Vanishing Point A Bookand Websiteby Ander Monson




(This is an epigraph.)

In another space and sense of space entirely now, but the same I (sort of; a slightly newer iteration, brighter, sexier, smarter by weeks, a little better-read):

The bedroom closet in the writer's cabin at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. You get the sense of a spatial history here enclosed in and barely beating back a prehistoric forest. Night brings the sounds of the refrigerator fan warring with those of frogs and singing lizards, certainly the call-and-response of beetles underneath the saw palmettos that clog the ground in all directions. It's beautiful and confusing. In the upstairs closet, a series of artists (mostly writers) have scrawled their names on the wall, effectively establishing a canon, whether it is meant to or not.

It works. On me at least. The ACA has been housing writers in residence since 1977, though the list on the website only goes back until 1982. The list of writers whose bodies have creased these sheets is significant. Allen Ginsberg, William Stafford, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Audre Lorde, James Dickey, Edward Albee, Howard Nemerov, Diane Ackerman, John Ashbery, Carolyn Forche, Ron Padgett ("Okay, Why Not"), Eamon Grennan, Carolyn Kizer, Sharon Olds, Michael Dirda, Samuel R. Delany, Spalding Gray, Bobbie Ann Mason, Anthony Hecht, David Lehman, Richard Howard, Michael Burkard, Sonia Sanchez, Marie Ponsot, Ishmael Reed, Douglas Coupland, Carl Hiaasen, William Gass, and Alice Notley, just to iterate a few names that mean quite a bit to me. Others are, I'm sure, equally accomplished, if beyond my reading history (or beyond my sight: there's a bit of competition among some of the wall-inscribers to sign their name in more subtle places, some of which take ingenuity to find). Obviously not all of those who've stayed here have gone on to the same kind of fame, but the batting average is pretty high (many were of course successful well before they were invited here, so the list says as much about this place's taste or reliance on reputation as it does about anything else).

Yet their names stock the walls. The A/C rattles. The ceiling fans squeak. The sudden instances of rain on the roof are alternately terrifying and beautiful. The raccoons burgle the trash outside, as they have done for a generation, continuing to outwit the brains that have resided here. (Likely they are fed bagels by the writers or their husbands/wives/partners/families on the sly.) The tea kettle's dingy, my wife says, and uncleanable and rusted, so we chuck it. Never mind if this was William Gass's tea kettle. I find another one at a local Goodwill and deposit it here, cleaned. I think about labeling it Allen Ginsberg's Kettle O' Power.

There are random items in the drawers: a condom, five corkscrews, a desiccated yellow pages, a turkey lacer kit, two large doll heads with moveable eyes that open when you rock them back and that have some kind of sticky residue coating them. A plastic cup filled with fourteen dead AA batteries. A lot of mismatched dishes. A decanter for Chivas Regal, empty. A folded up bath mat. Some inoperable kitchen appliances. Then several that work. One barbell. The world's saddest towel. In the composer's cabin--two cabins down, there is a menagerie of animal figurines and other tchatchkes. These objects suggest story but do not resolve.

This space is a beautiful space. The cabin is spacious and mostly comfortable. The grounds are beautiful, too, isolated, surely suitable for the creation of art (or at least for silence and good reading which is not all that far off). I am here to teach teens nonfiction, as if we need our teens to write more nonfiction than they do already. (I don't say this in class, but I am thinking it; still, one wants to liberate the essay from Facebook posts and the dull squeak of grade school teachers and lined paper, the angry red pens of thesis statement-circling first-year composition instructors. This shit is awesome, I tell them. It's not just writing about yourself. It's writing to know yourself. It's writing about the world to think about it and yourself. Seriously. I get excited. You can do almost anything you want. Essay means explore.

But what should we do, they ask me. I am not sure. Let's try these exercises, I tell them. Let's start cutting adjectives. Let us all agree not to center our poems and especially not our essays.

I believe some of the things I tell them: that, as DFW has said, fiction's failure is silence, whereas the essay's failure is total noise. That a big part of the writer's job is seeing, silence. So the job of the essayist is to take the world and funnel it, edit it down to meaning. And that it's a cool thing to try when you're sixteen and trying desperately to flirt. None of them claim to aspire to be essayists; fiction writers, sure! moody poets, sure! Essay is you, is your brain and world, at least 60% world, I tell them. If I can get even one of them to bust out a braided collage essay on their 12th grade AP English teacher, I figure, I've done my work. Let's own this space.

290 miles away, novelist Robert Olen Butler's guest house (also in Florida) has a similar wall which I've inscribed, right underneath Charles Baxter, one of my literary heroes. Is it a Florida thing, this wall-scrawl, this old growth? Normally we want our walls blank, neutral-colored, light. Not like my turquoise teenage room (I was not allowed to paint it black). Not like the original walls of the third house I consciously remember living in. The Ottos, the family who owned the house before us, had everyone who stayed with them write their name on the walls of the upstairs bathroom. The family would throw parties for Michigan Tech University hockey players, among others, and would invite anyone present to write on the walls. There is a photo of this somewhere, but I do not have it.

The whole room was covered in graffiti. I don't know what their idea about this was, but the effect is fascinating. My folks had to paint several coats over it (including a coat of a special variety of Kilz "guaranteed to cover writing," according to my father) to get it back to white. Perhaps the Ottos wanted to recreate the experience of a public bathroom without the dearth of sanitation.

I'll admit, I like graffiti in my public bathrooms (best thing I ever saw that I can remember was "I fucked your mom," and written below it, "Go home, Dad"--written on the bathroom in the Memorial Union of Michigan Tech University; bathrooms in colleges, especially those with strong academics and hard sciences, are often the best for graffiti with the combined lack of respect for the blank wall, possible drunkenness, definite nerdery and wit, maybe some book learnin' combined with one-upsmanship). I like something to do while I do the thing I came in there to do. But there's something more than boredom involved with those who write on walls. There must be. One of the urinals at University of Arizona has tiny things written in the grout featuring puns on the word grout: The Grout Escape, Alexander the Grout. There's some wit at work here. Also it is odd. Maybe it's desire to stain the walls of where we (men?) piss, to etch our name or some symbol of our brains there like piss mark in snow? Do we want to mark our space? Is it the urge to make art in the cave? To old-school tweet to each other? Do we want to personalize a public space to make it that much less lonely?

Is it a way of recognizing that we are only here for a moment, that we share the space, that our brains share the space, and why not have an anonymous conversation?

Our private spaces are more personalizable, with configurations of products, paintable walls, things to hang there, stencils, towel choices. These minor modern marvels define the space. But rarely will we defile a private wall. But public? Sure. It's the mob brain. Anonymity, partly. No comeuppance. But if we know the person who owns the space, we're more likely to consider our actions' effects on them.

Or maybe these marks are fiction: note that Melville gets a claim here on the wall (right image). After all, we do attach handwriting to personality (hello, graphology) and to an individual mind. And after all, we can still electronically "sign" lots of documents. A photocopy of a W2 is as good as a W2. I scan my signature and just photoshop it onto my W9s so I can email them in as necessary. I eschew the fax, that old technology. This seems fine. Your tax return can be signed by typing your name (a feat anyone could do in your stead, trivial, but illegal, oddly, though the action of typing those same letters in that order is the same). Some magazines will settle for electronic contracts. So the physicality of the signature means less, quite obviously. And if it could be scanned or faked, who cares anyways? Maybe if we had our signet rings and sealed things in wax, we could bring back materiality. After all, anyone could have signed Spalding Gray, or Ann Lauterbach, or Brenda Hillman.

These signatures are reproducible, but not without a residue. You know they're a reproduction. They even have a frame. I've hung them on the wall. Whereas this document you're reading is an essay published on the Internet. You could copy it and reproduce it exactly, no residue, no frame (if you wanted to, or you could just link to it, point to it, point it out, and save a copy on your hard drive as a pdf if you like). This is infinitely reproducible. It is digital. The signatures are not. This essay is about reproducibility. This essay is in some way about rights, about individuality, about author intention as it applies to space.

Is the scrawl just an innate urge to get ourselves out there? We write our name, or we write something profane. Maybe something poetic if we're classy (some of those on the wall have written lovely words: thanks, Ms. Sanchez). And then we have published it (really! we have published it in a wider sense of the word; in fact I'd estimate more people read bathroom graffiti worldwide than, say, poetry journals). Others can read it in perpetuity, or until it is disgraced, defaced, or erased. I used to run a project called Poetry in Bathrooms, in which I (and many other anonymous friendlies) would post poems--didn't matter what, really, just poems we liked--in bathrooms. Then we'd track to watch them defaced, see what kind of latency they would have on the walls. Put another one back up later. I liked to put up Timothy Liu poems in particular (as he has a poem, "Reading Whitman in a Bathroom Stall"). Maybe he saw one. More likely not. Everything in this world is much more likely not than so. It's okay to say so.

On the upstairs wall in the Writer's Cabin, I feel buoyed by the list of names, though some are illegible, and a few have been near-erased (by literary rivals? I wonder, or by time; many are in pencil still; most are not in archival ink, nor have they been fixed by the application of hairspray or something more professional; this is a little monument made to be eventually erased; it's not for the public, it's for those who stay here: only I am making it public by essaying its borders, which is perhaps a betrayal). Isn't this a canon? Someone gets let in. Someone gets omitted. There are only so many pages in the Norton Anthology. A set of hooks has been screwed in over a few of the names here.

Mostly I find the list, the signatures, pressurizing, electrifying. I'm here to write, right where so many others have done so. If I believed in ghosts, in literary ghosts; if I made pilgrimages to writers' homes like many do; if I believed in the anxiety of influence, then this could be paralyzing.

Luckily I am too much a fool to feel daunted. Mostly. In this moment at any rate. Who's composing in Dreamweaver? Not you, Gass. (Gass responds: ah, but why, aren't the sentences long and hard enough without mechanical aid? And I have no rejoinder, having received a D in wit my first year in college, so I return to my tunnel and fume.)

The cabin space feels individual and electric, eclectic, even as much of it is composed of the arbitrary. Still, others before me have elected to keep it this way, marked, stocked with random items. The good keepers of the cabin, the staff, have permitted it. And as it will continue on beyond me, I very much want to tend it, prune it, leave it cleaner, more interesting than it was before me. Also I want to join the conversation.

The library is a similar shared space. We don't graffiti the library or clutter it with junk, those of us who revere books, but we do tuck texts into books as we read them, leave them for the future. I find The Form 1970-1979 by Melody Sumner Carnahan in the library. It's simply a form with one line for each year from 1970 through 1979. She sent it to friends, family, and art/writer celebrities, asked them simply to fill it out and mail it back to her. John Cage returned it. Warhol returned it. And a lot of people only she would recognize returned it. The book is simply the collection of the returned forms. It's a conceptual art project, sure, and it's a sense of the decade, of what selves these people chose to represent. It is kind of beautiful.

You can guess by now that I am having everyone here at the residency fill out The Form 2001-2010. By the time you read this, our collective responses are installed in the small library. They include physical collage, poetic glimpses of the year, and of course the usual This Is What I Did This Year or This Is What I Remember From 2004, which is a perfectly reasonable response. Collectively I hope in the future they say something about this particular past. I also installed a copy of Charles Baxter's novel First Light in the library along with some bonus books and texts, figuring every library should have Charles Baxter (yours should too: I recommend First Light, of which I am particularly fond).

In the library, the teens have left their crap everywhere, as if it was their space. Books and plastic wrap and gum wrappers and pencils and half-empty water bottles and bits of trash and who even wants to know it all is strewn across the floor and chairs of the library. It's depressing. Is this how they treat a public space? A library? Perhaps to them the library, like the VHS and the Sony Walkman and the LP and the CD, is old technology. A dumping ground for information. But even so, they just trash it? Listen up, assholes, I want to say.

In their defense, a couple of them cleaned up the mac lab earlier today, a gesture of retribution or shame or maybe just rage for order, pale Romans, Ramons that they are in this residency away from their actual residence and feeling twitchy. This library was lovely, orderly before they used it up. Even a couple of the lamps got overturned. I hate to be the old and bitchy dude, but no one else is here, and so I must be the one to be appalled. The mac lab, sure, I can get that, but the library? Line up and prepare to be smacked. These may be future artists and writers of note. In which case I hope some of them find their way to this and are ashamed. (And donate money or their time to the ACA.)

I'm not used to feeling connected to a space like this. America is not all that good at it in the last century, especially once we started moving out of the towns where we grew up and building new homes in new developments that were swamps or sites of massacre, or old Indian graveyards (our horror movies reveal our fears) a dozen years before it became our glossy lawn. Yet we are sentimental about these spaces, regardless of their actual history. Just go back to your childhood home, the block, the street, and see if things have changed. You will feel it then, the disconnect. The lack of respect for the spaces of your story, where you were spawned, weaned, a tween, a teen, that place you ached to leave and left, and it doesn't exist except in memory (it never existed except in memory).

Even some of the floorboards sing loudly as you move across them in the darkness. There are voices here.

Everything in Florida is history. Everything is voices on top of other voices. Much descends from the colonial Spanish, so we see linguistic traces everywhere. .

Everything in Florida aches for disorder, a return to the natural state. The palmettos stretch slowly across the boardwalks. The spanish moss hangs further down. Arachnids spread their webs across the walk over and over. The boardwalks themselves are decaying quickly. Not to say anything at all about the beaches and the flooding and the days and days of rain. Almost every day we're here it rains powerfully for an hour. Then the moisture is in the wood, warping it slowly. Order takes upkeep. Order takes time. A canon. Engineering. Order takes control.

Surprise can exist inside order, though. Order, form, constrains but should not choke. We want interplay between the two: order, dis-, the book and this, the individuality of analog hiss and what this is. 14 lines suggest the sonnet, but within those rules there is a lot of possibilities for a universe.

I will do what I can.

I will leave a couple items in the cabin when I depart: Conan the Barbarian (VHS), already on top of the VCR (VCR? perhaps to watch VHS tapes of performances from the library? Or a nod to there being no television channels available at all, so enjoy the old tech here, suckers, and do not complain!). The VHS tape (dead or dying media) has a library card attached to it (dead or dying media). I bought it for a buck. It was last checked out in 2004. (It was first checked out in 2004, since the card was new, probably a replacement for a filled one, which always makes me sad: I would rather the whole history of the item be exhibited when I pick it up and check it out, though I suppose that is impractical; if you remove this pleasure, that of seeing the intervals of disuse, then you remove the pleasure of being the first one to check it out in twenty years, which becomes an obligation when you notice no one has checked it out in time, and you think you might be able to save it from inevitability: the dustbin, the resale shop, the defacing at the hands of art students. As an even more asidey aside, many of the books in the university library where I work still have punch cards tucked inside them: it's been that long since their contents were consulted; likely many are now obsolete, but they persist as a record of thinking, an artifact of what we once thought about subject X.)

So. From the then to the now. For the next week I am looking for a really strange item to put in the writer's cabin. I almost picked up a dismantled speedometer, thinking it would be great, but it was kind of bulky, too showy, too obvious. Maybe a pair of baby shoes, for sale, never worn, that shortest story? Or a magic lamp. A strange owl portrait. The right thing might transform the space to pleasure.

(This is where I spend my writerly energy, stocking shelves...)

And in the end I don't find anything that seems just right, that I want to represent me (that I want to tell you about, anyhow; some things should be confined to their original space; so: next lodger here, enjoy). Is it a failure? Yes, of a sort. I do, however, leave what passes for my signature, what passes for my name.