Research Notes · 03/02/2012

Sleight

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Kirsten Kaschock shows us the moving parts and magic behind her novel Sleight.

Sleight: the underpinnings

The art form at the heart of my first novel, Sleight, does not exist. Since there is nothing new under the stage or in the sun, Sleight is stitched together from aspects of modern dance, circus performance, experimental poetry, and sacred geometry. Research on the not-yet existent can be tricky, also frightening. I was trained as a dancer and a poet. I began writing Sleight as an exploration of the artist’s compulsion to make useless things. Sleight deals in the strange passions of the obsessed, their ties to their art, and how those ties bind them to one another. In addition to the art forms I vivisected to provide the guts for Sleight, I also had to learn how to splice unrelated fragments together. I studied the art of monster-creation: collage.

Research is what we call a series of questions that congregate around any black- or rabbit-hole. The closer I got to the singularity of art-making, the faster my questions spiraled, and the stranger the properties of Sleight became. Ideas came in fits and starts and quotes. Sleight itself is an amalgamation of straightforward narrative, play dialogue, Sleight reviews, obituaries, footnotes, and prosepoems. My research was equally fragmented. Some of my sources, thoughts, and preliminary findings are numbered below — what came to me as I was pacing around my laboratory. My library. My head.

1. “To begin with, I could have slept with all of the people in the poems” (Jack Spicer). I, too, desired only this much realism — that my characters be bodied.

2. I meant the characters, the types, I drew in Sleight to be both concrete and ungraspable, like people. There is a Svengali-like director who is just a little boy with a fear of cowboys. My fiery redhead is muddled. A would-be slacker feels compelled to one-fist his father’s death. The prodigal Sleightist regularly purges herself of art, and of feeling. Their secrets do not make them, which is why their secrets are not wholly satisfying. The objects and actions in which they house their secrets — these are more telling. These things point at what is unsayable: West’s ten-gallon-nightmares, Clef’s constant braiding and over-managing of her passions, Byrne’s rock ever-a-threat-in-hand, Lark’s vomiting-up of Needs.

3. In a world where art is the reason, the reason behind the art is only an excuse for its making.

4. A novel is a cobbled-together-thing, a machine. While writing, I tried not to be concerned with the traditional purposes of the machine I was building. I tend to distrust machines. But Sleight became my Rube Goldberg — especially beautiful in the ways its parts surpassed its function, in the ways the characters began to orbit the central art form like an unmappable electron cloud. The closer I went in, the more unpredictable they became.

5. A line in Borges’ “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” reads: A book that does not contain its counter-book is considered incomplete.

6. Sleight, the art form, is all about its counter-self — what it could be but is not. Its unexplored potential. At the pinnacle of Sleight, performers flicker out of existence. This is called wicking. The characters also negatively mirror one another and their art, as they submit to it. In Sleight, dark matters.

bq. This beloved is a hole. This, beloved, is a hole.

7. In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke writes: “Now you have gathered yourself together into yourself, see yourself ending ahead of you in your own hands… there is scarcely any room inside you… nothing very large can possibly abide in this narrowness.” This description of artistic angst — being limited by the self — is something I’ve felt. So in Sleight, I made Needs real. I gave them bodies so they would be wholly felt. And so they could wholly die.

8. Sleight is written in small sections, divided by scalpel cuts. As if the author could not bother to wait for the unnatural birth. These lines could be called hesitation cuts for a c-section or an abortion. I have a severe Need: to double my language into the body whenever possible. Then, get it out.

9. I have always been obsessed with the questions Sleight asks. In this way, it is embarrassingly autobiographical. What is art? What is it to be an artist? What about engagement with the world? Where is that? What are the ethics of borrowing pain?

10. A new art form should exist inside a new genre. While writing Sleight I wondered — how might one foster a Confessional Science-Fiction? Might I rescue two stones with one bird?

11. “[A]n allegory is but a translation of abstract notions into a picture language… the principle being more worthless even than its phantom proxy, both alike unsubstantial, and the former shapeless to boot” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge). I think Coleridge is trying hard to be negative, yet he admits that allegory gives shape to the shapeless. I suppose I could call Sleight an allegory, but I like Confessional Sci-Fi better.

12. Another Need: to catch, however briefly, bits of down out of the air and sew them into a pillow that could support a dream of the lovely-dead-bird-sacrificed before growing sodden with nightsweat. One of Sleight’s main characters is named Lark. Because of birds.

13. “[S]uch works as have had their beginning in form… show, in token of their origin, an incurable want at the very point where we expect the consummate, the essential, the final” (Friedrich Wilhelm von Schelling).

14. I am used to working from the external toward the center. Create the shape — the arabesque, the sonnet — and the heart is supposed to follow. I have at times felt that this was a grasping at the empty. Sleight revels in just such emptiness.

15A. “If it weren’t for prisons, we would know that we are all already in prison” (Maurice Blanchot).

15B. “Theatre takes place/all the time wherever one is and art simply/facilitates persuading one this is the case” (John Cage).

15C. One of these two statements should illustrate the goal of Sleight. Taken together, as they can’t reasonably be, they nearly do.

16. What happens when your ground is suddenly pierced, when you look deep and find in the darkness the beloved, and the beloved has a face? Do you then know the hole? That the hole is a grave? Or is it only the nature of the beloved that you see — as it transforms all that surrounds him? (He is dead.)

17. “You are living on the site of an atrocity” (ubiquitous billboard in Sleight). I think everyone is.

18. That sounds like horror. I tried to write something other than horror. Connection. The loving stitch: I wanted to show how Dr. Frankenstein is, at heart, a romantic.

19. “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (Elvis Costello). Yes! To dance about architecture, to write about such dancing. Attempting the impossible was the impetus for Sleight. To waltz with zombies, to have the mind utterly, happily consumed. Em-bodied. Yum.

20. Novels should be at least as risky as early nineteenth-century childbirth: in one out of five books, the author or the book should have to die. This I believe.

21. Sleight is my beloved hole. The living earth I knowingly carved into. I do not know what might have to die to fill it. Maybe, it will be me.

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Kirsten Kaschock is the author of two books of poetry: A Beautiful Name for a Girl (Slope Editions) and Unfathoms (Ahsahta Press). Her first novel, Sleight, was recently published by Coffee House Press. She has earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia and is currently a doctoral fellow in dance at Temple University.