Mar 012015

diane-williamsDiane Williams photo by bill hayward

Diane Williams studied with Gordon Lish between 1985 and 1986. “I recall his saying that my work was so other? out-there? eccentric? that if he attempted to publish it at Knopf, he might not get any of his other books through,” she says. Lish would eventually get his hands on The Stupefaction, a collection of stories and a novella, and publish it at Alfred A. Knopf in 1996, but not before Grove Weidenfeld published Diane’s first collection, This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate, in 1989, and a second, Some Sexual Success Stories Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear, in 1992. She published two more story collections containing novellas: Romancer Erector with Dalkey Archive Press in 2001, and It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature with FC2 in 2007. Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, a collection of stories, was published by McSweeney’s in 2012, and a seventh collection – its title and publisher revealed by Diane at the conclusion of our interview – is due out next year.

In a review of The Stupefaction, Ben Marcus writes, “These are stories in which every sentence is potentially a revelation, a devastating summation, an entire story smashed together into the confines of a line, a sentence, a paragraph.” Diane’s prose pieces are the briefest of fictions, yet each one covers major ground. Reading her is like being hit on the head. Fundamental requirements of the text are coded, revoked, or absent completely. When reading a Diane Williams story, I am instantly trying to orient myself, locate the contextual connective tissue I need to continue reading. But Diane goes where she pleases, often without warning. She shows us what’s possible on the page, and that to classify her work in any genre would be a futile pursuit.

Diane and I spoke through email in November and December. The following is the result of our exchange.

—Jason Lucarelli


In the novella “Romancer Erector” the narrator says, “I have storyish ideas but no story in me.” Has the real Diane Williams ever said anything slightly resembling this?

Diane Williams (DW): I don’t think I said it. I think Ben Marcus told me this years and years ago. Not one hundred percent sure. We could ask him. Of course, in his case, it certainly isn’t true. It’s crazy brave to say so. I couldn’t bear to say so.

Jason Lucarelli (JL): The genre of short short fiction has been called “a vehicle for expressing all those scraps of experience that are fascinating but too thin for a traditional “rising-conflict-to-resolution” story” by Charles Johnson; “neither poetic prose nor prosy verse, but the energy and clarity typical of prose coincident in the scope and rhythm of the poem” by Robert Kelly; and “a structure of words that consumes itself as it unfolds” by Joyce Carol Oates. Could you take a stab at defining this ephemeral story form?

DW: I admit that the definition of a literary genre doesn’t interest me. Language gathered into a composition is vivid and consequential or it isn’t.

JL: How do you see this type of fiction functioning differently from one that sustains itself for more than a few pages?

DW: Examples of prose fiction (from every or any era) as displayed in nearly identically-sized, squat stacks of text will vary so fundamentally in ambition and quality—topic, music, engineering and structure that their similar height and width are irrelevant tools by which to classify them. Would anyone create a genre for small paintings?—and a special technical term for these? How about giving a Robert Ryman, all white painting (9 ½ inches X 10 inches), Paul Klee’s Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black (15 inches X 15 inches) and Albrecht Durer’s Young Hare (10 inches X 9 inches) the same designation? Further, would you want to ask how these small paintings function differently from Rembrandt’s Man in Oriental Costume (5 feet X 3 1/2 feet) or from one of Cy Twombly’s vast paintings in the Bacchus series (10 feet X 15 feet)?

KleePaul Klee, Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black

JL: It takes me a good while to read through any collection of your “deceptively simple stories.” As I imagine all readers of Diane Williams do, I am constantly re-doing re-read-throughs. Sometimes I feel more barred by these “indigestible remnants” than others. Do you see these barriers yourself, or, how do you see them?

DW: I hope to see these barriers as you describe them—otherwise I’d be stirred up once by the story, but never again. How unlifelike to understand perfectly.

JL: Is uncovering what feels new important to you?

DW: Yes, uncovering what feels new is very important to me. I’ve been advised that boredom is healthful. It defeats me.

The Stupefaction

JL: Reviewing The Stupefaction Ben Marcus writes, “One does infrequently sense that the brevity of a particular piece enacts unfortunate injustice to the world it has started to invoke. At these rare times the length is itself a genre that Williams adheres to over the deeper demands of the story at hand.” I think this appears as a common critique of stunted prose pieces. Two parts: What is your defense? How do you know when a piece is finished?

DW: I don’t have any defense to offer in the face of Ben’s criticism. If, as he says, my stories, in rare instances, fail—likely they do. I celebrate his words “at these rare times.” If such criticism were leveled at all of my work, I’d be extremely disappointed.

Anyone’s short fictions may succeed or fail. We’d need to review specific stories.

How do I know when my story is finished? This is as difficult for me to answer as: how do I know if it began advantageously—or, how do I know if it was carried forward into its most promising direction? These are the ferocious challenges. Which ending to choose is particularly vexing.

I’ve read about a chimpanzee named Congo who loved to paint, and if anyone tried to take a painting away from him too soon, he’d have a tantrum. If, however, he considered the painting completed, no amount of coaxing could persuade him to continue with it. I only pray I’ve inherited the same or similar trait that is of use here.

JL: Many authors I love stick to writing stories. Yet your novellas—composed of hyper-precise shorts—The Stupefaction, Romancer Erector, and On Sexual Strength seem to elongate the “latitude of implication” of your “miniature fictions.” The condensed leanness of the novella seems suited for Diane Williams. Is the novella an underrated form? What are a few of your favorite novellas?

DW: Hmm…a great maxim, poem, story, novella, novel, essay—the great ones—they’re all great. The Pilgrim Hawk—a novella by Glenway Wescott—is a favorite.

JL: When we talk about fiction we sometimes talk about authors who lack plot and authors who lean on plot. If an author lacks plot, what replaces plot? Sam Lipsyte says, “You need motion, of course, always motion, always momentum, motion or the semblance of motion…” What’s your stance?

DW: A splendid plot cannot rescue a project spoiled by deficient language. And, of course, Sam is correct. A reader needs a compelling reason to move forward word to word—some would say even phoneme to phoneme—sentence to sentence.

Tender Heart

JL: After the completion of your first and second books—This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate in 1989 and Some Sexual Success Stories Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear in 1992—you said you saw an “end to a sort of personal evolution” and “certain obstacles…overcome.” Later, your collections Romancer Erector in 2001 and It Was Like My Trying To Have A Tender-Hearted Nature in 2007 seemed like two different artistic feats, with It Was Like My Trying To Have A Tender-Hearted Nature representing a real leap in your story construction in terms of how much you might successfully leave off the page. Do you see an evolution between those books now? What obstacles are recently in your way as a writer?

DW: I looked at the titles you refer to so that I could answer your question with good will and yet am unable to give you my reflections on any artistic evolutions. I don’t proceed with abstract goals and I do not enjoy my own analysis of my work. When I once referred to “obstacles overcome”—I likely meant life challenges.

What obstacles are in my way as a writer? That’s easy to answer. Everything that has ever stood in my way still stands there—insufficient character, confidence, intellect, ingenuity.

JL: As you wrote during your early years at the University of Pennsylvania and later when you studied under Gordon Lish, what authors did you turn to who aligned with your concern for brevity, the least of all the literary devices you leverage? Who do you turn to now?

DW: I’ve never searched out particular writers aligned with my concern for brevity. I have no special concern for brevity. I’d rather view the shape and size of my results as the fruit of the tree. Somebody—perhaps Maillol?—said, “I am like a pear tree. I make pears.” I’d be equally delighted to announce that I am an acorn. At Penn, I read with fascination Chaucer, Cheever, Kafka, Flaubert, James, Shakespeare, Philip Roth, and, god, I am leaving out all of the poets here and an avalanche of other author names—many anonymous. Such a list has always seemed to me impossible and certainly misleading. Early on, yes, when I was writing my first books, I was overjoyed to discover Sharon Olds, Kawabata, Freud, Jung, Davis, and Lish. My taste in literature has always been eclectic. I do love Murdoch, Singer, Anderson, and Brookner. Of course, I am infatuated with every author we publish in NOON and am equally eager to read works of history, anthropology, philosophy, literary criticism, psychology…and so on.

JL: Yet brevity shapes, structures. My fascination with your work is partly because of how much you accomplish in such a short space, and when I think of short short fiction, I think of something Rusty Barnes says: “Somewhere between the linear narrative and the post-postmodern fracturing of narrative there might be a third way, dependent on its brevity as its primary descriptor.” On the other hand, a favorite musician of mine, Ryan Adams, commenting on his 1984 7-inch, says, “The brevity of those songs…is irrelevant to the structure and the content.” And so I ask you: how can this be so?

DW: Perhaps it remains a mystery why—but brevity is impactful.


JL: I understand you were trained as an editor at Doubleday and went on to Scott Foresman. You co-edited StoryQuarterly and are the founding editor of NOON. Who are some of the great editors you have learned from over the years? Who helped hone, specifically, your editorial eye for fiction?

DW: My early assignments often involved radical editing. I worked in educational publishing at J. G. Ferguson (a subsidiary of Doubleday that produced career guidance texts, cookbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries) and I can’t recall much guidance. At Scott Foresman I created primary reading materials and discovered my affinity for what the company defined as the immature mind. Research at the time proved that children under the age of nine could not manage abstract concepts and we were, therefore, directed to keep our language concrete. This meant we avoided history altogether! I have no idea if this theory is still current. In addition, I worked for several years at SRA (Science Research Associates, then a subsidiary of IBM) where I also developed elementary educational materials.

The great editors I have known? Well, of course, Gordon Lish was my teacher and the editor of my fiction for many years. I have often spoken of the cardinal importance of his influence on my writing and editing life.

And who forgets her first published story? Nearly ten years before I studied with Gordon—it was Dan Curley who first edited my fiction—the esteemed editor of Ascent. He informed me that I had managed to interest him in a thoroughly repugnant woman (I had thought she was hapless, but still appealing) and that if I’d make the recommended changes, he would publish the story. He attached several pages of single-spaced line edits.

Nowadays, I am very fortunate when Christine Schutt reads and comments on my new work.

JL: Your work with education materials and the concrete language of your target audience, did this influence your writing then, and was this effect lasting?

DW: I did not write my own stories during this period, so I can’t say.

JL: Can you talk about the importance of frequent contributors to NOON’s success? What do you make of the success NOON brings its frequent contributors?

DW: I am not sure I understand the question. NOON’s purpose is to feature singular fiction. If Deb Olin Unferth, for example, is generous enough to keep sending her fiction to us, then we are eager to keep publishing it. We are equally keen to discover new, distinguished voices. NOON 2015 introduces the first published work of Susan Laier and Mary South. And 2015 includes five first-time contributors: Darrell Kinsey; R.O. Kwon; Erin Osborne; Kevin Thomas; and Kristof Kintera. We continuously celebrate the success of NOON contributors.

JL: I’m excited for the new issue. My question comes from the feeling of opening a new issue of NOON and seeing these familiar contributors. To name only a few of my favorites (because every author in NOON is worth mentioning): Anya Yurchyshyn, Greg Mulcahy, Chiara Barzini. NOON authors share something special. What is it they have in common?

DW: Consummate artistry, courage, ambition.


JL: Are there plans for teaching in the near future? When might a meager me, say, make his way to New York for a class instructed by Diane Williams?

DW: Hardly a meager you! I don’t have any plans for teaching at present, but if enough interested parties were to come forward, I might consider this in the future.

JL: You have a new collection due out soon. Is there anything you’d like to tell us about it?

DW: Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine is due out from McSweeney’s early next January, 2016.

—Diane Williams & Jason Lucarelli

NC jason-lucarelli-2

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.


Feb 012015


This past summer, I reviewed Angolan author Ondjaki’s novel Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret right here at Numéro Cinq. I loved the book, which read like a fun kid’s action/adventure film from the 1980s, and thanks to modern technology, Ondjaki and I began chatting on Twitter after he saw the review. Over time, our conversation—a direct message or email here and there across several months—turned into an interview, which is transcribed below. 

— Benjamin Woodard


Benjamin Woodard (BW):
What drew you into wanting to become a storyteller?

Ondjaki (O): ​I really don’t know. I guess each time someone asks this, a writer lies. I happen to like short stories, tales, and literature in general. One gets caught up in this “thing” of reading, and then eventually comes the writing.​

BW: Granma Nineteen… is only your third work translated into English. How interested are you in having your work translated? Is it important to you to have your stories reach a non-Portuguese speaking audience?

O: I am not that worried about that. I mean, I really think these things [translations] happen as they do, when they do. It’s important to me to be happy with a short story, a poem, a book. Of course translations open new doors. I don’t mean that I don’t care, but “important” could be a strong word. I see it as I write, and then some translations happen. I am happy with the result so far.​


BW: You mention “being happy with a short story, a poem, a book.” What kind of process does a piece go through before you consider it finished? Does it vary?

O: I think it does. And many times I guess it’s a shot in the dark. When and how can one say “it’s ready”? I’ve had things that took me a year or two to “become” ready. And I also have pieces that took five years. Sometimes, when you’re just “preparing” (which I think is also writing), the idea can linger for more than five or ten years. In the end, you have to be happy with the result. But trying to be happy now, and forty-three years from now, it’s a long shot in the dark future…

BW: Branching off of this, you’ve amassed a rather large library of published work already in your literary career. Is seems you must have quite a bit of discipline when it comes to writing. Could you expand on your writing schedule?

O: You cannot imagine how I am laughing right now. Discipline? Me? I don’t think I recognize the word. Not when it comes to writing. I really do a tremendous effort to “wait” for the right moment. I keep working things in my mind, but as for the writing moment I tend to think there has to be some sort of magic. Or not. I convince myself that I write when “everything in me” is ready. I do not mean to bullshit, it’s just what I feel. For now. That’s why, in fact, I love short stories more than the rest. They tell me when they want to show up. Novels, yes, they require some sort of schedule, but it’s more just being available. Waiting. Like when you go fishing or hunting: it’s not about the amount you catch. It’s about the quality of the waiting time. I am still a beginner, but I “began” to understand that it’s important to wait. Just wait. The poem will come. The short story will come. Or not. I think writing is also about learning to be untroubled with both of these results.

BW: What was your literary exposure growing up? The boys in Granma Nineteen… seem to have a steady diet of 1980s adventure films, and their story reads like a children’s adventure film. Do any of these forms of media come into play with your writing?

O: I remember, after Asterix and some stuff like that, reading some “serious” Brazilian authors (Erico Verissimo, and then Graciliano Ramos), and Gracialiano was so powerful and “dry” and sad. But I liked it right away. After, don’t ask me why, I chose to read Sartre. Two or three years later, Garcia Márquez would be the most important of writers. Now, about the movies, I actually forced myself to remember certain films for the book, and that’s also to honor those days in which fiction also came into our lives through cinema and television. By fiction, I mean movies, but also soap operas. And I am aware that these were very important for my generation, so it’s also for them that I include some scenes or movies. It’s also for me: I actually would like to be there right now. If I could use a time machine only once, I know where I would go: a magical place, dusty, yellow, called the 80’s. That’s me. Still today.


BW: How old were you when you read Sartre? That seems pretty intense for a kid to read.

O: I think I was around fourteen. It was…somehow it was different. I remember I got two books at the same time, Márquez and Sartre’s Nausea. I did like Nausea’s main character a lot. He was lonely, he was weird, he seemed to me like a sad real person. I am not sure how much I got from that book then. It does not really matter. Every book is different each time we open it. Not so much the book, necessarily, but we are different readers in different moments of our lives. And I was in that sad mood at fourteen. Right after or right before that, I read The Hermit, the only Ionesco novel. Another sad character, another strange book. It made sense during those days. I am not sure I know why. I am not sure I want to remember why.

BW: Who do you look to as an example of a great writer?

O: I think books are more important than writers. But, right now, I guess there are three names I could not leave out of this answer: Ruy Duarte de Carvalho (Angola), Raduan Nassar (Brazil) and Erri De Luca (Italy). Any of these three (and two are still among us) should have won the Nobel.

BW: What makes you say that “books are more important than writers”? Do you mean that they are bigger than the authors who construct them, or more influential?

O: They are bigger, for sure. It’s what’s within the books that counts the most. Not the writers. It’s the body of a poem, not the hand who wrote it. It’s the memory that we have of a tree or a mountain, not so much the tree itself. Maybe the important part of a book is what you feel (or what you become) while you’re reading it. Do you feel a change in your skin or smile when you read something? Can a few (or a thousand) words change what you feel, what you are? Can a poem convince you that you can fly for thirty-seven seconds? Did you think that you could fly for thirty-seven seconds and a book made you fly for forty-nine seconds? It’s always about the meeting point between you (the reader) and the book. Sometimes, so many times, magic happens in that place.

BW: Does travel influence your writing at all? Am I correct in thinking that you now live in Brazil?

O: I think I live in Brazil now. This is where I stop most of the time. I travel a lot, I try not to, but sometimes I do travel a lot. I don’t know how it reaches my writing. I really don’t. I tend to like meeting new people and seeing cities, but sometimes it’s too much. Too many eyes, too many voices, too many airplanes. So lately airports are strange places for me. They make me sad, especially when I am returning from any place I call home. Luanda is still home for me. It’s a place that stays inside, though I’m not sure if it’s still the real Luanda. I don’t write exactly about the places I visit. Usually it’s more about the remains of those places in me. People. Moments. Trees. Colors. Shadows. Dreams. Hands. Shoes. Fogs. (Secret: sometimes I think I live somewhere in a lost bridge between now and the past.) I spend too much time not in the present. And I pay the price.

— Ondjaki and Benjamin Woodard

was born in Luanda, Angola in 1977. He studied in Lisbon and Portugal. Ondjaki is the author of five novels, three short story collections and various books of poems and stories for shildren. He has also made a documentary film, May Cherries Grow, about his native city. His books have been translated into eight languages and have earned him important literary prizes in Angola, Portugal and Brazil. In 2008 Ondjaki was awarded the Grizane for Africa Prize in the category of Best Young Writer. In 2012, The Guardian named him one of its Top Five African Writers. Good Morning Comrades marked Ondjaki’s first appearance in English. Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret, launcing Spring 2014, is his newest English translation.

Woodard Bigger

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, and Spartan. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, Kenyon Review, Necessary FictionPublishers WeeklyRain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at and on Twitter.


Jan 122015

Chantal Gervais, Karsh Award 2014 recipient. Photo Credit: Jonathan NewmanChantal Gervais, Karsh Award 2014 recipient. Photo Credit: Jonathan Newman

One thing does lead to another and several vectors converge in Chantal Gervais’ body of work from over the past twenty or so years. Look at the big picture of Gervais’ mostly photographic art projects. A strange inter-connectedness emerges starting with her studies of the human body. Through photography she exposes its external strength and frailty in Duality of the Flesh (1996-1997), The Silence of Being (1998-2000), Without End (2003), and Between Self and Others (2005). She then focuses on her own body, starting on the outside using a flat bed scanner to create her version of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and with a further shift from photography to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to expose herself from the inside out in Les maux non dits (2008 – present).

Her video, Self-Portrait (part of the Les maux non dits project), is a finer distillation of that inner self-exposure, and a more personal take of the Corps exile (1999) video of bodies floating, suspended and moving in white light and grounds. And then there is her look at how other life forms suggest intimate parts of the (female) human body as represented in Les bijoux de la chair (1997), and ten years later, in Études de bivalve, a display of splayed bivalvia close ups.

The converging trajectories of the human body explored outside and in, the videos, and the other life forms as representations of things human, appear quite strikingly, if not symbolically, in Transformations, Gervais’ first attempt to document the metamorphosis of the dragonfly from the alien-looking nymph. Where will she take it next? I asked her and she told me when we met at the Karsh-Masson Gallery where her work was exhibited as part of her being the recipient of the City of Ottawa’s 2014 Karsh Award.

Chantal Gervais teaches visual arts at the University of Ottawa and at the Ottawa School of Art. She enjoys engaging in constructive and critical discussions with her students about art and their work. One of her former students, Ottawa artist Virginia Dupuis, found her to be “highly engaged, focused and curious” making Gervais to sound more like a student than a teacher.

Gervais’ undergraduate studies in the fine arts were an eye opener for her. She started in realistic drawing and became attracted to photography as she saw that both art forms required a great level of observation of the world we live in, and photography began to develop in her. Now, in her artistic practice, she pushes the boundaries of that medium by working with flatbed scanners, MRIs, and multichannel videos.

Calling Ottawa home, Gervais grew up in Val-d’Or, in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region of Québec. She graduated from the University of Ottawa in 1993 with a Bachelor in Fine Arts (photography), and four years later completed a Master of Arts degree in Art and Media Practice, at the University of Westminster, UK.

—JC Olsthoorn



Transformation 4:33 minutes, Single-channel, (2014)

JC Olsthoorn (JCO): While watching your video installation, Transformation, just outside the Karsh-Masson Gallery proper, I realized that I didn’t know dragonflies emerged from an alien-like creature, a nymph. Perhaps I should have paid more attention in biology class. You mentioned to me earlier this piece is a first version. What prompted you to create it?

Chantal Gervais (CG): The metamorphosis of the dragonfly made me marvel when I saw it for the first time at the cottage. This radical change of living environment from water to air of the nymph changing into a dragonfly made me think of the human body, from birth and beyond. I was fascinated with the process, the vulnerability, the delicateness of its body and its strength, resilience, and all the energy as well as the raw physicality of the insect going through its extreme transformation. Also, the insect seems to get sporadic spasms just before the dragonfly emerges from the nymph. This whole series of events reminds me of how we are going through different physical and emotional stages through our life – but here it is happening in a very short period of time – yet this insect is one of the oldest on earth. I believe it has been around for 300 million years. It comes from so far away, from so long ago. It’s incredible. There is something really astonishing and ritualistic about all this.

At times the dragonfly reminds me of mythological and religious figures found in Western art history. I can’t say exactly what it is yet, but that’s one of the aspects that I will reflect on further. At every moment, the insect seems unbearably at the mercy of any predators and its surroundings. It appeared extraordinary when it made it through its metamorphosis, but then the water got agitated by passing motorboats. After all this, in an instant a wave was going to end it. That is when the dragonfly flew away!

JCO: And the connection you see to your other work, other processes?

CG: I see the link with my quest to explore the human body as a vessel of lived experience, and my interest in a representation of the body’s corporeality that conveys intense physical and emotional states. I have always been inquisitive of transitional states, and so is my interest with the inside-outside boundary of the body which I find exquisitely explicit and tangible with the dragonfly.

If you look at my early series, The Silence of Being, I used chiaroscuro lighting and cross processing to accentuate the corporeality of the body such as discolorations or blemishes on the skin.

Untitled #4 from the series The Silence of Being, 126 x 96.5cm, Chromogenic print (1998)Untitled #4 from the series The Silence of Being,
126 x 96.5cm, Chromogenic print (1998)

With Between Self and Other, the people I photographed had experienced radical changes to their bodies as a result of surgery, accident and aging. So again, it’s the inside speaking on the outside. There’s something about the relationship between the inside and the outside of the body that I find fascinating.

Untitled #5 (Marina) from the series Between Self and Other,
101.6 x 315cm
3 print of 101.6 x 101.6cm, 3 Chromogenic prints (2005)

JCO: There are linkages and I get a sense of optimism from what you are saying. We have an insect that dates back 300 million years, one that is quite fragile and vulnerable as it transforms. Where are you planning to take it next?

CG: I want to connect it somehow to the human body. I’m not sure how yet. Technically, I know that the recording has to be executed better. The images are too shaky so I will re-film it using a tripod. When recording it, I found myself wanting to capture the transformation from all sides simultaneously. For the next version, I’ll probably use more than one camera with them positioned all around the insect.

I’m not sure yet of its final presentation. Perhaps multiple large-scale projections? When I redo it, I want it to be more poetic. I find it didactic now. Maybe that’s the “educational” that’s coming across. I want it to be a metaphor of the mystery and the complexity of the human body.

There’s a fine line, a red flag for me. As a nature show, it presents the development of the nymph into a dragonfly from beginning to the end and that’s one of the things I worried about. But in the meantime, I was torn because I felt that it was essential to include its complete metamorphosis.

JCO: It doesn’t work the same way as, let’s say, in the video projection Self-portrait from the series The Body Ineffable (Les maux non dits).

Self-portrait from the series The Body Ineffable (Les maux non dits),
1:58 minutes excerpt | 6:28 minutes (looped), Life-size video projection (2010)

CG: In The Body Ineffable video projection, the technology has an immediate impact on the way the subject is performing. The work engages how the technology transforms how and what we see. I mechanically and impartially mapped my body in numerous short 2 minute videos I re-assembled together and layered with the MRIs to reconstructed it.

JCO: Opening yourself up to being scanned or photographed, opening your or someone else’s space for the very different aspects of exposure sets up a vulnerability, does it not?

CG: It is interesting how the content of my work with time became closer and closer to me. I started by photographing professional models for the series called The Silence of Being. After that, I was working with friends and friends’ family members for Between Self and Other. I then turned the camera onto myself with The Body Ineffable and my late father, or rather, the relationship with my father, with the work called Portrait of my father Paul.

What sets up the “vulnerability” is the high level of observation often engaged in my work, not so much the fact that it became closer to me. It happens through the different ways I choose to map, observe, and image different experiences of living. With Between Self and Other, each individual is composed of three photographs, which depict different views of their bodies, which have moved slightly during the same photo shoot. Looking at the composite, these people exist in viewer’s mind, not as a fixed image but a body in continuous movement. Hopefully it keeps a sense of their subjectivity and challenges their objectification. The photographs’ reference to various pictorial genres is also significant…close your eyes and think of someone who is injured or an elderly person…what do you see? I hope the image in your mind is nothing like the photographs included in the series Between Self and Other!

Vitruvian Me is also a composite, one inspired by Vitruvian Man by Leonard Di Vinci. This work is part of The Body Ineffable, which includes a series of self-portraits created from MRIs of my body. When I was in the MRI machine I thought it would be interesting to create an ambiguous border between the interior and the exterior of the body so I scanned myself piece by piece using a flat bed scanner. I then reassembled them in Photoshop. The performative aspect of this work is an important part of the piece. The process involved mechanically and rigorously scanning 4 inch squares of my body to transcript and to compare the composite of scans to the drawing. In doing this, I performed and played with the idea to contain, control, immobilize and decontextualize the body in order to understand it.

Vitruvian Me from the series The Body Ineffable (Les maux non dits), 88.9 x 81.3cm, Inkjet Print (2008)Vitruvian Me from the series The Body Ineffable (Les maux non dits),
88.9 x 81.3cm, Inkjet Print (2008)

300px-Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_ViatourLeonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man via Wikipedia

JCO: Not a comfortable one at times.

CG: No, but it was kind of funny at the same time. I’m a perfectionist. I made sure that every scan was captured properly to then be joined and lined up correctly. I redid it repetitively until I got it right. It is ironic to think that in the end I was never in that position itself.

JCO: It seems like a different type of objectification of the body in your work. Because it is an art piece, and a medical piece in a sense, there’s some distance. And there’s vulnerability.

CG: Yes, and actually my work has always interweaved elements of representations of the body borrowed from science, art and popular culture. With Vitruvian Me, there is a sense of proximity created by the fact that the skin, the scanner’s glass and the photographic surface are all intersecting at the same point physically. The flattening of the body against the glass accentuates its physical properties, and so conveys its vulnerability. And there’s a sense of closeness. It’s interesting because the work is extremely removed from what you see. Again, I’ve never been in this pose, yet it is very convincing.

JCO: There’s no static position. It’s comprised of many static images so you get movement from the “static-ness”.

Self-portrait #6 from MRI from the series The Body Ineffable (Les maux non dits), 72 x 105 cm, Inkjet Print (2008)Self-portrait #6 from MRI from the series The Body Ineffable (Les maux non dits),
72 x 105 cm, Inkjet Print (2008)

CG: The same thing, in a way, with the images I took and joined together for Portrait of my father Paul. After he died suddenly, I was deeply moved by how the interior of his garage where he undertook various daily projects was impregnated with his presence. When photographing his space, I was sentimentally searching for him, wanting to hold in time what I knew was going to disappear forever. I felt overwhelmed, dispersed, lost and worried that I was going to miss something so I did photograph all around and everywhere and at various points of view. Afterward, I decided to present them as a composite to convey a more personal experience, more tangible, to evoke the act of looking or the re-enactment of being in the space, engaging the viewer to another level.

JCO: A hide-and-seek without looking for something?

Portrait of my Father Paul (2), 103.6 x 135.2cm, Inkjet Print (2014)Portrait of my Father Paul (2), 103.6 x 135.2cm, Inkjet Print (2014)

CG: Or looking for somebody that you perfectly know is not there but is so painfully present As Lilly Koltun wrote so evocatively in her text “Why do we think people are where we bury their bodies?” (in “Surgery Without Anaesthesia: Chantal Gervais’ Corpus” by Lilly Koltun. The Karsh Award 2014 Chantal Gervais).

JCO: They are where we are, in a way. Because you are there, he is there. Which is really harder to capture, I suppose, but that’s very personal and that’s your own. As a viewer, we sense that presence, the presence of absence (or hiraeth), in a different way. Your memories are clearly here, your experience, yet it evokes in me memories I have, too, of similar experiences of my father.

Portrait of my Father Paul (6), 104.1 x 73.7cm, Inkjet Print (2014)Portrait of my Father Paul (6), 104.1 x 73.7cm, Inkjet Print (2014)

CG: I’m pleased that the photographs encourage you to think of your own experience. The photographs depict a large quantity of things that my father accumulated over 37 years and so to convey a sense of searching and looking for him, there is one image that I think is important.

Portrait of my Father Paul (7), 104 X 228.9cm, Inkjet Print (2014)Portrait of my Father Paul (7), 104 X 228.9cm, Inkjet Print (2014)

It’s a detail of photograph #7 of the series where I’m present, which allows to make the connection to my father. I just happened to wear a skirt that day. I don’t wear skirts very often. This was such a great coincidence to symbolically convey the connection between father and daughter.

Portrait of my Father Paul (7) (detail), 104 X 228.9cm, Inkjet Print (2014)Portrait of my Father Paul (7) (detail), 104 X 228.9cm, Inkjet Print (2014)

JCO: And the imperfect fragments. You don’t try to overlap them so that they fit. There’s a disjointedness that works.

CG: I’m glad you say that because I did experiment with this. At first, I did overlap the images, changing their transparencies. But it didn’t work because I was weakening the sense of the physical aspects of his space. It became about memory in a metaphoric way. I was erasing the traces left behind by my father. Consequently, I decided to create composites using overlaps without changing the opacity, and including various perspectives and point of views of the same area. This way I keep the integrity of his space to testify my father’s existence in a way.

Portrait of my Father Paul (9), 111.1 x 228.9cm, Inkjet Print (2014)Portrait of my Father Paul (9), 111.1 x 228.9cm, Inkjet Print (2014)

JCO: But the disjointedness has another effect, it makes us work a little bit as a viewer.

CG: And that’s important to me. I am interested in creating a viewing experience, which is active and not passive.

JCO: Exactly. And it’s also reflective of going back in terms of memory. Your memories are here, other people’s memories are here through their own interpretation. And memories are disjointed like that. We remember certain things and not others, so it’s not always transparent and congruous. There are divides to it and there are missing pieces and overlaps and interpretations.

Portrait of my Father Paul (11), 108.5 x 81.2cm, Inkjet Print (2014)Portrait of my Father Paul (11), 108.5 x 81.2cm, Inkjet Print (2014)

CG: I am pleased that you engage in a reflective and personal manner with the work and that the photographs’ descriptive aspects have not led you to a literal reading of the space.

JCO: Is it the same with photographing the space of the human body, your own body?

CG: Yes, even with the video work. For example, the projection Self-portrait from the series The Body Ineffable I used the same approach of depicting systematically and precisely both the surface and the interior of the body. I had the idea for this work after completing Vitruvian Me. This work pushed my reflections about the body and how we perceive and understand the naked body in our society. It also made me think about the relationship between the audience and the body represented. I think to be able to engage with what the images can tell about ourselves, and questions their impact on our understanding of the body, I needed to be both the observer and the observed.

The video is kind of funny in some ways in how I became machine-like or puppet-like, and it could also be disturbing, even troubling in a way, too. Perhaps it humanized the experience and makes people connect with the person represented. Everyone will have a different reaction to it.

JCO: It’s a scan of everything inside and outside and in between

CG: That’s right. You have a woman that is naked inside out!

I spoke with two women when I was documenting my show here at the Karsh-Masson Gallery. One of the women really liked that piece. She had just come from a drawing class and was saying that she had never seen a naked body that is not beautiful. They’re all beautiful, she said, and the second you put clothes on, you perceive the naked body differently. You then decide: Some are beautiful. Some are not.

Isn’t that an interesting thought?

—JC Olsthoorn & Chantal Gervais


Chantal Gervais’ photo and video works deal with representation, identity, mortality and the relationship between the body and technology. Her work has been featured in numerous exhibitions across Canada and abroad. Solo exhibitions include Harcourt House Gallery in Edmonton; McClure Gallery and Vidéographe in Montreal; Galerie Séquence in Chicoutimi, Quebec; Art-Image in Gatineau, Québec, and Carleton University Art Gallery and Gallery 101 in Ottawa.

She has regularly spoken on her work at institutions including the National Gallery of Canada and the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London, U.K. In 2104, she was the City of Ottawa’s Karsh Award recipient, and in 2002, the Canada Council for the arts’ Duke and Duchess of York Prize in Photography. Several Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council for the arts and City of Ottawa grants have supported her artistic production. She received a BFA in photography from the University of Ottawa and an MA in Art and Media Practice from the University of Westminster in London, U.K. She has been a board member at local artist-run centres including Daimon and Gallery 101 as well as teaching for over a decade at University of Ottawa and Ottawa School of Art.


JCOlsthoorn Photo by L. Cabral

JC Olsthoorn spends time at the Domaine Marée Estate near Otter Lake, Quebec, writing raw poetry, creating coarse art and cooking scratch food. His poems have been published in a chapbook, “as hush as us” and have appeared in literary magazines. JC’s artwork has been exhibited and has appeared in several publications. He is wrapping up a 30+ year career in communications and citizen engagement just in time to become a curator at the Arbor Gallery – Centre for Contemporary Art in Vankleek Hill, Ontario. His first show is the gallery’s sixth annual EROS 2015, an exhibition of Erotic Art, opening in February.


Jan 082015

Author photo of David Shields, 2012.


The British writer Graham Greene allegedly wrote five hundred words a day and not one more. He met his quota by noon, leaving him free in the afternoon to tipple martinis and hustle the disaffected wives of diplomats and spooks in various exotic hotbeds of the Cold War. It was the writer’s life writ large.

We are now living in the fiction writer’s age scribbled small. There are more writers, it seems, emerging from more MFA programs only to serve fewer readers. And writers seem to have lost confidence in their task, both to have a life away from writing or having a writing life that attract readers. One guy who’s got this sorry state of affairs beat is David Shields. Over the past fifteen years, Shields has written/co-written/co-edited—authored?—eight deceptively accessible experiments in written performance art that combine autobiography, free associating erudition, and cultural scavenging. With impeccable timing, he turned his back on fiction, only to create his own genre of writing that, one suspects, has more than a touch of fiction to it.

In his compelling new book, I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, Shields uses a former student, Caleb Powell, as a shadow boxer for Shields’s performance of self. The two steal away to a cabin, surrounding parks and small towns outside of Seattle for four days to muse on domestic life, American military misadventures, writing, masculinity, mortality, and making sense of the daily absurdity of existence. Once you’re past the thudding metaphor of a chess match on the first day, the two reveal themselves as highly complementary and intriguing battlers. Powell is almost a Portlandia cartoon, a gabby stay-at-home dad with a writing career stuck in second gear, various pop culture obsessions, and a hard-charging wife who was once married to a closeted homosexual. Shields, in sharp contrast, is a low-temperature nudnik who knows he’s playing a game that he’s sure to win. He’s prickly, dismissive, yet almost always on the money. Even when Shields says he’s ready for bed, you suspect that it’s more of a tactic than the truth, as if he’s able to shut down his confessional mode while Powell suffers a compulsion to keep blabbing. These are men for whom cool is a quixotic quest yet their very lack of cool is exactly what makes them such vexing and entertaining company on this anti-Gonzo road trip.

—Timothy Dugdale


Timothy Dugdale (TD): What is about the chatting buddy concept that attracted you? I have to say I’m struck just by how skittish Caleb is compared to your much more measured, albeit calculating sense of self. He seems much more beholden to his generation’s anxieties and fetishes and even sexual confusion.

David Shields (DS): I’ve always loved the idea of the book as argument—going from Socrates v Plato to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern to Didi and Gogo to Car Talk. Dionysus v Apollo. Life v Art. A self and other. The soul and its doppelganger. I was very interested in having someone call me out on my aesthetic and all the choices I’ve made in my life; I wanted to see if I could defend myself to self, and to my anti-self, Caleb.

I’m not sure about generational differences; Caleb is only 13 years younger than I am. It’s more what you call “calculating”; since my book Remote was published nearly twenty years ago, I’ve been fashioning my life and myself into a stylized self.

TD: Do you think the concept is currently having “a moment” in the culture and why?

DS: I see it everywhere, e.g., the recent movie Land Ho!, but I always just assumed it was my antennae being particularly attuned to this framing device. If it is having a moment, I wonder why that might be—perhaps having to do with the virtuality of culture and the way in which we’re all talking to a screen-self?

CalebCaleb Powell

TD: There’s Steve Coogan road trip thing from Britain where he and a friend drive around to various Michelin starred restaurants and have conversations on camera. They’re pretty twee but interesting.

DS: Well, sure, we talk at length about Coogan and Brydon in the book and in the film. Other examples: Sideways, the DFW-Lipsky book [Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself] (which is also apparently becoming a film) so many other examples. I wonder if it’s influenced by radio. I’m weirdly addicted to sports talk radio especially when the two hosts have or pretend to have competing personalities. What is it in the culture that craves this? I think it’s American loneliness. It’s a way to get to “the other.” The whole idea of “no one goes bowling anymore.” Here’s a chance to break out of the carapace of selfdom.

TD: I heard an interview with William Shatner in which he said there are really two Shatners, the performative one (William) and the “real” one (Bill), yet any time I read a profile of him, he is clearly performing for the writer because invariably the theatre of the profile takes them into public spaces where Shatner must be Shatner. How much “real” Shields is in this book? I know at the beginning you attest to the goal of putting it all out there.

DS: I am putting it all out there, as is Caleb, but it’s undeniably a performance. First, when we talked, we were performing for each other. Then we edited the thing to within an inch of its life. And I was hyper-aware in the edit not only of the life-art debate but also of the ways in which each of us is representative of a certain way of being; as such, each of us was performing a thematized role (again, Life v Art), and we knew what role to play and keep playing and complexify. It’s both completely unbuttoned and a formalized unbuttoning.

Book cover

TD: You’ve said that the camera had no real effect on you but, looking at it now, how did the camera influence your “performance”?

DS: James Franco’s film adaptation was done two years later; we had hoped, with the film, to replicate the originating debate, but we wound up throwing out the entire argument when a major argument broke out on the set between me and James and Caleb—over what could and couldn’t be “used” from real life in the movie—and the argument was the perfect holding tank for an even “rawer” life-art debate.

TD: In a sense, James Franco is emerging as a sort of “reality hunger” avatar and you’ve clearly made a connection to him. I know you don’t often write about this, but what role does a common background as secular Jews play in your relationship?

DS: Hmm. That’s interesting. James and I are from the same part of the country—the Bay Area, in particular, the “Peninsula.” I grew up in San Mateo and James grew up 20 minutes away in Palo Alto. He’s more than twenty years younger than I am, but perhaps being secular Jews has something to do with the connection. James was my student at Warren Wilson College, and it’s my sense that we connected via our shared interest in emotional nakedness, awkwardness, revelation, self-exposure.

TD: What other avenues of your work are you exploring with James Franco? What are the targets of these collaborations?

DS: I’m working with James on two other films right now: an adaption of my book Black Planet. This is sort of Spalding Gray meets Errol Morris meets TED talk meets Doug Stanhope. I try to explore the irreducibly tragic nature of human tribalism, comparing 1994 and 2014, the Sonics and Seahawks, America then and now. The film is called Return to Black Planet: The Dream of a Unified Field Theory (of Love). I’m sort of excited about it, nervous about it. It gets into some extremely uncomfortable territory. We’ve shot this film and are editing it now. We’re also adapting The Thing About Life is That One Day You’re Dead into a film. I’ve written the film treatment with a few other people, and we’re preparing to shoot it sometime this fall or winter. It’s a movie about James and me trying to make the movie and, in so doing, we explore the very complex legacies of our fathers, the drive to create art, our fear of madness, and our being half in love with easeful Death, to quote my good friend John Keats, isn’t it? We’ve finished the film of Totally Wrong, I’ve watched it and love it, and we’re expecting it to be released sometime in 2015.

TD: Can the performance of autobiography be “too much” sharing to the point that even the most gut-wrenching details or piercing insights become banalities?

DS: Of course; 95% of “memoir” is just that; I’m not interested in memoir, though, as I say to Caleb; I’m interested in the book-length essay, especially book-length collage. There’s the difference between life and art in the contrast between, say, Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians and everybody else’s grief memoir.

TD: Collages, to my mind, require a fair bit of work from the reader to bring the work together in their own mind. Is that your aim in these projects?

DS: I’ve been working in literary collage for twenty years. Literary collage reaches back to Heraclitus and up to Manguso, whose amazing new book, Ongoingness, is forthcoming soon. It’s an ancient form with particular application now, having to do with hyperdigitization, multiplicity of platforms, and warp speed of culture. Collage, as I like to say, is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled. (Nor for the readerly disabled.) It’s a demanding form for reader and writer, but then so is Christian Marclay’s The Clock.

YouTube Preview Image

TD: What do you see as the future of celebrity in an era of “reality hunger”? Or have we moved so far beyond the “star” that we now only have “quasars”, as James Monaco would put it?

DS: I like that—quasars, not stars, but what does it mean? Fifteen seconds of fame rather than fifteen minutes? You and I originally traded email when you read my book Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity in 1996, but I’m not hugely interested anymore in celebrity as a topic. I think digital culture has completely reshuffled what people think about “celebrity,” don’t you? Everybody is a star of their own selfies.

TD: I find the photo bomb more interesting than the selfie.

DS: Exactly. The photo bomb is politics by proxy.

TD: It’s a calculated imposition on the individual selfie and an indictment of the selfie as cultural practice.

DS: I suggested to Franco that he ask everyone who takes a selfie with him (which is pretty much everyone he ever encounters) to send their selfies to a dedicated site, then he could curate this site into a self-portrait in a convex mirror and also a meditation on quasars (see above).

TD: I know you’re a fan of Bill Murray and I’m wondering what you think of his ongoing public performance as a “reality hunger” fairy godfather, popping up here and there in strangers’ events. I remember him as being far more angry and less sad or crypto-Buddhist.

DS: Isn’t he endlessly cashing in, though, on his celebrity in this way? How else would he enter these events? The rage is still there; he’s furious, which is what gives the comedy its edge. Everything I know I’ve learned from comedians—from the Book of Job to Amy Schumer. I wrote a very long essay about Murray maybe a dozen years ago in which I explored how he transforms gloom into antic comedy; the latter is, of course, only an instantiation of the gloom. The best thing Murray ever did, in his own estimation, is his guest color commentary at a Cubs game. I have the videotapes if you want to watch. It’s really lovely: he’ll talk for five minutes about a hot-dog wrapper making its way through the stands.

Reality Hunger

TD: You say you’ve lost interest in fiction, but there must some kind of fiction that is able to so artfully be the “lie that tells the truth” that it is better than the truth or reality?

DS: Yep, I’m not interested in truth or reality per se. I’m interested in work that frames itself as essay. The essay has as much poetic imagination as any novel, but it’s organized as a meditation. Every book-length essay from Thucydides to Annie Ernaux is full of poetic liberty-taking. What I like is a dwelling down in consciousness—the attempt to alleviate loneliness via “self-deconstructive nonfiction,” to use a wonderful term of Alex Pappademas. I love a lot of novels, but they’re all almost exclusively consciousness-drenched works: Melville; Proust; Sterne; etc.

My argument—some of this comes via David Foster Wallace—is that we’re existentially alone on the planet; I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling. And you can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling. Writing, at its best and most serious, isn’t narrative entertainment but is a bridge constructed across the abyss of this human loneliness. The work that I love best, that I think constructs the most exciting and durable bridge, is work that is manifestly—in its every line—about how the writer is solving or not solving the question of being alive. Samuel Johnson said that a book should either allow the reader to escape existence or teach him how to endure it. And I’m gigantically in love with books—from Lucretius to Simon Gray—that attempt to do the latter. That’s the tradition to which I’m trying to contribute, for better or worse.

—David Shields & Timothy Dugdale

Timothy Dugdale

Timothy Dugdale is a veteran copywriter and brand manager. He writes existential novellas and poetry as well ( He records electronic music as Stirling Noh (


Dec 042014

139056374STranslator David Need


When poet and translator David Need began translating Rainer Maria Rilke’s French poetry in 2001, it was in part an attempt to get closer to one of his favorite writers, to fashion a “close workshop with someone” of remarkable ability. Rilke’s often-overlooked second-language work presented a convenient inroad for Need, whose proficiency in French at the time exceeded his knowledge of German, the poet’s first language. This practicality proved fortuitous as he began to focus his attention on a discreet series of short “rose poems,” written by Rilke in 1924. Need felt the rose poems constituted a unique arm of Rilke’s oeuvre, one that if considered on its own terms can be found to contain the generous whole of the poet’s vision in miniature. As he continued to translate Rilke, completing work on the rose poems and moving on to the German material, he began to incorporate his ideas on Rilke’s aesthetic into a book that would present a variety of the poet’s German and French pieces along with an essay and commissioned ink drawings, all serving to support a thesis embodied by the heart of collection: the rose series.

Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is first and foremost a set of fine translations. Each two-or-three-stanza poem in the rose series is given its own page opposite the French original, which encourages the reader to proceed slowly and attentively. If one wants to stop there, satisfied with Need’s fresh take on these under-read poems, the book is a worthwhile read, an enlivening encounter with one of modernity’s greatest poets. But a patient reader eventually realizes that Roses, like the flower that inspired Rilke’s meditations, is constantly seeking to open up for us toward a more potent aesthetic revelation. This is because Need has invested the book with a varied and generative infrastructure that forwards a larger argument through a series of dialogues. Most conspicuous in this regard are the 27 sketches by artist Clare Johnson that react to each brief rose poem with an image that engages the text, but does not attempt to “portray” its content in an overtly literal or didactic way. The images, which range from atmospheric depictions of silhouettes on a city street, to rain-streaked windows, to abstract patterns, act out of Johnson’s response to widen the confines of the multi-media dialogue. The sketches echo the poems and in so doing help us to reconstrue their meaning. Another important interlocutor in Roses is Need’s essay, “The Room Next Door: The Impossible Affordance of the Rose.” The essay is a convincing distillation of the translator’s ethos that considers the influence of Aestheticism and figures like Rodin and Cezanne on Rilke’s vision and situates the poet’s artistic response within a millennia-old incantatory tradition in poetry that goes back to the Rgveda, India’s pre-Hindu epic written around 1400 BCE. Need argues that Rilke uses the rose motif to take a firm stand against the reduction of the material to a kind of impenetrable surface, urging us to consider the ways in which nature creates room, or “affordances,” for the various—at times contradictory—facets of our being. The combined effect of the essay, sketches, and poems is one that collaborators across genre and medium strive for: a ringing of distinct yet concordant tonalities that elevate the piece to something more than the sum of its parts.

David Need teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. A specialist in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, he sees confluence in philosophies of religion and art and often speaks of them in overlapping terms. It’s a point of view I found instructive when I was his student at North Carolina State University in 2003. We’ve kept in touch over the years and, upon learning of the publication of Roses, I was eager to set up an interview. He invited me to his home in Durham, North Carolina, where we talked at length about Rilke, translation, and the implications of an existence that might somehow be, in the poet’s words, “Infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.”

—Dan Holmes


Dan Holmes (Holmes): What brought about this turn toward translating in earnest? How is this situated in your creative development?

David Need (Need): There are two parts to that. One is that I think it’s always good for an artist to be working in two modalities. It’s important to think about your medium in a couple of different ways, or to think about a problem in a couple of different ways. I’ve noticed that when I spend time doing a lot of singing, I start to have ideas about writing that are new and fresh. There’s something about the singing that presents a set of problems to me, like problems of rhythm or problems of shape, but it presents them in this other form. Then when I come back to write, the music of the writing is being informed by what I’m doing with the other thing. For me it doesn’t happen just by listening, I have to be involved in some kind of making. Same thing with translating. Translating gives you this really close workshop with a particular writer’s language. When you translate really good writers you’re getting a close workshop with someone whose ambitions or skills in poetry is extraordinary. In translation, you get what’s going on completely, but you have to make some decisions about it. And in some ways those are the same problems you have with respect to your own gestures and skills. When working on my poetry, I can pull out an image and put it down, but I learn something from working with Rilke about how heavily to weight that image. And I learn other things, like, reading him I’ve learned he leaves messy things in his poems sometimes deliberately. He just leaves little thumbprints and you know he’s clearly got an ability to be smoother and it hasn’t happened there. That was an important lesson for me: that I didn’t always have to smooth and that I could mix diction at times if that was the way the poem was emerging.

The other thing is that I think any art is basically translation. Talking now, I’m translating. When I’m teaching I’m constantly translating—that’s all I’m doing. I’m standing in front of a class, I’ve got this body of information I’ve been interpreting, then I’m putting it into forms for the students, and their ability to understand this stuff is related to the reading they’ve done, and what they bring to the class, how old they are, the ideas they already have about spirituality. I have to see those and figure those out and translate to them. Also when I’m working with different religious traditions I’m constantly needing to translate, from talking within a Christian context to talking within a Buddhist context to talking within our context here—it is a lot like translating. “Now I’m in this field. Now I’m in this location. And this is the way you think inside this situation.” I have a sense of the world, or music in the world, and I’m trying to get that vision or image to happen for you. There’s a translation or a telepathy there that happens in the reading. I know as a reader and writer that’s what I’m looking for—to make other people see things that aren’t visible commonly but might be common in our imaginations.

Holmes: I can imagine two approaches to translation: one is to render as clearly and accurately as possible what you’re seeing within the context that you understand the writer wrote it, and one is to draw out the germ of it and further express it.

Need: I’m a really more the first kind of translator. A lot of times when I’m looking at other people’s translations, I’m impatient if I see they’re getting away from the word count, the words that are there in the original. If there is any “thing” that the poem is, I don’t think it’s the ideas, or only the ideas—I think it’s the words. The words are these little material edges that are the latticework of the poem that the reader catches on. Some people that have their own lyric sensibility take a poem and say, “I see the image and I’m going to render that image in my own lyric terms.” I’m not comfortable with that. I think it brings too much of your own reading to the material and doesn’t leave the material open enough in something like its original form.

The people that I’ve translated so far are good for the kind of translation I do. I have a lyric sensibility, so when I’m faced with choosing some words, I go for a quiet music that will work as a poetics for the reader, so it will read lyrically. But the word count and the grammar I’ve almost always just transformed it into an English word count, and grammar and line count, and things like that. Rilke is not a poet where there’s a lot of punning. He tends to use words directly and simply so he’s easier to translate. I can establish a word without worrying about the fifteen meanings the word Rilke chose in German has that a reader might pick up. Celan has been more challenging for me because there’s a lot more play going on and what’s worse, or better, is that Celan is a translator, so the puns aren’t even just in German. He’s constantly making these really wicked puns with English and English phonemes that are buried in German and French. So sometimes I find that I actually leave the third language or fourth language that he’ll use, and I don’t translate it. I’ll run into objections with readers who don’t want to put the time in. But if that person is interested and curious then that little thing—which is like a little smear that Celan has left there because he shifted into the other language—will look like a smear instead of being fixed out of being a smear. There is a way in which that multilingual capacity can grow in a reading and still be connected to the writing that he does.

551-12.jpgRainer Maria Rilke

Holmes: Rilke wrote these poems in French, which was a second language for him. Is that different for you than translating a German Rilke poem?

Need: Not in the end. When I first sat down and did it I didn’t have German yet. I had the sense that the French was a little strange, but I didn’t try to do anything to make the strangeness apparent. I just translated the weight of the language. My approach is the same with German. I’m not as comfortable in German so I have to do more dictionary work and I have to go, “Okay, that’s a dative” and work out what all the grammar is, but my approach isn’t that different. He’s not a completely different person in French.

Holmes: Like Beckett’s French. It feels to me like a second language.

Need: Yeah. And there’s been some great second language writers like Conrad, who are just unbelievable, but there’s a little bit of the haunt of it, that fact that it’s a second language. Or Kerouac. People are starting to focus on that, that he is actually a second language writer.

Holmes: What drew you to the rose poems? Have they been neglected? Are they emblematic of your aesthetic in some way?

Need: I did work with them because they were in French, and they were a discreet set, and because I like flowers and they haven’t been translated that much. So French because back then I didn’t have German and I wanted to work with some Rilke. Roses because it’s a discreet set and kind of simple. And I have a bit of a disposition to the pastoral. So the rose works for me at the level of motif. I’m similar enough for finding floral or seasonal things as the beginnings for certain kinds of meditations. There was a rapport there.

I translated them back in 2001 and even then I was beginning to develop an argument about Rilke in relation to contemporary poetics. So there is actually an aesthetic argument that I’m using Rilke to make. I think when it comes down to it it’s the idea that post-60’s and 70’s there was this turn to the surface in poetry. To lots of attention to the surface and a distrust of any kind of depth at all… a criticism of depth as always referring to the romantic subject that we were supposed to dispel as good progressives, because somehow the romantic subject was this feudal encrustation that could only create bad things in our relationships with other people. So I already knew that in Rilke I had somebody that I could use to argue for interiority—for the aesthetics of interiority. In the writing itself, right from the first one he says, “Rose you’re this thing that’s infinitely unfolded and absolutely withdrawn at the same time.” That really fit with ideas that I was having at the time about the human situation, that the human is a being who has this exteriority that continues to unfold; there continues to be this play on the surface, but there is also this interiority that never gets completely seen by anyone else or even by the person, or gets completely exhausted. That seemed to be really important in terms of arguing for a place of freedom despite the way people were thinking about language and culture, because so many people felt that we were in this hegemonic era with commercial culture dominating all production and value and I felt: no, that’s not quite true. We’re buying into and shutting off access to something within ourselves that we shouldn’t cut off access to, that actually is freer that we imagine, but also at stake. And what people who want freedom can never quite understand is—and obviously this reflects a kind of commitment but—we don’t have some kind of “drive your car in all directions without ever having to be accountable to anything” kind of freedom. We have life, but we’re in relation to others and we’re always at stake in those relationships.

Rilke just seemed to be another person coming out of modernity—early on in modernity—who seemed to be really caring about the world, and arguing that the lyrical and what we feel as beauty and desire are not to be shut off, or cut apart, or dismantled because of the harm we do each other. We have to work hard to make the choice not to harm each other. And I felt like a lot of peoples’ construction of interiority and the unconscious has been wrong, so I felt that the rose poems were a good small vehicle, a simple study, that were themselves making an argument that was consistent overall with the way Rilke used the trope of the rose in his work. The idea I’m arguing I think is an idea that was Rilke’s, actually rooted in what he was doing with the rose.


Holmes: Do you see the Rose poems as a culmination in miniature of Rilke’s vision? Or an anamoly?

Need: I think it’s a miniature. He finishes the Duino Elegies and writes the Sonnets to Orpheus in 1922 and he spends a lot of the rest of the year finishing a translation from French of Paul Valery. There are two things that are going on: he’s already starting to work on ongoing lyric projects in German. One of the things I translated (for the book) was actually a suite. Most of the poems are from ’23 and ’24 in German and he put it together at the end of his life and gave it to his publisher as something to bring out for the estate. And there are about 80 poems there. He was working in German but I also think he got the idea from working with Valery to do some studies in French. And he had started doing the Valais Quatrains within about a two-week period. They were studies. I think he was a good enough artist to apply himself to a material. But not just any material; it was one of his leitmotifs, something he’d brought up at different times to try and make a certain kind of argument. And that argument is there again in miniature. It’s almost like somebody who had been painting larger scale paintings of roses decided to do a series of line drawings. That’s not because he doesn’t want to do the big project. It’s because he’s decided to do a setting that’s a line drawing setting. So I see this as yet another setting.

A lot of them are what I call—and I think this is important regarding surface and depth—a lot of them are half-sonnets. Not “half,” but what you can call broken sonnets. He wrote often in the Italian sonnet throughout his life, and once he found the Italian sonnet it appears in all the published books. Not all of the Rose poems are broken sonnets, but many of them are just two quatrains, which means for the Italian sonnet he didn’t add the two tercets at the end. But I feel like he was still thinking “sonnet”. He just drew the sonnet that far and then left it blank, so it feels to me like he drew in the visible part of the sonnet and left the turn part not visible. They weren’t casual at all. He was still working and thinking on a project that was related to the ideas he was working on in his life.

Holmes: Rilke describes the rose in #3 as “Infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.” He’s always showing us the rose as paradox, as something interior that is inseparable from its surroundings. He considers the relational nature of “features” and forms in order to glean something of their essence. Can you talk about what you think he’s doing by setting up and undermining these dualities?

Need: Thinking in terms of antimonies is characteristic of human thought. Certainly in Europe post-Hegel, thinking in terms of antithesis tended to be a mode of thought that people thought was a real structure. Any kind of opposition you found, its resolution would be in this dialectical process. That’s how you worked with problems like the tension between mind and body, or spirit and body, or life and death—any thing that you could think of in those terms. I think lyric poetry in general, and post-Romantic poetry, was trying to argue for a different status. To actually argue for “both/and” rather than a conflict. Even though Hegel’s model—thesis, antithesis, synthesis—moves towards a “both/and,” the synthesis actually erases the difference. I think Rilke was really interested in the fact that another way of thinking would say that impossibly we were “both/and.” So his problem is how to get us to break the Hegelian way of reading, or to recognize that there’s another way to resolve that kind of antithesis.

Hegel’s model is a very combative model. It’s a model of unresolvable antagonisms. It can’t imagine the resolution. Rilke is trying to say “I want to have a relationship to the world that doesn’t erase it. I want to have a relationship to other people where I’m not taking away the space or being taken over. I want to somehow be in a situation where impossibly this difference can exist, together.” So I think he’s presenting us over and over again with a problem, but also trying to get us through contradictions to consider impossible things, such as the possibility of being “infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.” We’re encouraged to think of both of those at the same time. And we could be like that. We are fundamentally limited by being incarnate at the same time we have openness in us. It’s not that one or the other wins, but that we’re impossibly both of those things.

Holmes: Had he read into Eastern religions at all? That cutting away of dichotomies is an insight that I associate with that kind of thinking and it’s interesting if he had that insight on his own. Had he read any of that?

Need: No. The stuff he writes about the Buddha is not…it doesn’t look to me like he read the material about Buddhism. I take Buddhism as arguing for both/and but a lot of people take Buddhism as arguing for just one. Just this. I think Buddhism is saying that impossibly there is both form and emptiness at the same time. And that it isn’t possible to work it out, but you can bear or realize that, impossibly, appearing forms are what they are without any grounding and it doesn’t hurt.

pic1Illustration by Clare Johnson

Holmes: These poems feel linked to me, almost like a single poem of many stanzas. Some of the most gratifying reading I had was when I would read it for a long time and feel the perspective shift just enough; it starts to mount and become a larger aesthetic experience.

Need: He’s a suite poet. He composes suites. All of his books are set up—this one feels musical to me—but other ones are set up as picture galleries, where you’re supposed to walk through and see this image and then that image and then that image. Each poem has a setting in relation to the other ones. He thought a lot about that. And it is really gratifying. There is an intelligence about theme and variation that I’ve been moved by in my own life. I can’t imagine trying to write any longer except in that way. He recognizes that any poem is a version, and therefore what links the poems is the project of starting out. The series of poems don’t have to be about a particular argument. They’re essays, and they can be linked essays by which you don’t just tell people there is a series of infinitely repeating moves. The one freedom we have is that when we’re crossing the street, and we’re doing the street-crossing routine, we can shape through “crossing the street” in different kinds of ways. In the same way, when you’re working with “the motif” you can show an interesting aesthetic freedom by showing there are a number of different aesthetically valid ways through this space. Like when you go through a well-hung show at a museum, you feel instructed by it. It’s an experience that has informed you beyond what any one poem could do.

Holmes: There seems to be a larger ontological inquiry happening here, something beyond the Rilke poems (or perhaps a continuance of their gesture) that is uniquely yours. Are you conscious of employing the poems, the drawings and the essays toward the end of a personal aesthetic statement?

Need: Yes. I think it would be hard not to. I’m pursuing a line and Rilke is a co-conspirator. I don’t feel I’m being unfaithful to him. It is part of a larger aesthetic related to looking for beauty or care, and an argument about beauty and care in the face of other arguments about freedom or power that other people have.

Holmes: And if you just read the poems themselves, that’s one thing, but if you read the whole book there is a kind of collaboration. You mention in “The Room Next Door” that Rilke thought of the poems as sketches or “brief drawings.” Did this provide the impetus to commission the sketches? How did your collaboration with Clare Johnson come about?

Need: Right from the beginning the poems seemed like little line drawings—very careful line drawings that I saw right from the beginning. I wanted to bring that plastic quality out by having a series of images commissioned. I wanted someone who would create a set of images that weren’t illustrations of the poems; I wanted them to have their own integrity as a suite and yet somehow have a relationship to the poems, and Clare got that. She thought it was an interesting project and wanted to try her hand to it. I was grateful and Clare’s been doing other kinds of projects in this post-it note series, working in a small space, and also doing black and whites on a larger field.

When you work with somebody you’re looking for a kind of intelligence. You could, I guess, be looking for someone that had precisely your sensibility of the beautiful. I had a sense of Clare’s commitment and her effort. She had serious standards about beauty; she has graphic problems that she’s working on. The actual images might or might not be the first thing that would come out of my mind, but when you’re working collaboratively, what’s more important is that there has to be a common agreement about that workshop practice side of it. That the person is actually thinking about the work, and has a project going on in which they are thinking again and again about certain kinds of problems. She seemed to connect with the project.

One thing to add to that is that Rilke was planning to bring out another one of his French suites that would have drawings that were commissioned in exactly that kind of “Not an illustration, but alongside.” His partner who was an artist was going to do that. So I felt like this wasn’t far from what Rilke was thinking at that time anyway.

Holmes: The multimedia approach feels apt here, because the poems themselves are dialogical. One way to look at this book is as a framing of dialogues: of the rose with its surroundings, of Rilke with the rose, of you with Rilke, of Clare with Rilke, and of you with Clare. Even the way the print interacts with white space. To what extent was it a conscious structural decision to embed a series of dialogues within the book?

Need: One of my fundamental principles—and I don’t know if it’s one of Rilke’s fundamental principles, but I think we might agree—starts from this idea of “impossible doubledness.” One correlate of that for me has been the idea that things acquire resonance and open up for the reader in ways that are hard for us to talk about, like a dream that we have that somehow has an affordance for us. So I have some kind of—I don’t know if it’s metaphysics—some sort of desire in general in my work to try to create things that have the possibility of opening up these affordances for others. Right now my guiding thought has been that you do that by establishing dialogue and difference, and what happens because of that isn’t that you just keep bouncing, but that actual resonance happens. And if resonance happens then the imagination can come alive.

It’s deliberate about keeping the difference there, especially in America where there’s so much pressure all the time to make everything common, or to erase difference, or to act as if difference doesn’t exist. And I feel like, “No.” We actually deprive ourselves of some of our dignity and some of our real worth by doing that. We don’t actually become common with each other and we lose the ability to talk about our differences. Our whole economy is based on a zero-sum game. So how do you make money that’s not there? How do you make energy that’s not there? What I’m curious about is, if you’re rigorous about doing this, is it possible to create this thing-that-isn’t-there for other people? So that they actually have energy they didn’t have before, because of paying attention to the dialogical structure. I don’t know if that’s for real or not.

Holmes: I think it is. I’ve read multi-genre books before but this one really popped for me and I think it’s because it’s so well thought out and holistic.

Need: And you know that thing when people get together and they want to go a multimedia thing, so they get some musicians and they throw some images on the wall and they do a couple of other things. But nobody is actually thinking about those things as being different, the idea is that they’re just kind of letting them loose in there. I think that’s a dead end. It doesn’t produce what people would hope a multigenre or multimedia thing would do.

It was hard at times. Dave (Wofford of Horse & Buggy Press), Clare, and I have really different ideas at times and I had to make some decisions. For the image weight and the image layout, Clare’s the boss. It just doesn’t matter if I like it. In terms of finally being the person that was paying for it, there was some level at which I got to make decisions like that—some of the decisions were actually not to make decisions, which ended up sometimes being frustrating for me and for the other people too.

Holmes: When you ran into those difficulties, what was your guiding light? Was it always back in the poems or in your larger aesthetic project?

Need: My aesthetic. I keep talking. This is the kind of directorial move that is consistent with the overall project. We did talk about that and just sort of set that out intellectually at the beginning. But when it got down into it, with actual material things…it’s easy to have an idea, but it’s harder when you’re deciding “is the book going to be blue? Red? What’re your color choices?” I’m not very good at those decisions. You could show me a blue one and a beige one and a yellow one and a red one and I’d find ways to like each one. So I’m not great at that. I had to make decisions at times with what that person has generated. But I also felt that was consistent with my overall practice there. If you thought about it as a bandleader, I really did have to let this person bring this kind of music out. I couldn’t get in the way of that because they couldn’t be a part of it unless they could do what they do. I had to go with their notes.

Holmes: That’s the only way to make it strong I think.

Need: I think so. I got that from Miles Davis actually. I was listening to a lot of Miles Davis when I was working out these principles. I was listening to the Columbia session recordings.

Holmes: That’s how he put those great bands together. He was a nurturer of talent, not just the bandleader.

Need: Right. And that’s consistent. My goal is to bring out the possibility of each person’s capacity but in a structured way, not just “here is the thing, now run.”

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Holmes: Translation is perhaps often misunderstood in its creative potential. Can you say something about what happens in this dialogue between poet and translator?

Need: When people think about artists, they tend to like the idea of “out of nowhere” creation, but I don’t think that’s how creativity works. I think we’re playing along with the reading that we’re already doing. We’re already reading in the world and we’re reading the options that people are presenting to us, whether it’s music, or reading a lot of books, or looking at paintings. We have seen options. Some people have this idea, kind of a Platonic idea, that the real poem is there somewhere. I might say that the real painting is there in a way that the real poem isn’t ever there. And I feel like maybe the real song isn’t ever there. We have these different ways that we mark the song; we write down music, we make “a” record of the song. But even when we write down music there’s a gap that exists between the piece and the various performances of the piece. Even for the author of the music itself.

If we’re talking about a piece where the author sits down and writes a piece of music out and then plays it, I bet that something happens that’s not recorded in the writing down of the music. And I know as a writer, one of the things that happened for me was, in the beginning, I was more of an oral poet than a written poet; I would write and I would hear it when I wrote, so it wasn’t that I wasn’t having the performance when I was writing. When I would read it out loud, it would come alive, but I was trying to perform again that thing that I was hearing, and sometimes that meant that I would do things that we’re not that reproducible on the page. A page only has a line break. It’s hard to create a word that somehow gets suspended. Type doesn’t give you the ability to create that sense of suspension easily. But suspension can be done in music. You can create these kinds of suspended turns. So I would look at that and see there’s a suspension happening there, but how do I mark that? So from the very beginning I never was bothered by the idea that my translation of the poem wasn’t the real poem, because I’ve always felt that the poem exists in reading anyway, and I’m in a sense creating a translation of some kind, or I’m doing a reading of it that heads toward being a translation. And I have my own sense of music and a sense of the music that I see some echoes of in Rilke’s work but I never try to go beyond, or ambitiously try to get some fine move he made if it didn’t come simply in my own language. I never got hung up on those.

Holmes: Like you were saying with the Celan, “that’s a fourth language, I’m not going to be able to tackle that.”

Need: Right. So I’ll just leave it. Because I want to create a text that does something of what the original text does in some way. Or not the original, but the one that we have. Because they are all how people set them as printed texts. So to some degree I have decided to commit to printed settings.

The other things I’ve felt—and this is probably just my own romantic imagination—I really felt with Rilke that his poetry had interceded in my life; it had given me a possibility that didn’t exist before I read it, when I really read it in grad school. I sat down and it was just “Oh my God, there’s more. And there’s somebody with me.” And I was stunned by the sense of “This is somebody who knows some of the things that I experience that are so hard to talk about to other people.” He’s made a place where we are laughing across the surface of the poem together in the way that people that are chronically sick nevertheless have joy. When I did the translations I felt, “I’m being allowed into the room where I’m getting to sit down with this poet and his intelligence is still present in the poems, even though he’s dead. This isn’t just somebody who’s teaching me how to think, but is somehow making a place for me.” So you can make art that isn’t just an artifact, but actually has energy and can come to life years after you’re dead. The translations are a way of trying to do that, of trying to make settings or versions. It’s not going to work for everybody but there is some of that, “Wow, this medicine really worked for me; I hope it works for you.” It was about the pleasure of being taught by this profoundly caring intelligence whose instincts I wanted to get something from.

Holmes: Was it in part the encounter with that intelligence and the intimacy of it that made you feel the existing translations were not quite adequate?

Need: Sure. The existing French translation, it wasn’t quite…I felt that there was only one and I wanted to try my hand at it. It wasn’t that I wanted to cancel it or erase it, but I felt like I could try my hand at it and not be too influenced by all the other translations and the whole process. It was still simple enough for me to take a swing at it. (Translator A. Poulin) had made some choices that seemed less musical than the French. I thought I might have slightly better instincts at the level of music in some cases. There’s only so far the translation can go. I didn’t struggle to not use words that he used and things like that. I made decisions so that I could feel it was my own, but I didn’t try to force that either.

Since I’ve been translating the German, I’ve been trying to place the German within the larger project of me ventriloquising Rilke. At this point, I feel like I’ve developed a voice that is my voice-language in which Rilke is translated. So when I now turn to things like A Sonnet to Orpheus, or things that have been translated a lot, what I’m doing is my Sonnets to Orpheus based on the voice and practice that I’ve already established. I’m hoping that the passion I feel in the voice produces a poem that has more of that passion in English.

I really want to see if I can bring out these two unpublished German sequences that Rilke put down (before Orpheus). They haven’t been worked over that much, so they’re like Rilke exhibits that people haven’t been taken through yet. I remember a couple of years ago I was thinking, “God I wish there was just one more thing by Rilke that I’ve never read.” Then somebody brought something out that I hadn’t read and that was exciting. But I can’t be the only person who’s read Rilke enough that it would be cool to see one more film by him.

rilke baby

Holmes: Can you tell me about your work translating the Rgveda and how that informed this work?

Need: I learned translation working on the Rgveda and Buddhist texts, and early Sanskrit material. There is some connectivity there. It was one body of literature that I worked closely with, that I thought was actually still relevant, looking at the way poetry and art are working now. I don’t think our relationship to the world or language is in certain important ways that different. It’s not clear to me that we’ve solved the problem they were working on. A lot of that has to with the imagination, with understanding the relationship of the imagination to the world. I think that we have this radical capacity to amplify the world for ourselves through weaving our imagination into physical forms and the kind of amplification that occurs through doing that—I think human beings have been using and then refining a whole range of media for staging their imaginations and that it’s always been important.

Holmes: Like what you said earlier about the reaction toward poetry that is more surface… Rilke seems to be unapologetic about what he thinks poetry can do, and there’s that link to the Rgveda, or other religious scriptures, where there’s a willingness to go further with it.

Need: Yeah. I know some people feel that they can’t go there but I don’t know what else we can do. We have not solved it by just becoming secular creatures or by killing the romantic subject in ourselves. We’re just as hostage to the violence that we do each other. I think that in doing that we rob ourselves of a great deal of possibilities that we might bring to bear in our relation to each other.

I think World War II and everything since then indicated that we do tremendous violence to each other and certainly one response to that would be to want to have a huge revolution to change that, or to become deeply suspicious of any desire that you have. You can almost see that as a coherent trauma reaction if you were dealing with things on a smaller scale. But I think we would get a lot more if we really understood that it’s not just what we’ve done but that we continue to be at stake in our relationships now. And we still desperately need to finds ways to nurture, to create affordances for each other, to create impossible economy and space for each other. And we can’t do that just through strict rational means. The 20th century has pretty much proven that just getting grain someplace is not what makes culture happen or nurtures people. Not that art necessarily does it, but at least art is making the argument that it should be our goal.

—David Need & Dan Holmes

David Need is an Ohio/Massachusetts boy who has lived in Durham, North Carolina since 1994. David’s academic background is in Asian Religions; he has taught at Duke University in the Department of Religion and the Slavic and Eurasian Studies Department since 1997. His poetry and essays on poetry have appeared in Hambone, Talisman, Golden Handcuffs Review, Spoke, and Oyster Boy. Since 2009, he has curated an occasional long-poem reading series “Arcade Taberna.” David’s chapbook, Offshore St. Mark, is scheduled to be published by Three Count Pour in 2014.



Dan Holmes lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro, Numéro Cinq, Paste, and Digital Americana.


Oct 132014

The Collaborators Kim Maltman and Roo Borson in their shared writing room The Collaborators Kim Maltman & Roo Borson in their shared writing room.


I’ve known Kim and Roo since we were students together in the Creative Writing Department at the University of British Columbia in the 1970’s. It was clear then that they were the real deal, and already writing pretty sophisticated poetry – though they snort at the idea now. We see each other rarely, but I’ve always felt a kinship because of those early days of tiptoeing – then leaping – into the writing world.

Roo Borson, poet and essayist, has published over a dozen books and has won the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for poetry. She has also co-written ‘Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei,’ a Pain Not Bread poetry project, in collaboration with Kim Maltman and Andy Patton. A forthcoming volume of prose- poetry, ‘Box Kite’, is a collaboration with Kim Maltman under the pen name Baziju. A native of Berkeley, California, the daughter of two doctors, Borson did her undergraduate degree at UC Santa Barbara and Goddard College and later received an MFA from the University of British Columbia.

Kim Maltman, long time partner/spouse of Roo, was born in Medicine Hat and achieved undergraduate degrees in Math and Chemistry with a PhD in Physics from the University of Toronto. He is a professor at York University in the Mathematics department and a particle physicist, as well as being a poet. He is author or co-author of more than 6 volumes of poetry.

—Ann Ireland


Picture the poet, a solitary figure, brushing hair from her eyes as she gazes out the window at the street below. Or maybe she stares at rolling hills and grazing sheep. But she is always alone, for isn’t it in this deep communion with Self that poetry lives?

‘We have no interest in the primacy of the individual voice,’ says poet/physicist Kim Maltman. We are sitting at the dining table in a Toronto house that he shares with poet and life partner, Roo Borson. ‘I remember reading a review of Roo’s that singled out a line as being ‘classic Roo Borson’ – but I’d written it.’

Their collaboration goes back to the mid 1970’s when they – and I – were in the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Department. It was at these hands-on workshops that they got in the habit of offering suggestions and adding lines, re-structuring each other’s work. The poetry workshop was led for a brief time by Pat Lowther. After a couple of sessions Lowther disappeared – forever. Her body was discovered in a creek near Squamish. Police arrested her husband, the lesser-known poet, Roy Lowther, and he was convicted and sentenced for her murder.

The same Roy Lowther who offered me my first-ever publication in his journal, Pegasus.

Roo would go on to win the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for poetry in 2005.

‘We have different product lines,’ Kim explains with a hint of a smile. ‘The Borson line; the Maltman line; and various official collaboration lines.’ Notable amongst these is the Pain Not Bread project – a ten year enterprise where the pair worked closely with painter/writer Andy Patton, a collaboration that resulted in a book of poetry published by Brick Books in 2000: Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei.

Kim Maltman

I ask about the process of this collaboration. Did they write on their own, then show work to each other for feedback and additions?

For the most part, no. Or not exactly.

Kim says: ‘The rule was not to let the piece get an established voice, but to put it out there (for the other two to look at) quickly so that it would really be a joint creation, starting from fragments.’

Roo isn’t so sure. ‘I’d disagree,’ she says, ‘though Kim believes this to be true. As I do in my own work, I take the writing as far as I can, then hand it to the others.’

‘As far as you can,’ Kim reminds her, ‘means you get stuck, or that you are unsure if the idea is good.’

Roo agrees: ‘Then we sit and talk about it.’

The Pain Not Bread collaborators worked off a variety of source materials, mostly traditional Chinese poetry in translation. Kim and Roo went so far as to study written and oral Chinese, though Roo claims to have forgotten it all.

How did they use this material?

‘You fuzz up your eyes looking at the source text,’ Roo says. ‘It replaces your habitual vocabulary and replaces it with another vocabulary.

Kim adds: ‘It was a structure to move us from our usual tendencies and bad habits.’

Both poets agree that the process of writing Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei was ‘addictive’. Roo goes on to say: ‘We began to craftily mimic each other. Andy has poignancy; Kim takes abstractions almost as if they have a sensual tangibility – and I do images.’

If one person didn’t like something, then it wouldn’t make it under the Pain Not Bread umbrella.

Andy Patton emails: ‘The work was very difficult but working with them was easy. In some sense, it was as though “Roo” and “Kim” disappeared, until we were through working for that day, and there they were again.’ Patton goes on to quote from one of the poems in the book:

from Breath (An Introduction to Du Fu)

…The range of meanings
is not important, so long as we can get together
every week or so,
make these protests against our own characters,
and, like teasing feathers from an ancient pillow,
find out what it is that might be in our minds.


Back to the question of the solitary artist. Kim shrugs off the concept: ‘It’s about making the work better; not being ‘close to my heart.’

How interesting then, to read Pain Not Bread and sense how intimate the writing feels, how close to the ear and eye. And yes, heart, the collaborative heart.

Working with others ‘allows you to have access to more skills than you alone possess as a writer,’ Roo emails. ‘Working with Kim and Andy, and/or just Kim, means that my written world is larger than it would otherwise be. More tonal avenues. More ways to move.’

I ask Kim: ‘ How does it feel to have one foot in the science camp and the other in poetry?’

Neither odd nor awkward, he claims. ‘I’m out on the fringe of science,’ and his research field of theoretical particle physics is ‘hyper – metaphorical in approach.’ Metaphor is how one can begin to understand difficult concepts. Like string theory, I’m thinking. Pulling up Kim’s York University website I learn that he is interested in: ‘…the consequences of the Standard Model of particle physics for few-body nuclear systems and low-energy particle physics and dynamics.’ I recall something he said earlier, about how poetry enters the mind: ‘You have to sit with it and let its meaning happen.’

Glance out the window at laundry flapping on the clothesline in their backyard in the Oakwood/Vaughan Road area. Such a relief to visit an unrenovated house, no need to go on about the new kitchen cabinets and gas fireplace and shiny bamboo floors. If I squint, it’s not hard to fall back into time, late 1970’s. By then Roo and Kim and I were living in Toronto, at different ends of the city, and we’d meet at readings of the Harbourfront Reading Series organized by Greg Gatenby. This was before the famous International Authors Festival got up and running. Our faithful group consisted of Greg; the featured author(s); novelist M.T. Kelly; poet David Donnell; me – and Kim and Roo. After the reading, the gang would head to the Hayloft bar to toss back beers and chips, and to talk about literature and our nascent projects. Baby writers in those days, we all went on to win some pretty tasty awards.

My hosts’ latest project is a book of prose poems that will appear with House of Anansi Press in 2016. Box Kite is composed by Kim and Roo under the pen name Baziju. Unlike the Pain Not Bread project, this work is not intertextual nor does it riff off source material. They took turns working on the pieces, Kim picking them up at night after Roo was asleep, and the next morning they’d ponder the results together, followed by ‘further Roo-trials during the day and further Kim-trials the subsequent evening.’ One might launch a piece that was simple but, as Kim explains, ‘We wanted the work to open up and become rich and unwieldy so we banged our heads against things, waiting for a weak spot to open.’

Often they’d read aloud, ‘punching new openings in existing pieces … the structure finally yielding and producing a functional opening only because of the pressure of the collective onslaught.’ This is Kim talking, or rather writing, a day later. The duo shares an email address, and one learns to recognize phrases and quirks of language.

‘Kim and I have very different minds,’ Roo points out. ‘I’m scattered and he’s totally focused. I’m never super-focused and I can work on a poem for two minutes, go off and do a bunch of domestic duties and emails, then return to work. Kim needs long stretches of time to go in deeply.’

Roo Borson in the readingthinking chair in office

Flashback: A few years ago I’m tramping up the hills behind the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, California- Roo’s home town. Camera in hand, I have a task to perform. Roo’s family house, built by her grandfather, burned down in the Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991, and she’s held off checking what has become of the place, perhaps because it’s too painful to contemplate. She has written about visiting the site soon after the disaster, how the chimney, made of brick reclaimed from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, stuck up intact, surrounded by rubble. I continue to trudge upwards in midday heat, past Arts and Crafts style houses, haciendas, and countless eucalyptus trees – trees which have a tendency to explode in high heat. Roo left Berkeley in her late teens, but was here for free concerts by the Grateful Dead in Golden Gate Park and Grace Slick singing White Rabbit.

Finally, there it is, a hideous yellow monster house built to the edges of the property line. Snap photos. Press ‘send’.

Today, Kim tells me that a ‘serious criminal’ now lives in the house.

I ask to see the pair’s writing space and we head upstairs to a small room equipped with desk, an old IBM Thinkpad, and an easy chair next to a side table littered with books.

‘I’m on my own a lot,’ Roo says. ‘More than I’d like.’ This is spoken in a matter of fact voice, not plaintively. I think of how many writers live, yearning to be alone yet feeling lonely when they are. She plunks down on the easy chair, demonstrating where she sits to read, to think, to work.

‘Any trouble getting motivated?’ I wonder.

‘Not really. I’m frustrated all the time, so I’m motivated to make the poems go better.’

I ask which poets they read these days and who they read when starting out. Michael Yates, professor at the University of British Columbia, introduced them to poetry in translation, notably Platero and I by Juan Ramon Jimenez, a work which opened up the possibilities of prose poetry, and Tomas Transtromer, Swedish writer and recent Nobel Prize winner. Roo emails later how Transtromer’s poetry ‘is built around stunning, unsurpassable symbolic imagery.’ This discussion of influences and touchstones continues via email. Kim and Roo both speak of the New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter, whose work Roo reads for – ‘his intimacy and spirit, expressed in astonishingly perfect formal music.’ Kim notes Alice Oswald’s Memorial, ‘an exceptional intertextual cross-cut through the Iliad, with an amazing use of repetition and large scale structure.’

Roo reads widely. ‘Unlike some poets, who only read certain schools of poetry,’ Kim notes.

Roo concurs. ‘People have narrow ears.’

Roo Borson (all photos by Ann Ireland)

Even when working on the ‘Borson product line’ Roo counts on her partner’s immersive feedback. She’ll slip the work -in-progress into a folder at the edge of the dining table and wait for Kim’s response. This can take weeks, or even months, due to his heavy teaching and research schedule. He’ll ‘ponder’ the draft and at some point, as he describes the process – ‘I’ll feel I have a line of entry into it.’

‘Doesn’t it drive you nuts that it takes him so long to get back to you?’ I ask, thinking of the way I hover over Tim as he reads my latest attempt.

Roo shrugs. ‘I’ve learned I have to leave it for as long as it takes. By the time the poems get to the pile I’ve worked on them for a very long time.’

Kim adds: ‘I’ll write new parts and rearrange, and she does the same for me.’

Roo agrees. ‘And I’ll put two of his poems together and make it one. We’re doing this all the time.’

Kim likes to speak of the ‘voice’ of the poem and he doesn’t mean the writer’s voice, or not exactly. Nor any character’s voice within. It’s something that belongs to the DNA of the poem, its language and syntax and sensibility. ‘I have to have a sense of this (in order to work on Roo’s piece) and it can be hard to find.

‘This whole voice thing is harder for me to know about,’ says Roo. ‘I feel my way through images, whereas Kim feels his way through voice.’

Back downstairs, she disappears for a moment into the kitchen and returns with a plate containing a loaf of banana bread. We dive in.

As we sat around the rectory-style table in crumbling Brock Hall at the University of British Columbia all those decades ago, I recall the way Roo would lean forward on her chair during the workshop sessions, elbows on thighs, clutching the weekly worksheet. She’d be frowning as she sought to pin down what a particular poem was getting at. She’d press on, puzzling it out, then say something off-kilter so that we’d all laugh. Kim, beside her, hair down to his shoulders and bearded, sat upright on his chair, arms folded in front of his chest and when he talked, it was often out of the corner of his mouth, his brain working too quickly for speech.

We were learning how to be what we wanted to become.

—Ann Ireland, Text & Photos





James Cook, 1728-1779

An overwhelming rain beats down and, mainmast snapped,
Cook turns again toward the islands.
Already there has been much grumbling in the villages,
against the gods, their appetite for pigs and women and plantains,
much talk as well about the iron nails from their ships,
and how such things of value are to be
desired and gained.
It is the beginning of the end:
the little Eden of aloha and blood sacrifice,
of stone tools and of plenty will not long survive.
Seen from here it passes in an instant,
even the time of the navigators is no more than the
blink of an eye, like the life of the mayfly we make of
all of history one immense and telescoped distortion —
island upon island —
Midway, now, halfway across the ocean, waterless, eroded,
yet it seems immutable.
In portraits of the time, Cook sits like that.
Contained. Immutable.
It is the great colonial age.
England, the European powers, vie for dominance.
They see time as flowing past and through them,
and think to fasten themselves to the fabric of it —
like enormous, beautiful gemstones,
no longer in fashion.
An age of “Destiny,” of corpulent aristocrats, for whom the
mountains and peninsulas and islands will be
named, and re-discovered, earnestly debating,
in ornately panelled rooms,
honor and glory,
notions we can hardly bear to speak of any longer.
Only death, the figure of it, seems quite real.
Cook, returning to the beaches of Kauai — sprawled out
beneath the fury of descending wooden clubs —
astonished, suddenly outside of time —
the man who, as the god, struck,
cries out, revealing himself,
and the murmur runs though the crowd,
“he bleeds.”

—Kim Maltman



Night after night on the kibbutz
they berated me for staying out late, watching the moon.
Drink your milk, they said —
in the morning you’ll have to work. All day
you’ll be picking melons and apricots,
you’ll be hungry. Only houseguests and poets
can afford to be as lazy as you!
Night after night they berated me.
And night after night, my cup of milk shining,
I came out anyway.
Drink your milk, I said.
In the morning you’ll have to work.
All day you’ll be picking melons and apricots,
you’ll be hungry. Only houseguests and poets
can afford to be as lazy as you.

—Roo Borson, from Water Memory (McClelland and Stewart)



Jilong was every shade of grey in the rain. Red-grey, yellow-grey, green-grey, grey. It had been raining all the way from Hualian, where there were mudslides. In Hualian we’d spent the night in a hotel decorated with red velvet and imitation stained glass, overlooking an intersection which shrieked the whole night through with gunning motorbikes and small trucks blaring out presidential campaign ads, live, through loudspeakers, handheld or mounted on their roofs. And now the rain-soaked sea, the blocky cement structures of the sugar towns, a cement-coloured crescent of wet beach, this or that hillside grotto of cycads, ferns the size of small houses — each time the train was swallowed up in a tunnel the world went black, swaying and rocking, only to be resurrected again the next moment. Now, at last, all this was behind us and, now heavy, now light, now drenching, now middling, the rain continued….

A map we’d picked up at the station had shown several hotels, and we’d made our way now to the nearest of these. A sailor took a swig from a mickey-sized paper bag as I squeezed past in the narrow corridor which served as a lobby, and into the tiny elevator. Passing by an open door along the way, I caught sight of one of the other guests, a young woman talking on a cellphone. Our room-to-be had an actual porthole for a window and beautiful, mildewed wainscoting, which gave off an odd air of dampness and chill. And so for the second time I passed by the young woman, who sat perched in her miniskirt on a matching circular bed, still talking softly on her cellphone, and rode back down to the lobby to return the room key and decline the room, and then we slogged our way again through the rain, dragging our luggage up and down over the labyrinthine series of pedestrian overpasses.

After tea, a hot shower, and some desultory television in a second (this time, mercifully acceptable) hotel called The Kodak, whose sewing kit I still carry with me, we made our way downstairs to the hotel restaurant. What we wanted was a bowl of rice, a green vegetable, possibly some bean curd, above all to avoid having to venture out again into that pouring rain. The menu, when it finally arrived, however, spoke more of the hotel’s elevated image of itself than of the contents of its dishes, being one of those composed almost entirely of gracious yet curious literary allusions, most of them unknown to us, and only a handful bearing names into which words we recognized for food had been allowed to slip. Among these was a dish called Xishi Doufu.

This (leaving aside the doufu for the moment), although also an allusion, was at least one that we recognized. Xishi: legendary beauty of the Warring States period. Favourite concubine to the last, doomed King of the state of Wu, so bewitching that, languishing in her company, he allowed his whole kingdom to be overrun and lost. Rice, a vegetable, and Xishi Doufu it would have to be then, although why Xishi, and what this doufu that now bore her name might turn out to consist of, we would have to wait and see.

Often when I think of doufu, I remember the novel A Small Town Called Hibiscus by the Chinese writer Gu Hua. The novel is set in a poor village in Hunan during the sixties and seventies, a period of great upheaval throughout the country. It makes frequent and lavish references to an incredibly tender bean curd, a bean curd which in fact turns out to be not exactly bean curd, but a ‘bean curd’ contrived out of the sweepings of rice powder gathered from the storeroom floor. The bean curd vendor, Yuyin, has been declared a “rich peasant,” dispossessed, and forced to make her living selling bean curd on the streets. Throughout the novel, numerous servings of this ‘doufu’ are dolloped out, steaming hot, into bowls, and doused with chili oil and green onion. Each appearance in the novel made me famished — so much so that, ever since, every unknown bean curd dish appearing on a Chinese menu makes me once more long for it.

At the end of Gu Hua’s novel it is 1979, and Yuyin has, at last, been rehabilitated. Her tormentor, Wang Qiushe, has gone mad and wanders the streets, calling out endlessly for yet another revolutionary political movement, long after the era of such movements, and the devastation they (and he) have brought to other peoples’ lives, has passed. I thought again of Yuyin’s doufu as we waited (patiently, and for some time — like the King of the doomed state of Wu, we joked) for our order to arrive.

And now before us stood a dish of Xishi Doufu. The cubes so white they seemed almost translucent, so delicate they registered even the slight shocks of the waiters passing, unobtrusively as always, near our table. The tremulous cubes slid away at the touch of the serving spoon and, upon being lifted with chopsticks, would pause a moment and then break in half.

Often since then I have thought of that dish, though in my mind it is now hopelessly entangled with the doufu of Gu Hua’s story. Thus, on occasion, when I come upon doufu listed in a restaurant menu, I find myself not only remembering the town of Hibiscus and the doufu of those revolutionary times, but wondering whether I might not, like the legendary last King of the once great, now long-vanished state of Wu, be living through the last days of some great tragedy I am as yet completely unaware of. Perhaps this is why the story of ordering Xishi Doufu in the restaurant of The Kodak Hotel, in the port city of Jilong, on the northeast corner of the island of Taiwan, has stayed with me, and why I am now writing it down — to (as Gu Hua says in his postscript, reflecting on the times he lived through) “comfort, encourage, mock and explain myself.”

—Baziju, from the manuscript Box Kite

 Roo Borson and Kim Maltman’s chair in their officeThe Borson/Maltman communal office easy chair.

Ann Ireland’s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.


Oct 042014

Salgado photo of artist

Andrew Salgado’s paintings have routinely all sold on or before the opening day of his exhibitions, at least they have in his last six solo shows in London (UK) twice, Ottawa, Regina, Cape Town, South Africa, and in New York City this spring. There’s tremendous excitement and a sense of pressure for his upcoming solo show, “Storytelling”, opening in London on October 7. Will it happen again?

Salgado’s artwork is stunning, larger than life. Looking at the “Storytelling” paintings, you can see, feel and, yes, hear the energy of this artist’s palette and brushstrokes, and the music that drives his inspiration to create these great bodies of work. His newest “album” of work is playful, bright, exciting, and pleasantly less somber than previous works, yet the dark side still lurks beneath.

Is “Storytelling” a modern olde-fashioned court pageant of sorts? The subjects in the paintings seem to be preparing for a show themselves. Some in contemplation as if they are getting ready for the role they are about to play, others still working on the script or perfecting a routine. All seem like characters ready to entertain you, the viewer. Or maybe for you to entertain them?

For some time now, Salgado has been the story-teller. What stories is he telling now? Does the tension between his intention and our interpretation give rise to the stories’ sub-plots? We have, in the end, to view the paintings and decide for ourselves what we are seeing (and hearing) in his work. Turning the question “what is it meant to be?” on its head and asking instead “what does it mean to me?” may give you some of the answers.

Social media savvy, Salgado shares with his 183,000-plus Facebook followers the Spotify links of the music he is listening to while he paints. It is no wonder his bodies of work are like record albums; some of his exhibitions, at least their titles and themes, have been inspired by song. Yet, the titles of his shows over the past several years have been both defined and arbitrary as are the different stories he tells through his paintings.

On his Facebook page he routinely posts updates of his work, activities, art likes and dislikes, and that “somebody took my soap from the communal washing-up-room”. Don’t get him wrong, though, he’s anything but frivolous. Playful? Hell, yes. Serious? Most definitely. He frequently donates to charitable organizations worldwide and is not shy to offer his artwork as an incentive for others to contribute to worthy causes.

Salgado, who has lived and worked in London since 2008, studied art history and theory at the University of British Columbia and graduated with a B.A. in 2005. Four years later he completed, with Distinction, a Master of Fine Arts (Honours) at the Chelsea College of Art in London.

At 31, Salgado has already exhibited around the world, from South Korea all the way west to Australia with stops in Thailand, South Africa, Scandinavia, Germany, United Kingdom, Venezuela, the USA, and Canada. In 2013, his hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan, hosted his first museum exhibit at which time he received the Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor’s Arts Award. He has another Cape Town show later in 2014 and one in Taipei in 2015.

Storytelling” opens on October 7 at Beers Contemporary in London and runs until November 22, 2014.

—JC Olsthoorn


1-Salgado-Preparations underway for StorytellingPreparations under way for Storytelling

JC Olsthoorn (JCO): Looking at your exhibitions over past couple of years, it seems you are moving from ‘body of work’ to ‘body of work’. How do you see this process, how does it work for you?

Andrew Salgado (AS): Since about 2012, I have been fortunate enough to focus on completing each body of work; one consecutive to the other. I like to think of it like an album, where I release one completed collection and then move on to the next.

The interesting thing about the works within each body of work is that the paintings are completed concurrently. I like to think of it as a bathtub filling up (as opposed to building blocks, so to speak). So in essence painting 1 and painting 10 are being worked on at the same time, and elements that come in later on in the creative process can actually double back and thereafter occur on earlier works. It makes the entire body more cohesive, more connected.

JCO: You mention the “album” metaphor for your bodies of work. Does the listening to music influence your work?

AS: I think music definitely pervades the creative process. And to me, it’s crucial. Of course, we’ve all heard the belief from a particular camp that considers music to be a perversion of the artist’s true vision, as though there exists some fundamental or erroneous cause that will destroy your artistic vision if you – god forbid, listen to music while you paint – but you know, I will do whatever I need to do in studio to make myself comfortable. I don’t drink alcohol when I paint, and I know some artists that work half-cut most days, and I don’t think them any better or worse for it. So any real practicing artist will get past these strange stigmas and work however they want, in whatever context allows them to tap into that creative source. I listen to music obsessively, and this has often greatly informed my practice. For me, there’s a brilliant marriage between the two, and to think that they are or should be mutually exclusive is foolish. The greatest brains of all time have always considered art as a whole and complex entity: think of the Italian Renaissance, these people were artists on the largest sense and this idea encapsulated all art forms.

I spend the majority of my time alone, performing upon my own set of expectations, and music keeps me calm and focused. I’m very particular about what I listen to, but I think music can have beautiful effects on the brain and how that in turn affects the performance of the body, and translated thereafter to the brush upon the canvas. I tend to fixate rather obsessively on things in studio, and over the years certain albums have epitomized periods of my work. One of the first albums that struck me so profoundly while working was Kate Bush’s 2005 Aerial which is such a complex, obsessive piece of art in and of itself that it actually changed how I worked as a painter. Antony and the Johnsons The Crying Light was really affective, but I had to stop listening to it because it became too all-consuming, and quite sad. Some favorites since then have been Wild Beast’s Smother. St Vincent’s Actor has been played steadily for a couple of years. Wooden Arms by fellow Canadian Patrick Watson is an album close to flawless for me. And I love Radiohead, but who doesn’t? Right now I’m relishing an album by iamamiwhoami called Bounty.

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JCO: How did Kate Bush’s Aerial change how you worked? What in your painting changed?

AS: Kate Bush’s album was so influential because its such a profound work of art. From start to finish. And it slowly, aggressively, worked its way into my subconscious that it was like a drug. I could not get enough and there were days in the studio that (for 8 hours) it was the only thing I listened to, on repeat. The beauty is that the form equates the content so incredibly…the last (title) song in particular is a thrusting driving repetitive rhythm that was really like a trance. I responded to that aural stimuli as visual output.

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JCO: Do you “see” music? Does it manifest itself somehow on the canvas?

AS: Actually for Variations on a Theme exhibition [New York City, May 2014] I made a playlist where each painting was directly related to a song. Kind of like a synesthetic experience. You see the painting, hear the song; hear the song, see the painting.

The Party, 180x190cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

JCO: Are you drawn more to the words, the music, or the whole of the song?

AS: I think I’m drawn at first to the melody, but the words definitely come into play. However I notice when I’m really in the zone I can go through 4, 5 songs in a row without even really realizing. So I guess that answers the question quite definitively that it boils down to the music itself over the lyrics.

Ludovico Einaudi has also been very influential for me lately.

JCO: Einaudi’s music in the 2011 film Intouchables were “wows” for me.

AS: Perhaps what I like about Einaudi is that it allowed me to slip into that trance…not be so ‘aware’ of the music but still let it propel me. There was something really inspirational and moving for me about Two Trees and later Burning that would cause me to put them on repeat and forget myself. Another song I recall having that almost hypnotic quality was Bon Iver’s Wash. I’m a very big Tori Amos fan and I find that her best is the same for me. I think sometimes the music has to be really calming, but that’s a bit of a lie because I also find myself really into loud, aggressive, repetitive music. Arcade Fire or the Dodos.

The Acquaintance [Regina, October 2013] exhibition was named after Sinead O’Connor’s Last Day of Our Acquaintance song. There’s a great essay on this by Margaret Bessai. She kind of contextualizes the connection between the song and the paintings in a way I was never quite able to.

“The narrative is an elegantly understated account of the numbing sadness at the end of a love affair. Although the term acquaintance usually refers to a near stranger, a person casually met, in O’Connor’s lyric it describes the time period of social contact, an intimate knowledge that comes to an end. Acquaintance in philosophy is the relation between a knower and the object of his knowledge. Each of these meanings may be applied to the relationship between artist and model.”

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Enjoy the Silence exhibition in Cape Town [January 2014] was named after the song of the same name, originally by Depeche Mode and covered by Tori Amos and I would listen to both a lot. In this instance however I think it actually was the lyrics that drove the points home: suppression, control, power, submission, pain, violence, all held down under the thumb of ‘love’ and ‘righteousness’.

Listening to [Ludovico Einaudi’s] Devenire now and yes….this is exactly what I love to listen to…It is a ‘wow’ you are quite right. I guess its like the music allows me to find a mood that I want to emulate.

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JCO: How do you take what you’ve experienced and learned from a previous body of work and move forward to the next one?

AS: I always say that each successive body of work has to be a response to – but also reaction to – the body of work before it. While I’m immensely self-critical throughout the creative process, I try to refrain from making overarching critiques until after the show, and the dust has settled. In this case, I like to go visit my own exhibition a few times and think critically about what has been done. What can change, its fortes, its shortcomings. This is quite a difficult process but its hugely important to be honest with yourself and re-asses your own production; I truthfully believe this is the only way to grow.

After The Acquaintance, my first museum based exhibition, I realized that despite my advancements, the exhibition was basically the same painting, done 8 times. The only two differences here were “Cinema” and “Subject” (to a lesser degree). So for the Cape Town exhibition, Enjoy the Silence I wanted to be sure that the actual content and composition of the works offered something different. Often, without really realizing it, an adjective pops into my head that guides the resulting works. Here, it was “intimate” The result was a show that was incredibly cohesive but had a greater range of compositional breadth.

Notes, 230x170cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

Then, when preparing for Variations on a Theme [May 2014, NYC] my strongest critique against Enjoy the Silence was that it was too warm, too intimate…ultimately too sedate. The guiding word here was “purposeful”, and the result was an even greater breadth in composition, scale, media, and presentation…but the resulting works were wild, energetic, and (finally) in a huge gallery, only 9 paintings. I went for statement and purpose over quantity. There was no more and no less; only exactly what was needed.

I think these basic ideas provide the greatest point of departure; but I try not to overthink when beginning a new series, otherwise I run the risk of ‘freaking’ myself out before I’ve even begun. At present I’ve started preparation for Storytelling [London, Fall 2014] and my points of departure are simple. A colour palette that varies (slightly) from what occurred previously. The adjective is more of an idea this time around…complexity masquerading as simplicity. I like to call it “deceptively simple”. It’s the biggest challenge I’ve encountered to date…if it weren’t the biggest challenge, then I’m not pushing myself enough. And if I’m no longer advancing, then I should quit. Right now I’ve completed the first 2 paintings for this show, and I can already see how its incorporating elements I have learned throughout my entire career. The works are very true to my ethos, but feel like another step forward.

I do find, however, that lately I try not to overthink before I engage. I like to learn through the process of discovery. I struggle with issues of anxiety and self-doubt. And as I mature as a person and an artist I like to think that this anxiety can be channeled and used in my favor. It’s like playing with fire, but I think that I can be a fire-eater and use this to push my own sense of creation to its limits. Each time I do so, my limits expand. I’m never satiated. It’s actually quite an exciting feeling.

Temple, 210x200cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

JCO: You’ve mentioned post-show dilemmas, that feeling between bodies of work where you say you feel (or fear) you have forgotten how to paint. Does it happen often, are they recurring? How do you arrive at that point and how do you work them out, how are you working this out?

Trailer of documentary on Salgado during STORYTELLING preparations.

AS: These dilemmas are inevitable; and important. Because without them I’m not pushing myself forward. There are a lot of technically proficient artists, who continue to execute variations of the exact same painting. For me, this is a practice of futility. I feel like, ‘sure, you do one painting, and you do it well, and you’ve done it well for however long….but you’re not advancing.’ In most cases, these artists are getting lazy, moving backwards. I have no time for the one-trick pony…and he is out there, feeling comfortable in his work. I often say that an artist’s worst enemy is a false sense of security in the studio. This is the kiss of death. I have no time to feel comfortable, I crave that feeling of uncertainty and excitement that comes with knowing you’re eking in one something totally new. It’s exhilarating.

Magic, 180x190cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

JCO: Your points of departure in preparing for Storytelling includes a “colour palette”. Given music’s influence, is there also a “sound palette” (beyond a playlist)?

AS: Is there a sound palette….hmm… To be honest, I’m not sure. I think there are an accumulation of songs over time that help me slip easily back into the mood of the exhibition. Albums and songs that (like smells) instantly allow me to re-enter the mood I want to work in. So perhaps there is a sound palette but I try being a little vague about these things because I do think that on one level I guess that while the music is important for me to ‘create’, its not important for the viewer to ‘view’. It’s like my own personal connection…but it can be irrelevant to the viewer. Because my process is a lengthy and lonely one, I need that comfort and connectivity to something beyond my own abilities and shortcomings.

JCO: What other things influence you as you prepare and go into the next phases of your painting?

AS: Obviously looking at painting is hugely inspiring. A number of the great literary genius’ would read chapters, or even entire books by their favourite authors before beginning to write for the day. It’s a similar process. I think that ‘quoting’ in art is often frowned upon; for some reason there’s a stigma that seems to be attached to this, whereas in other art forms its encouraged, celebrated. I’m quite honest about this practice of ‘quotation’ because a gifted artist can dislodge his inspirations from their original sources and translate them into something truly unique. It’s the hacks that end up appearing derivative. Even Picasso stated that “good artists borrow, but great artists steal”. Because ultimately we’re all paraphrasing each other, eternally, cyclically. Its exciting to think that my inspirations can come from so many varied sources and come out looking entirely my own…because as a matter of fact, it is my own. I’ve recreated something new from a vernacular that has been around for centuries.

Variations in particular looked to art history for inspiration, and did something of a ‘historical flattening’ in which anything from any era was fair game. So in some paintings I’m quoting Caravaggio, in another its Bacon, and in another it’s a friend or peer. Sometimes all these are happening at the same time.

Drawing Lesson, 180-165cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

JCO: I like this idea of ‘flattening history’ … but I see this happening as well through the idea of a story-teller who doesn’t tell just one story, the story-teller is telling many at the same time akin to “complexity masquerading as simplicity” perhaps?

AS: I guess I’m not so certain what the story is. I’m not certain there even has to be a defined narrative. But what I do like (with this title and Variations) is the freedom it allowed me. I’m no longer working within such restrictive conceptual restraints. The Misanthrope [London, 2012], The Acquaintance, etc., and all the shows before, were very specific. The works will speak for themselves.

Actually the narrative that I develop for myself is not something I will share with the viewer; I think its integral to the reading of the works to have that porousness and allow the viewer to take their own conclusions (or questions from the pieces). But I do like the idea of omniscience. I steer the ship, and I call the shots. I am allowed to lie, propose fantasy, remove the works from any adherence to reality. So I’m trying to push that. And in my head I’m developing the show piece by piece, and I’m not sure where I’m taking it.

It’s a different way than I’ve ever worked before, and so far it’s working for me. The idea of deceptive simplicity comes in both form and content. I think I’m purporting to do less and less, but the paintings are becoming far more complex. I believe it has to do with confidence and maturity. There is a kind of intimacy that the viewer is being led, through the forest, to view each piece. The first painting in the show, ‘Bruce’s Vision’, enters this fantasy where the viewer is greeted by a painting of the back of a man’s head. He is like the tour guide, I suppose.

Three, 80x80cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

JCO: But what stories are you telling in Storytelling?

AS: The stories are individual but also overarching. I’m going back to character types: the king, the sad queen, the prince, the pauper, the elder, etc. They’re ‘kind of’ popping up as I develop the show but only in a very loose manner. I’m definitely all about drawing attention to hidden details. But this is just a context for me to explore real, socially relevant ideas. These are a lot of connected, complex thoughts that I continue to explore through my work. The one thing I do see different from Variations already is that the show is less based on the history of art. It’s telling its own story…It’s more topical, more relevant.

JCO: And I wonder if it is more about how art works its magic, how one art form influences another?

AS: I think as artists we are drawn to other forms of art and magic. We all want to believe that these things exist. We all want to be surprised by the power of art. I want to surprise myself with my work, just as I want others to come into the show and go ‘holy fuck’. Art has that power, and I want to harness that power.

—JC Olsthoorn & Andrew Salgado


ANDREW SALGADO (b. 1982, Regina, Canada) has created a buzz for himself with bold, generally large scale figurative paintings that have situated him as one to watch in both the UK and North America; even listed by Saatchi as “one to invest in today” (Sept 2013) and lauded by esteemed critic Edward Lucie Smith as a “dazzlingly skillful advocate” for painting. Salgado is one of 100 artists to be featured in the forthcoming publication 100 Painters of Tomorrow, authored by Kurt Beers and published by Thames & Hudson, (2014), and he is recipient of the Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor’s Arts Award (2013).

Salgado has exhibited in the United Kingdom, Germany, Scandinavia, Australia, Venezuela, Thailand, Korea, South Africa, Canada, and the USA. Forthcoming solo exhibitions include Storytelling, Beers Contemporary, (October 2014), and an as-yet-untitled exhibition in Taipei, Taiwan at BlueRider Art. Previous solo exhibitions include Variations on A Theme, One Art Space, New York City, NY (2014); Enjoy the Silence, Christopher Møller Art, Cape Town, South Africa, (2014); The Acquaintance, his first museum-based exhibition, Art Gallery of Regina, Canada (2013); and The Misanthrope, Beers.Lambert Contemporary, London, (2012).

His paintings have hung alongside works by Tracy Emin and Gary Hume in London’s Courtauld Institute of the Arts, included in the Merida Biennale of Contemporary Art (2010), the NordArt Carlshutte Biennale (2012); and has been featured Maclean’s (Canada), The Globe and Mail (Canada), The Independent, The Evening Standard, Shortlist, Yatzer, Metro and more. He frequently donates to charitable associations worldwide, including the Terrence Higgins Trust, MacMillan Cancer Support, and others, and garnered the highest-bid ever auctioned at Canada’s esteemed Friends For Life Annual Charity Auction (2011). In 2011 he was featured in the Channel 4 (UK) documentary What Makes a Masterpiece, alongside artists Anish Kapoor, Howard Hodgkins, and Bridget Riley (2011). In 2013 he was commissioned to create a brand new series of large-scale works to adorn the windows of the luxurious UK-retailer, Harvey Nichols.

Salgado has lived and worked in London, UK since 2008.


JCOlsthoorn Photo by L. Cabral

JC Olsthoorn spends time at the Domaine Marée Estate near Otter Lake, Quebec, writing raw poetry, creating coarse art and cooking scratch food. His poems have been published in a chapbook, ‘as hush as us’ and have appeared in literary magazines.  JC’s artwork has been exhibited and has appeared in several publications. He is wrapping up a 30+ year career in communications and citizen engagement just in time to become a curator at the Arbor Gallery – Centre for Contemporary Art in Vankleek Hill, Ontario. His first show is the gallery’s sixth annual EROS 2015, an exhibition of erotic art, opening in February.

Sep 072014

Michael OatmanMichael Oatman in London in March 2014 with Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1982 mural for the Tottenham Court Underground Station, completed the year he started college at RISD. Photo credit: Jen Kollar.


Michael Oatman is brilliant. He calls his practice “the poetic interpretation of documents,” and much like a poet in love with the lyric moment, he captures hundreds of still-lifes, bits of magic, preserving the quality of the painterly images he works with by using them in his constructions, simultaneously reverent and irreverent. He works in collage and installation, making pieces that can be extremely large scale.

His work, studio, and intellect set up a seduction not unlike a labyrinth, and shortly after entering, you realize you’ve willingly let go the thread. Time no longer exists. You want to go down every rabbit hole. His downtown Troy studio is jam-packed, floor to ceiling. Yet it is also highly organized and makes your fingers itch with excitement and curiosity. There are books everywhere. Thousands. And objects, in stacked files and bins overflowing, whose stories and histories are locked away, subject to the imagination, some known only to their collector. Oatman unlocks or reinvents these images and objects for us as painstakingly as a surgeon.

Oatman’s influences, surprisingly (and not) include Cage, Duchamp, and Hitchcock. His installations are utterly immersive projects, and he’s constantly got things in the works. Many of you will have seen one of his recent pieces, a four-year collaborative effort, “All Utopias Fell,” installed at Mass MoCA. It includes jars of tomatoes his mother canned, a stationary exercise bike from the seventies, power tools, a record turntable and collection of vinyl records, and a fascination of knobs, gizmos & do-dads, which remake odd instrument panels. Of course there are books, among hundreds of other items, housed in a re-purposed Airstream trailer, whose outside is graffitied with phrases including “Ignore alien orders,” “One word changes everything,” and “Build your wings on the way down.” This trailer has become a spaceship, a satellite that has crash-landed, and the collection inside & out tells the story of a man.

We get the feeling that Oatman’s work is suffused with his biography. Because he is so deeply engaged in the world around him and in art as a means of communication, I was inspired to speak with him primarily about collaboration and connection.

  —Mary Kathryn Jablonski


“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

—Marcel Duchamp

Mary Kathryn Jablonski (MKJ): Michael, I see here in your studio that you’re working on a new collage using images of cloaked body parts. They remind me of Nina Katchadourian’s “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style,” and make me want to ask you, what would you do if you were trapped on an airplane for twenty hours?

Michael Oatman (MO): I’ve had that happen before. 38 hours one time to go to Montana, and it only took me 27 hours to go to Easter Island, the most remote place in the world. I’ve been in that kind of situation. I’d probably get everyone on board to do something together to kill time, because everyone’s got a video camera on their phone. Also, what I used to do a lot of when I was waiting, when I didn’t have a car, when I was a student, I had my sketch book, and I’d just draw. Everybody. Bus stations, train stations, airports, waiting to get on the subway. And I find when I travel I sometimes go back to that a little bit. I like drawing people. For me, it’s not part of my work any more, but occasionally I’ll draw the figure. I taught it for 10 years, but the kind of drawings you get out in the world are really different from the kind of drawings you get of the body in the studio. Sometimes a body makes a scene seem more real somehow. I don’t live in a sketchbook quite as much as I used to, but I think Nina’s really figured out something hilarious.

MKJ: Yes, I especially love the clandestine “Bucklehead” photos of other passengers reflected in her seatbelt.

MO: Oh, that’s great. Yeah, I just saw the movie, Finding Vivian Maier. It’s about a woman who was a self-taught photographer who produced over 100,000 images in her lifetime. Quintessential street photographer, easily as good as Robert Frank. She was a nanny to make her money, but she also wanted a job that wouldn’t take up a ton of her time, that would get her out onto the streets all day, so she worked for seemingly dozens of families from something like the 1940’s until the 90’s, maybe longer. 50, 60 years as a nanny. Sometimes you can tell she had a Rolleiflex that you looked down through the top of. It was easy for her to take pictures with no one noticing her. But other times it’s clear that the subjects are looking right at her. She had the ability to get people to trust her enough to take that photo. It’s a wonderful movie.

But going back to the visual relationship to Nina’s things. What I obviously like about those photos where she mimics the Dutch Masters… These photos I’m currently working with are actual pieces of diseased skin that the doctors or authors of the book (titled “The Jacobi Dermachromes”) framed out with cloth to look a bit like relics. They’re kind of honoring the disease and the person by beatifying it, and that’s what I really like. I did some work many years ago with images from life saving manuals, and in all these scenes of mayhem with broken legs and bones sticking through arms and people unconscious and bleeding, everybody, including the victims, looked so calm. And that was something I drew on.

Similarly, what I like about these diseased skin images is the devotional quality, and that is actually how I think about the images I use in my collages. Generally speaking, the pictures that I’m using, nobody cares about anymore, because everything on the Internet is a photograph. Why have a painting of a sea urchin or a horseshoe crab when you can have a photo of it? The illustrators that I use whose work comes mostly from between the 1920s and 70s made everything by hand, by painting. I guess it’s a little nod to the fact that I used to be a painter, so I really like images that started as paintings and ended as reproductions in books. With this project, in breaking my own rule, I’m working with photographs, but I feel like they’re altered enough by the process of being framed out with the fabric around the figures, and the hand coloration, and the separations for printing, that they feel more like illustrations to me than straight photographs.

Collage parts in preparation as decals, studio view, 2014

Because there are often hundreds of illustrators in one image that I make, and it has to work somehow, I’m trying to maintain the “official quality” of these original picture sources, which were so authoritarian, and at the same time, confidence in the judgment of the selector.

MKJ: Your work seems at once nostalgic and futuristic. In that way it reminds me of some of Margaret Atwood’s novels, The Handmaids Tale, Oryx and Crake. And all of your work, whether the two-dimensional wall pieces or the three-dimensional installations, I see as collage.

MO: That’s interesting, kind of “fugistic.” It’s funny you say that you see all my work as collage, because I now call the collages “flat installations.”

And I have these new frames that my dad has been making, which nobody’s written about yet. It’s really interesting for me because I’ve always commissioned my folks to make work for my projects, so I’ll hire my mom to do sewing or my dad to do carving or knife making or frame making and I’ll ask for 10 frames, as I did recently for this piece called “The Branch,” which is 30 feet long, which Ian Berry commissioned for the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College. My dad made these rectangular frames that I kind of assembled together on the wall in the form of a branch. But two Thanksgivings ago he called me excitedly to ask if I was coming home for the holiday, saying he had this idea he wanted to run by me, an art idea he didn’t think anyone had done before. So I went up to Vermont and he had this beautiful drawing on vellum, a drafting of a Native American thunderbird shape. And he said, “I’ll make these shapes and you fill them.” I’ve been waiting for this for 30 years, for him to propose a project. Because it’s always been, “Dad, I need this. It’s this dimension. Here’s how to make it.” Now he’s picking the shapes: fish, butterfly, bat, thunderbird, anvil. I guess I influenced him on the anvil [see bio: Falling Anvil Studios].

He just gets them done whenever he gets them done and delivers them, and he’s an amazing resource. But it’s a real challenge, because the way that I’ve been working with imagery is in the classical manner of the Renaissance model: single viewer, a scene that unfolds in the world. I generally don’t make pieces that are pure abstraction, although I’ve made a few. One was in a Tang show and called “Code of Arms,” which was a human DNA helix. It’s pretty abstract, but it was still made out of pictures of things. Or a piece I made titled “Germinal Velocity.” Having the shaped edge means that you’ve really got to work with it or ignore it in a fantastic way. It’s been an opportunity for me to think dynamically about what’s been going on. It’s also given me an opportunity to change scale.

3-Germinal Velocity “Germinal Velocity (by the time I get to Phoenix, she’ll be rising),” 2013, collage on paper with frame custom made by the artist’s father, Gordon Oatman.

Like in this new piece, it’s not a landscape in a traditional sense, the zoom-out of the surface of the earth, but when I began to move the butterfly frame around, I realized that Africa fit in the upper right hand corner and the rest of it was blank. It’s a piece kind of about the butterfly effect, you know, the butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon, changing the weather, and this is more like a creature of human invention, the Pegasus, which is the Mobil Oil Corporation mascot. I’ve been collecting them. So they’re kind of the storm spiraling out. The working title for this piece is, “Convenience Storm,” a play on convenience store, which is a place where you get things like gasoline, cigarettes, condoms, beer. This piece is a bit about convenience store culture, a weird “Ode to Stewarts,” our regional shop, and I’m sure I’d be shocked if I learned how much I spent at Stewarts over the years. This piece is still very much in progress, and I’m not sure where it’s headed. I think things started to snap when I got the red working with the rest of the colors in the map. This is going to be one of the pieces in my upcoming show in October at the Arts Center in Troy with Colin Boyd called “Abecedarius,” which, as you know, follows a kind of A, B, C format. We’re each taking 13 letters of the alphabet and making a work, and we’re going to do one ampersand work that we make together.

4-Convenience Storm in process“Convenience Storm,” 2014, collage on map with frame custom made by the artist’s father, Gordon Oatman. Process, studio view.

5-Convenience Storm - process detailDetail view of “Convenience Storm,” 2014, in process.

MKJ: Has it ever felt forced to you to have your father make the frames first and you having the task of filling them? Have you ever dreaded the challenge or has it thrilled you instead?

MO: Totally thrilling. And what’s really thrilling is his process. He finds a shape online, so my non-computer-expert Dad has been surfing Google looking for animals. He’s thrown a lot of things out there that we’ve decided weren’t so great. We thought a manta ray was good, but he couldn’t really find a geometry that he liked. He thought a shark might be interesting, but it was a little too goofy. And then he found this bat, and it got stylized, not quite like the Batman logo, but it’s very baroque. I asked him years ago to find a way not to cast a shadow as much with the frames, and he came up with this bevel on the surface, which tapers down to about a quarter of an inch. Previously it was a three quarter inch edge. I asked him to start making frames like this when I came back from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and saw these really plain frames around Dutch paintings. I’d been teaching that semester in Rome and took a trip to Amsterdam to meet my then wife. In Rome the frames were like somebody threw up on them and then gold-leafed it, but in Northern climes they wanted this severe Calvinistic frame. So that’s what my father and I started doing, and we just painted them black instead of the Jacobean brown, which he was using earlier.

His process includes finding an image and printing it out at home. He goes to an old fashioned Xerox place, blows it up, then uses his 30-60-90 triangles, protractors, and other tools, as he averages the geometry. I think you have to admit that it’s a very good configuration of that shape, and I hope to actually show these drawings that he made someday, because I love them: the graininess of the Xerox and the calculations of the angles written at each point. I think this frame has 32 compound angles. Not only is he beveling the surface, he’s mitering each angle, you know, it’s 25 degrees, 60, 15, 45, 30, 60. It’s a lot of work to make these frames! So I really appreciate it, and I’m glad we’re finally getting to do something that’s a real 50-50 team effort. I’d long hoped to do a project with my whole family, my brother included. He’s in finance, but he was great at sewing when he was younger. I want to do an “Oatman Family Robinson” type show, where they would make everything. We would make everything together. That may happen someday.

MKJ: I made the assumption that when you work in the studio on your 2-D collage works it is a very solitary, meditative practice, based on the exacting quality of your cutwork. In the project “Beautiful Moths,” even the book you cut is intact! At Mass MoCA, however, the wall label for “All Utopias Fell”  reveals an amazing collaboration of over 20 names. I recall thinking that the canned tomatoes in that installation must have been your mother’s. I was going to ask you to speak about the differences between the (seeming) privacy of your studio practice and the social, collaborative aspects of your installation works, yet you’ve just been describing the blurred lines between the two, haven’t you?

6-Beautiful Moths“Beautiful Moths,” book.

MO: There were way more than 20 involved in the Mass MoCA piece; like maybe 60. And, yup, Dad grew the tomatoes; Mom canned them! Well, if my dad continues to make these shaped frames for me I’d be happy to work in nothing but the shapes, although I do have a lot of projects that are earmarked already for rectangular frames. It’s a really good question. I used to do the installations completely by myself and then my ambitions got bigger and museums wanted bigger pieces, and I had longer time frames within which to work. Now, I’d probably say that I wouldn’t do installations without working with a lot of people because I like it. I get to be like a director on a film. When you work with a lot of people you have to have a certain control over the overall project, and I think you also let go of a lot. And that’s much more surprising for me. There’s much more of a chance element if you say to a student, “All right, if you want to make a video for this piece, make a proposal and we’ll include it in the reel.” If I’m asking a helper use beer labels to make them into a kind of wallpaper in the ship, and they get to determine what the layout is, then I get to be surprised by that. My longtime editor that I worked with for many years is a former student. He’s now editing out in Hollywood. He began to know what I was interested in after awhile, so he could do a lot of work on his own that would be in the vein of how we’d work together. I miss that relationship greatly, and I’m looking to rekindle or replace that, working with a new editor. But I think collaboration is interesting not just because of the high, but also because of the surprise. That’s why I do it now.

I’m currently working on a big project for Toronto with my friend Brian Kane, an artist from Cambridge, Massachusetts, curated by Denise Markonish from Mass MoCA, titled “Nuit Blanche.” It has changed, because of venue changes and budget changes, literally a dozen times. It’s been super-interesting, and I think we’re going to have a great project in the end. We’re also collaborating with Paul De Jong, the cellist and former member of the now disbanded group The Books. He’s an amazing composer, studio craftsman, and performer. This sort of “secret” project is being deployed at Union Station for 12 hours only, at a sunset to sunrise art festival, on October 4th. It’s deeply collaborative, curatorially, and even in terms of working with the city managers. It has had its challenges and its delights, and I think that’s the nature of collaboration. I don’t know of any collaborations that were completely smooth. I think they’d probably not be so interesting.

MKJ: I want to know if you conceal yourself in your works, particularly your collaborations, or if you reveal yourself. Of course, most viewers who walk into the Airstream at Mass MoCA must ask if Michael Oatman is the hermit.

MO: When I was an undergraduate student I was churning out a lot of stuff. After I was a freshman and chose my major, which was painting, I was making a lot of collages, and I think it was my friend Todd Bartel who pointed out to me one day that every single image that I’d been making had a hand in it somewhere. Sort of, the Hand of God, or maybe the Hand of the Maker. It was a symbol that had crept in, and hands were in sculptures and pointing down from the sky and jutting into frames. Ninety-five percent of what I made that year in prints and collages and paintings had no full bodies, not even heads or faces, but hands coming into the frame. And once I saw it, I began to do it in earnest to try to figure it out. I guess I began to see it as a reluctant portrait in a way, but also mentors, parents, and partners, an absent body. Later, when I was making paintings in graduate school that were all about bodies, they were very distanced. Even later still, I used imagery of objects used by the body, the tools of a surgeon or artist. If there was a body in the picture, it was often an unconscious body or disembodied body.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the great tiny piece by Rauschenberg called “Portrait of Iris Clert.” I think the story is that he was supposed to be in a portraiture show featuring this woman in particular, and he telegrams the gallery, addressing Iris Clert and saying basically, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so / Robert Rauschenberg.” Her name was in it. His name was in it. Her picture was nowhere to be found, and it was just this completely conceptual move. Remembering that piece has been useful in answering this question. I do get asked a lot where I am in “All Utopias Fell.” I think that the short answer is that my biography drives a lot of the material and image choices. Not any readily available facts about me, not my own image, obviously. It’s really how sensations, stories, memories from my own life help me make choices for what’s going to go into a piece, and that’s beautifully indirect. That piece at Mass MoCA on some level is about a romantic relationship that ended, on some level it’s about historical figures that have influenced me. In the stained glass there are references to Tom Phillips, author of The Humument, my girlfriend in college, and my mentor, Alfred DeCredico, both of whom are now gone. There’s also reference to Chinua Achebe, author of When Things Fall Apart, who was alive when I made the window, but recently died. His book is also in the installation. You know, it’s riddled, riddled, with personal information that is not easily obtainable by the viewer, because I don’t think it needs to be, but it needs to be there for me to make a choice about something. For me it isn’t every work that’s deeply autobiographical, but the large ones tend to be. I’ve made something like 24 installations in my lifetime now, some big, some small.

MKJ: “All Utopias Fell” is actually a project in three interrelated parts: “The Shining,” “The Library of the Sun,” and “Codex Solis.” Let’s talk about the solar panels/coded text aspect, titled “Codex Solis.” I recently attended a wonderful panel talk at the Arts Center in Troy on The Creative Process, and among other things the discussion touched upon topics including success & failure, submission & rejection of works, and intrinsic value of the work as well as public recognition. So often you speak about art as a form of communication; would this piece be a “failure” in your mind if it were never deciphered? Or, if it is deciphered and publicized, does that devalue the piece in your mind? Or, is its value intrinsic, making these issues irrelevant? How do you process this piece?

MO: If it’s solved is it a success? If it’s not solved is it a failure? Or if it’s solved is it a failure? If it’s not solved is it a success? Actually, one person has solved it. The analogy for “Codex Solis” for me is a Duchamp piece called “With Hidden Noise,” which I think is one of his greatest contributions to the idea of art. It is two plates of metal with a ball of twine in between, and there’s some French and English words on the top and bottom of it, and right before he closes up the two metal plates with four bolts, he gives it to his friend and patron Walter Arensberg, and tells him, “Put something inside and don’t tell me what it is.” That’s what Arensberg does, and supposedly nobody’s ever opened it. It’s highly unlikely in the world of curious people and conservators that nobody’s X-rayed the thing. People have speculated that, well, Arensberg wasn’t a particularly risky guy intellectually, and probably knowing Duchamp’s interest in chance, there’s a die or coin or something related to chance hidden in there. They’re good guesses. They may be totally off base. Hopefully we’ll never know. In my mind, that’s the perfect artwork: where the artist makes something extremely deliberate, and there’s a great deal about it that he doesn’t know. That’s what I want to do.

In “Codex Solis” I still know what the message is. I had to look for it in a very unorthodox way. It had to be a certain number of characters. I could have as many mirrors and blank spaces as I wanted, but I had to have a certain number of solar panels. It took me six months to find something that would meet the electrical load of the piece, which is a weird requirement, kind of Duchampian. And I needed something that would relate content-wise to my overall project. It’s not something that I wrote. It’s something that I transplanted into the piece. Now, would it have been a better piece if someone else chose the text? Probably, on some level, because then I wouldn’t know what it is, sort of invisibly beaming into the heavens every day.

I think that the person who solved it generously decided to keep it to himself, because to answer your question, something will change when it is revealed. I think it will be interesting for people, some more than others, to know what it says.

MKJ: Yes, yes. Toshiko Takeazu also made closed ceramic vessels, inscribing the inner walls with hidden messages before she sealed and fired them. One final question, Michael. Does your artwork ever teach you things about yourself?

7-Who Me- Pornithology series“Who, Me?” (from the ongoing series “Pornithology”), 2014, collage on paper, 10″ x 13″.

MO: All these books to look through… It can be wildly inefficient, because I stop to read. I cut things out and leave them in a pile and forget about them and come back to them, and don’t quite remember what they were for specifically, but they take on a new meaning, and that’s a sort of gift of working with physical material. There are a few in this folder titled “Pornithology,” birds and guns and things I think of as a perversion of the birds through human weapons. But I also make deliberate notes and sketches. Almost every collage or installation has anywhere from a few to hundreds of drawings. Then there’s like a rule that comes along. Like the Moth Book Rule of removing only shaped things. For instance I wouldn’t bother to remove rectangles from the dictionary, but if it’s a book of birds and they’re in that shape, then that’s a much more interesting book to cut out. Otherwise, I would never tear a book apart, but I’m choosing books that are beautifully laid out, and there’s an acknowledgement that the designer, the illustrator were masterful.

I think that the studio is a place of great discovery. I don’t even know if I’d call it learning as much as I’d call it discovery. It’s not knowledge in the way that I’m consuming it. It’s trivia. I would say that there’s loads of interesting trivial information, lots of experience that happens in the studio. I don’t think I’d do it if there weren’t some sort of payoff of consciousness or realization or growth. Certainly the studio has been a very sustaining part of my life. The first thing that saved me was probably reading. The second thing that saved me was an outlet for ideas. But the studio is always like an old friend.

There’s second hand smoke knowledge in the studio all the time. But I learn a lot more in the collaborative works, from other people, students, teachers, friends, audience members, people who start out as audience members and become collaborators. They’ve seen something and they get in touch with me and want to become involved. I try to think, if there’s a place for them that would be great. It’s an easy decision to make, because help is help and it’s going to change the piece. It’s going to change the way I think about it.

— Michael Oatman and Mary Kathryn Jablonski


Michael Oatman was born in Burlington Vermont in 1964. He received his BFA in painting from RISD in 1986. His installations integrate thousands of found, modified and handmade components, including artifacts of material culture, painting, drawing, video, sound, food – and objects at the scale of architecture. These ‘unvironments’ have been installed at museums, public spaces and private homes.

His collages, also realized on a large-scale, typically contain vast numbers of hand-cut images culled from discarded and unloved books – children’s encyclopedias, scientific texts, product and armament catalogs. His father, a carpenter, makes the frames. His rigorously researched subjects include genetics and eugenics, capital punishment and prisons, the history of knowledge and the exploration of space. Often using large amounts of material from archives, libraries, flea markets, garage sales, abandoned stores and the collections of private individuals, he refers to his practice as ‘the poetic interpretation of documents.’ He has also written about art and has curated several important exhibitions, most notably Factory Direct, a new version of which was mounted by the Andy Warhol Museum in 2012.

Similar to the Situationists’ notion of the dérive, his works often begin with an aimless foray into psychogeographic terrains, on foot, in a car, or occasionally by dreaming. In order to perform his research he has posed as a salesman, pollster and journalist; sometimes this playacting gives way to legitimately operating as a private detective, technician or personal assistant.

In addition to his studio and post-studio practices, Oatman teaches first-year and thesis in the School of Architecture at Renssealer, in Troy, NY. His Extreme Drawing course – as well as seminars on Duchamp and Hitchcock – are popular, even with students from non-art disciplines. He has also taught at Harvard, The University of Vermont, SUNY Albany, St. Michael’s College and Vermont College. He has been a visiting critic at RISD since 1986.

Oatman’s installations are ‘context-specific,’ and demand from him a total immersion into physical location, sonic/haptic realms, local history and the personal stories of those he encounters in the process of making a work. He is prone to collaboration, and, since 2004 has worked with gifted students under the name of Falling Anvil Studios. Privileged to study with Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, the most significant conceptualists/social activists of the 1980s/90s, he has also studied with Ana Mendieta, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Edward Mayer, Jim Dine, and his RISD mentor, Alfred DeCredico.

Oatman has shown his work extensively in the U.S. and abroad. Recent projects include All Utopias Fell, a permanent commission for MASS MoCA, which opened in October 2010; a large-scale commissioned collage for the newly opened Wellin Museum at Hamilton College; a recent book for graphic design firm id 29, and a long-term outdoor video environment. He is represented by Miller/Yezerski in Boston, MA; Lenore Grey in Providence, RI; Stremmel Gallery, in Reno NV; and Mayson Gallery in New York, NY.

Mary Kathryn Jablonski

Mary Kathryn Jablonski is a gallerist in Saratoga Springs, a visual artist and a poet, author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals includingSalmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.


Sep 052014


Gallant and MulhallenMavis Gallant & Karen Mulhallen


Three months after my conversation with Richard Landon, Director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, Mavis Gallant and I were able to meet at the radio station to discuss her work in anticipation of my broadcasts on her writing. We spent an entire day in the recording studio and saw one another two more times that week, off record so to speak. I found her both candid and open.

And our subsequent talks, after the tape machine was turned off and we had changed context, bore out my sense of her deep intelligence and her compassion. In rereading her stories to prepare these pages for Numéro Cinq, I found another quality, which perhaps I had been too young, or too anxious to take in — her comic, even madcap, sense of human folly.

In “The Four Seasons,” the first story in From the Fifteenth District, there is a six-page scene where a substitute priest in the British colony in the south of France is being lessoned in manners and morals, and the classics and the Bible, and of course, really, on their expectations, by his new parishioners. They have informed him there is no need to change the signage which advertises “Evensong Every Day at Noon.” They warn him about his sermons: “I hope you are not a scholar, Padre. Your predecessor was, and his sermons were a great bore.” And finally, on telling him it is time for him to leave, his host says, “Well, I’ll expect you’ll not forget your first visit.”  “I am not likely to,” says the young man.

Mavis Gallant and I began to talk in the CJRT art deco studio on Victoria Street in Toronto in the morning of Wednesday, October 11, 1989. It was just past Canadian Thanksgiving, a festival which carries very specific culinary rituals, as will become later important in my brief epilogue to this narrative. The small art deco building on Victoria Street was one of a group of exquisite art deco structures in downtown Toronto, which have since been torn down. The signature building, which still stands, is just up the street at the corner of College and Yonge, the former Eaton’s College Street. Another exquisite building is at the south west corner of Gerard and Yonge, formerly a bank, now a pub. It’s impossible to think about Gallant without thinking about cityscapes, since she is so much the writer of urban life, and she chose to live the greater part of her life in a city, Paris, which has not pulled down its signature architectural structures willy-nilly.

— Karen Mulhallen



As it had been with with Richard Landon, the focus of our conversation was initially her collection From The Fifteenth District (1979), nine tales set in Europe after the Second World War. We began with” The Moslem Wife,” and Gallant read part of the story, explaining its context as she read:

Mavis Gallant (MG): The story is set in the south of France before the war and this couple, Netta and Jack Asher, owns a hotel. Just as the war breaks out Jack gets to America, but Netta is left behind, and she tries to look after the hotel, and she also has his mother to look after, and a lot of different things. She starts to write him a letter, which she never sends, but she keeps trying over and over, because what she has experienced is so remote from anything he’s been living. So she starts to write — the letter she’s been writing in her head for many years. She is in her father’s business room, wearing a shawl because there is no way of heating any part of the hotel now, and she tries to get on with the letter she’d been writing in her head on and off for many years:

“In June 1940 we were evacuated” she started for the tenth or eleventh time, “I was back by October. Italians had taken over the hotel.”

MG interjects: You must understand, that the Italian army had occupied that part of the South of France, then in 1943 the Germans occupied it.

“Italians had taken over the hotel… When the Italians were here we had rice and oil. Your mother, who was crazy, used to put out grains to feed the mice. When the Germans came, we had to live under Vichy law, which meant each region lived on what it could produce, as ours produces nothing we got quite thin…. This true story sounded so implausible that she decided never to send it. She wrote a sensible letter asking for sugar and rice and for new books; nothing must be older than 1940.”

MG: That’s all true you know, that’s all based on truth, the Red Cross people who took a German skull away as a souvenir and the Italians who were there when the Germans took over because the Italians had suddenly switched sides in 1943 and then they were put in the hotel and just left there. And the local people took them water, something to drink, because they hadn’t been all that bad, they hadn’t been anything as bad as the Germans who came in.

Karen Mulhallen (KM): Netta feels the same way, doesn’t she?

MG: The hostages who were taken for shooting at the Germans as they were retreating were all young boys and they were all taken and shot along the wall of a café and left there.  There were all these true stories.

KM: Where did you get them?

MG: Well, I lived there on the border.

KM: When it was happening?

MG: Well, no, not when it was happening, but shortly after, and I knew lots of people and they told me all sorts of stories.

ghallant younger

KM: Do you keep notebooks of people’s stories and go back to them?

MG: No, I keep a journal and anything you write down you’re apt to remember, and anything you’re told more than once you remember. One time you might forget, but when people tell you the same things over and over, they stick.

KM: Were you in Europe when all these things were happening and were still vivid for people?

MG: No, I was in the post-war period, but the whole coast was still bombed and the Germans were in the hills behind and they were shooting at each other, and the town was pretty well shot up. They didn’t begin to build again until late fifties.

I went to Europe in 1950, five years after the end of the war, so it was still the post-war period.

KM: Is that the time in which you first began to write full time, in which you decided that would be your career?

MG: No, I decided that before I left Canada, and so I went away in order to do it.

KM; So there was a kind of coalescence of history and your own decision. Do you think that might be one of the reasons why history is so essential to your stories, not just the fifties?

MG: I can’t judge whether it is or not; the reader has to judge. Certainly a book like From The Fifteenth District is entirely European history, but I wasn’t conscious that I was doing it until I started to put the book together. Then I was able to put in chronological order stories, or a story that begins with the war.

An incident in the stories that was true takes place in “The Four Seasons.” It is the story of a little Italian girl named Carmela who works for a British family. They run away because they have to go home and they say to her we’ll pay you when we come back, after the war. My story doesn’t go on from then, but after the war they paid her in devalued money. It was disgraceful. I used to look at them in the market and I used to think you’re not going to get away with that. I’m going to write about you.

KM: Did you use their names?

MG: Oh, no, there’s never anything recognizable.

KM: So it’s the bare bones of the story?

MG: It’s not exactly as it is in the story — she was a bit older than my character, and the geography isn’t exact. That’s one of the rare stories though that is lifted from an instant, where somebody said this and I thought I’m going to write about this. That’s rare.  Most of the time it’s imaginary.

KM: And was that in a way to avenge her?

MG: Well, I remember when she pointed them out to me in the market — she said those are the people — I thought they shouldn’t get away with this.

KM: How did you know her; was she still living in the town?

MG: She was working for me, for everyone.

KM: In the story she goes back to her mother, doesn’t she? and is afraid she will be beaten.

MG: Well, her mother did beat her, because she came back with no money, and her mother didn’t believe the story. That part’s true.

KM: What about the ice cream? She eats ice cream and eats her way into heaven?

MG: I guess that part is invented.

KM: It made me want to go out and immediately eat ice cream.

MG: She was someone who was a good gardener. She did all sorts of things like that and worked by the hour for people. She died there. That was her life.

Mavis Gallant

KM: When you organized From the Fifteenth District, there were stories that you had written over a long period, six or eight years?

MG; Yes, they were stories from the seventies.

KM:  Did you decide on the order of the book, since the stories wouldn’t have been written with an eye to the collection?

MG: Yes, I put them in that order. Where the book was best received was in Germany. I’d like to know why. You would think with all the German parts they would be very touchy, but they were enthusiastic. So that was very interesting and now they are going to translate The Peignitz Junction.

KM: They want to examine their own history?

MG: Yes, but from a Canadian?  That’s what is so interesting.

KM: There has already been a wave of young German filmmakers scrutinizing their history, and it hasn’t stopped, has it?

MG: No, it hasn’t stopped. I don’t mean reviews but translations. Germany figures in all my war stories, for example “The Latehomecomer,” and they have been enthusiastic about my view of Germany, and have said it should have been published in German. I am barely German-speaking, I speak like a child of five or six, but it has been astonishing for me. If this sounds like boasting, don’t use it, because I don’t mean it that way. But they said, at last a European writer, and that was astonishing.

KM: I’m trying to think of the German name for latehomecomer — Spätheimkommer? So you have given the feeling of German with the name of the story.

MG: I just translated the word into English, but what it means now mostly is people who are disappeared into Russia. Originally my book was called The Latehomecomer,  but I couldn’t use that because readers would think  it was about a German who disappeared into Siberia or something. From the Fifteenth District is a title that doesn’t translate into German, so it was what was chosen.

KM: But by choosing that title, changing the title, they’ve also given the book a different emphasis, haven’t they?

MG: Well, in France it was called The Four Seasons. You can’t translate From The Fifteenth District, just doesn’t make any sense.

KM: Where is the fifteenth district? I thought I should try and find it on a map of Paris.

MG: It’s imaginary, but there are small things that are not, yet it is completely imaginary. At one time I thought I would like to write some stories set in the fifteenth arrondisement. It’s the largest, in a sense the newest in Paris. It’s so new that it has no cemetery. It’s where people go to live when they can’t find a flat, so it’s the most mixed area, it has no class, it’s neither upper nor lower nor middle. So everybody who can’t find a flat will find one there. It has no character. Somebody told me it had no cemetery and that gave me the idea of the living haunting the dead.

It’s something completely new with no settled character. I was really thinking of it as a metaphor for Europe, for Modern Europe. I also got the idea of the living haunting the dead from the wife of a poet. I don’t know why widows of poets always say, he couldn’t write a word without me, you know, or he couldn’t paint unless I was in the room, or he couldn’t…whatever. I thought, I wonder what they feel like in heaven, these poets and writers and so forth. Can they hear this? And there’s not a word of truth in it: he couldn’t paint, I had to be there to look at everything he was doing otherwise he was miserable. I thought what if they go and complain, the dead, and say look at you. Shut these people up, there’s not a word of truth in it. That’s what it grew out of.

gallantMavis Gallant. Photograph: Jane Brown, The Guardian

KM: And Irina, in the last story “ Irina,” is she such a widow?

MG: Well, no. She doesn’t say he couldn’t write without me, on the contrary.

KM: But she does say she couldn’t leave him, when Mr Aiken wants to know why she didn’t?

MG: Well, it’s probably true, and she had five children. It’s not all that simple.

KM: And there’s the scene where her husband cried because she doesn’t butter his toast properly. And of course her lover cried because she doesn’t leave her husband. There are a lot of men crying over her.

 Let’s talk about Irina. It’s the last story in the collection. She seems to me to be an immensely sympathetic character. One feels a great love for her. Her appearance in the doorway with her blue eyes and her short white hair, holding her dressing gown gripped at the collar. The way she looks at her young grandson at the end and she seems to understand young people, how they feel.

MG: Yes, people who understand young people usually are not sentimental about them at all. I’ve noticed that people who are sentimental about children don’t understand them, they’re trying to make the children enter into a fantasy life  of their own. She is a woman who is not sentimental.

KM: Is she based on anyone at all or a mixture? She gives that remarkable speech about women of her generation, how they’re really packages. It’s an amazing set of observations about women being packages and owning nothing.

MG: She is a mixture of characteristics. Those observations are mine. Those are things I’ve noticed. I remember asking someone in France “Why didn’t you leave?” and she said “Well, I’ve no money.” And I said, “You had a dowry,” and she said, “Well, he has it now.” So these women were often stuck because they couldn’t earn their living.

KM: So as you said a moment ago, it’s not that simple.

MG: But there are European women who have gone out and taken any job, the way a Canadian woman would. A Canadian woman might say I’d rather scrub floors than that, and she meant it. But it’s inconceivable even now in Europe.

KM: Is it just a different sense of who you are?

MG: It’s inconceivable. I gave an introduction to some friends to a Canadian architect. They came back and were very shocked because his son had a paper route.

They couldn’t understand how the son of an architect in Montreal had a paper route. I explained, well he wants a boat and his father says he’ll have to pay for most of it himself. That seemed to be very ordinary. And then they said, but you said he is an architect and his son sells papers on the street, like a common…You know it was inconceivable to them.

KM: Mavis, that allows me to ask you my next question, which is about the very real differences among the different nationalities in your stories. With “The Latehomecomer” you have a sense of a working class German family.

MG:  When I began to be interested in writing fiction out of Germany, I was only interested in the working class and lower middle class. Intellectuals cannot tell you anything at all in my view in any country. I’m not being anti-intellectual and stupid, but they don’t know anything. I’d rather anytime have lunch with a working journalist to find out things, but even there there’s a limitation, they’re busy, and they see a bit too much.

I didn’t think the working class was a victim of what happened in Germany, they were a part of it, of the movement, not out  of evil-mindedness, but out of a deep depression. I don’t mean that the industrialists didn’t put money into the Hitlerian movement, but I don’t think that having lunch with an industrialist would have got me anywhere, whereas meeting these people on a friendly basis, I did find things out. The only thing that interested me was finding out from them, because a victim can only tell you what happened to him.

You know you have to know what was going on in the mind of a man in the firing squad. I don’t pretend I ever did find out, but I got enough to satisfy my interest a bit.

KM: I think what you are saying is that the different classes have a completely different value system?

MG: They do anywhere.

KM:  In North America the architect’s son can sell papers on the street?

MG: But that doesn’t mean that he is going to marry a working class girl. Necessarily a different thing. Unless she’s been to the same university as he has, or something like that. It’s more fluid in North America but it’s pretty snobby too.

KM: Yes, the class system is still here; do you think it is easier to see it in Europe?

MG: It exists everywhere, probably in societies I know nothing about. When I first went to Europe in 1950, the class structure was distinct. I couldn’t stand England for that reason. In fact I loathed it. I couldn’t bear to stay there because it was so contrary to everything I admired or believed.

gallant mah

KM: In your stories, characters who are expatriates are in a sense out of class, aren’t they?

MG: Except among other expatriates.

KM: So then the class system kind of kicks in again.

MG: There was a British colony in the south of France, and it was like ancient Egypt, you know, with a pharaoh, and there was always something very amusing about it.

KM: What about Eric Wilkinson in “The Remission?” He’s able to adapt to different accents.

MG: He floats up and down and we don’t really know very much about him except that he can act a bit.  The view of the others in the British colony pretty well fluctuates with his fortunes.

KM: And the kind of curry he can cook for dinner! They pay him five pounds, don’t they? They offer him a fiver.

MG: It’s been a long time you know…

KM: Now Gabrielle Baum is also an actor.

MG: That’s my favourite story in the collection: “Baum, Gabrielle, 1935—(  ).”

KM: It’s a lovely story.

MG: It’s really about Montparnasse more than anything else and the changes and it’s through the sixties.

KM: Yes, I was going to ask you if it wasn’t about the whole feeling of the changing district. La Méduse — is that the name of the bar, and the old car seats, and so on?

MG: In the sixties and the seventies all those English style pubs came in and orange lights. There were scenes for recruiting for the Resistance TV and film productions. A series of five episodes or so. I actually used to go to one or two cafes there and someone did come in and say in a very practical way, “I want 12 Polish Jews for deportation.” And everybody was saying me. Me, me, me. I couldn’t do that. And then somebody would say: “Don’t take him. He doesn’t look Jewish.” They usually picked Yugoslavs for nearly everything, but I’ve forgotten why. They were great drifters. There were actors who did these bit roles and they would try and get a speaking part because they’d get more money. And that was why there were so many of these long deep silences in French films. They just didn’t have to pay them much if they didn’t say anything!

KM: Now that story ends with something about age. Gabrielle says his father lived to ninety. How does he feel about that?

MG: I think he thinks he has lots of time. He’s an actor and he works all the time. He’s not a drifter. He always lives in the same place, he won first prize at the Conservatory and so forth. But you know there are an awful lot of actors who are unemployed. There is 90% unemployment. And he does have that mystery in his life, of what became of his parents. They just disappeared, probably picked up by the police. I don’t say I know because I am seeing from his point of view, so I can’t pretend to know more than he does. But I think anyone reading it would guess that his parents have probably been picked up in the street one day.

KM: They were in the south of France weren’t they?

MG: There was a point where it was a free zone, and then the Germans occupied the whole thing, I think that was in 1942, so everyone was at risk. People were picked up in the street.

KM: And then some people had left early enough to get to South America. Is that what happened with the uncle, that he had gotten out earlier? And he seems to despise Gabriel’s parents for not having gotten out earlier.

MG: Yes, he seems to have gotten out before the war and feels they dithered.

KM: Why is that your favourite story?

MG: Because of Montparnasse and the kind of people in it. When it was translated I reread everything and I recognized the Montparnasse of the sixties and the seventies. I think I had it right.

KM: Have you noticed Paris changing in the years you have lived there and how do you feel about any changes?

MG: Oh yes, it has changed and I regret the decline of Montparnasse. But those things have to happen. There are still cafes.

KM: That’s one of the things Gabriel talks to Dieter about, isn’t it, the changes?

MG: It’s nothing to the changes now in the architecture. When it comes to hideous architecture, the French are the champions.

KM: Some people, for example Prince Charles, would say the English are the champions.

MG: Paris has not been destroyed anything like London. Prince Charles has superimposed a painting of London as it was, I think it was a 17th century painting, over the skyline today, but you could put an old painting of Paris over today’s Paris and still find a lot of it. And there are some new buildings which are beautiful, like the Arab Institute. And the Pyramid in the Louvre. They’re beautiful.

mavis-gallant by Jane Brown the GuardianMavis Gallant

KM: Let’s go back to “The Latehomecomer,” which is written in the first person. I think that’s a surprise to have the narration in the first person after reading several stories in the third person. Generally in the stories there is the feeling of knowing everything the narrator seems to know. That’s an exhilarating thing about your writing.

MG: Well, I just wanted to tell it that way, more intimately, from his point of view throughout. But his mother is from her point of view. In the letter she says, “I was your mother.” That’s much stronger in English than in French. In French it doesn’t mean anything.

KM: In English, it’s like a sudden bolt.

MG: And I’m not a writer in the French language and I don’t do my own translations. If I wrote first in French I might know a way of doing it, but I don’t. The humour doesn’t come through in translation either, at least not much.

KM: When you write a story, do you work from the characters? How do the stories come to you?

MG: As images of the people. “The Remission” was the first of them. I remember this because I kept my notes, which usually I tear up. I saw the family getting down from the train, there’s nothing like that in the story, but that was the first image. I saw them getting down from a train arriving in the south of France with three children, the mother and the father and the 1950s clothes and suitcases. I had a sort of image and I built from that.

KM: And then did you begin to imagine what their lives were?

MG: You don’t imagine anything; it just comes to you. For a few days after that things come out of the air, you write them down, and then it stops, that onrush of several days, and then you have to work from there.

KM: Is there any time in which you know a story will be with you, a specific period in which you work, a special time of the day?

MG: In general, I work everyday. If I have an idea for something new, you don’t control the time, it just rushes in. On the whole, I get up and I work, that’s what I do, I write and even if it’s going badly I just sit there. I usually eat lunch around 2 p.m.

When it’s going well, it’s perfect, and when it’s not, it’s an awfully long time.

KM: Do you stay with a story until you feel it’s done, or do you write several at once?

MG: I work on several things and come back and then when it’s done, it’s done. When I am getting to the end of a story, I don’t do anything else at all.

KM: You’re immensely prolific; I ‘m sure other people have said this to you. There are hundreds of stories.

MG: Isn’t it funny, I think I’m not prolific. There are over a hundred stories, but not hundreds.

KM: In 1978, there were a hundred, and there are so many uncollected. You have twelve books.

MG:  There are still some which are uncollected, from 1985 on. But I want to publish a novel before I publish another collection, and I’m working on one now.

a-dreyfusAlfred Dreyfus

KM: Tell me about your Dreyfus book?

MG: How much do you want to know? First, it wasn’t my idea, but it was the American publisher, Random House, who asked me if I wanted to write about the Dreyfus case.  I accepted without realizing. I’m not an historian, it’s not my training, my training is journalism. I was a journalist all through my twenties, and that’s how I look at the world a bit. I accepted because I thought, well, probably no woman has ever done anything like this. Although I knew about the case, I didn’t know what I know now. I knew Alfred Dreyfus had been unjustly convicted of treason and I knew he’d been sent to Devil’s Island. I didn’t know for how long. I knew that the French writer Émile Zola had written passionately about this in a newspaper article which had the famous heading “J’accuse,” I accuse. I knew he had had a famous lawyer named Fernand Labori. I knew that he’d come back and more or less disappeared. But it ended there. I knew nothing more about him.

I looked it up in a French encyclopaedia to get a beginning, and I saw it was a huge fresco of French society. I became wildly enthusiastic about it and I said I could do it I thought in two and a half years. Famous last words. Two and a half years later I was still looking, looking things up, meeting people and carrying on

It was an extraordinary experience for me to do the research, which is done. In fact if someone came along with some startling thing, I don’t even want to hear it. I’ve done my research, its miles and miles of notes and stories and interviews. I got in at the right time, because Dreyfus’s daughter was still alive. I couldn’t work from documents, because I didn’t want to write the books I was reading. They told me about the case, but they didn’t interest me. I wanted to know about the people.

I used journalistic techniques. I took my telephone and my notebook and I called every single person I knew in France who was French. Everyone. I mean people I had not talked to for years. I asked do you have anyone in your family who had a connection to the Dreyfus case? And then I began to be more general, have you any Jews in your ancestors and don’t say no right away but ask your grandmother. I got people who had been Jews at that time. People who had descendants whom I knew and who often didn’t know their own life history. Do you have anyone in your family who were officers at that time? Don’t say no, ask your grandfather.

640px-AlfredDreyfusDreyfus with his family, 1905. via Wikipedia

In about three weeks, I had Dreyfus’s daughter, and I knew all about Esterhazy’s daughters — he’s the villain of the piece; he’s the one who was the German informer, not poor Alfred Dreyfus. I had the daughter of the man who’d been chief-of-staff in the army and who worked against Dreyfus. I had that generation of elderly people, all defending their fathers, whichever side their fathers were on. Those loyal daughters, and believe me this is something — no matter what side their father was on, he was right.

The great help to me was Dreyfus’s daughter Madame Jeanne Levi. I didn’t get to her right away. I’d asked a book seller I knew whether anyone among her customers or clients might be connected  to the case. She called me and said I have a customer who is a great niece or something by marriage. I only met two people who knew my work or anything about me, so I went in as a complete stranger. She read English and read The New Yorker, so she knew a bit about me. That was a great help. The others didn’t know any English, and so I just came on as a foreigner really. This woman was the first. She looked me over. Then she invited me to lunch to look me over. Then she invited two of Dreyfus’s grandsons, who were both doctors, and their wives to dinner, to look me over. Then one of the grandsons, one of the doctors turned to his cousin, it was rather dramatic, and he said, “You may make an appointment with my mother to meet Madame Gallant.”  This man’s wife took me aside and said you are not going to get anything out of that family— they have a policy of total silence. I said, well then, I will have to work without them, but if I can talk to them, that would be even better.

So then I was taken to tea with Dreyfus’s daughter, who was a stunning elderly woman. She was in her seventies, with white hair and she looked like an English woman to me. I can’t explain why I would have taken her for an Englishwoman of a certain class. She had blue eyes, lovely white hair and she was very, very straight and rather solid and very careful. She didn’t know much about me and we talked about general things. She showed me a few innocuous souvenirs and at the end of the tea she said, “Je suis à votre disposition.”  I am at your disposal. Wow. So I waited more than two months, as I didn’t wish to push her and then I called.

I came and I brought her a box of chocolates. It was Monday and the florists were closed, or maybe there was some other reason why I didn’t bring flowers. I said to myself elderly people like sweets. She was delighted and said that her mother never let them have candy because they were afraid it would be poisoned. Anti-Dreyfus. People sent boxes of chocolates for the children, but she always threw them out. So they were brought up very, very strictly, and in her old age chocolates were a treat.  She could have gone out and bought herself chocolates, but they were brought up in such a way that they wouldn’t, would ever self-indulge. It was quite an experience for me, and here I am old self -indulgence herself in contact with this rather rigid view. In the end, I had her going to restaurants with me, and eating desserts and carrying on. I loved her dearly. She died ( 1893-1981). She helped me a lot, a lot!

57990974Dreyfus and his daughter Jeanne, 1910. via Clioweb

KM: When will the book be done?

MG: A fortune -teller in Bangkok told me it was the last thing I’d ever do. That doesn’t encourage me much. I can’t tell you when. I think that would be tempting fate. It’ll be done certainly. I’m not going to spend half my life on something I’m not going to finish, didn’t finish.

KM: How long have you been working on it?

MG: Many years.

KM: I won’t ask you anymore!

MG: But I have learned a lot and I haven’t any startling conclusions. I do have things that I think are interesting about what people were like who populated the story. Dreyfus is an enigma because everyone is so contradictory about him. But I think I’ve a clue as to what he was like. It’s a clue: he’s a man who’s very nervous. Tension. He always speaks of “my damned nerves” in his letters. “If only I could control my damned nerves.” But he’s all of a piece, he doesn’t flounder all over the place. He was a pathetic figure in a way, yet it was the last thing he wanted to be.

KM: But you must be very interested in this story even if it is a book you were asked to write?

MG: I could have wound it up a long time ago, but it would have been the book I did not wish to write. I am not going to turn in a book that I do not wish to read. It’s a very difficult thing I have done. The first third is an essay setting the case in its time, and explaining. Alfred Dreyfus was an Alsatian Jew and he was also an officer. What is an Alsatian Jew; what is a Jew in France; what is an officer? I begin with the officer, because— you won’t believe me— it was the most important. Nobody can understand the Dreyfus case who doesn’t know what it meant to be an officer in the French Army at the end of the nineteenth century. It explains his behavior, it explains  the way in which he almost went along  with the thing out of loyalty to the army. Things that are inconceivable to us today. As for the religious side of his life, I can only trace it through letters, his letters. There’s a point where he says at the beginning: “I trust in God. God will get me out of this; it’s the God of mercy and so forth.” And then one day he writes, “God has abandoned me.” Whew. Finished. There’s no more mention at all. Someone who is all of one piece lost his faith, it’s obvious. That’s interesting to me, but it’s not interesting to anybody else. I mentioned it to people, and they say well who cares? Well I do, because you can’t judge a man, or a woman. But we’re talking now about a man: every attitude has to come into it. The attitude to religion, the attitude to money, the attitude to his wife, the attitude to women, to his country, to history. I’ve read books that said he was a snobbish officer. He wasn’t snobbish at all. He was an officer. He had it in the blood. Some men are like that. I’m not like that; I’m a pacifist. So it was even more interesting for this pacifist to encounter a military man. That was fascinating to me. And people’s memories of him varied. His daughter adored him; he was so kind to her. Other people found him stiff, cold, sometimes inexplicably cold. But it was a horror of sentimentality, and a horror of people gushing, and a horror of people crying all over him— he would just freeze.

I interviewed two women, witnesses, one was a hundred years old, the other was 99. The one who was a hundred remembered being at one of the first gatherings — we would call it a party — when he came back from Devil’s Island. Everyone applauded when he came in, which embarrassed him, and then a woman rushed up to him and flung herself into his arms, well not his arms because he kept them at his sides, and said: “Oh Captain Dreyfus, the dream of my life has been to meet you. Now I am meeting you, you’re my hero, and you’re my this and that.” And he didn’t answer. And she became hysterical because she thought he had turned to stone or he was dead, or something had happened. And she went on and on and he didn’t answer.

And she had to be led away in hysterics. He just stood there; he was incapable of saying that’s enough, or calm down or anything like that. He was all of a piece. He just didn’t answer. People remember him and his family with his watch in his hand.

Dinner was at 7:30 p.m. and not a minute before and not a minute after.

He was a military man, and a loving father, and a loving husband. I think all these things have to be put together.

mavis-gallantMavis Gallant in The New Yorker

KM: Mavis, are there writers who have been important to you?

MG: The writers that are important are those you begin to read as a child. I’m convinced of that, quite serious about it.  The wealth of books in the English language for children was extraordinary, well-written, with style. Like Lewis Carroll. I regret that children read less and that they are not read to and that they are taught to read so late and so badly I think the Swiss psychologist Piaget is going to have to answer for a lot in heaven. There must be a wicket they go through in heaven for what they had to do with a child’s education. And they are going to say: “Are you the man who started them reading at seven? Purgatory for you!”

KM: Piaget and B.F. Skinner together? I wanted to ask you about Tolstoy?

MG: Oh that goes on and on, but the basic English style comes from the first books you read. Then you begin to read more and more widely. I read the Garnett translations of Russian writers rather young, but I don’t mean at twelve, but older. I read an awful lot of that, and Chekhov was probably very important, although at the time you don’t know that. You just read them.

KM:  Because you have been talking about the war, and about a man, his society, his religion, his profession, I was thinking this is the way — I am sure people have said this to you before — this is the way Chekhov thinks, this is the way Tolstoy thinks. You do see a human being in a total social, political religious context. Not all writers do.

MG: If I started to think that I was anywhere close to these people I would think I was paranoid, and I would go instantly to a psychiatrist and ask him to bring me down to earth. So, no, I have always thought it is my journalist’s training.

KM: To see the total context?

MG: Yes.

KM: The reason I’d asked you earlier about how you write is because it seemed to me that when I pick up a story by you and I look at a single sentence, the sentence seems to include the world, there is a total context all the time.

MG: I don’t like reading things that aren’t set somewhere. I don’t like never never land.

KM: Do you travel to all the places you describe, for instance Berlin, Budapest? Are these places you have visited?

MG: You are living in Western Europe, and so earlier yes. In the last few years I‘ve been coming more to Canada and to North America.

KM: You’ve written many stories set in Canada.

MG: If I stay here a while, I go back and I just bubble up. I lived here in ’81, ‘83, ’84. I had a very good time. Do you think the city has changed since then?

KM: Yes it has.

MG : In what way?

KM: There’s tremendous destruction of the city itself and there are many more homeless people. And the class distinctions are much sharper.

MG: I haven’t been where the homeless are, because I’ve been around the university.

KM: You’re in the ‘shopping danger zone’.

MG: And I go wherever I’m going in a taxi.

KM: Your Paris Notebooks were recently published and in them you discuss 1968.  Could you say a little about that moment in French history, which you experienced directly and which speaks so tellingly to your intense scrutiny of French society?

MG: There’s a passage in the book which comes directly from my journal. On the twentieth of May, 1968, I saw people hoarding. The reaction of the people of Paris went straight back to the war. Whenever there is a crisis in France, you can tell it’s a real crisis because sugar disappears from the supermarkets. It’s striking. You go to the supermarkets, and all you get are the grains of sugar on the floor. People were frightened that if there was a civil war, food would be missing. I’d never seen that kind of public reaction.

Later in the diary I mention a shop owner who, when the wind turns, puts  up only right wing magazines. And I remind him of what he’d been thinking about two weeks before and he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

gallant again

KM: Mavis, you live in Paris, and you write in English in a French environment. How do you keep your English intact?

MG: Well, it was never a problem until a year or two ago. I don’t speak enough English. Most of my friends are French-speaking. If they are foreigners, we speak French together, because it’s what we have in common. Of the Canadians whom I see and talk to, there’s Joe Plaskett, a Vancouver painter. But there aren’t many Canadians because they don’t form colonies, they’re all very independent, each going off by himself and so forth. But I never had trouble maintaining English until my work was translated into French, about two years ago. Last year the first books were published, and the year before I was reading the proofs of my own work in another language, helping with the translation, my own ideas expressed not as I expressed them. Then I had a lot of trouble with English, I began to think in French syntax. I wasn’t thinking in French, I was thinking in English with French syntax, which is completely different. I had to take strong measures, and I mean strong, otherwise I would have had to leave the country altogether.

KM: What did you do?

MG: Well, these might sound odd, but I don’t read or speak any French at all until I’ve finished working for the day. I read only an English newspaper, I listen to the BBC news. At 7:45 every morning CBS American News with Dan Rather. It’s with French subtitles but it’s in English. I watch a bit of it, not the whole thing. It’s also the only place where I can get any Canadian news. I read only in English. I have to get on the English track in the morning, listening, reading. I’m probably alright now, but I’ve gotten into this habit of a year and a half. I don’t answer the phone in the morning. From lunch on, it doesn’t matter.

KM: Do you dream in English?

MG: Both, but I had to do that. I thought it was the most drastic thing to do, but it helped.

KM: Created a kind of barricade?

MG: It’s like two tracks. I had never before confused them. I had never used an Anglicism in French, put English words into French, used English syntax in French. If I do that in English, it’s a bit of a joke. Sometimes you are joking and you use some French words in English. You know we say hors d’oeuvres or détente, and it’s not really thought of as French. It was a question of the syntax, which is completely different. I don’t think it would have lasted, and I do think it just came from reading those proofs. I read French all the time and it has never impinged. But my own work in French had a devastating affect on me.

With the third book, I didn’t help nearly so much. I read it quickly to see if there were any real semantic mistakes, but I don’t read it for mood, tone, tense, etcetera. I thought even if it’s wrong. even if it’s a betrayal, it’s dangerous, too dangerous for me.

KM: Do you have a translator that you trust in France?

MG: I did, but when I was in Vancouver a short time ago, I met a woman at the University who is writing her MA thesis on the betrayal of my work in French. She calls it betrayal. It is a question of mood, of tense, of using verbs in a different way, and so forth. And I said to her, well, you are probably right, but I can’t do anything about it. I will correct actual mistakes, where I’ve said geranium and they think it’s nasturtium, but the rest I simply can’t cope with. I thought that would interest you?

KM: It does, and in French Canada today this is a constant question, isn’t it, about the relationship between the French language in Quebec and English.

MG: Well, I maintained mine for nearly forty years with no problem. So it certainly can be done. I never never had any problems at all.

KM: It’s also interesting that it just came at this particular phase…

MG: It’s seeing the images. When you read someone’s work, you see images. The author cannot provide what’s in his head. You provide the images. When I read my own work, I see my original images. But seeing my original images in another language was as if two railway tracks went together.

KM: Thank you very much, Mavis, for your generosity.



I saw Mavis Gallant three more times after this long day of interviewing and taping.

We went for lunch at a French bistro, then located on Queen Street West in Toronto. At that time, Le Select had bread baskets strung over each table with clothes line tackle. Luckily the main dining room was full and the waitress decided to squeeze us into a small front window area. We sat near the entrance to the alcove and settled in to talk about Toronto and her time here and Janice Keefer’s recent book on her work, when the waitress asked me to pull in my chair so some other clients could get by. After she left, Mavis commented that it was interesting that the waitress did not ask the table next to us to pull in, which would have been equally effective in freeing up passage. The next table was occupied by two men in red ties and grey business suits.

We talked as well about aging, what it means for a woman, and about Gallant’s own intention to stay full-bodied to preserve her skin, and about her love of pumpkin pie. It was a few days only after Canadian Thanksgiving and Mavis was staying in The Windsor Arms Hotel, then and now a chic hostelry in the most expensive shopping district in the city. On Saturday, I made my way to the St Lawrence Farmers’ Market and then drove up to The Windsor Arms with a fresh baked pumpkin pie for Mavis. She was delighted, of course, because there was no pumpkin pie on the menu at The Windsor Arms Hotel.

Years later, I ran into Mavis at the Writers’ Suite in the Harbour Castle Hotel during the International Authors’ Festival. I was with my friend Nancy Huston, each of them had flown in from Paris to read that week, and the suite was crowded with writers from all over the globe. Mavis was sitting on a sofa, surrounded by admirers, but she seemed delighted to see one, or perhaps two familiar faces. We began to chat, but then a well-known Canadian poet began to drunkenly declaim and to threaten to punch out another poet, so the three of us, rather wistfully I thought, said good night. I never saw her again, and the notes from her unpublished Dreyfus book, I understand, were still stuffed into a closet on her death this past February, as fiery battles shattered the Ukraine. She was a writer who belonged both to Canada and to the world. We will not see her like again.

gallant photo by Nott & Merrill

—Mavis Gallant & Karen Mulhallen


Karen Mulhallen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar, a Professor Emeritus of English at Ryerson University, and adjunct Professor at the University of  Toronto.


Sep 042014


rlandonRichard Landon—Photo: Rick/Simon


In late 1988 I was hired to develop a series of year-long programs on current Canadian fiction for the Toronto radio station CJRT, now exclusively a Jazz FM station. The station had had an earlier program on Canadian fiction, but it was felt it was time to update as a new crop of writers had emerged, as indeed they had.

I drew up a list, I underwent a series of interviews and trial tapes, and I took a year off from my main gig, which was as a professor of English at a Toronto university. It was an intense year, 1988-89, both for professional and personal reasons, but my focus was the studio and an accompanying workbook for students who might want to enroll in a credit course connected to my programs, and we were off to the races.

Mavis Gallant was one of a distinguished company of writers and critics and visual artists whom I invited in to the studio to be interviewed.  Of course I wanted the writers to speak for themselves, but I also wanted to have others speak to them, and about them. I spent two days with Mavis Gallant in the fall of 1989, both in studio and in the city proper, but in the summer before I met her I interviewed Richard Landon (1942-2011), then Director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, where Gallant’s papers are held.

I felt a conversation with someone who knew her work and also knew her would help me in my planned interview. Over many years of my reading Gallant, I had found her both intriguing and enigmatic. I hoped for some guidance and for some basis for comparison. I wanted to know about the contents of her “living” archives, that crucial period where an artist gets to make a choice about what is to be saved by deposit and thereby directs future commentary and research. And some of the questions which arose in this interview with Richard Landon would surface later in the fall when I spoke directly to Gallant herself.

Although most of her writing life had been spent in Europe, Gallant had been frequently in Canada. Richard Landon knew her well, and was also intimate with her work and of course her papers. He seemed ideal, both as a reader and a scholar, for an introduction to Gallant’s extraordinary talent and her working methods.

— Karen Mulhallen


July 27, 1989

Karen Mulhallen (KM): Richard, I’m looking at a xerox copy of a very brief note from Mavis Gallant. I don’t know when this note was written, it’s not dated, but it is something to do with From the Fifteenth District, Mavis Gallant’s collection of nine stories published in 1979. Toronto. What are these two xerox sheets I have in front of me?

Richard Landon (RL): This is a note Mavis wrote when she sent a batch of her papers to the Fisher Library. Her papers come in little batches and sometimes she puts in notes that are either explanatory or give critical comments from her on the material. Sometimes they are about who edited her work for The New Yorker, normally William Maxwell. This note is amusing, because one of the characters in the title story in From  the Fifteenth District is a social worker named  Alicia Fohrenbach who turned out to have a real life counterpart in the United States.

KM: What does she say in this note? Can you decipher it for me?

RL:From the Fifteenth District was written and published in 1978 and in it the name Alicia Fohrenbach was invented. I received several letters from a Doctor Alicia Fohrenbach in the U.S., a psychologist. These coincidences often arise and are tricky to handle. Luckily Dr. Fohrenbach was willing to believe that I had never heard  of her. However, as she had graduated from some institution called Regius, the coincidence was more than close. This is one of my favourite stories, but my readers were baffled and irritated by it. MG” The reference is to the hospital from which Mrs. Ibrahim is being discharged, which is called Regius  Hospital.


KM: Yes, I see the passage, a little past page 165 at the centre of the collection, probably in all editions? It is curious, more than an odd coincidence. Writers are, I think, prescient. Do you think Gallant is sensitive to the possibilities of intuiting things. After all, one of the stories is about ghosts.

RL: I think she is. I don’t know that she would claim to be prescient in that way at all, but part of her technique is the accumulation of detail, which is one of the most impressive things about her writing, its precision. There is an easy recognition on the part of the reader of things you don’t normally think about. She describes people’s fingernails, small incidents, very precise details of a scene — I suppose the accumulation does somehow give a notion of prescience.

KM: In rereading the stories in From The Fifteenth District, I noticed sentences that didn’t seem to belong to paragraphs. And it’s just what you’ve said, all that detail by the end of a story is in many ways overwhelming. She does this too with metaphors.

I was looking at the opening story, “ The Four Seasons,” just at the end of the fourth section, page 28: “ ‘That’s not our property’ Mrs Unwin cried. The man said ‘You hired me and I am here,’ and kept on sawing.”

This is a scene where the Marchesa’s date tree has grown up again, and Mrs. Unwin is  feeling the perfume fumes from the tree are noxious and she has a successful court order against the Marchesa and her tree. The Marchesa has long ago left her garden and so in comes this local to cut down the tree, and he decides he will not just cut down the overhanging branches but will cut down the whole tree and he breaks through the fence. That’s why Mrs. Unwin says, “ That’s not our property.” Meanwhile in the scene we’re reminded of the chauffeur of the Marchesa. The Marchesa has fled before the coming Allied forces. Mussolini’s war activities are failing, so people are leaving the country as Hitler is failing. The Marchesa has fled because, despite her Italian title, she is an English woman. Her chauffeur hangs around the garden like an abandoned domestic animal.

The chauffeur had walked the Marchesa’s dogs, and on the road there is a convoy of army lorries moving like crabs on the floor of the ocean. You think my goodness what are these army lorries doing? And we haven’t seen him before. And why are the lorries described like crabs in the ocean. Then you realize that the whole story is shot through with these images of the sea, and the maid Carmela looks out to the sea and is afraid, and then she’s underwater. It’s such an accumulation of detail — the sea, the army, the Marchesa’s dogs, her chauffeur, all together. And yet that’s got nothing to do with the cutting down of the tree at the beginning of the whole movement.


RL:  But it is not the sea as most people notice the sea; it’s quite threatening and boring, and is often described as a line on the horizon and as unattainable. There is always a road or a railway between them and the sea. It is this sense of alienation which they have by some kind of accident in a particular situation. They’re stuck. The Marchesa might get away, but no one else does.

KM: You know she got away because the story begins with her eating ice cream and anybody who eats ice cream in this story is going to get out some way!

RL: But the principle characters never get out. There’s a kind of universal rootlessness about many of the stories. The one that most affected me on rereading is called “Potter.” It’s quite long, one of the longer ones, about the Polish poet and lecturer in Paris and his American lover, Laurie Bennett, and his reaction to her going off with someone else.

It’s a more complete story in some ways because it has a movement of plot. Laurie goes off to Venice, he’s devastated, and a good deal of it is describing his reaction to her leaving. He then has his visa revoked — he’s lecturing in Paris — and at the same time she sends him a postcard telling him she is coming back. The end of the story is about him going back to Poland, from which he might never again emerge, whereas she thinks she’s resumed the relationship. It sounds a bit banal, but it’s the way it’s expressed that is extremely impressive. It’s quite haunting.

KM: What do you find impressive?

RL: Her observations about how people react to each other and to external forces, and even to the city of Paris, to the weather. It all has a real accuracy and is recognizable. You think that’s right, I would never have expressed that, but in fact, that’s how I might feel.

KM: And Mavis has the girl misspelling the word ‘separate,’ which really impressed me. This is the kind of girl who can’t spell in her love letters: “We’re seperating forever,” she says. And in another she described him as a “really sensative person.”

RL: Yes,  it’s those details..

KM …which are her talent?

RL: Yes, in a real way.

KM: Do you find alterations, revisions in the manuscript?

RL: I have here the first three pages of typescript of a story in From the Fifteenth District.  It’s pretty clean.

KM: Does she write long hand, does she type, does she word process?

RL: She mainly types and then corrects in holograph, that is by hand. She might write drafts, but what we get at the Fisher Library is essentially what is sent to The New Yorker magazine. It’s edited there and then sent back to her. So you get two kinds of marks, her corrections and the odd suggestion by an editor with the technical notes about how to set it for printing.


KM: How did Fisher acquire these papers, which are an ongoing collection, aren’t they?

RL: Yes. It began when the University of Toronto invited Mavis Gallant to be Writer-in-Residence, in 1980, I believe. She wasn’t able to take it up then, but she did come in ’83-’84 as Writer-in Residence, living at Massey College. Shortly after she was invited she wrote to ask whether we would be interested in having her papers, which she wished to give to us, saying in one of the letters she strongly disapproved of writers selling their papers.

KM; That’s interesting, so she just gives them to you. That’s unusual.

RL: And, of course, there is no tax advantage for her either because she  lives in France.

KM: Do you have other writers who have simply given their papers?

RL: Josef Skvorecky, David Solway, Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee.

KM: In all those cases, there are also tax advantages.

RL: Yes, they do get evaluated.

But obviously, for Gallant, this is a conscious decision. There is no particular association with Toronto, except that she remembered it from the 1950s. Not everyone’s fondest memory…! One would have imagined because she grew up in Montreal, went to school there, worked there briefly, before going to Paris, which was about 1950, that her Canadian association would be directly Montreal. She did explain that she objected to the Quebec language law and that sort of thing. I think she came to Toronto, was impressed by the city, because it had changed. It would be hard not to be impressed by the difference between 1950 and 1980.

KM: There were no park benches in 1950.

RL:  Right, and so she started sending, every once in a while, a little batch of papers. Mainly corrected typescripts, galleys, some correspondence, which relates directly to her work. Eventually I hope we will get her journals. She adapted her journals for articles on the 1968 disturbances in Paris, and I do hope to see more of them.

KM: So there are no letters, no personal papers, mementos?

RL: My impression is that whatever she decides to give us of that kind of material will be very consciously chosen. She’s not just going to scoop everything into boxes and send it. She will direct, in a way, future critical or biographical work on her.

KM: So an archive can be quite diverse. If you have six archives from six writers they could be quite different in composition. What is your impression of Gallant as a personality. She’s directed, careful, controlled, not only in her prose, brilliantly so, but as a personality.  Is she uniform, enigmatic?

RL: I found her fascinating. First of all, physically she’s quite beautiful and obviously was stunning when she was younger. She’s very direct and a bit quirky. She likes to ask questions that catch you slightly off guard.

KM: You’d like that!

RL: Yes, she asked me to lunch one time. Out of nowhere, in general conversation, she asked me, “What had the men of Canada done to women?”

KM: What did you say?

RL:  I said I didn’t feel I could take responsibility for every man in the country.

KM: What did she mean?

RL: She was asking what was wrong with the women. She’d been traveling around on a promotion for one of her books. Macmillan had sent her across the country on planes, trains, and so on, and she’d fallen into conversation with women. She asked them questions about what they did, how they were feeling, and she found most of them terribly depressed. and the cause seemed to be their relationships with men. So she developed this little theory that the men of Canada were oppressing women, in a kind of spiritual way. This was a new concept to me, and certainly the women I know don’t seem very oppressed. I think she was exploring something in her own mind. That’s another impression I have of her, that she was always exploring, thinking about things, and that someday parts of it would emerge, not this conversation particularly, but some aspect of it might very well come out in a short story. That was one of her methods of working; she talked to people; she listened to what they said, but she asked questions that elicited responses she thought would be interesting.

KM: So she’s one of those people who don’t shut the world out, who keep on processing?

RL: That was my impression. She could be great fun, funny, quite witty, very sharp-tongued. I went to a reading with her one time, she was terribly nervous before, although once she started the reading she was fine, and afterward we sat around and drank wine for hours, and she chatted with people, told stories; it was very amusing.  She got to interview [Maurice] Duplessis because she was so gorgeous. No other reporters could get in to a private interview with him. He obviously fancied her. Funny stories, like that.

She was very engaged with the students, with the junior fellows, when she was at Massey College. They were obviously very fond of her, and people talked to her a lot. She lived in college, and people would drop in and see her. I think she was somewhat less impressed with some of the other people she met around the university.

However, she also said she didn’t get any writing done, although when she’d come to be Writer-in-Residence, part of her plan was to finish her Dreyfus book which she’d been working on for years. She found she couldn’t do it, because her time was taken up or broken up. When people sent her things she read them seriously and commented. She took the job of Writer-in-Residence seriously, I think.

KM: Yes, I think she did. One of the writers I’m interested in and whom I’ve interviewed for these programs is Rohinton Mistry.  In fact he got his start the year she was Writer-in-Residence and sent her a story, one of his first, and she sent it to Leon Rooke who then published it in a New Press Anthology. That was perhaps Rohinton Mistry’s first publication, and after that he just took off. Within a few years he had a Penquin collection of stories, and so that was Mavis.

She’s one of the few writers I’ve heard of who has taken the Writer-in-Residence job with great seriousness. People are in and out of that job everywhere. I know Elizabeth Smart had a position out west and I think enjoyed it, but was not engaged in the way Mavis was. I know Graeme Gibson had a Writer-in–Residence position at the University of Waterloo and I understand he wasn’t very much on campus. It’s the kind of job where the writer decides how to do it.

RL: That was the first time Gallant had lived in Canada for any extended period. She is a Canadian citizen and comes back a lot and is very conscious of being Canadian. More of her books are appearing here and she comes for promotional tours as well. But she has chosen to travel.

At the University of Toronto she was here the whole year, so living on campus, was more engaged than someone coming onto a campus once or twice a week.

KM: Have you been to her home in Paris?

RL: I have never visited her, although I would like to. I am going there next month, but it being August I assume, like the rest of the French, she will likely have left town.

KM: I have been to the house of a friend of hers on the edge of the Marais, Joe Plaskett, who is a painter from Vancouver. There was a group of people who emigrated at the same time and Mavis is close to Joe. He lives near the Place des Vosges in a medieval house which is actually two yoked together. I think she lives not far from Joe. For these programs, I have also talked to Virgil Burnett, who’s part of that group of people. People came and went, but Joe and Mavis were two Canadians who stayed and gathered other people around them over the years. Why do you think she stayed in Paris?

RL: I don’t really know except that it suits her. She has, I think, a fairly highly developed sense of the advantages of a certain kind of isolation. If you live somewhere where you are comfortable, and she obviously is in Paris, but it’s not what you grew up with, it’s easier to investigate in a fictional way; it gives a kind of perspective. Most of her stories are set in Europe, often in Italy or France or sometimes Germany. She did publish that volume called Home Truths ( 1981), which was about Canada, but it still had that sense of distance. I think she finds it useful.

I read an article she wrote for a magazine, a description of Paris. It was in a series by various writers describing places they lived. Hers was very evocative, but it was mainly about Paris in the winter. It rains all the time, it’s dark. It’s only light from 9-10 a.m. Then it’s dark from 10-3 p.m. or grey, and then it’s really dark. The impression was of rain dripping on stone, greyness and the river. There are photographs too. There’s something that speaks to her from the city itself. Although I am sure she has been asked why she stays, I have never read or heard the real answer.

mavis gallant 866

KM: Did she not talk about being in exile when you spent all that time with her?

RL: I think she doesn’t consider herself in exile in the normal sense. She just considers herself someone who lives somewhere else, who did it deliberately when she made her career as a writer. She has been publishing primarily in The New Yorker, so her audience has been in the States and in Britain. From the Fifteenth District was reviewed as her emergence in Canada, but her books were not before then published here. The dust jacket quotes all of these Canadian writers saying how wonderful she is, so they all knew about her — George Woodcock, Mordecai Richler, Morley Callaghan, Alice Munro and so on, but nobody else did.

But, of course, that ignores the audience of The New Yorker. She published her first story there, in 1951, I think, and virtually everything she’s written has appeared there since. The audience of The New Yorker is about half a million readers, and it’s international, not just Americans, and a good many Canadians. So in a sense she was recognized in Canada and  it is slightly surprising  that a publisher didn’t pick up her stories and collect them and publish them earlier.

The New Yorker connection is interesting. I have been mulling this over: Are you born a New Yorker writer, or do you develop yourself  in such a way that you’re a natural for The New Yorker. The manuscripts which I have looked at don’t have any evidence of The New Yorker imposing its famous style.

KM: Not from the sheets we have in front of us anyway.

RL: What is the influence of someone like William Maxwell or the other editors at The New Yorker, not just on Gallant but on a whole series of writers?

KM: Alice Munro? Woody Allen?

RL:  That’s right. Every time you read something by them you recognize that it reads like a New Yorker piece.

KM: It’s an important question. Writers perhaps unconsciously adjust for their market. I heard of Mavis Gallant  in ‘63 or ’64. She was introduced to me by Miriam Waddington who was from Montreal and knew Mavis. So I started reading her then, and, of course, I thought of her as a New Yorker writer. I was just a student, and just beginning to read those sorts of magazines. Do you think there is a New Yorker style, which Mavis fits into, or perhaps she has helped to create it, too?

RL: I think both those things are true.  When she sent in her first couple of stories, someone there recognized that here’s someone who writes  the kind of fiction that we’re identified with, that our readers want, and we should seize that, and they did. It is true that there are several writers who are so closely identified with The New Yorker that you don’t see them as publishing anywhere else.

KM: And Alice Munro as well. Is it the condition of alienation, when we think about these stories?

RL: Partly that, alienation often in terms of the stories themselves, in terms of the style. Part of The New Yorker style, to me, is that nothing ends, it’s soft.

KM: I was going to say that they wander off.

RL: That’s right, they sort of stop…

KM: Never mind Aristotle, down with Aristotle…

RL: Certainly Gallant has that, always enigmas at the end, so that it could could either way, and it’s strongly suggested that the way it is going to go is not the nice way.

KM: Something we were talking about earlier is detail. When you think about a New Yorker essay, whether it’s on Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson,  or tomatoes, or the rebuilding of Avery Fisher Hall, any New Yorker essay has more detail than any human being could possibly process. That seems to be to be a keynote of that magazine’s writing. And that also seems to me to be American. Like the social science novel. An American popular genre is so detailed so that people feel they get something for their money. In The New Yorker they get something for the time invested reading. They learn that tomatoes are gas-fired in upper Florida and so on. I think in most New Yorker fiction, including Mavis’s, the detail really serves the end of the story, but it is a feature of that kind of writing.

RL: Yes, sure.

KM: Do you think it is fair to say that’s an American contribution to 20th century writing — detail?

RL: I don’t know.

KM: You don’t have to go on record. You can back out…

RL: I don’t know about that, but the difference between non-fiction and fiction in The New Yorker is not that great. It’s recognizable as New Yorker stuff and her style suits that.

KM: Let’s talk about the two writers, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, who are very different writers, I think. Munro has a tremendous identification with and compassion for her characters. With Gallant there is a distance, she has them on a pin, or is looking through a glass.

RL: I think that’s probably true. With Munro you do feel her engagement with one character or another. With Gallant the relationships are unconsummated, people are observed  but what they are doing with each other often isn’t working either. Yet the descriptions are impressive.


KM: Is there a moment in From the Fifteenth District where characters seem to connect with each other, or with the reader?

RL: In “Potter” they do. The Poles in Paris, like Potter, or Piotr and his cousin, Marek. The relationship is close but they don’t fully connect in the sense that everyone is coming or going. And the people who are really there are always described in terms of hanging around the cafes.

KM: …or the train station…

RL: Being there physically and being somewhere else mentally and spiritually is an aspect of her characters. What’s really going on has only a token amount to do with the physical circumstances. It doesn’t have to be Paris, except that obviously she can describe Paris better because she lives there. But she will describe in great detail small places in Italy, for instance, where presumably she has spent some time as well.

KM: The Italian Riviera, or the point where Italy and France come together, figures in her stories, doesn’t it?

RL: Yes, in fact that’s one of the points that’s made. How can you tell what is Italy and what is France? They speak French, but the signs are in Italian. Right now it’s part of Italy, but about 75 years ago it was part of France, and who knows what it might be in the future. This is part, I suppose, of European alienation. There is a whole series of countries which haven’t always been there in that form. It would be interesting to ask Mavis what she thinks of 1992 and the grand new Europe. I dare say she has some opinions about it.

KM: I’m sure she has opinions. I wonder what she thinks of Mrs. Thatcher!

RL: She does have very strong views about French politics, and I did talk to her a couple times about that, but always her view is a real Canadian connection, which is curious and amusing. She invented a persona for herself, the name I can’t remember, but when she hears something on the radio that involves Canada, or sees something on television, she phones the stations and asks to talk to the producers, and even politicians and sets them straight, as in that’s not what it’s like in Canada, that’s a wrong interpretation, you really should get this right. So, in a way, she’s a kind of unofficial Canadian conscience.

KM: A gazetteer?

RL: Yes. I think she enjoys that a lot and realizes probably that the French don’t listen very carefully. I don’t know that she’s had any real political effect, but it amuses her to correct them about what is really going on. During the 14th  of July parade she was on television with Peter Mansbridge describing it. A friend told me that a float went by that was meant to represent the French colonial period, and Canada had a small part of it, and she said, “That’s not right, it’s the wrong period.” Of course, Canada wasn’t a colony of France at all, and then CBC cut her off. I wish I had heard that comment. I wouldn’t think of Mavis Gallant as someone to describe a parade to you, but it was an inspired choice. I’m sure that what she said, or at least what they let air, was very interesting and pertinent. She observes the French in that way as well. She wrote quite a lot about the school teacher who had an affair with one of her students — was her name Gabrielle Russier, is that right?— she’s also been very much involved in researching a book on Dreyfus.

KM: That Dreyfus project has gone on for more than a decade, hasn’t it?

RL: A long time. It’s been imminent for several years.

CaptureDégradation d’Alfred Dreyfus” from Le Petit Journal, Supplement Illustré no. 217, 1895 via Forward

KM: She’s working on archives, and letters and journals, isn’t she?

RL: And she met the daughter, who might not be alive now, knew her quite well.

KM: Let’s quickly review what happened in the Dreyfus case and try and put it in context. It’s in the 1890s in France and he was drummed out of the army as a Jew and imprisoned.

RL: And Émile Zola took up his case and wrote “J’accuse” and then Dreyfus was brought to trial and was released and then put back in prison.

KM: It was an enormous trial wasn’t it, with many transcripts?


RL: It’s one of those grey scandals which the French cling to forever. A hundred years later, it’s still fresh. It’s been written about many times and there are at least half a dozen books in print.

KM: There’s a long essay by Sartre, and all kinds of people who try to come to terms with this event.

RL: I think to be a respectable intellectual in France, you must. Mavis has new evidence, has seen some new material, which suggests a new interpretation.

KM: Obviously, it’s an ongoing project for her and a sign of her membership  in an international intellectual community, which is also how I see other people’s engagement with the case. Do you think that is her motivation, or could there be more personal reasons for her being involved, interested?

RL: Well, at some basic level, she is doing historical journalism, and she was a journalist.

KM: So she’s not Jewish; she went to a convent school?

RL: In fact, those potted little biographies for her books always start by saying she went to 17 schools. The first one when she was four was a convent, and there were altogether 17 in Montreal and the eastern United States.

KM: Was she kicked out of them?

RL: Next time I see her I’ll ask her, why 17? There must be some story there. Her father moved around? She was a quarrelsome student? She must have approved the figure 17,  because it appears on everything.

KM: There are so many enigmas for me about Mavis Gallant:  the 17 schools, the rootlessness, which is paradoxical as she is very rooted in one city, which didn’t begin as her own, and her seeing herself as a Canadian. Her characters move around, and then there is the very specificity of her details, which contrast with the rootlessness of the feeling in the stories. And that’s true all through the collection From The Fifteenth District. And it is set in a very specific district, the 15th arrondissement. But the stories themselves are set all over Western Europe, and yet that title story is a ghost story, for heaven’s sake, characters don’t even live there. They live in “other space.” So there are all these paradoxes at work.

Obviously, she’s kept on writing and I think she’ll continue to surprise us. If she is engaged with the Dreyfus book and it gets finished, she is not only doing historical journalism but making her mark on intellectual history, which is what the Dreyfus case is really about, isn’t it?

RL: I think that’s probably true. How consciously she approaches that I’m not sure.

KM: I think that’s one thing you feel with Gallant’s work, her tremendous intelligence. You don’t necessarily move toward her, she’s hard on her characters, there’s not immediately a great sympathy, although there is ultimately compassion, and you feel her intelligence, and it’s admirable.

RL:  She makes many people nervous, I think, because she’s very sharp and bright, so people feel a little hesitant about meeting her, about what she’s going to say to them and will they feel they have something silly or stupid. She wouldn’t do that but people think she might. It’s that general feeling that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, that you ought to kind of watch it. When she’s talking to you, she listens carefully, and you need be conscious about what you say. Not because she’s going to write it into a story, but because she’s listening carefully, and she’s critical.

KM: Someone said something similar about Virginia Woolf, whom I’ve always assumed wasn’t critical, but listened very carefully. In Woolf’s time, they would say she was a person who could elicit your darkest secrets, and she would use them. Not against you, but they would be used. In that way she was dangerous, and I would think the same about Gallant. Writers are observers; there’s no doubt about that anyway. But certain writers could elicit your secrets and your wariness could make you blurt out things. And perhaps those things might in the end be used against you.

RL: I’ll always be careful what I say to writers.

KM: I’m delighted to hear that!

The papers Gallant is placing at the Fisher Library are not full of personal details, but you would think so much of the information in her stories comes about through her keeping notebooks about people, and then using these notes later. It’s exciting to think that her work comes out of a kind of memory repository, rather than something else.

RL: Well, she doesn’t keep things for the sake of having 97 boxes. When she gets a letter, I am sure she doesn’t keep it unless it matters.

KM: So the Fisher collection is small but important?

RL: Yes and it has been used and is likely to be used more. There is a book on her.

KM: Janice Kulyk Keefer, Reading Mavis Gallant? I haven’t read it.

RL: Neither have I but we keep track of the people who use the collections and there’s already a whole file folder of people who have looked at her papers for one reason or another.

KM:  So a critic or a student will come and look at the papers, and then they’ll be able to deduce her working method among other things?

RL:  Yes, they might. I think anyone doing anything serious on her would have to be in touch with her, as you wouldn’t find enough in the papers, although it depends on what you are looking for. It’s a conscious archive, which I rather like, because it means a writer has taken some real responsibility rather than leaving it up to a curator or an archivist to decide at some point in the future what is to be saved and so on.

KM: You actually get rid of materials that people give you?

RL: No, no we don’t, but someday someone’s going to have to. The mountain of paper will become overwhelming to the point where someone will have to make real decisions and that probably won’t be me. Every writer varies so much, but it’s interesting, that someone so consciously forms her archive. So her archive is a little bit like her stories.

KM: I was going to say it sounds as if she is all of a piece. She’s a highly conscious and a highly responsible person. That certainly sheds a very important light on her, because I don’t think you know her as conscious or responsible from her stories, so some of these other things are very very important.  Thank you, Richard. I am very much looking forward to talking to Mavis Gallant next.

—Richard Landon & Karen Mulhallen

Richard Landon (1942-2011) was the Director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and Professor of English. He taught courses on aspects of the history of the book and bibliography for many years in the University of Toronto’s Graduate Department of English and the Faculty of Information. Among his publications are Bibliophilia Scholastica Floreat (2005), Ars Medica (2006), “Two Collectors: Thomas Grenville and Lord Amherst of Hackney” in Commonwealth of Books (2007), “The Elixir of Life: Richard Garnett, the British Museum Library, and Literary London” in Literary Cultures and the Material Book (2007), and articles in the History of the Book In Canada (2004-2007).

Karen Mulhallen

Karen Mulhallen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar, a Professor Emeritus of English at Ryerson University and adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto. Douglas Glover edited and wrote an introduction for her book of selected poems Acquainted With Absence and several of her poems have appeared on the pages of Numéro Cinq.



Aug 142014

GrisGris SlateGris-gris is a powerful charm.

Jody headshotJody Gladding

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



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

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


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

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

Tongue Depressorsswallow


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

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

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

Seal RockSeal Rock

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

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

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

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


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

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

—Darren Higgins


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

Steep3MinutesAfter the Vote to Mass Discontinue Unmapped Invisible Town Roads

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milweed#23 Sent to Susan Walp on 9/9

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

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


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

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

EggShellNesting Ravens

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

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

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

Hard WoodHardwood

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

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

Scan11 Sentences

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

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

Vellum book stitch

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

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

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

—Darren Higgins & Jody Gladding


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

Darren Higgins

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


Aug 122014

Eula Biss Eula Biss photograph by Akasha Rabut

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

—Adam Segal


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Eula Biss & Adam  Segal


Adame Segal

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


Jul 062014


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

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

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

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

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

—Dan Holmes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DH: And reconstruction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSCN4078Richard Grant’s House

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

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

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

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

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

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


DH: How are the juke joints now?

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

DH: Have you seen a big change since then?

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

DH: I didn’t know it was that dire.

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

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

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

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

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

DH: Early influences?

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

DH: What made you come to the US?

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

American Nomads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSCN4079 View from the porch

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Richard Grant & Dan Holmes

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


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



Jun 052014


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

TV Sutras_cover

A suture. A sutra.

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Natalie Helberg


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Dodie Bellamy & Natalie Helberg


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

Helberg reviewer pic

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


May 072014

Ingrid Ruthig - at Station GalleryIngrid Ruthig

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Heart Like A HouseYour Heart Like A House

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

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

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

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

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

Antoinette's Head - a TexTileAntoinette’s Head 

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

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

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

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

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

 —Ingrid Ruthig & Nance Van Winckel


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

Nance Van Winckel

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


May 012014

Davis:Theo Cote

(Photo: Theo Cote)

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

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

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

— Benjamin Woodard

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

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


BW: How did you shape the narratives?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Lydia Davis & Benjamin Woodard


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



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


Apr 012014


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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.



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?


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.”

Bianca StoneVigilant

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.


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.

BlackTightsBlack Tights

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).


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.


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.


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


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.
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


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.


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.


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



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

Marcom 2

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


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.


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.


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!


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



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.