoned on marijuana. You'll have no tolerance for bullshit and unnecessary verbiage.

 

Francine arrived at CCNY for the Spring 1975 semester, slated to teach one graduate and one undergraduate nonfiction writing workshop (what would now be called "creative nonfiction"). I met her my first day back at school—I'd gotten my BA in creative writing and then taken off a few months to travel. Now I was about to embark on a course of study in the graduate literature program after having been rejected from the creative writing program, which, at the time, I saw as the key to my future. I was 21 years old and crushed. The writing program at City College, in those magical days of free tuition, was a promised land where, for little more than the cost of books, one could study under the tutelage of Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs, and Joseph Heller, the department chairman, who had personally rejected me.

 

I thought studying literature might be a constructive way to kill time while I figured out what to do with my life.

 

I was wandering through the English department—a quonset hut on South Campus—attempting to put together a not-too-demanding schedule of classes, when a woman, fashion-model tall with blonde hair and wearing a Viva magazine T-shirt, asked me, with the slightest hint of what I took for an indeterminate European accent, if I knew where the administration building was.

 

"New here?" I inquired after giving her directions. I thought she might be a night-school student.

 

Yes, she replied, she'd just been hired to teach a creative writing workshop.

 

She asked me other questions about the college, and in the course of our conversation, I told her that I used to edit one of the student newspapers and that I'd been rejected from the creative writing program.

 

What happened next still seems miraculous. Francine asked me to bring her some of my stories that had been published in the newspaper. I brought her a half-dozen samples of my work, and when I returned to her office later that afternoon, she looked up from my articles, spread out on her desk, and declared, "This is gonzo!"

 

She invited me to take her graduate writing workshop and asked if I'd be her graduate assistant.

 

I was in!

 

Because Francine never talked about it in any detail, all I knew about her history was what I read in the short excerpts about her European childhood—governesses, a Russian mother, Paris—that she showed the class from the autobiographical novel she was writing at the time, Lovers and Tyrants. Had I heard that her stepfather, Alexander Liberman, was the editorial director of Condé Nast, it would have meant nothing to me. I'm not sure I knew that Condé Nast was a magazine-publishing company.

 

But what was really important to me about Francine was that she taught creative writing in a way that none of my other teachers had. Where Heller, for example, said that there was only one way to write a story—well-plotted with a beginning, middle, climax, and end… no deviations and no sci-fi, supernatural, or detective stories—Francine believed the best way to write was in fragments. Don't think about plot or form. Just get something good down on paper. Trust your unconscious and eventually the fragments will congeal into a coherent whole.

 

Rather than stories, she assigned fragments. Start from the inside and work your way out: first describe an emotional experience, then a small space, then a person, then a larger space, and keep going until you finally work your way up to describing a historical event.

 

This made sense to me and I flourished.

 

Once a week, after she taught her undergraduate class, we'd sit together in her little office in the English Hut, as it was called, critiquing stories, with me, on occasion, alerting her to an unexpected gem.

 

It went on like this for two terms, during which she guided me though my first attempt to get a full-length book off the ground, reading and editing my rough drafts. After I'd badly missed the mark on one of her assignments, she made a prediction: "You're going to write darkly humorous books and travel around the world."

 

And our bond became stronger because we were both plagued by a stutter that came and went depending on how stressed we were. Writing was a way to express ourselves fluently.

 

Francine left City College in 1977, returning to Connecticut and a life of writing books (At Home with the Marquis de Sade, World Without End, October Blood, and Them, among others) and magazine articles, including covering the trial of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbi for Vanity Fair, which won a National Magazine Award for best reporting.

 

I somehow muddled through my final term of grad school without her.

 

Over the years, we'd exchange an occasional postcard, but by the mid-1980s we'd fallen out of touch. I now wonder if she was aware that her prediction had come to pass.

 

Yes, Francine, there have been a handful of "darkly humorous" books and there has been much travel to distant lands to talk about them. And I often think of you when I write in my notebook—which I still do every day.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter.

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This Is Not a Review

One of the best ways I know of to not enjoy a good book is to read it under deadline pressure with the intention of writing a review. And two of the greatest sins a reviewer or critic (as some reviewers prefer to call themselves) can commit is to review a book that he or she has only skimmed, or to review a book that he or she has contributed to, and then pretend to critique it objectively.

This, then, is not a review; it's an acknowledgement of a new book.

There’s a lot of material in Cut Up!’s 394 pages—poems, prose, artwork—that I look forward to lingering over and processing at my leisure. Then I may come to understand fully what Joe Ambrose and A.D. Hitchen have assembled in this anthology of cut-up-technique writings. Also, I’ve written the introduction to Hitchen’s “Split-Beaver” poems, which are drawn from my book Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography.

A bit of essential history: One way to perform the cut-up technique, popularized by William Burroughs a half-century ago, is to take a complete text (like Beaver Street), cut it into pieces with one word or a few words on each piece, and then rearrange the pieces into a new text. Another way is a “Third Mind” collaboration, pioneered by Burroughs and poet Brion Gysin; the author combines words cut from a text with his own words. Cut Up! (Oneiros Books) features both techniques, and includes works from well-known writers, like Allen Ginsberg (“Notes on Claude Pélieu”).

Many of the contributing authors are names I’ve become familiar with through social media. Among these dedicated practitioners of this avant-garde art form are: Kenji Siratori (“The Worst Deadly Bank Account Number in the History of the Universe”), Christopher Nosnibor (“Flickering images: life-size shadow-puppetry”), Gary J. Shipley (excerpt from Spook Nutrition), Niall Rasputin (“disgraceful blade”), Muckle Jane (“Recipes”), Cal Leckie (“Micro-Verse”), and Lucius Rofocale (“Ne/urantia: Close Encounters of the Third Mind”). Billy Chainsaw and D M Mitchell contributed artwork.

A word of caution to those with delicate sensibilities: Phrases such as “corpse fetish pussy gangbang” (which I’ve cut from Siratori’s “Phishingera”) occur with frequency.

More adventurous readers, however, may argue that they do not occur frequently enough. Read More 
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Half & Half

The reaction to Antony Hitchin's poems, drawn from Beaver Street, using the cut-up technique William Burroughs popularized, has been so positive, I'm going to end the blogweek with one more.

"Meat Doll Misanthrope," like "Discharge," which I posted yesterday, is what Burroughs described as a "Third Mind" collaboration. Hitchen combined his own words with words cut from Beaver Street. But unlike "Discharge," which was mostly Beaver Street, "Meat Doll Misanthrope" is about half Beaver Street, half Hitchin.

And if you really want to know which half is which, you’ll just have to read the book.

Meat Doll Misanthrope

misanthrope pixel memoir
dinosaur Christ proxy body
mimicking skin
dialectical face mouth peers
through fuck fingers
the sound of god splitting
open ----------------------------------------------
flaming silhouettes
candy store messiah
mouth-fuck fetishes
the remnants of your space dead television flesh
your channel wired webwork tissue reek of wet pubics Read More 
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Third Mind

I said yesterday in my posting about "Bukkake Thatcher," one of the poems Antony Hitchen had sliced from the heart of Beaver Street using the cut-up technique popularized by William Burroughs, that he'd "compressed into a few sentences the emotions expressed in a large swath of the book." But I think it would be more accurate to explain the technique this way: Hitchin has pulled from Beaver Street the most provocative words and phrases, and by arranging them in a new way, he's captured the emotional tone of the entire book.

The title of the poem below, "Discharge," is cut from a legal document quoted in the Traci Lords chapter. Other words are taken from chapters titled "High Society" and "I Found My Job in The New York Times." Hitchen also includes some of his own words not found in the book, like "muzzle," "filter," "autonomy," and "flush," making this what he'd call a "Third Mind" collaboration, which is the title of a cut-up work by Burroughs and Brion Gysin.

Here, then, for your reading pleasure, I give you the latest and freshest filet of Beaver:

Discharge

DIY abortion vacuum / video boxes sizzling jailbait celebrity skin/ subscription hooker etiquette women masturbating mutilated bodies/ nymphomaniacs spread pussies – muzzle sloppy
she fills a paper cup of deep-pile pussy discharge
AIDs tuberculosis trickle-down
economics/ bubonic rejection glare of subway slug/
drifting overhead chrome /beyond sleep filter fringes – spurting flush autonomy nothing death Read More 
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Filet of Beaver (Street)

Antony Hitchin, a British writer, is the author of Messages To Central Control. The book is an example of the "cut-up" technique, pioneered by the Dadaists in the 1920s and popularized by William Burroughs in the 1950s and '60s. One way to perform the technique is to take a complete text, cut it into pieces with one word or a few words on each piece, and then rearrange the pieces into a new text.

Hitchin recently wrote to me to say that he was "experimenting with cutting up Beaver Street in various ways" and calling the project "Split Beaver." He wanted to know if I was okay with this. I told him I was delighted, and that he should feel free to fillet my Beaver as he saw fit.

This morning he sent me the first results of his experiment. “Interestingly,” he wrote, “I was talking to [Edward S. Robinson], author of the academic text Shift-Linguals, who’s something of an authority on cut-up and postmodern literature in general, and he believes this is a first, to his knowledge—no other authors have officially sanctioned (or embraced) a literary ‘remix’ of their work.”

To which I say: It’s cool! It’s hip-hop! And in the future, I will take my Beaver raw, or “tartare,” as they call it in the finest restaurants.

Below, I give you the first “poem” cut completely from Beaver Street. Allow me to put the first word, which you’ll find on page 75, in context. (The rest you can find on your own.) “It must have been quite a shock for young Jason, who’d never publicly acknowledged the seamier side of his heritage, to see his esteemed grandfather described in the Times as a skinflint and a sadist.”

Split Beaver

Skinflint load sucks black cock – mafia micrometer pentagon enema sphincter frenzy. Entry castoffs two group suck and incest. Pseudonyms quim triangle buxom rendered syntax!

All resistance of her bodies writhing in a jack off with Jill sadist flotsam manner of human. Lunch meat anal pussy refugees – a home-decorating big-budget blizzard commingling gash vision. Lesbian sleazeball fornication – the fortunate pilgrim clippings – he lubed sperm-drenched Mary of a lost lingering presence. Stream of warm anal sent Gestapo officers with speculum fitness lit-clit scratch-and-sniff.

My airbrushed ferocious four-legged cock with teeth teasing underage girl – chief circular daisy jerk-off with ayatollah daughter. In her greased ports – hypochondriac gaping slit shot and sprinkle of machines – Mormon homicidal sperm parts of the Koran – waiting fuck virgins

Hardcore criminal penalties dirty slithering up her bridal health and homophobia gang rape puckered anus. Read More 
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