Aug 142014
 

GrisGris SlateGris-gris is a powerful charm.

Jody headshotJody Gladding

Sound and sight, on the page and off—croaking ravens, scraping stones, melting ice, dying stars, unfathomable mysteries all. Gladding doesn’t just write poems about this unsettled world, a difficult-enough task. She turns the world into poetry, then lets it go. —Darren Higgins

MW-Gladding-cover

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In “Lawn Chairs,” the last poem in her new book, Translations from Bark Beetle, Jody Gladding writes about “stars / so far away / they’ve long stopped burning.” “Unfathomable Mystery!” she goes on to exclaim, without a hint of pity or mourning, which, if we’ve been paying attention, should come as no surprise. Bark Beetle presents one unfathomable mystery after the next—stars burnt out, relationships damaged, butterflies blasted by traffic—but in this magical collection, that’s no reason for despair. As Ovid, another poet concerned with metamorphoses, has written, while everything changes, nothing is lost.

“Process and decay are implicit,” says the environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy. “Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature.” Gladding has come to celebrate, or at least embrace, such impermanence. Yes, she is the kind of poet who will incise a poem (“Habitat”) on an icicle:

why
I
am
like
this
place
is
beautiful
and
cold
.

The icicle, of course, is long gone, yet the words, and the act of their creation, persist. I imagine that final period falling away in a drop of water, followed, in the rising light of the winter sun, by everything else. With its specimen-box cover design, Bark Beetle serves as reservoir or record of numerous such disintegrations. Indeed, there is a photograph of the melted icicle in the back of book, along with images of other “object poems” that served as incubators for and partners to the poems on the page.

I should rephrase that: the object poems are poems in their own right. Over the course of her career, Gladding has come to see poems, whether on the page or off, as physical things built to interact with the world. She writes on paper, of course, but also on feathers, tongue depressors, milkweed pods, X-rays, split logs, eggshells, and change-of-address forms. Bark Beetle, by juxtaposing textual poetry with full-color images of these object poems, gives readers and viewers an unprecedented glimpse of the remarkable range of her poetic art and artistic ambition.

Tongue Depressorsswallow

LikeLichencrossroad

Gladding’s interest in objects, nature, and the changeable language and life within landscapes is not new. “Midwifery,” the first poem in her first book, Stone Crop (winner of the 1992 Yale Series of Young Poets Award), begins:

These stones
I unearth
squatting
in my garden
working them
into the light

Taking us from “pregnant” garden stones through to the birth of her daughter, the tactile, sensory poems in her debut collection are grounded in seasonal shifts, in soil and snow, death and life, cycles unending. In Bark Beetle, she again unearths stones, but there is a difference: here she has made them poetry (see “Seal Rock” or “Gris-gris is a powerful charm”).

Seal RockSeal Rock

Other recent projects also spring from a sense of such poetic transformation—wrapping a quarry in blood-red bolts of cloth, making a series of site-specific nests with grasses, sticks, and strips of text, and weaving yarn and wool around the interior of an ancient stone shelter in France. Spaces, openings, margins, sanctuaries.

In “Triphammer Bridge,” A.R. Ammons writes,

sanctuary, sanctuary, I say it over and over and the
word’s sound is the one place to dwell: that’s it, just
the sound, and the imagination of the sound—a place.

Gladding knows the sound of such places. She is a great listener, a great believer in listening. In this increasingly amped-up, on-demand-everything world, she makes us stop and listen too. Take “Sonogram of Raven Calls,” from Bark Beetle:

rapp
……………………………..krapp
…………kra
……………………………………………..pruk
……………………………………………………………..quork
………………..gro
……………………………………………………………………………………kaah

While the lines in her early work tend to arrange themselves obediently on the left, Gladding’s words in recent years have begun scuttling across the page like beetles on a log. And so “Sonogram” continues, corner to corner, placing us in a forest of song rising up from the white. You can hear the music here (“the imagination of the sound”), but you can also see it. You are in it.

Sound and sight, on the page and off—croaking ravens, scraping stones, melting ice, dying stars, unfathomable mysteries all. Gladding doesn’t just write poems about this unsettled world, a difficult-enough task. She turns the world into poetry, then lets it go.

—Darren Higgins

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I first met Jody Gladding twenty years ago at Cornell University, where she was kind enough to say that the tortured poems I kept submitting for her writing seminar showed promise. Recently, over a series of weeks, her kindness undimmed, she took the time to speak to me—in person, over e-mail, and on the phone—about her poetry and art, her new book, and how she approaches her work.

Steep3MinutesAfter the Vote to Mass Discontinue Unmapped Invisible Town Roads

DARREN HIGGINS: How long had you been making the pieces that are found in Translations from Bark Beetle? Did you see them from the outset as constituting a greater whole, or did that sense of unity or cohesion only come into focus over time?

JODY GLADDING: The oldest piece in the book, “Gris-gris is a powerful charm,” goes back a decade to the 2004 elections. After Bush stole the presidency in 2000, after his warmongering response to 9/11, after all the eloquent, articulate arguments against him, how could he have won? Maybe it had something to do with what those arguments were written on. Which led me to try writing on/in stone.

As my work over this time drifted further and further from the page, it seemed less and less likely that a book could come of it. So, no, I had no sense of a greater whole, only a growing excitement about the possibilities that were opening up to me. Then, a couple years ago, I looked at what I’d been making and tried to see what might be lured back into a printed format—which became the manuscript for Bark Beetle.

Mobile Since Mars won’t be this close to Earth again

DH: I love the handcrafted feel of the book itself—part field guide/notebook, part artist book. How did the publication come together, and how involved were you able to be in the layout, image selection/placement, and so on?

JG: Milkweed Editions was absolutely wonderful about collaborating on the production of the book. What I submitted to them as “manuscript” included poems, rubbings, photos, and notes. I knew the poems required landscape orientation and the bark beetle specimen box should serve as the cover. Milkweed’s Jeenee Lee came up with the design itself, plus the typewriter font, which makes the whole thing feel provisional, like field notes. I love the sense that you’re opening a specimen box as you turn the first pages.

Milweed#23 Sent to Susan Walp on 9/9

DH: Could you discuss how some of these pieces were created? Do you collect objects that fascinate or engage you, only to figure out what can be done with them later? Or do you head out into the world with a poem in your head, seeking its perfect medium or vessel?

JG: It’s different for each piece. I had the tongue depressor before the poem with “swallow,” but “roc” was on paper long before it found its way onto a feather. With “Nesting Ravens,” from the beginning it needed an egg. But would the egg be whole or broken? In a nest? It wasn’t always a broken egg. Before it broke, I could actually read from it at readings—slow going, because the print is small and the egg has to keep turning. Once at an area high school, a student came up afterward and said it was like the words were coming out of the egg as I read them. Ideally, that would be true for all these object poems.

Featherroc

DH: I had the pleasure of seeing “The Object Poems: Translations from Bark Beetle,” an exhibition of your artwork, photographs, and poetry at the Vermont College of Fine Arts gallery. You wrote something in your artist’s statement that I keep coming back to: “I consider the objects themselves to be the poems. I’m interested in how poetry operates in physical acts, in three-dimensional space, in the world at large.” At what point, then, did you begin to think that the writing could live apart from the art (or vice versa, as the case may be)? Were there pieces for which this kind of vivisection was not possible? More broadly, does the success of the art depend at all on the separate or distinct success of the text? That is, would you consider the art incomplete if the text could not find a home on the page?

JG: All good questions. The word “success” makes me nervous, but yes, in compiling the manuscript there were poems I rejected because, separate from their objects or sites, they seemed insufficient. I’m coming at this process, this way of making art, as a poet, so the text itself must feel as viable to me as any poem I write—that is, what it’s on or what larger project it’s part of can’t act as an excuse for it. On the other hand, I don’t think of the page as the poem’s final home. Some of the poems that are in the show didn’t make it into the book, not because they were any less “successful,” but because the book just couldn’t accommodate them.

EggShellNesting Ravens

DH: In the gallery show and in the book, translations abound: Your printed poems as a kind of translation of the object poems. The objects as translations of landscapes or specific sites. The photographs as translations of the objects. In addition to being a poet and an artist, you are a translator of French. What is it that excites you about translation? And can you talk about the differences between, say, translating from bark beetle and translating from French?

JG: I think translating makes you aware of the spaces between languages, and I think that’s where poetry springs from. I translate French to earn my keep, so my excitement about it ebbs and flows depending on the project. Translating French generally pays—that’s one difference. Translation lets us rethink our own linguistic frameworks, lets us transit across, beyond or through them. That was certainly at the heart of my attempts to translate bark beetle.

DH: You have spoken elsewhere about your embrace of the ephemeral. Many of your recent art projects have channeled transience, living purposefully fugitive lives. Many of the object poems in Bark Beetle are fragile and clearly not meant to last. Have you always been this comfortable with disintegration? If not, how has it come about? And does your attitude extend to your writing?

Hard WoodHardwood

JG: I’d like to say I’ve always been comfortable with transience, but the fact is that when I put together my first collection of poems, in about fifth grade, I imagined archeologists excavating it from ruins eons hence, and I wrote “by Jody Gladding (a girl)” on the cover, so they wouldn’t be misled by my gender-neutral name. I can’t say when not lasting, limited shelf life, became more appealing. It just makes sense. I’ve always been saddened by library discards, stacked remainder tables at bookstores. Better a beautiful demise. The ephemeral works of Andy Goldsworthy or Cecilia Vicuña, are profoundly moving to me. A.R. Ammons, who we both knew at Cornell, has this little poem:

Providence
To stay
bright as
if just
thought of
earth requires
only that
nothing stay

Scan11 Sentences

DH: It seems to me that your pages have themselves turned into landscapes, and that your words—as printed, typographical objects—have, for a while now, been inclined to wander somewhat restlessly across them. Do you ever feel constrained by the page?

JG: It goes back to that notion that poems operate as physical acts, in physical space, in the world at large. Visual artists or installation artists, especially those with poetic sensibilities—I’m thinking of Ann Hamilton, for instance, or Roni Horn—have long worked from that premise, they just didn’t begin on the page. I’m coming to a similar place but from another direction.

Vellum book stitch

DH: After reading Bark Beetle, I was left imagining an inscribed world, a familiar place utterly transformed. Your work, both on and off the page, has long been associated with place. Do you feel that the landscape itself has something to say? In other words, are your works an interpretation or translation of that natural “language,” or do you feel that you in some way impose a language on the land? Can language be trusted in this context? Merwin writes, “our ears / are formed of the sea as we listen.” I suppose I’m really asking how you feel about failure.

JG: I do feel that the landscape has something to say, not to say to us, in some romantic or mystical way, but that the landscape is speaking all the time and we can only benefit by listening, which means expanding the boundaries of what we allow to be language. Recent studies on loons reveal that the particular call that echoes from a particular lake belongs to the lake itself and not the loon. That is, when a new loon takes up residence at a lake, it adopts its predecessor’s call, even if they’ve never met. And a loon moving from one lake to another will change its call to match its new home. If I entertain the notion that language resides in and issues from landscape, the realm of “linguistic beings” increases exponentially. The poems that then emerge? Closer, I hope, to translation than to imposition, to play than to betrayal, but there’s always the danger of making things up.

Failure? My language may fail (and I like what Andy Goldsworthy writes, that “each failure has taught me a little more about the stone”), human language may fail, but language? As a natural phenomenon? Failure is out of the question.

—Darren Higgins & Jody Gladding

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Jody Gladding’s newest poetry collection is Translations from Bark Beetle (Milkweed Editions, 2014). Recent poems have appeared in ecopoetics, Orion, Terrain.org, and other journals. She lives in East Calais, Vermont, teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and translates French. Her work includes site-specific installations that explore the interface of language and landscape. 

Darren Higgins

Darren Higgins is a writer, editor, and artist living in Waterbury Center, Vermont, with his wife, two sons, and a cat who never comes when she’s called. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he has written poems and stories for a variety of publications, essays for a couple of local newspapers, and commentaries for Vermont Public Radio.  

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Aug 122014
 

Eula Biss Eula Biss photograph by Akasha Rabut

 And yes, becoming a mother has changed my understanding of impossible apologies. — Eula Biss

Capture

On Immunity: An Inoculation
Graywolf Press, September 30 2014
216 Pages; $24

 

I would often wonder, during my time in that town,” writes Eula Biss at the outset of “Is This Kansas,” published in her 2009 collection Notes from No Man’s Land, “why, of all the subcultures in the United States that are feared and hated, of all the subcultures that are singled out as morally reprehensible or un-American or criminal, student culture is so pardoned.” This is the theme of an essay that critiques the white-washing of Midwestern collegiate debauchery by setting it against the narratives we cling to regarding the urban poor, particularly poor black Americans. That town, incidentally, is Iowa City, Iowa.

Eula speaks of Iowa Avenue as an epicenter of overindulgent partying life, while Lucas Street, “with all the hooting from dim porches and the boys smashing beer cans, [was] significantly scarier than anywhere I had ever lived in New York.” Some years after she left, I once happened to live, during my sophomore year at the University of Iowa, in an old white house on the intersection of those two streets.  So the honor I was recently granted of interviewing Biss was tinged with a soft, highly personal strain of shame. I believe there is much for which to apologize.

“Is This Kansas” stands out to me for its personal immediacy. But it also exemplifies Biss’s style as an essayist: her frustration with conventional narratives about race and privilege, her desire to expose the coded language we use to cover up our uglier thoughts, and her desire to visualize the derelict buildings, the dried-up or overflowing rivers, and the unfulfilled promises that make up the ruinous legacy of American injustices.

This September, Graywolf Press is publishing Eula Biss’s new book, On Immunity: An Inoculation. Inspired by Biss’s experiences as a new mother, On Immunity is a manifesto on the intersection of public and personal health, as played out in our own bodies and the bodies of our children. Central to the narrative—for there is a narrative here—is the contemporary controversy over vaccination. I’ll allay quickly-aroused fears presently and say that Biss is not against vaccination. But neither is this book a single-minded crusade in the name of vaccination. There are, I’m sure, hundreds of printed and digital articles one could read to that effect.

Biss uses this book to explore the complicated history of immunization. She examines the metaphorical language we use to describe immunity, and relates the often maddening work of a parent to navigate the endless streams of conflicting information in order to answer the primary question: how do I care for my child, and how do I care for the children of others? And is there a way to do both? That we still inhabit the imperfect world of Notes from No Man’s Land is made explicit in On Immunity. Here we must come to terms with all that humanity has wrought upon this Earth—the injustice, the pollution, the chemicals in our food and in our bodies—and accept that it is now a part of us. This time, Eula doesn’t leave us in ruins. She leaves us with something perhaps more useful: a vision of humanity enduring, proceeding, together.

Recently I corresponded with Eula Biss by way of email. We spoke about the place for personal narrative in nonfiction, the power of a carefully chosen metaphor, the illusion of bodily and mental independence, and the debts we owe to our parents and our children.

—Adam Segal

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Adam Segal (AS): Your new book is heavily influenced by Susan Sontag’s 1977 Illness as Metaphor as well as its 1988 follow-up, AIDS and its Metaphors. Both books work to disentangle disease—particularly cancer and AIDS—from the associated narratives and metaphors Sontag saw as harmful to literal patients of those very real diseases. Our metaphors, she argues, obscure and distract from the reality of suffering, and often increase suffering by instilling shame in patients and preventing people from seeking effective treatment. In Illness as Metaphor it is never mentioned that Sontag herself was diagnosed with cancer, a decision she explains in AIDS and its Metaphors in the following way:

“I didn’t think it would be useful – and I wanted to be useful – to tell yet one more story in the first person of how someone learned that she or he had cancer, wept, struggled, was comforted, suffered, took courage… though mine was also that story. A narrative, it seemed to me, would be less useful than an idea.”

You note in On Immunity that Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring with similar feelings. “She did not want her work to appear to be driven by anything other than scientific evidence. And so her personal struggle with cancer was told only through dwindling numbers of bald eagles, through eggs that did not hatch, and through the robins that lay dead on the lawns of suburbia.” On Immunity, in contrast, presents your own story prominently. That you present yourself as mother in addition to being a writer and researcher is perhaps what makes your new book so relatable. We all fear for our families, we all want to care for our children, whether real or potential. But was there was a time in the writing process that you considered following the example of Sontag and Carson in keeping your personal narrative out of the finished work? And if there was, what finally made you choose to write On Immunity as you did?

Eula Biss (EB): I suspect that there was a lot more than a desire to be useful behind Sontag’s decision not to write a personal narrative about her struggle with cancer. Her aesthetics as an essayist, for one, don’t seem to favor such a work. And—this is purely speculative, as I am an admirer of Sontag but no scholar of her—perhaps the pressures of being a female intellectual in her time also played some part in that decision. Rachel Carson, who studied biology when that field was almost entirely dominated by men, likely faced similar pressures.

I know about those pressures, but I don’t really feel them when I am writing. My work as an essayist is heavily influenced by poetry, and I was lucky to be reading Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath as I was finding my way as a young writer. I count that as one of the reasons why I tend to think of personal narrative—particularly when it concerns the body or domesticity—as a perfectly viable space for intellectual exploration. Both of my previous books use personal narrative to explore ideas and problems. But when I first began writing On Immunity, I found myself gravitating toward information and abstract ideas more than narrative. Sontag was a valuable guide to me because she is so very comfortable in the meditative mode, and so adept in her handling of ideas. Part of what I felt driven to do, in the early drafts of On Immunity, was to address the intellectual work of mothering. There is some acknowledgment in our culture that mothering is physically demanding and emotionally demanding, but I think there is less acknowledgment of the fact that it is intellectually demanding. So the ideas came first.

I was nursing a child and changing diapers—very viscerally engaged—but I was most captivated by disembodied ideas. As I worked, some personal narrative emerged, in part because it was, in places, the best way to address the ideas that interested and vexed me. I struggled, for instance, to write about the complexity of paternalism in medicine until I used my son’s surgery as a window into some of the contradictions of paternalism. I was very reluctant to write about that experience—in part because thinking about it was still painful, but also because I wanted to offer my son some privacy. (With two parents who write personal essay, he is at risk for quite a bit of exposure!) The narrative of his surgery was ultimately much more effective at communicating my thinking than my initial draft, which was not narrative at all—I have Maggie Nelson to thank for that, as she encouraged me toward personal narrative in that case.

AS: You’ve certainly succeeded in addressing the intellectual work of mothering. One of the more compelling aspects of On Immunity is that the story of your search for (and struggle with) information—as a mother and as a writer—is as important to the personal narrative as your stories of motherhood.

Sontag writes in AIDS and Its Metaphors that her two books on illness are an exercise in being “against interpretation.” So in her books on illness, she asks that we speak of illness without reaching for further meaning. “Of course,” she admits, “one cannot think without metaphors. But that does not mean there aren’t some metaphors we might well abstain from or try to retire.” But where Sontag’s books are purely dedicated to stripping illnesses of excess metaphorical weight, you have a different tactic entirely. Often in On Immunity, you seek to replace an arguably harmful or archaic metaphor with one that is more fitting or more positive. For example, in assessing negative associations with paternalism in medicine, you write, “If fathering still reminds us of oppressive control, mothering might help us imagine relationships based not just on power, but also care.”

You once wrote, in an essay pitting the myths of New York City against an individual’s actual lived experience of that city, “I know now that it is very difficult to dismantle one story without replacing it with another.” Is this why you’re so interested in choosing new metaphors, rather than just dismantling them as Sontag does? And do you suppose it’s really possible to, with active surveillance of the language we employ, find metaphors that don’t harm or distort?

EB: I think it is entirely possible to employ metaphors that do more good than harm. They just need to be apt metaphors. As Sontag notes, we can’t think without metaphor. Nor can we speak or write without metaphor—our language is dense with metaphor, much of which we no longer recognize as metaphor. My project in On Immunity was never to strip immunity of its metaphors—not much would be left in that case, as even the technical language of immunology is built on metaphor—but to make the metaphors we employ around immunity visible enough for us to think about them, rather than simply through them.

Early in my research I read a book called Bodily Matters, which is a history of the anti-vaccine movement in England from 1853 to 1907. The book is full of surprises, but I was most surprised to discover that some of the metaphors I was hearing in contemporary usage around vaccines were already in use over 150 years ago. The metaphor of pollution, for instance, is an old one. Victorians were very concerned about bodily pollution and the threat of a foreign substance polluting the blood set off some of their anxieties around purity, anxieties closely tied to class and race politics. We still have those anxieties, but the metaphor of bodily pollution has gained even more power for us from its association with environmental pollution. This is a loose association, and environmental pollution is not a good metaphor for much of anything that goes on in vaccination, but our anxieties around everything we associate with pollution tend to be intense.

While I was reading Bodily Matters, I reflected on the source of my own fears about vaccination. Many of those fears were tied, I realized, to metaphors of pollution. The idea that vaccines contained “toxins,” for instance, invited all my concerns over the ambient toxicity of our environment and the destruction of our environment to bleed into my thinking about vaccination.

But when I thought more deeply into both vaccination and environmental pollution, I began to feel that the metaphor of a vaccine as a pollutant that enters the environment of our body and degrades it was a highly inaccurate metaphor that obscured what was really happening. And yes, I did ultimately feel moved not just to critique that metaphor, but to replace it with a new metaphor or metaphors related to environmental preservation. It seemed to me that the metaphor we were using was so wrong that it was actually suggesting the opposite of what was true, so I tried turning the metaphor around. There are a handful of metaphors that I turned in this manner: I replaced metaphors of pollution with metaphors of habitat preservation, I replaced metaphors of fiscal corruption with metaphors of fiscal responsibility—banking is a persistent refrain throughout the book—and I replaced the metaphor of the vaccinator as a vampire preying on babies with the metaphor of the unvaccinated person as a vampire preying on the social body.

AS: Another of your projects within On Immunity is to engage with and revise the language we use to position ourselves as somehow Separate. Separate, for example, from an idealized “nature.” Separate from the viruses and bacteria that thrive in us, have evolved with us, and have become a part of us. And separate from the pollution we’ve collectively brought upon the natural world. One of my favorite passages from your book makes it perfectly clear that such a separation is impossible:

“If we do not yet know exactly what the presence of a vase range of chemicals in umbilical cord blood and breast milk might mean for the future of our children’s health, we do at least know that we are no cleaner, even at birth, than our environment at large. We are all already polluted. We have more microorganisms in our guts than we have cells in our bodies – we are crawling with bacteria and we are full of chemicals. We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other.”

It is in this last point that I am most interested. Much of the book’s later portion is dedicated to examining the extent to which humans are continuous and codependent. You quote your sister, a professor and Kant scholar, as saying “you don’t own your body – that’s not what we are, our bodies aren’t independent. The health of our bodies always depends on choices other people are making… The point is there’s an illusion of independence.” On Immunity makes a compelling case for the idea that our bodies are not the self-contained systems we imagine them to be, that the skin around our flesh is not an impermeable boundary between Us and Them. “From birth onward,” you write, “our bodies are a shared space.”

But I sense that the most basic way we feel separate from others isn’t in the perception that we have separate bodies, it’s in the acknowledgement that we have (or seem to have) our own inner lives, our own consciousness. Whether one sees the mind, soul-like, as independent of and higher than the body, or whether one sees mind and body as utterly inseparable, a model of humanity in which all human bodies are continuous with one another complicates the idea of an independent consciousness. Suppose the model of a broader human body you present were to take hold, how would it affect the way we understood the conscious mind? This illusion of independence, does it extend to the inner self?

EB: I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand I want to believe that, yes, my consciousness is mine alone. I remember a moment from a Faulkner course I took with Marilynne Robinson when she answered a student’s question about the difficulty of The Sound and the Fury by talking about the inherent difficulty of entering the consciousness of, for instance, Benjy, a mentally disabled adult. Literature is, she suggested, the closest we were ever going to get to inhabiting another consciousness. I think of that often when I am writing—literature can bring a consciousness to the page to be shared.

But part of why I was surprised when I read Bodily Matters is because I recognized, in reading that book, that my fears around vaccination weren’t original to me. They weren’t, in fact, even original to my time. They were historically sourced, bred by shared social anxieties, and fed by collectively embraced metaphors. Our minds and our emotional lives aren’t self-contained—they are constantly informed by the people around us. The results of a well-publicized study recently suggested that one can “catch” happiness from one’s friends—emotional states are, to some extent, contagious. As is obesity, for many of the same reasons. The health of our minds, like the health of our bodies, depends on the people around us. Our minds don’t exist in isolation and isolation isn’t good for our minds. Solitary confinement, for instance, can be psychologically harmful. The mind doesn’t thrive when it is cut off from other minds.

But yes, in a culture that is as thoroughly steeped in Enlightenment values of individuality as ours is, it can be even more difficult and threatening to think of our minds as connected than it is to think of our bodies as connected. I’m reminded of the Borg on Star Trek, the alien race that is made up of many species that have all been “assimilated” into a collective that is made up of somewhat autonomous bodies that share a “hive mind.” The Borg is a persistent threat in various episodes of Star Trek and it remains sinister in part because it offers us an opportunity to explore our fear of the collective, especially collective thought. The idea of a shared mind terrifies us. But it’s not science fiction. One of the things my research for On Immunity taught me is how much of our knowledge, as well as our information, is a product of a hive mind. Our most pressing scientific inquiries are performed collectively. Insights are arrived at through the collaboration of many minds. We do not know alone.

AS: The moment that I found most affecting in Notes from No Man’s Land wasn’t within any of the essays, it was actually the endnote to the final essay “All Apologies.” In that note, you compare our relationship with the past and present injustices of our nation to the relationship you have with your parents:

“If America was a young country during slavery, then she is now an adult who must reckon with her childhood. The guilt I have lived with longest and felt most deeply is my guilt over all the debts I will never be able to return to my parents, and over all the impossible apologies I owe them. In this case, I can only hope that my life, which is my crime, might also serve as my apology.”

After a book of essays chronicling the legacies of American injustices, this final passage offers a suggestion on how to move forward: To recognize (but not necessarily to dwell upon) all that has been done and cannot be undone, and to live one’s life as an apology for that wrongdoing.

But in On Immunity you no longer play the role of child. Here you are very clearly a mother. Do you feel that this new book is a continuation of that lived apology? Has becoming a mother perhaps changed your understanding of these impossible apologies you owe?  (Does the debt now belong to your son?)

EB: When I began working on On Immunity, I didn’t really think the book had much relationship to Notes from No Man’s Land. The subject matter felt like a departure, and it was stylistically different. But as I worked, I did begin to think of it as a kind of continuation of Notes. The idea of living one’s life reparatively, rather than destructively, emerged in Notes, but even after the book was published I was not certain that I really knew what that looked like in a practical sense. And then I found myself confronted, through my research for On Immunity, with all the ways that refusing vaccination resembled other manifestations of privilege. I understood that if I really believed in living reparatively, I was going to have to act out that belief through my son’s body. And yes, it caused me some anguish to hold down his arms and legs while he screamed and struggled against vaccination. I told him some version of “this is for your own good” at the time, but the truth was more complicated—this was for his good and the good of everyone around him.

When he was first born, I thought a lot about what it meant to live a “good” life. My parents raised me with a moral vision that was mostly communicated not by what they said, but by what they did and how they lived. One of the many debts I owe them is that vision, and as a mother I can see that I may not be able to pay that debt back, but I can pay it forward by casting their moral vision into the future through my son. I want him to grow up knowing that the wellbeing of the people around him is important.

And yes, becoming a mother has changed my understanding of impossible apologies. I have taught my son to apologize, but I want no apology from him. Nor, I am now certain, do my parents want one from me. We do what we do as parents out of love. When my son was quite small, around three, one of his good friends lost her father. So we had a lot of conversations about death. He asked me questions like, “Can you still see after you’re dead? And can you still hear?” And then he asked me, “Can you still remember your life after you’re dead.” I told him that nobody knows, and then I asked him what he would like to remember from his life. He said, “loving you.” I still haven’t recovered from hearing that. I told my husband recently that I hope to have earned that sentiment by the time my son is grown.

—Eula Biss & Adam  Segal

 

Adame Segal

Adam Segal is a writer and culinary professional in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Iowa some time ago, and has since interned for Graywolf Press and contributed extensively to Whole Beast Rag magazine, among myriad other adventures.

 

Jul 062014
 

RichardGrant

I discovered the work of British writer Richard Grant after moving to Tucson, Arizona, in 2008. His second book, God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre had just been released and was a word-of-mouth hit in Tucson, where parts of the book are based and where Grant himself then lived. Detailing his ill-advised travels through the mountains of Northern Mexico (culminating in his being hunted through a forest by rifle-toting “hillbillies”), the book helped contextualize my own somewhat tamer foray into Southwestern living.

I’ve since read his other works with equal relish, from American Nomads, his debut study on nomadic subcultures of the American West, to 2011’s Crazy River, an account of his attempt to descend the Malagarasi River in East Africa. These books, like God’s Middle Finger, combine elements of travel memoir with historical erudition, steely political insight, and joie de vivre. Equal parts Kerouac and Kapuscinski, his storyteller’s eye for the exotic is grounded by a journalist’s commitment to demystification, and his depictions of disparate peoples and their cultures are always empathetic, but never sentimental. This sensibility is especially apparent in Crazy River, in which the author’s bid to make his mark as an explorer a la David Livingstone collides with the political realities of modern Africa, and culminates in a visit to post-genocide Rwanda for an audience with the country’s controversial president, Paul Kagame. Here, as elsewhere in his work, Grant’s willingness to abandon the security of his assumptions and embrace the journey reminds us there is no adventure like learning, no substitute for getting out in the world and making up your own mind.

Grant continues to produce wide-ranging profiles and articles for publications including The Guardian, The Telegraph (UK), and Port. Recently, he wrote about wild hog hunting for Al Jazeera America, presented a documentary version of American Nomads, and narrated an upcoming film on infanticide in Ethiopia. Born in Malaysia, raised and educated in London, Grant has spent most of his adult life in the United States and is now an American citizen.

After relocating to Atlanta, I was surprised to learn he had also moved, and now calls the Mississippi Delta home. Our proximity spurred me to contact him and he graciously agreed to an interview. His only stipulation was that I bring a bottle of decent wine to go with the dinner he and his fiancé would prepare when I got there.

Our interview took place at his home near Pluto, Mississippi, on a clear afternoon in July. We talked on the wide veranda in front of his house, watching birds come and go from a nest near the roof, with Grant stopping at one point to prevent his dogs from chasing down a passing tractor. Hundreds of acres of green farmland surrounded us as we discussed writing, travel, and life on the Delta. My line of vision included a cotton field, a shed that is now Grant’s writing studio, and, beyond that, the tree-lined banks of the Yazoo River.

—Dan Holmes

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Dan Holmes (DH): What brought you to Mississippi?

Richard Grant (RG): Sometime in the mid 90’s I was living in Tucson and I heard this blues album by Junior Kimbrough, “All Night Long.” It was like no blues I’d heard before. It was kind of a droning, hypnotic, stomping blues and I just loved it and found out it was put out by this label called Fat Possum Records, which was run by a couple of college kids in Oxford, Mississippi. They were going around recording the last undiscovered authentic Mississippi blues men, and they somehow managed to get a million dollars in debt doing this. I was like, “That sounds like a magazine story to me,” so I drove out here, went to Oxford, did the story, interviewed a bunch of these old blues men, hung out with the two white guys who were recording them and just really liked Oxford. I made friends there and kept coming back at least once a year. Always enjoyed Mississippi, just the storytelling and the conviviality and that kind of gallows sense of humor that you find. Then when my marriage busted up I didn’t have anywhere to live and my friend Bruce Watson offered to put me up in the Fat Possum trailer in Water Valley, Mississippi, which is next to their recording studio. So I spent the summer in there. T-Model Ford and Paul “Wine” Jones and these other blues guys would come and stay at the trailer quite regularly and give me advice on matters of the heart.

I thought hard about moving to Mississippi for a long time. I’ve always found it an interesting, complicated place. I didn’t know how to write a book about it. And my friend (chef and author) Martha Foose said, “You need to write a book about the Delta. It’s kind of its own place. Separate from the rest of Mississippi, nowhere is more deeply Southern.” So she was supposed to take me on a big tour of the Delta and it was supposed to jog loose a book idea. She turned up hungover and took me down here to Pluto, her family farm, and it was just so beautiful. It was a perfect spring day, and she drove me over the levy and showed me this house and told me it’s for sale and I could conceivably afford it. I was living in New York at the time, couldn’t afford to live in New York and was kind of losing my mind as well. My dog was depressed. My girlfriend was kind of on edge. I brought her down here and she just fell in love with the house and the people.

But I couldn’t get a mortgage. Free lance writing, you know, irregular income. Then Martha’s father, the man who was selling the house, took me to meet his banker in Yazoo City. He said, “Well I love to read books and I think it’d be great to have a writer around here. I’ll lend you the money right out of my bank on one condition.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Me and my wife, we don’t get out of Yazoo much. Y’all got to come over and have dinner at our place and tell us about the rest of the world. Tell us some stories.” That’s how I got the mortgage. That never happens in America, does it? So then rather than write a book about a journey, it’s a book about trying to settle down in the Mississippi Delta.

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DH: It’s my first time here. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve been.

RG: It doesn’t remind me of anywhere else in the world.

DH: You said on The Guardian’s “Road Trip USA: Mississippi” documentary, “Nowhere on Earth is more American” than the Delta. What distillation of American-ness are you thinking of?

RG: There’s something in the music and folk art and the body language and the way people brag—how entertainingly people brag. There’s a rollicking swagger to things that I think of as American. We’re all armed to the teeth here. And if you look at political belief here in Mississippi, they’re about as far from European political beliefs as it can get regarding firearms and personal freedom, attitude towards government. I don’t know that Mississippi does very well without the federal government; it’s one of the few states that gets a lot more out of it than it puts in. It’s basically settled by a bunch of surly Scotch-Irish that have always hated central authority. Then put the civil war on top of that.

DH: And reconstruction.

RG: Yeah. You kind of see where that reflexive anti-government thing comes from. They just turned down a billion dollars in Medicaid expansion that would have created 9,000 jobs.

DH: The issue of race always surfaces when trying think critically about this region. Is that a help or a hindrance to you as you try to write about it?

RG: Life here is race relations. It’s so tied up in everything. The South does not process its history quickly. It’s a conservative place with a small “c”. Things change slowly. I remember when my fiancé and I first moved here. We’d be staying up under the mosquito net trying to figure out what race is, and what it means here. It seemed like every time you went out of the house there’d be some encounter that would baffle you. Maybe they’d be standard things in the South, but they were new to us. It’d be like some white person making racist jokes, and you’re like, “Oh he’s a racist.” And you’d find out he’s incredibly close to some black individual who worked for his family and he’d be weeping at his funeral.  Another thing that’s hard to get used to—and this is very much a minority opinion—black people who denounce the civil rights movement. I don’t get it, but some older black people are nostalgic for the days of Jim Crow because the family was stronger and the church was stronger, black businesses were stronger, the black community was more cohesive. But I’m like, “Lynchings and Jim Crow justice?” You know? Having to act totally subservient? I don’t know. We’ve just been scratching our heads a lot. You also don’t hear about how there was a sizable minority of white liberals here in the Civil Rights era. They’ve kind of got written out of the history books too.

DH: There’s definitely a strong vibe to this area. It’s very compelling but I could see it being “playing with fire” a little bit, whether it feels positive or negative.

RG: Things are getting better, though, and I do like being around that. They’re not engaging in any racial terrorism around here anymore. They’re not hanging people from trees in front of spectators. There are a lot of elected black officials. Many of them are not doing a good job, though that’s a separate issue. It’s a pretty segregated place socially, but when I’ve been to these events where black and white people do come together and have a really good time, it really feels like it matters somehow.

The thing about Mississippi—especially the Delta—you just can’t beat it for stories. Stories that come out of peoples’ mouths, stories in the newspaper. It seems like the culture encourages idiosyncracies and eccentricities. Like people get to express their full individuality. In the Delta, more so that in the rest of the state. Makes for wild and entertaining stories often, especially when you throw in a little exaggeration, which people here know how to do.

DH: We’ve spoken about some of the complexities here in Mississippi. You’ve intimated that it’s good to write about, for one thing. Is that something you look for in a place to live?

RG: I just found it really beautiful here, that’s the main reason that I wanted to live here. I found it interesting and I found it difficult to make sense of. I like that too. On the one hand people are nicer here than they are in most places. On the other hand they favor incredibly harsh policies on the whole and they’ve done all these terrible things in their past. They’re full of contradictions like that. And I just had so much fun here as well. Mississippi was always the place I’d come when my spirits were down, if I was depressed or unhappy. It was like my therapy. I would go to Oxford and go for a ramble around Mississippi. I would always have fun and it would kind of fix me. I suppose I do like remote places.

DH: Southern culture can be easy on visitors but hard to penetrate when you move here. Do you feel like more of an outsider here than you do in other parts of the U.S.?

RG: Absolutely. I do find it hard to penetrate. Especially when you have to drive a hundred miles to get anywhere and then you’re confronted with something that runs five generations deep and is all tangled up. People are quite warm and welcoming on the surface but are quite guarded at the next level down. Everyone’s just been here so long. I’ll be living in Dr. Foose’s house for the next 20 years.

DSCN4078Richard Grant’s House

DH: Does the Delta have anything in common with Eastern Africa or Northern Mexico, at least as a journalistic subject?

RG: There are aspects of the third world here, I’d say. Not just the poverty but the way things don’t kind of work properly. Dysfunctional local government. Trying to think of some examples of that. It was really hard to get a driver’s license. First time I went down there, the electricity was out. Second time I went down there—there’s no computers, just these badly photocopied forms that look like they’d been originally written in about 1979. It’s blurry, like a photocopy of a photocopy. So I had to fill that in. And then I wanted to pay with a bank card but they won’t sit up for that so I had to come back another time. And then they want me to bring my naturalization as an American citizen thing because they’d just passed some anti-Mexican law. I mean it was a real hassle. Things get ramshackle and third-world here sometimes.

In Greenwood you can join the police force without any training. Sometime within a year of getting hired you have to go to the police academy, but you can just go get a badge and a gun and a car and a ticket book. In Itta Bena they found that on the books they have to elect their judges but they’d been appointing them for 30 years and that all those decisions that the judges had handed down over 30 years could be challenged. Then the sitting judge refused to leave. The judge they were paying couldn’t get in the courtroom, so she’s drawing a salary but not doing any judging. Stuff like that just happens all the time. Quite a bit of corruption too. Can’t talk specifically about that, don’t want to libel anybody without sufficient proof. But you hear all these stories about corrupt police, corrupt judges, corrupt business arrangements.

DH: What about music? Will the book touch on that?

RG: It’s going to be an aspect of it. I’ve been hanging around juke joints. There aren’t many left but I do love the blues and it would seem churlish to write a book about the Delta without getting into it. There’s a fantastic blues guy who lives about 25 miles down there called Jimmy “Duck” Holmes who’s got a juke joint. I got him up here to play a party. Love him. I don’t know if you know the blues but Skip James was this really spooky hypnotic blues player from the 20’s who got rediscovered in the 60’s. He taught the guy who taught Duck Holmes how to play. They’ve got this special tuning they use. It doesn’t sound anything like Chicago blues. It’s mournful but beautiful.

T-Model Ford is the blues man that I got to know the best because he was up in the (Fat Possum) trailer all the time. Telling me, “You’ve gotta live like a tree.” And I go, “Well what do you mean?” He says, “A tree keeps growing and growing and don’t give a motherfuck about any other tree, and when he dies he knock them down!” That was one of those events—they were doing a fundraiser for T-Model Ford, the house is in a pretty rough black part of Greenville, which is a pretty rough town, and a bunch of white people came down there because they’re fans of his music. At first it was like, black people over here, white people over here, then by the end of it everyone was having fun and dancing and eating ribs.  When it happens here it feels like it matters a little bit more.

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DH: How are the juke joints now?

RG: The one I went to down there, there was a couple from Montana and just a bunch of local farmers and tractor drivers and mechanics, what have you. The one up in Clarksdale is mainly European tourists at this point. It does change the atmosphere a bit. It’s more they want to take film and pictures of the blues man, whereas the one over here, people are there to dance and blow off steam. The tourists get all reverential, you know. Which is fine, it keeps the places going. It’s a gig for the musicians. First and foremost a lot of these guys don’t have a place to play. If it wasn’t for these tourists coming in it would be over. Some people say it’s artificial life support for the blues, but it’s fine by me. It was more fun in the juke joints when I was first going in to them 15 years ago.

DH: Have you seen a big change since then?

RG: Well there’s hardly any left. A bunch of them have burned down, closed down, and there’s like 4 or 5 left and there used to be a couple of dozen. That’s in the last 15 years or so. 20 years.

DH: I didn’t know it was that dire.

RG: Yeah. And it’s really tourists that are keeping them open now.

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DH: Can you talk a bit about when you were first starting out?

RG: Writing wasn’t something that I ever wanted to do growing up. All I had was clear ideas of what I didn’t want to do, which was live a 9 to 5 life and work in an office. My main thing was I just wanted to get the hell out of England. I worked crappy jobs and got myself over here and spent a summer doing odd jobs, traveling around, and started writing letters back to friends in England. This was pre-email, 1986, 87. People really liked those letters and one of my friends said—he had started working for a magazine—“you know if you clean this up a bit we’ll pay you.” And I thought, “Good idea. Keep traveling and write about what I’m discovering and I won’t have to get a straight job.” So once I started doing that I read a lot of good magazine journalism, picking it apart and thinking about what made things work and what made things not work. I would work slowly and work hard on each paragraph, try it four or five different ways and see which seemed to be more effective.

DH: When you were working out kinks, were you publishing at the time?

RG: Yeah, I’ve pretty much published everything I’ve ever written.

DH: Early influences?

RG: I went through a Bruce Chatwin phase. I always thought Hunter S. Thompson was really funny. Never liked British fiction that much. I like Wilfred Thesiger who is another British travel writer. That was definitely an influence. And I like American journalism from the 70’s: Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Still seemed lively and fun when I found it in the mid 80’s.

DH: What made you come to the US?

RG: It was mainly to get out of England and travel. I was 20. I was into the Beats. I used to DJ and I would always DJ a lot of American music. I was into American books. I had friends in New York and Philadelphia. It just seemed like the obvious place to go.

American Nomads

DH: How do you know when a topic is big enough to make a book? Does everything start off as an article or do you kind of know right off the bat?

RG: The first book, American Nomads, I was collecting a lot of things in notebooks that didn’t really fit into magazine stories, and it was all to do with these drifters and nomads and people I’d met on the road. I was doing an amazing story about rodeo cowboys. They were complete nomads. I was talking to a friend who’d been reading Deleuze and Guattari on nomadism. We talked about these people I’m meeting and I thought, “This could be a book here.” Then I started going out to interview other nomadic groups. I was trying to write the book—I’d never written one before, I was desperately broke—and I just couldn’t make it work. It was just, “here’s a group”, “here’s a group.” I was reading history books too and I was trying to make the history tie together and it was dead on the page. I decided I needed to have a character whose progress you could follow through the book and I was the only option. So I started putting myself in it and that pulled it all together.

For God’s Middle Finger, in Mexico, I just poked up in the Sierra Madre a few times and I was totally intrigued by it. Living in Tucson you hear all these stories about big canyons and the Tarahumaras and it’s a “no-go” zone. That one would be an adventure/travel book. I was also in a reckless frame of mind for a period there. My marriage had just broken up and I wanted to do something difficult and, I guess, yeah, dangerous. I’d just been going that direction.

DH: Do you see Crazy River as a deepening of that impulse?

RG: I suppose so. I just couldn’t get over that there was a river no one had gone down before. In a way it was the same thing as the Sierra Madre: I couldn’t believe that no one was in there writing about it. It seemed like the kind of thing where you need a travel writer to go in and find out this stuff and bring back the news. I mention in Crazy River that you’d Google the river and nothing would come up! I found that to be an impetus.

The first time I went to Africa I was really terrified. At the last minute I got invited down the Zambezi River in dugout canoes. It was the 150th anniversary of David Livingstone coming down there and seeing Victoria Falls for the first time—I’m not going to use the term “discover.” So all of a sudden I was in a dugout canoe with hippos and crocodiles everywhere and I was really apprehensive. But I had the time of my life on that river. It was the African wild.

When I returned to Africa to research for Crazy River I was hoping for this deep wilderness reverie, but life intervened. It turned into something totally different. I had this vision of what the book would be, this sort of nice, clean journey down a river. Then that started to fall apart and I’m staggering around the slums of Zanzibar with this golf pro and it’s like, “Might as well keep notes!”  Then when I sat down to write it, it took a while to say: the way it actually happened is a good way to write the book. It is “plans falling apart and drifting helplessly” (laughs) without much control over what’s going on around you—that it would actually work on the page. I couldn’t see it for a while though.

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DH: At the time you were writing it, did what had happened feel like a disappointment? Or could you see that it was turning into something else?

RG: In a sense it felt like a disappointment because it would have been a lot easier to structure and write the book if it had been just a nice neat journey from the start of the river to the end of the river. It would have had a nice, clean narrative line. I also think it would have been a lot more boring because, truth is, most days on the river are just not that interesting. You paddle, you scout, you eat lunch on the river bank. I really like it, but it would have been a more boring book, the one that I originally had in mind. I think the most interesting stuff in that book is not on the river. I ended up more interested in African politics and all of the other stuff going on.

DH: Do you do most of your research before or after, say with Crazy River

RG: With Crazy River I read a whole bunch of stuff on East Africa beforehand, and stupidly, some people think, I travel with 15 books, getting rid of some along the way. On a journey like that there is actually a lot of reading time. Not much else to do at night, sitting in some squalid little African hotel by yourself. It’s a good time to read. I like to read about the place I’m in while I’m there. When I was in Mexico, again I read a whole bunch before I went and then I had a crate in the  back of my truck—like a traveling library, about 30 books. I’ll read up on the newspapers and get my Google alerts for a year or so.

The newspapers here are great. They’re just full of weird things. Some of them have got really good local news stories. And I’ve got a shelf of books on the Delta that I’m kind of working my way through. But I guess not all travel writers or journalists do that. They just go in with a bunch of news clippings, but I have to find the best books and read them. I feel naked without that backbone of knowledge.

DH: In Crazy River there is a scene in a bar where you ask someone casual questions with what you describe as a “journalistic undertow”. What are some of the challenges of talking to people in other cultures where you need information for your work, but don’t want to be too pushy or rude?

RG: If you’re in that situation you need someone to be your friend, for reasons of personal safety as much as anything else. If you’re in that situation and you’re traveling by yourself in, say, central Africa, and you just pitch up in a town, you’re looking for someone that seems trustworthy that can be your friend, show you around, translate for you. The most important thing you can do is not antagonize that person. You can’t treat people the same way you would as a journalist here, in your own culture, because you’re dependent on their good will as a traveler. So you take your time and build trust slowly and get to the difficult questions subtly.

DH: That seems like another benefit to a more immersive approach to research, rather than someone who has a week to get everything they can. Lay the groundwork a little more.

RG: Yeah, as a journalist you get your clippings, you’d show up in a place and literally 9 times out of 10 everyone would have the story wrong as far as I could see it. Some journalists just bounced in and out with a bunch of first impressions. What I’ve found is if you stay a little longer and hang around the bars, and you don’t try to force things into a pre-existing framework that you often get a much different story. It seemed that the conventional wisdom was usually wrong. With a lot of journalists, you’ve got to pitch it to your editor, they go “here’s the story”, and they go to the place and try to make it the story they pitched to the editor. They’re trying to force reality into that shape.

DSCN4079 View from the porch

DH: Have you had issues with that yourself? You go somewhere and it’s different than what you were going for?

RG: All the time. But I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some good editors who understand that it’s often like that.  I want the freedom to write about what interests me. This book about the Mississippi Delta is not a travel book but it will have some similarities in that it’s a person who doesn’t know a place coming in and trying to learn that place. The difference is that I’m not passing through. I’m here. I’ve got more time to get to know the place.

DH: Do you expect to stay after the book is over?

RG: We’re hoping to stay. The people around here have just been fantastic. We’ve become very close with neighbors who live down there (points), and we’ve got really good friends over here (other way). You think, “We’re moving into the back woods and it’s going to be isolated.” But it’s quite social here.

DH: As an inveterate traveler has the concept of home been elusive?

RG: Yeah. I was always not that interested in it until I saw this place. I’m trying to get into it. But I do get restless here and bridle at the amount of chores this place gives me. I’m heading off to the Namibian desert quite soon and I’m looking forward to that. I do like it here. It’s just a big adjustment. I was never really attached to the places where I lived. I feel attached to this place and it’s kind of a new sensation for me.

—Richard Grant & Dan Holmes

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Richard Grant is a freelance British travel writer based in Mississippi. He was born in Malaysia, lived in Kuwait as a boy and then moved to London. He went to school in Hammersmith and received a history degree from University College, London. He is the author of American Nomads, God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, and Crazy River.

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Dan Holmes lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared most recently in Litro.

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Jun 052014
 

Dodie_author_photo

Dodie Bellamy is a 21st-century, disillusioned, percipient Patañjali, a subject scoping out a sad, disturbed world, which she counteracts with expansive feelings and electric language. Her writing can be described as an anarchic piece of medical tape caught in the act of fusing different tissues, different bodies, different genres. It flirts with opacity just as well as it dares to be straightforward. It is a body of blood and guts and honesty, and it doesn’t care about your germaphobic qualms.—Natalie Helberg

TV Sutras_cover

A suture. A sutra.

On the one hand, a stitch-line to bind the flesh together.

On the other, a line of language to bind thought.

In the absence of a word for one who is one who sutures, and when I reach for the name that I think fits the idea, the name my mind goes to and would like to drop, it is Dodie Bellamy. Dodie Bellamy is a 21st-century, disillusioned, percipient Patañjali, a subject scoping out a sad, disturbed world, which she counteracts with expansive feelings and electric language. Her writing can be described as an anarchic piece of medical tape caught in the act of fusing different tissues, different bodies, different genres. It flirts with opacity just as well as it dares to be straightforward. It is a body of blood and guts and honesty, and it doesn’t care about your germaphobic qualms. Dodie has doctor sleeves, but she is still willing to copulate on the table. She is Dr. Frankenstein and so she has doctor sleeves. But she is Dr. Frankenstein with a yoga mat.

 Between April 15 and June 1st of this year, I had the remarkable privilege of interviewing Dodie on the subject of her new book. The TV Sutras came out with Ugly Duckling Presse in May. It is a text preoccupied with meaning production: How is meaning produced and what kind of subject gets to produce it? Who gets to be an authoritative subject? The first half of the book consists of 78 sutras Dodie created following this (refreshingly) unlikely procedure: she would do yoga and then tune into her TV, recording whatever sutra the given scene inspired. These sutras are paradigmatic in that they sound like anything you would find while browsing the shelves in a New Age store. They give rise to the question which informs the fictive, autobiographical, essayistic, subsequent half of the book: “what are the texts, classes, conversations, relationships, [and] media-bombardments that animate my channeling?”

As The TV Sutras interrogates these sources, exploring the experience of being in a cult, the experience of romantic/sexual involvement with cult leaders, and even—since it is adept at swapping perspectives—the larger-than-life experience of being a cult leader, it also attempts to suss out the basis for a cult’s—for whatever cult’s—power and appeal: It explores the hole these organizations can fill, the sense of competence, comfort and belonging they deliver, the various ways they can make a life feel rich and satisfying and magical and exciting. And then it indirectly explores life outside of that bubble, fledgling life before the bubble, or life which has lived it, which has rejected it, which has survived and yet mourns it: life disillusioned or simply lackluster, life empowered because able to call a hoax a hoax, but also plagued by fear, doubt and a sense of unbridgeable loneliness.

The interview took place online, as a series of email exchanges. It was truly a conversation and so some of the questions took the form of comments inviting comments. The document which emerged is occasionally and in subtle ways digressive. This made sense because Dodie’s writing, like the New Narrative tradition she is most often situated with respect to, irrigates itself with the extradiegetic. In the simplest terms, this means it envelops its outside. She is Dr. Frankenstein and there are turbines and crackles and buzzing, problematical ‘oms.’ Our conversation ended up being about the work and its characteristics as much as it ended up being about culture and the world.

— Natalie Helberg

 

Natalie Helberg (NH): Some of the material you’re exploring in the latter half of The TV Sutras is material you’ve treated before. Some of your readers might recognize, for example, Neva, the captivating, übermensch/goddess-character from Jupiter, in Anya, the Venusian, from your earlier story “Spew Forth.” You’ve used the sutra as a form before as well. I’m thinking of your “Sexspace” piece in Academonia. The childhood friend/lover material will also be familiar to your readers. I thought I would start by asking you about your impulse to return to material, to rework and recontextualize it: Feminine Hijinx reappears as two shorter, separate pieces in Pink Steam; Mother Montage gathers the mother-related material from several works; your newer work the buddhist shares with The TV Sutras a preoccupation with mourning, meaning, and infinity: the possibility that mourning, like meaning-quests, will lack resolution…

Dodie Bellamy (DB): Your question about recontextualization is fascinating. The basic unit of my writing is the paragraph: I write with semi-self-contained blocks of text that I rearrange until a pattern pleases me, knowing that other possible arrangements could work as well. When I first moved to San Francisco, my friend Ken (who was also in the cult) taught me to steal milk crates that were left outside of stores. We stacked them into bookshelves, TV stands, cubicles to hold clothes, kitchen cabinets, and even a bed frame. Ken referred to them as “modular furniture.” I guess I see my memories and the masses of cultural information that flood my brain as modular as well.

The recontextualization that happened in The TV Sutras was in some ways accidental. The focus of The TV Sutras—this search for meaning and spiritual connection—is what’s been left out of, or occluded in, much of my writing. So, with this lens uncovered, situations in my life I’ve discussed before are revealed in a new light. I’ve written many times about college life in Indiana in the 70s, leaving out that these were episodes in the life of a young woman who was in a cult. It’s sort of like when somebody gay comes out in their writing and all those vague pronouns in previous work suddenly pop into a new meaning. I never wrote about this stuff much before because I found it embarrassing or I felt inadequate before the enormous task of trying to get the experience across. The TV Sutras took five years to write, partly because I knew I’d have to come to actual conclusions at the end. In the beginning, I ask some questions.  Formally, then, at the end, I have to reveal what I’ve discovered. In general I’m phobic of revealing conclusions in writing, but, when I began this book, I couldn’t imagine what a conclusion would even look like.

Up until I was pretty close to finishing the manuscript, I had been planning to include a third section to the book, an appendix, which I called “Documentoids.” While working on The TV Sutras, I wrote several shorter pieces addressing specific aspects of the material. There’s a piece called “Rascal Guru” that is a collage of guru sexual and financial scandals and the language followers use to rationalize their behavior. There is another collage piece of episodes in the life of Neva, the woman from Jupiter. I imagined I’d started my own cult and did a flyer for a workshop. I did a procedural piece where I put a sprig of mugwort under my pillow and each morning wrote about the transition from dream to waking and about what messages I could bring forth from the other side. There was a long serial poem I wrote in 1981 that chronicled my spiritual history. And I was also thinking of reprinting “Spew Forth,” which, as you note, recounts situations that occur in The TV Sutras, but in a more fictionalized manner. Not that The TV Sutras isn’t fictionalized; it is. Its relationship to lived experience would be comparable to mainstream movies that are “inspired by actual events.” Ultimately, I decided all this extra material would water down the impact of what I’d managed to evoke in the essay section of the book.

As far as the buddhist goes, the person of the title entered my life while I was in the midst of writing The TV Sutras, and I couldn’t resist this public spiritual teacher revealing his secrets to me. It’s like my book reached out its arms and embraced me. The energy of the loss I experienced in that situation definitely fed into the larger loss of the cult leader I discuss in The TV Sutras.

NH: The modular crate analogy is interesting—I’ve seen the term ‘modular text’ used in a similar way with reference to some of Robert Coover’s work. To clarify: Do you shift the material you’re using within a paragraph around, as if its constituent bits were modular crates, and shift paragraphs around this way as well? Working with semi-self-contained units, as a technique, seems very consistent with what you’ve written in Barf Manifesto about writing that proceeds associatively, by chords rather than by discrete notes. You also mentioned, in another interview, that your organizing principle “is more conceptual than plot-based,” and it seems as if the paragraph, as an idea-unit disjoined from other idea-units, allows you to mobilize a host of different thoughts and thought-settings; they begin to resonate and it becomes possible, as a reader, to sense a kind of conceptual continuity through discontinuity. I think that things get wilder that way towards the end of The TV Sutras: the paragraphs there wear their disconnectedness more flagrantly.

DB: First of all, I can’t believe I used the modular furniture analogy without bringing up Jack Spicer. Since I’m married to Kevin Killian, an editor and biographer of Jack Spicer, Spicer’s influence runs deep. Spicer described the poetic process as ghosts moving around the furniture in the poet’s mind. The ghosts don’t bring any new furniture; they just rearrange what they find.  This beautifully addresses the relationship between research/knowledge and inspiration, the way I’m continuously surprised at how things I know emerge in my writing. I’ll have plans to write in one direction, and suddenly I’m going on about sacred geometry or Nazi Zombies.

As you’ve noticed, in The TV Sutras my approach to sentence modularity varies depending on my goal for a paragraph/piece. “Cultured,” the essay section of the book, begins with a pretty conventional autobiographical “I,” and the sentences conform to narrative organizational expectations. The reliability of this autobiographical “I”—in terms of being accurate to my personal life—varies wildly. Frequently I’m collaging in other texts/other experiences, but I didn’t want the text to suggest that. I had a vision when I started the essay that I wanted to take a singular autobiographical “I” and morph it into a more global “I.” Therefore, as the text progresses and the singular “I” begins to get shaky, more of a sense of “disconnectedness,” as you say, becomes apparent in the text. The sentences in some of the paragraphs towards the end are, indeed, modular, arranged mostly intuitively.

Morphing from one mode to the other was the biggest challenge in writing “Cultured.” When I was a child, I loved to sit with my grandmother and crochet lace onto pillowcases and hankies. My favorite thread to use, called “variegated”—and I loved that word, it sounded so sophisticated to me—consisted of at least two colors blurring into one another—purple smearing to yellow and back again, etc. That’s what I was aiming for in “Cultured,” to smoothly smear one take on the first person into a very different first person. I didn’t want the reader to particularly notice the transition process. In general, I’ve found smoothness more difficult to pull off than raggedness. 

NH: You do include an echo of Barf Manifesto in The TV Sutras— “No singularity, no verdicts, only chords and this endless accrual”—and I feel that The TV Sutras avoids something like a tidy conclusion because it proceeds this way. That being said, I find it interesting that you set up the text with a question you felt you should wrap up. There are so many versions of the claim that the text knows more than the writer. I wonder what your own relationship to that idea is.

DodieBellamy

DB: Through the process of researching and writing the book, I did come to a few conclusions.  That we’re programmed for ecstasy and nobody owns that. That meaning is not static, but evanescent, appearing and fading and reappearing. That the only difference between a cult and a religion is size. I embraced a sense of skepticism toward all forms of charisma, while also realizing that it’s impossible to avoid cultish behavior. But we all love the spectacle of spiritual frenzy, so I wanted to play around with that as well, to embody this fraudulent persona and let her rip, which was so fucking much fun. I was sick when I wrote the book’s crazy ending—with bronchitis—too sick to get out of bed, and my feverish state aided the process enormously.

NH: The question of what kind of subject gets to produce meaning (not to mention the question of what meaning you can glean from these memories you are treating—“Do I know any more now than when I was a child lying on my back, gazing out at the vast night sky, overcome with awe”) is not one the text ever fully puzzles out: The cult leaders at times seem able to produce meaning, whether this is through sheer will power or by levering their charisma, but at other times meaning, even in cult-lore, is said to be ‘found’—it inheres in a culture we are thrown into, or, as cult-lore would have it, comes from “the temples of learning on the Etheric Plane, wherein is stored all knowledge.” Narrative-speaker-Dodie asks if a depressed, middle-aged woman in pajamas can create meaning and, in the end, renounces all authority to say whatever it is the text says. But by that time, she has already created the sutras. She has also become Azule Linga, which is to say a goddess-leader-poet-channeler herself.

DB: It was important for me to have strong female figures in this book, to balance out the male spiritual predators with their doe-like female followers. The process of writing this book became a spiritual quest for me—I was in search of meaning I did not have—so I needed female avatars to reflect that. Women’s spirituality has always been a contested site; women have been denied authority in so many religions, denied religious training, dismissed as being too gross for the spiritual. And then there were all those female pagans burned at the stake. Acceptance of women as meaning producers is an ongoing struggle, not just in the religious arena. I’ve met so many brilliant women who are plagued by insecurity it makes me ache. My own insecurity as a meaning producer pulses through The TV Sutras. What’s a female subject to do when plagued by insecurity? You can keep quiet or use that insecurity as a sort of launching pad. If you hide your insecurity or deny it, your writing goes wrong. You end up with stilted pretentiousness, or whatever.

In the 80s and 90s, I was dedicated to exploring a female-centric spirituality, so I read tons of goddess stuff, and as dopey as some of that material is, its impact on me was profound, ultimately resulting in my portrayal of Mina Harker (the protagonist of my first novel—and of Bram Stoker’s Dracula) as this liminal goddess figure. During a time of psychological crisis, female descent myths—Inanna, Ishtar and Persephone—sustained me, gave me hope I’d find my way out of it. So in The TV Sutras I create two powerful female spiritual leaders—Neva, the walk-in from Jupiter, and Azule Linga, the transchanneling poetess. Azule has “attained vector equilibrium.” She defines who/where she is. Though she’s totally unreliable, she inspires me.

NH: The ‘sutra’—quite literally a thread that holds things together—has very domestic overtones, and so using it as an organizing concept is one way you’ve flagged the text as the particularly feminist exploration you’re describing. I found myself wondering if you were thinking of The TV Sutras as a text with class-related concerns as well (not that feminist exploration and class critique are mutually exclusive—far from it). I come from a working-class background and it’s true that a sense of insecurity—a discomfort when it comes to claiming authority and even dwelling in, or owning, certain vocabularies—can continue to plague those who, coming from that background, suddenly find themselves circulating on a higher social rung. There is that moment towards the end which suggests that most of ‘meaning’ is accessible to all, even if it is sometimes rendered elite: dressed up so as give the impression that it is the domain of the elect: “[In this world] we need advanced degrees, specialized vocabularies to hide the sad fact that what we’re saying is obvious and not necessarily experiential, that some near-illiterate Christian mother in the boonies may ‘know’ more about the nature of reality than we do.”

DB: In Catherine Clément and Julia Kristeva’s epistolary exchange The Feminine and the Sacred, Clément discusses class in a way that’s been a touchstone for me. Clément makes a distinction between caste and social class. In her schema, caste resonates with Marx’s concept of class origin, “that mental file drawer that determines the drives and thoughts from birth. For Marx, you can obviously change your social class, but you cannot rid yourself of your ‘class origin’ any more than, according to Sigmund Freud, you can rid yourself of your unconscious.  That being the case, the ‘caste’ of origin plays the same role as the return of the repressed: the slightest opening and it comes out. Impossible to get rid of it. A little emotion and it reappears.”  I love this idea of caste as a psychological imprint. Class is such a tender issue for me. Whenever I think about it, I get upset. I chose to take on a more middle class lifestyle but I’ve done so kicking and screaming all the way, and in my interactions with people I often feel that socially I’m wearing the equivalent of a girdle. I originally mistyped “girdle” as “griddle,” which I find funny and a bit uncanny, since I worked as a grill cook to help pay for college. Caste versus social class becomes griddle versus girdle—that pretty much sums up the difference between Clément and me.

In my writing, I’m determined to stay true to my class origin, but without denying the education I’ve acquired since I was a working class girl in Indiana. I resist certain vocabularies because I think they’re fucked, not because I feel I don’t own them. I also don’t try to dumb myself down to seem more proley. Does language belong to anybody? When I studied feminist poetics in college we talked on and on—influenced more by the French feminists rather than, say, Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language—about rebelling against the language of the patriarchy, and then women would leave the classroom and take on the very elitist vocabularies we critiqued. Because they wanted to be taken seriously. Just because we railed against the ways of the patriarchy in a classroom doesn’t mean the patriarchy and its social pressures ceased to exist.

Class isn’t forefronted in The TV Sutras, but since it tracks experiences from my life, class is woven throughout. Most of the characters are working class—and in the case of Neva, dirt poor.  I would say my fascination with Ned’s red diaper baby lifestyle—and his feminist mother—was a longing for what I saw as the sophistication of middle class life. Bokharas on the floor rather than sculpted wall-to-wall carpeting. I was surprised when I defended the illiterate Christian mother, but I was committed to honoring the lower classes as producers of meaning. Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (which Meredith Quartermain recommended) was important in my thinking about this, with its wave upon wave of charismatic leaders arising from amongst the poorest of the poor. After a couple hundred pages of this, it seemed that anybody could lead a religious revolt. Disappear into a forest and live as a hermit for x-amount of time, then reemerge tattered with a crazed look in your eye, and you are good to go.

NH: I want to return, too, briefly, to the idea that you were ill while working on the conclusion. I find it interesting that you let your readers in on the very bodily-based procedure you used to generate the sutras—you would do yoga, and then tune into your TV—while making no mention of the illness that animated the prose towards the end. The yoga practice is perhaps one way you’ve managed to ‘bring the body into writing.’ That gesture—or that concern exhibited, say, by writers influenced by the French feminists—bringing the body into writing—remains rather mysterious to me. What could it mean? In a way, you’ve grappled with this question before, a few times asserting that the physical body is not text (Mina Harker insists her body is not the text, and you’ve spoken elsewhere about the impossibility of capturing sexual experience with language and your alternative focus on making the language, the writing, something that is in and of itself engaging). I’m curious, then, about what compelled you to gesture, in the text, towards the yoga practice in the way you do, to mention it in a fairly nondescript way, to pay a kind of homage to it, as opposed to the other corporeal experiences, habits and routines which presumably must have also (and equally) subtended the writing.

DB: The yoga and meditation practice preceded any plans I had to write The TV Sutras. After doing yoga, when I would switch my TV from DVD mode back to TV mode, I was often amused by the first line of dialogue that would arise, but I didn’t think of doing anything with those lines—or even jot them down—until Paolo Javier sent me Alan Clinton’s call for contributions to the Occult issue of 2nd Avenue Poetry:

Paolo Javier and I believe in the power of spiritual energies (whatever their source), prophetic utterances (whatever their destination), and magical rituals (particularly practices that haunt a space by introducing the element of chance or producing altered states of consciousness) to intensify artistic events for the producer/practitioner as well as the observer/collaborator.

We also believe that the results of divinatory practices are more often than not merely a new topography of the unknown rather than a definitive revelation. The interest for the spiritual adept as well as the avant-garde artist lies in the uncanny parallels, the wrong turns, the polyglot or inscrutable marks, the visual and aural blurs and scratches, the cracks in the shell produced by the divinatory event.

I took this to heart and generated the first sixteen TV sutras, as well as a draft of the short preface that’s in the book. That was in 2010. And then I just kept going. The sutras grew organically out of my yoga/meditation ritual, which I was doing with the hope of changing my life, of moving out of depression into a more open engagement with the world. But the text would not exist without the hailing of these editors. It wasn’t until I finished all 78 sutras that I decided to write an essay to contextualize them. Since one of my goals in “Cultured” was to move from a singular autobiographical “I” to a more blurred “I,” I wanted to gradually occlude the Dodie POV rather than emphasize it at the end. By the time Dodie the writer was ill, the text was moving beyond her. The body comes into the text though all the erotic encounters between young me and others, and between spiritual teachers and their students. And through my fascination with the body of Neva, the woman from Jupiter—her beauty, her sex appeal, her strange Jovian physiology. There’s also that one long collaged paragraph of all the weird/extreme things a yogic adept can perform with his/her body. At the end, Azule Linga, the charismatic poet, nurses her followers with her magnificent nipples. Over and over in the book, religious fervor creates a freakish body. I was inspired by the Flagellants, for instance.

NH: So, just to be clear, in each of these cases, the body ‘enters into,’ or is simply in, the writing on a representational level (the body is ‘described as’ and is ‘described as doing’)? I was reading your Answer chapbook, which, among other things, explores the nature of the body coursing through The Letters of Mina Harker. This is a Frankensteinian body: Mina Harker’s body cobbled up using bits of other bodies, including whatever reader happens to be animating the text’s (bio)rhythm (functioning as its live context), and including Dodie’s body, a character/author’s body, which it is absorbed into, which it possesses, and which it sporadically and like a spirit, arises from. The TV Sutras, as you’ve implied above, is also a text made up of multiple bodies, though I feel those bodies are more discrete than those partaking in the texture of Mina Harker: In this respect, the text feels like a collage, or a patchwork which shows its stitch-lines, whereas The Letters of Mina Harker feels partially puréed: made of chunks but almost homogeneous, smooth but for what the blade misses.

DB: As with most of my writing, the central problem in The Letters of Mina Harker and in The TV Sutras is that of boundaries. Despite its frenzied salaciousness, Mina is a horror novel—there is a desire for penetration but also a terror of it—and of the self-dissolution that hot sex brings on. Orgasm is not called a little death for nothing; there’s always this shadow of fear involved in it. Mina is also a being penetrated by the culture she finds herself in. Her boundaries are spongy, and she absorbs whatever she encounters. Thus her body and her psyche become collage. The Letters of Mina Harker maintains this same level of constant bombardment, constant possession, throughout. In The TV Sutras, loss of boundaries is more insidious, a shift from relative stability/normality to psychic colonization that happens so gradually you’re barely aware it’s happening. Rather than the operatic violence of invasion that we find in Mina, here the violence is more banal; the cultist is coached into willingly giving up her boundaries through a series of tiny crossings of lines. In the book, when the Teacher and the student meet repeatedly to drink tea, she doesn’t register how he keeps dialing up the inappropriateness of their interactions. So, when they fuck on the floor, it’s obvious to the reader things have been heading in that direction, but not to the girl. I chose to title the essay portion of the book “Cultured” as a nod to the word “cult,” but also because “culture” as a verb implies a gradual process of transformation. You enter a situation as fresh cabbage and exit as sauerkraut.

NH: The TV Sutras’ focus on negative sexual encounters and experiences (on the mild end of the spectrum, the pain of penetration and the inability to achieve heterosexual orgasm, on the severe end, rape), notwithstanding your comment on Mina and terror, feels very fresh: it is not entirely new to your work, and yet I would say that, in this text, compared to any of your others, it is given much more space. So much of your other work is committed to priming and exploring sexual pleasure, rampant desire. Frenzied salaciousness, as you said above. That commitment doesn’t go away in The TV Sutras, but it is tempered there by something much more sinister. I’m curious about this shift in focus. Was it just the natural outgrowth of the research you were doing for the project, or was there a more specific impetus behind it?

DB: You’re correct in observing that in The TV Sutras there’s a focus on sexual manipulation that isn’t very present in Mina. In the New Narrative aesthetic that I was enmeshed in while writing Mina, sexual manipulation was seen as positive, as a sign of power. I’m grossly oversimplifying here, but I wasn’t emphasizing the manipulative aspects of sex in that book. Mina was about being ravenous with desire and trying to embody a sexual agency that my gay male mentors modeled for me. It wasn’t a comfortable fit because sexual agency for women is much more complicated than it is for men, given the pervasive misogyny we have to figure out how to somehow thrive in. Sexual agency—in a heterosexual context—was pretty much incomprehensible for me when I was writing that book. To even approach it, I had to take on the persona of a vampire goddess. In The TV Sutras, since I was exploring cult indoctrination, it seemed important to include sexual manipulation in that. When I was researching “Rascal Guru,” the collage of guru sex and financial scandals I mentioned above—I’m hoping to include it in the collection I’m publishing with Semiotext(e) in 2015—I read of so much sexual manipulation and rape, dozens of incidents, that these things started to feel like the norm for these guys rather than the exception. Since I was avoiding simple equations in The TV Sutras—e.g., cult sex = manipulation—the sex I gave Dodie—the sex with Nance or the Hare Krishna or Dietmar—tends to be more egalitarian, based on mutual consent and respect: “We were not bigger than life, we were not higher initiates or incarnated beings from a more advanced planet—we were little people having ordinary Earthling sex.”

While I was writing the buddhist, I was seeing a therapist who’d been a student of Zen for 30 years. He had a very negative attitude towards male teachers on the spiritual lecture circuit.  They never talk about their personal lives, he told me; they’re like a blank slate. They never acknowledge the sexual atmosphere generated between them and female students. He said that lots of lonely middle aged women turn to Buddhism, women who thrive on the attention they receive from spiritual teachers. Such attentions make them feel special, excited. When something sexual happens with a student, the teacher never takes responsibility. “She came on to me—I was just going with what was happening in the moment.” While expressing his skepticism and disgust with these men’s narcissistic manipulations, my therapist made spiritual-seeking women sound pretty pathetic. And I couldn’t stop myself from taking on that attitude, even though I knew it was fucked. So in The TV Sutras, I wrote in strong female religious figures partly in order to counteract this projection. Neva, the woman from Jupiter, is more than simply laughable; she’s a powerful charismatic leader who feels comfortable with her body and her sexuality. The same goes for the blogging mystical poetess. Within the skewed reality of the book, these women are the heroes. They own meaning.

NH: To wrap up, then, how do you make sense of the relationship between your writing and the world it emerges from, embellishes on, and loops back to criticize? I can’t help but think of Kathy Acker when she writes that she realized quite early on that, as a girl, she could not be a pirate, and claims that she started writing fiction so that she could become a pirate. ‘Pirate’: a word which captures more than just the idea that, as a fiction writer, she would be able to pillage other texts. Her statement almost implies that she could renovate the world itself, and the constellation of ways it is possible to be a female subject in it, through her own creative activities.

DB: The relationship of my writing to the world—this is the most challenging of all your challenging questions, Natalie. I know this sounds corny, but my answer would have to be something about love—and I think that’s true for Acker—all that stuff she wrote about wonder, especially at the end of her life, is about a deep love for existence. In Mina, in the letter about the death of Sam D’Allesandro, I wrote that to look—to really look—is to love. In my writing, I can look deeply at the world, and the world is never going to turn away from me. Even those who have turned away from me—when I write about them, I get to love them again.

—Dodie Bellamy & Natalie Helberg

 

Dodie Bellamy is the author of numerous chapbooks (including the acclaimed Barf Manifesto, which came out with Ugly Duckling Presse) and numerous full-length works, some of which can be categorized as experimental poetry (Cunt Norton, Cunt-Ups, and Broken English), many of which toy with or challenge the boundaries between poetry, fiction, autobiography and the essay form (Feminine Hijinx, The Letters of Mina Harker, Pink Steam, Academonia, the buddhist—which also makes creative and reflexive use of the blog form—and, of course, The TV Sutras). She is based in San Francisco and is often associated with the New Narrative movement.

Helberg reviewer pic

Natalie Helberg is from Edmonton, Alberta. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph. She is working on a hybrid novel.

 

May 072014
 

Ingrid Ruthig - at Station GalleryIngrid Ruthig

Ingrid Ruthig is a protean artist, a poet, fiction writer, editor, recovering architect (now dealing in architexts), hybrid artist, text artist (dealing in dBooks and recodings and TexTiles, i.e. puns, visual and verbal), the very epitome of the kind of artist we like to feature on Numéro Cinq, a hungry spirit who breaks forms and recombines them, who is always trying a little something new, the kind of artist Contributing Editor Nance Van Winckel is always on the look-out for, to interrogate and display, as in here, below, the latest in her amazing series of Off The Page art & interview pieces.

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oneTwo facing pages from BinaReCodings: ‘In the beginning was the word’ Click on the image to view the entire book.

NVW: BinaReCodings. I recently read Kenneth Goldsmith’s book Uncreative Writing, in which he talks about these binaries (of 0 and 1) as the basis for all computer “language.” If a jpg image file won’t open, it comes to us as linguistic code. In referring to a Charles Bernstein poem, Goldsmith explains that the “text becomes active, begging us to perform it, employing the spaces as silences.” (p. 18) Goldsmith goes on to say that “Never before has language had so much materiality—fluidity, plasticity, malleability—begging to be actively managed by the writer.” (p. 25) And, I might add, re-managed by the reader! It seems to me your BinaReCodings sketchbook suggests similar ideas. Here, I’m thinking specifically about remaking and repurposing what has gone before, but with a focus on an elementary nature of linguistic activity, a 1 and a zero, a something and a nothing.

Ruthig: When a viewer responds to the work as you have, it’s both exciting and disquieting, because it forces the artist to revisit and reconsider what was deliberate, intuitive, serendipitous—that is, can she actually explain the work? does she want to? Well, here goes!

Yes, on the surface BinaReCodings breaks down language to building blocks, to the letter, in order to prod new connections as we re-see it. It also documents how, through a type of repurposing of pages from history, it has been key to human progress. However, in terms of language, I see the process as akin to translation or transposition. If I use music as an analogy, the original libretto remains, but the score’s been shifted into another key. And the soloist sings in Cantonese rather than Italian, and the oboes play the first violin’s part, and all this happens against a changing backdrop, a contextual repositioning. The result alters how the reader-viewer engages with the original. But let me backtrack a little . . .

twoTwo facing pages from BinaReCodings: ‘In the beginning was the word’

While studying architecture at the University of Toronto in the early 1980s, I took an elective on computers. I must have been intrigued partly because I worked as a bank teller during summer holidays, and new ooo-aah robo-digited computer systems had recently replaced pen-on-paper record-keeping. It all sounds incredibly antiquated now, but this was the era of UNIX OS and dot matrix, that held-breath moment before software and personal home computers, such as the Commodore 64, exploded off the digital launch pad. Along with punch cards, much of what the elective offered has dissolved into the shadows of the ancients. Yet the basic premise that everything can be reduced to “On” and “Off”, “1″ and “0″ remains, and thirty years later, its impact infiltrates our everyday lives.

BinaReCodings reexamines language by putting it into a state that confounds immediate meaning. It draws on Viktor Shklovsky’s notion of “defamiliarization” and aligns with Goldsmith’s take on language as ever-present material. Words are symbols of ideas, holding meaning so long as we know the language and take time to decode it. Using the usually invisible 1 and 0 elements of binary code, I translated the biblical phrase “in the beginning was the word.” But “word” is no longer capitalized and, rather than referring to God, instead references the human facility for language. Letter by letter the recoded phrase then spreads throughout the sketchbook, superimposed on images of key historic pages, those language vehicles.

By showing us where we are, surrounded by invisible (binary) language, as well as where we’ve been, by presenting words from history, by mixing things up, by juxtaposing then and now, known and unknown, BinaReCodings forces the viewer to relinquish assumed meaning and look again, look harder, see something different. Significance is not quite lost, only less obvious. BinaReCodings does manage and demands managing of text as well as image. In the end, drawing connections is what matters.

Sci Fi - from the TexTiles series 2013Sci Fi from the Textiles Series 

NVW: Several visual artist friends have told me this, or variations on this: “Nance, when people go to a gallery, they don’t want to READ; they want to LOOK.” This is an issue I struggle with— how to tempt someone not necessarily to “read” per se, but to want to interact with the text AS text. As both a poet and a visual artist, could you share your own thoughts on this, and perhaps with regard to this particular piece of yours I love, (detail) from TexTiles. To what degree does the semantic meaning of the words themselves illuminate or further the “looking” experience, or does it? Is it important to you that someone do something akin to “reading” while experiencing this piece?

Ruthig: A wild synchronicity is at work here… I tripped across this read/look issue a few days ago, so I’m glad you’ve brought it up. I understand the galleried inclination—I’ve caught myself responding that way to worded works. And if I’m honest, it usually stems from laziness on my part, especially if the text is oriented off-horizontal—I think, Seriously? I’m to stand on my head to read this? Just as we approach visual art with expectations, we approach language with assumptions, programmed so we have one less decision to make, and in a way that’s indolence on the collective scale. Yes, reading does require more from us. We have to process written language. To refer to Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing—which, like you, I only recently read (another intriguing synchronicity)—“the act of reading itself is an act of decoding, deciphering, and decryption.” We can’t connect with the ideas or images until that language processing has taken place. I might argue with myself here, and say that, if words are recited aloud, it’s entirely possible to preempt meaning by connecting through sound—I think of how mesmerizing it is to listen to Gertrude Stein’s work. But if we accept the usual premise about text, gazing at an image seems less daunting by comparison, because it taps intuition and is more immediately sensual, regardless of how it makes us feel.

The way someone experiences any of my textworks is going to be as unique as the person. If she’s inclined to read each word, great. If not, that’s fine too. I’d be happy to know that someone simply liked to look at it, that it was visually appealing. Just as I reassure those who insist they “don’t get” poetry not to worry so much about getting it, similarly, I’m open-minded about how viewers take in my art. To a degree, response does depend on the work—certain pieces are configured for reading, while others aren’t. Any approach is valid, though I believe the deeper the engagement with any work, the more the reward—in other words, the more you put into it, the more you come away with. The only thing that’s critical is to engage. In the case of TexTiles (based on sketches I made while preparing other work for the 2012 exhibition Reading the Image), the work questions assumptions and hopefully prompts the viewer to look again, to see print language less for what it means and more for what it is—i.e. a vehicle with form, one we expect will tell us something. The work plays upon our compulsion to seek (even concoct) meaning, to uncover story in what we don’t immediately grasp. And if we can’t make sense of it, is it still true? Was the original text even true? What was it? And does it matter?

70's POTBOILER - from the TexTiles series 201370s Potboiler from the TexTiles Series

When TexTiles was first shown, a viewer asked if he could tell me what affect it had on him. Of course! He said he came to it believing he would read what were obviously pages from a book, and they would reveal something. Then he realized the language, while still familiar in form, was remade and now unreadable. He found he was seeing the pages in a new way, and reading his own expectations. He also found himself thinking that, if only he could access the strips of woven text, he could realign the words and unlock the mystery. By letting me in on his experience, he revealed my own work to me. It’s easy to forget that we’re never merely looking—we’re always reading and shaping connections, even when words are not involved.

dBooked by Ingrid Ruthig. (mixed media on canvas) dBooked (mixed media on canvas)

NVW: In your artist statement about dBooked  you talk about how with this work we “become archaeologists, asking What was the story? Who told it? Where? And with whom did it once connect?” I’m interested in this idea of reconstruction too, in ways the reader/viewer “remakes” a whole out of pieces. It seems to me this is quite akin to how we live our lives: gathering pieces that seem increasingly fragmented, then holding and sorting these pieces, hoping to infer connections or patterns, albeit not necessarily a “whole.” With this particular piece, can you talk about how you think a reader/viewer might engage with it, i.e. your own understanding of how this “remaking process” might best occur.

Ruthig: Driven by curiosity in a wired world bursting with the incomplete, we’re reclaiming or inventing back-story all the time now. It’s second nature. My own inner archaeologist can’t pass up a chance to puzzle the pieces. The first series I did, Fragments of the Missing, happens to echo something of Walter Benjamin’s preoccupation with the modern world’s fragmentary nature. As a series of deconstructions and reassemblies, Fragments visually stitches shards of language from a variety of sources into a figurative, semi-semantic, patchwork quilt. Lacking punctuation and the usual paratextual guides, the narrative is further remade by each reader, who forms connections with words and phrases and reads the text based on the way the panels are arranged in relation to each other.

In contrast, dBooked is a single work of dismantling and a remaking of a different sort. The viewer confronts in two dimensions the remains of what once existed in three: a skeleton of pages nearly devoid of text flesh; segments of dust jacket, cover, endpapers, its physicality; library markings indicating a previous life; conjunctions and a sequence of chapter headings. Paratext is otherwise absent, though its original locations are still apparent. Most of the language has been removed word by word from the first page of each chapter of a novel, then reintroduced as visual streams and pools without semantic continuity. As the words drain away, the vivid, colourful picture they painted evaporates, the story disappears. Anything that might have been an obvious clue has been deliberately erased. The reader becomes viewer who must look beyond the words.

dBooked is less a commentary on language’s inherent metamorphosis than it is a reflection of the book’s apparent decline as iconic cultural object, as quintessential container for language and conveyor of narrative. In a sense, it is reverse architecture applied to text, where mindfulness of context is achieved by dismantling. The exercise is to take what has come before and deconstruct it for a new perspective. I think the viewer arrives at a similar place as with Fragments of the Missing, by searching for clues that might answer the questions it evokes. Though the original story is undone by the book’s undoing, and may never be rebuilt, language continues to exist and to offer a fresh, if different, narrative.

Your Heart Like A HouseYour Heart Like A House

NVW: Your Heart Like a House. With this one I think about the kinship of the actions of the heart and of reading: passages in and passages out, intake and output (responding). Little by little what enters us becomes us; the “house” is a construct. This piece is a sensuous mix of materials, of text and image so beautifully married. Those four quadrants/ventricles. And what is the text here? Might you speak a little about your process with this one: how did text and imagery find each other or “arrive” together?

Ruthig: Thanks, Nance. Words are at the heart (pardon the pun) of the textworks, usually arriving first, then driving the visuals forward. This piece is no different. It flipsides traditional ekphrasis, in that I wrote the poem “Your Heart Like A House” years before I thought to attempt a visual representation. The poem, which surfaced hard on the heels of unexpected news that overturned my view of the future, begins “I lie down in the rooms of your house / and listen to a new creaking / of timbers that contract and expand, / flexing to the weight of your sleep / while the wiring, unseen, / pulses from space to space / in the walls that contain us both. . . .” Years after it was published, after everyday life had again settled down, after I realized the poem’s images would not leave me, I began to experiment with a visual incarnation. I guess my architectural background is never far from the surface, because I’m inclined to interweave disciplines and mine the rich territory found in the crossover—as when a poem is visually transmigrated, or an image spawns words.

Yes, the quadrants mimic the cardiac chambers, and even at risk of pissing off the viewer, I chose imagery to reiterate that construct—I love how complex and beautiful the actual human heart appears, especially as rendered in historical anatomy books. The poem itself provides the rest of the framework. It loops in its entirety on and on in the background, circulating in red and blue from one space to another, reminiscent too of how we follow a stream of words from page to page when we read. In large font, foreground lines regenerate the stanzas, more or less, and also pass from room to room.

Adages are ingrained in us, and no doubt “home is where the heart is,” as well as Bachelard’s “abode” from Poetics of Space, found their way in, as did a lot of traditional residential and construction imagery—anything that felt as though it belonged. Your Heart Like A House has a lot to do with how we create and inhabit physical and psychic space, how we fill each with expectation, memory, our everyday vision of life, and what happens when that vision is shaken to its foundations.

The creative process, for me, is like stepping into a canoe and choosing a direction as I start to paddle. Then the current takes over. I can’t control it, but if I trust in the flow of words, images, textures, and imaginings into layers, discovery becomes arrival.

Antoinette's Head - a TexTileAntoinette’s Head 

NVW: Antoinette’s Head. Ah, a diptych, a hinged “book.” Here I like how the “head” image gives way—or opens upon—the more language-based material. Even the title  gives the work a luminous context. I think, for instance, of Marie Antoinette, and all that was in that lovely head . . . perhaps even as it left its body. You use weaving in some of your new work, and I wonder if you could talk about that craft in general with your work and perhaps in particular with this piece.

Ruthig: Here’s where I wax rhapsodic about titles for a moment! The way I see it, a title is a key to unlock the work, the point of entry, especially for a poem, that might also set the stage or mood. While providing one isn’t critical, it’s an opportunity for the artist to invite the viewer inside. I find, even as the artist, a well considered title helps gel the work in my mind. So I pay close attention to them, and it’s good to hear how this one let you in!

Antoinette’s Head is based on two portraits of Marie Antoinette and two pages of text, all from a fairly recent biography.  Reweaving the images and text let me confront a number of perceptions. On one level, it continues the exploration of the weft and warp of language, especially print language. On another, it examines our perception of books as repositories of truth. If we stop to consider what we take for granted as historically ‘true,’ we might realize a historic figure, in this case a queen, had to have been misread and a far more complex person than the one some historian or painter claims she was. There’s a literal warp to how people in history are portrayed. Even we ordinary people are storified differently by each person who knows or has ever met us, and each version is a reflection of the individual experience of whoever is relaying the image. In this era of the Web’s tightly woven net and social media’s image-massaging filter, it’s even harder to break the fictional code. What’s true? I want to suggest that we should recognize then question. Rather than read and accept, we should consider the fluid nature of text and image, the telephoning of story that inevitably takes place, even if fact-driven.

By physically shifting image and printed word to illegible states, Antoinette’s Head hopefully shifts assumptions of the reliability and integrity of any documentation, and encourages questions. Arguably, every work of documenting is the product of a narrator who filtered, translated, transposed, and in the process often composed a fiction, intentionally or unintentionally. What we think we know is more than likely false to some degree. Truth is threaded through the language we use to describe everything, but it’s tough to decode it then extricate it from the larger fabric.

Antoinette’s Head, as an extension of the TexTiles series, surreptitiously tapped into the personal. In the mid-1800s, my great great grandfather, an Austrian textile industrialist, founded the family business, which flourished despite war, upheaval, and relocation, and remained in the family until my grandfather died. The inherited stories linger in me, and some latent tactile knowledge, more tangible than one might think, prods me to visit his craft through mine. Antoinette’s Head is a way to explore the weft and warp of language, stories, history itself. It’s also carrying me into a new series of works. I’m well into the current now, and there’s no knowing where it will lead!

 —Ingrid Ruthig & Nance Van Winckel

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Ingrid Ruthig - in the studio
INGRID RUTHIG graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Architecture in the mid-1980s. For more than a decade in Toronto she practised as a member of the Ontario Association of Architects – a profession in which word and image are inextricably linked – then retired her licence to write full-time. She also co-edited/co-published the Canadian literary journal LICHEN from 2000–2007, and later, was an associate editor for Northern Poetry Review. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared widely in Canada and abroad, in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, National Post, Canadian Notes & Queries, and many other publications. Her textworks have been shown in galleries, public venues, and are in private collections. Her books include Slipstream (a poem sequence / artist’s book), Richard Outram: Essays on His Works (as editor/contributor), Synesthete II, and she recently edited The Essential Anne Wilkinson (Porcupine’s Quill, fall 2014). Ingrid lives with her husband and daughters near Toronto. Her web page is here: www.ingridruthig.com.

Nance Van Winckel

Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field,and Gettysburg Review. She is also the author of four collections of linked short stories and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Boneland, her newest book of fiction, is just out with U. of Oklahoma Press. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, andKenyon Review. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography appear in Poetry Northwest and excerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in Hotel Amerika and The Kenyon Review OnlineClick this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson. Her personal web page is here.

 

May 012014
 

Davis:Theo Cote

(Photo: Theo Cote)

How does one introduce Lydia Davis? By listing her accolades (which include the 2013 Man Booker International Prize)? Her acclaimed story collections, like Samuel Johnson is Indignant and Varieties of Disturbance? Her exquisite translations of Proust and Flaubert?

Since breaking through with Break it Down in 1986, Lydia Davis has stood at the forefront of American literature, constantly crafting fiction that both provokes reaction and mines the depths of the English language. In my review of her latest collection, Can’t and Won’t, I write, “The book is a remarkable, exhilarating beast: a collection that resumes the author’s overall style—short narratives, with the occasional longer piece—while simultaneously expanding her vision.” In addition, the translation work by Davis has both reintroduced classics (Madame Bovaryand ushered lesser known works into the libraries of avid readers.

It was a pleasure to connect with Ms. Davis for the following interview. We began speaking in February via email, and conducted this conversation over a series of electronic messages that lasted through the end of March.

— Benjamin Woodard


Benjamin Woodard (BW):
The 14 “Flaubert stories” in Can’t and Won’t feel right at home with your other narratives, often echoing ideas and themes from other stories. Were you drawn to these while translating Madame Bovary, or did they come earlier?

Lydia Davis (LD): Actually, I stumbled upon them as I was reading through the letters that Flaubert wrote during the time he was working on Madame Bovary. The letters were interesting for many different reasons, but the nicest reward was to come upon a little self-contained story that he was telling his correspondent, about something that had happened to him recently. I took whatever liberties I needed to—these were not meant to be “straight” translations—and shaped them into little stories.

MadameBovary

BW: How did you shape the narratives?

LD: Sometimes, I barely touched them. Usually, though, I would make little changes—combine two sentences or cut some material out of one. In the first story, about the cook, I added the phrase “and yet it has been five years since he left the throne”—because a contemporary American reader would not have the same information that Flaubert’s correspondent did as he wrote the letter. I tried to write this, and other additions, in Flaubert’s style and tone. In another story, I added some information about one of the characters, since he was otherwise unidentified. Yet another story, the one called “After You Left,” actually combines material from two letters. On his way home in the carriage, Flaubert remembers riding home on another occasion in a sleigh—in my story. In fact, he recounted that sleigh ride in another letter.

BW: Does translation work ever affect your style in English?

LD: Usually, for whatever reason, the style of the work I’m translating does not creep into my own—although I noticed when I was translating Proust that my emails became longer and more digressive. But I certainly like the little Dutch stories I’m translating at the moment, by A.L. Snijders, and I’m sure I will begin writing stories modeled on those, if I haven’t already.

CantandWont

BW: The “dream pieces” story cycle is another type of translation altogether. What prompted this cycle, and how did you decide to interpret these surreal tangents?

LD: What prompted these was a combination or confluence of two things—often the case. A French Surrealist and ethnographer, Michel Leiris, had published a book that collected his dreams over forty years. What interested me about this book was not just the dreams but that he included waking experiences that were like dreams. I had this book in an English translation by Richard Sieburth. It sat on my shelf for a long time. But then one day I had a waking experience that was so like a dream that it inspired me to see what I could do with narrating dreams so that they were dynamic and vivid, and narrating waking experiences so that they were believable as dreams.

BW: Does your approach differ when writing an extremely short piece like “Ph.D.” compared to “The Seals,” one of the collection’s longest stories?

LD: Oh, yes. Many of the shortest stories occur to me already almost complete—though not the one you mention, which was actually shortened from a longer “dream” piece. Often, all that these very short pieces need is the right title, and I take some time over finding that. But a long, fully developed narrative, like “The Seals,” requires going into a sort of trance, allowing the inner voice to begin speaking, and letting one paragraph suggest the next. There is a lot of material in a long story that was not planned in advance but that occurred during the writing. Then, there is the problem of structure, which I don’t really have in a very short story. Will one part balance another part in a good way? Is the conclusion thoughtful and strong? And in the case of that story, I had to pay attention to how often the narrator’s present situation, sitting on a train, came back into the story, so that it wasn’t lost. Much more complicated, altogether, than the shortest stories. But on the other hand, the shortest stories have that challenge of being substantial enough, in their few words, to carry full weight as finished pieces of writing.

BW: How does the idea of travel fit into your storytelling? Your characters often find themselves on physical journeys. For example, “The Seals” takes place on a train, alternating between present and past, in a way reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser.

LD: The simple fact is that I was traveling when I began many of these stories, since I find that sitting on a train or in an airplane is actually very conducive to letting my thoughts roam around freely in a relaxed sort of way, which sometimes produces a thought that leads to a story. At home, more stationary, I may be translating, or writing something non-fictional, like an essay. So the travel stories arise from incorporating what is going on at that moment. I like traveling—I like the feeling of suspension that one has at those times. You are between home and your destination, you are surrounded by strangers, you have a fellowship or bond with a group of strangers, for better or worse. It is very interesting. And often I am also in a foreign place, which means a foreign culture. I enjoy the contrast between that and my domestic, rural, home existence.

BW: Thematically, Can’t and Won’t plays quite a bit with the idea of capturing different forms of history, be it dreams or memories or subconscious realizations. Was this a deliberate effort on your part?

LD:  Well, your insight is interesting—I rarely stand back and look at the pieces as a group. It is true that I’m very interested in history—as I never was in school. But as for a deliberate effort, no, I do not think ahead of time about themes. Stories occur as they want to occur—I try to impose as little as possible on them. They simply reflect whatever is on my mind at that time. Only sometimes, as in the case of the Flaubert stories or the dream stories, or the letters of complaint—of which there are five in the book—I see that there is a form I like and want to explore, to see what it might yield.

BW: Finally, what are you reading now? What writing inspires you?

LD: Interesting question. Actually, two quite different questions, possibly. I do keep reading the small stories of the Dutch writer Snijders—since he sends them out by email. And they inspire me to translate him. At the same time, I’m reading a biography of Glenn Gould, because he continues to fascinate me as pianist and person, and I want to know more about him. But that book would not inspire me to any kind of writing. W.G. Sebald’s novels inspire me—I’d like to do what he does;  so do Thomas Bernhard’s, though he is so surpassingly negative about everything—but funny. There is a wonderful, probably not very well known thin book by the Canadian Elizabeth Smart with one of the best titles I know: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. It is a story of obsessive love, and it is most eccentrically written. I know that title will seep into me and come out somewhere, sometime, and maybe the structure and style of book itself will, too.

— Lydia Davis & Benjamin Woodard

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Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and seven story collections. Her collection Varieties of Disturbance: Stories was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. She is the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Award of Merit Medal, and was named a Chevalier of the Order of the Arts and Letters by the French government for her fiction and her translations of modern writers, including Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris, and Marcel Proust. Lydia Davis is the winner of the 2013 Man Booker International Prize.

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Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in decomP magazinE, Cleaver Magazine, and Numéro Cinq. His reviews, interviews, and essays have been featured in Publishers Weekly, BuzzFeed Books, Numéro Cinq, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Bygone Bureau, and other fine publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter @woodardwriter.

 

Apr 012014
 

Victoria_Redel_jpg_1-2

Herewith a superb interview with Victoria Redel, the brilliant and prolific author of stories, novels and poems, also a former initiate of Captain Fiction himself, the irrepressible and undaunted Gordon Lish. Redel’s most recent books include Woman Without Umbrella (poems) and a story collection Make Me Do Things, both reviewed in NC. Conducting the interview is Jason Lucarelli, our resident Lish expert, conversant in all things Lishian, author of the foundational essays “The Consecution of Gordon Lish: An Essay on Form and Influence” and “Using Everything: Pattern Making in Gertrude Stein’s ‘Melanctha,’ Robert Walser’s ‘Nothing at All,’ and Sam Lipsyte’s ‘The Wrong Arm’.”

 

What is “story”? What is “necessary fiction”? What’s the difference?

It’s funny, really, that it should seem at all a daunting question—what is story?—when each day, many times a day, we hear stories, we tell stories. We make artifice of our lives almost immediately—You can’t believe what happened at work today…I heard the most amazing exchange in line at the supermarket…You’re not going to believe this but…We shape narratives inventing bits of dialogue, implying motives though describing gestures—what someone did or didn’t do, what was or wasn’t said. We shape narrative—eclipsing, conflating, inflating events, facts, and characters—because, instinctually, we know when to speed up or hold back. We want our listeners to listen with urgency and so we engage engagingly.

What we know everyday is this human urgency to express the uncanny. And we really all appreciate that family member, that friend, that stranger at the next table who pays a story out slowly, circling back through strange phrases, observations, the teller who takes us down a weird circuitous path and we go along—wary, excited—because we can’t figure out where it leads and yet the teller has made it essential that we follow. The story can be ragingly funny or plain spoken, quiet or raucous. Oddly every method of telling works if it feels authentic. Authentic—seems like an abstraction but it’s not. We are authenticity hounds, sniffing for fraudulence all day, everyday.

We know the difference between the story that never stirs us—through shape or language—and the story that jolts us further awake and alive. Somehow the witness, the telling, the engagement of the speaker feels original. By original I don’t mean that they’ve used a new-fangled anything. I don’t mean they’ve worn a clown’s nose or written in Pig Latin. By original I mean that the speaker has allowed herself to look and speak without yielding to received vision or language. It is being told then exactly as it must be told. And we listen; we can’t stop listening because we feel that we stand the chance of living better of being changed. You’re not going to believe this but…and just sometimes, right away, we feel something stunningly possible in that simple even over-used phrase. Despite skepticism, resistance to being changed, fear of being hood-winked or manipulated—right away, we inch closer to the speaker, we hold our fork to our lips, we grip the book closer to allow something new to happen to us.

I’ve told this teaching story before to students but I’ll try to tell it again. I was invited to teach a weeklong workshop at a university in the Midwest. I had students write every night and each day we’d read in class. I kept trying to get them to identify sentences in each other’s work that were essential and that were necessary. They could do it. Ears were well tuned. But they found it harder to identify a true sentence in their own writing. I sent the group home every night saying, “How did it sound in your kitchen? What is a necessary object for you?” One woman, a Spanish Literature Professor, dauntingly the most learned in the room, came in day after day with sentences, with paragraphs of prose that were so god-awful, so full of bullshit, phony, fancy-assed sentences. And I kept saying, “Nope, nope, not this.” On the fourth day the Professor of Spanish Literature came in clearly agitated. I thought, “Yikes, I’ve gone too far and really pissed this woman off.”

Then what happened was extraordinary. She began to read a piece about a blue bowl in her mother’s kitchen. The language was syntactically like nothing I’d heard before. Was it actually even English? Who cares, it was beyond gorgeous. When she finished, when we could finally breathe, one of us said, “Read that again.” After her second—or was it her third reading—I asked, “What happened? What was that?” She said, “I almost did not come to class today.” I said, “But you knew, you knew.” And she didn’t answer. “Where did that language come from?” I asked. She was quiet, looking more agitated than ever. It turned out that she came from a crevice in the ArkansasMountains where the language seemed at once to have twists of Elizabethan English and French. She was the first in her family to leave the area, to go to college, to learn to speak “proper” English. Well, she’d actually gone further, now was a Spanish Professor. She told us that after she wrote the piece, she felt certain that her PhD would be stripped away, her tenure taken away. It made her actually feel ill. That gorgeous, original paragraph of literature felt more dangerous than she could manage. She felt exposed, betrayed.

The press of a human heart up against the page. Language in necessary disequilibrium, in jeopardy, most of all with itself. That blue bowl, her mother’s bowl. The collision of event and character and language. The possibility of seeing into another human heart. “Well that’s just what some folks will do,” a neighbor said to Flannery O’Conner after reading some of her stories. That is a necessary fiction.

 

In a BOMB interview with Honor Moore, you talk about how “collage is the only way that [you’ve] figured out how to write something long in fiction.” But I also see this strategy at play in your short fiction too. The elliptical movement that was your vehicle in your early stories, specifically in Where The Road Bottoms Out, seems dialed down, or, at least, more subtly employed in Make Me Do Things. How do you see yourself—as of late, and in your new collection—exploring new narrative techniques?

Maybe it’s something I’ve borrowed from poetry. The poem can move by association—by image or language patterning to accrue a larger sense and a larger mystery. The stanza can often signal that kind of leap. So can the line. Extending this kind of patterning—image and language—in fiction provides you with another narrative strategy. In the novel I used collage by which I mean I wrote sections in chunks, sections that were linked to other sections by image or place or situation. I didn’t know how exactly to think about ordering initially. But I knew that once I’d created a thread I had to use it again. That was how I created plot. It made sense to have that kind of fragmentation because of the narrator’s state of mind. With the second novel I was confident that I would do it differently. More of a straight shot. No such luck. Novels have proven different altogether—maybe more compositionally like a poem.

When I began to write fiction I discovered, in a wholly new way, possibilities within the sentence. I discovered the joys of syntax. This seems ass-backwards; I should have found syntax first as poet. It seems that it was simply developmental, I was at last seeing what the music inside a sentence, the intelligence inside a sentence, the personality within the sentence might be. In those first stories things seemed possible and more than possible it felt essential at times to have three prepositional phrases jammed up together, to take the sentence in one direction and then press it into another direction. I began to consider what I could do with postponement or preponement of, for example, the subject of a sentence. I love that book of stories if, for nothing else, how dizzy and blissed out I was with just how to construct story sentence by sentence.

But how I went about the composition of a poem and a short story was kind of different. I usually write a draft of a poem in one sitting. And then, subsequently begin to mess around, add, subtract, rearrange, merge it with other poems, turn it bottom to top. With short stories I write pretty much sentence by sentence by paragraph by paragraph. The revision happens line by line so that when I get to the end I’m not revising. I’m usually done. I take that back. I often have written it too tightly and need to go back in and dilate from within.

You asked about the first book of stories and the second—which were published 18 years apart with novels and poetry collections in between. As you can see in this book I’m pretty interested in a close third person—I wanted to have a third person voice that’s as close to a first person POV as I could get. At least that’s true for a bunch of the stories. You say they are less elliptical. Are they? I probably move in real time more in these stories. And I slow down, wanting to drill into a moment longer. But I wonder if some of the shift has more to do with age. Many more of the stories in Where The Road Bottoms Out focus on children—that collective voice of children that occurs in many stories. In Make Me Do Things the focus—even when there are kids in the stories—seems closer to the adults.

But maybe, it is all developmental—a lifelong apprenticeship with language, character, how what is story. And mixed in with that are the particular fascinations—conscious and unconscious—at any given moment.

 

You write “sentence by sentence by paragraph by paragraph” but in that fight to get to the sentence, how do you navigate between sense and sound? How soon do you squash possibility and clamp down on character, incident, and story? For example, recently, your contemporary and friend, Noy Holland said, “I go word by word by ear for as long as I can, according to my awareness of what I’ve said and did not mean to say…The ordering impulse is crucial but I don’t want it to be dominant or inhibiting. When it’s dominant the terms we commonly use—character, voice, plot, setting—begin to make sense; the story bleeds out; it’s anybody’s.”

I think I understand your question, Jason. And I believe I understand what Noy is getting at. A single sentence could potentially spawn many potential next sentences. Sometimes it is daunting. And the challenge is to find the one that is truest—not only true with respect to the linguistics and the acoustics. But the sentence has to move forward character, stance, action, and do so with inevitability and risk. It wants to complicate the mystery. Poets talk about sound and sense, Pope’s the “sound must be an echo to the sense.” Honestly, this all makes the writing seem so much more laborious than it really is.

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How do you view your evolution as a writer of fiction, and how has your growth as a poet influenced your narrative tendencies in fiction?

My hope in these new stories is probably not unlike the hope I’ve always had in writing to push into the difficult places. Sure, that has something to do with the dark places of hearts and minds. But I’m also interested in Joy—the ways we shun it, why we fear joy. And why in midst of real happiness we conspire to fuck it up. I suppose how we understand bravery shifts with age and experience. One of my internal cajoling’s has been—you have permission—which on the page can mean permission to be plain spoken or exorbitant, permission to say what feels dangerous to say and, almost more importantly, to find language that isn’t worn thin, to have the permission to make the language singular. But right now I also find myself interested in the ways I can bend and keep bending inside the story to dig up something I don’t know. Which, heaven knows, is most days most things. What else and what else and what else is right here, right now. Because, of course, everything is right there, all the old hurts and hopes, all the new ones and all the invented convolutions of the current mind. I love the way in our dark moment we say hilarious things. I am interested in the way we bungle things up. Despite our certain efforts to get it right.

You ask about my evolution as a writer. Probably a writer is the worst person to try to identify her evolution. There’s the question of fascinations—with certain images, with kinds of situations. Sometimes I fear that I’m writing the same kind of story over and over, walking around some few subjects that emerge again and again, even when I imagine I’m breaking into new turf. Okay, maybe that’s simply that we can’t escape our deep concerns, our central objects. In this new story collection, people have noticed the last story, “Ahoy,” saying something different is happening in that story. Maybe I should be bummed out that every story doesn’t seem to break new ground but I confess excitement because it’s the last story I finished for the collection. So to feel that I broke into something new there feels hopeful. I’m not sure if others mean new subject or new form, I don’t know if I care. Probably, it would frighten me too much to look closely at my evolution. Where have I slackened? Where am I repeating old tricks? Why do so many of my characters behave in kind of obsessive ways?

As for how poetry connects with the fiction, I’m not sure. I used to maintain that they originated from the same impulse, the same desire to experiment in language, to render and make witness to the world. But I’m less certain of this now.

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May I ask if you, when you write as a poet or a fiction writer, do you ever find yourself responding as a fiction writer to the pieces you’ve written as a poet, or vice versa?

Wow, your question makes me sound like a strange and divided person. Honestly, I don’t think it works that way. The work is the work and you try to come at it with a rigorous sense of possibility. It’s always a balance, right? On the one side to detect lapses, opportunities not taken by failure of sight or patience or heart. And on the other side is keep the composition playful so that you allow for accident and the unconscious to emerge. That’s true in whatever form one works.

But now that I’ve reread your question and wonder if what you’re asking is do I ever take on similar subject in fiction and in poetry? And, I suppose here the answer is yes. Not intentionally. But because ultimately I am not such a divided creature I’d like to believe that different forms allow me to come at my interests, obsessions, concerns from differing angles.

 

In “He’s Back,” a father comes home to his wife and son together in the tub. This bathtime, a way of being rather than a common nightly occurrence, has accumulated into a breaking point inside the narrator, who’s put off by the constant bathing. He questions the closeness between mother and son (“she was no doubt letting him look at the whole thing”), becomes jealous (“there was hardly a moment she would let him have alone with the boy”), and finally annoyed to the point of action (“He would teach them both a thing or two”). While this story seems to touch on familiar thematic territory for you (the nature of family and familial relationships), you chose the first-person male point of view. In certain stories, can the choice between the gender of a narrator propel the drama?

The story “He’s Back” arrived—as many stories will—with an initiating image. A father coming home to his wife and child who are in the tub. It’s not all that strange an image. All across the world, on any given evening or morning a parent is showering or bathing with a child. Not strange or scandalous. Easier to get in that shower to soap Junior. But what I glimpsed in that initiating moment is a feeling—also common—to come into a room and see your child and spouse engage in anything—a game, a conversation, a book—and feel out of their orbit. Feel displaced by that beautiful, exclusive place a parent and child might occupy for a moment. And even as we see the beauty of the moment, happy for their closeness, at the love and pleasure they share, we feel excluded. We feel jealous. This complex rub interests me in fiction. That displacement, real or imagined, interests me. You ask does the gender propel the narrative? One could absolutely imagine a mother displaced. It happens all the time. But in this story the triangulation is rendered from the man’s point of view and I hope it is specific and particular enough to feel that it is not an interchangeable voice, it’s not a woman. Triangulation always interests me; it is inherently dramatic. Spend any time with two parents and a kid and you’ll notice the pushes and pulls in every direction. Territorial displacement can shift ever so minutely and it is felt profoundly. That is true in marriages, in friendships, in parent/child relations.  And how jealousy manifests, well that’s endlessly interesting and usually not simple. The great challenge for people everyday is not to use a third person as protection or weapon against someone they love.

I didn’t set out to write a collection that featured writing from men and from women’s points of view but clearly it happened. It makes some sense (at least retrospectively) because no gender seems to have the prize for blundering personal lives or for trying to make sense and manage a life.

 

In between Where The Road Bottoms Out and the publication of Make Me Do Things, you published poetry, novels, and continued to publish short fictions. Can you talk a bit about your process in assembling this new collection? For example, “He’s Back” seems like an orphan of your first collection, and, in fact, I believe the story predates all other stories in the collection. What criteria did you use to decide which stories would make the cut?

You’re right that “He’s Back” is an older story. It predates Loverboy. And I suppose has some connections to Loverboy, or at least shows a bit of my path of inquiry that I had not exhausted. It was written around the same time as “Stuff” and “Third Cycle” and “The Horn”. The stories in this collection span from those stories to “Ahoy” which was the last story that I wrote. But to confuse things, I’d written some pages of “Ahoy” years ago and then couldn’t figure my way and left it. I remember interviewing Grace Paley some years ago. Grace had just had a story published in that week’s New Yorker. She told me it was one she’d begun a decade before and that she’d put those first pages in a folder which had the stories she couldn’t get right or finish. Her dud folder. She said that she often went to the folder, pulled out a story and, reading the pages, thought, “Hey, that’s not bad.” And right away started editing and playing with it and writing a bit more. It was so different than the way I worked but, boy, I remembered it. And, well, those opening pages were something I’d looked at more than once in the intervening years. Then last year I thought, I want that story. I want to figure it out, to figure him out.

There were other stories that didn’t make the cut. I’d keep them in the mix for awhile, mostly to make me feel good that I was close to a finished collection. But when I’d write a new story, I’d let another go. And when the story was knocked out, I’d feel relieved. What’s the criteria? If I can still feel surprised by a story. If I feel there’s sufficient language or sufficient true hard looking. If I don’t think I was faking somehow. I know there’s a lot of different tones in this book. Maybe some would feel critical of that—I don’t know—maybe it shows a lack of consistent music. But I like the variation. I want it. Hopefully, others do too.

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As a teacher, how do you instruct students who are interested in reconciling the differences between fiction and poetry in their own work? Do you have a list of writers you cite as lyrically inclined, yet who still stick close to story?

There are so many interesting prose writers who have great density of language, a real lyricism in their work. Hello, Christine Schutt. Hello, Dawn Raffel. Hello, Michael Ondaatje. I teach their work in poetry classes. Others too. Anne Michaels who wrote Fugitive Pieces, a book I love. I teach Robert Frost in fiction classes.

The lyrical fiction writer (student) has to keep remembering not to get so lost in language that the importance of a dramatic situation, of an instigating problem is forgotten. The key is to keep swerving, letting language become part of the dramatic insistence. Otherwise, it all spins into pretty. We lose sight of characters.

 

Dawn Raffel and Diane Williams edited a story or two in your new collection, if I’m not mistaken. Can you speak about the differences or similarities in editing styles between these two friends and former Lish students? At what stage of a story might you allow these particular readers to read one of your pieces?

Yes, Dawn edited a story and so did Diane. Actually, Diane published two stories from this collection. One in NOON and the other in an issue of StoryQuarterly. I trust both their judgment so implicitly that I think I took the suggestions both gave. Dawn had two suggestions that were a function of hearing an off-ness in word choice. Dawn has a great, uncanny ear and, well, she was right.

As for when I show things…I don’t show stories early. In fact, not till I’ve got them as done as I can get them. My agent, Bill Clegg, is a great reader and he pushed on some of the last stories. Finding moments where he’d felt I’d lost nerve and gone an easier route. He was right. I knew it instantly. And I could even recall the failure of nerve. So it was good to go back and carve a tougher route.

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You were quoted as once saying, “Everything you need to know about the next line in a story is actually present in the words of the sentence that preceded it.” Phrased another way, Amy Hempel’s way: “You do what you do because of what is prior.” Obviously, this is something Gordon Lish preached to his students, but it’s also, I’ve noticed, a phrase that his students, who now teach, seem to preach to their students. Why is this compositional strategy so powerful? What has this recursive principle taught you about story and the degrees of so-called story?

I simply cannot imagine anyone who has truly listened to Gordon Lish speak of writing not teaching a recursive principle. Gordon Lish spoke more persuasively and generously about composition than anyone I’ve ever listened to. I’m betting that you could walk into a class taught by Amy Hempel, Mark Richard, Christine Schutt, Dawn Raffel, Noy Holland, Ben Marcus, Peter Christopher (God rest his soul), Sheila Kohler, Patricia Lear, Rick Whitaker, Sam Lipsyte, Lily Tuck, and the list continues on and on of those who have gone on to write and teach—the notion of the prior would be, as you say, preached. This principle, once grasped, is essential. And once grasped, you see it in all stories. This is because story is composed. It is made. If you think of this composition as a weave, a fabric, then it makes complete, natural sense that you are pulling threads through from beginning to end. And those threads—call them objects, call them rhetorical elements, call them syntactical events, call them parts of the sentence—all need to be utilized. Do you knit? If you knit you know that you can’t drop a stitch unintentionally without creating a hole in the garment. Same deal with story. Why would you want to forget any element that is prior? What is prior provides the deeper mystery. What is prior provides what can—no—what must be unpacked. You go vertical with it, not just forward. What is prior is what informs the sound of the story. It is the mind of the story. It’s important, Jason, to realize that recursive writing does not create any specific sound or mind. What is prior presents the terms for what is ahead. Look, going back to my knitting analogy. If—for god knows what design reason—you made a garment with an intentional dropped stitch in the first rows. You’d probably want to create drop patterning throughout the garment. It might actually have been unintentional. But by noticing it, repeating it, shifting from one dropped stitch to three dropped stitches you take that which was error and make a rightness of it. A great sweater, maybe. Maybe not. Which is also to say that just being recursive does not make a story. This is where swerve comes in. This is where actually making sure you’ve plunked yourself down in a worthy domain that provides friction and jeopardy and dramatic possibility.

Look at any writer you admire and I’ll bet you a good sum that is there is this weave I’m describing. This is how patterning begins to occur in story and in the novel. It means that the architecture of the work is inevitably built from local materials as it were. I could really go on about this. But I’ll chill out and shut up.

—Victoria Redel & Jason Lucarelli

 

Victoria Redel is the author of four books of fiction (Make Me Do Things, The Border of Truth, Loverboy, and Where The Road Bottoms Out) and three books of poetry (Woman Without Umbrella, Swoon, and Already The World). Her work has been translated into six languages. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College

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Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction. He lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

 

Mar 102014
 

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Bianca Stone is an amazing poet/comic creator/illustrator/hybrid/amalgam artist who, yes, changes the weather a bit because she goes where she pleases, much like Anne Carson, with whom she collaborated on the book Antigonick (New Direction, 2012), Carson’s translation of Antigone. Stone has a new book just out, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books, 2014), and she has great genes, being the granddaughter of the of the poet Ruth Stone. We have today an interview between NC’s own amalgamated poet/artist Nance Van Winckel and Bianca Stone, delightful and knowing. Note especially Stone’s analogy between drawing and the poem on the page.

And when I draw—poof! There’s suddenly a physical thing there, that can talk, that can move. And I take advantage of that. The body itself, the air around the body, the expression on the face—these things can work just like a poem. Speaking, but not saying everything.

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NANCE VAN WINCKEL: In some of your comics the text can seem suggestive of a state of mind, a thinking-feeling condition. I’m thinking of, for example, “It’s like there’s a house in my skull with a woman waiting for someone to resurrect and take her outside.) The artwork itself, however, often gives this more “lyric” text a kind of narrative context: a physical space, characters, and situation. Can you comment on your own sense of how narrative and lyric impulses combine for you—in process and/or technique?

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BIANCA STONE: I’ve always had a great love of narrative. But I prefer also to allow surrealism in to complicate the narrative. I think that’s just how our minds work. In my poetry comics it’s the perfect space to explore the two. You have the push and pull of the visual image (which is so much more immediate than words), and perhaps work against the literal. And against abstraction.

That line you mentioned, for example—how could I possibly draw that without wrecking the imagination of it? I don’t want to draw it. I want to imagine it; more importantly, I want the reader to imagine it. So I draw something that lies beside it, so to speak, like another line of the poem. So that it moves forward, avoiding the didactic, the static.

NVW: Regarding the Practicing Vigilance Series in Notnostrums.

“No coins left in heaven/ you say every day/ to the coin-operated wind.”

In this series I especially like how you get at one’s impulse to “speak,” to give voice to inner turmoil, “someone’s lipstick burning in your skull.” The bats in this series fly like bits of language into the urban brew-ha-ha. Many of your poem comics seem to be haunted by what I’d call “incomplete linguistic transactions.”

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BS: I love that you imagined that the bat was bit of language. Because isn’t language, in a way, an image? Especially a poem—which uses the page like a canvas, and appreciates white space, the shape and sound of words, the drop at the end of a line. It’s beautiful for the eye (or perhaps hideous to the eye).

And when I draw—poof! There’s suddenly a physical thing there, that can talk, that can move. And I take advantage of that. The body itself, the air around the body, the expression on the face—these things can work just like a poem. Speaking, but not saying everything.

And often I’ll use poems for a drawing that perhaps need a little more. That aren’t done enough to be on their own. I’ll be using a poem, and take a line out because suddenly, while it’s all alone on the page, I realize it’s not strong enough. Thus, it often creates the non sequitur method that you find in more experimental comics and poetry. But also that method resists the narrative and allows more for music.

Some day soon I’ll be making a comic that’s much more narrative…that’s more a prose poem.

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NVW: You say that in your poetry comics you “want to use the image as another element of form in poetry.” Could you talk a bit more about this text & image “gestalt?”

BS: Again, one is constantly resisting “illustration, ” in its traditional definition. You don’t want to draw what’s being said, because that’s redundant.

It’s damned abstract to talk about, frankly. An image as a line in poetry—it doesn’t make entire sense! But I believe it.

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NVW: Regarding Antigonick, your collaboration with Anne Carson, is it true you didn’t even see her written text until after you’d done the illustrations? But of course you no doubt knew the play. Did you come away from this project with any new understandings about the collaboration process?

BS: Not entirely true! What I did see (read, spend hours with) was Anne’s text. I had it beside me while I did the art. I worked from it, as I do with all my poetry comics.

However, Anne and Robert Currie didn’t show me the hand-written text until I was finished. And then Currie magically came up with a method to put the images and text together.

Collaboration is hard. Very hard. You make endless false starts, and you spend a lot of time alone, weeping internally, worrying about everything. But then you come together and put things together like a couple of curious, eager architects. You step back and you have this one giant product. And you’re so proud. Your ego isn’t too wrapped up in it, because you all did it together.

It’s something that you do with people you trust artistically, and emotionally. And it makes you a better, more humble person.

NVW: I loved the poem “Elegy with Judy Garland (and Refrigerator).” I so admire how the language synchs with the music and the graphics. The intermix of drawing and film, of music and voice-over make for one of the better poetry videos I’ve seen. Does the poem come first, and then the animation take shape around that? And is poetry video a main direction for your work these days?

BS: I’ve always loved making videos. Ever since I was a teenager and had a massive VHS camcorder. The past few years I’ve been doing it again, and it’s really something I’ll keep doing.

It takes a long time. But the main things to remember are:

1. Use a good, finished poem.

2. Make a high-quality recording of it. (Read it well. Read it slowly.)

3. As I preach in my poetry comics, avoid “telling” the poem. Let the poem speak for itself. Use ghosts of subjects in your poem, but not verbatim.

Then comes all the hard work of figuring out the visuals. I’ve developed a kind of stop-animation process with my drawings, which is time consuming and bizarre. The process itself is a kind of performance piece (drawing free-style with a camera blocking half my view; trying not to move the paper or my camera.)

Thinking of the video-making process as part of it will slow you down, and help you make a better video.

A lot of poem videos are kind of awkward…it’s important to pick the right tone (music, sounds, title font, footage).

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NVW: I know you’re the granddaughter of Ruth Stone, a poet who’s near and dear to my heart, and I know too that you’re running the foundation to make her Vermont house a writer’s retreat and artist space. Could you talk a bit about how her life and/or her poetry have influenced your own? In your video, “Because You Love You Come Apart,” I could swear the first voice is Ruth’s.

BS: YES, the first voice is grandma’s voice, with me pantomiming it. She was an amazing reader.

Well, how to begin with this….grandma’s poetry is the most important poetry to me in the world. Her voice, her words, her love, is why I’m a poet.

I’ve written a lot about it. But to kind of sum-up, I spent my childhood with her (living with her in Binghamton while she was teaching there, traveling to readings, spending summers with her in Goshen, VT). We wrote together all the time, read her poems out loud; created together. I was raised by a single mother, so we spent a lot of our life dependent on my grandmother. My whole maternal family really revolved around her.

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Since her house in Vermont has always been a haven for her writing, and for students, poets, artists (and of course my mother and aunts), I’ve always dreamed of making it into a writer’s retreat. Sadly, the house needs about 500,000 worth of renovation (it’s also a historical landmark, so that price includes the parameters of restoring such a house). People tell me to tear it down, and I just want to scream! I wouldn’t dream of it! I’ve been toiling away with whoever will help, raising as much money as we can, trying to save it. All her writing and books and my family’s history is in there, getting eaten by mice and consumed by the elements. This summer I’ll be up there full-time. I’m going to get married there!

Honestly, anyone who can, please donate here at the Ruth Stone Foundation site and read more about what we’re doing.

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NVW: I know you have a new book, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, just out with Tin House/Octopus Books. Does it include visual art? Or did visual art—your own or others—inspire the poems in the book?

BS: I did the cover. (Which, I at first said I wouldn’t do, because art sometimes trumps words.) But besides that, it’s all about my poems. However, you’ll notice in the book that several poems are also poetry-comics and/or poem-videos out in the world.

I’ve been looking forward to my first book for a long, long time. I was patient in the end, waiting until I had it right. Now I’m thrilled with the whole trajectory of my poetry. I just wish grandma were here to see it.

—Nance Van Winckel & Bianca Stone
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Bianca Stone grew up in Vermont, and graduated with an MFA from NYU’s Creative Writing Program. She is the author of Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books, 2014), several poetry and poetry comic chapbooks, and is also the illustrator of Antigonick, (a collaboration with Anne Carson). Her poems have appeared in magazines such as American Poetry ReviewTin House, and Crazyhorse. She lives in Brooklyn.
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Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, andGettysburg Review. She is also the author of three collections of short fiction and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon ReviewBoneland, her fourth collection of fiction, is forthcoming in October from U. of Oklahoma Press. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest and excerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review OnlineClick this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson. Her personal web page is here.

 

 

Mar 072014
 

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I kept hearing his name, usually associated with the question, “Have you read…?” Have you read Reality Hunger? Have you read the new Salinger biography? Have you read How Literature Saved My Life? I believe the word is buzz.

By almost any standard, David Shields has been enjoying quite a ride. Since 2010, when Vintage Books published Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Shields has written or edited 5 books. Most recently, he co-authored Salinger with Shane Salerno.  Shields also appeared in the PBS documentary produced and directed by Salerno.

On occasion, Shields has been pilloried by the controversy surrounding Reality Hunger, a book comprised mainly of appropriated and loosely attributed quotes by various writers and artists. He is unabashedly proud of the book, calling it one of his most personal and passionate. After exchanging a series of emails and speaking with him on the phone, what becomes readily apparent is that Shields cares intensely about reading and writing. His books are an extension of his deep abiding search for meaning, an exploration he calls a ‘radical epistemology.’

Shields’ writing pushes boundaries, often enflaming critics and detractors. At the same time, his style continues an ongoing conversation with literature that is certainly not new. Our interview ranges from Stanley Kubrick to Walter Benjamin, from Virginia Woolf to J.M. Coetzee, from V.S. Naipaul to David Foster Wallace. Shields is a prolific writer, a thoughtful and deep reader, and an artist not afraid to transcend boundaries.

–Richard Farrell

 

RF: Anne Carson writes, “I’ll do anything to avoid boredom.”  There’s a similarity of intent between Carson’s work and your work.  And what’s interesting is that you both do a lot of the heavy lifting for you readers, so that what is produced is anything but boring. The work appears effortless, but I suspect the exact opposite is true.

DS: That’s high praise, on a number of levels. People say, “Oh what did you do, come up with this clever idea and then look for passages that would fill up the book?” I don’t see how that kind of book would be any good. It would just been a one-trick pony. A lot of my friends, quite justifiably, think of Reality Hunger as my most personal and my most passionate book.

The book began when I started teaching a graduate course in fiction-writing at the University of Washington. I had this huge blue binder of full of quotations of stuff I really liked: passages from Heraclitus to D’Agata that were articulating and embodying what began to feel like a new aesthetic: not fiction, not as journalism, not scholarship, but essay as “radical epistemology.” Work that uses the frame of “nonfiction” to explore the most serious questions about existence: What’s real? What’s knowledge? What’s memory? What’s truth? What’s a self? How much can a self know about another self?

So I was gathering all these quotes. The packet was full of repetitions of the same quotes, misspellings, doodles. I started organizing passages into little rubrics or chapters. And year by year this course packet deepened, and then I realized I had the rough draft of a book, at which point I really went to work on it.

It’s a strange book. People think it was some kind of IED, some sort of attention-getting mechanism, but I thought twenty people would read it. I thought it would get published by a university press. It was intended for fellow writers and readers and students: for those of us bored by conventional fiction and conventional nonfiction, here’s a way forward. But because of the book’s purposeful withholding of standard citation, the book developed a kind of bad-boy aura.

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RF: You take the novel to task pretty hard in places, but I don’t think you’re attacking the novel so much as you’re attacking genre. Is your argument more about genre than it is about fiction versus nonfiction?

DS:  Right. One of the book’s epigraphs is from Walter Benjamin: “All serious works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.” I think it’s so ridiculous that so many people who are supposedly serious writers get praised for being Dickensian writers or Tolstoyan writers. Dickens and Tolstoy were great writers, but the reason they’re great is that they pushed the form forward, “altered the face of an art form” in Pauline Kael’s phrase. This is even truer for Flaubert or Virginia Woolf or Beethoven or Monet or Picasso.

I listened to a guide in the National Gallery who was asked what makes Mark Rothko a great painter. And the guide ended up saying, “Rothko’s great because he changed the weather for everyone who came after him.” Everyone afterward had to deal with Rothko. That’s the standard I’m trying to hold up for myself and fellow artists. It’s not that I have some minor quarrel with writer X, Y, or Z. The novel is supposed to be something new. That’s what “novel” originally meant. And yet it’s become unbelievably formulaic. I really care about the future of literature, and I’m trying to push it in an exciting direction and away from a dead direction.

RF: I wrote a portion of my critical thesis in graduate school on Leonard Michaels’s “In the Fifties.”  I read it and treated it as fiction. After all, it was included in a story collection. But then a classmate of mine treated the same piece as a nonfiction list essay.  This really annoyed me for awhile, until I recognized how little these distinctions mattered. It’s simply an elegant piece of writing.

DS: The only thing that matters is how Michaels arranged the material into a meditation on how the private narcissism of the fifties became the public violence of the sixties. I think that’s all that really matters. Plath. Catullus. Berryman. Whitman. We grant poetic license to the speaker. I’m seeking the same freedom for the essay as we’ve always had for the poem.

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RF: Patricia Hampl talked about starting out as a nonfiction writer.  She said they didn’t know where to put her books when she first started out. I know you quote her in How Literature Saved My Life. I had the chance to spend some time with her in Vermont a couple of years ago and heard her say that it shouldn’t be called creative nonfiction, but non-poetry, because the writing is closer to poetry.

DS: I think I quote her in Reality Hunger rather than in the later book. She talks beautifully about how related the poem and the essay are. Both are meditative, contemplative, consciousness-drenched forms.

I’ve learned a lot from Trish. So many people, when they write an essay, think if they just the story of what happened, that in itself is compelling, but it’s not. Hampl is very good on this, as are Gornick, Lopate, D’Agata.

The essay is a meaning-making machine. That’s what’s so exciting about it.  It says, Okay, I served in Fallujah or my sister is an alcoholic, whatever the situation is—some aspect of dramatic existence. But then what the essayist has to do is to wrench that into meaning, often by wiring the material through the self, by making the self complicit with the experience. It’s not reportorial journalism; it’s not academic scholarship, although it might partake of both. You’re trying to arrive at nothing less than wisdom, which I think is what makes the form so, so exciting.

If you write a bad essay, people think, I really don’t like you. But if people really like your essay, and you’ve said tough-minded things about yourself and others, and people still connect to you, that’s a very serious embrace between writer and reader. That’s a serious, existential act. You actually have made the world significantly less lonely. David Foster Wallace is really great on this: We’re existentially alone on the planet. I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling. You can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling. And writing is a bridge constructed across the abyss between the loneliness.

Wallace goes awry when he goes on to say, “Don’t worry, all the little contrivances of fiction are hoops we can jump through and still cross the abyss of human loneliness.” It’s completely obvious that far and away Wallace’s best work is found in his essays.

Did Trish Hampl critique anything of yours?

RF: She read a fiction story of mine and tore it up pretty good, but that opportunity, to have such an experienced writer cut through all the “workshop bullshit” and tell you the truth—that was invaluable.

DS: It’s interesting that you mention “workshop bullshit,” because it’s absolutely the prevailing mode of contemporary literary discourse. Just read “major” reviewers: they’re basically still reviewing work according to the workshop model, which for me has nothing to do with what it feels like to be alive now. There are works of fiction that definitely surprise me and that I love with all my heart and soul. Say, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.

RF: I once heard Robert Vivian talk about “vestibular space,” which is the space you pass through before you enter the sacred places you write from. Do you ever contemplate your vestibular spaces?

DS: I do unbelievable amounts of research before I sit down to write, even something quite short. I gather all this material, and I just gather all the notes: stuff from the web, books that I read, journalistic reportage. I develop this huge, very rough, very loose, inchoate mess of stuff. I find that a terribly useful process. That’s my vestibule, for sure.

Then I just marinate in it, to mix metaphors. I just spend a huge amount of time with that material. I develop material around a very broad topic: death or love or art or celebrity. Then I try to find the very occasional passages that have for me some potential, some life. I often color code the passages, endlessly rewriting them. Then I try to put the passages into a trajectory both within a chapter and within the book. In a way it’s not time- or cost-effective, but I need that endless luxuriating in the material. Other people can apparently just sit down and write a five-thousand word essay and, in a way, I’m just amazed they can do that. It’s not the way my mind works. I seem to need all those data points, just to hold in my hands. A box of rocks, say; I find the 127 rocks that really glint and throw off light. Then I shape the rocks, sharpen them, and then I put them, very crucially, into the right order. For better or worse, that’s how my mind thinks.

RF: There’s a documentary about Stanley Kubrick called Boxes; it documents the trove of material the great director gathered around him when shooting a scene. For one particular scene in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick had thousands of photographs taken of doorways and gates in England. He spent months documenting and examining these photos for a single shot in a single scene. I think there might be some resonance between Kubrick’s method and your own.

DS: I’d like to watch that documentary, but it also sounds like a bit of a cautionary tale. One can definitely get trapped in one’s own processes. I certainly like some Kubrick quite a lot. Dr. Strangelove is great, as is Lolita.  But there are some films in his last couple of decades in which he got so attuned to his own mental processes that the work suffers. I’d have to go back and watch all of Kubrick.  For all I know, those films hold up beautifully.  He’s obviously a major artist.  But I can see how, in this process, which I do, and which Kubrick does in his own way, there’s a real danger that that all you’re doing is staring at your own reflection.

That risk interests me, but I work incredibly hard to avoid those traps.  I try to make sure the work is about something more than my own reflection.  If you write a poem, there is a danger that you’re performing only a series of technical verbal maneuvers; when you write a novel, there is a danger that you’re only carnival-barking, merely entertaining. And if you write personal essay or even literary collage or collage essay, you run the risk that you “writing only about yourself.” You want to go so deeply into yourself that you come out the other end into a “universal” space, or as Montaigne said, “Every man contains within himself the entire human condition.” That may sound grandiose, but in the great essays, we recognize that nothing less has happened.

RF: A lot of the experimental work pushes boundaries.  That seems to be what you are drawn to, both as a reader and as a writer.  Is that true?

DS: I’m definitely not interested in experiment for experiment’s sake. V.S. Naipaul says, “If you want to write seriously, you have to be willing to break the forms.” Coetzee deconstructs his own work: it’s not great because it never deformed the medium in order to say what only he could say. If you’re not doing that, why bother? Writing ought to be a deadly serious act of investigation and exploration. It shouldn’t be you with your little sewing kit trying to make a perfect little hand puppet. “Is this workshop-worthy? I’ve put all my soldiers into a perfect order, but I’ve produced this perfect little dead thing.” That can’t be a living model.

—David Shields & Richard Farrell

 

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Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.

David Shields is the New York Times bestselling author of fifteen books, including The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be DeadSalinger (co-written by Shane Salerno); Reality Hunger, named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications; Black Planet, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Remote, winner of the PEN/Revson Award; and Dead Languages, winner of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle, where he is the Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington. His work has been translated into twenty languages.

 

Feb 032014
 

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A few months ago, Micheline Aharonian Marcom emailed thanking me for a review I wrote of her new novel, A Brief History of Yes, which you can read an excerpt from on Numéro Cinq. It was thrilling to get an email from an author whose work I admire so much. While writing the review, I’d become fixated with each of her novels because of their remarkable mixture of passion and formal inventiveness. They often recall for me passages of William Faulkner and Clarice Lispector. Gorgeous and original novels, they seek obsessively the ineffable within language. Here’s an exemplary passage from her most recent novel:

And yes is the hillside grove; the invisible songbird inside of it. Yes the three-legged dogs in the white clay city. The blue pushing the sky out like a girl pushes from behind her mother’s skirts with her hand to see what she has hidden from only moments ago. His feet, bony, ugly and black, and her toenails painted with lacquer a red or brown. Water. The water in the glass. The clear glass, the clear water. Water and the glass the same color which is clear and the word clear which doesn’t say the yes of the color or the isness of all the life in the color or nothing in the glass holding water oxygen like refracted on the glass which is the image on glass of the window, the blue peeking sky, fingerprints, greasy and earthy, so that the glass doesn’t fly off into ethereal metaphors and the girl herself, Maria, in the glass: thin stretched-down face, dark eyes, the right darker than the left, the right hand lifted in prayer, in benediction, and the mouth smiling now, open, saying, singing herself.

—A Brief History of Yes (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)

After her initial email, I took the opportunity to ask her some questions about her novels, her working habits, and artistic vision. As Marcom says below she takes her obsessions with “stories that go untold” as the subject of her work and turns them into inquires. She has explored the Armenian genocide in her first three novels (Three Apples Fell from Heaven, The Daydreaming Boy, and Draining the Sea) and female sexuality in her most recent work (The Mirror in the Well and A Brief History of Yes). In each of these books, she proves herself again and again to be a writer with an unremitting gaze, depicting acts both tender and monstrous that push her characters to places—whether internally or externally—that is beyond or without language. Our interview took place over email in late 2013.

Herewith is an interview with Micheline Aharonian Marcom.

—Jason DeYoung

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Jason DeYoung (JD): You’ve written a trilogy on genocide and now you are writing (or have written) a trilogy of ‘domestic dramas,’ as you’ve described them. What is it about trilogies that attract you?  How do they serve you as an artist?  And are there trilogies that have influenced you?

Micheline Aharonian Marcom  (MAM): I don’t think, in either case, I knew or planned to write a trilogy—it was more that when I was finishing my first novel I realized that everything I wanted to think about would not “fit” into one book, and also the second one began to emerge in my mind. I realized, or decided at that point, that naturally there would follow three books, following three generations of Armenians, and in some manner, following my own family’s timeline and geographical movements (although neither the second or third book in that trilogy is biographical). Whereas the second trilogy I wrote, what I think of as a “domestic” one spiraling around women narrators in relations with men, and the questions of love including its big themes—adultery; unrequited love; the forces, drives and mania of eros—I didn’t realize until I had probably written the third one, The Nothing on Which the Fire Depends, that these were in fact three and in some kind of relationship to one another, and hence a kind of trilogy. Beyond those six novels, I have written three others which are not trilogies…so perhaps it had more to do with the subject matter into which those books inquired more than anything else. And three is an old and stable number: a triangle…the trinity. It is the “culmination of manifestation” as the Dictionary of Symbols says: nothing can be added to it.

JD: You said in your interview with Context that “books… ‘make’ writers into the writers that they are.”  Could you talk about or describe what you mean by this?

MAM: I often tell my students that the books they are writing, especially, perhaps, the first one, “makes” the writer. When I was writing Three Apples Fell From Heaven that book was so beyond my ken, my skills, what I thought I was capable of, and so it pushed me—the material mattered so much to me, not only because it was the story of my own family’s survival of the Armenian genocide, but I also felt a responsibility to the unknown dead whose stories had not either been widely told. So there was high bar in the writing of that book, a steep learning curve.  And language already didn’t feel like it could hold the stories, the losses, but it had to try to do so. I had to try my best and the book, as it emerged, responded in some way: perhaps this is the great mystery of making books: that the writer does her best, studies craft, reads and reads and reads, “everything,” as William Faulkner exhorted us to do—and she writes and fails and writes more—to fall into the rhythm of the stories and the “voices” and find, ultimately, and make, a book’s final form. Writing for me is akin to how I experience consciousness: it contains its highs and lows—the spiritual and the very mundane—one must, after all, sit in one’s chair and write and revise for years on end, it’s a quiet, unadventurous vocation, and yet the gods do come in…inspiration is also part of the process.

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JD: I just finished up a large project on Joseph McElroy, and during my research I came across his essay on 9/11 and in it he asks himself “what knowledge have I that’s of any use.” This statement really shook me because (as I took it) here is one of the great fiction writers of the Twentieth Century asking what his role is in the face of this tragedy. But his question got me thinking again about the role of the writer, and the many definitions I’ve read; two that come quickest to mind are E. L. Doctorow’s assertion, “The ultimate responsibility of the writer is to witness”; and William T. Vollmann’s “We should portray important human problems.” Each writer seems to have a personalize definition of the “job.”  What’s yours?

MAM: I respect William T. Vollmann’s work tremendously and am, I think, in great accord with what you’ve quoted from him how a writer “should portray important human problems.” Writing for me is inquiring.  And what I inquire into has varied and continues to vary as my interests broaden, my concerns are raised, my heart and mind are involved…my obsessions reveal themselves.  I am always interested in stories that go untold, are censored, denied, erased: the interstitial stories, the ones, also, that many turn their heads from, where shame is a form of censorship.  I suppose you can see these “obsessions” already in my earliest novels: the genocides of Armenians and the Ixil-May in Guatemala, but they are also evident in Mirror with its story of unhindered uncensored female sexuality, and in my latest novel, The New American, about an undocumented Guatemalan-American college student who is deported to Guatemala and returns to California riding on cargo trains with other Central American migrants. I guess you’d say I only write about things that feel urgent to me, that I believe matter. But this also includes small things—like the hummingbird I wrote about that came and sat on my back porch, or the orb spider who spins his web anew each night in September in the garden. Natural beauty matters also.

JD: From what I can gather from looking at some other interviews with you, you are a deeply read person. I’m always curious about author’s reading habits and how they read. Do you have a method to your reading, to the texts you study? Are you looking for anything in particular?

MAM: I’d like to be a deeply read person, I love books, and there are so many I haven’t yet read or read only one time. When I began writing and studying more seriously in my late twenties I read everything—the old, the new, the recently released, etc. Now I find I am only more or less interested in reading books that are masterful, that are “at pitch”…something which years of reading means I can now sense more quickly.  With the books we call classics we trust that there is this “aesthetic achievement”: they’ve lasted and been lauded for a reason.  With newer books one must trust one’s own instincts and follow one’s own predilections, because time cannot yet help us. But I am always so happy to discover new writers and new books! And basically toward this end I ask writers and critics and deep readers I know for recommendations. I try to read widely, across time and space. I’ve never understood reading only one’s peers in one’s own country. But I also think of someone like Montaigne who read fewer books, great ones, over and over again—that seems to have tremendous merit as well: reading deeply. Many books won’t stand up to a second reading, after the plot is discovered, all the energy falls out of the book—it’s why a second read (and third and fourth) tells you so much, reveals so much about a text.

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JD: One of the striking characteristics of your writing—and something I admire—is your exploration of the body, as in A Brief History of Yes, the lover’s concave chest; in The Mirror in the Well, the woman’s cunt; and, of course, Draining the Sea has a lot to say about the body and bodies. Some of it is beautiful and some ugly (but there’s a freedom and warmth toward that ugliness, too, of giving it witness). What role might the visceral, the body, the flesh play in your work?  This question is in part inspired by two sentences in A Brief History of Yes: “Have you not seen your Christ on the cross? And why does the Protestant deny the image where the knowledge can be felt.”

MAM: In his wonderful essay “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” and in response to fierce criticism of that novel, DH Lawrence wrote: “The body’s life is the life of sensations and emotions. The body feels real hunger, real thirst, real joy in the sun or snow, real pleasure in the smell of roses or the look of a lilac busy; real anger, real sorrow, real love, real tenderness, real warmth, real passion, real hate, real grief.  All the emotions belong to the body, and are only recognized by the mind.” In response to your question, I would say that I have long been and remain interested in the real, and intuitively and sometimes consciously, as Lawrence says it here, I know that the real is experienced in the body. It’s how we know anything. He goes on to say: “The Christian religion lost, in Protestantism finally, the togetherness with the universe, the togetherness of the body, the sex, the emotions, the passions, with the earth and sun and stars.” Perhaps that’s part of my “writing the body,” my interest in writing the whole, the “togetherness.” I have long thought that there ought to be a word in English that encompasses to think-feel, this seems to me how we come to know things, and then just recently I realized that the Latin word “sentire,” which in English we define as “to realize” and is the root of words like “sentiment,” actually does mean that! Think-feel.

JD: You’ve spoken about your novels being inquires, and that you write by instinct, but at some point formal concerns must become a priority. Can you talk a little about that point? Does the work expand or contract at this point? How do you think about the patterns in your work?

MAM: I always am thinking about form, and patterns. It is not an afterthought, but concurrent with the making of a book. I follow what I think of as “heat” as a writer. Write scenes as and where I feel energy, I guess you could say. Over time, the mind makes patterns and the form begins to become apparent. But I make a lot of conscious and deliberate decisions about form, I’m the artist and I know it’s my job to hold the reins of the book, fine-tune it, order it, etc.  To that end the editing process can be a very long and detailed one. First drafts I’m kind of free-wheeling, but later I batten down the hatches and read and edit and revise until a book is finished. Until every comma is where I want it. Every word. To the degree I am capable of.

JD: You’ve written “social” novels and “domestic” novels, can you give any insight about the process of writing the two, the differences? Do you value one over another? Or are they the two sides of one coin, meaning one cannot exist without the other?

MAM:I write what I feel like writing, what I feel called to write, what is urgent.  The only real difference between the “historical” and “social” novels I’ve written is that the former usually require a significant amount of research and travel, whereas the latter have needed less. Although as I say that, I then remember how I traveled to Portugal to write A Brief History. I also did a lot of research about Lisbon and fado music and listened to fado regularly as well as studied icon painting and its history and went to museums to look at them, and then at some point found myself studying bird migration and hermit thrushes. So in some ways all of my books go hand in hand with some things I’m researching and learning about. I suppose it’s not only that writing is inquiring for me, it’s also that I’m curious and like to know better than I do and books are one way for me to deepen my various interests of the moment and plus everything I’m interested in tends to make its way into my books!

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JD: You are (or have been) a teacher. What is the one teachable component to writing? What would most students say you teach them?

MAM: I’ve been teaching for twenty-five years, one subject or another—I was a teacher before I became a writer actually. For the past eleven years I’ve been teaching in an MFA program, working with creative writers. I teach writing from my own experience as a writer.  The biggest influence on my teaching style was my former teacher, Ginu Kamani, who taught me to “apprentice” with books. The one teachable component to writing? Read! Love books and read read read—the books are the teachers. I think my students might say that I encourage them to be their own best editors, to train themselves to be their books’ best readers, and to trust themselves: the work is theirs, and only they can do it and only they can determine if it’s done to their satisfaction.

JD: Any new work forthcoming?

MAM: My sixth book, The New American, will be published by Simon & Schuster.

—Micheline Aharonian Marcom and Jason DeYoung

Micheline Aharonian Marcom is the author of five published novels. The first three—Three Apples that Fell from Heaven (2001), The Daydreaming Boy (2004), and Draining the Sea (2008)—take as their subject genocide, and operate loosely as a trilogy. Her new novel, A Brief History of Yes, is the companion novel (and the second in a new trilogy) to The Mirror in the Well.  She is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the PEN/USA Award for Fiction, and a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship.  She lives in Berkeley, California

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Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  His fiction and other writing has appeared recently or is forthcoming in REAL: Regarding Art and Letters, Music & Literature, New Orleans Review, The Los Angeles ReviewNuméro Cinq, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012.

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Jan 022014
 
Steve Almond Photo by Sharona Jacobs
Steve Almond Photo by Sharona Jacobs

I first met Steve Almond in the late ‘90s when he participated in a panel discussion at the Boston Public Library about the state of publishing.  Unlike his more conciliatory co-panelists, Almond let loose with a spirited evisceration of an industry that pushes lackluster, commercially viable efforts over work created by hardworking craftspeople digging for literary truths.  Almond came off as cynical, even bitter, though by the end of the event, he was the guy we fledgling young writers in the audience wanted to be.  Almond was a renegade.  A true artist.

Nearly two decades later, Almond has become a household name (at least among literary circles) and a local celebrity in Boston where he makes his home.  He has been an adjunct professor of Fiction and Non-Fiction at Boston College and Emerson College, and a creative writing instructor whose classes consistently sell out at Grub Street, a non-profit organization for Boston-area writers.  He has also become an enviably content family man – as opposed to the self-loathing cad he admits to being in his youth – a state that makes his lingering cynicism even more poignant.

As a writer, Almond is intimidatingly prolific.  He has written ten books of fiction and non-fiction, including 2010’s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, an essay collection about his years spent as a “drooling” music fanatic, and God Bless America, his most recent collection of short stories. Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, a memoir tracing his lifelong obsession with sweets, won a host of awards and was selected as a best book of 2004 by Amazon.com. His stories and essays have been featured in countless publications, including Tin House, Ploughshares, Salon.com and Playboy magazine, and have won him innumerable honors including the Pushcart Prize.

What’s most amazing about Almond is his versatility; the same writer who can write gut-busting predictions for 2014 (Pope Francis becomes a Unitarian, Miley Cyrus gets a tongue infection) can also break your heart, for instance, in his short story, “First Date Back,” about an emotionally damaged war veteran’s doomed love affair with a flight attendant.  Almond is known for his sharp wit and penchant for tugging at the seams of a complacent American culture. But beneath his deliciously witty, sometimes harsh tone lies an enduring faith in humanity. Almond loves us all though we occasionally piss him off with our tendency to ignore our better angels.

 — Laura K. Warrell

§

Laura K. Warrell (LW): One of the qualities that stands out in your work is how present you are as an author.  As readers, we know so much about you – what you consider to be your weaknesses and obsessions, the botched relationships you suffered in the past and the marriage and family you enjoy in the present. Like Vonnegut, one of your literary heroes, you’ve written yourself deeply into the work.  What does this do for you as a writer and what do you think it does for the reader?

Steve Almond (SA): Writers are always making themselves known; it’s just how overt they are about it. Any good art is coming from a writer’s deepest preoccupations, anxieties and concerns and sometimes directly from his or her memories and fantasy life.  For instance, there’s no way to separate J.D. Salinger from Holden Caulfield.  Caulfield wasn’t just out there in the cosmos waiting for Salinger to happen onto him. He was a figment of Salinger’s imagination, an expression of Salinger’s deepest anxieties and sorrows, a fictional disguise. Holden Caulfield is considered a beautifully imagined character, but really he came from the deepest precincts of Salinger’s psyche.  Any decent artist is revealing the deepest part of who he or she is.  In my recent nonfiction, I write overtly about my life and opinions.  It’s not sublimated into fictional characters.  But even if it was, it would still be me.

LW: Do you think it’s possible to write too much about the self, perhaps to the point of self-absorption?

SA: What lifts work away from solipsism and self-absorption is the author’s attempt to understand and endure feelings – sometimes difficult, even unbearable feelings, and sometimes feelings so ecstatic and wonderful they’re unbearable in a whole other way.  Focusing on the self doesn’t make a work self-absorbed. What makes a work solipsistic or self-absorbed is a superficial focus on the self in a way that is self-concerned without being self-interrogating or self-aware.

LW: So, if you’re engaging with a text as a writer or reader and the work isn’t compelling or engaging, is it possible the author just isn’t present enough?

SA: A writer’s career is marked by the work that made it out into the world, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are all the shitty drafts he or she wrote, the failed novels and projects that never got published. Those are places where the writer just didn’t dig deep enough.  In my case, it happens when I haven’t known or loved the characters deeply enough to successfully write about them, so I produce work that tends to settle for cleverness over real emotional engagement, there’s a certain show-offy quality. That’s the definition of sentimentalism: asserted emotion.  Emotion that’s not dramatized by the character and his or her experience but is asserted by the author.  That’s an attempt to make the self known but it’s a failed attempt.  I’m saying that as somebody who makes a lot of failed attempts.

LW: Part of what makes your work come alive is a kind of underlying obsession, which manifests in two ways.  You write with a wonderfully obsessive attention to detail and you also write about what seems to obsess you – music, sex, candy.  How important is obsessiveness and/or obsession to writing?

SA: Everybody comes into life as an obsessive.  Obsession is the default setting of how human beings think and feel.  When babies are hungry, they are obsessively hungry.  Obsession is the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction, and it’s the defining quality that allows us to produce and consume art. But our obsessions are socialized, cajoled or shamed out of us.  You’re not supposed to admit to having all these overweening, out-of-control, sometimes self-destructive feelings. But obsession isn’t there to fill your mind and spirit with junk; it’s a mode of consciousness. Artists are people who, by and large, are able to access that obsession and go straight at it, surrender to it, in the interest of trying to figure out why they can’t move past a particular experience or relationship dynamic or even a kind of food.  For me, writing Candyfreak was about getting to a place of such desperation as a writer, such unhappiness and self-loathing, that the only thing that could get me to the keyboard was writing about something I was naturally urgent about and felt all sorts of obsessive, wondrous feelings towards.  But what makes the book interesting, if it is interesting, is that it’s really a book about depression.  I thought about the role candy had played in my life and realized every incident from my childhood and adulthood was not just about pursuing happiness but also finding a path away from despair.  If I had just tried to write a fun, carefree book about candy it might have been clever but I don’t think it would’ve resonated as deeply with readers.  Good autobiographical writing proceeds from the question ‘am I going to be okay,’ and the sense of that being in some doubt.  That’s what inspirational memoir is all about: reassuring the reader everything is going to be okay.

LW: Sex also features heavily in your work; even when you’re talking about issues entirely unrelated to sex, you manage to sneak in a reference.  In your essay, “How to Write Sex Scenes: The Twelve-Step Program,” you suggest that these sexual moments are less about eroticism than “desire and heartbreak.” Is this what allows you to write so frankly about sex while maintaining a sense of depth and purpose?

SA: The question is whether as a writer you’re settling for self-regard over self-awareness.  Are you navel-gazing, or in this case, genital-gazing rather than peering into your own dark corners?  When I write about sex, I’m basing it on what it’s like as a real person to be in sexual situations.  Sometimes it’s wonderful, happy, physically ecstatic and intimate.  But every time there’s doubt: about the relationship, about yourself, body shame, all the stuff that’s fucking real.  There’s a certain kind of writing, including some of my more cheeky writing, that tries to portray sex like a sitcom and only glances in the direction of the deeper moments of self-loathing, doubt, or anxiety about our own pleasure or our capacity to give pleasure or whether we’re going to be lonely all our lives.  That’s fucking scary shit.  All I’m doing is saying, ‘yes, it’s scary,’ and when my characters go through it I try to draw from the parts of myself that are still kind of haunted by that.  Other authors make other decisions.  But if you slow down in the parts that are sad, awkward, shameful or painful – and yes, it’s hard to do but that’s where the equity is as an artist – you’re building these psychologically and emotionally reliable onramps to the moments that really matter.  And that’s the point.  My argument is that the sadder it gets, the funnier it gets.  The comic impulse arises from tragic feelings, it’s the way we contend with tragic stuff.  It’s a little moment of self-forgiveness.

rock and roll save

LW:  One of the essays I especially love from Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is “(I Bless the Rains Down in) Africa” in which you deconstruct the lyrics of the ‘80s hit “Africa” by Toto.  On one hand, it’s a funny look at a somewhat silly piece of music.  On the other hand, it’s a political piece about American culture.  What was your process writing it?

SA: Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is about worshipful fans, people who idolize musicians and get really attached to the soundtrack by which years of our lives are defined.  I put lots of things in the book to counterbalance my visits to obscure musicians who I think are awesome with the more esoteric stuff I wanted to talk about.  “Africa” is a good example of how the music of particular songs is so great we don’t even listen to the words.  A good backbeat and melody conquer everything.  I loved “Africa” and listened to it, I had a Toto album, I’m not disavowing that the song is an ecstasy tablet for your limbic system.  But when you really listen to the words, they seem to encapsulate so much of what’s completely fucked up about American culture.  If you want to understand the level of pathology, delusion and American colonial privilege as we lurch toward the end of our imperial death spiral, listen to that song.  It’s a great instance of how completely privileged, self-ennobling and insulated from real suffering we are. That’s all I was trying to say, though it’s really not fair.  The songwriter wasn’t writing a political manifesto, he was writing a pop song.  But I think the reason it gets a lot of credit, why the CBS Morning show plays it in their tribute to Nelson Mandela is because it’s exactly what America is built on.  The song doesn’t offer real depth, but an appearance of depth by name checking an impoverished continent with lots of starving people.  It’s a deeply cynical way of being in the world and typically American.  My radar aims toward those kinds of white-hot, pulsing quasars of hypocrisy.

god bless

LW: Your short story collection, God Bless America, begins with an epigraph from Max Lerner, which says, “America is a passionate idea or it is nothing.”  There are many ways to interpret the work and themes this book explores, but what stood out for me was the characters’ loneliness.  There were a lot of lonely people in this book and, moreover, people with small dreams they couldn’t seem to attain.  How do those ideas and Lerner’s quote fit into your view of America?

SA: Maybe this sounds depressing but that is America.  One of my favorite books is John Williams’ Stoner, which is this quiet book about an academic who, we find out in the first paragraph, never made any great marks, never made any great impression on his students or colleagues, is utterly forgotten by history.  And you sort of think, ‘God, what a loser’ but then you realize that’s 99.9% of us.  We might dream big but in our lives, we’re mostly known only by the people around us and most of our big dreams don’t happen.  America’s a sort of factory producing these dreams of big fame and unconditional, universal love but that’s not really how most people experience life. Instead, they struggle in day-to-day ways with small petty grievances.  Our fourth estate is in such a mess now because we have a bunch of people who are really good at exploiting those grievances, anxieties, fears and sources of rage.  We have such prosperity but we’re so pathologically greedy about it.  Despite our good intentions on a personal basis, we have social policies that are ridiculous, inhumane and just cruel and heedless.  So we end up with an unhappy civic culture.  How does that happen?  Well, it’s a bunch of lonely, unhappy people not listening to their conscience.  There are moments in which individually people are beautiful and do wonderful things, but as a collective, we’re profoundly unhappy.  Just turn on the TV and you’ll see it.  It’s impossible to live in this country and not be distressed thinking, ‘goddamn, we’ve got all this shit and we’re less happy per person than precincts of the world where people are struggling to get enough nutrition and where there’s a significant risk of violence, and those people live more happily than we do.’  That’s a big mystery and this collection is my effort to understand it.

LW: One of the stories, “The Darkness Together,” about a mother and son whose peculiar relationship is exposed when they meet a stranger on a train, is such a satisfying read though, unlike your funnier work, it’s sad and emotionally heavy.  So are there stories which you can’t “write funny,” not so much because of the subject matter but because the stories themselves don’t trigger the comic impulse?

SA:  You could write a story like “The Darkness Together,” with humorous elements: the sexual anxiety of the kid, the mother’s blindness to her weird, seductive mojo.  It’s not so much the material as it is the posture you have toward it, the attitude you take, the emotional space you’re writing out of.  Sometimes it’s looser and more relaxed, and humor becomes part of it.  And sometimes the emotional space is more sober.  I wrote this collection during a dark time in American history, the Bush years, and maybe a dark time in my personal history.  So a lot of the stories are more serious.  At readings, I find myself saying, ‘sorry, these are not going to be rip roaring funny.’  What I admire are writers – Vonnegut, Lorrie Moore, Sam Lipsyte – who are able to be funny/sad, who recognize those two travel together.  I like to write in that mode, that’s my natural terrain.  It’s how I deal with my own unhappiness.  But sometimes you write them straight.  But yes, it’s a collection where readers shouldn’t expect to snort milk out of their noses.

LW: Do you know when a piece should be written with a more serious tone or does it just come to you that way?

SA: I have an idea for a story and as it takes shape, I just say, what if, what if and what next.  Sometimes it arises with a serious question or I’m taking it seriously, looking at it straight without comic forgiving.  I’m just going to go to the dark shit, no joking around.  For instance in “First Date Back,” I’m writing about a soldier who’s just come back from a political conflict.  He’s guarding a secret and thinks he’s fallen in love with a stewardess on his flight home.  They have a brief relationship in which the combination of his craziness and her sensible attempt to hold him at bay collide.  Anything can be written in a way that has comic aspects to it, I could’ve done it with this story.  But the attitude I had imagining this guy and his deluded love affair, how the affair collides with or provokes this destructive secret he’s trying to keep inside, that was a sobering series of thoughts.  There was no Steve Almond humorous tap dancing going on.  I was getting closer to the truth, looking directly at it and trying to imagine the few hours those characters had together.  Of course, marketing people don’t like how I won’t write the one funny book or the one sad/serious book.  But I like that I have serious stories like “The Darkness Together” and “First Date Back” along with funnier stories like “A Jew Berserk on Christmas Eve” that clearly gets at serious stuff while giving the comic impulse free reign.

LW: You teach a class called “Funny is the New Deep” and also wrote an essay under the same title.  You say “prophecy” arises from distress and suggest that “the (literary) prophet is an idealist unable to silence his disappointments.”  How do you help writers, who might not have such easy access to those places of distress, pain and longing, get to those depths so they can write about life, sex or anything else in ways that are funny and deep?

SA: All you can do as a teacher is give permission and make it okay for students to go there, even to reward them for doing it.  It’s trickier when you’re talking about stuff people are conflicted about letting out of the bag, like their sense of humor.  A student may say, ‘I’m a serious person, I built my identity around being a serious person.’  But that doesn’t mean he or she has no sense of humor.  It’s just a quieter, more concealed sense of humor.  A sense of humor is just a bio-evolutionary adaptation, something human beings require in order to live with all the bad data rolling around their brains and hearts.  It takes different forms.  All I’m doing as a teacher is giving people permission and inspiring them.  I say, ‘actually, this classroom is the place where I want to know how fucked up things are, and I want you to tell the truth about the things that matter to you the most deeply.  In whatever form, in whatever tone.’  You can’t force people but you can make the decision desirable by making it clear that it’s a safe space to get into the shit and show examples of people doing it successfully: here’s what I mean by creating a strong narrator or what I mean by the comic impulse and how it operates in people’s work, this is what I mean when I say the sadder the work is and the more bruising its truths, the funnier it becomes.  What I admire in other writers is their effort to tell the truth and pay attention to the world around and inside them, around and inside their characters.  That’s what makes the language beautiful.  So I tell students not to worry about being a beautiful writer and just tell the truth about what’s rattling around inside them.  I’m always pleasantly shocked by how able people are to do that when you give them permission.

LW: Is it ever hard for you to be funny and deep?

SA: I struggle all the time getting at the darkest stuff in my own self and life, maybe because I’m still feeling guilty or confused or just frightened of it.  But that’s what a career in writing is about: expanding the number of things you can be brutally honest about.

LW: In your homage to Vonnegut, you talk about the writer you “wished to become” back when you were a younger man.  How close are you to becoming that writer?

SA: I still struggle everyday with making time, paying attention, figuring out the big mystery of how to write on a bigger scale.  Maybe stuff inside me is blocked but it might also have to do with having a family and wanting to give love and attention to them.  That’s going to take precedence over my art.  The people I admire – Dave Eggers, Jess Walter, Anthony Doerr, Cheryl Strayed, Aimee Bender – they’re able to give to their art and, it seems, to their families’ lives and even to their social conscience.  Those people are heroes to me.  I hope I’ll start to follow their example and live up to what I can do as an artist.

—Laura K. Warrell & Steve Almond

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Laura K WarrellLaura K. Warrell is a freelance writer living in Boston. She teaches writing at the Berklee College of Music and University of Massachusetts Boston and is a July, 2013, graduate of the MFA program at Vermont College. She has previously published both fiction and nonfiction in Numéro Cinq.

Dec 082013
 

Lowe in Studio

There is a line in Rilke’s “The Spanish Trilogy” — “…to make the Thing, Lord Lord Lord, the Thing” — that rings down through this amazing interview, NC Contributing Editor Nance Van Winckel with visual artist Lynda Lowe, an interview about art, making art, and the art of collaboration. All art is, yes, about making Things. We forget that sometimes. Expressing ourselves, making a point, sending a message, selling a line, finding a market, all take a back seat to the thingness of the Thing, its sudden and utter presence, sui generis and unique. Whether it’s a poem or a painting or some combination thereof (or a novel or a figure in a block of stone…).

dg

01 Installation Object of the Object
01 Installation view of The Object of the Object, for the Poetic Dialogue, 13”H x 20’W x 4”D, 2008
Collaboration with poet Nance Van Winckel

NVW: I thought we’d begin with a few questions about our collaboration for the Poetic Dialogue Project, a group exhibit of poets and artists who were paired to combine poetry and visual art. Since we both live in Washington, we were paired together. I remember coming to your lovely studio near Tacoma and seeing all the cool “tools” you’d collected and thinking about a poem I’d written called “Left to Our Own Devices,” which was also about tools, tiny clock-repair tools.

I sensed we were both interested in objects and, as we went on to discuss, “thingness” or “objecthood.” We called our collaborative project The Object of the Object. I particularly love the piece of yours with those calipers in it. I would suppose that as an artist you must have developed a close kinship with the “tools of your trade.” Can you describe a bit what our collaboration WAS (the series, sizes, etc.) and also talk a little about the subject of “things” and its appeal to you as a visual artist?

05 Object of the Object panel 15
Panel 15, The Object of the Object, 12” x 12” water and oil media, wax on panel 2008

Lynda Lowe: The Poetic Dialogue’s intent was to have a visual artist and a poet collaborate in the creation of a new work for a traveling exhibition. It was on my mind to not just make an illustration for your poems or for you to write something in reaction to a painting, but to integrate these forms as much as possible. Since we didn’t know each other before beginning the collaboration, we spent time sniffing out the turf where we might find something common and fertile. We passed back and forth word lists, favorite readings, images, and poems to see where we might begin.

Through Rilke’s poetry we discussed the interiority of the object, its thingness: “to make the Thing, Lord Lord Lord, the Thing.”

Things contain narrative, perhaps even a kind of sentient presence. Humans make stories from, and meaning out of, even the most random collection of them. The idea seemed a good starting place as it shows up in your poetry and also in my imagery. Thus began “The Object of the Object.”

02 Object of the Object panel 1
Panel 1, The Object of the Object, 12” x 12” water and oil media, wax on panel 2008

Our work had to grow organically between us and achieve a balance that honored both word and image. I started with a group of paintings on 12” square panels that were deliberately left unfinished and sent images to you. You sent poetry in progress. We had to meander about with some directionless hiking for a while. An “aha!” moment for me was reading the last line in your poem “Coxswain”: “in us are the woods.”

Beautiful! Imagery began to coalesce for me. Our circumvolution continued. I remember we discussed the creation of a codex form where a viewer-reader would have to physically walk the expanse of a series of panels, thereby engaging time and memory through repeated imagery and text. The final product was a twenty-foot span of eighteen panels that were seated on a shallow shelf, leaning against the supporting wall.

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NVW: During our collaboration, I recall you also brought up another term that’s near and dear to my heart: wabi-sabi. I think you rightly sensed my simpatico with this idea as you so well described it in our email exchange back then, ” the worn beauty of age and the graceful disorder of nature.” I know your work is influenced by Eastern philosophies in general and perhaps by the concept of wabi-sabi in particular. In our collaboration, how did these ideas influence the process and/or product?

Lynda Lowe: We both pay attention to that earned patina: your marmot playground of rusting factory equipment and my hundreds of old wall photos taken on travels. The layers of wear, weather, the mark of a passerby build such beautiful surfaces that speak of narrative use and history. Nature has these cycles of age and re-growth too of course. Being a gardener you can’t miss it. Imperfection and disorder is an undeniable part of the landscape on every level. When I’m developing a painting, vestiges of many additions and subtractions layer the work and this is never quite predictable. It lends a wabi-sabi quality to it.

Object of Object (panel 4)
Panel 4, The Object of the Object, 12” x 12” water and oil media, wax on panel 2008

NVW: I know you’re a great lover of T.S. Eliot and in particular his Four Quartets. You’ve used passages of his poetry in your work before, as well as lines from other poets, myself included. Can you explain a little about how you think text—and perhaps specifically poetry—may best share the visual field with your incredibly textured and expansive imagery?

Lynda Lowe: Text and imagery are in some basic way, information. They comprise part of a larger perceptual field. I’m very interested in how we construct meaning from a personal blend of reason, intuition, memory, and spirit. In the combining of elements such as poetry, diagrams, equations, realism, intuitive mark, and abstract color field, I’m creating a matrix that suggests these are all part of a unitive whole.

Object of the Object (panel 6)
Panel 6, The Object of the Object, 12” x 12” water and oil media, wax on panel 2008

NVW: I was happy to reconnect with you recently in Tacoma at the Museum of Glass and the opening for your wonderful show, a series of 108 ceramic vessels called The Patra Passage. Again, I realized we had another mutual interest, Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book The Gift. I recall reading this book in the mid-1980′s and being very moved. It helped me to feel a better acceptance and even joy about my own life-choice: to make poems. Hyde speaks about art as a kind of gift the artist gives to her world. The gift is meant to be shared. This making and giving concern important aspects of community and shared values.

Hyde’s messages came to me at a time when I really need to hear exactly that. The promises of financial reward, publishing contracts and such sorts of “recompense” had begun to feel far off and unreachable to me, but I still loved and valued poetry and I wanted to continue with this art front and center in my life. Can you talk about your vessels which you gave away, and which the recipients (myself included) will again give away, and so on—and how, as an artist, you think about this interconnectedness of art-making and art-giving? And how The Patra Passage, in particular, was inspired? Here’s the wonderful video about that project:

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Lynda Lowe: After a rough couple of years and I felt I was looking at life through the other end of the telescope. What do I consider valuable when viewing things in reverse, not ahead? I’d been incubating ideas for the Patra Passage for over a decade. The image of a bowl repeatedly shows up in my paintings as a symbol for the fluid act of giving and receiving. Interconnectedness is of great interest to me.

I knew where I wanted to take the idea, but the project required a total change in media and a large commitment of time without income. Lewis Hyde’s writing was and is indeed a true gift and encouragement. Also hugely significant is the privilege of many wonderful supporters and participants – you being one of them! The Passage seeks collaboration and connection. The website more fully describes the project. I wholeheartedly invite interaction from all visitors to the site: www.patrapassage.com.

Patra vessels on bench
The Patra Passage, detail of some of the 108 vessels, 2013
Patra vessel
The Patra Passage, Patra vessel, 5” x 5” x 5” 2013
Patra  vessel
The Patra Passage, Patra vessel, 2013

NVW: What’s your next project?

Lynda Lowe: I’m in that transitional phase now after the launch of the Patra Passage where it’s back to the meandering path without a destination in mind. For the moment I’m playing again with my old friend T. S. Eliot and The Four Quartets. I don’t think I could ever mine that out. There are several exhibitions ahead, including the return of the Patra vessels at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. And soon I’ll be working collaboratively with poet Joseph Heithaus on another project. I’m grateful to be doing something I love and that challenges me.

Path-to-the-Path
The Path to the Path, 24” x 56” water and oil media, wax on panel, 2008 (T.S. Eliot quote used in this painting, title credit to Nance)

 

Falling and Flying 2
Falling and Flying II, 48” x 48”, water and oil media, wax on panel. 2012 (Rilke quote used in this painting)
Oaxaca Wall
Oaxaca Wall, 38” X 32”, water and oil media, wax on panel. 2012

—Nance Van Winckel & Lynda Lowe

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After completing an MFA at Indiana University, Lynda Lowe taught fifteen years at Wheaton College and Northern Illinois University.  In 1998 she left her academic position and began painting full-time. Soon after, a move to the Pacific Northwest brought fresh opportunities and the construction of a studio on the Puget Sound in Washington state where she currently resides.

Lowe’s overall imagery combines sections of color field, realism, text, and diagramatic figures. She employs fragments of poetry, handwritten scientific observations, and mathematical formula and layers them alongside highly rendered recognizable images to suggest that the construction of meaning is shaped from many different frames of reference. Archetypal symbols are deliberately integrated into her art, pointing out that the human experience is intrinsically connected the sentient world. Her surrounding environment and her travels abroad also profoundly impact her work.

A recent project, the Patra Passage. centers on the gifting of 108 hand-built ceramic bowls which are re-gifted at least three times throughout one year. After they return, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, will host an exhibition February – May, 2015.

Lynda Lowe’s paintings have been widely exhibited nationally in galleries and museums. She has been the recipient of two Artist Fellowship awards from the Illinois Arts Council, a distinguished resident of the Ragdale Foundation, a finalist of the Neddy Award, and represented by the following galleries:

  • Gail Severn Gallery, Sun Valley, ID  www.gailseverngallery.com
  • Arden Gallery in Boston, MA   www.ardengallery.com
  • Forre Fine Art in Aspen and Vail, Colorado and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida  www.forrefineart.com
  • Abmeyer+Wood, in Seattle, Washington   www.abmeyerwood.com

More of Lynda Lowe’s work can be viewed on www.lyndalowe.com and www.patrapassage.com.

Nance Van Winckel

Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, and Gettysburg Review. She is also the author of four collections of linked short stories and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Boneland, her newest book of fiction, is just out with U. of Oklahoma Press. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon Review. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography appear in Poetry Northwest and excerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in Hotel Amerika and The Kenyon Review Online. Click this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson. Her personal web page is here.

Dec 042013
 


JM1

 

The first book I reviewed for Numéro Cinq was Joseph McElroy’s Night Soul & Other Stories. It was a book that shook me like few other have. Its sentences were often long, articulated in a style that was erudite and meticulous. But length and erudition wasn’t all, these sentences frequently seemed to syntactically dislocate, or bloom formally and then mutate colloquially, or grow fractal-like with a multitude of subordinate structures resisting simplicity to achieve a kind of nonhierarchical fiction.

The complexity and range of these stories were beguiling, like a new experience, displacing what I thought fiction could do. At the time I knew very little about Joseph McElroy’s fiction, and in my naiveté I compared the stories in Night Soul to wooly, homemade machines; I compared them to a radio slipping between stations. But here’s how novelist Kathryn Kramer says it: “[A]s you wend your way through some of McElroy’s sentences, you find, not so much yourself, as yourself in the process—yourself not lost through diffusion but enlarged through connections.”[1]

While reading for that review I stumbled upon this from Joseph McElroy in which he writes: “What can happen? my stories ask, as I ask of my life and yours. Not only what did happen.” This in many ways helped me to read and appreciate McElroy’s fiction more, understanding that his imagination didn’t stop at the aesthetical, but pushed beyond.  “The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne,” a story from Night Soul & Other Stories, is available on Numéro Cinq to get a little of the flavor of what I’m talking about.

Joseph McElroy is the author of nine published novels, including Cannonball (2013), Actress in the House (2003), Letter Left to Me (1988) Lookout Cartridge (1974), and the twentieth-century classic, Women & Men (1987). He has also written a book of essays and three plays. Dzanc Books will be reissuing several of McElroy’s books in the coming year, including the aforementioned collection of essays, Exponential, in e-book form, and his second novel, Ancient History: A Paraphase, in paperback.  He is the recipient of the Award in Literature from American Academy of Arts and Letters and a fellowship from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and D. H. Lawrence Foundation and twice from the National Endowment for the Arts. Now in his early 80s, he doesn’t seem to have lost any steam for writing remarkable prose. Cannonball, his most recent novel, has the robustness in style and execution that characterizes his work without a hint of looking back, but with an enthusiastic pressing forward.

Over the last few weeks, Joseph McElroy was gracious enough to take some questions.  We talked on three topics: his unique writing style, Cannonball, and his upcoming books. As you’ll discover, Cannonball is about many things: conspiracies, competitive diving, bogus religious texts, the United States’ most recent war in Iraq, and more.  So, in the way of offering some guidance through the interview, I’ll just mention a few facts. Zach is the novel’s narrator.  At the beginning, Zach is a teenager, and he befriends Umo, a 300-plus pound (possibly illegal) immigrant after seeing Umo dive so elegantly at a community pool.  Zach’s father is the coach of a local swimming club and he has ambitions of coaching a swimmer to the Olympics. Zach brings Umo to see his father, thinking that Umo is the one who’ll help his father. The Chaplin who is mentioned below becomes important mid-way through the novel after Zach has enlisted in the army, receiving a somewhat mysterious offer to be a photography specialist despite his lack of talent as a photographer.  Zach meets the Chaplain twice: once during training and a second time after an explosion at a palace in Iraq. Zach discovers the wounded Chaplain holding what appears to be ancient Scrolls “purporting to be a first-hand first-century live interview with a Jesus” in a water system running underneath the palace. Zach takes from the Chaplain a scrap of the Scrolls, which is later used to prove their inauthenticity.

I’ll leave it that and let Cannonball’s author speak.

—Jason DeYoung

 

Jason DeYoung (JD):  Your style of writing has often been described as difficult, challenging, demanding. Your sentences are often mysterious, long, and multifaceted; they are often wonderfully exuberant with words, too.  You seem to be interested in pushing the English language to “do more.”

Joseph McElroy (JM): I’m only using it for myself, to get at whatever it is I think I’ve found or I’m up to. It’s a great language, the Germanic and the Latinate and Shakespeare’s new words and Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange—the novel and its glossary. American English, too, no matter what people say, the variety of vocabularies overlapping and migrating like people who happen to come to you at a big moment or even who deny you something. When I was teaching at Hopkins in 1975 I wrote down a bunch of short statements about the sentence and said them aloud in class, however gnomic they might have sounded, and felt badly afterward but was told that what I said was OK. I have added to that list, maybe there are forty of those statements. Maybe I’ll publish it and be paid for it someday.

I think about the sentence as drawn between a need to get somewhere and end and then not to end if it can find its continuing shape in what comes next. Thurber on Henry James wanting to say everything at once. Proust both thinking summarily of a whole narrative of things all in one sentence with particulars and wonderful generalized coups of insights, the last sentence of “Swann in Love where he concludes with a longing, almost corny, but shattering climax, that Odette wasn’t even his type—his genre (in the French); James Joyce a great composer of syntactical fragments and of long sentences—in Ulysses xvii, especially on water, where the seriousness, the comprehensive well-informedness implied humorously and lovingly by Joyce in Leopold’s science and municipal technology become also the ongoingness of the sentences, the  “prose” as well as Leopold’s happiness to be giving this young guy Stephen some hospitality in the middle of the night boiling water for tea. Sentences are like home for me, even a wilderness, yes, to seek what I have perhaps found. Eudora Welty, Donne  (his sentences in the poems), poor Cheever recalling DeQuincey in Bullet Park, Jane Austen (the mind of all those fine ironies all at once in her sentences), Nabokov in Pale Fire (even granting a truth in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s charge that the expatriate never achieved maturity), Henry Adams in The Education, the nursing mother whales we look down and see suspended in the watery vault “eyeing us” in Melville’s close to miraculous Grand Armada chapter—sentences so many of our younger memoirists running off at the mouth would do well to have heard and given some thought to— Intricate the passage and the sentence are my unit, pretty much, and can be sometimes several thoughts enfolding one another, passing through one another like neutrons or my reciprocal fortunate memories—and is Melville not a thinker?

JD: But how do you see your style?  Do you see it as those things, as I mentioned?

JM: A rhythm of amazement and precision, risk maybe sometimes like Faulkner’s in Absalom or As I Lay Dying, his best—blunt elusiveness like Beckett’s?  Beckett maybe in The Letter Left to Me.

JD: Could you talk a little about the evolution of your style, how you developed it, influences, philosophy?

JM: Philosophy? Read it all, Barthelme advised. Haphazard. Dos Passos and the collage of informational forms in the USA trilogy made a huge impression. Japanese legends of warriors, black armor. Great Expectations, the great sources in a kid’s helpless snobberies, the first novel I ever took apart and analyzed, I mean a teacher in second year high school told me to—I mean I saw that this story was a thing made and could be studied as to how it worked. Technique, structure. I can’t think where my style came from at the moment. Science reading. The fear of not gathering what I wanted into a sentence. Don’t trust the writer answering this personal question. Sentences, though.

JD: Well, how do you think about sentences?  How do you know when they’re done and what are you looking for?

JM: I thought I had to curb my syntaxes when I was ten or eleven years old and writing stories. It wasn’t till I was in college that it occurred to me that the structures of my sentences might be truer than… —I wonder if the highly inflected Latin I had four years of in school in an amiable way suggested to me that I might find truthful structures in English while positioning parts of a sentence as if I were working with declensions, dative, ablative, accusative, a nominative toward the end, say, of the sentence. I have only a little graduate school German, whatever I kid myself I get in facing-text renderings of Rilke—so I never thought about holding the verb off till the end.           

cannonball

JD: Cannonball is your ninth published novel. What are some of the discoveries you made while writing (these could be technical or emotional or something else) or what surprised you the most about writing Cannonball?  This question is inspired by those wonderful three sentences in your essay “Socrates on the Beach”: “Writing is thinking. Getting somewhere. Even into ignorance.”

JM: Sounds like you want to take readers away from the book itself, but no, not you, Jason.  “Ignorance” I mean here is an achievement, right? Limits crashed into for now, a dark space you fall into. But limits which if you live in them are like the next question, which is even, Why the need of questioning?

Cannonball takes the mess afflicting its characters to a new stage and is clear about it.  Some of it is learning how things began. Why the huge, in fact corpulent Asian probably “illegal” teenager who can dive so astonishingly well came into Zach’s life to begin with. It’s all there. How things happen. Something’s at stake for the reader. This is my most uneasy-feeling or darkest book. More than Lookout Cartridge. My only really dark book, upshot after upshot, though with a young voice that itself isn’t dark.

Stanley Elkin, in the days of carbon paper—was it that early?—said somewhere more or less that your American novelist makes his POV hero six or seven years younger than himself; this is what is known as Carbon 14 dating, Stanley explains. My hero, and at the end of it all he is something of a hero, is six decades younger than I and I’ve been happy to hear from some young readers (they’re all younger now) that Zach is convincing. He’s a remarkable witness, for all he doesn’t quite know. You have to look at what happens. People sometimes they come to you at the right time asking you for what is needed. What does William James say about this in the Varieties of Religious Experience: What actually happens. It’s right there. What do we learn from the Chaplain? What are we to make of it? And what of him is saved by Zach—one of the best surprises in the story. Somewhere between Catch 22 and The Red Badge of Courage, I’ve heard said of Cannonball. That doesn’t come too close. Closer to Crane if I have to compare. But Crane? Hemingway admired The Red Badge—who said: You make it up out of what you know—though he didn’t know much about women and men together.

“Surprised,” you said? I was surprised how the closeness between brother and sister developed. What it has to do with the war and diving. I let the characters be. That means make the scenes speak. Brother and sister in the car toward the end, things changing between them slightly – one of the best things I have done. Each new book asks the reader to read what it says. Many readers would rather talk about something else. The father is seen by one reviewer as an absence. But we know a lot about him. Maybe for some readers each scene the father’s in might seem to leave out some dumb confessional explanation by him of himself some reader thinks is needed. It’s not. The son Zach doesn’t know him too well, perhaps.  Zach tells what he knows. The father seems to find fault with the son. But not only.  What the main character Zach sees gives us even richly these extraordinary limitations of the father character.  He recedes but not into indefiniteness. Proust would have given us a wonderful analysis of the man. I might have in another novel. Proust the greatest novelist of the twentieth century, so much closer to me than these other names I hear myself placed with and am so unlike.  Doesn’t mean I write like him. In this novel, did father sacrifice son to get what he wanted? The father probably doesn’t see it that way. Attentive reader grasps the question. By the time of his enlistment Zach makes his own choice.  But he’s invited to enlist, remember, and if you read, you can find how he came to be invited. The reader might try accepting the characters as given. All the information’s provided—a lot, and often I would say American information.  The chaplain, what happens to him and before he recedes, all that he leaves us with. Lazarus. Zach’s half-unknowing influence on events. Government thinks one character is alive but isn’t, another dead but isn’t.

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JD: I’m interested in the idea that you wrote Cannonball out of your “anger about the Iraq war,” as you mentioned in another interview.  Were your emotions purged or lessened by writing the novel? Or is the point of writing with these strong emotions meant to be a transference of sorts of your emotions onto the reader? And if that’s so, do you agree that writing is a “hostile act,” as Joan Didion called it so many years ago?

JM: Transferred into the story, I would say. Story stands between the reader and the writer: there it is, for the reader to take or leave, and not for the writer to explain, much less explain where it came from. Writer probably does not entirely know. I say the Scrolls, one source. An American curse, mouthing some Christianity lipservice to justify any damn thing we do as a nation. So from archaeology and weapons of mass destruction and confirming all our self-promotions comes an ancient transcript torn and fragile and part-lost derived from what we know and what we do purporting to be a first-hand first-century live interview with a Jesus not at odds with American success myths. Lawrence meant something else when he said “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” But the cruelty in a whole segment  of our politics (right wing? the word “wing” is misleading) is hard to believe. [2]

I guess the Scrolls are near the source of Cannonball. But springboard diving another point of departure definitely.  Perhaps never quite been done like this before in a novel.  Even the calculus of it at the very end connects it to the war and the brother and sister and the Hearings about Competition.

For me there are no individual beginnings for a novel—several points of departure, impulses, subjects scattered out there, that I let myself be at sea with or in orbit around or they in orbit half out of reach around me and gradually the subjects gather their relations. The diving accident, as the reader will understand, draws so many of the book’s elements together; but so does the brother-sister relation; and friendship; and the Scrolls, and so on.

JD: What about “hostile act”?

JM:  What exactly, and who, am I, as you put it, agreeing with? Anger could be out of control. Anger could be a clarifying force. Writing is fighting, I think Nietzsche said. Only as it’s trying to think something through. It’s meditation, too. I have it both ways. There are the sentences and there are the people.

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JD: One of the more interesting facets of your style is the confluence of simultaneous events for instance early in Cannonball, Zach, the narrator, is shooting onto film one of Umo’s dives, while at the same time Zach is being told about a question Corona’s wife has asked E, Zach’s sister; but also there is a “breaker fluke,” and the power flashes, and on to that an “old woman” “materialize[s]” to speak.  This is all captured in an 18-line sentence.

JM: (An 18-word sentence would have been better.) It’s an embrace a love a prayer but to whom(?), so many parts of one in-motion act—vision like a dive you might want to see all the parts of but at the same time as William James in that late book refutes Zeno’s infinitely dividing up the space traversed so supposedly you never get there?

Everything at once may make hash of causality. It’s also the way we can feel—not overwhelmed so much as in touch with a lot suddenly, our decision-making all but dissolved or some aesthetic thrill at the changing core of things if there is one. A reader might note that a character close to Zach is interested in what happens right before an event; another what comes right after. A nose for how things happened. Something to do with photography, too—what seems to take Zach to the War, Army’s employing him for that. Reader might follow why. Zach’s not a pro. Really not much of a photographer. Though maybe that makes the photography more interesting. It’s not photography that takes him back to the War the second time.

JD: In a lot of Cannonball, sports and war and religion are all mixed up, and it is in many ways a political novel.  Do you believe that sports are (or can be) a replacement or placeholder for war?

JM: Sure. Who doesn’t? Conflict coming at you unavoidable—doesn’t mean that knife-fighting is the ultimate moral test as Cormac McCarthy, a great landscape writer, would have us believe, who dismisses Henry James. You have to decide how far the always interesting pressures of a competitive sport can take you. Character-building as coach says, whose own character may have been stunted by it; it lives in fantasy—but imagination, finding new combinations and possibilities is our social and ethical genius if we would seek it in ourselves. Diving, soccer, karate—art? Maybe, or some texture or task like how to live. Football takes brains, all those playbooks, but the allegiances and simple-mindedness and insane fandom, God.  Preoccupation with sports makes us trivial but it’s dramatic, too. Degrees of difficulty in competitive diving measure beauty too. Never apart from the behavior of the water.  Yeats, the “fascination of what’s difficult” —Orwell, the overcoming of something difficult in writing, hence a density. Someone says “difficult” —of art—but “difficult” is never spelled out, it’s conveniently left indefinite, it’s never voiced as a word that refers to a clear idea or standard, though it pretends to in readers’ mouths. What are we willing to look for in other people?  Intricacies of courage.

Joseph_McElroy,_Ancient_History,_cover

JD: Ancient History being re-released just a few months after your most recent novel, why Ancient History: A Paraphase and not, say, Hind’s Kidnap? Or is the latter forthcoming?

JM: Partly an accident of publishing; Hind’s Kidnap is coming out as an e-book, and I hope for a print reprint.  A young writer friend of mine thinks Ancient History (1971) has a lot to say to young people now, so we pushed for a print reprint.  Jonathan Lethem wrote an intro.  What publishers choose to bring back, it’s all something of a lottery.

JD: I’ve read that your next project is a nonfiction book on water.

JM: It’s been in progress nine years. Almost done. I don’t think there’s anything like it. One small side of it visible in an essay that appeared recently in New England Review, “Wetland Reflections,” about a made wetland in lower Bronx River. I’m interested in what water is to us.

JD: Any other new work?

JM: Sceenplay. Children’s book. Libretto.  A novel called Voir Dire begun in 1991.  600-some pages so far. An excerpt published a few years ago. And another novel at last getting finished was the first effort I ever made to understand what I was doing—being made to move by outside forces yet somehow within their restrictions making my world move—sorry about that word “world” —and what awaited (though not necessarily me). You sign up for what you think the job is and it turns out to be something entirely different. More to it, you know, than that. It gives me the chills how that novel is still clear in my mind. I started it around 1948, do you believe me? Been sort of writing it since I was 18. It’s getting done by Spring.

—Joseph McElroy and Jason DeYoung

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Joseph McElroy is the author of nine novels including A Smuggler’s Bible, Lookout Cartridge, Actress in the House, and Women & Men.  He has also published a book of short stories—Night Soul & Other Stories—and a collection of essays—Exponential.  He received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and fellowships from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and D. H. Lawrence Foundations, twice from Ingram Merrill and twice from the National Endowment for the Arts.  He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1930.

Jason DeYoungJason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  His fiction has appeared or forthcoming in REAL: Regarding Art and Letters, New Orleans Review, The Los Angeles ReviewNuméro Cinq, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Kramer, Kathryn, “Dr. McElroy, Homeopath: What One Goes to Him For,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction. Spring 1990. Vol. X, No. 1. Page 80
  2. The full D. H. Lawrence quotation from Studies in Classic American Literature: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
Nov 012013
 

Tim Deverell

Tim Deverell grew up on the flat geographical abstraction of the Canadian Prairies, spent many years studying and evolving in the urban abstraction of New York and now lives in Toronto, a city that, if anything, is an abstraction or an abstraction, a sign of its own absence (but very busy nonetheless). Deverell’s influences are a set of party invitations to painterly Modernism and Abstract Expressionism with a nod back even farther to Heironymus Bosch and James Ensor who composed proto-abstract paintings of multitudes of human scenes, figures or faces. Hence Deverell’s use of collage, cut up bits of magazine image and sketch applied as paint or instead of paint — that’s one compositional theme. In the interview he talks of influences, of a structure and destruction of structure, the two always in some ironic tension with one another, and about obsession which has its effect in the detailed recursiveness of the work.

Deverell has a new show opening in Toronto November 2 (details below). If you happen to be lucky enough to be around, go take a look.

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Tim Deverell: Paintings 2000 to 2013 is an exhibition of Deverell’s paintings, his first solo show since 1999, at the yumart gallery in Toronto, November 2-23, 2013. Location: yumart is located on the 2nd floor of 101 Spadina Avenue, south of Adelaide on the east side of Spadina. Gallery Hours: Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 6:00 p.m. Phone: 647-447-9274. Gallerist: Yvonne Whelan.

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01 Berkeley #4 gouache copy
Berkeley #4, gouache, 16″ X 12″, Tim Deverell, 2012

Y.M. Whelan: Donald Brackett wrote about your work in Toronto Life Magazine as being a ‘portrait of urban life as it plunges into the next millennium’ with images that ‘build into a storm of little symbols, graphic designs and geometric forms and give way to a feeling that you’re looking at 21st century hieroglyphics’. Do you actually reference or draw upon the urban landscape as source material, and if so, would you say your work is abstraction?

Tim Deverell: The paintings are abstract. The city is abstract. I wander and get lost in the city as I search and find my way in the painting. The cityscape is continually reinvented, as is the painting.

02 Clusters and Squares
Clusters and Squares, acrylic on canvas, 12″ X 24″, Tim Deverell, 2012

YMW: After a recent visit to your studio, I noticed that you have two distinct yet complementary bodies of work: paintings composed of tiny figures, heads, texts etc., and paintings that are composed of pure colour and light. Do you see these as two separate styles? How are they related to each other?

TD: They both depend on multiplicity and a cross-fertilization. The one is in the other, opposite equals striving to be one body.

03 Fieldnotes collage
Field Notes, collage and acrylic on wood, 12″ X 12″, Tim Deverell, 2013

YMW:  Can you tell me some of your major influences throughout your art practice?  Have they changed over the years as your work has developed?

TD:  Two very different artists have been key influences from the start of my art-making: James Ensor and Piet Mondrian. Influences are to be absorbed then shaken off, but I feel a strong affinity with the work of Mark Tobey, H. Bosch, Arshile Gorky and Wols — a German artist of the Tachisme movement. Also, Sally Drummond, an American painter who also uses a built up saturation of tiny marks. From the Canadian prairie I continue to look at the work of Agnes Martin and Art McKay. Having made paintings for over fifty years, I prefer being influenced by what lies outside the art world, such as the urban environment that I soak up through long walks where I observe the human element and bustle.

04 Niagara collage
Niagara, collage and gouache on paper, 24″ X 18″, Tim Deverell, 2013

YMW: Your work is highly detailed. Can you describe your technique or process of making art and what kind of time-line is involved? Do you work on several paintings at once?

TD: Thinking about technique can get in the way. There is a certain randomness in how I choose imagery and colour; it’s not predetermined. I often start with a grid and broad washes of colour which will slowly become obliterated as I continue working. They act as a structure or discipline to destroy. The tools and materials are simple – palette knife, brush, pen, pigments, collage elements from diverse sources and canvas. I have an innate need to saturate the surface in a search for a space my mind roam in. The infinite variety of the visual is seductive. I work on one large painting for an average of two months companioned by small pieces – collages and gouaches. Drawing is a constant, though I don’t make studies or drawings for paintings.

06 Red dots
Red Dots, oil and collage on canvas, 42″ X 40″, Tim Deverell, 2013
05 Red dots detail
Red Dots (detail), oil and collage on canvas, Detail of 42″ X 40″ painting, Tim Deverell, 2013

YMW: This one might be too personal: what informed your decision to leave New York City after so long? Do you regret your decision?

TD: There was no rational decision to leave Manhattan, just a usual upheaval of human relationships, confusion of personal and artistic direction and an unrealistic idea of what life would be like in Canada. Regrets? Deep, for over ten years. I did return to New York for a year, but something had changed, either in me or the place. Toronto is in the Now. It’s hard to describe the grip a big city can have on one. I feel New York as a place that formed me as a painter. The art world at that time was a place of incredible flux. You protect yourself in a big place by creating a smaller world, as I did with three close artist friends who were from Saskatchewan.

08 Snapshot
Snapshots, oil, acrylic, and collage on canvas, 48″  X 36″, Tim Deverell, 2013
07 Snapshot detail
Snapshots (detail), oil, acrylic, and collage on canvas, detail of 48″ X 36″ painting, Tim Deverell, 2013

YMW: Where do you see your work going from here?

TD: I let the work tell me where to go. I am increasingly involved with balancing collage elements and paint. I have countless images to pluck from shoeboxes full of fragments of my own drawings and printed material such as magazines, encylopedia and dictionaries.  The challenge is in bringing the collage elements into the painting and having them work as paint.

All I know is that I will continue to make paintings in my usual obsessive way.

10 Swim Alone
Swim Alone, acrylic and collage on canvas, 48″  X  48″, Tim Deverell, 2013
09 Swim alone detail
Swim Alone (detail), oil, acrylic, and collage on canvas, detail of 48″ X 48″ painting, Tim Deverell, 2013

– Tim Deverell & Y. M. Whelan

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Tim Deverell was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1939. His father worked as a journalist, his mother as a nurse. He first studied art with Ernest Lindner at Saskatoon Technical Collegiate. He went on to work at the Regina College School of Art with painters Ken Lochhead, Art McKay and Roy Kiyooka. At age eighteen, he travelled to New York City where he lived for the next seventeen years. Deverell studied at the Art Students League with Theodoros Stamos, George Grosz and Charles Alston during a period when painting was a dominant force in the New York art world.  At age 21, Deverell had his first solo show at the Kornblee Gallery on Madison Avenue and a follow-up show the next year. During the late 1960s and early ’70s, he was a member of  the 55 Mercer Street Gallery in Soho and exhibited there many times in solo and group shows. During the New York years, he made extended trips to Europe, and India.

Returning to Canada in 1976, Deverell settled first in Vancouver, then in Toronto, where he has lived since, with frequent forays to Mexico and Berkeley, California.  Since his return to Canada, he has exhibited at the Bau-Xi Gallery in Vancouver, the Mendel Gallery in Saskatoon, the National Gallery of Canada, and had solo shows in six different Toronto galleries.

Tim Deverell: Paintings 2000 to 2013 is an exhibition of Deverell’s paintings, his first solo show since 1999, at the yumart gallery in Toronto, November 2- 23, 2013.

 

Oct 022013
 

Nance Van Winckel

NC Contributing Editor Nance Van Winckel has popped out two, yes, two! books simultaneously this year; Pacific Walkers, a collection of poems, and this one, Boneland, a collection of linked short stories. As we all know, one book is amazing enough; two books, in different disciplines, is tantamount to having the literary equivalent of Multiple Personality Disorder. Only this is a disorder we all wish we could catch. I have taught with Nance for years at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She never ceases to surprise me with her unconventional wisdom, her oblique and revelatory take on art, and her questing spirit.  We have here for your delectation a lively and intelligent interview with Nance by the inimitable Ross McMeekin.

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Ross McMeekin: Tell us about the Spokane area literary scene; there are so many great writers who call it home.

Nance Van Winckel: Yes, Spokane has some wonderful writers and I feel lucky to call many of them friends: Sam Ligon, Jess Walter, Laurie Lamon, Christopher Howell, Greg Spatz, Tod Marshall. There’s a very active spoken word poetry scene here too and many younger poets—with loads of great energy—involved with that. We have a literary festival, Get Lit, every spring that brings many writers of national prominence to town. And of course we have three outstanding universities in town, and all of those have good writers on staff and bring IN good writers. I’m still very connected to my former colleagues at E. Wash. U, and the MFA Program there where I taught for 15 years. I’m teaching a one-day workshop for them in November. And we have a great independent bookstore, Auntie’s, that has fabulous readings every week.

RM: Do you have some recommendations for books or literary journals that have impressed you recently?

NVW: With some of my Vermont College students I’m currently reading a very compelling book of stories: Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausabel. I also just read a superb second book of poems by a former student of mine: Jennifer Boyden’s The Declarable Future. I’m also reading Proust for the first time. I’m half way through the six volumes and loving this work, savoring it. Wish I could read it in French. I talked with a French Canadian flight attendant who said he had read it all by reading one page aloud every day for several years. He had also loved it. Gorgeous prose. Luminous. Strange. Imagistically sparkling. And full of a sad interiority, a soul I find myself missing when I’m away from it for a few days.

As for literary journals, I’m trying these days to get to know more of the online journals and formulate a sense of what may be the BEST of those. Since I’m working now on combining text and photography (digital photo-collage), those journals—rather than print journals—seem to be better possibilities for me in terms of “publishing” these full-color hybrid art pieces. Of these journals I especially like ILK, EM, Cascadia Review, Diode, Sleeping Fish, and Drunken Boat. I’m also amazed at how many bad ones there are out there: badly edited with grammar troubles and/or typos everywhere, or badly managed. I had one journal (Glassworks) accept three pieces, and then email later that they’d changed their minds and weren’t going to use the work after all. What?! I wish there’d be more REVIEWS of online journals, or of ALL journals really. But clearly it’s also part of a writer’s job to do this sort of legwork and scope out the best homes for her work.

RM: The characters in your new collection, Boneland, are excavating everything from memories to ancient dinosaur bones in order to understand the past. This desire to piece together what’s happened seems to me an innate and universal human drive, even for those of us who choose to ignore it. But there’s a certain strangeness and sadness to this drive, as well, that I think the collection exposes. I wonder if you’d speak a bit to our drive to dig up the past.

NVW: Yes, very well put, Ross! Excavation is a big part of Boneland. So is reconstruction. As we see with the do-it-yourself dinosaur fossil reconstruction going on in the old dairy barn, and probably a few mastodon bones getting glued into the dinosaur, what was the ACTUAL past, the reality of the past, later becomes a mish-mash. A collage. Made up of facts and guesses. History may never be completely accurate since memory itself isn’t. But you’re right—we try anyway. As we mature, as these characters do, we try to understand better what haunts us, what lingers in unsettled ways, from our earlier lives. And we never can put together a full and perfect rendering of the BEFORE. There’re always going to be gaps and holes, things we can’t know, things that will continue, maybe forever, to remain hidden. But what remains hidden may give the resurrection an air of sadness and/or strangeness, as you say, but I hope it may also suffuse it with something beautifully human or humane—this living with uncertainties, accepting these, and going on from there.

RM: There’s a lovely passage in which your protagonist, Lynette, is piecing together the development of her relationship with another character that I think speaks to the nature of how imagination and memory and the physical bleed into one another.

“These last few mornings, I’d awaked imagining conversations that Steve and I might have. I varied the lines. There was, each day, a little more sexual innuendo in the exchanges I invented between us. I could almost feel on the inside of my left thigh the place I’d imagined his hand last night and this morning his mouth.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the nature of memory, and also how imagination and memory interact.

NVW: What I think about with this passage is how a friendship or a romance may often begin IN the imagination. One first has to SEE in the mind’s eye what a connection with another person might look like, might BE like—emotionally and physically. This facilitates—doesn’t it?—the making of the bond. So, really, I guess I’m talking about how the construction of the future itself is similar to the construction of the past in that one first has to “glimpse” the possibility. Then begins the building.

RM: I was fortunate to have the opportunity at a conference to hear you read a section from one of the stories in the collection, “A Kingdom Comes.” The piece involves a family’s discovery that their son is uniquely gifted in mathematics, and perhaps on the spectrum for Asperger’s Syndrome. What inspired the story?

NVW: Yes, I do think of Buster as having Asperger’s. I have two good friends who have autistic sons. One son is quite gifted, though. As a visual artist. As a writer I’m intrigued by sometimes seemingly contradictory elements that make up a personality. Though this particular character has trouble connecting with other humans in some ways, I found myself moved by how he tries to. This was an act of pure imagination, of course. I love that he finds a way to be a husband and father. I am not sure if this will be true for either of my friends’ sons. But in writing the story, I constructed a kind of future that I hoped for them.

RM: There’s some beautiful image patterning in the book, specifically the attention given to eyes and eyesight, both metaphorically and physically. How did it first emerge, and at what point did you recognize the pattern?

NVW: The “re-seeing” was something I recognized was going on in “The Funeral of the Virgin,” an early story in the book. A woman with some greater temporal distance on her husband’s death begins to wonder if the death might have been a suicide. The implication is that she may not have been able to contemplate such a version of events at the actual time of his death. Keeping that narrator, I subjected her in a series of small short-shorts to LASIK surgery. Those were interesting pieces to write in that I had the actual physical messed-up eyesight to work with. I could give a physical body to something that had seemed more cerebral or theoretical in other stories, that “re-seeing” of the past. And of course the surgery itself had to get a little bollixed up for this to work. I liked too the narrator having this “down-time” from ongoing dramatic events to ruminate. It seemed to me I could let the language get perhaps a bit more lyrical in these sections since they were small and interrupted the ongoing dramas in the longer stories. I liked coming back to her lying there, holed-up in a foreign country, blindly feeling around, sorting through what had been. This may have been partly inspired by the fact that back in the mid-1990′s a lot of people I knew were driving up to Canada to get this surgery done because it was, for some reason, hundreds of dollars cheaper there! There were ads in the paper for it every week.

RM: I also wondered at what point during the composition of Boneland you realized the interconnectedness of the stories. Did you intend it from the beginning? Was the process similar to your previous linked story collections?

NVW: Every book of my stories (and they’re ALL linked) has been linked in a different manner. This linking is, for me, something I just thoroughly enjoy experimenting with. The number of ways one might link stories seems infinite to me! I love series too. My last three books of poems I consider poem “series” as well. The stories in Boneland started to “form” their linkage in a way I hadn’t expected or intended. When I realized these characters were all cousins, that they hailed from three brothers, three sons who’d grown up on the Montana ranch together and worked themselves on the dinosaur fossil reconstruction—when I realized this particular commonality, the linkage began to come into focus. I have liked the family saga sort of novel sometimes, the large arc of time and history that can be covered, and so for me, the challenge and the experiment were to see if I could do something remotely like that with a group of stories. I’m not sure I finally did match the breadth and sweep of some of those novels, but I did enjoy being alive in a history that felt very very large and went WAY back. Way back.

RM: You’ve had both poetry (Pacific Walkers) and story collections come out in the last year. What’s next?

NVW: I have a new book of prose poems in progress. I’m tinkering with its shape right now, moving parts around, and still writing a few new prose poems that may yet be included.

I’m also working, as I mentioned, on these hybrid text-based photo-collage pieces right now. There are three distinct book projects, each of which I see as a possible ebook. (I suspect they’d be too pricey an undertaking for print publication. But maybe. Maybe black and white versions?) One is a novella in the form of a photo album/scrapbook/flash-fiction memoir. Another is a book of poems that consists of altered pages from the Official Guide to the 1964 New York World’s Fair. This is not erasure art, but rather text I have changed and integrated into text that was already there, and I usually add other graphic material as well. This World’s Fair was something I went to as a girl with my family and it was the first time I recall having my wee little mind blown. Blown by the huge wild international world and THE FUTURE suddenly all around me. In my project I talk back, some fifty years later, to these versions of the future I was given. And the third project is also an alteration project; it’s tentatively called THE BOOK OF NO LEDGE. Altered pages of an old encyclopedia. I’ve been sassing back, as my mother would say, to the All-knowing Voice of Certainty of this encyclopedia. Since there’re about nine volumes, all purchased for five bucks last year at a yard sale, I think this project may well last me the rest of my days. And to tell you the truth, if I die altering THE BOOK OF NO LEDGE, I think I’ll die happy.

 – Ross McMeekin & Nance Van Winckel
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RossMcMeekinphotoRoss McMeekin’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in publications such asShenandoah, Passages North, Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Green Mountains Review, and Tin House (blog). He received a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, edits the literary journal Spartan, and blogs at rossmcmeekin.com. He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.
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Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field,and Gettysburg Review. She is also the author of four collections of linked short stories and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Boneland, her newest book of fiction, is just out with U. of Oklahoma Press. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, andKenyon Review. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography appear in Poetry Northwest and excerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in Hotel Amerika and The Kenyon Review OnlineClick this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson. Her personal web page is here.
Contact: nancevanwinckel@numerocinqmagazine.com
Aug 032013
 

David Jauss and grandson Galen

For your Saturday morning delectation: the never-before-seen image of David Jauss wearing a birdhouse for a hat (with grandson helping) along with Ross McMeekin’s fine tribute interview on the occasion of the publication of David’s new book Glossolalia: New and Selected Stories (which, at this moment, you can pre-order). David Jauss is a powerful story writer, one of the best the country can offer, and a man of profound moral and political commitment. Many of us in the NC community are fortunate to be able to call him friend, colleague, editor, teacher and mentor. You should also know that David has cut a deal with Dzanc Books to bring out his earlier work as ebooks — this is a Great Good Thing. Black Maps can be ordered now at http://www.dzancbooks.org/black-maps/ and Crimes of Passion will be available soon at http://www.dzancbooks.org/crimes-of-passion/.

dg

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1. I know of your admiration of the stories of Anton Chekhov. What is it about him and his work that you find most compelling? Why do his short stories remain relevant?

He’s just great company.  I can always count on him to show me something significant and true about human nature, and to do it in a way that puts the characters first and himself last.  He doesn’t try to impress us with the flash and dazzle of his prose or the wisdom of his insights; instead, he writes prose that is so clean and clear that we can look through it like a windowpane at the characters and world he’s writing about.  He also brings to his fiction the paradoxical gifts of the good doctor he was: the objectivity and intelligence to diagnose and dissect his characters’ flaws and foibles, and the subjectivity and compassion to sympathize with his characters rather than to judge them.  He has, as someone once said, a cold eye and a warm heart.  And in his nearly 600 short stories, he created an enormous range of characters, far more than any novelist, and he completely reinvented the short story genre.  And while he was at it, he reinvented drama as well, and today he is the second-most-produced playwright in the world after Shakespeare.  He also wrote a book on the need for prison reform in Russia that greatly improved penal policies throughout Europe (but not, alas, in America).  And he did all of this by the age of 44, when he died of the tuberculosis he’d battled most of his adult life.

I also admire the fact that Chekhov wrote to discover and/or test his own beliefs, not to inculcate them.  He was an atheist, for example, yet he wrote sympathetically and movingly about many religious characters, including the title character of his great story “The Bishop.”  Chekhov didn’t create different selves, different heteronyms, the way Fernando Pessoa did, but his fiction reveals the same impulse to see the world from as many perspectives as possible.  As this suggests, Chekhov had, like Shakespeare, like Pessoa, the quality Keats called Negative Capability, the ability to remain “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  And this is the quality, Mr. Keats and I agree, that is most essential to literary greatness.

Finally, I’m drawn to Chekhov’s stories because his characters and their predicaments seem remarkably modern to me.  I love Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev too, but their characters seem to be of a different age than Chekhov’s.  Chekhov died in 1904, yet his work feels contemporary to me.  I think he’s an absolutely indispensable writer, one of the few everyone should read and reread throughout their lives.

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2. Glossolalia contains stories written and published more than three decades ago alongside stories published recently. What was your process – editorial and otherwise – of revisiting those old stories and organizing a book that spans such a long period of your writing life?

Although I’ve written an essay on ways to structure unified story collections [“Stacking Stones: Building a Unified Short Story Collection”], I was utterly stumped when I sat down to select and organize the stories that would become Glossolalia.  I eliminated a dozen or so stories that I didn’t think were up to snuff, but then I still had 500 pages of stories to choose from.  I tell you, I felt like Styron’s Sophie, having to choose which of my children would die.  Eventually I took the coward’s way out and sent all 500 pages to Press 53.  Ultimately, I have to give credit to Christine Norris, my editor there, for the selections.  She sent me a list of her favorite seventeen stories—250 pages’ worth—and if I remember right, I made only one substitution.  Then I went to work on organizing the stories.  And believe me, that wasn’t easy.  The oldest story in the collection was published in 1976, and my fiction has changed a good deal over time, so I quickly realized that there was no way I could even attempt to achieve the kind of stylistic and thematic unity that I had aimed at in my previous collections [Crimes of Passion and Black Maps].  But I didn’t want to arrange the stories chronologically either, since I felt some of them gained resonance and meaning by rubbing shoulders with other ones.  So through trial and error, I hit upon an order that I felt worked as well as the wide variety of stories would allow.  I sent the list to Christine, and she suggested one very smart change, and the table of contents was set.

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3. “Apotheosis” is a wonderfully complex epistolary story, told through a recently discovered sixteenth-century letter written by a friar defending his actions to the Grand Inquisitor of Spain. Within this letter is another letter, which we discover was read by the friar to a group of followers as a warning against other religions – a message whose intentions were misunderstood by the audience, leading to the friar’s questioning by the inquisitor. The contents of this embedded letter are the story of a South American missionary who himself becomes caught in the blur between the messages of two different religions and cultures. This seems, to me, like a perfect story for our file-sharing, hyper-textual, misunderstanding-rich digital age. I’m curious how the structure of the story emerged, as well as your understanding what happens to a story–and the author–once the piece goes out into the world.

It’s interesting that you find “Apotheosis” to be a perfect story for our particular age since it’s by far the oldest story in the collection; it was originally published in 1976.  And the earlier version of the story was even more “hyper-textual”: it had two additional frames, one narrated by the scholar who edited the two letters and the other narrated by the letters’ translator.  Instead of the brief impersonal editorial note that now appears at the beginning of the story, the original version had a very personalized introduction and conclusion from the point of view of the scholar, who also intruded on the narrative regularly via clueless, obsequious footnotes, much in the fashion of Charles Kinbote, the “editor” of Nabokov’s Pale Fire.  The translator also stepped in to comment in footnotes from time to time, and some of his footnotes even had drawings in them—representations of the hieroglyphic-like Cakchiquel words that the Spanish narrator of the central story occasionally used.  So the original version of the story was far more hyper-textual than the version included in Glossolalia.  Rightly or wrongly (but I’m betting on rightly), I decided that all of this hyper-textual foofaraw detracted from the meaning and emotion of the story and drew too much attention to me and to the story’s artifice.  So I gave both the editor and translator pink slips.

As to what happens when a story goes out into the world, I think misunderstanding—or at least re-understanding—is fairly common.  The natural impulse of most readers, I believe, is to simplify the meaning of a story—after all, this is what we’re taught to do in high school, if my own experience and that of my friends and colleagues is any proof—so the more complex a story is, the more misunderstanding that results.  The ultimate example, of course, is Hamlet.  The attempts to simplify the complexity of both the character and the play are legion.  My stories have none of Shakespeare’s complexity, of course, so, to my everlasting shame, I’ve always been well understood by readers.  The frame narrator of “Apotheosis” isn’t so lucky; the Inquisitor General misunderstands his intentions and he’s executed as a result.  Outside of a couple of bad reviews, that’s a fate I’ve managed to avoid.

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4. Did you give many pink slips to aspects of your earlier work? Was there a common thread to your edits? I’m curious as to how you’ve changed as a writer since your first collection.

I gave a lot of pink slips to all of my work, not just my early work—though that got the most pink slips, of course.  Every story in Glossolalia has been revised, some of them fairly lightly and others quite drastically.  I also revised all of the stories that don’t appear in Glossolalia but are included in the ebook versions of Black Maps and Crimes of Passion that Dzanc Books is publishing as part of its rEprint series. (Black Maps has just been released, and Crimes of Passion will be published shortly.)  The revisions range from factual corrections and minor sentence-level changes to deeper explorations of characters and added scenes.  If there’s a common thread in the edits, it’s the attempt to call less attention to myself and my writing than to the characters and the story.  When I first began writing, I made the mistake that virtually everyone does when they start out: Because I wanted to convince the reader (and myself) that I was a Real Writer, there’s a “Look, Ma, no hands!” aspect to some of my early writing that now makes me cringe. In my revisions, I tried to get out of my characters’ way and let the stories be about them, not about my writing ability.  I hope that any attempts at linguistic pyrotechnics that remain are there to illuminate the character, not to impress the reader.

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5. I had the opportunity of hearing you read “The Sacred Drum,” a story included in Glossolalia, at a writing conference a few years back. Before introducing the story, told from the perspective of a Hmong refugee living in the United States, you mentioned how even though you’d lived for decades in Little Rock, you still felt like an outsider. A handful of the stories in this collection are told from the perspective of characters at odds with the dominant culture. How has your personal experience as an outsider influenced your writing, and how do you view the relationship of the fiction writer to the dominant culture and those excluded from it?

For the record, I’ve felt like an outsider all of my life, not just since I moved to Arkansas.  I suspect that most people feel like outsiders a good deal of the time.  And I think writers almost always feel like outsiders.  If they didn’t, why would they devote their lives to observing others?  Instead of observing the dominant culture, they’d be participating in it.  Or so it seems to me.  At any rate, I’ve been drawn in my fiction to characters who feel they don’t belong where they are.  This is most obvious in the story about the Hmong refugee you mentioned and in “The Bigs,” which is about a Dominican baseball player for the Arkansas Travelers minor league baseball team, but I think the feeling of being outside—outside the culture, outside the family, outside whatever—is something that recurs throughout my fiction.

Of all the places I’ve ever been, the place I feel least like an outsider, the most at home, is Vermont—and, particularly, Vermont College of Fine Arts.  The very first time I went there to teach—in the winter of 1998—I immediately felt like I was at home, and I felt that way even before I knew much of anything about the state or the college.  I think it was a visceral response to the landscape, the quality of light, something in the air—who knows?  Whatever it was/is, I’m grateful for it.  And from what I can tell, it’s a feeling almost everybody connected with VCFA shares.

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6.  An aspect of this collection I admire is the fact that so many of the stories, including the three we’ve mentioned (“The Bigs,” “The Sacred Drum,” and “Apotheosis”), have narrators from different time periods, societies, and cultures than you. This diversity is something I aspire to in my own writing, but I’ve also met other fiction writers who fear writing from socio-cultural perspectives other than their own. Tell us about your perspective of fiction writing as an act of empathy.

There is no worse advice for a fiction writer than “Write what you know.”  I like Grace Paley’s revision of that shibboleth: “Write from what you know into what you don’t know.”  That, to me, is what makes fiction fiction instead of just some glorified form of nonfiction.  In the name of misguided political correctness, many writers have shirked what seems to me the essential task of fiction: the attempt to imagine our way into the minds and hearts of people very different from ourselves.  As I’ve said in my essay “Autobiographobia: Writing and the Secret Life,” I’m not interested in writing about myself.  I write for the same reason I read: to experience other people’s lives.  In Glossolalia, I write from the perspective of a wide variety of characters, including a nineteenth-century Russian dwarf [“Misery”], a serial killer [“Shards”], a couple of Vietnam vets [“Freeze” and “Hook”], a young mother [“Constellations”], and an elderly nun [“The Stars at Noon”].  I’ve taken my licks, both from editors and readers, for writing outside of my own experience.  The editor of one literary journal rejected “The Sacred Drum,” saying “Our readers found your colonialist appropriation of another culture offensive.”  And I once got a phone call from a man who’d read my story “Freeze” and wondered if we’d met.  “I remember that guy you wrote about,” he said.  “The lieutenant.  And I think we must have been at Lai Khe at about the same time.”  When I told him I’d never been in Vietnam, or even in the military, he was outraged.  “What gives you the right to write about a war when you weren’t even fucking there?” he demanded.  He hung up before I had the chance to tell him what gave me that right: the imagination, the most precious faculty human beings possess.  It’s what allows us to empathize with others, and without empathy, we’re all lost.  If fiction writers limit themselves to writing only from their own socio-cultural perspectives, they’re sacrificing the imagination on the altar of political correctness.  And that, not the attempt to imagine what someone from another race or culture thinks and feels, is what’s truly offensive.

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7. In August 2011, after eighteen years of unjust imprisonment, the State of Arkansas granted the release of the West Memphis Three. I know you were deeply involved in their exoneration. Would you tell us a bit about that experience, and how it has affected your life and writing?

Unfortunately, the WM3 were not exonerated.  They were released as a result of a little-known and even less-used legal maneuver called an Alford Plea, which allowed them to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence.  The State of Arkansas agreed to this maneuver because the WM3—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley—were about to be awarded new trials after DNA tests of hundreds of pieces of crime scene evidence excluded them as suspects.  After the WM3 were released, the prosecutor said that, if they had been found innocent in a new trial, they would have been entitled to as much as sixty million dollars in reparations from the state.  By striking this deal, the state avoided this expense.  In return for the Alford Plea, the state resentenced the WM3 to time served—eighteen years and seventy-eight days—and then released them immediately.  The WM3 took the deal because they most likely would have had to wait two or three years for a new trial, and even then there was the possibility a jury could have convicted them again, despite the fact that there was no physical evidence connecting them to the crime whatsoever.  After all, that’s exactly what happened to them in 1994.

In any case, I worked for the WM3’s release from 2005, when I first met Damien, until their release in 2011, and I continue to work for their exoneration.  I was far from alone in this, of course; literally thousands of people in Arkansas and worldwide were involved in their cause.  Even though I played only a small role in the effort to free the WM3, the work I did with and for Damien is the most important work I’ve done in my life.  It’s one thing to publish books and win literary awards, but it’s quite another to help free someone unjustly condemned to death.  And I take much more pride in Damien’s book Life After Death, which I helped him publish, than I do in any of my own.

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8. You teach creative writing at both the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and Vermont College of Fine Arts. How has your teaching influenced your writing?

It’s influenced it both positively and negatively—positively because it’s forced me to think hard about matters of craft and come to an understanding of my own personal aesthetics, and negatively because it has taken a considerable amount of time away from my own writing.  But ultimately, both writing and teaching are very positive ways to spend one’s life.  I’m with Jean Rhys, who said, “All of writing is a huge lake.  There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.  And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys.  All that matters is feeding the lake.  I don’t matter.  The lake matters.  You must keep feeding the lake.”  I feel both writing and teaching are ways to feed the lake, even if all I can add is a drop.

But teaching hasn’t only influenced my writing, it’s influenced my life.  Thanks to teaching, I’ve met many extraordinary students and colleagues who have become dear friends and enriched my life beyond all measure.

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9. What projects do you have in the works next?

If Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories does well, Press 53 may publish a follow-up volume that contains another dozen stories and a novella that we didn’t have room for in Glossolalia.  Also, since Alone with All That Could Happen, my book of essays on the craft of fiction, is now out of print, I’d like to put together a new edition, one that includes some of the essays I’ve written since the book was originally published in 2008.  I also plan to continue writing stories toward another book.  And I’ll keep feeding the lake at both Vermont College of Fine Arts and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock as long as I’m able.

—Ross McMeekin & David Jauss

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RossMcMeekinphoto

Ross McMeekin’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in publications such as Shenandoah, Passages North, Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Green Mountains Review, and Tin House (blog). He received a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, edits the literary journal Spartan, and blogs at rossmcmeekin.com. He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.

David Jauss is the author of three story collections, Crimes of Passion, Black Maps, and the forthcoming Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories; two volumes of poetry, Improvising Rivers and You Are Not Here; and a collection of essays on the craft of fiction, Alone with All That Could Happen (reissued in paperback as On Writing Fiction).  He has also edited three anthologies, most recently Words Overflown by Stars, a collection of essays on the craft of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry by the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts.  His awards include the AWP Award for Short Fiction (for Black Maps), an O. Henry Prize, a Best American Short Stories selection, two Pushcart Prizes, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a James A. Michener fellowship, and three fellowships from the Arkansas Arts Council and one from the Minnesota State Arts Board.  He teaches at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Glossolalia: New and Selected Stories is available for pre-order at http://www.press53.com/BioDavidJauss.html. Black Maps can be ordered now at http://www.dzancbooks.org/black-maps/ and Crimes of Passion will be available soon at http://www.dzancbooks.org/crimes-of-passion/.

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Jul 142013
 

DW-Ark_Codex

I’m happy to report in on a recent joyous dance of my reader-self and viewer-self as I turned the pages of ARK CODEX, a thoroughly engaging visual/verbal collage “novel.” My curiosity about this authorless book led me to question its shepherd, the one who goaded this “mutated goat” of a book into being. Says Derek White, “Each word is a collage in itself . . . .” Yes! And the correspondences between the bits of text and gorgeous etchings bring an unusual intrigue to the pages and to the journey of this odd ark/book.

Derek White lives in New York City where he publishes Calamari Books and Sleepingfish Magazine. Do explore more of his work via the web links. You won’t be sorry!

— Nance Van Winckel

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Ark Codex 0:2:43 13x19 cm, multimedia (collage/frottage) Derek White
Ark Codex 0:2:43 13×19 cm, multimedia (collage/frottage)

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Nance Van Winckel: I know you’re interested in Derrida and his ideas that words refer primarily to other words, rather than to things and ideas, and also his view of texts as residing finally beyond authors, of literary works as collective enterprises generated by a concert of forces: reader, writer, cultural echoes surrounding them, etymologies, etc. I like how Ark Codex ±0 clearly allows the whole of itself to be “created” by those forces, and I appreciate how much I have to “bring” to the book myself. My own imagination and intellect are truly involved in furthering the book’s narrative momentum and visual journey. Could you talk a little about your own sense of authorlessness and the “concert of forces” that make the Ark Codex.

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Ark Codex 0:1:1 13x19 cm, multimedia (collage/frottage) Derek White
Ark Codex 0:1:1 13×19 cm, multimedia (collage/frottage)

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Derek White: Thank you, you are reading Ark Codex as i hoped it would be read. At the end of the day Ark Codex, any book, is a bound stack of paper on a shelf . . . until a reader comes along. Readers are the true “authors”—the ones who give meaning to a book. And your reading of it is just as valid and important as any other, including mine. Sure, my role is unique in that i experienced Ark Codex as it was coming together, but i think of my role more as a shepherd. Or, okay, maybe a breeder. And i personally prefer to think of goats rather than sheep, wherein the goats are other books and ideas . . . yes Derrida’s books being some of those goats. But Derrida is not one of those goats—I’ve never met Derrida. Sadly, he is dead. But his books aren’t (and in this sense, neither is he). Ark Codex is some sort of mutated goat that came about by such selective breeding. But again, don’t let me be the one to tell you what Ark Codex is or isn’t; you might have a completely different beast in mind when your eyes scan over this particular confluence of text & images, based on your own prior collective associations with certain words, phrases, images, etc.

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ARK_CODEX_0-3-20
Ark Codex 0:3:30 13×19 cm, multimedia (collage/frottage)
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NVW: Collage seems both a method of creation AND a method of participation in this book. As a reader/viewer, I was fascinated by how my reader-self and my viewer-self danced about on the pages. I loved this back-and-forth interplay and how when I’d read the small passage of text at the bottom of a page, what I’d just visualized in the imagery and graphics hooked in, “enlarged,” or somehow “played with” the linguistic elements. I think the text and the visual elements achieve an amazing symbiosis or amalgamation here, and I wonder if you could comment on that interactivity of visual and verbal elements.

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h0ME(o\v/o)ID 8: GRAVE[e|it]Y helps deSign find its private tombstone ID[enTITy]
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DW: Ark Codex actually started as a text, a somewhat linear narrative. If you look carefully in the pages you might find traces of it, but most of its original form is probably lost, embedded into the page, bleeding into the collage of image and other underlying or superimposed text. The footnoted text came as an afterthought—a sort of associative narrative that came about by re-processing the images. I think of them as abstracts, in a scientific sense. Collaging feels more like how at least my brain thinks. Language in its pure form is a beautiful thing, but it can also be debilitating in that we risk detachment, severance even. Someone like Peter Markus (a true guru of pure language) is so enamored by language that when he hears a word, like “river,” the first thing he thinks of is how the word looks on the page. While i also share this reverence of, especially written, language, in all its type-faced forms, i don’t want to lose sight of the actual river. But even staring at a river (which is what i look at when I’m not looking at my computer) we can still forget, or take for granted, what the river means, or has meant to us. I’m not so interested in photography or still lifes—capturing images, reducing them to their iconic forms. Collage allows us to breed new images, new ideas. And yes, when i say collage i don’t mean just images from magazines cut and pasted together. Even if I’m writing something purely textual, i think of it as collage—the way combinations of words interact and morph, glued together by syntax and grammar. And each word is a collage in itself, a vessel that contains an accumulative amalgamation of every instance and use before us.

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NVWimage1
Left to right: Ark Codex 0:3:8, 13×19 cm, multimedia (collage/frottage), and Ark Codex 0:3:9, 13×19 cm, multimedia (collage/frottage)

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NVW: For me, Ark Codex ±0 has many qualities of a novel. I’m thinking about the journey undertaken on this strange ark, an ongoing narrative that’s a kind of quirky Noah story set in realms that are by turns ancient or futuristic, metafictional or metaphysical, scientifically “steeped” or mythically enriched. I could go on and on with my list. But let’s look, for instance, at a couple of my favorite pages, these two from the third section where “we” seem to have made landfall (or are within our museum diorama) and encounter the figure of the “bush doctor.” Here’s the text which reads a bit like a ship’s log:

0:3:8: Under such sea-snaking circumstances, the bush doctor warns us to not splay our fingers. He is not counting on the fact that our <<vingers>>are webbed. Before we snap out of it, he blindfolds us for continuity. We can see all the way to the end of our own nerves from within our cloth cul-de-sac. Clogged fibers branch back into the roots of palms. At this point a puncture is made to drain any misleading perceptions. Even judgment of unreliability is deemed unreliable, so we are back to square 1 with each articulation.

And from the facing page:

0:3:9: At his juncture, the kernel become clearer. A system is in place to separate trash from recyclables—organic & non-organic (& sub-divided even further). We are in a hangar now (or a diorama of 1, still in the natural history museum)—an ark house so large that isolated weather patterns form from within. It is still below freezing on this page, but the rate of the rate of change is what matters. To determine our current coordinates (& capacity for change) we integrate this rate of the rate of change in each cardinal direction.

Wow! The brevity of each of these snippets makes me feel I’m getting just a small part of a huge—HUGE!—story. Plus each piece of information makes the ark tremble. Unexpectedness in each new sentence. Where will the ark go next; what fauna and flora will we encounter; what will happen to our own physical selves? For me, it’s an adventure story in the widest possible sense of that word. If not as author or even as “authority,” but rather might you comment on the book’s behalf about its proclivities toward story in general or the novel in particular?

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Incisione H from Ark Codex (incised print)

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DW: Ha, you made landfall! That’s further than i got—in my mind, the narrator is constrained to the North Pole, waiting for the ice to melt, for the flood. So in this sense, nothing happens. But in such a landscape, cabin fever sets in, the imagination runs wild. I’m not very good at making things up. And i am far from a reliable source as to what is happening. If there is any semblance of story, it likely rose out of a dream. And dreams came from a warped union of personal experience (the hangar—Hangar One in Moffet Field, CA—i actually delivered a pizza to!) and the tapping of our collective unconscious. As Joseph Campbell and others have showed us, we are telling the same story over and over—this four-pronged cycle or journey. Noah’s story is just one variation on the theme, that particularly appeals to me because it is about more than just the human condition, but is inclusive of all animals, and the inherent drive in us to preserve and propagate our underlying code. Which is to me what writing and publishing is all about. Story to me is just a framing device, a vessel for language, a boat that gets you down (or up) the river. Ark Codex is a fleeting condensation of collective unconscious that materializes to stain the page, then dissolves when read, into liquid—rain that falls on the landscape, flows into the river, back to the sea … to do it all over again. The ‘story’ comes in the reader reading it. They become the ark, the historical act.

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Under Pressure

—Derek White & Nance Van Winckel

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Derek White lives in NYC where he publishes Calamari Press & Sleepingfish magazine and blogs at 5cense.com. More about Ark Codex may viewed here: http://calamaripress.com/ark_codex.htm. Much more of his “bookish art” may be viewed here: http://www.5cense.com/art.htm.

Nance Van Winckel

Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, and Gettysburg Review. She is also the author of three collections of short fiction and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon Review. Boneland, her fourth collection of fiction, is forthcoming in October from U. of Oklahoma Press. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest and excerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online. Click this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson. Her personal web page is here.


Jul 072013
 

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Ethan Rutherford’s debut collection, The Peripatetic Coffin, is a funny, cutting, clever look at seclusion, often on the high seas. The title story, concerning the first Confederate submarine, was anthologized in the 2009 edition of The Best American Short Stories, while other stories originally appeared in One Story, Ploughshares, and Five Chapters. Though less than two months have passed since its publication, Rutherford’s collection has quickly gathered praise, from a longlist nomination for the Frank O’Connor award, to inclusion on several summer “must read” lists.

Though I eventually met up with the author at a reading in Providence, RI, the following interview was conducted during a long chain of emails, sometime between late May and mid-June. 

— Benjamin Woodard

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Benjamin Woodard (BW): There’s a strong theme of isolation—both physical and emotional—that runs throughout the book. Did you aim for this theme, or did the thread organically appear as you assembled the collection?

Ethan Rutherford (ER): I’d like to say the thread appeared organically as I was putting the collection together—that I sat down with, say, twenty stories, and it became clear that what connected these eight particular stories was that they all orbited around the theme of what you’ve nicely identified as physical and emotional isolation (that “and” is important). But for whatever reason, isolation is a bit of an idée fixe for me as a writer. I can’t get away from it, and the result is that almost all of my stories hinge on, and address to varying degrees, the deleterious effects of spiritual, emotional, or physical isolation. If I were the sort of person who looked inward, rather than pushed these things outward, I’d be tempted to look for reasons: either that’s a sensation I’m familiar with, or the condition I fear most, or some fraught combination thereof. Or, most simply—and less all about me—I think that when a character finds herself in an isolated state, she is at her most combustible, which is an interesting place to be as a reader. And those are the sorts of moments I hustle towards, as a writer.

As for the stories that made the cut and appear in the book: the hope, with a collection, is that each story pulls its weight in order to make the whole somehow greater than the sum of its parts. You want thematic riffing between stories, but you don’t want repetition. The stories need to be in conversation with each other, even if that conversation is submerged, but you don’t want to bang the same pots and pans over and over again. The ocean; the theme of isolation; the ways in which all the characters, at some point, confront what I’ve taken to calling the Talking Heads question—David Byrne, in “Once In A Lifetime,” saying in the turn around: “You may say to yourself, My God, what have I done?” After many cuts and substitutions—giving different stories a shot in the lineup—the stories you see here were the last ones standing. 

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BW: Staying on the theme of isolation, you often achieve this effect by employing large vessels to quarantine your characters. Of these, two—the Hunley and the Saint Anna—are real, and one—the Halcyon—exists in a sort of alternative Earth. I’m curious as to what drew you to write historical narratives around the Hunley and the Saint Anna, and also what spurred you to create an alternative universe in which the Halcyon exists.

ER: Ah, “quarantine” is a great way to put it. Well, the easiest answer is simply that I love boats, and the ocean, and one of the great things about writing fiction is that you can sit down and ask yourself: where do I want to go today? The answer for me is always: out to sea. But the challenge, of course, comes when you begin to interrogate what you’re doing, and ask: well, what’s interesting about this, and what makes it a story? What drew me to the historical stories—“The Peripatetic Coffin,” which is set aboard the H.L. Hunley, the first Confederate submarine, and “The Saint Anna,” a story that swims and dips into the True Arctic Disaster genre—was that the real circumstances and events of those stories were so bracing, and end in such calamity, that I was interested in trying to pull those events back down to the human scale. We know how the stories end—catastrophically—but as I read about the fate of those ships, I began to wonder what it felt like to be aboard, embarking on what anyone would eventually recognize as The End of the Line. How do you wrap your mind around something like that?  How do you square up, and to what extent does your emotional response meet or fall short of the ways in which you would’ve hoped and expected? Both of those stories end, to some degree, in failure—the ship is sunk, the crew, nevermore.

With “Dirwhals!” I was hoping to flip the scenario—it’s a successful voyage, in that they finally get what they came for, but at what cost? They’ve hunted a species to extinction, and here we are, the David Byrne question ringing out once more, but this time in a slightly different key, perhaps a more horrified register. “Dirwhals!” was supposed to be a novel—a sequel to Moby Dick—set during the waning days of the American Whaling Industry, when, after the discovery that petroleum could be distilled into kerosene, whaling seemed even more pointless. The voyages were longer, the returns diminished, the hunt increasingly senseless. But, you know, who can go up against Moby Dick? That book is a masterpiece. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the concerns of that imagined story—the rolling wheel of capitalism, the senseless degradation of the environment, the squeezing of natural resources until there is simply nothing left—were still resonant, maybe even more so, today. It’s not too hard to see the way we are going with the environment, and the decision to put the story a few years in the future had to do with wanting those issues to be even starker than they are right now. So there’s the heavy thematic answer for you. On a more basic level, I just love sci-fi, and was excited to write in that genre, and build whatever world I wanted.

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BW: “The Peripatetic Coffin” quickly builds a rhythm off of a series of narrative lists. “Summer, Boys” flows thanks to a strong use of parallel construction. And “Camp Winnesaka” bounces along with a steady combination of high and low (even casual) vocabulary.  How do you approach the language of your narratives?

ER: Well, for me, the challenge of a particular story, the fun part, is sitting down and wondering: who is the best, most interesting person to tell this story? And then you’re faced with the question of how are they going to tell it. I wanted each story to be distinct, and the way I chose to do that was to vary the formal approach—the narrative nuts-n-bolts—of each story. You don’t want stylistic repetition. There may be no new stories under the sun, but there are always new ways to tell them. But the trick is trying to marry form and function. In a story about friends who view themselves as somewhat indistinguishable from one another, a parallel construction and a blurring of narrative POV is in some ways appropriate (“Summer, Boys”). In “Camp Winnesaka,” which is what Charles Baxter would call a dysfunctional narrative in that it is a story in which absolutely no one is willing to take responsibility for what has happened, a monologue that falls all over itself trying to avoid culpability, complete with sentence fragments, etc., seemed like a good mode to work in. You know, that camp counselor has a hard job, trying to convince the reader that the accidental deaths of like, 70 campers, is emblematic something other than a total debacle. The trick is in finding a way of telling that augments the themes contained within a story—brings them into sharper relief, makes the stories sail a little further than they would have otherwise. But narrative tricks, or formal experimentation for experimentation’s sake—where form is the dominant characteristic—that falls flat for me as a reader.

BW: In a story like “Saint Anna,” how do you balance the level of humor and horror in a narrative that essentially revolves around impending death?

ER: Well, I don’t know how it’s done, necessarily, and I couldn’t write a story that says [insert joke here], but I do know that tragedy without comedy isn’t tragedy at all. The characters I love, as a reader, are the ones who take the time to say: wait a second guys, did you see that? That is ridiculous. It’s about seeing. And if all you see is doom and gloom, you don’t have your eyes open very wide at all, and it comes off, on the page, as seeming less than human. Or maybe I should just say this. In every story I write, Bill Murray, who is my hero in every possible way, is sort of sitting on my shoulder, saying: sure, the ship is about to be crushed by ice, but have you tried this amazing hardtack? I like the dissonance created when someone who should be taking something seriously does not; it’s a refusal I find stubbornly humane. Here’s a quote I love, but even as it’s guided my approach to writing about bracing things, I’m not sure I fully understand: “To joke in the face of danger is the supreme politeness, a delicate refusal to cast oneself as a tragic hero.” Edmond Rostand wrote that. And I guess I have an issue with the idea of bland, tragic heroism. The world is so much more complicated than that. At a reading, someone said that the characters in “The Peripatetic Coffin,” as I’d written them, behaved heroically. And that hadn’t been my intention, at all.

BW: Your stories, while containing dialogue, do not rely on long character conversations to relay a narrative. When you write, do you construct longer passages of dialogue that get edited down, or is this sparseness there from the start?

ER: It got hammered into me pretty early that dialogue should only be used sparingly. The sparseness is there from the start, and I tend to think of dialogue more as a form of emotional punctuation in a story than anything else. Every time a character speaks, it should be in the service of revealing how that character feels about a situation, and I’ve found that if that’s your intention, you don’t need a page of conversation to get to the point. I’m happiest when exposition does most the work of moving a story forward, and dialogue daggers in either to veer the emotional content in a new direction, or reveal something about how the events feel to a character. Obviously, there’s a spectrum here, and the ratio of exposition to dialogue will change depending on the formal choices you’ve made—if the story is told in the first person, there is less dialogue than if it were, say, told in close third. But for the most part I try to keep the dialogue sparse. Action speaks louder than words, and all of that. I’m sure I’ll regret saying this, and my next story will consist of nothing but dialogue, but that’s how I felt when putting these stories together.

BW: At the beginning of “A Mugging,” your omniscient narrator pulls a very brief metafictional trick by speaking directly to the reader and admitting that he (or she) cannot do anything to stop the story from happening. What played into your decision to have the narrator make this statement, as it is the only time he (or she) makes such a move?

ER: In the original draft of that story, the narrator swoops in again at the end, to bemoan the inevitability of the fallout from the mugging and to provide a bookend for that initial meta-commentary. But it never sat right, that ending, and felt largely unnecessary, and too directive (really, it was one of those: “What you’ve just read is…” kind of things, just mortifying in retrospect). I went to chop the beginning, though, and found that I could not. And I think it has something to do with the initial invocation of the “you,” the direct address to the reader, making him/her complicit to some degree with the events that follow. One of the unsettling things for me about being a reader is that you are fundamentally passive, and though you are engaged with whatever story you’re reading, you are helpless to stop the locomotive as it rounds the bend. Making that explicit, in this particular story—I’m not sure what the effect is for other readers—but for me, in writing it, it made me care more about the dissolution about this particular marriage. The story is also told in the future tense, which also hopefully compounds the reader’s sense that something could have been done, if only someone could have cut the red-wire on the ticking bomb in time, stepped in, said “stop.” I think the characters are aware of this as well—aware that their actions are destructive to one another even as they are doing them, but they can’t bring themselves to act differently. The characters are passively watching as they unravel their own marriage. It seems only fair to spread some of that blame around. 

BW: I read “Camp Winnesaka” as an allegory for the Iraq War. Is that a fair assessment? How do you react to these kinds of interpretations of your work?

ER: Oh, yes, absolutely, and in this case, you’ve found the nerve. This story originated after I’d been reading about Pat Tillman, and the events that followed his death due to friendly fire (more specifically: the way that narrative was spun by those invested in the war effort, until the truth came out). But the hope is that the story succeeds on its own, even if the parallels aren’t picked up. People have read that story without registering the Iraq/Afghanistan/Endless War analog, and have been properly horrified, which makes me happy, because if seeing the “real world” parallel is required for the story to have any emotional heft, then it’s a failure. Just this morning, I was in the car, and “Space Oddity” by David Bowie came on the radio. For years and years I’d thought that was just a weird and beautiful song about an actual spaceman, in actual space, whose final missive, as he’s heading out of range, is to tell his wife he loves her very much (“she knoooooows!”). Then someone told me: you know that’s about drugs, right? And I was strangely flattened by that news. You can’t unhear it, and I liked the song better when I understood it literally, rather than as an elaborate junkie metaphor. Which is a long way of saying: I’m happy to hear that anyone has enjoyed that story, on any level. These stories—they’re not yours once you send them out into the world, and it doesn’t matter what your intention was as you were writing them. What matters is how they’re received. “Camp Winnesaka,” though, was the happiest I’ve ever been writing a story, though, for whatever that’s worth. It just came right out. Pure joy to write that one.

BW: In addition to writing, you play guitar in the band Pennyroyal. Do you find that your work in one medium influences the other? Have you written songs that become stories, and vice versa?

ER: The crossover has only happened once, between the story “The Saint Anna” and a song called “Captain,” which opens: “Captain, the ice it won’t break on its own / and we can’t brook the expanse all alone. / By your brow I can see you’re unhappy now. / The leads have stitched and there’s no going home.” What a chart-topper! Other than that, music and writing rarely intersect for me. I find when I write fiction, the pleasure comes from inhabiting the lives of others, and trying to bring color to experiences I’ve never had. When writing music, it tends to be more confessional, more personal, more of a direct unburdening. What I love about writing—that you are responsible for creating your own tiny universe—is the exact opposite of what I love about playing music, which is that when things are moving well, and everyone is playing and really listening to each other, what is created is always a bit of a happy surprise. You know immediately if something is working or not; whereas with writing, it might take you months to figure out you’ve hit a sour note, or were playing in the wrong key all along.

BW: Several small narrative elements in “Summer, Boys”—the Boz poster, Spokey Dokes, Garbage Pail Kids, Bambi vs. Godzilla—firmly and genuinely plant the story in the late 1980s. I’m guessing you were a kid during this time. Do you have fond memories of these knickknacks, and, if so, is it difficult to inject real elements of your childhood into a fictional story?

ER: I was a kid during the 80’s, though the references invoked in that story are a combination of the things I loved and what I understood Older Kids to love (i.e. the things I knew I should love too, but my parents either wouldn’t get for me, or wouldn’t let me watch). And it was a pleasure to allow myself to go back in time like that, remembering this or that cherished and fetishized, and now forgotten, object of childhood. Just a pleasure. All of it came right back. When you’re a kid, you love stuff. The few things that are yours are extremely important to you, emotionally and imaginatively; they link you to the world. Who am I? I’m a kid who lives for a new pack of Garbage Pail Kids. There’s always a concern out there—someone always brings it up—that if you include pop-culture touchstones in a story you are unnecessarily dating a piece of writing, ensuring that it won’t have resonance outside of the few people who cherished the exact same things you did, and therefore Won’t Become Literature. I get where that idea is coming from, but with respect, that theory of literature can go sink itself. It’s the most reductive way to think about fiction, that there are certain things you can and should be writing about. And for “Summer, Boys” in particular—a story that is about a fleeting moment in childhood, when meaning is attached to, and in many ways originates from, very specific pop-cultural flotsam—how could you not include the names? They’re not toy robots. They’re Transformers. That these things ascend as treasured objects, and then are promptly forgotten, or replaced—that’s the point of the story. And as far as that emotional sentiment also characterizes the friendship between the two boys, is where its sadness comes from.

BW: Perhaps this is a cruel question to ask someone on the week that his debut collection is released, but what are you working on now?

ER: Oh boy, you are cruel! I’m working on a novel, which is in its infancy at the moment, and may thrive, or may not. I mean: I think it’s a good idea for a book. But I’m also the guy who spent seven years trying to write a story narrated by Conan the Barbarian, so I don’t always have the best perspective on these things.

BW: Finally, what’s the best advice you received from a literary mentor?

ER: Paraphrasing here, but from Jim Shepard—take what you’re interested in seriously, push it until you find what’s weird about that, and then keep digging until you find the emotional heart of your story. More directly, from an interview he did: “Quirky without pain? Then you’re just performing.” And from Charles Baxter, who said to me once: “Nothing’s happening here.  Something has to happen.” He’s also the guy who pulled the plug, finally, on the Conan story, and the world can thank him for that forever.

— Ethan Rutherford & Benjamin Woodard

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Ethan Rutherford was born in Seattle, and now lives in the Midwest. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, New York Tyrant, Esopus, Five Chapters, and The Best American Short Stories. His work has received special mention in the 2009, 2010 and 2013 editions of the Pushcart Prize, and received awards from the McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board. He received his MFA from the University of Minnesota, and has taught creative writing at Macalester College, the University of Minnesota, and the Loft Literary Center. He is the guitarist for the band Pennyroyal, which has been assaulting the ears of its listeners with songs of the ocean and long lost love since 2010. He is currently at work on a novel set in the Alaskan wilderness.

Ben_WoodardBenjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His writing has been featured in, or is forthcoming from, Numéro CinqDrunken Boat, Cleaver Magazine, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.

Jun 102013
 

 

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Steven Schwartz writes to his obsessions.  Currently, he’s obsessed by success, failure, and redemption, fixations which contextualize the main conflicts of his short stories and novels.  In the title story of his first collection, To Leningrad in Winter, Schwartz tells the story of manwho attempts to distance himself from his Jewish heritage even when faced with acts of anti-Semitism that compel him to join a cause.  Lives of the Fathers, his second collection, follows relationships between family members as they attempt to grow up and distance themselves from their parentage.  Schwartz’s title story of this collection is told from the perspective of a son who simply wants to help his father move after his mother’s death.  But when his father ropes him into helping him pursue Victoria, his father’s ailing, long-lost love, the narrator realizes he may be unable to avoid repeating his father’s mistakes.  Schwartz’s first novel Therapy is told from the perspectives of three interconnected characters, each working through family dilemmas, personal trauma, and therapy to find meaning and love in their lives.  In his second novel, A Good Doctor’s Son, Schwartz tells the story of a teenager who grows up in a racially intolerant small town in Pennsylvania.  After accidentally killing the child of a black family while drag racing, the main character refocuses his life by attempting to deal with the moral repercussions of his actions.  Schwartz’s most recent collection, Little Raw Souls, features stories of characters faced with difficult situations that force them to question their complacency with their lives, such as a man who can’t seem to let go of the adolescent crush he’d had when his transgender cousin was a girl; a rancher easily fooled by a couple vagrants who camp on his property; a woman at an airport who contemplates spending the night with a stranger rather than telling her husband her wallet was stolen.

Following the release of Little Raw Souls and his recent reading at an independent bookstore in Denver, CO, I spoke with Schwartz on how he maintains flexibility in his writer’s voice, pursues his obsessions, and wrestles his material into character-driven narratives.

—Jacqueline Kharouf

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CraftBookJacqueline Kharouf: You wrote a very interesting essay about voice called “Finding a Voice in America,” which was published in the AWP Chronicle (Oct.-Nov. 1991) and later published in the craft anthology Bringing the Devil to His Knees.  In the essay, you briefly discuss the discovery (or acceptance) of your “material” and that once you finally stopped avoiding it, you came into your voice: “[…] the writer’s voice emerges at the place where her unique experience meets the larger culture.”  I think of the writer’s voice as an ever-evolving aspect of being a writer (or that as we have new experiences, we meet that “larger culture” in ever-different and unexpected ways) and I wonder how you’ve noted (or embraced) that evolution in your own career.

Steven Schwartz: I think it’s important to say that writers, especially younger writers, although this can happen at any stage, spend a lot of time running away from their material.  And why do they do this?  Well, for any number of reasons.  They’re afraid of being boring, that is, what happened to them couldn’t possibly be of any interest to anyone else simply because it did happen to them.  They’re worried about dredging up material that might hurt those close to them—even when it’s disguised as fiction or only inspired by real events.  But you can’t run away from your material because you don’t choose it, it chooses you.  Even writers who claim not to be autobiographical at all—as if this is something to be ashamed about, suggesting they have no imagination—you’re still unconsciously going to run into your own obsessions if you write long enough.

Schwartz

For me, I had this idea that plot alone would make me an interesting writer, until I came to understand that I was only using plot to avoid revealing anything about myself that might stray into dangerous emotional territory and risk being sentimental.  But it quickly became obvious—and I remember the story in particular, “Monkey Business” in my first collection To Leningrad in Winter—that when I finally wrote about the pain of a lover having an affair, (and allowed the real life event to take imaginative flight) and saw the impact it had on readers, I understood voice came out of the depths of character.

That intersection you mention about voice emerging at the place where your unique experience meets the larger culture is always variable.  Which is another way to say that your voice does change over time depending on everything from your new experiences to what you’re reading to what you choose to write about.  The idea of “finding your voice”—that chestnut of writerly advice—makes you think once you have it, that’s it.  Good.  I’ve got mine, hope you get yours.  But actually you have to lose your voice periodically to keep it alive.  Otherwise it becomes stale because you’re clinging to what worked before.

One caveat here: I remember speaking with the writer Charles D’Ambrosio after he gave a reading of his wonderful story “Screenwriter” and asking him about its genesis.  He told me something very interesting.  He said, in fact, the story was all voice at one point, and he had to proceed in the opposite direction, find what undergirded the voice, a structure for that voice that had some sort of narrative arc.  So you have to be aware that your work can actually depend too much on voice and neglect all the other fundamentals of craft.

JK: One of the most intriguing and moving components of your prose is your dialogue, which is always a showcase of the differences that put your characters at odds with each other and an opportunity for those differences—and degrees of separation—to reveal what the characters most want.  I wonder if you could discuss how you work on dialogue and if you could explain a bit of your process for fusing motivation with desire in terms of the particular context you want to create for the story.  Do you begin a story with a particular context already in mind?  Or does the character (and his/her particular situation/conflict) shape the story context?

SS: As a child I was always listening, always the witness to a lot of other more flamboyant family members. I think many writers, who tend to be watchers or witnesses in their families, silently take on the voices around them for lack of having any voice themselves. They become mimics.  They study their subjects.  They teach themselves to imitate others in order to get attention.  But with the polyglot of voices you’ve collected, you begin to populate an inner world, and you do that by a sort of talking to yourself.  You then come to appreciate how sound can be associated with image and before long you’re creating stories that are more interesting than what’s going on around you.  Soon you discover that lived life isn’t enough for you, that it needs to be heightened, in particular by language.  That’s how you learn to speak.

Dialogue as everyone knows can’t just be about delivering information.  It has to be about creating character.  So while other people may be listening for information, all that watching and listening that you’ve done has primed you to hear resonance.  You hear all the shadings of meaning, the tones and intentionality, the emotional landscape behind the words.  Without realizing it, in the silence of your listening, you’ve been teaching yourself about subtext.

Schwartz

When I’m working on a story, I usually have some idea of when a scene has to occur and how vital it is to bring in the actual voices of the characters.  In one of the more dialogue-heavy stories in Little Raw Souls, “Stranger,” I needed to allow these two strangers who meet in an airport and contemplate having an affair to speak for themselves, as if only direct testimony from them could explain their actions.  So you might say that dialogue comes into play when it’s most urgent for characters to speak and no other words than theirs will do.  Dialogue has to feel special in a story.  What I mean by that is that when you come across it, you have to be a little thrilled to hear directly from a character, and if you’re not, then it’s either bad dialogue or it’s being overused.  Dialogue has to have force behind it—a pressure to speak.

JK: I really enjoyed your reading and I especially admired how you handled the variety of questions that you received from the audience.  The first question, in particular, was pretty interesting because someone asked about the risky subject matter of the story you read (the story includes a transgender character).  The audience member didn’t say whether he liked the story or not, but if you had hesitations about sharing it.  Do you think—in this current state of the culture, which tends toward shock value and grabbing the consumer’s attention with as little effort from the consumer as possible—an author should worry about what readers will think of their work?

SS: Well, the short answer is no, of course not.  But let’s be honest.  What writer doesn’t—especially in this age of populace commentary—peek at those sometimes nasty comments on Amazon or Goodreads.  In the past, writers were more insulated from that opining.  You published a book.  Someone maybe sent a letter to you.  Or to your publisher.  But it was all relatively private.  Not anymore.  And those comments stay.

All that said, it still shouldn’t matter one bit.  If you want to take risks as a writer, and you’d better, if they’re honest risks, then you have to find a way to block those outside voices that are more prevalent today than ever before and would like to tell you everything from how you should write (or not) to tips about your personal hygiene.

JK: What are your obsessions that you write towards in your work?  Do you actively cultivate these obsessions in other aspects of your life (aside from writing) or, in writing about your obsessions, do you work through those obsessions as a way of learning and letting them go?

SS: You have to make friends with your obsessions.  But the catch is you don’t know your obsessions until you write enough to discover them.  What you think you’re obsessed with may in fact not turn out to be the matter at all.  I know for a fact that I’m obsessed with success, failure, and redemption, but how those forces will play out I never know, and in fact, don’t want to know.

You can’t rid yourself of your obsessions but you don’t have to assume you’ll always be trapped into writing about them either.  If you say, I’m not going to repeat myself in this book by writing about X or Y, you’ll undoubtedly do just that.  On the other hand, if you don’t fear that you’ll repeat your obsessions, you’ll find that they evolve into fascinating elaborations on a theme.  Thomas Wolf couldn’t seem to stop writing about going home, Fitzgerald about wealth, Flannery O’Connor about mother figures, Dostoyevsky about suffering, judgment, goodness, violence and a whole bunch of other obsessions bursting at the seams of his books.  In short, you have to embrace your obsessions with a faith that they’re both inexhaustible and capable of transmutation.

Schwartz

JK:I’m curious about the hierarchy of characters in your first novel, Therapy.  Each character has such depth and dimension that, as I was reading, I often thought that they could each carry on in their own separate narratives.  The novel’s close third-person point of view mostly centers on Cap, but also dips into the perspectives of Wallis (Cap’s wife), Julian (one of Cap’s therapy clients), Celia (Julian’s classmate), and Anna (Julian’s reclusive mother).  I wonder if you could talk about what you hoped these other points of view would reveal about the story.  I think there’s a certain danger in having too many points of view—a need to collect more information than the reader needs to feel invested in the story—and a risk in creating red-herrings (events or people who turn up, seem important, and then don’t necessarily influence lasting change on the main characters or their situations).  However, each of your characters, with their various issues and desires, propel the plot forward and you return to and revisit other characters (and simultaneously drop others) in a kind of juggling act that raises the stakes of the story the longer you keep this number of characters in play.  Ultimately, the novel (and the point of view) culminates at the point in which Cap recognizes what I think is at the heart of all desires: “It was what he’d always wanted to know too.  The riddle of The Thing: Am I loved?” (331).

SS:  Among the different points of view in Therapy, I have, Julian, a young man in college who is epileptic, Cap, a psychologist, and Wallis, Cap’s wife.  At one time I was trying to write three individual books about each of these characters, toiling away over a period of a decade.  Then I realized they could all be united in one story by the device of therapy and benefit from working off of each other.

It’s always interesting trying to decide exactly who will be a primary character and who a secondary one.  I just wrote a paper for a panel about this topic for the AWP conference, and one of the conclusions I came to is that secondary characters have to be distinct in their own right.  They can resemble types but at the same time they have to freshen that type.  Secondary doesn’t mean second rate.  But they are basically there to illuminate the struggles of the major characters, as Celia does for Julian when she meets and falls in love with him.  So secondary characters can often fulfill their role, contradict it, or exceed it, and you have to be alert to the possibility of discovering your secondary characters are outgrowing their intended potential.

Schwartz

This is far often more true for a novel than a short story, a short story being an exclusive operation that weeds out material and a novel being an enterprise that wants to suck in everything around it including the idle conversation you just had with your neighbor about cantaloupe at the market (“I know I can work that in!”).  So one of the characters in Therapy, Maureen, with her highly charged sexual behavior, started out more as a minor character but blossomed into a major one as she got more involved with Julian and I had to understand her motivation.  And once you start mucking around with a character’s actions, and those actions are perhaps damaging to others as in the case of Maureen, you almost have an obligation to investigate the complexity of why a character behaves as she does, and that in itself indicates you’re on to creating a primary character. You have to explore motivation in a way that even if an act appears random the possibilities of what caused that act are myriad and compelling, otherwise you’re light on character.  In Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Bartleby literally winds up doing nothing, fading away as a human being, but it’s the why of his nothingness that makes this story a fascinating study of motivation with its possible social, economic, psychological, spiritual, philosophical explanations for behavior that can’t be reduced to one cause.

And this is where point of view often comes in, regardless of whether we’re talking about a primary or secondary character.  I knew for most of the principal characters I could go into their heads, but with Maureen, I had to stay out of it, despite her being a major character.  I simply could not do justice to—and in fact would be subtracting from—the nature of her behavior if I tried to explain her from the inside out.  It was an intuitive decision to stay out of her head, as many decisions about point of view are, knowing that she would have more raw power as a character seen from the outside than from the inside.  My friend, Robert Boswell, talks about the half-known world of characters, that “you can measure how successfully you’ve revealed a character by the extent to which his acts, words, history, and thoughts fail to explain him,” and I think that’s true of all characters: you don’t want to over-solve.  If you do, their mystery disappears.  You have to take the measure of how fully you’re going to expose each character, or to use your phrase, complete or make incomplete their lives.

To be clear, this has nothing to do with not developing a character to the fullest—all characters need to have their trajectories followed through on—but with psychological constructs of a character, if you still believe in that sort of thing as a writer of mostly realistic stories, as I am.  And since I’ve brought up the subject of realism versus other modes, I should say that I think it’s often an artificial or perhaps useless distinction.  A Jonathan Franzen versus an Aimee Bender.  Borges versus Roth (who’s taken a few fantasy turns in his fiction himself).  In Therapy, I have an absolutely bizarre sequence of events that takes place in the basement of a psychiatrist’s office.  People always ask me about that scene, and I really can’t give any more justification for it other than it fits and that’s where the story took me.  Likewise in Little Raw Souls, in “Absolute Zero,” there’s no explaining the Seer.  But nothing could persuade me to take these moments out just to make the stories “consistent.”  Insisting on categorization can only inhibit the work and the possibility of a truly original moment happening.  I published an essay in The Writer’s Chronicle called “In Defense of Contrivance,” and one of my arguments I make is that it’s not what happens but what happens afterward that makes an event believable or not.  Create the right context and follow up and there are no limits on how a so-called magical moment might pop up and become integral and credible to an otherwise erstwhile realistic work.

Schwartz

JK: In your new story collection Little Raw Souls, you create situations for your characters and then introduce conflict that threatens to disrupt or end these situations.  For example, in “Bless Everybody,” the narrator Charlie is retired, divorced, and living off the land he’d always wanted to own, but then two hippies arrive and want to stay for a time.  In “Absolute Zero,” Connor’s dying mother won’t sign the papers allowing him to enlist for the Marines, but then he spends time with a classmate who is also dying.  In “Seeing Miles,” David reconnects with his second cousin who—over the years—has changed her gender.  Did you begin your stories with these situations in mind first?  Or did you think of the conflict first before crafting a situation that contextualizes the resolution of that conflict?

SS: I really don’t think one knows the conflict in advance of writing stories.  In “Bless Everybody,” Charlie has a run in with some young hippies who take a liking to his land but turn out to be different people than they appear at first.  That story came out of an experience of a couple who did call us out of the blue and ask to stay on some land we owned.  They turned out to be deceitful and though it’s not necessary to go into exactly how, I can say, what intrigued me about the situation for years before I could write about it was how easily I was hoodwinked.  In other words, I couldn’t get over my own susceptibility.  In writing the story I had to find a way to investigate that initial miscalculation of mine, given I consider myself a good reader of people, which broadened into a conflict about a man confronting the idea of what it means to be a good person and whether he’s failed at that over the years or been too rigid in his pursuit of that goal.

So the original conflict that might initially intrigue me and be based on my own experience has to evolve into something more universal in the course of writing a story, otherwise it just stays limited—a situation, not a story.  Likewise for “Seeing Miles.” I was always fascinated by how I had my first crush on my lovely cousin at thirteen, who turned out in her thirties to have a sex change, and what that meant about me.  The real conflict, however, involved wrestling with a story about the nature of desire.  Did I at any point sit there and say to myself, I’m writing a story about the nature of desire?  Absolutely not.  I probably would have hit myself over the head with hammer first and said get back to work, Steven!  Wake up and write a story, not an idea.

—Steven Schwartz & Jacqueline Kharouf

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author photo

Steven Schwartz grew up outside Chester, Pennsylvania, and has lived in Colorado for the past twenty-eight years.  He is the author of two story collections, To Leningrad in Winter (University of Missouri) and Lives of the Fathers (University of Illinois), and two novels, Therapy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and A Good Doctor’s Son (William Morrow).  His fiction has received the Nelson Algren Award, the Sherwood Anderson Prize, the Cohen Award, the Colorado Book Award for the Novel, two O. Henry Prize Story Awards, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Bread Loaf.  His essays have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, North American Review, Crazyhorse, Image, and have been awarded the Cleanth Brooks Prize in Nonfiction from The Southern Review.  He teaches in the low-residency MFA Program at Warren Wilson College and the MFA program at Colorado State University, where he also serves as fiction editor for the Colorado Review.  Married to the writer Emily Hammond, they have two grown children.  His new collection of stories, Little Raw Souls, was published by Autumn House Press in January 2013.

 Jacqueline KharoufJacqueline Kharouf is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  A native of Rapid City, SD, Jacqueline currently lives in Denver.  Her work has appeared in Numéro CinqOtis Nebula and H.O.W. Journal, where she won third place in a fiction contest judged by Mary Gaitskill.  She had work forthcoming in NANO Fiction. Jacqueline blogs at: jacquelinekharouf.wordpress.com and tweets  @writejacqueline.

May 062013
 

 ferryiguana_h_0David Ferry, Photo by Stephen Ferry

Herewith the definitive interview with David Ferry, winner of the 2012 National Book Award for his collection Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations. It’s an interview that will surprise you, teach you and maybe change your life, especially if you are a poet. It is replete with compositional and technical information invested with passion and deep reading. Ferry will say things such as  “In that line, for the first time in the poem,  in the third foot, there’s an anapestic variation, and that felt so much like a kind of a panic in the way it is said, as if the voice saying that the line is experiencing this act that’s happening “Once by the Pacific.”  That way of thinking about lines:  what happens in the lines coming as a surprise to the reader, and coming as a surprise, in a way, to the poem, itself––I knew I wanted to talk about this stuff for the rest of my life…” Our interviewer, Peter Mishler, is the perfect interlocutor, the perfect seeker, curious, engaged, literate.

dg

Can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up?

I grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey.  It’s an upper-middle class suburb near New York City.  My father’s office was in New York City––so that’s my home city, and always has been.  I feel like a New Yorker in some way––and all the more so because my wife grew up on East 92nd Street, and my daughter went to Columbia and my son lives in New York.  I went up to Amherst and Harvard and taught at Wellesley for most of my career and lived in Cambridge for all of my career.  So Boston I guess is my main city, but New York still feels like it.

 

What poems first caught your attention when you were growing up?

Whitman most of all, in high school: so big-hearted and sexually waked-up and freeing; and the big rhythmical repetitions of those long lines, with so much room in them for variety and syntactical surprise––there’s lots going on inside the lines.  And the nationalism, the sadness in Lilacs Last.  Lots of other stuff, of course, just reading around in an anthology we had, the Oxford Book of American Verse.  The Shakespeare lines encountered in high school classes –-– “books in running brooks, sermons in stones” –-– but I wasn’t in any sense a prodigal reader of poetry, as opposed to other reading.

Nor was I a big time reader, by comparison.  I was a reasonably smart high school kid, and had no idea of becoming a poet. Or becoming anything.  Well, that’s not quite so.  If I had to guess, at that time, I’d have guessed that I’d become a teacher of literature.  These were the classes I liked best in middle school and high school.  But I didn’t get hooked on poetry until I went to Amherst, then got drafted, and returned to Amherst.  It was the teaching of Reuben Brower and C.L.  Barber that did it to me and for me, vocationally.  And, of course, Frost and Stevens.

 

You mention in another interview that your teaching and writing were shaped by your early reading of specific lines from Frost.  Could you elaborate on why the discovery of that writing was so important to you?

I wrote a particular paper about a Frost poem, which now feels to me, in retrospect, like it was a big vocational experience.  I actually remember saying to myself, inside my head, “This is what I want to do for good and all––teaching––and teaching about how things like this happen inside the lines of poems.”  The poem was Once By the Pacific, which begins:

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.

The thing that really came home to me in those iambic pentameter lines was the way that second line was an iambic pentameter line, but “great” was so strong for the so-called weaker syllable in the first foot, and then “looked” was, too; and what was happening in those waves rising up and about to break was happening in the line itself.  And then another instance in the poem, a little later:

                     The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff

In that line, for the first time in the poem,  in the third foot, there’s an anapestic variation, and that felt so much like a kind of a panic in the way it is said, as if the voice saying that the line is experiencing this act that’s happening “Once by the Pacific.”  That way of thinking about lines:  what happens in the lines coming as a surprise to the reader, and coming as a surprise, in a way, to the poem, itself––I knew I wanted to talk about this stuff for the rest of my life as a teacher.   I wasn’t even thinking about being a poet or I never had that intention, anyway.  At the beginning, I hadn’t started to write any poems.  And as a teacher, I kept thinking at that time about the grammar of Frost’s great essay “The Figure a Poem Makes.”  The grammar of that title in a sense suggests that the figure isn’t something laid down on a poem; the poem makes a figure and the poem is made by what happens––things that are unexpected by the intention at the beginning of the poem and unexpected by the poem itself.

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I read somewhere that you had corresponded with Wallace Stevens when you were an undergraduate.  I’m really curious to hear about your exchange.

“Corresponded,” no.  Stevens, along with Frost, were my two biggest experiences, experiences for my listening ear at Amherst.  I wrote my senior thesis about Stevens and I was elated about having done so.  I wrote him a letter asking him about Whitman, even though I knew the answer, because I knew his lines about him.  He wrote back and said something like, “Walt Whitman was the only writer back then whose writing wasn’t a book.”  That is, he was what Stevens called “the latest freed man.”  I wish I had the letter, but I lost it.  I keep hearing all those lines of his that are entranced and entrancing: “Keep you, keep you, I am gone, O keep you as / My memory, is the mother of us all.”

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Do you remember when you first started writing poems?

The first poem I ever wrote was “Embarkation to Cythera,” about Watteau’s great painting.   And I can’t remember if before that I’d thought about writing poems or had tried it.  Writing that poem was a lot of fun, trying to work out the lines, and I sent the poem off to the Kenyon Review which I’d been reading a lot––everybody was in those days––because the leading critics of the time wrote often for that magazine, and because I was admiring many of the poems of John Crowe Ransom. And he took the poem.  So I guess I thought I was starting out as a poet because of that poem.  It was also true that at that time I was reading a lot of Pound, and the way he was writing about poems, and I think maybe I was thinking about those things not as a student but as somebody who was getting started writing.

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Can you walk me through the process of how you compose a poem?

The process of composing a poem for me comes from writing something in a journal or as lines of poetry, and trying to understand the possibilities of the insides of the lines of that poem.  There’s a poem in Of No Country I Know, called“Of Rhyme.”  That poem tells more of what I think about how a poem gets produced:  ”… the way each step of the way brings in / To play with one another in the game / Considerations hitherto unknown, / New differences discovering the same…”  I don’t mean that I necessarily rhyme––I do in that poem––but starting and finding out how the form is being developed and learning from your attempts to write further inside the poems and seeing them become something with a shape and an identity. I don’t start from a concept or a proposed subject, though of course, because of things I’ve been concerned with in my mind or my situation, the poem as it develops does usually show that it has––the language of the poem has––a subject or a conceptual concern, and it’s likely to have relationships with other poems I’ve been working on, the translations I’ve been working, say, or things that have been happening to me.

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AR Ammons has those great lines “I look for the forms/things want to come as.”

That’s a wonderful pair of lines, and I love the language of it: “to come as”––the unwilled nature of it, leaving it up to the poem as it finds its way to having a form.  Ammons wrote mainly in a free verse, I guess, and, at least in recent years, and maybe always, I write mainly in iambic pentameter, so I wasn’t leaving the form up to what he calls in that poem “black wells of possibility.”  I don’t know whether Ammons would automatically exclude metrical poems, which might seem to him to impose on the poem forms the poem didn’t want to come as, but I regard metrical schemes as explorative, trying to find out what form, the completed poem, things want to come as.

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So you are highly attentive to the line when you are composing a poem.

That, you might say, is all that I’m conscious of.  That’s who I am: somebody who writes lines of verse, mainly in familiar iambic metrical schemes.  Writing in a fixed meter––iambic pentameter mainly––with a highly conscious sense of the line ending, defines your experience of the line and defines your sense of the degrees of varying pressure on the weak and strong syllables and their relationship to each other.  The way that those things happen in relation to the basic iambic pentameter music of the line is something that you observe when you’re writing the line and taking some pleasure in doing it, but it also means that there are times when you want to manipulate that line inside itself to make it sound even better.  So that modifies the way I was just talking about how so much that happens in the poem is a surprise to the writer.  A surprise? Yes and no.  In a way, that’s all the writing verse means, to me: attention to what happens inside the lines and to the line-endings and the consequences of the line-endings.

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The iambic pentameter in your work is masterful.  How did you get so good with this?

I’m too shy to say how I got “so good” at iambic pentameter, but it is true that I have a lot of experience writing in that meter.  But I’m not a meter freak. I don’t have a police badge.  I write free verse poems. But for me the meter I use most often is iambic pentameter, a line long enough to make room for many syntactical events, many different pressures of strong and weak.  And its so natural.  You call it “masterful” but the fragments my poems begin from are often prospective iambic pentameter lines, because that meter is so natural.  We speak mainly in iambs and anapests, occasional trochees.   You just said, “How did you get so good with this.”  The first two syllables are trochaic (How did), the rest are iambic (you get so good with this).  Natural, mainly iambic speech.  The same is true in verse, except that the pentameter sets the music going, and governs it, and the regularity of that is part of the pleasure.   The iambic pentameter music is playing all the while, and within that regularity we hear all the variations, the subtle differences of pressure and tone, and the activities of grammar, syntax and emotion, that make our speech so rich.

 

I want to know more of the particulars about how you make a poem.  Do you write by hand? 

I don’t write by hand at all.  And almost never did.  I write stuff down on the computer or sometimes in a journal.  I might have some expression that I’ve written down, and I go back to it and read it and see if something happens. And I think.

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Do you share your drafts with anyone?

I work and send drafts back and forth with a number of people.  Boston is a wonderful working environment in that sense.  I have lots of dear friends whom I do that with, especially in my work as a translator because I show passages to my Latinist mentors, classicists, and so on.  Even with my wife, Anne, though I guess I didn’t very often show the very beginnings of what I was doing.  I think I showed scraps to her when I thought something was beginning to develop, but sometimes only when something was pretty far along.

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There are some significant gaps between the collections that you’ve published.  Is there an aesthetic reason for this slowness?

I guess an aesthetic reason is in my poem to William Moran called “Brunswick, Maine, Early Winter, 2000.” I quote a wonderful quote that he sent to me from Nietzsche:

“It is a connoisseurship of the word;
Philology is that venerable art
That asks one thing above all other things:
Read slowly, slowly.  It is a goldsmith’s art,
Looking before and after, cautiously;
Considering; reconsidering;
Studying with delicate eyes and fingers.
It does not easily get anything done.”

It’s the same thing as if he’d said “write slowly” because writing is a form of reading.  Not only is one’s reading going into the writing, but the way you read your experience as you’re trying to write it down, and more particularly as you’re reading your own language in the lines as your developing.  That’s a slow business because it takes a lot of considering, reconsidering, altering, re-altering.  I don’t know how to make it faster, at all.

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I think of Marianne Moore’s work with quotation when I read your poems––and I know you like her work.  What do you admire about it?

I think it’s the incredible skill with which she invents forms, often syllabics.  She’s the only consistently good writer of syllabics that I know of in the sense of the organization of whole poems.  And she invents forms in which she includes, like she says in her poem “Poetry,” anything, including prose.  She brilliantly gets away with that.  She incorporates other material in the poems with amazingly, scandalously, with wonderful success; incorporating them and making a form that will include taking along prose sentences from somewhere else, making it a part of a new poem that is also making a new form––it’s just an amazing example.

 

Would you cite her as an influence?

I haven’t thought of it exactly that way.   In the poem for Bill Moran I just mentioned,I quote from Nietzsche because he had sent that passage to me, and part of our relationship was the excited way that we talked about reading.  Bill was a great Babylonist at Harvard.  I shared with him so many of the values that were implied in that quotation.  It became very personal to the poem that I should get that in because it describes not only a way of thinking about reading and writing that I think is profoundly true, but it is also extremely personal and expressive of my relationship to him and to his work and to his wife.

My collection Bewilderment also includes an extended quotation from Goethe in the poem “The Intention of Things.”  I had translated some poems of Goethe’s, and I happened to come upon this particular quotation.  It was so helpful in what it did for what that poem was trying to say.  And the pleasure of trying to make that extended sentence work in the metered lines, as I hope it does, without really changing a word of the quotation was part of the pleasure.

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You mentioned reading Pound at the time when you started thinking of yourself as a poet. You must have also been interested in him as a translator then?

I was very interested in his translations, yes, but I had very few translations that early on.   There is only one translation in my first book, On the Way to the Island: Ronsard’s sonnet that begins “Quand vous serez bien vieille.”  And the next book, Strangers, was published twenty-three years later.  And I was thinking of myself very much so as a poet during those years, though I was writing a poem a year, or at the most two or three.  But in the second book there are three translations, and then the next book Dwelling Places is almost half-and-half poems and translations, and then I really began to give myself that way.  But mainly I did not have a big time ambition to be “a translator.”  I happened to be finding poems in other languages that were related to some of the situations I was writing poems about in that period of my life.

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How did your career in translation develop after this?

I have in Dwelling Places, and my two subsequent books, poems that are about marginal people, street people in distressed and distressing conditions or situations, and I found or was directed to some wonderful poems that I translated:  Rilke’s “Song of the Drunkard” and his “Song of the Dwarf”; Baudelaire’s “Blind People”; a really marvelous 13th century poem I call “When We Were Children.”  Such poems and the poems “of my own” that I was writing about such situations, fed each other.   In the end I was surprised that such a high percentage of Dwelling Places was half poems and half translations.  But I really felt, and still feel, that these translations are also poems of my own, because of the use I’ve made of them, what they became in my book, and because I wrote the lines in English, my lines became readings of those lines.  The activity of writing those lines was not different in kind from writing lines in English, though the foreign texts supplied more data and data arranged more coherently than the undeveloped and often scrappy data of experience with which poems of my own began and which had less assistance in their development.

The new poems in my next book, Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems, also had a high percentage of translations related to my own poems, often about such situations. And also, around the time of Dwelling Places I began to be a translator (or something like it) in another sense.  Bill Moran, whom I mentioned earlier, assigned me his word-for-word translation of several passages from the Gilgamesh epic, to versify.  I did this and got hooked and, under his guidance, working from other scholarly word-for-word translations, made a verse poem of the Gilgamesh material. People liked it a lot, and I loved it.     And then I really did want to translate big time and I got into the Odes of Horace under the guidance of Donald Carne-Ross, a great classicist at Boston University.   Then I had the ambition to translate all of Horace which I haven’t finished yet.  I translated all the Epistles and I am working on the Satires of Horace.  I’m not a classicist or Latinist but I’ve been working under the guidance of several mentors at Harvard, especially Wendell Clausen and Richard Thomas and with lots of help from others, including Michael Putnam.  The Horace work led to my translating the Eclogues of Virgil and, several years ago, the Georgics of Virgil.  Now I’m at work on the Aeneid.  Huge, huge experiences, line by line.

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What are your thoughts on modernized translations––translations that incorporate a contemporary idiom, etc. into an older poem?

I don’t have many thoughts about this, because I don’t read much in other verse translations. I gather that there are translations which egregiously want to sound up to date. I don’t have such a motive.  But you can’t avoid incorporating a contemporary idiom into your translation, because your translation is speaking English, and your English inevitably uses such idioms, without wanting too aggressively to sound “modern.”  Of course there are places where, in my opinion, to get the tone right and characterize the feeling right, you have to take emergency action.  For example, in my translation of Rilke’s “Song of the Drunkard,” the drunkard, in a bar room scene recounts his experience of drinking and says, “Ich Narr,” “I Fool” or “I’m a fool.”  I can’t hear in “I’m a fool,” the force of the self-disgust which I hear in “Ich Narr”, the very sound of it, but I do hear an equivalent when I translate it as “Asshole!,” and I think of that as a literal translation, true to the tone of self-disgust that the poem demands. But that’s not part of a general motive to “modernize.” It’s always an issue, though.  You want your language to be alive but you don’t want it to cheapen things by being too ambitiously up to date.

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Is there an ethics of translation that you believe in?

I think the responsibility of the translator is to convey as much as possible his passionate and close reading of the meanings of the lines that he is translating, and (as much as it is possible for him in his language) to register his understanding of the sense, the tonalities of the original, the tone of voice; and to understand as much as possible about the implications of the particular figures of speech because he is using another language.  And in my opinion, it’s not a part of the responsibility to reproduce––in most cases––as exactly as possible the meters of the translations, the demands of the two languages being so different.  My translations of the Epistles, the Eclogues, the Georgics, and (what I’ve done so far) the Aeneid are all in iambic pentameter, which is a capacious line––a lot can happen inside of it, as is true of dactylic hexameter, the prevailing cadence in the Latin text.

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Right now you are translating the Aeneid.  I remember reading the Robert Fitzgerald translation in high school.  Is there something new about your translation that you want to point out that I might want to revisit?

I’ve only read a few passages of Fitzgerald, and I see why they’re admirable.  What’s new about my translation is that it’s mine, all of it, my reading of the great original, and the lines have never been written quite that way before.  This is true of all translations, good bad, and indifferent. True also of all “original” poems which are so often, maybe always, like translations of earlier poems. That’s how we keep alive.

 

Perhaps you will be able to say more when you are finished with the entire poem?

The question implies that I’d know with some confidence what the poem is “about,” what the encapsulated summary meaning of it is; for example, “a triumphalist celebration of the establishment of Rome.”  Certainly there’s that in it.  But to say that radically simplifies the poem, thins it out, and so does every other summary reading, behaving like take-home pay.  I don’t know what’s “new” in my reading of the poem, which is my translation of it. Maybe what comes up in my translation so far comes up in all the others. I’m sure it does, though I haven’t read them much.  How do bodies hurt when they’re atrociously violated; how do wives die; how vulnerable all cultures are and how it’s their fault and not; how the gods don’t get it and we don’t get it about the gods; how sons die.  I think summarizing tends to kill the experience of reading the lines one after another.  And what I think the poem is really about is the lines one after another––the experience that he gives to the reader and to the translator.  There are many summary things one could say, but I don’t want to say them with any confidence.  In my reading of these poems, though, I keep responding to the signs of vulnerability––individual and cultural––the tears of things.  But that’s not all.


How do you convey these small discoveries to the reader?

It is the ambition of every little writer to be as good a reader as possible, as a translator reading the great text and reading his own developing experience of writing the lines.  All you can do is to try to do as well as you can; and as you’re drafting a translation of it, find things that surprise you about what’s turning up in your own language, and then ask yourself if you are anywhere close to representing some of the effects of the original.  And the answer is always, “No, of course not.”  Every talk I’ve ever given on translation has been titled “What I Couldn’t Get” or “Getting it Wrong.”  What I really like in my translation are also clear instances of what I didn’t get in the translation.  But they came in the effort of getting it as right as possible.

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Do you ever look at other translations when you are translating?

Occasionally I go to other translations when I am particularly puzzled by some narrative event, and occasionally I check myself out in order to get scared by how good the translation is, or to sneer at it in a superior manner––and both of those are mean-spirited kinds of experiences, so I don’t look very often.  I have read in Dryden’s Aeneid.  It is great.  But it is in the 17th century idiom which is so different so I am not really affected by it or threatened by it.  I’m told, and from what I’ve read it’s true, his emphasis is more admiringly imperialistic than what I think I am reading in the Aeneid.

 

How much of your reading of Virgil is colored by your own experience?

There’s no question that Virgil––he says so many times––is celebrating the regime, and that he is very close to the Emperor, as Horace is too.  And in this “Cowboys and Indians” war, he is certainly on the side of the “Cowboys.”  But he’s so full of eloquent distress about the vulnerability of the “Indians,” so to speak, and the precariousness of it all for everybody and the wrong motives everybody’s acting out of all the time along with the right motives.  I think of that famous passage in Book One, “the tears of things”––“lacrimae rerum.”  You keep seeing Virgil lamenting the cause of being human, and how to maintain a culture, and that the tears of things are everywhere.  But stating that this is what the Aeneid is about kills your experience of the lines.  You do learn something, but you keep on learning it in the condition of your sentences.  I mean, in the ways we’re “writing” when we’re talking right now are full of indecisions, and changes of stress and emotion and self-puzzlement are going on all the time.  And for me, that’s what’s so very alive in everybody’s writing.  But Virgil is so good at that.  I’m so struck by how big-hearted he is and how he sees everybody’s trouble.  Experiencing that in the sentences of the poem is just wonderful.


I’d love to know more about how your translations converse with your own poems.

The biggest event since my last selected poems Of No Country I Know––the biggest, worst, event for me and my family––was the death of my wife.  It is perfectly true that when she became ill, it was at the time I was translating the Georgics of Virgil, and when I came to Virgil’s account of Orpheus and Eurydice, the relation of that poem to some of the ways that I was writing that had to do with that event in my life were very, very direct and were directly referred to in that poem.  Virgil’s Orpheus and Eurydice is referenced in the poem “Lake Water,” and quoted at the end of the poem about my father called “Resemblance.”

And in other ways, there is a very conscious relationship.  There is a poem called “That Now are Wild and Do Not Remember”and its title comes from the Wyatt poem I was talking about earlier.  And it talks about that poem as if it were a sexual and romantic bereavement, in a sense.  And that poem also uses a passage from Book Six of the Aeneid––about the unburied dead seeking across the river.  I don’t want to say that those connections were planned in any sense, but I just sporadically kept a kind of journal; those connections emerged, and it’s no surprise.  When I was working on Bewilderment I was writing poems that related to earlier poems of my own, just because it’s me.  I am the same person who was writing those poems, and they relate to these events in my life in this period––and among those events was the death of my wife, but also the fact that my experience is full of translating Horace and Virgil.  So it isn’t exactly an intention to use the one kind of material for the other, but the poems find out that they have had that intention.

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I noticed that you re-included two of the poems from your first collection in Bewilderment.  Why?

I included “At a Bar” because I like it a lot.  And because I had several other bar room poems, because I wanted to include the great Horace “Ode to Varus” which is a kind of barroom poem, and because it sort of helps to make a relation between the poems in Bewilderment and some of the poems in Of No Country I Know and Going Places about people in distress. And there are lines in “At a Bar” like “What is my name and nature?” which are very much like lines that I’ve found myself writing in much more recent poems.  “What is your name that I can call you by?” and so on, so it’s a poem I wanted to include.  Barroom situations are good for singing the blues.

I have another book that has just been published in England by the Waywiser Press and it’s almost a complete poems, On This Side of the River.  In that book I didn’t just want to arrange material chronologically from my first book to the latest one, but rather put poems together by their affinity to one another.  And so it’s no surprise that in this other book which I was bringing out at the same time, I was doing quite a lot of putting poems written in 1960 and before with poems written in the 1980s and 1990s and 2012, so it’s not a surprise that I did that in Bewilderment as well.

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When you were looking back on earlier work did you notice that there are particular things that you’ve tried to move away from over the years?

I’ve left out some poems from my first book, usually because they showed signs of trying to be charming, in a period sort of way.  And revised others a bit. What else is new?  I’ve kept everything else, and if that’s wrong it’s not for me to judge.

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Were you and your wife artistic collaborators?

She gave me the title for all of my books.  She wrote several lines of mine.  For example there is a poem of mine in Of No Country I Know called “Rereading Old Writing.”  She wrote the line “Something not to be understood.”  She was a terrific example for me about how to read poems.   We read poems together very intensively––my poems and other people’s poems.  Her writing, for example, in  her last book, By Design: Intention in Poetry, published by Stanford after her death about the differences between Sydney’s way of rhyming in his sonnets and Shakespeare’s is just astonishing. She teaches everybody how to read, how the writer, or, you could say, the poem itself makes the telling decisions.

She worked in one part of our house in Cambridge on the 3rd floor, and I worked in a big study on the second floor in the back.  And I’d bring a poem upstairs, and we would come up with a solution. In that sense it was a working relationship.

 

Did your wife see any of the poems from Bewilderment?

That book is post-1999, and she died in 2006.  I think she knew all of my translations of the Georgics which included the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and that book was published in 2005.  By that time she would not have known the last stages of the work in that book, and she certainly would not know of the use I made of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the poems about her.    I am not sure if she knew any of the passages from the Aeneid that I put in Bewilderment.  There are some other poems like “Willoughby Spit” that she certainly knew.

Before she died we were editing the wonderful collection of her essays, By Design,and she participated in the editing up to a point, so it was partial.  But it was certainly a big part of our relationship that we worked together.  That was not all there was to it, but it was terrific.  She was an amazing teacher.

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You have other artists in the family?

I do.  My son is a wonderful photojournalist and an artist.  My daughter writes books and she’s an extremely good anthropologist, and they are both wonderful readers of poetry.  My father was a good organist and moonlighted in the Depression as a pianist, and I learned to play the piano because he played the piano.  We thought at one time of doing a family website called The Cottage Industry––we’re not all poets, but we’re all writers.  It’s terrific.  My daughter and my son, as we speak, have been in Columbia, where he’s been mainly working in the last three years, collaborating on a story or maybe a little book about the gold rush in Columbia.  He’s done a lot of photographing there, and she’s just been down there doing her anthropological work.  Both of their first books were about mining in Latin America.  And so there they are making something beautiful out of it.  And there’s a photograph by my son on the cover of Bewilderment.  Terrific.

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I’m thinking about the title of this collection.  Can you talk more about how mystery, misunderstanding, or the inability to know has played a role in your work? 

It turns out in my writing, witnessedin the title of this book, that I keep finding out things about myself that I’m surprised at and that I can’t come to fixed conclusions about––that I live in this state of bewilderment. You do too.  I discovered that something like that keeps coming up in my poems.  It is not that I start out with some kind of subject matter or some intention to write on a topic.  I let them write themselves.  I’ve got a poem of one-liners at the beginning of Bewilderment that I made sure, when it was published, was four words and not three: “Playing with My Self.” It’s what our language does all the time.  I think every writer’s most recent book is some variant of that.  And I don’t know whether I’m trying to find out more about myself.  I don’t know if I’ve gotten anywhere in finding out more about myself.  I don’t think I’ve got any further in that regard than when I wrote those lines.

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What are the big mysteries for you?  What are the things you continue to be baffled or confused by?

I think I’m just like everybody else, including you, I’m sure.  I’m sort of baffled a lot.  And I don’t have any expectation that there are going to be answers to what I’m baffled about.  It’s like that poem in this last book called “Ancestral Lines”:  my father says, “‘He called the piece Warum?’” He didn’t know, Schumann didn’t know, my father didn’t know.  And I say in that poem “What are the wild waves saying? I don’t know.”  But bewilderment isn’t my ‘subject.’  It isn’t a topic; the word just seems appropriate for things that keep coming up in the poems.

 

Is reading other poets a way of finding comfort?

I read other poems for what I find in them, for the experience of reading them.  I get a lot in the experience of reading poems that I think are wonderful, but I’m not sure that comfort is a word that would describe it.

 

I ask because if we find ourselves baffled or bewildered often, is writing or reading a place where one can seek comfort?

I don’t find that there is a therapeutic value in stuff that I read.  And the better the stuff that I read the less that it delivers in a sort of one-on-one way, because it seems so full of conflicting attitudes, so it’s just itself.  And in the act of reading when you read, say, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych––all that pain––it’s such a pleasure, and so painful.  Now I am beginning to sound sort of fancy.  I don’t mean to sound highfalutin about this stuff.  You just get sort of troubled by what the lines are saying and I guess there is something that is sort of comforting because somebody else said them.  But there is also such a pleasure that the lines are taking in themselves.  Wordsworth said that the main thing that poetry does is to give pleasure.  Some of the poems in Bewilderment are expressions of grief to be sure but there is also the exuberance of the writing that I think everyone experiences who is a writer.

I’m sure you know in your own writing that there’s a sense, even when you are writing about something intensely painful, there is terrific pleasure in the act of writing.  I do think it’s therapeutic as long as one doesn’t think it provides easy answers to taking away the pain.  A poem about a real life painful situation is therapeutic because it actually intensifies the pain by confronting it directly, but talks about it by, so to speak, singing about it, and therefore the pain is presented to oneself and to others as a kind of pleasure, not happy pleasure, but often a lamenting pleasure, often very dark, but transformed into art.  And then it also somehow makes connections in song, with all the songs that have been sung about bereavement and death in the past. This is true for good and bad poems, but it becomes exaltedly true in the great bereavement songs of the past, in liturgy, in folk music, country music, Bob Dylan, Henry King’s great “Exequy” for his wife.  There’s comfort for the writer in that, but it’s the comfort of proving an alternative value.  But it doesn’t really substitute for or compensate for the raw experience of somebody’s illness and death.

 

Was there a poem in Bewilderment where you had that experience of lamenting pleasure?

That’s everybody’s experience–people talking about themselves or writing poems about their situations.  There is a pleasure in trying to make the feelings articulate that is always there, whether the poems are good or bad.  But when you feel in a particular poem that you value the way you did it, as I do in Bewilderment, there’s that experience of pleasure in writing.

When I go back to Frost’s essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” he talks in many ways about how your own language brings surprises to you.  It doesn’t answer any questions that you have, but it is about the experience of getting it said.  And it’s the experience of watching what’s happening in the lines as the experience of the sounds and rhythms and the experience of emotions and knowledge that’s gained.  Of course, there’s the knowledge that you didn’t know you had, and that the poem line by line is sort of finding out itself.

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Frost says that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”  What you are saying, I think, is the kind of wisdom he is talking about.

I think I’m not even sure whether he ought to have said “wisdom” there, because it confuses people about what that essay is really saying.  I don’t think he is saying that the poem delivers big time comfort, as if you’d gone to the top of mountaintop and said, “What is life?” and there is some sage up there, and the sage says, “Life is a river” or something like that.  Frost means that we end up knowing something more in a particular poem, or in a particular sentence that one says to one another in conversation, by the articulation of it––by the rhythm, stress and emphasis of what is said.

And to return to the Aeneid, the experience of working on that poem is the terrific pleasure of writing iambic pentameter lines and trying to get it right; it’s the experience itself of the activity of writing.  There are big things to learn from that great poem in the line by line activity––things I can give of myself as a writer of lines, and not as a thinker about larger concepts.

—David Ferry & Peter Mishler

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David Ferry is the Sophie Chantal Hart Professor Emeritus of English at Wellesley College and also teaches at Suffolk University.  In 2011, he received the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for his lifetime accomplishments.  In 2012, he won the National Book Award for Bewilderment: New Poems and TranslationsOn This Side of the River: Selected Poems has recently been published by The Waywiser Press.  He is currently at work on a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

Peter Mishler

Peter Mishler was educated at Emerson College and Syracuse University.  He currently teaches English and Creative Writing at a high school in the Syracuse area.  His poems have appeared in The Antioch Review, Crazyhorse, Black Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, LIT, New Ohio Review, Numéro Cinq, and Open Letters Monthly among other journals.