Congratulations, You’re a New Narrative Subject
At dinner after Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian’s reading at BAMPFA, talk turns to Diana’s new piece at Fence — a clever, light-hearted jaunt through what happens to be the worst two years of our relationship. This publication has been for me a source of slight panic. I always cringe at a point in the story where my character, Max, calls her character, Diana, a “bitch.” I’m telling Kevin, Look I’m sure I’ve said worse but never that word — but at the same time I’m embarrassed to be worked up over a one-word micro-scandal. What is this weird feeling that comes with the drama of becoming through someone else’s writing?
Kevin asks Diana, Did you change Maxe’s name? When she shrugs no, Kevin raises his arms gleefully and shouts, Congratulations! You’re a New Narrative writer!
This is a rather unassuming definition of New Narrative to be offered up by one of the scene’s most prolific writers, especially given the attention the movement has received of late. There have been three new anthologies since last summer, and in October, UC Berkeley hosted an academic conference, Communal Presence: New Narrative Writing Today. Rumor has it that we can expect a string of reissues, films, and television shows to follow. At last, New Narrative is being heralded as a pivotal US literary movement unique in its dedicated development of embodied writing practices grounded in critical theory and queer sexuality.
New Narrative writing emerged in the late ’70s and early ’80s on the streets of San Francisco. At Small Press Traffic bookstore on 24th Street, Robert Glück and Bruce Boone were teaching workshops. As Kevin testifies elsewhere, New Narrative developed “a new kind of storytelling” in which “poetry, theory, gossip, and porn [were] intermixed in order to accommodate [and] treat the big issues of the day and our own tenuous hold on that.” Their process was experimental and born of experience; the writers, most of whom were queer, wanted to interrogate the ethics and norms of narrative to produce a new way of being in the text and the world. New Narrative originated from the close-knit scenes of the era that were themselves ever-evolving through social contacts made via political activism in the streets, sexual encounters, and the constant influx of writers and artists visiting from other places.
Roberto Bedoya on past and ongoing formations of New Narrative: [What it feels like] being inside and outside the aesthetic ordering. 1
Kevin’s initial flippancy feels pertinent in the face of New Narrative’s current wave of historicization. In my Communal Presence talk I asked how the radical, communal ambitions of Bay Area Poets Theater would survive in a moment when the star system that it created to mock is made real. I’m wondering how and why New Narrative attracts and redistributes this level of interest, just as I consider how my own work contends with the cultural production of the AIDS Crisis Revisitation, how teaching queer theory this fall has involved negotiating those voids where subversion becomes normative. The political limitations of some ’90s movements in fact make them more bankable today.
Certainly, parts of the conference played into the sort of commodification that flattens social movements through omission, avoidance, or self-absorption. But the deeper I got into the conference, the more I also experienced it as a study in influence. Scene by scene, the affinities, animosities, and mystical bonds played out beneath — but I have to say, mostly against — this drag of classification. The best parts of what I encountered there were embodied exchanges that reimagined, through a turn backward, this communal presence. 2
Dennis Cooper on willfulness: The will to make people comfortable vs. the will to make people uncomfortable…
Despite the influence of New Narrative, I almost never write about myself. I was raised in the Midwest and generally avoid ecstatic confession. Now I want to write about being written about. In general, subjects don’t write back to their own constructions, but in New Narrative subjects often do.
Sara Ahmed locates “queer feelings” in a matrix of comfort and discomfort created by the institutions and constructs that order our lives. She writes about how forms of privilege mitigate the presence we hold in social spaces: “To be comfortable is to be so at ease with one’s environment that it is hard to distinguish where one’s body ends and the world begins.” 3 New Narrative mobilizes uncomfortable lives in uncomfortable narratives as a way to foreground queer and political ways of being and becoming. Ahmed’s rubric makes me wonder, what does queer influence feel like? How does it help us come to be?
When Diana is writing, I will inevitably pepper offhand suggestions into my small talk around the house. You might want to look at the ethics of memoir Barbara Browning works through in The Gift. On my way out the door: Hey babe, maybe you should call Dia and talk about life writing. This commentary slips out despite myself, making the original anxiety of becoming a subject even worse. In part because if Diana was trained to write about me through a decade of writing in San Francisco — well, then all of these years of being together and my voracious reading of the New Narrative catalog should have trained me to be a cool, unflinching subject. Cool for Me, you know?
Matias Viegener on sociality and place: [It taught me] something about the choices we make and the things we read.
The plenaries at Communal Presence were small eddies where we could bend to the galvanizing power of contact. Enacted between the original artists, influence appeared a closed-circuit loop built from the substance of mentorship and friendship, proximity and chance. Matias talked about meeting Kathy Acker in front of Dennis’s bookshelf. So many people talked about the workshops held in Bob and Bruce’s homes and the socio-political circumstances through which this work of writing was made possible.
These small conversational theaters were rooted in reflection and palpable efforts to feel each other again, to confront what and who isn’t there. Throughout the weekend, many speakers warned about nostalgia but few talked about fantasy. New Narrative is bound up in political and performative fantasies of self and community — the insistence on a utopic practice of thinking feeling ahead of its time. And the sex, the sex on the surface of everything — that hot flush of imagining another way.
Sarah Rosenthal on audience: We were writing for a small, overheated community.
New Narrative and the romance of so many queer worlds of the past are how I understood the Bay before moving to the Bay. Diana lived in the Mission in the ’90s and edited the lesbian porn magazine On Our Backs. Her stories of going to queer bars long closed, seducing her first girlfriend at the Bearded Lady, and taking out student loans to live on her editor’s salary are easy enough for me to conjure. Once she told me about Bob telling her about being on the road with Kathy. They would get in a fight in the hotel; then Kathy would write a story about the fight and read it the next day in front of him. One of Diana’s exes wrote a story about cheating on her, something cruel like that, and read it at Bard when Diana was in the audience. For years, Diana would get messages from concerned friends across the country: SJ just read this story about you…
Is it possible to close the circuit between art and life so tight that another dimension shimmers on the horizon? One trick of New Narrative is to look so intensely at the beloved that you can write (into) yourself through a refracted gaze. New Narrative represents one of the great experiments with autobiography because it foregrounds the embodied circuitry of desire, damage, and influence. Its impetuous, gossipy, and experimental mode tracks how bodies touch up against each other and change.
I’m a brat in love. That’s how every New Narrative story begins.
Rob Halpern on trauma: While this is untrue, it has become a measure of truth.
For a while I was taken aback by how impenetrable poetry scenes feel in the Bay. New York and Philadelphia helped me become a writer, whereas here you show up and people see you as just another person to fight with. I get it: Writers Who Fight Too Much. New Narrative came into being in part as pushback on Bay Area Language poetry. But this tension might also be rooted in how the Bay can feel so geographically small, the artistic lineages so lived in that you have to earn something that’s a measure of what you’re going to give versus what you’re going to take. That’s generous of me, I know. Cool for Me.
Several writers talked about the pain of being excluded during the first wave of New Narrative consolidation, even as the academic mechanism of the conference was drawing new lines of inclusion and exclusion. Eileen Myles said the idea for The New Fuck You anthology came from the hurt of being snubbed by the High Risk compilation. I think I knew this but I didn’t understand it until I heard her say it out loud at the conference. That was how I felt as an outsider — hearing people talk together about their shared histories made me understand how this small arena of Bay Area culture was formed and impossibly sustained.
Nayland Blake on futures: Who oh who will ever write the history of flirtation and socialism and sarcasm?
In the bathroom at the conference: I push open the door and a flash of light hits me through a giant open window. There in the glitter of daylight, Bruce Boone is getting made up, lipstick and eyes, by a younger writer. They’re silent and focused. So I stare for a minute. It feels like being in an installation. The art of memory. We’re in our bodies but also outside of them, taking the same picture over and over the way New Narrative does, telling the temperature. There, influence is the support that calls attention to change, the structures where you can feel it taking shape.
Diana reads an early draft of this essay. She cuts the sentences I have about her direct ties to New Narrative: being in workshop with Bob and Camille, working for Dodie. Diana’s casual about erasing herself, This is about you, not about me. But I’m not so sure. What does this act of erasure say about her queer feelings, or the expectations that can come with these affinities? Nonetheless, her gesture is emblematic New Narrative. These writers call attention to the collaborative nature of art that bubbles up from lived intimacies. I take a lot of delight in Dodie’s detailed recording of Kevin’s performative objections to his representation in The Letters of Mina Harker: “KK’s eyes roll up and back like Kit Cat’s on my wrist watch, ‘Does every man you write about have to have an erection?’ YES—wherever I go they poke up at me, like picket fences or tombstones monuments to my percolating oomph…” 4
New Narrative means having hands in each other’s work, thematizing the exchange between subject and narrator. It means holding the trace of those collaborations in the text — the pushback, anxiety, and the materiality of these kinds of impressions.
There’s a librarian at Stanford who teaches my digital-oriented students how to find books in the stacks by sending them on quests for edgy titles. First they have to unscramble the letters that will lead them to books about sex, books with profanity in the titles, The Pope Is Not Gay! The exercise is a race. In the first class, two students rush in carrying The New Fuck You, winded and oblivious about what they hold in their hands, shoving it toward me to see if they’ve won. Their gesture renders me speechless; the delivery feels so personal, so familiar in how I still find my way to small press books. Hand-to-mouth. I should have said to them Where were you twenty-five years ago? First you have to meet the people who will put the right books in your hand.
Camille Roy on loss: The raw sewage of grief.
New Narrative is a scar, or a scarred aesthetic; in essence it remains a response to loss that experiments with forms of healing. Camille read an incredible eulogy about her partner Angie’s recent death. One of the greatest, most urgent readings I’ve been a part of; what she conjured through the simultaneous yielding and resistance of her stance and words grounded us in the immediacy of presence. Many of us cried at the sudden, inevitable shock of the felt thing being transmitted. After, Sarah spontaneously asked the audience to close our eyes and breathe in witness. The most meaningful parts of the conference felt ritualistic in this way: a gathering at a site of origin, a ceremony about collectivity, and a testament to the loaded arsenal and reserves of the body.
Carla Harryman on the geography of time: This was the early ’90s, a land of grief and disparity.
This is the generation of writers and artists who taught me about grief. They taught me how to deal with the sick or dead bodies of friends. Through art, activism, and care networks, they worked to politicize mourning in the face of AIDS deaths that were denied public grief. Within this context, Camille’s reading seemed to expose the unintentional irony of the conference title. New Narrative is actually about communal absence: the collectives formed through loss and the creative forms created in those collectives.
All summer I search for a connection between Reza Abdoh and New Narrative. As a child, Abdoh immigrated to Los Angeles from Tehran with his father and brother. By the time he was thirty years old, he had his own company, Dar a Luz, and was staging work in Los Angeles, New York City, and across Europe. In 1995, he died of AIDS, at the age of 32. He stipulated in his will that his work can never be staged again.
I comb through his archive at the New York Public Library and obsessively rewatch the video of his productions. My acts have a tinge of desperation. I get high from feeling the work endure, being able to be shifted so profoundly at this stage of my life. It is an incorporation: my body bringing in everything I can find and organizing it according to my own organs, lines. It’s a type of grieving I’ve never done before, as if I’m also learning this from him.
Eileen Myles on AIDS: These holes in our community are like holes in the body.
Sometimes there’s just a hole through to you. I came to Reza’s elaborate multimedia works — his outraged political rituals — through my interests in the breakdown of language, hybrid forms, and confrontational theater. But the intimacy I feel with his dramaturgy is always a shock.
Ongoing bonds are built and tended to by people who step up to do it. I tracked down Adam Soch, the filmmaker who was Reza’s videographer and friend. Adam just walked up one day and asked, Can I videotape what you’re doing? Despite Reza’s notorious need for control, the strict adherence to technique he demanded from the performers, Reza shrugged and said, Sure. Why not? The tying together happens after the mess. Adam’s made an all-encompassing documentary, a real labor of love, Reza Abdoh: Theater Visionary. It’s thanks to Adam that we have video of so many of the performances.
Influence in its most acute stage feels like grief. My Abdoh research and its gaps and then the conference’s inevitable staging of loss help me recognize that my attachment to New Narrative is also a form of grieving. Its form is necessarily one determined by death and the fight for a city. “New Narrative writing today” still functions primarily as a methodology for mourning. Inside of this, the practices of New Narrative help me consider how influence makes and unmakes me, about that sometimes-need to crawl into influence as a mode of survival.
Julia Bloch on Bernadette Mayer: To connect by sliding away.
Kevin’s right, of course. New Narrative is just one label for what happens when you write about the people you make art and community with — the dirt, the love, the revenge, the naming. They made up what they were doing from theoretical and political strategies (Marxist and post-structuralist as well as those that originated in feminist, Black Power, and Chicanx movements). Then, Steve Abbott made up a name for it. But what about the people we are still looking for — the movements that don’t have names or resist classification?
Queer movements in the ’80s and ’90s remade the possibilities for queer life and opened out circuits for queer connection. Today, work in queer studies, memoir, and performance continues to look back on those collective forms to locate terms and strategies we can revise and use.
The Letters of Mina Harker struggles for an ending, deferring but also yearning for closure. What would an ending feel like? What would we want with an ending?
- The quotations in this essay are pulled from notes I took at the conference, October 13–15, 2017.
- As a title for the conference, Communal Presence riffs off of Communal Nude, the title of Semiotext(e)/Active Agent’s 2016 release of Robert Glück’s collected essays.
- Sara Ahmed, “Queer Feelings,” in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), 148. My consideration of public grief is also connected to her work in this chapter.
- Dodie Bellamy, The Letters of Mina Harker (West Stockbridge, MA: Hard Press, 1998), 200.