Beginning the Day with Renee Gladman’s Calamities

Gladman’s latest is a book on writing that embraces the chaos and uncertainty of creation

“I began the day wanting these essays to do more than they were currently doing,” Renee Gladman writes in her new book, Calamities. The pieces in Calamities are 1–3 page vignettes that obsess over writing, language, place, and belonging. Gladman writes:

“[I] even had a book alongside that I thought would help me, but it turned out I wanted more from this book as well.”

More than forty of the sixty essays in Calamities start with the phrase “I began the day…” In a book that reflects on a vast and particular set of material — Eileen Myles to Friday Night Lights, Amtrak trains to faculty meetings, writing and teaching to reflecting on existential questions of being (often at the same time) — the technique of recurrently returning to the literal morning stabilizes the book while also allowing it to re-boot every few pages. “I began the day having given myself the task of compiling a list,” Gladman writes, and, “I began the day wandering the streets of the small city where I live,” and, “I began the day in a fog that cleared before I’d gotten the chance to write about it… I thought, ‘This is an essay,’ then looked up to take it all in.”

Gladman is an Italo Calvino for the 21st century.

The pieces in Calamities are meta-nonfictional. They often inspect the process of writing — the terror and bliss, the struggle of using language to represent anything — and they critique the struggle of creation as they enact it. Gladman writes, “I began the day wanting to fold the previous essay into this new one,” and the reader would think she means it in a metaphorical sense. But then she writes, “I had learned just after writing it that it was possible to make beautiful, complex structures with paper and you did not need to be an architect to do this…. As morning became night, I forgot to get up and do anything that was not about folding paper.”

Gladman is an Italo Calvino for the 21st century. In the spirit of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Gladman’s most recent books featured a “linguist-traveler” who was learning about the elusive city-state of Ravicka. In the spirit of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, Gladman’s narratives often self-interrogate, and double back on themselves to readjust. Six Memos for the Next Millennium was a series of Calvino’s writing lectures he wrote to deliver at Harvard. Gladman wrote many of these essays on writing while she was a Radcliffe Fellow — at Harvard.

But while the reflections in Six Memos are self-confident — conjuring ancient Greek, and anticipating the next millennium — Gladman is left in wonder in regard to her obsessions with writing. In one essay, she shouts to her departing poetry class, “Read the nothing!” as she unsuccessfully tries to summarize a strange thought she has about the poet ED Roberson, and grids. In another: “I couldn’t understand why my days unfolded the way they did and why they took me away from writing.’” And, “I began the day thinking that writing was becoming a thing of the past as my fondness for Rollerblading was though in my time of writing and my time of Rollerblading–and these did sometimes overlap — I was far better at the former than the latter.”

One of the recurring threads in Calamities is the sense that Gladman has trouble fitting in. For example, as a black experimental writer who publishes with small independent presses, a writer like Gladman hasn’t traditionally been represented in the academy. Yet Gladman attended Vassar College. She taught at Brown University. She was a Radcliffe Fellow.

In one essay, Gladman doesn’t know when she’s allowed to enter a department faculty meeting. “A senior member opened the door and thought it would be a good time to play a joke on me, saying you can’t come in here.” Gladman writes. “I didn’t think it was funny, since often I can’t attend meetings.” In another piece, she begins the day reflecting on the “university level,” and contemplates a surreal journey with a car that keeps running out of gas, a series of gates, and eventually nothingness. “No food came; no one screamed down to say hello.” In one chapter, she gets fired. She obsesses over the University president’s use of the phrase “slam dunk.” As in, the president, the provost, and some other men at the university level, had not found Gladman to be a “slam dunk.” She leaves, obsessing over the phrase. It clangs through her dreams.

[Of the many recurring threads in Calamities] is the sense that Gladman has trouble fitting in.

But in addition to a sense of alienation — in regard to writing, community, being a body in space — Gladman’s essays are also full of strange joy. “I found that I liked to be bossed around in resort conditions,” she says of a near-unprecedented vacation she takes with her mom and sister. “You can be sunning on the beach, drifting in and out of sleep, and at any moment the tall robust captain might stand over you and command you to do something. It was exhilarating to be told it was time to dress for lunch or that I needed to put away the Snickers.”

In Gladman’s struggle to fit in, to write, and to convey meaning, Calamities unfolds as a series of days that in many ways fit under the category of this book’s title. But Calamities is a book on writing that embraces the chaos and uncertainty of creation.

There’s joy in the madness, and Gladman knows where to find it.

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