Jul 142017
 

Grant Maierhofer Flamingos

Flamingos
Grant Maierhofer
ITNA Press, December 2016
ISBN: 978-0-9912196-9-8
188pp Paperback, $14.00

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In a recent article published in 3AM Magazine, Grant Maierhofer explains his personal experience of reading Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. “Reading FW,” he explains, “is a bodily thing, and strangely so. I tend to find I’ll begin with resistance, certain I’m misunderstanding every letter until suddenly a dreamy rhythm overtakes me and I’m able to stomach paragraphs in breaths. I’ll often slow to crawls in turn and view the pages as discrete, visual, concrete passages rendered as micro- and macrocosmos for diligent poring and slackjawed stupor alike. The text seems to work on these levels because Joyce had thought the bulk of his life about what printed text might venture to do.” “I read Finnegans Wake,” he continues, “as an ode to forms, forms explored by Joyce himself and referenced throughout the text; forms shattered and rendered useless to traditional interpretive means by intuitive, heartily experimental—almost spiritually so—pages of linguistic forest fires simultaneously enacting and subverting their own interpretation; and forms Joyce still saw as viable means of depicting, defining, and recording human experience in a language at once the stuff of dreams, Esperanto, and music to which, I’ll agree, all art aspires.”

Reading and writing are, in fact, bodily things, although not many writers are fully aware of that. I would say that the great experimental and underground literary traditions—what Ronald Sukenick touted “the rival tradition”—are, at least in part, an attempt to re-embody the literary practice. Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper—two of the authors often mentioned by Grant Maierhofer—are recent wonderful examples of this kind of stylistic exploration.

“This work will be a nightmare. You are no detective”—says an anonymous patient in Flamingos. It comes as no surprise that the most accurate words I’ve read about Flamingos thus far were by the Swedish-American poet and translator Johannes Goransson, who has been theorizing about the new “rhetorical punk” styles (using Eloy Fernández Porta’s term) he names “atrocity kitsch.” “This is a noir without the proper detective to piece back together the crime and its narrative”—writes Goransson—“This is self-surveillance under the influence of drugs, art, poetry. Without the narrative cure, the novel becomes sick.” Flamingos’s characters embrace the impossibility of the cure and celebrate the sudden joy of recognizing this impossibility and turning it into art. Art starts when you accept that, as Joyelle McSweeney wrote, “nothing can be undone, but everything can be done again,” because “the Artist cannot remove him or herself from the economy of Violence. Vulnerability to Art is Vulnerability to Violence; that’s what Vulnerability means: the ability to be wounded, to bear the mark of the wound, to suffer malignancy, and to issue malignant substances.” [1]

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Germán Sierra (GS): One of the first things that called my attention in Flamingos—maybe because I have been recently doing some writing on the topic—was its performative structure. Later, I read in your very interesting research notes on Flamingos in Necessary Fiction that you want “an art a bit like life and stripped of tendencies toward understanding, the body and head rendered in text and the text as distillation of body and head — a performative thing.” I believe the idea of performance is very important in your work, and it becomes more evident in Flamingos. In my view, Flamingos could be perfectly imagined as a play—there’s even a Dramatis Personae list at the beginning—in which the characters project themselves on a group therapy-like background. This creates a flexible environment (much like social media environments) where fragments might work as independent monologues but they might also contain dialogues within themselves. You said that the book started with disparate elements and fragments, how did you came up with its final structure?

Grant Maierhofer (GM): This book took very different forms during its editing, and even really composition. I was working with smaller pieces in part because I’ve had an ongoing fascination with the fragment as a potent literary form, especially these days. As a result of this, the larger form would change depending on which fragments in which voice or register were working well. The two big influences early on were Ronald Sukenick and Kathy Acker, with Acker’s Empire of the Senseless and Florida offering an ideal reference point for these shifting, therapy-tinged voices. It wasn’t until I solidified a publisher with this early version, though, that the bigger structure became apparent. My publisher, Christopher Stoddard, offered to have me work with Travis Jeppessen on bringing these disparate parts together and finding coherence, a finished book. What I had were pages and pages of documents, the Flamingo sections written on neon index cards, others written on my phone or saved as separate chunks in Word, and a sense of how it fit to me but little desire to give it what seems a more traditional structural spine, removing this cast of voices and their more aggressive relationship to one another—something about the final text I feel good about, did not want to remove. So Travis, over the course of editing and having conversations, would argue from a reader’s perspective and desire for some coherence to these voices. The result, then, is my attempt to respond to him and any potential reader while hopefully holding onto the performative energy not only of composing, but of the relationships these voices—their passing referenced, syntactic disruption, etc.—have within the text. I think of Samuel Fuller and his Shock Corridor, or Lynne Tillman’s American Genius, or Shulamith Firestone’s Airless Spaces. These are compelling to me because they are overwhelming, and in many ways they’re overwhelming because you have disparate, perhaps opposed, voices or perspectives or even sentences clawing at and over one another for an audience’s time. To me, these seem like somewhat performative concerns. A writer generates something, hopefully to some degree indicative of the hell of being alive these days and making sense of the sea of information. A reader takes this in, and hopefully in that transmission perspective is gained, a quiet amid screams, or even a context for screaming. My favorite writers enact something on this order, I think. As well as musicians, painters, filmmakers. The final form, then, aspired to something like a chorus of escapees from modern life smearing mud on themselves and carving diagnoses on walls. How close anything comes is impossible to know, but this was my hope.

GS: Yes, I understand your process very well, as I usually work with originally separate fragments too. In my last novel, Standards, I spent more time on trying to find the “right order” for the fragments—which, from the beginning I knew it wasn’t the chronological one—than on writing them. The initial references you mention, Ron Sukenick and Kathy Acker, have been also very important to me. I’m especially happy to see Sukenick in this context, as I believe that, unlike Acker, he’s kind of in oblivion now. In my opinion, he deserves more attention. Some of his work is available online, but I’d like to see his books republished. Getting back to Flamingos, I like very much your image of a “context for screaming”—I believe this is a quite good definition of what experimental fiction has been pursuing for a while now, maybe because it’s harder to develop such a context in literature than in the audiovisual arts, where experimentation and risk have been historically much more appreciated. But I agree with you on the idea that we’re at a very special moment for literature, much like it happened from the late 70s to the early 90s when postmodernism mutated into avant-pop. I believe the literary use of language is becoming “counter-spectacular” as a way to provide alternatives to the “reality-as-show” we’re living into, and this is expressed through queerness, radical weirdness, obscurity and, particularly in Flamingos, madness. In my view Flamingos points to the recovery of the de-territorializing power of madness which had been recently re-territorialized by neuropharmacology and neuroscience: the therapy-gone-wrong framework works as a performative representation of our current society as spectacle-gone-wrong. This brings us back to Foucault and Deleuze, of course, but also to Beckett, Ionesco and Jarry. And it seems of particular importance in a moment when “reason” is often presented as “software for the show,” as something quantifiable that could be “traded.”

GM: Absolutely. Your initial comment, too, feeds this larger question of attempting to represent what’s been used as a limiting category, madness, in a (hopefully) more fluid way. I would feel awful if characters, or voices, or moments in Flamingos were easily quantifiable by diagnoses, and I think this is where literature presents unique opportunities that don’t exist as readily in other art forms. Bowie, for example, queered our sense of what the rockstar could be, but it required the extra performative dimension for this to fully resonate—he had to appear. The book is dedicated to Nick Blinko because Rudimentary Peni is one of the best musical iterations of the madness of living I can think of, and yet the feeling of listening to their ‘Inside’ or something, is far different from reading the mania encased in his novel The Primal Screamer, and it’s that difference I hope to pay attention to. I think of pure theoreticians working against heteronormativity versus the experience of reading The Letters of Mina Harker, in one sense a novel that chronicles a marriage between a male and female, but one that queers the institution of marriage far better than pure theory can by leaving in the mess of days, of lived experience. Somewhere, it might be included in James Miller’s biography, Foucault talked about seeing the work he did as closer to fictive, creative work. Sitting in archives and sifting through documents much like Kathy Acker did and assembling reams to counter the force of history. That slippage, that line between pure theorizing and enacting experience, performativity, or even language and experimentation therein, is why I see fiction as increasingly important in our time. It simultaneously offers new ways of reading notoriously dense theorists who worked against our dry, useless institutions, and new applications for reading more akin to experiencing performed art—relentless concerts that tear into the head, witnessing live artworks that ruin the artist like the early Throbbing Gristle/COUM Transmission stuff.

There’s been a long tendency of merely aping those who came just before. Duchamp talked about this somewhere, that artists might be better off pulling from random eras and movements—Brion Gysin’s idea of writing being about fifty years behind painting, etc.—and I find that very important. Not all writers or readers are engaging in the established traditions of literature as defined by institutions primarily dominated by heterosexual white men, and I’m of the view that the best work is being done against this. Read whatever you like, of course, but I think it highly important that at least some work attempt to bury any sense of an established canon. For me, that has meant seeking inspiration elsewhere, and the experience has proven the more fulfilling.

I think that what Sukenick did, and those aligned with him and those who followed at FC2, in turn, is probably the most interesting wave in American literature to yet occur, and all of it seems bound up in what I’ve just (poorly) attempting to state. I don’t know or care whether people will read those rather niche texts for fifty, one hundred years, because to me they’ve already reframed my sense of a broader literary culture and shaped my worldview. In some sense, that might make it even more compelling. We can read about the Black Mountain College, for instance, and feel completely lost in what seems like the most important academic/arts experiment in the 20th century, but all the while other students and teachers existed at other colleges in other arts movements never knowing about or at least acknowledging its existence. We’ll always have documentation of this sort of thing, and I believe it’ll always find some audience, but it seems quite alright that they be avid devotees and small movements like punk when compared to arena rock or something in its heyday. Nostalgia will always magnify it in turn, but nostalgia’s a toxic thing. I dunno, I veered off a bit there. These are the things I find compelling and why, maybe.

GS: Yes, I agree with you on the toxicity of nostalgia, this also points to the need to find different ways to think the past, more in the “archaeological” or “genealogical” mode like Foucault did. I find that many contemporary novelists are approaching the past that way, probably also because we’re living in very “aesthetically undefined” times, and we need to borrow aesthetical references from the past—avant-garde, modernity, post-modernity… Returning to your characters in Flamingos (and your previous books), one thing I like a lot is that they’re allowed—they allow themselves—to be wrong. I believe this is a very important feature in our days—when most people are obsessed with dichotomies such as truth/post-truth or facts/alternative facts. Actually, I find that the power of punk (and madness) resides in accepting the likeliness to be wrong but going ahead anyway—the “you-don’t-need-to-know-how-to play” thing, just jump on stage and do your best. In Flamingos everybody seems to admit being wrong—even Simon, the therapist, seems aware of being playing a role: “And I taught them. And I did not.” This is significant because, in my view, the most important thing for keeping a “sustainable” community is not truth, but trust. It’s possible to trust someone even thinking than she or he is wrong, and this is the essence of community and also the cognitive basis for a healthy skepticism. As Fernando Colina—a Spanish psychiatrist—wrote: “Reason is never there, reason is always about to come.” So maybe the punk gesture means that now: allowing yourself to be wrong to be able to catch reason as it arrives.

GM: I’m very interested in all of this, in part because my approach when writing anything has usually been one of immersion. I want to immerse myself in a voice, a worldview, a location, whatever. I don’t necessarily hope to find something close to Truth. I hope to enact something, to offer something, and I think community is a closer notion to it than artistic truth or even coherence. Possibility among individuals. Trust in that possibility. All of this is making me think of Vito Acconci. He started as a writer. Went to the best-known U.S. MFA program and wound up leaving to create situations and performance art, and thereafter to create very community-centric works of architecture and sculpture. He’s indicated that he did this because a growing dissatisfaction with the page as an art space. For me, for all of my dissatisfaction, the page is still my favorite space and words and other materials therein to transmit meaning still pull me more than anything else.

I think characters or even works remaining open to the prospect of wrongness is fundamental. If I didn’t feel this way I might engage in language through poetry alone, or nonfiction alone, but with fiction the assumed relationship to readers is precarious from the beginning, skeptical from the beginning, so there’s a good deal that can be done in terms of empathy, identification, or even anger or outright rejection of characters. I was very interested in this early on, I think, because I started writing while in rehab, and continued as a sort of breather from AA and NA and the like. In there I’d find myself telling stories depending on mood, or circumstance. Say I’m in a room with working-class older alcoholics in rural Minnesota, and I know I need to talk about my anxiety. I might talk about the same situation as I’d discuss in a meeting for addicts under 25, but it’ll be adjusted due to circumstance, and to speak to my anxiety where possible. I’m performing, then. Not dishonest really but calibrated so that I might get the most from a given meeting. Emphasize relationships and trust in therapy if that’s pressing on me. Emphasize relapse if I’m losing my footing and trust people can identify and offer insight. It wasn’t as conscious as it sounds now in retrospect, but it was all unquestionably bound up in how I started writing and came to need literature and art.

I started based on feeling, and need. Elias Tezapsidis talked about The Persistence of Crows and how it didn’t seem written for readers. I think that’s probably true, as most of my early writing was based on an urge to just occupy a mindset for X amount of time and see it transmitted to a measurable form, be it a book, or the early stories from Marcel, whatever. These characters could be wrong, then, or just buried in flaws and even total ignorance. They weren’t created as tools, or at least not pawns, but responses to a loneliness, a desire to open my head up.

After this I discovered writers like Christine Schutt, Brian Evenson, Maggie Nelson and more, so my concerns became more formal and structural. The object became the ideal, I guess, rather than the process and the feelings therein. Being wrong or being flawed is still a priority, as I am a human animal in 2017, but I’m also highly interested in the possibilities offered by fiction, by books, by words presented, not offered by other media.

GS: Your new book GAG is coming out in April from Inside the Castle. Is it possible to know a little about it?

GM: GAG began after my story collection Marcel went out of print. I wanted to destroy that, so I took the very first draft of that book and began cutting it apart. I got rid of huge amounts of that text, and started filling in the gaps with a narrative that’s sort of a nod to Dennis Cooper’s work, among others. Marcel proper is being reissued by Dostoyevsky Wannabe, so making GAG into an entirely new animal grew highly important. My process was similar in this to the composition of the PX138 3100-2686 User’s Manual, as indicated in the excerpt “Clog” on Queen Mob’s Teahouse. I would, say, isolate one small section of 100 words or so, inject it with new material, then automatically translate it through Korean translation software or something. Then, piece-by-piece, I’d translate it back so it would be slightly ruined, and rewrite it into a new document. Then I was making collages and adding text or warping it through that. Then the publisher would work with me on visual/typographical elements, and over time this new thing was born to do with suburban violence, ruined language, and distributions of power in America’s very problematic state.

Grant Maierhoff GAG

It’s been a long time in the making, but I feel very good about it overall. GAG and the Manual that’s coming out on Solar Luxuriance are sister texts, so having them released in the same year is a great feeling.

I’ve thought a lot about Dennis Cooper’s work since first discovering it, how he’s basically reshaped the potential of fiction with his GIF novels, and prior to that how The Marbled Swarm reworked how language can manipulate and fuck with readers. I wanted to honor his work and incorporate aspects I’ve loved from all of it in one print book. The GIF stuff, his blog, The Sluts and The Marbled Swarm, GAG was, among many things, an attempt to honor that body of work.

GS: It sounds amazing!  I just went through the first 20 pages or so in the PDF, and I think I got its feeling very well. I am very interested in this kind of composition processes—I experimented myself with the electronic re-translation of texts in some parts of my 2009 novel “Try Using Other Words.” What I’ve read thus far reminds me the destroyed, “dismembered” prose of other contemporary writers—besides Dennis Cooper—I now we both admire, like Leslie Scalapino, Blake Butler, Sean Kilpatrick, or the cyberpunk novels by the japanese artists Kenji Siratori. Cooper, of course, deserves special attention. He’s such a extraordinary figure in contemporary American writing, not just for his own work but also because of his continuous support of the experimental, underground, punk, or whatever literary scene! We all (not just American writers, but also people like myself who particularly enjoy this kind of writing) should be very grateful for his blog and his strong implication with fringe books no matter where they come from.  It would be difficult to understand the American literary environment of the last sixty years without the generosity of writers such as himself, Sukenick, Gordon Lish, Bob Coover…

So you have a lot of books coming out soon! GAG, PX138 3100-2686 User’s Manual, and Drain Songs, and I’ve read another three from the madness cycle are on the making: Girnt, Drome and Unacabine… I’m looking forward to all of them!

GM: I think I began writing as a means of leveling out a certain degree of misery I felt at being alive. Going forward, and becoming aware of worldly miseries and the struggles facing everyone, my response has been an odd mixture of wanting solely to champion the work of those who’ve said and done it better than I ever could, and devotion to writing things myself to attempt to process being alive in terms I’ve come to recognize in the works of others—many you’ve mentioned—that seemed, at least sometimes, to call for responses or communion. I read Jan Ramjerdi’s Re.La.Vir and suddenly GAG, a manuscript about fucked-up people in basements and assholes in suits controlling them, had a formal sibling. Sometimes it’s tempting to simply review books and point to Cooper, or Ramjerdi, or Delany, or Vollmann, as brilliant examples of what literature can do, can be in response to hellish situations and experiences. Sometimes, though, that temptation is odder, more deeply felt and sometimes even terrifying, and then my own writing seems to happen. I don’t know. If I’ve been productive it’s been the result of this and a good deal of self-hatred, disgust, and hopelessness. As defined earlier, though, I’m more interested in the extreme fringe-punk approaches of groups like Throbbing Gristle, or artists like Tehching Hsieh, who allow the work to ruin them and accuse them and eat them and harm them in the process, so that the end product looks less like a piece of protest art than Lucifer Rising. I think my writing started more straightforwardly, and I tend to detest my early stuff because of that, but now I’m preoccupied with experience, abstraction, and a kind of deep internal violence that hopefully comes across in these more recent projects.

I was very, very obsessed with Cooper’s George Miles Cycle for several months a few years ago, and even thinking about it now I get caught up in how transformative it was to read those books. As a result, I always dreamt of writing a cycle. It wasn’t until Flamingos was in a second draft that it became fully clear it could be done, so long as it wasn’t just a bad ripoff of Cooper. Madness, or mental illness, and many of the possible and horrific iterations therein, these are ideas I’m more comfortable engaging with as I’ve spent my life on the often ugly side of them. Fiction, in turn, seemed like a reasonable way of not speaking as an authority to anyone else’s experiences  of these things, so the project has persisted.

I think about Elizabeth Young’s close to her introduction to Pandora’s Handbag, which, paraphrased, goes something like: I guess if nobody’s writing the books I want to read then I’ll have to write them. Damn it. That pretty perfectly articulates my state most of the time. I read the work of others I love as much as I can. Sometimes a feeling is too personal or impossible or an idea’s too particular and thus I’ve got to write as well. That’s more or less how it goes.

GS: Your previous book Marcel is now being re-issued by Dostoyevsky Wannabe, which also published your poetry collection Grobbing Thistle. Flamingos was published by ITNA press, and GAG by Inside The Castle.  I love your publisher choices, all of them are small and independent but very well curated, very personal projects. How do you choose your publishers?

GM: In a weird way, although many conversations about the state of publishing are despairing, I feel as if we’re living in one of the most plentiful stretches of time for small presses, for publishers and writers interested in the work and the book as object, as experience, as performance, things are pretty good and compelling. I’ve been lucky to find presses willing to embrace uncertainty and experimentation, and really I’ve found them based on seeking writers and artists publishing through them. Inside the Castle reissued Hour of the Wolf, which, alongside Slow Slidings and Throw Yourself Out and See If It Makes Me Come, is one of my absolute favorite things M. Kitchell has yet written. John Trefry’s work as well, and the aesthetic prompts of the press, were as inspiring as synopses for artworks themselves, and I guess that fed into things in turn. Ditto for Dostoyevsky Wannabe, their approach seemed in line with what my favorite writers do. They’ve also published heroes of mine like Sean Kilpatrick, Gary Shipley and others, so when I wanted to find a press who’d really be on board for something experimental and fucked like Grobbing Thistle, they seemed perfect. Although much of Marcel is more straightforward, I feel it fits well with the cassettes DW puts out, and with the additional stories and whatnot it seemed worth reissuing. Another thing is, I have zero interest in what a lot of–especially U.S.–writers seem interested in as far as fame, or even a massive audience for the work. Presses have inspired me just as much as writers in this regard, with outfits like Cal A Mari Archive consistently publishing incredibly risky, innovative material, doing it with a personal touch that furthers the efforts of its writers, but not speaking to the larger culture of publishing at all, except to push back and whisper fuck you a bit now and again. That interest has led me to write how I’ve come to write, I think, and it’s also led me to the wonderful, strange, queer, outsider publishers I’ve been lucky enough to share work with. Small presses, in turn, are usually run by writers, which might be an ideal model, I’m not sure. Sometimes it can lead to an excess of dreaming that can’t quite materialize, but often it means that the entire experience is performative, engaged, and shot through with the same anger and desire that inspired the writing in the first place.

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Grant Maierhofer is the author of Postures, GAG, Flamingos and others. His work has appeared in LIT, Berfrois, The Fanzine and elsewhere. He lives and works in Idaho.

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German Sierra

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Germán Sierra is a neuroscientist and fiction writer from Spain. He has published five novels—El Espacio Aparentemente Perdido, La Felicidad no da el Dinero, Efectos Secundarios, Intente usar otras palabras, and Standards—and a book of short stories, Alto Voltaje. His essays and stories have appeared in Guernica, Numéro Cinq, Asymptote, The Quarterly Conversation, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Casper Review, The Scofield, and in more than twenty collective books.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. McSweeney, J. The Necropastoral, Poetry, Media, Occults. The University of Michigan Press, 2015. p. 186
Jul 122017
 

Adam Daily

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Everything is expressed through relationship. Colour can exist only through other colours, dimension through other dimensions, position through other positions that oppose them. That is why I regard relationship as the principal thing.
— Piet Mondrian

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Artist Adam Daily works in photography, digital graphics, collage, printmaking and painting. You would not know this to look at his works, however, as much of the process of his creation goes on behind the scenes. Adam defies tradition with computer techniques that are painterly, playful and organic, and painting techniques that hide the human hand via mechanized perfection. This lends a great deal of mystery and intrigue to the finished works. His methodology is rigorous, his performance, exacting.

—Mary Kathryn Jablonski

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April ink on synthetic paper 44 x 60in 2008April – ink on synthetic paper, 44×60 inches, 2008

Mary Kathryn Jablonski (MKJ): There is a series of your older works that I just can’t get out of my head. I am in love with these black and white invented “landscapes” that I consider monotypes, which may in fact not be prints at all, since I recall the surfaces as so mysterious, I couldn’t pin them down at the time. And what I’m really interested to know is how these works relate to your current boldly colored large-scale paintings, which seem quite different.

Adam Daily (AD): I think first of all that the relationship between this body of work that I’m making now and my older body of work is about organized systems. My current work begins as a drawing of a library of shapes, and it all happens digitally. Everything happens inside Adobe Illustrator. I will build, say, 10 different shapes, and every shape will be in the same isometric perspective and structure, and every shape fits on the same grid. I then take each shape and produce it in four to eight different colors. So that gives me a grid of shapes to work with. I will have say, five different shapes in five different colors. That grid I then use to begin finding both spatial and color relationships between individual forms.

Some of the shapes I use are simple; some are complex. Because they generally all follow the same structure, what I do, through changes in layering and height and location on the x/y axis, is explore the possibilities of these individual units, linking them to create larger units, and I find that space occasionally flattens or opens depending upon the way colors or shapes relate to one another.

M4 acrylic on pvc 48 x 48 in 2013M4 – acrylic on PVC, 48×48 inches, 2013

I’ve made a system for developing an image, so for my current paintings, it can be an intense process of drawing, editing, revising and producing different versions of these works. That process is very similar to the process of the black and white images I was making earlier. With them, I was building a library of photographs. So instead of an abstract shape, I would take my original photographs of many objects and manipulate them; sometimes to the point where the object turned into something completely different and unrecognizable; sometimes I would simply adjust the contrast or scale. I would then take these photographic pieces, cut them up and reassemble them – also digitally – to create a composite image out of the original images. Through that process I was trying to think of a place I hadn’t been, and I didn’t have a reference image of that place. So I was trying to build, to imagine, an unknown place from images sourced from my actual surroundings. In this way, both processes utilize this idea of building a library, then manipulating those images to form a composition.

MKJ: Clearly in both cases it’s a collage process and a digital process, but it’s also painterly and printmakerly in some ways as well, right? The black and white works are treated eventually like monotypes, and in the paintings, you’re transferring your image onto the painting surface, and then you almost approach silkscreen or multi-block woodcut techniques, with the application of one color at a time, true?

M5 acrylic on pvc 48 x 48in 2013M5 – acrylic on PVC, 48×48 inches, 2013

AD: Right. So after I’ve digitally produced the drawing for my painting, I work on a sheet of Sintra® PVC Foam Board, which is bright white plastic that has a very consistent smooth finish. It doesn’t need to be primed and it’s a very bright white. I then transfer my drawing onto the plastic simply using a ruler and very sharp pencil to define the edges of the form, and then I do work applying one color at a time. What I do is say, “Okay, let me find all of the areas that will be magenta,” and map those out. One of the most interesting ways that these paintings work, for me, is when there’s a really high degree of precision, so that you get a very interesting color interaction where colors are coming together.

I tape off the areas to be painted, and then I use a small automotive spray gun with translucent or transparent acrylic paints. In order to get the color to be as brilliant as possible, I have to apply a consistent thickness across the painting, so that it appears to be an opaque, solid color, when in reality it’s just a consistent film over a sheet of white. What this means is that the light will travel through the paint, bounce off the white, come back and be intensely luminous.

In this way, it’s not like a traditional painting process at all. There’s no brush involved, no mixing of paint colors on the surface of the painting. I specifically avoid overlapping any color with another color to prevent interference. The colors can touch each other, but not overlap, so there’s no color mixing, which would reduce the brilliance of some of the pigments.

Each shape, as I design it, will have three or more tonalities on it. This idea of isometric perspective and the light falling on the shape gives me these three different tones, and those are generally tints of the original pigment.

M6 acrylic on pvc 48 x 48in 2013M6 – acrylic on PVC, 48×48 inches, 2013

One of the things I discovered over time is that for me, making compositional decisions during the painting process hinders my outcome, and making all my compositional decisions beforehand in the digital space allows me to then focus on the manufacturing process, so that the image comes out the way I want it to.

MKJ: What if there’s an error during the manufacture of an 8′ x 8′ painting? Are there any changes during the painting process, or would this be cause to discard a piece and start over?

AD: Sometimes, obviously, when you make something you have a mistake, and I have ways of fixing things. When I make an error, it doesn’t change the course of the image. I am not making spur-of-the-moment decisions. Decisions made during the painting process are entirely color decisions, not compositional. When I make the drawing there are general ideas about color; what color is going to go where. Generally. But specific color is not decided until I mix the pigment. I have systems that I use in order to make this work. An order of events has to be followed.

MKJ: You’ve called it “methodical, intentional, mechanical.”

AD: And frequently when people see the paintings, they think that the paint is actually pieces of vinyl (or some other material) that have been cut out with a knife and put down. Although taping off a shape and painting it a color is not a new idea and in many ways is not a very interesting idea, these particular materials and this particular way of applying it does leave some doubt as to the manufacturing process.

MKJ: Yes, doubt… or intrigue!

AD: Right. And in all of my works, in the black and white works as well, I’m interested in a piece that is ambiguous as to its manufacture. In many ways, this is not a painting process. I’ve found that one of the hardest things as a painter, and one of the things that painters do most is make decisions during the painting process. I find that having to make technical, material, compositional and color decisions all at the same time is problematic for me. And that I always inevitably end up building systems for myself.

MKJ: It’s almost mathematical or musical in its devices.

AD: Yes, right. It is. And the compositional process, because I do it on the computer, is so fluid, playful and free, there’s never a material consequence for a mistake. You don’t have to wipe anything off or clean your hands or anything. You can just play for hours upon hours with shapes, and start to find harmonies in shapes and little interactions between forms that spark your imagination, and that gets very exciting. That ability to separate composition from production allows for more complex compositions and a much more refined production process.

MKJ: Let’s go back to the black and white works vis-à-vis this compositional process and production process. There is some manipulation after the printing, just as with a monotype plate.

May ink on synthetic paper 44 x 60in 2008May – ink on synthetic paper, 44×60 inches, 2008

AD: Exactly. This is one of the major differences between the black and white and the color work. Those pieces begin, as I said, with photographs that I manipulate, and I build a composition in Photoshop in this case. And with these, the digital version is very crude; the intersection between objects and the lighting is crude. It does not appear as though I’m building a seamless imaginary land. It’s very rough. I make a print on synthetic paper, basically a sheet of plastic, using an ink jet printer. The paper is very smooth, and again bright white. The print comes out wet. The image can be washed off. It can be scraped, blotted, added to with more ink. And I use a variety of tools — eraser, Q-tip, makeup sponges — to manipulate an image that was crude in the digital and refine it in the physical.

One of the other things that happens is that when an ink jet printer puts down droplets, they typically absorb into the paper with a bit of dot-gain, which means the dots get bigger. In the case of the synthetic paper, because the ink doesn’t absorb, if you get the dots too close together, they form a puddle that’s very, very dark. So what is 80 percent black in the digital version is 100 percent black in the physical version. This results in a higher contrast image, because you’re taking the blacks and you’re darkening them. But then, additionally, you get interesting photographic effects in the lighter gray tonalities. You can see subtle tonal changes, something that an ink jet printer can produce extremely effectively, again, without evidence of a human interaction.

So the same questions arise: What would happen if you produced this in graphite? If you made it as a litho, what would happen? How do those different processes reveal themselves in the finished product, and what is the effect of seeing that process on your interpretation of the image? I like to build a process that is elusive in a way to allow the work to be just about the image.

October ink on synthetic paper 44 x 60in 2008October – ink on synthetic paper, 44×60 inches, 2008

The black and white images and the large colorful paintings are not only similar in process; they are both about landscape. In the large color paintings, you are not looking into the landscape. In these pictures, they don’t give the illusion of depth, because of the isometric perspective. They actually tilt inward into the space of the viewer, especially the larger paintings, where the scale of the objects can be as big or bigger than you are, so they interject themselves into the landscape. The smaller pictures become almost their own internal space because they are smaller than you, but also because of the layering of the shapes. You can travel in the picture – not to a horizon line, not to a vanishing point, but sort of in and out of the forms in the picture. So in that way it is “landscape.” They become a place, but that place sometimes becomes less recognizable than the place could be in the black and white works. The black and white work is “our” world; the place in the geometric works is a mathematical world, an imagined color space.

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Adam Daily is a New York-based artist, designer, and printmaker. He combines digital and handmade processes to create a variety of work. His current body of work explores systems and organizational structures through geometric spatial interactions and dynamic color relationships. His paintings have been exhibited widely in both group and solo exhibitions. In 2011, he was awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Fellowship in Digital/Electronic Arts. He has had solo exhibitions at Salem Art Works in Salem, NY; Schafer Landing in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; and The Foundry for Art and Design in Cohoes, NY. He recently designed and installed a new large-scale mural for the City of New Rochelle, NY.  www.adam-daily.com

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A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist and poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry JournalBluelineHome Planet NewsSalmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.

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Jul 022017
 

John Hampshire photo by Elana GehanJohn Hampshire, photo by Elana Gehan

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Part of the joy of looking at art is getting in sync in some ways with the decision-making process that the artist used and the record that’s
embedded in the work.

— Chuck Close

John Hampshire employs and embodies labyrinths: he cloaks a mathematician inside an introvert, inside a college professor. He is best known for elaborate portrait drawings that disintegrate upon close inspection into paths of abstract lines that never overlap, a seeming chaos of doodles.

It could be argued that some writers, too, internalize within one body such a complex spirit, inquisitive and process-driven, constantly in motion, and their journals become great art, even when they feel like they are “not creating.” Biographer Diane Middlebrook reveals this phenomenon in the work of Sylvia Plath and refers to Plath’s journals as “the hand drawing the hand” (think M.C. Escher), claiming that, “Her writing itself enacts the process by which writing comes to be.”

So it is in the work of John Hampshire: the drawing enacts the process by which drawing comes to be. His drawings and paintings begin with what would seem random mark-making, only to evolve and congeal into recognizable imagery. We are left with the entire record before us, since Hampshire’s work gels at a distance, but dissolves when viewed up close. I’ve asked him a series of questions that led to these writings. We chose to remove the text of the questions, so that in the manner of his labyrinthine work, in the grand design, the hand alone could draw the hand.

— Mary Kathryn Jablonski

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In the mid-1990s I started drawing self-portraits, looking in the mirror, using pen and a language of mark-making and symbols to construct the images. These consisted of things like teardrops, arrows, molecular structures, etc. I wanted these things to remain legible or visible in the finished drawing, and so the idea of not crossing any lines developed out of this concern. Over time, as the drawings became more resolved or detailed, the interest in the symbols fell by the wayside but the structure of not crossing any lines became integral to the drawing process; creating impediments to slow down the process and keep me engaged, a circuitous route to making something. While this process formally started in my work in the mid 90s it is an activity that occurred in my notebooks and doodles in high school.

Self-portrait, acrylic on panel, 11x14, 2013Self-portrait, acrylic on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2013

It’s natural for me to paint the people around me. Most of my subjects tend to be people I know, some more casually, some more intensely, than others. I do occasionally work from images of people I do not know, but this is rare. My consciousness or awareness of these people, their natures, or my relationship to them may or may not influence the work. I can’t help but think that it does, but it is not something that I think about when I am working. Formal issues of color and mark and abstraction and representation are the things that I tend to think more consciously about when I’m working. That’s not to say that the results do not have qualities beyond these concerns.

Gina, acrylic on panel, 11x14, 2014Gina, acrylic on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2014

The labyrinth drawings typically are in black and white, as the introduction of color makes them much more complicated. The paintings vacillate between full bombastic colors or subdued earthy colors, or are completely restricted to grays. I usually aim for full color with the portrait paintings, but after doing several of those and needing relief, I resort to black and white.

Lauren, acrylic on panel, 11x14, 2015Lauren, acrylic on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2015

I started the paintings around the same time as the drawings, in the mid 90s, and the sensibilities that directed the drawings related very much to the sensibilities that directed the paintings. Painting is very much about physicality and layering and those are not things I was very successful at denying, hence the continuing of layering marks of color over one another. The paint marks themselves are more or less responsive to information derived from the subject matter that I’m looking at, whether a person in front of me, my reflection in the mirror, or a photograph. In all cases I am pulling vague and then subsequently more specific information from my interaction with the subject matter. My aim, in the drawings and paintings, is that the language of mark or line remain present and visible and that the process of the making of the drawing or painting is readily apparent or accessible to the viewer. The tension between both mark and image simultaneously asserting themselves is something I like to have in the work. I’m an abstract painter unwilling to let go of the primal desire for representation.

Inherent Strings attached, acrylic and string on panel, 11x14, 2015Inherent Strings attached, acrylic, string on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2015

The painting itself (or in some cases drawing) usually determines the degree of resolution that occurs in the work. I find that the recognizability of the human face allows for an immense amount of abstraction to occur while retaining the visual implication of a face. The degree of resolution that the painted image brings is determined by the painting and whether it’s working or not. I keep painting until I feel the work is resolved; sometimes this requires more and sometimes less resolution in an image.

The paintings more recently have also incorporated clear medium between layers of paint, physically separating the paint strokes from each other, and playing up the three-dimensional quality of painting. In some cases I’ve even incorporated string or other objects in the clear medium. This goes along with the nature of the way I handle paint in these works; less like manipulated liquid material. The marks retain themselves and their individual identities more like the tesserae used to make mosaics.

Labyrinth 308, ink on door, 32x80, 2014Labyrinth 308, ink on door, 32″ x 80″, 2014

Although I have made some very large portraits, most are somewhat conservative in scale, and it is the landscapes that tend to be more monumental. My interest is in the sublime power of nature, but more tangibly, I am interested in the dichotomy between the ephemeral qualities of weather or fire or clouds and the tangible physicality of the language of mark-making or lines that are used to build these images. While the portraits are typically of people I know based on photos I take, the landscape references are an amalgam of my own photos, appropriated imagery and imagined passages. The complexity of landscapes and weather, the deeper sense of space contrasting the surface of the drawing and the greater compositional possibilities are all attractive traits for me with the landscapes.

Labyrinth 338, ink on door, 24x80, 2015Labyrinth 338, ink on door, 24″ x 80″, 2015

Lately, particularly with the landscapes, I’ll start with some long lines that will break up the picture plane, which tends to be on prepared hollow core doors these days, and I’ll have very little, if any, anticipation of what particular image will develop. As I go along I start to select an image and start to build that, and then I’ll add other imagery to the drawing, working from both the photo references as well as imagination to put these disjointed images together. Intuition plays a major role in decision-making, and most thinking is retrospective rather than anticipatory with the work.

Labyrinth 311, ink on door, 32x80, 2015Labyrinth 311, ink on door, 32″ x 80″, 2015

I have always had an interest in math and physics, and I was a math minor in undergraduate school. I see a relationship between these pursuits and interests and those of my current work and working methods. There are simultaneous dichotomies in my work: abstraction versus representation; solid tangible marks describing soft ephemeral transitions of light in an atmosphere or form; abstract expressionist versus Renaissance ideas about pictorial space or depicting form; surface versus image. These dichotomies make me think of some of the juxtapositions or seeming incongruities in physics, such as those between the harmonious Einsteinian relativity and anti-intuition of quantum mechanics; or the duality of light, having qualities of both waves and particles.

The mystery of painting seems more alive than ever with its growing history, and physics is no different. The more we know, the more perplexing the universe seems: the simultaneity of Schrodinger’s cat in a box, being both alive and dead until you open the box. The abstraction of these ideas to a philosophical level seems easily transferred to image-making, color theory and optics. With painting, I’m not exactly sure when the box is open, or if it ever is. Things really remain undefined until the viewer experiences the work; even then ambiguities persist.

—John Hampshire

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John Hampshire is an Associate Professor of Studio Art at SUNY Adirondack and has had numerous solo and group exhibitions nationally. He is the recipient of many honors and awards, including most recently a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creativity, a NYFA fellowship grant, and a Purchase Award from the Hyde Museum. http://johnhampshire.weebly.com

John’s 2015 video interview with AHA! A House for the Arts can be seen on YouTube.

xMary Kathryn Jablonski
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A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist and poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.

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Jun 052017
 

Miranda Boulton (The Painter)xxxxxxxxKaddy Benyon (The Poet) 

 

The studio is at the top of the narrow terraced house in what was once an attic. Clean, white lines, and a long slice of window that displays the city below, glittering in the sunshine that has followed a snow flurry. The space has that rich, expectant silence of all places where creativity occurs. It belongs to the painter, Miranda Boulton, and its walls are lined with canvasses that are part of her recent body of work, one of which, Day to Night, was selected for the 2016 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The paintings draw on the 17th century Dutch tradition of flower painting, but here the eerie calm of the black background surrounds a vortex of layered expressionistic images that have a mesmeric quality. Miranda tells me how the painting came about:

Day To Night  40 x 30 cm, oil on board (2015)

Miranda Boulton (MB): I was thinking about how I was painting and I was flicking through my phone late at night. I saw this image of flowers and the next day I tried to recreate it. I used to use photos to paint from, I needed something solid to reference. With this painting, I let go of all that and just worked from memory. It was like getting rid of my stabilizers. I let go and it all seemed to come together for me. It became more about the process of painting, of one stroke leading into another, then taking it off and going back and forth in layers of paint… pentimento… it was letting go, so one mark led to the next, it was a process of trying to get to something, of knowing and unknowing.

Pentimento, I discover, when I look it up later, comes from the Italian for repentence, and refers to traces in the work that show the artist has changed her mind in the course of composition. The traces may appear in the underdrawing, or in the painting over the drawing, or in subsequent over-painting. It seems appropriate that working from memory and its infinite layers should result in a palimpsestic painting of such complexity. And appropriate, too, that the unfathomable depths of the internet should provide its origin.

MB: A lot of the source material I use is from the internet. I quite like the distance. When you’re dealing with flower imagery it’s so personal and I find the internet neutralises that. The image becomes a free-floating thing that can mean anything. Then it’s about capturing that meaning.

Victoria Best (VB): I have this idea of the internet as a vast unconscious, just not your unconscious, but other peoples’. It’s like a huge daydream in which you cycle through other people’s discarded images.

MB: I think all the paintings are about ghosts, they are all haunted. For me it’s very much an acknowledgment of the past and the present merging… It’s an interesting thing about painting that you have this whole history behind you and you have to acknowledge that. You have to deny it and accept it; you have to hold it somewhere but it can’t be too much to the forefront. Because I studied art history I had too many images in my head and it took me a long time to desaturate myself. Now I know what my influences are, but I don’t spend a lot of time looking at books because it’s memories I’m interested in filtering. It’s these traces that are left on us that I want to explore and I can only do that when I’m in process. It’s a process of knowing and not knowing and letting go and it’s the actual paint, the texture and the materiality, that allows it out.

VB: It’s all about the flow.

MB: It becomes almost meditative when you know you’re functioning in the moment. You have to hold it all, be aware of it all, but you’ve got to put it over to one side when you’re doing it. I think there’s a process in doing a body of work. You start with an idea and there’s a point where you have to look back and quantify it, think it through. It’s like going below and above water. I understand it now although for a long time I didn’t.

VB: So how long did it take you to do this?

MB: This painting? Probably took me about six months. In different settings and times so there are different layers. Each of these paintings has been completely other paintings before, and worked through over time, and completely destroyed and then worked into again and again. There’s an archaeology.

VB: Do you have to work through sketches in order to get what you want?

MB: No, but I work things out when I’m doing these smaller ones. I work out a gesture, ideas, and then it comes to fruition on the larger ones. They have many more layers underneath the surface.  Sometimes it works in one layer, but if you haven’t worked on the layers underneath it doesn’t have quite the same density to the surface.

A World in Itself  50 x 40 cm, oil on board (2016)

Nevertheless, I find myself deeply drawn to the smaller paintings with their bell jar effects. Having been in the presence of Miranda’s work for a while now, the theories of Rollo May on creativity are coming to my mind. In his book, The Courage to Create, May proposed that creativity is first and foremost an encounter, be it with ‘a landscape, an idea, an inner vision, an experiment’. We know in works of art when that encounter has significance for ‘genuine reality is characterized by an intensity of awareness, a heightened consciousness.’ Artists, for May, are people who have the courage to risk turning their intense, sensitive consciousness onto their world in order to have those startling encounters. If you have escapist art, you won’t get that experience of encounter. But with Miranda’s work, I’m conscious of being in the presence of something very real and visceral.

MB: There’s a lot of figuration. This one [Day to Night] there’s a lot of limbs and different parts of the body. To me the image in the middle is like a kind of truncated torso. Whereas these ones I was interested in being much more internal… internal organs, blood and guts. But made quite timeless in a way and contained.

VB: You have this very 19th century effect here with the bell jar. You have something very sterile and held without oxygen but in fact you can see inside it to the blood and the guts. That’s a terrific draw into the painting.

MB: It’s the old and the new, a collision. There’s a timeline when you read a painting. You have a moment when you take the whole thing in, and then you unpick it. Every book, every movie, is fed to you chronologically, but painting is very different. It happens in the moment and then unfolds over time.

VB: Because painting can’t explain anything. Most other artforms explain, but an image doesn’t.

MB: No, you have to bring your own meaning to it, you bring yourself to it and you respond to it in different ways. It can take a lot of time. Once you’ve seen that painting and you start to look into it, you will never see the same thing again. It’s amazing and one thing I absolutely love. It’s the temporal process of painting and I think that’s why building up these layers over time is very important to me, because you’ve got to unpick them over time.

Rollo May also talks about the artistic ‘waiting’, the necessity of holding still and calm in the face of the empty page, the blank canvas, for the next right step to take place. ‘It is necessary,’ he says, ‘that the artist have this sense of timing, that he or she respect these periods of receptivity as part of the mystery of creativity and creation.’ I ask Miranda if this is something she is ever conscious of: waiting for the images to settle and the time to come.

MB: I don’t think I’m aware of it but I’m aware of creating the conditions for it to happen. If you’re too aware you trip yourself up. You have to get in the studio and just do it. This week after the holidays I went back into the studio and I had one day when nothing worked. I was going in and out between the layers of paint looking for the imagery. Two days later I went back in the studio and had a great day. It takes a long time for it to come out of the painting and some days I’ve got a real fight on my hands. But when you get there, it’s so worth it.

VB: When we first discussed doing this interview, I was talking about art often being pre-empted by crisis. And your feeling was slightly different.

MB: I think for me, it’s never been about crisis. It’s a feeling of being very uncomfortable, vulnerable, and then I know I’m getting somewhere because it’s really, really hard.

VB: Rilke says the artist is a perpetual beginner in his or her circumstances.

MB: Yes, you’re going back to the beginning often and questioning. It’s a process of uncovering yourself. Because it really is all about you. Maybe there’s a point when you take a step forward that you know is really positive because its uncovering or exposing something else about yourself. I need that vulnerability to know I’m having a real encounter with the work.

I have been impressed all along by Miranda’s creative serenity. I’m beginning to realise that she has this startling grace because she is so at home in her processes, so welcoming to every stage of creativity, accepting even the hardships – perhaps especially the hardships – as necessary and relevant. I’m intrigued to know how she began painting.

MB: When I first started painting seriously, about 15 years ago, it was landscape based. My Granny passed away at 101. I had a very close relationship with her and when she died I went to the house and found this book of photos that my Grandpa had taken. I never met him; he was a painter and he died before I was born. The photos were taken in Norway in the 1930s and for two years I painted from them. I put other things in, figures and animals and really made them my own. I created this whole mythological world from them. I’ve always had this thing about combining figures within the work whether it’s landscape or still life, there’s just this humanistic side, something fleshy in there. I have tried to move away from it but it always comes back whatever I do. I’ve accepted that now.

Recline  40 x 30 cm, oil on board (2011)

VB: Did you know you would always do something artistic?

MB: Yes, I always wanted to be a painter. I suppose growing up with painting around me and Granny telling me about her days at the Royal College, it became this mystery, the mystery of the artist.

VB: So both your grandparents were painters?

MB:  They both went to the Royal College and met there. Granny went into fashion design and he went into painting. So growing up with it around, it was always a possibility. It was open. It was allowed. And my Grandpa’s studio was still in the house and she didn’t clear it out. So I used to go in there and just stand and look at all the brushes and the paints and the canvasses and things. There was just this kind of romance in my head.

VB: How has motherhood been? Has motherhood got in the way?

MB: I think it’s helped. Beforehand, I used to spend hours thinking, what shall I paint, what shall I paint? And then suddenly, I had no time. I had two hours and I had to get on with it. It really freed me up, it stopped me judging myself. I used to go to a lot more exhibitions and read a lot more books, look at a lot more paintings and suddenly I had no time and it was actually the best thing. I was so image saturated and the possibilities… when you get to a canvas you have endless possibilities. I had to strip it bare; it was a kind of going inwards to go outwards. And also, because I was in the home, it kept me sane. So my son would go to sleep and I would put the baby monitor on him and go and paint.

VB: Did the landscapes move into the flowers? Did you have a stage in between?

MB: Yes there was a stage when I was playing different genres. I like working within a genre, a seam I’m really mining. So I did the landscapes and then I was working with lots of different imagery for a couple of years. I used to trip myself up. I’d get so far with a line of imagery and then think, that’s getting a bit problematic, I’ll try something else. But you never get into anything in depth if you don’t stick with it.

VB: You need that concentration and focus.

MB: If you look up here I’ve got rules of painting. I did those nearly two years ago when I said to myself: you’ve got to hone in. And I’ve stuck to it and it’s been the best thing.

VB: How much is art about permission?

MB: Yes, precisely. But you’ve got to understand your own methods of making it harder for yourself – or momentarily easier, but harder in the long run. I was making it easier by saying, I’ve got bored of this, I’ll do a figure, I’ll do a landscape, I’ll do all of it. But actually I was tripping myself up for the long term. In the short term it was keeping the flow going.

VB: Isn’t that the way? The running away is never…

MB: The facing up to it is what matters. You stick with it. I told myself: if you want to paint flowers, then you paint flowers. Do what you want.

VB: Why is that the hardest thing? To say: do what you need to do, what you want to do, what exactly speaks to you in the moment, free from other people’s demands and expectations. I don’t know why that’s so hard.

MB: We’re very self-critical. But I think the thing that’s probably changed over the last few years is painting from memory. Although the landscapes were about memories they weren’t my memories, they were my grandparents. It’s about traces left on our minds. It’s an interesting thing about the process. You think you’ve gone somewhere really different and then you realise…ah, I’m back in the same place. But maybe I have moved forward a little bit. For you, it’s really different, but probably no one else realises it.

VB: So maybe it was with the flower paintings when you felt you’d actually found your…

MB: Yes, I understood because it was the second massive body of work I’d done, and I understood what the first one was about through the second one on a much deeper level. You have to have a fascination with something. Then to understand that fascination you have to do it for long enough so that you can go back to the beginning many times.

VB: You have to have a whole revolution.

MB: You have to lose your way massively and then find it again.

VB: The art of going wrong.You have to go wrong first before you can go right.

MB: And this is what I’m talking about with the vulnerability. You have to sit with that absolute discomfort.

We have stumbled into the territory of my favourite theory about creativity – that it is as Kathryn Schulz says in her book Being Wrong, ‘an invitation to enjoy ourselves in the land of wrongness.’ She argues that art comes about because ‘we cannot grasp things directly as they are.’ In consequence, there exists an exploitable gap between the real and our perceptions, a gap embroidered and embellished by the powers of imagination. The artist who permits free rein to imagination effects entry into a parallel world ‘where error is not about fear and shame, but about disruption, reinvention and pleasure.’ This extends to the consumers of art as well, for we look at art in order to lose ourselves, so that we might find ourselves in new ways. I think of Miranda’s pentimento, the layers and layers of overpainting that create these deep, pleasurable palimpsests in which we cannot distinguish which lines, which forms are the ‘right’ ones to read. And I think of her embrace of vulnerability and discomfort, knowing that these are the states that open into creativity, not block it. It seems strange to think about wrongness in relation to Miranda and her art, when she is so clear in her vision, so steady in her process, and so calm about the necessity of creative disquiet. But it’s the eerie uncertainty of her paintings and their ghostly resonance in which the past and the present collide that remain in my memory long after seeing them.

Mary  60 x 65 cm, oil on board (2017)

MB: I’ve just done these two paintings this week. I don’t think this one’s finished, though this one definitely is. It’s possibly a little bit more easily read than a lot of my paintings but I’m so happy with it. It’s just hit something for me.

VB: I love the cameo. It’s something my eye is drawn to the whole time. I’m looking at the centre always in reference to the frame.

MB: For me it’s like a mirror. You’re reflecting yourself within the imagery.

VB: It’s interesting what you were saying about having to work in a place of knowing and not knowing, of certainty and doubt, the past and the present. There’s a really interesting play here between wildness and control.

MB: Yes, there’s a sort of romantic quality to it. There’s a deliberate wornness, an acknowledging of age. Which is reflected in the background and also in the imagery.

VB: I love the texture of the pink. It feels like it’s reaching out to me.

***

The room is small but high-ceilinged and orderly, comforting and snug. There’s one wall of bookshelves filled with thin volumes of poetry and notebooks that have the properly thumbed and used appearance of books constantly considered and reread. Above the small, neat, desk there is the most beautiful storyboard I have ever seen. I can’t read the lines printed on the white cards that fill the margins, or make out very clearly the cluster of images pinned in the centre, but it feels as if something very rich and complex is going on in this thought cloud. The room belongs to the poet, Kaddy Benyon, whose first collection, Milk Fever (2012) garnered awards. She is working on her second, Call Her Alaska, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, ‘The Snow Queen’, and has finished a third, The Glass Harvest. She is also currently writing a novel. Kaddy’s early career was as a television scriptwriter, but then her work took an abrupt turn.

Kaddy Benyon (KB): I think it was when my son was a baby that we moved to Cambridge and I did the MA at Anglia Ruskin in Creative Writing. I thought: I am only going to write teen novels because I’ve written Hollyoaks and I know exactly what I’m doing, thank you very much. And I came out of the machine two years later a poet. I wasn’t expecting that; I didn’t really know how that happened.

VB: Did you get an assignment to write poetry that started you off?

KB: In my final year there was going to be a scriptwriting module and I said to my tutor, with respect I’ve done this as a job and I think it’s a bit of a waste of time. Can I do an independent study? And they said, yes, we have this brilliant poet [Michael Bayley] who tutors people. Would you be interested in poetry? I was really playing hard to get and said, well I love reading it but I don’t think I’m a poet. And my tutor said, just go for a week with him, see what you think. It’s seven years this week that I met him and we’ve still got this lovely collaborative relationship. The first poem I ever wrote for him, we met up for the tutorial afterwards and he was very serious. He looked at me and I thought, fuck, it must have been awful. And he said, this is seriously good, send this out. It got taken by London Magazine, the first thing I ever wrote and it’s in my book [Milk Fever] as well, the one called ‘Ice Fishing’. He really loved it and he just encouraged me. He reads every poem that I produce, even now.

VB: It’s funny isn’t it… do women have muses? Is he a muse?

KB: I wouldn’t say he is. He’s sort of like my safety net. If a poem hasn’t been Michaeled I feel it’s no good. It needs to go through him and get the thumbs up or the thumbs down. Sometimes he’ll say, this isn’t quite there, just leave it for a few months, come at it from this angle, or this drafting technique. Everyone needs someone who’s above them on the ladder and who says, come up here, it’s great. I don’t really know any other writers who haven’t got that first reader, who you can stand in front of, kind of naked, and say: I’ve produced this, I don’t know what it is. Could you look at it? Do you still love me? I’m nervous, Michael’s nearly retired now and he wants to do less and less. So I feel like I need to have my eye out. I need to have a writing mummy or daddy, because it can’t always be him, even though it’s been brilliant and I hope it continues as long as it can. It’s frightening. I suppose to acknowledge the need for that is halfway to getting it.

VB: So let me get this straight. After Milk Fever, you did the ‘Snow Queen’ poems [Call Her Alaska] and then you moved onto this new body of work?

KB: The Snow Queen isn’t finished. That was why I was in residency at the Scott Polar Museum [in Cambridge] and that was Arts Council funded. It did produce the exhibition, ‘The Snow Queen Retold’, and there are something like 200 poems in draft. About 30 are done.

Robbergirls

You came and I was longing for you.
You cooled a heart that burned with desire.
…………………………………………………….—Sappho

The Robber Maiden

You were the prettiest little trinket
these sooted eyes had ever seen,

& yet I robbed you
of your defences: laid you

out on a bed of straw, slipped
you dripping from your hood, your furs,

those rabbitskin boots.
You wept when I licked the icedust

glister from your breasts; kissed
your twenty-three ribs; spread

heat & delight between your thighs.
We wintered on whispers &

firelight & my hundred smoky
turtledoves peeping from the rafters

seemed like poets, rolling love
on their tongues instead of ashes.

Gerda

Slipping from her mother’s whiskered
skins, she haunts my tangled forest

dreams, a bandit in snicking
thickets. She creeps under cover

of leafmould, fingerblades grazing
my lips, strips me of my mantle, my kirtle,

those rabbitskin boots.
Pinned between her jack-knifed limbs,

a scent of flame & fury rises from her
skin; her flapping rabble of filthy

mocking birds laughing from the rafters.
Snowmelt: whetted backbone to

aching backbone, I steal from her
choking stranglehold, drag her kicking

heart from its unlocked, bare chest,
spit on the embers of her desire & flee.

VB: How many poems are you looking to have?

KB: Probably 50 to 60 so I’m way over. I’ve got the luxury of choosing. But I had a bit of a blip. It was in 2014 in the spring, just a bit of a mental blip and needed to take time out. I couldn’t write anything for three to six months but I was still at the Museum, and it was quite difficult because I was almost pretending everything was fine. But I wasn’t producing, although I was doing all of the research. I was loosely following the journey that Gerda makes in the fairy tale but sometimes I put quite a feminist slant on it, sometimes quite a Sapphic slant with her and the Robber Girl. I did my research trip to Finland and it was almost like I was taking in so much information and possibilities that I couldn’t hone it down. All of my notebooks are just full. About a year ago I went through them and typed up everything I could, so it is a more manageable beast now.

VB: What was the first thing that drew you towards ‘The Snow Queen’?

KB: When I was seven, my dad went to Denmark on a business trip and he bought me a version of the book back. I just fell in love with the pictures, the one of the Robber Girl in particular. Because they terrified me but they excited me at the same time. So there was quite a wicked pleasure to it.

VB: There is something about the Snow Queen. What is it about her?

KB: I assume, with my Jungian head on, that she is an archetype in all of us, scares all of us, and we think she’s going to kiss us and we’ll freeze. I don’t know.

VB: I think she’s somewhere between being scary and comforting. She’s the cold mother. There’s the possibility of the maternal and of patronage… but there’s also something vicious as well. This is what interests me about poetry. I can get my head around a novel of the ‘Snow Queen’ or an analysis of it. But poetry — it seems to me a strange way of saying that what you want to say isn’t easily said.

KB: I feel a real chiming with the fairy tale and I think I’m all the characters in it as well, like in a dream. I can be icy and distant when I’m into my work, and I could attach my sledge to an idea and go racing off without thinking.

VB: So you were working on Call Her Alaska, and then the poems on the islands came along?

KB: Yes, I had this breakdown I mentioned in 2014 and I was feeling so ill and I said to my husband, let’s just go somewhere we’ve never been before, let’s go to an island in the middle of the sea. My poetry tutor used to mention this place that was a bit like Avalon; I didn’t know whether it was fact or fiction, and it was Lindisfarne. I said, let’s go to Lindisfarne and all four of us just fell in love with it and we’ve been back every year since. I think about 30 of the poems came just in that week. Then I got a residency this time last year to Eigg, and we went to Skye in the summer. So the collection is about those three different islands, and I don’t know why they came to get me, but they did. That manuscript is being Michaeled at the moment. And I’m just scared of that as well. I’m scared of everything I write.

Cloudberries
……..(after Edwin Morgan)

There were never cloudberries
like the ones we found
that tender afternoon
in peaty ruins
Lindisfarne Castle
a late autumn sunlight
wind moving in the dunes
heather staining the mainland
your pale hands emerging
from fingerless gloves
to uncover a little plant
preserved in salty darkness
you untucked its leaves
revealing three amber jewels
the first bruised to a juice
the second placed delicately
on your tongue your blue eyes
on mine my open mouth
watering to take the final honey
cluster between my lips
leaning side by side
our wellies kicked off
you urged me to abandon
my island living
walk the causeway beside you
my tight fist nestled in your palm

let me be beautiful
in that remembered light
precious as the rose gold lodes
coursing deep within
your highland hills
let me reach for you and follow

let the tide rinse away our tracks

VB: The anxiety of creation is so prevalent. I remember reading that creativity is a form of trespassing on the divine – Prometheus being one of the first examples, stealing the secret of making fire, and the Gods punished him for that.

KB: The liver business. That feels right, intuitively. This novel I’m writing… it’s fast. I feel like I’m channelling it, or I’m being whispered it, so it’s not really mine. It’s almost like the gods are giving me this gift and then I will claim it as my own by saying: by Kaddy Benyon. But it doesn’t really feel like that.

I tell Kaddy about one of my favourite theories of creativity by the psychotherapist, Christopher Bollas in his book Cracking Up. Bollas pointed to the constant free flow of ideas, images and thoughts that race through the mind mostly unobserved as the basic element of our fundamental creativity. Like rush hour traffic, these mental elements congregate around experiences that have a particularly intense emotional resonance, though often they may be simple things, scarcely worth the charge they give us on first appearances. Bollas talks about ‘psychic bangs, which create small but complex universes of thought.’ But I wonder whether the sensitive, dynamic, creative mind both uses this free flow and falls foul of it. I think that stress plus a freewheeling mind often results in catastrophising. Creative folk may well produce beautiful and innovative result from free association. But it’s hard to prevent our thoughts from delivering us into dark mental alleyways where we’ll likely get beaten up.

KB: That really makes sense to me because my analysis has underpinned everything that I’ve written that I’m proud of. The analysis has taught me to use my mind in a free associating way that I use with all my poems. It’s almost like a mind map.

VB: It’s about processing, isn’t it? Because things get processed very small in the creative mind.

KB: That’s true about noticing, I think, letting your mind be open to noticing how things are connecting up that you might not be conscious of yet. That’s what the analysis has done for me.

VB: You went into analysis after the breakdown?

KB: No, I was already in analysis. It was 2008, so it’s been nine years this January and my first creative writing teacher at university, Edmund Cusick, had died quite suddenly and quite young and I had just had my son. We’d moved house as well. I was overwhelmed and I needed someone to talk to. I didn’t actually know what analysis was at that time, but I knew that my teacher who died, who was a poet as well, was very into Jung. So I looked it up on the strength of his stuff. He was the first person, when I was 18, to tell me I could write. He was the first one to give me permission. I was at university and he used to say, right, I want you all to keep a dream diary and write poems in response to your dreams. So that’s completely how I work now.

VB: So dreaming is an important part of what you do?

KB:  I’ve had poems that have arrived from dreams, fully formed. Not often; a couple in Milk Fever, like the one about Louise Bourgeois just came. I do keep a dream diary, because I think dream material is free from all the stuff you’re trying to force or impose upon it to make it mean something. And it means something in its own way anyway, it just might not make much sense. I quite like things that don’t make sense. They have an intuitive sense but not a logical one and I like that.

I’d been reading Carl Phillips’s wonderful meditation on poetic creativity, The Art of Daring, shortly before seeing Kaddy, and his insight on poetic meaning, that any ‘successful poem – one that is true to human experience – will resist closure. To be resonant is to resist absolute closure’ occurs to me now, thinking about the experience of dreaming. Closure, or what stands in its place in the poetic universe, often comes in the form of form, in the typographical shape of the poem on the page. Phillips suggests ‘Form, shape – these may be our only way, finally, of making sense of the world around us. And the body may be the one form, finally, from which we begin, each time, our knowing.’ I’m intrigued by the neat, firm formality of Kaddy’s poems, and one, ‘Causeway’, is a particular favourite of mine.

Causeway

No workmen or bulldozers, just two plucky women ceaselesslyX trying to reach one another despite winter storms, rising tides, savage winds untamed from Scandinavia. Daily they strive – not so much to hold back the tide – but to work with it, around it, in deference to its unstable surge to spoil, spill and gush across their toil; to ransack any progress and demolish vague relations to the mainland. Natural drainage is compromised by drifts of sea-born debris: silt, salt, wrack and shattered shells, all plotting to induce some fresh destruction. And I know, god how I know, how it begins to feel like a punishment, a kind of ritual destruction, this endless, joyless, repeating and repeating and repeating only to witness the sea’s deleting.

KB: It’s about the analytical work and the way my emotional tides come along and destroy it every now and then. And we start again. I’m trying to do new things with form and every experiment I don’t know if it works or not. In Call Her Alaska there are a lot of two-sided or two-faced poems that are almost wings with a column of nothing in the middle. One is about Gerda on one side and the Robber Girl on the other and they’re seeing that they shared a bed in a very different way. It was quite complicated to do and sometimes I just want to rip them up and throw them out the window. But when they come good it’s worth it.

VB: I always think of you as so finished in what you do. Whatever I’ve read of yours has been so polished, so beautiful. I think of you as someone who produces these carefully faceted gems.

KB: I’m aware that I’m doing that as part of my process. My eye can’t tolerate a messy poem. But I think it’s too much of a constraint on myself to express myself neatly and symmetrically at all times. Because life is messy and humans are messy.

VB: But maybe there’s something in that form that holds back, that holds you back in a sense.

KB: I think I needed that with Milk Fever for sure. I needed a container to be absolutely watertight because I wasn’t sure what I was dealing with and it was rising up from somewhere I’d never tapped. And I was constantly flooded with the material that was coming. It was almost like I had to impose the form on it. But now I’m more comfortable with my process and I feel I can’t be writing poems that could have been in Milk Fever now. I have to have moved on and be taking risks even though its terrifying.

VB: Thinking about containers and Milk Fever… I was just thinking about your mother and the fact that the hug is the basic form of containment. It’s that: I’ve got you moment. You’re within the circle of my arms.

KB: Yes, and it’s probably also the strongest recurring theme in my analysis. I’ve said to my analyst nearly every day for nine years, can I have a cuddle? And she’ll say no, you can’t have a literal cuddle, but I’ll cuddle you by holding you in my mind. But I do feel the analysis  has opened up the creativity. I was aware since I was six I wanted to be signing books in Heffers. That’s all I wanted, ever. But I didn’t know how to do it, or how much of my self I had to draw up and present to the universe to see if the universe would like it or not.

VB: One of the things I’m most interested in is this idea that art comes from the place of being wrong. And that can be from the fact that reality is always distorted by our perceptions. I’m thinking of what Carl Phillips says, that poems tend to transform rather than translate.

KB: What comes to mind when you say that is: when I was writing a poem called ‘Strange Fruit’ it came from my most shameful feelings when I was a teenager, ugly and repulsive, and I felt like I had to say it, but I had to put it into beauty. Is that what you mean? That I made something ugly beautiful?

Strange Fruit

Sometimes I have an urge to slip
my hands inside the soiled, wilting
necks of your gardening gloves;
to let my fingers fill each dusty
burrow, then close my eyes and feel
a blush of nurture upon my skin.

Sometimes I am so afraid my hurt
will hack at your figs, strawberries,
or full-bellied beans, I dig my fists
in my pockets and nip myself. Sometimes
I imagine the man who belongs to
the hat hanging on the bright-angled

nail in your shed. I think about you
toiling and sweating with him;
coaxing growth from warm earth;
pushing life into furrows. I am curious
about what cultivates and blooms
there in your enclosed, raised bed –

yet I want no tithe of it for myself.
Sometimes I just want to show
you the places I’m mottled, rotten
and bruised; I want you to lean close
enough to hold the strange fruit
of me and tell me I may yet thrive.

VB: Yes, but without translating it into something obvious or too straightforwardly explanatory. You didn’t need to have an explanation. What you needed to do was transform that sense into something meaningful.

KB: That makes sense. And I think I didn’t really realise the weight of that in my work. Not just in my poetry, but in the novel as well. It’s almost like the kernel of it is my biggest shame. Or rather, the thing I was made to be most ashamed of, but I actually found it beautiful.

VB: I like that.

KB: I was reading one of the Notting Hill Editions books of essays, the one called Humiliation. The author was saying something about shame and vomiting and diarrhoea when all your most smelly, shameful, awful innards just come out violently, and that’s like the creative process for me. That’s how it feels. And I do feel mostly ashamed of my productions until I can polish them and make them beautiful. My first drafts are like the worst nappy in the world, just a shit explosion.

VB: Shame is a cul-de-sac of emotions. Guilt is about reparation, but shame you’re stuck with. I’m ashamed of myself, I can’t exist, I can’t live, I can’t be. You have to do something with that. The psychiatrist, James Gilligan, made a study of the most violent prisoners in jail and found that they had all suffered terrible shame in early life.

KB: It’s a real head-hanging one, isn’t it? Shame and rage are next door neighbours.

VB: And rage turned inwards is anxiety. So there’s a whole circle of stuff going on… it’s the circle of artistic life, isn’t it?

KB: Why do we do it?

VB: Because ultimately it’s reparative. Somewhere along the line.

I, too, have that Notting Hill Editions essay by Wayne Koestenbaum entitled ‘Humiliation.’ Later, rereading it again, I find an anecdote that strikes a chord, as it were. One of his fellow students at an unnamed summer music school tells him about the way that a popular teacher whose speciality was ‘relaxation’, ruined her own performing career by sitting down at the piano for her onstage debut before an applauding audience only to be sick over the keyboard. Koestenbaum has this reflection to make on the story: ‘Vomit on the keyboard – that image symbolises, for me, the always possible danger of the body speaking up for its own rights, against the stringent demands of the mind’s wish to construct a plausible, attractive, laudable self for other people to consume.’ Thinking about Kaddy’s poetry and the anxieties that surround her creative process I feel a strong belief that it’s one of art’s most important tasks to stand up for not just the rights of the body, but the reality of the body, the reality of our messy, upsetting, often overwhelming existence. It’s the job of art to talk about all the truths no one wants to hear, in ways in which they might finally manage to hear them and be assuaged. In that way Kaddy, like other artists, can experience the all-important acceptance of what feels like the worst of the self, though it’s only our shared humanity. But what I also hear in everything Kaddy says is her intense, passionate love of her creative process. In the very act of polishing that turd, Kaddy’s love trumps her fear and that is a powerful act. I ask her if she feels valid as a writer.

KB: When Milk Fever first came out, it was like, oh I’ve produced something and people like it and this is strange and nice. That was 2012 and I do feel very under pressure to produce either another collection or do something different so I can sustain that viability. I don’t feel like it’s just a given forever. I find myself longing to be in the position, either as a poet or a novelist, where I have a publisher and any idea I have will be considered, and hopefully published. They have faith in me, I have faith in me… but I just don’t feel I’m there yet.

VB: It sounds like a good family thing. You want that parental authority in place.

KB: I’m never not working. It’s constantly what I’m doing and worrying away at. I love it. But when you can’t prove it… People often ask me in the playground, ‘When is your next book coming out?’ and it’s the worst question ever. Because the answer is not only when I’m ready, but if I ever get another publisher. I think it was quite affecting that Salt stopped publishing single author collections of poetry about the year after mine came out. So I went from the euphoria of yes, I’ve arrived! To oh shit, I’ve got to start again. So now with The Glass Harvest, it’s kind of done. I imagine if I sent it off to a few places they’d at least read it because I’ve been published before. But there’s no guarantee and I just can’t face the no. It took me two years to write that and it just meant so much to me as it was all that I went through. So I’m not sending it anywhere. Because that might just stop me writing altogether and I’m in the middle of this novel.

VB: The process is horrible and can be toxic at times, and not at all good for people who are writers. It’s ironic that you couldn’t have made it worse for people who are writers.

KB: And it’s frightening, weirdly, conversely, just to know that an agent is waiting to have a look [at the novel]. Even though most of the other writers on Hollyoaks had agents, I’d got the job on my own and I didn’t need an agent to look for anything else. And now it’s that horrible thought: would anyone be interested? Would anyone take me on? Would they earn any money from me? Oh God, too much pressure. You know when you don’t know whether you’re being bold or stupid? That’s where I am with it.

VB: My money’s on bold.

***

This is what happens when you work with creative people. Miranda and Kaddy – who happen to live minutes apart – became interested in each other’s work over the course of these interviews. Now Kaddy has one of Miranda’s paintings on her wall, and Miranda has some of Kaddy’s poems. They both intend to create something in response to the work of the other. In six months’ time, we’re all going to meet up again to see what they have produced and to discuss the creative processes they went through. Intense, irresistible curiosity, the lure of the new idea or the intriguing object, was something we never spoke about in our interviews – it just went ahead and happened instead.

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Born in Cambridge, Miranda Boulton has a BA (hons) in Art History from Sheffield Hallam University and finished three years on the Turps Banana Correspondence Course in 2015. She has exhibited widely across the UK and was selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (2016), The Salon Art Prize (2011) and The Artworks Open (2010 and 2011). Her exhibitions include: a two-person exhibition ‘Off Line On Line’ at Studio 1.1, London (2015), and the solo exhibitions ‘Lost in The Middle’, New Hall Art Collection, Cambridge (2012) and ‘Outside In’, Madame Lillies Gallery, London (2011). She has work in private collections in France, USA, Ireland and many locations within the UK. Miranda is currently co-curating a group exhibition ‘Storyboard’ at Lubomirov Angus Hughes in London, which opens on the 14th April. www.mirandaboulton.co.uk

Kaddy Benyon’s first collection, Milk Fever, won the Crashaw Prize and was published by Salt in 2012. She has also written poems in response to Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’ for a collaborative exhibition with a costume designer during a residency at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. Last year Kaddy travelled to the remote Scottish island of Eigg for a residency with The Bothy Project. Whilst there she wrote poems toward her second collection, The Glass Harvest. Kaddy is a Granta New Poet and has been highly commended in the Forward Prizes.
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Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books. http://shinynewbooks.co.uk

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May 032017
 

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Though primarily known for his haunting, enigmatic novel Pedro Páramo and the unrelenting depictions of the failures of post-revolutionary Mexico in his short story collection, El Llano en llamas (The Plain in Flames), Juan Rulfo also worked on various collaborative film projects and his powerful interventions in the areas of documentary photography ensure that he continues to inspire interest worldwide. One hundred years after Rulfo’s birth (May 16, 2017), Deep Vellum Publishing will release The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings. This momentous publication includes the first ever translation of Rulfo’s second novel alongside fourteen other short texts. Numéro Cinq is proud to present this conversation between Dylan Brennan and translator Douglas J. Weatherford (both Rulfian scholars). Excerpts from four of the texts are also included below.

Dylan Brennan (DB); Douglas J. Weatherford (DJW)

DB: The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings has been selected by BBC Culture among their ‘Ten Books to Read in 2017’ and by The Chicago Review of Books among the ‘Most Exciting Fiction Books of 2017’s First Half’. Are you surprised by these accolades? Why is this book generating such interest? 

DJW: I am pleasantly surprised by the early interest in The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings. Juan Rulfo (1917-1986) is one of the most important Mexican and Latin American authors of the twentieth century and yet in the English-speaking world he has seldom received the attention that he deserves. I believe the book is generating interest for several reasons. First and most importantly, Juan Rulfo is a big deal. His most iconic books —The Plain in Flames (1953) and Pedro Páramo (1955)— were innovative tours de force that challenged narrative forms and helped usher in the so-called “Boom” of Latin American literature that would include such renowned writers as Carlos Fuentes (Mexico), Julio Cortázar (Argentina), and Nobel laureates Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia) and Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru). I’m sure it helps that many around the world are remembering Juan Rulfo on this year, the centennial of the author’s birth. It’s also possible, I suppose, that some —hopefully on all sides of the political isle— are looking for ways to build bridges with Mexico to counteract the tensions of the current political environment. Ultimately, I believe that The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings is an exciting publication for English-language audiences. For those readers already familiar with Juan Rulfo, it offers the opportunity to explore his work beyond Pedro Páramo and The Plain in Flames. For others, I hope that this anthology will serve as an introduction to one of Mexico and Latin America’s most beloved writers.

DB: The myth that Juan Rulfo’s artistic output amounts to just two books and a few photographs still persists. Why is that? Where have these texts been hiding all these years? 

DJW: They’ve been hiding in plain sight, as I’ll explain in a moment. The myth is very attractive: that Rulfo came out of nowhere to publish two books of fiction in rapid succession before abandoning the craft, overwhelmed perhaps by the weight of his own success. It’s a fascinating tale and one that has been repeated for so long that many are hesitant to let it go. Indeed, it’s the version that I learned as an undergraduate major of Spanish in the mid-1980s. But it’s also a fabrication that diminishes the valuable contributions that Rulfo made as a semi-professional photographer and as a writer in the Mexican film industry. Additionally, it ignores the existence of The Golden Cockerel (El gallo de oro), a second published novel that routinely and unjustly has been marginalized from the Mexican author’s literary canon. Indeed, the exclusion of The Golden Cockerel has been so complete that, until now, no full translation had appeared in English. Although authored most likely between 1956 and 1957, The Golden Cockerel wasn’t published until 1980. That delayed release, combined with the text’s often misunderstood connection to film, led many Rulfo critics and aficionados to disregard the novel. The Fundación Juan Rulfo reprinted El gallo de oro in 2010 and, since then, has offered two commemorative editions that package the author’s novels and anthology of short stories together, a move that draws attention to the significance of The Golden Cockerel. My translation of this second novel is paired with fourteen additional texts (plus a summary of the novel that Rulfo wrote). All of these items have appeared previously in print (many of them posthumously), but never included in The Plain in Flames. Some are well known, others much less so, but all bear witness to the same creative demons that define Rulfo’s literary output.

DB: What is The Golden Cockerel‘s connection with the cinema and in what way has that connection led to its marginalization? 

DJW: That question was at the heart of an introductory essay that I wrote to accompany the 2010 release of The Golden Cockerel.[1] It’s clear that the decision —made most likely by Jorge Ayala Blanco and not Rulfo— to publish The Golden Cockerel in 1980 as a film text (“texto para cine”) had a deleterious effect on the novel’s reception. It also didn’t help that the piece was released sixteen years after Roberto Gavaldón adapted it to film (El gallo de oro, 1964). In that context, many simply began to refer to The Golden Cockerel as a film script, a denomination that is still heard frequently. To this day, in fact, there are some bookstores in Mexico City that incorrectly shelve the novel next to printed screenplays. As such, most researchers who have written about The Golden Cockerel have felt an obligation to address its generic classification. And, in an attempt to free the novel from its mislabeling, many of those individuals have tried to fully divorce The Golden Cockerel from its filmic roots. My preference is to affirm the piece’s identity as a novel while celebrating its very real connection to the Mexican film industry. Rulfo was a film enthusiast who, in the mid-1950s, was hoping to find additional creative and financial opportunities in cinema. Indeed, it is likely that Rulfo wrote The Golden Cockerel precisely so that it could be adapted as a film script, a task that ultimately fell to Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. In the end, I think that it is appropriate to acknowledge the cinematic origins of The Golden Cockerel while reading it as what it is: the second published novel of one of Mexico’s most celebrated writers of fiction.

DB: In addition to Rulfo’s second novel, you have included fourteen other texts in this book. How did you go about selecting which texts to include? 

DJW: My original idea was simply to translate the three texts that were published together in 1980: The Golden Cockerel, “The Secret Formula,” and “The Spoils.” I discarded that idea quickly, however, realizing that it would be a mistake to perpetuate the mislabeling of The Golden Cockerel as a film text. It would also have been, I believe, a missed opportunity to promote other Rulfo writings that have never appeared in English or have done so but only in limited release. Will Evans of Deep Vellum Publishing was very interested in an expanded collection. Víctor Jiménez, the director of the Fundación Juan Rulfo, was more cautious and became convinced only when it was clear that we could build a collection that would have a strong thematic unity while offering an interesting reflection on the creative world of Juan Rulfo through texts that, although lesser known, already existed in print. There were three of us primarily involved in the selection of texts: myself, Víctor Jiménez, and Juan Francisco Rulfo, the author’s oldest son. The anthology includes a number of short pieces that, despite never appearing in The Plain in Flames, have circulated widely and are generally acknowledged as part of Rulfo’s canon: “The Secret Formula,” “A Piece of the Night,” “Life Doesn’t Take Itself Very Seriously,” and “Castillo de Teayo.” Another item, a letter that Rulfo wrote in 1947 to his then fiancé, was published in 2000. The remaining items —ten narrative fragments— are less definitive in their generic and canonic identity and have appeared almost exclusively in Juan Rulfo’s Notebooks[2], a unique gathering of Rulfo’s unpublished —and, in many cases, unfinished— writings, authorized by the author’s widow. The texts of Juan Rulfo’s Notebooks are eclectic in nature and include early drafts of Pedro Páramo, fragments of a film script, portions of two novels that the author began and never completed, and other experimental writings. The nine items selected from this collection are unique creative explorations that fit well into Rulfo’s literary canon and exhibit clear narrative structures that allow them to be read as independent, story-like texts.

DB: We’ve seen many examples of posthumous publications, most recently a “new” Bolaño novel appeared in late 2016. These are not always well received. Then again, sometimes we get Kafka or Dickinson. Were there any ethical concerns or worries associated with publishing work that Rulfo himself had chosen not to during his lifetime and, if so, how were these addressed?

DJW: The Golden Cockerel is not a posthumous publication, of course. But our decision to pair it with additional texts, some of which Rulfo never published, can certainly be perceived as controversial. And I was constantly aware of the responsibility of working with an author, like Juan Rulfo, who was self-critical and often hesitant to send items to press. I was encouraged, to be sure, to be working so closely with the Fundación Juan Rulfo and with members of the Rulfo family, and to be selecting only texts that already exist in print. Additionally, Víctor and Juan Francisco liked the selection of texts that we came up with so much that they decided to create a version in Spanish. That edition, titled El gallo de oro y otros relatos (Editorial RM), appeared at the beginning of this year. But returning to your question, the most poignant response might come from Rulfo’s widow, Clara Aparicio de Rulfo, who faced the same controversy when she decided to release Juan Rulfo’s Notebooks. Indeed, I mention her reply —tender in its tone— in my introduction to The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings. Clara explains that she resisted the temptation to conceal her husband’s working papers out of a responsibility to share the valuable writings (“so full of him” as Clara writes) that her husband left in her care. Ultimately, I hope that readers will see The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings as a valuable and respectful collection that, as I write in my introduction, “bears witness to Juan Rulfo and deserves to exist because each text is ‘so full of him.’”

DB: The Golden Cockerel had never been published in English. The same can be said for some of the other fourteen texts. Like most worthwhile tasks, translation can be as frustrating as it is rewarding. What challenges did you face when translating these texts? I’m particularly interested in specific problems and your strategies for overcoming these issues. 

DJW: That’s an interesting question since I have long felt that Rulfo’s first novel, Pedro Páramo, is tough to translate to English. Margaret Sayers Peden offers a strong version (Grove Press, 1994) that, nonetheless, seems not to reach the poetic, experimental, and mythic heights of the original. The Golden Cockerel is an easier exercise and yet not without its own challenges. This second novel is more oral, less polished, and less mythic than Pedro Páramo, and it is less experimental than the stories of The Plain in Flames. In The Golden Cockerel Rulfo uses long sentences, abundant punctuation, and numerous short paragraphs. All of these characteristics feel natural (if perhaps less formal) in Rulfo’s original, but can seem awkward in translation. I found myself shortening a few sentences and lengthening some paragraphs, all the while struggling to balance a desire to conserve Rulfo’s unique voice but making the text more comfortable to English-language readers. Another interesting issue that I confronted was whether to translate a nickname given to Bernarda Cutiño, the primary female protagonist of The Golden Cockerel and one of Rulfo’s most memorable women, standing alongside the remarkable Susana San Juan of Pedro Páramo. Bernarda is known as La Caponera, a polysemic label that is complex even in the original Spanish. One writer (Alfred Mac Adam) who translated a few pages of the novel rendered the term into English as Lead Mare, referring to the horse that is placed at the front since other animals tend to follow it. The choice is not inaccurate, of course, but feels awkward. I decided to conserve the original —La Caponera— untranslated and italicized, allowing the reader to discern the label’s meaning through the narration’s context, much as Rulfo does in Spanish.

DB: What led you to study, research and, ultimately, translate the work of Juan Rulfo? Why should Rulfo still be read in 2017? 

DJW: One of my primary research endeavors of the past decade has been to better understand Juan Rulfo’s connection to the Mexican film industry. As part of that project, I have worked extensively with The Golden Cockerel (including its two film adaptations) and became convinced that the novel deserves a wider audience. I found it baffling and frustrating that the novel —sixty years after its composition and nearly thirty years after its publication— had never appeared in English. In other words, I wasn’t a translator looking for a project; rather, I was a Rulfo devotee who noticed a void and felt a certain obligation to make this significant novel available to English-language readers. My efforts were, in many ways, a clichéd “labor of love” that became a truly enriching personal and professional journey through Rulfo’s lesser-known writings. Indeed, I hope that the reader of this anthology will approach these texts with the same excitement that defined my own exploration.

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The Secret Formula

The truth is that it’s difficult
to get used to hunger.

And although they say that hunger
when divided among many
affects fewer,
the only true thing is that here
each one of us
is half dead
and we don’t even have
a place to lie down and die.

As it seems now
things are going from bad to worse
None of this idea that we should turn a blind eye to
this matter.
None of that.
Since the beginning of time
we have set out with our stomachs stuck to our ribs
while hanging on by our fingernails against the wind.

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Totonac idol in Castillo de Teayo, c. 1950 (J. Rulfo) 

DB: Can you tell us a little about the Rubén Gámez film that this poetic text originally accompanied? Did Rulfo see the footage first and then write the text or vice versa? Is this a poem, a monologue for cinema or something else? Does The Secret Formula alter when divorced from the cinematic images? In what way? It seems, at least, to me, to be a text that is still painfully relevant today. Do you agree? Why? 

DJW: “The Secret Formula” is unique among Rulfo’s writings for its poetic structure and for the way it came to exist. Rulfo wrote the text at the invitation of Rubén Gámez who used it as a voiceover narration to accompany portions of his experimental film by the same title (La formula secreta, 1964), an allusion to the ingredients of Coca Cola and a critique, among other things, of the influence of the United States on Mexico. According to Gámez’s widow, Rulfo’s participation in the film came about after a chance encounter in an elevator. Rulfo had somehow seen portions of the still-in-production film and, meeting the director for the first time, expressed his enthusiasm for the project. Gámez, on the spur of the moment, invited the novelist to provide a written text to incorporate in the film. Rulfo seems to have written “The Secret Formula” very quickly and, although it is possible that someone other than the author gave the text the form with which it is now associated, it’s clear that Rulfo produced something more akin to poetry than to narrative (although your suggestion that it might be read as a “monologue for cinema” is not off the mark). There is no doubt that Rulfo’s text can be read independent of Gámez’s film or that it fits comfortably within the author’s literary canon. And yet I highly recommend that readers seek out La formula secreta by Gámez to see how seamlessly Rulfo’s text is incorporated into the experimental, dialogue-free vignettes that make up one of Mexico’s most significant independent films. Finally, I absolutely agree that “The Secret Formula” continues to be relevant. Rulfo imagined the piece as a lyrical response to the marginalization and suffering of Mexico’s poor —whether at home or abroad as immigrants— who, in biblical tone, demand to be seen and heard.

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Castillo de Teayo

A pale, yellowish gleam appeared in the east, revealing the outlines of everything. Meanwhile, on the side of the mountain, the world remained gray, increasingly gray and invisible.

Then, right in front of our eyes, was the Castillo. Its shape was strange in its seclusion, still undisturbed by any sign of life. It was surrounded by a mist that rose like steam from the humid earth and the dampened walls smoothed over with moss. With the moss covered in dew. That’s what we saw.

Night had come to an end.

That’s when that guy appeared, tall, thin, with his shirt open and a beard swarming around him in the wind. He stopped in front of us and began to speak:

—This is where the gods came to die. The banners were destroyed in the ancient wars and the standard-bearers fell to the ground, their noses broken and their eyes blinded, buried in the mud. Grass grew over their backs and even the nauyaca snake built its nest in the hollow of their curled legs. They’re here again, but without their banners, once again enslaved, once again guardians, now watching over the wooden cross of Christianity. They seem solemn, their eyes dull, their jaws dropped, their mouths open, clamorous beyond measure. Someone has whitewashed their bodies, giving them the appearance of the dead, wrapped in shrouds and ripped from their graves.

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Female figure in Castillo de Teayo, c. 1950 (J.Rulfo)

DB: Castillo de Teayo—You have described this text as ‘a travel narrative that often feels like a short story.’ Fictional memoirs seem very much in fashion these days. Do you think that its hybrid form contributed to its marginalization? There are various instances of critics attempting to see Rulfo’s photography as illustrative of his fiction, using quotations as captions and so forth and, therefore, neglected his photographic work that bears little resemblance to his prose. However, Castillo de Teayo seems to represent one of the few times when the photographs are meant to illustrate the prose. Would you agree? Why/not? 

DJW: Juan Rulfo was fascinated by Mexico’s history and highways and his wanderings, especially in the early 1950s as a travelling salesman for the Goodrich-Euzkadi tire company, resulted in a number of photographs and travel writings, some of which were published during the author’s life. For example, Rulfo agreed to serve as editor for the January 1952 edition of Mapa, a travel journal sponsored by his company, and he likely visited the archaeological site of Castillo de Teayo for material to use in that publication. Although a selection of photographs from that trip would appear in the journal, the narrative text that he wrote was not included and would not appear in print until 2002. It’s true that some critics have tried to see Rulfo’s photographic endeavors merely as a reflection of the author’s literary output. Such a perspective is misguided, however. Rulfo, who developed a profound interest in the visual image as early as the 1930s, never intended to limit his creativity to the written word. In recent years, as more of his photography has appeared in print, Rulfo has gained a reputation as one of his country’s premier photographers. “Castillo de Teayo,” as you mention, is an exception to the rule as text and image combine to tell a story of a rich and vibrant pre-Colombian past that continues to define Mexico’s present moment.

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A Piece of the Night

The guy who claimed to be Claudio Marcos had also become lost in thought. And then he said:

—I’m a gravedigger. Does that scare you if I tell you I’m a gravedigger? Well, that’s exactly what I am. And I’ve never admitted that my job pays a pittance. It’s a job like any other. With the advantage being that I have the frequent pleasure of burying people. I’m telling you this because you, just like me, should hate people. Perhaps even more than I do. And along those lines, let me give you some advice: don’t ever love anyone. Let go of the idea of caring for someone else. I remember that I had an aunt whom I really loved. She died suddenly, when I was especially attached to her, and the only thing I got out of it was a heart filled with holes.

I heard what he was saying. But that didn’t take my mind off of the quiebranueces, with his sunken, unspeaking eyes. Meanwhile, back here, this guy just kept prattling on about how he hated half of all humankind and how great it was knowing that, one by one, he would eventually bury all those he came across every day. And how when someone here or there said or did something to offend him, he wouldn’t get angry; rather, keeping his mouth shut, he would promise himself that he would give them a very long rest when they eventually fell into his hands.

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Sculpted relief in Castillo de Teayo, c. 1950 (J. Rulfo)

DB: A Piece of the Night—Unlike most of Rulfo’s narrative fiction, this story is unmistakably urban. Rulfo lived in Mexico City for many years, yet rarely does it appear in his fiction. Why do you think that is? How is the city portrayed in this story? 

DJW: Although associated so fully with Mexico’s rural towns and landscapes, Rulfo is seen more accurately as an inhabitant of Mexico’s largest urban centers. He was still very young, for example, when he was sent to live at a boarding school in Guadalajara after an assassin’s bullet claimed the life of his father. Eventually Rulfo would bounce back and forth between Guadalajara and Mexico City before settling permanently in his nation’s capital. So how does one explain Rulfo’s preference for rural spaces? Although there are multiple explanations, the one that I want to enumerate here is biographical. Pedro Páramo opens with a son who travels to the small town of his mother’s memories to search for a father that he never knew. That return to discover one’s enigmatic origin is, in Rulfo, as much biography as it is literary motif. Rulfo’s fascination with provincial Mexico —especially with the small towns of southern Jalisco where he was born— reveal a pained nostalgia for what Rulfo lost with the passing of his father. Although the scarcity of urban environments in Rulfo’s creative output is real, it can be overstated. As a photographer, for example, Rulfo shot a number of images in metropolitan settings. And he would place characters in urban environments in  “Paso del Norte” and “A Piece of the Night.” This latter piece is a particularly touching witness to Rulfo’s interest in the city. Although read today as a short story, it is, in reality, a fragment of an urban novel, tentatively titled El hijo del desaliento, that the author was composing as early as 1940 before deciding to abandon the project. “A Piece of the Night” has long been one of my favorite Rulfo tales. Set in the rough-and-tumble Guerrero neighborhood of Mexico City (near Tlatelolco), the story follows the nocturnal wanderings of two life-weary protagonists, a prostitute and a gravedigger, as they search for shelter. With an infant in tow, the trio is connected archetypally and ironically to the Holy Family. A year ago, hoping to see how closely the story connected to the actual urban environment that Rulfo describes, I walked the same streets and plazas that appear in the story. It became clear that the author wasn’t interested solely in the metaphoric potential of his protagonists; rather, he was offering a very real portrayal of an actual city environment that he knew well.

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Cleotilde

Where I don’t want to look is toward the ceiling, because up on the ceiling, moving from beam to beam, there’s someone who’s alive. Especially at night, when I light a small candle, that shadow on the ceiling moves. Don’t think it’s just a figment of my imagination. I know what it is: it’s the shape of Cleotilde.

Cleotilde is also dead, but not fully so. Even though I’m the one who killed Cleotilde. And I know that everything you kill, while you remain alive, continues to exist. That’s just how it is.

It’s been about a week since I killed Cleotilde. I hit her several times in the head, massive and hard blows, until she stayed good and quiet. It’s not like I was so mad that I was planning on killing her; but a fit of rage is a fit of rage and that’s the root cause of it all.

She died. Afterward, I did get mad at her for that, for having died. And now she’s after me. That’s her shadow, above my head, spread along the length of the beams as if it were the shadow of a barren tree. And even though I’ve told her many times to go away, to stop harassing everyone, she hasn’t moved from where she’s at, nor has she stopped looking at me.

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DB: Cleotilde—This story was previously published in Los cuadernos de Juan Rulfo (Juan Rulfo’s Notebooks) in 1995. It reads like a finished story, as opposed to a fragment of an unfinished project. When was it written and was it originally meant to be part of a collection of stories that never materialized? It’s a brutal story of obsession and murder that I am particularly fond of. Why do you think it has still remained relatively unknown, despite having been published in Los cuadernos?

DJW: You are absolutely correct to read “Cleotilde” as an independent and polished short story. Indeed, I hope that the readers of my translation do just that and discover a remarkable tale that deserves a place among Rulfo’s other short fiction. And yet Yvette Jiménez de Báez included the piece in Juan Rulfo’s Notebooks in a section that she titled “On the Road to the Novel” (“Camino a la novela”), a classification that suggests a role as precursor to Pedro Páramo. To be sure, the violence and vengeance that define the narrative, along with its tormented apparition, the murdered Cleotilde, easily connect it to Rulfo’s first novel. Although it’s unclear exactly when Rulfo wrote this story or why he chose not to publish it, I don’t disagree with Jiménez de Báez’s decision to view it as a variation on the people, places, and themes that would eventually lead Rulfo to write Pedro Páramo. Although it’s true that “Cleotilde” has enjoyed only limited dissemination, it has appeared on the big screen as one of three stories that Roberto Rochín adapted to film in the feature-length Purgatorio (2008).

—Douglas J. Weatherford and Dylan Brennan

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Editor’s Note: Excerpts and photographs appear here courtesy of the Fundación Juan Rulfo, Deep Vellum Publishing, and Douglas J.  Weatherford.

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Douglas J. Weatherford at Laguna de Sayula. 

Douglas J. Weatherford is an Associate Professor of Hispanic American Literatures and Cultures at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah). He has developed teaching and research interests in a wide range of areas related to Latin American literature and film, with particular emphasis on Mexico during the mid-twentieth century. Much of his recent scholarship has examined Mexican author Juan Rulfo’s connection to the visual image in film. Weatherford’s translation of Rulfo’s second novel El gallo de oro (The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings) will appear in May (Deep Vellum Publishing), the centennial of that author’s birth.

Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. (“‘Texto para cine’: El gallo de oro en la producción artística de Juan Rulfo.” El gallo de oro. By Juan Rulfo. Mexico City: Editorial RM).
  2. Los cuadernos de Juan Rulfo. Transcription by Yvette Jiménez de Báez. Mexico City: Era, 1994
Apr 082017
 

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Eleni Sikelianos is the author of several books of poetry (one of them a book-long single ode titled The California Poem) and two hybrid essay/memoirs (The Book of Jon and You Animal Machine); she has translated work by Greek, Russian, Chinese, and French poets.  She received her MFA from the Naropa Institute in 1991 and currently teaches at the University of Denver, where she is the director of the creative writing program.

Ms. Sikelianos generously agreed to answer some interview questions from our reviewer, Julie Larios; the poet’s responses can be read in conjunction with our review of her new book, a collection of poems titled Make Yourself Happy.

 

Julie Larios (JL): Can you tell our readers a bit about Naropa University and your MFA studies within the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics? That one word—“disembodied”—is especially interesting. What does it mean to you in terms of your own work?

Eleni Sikelianos (ES): I went to Naropa in the late 80s and early 90s, and was lucky enough to study with or be around an incredibly range of writers and artists: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Amiri Baraka, David Hockney and Marianne Faithful are among the most well-known. But I had classes with Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Susan Howe, and these all marked me in various ways. Perhaps one of the most important things I learned at Naropa — besides being exposed to groundbreaking, culture-changing work — was to think of the poet as a figure of engagement. Engagement can mean many things: working in at-risk communities, or studying Sanskrit, but it means doing your work in a serious way.

I think “disembodied” came in as a bit of a joke (I wasn’t around at the founding of the school in the 70s), since the writing school was named for a dead man, and there were lots of dead writers who were genii loci, inspirational figures. Language itself is disembodied, you could say, despite its relation to the body that sounds it or writes it or reads it. One of the things I strive for as a poet is to embody (thought, feeling, experience) in language — and that is one of the great experiments of poetry — the ongoing journey back and forth between embodiment and disembodiment that the medium of language necessitates.

JL: You’ve been called an “experimental” poet. What do you think of that designation and/or the whole idea of designations and categories when it comes to poets?

ES: I was on the radio last month, and the radio host introduced me as an “experimental poet” about fifty times. My graduate students who heard it wondered why he couldn’t just say “poet.” I’m not that interested in categories in this regard, although I do feel fiercely loyal to communities and very connected to lineages. “Experimental” is kind of a stand-in word for a number of things, one of which might be writing that creates meanings as it makes itself, rather than heading toward predetermined meaning. Just a quick look in the Merriam-Webster will tell you a lot:

Experiment

1 a : test, trial

make another experiment of his suspicion — William Shakespeare

b : a tentative procedure or policy

c : an operation or procedure carried out under controlled conditions in order

to discover an unknown effect or law, to test or establish a hypothesis, or to

illustrate a known law

2
obsolete : experience

So, a kind of writing that allows the tentative nature of the world into its proceedings, that admits that meaning and reality aren’t fixed and sets out to test them, to discover and to try (the root meaning of “experiment”). And that has a historical connection to experience (which might itself be becoming somewhat obsolete). If we define it thus, then, yes, it’s a good designation. And if it’s a way for people to understand an approach to writing and reading in a meaningful way, then I’m for it.

JL: Your work indicates an interest in science as well as language. Some people approach poetic investigation and scientific investigation as if they were diametrically opposed perspectives on—and responses to—the world we live in. Why do you think that is?

ES: Well, science is itself a language, a way of communicating things about our world. The word “experiment” serves us perfectly here. I think of both poetry and sciences as ways to test out and discover things about the world, about meaning and structures. I’m not sure most people do think of science and poetry as diametrically opposed, but if they do, it might be because of a cliché about poetry’s sole or primary function as affective. That is not to say that carrying emotion isn’t an important behavior of poetry, it’s just not the only one.

JL: Any recommendations for our readers of poets whose work you're inspired by or of writing in general that interests you and/or informs your own work?

ES: For Make Yourself Happy, I went back to some of the poets who have been important to me for a long time. I was thinking about the joy and bounce in Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, about the devotion of Lorine Niedecker’s sequences, and the combination of astringency and delicate care in Reznikoff’s Testimony. Ed Dorn’s fresh encounter with genre (the Western) and experiment in Gunslinger was in my mind, too. Although these didn’t go into the writing of Make Yourself Happy, recent books I’ve been excited about are Simone White’s Of Being Dispersed, Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s Eye, Dolores Dorontes’ Style (translated by Jen Hofer), and my student Carolina Ebeid’s You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior. I just started Valerie Mejer Caso’s This Blue Novel, and am loving it.

—Eleni Sikelianos & Julie Larios

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Eleni Sikelianos is a poet, translator, memorist and professor of creative writing at the University of Denver. Her books include Make Yourself Happy, The Loving Detail of the Living and the Dead, Body Clock and many others.

Julie Larios is a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

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Apr 032017
 

Nance van Winckel

 

In Book of No Ledge, one of her new collections, poet and writer Nance Van Winckel brings together poetry and visual collage in a series of brilliantly reimagined encyclopedia entries and maps that are a pleasure to read. Witty, both lyrical and satirical, beautiful to look at, and wonderfully inventive, the collection lives up to poet Mary Ruefle’s description of it as “a book of wonder.”

rsz_bookofnoledge

Recently Nance Van Winckel spoke with U.S. poetry editor Susan Aizenberg about Book of No Ledge in a series of emails. Numéro Cinq is thrilled to present here two of the collages from the collection, together with a summary of their conversation, and a third, more recent piece of what the poet calls “wall writing.”

Susan Aizenberg (SA): I love your charming Introductory note, in Book of No Ledge, in which you describe a child first infatuated with a handsome door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, and then in love with the books themselves. Though there was no handsome door-to-door salesman in my experience, I remember feeling as a child a similar fascination with encyclopedias and illustrated guides of various kinds. I’m wondering if you would talk a little about your childhood experiences as a reader as they relate to this book.

Nance Van Winckel (NVW): Well, I was a reader as a kid and I was very interested in the sciences. Because my family moved frequently, I was often the new kid in school, and I read in the lag time it took to make new friends. Books were a “constant” in my life. I liked the diagrams of how things worked— especially bodies and body parts. Early on in life I wanted to be either A.) a spy or B.) a laboratory scientist. And perhaps becoming a writer/poet was a sort of melding of those two professions.

SA: I love the idea of writer/poet as a melding of spy and scientist. I’m particularly drawn to your vivid description, in the intro, of the point of view and voice of the encyclopedia, wonderfully personified as “Mr. Explainer,” and how they change over time as Mr. Explainer realizes the “you” has become a much older woman with “nice sharp scissors and even X-acto blades” – another image I love – who questions his authority. This idea of voice or voices seems important throughout the book, which is rich with wordplay, satirical humor, puns, and seemingly effortless shifts in diction. I’m wondering if you would speak a bit about voice in your work, and how the idea of being in dialogue with Mr. Explainer shaped (if it did) the series of photo-collages.

NVW: Yes, exactly! Talking back to Mr. Explainer from a future quite different from the one he (Commandant of the Past) posited so definitively, so upbeat and full of happy endings—that was very much the tone, which for me is a kind of fuel. I have to get the stance before almost anything else. The attitude. If only as an adult I could again be the imp-kid, the sassy girl, I was when I was ten. That girl got smacked sometimes or sent to her room. I squashed her down. But hey, apparently she ain’t dead yet!

SA: Clearly, and thankfully, she is not! Can we talk a bit about the conception and creation of the book, which seems to me equally a work of literature and visual art? It is, first off, a lovely physical object; the pages are silky (like encyclopedia pages?) and the collages quite beautiful. There is so much to look at and read and consider on every page – I love the richness of it. I don’t think I can overstate what a genuine pleasure it is to read. Would you talk a bit about your process?

NVW: I worked on these pages over the course of about five years. The encyclopedia I altered is actually 13 volumes, and at about a sixth grade level. As I paged through it, it brought back those memories from girlhood and reading, and I fell back in love with all the graphic elements. So I mainly used pages that had a lot of visual material on them. My method was to work on these very “visual” pages, which were all in black and white, and part of what I was doing was teaching myself—as I most always am these days—new techniques in colorizing, cut-and-paste, and many other things available from my old friend, Photoshop. (I’ve been noodling around with that program since back when I was a magazine editor [of Willow Springs] and designing the magazine with a program called PageMaker, which evolved into Photoshop.) As I worked on the visual layout of a page, I would often write new text to replace the old text. Sometimes I just carried printouts of the pages around with me in their waiting-for-text states, i.e. big blocks of space where text would go. I liked this method because I could work on other projects simultaneously—linked stories, other “regular” poems, etc.—and these encyclopedia pages would wait patiently for me and, as I mentioned above, I sort of knew the persona to slip into when I returned to them.

SA: You’ve generously shared with us two of the pieces from the collection. Would you speak a little about them?

NVW: One of the aspects I’m drawn to in this work is how the visual material can interact with the text—fill in gaps in the “story,” provoke a nonlinear kind of logic, or suggest a larger worldview/context than the text alone permits. This page, now titled “He Who? She When?”, was originally called “Advancements in Medicine.” I don’t feel in any way obliged to stick with the original subject matter of a page. For me, it’s all about the interplay of words with images that have “tangential” connections, thread-like, or tonal. The sense the pieces make, I hope, is more intuitive than conscious and rationale.

He Who, She When?

I haven’t said anything about the maps, and I’d like to. Most of these were not part of the encyclopedia I altered. Rather, they were from an online website (from New York Public Library’s “digital collection”) of public domain “rare” maps. I used these in the book a little like section dividers, and I am forever grateful to Pleiades Press for allowing them to be double-page spreads and displayed so well. (I’m grateful to Pleiades for so much! The support of the editors and designers there has been extremely helpful to me.) Here, my little bit of text—”We were in a boat and we were in love and we maybe made you in the blackest moments of this sea”—is spread out upon a map of The Black Sea, a place I’ve actually been. The text is stamped around into the sea with all sorts of variations on the arrangement of these words. This felt like a kind of homage to ancestry, not just mine but “ours.”

Map

SA: Thanks so much, Nance! Can we end with you sharing with our readers what you’re working on now?

NVW: Yes, my eighth book, Our Foreigner, received the Pacific Coast Poetry Award and is just out from Beyond Baroque Books. I’m working on a book that’s primarily a memoir; it has many sorts of hybrid forms going on in it, including some visual black and white collages.

Our Foreigner book cover

And I continue to do a little wall-writing. This is a recent piece.
I have a website for examples of this work.

Wall Writing example

 

Nance Van Winckel is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Our Foreignerwinner of the Pacific Coast Poetry Series Prize (Beyond Baroque Press, 2017), Book of No Ledge (Pleiades Press Visual Poetry Series, 2016), and Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2014). She’s also published five books of fiction, including Ever Yrs, a novel in the form of a scrapbook (Twisted Road Publications, 2014) and Boneland: Linked Stories (U. of Oklahoma Press, 2013). She is on the faculties of Eastern Washington University’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers and Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing Program. The recipient of two NEA poetry fellowships, the Paterson Fiction Prize, Poetry Society of America’s Gordon Barber Poetry Award, a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes, Nance lives with her husband Rik Nelson in Spokane, Washington.

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Susan Aizenberg is the author of three poetry collections: Quiet City (BkMk Press 2015); Muse (Crab Orchard Poetry Series 2002); and Peru in Take Three: 2/AGNI New Poets Series (Graywolf Press 1997) and co-editor with Erin Belieu of The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (Columbia University Press 2001). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, among them The North American Review, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Connotation Press, Spillway, The Journal, Midwest Quarterly Review, Hunger Mountain, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and have been reprinted and are forthcoming in several anthologies, including Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier UP) and Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation (Etruscan). Her awards include a Crab Orchard Poetry Series Award, the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Levis Prize for Muse, a Distinguished Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mari Sandoz Award from the Nebraska Library Association, and a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner award.

 

Mar 082017
 

Carlos Fonseca cropped 500px

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Carlos Fonseca’s Colonel Lágrimas is a novel that deals with the attempt of mathematician Alexander Grothendieck to isolate himself in the Pyrenees and devise a formula that encapsulates the whole of the 20th century. To do so he invents different personalities, all with different lives and interests — Chana Abramov, a woman obsessed with painting the same Mexican volcano a thousand times, Vladimir Vostokov, an anarchist in battle with technological modernity, and Maximiliano Cienfuegos, a simple man who will nonetheless become the symbol for the Colonel’s as well as Europe’s restless political conscience. Grothendieck’s own life story traverses the 20th century, from the Russia of the October Revolution to the Mexico of the anarchic 1920s, from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam, back to France and from there to the Caribbean islands.

While reading it I thought of the theories of social scientist Gregory Bateson, who saw society as a set of systems with adaptive changes, dependent on feedback loops and the way multiple variables change and interact. This is a deceptively simple novel — turning its pages, one enters a kind of Zen state, as anecdote follows anecdote, and every word is located precisely in the place that seems right for it. But these are not just jewels moved by pincers on a metal plate. Through its form, Colonel Lágrimas dares to ask about the meaning of activity and the meaning of thinking, and embodies those questions in the structure of the text itself.

Each fragment is exquisitely written, and although not linear, the carefully phrased thoughts seem to be in an order that makes sense. If one were to be swapped out, however, it would not fundamentally dislodge the architecture of the work. Every individual “idea” contributes to the anecdotal edifice, but the book does not really depend on any one of them, in the way a formula depends on the variables that comprise it. Just as in Bateson’s theories, the pieces interlock in interactive ways that suggest a meaning beyond the individual parts. Any “formula” devised by Grothendieck would have to be dextrous enough to take these billions of feedback loops, sequences and interactive mechanisms into account, no minor undertaking, perhaps even impossible.

Colonel Lágrimas embarks on these abstract challenges in a way that is both beautiful and analytical — it doesn’t surprise me that Fonseca used to want to be a mathematician. Born in Costa Rica in 1987, he grew up in Puerto Rico. Now he lives in London and teaches at the University of Cambridge. The book was originally published by Anagrama, and was translated for Restless Books by Megan McDowell, who has also worked on Juan Emar, Alejandra Zambra, Carlos Busqued and a number of other authors.

Book Cover Lagrimas

Jessica Sequeira (JS) : How did you decide to write this book? In what ways does it link to your life experiences and to your studies? (It doesn’t have to, of course, but I wonder if there’s a connection.)

Carlos Fonseca (CF): I think most books are the product of a constellation of obsessions. I started writing Colonel Lágrimas as soon as I saw that many of my obsessions coincided within the same structure: my obsession with Chuck Close’s hyper-realist portrait paintings, my obsession with Alexander Grothendieck’s life as some sort of allegory of the twentieth century, my obsession with archives and archival-novels. When I started writing it, I was finishing my doctoral studies and I somehow imagined the novel as a form of escape from academic studies. Then again, you can never escape your obsessions. So the novel ended up addressing some of the ideas that intrigued me at the time: the idea of a history as a giant museum, the inability to pass from thought to action, the Borgesian notion of history being reduced to a giant encyclopedia or archive. And then, there is also the story of how – as an adolescent – I wanted to be a mathematician. Perhaps, now that I think about it, the novel was a way of rethinking my past.

JS: The colonel seems to face a similar set of questions a historian would. While reading, I noted some of his possible confusions, which I’ll copy here:

Is history a science? Is the attempt to create a blueprint misguided if we’re talking about human endeavor? Or can one look for a pattern there as well? If so, how should one go about trying to find it? Is it best to remove oneself from the world to ensure peace of mind and the tranquility necessary for tracing larger arcs? Or should one try to be as actively engaged in daily life as possible? Do the aims of history writing undergo development, in the same way that ideas of modernism marked a literary shift, partly in response to scientific discoveries? And is there some shining pattern or arch-truth behind these changes? Or is history just an infinite parade of possible anecdotes to arrange, catalogue, exhibit, assemble and frame in a Duchampian exercise, like a box of old film reels? Can the historian in his observational role play some part in affairs, creating change through his attempt to understand? Or is this withdrawal into the imagination folly? My question for you is how you see history, and how is it different or similar to the colonel’s?

CF: I am fascinated by history and I like the image of the historian as someone lost in a giant archive, shuffling around documents as if they were pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. And you are absolutely right: I am interested, not so much by the figure of the historian as he who finds the “truth” about history, but rather as he who recontextualizes and reframes the fragments of history. As you note, this is a Duchampian gesture: what matters is the frame, the context. A playful take on history. In this sense, more than a scientist or even a historian, the colonel is a collage artist: like Walter Benjamin before him, his idea is to construct a book in which every single forgotten fact is quoted, framed and analyzed. An encyclopedia of forgotten histories that would permit us to see the other side of History. On the other hand, the book is also critical of the image of that peaceful museum so often imagined as the peaceful resolution at the end of history. The question remains: how to think of political action within this giant museum? How to break open the museum’s doors and start running against the wind of history?

JS: You’ve mentioned Duchamp’s techniques. What is your relationship to art and how do you see contemporary literature as engaging with some of the techniques of the art world? (Do you see it doing this?)

CF: I have become, lately, very interested in artand in particular conceptual art – as a territory lying at the limit of literature. I like Duchamp’s gesture of moving art away from the immediacy of the sensory towards the realm of the conceptual. Or at least, forcing us to reimagine what the relationship between the sensory and the conceptual, between feeling and thought, might be, beyond a mere contradiction. Ideas, too, have a body, I would claim. I see contemporary art as a playful realm of liberty for the imagination and as such I see it as the limit towards which literature should aim. I think that to write alongside Duchamp – as writers like Enrique Vila-Matas, Mario Bellatín or Margo Glantz do – is to imagine literature as a realm where thought meets emotion. As Don DeLillo likes to say: “Writing is a concentrated form of thinking.” I like to think that Duchamp’s gesture is precisely this: to turn thinking into art and art into thinking.

JS: Do you think of yourself as influenced by Puerto Rican or Costa Rican writing in any way? Or do you think nationalistic categories aren’t important?

CF: Influences are a tricky subject. I think you end up being influenced by much more than you imagine or intend. In this sense I can only hope to be influenced by both the Puerto Rican and the Costa Rican literary traditions, traditions which I have read passionately and which abound in wonderful writers. I like to think that just like each writer has two parents, each writer inherits, indirectly, two different traditions. In my case, being born in Costa Rica and raised in Puerto Rico, I like to think that perhaps a novel like Colonel Lágrimas is the strange offspring of the Puerto Rican baroque writing, on the one hand, and Costa Rican minimalism and experimentation, on the other. While writing the novel I kept thinking that the playful narrator had much to do with the voyeurist narrator in Luis Rafael Sánchez’s 1976 novel La guaracha del Macho Camacho, a novel that fascinates me due to its rhythm and narrative techniques. Meanwhile, I also kept thinking about Carmen Naranjo’s 1982 novel Diario de una multitud, an experimental novel that always reminds me of a set of Russian dolls. I don’t think national categories should be abolished but rather rethought or disrupted in innovative ways. But, I guess at the end of the day, I agree with Italo Calvino’s quote: “The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner.” The writer always has to be a bit out of place, he has to become a bit of foreigner even to himself. Writing is, in a way, another form of exile.

JS: In such a globalized world and with your experiences and influences in particular, do you still think “Latin American literature” makes sense as a phrase?

CF: I think “Latin American literature” only makes sense as an anthropological phantasy: as the label others give us, that is to say, as a particular lens through which the world sees us. I only figured this out when I arrived to study in the United States. Until then, it had always been a pain for me to explain my double-nationality to others: the way I was both Costa Rican and Puerto Rican. This was solved as soon as I arrived to the United States. Suddenly, I figured others had decided for me: I was Latin American. Like any other identity, this was, after all, nothing else but a mask. But masks and phantasies are also real. I think, beyond asking whether it exists or not, it is important for Latin American writers to play with this phantasy: to play with the anthropological phantasy that is Latin America in the eyes of the world. We always need to rethink the phantasy in order to critique it, I would claim. I also think that these broader categories end up helping writers from peripheral countries. If you stay at the national level, you keep reproducing the hierarchies dictated by the market: unknowingly, you keep speaking about Argentine, Mexican and Colombian writers, just because their market visibility is greater. Latin America as a category gives space to writers from countries that wouldn’t have visibility otherwise: countries like Ecuador, Paraguay, or Bolivia, just to mention a few.

JS: The Restless Books page refers to a “new Latin American boom”. Do you think that this term is legitimate? Or do you think phrases like this should also be abolished?

CF: Besides it being legitimate or not, I understand what they seem to be referring to: let’s say that in the post-Bolaño literary landscape, Latin American writers have gained a heightened visibility. Latin America – whatever that might be – is seen as a territory of literary innovation, as an exciting place where new voices can be found. The Bolaño phenomenon – for good or evil – transformed the way international publishers see our work and allowed for the region to be reimagined, no longer as the land of magical realism, but rather as the land of avant-garde innovation. I think this is a great step forward, independently of whether it comes with an actual boom or not. Of course, it does hint at the fact that the boom is still present in our imaginations as the golden age of Latin American literature: a spectre that never gets tired of haunting us.

JS: What writers or artists are important for you? Who do you like to read, from the past and present? How have you been influenced by the work of your teacher, Ricardo Piglia, and how does your work break from his?

CF: The other day I was rearranging my library, so I had time to think about this: which author to place alongside which author, who to give the best spots and so on. I guess, at least right now, the names in the main shelves are the following: Faulkner, Machado de Assis, Borges, Sebald, DeLillo, Lispector, Perec, Sarraute and Piglia. Then, next to them: Bernhard and Calvino. From each I have a particular memory, and perhaps my favorite is Faulkner, but with regards to this novel, I think the most important author was Machado de Assis whose Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (published in the UK as Epitaph of a Small Winner) is a fascinating inheritor to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: a playful experiment in narration. I love the idea of thinking of Machado as a black nineteenth century Brazilian predecessor of Borges, another author that is always central, not only to me, but to most writers in general. Regarding Ricardo Piglia, there is no doubt I am highly indebted to him, not only for his generosity and his amazing lectures, but for his capacity to redefine the way we read nowadays. Very few people, if any, have reimagined the figure of the reader in such a radical manner.

JS: In what direction is your current work headed?

CF: As of late I have become obsessed with obsession. I have become fascinated with protagonists whose engagement with their fixed ideas leads them to that shaky territory between art and science, between madness and reason, between art and nonsense. I am more and more interested by so-called outsider artists: artists working in the realm of that which Jean Dubuffet called “Art Brut”. Artists who don’t see themselves as artists. I see in them a metaphor of art itself, as well as a new way of linking thought and art.

JS: It’s fashionable to glamorize action in the world, and criticize thinking. While your book criticizes somebody who thinks too much, it also gets at many of the subtleties and pleasures of thought. How do you conceive of the relationship between thought and action? Do you think there is still a role for the observer in a world so oriented toward the glamorization of the “event”?

CF: This was one of my greatest obsessions while writing the novel. I wanted to explore the relationship between thought and action. Most people, when they read the novel, say that in it nothing happens. I accept these comments gladly precisely because I was interested in producing such a space of tedium, boredom and thought. A space which, like a museum, has secluded itself from the world in order “to think” the world, but where nothing necessarily happens, at least in the sense of the action to which we are accustomed. The protagonist of the novel, the colonel, belongs in fact to that strange sect of explorers of the negative which Enrique Vila-Matas has so well described in his book Bartebly and Co. Like Bartebly and like Alexander Grothendieck, upon whose life story the novel is based, the colonel decides one day to renounce the life of action in order to dedicate himself solely to the life of thought. I am fascinated by such characters: characters which one day decide to devote themselves to a conceptual project that might at first sight seem absurd, characters like the protagonist of Thomas Bernhard’s Correction. I am interested in sketching out how thought is also a type of action, perhaps the most beautiful and contemporary of them all. The only action that truly changes the world.

—Carlos Fonseca & Jessica Sequeira

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Carlos Fonseca Suárez was born in Costa Rica in 1987 and grew up in Puerto Rico. His debut novel, Coronel Lágrimas, was published in Spanish by Anagrama and in its English translation, as Colonel Lágrimas, by Restless Books. His work has appeared in publications including The Guardian, BOMB, Minor Literatures, and The White Review. He was recently selected as one of the twenty new young voices in Latin Literature by the FIL Guadalajara. He currently teaches at the University of Cambridge and lives in London.

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Jessica straightened

Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator born in California, at home in Buenos Aires. @jess_sequeira
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Jan 082017
 

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Allan Cooper: Many of your poems seem to have a sculptural, polished form, even the long free-verse poems of Kicking the Leaves and The Happy Man. Did your work with Henry Moore change your way of seeing the world, perhaps in a more sculptural way?

Donald Hall: You know I’ve known the old poets (and wrote about them in prose) and Dylan Thomas (who never got to be old) and Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. And I’ve often said that I learned more from Henry Moore than I ever learned from any poet. I think I’ve talked about a couple of things. One is the difference between size and scale. Henry gave me a little bronze maquette, eight inches long–and its scale is about as big as a basketball court. I surely thought that it was size that conferred scale. No way. Another that Henry said, and maybe he was repeating something Rodin said? Never think of a surface except as the extension of a line.* One sees it every minute, looking at his sculpture–but think of applying it to a poem! I’ve tried.

Allan Cooper: The Selected Poems of Donald Hall is a very tight collection, reflecting your changes in subject matter and form over the past sixty years. And yet your distinct voice remains constant throughout those changes. This becomes evident when you place an early poem, for example “The Town of Hill,”next to the later poem “Great Day in the Cows’ House.” In your Postscriptum you say you chose the poems “willy-nilly.” But to me this seems a very carefully considered choice and placing of poems. Was it difficult to leave out a poem such as “Elegy for Wesley Wells” from this selection?

Donald Hall: You ask why I left out my Elegy for my dear grandfather. I wrote it when he died, when I was in Oxford in March 1953. Of course I tinkered with it after that, but I seemed to feel it was not good enough, that it strained to become, oh, “Lycidas” maybe. Of course he turns up everywhere in my writing, I’m thinking of prose writing, as well as my daily thoughts–along with Jane Kenyon of course.

When I was young I looked upon successful careers as continual rising. Of course you go up and down, up and down. In my 30s and 40s I had a long down patch, and published many hideous poems in magazines that I never reprinted—but also reprinted many in books or pamphlets that I should not have printed. One was published by David Godine in a sort of hardback pamphlet called The Town of Hill, and the title poem was the nearest thing to a good poem that I’d written in five or ten years! It was late in that volume, which came out just as Jane and I arrived in New Hampshire. My lowest point coincided with my divorce and five years of booze and casual promiscuity before I met and married Jane. When we were first married, it took me a while to get started. Actually I wrote the first parts of The One Day, although I couldn’t bring it together for another dozen years, and started “Kicking the Leaves” (the poem not the book) before leaving Ann Arbor to move into this New Hampshire house. Here the place and the marriage to Jane flowered, and I wrote the book Kicking the Leaves, with my horses and my cows et cetera. It was my breakthrough.

Of course since then I went up and down and up and down. Jane’s death was an overwhelming emotional moment, and poems kept coming out of it for years. She died twenty-two years ago next spring. Some of the best of my late poems, like “Kill the Day,” or “Her Garden,” or “The Wish”–came out of her death years after her death.

My last “selection” was much, much too long, White Apples and the Taste of Stone. I make up for it. I left out a couple of poems that I truly like but they are each too long.

Allan Cooper: Several more recent poems, such as “The Master” and “Affirmation” seem to me to be almost Buddhist in nature. There is the sense of the emptying out of life in “Affirmation,” and the idea that the poet had best keep his or her nose out of the inner workings of the poem in “The Master.” Is this a fair assessment, or did you have something quite different from this in mind when you wrote these poems?

Donald Hall: I was not conscious of following Buddhist thought or practice, ever, during the composition of these poems–and I know what you mean! I can’t tell you the source for them. Each of them has had a lot of attention. I had more mail from the magazine publication of “Affirmation” (the New Yorker) than I ever had from any other poem. People cutting it out and sticking it on their refrigerators! Not quite so much from “The Master” but relatively speaking…

*The original quote by Moore is “Never think of a surface except as the extension of a volume.” Here Hall is referring to the line (or lines) of a poem.

—Donald Hall & Allan Cooper

allan cooper.

Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.

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Jan 082017
 

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To write poetry is to enter the golden room, the music of vowels and consonants and images. To love intently is to enter the golden room where there is a synthesis of two people. To mourn or grieve intently is to enter the golden room of memory and loss. —Allan Cooper

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The Selected Poems of Donald Hall
Donald Hall
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
160 pages; $22.00

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When the British sculptor Henry Moore was in his 80s, Donald Hall asked him “Would you tell me the secret of life?” Moore replied, “To do what you want to do…” We can interpret what you want to do in many different ways, but I feel that Moore is speaking here about something more along the lines of Joseph Campbell’s “Follow your bliss.” For any artist, it means to follow your path as deeply and as intently as you can. There are no guarantees in the artistic life, and you have no idea of how far you will have to go, or how successful you will be in the end.

Hall was born in 1928 in Hamden, Connecticut. When he was 16, he met Robert Frost at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, which consolidated his desire to become a professional writer. Early in his career he became the first poetry editor of The Paris Review; he also was co-editor of the ground-breaking anthology New Poets of England and America (1957). Hall has published over 50 books, including poetry, biographies, essays, plays, children’s books, memoirs and textbooks. His many awards include the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry (1988), the Frost Medal (1990) and the National Medal of the Arts (2010). In 2006 he was named Poet Laureate of the United States. He has lived for many years at Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmot, New Hampshire.

It’s important to include Hall’s second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon in this discussion of his work. Their move in 1975 to his grandparent’s farm in New Hampshire was a new beginning for both poets. As he has said, they sort of “camped out” to see what would happen. And what happened is that life on the farm and the landscape of rural New Hampshire nourished the work of both poets. Hall published his seminal work, Kicking the Leaves in 1978. Kenyon’s first collection, From Room to Room was published the same year. Before her death in 1995, Kenyon published four significant collections of poems, and one collection of translations, Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova, which appeared from Robert Bly’s Eighties Press. It was one of the first clear translations of Akhmatova’s work in English. Together, Hall and Kenyon were following their own bliss.

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For some poets, doing what you want to do often means developing and deepening the concerns, themes and style of their early poems throughout a long career. There’s a certain tone to their work that deepens over time, but the tone is always familiar. Other poets, such as Hall, go through a more embryonic development—their style goes through radical shifts over many years. Hall’s voice is always consistent. One of the great joys of reading The Selected Poems of Donald Hall is that we have samples of the diverse styles of his poetry from the last sixty years in one slim volume. They include the early formal poems of Exiles and Marriages and The Dark Houses; the experimental poems of A Roof of Tiger Lilies, The Yellow Room: Love Poems and The Town of Hill; poems rooted in memory and a loved landscape in Kicking the Leaves and The Happy Man; the prophetic and socio-political concerns of the book-length poem The One Day; and the many poems he wrote for Jane Kenyon and his life with her.

In the “Postscriptum” to this Selected, Hall says “I’ve told the story before, how a grumpy stranger asked me, “What do you write about anyway?” I blurted out, “Love, death, and New Hampshire.” It’s true. Love, death, and love’s death—in early poems maybe love for death?—and always Eagle Pond Farm.”

I would add pleasure as well–the pleasure of a known landscape, love’s pleasure, and the inner room that two people build together, if they’re lucky. One of his early poems about pleasure came at a time when he was moving from formal verse toward experimental free verse:

THE LONG RIVER

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

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

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

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

This poem was quoted by Robert Bly in an essay on Hall’s poetry in the third issue of Bly’s poetry magazine, The Fifties: “This poem…suggests that the way out of the middle class is by a door the middle class cannot find—a secret life. The concept of the poet as a man with an inner life is, as we look back, the central quality of a poet as developed by Yeats, and the Spanish, and this image seems the one least developed in America.”

Hall further developed the idea of pleasure in the title poem of his collection Kicking the Leaves. One of the surprising elements of this long poem is that he perceives pleasure not as a rising energy, but a kind of falling. There’s a gravity to the poem that seemed to be absent in the early collections. Here is the final section of “Kicking the Leaves”:

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Now I fall, now I leap and fall
to feel the leaves crush under my body, to feel my body
buoyant in the ocean of leaves, the night of them,
night heaving with death and leaves, rocking like the ocean.
Oh, this delicious falling into the arms of leaves,
into the soft laps of leaves!
Face down, I swim into the leaves, feathery,
breathing the acrid odor of maple, swooping
in long glides to the bottom of October—
where the farm lies curled against winter, and soup steams
its breath of onion and carrot
onto damp curtains and windows; and past the windows
I see the tall bare maple trunks and branches, the oak
with its few brown weathery remnant leaves,
and the spruce trees, holding their green.
Now I leap and fall, exultant, recovering
from death—on account of death, in accord with the dead—
the smell and taste of leaves again,
and the pleasure, the only long pleasure, of taking a place
in the story of leaves.

If you read these lines out loud you can hear what he calls “the vowels of bright desire.” We say we fall in love with a person, a place, a thing, an idea, but falling—a submission—is always part of that love. His best poems are always a kind of submission. “Gold,” written earlier than “Kicking the Leaves,” carries the idea in a different way. Perhaps the act of giving up to another person creates something else, what he calls a golden room:

GOLD

Pale gold of the walls, gold
of the centers of daisies, yellow roses
pressing from a clear bowl. All day
we lay on the bed, my hand
stroking the deep
gold of your thighs and your back.
We slept and woke
entering the golden room together,
lay down in it breathing
quickly, then
slowly again,
caressing and dozing, your hand sleepily
touching my hair now.

We made in those days
tiny identical rooms inside our bodies
which the men who uncover our graves
will find in a thousand years,
shining and whole.

To write poetry is to enter the golden room, the music of vowels and consonants and images. To love intently is to enter the golden room where there is a synthesis of two people. To mourn or grieve intently is to enter the golden room of memory and loss. After Jane Kenyon died, Hall wrote “Letter with No Address.” Part of that poem is quoted below:

……………………………You know now
whether the soul survives death.
Or you don’t. When you were dying
you said you didn’t fear
punishment. We never dared
to speak of Paradise.
At five A.M., when I walk outside,
mist lies thick on hayfields.
By eight the air is clear,
cool, sunny with the pale yellow
light of mid-May. Kearsarge
rises huge and distinct,
each birch and balsam visible.
To the west the waters
of Eagle Pond waver
and flash through popples just
leafing out.
………………Always the weather,
writing its book of the world,
returns you to me.
Ordinary days were best,
when we worked over poems
in our separate rooms.
I remember watching you gaze
out the January window
into the garden of snow
and ice, your face rapt
as you imagined burgundy lilies.

I can’t imagine finer lines about a life lived well together.

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Poetry, love and death are each a kind of letting go and a returning. Hall, who began writing formal poems, came back to them in recent years. Again, from his “Postscriptum”: As I read my poems in chronological order, I am aware of changing sounds and shapes. I move from rhymed stanzas to varieties of free verse, and later—out of love for Thomas Hardy’s poems—go back to meter again.” One of the strongest examples of his late poems is “Her Garden”:

…….I let her garden go.
…………………let it go, let it go
…….How can I watch the hummingbird
……………….Hover to sip
……………….With its beak’s tip
The purple bee balm—whirring as we heard
……………….It years ago?

……………The weeds rise rank and thick
…………………………let it go, let it go
…….Where annuals grew and burdock grows.
………………Where standing she
………………At once could see
The peony, the lily, and the rose
………………Rise over brick

…………….She’d laid in patterns. Moss
………………………let it go, let it go
………Turns the bricks green, softening them
………………..By the gray rocks
………………..Where hollyhocks
That lofted while she lived, stem by tall stem,
……………….Dwindle in loss.

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In a 1971 interview with The Tennessee Poetry Journal, Hall talked about the kind of poem he would like to write:

I am mainly interested in trying to write a poem in which, as Galway Kinnell said to me in conversation last fall, you bring everything that you have done, everything that you know, together at once. That’s not quoting Galway exactly, that’s what I got from what he said. That kind of poem involves knowing yourself. You have to be able to get at the truth of your feeling and not to distort it. This is where I want to go now, and where I hope I am going.

He might not have known at the time that it would take a lifetime to write that kind of poem. He first published “Affirmation” in The New Yorker on May 21, 2001, when he was in his early 70s:

AFFIRMATION

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

To lose everything. As we age, there is the thinning out of things. People that we have known well and loved leave us, or die. But there is still the residue of love, alive in the great sounding box of memory:

Ordinary pleasures, contentment recollected,
blow like snow into the abandoned garden,
overcoming the daisies. Your blue coat
vanishes down Pond Road into imagined snowflakes
with Gus at your side, his great tail swinging.

( from “Weeds and Peonies”)

Donald Hall has said that he will write no more poems. In a long life of poetry he has written a dozen or two of the best poems of his generation. What do we expect from any poet? We carry lines of their poems with us, sometimes whole poems in memory. They rise mysteriously inside us when we need them the most. They comfort us and feed us, bring resolution to our grief, our loss, or affirm our joy and deepest convictions. Whether he writes more poems or not, he has given us many gifts. I’ll let these lines from his poem “The Master” have the final say:

When the poet disappears
the poem becomes visible.

What may the poem choose,
best for the poet?
It will choose that the poet
not choose for himself.

–Allan Cooper

N5

allan cooper

Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.

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Dec 082016
 

Composer David Smooke and toy piano Composer David Smooke and toy piano.

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The toy piano will be the first thing you notice. (Toy piano? I asked. Yes, I was told. Not miniature. Toy. ) Composer David Smooke (1969) plays the toy piano, inside and out, and in doing so transforms the way you’ll think about sound.

The toy piano, even when it’s played like a piano, doesn’t sound like a piano. It sounds like childhood itself: tender, vulnerable, plastic hammers tapping metal rods, absent the rich overtones that accompany a larger piano’s notes. A typical adult hand looms, enormous over its keyboard. The performer must crouch, knees to chest, on a miniature piano bench, in order to play it.

And then there’s the way Smooke exploits the possibilities of the instrument: removing the piano’s lid, he tears into the metal bars that the piano’s hammers are meant to strike, pulling at them (bowing them) with strings or wire, strumming them gently with the back of his fingernails; or rubbing the soundboard with pieces of metal. In conversation, Smooke is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and quick to laugh. He currently teaches at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory, and has taught on the faculties of Ohio University, the Chicago College of Performing Arts of Roosevelt University, the Merit School of Music, the University of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago, the Birch Creek Music Performance Center, and the Sun Valley Summer Symphony Workshops. It’s clear he has a deep fondness for his work with students, and a gentle gift for supporting them without leading them off their own way.

We’d initially scheduled our conversation for the first week in November, planning to talk by Skype from his office in Baltimore to my own in Western North Carolina. Smooke’s latest CD, “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” had just been released in October, and features the Peabody Wind Ensemble, Karl Larson, loadbang, the Lunar Ensemble, and Mike Parker Harley as well as Smooke himself on toy piano. The title piece is a concerto written for toy piano and a wind ensemble (played here by Smooke with the Peabody Wind Ensemble and its conductor Harlan Parker.)

Smooke had sketched out a preliminary list of discussion topics—interesting, provocative topics posed by the nature of his compositional structure and techniques—but by the time our conversation occurred, the U.S. elections were over and our political landscape dramatically, irretrievably, altered in ways that we’re still struggling to address. As we arranged a time to talk, Smooke wrote “I feel like any conversation needs to revolve around why we’re doing art in today’s world….”

David Smooke: There is really nothing else to talk about these days, is there?

Carolyn Ogburn: I don’t think so. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice when I was preparing that you actually wrote about this back in 2010.

David Smooke: I did?

Carolyn Ogburn: You did! You had a student who came to you asking why, of all things that were going on in Schumann’s time, composers were writing about their individual love difficulties rather than addressing the political upheaval of that time. You wrote: “During a time of intense crisis I find myself questioning the utility of experimental music within society. We spend countless hours honing our craft, and yet we can’t heal an open wound or build shelter. Of course we have Churchill’s famous (yet apocryphal) quote in response to a proposal to cut arts funding during World War II, ‘then what are we fighting for?’ Still, our art appears to pale in the face of a disaster of these proportions.”

David Smooke: That’s really funny! I don’t remember writing about that at all, but it sounds like the sort of thing I would say.

Carolyn Ogburn: And now?

David Smooke: So, I teach class on Wednesday, first-year undergrads, and all of last Tuesday night I was thinking, what do I say to these undergrads in the morning? I really had to think through, what am I doing? What are they doing, what are we doing, and what can I convey to the students, some sense of music being important or not important at this time. If it’s not important we should just get out, and if it is important, how do we talk about it?

And I guess what we ended up with was just the idea I think so much of what’s going on these days is that people just don’t hear each other from either side, and we’re kind of denying the humanity of people they see as the other, that’s clearly what’s happening with the All Lives Matter response to Black Lives Matter….but it also is part of what makes it so easy for people on the left to dismiss the people on the right who do feel abandoned in our society. The arts can allow us to bridge that divide and to communicate with each other in a way that’s meaningful.

David SmookeDavid Smooke

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I think people often mistake accessibility for simplicity.

Carolyn Ogburn: So, one of my own fascinations is communication as a social phenomenon. One person explaining their truth is not communication, at any level. So then, I guess maybe the question comes back to the accessibility of art. Something that’s often said about arts in general is that they’re not relevant, they’re not meaningful. How do we bridge that divide while maintaining that aesthetic that actually says what the artist wants to say.

David Smooke: Yeah, well, when you talk about accessibility…I think people often mistake accessibility for simplicity. Accessibility should be more about making things available. Making the art, literally, accessible. I’ve seen time and again just where people are absolutely moved by difficult art that they have access to, that approaches them, that meets them, in their home.

And especially with music! I mean, look at death metal, punk music, music that plenty of people love, in all sorts of different communities…so how is my music harsher than Metallica? In a way I wish it was! But there’s something about, there are aspects to the rituals around the Metallica concerts that make it more accessible to people without necessarily making it easier.

Carolyn Ogburn: That’s a good distinction. Maybe the frame, the packaging?

David Smooke: In classical music, that’s something we’re always talking about. We have all these rituals that are necessary for silence. I mean, silence is necessary for acoustic music but they (the rituals) really serve to make music inaccessible to most people.

Carolyn Ogburn: Don’t you think there is something about elitism that is not all bad? It allows certain conversations to be had…

David Smooke: Well, there is such a thing as expertise! I think there’s a healthy way of looking at elitism, and there’s an unhealthy way. Where the whole idea of…you know, I would rather be operated on by someone who has a certain amount of training before they open me up. But then where I think the whole idea of expertise can be misused is, a lot of people use it to say, Itzhak Perlman is a better musician than Dr. Dre. And I’m not sure that you can really say this.

Carolyn Ogburn: And in terms of expertise, when confronted with political situations, it seems to me that a political response would be one that’s firmly placed within your area of expertise.

David Smooke: Yes.

Carolyn Ogburn: Did that make sense?

David Smooke: Yes. What you’re saying is that for me to make a salient political response, I can’t sit and argue with people over which climate studies are the best ones, but I can present art in a way that can make a difference.

David Smooke with a tiny birdcage

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On Hierarchy

Carolyn Ogburn: Do you think there’s also something political about the form of music itself? And by that I mean, many times music is presented with various amounts of hierarchy. I think about music in the church in this way…One tone, from which emerged polyphony, then melody with supporting base, reflecting changing power structures. And there’s also a way that music has of allowing, or even demanding, a variety of voices occurring all at once, on a stage.

David Smooke: Well, you just raised two interesting issues.

Carolyn Ogburn: Oh, good!

David Smooke: So hierarchy is everywhere in music, especially in western music, so much of the basis of music is hierarchal. From about 1750 through the 20th century, composers were using a system they called tonality. The first time someone tried to define tonality, the way that he defined it was to say “tonality is hierarchy.” And, of course, meter is also hierarchy.

In the 20th century, going away from those systems was phrased politically. Composers talked about it politically. Composers talked about emancipating dissonance from its function. Its (dissonance’s) function was its need to resolve, so to free it, literally, literally freeing it, was emancipating it from its hierarchy.

So you have hierarchy in the music itself, but you also have hierarchy in the way the music is presented. In an orchestra, you have a conductor, and everyone has to look to the conductor and the conductor’s interpretation. Which also goes to the each member of the orchestra has to bring their own expertise, but they’re subsuming their own expertise under the expertise of the composer and conductor. They think of themselves as servants within the hierarchy.

That’s the sort of thing that my music’s trying to get away from. following that more 20th-century notion of tearing down those walls. I do a lot of improvisation, totally free. I will sit down with a bunch of people, and none of us will have any idea what anyone, including himself, will do. This prompts a whole series of responses which can turn into…anything…which really is the most egalitarian way of making music.

But I’m also a composer, who writes notes and gives those notes to other people to interpret. Which goes back to all of those issues. A lot of music on the CD is music I wrote, give to other people. So other people take the music, they go and learn the music, they come back to me and say, I’ve made this choice, what do you think? And I give them my opinion, I like that or I didn’t like that.

There’s a famous—phenomenal—composer, his name is Haas, who came out in the New York Times as a dominant, and he and his wife talking about their relationship where he’s a dominant, and she’s a submissive. (She’s also a writer and a BDSM educator.) She’s very aware of all the political ramifications of that, and she also happens to be African American, and it happens to be the (white) male that dominates the (black) submissive woman. I guess it kind of goes back to the dominant composer thing of the composer being the one who rules the submissive performers.

So I guess I bring that up only to point out just how fraught all these relationships can be.

Carolyn Ogburn: And in a way, the fact that you’re thinking about this, composing and performing with a certain amount of self-consciousness about the fraughtness of this relationship, does that transform that relationship in some way…

David Smooke: Yes, exactly.

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21 Miles to Coolville

Carolyn Ogburn: I was really struck by “21 Miles to Coolville,” both the music and the video piece you made for it.

David Smooke: The video was taken from an older, live performance. But the piece itself is on the new CD too.

Carolyn Ogburn: I was thinking about what the political statement was in that piece. I think the visual, and how the visual was described, that this was a part of the country that has come under scrutiny in the last few weeks, meaning rural, or Appalachia (which is where I’m from) and the way in the piece, as the wonderful joy of the road trip kind of settles, you get to Coolville and Coolville is not what you expect.

David Smooke: So, I was living right near the sign (21 Miles to Coolville) and of course it’s a joke. I mean, Coolville! But also I was teaching there, and most of my students were from there, from the general area. And they were lovely, just lovely, the sweetest kids, who were so ready to learn and work hard and have their minds blown, and just meet ideas. And we had SO much fun in the classes. And yet in the community—in Athens, Ohio itself—I always felt very much like an outsider. Not among my students, who could not possibly have been more welcoming. But in the community…I mean, I’m skinny. I don’t think there was a single person my height who weighed less than 50 pounds more than me, just like I so stood out in my skinny-ness. And I stood out in my Jewishness. I felt both an outsider, and someone who was very welcome.

I was very aware that this is where these people who I really adore came from, and yet going there it was also clearly a place that had seen better days. So trying to feel, as an outsider, being careful not to be condescending, which is so easy to do and so often felt. Every interview I’ve ever seen with Trump voters has described this phenomenon, this feeling of being condescended to. But also trying to recognize that this town at one point was probably really thriving and that time had passed. And there were still things there that were well taken care of, but other things…so really just trying to see it as it was, rather than idealizing it in some way, poor Appalachia or…

Carolyn Ogburn: Would you call that political?

David Smooke: A year ago I would not have, and now…absolutely. Absolutely. It’s funny because so much of American art is based on this notion of Appalachia. It’s at the center of our idea of America. But when art takes place in Appalachia it seems to take one of two forms. Either an idealized form of America, or “Oh, look at the poor people.” And either way…these are people. I mean, now, just looking at people, Appalachian people, just as regular people seems like a political statement.

Carolyn Ogburn: Is your choice of instrument in any way a political statement? Because it’s kind of punk.

David Smooke: I mean, I grew up a punk and goth, right? So…yeah…Just so you know, I’m kind of looking that way because have a toy piano sitting right there, and I keep looking at it…

So again, it’s one of those things that’s yes and no, I think of it as this kind of idealized childhood that no one I know actually had. It seems representative of childhood possibilities, to take that use it in a way that both recognizes and subverts that. So often with these childhood instruments you see, like, toy piano played slowly and everything becomes eerie, or childhood singing with a lot of reverb becomes a horror trope. But literally, it’s deconstructing the instrument to see what else it has in it. So it’s taking this toy and making it sound like a crying beast, so in that sense, yeah, mining the depths, and I guess that’s mining the depths of childhood, but I think it’s a more roundabout sort of politicism.

Carolyn Ogburn: I don’t know that that’s less political for being roundabout…

David Smooke: Well, I try to be careful. It’s hard in art because there’s a fine line between art and agitprop, or propaganda. When the political statements become too clear or too specific, it can often become less effective because it becomes then very specific to that moment.

Carolyn Ogburn: How did that conversation with your students go, on that Wednesday morning?

David Smooke: It was one of those things where it was absolutely necessary…when I have these conversations, I never try to answer. It’s more raising the questions, put out there, to them, if they have things they want to do, come to me and I’ll help them. I had a similar conversation with my grad students. But I think right now everyone’s trying to think just how they’ll respond. I think it will take a while.

Carolyn Ogburn: It sounds to me to that you’re creating a safe container for people’s feelings, and hinting that music may have a place in this process.

David Smooke: And also recognizing that it’s a question whether or not music has a place in this process. And all these years, I don’t know that. There aren’t any good answers for how to create art that’s political and good art.

Carolyn Ogburn: And yet these conversations are so important to have. Especially, I think, the conversations that don’t have answers. How do you explore that?

David Smooke: So, for me, a lot of it begins at home. My wife is a fiction writer, Elise Levine. She’s absolutely brilliant, and thinks through things incredibly deeply. Her ideas are so important to me and to help me formulate my own ideas, going back and forth with each other on these things. And I have a lot of friends who are not musicians. One of the things I love about Baltimore is the arts community here, so we talk to artists and writers and musicians and everyone brings their own things to the table. And then also I think the key thing is to not to expect to get answers but just to follow through with questions and see where things lead. To help the people who are trying things but also to recognize that there’s never one thing that’s ever going to be an answer.

Carolyn Ogburn: Do you think an individual comes up with an answer for him or herself? Like, maybe these talks are less about a shared response than a manner of working through what an individual response might be?

David Smooke: Absolutely. And that’s also tied to teaching, because in any classroom, everyone will perceive material differently from everyone else. There’s never any single way of looking at things. I have a student that I’m working closely with who is giving concerts where the proceeds all go to food banks. I have another student that I’m working with who did an opera about the youngest person ever executed in the US. And these are all important projects, right? I mean, I would never write that opera, I would never think to do concerts supporting food banks, but food is important, and talking about these issues of American history are important, and we need every one to be doing their own thing and to be finding their own way through it. That’s the thing! There’s just so much work to be done in our own society.

Carolyn Ogburn: There’s so much work to be done and the work needs us all…

David Smooke: Exactly. And it needs people who are going to put their heart and soul into that aspect.

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“Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”

Carolyn Ogburn: You’ve just put out a new CD called “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” whose title piece is based on the collection of miniature crime scene models created in the 1940s by Frances Glessner Lee. How did you come across the Nutshell Studies?

David Smooke: So, they’re in Baltimore, and when we moved here, a friend said, “You’ve got to check these out.” I was already working with toy piano by then, and I thought, this is just too good of a title to pass up. But we were here for about 5 years before we actually went.

Carolyn Ogburn: I’m fascinated by the scale. The tiny piano you play, and the tiny models of death…

David Smooke: To me, it goes to everything that’s about what I do with the toy piano. The dollhouses, or dioramas, are children’s things that aren’t for children at all. They serve a very clear, scientific and meaningful purpose. So that very much mirrors the way I try to use the toy piano,

Then the fact that the scenes that are both bucolic and lovely, but simultaneously horrific, depending on what aspect of it you’re looking at. Going back to the way certain sounds on the toy piano are so nice, or then mining these other sounds. And this expansion of…well, you’ve got this very small instrument that has to be amplified, because in this context (the piece is a concerto for toy piano and wind ensemble) it never would have been heard. You’ve got all of these people playing these instruments that have hundreds or even thousands of years of instrumental technology behind them that have been absolutely perfected, and they’re all then put underneath this toy. So it’s expanding the toy, and contracting everything else.

Carolyn Ogburn: Do you think about that as political?

David Smooke: You know, Carolyn, I think these days everything comes back to politics. Everything is vulnerable. I guess it never wasn’t, but I think it’s more important to think through these implications, and to make these implications clear. And so, yes, talking in a visual way, right? It’s very much about perspective and scale, that idea of the small becoming large, the large becoming small, but everyone being unified, working together towards this thing, and dissolving, and all these kind of different interpersonal relationships. It’s exploring interpersonal relationships, which these days feels very political.

Carolyn Ogburn: Yes…

David Smooke: I mean, I keep coming back to this idea of agitprop. There are certainly great examples of political art.…this composer David Little, who has been writing Soldier Songs, Dog Days, absolute political statements that certainly has meaning that goes beyond it. And then there is art that we wish were outdated! Like, Guerrilla Girls and Feminist Uprising should feel outdated, but art institutions are slow to change and it doesn’t feel outdated. So I don’t want to go against the idea of making clear political statements. I mean, Bertolt Brecht still works.

But for me, I guess it goes to what I like in art. I tend to like things that are a bit more obtuse, they give up their secrets a bit more slowly. Where you might get one thing at first, and it might lead to another thing and another thing. One person will look at it and say, it’s clearly making this statement, and another may say, No, I think it’s making this statement. Ideally, it’s making both.

Carolyn Ogburn: I wanted to ask you about structure.

David Smooke: Ooooh! I love talking about structure.

Carolyn Ogburn: So music is a temporal form, and you talked about using the trail. and then you’ve got the alphabet series…you’ve got these restraints, that are not the sonata form or the 12-tone series or the fugue. So, tell me about structure.

David Smooke: (laughs) Tell you about structure.

Carolyn Ogburn: Sorry, yeah, I guess that’s a bit broad…

David Smooke: No, no. I just, it’s just that we could be here until morning and I could still be going another five days…So going back that question you raised earlier about hierarchy. Tonal music is all about exploring the hierarchy in a very specific way. You mentioned sonata form: sonata form is based on the drama of having this pitch that you begin with, dramatizing the motion away from the pitch, and dramatizing the return. It’s very much a journey away from and back to that note as being the drama. So when we get into more recent music, we don’t have that idea of dramatized motion toward or from that note anymore. When I was younger I really very much liked that idea of linear structure, having a structure that begins somewhere and would take a listener through from point A to point B…C….D…., and I could pull you along, walk you along that line. And that’s just not as interesting to me anymore. The same way I like ideas that can be interpreted many different ways, I like structure that has something that can be held onto but that doesn’t feel inevitable, but instead it feels surprising. A lot of movies I like have that sort of structure. Gus Van Sant, these experimental works, My Own Private Idaho, or Gerry, which are formally all over the place, and that idea in a movie or fiction, that it’s not necessarily linear. And so my music plays with that. Even without tonality, there can still be a sense of climactic moments, or music that goes to a specific spot.

But sometimes that gets boring. Not everything needs to build to something, or go to somewhere. So with structure these days I’m trying to explore various ways of moving through time and space with the idea that yes, things are related and interconnected, and the interconnections don’t necessarily don’t need to go from A-Z and if they do, it might be for a reason that’s placed on top of it.

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‘A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was’

.Carolyn Ogburn: One of the pieces you’ve included on this new recording (‘A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was,’ based on an alphabetized story by the Baltimore-based writer Michael Kimball written under the pseudonym Andy Devine) is a story written entirely in alphabetized words, many of which are repeated multiple times.

David Smooke: That alphabetized story is a great example. I think that there is some sort of extra story structure beneath it. The part on the CD is just a small excerpt; the whole piece is an hour long. When you look at the whole story…for example, the word Dad is only said once, but the word Mom is said 100 times. And so you start to get the sense of these relationships, and it does go somewhere even though the story isn’t linear, but the form of it is absolutely linear, in a way that’s absolutely meaningless.

I have a piece that I’m writing down right now that’s my experience of a trail that’s right near my house. I literally recorded myself running this trail and that will provide the background structure for the piece. The idea of the run is something that I’ve been wanting to do for years, because when you’re running on a trail, on the one hand it’s absolutely linear, you’re literally going from Point A to Point Z. But on the other hand, what happens on the trail, along that path, is unpredictable and random. I guess that’s where the structure comes from; it comes from the experience of the natural world. You’re out on a trail, and you don’t know what kind of bird you’re going to hear when you round the bend, or you don’t know what tree you’ll see. Your experience from moment to moment is entirely predictable, because on the one hand you’re putting one foot in front of the other and you know where you’re going; and on the other, moment to moment, it’s entirely unpredictable. And even when you hear a bird calling, and you know, oh, that’s a mocking bird, and it’s going to make that sound four times, it doesn’t always do it the way you expect.

Carolyn Ogburn: And you don’t know what that means, because we can’t interpret bird song in that way.

David Smooke: And the sounds as you’re moving through it, some birds might be moving towards you, or away from you. And there might be crickets, and you might be moving towards the stream, or away from the stream. And all these things, linear and nonlinear things, we’re okay with that experience. So the constraints, when there are constraints, tend to be very much about here is the path, but in a way that in a moment on the path, anything can happen.

The other thing I’m working on right now, the main focus, is doing more solo performance, creating longer structures so that I can go tour. (Laughs) You know, “Have toy piano. Will travel.” I’ll be playing various places over the next few months, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and I’m working on a few others. It goes back to that whole hierarchal thing. I’ve been feeling more comfortable lately being in the music rather than handing things off to people and saying, Go and do it.

Carolyn Ogburn: Are those two different hats to be the composer rather than the composer/performer?

David Smooke: Well, yes and no. There are ways in which they’re very similar. The structure is very similar, but the way I create the piece is very different, because when I’m writing a piece for other people to play, I’ll write it out with pencil, then put it into a computer, and go back and forth, and each time it feels like the end of the world because it takes so long to craft everything, but when I’m writing something for myself to play a lot of the crafting of it is just exploring the sound and seeing how it feels. There’s a lot more flexibility in the moment.

But, you know, I got to work with great people on the project (Nutshell Studies). It’s amazing to me to live in a world where people spend their lives learning their instruments to such a level where they can do anything, and they want to be part of projects where they have to do things that they don’t normally do. And also Scott Metcalf who recorded all of it was just absolutely amazing. This music that just rolls around in your head for awhile, to then to have it sound as good as it does amazes me. And I hate to say “as good as it does” but I guess the best way to put it is, I don’t like the sound of listening to my own music. Once it’s done it’s done. I just like to get it out of my desk and move on to the next thing. But now every time I listen to it, I’m just amazed by the artistry on it. I feel very lucky to be part of a community where people put their effort into something like this.

—David Smooke and Carolyn Ogburn

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Carolyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, UNC-Asheville, and UNC School of the Arts, she recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently seeking representation for her first novel.

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Dec 052016
 

elsa-crossElsa Cross

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This month’s edition of Numero Cinco finds our newest addition to the NC masthead, Dylan Brennan, speaking with translator Anamaría Crowe Serrano about her work with Mexican poet Elsa Cross. They discuss Serrano’s involvement in bringing Cross’s work to an English audience, as well as the difficult decisions translators must make when doing so. 

After the interview, we have a selection of poems by Cross, both translated from the Spanish by Serrano and in their original language.

— Benjamin Woodard

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Dylan Brennan (DB): How did you get involved in this project?

Anamaría Crowe Serrano (ACS): I’ve been involved with Shearsman Books for several years, first with a collection of my own, and then with translations of some of Elsa’s poems that were included in a Selected Poems in 2009. The editor, Tony Frazer, publishes several titles in translation every year – as well as collections in English and the Shearsman poetry journal – and at some point he asked if I’d be interested in expanding on the original translations I had done. I didn’t have to think about it twice.

selectedpoems

DB: How much did you know about Elsa Cross beforehand and how much did you have to learn as you went about translating?

ACS: I had met Elsa in London at the launch of her Selected Poems, so I knew a little about her. She teaches philosophy of religion and comparative mythology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and has published extensively, but I am always curious about the person behind the biographical note. It’s a bonus when I can make some connection with the poet I’m translating because I like to enter the poet’s world. In some ways translating is a little bit like method acting – for me, anyway – in that I like to absorb the poet and his/her mood if I can, in order to translate the work as faithfully as possible. It means that I adopt a slightly different persona each time I translate a different poet, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m not particularly experimental with the text of the translation itself.

What struck me about Elsa during our conversation in London was that her poetry reflected her personality: gentle, contemplative, self-assured. It seemed that the mysteries and uncertainties inherent in the world around us, which philosophy constantly probes, rather than cause angst, in some paradoxical way provide a source of strength for this poet. I got a sense that she accepts that not everything can be known, and there’s comfort in that place of acceptance. The idea of immersing myself for several months in Elsa’s poetic world and worming my way through her raw material was very appealing. As I’ve said, I had already translated some of the first section of Beyond the Sea, so I was familiar with Elsa’s style as well as the setting for the poems. Her collections are often written against the backdrop of a particular locale which works as an anchor for her thoughts. In Beyond the Sea, we find ourselves in Greece. The sound of waves, cicadas in the afternoon heat, plants stirring in the breeze, wings flapping, ancient ruins, are a constant accompaniment, like a leitmotif, to the philosophical thoughts and questions posed in the poems.

DB: Did you get in contact with Elsa Cross to discuss the poems? If so, how was that? Did she have any role in the translation process?

ACS: Yes, I did. I think all translators have questions about the text, so it’s an advantage to be able to ask the poet directly. In this case Elsa was very generous with her answers, clarifying specific words or images or nuances, such as what kind of “filo” she meant in the first line of poem 5 of “Dithyrambs”. I wasn’t sure if it might be a blade, a trickle of some sort, a thread… It’s wonderful to be able to consult the author because it means that the end result is as close to the intended meaning of the original as it can be; there’s very little guess work on the translator’s part, although individual lexical choices and phrasing are ultimately subjective. In my experience, poets are always happy to collaborate with the translator if they can because a translation can seem quite alien to the poet. Poets get attached to their specific lexical choices and even to the spaces between them. Every word of the original is so charged for the poet that it can be a terrible disappointment to realise that the translator has misinterpreted something that is very meaningful to you as a poet. Having some control over the translation process goes a long way towards assuaging those concerns.

Elsa’s English is excellent, which meant she could make very useful suggestions. The draft translation that was emailed from Dublin to Mexico City and back many times is peppered with comments ranging from uses of the definite article or prepositions or possessive adjectives, to whether the translation should include footnotes for words such as “tezontle”, to what the subject of a particular verb is (given that it’s not always specified in Spanish, which can sometimes allow for ambiguity, whereas it must be specified in English, destroying the ambiguity).

Over the years I’ve come to think of a translation as the child of both the author and the translator. A translation contains the linguistic DNA of each through a process that explores language at a microscopic level. When the translator can work with the author, the symbiosis is more complete: the child resembles both its parents more closely than it might had there been no collaboration between them. In Beyond the Sea, Elsa’s input was so valuable that I suggested the cover should read “translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano with the author”, but she was too modest to want to claim any credit for the translation.

beyondthesea

DB: Is translating poetry something you find easy or do you find it agonizing at times? What about the Greek elements of the book? Something you had to research or was it all known to you already?

ACS: Sometimes you come across a poem that you can translate quickly; the words just come to you and the result is satisfying. But those occasions are rare. Usually it requires many hours of thought – more than might seem apparent from the length of a poem. The end result that appears in print is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath that tip lies the bit the reader never sees – the process – which for a collection could be up to a year’s work. But I absolutely love translating. (The only thing I agonize about is the inadequate pay, completely out of line with the hours and skill involved in the process.) Lines or words that are problematic might take several days – or longer – but the process is hugely enjoyable, like trying to solve a difficult brain teaser. The funny thing is that often what seems relatively easy to translate, where the language itself is simple, might turn out to be the hardest thing because you want to avoid using a particular word (if it had been used before), or you want to keep the rhythm of the line nicely balanced and the literal translation won’t work. In the second line of poem I of “Las cigarras” (Cicadas), for example, the line reads: “las cigarras empiezan sus odas lentas” (literally: the cicadas begin their slow odes). There’s nothing complicated about the language here, and “the cicadas begin their slow odes” is acceptable in English except for the fact that I didn’t like the strong vocalic assonance of “slow odes”. If you say it aloud it sounds like you’re trying to say something with an egg in your mouth. I’m conscious of the phonic effect of words, so semantic exactitude doesn’t always satisfy my ear. The problem then is that there are so many synonyms of “slow”. It took me ages to finally settle for “unhurried odes”, which also reflects the lilting, languid rhythm of the original.

There are many references to Greek mythology in the collection, some of which I was familiar with, and some not. A quick online search can clarify that a kouros is a free-standing statue of a young boy, often a representation of Apollo, and while any reading of these poems is richer if you are familiar with the Greek references, from the point of view of translation, once I could find the English equivalent, lack of detailed knowledge about artefacts or gods was not a significant problem.

DB: Any crossover with your own work, similar themes or styles?

ACS: Not really. The work I translate is quite different in theme and style from my own work. That has happened by chance, but I’m not sure I’d like to translate someone’s poetry if it reminded me a lot of my own. It’s nice to take a break from the usual preoccupations and discover other ways of writing, images that would never have occurred to you because they’re very foreign or because they come from a discipline that you don’t often engage with. The process of discovery adds to the pleasure of translating.

DB: I’d love to know of any difficult translation decisions, if there were any for you, what were they, how did you go about resolving them?

ACS: The use of idioms often poses problems for the translator, of course, resulting in the classic case of something being lost in translation. There was one instance of that in this collection with the word “cántaros”, which are clay pitchers or jugs for water or wine. It appears as the title of one section in “The Wine of Things” and is also repeated in several poems in a general way. But it’s also used in the expression “A cántaros”, which means “cats and dogs”, as in “it’s raining cats and dogs”. Clearly, when it’s used in Spanish to mean “cats and dogs”, none of the generic English translations works. It’s a shame because it means that the repetition of the word throughout the entire section is slightly lost. Not only that, “cats and dogs” has a totally different connotation in English compared to the Spanish “cántaros”. Cántaros are receptacles, for a start. The fired earth they’re made from has some echoes of antiquity and domestic labour. In comparison, “cats and dogs” sounds completely trivial at best, and if we take the origin of the phrase to be related to Jonathan Swift’s “A Description of a City Shower”, where cats and dogs drown in the downpour and flow along the flooded streets, then it’s completely disgusting. Either way, it won’t work as a translation. Another option might be “pouring” or “pouring rain”, but you lose the image of the container. In the end, I opted for “Bucketing”, even though the tone is a bit colloquial.

That presented yet another problem. The cántaros of the title should ideally be the same word that is used in the poems. I had opted for “pitchers” as a generic translation, with “bucketing” when referring to rain, but I didn’t like either of these as a section title. I suppose I might have settled for pitchers and been forever dissatisfied with its ambiguity had I not mentioned the problem to Elsa. Her solution – to use the Greek word “kantharos” – seemed perfect. Not only does it encompass all versions of kantharos (jugs, pitchers, buckets), and is in keeping with the Greek setting of the entire collection, it slightly elevates the tone of the more common “cántaros”, making up to some extent for the fact that the idiom is lost in English.

The other translation difficulty that arose was in the Aeolides, Oceanides, and Nictides sections. Here, the poems are of haiku-like brevity, often beginning with a verb conjugated in the third person plural (“they”). The subject is the daughters of the wind, sea or night, depending on the section in question. The fact that Spanish does not require the subject pronoun to be stated – because it is incorporated in the verb conjugation – allows for a profusion of lexical diversity in each poem. Here’s an example from “Eolides, 7”:

Despeinan
…………..al joven eucalipto
hacen caer sus resinas
……………………………..sobre los barandales

Zumban amorosas
como abejorros
………………….en el hueco de las cañas

Llenan la mirada de hormigas amarillas
……………………de la avispa

English, being a language that requires the use of the subject pronoun, would transform each of the verbs (Despeinan, hacen, Zumban, Llenan) into “They uncomb”, “they make”, “They buzz”, “They fill”. Repeating the subject pronoun in each line of such a short poem creates unpoetic monotony compared to the breezy freshness of the Spanish. Avoiding the subject pronoun so often – there are many of these poems in the collection! – was probably the single greatest challenge that required various different solutions. Sometimes I use the subject pronoun once at the beginning but don’t repeat it for the second verb, in the hope that it will be understood to be implied, or I use gerunds for subsequent verbs. That’s what I did in the above example (They uncomb, making, Buzzing, Swarming):

They uncomb
…………………….the young eucalyptus
making its resin drip
…………………….on the handrails

Buzzing, amorous
like bumblebees
…………………….in the hollow stalks of canes

Swarming our gaze with yellow ants

On other occasions I changed the word order and/or the grammatical function from active to passive so as not to begin a line with the subject.

Someten a su ritmo                         (They subject…)
………..las flores encrespadas
………..el lomo de los cerros

Todo lo vuelven piedra lisa                      (They turn everything…)

becomes

Rimpled flowers
and hilltops
………..are subjected to their rhythm

Turned by them to smooth stone

DB: What do you think of the poems? How would you describe the book to someone down the pub? Why should people read this book?

ACS: If you don’t know Elsa Cross’s poetry, this book is as good a place to start as any. It’s a bilingual edition, which is always useful for the reader. Cross is considered one of Mexico’s leading contemporary poets and has been praised by Octavio Paz for her interplay of complex thought and clarity of expression. In my opinion, this is the key element in her work. There’s a strong sense of the poet sitting still, absorbing her surroundings through the senses first of all – sound, sight and touch in particular – as if she were meditating, then very deliberately using these senses as a conduit to something deeper. Small details of nature, or of a Greek statue, have the potential to reveal something worth knowing, but the slightest sound or movement, even too much sunlight, can shatter any meaning that might be contained in the moment (“meaning becomes / an incongruous stroke, / a particle that marries with dust.” Stones, 4). The elusiveness of meaning marries with vivid imagery ever so delicately, even when the poet paradoxically finds the image devoid of meaning. Take, for example, the opening of poem 3 of “Cicadas”:

The night swings
on the call of owls hooting.
Flapping,
words heard in a dream
……………………………take flight
at the sound of the first cicada
now fitfully cutting
……………………the silence of dawn.

Words wanted
……………………beyond what they are—
yet when we try to grasp them
their flight is slowly undone
………………………………like ritual gestures.
They empty of image,
are no more than voice—
……………………gloomy alliterations
……………………in a lower key,
resonance,
……………………the sea’s craving for its creatures.

I love her exploration of the ambiguity of what is real and what isn’t; her allusions to Dionysian indulgence, for which the poet clearly has a preference (“The only instrument is passion”, Cicadas, 4), counter-balanced by Apollonian ideals that are harder for humans to achieve (“You light up everything, / but who sees your shadow?” Offerings, “Paean”); the mysterious absence on occasion of a figure that seems to be central to the poet (“a presence not present”), whose footsteps she follows only to find that they disappear “mid-step”.

The book itself is divided into two sections: Beyond the Sea, and The Wine of Things. In keeping with the Greek theme, the first section is a series of Odes, while The Wine of Things contains dithyrambs that read, among other things, as a contemporary homage to the gods. The multiple layers of striking images, connotation, mythology, and the contemplative quality of these poems makes them endlessly fresh and appealing against the soothing backdrop of the Aegean.

DB: Tell us about yourself and your own work, what you’re working on now and what’s next.

ACS: At the moment I’m going through literary labour, waiting for a few books to be published. A collection of poetry is due out any day with Shearsman and will probably be available by the time this article is in print. It’s called onwords and upwords, and is a collection in which I continue to tease out the technicalities and function of language, and play around with form. I want to find different modes of expression all the time, which is quite hard – for me, anyway.

There’s another collection pending publication that was written with actress and poet Nina Karacosta where we challenge each other on a phonic level, with words in Irish (for Nina) and Greek (for me) to which we have to apply some kind of meaning in poetic form. That was a fun project, partly because we worked very closely together, spending a few weeks of the year deep in discussion, bouncing ideas off each other, developing a pattern of work that suited that particular project.

I’ve had these two collections in the pipeline for a while, along with Elsa’s book, and have found that I can’t think about the next project until I have these out of the way, so I haven’t done much writing recently. But I do have an idea up my sleeve which I might try to work on if I get some time. It should be a move away from poetry, though hopefully it will have poetic elements and, at the very least, I’d like it to be uncategorizable as a genre. I might approach it differently to my usual way of working. I work freelance, so my day is not dictated too much by a routine. I can usually write whenever I feel the need. One thing, though, I hate long hand! I hate the visual mess of text scribbled out, arrows pointing to afterthoughts, not being able to make out my own handwriting the next day… The pc ensures I always have a clean text in front of me. I edit and re-edit every line as I go along so that by the time I’ve written the last line, the poem is pretty much as I want it. I rarely make changes afterwards.

With poetry, I never have an overall vision for a book when I start. I write in response to some unconscious need to address individual issues, although in the process of writing, the form can take precedence over the substance. That’s what I discovered was the unifying element in onwords and upwords – hence the title. However, for the next project, I have a better sense of where it might lead. The reason for that is that, unlike with poetry collections, I have a theme in mind for this next experiment. I’ll put a few ideas together during the summer, a general skeleton. If it has decent limbs and a backbone I might try and flesh it out.

Another project I have to tick off the to-do list is a novel I wrote many years ago. It’s called The Big e, and has been fully edited and ready for publication for a while, very frivolous and fun, and unlikely to have a sequel or to appeal to publishers, so I’ll self-publish it at some point. With that, I was pretty structured in how I wrote, trying to get something on paper every day, usually in the morning. The fact that the writing went on for about three years didn’t really appeal to me, even though it’s fun to live in the parallel universe of your characters for extended periods and see things through their eyes. Overall, I prefer brevity, even when translating. I’ve translated a few novels and have found that the process becomes a bit tedious half way through because you still have another 150 pages left and will have to spend another few months with the same characters.

For translations I have a deadline that I stick to very rigorously. With poetry it’s always a generous deadline because poets and publishers of poetry understand the need for time to allow a text to settle (not so in the case of novels where there are commercial demands that don’t apply to poetry). I work methodically, setting aside the time I will need for a first draft, followed by a few weeks where I put the translation aside and forget about it so as to come to it from a fresh perspective for a full edit. During the first draft I put together whatever queries I have for the poet, incorporating the answers when they come back so that after the full edit I can send the manuscript to the poet for an overview. There are always more queries and comments at that stage. I go through several complete edits before the manuscript is ready for the publisher, and when it comes back for proofing I make additional final changes. Even after publication I wish I could make more changes. The process is never finished for me. I’m rarely fully satisfied with the result but have come to accept that a translation can only be the result of the translator’s reading of the original text at one particular moment in time. Tomorrow, the translator’s world view and state of mind and experience of language will have shifted ever so slightly.

§

cross_ntx_leer

Selections from Beyond the Sea, by Elsa Cross, translated from the Spanish by Anamaría Crowe Serrano.

From Beyond the Sea

WAVES

1

Your face appears.
Sinks into milk,
like the well-begotten Lamb
………………………………………….in the Mysteries.

The fire approaches without touching us.
Blue more intense
than the elation building towards the islands.

Trembling,
as if behind smoke,
…………………………………your face appears.

The conch mixes the sea
with wonder itself
…………………………………in our ear,

waves surging
………….where the mind’s islands navigate,
flashes—
……………………Beyond the sea.

Movements of thigh and hip
tentatively outline
……………………………….a dance.

…………..The sea stretches
…………………………………in unbreaking waves.
Movement—
the last vowel
……………………….reverberates in the ear.
…………..The sea stretches
…………..beyond time
…………..…………..immovable.
A tremble,
…………..…………..an echo of movement—
hushes
and speaks to us
…………..…………..in its other tongue,
like that fire burning within,plays and spreads
until it quietens in a vertical ray.
Omnipresent,
…………..…………..the language of touch without hands.

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4

A manly sound, that language of the islands.
Strong syllables,
…………..…………..honed vowels
like colours separating the sea from the crags.

Island emerging from nowhere,
place where no one is born
…………..…………..…………..or dies.
Only the course of its ground is followed,
piling its broken signs
…………..…………..…………..…………..on the grass—
stelae
unfold their argument on the waves,
…………..hold it,
…………..…………..bend it, withdraw it
…………..…………..—seduce the eye—
…………..…………..…………..…………..…………..repeat it.

The music of that tongue rises to the retentive ear,
and the ear stays open
…………..…………..…………..in its intoxication—
maybe it translates the tumble
…………..…………..of the wave rushing to die on the sands,
or the delight
…………..…………..of she who is born from the spray.

Is there anything that does not come from the sea?

Names that don’t attract death
…………..…………..…………..but maybe sweeten its arrival:
…………..…………..She of the Delectable Voice
…………..…………..She of Nascent Desire
…………..…………..She Bathed in Light—
…………..…………..…………..…………..She the Inevitable.

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5

Silent women,
chiselled plaster on the wall
…………..…………..…………..—asymmetries.

From the crest of a moon
olive trees balance
…………..…………..…………..precariously
as evening declines.
Summer carts make their way up
…………..…………..…………..…………..to hillside houses,
and with the setting sun
a bright snake
…………..…………..—a bicycle lamp—
meanders through the vineyards.

Venus and the waning moon
…………..…………..…………..…………..in conjunction
light up the waters.
The island
copies the shape of that half-moon
bending its back
…………..…………..…………..between two ridges—

 remains of its body float
…………..…………..…………..like charred bones.

Thus the sea of dreams joins or devours
fragments of the divided substance.

On the wing of an insect the fabrics of vision:
the city twinkles
…………..…………..through veils of plumbago,
over beaches almost blurred from view.
In enclosed courtyards
the light seems to rise from a hidden well;
desires gleam—
…………..…………..such is the accumulated transparency.
And the memory of a disaster.

Fragments of consciousness
emerge
…………..………….. and submerge
…………..like those islands.

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CICADAS

5

Jellyfish lesions on skin,
as if each cicada
…………..…………..were stabbing with a hairclip
or armies of ants were leaving burning trails
…………..…………..…………..…………..…………..in their wake.

Pale skies as summer unfolds.
And all that light,
…………..…………..the whiteness of a marriage bed,
those terraces where the night slips in
on a silver thread,
…………..…………..inaudible strumming,

are all still there,
when we’ve been around
the crest of the new moon
…………..…………..…………..at one end of our heart.
And the sea—
at twilight it takes on
the colour of our golden wines.

The wineskins are empty.
The hour bites our temples,
disrupts
…………..the journeys;
what we gave and didn’t give each other
sparkles
…………..under the sun as it moves away.

No sea as blue,
no light
…………..as white,
even though that splendour
may already have held
…………..…………..…………..the caress of darkness.

 .

From The Wine of Things

NICTIDES

9

They are repeated insomnia
a little sting
…………..………….. the flapping
of memories not sheltered
…………..…………..…………..by presence

 .                 

10

They are a white shadow
innocence in the yellow phrases
…………..…………..…………..……….of a dying man
the catastrophe of the voice

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11
They are vague emotions
…………..…………..…………..in the stillness of the day
hollow bells

mist crouching
…………..…………..in your chest
like a doubt

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12

They are transversal signs
…………..…………..…………..withered tributes
fragments lifted from the debris

They are hidden diamonds

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THE WINE-RED SEA
(On the Dionysus Kylix)

…………..…………..…………..…………..for Ursus

O waves so red,
confluent streams
…………..…………..where grapes and dolphins almost meet,
and the vertical mast,
now trunk and branches,
…………..…………..…………..spreads its arms east and west.
And the dolphins freely swim
…………..…………..…………..…………..—old sailors
guarding the vessel.
And the sail bulging white
…………..…………..…………..under lavish grapes,
and the graceful ram at the prow,
what beach are they pointing at?
where will they dock
…………..…………..…………..if the blissful god
neither charts the course nor guides
but merely sips
the pleasant breezes
…………..…………..and the scent of the wine-red sea?

§

De Ultramar

Las Olas

1

Aparece tu rostro.
Se hunde en leche,
como el Cordero bienhallado
…………..…………..…………..en los Misterios.

El fuego se acerca sin tocarnos.
El azul es más intenso
que la ebriedad creciendo hacia las islas.

Tembloroso,
como detrás de humo,
…………..…………..…………..aparece tu rostro.

El caracol mezcla el mar
al propio estupor
…………..…………..en el oído,
oleaje donde navegan
…………..islas de la conciencia,
destellos—
……………Ultramar.

Movimientos del muslo y la cadera
esbozan al tiento
…………..…………..una danza.

…………..El mar se extiende
…………..…………..en olas que no se rompen. 

Movimiento—
la última vocal
…………..…………..reverbera en el oído.

…………..El mar se extiende
…………..más allá del tiempo,
…………..…………..…………..
inamovible. 

Temblor,
…………..…………..eco del movimiento—
calla
y nos habla
…………..en su lengua otra,
parecida a ese incendio de adentro,
juega y se difunde
hasta aquietarse en un rayo vertical.
Omnipresente,
…………….lenguaje del tacto sin manos.

…………..

4

Sonido varonil, ese lenguaje de las islas.
Sílabas contundentes,
…………..…………..vocales definidas
como colores que separan el mar de los peñascos.

Isla salida de la nada,
lugar donde no se nace
…………..…………..…………..ni se muere.
Sólo se sigue el decurso de su suelo,
que apila sobre la hierba
…………..…………..…………..sus signos rotos—
estelas
despliegan en la onda su argumento,
…………..…………..lo sostienen,
…………..…………..…………..lo curvan, lo sustraen
…………..…………..–seducen al ojo—
…………..…………..…………..…………..lo repiten.

La música de esa lengua sube al oído retentivo,
y el oído queda abierto
…………..…………..…….en su embriaguez–
quizá traduce el tumbo,
…………..de la que corre a morir en las arenas,
o el gozo
……………de la que nace de la espuma.

¿Qué cosa no viene del mar?

Nombres que no atraen a la muerte
…………..…………..…………..pero tal vez endulzan su llegada:
…………..La de Voz Deleitosa
…………..La que Despierta el Deseo
…………..La Bañada en Luz—
…………..…………..…………..…………..La Inevitable.

…………..

5

Mujeres taciturnas,
cinceladuras de yeso en la pared
…………..…………..…………..…………..–asimetrías.

Desde una cresta de luna
los olivos se equilibran
…………..…………..…………..precarios
en el declive de la tarde.
Suben las carretas del verano
…………..…………..………………hacia los caseríos altos,
y al ponerse el sol
una serpiente luminosa
…………..…………..…………..–fanal de bicicleta—
ondula en los viñedos.

Venus y la luna menguante
…………..…………..…………..…………..en conjunción
iluminan las aguas.
La isla
copia la forma de esa media luna
quebrando su espinazo
…………..…………..…………..entre dos puntas—
restos de su cuerpo flotan
…………..…………..como huesos calcinados.

Así el mar del sueño junta o devora
fragmentos de la sustancia dividida.

En un ala de insecto los tejidos de la visión:
la ciudad parpadea
…………..…………..en veladuras de plúmbago,
sobre playas que apenas se distinguen.
En los patios cerrados
la luz parece ascender de un pozo oculto;
brillan los deseos–
…………..…………..…………..tanta la transparencia acumulada.
Y una memoria de desastre.

Fragmentos de conciencia
emergen
…………..y se sumergen,
………..como esas islas.

…………..

LAS CIGARRAS

5

Huellas de medusas en la piel,
como si cada cigarra
…………..…………..punzara con una horquilla
o legiones de hormigas dejaran rastros quemantes
…………..…………..…………..…………..…………..de su paso.

Cielos pálidos al transcurrir el verano.
Y toda esa luz,
…………..…………..esa blancura de tálamo,
esas terrazas por donde entra la noche
en un filo plateado,
…………..……………..rasgueo inaudible,
siguen allí,
cuando hemos recorrido
la cresta de la nueva luna
…………..…………..……….en un extremo del corazón.
Y el mar—
toma al crepúsculo
el color de nuestros vinos dorados.

Los odres están vacíos.
El vino muerde ahora la sien,
trastorna
…………..las travesías;
lo que nos dimos y no nos dimos
brilla
…………bajo un sol que se aleja.

Ningún mar tan azul,
ninguna luz
…………..tan blanca,
aunque ese esplendor
ya llevara consigo
…………..…………..la caricia de lo oscuro.

 …………..

De El vino de las cosas

NICTIDES

9.

Son insomnio repetido
un pequeño aguijón
…………..…………..………….. revoloteo
de recuerdos no amparados
…………..…………..…………..…………..en la presencia

…………..

10.

Son sombra blanca
la inocencia en las frases amarillas
…………..…………..…………..…………..del moribundo
la catástrofe de la voz

…………..

11.

Son emociones difusas
…………..……….en lo inmóvil del día
campanas huecas
niebla que se agazapa
…………..…………..en el pecho
como una duda.

………….. 

12.

Son signos transversos
…………..…………..…………..homenajes marchitos
trozos levantados de los escombros

Son diamantes ocultos

…………..

EL MAR COLOR DE VINO
(Sobre el kílix de Exekías) 

Para Ursus

Oh mar tan rojo,
corrientes encontradas
…………..…………..casi juntan racimos y delfines,
y el mástil vertical,
vuelto cepa y sarmientos,
…………..………..abre brazos a oriente y a poniente.

Y van a su albedrío los delfines
…………..…………..…………..………..viejos marinos
custodiando la nave.

Y la vela tan blanca que se abomba
…………..…………..…………..bajo las uvas pródigas
y el espolón gracioso de la proa
¿hacia qué playa apuntan?
¿en dónde atracarán si el dios
…………..…………..…………..……….dichoso
no marca ruta o guía
y solo bebe
los vientos placenteros
…………..…………y el aroma del mar color de vino?

— Elsa Cross, translated from the Spanish by Anamaría Crowe Serrano

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Elsa Cross was born in Mexico City in 1946. The majority of her work has been published in the volume Espirales. Poemas escogidos 1965-1999 (UNAM, 2000), but a new complete edition of her poetry appeared in 2013 from the Fondo de Cultura Económica in Mexico City. Her book El diván de Antar (1990) was awarded the Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes (1989), and Moira (1993) won the Premio Internacional de Poesía Jaime Sabines (1992), both in Mexico. Jaguar (2002), is inspired by different symbols and places of ancient Mexico. Her more recent books form a trilogy: Los sueños — Elegías, Ultramar — Odas, and El vino de las cosas, Ditirambos.

Her poems have been translated into twelve languages and published in magazines and more than sixty anthologies in different countries. She has also published essays. She has a M.A. and PhD in Philosophy from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where she holds a professorship and teaches Philosophy of Religion and Comparative Mythology.

In 2008, Elsa Cross was awarded the most prestigious poetry prize in Mexico, the Xavier Villarrutia Prize, an award that she shared with Pura López-Colomé.

§

Anamaria Crowe Serrano

Anamaría Crowe Serrano is a poet, translator and teacher born in Ireland to an Irish father and a Spanish mother. She grew up bilingual, straddling cultures. Languages have always fascinated her to the extent that she has never stopped learning or improving her knowledge of them. She enjoys cross-cultural and cross-genre exchanges with artists and poets, the most recent of which is her participation in Robert Sheppard’s EUOIA project and her involvement in the Steven Fowler’s ‘Enemies’ project.

She has published extensively and her work has been widely anthologised in Ireland and abroad. Her publications include Mirabile Dictu (blurb, 2011), one columbus leap (corrupt press, 2011), and Paso Doble, written as a poetic dialogue with the Italian poet Annamaria Ferracosca (Empiria, 2006).

Anamaría has translated some fourteen books, including Elsa Cross’s Beyond the Sea for Shearsman Books.

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Oct 082016
 

Camilo C

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Camilo Carrara (1968) is a musician based in Sao Paulo, Brazil whose work refuses to be categorized. His recordings range from classical to popular and jazz, and anywhere in between. Though he’s often described – accurately – as a guitarist, he plays, arranges and composes for many instruments, including 12-string guitar, mandolin, electric guitar, and other strummed instruments. He is also a teacher and a Sound Branding Consultant. He has done more than sixty solo and ensemble recordings, and his performance career spans three continents. He’s played concerts in Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, USA, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela, and throughout Brazil. He teaches guitar at the annual National Music Festival in Maryland, and has been the guest artist and soloist with orchestras throughout Brazil and worldwide.

Carrara also works as a producer, particularly in his long-time work with the HSBC Christmas Concert, one of the largest holiday events in Brazil. Since 2011, he has been the arranger and producer of this concert. At the heart of this event is a children’s choir, 160 children who are the victims of violence or who are orphaned. Carrara has a degree in classical guitar from the University of São Paulo, and is finishing a Masters Degree in Strategic Marketing Management at the São Paulo University School of Economics and Management. He teaches at Faculty Cantareira in São Paulo, and at the Music in the Mountains Festival, in Poços de Caldas, Minas Gerais.

One of the most interesting things about this conversation for me was Carrara’s commitment to creating music that communicates to a broad listenership, and the limitations of a single identity.  This is based in part on his background growing up in Brazil where his father was imprisoned and tortured as a result of his political convictions. Carrara spent nine months of 1989 traveling and busking throughout Europe, and was present in Berlin when the wall between East and West Germany was torn down. His career seems to suggest that the walls between traditionally separate musical traditions may not be as permanent as they may seem.

Camilo Cararra By Tiago Sormani 2

Carolyn Ogburn: As I learned more about you for this interview, I was struck by how many interests you have. It seems to me that in general people – professionals of the music field or any other manner of profession – are required to be specialists these days. But your career has blended popular and classical performance (on guitar, mandolin, and other stringed instruments) as well as teaching, composing and producing, and you’re studying for a graduate degree in marketing. How do you answer the question, “What do you do?”

Camilo Carrara: Carolyn, how interesting you start our conversation with this question. In fact, after studying strategic marketing management for over 2 years, this is an issue for me. After all, it is part of the strategic marketing technique to define well what is the focus of your business and what products you sell. For anyone who is an artist and only moves in the world of arts, sometimes talk about product and market gets to be a heresy. But it doesn’t need to be so.

In fact, I consider myself all that you listed above and depending on the situation, on the context, I respond differently. Sometimes I say that I am a musician. Sometimes I stand as a solo guitarist. But I am also a multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, electric guitar, 12-string guitar, cavaquinho  — typical Brazilian instrument used in choro and samba), composer, arranger, improviser, teacher, and music producer. I also work as a music expert on causes court involving copyright and as Sound Branding consultant – the discipline that creates and manages the sonic identity of the brands.

I usually feel good doing many things, despite knowing that this can be risky, professionally speaking. Doing many things have a price and returning to the issue of strategic marketing, I know that my challenge is to communicate all these multiple skills to the public without it look like I’m an imposter (exaggerating a bit), or it seems that I do not know how to do anything well done. The issue of communication is one of my biggest challenges today.

I consider myself very fortunate to have had a very consistent musical training and at the same time I know many of my limitations. All I do is the result of hard study and work and it is very gratifying to be recognized by my peers and also by the general public. In fact, I think it was because of this sort of “more general profile” that I was invited to participate in the National Music Festival in Maryland, in the last five years.

What should be a very short and quick response …

CO: (laughing) I think many artists can relate to your answer…we do many things, I think. Though not always with as much expertise! Do you think there is a push these days to be more diversified as a musician? And – since you’ve been at this for a while, have you noticed any changes in that since your early years as a musician?

CC: I found it curious that to reflect on what it means to be a diverse musician, it reminded me of a great Brazilian literature professor, Alfredo Bosi, with whom I had classes at the university, at the time I was a linguistic student. He spoke a few times about the phenomenon of “repetition” and “novelty.” And this is very interesting and beautiful. According to him, the repetition causes the sensation of comfort as the novelty causes alert feeling. That is, learning to dose these two phenomena is a matter of life. We need both to live. Thinking specifically within the framework of creation, in the framework of the creative world, this is a central issue for composers, writers, painters, etc. But it is also a very useful way to think about demand and understand how the market works: almost everything we do is in order to fulfill the wishes and needs.

I have the feeling that diversity is linked to the concept of the novelty. If contemporary classical composers are looking for other solutions to attract public, for example, it means that they feel that the public is starved for news. Or that they are tired of repeating. In this sense, I see the resemblance to my student days. There has always been this kind of movement: the musicians seek to know what are the interests of the public or the public demand for what is interesting musically.

Curuminho
by Camilo Carrara
Composition for dance performance.
Inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrushka”
CO: You produce the annual NSBC Christmas Chorale, one of the largest Christmas events in Brazil involving literally thousands of people. How did this get started?

CC: This event attracts thousands of people every year and was created 25 years ago. It is especially beautiful because the center of attention is a children’s choir. These are children who receive special attention or because they were abandoned or victims of some type of violence. It is a work done with great care throughout the year. Musically speaking the concept is orchestral. It was developed by the conductor of the choir Dulce Primo. She is an amazing person and brought a lot of sophistication for a considered popular presentation. The interesting thing is that she managed to mix very well the influences of classical music with what is richer in Brazilian popular music. It is the meeting of polyphony and the richness of Brazilian rhythms.

My role in this event is to be arranger and producer. It’s a big challenge. I write the orchestral arrangements, record instruments and edit the audio. I take care of all the steps to (record and create) a CD. Several months of preparation to (be heard by) an average of twenty thousand people a day. They estimate that four hundred thousand people attend the show every year. I also study this event from the point of view of the impact of marketing. The concert is sponsored by a major bank and can be considered one of the largest brand content event in the world. It is an amazing way for brands to create emotional connections with their customers and the general public.

Camilo Cararra, by Pappalardo

CO: Many of us outside Brazil have been watching your country with great interest as we read news stories of political and economic turmoil. (Outside the Olympics, of course!) I read with interest an article from the Guardian that you’d shared titled “The End of Capitalism.” Artists, of course, have a unique responsibility – that is, quite literally, the “ability to respond” – to social upheaval like that we are experiencing today. I guess my question is, how do you see the role of the musician in times of social unrest?

CC: I think that when artists manifest themselves politically they have the advantage of hearing. These are people who have more access to the public and it can make a difference in practical terms. The common people, especially in poor countries, are heavily influenced by artists. It is an important question of responsibility and should be considered.

The other big issue is related to the quality of political positioning. Not every artist thinks critically about politics. It should be, but is not. It is very common to see artists talking a lot of nonsense. Of course, there are the “privileged heads,” the artists who are very well prepared intellectually and politically. These figures can make an important difference in the course of history. If I’m not mistaken, this article you refer to “The End of Capitalism” came against what I was studying at the time. (It) deals with the shared economy, a subject that interests me especially. I do not think we are seeing the end of capitalism, but a transformation. It is no longer possible that in the twenty-first century, (there) still exists misery. This has to end quickly.

CO: Speaking of social unrest…Whenever I read your bio, the year of 1989 which you spent traveling the world is almost always mentioned. This must have been a very important year for you, and it certainly was important globally, as the Berlin Wall fell, and the cold war drew to an end. Do you want to talk some about how this year affected your growth as a musician?

CC: It was a very special year in my life and coincided with some very important events historically. In 1989 I was an itinerant musician, traveling for nine months throughout Europe. I had the luck and privilege of celebrating the Bicentenary of the French Revolution in Paris and witnessing first-hand the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was also in Budapest, near the Romanian Revolution, when the people overthrew the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. I could feel the energy of transformation, but without the historical dimension that I have today. I was 21 and had been raised in a left-wing political environment. My father is a communist and was imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship. I went to Berlin thinking to know the Eastern part. I was very curious to see firsthand how it worked a communist country. And I got to spend a whole day in the eastern part. Of course, it was very little time to form an opinion. But I remember that I felt the contrasting atmosphere, the simplicity of the people. Culturally, in just one day I could go to an amazing concert at the Berlin Staatskapelle and also bought an incredible amount of sheet music, something unimaginable in Brazil at that time. It was very striking and exciting.

A few days later I was surprised by my German friends who came home elated with the news of the fall of the wall. We went to the street and spent many hours in the crowd. A pity I could not speak German. I felt I was losing the details. But some things impressed me a lot to see. I remember it was very shocking to see long lines of East Germans enter the big brand stores such as BMW, Mercedes, or even sexy shops. It was very impressive. At that time West Berlin was stunning and shiny. The city shone. I had the feeling of seeing those pure people being contaminated by lust. It was really crazy!

CO: Do you find any resonance between 1989 and the present moment?

CC: Thinking about it, that kind of transformation started with the change of the socialist paradigm may even be associated with this new model of capitalism in which rethinks the limits of profit, especially in terms of sustainability. We can not admit the misery nor admit the destruction of natural resources. Nowadays any revolution is possible because of technology. The connectivity already enables it. Ultimately we are talking about a social pact on important issues for everyone. No wonder that the great fortunes of the world are collaborating (regarding) key issues such as hunger and education. See Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. The Brazilian billionaire Jorge Paulo Lemann, richest man in the country, is revolutionizing education in the country. These are just a few examples.

CO: When many Americans think of Brazilian classical music, we might be limited to a few well-known figures, such as Villa-Lobos, or Laurindo Almeida. Who are we missing?

CC: We have an interesting musical history as the formation of a Brazilian musical identity, which could be defined as the synthesis between European, African and indigenous cultures. Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), is undoubtedly the great Brazilian composer of all time. (He) can be considered the inventor of a Brazilian sound. If the country has a unique sound, Villa-Lobos was responsible for it. The amazing thing is how his work is so little known, even here.

It is unfair to leave to point other very important composers, but I think for a first survey of Brazilian composers, I would highlight, in chronological order, composers with symphonic approach:

Carlos Gomes (1836-1896)

Henrique Oswald (1852-1931)

Alberto Nepomuceno (1864-1920)

Francisco Mignone (1897-1986)

Radamés Gnatalli (1906-1988)

Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993)

César Guerra Peixe (1914-1993)

Hans Joachim Koellreutter (1915-2005)

Gilberto Mendes (1922-2016)

Willy Correia de Oliveira (1938)

Marlos Nobre (1939)

(And in) popular music:

Chiquinha Gozaga (1847-1935)

Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934)

Pixinguinha (1897-1973)

Tom Jobim (1927-1994)

Laurindo Almeida, who made his career in the US, (was) part of our team of guitarists/composers who transited between choro and samba (bossa nova). Just name a few: João Pernambuco (1883-1947), Dilermando Reis (1916-1977), Garoto (1915-1945), Bola Sete (1923-1987), Baden Powell (1937-2000), Guinga (1950).

Which of course makes me want to ask – who were your primary influences, as a young musician?

At first, I was very influenced by my father’s musical universe. In spite of being a communist, (he) was a creative director in advertising and a poet. At home, we listened (to) jazz, classical music and Brazilian popular music (Tom Jobim, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, Jacob’s Mandolin, Pixinguinha, Ernesto Nazareth).

I started studying classical guitar at the age of 10 and through college, I was very influenced by my main teachers of the instrument: Celia Trettel, Paulo Porto Alegre, and Edelton Gloeden. From a young age, I wanted to be a concert guitarist. My musical roots (were) very focused on interpretation, in the study of interpretation. In the search for refinement of sound, the articulation of voices (polyphony), understanding of the musical text: phrases, musical form, etc. I knew well the most significant repertoire for the instrument. I played and listened to many composers who are better known within the guitar universe. Just to name a few: Alonso Mudarra, Fernando Sor, Francisco Tárrega, and Leo Brouwer.

In addition to composers, I was greatly influenced by the great interpreters. At that time, I remember my idols were Julian Bream, John Williams, Manuel Barrueco, Assad Brothers and Brothers Abreu, for example. I heard very (many other) instrumentalists, like Glenn Gould, Jean-Pierre Rampal, James Galway, Nelson Freire, Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Mstislav Rostropovich. I could say that these were my musical roots.

— Camilo Carrara and Carolyn Ogburn

 

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Carolyn Ogburn

 

 

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, UNC-Asheville, and UNC School of the Arts, she recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently seeking representation for her first novel.

Jun 042016
 
Alex Brown Church/Sea Wolf

Alex Brown Church/Sea Wolf

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Alex Brown Church  is Sea Wolf, and Sea Wolf is usually a band, except when it’s just Alex in his Los Angeles studio, writing songs.  He lives in a compound that once was a Masonic Lodge, now divided into loft units, right on Eagle Rock Boulevard, a highway that runs through the Glassell Park district in northeast L.A. A sort of urban oasis, the compound features a garden courtyard with a BBQ and picnic bench and plenty of room for his  young son to scamper around.  Being Los Angeles, the days are usually sunny and lately it’s been scary-dry, socked into a drought. A taco truck is conveniently parked a stone’s throw away.

 Sea Wolf is known for his mix of folk/rock/ genres and a propensity for inventive melodies and smart lyrics. On stage he plays with intensity, usually with a band, but sometimes solo. There is a definite California tinge to his music, perhaps in its lack of irony. The listener feels she is hearing a message straight from the heart, and there is an intimacy in the way he puts across a song, the sense that his voice is going directly into your ear.

Alex Brown Church was raised in an outdoorsy family, with lots of hiking and camping in the picture, and he likes to escape into the Sierras with his wife and son in the summer. Early life was spent in a gold rush town in Northern California, followed by a stint in France where he went to school as a child, then adolescence in Berkeley, home of the Free Speech movement. He claims his was not an especially musical household, and he didn’t get around to playing guitar until he was a young man, living in New York City and going to Film School. He’s a visual writer, fashioned by those years studying film structure, paying attention to creating a vivid setting and dramatic structure in his songs.

These days he’s spending countless hours in the recording studio putting together his sixth album. Let’s check in and see how it’s going:

Ann: Can you tell us about your early musical influences?

Alex: I started writing songs in the late 90’s, so the Indie-rock giants of that time were a big influence – Neutral Milk Hotel, Pavement, Cat Power, Belle & Sebastian, Elliot Smith, Yo La Tengo. Those kinds of bands mixed with a lot of Beatles. A lot of the Beatles. Also Leonard Cohen, The Kinks, Rolling Stones , The Velvet Underground, The Smiths and The Cure.

Ann: I sense from your lyrics that you are a reader. What do you read and how does what you read inspire or stir up your language?

Alex: I’ll probably never tackle Ulysses, but I do read, and I do like to read and I always have. I read mostly fiction, novels and occasionally, non-fiction. I might pull imagery from what I read, or sometimes (though probably less often), a kind of prose style that strikes me. Usually that influence comes out in a couple of lines, rather than a whole song.

Ann: Would you say that you have an overall project in your music, a project that all the songs and albums are somehow part of? If so, what might that be?

Alex: Sea Wolf isn’t a conceptual exploration of a particular thing, or something with a preconceived story arc, if that’s what you’re getting at. Sea Wolf sprang from an epiphany of sorts about what it was that I wanted to do and express musically. What it is, has developed and evolved over time and I expect it to continue like that. I tend to be attracted by certain themes and imagery and sounds, so maybe that comes through on all the albums in a way that connects them.

Ann: What is your discipline/process of writing the songs? Do you write in intense bursts, or do you sit down every day, hell or high water?

Alex: Intense bursts definitely happen, but I also need to sit down every day because you never know when something good will come out. I block out a chunk of time to write, because it takes a while to get in a groove, and once you are in that groove you don’t want to be interrupted. I don’t write when touring or promoting an album, so once the touring cycle for an album ends, I sit down and clear my calendar for a year to write and make another record.

Ann: Do you have a sense of where the songs come from?

Alex: Hard to say. Often, when a song comes, it’ll feel like the most natural and easy and obvious thing in the world. But that feeling, that sense of it all being so clear, is always fleeting. So you just have to be ready to get as much down as you can while you are in that space.

Ann: You have a gift for melody. This is relatively rare. What other melodic artists do you admire?

Alex:  Thank you! This is difficult to narrow down because my favorite music is all melodic. Of contemporary acts, I think Vampire Weekend is the first name that comes to mind as being melodically great. I was a big studier of the Beatles when I first began writing songs, and they still hold sway over me in that area and remain the gold standard. I also appreciate the melodies in songs from the golden age of musicals and early jazz standards.

Ann: How have the songs changed from first album to current work? What remains consistent in your vision?

Alex: Well, I’m older (he’s 40) and in a different place in my  life now, so lyrically I’m probably singing about different kinds of things, or at least from a different perspective. Musically, each album has sounded a bit different from the one that preceded it, because I’m always wanting to do something new and explore new territory, discovering new sounds and ideas and outgrowing old ones. I’ve come to a place now where I’m wanting to embrace all the stuff I like, as disparate as it may be, and find a way to get it all to fit together.

Ann: How do you stir up habits of writing, so that you don’t fall into rhythms that have become too familiar to you?

Alex:  Anytime I’m bored it’s a sign to do something else. Sometimes just picking up a different guitar, or creating a beat on the computer, or coming up with an interesting keyboard sound, or even doing something like rearranging the studio will open up a new door for me and switch things around in my head. But more often than not, taking a break, going on a trip, getting out of the routine and out into the world is the best thing to do.

Ann: If you had to categorize your music by genre, what term would you use?

Alex: Indie would be the genre you’d find Sea Wolf under in iTunes, and I’m cool with that.

Ann: You’ve said that you are not a ‘singer-songwriter’. I’m curious as to why you shirk that label.

Alex: I think it depends on what someone has in mind when they say ‘singer-songwriter’, because I don’t identify with the ‘sensitive guy with acoustic guitar’ genre, which is what I think of when I think of ‘singer-songwriter’, and I generally dislike that kind of music. On the other hand, guys like Sufjan Stevens and Father John Misty could probably fall under the ‘singer-songwriter’ label, and I’d be fine with being in whatever category they are in, because, like myself, those guys do a lot more than stand there with an acoustic guitar singing sad love songs. But maybe I’m not doing myself any favors in shirking that label, because I know that people who listen to that kind of music do like Sea Wolf, and after all, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and David Bowie and Elliot smith are all ‘singer-songwriters’ and they’re pretty badass.

Ann: For many years, you played/wrote with the Indie-rock band, Irving, in California. Did you get restless and want to make a different kind of music? What led you to forming the persona of Sea Wolf?

Alex: Irving was the first band I was in, and I learned to write songs, sing, and play while I was in that band. It was so much fun, and having other guys to collaborate with and share the excitement of being in a band together was incredible. But I eventually grew into myself as a songwriter and singer and realized I wanted to do different music, and I didn’t want to have to compromise any more. Sea Wolf, especially at the beginning, was very much about getting to the core of what it was that I wanted to do, and finding empowerment in that experience.

Ann: Any words on the business side of music?

Alex: Unless you are Radiohead I do think that record labels are still very valuable. These days anyone can release their own music, globally, but whether or not it will get any attention still comes down to the network of people who are working the record. Putting out records requires a ton of work and artists should be spending their time making records and playing shows.

Ann: You’ve had tasty success in having your songs picked up for commercials, movie soundtracks etc. This seems pretty great, cash in hand, and musicians need to earn a living. Yet at the same time, your personal work is being used to ‘sell’ a product. Thoughts on this process and how you feel about it?

Alex: I come from the 1990’s indie rock school of thought which was very much that licensing songs to commercials was a form of selling out. All of that’s changed now, and I’m thankful to have mostly gotten over that notion, and thankful that most listeners have, too. People discover music in lots of different ways now, even from commercials and movies, and it’s known that we artists have to pay our bills given that people don’t buy records anymore. I do still cringe a little when I hear my music in a commercial, because it’s so personal to me, but most Sea Wolf fans’ response is ‘Hey, that’s Sea Wolf! Cool!’

Ann: What music do you pay attention to and how has this changed over the years?

Alex:  The landscape of popular music has changed, and so has the music that I’ve paid attention to. I do keep up on what’s happening and new, as I always have, though I’m less likely to spend a significant amount of time with an album or artist that doesn’t grab me right away. I think that’s due to the way we listen to music nowadays, through streaming sites like Spotify. There’s so much music at your fingertips now, and you’re not paying for it individually, so there’s no sense of commitment that goes along with buying an album. If you don’t like something the first time, rather than give it a week, listening to it in your car, you just never listen to it again.

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Ann: What’s new in the process of writing and recording the new album currently in the works?

Alex: I took a lot more time developing this record than usual. The writing took the longest (compared to albums in the past) and I think it’s because I was feeling more ambitious for this record and (thus) had a higher bar to contend with. Whether or not it will show, who knows, because a lot of times you are just satisfying yourself, and listeners often would’ve been cool with, or even preferred, the stuff that didn’t make the cut. This album is less smoothed out than the last (Old World Romance) and I think that was partially due to Cedarsmoke’s influence (a crowd-funded non-official Sea Wolf record). That record was done very quickly and I liked how human and rough it feels. I want to bring some of that into this album, and yet to also have a bit of the more polished and grand touches of Old World Romance.

—Ann Ireland

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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.

 

 

Apr 052016
 

latino authorsJonathan Marcantoni (center); Clockwise from top left: I. C. Rivera, Ricardo Félix Rodríguez, Nelson Denis, Rich Villar, David Caleb Acevedo, Charlie Vázquez, Chris Campanioni, and Corina Martinez Chaudhry.

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Recently, I assembled seven authors—Charlie Vázquez, author and COO of Editorial Trance; Chris Campanioni, author of Tourist Trap; Isandra Collazo Rivera, author of Across the Border: Interview with a Refugee; David Caleb, author of Cielos Negros; Ricardo Félix Rodriguez; Rich Villar, author of Comprehending Forever; Nelson Denis, author of War Against All Puerto Ricans—and Latino Lit advocate and founder of The Latino Author, Corina Martinez Chaudhry, to discuss the state of Latino lit in the United States, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. We covered issues as far ranging as the exclusion of Latino authors from the greater American literary canon, to identity politics and social limitations inside and outside of the US, to style and approaches to writing, to social media and, finally, the future of Latino literature. While these artists come from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines, the commonality of their struggles demonstrates the universality of art and the collective need for our communities to expand our definition of what we can accomplish through unity and ingenuity. The conversation has been edited for clarity and fluidity.

Jonathan Marcantoni: What are the biggest challenges you face not only as a Latino author, but in regards to the way you write? What kinds of support systems are there for Latino writers where you live?

Charlie Vazquez: The biggest challenge I faced as a Latino writer who began writing daily in the mid-1990s was writing about queer protagonists and writing about them honestly.

David Caleb: I must say that many people have tried to label me as a queer author, regardless of everything else I’ve written and done. It has taken me almost a decade to be recognized as a bona fide fantasy, scifi and horror writer, and not just a queer author.

Charlie Vazquez: I would say that nowadays there seems to be a lot of obstacles in breaking in to better book deals, such as less interested agents than for other folks and genres such as white folks and mystery writers. I think that this is improving, however.

Chris Campanioni: Charlie brings up a good point here: as cultural norms have shifted, it’s gotten easier for me to write about subsets of culture that were not really mainstream or literary, even as recent as 2012. I recall when I began sending out query letters to agents for Going Down, which is a novel about Latino identity but also fashion and commodities and pop culture from the perspective of a male model, probably seventy-five percent of the responses read “Chris” as “Christina” and championed the story about a strong Latina character in the world of modeling or, conversely, loved the idea of re-making The Devil Wears Prada for Latino audiences. No one heard or cared very much about male models, especially Latino ones, especially in the literary world. So the publishing world was reflecting the singular gaze of the fashion world I was responding to. Fast forward to 2015 and I think Latino representation in the fashion industry is much more widespread; literary fiction about the fashion industry seems much more well-received and easier to market today too.

David Caleb: In Puerto Rico, we have quite a predominant literary scene, perhaps stronger than the reading scene. Perhaps. The first decade of the 21st Century saw grand literary efforts in rescuing readers: we have a multidisciplinary BA in Creative Writing from the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, and a Master’s in Literary Creation from the University of the Sacred Heart. Likewise, we have many literary guilds, such as Cofradía de Escritores, the Liga de Poetas del Sur, the group A Voces (a group of queer writers, direct heirs from the former HomoerÓtica collective) and so many others. We are producing a lot of literary work and of the highest quality. We also have many writers of renown who are taking the teaching mantle to show the literary ropes to the new generation of upcoming writers, such as Mayra Santos-Febres, Yolanda Arroyo-Pizarro and Max Chárriez. We even have graduates from the Literary Creation Master’s teaching creative writing in Ireland, such as our own Iva Yates. Finally, we have been getting up to date in literary genres such as detective fiction, fantasy, scifi and horror.

Charlie Vazquez: Latino Rebels founder Julio Ricardo Varela and I discussed this years ago when we first launched Latino Rebels as a blog and Facebook page and coined the #LatinoLit hashtag to group tweets together on Twitter for readers, writers, poets, academics and publishing professionals to locate writers and their works, and it has taken a life of its own. And there’s more coming for that!

Chris Campanioni: I think New York City probably has greater support systems in general, for all sorts of writers, but especially Latino writers and other artists producing art on the fringes. At the same time, it’s kind of a big irony, since New York City is also one of the biggest obstacles for artists who live here, in terms of rent and the cost of living. I think that situation sort of creates a desperation that is actually helpful, or at least that I’ve found helpful, in my work, both as a process and in the content itself. There are a number of Latino-centric bookstores throughout New York City, and Latino reading groups that travel well across the boroughs. Many of the student and faculty-run Latino and literary organizations within the City University of New York’s colleges (Baruch College and John Jay, especially), and Pace University, have been really supportive of my work and of one another’s creative output. If I didn’t teach at these colleges, I would probably feel less inclined to say that support systems for Latino writers are thriving in New York City; but as we all can recognize, “Latino lit” is becoming a thing, even as this thing is hard to define, and I think there will be more humanitarian organizations like PEN America in place, in New York City and elsewhere, by next year or 2017, if only so larger corporate interests can co-opt our literary culture and reap the profits.

Charlie Vazquez: I think that Latinos, like other minority and immigrant groups, have been colonized and taught not to support one another, and this is something that I consciously reject and do the opposite of. If we start sharing resources and introduce the folks who read our work to other writers in our communities, everyone wins! More books read, more books sold, more book deals signed, etc. Period. Publishing is a business. And until we begin increasing awareness of writers and book sales we will all remain right where we’ve been: behind the mainstream.

Corina Martinez Chaudhry: Let me respond as the CEO of the Latino Author and from the perspective of many Latino Authors and their experiences within the writing and publishing industry. There are two huge challenges that many Latino writers face. The first challenge comes from the publishing industry and the second comes from a marketing angle. It appears that the publishing industry overlooks Latino writers because publishing houses are all about the bottom line and they don’t feel that these type of books will sell. There is a myth that Latinos don’t buy books (or enough books to help their bottom line) and the publishing houses tend to lean towards the fact that the overall white American market won’t buy these books. The other challenge in this area is that main publishing houses tend to feel that Latino Authors only write about immigrant stories, which is far from the truth. Sure, many Latino writers do write about this topic; however, there are many Latino writers that write Science Fiction, Murder, Suspense, Romance, etc. This mindset will remain as long as publishing houses continue to mostly publish books from the “white” sector. There are very few Latino writers who have been able to break this myth such as Junot Diaz, Sandra Cisneros, Reyna Grande, etc.

Rich Villar: I’m a poet. In the United States, poetry already fights for space on the shelves of every bookstore from the independent shops to the used bookstores to the giant box stores. So, I suppose that’s a challenge. But there is another sort of conversation and meta-conversation among poets (and writers generally) that bubbles beneath the surface, almost at all times: equity in the literary world. By equity, I mean the notion that a national literature should reflect everyone in that nation, and that means Latin@s should enter the conversation as well. I write about equity. It occupies my thoughts. I’m told all the time it shouldn’t occupy my thoughts. That I should just write, right? Well, of course I should write. But I’m also an activist and an educator. And I am oppositional by nature. So, I think about this stuff anyway.

Nelson Denis: To me, it seems that you write the way you live. In order to write about different topics, just become interested and involved in them. Make them a part of your life.  Make them a part of you. Then start writing about them. I think that writing is like sitting in a storm.  I just sit and sit, and get soaked to the bone, and get sick, but I keep sitting because that’s all I know how to do, and then one day, if I’m fucking lucky, I get hit by lightning. At this point, I just write the thing that makes me sit in this chair, which is getting harder to do.  If I thought about the general public I’d go crazy, which I already am anyway.

Chris Campanioni: I write very fast and like Nelson acknowledges, it is an omnipresent, time-consuming endeavor. I wouldn’t have it any other way and I am often able to write in transit, which frees up my schedule immensely. At the same time, it can feel overwhelming when I find myself in a situation where I have three manuscripts ready to ship off to an agent and I’m already off to the next project. Most writers don’t enjoy the business aspects of writing, what comes after the writing. And I think it’s hard to negotiate the writing schedule around very time-sensitive concerns like agency communications, submissions, and pitch letters. As a rule, at least for literary magazines, I try to set aside one day a week where I take care of submissions for an hour, either before work or after work. That’s the bare minimum: one hour a week. Often, I spend much more time with submissions. These things are important because they build readership and make your work more widely available, but at the same time, they necessarily require so much time, much more time than the actual writing process.

Nelson Denis:  I think it’s important to have as broad a life experience, and as broad a reading experience, as possible. Reading is absolutely critical! I believe five years of directed reading will beat the Iowa Writers Conference any day.  But it must be conscious, cumulative, retentive, and specifically engineered for the type of writing that you are interested in.

Isandra Collazo : I believe there is indeed a strong literary scene on the Island, as well as different study programs and workshops to help aspiring authors shape their work in the best way possible. Our people in Puerto Rico have a drive to write, and not just within the hidden pages of a personal journal. For instance, they witness different social issues unfolding around them and they have an urge to put their thoughts down on paper; as poetry, short stories, and even song lyrics. A few months ago, I received a gift from a friend who is a poet. It was a collection of poems and short stories, written by several authors and students from a creative writing program offered by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, at Museo Casa  Jesús T. Piñero in the town of Canovanas.

I mention this because it shows that our writers are supported and encouraged to carry on with the art, even get their works published and presented to the public. A chance like that might seem minuscule for authors with international representation, but for a young writer it is huge. Still, I find that it is hard for new Latino writers to find representation, especially if you write in English, about subjects that don’t exactly cover Latino issues, and God forbid if your main character is a Hispanic female. Of course, this is very subjective.

 J.M.: What kind of books do you see as essential or as being what is popular today?

Nelson Denis: On reading… this is a completely subjective list.  Also, how do you cut it off… we could all write down 100 books.  Probably tomorrow, I would write a different list!  That’s how subjective it is. I’ll break it up into 22 ”Latino” and 22 “General” books, in no particular order:

Latino

100 Years of Solitude
Don Quijote
Down These Mean Streets
Mendoza’s Dreams
Platero y yo
Open Veins of Latin America
Los de abajo
La guaracha de Macho Camacho
In the Time of the Butterflies
Pedro Albizu Campos. Las llamas de la Aurora
Before Night Falls
Dreaming in Cuban
Our House in the Last World
Pedro Páramo
Don Segundo Sombra
La vida es sueño
La c
asa de Bernarda Alba
Marianela
La charca
Niebla
San Manuel Bueno, Martír
El lazarillo
de Tormes

General

The Bible
Hunger (Knut Hamsun)
Aesop’s Fables
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
The Upanishads
Aristotle’s Poetics
Magister Ludi
Invisible Man
The Great Gatsby
Old Man and The Sea
The Sun Also Rises
Germinal
Grapes of Wrath
Tortilla Flat
Collected Stories of Kafka
Collected Stories of Edgar Allan Poe
Crime and Punishment
Chekhov’s Short Stories
Interpretation of Dreams
Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious>
The Art of Dramatic Writing
How to Win Friends and Influence People

Isandra Collazo: So there’s a big community of writers, huge perhaps, as well as readers. But the question is; what do Puerto Rican people like to read about these days? This is taken from Metro PR and IndicePR, last year’s best sellers in the Island:

Bajo la misma estrella, John Green
Four, Verónica Roth
Will Grayson, John Green
Dork Diaries 7, Rachel Renee Russell
An Abundance of Katherines, John Green
Divergent, Verónica Roth
The Death Cure, James Dashner
Yo soy Malala, Malala Yousafzai
Pensar rápido, pensar despacio, Daniel Kahneman.
(And I’m not going to disappoint you,) 50 Shades of Gray, E.L. James

I mean, what is Puerto Rican literature? Books exploring our history, our colonial status, our political circus, and our national identity crisis? Poems about tragic love stories and childhood traumas? What do people want? Or better yet, who’s/what is our target market?

And why are big bookstores closing down? (Bye bye Borders, bye bye Beta Books Cafe).

Personally, I’d love to get to read more Nuyorican literature, and books from Latin authors living abroad, where they share those new experiences and have another perspective. Although there is some support, authors in the Island need to feel free to write about other subjects, for they are afraid. I was afraid. I am still afraid.

J.M.: Isandra, could you elaborate more on the challenges faced by female Puerto Rican authors? And how does everyone feel about being constrained by subject matter that may be “expected” by a Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Brazilian author?

Isandra Collazo: Definitely. I don’t mean to sound like a butthurt female, but it is often expected of me to write of the following genres:

Fiction: YA/Coming of age; Romance (all categories)

Non fiction: How to’s/DIY; Fashion and beauty (mostly articles); Memoirs; Spirituality

And since I am Christian, leader of two ministries, guess what; I am expected to write only about Christian topics, and will be attacked and judged for anything out of the “ordinary.” (Can’t wait for what will happen when they read my novel. *Sigh* bring it… )  In other words, I’m supposed to hold back in many aspects. That said, let’s bring in the fact that I am Latina and my fiction novel (concerning the struggles of expats and refugees) has a Latina main character running around the Netherlands and not the barrio. Sounds a little odd, perhaps?

What’s more common:

In a bold search for new life experiences, the beautiful and ever-independent Isabel Alvarez leaves her cozy American Dream to…

In a bold search for new life experiences, the beautiful and adventurous Katie Smith leaves her American lifestyle to…

See, I felt obligated to say that Isabel was an independent woman who left her American Dream, or basically a woman who left her immigrant success story. Whereas a girl named Katie Smith already gives you the idea that she doesn’t need such adjectives. Am I falling off the point? I feel that my challenge is not because I am Latina, but because of the subject I write about and how I portray my characters. I kind of leave whites in a shadow, except perhaps for one character, throwing all the stereotypes on them while I attempt to bring forth many other cultures and ethnicities.

Chris Campanioni: But you know, as Nelson sort of suggests, this kind of stuff happens all the time and the best thing to do is put your nose in your notebook (or laptop) and keep writing. Writers have egos and they like those egos stroked, even and especially if it’s the other writers doing the stroking. The literary world can often feel like a big dick-swinging contest (and the metaphor is not without its gendered implications: by and large, women are ignored but that, too, is improving) where writers would rather antagonize one another than coordinate, collaborate, and create a meaningful dialogue. The basis of this, I think, is some manufactured idea of “fame” in the world of letters, whereas several others are writing because we have to survive. Write or die.

J.M.: Would you all say the literary world is eating alive it’s most promising writers?

Chris Campanioni: I think the literary world is filled with sociopaths—like any other industry—except in the literary world, it seems somehow worse because this is art that is at stake, not making a profit for some stranger you’ll probably never meet. Anyway, I agree with Charlie’s point here, and Latinos, perhaps more so than other minority groups, tend to polarize one another through various lenses (whether linguistic, thematic, or even appearance: “They don’t look Latino enough to me.”). I mean, in the end it can sound quite funny but of course it is anything but. The issue with “Latino lit” is only that Latino lit as a genre is so sprawling; Latin America is comprised of 21 countries, each with very distinct traditions, interests, histories, slangs and dialects. But readers and writers and editors and agents—some of whom are Latino, too—expect a formula, and very often, ignore or criticize the work if it doesn’t meet these expectations.

Rich Villar: Consider this: every year, institutions purporting to speak as national cultural arbiters spend their time doing things like reviewing books, or having conferences, or doing book clubs. And every year, somehow, they manage to miss Latin@ authors. The New York Times managed to produce an all-Anglo reading list this past summer. So, as writers of color, of course we must push back against it. The internet is good for that. It’s a democratizing space: Charlie brings up Julio Ricardo Varela, the #LatinoLit hashtag, and Latino Rebels. I have been fortunate to be able to champion my causes on high-visibility online spaces like Latino Rebels, George Torres and Sofrito For Your Soul, and Denise Soler Cox and Project Enye. I’ve also worked with Tony Diaz and Librotraficante, in an effort to reverse book bans (yes, we still do that here), as well as the trend against ethnic studies in the United States.

J.M.: What about the content itself? How do we stand out?

Rich Villar: Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics lays out a useful graph documenting the possibilities for visual iconography, from pure text to pure representation to pure abstraction. I read this book in high school, reread it in college, and it changed a lot of how I view my own work as a poet. I started looking to the visual, how lines are shaped, how breath is represented on the page. Which then led me to explore certain poetic theories: William Carlos Williams and the variable foot, E.E. Cummings and Papoleto Melendez and concrete poetry, the idea of poetry being a visual art. Which, in turn, led me into Sekou Sundiata and Tracie Morris and Edwin Torres and the possibilities for spoken sound as poetic line.

In poetry, there is music, there is silence and sound juxtaposed into lines, and of course this translates most easily as theater. There is Shakespeare, of course, but there is also Ntozake Shange and Reg E. Gaines and Lemon Andersen and Rock Wilk and so many theatrical poets doing what they do. And what of prose? Look—if you read Junot Diaz or Ana Castillo or Luis Urrea or Sandra Cisneros, you can literally read color, texture, movement. So it’s no surprise when these books become movies, and poems become plays—the text so naturally lends itself to the visual. (And Shange invented the form to describe it—choreopoem.) And of course, none of this is an accident. We live in a cinematic culture, an eyes-first culture, a culture of instant information, and French New Wave style jump cuts and extended camera shots, and fast pacing and editing. Of course our literature will reflect that. Let’s hope we’re producing a generation of writers who are self-reflective enough to recognize the commonalities in the critical vocabulary among these genres. What to show and what to conceal in service of the narrative. Let’s encourage writers to be brave enough to cross into the visual arts entirely, and visual artists onto the page. It would be a return to the root. Is the Latino community equipped to lead it? Of course they are. But the thing to realize is that text and visuals and sound have always been interrelated. We’re only now reawakening to their existence on the same iconographic plane. And incidentally, Pablo Neruda read to 100,000 people on more than one occasion. Is it too much to ask for a Latino poet to fill a soccer stadium?

J.M.: There are structural challenges as well as internal ones, then? And it sometimes falls into place along tribal lines, no?

Nelson Denis: Latino Lit in the US is in a state of atherosclerosis.  Nothing is moving.  The “icons and shibboleths” are all in place:

Down These Mean Streets

Our House in the Last World 

House on Mango Street 

In the Time of the Butterflies

Dreaming in Cuban

Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Bless Me, Ultima

I see a pattern here. If you break down our Latino rainbow (Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Salvadoran, Dominican, Guatemalan, Colombian, etc.) you’ll note that one and maybe two from each country (only 4 countries) make it into the above group.  The publishing industry is so myopic, they think so categorically, that if a new Latino-American writer offers a story that is deeply-rooted and narratively circumscribed by their country of origin, the junior acquisitions editor says “oh, we already have one of those” and finds an excuse to pass.

Meanwhile the senior acquisitions editors are throwing the big money at Isabel Allende, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Raul Alarcón (U.S. hybrid, but “writing Peru”)—all Latino authors from outside the US, which shows a blatant snobbery and racism: European and South American authors are “high brow,” but US Latino authors are ghetto underlings, and couldn’t possibly have anything to offer.

The same thing is happening with Latino film directors: practically all Mexican, born & bred over there, not here.

Rich Villar: I think this is a destructive mindset that is born from a marginalized, colonized perspective. The Oppression Olympics. The Authenticity Maze. The relative slice of the literary representation pie is not large enough for Latinos to start fighting over. I don’t know which Latino group “dominates” who. (The question makes us sound like we’re all battling for literary supremacy in the octagon.) But, here’s what I do know: Magdalena Gómez and Raúl R. Salinas were friends. Miguel Algarín and Jimmy Santiago Baca as well. Throughout his career, Martín Espada has been allied with and championed by Chican@ writers from Luis Urrea to Gary Soto to Luis Rodríguez to Sandra Cisneros. And Pietri and Papoleto and the Nuyorican poets were honorary members of Jose Montoya’s and Esteban Villa’s Royal Chicano Air Force in California. In other words, we have always been our most successful as a literary movement when we make an inclusive Latinidad, when we seek out comrades and commonalities and write ourselves into a soulful and (yes!) legendary existence. This is why the Acentos Review literary journal does well, not to mention poetry workshop spaces like CantoMundo and La Sopa NYC.

Chris Campanioni: Good writing will always be the writing that has been lived in. Another way of putting this is to admit the obvious: write what you know, but many writers, young and old, forego life experience for an MFA program and crippling loans. In this way, our topics are inevitably Latino because Latino represents multitudes, sort of like my man Martí said:  “Yo vengo de todas partes, y hacia todas partes voy.” Do we follow orders and the rules of academia or the broader literary culture while forgetting our own personal stories? Or do we use the specific pressures and expectations Jonathan suggests are in place for Latino writers as an opportunity to circumvent or re-evaluate them?

Corina Martinez Chaudhry: Unfortunately, Latinos in this country are seen as being at “the bottom of the rung” due to the prejudice and ignorance of decades of stereotyping this group. We are seen mostly as people who clean houses and are only good for gardening, which although it is a hard-working core group, the majority of people look at this as demeaning work. In addition, you see the statistics of Latinos not graduating from high schools and many gangs being associated with Mexicans or Latino groups. Americans, especially white Americans, paint us all with the same brush stroke.

How do we change this? It comes from us continuing to ensure that we as well as our offspring become educated, and we continue to fight to get into the mainstream. This comes from all Latinos working together to make this change because no matter how much infighting there is between our Latino groups because we are from different countries or from different Latino Sectors, the mainstream lumps us all into one. We haven’t yet gotten to the cohesiveness that the blacks have been able to achieve in this country.

J.M. Ricardo, so many of us are Caribeños here, give us the Mexican perspective.

Ricardo Félix Rodriguez: It is characterized by hierarchies, bureaucracy, institutions. Mexico remains a centralized country, therefore resources are concentrated in the capital city. Writers from Mexico City act like if they were the only source of literature. Publishers bet on big names so it is very common for northern writers to seek to write in english. It is also very competitive; there is a belief that only foreign (mainly European) literature has quality and you as a Mexican should not try to be original. I guess you can say it is the culture of “crab” when a crab tries to get out of the bucket and another one pulls him in until it falls.

 J.M.: Is there any government support?

Ricardo Félix Rodriguez: There is support but there are several points against. You have to adapt your writing to a particular literature whether local or regional. Universal themes are rarely allowed. Groups of artists are usually privileged when they have a relation with coordinators. The same writers are competing for the same grants and awards but not able to make a living by selling their books. If Mexico is a country with “poor reading” in the north the crisis deepens. There is a perception that art is an obligation of the government to provide.

J.M.: How is the community of writers though?

Ricardo Félix Rodriguez: There is a community of writers trying to do things differently but writers tend to be competitive here. I would say that the writer here is individualistic, jealous of his work. I think the best talents are not yet known in independent publishing, underground literature, drowning their poetry in a glass of beer.

J.M.: David and Ricardo, what can individuals or local groups do to increase opportunities for up-and-coming authors?

Ricardo Félix Rodriguez: I see it as some kind of reading crisis. People are not used to reading; we need to find the way to promote reading. Through education, raise the cultural background of the average citizen.

David Caleb: In Puerto Rico, in order to increase opportunities for up-and-coming authors, there needs to be an educational revolution starting from the way up and the way down at the same time. First and foremost, the Department of Education must be depolitized. It needs to be flattened and entirely professionalized. There simply is no other way. Teachers need to be sent to reading seminars and there should be a reading course in all grades.

We see close to no state aid whatsoever in our endeavour. Most of our boom has been subsidized by ourselves. Most of the people publishing books are self-managing themselves. It’s a pity, in a way, that such an amazing body of work cannot be entirely supported by the government. However, we have grown used to it. Puerto Rican writers are used to being disenfranchised and orphaned.

That’s as far as the government goes. Now there is a small grassroots movement (everything in PR is small and grassroots) of theatre producers using material from Puerto Rican narrators and poets to make theatre, but this effort needs to be exploited much more. Also the literary scene is too concentrated in San Juan.

J.M. It seems like the problems both inside and outside the US are as much social as they are financial. There is the problem of a lack of interest in reading alongside the problem of marginalization in the media and/or geographically. What solutions might there be?

Corina Martinez Chaudhry: The second biggest challenge that many Latino writers face is marketing their books once they are published. I find that many authors don’t even have webpages or understand much about the internet and how to market their books through this venue which is the greatest tool in this day and age. Many do not understand Search Engine Optimization (SEO), or Google Analytics and how to make these particular tools work for them. By accurately understanding these tools, the way an author writes would not necessarily be a challenge once a writer figures out his or her niche.

Rich Villar: What is it Dead Prez said? “When you bringing it real you don’t get rotation/unless you take over the station.” What’d Jay-Z say? “I’m the new Jean Michel/surrounded by Warhols.” Opportunities exist for writers all over, if you search for them. Grants. Fellowships. Speaking gigs. Freelance writing and editing. That sort of stuff. Here, in the States, that kind of support is not always present, certainly not the same way it’s present in other countries. Here, it’s not an easy life. You have to hold down a 9-to-5 most of the time. At the same time though, I also try to be wary of those places of support that require you to be content inside a particular box, or to be beholden to a particular power structure. That’s why I identify with the hustlers among us poets; yes, we create good textual work, but we also find new ways to express it—on stage, in movement, in visual art, in music, in multiple genres. That’s where my work is taking me. And the freelance life is not easy, but I don’t answer to anybody but my mirror.

I’ve noticed a tendency among younger writers to put the marketing cart before the writing horse. I think the biggest mistake any writer can make is to start thinking about a platform for themselves, or where they’re going to tour, or how much product they’re going to move, before they’ve ever set pen to paper or finished a full poetry manuscript or fleshed out their novel or their memoir. There are so many directions to take within the world of social media, but none of it matters unless you actually have something to say.

These are questions about finding audience, not finding voice. I would tell writers who come into my circle to read and listen and absorb and learn for as long as humanly possible. And then, they should write voraciously and mess things up and take chances. And then, once they have a style they feel their strongest selves in, once they have built a genuine vision for the world, they should write the kinds of prose and poems that scare the shit out of the powerful and thrill the everyday reader. And then they should open up Twitter accounts. It’s needed. This is an age in which Latinos are being banned and deported and threatened and killed off. We need the kind of visibility that changes hearts, not one that simply turns heads. Good literature, followed by good marketing of that literature, will provide that.

 J.M.: In this age of such rampant exposure, where on the one hand, access to millions is at anyone’s finger tips, and on the other, the most important access, the access that helps you make a living are still shut off for the vast majority of people, how do we achieve equity, not just amongst Latinos, but other groups as well?

Rich Villar: The structural battle for cultural equity also leads to some specific artistic battles. Following in the tradition of Sterling Brown and Piri Thomas, I insist upon the truth of vernacular speech and Spanglish in my writing. I follow the transformative prose tradition of James Baldwin, the philosophical underpinnings of Nuyoricanism and the Black Arts Movement, and the truthtelling poetic traditions of Whitman, Neruda, Lorde, and Espada. I believe art is a vehicle for change, and I believe poetry humanizes. I also believe that poetry rooted in those liberatory urges, when taught to teens and young adults as part of a liberational pedagogy, helps form students’ notions of citizenship and citizen action. The cynics will tell you that poetry makes nothing happen. I am telling you, poetry creates possibility out of impossibility. It makes the invisible visible. And it turns cynical people —teens, especially—into leaders. I am eyewitness to that fact.

I’d like to think we’ve gotten better, but we squabble like any other family. My pet peeve among Latino authors is the silencing of others, the shutting down of debate. I think more gets done in any group dynamic when we’re honest about our feelings, no matter how detrimental it may seem at the time. I hate scenes generally. I hate people who think they’re better than others. And I hate grudges. If I have to sit and worry who I might be offending by saying something, or if I have to studiously avoid someone because he or she’s got some beef with me or someone close to me, it just complicates my life unnecessarily. And worse—it has nothing to do with writing. I can name these things honestly because I have also fallen prey to them.

Corina Martinez Chaudhry:  Unfortunately, the main publishing houses are based in New York, so for those authors that live in Mid America or in the West Coast, there are some challenges in getting to know who is who in the industry. The best way of course is to network and make connections within the publishing industry and that can be done by understanding the web and marketing yourself effectively. This is also a way to market yourself in other countries and locations. There are a few support systems that can be used for Latino Authors such as my site, The Latino Author, La bloga, Azul Bookstore in New York, Martinez Book Store at Chapman University in CA, Las Comadres, or the Latino Literacy which assists in giving out awards to Latino Authors in various genres. Connecting with these organizations can provide great support.

Chris Campanioni: Social media is one way in which writers can make these distinctions outside of their work but also adapt their work for new forms. The YouNiversity was originally conceived as a year-long digital mentorship for new era writers, a reaction to the recycled curriculum and check-listed objectives of many MFA programs in the United States and Europe. We’ve been really conscious about devoting a great deal of instruction to the powers—and pitfalls—of curating your digital presence as an author, as well as the work you produce, and finding interesting and exciting ways to present this material in new mediums by really taking advantage of capabilities that certain mediums afford us. The emphasis on several different forms of accessibility, audience contribution, and increased agency is the foundation for the kind of art that will become the eventual norm in the twenty-first century, so it’s not surprising that we urge our students to think about questions of reader inclusion and interaction from the opening weeks of each YouNiversity program. But to really turn social media into a tool for creativity instead of just regurgitation and masturbation, the cultural norms for social media have to change. That kind of work begins with authors like us, who need to start thinking about social media as another mode for creativity, not just for marketing.

J.M.: I have enjoyed this conversation immensely everyone, and to close things out, I want to know what you think is the future of Latino Lit, starting with Nelson.

Nelson Denis: So I see the “future of Latino lit” as one that is highly eclectic: still forcefully Latino, but in surprising, mercurial, even devious ways. We can’t lead with just one punch anymore… We need narrative surprises from multiple tropes, from all directions, and all at once. Latino Kurt Vonneguts and Henry Millers and Hunter Thompsons that defy easy categorization. I’ll offer one example: The Miniature Wife, by Manuel Gonzales. There is a Latino soul in those stories, and it adds to a sense of dread and paranoia… But he uses it like a blackjack. By the time you realize what’s hit you, Gonzalez has made off with your wallet and your pants. That motherfucker can write.

Between the snobbery of the latest Isabel Allende doorstop of a novel, and the mummified ruins of Mango Street, there’s no room left… Unless you make room for yourself, with a punch they never saw coming.

A new genre/sub-genre/hybrid genre or mash-up… A strange dystopian anti-hero… A shocking re-configuration of ancient Latino folk tales… Anything that knocks them off balance.  Anything that makes them suspect, if only subliminally, that they’re abysmally stupid (which they are), and you know something that they don’t—which you do, because you are Latino.

Corina Martinez Chaudhry: The future of Latino Literature, as I see it, is not only in the hands of Latino writers ensuring that good “stuff” is written, but also in being able to work together to change the status quo in this country about how we are perceived. Not to bring politics into the mix, but just look at the temperament of Trump followers and how he has risen in the polls because he began his campaign on bashing immigrants (who we all know means mostly Mexican or those coming from Latin American countries). He was not targeting the Canadians or those coming from “white” nations.

That is why publishers in the industry still have this narrow-minded view that Latinos don’t read or buy books. They think the majority of us aren’t interested in reading or education. Partly, the publishers don’t want to change what has been working for them to make their business successful. It’s not that we don’t buy books, but there are not true statistics of who really buys books. Someone writes about Latinos not buying books and unfortunately people see it as being true. Also, with so many mixed marriages in this country, you don’t even know who has Latino DNA so how would they really know? I was reading an article on PEW Hispanics about how Latinos perceive themselves in this whole mix of nationality and it was very interesting. Some don’t even claim to be Latinos because of how they were brought up although they are very much Latino. So where do these persons fit in those statistics?

There isn’t just one answer to where Latino Literature goes in the future, but I have a feeling that it’s going to be a long climb for most of us. It is a grassroots effort that is needed—beginning with writers such ourselves—to get the masses to change their thinking. How do we do this? First we write good literature, then we support each other to get to the next step whatever that may be, then we become great at spreading the message, and then we put pressure on the main publishing houses to begin promoting some of our great writers or we help other Latinos to start our own publishing houses and support each other. With so many millions of us in this world, we still continue to let “white” Americana tell us who we are.

I am optimistic though. I think that today we have so many Latinos who are successful, and hopefully with that it will cause some “reverse thinking” about who we are as a people overall. It is about not only loving our culture and our language and all that good stuff, but being smart enough to use it to our advantage and work together to get to the mainstream. If we don’t do this, then the future of Latino Lit will remain in the shadows as it does today.

Rich Villar: I would love for Latino Literature not to need to exist. I would love for the United States to begin implementing a pluralistic, multicultural vision of citizenship and for the stories of Latinos to simply take their natural place in the nation’s cultural conversation. Our numbers are, after all, expanding. But realistically, we live in a time when politicians are openly calling for our expulsion and exclusion from the nation. And people are actually taking them seriously. And so, a literature of resistance must emerge. A literature so undeniably good, and human, and innovative, and united, that it would serve as a collective shout and bulwark against our disappearances. If we receive “institutional” support for those efforts, if the mass media chooses to see us and feature us, I think we should welcome it. But if they don’t, or if they compromise us for simple visions of marketing dollars, I think it’s our responsibility to use as many new media and alternative models to support ourselves and demand our places, without permission or translation.

Chris Campanioni: I believe Latino lit—or at least Latino writers—will begin to get more representation, not only in the form of the year-end “best books of …” list, but also on the daily publication level. More editors of more magazines will be looking to publish Latino voices because they don’t have a choice. The quality of our writing, the diversity of our writing, and the sheer amount of Latino writers actively writing today will make the issue of lack of representation seem antiquated in five years. I think we might all agree, Latino writers have much bigger issues to tackle.

David Caleb: I want the literature of my country to head towards uncharted horizons. As a personal project, I am training students in non-fiction queer writing, in order to rescue the history of our island’s queer community, its struggles, its literature, art, music, political activism, and general history and culture. I am also training pansexual and lesbian female writers who will bear the torch in that particular niche. I want a future where every single genre is represented in the island. But more importantly, I want an island of readers. We will rescue and create readership.

Isandra Collazo: This may be a risky answer. But just like Puerto Ricans have been able to stand out worldwide in music, sports, art, cuisine, I guess would also like to see best-selling Puerto Rican authors on the New York Times best-seller list, in genres like fantasy and SciFi, romance, erotica, and fiction in general but perhaps less on the political subject, less colonial status discussion, and less of the past. I want to jump out of la carreta and get on a space ship, looking to the future. I’m not saying those subjects don’t matter, they are our daily bread. But I suppose I want Puerto Rican writers to be known for their creativity and incredible, explosive imagination, fantastic worlds and unforgettable characters, not just deep research.

A friend of mine who is an Assyrian artist told me that cultural or historical pride was meaningless if one didn’t create something. In other words, what’s the point of shouting, “Yo soy boricua, pa’ que tu lo sepas” (I am Puerto Rican, just so you know!) if I can’t add anything else to it? I understand we are on an eternal search for identity (I am, always!) but as a Puerto Rican writer, I want to put my Puerto Ricanness on diverse scenarios and worlds, not leave it in the comfort zone or where it feels at home.

—by Jonathan Marcantoni

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Jonathan Marcantoni

Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican novelist and former Editor in Chief of Aignos Publishing. His books Traveler’s Rest, The Feast of San Sebastian, and Kings of 7th Avenue deal with issues of identity and corruption in both the Puerto Rican diaspora and on the island. Along with his solo novels, he also co-wrote, with Jean Blasiar, the WWII-fantasy Communion. He is co-founder (with Chris Campanioni) of the YouNiversity Project, which mentors new writers. His work has been featured in the magazines Warscapes, Across the Margin, Minor Literature[s], and the news outlet Latino Rebels.  He has been featured in articles in the Huffington Post, El Nuevo Día (Puerto Rico), El Post Antillano, and the Los Angeles Times. He has also appeared in several radio programs, including NPR’s Fronteras series, Show Biz Weekly with Taylor Kelsaw, Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Have Their Say, The Jordan Journal, Boricuas of the World Social Club, and Wordier than Thou. He holds a BA in Spanish Studies from the University of Tampa and an MH in Creative Writing from Tiffin University. He lives in Colorado Springs.


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David Caleb Acevedo
(San Juan, 1980). Writer, painter and translator. His books include Desongberd, Cielos negros, Diario de una puta humilde, and Hustler Rave XXX: Poetry of the Eternal Survivor. He is pansexual and lives with his husband and three adorable cats.

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chrisChris Campanioni‘s “Billboards” poem that responded to Latino stereotypes and mutable—and often muted—identity in the fashion world was awarded the 2013 Academy of American Poets Prize, and his novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. He edits PANK and lives in Brooklyn. Embrace the Death of Art.

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corina-chaudhryCorina Martinez Chaudhry was born in New Mexico but has lived in California most of her life. She grew up in the San Joaquin Valley throughout her high school years, but then made the transition to Southern California where she now resides. Her maternal grandparents were from Chihuahua, Mexico; however, her grandmother was half Basque (Spanish/French). Her paternal grandparents were of Mexican and Native American descent. She graduated from Vanguard University Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in business and a minor in English. In addition, she has completed a Water program through the California State University of Sacramento, alongside a Management Certification Program through Pepperdine University, and currently manages The Latino Author Website.

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Nelson DenisNelson Denis is the author of War Against All Puerto Ricans (Nation Books, 2015). He served as a New York State Assemblyman, and was the editorial director of El Diario/La Prensa in New York City.  His screenplays have won NYFA and NYSCA awards, and his editorials received the “Best Editorial Writing” Award from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

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isandraI.C. Rivera is an enthusiast of travel, international cuisine and everything exotic. She’s passionate about humanitarian work, and often volunteers at shelters and facilities for asylum seekers. Through her literary work, she aims to raise awareness on different social issues, by writing intriguing and exciting novels with a multicultural flavor.

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ricardoRicardo Félix Rodríguez  (Sonora, México 1975). Writer and psychologyst. His books include The surreal adventures of Dr. Mingus, Asgard: a Saga dos nove reinos, There is No Cholera in Zimbabwe, and The Other Side of the Screen (contemporary writers of Poland).

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charlieCharlie Vázquez is an author and the director of the Bronx Writers Center. He served as New York City coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra for three years and has just completed his third novel.

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richRich Villar is a writer, performer, editor, activist, and educator originally from Paterson, New Jersey. His first collection of poems, Comprehending Forever (Willow Books), was a finalist for the 2015 International Latino Book Award. He maintains his personal blog at literatiboricua.com and is a contributor to Latino Rebels and Sofrito For Your Soul.

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Mar 052016
 

adrian and matthew
It was a cold Friday afternoon, last December, the 18th. By the fire in my front room in Fredericton, New Brunswick (Canada), I called, via Skype, father and son tag team poets, Adrian and Matthew Rice. Adrian answered from his home in Hickory, North Carolina and Matthew from Carrickfergus in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. I was particularly interested in the father-son poetry connection and how much influence they had upon each other’s work, whether their writing processes were similar or not and how the poems unfolded for them. We spoke about their influences, why poetry was important to them and what advice, if any, Adrian would give to Matthew about the writing life. I also asked Adrian about Abbey Press, a poetry press he co-founded in 1997 which published critically acclaimed work from Irish poets such as Michael Longley, Gerald Dawe, Brendan Kennelly, and the late Hungarian poets, Istvan Baka, & Attila Jozsef among others. But first I wondered how a young boy from the Rathcoole housing estate, north of Belfast got interested in poetry and how he eventually found his way to North Carolina.

While the joys of technology made this international video-interview possible, the pains (or my lack of understanding) of this same technology resulted in my external microphone only working intermittently. My solution was to edit my voice out of the recording and allow Adrian and Matthew to speak for themselves which you will soon realise they are more than competent in doing.

Following the interview are four poems from Matthew and four from Adrian (the first two are from his collection, The Clock Flower, and the last two from his recently published book, Hickory Station. Adrian is also one half of  ‘The Belfast Boys’, an Irish Traditional Music duo – in between their two sets of poems, you can listen to The Belfast Boys’ rendition of The Blue Hills of Antrim)

—Gerard Beirne

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Sparrow

Darkness was dwindling
As we arrived back at your house
At dawn, late summer ghosting
The curtained rooms,

To find two sparrows flying a frenzy
Around the place, having tumbled
Down the throat of the chimney,
Spewed into domesticity.

While you set about freeing the one
Downstairs, I followed the other
Up above and cornered it
Against the window in the study,

Butting frantically against the glass –
Hope as a symbol with all hope lost.
And it was then that I thought
That losing all hope was a renewal,

Like the petering-out of a season.
So, I offered it the last of my hope;
I opened the study window
And watched it disappear into sunlight.

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The Hedge

in memory of Billy Montgomery

I’m a youngster
Led by the hand, as
The steam coming off the hob
Casts a cloudless shadow

Across the kitchen floor –
The smell of it like some old shanty
Billowing out its breath
Into the night,

Filling my field of vision
With a plume-tailed epiphany,
Holding the soul open
For the briefest moment,

Ebbing gently like the aftermath
Of passing through a rain-soaked hedge
Under falling cherry blossom –
As the window is opened

And the room restored.

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Atreus and Thyestes

in memoriam Zbigniew Herbert

Wet-eyed and begging,
Thyestes’ sons are put under their uncle’s
blade. Clean-edged vengeance-giver,
Atreus separates them into pieces,
aiming carefully at the wrists
to make a clean sever,
and, at pains to preserve the dignity of the young faces,
makes a good stroke at removing their heads.
The heads and hands he’ll cauterise
and keep, holding in a single thought reason and grief.

And look, what a lavish feast he’s laid on
for his brother, who sits across
eating under the illusion of truce,
who, later, will take the long walk
to the Oracle, red-eyed and sickened,
through the honeysuckle hedges
and high-sided hollows,
stopping briefly along the way
to tickle his throat with a feather;
vomiting up his beloved children
amid the indifferent, dipping swallows,
the sweet scent of summer –
how cruel the life that continues on.
The cooling breeze and carefree sway
of high branches make playful shapes
in the setting sun.

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The Gardener

It’s cool before the sun comes up
over Gethsemane, a single bird
singing like a wayward fan
during a minute’s silence.

The man out for an early morning stroll,
taking a piss under the drooping trees,
wonders briefly why the gardener in the distance
is not moving and is down on his knees.

—Matthew Rice

 

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The Clock Flower

As far as the rest of the universe is concerned,
Maybe we’re like the feather-fluff of the clock flower,

The ghostly snow-sphere of the dying dandelion
That the child holds up in wide-eyed wonder,

Which the mother says to blow on to tell the time
By how many breath-blows it takes before the airy seed

All flies away, leaving her child clutching a bare stem.

And where our humanness might go, who knows?
And when it lands – takes root – what grows?

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from ‘Eleventh Night’
XIX. Budgie

Drive the Demon of Bigotry home to his den,
And where Britain made brutes, now let Erin make men!
from ‘Erin’ by William Drennan (1754-1820)

It seemed like every single house had one
Except us, though we had an aquarium,
The other housed comfort of the working class,
One behind the bars, the other behind glass.
I thought it odd that the underprivileged
Would happily keep something tanked or caged,
Considering our hard human condition.
I guessed it was our identification
With creatures as poorly predestined as we
Often believed our hand-to-mouth selves to be.
Keeping birds in seed is a real kind of love,
And sprinkling fish-flakes like manna from above.
………….Now by a strange quirk of imagination –
Some new light from within, something gene-given –
Every time I saw a map of Ireland
I rebelled against the usual notion,
The birds-eye, map-driven visualization
Of Ireland backed to the masculine mainland,
Her leafy petticoats eyed-up for stripping,
Her feminine fields ripe for penile ploughing.
Even as a child, I refused to see it
As a victim, back-turned towards Brit-
Ain, inviting colonial rear-ending.
I saw it as a battling budgie, facing
The mainland, proudly, prepared for what might come
Winging over the waves from the gauntlet realm.
Though couched by Drennan to properly provoke
His fellow Irishmen to throw off the yoke,
It was no ‘base posterior of the world’,
Arsehole waiting to be slavishly buggered
By a foreign foe even our side flinched at.
No more servile hung’ring for the ‘lazy root’,
But male and broad-shouldered as The Hill of Caves –
Where the United Irishmen first swore slaves
Would be set free by jointly overturning
The home-based kingdom of the sectarian –
Our bold-hearted budgie had come of age,
Had climbed the ladders and looked in the mirrors,
Then ignored the dudgeon doors and bent the bars,
Self-paroled, assuming independent airs.
………..So turned towards the royal raven of England,
To my mind, our Irish budgie was crowned
With the head of Ulster: the tufty hair of
Wind-blown Donegal, the brawn and brains of
Radical Belfast, the ‘Athens of the North’,
With the clear blue eye of Neagh, and beak of Ards,
Heart, lungs and Dublin barrel-bulge of Leinster,
The fiery feet and claws of mighty Munster,
And thrown-back western wings of mystic Connaught.
Four provinces, four-square, forever landlocked,
Friend of brother Celts, but full of righteous rage
Against the keeper of the keys to the cage,
The Bard’s ‘blessed plot’, his ‘precious stone set in
The silver sea’, his ‘dear, dear land’, his England.
Yes, no Catholic cage, nor Protestant pound,
Could hold my dissenting ideal of Ireland.
For in spite of spite, it was Drennan’s Eden,
‘In the ring of this world the most precious stone!’
His ‘Emerald of Europe’, his ‘Emerald Isle’
Which no vengefulness would finally defile.

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Breath

What is death,
but a letting go
of breath?

One of the last
things he did
was to blow up

the children’s balloons
for the birthday party,
joking and mock-cursing

as he struggled
to tie all
those futtery teats.

Then he flicked them
into the air
for the children

to fight over.
Some of them
survived the party,

and were still there
after the funeral,
in every room of the house,

bobbing around
mockingly
in the least draft.

She thought about
murdering them
with her sharpest knife,

each loud pop
a perfect bullet
from her heart.

Instead, in the quietness
that followed her
children’s sleep,

she patiently gathered
them all up,
slowly undoing

each raggedy nipple,
and, one by one, she took his
last breaths into her mouth.

What is life,
but a drawing in
of breath?

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Wasps

On an unseasonably
warm afternoon
I am back on the porch,
and the little wasps
are trying to build
in the hollow arms and legs
of my aluminum chair.

They’re determined,
as they are every spring,
to inhabit my chosen seat,
but I have soaked
their sought for portals
with gasoline, being equally
determined to stay put.

But on they come,
at regular intervals,
in one’s and two’s only,
as if one sometimes needs
the second as witness to carry
the story of occupation back
to the others, to be believed.

I wonder what they think of me,
and feel sorry for them,
almost guilty, even imagining
the dark openings they seek
as being cave mouths
in which they wish to store
some valuable scrolls.

So I am kind to myself,
reminding myself
that it’s my chair, my porch,
though I can hear them protesting
But we were here first!
Fair enough. But no matter.
For I have a porch thirst.

Gasoline will win the day,
for another year, anyway,
and I will sit safely and securely
behind my slatted battlements,
scratching the pale page
hoping, as always, to be
stung by poetry.

—Adrian Rice

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Matthew Rice was born in Belfast in 1980. He has published poems widely in reputable journals on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as having his work included in the CAP Anthology, ‘Connections’. He is currently putting the finishing touches to his first collection of poetry entitled ‘Door Left Open’. He was long-listed for The Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing 2016. He is studying for his BA Honours degree in English Language and Literature. He lives, works and writes in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland.”

Adrian Rice was born just north of Belfast in 1958, in Whitehouse, Newtownabbey, County Antrim. He graduated from the University of Ulster with a BA in English & Politics, and MPhil in Anglo-Irish Literature.. His first sequence of poems appeared in Muck Island (Moongate Publications, 1990), a collaboration with leading Irish artist, Ross Wilson. Copies of this limited edition box-set are housed in the collections of The Tate Gallery, The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and The Lamont Library at Harvard University. A following chapbook, Impediments (Abbey Press, 1997), also earned widespread critical acclaim. In 1997, Rice received the Sir James Kilfedder Memorial Bursary for Emerging Artists. In autumn 1999, as recipient of the US/Ireland Exchange Bursary, he was Poet-in-Residence at Lenoir-Rhyne College, Hickory, NC, where he received ‘The Key to the City’. His first full poetry collection – The Mason’s Tongue (Abbey Press, 1999) – was shortlisted for the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Literary Prize, nominated for the Irish Times Prize for Poetry, and translated into Hungarian by Thomas Kabdebo (A Komuves Nyelve, epl/ediotio plurilingua, 2005). Selections of his poetry and prose have appeared in both The Belfast Anthology and The Ulster Anthology (Ed., Patricia Craig, Blackstaff Press, 1999 & 2006) and in Magnetic North: The Emerging Poets (Ed., John Brown, Lagan Press, 2006). A chapbook, Hickory Haiku, was published in 2010 by Finishing Line Press, Kentucky. Rice returned to Lenoir-Rhyne College as Visiting Writer-in-Residence for 2005. Since then, Adrian and his wife Molly, and young son, Micah, have settled in Hickory, from where he now commutes to Boone for Doctoral studies at Appalachian State University. Turning poetry into lyrics, he has also teamed up with Hickory-based and fellow Belfastman, musician/songwriter Alyn Mearns, to form ‘The Belfast Boys’, a dynamic Irish Traditional Music duo. Their debut album, Songs For Crying Out Loud, was released in 2010. Adrian’s last book, The Clock Flower (2013), and his latest, Hickory Station (2015) are both published by Press 53 (Winston-Salem).

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Mar 012016
 

Ivan Seng

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Ivan Seng is an astonishingly gifted classical pianist and composer based in Asheville, North Carolina. His concert recitals reflect his wide-ranging interests: Bach, Shostakovich, Chopin, Haydn, Mendelsohn, Prokofiev; as well as contemporaries such as composer Kenneth Frazelle, with whom Seng has partnered in concert many times.

He’s a North Carolina native, traveling from his home in Boone to study with Clifton Matthews at UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem as a boy, then attending the school’s prestigious residential high school program. He left NC to attend Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he worked with Joseph Schwartz and Sanford Margolis, and returned to Winston-Salem for graduate study, where he studied composition with Michael Rothkopf in addition to his continued study with Matthews. Seng has won numerous regional awards in both solo and chamber performance, including the College Chamber Music Competition, and was selected to perform in the Asheville Rising Stars concert series. He frequently collaborates with the ensemble Pan Harmonia and other chamber ensembles. When he talks, he bears an air of slight preoccupation, paired with a laser-sharp attention. He’s got a youthful appearance, but speaks as a old-fashioned professor: not in powerpoint bullets but in penciled phrases that are frequently, beautifully, revised mid-clause.

Seng’s compositional interests are deeply immersed in mathematics, in which he finds description of the natural patterns of the universe. Like one of his major influences, the post-World War II composer Iannis Xenakis, who was among the first to use computer programs to compose music, Seng draws his compositional forms not from classical constraints, but through mathematical formulas. As Seng says, “I think it is important to have an emotional relation to these concepts, because it is the universe that we live in. We do live in a universe that’s not ordered. It’s not planetary spheres that orbit each other, in these very harmonious patterns. The heavens are not ordered.”

Xenakis was composing during a time ruptured by two world wars and the rise of totalitarianism in his own country, as well as the hugely influential compositional development that was serialism. Today’s rupture is both social and environmental, and Seng is one of the composers addressing climate collapse in his compositions.

Seng doesn’t talk about himself easily or often, but he graciously agreed to spend several afternoons discussing his compositional process with me following a concert performance of his work, part of a series of house concerts together with other electronic music composers in Asheville. The room had been dimly lit when Ivan took the stage. He explained that he would be premiering five works done using the SuperCollider programming language, gestured to the laptop whose screen was turned to the wall.  He inclined his head, as if taking the pulse of the room, and pressed a button on the computer.

Play.

Sounds fell from the screen, single tones, stretched, extended. Clusters, then, a barrage, then – silence. Despite no apparent sense of structure – there was no sign of a theme, no underlying motif to hold these sounds together – there was, nevertheless, a sense of unity to his music. Someone commented, after it was finished, “It was if it were raining, on a tin roof, and the roof receives the rain in a different way, every drop.”

Changes in the musical texture occur in sudden bursts and at a fairly rapid pace. Each burst affects only one musical feature at a time, such as speed, density, tone color, shape, or movement of sound. These happen in fairly rapid succession, and at unpredictable intervals of time.


Carolyn Ogburn:
 It seems to me that being a composer must be in some way like being an architect – well, I was thinking Xenakis, and of course that was his background. He didn’t even study traditional counterpoint and harmony, right? Because he was about 30 when he came to Paris, started working with Le Courbousier as an engineer and draftsman.  Then he tried to find a composition teacher – He tried to study with Nadia Boulanger, and she was like, Nah, I got no time for you – here you are, a 30-year-old beginner, and I’m Nadia Boulanger… so then he finally found Messiaen.

Ivan Seng: I think it was incredibly insightful of Messiaen [not to make Xenakis learn counterpoint.] Xenakis had a lot of mathematical training and a lot of drafting skills. His graphic abilities were incredible. So I think that Messiaen realized that he [Xenakis] could use all the skills he already knew – they were unique, not many musicians had these skills, why force everyone into the traditional mode?

CO: Would you call that modernism?

IS: Yeah! Well, maybe. A late stage of it. We had Schoenberg and Webern and Stravinsky; that was the high point of modernism. Then you’ve got the post-World War II serialism, and (those composers) all studied counterpoint. Boulez was brilliant at counterpoint, traditional tonal counterpoint. You can definitely see influences of contrapuntal thinking in his music. How these out-of-control multiple voices can be moving at the same time. It’s very similar to how they would do it in the Renaissance. I mean the intervals – were maybe not the same [laughing]… He doesn’t choose the consonant intervals as often as he does the dissonant intervals.

Xenakis doesn’t approach it that way. He  actually was very critical of the serialist composers and the kind of complete – the total serialist, and serialism in general. He bases his music on very different principles. Sometimes it sounds similar, but what he realized, basically, is that when you take music to that level of complexity we just can’t hear those tone rows anyway. Basically, his criticism was if you have, if it’s that dissonant, that complex, our ability to follow voices – we hear scattered voices, chaotic and kind of random – we don’t connect it.

CO: Because it’s too complex for us to process?

IS: I think they took complexity to such an extreme… I mean, in Bach, everything is controlled in such a way that you can hear the top voice responding to a bass voice; there’s many things you can pick up with your ear, and with your mind. With Boulez, maybe the low voice will be doing this [waving hand above his head] and the top voice will be doing this [waving the other hand about his waist], and so how can you actually process the differences?

So what ends up happening is that you don’t hear two voices; you hear the combined texture, or mass, of notes. I think Xenakis liked the sound of that but he realized that there’s really no point in having all [those] complex structures behind the scenes that you can’t – they’re not audible at all – so why bother creating those structures? Why not just deal immediately with surfaces. So he uses mathematics to do that. So now rather than using 12-tone rows in patterns, becoming so complex you can’t hear them anymore, he just uses mathematical formulas,  and creates the same kinds of structures. But there’s nothing to listen FOR in them.

See, you always feel like, in Schoenberg, you’re supposed to be hearing something, but you just can’t quite… get it. Unless you study the score, you can’t really hear it. I don’t know that I’ve ever sat down and listened to Schoenberg, and been like, “Oh I heard The Row!” Except if it’s completely isolated…

CO: Otherwise you’ve got to find it through visual interpretation of the score?

IS: Yes. I mean, sometimes Schoenberg will make a row into an obvious theme and maybe, after one or two listenings, you can recognize the theme. It’s not easy, and maybe you can hear one or two variations… but most of the time you don’t really. You hear shapes and patterns emerging, but you don’t hear that background structure of the row.

But with Xenakis, it’s not even there.  You don’t even bother trying to hear those patterns. You listen to the overall texture, and globally where it’s going.  Like, is this texture gradually becoming more dense? Like maybe it starts sparsely, and then you can hear this building of density, it gradually starts to collect notes and becomes more dense. You can hear [everything you need to].

Random Walk X Winter Solstice: The changes have become smoother. Instead of sudden bursts, each musical parameter undergoes nearly continuous transition from one state to another.

CO: What you’re describing feels very visual, very textural, like a sweater pattern or something. Like, not all that auditory? Or, am I missing something?

IS: It’s actually completely auditory. It’s based on all kinds of mathematical principles and formulas. But I think what [Xenakis] really wanted to do was emulate the laws of nature. Like say you go out on a hike and you see a geological formation that’s been sculpted by many forces over time, and it creates this overall impression of complexity –

CO: And unity?

IS: Perhaps… but I don’t know if these kinds of formulas create unity. That has to come from a sort of intuitive sense of the entire shape of the piece. It’s not formulaic. He uses formulas to create local texture – he wants to keep human patterns out of the immediate surface.  Humans tend to create a certain kind of order. You can look at this room, and see there’s certain kinds of shapes that humans prefer. He wants to keep that out. He wants it to be like – in the natural world there’s a certain complexity – we don’t naturally produce that.

CO: I want to ask you more about the pieces at the concert the other night. The Random Walk pieces. Like, I really want to know about that name, for instance. But also, you said they were composed using a SuperCollider software program?

IS: Yes, but it’s not a software program. It’s actually a programming language, designed for sound synthesis. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the other [the large particle accelerator] or not.

CO: So, basically, the composer sets parameters for what sounds the computer will produce, and then presses ‘play’. And, if he ever wants to hear that same piece a second time, he simultaneously presses ‘record’; for if he does not, neither he nor anyone else will ever hear that piece again. It’s completely ephemeral, not unlike a live performance of any other improvised piece of music.

IS:  Pressing the ‘record’ button also will slightly alter the parameters as well in ways that are unpredictable.

CO: And then there’s the title of these pieces – Random Walk. I was really surprised by that. It’s unpredictable, but can you really say it’s random? Because, it seems to me that these compositions are anything but random. You – as the composer – put in the parameters, you decide each element, and if you don’t like the result, you can immediately delete it. It’s almost like you have total control at the very beginning and at the end, while in the middle, the computer runs through the patterns in ways that only math can interpret.

IS:  Well, random walk is a mathematical term. It comes from Brownian motion. Do you remember the story of the guy [botanist Robert Brown] who was looking though his microscope at tiny particles in water. He saw these particles and he saw them bouncing around – he saw that these particles were following this completely random motion, Brownian motion – and I think it’s how they realized that there were atoms, because it ended up being that these atoms were bouncing off of these small little particles and it was pushing the particles around… So if we took a very basic motion… say you have a 3-sided die, marked 0-1-2, and each number correlates to a particular movement.  And [your particle, or sound, in its own placement is affected by the dictates of the die] and you start at a certain number, 0, and you can go up a step or down a step. But it’s unpredictable.

CO: But you cannot predict which direction the die will dictate. And that’s only one example, right? One aspect of the piece, like pitch or duration?

IS:  Right.

CO: So, the title is supposed to evoke…?

IS:  It’s a random walk through a parameter space. By parameter space, I mean it’s multidimensional – each parameter you add, adds a dimension. So pitch, duration are 2 dimensions. And you could move through that space in this random walk – but it’s really like 28–29 dimensional space at this point. So imagine this random walk not just going through 2-dimensional space, but 28–29 dimensions. That’s where the title comes from. I mean, really what these pieces are, they’re sketches. Then my intention is to go on to develop pieces where I have chosen [more definitively]…

CO: But these sketches, they’re wonderful. What do you like better?

IS:  That’s  a complicated question. I sometimes think that the complete – the computer doesn’t have any kind of preconceptions, about what should happen next. So sometimes things will happen that I would never have thought of, or I would not have thought would be interesting. and I really like it. It sounds fresh, and new.

I think that’s why I do it. It lets me know what can happen in this sound world that I’ve created without any of my own preconceptions – although they always seep in. For instance, before I press that play button, if I choose a scale – well, that’s already decided something. The scale has already altered the sound of the piece. And so that’s one thing. I can give it certain… I can choose specific [how would you put it?] states. Let’s take volume, for instance. I can say choose between this volume and this volume, and so now it has two choices.  Then I can say, well, there’s a 75 percent probability that it will choose this volume and a 25 percent it will choose this one and so now I’ve made another decision.

But another example is, for instance, let’s take density – I could say, let’s start the whole piece very low density and gradually, toward the end, climax at maximum density, but it creates a shape that you can see already.

In some sense I’m letting the computer pick them but of course I’m telling the computer what to do – basically, I give it boundaries to work in and then I kind of let it go. I also tell it the rate of change – so it might change, on average, once every 40 seconds. So one parameter is volume. So I give it a center volume, for a certain amount of time, and then it changes. It could change in exactly one second [but that’s not likely] or it could change in – well, there’s a very small probability that it would sustain for one year, but the probability is so small that it never happens.

CO: I was struck by the way you just pressed “play” on your computer the other night, and sat down. If you listen to the pieces online, you know that there are five pieces, because they’re visually separated on the website. But you didn’t want to separate them?

IS:  Well, I did put in pauses. It might not have been obvious enough. I think it was kind of obvious when a piece ended, but maybe not. I guess it’s a little like chapters in a book.

I could have talked in between but I would have had to get up in time to stop it and I didn’t want to do that… I didn’t want anyone looking at the computer. I turned that away.

CO: Because when you see the “playlist” you can definitely tell when it’s changing from one piece to the next, and absent that, you – or, I, at any rate, found myself inserting my own structure. Like, oh, there’s this sustained note, or this consonance. That must be a punctuation of some sort. But, you know, maybe not?

IS:  Yes, but really, I was thinking more about the – the visual. For instance, in terms of visual, you know [the pianist] Sviatoslav Richter? Later in life, he became more eccentric – and he performed in the dark, with a lamp, and there was no other light in the auditorium. There was more focus on the listening. We’re so visually oriented that we tend to watch performers rather than listen to music.  So, I think one of the things I didn’t want was for the computer screen to be a distraction. Maybe to become more aware of sounds and less dependent on visual cues. I’ve been less and less interested in the visual aspects of musical performance, in general.

Ivan Seng in concert

I think we can if we hone in on auditory information, I want people to start having the kinds of sensitivity that a blind person might have to sound. I want that kind of attention to the sound rather than gesticulations. When a person is up there – you’re always trying to find some kind of correspondence between the visual and the auditory information. It’s interesting to see what happens when you let go of that a little bit.

CO: Density is a word that comes up a lot in our conversations here, and it’s not – well, that’s not a word often used in talking about music, in general. But it’s, you know, it’s exactly the right word for this, I think.

From dense masses of notes emerge structures that soon unravel again into chaos.

IS:  And with electronic music, it can get pretty dense! Hundreds of sounds per second.

CO: There’s no way to actually hear each sound, not in any way that you can actually interpret. So, there’s density, and there’s sound. I couldn’t help but feel like I was hearing articulation of instruments at times. There were some sounds that were less articulated, almost flute-like, and then others that sounded almost plucked. Did you do that on purpose?

IS:  When it sounds like an instrument, that’s a byproduct of the process I’m using. It’s not intentional. What was intentional was I wanted to take whatever sounds I had and through manipulating the envelope create lots of variety, and also distinct groups of sound – I mean, with huge masses of sound – I wanted some to – like if you see a flock of birds in the air, and they’re all the same kind of bird, there’s a kind of similarity. I wanted to create similarities that would create flocks of notes.

And also transitions, mutations, where you hear these dense masses of notes that gradually they change sound into something else.

CO: The envelope? Did you just say, manipulating the envelope? That’s a great phrase.

IS:  [laughs] Yes, well, it refers to setting certain parameters of sound, attack, sustain, decay… I wanted to manipulate the envelope – or, rather, the program was manipulating the envelope – to create as much variety as I could.

CO: So like when you program your algorithm, it’s possible that a note could sustain for over a year, but it’s just not likely.

IS:  Right.

CO: Because of the laws of probability?

IS:  Let me give you an example. The other night, there was a geologist talking about history of the earth, about huge climatic extinctions and meteors hitting the earth – that’s a perfect example, meteors. There’s hundreds or thousands of tiny objects that hit the earth every year. It’s something very frequent. Something not so significant happens a lot at a high frequency. And then larger, maybe 100-foot, objects hit much less frequently, only every decade or so. And then there’s objects the size of Mount Everest. And those hit like every 65 million years or so. But you never know – it’s possible that two could happen very close together. It’s just not likely.

Giant meteorites could hit us and we have these formulas that could tell us when these giant meteors could hit us but they can’t tell us with any certainty. They can tell us one every 60 million years but we don’t really know…. We live in a very dangerous universe. We can make all these predictions, but we can’t have certainty.  So that I think that informs the music. Especially with the issues we have in climate change.

We’re living in a giant exponential curve at the moment. Carbon parts per million in the atmosphere are growing exponentially. We feel it. Population is exploding exponentially. We do have an emotional connection with these things.  We are living in these forms as we speak. We can pretend that we’re living in a static form all we want, but we’re not.

—Ivan Seng & Carolyn Ogburn

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Carolyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.

Ivan Seng photographs by stephen houseworth photography

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Feb 062016
 

Sean Riley Sean Riley in Morocco

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One eye sees, the other feels. – Paul Klee

I first saw the work of artist Sean Riley at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, NY. His exhibition “Everyday Will Be Sunday” included paintings, sculptures and a series of quilts made solely from his father’s clothing (ordinary blue jeans and sweatshirts, etc.), which he inherited upon his father’s death. These garments were painstakingly dismantled and reconstructed into incredibly moving art objects, one quilt featuring hand-embroidered words from a traditional gospel hymn, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burden Down, Everyday will be Sunday.” There are some mysteries about these works I would like to leave intact; others that have become obsessions, which have stayed with me since 2012.

Indeed, many poets have written about the clothing of the dead. There’s Anne Carson’s “Father’s Old Blue Cardigan,” and “The Sadness of Clothes” by Emily Fragos, but I have found no art with the impact of Riley’s. And so, I have repeatedly watched the few video interviews of him, one with artist Michael Oatman, one with Tracy Baker-White, and caught a few of the phrases, a few of the subjects that interest him, as if trying to find loose threads upon which to pull when engaging this thoughtful, sometimes reticent young man.

Exhibition View EDWBSEveryday Will Be Sunday, 2012
[Exhibition view, Arts Center of the Capital Region, Troy, NY]

MKJ: You speak about collecting objects of utility and having an interest in simple objects that have an honesty or truth inherent in them. What do you think elevates ordinary things to the realm of “sacred” (if this is the correct word)?

SR: I certainly don’t find all utilitarian objects sacred, and that’s kind of why I like them, because they can be so ordinary. And I think their ordinariness comes from the fact that they are created to perform a specific task, and in that, their form becomes very unique in order to perform that task. I have a particular interest in kitchen objects, because they can be so strange. Sometimes I don’t even know what they are made for, but can tell they are very specific to a certain task.

I like to leave room in my own practice so that the function of the work or purpose of the work dictates the form. I try to allow any type of media to be possible or available to me when I’m working, so whether it be quilting, embroidery, painting, or sculpture, it’s all there to serve a greater purpose, whatever I’m following, or whatever I’m seeking.

MKJ: You also talk about the connection between “the eye, the hand, and the picture plane.” Is it the original investment of the maker’s eye, hand and time that elevates objects? Is the special quality inherent in the object?

SR: What makes something sacred is what I’m exploring in this body of work. To me, the fabric that I’m using, the fabric that I’ve inherited from my father has become sacred to me. It cannot be replaced. The denim I have of his, there’s a finite amount of it. It can’t be regenerated, and so, to me, that’s sacred. The challenge is in trying to make it into art and trying to do justice to the material without exploiting it.

No More Wednesday - detailNo More Wednesday (detail), 2012
[hand-embroidered inherited denim segment]

(de) Weave I - detail(de)Weave l, 2014
[inherited denim segment weft removed by hand, 12 x 36″]

So, if you were just to look at denim jeans and I told you that they were my father’s and that my father had passed away, they probably wouldn’t mean anything to you. But if I could do something to alter the fabric in a certain way, put something of myself into that fabric, then I think that it has the potential to be sacred (or appear sacred) to many more people than just myself.

I’m trying to figure out how to do that and I approached it in the quilts that you saw on exhibit at the Arts Center, and since then I’ve been trying other means to do it as well: like deconstructing the denim jeans into fragments. I am now taking the denim down to individual threads, removing the individual weft strands (all done by hand), in a very labor-intensive process.

MKJ: Your quilts are certainly of a different essence than many so-called “memory quilts” or craft quilts, in my view. This is not to devalue the work of others, but yours are certainly elevated to “high-art.” I’m trying to get at what made this happen. There was certainly the presence of your father in the clothes, his hard work, day in and day out, and your care in dismantling them, pressing them and re-working them, adding commitment, dedication, ritual, and devotion. But I think it could have to do with the way the quilts evolved from your paintings in some organic way as well. Certainly the quilts could not have happened without the paintings.

SR: Right. I think it’s important to remember that when I decided to make the quilts I had never sewn anything in my life. The idea of memory quilts has been around for a long time, but to use the inherited clothing to make quilts, to me was a radical idea, because it meant learning a whole new craft to carry this out. So I didn’t have the skill and/or the baggage of a quilter going into the project. All I could really offer was my knowledge as a painter.

Gearing up for the quilting project, before I started cutting the clothes or sewing the fabric, I started making paintings and collages that mimicked quilt-making procedures. I was researching how to do that and then doing it in my paintings, making strips on paintings or with collage and joining those strips together to make a full rectangular image. When I finally came to the quilts, I had a general idea of how to do it, at least in two-dimensions, and I brought to it my color sensibilities and my compositional sensibilities as a painter and the first couple of quilts were quite rudimentary, simple in their construction. But the visual experience with them is very rich, as I knew how to manipulate color, space and form.

HurricaneHurricane, 2009
[gouache on canvas, 20 x 16″]

Triangles CrazyTriangles Crazy, 2009
[gouache on unstretched canvas, 88 x 66″]

MKJ: And I understand that you sew on your grandmother’s sewing machine.

SR: Right, so there’s that connection to ancestry that I never really considered before.

When I think of what my goals were with the quilts, I knew I wanted to keep them anonymous, so that there are no real signs of my father in them. There are no logos, no images, and no “text” in the fabrics themselves. There’s nothing you could really point to and identify with my father. I did that intentionally because I wanted the viewer to approach the works and hopefully be moved by them just because of their visual qualities, and if it stopped there for the viewer, that was fine for me. But if they wanted to go further and read the text on the wall or read the exhibition label and find out that they were made entirely from my father’s clothing, that would add another layer of meaning to the quilts.

MKJ: I would argue that it had an additional effect (which I have also heard from other viewers): it tapped into a collective consciousness. I believe this relates to a narrative or memory embedded in the artworks, embedded in the body, in the fabric, which is what I was trying to get at earlier, a shared memory, or “collective loss.” And I think this generalization on your part facilitated that effect.

EulogyEulogy, 2011
[inherited clothing quilt, machine-pieced,
hand-tied, hand-embroidered, buttons, 94 x 72″]

Clearly we are not the lone authors of our narratives; rather, our self emerges from our interactions with others, (as George Herbert Mead and psychologist William James told us). Did you know that this narrative effect, this transference, and collective response would happen?

SR: I think so, simply because for some reason I was drawn to the quilt medium. Looking back, it just seemed to be the natural choice. Like I said, the memory quilt has been around for a long time. There’s an inherent property to fabric that we identify with other human beings, a tactile quality, a softness that relates to the human experience. So I think it was very fitting for me to deal with my experience of loss in an artistic sense by using fabric. It’s not something I would even try to approach in a painting or drawing. It never made sense to me in those mediums, but it does in fabric.

MKJ: It’s so interesting to me that even though those quilts don’t have the specificity you described, they do indeed seem very specific. It’s an enigma!

SR: That’s what I realized. They are very specific because they come from one person’s clothing, and that person had a palette, a style. My dad was a fairly simple person, at least stylistically, so that the clothing has uniformity in many ways, and that becomes very specific to him. And I have a specific visual language, which I’m imposing on the clothing as well. So even though I tried to keep it anonymous and broad, there is an underlying narrative to it.

Broken Dishes VariationBroken Dishes Variation, 2010
[inherited clothing quilt, machine-pieced, hand-tied, 94 x 75″]

MKJ: When I think about our selves emerging from our interactions with others, and the possibility of your work being an exploration of the self, and certainly an exploration of your relationship with your father, as well as a tapping into the collective, I’m also reminded of a performance piece by Marina Abramović , documented on video by the PBS NewsHour in one of their “Brief but Spectacular” moments. She describes how she invited gallery guests to sit across from her in silent presence as she stared into their eyes for an extended period of time. There were some people she knew, some that were strangers.

Your work somehow reminds me of hers, in its meditative quality. Like Abramović, I find you to be fully “present” in your work, and in “Everyday Will Be Sunday,” I found that you did in fact invite someone (your father? the viewer? yourself? all of these individually?) to metaphorically sit across from you in silent presence. Your work and hers, in my view, require the viewer to be fully present as well. Can you elaborate on how your work is an exploration of the self?

SR: I like the idea of a viewer being silently present in front of my work. I hope that they can experience the same joy and wonder that I did when creating the work. My practice is certainly a quest for understanding myself. That is certainly at the root of it, an understanding what I am capable of, what I’m not capable of. I am constantly trying to push my own personal boundaries in an attempt to create something very unique.

I think that working with the inherited clothing has allowed me to explore that. I’ve begun a deeper exploration of myself, my place in the world, my own personal timeline on the planet, and of what objects we leave behind and where they can then go. Working with my father’s clothing has led me to look at my own personal art and artifacts differently and consider how they become evidence of time and our existence.

MKJ: You have also said to me, “And now after seven years, I can’t really make the paintings without the clothing/fabric. It is always in my mind – that what I am doing is ultimately a study for what will happen to the fabric. It has really changed the way I approach painting – I see it completely differently. My understanding of these works and the process is directly related to my other studio work – painting, drawing, collage.”

You are currently working on a series of shield images, which I find fascinating, because after all, isn’t the quilt a form of shield, both protecting us and encasing us? An art object with a protective property? I saw a video of the layered process involved in the making of one of these pieces and it does look very much like a quilt-making process. Is this true?

SR: Yes. I made my last quilts in 2013 and since that time I’ve been using fabric in a lot of other ways. I’ve really been exploring the fabric much more deeply, looking at how it was made, how the fabrics were dyed, and really getting into the process of weaving. At the same time, I’m also looking at the form of the shield throughout many different cultures. It’s a much more open form and can really take just about any shape, from full-body size to something that can easily be held in the hand. But it always has a relationship to the body.

And that’s what I’ve been most interested in. Of course the quilts also have a relationship to the body, because they’re made to cover the body (or two bodies), so they have this certain scale and the shields have that same idea of scale or proportion, but they are much more malleable. And I’ve been really excited about that; I don’t feel as constrained to a rectilinear framework. I can do much more in the shield format.

I’ve also been using a lot of elements in my painting and collage work that I’ve learned from the quilting process: like the binding of the quilt, the tying of the quilt, the different types of marks you can get with thread. I’ve done things like sew on paper or use the sewing machine without thread to mark paper. I’ve embroidered into paper and made marks that resemble embroidery. So, at present in my studio I have fabric out, the sewing machine and embroidery, as well as painting, drawing and collage. And it’s exciting because they’re all speaking to each other.

Shield Study Yellow Blue StripesShield Study with Yellow & Blue Stripes, 2015
[acrylic, gouache, watercolor, colored pencil,
pencil & charcoal on Arches paper, 40 x 26″]

Shield Study lShield Study l, 2015
[gouache, acrylic & colored pencil on Arches paper, 40 x 26″]

When I’m approaching a painting, making marks for a painting, I’m thinking about how those marks would translate if they were done with thread or through embroidery or with the sewing machine. How would they translate in a real, tactile sense? But then, because it’s a painting, it has much more freedom in a sense than a fabric work could have. And from that freedom I also learn about how I can push the fabric work in different ways, ways that I might not have gotten to if I hadn’t learned them through the painting process.

MKJ: So they are all interconnected.

SR: Very much so. And when I come up against an obstacle in the painting I usually find the answer through the fabric and vice versa. Answers for the fabric can be found through painting. It’s a great relationship that I think has a lot to give.

Shield Painting lShield Painting I, 2012
[acrylic, gouache on canvas, 18 x 14″]

MKJ: It is so natural for humans to resist uncomfortable emotions that it is touching to find someone courageous enough to move toward grief, reminding us that a quilt is also something upon which we can lie down in surrender, and a shield can be something that empowers us. We reach another enigma, because it seemed you made your loss public, yet you did so in a very reserved, quiet way.

SR: I have come to think of the quilt as protection or armament, as a shield, and yes, this is where the work has since progressed. After I started working on the quilts, I found that what I was really doing was communicating, speaking to people through my art. It was the first time that I really felt like I was using art to communicate. I’d always known that in a sense about myself – that making images, making art was my preferred means of communication, but when I was displaying the quilts, it really became clear. I made the quilts out of a compulsion. I felt like I had to make them, without really knowing why, but it certainly felt like it had to be done, in retrospect. It was a way to allow myself to talk about my experience of losing my father, and doing it through art was really the only way that I could do it. Because, as you know, as most people know, it’s really a difficult thing to talk about, and many would prefer to avoid the subject. But it’s something you don’t want to forget. You know, I don’t want to forget him. And the experience of losing him was so profound that I think that it deserves the attention that I’m giving it.

Shield StudyShield Study, 2013
[acrylic on paper, collage, 16 x 12″]

—Sean Riley & Mary Kathryn Jablonski

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Sean Riley was born 1977 in Wareham, MA. In 1999 he received BFA in Painting from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. In 2004 he received an MFA in Sculpture from the University of Pennsylvania. Upon receiving his MFA, Riley was awarded a grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation; given to only 10 graduating MFA students nationwide at that time. From UPenn he was also awarded the Charles Addams Memorial Scholarship given to one graduating MFA student per year. Since that time has held several solo exhibitions and been included in many group shows throughout the Northeast. He has been a resident at Yaddo and the Vermont Studio Center. He lives in Providence, RI and works from a studio in Pawtucket, RI.

Sean Riley WEBSITE

MaryKathrynJablonski2015

A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.

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Jan 112016
 

presentación jtJavier Taboada

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JAVIER TABOADA (Mexico City, 1982) is a translator and poet. He has translated the work of Alcaeus of Mytilene (Alceo, Poemas y Fragmentos, 2010) and Jerome Rothenberg (A Poem of Miracles and A Further Witness, forthcoming in 2016) amongst others. He is the author of a remarkable first collection of poetry, Poemas de Botica (La Cuadrilla de la Langosta, Mexico City, 2014). Dylan Brennan conducted this interview with Javier via email correspondence from October-December 2015.

DB: Tell us a bit about your early life, where you grew up, what you studied, how you first discovered poetry.

JT: I was born in Mexico City and grew up there. I studied at religious schools from primary through secondary before beginning a B.A. in Classical Literature at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where I also completed my M.A.

I suppose that my first contact with poetry was similar to that of most middle class children at that time. What I mean by that is, with rare exceptions, in every house you could find certain books by certain poets such as: Neruda (his 20 poemas de amor almost always featured), León Felipe, Sor Juana, San Juan de la Cruz, Amado Nervo, García Lorca, Jaime Sabines anthologies, amongst others. But there were also plenty of anthologies of what we call poemas de declamación (recital poems): in my house we had the Álbum de Oro del Declamador (The Orator’s Golden Album), I still have it now. It’s a collection of occasional poems, ready to be opened for a mother’s birthday (or for the anniversary of her death), poems that speak of heartbreak, lost loves, poems to scorn vices, to exalt familial and Christian love etc., all tinged with a moral outlook and an unbearable sentimentality. However, in the final section of this book, I found poems like Eliot’s Hollow Men, Lermontov’s The Cross on the Rock, Pasternak’s Night, The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter by Ezra Pound, Quasimodo’s Auschwitz, to mention just a few. The one I liked best from this book was Antonio Plaza’s A una ramera (To a Harlot) because the use of language made me laugh.

The other contact with poetry came from a source less bookish (for want of a better word), I mean popular Mexican music, especially the bolero. Then later, during puberty, rock music.

Beyond what I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t very interested in reading poetry until the age of about 16 or 17. And that had quite a bit to do with the so-called Contemporáneos poets. Xavier Villaurrutia, Salvador Novo, some of Carlos Pellicer’s stuff, José Gorostiza, Jorge Cuesta (his sonnets, of course, not his Canto a un Dios Mineral, which I could only begin to comprehend—years later—via an extraordinary book by Evodio Escalante). They astounded me. After a certain amount of time, I then began to buy poetry books or to read them in the school library, whenever I’d been kicked out of physics or mathematics class. My reading is completely disordered. I’m a trained Hellenist and I haven’t even been able to follow any kind of order with the Ancient Greeks.

DB: I know you translate quite a bit. Tell us about that. Does translation affect how you write, how you read? Do the poets you translate influence you much? Which poets have influenced you? How did you come into contact with them?

JT: Nowadays I read as a translator and this has become beneficial to me. In my current state of disorder I’m reading and translating Rosmarie Waldrop, Federico María Sardelli, Claudia Rankine and John Wilmot. I read them, then I attempt to translate a certain fragment, then I read them again, etc., until the job is done. Whether the translations get published or not, this permits me to be influenced in a way by their work, to assimilate something of their poetics, and, in some way, to redesign my own, to become re-moulded. I am in no way scared of continual influences (I don’t think they ever end) nor of revealing them to others. It is obvious that translation, as reading or as a constant act, not only modifies one’s own voice, but also changes literary traditions. One day, those who study the national poetry of certain regions will pay more attention to the translated works that their poets have read as opposed to the original versions. For example, I read Eliot translated by Ángel Flores and, in my memory, The Waste Land (La Tierra Baldía) is the one that Flores translated.

As I mentioned, I’ve been greatly influenced by the Contemporáneos. My reading of the classics, which I did almost exclusively for a period of about seven or eight years, has also left its mark. Fundamentally, the ancient lyrics: Alcaeus (whose work I translated almost in its entirety in 2010) but also Sappho and Alcman; and also Archilochus and Hipponax. The latter I consider the most modern due to his use of language and humour. His pugilistic poems are raw, his sexual references, explicit. For example, there is one poem in which the “poetic voice” attempts to cure his impotence with the assistance of a Lydian witch. Frankly, it’s hilarious, vulgar and ingenious. Among the Greek Classics I should also mention that I read Euripides and Aristophanes thoroughly.

There are common names such like Pound, Eliot, Wordsworth, Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Pessoa, Hölderlin, Yeats. Of course, they have influenced me. More specifically, I can mention poets like Blake, H.D., Charles Wright, David Meltzer, William Carlos Williams, Lee Masters, Efraín Huerta, Rubén Bonifaz Nuño (I regards his Fuego de Pobres as a gem of Mexican literature) and Nicanor Parra.

Finally, I would like to draw attention to the influence of Jerome Rothenberg. This is due, in part, to the fact that, in the last year and a half I have worked a lot with him. I’ve finished translating A Further Witness and A Poem of Miracles, two of his most recent collections. It looks like they’ll be published in bilingual editions this year (2016). I’ve also translated to Spanish and to Ladino (the language of the Sephardic Jews) his poem Cokboy which is, as you may know, written in a mixture of English and made-up Yiddish. This proximity (admirably generous) has transformed my understanding of his poetry. I will remain forever grateful to him.

DB: Is there a Mexican poetic tradition? Are there various? With which, if any, do you identify? What about the Mexico City cronistas (non-fiction chroniclers like Carlos Monsiváis or, most recently, Valeria Luiselli)? I ask because your book Poemas de Botica (Apothecary Poems) is very much steeped in the sights, smells, sounds of a particular part of the city.

JT: Everywhere, particularly during these years of globalisation, the borders between “national” literatures have begun to dissolve: they begin to respond to different stimuli and contact with other poetic tasks become more immediate. In Mexico right now I can see a conceptual growth as well as a turn towards new technologies. On the other hand I see an emerging interest in ethnopoetry, ecopoetry and colloquial poetry. Much of this owes to the incorporation of the North American poetic tradition or English language poetry in general.

As a tradition, I would have to mention the baroque. It’s still alive and has continued to adapt (in some instances, in other instances, frankly, it has not) to the times. In its use of language, for example, can be derived part of the metaphysical or mystical poetry that is composed in Mexico.

I don’t know to what extent I can associate myself with any “tradition”. It seems to me that that should be decided by others. I can only recognize some influences that are present in this book, but I cannot talk about belonging. Sophocles says that nobody should consider a person as being “happy” until the moment of his/her death. Other work will come, I hope. Then the time will come for me to cash out. Time will take care of putting everyone in their place. What I mean is, to answer your question, there are a wide variety of poetic traditions in this country. I’m sure there are others which I’ve forgotten, or am yet to have discovered.

Of the cronistas that you mention, I haven’t read Luiselli. I’ve read very little Monsiváis and a bit more of Novo. Honestly, the Mexico City chroniclers had very little influence in Poemas de Botica. I think that a much greater debt is owed to the Lyrical Ballads, to Huerta, Parra, Salvador Novo’s Poemas Proletarios, Fuego de Pobres by Bonifaz and Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. After the collection had been published I was introduced to Chetumal Bay Anthology—a very interesting collection by Luis Miguel Aguilar (winner of the 2014 Ramón López Velarde Prize)—and noted the similarities between my book and his (the focus on just one place, the style of language etc. which in turn is fed by the work of Masters). A fortunate coincidence.

Mexico City has a great deal of problems: brutal inequalities, violence, organized crime (though they claim it’s not there), racism and discrimination, misery belts, inefficient transport, unstoppable pollution etc. On the other hand there are the personal oases, those places that transform the city into your city, though you will always need to pass through chaos to get there. A bit like Milton’s Lucifer. This dichotomy is experienced by anyone who has lived in the D.F. In my case, I couldn’t stand it any more so I left.

DB: Tell us about how you write. Where does it all come from?

JT: I don’t have any particular schedule or discipline for writing. In reality, all my writing springs from obsession. After investigating a certain theme for a while, disposing of material, etc., ideas emerge. And then begins a process that is long. As you well know, there are texts that just jump onto the page and others that take forever. Then, when I believe that a certain text is speaking, I correct it, edit it. I throw away or erase what is no longer of use, without restraint. Usually, what I leave behind is the poem’s skeleton. When I’ve found—sometimes it’s just a few verses—the idea, the tone, the form of what I want to say, I begin to re-write it. In the end, I share it with some writers that I know and trust to be objective. Then, if the text passes this test, I think it’s ready. In general, I mistrust my own opinion. With regard to form, the form is dictated by the contents of the poem.

portada

DB: Poemas de Botica is an admirably solid collection. By that I mean that it possesses a wonderful unity, all the poems revolve around your grandfather’s apothecary and it’s a collection that feels more like a place than a book to me. I mean that in a good way, it’s remarkably vibrant, alive. Where did it come from? Did you always know how it would be structured?

JT: Poemas de Botica emerged from the Guerrero neighbourhood, one of the oldest and dodgiest in the city. But, to be more precise, from the area immediately surrounding the Dr. Medina pharmacy which was the property of my grandfather for almost 65 years. The pharmacy also operated as an old-style apothecary. I had to work there for about 4 or 5 years, selling medicines and mixing remedies (not many, in reality), while I studied at university. The apothecary is still open, even today.

No, actually, it’s strange. Some of those poems (which were then called de Botica in 2003), were more or less finished. But I didn’t know what to do with them. I thought they’d never be published. You know, I didn’t have any more material. There were 4 or 5 poems and that was it. Then, I stopped working there, and I stopped writing poetry and focused on my studies. I submitted, like we all do, to that sterile prose of academia. And, while it gave me other positive things, it dried up my literary work.

I found it really very difficult to start writing again. A few years later, I’d say it was around 2012, I started to re-write those poems, now with the readings I mentioned above in my mind. The key to the collection arrived with the (Homeric) Cantos del Señor Olivares: I glimpsed the possibility of orchestrating the whole book with an array of different voices: the historical voice of the city (Olivares), the lyrical voice (the Apothecary), the testimonial voices of the characters, all mixed up: humour, violence, colloquialisms, music and refrains. In other words, everything that I learned in Guerrero. And then I quickly discovered that the book was finished. Leticia Luna, the editor, insisted that the tone was not lost.

Finally came the business of unifying the collection. All the poems revolve around an apothecary. I understood that it was about the day-to-day running of the business. Working at an apothecary, you end up having to deal with the clients, with yourself, with those who promote the merchandise, with anything that was going on in the barrio. Outside and inside. And almost everything that happened in that small world is portrayed in the book. ‘The world is an apothecary of the depraved’ (El mundo es una botica de viciosos) says the book’s epigraph. The world or purgatory in which we all find ourselves. In fact, the first poem gives the physical location, the address of the pharmacy, but this also functions as a cosmic location of the Counter-Earth, according to an astronomy book by Giorgio Abetti, I think. That’s what the botica was for me.

DB: What do you think of contemporary Mexican poetry?

JT: Honestly, and this has a lot to do with my formative period, I’ve attempted to immerse myself in contemporary Mexican poetry only recently, in the last three or four years. For example, I have discovered fantastic works such as those of Francisco Hernández (Moneda de Tres Caras, La Isla de las Breves Ausencias), Elsa Cross (Bomarzo, Bacantes, Canto Malabar), Myriam Moscona (Negro Marfil and Ansina), Coral Bracho (Si ríe el emperador), José Vicente Anaya (Híkuri), Ernesto Lumbreras (Lo que dijeron las estrellas en el ojo de un sapo), Tedi López Mills (Muerte en la Rúa Augusta and Parafrasear) Gerardo Deniz (who had already passed away but his Cuatronarices was a major discovery for me), Luis Miguel Aguilar, as I already mentioned, the Mazateco poet Juan Gregorio Regino (No es eterna la muerte), Víctor Sosa (Nagasakipanema), amongst others.

There are some writers, a bit younger than the ones I just mentioned—often younger than I am—whose work I admire. Amongst these I can mention Alejandro Tarrab, Hugo García Manríquez, Balam Rodrigo, Inti García Santamaría, Heriberto Yépez, Hernán Bravo, Yuri Herrera, Óscar David López, Sara Uribe, Paula Abramo, Marian Pipitone, Eva Castañeda, Zazil Collins. So far. I know of many other names due to the renown they have earned but I haven’t read them, and that is a source of minor embarrassment. But that work is pending. The list will certainly grow.

DB: Personally, in Mexico, I’ve noticed a fair amount of literary cliques. As if the on-going feuds like the ones documented so memorably by Bolaño in his Savage Detectives are continuing today. Do you notice any of this? Does it hold interest?

JT: Yes, I suppose that, like everywhere else, there are. Regional, local, national, transnational. In general, I have very little time for personal disputes that always seem to mutate into group disputes. I read, ignoring the affiliations or ascriptions of an author. I’m only interested in the text. I can still identify the conflicts generated by the aesthetical (and political) differences between the Stridentists (Estridentistas) and the Contemporáneos or between the Infrarrealistas (the “Visceral Realists” from Bolaño’s Savage Detectives) and group of poets headed by Octavio Paz. Or the ongoing arguments between nationalism (whether that be criollo or mestizo) of Mexican poetry against its francophilia (afrancesamiento as Cuesta called it, extending the term to mean a sort of universalist ambition).

DB: There seems to be plenty of political poetry being written and disseminated in Mexico of late. What do you think of this? Should poetry be political?

JT: Yes, it is normal to see this emergence of political poetry. We live in tragic times. Some of these poems I simply don’t like: particularly those that seek to mythologize or ritualize that which has happened in Mexico. By so doing, they seem to engender a justification (myths and rites that outline a psychic, hegemonic and social mechanism a posteriori) in order to suggest some sense of destiny. Furthermore, I think that political poetry (as always) is at risk of turning into a simple instrument of affiliation, an occasional militancy that is of more benefit to the poet than to society.

A work that stands apart from these is Antígona González by Sara Uribe. Though she recycles the figure of Antigone, she refuses to justify suffering through the notion of myth.

DB: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

JT: Well this year (2016), as I mentioned, I hope to see the Rothenberg collections published. I also hope to publish Nacencia, a long poem dedicated to my son, which focuses on the processes of translation. It’s about the impossibility of translation. It’s also a unified piece, from the eve of his birth up until an event that seemed astonishing to me, which occurred when he was about four months old. He reached out to touch the shadow of his own hand on the wall. In other words he carried out his own process of translation: in four months he had interpreted the world, his surroundings, passing through a long phase of discovery and an awakening of the senses, until he could see that hand and touch it. From that point, everything became clear, the light of the allegory of Plato’s Cave. Nacencia is a poem that has nothing to do with, with regard to subject matter or form, Poemas de Botica. Which is something that pleases me greatly.

Furthermore, I want to continue with my translations of Claudia Rankine (her multi-prizewinning Citizen) and of Rosmarie Waldrop (The Ambition of Ghosts). I’d also like to keep translating some of Federico Maria Sardelli, who is real character (Vivaldi scholar, director of Modo Antiquo, painter, poet).

—Javier Taboada & Dylan Brennan

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From Poemas de Botica (Apothecary Poems)
By Javier Taboada
Selected and translated by Jack Little.

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Visión

Aquí
las rameras
……….se canonizan en nueve meses
el diente de oro
es tatuaje de honor por las migajas
y el rito de la madre
es zumbarse al niño
y llevarlo a la escuela
cubriendo el látigo del marido.

Los boticarios
son los nuevos curas
que redimen
por menos del tostón.

La borracha canta
soy la Magdalena
revolcada en mierda
……….hay viejos oraculares
……….héroes y padrotes
y hasta los boxeadores rezan
que con la Virgen basta
y la piedra sosiega.

Aquí
la camisa de fuerza
espera por la señal de la cruz.

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Juanito

Nadie sabe que soy un súper héroe.

Piensan que estoy loco
pero en las noches vuelo
……….aunque todavía
no aprendo bien
y me azoto en la banqueta.

De día
enjuago los carros
que llevan a los reyes actuales.

Mas luego oscurece
……….y no sé quién
le sube el switch
a mis rosas eléctricas.

Ahí me da por encimarme
……….los calzones
……….la capa
mis botas negras de hule
y entonces VUELO

por la quijada brillante
del burro
la tripa de cristal
que se hace rollo
y se alarga.

Eso que dicen
que es la epilepsia.

Y con mi lengua
en la banqueta
me quedo dormido
……….como una coca de vidrio
vacía de la furia del mar.

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Crac

Un joven de quince años
pidió un gotero de cristal
para bajarle a su bebé la temperatura.

…………Mejor uno de plástico
…………que el vidrio es peligroso
…………si el niño tiene dientes.

No lo quiebra  no lo rompe.
Y besó una cruz
que hizo con los dedos.

………….Fui por su jarabe
y me dejó hablando solo
con la medicina.

Nunca había visto a un tipo tan flaco.

***

La piedra
el fumado
…………en papel
…………en lata de refresco
…………o gotero de cristal
es un tizón de sesenta pesos
…………llaga que arde viva
…………entre labios y garganta.

Hay que jalarle duro
…………fumarse hasta las burbujas
…………oír el crac en la piedra
y sentir cómo pega en putiza.

***

Pasadas las diez de la noche
chupando la mugre de las uñas
…………por si algo sobra
los muchachos del crac
…………ángeles de cera sobre una flama
salen a la calle
con todas las palabras
…………………en la manguera de la lengua
el sexo de fuera y erecto.

El barrio cierra sus ventanas
…………tapia sus puertas
porque los muchachos del crac
…………aúllan
y se rascan para quitarse los piojos
…………que inundan su piel
……………….pues es mejor dejarla en carne viva
…………a que se la coman los gusanos.

Los muchachos del crac
…………ejército de cadáveres sin camisa
…………pubertas embarazadas
caminan a ninguna parte
…………juegan volados o rayuela
…………cantan  bajo la pequeña luz del encendedor
y miran de reojo
buscándose el cuchillo.

Luego caen
uno por uno
bajo los dedos del alba.

***

Al abrirse las puertas del metro
los muchachos yacen en el piso
………………como pan con hongos
……………………..arcada del ebrio
……………………..viejo al que chupó el diablo.

—Javier Taboada

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Vision

Here
the whores
………….are canonized in nine months
the gold tooth
a tattoo to honour crumbs
and the rite of the mother
is to hit her child
and to take him to school
to cover up her husband’s lash.

The apothecaries
are the new curates
redeeming
for less than fifty cents.

The drunk lass sings
I am Mary Magdalene
wallowing in shit
…………here old oracles
…………heroes and pimps

and even the boxers pray
that the Virgin alone will suffice
and the crack rock soothes.

Here
the straitjacket
waits for the sign of the cross.

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Juanito

Nobody knows that I am super hero.

They think I’m crazy
but at night I fly
……………even though still
I don’t learn all that well
and crash into the sidewalk.

By day
I wash the cars
that carry today’s kings.

After dark
………….I don’t know who
flicks the switch
on my electric roses.

I turn myself out in
……………underpants
……………the cape
my black rubber boots
and then I FLY
by the brilliant jawbone
of the donkey
the glassy guts
that roll
and lengthen.

That they say
……………is epilepsy.

And with my tongue
on the sidewalk
I sleep
……………like a glass bottle of coke
empty of the fury of the sea.

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Crack

A fifteen year old guy
asked for a glass dropper
to bring his baby’s temperature down.

……….Better a plastic one
……….glass is dangerous
……….if the kid already has teeth.

He won’t crack it won’t break it
and he kissed a crucifix
made with his fingers.

……….I went for the syrup
and he left me talking alone
with the medicine.

I had never seen such a skinny fella.

***

The stone
devilsmoke
……….on paper
……….in a can of pop
……….or a glass dropper
it’s a three buck ember
……….a sore that burns alive
……….between the lips and throat.

You have to pull hard
……….toke until it bubbles
……….hear the crack in the rock
and feel it like the smack in a brawl.

***

Past ten at night
sucking the muck on their nails
……….just in case there’s something left
the crack boys
……….wax angels over the flame
go out into the street
with all the words
…………..on the tube of their tongue
sex outside and erect.

The neighborhood closes its doors
……….shuts its windows
because the crack boys
……….howl
and scratch to get rid of the nits
……….that fill their skin
……………for it’s better to leave it raw
……….than let it be eaten by worms.

The crack boys
……….army of shirtless corpses
……….pregnant adolescents
walk nowhere
……….play coin toss or hopscotch
……….sing under the dim glow of a lighter
and gaze askance
looking for a knife.

Then they fall
one by one
under the fingers of dawn.

***

As the metro doors are opened
the boys are lying on the floor
………………..like moldy bread
…………………….drunk’s retch
…………………….an old man made rotten by the five-second rule.

—Javier Taboada translated by Jack Little

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Javier Taboada (Distrito Federal, 1982) traductor y poeta. Ha traducido a Alceo de Mitilene (Poemas y Fragmentos, 2010) y a Jerome Rothenberg (A Poem of Miracles y A Further Witness, de próxima aparición), entre otros. Es autor de Poemas de Botica (2014).

Jack Little Photo

Jack Little (b. 1987) is a British-Mexican poet, editor and translator based in Mexico City. He is the author of ‘Elsewhere’ (Eyewear, 2015) and the founding editor of The Ofi Press: www.ofipress.com

Dylan Brennan

Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan

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Dec 012015
 

gabriel-josipoviciGabriel Josipovici

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The first time I read Gabriel Josipovici, it was a slim, glossy brown volume sent to me by Carcanet that looked at first glance as if it might be poetry. It wasn’t, it was a short novel entitled Everything Passes, but I was struck by the amount of white space the reader is confronted with on each page, the writing being confined to a slender column of dialogue that is itself intermittent, fragmented by vertiginous silences. I began to read the first few words and felt myself slipping, slipping, as if down a polished chute, those aching blank spaces dragging me across to the next portion of dialogue as if across a dangerous precipice. I had to put it down for a while because it frightened me. And for the same reason I had to pick it up again. When it was finished, I was stunned. It was quite the most extraordinary piece of writing I had encountered in a long time.

Why has Gabriel Josipovici never won the Man Booker Prize? Or the Goldsmith’s, or the Costa Book Award? It’s a common question among those of us who are thrilled by his work. His reception by the British critical establishment has been a rocky one over the past 45 years, which remains perplexing to me. A man who spent his career teaching literature, a published academic critic and a writer of novels, short stories and plays of striking originality, should surely tick the right boxes? Maybe there is an otherness about his writing that stems from his childhood in Egypt[1] that lingers in his books just sufficiently to disturb the mainstream mind? Maybe he has been too far ahead of his time, and only now are we able to catch up with him?

Over the past few weeks, Gabriel and I have put this interview together over email. During this period he celebrated his 75th birthday and a strong sense of retrospection grew out of our conversation, a chance to look at the entirety of his writing life. I told him our focus would be on creativity: his creativity, the creativity in his texts, the creativity that his writing draws out of the reader. This was the result.

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Victoria Best (VB): Let’s begin with The Inventory, your first novel published in 1968. I’d like to get a clearer picture in my mind of your mid-twenties self, a literary critic by now but embarking on a work of fiction. What was the inspiration for this novel?

Gabriel Josipovici (GJ): I wrote The Inventory before I wrote The World and the Book (1966, 1965-70). I had been writing fiction at least since my early teens – Monika Fludernik, when she was researching for her book on my fiction and drama, came to the house to look through my files and unearthed a short story I’d published in the Victoria College school magazine in 1954 in Cairo, when I was thirteen. It concerned a road waiting for the road-mender who comes every day to work on a stretch of it and who doesn’t come that day and will in fact never come again because he’s dead. I read it with amazement, because though it was naïve and didn’t really know what it was doing it had the voice I associate with my later writing, showing that this ‘voice’ is something one is born with, or that is the product of one’s earliest years, and, however ‘formative’ the experiences of one’s teens and later life, it remains constant. I went on writing stories, and in the year I had off between school and university I tried to write a novel but it was so bad and I believed in it so little that I burned it. But a story I wrote then was kept for ages by Encounter, the leading cultural journal of the time, who eventually wrote to say that after long consideration they’d decided not to publish it, but they’d like to see anything else I wrote, which was encouraging. Then at Oxford I wrote and published stories in University magazines, and an enterprising publisher (now an agent), Gillon Aitken, got in touch and asked to see more of my work. I was tremendously excited, of course, but it turned out he only wanted a novel. I said I didn’t have one but would naturally send it to him if and when I did. Despite this, I couldn’t seem to write anything longer than short (very short) stories.

I have often spoken about how I came to write The Inventory. It was such a breakthrough for me and emerged out of such turmoil and anxiety that – I now realise – it has acquired in my mind something of the status of a founding myth. But I’ve recently been reading through some of my early working notebooks and I can perhaps take this opportunity to round the picture out a bit, to release it (for myself at any rate) from its mythic dimensions.

After two years as a graduate student at Oxford and two as a young assistant lecturer at the University of Sussex, writing short stories no-one wanted to publish, I was getting more and more frustrated, feeling the need to write something longer than a short story, partly because I desperately wanted to have something substantial to work on for months rather than weeks at a time, and partly because I felt that if I didn’t write a novel I couldn’t really consider myself a proper writer (I had not yet read Borges or Robert Walser, who might have made me think differently), and partly of course because, as Gillon Aitken had shown me, publishers weren’t interested in short stories from unknown authors. I had even got to the point of feeling that much as I loved my work at Sussex, I would have to give it up, since I didn’t want to spend the rest of my days living the comfortable life of an academic but feeling deep down that I had betrayed the most intimate part of myself out of laziness or fear or for some other unfathomable reason. But the trouble was that, as I’ve said, much as I wanted to write something extended I found myself totally incapable of doing so. For if I worked out a plot I found it so boring to flesh out that the whole business of writing suddenly seemed meaningless, while if I didn’t have a plot the impetus petered out after a few pages.

A word had come into my head: inventory. Simply repeating the word to myself gave me gooseflesh. I realised that this was because the word seemed to pull in two totally opposed directions at once: in the direction of unfettered subjectivity, invention, and in the direction of absolute objectivity, an inventory list. I discovered that they actually derived from two different Latin words, invenire and inventarium, but that didn’t matter, there they both were, nestling inside the single English word. And suddenly I had a subject I was excited about: someone has died and the family, with the help of a solicitor, is making an inventory of the objects he (it soon became obvious to me it had to be a he) has left behind. As they do so the objects lead them into recollection or perhaps even invention of the person they had known and of their relationship to him.

But though I elaborated my basic plot I could not get the novel going. There seemed to be an insuperable gap between what I sketched out in my notebooks and any actual novel I might write.

I had a term of paid leave coming up at the end of my third year of teaching, and all through that year I pushed myself to write The Inventory (I knew my title) and all through that year I found I just could not get started. The three months I would have to myself (officially to write a critical book) grew and grew in importance. This was going to be the crunch. If I failed here I knew I would have to leave academic life for good and I had absolutely no idea what sort of job I would be able to get to keep myself and my mother – all I knew was that it would be a good deal less enjoyable and satisfying than the job I had. So, once the summer arrived, I knew there were no longer any excuses.

A beloved cat of mine had recently died and I decided, to take my mind off my anxiety, to write a children’s story about him. I had no children of my own but I did know and like very much a colleague’s three little girls, who had been very fond of my cat. So I imagined myself telling them his ‘story’. Day after day I simply sat down and wrote what I heard myself telling them. He had been a large neutered Tom, already an adult when we had got him, and when he sat out in the garden contemplating the world he looked rather like a triangle with soft edges. I called the story Mr.Isosceles the King.

The advantage of a children’s story was that I had no great expectations of myself and so no inhibitions to be overcome. I also had a clear audience in mind. And so I found myself, day after day, while on holiday in Italy, writing about Mr.Isosceles, until one day it was finished and I realised I had a book there which I had had no idea I would write and certainly no idea of the form it would take a month or two previously. So, as summer turned to autumn and autumn to winter, I had a new sense of confidence that just sitting and writing for a few hours every morning would yield something. Yet that did not allay my mounting sense of panic. I would wake up every morning drenched in sweat, my heart pounding. I knew it really was now or never. But fear, I discovered, can be a very useful thing. It can push one past all the inhibitions that have been holding one back and get one across that seemingly insurmountable barrier between notebook and novel.

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VB: You’d already discovered the Modernist writers you loved and your relationship to them as a critic is clear. But what was your relationship to Modernism as a fledgling artist at this point? What did you hope to explore or elaborate in creative writing?

GB: The answer to the second question is: nothing. One writes because one has to, not to explore or elaborate anything. The answer to the first is, I suppose, that I had read Proust and Mann and Kafka, and Mann had made me understand that our modern situation is different from anything that has gone before, and fraught with difficulty; Kafka had made me understand that I was not alone in my sense of not belonging anywhere or having any tradition to call on; and Proust had given me the confidence to fail, had driven home to me the lesson that if you come up against a brick wall perhaps the way forward is to incorporate the wall and your effort to scale it into the work. I had read Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, and been excited by the way they reinvented the form of the novel to suit their purposes – everything is possible, they seemed to say. But when you start to write all that falls away. You are alone with the page and your violent urges, urges, which no amount of reading will teach you how to channel. ‘Zey srew me in ze vater and I had to svim,’ as Schoenberg is reported to have said. That is why I so hate creative writing courses – they teach you how to avoid brick walls, but I think hitting them allows you to discover what you and only you want to/can/must say. Not always of course. The artistic life is full of frustrations and failures as well as breakthroughs. You are alone. No-one can help you. I think that’s what Picasso means when he says that for Veronese it was simple: you mapped out the territory, started at one corner and worked forward. But for us, he says, the first brushstroke is also the last.

So: to go back to the genesis of The Inventory. I had my first scene in my head: the solicitor arrives at the house and meets the family of the deceased. I could visualise the street and the house. But how to put that down in words? Now I was sitting at the desk determined to write the book rather than simply thinking about it, this suddenly became a crucial issue. Did I use one sentence, one paragraph or one page to describe the scene? As I scribbled I found myself rejecting one effort after another: they were not in my voice, not what I wanted. They were in all the voices of all the novels I had ever read. How then to find how I wanted to say it? And suddenly, under pressure, the breakthrough occurred. I realised I was not interested in describing the scene, what I wanted was to get the characters talking to each other, to get the thing under way. And it came to me that I could simply drop all description and find ways of conveying the scene entirely through dialogue. With that the book became a challenge and a pleasure instead of a dutiful chore. I had my lists of possessions, my inventory, and I had my characters, and that was all I needed.

Years later I read Stravinsky’s account of a similar breakthrough he had experienced as a young composer (it was when working on Petrushka I think): ‘It was as though I had suddenly been given an extra joint in my fingers,’ he said. And years after too that I began to understand why I was so resistant to description, and why dialogue on the contrary seemed exciting. It was not description as such that I felt I simply could not (my body would not) do; it was that I could not countenance the introduction of an impersonal narrator who would be able to describe the scene from a privileged position outside space and time. It might seem that a first person narrator would solve the problem, but unless he was a sort of Tristram Shandy (and I found that much as I loved that book its wonderful playfulness was not something I was drawn to emulate) there would be exactly the same problem: in life things slip past us, we are always in the midst of them, we do not stop and describe, we simply take in our environment as we go. The traditional novel pretends to be doing that but in fact the first person narrator, when there is one, stands free of such pressures and simply tells the story. The descriptions he or she provides are meant to orient the reader, to act like stage directions. But I did not want such dead wood in my book. I wanted it to be alive from start to finish, from the first word to the last. And in dialogue it could be alive, for what dialogue did was provide words where (in the fiction) the characters would be providing words. Why the words are spoken, how speaking them affects the situation and what they ‘mean’ can be left as open as in any encounter in real life.

That was how, much later, I came to explain my peculiar aversion to description and my recourse, here and later, to dialogue. At the time I merely felt that I was embarked on an exciting journey and it was up to me to keep going till I got to the end.

VB: I’m also intrigued by your use of repetition – very strong in The Inventory, but also to be found in many other of your works. What is it about repetition, do you think, that brings us closer to the real?

GJ:I discovered, as I worked, that I could do without transitions. I could simply juxtapose fragments of dialogue and build up a rhythm in that way. Repetition was part of that process. As I soon discovered, Stravinsky worked in rather the same way. Instead of the development so central to the Western classical tradition he worked with small cells which he juxtaposed with others or transformed by various processes. And his descendants, I realised, were living and working in here England – Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, then young radicals setting out on their own paths, influenced by Stravinsky as well as by Varèse and Messiaen, but also harking back to late medieval and early Renaissance ways of building large works by other means than classical development. I spent many exciting hours at the concerts of the Pierrot Players, the Fires of London and the London Sinfonietta. And in the course of that discovered Stockhausen, Berio and Ligeti, very different composers, but all rejecting the linear, developmental processes of classical music and finding their inspiration in the musics of the Middle Ages, India and the Far East. It was an exciting time.

VB: What did the experience of writing this first novel teach you?

GJ: One other thing I discovered on the way was that under pressure of the situation all sorts of unexpected things occur. A writer I had not really thought about much, Raymond Queneau, became a great source of strength as I struggled with the book. Recalling his ability to maintain wild flights of fancy and yet hold on to ‘the real world’ of the France he knew, particularly in Zazie dans le métro, gave me the confidence to let go in ways I had never been able to do in my short fiction. It was frightening but exhilarating, a roller-coaster ride with no assurance that I would land on my feet at the other end. But, somehow, I did (I learned that if you let go you often do).

queneauRaymond Queneau

VB: How was it received?

GJ: Respectfully. I think it was possible to read it as a version of the English realist novel. And those were perhaps more open times, in the late sixties. Iris Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net, was, after all, dedicated to Queneau and this was the time when John Berger and David Drew, Europeans to their core, were writing in the back pages of the weeklies. Critics only turned against me with my fourth novel, Migrations, which was a break from the predominantly dialogue novels I had been writing till that point.

VB: As a critic, how would you define the role of the reader?

GJ: I’ve no idea. Perhaps we should drop such notions as ‘the role of the reader’. Reading, as you know, is the most natural of activities. I’ve seen children who can’t yet read grab the book from their father’s hand and sit there, imitating him, turning the pages, willing themselves to read, as it were. I was fortunate to grow up in a pre-television and pre-computer age, so that there was nothing else to do if you were on your own except kick a ball around or draw or read. There came a moment when my mother put down the book she was reading to me to go and do something and I picked it up and went on with it. She came back and I handed the book to her to continue, but she only smiled and said she was busy and perhaps I could go on on my own. And of course I did. I wanted to find out what happened next. And I remember lying by the pool in the sports club in Maadi, near to Cairo, where I grew up, and looking up at the big clock on the wall and thinking: soon it’ll be time for lunch and after that I can go on with my book. And I felt a tingling in my whole body at the thought. I think the book in question was Enid Blyton’s The Castle of Adventure – I’ve never read anything more thrilling, though I’ve had many similar moments of looking forward to a blissful evening with a book I was absorbed in.

VB: I ask this because Migrations is an exemplary novel in the singular effect it has on me as a reader. Your narratives have such extraordinary elasticity; they open up new spaces in my mind. I find myself drawn to the trope of migration itself, and the way your characters often walk and talk, or walk and think; their movement echoes the mental travel I undertake reading you. Do you have such a figure as Iser’s ‘ideal reader’ in your own mind when you are writing? What do you think your novels ask of the reader?

GJ: I think one writes the books one would like to read but that no-one has written. So as you write you write for yourself as reader. That figure is not in your mind so much as in your body. He is not ideal at all, he is this person: you as reader of books.

But the first part of your question deserves a fuller answer. Quite a few years ago now I received a letter from a reader of my work who told me she had had M.E. [Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, the name previously used for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, though some argue the two illnesses are different] for many years, and for a long time no doctor would take her seriously, though she had fought hard to get her condition recognised (as of course it now is). She said reading my work had a physical effect on her, actually did what medicine and therapy could not do, that while she was reading my work she started to move better, to feel more like her old self. We corresponded and it turned out she was actually in a wheelchair, but clearly a very determined lady (in earlier life, she told me, when the disease was less virulent, she had acted and even taken a small company on a tour of Africa). She asked me if I thought she should do a PhD on my work, and tried to get in to various universities to do that, but for one reason or another it didn’t work out. I suggested to her that PhDs were probably not a good idea in the Humanities (a view I hold generally), and that if she felt driven to write about my work she should just do so. Over the course of the next years she did that and in the end had a substantial book. I read it with interest because I had always been fascinated by the kind of thing Oliver Sacks was doing and loved the idea that books could have a physically, not just emotionally or intellectually, restorative effect on the reader, not just on the writer. I had hoped that in the wake of Sacks’s popularity a publisher might be persuaded to publish her book, but alas no-one would and I remain one of its sole readers. But I cherish my copy as a witness to the effect art can have.

I don’t think there’s anything uniquely ‘restorative’ about my work; if she had happened to read someone else I’m sure that would also have done the trick. Not anyone else, but I have certainly found that the authors I warm to affect my body and not just my mind. And in essays and books like Writing and the Body I’ve tried to explore in an amateur way why that should be the case. But while neurologists have been (rightly) alert to the therapeutic effects of music, and even painting, poetry and fiction have not in the past been examined from the same perspective. This has, though, recently become a topic of research, and Terence Cave, for example, has devoted some of the money he received from his Balzan prize to setting up a team in Norway to look into it, while Paul Davis and a team at Liverpool are engaged in the same enterprise. Both of them though seem to me overly scientific and abstracting. I just wish the topic would find its Oliver Sacks.

As for Migrations and migration, that work was indeed another breakthrough for me. I had grown to feel that the dialogue form I had developed in The Inventory and which I had adopted for my next two novels, Words and The Present, was no longer satisfying. I had had a few plays publicly performed and been made welcome in the wonderful BBC Third Programme and the Radio Drama department, presided over by Martin Esslin, and full of great producers able to call on the best actors in the land. My play Playback, which I worked on with that great producer, Guy Vaesen, kicked off a season of radio plays exploring the possibilities of the form. I felt more at ease in my teaching role at Sussex now it was established that part of my time at least would be spent writing. Yet in personal terms 1972-5 were very difficult years for me. A good friend committed suicide. My beloved collie dog, who had developed epilepsy in a very violent form, grand mal rather than petit mal, with fits lasting all of 36 hours, had finally had to be put down, and I could not get out of my head the look in his eyes as he felt a fit coming upon him and with no idea, of course, as a human being would have, of what was about to engulf him. I had behaved very badly to a number of people who were very close to me. All I wanted to do was beat my head against the wall and scream. In those circumstances the lightness and humour of my early novels did not seem to be of any help. I wanted to be engaged in something that went deep and that (as I put it to myself) wound round and round and round, and in the writing of which somehow the shackles I felt were binding me tight might get released. I felt I needed to go down into my own life, but when I did so I found I had no ground to build on – I had no maternal country to dream about, not even a maternal language. I felt I was a sort of absolute migrant – someone on the move from my birth on, with no place to return to and no place to go to. How, in that condition, to find any solid base on which to stand to build something substantial? Yet as I thought about all this I began to wonder if perhaps my condition was more typical of the human condition at large than our culture (any culture?) was willing to recognise. Most people have a patria and a maternal language and the notion that these are primal is somehow unquestionable. But is it true? Or is it perhaps just another myth. Perhaps if one dug down deep enough one would find only shifting sands. I started to read quite a lot of French psychoanalysis (my close friend John Mepham was a great resource there), and in particular André Green. And I began to feel that perhaps I could find a fictional form for all this.

Two images came into my mind under the pressure of trying to find my form: a Francis Bacon image of a man vomiting into a lavatory, bent double over it, a painting I must have recently seen; and Epstein’s great sculpture of Lazarus rising, the shrouds that had been wrapped about his body starting to come loose, which I had discovered in New College chapel when I was a student down the road at St.Edmund Hall and which I often used to go and contemplate in my time at Oxford. I was also listening to the current work of Peter Maxwell Davies, those enormously slow, enormously long works audiences at the time were walking out of, like Worldes Blis and the Second Fantasia on John Taverner’s In Nomine, which developed almost imperceptibly, like their great late medieval models, from tiny cells to monumental structures. And then I heard Harrison Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time, and I knew I had to write my book. It knocked me backwards, that long long slow ritual on strings and percussion, punctuated by the piercing, beautiful descant of the clarinet. Towards the end of the huge single movement there is a glimpse of something found, then that too is swallowed up in the funereal march. Finally, I was just starting to learn biblical Hebrew in order to read the Hebrew Bible in the original language. I was also reading the Bible in English quite intensively. I came across this phrase in the prophet Micah: ‘Arise and go, for this is not your rest.’ (Micah 2.10) I loved the sound of it in Hebrew: c’mu velochu ki lo zot ha-menuchah, and I was excited to discover that the word for rest, menuchah, is also to be found in various other places in the Bible, notably when the dove is sent out of the ark by Noah but can find no rest for her feet because the earth is still covered by water. I knew then that I had found the epigraph to my book, and, after much internal debate, decided to leave it in Hebrew to give a sense of its otherness and strangeness, and since the precise reference would allow anyone interested to look it up in an English Bible.

I had been driving up and down the road that leads from Brixton to New Cross, a road that filled me with horror every time I took it, it was so endless, so run down and desperate (it must have changed dramatically, like all of London, in the forty years since I was there), and I took that as my location. I hoped that by facing that despair and the despair of the man in Bacon’s sealed room vomiting into the lavatory, by finding a way of writing it, I might regain a modicum of balance. But I was terrified that so instinctive a procedure would lead to nothing more than a mess, so that though I wrote it straight, day after day, never looking back, once that first draft was done I subjected it to more analysis and drew more grids than I have ever done before or ever want to do again. I found that the pattern 9+1 was a recurrent one, tweaked it here and there, and decided on a title with nine letters plus the sign for the plural. And so Migrations was completed.

I had been so deeply immersed in it, and it had seen me through such a bad time, that, once my only reliable reader (relied upon to criticise as well as praise, which is essential), my mother, had read it and said she was deeply moved, I felt happy to send it to Gollancz, who had published my previous three books, including my first volume of short stories, Mobius the Stripper: Stories and Short Plays. That volume had been awarded the Somerset Maugham Prize, a wonderful accolade for a young writer, news I had received on returning from a brief holiday to try and come to terms with my friend’s suicide, but at the last minute the prize was withdrawn on a technicality (I had not had an English passport when I was born, a fact I had never tried to hide, but which it seemed was a stipulation by Maugham for the award of the prize, even though in his lifetime he had waived that requirement in a couple of instances, and which the publishers, who submitted the book, had overlooked) and Gollancz, who had slipped bright yellow wrappers announcing the award on all copies of The Present, which they were about to publish, had to hurriedly remove these. Insult was added to injury when the chair of the Society of Authors, which managed the prize, Antonia Fraser, wrote more or less accusing me of deliberate fraud and ended with the chilling words: ‘However, I am sure you will agree that the publicity you are getting more than makes up for the withdrawal of the prize.’ Be that as it may, Gollancz took one look at Migrations and turned it down. When it was eventually published it was rubbished by the critics, Susan Hill, for example, saying (was it in The Observer?) ‘If you like that sort of thing then that is the sort of thing you will like.’ It was my first encounter with the entrenched conservatism of the English media and especially of established English writers, a conservatism I now suspect (after the similar outburst of bile that greeted my recent critical book, What Ever Happened to Modernism?) is due more to anxiety than to anything else.

mobius

VB: The other figure that recurs across your works is the figure of the man alone in his room. This makes me think of both the reader and the writer, who are often in such a situation. What draws you to this figure, or perhaps better to ask, how was this figure thrust upon you?

GJ: I think I’ve answered this in relation to Migrations. As for its larger or deeper significance, all I can say is that my pulse quickens when I see paintings or listen to music or read books where the constraints are fairly tight – where a room hems in the figures, as in Vermeer or Hammershøi or some of Giacometti, or the musical resources are limited, as in Renard and Histoire du soldat. Why it should do so is a difficult question, better left to others.

VB: I wonder if we might bring in your notion of art-as-toy here; something material and real in its own right but invested with imagination and fantasy. Do you think, as both author and critic, that the ‘toy’ of art is different – invites different kinds of play – for its creator than for its consumer?

GJ: Not sure I understand this. Art is making, poiesis, and what I like about much modern art is that it acknowledges this, indeed, makes a virtue out of it. We may be nostalgic for the organic, for art growing as a tree grows, but to accept that art is made by someone at some moment is exhilarating for me. That’s why I love Tristram Shandy. Of course there are dangers. If one starts to think of it as simply artificial one is set firmly on the conceptual route, and though I am interested in Duchamp, who was a complicated and conflicted figure, I am not much interested in his followers. A key moment in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, to my mind, though no-one has mentioned it, is the confrontation I set up between Duchamp and Bacon. Both of them want nothing to do with mere description, nor do they want to go down the road of abstraction, but where Duchamp views every artistic gesture with suspicion, Bacon is prepared to trust the moment, to trust his painterly gesture. Duchamp has all the philosophical answers, but Bacon is a bit like Dr.Johnson confronting Bishop Berkeley: he kicks the stone. Duchamp will never be accused of self-indulgence or losing the plot, but my heart is with Bacon. And more than my heart. I believe that if we realise that a child lives the toy, lives with the toy, while never for a moment thinking it is anything other than a toy, then we perhaps have a better model of our relationship to art than the conceptual one. I at any rate dream of making a work that is like some complicated toy you can dismantle and put together again and that is always not just more than the sum of its parts but in a different dimension. So I love works like Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi or Birtwistle’s Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum and Steve Reich’s percussion pieces – but of course I also love works which are not like that at all, such as those of Kafka and Beckett and Stockhausen and Kurtág.

What ever happened

VB: Perhaps we might address the influence of Jewish elements in your works. It would be foolishly reductive to call you a ‘Jewish writer’; yet patterns of migration and exile are evocative, and many of your protagonists identify themselves as Jews (in a way that is often serious and amusing at once). How would you describe these elements in your writing?

GJ: Until well into my thirties I knew I was Jewish, knew my mother and I had survived in France during the war more by luck than anything else, yet I had no connection with things Jewish. My first books were written by someone without any contact with organised religion or with any religious tradition. So I was intrigued when, years later, a German colleague at Sussex, who was working on the way in which the Nazis took over the flats of Jews in Vienna after the Anschluss, told me she felt The Inventory was a very Jewish work: ‘It’s a book about the fragile remains of one person’, she said, ‘and the memory of that person in the objects he leaves behind and in the lives of those who survive. Surely you were obliquely writing about the war?’ I assured her that that was not the case, but of course accepted that sometimes we write more than we know.

Then, as I have said, at the time of writing Migrations I was starting to read the Hebrew Bible intensively. And what I found in the narratives there was a kind of writing that I had only come across in the work of Marguerite Duras: narratives denuded of description or psychologising, narratives which draw their power from the way dialogue and the stark description of ‘what happens’ hint at depths which evade even the speakers themselves. It was very exciting. And at the time too I became friends with a number of wonderfully thoughtful and interesting religious Jews, mainly Reform, Francis Landy, Geoff Newman, Jonathan Magonet. I found they shared one of the central attitudes I had been delighted to find at Sussex when I joined the University, a belief that one need not always have the answers, that sometimes genuine puzzlement is more fruitful than clear solutions. I admire and respect their devotion but because I never had any religious education or went to synagogue as a child I feel a little bit outside it all, but they – and they are still good friends – seem to accept me as I am. And like them too I despair of what is happening in and to Israel. The Jewishness I cherish is the one that stresses wandering as the human condition, not any sort of possession of a promised land.

So I would say that the feeling that I am Jewish is now more informed than it was, but it remains, like my awareness of Proust and Kafka, a support and a comfort rather than anything else.

VB: When I put down one of your novels, I feel that something significant and real has happened, and maybe it’s a case of Eliot’s belief that ‘mankind cannot take too much reality?’

GJ: Naturally I’m delighted you feel that way about my books. I suppose what I discovered in writing The Inventory is that I want a work to live its own life from the first word to the last. With the first word something unusual is happening, something for which there is no justification, which is a cheat, and yet which is also magical, wonder-full. I want to celebrate that, embrace it, not deny it, as do most works of fiction. I’m not interested in telling a story. I love the narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the narratives of the Border Ballads and of the Grimm tales, but most so-called classical novels turn me off – I don’t want to be filled with Stendahl’s or George Eliot’s inventions, or even Tolstoy’s, all those descriptions of clothes and rooms and the rest – I want books that leave a space for me to discover myself, like Proust’s or Kafka’s, or that get my body dancing, like those of Queneau and Muriel Spark. Lots happens in Balzac and Dickens, but I’d rather read Chandler or Wodehouse, writers who know that what they are doing is neither ‘significant’ nor ‘real’. But that’s no criticism of the classic novel (or the contemporary Goncourt or Booker contender), just that it’s not for me. As Stravinsky said of Mahler: ‘Our pulses beat at different rates.’

VB: And yet, I’m not sure I’ve read anything in which you abandon full characters. I’m thinking now particularly of the monologue novels like Moo Pak and Infinity, where you have Jack Toledano and Tancredo Pavone vividly depicted by their friends and servants, Damien Anderson and Massimo, who frame their stories. Wodehouse gives his characters easy, ridiculous, robust emotions, but what touches me about these two novels in particular is the love, friendship and loyalty, the very real emotions that drive the narrative. Friendship, suffering, the drive to create; I feel your works are very rich in emotion ‒ but entirely empty of sentiment. Would that be fair to say?

GJ: I’ve always felt that while a short story can spring out of an idea or a phrase a novel has to have characters I can empathise with. You have to have something genuinely invested in it if you are to spend a year or three of your life with a piece of fiction – there has to be something you want to explore and something you are moved by. For a long time I worked with the initial conceit of Infinity, and with the figure of the eccentric avant-garde Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, but it was only when I opened myself to the human dimension of the relationship between Pavone and Massimo that the novel finally came. On the other hand I always conceived of Moo Pak as a dialogue novel with one part of the dialogue missing. ‘Rich in emotion but empty of sentiment’ – I can’t think of a nicer description of my work or one I would be happier with.

Moo Pak

VB: I’m also very intrigued by the ghosts of real people behind some of your novels – Giacinto Scelsi in Infinity, Pierre Bonnard in Contre-Jour, Joseph Cornell in Hotel Andromeda. I don’t for one second think this is a biographical urge, so what do these real figures offer you in terms of inspiration or structure or… maybe something else entirely?

GJ: I too have been intrigued by that question ‒ ever since I worked on The Air We Breathe, behind which lies the figure of Claude Monet, and which was sparked off by my looking at a book of photographs of the aged Monet and his wife – sitting on the beach in Dieppe, pottering about the garden in Giverny, etc. – and then found myself following it up with a book loosely based on the life and work of Pierre Bonnard, Contre-Jour. Enough, I said to myself, or people will start thinking of you as a novelist who only writes oblique biographies of painters. And then I found myself writing a book at the centre of which was Marcel Duchamp, The Big Glass, and fifteen years later a book in which Joseph Cornell figured prominently, Hotel Andromeda. It’s true that in between I wrote a number of novels – Now, Only Joking, After, Making Mistakes – which do not have an artist at the centre, but even so, what was going on? All I can say is that something in the life of this or that artist does more than intrigue me, it grabs me to such an extent that I cannot rest till I have had a go at discovering why, and doing so in the only way I know, by writing a piece of fiction. With Bonnard it was hearing a talk about why he painted his wife Marthe so frequently lying stretched out in the bath (because, said the speaker, she was a compulsive washer); with Duchamp it was reading about how, when he learned that the work on which he had spent so much time and energy, The Large Glass, had been damaged in transit to an exhibition, the glass panels cracked beyond repair, his response was: ‘Wonderful!’ With Scelsi it was reading the crazy remarks he made to interviewers and some of which were printed in the sleeve-notes to his CDs (‘I was born in Mesopotamia 2800 years ago’; ‘Other composers like to hold up their profiles to the photographers and to show off their noses; I have a finer nose, a perfect Roman nose, much finer than any of them but I have never let myself be photographed.’). With Cornell it was seeing those photos of him in old age in his garden or his study in the house in Utopia Parkway he had lived in most of his life, looking like a figure already passed over to the other side. But in every case I had to love the art or at least to find it highly interesting. I could not spend a year or more of my life with someone with whom I was not in some sort of sympathy.

And I think too that the combination of work that I found fascinating and a life that intrigued me and which I could identify with acted a bit like the double focus of that word ‘inventory’ with my first novel – it gave me the rudiments of a plot, and a form. Already in some very early stories I had found myself trying to find literary equivalents of paintings by Picasso, Vermeer, Dix, and others, and taking as the ‘content’ of the story what the painting represented: two large women running on a beach, a woman at the harpsichord, a mirrored room in Brussels during World War I. So it’s clearly more than a passing fad.

hotel

VB: I am particularly interested in the depiction of creativity that comes out of your work. There seems to me to be one constant feature uniting the artists in your pages and that is their absolute dedication to art. What makes this something you want to write about?

But I am also curious about the way that these characters suffer ‒ or make those around them suffer ‒ for creativity. Do you think that creativity is necessarily costly; that it always demands a measure of sanity or love or peace of mind to be paid?

GJ: That, I suspect, is the deeper reason for my fascination with these artists. Artists are the saints of our day, no? Surely, they argue by their choices, life is in the end about something other than money and status, life is a quest, a puzzle and a gift. On the other hand there is something ridiculous about this stance. Something quixotic. For already in the early seventeenth century Cervantes sensed that the dedicated life was an absurdity, whether that life was passed in dedication to God or to knight errantry or to the writing of books. I think that is one reason why I write novels and not critical books about Bonnard, Duchamp etc. Because fiction can show up the absurdity, even the self-delusion (Infinity), or the costs to others (Contre-Jour) of the obsessive artistic life, as well as its wonder and glory. That’s the beauty of art, of fiction, that it can accept and reveal complexity, even contradiction, and leave you simply pondering how life is.

VB: On that note of costly creativity, maybe we can return to you in the 80s and 90s. You’d been a young man longing to create works of literary fiction and here you are doing so, an established author. Had the experience been as you expected it would be? How had it changed you (if indeed it had)?

GJ: I’m not sure about ‘established’. After the débacle of the Somerset Maugham Prize and Migrations (1977) I had been labeled an ‘experimental’ writer once and for all and routinely abused and dismissed in reviews or else ignored altogether. With each new book of course I thought: This time they’ll get it, this time they’re bound to see what I’m after, but it didn’t happen. Publishers would take one book, swear they were in it for the long haul, then drop me when no-one bought the book, until I finally found a home in Michael Schmidt’s then expanding Carcanet fiction list. Carcanet have stood by me for the past thirty plus years, though during that time their fiction list has had to shrink and almost disappear (I think I am the last remnant of a once-vibrant list that included Clarice Lispector, Natalia Ginsberg, Leonardo Sciascia and Christine Brooke-Rose). When Contre-Jour was taken by Gallimard I thought: at last I will find a public to appreciate me. But Gallimard pushed it as a novel just about Bonnard and it fell flat and they lost interest. It wasn’t till the late nineties that a Swiss publisher, Gerd Haffmans Verlag, began to take my work and to publish it in Germany that I felt I had found a public. It wasn’t just that reviewers were kinder to the work, it was that the reviews were intellectually on a different level to the English ones and engaged with the work (Haffmans Verlag brought out Now, ContreJour and Only Joking when that book had not even found an English publisher) in ways inconceivable to English editors and reviewers. When I gave readings from my work in Germany I found people responding to it on its own terms, instead of more or less asking me to justify myself, as I felt on the rare occasions I had done readings or interviews in England. But then Haffmans went bankrupt, a seemingly common fate with any press that took me on. Finally in the new century dedicated small presses in France (Quidam) and Spain (Raig Verde, Complices) began to bring out my books in those countries, and first Zweitausendeins and then Suhrkamp and Jung & Jung in Germany. But it’s really only in the last few years (with the rise of the internet and blogs like yours and Steve Mitchelmore’s) that I’ve ceased to feel I’m there on sufferance and the sooner I disappear the happier the literary establishment will be.

Of course all that has its good as well as its bad side. I remember my Oxford friend, the composer Gordon Crosse, saying to me all those years ago: ‘For the artist there are two dangers, success and failure.’ Wise words. I’ve seen what success has done even to writers I admired (Golding and Pinter for example, even Claude Simon) and felt in a way glad it had never come my way. Failure – it depends how you define it. When all public responses are not just negative but dismissive it’s sometimes hard to keep going. We are not Buddhists, we need some sense that what we are doing is more than self-indulgence. But of course in the end we go on writing because we have to/want to. (David Plante once said to me: ‘Remember, Gabriel, no-one asked you to do this.’ More wise words.) I have now accepted that I will always only appeal to a very small section of readers, anyway in this country, but probably everywhere, but I have also come to feel in the last few years (not in the eighties and nineties) that there is a growing body of people for whom my writing really matters, and that is heart-warming and encourages me to keep going.

Contre-Jour

VB: You have written the most moving tribute to your mother, the translator Sacha Rabinovitch, in A Life, the memoir of your relationship. What do you think she gave you as an artist?

GJ: It’s so difficult to say. She gave me life, of course, and then she saved us both when we were stranded in France during the war. When I was fifteen she once again showed courage and determination when we left Egypt for good in 1956, just before the Suez crisis. She left her sister, her only remaining family apart from me, her beloved dogs and all her possessions to face a totally unknown future. She had no idea if she would be allowed into England, where I was going to finish my schooling, and, if not, what would happen to her. So my being in England and becoming an English-language writer I also owe to her forethought and determination.

All that might have been a heavy burden for me to bear, but she was also the most generous and the most loving of people, and gave me all her love without (I think) spoiling me – a difficult balance. But the real miracle was that as I became an adult (in fact from the moment I came back from Oxford, where I had been on my own for three years, for the first time in my life) we found we had a great many shared interests ‒ and even tastes – in books, in music, in art, animals, in walking – and became firm friends. Which doesn’t mean of course that we did not have quarrels, sometimes terrible ones, when people are that close it’s probably inevitable. But it was wonderful to have a friend in her to whom I knew I could always turn. When I began to write she was naturally the first person to whom I showed my work. And she was invariably encouraging though quite ready to make critical comments when she thought they were justified. Her response to The Inventory was typical. When a draft of that book was finally finished I left it with her to read and went off to London for the day. When I entered the house on my return my heart was beating. I felt that this was the moment of truth. I had no idea if what I had done was very good, quite good, or just plain rubbish. Her first words were: ‘It’s wonderful.’ And as the sense of relief flooded through my body she added: ‘I think you’ll have to work on the ending, though.’

So I suppose in answer to your question I have to say: she gave me everything. The deep confidence of knowing that, however out of step I was with the prevalent culture of the time, someone else thought the work good, someone I could trust. I would not have written what I have had it not been for her, and one of the hardest things about her death was losing my best and most reliable critic.

VB: Let’s talk about Goldberg: Variations, which strikes me as your most widely-reviewed novel to date. I also find it quite different to everything else you’ve written without being able to put my finger on why that should be so. It is such a unique piece of fiction – how did it come into being?

GJ: I think it was in the early nineties that I came across that anecdote about Bach’s writing of the Goldberg Variations. It derives from Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, but I can’t remember if I had been reading Forkel or another book on Bach or perhaps it was just a passing mention of the story in something on quite a different topic. (Scholars, it is worth saying, now cast doubt on every aspect of the anecdote.) It seems that Count Keyserlingk, a Leipzig nobleman, had insomnia, and he asked his court musician, the harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to play to him at nights in the hope that that might send him to sleep. Goldberg in turn asked Bach to write him a suitable piece, and that was how one of the greatest works of music ever written came into being. I thought it would be fun, as a sort of homage to Bach, to see what happened when I transposed the story to Britain and turned Bach from a composer to a writer. And I conceived the idea of an English nobleman in the late eighteenth century developing a debilitating insomnia and calling up his not too distant neighbour, the renowned writer of German-Jewish descent, Samuel Goldberg, to come and read to him, and then to insist that he read something he had written that day. It was an amusing jeux-d’esprit, and I got it written without too much difficulty. As I was finishing it I heard Judith Weir, a composer I knew slightly, talking on the radio about the importance to her and to so many modern composers, of Bach. I decided to send her the story, something I regretted doing for the next few years, because she wrote back quite soon to say she had much enjoyed reading it on a train journey to Manchester and when would I have the other twenty-nine variations to show her?

Of course once the seed has been sown in your mind it’s impossible to dislodge. I loved the Variations and every time I heard them I was deeply moved by the fact that when the Aria with which it starts returns, unchanged, at the end, we hear it completely differently, because of the long road we have travelled. I also loved the idea of a piece that would be made up of a number of discrete yet interlinked parts and that would yet be more than the sum of its parts. But I had set my initial ‘variation’ in England in the late eighteenth century, and while it was possible (for me) to write a piece of historical fiction that covered twenty pages I was not sure I could – or would want to – keep it up over a whole novel. I am not a historical novelist and am not interested in historical novels. Certainly not in twentieth century ones. Nevertheless, I thought I ought to give it a go. After all, I greatly admired William Golding’s The Spire, set in the Middle Ages, admired it particularly for the fact that Golding made the setting feel completely authentic yet hardly went out of his way to ‘set’ his novel in a bygone time. Perhaps I could learn from him.

Over the next few years I struggled with the project, periodically growing sick of it and turning to other things, yet always coming back to it. I couldn’t get it off the ground and I couldn’t quite let it go. I cursed Judith Weir. But in the end I had to let it go. I had written half a dozen ‘variations’ and roughed out the end, but it seemed terribly false and arch to me and I dropped it. I turned to contemporary subjects with relief and wrote Moo Pak and then Now, both set in present-day London. But after my mother’s death and the emotional turmoil that followed, I found myself spending more and more time in Berlin where a friend had a flat and a bicycle to lend me, and perhaps it was the distance and the unfamiliarity of my surroundings, but I found myself turning to my abandoned novel again. As I cycled along the canal or river towpath in Berlin, stopping off at beer houses with shady gardens, I pondered the problems of my book and found myself starting to work at it again. I realised that perhaps what I should do was punch a window into the present in the fabric of the building I had erected, so to speak, and let the later ‘variations’ enter the modern world. And then other things began to fall into place. I had decided from the start that I would not follow Bach’s variations slavishly, writing a very fast or a heavily ornamented variation when he did, etc. Yet there were a few landmarks in the landscape of his mighty work that I felt I would like to incorporate into my feeble effort, in particular the moving slow and lyrical variations to be found, one towards the end of the first half and one halfway through the second, and also the rumbustious knockabout variation with which he concludes. I had also, like all listeners to the work, been struck by the fact that Bach does not, after the Aria, begin with any sort of overture, but keeps that back till variation 16, the start of the second half. I decided that for that grand piece ‘in the French style’, I would transpose another Bach anecdote to late eighteenth century England. The story goes that by the end of his life Bach’s fame and his ability to improvise complex music had spread to the court in Potsdam, and it was there that the King invited him and gave him a theme which he asked him to improvise on. The result was another astonishing masterpiece, The Musical Offering. I decided that my naturalised English writer would also compose a number of variations on a theme given him at court by George III.

I had had a postcard of an extraordinary late work by Paul Klee on my desk in Lewes for some time. Called Wander-Artist, which means something like travelling showman and performer, it depicts, in stark black, a crudely drawn figure striding from left to right across a red background, itself hemmed in by a rough black frame, and waving as he goes. The whole is painted to look more like a poster than an artwork, and I loved it and was moved by it, for reasons I could not begin to fathom. But as I worked with renewed energy on my homage to Bach that figure suddenly intruded into the fiction and even began to speak. That was when I knew that finally the thing was coming together and one day I would have a book.

When it was done and I had my thirty variations I racked my brains to try and decide how to compose the Aria that in Bach starts and finishes the work. And it gradually dawned on me that that may be the difference between our age and the age of Bach, that his can have an opening and closing Aria, which anchors the piece and set the parameters, while ours can only have variations. In other words, there was a good and profound reason why I could not find it in me to write my Aria. And with that thought came the further thought that for this book the Aria would have to be the Klee Wander-Artist, which I would ask the publisher to put on the front and back covers, as though the only Aria for us to countenance today would have to be a collage onto mine of someone else’s work, and would be a work that itself cast doubt on the notion of the artist, suggesting as it does, like other works of Klee, such as Ghost of a Genius, that today the word can only be used mockingly, artist reduced to artiste, genius to ghost.

With that my work on the book came to an end. But my feeling, after working at it for far longer than for any of my other novels, was mainly one of relief, not of triumph. And of course it was the first novel of mine that I could not show to my mother. As to whether it’s all that different from my other works, I’m not sure. In some ways of course it is, and I’ve tried to explain why. But the central figure of the Wander-Artist is another of my walkers, isn’t he? His roots I think probably go back to Migrations. But it’s really not for me to say.

Goldberg- Variations

VB: Goldberg was received wonderfully well in France. Reading the reviews, I feel they really ‘got’ you, if you know what I mean. As you mentioned with the German reading public, they responded so deeply to what you are doing in your fiction. I wonder why your writing works so well with a European sensibility that seems lacking in the Anglo-Saxon temperament of the British?

GJ: But it took twelve years to appear in translation. Haffmans Verlag had commissioned a translation but the firm went bankrupt before they could publish it, and so far no other foreign publisher has dared take it on, apart from Quidam, my intrepid and wonderful French publisher, who brought it out last year. I did finally feel then that I had found my public, something, as I said earlier, that I had hoped for with Contre-Jour but which never materialised at the time.

As to why my books get more intelligently reviewed in Germany and France, there must surely be many reasons. There is now a clear divide between the cultural life in England and America on the one hand, and on the continent on the other. You go into a French bookshop and the main table is spread out with books on philosophy; in an English bookshop, with books on food or gardening, or with biographies of footballers. The Net Book Agreement holds in France and hardly anyone uses Amazon, preferring always to buy through their local bookshop. And there are still several of these, independent bookshops, in every quarter of Paris, each with its devoted band of readers. Bernard Hoepffner, my brilliant French translator, and I read together from Goldberg in a small Paris bookshop last year. We occupied the only two seats they could get into the small space, but it was packed with people who had already read the book, listened attentively, and asked good questions, standing for over two hours. And that’s not just true of Paris, but of most French towns. With Bernard we took the train to Tours and read in a bookshop there (the tickets and our hotel paid for by the bookshop owner). Same story, except that the place was big enough for seats to be brought in. Drinks were served afterwards. When we did the same in Brussels, the owner said he couldn’t stay to have dinner with us. He had made his money, it turned out, in business, and then at the age of 30 retired and started the bookshop. At ten that night he was taking part in a 160-kilometre bicycle event. So he was living the life he wanted to live. In England I suspect someone in his position would have opened a wine-bar. So it’s a whole cultural thing. Proust, Blanchot, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, Mann, Heidegger, Celan, are living presences for most educated readers in France and Germany. In England? One just has to ask the question to see the problem.

It’s a shame, though, because I feel a dose of English irony and even scepticism would sometimes be useful when French or German intellectuals ascend into the stratosphere, and I love the deflationary irony of the best of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. But it can so easily become a cheap and sneering cynicism, which is really a kind of schoolboy panic in the face of what they feel is beyond them. In their disciples only the cynicism is left.

VB: I’d like to mention a couple of your novellas, now, beginning with Everything Passes, the first of your books I read and still one of my favourites. The pliancy of this narrative astonishes me every time. Can we talk about white spaces? They’re a feature of several of your works and give them a particular, striking effect. What does that blank space bring to your narrative, do you think?

GJ: Not sure I can answer your questions, but I’ll have a go. First of all, ‘novellas’. I don’t know when the term was invented, but it is clearly helpful when the expected length for a novel was between 500 and 1000 pages. It helps us distinguish Bartleby from Moby Dick and The Death of Ivan Ilych from War and Peace. But I’m not sure it’s helpful with the modern writers I’m interested in – Woolf, Spark, Duras, Bernhard, Appelfeld – very few of whom write long books. Proust wrote one enormous work of fiction, basically, but the many short novels of Woolf or Bernhard can also be seen as parts of a single project. Whether my books should be seen like that or not it’s not for me to say – they certainly feel like that from the inside.

I’m glad you responded to Everything Passes – I had been thinking about it for a decade or two before I wrote it and a great many different elements went into it – hearing Schoenberg’s late String Trio, that extraordinary expressionist work which, he said, attempted to describe what he felt like when he technically died and had to be resuscitated with an injection; a photo of Francis Ponge looking out of a dirty window with a broken pane I once saw in a newspaper and could never forget; much else. But you are asking me about the way it is written. One of my earliest pieces is a long ‘story’ called ‘Distances’. I think the epigraph is from Rilke: ‘those feelable distances’. I am drawn to the idea of the distance between people, and even between ourselves and ourselves, as a space that is vibrant with unspoken feeling. The works of art that touch me are those where that is in play – in Vermeer’s painting, in Velazquez’ Las Meninas, in Hammershøi’s silent rooms – works which have an enigmatic quality, a sense of waiting for something to happen, where the waiting is more important than the happening. I love the idea of a work of fiction which can catch that. And as I discovered with The Inventory, you really don’t have to spell out the transitions, and you can use repetition to convey rhythm. I love the border ballads for that reason, and the late medieval ballades and many of Dunbar’s poems. As with the Aria in the Goldberg Variations, these refrains and repetitions are never exactly the same when they return, precisely because now they have been heard before. And I suppose I’ve never got over my first hearing of those long slow works of Maxwell Davis and Birtwistle which seem quite static but where something is slowly stirring and by the end you find you have travelled a long long way, even if that way is not linear.

Does that start to answer it?

VB: Also in Everything Passes, your protagonist, Felix, discusses Rabelais and the moment in European culture when Rabelais understands that he has ‘gained the world and lost [his] audience’. I wondered what you felt about that in relation to contemporary audiences. Do you think we are undergoing another seismic shift in terms of the reader and his or her capacity for attention and understanding?

GJ: You know, I wanted Felix to sound pompous and just gave him something pompous to say. Schoenberg, who is vaguely behind Felix, lost his first wife to a much younger friend. I suspect she could not bear his ponderous certainties, his propensity to lecture one at the slightest opportunity. But of course I stand by the gist of his comments. I do think Rabelais and the whole tradition of which he is the head – Cervantes, Sterne – wrote out of just such a sense of print as both liberating and crippling. But whether this is being repeated today – are you referring to the internet etc? – I wouldn’t know. I still read books and trust that anyone who bothers to read me will do the same. And, interestingly, Patrick Wildgust, the director of the Laurence Sterne Trust who runs Shandy Hall, tells me he is sure the renewed interest of young people in Sterne has something to do with the internet. People blame the internet, he says, for sapping readers’ ability to stick with a linear narrative for several hundreds of pages, but by the same token Sterne, who is all digression and no linearity, is the ideal author for the internet age. Of course there are few works with the originality and zest of Tristram Shandy, and I suspect one needs to know how to commune with a book in silence to respond to Woolf or Duras or Bernhard.

VB: After is an extraordinary novella (published in a Carcanet edition with Making Mistakes). There’s an exchange in it that thrills me: ‘genuine puzzlement is much more productive than false clarity’, your protagonist says, to which comes the reply: ‘I wonder if your theory is not a little dangerous when applied to life and not to the problems of the mind.’ What gave you the idea for this story with its profound exploration of memory and knowledge?

GJ: I’m so glad you like After – and was so moved by your review of it when it came out all those years ago. It was another of those books which just refused to come. I eventually forced my way through to the end in a rather tense period of six months I spent in Paris, teaching once a week at the American University. I had had a bad two or three years in my personal life, compounded by the fact that my German publisher had gone bust and Carcanet were uncertain whether they would be able to go on publishing fiction at all. Writing it was a kind of lifeline for me. I felt I just had to write it to stay sane, and in fact it’s a pretty mad novel. I don’t know what I think of it. In a way it’s a reprise of The Echo-Chamber. At times I feel deeply embarrassed by it and ashamed of it, at others very proud. I can’t say any more than that.

VB: We haven’t really talked about your short stories. Would you like to say a few words about them?

GJ: There are writers like Bellow for whom short stories are really shards dropped from the novels or ideas for novels that never quite developed. And there are writers like Beckett and Robbe-Grillet who used the short story form to test out their style and vision in their early years. There are also writers like Borges or Ambrose Bierce whose fictional output consists of nothing but short stories. And finally there are those, like Hawthorne or Malamud, who have written both short stories and novels and recognised that these are rather different forms, each with its strengths and its weaknesses. I feel I belong to this group. I’ve always loved short stories, enjoy the fact that you can control every word in them in ways you can in a poem but not a novel, and some of my happiest moments have come when I realise I have finally nailed one. This happened with one of my earliest, ‘Mobius the Stripper’, with a small group of stories I wrote in the eighties, ‘Second Person Looking Out’, ‘He’, ‘That Which is Hidden is That Which is Shown…’, ‘Steps’ and ‘Volume IV, pp.167-69’, and with a couple of more recent ones, ‘He Contemplates a Photo in a Newspaper’ and ‘Heart’s Wings’. In fact, I’m not sure, if I were asked which of my books I feel happiest to have written, if I would not plump for ‘Heart’s Wings’ and Other Stories, a volume of recent and selected earlier short stories which Carcanet published in 2010, with a fine cover designed by my son.

Hearts wing

VB: You used to write stage and radio plays. Why did you stop?

GJ:After my first two novels had been published a theatre was built in the new University where I had gone to teach, at Sussex, and the students asked me to write several plays for them. The challenge was very exciting. I wrote a monologue for Nick Woodeson, who later rose to become a distinguished actor, one of those Pinter regularly turned to, and two plays for a group of students. Then I worked very intensely on a collaboration with the Australian composer, Peter Sculthorpe, who had come to the University as a visiting professor while he was trying to get started on an opera commissioned for the opening of the Sydney Opera House. Our collaboration came to nothing, but as a result of our discussions and my immersion in things Australian I wrote a play, Dreams of Mrs Fraser, which was premiered at the Royal Court Upstairs. Then for a while I wrote for the little theatres which were starting to proliferate in Britain in the early seventies. Unfortunately they soon started to concentrate on more overtly political kinds of drama, and I found that my plays fell between two stools: too ‘avant-garde’ for the conventional stages but not political enough for the little theatres. Later, and for several years, I teamed up with a Brighton-based company, and wrote a number of lunchtime pieces for them, but they eventually disbanded and commissions dried up. I find that while I will always write fiction, which I do on my own in my own time, and which, thank God, I have always eventually found publishers for, with the theatre you have to have a specific commission, to know what kind of company and space you are writing for, even though you always hope that if the work is good enough it will find other homes elsewhere after a first outing.

I did have one very exciting commission at the time. The newly-formed Actors’ Company, which included Ian McKellen and Caroline Blakiston, invited me to write a half-hour play for five actors, with minimal props as they were short of funds, to be performed at lunchtime in Edinburgh where they were doing a season of Shakespeare and Chekhov. In half an hour you can’t really waste time having people go in and out, so this forced me into attempting something I had only ever half-thought about: a play of five intertwining monologues performed by actors seated facing the audience. I had always felt that my trouble with most post-Renaissance art is that you are meant to face it head on, while it stands still, so to speak, and stares back at you. Yet in life things are constantly slipping past us, just caught out of the corner of the eye, or only half-heard. I liked the idea of an audience trying to hold all five monologues in mind at the same time but of course being unable to do so, and gradually letting go of some in order to make sense of one or at most two. The rehearsals were very exciting, my brilliant and virtuoso cast rising to the challenge I’d set them. The trouble was there was no room for hesitation, and if you lost your place there was no way of finding it again. And invariably one or other of the cast would lose their way. In the end the director, Edward Petherbridge, had to decide whether to keep going with rehearsals to the end and hope for the best or cut his losses and set up lecterns in front of each so that they could read the words. And this is what he did. The result I felt (and Howard Hobson in The Sunday Times, agreed with me) was unnerving and powerful, but it was not nearly as powerful as it had been in rehearsal, where the actors’ anxiety and fear of not getting to the end without coming unstuck, became part of the tension of the whole and where their very vulnerability in front of the audience made for very powerful theatre. The play has been done once or twice since, but always with lecterns, and I long to see it done without. It would have to be a young and fearless company to do it though.

Flow, as I called it, and Comedy, the second of the plays I wrote for the Sussex students, and which almost got done professionally in a boxing ring, which would have been perfect (the backers pulled out at the last moment) – these are the plays I’d most like to see revived in really bold productions.

Though work in the theatre dried up by the end of the seventies, I was starting to write quite a lot for radio. I had always loved the idea of radio drama and in the radio drama team at the BBC, I found I had people who believed in me and were prepared to commission work with absolutely no strings attached. The result was a series of very happy collaborations, from Playback in 1973 to the mid-eighties. When Guy Vaesen retired (though he returned to produce my 90 minute monologue, Vergil Dying, written for Paul Scofield and performed by him on radio) I teamed up with another fine producer, John Theocharis and together we worked on a number of productions, two of which were chosen by the BBC as entries for the Italia Prize, AG, a mad and highly irreverent reworking of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and Mr.Vee, an attempt to find an audial equivalent for the play of mirrors in Velazquez’s Las Meninas. Many of them were also translated into German, for Germany has a rich tradition of the Hörspiel. But by the nineties the BBC had begun to change, The Third Programme had become Radio 3, a mainly musical station, and had lost its glittering array of distinguished producers, while in Germany too the effects of reunification were felt even in the rarefied world of the Hörspiel, and there was a severe reduction in their transmission of foreign plays. I greatly miss those intense two or three days of working with dedicated actors and producers of the highest calibre, but it looks as if the days of really innovative radio drama are gone for good.

VB: I have concentrated on your fiction in this interview, because I feel that that is where you’ve done your most important work. But there is a question anyone who has read your criticism as well as your fiction will want to have answered, and that is what you consider the relation between the two to be. You’ve pointed out again and again in your answers to my previous questions that fiction certainly does not spring for you from any desire to make critical or theoretical points. But where then do you see your criticism, which is fairly substantial, with books on subjects as diverse as the Bible, the sense of touch, the notion of trust, and Modernism, fitting into your oeuvre as a whole?

GJ: I said at the start, talking of the genesis of The Inventory, that I thought I would have to give up teaching because living with books, talking about books all the time, made me unduly self-conscious and made it impossible for me to write my own fiction. But I wrote that novel and stayed on teaching at Sussex for 35 years, the last fifteen or so part-time, teaching from October to March and having April to September to myself. This actually was ideal. I did something I enjoyed doing and that I felt was worthwhile, so that even if I got nowhere with my writing I could still feel, at the end of the year, that I had made a contribution of some kind to the country that had after all taken me in and given me free university education with a job at the end of it. On the other hand come April I was not exhausted mentally and physically, as I had been by the end of June when I taught full time. In fact I had a free conscience and I felt I had earned my time to myself, so that those months of April and May were utterly blissful and a time of great creative upsurge. Since I’ve retired completely I don’t get that lift and if the work is not going well I have nothing to take its place, while I rarely feel I’ve earned any sort of break.

But teaching literature and writing criticism are not the same thing at all. I have always felt that writers make the best critics, and love the critical writings of Proust, Woolf, Auden and Mann, and the comments on books and writers one finds in the letters of Lawrence and Eliot and Beckett. Writing about the books and authors you love seems a natural extension of writing your own fiction or poetry, a little less fraught of course, since the threat of failure is not so imminent – I will always be able to finish an essay on a writer I love or a topic that interests me, but that is certainly not true of a story or a novel. In fallow periods Pinter turned to writing film scripts. They are often very good, and clearly by him, but obviously not of the same importance as his major plays. Alas, no-one asks me to write film scripts, and that is why in fallow periods I have found myself accepting reviewing and other non-fiction commissions or even following up an idea and writing a whole non-fiction book, as with Touch.

The book on the Bible [The Book of God] was a little different. It’s more bound up both with my personal life and with my teaching. As I think I said earlier, I was not brought up religiously in any way, but on the other hand I always had a strong sense of being Jewish. Nevertheless when as an adolescent I had my religious crisis it was a Christian religious crisis. After all, I had been reading Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard, not Buber and Rosenzweig. Did I believe in Jesus Christ? Could I commit my life to such a set of beliefs? Like most adolescent religious crises, this one passed. I went on teaching Donne and Herbert, Dante and Dostoyevsky, but in my thirties I began to think again about my Jewish roots. It was really a cultural thing. At Oxford and then at Sussex I had felt that the friends I made shared a European outlook with me, but at some point it became clear to me that there was a part of me, the part that had its roots in my family and in Egypt, which was not catered for by the idea of Europe. Perhaps that point came when I received that ill-fated Somerset Maugham Prize and decided to use it (it was a travelling grant, but when the prize was taken away from me the University, in the form of its then Vice-Chancellor, Asa Briggs, generously insisted I take a term of paid leave, so the effect was the same) to return to Egypt with my mother to see my aunt and any old friends who might still be there. I had begun to teach a course on The Bible and English Literature with a remarkable Anglican colleague and friend, Stephen Medcalf. At Oxford we had often been told: ‘You can’t understand English literature before the twentieth century if you don’t know your Bible’, but no-one did anything about it. It seemed to us that Sussex, always open to new courses, would be the ideal place to try to fill that gap. It was a fascinating course, both in itself and for the variety of students it attracted – from those whose parents, reacting to their own parents, had brought them up in ignorance of the Bible and who now felt the need to find out about it as we at Oxford had felt the need to find out about Kafka or Kierkegaard, to those steeped in this or that version of a Bible-based religion and found it difficult to treat the text as the narrative it after all primarily is.

But I soon realised that to teach the course I really had to learn biblical Hebrew. So Stephen and I and several of our colleagues sat at the feet of a new recruit to Religious Studies, an Anglican priest called Michael Wadsworth, who was also a semiticist and had just completed a thesis under Geza Vermes at Oxford, and learned the rudiments of biblical Hebrew. We also found ourselves gathering informally to discuss books such as Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy, which had just been published, and which excitingly married biblical criticism with modern theory, and to revisit the first chapter of Erich Auerbach’s extraordinary Mimesis, written in Istanbul during the war and one of the founding texts of the School of European Studies. And gradually I found myself lecturing and writing on the Bible and on why (as it seemed to us) both the theological and the archaeological approaches to it, the two predominant scholarly approaches, left so much, perhaps even the essence of that strange great book untouched. And we found ourselves part of a movement that took in America, Britain and Israel, a movement with roots in the writings of Buber and of Jewish scholars like Umberto Cassuto, as well as Auerbach, but which had taken wing with the publication of Robert Alter’s Aspects of Biblical Narrative. We were a tiny minority in the sea of biblical scholarship, but nevertheless, a vocal and significant one. It is the only time I have understood what it means to feel part of an international scholarly community, and it was a very nice feeling.

I remember a walk over the Downs with my composer friend Jonathan Harvey in which I said to him: ‘I feel I have a book on the Bible there somewhere, but I’m not sure I want to devote the time to it it’s clearly going to need when I have so much fiction I want to write as well.’ And he said: ‘No, you’ve talked about it enough, and it sounds important to me, I really think you should do it. It will feed into your fiction, don’t worry.’ Over the next few years, as I tried to balance the teaching, writing fiction and thinking and then writing about it, I often cursed the moment when I had fallen under the spell of the Hebrew Bible, but in the end the book got done and, looking back, I’m glad I did it. Whether Jonathan was right about its feeding my fiction, I’ve no idea.

Book of God

VB: Looking over your collected works and the experience I’ve had reading them, I’m reminded of Barthes and his comment that some of his best reading occurs with the book face down on his lap, staring into the middle distance. There is something so potent that happens when your writing comes into contact with my imagination. There’s a concept you may have heard of – the ‘unthought known’ – created by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas. It refers to the immense store of knowledge that we own unwittingly, having never put it into words because we became aware of it in a wordless fashion. Bollas says: ‘There is in each of us a fundamental split between what we think we know and what we know but may never be able to think.’ Some of it will never be articulated and so, he says it’s important to ‘form a relationship to the mysterious unavailablity of much of our knowledge.’ And somehow, this is how I feel reading you. You take me towards the unthought places without ever speaking them yourself. It’s the spirit of the Between, if you like, who has his own chapter in Goldberg. Does that make any sense to you?

GJ: Yes, it makes a lot of sense. It’s what I look for in my writing, what I want to read and can’t find in the writing of others. I’ve never read Bollas, but what he says makes perfect sense to me. I wouldn’t even call it a ‘fundamental split’ – I think rather that our bodies know more than we do and that the task of art is to find forms and words that will allow the body to speak.

VB: Finally, Hotel Andromeda, which I read for the first time a few weeks ago. Your most recent novel and, for me, one of your finest. How did you come to bring together Joseph Cornell’s artworks and the trouble in Chechnya?

GJ: I began to think of writing a novel about Joseph Cornell back in the eighties. I think it may have been the show of his work at the Whitechapel in 1981 that set me thinking, but I’d also seen some photos of him in old age taken by Hans Namuth. In his back garden. In his ‘study’. He was living alone by then in the house in the wonderfully named Utopia Parkway he had lived in all his adult life with his domineering mother and his brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy. He looks haunted in those photographs, on the threshold between life and death. I longed to do something with those photographs.

The problem for me was that there seemed to be no ‘centre’, to either the works or the man in the photos. And from what I could find out about him he seemed both utterly focussed, knowing exactly what he wanted and yet strangely ego-less. I’m drawn to such figures. Kafka, obviously, but Vermeer too, and Bonnard – the opposite of such dynamic artists as Lawrence, Rembrandt, Picasso. And it seems to be a minor but powerful American type: Melville’s Bartleby, Emily Dickinson, Hopper – to set against the Whitmans and Mailers and Pollocks. Fascinating, haunting figures, but in their emptiness, their stillness, their lack of forward thrust, going against the very nature of the novel. Anyway, I dropped the idea and went on to other things.

However, Cornell went on haunting me and towards the end of the nineties a biography finally appeared, Deborah Solomons’ Utopia Parkway. It’s a brilliant example of the genre, sensitive to both the life and the art, neither obtrusive nor evasive. Cornell comes through as an even more curious figure than I’d imagined, neither quite an outsider artist like Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor in whose apartment, after his death, was found an enormous stack of vast paintings telling the epic story of a group of little girls with penises pursued by hunters, nor quite a professional artist like Duchamp and de Kooning, both of whom he knew. The catalogue for the recent wonderful Royal Academy exhibition of his work is silent on all this, or rather, makes a conscious effort to show us Cornell as a mainstream artist. I can see why – you don’t want to present him as a freak. The Royal Academy is a serious institution with a deservedly high reputation. Nonetheless, it has to be admitted that Joseph Cornell was decidedly odd. He was infatuated with one young starlet or ballerina after another – and not just starlets. Susan Sontag was one of his brief passions, and young waitresses in their uniforms too cast their spell upon him. He would make them boxes which he would send them, befriending them and even occasionally helping them financially, but he remained a bachelor and probably a virgin all his life, living out his days in the house in Utopia Parkway with his mother and his sick brother Robert. He found it difficult to communicate with people yet had a huge number of acquaintances and admirers; he made avant-garde films and works of art that have lasted better than those of his more famous contemporaries, such as Pavel Tchelitchew, as the RA exhibition testifies, yet he never put pen to paper or held a camera. And so on. My feeling is, that like Glenn Gould, say, he was at the Asperger’s end of the spectrum, odder than fellow-artists but not totally cut off from society.

And it’s not just the biography that shows these contradictions: the art does as well. Many of the boxes and collages are rather twee, with their dolls and ballerinas and the evident longing for a world of lost innocence. This is an aspect of nineteenth century sensibility I am not overfond of, and I rejoice at its deflation by the Modernists. On the other hand there are plenty of works that are to my mind among the greatest of the twentieth century: the Hotel series; the aviaries; the beautiful abstract homage to Emily Dickinson, his films, which you can see on YouTube – and I would urge everyone to have a look at the beautiful, original and haunting three-minute film, Angel.

Solomons’ biography renewed my interest in Cornell and made me keener than ever to write a novel about him. But it also laid out starkly the inner problems of such an undertaking. I couldn’t write it in the first person because there was no ‘first person’ there. A film like Angel is so haunting because it is so still, so directionless, not just lacking human presence but making us question human anguish and striving by its very form and content – how then could I have a first person at the heart of my novel? And it’s the same with the third person – Le Rouge et le Noir and The Adventures of Augie March present us with the same thing: a young man, freed from ancestry and tradition, out to make his way in the world. This is what the novel was created to depict, and it does it supremely well. But I am drawn to its opposite – the small un-American novel, if you like, the opposite of the Great American Novel. And Cornell is my perfect subject – except that for that very reason it seemed impossible to write about him – as if to do so was a violation of his very being. Yet I’m a novelist because narrative is what I love and can do – even if it is unorthodox narrative.

Anyhow, though I tried to write my Cornell book I just couldn’t. There is an anecdote in Solomons about Cornell, who, late in life, when he was living alone in the house in Utopia Parkway, loved to entertain his young and beautiful female friends to tea. But he was exceedingly mean. Once, having invited three young artists and starlets to tea, he produced one tea bag, which he passed from cup to cup, talking all the while.

These conversations of his were like those of Glenn Gould, long rambling mumbles, barely comprehensible. He would, like Gould, call friends up on the phone and talk to them for hours. They would grunt every now and then, go off to prepare a meal or answer the door, and when they returned to the phone he was still talking. And for a while I toyed with the idea of writing a novel about just such an occasion, with my hero taking his friends round his house, meandering off into the past, barely aware of their presence. But it didn’t work. Cornell is not the stuff of Bernhard-like novels. His oddity and his genius does not express itself in words.

So the project stalled again. But this time it wouldn’t let me go. Once again Proust came to my rescue: if you reach an impasse try incorporating the impasse into the novel. I had been toying with another idea, a novel with a form I am very fond of, what I call the X form, where two people in firmly established positions at opposite ends of the spectrum, slowly change sides in the course of the book, each in some sense becoming the other. I had tried it with two couples in In a Hotel Garden and again in Making Mistakes, and I had tried it out with just two people in a little story called ‘Brothers’, and I had been thinking of a larger canvas, a novel about two sisters, one in some sedentary job in bourgeois London, the other a nurse or perhaps running an orphanage in some war-torn country like Chechnya. And it came to me that the sedentary London-based sister could be an art historian writing, or trying to write, about Joseph Cornell. And then might the house she lived in itself become a sort of Cornell box, filled with other voices, other lives?

And so the book got written.

VB: What lies ahead for you? May we hope for a new novel?

GJ: I hope so too. I can’t conceive of a life without writing and just hope I can go on till I drop.

—Gabriel Josipovici & Victoria Best

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Victoria Best small photo

Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Josipovici’s mother was born in Egypt and living in France at the time the Second World War began. She and her son narrowly survived, as Jews, the Nazi persecution. She managed to return to Egypt in 1945.
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jw_authorpotrait2

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Joanna Walsh (also known as the flâneuse Badaude) is a British author with a number of other creative identities. She is an illustrator, a fiction editor for the notorious webzine 3:AM (slogan: “Whatever it is, we’re against it”), and also runs the award-winning twitter account @read_women. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Walsh towards the end of the summer and into the fall about a couple of her recent publications: Hotel (published in September with Bloomsbury) and Vertigo (out in October with Dorothy, a publishing project). Her pornographic fairy-tale cycle, Grow a Pair (Readux Books), launched in October as well, and although we do not touch upon it much in the following, it deserves a spotlight too:

Grow a Pair is a feat of imagination: It is not a rapunzel plant stolen from the witch’s garden, for example, which sets these stories in motion, but a dick stolen from the witch’s dick-bush. Gender congeals and then is swiftly liquidated; sex-parts are set free to roam. Three big, secluded, forest-dwelling dicks attempt to construct three cunts, not out of sticks and straw, but out of matchsticks and Jell-O. The second dick wouldn’t know a real cunt if he saw one; the third dick would, and sees one, but decides he prefers Jell-O. Do I detect a trace of cultural critique? Most definitely, though it is laced with other meanings which do not settle. I could précis and précis, but I won’t go on: the pleasure’s in the details, in the small twists and turns.

Hotel hits upon a more tortured mood; it is both philosophical and enigmatical. There are different ways you could summarize what’s going on in its pages. The speaker (the book is a memoir, but a creative memoir) is a reviewer of hotels who finds herself ‘hotel surfing’ for a fairly prolonged period of time, partly to escape a marital shit-show at home. The writings which spin out of her stay muse on the nature of ‘home,’ the nature of ‘the hotel,’ the possible presence of the home in the hotel (or ‘Hometel,’ as one of the pieces is called), of the hostile in hospitality, of the hospital in the hotel, and so on.

Vertigo, a short story collection, meanders through a number of different scenarios: A woman out to purchase a dress in Paris ends up reflecting on what it means to appear to another, and on the conditions of appearance: Does one, by dint of having become habitual for the other, also become old? A petulant man waits for his order in an oyster restaurant, ready to strike out, the woman across from him notes, at anyone: at the waitress, or even at her, for his delayed meal. Young mothers are birthed by their children, become other people and perhaps self-estranged, not least because they are defined relationally, after their children are born. Each story in the book is acutely psychological. Each story is aglitter with pain and insight; often enough the pain it depicts arises on the part of women and in response to male behavior and the conventions of a heterosexual (and asymmetrical) world.

A similar kind of pain saturates Hotel. I think it is true to say that, in both Vertigo and Hotel, you can cut frustration with a knife. Something feels about to blow. But these works give us intrigue in addition to bleak affect. One of Walsh’s great gifts consists of the impeccable observations and novel phrases she hands us: “There is a hole in my side into which someone else’s desires fit” (Hotel); “There is nothing to do with this time but put some alcohol into it” (Vertigo); “I am anxious to redistribute—especially—food I know diners have previously rejected: leftovers, anomalous items: boiled carrots, a spoonful of hot sauce, a single tinned apricot. I do this by introducing them into stews, pâtés, and other dishes. These additions are not in the original recipes and sometimes they ruin a meal, though in ways the eaters can scarcely identify” (Vertigo); “Perhaps he is not the burglar I’ve planned for but a junkie, a drunk, a psycho. I am more comfortable with a drunk or a psycho: his passion, when I counterattack, will answer mine” (Vertigo). Moments of blazing perspicacity, creativity, intelligence, and dark humor are insanely abundant in her writing; they pop at every turn: like nails in the sand: like diamonds in water.

— Natalie Helberg

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Natalie Helberg (NH): I thought we could begin with Vertigo. It seems to me that the stories in this collection spiral around a set of related ideas. In the story which shares the collection’s title, the narrator tells us “Vertigo is the sense that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space.” It is a state, she says, without anchorage, in which one pitches “forward, outward and upward.” In a sense, ‘vertigo’ is linked to relocation, particularly to perspectival relocation: what we saw from there, we now see from here. In line with this, “Vertigo,” which is, for the most part, written in the first person, includes italicized paragraphs which switch the mode of narration to the third person. Displacement is a prominent theme throughout the rest of the collection as well, as is misplacement (one story’s narrator, for example, suggests that she is “not the right teller,” the right narrator; the children in the story “The Children’s Ward” “do and say nothing childlike” and there is the sense that they, perhaps, do not belong there, in the ward, at all).

Were there particular themes — relocation, displacement, misplacement — which catalyzed the writing, or did you discover them in the writing after the fact? To what extent do you write with an idea in mind?

Joanna Walsh (JW): It’s interesting that you mention relocation and displacement. I’m fascinated by prepositions, words that tell us about where we are and about our relations to other things—or people. Prepositions tend to be vague: they can mean several things at once and are often grouped differently in different languages. I wrote a story, “Hauptbahnhof” (in Fractals), about German prepositions, in which the narrator is always confused about how to locate herself, especially regarding a man she (believes she) is waiting to meet.

I’m interested in kinds of subjectivity, especially in relation to the people we live with. I’m not sold on some of the methods we’ve been given. The French philosopher Luce Irigaray writes that subjectivity is essentially relational (prepositionary?), that “Who are you?” can only be answered with “and who are you? Can we meet? Talk? Love? Create something together? Thanks to which milieu? What between us (entre nous)?” (“The Three Genres”).

I don’t ‘envisage’ my work. I’m not a writer who sets out to construct something according to a proposition. I’m attracted to the idea of chance but, for me, to set it up in my writing would itself be a less organic, more formal exercise. I see my work as finding things out, as excavating, drawing things together, more than as constructing something. It’s a delicate process, like threading a needle, and like threading a needle you have to keep very still when you’re doing it, and make just the right sorts of movements.

I notice common themes in my stories often only after I’ve written them: I could do a critical reading on myself. That kind of exercise can be fun, and sometimes it’s useful: I notice things I should pursue. But I’m very obliging, far too ready to create theories around my writing in response to questions, like a patient who is ready to talk about herself in the third person with her doctor, and this is tempting, but it’s also dangerous: she could die from it.

vertigo cover

NH: When you say, above, that you’re “not sold on the methods we’ve been given,” do you mean the methods we’ve been given to be subjective beings, or the methods we’ve been given to conceive of subjectivity?

JW: It’s difficult to separate those two, because I think the idea of ‘methods we’ve been given to be subjective beings’ already involves some concept of subjectivity, so I mean both. I guess what I really mean is that I’m annoyed by the popular idea that a self should be a united thing. I’m always trying to find ways to reproduce the effects of subjectivity in writing: the way different moments can coexist within it, how time for a 45-year-old is different from time for a 5-year-old, and how time is also distributed across place through all sorts of things like actions and habits, so spaces become different too.

NH: The fact that you’re interested in prepositions makes so much sense. The works you sent me seem focused—on inter-subjectivity, yes—but also on language itself: its parts, its forms, its genres, on figures of speech, and so on. In Grow a Pair, synecdoche becomes playfully literal: In one tale, a princess is waiting for her one true cock, which could just mean she’s waiting for a prince-guy, if ‘cock’ stands in for him, but the cock in the tale is severed from the prince and becomes autonomous. There is textual support, moreover, for the idea that it was an autonomous nuisance all along. It is a whole unto itself, not merely a part standing in for a whole.

JW: Well, that’s reverse synecdoche, perhaps… I think I sometimes have a problem seeing the big picture, but yes, I’m attracted to ideas around wholeness and fragmentation, and boundaries. Well, I refuse to pull myself together…

NH: In both Hotel and Grow a Pair, you seem particularly fascinated with the pun. In Hotel, part of this fascination seems to be linked to an interest in the Freudian uncanny, which implies both the familiar and the unfamiliar, the homely and the unhomely (the familiar in the unfamiliar, the unhomely in the homely). Freud, of course, appears in the text, and his notion of the uncanny is mentioned. The text’s linguistic play fortifies the connections between dissimilar concepts like home and hotel, hospital and hotel, and so on: “Dora is a physical case. / KM is a mental case. / I am always escaping. I am no more than a suitcase.”

JW: I’ve been told that etymology and puns are not reliable roads down which to develop arguments, but I can’t resist them. A pun is a sideways move on language: homonym rather than synonym. Hotel and hospital really do share a root name, as religious institutions once served as both. I like it when language peels away from meaning and engages in other kinds of relations with itself. Maybe it’s a kind of escape, or, because both meanings remain present, something that only looks like escape but is an idea held in tension: even unrelated meanings evoked by puns sit side by side and the reader can’t help but make some kind of link: that’s a reader’s job. I’m probably occasionally guilty of using homophones to leap from one side of the road to another (and maybe they can go no further), but most of the puns in Hotel deliberately convey joint meanings. The suitcase pun sounds like it’s at the lighter end: sonic and throwaway, but it also goes back to Pan(Dora)’s box (all women are cases of one kind or another).

grow a pair

NH: Hotel is marketed as part memoir, but the chapters in it become so fanciful, with movie stars (Mae West, Groucho Marx), continental philosophers (Heidegger), and names associated with classic psychoanalytic writings (Freud, Dora) turned into characters, too. The chapters sometimes have the feel of an essay, but at other times they take on something like the form of a screenplay (e.g., we’re given a cast of characters and their roles before several of the texts get going). The lines the recognizable characters are given are sometimes quotations from their own writings. That being said, I thought your use of Heidegger activated a sense of the uncanny in the text as well: When Heidegger shows up, discoursing on home and dwelling, he seems both entirely appropriate (since the chapters in the collection pivot around the notion of ‘home,’ which they are trying, to a certain extent, to unfold) and odd (since Heidegger used the language of ‘home’ and ‘dwelling’ to hit at something entirely unrelated to the more everyday sense of home which Hotel seems preoccupied with): You’ve spliced Heidegger—very fruitfully—into concerns which are foreign, or unfamiliar, to him.

JW: It was important to me that Freud, Heidegger, etc., as characters, said only what they wrote in their texts (I like the idea of trying to re-hydrate a person from his or her dry pages). I’m also interested in misattributions and misquotations, though, in Hotel, I always let the reader know when there’s no reliable source for a statement.

Heidegger seems to be at war with nouns, and at home with verbs; Heidegger’s is an interesting crusade against language. His idea of dwelling is etymological: the path it goes down in English is very different from the path it goes down in German.

NH: I feel I should insert a sheepish laugh here. I guess I should quit trying to analyze your texts/prove, so to speak, something about them/pin them down/make them solid and scrutable. I understand that that can be a very violent gesture (it’s so limiting!). I think a lot about interpretation and what it means to track motifs and themes and try to put them together. It’s one of my favorite ways to engage with texts, and often I can’t help but do it (there’s a kind of hermeneutic pleasure, I think, I’m pursuing), even though I realize that a good text isn’t one that lends itself to definitive interpretation, and even though I recognize that any interpretation I come up with must ultimately dissolve. The act of interpretation is for me something like a game; it is a way for me to engage deeply with a text at a given time (it provides a focus for my attention to the text), though without exhausting the text, and while leaving open the possibility that I will return to the text in a different way in the future.

JW: I find family resemblances and Venn diagrams useful ways of visualizing meaning, and I think you can use these to think about reading too. It’s probably inevitable that each reading will draw particular things from a text, so that a reader can use, as a handy way of categorizing it, a memory-tag—but with good writing this will shift if you reread, or even as you remember reading. The best texts are open to a range of interpretation: anything that starts and ends with the author’s intention will die very quickly, or its words might become purely decorative: then you can put it on a T-shirt and things become less about how the text is read and more about what it looks like: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. But while there’s a reader, even of a T-shirt, some kind of meaning’s always waiting, like the faces that form in clouds, or the patterns in the carpet.

Hotel cover

NH: I want to go back, for a moment, to the fact that, in Hotel, you’re using theorists as characters and redeploying what they’ve written as dialogue. It seems that part of your creative process is connected to a reading practice. Your writings seem to have steeped in theory to a certain extent; they seem to have, to use your language, drawn theory in. You mentioned Irigaray informs your concerns with subjectivity as well. How do you see the relation between reading (theoretical and other works) and writing? I know Kathy Acker is one of your influences, and that for her the two acts were indissociable.

JW: I like theory (as a—for want of a better definition—‘creative’ writer, am I even allowed to say this?). I like theory that’s written as if it’s ‘creative’ writing. I like Christine Brooke-Rose, and Maggie Nelson, and Denise Riley and Anne Carson’s criticism as well as their poetry and fiction. They acknowledge what language does even as they are using it: they don’t try to pretend it’s some kind of neutral tool. I like Acker’s methods. They’re not straight cut-up (maybe that’s an involuntary pun). In The Childlike Life of The Black Tarantula, there’s nothing coldly experimental about the way she rewrites classic texts, and the result has in no way the alienating effect of many other cut-ups. But her work, commenting on what it remakes, is always criticism as well as fiction. I like her emails with McKenzie Wark, which are all voice—voice whose artifice is very natural and whose naturalness is very artificial—which constantly undermines itself and turns itself over: it is irreverent and then surprisingly reverent by turns so that, in some ways, she seems to be holding a conversation only with herself.

NH: It’s funny that you mention the correspondence between Acker and Wark. I’m just reading that. The idea that Acker seems at times, in the correspondence, to be conversing with herself is interesting, too. There’s a line from Hotel that seems to be haunting me: “I have suspected for a while that some people talk to the page because there is no one else they can talk to any more.” The writing scene that Acker was embedded in in San Francisco was and continues to be very community-based, so much so that the communal scene itself often enough becomes the subject, the content, of the work: writerly names are named in the writing itself and in a way become signatures which indicate where the reader can place this work on the literary map; ‘gossip’ gets in and becomes art, even becomes explicitly framed as art (I’m thinking of Dodie Bellamy’s Barf Manifesto and even, in the broader American scene, Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things About Me Too). Anyway, scenes like that are conducive to such fruitful collaborations and dialogues: there are others to talk to, and this talk may make it onto a page. Then there are writers like Anne Carson, the lone wolf types (though she is constantly communicating with the dead writers and thinkers she loves, constantly incorporating them into her own thinking and art). I wonder if you might tell us about your own relation, as a writer, to community. When did you begin to write, and, when you did begin, were you surrounded by others who wrote, or did you only begin to come into contact with writers later on? Are you a lone wolf type, or do you have writing relationships which fuel your practice?

JW: The emails show Acker as lonelier than I’d have expected: she complains about it (though this might simultaneously be a seductive pose, and I do often think of works of fiction—in which I’d include emails and letters—as really elaborate secondary sexual characteristics). When I started writing, I was completely on my own. I didn’t think of myself as a writer, and I didn’t think of the things I was doing as ‘writing’ in any formal sense. One of the reasons I’ve stayed with writing is the people. I used to be an illustrator: that was lonely. I don’t know why, but maybe it’s because some illustrators have a different approach to using words. I suspect I also found it isolating because of the economic structure of illustrative work: there are no ‘readings’: you seldom connect with your audience; work is usually commissioned in response to writing, often as the last stage in a publication process, and you rarely meet the author, get to exchange ideas or influence their end of the process. Some illustrators work in studios, but I prefer to work alone, with access to collaboration and discussion when I need it. I like emails and all forms of disembodied communication (except phone: I like writing, really: g-chat, Twitter; I’ve fallen in love by email…). I find talking face-to-face intoxicating—with the right person. There are a few people I write to about writing and the writing about this can itself become something creative: a game, something with a texture of its own…

acker460Kathy Acker

NH: I’m curious about what your relationship to the materiality of a text or book is, especially in light of the fact that you’ve worked as an illustrator. Do you relate to creative writing—text on a page—as if it is a visual object, a thing, for lack of a better word, with a visual dimension which sits alongside its other dimensions? No one would ever space an illustration you’ve handed over to them differently, for example, in the way that they might space a piece of text you’ve handed over to them differently, or change its font and so on (though maybe poetry is conventionally more respected than prose as far as preserving the original spacing goes). It’s unusual for writers to have a hand in designing their own books these days—it’s just not how we divvy up the labor, culturally. Do you ever find that division—writers versus designers—frustrating? Could you speak to these questions in connection with Hotel, which seems to sit on the page in a very interesting way, perhaps partly because of the way that short quotations are interspersed, or distributed, between the text’s paragraphs?

JW: I find writing different from illustrating: the gaps are in different places: I don’t mean literally, but the gaps I use as a writer to work with the reader. Illustrating other people’s texts, I find myself playing around these gaps. I don’t illustrate my own work because that would involve somehow second-guessing myself as I was writing.

The page layout in Hotel is excellent: those chunky chapter and section headers, and the elegant, slightly square, page format. It was very important to me that the ‘screenplay’ parts of the book—where characters like Freud and Heidegger have ‘conversations’ with the narrator— looked like a screenplay: centered, in a Courier font, with the names of the speakers in capital letters. When I sent my final manuscript to Bloomsbury, I had formatted it very carefully. They proofed it, and sent it back to me with all my formatting equally carefully removed… luckily they were happy to put it back.

I’ve never experimented with breaking up the page in ways that are outside the conventions of typography, but I do find paragraphing, use of italics, line-spaces, etc. important: I think most authors do.

NH: The ‘fragment’ seems to be one of the central forms you’re using in Hotel. There’s also another form that’s marvelously conspicuous: the postcard form. Two pieces in the text, “Marriage postcards” and “Postcards from 26 hotels,” are assemblages of postcards. These postcards are, of course, not literally postcards, so I wonder if you could elaborate on what they are: How are you conceiving of them, and how did you stumble upon them or invent them as an organizational unit for these pieces? They seem related, in some way, to the fragment, though they come with a different set of associations: They imply an addressee, for example, and actions of sending and receiving in a way that fragments do not, or at least do not necessarily.

JW: The “26 postcards” were written at the beginning of the process of writing Hotel, as a kind of warm-up exercise, though I didn’t really think of them in that way at the time because I don’t like to formalize how I write, so maybe it’s better to call them one of many approaches I tried. In the end I put them at the end of the book, though there are also some postcards half-way through. There are lots of approaches to communicating with an unseen correspondent in Hotel, because there’s a lot in the book about the difficulties of communication, and especially the difference between talking (and the ‘talking cure’) and writing, and also corresponding. There’s a lot in the book about email, and g-chat as well as postcards. Dora writes a suicide letter, then, attempting no harm against herself, puts it away in her desk where her parents—to whom it is addressed— discover it. I quote Freud, who “remembered seeing and hearing that among people with hysterical mutism, writing vicariously stood in for speech. They wrote fluently, more quickly, and better than other people did.”

joanna-walsh--fractals--chapbook

NH: You mentioned that, when you started writing, you were hesitant to conceive of what you were writing as writing. I wonder whether you could elaborate on that. Was this because the form the writing assumed was unconventional, or was it because you didn’t think that what you were writing about was the stuff of ‘real’ writing, or something else? I’m curious about how our conceptions of ‘real’ writing are formed and about what informs them. In an interview you did for The Fem, you spoke of rendering seemingly insignificant experiences in words as a feminist gesture of sorts. Other writers have felt it necessary to invent, inhabit, and validate forms of their own. Is the writing you are doing now continuous in any way with the writing you were doing earlier on and which you did not, then, conceive of as legitimate writing? Has your conception of ‘real’ writing shifted over time?

JW: It was definitely to do with my conception of what writing was, and a conception of what a person like me might be allowed to write. I have a degree in English literature, but I had no framework for reading as a writer. I was not inspired by a lot of the writing I saw around me: this is partly why I now read a lot in translation, as well as a lot of books published by indie presses who are more willing to publish unconventional works. The realist novel is just one form amongst many.

Ideas that stood in my way (as they do for many women) included a notion of what was important, what could be discussed, and where, and how; the idea that writing about family, domesticity, and romance should be confined to certain genres (even to special places, and ways of writing, within the ‘genre’ of literary fiction); as well as the notion that literature should be ‘improving’ or tell the reader about something ‘interesting.’ This is why I’m so interested in writing female voices that are internal monologues. At the moment I’m writing a voice that doesn’t know itself, that has no real vocabulary for expressing its desires, or identifying its distress, but which is able to reveal these nevertheless.

NH: Your interest in internal monologues is definitely apparent in both Vertigo and Hotel, though both texts also make use of other modes of narration as well. There are pieces in Vertigo, for example, which expertly navigate and exploit the fine line dividing the first person and the third person point of view. I mentioned the title piece, “Vertigo,” above. Another piece, “Vagues,” seems to start off in the third person: an oyster restaurant is described in detail, the narrative voice comes to fixate on a man sitting at one of the tables, but eventually the third person gets sucked into a first person perspective: The woman sitting across from him, who has been narrating the whole time, speaks of herself: she says ‘I.’ We only realize that she’s been narrating once she does. The shift in point of view perhaps helps to convey the woman as a particular kind of self, one that risks being forgotten (though everything, the whole narrative world, is filtered through her).

JW: Yes, I’m interested in how we use language to convey ourselves, when words are such worn-out, borrowed things that it’s easy to think of ourselves in the third person. It’s pretty much impossible to use language without quoting, if not directly, then by referencing a sensibility: you find yourself talking like a newsreader, or a teacher you once heard, or whatever (to quote Vertigo, “I say ‘you.’ Of course I mean ‘me.’”).

jw_authorportrait

NH: Could you tell us more about your next project? A voice that doesn’t know itself, that lacks a vocabulary for expressing its desires, but which somehow conveys them seems like it would be very challenging to write! How are you approaching the task?

JW: I want to do something new (to me, at least) in every project, so I don’t think about approaches beforehand: the writing process is all about evolving techniques to cope with what I’m exploring. In the next thing, I’m writing about a teenager, someone whose memories are limited in terms of timescale but are still very sharp and intrusive. She’s relatively well-read, so has a wide vocabulary, but has little of what people would conventionally call ‘life-experience,’ though she has experienced her whole life up to that point. I want to look at the quality of that overlooked experience, and at how she expresses it, knowing, herself, that it’s not conventionally valued.

NH: It seems that both Vertigo and Hotel are circling around the figure of a distressed, even suffocated, female subject. In Vertigo, this figure is manifest as a number of different characters (that is, in the different stories that make up the text), while in Hotel, it is manifest as one subject, whose subjectivity is itself distributed across, or manifest in and as, a number of different textual forms (postcards and diaries, among others). There is even definite crosstalk between Vertigo and Hotel on the subject of home—the former text includes the rather dark consideration of home and family history, “Claustrophobia.” Hotels are not alien to Vertigo either. They—the infamous ‘they’—say that some poets write the same poem their whole lives. I wonder what your own relation is to returning to familiar themes in new ways. Repetition with difference. The new project sounds like it might, to a certain degree, be this kind of return. Do you have any reflections on what is sometimes the need to write and rewrite and rewrite (or any other concluding thoughts)?

JW: Well ‘suffocated’ is a good word, because I think I do have a thing about breathing, like in the claustrophobia story, and in Hotel I write a lot about Freud’s patient, “Dora,” who stops speaking: speech being another thing that comes out of the mouth. I’ve had attacks of claustrophobia a few times, including one where I was staying somewhere and had to sleep downstairs on the sofa, because I couldn’t stay in the bedroom; I didn’t want to tell anyone about it, but even at the time I found it quite funny.

Someone I once met told me, “You just write how you write.” He was a writer but quite a different sort from me, and I didn’t know him for long but that stuck with me: why worry? There’s no point writing anything that’s not felt urgently. I’m always writing about home and family, and love, and escape, and identity; I think those are big enough topics for anyone.

–Joanna Walsh & Natalie Helberg

 

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Joanna Walsh is the author of the story collections Fractals (3:AM Press; 2013), Vertigo (Dorothy, a publishing project; 2015), and Grow a Pair (Readux Books; 2015), in addition to the creative memoir Hotel (Bloomsbury; 2015). She also illustrates, edits fiction for 3:AM, reviews books for various journals, and promotes writing by women using the twitter account @read_women, which received the Women In Publishing’s 2014 New Venture Award.

 helberg pic

Natalie Helberg won the 2015 Robin Blaser Poetry Award. She completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She is (still) working on a hybrid novel.

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Oct 022015
 

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via http://www.osacr.cz/

via http://www.osacr.cz/

I TRIPPED ON NEGATIVE SPACE.

I was trying to draw the space between objects; at least half of drawing is letting emptiness define the object. The other half might be looking closely, letting go of your preconceptions of what something is so that you can see what’s actually there. I was trying to see.

This was decades ago, during a disastrous and self-destructive adolescence that had, nevertheless and astonishingly, transported me from a public high school tucked in the far northwest corner of the contiguous United States to Yale University. I had been groomed to be a Math major with a French minor but, being three thousand miles from my childhood home and drunk off my perceived freedom, I decided to major in art.

All students were obliged to take some science, to round us out. I took a class designed for non-scientists, one nicknamed Physics for Poets. Lawrence Krauss was my teacher. He was funny and friendly and kind; he didn’t mind talking to bored teens. He was barely out of his own teenage years, though had impressive credentials and a PhD. He looked then much as he looks now: lean, animated, glasses-wearing, short dark hair, a mouth that is crammed with jokes and big ideas.

I was shy; teachers scared me. But Krauss was approachable. He was teaching mind-bending stuff. I’d go to him with questions, and we’d end up talking about nothing.

Because nothing, the physics of it, is his specialty.

I recently contacted him because I wanted to thank the two teachers in college who had helped shape me. One was the drawing teacher who taught me to look at things clearly; I found that he’d died. The other was Krauss. He and I struck up an email conversation, and he agreed to a Skype interview. When we spoke, he’d just returned from Bolivia, where he’d been playing a villain in a Werner Herzog film.

If you search the library shelves for A Guide for the Perplexed, you will find three books: one by Maimonides, the Sephardic astronomer, scholar and philosopher; one by Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker; and one by Krauss.

The universe is filled with unexpected connections. I am a perplexed filmmaker who turns to astrology in moments of desperation. Lawrence Krauss, Phd, cosmologist, is also now an actor.

KRAUSS: I just have to see if this is… Hello? Hello? Hello? Yes? There’s no Mary Lou here. I’m sorry, you have the wrong number. Okay. Okay, okay, okay.

It was from California, and I thought it might be someone that I was… Okay, anyway.

Krauss has been in front of cameras before, talking about particles, dark energy, and God. Now he’s spinning into fiction. And expecting an important call.

ME: Hollywood?

Yes.

KRAUSS: What always has intrigued me, and I think it’s from the time I was a kid, is this connection between science and culture. I am a product of popular culture. When I was a kid, I had a TV in my room, and I would not begin my homework, even from the time I was 10, until The Johnny Carson Show was over, at 1:00 in the morning.

Late night TV, back before cable, would end in static. About 1% of old-fashioned static was caused by radiation emanating from the Big Bang. Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Those of us watching TV late at night back before cable, young Krauss, could see traces of our origin.

KRAUSS: It’s hard to be divorced from popular culture, which is what academia is. The books, and then the music, and now the films are another way to engage.

Krauss and I could talk about movies all day, and we spend much of our time doing so, but eventually we get to my agenda. I want to know more about nothing, really. What is it? If I can understand the basic scientific concept, perhaps I can craft a lens through which I can look at other forms of nothing.

I am interested in how what we do not see makes us who we are, how negative space defines us.

Rubin VaseRubin Vase, the classic illustration of space/negative space

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One of my son’s favorite books is also mine. It is based on a Yiddish song. Joseph had a little overcoat, it got old and worn. So Joseph makes a vest from his overcoat, when that becomes patched and threadbare, he makes a scarf from the vest, then a tie from the scarf, then a button from the tie. Then the button pops off and he loses the button. What is Joseph to do? He makes a story about about the life of his overcoat. The book ends with the moral, you can always make something from nothing.

It’s a great story for writers, facing the blank page.

KRAUSS: The simplest kind of nothing is—which is in fact, I would claim, the nothing of the Bible—is emptiness, is an empty void, space containing nothing, infinite dark. No particles, no radiation, just empty space. But then there’s the kind of nothing which is more deep, which is no space itself and no time itself.

Krauss’s basic thesis, the one that he’s popularly known for, is that the universe could have arisen from nothing. No particles, no radiation, no space, no time. Nothing. Then poof: a universe. A universe as in: everything we can see and measure, a universe filled with energy and stuff. A universe of galaxies and nebulae, gravity and electromagnetism, space and time. A universe of somethings surrounded by nothing, the same kind of nothing there was before the beginning.

We call it nothing because we can’t see it, we don’t understand it, but it is unstable, dynamic. Fertile.

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ME: Every animal life starts with a Big Bang (one hopes a loving, consensual one). I’m curious about your beginnings.

KRAUSS: Neither of my parents finished high school. My father’s family is from Hungary, my mother’s came from Europe during the war. Jews during the war. Or before the war, actually. I think my parents, being the way they were, and not having been to school, they decided my brother would be a lawyer and I would become a doctor. That was the plan. As a result, my brother did, unfortunately, become a lawyer. A professor of law, actually, which is worse, ’cause they make lawyers. I became interested in science, ’cause my mother made the mistake of telling me that doctors were scientists.

Around high school, I realized that doctors weren’t scientists. In particular, I took a biology course that was just so boring. Memorizing parts of frogs. So I dropped the course, a traumatic experience for me, and more traumatic for my mother, who was still convinced I was gonna become a doctor. When I went to college, I had a motorcycle and I had to get her to fill out some forms for my insurance and send them up to me, and I discovered that she’d written that I was in premedical school, which my university didn’t even have. When I got my first job at Harvard, which was a very fancy position in the Society of Fellows there, my mother phoned up my then-wife, we had just gotten married, and said, “You gotta talk him out of this. What does he want, chalk on his hands? He’d still have time to become a doctor.” Eventually she got over it and is quite happy now.

§

Before my interview with him, I skim books by Krauss, watch his videos. I Google “fields” and “particles” and “quarks” and “quantum.”

What I find is this: everything in the universe is composed of particles. Like numbers, the particles also exist in the negative: anti-matter. Every quark has its anti-quark, every life has its death. The same weight and shape, but in opposite.

Particles interact with fields –gravitational, electromagnetic, nuclear– which are the expression of forces. These forces give the particles mass, and allow the matter to be seen. Fields make particles into matter.

It can be hard to tell where a particle ends and a field begins.

The particles that make up your body come from exploding stars. Krauss has said that the particles that constitute your left hand likely come from a different star than the ones that make up your right. His joke is, Forget Jesus. Stars died so that you might live.

Supernova via The TelegraphDying Star via The Telegraph

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Krauss talks about God a lot. Rather, he talks about how God wasn’t necessary for the universe to come into being.

ME: How do you define God? Is it as creator? As author?

KRAUSS: As a purposeful creator. As some intelligence guiding the universe. As if you need some design and purpose, and that the universe was created as a conscious act.

ME: Why is it important to you to argue against the existence of God?

KRAUSS: Hold on, my cat is at the door. Hold on. Okay. Okay, cat, you wanna come in? The door is closed, and therefore you wanna come in? Yeah, okay. Okay. Okay. Come here. Come here. There you go. We have a very vocal cat, so—

ME: I can hear her. Or him.

KRAUSS: Him. And he–well, he doesn’t really come in here, but I think the existence of a closed door, which it normally isn’t, and it’s…

ME: The allure of the forbidden.

KRAUSS: Okay. I don’t argue against the existence of God. What I argue against is people’s insistence that their God should impact our understanding of nature and the way we behave. What I argue against is this notion that religion has anything to do with our understanding of the universe, which it doesn’t.

For many people, religion is an obstacle to accepting the wonders of the universe. People should accept the wonders of reality and be inspired by them, spiritually and in every other way. Arguing the universe is made for us is the opposite of humble. I guess part of what my effort is, is to tear down the walls of our self-delusion. Science forces us to acknowledge when we’re wrong. That’s the great thing about science.

What is really remarkable, what we’ve learned in the last 50 years, is that you can create a universe from nothing without violating laws of physics, even the ones we know, much less the ones we don’t know. And that is amazing.

So all I can say is that you don’t need a God. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, but you don’t necessarily need one.

I think a huge problem is that people define themselves as being more than just human beings and they like to be part of in-groups. Religion grows out of tribalism. It doesn’t unify people. It’s designed as us versus them.

Arguing against the necessity of God, arguing for science, it’s political now.

Most of the time people arguing for God are trying to restrict the rights, freedom or livelihood of other people.

§

We used to think that our world existed in a galaxy that was surrounded by an infinity of nothing.

As we refined our optics, stretched our mathematics, poked around in outer space, we found that we are, in fact, not alone. Our galaxy is one of about 400 billion, all spinning, surrounded by empty space.

Nothing is simply what we don’t see, what we can’t see, what we haven’t measured.

Physicists used to wonder what shape our universe took: was it endless (open), did it loop back on itself (closed), or was it flat (very big, but finite).

The only shape that would allow for the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation to look as it looks is the flat universe.

The flat universe isn’t as bad as it sounds. It is simple and elegant. The total energy in such a place is zero, the positive and negative balance each other out. Light travels in a straight line. It’s not as weird as the other, twisty-turny universes would be.

A flat universe would mathematically require a certain amount of matter. We have measured the mass of everything we can measure in the universe and come up short.

Where is the missing matter?

Where is the matter we didn’t know was missing until we started looking for it?

Turns out, it was nothing.

Nothing is filled with matter and energy that don’t react to the electromagnetic field, it doesn’t emit radiation. It doesn’t shine. So we call it dark.

KRAUSS: We wouldn’t be here, our galaxy wouldn’t be here, if dark matter hadn’t been there. This is the reason that our galaxy was able to form.

Dark matter birthed us.

Dark matter and dark energy are passing through us, undetected, all the time.

Dark matter, dark energy, surround us. We have calculated the amount of darkness, of nothing, and find that it constitutes exactly the amount needed to complement actual matter in a flat universe.

§

There is a great ragged gap in our society. I once thought it was nothing, but now, looking hard, I see that the emptiness is filled with the shape and weight of souls that should be there.

Field notes: Recently, I was upset when I learned about Misty Upham, a woman who lived a couple hour’s drive from my home, outside Seattle. One night, Misty went missing. Despite pleas for help, the police refused to look for her. Despite her movie star status, she was a Native woman living in a community with a history of deep rooted racism. She was found dead, days later, by a tribal search party. It is unclear whether or not she would have died had she been found right away.

Misty Upham was famous, which is why her story made the news. Her story became a lens for others: Indigenous women go missing like this all the time. Native women suffer, disappear, are killed and otherwise violated, at disproportionately high rates.

More raw data: The other day the State Patrol pulled me over for incorrectly passing a slow-moving excavator on the shoulder. I was not shot, I was not taken into police custody, I was not harassed, I was not given ridiculous fines, I was not scared, I wasn’t even nervous.  I got off with a warning.

And.

Ours is a time in which black men are killed by police for infractions as minor as mine.
The New York Times recently ran a story about the million and a half black men who are, effectively, missing. Prematurely dead or incarcerated, they are missing from the lives that they should be leading.

missingFrom NY Times

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Gravity, like love, is a force that brings bodies together. Science now suspects that dark energy is the force pushing stars apart, it is the force making our universe flatter.

KRAUSS: Dark energy is much more, much more complex and much more perplexing than dark matter. Understanding the nature of dark energy will inevitably change our picture of virtually everything, because it’s totally inexplicable.

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The country in which I live, the United States, was founded on the idea of people all being equal, founded on principles of essential human dignity and gravitas, on freedom. It is equally founded on, and made possible by, the erasure and bondage of people.

KRAUSS: My friend Noam Chomsky once said to me, “I don’t care what people think, it’s what they do that matters.” But what people think has an impact on what they do. When you believe crazy things, it causes you to do bad things, or do nonsensical things.

Many of us in this country want to believe that we have left our ugly history locked safely in the past, and have come into the present with our freedom and equality intact.

Missing Indigenous women. Shackled black men. Violent ends. How can we say weare done with genocide and slavery? These unconscionable acts echo through time. They occupy the space around us.

Our society’s deliberate unseeing of the damage done, our willful repression of history, is our dark energy. This is a force pushing people apart, a force that is flattening us.

What we don’t see shapes us.

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Scientific control: Humans have always killed, colonized, enslaved one another.

Yes. True. But.

This country is a laboratory for how to live with one another, how to reckon with history, how to reckon with difference. We are running an experiment with freedom and equality. If we are to have any measure of success, we can’t do this blindly.

We are starting to see the fields that inform us, that create and support us, the forces of subconscious bias. We are starting to see the violence, the injustice, that we didn’t think was there before.

What has shifted?

In part, is our technology. Our ways of seeing and recording. Dash-cams, body cams, smart phone cameras, everybody can take pictures now. Social media lets loose all this information, all the proof. We can measure, record, and analyze that which has been kept in the dark.

We are refining our optics, our measurements, our ways of communicating.

The Observer Effect: the act of seeing changes what you see.

Ergo: there is hope for us yet.

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KRAUSS: The universe is a wonderful experiment. We can run data analysis on it. I was using the universe as a particle physics laboratory initially, because the universe allows us to access scales of time and space and energy that we would never be able to recreate in the laboratory.

The universe is a laboratory. It is confined. We can run experiments, and learn about this place in which we live.

My head is a laboratory for my self.

My great-grandfather was an erratic, energetic enthusiast who lit his arm on fire and wound up crippled, who sold insurance, ran a restaurant, made floats for parades, failed as an inventor, established one of the first wilderness areas in the city where I grew up, and regularly appeared in the small town paper because he was the kind of shiny, needy person that attracted attention. Hot dark matter? Charmed particle?

Here is a family secret, something that was long kept from sight: in middle-age, my great-grandfather pilfered a pearl-handled revolver from his daughter, my grandmother, a sharp-shooter.

Bang.

The bullet was a particle shooting through his brain, through his field, warping it. That bullet caused a disturbance in the field of his family. I can point to myself, to my relations, and see ripple effects of his suicide, acts of self-erasure in his descendants: depression, eating disorders, bad relationships.

My great-grandfather was, according to family lore, brilliant and loving and funny, if mercurial. He spawned high-achieving children. He had everything to live for. What dark energy, then, propelled that bullet?

People didn’t know from crazy back then. His name was Art, which kind of slays me.

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ME: My brain is limited by its neurons, by its chemistry. Aren’t our perceptions, and therefore our theories, always limited by the physical structure of our brains?

KRAUSS: Of course they are. And we have to work with the limitations of our senses and our brains. What science has allowed us to do is extend our senses.

We may be limited, but we know our limitations. That’s one of the great things about science: The limitations are built into the results of science. The fact that there’s uncertainty is an inherent property of science. I’s the only area of human activity where you can actually quantify what you don’t know.

The stories we create are not like religion. The stories we tell are not creations, because we can do experiments.

We have been forced, kicking and screaming, to the physics of the 21st century not because we invented it, but because nature forced us to it. Quantum mechanics led us in directions we never would’ve imagined. Dark energy is another example. No one would’ve proposed that empty space had energy if it didn’t turn out it did.

Art blew his brains out. What dreams, what lies, what loves, what despair splattered out with that gray matter? What exactly did he blow when he blew his mind?

KRAUSS: I tell people that I do physics ’cause it’s easy. It’s just a hell of a lot easier to understand the cosmos than it is to understand consciousness. Physics has hit the low-hanging fruit. The universe is relatively simple, and we are nowhere near understanding the nature of consciousness.

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I caught my boy the other day with a knife, trying to jimmy open the pistol box we bought after he gleefully downed a bottle of overly sweet children’s acetaminophen, and in which we now lock all medicine. I understand the instinct to open anything that seems shut, to want something sweet, or something that might cure me. I imagine the soul as a box wedged between heart and lungs. I’m trying to pry mine open. It’s messy work, I have an old crowbar. My hands are calloused. I’ve managed a few dents in the lid. Dreams fly out.

Dreams are data from the subconscious. Dark energy, indirectly measured. My therapist analyses the images. For instance, a malignant, alien wind-up toy is a neurotic (malignant) complex that comes from somebody outside myself (alien) to which I give energy or credence (I wind it up). Almost every week, the night before I see my therapist, I will lay a dream as a chicken does an egg. There have been hundreds of dreams and fragments. Alone, they don’t solve anything, but over time, a picture of my subconscious begins to emerge.

By connecting the dreams to my memories of my life to date and to my experience of life right now, by looking at myself as part of a larger family system, by poking around in unpleasant histories, I start to understand some of the darkness that has plagued me. I am freed from wholly blind reaction. It is exhilarating, this embrace of uncertainty, this state of inquiry and perplexity.

The part of the self that seems unknowable, like a black box, like nothing, is –truly– alive, unstable, dynamic. Fertile. That is the self from which dreams and poetry spring.

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One thing I love about science, about physics, is that it is an attempt at perspicacity. It wants to know the world inside and out, it wants to keep learning the world, forever.

Science, like poetry, traffics in wonder.

We are at a moment in time when we can see, measure, and record information about our universe. In the past, we didn’t have the technology to see far beyond our own edges. In the future, the universe will be so spread out, bodies will be so far apart from one another, there’s no way we’ll be able to see and measure anything other than our own galaxy.

We are at the only moment in time where we can have the picture that we have, tell the story, of ourselves at this moment in time.

Science forces us to acknowledge when we’re wrong, tear down the walls of self-delusion. That’s the great thing about science.

The more evidence we gather, the more we see, the more we change our our story.

What science allows us to do is extend our senses.

What happens when we try to see what we have not seen before? When we try to understand where we come from?

How might a person change, how might a society change, once it starts seeing and contending with its shadow, its missing self?

Understanding the nature of dark energy will inevitably change our picture of virtually everything.

NASA

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As I was writing this essay, I had a dream that I was a teenager looking into the night. The sky was a mess of stars. When I stopped looking so hard, when I looked at a slant, the stars arranged themselves into constellations. Pictures that told stories.

ME: I’d like to check a metaphor.

KRAUSS: Uh-huh?

ME: My understanding is that quarks inside atoms are popping in and out of existence so quickly we can’t see them.

KRAUSS: Yeah.

ME: On a very large scale, is that conceivably what’s true of multiverses as well, is that universes just pop in and pop out and…?

KRAUSS: As far as we know, it’s possible. If gravity is a quantum theory, then universes can spontaneously pop into existence for a very short period of time. Might even be virtual, which means they pop into existence and pop out of existence on a scale so short they could never be measured by any, quote, “external observer.” But other universes can pop into existence and stay in existence, and depending upon the conditions. And as far as I can see, the only ones that could do it for a long time are those that have zero total energy. And it turns out our universe does.

If you wanna replace “God” with “multiverse,” that’s fine. The difference is, multiverse is well-motivated; God isn’t.

It is conceivable that universes pop in and out of existence. Krauss has said that a baby universe might, from the outside, looks like a black hole, but on the inside, be infinite.

The soul might be a black box on the outside, and endless within.

I am trying to figure out how I move through space. I am trying to see the space between people, how that seeming emptiness can shape us. How gravity attracts one to another, how what we don’t see can drive us apart.

We pop in and out of existence, as people, as societies. To an external observer, our lives and civilizations are so fleet as to be virtual.

We spin.

We shine.

KRAUSS: What I like about being human is that there are so many facets to being human.We should enjoy and celebrate all of those facets. What saddens me is that many people live their lives without having any concept of the amazing wonders that science has revealed to us.

ME: Well, it can feel religious in a way, or spiritual.

KRAUSS: It certainly can feel spiritual. Oh, there’s no doubt about it. Oh, yes.

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A writing teacher once gave me great advice: the end is contained in the beginning.

KRAUSS: It all comes back to our origins. Ultimately what is interesting is: Where do we come from, how did we get here, and where are we going?

Before the beginning, there was nothing.

Something came from nothing; the beginning began.

And this is how we think the universe might end: infinite flatness. Dark energy is driving galaxies apart, stars are accelerating away from each other. Our flat universe is getting flatter all the time. All the protons and neutrons, all the fundamental particles, that make up you, me, energy, space and time, all the laws of nature that govern us, will disintegrate.

Again, we will become ashes, dust. Nothing.

But nothing is fertile.

Something can spring from nothing.

Whirlpool galaxy, Messier Object 51 (M51)

—Julie Trimingham

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NOTES

First: a huge thank you to Professor Krauss. Our lengthy Skype conversation was transcribed; I then took the liberty of editing his responses for length. I also re-contextualized some of those responses, and by no means did I use everything. I am grateful for his playful & creative cooperation.