Celebrating Robert Gluck's Elements

cover art by Joe Brainard

In September, while I was in New Hampshire helping my sister Linda get ready for her wedding, Robert Glück and a host of eager readers and friends were celebrating Ithuriel's Spear's republication of Gluck's Elements** (originally published in 1982 as Elements of a Coffee Service). This republication was partly sponsored by many former participants in Bob's long-running writing workshops, once held at Small Press Traffic, and then later in his home.

photo: Francesca Rosa; Bob reading at The Green Arcade

Elements of a Coffee Service, now Elements, was written in the context of the Bay Area writing scene in the 1980s, a scene characterized by lively and contentious debates over literary experiments and their social, political and aesthetic values. During a time when the self, narrative, and representation were considered debased literary tools for innovative writing, Robert Glück and Bruce Boone asserted their potential critical and imaginative value for a socially activist and experimental queer writing. Rather than attempting to describe, from outside, the whole world, New Narrative writers explore specific local communities, blurring textual and social realities, while making offerings to and demands of their readers, who, as a result, become participants in the text while the text extends into the world. New Narrative, then, develops as a performative textuality, calling into being and speaking to and from a community and its future.

New Narrative grows out of a dialogue, a friendship between two gay men who share an interest in Frank O’Hara. Invoking the social or collective implied in narrative in his “Long Note on New Narrative,” Robert Glück explains how New Narrative has an intimate origin in friendship and community; it begins not only as a response to the provocations of Language Writing and the insufficiencies Glück locates there, but takes place in the context of the friendship between Glück and Bruce Boone that began in the 1970s. Glück writes that “to talk about the beginnings of New Narrative, I have to talk about my friendship with Bruce Boone” ("Long Note" 25).

 Located in relation to emerging gay and lesbian identity-based movements in the context of the 1970s, New Narrative responds to movement poetry’s demand for representation and what Boone called “the vigor, energy and accessibility that mark so much of the new Movement writing of gays, women and Third World writers” (“Remarks” 29) and Language Writers’ disparate but new formal experiments intoxicating and agitating the poetry community of the Bay Area.

All of this is on display in Elements' stories--"Sanchez and Day," "When Bruce was 36 (Gossip and Scandal)," "Safety," "Sex Story," "The Dinner Party," "Chaucer," "Night Flight," and "Violence."

Each piece is rich with detail, prose that invites us to pause, to take pleasure in the writer's artistry, to laugh, to be astonished, and moved. The first story “Sanchez and Day” uses a first-person narration in the past tense to tell a story of fear and violence as the narrator describes walking his dog, Lily, and encountering four men in a Chevy pickup who start yelling “faggot” and “fucking faggot” and throw a beer can at him. The narrator and his dog run from the men and manage to escape, finding refuge in the location of another “other,” a produce market run by a Thai family. But this short piece does more than recount a straight forward story of a narrowly escaped gay bashing. This four-page story’s ostensible main narrative–the story of the violent homophobic attack by the four men– is interrupted by a number of devices. An interruption occurs through an interpellation of the reader via the construction of a narratee, “You’ll understand my fear because television has trained us to understand the fear of a running man” (12). The encounter with the four men is further suspended by a collection of several memories–of the speaker’s mother’s childhood, an uncle’s funeral, a memory of something the speaker’s mother said when she was nearly sixty as well as memories of homophobic violence inflicted on gay friends. The reader’s attention is called also to songs playing in the background of the produce market run by a Thai family into which the narrator runs. Furthermore, the construction of the text is underscored by the production of a fantasy ending, an ending that is itself dissevered through an analysis of it. Lastly, the reader is left with a closing manifesto: “And what I resolved was this: that I would gear my writing to tell you about incidents like the one at Sanchez and Day, to put them to you as real questions that need answers, and that these questions, along with my understanding and my practice, would grow more energetic and precise” (15).  This manifesto reinforces the story’s social embeddedness, its political dimensions and implications, both for the narrator and his auditors. 

Here's an excerpt from another piece, "Night Flight":
         A ceiling of low clouds domesticates the light, slanting and yellowing it. A promise of rain. That interior light brings distance and near into sharp focus, make the stop sign, telephone pole, the bland pueblo-faced building across the street and the hills beyond--makes them accurate, brings them to a point. Lily jumps on my bed to put herself in the path of some affection, curls into her tail and dozes off. Then the twilight gives it s intensity to the streetlights while my house fills with the sweet metallic artichoke scent--smell rather--the artichoke intact in its steamer suffering a medieval torture.
        Bruce and I spent a strange afternoon. He wanted a black leather jacket. Denise, myself, and other friends approved of his decision and Bruce's ex-lover viewed it a little anxiously, which seemed propitious. Bruce rarely buys anything, fearing that one purchase will lead you to the next and so on--like S/M where you must always raise the ante to achieve the same degree of pleasure until you become a different person and not necessarily  the one you intended (75).

My story begins with light and ends with the body. Bruce tried on one of the jackets and something surprising happened. The jacket was beautifully made. The Mongolian lamb, buttery and yielding, said touch me. 'Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep: The black looked deep and rich but its statement was power--death if you prefer--saying don't touch me: a mixed message at the heart of glamor. Full seldom may my friend such vigils keep! Certainly Bruce is a handsome man. Tall, slender, fine featured as a lemur. The black lent intention to his grizzled black hair and slate blue eyes. Visit him, gentle Sleep! with wings of healing. It heightened his tan, his good skin. It drew a frame around his handsomeness and advertised its availability. And may this storm be but a mountain birth. The addition of power rerouted the tenderness I already felt for Bruce. Bruce became a sexual object and the new direction was sexual appreciation. May all the stars hang bright above his dwelling. I encouraged him to buy the jacket (90-91).

Still fresh and powerful three decades after its original appearance, this generous collection of investigations deserves new readers, and new readers, you want this book.  You can get it here:

Elements by Robert Gluck   http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9780983579144/elements.aspx
30th anniversary edition published by Ithuriels Spear Press http://www.ithuriel.com :  Jim Mitchell Publisher; F.S. Rosa Project Manger

part of the audience
Here are some photos from the book launch at  Green Arcade Bookstore SF  Wed., 9/15/13 Patrick Marks owner  http://thegreenarcade.com

Bob with former workshop participants

Boone, Bruce. “Remarks on Narrative: the Example of Robert Glück’s Poetry.” Afterword.  Family Poems. By Robert Glück. San Francisco: Black Star Series, 1979. 29-32. Print.

Gluck, Robert. “Long Note on New Narrative.”Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative. Ed. Mary   Burger, Robert Gluck, Camille Roy, Gail Scott. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004. Print.
**About the change in title, Gluck notes: "We dropped of a Coffee Service from the original title of Elements: I got tired of saying it and no one else seemed to remember it.


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