Stacey D’Erasmo is not musically inclined—at all. Yet, that didn’t stop the Lambda Literary Award and Ferro Grumley Award-winning author from writing a striking, harmonious novel about music that will resonate with anyone who has ever picked up an instrument—or admired someone else holding one.
Wonderland (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) tells the story of Anna Brundage, a statuesque and fiery forty-four-year-old down-and-out indie rock star who has given up everything for a second chance to do what she loves—and the love affairs that she stumbles through on her way.
D’Erasmo was kind enough to sit down for a jam session via email, in which we covered her own musical abilities, making your mark on the literary world, art versus relationships and what songs are currently stuck in her head.
I enjoyed that your descriptions of the music in the book weren’t straightforward or technical, but represented how I’d imagine an artist feels while he or she is performing or creating. What kind of research did you do before writing the book, and were there any musicians by whom you were particularly inspired?
Since I am musically highly untalented, as well as untrained, I did some homework. I read various biographies and autobiographies—Julianna Hatfield’s When I Grow Up, Keith Richards’ Life, Dean Wareham’s Black Postcards, among others—and I also talked to musicians such as the amazing Jennifer Charles of Elysian Fields.
My dear friend, the musician Thomas Bartlett, a.k.a. Doveman, was beyond helpful during the entire time I was writing the book. I went to see incredible people with him, like Gang Gang Dance and Owen Pallett, but I also lurked around parties and after-parties with him, where I got a bit of a feel for what that life is like. I also sat in on a recording session.
I was also lucky enough to be able to go on tour with the band Scissor Sisters for a while, thanks to Jason Sellards (Jake Shears) and that helped me tremendously. I wrote down every detail of touring that I could, from what kind of cereal was in the tour bus kitchen to how the drummer retuned his drum kit before a show.
Anna isn’t based on any particular musician, but I was certainly inspired by the way Patti Smith left the scene and successfully came back after seventeen years; I was inspired as well by the artistry of performers such as Aimee Mann, Beth Orton, Beth Gibbons and PJ Harvey. I think of Anna as a kind of fictional sister to them.
At one point in the book, Anna is ruminating on being a famous musician for four years, which she considers to be “more than long enough to leave an impression, a stain, on the airwaves.” Do you think the same goes for the literary world, or is it harder or easier for an author to make a lasting mark?
Well, honestly, I think writers have it a bit easier. While we don’t generally ascend into the mass culture pantheon the way musicians do—what contemporary writer is as famous or as worshipped as, say, Cat Power? Chryssie Hynde? David Bowie?—we also don’t have to generate that sort of fan base or fan loyalty, and we can make our art whether we have any audience or not. We can teach. We can do journalism or screenwriting with our skills. It doesn’t matter as much what we look like on the video (what video?) or whether or not we get booked on Letterman (never). Writers have more privacy. We “perform” in private and we’re read in private.
There is a catch for writers, though, which is that I think this business of what will be lasting and what won’t is trickier. The gatekeepers are more mercurial. Over and over, we see that the reputations of writers who were big in their day often don’t last, whereas a musician, who was big even for a moment, doesn’t get written out of history. Writers, however, often do. And we have no control over that.
Anna has a variety of romantic and sexual relationships in the book, but none really seem to last very long, and that seems to be partly a result of the nature of her life’s work—and the same could be said for her own father. Do you feel there’s a natural tension between stable relationships and artistic pursuits, or just something particular to these characters?
I don’t really think that the measure of a relationship, on the page or in life, is longevity. Anna’s father, after all, was married twice—that’s pretty standard, even conservative, for modern people. Anna is newly divorced, single and on the road. Everything in her life is in transition, including her love life. If at forty-four she was out on the road with her husband or her wife of twenty years, that would be a very different story.
But I think what you may be talking about as well is the way that modern artists such as Anna and her father can be quite peripatetic. One goes where the commissions and the gigs are. The airplane features heavily in the lives of many modern artists, and that means that life might take less conventional paths, including personal life.
I may be wrong, but I believe Wonderland is your only novel not to have a queer protagonist—was this a deliberate decision? If so, did it change your approach to writing the story in any way?
No, Anna always just seemed straight to me. I’ve written straight characters before, but they weren’t the main character, it’s true. It didn’t change my approach to the writing; I was much more changed by writing about someone who has a gift for making music that I don’t have, and whose life is dedicated to performing. I’m all right on stage, but I wouldn’t say it’s a zone where I feel the magic happens. The various combinations of human beings and desire—I’m fluent in that. But someone who feels most alive singing in front of a crowd? That’s a big, big stretch. For me, that’s like writing about mermaids. I still don’t know how they do what they do.
And finally: What are you listening to these days?
Most recently, I’m obsessed with a new record called Bluebird from Dawn Landes. It’s just incredibly pure, stripped back and heartbreaking.
Photo credit: Nina Subin
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Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (being curated by Christopher Soto in collaboration with the Lambda Literary Foundation) will be hosting a Summer Reading Series in NYC this August. Below is information regarding event details. We hope to see you there!
August 7th at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House (NYU), 7pm
Hosts: Lambda Literary Foundation & VIDA
Featuring: Kamilah Aisha Moon, Metta Sáma, Amber Atiya, Julia Guez, Elisa Gonzalez
Address: 58 W 10th St, New York, NY 10003
August 14th at the Audre Lorde Project, 7pm
Hosts: Lambda Literary Foundation & Kundiman
Featuring: Franny Choi, Joseph Legaspi, Jackie Wang, Paul Tran, Ocean Vuong
Address: 147 West 24th Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10011
August 21st at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House (NYU), 7pm
Hosts: Lambda Literary Foundation & CantoMundo
Featuring: Eduardo C Corral, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Denice Frohman, Roberto Montes
Address: 58 W 10th St, New York, NY 10003
August 28th at the Audre Lorde Project, 7pm
Hosts: Lambda Literary Foundation & Cave Canem
Featuring: R. Erica Doyle, Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Reginald Harris, Pamela Sneed
Address: 147 West 24th Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10011
Alastair Bonnett sought out uncharted and forgotten territories for his new book, Unruly Places. He tells NPR's Tamara Keith about the quest, which included a visit to a traffic island.
How do you dig deeper into someone who's already so open about her life, her hopes, her fears? NPR's Annalisa Quinn talks to Gay about her writing, and not acting happy if you don't feel happy.
How do you dig deeper into someone who's already so open about her life, her hopes, her fears? NPR's Annalisa Quinn talks to Gay about her writing, and about not acting happy if you don't feel happy.
A House In the Sky, about an adventurous young woman who was abducted and held captive in Somalia, appears at No. 11.
At No. 3, Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things follows a gifted botanist as she researches the mysteries of evolution and falls in love with an artist.
Debuting at No. 15, Edward Klein's Blood Feud describes the rivalry between the Clintons and the Obamas.
In Invisible, James Patterson and David Ellis follow an FBI researcher who tries to link hundreds of unsolved cases to one perpetrator. It debuts at No. 10.
The lists are compiled from weekly surveys of close to 500 independent bookstores nationwide.
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“Before there was the Internet, there was Frank O’Hara. We’re just as a culture finally catching up to his manic speed and endlessly divisible attention span”
Since his death in 1966, the poet Frank O’Hara has taken on an iconic stature among admirers of poetry. To honor the work of the beloved poet, The Fire Island Pines Fine Arts Project is presenting the Frank O’Hara Fire Island Pines Poetry Festival, on Saturday, July 12th, at 4 PM. The event will include such noted writers as Eileen Myles, Edmund White, Ariana Reines, Dorothea Lasky, and Saeed Jones.
The program, moderated by the New York poet Adam Fitzgerald, will feature a diverse group of local and international poets and writers. This event will memorialize the man and the community where he enjoyed himself immensely, wrote, and tragically died. He immortalized his time there in one of his most famous poems, ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island.’ Presenters will read a selected poem of O’Hara’s as well as one of their own to mark the occasion.
Lambda Literary spoke with poet and event moderator Adam Fitzgerald about the inspiration behind event and the continuing legacy of Frank O’Hara.
What was the motivation behind the creation of the Frank O’Hara Fire Island Pines Poetry Festival?
When my editor Bob Weil at W. W. Norton told me he wanted to put on a poetry festival at Fire Island I thought it only made sense for it to be a gathering to honor one of our greatest poets, Frank O’Hara. Together with him and Mark Ricigliano, the first ever Frank O’Hara Fire Island Pines Poetry Festival was born. We’ve had tremendous support—from people donating money to rent out the reading space to those offering rooms so each of the poets has a place to stay for the weekend. At the center of it all is our lineup. When I asked poets to read a poem of Frank’s and one of their own in tribute, everyone said yes! Immediately. O’Hara still inspires that level of devotion.
Why do you think O’Hara still resonates with so many readers of poetry?
O’Hara resonates with readers today for many reasons. One, I suspect, is because he kind of invented our social media age, albeit in his poems forty years earlier. Think about what we do any given day: read a barrage of e-mails from friends and strangers; tweet about where we’re walking or Instagram what our food looks like; read up on what movie or new exhibit or summer concert at the Met is happening, maybe opera, some ballet. Or maybe another clickbait article you surrender to for the shits and giggles of it all. On Facebook another controversy has hundreds of people needing to cry out in rage! You take some impromptu quiz telling you what country or cut of beef you are. It all flows and merges and swims together and there’s not much reason other than that’s what you want to do at that given moment—your whims fed as they’re created in the same extinguishable, replaceable moment. Our whole deplorable and irrepressible culture of ephemerality is what O’Hara is so good at curating, at celebrating. Basically, it’s what many of his poems are even about, insofar as they’re about anything. Frank checks in at a malted shop. Tags an old queen drunk at a party channeling Bette Davis. He posts, he tweets, he texts—his technology just happens to be poetry. Before there was the Internet, there was Frank O’Hara. We’re just as a culture finally catching up to his manic speed and endlessly divisible attention span.
What is your personal connection to O’Hara’s work?
O’Hara’s work means a great deal to me. It’s been chasing after me persistently this year. In putting together this festival, I’ve had the pleasure to chat with someone at the BBC about his life and legacy, to write a collaged essay of sorts for the poet and scholar Olivier Brossard’s forthcoming volume in homage. I’ve been teaching his poems, as I always do, but more in-depth than ever, to students at Rutgers and NYU. I’ve also had the chance to read at the Poetry Project’s wonderful Lunch Poems Marathon Reading a few weeks ago which was coordinated in celebration of that book being reissued by City Lights, complete a new pithy introduction by John Ashbery. Also, at the back of the book now is what survives of the correspondence between Lawrence Ferlinghetti and O’Hara. What a treat! Many of these events or occasions happily forced me to go back to the source, roaming wildly through the famed big black book with pink lettering and his hawk-nose portrait on the cover, to read (for the first time!) Joe Leseur’s gorgeous memory-work on living and knowing Frank, Some Digressions on the Poems of Frank O’Hara: A Memoir. Quite illuminating scene-painting of a period stuff akin to Eileen’s Inferno but also oddly enough Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. All these grubby brilliant bodies existed in a very different New York, cross-pollinating and helping to make the world we live in and have inherited artistically.
Do you have a favorite O’Hara’s poem? If so, what is it and why?
One doesn’t really have a favorite O’Hara poem, just a series of rotational moods that pick at any given moment this or that re-readable piece. I always go back to Morning for its unabashed sentimentality, If there is a place further from me I beg you do not go, to Memorial Day 1950, for its velocity and ambitious aesthetic credo, Picasso made me tough and quick, and the world—I love how he says “and the world,” it’s like the greatest hiccup in a first line I know, a poem which John Ashbery salvaged for the world because the only known copy after O’Hara died was from a letter Frank wrote to him. Among these and dozens of others, I have still I guess a sweetness for Having a Coke With You, its bristle of whimsy and moxie. Pure O’Hara:
_____partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
_____partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
_____partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
_____partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
Those lines say it all! I don’t even know what “all,” but it’s there. His range, his sassy inflection and wiseass vulnerability, his image-swapping, his high/low acrobatics.
There seems to be a real diverse lineup in terms of the festival’s participants, but I was wondering if you saw an aesthetic through-line in regards to the curated list of readers?
Yes, I do think there’s an aesthetic through-line—all of them love O’Hara’s work, for starters. But by that rubric one could have literally invited dozens or hundreds of equally deserving poets. Many of them are close friends or fond acquaintances (Simone Kearney, Ali Power, Zachary Pace) or friends of friends and I definitely wanted to channel some of O’Hara’s sense of coterie for the festival, but also a sense of history in community, queer, brash, young-minded. Kirby Congdon, who is a longtime resident of Fire Island, interviewed and knew some of Hart Crane’s surviving friends such as Samuel Loveman. CAConrad in my mind has taken on the mantle of Allen Ginsberg, unafraid to be outspoken and communicate with readers from inside and outside the poetry community. He’s also one of the most generous and supportive writers I know. Of course, Ginsberg and O’Hara were very close. CA calls Frank “Queer Daddy,” and his most famous book, Book of Frank, owes something to O’Hara for sure. I wanted a diverse group of readers, in terms of identity, too, sexuality, ethnicity, aesthetic preferences. Eileen Myles, a legend (I know she loathes that word), couldn’t be more different as a poet from Paul Muldoon, right? But both of them return to O’Hara, from very different Irish backgrounds, one Boston, one Ireland, one gay, one straight, one female, one male. That says something about Frank’s appeal.
Edmund White, who is not a poet, but has written about O’Hara and the New York School in his essays, also writes about the Fire Island scene in his great novel Forgetting Elena. In my mind White is as important a chronicler of gay life in our moment as Frank was in his. O’Hara introduced that element of uncensored anecdote into American poetry, to make larger-than-life celebrities out of one’s immediate circle. White continues on in this vein, along with a keen appreciation of the visual arts, again like Frank. It’s very important to me also to have Rickey Laurentiis and Saeed Jones in
this line up as well—two extremely talented gay black poets who I’ve known for years and have watched closely. First, anyone who’s paying attention to poetry today knows that some of the most exciting work is being written by African American poets—Tracy K. Smith, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Harryette Mullen, Terrance Haynes to name a few. Second, I think many people think of the New York School as a largely white-male phenomenon, like so much of what’s traditionally canonized then taught. When I helped put together a New York School marathon reading at Tibor de Nagy gallery last year with Emily Skillings and Eric Brown, the great Patricia Spears Jones read for us but afterwards remarked, “You really need to involve more poets of color!” While we had invited many others, she was the only black poet reading that day. One should always be involving more poets of color but I think she also meant O’Hara’s influence and appeal is most certainly not limited to white guys.
I’m reminded of the very close friendship that existed between Frank and the late Amiri Baraka, who may have been lovers but were certainly enthusiastic readers of each other’s work, cosmopolitan polymaths both. O’Hara’s famous Personism: A Manifesto pays tribute to that friendship when Baraka (then LeRoi Jones). Africanism is a large theme throughout O’Hara’s work, in fact. Samuel Delany says in his classic study Times Square Red, Times Square Blue:
The primary thesis underlying my several arguments here is that, given the mode of capitalism under which we live, life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of good will.
As an artist, I feel like Delany’s thesis is the real democracy we’re all panting after. Interclass, intersex, interracial, intergenerational. To live in New York is to be in the midst of all these intersections, just as to be a queer then or now, but especially then, is to go cruising for intimacy where those barriers and divisions momentarily erode and blur. For Delany, that was happening in the Times Square porno theaters before they closed down to make way for Disney-fied gentrification and what have you. In O’Hara’s poetry and his social milieu, I think those same transgressions happened constantly, he lived and created and wrote from that same space which is especially why I also wanted to have readers who weren’t just gay bachelors, like Timothy Donnelly and Paul Muldoon. This all may sound ridiculous in retrospect, like I was a census bureau checking off boxes, but the truth is I just naturally gravitate toward a mismatch assembly because in the back of my head someone like O’Hara defined for me what real community looks like.
Just like the conception of the New York School’s whiteness, many people might believe it was largely an affair of men, when they hear the bandied-about names: Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch, Schuyler. But that “first generation” group also included Barbara Guest as well as widening out to Anne Waldman, Alice Notley and Bernadette Mayer, among many others. Before Maggie Nelson’s tremendous monograph Women, the New York School and Other True Abstractions, I think readers might have had a one-sided appreciation of the diversity of gender in this group of artists and poets. Eileen is a crucial example but now poets of my generation like Dorothea Lasky and Ariana Reines have also amplified and enhanced O’Hara’s legacy. Ariana has a poem of hers in Mercury called Truth or Consequences and it’s one of the very best poems written in the 21st century I know of. It cribs from and channels O’Hara’s A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island. I remember first hearing it and approaching her and just gushing about how Homeric and Whitmanic it was in its utterance. O’Hara’s poem steals from Mayakovsky, so it seems only right to pass the torch on. Lasky, who’s one of my dearest friends on the planet, is a poet already famous for the fierceness of her voice on and off the page. But aside from being so brutal and direct in her poems, she’s also one of the funniest people and poets I know, and I think her unique deadpan couldn’t have been possible without O’Hara and Ted Berrigan’s immortal schtick.
In an email sent to me detailing the specifics of the event, you stated that “[..] this will not be safe or tame poetry reading. Think punk, think mosh pit, think flying dildos and ass thongs.” Is this just hyperbole? Should viewers really expect some anarchic hi-jinks at this reading?
Well, it is after all a reading on Fire Island. The mecca of gay partying, casual sex and fun in the sun. I might have overstated things when I said “flying dildos and ass thongs,” but who knows! I’m sure there’ll be plenty of one-sided “half thongs” or c-strings to traumatize the tasteful and innocent. One can hope, right?
This interview has been condensed and edited
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