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Word on the street: landscape and voice in David Wojnarowicz’s The Waterfront Journals

By Tim Cooke.

David Wojnarowicz, The Waterfront Journals (Peninsula Press, 2018)

In 1871, French poet Arthur Rimbaud – a teenage prodigy and high school drop-out – outlined in a letter to a friend his vision for a new, objective poetry. He described a deliberate “disordering of the senses” as necessary in coming to know and cultivate the soul, in becoming a “seer”. “The soul must be made monstrous,” he explained, advocating “all forms of love, suffering and madness” in search of the unknown and a language “of the soul for the soul”. What’s remarkable, as his translator Martin Sorrell has pointed out, is that in the years following his declaration, he put his programme into practice and became “uncompromisingly rootless, anti-bourgeois [and] removed from the usual considerations of money, comfort and status”. On the streets of Paris and London, fuelled by an almost religious appreciation of vice and suffering, his philosophical dislocation became a physical reality.

In November 1975, emerging New York poet David Wojnarowicz, a Rimbaud enthusiast, wrote a letter to his sister. In it, he described how in order to access the “real world”, as opposed to the “pre-invented” one he would later lament, he would have to remove himself from “the normal levels of existence”. Like Rimbaud’s manifesto, it was a kind of spiritual positioning, or separation – a recognition of the vantage and insight that difference can allow. It was both a celebration of otherness and a way of dealing with his own exclusion. Rimbaud, Wojnarowicz explained in his letter, came close to achieving his vision, or his “true voice”, but turned away at the last minute, perhaps out of fear. He, on the other hand, was prepared to give his life in pursuit of the “entirety of [his] soul”.

Born almost exactly a century apart, Rimbaud and Wojnarowicz shared many commonalities: absent fathers (Wojnarowicz’s, when around, was also brutally violent) and difficult, unaffectionate mothers; both were gay – “my queerness,” the latter once wrote, “was a wedge that was slowly separating me from a sick society”; both set themselves apart, physically and spiritually, from the prescribed, conventional worlds around them; and both sought to embrace and subvert their outsider status through language and alternative lifestyles – even through suffering. Strangest of all, perhaps, is that both would die aged thirty-seven. Like Rimbaud, whose first major physical expression of his alienation came with a penniless bolt to Paris aged fifteen, Wojnarowicz’s severance from the structures and environments of “normal” life began early.

As a child in New Jersey, in order to escape his tumultuous family home, Wojnarowicz would venture out into the surrounding woods in search of bugs and lizards – for their ugly, unappreciated beauty. Cynthia Carr, in her excellent biography Fire in the Belly, explains: “For David, the woods became a safe haven. He especially adored the unlovable reptile and insect realms.” Even then, he found solace in the liminal, as if the dark, uneven topography was a consoling match for his burgeoning internal disassociation. Of course, there’s a mythology of danger attached to woods and forests, with which he was clearly comfortable. They are the domain of outcasts and witches: subversives who operate from the edge, or the outside, and use landscape to challenge themselves and others – to disturb and disrupt, conjuring some trace of autonomy. Wojnarowicz later came to assume this role as artist, activist and author.

His attraction to potent alternative terrains would next be indulged by more typically urban explorations, when he and his siblings moved into their mother’s cramped apartment near Eighth Avenue. He frequented gaming arcades and Central Park, for example, where he turned his first trick, before slipping in amongst the junkies and runaways of Times Square. (Still, on occasions, he’d bunk off school and head for Inwood Hill Park, the last patch of natural forest on Manhattan.) Having alternated between some of the city’s most dangerous zones and his mother’s turbulent set-up, at seventeen he – like Rimbaud, if less premeditated – found himself destitute for real, an extraordinary experience that coloured his approach to art and literature forever.

Living on the streets from 1971-73, Wojnarowicz developed an affinity with society’s forgotten, or hidden, people. Retrospectively, he acknowledged a kinship with their alienation and wrote about longing to “withdraw again… away from the social mainstream… [to] hang out with every social ‘monster’”, a fantasy he came to view as inevitable, and which was likely given added meaning by his studies of Rimbaud. During this difficult formative period, his teeth would rot and his face thin, he slept regularly in doorways and became a victim of extreme sexual violence, often putting himself in harm’s way; he emerged from the abyss with a bank of experiences most of us will never know. Despite describing later, in the letter to his sister, his desire to remove himself from “the normal levels of existence”, his life up until that point was anything but ordinary.

Snippets of Wojnarowicz’s time on the streets – at once nightmarish and liberating – eventually found their way into his first full-length publication, Sounds in the Distance, a semi-fictional volume of almost transgressive monologues attributed to a hotchpotch of characters he met on the margins. The collection was subsequently reissued as The Waterfront Journals and is a stunning expression of what it is to be rejected by the established world (or, as Jack London once wrote, to be “weeded out and flung downward”) but to kick out and cast off in response, forging a new path. In it, we see an emerging writer develop a style of the street for the street. It’s a study of ugliness and otherness, an experimentation with voice and landscape that twists the mundane and horrifying into something beautiful.

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Much of Wojnarowicz’s wider body of work is framed in some way by the places in which he and others like him existed, whether by choice or not. Take, for instance, ‘Sex Series’, a collection of haunting photographs of non-descript locations – including a suburban house, a train track and a spray of dense woodland – with pornographic thumbnails positioned around the x-ray visions. Richard Meyer, in Art and Queer Culture, explains that such images are commonly used in road maps and anatomical diagrams to “magnify otherwise illegible or insufficiently detailed fragments of a larger field”. He writes: “Perhaps the circular insets in Wojnarowicz’s series fulfil a similar function, serving as apertures that magnify otherwise unseen or submerged erotics taking place within the city.” Wojnarowicz was injecting life and truth into prosaic geographies that almost always warrant a closer look.

Going back, his first major photographic sequence, ‘Arthur Rimbaud in New York’, documents a figure in a Rimbaud mask ghosting between the city’s murky outshift environments, where he once scraped a living – of sorts. Olivia Laing, an authority on Wojnarowicz’s work, has explained: “He was using the camera to illuminate an underground world, pouring light into the hidden places of the city, the hustling grounds, the locations where a struggling kid could make a buck or scrounge a meal… [The images] testified not just to a way of life, but also to the experience of feeling different, cut off.” This commitment to recording the unknown permeates his oeuvre; in addressing themes of difference and alienation, the place, or platform, becomes inextricable from its people.

The Waterfront Journals, recently published in the UK for the first time by Peninsula Press, explore this relationship between place and character, position and voice, with brutal honesty and insight, paving the way for some of the author’s most effective later work, such as the extraordinary autobiographical essay ‘Losing the Form in Darkness’. (He refers often to “landscape” in his seminal collection, Close to the Knives, using it as both a tangible and abstract concept, within which, despite everything, there are glimmers of hope and the prospect of positive change.)

Each of The Journals’ short chapters is given a contextualising title simply acknowledging the speaker and providing brief information regarding his or her whereabouts when the story was logged: ‘Young Runner Hanging Out by the River’; ‘Elderly Transvestite on Second Avenue (Evening)’; ‘Guy in Car on Wall Street at Midnight’, for example. What you then get is complete authority given to the voice and perspective of the anonymous person – almost always an underdog or “outcast” – whose stage Wojnarowicz, in most cases, has had to physically traverse in order to record the anecdote, and the results are compelling. Resisting the temptation to poeticise the language, and with a rebellious disregard for punctuation, he achieves a convincing vernacular style perfect for relaying these gripping tales of sex and violence, kinship and defiance on the street.

Among the vignettes is an account of two teenage boys “shooting the breeze” with a couple of junky priests in a suburban house; a young hustler has sex with a handsome Vietnam amputee in a car parked “where an old railroad track… ends suddenly at the river’s edge”; and there’s a kid bunking off school, trapped in an alleyway, having dropped from a second-storey window to escape the police storming his lover’s apartment. These works, deftly described to me by a friend as “hard as nails”, absorb and disturb in equal measure. While the landscape doesn’t always appear to be the driving force behind the narrative, it is clearly marked as the enabler of the story – the reason it exists on the page. In exploring the artistic merit and possibilities such ground can afford, Wojnarowicz was exercising a democratic, inclusive approach to place writing too often lacking in the present day.

The locations he values and gives prominence to are the antithesis of those so often explored in literature, such as the idyllic countryside of British new nature writing (accused, in places, of misanthropy and urbaphobia), or America’s ideological wilderness. There’s little suggestion in Wojnarowicz that you have to have been where are you are for a long time, with some deep poetic appreciation of your environment, to have a relationship with place worth writing about; nor does that place have to adhere to any system of literary ideals. There is no scale of cultural merit. His places simply serve a function for the sort of people too commonly erased from our written landscapes. Many of the sites featured don’t even conform to our current fascination with edgelands; he elevates the pavement, the back alley, the labour office – the totally mundane – as opposed to the pylons and power stations of the unofficial countryside.

Of course, his subsequent output was not immune to romance or the sublime, of which he was well aware. Reflecting on the winter forests of his childhood as places of refuge, he once explained: “I always tend to mythologize the people, things, landscapes I love, always wanting them to somehow extend forever through time and motion.” But this mythologizing served a noble purpose: again, as an elevation of society’s neglected people and places, giving voice to the voiceless – a subversion of the American myths that worked to dismiss him and his peers. Just as he was finishing The Waterfront Journals, he discovered the Hudson River Piers, which would become one of the most important landscapes of his life. Immersed in the sub-capitalist, sexual anarchy of the sprawling husks, where a community of rejects came together to make connections, art and love, he began to touch the locations of his work with ecstasy and magic.

In the aforementioned ‘Losing the Form in Darkness’, first drafted somewhere around 1979, he walks through the piers, along the warehouse corridors, surreal and dreamlike. He has sex with strangers and surveys the graffiti and frescoes scratched into the flaking walls. He often stops to describe the world outside, where the city rolls on, the filthy river lapping at the waterfront. With the derelict structures serving as a base, he ventures out into the streets in a state of heightened awareness, attuned: “Faraway sounds of voices and cries and horns roll up and funnel in like some secret earphone connecting me with the creaking movements of the living city.” The piers were the epitome of life beyond the “normal levels of existence”, and they became the perfect metaphor for what he was doing, and what he aspired to do, as an artist and writer.

In her biography, Carr describes how one day, alone in the Ward Line Pier (Pier 34), Wojnarowicz watched a huge dog run the entire “football-field length of the main room, toward New Jersey”; he followed the animal but never found it, and so began to think of the place as in some way enchanted. Continuing this supernatural thread, he once used the term “haunted” to characterize his activity in the various landscapes he frequented over the years, suggesting a discourse around body and self that these places facilitated. He also reflected on a moment, standing on the roof of one of the warehouses, when he felt himself, as Carr explains, “connected in defiance and exhilaration to all of America and all of its history from this epicentre of queer freedom”. The piers gave him a vantage from which to see and operate. These gutted buildings became the fairy-tale woods of his childhood, a wilderness of resistance and dissidence.

His appreciation of these environments does not mean he neglected the dangers attached to them. Rather, his tendency towards the romantic was tempered by the full force of the horrors that he and others around him encountered. He wrote repeatedly of the unrelenting threat of violence his community faced, politically and physically. One of the few monologues collected around the piers that he managed to fit into The Journals is called ‘A Kid on the Piers near the West Side Highway’, and is one of the most shocking passages you are ever likely to read. The young narrator, presumably drugged, is beaten and raped – it’s horrific. The work reappears in 1991, in Close to the Knives, as a reminder of the shocking brutality some of those close to him were exposed to. Wojnarowicz could not be accused of idealising the places he wrote about – much of his America was a waking nightmare, and his books attest to a life in search of hope and beauty amid such extraordinary oppression.

While, critically, The Waterfront Journals have paled in comparison to Close to the Knives, which is, for me, his masterpiece, there’s an argument to be made that the impression of authenticity, of real voices, created in The Journals is one of Wojnarowicz’s greatest achievements. Neatly described by Patrick Langley as “an act of radical listening”, it’s a channelling of others’ voices, with a concern for style that, for the most part, stretches only so far as to make the words feel as if they were actually, at some point, spoken. (Knives, on the other hand, is more varied in delivery, with a combination of direct and poetic prose, more figurative and aesthetic than its predecessor.) It’s an extraordinary feat for such a young writer to resist the lure of beauty and embellishment, and to become simply a vessel. There is something utterly selfless in this.

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In May, 1978, Wojnarowicz had almost finished the monologues project, but he wouldn’t find a publisher until 1980 – and wouldn’t print until 1982. He continued to tweak and add a few pieces, but it was during this period that his style seemed to shift. It might have happened in response to a letter he received from an editor, who, commenting on The Journals, explained: “I feel like there’s no poetry to be distilled from these experiences, that they are lived with a language so minimal that to enrich it would be a betrayal of the reality. And I think that is a serious dilemma for the writer. Barren soil.” Perhaps he felt he had to change his approach in order to reach a wider audience and be accepted as a serious writer; I doubt it.

In 1981, the New York Times published an article identifying a “rare cancer” which, it implied, was unique to the gay community. This, for many, marked the beginning of a new phase of ridicule and alienation. Over the coming years, Wojnarowicz and many of those around him were plunged into a new turmoil: surrounded by death, they would have to deal with the likes of ludicrous politicians seriously broaching off-shore quarantine for those affected by AIDS. Life, art and writing took on new layers of meaning, with a fresh, personal rage driving his work on to another level. In reaching the genius of Close to the Knives, The Journals were a necessary bridge; he succeeded profoundly in giving prominence to society’s marginalised and the places they inhabit, subverting expectations of where rich and important narratives might be found – something he would continue to build on.

In the unrefined, anti-literary delivery of The Waterfront Journals, Wojnarowicz took the first step on his journey towards the “true voice” both he and Rimbaud strove for; it could never be just his voice, of course, but the voices of the people whose pain and suffering and love he in some way shared – of the people his remarkable body of work still speaks for.

*With thanks to the wonderful work of Cynthia Carr, Lara Pawson and Olivia Laing

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Cooke is a teacher, freelance writer and creative writing PhD student. His work has been published by the Guardian, Little White Lies, The Quietus, New Welsh Review and Ernest Journal. His creative work has appeared in various literary journals and magazines, including Black Static, Prole, Porridge Magazine, The Nightwatchman, The Lampeter Review and MIR Online. He has work forthcoming in the next edition of The Shadow Booth and a Dunlin Press anthology on the theme of ports. You can follow him on Twitter @cooketim2

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 11th, 2019.