Nov 032015



Joanna Walsh (also known as the flâneuse Badaude) is a British author with a number of other creative identities. She is an illustrator, a fiction editor for the notorious webzine 3:AM (slogan: “Whatever it is, we’re against it”), and also runs the award-winning twitter account @read_women. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Walsh towards the end of the summer and into the fall about a couple of her recent publications: Hotel (published in September with Bloomsbury) and Vertigo (out in October with Dorothy, a publishing project). Her pornographic fairy-tale cycle, Grow a Pair (Readux Books), launched in October as well, and although we do not touch upon it much in the following, it deserves a spotlight too:

Grow a Pair is a feat of imagination: It is not a rapunzel plant stolen from the witch’s garden, for example, which sets these stories in motion, but a dick stolen from the witch’s dick-bush. Gender congeals and then is swiftly liquidated; sex-parts are set free to roam. Three big, secluded, forest-dwelling dicks attempt to construct three cunts, not out of sticks and straw, but out of matchsticks and Jell-O. The second dick wouldn’t know a real cunt if he saw one; the third dick would, and sees one, but decides he prefers Jell-O. Do I detect a trace of cultural critique? Most definitely, though it is laced with other meanings which do not settle. I could précis and précis, but I won’t go on: the pleasure’s in the details, in the small twists and turns.

Hotel hits upon a more tortured mood; it is both philosophical and enigmatical. There are different ways you could summarize what’s going on in its pages. The speaker (the book is a memoir, but a creative memoir) is a reviewer of hotels who finds herself ‘hotel surfing’ for a fairly prolonged period of time, partly to escape a marital shit-show at home. The writings which spin out of her stay muse on the nature of ‘home,’ the nature of ‘the hotel,’ the possible presence of the home in the hotel (or ‘Hometel,’ as one of the pieces is called), of the hostile in hospitality, of the hospital in the hotel, and so on.

Vertigo, a short story collection, meanders through a number of different scenarios: A woman out to purchase a dress in Paris ends up reflecting on what it means to appear to another, and on the conditions of appearance: Does one, by dint of having become habitual for the other, also become old? A petulant man waits for his order in an oyster restaurant, ready to strike out, the woman across from him notes, at anyone: at the waitress, or even at her, for his delayed meal. Young mothers are birthed by their children, become other people and perhaps self-estranged, not least because they are defined relationally, after their children are born. Each story in the book is acutely psychological. Each story is aglitter with pain and insight; often enough the pain it depicts arises on the part of women and in response to male behavior and the conventions of a heterosexual (and asymmetrical) world.

A similar kind of pain saturates Hotel. I think it is true to say that, in both Vertigo and Hotel, you can cut frustration with a knife. Something feels about to blow. But these works give us intrigue in addition to bleak affect. One of Walsh’s great gifts consists of the impeccable observations and novel phrases she hands us: “There is a hole in my side into which someone else’s desires fit” (Hotel); “There is nothing to do with this time but put some alcohol into it” (Vertigo); “I am anxious to redistribute—especially—food I know diners have previously rejected: leftovers, anomalous items: boiled carrots, a spoonful of hot sauce, a single tinned apricot. I do this by introducing them into stews, pâtés, and other dishes. These additions are not in the original recipes and sometimes they ruin a meal, though in ways the eaters can scarcely identify” (Vertigo); “Perhaps he is not the burglar I’ve planned for but a junkie, a drunk, a psycho. I am more comfortable with a drunk or a psycho: his passion, when I counterattack, will answer mine” (Vertigo). Moments of blazing perspicacity, creativity, intelligence, and dark humor are insanely abundant in her writing; they pop at every turn: like nails in the sand: like diamonds in water.

— Natalie Helberg



Natalie Helberg (NH): I thought we could begin with Vertigo. It seems to me that the stories in this collection spiral around a set of related ideas. In the story which shares the collection’s title, the narrator tells us “Vertigo is the sense that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space.” It is a state, she says, without anchorage, in which one pitches “forward, outward and upward.” In a sense, ‘vertigo’ is linked to relocation, particularly to perspectival relocation: what we saw from there, we now see from here. In line with this, “Vertigo,” which is, for the most part, written in the first person, includes italicized paragraphs which switch the mode of narration to the third person. Displacement is a prominent theme throughout the rest of the collection as well, as is misplacement (one story’s narrator, for example, suggests that she is “not the right teller,” the right narrator; the children in the story “The Children’s Ward” “do and say nothing childlike” and there is the sense that they, perhaps, do not belong there, in the ward, at all).

Were there particular themes — relocation, displacement, misplacement — which catalyzed the writing, or did you discover them in the writing after the fact? To what extent do you write with an idea in mind?

Joanna Walsh (JW): It’s interesting that you mention relocation and displacement. I’m fascinated by prepositions, words that tell us about where we are and about our relations to other things—or people. Prepositions tend to be vague: they can mean several things at once and are often grouped differently in different languages. I wrote a story, “Hauptbahnhof” (in Fractals), about German prepositions, in which the narrator is always confused about how to locate herself, especially regarding a man she (believes she) is waiting to meet.

I’m interested in kinds of subjectivity, especially in relation to the people we live with. I’m not sold on some of the methods we’ve been given. The French philosopher Luce Irigaray writes that subjectivity is essentially relational (prepositionary?), that “Who are you?” can only be answered with “and who are you? Can we meet? Talk? Love? Create something together? Thanks to which milieu? What between us (entre nous)?” (“The Three Genres”).

I don’t ‘envisage’ my work. I’m not a writer who sets out to construct something according to a proposition. I’m attracted to the idea of chance but, for me, to set it up in my writing would itself be a less organic, more formal exercise. I see my work as finding things out, as excavating, drawing things together, more than as constructing something. It’s a delicate process, like threading a needle, and like threading a needle you have to keep very still when you’re doing it, and make just the right sorts of movements.

I notice common themes in my stories often only after I’ve written them: I could do a critical reading on myself. That kind of exercise can be fun, and sometimes it’s useful: I notice things I should pursue. But I’m very obliging, far too ready to create theories around my writing in response to questions, like a patient who is ready to talk about herself in the third person with her doctor, and this is tempting, but it’s also dangerous: she could die from it.

vertigo cover

NH: When you say, above, that you’re “not sold on the methods we’ve been given,” do you mean the methods we’ve been given to be subjective beings, or the methods we’ve been given to conceive of subjectivity?

JW: It’s difficult to separate those two, because I think the idea of ‘methods we’ve been given to be subjective beings’ already involves some concept of subjectivity, so I mean both. I guess what I really mean is that I’m annoyed by the popular idea that a self should be a united thing. I’m always trying to find ways to reproduce the effects of subjectivity in writing: the way different moments can coexist within it, how time for a 45-year-old is different from time for a 5-year-old, and how time is also distributed across place through all sorts of things like actions and habits, so spaces become different too.

NH: The fact that you’re interested in prepositions makes so much sense. The works you sent me seem focused—on inter-subjectivity, yes—but also on language itself: its parts, its forms, its genres, on figures of speech, and so on. In Grow a Pair, synecdoche becomes playfully literal: In one tale, a princess is waiting for her one true cock, which could just mean she’s waiting for a prince-guy, if ‘cock’ stands in for him, but the cock in the tale is severed from the prince and becomes autonomous. There is textual support, moreover, for the idea that it was an autonomous nuisance all along. It is a whole unto itself, not merely a part standing in for a whole.

JW: Well, that’s reverse synecdoche, perhaps… I think I sometimes have a problem seeing the big picture, but yes, I’m attracted to ideas around wholeness and fragmentation, and boundaries. Well, I refuse to pull myself together…

NH: In both Hotel and Grow a Pair, you seem particularly fascinated with the pun. In Hotel, part of this fascination seems to be linked to an interest in the Freudian uncanny, which implies both the familiar and the unfamiliar, the homely and the unhomely (the familiar in the unfamiliar, the unhomely in the homely). Freud, of course, appears in the text, and his notion of the uncanny is mentioned. The text’s linguistic play fortifies the connections between dissimilar concepts like home and hotel, hospital and hotel, and so on: “Dora is a physical case. / KM is a mental case. / I am always escaping. I am no more than a suitcase.”

JW: I’ve been told that etymology and puns are not reliable roads down which to develop arguments, but I can’t resist them. A pun is a sideways move on language: homonym rather than synonym. Hotel and hospital really do share a root name, as religious institutions once served as both. I like it when language peels away from meaning and engages in other kinds of relations with itself. Maybe it’s a kind of escape, or, because both meanings remain present, something that only looks like escape but is an idea held in tension: even unrelated meanings evoked by puns sit side by side and the reader can’t help but make some kind of link: that’s a reader’s job. I’m probably occasionally guilty of using homophones to leap from one side of the road to another (and maybe they can go no further), but most of the puns in Hotel deliberately convey joint meanings. The suitcase pun sounds like it’s at the lighter end: sonic and throwaway, but it also goes back to Pan(Dora)’s box (all women are cases of one kind or another).

grow a pair

NH: Hotel is marketed as part memoir, but the chapters in it become so fanciful, with movie stars (Mae West, Groucho Marx), continental philosophers (Heidegger), and names associated with classic psychoanalytic writings (Freud, Dora) turned into characters, too. The chapters sometimes have the feel of an essay, but at other times they take on something like the form of a screenplay (e.g., we’re given a cast of characters and their roles before several of the texts get going). The lines the recognizable characters are given are sometimes quotations from their own writings. That being said, I thought your use of Heidegger activated a sense of the uncanny in the text as well: When Heidegger shows up, discoursing on home and dwelling, he seems both entirely appropriate (since the chapters in the collection pivot around the notion of ‘home,’ which they are trying, to a certain extent, to unfold) and odd (since Heidegger used the language of ‘home’ and ‘dwelling’ to hit at something entirely unrelated to the more everyday sense of home which Hotel seems preoccupied with): You’ve spliced Heidegger—very fruitfully—into concerns which are foreign, or unfamiliar, to him.

JW: It was important to me that Freud, Heidegger, etc., as characters, said only what they wrote in their texts (I like the idea of trying to re-hydrate a person from his or her dry pages). I’m also interested in misattributions and misquotations, though, in Hotel, I always let the reader know when there’s no reliable source for a statement.

Heidegger seems to be at war with nouns, and at home with verbs; Heidegger’s is an interesting crusade against language. His idea of dwelling is etymological: the path it goes down in English is very different from the path it goes down in German.

NH: I feel I should insert a sheepish laugh here. I guess I should quit trying to analyze your texts/prove, so to speak, something about them/pin them down/make them solid and scrutable. I understand that that can be a very violent gesture (it’s so limiting!). I think a lot about interpretation and what it means to track motifs and themes and try to put them together. It’s one of my favorite ways to engage with texts, and often I can’t help but do it (there’s a kind of hermeneutic pleasure, I think, I’m pursuing), even though I realize that a good text isn’t one that lends itself to definitive interpretation, and even though I recognize that any interpretation I come up with must ultimately dissolve. The act of interpretation is for me something like a game; it is a way for me to engage deeply with a text at a given time (it provides a focus for my attention to the text), though without exhausting the text, and while leaving open the possibility that I will return to the text in a different way in the future.

JW: I find family resemblances and Venn diagrams useful ways of visualizing meaning, and I think you can use these to think about reading too. It’s probably inevitable that each reading will draw particular things from a text, so that a reader can use, as a handy way of categorizing it, a memory-tag—but with good writing this will shift if you reread, or even as you remember reading. The best texts are open to a range of interpretation: anything that starts and ends with the author’s intention will die very quickly, or its words might become purely decorative: then you can put it on a T-shirt and things become less about how the text is read and more about what it looks like: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. But while there’s a reader, even of a T-shirt, some kind of meaning’s always waiting, like the faces that form in clouds, or the patterns in the carpet.

Hotel cover

NH: I want to go back, for a moment, to the fact that, in Hotel, you’re using theorists as characters and redeploying what they’ve written as dialogue. It seems that part of your creative process is connected to a reading practice. Your writings seem to have steeped in theory to a certain extent; they seem to have, to use your language, drawn theory in. You mentioned Irigaray informs your concerns with subjectivity as well. How do you see the relation between reading (theoretical and other works) and writing? I know Kathy Acker is one of your influences, and that for her the two acts were indissociable.

JW: I like theory (as a—for want of a better definition—‘creative’ writer, am I even allowed to say this?). I like theory that’s written as if it’s ‘creative’ writing. I like Christine Brooke-Rose, and Maggie Nelson, and Denise Riley and Anne Carson’s criticism as well as their poetry and fiction. They acknowledge what language does even as they are using it: they don’t try to pretend it’s some kind of neutral tool. I like Acker’s methods. They’re not straight cut-up (maybe that’s an involuntary pun). In The Childlike Life of The Black Tarantula, there’s nothing coldly experimental about the way she rewrites classic texts, and the result has in no way the alienating effect of many other cut-ups. But her work, commenting on what it remakes, is always criticism as well as fiction. I like her emails with McKenzie Wark, which are all voice—voice whose artifice is very natural and whose naturalness is very artificial—which constantly undermines itself and turns itself over: it is irreverent and then surprisingly reverent by turns so that, in some ways, she seems to be holding a conversation only with herself.

NH: It’s funny that you mention the correspondence between Acker and Wark. I’m just reading that. The idea that Acker seems at times, in the correspondence, to be conversing with herself is interesting, too. There’s a line from Hotel that seems to be haunting me: “I have suspected for a while that some people talk to the page because there is no one else they can talk to any more.” The writing scene that Acker was embedded in in San Francisco was and continues to be very community-based, so much so that the communal scene itself often enough becomes the subject, the content, of the work: writerly names are named in the writing itself and in a way become signatures which indicate where the reader can place this work on the literary map; ‘gossip’ gets in and becomes art, even becomes explicitly framed as art (I’m thinking of Dodie Bellamy’s Barf Manifesto and even, in the broader American scene, Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things About Me Too). Anyway, scenes like that are conducive to such fruitful collaborations and dialogues: there are others to talk to, and this talk may make it onto a page. Then there are writers like Anne Carson, the lone wolf types (though she is constantly communicating with the dead writers and thinkers she loves, constantly incorporating them into her own thinking and art). I wonder if you might tell us about your own relation, as a writer, to community. When did you begin to write, and, when you did begin, were you surrounded by others who wrote, or did you only begin to come into contact with writers later on? Are you a lone wolf type, or do you have writing relationships which fuel your practice?

JW: The emails show Acker as lonelier than I’d have expected: she complains about it (though this might simultaneously be a seductive pose, and I do often think of works of fiction—in which I’d include emails and letters—as really elaborate secondary sexual characteristics). When I started writing, I was completely on my own. I didn’t think of myself as a writer, and I didn’t think of the things I was doing as ‘writing’ in any formal sense. One of the reasons I’ve stayed with writing is the people. I used to be an illustrator: that was lonely. I don’t know why, but maybe it’s because some illustrators have a different approach to using words. I suspect I also found it isolating because of the economic structure of illustrative work: there are no ‘readings’: you seldom connect with your audience; work is usually commissioned in response to writing, often as the last stage in a publication process, and you rarely meet the author, get to exchange ideas or influence their end of the process. Some illustrators work in studios, but I prefer to work alone, with access to collaboration and discussion when I need it. I like emails and all forms of disembodied communication (except phone: I like writing, really: g-chat, Twitter; I’ve fallen in love by email…). I find talking face-to-face intoxicating—with the right person. There are a few people I write to about writing and the writing about this can itself become something creative: a game, something with a texture of its own…

acker460Kathy Acker

NH: I’m curious about what your relationship to the materiality of a text or book is, especially in light of the fact that you’ve worked as an illustrator. Do you relate to creative writing—text on a page—as if it is a visual object, a thing, for lack of a better word, with a visual dimension which sits alongside its other dimensions? No one would ever space an illustration you’ve handed over to them differently, for example, in the way that they might space a piece of text you’ve handed over to them differently, or change its font and so on (though maybe poetry is conventionally more respected than prose as far as preserving the original spacing goes). It’s unusual for writers to have a hand in designing their own books these days—it’s just not how we divvy up the labor, culturally. Do you ever find that division—writers versus designers—frustrating? Could you speak to these questions in connection with Hotel, which seems to sit on the page in a very interesting way, perhaps partly because of the way that short quotations are interspersed, or distributed, between the text’s paragraphs?

JW: I find writing different from illustrating: the gaps are in different places: I don’t mean literally, but the gaps I use as a writer to work with the reader. Illustrating other people’s texts, I find myself playing around these gaps. I don’t illustrate my own work because that would involve somehow second-guessing myself as I was writing.

The page layout in Hotel is excellent: those chunky chapter and section headers, and the elegant, slightly square, page format. It was very important to me that the ‘screenplay’ parts of the book—where characters like Freud and Heidegger have ‘conversations’ with the narrator— looked like a screenplay: centered, in a Courier font, with the names of the speakers in capital letters. When I sent my final manuscript to Bloomsbury, I had formatted it very carefully. They proofed it, and sent it back to me with all my formatting equally carefully removed… luckily they were happy to put it back.

I’ve never experimented with breaking up the page in ways that are outside the conventions of typography, but I do find paragraphing, use of italics, line-spaces, etc. important: I think most authors do.

NH: The ‘fragment’ seems to be one of the central forms you’re using in Hotel. There’s also another form that’s marvelously conspicuous: the postcard form. Two pieces in the text, “Marriage postcards” and “Postcards from 26 hotels,” are assemblages of postcards. These postcards are, of course, not literally postcards, so I wonder if you could elaborate on what they are: How are you conceiving of them, and how did you stumble upon them or invent them as an organizational unit for these pieces? They seem related, in some way, to the fragment, though they come with a different set of associations: They imply an addressee, for example, and actions of sending and receiving in a way that fragments do not, or at least do not necessarily.

JW: The “26 postcards” were written at the beginning of the process of writing Hotel, as a kind of warm-up exercise, though I didn’t really think of them in that way at the time because I don’t like to formalize how I write, so maybe it’s better to call them one of many approaches I tried. In the end I put them at the end of the book, though there are also some postcards half-way through. There are lots of approaches to communicating with an unseen correspondent in Hotel, because there’s a lot in the book about the difficulties of communication, and especially the difference between talking (and the ‘talking cure’) and writing, and also corresponding. There’s a lot in the book about email, and g-chat as well as postcards. Dora writes a suicide letter, then, attempting no harm against herself, puts it away in her desk where her parents—to whom it is addressed— discover it. I quote Freud, who “remembered seeing and hearing that among people with hysterical mutism, writing vicariously stood in for speech. They wrote fluently, more quickly, and better than other people did.”


NH: You mentioned that, when you started writing, you were hesitant to conceive of what you were writing as writing. I wonder whether you could elaborate on that. Was this because the form the writing assumed was unconventional, or was it because you didn’t think that what you were writing about was the stuff of ‘real’ writing, or something else? I’m curious about how our conceptions of ‘real’ writing are formed and about what informs them. In an interview you did for The Fem, you spoke of rendering seemingly insignificant experiences in words as a feminist gesture of sorts. Other writers have felt it necessary to invent, inhabit, and validate forms of their own. Is the writing you are doing now continuous in any way with the writing you were doing earlier on and which you did not, then, conceive of as legitimate writing? Has your conception of ‘real’ writing shifted over time?

JW: It was definitely to do with my conception of what writing was, and a conception of what a person like me might be allowed to write. I have a degree in English literature, but I had no framework for reading as a writer. I was not inspired by a lot of the writing I saw around me: this is partly why I now read a lot in translation, as well as a lot of books published by indie presses who are more willing to publish unconventional works. The realist novel is just one form amongst many.

Ideas that stood in my way (as they do for many women) included a notion of what was important, what could be discussed, and where, and how; the idea that writing about family, domesticity, and romance should be confined to certain genres (even to special places, and ways of writing, within the ‘genre’ of literary fiction); as well as the notion that literature should be ‘improving’ or tell the reader about something ‘interesting.’ This is why I’m so interested in writing female voices that are internal monologues. At the moment I’m writing a voice that doesn’t know itself, that has no real vocabulary for expressing its desires, or identifying its distress, but which is able to reveal these nevertheless.

NH: Your interest in internal monologues is definitely apparent in both Vertigo and Hotel, though both texts also make use of other modes of narration as well. There are pieces in Vertigo, for example, which expertly navigate and exploit the fine line dividing the first person and the third person point of view. I mentioned the title piece, “Vertigo,” above. Another piece, “Vagues,” seems to start off in the third person: an oyster restaurant is described in detail, the narrative voice comes to fixate on a man sitting at one of the tables, but eventually the third person gets sucked into a first person perspective: The woman sitting across from him, who has been narrating the whole time, speaks of herself: she says ‘I.’ We only realize that she’s been narrating once she does. The shift in point of view perhaps helps to convey the woman as a particular kind of self, one that risks being forgotten (though everything, the whole narrative world, is filtered through her).

JW: Yes, I’m interested in how we use language to convey ourselves, when words are such worn-out, borrowed things that it’s easy to think of ourselves in the third person. It’s pretty much impossible to use language without quoting, if not directly, then by referencing a sensibility: you find yourself talking like a newsreader, or a teacher you once heard, or whatever (to quote Vertigo, “I say ‘you.’ Of course I mean ‘me.’”).


NH: Could you tell us more about your next project? A voice that doesn’t know itself, that lacks a vocabulary for expressing its desires, but which somehow conveys them seems like it would be very challenging to write! How are you approaching the task?

JW: I want to do something new (to me, at least) in every project, so I don’t think about approaches beforehand: the writing process is all about evolving techniques to cope with what I’m exploring. In the next thing, I’m writing about a teenager, someone whose memories are limited in terms of timescale but are still very sharp and intrusive. She’s relatively well-read, so has a wide vocabulary, but has little of what people would conventionally call ‘life-experience,’ though she has experienced her whole life up to that point. I want to look at the quality of that overlooked experience, and at how she expresses it, knowing, herself, that it’s not conventionally valued.

NH: It seems that both Vertigo and Hotel are circling around the figure of a distressed, even suffocated, female subject. In Vertigo, this figure is manifest as a number of different characters (that is, in the different stories that make up the text), while in Hotel, it is manifest as one subject, whose subjectivity is itself distributed across, or manifest in and as, a number of different textual forms (postcards and diaries, among others). There is even definite crosstalk between Vertigo and Hotel on the subject of home—the former text includes the rather dark consideration of home and family history, “Claustrophobia.” Hotels are not alien to Vertigo either. They—the infamous ‘they’—say that some poets write the same poem their whole lives. I wonder what your own relation is to returning to familiar themes in new ways. Repetition with difference. The new project sounds like it might, to a certain degree, be this kind of return. Do you have any reflections on what is sometimes the need to write and rewrite and rewrite (or any other concluding thoughts)?

JW: Well ‘suffocated’ is a good word, because I think I do have a thing about breathing, like in the claustrophobia story, and in Hotel I write a lot about Freud’s patient, “Dora,” who stops speaking: speech being another thing that comes out of the mouth. I’ve had attacks of claustrophobia a few times, including one where I was staying somewhere and had to sleep downstairs on the sofa, because I couldn’t stay in the bedroom; I didn’t want to tell anyone about it, but even at the time I found it quite funny.

Someone I once met told me, “You just write how you write.” He was a writer but quite a different sort from me, and I didn’t know him for long but that stuck with me: why worry? There’s no point writing anything that’s not felt urgently. I’m always writing about home and family, and love, and escape, and identity; I think those are big enough topics for anyone.

–Joanna Walsh & Natalie Helberg



Joanna Walsh is the author of the story collections Fractals (3:AM Press; 2013), Vertigo (Dorothy, a publishing project; 2015), and Grow a Pair (Readux Books; 2015), in addition to the creative memoir Hotel (Bloomsbury; 2015). She also illustrates, edits fiction for 3:AM, reviews books for various journals, and promotes writing by women using the twitter account @read_women, which received the Women In Publishing’s 2014 New Venture Award.

 helberg pic

Natalie Helberg won the 2015 Robin Blaser Poetry Award. She completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on and in Canadian Literature. She is (still) working on a hybrid novel.


Oct 022015





I was trying to draw the space between objects; at least half of drawing is letting emptiness define the object. The other half might be looking closely, letting go of your preconceptions of what something is so that you can see what’s actually there. I was trying to see.

This was decades ago, during a disastrous and self-destructive adolescence that had, nevertheless and astonishingly, transported me from a public high school tucked in the far northwest corner of the contiguous United States to Yale University. I had been groomed to be a Math major with a French minor but, being three thousand miles from my childhood home and drunk off my perceived freedom, I decided to major in art.

All students were obliged to take some science, to round us out. I took a class designed for non-scientists, one nicknamed Physics for Poets. Lawrence Krauss was my teacher. He was funny and friendly and kind; he didn’t mind talking to bored teens. He was barely out of his own teenage years, though had impressive credentials and a PhD. He looked then much as he looks now: lean, animated, glasses-wearing, short dark hair, a mouth that is crammed with jokes and big ideas.

I was shy; teachers scared me. But Krauss was approachable. He was teaching mind-bending stuff. I’d go to him with questions, and we’d end up talking about nothing.

Because nothing, the physics of it, is his specialty.

I recently contacted him because I wanted to thank the two teachers in college who had helped shape me. One was the drawing teacher who taught me to look at things clearly; I found that he’d died. The other was Krauss. He and I struck up an email conversation, and he agreed to a Skype interview. When we spoke, he’d just returned from Bolivia, where he’d been playing a villain in a Werner Herzog film.

If you search the library shelves for A Guide for the Perplexed, you will find three books: one by Maimonides, the Sephardic astronomer, scholar and philosopher; one by Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker; and one by Krauss.

The universe is filled with unexpected connections. I am a perplexed filmmaker who turns to astrology in moments of desperation. Lawrence Krauss, Phd, cosmologist, is also now an actor.

KRAUSS: I just have to see if this is… Hello? Hello? Hello? Yes? There’s no Mary Lou here. I’m sorry, you have the wrong number. Okay. Okay, okay, okay.

It was from California, and I thought it might be someone that I was… Okay, anyway.

Krauss has been in front of cameras before, talking about particles, dark energy, and God. Now he’s spinning into fiction. And expecting an important call.

ME: Hollywood?


KRAUSS: What always has intrigued me, and I think it’s from the time I was a kid, is this connection between science and culture. I am a product of popular culture. When I was a kid, I had a TV in my room, and I would not begin my homework, even from the time I was 10, until The Johnny Carson Show was over, at 1:00 in the morning.

Late night TV, back before cable, would end in static. About 1% of old-fashioned static was caused by radiation emanating from the Big Bang. Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Those of us watching TV late at night back before cable, young Krauss, could see traces of our origin.

KRAUSS: It’s hard to be divorced from popular culture, which is what academia is. The books, and then the music, and now the films are another way to engage.

Krauss and I could talk about movies all day, and we spend much of our time doing so, but eventually we get to my agenda. I want to know more about nothing, really. What is it? If I can understand the basic scientific concept, perhaps I can craft a lens through which I can look at other forms of nothing.

I am interested in how what we do not see makes us who we are, how negative space defines us.

Rubin VaseRubin Vase, the classic illustration of space/negative space


One of my son’s favorite books is also mine. It is based on a Yiddish song. Joseph had a little overcoat, it got old and worn. So Joseph makes a vest from his overcoat, when that becomes patched and threadbare, he makes a scarf from the vest, then a tie from the scarf, then a button from the tie. Then the button pops off and he loses the button. What is Joseph to do? He makes a story about about the life of his overcoat. The book ends with the moral, you can always make something from nothing.

It’s a great story for writers, facing the blank page.

KRAUSS: The simplest kind of nothing is—which is in fact, I would claim, the nothing of the Bible—is emptiness, is an empty void, space containing nothing, infinite dark. No particles, no radiation, just empty space. But then there’s the kind of nothing which is more deep, which is no space itself and no time itself.

Krauss’s basic thesis, the one that he’s popularly known for, is that the universe could have arisen from nothing. No particles, no radiation, no space, no time. Nothing. Then poof: a universe. A universe as in: everything we can see and measure, a universe filled with energy and stuff. A universe of galaxies and nebulae, gravity and electromagnetism, space and time. A universe of somethings surrounded by nothing, the same kind of nothing there was before the beginning.

We call it nothing because we can’t see it, we don’t understand it, but it is unstable, dynamic. Fertile.


ME: Every animal life starts with a Big Bang (one hopes a loving, consensual one). I’m curious about your beginnings.

KRAUSS: Neither of my parents finished high school. My father’s family is from Hungary, my mother’s came from Europe during the war. Jews during the war. Or before the war, actually. I think my parents, being the way they were, and not having been to school, they decided my brother would be a lawyer and I would become a doctor. That was the plan. As a result, my brother did, unfortunately, become a lawyer. A professor of law, actually, which is worse, ’cause they make lawyers. I became interested in science, ’cause my mother made the mistake of telling me that doctors were scientists.

Around high school, I realized that doctors weren’t scientists. In particular, I took a biology course that was just so boring. Memorizing parts of frogs. So I dropped the course, a traumatic experience for me, and more traumatic for my mother, who was still convinced I was gonna become a doctor. When I went to college, I had a motorcycle and I had to get her to fill out some forms for my insurance and send them up to me, and I discovered that she’d written that I was in premedical school, which my university didn’t even have. When I got my first job at Harvard, which was a very fancy position in the Society of Fellows there, my mother phoned up my then-wife, we had just gotten married, and said, “You gotta talk him out of this. What does he want, chalk on his hands? He’d still have time to become a doctor.” Eventually she got over it and is quite happy now.


Before my interview with him, I skim books by Krauss, watch his videos. I Google “fields” and “particles” and “quarks” and “quantum.”

What I find is this: everything in the universe is composed of particles. Like numbers, the particles also exist in the negative: anti-matter. Every quark has its anti-quark, every life has its death. The same weight and shape, but in opposite.

Particles interact with fields –gravitational, electromagnetic, nuclear– which are the expression of forces. These forces give the particles mass, and allow the matter to be seen. Fields make particles into matter.

It can be hard to tell where a particle ends and a field begins.

The particles that make up your body come from exploding stars. Krauss has said that the particles that constitute your left hand likely come from a different star than the ones that make up your right. His joke is, Forget Jesus. Stars died so that you might live.

Supernova via The TelegraphDying Star via The Telegraph


Krauss talks about God a lot. Rather, he talks about how God wasn’t necessary for the universe to come into being.

ME: How do you define God? Is it as creator? As author?

KRAUSS: As a purposeful creator. As some intelligence guiding the universe. As if you need some design and purpose, and that the universe was created as a conscious act.

ME: Why is it important to you to argue against the existence of God?

KRAUSS: Hold on, my cat is at the door. Hold on. Okay. Okay, cat, you wanna come in? The door is closed, and therefore you wanna come in? Yeah, okay. Okay. Okay. Come here. Come here. There you go. We have a very vocal cat, so—

ME: I can hear her. Or him.

KRAUSS: Him. And he–well, he doesn’t really come in here, but I think the existence of a closed door, which it normally isn’t, and it’s…

ME: The allure of the forbidden.

KRAUSS: Okay. I don’t argue against the existence of God. What I argue against is people’s insistence that their God should impact our understanding of nature and the way we behave. What I argue against is this notion that religion has anything to do with our understanding of the universe, which it doesn’t.

For many people, religion is an obstacle to accepting the wonders of the universe. People should accept the wonders of reality and be inspired by them, spiritually and in every other way. Arguing the universe is made for us is the opposite of humble. I guess part of what my effort is, is to tear down the walls of our self-delusion. Science forces us to acknowledge when we’re wrong. That’s the great thing about science.

What is really remarkable, what we’ve learned in the last 50 years, is that you can create a universe from nothing without violating laws of physics, even the ones we know, much less the ones we don’t know. And that is amazing.

So all I can say is that you don’t need a God. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, but you don’t necessarily need one.

I think a huge problem is that people define themselves as being more than just human beings and they like to be part of in-groups. Religion grows out of tribalism. It doesn’t unify people. It’s designed as us versus them.

Arguing against the necessity of God, arguing for science, it’s political now.

Most of the time people arguing for God are trying to restrict the rights, freedom or livelihood of other people.


We used to think that our world existed in a galaxy that was surrounded by an infinity of nothing.

As we refined our optics, stretched our mathematics, poked around in outer space, we found that we are, in fact, not alone. Our galaxy is one of about 400 billion, all spinning, surrounded by empty space.

Nothing is simply what we don’t see, what we can’t see, what we haven’t measured.

Physicists used to wonder what shape our universe took: was it endless (open), did it loop back on itself (closed), or was it flat (very big, but finite).

The only shape that would allow for the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation to look as it looks is the flat universe.

The flat universe isn’t as bad as it sounds. It is simple and elegant. The total energy in such a place is zero, the positive and negative balance each other out. Light travels in a straight line. It’s not as weird as the other, twisty-turny universes would be.

A flat universe would mathematically require a certain amount of matter. We have measured the mass of everything we can measure in the universe and come up short.

Where is the missing matter?

Where is the matter we didn’t know was missing until we started looking for it?

Turns out, it was nothing.

Nothing is filled with matter and energy that don’t react to the electromagnetic field, it doesn’t emit radiation. It doesn’t shine. So we call it dark.

KRAUSS: We wouldn’t be here, our galaxy wouldn’t be here, if dark matter hadn’t been there. This is the reason that our galaxy was able to form.

Dark matter birthed us.

Dark matter and dark energy are passing through us, undetected, all the time.

Dark matter, dark energy, surround us. We have calculated the amount of darkness, of nothing, and find that it constitutes exactly the amount needed to complement actual matter in a flat universe.


There is a great ragged gap in our society. I once thought it was nothing, but now, looking hard, I see that the emptiness is filled with the shape and weight of souls that should be there.

Field notes: Recently, I was upset when I learned about Misty Upham, a woman who lived a couple hour’s drive from my home, outside Seattle. One night, Misty went missing. Despite pleas for help, the police refused to look for her. Despite her movie star status, she was a Native woman living in a community with a history of deep rooted racism. She was found dead, days later, by a tribal search party. It is unclear whether or not she would have died had she been found right away.

Misty Upham was famous, which is why her story made the news. Her story became a lens for others: Indigenous women go missing like this all the time. Native women suffer, disappear, are killed and otherwise violated, at disproportionately high rates.

More raw data: The other day the State Patrol pulled me over for incorrectly passing a slow-moving excavator on the shoulder. I was not shot, I was not taken into police custody, I was not harassed, I was not given ridiculous fines, I was not scared, I wasn’t even nervous.  I got off with a warning.


Ours is a time in which black men are killed by police for infractions as minor as mine.
The New York Times recently ran a story about the million and a half black men who are, effectively, missing. Prematurely dead or incarcerated, they are missing from the lives that they should be leading.

missingFrom NY Times


Gravity, like love, is a force that brings bodies together. Science now suspects that dark energy is the force pushing stars apart, it is the force making our universe flatter.

KRAUSS: Dark energy is much more, much more complex and much more perplexing than dark matter. Understanding the nature of dark energy will inevitably change our picture of virtually everything, because it’s totally inexplicable.


The country in which I live, the United States, was founded on the idea of people all being equal, founded on principles of essential human dignity and gravitas, on freedom. It is equally founded on, and made possible by, the erasure and bondage of people.

KRAUSS: My friend Noam Chomsky once said to me, “I don’t care what people think, it’s what they do that matters.” But what people think has an impact on what they do. When you believe crazy things, it causes you to do bad things, or do nonsensical things.

Many of us in this country want to believe that we have left our ugly history locked safely in the past, and have come into the present with our freedom and equality intact.

Missing Indigenous women. Shackled black men. Violent ends. How can we say weare done with genocide and slavery? These unconscionable acts echo through time. They occupy the space around us.

Our society’s deliberate unseeing of the damage done, our willful repression of history, is our dark energy. This is a force pushing people apart, a force that is flattening us.

What we don’t see shapes us.


Scientific control: Humans have always killed, colonized, enslaved one another.

Yes. True. But.

This country is a laboratory for how to live with one another, how to reckon with history, how to reckon with difference. We are running an experiment with freedom and equality. If we are to have any measure of success, we can’t do this blindly.

We are starting to see the fields that inform us, that create and support us, the forces of subconscious bias. We are starting to see the violence, the injustice, that we didn’t think was there before.

What has shifted?

In part, is our technology. Our ways of seeing and recording. Dash-cams, body cams, smart phone cameras, everybody can take pictures now. Social media lets loose all this information, all the proof. We can measure, record, and analyze that which has been kept in the dark.

We are refining our optics, our measurements, our ways of communicating.

The Observer Effect: the act of seeing changes what you see.

Ergo: there is hope for us yet.


KRAUSS: The universe is a wonderful experiment. We can run data analysis on it. I was using the universe as a particle physics laboratory initially, because the universe allows us to access scales of time and space and energy that we would never be able to recreate in the laboratory.

The universe is a laboratory. It is confined. We can run experiments, and learn about this place in which we live.

My head is a laboratory for my self.

My great-grandfather was an erratic, energetic enthusiast who lit his arm on fire and wound up crippled, who sold insurance, ran a restaurant, made floats for parades, failed as an inventor, established one of the first wilderness areas in the city where I grew up, and regularly appeared in the small town paper because he was the kind of shiny, needy person that attracted attention. Hot dark matter? Charmed particle?

Here is a family secret, something that was long kept from sight: in middle-age, my great-grandfather pilfered a pearl-handled revolver from his daughter, my grandmother, a sharp-shooter.


The bullet was a particle shooting through his brain, through his field, warping it. That bullet caused a disturbance in the field of his family. I can point to myself, to my relations, and see ripple effects of his suicide, acts of self-erasure in his descendants: depression, eating disorders, bad relationships.

My great-grandfather was, according to family lore, brilliant and loving and funny, if mercurial. He spawned high-achieving children. He had everything to live for. What dark energy, then, propelled that bullet?

People didn’t know from crazy back then. His name was Art, which kind of slays me.


ME: My brain is limited by its neurons, by its chemistry. Aren’t our perceptions, and therefore our theories, always limited by the physical structure of our brains?

KRAUSS: Of course they are. And we have to work with the limitations of our senses and our brains. What science has allowed us to do is extend our senses.

We may be limited, but we know our limitations. That’s one of the great things about science: The limitations are built into the results of science. The fact that there’s uncertainty is an inherent property of science. I’s the only area of human activity where you can actually quantify what you don’t know.

The stories we create are not like religion. The stories we tell are not creations, because we can do experiments.

We have been forced, kicking and screaming, to the physics of the 21st century not because we invented it, but because nature forced us to it. Quantum mechanics led us in directions we never would’ve imagined. Dark energy is another example. No one would’ve proposed that empty space had energy if it didn’t turn out it did.

Art blew his brains out. What dreams, what lies, what loves, what despair splattered out with that gray matter? What exactly did he blow when he blew his mind?

KRAUSS: I tell people that I do physics ’cause it’s easy. It’s just a hell of a lot easier to understand the cosmos than it is to understand consciousness. Physics has hit the low-hanging fruit. The universe is relatively simple, and we are nowhere near understanding the nature of consciousness.


I caught my boy the other day with a knife, trying to jimmy open the pistol box we bought after he gleefully downed a bottle of overly sweet children’s acetaminophen, and in which we now lock all medicine. I understand the instinct to open anything that seems shut, to want something sweet, or something that might cure me. I imagine the soul as a box wedged between heart and lungs. I’m trying to pry mine open. It’s messy work, I have an old crowbar. My hands are calloused. I’ve managed a few dents in the lid. Dreams fly out.

Dreams are data from the subconscious. Dark energy, indirectly measured. My therapist analyses the images. For instance, a malignant, alien wind-up toy is a neurotic (malignant) complex that comes from somebody outside myself (alien) to which I give energy or credence (I wind it up). Almost every week, the night before I see my therapist, I will lay a dream as a chicken does an egg. There have been hundreds of dreams and fragments. Alone, they don’t solve anything, but over time, a picture of my subconscious begins to emerge.

By connecting the dreams to my memories of my life to date and to my experience of life right now, by looking at myself as part of a larger family system, by poking around in unpleasant histories, I start to understand some of the darkness that has plagued me. I am freed from wholly blind reaction. It is exhilarating, this embrace of uncertainty, this state of inquiry and perplexity.

The part of the self that seems unknowable, like a black box, like nothing, is –truly– alive, unstable, dynamic. Fertile. That is the self from which dreams and poetry spring.


One thing I love about science, about physics, is that it is an attempt at perspicacity. It wants to know the world inside and out, it wants to keep learning the world, forever.

Science, like poetry, traffics in wonder.

We are at a moment in time when we can see, measure, and record information about our universe. In the past, we didn’t have the technology to see far beyond our own edges. In the future, the universe will be so spread out, bodies will be so far apart from one another, there’s no way we’ll be able to see and measure anything other than our own galaxy.

We are at the only moment in time where we can have the picture that we have, tell the story, of ourselves at this moment in time.

Science forces us to acknowledge when we’re wrong, tear down the walls of self-delusion. That’s the great thing about science.

The more evidence we gather, the more we see, the more we change our our story.

What science allows us to do is extend our senses.

What happens when we try to see what we have not seen before? When we try to understand where we come from?

How might a person change, how might a society change, once it starts seeing and contending with its shadow, its missing self?

Understanding the nature of dark energy will inevitably change our picture of virtually everything.



As I was writing this essay, I had a dream that I was a teenager looking into the night. The sky was a mess of stars. When I stopped looking so hard, when I looked at a slant, the stars arranged themselves into constellations. Pictures that told stories.

ME: I’d like to check a metaphor.

KRAUSS: Uh-huh?

ME: My understanding is that quarks inside atoms are popping in and out of existence so quickly we can’t see them.


ME: On a very large scale, is that conceivably what’s true of multiverses as well, is that universes just pop in and pop out and…?

KRAUSS: As far as we know, it’s possible. If gravity is a quantum theory, then universes can spontaneously pop into existence for a very short period of time. Might even be virtual, which means they pop into existence and pop out of existence on a scale so short they could never be measured by any, quote, “external observer.” But other universes can pop into existence and stay in existence, and depending upon the conditions. And as far as I can see, the only ones that could do it for a long time are those that have zero total energy. And it turns out our universe does.

If you wanna replace “God” with “multiverse,” that’s fine. The difference is, multiverse is well-motivated; God isn’t.

It is conceivable that universes pop in and out of existence. Krauss has said that a baby universe might, from the outside, looks like a black hole, but on the inside, be infinite.

The soul might be a black box on the outside, and endless within.

I am trying to figure out how I move through space. I am trying to see the space between people, how that seeming emptiness can shape us. How gravity attracts one to another, how what we don’t see can drive us apart.

We pop in and out of existence, as people, as societies. To an external observer, our lives and civilizations are so fleet as to be virtual.

We spin.

We shine.

KRAUSS: What I like about being human is that there are so many facets to being human.We should enjoy and celebrate all of those facets. What saddens me is that many people live their lives without having any concept of the amazing wonders that science has revealed to us.

ME: Well, it can feel religious in a way, or spiritual.

KRAUSS: It certainly can feel spiritual. Oh, there’s no doubt about it. Oh, yes.


A writing teacher once gave me great advice: the end is contained in the beginning.

KRAUSS: It all comes back to our origins. Ultimately what is interesting is: Where do we come from, how did we get here, and where are we going?

Before the beginning, there was nothing.

Something came from nothing; the beginning began.

And this is how we think the universe might end: infinite flatness. Dark energy is driving galaxies apart, stars are accelerating away from each other. Our flat universe is getting flatter all the time. All the protons and neutrons, all the fundamental particles, that make up you, me, energy, space and time, all the laws of nature that govern us, will disintegrate.

Again, we will become ashes, dust. Nothing.

But nothing is fertile.

Something can spring from nothing.

Whirlpool galaxy, Messier Object 51 (M51)

—Julie Trimingham




First: a huge thank you to Professor Krauss. Our lengthy Skype conversation was transcribed; I then took the liberty of editing his responses for length. I also re-contextualized some of those responses, and by no means did I use everything. I am grateful for his playful & creative cooperation.



Lawrence M. Krauss, PhD, is a physicist and cosmologist. He has taught widely: Yale, Harvard, Case Western Reserve, Australian National University. He is currently the Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, where he is also director of the Origin Project.

Look for him as the villain in Werner Herzog’s upcoming film, Salt and Fire, to be released sometime in the next year. And then look again: he has a cameo role in London Fields, and may soon be playing other notable malefactors. Hollywood is calling.

The documentary he made with Richard Dawkins, The Unbelievers, is packed with celebrities and good science.

YouTube Preview Image

Krauss is prolific. All the scientific facts in this essay are derived from his books and lectures. Google his name and you will find a profusion of writings and videos. Those that bear most direct influence on this essay are:

A Universe from Nothing, the YouTube video of a Krauss lecture sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

YouTube Preview Image

YouTube Preview Image

Other books by Krauss include:

-Atom: A Single Oxygen Atom’s Journey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth…and Beyond

-Beyond Star Trek: From Alien Invasions to the End of Time

-Fear of Physics

-Hiding in the Mirror: The Quest for Alternate Realities, from Plato to String Theory

-Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science

-Quintessence: The Mystery of the Missing Mass

-The Fifth Essence

-The Physics of Star Trek

Join his 165K Twitter followers @LKrauss1. All Krauss, all the time, at

The tricky thing about blind spots is that it’s hard to know where they are. Tracy Rector (, Nahaan (, and Alicia Roper provided essential readings of, and edits for, this essay. Many thanks to all.

Joseph had a Little Overcoat is Simms Taback’s book based on a Yiddish song.

The writing teacher mentioned in the essay is the magnificent Aritha van Herk.


Version 4

Julie Trimingham is a writer and filmmaker. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was released in 2013. A collection of fictional essays, Way Elsewhere, is forthcoming. She tells stories at The Moth and publishes non-fiction in Numéro Cinq magazine. She is currently drafting her second novel, and is a producer on a film about the Salish Sea. Film and performance clips at Julie lives with her husband and young son on a small island.

Oct 012015



Earlier this summer, I met with author Noy Holland to discuss her wonderful novel, Bird. I was a big fan of her collection, Swim for the Little One First, so I jumped at the chance to read her first novel ahead of its publication date. We spoke at a coffee shop in Northampton, MA. Bird comes out in November 2015, but you can read an excerpt right here at Numéro Cinq.

— Benjamin Woodard


Benjamin Woodard (BW): This is your first novel. How long did it take to complete? I ask because I’ve read that some of your stories have taken years and years to finish.

Noy Holland (NH): The longer stories took years to write, yes. I started Bird as a short story, and it took me a long time to know I was writing a novel. I’m embarrassed to tell you how long ago I started it. Not to say I was working on it continuously, as I wrote my third collection and part of my second collection while this was around. But I probably started Bird about twelve years ago.


BW: It’s funny, because when I read the book, I felt like there were some narrative shades and parallels from some of your earlier stories, like “Merengue” from Swim for the Little One First. 

NH: This stuff lives with me for such a long time. I just finished copy editing Bird today, and I deliberately revised a sentence that was really close to a sentence in Swim to be a replica of that sentence. Because it was so close to it anyway. We tend to talk about a body of work, but we don’t think of it as anything bodily, as a repetition of the physical sensation of sentences. A repeated syntax; a tendency toward a repetition, across books, of a sound. I’ve stopped worrying about telling the same story. I’m not afraid of having some of the same images or people or colors. There’s something mysterious and beautiful about the persistence of these things.

BW: You see that all the time with filmmakers, who riff on one idea for multiple films.

NH: Right. They have favorite words, favorite cadences. Places, colors, women (laughs). So I stopped resisting repetition a while ago.

BW: Did you approach Bird differently from the stories you were writing at the same time?

NH: As I said, I tricked myself into writing it. Since I thought I was writing a story, I began as I typically do, with a sentence or part of a sentence, with a disruption, or a feeling. And when I realized I either had to throw it away or write a novel, I really had to rethink my process. I began again on a sentence level. At first the book was replete with modifiers, and since for years I had taken adjectives and adverbs away from myself, I had to talk to myself about this. Talk myself down some. I had to go pretty far out with that permission, toward something I gradually found too lavish, and then I scaled back. In places, I’ve likely scaled too far back, been suddenly strict, disgusted with the excess. My recent work is somewhat drastically compressed, and because the novel took such a long time to write, I felt often at odds with myself, and wanted to inflict the somewhat merciless swiftness of what I’m doing now on a book that needed, I think, a more ample linguistic terrain. Also, structure. My god, structure. This was the toughest knot. What a relief to discover the book would pass in a day, and to know I should begin at the beginning of that day. In my stories, I usually land on my first sentence pretty early. But Bird took me forever to decide where to start. I started it in a place that I became disgusted with. I wrote seventy or eighty pages, and maybe a few of those survived to this final version. I found I wanted the first pages to read as lived time, not recollection, wanted the past to feel as immediate as the present, and more pressing. So I started in the long ago, in what I thought of as a permeable state where the past and present could exist at once.

BW: It’s interesting that you’re speaking about language, because in the book, at one point, Bird thinks, “whilst, nobody gets to say whilst anymore,” and it made me think, “Maybe the author is coming through here a bit.” Your sentences are so precise.

NH: That happens, probably more than I recognize. But that kind of commentary does happen.

BW: It seems like in Bird every word is very deliberate and the narrative is incredibly lean, yet densely packed into 170 pages. It lends itself to rereading.

NH: It felt dense to me, reading it again today (laughs).

BW: Do you see a big difference in telling a novel-length story?

NH: Part of my impulse in writing a novel was to get over an apprehension about structure. I think you can write a short story without thinking much about structure, except for when you get into a longer short story, when you have to think of structure in an almost mathematical way. Just to have a sense of how the pattern emerges, or what kind of pattern you need to answer to. When the pattern gets long, the story gets long.

So I think writing a novel is quite different from writing a short story. The attention needs to be the same. Nobody gets off the hook, really. I don’t believe that if you have a lot of pages you can get away with not having to look at every word. The reader still has to read it from beginning to end, from sentence to sentence. Who wants to read filler?

I find the structure of things to be the most vexing part of writing. The most difficult part. For me structure is always retroactive, not an experience of deciding but of recognizing a patternedness to the impulses I’ve blindly recorded. I like the blindness, the search in the dark, the weird disorientation that comes of not knowing what’s ahead. I try, no matter the length of the fiction I’m writing, not to know too much. Or much at all. I hate the belatedness I feel when I know what is next. But how next is different. Structure is pattern, it’s how, it’s a notion of rules, a constriction that, as Yeats said, “drives the plow to original matter.”

I make it sound as though I knew what I was doing but really I fumbled around. The demands were so different. In Bird I felt I had to make concessions for clarity, for momentum. I really had to argue with myself.

There are two narratives in the novel and each is, temporally, pretty much smoothed out. There are ellipses in each, but they still more or less move forward in time. Is this the way we experience things, the way we remember things? No. But the confusion that came of entwining events and images that belonged to different eras was too much. I felt I was trading emotional resonance for what began to feel like an intellectual endeavor, a linguistic contortion that allowed me to bring the past and present side by side in the same sentence. I love when this happens—when a sentence evokes our lived sensation of time and experience blends and confuses. I tried to invite this confusion locally, while seeking clarity and differentiation globally, between the past and present.

BW: And, in a way, the character of Suzie bridges that. She’s an interesting character, because she’s just a voice, and yet it feels like she’s sometimes acting as Bird’s conscience and alter ego. She’s a link from present to past. How did you come about using the character as this kind of device?

NH: I’m glad you saw Suzie as an alter ego, since she emerged from Bird thinking fitfully about herself. So, yes, Suzie’s another version of that singular character. When I disentangled these aspects of Bird’s sense of herself, her longing for herself, I ended up with Suzie, and gave her a name and a device to speak through. [note: throughout the novel, Bird and Suzie only speak through telephone conversations]. I needed her as a counterpoint, as antagonism. I found Suzie could make declarations and ask questions and report weird findings in natural science that I find fascinating. Suzie made room for this fascination in me, and she expressed the common wish for an unbound life. She’s selfish and she’s promiscuous. She can indulge her fascinations. She can go where she wants. By the end of the book, she’s decided against having children permanently. She’s that free spirit, you know? The free range human.

BW: Another counterpoint is Bird’s mother, who exists through all of these missives sent into the ether by Bird. These letters feel like a confessional for Bird, a way for her to speak about the things she normally can’t speak about to anyone else. Again, here’s a character that doesn’t really exist as a tangible being, but by the end of the novel, she feels real to the reader.

NH: Yes, absolutely.

BW: Bird, as a character, has quite a bit of anxiety in the present day narrative. Is this a result of her past, or is it a reflection of the many things we can feel anxious about in our present day?

NH: I don’t know any mothers who aren’t anxious, who aren’t deeply anxious about their choices, about the difficulty of being a mother. I don’t know anyone who, committed to the task of being a mother, doesn’t find it the hardest thing she’s ever done. So, no, I don’t think Bird’s anxiety is a function of the things that have happened to her. I think it’s simply an extension of mothering, of putting lives out into the world and not knowing what their destinies are. The great mysteries of your children’s destinies have not yet unfolded, and there’s not very much you can do to keep them safe. Mothers are hyper-vigilant, super-charged worriers, but vigilance is insufficient, even laughable at times. You hold your hands out while your kid flies off the swing. Like that.

Bird had a turbulent past, and this informs her friendship with Suzie. The two answer the life that the other did not choose. They mirror one another, and they rebuke one another.

BW: Is Doll Doll, who a younger Bird meets while traveling west, representing another potential life path?  

NH: I don’t think I want to draw causal links between Bird and Mickey falling away from one another to their experience with Doll Doll. I think they were going to lose each other, no matter what. But I think Doll Doll is there because the angst and the anxiety of a middle class, white woman living in a real house, in relative security, cannot be compared to the angst and the anxiety of a girl who is going to become a mother, who has become orphaned, who has tied her life to a man who can’t read or write. The precariousness of these lives makes Mickey and Bird’s troubles seem ridiculous. Doll Doll is there, in part, to undercut Bird’s dramatic sense of how difficult things are. She’s self-indulgent. Bird’s difficulties in the present day, by comparison, are normal difficulties.

BW: In an interview with Black Warrior Review, you once talked about finding not only the voice of a piece, but also the listener. I’m curious if you always seek out the listener in your writing?

NH: I don’t remember what I said then (laughs). A listener is different from an audience, of course. To think about an audience while writing a book is disabling, falsifying. But a listener is intimate and also kind of strange. You picked up the confessional mode in Bird’s correspondence with her mother. The mother is the listener in this book. To imagine Bird imagining that her dead mother is listening—well, this was a deep murky impulse but I’d say it enabled the book. Sometimes the listener is the beloved to whom we can no longer speak, because she’s dead or she’s unknown to you or lost to you somehow. It’s a way of keeping loved ones in being—I think Eudora Welty gets credit for saying that. We all go through these anxieties and losses, no matter how blessed our lives are. There is grief in it, and maybe the sense of listening is to speak to the object of your grief.

I’d like to be a happier writer (laughs). I’d like to be a sad-funny writer, or to write with greater levity for the joys of being.

BW: But I do find there’s always some little detail in your writing that’s so strange, you can’t help but smile, even if there’s not much going well for the people involved. A lot of your work revolved around the idea of perseverance. Is that something you think about in your writing? 

NH: Of course, it’s true. I come from a very long line of stubborn people. I married a stubborn man and I have stubborn children. You have to bully your way through things, in a way, and you have to be both patient and kind of disgusted by yourself. You endure and sometimes you prevail. You show up, and you stay at your desk, waiting. There’s so much discouragement in being a writer. We know this. There’s very little recognition, very little money. And it can be wrenching to write yourself into the mess of what you know and feel. It can make a mess of you, you know?

And then to have people say, “Why does it have to be so difficult, or so dark?” Well, it’s wounding. It’s dismissive. But readers are also grateful, they feel seen by your seeing, and this keeps you going, no question.

You persevere. Unless you’re going to live a narrow life, in which you avoid trouble, you avoid danger, you’re going to have to be resilient. In order to have a full expression of your being, you have to be brave. And if you’re brave, you’re going to screw up. You’re going to find yourself in trouble. And you’re going to have to be resilient to live through it. Love is dangerous. The most cautious life is still fraught with danger, and you don’t know what to be afraid of. So you must live by plunging forward.

— Noy Holland & Benjamin Woodard


Noy Holland is the author of three story collections, Swim for the Little One FirstWhat Begins with Bird, and The Spectacle of the Body. Recipient of fellowships from the NEA, the MacDowell Colony and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, she teaches writing in the graduate program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in RevolverMaudlin House, and Cheap Pop. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his nonfiction has been featured in, or is forthcoming from, The Kenyon Review OnlineAlternating Current5×5, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at and on Twitter.


Sep 092015

16_BBallengee_w_great turtleBrandon Ballengée with an endangered alligator snapping turtle. Photograph by Peter Warny.


The Wampanoag people of eastern Massachusetts had a tradition of digging a hole at the site of an important event. A member of the community would then be tasked with maintaining that hole and, once a year, telling the story of what happened there.

History, as we understand it today, is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Restless now, rootless, we add to this story, decade after decade, embellishing and embroidering, until, in time, it takes on a life of its own, staggering out of the woods or fields into the halflight, out of the bars or towers or conference rooms into the glow of headlights, streetlights. It feels alien, other. We squint our eyes. This is not who we are. This is not who we were. This has nothing to do with me.

There are many reasons to dig holes.

We plant crops, we plant trees—and why not? We want food, we want shade. We need a place to bury our trash or hide our treasure. Where else should the bodies go? But in these instances we cannot ignore the underlying expectation of exchange, the ritualistic reciprocity: what is removed shall be replaced, what we hide will stay hidden, what we plant shall grow. A seed into a tree. A body into a laser-etched NASCAR headstone.

The Wampanoag cut into the earth where, and in a time when, the earth mattered, and by leaving that cut, by refusing to fill it in, instead filled the landscape with memory, fusing narrative with the land, entwining story and place. For generations the responsibility was passed on: to tend the hole, to tell the story.

Most of our monuments consist of objects added to the landscape: cenotaphs, statues, plaques. Loss symbolized by addition, the absence of something commemorated by the presence of something new. Perhaps we’re afraid of looking into the void created by the lives, the people, the time, the whatever it is that’s gone missing. In this disconnected culture, stories wander placeless. Memories have no home. We seek replacement rather than understanding.

Brandon Ballengée is an artist, biologist, and activist who has dedicated himself to tending absence. Absence, it could be said, is his medium. The disappearing and extinct species that have been and remain his inspiration and focus, in both his artwork and his scientific research, could not have hoped for a better reciter of their stories, linking them to place, but also time, time past, time running out.

Last spring’s Armory Show in Manhattan brought welcome attention to Brandon’s work, specifically to one of his various ongoing projects, Frameworks of Absence. Since 2006 he’s been researching animals that have gone extinct in the Americas over the past four centuries, selecting prints contemporaneous with the species’ demise and then painstakingly cutting the creature’s image from the page, leaving a hole.

There are holes everywhere.

With climate change already threatening the environment, with overhunting and habitat destruction continuing nearly unabated, with predictions that a new mass extinction event is underway, Brandon wants us to see what we’ve already lost, to mourn so that we might act. He is telling a story, a story of this place, of any place made less wild by the disappearance of its insects, animals, birds, all the things that make it a place. This is our story, as it turns out, and it’s one we need to hear.

The Frameworks of AbsenceThe Frameworks of Absence. 2006-Ongoing. Artist cut and burnt historical artifacts. Installed at the Armory Show, New York, NY, 2015. Photograph by Casey Dorobek. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY.


Brandon and I conducted this interview via email starting in late spring, corresponding through the first few weeks of August. He is passionate and thoughtful, and despite the grim context of his work, retains an admirable and hopeful optimism. What follows has been condensed and edited.


DARREN HIGGINS: As I began to think about your work and consider what questions I wanted to ask you, I noticed that my six-year-old son was outside studying insects and creating habitats for the ones he caught. So I’d like to start by asking about how you came to be interested in studying nature. You said in a recent interview that “I had a lab in my parents’ basement and I had an art studio in our barn.” Did you ever consider any other career, or was your path set from early on?

BRANDON BALLENGÉE: From my earliest memories, I was always fascinated with aquatic animals and insects. I would document and draw them while trying to understand how they worked and lived. At one point I had so many aquariums in my bedroom that my parents moved me downstairs—they were worried that the floor might fall through! This is where the basement lab came from.

DH: And when did art enter the picture? It sounds like your interests in science and art have always been intertwined.

BB: I have always loved to draw. Drawing was always a natural way for me to try to understand the world. Growing up, I would spend hours looking at the illustrations in field guides and zoology books. Later, as a teenager, I became very influenced by modernist paintings—Motherwell, Kline, Rothko, and others were big inspirations. I even began making large-scale abstract paintings, focused on composition and asking how the eye can be moved through a two-dimensional plain. I was also interested in how colors and forms can influence feeling in a work. I still utilize these formalistic considerations while making art.

Science and art are both ways to explore and understand the world outside and within ourselves. They are often viewed as dichotomous, even complete opposites, coming from one or the other side of the brain; however, human beings are not solely “right or left brained”—we are far more complicated and interface with the world poetically as well as pragmatically every day. Creativity manifests itself through both art and science. The fields are complementary, not opposites.

That said, one of the most challenging times in my life was sorting out how to combine art and science academically and, later, professionally. As an undergrad, I managed to take courses in both and then found a dual Swiss/British graduate-to-Ph.D. program, which let me fully combine my practices in art and science. Here my scientific focus concerned causes and potential impacts of developmental deformities in frogs and toads within agricultural landscapes in England and Canada.

My desire to work with amphibians was a response to the current population crisis they face as more than 40% of known species are considered in decline and more than 200 species have gone missing in recent decades. These are ancient marvels of evolution with a wonderful array of shapes, forms, colors, and behaviors. They are “keystone” species to our terrestrial ecosystems, meaning that when they are gone many other species are impacted. They are disappearing so fast. It is both tragic and alarming. My series of artworks, Malamp Reliquaries, is my artistic response to this study of deformed and declining amphibians, as well as hopefully a means to inspire people to help protect these amazing creatures.

01 BBallengee_DFA156.PersephoneDFA 156: Persephone. Unique digital-C print on watercolor paper. Cleared and stained Pacific tree frog collected in Aptos, California, in scientific collaboration with Stanley K. Sessions. 45 7/8 x 33 7/8 inches. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY.

DH: You mentioned species in decline—disappearing or missing species. I’ve been focusing on extinction in my own work recently, which is, I think, one reason why I found your Frameworks of Absence project so profound and moving. How did the idea for that first come to you?

BB: The death of our friends, family, and ourselves is very hard for us to comprehend. Even further, the permanent loss of a group of organisms is an almost abstract idea. So how does one give visual form to this absence? For years I have attempted to create art that captured this phenomenon. I experimented sculpturally using preserved specimens backlit to create silhouettes, to suggest species decline and loss, such as in An Illustrated Key to the Fishes of Jamaica Bay ca. 1974- 2024 AD (2002-04) and the installations the Apparitions (2009-ongoing) made with taxidermy specimens lost in natural-history-museum collections. Also, in my work Collapse (2012), empty jars were placed among a myriad of marine specimens to recall species loss.

02_BBallengee_CollapseCollapse. Installed at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY, 2012. Mixed-media installation including 26,162 preserved specimens representing 370 species following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Glass, Preffer, and Carosafe preservative solutions. 12 x 15 x 15 feet. In the background: Vertical Fall in the Winter call that dances in the spring nocturnal… 2010/12. From the series A Season in Hell. Unique digital Chromogenic print mounted on aluminum. 64 x 90 inches. Photograph by Varvara Mikushkina. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY.

For two-dimensional works, I first tried to depict extinct species by drawing silhouettes of them using Japanese ink. Then ink was use to cover depictions of now-gone species in old field guides. Yet the black mass still had visual form. Influenced by Robert Rauschenberg, who erased a piece by Willem de Kooning, I later tried erasing out the animal depictions. The remaining traces of pigment created a kind of ghost-like image, but still there was a presence.

In 2005 I carefully cut a pair of passenger pigeons out of an old guide using an X-Acto blade and surgical scalpel. The altered print minus the avian forms created an intricate structure, still beautiful but incomplete. Visually, this created a kind of void in the picture-scape, like the actual loss of species from real ecosystems. I had found a way to frame absence.

Brandon Ballengée - Framework of Absence - RIP Passenger PigeonRIP Passenger Pigeon, 1937/2006. Artist-cut page from the 1937 first edition, Macmillan Publishing Ltd.’s John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, 6 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches. Photograph by David W. Coulter.

DH: How do you decide which creatures to focus on? And how do you select the artwork to cut out?

BB: For the last two decades I have been collecting information on extinct and declining species. For the Frameworks of Absence, I maintain a database that groups lost species by continent, era, and taxonomic group. My goal is to create a Framework of Absence for each known species that has gone extinct during the Anthropocene.

For selecting the artwork, it is a matter of finding a print or artifact produced at the time in history when the species depicted disappeared. In some cases, these prints are the only visual and physical presence remaining of the species.

DH: I’m really curious about that process: Why do you choose to use an original print, for example, instead of a facsimile? And, as I understand it, you also burn the image that you cut from the print…

BB: Using original historic prints or artifacts is a fundamental concept underlying the Frameworks of Absence. Such “real” artifacts resonate history—a shared time with the species they depict and the cultural landscape of our own species at that moment in history. As the depictions are removed, the Frameworks of Absence create a void in our own history attuned with the loss of actual species gone from nature. I then burn the depictions of the lost animals. This is a personal cremation ceremony that connects me to these lost species.

The Frameworks of AbsenceThe Frameworks of Absence, 2006-ongoing. Funerary urns, ashes. Photograph by Michael Ahn.

The ashes are placed into black glass funerary urns etched with the name of the lost species. People are then asked to scatter the ashes in the place where the species lived. This scattering of ashes is meant as an individual embodied experience for that person—meant to be a deep and transformative experience. I call these rituals Actions of Mourning. Releasing the remains of others is a powerful and life-changing event, a reminder of our own mortality and the fragility of all life.

By cutting such historic objects I hope to question our sense of value. Such artifacts have worth, often in the monetary sense, but more importantly in the sphere of human history and our changing attitudes along with behaviors towards the natural world. As Aldo Leopold said, “We stand guard over works of art, but species representing the work of aeons are stolen from under our noses.”

11_BBallengee_RIP Pied or Labrador Duck-cuttingBallengée cutting a burnt hand-colored stone lithograph, “Pied Duck” (Labrador duck) by John James Audubon from the limited Amsterdam edition of Birds of America, etched glass urn, and ashes. Photograph by Anthony Archibald J.

As we currently find ourselves in the middle of a human-caused mass extinction event re-evaluating our collective value systems and ethics is paramount. Each of our individual everyday actions has an impact on ecosystems and the greater living community. Some positive and some negative, each action in a sense is a value judgment, what we choose to hold dear and protect.

DH: Ritual clearly plays a critical role here. Can you expand a bit on its importance to your work?

BB: Our lives are filled with daily rituals, although these now, in the technologically enhanced world we live in, often commonly involve interfacing more with the virtual than the physical. The late philosopher of science Edward Reed discussed the loss of direct learning experiences in post-technological societies and stated that direct physical or embodied actions of inquiry were becoming “endangered.” More recently, author Richard Louv has talked about a growing “nature-deficit disorder” among youth and adults resulting from an increasing disconnect with experiences in the natural world. The result is a widespread non-understanding of ecosystems, other organisms, and even ourselves as part of a living community. Our connection to nature is becoming absent. In response, I try to engage audiences physically and mentally through actions.

The Actions of Mourning are ritualistic, but not in reference to specific procedures in a religious sense nor grounded in any particular set of beliefs. Instead, they are personal actions that participants perform, when and how they decide. Such intimate actions are a transformative means of connection to other species living and gone.

Likewise, through my participatory ecological field surveys, Eco-Actions, I connect people to local ecosystems through physically immersive experiences, collecting data on aquatic species and reflecting on these experiences after. Philosopher Bruno Latour discussed the idea of science being performative. With my Eco-Actions, participants perform science to study ecosystems while being reminded through art that they are a living part of a larger whole of life.

07_BBallengee_Eco-actions_Lough_BooraLough Boora Eco­Actions, 2010. Eco-Actions (public field trips) in Lough Boora, Ireland, in April 2010, organized by Sculpture in the Parkland in celebration of International Save the Frogs Day. Photograph by Kevin O’Dwyer.

DH: Can you talk about your Book of the Dead? Is it a kind of companion piece to the work itself? Do you see it growing into a book in its own right?

BB: It is a complementary component to the overall project. Here pages of the book show close views of the animals’ faces from pre-cut depictions of the Frameworks of Absence. Conceptually, readers look into the eyes of the lost species to have an interpersonal experience. It is available for download for free here.

DH: You referenced Aldo Leopold earlier. In one of his essays, he writes about the numenon, or the essence of a place—”The grouse is the numenon of the north woods.” What do you think has been, and is being, lost with these extinctions?

BB: What’s being lost is our collective legacy as living beings among a huge community of other living beings on this remarkable planet.

DH: But what happens to places when they lose their presiding numenon? Though there is no one alive who can remember the wild “biological storm” (another Leopold line) of the passing flocks, what is North America today, for example, without the passenger pigeon?

BB: Sadly, it is less profound. It’s a less profound place. It’s nearly impossible to imagine the skies darkened by passenger pigeons or the lesser-known Rocky Mountain locust.

RIP Rocky Mountain Locust: After L. Trouvelot, 1880/2015. Artist cut and burnt halftone lithographs, etched glass urn, and ashes, 14 x 27 3/8 inches. Photograph by Casey Dorobek. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY.

RIP Rocky Mountain Locust: After L. TrouvelotDetail: RIP Rocky Mountain Locust: After L. Trouvelot.

However, we still have a wonderful diversity of life and ecosystems here in the United States. For example, the Appalachian Mountains alone account for the highest diversity of salamander species on the planet. Although, we have already lost at least one that we are aware of—the Ainsworth Salamander, which disappeared from Mississippi.

RIP Ainsworth’s Salamander: After James Lazell, 1998/2015. Artist cut and burnt photolithograph from scientific publication, etched glass urn, and ashes. 12 7/8 x 15 7/8 inches. Photograph by Casey Dorobek. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY.

Much of this richness of life we still have is under imminent threat and it should be a national priority to preserve these species and the habits they need to survive. Such actions would transform the role of our species and are ethical, as suggested by Leopold when he came up with his idea of the “land ethic.” As he stated, “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” Leopold suggested a paradigm shift in outlooks toward nature, ourselves, and seeing the connection between the two.

DH: You are an artist and a biologist, but you’re also an activist: Do you hope to influence your audience in a particular way?

BB: Yes, to inspire discussion and actions toward conservation. Often people feel that environmental problems are too large and too widespread for individuals to make a difference. This is absolutely not the case. All of our individual actions every day have an influence on ecosystems and biodiversity: what we chose to eat; how we live; where we live; how we travel; if we own land, what to do with it; how we discuss these ideas with others; and on an on. We are part of a larger living community and can individually and collectively make large differences.

In the 1990s environmental workers Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz came up with the concept of “post-normal science,” which suggested using the tools of varied disciplines and the expertise of local stakeholders to address complex social and ecological issues where risks are high and results urgent. Today we find ourselves globally in a “post-normal” situation, as such siloed disciplinary approaches fall short. However, stakeholders from diverse backgrounds working in creative collaborations can bring increased complexity to real-world problem-solving.

DH: I imagine that it can sometimes be a challenge to strike the right balance between art and activism.

BB: When I first began exhibiting my work in NYC in the 1990s it was critiqued as being too “activist” or “science and not art.” As a result, I primarily exhibited work in Europe for almost a decade. Times have changed now, though, and the U.S. art world seems to be more open and supportive of conservation issues addressed through art. Globally, climate change, species loss, and ecosystem collapse are much more a part of our collective vernacular now. Perhaps this growing awareness and concern for the environment is an emerging adaptation for our own species survival.

DH: Do you chose galleries or exhibition locations based on who you might have a chance to reach or influence?

BB: As much as possible, I try to exhibit works in venues that allow me reach audiences with different cultural and disciplinary backgrounds from my own. It’s important to start to have a dialogue, look for common ground, and realize that we all as humans have an equal stake in what is being lost ecologically.

10_Eco-actions_TroyTroy Eco­Actions. Eco-Action (public field trip) in Troy, NY, in August 2014, with residents from the underprivileged North Troy neighborhood in collaboration with the Sanctuary for Independent Media. Photograph by Kathy High.

DH: Despite any progress that’s been made, I admit that I can’t help but fixate on what’s being lost. I started thinking of this earlier when you talked about the Actions of Mourning, but I wonder, at the risk of ending on a dark note, do you, yourself, mourn? And is mourning a critical element in your work?

BB: Yes, without mourning there is no remembering. In the remembering we can choose to take steps to stop further loss of life through our everyday actions and long-term planning along with creative means of conservation. Such actions are just, the time is now, and our own long-term survival along with that of numerous other species is at stake.

As conservationist Laurens van der Post said, “If life on earth were to survive, not a single man, plant, bird, or animal must be allowed to lose its life except through some great necessity of life itself. And in the losing all men should join in with every plant and animal and bird to praise it and mourn its passing as that of something infinitely precious that had given life the service for which it had been conceived and rendered itself well.”  Let us not forget so that we may save.

RIP Glaucous Macaw: After Gustav MützelRIP Glaucous Macaw: After Gustav Mützel. 1878/2014. Artist cut and burnt hand-highlighted chromolithograph, etched glass urn, and ashes, 18 5/8 x 14 5/8 inches. Photograph by Casey Dorobek. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY.

—Brandon Ballengée and Darren Higgins


Darren Higgins

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


Aug 102015



AS WITH MOST AUTHORS whose books I buy second hand in first edition, Greg Mulcahy came to me through Gordon Lish.

Mulcahy’s fiction is, as Noy Holland says, “funny, in the way that wisdom, plainly spoken, is funny.” Through his characters’ agonies he reveals the ruse of our surrounding world, and their rock bottom falls propel each consecutive sentence—the content carried through frictive syntax. His sentences slide, stop on a dime, fragment, run on without punctuation, run over you, leave you breathless, bewildered. Sam Lipsyte says, “Reading Greg Mulcahy’s sentences is like watching the best slalom skiers in the world dare the universe a crazy millimeter at a time,” and it’s a ride that leaves you on the other side, as brave and as dangerous, but with new truth.

Mulcahy is the author of the short fiction collections Out of Work, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1993, and Carbine, Winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction and published by The University of Massachusetts Press in 2010. He’s written two novels, Constellation, published by Avisson Press in 1996, and O’Hearn, Winner of the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize and published by The University of Alabama Press in 2015.

After reading Greg’s latest novel O’Hearn, in which I laughed the hardest, I sought him out—where else but Twitter, and who would have figured, the platform come in handy after all?

What started in May and ran through the middle of July is disclosed here now, a glimpse into who Lish once called a “menace to your community.”

How harmful is Greg Mulcahy?

You be the judge.

—Jason Lucarelli


My favorite stories stand in denial of progression and the onward flow of time. Your recent fiction seems to lean in this direction. Using a phrase lifted from your newest novel O’Hearn, I ask: does your fiction aspire “to be outside time or better than time”?

I think all literature aspires to be outside of time in Yeats’ sense, but of course, that is impossible. Chronology in any work is a fiction, but the real fiction is the contradictory human experience of chronology. People, or at least I, know death is inevitable and certain, yet I feel as though I’m better than time, that somehow I’ll escape its consequence, when, in fact, it’s wrecking me by the second.

In O’Hearn, the narrator struggles “how to know” as he attempts to sort out events occurring before and after “the incident,” a workplace “mishap” occurring outside the confines of the novel. As the narrator struggles to determine “what was now and what was before,” so, too, does the reader. Was this mirroring intentional or simply inevitable?

It is both. Anybody who writes seriously is intentional about every word. That sets up causation. When the reader reads, if the reader reads seriously, the reader produces the effect. The problem, of course, is that the causation can not ensure what the effect will be. But, you can try your best.

P'hearn cover

Throughout O’Hearn appear the phrases “The Use Of Narrative,” “the perfection of the narrative,” “the nature of narrative,” and “confines of…narrative.” There are references to the “roles” of certain characters—The Queen of Productivity, The Volunteer, Doll, Madame Pompous, and Twerp—and to the “story” the narrator tells himself as he tries to slide events and people into place. At one point the narrator says, “Story about a place and some people and what happened. Was that what a story was.” Were these and other metafictional elements a function of the narrative, or part of a larger authorial concern you had while writing O’Hearn?

Again, both. Film and literature fought a battle over narrative in the 20th Century, and film won, at least where conventional, or the misnamed realistic, narrative is concerned. In light of that, fiction has to do what it can do and film can not do. Part of that is to ask itself how to tell a story, and more fundamentally, what a story is. And of course, no story can be trusted. Ever.

Storytellers are arrangers, organizers. When you were a boy and you told stories to adults, did they ever say, “You’re such a storyteller,” and not because they were satisfied by your animated relaying of an occurrence, but because they could see through the seams of your arrangement?

No one ever said such a thing to me when I was a kid. I grew up in a big Irish-American family, and story telling was part of the air, and, as such, unremarked. If someone was displeased with what I told, I was more likely called a liar or told to be quiet. Of course, I wasn’t quiet.

RGB 10"x13.3" @ 300 dpi JPG  3000x4000 pixels

Your first collection of stories Out of Work was published in 1993 at Alfred A. Knopf. Could you talk about how that first book came to be? Could you reach back in time still to talk about how you rigged your own “system of organization” to tell the stories you wanted to tell?

I started sending work to Gordon Lish at The Quarterly. Eventually, he ran my novella “Glass” in an issue, and he bought Out of Work for Knopf. For me, the main thing was to forget any preconceptions I had, and I had plenty, and do anything the story demanded. In a sense, I had to let the stories tell themselves in ways that made sense to themselves. I think when my work is successful it comes from a mixture of discipline and indifference.

Your wife, Abigail Allen, appears to have also been sending Lish stories around 1995 and 1996. Was sending your work to Lish a shared pursuit? Did she take classes with Lish?

Abigail sent The Quarterly some of her work. She was never Gordon’s student, and she was looking for a great place to publish. She had eight pieces accepted, but the didn’t get printed there because The Q was out of business before it could run them. She eventually published a great novel, Birds of Paradise, under the name Hiram Goza.

Do you and your wife share work with each other? Who is your best critical reader? Where do you turn for advice on drafts?

Sometimes one of us shows the other something, but usually not. We work very independently of each other. I don’t really get advice on drafts unless an editor offers some. My best critical readers are Lish, Abigail, and recently, Sam Lipsyte.


Who influenced you most in your education as a writer? What impact did Gordon’s support have? Was your correspondence with him mostly through mail? Did you attend his classes?

Gordon’s support helped me a great deal. It displayed my work to other writers and made my work viable. We corresponded mostly by mail and spoke on the phone before we met. For all the controversy around him, I’ve always found him to be a warm, generous man and great friend. I never took his class though I did sit in on a session once. I learned a lot from the way he edited. As to who influenced me, the answers are multiple. Certainly my teachers Al Greenberg and Rick Barthelme, my wife, Abigail, a million other writers starting with Joyce and Camus, and maybe most importantly, my high school English teacher, Lorraine Potuzak.

What is your fascination with work and the workplace? What do you do for a living? What have you done? What would you do—or not do—if you had to do it all over again?

I started working at a car wash when I was 14. Now I teach at a community college. I’ve been a janitor, dishwasher, factory worker, lawn care worker, telemarketer, shipping clerk, and more I’ve forgotten. Our faculty is unionized and I was a state union officer for 17 years, including Treasurer and President. This culture is embedded in work. Its primary value is money. Yet it pretends, and our literature often pretends, this is not the case. It’s hard to say what I would or would not do again faced with the economic realities I faced, but I will say this: I would not, if I had my life to live over, go into teaching. It is bad enough you don’t make any money, but over the course of my career, I never expected to be attacked for teaching people things. Now these attacks are a common feature of political discourse. What, exactly, is this country pretending to?

I appreciate how you take aim at the popular notion of “profession” throughout your work and O’Hearn, specifically through the character of Poppa Douk-Douk:

There is, Poppa Douk-Douk said, no place for what is not. There is no place for anything which is not in place.

Your mistake, Poppa Douk-Douk said, is to imagine an alternative life. Imagine if we imagined no alternative, imagine how focused, how aware we would be.

This is “the language of business.” What languages are you attempting to teach your students?

I teach expository and developmental writing at a community college, so my focus is on clarity, precision, and simplicity in its most positive sense. The language I try to teach is clear, simple, direct, and exact. In lit, the biggest problem now is an absence of any deep literacy. I teach close reading in lit more than anything else. In all my classes, I try to communicate the ways the culture lies to us and our often willing complicity in those lies.

Have you ever taught fiction writing? What do you think is missing from the curriculum? Or maybe I should be asking instead about what might be missing from your own curriculum?

I’ve taught fiction writing, but I quit doing it some years ago. If I were to teach it again, I’d like to do it at the graduate or professional level, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. What’s lacking in curriculum is what’s lacking in the culture—a large, sophisticated, well-read audience.

Who or what is responsible for this absence of deep literacy, and how, as a teacher, do you fill this absence?

I think the overwhelming presence of screens—TV, computer, cell phone—has a lot to do with it. And the crazy quilt patterns of American education which is so unsystematic you get creationism in some states, and the general anti-intellectualism in the country, and profound indifference are all contributors. I teach close reading by essentially walking students through texts they have already read. Modern work is particularly good for this, but then close reading was codified as response to Modernism.

Some pieces of yours I’ve read in print or online are fragmentary pieces, little narrative slices. “West,” from the 2013 edition of NOON, is one of my favorites:

Now he had to do something. She wrote that. It was not true. She knew that. She did not want him to do anything. Not really. With the desert and the hills, stone and brush, the sun, the dust, the dry everything.

She wrote that letter. Imagine, a letter. Writing in faded graphite on filler paper—smeared pencil—that—enough for her or all she could do or what she could say and what was the difference.

Was Diane’s editing a result of the brevity of this piece? Are fragments like this part of larger works that you’re writing? Or are these fragments composed as stand-alone pieces?

Diane is a brilliant editor and cuts to the heart of a piece. But they begin quite short, and they stand alone. I’m working on something complicated now, and some of these shorter things might form something longer, but I won’t know until I’ve got a big enough manuscript to start to arrange it. I’m envisioning a number of pieces of radically different duration.

When attempting a new form, do you look for hints of what you’re trying to achieve in other writers? Or does your reading in general influence you to try new things?

Both, I think. Reading makes me want to try more things and shows me possibilities, and I don’t think there could be a book in isolation. It’s like you wouldn’t have a language that consisted of only one word. At the same time, I feel like every time I or anybody writes a book, the writer is reinventing the book, and for me, there’s no avoiding that feeling.

Do you mean reinventing in the sense of how you put a book together against past efforts, but also against the books of other writers you have in mind at the time?

Both those and more. Every book comes with the same problems of language and narrative, and these are multiple problems, but they need to be uniquely resolved each time. So, at least for me, every book is like writing a book for the first time. You get better technically, but the problems are always there demanding solutions, or, at least, amplification.

You are a master of omission. As you developed this technique, whom did you study?

Beckett, Handke, early Mary Robison, Diane Williams, Dawn Raffel, Leonard Michaels, and, now that I think of it, in a strange way Robbe-Grillet. Also Borges. Every serious writer my age read Borges.

Writers are sometimes hesitant to go back and analyze old work. But I wonder if you see the evolution of your short stories from Out of Work to Carbine, from scene-based narrative movement to a kind of momentum driven by interior reflection and pure intent?

I’m hesitant to analyze any of my work, but I would say that my stories are less concerned with conventional plot and more concerned with language than they used to be. I don’t know if this is evolution—I’m suspicious of any notion of progress in art—or simply moving more deeply into obsession. You know, you get older and become an ever-increasing crank.

Culture critiques are everywhere in your fiction. In “Aperture,” a man reflects on a memory of a photograph of he and his wife in Graceland, a photograph he felt guilted into buying but now sits in a box he cannot find, though he surmises it will turn up sometime in the future. Then, he considers his wife’s image of the future: a place where certain humans are picked to colonize another planet. He thinks:

It was all fantasy. Mythology. The mythology of insecurity, the mythology of science fiction, the mythology of redemption melded into a cheesy pop culture concept unworthy of itself.

A reflection of the general insecurity in the culture. That insecurity broadcast daily.

This is a culture influenced by the media and the cinema of the times:

He hated those movies yet once they entered the culture they kept coming back, eternally recycled to squeeze every bit of possible profit from them. If nothing else, images to carry advertising as a host culture carries bacteria in a lab.

Is popular culture a form of distraction? When you teach your students to see through the culture, what role does fiction play in the classroom?

I tell my students pop culture is a device to remove money from the idiots, and we, collectively, are the idiots. I also show them how serious fiction tells the truth and does not neatly resolve itself as pop culture does. But I point out that literature tends towards stasis and the best pop culture can be dynamic, so the two steal from each other and alter their relationship to each other. I realize some writers don’t see a distinction, and some writers like Charles Willeford or Donald Westlake, in the Parker novels, blur the two categories to the extent they’re both. I’m not trying to be some high priest of Culture like Adorno; I’m trying to give my students a method to evaluate the media they receive. Part of what destroyed English as a discipline is when elite universities decided post structural criticism was the truth, the dogma, when it was a method. It’s good not to confuse the two.

What kinds of discussions are going on in your classroom regarding the use of social media? You tweet, as do I. Why is Twitter your social media platform of choice? What is it about the tweet that you enjoy?

The only real classroom discussion is a ban on having devices on in class although yesterday, during a break, I noticed half the students were texting, and, since we had been reviewing semicolon usage, I told them to include a semicolon in their texts. I was on Facebook, but I got so disgusted with their confiscatory policies, I committed Facebook suicide. I like Twitter because it’s a ridiculous platform for inane observations. I make a lot of inane observations.

Isn’t there something to be said about working within a character limit? Online writing is efficient. There’s a limit to how many characters fit into the subject line of your email before the line cuts off on the viewing end—55 characters, typically—and online marketers, for example, write to make their message fit.

I think that’s right. And all the web journals have encouraged short pieces. If I have something longer than 1,000 words, I try to get it in print because I think anything longer is too long to read online. This leads me to write things in different lengths differently although my stuff has always been shorter than what would have been considered standard 30 years ago.

Do you feel, writing and publishing short short prose, and as the form continues to evolve, that your fiction is better suited for today’s readers than those of the past?

That’s a difficult question because I hate the implications of my answer. We are all prisoners of our time and experience, but I don’t want to be. Not wanting does nothing but make me unhappy. I have readers who value and understand my work, and I’m grateful for that, but I have deep concerns about literacy in this country. I do think readers now accept short work. I’m not sure that’s a great development. Style, it seems, emerges from some complicated, obscure history. Then again, I think of Sappho, and I like her work. I even like that it’s fragments.

Stanley Crawford once said in an interview, we live “within a society that is inclined to measure success in monetary terms,” and if his work were to “attain bestseller status,” he “might see that as another kind of failure.” Do you think this is true of your own writing? What do you use to measure your success?

I’d like to be a bestseller, and I’d like to have the money associated with it, but it’s impossible now. Literary writing has moved to the fringes; bestsellers are only commercial entertainment. The culture has fragmented, and the people who control culture have decided serious conversations are over. This, of course, relates to and interacts with the stupidity of our politics. It also serves that stupidity. I don’t know how I measure success. It seems by most definitions I’m a failure, but I’m okay with that.

Does your frustration over the lack of serious conversations cause you to have them through your fictions?

Some of that, and some what life is like now, and some can you believe how ridiculous things are, and some wonder at linguistic constructs.

Sheer force of language is what lures me to your stories. When I think about the source of your stories, what gets them started, I think of this recovered Jiddu Krishnamurti passage: “So there is the content of consciousness, dull, stupid, traditional thought, recognizing all its emotionsotherwise they are not emotionsalways it is thought, which is the response of memory, knowledge, and experience, that is operating. Now can the mind look at this? Can you look at the operation of thought?”

Take, for example, this passage from O’Hearn:

Who do you think you are he had been asked.

He had said about his ambition but he had forgotten to say about his fire of ambition. It was fire, right? He said he would avoid the trap of failure though he thought everyone thought he was trapped in the trap of failure and although his ambitions, regardless of his statements, were not much. Not ambitious.

And one more, for good measure:

The past—couldn’t he stop thinking of it?

Couldn’t it be over?

He had the present. And future. Future always out there. He had no power over it.

Days without power. Years.

A man without power. He might make barely enough if he was extremely careful. That he had to be careful proved he had no power.

If he wanted proof.

These sentences convey the action of thought, all the internal pressures and stunted rhythms of the mind, yet these sentences move as if made with the mouth, by the ear. When did you start writing sentences this way?

I don’t know when I started writing that way. I think it evolved over time. The idea, of course, is to suggest the quality of thinking without having to build in the messiness of actual thought.

On literature in our “contemporary setting,” Lars Iyer says, “All efforts are belated now, all attempts are impostures.” Do you feel as though literature is not only on the fringe, but has reached its end, and if so, what should authors aspire to, if not take part in its revival?

Literature is always reaching its end because we are always reaching our ends. I don’t believe literature will go away. It constitutes and reconstitutes in different forms, but it’s as permanent as humans are. When we go, it goes. Until then, it goes on.

—Greg Mulcahy and Jason Lucarelli

Greg Mulcahy is the author of Out of Work, Constellation, Carbine, and O’Hearn. He has published over 100 stories in journals including NOON, The Quarterly, New Letters, Caliban, Gettysburg Review, Alice Blue, Spork, New York Tyrant, and Phantasmagoria. He teaches at Century College in Minnesota.


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.

Aug 012015

FK Interview

I live by the salt water, and look out every day on a rock where seals sunbathe; my distance vision is impressionistic, the bodies lounging where rock meets wave might as well be mermaids.   Traditionally half-fish, half-woman, and drop-dead gorgeous, mermaids, at some point, got confused with the traditionally half-bird, half-woman sirens, whose singing voices were notoriously beautiful. Both animal-woman forms caused shipwrecks, or brought bad luck, although some could bestow boons, as well. In today’s popular imagination, the mermaid/siren is commonly thought of as possessing great physical beauty and an irresistible soprano, and she seems to have lost her danger along the way. Weeki Wachee Springs, in Florida, has been featuring professional mermaids in an underwater stage with glass walls since 1947. There are now mermaid schools in Los Angeles, Montreal, Colorado, and the Philippines, among others. Students pick out a colorful monofin and dive in. Mermaiding is now a verb, a hobby, a job. It seems all fantasy, fetish, and sparkle. But I was interested in a mermaid’s interior life. And now, my friend has become one. A mermaid. So I thought I’d ask her.

Fides Krucker is an internationally acclaimed singer specializing in contemporary vocal repertoire. Based in Toronto, she is also a teacher, writer, and vocal composer.  Her current role is the Mermaid in DIVE, a work she co-created with writer Richard Sanger and composer Nik Beeson.

— Julie Trimingham


Fides Krucker singing “The Pearls” from DIVE.


Fides Krucker singing “Lyghea’s Idyll” from DIVE.


Julie Trimingham (JT): Before you were a mermaid, you were a girl in baker’s whites. You’ve told me about arpeggiating in front of your first singing teacher, an Italian soprano who would clasp her left breast, squeeze it, and demand,  at the end of your run, Another one for baby Jesus! I love this image. Can you please elaborate?

Fides Krucker (FK): When I was young, hardly twenty, I ran my father’s bakery. This was industrial baking, we made thousands of croissants an hour… flaky, buttery, high-end ones… but it was not glamorous or romantic in any way. Lots of flour in the air and in my hair (which was big and curly at that time). I’d show up for singing lessons still in my baker’s whites…a short sleeved dress, apron, little socks and safety shoes…practical! Maria would actually do what you describe as she taught…the squeeze, the ‘baby Jesus’… What I wish I had done in those first lessons was just imitate the way she sang…not her sound… but her healthy vocal process. She had been taught in Italy and came to Canada as a teenager. She had such an opulent voice, and the real ‘bel canto’ approach. I was only with her a few years as she did not seem ‘intellectual’ enough for my tastes. Silly me! If only I had been ready to understand how healthy she was in her animal body, embodying a sustainable singing technique due to a pure and uninterrupted line of operatic training. She would have been a great mermaid.

JT: The Pastry Chef in DIVE, is she drawn from your life?

FK: There is a pastry chef in the original story, but he is male. Even though the scene is not from my life, when I sing the vowels of all those Italian and French pastries, I take them quite personally! The words taste good! Panettone, tiramisu, cream puffs and eclairs I used to bake and brioches , cannoli and palm-leaves, I simply love to eat…I’m a bit sweet and flaky myself.

I ended up marrying too young (the first time) thanks to a cheesecake I had made and given to a cousin, who gave it to a Sicilian friend…who proposed. I think agreeing to that marriage was how I got myself out of the bakery. I did not know how to say ‘no’ to my father, so accidentally said ‘yes’ to another man. I wasn’t raised by a feminist, you know! I was impulsive and unconscious at that time. It has taken a lifetime to try and change that!

JT: DIVE is based on The Professor and the Siren, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa ( The story follows the lovelorn narrator as he walks into a bar and strikes up a conversation with an old professor. The Professor tells a story of how he once fell in love with a mermaid. He did not follow his love, and he now regrets the dry life he’s lived. The narrator later learns that the Professor has subsequently jumped into the drink, presumably to chase some fishy tail. You are the mermaid, yes?  

FK: Oh yes I am! And just at the right time in my life! I am undoing so many things that no longer serve me, and she is part of the undoing.

The mermaid I play in DIVE is amoral. (With the exception of Disney’s Ariel I imagine all sirens and silkies live somewhere outside of human rights and wrongs). She is fun to inhabit, she gets to break all sorts of vocal rules, and she will have a great costume. In the script she tells us that she is Lighea, the daughter of Calliope. No little mermaid here…she is descended from the biggest muse of all.

You know, a mermaid is utterly undomesticated. She is not domiciled. She inhabits the ocean. She lives far beyond of my idea of ‘house’. To bring her to life I have to use this house, my body.


JT: How did you become her?

FK: The mermaid’s songs were a real collaboration between Nik, the composer, and myself. I improvised, singing with wolves and with whales. I imitated their sounds and I let myself be wild…I ululated, howled and shrieked. The mermaid is a stand-in for the parts of me not yet fully present…for the parts of me I have learned to hide because they seem dangerous or threatening to society, to men, to other women. This is not because the sounds I am making are inherently rough or aggressive or damaging…it is because they’re real…and unfettered.

JT: What is the hardest thing about being a mermaid?

FK: Getting past predictable behaviour. I realize how conditioned and patterned I can be. Sometimes I overreact, sometimes I repress. These are not part of the mermaid’s repertoire. She is animal and divine. An extra challenge is that this mermaid appears as jilted girlfriend, pastry shop waitress, barmaid and house keeper, as well as her elemental self. I play them all, and in each of these assigned female roles, there needs to be a little of her pointy teeth and fishy scent.

One thing I dearly love about this mermaid is that when she asks Rosario to come with her under the sea and he says he can’t, she simply slips back into the water and goes about her business. I can feel her sadness, but still, she lets go and returns to her element…swims in what is current.

JT: Are you worried about ocean acidification, or is it only the crustaceans that are complaining?

Yes, I am worried. When I was at college, I took Marine Biology. I thought for a few years that this would be my career. Embodying this big mermaid reminds me of that early passion, takes me out of Toronto, and plunks me back into the ocean. I remember scuba diving at Race Rocks, off the southern tip of Vancouver Island. We were in the water at least twice a week swimming with the extraordinary invertebrate life….colours and shapes galore…sensitive anemones, prickly sea urchins, sluggish sea cucumbers, and masses of bull kelp. Acidification absolutely affects any sea creature that makes a shell. It upsets other processes in virtually all varieties of sea life…reducing an organism’s ability to reproduce, heal, grow and respond to stress. Sea life is sensitive life! We need to listen.


JT: DIVE is set in Mussolini’s Italy.  What’s the relationship between fascism and your mermaid?

FK: That’s a great question. Fascism refers to a bundling together in order to find strength. This is a good idea. But the fascism or ‘bundling together of peasants’ in Italy at that time was under the dictatorship of Mussolini.

The mermaid is elemental. She is as wild and powerful as a storm, she has an intrinsic violence. In the way she uses her voice, we can tell that she knows how to reign that violence in. Mussolini just rages and roars. I suggested to the composer that we stretch out his voice to really explore the sounds within his yelled speeches. This made them more musical and more animal all at once. Nik did beautiful work with this stretched vocal material, and I respond as the mermaid to it through my own stretched, nonconforming sounds. Mermaid and Mussolini go toe to toe, howl to howl.

JT: Mermaids can’t spread their legs. What do you make of this?

FK: Heaven! Peace of mind! Power! A different type of intimacy…and maybe a little loneliness?

In ancient Greece a woman’s voice was equated to a woman’s vagina. A physician from that time would say that you could hear when a woman was menstruating, thanks to the sound of her voice. Women were also expected to speak in pleasing tones within the city walls of Athens. Women did not have the vote, could not own property. They were not full citizens. To make loud sound they had to leave civic space. Out in nature or in the suburbs they could engage with the ritualistic female sound called the Ololyga. This high piercing cry would have functioned cathartically, a communal blowing off of steam.

So a mermaid making any sound she pleases…dangerous sound to boot…and not spreading her legs, seems logical and useful to me. Very undomesticated. It makes me want to re-read the Lysistrata. The women in Aristophanes’ play withhold sex as a way to try and secure peace and end the Peloponnesian War. That’s a whole society of women closing one mouth with the hope that the words coming out of the other will be heard and heeded. This strategy has been used in modern times to protest violence and corruption and effect change…Nigeria, Kenya, Togo, South Sudan, Liberia, The Philippines and Colombia.

JT: Mermaids don’t wear clothes.

FK: My voice is an intimate thing. It is my familiar. It knows me and my job is to be naked with it and let it be naked. And then know where I left my clothes!

JT: Your mermaid screams and groans as well as sings. 

FK: Screaming is a human survival tool. It sounds alarm. Growling, shrieking, sobbing, whining, these non-verbal sounds express exactly what is going on for us.

JT: When you are singing, where does the song come from?

FK: The place that aches behind my chest. Maybe this is my heart! But it feels more like soul or even a very specific intelligence. It is not always listened to or respected…by me, by others.

The ache is is a disciple of the emotions, learning all of their curves, no matter how painful, or how riskily bright and optimistic.  It is devoted to the spaces between the notes on the page.

JT: Diving into the ocean is deep work. What do you think, Mermaid?

FK: This morning, that sentence makes me tired. I am too aware of all the work that needs to be done…in relationships within the family, within society, with the planet itself. For me, a woman with two legs, I am glad that I can go for a vigorous walk and let go of worry for a while.

The mermaid in our piece takes on big things, she represents big things, and even though I try to house her when singing…and many of us are housing these big thoughts and feelings every day…there is only so much any one person can do.

I am so grateful for art…for its ability to point things out and its audacity to imagine…and if that can inspire truthful and hopeful conversation within community, well, that is even better. That’s what I am interested in now…imagining a more expansive and flexible and integrated existence for us all.

— Fides Krucker & Julie Trimingham

Watch a bit of DIVE at

CDs available at

Sonic Theatre Performance
July 30 – August 9
Array Music Studio
155 Walnut Avenue, Toronto

For more information on the upcoming performances go to or


Julie Trimingham is a filmmaker and writer.  Her first novel, Mockingbird, was released in 2013. Way Elsewhere, a collection of fictional essays, is forthcoming from Lettered Streets Press. She loves writing for Numéro Cinq. Stories she has told at The Moth Story Slam are posted at

Jul 072015


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.


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


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.

 * * * *

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.


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.



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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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


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


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

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


Apr 102015

David Zieroth travel pic


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



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


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



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



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



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



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



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


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:

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

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.


Mar 312015

Jen Bervin



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.

* * * *

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

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.  


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



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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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.

strube 1

All photos by Carson Linnéa Healey.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Mar 012015

diane-williamsDiane Williams photo by bill hayward

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

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

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

—Jason Lucarelli


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

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

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

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

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

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

KleePaul Klee, Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black

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

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

JL: Is uncovering what feels new important to you?

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

The Stupefaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tender Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DW: Consummate artistry, courage, ambition.


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

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

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

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

—Diane Williams & Jason Lucarelli

NC jason-lucarelli-2

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


Feb 012015


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

— Benjamin Woodard


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Ondjaki and Benjamin Woodard

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

Woodard Bigger

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


Jan 122015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—JC Olsthoorn



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JCO: Not a comfortable one at times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t that an interesting thought?

—JC Olsthoorn & Chantal Gervais


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

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


JCOlsthoorn Photo by L. Cabral

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


Jan 082015

Author photo of David Shields, 2012.


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

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

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

—Timothy Dugdale


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

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

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

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

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

CalebCaleb Powell

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

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

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

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

Book cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YouTube Preview Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reality Hunger

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

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

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

—David Shields & Timothy Dugdale

Timothy Dugdale

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


Dec 042014

139056374STranslator David Need


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

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

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

—Dan Holmes


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

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

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

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

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

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

551-12.jpgRainer Maria Rilke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pic1Illustration by Clare Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rilke baby

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

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

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

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

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

—David Need & Dan Holmes

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



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


Oct 132014

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


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

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

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

—Ann Ireland


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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim Maltman

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

For the most part, no. Or not exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

How did they use this material?

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

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

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

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

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

from Breath (An Introduction to Du Fu)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roo Borson in the readingthinking chair in office

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

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

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

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

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

‘Any trouble getting motivated?’ I wonder.

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

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

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

Roo concurs. ‘People have narrow ears.’

Roo Borson (all photos by Ann Ireland)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Ann Ireland, Text & Photos





James Cook, 1728-1779

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

—Kim Maltman



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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Baziju, from the manuscript Box Kite

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

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


Oct 042014

Salgado photo of artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—JC Olsthoorn


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ludovico Einaudi has also been very influential for me lately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trailer of documentary on Salgado during STORYTELLING preparations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JCO: But what stories are you telling in Storytelling?

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

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

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

—JC Olsthoorn & Andrew Salgado


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

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

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

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


JCOlsthoorn Photo by L. Cabral

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