The essays in Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies move nimbly from cultural critique to memoir and back again. The essay “On Tumbleweed” begins with Brian, on his lunch break out for a drive, encountering a tumbleweed tumbling down the middle of a Tucson street. He gets out of his car to retrieve the uprooted plant so that he can bring it home and string it up chandelier-like, saving him and his boyfriend the trouble of going out and getting a Christmas tree that season. From there, the essay segues into what it’s like to be a Visiting Poet and to have that same job title at a variety of schools across the country, each with different ideas about what a visiting poet ought to do (and be paid). As Blanchfield says: “Visiting Poet is a volatile term, term after term.” He writes candidly about the hustle of being a professor without an office. In “On Tumbleweed,” and the other essays in the book, his aim to explore the heart of the topic at hand, rather than cast judgment or win an argument of some kind.
He writes with equal clarity and grace about his background, his sexuality, approaching these aspects of his life through the lenses of Br’er Rabbit, frottage, and Man Roulette. He wrote the entire book without the Internet, without research of any kind. The book’s final piece, titled “Correction,” is a list of facts the previous twenty-five essays get wrong.
In addition to Proxies, Blanchfield is the author of two books of poetry. He recently received a Whiting Award. We spoke by phone.
The Rumpus: So I just missed you when you were in town on book tour. How’s the tour been?
Brian Blanchfield: Pretty great, and a little grueling. I think if my math is right, it was twenty-three events in seventeen cities over about six weeks, coming and going home to Tucson. Especially back east and in the south and the midwest, including St. Louis, where you are, the tour was really a tour through my life, plumbing my past, seeing exes and former students and teachers. There was a reading that I did in Durham, North Carolina where the audience included: one of my heroes, the poet Nathaniel Mackey; also, two guys who were my best friends in ninth grade, now adult men, fathers in their forties, one of whom I simply did not recognize; a poet whose book I had selected in a manuscript contest; a lovely guy I first befriended in a steam room in Brooklyn; and a PhD student who writes to me occasionally and “does work,” as they say in academia, on pornography and queer culture. It was a confusing mashup, all these bizarre constituencies peculiar to my various stations of life. To try to speak to any of them and also speak to all of them was a little bit nuts, but wonderful.
Rumpus: Sounds like worlds colliding.
Blanchfield: Well, that’s the kind of book this is. Part of what I realize now I was doing in Proxies was to integrate the incongruous aspects of my self: the child of the truck driver and Primitive Baptist self, the queer intellectual poet self, the professor without an office self, the prizewinner who was “midcareer” before he was “emerging,” the middle-aged man at the entry-level rungs of the gig economy.
Rumpus: Which of the book’s essays did you read in Durham?
Blanchfield: The one on frottage. Some of that stuff was new to these guys I knew in ninth grade. They were lovely about it. I really loved traveling around. The tour was exhausting and I’m glad I’m back in Tucson.
Rumpus: Has supporting this book been unique compared to the two previous books of poetry?
Blanchfield: I think that this tour was different in the ways that prose gets received differently than poetry. There’s been a fair amount of local media attention, public radio, and city weeklies this time as I tour around, for instance. Also, the range of audience response is wider and more unpredictable; in some venues on certain nights some material in this book can be stirring.
Rumpus: The emotion of these essays snuck up on me. Like for instance, the essay on foot washing. You start off talking about foot washing in the Bible and then in Greek drama and then you transition very quickly to talking about the cruelty and vulnerability of your stepfather, a diabetic who for years had an open sore on his foot and who relied on your mother to clean and treat it.
Blanchfield: I’m glad that the book has that effect, that it sometimes ushers you through the back door unexpectedly. That the autobiography intermixes with the cultural studies aspect in surprising ways. This was a book that really relied on my finding uneasy or intimate territory within each subject. It became, as I say in the introduction, a book that’s braver than I am. And now it’s given to me to kind of catch up with it as its author. There’s plenty in these essays that, if you and I were just meeting, I wouldn’t share. But, I guess author and reader have a different compact. Past compunction. Having a conversation while signing a book, I’m not sure I’ve found a way to be both at once.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about the essay “On Dossiers.” You write candidly about being a finalist for four jobs and, for four different reasons, watching them all go to other people. I felt like you came off very magnanimous. I’m wondering if this disposition is natural to you or if that’s maybe something that you’ve come to over time?
Blanchfield: Well, thanks. I don’t think everybody reads that part of the essay as generously as you do. Others have fretted to me that it might be poor-mouthing or self-sabotaging, unwise in one way or another, reckless, maybe even tasteless, to name Rice University, for instance. And maybe if it’s not betraying a smidgen of naked resentment, I haven’t done my job as unguarded memoirist. I wanted to be clear about an opaque experience many teaching writers are having, to be in the middle of what seems an inside hire, and about what the costs are. Part of reckoning is tabulation. Add it up. The conclusion one reaches, which is the conclusion anyone who’s done this for a while should reach, is that academia is not a meritocracy. Nor are unqualified teachers landing jobs. The numbers are insane. So you become philosophical about it. You learn to make adult decisions without relying on others’ decisions about your fitness for what they need.
I should add that, by far, the responses to my writing about hiring practices or career shame have been positive. Mostly people, tenured and adjunct alike, have expressed gratitude and even giddiness that I’ve detailed the experience a bit. Beyond sex or religion or anything else in that book I’m appreciating that this is the one that crosses the line for people. A new friend of mine, a great writer and perennial visiting professor, described the experience of living “in the near term,” term to term, as having a kind of slightly ghostly presence in the world. In that I hear a kind of collective silence or tentativeness.
Rumpus: Are you done with academia?
Blanchfield: The honest answer is I continue to be torn. I love teaching; it’s one of the things I do best. I love my relationships with past students and advisees. Whenever I’m out of the classroom I really miss it. All the breakthroughs, the conversation. The other part of the answer is, yeah, I’ve healthily detached from certain expectations. My partner John and I have made decisions accordingly. We’d be content if we kept finding a way to live in Tucson modestly and continue to write and find what we need here.
Somewhere in the book I think I say that John and I decided that we wouldn’t move anywhere for another visiting gig. That’s an adult decision, for example: to choose where you want to live and make a life there. And that conviction holds, in all cases—unless, well, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop calls. So, as it happens, I am teaching as a visiting poet next spring and looking forward to it. Some people there I really admire will be neighbors, and I am glad to anticipate a full immersion in poetry and writing community.
Rumpus: A lot of the essays begin with a broader cultural idea, then shift into the more personal narrative. You start with foot washing, then move to your stepfather. You write about frottage, and that segue ways to talking about the week of panic when you thought you might have HIV. I’m wondering, did one of those halves generally come first? Were you interested in foot washing and then that led to talking about your stepfather? Or were you interested in talking about your painful family dynamic and that led to foot washing?
Blanchfield: Well, these essays begin as object studies, single-subject analyses, but I always chose the primary subject matter trusting that there was hot material inside it for me. With foot washing, I knew more or less where I wanted to arrive, at a sort of primal scene with my parents. I trusted that in writing about Br’er Rabbit, I would have to write about growing up white and working-class in North Carolina in a casually racist ideology. Where I’m writing about, let’s say, Sardines (the hiding game), I’m inviting myself to think through the relationship between confinement (even Cold War tropes) and my own sexuality.
So I knew there was secondary subject matter and I understood it was most electric to move toward the riskiest material, but I had no idea what turns I would make to get there. Or what exactly I would confront there. I tried to keep discovery the main engine. That’s maybe the practice of poetry stepping in. The book’s constraint was, as it turns out, a way to trick myself into disinhibited autobiography. It gets dicey. That’s what I admire in some of my life-writing heroes: Michel Leiris, Hervé Guibert, Chris Kraus, Dodie Bellamy, Alison Bechdel. That was the part of Proxies that probably gives it its particular character.
Rumpus: One of the more talked about aspects of the book is the fact that you wrote it without the use of the Internet or doing research of any kind. A personal revelation I had while reading Proxies was that the tendency I have, and I think a lot of other people have, is that whenever I’m faced with a new topic of watercooler discussion, my first inclination is to go online and read maybe ten or eleven different opinions about that topic and find the one that fits best, as if shopping for a shirt. Whereas maybe a better inclination is to sit with the topic for a while and just see what one’s own brain power can suss out of it.
Blanchfield: Ann Lauterbach’s word for it is traction. Stay with the thing you’re studying, keep activating that tight circuitry, keep looking, beholding, keep thinking, best guessing, extrapolating. Midway through the tour it hit me how many people are interested in this project for being radical in our current moment. And I do think there’s something here running counter to the culture of ever-available wiki knowledge, in which you know what you don’t know and you know where to, yes, shop for and sample that missing knowledge, which forecloses on the experience and the real pleasure of thinking.
Speculation and supposition and extrapolation, these are the muscles of essaying. From all the way back to not just Montaigne, but also Gilbert White and Sir Thomas Browne, and any number of essayists right up to the last century: Susan Sontag and Guy Davenport, Hugh Kenner, were writers who used the power of that precise attention as a springboard to wild association. Like, what’s brought to mind? Where does it send you? Moving where the mind moves and letting the essay find more territory within the thing it’s examining.
Maggie Nelson, early on, called the essays in my book think-throughs. I liked that. It stayed with me, and was a guide. And I owe a lot to her own example of free intellection, step stoning through and around received knowledge.
Rumpus: The only part of the book I didn’t read was the very end with all the corrections. I understand that it’s probably a cool sort of essay in a certain way but I as I was reading the book, I didn’t have any interest in seeing what you got wrong. It seemed irrelevant somehow. I read a few reviews of the book, and a few other people kind of agreed with me on this.
Blanchfield: That’s so interesting to hear. I love that. Yeah, and you’re not the only person who’s found no need for “Correction.” It’s funny to me, I think of it as a ride back through the book, a kind of monorail ride through the amusement park, above it all, perversely objective. Zero turbulence. The correctives were a pleasure I was saving for myself at the end of the essays. When I felt I was finished with an essay, I could go and look and see what I had half right, and sort of cringe at my ignorance. You know, the essay “On Minutes” begins with an assertion about the origin of minutes that is completely misguided. The whole thing is based in a way on this opening statement. I mean, mostly that essay is about subject positions in the office place, and about accepting work as a secretary after nine years as a professor; but, to the extent that you might want to know something definitive about the history of minutes, you find out in the endnote that you’ve been in the wrong place.
At some point I stopped considering the endnote as an addendum of dutiful errata and more as a literary work of its own accord, like a long David Markson-style litany of non-sequiturs. To me it’s the only poetic text in this book. I like to think of it as an afterlife of facts, after the reckoning.
Rumpus: Lastly, I just wanted to say how beautiful I found the final essay before the corrections. You describe the writing life you and John live on the days when you have nothing to do but write. I find that very ideal, something to aspire to. If that’s where you arrive at, I thought, that’s pretty good.
Blanchfield: I appreciate that. That last essay offers not only kind of a valentine to John [the poet John Myers] and the amazing creative mind he has and is, but also kind of a valentine for the dream I think a lot of writers have about possible partnership. To be writing back to back or head to head or in adjacent studio offices with your partner, totally into what he’s producing, and energized by each other’s risk-taking and discoveries. That’s the best. Endlessly regenerative. You organize your life around the continuation of that. If that’s what important to you, you find a way to make the rest of your life support that.
Author photograph © Ace Blanc.