Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Brief Conversation with Anna Tambour

Serendipity! Anyone who does a lot of reading knows how important serendipity is in directing one’s thoughts and attention. Serendipity, as it happens, has me musing on the Muse thing. It started last weekend with my brief conversation with Nisi Shawl. As I remarked there, I’ve never quite gotten the Muse thing & so tend to ignore it unless it gets right up in my face. A couple of days later, I came across a sharp-edged look at Charles Olson’s relationship with his Muse, Frances Boldereff, by Rachel Blau DuPlessis (whose engaging book of feminist poetics, The Blue Studio, I’ve been slowly working my way through). Writing about Boldereff, DuPlessis notes,
Like a number of creative women from the 1930s to the 1950s (or even early 1960s) [DuPlessis means her generalization to apply to the US, not elsewhere], her relationship to her own powers was charged with her deeply held opinion of the impossibility or compromise of female achievement. At that time intelligent women felt highly exceptional. They hyperidentified with male triumphs, often feeling separate from women or dragged down by contact with women. They felt like traitors to their gender roles, not-women, or escapees; one response was the intensity of their conviction that female gender roles were their tragic fate. They often experienced outright economic discrimination. These are women whose ideological conditions of employment and self-divisions around achievement, not to speak of discouragement from the outside world, left them so battered that they visibly stagger in the ring, using up their power throwing wild punches (sometimes even at themselves),or go down for the count forever. Outside this, looking into all the historical poignancy and damage, one begs them to get up. But not all could or did.

DuPlessis thus explains Bodereff’s fanatical self-effacement and the “gender-martyrdom” she assumed in her role as Olson’s muse. DuPlessis’s powerful analysis fairly strong-armed me into doing a little thinking on the subject. (Among other things, it made me, as I often find myself doing, reflect yet again on aspects of Alice Sheldon that the Phillips biography illuminates with such clarity: this time, to wonder whether if a truly brilliant creative man had entered her life, she might not have fallen into the role of muse instead of artist: unless, perhaps, her mother’s example make that unlikely?) With all this on my mind, I emailed Anna Tambour an invitation to muse with me on the Muse. At which I encountered the third coincidence: discovering that Anna had herself been doing some writing on the Muse for her next novel. So here’s our conversation:

Timmi: In my Brief Conversation with Nisi Shawl, she said—alluding to her intentions for the story we were discussing—“"I wanted to give an account of an ordinary mortal's encounter with a Muse from the Muse's point of view.” On reflection, I realized that I had pretty much ignored that aspect of the story because I've always felt uncomfortableand sometimes even impatientwith the whole idea of the artist's even having a muse. Traditionally, the Muse has been a female figure, most often conjured up in relation to the male artist. It's a quintessentially Romantic conception, even though it does of course predate the 19th century.

Still, women do sometimes speak of their Muse (and some women writing in the 19th century did, too). And when I try to imagine what “the Muse” might be, I can intellectually work out that it is probably a personification of whoever or whatever fills one with the desire to write (the desire to write or the inspiration that drives one to put everything into the work being what Samuel R. Delany in About Writing calls Begeisterung). And for some artistsfor instance Charles Olsonthe Muse figure is embodied in an actual person and is thus far more than a mere personification. And yet I find myself sunk in utter disbelief whenever I try to imagine someone actually having a muse. Obviously, I'm missing something.

So my question to you, Anna, is whether you have a muse, and if so, can you tell me enough about your Muse to make her/him/it/them real to me? And if you don't have a muse, why do you think that might be? Do you, for instance, think the possession of a muse is too much associated with traditional gender roles to be useful to a woman who seeks to assume a place that many people still (often secretly) believe can be held only by men? Or might there be some other reason? Can male figures be muses? But if they are, are they more likely to be mentors than handmaidens? (I.e., figures of authority rather than acolytes.) This inquiring feminist mind would like to know!

Anna: Thank you very much for even thinking of me for this wonderful venture. I am not sure that I'm ever much value for any of these kinds of questions, partly because I feel very unsure of saying stuff about my feelings personally in public, and secondly, because if I'm speaking seriously in public, I prefer not to talk about the process of writing because that adds to the amount of writing on writing that writers write and I'd rather read about woodchucks chucking wood.

I don't know what to say about this topic especially, because, well, see attached excerpts from a novel I've been working on, that give two points of view. (I would think they'd be too big to put on your blog, but if you'd like to, I certainly have no objection.)

I also feel “uncomfortableand sometimes even impatientwith the whole idea of the artist's even having a muse.” In fact, those words are exactly how I feel, perhaps because I've never met her, the bitch. For though she has been cited as a mentor by some women, I have always thought her a ‘man's woman’, not that I have anything against men, but I think of her like a woman I met once who flaunted her long blonde hair and collected impressionable men of deficient value systems like black pants do, lint. When she wasn't hair-obsessed and complaining about how hard it was to be a beautiful natural blonde, she was quite okay. Once when she was in that okay phase, I happened to be at her house and, going to the toilet, washed my hands and threw the paper in the bin, where the paper fell lightly upon the box that made her natural. I guess it's that fakey goodness that I find yucky about Muses. After all, how many authors whose work was inspired by muses should be suing them instead of thanking them, it's so bad? As much as is produced by the unlovely brains of mortals, I reckon.

Timmi: I have to say that your novel excerpts are so to the point that I'm just astonished at the coincidence of my having decided to ask you that particular question! I do think I want to post them on the blog. Judging by the excerpts, the novel, by the way, sounds interesting. (& they do sound in some way akin to Spotted Lily...)

Anna: It's strange, isn't it, that your question is so spot-on with some thoughts I've had. This book has many different characters who live in various places and times, so though she has some elements similar to Angela in Spotted Lily, she and ‘Crandolin’ are both quite different to Spotted Lily. Not to say that I would trust this Muse one bit more than I would Angela! Or maybe I'm just miffed. She hasn't helped me no matter how much I've needed help.

Timmi: Thanks very much, Anna.


So here are the excerpts from Anna Tambour’s novel-in-progress:

6 The beloved at home

She tossed a clump of hair out of her eyes, jerking a tower of ash off her cigarette into the pot. What was left was too short to smoke, so she dropped it into an emptyish bottle and rolled another from the papers and leaf-litter in the pocket of her once-flowered apron.

The stuff in the pot---animal, vegetable or otherwise--smelt burnt. She huffed off the flame and reached for a full bottle, twisted its cork out, stuck her lips to the rim and pulled glugs till she had to unlock for air.

"Falleydo-hooh . . . ugchhh!" Her burp--racy, sweaty and pungent on the nose--resonated with almonds and flint to the fore, perhaps an unreasonable amount of broccoli coming through on the finish, but redeemed itself on the afterscent with a lingering note of something indescribable.

She tilted the bottle to her full lips and sucked again, and again till its contents were only a sludge unreachable to her long, experienced tongue. She murmured the judges' comments on that winning Sauvignon Blanc in the latest Sydney International: "Quite a cat’s pee . . . a lovely wine. Sweaty armpit character " Nick Kippax himself said that, declaring it "a great combination. "

"Ayee! This combination's greater."

The earth groaned with the egos of 'artists', staked out like graveposts from Vietnam to Antarctica probably, covering the ground in great vats and supercenters and little brick and wattle and daub and roadside tin and bubblewrap bistros, and glittering glass dumping grounds, and bottles bobbing in the—

"Gorgonna!" She pulled herself out of that spiral of complaint, something new she had picked up lately, from them. Never before had she realised that they could affect her. But all their exhibitionism, their competitiveness, had.

"What do I care what they think?"

She asked herself that constantly, but never got an answer. Was it possible to compete against them, to compete alongside them? What would Kippax say about this? Never before had she contemplated, but the great clouds of undeserved praise that rose from the earth these days had—

"Ruump! Quit your whinging, yar boofa sister!" She planted her hands on her hips and pushed herself up straight.

"Yow-ay o! You love to be loved," she reminded herself.

"Yor-mah o," she argued back. "But they don't love me!"

"Enough!" It was best not to think of that, or she might as well carry an axe to work.

To work.

She shrugged, and tossed her apron.

Time to put her face on.

They expected that of the Muse.


and later…..


11 Two thousand a session

The man gazed up into the woman's eyes as if he wanted to throw himself into their pools. But then his eyes wandered down her long throat, to the mountains—

"Before the time of Gwandurf," she said.

Her belly, so close to his head, was flat as—

"of Gwandurf" she said, with even crisper enunciation, though her voice was but a whisper. That voice, musical as—

"Don't sit there like flat beer!"

tap tap tap . . .

His fingers finished what she'd dictated, so he looked into her eyes again.

"You get more beautiful every--"

"Type or I'll leave."

"Okay, okay," he said, placing his hands over the keyboard. "Shoot."

"when the little people of Bungendore . . ."

The man was obedient for the rest of the session, and when the dictation ended at the 2,000th word, he dropped to his knees and clasped her legs (their shape peekabooing through the flow of her neo-classic robe).

"I can't live without you. Stay," he said, for the nth time. "Melissa can't--"

"Melissa can't what?" His wife's head appeared in the doorway, like an apple on a stick. "D'you want dinner or should I give it to the dog?"

"Melissa can't hear me when I say I'm coming," he said.

"And get up from the floor, Rick."

The man left his study backside first, kissing his open hand and extending it like a tray, mouthing as he backed out, "To you, my lady."

He squared his shoulders going down the stairs.

"I hope, I really hope," he loudly announced without actually speaking, "that someday, Melissa, you will see. And I hope that moment reveals to you: your husband, Richard K. Stubbs, in flagrant delicto with the only woman who does things for me, who does things to me: the Elusive One, the Supportive One, the Adorable One: The Muse Herself."

Lucky for him that Melissa Rowe-Stubbs didn't hear him. Nor did the Muse, now a lady in rubber, on her way to another call.

1 comment:

Nisi Shawl said...

Timmi and Anna, I just caught up with this posting, and am thinking more about women and muses.

I don't think that analogizing the woman artist/muse relationship from the man artist/muse relationship works. As a writer, I see it more as a process of identification, or rejection of identification, than one of romantic desire. More about a mirror than a kiss. For women artists, our muses are our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, as well as our lovers. Our babysitters. Our deepest and/or highest selves.

At least, that's been my experience.