Research Notes · 01/20/2012

Unknown Arts

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, William Walsh writes about working with source texts from James Joyce in his new collection Unknown Arts, available from “Keyhole Press”:”:http://keyholepress.com/authors/william-walsh/books/unknown-arts/.

Rejoyce: Unknown Arts

Unknown Arts is a book of texts and poems derived from the works of James Joyce. Over the last few years, I’ve been digging into Joyce’s books to tease out a few of the themes and usages that have interested me since I was an undergrad. The title comes from Joyce’s epigraph to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

“And he sets his mind to unknown arts”
— Ovid, Metamorphoses

I would categorize the book as a collection of critical appropriations. I’m excising from a source text and examining it critically. Since I have no critical chops and very weak research skills, I like to make new creative texts that (hopefully) do the work of conventional literary criticism.

The book is basically a series of exercises that I believe offer some analysis of Joyce’s language, characters, vivid images, and (dear-to-me) narratives. Here are a few of the exercises I used to generate the texts and poems in Unknown Arts:

“Potato I Have”
This is the first piece I did in the series. I’ve always liked the way Bloom carries a potato around Dublin in Ulysses. It’s a talisman for him, as the critics would say.

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“Players”
A Hobart call for manuscripts about play inspired me to look at Joyce’s usage of the word in Dubliners. I recalled a sentence in “Araby” that I think is the single greatest example of hyperbolic realism in literature: “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.”

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“Himself”
This one is a tribute to the famous Irish appellative: Himself. I would not be surprised if the Joyce concordance would show “himself” as the most often used word in all of Joyce’s books. I decided to focus on Finnegans Wake for this one because the usage was so varied.

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“Tiers, Tiers and Tiers”
This poem was made in response to a call for submissions to The List Anthology “Take these six words — Anteros, crippled, spindles, staircase, threshold, and whirligig — and incorporate them into a poem for possible inclusion in an exciting and daring anthology.” So I dug into Finnegans Wake to search out those words and found them all (though I cheated on “anteros”, which I found embedded in these two consecutive words: “knifekanter — O” The last line of “Tiers, Tiers and Tiers” is “god at the top of the stairs.” I love this line because I have a theory that domestic ghosts haunt the tops of stairs. I remind myself that it is God at the top of the stairs making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, not a ghost.

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(Silences)
This is a silent play that examines the stage direction of Joyce’s drawing room drama Exiles.

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“Sunny Jim 1” and “Sunny Jim 2”
Joyce’s father had a nickname for him when he was a little boy: Sunny Jim. Somehow that nickname makes me think of the opening to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

ONCE UPON A TIME and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…

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“A Descriptive Lust”
This is a prose poem drawn from “Giacomo Joyce”, an odd, posthumously published story about one of his language students in Trieste that was found in Joyce’s notebooks. I made this piece using only the descriptive elements of Joyce’s story.

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“Worms”
The Pogues are one of my favorite bands of all time. The original cover for If I Should Fall from Grace with God was a collage of the band members’ faces pasted on the famous picture of Joyce with his hands draped over his ashplant cane. I believe the record was released in 1988 on Joyce’s birthday, February 2. It’s a great album and the last song is a traditional called “Worms”, about the worms crawling in and out of our skulls after we’re dead and buried. My “Worms” tracks the appearance of every worm in Ulysses.

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William Walsh is the author of Ampersand, Mass., Pathologies, Questionstruck (all from Keyhole Press), and Without Wax: A Documentary Novel (Casperian Books). His stories and texts have appeared in Annalemma, Artifice, Caketrain, Quick Fiction, Rosebud, New York Tyrant, Lit, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Juked, The &Now Anthology: Best of Innovative Writing, and Dzanc Best of the Web 2010. He edited RE:Telling An Anthology of Borrowed Premises, Stolen Setting, Purloined Plots, and Appropriated Characters (Ampersand Books).