The Goner Party: The Process Is The Project
Part One: The Project
I am obsessed with the rejectamenta of daily life: the skin cells that slough off and transform into dust, the bodily wastes we deposit in perfectly good water and banish with a flush, the no-longer-useful-to-us things we combine, compact, and send away in trucks to be buried in land that has itself been deemed undesirable for other purposes. I am especially concerned with the effects of these habits on human psychology, in how easy it becomes to place other humans (and non-humans) into categories of Undesirable, Useless, Criminal. And finally, I am interested in how the self is divided into parcels, the shameful bits packed away as if there were some place we could put them where they will not harm us.
As any archeologist can tell you, we are what we throw away. The rejected self, by being hidden away, grows monstrous, more horrible by the day.
The short stories in my work-in-progress The Goner Party all involve characters coming to terms with the rejected self and/or other. They take as their initiating subjects and locations things as various as sex, loathing, landfills, dust, convalescent homes, language, prisons, and shit. They take objects off of their pedestals and examine them as complex, evolving forms. They elevate to pedestals that which is rarely praised. For example, in the unfinished title story, a garbage and composting activist named Joan, whose MO is a sort of earnest panic that fails to convince anyone in her circle to boycott plastic or buy composting toilets, eventually takes to writing poems:
The onus is on the anus
to expel the unwanted.
Poor anus, tiny bouncer
throwing out all those big bruisers
and none to sing your praises.
Playful but ultimately serious, the manuscript as a whole seeks not merely to critique our society—which should never be the sole aim of creative writing—but to understand its citizens, to love and honor even those creatures I find most baffling, myself included. The stories range from the semi-autobiographical, like Visiting Shirley, about visiting my former neighbor in the circle of hell (nursing home) where she spent the last year of her life, to the fantastical: in The Orgasm Museum, an omniscient guide leads the reader through rooms of climaxes made visible and collecting dust, some of which “sprawl across whole walls or hang from the ceiling like macrame forests,” while others “seem to be eating away at the walls like an acid.” In Who Will Walk Through Fire, two lovers are trapped in a burning building for the duration of their relationship, and must learn how to truly see each other through the toxic haze.
In my first published book, Viva Loss, which Bob Gluck refers to as a collection of “fables and speculations” and which others have called prose poems or flash fiction, I immersed myself deeply in meditations on loss, focusing sharply on personal experiences of romantic and sexual deprivation and depravity. In some ways, The Goner Party picks up where Viva Loss left off, exploring similar themes of loss but with a less myopic eye, an outward turned lens that takes in vast swaths of human experience and seeks to deliver a transformative experience to the reader through narrative and character as well as through the precision and sumptuousness of language. The one- to three-page story or prose poem is still my preferred form, but some of the pieces I am working on beg to be developed further, and I am working on that, pushing my narrative limits to the 5-page, the 10-page story. These efforts are painful but rewarding.
My research for this book has included taking two tours of the San Francisco Dump, a tour of the Oceanside Wastewater Treatment Plant, and reading many books on the subject of waste management and ecology, including Garbageland: On the Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte and Gone Tomorrow by Heather Rodgers. It may not always be completely obvious to the reader, but this thinking about the history and future of man-made objects and the larger ethical choices implicit in ideas of “disposability” versus sustainability is one of the driving forces behind my work. In part, this is because the more hopeless a situation seems to me, the more compelled I am to create art around it. There is an energy in despair that must find an outlet or it turns stagnant and deadens us to the world. I aim to continue my field research on this topic by taking an upcoming bicycling tour (alongside my co-workers at Rainbow Grocery) to a recycling center, and exploring further outposts in the Bay Area’s “garbageshed”: the compost fields outside Livermore, and the Altamont Landfill—basically the space between two mountains which we are filling up, slowly but surely. I will also continue to read everything on the subject that I can get my hands on, and continue having conversations with my customers and co-workers at Rainbow Grocery Cooperative about the pros and cons of compostable plastic and other seemingly banal but deeply important topics.
Part Two: The Process
Late last night, something strange happened, one of those marvelous synchronicities all artists hope for. Just before getting into bed, I decided to dab a speck of vetiver on my wrist, which permeated the whole room. Then I opened a John Ashbery book to a poem called Vetiver, read it, and was compelled to write my own poem, also called Vetiver. None of this was planned or even seemed to have to do with me, except that it was something I had always meant to write about, but not at all in the way it came out.
This is how poems ought to come: unbidden, but with a patient urgency. They seldom do. Instead, I have to make dates with them and hope they will show up. I find that if I also make dates with other writers to get together and write, then I am more likely to show up myself. Recognizing that I need all the support I can get from my community, I have decided to build that support into the project itself.
I have long been inspired by conceptual artists like Yoko Ono, Sophie Calle, Adrian Piper, Marina Abramovic, and Miranda July, all of whom directly engage their audiences as part of their art, and have wondered how I could do the same. I work nights as a cashier at the grocery store, with the idea that my days are sacrosanct writing time, and yet, like many who work nights, it is sometimes hard for me to get out of bed in the morning. Now, instead of beating myself up for this failing, I can recognize within it a potential solution: In strengthening my discipline muscles, I must enlist my community for help.
What sort of help does one who is not accustomed to asking for help ask for from friends, colleagues, sympathetic strangers? I do not think I could ask someone to come over and ply me from my bed with coffee and pull me over to the computer where I start writing as if still dreaming while they cook me an elegant breakfast (that is my fantasy of how an upper class writer, Danielle Steele perhaps, begins her day.) But maybe I could ask for a phone call, a wake-up call, such as even the cheapest hotels provide. Someone to call me at 8 in the morning on my writing days and talk to me until I am out of bed, putting the kettle on, turning on the computer...
And if I could ask for one daily affirmation from this person, one thing to be told day after day, what would it be? After much consideration, I realize that what I most want to hear, what would give me the strength to get out of bed and make my own coffee or tea and get down to business is this:
“Sarah, I love you, and I think you’re a terrific writer.”
While at first seeming a bit silly and self-indulgent, the social impact of such a request is manifold. Asking in such a public and shameless way for validation and support for what is usually a private act may inspire others to do the same. Those who respond to a call for help are often rewarded with a renewed sense of self-worth. Being instrumental in my writing process will allow others to feel they have contributed to the work itself (needless to say, the resulting book will have an extremely long acknowledgments page) and might make them more likely to attend my readings, buy my books, etc. For myself, starting each writing day with a social interaction and the gift of an affirmation may work to combat the loneliness inherent to the writing life, and provide a counterpoint to the darker fears I take on in my work. Inherent to this project are certain questions I have about the power of affirmations. Do they work? What will be more profound, hearing the words “I love you” from a friend or from a complete stranger? What sort of stranger responds to such a call? Is there any danger to the project? Is it necessary for me to believe the affirmation for the words themselves to have an effect? What about the person saying the words? These questions, I hope, will be answered in the course of the project, as well as yield up other, more interesting questions.
Each writing day I will post something of the day’s efforts to my blog, publicly dedicating it to the person who got me out of bed that morning, who will be able to read it that same day and feel even more a part of the process.
I have yet to put out any official call for volunteers for this project but, just through mentioning it in casual conversation, I have amassed a small crew of willing wake-up callers. The next step will be to send out emails and Facebook invitations to friends, family, students, and colleagues: my incredible community of writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, public servants, produce workers, sex workers, massage therapists, housing rights activists, everyone who is already on my mailing list, and if necessary, to place a call for volunteers in The Rumpus, Stephen Elliott’s online magazine.
Public presentation has always been hugely important to me as a writer. I have worked hard for 16 years to make a name for myself in San Francisco’s writing and spoken word community, and as a result, I am frequently asked to read my work in bars, bookstores, and cafes, and at benefits for all sorts of progressive causes, from the St. James Infirmary which provides free health care to sex workers to the Poems Under the Dome project at City Hall. I regularly read in LitCrawl, the free evening of readings all over the Mission that happens each October as part of LitQuake. My work gets solicited by and accepted for publication in local magazines, journals, and anthologies like Instant City, Transfer Magazine, Sparkle and Blink, Eleven Eleven Journal, and The Encyclopedia Project. Therefore, the public presentation aspect of this project feels like second nature to me, but I will use it to challenge myself to think about ways to strengthen my relationship with my audience. Who is that audience? At places like Smack Dab, K’vetch, and the Radar Reading Series, it has been the ragtag bunch of literary queers that I consider to be my spiritual family in San Francisco. But over time my identity and my subject matter have grown and stretched and courted ever larger and more diverse audiences. I have always said I write for “people like me,” but the older I get, the more jobs I’ve held—from restaurants to bookstores to massage parlors to classrooms to organic grocery stores—and the more people I meet through work, writing, teaching and through my explorations of art, activism, yoga, meditation, and of course, garbage politics, my concept of “people like me” grows ever more expansive. I hope it continues to do so.
In evaluating this project I will look at both the work and the manner in which it was produced. Have I completed a manuscript which feels ready to be sent out into the world? How have the wake-up calls and affirmations contributed to my writing process? How have I engaged with and broadened my audience through the course of this project? Does the pressure of writing daily blog posts add to or subtract from the work as a whole? I look forward to wrestling with these and other questions, and hope to do so with the support of the San Francisco Arts Commission.