I am certain that it was the subject matter of this novel—following a group of poets in a Creative Writing class—that caught my attention. A fascinating work, to be sure, even if it is not exactly what I had expected.
All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost
Lan Samantha Chang’s new novel, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost (208 pages, Norton, $23.95), tells the story of a group of aspiring poets who meet in the class of a woman who is herself a distinguished poet. Teaching at a campus in the Midwest, Miranda Sturgis is a mystery to her students. In the poetry seminar, the students are ruthless with one another’s work, but Miranda sits above it all, only dispensing her reactions—at times not even specifically related to the poem in question—when she thinks the students have gone too far.
Among the students are two young men whom we come to know fairly well. Roman, a handsome twenty-eight year old who has come to the Creative Writing Program after recognizing that he could not fulfill his poetic destiny working in a bank, is aloof and defensive, and he craves praise from the other members of the writing seminar, even as he holds them in contempt. Bernard, a younger bespectacled fellow-student, whom Roman imagines is a serious poet, befriends Roman and shares with him an almost overwhelming awe of their accomplished teacher. There are several women in the class too: Marleen, Lucy, Phoebe, and others. We hear about their poetry, and we hear what they say about the poetry of the others in the class. We also see them at parties and other social events, especially during the first (of three) sections of the novel, the section concerning the years while these students are pursuing the graduate degree in Creative Writing.
The seminar itself is truly miserable. The students snipe at each other, and they are all jockeying for Miranda’s attention. When Bernard’s poem—an account of the early French explorers in Wisconsin—is read to the class, he fairly quakes with nerves as his lines are criticized. Roman holds out until the last week of the seminar to allow his poems to be discussed, and when the women in the class attack the poems as overly aggressive, even sexually violent, he tries to remain unaffected. He feels that he gets a little recognition from Miranda, and that is enough for him.
Shortly after this seminar experience, Roman and Miranda begin having an affair. This teacher-student affair, never really a good idea, in this context makes Roman even more vulnerable. He is desperate for praise from the older woman, but she wants him to challenge himself even more in his poetry. There is a kind of intensity to the relationship, but there is also, depressingly, an almost total absence of love. When Roman moves on, because he receives scholarships to study in California, he doesn’t think twice about leaving Miranda behind, and later, when he receives a distinguished prize for younger poets, he is suspicious and angry when Miranda turns out to the judge who determined the prize. Because of his early relationship with Miranda, he feels more unsure of himself than he otherwise might. But he is so fixated on his own worth as a poet, and the value of the work he is doing, that he loses sight of what other people might think of as a private life.
The second section of the novel takes place a decade or so later, when Roman is married to one of his fellow students and Bernard is struggling to finish his poem in a tiny New York apartment. Roman is less likable as a husband and a father, and his self-obsession in this section of the novel is almost grotesque. Bernard is even more pathetic than he was as a student, but Roman knows that he has written a really great poem. Roman's own poetry, even though it goes on to win great awards like the Pulitzer disappoints him in some way.
In the last section of the novel, Roman is alone once again, and as his friends and mentors are dying, he tries to figure out what it all has meant. He still does not have enough love, or even enough fellow-feeling, to see what those around him are going through, and I suppose this is his tragedy after all.
Lan Samantha Chang is the director of the well-respected Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and it is almost depressing to think that this is her vision of Creative Writing. No one can teach writing, Bernard opines at a key point in the narrative, and anyone reading this novel would have to imagine that the novelist agrees. What does that mean for all the hopeful students in classes like the ones represented here?
Lan Samantha Chang
Get your copy of All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.