In his own Confessions, St. Augustine wrote, “The punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.” This is the story of his life—is just this: a rite of reconciliation, a penance of prayers that might pull a new order out of the chaos of any ordinary, twenty-first-century Self. The aspiration: a new set of psalms in the voice of a ventriloquist, shouting into the residual wind God used to exhale the whole world. The realization: one small poem or mantra—recited, re-seen, re-made, over and over and over again—can somehow make this a life worth living.
Wherein Alina Stefanescu chats with T.J.Beitelman about his recent book, This Is The Story of His Life (Black Lawrence Press, Dec. 2018).
ALINA: “This Is the Story of His Life” read like a fascinating spiral, a recursive circle of turning and returning that excavated an event horizon. Since the “spiral” is not yet acknowledged as a genre by the literary establishment, how would you classify this fascinating book? Why? And how does genre inform or disinform your writing?
T. J. When the production process started, I wanted to be more overtly coy about genre – call it a lyric memoir or even a novel – but my publisher (rightly, I think) thought that would be misleading to potential readers. I certainly didn’t want it to seem like a gimmick to sell more books.
The truth is, it’s not a memoir. It’s not a novel. Is it poetry? It’s not not-poetry. (I mean, it even rhymes in places!) And then there’s my answer to question two (below) —its influences are, for the most part, books of poetry. Then again, it announces itself as a story. A life story, no less. And I think the whole is probably greater than the sum of its parts. So to call it a collection of poems—to call each individual iteration of the “story” a “poem”—that feels a little misleading to me too.
In general, I’m a poet (by training and also by sensibility) who prefers to write (and read) novels and other long-form prose. So my books tend to be whole things, commonplace books if you like. More or less connected by narrative elements and if not narrative ones then thematic ones and if not thematic ones then formal/structural ones. Everything is allowed in.
ALINA: “A poet by sensibility.” I appreciate the sense and sensibility. Given the scope of the narrative and the interesting ways in which the narrator is placed and displaced, I thought of Fernando Pessoa a few times while reading. I’m curious about what were you reading while writing this—any inspirations or tandem conversations or dialogues with other texts?
T. J.: I had recently discovered the work of Darcie Dennigan, which turned out to provide an invitation back into writing poems. I had just been writing prose – a weird memoir/cultural-commentary-type thing and a weird novel. I wasn’t sure I’d write poems again. Then I read Dennigan’s first book, Corinna A-maying the Apocalypse, and I felt the pull back into the lyrical impulse. I used to tell people that I wrote poems when I got tired of trying to make sense. It was a cheeky claim, but it was more than half true. I think I had “given up” writing poems because I, in turn, got tired of not making sense—of not connecting with readers. Dennigan’s book showed me that it was possible to engage/indulge a wild lyricism while still making a certain kind of sense – particularly in terms of emotional accessibility. To operate with a clear and coherent logic, albeit one that is intuitive, intense, rhythmical and not linear or bound by the limitations of cause-and-effect. Also, I just love the language of that book: it’s a book with narrative impulses (poems that have characters, settings, causes, effects, climaxes), but on some level its attention to sound, to individual words and their relationship to other words, is its alpha and omega. In that way, I guess it operates somewhat more like music does. (Music with lyrics, I mean.)
Looking back now, I can see some other influences: Robert Hass’s Human Wishes, particularly the form and structural arc of a poem like “Spring Drawing 2.” Also the multi-voiced ventriloquism of Berryman’s Dream Songs, its unreliable narration, the veil of neurodivergence. But those weren’t conscious influences at the time. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is probably in the vicinity, too. Again: not consciously, but maybe moreso than the others. Just because I do see my book as a dramatic dialogue, of sorts. (Is that the proper classification? Maybe-yes-no? Hmm…)
ALINA: I love how the cover matter of this book skipped out on blurbs. As a physical, text-based object, it felt closer to a work of art than a work of sale (or a product). This inspired me to wonder about the extent to which blurbs distract us from immersion in the book—from leaving the short of our daily lives and checklists in order to experience an embodied text. I can’t explain why there was a certain reticence to the quality of the presentation that made space for reverence. I can, however, ask what you think about the future of blurbs? Do they matter? Why or why not?
T.J. It does my heart good to hear that. This goes back to your first question: what is this thing? If it doesn’t have blurbs, it becomes more of an artifact than a product. And if it doesn’t announce itself as poetry or fiction or whatever – and there are no context cues (i.e., poets blurb poets; novelists blurb novelists; etc) – the burden (opportunity) becomes the reader’s to decide how to process this thing she holds in her hands. Or (and) you’re forced to take this somewhat unreliable speaker at his word when he recites, like a mantra, over and over again: “This is the story of his life he drew up around himself: …” He says it’s a life story (or a collection of them), so that’s what it must be.
At any rate, this lack of blurbs or much artifice on the cover or in the front or back matter -- that was a conscious decision on the part of my publisher and me.
With that said, I think blurbs can matter; there are books for which they do important work—either in terms of sales and promotion or sometimes even in terms of providing those context cues I was talking about. And I definitely read blurbs, and I enjoy writing them. They’re odes, mini-essays, ars poetica. I think you can tell when somebody really loves a book And if a writer you love loves a book – if Zadie Smith or Darcie Dennigan or Michael Ondaatje loves a book, I want to know about it, and read it. Admittedly many blurbs don’t convey this sort of enthusiasm, and so they seem immaterial – a rote exercise of sound and fury signifying not very much at all.
ALINA:. Two or three words that kept coming up as you wrote this book. Why? In what context?
T. J. Well, I mean, literally the mantra that starts each (for lack of a better term) poem – “This is the story of his life he drew up around himself: …” – kept reverberating in my mind. I didn’t know what that meant. How does someone draw up a story around himself? And yet each iteration is an attempt to show how this “he” (and who is this “he”?) did just that. The odd thing was that this reverberation/reiteration would intrude on me so insistently, like it wasn’t my voice at all, like I was channeling something -- such that I found myself having to write these new iterations on receipts, menus, even in books…whatever I had on hand. Sometimes dangerously so: a fair bit of the last poem was jotted down in stop-and-go interstate traffic; I wrote it in the white space of a literary magazine I happened to have in the passenger’s seat of my car. (Do not try this at home!) And I did write them all by hand – at least in first-draft form. That was an important part of it, perhaps even a literal connection to the act of “drawing.” The physical and visual aspects of handwriting.
ALINA: That makes sense. The book really feels hand-written…. it feels personal, intimate, and yet ethereal. If I needed a name for style, I might call it Cosmic-Confessional. Given the unique sonic effects and musical elements of the poems, I imagined Arvo Part in the background. Did you listen to any particular music that influenced this text as you were writing it? Alternately, is there music you think accompanies this text in an interesting way?
T. J. Probably In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel – it’s wild and weird in the way Dennigan’s Corinna is wild and weird – with its oblique gestures at narrative, its strange mix-and-match of sounds and instruments, and its clear commitment to emotional accessibility, authenticity. I don’t know that it was a conscious influence, but I was listening to almost exclusively to that album, on repeat, in its entirety, as I often do (no wonder lines repeat in my head…) for the better part of a year, around the time I was writing this book. That album is also, in a very loose way, a redaction of another text (The Diary of Anne Frank). Not only does that sort of thing happen, on a smaller scale, in This Is the Story of His Life (allusions and hat-tips to other seminal texts), each iteration of “This is the story of his life he drew up around himself: …” is, in itself, a redaction, a retelling of “his” story. I’m increasingly fascinated by that impulse to tell and retell, allowing for (even inviting) the inevitable alteration, amendment, re-emphasis, re-invention that is an inherent part of that process.
ALINA: I want to end this with a poem from the book, and to thank you, T. J., for taking the time to share with us.
TJ Beitelman is a writer and teacher living in Birmingham, Alabama. He’s published a novel, John the Revelator, and a collection of short fiction, Communion, as well as two collections of poetry: In Order to Form a More Perfect Union and Americana, all from Black Lawrence Press. His stories and poems have appeared widely in literary magazines, and he’s received fellowships from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Cultural Alliance of Greater Birmingham. He taught writing and literature at Virginia Tech, where he earned an M.A. in English, and at the University of Alabama, where he earned an M.F.A. in creative writing and also edited Black Warrior Review. He currently directs the creative writing program at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. He can be found on-line at tjbman.me.