Herewith the inaugural instance of a new Numéro Cinq series, the NC Interviews. Our first interviewee is my old friend Mark Anthony Jarman and our first interviewer is contributor Mary Stein. Mark and I knew each other at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the beginning of the 1980s. A long friendship with legs—last September, late one night (maybe early morning), Mark and I sat in his backyard with my publisher Susanne Alexander, drinking beer under the stars in Fredericton, New Brunswick, like old times. He edits fiction for a venerable Canadian magazine called The Fiddlehead which, in the 1970s, published some of my first short stories (and another story is coming out in the summer, 2011, issue). Mark has written a book of poetry, Killing the Swan, a hockey novel, Salvage King Ya!, four story collections, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, New Orleans is Sinking, 19 Knives, and My White Planet, and nonfiction book about Ireland called Ireland’s Eye. He teaches at the University of New Brunswick and lives in a very large house fronting the Saint John River. His story “The December Astronauts (or Moonbase Horse Code)” appears in Numéro Cinq’s Best of Vol. 1.
Mixes and Collisions: A Numéro Cinq Interview with Mark Anthony Jarman
By Mary Stein
MCS: Why don’t you start by telling me a little about your relationship to writing poetry versus writing prose. It seems it’s been decades since you’ve published a collection of poetry. Have you continued to write poetry since Killing the Swan, or does your prose writing satisfy your poetic impulses?
MAJ: After I published Killing the Swan, I had the feeling it had gone into a vacuum, and decided to put the same images and ideas into prose if I could manage. There are things in poetry you can do that you can’t in an essay or story, but I feel it’s a very good influence on the latter in terms of editing, compression, attention to language, imagery, odd juxtapositions, implication, developing an eye and ear, etc. I also feel there is too much weak poetry around and I don’t want to add to it; perhaps the government could pay us to not write poetry rather than fund more. Great poetry is great, I was influenced by Eliot, Richard Hugo, Denis Johnson, Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, and had good teachers, PK Page, Phyllis Webb, but a lot of poetry strikes me as pointless. Maybe I’ve been to too many bad readings.
MCS: In Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter writes, “Fiction writers get resentful, watching poets calling it quits at 9:30 a.m.” Do you ever lapse into moments of “poet envy” or does the fiction writer’s tireless pursuit of the right-hand margin suit you?
MAJ: I do torment the poets I know, teasing them that they can whip off a poem before breakfast whereas a story rarely happens quickly.
MCS: Anything written about you will likely mention the dynamism of your language: Even when you exclude verbs from sentences I hardly notice because your prose is so combustible. Though the language of your prose seems spontaneous (one critic describes it as playful and another likens it to free jazz), it simultaneously strikes me as deliberate. One story that comes to mind is “Love Is All Around Us“: Sections of the story contain a pattern of sonic dyads that shift and overlap between new assonant pairs. This cadence not only ensnares the reader, but can operate as a syntactical metaphor for the story’s prismatic Margaret Atwoodian universe. How conscious are you of “language play” during the writing and revision process? Would you consider your work experimental?
MAJ: I do a lot of drafts. So yes, spontaneous and playful, but a lot of time and tinkering. It’s funny that you mention the Atwood piece; that one was written very quickly. My mother disliked Atwood, no idea why, and called her “that woman” and complained that she was everywhere. Then I read the McGimpsey poem cited at the start and cracked up and the idea of her being everywhere hit me. I cut some scenes but it was very fast. I’ve been called experimental but I don’t think that way; it just seems words on a page, not much different than someone typing in the 1920s, eg John Dos Passos’ trilogy USA, which is much more experimental than me, but an influence. I love cut and paste; did that literally with paper and scissors and tape before computers arrived. There are times I laugh at what I’m writing or trying or at puns; it can be fun at 2 a.m. fooling around with a story. You hope someone out there will get it (Updike’s ideal reader).
MCS: Stories in 19 Knives reference a number of indie bands; Guided by Voices, Pavement, Elliott Smith and Bob Dylan to name a few. What music do you like to listen to while you write and how does music influence your writing (if at all)? Do you ever imagine soundtracks to your stories or novels?
MAJ: 2 a.m. reminds me of your music question. I have thought of instructions with a piece: read at 2 a.m. after three dark lagers with Pyramid song by Radiohead playing. Music is a big influence, even if it’s not visible, like Gillian Welch playing Appalachian melodies, but saying she’s influenced by punk.
MCS: I’m curious about expanding on the idea of Updike’s “ideal reader.” It seems to me that your prose demands a certain degree of attentiveness. How (and how much) do you think syntax and language can govern how a reader engages with a story? To what extent can the story itself make its reader the “ideal reader?”
MAJ: I’m unsure about this one. I suppose I live in hope. Definitely syntax and language can pull in a reader or alienate them. I try to consider the reader, hope they can follow easily and that the sentences make a kind of sense, maybe in tone if not always in order or logic, but I also want to work on what I want; I can’t guess what others may like or appreciate. Some of my stories are very straight ahead, others I fool around more. It’s not planned.
MCS: Lydia Davis said something about fragmentation and memory that reminds me of your stories, particularly “19 Knives” and “Fables of the Deconstruction,” from My White Planet. She said, “We also hang on to scraps of dialogue. Our memories don’t usually serve us up whole scenes complete with dialogue. So I suppose I’m saying that I like to work from what a character is likely to remember, from a more interior place.” Your stories are often nonlinear and fragmented but not at the expense of cohesion––the poetic language and syntax in your prose conveys an interior state and transposes it over narrative details. To what effect do you like to use syntax and (“spontaneous”) poetic language? What is it about fragmented narratives that appeal to you?
MAJ: I have a story called “Assiniboia Death Trip” that I think Davis’s idea applies to (and your question above). It is made of scraps and is not complete, is very interior, might be indulgent, but it is one of my favourites in a way, and I feel it changes every time I look at it. Douglas Glover picked it out of a group of two three stories I had sent him for Best Canadian Stories and I was glad because I thought it might not translate or appeal. But I do think fragments have an effect, they suggest more. The guys in Steely Dan, a long time ago, said the same thing; they wrote songs with fragments and images and the listener fills in the story. My process may influence the end result as I collect bits and pieces all the time and I move around parts until they seem to resonate with each other somehow. It’s a gut feeling and not really spontaneous in that I keep trying over time, trying different mixes and collisions.
MCS: Do you work on multiple stories at once, or do you maintain monogamous relationships with your prose? What are you working on now?
MAJ: I work on more than one. If one is not going well then I can move to another. Right now I’m working on a novel set in Italy and sending a few pieces from it out to mags and contests. I was working for years on a Wild West novel, but put it on the back burner to start the Italian book after a trip in 08. Parts of the Wild West book have been published as stories and in a chapbook (with Frog Hollow Press in Victoria) called Knife in the Head. I’ve also applied to the Banff Centre for the Arts to work on a nonfiction piece about a hit and run accident.
MCS: The poet David Wojahn once said (and I paraphrase) that writers have about four or five obsessions and everything he or she writes is a permutation of these obsessions. What are some of your obsessions?
MAJ: That seems true of many writers, Tenn. Williams, Clark Blaise, perhaps Alice Munro. “Assiniboia Death Trip” was published in a mag that had a theme issue of obsessions. I’ve noticed that I’ve written about water and drowning a lot. My Irish grandfather drowned in the Irish civil war. Ireland may be an obsession: wrote a book called Ireland’s Eye and have been there about 8 times. Also knives: “19 Knives,” the chapbook Knife in the Head, and a new Italian piece called Knife Party. Alcohol or altered states, eros, physical contact and chemistry, regret, violence, the usual suspects. My latest is skiing in the mountains: I’ve decided that it is a sublime experience that few serious writers seem to bother with. So I am going to.
—Mary Stein & Mark Anthony Jarman