By JUDITH PULMAN
Confession: From his prose, I wasn’t expecting Jay Ponteri to meet me so freshly groomed, polite, and soft-spoken.
It was sloppy for me to assume that Ponteri, the director of Marylhurst University’s undergraduate creative writing program, would appear slovenly or depressive or altogether not-hip in the fashion that he portrayed himself to be in “Wedlocked,” his memoir published by local press Hawthorne Books in March. But it was easy enough for me to conflate the persona and person of a provocative writer that I had never met . So in our conversation about his memoir, methods, and attempts to stay in “the present moment of composition,” both in life and in writing, I was forced to dump my assumptions and just listen.
“Wedlocked” is ostensibly a personal inquiry into monogamy. Ponteri lets us into his world: In his garage, he is writing a manuscript about his doubts about his marriage and recording his strong feelings towards other women—Frannie is the name that he uses as a composite for all the women he has fantasized about that are not his wife. His wife finds this manuscript and she is shocked, disturbed, and does not know what to do. She claims not to have fantasized about sex with other men, so why is he straying in this way? He doubts, fantasizes, strays, all the while loathing the person who does these things.
“My book is more about a self isolating inside a marriage than marriage itself—reacting by pushing away instead of reaching out in the way that life’s difficult moments require,” Ponteri said. “The book is also a consideration of the way my writing became another fantasy, another way to push reality away. There’s a T.S. Eliot quote from the “Four Quartets” that goes. ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality.’ I think that’s what my struggle was as a young married person: Trying to be in touch with actuality and also embracing a dreamy way of being that is rewarded in being an artist and writer.”
“Wedlocked” would be easier on the reader if it weren’t written inside the back jacket that “Jay lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and his son.” This is non-fiction, and it’s hard to read, since we recognize that the incredible rupture between this couple is going to eventually have to be mended through difficult, slow, vulnerable work, or just crumble to nothing. But it’s not going to crumble: We know that the writer and his wife—she is only referred to as “the wife” in the book for both protection and to engender the uncomfortable flavor of that word itself—are going to be cleaning up long after the writing is done.
Great value comes from reading tough stories. We even have a study to prove it: check out this article on how reading Chekhov improves social and emotional skills. This book might be as easy as marriage, which isn’t easy.
“When I’m writing, I’m trying to discover the self in contradiction,” Ponteri said. “My first order of business is to look at my inner life and put my imagination towards revelations about contradictions. That is not dreamy stuff. Contradiction is difficult; it’s difficult to simultaneously say ‘ooh I love you’ and ‘oh no, I’ve got to push you away.’ In writing, I just want the work to be as thorny and messy as I feel life is.”
By the end of the book, you might feel like you know Ponteri, since he expresses his most intimate fantasies and awkward ablutions—a chapter entitled “Bring in the Clown” details the grimaces he makes and songs he sings when he’s alone in the bathroom. And yet, Ponteri pointed out to me the problem and beauty of any self-portrait: “I’m very comfortable with revealing myself on the page, but even if a work is full of contradiction, revelation, and keeps dipping down deeper to interior pockets of being, it’s still just a slice of a person. One of the various selves.”
Here’s the thing: It’s not fantasy that is shown to be unhealthy, even constant fantasizing, but the way it first isolates and then requires concealment within an intimate relationship. This seems like a simple enough concept, but it’s not often declared so clearly or viscerally as in this memoir.
“What “Wedlocked” doesn’t indicate is that I finished it many years ago, and my wife and I worked very hard on our marriage,” Ponteri explained. “So part of me publishing the book means that my wife gave me consent to publish this work, which was and is emblematic of the actual rooting that our marriage took, a rooting that was not in existence when I started this book. A lot of young people experience that beginning part of courting, which is hot and wonderful, but they don’t necessarily have their relationship skills in order when they get married. They’ll need to develop these later on to make the relationship last, as I did. Our marriage has incredibly improved. This book shows a shadow side of our marriage and not how it is now.”
The beautiful means that are used to elevate these subjects are loping, lyrical, wide-ranging sections of prose that build as if each were a twister gaining energy towards a grand destination. Here, Ponteri muses on his youth:
“I carried these dreams with me as a small child totes with her everywhere (to restaurants, on trips, to school) a stuffed animal, though often stored away in dad’s coat or mom’s purse, not visible, not intruding upon the instance (the silent accomplice, the driver waiting in the running van) yet leave that child alone and she breathes sensate life into that toy through which she expresses her needs and fears and nascent desires, her disappointments. My desire was the dream itself, that velvet-lined cage, not padding me against the blow of reality but eclipsing it. I didn’t feel known by others, which made me angry at the world and myself. I considered myself a fuck-up. Still do. To desire to live alone is to desire to live among the people of my dreams, those figments who know and love only the dream-me, but they are not real like my wife and son are real and who know the real-me, distracted me, sad and silly me, impatient and impulsive me, me desperately looking for the next window of time in which I can disappear.”
He considers these “unparagraphs”’ (you can read more about unparagraphs in Bookslut’s interview with him) an experiment in radical expansion. “My impulse is to push things farther than my rational mind tells me to. Expansion is really important; there’s a section in the book that is just a list of places where adults have dalliances, and it’s a five-page sentence. In that section I just kept saying to myself that it had to just keep going, like the Flaming Lips who have a song that just goes on for 24 hours. I love that idea to keep going indefinitely until I’m just emptied out.”
Some might respond to these “Howl”-like reveries on ways and places for illicit lovemaking with a “now he’s gone too far.” But with a subject as difficult to swallow as infidelity, going too far might be necessary to pull us back to what the real issues are—the fact that this speaker feels lonely, depressed, and isolated everywhere in his life. No, it doesn’t negate the fact of the affair, but this swirling prose helps us do more than label it “bad,” which cannot possibly help us begin to talk about such things.
“Infidelity is difficult,” Ponteri observed. “People have really strong feelings about it. On top of that, it’s not something that we talk about directly. We gossip about it—I don’t think gossip is such a terrible thing because for me gossip is an the indication people want to have more open conversations about monogamy. I’m sure that some people were upset about this book, but I haven’t gotten any angry phone messages. I’ve heard from a lot more women than I have from men—I think men are still pretty afraid to talk about this stuff.”
Will learning how to talk about these things—fantasy, relationship skills, and sexual desire outside marriage—make us happier or maybe better, more kind to one another? Or, in the depressed speaker in “Wedlocked”’s case, more kind to our contradictory selves?
The fact that this record of a seemingly impossible, painful, but very real and deeply felt situation came to exist as a published memoir, with the consent of the author’s partner seems to me a minor miracle.
This a book well worth reading and talking about, not just for Ponteri’s scintillating fantasies, his challenging questions, or his imagination fully engaging with both language and subject matter, but to read a new story of how much it takes to be in a committed relationship well—a story that opened doors, at least for me—to a whole new species of conversations about love.