JANUARY 25, 2021
POLLY BUCKINGHAM, JOSHUA HENDERSON,
ALEXANDRA JACKSON, SAMANTHA SWAIN,
& BENJAMIN VAN VOORHIS
A TALK WITH KEVIN MCILVOY
In some ways, Kevin McIlvoy is a musician first and a writer second. Although his career as a novelist is certainly longer and more widely celebrated than his tenure as a harmonicist, every word he’s ever put to the page has its own rhythm and melody. McIlvoy’s prose is as political as it is emotional, as formally experimental as it is vibrant and clear. And while his work can be read as an expression of joy, it is just as often a cry for justice and his own radical brand of empathy. As Karen E. Bender puts it, “Kevin McIlvoy is a writer of incisive moral vision.”
McIlvoy is the author of the novels A Waltz (1981), The Fifth Station (1987), Little Peg (1991), Hyssop (1998), and At the Gate of All Wonder (2018), plus a book of short stories, The Complete History of New Mexico (2005), and a collection of short-shorts and prose poems, 57 Octaves Below Middle C (2017). His most recent work, One Kind Favor, was published in May 2021 by WTAW press. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction. Over his prolific career as an editor, McIlvoy served as the editor-in-chief of Puerto del Sol for twenty-seven years, and the fiction editor of Orison Books from 2017 to 2020. He taught in the MFA program at New Mexico State University from 1981 to 2008, and at Warren Wilson College from 1987 to 2019. His work appears in Harper’s, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, The Scoundrel, The Collagist, Kenyon Review Online, The Cortland Review, Prime Number, and Waxwing, among many other literary magazines.
For our first virtual interview, Kevin McIlvoy Zoomed into the conversation from his “writing shed” in Asheville. Across the distance from Spokane to North Carolina, we discussed the difference between a prose-poem and a poem-prose, Polish Catholicism, the importance of the long gaze, and, of course, the harmonica.
BENJAMIN VAN VOORHIS
Could you talk about the role poetry plays in your fiction and vice-versa?
On my father’s side of the family, I grew up with these amazing oral storytellers whose stories never quite added up. They were gin-driven. They had a lot to do with getting a rise out of the audience. They had certain patterns to them, but they went off the rails very fast. They were long stories and, at the end of them, you would say to yourself, “What was that?” You could say that you had been present for singing and that the singing had been so spellbinding that almost from the first words you gave up any expectation of directionality of narrative. My Aunt Hattie would start by saying something like, “So you got the arthritis in your elbow, do you?” And then she’d say, “I got just the thing for you. You got raisins in the house? Have you got some gin that you could put the raisins in?” And that would remind her of something, that would remind her of something, and then in the center of all of this was something very contemplative. “An old lady like me, a lot of people don’t listen to me, and yet I got something to tell you. You know I do.” The whole thing was singing, a very high form of poetry. That little island was a pure poem.
All of my first writing was making oral poems that probably shared a lot in common with Hayden Carruth, a poet rooted in oral traditions. I started hungrily writing poems, but all through high school I also wrote stories that were poems that, almost accidentally, would tell a story. I worked from six at night to six in the morning four days a week in a place called the Imperial 400 Motel, and I wrote stories. By the time I was a senior in high school, I had written 400 pages of stories and maybe 400 or 500 pages of poems.
My experience of most storytellers is they ask first, “What is it saying?” But my impulse has always been, “What is it singing?” With anything I write, if I can value its singing, I can find in it the way to value its saying. I start every writing day the same way: I copy out poetry, a Basho poem or a Li Po poem or a section of a Neruda ode, like the “Ode to the Artichoke.” I remind myself that I want to live inside the sentences and not immediately start asking myself, “Where is this going?” but to stay on the ground of the experience that the sentence is making sonically and then to discover by accident where this is going.
It is only in the last three years that I have allowed my poetry to move outside of my journal keeping. Three years ago, when I was more or less finished with One Kind Favor, the urgency to write poetry gave me two choices: one, to start pulling out of my journals and revise them; two, to say to myself, “Well, that has been a fifty-year apprenticeship, now you’re ready to actually write the poems that are deserving of and worthy of attempting to publish.”
I’m not done writing fiction—I have the first pages of a novella underway—but this is a new moment for me. Being uncertain, being vulnerable, is the best possible thing for me as an artist. I’ve come to believe it’s the best possible thing for anyone who presumes to make art, to place yourself in uncertainties, to be in over your head, to realize that the work is asking you to rise above your limitations.
You talk about oral storytelling in quite a few interviews. I can see a lot of that in Hyssop and in the “we” perspective in One Kind Favor. There, the linguistic experimentation seems to appeal to the eye as much or more than it does the ear. Do you think there’s a tension between oral storytelling and these formal linguistic experiments?
I’ve always trusted incoherence above coherence. It didn’t surprise me to find in many tragedies the hero should always be more incoherent than coherent. Take King Lear. Lear begins in a kind of incoherent rage against his daughters and, as King Lear progresses, he becomes more incoherent; his soliloquies, when you read them carefully, make no sense. Lear’s dilemma is that he has no words for what he feels. He is constantly up against the inexpressible. One of the things I’ve come to believe is that autopoiesis, which is how a sentence makes itself, how any expression actually makes itself, is something that we always have the opportunity to be contemplating: how does a “we” narrator make itself? Tribal omniscience, that “we” voice, is a voice trying to speak for everyone in that community. That means, inherently, it is already kind of incoherent and chaotic because it is trying to be the voice for everyone. The reader feels almost immediately how irreal that is. That is, it is something that is real—we’ve heard it. We recognize it at first as the real-unreal. When someone uses it and sustains the use of it, it becomes more irreal as we listen. When I’m in a work that asks me to now go further than I’ve gone before in tribal omniscience, I’m feeling like, “Oh, okay, yes. This can quite organically verge into incoherence; therefore, I can trust it.”
It has always been surprising to me how much that “we” could accommodate. The nature of writing a novel is that you cast this big net. This “we” voice did constantly want to allow something else in, allow the smallest substories, what people might call supernumerary material, the kind of material that the book could do without, but it somehow weirdly belongs in. For instance, I can imagine a reader being annoyed by the fact that the hotel in my new novel is making what is non-language language. It is speaking. And if you remove that from the book, who’s going to miss it? Nobody. But I fall in love with certain novels if they are gratuitous, if they will allow in more things that don’t ostensibly belong.
One of the reasons I love Julio Cortazar is that in everything he has ever written, including highly “experimental” things like Cronopios and Famas, he was after what he called “the ludic mode.” He calls it this in his great book on writing, Literature Class, a mode that honors first and foremost the ludicrousness of life. It’s beyond comic. It’s ludic. He says that his sentences themselves should have this energy of the ludic, whether they’re two-word sentences, or twenty-five-, or 500-word sentences.
Who are some other writers who value incoherence?
Hayden Carruth is also a master of the ludic moment. Tom Lux had a great understanding of this. I’ve been recently studying a Black writer, much ignored—because she was overshadowed by figures like Toni Morrison—Gayl Jones. She’s most famous for two novels, Corregidora and Eva’s Man. These books are unbelievably bold in the way they constantly destabilize the reading experience and give you a sense of how both the comic and the tragic reside in instability. One of the most invisibly “experimental” writers in the American tradition is Grace Paley. Her stories are experimental both in their treatment of scene and dialogue, but also in their narrative skid. They skid from one thing to another in such a way that you either have to learn in the first sentences what that experience is going to be and commit to it, or you pretty swiftly say, “No, thanks.” Another writer like that was Stanley Elkin. A great novel like The Dick Gibson Show has this quality of a skidding narrative and of a sense that every moment is in flux, that it is about to become something else, that something else is about to emerge from it, that something else behind it is about to become apparent. And he was multi-modal: You begin a story of his and you say to yourself, “This is so effing sad,” and, in the very next moment, you’re laughing out loud. In the very next moment, you’re unsettled because it is ever so slightly obscene.
I’m really interested in what you’ve been saying about incoherence and destabilization. I can see that in works like At the Gate of All Wonder, where Samantha Peabody seems at the verge of being overwhelmed by the auditory experience of being in the forest. How do you imbue incoherence into your stories in a way that you find exciting and that invites readers to want to follow that journey?
First of all, I think the temptation when you’re writing prose is to create a push and glide effect in language, language that gets you from here to there, that introduces this idea or this character, that moves you into this space, this setting, and grounds you there, that orients you in time and serves in moving you forward through the story. That’s one way of composing. Another way of composing is to write a sentence and to really live inside that sentence, to pay attention to it—what its sonic values are, what the characteristics of its autopoiesis are—before you allow yourself to write the next sentence, and the next. When you revise, instead of saying, “How is this sentence helping the reader push and glide through the work?” you ask yourself, “How is this sentence shifting the intimate experience of what Elaine Scarry, the philosopher, would call radical de-centering?” How is it a thing of slender passing beauty, a sentence that will—if you will be inside of it for just a second more, no matter what your inclination as a reader—be an experience dark and luminous on its own terms? Poets often talk about this in terms of lineation, but of course poets are the master sentence-makers, and they can talk about lineation because they understand things about sentences that those of us who are mere prose writers are a long way away from arriving at.
If you’re revising in terms of the push and glide, revision is asking you to change structural things: chaptering, space breaks, etc. But if you are revising sentence by sentence, you’re being invited to create a different form of chaos than what the previous draft was. There was a stage in Hyssop in which I could tell you exactly how many sentences were in that book. If you said, “Are you on sentence 22,412?” I would have been able to say, “No. I’m on 22,418.” And, because I worried about every sentence, silence became very important. Anyone who has ever had any musical training and is constantly trying to keep their ear sensitive and attentive and their musical sensibility absorptive knows that where silences land—either overt silences that manifest themselves in space breaks, covert silences that have to do with the ending of this sentence and the beginning of the next, silences that are made very definite by chaptering, and silences that occur in a pre-climactic moment and a post-climactic moment—will stay attuned to whether or not the reader will even wish to remain inside this chaos. Poets, of course, learn how to trust silence so much that they have a sense of the pressure sonically on either side of a silence, the gap that is created that has energy, the leap that has energy.
A normal writing day for me is that I will start my morning by copying out Basho or Neruda. Then I’ll start writing. After about half an hour, I’ll blow on my harmonica for half an hour and specifically try to be inside the blues that I love, delta blues, especially that gospel-inflected delta blues. Then I’ll write for an hour and a half, then blow on the harp. The harp is a way for me to be both playing the blues and also carrying in my mind what I’m writing, so if I’m trying to play something that Big Walter Horton played, in which he was imitating a Tommy Dorsey tune bended into the blues, then I’m paying attention to where there’s a very definite silence, a breathing silence, in which the player breathes into the harp, but there’s no effort to make a note. Those forms of silences are constantly changing the terms of engagement. I know it sounds like I’ve thought all this through and have some mastery over it. I don’t. But I do try to feel my way in, push my thoughts back, then think my way in, let there be a constant flux in both my manner of composing and revising.
You said something really interesting: “The silences allow the reader to get through the incoherence.” A lot of my favorite books are very incoherent, and they’re still my favorite things. What allows you to get through incoherence in other writers and what do you see yourself doing that’s similar?
I really do love many, many different kinds of writing. I’m a tremendously eclectic reader, but there are only certain things that I decide I have to really study. At an early point in my life, I was really in love with Beckett, who most people consider a great challenge. They read a work like Molloy and they’re either in or they’re completely out. I want to come to terms with both what the reader is receptive to and what the reader is resistant to. I often will read a sentence and ask myself, “Mc, are you receptive to this sentence or are you resistant to it?” Since the normal assumption is that we are making sentences that the reader will be receptive to, it’s quite compelling to think that many readers are excited by exactly the kind of prose they are resistant to. Many readers who think they want to be engaged also wish to be estranged. If the work will not give them the opportunity to be estranged, it will be merely engaging. The marvelous thing about Beckett is that he is constantly estranging us, and we’re amazed that we’re engaged. But this is life at its richest. Life is full of these moments of receptivity and resistance, of engagement and estrangement.
Occasionally, I give myself the task of trying to comprehensively read someone I’ve only ever read in parts. The first time I sat and read all of Willa Cather, the letters, everything, I was almost at the cellular level changed, because she was writing a kind of story that no one else was writing: a story in which the central figure did not change or develop at all. Everyone around her changed and developed, but her dilemma was that she did not. Katherine Anne Porter reading Cather said that all her central figures have a quality of heroic fixity. They’re fixed in place. That’s what makes them heroic. The world is changing around them, and they cannot, or will not, change. It’s easy as an American male to resist that kind of character, to say, “Oh there’s a woman who just won’t change. How frustrating.” Cather would have understood completely. Male readers can be totally won by that story despite themselves. They realize that overriding what they thought they needed, which was engagement, the story, the prose itself, has provided something they desired beyond their understanding, which was the push and pull of estrangement-engagement.
Who is your ideal reader?
I try never ever composing or revising to imagine readers plural. I try to imagine a reader for that particular book. For instance, the reader I pictured for 57 Octaves Below Middle C is a reader who has a seriously disturbed mind, who appears maybe to everyone around her or him quite normal, a person aware that their mind does not work like the “normal” mind, a person who readily welcomes not only estrangement but repugnance. So when you meet a character like Teacher Reptile in 57 Octaves, who at various times is overtly repugnant, that reader would say, “Oh, this is my book! This is the book I want to be in.” When I finished an individual piece in something like 57 Octaves—and I could see that these pieces wanted to be together—I could say to myself, “Is the reader of the Basho piece that opens the book the same reader for the other pieces?” For me, it’s probably the only thing that unifies the book: I do think each of these pieces in their own odd way belong to the same singular reader. They are all also making a sound, and the presumption of the book is that they are making a sound that you have not heard before, in this case a sound that is 57 octaves below middle C. The title is taken from a study done by astronomy students at Stanford who discovered a tube-shaped galaxy. It was emitting a sound. They were able to measure the sound as being 57 octaves below middle C.
When I was far enough into At the Gate of All Wonder, I imagined a reader who was more delighted by the language nature makes than the language humans make—the language the birds make, that trees make in wind, that creatures make in their boroughs. If you know someone who is a really silent person, that is a person who actually stayed in human beings’ first language. Human beings’ first language is silence. They learned to not just be coherent in their silence but expressive in it. For most people, what falls away is their first language, silence. But when you speak that language, when you are “abnormal” enough that it has remained your first language, you hear the world in a different way.
So picturing a reader is very important to me. In fact, I will not attempt to publish a work if I distrust my own assumptions about the one reader for it. It’s the same with the poems that I’m now writing. Everyone says universally to writers, “How do you know when you’re done?” And writers who are honest always say, “I never know when I’m done. I just have a sense that I’ve brought to bear all of the skills I have at that moment and am honest with myself about that.” If I write a poem and I cannot say, “Oh, this is the one reader,” that poem simply gets put away.
Books like The Fifth Station or Hyssop are more traditional narratives as opposed to At the Gate of All Wonder, One Kind Favor, or 57 Octaves. Where does that difference come from? Does the way you choose to structure those narratives come from the way you might picture the reader?
It’s a pure accident that people would read The Fifth Station or Hyssop as a more traditional narrative. They were made the same way as 57 Octaves was made, with me listening sentence by sentence, discovering in the work who that one reader is. In the case of something like Hyssop, I very much pictured the one reader who wishes for all language to act like prayer. And prayer across all traditions often has a sonic quality that distinguishes it. Picturing one reader means humbly acknowledging to yourself as a writer that certain things you write are just not for everyone. They’re for that one reader, and there may be six of those kinds of one readers in the world, who say, “This is mine. I can’t imagine anyone else liking this book at all, but I like it because it has this particular quality about it.”
Can you talk a little bit about how you find the element of repugnance coming into your work and how you see it resonating?
We’ll take One Kind Favor, for instance. The character Acker is the embodiment of the writer Kathy Acker who was in her moment identified as a punk writer and whose work had many, many qualities that were off-putting, that are accurately describable as obscene, as repugnant. This was part of her aesthetic, to write her prose in such a way that it had raw, unfinished edges. It not only skidded into chaos, but it thoroughly resided there so that at any point that you’re reading one of her books, you have to say to yourself, “What am I? What is this?” Her great masterpiece, in my opinion, was a book called Blood and Guts in High School. It has obscene graffiti throughout, and the storytelling resists you. You are coming to terms with a form of chaos that is daring you to say, “Have I at any point in my life welcomed in this kind of experience? If I have not, why not?” When I encountered Kathy Acker, I thought to myself, “Wow, is there anybody making work like this?” To this day most of her work is out of print and probably will remain that way. She took the dare about the one reader very, very far.
Broadly, my philosophy of writing the novel is that sentence by sentence, you let everything in. You picture yourself as a person in a very small untrustworthy boat way out in the middle of the ocean with a giant net, and every pull you make to bring it in, whatever you’ve caught, threatens to capsize you, but everything in that net belongs there. Then, at a certain stage, sentence by sentence, you start to say, “Maybe not this one, maybe not that one.”
How does that process of letting everything in and cutting later change when you’re approaching short pieces and genre-bending pieces?
Really short prose that exists in the middle distance between prose and poetry, what some people call the prose-poem, is for me great fruitful ground because in its form, it is already paradoxical: it is a poem, it is a piece of prose, it is both at the same time, and they are in resistance to each other. If you have to get down to a single expression of what the novel is, you would say a novel is the embodiment of paradox. When you are living inside a novel, whatever is happening to the characters, whatever you are experiencing, is a constant invitation to come to terms with what is paradoxical—that is very different than saying that it adds up to irony; irony is essentially the “aha” response. I think it’s a mistake to call certain things prose-poems that are actually poem-proses. They sound first like they’re poetry, and also prose. Someone decided that prose-poetry was the better expression, that a prose-poem is always first prose and second poetry. One of the reasons I’m always working on prose-poems is that being on that uncertain ground feels right. Also, sometimes, there just is no choice. Certain things manifest themselves in a way that as you’re writing them you say, “This is the ground of the prose-poem, this is the ground of the novel that wants everything in.”
I’m a gardener, and that means I’m constantly paying attention to my compost heap. My compost heap at any given moment is neither soil nor garbage; it’s in the middle distance. If I’m going to write about my compost heap, I’m going to write something that is either a poem-prose or a prose-poem. And, by the way, one can look at any one of my novels and can say, “You know, that chapter seems like a prose-poem, that chapter like a poem-prose.”
In works like At the Gate of All Wonder, Little Peg, and A Waltz, a lot of the characters seem to be outsiders, people who feel pushed to the edges or, like Samantha Peabody, have decided they’ve had enough. They’re willingly going to get out of society. I’m interested to hear why that’s a topic you return to and what significance it has for you.
Literature has often, especially in the American tradition, given voice to the outsider. In other words, I don’t think I’m uncommon at all in allowing there to be, in anything I write, room for the presence of the outsider. You think about Twain and about other American writers like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, and there’s a way in which we welcome you, the outsider—at least that used to be quintessentially American. You are from another country, you are from another culture. We not only welcome you, we value you and wish to learn from you. It’s a good argument, by the way, in the post-Trump period, whether or not we are that country anymore. And it’s an honest argument whether or not our literature will now be transformed by an American sensibility that is exclusive of the outsider. I hope that American literature is not forever scarred by this selfishness, this narcissism that 74 million Americans are centered in.
You do have to ask yourself, “Is the one reader that I picture also an outsider?” If someone dares you to say, “Who are your readers?” and you answer, “I don’t know. Ask me who my one reader is,” then you are outside of the “literary marketplace” where the whole effort is to make work that is for readers plural. You have to be very honest with yourself about saying, “No matter how much a publicist asks me, I’m not going to insist this is for everyone.”
I do think we’re at an interesting moment, American artists in particular. Who will we be next in terms of the outsider who we picture as the reader? The outsider who has a central role in the work? And will we actually intensify our commitment to that outsider in this next moment, or will we turn away in a curious and even shameful way? I’m an optimist, so I actually do believe that American literature is leaning into the difficult moment and not excusing itself.
I read a lot of that sensibility in One Kind Favor. It seems more political than anything else you’ve written. What do you see as the role of politics in literature?
One Kind Favor seems to have a polemic in it. “Why are we this way?” Its opening sentence asks you to think about naming. “Naming matters here in Cord.” That sentence dares you to think, “Why do we insist on naming the way we do? You are an Other, you are a Foreigner, you are this, you are that.” But for me, the first value of that sentence is its music. “Naming matters here in Cord.” It rings authentic to that “we” voice and the strange irreality of that “we” voice. Its music is simple and unadorned. It’s not decorative. It’s not quite as wild as the sentences in 57 Octaves, but it opens the door to the kinds of wildnesses that are, I hope, at the sonic level appealing. One Kind Favor asks the reader to read it as an Alice in Wonderland experience, an experience through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, that constantly careens between tragedy and that ludic mode Cortazar talks about. The aspects of it that are political are not primary. For instance, Woolman is not easily seen as a symbol of this or that, and I don’t actually believe that Lincoln—who has been lynched and is a presence in the work but is not physically there—is a neat symbol of “the Black man that you have to come to terms with.” Lincoln is Lincoln; the sentences about him don’t shape and form him as somebody who figuratively represents this or that.
My novel Little Peg struck everyone as being quite polemic. Little Peg is a book that ostensibly seems to embody the period of time after the Vietnam War and what actually happens to the families who have been through the trauma of welcoming back a family member who is forever maimed, changed; and/or welcoming back the dead person with whom they cannot ever have the same level of engagement. When I wrote that book, I tested my own conscience about who the reader was. I did a little over 300 hours of interviews with the wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of Vietnam vets. The book is from a woman’s point of view, and it was invaluable, in fact life-changing, for me to be in touch with these women. I then narrowed that set of women readers to six who constantly let me re-interview them. I narrowed those to four who let me bring them each thirteen drafts of Little Peg in order to see if there was anything that struck them as bullshit. I was then able to say to myself, “This is the reader.”
Peg’s resting mode is rage. Absolute rage. Burning, destructive rage and implosive and explosive rage. And since that is so profoundly a contradiction to my own resting state, which is joy, it was really exhausting. To be transported into a sensibility so radically and profoundly different than my own took a toll on me, on the composing and the revising. And it was, in the end, deeply satisfying in a complex way, pleasurable. But very, very challenging.
When the book came out, women wrote me to thank me for writing it. They said, more or less, “I can’t imagine anyone else really liking this book, but I like it.” That is a humbling thing to hear, but it is also a powerful thing to hear if what you pictured was that one reader.
The ending of One Kind Favor beautifully breaks down all the barriers that the book is trying to break down throughout, but that ending completely does it.
It ends this way: “They entered the blur.” There has been this reference very quietly throughout to things that blur and experiences that blur. The word itself is almost a touchstone in the book. All of the characters who are haunted by victims, by victimizers, by the people who made a mark on them, can’t themselves define or describe their experience. What they are often experiencing is entering new uncertainties. I was very surprised, by the way, to learn just a few days ago that one of the ten most frequent words marked by people who pay attention to such things in the US in the last year is the word “bluricity,” the characteristic blurring of things. That’s in part a reference to the fact that we no longer know or assert, “This is fact, this is not, that’s fake news, that’s real news,” etc.
Earlier, I was talking about how, often, a work of fiction has a push and glide in which you push so far you glide into being able to say, “This is what it’s about.” But this story of these people at this moment in the life of this community is the story of people who cannot say at all, “This is who we are, this is where we are, this is what we mean, this is how we add up.” In fact, at a certain point, this “we” narrator says, “All of the stories that I’m telling are dead ends.” If you started reading saying, “I sure hope this book is going to answer, ‘Who lynched Lincoln Lennox?’,” it never does. If you are a transactional reader who expects the work to give you something transactional, it will not give you that. It instead carries you into the blur.
This is one of the reasons people love Alice in Wonderland. It is this constant experience of wonder that looks quite calculated and goes nowhere. It’s one fantastic thing after another. I’ve always felt it appeals to people despite themselves. They would say, “You know, that’s not my kind of thing, and yet I can never forget it.”
I think One Kind Favor handles ghosts really well, but also my take when I read A Waltz was that I was reading about ghosts, too. I’m asking two things, one about literary ghosts and one about those two books as bookends because they seem more similar to each other than anything in between: the hotel, the weird noises, the murders.
I was twenty-one when I started writing A Waltz. I was twenty-four when I finished it, pretty young. I’m pretty far from that now at sixty-seven, but I have lived long enough and written enough that each time I write a book I think, “Hey, Mc, you are writing a brand-new book. You are not writing a book that is like anything you have ever written. Good going, Mc. You are really growing.” Usually, by the time I’m at the critical mass of the book, I’m saying, “You know what, Mc? You are writing about the same things you were writing about from the very first prose you ever made.” I do believe that for a lot of us, this is hardwired: certain things make their way back to us, despite us, and we either learn to trust them and allow them in, or we resist them and our work seems to be hurt by our self-censorship. It is absolutely true that I recognize in One Kind Favor certain things that have been characteristic of my work for all my life.
Another writer who affected me quite deeply was Anaïs Nin. Nin acknowledged she could not stop writing about people who are absent in your life: people who are ostensibly present but they are never fully present to you and the lost person who is absent and more present to you than the people who are present. This was part of what she called her “incendiary neurosis.”
One of the things I was marked by in my early life was the absence of my mother. My mother died a few years ago, at ninety-one. But I was very close to her. When I was very young she was in and out of sanitariums for TB. Until I was about nine years old, this was always true and I felt her absence keenly. I would go to visit her in the san with my father and my two older brothers, and she was so ill that she often could not speak. She could simply look at us and nod and physically gesture, but she couldn’t speak. She was too weak to do that. My body, as well as my spirit, will never be done with that. In other words, she was kind of a ghost in my early life. Then, when she could be in my life, every moment seemed not only magical but holy, completely holy. And it was tremendously satisfying to me to see that by middle age she was one of the hardiest people I knew, and she was in excellent health to the end of her life. She loved to point out to people, “You thought I’d never make it, didn’t you?” and mostly she was stronger than those people.
This overlapped with the fact that I was born with damage to my left-front-temporal lobe that made the doctors say I would be profoundly mentally-handicapped. From the time I was born, I had such serious problems with my brain that from the age of three to eight-and-a-half I had grand mal seizures. So here’s my poor father, alone with us while my mother’s ill, trying to cope with this boy who, even in school, was having these terrible episodes that often made me feel like I had disappeared. When you have a seizure like that, you don’t feel it coming on. It just hits you and then you’re out. You’re down on the floor, you’ve been completely unconscious. You come back to consciousness, and the world is different; you are in a different posture to the world, and you are not of it yet. You are in a middle zone between rejoining the world and having been absent from it. Sometimes as I’m writing, the very process of writing seems to recapitulate these episodes. I will have a sense after a given writing session that I haven’t reentered the world. Part of who we are as writers is how we were made by the world, and I’m fortunate that the way I’ve been made is to have a very full, rich life. But I have known absence. I have experienced it the way Nin experienced it all of her life.
I was interested in what you said about transactional elements in writing and storytelling. In other interviews, you’ve stated that you’re a writer of fullness, and you describe fullness as being less concerned with very intentional structure and meaning. I’m curious how transactional elements and stories relate to this idea.
This question has in part to do with what is left out of a work. One can imagine a draft of One Kind Favor in which, after the characters enter the blur, we have pages that tell us exactly who killed Lincoln Lennox. That would be reaching toward completeness. That would be saying, “Here’s the narrative. It feels like it has arrived at its fullness, but now let’s give it completeness. Let’s round this out by solving the ‘mystery.’” This effort actually undermines the essential value of the work, which is to offer fullness and not to make mistakes about confusing fullness with completeness. Part of the revising process about what gets cut has a lot to do with this sense of the terms of engagement for the work. Are they the conventional terms? Are they terms of engagement that are in direct contradiction to the terms of engagement in the culture that the work comes into? I like to encounter art that exists in the culture but that resists that culture’s fundamental values.
When I have presumed to teach writing, I’ve tried to say to writers, “Make sure that it is pleasurable and satisfying to you to write. That will mean you will need to be in the process of self-examination in which you say, ‘To what degree am I turning away from all the first principles that have been the pillars of my belief system as a human being and as an artist?’”
For many artists, turning from a transactional capacity to a transformational or even transcendent capacity rubs against what they have been taught. The shift is often very big and tremendously challenging. If you come into writing, and you have been, for twenty-five years, a salesperson writing ad copy and every piece of language you have had to make has been transactional, you don’t just instantly learn how to write differently. You have to undo so many primary elements of who you are, how you think, what you believe, what you feel. Part of the joy of writing is remaking who you are as a human being and understanding that the opportunity to undo your life, to enter new uncertainties, is a great blessing. A great gift.
My father, who worked in the steel mill all of his life, wanted to be a lawyer, and he studied the law the way people do who want to be lawyers. He didn’t just read here and there about the law. He studied the law. He never had, fully, the privilege of moving past life in the steel mill, but he knew this other language, the language of law, and he was in awe of it. I could look at him and experience what John Berryman called “the stance of wonder.” We live in the world by thinking ahead to what comes next instead of stopping in a stance of wonder and being in that moment.
In At the Gate of All Wonder there’s a mouth harp, and you mentioned that you play the mouth harp. What has your relationship been to music and how have you filtered that into your writing?
I’ve always had singing as a part of my life, and I’ve always taken singing seriously. I studied guitar and was particularly awful at it but enjoyed it enormously. I have studied harmonica for seven years now very intensively. At a certain point my teacher asked me to begin taking voice lessons. One of the things you have to be able to do to play certain kinds of blues music on harmonica is choke the notes. You have to give them a certain grain by drawing and blowing from inside your throat. Especially making scraping sounds, you have to be able to bounce back and forth between what your throat is doing, what your chest, the instrument of your mouth, your tongue, your lips, and your embouchure are doing, changing from moment to moment to moment. So he sent me to a voice teacher who I spent a year learning from, who then challenged me about, for instance, glissando. She might spend four lessons saying, “When you sing this particular phrase through the harmonica, are you allowing the phrase to go all the way out unbroken and to come all the way back to you unbroken, or is that phrase, because of your bad habits, always arpeggio? Is it always broken?” and “Do you ever just allow this note that you’ve drawn to go all the way out and all the way back?” The teacher then rigorously made me practice these things.
If you’re taking that really seriously, how do you not bring that to your writing? You’re trying to learn, to shift, to develop, to grow. You then look at your sentences and you say, “Do these sentences have the quality of glissando? If they don’t, is that just because you don’t know any better, Mc?” and “When will you start to be able to widen the vocabulary with which you feel your way into what you are writing?” This is part of the discipline of being a writer—to constantly, every day and well outside of the writing time, in the time that you’re just moving through the world—to say, “How will I reside in language differently than I did yesterday? How will I listen differently than I listened yesterday?”
This is why I believe that the life of the artist is inherently a life of pleasure; when I hear people talk about the suffering that is involved in their work, I don’t take that for granted, but I don’t identify. For me suffering is part of living fully. Part of being fully alive is pleasurable. If you are fully alive when you are miserable, you are experiencing something pleasurable. That is paradoxical, and paradox is the very essence of really rich art. It is pleasurable to experience beauty and be destabilized.
When I closed down my garden one year, I was looking at the standing hollyhocks that were basically dead and trying to pay attention to them, and one of them was full of sound. I sat down next to it and listened. That was the worst possible thing I could have done because out came white-faced hornets, and they stung me all over my face, my scalp, my lips, my neck. I cannot tell you that that was singularly painful. It was really pleasurable, in the way that sometimes pain is described as “exquisite.” Why would anyone ever call pain exquisite except that it is part of being fully alive, being both reactive to and responsive to the world? It is a reminder to be back in your body. If you’re being stung all over, you’re not necessarily thinking, “Oh, I wish I knew the biological name for a white-faced hornet.” You’re fully inside your body and you have every reason to feel lucky that you have experienced this pleasure. Literature, all art, places us either inside the envelope of darkness in which light is blossoming or inside the envelope of light in which dark is blossoming.
Place is a massive thread through a lot of your work. A lot of your earlier works are set in New Mexico, and part of The Fifth Station is in Illinois, and then your later stuff is in North Carolina. Can you talk a little bit about the way that the places you’ve lived have influenced your writing?
The town I grew up in was a steel mill town. My father worked there all of his life, and my brothers and I worked there in the summers in what were called high-risk jobs. If you saw Granite City, Illinois, from the sky, you would see all of this smoke pouring out of the steel mill, surrounded by endless cornfields. Absolutely endless, as far as the eye could see when I was growing up. There’s a paradox in that setting. Likewise, when I lived in New Mexico, “The Land of Enchantment,” there’s the paradox that you are under this searing blue sky and that you’re hiding from the sun because it’s so punishing. I moved to Asheville twelve years ago. I thought, “Man, I’m really going to miss those high desert mesas. I’m going to miss those Organ Mountain peaks just outside of Las Cruces.”
In Asheville I live right up against the woods. I write in this hut that is right up against the woods. I have Raynaud’s Syndrome, which is a circulatory disorder. I am not supposed to live in cold places. I live in a place that I have come to love as much as any place I’ve ever lived, and I am not supposed to live here. When I see my doctor, she sometimes says, “Are you thinking about moving?” I find myself wanting to say, “This is where my characters live. No, of course I wouldn’t think about moving because how would I move them from this place where they paradoxically belong?” Until I can understand from inside the character’s experience that where the place they live is paradoxical, I don’t feel like the work is authentic, even believable. Before that time, I feel like I’m only portraying a set, something you build for a play you’re putting on. In revision, there’s a kind of a check of conscience: is this hotel in One Kind Favor paradoxical for Acker? Is it differently paradoxical for Acker than it is for Alice, who ends up imprisoned there?
You mentioned you grew up Catholic. There’s so much sound and mysticism in Catholicism, both of which I see in your work. Could you address that?
I grew up in a curious mixture of Catholicism. I grew up, first, in a town called Madison, Illinois, which was five miles down the road from Granite City, and our church was a Polish church. The community that came there rarely spoke English. My mother’s family had immigrated from Lithuania. While the mass was in Latin, the singing was always inflected with Polish, the Polish dialect. It was a distinct kind of music, and it was high mysticism. I memorized all of the Latin because I served in the masses as an altar boy. No one, even for a moment, thought they would teach altar boys what the Latin meant. And everyone attending the mass could not translate that Latin. Their first language was Polish, they were struggling to learn English, and they were there for a mass in Latin. And yet it worked very like the way pre-language works—when you hear an infant first verging into language and they mutter something that is not language at all, but you know exactly what they mean. That pre-language reminds you that the way in which language works first in the world is to cast a spell. “I want that water. If I make this sound, you will give me that water.” Is that not magic? Is that not mysticism?
When we moved to Granite City, we moved to a church that was dominated by Irish Roman Catholic Catholicism—another form of Catholicism, specifically formed by the Franciscans. The Franciscans have a deep sense of mysticism inherited from Saint Francis, who it is said could speak to the birds and to the animals and they would speak to him. This was always part of his conversation with God. By that time, the mass was no longer in Latin, and many people in that church resented deeply that it was not. They wanted Latin back. They wanted a service, a sacred occasion in which they both would understand and would have no understanding at all, which many people say is the very root of mysticism.
I know for a fact that no one reads the Teacher Reptile stories in 57 Octaves Below Middle C and can say, “Oh, I tracked that really well.” You say, “My gosh, that’s another language, isn’t it? That’s skater language. Even if I were a skater, the way it is presented here is another language.” The first reward of that piece is to experience the occasion, in a sustained way, of another language. And if it works through a process of ensorcellment, of sorcery, you say, “Okay, I went with it. I’m not at all sure why. It did place me on different ground.”
When writers talk about 20th-century realism, it’s surprising to me how seldom they talk about realism at the language level. They always talk about realism in depiction of setting, in the depiction of temporal quality, and in regard to its loyalties to presenting the world as we recognize it. They don’t often go down to the granular level and say, “Are you defining realism by sentences that first and foremost are transactional?” Because if that’s true, then I’ve never written anything that is in the realm of realism.
While I am no longer a Catholic, I am a practicing Buddhist, and my wife has been in her Buddhist practice for twenty years. She is in a Buddhist practice that is characterized by what Buddhists call “smells and bells.” A lot of incense is burned, a lot of bells are rung, a lot of prayers are said in Tibetan. The first time I got steeped in that, through her, I thought, “Wow, this is like the Latin mass. I love this stuff, man.”
Do you have any advice for young writers?
Everything in an artist’s life, in general, has to do with the degree to which you perfect your capacity for the long gaze. To practice the long gaze not just when you’re writing, but in every waking and, if possible, every dreaming second of your life. To take not just the opportunity, but the responsibility for the long gaze. Because, especially for us in American culture, the temptation is to look at and look past immediately everything that comes before us. We’re looking to what comes next. Everything that presents itself before us, we glance at. We are already looking for some other value; it’s a reason that Bashō, who was a great poet but also a master teacher, asked anyone he ever taught to learn Wabi. Wabi is the state of impoverishment in which what is before you is enough. You don’t have to look past what is before you. You don’t have to look around it. You don’t have to interrogate it. You can be present to it, and if you will engage in the long gaze, you will already find yourself moving out of yourself into the middle ground that exists between you and that person, or you and that phenomenon in nature, and then so deeply entering it that you are looking at yourself from inside it.
When you actually allow yourself to move beyond just gazing to the long gaze, it starts to kill in you all of the capacity for superficiality that will only do disservice to you as an artist. When I, in my own life, practice it, it murders my capacity for being superficial, for being impatient, and for not taking pleasure and delight in very small things.
This practice, the long gaze, which every one of us can do every waking moment of our lives, is, at the simplest level, the practice of the artist.