Self-Hatred Can Be Funny
When Rebecca Brown, the new artistic director for Centrum Writers’ Conference in Port Townsend, Washington, invited me to come and visit, I told her I couldn’t wait to see Lynn Emanuel, who would be appearing there. The day of her reading, I filled my knapsack with shorts and T-shirts and my black baseball cap. I drove north from Seattle, took a ferry across the water, then disembarked and drove over the Hood Canal Bridge, past farms, into town.
Port Townsend is the corner of earth where Puget Sound meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It is a crossroads of old hippies, craft merchants, artists and writers, retirees, and workers at the pulp mill. The town is a little like Provincetown—a main street runs along shops that back onto the salt water—but it isn’t as crowded with tourists or cotton candy kiosks. Like Provincetown, Port Townsend has an extraordinary place for artists and writers to gather and to generate and present new work. As we drove, I thought of all the times I’d been out to Centrum to hear poetry. Once, at a conference almost twenty years ago, someone pointed to a classroom in one of the buildings and said, “That’s where Stafford teaches when he comes here.” I idolized William Stafford, and the room took on a special wash of white paint and sunlight; the chalkboards and chairs seemed blessed.
Centrum is a thirty-year-old nonprofit arts and cultural organization housed in Fort Worden, a defunct military base with bunkers dating back to the Spanish-American War. Later the place became a juvenile detention facility. Sometimes when kids tried to run off, they ended up living in the warrens of moldy cement rooms along the cliffs.
The whole place is pressed to the sea on two sides. Old officers’ quarters, cottages, and bunkhouses cluster around an enormous green. Coming through the woods in some weird Lewis and Clark stupor, I feel so high it’s like I’m flying.
Emanuel’s poem “Who Is She Kidding” includes a dialogue between herself and an older lady. The elder woman says: “Who is she to pretend / she’s me and to take on that ditched-in, / hopeless tone?” Then, a few lines later, the poet chimes in: “Honey, I tell her, / my name is Lynn Collins Emanuel, / someone whose whole manner says / I’m over-educated but recovering. . . .”
Emanuel is like someone who opens and closes the shutters of identity, using the music of regular speech to switch personas. In her earlier book The Dig, she gave voice to a young girl in a bomb-tested landscape who was trying to fall in love, and in Then Suddenly—, her more recent book, she plays a lot of different characters: a poet, a wit, Sharon Stone. She even plays different versions of Lynn Emanuel.
Near the airplane hangar, set back into the corner of the property where scenes from An Officer and a Gentleman were filmed (Debra Winger played the girlfriend of aspiring officer Richard Gere), is an old brick chapel. Like so many churches in the Northwest, it’s been remodeled as a theater. It’s not a rigorous, formal place: instead of tiered seating, there’s a gentle slant down toward the stage. You can roam around trying out seats without tripping on steps or feeling crowded. All of the remnants of altars and pews, any sense of religious ornament, is gone—replaced by comfortable olive leather chairs and a rig of theatrical lighting.
Rebecca Brown gets up to introduce the conference; her hair is cut like a hedgehog. She’s wearing boys’ cargo shorts, long ones below her knees, and an aloha shirt, untucked. She welcomes everyone without obsequious chatter or all-about-me remarks, then brings on Emanuel, who taps her pages on the lectern and talks to us directly. It’s like a regular conversation, only she’s speaking up so we can hear her from the distance of the stage. There’s no artifice in her presence; she doesn’t drop her eyes or pretend to be overwhelmed by being on stage. She slices her hands through the air when she talks, and lifts her eyes, enunciating straight to the audience. She leaves the tricks and the attention to the poems.
Then, she lets loose with the big news. “My latest book is about self-hatred,” she says.
The more she claimed to suffer from “self-loathing,” the less sure I was about who she was. This, I decided, was funny. “The strict pickets of my vigilance, / then suddenly we are lip to lip. We are in some terrible avalanche of problems.” The dishevelment of the speaker is underscored by music: those short i’s in strict, picket, and vigilance roll underneath the slapstick angst of being “lip to lip” with a “terrible avalanche” of issues.
“I tried to flatter myself into extinction,” she reads from her poem “My Subjectivity.” “Buried myself alive,” she insists, and then asks: “in a landslide / of disparagement; ran myself into the ground / with my by-now-notorious irony; / slid insincerity’s poisonous oils?” Then: “Tried to swap / my DNA at the DNA supermarket / I read about in every Philip K. Dick? . . . I turned every road into a Mobius Strip leading my sorry self?”
Maybe she has assembled these sad-sack sayings as a way of being funny, but my laugh catches some snag in the gear, and it clutches up. The language gives me these thrilling emotional jolts where things break down. It’s almost scary.
Two days later, Emanuel gave an afternoon craft lecture. She said this talk would be “about how I read, as opposed to what I write.” She said that she reads in two ways: first, in a swoon, falling in love with the book, and second, by having a fierce argument with it. From there, she made various digressions: the “language available for describing the architecture of a book of poems,” through Langston Hughes’s Selected Poems; M.L. Rosenthal’s criticism; and the forms and shapes an epic poem and a poetic sequence can take. Near the end of her lecture, she asked: “Why, in writing a book of poems, do we put this thing next to that thing?”
I had come to Centrum to hear a poet read from the isolation of a book. What I hadn’t known was how many versions of the poet would turn up.
Frances McCue is a poet, reviewer, and essayist living in Seattle. From 1996 to 2006, she was the founding director of Richard Hugo House, the literary arts center there. Her book The Stenographer’s Breakfast was published by Beacon Press. Starting in the fall of 2006, she will be the writer...