The Poetry Project

Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader (Nightboat, 2019)

Review by Simon Crafts

"I live my life by writing it. You will not know me except by what is being said on this page. And my life is an open book" — Steve Abbott (Lives of the Poets)

New Narrative is enjoying a moment of resurgence — and with it, the rewards and challenges of latter-day canonization. Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian anthologized the Bay Area literary movement in their 2017 Writers Who Love Too Much, outlining a diverse lineage of writers beginning with the original trifecta of Bob Glück, Bruce Boone, and Steve Abbott, the three gay men who established the terrain of the movement's experiment. But it's strange that the only writing of Abbott's included in the anthology is his essay "New Narrative: Notes on Boundaries." Abbott, after all, originally coined the term "New Narrative" in the pages of his publication SOUP, where he also triumphed early works by Killian, Bellamy, Boone, and Glück. The recanonization of New Narrative has largely favored Boone and Glück at Abbott's expense: Nightboat reissued Boone's Century of Clouds in 2009, while a collection of Glück's non-fiction appeared in 2016 from Semiotext(e) and NYRB will reissue his novel Margery Kempe in March of this year. Canon-building proceeds as much through exclusion as inclusion; Killian himself, in an otherwise loving tribute from his memoir Fascination, claims that Abbott "was not a particularly distinctive poet or fiction writer." This sentiment may explain Abbott's difficulty staying in print following his death of AIDS-related complications in 1992. For these reasons, Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader, edited by Jamie Townsend, appears as a welcome corrective to Abbott's marginal position within conversations surrounding a largely marginal group. Reading it through this lens makes the work within all the more the rich and revealing both on its own terms and for New Narrative as a whole.

Born in Nebraska, Steve Abbott became a fixture of the San Francisco poetry scene when he moved there in 1974. Both a gay man and a single father, Abbott lived at the corner of Haight and Ashbury with his young daughter Alysia. He was a well-known figure within several writing communities, moving easily between the beat-adjacent poets of spaces like Cloud House and North Beach to the more literary circles that surrounded Small Press Traffic Bookstore. This latter group would eventually solidify into the core group of writers now described as New Narrative. 

New Narrative writing famously centered gay identity, sex, community, left-wing politics, and narrative, employing a variety of formal techniques to work through these concerns. New Narrative writers refused to be easily codified, so there's an irony in trying to neatly define their work in retrospect. Bob Glück's "Long Note on New Narrative," reprinted in Communal Nude is the popular final word on the matter. Glück concludes, "in using the tag New Narrative, I concede there is such a thing." New Narrative for Glück was an open question propelled by a set of fundamental problems: "How to be a theory based writer? — one question. How to represent my experience as a gay man? — another question just as pressing." Of course, Glück and his collaborators discovered many different solutions to those problems. Abbott attempted his own definition of New Narrative: a troubled and troubling writing, transgressive, abject, and functioning essentially and necessarily at the boundaries of high and low art. In "Notes on Boundaries," he compares the writing produced by New Narrative to graffiti he encounters on the NYC subway:

Against the alienation of these dismal tunnels, yet very much part of this world, was the subway graffiti: sprayed names, attempts of the powerless to assert individual or gang identity. Graffitists can be run down by trains, mauled by guard dogs, killed by police. They stray at the edges. Talking to death. Aboveground, in tranquil, white walled galleries, art hangs safe.

It is within this sensibility of the organic, arising from its own material circumstances but pushing against their limit, that Abbott's work lands. As he puts it in one poem: "Poets get involved in strange quests / question not the creative regimen of poverty." As New Narrative makes its way into that white-walled gallery, Abbott's writing occupies an increasingly uneasy space in relation to a cleaner and more succinct idea of the messy movement he helped birth.

A reader is the ideal format for Abbott's sprawling work. Just as Abbott was capable of moving between many different communities, his relation with genre is similarly porous. Beautiful Aliens features poems, novels, short stories, journalism, comics, and criticism. Even within these forms Abbott is polymorphous. His lyric poetry functions in the countercultural gay liberation mode best exemplified in the pages of Gay Sunshine, but it leans more beat. His fiction can be wildly pornographic and experimental but always manages to remain intimate. During his lifetime, Abbott's essays were printed in poetry journals like Dodie Bellamy's MIRAGE as well as the local gay weekly, The San Francisco Sentinel. These publications range in topic from a day trip to the mall ("Visiting Stonestown") to a kaleidoscopic reading of John Wieners' poetry through the lens of Ginsberg, Bataille, and Abbott's own letters ("Wienerschnizel"). Within this range some examples of Abbott's work in Beautiful Aliens are stronger than others, but the cumulative effect is revealing. Perhaps even more than his peers, Abbott exemplifies a hybridity and a mixing of high and low culture. Genre can often be a register of class, race, gender, and sexuality; Abbott's willingness to experiment and move within the expectations of these forms indicates his commitment to troubling their fixity. Townsend's editing work on Beautiful Aliens makes it possible to see Abbott's development in these different genres, together with thoughtful contrasts that variously clarify and complicate Abbott's developing sensibility over the years.

The book opens with "The Lives of Poets," a sort of parataxical collage of famous writers biographies interspersed with Abbott and his friend's own life stories. "Lives" becomes a reeling stream of consciousness in direct address, at turns delirious and playful. It reads like an explosion of an O'Haran I do this, I do that, shorn of any discreet voice and raised to a collective register. Composed of found text, "Lives" invites a comparison to Kathy Acker's method of literary plagiarism; it's probably the writing of Abbott's that fits easiest into New Narrative's sleeker, more current conception. 

The selection from Abbott's poetry collection Stretching the Agape Bra highlights a different mode in Abbott's writing, less compatible with his New Narrative contemporaries. The poems have a lot of punch, but Abbott's lyricism owes more to Ginsberg than O'Hara. There's something innocent and mystical to Abbott's poetry,  a utopianism and "magical thinking" inherited from hippy counterculture and the early days of gay liberation. It's a sentiment that quietly underscores Glück and Boone's writing as well, and characterized their early work before they dug into theory as a way to escape it. Abbott's relationship to this history remains more overt. His utopianism can potentially be read as unsophisticated or sentimental, but it's clear that Abbott had serious political and intellectual commitments, even if his project never became academic: Abbott  was a member of SDS in the 1960s and with Boone and Glück helped to organize the historic "Left/Write" radical writers conference in 1981. His comic "Hippie Histomap" also outlines a genealogy revealing the depth and complexity of his reading within this tradition. Abbott never entirely camouflaged his roots or leaned into the academy entirely. Instead, he split the difference and because of this, and New Narrative's current drift towards canonization and academic acceptance, he now functions just as the border of New Narrative and in some ways as its furthest orbit. I would love to call Abbott the "organic intellectual" of New Narrative, but I don't think anyone who has read Gramsci can probably be counted as one and it seems likely that he did.

 As Townsend wisely foregrounds in the introduction, Abbott was a writer of community. As those communities — gay liberation, new narrative, countercultural, the new left---have disappeared or changed, so too has Abbott's work. Still even without this footing his writing stands up. Its thesis:

It all adds up to an anguish over boundaries. We can't go on; we refuse to give up. And at the edges, between inside and outside, an open-ended free play of possibility.

This "play of possibility" is Abbott's gift to New Narrative and to us as readers today. It's a utopian combination: the gay father, the poet writing prose, the mystical leftist, the intellectual hippy. Nothing is foreclosed in living the life of a poet. It's all up for grabs.

#260 — Feb/March/April 2020