No matter what you think of his work, his persona, his gusto in making or breaking literary comers when he was in a position to make or break them, no matter what you think of the writer, you have to admire the man Gordon Lish. He just turned eighty, but there he was last night at McNally Jackson Bookstore, holding forth at a reading for his new book Goings with more enthusiasm and earnest intent to entertain those of us who had come out to see him, than I’ve witnessed at readings by those younger and haler, which is to say readings by anyone else.
|photo cred: gordonlisheditedthis.wordpress.com|
There were many more of us than there were chairs, despite the discouraging coldsnap and so many AWP-ing out of town, and speaking of chairs, he refused to use one. He stood for the duration: “I’d like to be able to stand and caper for your entertainment, let’s see for how long I am able to do so.” He held forth for an hour, not reading, except once briefly, from the foreword of a book that wasn’t the book he was ostensibly there to promote, but one published several years ago, which involved the reluctant accomplice of a bookstore employee to find the book and remove its shrinkwrapping.
What Lish did for the hour, what so impressed me, is that he just stood there and talked. Without notes, without text, without screens of any sort. He talked not about his own work, but about the work of other writers there. He talked about Will Eno’s “The Bully Composition”. And Rick Whitaker’s “An Honest Ghost.” He talked about his childhood and about what it felt like to be the oldest person in the room. He talked about Barry Hannah, said he once brought a luger into a classroom, as visual aid for a discussion on violence. And I thought how his conversance with conversation—albeit one-sided—is an art being lost to those of us for whom communication takes place in places such as this, which isn’t any place, really, where talk is done through one’s fingers and can be edited or deleted instead of being left to ring, unsanitized, unretractable, in the listener’s ears, for better or worse, for years to come and that soon it won’t make sense to call languages “tongues.”
What Lish is famous for, in his teaching, is for harping on the importance of sentences. “The sentence isn’t about the world, it is the world entire,” I recorded once in a notebook. I was struck last night by the originality of his spoken sentences. (I almost typed “his own sentences” but refrained because “own” was one of the things Li
sh went on about last night, complaining of its overuse as unnecessary modifier in today’s common speech.) In prior audiences with Lish, I failed to write much down and was later sorry because his speech is impossible to reproduce without notes. His speech isn’t common speech, it’s unique to him, resulting from profound and unparalleled (in my experience) care for and about the English language. Here are a few of last night’s sentences, which are very different sentences than ones I might have used:
What Lish Said: Jane Krupp is a lovely person and has an apartment that bespeaks that vivacity. She designs apartments for people who are rarely among us, but we know their names. Many of these people are involved with song.
What I’d Have Said: My friend Jane has a great apartment. Makes sense, she’s an architect. She works for celebs in the music industry.
What Lish Said: I take pride in knowing not much about nature.
What I’d Have Said: I’m a city kid. Nature freaks me out.
What Lish Said: I stopped drinking in 1984 in reply to an entreaty from my youngest child who requested, as a gift for his eleventh birthday, “I want you to stop drinking and smoking.”
What I’d Have Said: I’ve got my kid to thank for sobering me up and making me quit smoking.
What Lish Said: Assassins are everywhere. Being one, I should know.
I’d never have said anything like that. Assassination, I think, is a male, not female, approach to subversion. But that’s another post.