An Interview with Jay Ponteri
What if a married writer wrote a detailed account of an affair and his pregnant wife found the manuscript? What if the affair were a blistering alternate reality, the other woman nothing more than a specter, an imagined body, a conglomeration of acquaintances met over a lifetime, affectionately named Frannie? And what if the husband refused to give up his ghost-lover, his ghost dates, his ghost sex? "By insisting on love, we spoil it..." writes Jack Gilbert in his poem "Tear It Down." And yet, Gilbert adds, "We can break through marriage into marriage."
Jay Ponteri's memoir Wedlocked is about just this. Located at the intersection of desire and domesticity, Wedlocked reveals the impact of fantasy on a marriage. While affairs are hardly new territory for literature, it's rare to encounter such deep reflection about a topic that is simultaneously joyful and injuring. By probing his childhood, films, fantasies, and short stories, Ponteri critiques not only the institution of marriage, but also himself, exposing the various ways he and possibly many Americans are unequipped for married life.
It's unusual to encounter in a memoir such an honest portrayal of failure, and after reading Wedlocked, I had a few questions about honesty, about sexuality, depression, and lyricism. I interviewed Ponteri by email over the course of a week.
I've never read a memoir as intimate or confessional as Wedlocked. There were times when I felt like I was reading a diary and that I should put it down because it must be a violation of some kind to know so much about a person I've never met. Part of that stems from your deep reflection on the parts of yourself that you dislike -- your depression, your obsession with Frannie, and the relationship you have with your wife. Has your writing always been this personal and revealing? Have you always felt this drawn to confession?
This confessional aspect of my writing is mysterious to me. When I started writing seriously, about twenty years ago, I wrote fiction -- short stories mostly, a novella too. I did that for many years. Some were autobiographical. Others, less so. The switch to nonfiction happened after I finished a (now unpublished) collection of stories, and even though I was proud of that manuscript (even proud of some of the rejections I received), the writing didn't get at what I felt were my problems. The writing didn't ease the real emotional pain I felt in my present life.
Around that time I was reading more and more nonfiction by writers such as David Shields, David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Geoff Dyer, and Wayne Koestenbaum, so the notion that I could take up my divided self in my writing appealed to me. I started writing around the confusion I felt about marriage, and the prose felt very different. It felt liberating. I let go of many of the fiction writer's tools -- the dramatic scene, dialogue, large-scale plotting -- and took up the essayist's and poet's tools: meditation, image and metaphor, syntax and diction, sound. These tools helped me to reveal my various warring selves. Unlike writing fiction, I wrote as if nobody would read this work, and I truly felt that to be the case. My first manuscript received so many rejections. So this was another shift for me, another freedom: writing to myself, for myself, self whispering, writing to figure something out in my life. Believe me: as a reader of my own work, the level of confession I work at -- deep revelation of the private life -- is difficult, but as a maker of sentences, it's the natural place I go to.
Throughout your memoir you write about depression and your fear of living without it. At one point you wrote: "I had grown used to my sadness. I understood it as a coarse yet durable thread weaved into the fabric of my being." Is it possible, do you think, to untangle depression from personality? Are there benefits to depression that have aided your writing?
I absolutely believe it's possible to untangle my depression from other aspects of my personality. This is one of the narrator's flaws that many years later I do not have. It's worth mentioning here that the book recounts a rough patch in my marriage. And over the course of many years, my marriage moved through that rough patch. It's not that I don't have difficulty in my marriage, but now I know how to deal with that difficulty. In loneliness or sadness, I know not to isolate from my wife, I know to reach for my wife, I know what it means and what it feels like to live in the actual moment. I'm not so dreamy. Wedlocked does not show that, which was purposeful on my part.
Regarding my depression, I try my best to manage it. And I do okay. I no longer put my wife or son in the position of caring for me. I take care of me. I take medication. I run every day. I don't drink a lot of alcohol. I no longer smoke weed. I recognize the role of impulsive and addictive behaviors in depression. Most importantly, I know my sadness is one small, fluid part of my larger consciousness that includes silliness, sincerity, irony, generosity, love, solemnity, and anger. I have a little chapbook Future Tense Press plans to publish -- Dark Mouth Strikes Again (yes, like The Smiths song) -- comprised of brief prose shifting through many modes (essay, narrative, lyrical). It describes what it's like to be a depressive. The challenge of writing those pieces has been not to depress the reader. And for the record, I want to say this: a writer does not have to be a sad person, does not have to engage in self-destructive behavior (boozing, drugging, and so forth). A writer only has to write. And read. And live. Live till death.
Midway through the book, you announce, "We are not so good at marriage, America." It's interesting, the idea that culturally Americans are unequipped for strong marriages, and your critique of Americans continues. Later in the book you write, "Americans suffer from Cheerful Mania... Everything's just wonderful. Holidays and vacations are described as amazing or a blast even though they fought the entire drive to Taos or got intestinal worms from an overpriced restaurant in Sedona or grandpa swatted one of the grandkids and said in his defense, I hit you plenty of times and look at how you turned out." Where do you think this obsession with appearing cheerful comes from? Is there any redeeming value to this sort of forced happiness?
Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an amazing book [Bright-Sided] about American cheerfulness that traces its roots back to early American Christianity (surprise, surprise), so I would say, without necessarily wanting to trace the origins, extreme American religiosity is one culprit. Bad movies are another. During high school pep rallies, I was the kid in the back row mocking the cheerleaders and the jocks. I just didn't feel it and didn't feel like faking it.
We might also consider how much our culture emphasizes not "marriage" but wedding -- the bridal gown, the bridesmaids' dresses, suits for the fellows, the flowers, the catering, the photography. One of my former students told me she heard that you can't get married for under forty thousand dollars, and we laughed because we know that you can get married for the cost of a marriage license. All of the accoutrements of wedding culture are intended to make us feel hopeful and romantic, and they only create fear and insecurity. If you don't wear a tiara or a veil, you'll regret that. That kind of dumb romance distracts those getting married from the very unromantic reality of the situation. They are vowing to stay together till death! The focus should be on connection and disconnection, on what gives rise to each, on how to cope with stress, on the various ways love and desire do and do not intersect.
In the book, part of your rejection of marriage seems to stem from a fear of adulthood, not only the responsibilities (work, paying rent or mortgage) but also the expectation that adults "act right," engage in small talk and forgo painful self-inquiry in order to continue the day-to-day tasks that keep households running.
Here's another difference between the narrator of Wedlocked and me right now. Amidst deep loneliness and self-imposed isolation, the narrator (old Jay) rejects marriage. One response to failure is to reject the thing at which you fail. For a reason that is beautifully mysterious to me, I stayed in my marriage beyond that feeling of utter rejection. I stayed in the moment indefinitely, which is also what I do in my writing. I do not reject marriage now. I live amidst the mystery of my immediate and default impulse to speak to and dream of The Other and my desire to reach for my wife. I cannot stop reaching for my wife. And I don't know why. Well, she's an amazing, beautiful woman, a kind woman, a smart woman, and we are good companions and good lovers. Wedlocked doesn't consider that story -- it only considers the failure, the spiral.
My therapist said the only thing that prepares you for marriage is marriage. And yet I think our culture could do a better job of helping people of all ages, especially young people, prepare for monogamy by having more discussions about what it is, what it means, why one is drawn to it and why one will or will not resist it. I don't hear our culture having these discussions. Perhaps people might have (if they're lucky) said conversations with their spouse or partner, but rarely do we speak across relationships. (Women probably do so more than men. If men do, they're likely in a marriage crisis of their own.) When difficulty begins, we feel pretty isolated from one another. We look at somebody else's relationship and think that their relationship isn't fucked up. We can't fathom other people suffer as we do, but so many do. If or when my son gets married, if I'm still alive, I will speak to him about marriage, I will share with him my experience, the joys and the difficulties. I might say, "By getting married in your twenties, you and your spouse are agreeing to finish growing up together, and that carries with it certain complications." Or I might tell my son that men think about sex a lot, fantasize about sex, and those fantasies are weird and might seem as if you want to really fuck yourself and that's okay. The best thing you can do is try to express that desire in your actual relationship with your spouse or partner. Take joy from your fantasy life.
Let's talk about the intersections between love and desire, between monogamy and fantasy. When do they intersect and when do they obliterate each other? Let's talk about the effect of procreation on our relationships. Many marriages unravel in a child's first five years. I think these conversations happen infrequently, and if they do, they take the form of gossip. We project our own distorted senses of our monogamous relationships on others. That's a start of a conversation, but all too often it ends there.
Marriage is often critiqued as both a heterosexist and a sexist institution, one that stems from the idea of ownership. The other obvious critique that comes up is the prevalence of divorce rates. Wedlocked, however, examines the institution in a more personal way. At one point your write, "I do not know how two people can sustain a marriage over a lifetime or how and why we give up erotic love for companionship." Is marriage always a rejection of eroticism? Is it possible, do you think, for erotic love and companionship to coexist?
In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson argues (among other things) that desire ends once we "possess" each other, that desire is a reaching toward the beloved. The challenge of any monogamous relationship is to continue reaching, to consider why and how we reach for each other. We reach for beauty, we reach for the person with whom we want to share our secret self, we reach for strangeness, freshness. If one wants to live sanely in monogamy, one must figure out how to ignite the desire to reach, how to keep re-reaching. Some people are more equipped to do this and others less so (I put myself in the latter camp).
Did you grow up around a healthy marriage? Did you see your parents reaching after one another? Did you see them fighting then making up? I didn't see those things. I don't blame my parents, but their marriage, a pretty silent, distant creature, was the model from which I started, and I have had to recognize my deficits and make changes, to work away from my impulse to isolate. It's easy for me to think that I would be a great bachelor, a man who lives by himself in a tidy apartment with his pugs and his books, but the truth is I reach for woman. I reach for my wife. Yet, if I want to sincerely re-reach for my wife, I need to see her for the truly mysterious creature she is. When a marriage becomes rote -- and they all do -- the reach stops. One must reach in the face of not wanting to reach. It's a practice.
Some of your descriptions of the word wife terrified me, especially this one: "The designation wife conjures not a female spouse (or even a woman) but an entity dependent upon the presence of husband and household, a devoted book club attendee. Sweatpants and an oversized T-shirt." One of my biggest fears is that my individuality will somehow get subsumed or buried by labels like mother and wife, which, as you point out, can be various ways of not seeing. It almost seems like when you gained a wife, you lost the woman you loved. Does the role of "husband" seem like as much of an erasure as "wife"?
I agree with you about the word "wife." I don't like its connotations and I meant for those connotations to emit from and hover around the word "wife" as I use it in Wedlocked. I'm not a fan of the word "partner" (like a business) or spouse (rhymes with louse) either. Maybe we can invent new words. The traditional role of husband is just as obliterating as the traditional role of wife. I realize in other cultures, in other times and places, that's not the case, but in twenty-first-century America Urban Portlandia, it's easy for a woman to feel like she can have a burgeoning career plus marriage and family, and I'm happy about that. I also recognized it brings a new set of concerns with it.
When my wife became pregnant with our son, there was never a doubt that we weren't both going to raise him equally, that I would be with our son part of the week, plus work and that she would be with him part of the week, plus work. All of that is good. What's difficult about the husband role is that men in their twenties are just coming to terms with the fact that their Superman selves are leftovers from Boy Fantasy that do not serve them in the ordinary world of making copies, 401(k)s, cleaning toilets, waiting in lines of traffic, etc. When I was a little boy, I spent many of my waking hours dreaming of making the winning basket and being carried off the court by screaming fans. I don't think my childhood experience as a Man in America is so different from that of other men. That dreaming, those feelings of entitlement, feelings of extraordinary selfdom do not equip us men with the skills that might be helpful in collaborating and partnering with another flawed human being, serving others selflessly, making room for another person's dream or reach.
In Wedlocked, I talk about a Raymond Carver story in which the father is completely isolated from the wife, young children and babies, the wife's mother; he's at a table drinking by himself as the rest of the family hovers over the baby. That's a stark yet accurate vision of what can happen to a young man in a young family. He does not have that natural, strong connection to the baby the mom has and he may (as I was) be ill-equipped to reach for his wife in those moments of deep loneliness. He's more likely to recede into his dreams where that Super-Touch-My-Dick-Self lurks just after he's made the winning shot. Of course there are other men who are more well-adjusted and I applaud them.
I was stunned by the beauty of the sentences, which were both lyrical and deeply insightful. This phrase (which I picked from a very long sentence full of equally gorgeous clauses) is a good example of what I mean: "They want the glory hold and the great blue rod, they want to feel known not by their spouses but by the other, that which does and does not exist." There's a sort of breathlessness to the intensity of these lines.
Thanks. This book took me a long time to write. I revise sentence by sentence again and again. I just gave a talk at Columbia College about my paragraphing style, which I call The Unparagraph. In revision I stay with my initial impulse to include. I stay in the difficult moment longer than I can fathom, I crank up the generator, I pitch a tent (read: Motel 6), I continue to express onto the page my way of being in this world. Words are forgettable, we are forgettable. I shove aside to make room for the new line of thought that didn't previously exist in my mind, that I couldn't have had till this exact Present Moment of Composition following the previous one and preceding the next. The Unparagraph begins to burst at its seams and you think you have gone way too far and that is exactly the right place to be, the place of pushing something way too far. You are feeling this disorientation because you have entered deep mystery, you have come to a place you don't recognize, you don't exactly recognize yourself in that place either but you are there and you know your job as an artist, as a maker of things that didn't previously exist, is to stay inside longer. The beautiful (dis)order of the mind's eye propels the Unparagraph. In our minds anything can and does happen, and the Unparagraph not only holds forth but generates further. In late revision I try to hear what I'm listening to, I want to record it before I die, before my thoughts die, each new word is breath, and I'm a different person today, the same person too, working in the same Unparagraph, this same life, and my shifting moods and newly accumulated experiences (of gain, of loss) and the particular way my body decays today give rise to this new Present Moment of Composition (have an hour before I have to pick up my son!), and the Unparagraph holds both old and new, generated and revised, speech and interruption, made and erased; perhaps I hear not "squawk" but "caw;" not "walk" but "lope;" not "missile" but "whistle," and I let this new listening overlay other listenings so what I create is actually unlike my mind but like mind, a symphony of many moments of composition expressing my varied, contradictory selves in wonder, in joy, in crisis, in melancholy, in despair, with loss, with a cold in the nose, with thick tongue, all of these selves not obliterating one another but entangling and climbing the fixed structure of the Unparagraph towards the cosmos. I want my Unparagraph to feel the opposite of manageable, the opposite of presentable, like the mess of human consciousness, of consumption, of restraint amidst insatiable appetite, darkly intrepid thirst, pouring cold liquid down your throat and spilling all over your mouth and letting it run down your chin and chest. I want it to feel like Tomorrow hits today, which is to taste tomorrow today with the aftertaste of yesterday still ringing your breath.