September 18: “The Poetics of Sex” by Jeanette Winterson

Good day to you, Story366! Tonight, Karen returned from her trip to Ohio, and needless to say, I couldn’t be happier she’s back. I don’t know why I’ve made such a big deal out of it this time around, as I’ve been home alone with the boys this long before, but for some reason, I was really counting down the hours. Now that she’s back, it’s like she never left, though on Friday morning, she leaves for a couple more readings, one in Kansas City on Friday and another in Chicago on Saturday (after which she’ll stay with my mom—without me!). For some reason, that trip seems more doable, even though I’ll be hosting the fantastic Laura Hendrix Ezell this week at MSU, in support of her Moon City Press story collection A Record of Our Debts—and then immediately have to go to an overnight campout with not only my ten-year-old Cub Scout son, but his three-year-old brother, who hasn’t camped before, hasn’t slept in the tent, so who knows how that will go. Did I mention I’m also putting my tenure file together? Anyway, I’m better with Karen around than when she’s not, but I get by. Look at me now, here in my office, Karen nowhere in sight, most of this post actually cogent! See! Heh heh heh heh heh ….

Tonight I read a few stories from Jeanette Winterson‘s collection The World and Other Places, a book I’ve had for a long time, but for whatever reason, I lost track of. I remember the first time I heard of Winterson, in the late nineties, when I was teaching an honors seminar at Bowling Green on magical realism. There were only like nine people in that class, but I remember one student in particular who showed up the first day and asked how many Jeanette Winterson books we were going to read (note, this was before Blackboard or Canvas, when syllabi or book lists weren’t posted ahead of time, necessarily) and I had to answer, “Zero.” You could see the student’s face fall to the floor, as if I’d just devalued myself, the class, and magical realism in general by this omission. I was pretty young back then, and while I populated the course with standbys like García Márquez and Allende and Rushdie and Grass, there was no Winterson, mainly because I hadn’t heard of her yet. The student sat sullen the whole hour, and by the next meeting, she had dropped the course. She loved this magical realist named Jeanette Winterson and there was a magical realism seminar at her college and she was going to have the chance to show off her knowledge, perhaps read some different books, and heck, learn something new from this faculty member, this expert, who had to love Winterson as much as she did. But no. I let her down. Ugh.

Right after that, I investigated Winterson and found out that she was the author of a lot of books, many of them winners of some kind of major award, and the fact that I hadn’t heard of her, let alone included her on my syllabus, was a real oversight. It’s one of those moments when I realized that I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was, or had to be to teach topical honors seminars at a university. I stopped teaching that seminar soon after that—not because of the Winterson incident—but because those seminars were unpaid additions to our teaching load and I was soon Editor-in-Chief of Mid-American Review and simply didn’t have the time any more. Too bad, as I loved the topic.

And then here we are tonight, me reading Jeanette Winterson for the first time, eighteen years later. I read a few stories from The World and Other Places, including the title story, about a kid who liked to play airplane who grew up to  be a pilot, but I was more drawn to the other two I read, “The 24-Hour Dog” and the “The Poetics of Sex.” Both spoke to me, to what’s going on my life lately, and I had a hard time picking. “The 24-Hour Dog” is about a woman, a writer, who gets a dog, but wonders if she has time to take care of it, to love it properly, and me and my family have been going through that dilemma since there was a me and my family. “The Poetics of Sex” is about a lesbian couple, their relationship, set off by questions frequently asked of lesbians by your run-of-the-mill dumb-ass. No, I’m not a lesbian and don’t have to answer questions like “Why Do You Hate Men?” and “Were You Born a Lesbian?” because I just don’t. The story’s more than merely an FAQ link on a website, though, all the answers to everything lesbian just a click away. I’m choosing “The Poetics of Sex” for other reasons. Let’s get into those.

“The Poetics of Sex” is about the narrator (eventually dubbed “Sappho”) and her lover, Picasso, an older, more confident lesbian with whom she falls in love. The story is about how this couple comes together, stays together, in the face of all the questions they’re asked, sophomoric, inconsiderate questions like the ones I’ve mentioned, plus things like “Don’t You Find There’s Something Missing?” which is polite-talk for “Don’t You Ever Crave a Dick?” The story moves pretty sequentially, but every page or so, Winterson finishes an anecdote or passage and starts a new one, headed by one of these questions. Sappho, as narrator, sometimes answers the questions directly, sometimes indirectly, focusing more on the story of her life with Picasso. Once, the same question, “Were You Born a Lesbian?” heads two sections in a row, as after it was asked the first time, Sappho ignored it. It’s clever, setting up an almost-meta discourse between narrator, character, and reader, as in, Ahem, you didn’t answer my question. An interesting way to tell a story, one I’m not sure I’ve seen before.

More importantly than this question-asking format is the relationship between Sappho and Picasso. And this, Story366 reader, is what drew me to this, how it relates to me. Sappho is clearly head over heals in love with Picasso, who feels the same way about Sappho. This story, unlike most stories I read or have read, is an out-and-out love letter from this narrator to her heart, illustrating not conflicts between them—the questions, and society, provide that—but proof of their emotions, anecdotes that only strengthen their bond. It’s not lover vs. lover, but a couple vs. the world. A refreshing outlook on story, on conflict, admirable in every way. Plus—and this is how it relates to me—this dedication, this homage, is how I feel about my lady love, the Karen. I’m so glad I read this now that she’s back, a reminder to keep positive, to be grateful, because like Sappho, I know a good thing when I see it.

It took me a long time to get to Jeanette Winterson, especially after that whole sad anecdote about the student dropping my class, but hey, here we are. I like the stories in Winterson’s collection and yes, since I do so admire magical realism—my younger son’s middle name is “Márquez” (no joke)—I should investigate, once again, what books that student was hoping to read for that class (Winterson has a lot of books). Another demon to exorcise.

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