What about a boy who is also a bug? Who loves a girl who is also a corpse? Or an adolescent wannabe-cowgirl in Hong Kong who’s hellbent on becoming an American singing sensation? Or the older American kidnapper who’s hellbent on fucking her? This is the way stories begin for me, with characters. What initiates the birth of these characters is a mystery—a poster of a blonde Chinese girl in a Hong Kong video rental shop, or the terrible but catchy sentimental song, “Beside You,” on Iggy Pop’s flop American Caesar. It is the creak in the stage you hear during every day’s performance, something given-up that wants to be again.
But how to make it be?
The Bugging Watch came to be in a bug-visited house I rented as a college student in Denver. It was a story tinkered together in prose miniatures that I wrote in my unheated kitchen nook in winter. I wore a hat, scarf and gloves. I remember I could see my breath on the tiny black & white liquid crystal display. The characters, Harlan and Toland, scurried at me in their Kafka archy and mehitabel Naked Lunch Cronos-copycat Gorey period getup of a new post-mortem. I wrote it in a few days and it was about 8 pages. This was a long time ago. It was published in Shattered Wig Review a few months later.
I did not think about Harlan and Toland again for many years. By the time their winged bodies landed on my stage again I had already started China Cowboy. I was deep in Ren and La La’s reincarnated Dixie world of microphones and boners, no doubt brought on by an unplanned lovechild of Lolita and Coal Miner’s Daughter (a sex act brought on no doubt by Autobiography of Red and Bound for Glory), and I stopped. I had written over 300 pages about La La and Ren, mostly from the seedy POV of Ren. When I started I meant to write a slim hundred. So I stopped. I lost my job. I had a baby. Other life stuff happened.
I had been sick and had surgery and while prostrate with a brain full of Sleepless Nights and Jan Svankmajer, I heard Harlan and Toland wing back into my life, beating their airy prose at me. My daughter was just 1. I spiraled into that nanosecond on Monday in which the The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits takes place and finished it that year. I submitted it to Tarpaulin Sky during their open reading period, and Christian Peet phoned me to say they’d like to publish it. I kept hoping I was not dreaming this conversation. Had I my druthers, Tarpaulin Sky was the press I would have chosen to publish this work. Why? I like their books and think that they have an identity I get as a reader. I feel this way about a number of small presses, but I had this hunch that if only one person in this world was going to love my book, it might be someone at TSKY.
I didn’t think I’d return to China Cowboy at that time. I had other stories on my mind. But friends who were shocked that I even had this other book, The Bugging Watch, kept asking me, “What happened to China Cowboy?” “Oh, that,” I’d said, “I’ll never finish that.” And I honestly didn’t intend to. But about a month after putting The Bugging Watch to rest, I started writing China Cowboy again. Within a few months I had many new pages and I thought they were good, so I put some into a chapbook I titled Run and submitted it to Rope-a-Dope’s Golden Gloves slush pile. I kept writing and I felt I understood something more about my character La La since becoming a mom. My new maternal identity helped me flesh out the pathos of this poor abused spirited Chinese girl who idealizes Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline. This girl who has a shitty mother who loves her.
Like the protagonists in The Bugging Watch, La La is a kid forced to deal with stuff that even adults can’t cope with. Like Harlan, La La has to both deny and reinvent her situation in order to survive. But where twelve-year old La La is super-real as a character, teenagers Harlan and Toland are unreal, as they metamorphose into comic book or stage versions of themselves in an attempt to win an unfair game. And where The Bugging Watch is icy and airy, China Cowboy is hot and earthy. It seems no wonder to me that these books actualized along a shared creative trajectory—for me they manifest impressions of the heavenly and hellish.
I didn’t set out to make these two books “hybrid.” And quite honestly I did not even use that term to describe my work until somewhat recently, after both books were well underway. And although I wonder about calling my books fiction-slash-poetry, because it is just as easy to call them not fiction and not poetry, I think it is a truthful designation. Also, the term hybrid alone can and should be problematic as a category. This is also why the term hybrid is so useful. Of course, there is always the thrill of creating a new category, and the danger of enacting rules. But whenever I read something that poses poetry on a categorical high horse in a big snooze purist way, I think: this book is a real asshole. I don’t want to reference a stack of texts with a made-up mind about hybrid forms because, just like calling something poetry or fiction, naming can be an act of exclusion, and runs counter to what I think of works that are not easily classified.
And it isn’t like new hybrid-poetry texts are more new than new poetry texts. Sure, it is pretty to think of the tradition of poetry as pitching its voice more loudly than, say, fiction, when sounding out new hybrid-poetry forms, and as a priori to texts that inherit that tradition; but new texts also influence our definitions of established texts, and perceptions of tradition mutate. It is a sort of survival instinct. For instance, I remember the first time I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and how brainy kids spieled exegesis chockfull of “stream of consciousness” and “dramatic monologue.” At that time, I had little in my mind against which to juxtapose Prufrock. Stream of consciousness was the wave pool at the waterpark; I had not read Woolf yet, or Beckett, or William James. When I did, and, just as significantly, when I read newer texts that had inherited Prufrock as tradition, texts like Mr Cogito and Dream Songs, the rules by which I classified Prufrock changed. “What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens to all the works of art that preceded it,” as Eliot put it.
I love when a text gives me that feeling I had the first time I read Prufrock. It is fleeting, a Hybrid Moment, “moments like this never last,” the Misfits sing. They are right. As soon as we straitjacket its category, the spirit of hybrid fizzles. I do not think I ever used the term “hybrid” to discuss Prufrock until the hundredth time I read it; but, for me, that hybrid moment, that first time, bears no less truth than a hifalutin studied look at hybrid forms.
Those years that I worked on The Bugging Watch and China Cowboy/Run, I recall being triggered by a number of hybrid moments. In no meaningful order, those moments were generated by texts like: livestock auctioneers, children with hairy legs, Stinky’s Peepshow, Letters to Gala, leave-takings, dolls with grave faces, Mad Dog heavy teapots, Little Otik, my mom in a batik track suit and witch-purple hair, Alvin Straight’s lawnmower roadtrip, kids dreamily tonguing candy cigarettes, insane puppets, my dad’s carefully labeled rock collection, folks fleeing a burning building hollering poet! poet!, The Residents live, my daughter’s playroom revues, dogs’ eyes after they’re scolded, carnie assassins, wonderful terrible magical love.