Editing the journals of Samuel R. Delany
In his fiction, memoir, and criticism, Samuel R. Delany has shown a persistent concern with the pleasures and dangers of textual interpretation, the possibilities and pitfalls entailed in the act of reading. Recently I have had the privilege of experiencing the hermeneutic drama of Delany’s work in an unusual and intensified form: for the past several years I have been editing the first of a projected series of volumes collecting Delany’s personal journals, to be published by Wesleyan University Press. Delany first began keeping a journal in 1957 when he was in his mid-teens, using spiral-bound notebooks for the purpose; the first volume, which covers the period from 1957 to 1969, encompasses sixty notebooks’ worth of material. These notebooks, however, additionally serve as working notebooks, and thus also contain story outlines, drafts, essays, and essay fragments, pornographic fantasies, song lyrics, and more. When I first confronted the notebooks in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Resource Center at Boston University, where Delany’s papers are stored, I knew that culling and ordering this material would involve a monumental task of interpretation.
I also knew that over the span of his career Delany had constructed numerous fictional reflections of the project I was about to undertake. The narrative action of his very first published novel, The Jewels of Aptor (1962), centers on the reconstruction of an archaic poem. His first science-fiction novel to garner major acclaim, the Nebula-winning Babel-17 (1965), tells the tale of the cracking of a mysterious code. The frame-narrative of his tetralogy of fantasy, or meta-fantasy, novels collectively titled Return to Nevèrÿon (1979–87), focuses on an effort to translate a set of ancient textual fragments. The protagonist of The Mad Man (1994/2002) struggles to reconstruct and interpret the fragmentary texts left behind by a philosopher in the aftermath of his murder. And the protagonist of Delany’s most recent novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012), reads and rereads Spinoza’s Ethics over a span of decades; his slow, careful perusal of the text doubles our own reading of the very long novel he inhabits. Contemplating the task of reading that lay ahead, I had an acute sense that I was about to become a character in a Delany novel.
But I’m telling this tale of textual encounter in the context of a celebration of Delany’s work at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. So while I intend to present here a brief and, I hope, tantalizing passage from Delany’s journals, it’s in the service of a larger intention to acknowledge a personal and professional friendship that has lasted nearly three decades. In that time I have learned, as have others lucky enough to know him personally, that the generosity and richness of Delany fiction and criticism are reflected in the graciousness and warmth of the man himself. So I’ll pause at the threshold of this hermeneutic hall of mirrors and give a brief account of the beginning of that friendship.
By the time I was a senior in high school, Delany was already my favorite writer. His science-fiction novel Nova (1968), which I’d read when I was very young, had conveyed a specifically American experience of class difference that resonated strongly for me — though I doubt I could have articulated this at the time. That novel led to others, and eventually to the gigantic Dhalgren (1975), which gave me the same lesson in reading that Neil Gaiman describes having received from his own youthful encounter with Delany’s earlier novel, The Einstein Intersection (1967): that “sometimes what you do not understand, what remains beyond your grasp in a book, is as magical as what you can take from it.” Dhalgren’s refusal to make any of the narrative moves I expected of it, its combination of extreme precision of observation with elusiveness, its sustained mood of Gothic terror in a specifically science-fictional mode and, especially, the sense of total authorial control over the sentence-by-sentence unspooling of its narrative, made the novel come to stand for me as an exemplar of all adult knowledge and capacity. What would I have to learn, who would I have to become, to grasp the thought propelling these sentences forward?
By a lucky chance, Delany was a visiting artist at my college during my freshman year. Shortly after learning of his presence I mustered the courage to introduce myself to the man. As I crossed the quad to visit Delany’s campus residence, I thought about Dhalgren and wondered what on earth the creature who wrote it would be like. Imagine my disorientation when he turned out to be the most affable and charming of men; he was certainly gracious toward tongue-tied me, and shortly after the year’s end I conducted an interview with him that was eventually published in his collection for Wesleyan, Silent Interviews (1994).
A few years later, when I was in film school in Philadelphia, upon rereading Dhalgren I recognized references to G. Spencer Brown’s treatise on the philosophy of logic, Laws of Form, and wrote Delany to ask about them. He wrote back and described his first encounter with Spencer Brown’s work in San Francisco while writing Dhalgren — though he kept silent on his own sense of the relation of Laws of Form to his novel. Then, with characteristic generosity, he mentioned that the novelist and critic James Sallis was currently editing an anthology of essays on his writing. Why don’t you try your hand at an article on this topic, he wrote; if it turns out well, Jim might find a place for it.
Of course I chose to take on the challenge. Over the next several weeks, during sessions between film shoots, I headed downtown to the bustling Reading Terminal Market, found a table, and, surrounded by the sounds, smells, and crowds of the market, scribbled an essay on mathematical logic in the work of Samuel R. Delany.
From that first essay, more publications followed, as well as a personal and professional friendship. My feelings about that friendship, and about the connection between the generosity of the work and that of the man, are nicely captured by a brief exchange that occurred between Robert Creeley, whose professional path had crossed with Delany’s when both taught at SUNY Buffalo, and my own mother, who had arranged a public reading by Creeley in Maine. After the reading, she mentioned to Creeley that I was friends with Delany, that I worked with him.
Creeley smiled. “Your son,” he said, “is very fortunate.”
The string of projects that followed that first essay has led to the current one of editing Delany’s journals — which are every bit as rich and diverse as one would expect. The first half of the volume covers the period Delany examines in his memoir, The Motion of Light in Water (1988/2004). Numerous passages treat Delany’s experiences at the Bronx High School of Science, as well as the early years of his marriage to the poet Marilyn Hacker, who had also been a student at Science. Many of these passages convey the lively interplay between Delany and Hacker as they write their way toward their respective careers over the course of the ’60s. (For instance, even as they read and criticize one another’s work, they also take on mythical personas that enable that work to move forward: Hacker chooses for herself the moniker “Edna Silem,” an inversion of “Mélisande” from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, while Delany sometimes attributes his own work to fictional characters from his other works, and frequently refers to Hacker as “Eurydice.”) The second half of the volume covers Delany’s travels in Europe (scenes from which find their way into The Einstein Intersection as well as several of Delany’s essays and memoirs) and the events following his return to New York City. As Delany begins winning accolades for his science fiction, important figures from the science-fiction communities of the US and UK in the ’60s, such as Joanna Russ, Roger Zelazny, Thomas M. Disch, and Michael Moorcock, become increasingly prominent in the later pages of the volume. At the same time, figures associated with the West Coast poetry scene — including Helen Adam, Bill Brodecky, Link Martin, and others who had, at the time, recently emigrated to New York City — also begin to rove through its pages. The volume ends with Delany, having himself recently moved to the West Coast and living on Natoma Street in San Francisco with Hacker, hard at work on the novel which, after considerable metamorphosis, will become Dhalgren.
For me, one of the most remarkable experiences of the process of editing this volume has been the repeated encounter with Delany’s precociousness. Vividly I remember opening one of the spiral-bound notebooks and first coming across the following passage, which Delany wrote when he was just seventeen and still in high school:
It was hot with people, and in the bus you have to strain to reach over [the] old lady’s shoulders so that you can grab the strap, and when you finally get back where there are not enough people to be uncomfortably crowded and too many to feel free (and my coat was for the brittle winter air outside, not the effluvia of body heat that bloats up a crowded bus) you can reach a fair sort of balance between agony and simple displeasure. The back seat of the bus runs from one side to the other. The rest are placed either in rows along the side or (in those places just over the wheels) with the seat backs to the wall so that the people in them must stare straight across the aisle into the dull faces of those people perched above the other wheel who are staring back.
There was a boy in the back seat, with a blue zipper jacket on — he was near fourteen. He had good hands; I remember that’s what first made me look at him. Then suddenly he turned away behind the shoulder of a bigger boy who was sitting next to him and spit up a handful of brownish fluid into his palm. He must have been trying to hold it in, but he couldn’t, and he vomited again, this time all over the shoulder of the boy next to him. He got out his handkerchief and tried to wipe his hand, and wipe off the boy’s shoulder. The boy turned around and saw what was happening, and gave the kid another handkerchief. Then he tapped the knee of a young guy who was sitting on the other side of the kid. The guy was probably asleep, and the boy had to hit him hard, but when he woke up, he looked and then moved to a seat in front of the back seat, and he tried to tell the poor kid to relax. The kid sat there with his hands filthy and all wrapped up in the dirty handkerchiefs. He was embarrassed as hell, and when he had to spit up again, he looked around and tried to do it in the seat behind the first boy, only it ran all down his blue zippered jacket. The first boy had moved forward in his seat and now he rested his arms on the back of the chair [before] him and put his head down on his arms. The guy who had moved was now patting the kid on the knee and telling him to relax and there were tears streaked across the kid’s face, not from crying but from the effort of trying to keep it back. The kid just sat there with his jacket streaked and his hands and pants messy. I could smell it now.
One middle-aged man in a brown coat, clutching a New York Times to his breast, got up and changed seats so he wouldn’t have to look at it.
I wanted to say to him, “You stupid ass, why don’t you give the kid your paper and let him clean himself off instead of running away from it.” There were at least two other people with newspapers who just looked in the other direction. I would have even given the man the nickel for the paper if he had given it to the kid. There was a young woman in a black coat who was sitting next to where I was standing and she had on a black knitted hood. I could tell that she wanted to help as much as I did; because it wasn’t disgusting; it just made you feel bad that nobody would help, or that the kid was too embarrassed just to spread his legs, lean forward and puke on the floor. I would have said something to that guy who changed his seat if I had stayed on the bus another thirty seconds. But it was my stop.
I felt so much for the kid because once, when I was a lot younger, I had been going to school on the bus in the rush hour, standing up, and all of a sudden I got a bloody nose. It was a bad one and it didn’t stop and I didn’t even have a handkerchief and I had to hold my coat sleeve against my nose, but it kept leaking. All the people did was move away from me. Not one tissue was forth coming, not one handkerchief, not even a newspaper. I remember when I finally got off the bus, a huge clot of red mucus exploded from my nostril and the blood stopped, but my face was a mess.
Again: seventeen years old. Readers familiar with Delany’s work will immediately be struck by its resonances with what was to come later — sometimes much later. The exceptional precision of descriptive detail, as well as the focus on abjection and the divergent social responses to it, would not be out of place in The Mad Man. There are many, many such harbingers in the early entries.
In a further precocious turn, these early entries also repeatedly anticipate Delany’s later explorations of the act of interpretation itself. From Dhalgren onward, Delany’s dramas of reading increasingly turn on the notion of discourse, those Foucauldian structures of knowledge that produce the very conditions of readability. In a complementary development, the fragmented, garbled, encrypted, or otherwise displaced or remote texts around which those later narratives turn have stood with increasing directness as histories of the social margins, as accounts of lives and communities that have been marked as taboo, excess, waste. In my introduction to the volume, I note that the machinations of discourse are frequently personified in that later work by unreliable editors, such as the offstage compilers of the “Anathemata” sequence that closes off Dhalgren, the unnamed “Master” of the Nevèrÿon books, or the scholar Irving Mossman in The Mad Man. These editors, whose social privilege it is to separate the historical wheat from the chaff, frequently stand as sinister figures in relation to marginal or alternative accounts. But antecedents for these characters can also be found in the early journal entries, in outlines and drafts for work that never saw publication. Imagine, then, my own unease, my own sense of bedevilment, as I found myself, however temporarily, in the position of the Master, selecting material to be included in and excluded from the volume.
But perhaps this feeing of burden is an image, or reflection, of the responsibility entailed in the freedom to choose offered by art — in the “openness” of art, as Delany calls it in the extended essay “Atlantis Rose …: Some Notes on Hart Crane,” one of his own virtuoso interpretive performances. Certainly his direct invitation to me, so many years ago, to work, to respond, to construct an interpretation, had been an image, or reflection, of the generous invitation held out by all his writing.
In an early passage in the journals, Delany — precociously — anticipates the burdens of representational inclusion and exclusion. I’ll conclude my remarks with that passage, the same one I close with in my introduction to the first volume of the journal collection. In the passage, eighteen-year-old Delany — having just returned from a hootenanny at the Second Annual Newport Folk Festival, which he is attending with his friend Peter Horn — considers, with the depth of feeling so characteristic and so dearly loved of his published work (which his private journals now join), all the untold stories standing in the shadow of those that have been told:
Something I remember brings me to the point of all this. While I was walking to the hoot, I reached back to adjust the capo on the guitar. I pricked my thumb on a loose string, and sucking it, a drop of blood, when I looked, glazed thin through saliva over the whorls of my thumb print. I sucked it, and then it stopped. For a moment then, I wondered [if] I would be able to play if I was called. But I didn’t hurt, so I forgot about it, until just a few moments ago. I didn’t record it — almost. But these journals are not to remember the things I record, but for all the things that pass un-written, and forgotten. That is [by] far the majority of the trip. For all the single drops of blood at Newport, or anyplace. For shadow configurations on the sand, to Pete’s wet hair, dark and filamental, to all the things — the million un-recorded thoughts I have over Eurydice. That’s what these journals are for.
When Tracie Morris asked me to say a few words at this celebration, I was reluctant. I had never met Mr. Delany and I wasn’t an expert on his work. And I don’t speak critical theory. But I believe that when you have a chance to thank someone whose work is foundational — who opens a way for others — you have to say thank you.
So I’m here to talk about what Samuel Delany means to me as a reader and writer of speculative fiction. I encountered his work years and years ago and over the years since. It has staying power.
For a long time science fiction and fantasy had a fairly well-deserved reputation for telling a certain kind of story about certain kinds of people. So, for instance, you could have books about people on spaceships, and no female characters. At all. As a young reader, I didn’t think about this. What’s assumed isn’t noticed.
Besides females, other people left out: anyone who wasn’t white (unless they were green or blue), anyone who wasn’t straight (those men on the spaceship weren’t having sex with each other — sex was left out too), children, artists, poets …
But here’s Delany’s Babel-17, published in 1966, with spaceship Captain Rydra Wong, our hero — a poet — the only one who can decipher a strange alien language. A language so lucid, so concise, so precise that it seduces her, gives her a powerful new way to think, and hides part of her from herself. A created language designed to hijack the human brain. (Like a computer virus, before computer viruses existed.) In her crew are all kinds of people, living and dead — including one trio, two men and a woman, whose sexual compatibility is crucial to running the ship. I don’t know how Delany feels about this early work, but I can say that, having just reread it for probably the fourth time in forty years, I still love it.
What I didn’t realize when I first read his books (being oblivious to authors’ biographies) was that much of what seemed strange and marvelous to me was probably his own life, transposed. That he was making room for himself and his experiences in his stories, which made it possible for some readers to see themselves, and others to encounter something new. And maybe he wrote science fiction then because that was the only genre where his stories could find a place.
Even as I was first encountering science fiction, it was blowing wide open. Delany was an important part of that. He was saying, hey, you there inside the little room you imagine is the whole universe — there’s more out here. Come take a look.
I found Delany’s work at a time when it seemed everything could be questioned, and anything might be reinvented. We thought we would get rid of marriage, schools, jobs, governments, all the mundane institutions. Hadn’t any clear ideas about what might come next.
It seems like speculative fiction would be perfect for times like those — or for times like these. And at its best, it is. I’m not talking about fiction that offers prescriptions or predictions. I’m talking about sustained thought experiments with protagonists. Thinking, feeling protagonists to help us think and feel our way into the unknown.
Delany’s novels have carried us very far indeed, far ahead, far and wide. Which is why books he wrote fifty, forty, thirty years ago are still read and still talked about and still treasured by readers such as myself.
Last fall in New Orleans, I was browsing for Halloween costumes at the home of designer Cree McCree. My foxy companion tried on an outfit that had a vague resemblance to Wonder Woman. Cree’s partner (noise/jazz/avant-everything musician) Donald Miller remarked that he couldn’t think of me without thinking of Philadelphia. He also couldn’t think of everyone’s favorite female superhero without thinking of Samuel “Chip” Delany. I tried to flowchart this in my mind for a moment, but sometimes you just need to let great thinkers to do their thing.
With some light prompting, Donald schooled me on the Wonder Woman scripts that Delany wrote during the DC Comics “Women’s Lib” series (nos. 202 and 203) in the early ’70s. In these issues our hero loses her superpowers and takes up the real struggles of everyday women. The Delany story arc has Diana Prince fighting for equal pay for female workers at a department store and campaigning against sweatshop labor. The narrative culminates in an epic battle led by women to keep an abortion clinic open.
Delany and his Wonder Woman make sense, since he’s said many times that women’s oppression is the blueprint for oppression of all peoples around the world. Without addressing this injustice, no other liberations can be realized. Sadly, Chip’s Wonder Woman story remains unrealized as well. The series was cut short by a new DC exec that was not too Women’s Lib-y at all. He used an offhand comment from Gloria Steinem who was irritated by Wonder Woman’s costume change to justify cutting the feature short. Wonder Woman went back to fighting martians or something, while protecting the survival of business-as-usual Earth. Chip could not abide, since the words “status quo” and “Samuel Delany” do not belong in the same sentence.
Donald Miller never ceases to give me wisdom to go home with, so I wanted to give him something back. I told him that I gave a toast to Chip on Samuel Delany Day at the Kelly Writers House in the spring of ’14. He wanted to hear it. It went something like this:
Chip has been a significant part of Philadelphia’s literary community since he began teaching at Temple University in 2001. But far from being secluded behind university walls, he has been a dynamic force in the lives of Philadelphians. We all know of his polymathic magick, and it extends into the workings of his daily life. He spent the past decade-plus reaching out to younger writers like myself, offering support and encouragement. He could be seen walking the Gayborhood, supporting independent businesses like Giovanni’s Room, Philadelphia’s LGBTQ bookstore. He attended many events, and graciously agreed to read in my poetry series once upon a time at La Tazza in 2002, before we had even met.
After the reading, I asked him to sign a book for me that was given to me the year before. I received it from poet friends who just couldn’t get through it, due to it’s um, “graphic content.” The book was Hogg. When I asked Samuel Delany to sign my copy, he gave me a long look up and down and asked, “Did you read this entire book?” I answered enthusiastically (and maybe a little defensively), “Yes. Of course.” He wrote in the book and handed it back to me. He simply smiled and said, “You’re very brave.”
Chip’s presence in our lives has also been extra-literary. Years ago, Bill E. was my truck-driving roommate. He came home from work one day and told me that he’d been getting cruised in the mornings while he waited for the bus. His description of the amorous pedestrian was “a Black Santa that walks by with a cane.” I excitedly told him that he was being checked out by legendary writer Samuel Delany. Bill was curious. “Oh yeah? What does he write like?” I pulled Hogg off my bookshelf and said, “Here. Read this.” Bill was not much of a reader, but he finished the novel in a weekend. When I asked him what he thought of it, he replied, “I think I really want to fuck this guy!”
Sadly, their paths never crossed again. When I told Chip about this on Samuel Delany Day, he asked if “my truck-driving friend” might be making the event. That was heart-warming. After I finished telling Donald about the toast, he reached to his shelves to retrieve the first edition of The Motion of Light in Water. The cover features a photo of Delany from the ’80s. We were all irritated with Bill for not following through, chiding him from a thousand miles away and a decade later for not getting it on with a sexy brilliant mind, this fuckable genius. Once we got that out of our systems, we all expressed our gratitude for having this special gift to American literature very much alive here, in and around our bodies and our minds.
Chip started teaching at Temple University in 2001. His office is next door to mine, so I know he gives great phone interviews. And I know that no matter who wanders in looking for him — whether an eager fan or a teenage student who hasn’t yet read any of his works — they will receive the same enthusiastic greeting and invitation to come in and sit down. No matter how busy he is, he can always make time to talk about literature.
Neil Gaiman adores him and because of that agreed to read for the Temple Creative Writing program. Junot Diaz adores him and because of that agreed to read at Temple. Eileen Myles adores him and because of that … well you get where I’m going with this. We, who are gathered here today, are just a small part of his vast army of admirers. But “army” of course is not the right word: not only because Chip is perhaps one of the most gentle gentlemen I know, but also because a military force is charged with supporting a singular cause, and Chip’s writing practice is anything but singular. There are the fans of his science-fiction novels, there are the fans of his non-science-fiction novels, the admirers of his critical works, and admirers of his memoir-writing … the reasons to love Chip’s work are manifold and his audiences are equally various.
I think one of the questions lurking behind this gathering today is why, when poetry isn’t one of Chip’s writing practices, are poets such big fans of his work?
His book Dark Reflections is about a poet — but I would argue that the character of Arnold Hawley is the kind of poet who exists only in novels, and whose ideas about poetry seem less relevant to the contemporary poetic enterprise than Delany’s own prose. So what is it that makes Chip’s work feel so relevant to poetry and poetics?
I don’t have time to treat the question with the scholarly rigor it deserves, but I can try to tell you briefly what the answer is for me:
In the introduction to his memoir The Motion of Light in Water, Chip tells a story about how, in constructing a chronology of his life for two Pennsylvania scholars, he wrote “My father died of lung cancer in 1958 when I was seventeen.” The scholars then informed him that this autobiographical fact was impossible — that if he had been born in 1942, he would have been sixteen in 1958, but additionally, his father had actually died in 1960, at which time Delany would have been eighteen. While ruminating on the ramifications of his mistake Delany asks us to “bear in mind two sentences”:
“My father died of lung cancer in 1958 when I was seventeen.”
“My father died of lung cancer in 1960 when I was eighteen”
The first is incorrect, the second correct.
I am as concerned with truth as anyone — otherwise I would not be going so far to split such hairs. In no way do I feel the incorrect sentence is privileged over the correct one. Yet, even with what I know now, a decade after the letter from Pennsylvania, the wrong sentence still feels to me righter than the right one.
Now a biography or a memoir that contained only the first sentence would be incorrect. But one that omitted it, or did not at least suggest its relation to the second on several informal levels would be incomplete.
This statement asks us to think about knowing as more than the apparent facts; truth is a juxtaposition of the actual and the idea. This may seem like an obvious point, but in a world that values the singularity of armies, we need works like Chip’s, that allow our worlds — literary and otherwise — to be complicated, contradictory, multifarious, and rich.
One of the great joys, if you’re lucky, of being in academia is being able to thank people and an even greater pleasure to be able to thank the mentors of your mentors.
When Charles Bernstein approached me about organizing this text-based raising of the glass to Samuel R. Delany (aka “Chip” Delany) I was nervous, humbled, and grateful for the chance. This came on the heels of the passing of two other people I looked up to, José Muñoz and Amiri Baraka, whose work Chip also admired. The magnitude of thanks takes on this bigger quality when the air is suffused with the ephemera of those who aren’t corporal, those who inhabit the same space in your heartspace that great art pervades.
I’m deeply grateful to the contributors to the actual event and to their written considerations published here. (Some are direct transcriptions, while others are reworked for the print edition.) It’s a big deal to talk about a genius and it’s another kind of big deal to put it in print to put it down into words. My own failure to adequately address the magnitude of this organizing is emblematic in my repeated efforts to be, cool and, you know, sophisticated around Mr. Delany. What I can do is put together these thank-you notes, poems, and essays, for the record, and out of love for this great giant among giants.
I’m very grateful, then, for others to speak on his magnitude as part of this collection. All of the people featured here were directly involved in the celebrating of Samuel R. Delany, poetically, in April 2014. (A couple of people were unable to contribute to these published sections, but their energy contributed to the ebullience of that day as much as the smiling faces in the packed house.) It was a beautiful day and the celebration began by the screening of the loving, and extraordinary, documentary about Chip presented by filmmaker Fred Barney Taylor. “The Polymath, or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman,” moved many in the audience to tears. Not only to be in the presence of such gracious, unflinching brilliance, and to see him receive and appreciate praise grounded in the poetic community. Our gathering’s love of his love of language.
The magnitude of Chip’s impact in a variety of fields is impossible to calculate, much less organize into one volume. Here’s hoping for more and more celebrations, compilations, cheers, toasts, and discussions on his monumental work and importance to so many people and at so many stages of their lives. Chip is a constellation that continues to be fixed, yet revolves, for me and for so many lovers of poetry, of resonant words. I’m eternally grateful to be part of bringing these many hands together that have lifted a glass in Samuel R. Delany’s honor during his birth month in 2014, a microcosm of his worlds-full of admirers. As this is coming out in February, a month, in the US, given to emphasizing the experiences of Black people and Black culture, I’m especially glad to share this celebration of one of the world’s great Black thinkers, writers, creators. A maker of many worlds. Worlds for everyone.
This gathering of thoughts and feelings are the text versions of the presentations for “The Motion of Light: Celebrating Samuel R. Delany’s Performative Poetics” held at University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House on April 11, 2014.