Michael Taeckens received his MFA in poetry from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and now works as publicity director at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. While much of Taeckens’ time is spent championing the work of other writers, this month sees the publication of his own book, one of the most hotly anticipated and most highly acclaimed titles of the summer.
Love Is a Four-Letter Word: True Stories of Breakups, Bad Realtionships, and Broken Hearts, an anthology edited by Taeckens, features contributions by authors including Lynda Berry, Kate Christensen, Brock Clarke, Junot Diaz, Dan Kennedy, Maud Newton, Margaret Sartor, Gary Shteyngart, George Singleton, and the incomparable Wendy Brenner (one of my favorite writers anytime, anyplace), among many others. People just gave the collection a four-star review, and a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal offered equal praise, noting that “All happy romances resemble one another, but each nasty, painful, blow-out breakup is nasty and painful in its own way.” Other publications joining the chorus range from The New York Times Paper Cuts (“Pretty irresistible”) to the Daily Beast (also “irresistible”) to Real Simple (“Funny, poignant”) to Bookpage, Elle, Spin, and Vanity Fair.
Taeckens’ own contribution to the collection, “The Book of Love and Transformation,” reflects on his own short-lived relationship with a visiting classics scholar during his junior year in college and hearkens back to his early days of poetry: “I wrote poetry as if my life depended on it, stark and bleak poems full of barren and blasted landscapes,” he says early in the essay. “I had been confusing beauty and sadness for a long time, apparently.” In many ways as a model of frankness, introspection, and reevaluation, the essay offers a couple of layers of epiphany — about himself as both a poet and as a person.
Love Is A Four-Letter Word officially publishes tomorrow, and a book tour follows, with contributors joining Taeckens for a launch party on Wednesday and a series of events throughout New York, plus a number of readings in Taeckens’ home state of North Carolina, including Friday evening, August 21, at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop (with Brenner, Sartor, and Patty Van Norman), and two events on Wednesday, September 16: an afternoon reading at the Bull’s Head Bookshop in Chapel Hill and an evening appearance at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books (both with Sartor and Van Norman).
On the eve of the tour, Taeckens and I exchanged some emails about the new book.
Art Taylor: How did the idea first come to you for this collection? And how did you choose the writers included here?
Michael Taeckens: I’ve always been a huge fan of anthologies (fiction and nonfiction) and always wanted to collect and edit one someday. The theme was inspired by my friend Pamela Strauss, who one evening commented that she called her exes her “insignificant others.” I laughed and commented that “Insignificant Others” would make for a wonderful book title. Later that night the light bulb went off and I had my anthology idea — writers musing on their doomed romantic relationships. I contacted a few friends, who said they loved the idea and could think of many different relationships to write about. After about five people signed on, I started contacting many authors I admire and I also put out feelers for other writers — my friends, especially Maud Newton, were incredibly helpful in suggesting other names and providing contact information.
What guidelines/instructions did you give your contributers?
The guidelines were fairly basic and broad: Write about one of your worst romantic relationships — but make it original. Of course, a few of the writers played with the theme a bit, but all of the pieces in the collection fall under the umbrella of “breakups, bad relationships, and broken hearts.”
And was there anybody whom you really, really wanted to include but who just said no?
There was one writer who I really wanted to include but who — and very kindly, I might add — said no: David Rakoff.
Many of the stories here are, obviously, very personal, often intimately so and even embarrassingly so in a couple of cases — and all the more revealing because of it. Were there any instances where you had to urge a contributor to dig deeper in order to reach that point?
There were quite a few instances where I had to ask the authors to dig deeper. I think that’s natural with the writing process, especially with personal essays. But I think it’s especially true when you’re asking a writer to revisit a somewhat horrifying experience. Some of the writers nailed it on the first go-round (Wendy McClure and Maud Newton spring to mind), but by and large, everyone — including myself — had to revisit first drafts to peel back more layers. I really wanted the writers to push it as far as they could, and I think all of the pieces that made it into the collection are honest, open, hilarious or poignant (or both), and sometimes outrageous.
In his introduction, Neal Pollack writes, “The stories in this volume follow two different paths toward catharsis. There’s relief, and there’s regret.” Do you agree with that broad assessment, and what other recurrent patterns or themes did you see emerging?
I do agree that relief and regret are the two predominant themes, but there are many different shades of each. And some of the essays convey both relief and regret. I also see patterns of hard-won emotional maturity, wistfulness, and a reveling in the comedy of painful situations in hindsight. One of the things that I love most about this collection is the diversity of voices — caustic, ruminative, slapstick, poetic, ribald, straightforward, meandering. So while all of the twenty-three pieces may fall along the theme of relief or regret, each stands out in its own distinctive way.
In writing your own essay here, did you find it difficult to confront old emotions or troubling to look back at who you were as a younger man? And in the process of writing that essay, what, if anything, did you see about the story or about yourself that you hadn’t seen before? Some new epiphany perhaps?
Writing the essay was difficult in many ways, and it dredged up a fair amount of painful memories. But it was also a huge gift. I was able to laugh at myself, at “Theo,” and at the entire situation, whereas previously I preferred to gloss over that period in my life. I hadn’t realized exactly how I was really hitting a turning point in my maturity—becoming more independent, being able to laugh at myself and my actions — until after I finished the piece. With the hindsight of almost two decades, I realize how much my worldview has changed. For the better, thankfully.
Flipside of that question in some ways: In Brock Clarke’s essay, he writes, “There is a special place in hell reserved for writers — for people, for that matter — who look back at their former selves and try to force some larger meaning, to attach some redeeming lesson, to all the random, idiotic, hurtful, wrongheaded things they did” — a line which struck me mightily. Isn’t it part of this kind of creative nonfiction — these essays, in fact — to find some previously unglimpsed aspect of what the hell happened? To understand the past and the selves of that past with a larger perspective?
I think Brock’s line is hilarious, and it fits perfectly within his essay. And even though Brock doesn’t try to force some larger meaning or lesson in his piece, he does pose questions as to why we feel naturally compelled to do this. I would say his opinion is true of maybe a couple other writers in the collection, who avoid trying to tie everything up into a tidy bow, but not every author here views their past behavior in the same way. Some writers psychoanalyze it, others think of it as fodder for a funny story and move on. Some of the pieces are short and punchy, others are digressive and questioning. I’d like to think the emphasis in Brock’s point is on “try to force.” It’s natural to analyze past behavior and events, especially when one’s self is involved, to try to understand the deeper layers involved. I think any larger meanings or redeeming lessons that occurred in these essays happened organically.
Finally, the last story here, Wendy Brenner’s “I Love You In Twelve Languages,” ends without any real resolution — or rather with the sense that this romance, this man, and these troubles can’t be entirely resolved and will still be with her long after the last word of that last page. Do you think that writing about “breakups, bad relationships, and broken hearts” can help people to mend and move past? Or does your choice to close the book in this way, with this essay, suggest that real “closure” may ultimately be elusive?
I’ve always believed that writing can help people mend, no matter what the circumstance. But I also believe that closure can be elusive. I decided to end with Wendy Brenner’s essay because her piece is so incredibly powerful and haunting — and also because it is the most immediate of the pieces, since a crucial part of it happened in the recent past. Her piece is not about a simple break-up; there’s not room for absolute closure yet because there simply hasn’t been enough time. But I think her experience would be just as valid if it had happened decades ago and there still wasn’t closure. I didn’t intend for her piece to be a commentary on relationships overall. Ending with it simply seemed like the natural choice, especially ending with that voice of the dead lover caught on audiotape. It’s a perfect metaphor for how voices from our past can always stay with us.