Jul 072015
 

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R.W. Gray’s fiction reexamines expectations of storytelling. His characters dwell in both strange and familiar places, often at the same time. Where paradox proves incompatible with reality, Gray reorders reality to accommodate, making room for delightful exploration. Questions, Gray says.  He is not looking for answers when he writes, but he’s always asking questions.

Entropic, Gray’s second short story collection, has just been published by NeWest Press. Themes of hope, redemption, condemnation, and love swirl into a mesmerizing journey through deserts, parks, and cities, transforming ordinary landscapes into mythical, re-imagined worlds.

Gray is a filmmaker, poet, critic, teacher, and world traveler, and his stories are infused with elements of his life. He is also the editor of the incredibly popular Numéro Cinq at the Movies. We exchange a series of emails over the course of two months, building a conversation in which we discuss mad teachers, sleep disorders, and Gray’s uncanny ability to reimagine reality, invent unforgettable characters, and tell damn good stories.

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Richard Farrell (RF): What were some of your earliest influences growing up?  Did you always want to be an artist or did other passions grip you as a child?

R.W. Gray (RWG): For a few formative years, with a single mother living up on the northwest coast of Canada, we didn’t have a lot. Of course, I’ve seen far greater poverty in the world now, but we were poor enough that we were left to our imaginations more often than not. This, coupled with growing up in a place that was a little terrifying as a kid (bears, wilderness, swamp, ocean), kind of pushed me and some of the other kids who were more introverted into storytelling games. But I also grew up surrounded by tall tale tellers. Even my little brother has inherited this.

Reading didn’t come easy to me apparently. In the early grades I struggled.  I am not sure where that flipped over. I had a draconian teacher in grade five and she probably scared me into it. But I also had a rather mad woman for grades one and three, Miss Neufeldt. The mad teachers were always the best I think. In grade three she explained to us how men in the trenches would urinate on rags and cover their faces to fend off chlorine gas attacks. As an eight year old that kind of stays with you. I don’t think she had a lot of filters and I still love her for that. I’d like to think that Miss Neufeldt’s storytelling encouraged me.

RF: At some point, many writers can describe a singular experience that set them on the path.  Can you identify a single experience?

RWG: I think I was always surrounded by storytellers in my weird Irish family. But there was a moment of sort of condensation when I was ten, I had a rather epic dream one night, and the next day at school I felt compelled to write the whole thing down. I remember being frustrated at how I couldn’t get it all down fast enough, how the dream story changed as I tried to put it into language, closing off complexity, losing three dimensions, becoming a more two dimensional version of itself. The disparity between the dream and the story on the page was painful. Guess it still is. But I think there was a sense of wonder for me, how the dream had come out of nowhere, out of nothing, and then became a story on the page. It felt like a calling in that moment. When it was probably the fault of eating ice cream right before bed or watching that show Space 1999 that always gave me nightmares. The cause isn’t important I guess so much that I was born of storytellers and at last found the way I could tell stories in a less loud and less extroverted way.

RF: You mention a dream at age 10 and this teacher in grade 5.  Would you care to talk more about this teacher?

RWG: Well, Miss Bautista was a ruthless dictator. Even the parents were frightened of her. She had this thing where she would shame you until your head would drop to you chest with the weight of it and then she would, pinching your chin, yank it back up insisting you look at her as she admonished you. I developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome where another student and I made her an entire painted ceramic nativity scene that we worked on for months and presented her with it at the end of the school year. I’d never been to a church a day in my life, and I painted a baby Jesus, wise men and camels for this woman.

I can’t recall fairly, but I would guess that the watershed sort of moment when I first wrote a creative story might be a product of opposites: first knowing the unbridled mad imagination of Miss Neufeldt followed by moving to a new school and falling under Miss Bautista’s ruthless rule. Simple recipe to make a writer. Now try it on your children.

RF:  Not to delve into your personal life, but how do you sleep?  I ask this because at least two of your stories in Entropic deal pretty directly with sleep issues.  A number of other stories use dream imagery.  I suppose I’m wondering what so fascinates you about sleep?

RWG: That’s hilarious. Yes, I think the stories seem to imply I am addicted to coffee and have a fetish for sleep. I think I was wondering that too as the collection came together: why does sleep keep coming back, run through the stories. This book more than the first one seemed to be about adult relationships and, for me, that’s where sleep becomes really apparent. Milan Kundera, in Unbearable Lightness Being connects the desire for shared sleep as indicative of love. Yet I think relationships and sleep for me just draw out how strange a behavior this sleep is, this space where we are unconscious, vulnerable to those around us, like children again really. None of the sleep in the book is about dreaming.

I am on planes all the time, all my family in other cities, and I have become a finely tuned sleeping machine. I haven’t had a beverage on a flight in years: I fall asleep before the plane takes off and wake just before it lands. It’s uncharacteristic, since in every other way I seem to care what people think, but am willing to drool, snore, whatever it is I do in front of them on these flights. I can do it but I willfully suspend my worry about what happens when I am not conscious and in control. I think several of the stories play out that curiosity.

RF:  A theme that comes up is erasure.  Sometimes it feels like your stories are attempting to correct, rewrite or even obliterate history in some way.  Thoughts on this?

RWG: I do think that’s kind of fascinating, the way we walk around as these little non-reality bubbles, editing out the parts we don’t want, seeing people the way we want to, forgetting history to protect ourselves.

On the other hand, it’s how we create memories cognitively, condensing and erasing unnecessary details. In a world full of so many people and so many details, it becomes a necessary short hand too. Most of us have to gist the world around us to hold onto it I think, and this is an error-prone process.

RF:  What do you think is the function of writing, of telling stories, to make sense of reality?  Given that many of your stories are interrogating reality (or the limits of reality), does narrative have a power to reshape the way we understand the world?

RWG: Increasingly, I think reality doesn’t need our sense. I keep thinking all our suffering, our struggles come from us trying to paint over, alter, make the world the way we want to see it, instead of the way it is. My sense of some of my characters is that they are coming to terms with how limited their perspectives are. Sometimes unavoidably. What happens when you can’t see and master all? What do you do with that and how do you shape meaning then?

RF:  Can you talk about your reading habits?  Not just what you’re reading (though I’d love to know that) but perhaps also how you read.

RWG: Well, thanks to the various careers (professoring, filmmaking, reviewing) I generally feel like I don’t read. This year I have been on sabbatical though and it’s been an anomaly where I am blasting through books, remembering the pleasure of these imaginary spaces, that communion of the self through reading. I read Anna Karenina in a cabin on Prince Edward Island, Wuthering Heights for the second time in an apartment in Montevideo, returned to the Alexandria Quartet in Hanoi. And a smattering of Marquez’s short stories while I was in South America as well. I find myself rereading I guess, lately. I remember some writer once saying at a certain age we stop seeking new pleasures and grow increasingly nostalgic for the old ones. I fear I am falling into that camp.

RF:  Is there a confluence of other forms on your work? You are a filmmaker, a critic, an academic and a poet. How does a careful study of various media effect your fiction?

RWG: I think teaching and criticism are major ways I both educate and reeducate myself. Teach to learn, that old adage. It’s pretty obvious in my writing about film for Numero Cinq at the Movies that I am exploring films I admire and trying to see how they did that admirable thing.

As for how it affects my prose, I think for writers like me one has to become a better reader to become a better writer.

Well, film done right, rigorously demands the externalization of the internal, a sense of meaning and structure. It’s kind of a haiku exercise in my books. And when I get lost in developing a story I often fall back on screenplay writing questions.

RF:  Would you be willing to share some of those questions?  I’m thinking of David Mamet’s wonderful “three rules for writing a scene.”  Do you have touchstones when you get lost? Writers hate to think in terms of rules, but are there are signposts? What gets you back on the right road?

RWG:  I think any of those “rules” are just questions, or…

I bounce around a lot. If I am struggling with character, I turn to Dara Marks Inside Story. If I want to back up and look at plot I look at Joseph Campbell or Christopher Vogler. In any event, none of these can be rules, they just pose questions. And when I am in the swamps, I just need questions.

RF:  I’m always curious about process for writers. So maybe take me back to your earliest writings.  Has your process evolved?

RWG: I guess my process was initially a lack of process. Something would provoke or inspire me and I would write about it. And then wait to see if it would happen again or try to provoke it by listening to too much Depeche Mode.

I think it’s only recently I have really defined for myself a daily practice, where I write for a minimum amount of time each day and have a small stable of exercises I do each day. I think I went through a stage of being quite prideful about not needing to learn things. Slow to the realization that I want to be a writer who is ninety and still learning new things.

RF:  At a point in many of the stories in Entropic, you shift into away from a simple portrayal of reality and into something more mythical.  Lazarus comes to life, a woman who seems to have a magical power, even medical re-enactors.  Reality in your stories is slipper, at best a tenuous construct.  I’m wondering where you might place this type of storytelling in the literary tradition.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say Magic Realism, but I confess the thought crossed my mind more than once.

RWG:  I think the first collection, Crisp, was more strongly “magic realist” than this one. Impossible things still happen here but they are perhaps less gothic and grandiose. I really respect realist writers, but I think I am always a little more interested in what is unspeakable, unrepresentable, except by defying the laws of reality. Maybe for me what is interesting in myself and others is the more shadow aspect, the part we fight to keep from the outside world, that place outside our brain pan.

Also, I think it’s easier to see these subtle emotional states, griefs, joys, when mythologized a little. Like pulling focus with a microscope and projecting the image on the side of a building. Harder to pretend away or erase that aspect of ourselves.

RF:  I was mesmerized by your story “Sinai.” You seem to imply that Lazarus and Jesus may have been romantically entangled. You basically show that being brought from the dead was no gift. But I was also drawn to the notion of how Lazarus as a character in the Bible is sort of thrown away after his purpose was served.  I guess I’m fishing for what inspired you to finish his story.

RWG: I wrestled with that story a long time, initially thinking it would be a play, then coming around to prose with it. Initially, what intrigued me most was just the question of what would unrequired desire would be like after centuries of waiting. Lazarus’s story is peculiar: raised from the dead and then left in a sort of ellipses. What then? What would it be like to live a life in the ellipses? Then, I think, in the writing of it I became more curious about how we bury our beloveds in mythology.

Under it all, too, was my experience of traveling in Egypt on the Sinai when I was twenty-one, how disturbed I was by the landscape where Bible stories were set, now covered in burnt out tanks and traversed by cruddy taxis and travelers like me. There was something absurd and contradictory in that experience I wanted to capture.

RF: What are you working on now?

RWG: I have been working on a novel for a couple of years now and just spent three months in an apartment in Uruguay making headway with that. But I also seem to be experiencing this odd surge that I also experienced at the end of writing Crisp. There’s been a sudden rush of stories and maybe even a title for the next book of short stories. All very rough, but I’ve been basically rushing to get them down.

RF:  Do you want to see any of your fiction writing turned into movies?  I ask because you work in these two fields.  More and more, short stories are being turned into full-length movies.  Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” and Ken Kalfus’ “PU-239” jump to my mind.  I’m curious about your thoughts on this.

RWG: Adaptation is intriguing for sure. Generally I am more intrigued by what other people come up with when adapting my stories and feel less of an urge to do it myself. Almost all my screenplays have been original material. At the start, when I have the germ of an idea, there’s a process of trying it out and seeing what form seems to suit what I am curious about. Once a story has become a short story, I am not really curious to test that in another form. Though I am excited to see what someone else would reinvision.

I have had two short stories turned into short films: “Blink,” and then a friend is in preproduction on an adaptation of the “Beautifully Drowned.” I enjoy the process of seeing how people change and make the stories their own generally. I’ve found I feel less attached to the details, really, than to the thematic elements of the stories. If someone takes a story I intended to be about compassion and it becomes about abuse, then I am not so keen.

—R.W. Gray & Richard Farrell

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R. W. Gray (Numéro Cinq at the Movies) was born and raised on the northwest coast of British Columbia, and received a PhD in Poetry and Psychoanalysis from the University of Alberta in 2003. He is the author of Crisp, a short story collection, and two serialized novels in Xtra West magazine and has published poetry in various journals and anthologies, including Arc, Grain, Event, and dANDelion. He also has had ten short screenplays produced, including Alice & Huck and Blink. He currently teaches Film at the University of New Brunswick in Frederiction.

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

May 112015
 

Sam-Savage-author-photo1-923x1024Photo by Nancy Marshall

 

Sam Savage was born in Camden, South Carolina, on 9 November 1940, the fifth of seven children of Henry Savage, Jr., and Elizabeth Jones Savage. Henry was, to quote the author, “a polymath: lawyer, architect, civic leader, historian, naturalist, and author of several books of history, biography, and natural history,” while Elizabeth’s tastes “were more literary. She was well-read to an exceptional degree.” Savage exhibits a combination of these skills. Though not entering school until age seven, as discussed below, he attended the University of Heidelberg and Yale, graduating from the latter with a degree in philosophy.

For much of his adult life Savage has written poetry and fiction, publishing intermittently from the age of twenty, but not finding his true voice until late in life. In 2005 his first book appeared, The Criminal Life of Effie O., a novel in verse that Savage considers an “amusement.” His career as a fiction writer changed with the publication the next year of Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife (2006), a first-person narrative told by Firmin, a male rat that can read. The Cry of the Sloth (2009), an epistolary novel, features every word, right down to grocery lists, written over the course of three months by Andrew Whittaker, minor writer and small-time slum lord. In 2011 came Glass, a first-person set of reminiscences by Edna, who spends her days typing. The Way of the Dog (2013) is a set of reflections by a male narrator named Harold Nivenson, who observes things out the living room window of his home and recalls his former activity within the art world. Savage’s most recent novel is It Will End with Us (2014), a collection of connected memories put down by Eve as she recalls her Southern childhood. All works except the first have been published by Coffee House Press.

This interview was conducted in February and March 2015 via email. My thanks go to Sam Savage for his patience.

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Early life and education

Jeff Bursey (JB): Perhaps we could begin with something about your family. What kind of people were they? What did you think of them when growing up, and what do you think of them now?

Sam Savage (SS): Both sides of the family have roots in America going back to the mid-1600s, my mother’s side in Virginia, my father’s in Massachusetts. My father owned large tracts of timberland. We were local gentry of sorts. My father was probably the town’s most prominent and certainly its most admired citizen.

What did/do I think of them? My parents were kind, upright, generous people, utterly devoted to their children. In manners they presented a seamless blend of Yankee restraint and Southern courtesy.

JB: What religion were you raised in?

SS: I attended the Episcopal Church until I was about twelve, when I lost faith in the existence of God.

JB: You had a period of rebellion in your teens, the kind that comes upon many. What were you rebelling against, and what form did that take?

SS: Against everything and nothing—mindless encompassing anger, a condition of such unrestraint that parents would not let their sons and daughters get in the car with me for fear I would entangle them in some catastrophe. It’s a miracle I got out of that alive.

JB: What does it mean for you to consider it a “miracle” you got out of your teens alive?

SS: My teenage years were marked by extremes of recklessness that I can scarcely compass today. The “miracle” is that they did not end with prison or death by automobile.

JB: If we can stay with this for a moment, I’d like to know how you mean the word “miracle” to be taken. It’s a charged religious term, and readers of your work know you are quite often exact, even when being ambiguous. Does it have a particular meaning for you?

SS: I just meant the odds were long.

JB: In The Way of the Dog, your lead character, Harold Nivenson, says: “By the time I was eighteen I was already practically insane. By the time I was twenty I was already completely crazy. I must have been crazy for a long time before that, perhaps from birth.” That sounds like your own experience.

SS: Well, the manner in which we were crazy was different.

JB: With reference to your parents’ manners of restraint and courtesy, where did the “mindless encompassing anger” come from, and where did it go? Were you antagonistic towards those manners? Did these feelings flare up from nowhere and burn out as mysteriously?

SS: I was intensely loyal to my family. No rebellion there. On the contrary, I experienced the house as a place of calm and refuge. Leaving the South lifted a great weight off me, in Boston first, then New York, then France. With each move I felt freer.

JB: Anyone reading your books would know that most of the main characters are simmering with anger, fear, resentment and other emotions, but the narrative only provides brief glimpses of their past. That repression coupled with the at times unhinged nature of Edna or Andrew—their manias, if that’s not an inapt word, shown more than their genesis—creates a lot of the energy and power found in your novels. Do their states owe anything to the intense feelings you had?

SS: I don’t suppose I could ascribe to my characters emotions or states of mind that I had never experienced, but the fact remains that the lives of these characters bear little resemblance to my own.

JB: You speak of losing faith at age 12. In his The Life of Ezra Pound, Noel Stock says one of Pound’s uncles “inclined towards the Episcopal Church because it interfered ‘neither with a man’s politics nor his religion.’” I read that Darwin was a favourite of your father’s. The dearth of any Supreme Mover or Higher Power or God, however one wants to phrase it, is noticeable in your books. In a review of Glass I suggested this: “One wonders if Sam Savage is indicating that we live in a Godless universe, with Edna just one more creature in a glass cage, unloved and not made to last. If so, then this is a chilling picture of old age and contemporary society.” Up to the loss of faith you mentioned, did you feel a tug between science and religion, or was there something more intimate going on?

SS: My answer to your earlier question about religion ought to have been more nuanced. I never had “faith” in any real sense. I attended church with my family when I was quite young, but I never gave two thoughts to what was said there. My first encounter with God was with an absence. I suppose the problem, put crudely, is that I have in the course of life developed a religious sensibility and a scientific mind – a problematic combination. Though I don’t explicitly talk about it, the absence of God is, I think, a presence in all my books, like a shadow falling over them.

JB: That combination—how do you see that working itself out in your life and fiction?

SS: The characters in the novels are searching for meaning in the world and in their lives. I regret if that sounds terribly old-school and cliché. Meaning is not something you can invent, something you can freely choose. If you can choose it you can unchoose it just as easily. It has come from without in some sense. It has to make a claim upon you. Nothing I have seen in the world as I understand it (the natural-scientific world) is capable of making such a claim, and all my protagonists experience that.

JB: It doesn’t sound old-school to me. I would ask where you think meaning resides when you say it “has come from without…”

SS: I mean it has to come from beyond and be independent of our ratiocination and whim. Meaning is something you discover. It is something you experience, not something you can just make up. Where it resides now I have no idea. For a large segment of Western culture there was a general collapse of meaning, a disenchantment and desacralization of the world, between Darwin and the end of the First World War. Modernism in literature and art can be seen as a response to this, an attempt to reckon with the new reality.

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JB: Where did the first years of your education take place, what type was it, was it satisfactory, and were there particular teachers you got something from or who saw something in you?

SS: I hated school from the moment I stepped through the schoolhouse door when I was seven. I hated the teachers, the books, the building. I was in and out, refusing to go and (when sent to boarding school) running away. I was twenty when I finally graduated from high school. Except for a smattering of mathematics, everything useful I had learned by that time I had taught myself or absorbed by osmosis from my family. I went to Yale (admitted on the strength of SATs), disliked it there, and dropped out after three months. I returned five years later, finished the undergraduate program in three years, graduating in 1968.

JB: Were your feelings about school, at age seven and a little more, understood or tolerated by your parents, even as, I assume, they insisted you keep attending?

SS: The Savage family did not have harmonious relations with schools. Some of my siblings had relations nearly as stormy as my own. My parents understood perfectly that the fault lay in the stupidity and unconscious petty brutality of the schools and not with their children, who wanted nothing better than to be encouraged to learn in their own way. They did not insist that we continue, once they had grasped what torture it was for us.

I started at seven because the school was overcrowded and there was no room for me the previous year. I had attended a total of seven schools by the time I graduated, and I had gone one year without attending school at all. For most of that epoch I was more interested in cars than books. I wasn’t made to feel peculiar. I always had friends. I think some people thought I was crazy, but that didn’t bother me. I was thoroughly miserable through most of my teenage years, but not more so than a lot of other people at that age. Given a time machine, it is not a period of my life that I would willingly visit.

The 1950s were an awful time—oppressive, violent, hypocritical, frightened, and suffocating, doubly so in the deep South. I don’t know if a decade can kill a man, but the 1950s came close to killing me, I think Norman Mailer remarked somewhere. I wasn’t quite a man yet, but it was a rotten epoch to come of age in. My wife jokes that I can’t talk about the 1950s without, as she puts it, “frothing at the mouth.”

JB: Did you know how to read before going to school at what seems a late age?

SS: I was read to, but with four older siblings I was not read to as much as I am sure my mother would have liked. I taught myself to read in the first week or so of school, and I had no use for school after that. In those first days we were drilled in the alphabet. There was a moment of insight: I suddenly saw how it all worked, how the code worked, with letters standing in for sounds. That was a Friday. My mother told me I sat in the house for two days puzzling it out. On Monday I could read.

JB: I’ve not heard of any child figuring out how to read like that. Was this something your siblings could also do?

SS: I don’t know. Understand that I wasn’t jumping into Dickens—I was just reading my first-grade books: See Spot run. See Jane run, and so forth.

JB: What did you like to read at that age?

SS: I read all sorts of things. Hardy boys of course, and endless comic books, Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, Rafael Sabatini, the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts, but also Walter Scott and Dickens. A child doesn’t read like an adult, processing language; he dreams the book. I read Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Waverly, Quentin Durward, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, completely untroubled by the hundreds of words I didn’t know, sailing right over them. I would give anything to be able to read like that again.

JB: The words you didn’t understand in those books you read as a child, did you ever look them up?

SS: I don’t think so. I don’t remember making use of a dictionary as a child. I remember that my oldest sister, four years older than me, spent a long time memorizing Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, so she wouldn’t have to bother looking up words anymore. I remember being terribly impressed by that. I must have been eleven or twelve when she was doing that.

JB: You say: “everything useful I had learned by that time I had taught myself or absorbed by osmosis from my family.” What were those things? And do you mean useful for you alone or useful for anyone?

SS: I mean useful to me as a writer—the capacity to recognize a good sentence, a fondness for clarity and wit, a boundless admiration for artistic achievement and its corollary: sympathy for those who strive and fail.

JB: Your phrase about how a child “dreams the book” brings two things to mind. First, in Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life, he talks about “the physical ambiance of the occasion,” and the feel of the book, the smell of the pages. In that book Miller also says he’d love to have a library of the books he read from childhood to becoming a young man, which seems to echo your thoughts.

SS: I have had feelings like Miller’s. I used to love buying new books. I loved having them in the bookcase. These days not so much. I use the public library when I can, except for books by living authors. Those I always buy: I don’t like depriving an author of his or her meager pittance. I got rid of almost all my books a dozen years ago, thousands of volumes, but now they are piling up again. As Edna remarks, books are rather unsanitary objects. They collect dust easily, have a tendency to mold, and are among the rare personal items that cannot be washed.

Sam&Son 1982 (637x640)Sam and Son, 1982

JB: Second, that phrase would seem to encapsulate the form of your narratives as spun out by your characters: they write letters, memoirs, notes, and impressions, on typewriters and by hand, all in an effort to reach some imagined or real Other. Though it might be more accurate to say they nightmare the book.

SS: I don’t see the narratives as dreamlike except maybe in the way they are not governed by any overarching schema, in the way the narrative wanders down a path that has no goal or preset destination, where paragraph 38 is there because paragraph 37 is there, or maybe for no reason at all, because it popped up in the narrator’s head at just that moment.

JB: Before talking further about your books, can you describe in a bit more detail your time at university, and your studies? Were there any professors you recall fondly or otherwise? What kind of philosophy did you prefer studying, and has that interest changed over time?

SS: In September 1960 I entered Yale the first time, disliked it there and dropped out after three months. I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for spring semester 1961 and dropped out. I went to New York at the beginning of 1962, left for France in early 1963, and returned to Yale in the fall of 1965. I don’t remember the name or face of a single classmate from those years.

I was at the University of Heidelberg for three semesters in 1970-1971 while still in graduate school at Yale. I did not take a degree there. I went to Heidelberg to study philosophy and improve my German, and because Hans-Georg Gadamer, a prominent post-Heideggerian, was a professor there. Two professors at Yale had a strong effect on my thinking then, and even today to some extent: Karsten Harries, who taught Heidegger, and Robert Fogelin, who taught Wittgenstein.

Two hours after defending my doctoral thesis (on the political thought of Thomas Hobbes) at Yale I was on a train to Boston. I have never been back.

 

Career

JB: Though you left Yale quickly after the defense, while you were a student did you imagine a career as a philosophy professor or as a philosopher? What kind of philosophy did you prefer?

SS: I spent most of my time on German philosophy, Kant to Heidegger. But also classical Greek philosophy and Wittgenstein. In my final year as an undergraduate I was named “Scholar of the House,” which meant that I was exempted from course work that year and allowed to spend all my time on a thesis, rather like a Master’s program. I wrote my thesis on Nietzsche. I also taught Nietzsche at Yale during the three semesters I was hired as what they called an Acting Instructor, which meant basically a full-time teacher who was paid very little. I also taught an introduction to ethics and a course on Marx.

I enjoyed teaching, but I never wanted a university career. I finished graduate school in 1972, taught for a while, as I said, and got my Ph.D. in 1979. In the years between 1973 and 1978 I was living in France and making fitful stabs at writing fiction, actually imagining myself as a writer but not accomplishing anything, and at the same time doing nothing to advance my doctoral studies. In 1978 I decided to complete the doctorate, for no good reason, just so as not to have another abandoned project on my conscience. It took me six months to research and write the thesis. It was a fine, almost intoxicating feeling, to be through with the academic world for good. I went back home to South Carolina, to a little town of 400 souls, stayed there for the next twenty-three years, raised two children, and wrote doggedly, living all the while on my small income, occasional jobs, and the labors of my wife.

JB: On the academic world. Harold Nivenson says: “The university as presently constituted… is a death-trap for the mind, I have long thought.” Does that come close to your own beliefs?

SS: Yes.

JB: What about being employed, at odd jobs or more regular work, in childhood, as a student, or later?

SS: I never held after-school or summer jobs while growing up. My mother thought it wrong for the children of more affluent families to take summer jobs that would otherwise go to those who needed them more. She was right of course. I later worked at several jobs intermittently over the years, none for very long, except for those few years teaching, first as a teaching assistant and then as acting instructor.

It is important to note here that I always had a small inherited income, not enough to live on easily, but enough to keep me free of the economic restraints that drive many people into careers they dislike. I was fortunate in being naturally handy, I actually enjoyed physical labor of the less grueling sort, and neither I nor Nora minded living on little. People like to talk about the unusual jobs I have held, but some of those were actually of no importance, more like pastimes than work.

JB: Apart from studying, and writing, was there something enjoyable outside academia? Theater, museums, films, or travel, for instance. Or was it all work?

SS: Films, of course, especially those of the Nouvelle Vague, and I was crazy about ballet, used to sit all night on the sidewalk for a ticket to see Nureyev dance. Besides getting a degree, I read a lot of philosophy at the university. I am at a loss to say how or to what degree that immersion in philosophy has affected my writing.

JB: What did you like about ballet, and is that still an interest?

SS: I still love ballet. I love the brave and futile challenge to gravity and to the burden of a human body. Witnessing a fine ballet is for me like watching angels taxiing for takeoff.

JB: Do you go to live ballet performances now? How has that art changed, in your opinion, since you first started going?

SS: Every year, when we lived in South Carolina, Nora and I would attend the ballet performances at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. Sometimes a decent dance company shows up in Madison, but I am not able to go anymore. With such sporadic attendance I am not in a position to comment on the evolution of the art.

JB: What did you take away from time in France and Germany?

SS: From Germany, mostly a little better understanding of the polyvalence of history and a lot better grasp of spoken German, which I have, alas, almost entirely lost in the decades since. France is different. I have always felt most at home there. I lived in France for a total of over eight years. Many of my closest friends have been French. I was married to a French woman for seven years. I have a son who was raised in France. Nora Manheim, mother of my two other children, who has stuck by me for forty years now, is an American who grew up entirely in France, daughter of expatriates there. I haven’t been back in a long time.

JB: You mentioned having friends when in school but not remembering anyone from university. Was socializing with classmates not important, or did whoever you meet at that time simply fall out of your life once you were done with the institution?

SS: You have to understand. I was 25 years old, I had been around, and now I was once again a freshman at an all-male institution that was, socially, indistinguishable from an elite New England prep school. Most of the students lived on another planet from me. Furthermore I was married and father of a child. I lived off-campus, something no other undergraduate students did at that time. I am talking about undergraduate years. I do remember some of my fellow students in graduate school, though I haven’t kept in touch with any of them.

JB: I understand you would like to leave some matters alone, so we can move on. What was the appeal of South Carolina? Where did you move after that, and why?

SS: It was a place where, after so many years, I found I was comfortable again. It was still unjust in many ways, but the violence was mostly gone and you could see progress every day, something that was hardly the case in the rest of the country. I like to sit with Southerners and talk. They still tell the best stories. I love the swamps and marshes. My wife and I, with the help of friends, built a house in the woods there. I would be there still if I could. We moved to Madison twelve years ago. We moved because we have a disabled daughter, and this is a better place for her than isolated among the pine trees in South Carolina.

With Nora 2013(640x424)Sam and Nora, Madison, Wisconsin, 2013

JB: What is life like in Madison? Are there storytellers there, like in South Carolina?

SS: Life in Madison? I work. I used to take walks in the neighborhood. Now I look out the window. In the warmer seasons Nora and I go out to lunch once or twice a week. My sons come for long visits every year. Friends come from South Carolina and from France. I don’t know anybody in Madison apart from neighbors, a couple of Nora’s friends, and doctors. I can hardly be said to live here. I feel I am just passing through, practically unobserved, like a ghost.

 

Health and writing

JB: In the 1970s you learned you had alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. What is that, in your own words?

SS: I am missing a blood component that protects the lungs from attack by some of the body’s own enzymes. The consequences vary widely. Chief among the more serious are liver failure and lung destruction in the form or early onset emphysema. I noticed breathing problems before I was thirty, but assumed it was asthma. It’s an ineluctable, irreversible process.

JB: Does your health feed into your fiction?

SS: It must, though I am hard put to say how. Illness is a world of its own. Everything is colored by it. I have outlived my prognosis by many years, but for decades the illness would not let me contemplate a “normal” life stretching into a vague and distant future. All my narrators are, one way or the other, in the process of dying.

JB: When you say you have “outlived your prognosis,” I think of the tenacity of certain characters in your novels, but it’s of a kind that comes from the most basic instinct for survival. No one in your books, human animals or non-human animals, to use a current distinction, lives well. As you say, they’re “in the process of dying.” Do you explore the extinguishing of life with your own health in mind because it’s a topic of interest, to have a conversation with yourself, to communicate something that can’t come out any other way, or for other reasons?

SS: Had I been in booming health, I might have written differently, I suppose, though there are also reasons to think otherwise. There was a long period, in my twenties and early thirties, before I became really noticeably sick, when awareness of death in the form of a boundless encompassing dread was so persistent and unbearable that I contemplated suicide in order to escape it. I thought: better die now than experience this dread every day, possibly for decades, and still die in the end. I am constantly amazed that not everyone seems to feel this. I suspect a cover-up. Maybe a genetically based survival mechanism that lets us be deliberately stupid in this regard, so we can get on with our lives as if nothing were amiss. Bad faith on a planetary scale. Maybe being sick—and during the last twenty years quite obviously so—has made me more sensitive to the blitheness with which we normally—and I suppose I can say mercifully—go about the business of living. But there is such a thing as truth in fiction. A novel, if it is any good, ought to let us see the lies we tell ourselves. It is not a novelist’s job to be merciful.

JB: That dread of death ended before you became sick. Obviously it never felt so overwhelming as to make you commit suicide. What kept you alive? And did the dread taper off or end because you became sick?

SS: What keeps anybody alive? Love, distraction, I suppose, and, above all, an unwillingness to do that to my children.

JB: Kjersti A. Skomsvold is the author of The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am. She had been diagnosed with an illness, and went home to her parents’ basement to die. There she began to write that novel. At a PEN event she gave a talk in which she said: “I was very lonely those years, and scared. When I was lying there, looking up at the ceiling, I started to think about death. I wonder if the inevitable loneliness of being human is due to the fact that when we die, we die alone.” That seems to be one of the merciless truths your novels explore, especially in Firmin and The Cry of the Sloth, but being alone is present in the other works too.

SS: We die alone, of course. No one can die my death for me. The awareness of death throws us back into the essential solitude of the self as nothing else can. We are talking now about something more fundamental than loneliness, which can be relieved by other people. We are talking about aloneness, that state in which we are genuinely ourselves and not anyone else, when the social world with its myriad deceptions has fallen away. All my protagonists dwell, each in his or her own way, in that aloneness.

JB: “All my protagonists dwell, each in his or her own way, in that aloneness.” With your health the way it is, and the early dread of dying, would you say that your awareness of aloneness is given to these characters or is it impossible to write them without that as a precondition?

SS: I think one can write about all sorts of things one has not experienced. I imagine that with enough research I could set a fairly credible novel in prison or in Moscow. But I doubt the same is true of states of consciousness.

 

Publication

JB: When did you start writing, and what did you start with? When did you start writing for publication? What sort of reception did it have? I know in Poets & Writers you stated there were only a few poems published and that you stopped writing at age 55. Had writing, as an activity, pleased you up to a certain point and then, due to not being accepted, ceased to be that? What had it become by the time you stopped?

SS: I was eighteen when I first imagined becoming a writer. By the time I dropped out of college at twenty I saw writing as what I essentially did, everything else being ancillary to that. And so it has been ever since except for the five or six years I was obsessed with philosophy. I wrote a great deal, mostly poetry, but fragments of novels as well, and disliked what I wrote, and threw it out. I was not discouraged by rejections. I submitted rarely, was accepted as often as I could expect. It was not a rewarding thing to do, publishing poems of no interest alongside other poems of no interest in journals that nobody read. Publication has never been the goal; rejection has never been the problem. The writing I did for forty-odd years was not coming from the place that real writing comes from, and I knew that, and that was the problem. Genuine writing, writing that is true and good, is a product of compulsion. It possesses the shape and content it does because you can’t do it any other way. It took me a long time to feel that what I wrote was coming out of that kind of necessity.

JB: What happened to change things?

SS: I don’t know. One day the writing was different, and I knew it.

JB: What kinds of poetry did you write at first, and what kinds of fiction?

SS: Between the time I left Yale and the time I returned I was primarily interested in the poetry coming out of Black Mountain: Olson, Creeley, Oppenheimer, Duncan. Also W.C. Williams and the whole objectivist school, George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff in particular. And behind them all, of course, the poetry of Ezra Pound. I wrote a fair amount in a sort of objectivist vein. Nothing survives from that time. I doubt it was any good. Most of my fiction efforts in those early years were attempts to make money so I could live as a poet: unfinished crime and science-fiction novels, and even an attempt at a romance novel. That one turned rather lurid, as I recall.

JB: What appealed to you about the Objectivists and the Black Mountain poets? Has that lasted?

SS: I think it was the economy, the avoidance of cliché and worn-out rhythms, and the sparseness of the verse. I haven’t read any of them in decades. The poet I feel closest to, the one who has spoken to me in the most personal way for decades now, is John Berryman. He alone in modern literature is able to achieve a truly Shakespearian pathos.

JB: What fiction writers, beyond Williams and, I suppose, Reznikoff, did you read? Who do you read now?

SS: I am not familiar with any fiction by Williams or Reznikoff. A list of the books I have read over my many years would be exceedingly tedious. Among the modern writers who “knocked my socks off,” as Firmin liked to put it, the first time I read them would be Céline, Hamsun, Joyce, Beckett, Bernhard, Faulkner, Gaddis, Lowry. I read less now than I use to, and I read more slowly now. I don’t know much about contemporary fiction, meaning the works of writers younger than me. I reread a fair amount. Here’s what I read this past winter: I reread The Brother’s Karamazov for the third or fourth time; I read two novels and a memoire by Natalie Sarraute (The Golden Fruits, Do You Hear Them?, and Childhood), The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, and Henry James’s The Bostonians. Not a long list. And I notice it contains only one contemporary writer. But it is typical, probably, of my reading in recent years.

JB: Does reading inspire you to write, or make you think, “I could do something with that”? A related question: when you’re writing, do you stay away from reading certain writers or genres?

SS: I received from my parents, from their own attitudes, the gift of admiration. While reading a novel I often think how wonderful it would be to write like that. This past winter I was reading The Golden Fruits. Nora passed through the room, and I said something to the effect that this was a wonderful novel. She laughed and said, “You always say that.” I was interested to see, when David Markson’s library ended up at the Strand, that he wrote marginal comments in the novels he read, often highly critical comments, as if arguing with the author. I don’t do anything like that.

As for avoiding certain writers or genres, I stay away from books that I suspect might resemble the thing I am working on.

Sam&Nora 1993 (640x433)Sam and Nora, 1993

JB: Did you, or do you, feel part of a community of writers? Here I mean not only connected to those who you read but those who you met. Not that you felt part of a group—that would surprise me—but if you perceived that individual contemporary authors were on the same wavelength as you. If that does exist, is that shared interest—in topics, approach, what have you—important for your morale? Does it help keep you going? Or do you feel lonely as a writer?

SS: I have two writer friends, one of whom I haven’t seen in fifty years, and neither are remotely on my wavelength. Do I feel lonely as a writer? I don’t know that lonely is the word. I feel isolated.

JB: In your published novels there is often a mystery as to what’s going on, where the fault lines are in a character, how they landed where we see them, and, as mentioned, with very little history given. The reader is expected to piece things together. Is that a lingering effect—a good one, in my opinion—from trying to write crime novels?

SS: I don’t think so. If that tendency came from anywhere it was more likely from reading Faulkner and Ford Maddox Ford. You are right that I require readers to be more active and engaged than maybe most novelists do. I want to make it so readers have to participate in the creation of the story. I want them to lend their consciousness and lifeblood to the characters, so those characters can come alive inside them.

JB: What kind of science fiction did you write? And romance—I’m imagining a younger and more cheerful Eve Taggart, from It Will End with Us, in a sweltering southern city, with beaus and such.

SS: Dystopias, of course. I don’t remember my attempt at a romance novel. I only recall my judgment of the fragments I managed to produce: dishonest and second-rate, even for pulp.

JB: If publication has never been the goal, what has been, and has that goal changed over time?

SS: I once, only half facetiously, made a list of three things I wanted to accomplish in life: run a marathon, learn to play the saxophone, and write a great poem. I have failed at all three.

In fact I have always had only one goal: to write one truly good poem, or later, one truly good novel.

JB: Twenty-three years writing. What did you learn about yourself in that time? Patience, I assume.

SS: I learned that I am a certifiable lunatic who can’t quite admit the jump is too high for him to clear.

JB: What keeps you trying to make that jump?

SS: God only knows. A lot of free time, maybe, and a mulish temperament.

JB: Before getting into what these books are about, I’d like to know when the title comes to you.

SS: All the titles were chosen after the novels were written. While in progress they bore the names of their narrators: Firmin, Whittaker, Edna, Nivenson, Eve. I would like to have kept those names as the final titles, but the publisher wouldn’t have wanted to do that.

JB: I know you like Gilbert Sorrentino, whose last books were also published by Coffee House Press. He wrote in an essay called “Genetic Coding” that he has “an obsessive concern with formal structure…” Many of your works could be said to fall into the category of memoir, since we don’t get the particulars of the lives of these figures. Is this revisiting of that form, if indeed that’s what it is, on one level similar to what Sorrentino is referring to?

SS: While I admire Sorrentino, his integrity as an artist, his capacity for formal invention, and the frequent brilliance of his writing, we have almost nothing in common. He once remarked, I believe, that for him content was an extension of form. For me the opposite is true. I am, I fear, an old-fashioned realist at heart. However, looking back on it all, I can see there is a structure common to all the novels. They are, as you observed, first-person narratives, confessions really. The speaker is always confined in a dwelling of some sort (bookstore, apartment, house, etc.). All the narrators/protagonists are attempting to complete a work of some sort, and in most cases that work is the one we are reading. Another odd thing, which I am at a loss to explain: every novel has an emblematic animal: rat, sloth, rat and fish, dog, birds. In one case (Firmin) the narrator might (or might not) actually be an animal. In another he imagines himself as an animal (Sloth). In The Way of the Dog the animal becomes emblematic of acceptance and wisdom. In Glass the rat and fish are emblematic of Edna’s confinement and separation from the world (by sheets of glass). In It Will End with Us the birds are emblems of transcendence, I suppose I can say.

 

The novels

JB: Was The Criminal Life of Effie O. your first completed book? Is there an earlier completed manuscript in a desk drawer? How long before your work was accepted by a publishing house, and did that experience work out as you had hoped?

SS: Nothing in the desk drawer of any interest. I found a publisher (Coffee House Press) in a matter of weeks—no dramatic tale of artistic suffering and perseverance there. I have no complaints about Coffee House Press. There are obvious disadvantages to publishing with a small house, but they have never interfered in the writing itself. They have stuck by me through thick and thin (a lot of thin lately), something no commercial press would have been able to do.

Effie O. was written as an amusement, a joint project with my sister, who illustrated it. I published it only because I didn’t want her to have wasted her time on illustrations for a book that would stay in a drawer. I don’t know if it will ever be of interest to anyone. I toy with the idea of taking it out of print. It would make a good basis for a musical, though, and maybe somebody someday will find some such use for it.

JB: Are you musical?

SS: Though I love music, I have no musical talent. Unhappy lessons on the flute as a child were proof of that.

JB: Can you say something about the kinds of music you like?

SS: Classical and jazz, for the most part. And Dylan. But he’s an outlier.

JB: Particular composers or epochs? Do you go to concerts?

SS: In classical, pretty much any epoch, though I am not musician enough to enjoy some complex modern works. Most of Schoenberg, Webern, and Carter, for example, is beyond my reach. In jazz, it’s the 1950s and 1960s. Coltrane, Davis, Monk, Mingus, etc.

JB: Do you write with music playing?

SS: Never. In fact I don’t understand how some people can do that. When I write I have rhythms in my head that are impossible to hear when other rhythms are being laid on top of them.

effie

JB: Why would you think of taking Effie O. out of print?

SS: I had hoped that the relative success of Firmin would prompt people to take a look at Effie O., but that seems not to have happened. It was not intended to be a great artwork. It was meant to entertain. If it fails to do that, I don’t see the point of it. It is like when you tell a joke and no one laughs. All you feel is embarrassment.

JB: Andrew Whittaker asks himself if his jokes “were ever funny, or did I just make them seem so by my laughter.” It’s one of the many sad comments he makes.

Could you say a little about how each book came to be?

SS: The process is always the same. I write the first paragraphs, more or less out of the blue, without knowing who is speaking or where it is going. Mostly those paragraphs go nowhere. But rarely (meaning it has happened five times) several other paragraphs follow, I catch a voice, a way of speaking and writing unique to that character. I am usually well into the novel before I get a glimpse of the shape it will take in the long run. I don’t know how it will end until I get there. Everything else in the novel gets revised or shifted about but those first paragraphs remain unchanged, almost word for word the way I wrote them.

JB: Where does the “voice” come from for the paragraphs that become novels?

SS: I have no idea. It is suddenly there. I don’t of course mean an audible voice: a way of speaking, a way of seeing the world from an angle so specific that it defines the character of the person who is viewing the world in that way.

JB: The first book of yours that I read was Firmin. That a rat—or an apparent rat, to keep your distinction in mind—could elicit sympathy is a feat of the imagination. He lives on chewing books, but also becomes literate, though he can’t speak anything other than, well, Rat. He is ostracized by his family for his astonishing abilities, and he can’t connect to the human world, represented by Pembroke Books, where he lives. He is outside everything. I assume that no one could have predicted the popularity of this book. Tell me about its reception and how it affected you.

SS: I thought the book was good, and I thought it would get a favorable reception, but I assumed this would come from a very narrow audience. If somebody had suggested the book would sell three thousand copies I would have scoffed. When it started selling in the hundreds of thousands in Europe I was flabbergasted. Flabbergasted by the numbers, of course, but also by the fact that people seemed to be reading a book I didn’t know I had written. They were encountering a lovable character, some even found him “cute” (the unkindest compliment of all), when I had meant to model him on the despicable self-loathing narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. I thought I had a written a tragedy. I thought it was desperate book. I felt like shouting, “But that’s not what I meant, that’s not it at all.” This widespread reading was reinforced by Random House, which issued a hideous edition of the book with a big bite taken out of the cover and little mice in the margins of the pages in what I think was a deliberate effort to trivialize the novel, trivialization being, in the publishing world, widely viewed as a recipe for success. It might have been better if subsequent publishers had kept the marvelous illustrations Michael Mikolowski did for the original Coffee House Press edition, which have a much harder edge than the later ones by Fernando Krahn.

I recognize that an author’s intention is not the sole criterion for the interpretation of a work, that it is the reader’s privilege to see the novel differently from the way I meant it, but nevertheless I was thoroughly disconcerted by the discrepancy. I sometimes feel that I am not actually the author of that book that sold in those hundreds of thousands. A bystander, an innocent witness to the hoopla.

Cover_of_firmin_novel_by_Sam_Savage

JB: Especially since in Firmin there is this line: “I despise good-natured old Ratty in The Wind in the Willows. I piss down the throats of Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little. Affable, shuffling, cute, they stick in my craw like fish bones.” That would seem warning enough to a reader not to view this as a novelty tale.

You’re surprised by how this book was received, that you meant to convey something different than what many readers came away with. Do you think people misread the book? Do you think there were themes and emotions in that novel that might have seemed minor to you, or escaped you entirely, but that were primary for other readers? I wonder if you think eisegesis was performed by many.

SS: Clearly there are themes and emotions that escaped me. Some readers found a book I didn’t know I had written, that perhaps I might not have written had I been aware of it. But in no way am I denying that I wrote it, however inadvertently.

I certainly don’t resent the success. But I do think it has probably hurt the reception of my other novels. It has given a lot of people a wrong idea of the kind of writer I am. They come to those other novels with certain expectations, and they are disappointed. And then of course they blame me for it, as if I had written a bad novel rather than a pretty good novel that was just not for them. Or they don’t come to the other novels at all, thinking that I am only the author of a funny rat story.

JB: As you said, intention is not the only criterion. Leaving aside The Confessions of Effie O. and Firmin, which of your other novels has been received and understood more like you wanted?

SS: I don’t have any complaints in the case of the last three. The reception of The Cry of the Sloth was sometimes problematic for me. People tended to pigeonhole it as a satire of the so-called literary world, which it really isn’t, at least not fundamentally. I don’t know anything about the literary world and have no interest in satirizing it. The novel was meant to be a satire of the human capacity for ambition and delusion, in whatever milieu, and a study of a certain complex self-parodying individual at war with himself and his environment.

JB: Do you stay away from the literary world?

SS: Not expressly. I am simply not part of it, have never been part of it. I don’t live in a writerly world, in Brooklyn, for example, and I am not connected to a university. When I began to publish I was already too sick to do writerly things like readings, book fairs, and so forth, where I might have encountered denizens of that world.

JB: The diction and tone, grammar and perspectives, of your novels are always very precise. In a letter to his ex-wife, Andrew says: “Even at the time of your departure at least half of them”—he’s talking about houses they own—“were white elephants or worse, and they are now so heavily mortgaged, so deteriorated, they barely suffice to keep my small raft afloat while it is being tossed about on an ocean of shit, meager as it is and weighted with the barest of necessities. (I mean to say the raft is meager; the ocean of shit is, of course, boundless.)” Edna is also careful in her language: “And I ought not to have said that the doorbell rang suddenly. After all, how else could it ring? Unless it were outfitted with some sort of crescendoing device that would let it gradually work its way up from a tinkle.” Does this precision occur, or have to occur, in those first paragraphs, is it natural for you to write that way, or do you introduce this finicky aspect into the narrative as you build the character?

SS: No, it is not natural for me to write that way. This was a trait belonging to those characters, not to me, a trait reflective of their personalities, though it functions differently in the two cases. I don’t in fact write like any of my characters.

JB: After those first few paragraphs, if they look to be going well, do you make notes about things you would like the character to say?

SS: Yes. Things like that pop into my head at all hours, and I jot them down and later put them in a folder that I label “material.” Some end up in the novel, a lot more prove useless.

JB: How do you know when a project is or isn’t going well?

SS: I know it isn’t going well when it stops going, when further paragraphs fail to appear. I struggle with it for a while – where “struggle” means staring out the window – and if nothing comes, I drop it. That’s the usual way. Lots of false starts. But now and then the character takes over. It’s a feeling many novelists have, I think – that the character, or the writer’s unconscious mind, takes command of the story to such an extent that you feel you are taking dictation.

JB: I’ve mentioned how a tale about a rat can be affecting. Did you think that as you wrote? I don’t mean that you’re calculating how to wring pathos from vermin. But do you feel the emotional truth of your writing as you go on, line by line? In case anyone thinks that there is only misery and grief in your novels, I should say there are passages and lines that have made me laugh, unexpectedly most times. Do you feel enjoyment when you write?

SS: I frequently laughed out loud while writing The Cry of the Sloth. It’s an odd thing: I have to force myself to begin writing in the morning. I will find all sorts of excuses to put off doing it. When it is going well I can’t say whether I enjoy it or not, I am so completely lost to myself. Nabokov referred to his characters as his slaves. Maybe that is a common sentiment among grand Apollonian novelists. But in my case it is just the reverse of that.

JB: Are you, then, a slave to the characters?

SS: Absolutely.

JB: You say you’re “an old-fashioned realist…” I might differ when you leave it there. But perhaps you might define that term before we go on.

SS: I don’t mean anything technical by it, just that I hope I have created thoroughly believable characters who live in a world we recognize as our common world, however distorted it might appear when seen through the eyes of my narrators, and that includes Firmin. Most of the richest characters in literature belong to the realist tradition. I think it is mainly the subjectivity of my works that distinguishes them from classically realist novels.

JB: Whenever I read your books and the works of some others—Gabriel Josipovici, Cesar Aira, and Karl Ove Knausgaard are examples—I become wrapped up in them, even with pen and notepaper at hand, and my notion of reality gets nudged sideways. The intensity of the way you present manias and severe anxieties, set within a claustrophobic environment of one character’s consciousness and one person’s physical space, displaces my own consciousness temporarily, an aim I assume you have. It therefore robs me of whatever reality I own (however provisionally), a state of affairs that lasts for a bit after I close the book. I feel my presence and the narrator’s presence—or maybe saying the narrative’s presence is more accurate—mingling. Slowly my mind becomes my own again, but it is coloured—it has been coloured since Firmin—with what you have written. Hopefully—hopefully on more than one level—I’m not the only one who responds that way. I close the book and your reality is there, and what was mine is not, not right away, and not in the same way after.

What I want to get at it is that your version of a “common world,” perhaps against what traditional or current realists (Jonathan Franzen, perhaps) say is theirs, replaces what readers experience, if they allow themselves to sink into the writing. We can agree that the characters are subjectively realistic, but how are you only a realist when, first, the thinking and experiences of Firmin, Andrew, and Edna, to use the most extreme cases, are skewed or “distorted,” according to conventional standards, to the extent that they aren’t in what some would consider the real world—by which is meant the sane, commonsense world—and, second, when you posit alternate worlds with such fidelity and relentlessness?

SS: I am happy that in your case the books have had such an effect. And, as I said earlier, that is precisely my intention. But I insist, my characters are in the common world. All I have done, through the skewing and distorting you mention, is simplify that world so everyone can see, to use William Burroughs’ phrase, what is on the end of every fork. I would guess that if the state of affairs presented in the novel temporarily displaces your own consciousness, as you say, that is because you recognize that it is your world too.

JB: I’ll consider that last remark, but away from this interview.

That “sparseness of the verse” of the Objectivists and Black Mountain poets remains with you as you aim to simplify?

SS: I don’t think so, not in the sense they intended. Except for It Will End with Us I don’t think of my novels as sparse. “Concise” is the word I would choose. As I said, I feel closer to Berryman, who is about as far from those guys as you can get.

JB: Where and how do you write? By hand, on a typewriter or computer? And could you describe your process of revision? Is there much editorial discussion with Coffee House Press?

SS: I write on a computer. Before computers, I used a typewriter. On a computer I am able to try out sentences, turn them this way and that, as many times as I like, something one is loath to do on a typewriter or in longhand. I fiddle with them endlessly. When revising I save the work as a new file and rewrite from the beginning. I seldom go back and rewrite individual parts, since by doing that I would lose the feel of their place in the whole, the tempo, for example, or the overarching mood in which they are inserted.

I have rewritten a novel many times before Coffee House ever sees it. They get a clean piece of work. The editors make some suggestions, but they never attempt to override my decisions. All writers should be so fortunate. After reading the manuscript of Glass the late Allan Kornblum, publisher and founder of Coffee House Press, said, in a warning, “It’s hard to recover from a book like this,” meaning I was heading for disastrous sales and a reputation for not selling that would dog all future books. He was right, of course, but he published it anyway.

JB: Do you print parts of or the whole manuscript and edit by hand after writing on the computer?

SS: No. The only novel I printed out before finishing was Glass, and it is also the only novel whose parts were radically rearranged ex post facto. I printed the novel and chopped it into pieces, maybe forty or fifty, and spread them out on the floor of the living room. Then I walked around and rearranged them. It was the only way I could manage an overview of the whole thing.

sloth

JB: We’ve talked about the kinds of writing you attempted before finding your true voice. In The Cry of the Sloth Whittaker’s letters make up the bulk of the novel, and we are also presented with his diary entries and fragments of his own fiction. Did you use discarded writings of your own or were these bits created during the process of writing?

SS: They were all invented for the occasion.

JB: How was it to write those parts?

SS: Writing for me is a form of impersonation, I think I can say, and so this novel was the occasion for a much larger variety of “experiences” or, maybe, “performances.” If I had a chance to relive the writing of one of my novels, I would choose it.

JB: You mentioned laughing while writing this book. Was it fun to create such a waspish figure as Whittaker? He has some very good lines.

SS: Yes, it was often fun, but sometimes he would break my heart.

JB: What meaning does Whittaker search for, and do you think it’s fruitless? When I read that book, with its time setting in the Nixon era, it seemed to bring together the mess of his own home and the devaluation of property, as mentioned above, with systemic corruption of an organizing entity. How could Whittaker find positive meaning when surrounded by such competing forces?

SS: Near the end of the novel Whittaker says, “I have unpacked my soul and nothing is in it.” He has arrived at the end of his illusions. The image of himself that had guided and oppressed him has been shattered, and he is free. Free for death, possibly, but also free for another kind of life.

It is at that point, in that spiritual desolation, where the constructed self has come undone, that the next three novels begin.

JB: Are these novels a quartet or quintet, then, if we include Firmin? Or do Glass, The Way of the Dog, and This Will End with Us make up a trilogy? How would you characterize the sequence, and would you have an overall title for the works?

SS: I didn’t intend them that way, but in retrospect I can see that the last three do form a sort of trilogy. I would love to see them in a single volume. Maybe I would steal a title from Raymond Chandler and call it The Long Goodbye.

JB: Edna in Glass has to type. This seems to be what she does most. How did you come up with that?

SS: I’m not sure. She was already typing when I met her. But forty years ago I was friends with a man who lived in a basement and “processed” his life, as he put it, writing down everything he thought or experienced in one notebook after another. Though he worked at it for hours every day, he was falling steadily behind, life was unrolling faster than he could record it, to his great distress. He might have been the inspiration for Edna.

JB: In the novel there appears this passage: “I could not think of anything to type at Potopotawoc. Sometimes I copied things out of magazines, I typed an entire issue of the New Yorker, including the ads.” When critics responded to The Cry of the Sloth by thinking it to be a satire of the literary world, you found that not to your liking. But here is another of your characters who performs, unwittingly, an act of uncreative writing. Are there grounds for reviewers to wonder how far apart from the literary world you are? Or maybe you’re far apart from that world, but not from its interests, movements, and concerns.

SS: I am a writer, and writers of all stripes have concerns and interests in common. So in that sense I am a part of the literary world. I read the New York Times Book Review, I subscribe to Bookforum. It’s just that other writers are not participants in my social life, such as it is.

JB: We can’t trust Edna’s version of events any more than we can Whittaker’s. She has a very jaundiced view of her dead husband, Clarence Morton, a writer. The at times unpleasant Whittaker, though that’s not by any means a rounded view of him, is also a writer. Is it a simple convenience to choose writers as figures of derision or do you think negatively of them as a class or group?

SS: I don’t think negatively of writers generally. I don’t care for the ones who are windbags, pontificators, or arrivistes, but who does?

JB: In Glass Edna repeats a comment Morton made, that she thinks too much. Is that possible?

SS: If happiness is the aim then one surely can think too much. I suspect that’s what Morton was suggesting.

JB: Could Morton have meant something else that Edna skewed to her liking?

SS: Sure. He might have been expressing his frustration with a mind that turns in circles, or, better, in spirals, and with a woman whose “unmarketable” ruminations are a silent reproach to him and his hunger for “success.” But as to what he “really” meant, your guess is as good as mine.

JB: At the end of Glass there appears to be deliverance for Edna from her state, to speak vaguely so as not to ruin the experience for future readers. It’s one of the ambiguous endings frequent in your books. How much time did you spend on those last pages?

SS: A lot. I rewrote those pages dozens of times. There was the absolutely important final phrase, “and then I will see,” and I struggled to build a scaffold to it.

JB: To me, Glass is the most overtly philosophical novel you’ve written, due to Edna’s focus on language and her exactitude of impressions, and the dusty glass in her eyrie-like apartment that gets murkier as her economic state declines, speaking, perhaps, not only to Edna but to humanity’s condition of humanity. Do you view the book as your most philosophical?

SS: I don’t know that it is the most “philosophical.” I would apply that label to The Way of the Dog, with its ruminations on story and meaning. But I suppose the judgement here will depend on what sort of thing one regards as philosophical. That said, I have no objection to your description.

The-Way-of-the-Dog11

JB: In The Way of the Dog you move from the writing world to the art world, but the picture you provide is no more positive. Did you have bad experiences in the art world?

SS: I have known more painters than writers, but I have no bad experiences to report.

JB: What painters? What were those interactions like? Do you collect art?

SS: My oldest friend in the world is a painter in France. Impossible to describe such a friendship, short of a book. I don’t collect art.

JB: Harold Nivenson, the narrator, is unwell, and is missing Roy, his dog, who as you said is “emblematic of acceptance and wisdom.” I suppose I could start by asking about your experience with dogs.

SS: I grew up with dogs all around and have lived with dogs, often multiple dogs, whenever circumstances permitted. We have a dog now. I am fond of her, I show it, and she responds. Her predecessor, a marvelous fellow, was dying at my feet while I was writing the novel.

JB: Had you started the novel knowing he was dying, or did this start partway through?

SS: I wrote the first two paragraphs thinking of him, of his impending death, of myself without him. At the time I thought I would not live to write another novel. Hence the paragraphs:

I am going to stop now. A few loose threads to cut, some bits and pieces to gather up and label, so people will know, and then I stop.

I had a little dog. We went through the world together for as long as he lasted, through the world this way and that, just to be going. At the end he had grown so weak I had to prod him onward with my shoe. He is buried somewhere. His name was Roy. I miss him.

So the entire novel, in a sense, came from the presence of the dog at my feet at that moment. I should have listed him a co-author. His name was Bertram. I miss him.

JB: Nivenson is often mean, though to balance that he does love Roy, his dog, and is aware of how he behaved when younger. People drift back into his life, like Molly and Alfie, but before that has much effect we are treated to his impressions of his neighbours. For you, this is a large cast. Was there a different kind of thinking present to accommodate the presence of other characters than from your earlier books?

SS: I don’t see a big difference in the kind of thinking. More people make appearances in this novel than in the others, but none except Moll and the painter Meininger rise to the level of being characters.

JB: Unnamed family members and unnamed former wives are mentioned. This may seem an odd question, but what does it take for a character in your books to be bestowed a name? For it often seems like a dispensation.

SS: They get names if I want to be able to refer back to them in a later passage. If there is only one sister, for example, she becomes “my sister.” Her name doesn’t tell us anything, so why say it?

JB: The presence of Buddhist sayings in this novel is not a typical feature of your works. What significance do they have, and were they used only for the book, or do you see something in Buddhism that appeals to you?

SS: At one time I read a lot of Buddhist works. I still do sometimes. My younger son is in his ninth year at a Tibetan institute in India, undergoing the traditional training of a lama. When I am reincarnated I hope I will have the good sense to become a Tibetan monk.

It-Will-End-with-Us-683x1024

JB: We’ve come to It Will End with Us. Last year for Numéro Cinq I reviewed it, and I’d like to come back to something you said a while ago about your mother, as it relates to Eve Taggart, the narrator of this latest book. Her mother, Iris, is an unpublished poet who’s slowly losing her mind. Eve says this about her writing: “I was fifteen when I finally understood that my mother’s poems were not literature.” In your interview for Poets & Writers from fall 2011 you talked about your mother’s ability to recite poetry from memory, and how much she admired Keats. Did you find her abilities—and I think how you learnt to read, and your sister’s memorization of the dictionary—normal and worth emulating?

SS: Of course. She was a fabulous reader, a great “admirer” in the sense I explained earlier. My family was unusual in many respects, and for me unusual was normal. I can’t begin to even approach my mother’s knowledge of literature nor, I think, do I have the capacity to draw from it the comfort that she did.

JB: What do you draw from it?

SS: Pleasure, of course, at times exquisite; distraction from daily care; insight into what Yeats called the foul rag and bone shop of the heart

JB: In that same interview, you also say your mother “‘…had less of a life than she should have had.’” Readers of It Will End with Us will think of Iris and compare that portrait to what your mother was like. Elizabeth Jones Savage wrote poetry that was published, but I gather that was not enough. Could you say a bit more about her life, and how much she was a model for Iris?

SS: She was not a model for Iris, except very tangentially. My mother would probably have been happier in a Northern city than in a small Southern town, but she was not a tormented woman like Iris. She was extremely kind and gentle. She was soft-spoken and witty. She was, I think, a very wise person. She would have been happier elsewhere, but she had a rich life, and it was a happy life on the whole.

JB: In It Will End with Us Eve is conscious of the absence of animals in her new home, especially birds, and at one point she lists species she used to see in Spring Hope, where she was born. Her family has no descendants, the South is shown in decline, and in the largest sense, the world is fading away as animals slowly disappear from sight. Eve and Spring Hope could be Eve and Eden. Since your latest novel potentially includes everyone in its title, and addresses global concerns, are we meant to see it as an epitaph, an appeal, a warning? With humanity on the brink, is the first woman seeing herself as the last woman?

SS: As regards the natural world, the title can be seen as all three, I suppose, but the mood of the novel is mostly one of mourning, so I think “epitaph” would be best. It is important to note that the “declines” you mention are not at all parallel. In the case of the South the decline is of the old South, the premodern South, a conservative and deeply unjust region that during my childhood was rapidly vanishing beneath the homogenizing imperialism of American cultural sameness, and becoming what the “Old South” is today—a vulgar and ugly parody of itself, the historical wing of Disney World. My childhood is deeply attached to the old dying South (with no caps or quotes), and I can still summon the love I felt for it, but I can’t in good conscience mourn its passing.

JB: Do you have a dim view of our collective future? This isn’t that dystopian novel you tried to write in the science fiction genre, but is it aiming towards that?

SS: I have a bleak view of our collective future. That humankind will survive in the long run does not look like a safe bet at this point. I am not even sure that human survival is something we should wish for. I have no difficulty imagining a not-so-distant future so awful it would be better to have no future at all.

JB: Is there a connection between the use of Biblical imagery here and Buddhism in The Way of the Dog? I mean in your technical use of both and in drawing useful imagery from these sources for the narrators to comment on or, in Eve’s case, perhaps embody.

SS: The imagery was appealing, given the circumstances, but the two cases are quite different. In one it sets up a theme of compassion and acceptance against Nivenson’s bitterness and anger. In the other it evokes a lost paradigm of innocence and perfection in the life of the planet to parallel Eve’s recollection of her banishment from the small Eden of her childhood.

JB: You have a story in the latest Paris Review (No. 211, Winter 2014), “Cigarettes,” one paragraph over two pages of a man and his landlady talking about smoking. She says she should quit but can’t, and often borrows a cigarette from the unnamed male narrator. One thing she says is: “‘Next time I decide to stop, you need to tell me it’s not worth it.’” On the surface it’s an amusing sentence, in context, but here’s a woman looking to have her aim deflected even though she knows smoking is unhealthy. What makes your characters undercut their own motivations?

SS: Well, it seems to me that there is often, and maybe even always, a difference between what we tell ourselves we want or even sincerely believe we want, and what we really do want. The human project, so to call it, often involves finding the right lies to tell ourselves so we can get though the day, and the right tune to whistle as we walk past the graveyard. We are, needless to say, frequently unsuccessful in this project, often because we have other yearnings that undermine it. This is basic Dostoyevsky, by the way, and basic Freud: living characters are never mere collections of traits—they are collections of elements at war with one another.

JB: Is this story part of a collection or an excerpt from a novel?

SS: While I am waiting for a novel, I write little things. They are, I suppose, the debris left behind by my searches for a novel, outgrowths and trimmings of aborted starts. Some are ten or fifteen pages, many are not more than three or four sentences. Some of the shorter ones were published a few years ago in the journal Little Star.

JB: Are there plans for a collection of those pieces? I’d like to see them in book form.

SS: I play with the idea sometimes, of ways I might arrange them so as not to present just a grab bag of disparate stuff. I have a lot of trouble estimating the value of many of them.

JB: Who are you writing for? Do you have an ideal reader?

SS: The ideal reader, I suppose, would be myself as other. By that I don’t mean that I write for myself, far from it, but that I think of my reader as being someone with tastes and inclination more or less in line with my own. That is not, given my personality, a great formula for success in the market.

Savage 2007 (640x480)Sam Savage 2007

Conclusion

JB: Do critical reviews of your work mean much?

SS: By “critical” I suppose you mean negative and not the sort of literary-critical review that you, for example, have written. The answer, in that case, is that I have never received a negative review that I felt touched by. I have never in fact received a negative review at all, if by “review” we mean more than a half-dozen sentences and the granting of little stars, just like in first grade. That, I think, is because a reviewer doesn’t earn any stars for him- or herself by negatively reviewing a book which people weren’t going to read anyway. You get creds in the review world by climbing in the ring with somebody other than some weird old guy who just wandered in off the street.

JB: Is there any question you’ve wanted to be asked but have not been? If so, here is an opportunity to answer it.

SS: Maybe something like the question that Nora Joyce is rumored to have asked Jim: Why don’t you write something that makes sense so we can get a refrigerator?

His answer was not recorded. Nor will mine be.

JB: Before we end, I’d like to return to the subject of your unpublished fiction and poetry, as well as your letters, and any other material a writer might leave behind for institutions and biographers. I’m rather regretful, if you don’t mind me saying, to hear you tossed away so much, and I wonder why that’s your practice. Biographers will be frustrated.

SS: I am a very private person (weird in this day and age, I know). I don’t like the idea of strangers rummaging without restriction in my life, in my past, or in work that I thought not good enough to publish.

—Sam Savage & Jeff Bursey

NC

jeff again (3)

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the forthcoming picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

May 082015
 

Gunilla JosephsonGunilla Josephson

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AN OLD WOMAN in a hospital bed leaks crystal tears.

Behind the windows of stalwart Stockholm houses we spot glimpses of chaos, fragments of high emotion pitching back and forth.

A woman is intently at work, seen only from the shoulders-up, her hair flying, and after a time her head distorts. What is she doing? Playing piano? Maybe. But we worry that she is falling apart or exploding.

“Everything I make is connected with the fibre of my life,” says Swedish-Canadian video artist, Gunilla Josephson. “But I point towards other artists. I’m interested in family– and death, more and more as time goes on.”

After receiving a degree in Sociology, Josephson attended the Stockholm College of Art and Design back in the 1970’s. She recalls a fine arts department dominated by modernist painters and when she declared an interest in experimenting with the then-clunky video equipment, her instructors were appalled: “What do you think you are – American?”

Josephson calls her work “anti-film.” For starters, she rarely uses dialogue. “I hate dialogue, even in books.” We laugh, bearing in mind that her spouse is the novelist, Lewis de Soto. “Dialogue is almost always banal,’ she goes on, being a bit take-no-prisoners in this regard. I flinch, mentally counting up dialogue sections in my own work. ‘Reading is very intense for me,” Josephson says. “I read books that you put down because they are so intense. Lewis in an ex-tensive reader and I’m in-tensive. Very different.”

I’m curious about how they live as artists together. Lewis paints as well as writes and he’s written a biography of painter, Emily Carr. “We talk about film, art and books all the time,” Gunilla says. “And grandchildren.”

Does she offer feedback on her husband’s work in progress?

“Not so much now,” she says, and adds, “to his detriment, if you want to know. I can be a little harsh at times.”

Josephson’s videos evoke feelings of fragility and tenderness in the viewer, yet also, at times, show a playful spirit. One feels an ongoing investigation of  inside/outside;private/public;seen/unseen.

The old woman leaking crystal tears is oblivious to her inside self falling from her eyes. We want to protect her, yet at the same time the viewer might think – “What is there to hide, ever?”

In Josephson’s world, the artist peels back layers to expose what may be alarming or cryptic, or even funny. Can emotions ever be fully contained, or is there always leakage, and if so, why are we so drawn to these moments?

—Ann Ireland

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Ann Ireland (AI): Can you tell us something about your background and education?

Gunilla Josephson (GJ): I was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, except some high school time in Caracas, Venezuela where my father, taught at the university. My mother and grandmother were both Red Cross nurses who when they married, in both generations had to stop practicing their profession. When I understood this fully I took on their indignation which made me a budding feminist.

clip_image004My parents in Stockholm, early 1950s

My dad was a civil engineer/ researcher and also taught at Stockholm University. He worked hard at two jobs, yet when he was with the family he was caring and kind, and never shunned a chore. One day he suddenly quit both his jobs, landed employment at UNESCO and took my mom, my sister and me into the world. We lived in Caracas, Venezuela, but hanging out with ‘radical’ art students after school scared my parents, probably for good reasons, and I was sent back to Sweden to finish High School. Directly after High School followed a year of studying printing techniques at Aquinas University in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where my dad worked at that time. I returned to Stockholm to complete a BA in Social Sciences at Stockholm University. After a few years raising my three children in England in my first marriage and continuing with art studies, we moved back to Sweden and I completed my education with an MFA at [Konstfackskolan] Stockholm College of Art and Design.

AI: Early influences?

GJ: I have an early memory of a yellowed booklet tied with a red ribbon on my Jewish grandfather’s ‘smoking table. It smelled of cigar smoke like everything else in that little room, but I didn’t mind. I opened the booklet and in it were colour prints of paintings, faces, that all seemed alike but and yet different. It said Rembrandts självporträtt. Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Under it I read a dedication Vi tu äro ett [We two are one] written in my grandmother Esther’s beautiful handwriting in blue ink. It touched me deeply and in my young mind my grandparents and Rembrandt van Rijn became one to me that day. I still connect with my paternal grand-parents when I look through the leaflet, now in my book shelf, or when I see one of Rembrandt’s self portraits in a museum.

As a teenager I developed a fascination with Surrealism (not uncommon for teenagers). Perhaps simply because Salvador Dali’s Enigma of Wilhelm Tell and Meret Oppenheim’s Fur tea cup and spoon were in the collection of Moderna Museet in Stockholm and thus were accessible to me. There were no reproductions of art in my family. Art was ‘real’, still held a mystery as the original. If you wanted to see art or know about it you visited museums. Like wine, art must aged to be ‘real art’. Hopelessly Eurocentric, and eccentric.

Later came early feminist artists, Judy Chicago’s iconic The Dinner Table, and Eva Hesse’s skin-like ‘transparencies’. I admired and loved Swedish artists Hilma af Klint and Vera Nilsson, both brave women and pioneers in painting who shaped their own destinies against the consensus of ‘woman as well behaved’ in the mid 20th century.

I took an early interest in films but never dared take the leap, not even in my mind, to apply to Film School. Bunuel and Dali’s Surrealist film Un chien andalou was probably the first art film I saw. It was the tail end of French Nouvelle Vague, and I went to see the films of seminal Belgian auteur Agnes Varda. In1967 Jean Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise hit the cinemas, at least in Northern Europe. It hit me right in the solar plexus and I came out from the cinema a new self, a budding Maoist and completely in love with the film and the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud. I acquired Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and started ‘my real life’.

It was impossible to avoid Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, whose looming presence made it almost impossible to get support to make a film in Sweden between 1950 – 1990. I was an extra at SF [Swedish Film Industry], hoping I would either be discovered as a new Bergman actress (I was 15) or somehow become involved in movie making. All in vain.

In 2001 I made a video, HELLO INGMAR, a short 7 minute cultural patricide in which I rearranged certain Bergman films and inserted myself as a character.

YouTube Preview ImageHello Ingmar

It got the Festival Prize at Oberhausen Short Film Festival. Up until Bergman died in 2009 I was hoping the film would catch his attention, at least enough to irritate him, particularly when it showed in a program at Moderna Museet in Stockholm – but this never happened.

AI: What makes video such a compelling medium?

GJ: There are several aspects to why video can be captivating and gripping, both for artists and viewers.I fell in love with my first Digital video camera [1998] and slept with it beside me. I found the tool compelling, generous in its clarity and crispness of image.

I had not wanted to use video as an artistic tool until then, finding the cameras heavy and the striped image dull. Maybe it worked for the political, but not for the aesthetic and poetic aspects of art. It was in the late 1990s when the light-weight and more affordable digital minicams (handycams) appeared on the market. They prompted a new wave of video art, and to my mind there is a ‘before and after’ in the history of video art. This user friendly yet highly developed tool eliminated the need for heavy equipment. The means of production were now in the hands of the artists, significant for female artists who no longer depended on muscular strength. The MiniDV camera became an explorative instrument; ‘it could roam around, shift focus very quickly and go very close to an object and focus in less than a second. Artists could edit at home on their own computer systems.

AI: Do you see yourself as having an overall project that pulls together individual art projects?

GJ: The overall project is to investigate my encounter with the world. All my work is produced under the umbrella of my production company AHEDDA Films. What holds my productions together are the people I have worked with for many years. Most important to me is Swedish artist/painter, friend and comrade-in-arms Anna-Lena Johansson, who runs a farm with her husband in Normandie, and exhibits her paintings regularly at Gallery Hera in Stockholm. She is a frequent solo performer in my productions since 1999. Canadian, Berlin-based artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay performed in several works with Anna-Lena e.g. The Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke and ART THIEVES.

YouTube Preview ImageHAPPY HOUSE. The Id, the Kid and the Little Red Fireman

YouTube Preview ImageThe Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke

YouTube Preview ImageART THIEVES

For sound in my videos I have collaborated with Toronto musician Eve Egoyan since 2003 . She was the performer in E.V.E Absolute Matrixa 48-minute Floor-to-Ceiling Projection that premiered at Trinity Square Video for The Toronto International Images Festival in 2009. (Read about it in the Globe and Mail here.)

YouTube Preview ImageE.V.E Absolute Matrix

I have also worked with Canadian visual artist and editor Aleesa Cohene since 2002 and with Toronto – based sound editor Konrad Skreta at Charles Street Video.

Last but not least, my life partner, writer Lewis DeSoto, has worked with me in many different ways: script writing, cameraman, computer wizard and as an excellent cook.

AI: You said to me that you are interested in exploring how NOT to be a well behaved woman. What does this mean to you?

GJ: In hindsight that was a general statement that needs to be developed: Today we are able to deal with feminist subject matter with a more analytical eye. Rebellion as a theme throughout any feminist discourse is an intrinsic part of my work. From the actions of the characters (or performers) to my own use of the video camera and later in the editing process I disrupt the norms, constructing resistances to the tyranny of orthodoxy, or, as in Twinning series 

YouTube Preview ImageTwinning: Wall Flowers from the Twinning series

and How to be a Woman

YouTube Preview ImageHow to be a Woman

commenting on them. When shooting video and later in the editing process, I work in a way that exploits unbridled emotion and marries it to abstraction. I challenge the accepted conventions of art as an entertainment that is well behaved.

AI: Is there a Swedish sensibility that you share? What might it be?

GJ: There is an intrinsic sensibility that is connected to that land of intense polarities between the extreme summer light and the winter darkness that I share. It manifests as a worship of nature in the warm season and as the cult of the lit candle in the dark and cold season. Swedes celebrate the solstices intensely. There are many pagan rituals in Swedish culture and seasonal shifts are ritualized since Prehistoric time in that forbidding place. This is just a nostalgia for the infinite. The Swedish model is long dead. Sweden is now a European country politically divided by the rise of a small but ultra conservative party whose priority is to stop immigration. The pagan rituals have been usurped by the Neo-Nazis.

I would also say that ingenuity/inventiveness is a Scandinavian trait. Perhaps a people so long in isolation develops ways of surviving which become methods, then inventions. Hundreds if not thousands of hours huddling by the fireplace seem to be conducive to inventiveness. I would also say that Swedes have a social conscience extending far beyond one’s neighbour.

AI: Do you see yourself as fitting into any school or niche in the Canadian or North American art scene?

GJ: I might not be aware of the niches but what struck me soon after my arrival in 1986 was the powerful position of female artists, and writers, in Canada. I experienced a huge artistic thaw shortly after I left the North European tyranny of Modernism. I soon found the world of moving image art and felt at home and welcome there. That might be my niche..

AI:  Which video artists do you pay attention to and why?

GJ: The art market and the art star system bore me, but I pay attention to my contemporaries with whom I move through the world. Probably the most important image of profound humanity and intensity in expression is Mother and Son, a film portrait of a dying mother and her son by Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov.

Finnish artist Eila-Liisa Ahtila is known for her psychological videos. Her work is highly intellectual and at the same time has a certain stark beauty. Abel Gance’s film Napoléon from 1927 was intended for more than one screen, which was unheard of at that time, and it ran for more than twice the standard feature length. I think of it as the first Art video. That kind of product was relegated to a category called the Third Cinema and was often feared in Sweden as a possible Communist propaganda tool. My films belong to that category too.

I pay attention to Vancouver artist Stan Douglas, in particular a work called The Sandman where the mise en scene is a German allotment on a partitioned sound stage rotating in two directions. The title comes from a found letter about two children and the Sandman. This is a kind of art piece that can only be experienced and is too complex and mysterious to fully remember. Very interesting and inspiring to me.

AI:  Video artists don’t have ‘objects’, exactly, to exhibit. How do you go about installing your work in a gallery or museum setting?

GJ: I work in two veins. I make a moving image that is placed on the wall, playing on a monitor like a sort of painting, as in Nothing is True, a video diptych exhibited at Ryerson Image Center in Toronto, from January 21 to April 5, 2015.

Or, I envelop the viewer in a totality of images and sounds, usually a more epic video, large format video projection, video installation. Occasionally I exhibit film props from the production in the gallery to animate the space.

AI: In the past you made sculptural objects and paintings. How did the transition to video come about?

GJ: It was a love affair between a first generation digital video camera and me. We met at Vistek in Toronto in 1989. Love at first sight. I shot my first video and I edited it using two VCR players. I was invited to participate in a couple of independent Toronto group shows in 1998-99 and simply showed my video playing on a stripped airplane TV monitor with a large pillar balancing on top. I joined Vtape, an excellent international distributor of art videos in Toronto learned computer editing at Charles Street Video and haven’t stopped since. I have changed camera a couple of times as they develop but I’ll never forget the first love, the Panasonic Digital Mini Camcorder.

AI: How much do you map out a video?

GJ: Most of the mapping out happens in my head during a lengthy gestation period. I make a simple drawing for an idea, a concept, and pin it up on the wall. Occasionally I draw a storyboard, I research. I trust my intellect and my life experience to steer me. We scout for places and spaces as shooting locations. A mise en scène gradually comes to life, working with the same people. I am not interested in control. I don’t have a Director’s chair. I do guerrilla filming. I want to destroy the One Man’s perspective dominating the history of film. For instance if you take the camera into the Catacombs in Paris along with your character in WW2 Resistante costume, you cannot be sure what will happen. The story line/narrative is created, in part, depending upon the material we come away with, but always following the loose narrative, even for my ongoing series of video portraits. There is always some kind of story told. I then go home and write the next scene, often together with my husband, Lewis de Soto. He thinks linearly, which can be useful when you assemble a video for a rough cut. Later you can destroy it. A good example is The Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke produced during a four months Canada Council Residency at Cité International des Arts in Paris in 2003.

JD is an anti-narrative feature -length video about a Quebecoise nun who thinks she works as a courier for the Resistance in WW2 Paris, roaming in tourist spots like the Louvre, Père Lachaise Cemetery, the Catacombes, Notre Dame Cathedral, les Quais, etc. The cast were Adrienne Le Coutour as J.Darke, Anna-Lena Johansson as Evil Gestapo Nun and Berlin based Canadian artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay as Jean MalreuxResistant.

We collaborated and improvised, discussed, wrote and shot. In the end we did not make a movie, which was my concept, but a strange meandering document where the camera had its own will, sabotaging the story and ultimately turning into itself. It is the story of a video that refuses to become a movie. With this film I am commenting on and parodying the clichés and tropes of the WW2 Resistance Movie genre while consistently pointing to paintings, music, books, and all kinds of histories, as the more important, and fun task. In the last scene when Johanna is in jail I use the text of the last two pages of Albert Camus’ L’étranger. I have always wanted to press those lines into art.

AI: Some of your work is narrative in structure, other pieces focus solely on image and sound. These are two distinct ways of working. Care to comment?

GJ: Every image suggests a narrative, even a still. As much as I would hate to confuse anyone I don’t really see a distinction between a narrative and a slowly moving portrait. The only difference is that the narrative in the portrait is that of the viewer.

AI: There is always an element of mystery in your work, something hidden or half-hidden, or seeking to be exposed. Comment?

GJ: I am seeking. Truths are always hidden or suppressed in our society. A mystery revealed loses its allure. Questions are more interesting than answers.

AI: Role of sound?

GJ: It is good to start with the proposition that sound tracks are the enemy of the moving image. Soundscapes are the antidote to an illustrative sound track. I use sound as a psychological dimension that operates in parallel with the image. Sound in an art video is the opposite of multiple sound tracks in commercial movies. Sound does not illustrate, it comments on and makes a work more intimate, more accessible. Often I create a kind of silence. Silence is quietly noisy. Complete silence hurts the ear. Sound should nor be heard but felt.

AI: The work often evokes a feeling of tenderness in the viewer, a desire to protect the fragility of what is  being looked-at, whether it be a person or an object. Why are these feelings/sensations interesting to explore?

GJ: These feelings are yours. Humanity evokes tenderness.. Both happiness and suffering evokes tenderness. I love life, its cruelty, fragility and beauty.

AI: You said to me, “Everything I make is connected to the fibre of my life.” Can you expand?

GJ: I don’t see a separation between art and life. The art work is the manifestation and the residue of living. It is not interesting to produce art for the sake of producing art.

AI: What are you working on these days? And what shows/exhibitions do you have coming up in the next year or two?

GJ: Dinner in my new kitchen which I will be exhibiting to all my friends. You can come too.

Ok seriously, I have a work in an exhibition at Ryerson Image Centre ANTI GLAMOUR, running until the end of April. I am currently working toward “Ways of Something”; a commission for a one minute video interpreting a segment from John Berger’s 1972 BBC Television series Ways of Seeing”, curated by Toronto artist and curator Lorna Mills. Simultaneously I am producing a commissioned short film with Canadian writer Russell Smith. As well, a lot of thought and research goes toward a solo exhibition in September 2016 at Rodman Hall Art Centre, St. Catharines, Ontario, curated by Stuart Reid.

In process and closest to my heart is a film Pieta, of my mother’s last hours. A difficult but ultimately beautiful process.

—Gunilla Josephson & 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.

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Apr 102015
 

David Zieroth travel pic

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DAVID ZIEROTH IS A GOVERNOR General’s Award winning poet and memoirist. His writing career began in the 1970s with his first publication, Clearing: Poems from a Journey, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award. He won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 1999 for How I Joined Humanity at Last, and the Governor General’s Award for English language poetry in 2009 for The Fly in Autumn. After a 25-year career as a creative writing instructor at Douglas College, in New Westminster, BC, Zieroth has retired to write full time.

I met David in 1999 at Douglas College. We’ve remained in touch largely through a mutual friend and enjoy comparing our reading lists. Once every summer I look forward to discussing literature with David over a glass of wine on a brick patio overlooking Shoal Channel in Gibsons, BC. He’s broadly read, has an incisive mind, tells traveller’s tales with aplomb and loves to laugh at his own failings.

In the 1990’s David reclaimed his first name, leaving Dale Zieroth behind, a moniker attached to him by a first grade teacher with two Davids in her class. Since, he’s come into his own as a force in Canadian literature working in a variety of forms: poetry, memoir, and creative non-fiction. He has been praised for his “intelligence that sometimes moves with staggering speed.”–—Brian Bartlett, Fiddlehead. The Governor General’s Award winning The Fly in Autumn received this citation from the jury: “In The Fly in Autumn, David Zieroth addresses our common and defining human fate—the loneliness that is a rehearsal for death—with a tenderness and buoyancy that shows the reader ‘how to walk in the dark with flowers.’ The intricacy and exuberance of rhyme and the breadth of vision are stunning.”

On an unusually bright November day, I met Zieroth at his favourite coffee shop in North Vancouver. We sat down with cups of coffee in the busy café, and immediately we both broke out bags of books.

—Kathryn Para

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Interview

KP (Kathryn Para): I first knew you as a creative writing instructor at Douglas College, and you were a bit sharp and very intimidating. I think it was late in your tenure and you were tired of teaching, and yet I remember worlds opening in that class. In The November Optimist your protagonist calls himself a “Conscious Curmudgeon.” Is curmudgeonness difficult to keep out of your work, or do you naturally gravitate to the generosity particularly apparent in The November Optimist?

DZ (David Zieroth): When I start writing, there’s a certain necessary lack of editing, and sometimes that curmudgeon is strong. There’s less of him than there used to be, because, of course, it’s my job as a human being to refine that curmudgeon a little bit, to balance him. I used to be more aware that he was there – and his perspective is valid – but I’m less bothered by his presence now.

No one wants to read a curmudgeon’s writing. Unless it’s that of Thomas Bernhard, the great Austrian writer. His work is so acid it’s almost unbearable, but you can’t help but love it because of the incisive skewering.

KP: What are you reading now?

DZ: I’ve got five books with me: On Being Blue: a Philosophical Inquiry, by William H. Gass; 1913: The Year Before the Storm, by Florian Illies, which is about writers and artists of that time, about Rilke having a cold and Kafka writing his endless marriage proposal; Let Me Go, a holocaust memoir by Helga Schneider; Heinrich Böll’s Irish Journal; and The Hundred Lives, by Russell Thornton, a remarkable poet who lives right here on the North Shore.

I spend quite a lot of time in second-hand book stores because it seems I’m more interested in books that I’ve missed than in books that are coming. Perhaps that’s ironic or paradoxical, or perverse or worse, for a writer to say. I said once that I was going to read new books until I was 65 and then reread, but it hasn’t worked out that way.

KP: How did Marcus Aurelius’s work come to your attention, and why is it important to you?

DZ: It must have been in university, a long time ago. He went away and then came back decades later. I was reading him when I was writing The Fly in Autumn. And he appears in “Vindobona,” a poem in Albrecht Dürer and me. What I like about Marcus Aurelius is that I can hear his calming voice from across the 2000 years. Plus he has a strong moral vision that appeals to me.

KP: The Education of Mr. Whippoorwill: a Country Boyhood is an autobiographical work, and personally, my favourite piece by you, partly because it’s so familiar—I grew up on a farm—and because I love the tone: the recognition of a hard life, and the compassion completely free of sentimentality. How did growing up on a farm help develop that sense of compassion?

DZ: I did see that animals suffer: they were tired, cold, thirsty. The cows came in from the field, and they rushed to the water trough. Also, there were people worse off than my family: those passing through, those who were poor – poorer than we were – and those who were just unhappy. My parents were stable, decent folks, aware of the strange people and the people who might not make it through the winter. You learn from the sense of community that surrounds you.

KP: In Crows Do Not Have Retirement, in the poem “Question,” you write: “when I was afraid to say/ I had a soul…” Were you afraid? Why? What is the concept of soul to you now?

DZ: Years back, the notion of having a soul—I had trouble with that idea. Do I have a soul? The poem brought that up. Now, instead of asking if I have a soul, it seems obvious that I am a soul. That’s a different perspective. The soul has these things it has to do, and some things are hard and some things are easy, some things it loses control of and some things it tries out anew, and it’s all the work of being human.

KP: November is a grey month, but particularly so here in Vancouver. I dread the loss of light and the short days, but here we sit in an unusual arctic chill and bright sun. I made it through last winter on such a long bright chill. Does the light make a difference to you? If so, why stay here and not return to the prairies where the sun shines on a regular basis?

DZ: I’ve lived in North Van since the seventies, so almost by accident it’s become home. In July, August and September it’s paradise, so the secret is to get away in January. And it doesn’t have to be Mexico. I don’t mind the cold, I don’t mind the snow, it just has to be light. I suffer from SAD, and it can be startling what a difference light makes. It’s hard to articulate that to people who don’t have it. It’s not the rain, it’s the cloud cover you’re wearing like a heavy, huge hat! I like the prairies, I have friends there, family there, but… And the best thing about Vancouver is: no bugs.

KP: In The Fly in Autumn, the poem “All of Life We Practice Dying,” you write: “slowly he unearths that asking why/ is a way to prayer, to soften and/enter the quietus after rage.” Is there prayer for you? Does it offer peace?

DZ: No, but I take the question to mean, do I have a spiritual practice of some sort. There are so many different ways of praying. For me the practice is writing. Not that what I’m writing is necessarily prayer-related, but the practice of writing is a way of centering, of clarifying and creating, and no matter what the poem is about, just the actuality of writing it, creating it and making it right is a jubilation. I can’t imagine not writing. It’s very healthy, it’s who I am, and not to do it would exact a tremendous cost. The peace that comes from writing is the peace of satisfaction, of fulfillment, even of surprise, because of course in writing there are always those moments that make you think, Where did that come from? You’re inside something going on inside you.

KP: In How I Joined Humanity at Last, which was the first volume by you that I had read, you wrote a poem called “Foot Rub,” which is the poem I recall first. I couldn’t get over its intimacy, and the strength of the image has remained, the father holding the daughter’s foot. How do you survive the intimacy of publication?

DZ: The old chestnut is, “Poetry is what you say to yourself, and prose is what you say to other people.” There has to be an element of heart in the poem, and because you’re talking with yourself, you explore the images and ideas that come to you, and intimacy is natural. The kind of writing I’m doing needs to touch other people; it’s not dazzling in its language, it’s not formally a masterpiece, so it has to have an element that will reach across to the other. As for publication, I don’t think about it too much, but, yes, there is a vulnerability involved.

KP: The November Optimist reads like an ode to loneliness. It’s so intimate and the device of including the reader with the “you” construction gives such a personal focus for the desire of the narrator. It was very easy to put myself in that place. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that the object of desire is not achieved, and the narrator returns to books as the more real or satisfying experience—“the return to the pages’ dream” (page 88). How is the intimacy offered by literature, poetry or prose, a replacement for love?

DZ: Anybody who’s been in love knows that there’s no comparison, there just isn’t. There’s nothing like love. But having said that, if there isn’t love, what’s lovely about books is that they’re such good company, in a wide range of voices, and they offer intimacy. All the books I’m reading now offer that quality, where you can hear a person thinking, feeling, mulling. And it’s not just feeling, you’re also privy to their technique, their art. Books are no replacement for people, but they’re an excellent second best.

KP: As the winner of Canada’s most prestigious literary prize, what can you say about the value of prizes?

DZ: The value of the prize was very personal. The best thing about it was how happy my friends were. In some ways they were more excited than I was. People would say heartwarming words to me, and it was gratifying to see that I lived in a community of people who were so supportive.

The money meant I could fix my teeth, pay off my debts, and I could travel. Our country recognizes the importance of writing by placing money in the jury’s hands. The validation meant that my other books might get read a bit more. I didn’t need the validation – though I might have needed it two or three books before.

The larger question? Awards acknowledge achievement, but they also create losers. Think of all the writers who didn’t win the award. And I think it’s hard on writers who win an award too soon. That kind of attention can cripple them. They have this perception that a lot of people are waiting for the next book, and they’re not able to get back to that necessary solitude of the self without thinking of all these people waiting. Is this what they want? Is this what I should be doing?

Earle Birney said, you always want to discourage writers, because the real writers will continue anyway. I don’t know if he actually said that, but there’s some truth to it.

KP: How does the Alfred Gustav Press fit into the new world of publishing?

DZ: I wanted to work with paper and with poets and coloured pencils. I’m in production right now. I draw every cover, and there’s a temptation to go quickly, but I have to slow down and be patient. There’s a value in working closely and carefully, with every cover different because each is hand done, and a physical pleasure in collating pages and stapling them together.

I named the press after my father, a lover of winter reading; he was also the kind of person who could fix things with nothing, or so it seemed. I’m trying to create beautiful books in the way he repaired machinery on the farm. And of course it’s about the poetry, about the manuscripts that come to us, and about the way we decide on the ones we publish.

KP: Juggling the meanings of words in the series of poems, International Relations, reveals your delight in language, although as a poet, that seems a given. In, do me a favour, you leap from the literal translation of láskavosť or kindness into the figurative, then into abstraction, then turn gracefully to a concrete visual summary of the concept. What technical choices are you consciously making here?

DZ: I am not conscious of technique when I write, and the idea of paying attention to technique while writing is bewildering to me, and so I have very little to say. I don’t use that language.

I write intuitively: Do the words speak, do they catch at that something that is there that is more than words? I’m not thinking, or not just thinking, because of course I am assessing, weighing, accepting, rejecting words all the time (and certainly when I’m revising even if already the first joy of the thing is paling) but always in such a fashion that I’m open to what is wordless up until then.

All of which sounds different from the way it actually is, which is both lightning fast and dead slow. At any rate when I’m writing I’m not thinking about line breaks et al; rather I’m trying to grasp the whole experience engendered in the inspiration so that it can be more than me. And sometimes it works!

And sometimes I get in the way and block my own openness to whatever thought is singing through me, my own preconceptions taking over and stalling the growing poem. And sometimes I don’t hear enough in the first place. Then I go back to the couch and the novel. Or to such a travel book as D. H. Lawrence’s Etruscan Places: “The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.”

KP: Your newest book of poetry is Albrecht Dürer and me. What can you tell me about it?

DZ: Travel was an opportunity the Canadian taxpayer gave me when I was awarded the Governor General’s Award. I wasn’t planning to travel, because I didn’t have money or time, and then my daughter married an Austrian and they live in Vienna, and gradually I began to travel, and now I can’t live without it.

So the book emerged as a surprise. I wasn’t thinking about writing a book of travel poems. The book is really about someone who is looking at what it’s like to live away from home and to rethink ideas about home and elsewhere. Travelling is both thrilling and confusing. On the back of the book it says, “these are poems that could only be discovered through dislocation.” And that’s true, the book’s about what one learns from dislocation but also from surprise, art, history, music and people. It’s a pilgrimage in a way: there are poems about James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, W.H. Auden, Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner. The audacity! Who am I to write about these famous people? But the Auden poem, for example: We borrowed a car and went to the Vienna woods one day, and Auden’s grave is there, and something about it spoke to me, and I asked myself, am I really going to write this poem? I resisted for a while; then I thought no, this wants to be done, so I’ll do it. It was very satisfying.

—David Zieroth & Kathryn Para

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The following group of poems is new work inspired by an unexpected friendship that began with meeting a random stranger in a café, a visitor to North Vancouver from Slovakia. We ended up meeting regularly over a number of months, exchanging language lessons, sharing our fascination with each other’s language. I thought of calling these poems “International Relations.” —David Zieroth

 

hovädiny

means not important in Slovak
but as the word emerged in greater
context I heard it come closer
to BS, the way Miro tossed it
as we entered and left a store

a Bratislava citizen, he attempted
to tune my friends’ ears and mine
to the soft ‘l’ we could barely
hear, certainly not pronounce
just as he had trouble with the ‘v’

in Vancouver, which he managed
beautifully by the time his four months
ended and he flew home, leaving us
to wonder what else besides the
softness of a consonant we had missed

his self-containment we understood
a sportsman’s, blue-eyed focus
and the way old houses brought him
joy and awakened his village within—
a world before money

which rekindled my own child-self
climbing without fear into a wagon
to sit between two strange men
horses waddling ahead, tender
joking I understood as kindness

.

rozhádzaný

means rattled in Slovak, he said
the morning he told about
leaping back before a big car
ran him down, the white hand
untruly telling him he was safe

I said the sun must have blinded
the driver’s eyes, sun so rare
and you’re invisible, Miro
I joked, like all Slovaks here—
when last did we see a Slovak?

rattled, because usually traffic
here is polite, unlike his city’s
where pedestrians have to cross
cautiously, cars are king
and walkers never smile, too long

under the realm of closed borders
some wary of what others say
their language owing a debt
to history, more Russian than
English available for curses

if over 30 you’d know Czech
and German and other fears
a nation the size of an island
surrounded by five larger ones
and far from the calming sea

.

hviezda

means star in Slovak, and
that evening we thought
at first Venus was a plane
landing at YVR except
it didn’t move just brightened

above the city, the sky
behind deepening into black
Miro cooking his country’s
famous kapustnica soup
and when we ate our fill

I looked into the night sky
and heard myself wonder
that I might have been born
elsewhere, hours of air travel
away, perhaps where paprika

grew in a garden and wise
hands grated cabbage
into sauerkraut and added
salt and blessings—or where
men rode in war machines

stars on their shoulders—
instead, fortune found me
in good company, half dozing
(driemajúci), and distance
no more than a table length

.

šťastný

means happy in Slovak but also
lucky, a good pairing of the near-
impossible, I said, and Miro
laughed, understanding jokes
a sign of his improving English

then he showed me how
to stretch the mouth sideways
to say the word: as one grins
with lips in a line, his language
using more mouth, less tongue

than mine—and slowly
I heard a door open
where he once had lived
amongst the days he owned
then, a boy whose father

whistled from a window
time now to come home
all the hours he played
so freely with his friends
in the gardens, on streets

I heard that door again
as we bent over sushi, a first
for him, when its freshness
made him speak of food
his mother made each day

.

smutný

means sad in Slovak, maybe
homesick—everyone knows
how the struck chest sags
how the twist in the valves
yields an arid song

we must turn our faces
away from friends when
such feeling builds, fearing
kindness will trigger
the up-rush of tears

when asked ‘What gives
strength?’ Miro looked away
said ‘Boyhood returning
before sleep,’ sweet warmth
he savoured, a nakedness

that gave for one moment
assurance to continue—and if
perturbing events prevailed
to je život—it is life—not
to diminish but to accept

that fullness extracted a price
he paid at evening
in order to arise next morning
reborn, the old smutný cloak
not to be worn at all that day

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do me a favour…

…I said to Miro, please say
favour in Slovak láskavosť—
which also means kindness!
my head tilting at their linking
as if I’d misheard…

then leaving favour behind
I leapt on to nuance instead
eager to explain that
yes, he was kind to his mother
but he was not her kindness

unless of course truly he was!
he the part in her that let her
love the world so that she left
cruelty behind when he was born
an only son, always a favour

from the gods few believed even
lived anymore, how at the instant
of their demise they kindly
cut us free before they themselves
dissolved: vapour, steam, heat rising

vanished, only present now
when a mother made soup
filled the house with vegetable
smells, the tug, animal:
umbilical, primal and always kind

.

pie in the sky

…I explained as aspirations
beyond natural capability
a meaning that engaged us
much less than choices
we might make with mouths:

blueberry—čučoriedka?
apple—jablko? I thought
of my mother’s raisin creation
brimming with dark sugar
and a crust of rising gold

I chomped through thoughtlessly
presuming everywhere
had such fare, surely not
a rare great expectation
from a naïve boy’s point of view

(even if famine in China
came in waves back then)
and prompted by time I asked
Miro for his impromptu sky-
target—a ticket to Bhutan!—

we both looked up as if to see
hovering in the heavens more
than sun, then instantly loved
its vastness we could not live
without, food for our light within

.

speak of the devil…

…I said, and Miro understood
said hovorit o čertovi back to me
his example classic: talking about
certain person X who just then
enters the room!—although

no horns on him, no black cape
flowing back into searing flames
no fork ready to pierce us even
though we’re not believers in either
this fellow or his angelic counterpart

later, on the street, we met
a deranged man—and I heard
my own mind thinking heedlessly
‘the devil take the hindmost’
but I intended the local madman
no further harm or worsening run

didn’t mention the phrase’s arrival
as we walked, deemed it puzzling
and worthless—until I thought
was not that the way the devil
worked, squeezing himself in

wherever he could?—and so many
entryways waiting! I was made fearful
but then breathed again, knowing
my friend, upright and near, would help
to save me from myself, if need be

—David Zieroth

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David Zieroth’s latest publication is Albrecht Dürer And Me (2014), poems. The November Optimist, (Gaspereau 2013), is part memoir, part fiction and part poetry. The Fly in Autumn (Harbour, 2009) won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in that year and was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry in 2010. He has also published The Village of Sliding Time (Harbour, 2006), a long poem; Crows Do Not Have Retirement (Harbour, 2001), poems; and The Education of Mr. Whippoorwill: A Country Boyhood (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 2002), a memoir. He won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize for How I Joined Humanity at Last (Harbour, 1998); his work has been shortlisted for a National Magazine Award, and his poems have appeared in over thirty-five anthologies, including A Matter of Spirit: Recovery of the Sacred in Contemporary Canadian Poetry (Ekstasis, 1998). He has also published five chapbooks: Hay Day Canticle (Leaf Press, 2010), The Tangled Bed (Reference West, 2000), Palominos and other poems (Gaspereau Press, 2000), Dust in the Brocade (The Alfred Gustav Press, 2008) and Berlin Album (Rubicon Press, 2009). He was born in Neepawa, Manitoba, and now lives in North Vancouver, B.C. www.davidzieroth.com

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Mar 312015
 

Jen Bervin

 

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EN BERVIN IS AN ARTIST and maker of poems without boundary or limit. Her poetry is a poetry of connections, threads, weaving, words born of sound and image, of history, text from textile, textile from text. Her poetry emerges in art venues, artists’ books, public performance, silk film, and it is fabricated with typewriters, sequins, thread, ink and, soon, nanotechnology.

I will not forget the first time I saw her Dickinson Fascicles, large-scale, wall-size embroideries of the punctuation and markings found in the hand-stitched booklets that Emily Dickinson made for her poems. I leaned in close to the fabric on the wall, my eyes riding the twitching rhythm of the marks across the batting, but also the minuscule rising and diving within each mark, stitch by stitch. I raised my hand instinctively, perhaps as a conductor would before a score, and paused, imagining the texture of the text on the tips of my fingers. Then I traced in the air those gaps and spans where there was nothing at all.

Jen Bervin

But there’s always something. Even white space, Bervin has said, citing John Cage, is musically scored. In Nets, her book of erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets, she wrote, “When we write poems, the history of poetry is with us, pre-inscribed in the white of the page; when we read or write poems, we do it with or against this palimpsest.” Her work—at the intersection of writing and weaving, text and textile, song and silence—makes luminous that which we hadn’t noticed or, until she showed us, been able to see.

Her current—and most ambitious—project, the Silk Poems, is an experimental book (if “book” is defined loosely) that takes silk, in Bervin’s words, “as its subject and form, exploring the cultural, scientific, and linguistic complexities of silk, mending, and the body through text and images nanoimprinted on transparent silk film.” If you were to hold up a piece of this translucent material, what would it look like? What might you see? Very little at all—until you shine fiber-optic light through it. Then the words and pictures would jump up, projected into bloom. Here too, embedded within the high technology, history pulses: 5000 years of culture, art, and writing, of poets, traders, emperors, laborers. The history and the silk itself almost invisible, until illuminated.

While most of us think of silk as something we might wear, scientists regard it as much more than that. They’ve recently begun unlocking its remarkable properties, some of which could eventually have widespread high-tech and biomedical uses. Bervin believes that poetry has work to do in the world. With silk film, that work travels beyond the library or classroom, beyond books and academia, and into laboratories—even, potentially, into our own bodies. Bervin’s work shows us that every trace, every thread matters, every mark, every last letter, everything we hide and everything we reveal, that art and poetry are made of our intentions, and that we are too.

In Souls of the Labadie Tract, Susan Howe describes how, two hundred and fifty years ago, the theologian, pastor, and writer Jonathan Edwards traveled between parishes in Western Massachusetts by horseback, writing as he rode and pinning those notes— scraps of paper fashioned from silk or other some other salvaged fabric—to his clothing, “fixing in his mind an association between the location of the paper and a particular insight.” He would arrive at his destination dressed in words. Today words needn’t only clothe us; they may quite literally enter and become a part of us. With the right light, poetry rises through and from the page, rises to the walls, and signals and shines beneath our skin.

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Although her Silk Poems research has her traveling widely and often, Jen Bervin and I were able to talk at length on the phone in early January 2015, which is where the bulk of the interview below has its origins. We continued editing, revising, and refining over a series of follow-up emails. I have known her for about four years now, and no matter the medium—online, on the phone, or in person—Jen is unfailingly generous, kind, engaging, and gracious. She laughed often throughout our conversation and conveyed an infectious enthusiasm about her work and writing/making art in general.

Jen Bervin (JB): Earlier you asked me about where I was and whether I was writing poems for the Silk Poems project already.

Darren Higgins (DH): Yes.

JB: Right now I am thinking more about content and forms—really the overall structure. But one of the things that I have been doing as I research is trying to realize when components of the research get too big and should be diverted into their own thing. That has amounted to some very exciting thinking.

I knew that the research would lead me in some wild directions, but one of the treasures that I came across in Suzhou, China, was a woven replica of a poem composed in the fourth century B.C.E. by a Chinese woman poet, Su Hui. It is written in a reversible form she invented—a 29 x 29 character grid that can be read in any direction, yielding thousands of possible poems. Moreover, she wrote it in five colors and embroidered the poem in silk.

Jen Bervin Su Hui Suzhou
There is very little written about the poem in English. David Hinton translated one quadrant of it under the title “Star Gauge” and has a useful essay on it, “Welling Out of Silence.” The best work on this poem I’ve been able to find is by the French poet, Michèle Métail, who wrote a whole book on it: Le vol des oies sauvages. So I was trying to read about the poem in French, which is pretty slow going.

Jen Bervin
When I was in Italy on the Bogliasco Fellowship this past fall, I started hashing out a rough translation of it with substantial help from the dancer in residence, Mei-yin Ng. I was spending a lot of time looking up definitions of words but, seriously, you come across single characters that have up to 70 meanings.

DH: How many?

JB: Seventy, seven-zero.

DH: My god.

JB: You can imagine, as a non-native speaker of Chinese, the translation problems it starts to pose. To add to the mess, the poem was written in complex Chinese characters and now it’s typically presented in simplified Chinese characters, which are slightly different, so that’s when I lost it in Italy. I thought, “Oh my God, I’m translating it from the simplified Chinese. I’m not even translating from the right alphabet yet.”

DH: Must have been incredibly frustrating…

JB: I’d been at it for quite a while. Not to mention the fact that a Chinese character can act as any part of speech, depending on context, and the meaning of the character changes according to the character next to it. If you’re coming to that character from all different directions, the meanings are very much in flux. It’s an infinite poem, essentially. I felt both so thrilled and daunted by it and also somewhat appalled that there was just so little written about it. That there was this treasure written by a woman so early on, the complexity of which we really haven’t matched today, and it’s not a well-known thing!? That was shocking to me.

DH: Hard to believe.

JB: Like with any big, delicious problem I started to think about what could be done. And like with any big, delicious problem in art I took a lot of wrong tacks looking for something that works, but what it has come down to now is really beyond thrilling—some real progress. I think that Jody Gladding is going to translate the Michèle Métail book, so that whole book could, in some form, be available in English to English-speaking audiences. The book goes into not only the complexity of the reading patterns and how you might structurally read it but also the celestial maps that influence the structure of the poem, and it talks about a lot of poems that came out of Su Hui’s work and were influenced by it.

Now we’re just figuring out where it might go publication-wise. Hopefully we can lure David Hinton back into trying to translate the rest of the poem. You can imagine that it’s quite a task—a task that could be done thousands of times over with different results!

DH: Unending possibilities.

JB: Right. But the thing that seemed most exciting to me was to have the experience of time in that poem, and to keep the textile aspect of it in the foreground. I can’t read Chinese, so I thought, well, for me to embroider it would be a craft, not a reading experience. This is when something very special that I encountered on my research trip, in the same city where I encountered the facsimile of that poem for the first time, came back to me—the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute.

This is a place where highly, highly trained embroiderers make these double-sided works that can be viewed from either side, so it’s essentially a reversible image. These embroideries take a couple of years to make and I thought that it would be really exciting for me to commission embroideries of this poem, after first building a relationship with a few embroiderers at the institute who have an interest in reading poetry. And then, through conversations, writing, and film, we would track the experience of the embroiderers—of their relationship to the poem—and let that be its translation too.

DH: Adding another layer of translation (and meaning). In this case, a translation of experience as well.

JB: Yes. The important part of that work is the experience of the embroiderers’ journey with that poem. That’s what is exciting to me.

DH: You’ve been working on this Silk Poems project for a while now. When did this new plan start to come together?

JB: Well, none of it would have happened without the Creative Capital Grant in 2013—I’ll never cease being thankful for that one. We visited China around the beginning of November 2013, and I’ve been talking about that Su Hui poem non-stop ever since. The whole solution came slowly, first with begging Jody to translate the Métail book. I was just trying to read the book in French for awhile. I soon realized that it was becoming a question of what I need for my research vs. what I would hope would be available to a lot of other people.

DH: That seems like a crucial distinction. Can you talk more about that last point?

JB: I think that’s where a lot of these decisions were coming from—I could spend a lot of time in this Su Hui poem trying to translate it, but I don’t feel confident (given that I’m not a Chinese translator and this is one of the most difficult translation projects imaginable) that I could bring that experience to other people in a way that’s as meaningful as the idea to collaborate with an embroider at the research institute. I could point to that collaboration as a kind of solution to get other people interested in working on it again.

I’m a big fan of the joyful solution and that really feels like one…so that happened within the last month or two.

DH: This poem has an interesting back story: Su Hui’s husband, a government official, took a concubine, which infuriated Su Hui. He soon after left for a distant post with this mistress. Su Hui refused to go, but it’s said that she grew to miss him and composed the poem to win him back and call him home. According to the story, it worked. He dismissed the concubine and rejoined Su Hui.

JB: The story is quite compelling, and it is mostly what gets discussed—the story of the poem. That she sent this poem as a letter obviously has a lot of resonance for me with the Dickinson envelope poems. Su Hui’s intended audience for the poem, and her intended purpose as well, is quite singular and yet the poem everything but—it’s infinite. It’s easy to fall into the trap of speculating about a writer’s life instead of focusing on her work, and this is too often the case with women artists and writers. When a lot of translations of the poem exist and Su Hui’s work is getting tons of attention, I won’t need to have this redirecting bent. I look forward to that.

DH: There is so much here. It’s the kind of project you could play with for the rest of your life, essentially.

JB: Yes. But I think that for the sake of the Silk Poems, the nano-imprinted silk film, to simply reproduce the Su Hui poem is enough. You lose the five colors because it’s not a color format. But simply to have it present and to allow its structure of reading to help me think about how other things appear or inform how they are read—that idea of reversibility, which was already in the silk poem, coming out of the DNA structures and writing forms related to the structures—has already done its work.

DH: Hearing you talk about reversibility makes me think of how you’ve always paid attention not merely to the front of a piece, the part we might most readily see, but the flipside as well, as in The Desert. That play between the seen and unseen, the possible and the revealed… it comes up again and again, now that I think about it. In Nets, your words float to the surface in pools of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In the Dickinson Fascicles, you highlight markings, symbols, twitches. In the Gorgeous Nothings, you and Marta Werner bring scraps and torn envelopes and variations to the fore. Do you see this interest playing out in the Silk Poems? Perhaps in how you want to record the experience of the embroiderer as another form of translation?

Jen Bervin Desert_1open

JB: Absolutely. Just as you said.

DH: So, what has all this new thinking done to your original concept for the project?

JB: If anything it’s just a huge relief. I feel like in our practice one of the most difficult things is coming to the right framing of something that’s really exciting to everyone, and once that’s in place, the work becomes very easy and fluid. It’s when you’re stuck in that purgatory I was in with that poem that things are complicated.

I think of myself as a giant digesting machine for all of this, and I’m just so relieved when something becomes that clear.

DH: You don’t seem to panic, or at least not outwardly, when you are having doubts or collecting endless amounts of information without a sense of where it’ll lead.

JB: The thing is I panic but I’m talking with everyone about that panic. One of the things that I really wanted with the Silk Poems in particular was exactly that aspect, that I couldn’t figure out almost any of it alone, and that it was something that I was going to have to keep talking about with lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of people to get anywhere interesting, both in the research and in the development of the project.

I really love that idea that you can’t make a work alone. I question the idea of single authorship in general, but especially in a work that has and draws from such a complex history and such a complex presence in a sense.

With all the scientific development in this work, the historic wealth of information about silk, and art and literature that draw from silk, the too-muchness of it was a known problem to begin with.

DH: So it was built in from the start that you’d interact and collaborate with people from different disciplines, different industries even, across the world?

JB: Yes. I think also I wanted to get much more comfortable feeling out of my element in every way.

DH: How so?

JB: If you walk into a bioengineering lab where they are developing new uses for silk, you pretty much don’t know anything. You just have to enjoy the place of asking a ton of questions about it and continuing to ask those, and not being embarrassed about having to race up to speed every time you enter.

DH: What’s appealing or exciting about that to you?

JB: I’ve always felt like it’s a trap in the arts to get comfortable in your work. I think naturally we revert to ways of thinking pretty readily. I’m guilty of that, but I think if you choose things that make doing that pretty impossible, then it puts you in some good spaces to learn and explore. I am excited about making something that doesn’t look like anything else I have made and has a process that doesn’t resemble any other process I have worked with before.

DH: When did you first realize that this is the way that you enjoyed working?

JB: I didn’t say I enjoyed it! I said that I wanted to work that way. I think by nature I am very shy and I’m also very curious, so that’s something I have to live with in the world. It’s not necessarily comfortable to go about things this way, but it certainly is interesting. Does that make sense to you?

DH: It does. I know, from being an inherently shy person myself, that there’s a certain jolt in saying yes to an idea or proposal that makes me uncomfortable. It’s frightening but thrilling. There’s productive energy in that discomfort.

JB: I would say I’ve been super-lucky in that Charlotte Lagarde, my partner, was willing to work and travel with me and to photograph and film places we went for research—not with the aim to make a film about the Silk Poems but to give me a way to keep growing from the research after the fact, because you can’t re-do a lab visit on the other side of the world. You might only get that access once, so to have a record of what people are saying and how they are saying it and what they are showing you in real time is indispensable. That was a huge shift. I had never thought about working on a poem that way. I’ve never needed photo and video, for years throughout a process, to research something. It’s been humbling to try to communicate what you need to someone else when you’re generally very private about it.

Jen Bervin Soochow UniversityHuang Haisu and Dr. Tieling Xing with Jen Bervin at Soochow University

DH: How do you keep yourself from being overwhelmed by all the information and everything you’re taking in?

JB: I think I try not to have too many expectations about what I’m going to experience or understand. I guess I could compare it to going to a library in search for a particular book and then finding one in that same row that you needed far more and wouldn’t have found on your own. It’s often that thing to the side of the thing that I’m actually looking for that turns out to be meaningful. Getting too fixated on coming away with a particular thing or looking for a particular thing doesn’t help me be aware of what the potentials are in the moment.

It’s important to be able to admit defeat and keep looking around, do you know what I mean?

DH: That’s true of writing itself, isn’t it? Seems like whenever I start a poem or essay with an idea of what I think I mean or want to say, I wind up, by the time I’m done, in a completely unexpected place, with completely unexpected words on the page. I love that. Discovery and surprise. What a rush—it’s almost magical. The poem finds and determines itself.

Part of it must be opening yourself up, exposing yourself. You let go of intention, which leads to things you wouldn’t have figured out had you held strictly to your plan…and leads to these discoveries that couldn’t have happened otherwise.

JB: Absolutely. I think your essays read that way.

DH: I certainly experience them that way. I find out a lot of what I actually think by going through the process of writing.

JB: I think that’s why it’s so enjoyable to read them.

DH: That’s kind of you to say…

JB: I also love that this work is leading to collaboration with people that I deeply, deeply admire. This matters to me—and has for a long time. It’s just becoming more and more overt.

DH: Did Charlotte’s recording of your travels, your research, play at all into your idea of documenting the embroiderers’ experience with the poem?

JB: Yeah, absolutely, because I have been looking at the videos she made at the embroidery institute in Suzhou for two years now. It’s just so exciting to watch the technique—and the environment in which people are embroidering is quite special. The workshop itself is beautiful and full of light. I love how layered the work sites are. You have a skull-and-crossbones cloth where someone might put their elbow and a cell phone a little farther down and then particular ways each embroiderer organizes their thread color palette and their work area, you have tea on the window sill. It’s a joy to be in that space. I was taken through it on a tour during which I was rushed along and still I have that sense of the richness of slow time there.

DH: That’s beautiful: “the richness of slow time.” Has that sense always been with you? Maybe you can talk about how you came to work with textiles in the first place, and how that intersects with your poetry.

JB: I grew up in a family of women who sew. My mother sewed clothes for us, my grandmother sewed clothes for her family, and I learned pretty early on. My mom was great about teaching me how to do a lot of different things, how to do some basic sewing and how to work with pattern and that kind of thing. Before I even really got underway in the visual arts I was already involved in sewing and the culinary arts for sure. Those things developed in step with reading. I don’t think I really would have considered myself a writer until I was pretty far along in my 20s even, late 20s to early 30s.

I came to writing from the visual arts. I was feeling uncertain about what art could do and how it could do it in the art world, along with a desire to really learn how to articulate complex thoughts in the medium of language, which is what I think poetry does best. I didn’t know how to do that yet. As I was finishing up my degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago it became really important to me to slow down and make work that I wanted to live with.

It’s a lot like this translation tangle I got myself into. A lot of great things in the arts come out of a sense of discontent or disgust or failure or inadequacy, so it’s a such useful feeling in the arts, if you let it be useful.

DH: That could take some practice though, letting it be useful.
JB: Yeah. I think that I was really lucky to have a family that left me alone. It gives you privacy about your failures. Because you have time to just be comfortable with them.

DH: There’s a bumper sticker: “More parents should just leave their kids alone…”!

JB: Yeah, that’s not a popular parenting recommendation…

DH: No.

JB: And I’m in no position to recommend, but I really appreciated that.

DH: To have your own space to work through what you needed to work through?

JB: Yeah, and just to…I don’t know. I think it fostered a confidence in myself that early on made me comfortable in discomfort. Maybe too comfortable in discomfort, I don’t know.

DH: I guess that’s a danger. I hadn’t thought of that…

JB: The jury is still out. I’m just so pleased that I’ve become more of a social animal as I’ve aged. I didn’t see that coming. I was a little worried I’d be more of an Agnes Martin loner type, so that’s been a nice surprise.

DH: What do you think is responsible for this evolution?

JB: I guess I had had enough time alone. When I was at that juncture between art and writing, I worked as a fire lookout and that’s pretty isolated work. I think for some people it sounds really awful but to me it was just heaven. I was learning Latin, reading, embroidering, writing, hiking, etc.—with a view to die for and some wonderfully amusing chatter on the Forest Service radio to monitor. As a lookout, you spend all day reading landscape—and I love that landscape: the Sonoran Desert. I kept a keen eye out for fires or “smokes,” as they call them, and had plenty to report, but the work of the lookout is mostly map-based—conveying very precise map work accurately.

I moved to the desert with a real intention to slow down and figure things out, and that willingness to be alone and to be lonely and to be uncertain for a long time gave me a grounding that never left. I just waited. I waited and I read and I wrote and I tried to figure things out.

Then when I came back to graduate school for writing and was combining the two, art and writing, it was with a very different sense.

DH: I said earlier that you never seemed to panic but I realize now that it’s more about what you just mentioned: your patience, your willingness to wait (to be on the lookout, so to speak), and yet with an underlying confidence that the answer will arrive, that you’ll find it, however long it takes.

JB: One thing I encounter a lot in conversations about interdisciplinary work, especially with writers, is the inter-genre question. I guess I’m grateful that for me it was never a hang-up. I never felt that I had to explain to anyone what I was doing. I just had to show them what I meant. I feel like anyone who encounters my work can understand what I’m doing if the work is good—and it’s not always good, but I try. If you give people the opportunity and you show them what you mean by that intersection, anyone can meet you there, but to put the genre ahead of the work often makes that seem more impossible than it actually is.

DH: And what drew you to silk? Why silk?

JB: A friend, Amanda Schaffer, wrote a really wonderful piece for Slate magazine. She was researching many different aspects of this new silk boom that resulted from David Kaplan’s discovery in 2009 of how to liquefy the silk cocoon. Once Amanda finished writing the article she was still so engaged with the ideas that she got in touch to ask if I might want to collaborate on something visual and verbal. She sought me out because she knew I was already working with text and textile and the intersection of the two. Even though the research didn’t look like other things I did, it was the same area of interest.

So it really started in the spirit of collaboration. Amanda got very busy with other projects, including a pregnancy (her second child), and as much as I tried to lure her back into the project, she’s really held her ground. But she is generous with conversations from time to time—asking the right questions, or telling me what to ask, and explaining intensely complex things to me.

I think going into the Silk Lab at Tufts with her to meet Fio Omenetto and David Kaplan in the very beginning was a real gift. Because if you walk into one lab, you get this idea that you can walk into another, so visiting the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility just feels like something I might be able to do after all, or at least like something to propose. I’m a big fan of just letting people say no, but always asking, always asking.

Jen Bervin at Stanford NanolabStanford Nanolab

DH: I’m interested in the relationship of silk to the body. What role does that play in the project?

JB: That aspect of it is really important. Silk is universally biocompatible. Every single body on earth will accept it in any context, which is why the liquefaction discovery was such a big deal. It opens up a huge range of new possibilities. The bioactive silk sensor—the thing I’m working with as an imagined context—is still in the research phase.

I just want to stop the clock for a minute to say, Wow! That’s an amazing context—silk inscribed nanoscale inside the body as a visual sensor, something that would act as a harbinger, something that will alert someone, in a medical way, to a change that has occurred in the body. Obviously, it’s not a neutral thing to have an inscribed piece of silk inside of you that is showing you something potentially very bad or hopefully normal about what is most likely a really precarious health situation. So I have been interested all along in imagining how this sensor affects someone’s conception of their own health—how it affects their imagination, how what is inscribed there is affecting on other levels, deeper levels in the psyche and spirit.

That seemed like a territory that a poem could handle—and has handled—in meaningful ways. I think that in many times and kinds of difficulty we turn to poetry, and yet most of the time we act like it’s superfluous. I really believe that poems have jobs to do. Not set job descriptions, but I think we need them more than we let on.

DH: In what sense do we not admit to that, do you think, or do we fail to see the work of poetry?

JB: I’m not so focused on pointing to failures. I’m more interested in pointing to poetry and saying it’s a wellspring, because I believe that.

The poem (and by “poem” I mean visual and images I’m thinking through right now) probably isn’t going to be inside of a body. It’s going to be a silk film outside the body. Something that you can project and read with fiber-optic light as a projection on a wall. It’s content comes from the assumed context as a bioactive sensor, one that may become real and may not, but I guess the viability, so to speak, of the thing that I make (that is, whether it becomes part of a real sensor inside someone) is really not up to me.

I’ll definitely offer anything I do back to the researchers who inspired it and hope it will open up new possibilities for collaboration. What I can do is offer up a context in which a poem can be an important component of a medical development.

DH: So where do you envision the Silk Poems living, ultimately? Will they be “published” in a traditional sense?

JB: The object was always the easiest part because that’s already a given—to nanoimprint silk film—that’s been fairly straightforward, and to know in advance that it’s something one would read as a projection with light. That’s a lot of knowns for a work of art. I don’t usually start knowing what the thing I’ll make in the end is. I don’t know how many need to exist. Maybe just one. And I’ve been calling it “Poems,” which suggests a book, but I’ve imagined something more like microfiche there. I’m guessing that a reading situation for this is probably a room, not a folio. It will show me, I guess. Or other people will suggest things and show me. That’s most likely what will happen. Or the materials will suggest things.

DH: I was curious about that, how much the material or context determines the content—how much the textile determines the text.

JB: The silk film has to be nanopatterned to work as a sensor, so the scale of the writing, the surface material, the way in which it can be read, and the imagined context were all already there when I started.

DH: Right, but does silk demand a particular kind of poetry? Are there things that shouldn’t be said on the silk or things that should be said?

JB: I think there are things that I feel responsible to in a structural way, like the development of the card loom, for example. The first binary system, the first computer, so to speak. The structure of the silk itself. And the process and the forms that are involved in sericulture. All that seems very fundamental to get in the poem. I feel like there’s a danger of falling into the traps that historical novels can fall into. You can get so overwhelmed by the factual material you want to convey that the book itself suffers. I guess that’s where that sitting and waiting and standing back and seeing what things are indispensable to the work comes in.

In traveling the world to research silk—China, Japan, France, Italy, Turkey, Georgia (and more to come: India, Spain, Egypt, etc.)—what becomes increasingly difficult is how to address that kind of multilingual context well in the finished work. I mean, you can’t just bring it all into English—it’s wrongheaded. I’ve imagined translating at the very least the project description into every language that affects the project. I also hope to return to sites where I researched to share the finished work.

DH: I love that the poem will be read with light.

JB: I’m really happy with that because the way silk reflects light is one of its remarkable properties. I was just reading about how the smoothness of the fiber made it a superior embroidery material and how it really brought the craft of embroidery to Egypt and replaced wool permanently. That the material itself can change the course of what is made in a given culture, it’s quite astounding to me.

DH: We have this ancient fiber, used in so many cultures for thousands of years, and yet even today we’re still discovering its properties and finding new ways to use it. It’s remarkable.

JB: It really is.

—Jen Bervin & Darren Higgins

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Based in Brooklyn, poet and visual artist Jen Bervin brings together text and textile in a practice that encompasses poetry, archival research, artist books and visual art. Her works involve strong conceptual elements with a minimalist’s eye for the poetic and essential. Recent books include Draft Notations (Granary Books 2014) and Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings (Christine Burgin/New Directions) co-edited with Marta Werner, a finalist for The Poetry Foundation’s 2014 Pegasus Award for Criticism, and a Best Book of the Year from Times Literary Supplement, Hyperallergic, and The New Yorker. Her works have been shown at the Walker Art Center, The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum and elsewhere, and are held in more than thirty collections including the J. Paul Getty Museum. Bervin’s honors include a Creative Capital Grant, a NYFA Fellowship, and residencies from The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, MacDowell Colony, The Camargo Foundation, The Bogliasco Foundation, and the Rauschenberg Foundation. She has taught at Poets House, University of Denver, New York University, Pratt Institute, Vermont College of Fine Arts, Harvard University, Yale University, and will be a Fitt Artist in Residence at Brown University in 2015.

Darren Higgins

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

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Mar 122015
 

Cordelia Strube

Ten novels in twenty years. Cordelia Strube is no slouch, and bear in mind that she is also a long-time dedicated creative writing teacher at Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education. I’ve always been deeply impressed by the mix of heart and smart contained in her novels, and when you add a steely sharp writing style and dialogue that feels overheard rather than written – well, don’t take my word for it. In the section below you have a chance to read a chapter from a novel not yet published. On The Shores of Darkness, There is Light will be published in the spring of 2016 by ECW Press.

 Along the way in her career, Cordelia has been nominated for most of the Canadian national literary awards such as: The Governor General’s award for literature; The Giller Prize (long listed); the Re-Lit Award; Books in Canada/W.H. Smith Award for best first novel – and she has won the CBC Literary Competition.

—Ann Ireland

 

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THERE’S A BABY STUCK in a car.” Harriet waves anxiously at the crowd of parents watching T-Ball. They don’t notice. She runs back to the SUV, across grass turned to straw. It hasn’t rained in six weeks. Smog chokes the city.

The baby, mottled pink, purplish around the eyes and mouth, is strapped to the car seat. Wailing, she jerks her chubby arms and legs, her cries muted by the latest technology in road noise reduction. She looks like the baby Harriet pictured when her mother told her she was pregnant; a cute baby with a normal head and curly blonde locks. Harriet presses her nose against the window, causing the cute baby to stare at her as though she is the one who has trapped her. “Don’t blame me,” Harriet mutters. “When in doubt, blame Harriet.”

Just this morning her mother blamed her for losing the plastic pitcher for bagged milk. “Why can’t you put things back in their place?” When it turned out Harriet’s little brother used the pitcher to shower his plastic animals, her mother didn’t apologize to Harriet. Or scold Irwin. There’s no doubt in Harriet’s mind she’d be better off without her little brother. She should have snuffed him when she had the chance, after they took him out of the incubator and handed him to her, all red and wrinkled, with his stretched head, and veins pulsing weakly under his see-through skin.

“Say hi to your brother,” her mother said. She no longer looked like her mother because she’d stopped eating and sleeping when Irwin was cut out of her. The furry-lipped nurse, who’d helped Harriet put on the sterile gloves, said, “Your brother is a miracle baby.” Harriet didn’t see why. The other preemies in incubators looked like fat turkeys compared to Irwin.

The cute baby trapped in the car seat has stopped wiggling and isn’t pink and purple anymore, just pale. Harriet tries the doors again before scrambling back to the crowd of parents. She pushes her way to the front of the pack where her mother and her boyfriend coach Irwin as he swings wildly at the ball balanced on the T.

“Keep your eye on the ball, champ,” her mother’s boyfriend says, bending over, revealing his butt crack above his track pants. Gennedy claims he was a jock in high school and consequently unable to kick the track pants habit. He has a shred of Kleenex stuck to his chin from a shaving cut. Harriet considered telling him about it this morning but decided to see how long it would take to drop off.

Harriet’s mother, in short shorts because, according to Gennedy, she’s still got the gams, fans her face with her hand and says, “Try again, peanut, you can do it.” The other parents pretend they don’t mind Irwin getting extra turns because he’s developmentally challenged. They order their unchallenged kids to be nice to him, and Irwin thinks people are nice because everybody acts nice around him, they just don’t invite him for play-dates, so he is in Harriet’s face 24/7. Harry, check on your brother. Harry, help your bother with his buttons. Harry, be a sweetheart and wipe your brother’s nose.

She squeezed toothpaste into his slippers this morning but he went barefoot.

“Good swing, champ,” Gennedy calls.

What Harriet knows about adults is that they say one thing while thinking something completely different. For this reason she doesn’t believe a word any of them say. She won’t have to deal with them anymore when she gets to Algonquin Park. She has two-hundred and forty-eight dollars in her bank account, but because she’s only eleven, her daily withdrawal limit is twenty dollars. Emptying her account requires thirteen withdrawals, and she’s worried the ladies at the bank might rat on her because Harriet’s mother worked there before Irwin was born. She’d often pick Harriet up from daycare and take her to the bank to finish up paperwork. As the doors were closed to the public at six, Harriet was allowed to sit at a big desk and draw with an assortment of pens. After Irwin was born, Lynne quit working at the bank and lived at the hospital. She came home on weekends to do laundry. Trent, Harriet’s father, sat in the dark absently plucking his eyebrows, until he started going to farmers’ markets and met Uma.
Harriet tugs on her mother’s arm.

“Bunny, please don’t do that, you’re not a two year-old.”

“There’s a baby stuck in a car.”

When Harriet’s parents divorced, her mother went back to work at the bank until her breakdown. Harriet loved the bank and plans to work in one when she grows up. She craves the quiet, and the soft sound of bills being counted, the clicking and sliding of metal drawers, the tapping of keyboards, the dependability of safety deposit boxes, the finality of stamp pads. Everybody’s polite at the bank and nobody shouts or swears. She tugs on her mother’s arm again. “Somebody’s forgotten their baby.”

“I’m sure that’s not true. The baby’s probably just napping.”

“It’s not.”

Irwin bats the ball and it bounces feebly to the side. “Way to go, champ!” Gennedy shouts. “That was awesome!” Other parents jerk into phoney smiles while Irwin chortles, bobbling his big head.

Harriet sewed some rags together to make a voodoo doll of Gennedy that she sticks pins into daily. Last Christmas she asked her mother why he moved into The Shangrila with them. “You wouldn’t understand,” her mother said but Harriet insisted she would. She pestered her mother until Lynne slumped on a kitchen chair, fiddled with a busted angel decoration and said, “Because when he says he won’t leave me, he means it.” Harriet understood then that she was doomed to co-habit with Gennedy, the shouter and swearer, who says she’s negative, and can’t even cook a decent tuna casserole. When her mother’s at the hospital, Harriet lives on Lucky Charms.

“The baby isn’t sleeping,” Harriet repeats, more loudly this time even though her mother hates it when she’s loud.

“Harry, it’s none of your business. I’m sure the parents are here somewhere and keeping an eye on the car.”

“They’re not.”

“What’s the problem here?” Gennedy asks, wiping sweat off his nose. The Kleenex is still stuck to his chin.

“No problem,” Lynne says, swigging on a water bottle.

“There is a problem,” Harriet says. “There’s a baby stuck in a car.”

Irwin stumbles towards them. Gennedy grabs him and swings him up in the air. “How ‘bout some burgers, big guy?”

“Wowee, wowee, burgers with cheeeezze!” Irwin squeals, causing other parents to stare and jerk into phoney smiles again.

“There’s a baby stuck in a car!” Harriet shouts.

“Harriet.” Her mother grips her arm but Harriet jerks it away and shouts even louder, “There’s a baby stuck in a car! Right over there.” She pushes through the crowd and points at the SUV.

“Oh my god,” a rumpled man in a Blue Jays cap cries before charging to the SUV. He gropes frantically in his pockets for his remote, repeating, “Jesus fucking Christ” and “Fucking hell.” His T-ball player son chases after him, hooting and flapping his arms. Finally the man unlocks the car. “Tessy,” he croons in a baby voice as he ducks in and frees the listless infant.

*

“Whassup?” Darcy asks, lying on her tummy on the couch painting her fingernails black.

“Did you shoplift that polish?” Harriet asks.

“Damn fucking straight. No way I’m paying eight bucks for this shit.” She flashes her fingers at Harriet, “Like it? Black is the dope, dude,” and sucks the straw on a can of diet Sprite. “I’m going on a date later. I am single and ready to mingle.” Darcy moved into The Shangrila a month ago. She’s twelve and knows how to give blowjobs, suck on bongs and inhale fatties. Harriet has no interest in blowjobs, bongs or fatties, but she feels flattered that an older girl wants to be her friend—although, in her experience, friendships don’t last. Eventually the new friend finds out Harriet has no other friends, can’t text because she doesn’t have a cell, or an iPod, or an allowance, plus a freak for a brother. Darcy’s mother rips ladies’ hair off with wax. She doesn’t shout or swear and lets Darcy eat junk food, go on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr and watch whatever she wants on YouTube. Gennedy only allows Harriet an hour of computer time per day, and he’s constantly looking over her shoulder to make sure she isn’t frittering away her time absorbing useless pop culture. He shouted at her when he caught her watching the Brazilian cab driver singing Thriller just like Michael Jackson. Harriet didn’t know anything about Michael Jackson, except that he died a long time ago and looked creepy. But Darcy showed her the Thriller video and Harriet was impressed by his moonwalk. Gennedy caught her practicing it while watching the cab driver from Brazil singing Thriller. “How is this improving your mind?” he shouted. According to Harriet’s mother, Gennedy is the only criminal lawyer in history that’s broke. If he works at all it’s legal aid, defending drug addicts, thieves and vandals. Lynne could have done better than Gennedy, Harriet thinks, because she’s hot. Men have always ogled her mother. Construction workers and loiterers all whistle and snicker Nice ass, Come to papa, or Whatever you need, I’ll give it to you, baby. When Harriet was little she’d turn on these pervballs and shout, “Stop looking at my mother! Leave my mother alone!” She doesn’t defend her mother from pervballs anymore because she can see her mother likes the attention, especially now that she’s older and has had two kids.

Darcy flaps her hands to dry the polish. “The Shangrila is a downer, dude. How can you stand living here? It’s, like, seven floors of seniors, a freakin’ old people farm. My mom says the carpets haven’t been replaced since man wiped his dirty feet on the moon. She says they’re moon carpets and she’s going to split her head open tripping over a crater.” She sniffs the polish in the bottle before screwing the lid back on. “Want to go to Shoppers World?”

Harriet sits in the armchair Darcy’s mother keeps covered in plastic to protect it from cat hairs. “You just said you had a date.”

“Before that.”

“Not really.”

“Don’t be such a douche bag.”

“Do you even know what a douche bag is?”

“It’s a bag, duh, to put douches in.”

“Do you know what a douche is?”

Darcy pulls on the cat’s tail, causing it to dart across the moon carpet. She hates the cat because she has to feed it and clean its litter box.

“You don’t even know what a douche is,” Harriet says, “so why are you always calling people douche bags?”

“LOL, so what is it then, Miss Super Brain?”

“It’s a nozzle women shove up their snatches to clean them out. The douche bag has water in it, and other stuff.When you squeeze the bag, the stuff quirts up.”

“Cool story.”

“It’s true. My dad’s girlfriend squirts herbs up her hoo-ha to make her mucous friendlier to my dad’s sperm.”

“FML, would you shut up, that is so gross. That is like … nobody does that. That’s sick.”

“I just think you should know what a douche bag is before you call people douche bags.”

“Okay, fine, thank you, Einstein. OMG I was just joking around.”

Darcy moved into The Shangrila because her parents got divorced. Her mother, Nina, is being fucked over by her ex, Buck. “Buck’s fucking me over,” she often says, or, “Fucking Buck is fucking me over.” Harriet has adopted this phrase and consoles herself, when alone, by muttering that … fill in the blank … fucked her over. Lynne doesn’t say Trent is fucking her over although, since he cut back on child support to pay for Uma’s expensive infertility treatments, Lynne has been referring to him as the asshole.

“I wish my dad was here,” Darcy grumbles. “He’d take us to the DQ.” Harriet likes Buck because he calls her The Lone Ranger and drove them to Canada’s Wonderland in his MAC truck, bought them candy floss and ride tickets. But, according to Nina, Buck’s a pothead and thinks with his dick. This is why she divorced him. Lynne doesn’t say Trent’s a pothead and thinks with his dick. Harriet’s not sure why her parents divorced other than her dad freaking over Irwin, and meeting Uma and deciding she had a brilliant mind. He wouldn’t have met Uma if Irwin hadn’t had a seizure at the farmers’ market.

“You reek,” Darcy says. “Have you been dumpster diving again?”

“I found some wood, not warped or anything.” Harriet paints on primed plywood or stiff cardboard because she can’t afford canvas. It consoles her that Tom Thomson sketched on wood. Uma, when she first started dating Trent, took Harriet to a Group of Seven show. The painters’ worn wooden paint boxes and palettes fascinated Harriet. Tom Thomson’s box was small, just a rectangular box. Frederick Varley’s was fancier, with compartments. Even though Tom Thomson died too young to be officially part of the Group of Seven, Harriet thinks of him as her favourite Group of Seven painter. She was mesmerized by his small, simple box, imagining him hiking through Algonquin with the box stuffed in his rucksack, entranced by a piece of sky or water or a tree and sitting down to paint them. She imagined him taking out the box, balancing it on his lap, rubbing his hands together to warm them, and resting his wooden sketch board against the box’s lid. She yearned to watch him pick and mix his colours, and make his first stroke, touching his brush to the board. She felt if she could sit quietly behind him, he wouldn’t mind. He was so handsome, even though he smoked, and she loved it that he never went to art school. “Harriet,” Uma huffed, “we’re here to look at the paintings, not the paint boxes.” Harriet memorized the colours on Tom’s palette, determining to recreate them at home. It seemed as though the lights dimmed when she moved away from his paint box, and the studio paintings held none of the vibrancy of the sketches he made in the wilderness. She couldn’t feel him in the studio paintings the way she felt him in the paint box, palette and the sketches. She wanted to understand why he died at Canoe Lake, why he let that happen when he could paint like that. She couldn’t imagine letting herself drown if she could paint like that. In her room, she tried mixing the colours but they were lifeless on the board and it occurred to her that maybe Tom Thomson let himself drown because he could no longer paint like that.

“One of these days,” Darcy warns, “you’ll get the flesh-eating disease from a dumpster and die.”

Harriet searches the capybara on YouTube again.

“OMG, quit looking at that giant hamster,” Darcy says.

“It’s the world’s largest rodent.”

“Who gives a fuck?”

“They don’t bark. My mother won’t let me have a dog because it barks and might scare my brother.”

“You hate dogs anyway.”

“Just Mrs. Schidt’s.” Mrs. Schidt is eighty-one, lives down the hall in 709 and pays Harriet fourteen dollars a week to walk her skinny white dog with yellow eyes. She’s been paying Harriet fourteen dollars a week for three years and always has to scrabble around in bowls and drawers for toonies and loonies to make the fourteen.

“I bet giant hamsters shit bus loads,” Darcy says. “You’d spend all day stooping and scooping giant hamster turds.”

“You can house train them, and you don’t have to walk them.” Harriet avoids dog people because all they talk about is dogs, and they act snarky when you don’t let their dogs jump on you, lick your hand and sniff your crotch.

The capybara’s lady owner holds a green Popsicle and the capybara nibbles it. The lady lifts the Popsicle just out of the capybara’s reach. The world’s largest rodent taps the lady’s shoulder gently with its paw to signal it wants some more. Repeatedly the capybara and the lady exchange pats for nibbles on the green Popsicle. This looks like so much fun to Harriet.

“What kind of name is Harriet anyway?” Darcy asks. “I mean, it’s like, an old lady name.”

“It’s my father’s mother’s name. And my grandfather’s name is Irwin. My parents named us after them thinking it would make them forgive them for eloping. They’re rich and my parents keep hoping they’ll give them money, or drop dead and leave them money. But they’ll never die.”

“Everybody dies.”

“Not mean and cheap people, they live till a hundred. Look at Mrs. Butts.” Mrs. Butts lives next door in 702 and sends Harriet on errands for a quarter. She’s fat, eighty-two, humpbacked and addicted to pain-killers and sleeping pills. When she wants Harriet to do something she smiles and puts on a nice little old lady voice, but if Harriet brings back Minute Maid orange juice with, instead of without, pulp, or beef, instead of chicken flavoured Temptations for her cats, Mrs. Butts turns into a mean junky.

The word among the seniors at The Shangrila is that Harriet will go down to Hung Best Convenience for a quarter. Mr. Shotlander in 406 has her picking up the paper on Fridays for the TV listings, and Harriet suspects she’s under-priced herself, but at least the errands get her away from Gennedy.

What she can’t understand about her mother shacking up with Gennedy is why Lynne has to be with somebody in the first place. Harriet prefers to be by herself than with anybody. Around people she feels bound in one of Gran’s pressure stockings. She also doesn’t understand why Gran is nice to her but mean to her mother, even though Lynne cleared the junk out of her house when Gran was evicted for health violations after Grandpa died. Lynne furnished Gran’s new place with nice things from IKEA, but still Gran complains about her, Where’d that know-it-all mother of yours put my muffin tins? Where’d that high-and-mighty mother of yours put my electric frying pan?

It seems to Harriet people are better off by themselves and not caged together in apartments and houses. When she escapes to the ranger cabin she won’t have to talk to anybody. Lost Coin Lake is isolated from road and canoe routes, and the marshy shoreline is unsuitable for swimming. Nobody goes there. This makes it perfect.

—Cordelia Strube

©   All Rights Reserved  Cordelia Strube  2014

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Interview

Ann Ireland (AI): The new novel features a brainy, observant, original sort of girl as narrator. This isn’t the first time you’ve used such a main character to tell the story, I’m thinking of your novel, LEMON. Obviously there is something about entering this kind of character that feels natural to you, that attracts you. Care to comment?

Cordelia Strube (CS): There are 2 narrators in On the Shores of Darkness There is Light (you wouldn’t know this from the first chapter)–the story is told in two movements. The Before segment is told from Harriet’s 11-year-old POV. The second segment, After, is told from the POV of her younger brother, Irwin, 7 years later, when he is 14. Writing a 338 page novel through the eyes of children was risky. My biggest fear was sounding twee, or being forced to use a limited vocabulary, but both Harriet and Irwin are so uniquely sighted, I stopped worrying. Harriet’s voice came at me forcefully, but Irwin’s required more patience. She is a comet, he is the Milky Way. Spending time inside the head of a developmentally-challenged, hormonal boy isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time. It took me many walks and thinks to figure out how to approach his side of the narrative. After is a completely different rhythm than Before.

Lemon, the narrator in Lemon, is 16 and already jaded and pissed off. I used her as a reference point because she is an avid reader and I could counterpoint her 21st century sensibility with that of 19th century fiction where the psychological novel took off thanks to Ms. Austen, the Georges, the Brontes, Sam Richardson etc. My objective in Lemon was to say to the reader, “Look at what we’ve done, are you okay with this?”

There’s a massive divide between the mind set of a 16 year-old and an 11 year-old. Harriet is free of conditioned responses to things. She has no filter. This informs on the art she produces, and her interactions with the self-absorbed adults around her. Societal expectations, peer pressure and pop culture overload can beat the originality out of us. Harriet, at 11, has nothing to lose because she has lost so much already and is consequently fearless; unsettling for the reader who fears for her. Peril keeps us reading.

AI: Darcy and Harriet scene: lots of current slang. How did you manage that? Eavesdropping? And what about slang dating; do you worry about that, that by the time the novel is published no one will be saying OMG?

CS: I eavesdrop whenever possible; hard to do with all the ambient noise. I never worry about “dating” my fiction. I use the current world as the backdrop for my novels. We live in interesting times. Part of my job is to document them. Before takes place post recession, after Kate and Will’s wedding. I use the wedding (and what was current in People Magazine: hashtag, Jennifer Anniston, and Obama) to date it because After takes place 7 years later. The 2008 recession had a devastating impact on Harriet; her father was laid off, her parents divorced and lost their house, her brother was hospitalized, her mother took up with a deadbeat who tried to control Harriet. We are the result of what happens to us.

AI: Your sentences always have pop and energy. You have been teaching creative writing for many years now; do you think it is possible to teach how to write ‘live sentences’?

CS: Listening, I believe, is what creates good dialogue. We can’t write down word for word a conversation we hear because that would be boring, but we can use fragments and build from there; reveal the essence of a character through their phrasing and word choices.

AI: You are prolific and I know you rewrite a good deal. What is the nature of your work discipline or routine?

CS: I am prolific because I don’t stop. Without a novel to swim around in, I sink, but I don’t write for hours a day, don’t push myself to produce a particular number of pages. Some days I write nothing new, just revise. Rarely does a first run at a sentence work for me. I rewrite constantly, especially at the start of a novel when I’m trying to figure out the voice.

AI: It’s been noted that your characters live in a dangerous world where bad things happen, sometimes really bad things. We all know that the world is a perilous place and that no one lives without suffering. What do you make of the current ‘Happiness’ fad? So many books written about how to achieve happiness.

CS: The title of this novel is a line from a Keats poem:

Aye on the shores of darkness there is light,
And precipices show untrodden green,
There is budding morrow in midnight,
There is triple sight in blindness keen.

This poem is full of light and hope while acknowledging the dark. We can’t see the light unless we’ve been in the dark. Shadows, as Harriet points out, are produced by light. Imagining that your life should be free of suffering is debilitating. Suffering adds perspective and makes joy vibrant. It’s when we become immobilized by pain–physical, emotional or psychological–that we need help. That’s when I reach for a book written by a mad man, or woman, like Mr. Blake or Ms. Dickinson. It makes me feel less alone, stranded in our “think positive” culture. Happiness isn’t a constant state for me. It’s a piece of sky, a brief human interaction, a glance at a painting, a scrap of prose or poetry, a child’s expression, the feel of a loved one’s hand, a good cup of coffee.

AI: Do you see yourself as having an ongoing Project in your writing? Is there something you seek to do in all your books? Something you continue to explore?

CS: My ongoing project is not to go completely mad like Mr. Blake. A critic once described my novels as “exceedingly well-written pleas for awareness.” I don’t have answers, just many questions. Above all I aim to entertain my readers, keep them turning the page while laughing and crying. I hope also to provoke thought about how we’re managing things (or not) during our time on this miraculous planet. Fiction allows us to fly straight into truths, both ugly and beautiful. We don’t need to be careful when we’re making it all up.

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All photos by Carson Linnéa Healey.

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Ann Ireland

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, recently reprinted by Dundurn Press, 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.

Mar 082015
 

Pamela PetroPamela Petro (Photo: Thomas Sayers Ellis)

Sometimes we meet people through the strangest of connections. Almost two years ago, a dear friend of mine introduced me to the poetry of John Weiners, a Boston College (high school and university) classmate of his. In researching this lesser-known but no-less-great Beat poet, I came across Pamela Petro’s article on Weiners, “The Hipster of Joy Street,” initially published in the Boston College magazine and reprinted in Jacket 2 soon after Weiners death in 2002. I was so moved by Petro’s writing, I sent her an email. She responded and we’ve been exchanging letters since.

Living in Northampton, Massachusetts, Petro is a writer and an artist, and prefers to be both simultaneously, but that doesn’t happen very often, she says.

She has written a handful of books including “Sitting Up with the Dead: A Storied Journey Through the American South” and “The Slow Breath of Stone: A Romanesque Love Story.” Central to her current work is the concept of hiraeth, a slightly untranslatable Welsh word that means longing or yearning, missing something or someone absent. At the moment, she is working on a memoir called “The Slant Space: A Memoir of Wales and the Presence of Absence,” a book about an idea, using the hiraeth of the foreigner—someone who loves Wales but can never really be Welsh—as the way into the subject.

On the artist side, Petro posted on her blog, The Petrograph Gallery, moved-camera images taken at dusk. The idea behind what she calls “The Dusk Series” is an effort to deconstruct conventional landscapes. And that makes sense as many of the images resemble the aurora borealis although technically the Latin word aurora means sunrise or the Roman goddess of dawn. From this work, she hopes to create a new word-and-image book (read simultaneously artist and writer) called Invisible Landscapes inspired by Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.” Here, Petro says she will investigate hiraeth as an ecological “keyword” as Raymond Williams used the term. She explains:

“I like the idea of “documenting” nature with an ostensibly objective tool like a camera to create, rather than recognizable landscapes, images in a state of spatial and temporal mutability. The dusk photos aren’t petrographs, but they investigate the same territory: the liminal spaces between seen and intuited, light and dark, day and night. Because they focus on transition instead of stability, they blur the boundaries between what we see and what we expect, hopefully making us reexamine our relationship to landscape and redefine what we call ecology.”

Earlier this year, Petro launched “AfterShadows: A Grand Canyon Narrative” at the Lesley Creative Writing Residency in Cambridge. This book came out of her Artist’s Residency at the Canyon in 2011. It looks at the hiraeth of deep time and geology, paired with the loss of both her father and her dog in 2012.

With a B.A. from Brown University (Independent Honors Concentration in Writing and Illustration) and a M.A. from the University of Wales, Petro teaches creative writing at Smith College and in Lesley University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program.

—JC Olsthoorn

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JC Olsthoorn (JCO): In your book Sitting Up with the Dead one passage in particular struck me:

“A story’s only half the equation,” he said. “The context you tell it in makes all the difference, twists the meaning. Ignore the context and you’re being irresponsible…. The context,” reiterated Akbar Imhotep, . . . “is everything.”

How important is context for you?

Pamela Petro (PP): I’m in complete agreement with Akbar. The only reason Sitting up with the Dead works—assuming it does work!—is because the Southern storytellers whom I asked to tell me tales didn’t tell them in a vacuum. They told stories to me; I told stories about them. What they looked like, where we met, where they were from, what they did for a living, what generation they belonged to. All of this mattered immensely. It mattered that Orville Hicks told me a centuries-old Jack tale, out of medieval England, at the Blowing Rock Recycling Center, where he holds court, and that Kwame Dawes told me an equally ancient African tale, The Girl and the Fish, in his office at the University of South Carolina.

I find context probably the most important part of any attempt at communication. In fact, I do a warm-up exercise with my writing students where I give them a premise—say, a couple about to kiss—and then flash up different contextual images, from a beach to a bedroom to an office to a gallows. Context tells more than half the story, often contradicting expectations.

JCO: That makes a lot of sense for storytelling. What about with art? Todd Bartel in the comments section of a NC interview addressed a question of context for viewers and an artist’s intentions saying:

“Because I am all too keenly aware that people, myself included, bring whatever they experience with them when looking at art, or experiencing any creative expression for that matter, I tend to select things that have several meanings, that can become springs boards for more than one lineage of thought, association or feeling. … I spend a lot of time looking for things before I ever set out to make something. I search for objects/images that have specific meaning for me on the one hand and general references to larger topics on the other hand. I look for things that can spark double meanings. That way, I am assured of at least a couple of readings I intend, while also allowing for others, I cannot yet imagine.”

PP: Yes, I utterly agree with Bartel that the finest works—words, images, performances, you name it—are those which spark the most multifaceted meanings. In fact, that’s why I’m so drawn to the concept of hiraeth. It is a distinctly Welsh idea, deriving from the historical, linguistic, economic, religious, and cultural experience of Wales. But it truly is, also, a universal experience, and the most useful, memorable ideas are both specific and universal at once.

JCO: What is hiraeth and is a Welsh context important to understand it?

PP: Hiraeth refers to the “presence of absence.” Call it a yearning for something or someone irretrievable, beyond place or time, lost to the wars we can never win: the ones against time, mortality, and injustice. It is what we seek in the past, yearn for in the future, and invent in the present to placate our absences. As to whether a Welsh context is important in understanding it: Yes and no.

As Robin Chapman, a British linguist, says about hiraeth, “…it denotes, paradoxically, both an enduring human feeling and something essentially Welsh.” So it depends on which side of that paradox concerns you. The moment a Welsh person starts to describe hiraeth, the rest of us invariably say, “Oh! Yes! I know what you mean! Is that what it’s called?” So you can say No, a Welsh context isn’t important—it is a universal human experience.

On the other hand, we can’t neglect to ask why Wales and its language made room for this word when all but one other of the world’s 7000+ languages—Portuguese, with its lovely word, saudade—didn’t. So, a knowledge of Wales is indeed critical in understanding hiraeth; or, to put it another way, a knowledge of hiraeth is critical in understanding Wales. But that’s just the first step: it opens up to encompass all human experience.

JCO: It is no accident you hear so many of the Portuguese Fado singers singing about saudade. The word itself is peppered in many of the mournful fado songs.

YouTube Preview ImageSaudades de Coimbra | José Afonso ao vivo no Coliseu

Your installation from late 2013 using gravestone carvings is related to your work with petrographs—silver gelatin photographs printed on stone, especially, but also on other natural detritus like leaves, logs, and bark, as well as concrete sidewalks and, in this case, glass windows. It seems that the marks we make on stone, from scratches to engravings to petrographs, are a part of our primordial humanity. You mention on your website that “petrographs exist in the gap between human consciousness and the world around us”. It almost sounds like that is where hiraeth resides.

PP: I’d long been wanting to work with old 18th century New England gravestone carvings—not to mention the hiraeth inherent in cemeteries. That longing turned into the interactive installation you just mentioned, Hiraeth in Northampton: An Exploration of Longing, from which I derived the “graphic script” I’m working on right now called Under Paradise Valley: A Play for Epitaphs.

On my website there’s an explanation of the project, including a video in which I describe it all, how I derived the graphic script, the images are of the cover, and the cast of characters.

YouTube Preview Image Video of the installation Hiraeth in Northampton: An Exploration of Longing with Pamela Petro explaining its context.

List of the cast of characters in Petro’s upcoming “graphic script”
entitled Under Paradise Valley: A Play for Epitaphs

JCO: Having the context of Hiraeth in Northampton: An Exploration of Longing, especially watching the video, helped me better understand what it is you want to do in Under Paradise Valley. Both of them give different, nuanced meanings to hiraeth. You seem to be making personal (for the people involved in the installation) connections between very disconnected things, 18th century gravestone carvings, 21st century living beings, words new and old, and the mix of technology, photography, print, old windows and glass, bringing them all together, using disparate pieces to create a narrative.

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PP: The idea is simple enough, in some ways. You know the feeling you get when you walk through very old cemeteries? A kind of frustration that you can’t ever know these people, even though testaments to their lives are right there before you. Truly, a “long field” separates you and your time from them and their time. In old Welsh hiraeth actually means “long field”.

So, I wanted to find a way to connect with them—and that’s the brilliance of hiraeth. Longing for the impossible inspires creative connections rather than simply despair. It’s why, I think, Wales is such a creative place, full of tales and poetry and music and art.

The windows I used in the installation made an ideal metaphor for peering across time. And by virtually “wearing” the gravestone images and borrowing their owner’s epitaphs, we—the contemporary NoHo’ers—added our choices to theirs. It’s a way of communicating across the centuries. All I did was string the images and captions together into a kind of “found” surrealistic narrative.

JCO: You write in the Introduction to Under Paradise Valley that you forced yourself to work within a strict set of limitations in creating the “found” text of the graphic script from the interactive component of the installation. What did those limitations entail, and did you entertain easing the limitations at any point? Or did you feel bound by them?

PP: I loved working within the strict set of limitations—it was like a playful puzzle, stringing those captions together. Because I asked viewers at the installation to have their photos taken through the windows of their choice, with the captions of their choice, I wanted to honor their selections. So for the graphic script, I assigned the characters represented by each window ONLY lines taken from the texts that viewers chose for their windows. For instance, if four viewers selected the phrase “I go cheerfully”—one of the epitaph excerpts—and chose to stand behind Phebe Pomeroy’s window holding that caption, Phebe has to utter the phrase “I go cheerfully” four times in the script.

I had so much fun working this way! And I also felt less pressure than I normally do when I write, I think because it felt so wonderfully collaborative: I was working with the words of 18th century epitaph writers (mostly) and the choices of the gallery-goers. It felt like we were assembling a puzzle together. I’d love to do it again.

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As I strung the words together, a bizarre and funny story emerged: One of the dead, Phebe Pomeroy, is bored by eternity and wants to kill herself, which her friends try to explain is impossible as she’s already dead. But then a graffiti artist comes along and changes the name on her gravestone to Pheben, and she decides to spend the rest of eternity as a male. Chaos ensues, along with a same-sex relationship. Very Northampton, very funny, and yet poignant at the same time.

JCO: What context, then, needs to exist in these word-and-image pairings, or are they self-contextual, the words and the images, separately? Together?

PP: I’d hazard a rash statement that most word and image pairings—if they’re successful—are self-contextualizing. I don’t need to know more about Alison Bechdel or her family to understand her superb graphic novel, Fun Home. But no blanket statement covers everything.

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It’s definitely richer to know the background in the particular case of Under Paradise Valley than to read the script cold; but then, I provide background information in an Introduction, so hopefully that provides the context.

It matters to me that the death’s heads and soul effigies in the 18th century gravestone carvings derive from Puritan religious imagery; but you don’t need to know that for the exhibition or graphic script to carry a wallop. A young man I just met associated them with contemporary video games, yet still understood that we overcome a “long field”—the gap implied by hiraeth—between what the images represent and our own experience when we marry those images and our choices of captions. He understood that, coming from a completely different perspective. That made me very happy.

JCO: When are you planning to release Under Paradise Valley and what form will it take?

PP: I don’t have a release date yet. I’ve just put together a template, and now have to decide if I want to keep it local—and look for a Northampton publisher—or if it can transcend it’s setting and make sense beyond a local context. There you go—context again! It always matters. Dylan Thomas wrote “Under Milk Wood” about a small town in Wales, yet when we hear it in North America, it makes sense to us and we picture our own communities. Hopefully that will be the case for Under Paradise Valley as well.

JCO: I was wondering about the relationship of our North American concept of nostalgia to hiraeth? We yearn for “back when…” or “in the old days…” or “when I was young(er)…” clearly something we cannot have. Does the cultural context differentiate hiraeth and nostalgia?

PP: North American hiraeth and nostalgia form a real web, hard to tease apart. When I was discussing this once, someone said, “Well, hiraeth is really creative nostalgia, right?” He was on to something. We all look back at what we’ve left behind—childhood, old timey holidays that we miss, people we miss, simpler lives. I think of that as nostalgia. It becomes hiraeth when there’s an element of imagination added—or that’s how I see it, anyway.

The grandfather of a friend grew up in Italy and came to the States. He spent years telling stories about his village outside of Naples. Stories that mutated and changed over the years—became more about his longing than the place itself—but were nonetheless true for him. The Italy his family came to know is a make-believe place, not just because of his errant memory and heart, but because it’s utterly changed—his village is a suburb of Naples now. Yet his Italy is the one my friend and her family still long to visit.

There’s always an element of the self—a collaboration of memory and desire that makes something new—in hiraeth that makes it more creative than simple nostalgia.

We mutts of the Americas ALL experience it—longing for places we can’t go to and can never know—yet we don’t have a word for it in English.

—JC Olsthoorn & Pamela Petro

 

Pamela Petro is an artist and writer based in Northampton, Massachusetts. She has written three books of place-based creative nonfiction—about traveling around the world to learn Welsh, storytellers in the American South, and the relationship between geology, stonecarving, and photography in Southwest France—and she also teaches creative writing at Smith College and on Lesley University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. Her artwork derives from environmental installations of petrographs, and has been shown throughout New England and at the Grand Canyon, where she was an Artist in Residency in 2011. Pamela’s latest artwork is the artist book AfterShadows: A Grand Canyon Narrative, which was launched in January 2015.

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JC Olsthoorn (Photo: Lois Siegel)

JC Olsthoorn spends time at the Domaine Marée Estate near Otter Lake, Quebec, writing raw poetry, creating coarse art, and cooking scratch food. His poems have been published in a chapbook, “as hush as us” and have appeared in literary magazines. JC’s artwork has been exhibited and has appeared in several publications. He is a curator at the Arbor Gallery – Centre for Contemporary Art in Vankleek Hill, Ontario.

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Mar 012015
 

diane-williamsDiane Williams photo by bill hayward

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

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

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

—Jason Lucarelli

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

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

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

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

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

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

KleePaul Klee, Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black

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

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

JL: Is uncovering what feels new important to you?

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

The Stupefaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tender Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOON4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DW: Consummate artistry, courage, ambition.

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

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

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

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

—Diane Williams & Jason Lucarelli

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

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Feb 012015
 

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

— Benjamin Woodard

 


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

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

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

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

Granma

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nausea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Ondjaki and Benjamin Woodard


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

Woodard Bigger

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

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Jan 122015
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—JC Olsthoorn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JCO: Not a comfortable one at times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t that an interesting thought?

—JC Olsthoorn & Chantal Gervais

 

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

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

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JCOlsthoorn Photo by L. Cabral

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

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Jan 082015
 

Author photo of David Shields, 2012.

 

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

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

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

—Timothy Dugdale

N5

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

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

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

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

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

CalebCaleb Powell

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

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

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

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

Book cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YouTube Preview Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reality Hunger

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

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

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

—David Shields & Timothy Dugdale

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Timothy Dugdale

Timothy Dugdale is a veteran copywriter and brand manager. He writes existential novellas and poetry as well (http://dugdale.atomicquill.com). He records electronic music as Stirling Noh (http://noh.atomicquill.com)

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Dec 042014
 

139056374STranslator David Need

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

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

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

—Dan Holmes

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

551-12.jpgRainer Maria Rilke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pic1Illustration by Clare Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rilke baby

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

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

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

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

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

—David Need & Dan Holmes

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

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DanHolmes

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

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Oct 132014
 

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

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

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

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

—Ann Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim Maltman

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

For the most part, no. Or not exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

How did they use this material?

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

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

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

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

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

from Breath (An Introduction to Du Fu)

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

Capture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roo Borson in the readingthinking chair in office

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

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

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

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

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

‘Any trouble getting motivated?’ I wonder.

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

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

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

Roo concurs. ‘People have narrow ears.’

Roo Borson (all photos by Ann Ireland)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Ann Ireland, Text & Photos

 

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Poems

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Cook

James Cook, 1728-1779

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

—Kim Maltman

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Vocation

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

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

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XISHI DOUFU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Baziju, from the manuscript Box Kite

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

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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.

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Oct 042014
 

Salgado photo of artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—JC Olsthoorn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ludovico Einaudi has also been very influential for me lately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trailer of documentary on Salgado during STORYTELLING preparations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JCO: But what stories are you telling in Storytelling?

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

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

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

—JC Olsthoorn & Andrew Salgado

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

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

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

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

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JCOlsthoorn Photo by L. Cabral

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

Sep 072014
 

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

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

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

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

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

  —Mary Kathryn Jablonski

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

—Marcel Duchamp

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collage parts in preparation as decals, studio view, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-Beautiful Moths“Beautiful Moths,” book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Michael Oatman and Mary Kathryn Jablonski

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Kathryn Jablonski

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

 

Sep 052014
 

Desktop2

Gallant and MulhallenMavis Gallant & Karen Mulhallen

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

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

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

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

— Karen Mulhallen

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KM: Where did you get them?

MG: Well, I lived there on the border.

KM: When it was happening?

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

ghallant younger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KM: Did you use their names?

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

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

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

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

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

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

MG: She was working for me, for everyone.

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

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

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

MG: I guess that part is invented.

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

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

Mavis Gallant

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

MG; Yes, they were stories from the seventies.

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

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

KM: They want to examine their own history?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gallantMavis Gallant. Photograph: Jane Brown, The Guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MG: They do anywhere.

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

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

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

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

gallant mah

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

MG: Except among other expatriates.

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

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

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

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

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

MG: It’s been a long time you know…

KM: Now Gabrielle Baum is also an actor.

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

KM: It’s a lovely story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KM: Why is that your favourite story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mavis-gallant by Jane Brown the GuardianMavis Gallant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a-dreyfusAlfred Dreyfus

KM: Tell me about your Dreyfus book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

57990974Dreyfus and his daughter Jeanne, 1910. via Clioweb

KM: When will the book be done?

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

KM: How long have you been working on it?

MG: Many years.

KM: I won’t ask you anymore!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mavis-gallantMavis Gallant in The New Yorker

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

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

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

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

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

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

KM: To see the total context?

MG: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

KM: Yes it has.

MG : In what way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gallant again

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

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

KM: What did you do?

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

KM: Do you dream in English?

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

KM: Created a kind of barricade?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Epilogue

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

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

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

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

gallant photo by Nott & Merrill

—Mavis Gallant & Karen Mulhallen

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

 

Sep 042014
 

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rlandonRichard Landon—Photo: Rick/Simon

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

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

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

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

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

— Karen Mulhallen

 

July 27, 1989

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

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

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

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

gallant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KM: What do you find impressive?

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

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

RL: Yes,  it’s those details..

KM …which are her talent?

RL: Yes, in a real way.

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

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

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

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

gallant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RL: Yes, they do get evaluated.

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

KM: There were no park benches in 1950.

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

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

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

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

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

KM: You’d like that!

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

KM: What did you say?

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

KM: What did she mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KM: Have you been to her home in Paris?

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

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

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

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

mavis gallant 866

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

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

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

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

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

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

KM: Alice Munro? Woody Allen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

RL: That’s right, they sort of stop…

KM: Never mind Aristotle, down with Aristotle…

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

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

RL: Yes, sure.

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

RL: I don’t know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

KM: …or the train station…

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

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

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

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

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

KM: A gazetteer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

i-accuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KM: Was she kicked out of them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KM: I’m delighted to hear that!

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

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

KM: So the Fisher collection is small but important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Richard Landon & Karen Mulhallen

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

Karen Mulhallen

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

 

 

Aug 142014
 

GrisGris SlateGris-gris is a powerful charm.

Jody headshotJody Gladding

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

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

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

why
I
am
like
this
place
is
beautiful
and
cold
.

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

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

Tongue Depressorsswallow

LikeLichencrossroad

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

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

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

Seal RockSeal Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Darren Higgins

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

Steep3MinutesAfter the Vote to Mass Discontinue Unmapped Invisible Town Roads

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milweed#23 Sent to Susan Walp on 9/9

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

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

Featherroc

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

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

EggShellNesting Ravens

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

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

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

Hard WoodHardwood

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

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

Scan11 Sentences

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

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

Vellum book stitch

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

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

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

—Darren Higgins & Jody Gladding

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

Darren Higgins

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

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Aug 122014
 

Eula Biss Eula Biss photograph by Akasha Rabut

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

Capture

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Adam Segal

/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Eula Biss & Adam  Segal

 

Adame Segal

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

 

Jul 062014
 

RichardGrant

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

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

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

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

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

—Dan Holmes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DH: And reconstruction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSCN4078Richard Grant’s House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DH: How are the juke joints now?

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

DH: Have you seen a big change since then?

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

DH: I didn’t know it was that dire.

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

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

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

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

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

DH: Early influences?

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

DH: What made you come to the US?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSCN4079 View from the porch

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

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

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

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

DH: As an inveterate traveler has the concept of home been elusive?

RG: Yeah. I was always not that interested in it until I saw this place. I’m trying to get into it. But I do get restless here and bridle at the amount of chores this place gives me. I’m heading off to the Namibian desert quite soon and I’m looking forward to that. I do like it here. It’s just a big adjustment. I was never really attached to the places where I lived. I feel attached to this place and it’s kind of a new sensation for me.

—Richard Grant & Dan Holmes

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Richard Grant is a freelance British travel writer based in Mississippi. He was born in Malaysia, lived in Kuwait as a boy and then moved to London. He went to school in Hammersmith and received a history degree from University College, London. He is the author of American Nomads, God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, and Crazy River.

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Dan Holmes lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared most recently in Litro.

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