News & Culture in Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and Points Nearby
January 25, 2021
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Alex: The Writhing Society

By Alexandra Glorioso
Meeting of the Oulipo in Boulogne, near Paris, on September 23, 1975, in the garden of François Le Lionnais (in the center with an open newspaper, at Queneau’s right)
Photo Courtesy of Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities:

Every Wednesday, 7 p.m., writing society in a Gowanus Gallery in an alley with lots of fire escapes:

I want to be a writer. I moved to New York to do it. I’ve paid lots of money for two writing workshops: the first with former Columbia Prof Phyllis Raphael and the second with The Writers Studio. Both were pretty good and I’d recommend them to anyone. In fact, I’ve enrolled in a second Writers Studio workshop that begins in June.

But Proteus Gowanus, I could go there for life.

My main gripe with writing workshops is the emphasis on critique. For starters, why are my peers the best people to critique my stuff? Second, why do I always get the feeling that my peers are lying to me, and to each other? The style of writing at Proteus Gowanus relieves all that. Proteus Gowanus’s Writhing Society models its constrained writing class after the 1960s initiated group Oulipo. Oulipo is loose gathering of writers and mathematicians who experiment with constrained writing techniques.

Let me tell you how I found Proteus Gowanus. I rock climb at Brooklyn Boulders, the climbing gym in Gowanus. It’s near Proteus Gowanus, a gallery multi-use space.

My boyfriend and I fantasize about moving to Gowanus someday. We currently live in Bushwick. Bushwick is cool. Gowanus is more cool. We’ve picked out our dream apartment. Someone lives in it. It’s on Union and the canal. The apartment has flowers in front of it. It’s a bit run down and has that dilapidated resurgence thing going that our apartment in Arizona had, an apartment owned by hippies, family friends. We miss that place. It had porcelain butterflies and flowers all over with a blue dolphin and green toilet seat in the bathroom.

If you are reading this and live in a red apartment with a flower garden in the front at 525 Union just east of the canal, next to the box factory – please sell us your apartment someday.

Anyway, we were walking home from the rock gym one day and Jed, my boyfriend, said he had something to show me. Let me tell you, I have a thing for fire escapes. Jed had found a creepy alley full of them. He took me to it. Not only was this alley full of fire escapes, it also had a sign on the opened gate: Proteus Gowanus, The Writhing Society. We went back to the end of the alley to find the gallery, Proteus Gowanus.

Alley of Protreus Gowanus

Proteus Gowanus is an artist beehive. It’s got an art gallery with a yearly theme. This year’s theme is paradise. The gallery is open Thursday and Friday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and weekends from noon to 6 p.m. I’m going to check it out this weekend.

Throughout the week, Proteus Gowanus has other nightly events like a fixer community, a study hall for silent contemplation, and The Writhing Society. Proteus Gowanus also houses two other main projects along with its themed exhibits: Reanimation Library, which rescues tossed books by libraries and other places uses them to create an archive of disregarded ideas and images; and the Morbid Anatomy Library, which records a history of ideas about the body, disease, death and immortality.

I got to Proteus at 7 p.m., when the class started. No one knew I was a journalist, looking to review. A table sat in the middle of a room. The room had trinkets: art trinkets, cyborg trinkets, books, Gowanus history trinkets. The table had seven people around it, two bowls of chips and one bottle of wine. I introduced myself, asked if there was a charge and apologized for being flustered.

There was a charge: $5 for the class and $2 for the wine. I asked if there was an ATM. There wasn’t an ATM. The group took a brief look vote and decided I was OK. One member offered that each person would pay an extra dollar to cover my fee. I told them I’d be back to see the gallery and could pay then. They said I could leave the money in an envelope under the door. We all shrugged in agreement and someone poured me a plastic cup full of wine.

Erik, a member and director of the group brought out the class prompt. The theme was Yelpers and their cowardice. The concept: People who write reviews on yelp are less reviewing and more revealing. What comes out about a personality or insecurities through the internet anonymity and self-appointed expertise?

We each selected Yelp reviews of restaurants and were to respond from the perspective of the restaurant owner to the reviewer. Michael D’Angelo was referenced. We were to pull from the critique a picture of the critic, and critique him or her. The catch: we could only use the words from the review. We could take liberties with punctuation and capitalization and sentence structure. However, the words were to stay exactly the same. I’ve copied both my prompt and my response below for your convenience. Feel free to judge away.

Yelp Review:
Awful service – homophobic?
by CSMobileUser at Citysearch

I have heard great things about this place from friends for years. I took my boyfriend there for dinner and was horrified by the extremely rude wait staff. I got a very strong homophobic vibe from the men working there. I asked several times when making a reservation and at the restaurant itself if they could give us a nice table since it was my boyfriend’s birthday. When we appeared they were even ruder than on the phone and shoved us in the corner at a table we had to share with others.

I could understand if they were slammed but that did not excuse our rude and unhelpful waiter.
The food was indeed wonderful. But if you are gay, you would be wise to skip this spot. Not romantic in the least.
The people who rave about this place are straight. I wonder if any gay couples have had a good time there?

My critique as the restaurant owner (using only the words in the critique)

I understand you had a rude and unhelpful time at the restaurant. People rave about this place but when we are slammed, the wait staff share any spot; gay and straight. My boyfriend would be wise to skip this place for a nicer dinner. Others have shoved our waiter vibe into the corner since the food was wonderful.
Strong couples took a romantic time. If you could give us a great excuse: the men were working there for years and appeared even ruder and horrified a birthday reservation.

Others were better. The second prompt: We all went around and named three kinds of writing styles. I picked metaphor, all questions, and hyperbole. Afterward we picked any of the two that were named and wrote on behalf of either our yelper or restaurant owner and wrote a story from their perspective in one of the named styles. We attempted to write in two of the styles in 20 minutes. For my two styles, I chose all questions and hyperbole. Other people chose haiku, teen-romance, horror detective, obituary, and fairytale to name a few. I’ve coped my metaphor response below for your convenience. Again, you can judge me. It’s bad. It was timed. And hard. Oh well.

I kept letter form from perspective of restaurant owner to yelp reviewer:

My dock-tied sailboat,
When you stay trapped in the encasement, the world is a circus. We have corners here and I urge you to dare near them. They will envelope your fears. That party for paranoia did keg stands in California long ago.
Come, let me join you. Let’s race down the mason dick-son line together. Hell, I’ll let you blur it with big eyelashes and a southern feather. You see, this island has no preconceptions, only movement. We represent the dynamic, not the stiff and the stagnant.
Together, we’ll untie that dock and float into the land of the confused, bored, and pushy: all of mankind lives there, dear. Let me buy you the next round, sit down, take off that heavy load. God’s creatures are furious and elixired, and romance is always in the shady corners, you’ll see.

In all, I found the constrained writing both wild and refreshing. It removed all of the pretension and just plain tension I find in most critique-based workshops. We laughed a lot and tried weird stuff. It took me out of my element and didn’t give me homework. I liked that.

The night ended with Angelo, a weekly contributor and aspiring group director, showing us his latest invention: Ray-Ban glasses with nails glued to the front. He said his wife was terrified of him. Wendy, another weekly contributor and group director said, “And he looked at her with daggers from his eyes, literally.” We all laughed.

It was after 9 p.m. when we dispersed. The group had nine people by the end, nearly evenly divided between twenties and over forties. As I made my way out, I was informed of Proteus’s history.

Proteus Gowanus has been around since 2005. The Writhing Society was created in 2009 and meets every Wednesday night at 7 p.m. Bring $7 for admission and wine. Learn about cyborgs, paradise, and the history of Gowanus. You won’t be disappointed.

Proteus Gowanus

The Writhing Society

543 Union Street (at Nevins)


Morbid Anatomy:

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