Apr 012014
 

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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

MarchelineMarcom

 

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…).

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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.           

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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/.

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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 0:3:30 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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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.

Apr 022013
 

Sheila Heti Photo by Lee Towndrow -Sheila Heti: Photo by Lee Towndrow

Sheila Heti is a Toronto writer whose 2012 novel How Should a Person Be? created a trans-Atlantic sensation. It was a 2012 New York Times Notable Book of the Year and it has just made the long list for the prestigious The Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) in the UK. David Haglund in The New York Times Book Review wrote: “Funny…odd, original, and nearly unclassifiable…Sheila Heti does know something about how many of us, right now, experience the world, and she has gotten that knowledge down on paper, in a form unlike any other novel I can think of.” The Economist‘s reviewer said: “Ms. Heti’s deadpan, naked voice is what makes Sheila’s journey so engaging… [Her] mordant take on modernity encourages introspection. It is easy to see why a book on the anxiety of celebrity has turned the author into one herself.” And in The New Yorker, no less a critic than James Wood opined: “[Sheila Heti] has an appealing restlessness, a curiosity about new forms, and an attractive freedom from pretentiousness or cant…How Should a Person Be? offers a vital and funny picture of the excitements and longueurs of trying to be a young creator in a free, late-capitalist Western City…This talented writer may well have identified a central dialectic of twenty-first-century postmodern being.”

It’s a delight to publish here what might be the definitive Sheila Heti interview, a lengthy, intimate, wide-ranging conversation with Jill Margo as interlocutor. Margo probes and nudges most gracefully and does not limit the topics to the purely literary.  Her interview has the aura of something overheard, and what you overhear are two intelligent women talking about art and the writing life. It’s a treat.

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I interviewed Sheila Heti at her home in July of 2012 on one of those disgustingly hot and humid Toronto days that—to swipe a phrase from Billie Livingston—felt like “being under a dog’s tongue.” Sheila, as it turned out, lives not far from me on the top floor of a house on a corner lot that I’d walked by several times before. I’d always admired the place because of its gothically romantic and overgrown garden that disappears the tall fence and nearly obscures the house.

When Sheila came to the door, she looked cool (literally) and put together. She was even wearing nice, proper shoes instead of flip flops or bare feet. I’m not sure if I would’ve thought to put shoes on if I was being interviewed in my own home—especially in that heat. I couldn’t decide if it was a gesture of fashion, professionalism, or maybe even a kind of guardedness.

I had met Sheila twice before. The first time was around 2001 when she read from her debut book, a story collection called The Middle Stories, at a reading series I hosted in Victoria, BC. The second time was nearly ten years later, in 2011, when I hosted her reading at the Robson Reading Series in Vancouver. That was the year after her fifth and most recent book, How Should a Person Be? had been released by Anansi in Canada. It was published the following year in the U.S. by Henry Holt & Company and has since been featured on many Best Books of 2012 lists, including in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Salon, Flavorpill, The New Republic, and The New York Observer.

How Should a Person Be? is subtitled “a novel from life” and is described as “part literary novel, part self-help manual, and part bawdy confessional.” It exists in ambiguity between the real and the fictional. Its characters are based on Heti and her friends and, for the most part, appear to have their same names. There are emails and transcribed conversations throughout the book that could be considered real documentation. The book is structurally and thematically compelling and I’ve recommended it to many of my friends and colleagues because it’s well-written and occupies such an interesting space in the zeitgeist.

In the years between the two times I hosted her for readings, Heti has published three other books, including a novel, Ticknor, (2005); and an illustrated book for children, We Need a Horse, (2011), featuring art by Clare Rojas; and with Misha Glouberman, a book of “conversational philosophy” called The Chairs Are Where the People Go, which The New Yorker chose as one of its Best Books of 2011.

Heti also works as Interviews Editor at The Believer and has contributed many interviews with writers and artists to the magazine. It’s also of note that in 2001, she created the ever-popular Trampoline Hall lecture series (hosted by Misha Glouberman), at which three people deliver lectures on subjects outside their areas of expertise, then take questions from the audience.

It was a pleasure to talk to Sheila and to be reminded how a writer should be along the way.

— Jill Margo

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THE BEGINNING

JM:  Let’s start at the beginning. Your first book was The Middle Stories. It was published when you were twenty-four. Tell me a little bit about where you were at when you wrote that book.

SH:  I was studying art history and philosophy at U of T and it was around the time I was twenty-one or so. I was trying to teach myself how to write. The last writing I’d done before that was at the National Theatre School where I was studying playwrighting, but that didn’t really end up working out for me. So I started to write stories. I was writing a lot and I was writing very quickly and all I really wanted to do was get to the end of each story. I’d sit down and write five or six in a row. In the actual collection, the stories are pretty much as they were written and were only very lightly edited. Mainly, the editing was me selecting the good ones from the hundreds of stories that were just nothing—that didn’t have any spark in them or anything.

JM:  Did you always want to be a writer?

SH:  It was one of the things I always wanted to be since I was a kid, and I also wanted to do other things. Like a lot of artistic kids, you just sort of want to do everything— you want to act, and you want to direct plays, and you want to write, and you want to draw. But writing always fit in there.

JM:  What about the family you grew up with—did they support your artistic endeavors?

SH:  I think my mom didn’t necessarily want this for me, but my dad supported anything I did. He didn’t have preset ideas of what his daughter should be like, or what his daughter should do. He supported me when I wanted to act, he supported me when I wanted to write. He was always very encouraging.

JM:  What do you think is the best thing you ever did for yourself as a writer?

SH:  Probably moving out when I was seventeen, and supporting myself since then. I think it gives you some confidence and a lack of fear to know that you can support yourself from a young age. I’ve never had to support myself in ways that hurt my ability to write so that gave me confidence that I could perhaps write and support myself over many years.

I think maybe the worst thing I could have done would’ve been to get a well-paying job at a young age that I then got locked into because I got used to a higher standard of living. I think moving out at seventeen and living on so little meant I got used to a low standard of living and I know if I had to, I could always go back to that.

JM:  What other kinds of jobs have you had?

SH:  I worked as an editor at this magazine called Shift, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was a technology and culture magazine in Toronto. I’ve done temping and I’ve worked in restaurants and just the usual kind of makeshift things.

JM:  Do you feel like you’ve had to be quite strategic with your writing career?

SH:  No, I’ve had a lot of good luck. I’ve never been afraid of sending my stuff out so that’s allowed for good luck to happen because I haven’t just been on an island. I sent my stories to McSweeney’s, but if I didn’t send them, they never would have published them, so I think that’s paired with good luck. I don’t think I’ve had a strategy; I’ve had a desire to be in the world.

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PROCESS & PATIENCE

JM:  Technically, how do you write—when and where and with what?

SH:  I use my computer. I’ve always used a computer. I usually write in this middle room in the place where I live. I always usually just write in whatever apartment I’m living in. I don’t write in cafés or anything like that. I can’t imagine it. I don’t write with music on. I don’t like having people around. That’s pretty typical.

And then I just write whenever I want to. I don’t really have a schedule. I used to worry a lot about that. I used to think that you had to have a schedule but I realized that I don’t need one. I like writing enough and I want to write enough that I do write enough. I don’t have to beat myself with a stick.

Every day is completely different. I feel different every day when I wake up, and what I want to do every day is different. By this point in my life I have so many different projects that I’m working on, like editing interviews for The Believer and various collaborations, that there’s always something I most want to do. I figured that out a few years ago. I used to think that you could only work on one thing at a time but I realized that it’s better to work on lots of different things because that way there’s always something that you’re in the mood to work on.

JM:  Was it much of a struggle to just let yourself work organically like that?

SH:  It took probably ten years or so for me to accept my way working, and to believe that work was going to get done. But when I was writing The Middle Stories, even then my only discipline was that when I felt like writing I had to write. You can’t miss those times. That was the foundation of discipline for me. I really tried to be sensitive to those moments. Sometimes I’d leave class and go home to write. Now, I don’t just wait for those moments of, let’s say, inspiration, but I still try to always write when I have that feeling. If I don’t—if I have the feeling, but instead watch a movie, or read a book, or go on the Internet or email—then I feel really bad and like I’ve let myself down. It’s like something wanted to be expressed in that moment and I missed it and I’ll never get it back.

JM:  Do you know the late poet Ruth Stone? She said that when a poem came barreling across the fields where she was working she had to stop what she was doing and run and catch it. If she had to, she’d grab it by the tail and pull it back towards her. I’ve always loved that image. You’re basically saying the same thing—that you have to capture the moments and trust that the writing is going to get done.

SH:  I have to trust that it’s going to get done and that that’s just me and that’s just my process and there’s nothing to really worry about. And if it doesn’t get done, also, who cares?  If it doesn’t get done, it doesn’t get done. The world doesn’t need your books. So it seems silly to force yourself to write if there’s nothing to write.

JM:  “The world doesn’t need your books” is an interesting statement coming from a writer. Can you talk about that a bit more?

SH:  Well, the world isn’t sitting around waiting for your books. The world is taking care of children and making money to pay the rent and eating dinner. If you don’t write your books, pretty much who cares? There are already more than enough good books for any reading person. You do it because you want to, not because the world is begging you.

JM:  Earlier, you said that the stories in The Middle Stories weren’t really edited and that the ones without spark were just thrown out. That’s unusual. Can you talk about your editing process—or lack of it—then vs. now?

SH:  It’s something I’ve learned to do over the years. I’m not sure what I thought in the beginning. I guess I must have thought that everything I did was perfect. Now I see all the ways the things I’ve written can be better and better, almost to infinity. I don’t think it’s because my standards have changed, but my imagination for what writing can do has expanded. I used to only think about writing in terms of the sentence, but now I think that a piece of writing can be a game that a readers uses to play with the world, a book can be so many things. So all new kinds of calibration are needed.

JM:  Do you have any superstitions or rituals around writing or do you take a strictly pragmatic approach?

SH:  I don’t have any superstitions or rituals around it. No… no, I can’t think of any.

It’s just work. It’s a certain kind of work, but it still is work. You have to put in a lot of time, but I don’t think superstition comes into it. I don’t think magic comes into it, apart from the magic that comes into it when you work. That’s magic—when things happen that you weren’t trying to make happen, but sort of happen on their own. It’s like, if you work for a number of years on something, then there are just layers to it that give it more meaning than you could give it if you just spent a week or a month on it. I think that’s the most interesting thing about writing—working on something over five or six years. I’ve learned to really love that. I guess Ticknor was my first experience of that. You’d think that you’d get bored, but there are so many different angles on something and there’s a whole world that you’re looking at and so I think the text becomes more intelligent the more time you spend on it.

JM:  I think so, too.

SH:  I don’t think two years is enough.

JM:  I wonder what Joyce Carol Oates would say?

SH:  [Laughs.] For me, I think you need five years. That so far seems like the right amount of time to spend on a book. Maybe seven years is even better. That’s one full cycle they say, right?

JM:  Do you always feel that patient with the process?

SH:  Mm-hmm. Yeah.

JM:  So you’re really, truly enjoying the process?

SH:  I mean, what’s the rush? You want to make something good.


OTHER PEOPLE’S VOICES

JM:  What do you consider your best or favourite piece of writing—and not necessarily a whole book?

SH:  I don’t have that, but I really like doing the interviews that I do for The Believer. I like—I love editing them. I think that it’s really fun. I find that the most enjoyable work—I don’t know if it’s the best work, but it’s probably the most enjoyable work that I’m doing these days.

JM:  What do you like about it?

SH:  I like other people’s voices and I like how other people think and I like how other people express things and I think editing an interview is really fun. I think it’s some suppressed playwrighting urge. I move things around a lot. I change people’s sentences sometimes. I cut things out. I really edit it a lot. I try to edit it in such a way that when I send it back to the person I interviewed they don’t think I’ve done anything to it because it still seems like them and feels like them.

JM:  Trampoline Hall, which you started, is also about curated voices and it’s hosted by Misha Glouberman, whose words you transcribed for The Chairs Are Where the People Go. So other people’s voices really are a thing for you. I wonder how much of that has to do with the writer wanting to get out from behind her desk and engage with the world?

SH:  That’s part of it. Part of it is just—I know what I think, what I feel. My biggest fantasy is always being inside someone else’s body, their experience of the world. Sure, I can imagine that from behind my desk, but I can also approach it more directly, but actually talking to people.

JM:  What writers, past and present, do you feel closest to?

SH:  I love Kierkeggard. I love Jane Bowles. I love C.S. Lewis. I guess those are the first ones that come to mind. In the present [scans the bookshelves in the room], I like Helen DeWitt a lot. I love Ben Lerner’s recent book, Leaving the Atocha Station and Sarah Manguso’s memoir about her illness. Leanne Shapton’s work I really like a lot…

A lot of those are people I know, but with the exception of Leanne, who I met through a friend when we were quite a bit younger, I know them because I like their work. I want to know the writers who are alive today whose work I like. I want to talk to them.

JM:  You have an amazing multi-disciplinary artistic community yourself. How does your community—having a network—support you as a writer in your life?

SH:  It’s everything. I don’t think you can exist professionally—not to mention as a human—apart from the support of other people. I think people put a lot of emphasis on being published, but I don’t think being published is exactly what matters. I do think you need people that think you’re great and that think your work is meaningful. They don’t have to be people that can publish you, but that have to be people who believe in you and can be critical of you.

I’ve always had people to show my work to and I’ve managed to find supporters. I feel like the work doesn’t really exist in the absence of somebody else engaging with it. I think one often shows their work hoping it’s done and hoping that somebody else will say it’s done, but really the deeper hope is that they’ll say it’s not done. It feel like it’s important to hear that things are not done, that things are not ready. With Ticknor, one of the most important things my editor, Martha Sharpe, said to me when I handed in the book was that it wasn’t done. She didn’t even say why. Margaux said the same thing when I showed her How Should a Person Be? I guess athletes have coaches, but for a writer it’s someone who says “it’s not done.” You always know what needs to be done though… no one needs to tell you that.

JM:  Do you have the same first readers?

SH:  They changes slowly over time, just like one’s friends change over time.

 

STRUCTURE, AUTHENTICITY & PSYCHO-ANALYSIS

JM:  Let’s talk about How Should a Person Be? It’s been called “odd” by The New York Times Book Review and “weird” by Margaret Atwood and Geist Magazine and none of them meant it in a bad way. I think it is probably meant in terms of structure, but I’m not sure because I personally don’t find the book “odd” or “weird”. Do you think it is?

SH:  I don’t know. I think that maybe it is in comparison to a straight-forward, realistic narrative of the kind that you tend to see, but I don’t think it’s odd in itself. I think it makes a lot of sense.

JM:  What do you think they meant? I’ve puzzled over this myself.

SH:  I have no idea. It doesn’t really matter to me. People just use the words that they have. They’re trying to communicate to their reader that it’s unusual.

JM:  How did the unusual structure evolve?

SH:  Just really gradually over the years. I had a lot of different sections that were unrelated on the surface. Only I could see their relation, but I had to bring the relation between them out so I think the book became more narrative and became more of a story. Things that were just so far outside the world of the book fell away and I made Margaux and Sheila and their friendship more the focus over the years. I think it was more intellectual earlier on and more philosophical. It was more about ideas than the people.

JM:  How or why did it become less about ideas?

SH:  I just felt some of that stuff was perhaps not as interesting. It’s better to put the philosophy into the action of the characters and the form itself, as opposed to just stating what you’re thinking. I think if you put it into the bodies then it sticks around in the reader’s memory longer. It’s more emotional and more visual.

JM:  Philosophy is part of your background and education. Psychology seems to play a part in the book as well—

SH:  With the Jungian analyst—

JM:  Otto Rank is mentioned as well.

SH:  Psychoanalysis was the 20th century’s great new field, wasn’t it? It affected all the artistic work that has been done in the last hundred years and it really changed the way we see sex and sexuality. It’s huge. It’s hard not to think about what Freud has done to us. One of the things I wanted to do with this book early on was to write a history of art. I just couldn’t because I’m not a historian, but I think some of that fascination with art’s development and change over time, and the influence of psychoanalysis upon it recently, has remained.

JM:  I wonder about “authenticity” too. There seems to be a never-ending search for it these days. Does the book critique that or participate in it?

SH:  I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking that word a lot.

JM:  No?

SH:  I don’t really understand what you’re being authentic to. The idea of authenticity is that there’s a fixed, certain central self that you can move closer to or further away from. I don’t know that I believe that—that there’s this one fixed self that you’re betraying or being loyal to depending on how you behave.

JM:  I think the notion of authenticity is very much a product of our time and the market. David Shields’ book, Reality Hunger, argues for authenticity and I know Shields gave your book a positive blurb so he must have seen something that furthered his argument. Is the book consciously attacking the ideas of what fiction should be though?

SH:  I don’t see the book as an attack, it’s just not interested in a lot of the conventions because I just found them really boring. I just find a lot of fiction boring. I have all my life.

JM:  The book is subtitled “A novel from life”, so that to me means that it blends fiction with autobiography. So, is that hybrid what you find most exciting? Can you talk a bit about that?

SH:  No, I’m not interested in that in itself. If you tell me that someone has written a “hybrid” book I wouldn’t by that fact be excited to read it. I like when writers do what they have to do. I had to write the book in this way because I wanted to think about what we owe to other people, and what the artist owes to the people around them, and I thought the only way to do that would be to put it to the test—to engage and write about my friends and in the process answer some of these questions for myself. I couldn’t have moved forward in any other way. There were some questions I needed answers for, and fiction was the only way to answer them, and so was talking to my friends.


REAL PEOPLE

JM:  Did you have a personal code of ethics—dos and don’ts—for using real people, like Margaux Williamson, as characters in the book?

SH:  I would have never used somebody’s name if I hadn’t got them to read the manuscript many times and received their approval. I have very rarely written about real people without them knowing it. Mostly it’s a matter of consent and I’d say consent was about 90 percent there.

JM:  So you asked the people before or as you were writing about them?

SH:  As it was happening. I had a friend who didn’t want to be taped or written about, so I didn’t tape or write about him. I kind of gauged who was interested in being part of it and who wasn’t.

JM: Was there anything off limits that came up?

SH:  Yeah, of course. You make all sorts of decisions about that and the sensitivity of the people around you.

JM:  Was there any backlash to any of that or did you come out relatively unscathed?

SH:  No, no backlash. I don’t know what you really mean by backlash but my friends are still my friends and everything is okay. People are usually more upset about not being in something you’ve written.

JM:  You found that?

SH:  I’ve found that all along from my whole time writing.

JM:  I read somewhere that you can’t imagine working with completely fictional characters again since writing How Should a Person Be? Is that true now, and if so, why?

SH:  I’ve never said that and it’s not true. Right after finishing that book I wrote, in a week, an entirely new book made up of fictional characters in fictional scenarios. There was some part of me that was longing to do that, I think. It’s so much easier to follow your imagination than to deal with other people and try to follow your imagination at the same time.

,

IN THE DESERT

JM:  There are several references to sand in the book. For example, Sheila blows a speck of it off of the spine of a book and she brushes it off a seat on a bus. What’s up with the sand?

SH:  It’s because they’re in the desert. I wanted to suggest that it is still the desert. There is this echo of the desert or this residual desert tying all my characters to the Jews and the exodus and wandering and trying to find—I mean, the Jews in the desert got The Ten Commandments, you know, to try and figure out how to live, and they wanted the answers and the rules. I evoke Moses a lot in the book and so the sand relates to all of that.

JM:  I figured it was part of the underlying Jewish narrative—the forty years in the desert. To what extent does Sheila the character and Sheila the writer tap into that metaphor and make it her own?

SH:  It’s in the book. I can’t really explain it more than that. Sheila the character wants to answer the question about how to be and she wants to be a great person.

JM:  But what about Sheila, the writer—you—do you want those things too? Or, would you rather we, the readers, not think about that?

SH:  I don’t think anyone wants to be a lousy person.

JM:  What about Israel’s name being Israel? Is there any significance to that?

SH:  There’s lots, but I don’t want to get into it. I don’t want to say point by point what I was thinking, mainly because I can’t remember. Also, I was thinking so many things Of course there are so many connotations to the kind of place Israel actually is and ideally is, and how Sheila feels about how her lover actually is and ideally could be.

m

ISRAEL’S COCK & THE FEMALE GAZE

JM:  When people talk about this book they inevitably talk about the sex. In some ways, that makes me want to not talk about the sex, because there are a lot of other things going on in the book. At the same time it’s something I, as a reader, am still trying to make sense of. The sex scenes are tonally different than the rest of the book and float apart from the main narrative involving Margaux. How did you intend the sex scenes to work—what’s their function?

SH:  Their function was sex. Their function was the body and the uncontrollable force. The thing that takes you over, despite yourself. I think that the writing is different because it’s different to be in sex than it is to be in conversation. Also, Israel is not a boyfriend, he’s a lover. Sex with a reliable boyfriend would be portrayed differently.

JM:  The blow job is presented more as an art form than a sex act. There is a point when Sheila talks about perfecting the blow job that made me think of Martha Stewart. I say this with tongue in cheek, but it’s that same sense of obsession, dedication and perfectionism that she has. Martha also turns what could be considered—in stereotypical and heteronormative terms— banal, ‘women’s work’ into art too. Why blow jobs?

SH: I feel like it’s kind of a joke.

JM:  Mm-hmm.

SH:  I was also thinking about Internet porn. Would we have become so interested in Paris Hilton if it wasn’t for her sex video and all these goddamn sex videos?  The blow jobs also related to the work of art that isn’t an object—the work of art that is an act, which Sheila is so obsessed with after reading Otto Rank. It’s just—I mean, it’s silly and it’s awful and it’s terrible to think about, and it’s funny and it’s degrading and it says something about—well, what are we more interested in? Seeing women make their paintings or seeing women perform blow jobs? Obviously the second. That’s the age we’re in. Maybe that’s always been the age. Maybe history has always been in that age but only now do we have the Internet with all its porn, and men and women can see so much of it, and do.

JM:  There’s a real satirical element to it.

SH:  It’s pathetic. But maybe it’s not pathetic. Maybe there’s something there. I don’t know.

JM:  I’m thinking about some of the men I’ve talked to about this book. There were a few confessions—when pressed—that reading the sex scenes made them feel insecure. In other words, women are used to being objectified but men aren’t. Was there any element of payback?

SH:  How could it be payback? People watch porn that’s all about worshipping the cock. How could it be so different to read about it than to see a video about it? Why should the words make them so much more uncomfortable than the image? Is it just weird to be inside of the woman’s head instead of inside the man’s head when you watch porn?

JM:  Yes, that’s exactly it, I think. It’s the female gaze, as opposed to the usual male gaze. If women write about sex, people talk about it. Even if a female author only mentions sex on three pages of a whole book, especially if it’s explicit, it’ll get talked about. There’s something to that.

SH:  Why does it make men feel insecure?

JM:  Mm-hm.

SH:  No, I’m asking you. You’ve talked to them.

JM:  If the female gaze is worshipping a cock, I think men want to know how they measure up.

SH:  Really? That’s interesting. Like, I’m not as good a lover as that character… or no one’s worshipped my cock… or I don’t have a big cock… or what?

JM:  All of the above, maybe. Just like how women measure themselves up to the women depicted through the male gaze. Also, I think men are surprised to find out that women think about cocks that much.

SH:   I don’t know if women do. It was just that piece of writing.

JM:  I think it plants a seed—

SH:  I’ve had more men respond to, “He’s just another man who wants to teach me something.” There’s a friend of mine who I asked for some advice about a work thing and he was like, “Well I have an opinion about it but I don’t want to be another man who’s trying to teach you something.” And I’m like, “Look you’re my friend, my colleague, and I’m asking you for your advice.” That’s the thing that gets back to me, not the sex stuff.

JM:  I only talked to a small sample of men, so who knows how representative they were, but your book made them, at least, think about their own sexuality and whether they measured up.

SH:  It wasn’t what I was going for.

JM:  It’d be great though if your book made James Wood think about his… wood.

m

THE SO-CALLED GIRLY NARRATIVE

JM:  At one point in the book, Sheila says she has to take a “massive shit”; she repeatedly objectifies Israel’s cock; she is ambitious, and; at the core of the book is Sheila’s friendship with Margaux, which revolves around dialogue on art rather than on men. These things don’t scream “girly narrative” to me and yet, that is what some of the media have deemed it to be. How offensive do you find that to be?

SH:  I don’t care. I don’t care what anyone says about the book. It doesn’t touch me. I read what people write about it because I’m really curious but I don’t really feel like my doing this is right, or wrong, or good for the book, or bad for the book. Anyway, this is just a first wave of responses and I don’t think the verdict of any book is determined by the first wave of responses.

JM:  But you didn’t sit down to write a girly narrative.

SH:  No, but I don’t care if someone says that. You put something in the world because you want people to having feelings and thoughts about it.

JM:  Has it made you notice anything about the world and people who are still treating women a certain way?

SH:  I’ve always known that women writers and male writers are looked at through different lenses, but so are male athletes and female athletes, and so are mothers and fathers. On a certain level, I think we’ll always have that, unless gender stuff gets so fucked up in the future that male and female become so small.

JM:  I think that the sex scenes and supposed girly narrative are not the most interesting things to talk about when talking about this book, yet the responses are interesting to me.

SH:  It’s fun to see that stuff going on in America. In Canada, nobody was talking about the book in that way, so it’s cool to see it being used as a prop in peoples’ arguments. It’s funny. It’s interesting to hear.

 

OH, CANADA

JM:  The book was first published in Canada in 2010 and is now having a second life having been published in the States, with revisions, this June. Though you had dedicated readers and admirers here in Canada when the book first came out, I still found the response to be underwhelming. The book, sadly, wasn’t even considered for any of Canada’s major literary prizes. The response in the U.S., however, could be described as overwhelming—including major coverage in The New Yorker. Why do you think that is?

SH:  I’ve experienced that difference from the very beginning of my career. I could not get published in Canada. I sent my stories to every literary journal in the country for years. I sent four stories to McSweeney’s and they published them.

I think America just has a completely different aesthetic than Canada and it’s a less conservative place. America likes to fight and I think people are more open there. Canadians pretend to be very open but I don’t really think that’s true. I know a lot of Canadians who, as individuals, are open, but I think as a culture we’re not.

Canada is a very ‘pay your dues’ kind of place. The perfect title for a Canadian book is Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are. That’s the problem with Canada in terms of being an artist here. There’s great financial support, but there isn’t a lot of cultural support and I think a lot of writers would agree with me. We do have some great people writing about books and we do have great readers, but it’s not a mass, it’s just these dots of light.

JM:  Do you feel a sense of rejection from the literary powers that be? As a reader, I feel that you should be on more lists and that you’re not the only one in Canada that’s been looked over.

SH:  I had no expectation that I’d be on any of those lists.

JM:  Do you feel let down by that at all?

SH:  No, it’s not my stomping ground, you know? I don’t get invited to the Griffins or the Gillers. I’ve never been invited to read at Harbourfront. I just don’t get those invitations.

JM:  I hear you when you say that’s expected because it’s happened since day one, but no outrage for that?

SH:  Certainly not outrage. I mean, I kind of figured out my place when The Middle Stories came out and was so weirdly received, and when my stories weren’t being published here. You quickly get used to that kind of rejection so it becomes the norm. Then I think, maybe this is actually better because I live here and I have a nice life here and I write here and I have all my friends here who I make art with, and my family. Then, in America, that’s where I publish and it’s like when you go downtown to your office and do your work there and then you go back home. So in some ways it’s nice to have those things separate.

Most of the money I make is from being published in American magazines, from my job at The Believer and publishing my books with American publishers. At this point in my life, I’m happy to have them separate and I don’t crave anything from Canada. I’ve had support here from Anansi, who has published all my books. Martha Sharpe is hugely important to me because she’s supported me from the beginning, but she’s no longer at Anansi. I have other supporters like Stephen Osborne at Geist and Drawn and Quarterly Bookstore in Montreal. Like I say, there are these little points of light and that’s good enough for me.

JM:  That’s a healthy way to look at it. I can tell you though that when I think about the Sheila Heti story from my point of view, there is something really pernicious about the prize cultures and the upper canon and how many people don’t fit in here. I also find it to be a heart-sinking feeling that we’re not always claiming our own in Canada.

SH:  America just has feelings about things much more easily as a culture than Canada. If you have a culture that doesn’t have feelings about art then you don’t have an artistic culture. I look at Shary Boyle, I look at people in the other arts—artists who I think are great—and I don’t see the culture having a lot of feelings for their work. I’m sure Shary has her supporters. I know tons of people who love her work. Despite her show at the AGO, you still don’t feel like there’s this feeling in Canada that we have a great artist here and that we want to make her greater. I suppose she’s representing Canada at the Venice Biennale, but there’s got to be more than that.

JM:  So you feel for her what I feel for you. Again, I maintain that there is something embarrassing about your own country not recognizing its artists as it should. What is there to learn from this?

SH:  I don’t know if there is anything to learn. I don’t know if Canada wants to learn. Do you think Canada wants to learn to be different in this regard?

JM:  I think Canada does recognize some amazingly talented people, but there needs to be a greater range of recognition.

SH:  They give you your grants. It’s almost like, here’s your money and leave us alone—or, we’re going to leave you alone. There’s just this weird—

JM:  Administrative approach.

SH:  Maybe, yeah. There’s just no emotion in it. The last sort of scandal I remember was when the National Gallery bought Voice of Fire. Do you remember this? It was like fifteen years ago. People were like, “It’s just red with a black stripe.” People got so angry about it. Has there even been a painting in the paper since then?

JM:  There was Sniffy the Rat. The artist Rick Gibson was going to crush the rat between two canvasses in downtown Vancouver, but was sabotaged and then chased by animal rights activists. That was the same year though.

SH:  Right. So our conversation is then about cruelty to animals or ‘I’m a taxpayer and I don’t want to spend all this money on a painting my kid could do.’

JM:  You must be grateful for the States.

SH:  Like I said, I’ve had a good career so far. I know a lot of people for whom it is incredibly depressing though. You can’t make a living in Canada as an artist in any satisfying way.

JM:  Would you ever leave Toronto?

SH:  I don’t know. Maybe. I’m not planning on leaving. I love Toronto. I love living here and I most want to live here. Who knows though? I’d also move if I had reason to.

 

CODA

JM:  Do you like talking about your current projects?

SH:  No.

JM:  Earlier you said that you have a “nice life.” Can you describe what makes your life nice—give us a little peek into the woman behind the writer?

SH:  I’m not sure what to say. I have a wonderful boyfriend, my brother lives nearby and so do Margaux and Misha. I recently got a little studio so now I don’t have dirty dishes calling to me when I’m working. I have a lot of books on my shelves that I can’t wait to read. The apartment we live in is very charming with a nice lawn. What else?

JM:  How should a writer be?

SH:  Oh. Well, I think you have to write whatever you want to write and not worry about how you’re going to come off or how you’re going to appear. You have to put your ego aside and not think, ‘People are going to look at me a certain way if I write this way.’ It matters zero. All that matters is the book, so you have to be willing to sacrifice some kind of decency, or appearance of decency, or else you’re going to come up against so many things that you won’t let yourself do. I think people are often afraid of the thing they most want to do and I think that’s the thing you should do. If all you want to do is write about red trucks and you think ‘that’s so childish’ and ‘who wants to read about red trucks’ then you just have to do it. You have to do that on every level and in every sentence.

I don’t think there’s anything interesting about a writer who isn’t doing radically what they want to do. I feel like there’s no other realm in life in which you can be free. You can’t be free in a relationship, you can’t be free as a mother, you can’t be free as a daughter, you can’t be free as a citizen, and you can’t be free in any realm of life. The only person who can be free is the artist through their work. They can’t be free as a human but the work can be free—they can be free with their work. I think that’s why we go to art, to see what the human is when they’re free.

If you’re not free, because you’re afraid you’re going to look weird to people or something like that, then I don’t see what there is to get out of the work or where the pleasure is for the reader. The thing one hopes for in a work of art is for it to be an example of freedom—and by freedom I think I mean totality—the totality of what a human is. Then people can experience every part of themselves. Going through life, you usually can’t experience every part of yourself on a day-to-day basis, but art should be a reminder of all the different parts of yourself and should light those up.

—Sheila Heti & Jill Margo

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Jill Margo

Jill Margo’s work has been published in literary magazines and newspapers. She has been a finalist for both a Western Magazine Award and for The Malahat Review Long Poem Prize. She is also a former executive director of the Victoria School of Writing and a former artistic director/host of two reading series (Sundays at the JBI and the Robson Reading Series). Originally from British Columbia, she moved to Toronto in the summer of 2011 to attend the University of Guelph’s MFA program. Her mentor through the program is Francisco Goldman. You can read a sample of her work online at Geist Magazine.

 

Mar 312013
 

Download1Marilyn R. Rosenberg & Nance Van Winckel

Nance Van Winckel, poet, fiction writer, and collagist extraordinaire, inventor of the pho-toem, has gone undercover for Numéro Cinq, searching out and interviewing a series of hybrid or conceptual artists (cross-genre art — ah, but is there any other kind?). Her first subject/artist was collagist Todd Bartel, and now she introduces us to the amazing book art of Marilyn R. Rosenberg of Peekskill, NY, who, yes, explodes the concept of book into a phantasmagoria of cutting, folding, sculpting, drawing, image layering, colorizing, painting — books become sculptures, words become objects, objects become poems, poems become objects AGAIN. We all love books, adore books, but mostly for their efficacy as carriers of words, which, if you follow the logic, leads us all to owning tablet readers; what Marilyn R. Rosenberg creates is the anti-Kindle; you can’t read these on a device; she creates unique books, not for dissemination but for themselves for the beauty of the thing.

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READ, 2004, MRR, 200 dpiREAD, closed 5 1/8”h x 4 1/8”w, color photo copy edition of 15 with collage, visual poetry artists book with hand made pop up.

VERBIAGE, MRR, 2007, 200VERBIAGE, 22 1/2 h x 16 1/2” w, visual poetry/drawing.

NVW: Spending some time with the inside pages of these amazing books of yours, I’m interested in how you think about finding the right “balance” for a page—the page as drawing and the page as poem. I so admire the convergence of those two.

MRR: Both a work’s theme as well as its obvious or hidden contents decide everything about a particular page or bookwork. But how do all components, word meld into image, image size happen next to word size? How do I select hue, value and blank and filled areas?  How does relationship and interaction and placement of each component happen?  Balance is based on many things: sometimes the influence of the ground, i.e. the page, size, paper, book, either found or ready to be created with my own binding; each choice, alone or in combination with mark-making materials, adds and alters compositions, in variations, within a singular statement. Or sometimes, a word or sentence, in juxtaposition with a complex concept, causes all elements, individual ingredients, to evolve, to merge or disperse into something other than what was there before. Sometimes this happens with a noted life situation’s influence.  A record of something quickly seen, or a theme challenge either starts or enhances the new or long evolving ideas. Then the entire content shifts and what was added alters that balance, again.

Each piece starts differently and has different measures of balance and discord.  I start with combinations of words from notes I almost always make, and place them on a page, moving back and forth as image grows and turns into color. I hear words when I read them. While I work, the words turn into the image, and the image is the word heard.  Each theme develops at its own required speed: pensive, or chaotic, or restful or at a fast pace.  Almost always I build pages and bookworks from the ground up. Working back and forth, page here and then there again, word and image as one grow. All this goes on all the pages of one bookwork in the same back and forth rhythm. I must create rhythm and pace, cause loudness or quiet, allow rest or activity, as I remember agitation or pleasure. Balance of weight of words and more words as image, with color and weight of line and mass, happens after contemplation then action, thought and reaction. One thing changes everything. All relationships are decided by trial and error, in the context, and environment. Everything happens in relationship to everything else. Word placement, line length next to line weight, color next to color, word next to image, and dark next to light—these are just a few components that cause weight shift and change. I consider all of these components consciously all the time. Experience, trial and error, and then instinct takes over. But the work itself directs me and tells me what it needs and wants.

A merging in the first work completed in the series DRIFTS is a combination of two pages. From the paper bookwork, 6 WATER VOICES, 35 mm slides of pages #4. PUDDLING and #5. PROCRASTINATE, were scanned into the Imac computer and were set one on top and another below. Sections were changed.  Words and images were added; a new work evolved.

drift again, 2003, MRR, 200 dpiDRIFT AGAIN, size variable, visual poetry/drawing/virtual collage

Variations of the original complex virtual collage follow now, with a letter or two, or an object added. Each offshoot, manifestation, is altered slightly, evolved, and is slightly different, with a different title – DRIFTS, DRIFT HERE, and DRIFT AGAIN. All happened while I remembered, seeing/hearing the sound of the country stream/river/creek  next to my  window, heard again in the city sounds. Daily reminders of water in its various forms and containers inform my thinking. Water towers imply water contained, water towers reflect on the water surface; my environment, reality adds images/layers to the work, that is now in virtual reality.

listen hear water voices 2002LISTEN-HEAR, about 12.50″h x 32 “w, visual poem/drawing, facing pages

As well, from 6 WATER VOICES, created as facing pages using stencils, ink pens, brush and gouache, plus misc. media, is LISTEN-HEAR.  Parts of the pages in the entire bookwork were written and rewritten first as lists/prose over months of word working. The stencils’ outlines were marked first with graphite on acid free paper, and often changed or corrected before the gouache was used. Color was selected while thinking of both water at various depths and times of day and year, and the sound of both shallow and rushing water. The brush size and collage were carefully and intuitively informed selections, depending on size and hue and  color value needed. All happened while remembering the stream’s gurgling sound again, in the city’s humming. Water: there in the rivers and rain, and imagined inside the multiple water tanks sitting on the buildings.

REST, 2009-10, MRR, 200 DPIREST, was 37″h x 48″w*, visual poem/drawing, facing page.

OR WORK, 2010, 200 dpi, MRROR WORK, was 37″h x 48″w, visual poem/drawing, facing page.

Each title REST and OR WORK took almost a year. The words are the image, and the image is the word.  The word REST filled a large piece of paper then was circled and nested with images and  words, back and forth, around the page as needed. The words OR WORK were done the same way later, on another sheet. Content was based on my life (always eggs/birth, growth/continuation, and mouse/the uninvited always returning), and while working on other things.  Although individual works, these two were created as a pair. Their edges fit together, either one on the right or left, or one above and the other below.  Largely from colored pencil over graphite outline with created and purchased stencils, on watercolor washes, the works grew ground up, changing  balance in sections, and weight in areas.  Except in their photos and in altered images in virtual reality, the experimental works no longer exist in the real world.

NVW: The term “asemic writing” was new to me, but now I’m seeing it everywhere. Language that is without semantic content. It looks like language, but we cannot glean a precise meaning. Could you speak a little about how you see this sort of language functioning in your own work?

MRR: In works without any words at all, the reading sensation still exists.  There are a variety of works or part of works that contain what seems to be indecipherable language as calligraphic type marks. I think of them as records of events or talks to the dead and newborn in a language only they will understand. They are in groups living in the context of their page and bookwork. They are language before language; they feel as if they are the same as reading poems in a foreign land in its language. They are thoughts marked in code, my thoughts, my code. The sound is like a hum, a whisper, or jazz scatting. The visual shapes and placement of the marks, in combinations, make the mass and color, the rhythm and pacing. My abstract language is almost never made with repeated sections or combinations since a new read/sound always happens in each cluster.

etcExcerpt detail from page 16 from the edition etceteras 
 

NVW: There often seems an ongoing narrative moving through your books. So do you think of them in some ways as novels or a series of visual poems?

MRR: Life’s situations in combinations, and the observation of the dying and death experience, have been highlighted during the turn of the century in my works: birth and life; before birth and after death; the past/memories; dead hopes and satisfied joys of life and living it intensely make up the content. Abstracted narrative is often included. Diaries and lists are often here as visual poetry, often in unbound or bound artists’ books or bookworks. Dense and intense, some of the works have the qualities involved in ritual and meditative objects. The pages are sequential, for sure. Often the bookworks have a beginning and a middle, and then begin again—cyclical, or spiral—like the circle or egg.  The two continuous shapes so often are in my works. Read the book first and at the end, turn it over, read again, and a new work emerges, one experiences it all differently. There is the fragmented circle, the broken unity and hesitations in continuity rather than that complete circle. One or more themes runs through a series or one bookwork that often has its later individual visual poems or artists’ stamp sheet commemorative. Each work or series has its own feelings portrayed and impressions in marks on paper, or in the computer image.  From the one image of a work, and seeing only one open folio or standing bookwork in exhibition, the visual is there but the verbal and theme are often hidden, waiting to be read/seen, the sequence totally lost. The image frustrates the reader/viewer since the actual is not there to see, to see what went before or after; the same frustration, or greater, is in an exhibition when the item is so close but still unapproachable, untouchable, although a complete section is shown.  This method both irritates and/or excites the reader/viewer’s appetite for more. What does this say about me, that I like to tease or agitate the viewer/reader? But that reader/viewer who holds the work in her/his hands is usually greatly satisfied while reading and seeing, and knowing the content and having the book’s secrets.

OPEN HOUSE, 1990, MRR, pp 10-11, 200 dpiOPEN HOUSE, closed 8 1/2” h x 5 1/2”w, especially pages 10-11 with the scissors collage, photo copy edition visual poetry artists’ book with movable collage. Edition 100, printed with five different photo printers.

NVW: How has your work changed the most over the years? And/or, how is what you’re working on now a departure from earlier work?

MRR: The only way to know what was and is now is to compare earlier works with later pieces, but I am not as objective about my works as I may often be about the works of others.

I think that my work is more available and open for interpretation and not as hidden and mysterious in content as it once was.

My long workdays cannot go on for weeks at a time anymore. Workdays replace weeks, and part days for full days, so concentration is broken. The body will not cooperate; time goes, much is not done, less work produced.

Different studio spaces change my works’ themes and size.

Although using the computer and copy machine for decades, to use as collage materials or to create editions, now I find I almost never use the copy machine.

For years, almost always my own publisher, now others invite me to publish my editions and I try to follow each of the size, page number, and shape and paper formats they need. They sometimes slightly edit or make minor suggestions, as in all collaborations I have done before.

Before my theme concerned a younger woman’s life experiences and thinking and young family; now the sources are an old woman’s.

Maybe the work is less complex, I am not sure.  But the angst and playfulness are there still, maybe redirected.

DOCKAGE, 2007, MRR, 200 dpiDOCKAGE, 16 “h x 14 3/4″ w, visual poetry/drawing; master for a few prints of various sizes, image altered for stamp sheet edition

—Marilyn R. Rosenberg & Nance Van Winckel

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Marilyn R. Rosenberg was born in Philadelphia, PA. In 1978 she completed a Bachelor of Professional Studies in Studio Arts at Empire State College, State U of NY and in 1993 a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York U. While raising a family she continued creating works on paper. Her studies included painting, graphics, sculpture, a variety of other art, gender, history, literature, and religious studies, life drawing, advertising art, advertising publication, book and printing production (older style), book arts and more. Since 1977 she has amassed a body of work consisting of more than 600 titles that include visual poems, artists’ books, mail art, drawings, small press/chap books, unique sculptural bookworks, artists’ stamps, photos, paste on paper and computer collages, and other works.

Her art is included in public collections or archives at Harvard University, Fine Arts Lib., Fogg Art Museum, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, Brown University Library, Dartmouth College, The Tate Gallery, and many others. Her works are also in such anthologies as LAST VISPO ANTHOLOGY: Visual Poetry 1998 – 2008, Fantagraphics Books, 2012 and 500 HANDMADE BOOKS: INSPIRING INTERPRETATIONS OF A TIMELESS FORM, New York, Lark Books, 2008.

Just last year (2012) her work appeared in the following exhibitions:

  • 2012, FEMINISM AND THE ARTIST’S BOOK, Vespa Properties, Brooklyn, NY, Curator: Maddy Rosenberg for Central Booking Gallery.
  • 2012, POINT OF VIEW, juried invitational, WCC Gallery, Peekskill, NY. Jury and Curators: Sherry Mayo, Geoff Feder & Larry D’Amico.
  • 2012, VISUAL POERY EXHIBIT, General Store Community Arts Center, Mount Barker, South Australia.
  • 2012, REJOICE, Ceres Artist Friends Exhibition, New York, NY.
  • 2012, MINUTE Web exhibit,The University of Northampton, UK. Curators: Melanie Bush, Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design The University of Northampton, UK and Dr Emma Powell, Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. http://www.flickr.com/photos/61714195@N00/7408594342
  • 2011-2012, WRITE-NOW, The Chicago Rooms Galleries of the Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago Illinois, USA. Curator: Keith A. Buchholz.
  • 2011-2012, Apocryphal, Traditional, et al, Georgia College & State University, Milledgeville GA, USA. Curators: Shannon Morris and John Coffelt.

More of her work may be viewed at:

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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 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.

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.

Click this link to see a collectionof Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems.

Mar 162013
 

China Marks & H L Hix

When the artist China Marks, who specializes in amazing drawings she does with a sewing machine, offered to interview the poet H. L. Hix for Numéro Cinq, I had no idea the interview would turn into a conversation, a mutual interview, and that the conversation would metamorphose into this wonderfully intelligent, cross-genre meditation on the foundations and process of art whatever form the art takes. Not only that but the conversation takes as its starting point an essay by the poet Julie Larios published on these pages, so that NC is part of the conversation, that is, as a catalyst and locus where artists and idea come together (across continents, across disciplines, you can hear the cultural tectonic plates colliding in the background). If we were on the Left Bank, NC would be a cafe and China Marks and H. L. Hix would be leaning across a marble-topped  table sipping absinthe and talking intensely (and you would be listening, you, dear NC reader, at the next table). This conversation is packed with quotation, quotable lines, self-reflection — but China and Harvey are old friends, too, and that comes through, intense, intelligent conversation between friends. They take, as their starting point, a phrase from Richard Wilbur — confounders of category — which they both read in Julie Larios’s essay on riddles; and this conversation is all about confounding categories, crossing boundaries, connecting things that are not connected except in the minds of the artists, about play and the dramatic tensions inherent in confounded categories. A delight in every exchange — though my favourite is the bit about versos, the backs of works of art, especially the backs of China Marks’s sewn drawings.

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China Marks: Numéro Cinq recently published an essay by Julie Larios on the riddle.[1]  It was full of things that made me think of my own work and to a certain extent yours as well; for instance, “to describe something by describing something else.” And “you turn the reader’s gaze to something clear, physical and believable in order to understand something deep, emotional, and invisible.” She quoted Richard Wilbur as calling riddles “the confounders of category.”

I think that we are both confounders of categories.

H. L. Hix: I too enjoyed the Larios essay, especially her way of seeing riddles as “mak[ing] us rethink our assumptions.”  I certainly want to be — I try to be — a confounder of categories.  Wilbur’s term makes me think of Gilbert Ryle’s philosophical term “category mistake,” which consists in treating something from one category as if it belonged to another category, the way we do when we speak of ideas as things.  Ryle uses the concept of a category mistake to identify as one purpose for philosophy “the replacement of category-habits by category-disciplines.”  I appreciate Ryle’s aim there, but it seems naïve, in that it takes for granted the neutrality of categories, as if they were things in the world rather than human constructions.  (In other words, it seems to me to make a category mistake!)

That’s why I want to be a confounder of categories: because I take it that many category-habits are received, or (to put it less mildly) imposed on us.  For instance, the pervasive description of persons as consumers is a category mistake, but it doesn’t happen accidentally because of an indifferent category habit: it’s one that Walmart wants us to make, pressures us to make, and benefits from our making.  It leads to such individual stupidities as thinking that my purchasing something will increase my worth as a person, and to such collective stupidities as the belief that growth is the highest economic aim.  So I don’t just want to discipline categories, I want to confound them.  I want to be engaged — in my art, and in other aspects of my life — in an active, ongoing process of resisting received or imposed categories, and creating new ones.

CM:  I don’t think you have to try to confound categories, you do it naturally, the way you range over a vast array of subject matter and verse forms, wear so many hats, hang out with visual artists, remain open to possibilities of all kinds.  For myself, I can’t remember a time when one thing didn’t connect willy-nilly with something else entirely different and then branch off in several directions.  As no one else seemed to notice, I never said anything about what I saw/sensed. By now I am used to it, no, more than that; I understand that categorizations are constructs and if not perceived as such, are impediments to speculative play.

HH: Many people regard play of any sort as a form of irresponsibility: children are permitted to play, the view goes, but adults should not be.  But what you’ve just said points up the flaw (or one of the flaws!) in that conception.  Thinking of play as irresponsible neglects the fact that coherence depends on association.  If I can’t connect one thing with another — and that includes connecting apparently dissimilar things with one another — then I can’t test my view in one area against my view in another.  I can’t preclude self-contradiction.  In other words, if I don’t get to play, to speculate, then I can’t be responsible.  To me, that is one of the ways in which poetry and visual art have both private and civic value: they facilitate the associations that enhance coherence and diminish self-contradiction.  They are forms of imaginative caprice that constrain logical and empirical caprice.

But “playful” isn’t the only term I would use to describe your work; I would describe it also as “dramatic,” meaning that it seems to me to depict situations of tension and conflict, just as a stage play or film or novel would.  Is there a connection between the importance you place on process in making your work, and the centrality of drama in the work that results?

CM: I do think that what I make is inherently dramatic.  I’ve even called my drawings “little dramas.”  I consider my role as an artist that of an entertainer.  I want my drawings to compel and amuse, to make eyes widen and jaws drop. During the process of making a drawing, I am in the audience as well as on stage, often surprised, sometimes thrilled at what I see, or so bored and restless or unhappy that I make drastic changes, until my own jaw drops….

HH: We started by noting similarities in our work, but maybe this is one difference.  I’m inclined to think of my work in contrast to entertainment, after the manner of George Oppen’s journal note that “entertainment ameliorates human life; art means to make human life possible.”

CM: Definitions of art and its functions are just definitions. People will always write about art and decide what it really is or should be.  In the meantime, I make art that among other things, entertains.  So what?

HH: Point taken.  It’s true that defining art is not your project, or mine, nor was it Oppen’s.  But I doubt that either of us makes our art without some working conception of art, even if our practice tests or resists that conception as much as it enacts it.  We’re not defining words right now, but we couldn’t be using them without an operative conception of their meanings.  I think we’re agreed that definition is a distraction, though, in this context, one that leads away from, rather than into, the shared intensity — the confounding of categories — that motivates this conversation.  So let me try to reframe things in a way that I think does look toward, rather than away from, that shared intensity.

I’ve known you for give or take fifteen years now, long enough to have seen transitions from sculpture to painting and from paintings to sewn drawings; and long enough to have seen your sewn drawings expand to include books.  I’m reminded of Louise Glück’s assertion that “An aspect of relentless intelligence is that it finds no resting place.”  How does it happen, or why is it important to you, that your work finds no resting place?  What makes your intelligence so relentless?

CM: My art has changed even more in the forty years or so since I graduated from art school.  I don’t feel responsible for the changes.  I just showed up in my studio every day possible and worked as hard as I could.  Did my art morph and change because I had a relentless intellect?  I think that I simply gave myself over to process very early in my life as an artist and went where it took me.  Process is more than making a single sculpture or drawing. The process of becoming an artist takes most of a lifetime and has affected not just my studio practices but also where I live, what I eat and how I exercise, what I read, who my friends are, the music I listen to, my marital status, even the way I look.

I started out as a sculptor, but always drew for its own sake as well.  A series of works on paper begun in 1992 took on a life of its own and since then, except for two installations in the 90′s, the last to describe a world parallel to our own, accessible only through my art, I have mostly drawn; except of course in the mid-90′s, when my drawings grew so big that I moved onto canvas for two years, which led to my being hired to teach painting at the Kansas City Art Institute, where I met you…

On Dec. 6, 2000, my drawings told me that they had to be sewn, and not by hand: I would have to buy a sewing machine and learn to generate and control a sewn line.  It might as well have been the voice of God.  I did as I was told, and it turned out to be the most demanding and compelling thing that I have ever done. I knew that I would be making sewn drawings for the rest of my life, and because their potential was infinite, however much time I had, it wouldn’t be enough.

In 2007, Esther Smith, a book artist who loved my sewn drawings, persuaded me to make a little sewn book, which was such a revelation that I resolved to make at least one book a year for the rest of my life. In the spring of 2009, walking my dog after a rainstorm, I found a big black broken umbrella printed with words, and without having any idea of what I would do with it, carried it home. This somehow led to my making my first two text-based books later in the year.  I am still making books, but since the fall of 2010, my drawings have also been full of words, and that has changed everything.

People who’ve known my work over many years say that it all looks like my art; the hybrid forms, the seductive line, the visual wit, my interest in patterns, my appropriation of found objects and images, the narrative drive, the idiosyncracy and flamboyance.  But that isn’t anything I have to try to do, that’s just what I’m like.

HH: Your remarks that “I just showed up in my studio every day possible and worked as hard as I could” and “that’s just what I’m like” remind me of an answer Rauschenberg once gave in an interview, when he was asked whether he planned his pieces.  He said, “No, I have discipline.  I work every day and I never know what I’m doing….”  The end of his answer was like the end of yours: “you’re just doing something.  You’re doing what no one can stop you from doing.”

When I look at any of your pieces — I have “Lovely, Dark, and Deep” called up on my computer screen right now — I get the feeling (and would get this feeling even if I weren’t in the middle of conversing with you like this) that you are doing what no one can stop you from doing, or, in the words you just used a moment ago, that your drawings told you what to do, and you did as you were told.

Lovely Dark and Deep by China MarksLovely, Dark, and Deep, 2011

CM: All I ever know is what to do next, even if I have to un-do it the next day or a month later.  But I have to do it.

HH: That sense of necessity in the process — just doing what you have to do — raises for me a question about necessity in the result.  I have seen the backs of some of your sewn drawings.  Each verso has its own integrity and beauty, a complement to that of the recto.  Which makes me think of the pedimental sculptures from the Parthenon, painstakingly finished on the back, even though they were made to be positioned in such a way that the back would never be visible.  Accident?  Design?  Is this result (the beauty of your versos) a necessity?

CM: The difference between my versos and the parts of ancient sculptures that were finished even though those parts would never be seen, is that my versos thrive in the dark, neglected and unheeded until they’re photographed at the end. I don’t make them. They happen because sewing machines stitch on the back as well as the front. They are entirely uncalculated, all their power and coherence transmitted from what is occuring on the other side. Mirror-image twins.

HH: You speak of your work with a kind of animism that out of context I might regard skeptically, but that in regard to art I am inclined to embrace, namely that those versos “thrive,” that they are able to “transmit” their power and coherence without being seen.  But what I am most fascinated by in your response is the observation that the versos are “entirely uncalculated,” rather than your making them happen.  Their power and coherence result directly from your process, but either indirectly or not at all from your intention.

CM: Yes, the power and coherence of my versos result directly from my process, which contains the time it takes to make a particular drawing, my intentions, the workings of my sewing machines, my threads and fabrics, my tools, artifical and natural light, my doing and undoing stitches, the weather, the music I listen to, whether I swam in the morning, what I ate and read that day and the last, etc. etc. The process is much wiser and goofier than I am. By the time I finish a drawing, it is breathing on its own and full of all kinds of things I could never have imagined, including its verso.  I make my drawings and books in order to see them.  I couldn’t possibly think them up.

verso Bear's Dream by China MarksDetail, verso, Bear’s Dream, 2011

HH: I wish we were geographically close enough that I could have you in every semester to speak with my writing students.  What you’ve just said in relation to your visual art studio practice applies also to a writing practice.  But it seems to be, for many people, a very difficult step to take.  I mean your conceiving, and maintaining in your creative process, a distinction between making and intention.  I find that many aspiring poets believe that making must fulfill an intention that is already complete prior to its enactment, but that assumes that one is oneself the locus of wisdom, and the source of wisdom, in the enterprise.

To think up something first, and then employ the medium as a means to make the already-thought-up thing could make sense only if the smarts are in the person rather than in the medium.  But I hear you observing something with which I concur: more wisdom is to be found in one’s medium and in one’s process than in oneself.  That shift is radical, and, I believe, all-too-rarely made: from thinking that through one’s art or writing one shows the world to others, to thinking that one’s art or writing might show the world to oneself.  When we talk about the importance of process, I take that as at least one thing we mean.

CM: One thought casting back to the beginning of our conversation and a question for you, but they’re related, so I’ll start with the thought. You’ve said that you don’t believe in inspiration. I didn’t look this up, but doesn’t that come from Inspiritus, being possessed of the gods in the form of a divine wind or breath?  If we become instruments of our process, about which so much remains stubbornly ineffable, is that much different? There were various ritual practices to summon the gods, standing inside a circle drawn in the dirt at the new moon, bathing and putting on new clothing, fasting, and so forth. Most visual artists and writers need particular conditions in order to work.  Only in daylight, only at night, five no. 2 pencils sharpened to a point, a particular word processing program, coffee or scotch, after a run, with a favored brush, whatever it takes to make us ready to give ourselves over to the process.

I think that I have it easier than you, because I start by selecting a hundred or more scraps of patterned fabric, backed with fusible adhesive, from thousands so prepared, and go from there.  But how do you start?  With an idea or a phrase?  Do you write in your head for a while before you let yourself write it down? Is it always the same way?  That’s my question.  Where do your poems come from?  And how?

HH: It may be that some of the affinity I perceive between your drawings and my poems derives from affinity between your process and mine.  I do have rituals — I write early in the morning, I wear as a talisman a ring given me by the poet William Meredith, I write with an elegant fountain pen Kate gave me — but the content of the rituals is (as your comment suggests) not as important as the fact of the rituals.  I don’t think one need believe in the real existence of something invoked (such as gods or divine winds), to find efficacy in the act of invoking.  In fact it may be better if one does not so believe, as Simone Weil implies when she calls it “a method of purification” to pray, “not only in secret as far as men are concerned, but with the thought that God does not exist.”

But it’s the collecting I’m focused on here as an element of process we share.  You say you start with scraps of patterned fabric you’ve prepared.  I start with scraps, too, only in my case it’s scraps of language.  For me, the writing of a poem is not an act of self-expression but an act of listening.  A poem, for me, is not the externalizing of an idea or feeling that was inside me prior to the poem, but the derivation of a linguistic construct implicit in a fragment of language, as one derives a theorem from premises in mathematics.  It’s not that I show others in my poems what I happen to feel or think, but that my poems show me what I ought to feel or think.  As with a mathematical theorem, it is their necessity, not their accidental connection to me, that matters.

CM: Could you talk a little about how that necessity operates in your poem “What Creature In What Darkness”?

What Creature In What Darkness

So accustomed to light have we grown (evolved, really,
it’s not you and me only, not decision exactly)
that we forget the lives, species, entire biotas
underground, in caves or tunnels no light tastes, ever.
Which doesn’t mean they don’t inhabit us, or that we
share with them no (actual, not merely potential) traits.
In water the whale, in air the hummingbird:
to these totems I arch elements of identity.
Underground, who knows what sister life-form waits.
I have my library of unconscious states

that I claim awareness of, and accept,
though clearly that’s contradiction and self-deception.
What creature inhabiting what damp darkness
will show me what I might morph into, might have been
all this time?  Does it glow?  What best describes its limbs?
What sounds in what notation by what lurching has it scrawled?
Does it have limbs?  Does it crawl?  Or is it sessile,
gasping then lisping what vagrant spores and molds it may?
Or just patient, able to trace but waiting instead, curled?
This is my preferred world, the shadow world

that does not — need not — speak, will not be spoken to.
All this flailing at communication — I’m flailing now
just shows I haven’t learned, may never learn, to abide.
Who realizes the desperate still wants the needful.
Wait, the subterranean advises.  Wait, wait.
Because only by waiting may one hear the gritty
shifting of Patience itself.  Even that’s misleading, though:
the one who waits despises Because.
When she who is here with me is here with me, with me
beneath this city there is another city,

ruins not restored, not even preserved, but hosting
a less demonstrative but equally insistent
other estimation.  When she is here with me,
she is the other city, host to (or sum of)
secret othernesses and nethernesses.
We need not think of lives as woven by a loom
to think of them as interwoven, and need not pretend
they watch us, or care, to make of them second chances,
alternatives, opportunities to assume
other orientations to the textured vacuum.

HH: In an important sense, you are the source of this poem.  Maybe you’ll remember a studio visit Kate and I made a couple of years ago to see what you were working on.  During that visit you gave me an exhibition catalog of work by a painter friend of yours, Thomas Lyon Mills.  His work stayed in my head, so when I began the “Show and Tell” project on my blog — the project in which poets respond to images by artists, and in which your own work appears — I looked him up and asked him to participate.  This poem derives from his participation.

“What Creature In What Darkness” is one of a sequence of poems, all of which come from that “Show and Tell” project.  Each poem in the sequence takes the form of a “glosa,” so in fulfillment of that received form the last line of each stanza is quoted: the last lines of the first two stanzas come from the artist statement of the particular artist in question, and the last lines of the last two stanzas come from the poem the poet made in response to the artist’s work.

“What Creature In What Darkness” derives from the pairing of the artist Thomas Lyon Mills with the poet Evie Shockley.  So the lines “I have my library of unconscious states” and “This is my preferred world, the shadow world” both are quoted directly from Mills’s artist statement, in which he describes his (amazing) process, which centers on research in underground catacombs in Rome.  The lines “beneath this city there is another city” and “other orientations to the textured vacuum” come from the poem Shockley wrote in response to Mills’s work.  “What Creature In What Darkness” tries then to listen to what words and images follow inevitably from their words and images.

To put this another way, those lines borrowed from Thomas Lyon Mills and Evie Shockley perform the role your selected scraps of patterned fabric play.

CM: Haven’t you sometimes also used borrowed language more directly as found objects, as in Chromatic, where you appropriated early 20th century vernacular speech to great effect?

HH: Appropriated language definitely is important in Chromatic.  Almost all my poetry starts with found language.  Introspection and perceptual observation follow, but the found language almost invariably offers the starting point.  That found language might be “intellectual,” derived from things I read: that happens, for instance, in the first sequence in Chromatic, “Remarks on Color,” which draws on two sources, Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour and Mondrian’s Natural Reality and Abstract Reality.  But the found language might also come from other sources, and you’re right about my interest in vernacular speech.  I assume you’re referring to “Eighteen Maniacs,” the second sequence in Chromatic.  Here’s one of the shorter of those poems.

hix poem2

One reviewer mistakenly identified these poems as operating in “blackface,” trying to mimic African-American dialect.  But I’m after a much broader attention to dialect and vernacular.  So the sequence does include usages drawn from (or based on) African-American vernaculars, especially the rich language that grew up around jazz.  (The sequence itself is a kind of abbreviated history of jazz, as signalled by the title: “eighteen maniacs” was one way Duke Ellington referred to his band.  Each piece in the sequence revolves around one jazz musician.  In “Black Coffee,” all the words in the left-hand column come from Sarah Vaughan: titles of her songs, etc.)  But “Eighteen Maniacs” includes other vernaculars as well, such as the regional dialects I heard growing up in small towns in the South.  The “seem like” in the last sentences here is not peculiar to African-American vernacular, but shows up in many regional and ethnic dialects, often enough that in linguistics it has a name, “sibilant deletion.”

CM: Was it always words for you, even as a boy?  I ask because I remember a crucial time in my own life, when I was about 19, when I gave up on words and embraced image-making.

HH: Even though I was a late-comer to poetry per se, and even though I wouldn’t have known it at the time, it was always words for me.  I drew a lot as a boy, birds in grade school when I was obsessed with birds, cars in high school when I was obsessed with cars.  But even though I grew up in a household (and in school districts) that didn’t introduce me to poetry, I can see in looking back how the household’s preoccupation with language nurtured my own.  My father, a journalist, made his living with words; there was always popular music playing, so the lyrics of songs performed by Johnny Cash (my Father’s favorite) and Andy Williams (my Mother’s) and the Carpenters (my older sister’s) and Olivia Newton-John (my younger sister’s) were in my head; it was a religious household, so I listened to a thousand alliterative Baptist sermons and memorized a boatload of Bible verses in Sunday School; and so on.

Consequently, when at last I was exposed to poetry, as a college undergraduate, I was “primed” for it by all that intense attention to other language uses.  I’d been socialized, without being aware of it in these terms, into the sense that language mattered, indeed (this especially from the religious context, in which language, in the form of prayer, is the vehicle through which one speaks to God, and also, in the form of scripture, the vehicle through which God speaks) that language is a matter of life and death.

It’s interesting to me, in the context of this question, though, that words have become quite active and prominent in your recent drawings.  Which in one way may not be so surprising: I would want to modify the self-description you give in asking this question. Yes, you gave up on words in the sense that you went for a long time not producing words as part of your work, but it seems to me that — at least for as long as I have known you — you have been very actively receiving words as one aspect of the preparation for your work.  Your omnivorous (and category-confounding) attention, your relentless intelligence, includes intense attention to words.

CM: I was a great, omnivorous reader as a child and adolescent, and I’ve written all my life, long letters back in the days when people wrote letters, accounts of dreams, descriptions of acute psychological states, journals, richly detailed assessments of arts-in-the-schools for my job at the NYC Board of Education, stories and poems, especially when I was in love. I also talked a blue streak. My late friend Stanley Landsman once predicted that if after we died, all the words we’d spoken were heaped in a pile in front of us, my pile would be twice as big anybody else’s.

But my facility with words is what made me distrust them. They could mean almost anything, while during my adolescence and early adulthood, most of what mattered was worldess and sensory, sexual, instinctive, uncanny.  In those days, I used words to “pass” as not-crazy, till I couldn’t any more.

But when I started making text-based books in 2009 after a chance encounter with a dead umbrella printed with words, it was just part of my process.  And it turned out that I had a lot to say, more than I can fit in my drawings.  So I’ve begun to collaborate with letterpress printers. The first project, a little poem of mine, four verses with six lines in each, printed as a pamplet, is already in the works. A broadside comes next, and I already have the text for it.

HH: It seems like we’re making a connection here between process and paying attention.  We’ve talked about the importance process has for us, about its centrality to our practice, but how does that play out in a particular work, such as “The Language of Flowers”?  How does process amount to paying attention?

 

The Language of Flowers by China MarksThe Language of Flowers, 2012

 

CM: One must be fully present to make process-directed work, expanding one’s attention to take in the work at hand, but also to a lot of other things that might be relevant to the process…

When I visited Gerry Trilling in Kansas City in 2010, I bought two vintage scarves at an “antiques” mart in the river bottoms.  I really wanted them and I could afford to buy them, but I had no idea of what to do with them. I rarely do.  Almost two years had passed before it occurred to me to try to create a space inside the borders of the Liz Claiborne scarf and then to construct two eccentric, flamboyant figures to occupy that space.  I don’t remember deciding that one figure should be static and the other dynamic.  I concentrated on keeping as much of the original print as possible and altering as little as possible what I imported. As these fellows came to life, it occurred to me that it must be so strange for them: they’d changed from scraps of printed fabrics to beings — nothing was as it was!  Which is how the text began.

But as I refined the drawing, they seemed more and more like Renaissance courtiers in a walled garden, which is how the text ended. It’s probably just as applicable to our time. It’s pleasant enough, but the world as we know it is gone. Guard yourself.

HH: That’s it, though.  This image has in spades one of the forms of dramatic tension I experience — see and feel — in all your work.  One the one hand, it emphasizes features that make it entertaining: a bright palette, playful figuration, dynamic composition, a “busy” surface, and so on.  But on the other hand, this entertaining, even delightful, image is terrifying.  This drawing, like your other drawings, is the world: I as a viewer recognize the figures as figures, etc.  But it’s not the world given to us by Hollywood romantic comedies or tv sitcoms.  The world as we know it is gone, replaced by the world of the drawing.

CM: I don’t think that anything I make really stands outside our world, or rather, the various overlapping and interpenetrating worlds that comprise out present reality.  Things out there, murders, starvation, genocide, the coarsening and brutalization of whole populations, natural disasters and extinctions, are terrifying, not The Language of Flowers.

HH: And yet you spoke earlier of a world parallel to our own, accessible only through your work.  That seems an important complement to what we’re discussing here.  That tension/paradox is one way I would try to speak of the importance your work has for me.  I contend that one can’t know this world by knowing only this world.  (The facts, in other words, are not enough.)  To take the most obvious kind of example, our capacity for ethical judgments depends on our imagining other worlds.  To say that women and members of ethnic minorities ought to have the same rights as males of the privileged ethnic group is to imagine a world parallel to our own, and the “ought to” imputes to the imagined parallel world a “reality,” a force, greater than that of the “real world,” the world as we know it.

So I’d repeat your words, “The world as we know it is gone. Guard yourself.”  And add: gird yourself.

CM: And yet somehow, every glance into the abyss sends us back to our work with fresh vigor, I to my drawings, you to your poems.  Don’t you have a poem or part of a poem about that?  It would make a nice end to this.

HH: Maybe they’re all about that, but here’s one I’ll re-title for this context.

Another Glance Into the Abyss

But that my having fallen came first,
I had not known to call falling

this feeling of following grainy shades
into gray, waving for want of wings,

or fog this silent summoning,
a city sunk whole under a sea.

Who would watch waves must lean into wind.
They wind up lean who long want rain.

If not for waiting, why have we mouths?
If not for failing to fly, why fingers?

— China Marks & H. L. Hix

————————

H. L. Hix lives in the mountain west, where he marvels at how late in the summer it is before hummingbirds arrive at 7,200 feet, at how hardy pocket gophers are, and at the fact that he can survive at an altitude at which cockroaches cannot.  He and his partner, the poet Kate Northrop, live in an 1880s railroad house, and their studio space is converted from what was once a barn.  His recent books include a “selected poems,” First Fire, Then Birds: Obsessionals 1985-2010 (Etruscan Press, 2010); a translation, made with the author, of Eugenijus Ališanka’s from unwritten histories (Host Publications, 2011); an essay collection, Lines of Inquiry (Etruscan Press, 2011); and an anthology, Made Priceless (Serving House Books, 2012).  His website is www.hlhix.com.

China Marks was born and educated in Kansas City, MO, earning a BFA in Sculpture from the Kansas City Art Institute. A Fulbright-Hayes fellowship took her Katmandu, Nepal, where she spent sixteen months constructing a major installation out of local materials. On her return to the United States, she was awarded a graduate fellowship by the Danforth Foundation. In 1976, having received an MFA in Sculpture from Washington University in St. Louis, China moved east to make art. She has received numerous grants and awards, including three fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a Mid-Atlantic Arts fellowship, two George Sugarman Foundation grants, and two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships, most recently in 2011, when she was also named a Gregory Millard Fellow. Since 1999 China Marks has lived and worked in Long Island City, a block and a half from the East River. Her work is shown in galleries and museums in the United States and Europe. She is represented by the J. Cacciola Gallery in New York. Her drawings will be shown there in May as part of a group show.

—————

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Who Am I? What the Lowly Riddle Reveals,” November, 2012
Feb 112013
 

Alexander MacLeod

The son of author Alistair MacLeod, Alexander MacLeod’s debut story collection, Light Lifting, was published by Biblioasis in 2010, though it wasn’t released in the United States until 2011. A sharp, poignant volume of wonder and nostalgia, the book went on to collect a laundry list of accolades. It was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Frank O’Connor award, and was named “Book of the Year” by the American Library Association, The Globe and Mail, The Irish Times, Quill and Quire, The Coast, and Amazon.ca.

I’ve been a fan of MacLeod’s since first reading his story, “Miracle Mile,” which follows two elite runners as they compete for a spot on the Canadian national team. Being a runner myself, the story felt real, alive, almost as if MacLeod was reporting rather than conjuring. I reviewed Light Lifting for Rain Taxi Review of Books, and now feel fortunate to have spent some time talking with such a gifted young writer.

We spoke via Skype on a lazy Sunday afternoon in mid-January. I was home in Connecticut, while Alexander, fresh from constructing a Lego ghost ship with his children, checked in from Nova Scotia.

— Benjamin Woodard

 —

Benjamin Woodard (BW): I want to start by asking you to speak about the physicality found in your writing. Most of the stories in Light Lifting involve either athletics or some sort of corporeal task, from bicycle delivery to bricklaying to walking long distances down the highway. Was this a conscious decision on your part when constructing the collection?

Alexander MacLeod (AM): I was very interested in the stories I was trying not to write. So I didn’t want a story that could take place in an entirely psychological way, something that could just be how events were interpreted internally. I wanted to see a story—both in terms of the characters and the narrative—that could actually work in a presentation of physical scenes, scenes that had a physical dimension, so readers could come up to a moment where there would be a physical juxtaposition.

One that I always think of from a narrative point of view is the boy [in “The Loop”] who comes up to the threshold of the house and has to step across and perform mouth to mouth. There is a whole sequence of events that unfold here that would be different if he stays on the other side. I was interested in seeing not just character decisions, but narrative decisions taking on a physical dimension, so that if an action took place, then the action was going to be unambiguous: you were either on this side or that side.

Sometimes physicality is an alternative to ambiguity, sort of a clarifying function. For the runners [in “Miracle Mile”], that’s very clear—for runners it’s very clear that [a time of] 3:36 is different than 3:39. So I wanted to have the psychological stuff going on, all those good internal emotions, but I also wanted to have physical manifestations so that, when those emotions arrived, they wouldn’t be ambiguous.

Light Lifting

BW: As a reader, it feels as if research is a vital part of your storytelling, as all of your narratives are filled with intricate facts. I’m thinking of caravan engine construction in “The Number Three” and head lice in “Wonder About Parents.” What kind of role does research play when you write? And how do you create balance so that your research doesn’t overtake the creativity of the narrative?

AM: I actually didn’t do very much research at all, and I’m kind of strategic about not knowing things on purpose. I try to see the research in “Wonder About Parents” as totally embedded in the character. The character reads that book, and the character doesn’t know anything about lice, he just picks up this absurd book. And the absurdity of the book was very shocking to me when I read it. I thought, “Wow, this book is itself a kind of stunning.” It would be classified under epidemiology. Hans Zinsser wrote that book.

The other stuff wasn’t really researched. It was just things in the air. The caravan in “The Number Three,” yeah, I did ask some guys who work in the van plant. I have cousins who work in that plant, so I was interested in those different chassis. And it turns out I was more interested in it than lots of readers. They always find that stuff boring.

I did want to be right on those details because I thought that, though literary people don’t care about it, I knew that people would be reading the story who did know what was right and wrong. I had to have the horsepower right. You couldn’t say that the problem with the Dodge caravan was that it had no guts and that they gave it some guts. I didn’t want to be totally wrong as far as they were concerned. So I was definitely thinking about those people. I don’t know if that’s research as much as it is peer pressure.

BW: I want to follow up by asking you about your use of layering in the collection. You often inject asides in your narratives, little tidbits that provide contextual information about your protagonists: “Wonder About Parents” contains a scene where characters talk about basketball nicknames; “The Loop” features all those small scenes between the delivery boy and his elderly customers. I’m curious if these tiny moments are things you’ve collected over the years for this purpose of fleshing out a character’s history, or if they organically grow from the narrative as you’re writing?

AM: Anne Enright has a great line about description, where she says description is not passive, it’s active; it’s your stance on the world. When you’re describing something, you’re taking the world in and kind of spinning it back out. So there are lots of scenes that people think are descriptive, those side moments that aren’t really essential to the plot, or they’re not critical scenes. But to me, when I’m building this story, they are essential. Like that scene with the Pistons: I was really keen to get Vinnie Johnson into that story, because they called him “The Microwave” because he’d heat up in a hurry. I found those Pistons interesting; they fit into my story well.

And the old ladies fit in completely the same way. I often come back to those old ladies in “The Loop” as, perhaps, the most physical people in the whole book. Everybody thinks it’s about the runners or the guys laying bricks or the kid riding the bike, but the old ladies who are shoveling the snow, who have made that decision, are interesting. When you’re 76 and your children are going to try to boot you out of the house, your physical being takes on this really important level of significance. So I wanted to make every aside part of the center. Those old ladies who might seem peripheral were essential to how you think about the story. If you had them in a scene, the old lady who just peeks through the cracks of her door, or the lady who always carves the pumpkins, those are two different ways to be in the world, and I was trying to bring them closer to bigger concerns of the whole book.

Alexander_MacLeod_cre_HeatherCrosby

BW: How do you construct your stories? Do they start with an image, or do you come up with a broad concept and try to build from there?

AM: I try to approach them like poems, a little bit. I’m interested in images, and I try to imagine an image that will hold the whole story. So in “Adult Beginner I,” I pictured that girl jumping off the Holiday Inn in the dark, and I saw her body in the black sky, with the black water underneath. And then I thought the whole story would answer, “How did she get there, and what are the consequences of that action?”

If you can just plant the image in the reader, even if they can’t remember the name of the character or the consequences, if they just have that image, then the whole story is sitting there. Same with the runners or, again, the kid stepping across the threshold. When I build them, I might have 2 or 3 images that I really want to get right. I want to put the image in a scene. Kind of build a scene from an image and then build a story out of four or five of those. Something happens, or you imagine how something happens, in an image, then a scene, and then a story. That’s how I work.

BW: You’re a runner, right?

AM: Yes.

BW: Does running help facilitate your writing?

AM: Definitely. I’m kind of hurt right now. I have a bad Achilles tendon right now. And I find that when I can’t get out and can’t be alone like that for an hour or an hour and a half every day—is it freezing in Connecticut?

BW: No, actually it’s warm right now. I was running this morning in just a shirt and pants. We’re in a heat wave in the middle of January.

AM: Well, we have these Halifax cycles, where we get 40 cm of snow, then this horrible melt/freeze combo, so when you get a horrible footing, there’s no place you can go. And I was running in that and I screwed up my Achilles, and it has been a week of compromise.

I like whatever it is about running, or “old man running,” I suppose: just putting in time and committing to a process with no idea of what it’s worth. It’s not really worth anything anymore. It’s very personal. I think that running and writing have an awful lot in common. You kind of have to give yourself over to it and you have to think it matters before anyone else will think it matters, and you have to kind of be doing it in a way that’s separate from yourself.

If you watch running, you say, “Well, what is it this David Rudisha doing?” Well, this is a guy who’s going to go to the Olympics and he’s going to win the 800mm. To me, there’s something very pure and outside of subjectivity when you get to that level of talent. I always say I’m more interested in good writing than I am in good writers. When you judge a contest, all the names are gone and you don’t know who this person is, where they come from. You just read paragraph, paragraph, paragraph. And it’s amazing how writing can get beyond the person and just be the thing itself, like running. I don’t know. It could just be that I’m a runner who writes. There are lots of us out there.

BW: While on the subject of running, the story “Miracle Mile” features the following passage about balance: “You have to make choices: you can’t run and be an astronaut. Can’t run and have a full-time job. Can’t run and have a girlfriend who doesn’t run. When I stopped going to church or coming home for the holidays, my mother used to worry that I was losing my balance, but I never met a balanced guy who ever got anything done … You have to sign the same deal if you want to be good—I mean truly good—at anything.” This philosophy seems to fit into what you’re saying about the writing life.

AM: It’s this idea that every activity is kind of artistic. I do believe that and I was trying to hit on this in the book, with the guys who put down the brick [in “Light Lifting”], or the guys who work on the line. Everybody sorts his or her life out according to a principle. And to be really good at anything requires something from you more than it does something from the thing that is out there.

I have friends who are neurosurgeons. They try to get grants for cancer research and whatever it is they work on. And we maybe all go out on a Thursday, and when they talk about whatever the big thing is for them, I can sense from their emotion what they’re saying is a big deal, but I don’t really speak their language. In the same way, they don’t speak my language about 3:34 or 3:36. So I’m interested in how any great achievement has to really become, not antisocial, but something that can’t be shared with everybody.

Eventually, we do get down to the algorithm, or eventually we do get down to just some gene, and that’s not something you can talk to your Aunt Frida about. It requires so much knowledge just to get to the point of significance that a person would need to know a lot before they can see the importance of the little. And that’s what I guess the “Miracle Mile” characters are interested in. If you’ve ever gone to watch a big marathon, there are all kinds of heartily disappointed 2:11 runners. Tons of people come across the line at 2:11 and they’re weeping and angry and cursing. Someone’s trying to hug them and they’re pushing them away. And then they’re all kinds of people coming in at 4:20 with looks of pure (he thrusts his arms in the air and laughs).

BW: Absolutely.

AM: And they’re looking for the camera and they’re posing. So I was interested very much in how something like that shows you the personal index of success and failure versus this other thing. And the other thing is, you know, whatever is happening to those 2:05 runners. I have a friend who was a 2:20 marathoner. He was at a party and someone said, “Oh, you run marathons. What’s your best time?” “Oh, 2:20.” And they were shocked. “I’ve never seen anybody who can run 2:20!” And he said, “Well, I’ll be the fastest person you’ll ever meet, because people who run 2:11 can’t go to parties.” I’m interested in people who sign over their own signifying power, who say, “This is what’s going to matter to me.” Either if it’s model cars, or stamp collecting, or vinyl collections. I’m interested in how they’re doing this more than what they’re doing.

BW: There was a big hoopla here in the US this past election concerning Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s phantom marathon time.

AM: He underestimated how much people have to put in to run a 3-hour marathon. He said, “around 3 hours.” He thought that that might work for the general public-

BW: Which it probably did, but not with the running community.

AM: Well, not even the serious running community. There are people who, in their offices, their whole personality and healthy lifestyle are wrapped up in being “a marathoner.” So when this guy says he runs around 3 hours, they want that confirmed. And when it’s not, it is, to them, very revealing of character.

BW: As a writer who is also a runner, do people read a story like “Miracle Mile” and assume it comes from real experiences, that you really ran the train tunnels?

AM: They always ask. The thing with the tunnel is that people can’t believe that it’s really there. It really is just like that. I find the tunnel is something that’s more interesting to them than the running. And the tunnel is amazing, because, like so many things, it is this totally threatening thing only if you choose to see it as a threatening thing. Otherwise, it’s just banal, something that has sat there forever. But it is there and there’s no fence around it, and you can still go and run into it today. So, I think the reader is shocked both by the story of it and by the fact that it is real. It seems like it should be more threatening than it really is, I guess.

BW: Could you talk about how do you approach scenes of action and tension? You seem to have a gift for slowing time in these situations to great effect. I’m thinking of Mikey and Burner’s race, Stace’s near drowning in “Adult Beginner I,” or even the very brief shark encounter in “Everything Underneath,” which you wrote for the Canada Writes series.

AM: That’s the first time anyone’s asked me that. I’m interested in slow reflection on fast happenings. The happenings are fast, but their significances are slow, and I’m interested in how they would be registered and reported to the reader. Probably when you’re panicked, you’re not thinking like that. When you’re running, everyone thinks it’s super-physical, but your brain is the problem when you’re running. Little significances are coming through you all the time. You can feel a little tight somewhere, and then your brain makes it much worse. Swimming is like that, and I was interested in that [in “Everything Underneath”]: a quick thing happening that fires your whole brain, where your brain realizes this fast thing may be the most significant thing to ever happen to you.

We spend all our time thinking out plots in which we are the main character, or that we’re in control of these actions, and then, boom, the real significant event comes from over here. You don’t have any way to prepare for it; all you can do is respond. And things do slow down when you are responding to an acute event that comes out of nowhere.

BW: “Everything Underneath” came out this past summer. What other writing are you currently working on?

AM: I wrote one story last year that isn’t quite done, but I also have another one coming along that, I don’t know, my stories are always long and this is one of those things that’s on the border of something. I’m definitely not working on a giant project. I don’t know if I’m working on a novel right now (chuckles). I have this story and it may be bigger than I thought it was. But I’ve only written, in the past year, a story and a half and then this monster. That’s what I’m doing right now.

I’m not locked into anybody, which was the same thing that happened with the stories before. I just start working on them, and then when I feel good enough about them, or feel like they’re ready to go, I’ll show them to someone. But I’m not tied into anybody, where they say they need 260 pages by May 1. I haven’t ever done that, and I don’t know if that’s wise or stupid.

BW: How long does it take you to complete a story?

AM: Sometimes that come really quick, and sometimes it takes a while. But never really that long when I know exactly what I’m doing. I spend probably 90% of the time thinking it through, trying to see what the images are—what the first one, middle one, and end one are. I don’t write drafts. Pretty much by the time I get to the end, then I’m 90% done that first time through.

If I was doing it full time, I could probably finish a story in a month, but it’s never full time. I work very quickly when I’m on them, but sometimes there’s older stuff that you just need time away from. That’s what sort of happened with “The Number Three.” That was one that I had to get away from and come back to a couple times. I had that last image of the guy walking, but I didn’t know what the daughter’s role was in that. It took me a while to figure out how to use her. I knew the image better than the characters. So sometimes you need time away to fix things like that.

BW: We’ll finish up with a couple of lighter questions. What are you reading now?

AM: Right now I’m reading Pélagie-la-Charrette, an Acadian book by Antonine Maillet. It’s one of the great, great works of Canadian literature, but hardly anybody knows about it, or they don’t pay attention to it. It’s written in Acadian French and is an amazing book.

As is often the case with my job, sometimes I’m teaching a course and I get to reread stuff in order to teach it or to write about it for an article. I often go back to older stuff. I’m not totally caught up in what the latest thing is, not too much 2012.

BW: What or who inspires you as a writer?

AM: I’m definitely inspired by my dad, mostly for the way he took care of his craft and the way he fit his craft around our lives. I was totally impressed, and still am, at how Dad just does his work. He doesn’t really care, or doesn’t concern himself, with whatever happens to it afterwards. And so I try to do that. I try to keep up with the Lego, keep up with the running. I don’t do much literati stuff. But when I go to work on the literati stuff, I try to go at it like you probably do with your running: absolutely no one cares how fast your Ks are being done except for you. So I do try to be sincere. I know that I have whatever limitations everyone else has, so I try to be sincere. It’s not ironic. I try to be honest with myself when I write, so that I can actually hand it out there and say, “That’s about as good as I can be. I did what I could with it, and that’s what I could do.” So I find my dad really inspiring.

I also find the kids really inspiring. It’s a great privilege to hang out with my kids and their friends and get to that pure moment when people aren’t really self-aware yet. My kids are still young enough, but I can see it dawning on them: who’s the nerd and who’s cool and who’s pretty. But I do really enjoy trying to keep that sincerity. They’re not too hip yet.

— Alexander MacLeod & Benjamin Woodard

————————–

Alexander MacLeod lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and teaches at Saint Mary’s University. His first book, a collection of stories called Light Lifting was published in 2010 by Biblioasis. It was named a “Book of the Year” by the American Library Association, The Globe and Mail, The Irish Times, Quill and Quire, The Coast, and Amazon.ca.

Ben_Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His reviews have been featured in Numéro Cinq, Drunken Boat, Hunger Mountain, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. His fiction has appeared in Numéro Cinq. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.

Dec 052012
 

 

George Singleton lives in South Carolina and teaches at South Carolina Governor’s School For The Arts & Humanities. He is the author of two novels—Work Shirts for Madmen and Novel—one book of writing advice, and five books of short stories, including The Half-Mammals of Dixie, Drowning in Gruel, and Stray Decorum. In 2009 Singleton was a Guggenheim Fellow, and in 2011 he was awarded the Hillsdale Award for Fiction by The Fellowship of Southern Writers.

It was a real treat to talk to George Singleton, a writer I’ve admired since early 2004, when the friend I was with at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville, Tennessee, put a copy of The Half-Mammals of Dixie in my hand and told me how great it was. I sat there in the store and read “It Itches, Y’all,” a story about a kid whose life is ruined after staring in an educational video on the prevention of head lice.  His life-ruining line: “It itches, y’all.”

While talking to Singleton, he reminded me of what another Southern writer, Harry Crews, once said, “Stories [is] everything and everything [is] stories… It a way of saying who [you are] in the world.” George doesn’t have answers to questions—he has stories, stories to illustrate the question and dramatize it. From everything to his stray dogs to his Whitmanian list of items on his desk, George Singleton is the real deal—modest, funny, individualistic—a writer hell bent on preventing you from becoming a rhinoceros.

 

Jason DeYoung (JD): Let’s talk about how Stray Decorum came about.

George Singleton (GS): I have to go all the way back to about 2005 or 2006.  I had this copyeditor who was great, but he had to go off for a while.  He subcontracted my manuscript out to an eighty-five-year old woman who used to work at The New Yorker.  So, she sends back my manuscript—this was for a novel called Work Shirts for Madmen—and she had really changed a lot, especially the voice. One of the big things she changed was when one of the characters said something like, “I only want to go home and take a nap.”  She’d change it to, “I want only to go home and take a nap.”  She kept changing that “only” word—I didn’t realize how often I used it, and evidently incorrectly. And she wrote about the third time I’d used it: “Do you people in the South not know this rule of grammar?”  So then next time she marked it, I wrote “I want only to kill you,” off in the margins.

Well, as I was correcting her corrections, I’d been writing stet. stet. stet. forever.  [Stet being an editorial term for “let it stand.”]  And I mean forever. A bunch of them.  Like if I’d written, “I ain’t got no money.” She’d corrected it to “I have no money.” (Sighs) I’d write: “stet.”

And so I decided to write a bunch of stories about this character named Stet.  And I wrote like fifty of them, and about thirty-five came out in magazines, and I got a collection together, and I sent them to my agent—about 450 pages of short stories.  She said,  “No one is going to publish this.  (And, by the way, George, I don’t even want to try to sell another collection of yours until you write a novel I like.)”  So, I said, “You’ve never liked anything I’ve written, so I break up with you.”

Now I’ve got a new agent—her name is Kit Ward. And she said, “No one is going to print 450 pages of short stories. But you’ve got all these dog stories.” And I said, “I’ve already written a God-damn dog-story book, you know, called Why Dogs Chase Cars.”  And she said, “You can write another one, you idiot.”

So, she’s the one who got Stray Decorum together. And then next year No Cover Available will be coming out, which will be the rest of the stories.

JD: Let’s talk about opening paragraphs. In your story “I Think I Have What Sharon’s Got,”—one of my favorites—you start with what amounts to a page-length paragraph, in which you smash together about eight or ten topics. How do you think about opening paragraphs?

GS: Sometimes, when I’m starting off a story, and I don’t really know what I’m going to write, I’ll just start writing real fast, like a 500-word sentence or something, just to see what comes out of my walnut-size brain. A lot things will show up.  And then I go back, in that 500-word sentence, and say, “Okay, where’s the main conflict?”

What I want to do, most of the time—and it’s kind of cheating—is just get some of that journalistic who, what, where, how, why into the first paragraph, so that the reader will say “I see the direction of this story, and I’m comfortable with that.”  Normally, I do a reader-friendly first paragraph.  Except “I Think I Have What Sharon’s Got” doesn’t follow that model. (Laughs)

JD: I’ve been reading David Byrne’s How Music Works.  In it he talk about how music is often written sonically for the particular space—a club, a cathedral, a car stereo.  Do you have a particular reader in mind when you write, a particular place you have in mind for that reader to be in—including perhaps a particular “head space”?

GS: The reader I have in mind is probably me. And I’m just writing, thinking this may not get pass the vacuum.

I’m not sure there are a whole lot of people out there—and I hope there aren’t—who are like me. So, my reader, in my mind, is a liberal, probably a democrat, probably scratching his or her head, going what the hell is going on in America—this doesn’t make any sense.

You know, I went to see a production of this play, The Crucible. And I thought, this is what’s going on right now in America: People caught up in a fervor. Reminds me of Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros, where everyone is turning into rhinoceroses.  Why can’t we step back and say, “This doesn’t really make any sense.” The reader I’m looking for is that person: the one who is stepping back saying, “This world isn’t making a whole lot of sense.”

JD: And how do you think about structure and building a story?  What’s your “habit of art”?

GS: Consciously I don’t sit down and think, “okay, word 4,000, I need a climax.” Normally, what I’m doing is in my opening paragraph is trying to get the reader accustomed to the water’s temperature and then I usually start off with some dialogue between two characters, and that causes some kind of action, some kind of conflict going on. And then I just kind of see where it goes.  Rarely do I know where it’s going to go, except I usually have a vague sense of the ending.  For instance, if I start a story off in a used car lot, it’s either going to end in a used car lot, or with the characters talking about a used car lot, or driving pass a used car lot.

JD: So, how much revision do you do?

GS: I sort of rewrite the whole time, rereading what I wrote the day before, and then rewriting as I reread.  And then I’ll send it off to a magazine. And the editor will say, “I love the beginning but the ending sucks.” And I’ll send it to another magazine, and they’ll say, “Hated the beginning, but I loved the ending.” And then I’ll go, “You sons of bitches.” And then I might tinker with it some more.

JD: You’ve published five books of short stories and two novels, are you still being influenced by writers you read? And, if so, who are the most recent?

GS: Yeah, of course. When I read a short story and go “God-damn, I wish I’d thought of that,” that’s my highest compliment.  I read like crazy. Just finished a collection by Dan Chaon, and went, “These are great stories.” I’m reading an advance readers’ copy of Jamie Quatro’s new book, I Want To Show You More, and I keep saying, “God almighty, that’s a great story” after I finish one. I read a book of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan called Pulphead, which has a great voice.  But also my buddies like Ron Rash and Tom Franklin.  I read a lot of people who aren’t similar to me. They’re kind of darker, more gothic, and usually not very comedic.  Lewis Nordan is just great.

JD: While we’re on books, what book or books are you an evangelist for?

GS: The Complete Flannery O’Connor I reread over and over.  And, oddly enough, John Cheever, who from a technical point of view is just brilliant.  A lot of times, I’ll ask while writing, How am I going to go from point A to point C?”  And how I do it is a section break, and how Cheever does it is just seamless. But there’s a bunch more—William Gay, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver—and they all, in a way, feed me well.

JD: Some of your best stories, in my opinion, are about fathers and sons, and in these stories the father is usually off-kilter somehow.  I’m thinking here of “The First to Look Away” and “Perfect Attendance” in Stray Decorum but also some stories in previous collections.  What is it with fathers and sons?

GS: When I was about forty years old, I wrote my very first dad-and-lad story, and The Atlantic took it. And I went, Jesus Christ, why hadn’t I written any of these stories before?  They’re so easy. I can dip into the well of my childhood since my father was kind of eccentric.  My father died when I was twenty-four, and he had gone through a shitload. He’d had cancer in 1960 when he was thirty-five, he’d fallen forty-five feet into the hold of a Merchant Marine ship when he was thirty-eight, breaking his hip and back and a number of other bones.  He was a morphine addict. He was an alcoholic.  He had all these artificial hip operations.  And he was kind of nuts—in a good way, though. He made sure I met people in different stations in life. We were a lower-middle class family. So, I don’t have to use much imagination to remember these feelings of a kid—a little bit embarrassed by his father, a little bit curious about what his father is doing—which makes the dad-and-lad stories easy to write and fun.

JD: In “Perfect Attendance” the father gives his son several pieces of advice, one of which is “always have a dog with you…get a stray… don’t go buying some kind of fancy pedigree.”  Is this good advice?

GS: That’s probably just autobiographical. (Laughs) In my experience, stray dogs—and I’ve had a zillion—have been loyal, smart, and not finicky. They’ll eat anything. They’ll eat the worst dog food—George Jones Dog Food or whatever.  Also, it makes me feel better about myself for taking in a stray instead of buying some thousand dollar spaniel. Strays have just been good.  Like us, they seem to be animals who are doing the best with what they’ve got.

JD: You talk about rifle writers and shotgun writers in Pep Talks—which are you? Is one better?

SG: Not sure either’s better.  I’m a shotgun writer because I’m just writing story after story. If I were a baseball player, I’d be a solid .250 hitter.  A rifle writer will bat .500, but it takes a long time. I’m not going to spend six months writing a story, which I think is crazy.

JD: In Pep Talks you tell your reader to keep certain items on their desk—an Allen wrench to remind yourself to tighten up sentences; a picture of a chimpanzee to remind yourself to proofread; a whetstone to remind yourself to keep your wits sharp.  What’s on your desk?

GS: (Laughs) I’ve got my father’s first artificial hip.  I’ve got something called a Cherokee marble that I found in the Reedy River.  My father’s old pocket watch.  I’ve got something… (Laughs) Oh, man, I shouldn’t tell you this. Okay, this comes from a printing press, and it’s from where you put the letters up, and this thing is called a butt plug, and an Allen wrench goes into it to hold the frame onto a printing press. I have a mouthpiece to a tuba I found on Kure Beach. My old stopwatch. A knife. But you know what I’m missing? My grappling hook. I think my dog sitter stole it. Let’s see… A baseball signed by Charlie O’Brien, saying “catch you later,” which kind a cracks me up.  Old feathers.  A Playboy Mansion swizzle stick. An old cat’s paw. A bunch of dog chews for when the dogs come back here.  I have an arrowhead.  My zippo lighter, pens, a dictionary, my father’s other (second) artificial hip—he had a lot of artificial hip operations. I’ve got the top off of something called Begonia Salad that I got in Kentucky—I think they meant baloney salad.  Up above me I have a Howard Finster plywood cutout of Santa Claus, and on it, it says “Santa in the kids’ world. He only teaches kids to be good. He is just another toy.” I don’t know what that means. (Laughs) Is that enough?

JD: Yeah, thanks. I heard that for The Half-Mammals of Dixie you hung around flea markets. Were there places you hung around for this collection?  There are a lot of original bar scenes in this book.

GS: No, not really.  I don’t go to bars anymore, like in town.  If I’m out of town, I’ll go to a bar.  So, I try to get out of town four or five times a week. (Laughs)

No, these stories just kind of came to me.  It’s funny you should mention that about the flea markets, because I’m kind of out of ideas, and have been thinking I should go hang out in bars. But basically I get ideas in Wal-mart, K-Mart, Bi-Lo, which is the closest grocery store. I’ll just walk through there, pick up on the odd things people are saying, and I’ll go, “Oh, I’ve got to go home and write.”

JD: You’ve written and talked about how literary fiction doesn’t sell well.  Why do you think the figures for literary fiction stink?

GS: I don’t know, but I came across this guy the other day who has this novel out, and it’s a detective novel (and I’m not going to say his name or anything).  It’s the worst written thing in the world, and this guy was telling me how to write. He said, “What you want to do is take out all of your adverbs”—which I don’t use that often—“and you only want to say ‘said’ when writing dialogue.”  And then I looked in his book, and everything was “he sputtered,” “he opined,” nothing was like “he said.” So, what the guy was telling me he didn’t do himself. And this book of his is selling well.

My only theory on this… my only analogy is that people in the United States eat a lot more baloney than they do filet mignon, but that doesn’t mean baloney is good for you.  For some reason, people read and eat a lot of baloney.  And I know that sounds highfalutin, and I feel bad about it, but sometimes I just go “Good God, what are these people buying?!” And it’s bad.  And it’s going to get worse because all the independent bookstores are dying off, the newspapers are dying off along with their book review pages. There’s just going to be people going into a big chain outfit and buying whatever they see on that big stand, saying “I’m a big rhinoceros and I’m going to do what all the other rhinoceroses are doing, etc.”

JD: I’m going to ask forgiveness for this next question in advance. You have a lot of scamers in your fiction—at times it seems everyone is on the make.  Is fiction writing a kind of scam?

GS: (Laughs) Man, that’s a good question. (Pause) I guess in a way it is.  You’re trying to put something out there in the world; you’re trying to say, “Hey, this is something you need to read.” Just in the same way, like in an info-commercial, you’re saying, this is a pill you need to take, or this is a chair you need to sit in. In a weird way, it is.  It’s like holding a Tupperware party.  And I’m saying, buy this book, because this is going to be more laughs than you’re going to have otherwise.  Man, I’ve never thought out it like that. Geez, thanks a lot. I’m going to commit suicide—I’ve been a prick all my life. (Laughs)

JD: I didn’t mean to make you re-think your life. But it reminds me of what Annie Proulx says, “I try to make the stories I write interesting and entertaining. I don’t write to inspire social change.”

GS: What I think is that there’s a weird continuum.  If you had a big spectrum, you’d have entertainment on one end and knowledge on the other end, and somewhere in the middle you have what I’m trying to do.  I’m trying to make you laugh and teach something about humans.  I’m trying to get in that middle area.

—George Singleton and Jason DeYoung

 

 

Nov 122012
 

Numéro Cinq is honoured to publish here a wonderfully informal yet riveting and eminently astute (also frank and even funny — that orgasm/musk ox thing) interview with the poet and former Poet Laureate of the United States Donald Hall. The subect matter leaps from sexuality to ageing to metrics to ambition and old friends now gone — just what you might expect from an elderly but seriously ALIVE poet. Anne Loecher is a wonderful interviewer — she holds a poetry MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives not so far away, so she still drops in now and then at residencies which is always a delight. She also knows how to shape an interview, give it an emotional plot, a rare thing.

dg

On an early afternoon in early May I arrived at Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmot, New Hampshire to interview Donald Hall. Hall, born in 1928 in New Haven, Connecticut and raised in suburban Hamden, summers at Eagle Pond, home of his maternal grandparents and place of his mother’s upbringing.  Eagle Pond operated as a farm for generations, up until his grandparents’ time. Rows of bright daffodils lined the driveway, planted there by Hall’s late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, daffodils being among her favorites.

Hall published his first poem at age sixteen, graduated from Harvard in 1951 and earned a B. Litt. degree from the University of Oxford in 1953. He subsequently served fellowships at Stanford and Harvard, and in 1958 began his teaching career at the University of Michigan, where he met Kenyon, who was a student of his.

In 1975, Hall left his tenured position at Michigan with Kenyon so both could dedicate themselves to writing fulltime. After nearly twenty years together on the farm, Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia, and died in 1995. Hall has remained at Eagle Pond since, continuing to write.

Across his writing career, Hall has published numerous books of poetry, prose, literary essays, sportswriting, and children’s fiction,  and amassed a lengthy list of honors and awards including the Lamont Poetry Prize, the Edna St Vincent Millay Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships (1963–64, 1972–73), the Caldecott Award (1980), the Sarah Josepha Hale Award (1983), Poet Laureate of New Hampshire (1984-89), the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize (1987), the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry (1988), the National Book Critics Circle Award (1989), the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry (1989), and the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Silver Medal (1990). He has been nominated for the National Book Award on three separate occasions (1956, 1979 and 1993), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement (1994) and appointed U.S. Library of Congress’ Poet Laureate (2006). Most recently, Hall was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2010.  Writing in a pre-interview email that he might tire out during our chat “If there is one thing I’m constantly aware of – it is that I am old!” – Hall was energetic and animated as we discussed the topics of posterity, reputation, and the conclusion of his poetry writing career.

—Anne Loecher

———

INT:   I’ve been considering the careers of several poets who have drifted in and out of popularity. I wanted to ask you about posterity, obscurity, popularity, and how you feel about it with regard to your own work and reputation.

DH: I have seen so many people become famous, and disappear. If I live to be 300, I’ll see some of them come back. I mentioned Archie MacLeish, who was my teacher. I have doubt that Archie will come back, although he won three Pulitzers.

There were famous young poets when I was at college – Wilbur, Lowell and Roethke. Dick Wilbur is alive at 91, and in January he had a wonderful poem in The New Yorker.

I wrote Dick about the prosody of his poem. The second line has a caesura, after two syllables, the second after four syllables, then after six syllables, after eight syllables. I asked how many people would recognize that metric.

But, there’s William J. Smith, who is older than Dick and lives in the same town as Dick. Back around 1950, Smith was famous as a poet. I don’t think I’ve heard his name out loud since 1970.

Have you ever looked in the list of Pulitzer winners? I think they begin in 1932 or so. See how many names you recognize. There are many I don’t recognize, and you won’t recognize because of your youth.

INT: I’m not so youthful!

DH: Reputations go up and down.

INT:  You’ve talked about The Back Chamber being your last collection of poetry. Did you know it would be, as you were writing it?

DH: Toward the end of the volume, the last two poems that I started for it both began in 2008. I did well over a hundred drafts, and I realized that this was the end. I felt it coming.

INT:  The Back Chamber does not hold back from addressing sexuality, alongside ageing.

DH:  Poetry is sex. And the engine of poetry is the mouth. Not the eye, not the ear. The ear and the eye are perfectly fine, but poetry originates in the mouth. Obviously the mouth is used in sex, beginning with the kiss.

The spirit that infuses me in reading a poet of beautiful sounds, like Keats, is sexual feeling. My poems had a lot of personal sexual feeling well into my seventies, but then I think the testosterone diminished. I felt the horniness going away, for two or three years. I rubbed testosterone into my chest, and it came back for awhile. That’s when I worked on later poems. But the cream diminished in its powers so I stopped.

There was an early poem that Janey (Kenyon) always liked — “The Long River.” I wrote it when she was eight years old. It’s the first poem I ever wrote which began without any notion of where it was going to go.

The Long River

The musk ox smells
in his long head
my boat coming. When
I feel him there,
intent, heavy,

the oars make wings
in the white night,
and deep woods are close
on either side
where trees darken.

I rode past towns
in their black sleep
to come here. I passed
the northern grass
and cold mountains.

The musk ox moves
when the boat stops,
in hard thickets. Now
the wood is dark
with old pleasures.

It’s about orgasm. It’s not about a musk ox. But musk ox is there because it is “SK, KS”. Actually, there’s a kind of meter to this poem, which I’ve never used elsewhere. In English verse, you’re counting volume when you’re talking about stress, or you’re talking about greater volume. “Con-tent” is iambic, and “con-tent” is trochaic. But in English, rather than Greek verse, which the Latins learned to imitate, it was the length of the vowel, not the length of the syllable you counted. In this one, it’s – short, long, long, long/ short, short, long, long/ short, long, long, short, long/ and, short, long, short, long/ and then  short, long, long short.

There are a few lines when it doesn’t really work. I first had “the musk ox in his long head” and I was captivated, and kept going. And toward the end, working on it, or even after I’d finished it, I figured out what it was about. People have not used a sexual word to describe it, but found it sensual.

INT: Was that the first experience you had of moving through a poem without knowing what it was really going to be about?

DH:  When I wrote a poem in my early twenties, I had to know what I was writing about before I started. Stupid: one of the poems from that time came from a definite idea, and it’s there. What the poem’s really about is something I never understood for years. Five years after I wrote it, somebody wrote an article about me, and explained to me what I really meant. It’s called “The Sleeping Giant,” which is the name of a hill, near where I grew up in Connecticut. I had the thought, that if a little kid believed it really was a sleeping giant, it would be pretty scary. Then he’d grow up and know it wasn’t. It was a poem, I thought in my head, about illusion and reality.

The Sleeping Giant (A Hill, so Named, in Hamden, Connecticut)

The whole day long, under the walking sun
That poised an eye on me from its high floor,
Holding my toy beside the clapboard house
I looked for him, the summer I was four.

I was afraid the waking arm would break
From the loose earth and rub against his eyes
A fist of trees, and the whole country tremble
In the exultant labor of his rise;

Then he with giant steps in the small streets
Would stagger, cutting off the sky, to seize
The roofs from house and home because we had
Covered his shape with dirt and planted trees;

And then kneel down and rip with fingernails
A trench to pour the enemy Atlantic
Into our basin, and the water rush,
With the streets full and all the voices frantic.

That was the summer I expected him.
Later the high and watchful sun instead
Walked low behind the house, and school began,
And winter pulled a sheet over his head.

People reading the poem in the New Yorker liked it best among my poems.  I was jealous for my other poems. Then someone wrote an essay, saying that I had written many poems about fathers and sons, but the best one was “The Sleeping Giant.”  It had not occurred to me. It was classically Freudian. When you are a baby, an enormous figure stands over you, not handing you a breast. It’s scary because it’s big. When I read the essay, I was stunned, and I agreed. I hadn’t known what I was writing about. I think that the people who preferred it to other poems didn’t know what it was about any more than I did. It communicated. It’s mysterious, how you can communicate by images, to another person. You can’t do it on purpose.

But, on purpose, you can write something in which you don’t know what’s happening. You can always cross out and throw it away. But that part of poetry – the part where you write things down, that feel right, but you don’t know why they’re right – left me as I got older. I was about eighty. As I said, it’s testosterone. (I tell that to a lot of people, and they want to look away.

INT: I understand that. I write about loss, but I wonder, as I say that, what I would find within my poems if I looked more closely?

DH: A great deal of poetry is about loss, love and death. Death is loss. My poetry has been called elegiac. I can be praising the old farm life, but then something is gone. The praise is love, the elegy is less, in the same poem.

INT: Regarding the issue of posterity, again, in your new poem “Poetry and Ambition” from The Back Chamber there’s a line “…If no one will ever read him again, what the fuck?”’

DH: Nobody will ever know about future reputation.  I began writing very young, with ambition. I certainly wanted to be a great poet. In my day, or my generation, there were so many of us. At Harvard, weirdly enough, I knew Adrienne Rich. We double dated. We got to be good friends, later, not at that time. Robert Bly, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch; I’m missing some. We had the notion – and I wrote of it in an essay called “Poetry and Ambition” – that there was no point in writing unless you were going to be a great poet. It took me some time before I realized that nobody ever knows how they will seem in the future.

Ambition begins when you want to publish a poem in a magazine. Well, I did that when I was sixteen. And then, you wish that you could be published in the New Yorker. Then, you want a book. Then you want a second book, then you want a selected poems. It could certainly all be called ‘careerism. It can also be called ambition, and an eagerness to get better.

My father was the elder son of a self-made man who went only through the fifth grade, and worked for ten cents an hour, then was successful with his dairy business. And my father, being the elder son, could never do anything right. He was beaten down his whole life, which was short. He could never do anything right, and he was discouraged.

My mother came from this place – New Hampshire, where I live. In rural places, women worked as many hours a day as men did. Good God, my grandmother made soap. She churned butter. There was Monday washing, Tuesday drying, Wednesday baking. And at night time – do you see there, in the middle of the ceiling? In every room, there are lights in the middle of the ceiling. Do you know why?  There would be a table in the middle of the room, and a great, big kerosene lamp, and the whole family would be around it at night, the single source of light. My grandfather would read books, not good ones, but books. And as the women talked; they were darning socks, they were tatting, or knitting. They never stopped. That was the way people lived.

So my mother then moved in 1927 to the Connecticut suburbs, where women didn’t work. No married woman was allowed to work. She wanted to ‘pass’. Her New Hampshire accent stayed with her – she said ‘Coker Coler’. She wanted to be a suburban wife, like everybody else, she grew up the oldest sister of three girls. She was the oldest sister to the universe. She was full of ambition. None of it had anywhere to go. So it went to me.

I was an only child. She was ambitious for me, and always pushing. When I started sending poems to magazines at fourteen, they would come back with printed slips. My mother would say, “Oh, there’s a rejection today, Donnie,”   That was the beginning of my career.

When my first book came out, it was reviewed everywhere, instantly, reviews that praised it. And it’s no good. There are two poems in that book, one called “My Son, My Executioner” and “The Sleeping Giant” which I told you about. After the first reviews of praise, there was a second wave, responding to the first wave, that tended to be negative. Some of the negative reviews were certainly right, and they had me walking up and down.

All through my life I have written and published poems which I thought were good and which turned out to be terrible. And it’s hard to believe why I thought they were good at all. Some have held up for me.

INT: Is it possible that it’s a matter of your tastes having changed?

DH:  Oh, it’s also being dumb about your stuff! There was one time I remember sending poems to Alice Quinn, who was the editor at the New Yorker. I had one poem that I was afraid was no good, and I almost did not send it to her. I decided at the last minute – what did I know? It’s called “Affirmation.”  She took it, and published it about a week later. And people all over the country wrote me about it and told me they’d cut it out and put in on their refrigerators, and so on.

INT: What do you think of that poem now?

DH: I was kind of shocked, and convinced that it must be some good. I think that there are two opinions about the ending of it. I thought that one direction was obvious. And then most people took it the opposite of what I thought I’d said. And so many people took it the opposite of what I thought, that I decided it must have been one of those occasions where I was writing with the wrong idea of what I was writing. It begins:

“To grow old is to lose everything.”

I don’t think I was seventy when I wrote that. I’m eighty-three! It’s funny to read. What did I know?

Affirmation

To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.

When I wrote it, I thought when I said, “it is fitting and delicious to lose everything” that my sarcasm was obvious, and that it was all in the one direction, of a lamentation. And then I discovered that people took the word “affirm” as a positive, the reversal of what I thought I had said.

INT:  That’s how I understood it. I didn’t understand it as sarcastic at all. So, if you can never know, does it also mean you can never know if your poem is good?

DH: I guess I’m saying so. A friend to wrote me about it, believing “affirmation” as positive, and telling me I was all wrong, I was sentimental, to be affirmative, because really, only the negative was true. That’s really what I thought I was writing, and that’s why I thought it wasn’t good. Who knows?

INT:  You make some pretty striking points about ageing in your recent essay “Out the Window.”

DH:  In almost any poem that I care for, there has to be a contradiction. If there’s ‘north’ in the poem, there has to be ‘south’ in the poem, or it’s no good. Oppositions. This was a snowy winter, and I kept sitting in this chair, looking out at the birds. I was writing about looking, thinking ahead to spring and the flowers, and it was all very lyrical. I thought: this essay doesn’t have any counter-motion in it, any north to go with its south. Then I went to Washington, and that fucker said, “Did we have a nice din-din?”  I’m so grateful to the idiot. It’s what I needed. That condescension is totally other than the pleasant lyricism of looking out the window. And I think it  made the essay. People say – did you bop him? I didn’t get mad. I was grateful. To Linda he says “Did you have a good lunch?” and he leans down to me and says “Did we have a nice din-din?”

INT: Are you working on more essays now?

DH:  I’m going to do a book of essays. I’ve got a wonderful one I’ve just finished, I think, which is about smoking, when everybody quit. Playboy bought it.

The first essay in the book will be “Out the Window” which was all about being old. The others all will include aging. There’s another one I’m trying to write about poetry readings, where I find it hard to climb up to the stage. I have to sit down when I read now.

INT: When I was driving up here, I noticed the stone fence, and the cemetery down the road. So beautiful. Are there any family members buried there?

DH: No. It is beautiful, this is Wilmot. That graveyard was the beginning of East Wilmot. They were going to build a church – I think it was Methodist – and they started their graveyard before they had built the church. But New Hampshire shrunk. The population was at its greatest about 1855. It went way down, and it’s up again, but it’s all southern commuters to Boston. Early, it was single farms, every quarter of a mile, and pasture land up the mountain. The population dwindled, and East Wilmot never happened. About a mile farther down, there’s another graveyard, and on the right, there’s another church, the South Danbury church. In the South Danbury graveyard, I have a great grandfather and great grandmother. He fought in the Civil War and died in 1927.

When Jane and I were first here, we loved our place so much that we knew we’d stay here forever and that’s why we bought a graveyard plot. It was a positive, not a negative – love and death, this is where we’ll be. She died right in there (motioning to the back bedroom), and I will die in the same bed. My kids and doctor know that.

Five miles the other way, there is another old cemetery right next to the road, where I have great-great-greats. A little farther there’s a big cemetery, begun early in the nineteenth century, holding my great grandparents as well as Jane. There’s Jane Kenyon, 1947 – 1995, and then Donald Hall, 1928 – _,  in a plot at the edge of the cemetery with the great trees above it.

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Anne Loecher is a former Creative Director and copywriter who fled Madison Avenue advertising to work in non-profit communications. Having recently completed her MFA in poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts, she is currently revising her poetry manuscript and writing her first screenplay. She lives in Maple Corner, Vermont (yes, that’s really the name of the town) with her husband, teenage daughter, her OCD beagle and ADD cat.