Issue 73: A Conversation with Joyce Carol Oates

issue73

Found in Willow Springs 73

April 13, 2013

Melissa Huggins, Katrina Stubson, Ben Werner

A CONVERSATION WITH JOYCE CAROL OATES

"I believe that art is the highest expression of the human spirit,” Joyce Carol Oates declares in The Faith of a Writer, “I believe that we yearn to transcend the merely finite and ephemeral; to participate in something mysterious and communal called ‘culture.’”

Oates has dedicated herself to life as an artist. She’s produced over a hundred published works, including novels, short stories, essays, poetry, plays, and book reviews. But more impressive than the sheer volume of her work is the empathy required to bring to life such an array of characters. She has inhabited the minds of serial killers and politicians, young mothers and abusive fathers, starlets, famous writers, prisoners, and more. Often her fiction centers on the aftermath of a moment of violence, circling back to that moment repeatedly over the course of a character’s life, delving into the damage, and usually moving toward a kind of redemption—but not always.

Oates grew up in Lockport, New York, and attended a one-room schoolhouse, where she pursued an interest in writing, drawing, and other artistic endeavors from a young age. Upon receiving her first typewriter as a gift from her grandmother at age fourteen, Oates began contributing to her high school newspaper, and wrote stories and novels throughout high school and college.

Her novels include them, which won the National Book Award; Blonde, a Pulitzer Prize finalist that imagines the inner life of Marilyn Monroe; The Gravedigger’s Daughter, loosely based on part of her own family history; New York Times bestseller The Falls; and We Were the Mulvaneys, which details the disintegration of a seemingly perfect family. Her nonfiction includes the essay collection On Boxing and a memoir, A Widow’s Story. Noted for being prolific, Oates publishes an average of one to two books per year, in addition to her teaching, reviewing, editing, and other pursuits. “It is sobering to be asked—so often—‘How are you so prolific?’ When I feel so earnestly that I am always behind, and never caught up,” she writes. While she recently announced that she will retire from Princeton after teaching there for over thirty-five years, she plans to continue teaching elsewhere, and 2014 will see the publication of a novel, Carthage, and a story collection, High-Crime Area.

Since 1963, over forty books by Oates have been included on the New York Times list of notable books of the year. Among her many honors are two O. Henry Prizes, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and an M. L. Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded Oates the National Humanities Medal, and in 2012, she was awarded both the Mailer Prize for Lifetime Achievement and the PEN Center USA Award for Lifetime Achievement. We spoke with Ms. Oates during the Get Lit! Festival in Spokane, shortly after the publication of her Gothic novel The Accursed. We discussed, among many topics, the “fantastic risk” of being a writer, feminism in the age of Twitter, and the transcendent nature of art.

Melissa Huggins

Edmund White once said that you seem to dream your way into your fiction, as if you were in a waking trance, and that you imagine other lives so vividly that they must leave you exhausted. Does that seem accurate?

Joyce Carol Oates

While that might be true for some of my writing process, I’ve been writing so long, and with so many different projects, that it’s probably only applicable to some aspects. I’m a professor, I teach literature, and I’ve written a lot of literary criticism and reviews, so there’s a side of me that’s extremely conscious. I was talking about postmodernism last night, and postmodernism is really an attitude, a way of looking at life and literature, where you’re drawing upon different traditions very consciously and choosing to present things in a form, so you’re also a formalist. And that’s different than being in a trance or dreaming. The two might fit together in some way, but in my deepest heart, I’m probably a formalist. I’d love to be given a certain structure for a work of fiction, to see if I could put content in it. There’s something about form and structure that excites me—maybe the way the sonneteers were in the Renaissance, writing sonnets, writing them brilliantly, and competing with one another. They were writing works of great art, yet within a form.

Huggins

Was that part of your goal in writing The Accursed? You had a structure, and you wanted to fill it in?

Oates

No, I didn’t have a structure in mind; it was more like an idea, writing in a certain genre or a certain place. I wanted to write a number of long, quasi-historical novels, and for that you need a broad canvas. It’s not the kind of intense insular writing you find in Henry James, narrow and deep, with maybe two or three characters. With this kind of writing, you want characters who are somewhat contrasting, maybe of different social levels, different personality types, and when they come together, narratives derive from these characters meeting.

With a novel like The Accursed there are many quasi-historical characters. So if I’m writing about Woodrow Wilson, I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to see him in 1905 and not be overwhelmed by his fame or authority, but to see him from the perspective of somebody who might not think he was extraordinary—because they were both living at that time. What would a contemporary think? Some didn’t think much of him, so the novel accommodates that. The novel’s character driven, but the form is gothic horror. I knew there would be a curse and manifestations of the curse, which increase in horror, and then there’s the pursuit of the mystery, and hints to the reader about what the mystery is—but not too openly. It’s not exactly a structure, but more an intuitive sense of what you’re doing, and you know the last chapter will explain it, because it’s a genre novel. It’s not a literary novel in the sense that it’s irresolute, ambiguous. With a genre novel, the ending is like a light thrown back on everything, and if you read it a second time, you see how it fits together. That’s a classic mystery form. When a mystery is done correctly, you read it a second time and it all makes sense. But the first time, you’re mystified.

Sometimes with a novel, people say, “Oh, this is predictable,” because they’ve seen it before. Or you sit down to a movie and after twenty minutes you see where it’s going, and you’re not surprised, because the form has become formulaic. But you can also make a form feel new—you can have surprises, and you can do reverse things. For instance, I like to have a character who you see from the outside as superficial, but who gets deeper as the novel goes on, maybe veering in a new direction and meeting somebody, and because of meeting somebody, changing.

Katrina Stubson

Is your research process for historically based fiction different from your research process for nonfiction?

Oates

I’m not a historian, and I don’t really write historical novels. The Accursed was more of an experiment. I did write a novel you could call historical, Blonde, about Norma Jean Baker, who became Marilyn Monroe. I saw a picture of her when she was about sixteen, a high school girl, and she didn’t have blond hair and she didn’t look much like Marilyn Monroe, just a tiny bit, and I thought, How interesting to go back to whenever that was, and to write about her as that girl. I went back further—to write about her when she was just a child with her mother. I did a little research into the Hollywood of that time, because they were living in Los Angeles and her mother worked in one of the studios, and I did some research into what movies they were seeing and what the studios were making and where they lived, which was Venice Beach. I was going to end the novel when she becomes a starlet and gets her name, Marilyn Monroe. But when I got to that point in the novel, about 180 pages or so, I thought, Well, I can’t stop now.

I started doing more research. I saw all of her movies, ending with The Misfits, which came out when she was about thirty-five. I could see this young actress maturing—she was an excellent actress—and I could see her getting older and becoming more like a cliché. In The Misfits, her last movie, she’d become the Marilyn Monroe stereotype. She’d started out as an individual, and then she got deeper and deeper, until finally she would have to live out the stereotype—that they’d made her up, that she was so into her clothing—and I think she probably felt, perhaps unconsciously, that there was no more life for her, that she would have to keep doing that Kewpie doll thing for the rest of her life, and so she committed suicide.

That was a different kind of research, generated during the writing process, not before. It was research generated by the act of writing. With The Accursed, I had fun looking for ironies and surprises and comical things in the lives of people like Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt, because they’re always presented as these males who’ve achieved so much as presidents. But we can also present them differently, as human beings. Woodrow Wilson was a man who rode a bicycle around his town because he couldn’t afford a car, and the well-to-do ladies were kind of snobbish, like, “Oh, he’s riding a bicycle.” That’s a whole attitude toward a president that most people don’t have, seeing him from the point of view of the townspeople.

Ben Werner

When you’re fictionalizing historical characters, is the approach different than when you’re writing purely fictional characters?

Oates

Woodrow Wilson had many, many letters and a lot of words he wrote that I could copy down, especially the foolish things he said, and some of them lofty things, but everything he said kind of annoyed me. For example, this famous speech he made, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” was about how Princeton is great, and because it’s so great everybody has to be great, even the students have to be great. There’s so much pride and vanity. What about other universities? Maybe they’re great, too. It was this tiny vision he had, and there was something about him I found annoying. So I guess I would look at those things, whereas if I were writing him as purely fictional, I wouldn’t put so many of those details in, because people would say, “Oh, you’re exaggerating.” But when you go to history, and see the insane things that, say, Hitler said, you probably wouldn’t make them up, because they’d seem over the top. White supremacists provide us with wonderful copy because they say the most asinine things. You couldn’t write poetry as bad as the poetry they loved.

Stubson

You write that you were in love with boxing from the moment you went to fights with your dad. Was On Boxing a book you’d thought about doing for a long time?

Oates

When I was a girl, my father did take me to fights, and I was interested at a young age in this very masculine sport. I wouldn’t say I was in love with it. I was a girl at ten or eleven with my father in a masculine environment, but I didn’t have any thoughts about it. I wasn’t a feminist yet. We would watch boxing matches on television, which were on every week, and there were great boxers at that time. I was aware of them, but I wasn’t a student of them. Many years later, I was writing a quasi-historical novel called You Must Remember This, in which the character’s a boxer in the 1950's, a great era for boxing. I was writing about the Red Scare, Senator McCarthy, people informing on each other, loyalty oaths, stuff like that. I did some research, looking at films of boxing in the 50's. One day the phone rang and it was the editor of The New York Times Magazine, Harvey Shapiro, who was always asking me to write something, and he said, “What are you working on?”

I said, “Well, I’m working on a novel, so I don’t think it would be of interest to you,” and he said, “What’s the novel about?” and I told him. He said, “You know, Father’s Day is coming up. Why don’t you write an essay about going to the fights with your father?” “Oh, I can’t possibly do that,” I said, and I hung up. Then I thought, Well, if I’m a feminist I better say yes, because a feminist is supposed to take challenges. So I called back and said, “Okay, I’ll try. I’ll send you something.” I started writing this essay, and it got long and complicated. I was going back to the ancient Greek warriors and all this history and it was this and that, and I was kind of devastated by how hard it was to do because it was for The New York Times Magazine. I knew about a million people would read it, and I was self-conscious. There’s a certain solace in writing fiction—you almost think nobody’s going to read it. You feel protected. But when you do this kind of journalism, especially in the New York Times, everybody’s going to read it, and a lot of the people who are going to read it are people who don’t know you, they don’t like you, they could be contemptuous.

I got paralyzed. I was anxious and depressed and writing more and more, and none of it was very good. I told my husband, “Well, I completely failed, I’m giving up.” And I was devastated. But the next morning I thought, I’ll write about failure. Because most boxers fail, and that’s the secret of boxing, to take this terrible punishment. Even the champions fail eventually. So the first thing I wrote was about a terrible boxing match I’d gone to at Madison Square Garden, and that’s the beginning of the book.

If I hadn’t had the call from Harvey Shapiro, I would never have written any of this. I couldn’t get it together until I felt that it completely failed. But that’s the secret of boxing and maybe a lot of sports: athletes have to endure failure. People look at the champions and think, Oh, look at this wonderful champion, with no idea of what the pyramid is like, and how at the bottom of the pyramid are broken, defeated, injured people, whose lives have been devastated by the sport, especially in the past. Now there are doctors who are more vigilant. But in the past, a young man could sustain an injury in the ring, very young, twenty-two years old or so, hemorrhage a week later and die, and nobody would care. My father had a boxer friend who committed suicide—he had been badly over-matched and defeated in the ring. At the time I didn’t think anything of it, but as an adult looking back, I thought, Of course he committed suicide.

And so I saw that line there. That’s the secret of the book. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have written On Boxing. The essay came out in the New York Times on Father’s Day, and it was successful as an essay— I started getting telephone calls, including from boxers. A photographer wrote to me and said, “I’d like to do a book on boxing. I’ll do the photographs and you can do the text.” That was John Reiner, who became a friend, and they were just wonderful photographs. I thought it would be a book with big photographs and I would do the text. Then, as time went on, the editor wanted me to write more, and the photographs got smaller, which I was sorry about because they’re so good. The book has been reprinted a number of times, and each time I’ve added more. I have a lot about Ali and Tyson, and I have some book reviews. I could maybe add something about women’s boxing some time.

The original text came out when Mike Tyson was just ascending—he may have already had his title. I got a call from Life magazine, saying, “Will you cover Trevor Berbick defending his title against this young boxer?” I said, “I don’t think I could do that,” because I’d never covered anything like a sports event—that’s a whole other kind of writing. But I called back and said, “Okay, I’ll try it,” and they sent me to Las Vegas. I was sitting next to Bert Sugar, who’s this legendary boxing writer, and I’m surrounded by these guys with their cigars, and I’m sitting there like I don’t know what I’m doing—because you can read about boxing and see pictures and films, but when you’re right there, you can’t even see their hands, they’re so fast. So Bert Sugar, this guy with his cigar and his fedora, he took pity on me—there’s smoke all around—and he said, “Ah, well, I could tell you some hints,” and I said, “I would really appreciate it, Bert; I don’t know what I’m doing.” He said, “Well, the first thing you gotta do is, you get a tape of the fight. And after the fight, up in your room, you watch the tape. And you watch it and watch it and see what really happened.” That’s the most important thing they told me. That’s what sports writers do if they can, because otherwise you hardly know what you’re seeing. So that’s what I did. I wrote a long piece on Tyson for Life magazine, which got a lot of attention, and then I did a few other pieces. That’s the long story about On Boxing. It was a lot of fun and I wish I could find another subject that would be so exciting and interesting to me.

Huggins

You light up when you talk about it.

Oates

It’s because of the boxers. Their characters and their personalities are amazing. Each boxer is an interesting person, plus their trainers, sometimes their managers. Each fight, each classic fight is kind of astonishing. Some of them seem almost like fairy tales. The classic fights are extraordinary. You have the great Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali, and he’s almost like a dancer, so mercurial and fantastic. He transformed the sport. The other boxers who come afterward are probably all in some relationship to him—there’s no boxer that’s not aware of him, and whether they know it or not, they exist in relation to him, especially heavyweights. Tyson was quite a good boxer, as well as a good fighter. People wonder how he would have done against Muhammad Ali. It’s these personalities.

Stubson

In On Boxing, you relate boxing to writing in various ways. In particular, you wrote about Rocky Marciano and his monastic rituals leading up to a fight. I’ve read that you relate to those rituals as a writer. Could you talk about how important ritual is to you?

Oates

People do make analogs between boxing and writing. I don’t think the boxers share in it as much as writers imagine. But boxing is collaborative. When you see a boxer, invisibly around him are his trainer and a lot of other people. There almost isn’t a boxer by himself. Ali had a great trainer, Angelo Dundee. Without Dundee, we wouldn’t have Muhammad Ali. Cassius Clay nearly lost his first fight against Sonny Liston. He was going to quit. He was actually made to go back up and finish the fight. Without that trainer, you never would have heard of Ali. With a writer, it might be true sometimes that there’s a mentor or somebody helping, but I think writers are often much more alone. Boxers are more like actors. People see an actor onstage or in a movie, and he’s not alone. There’s a director who’s telling him everything. Basically, they’re sort of material that directors are using. But I think writers are much more alone, and adrift, and unmoored. Imagination is like a river going along. The gifted athlete is someone that somebody has taken and invested money in, given him a regimen, even a diet, controlled his career, set him up with competition. He’s much more guided than a writer. There’s also the idea of taking punishment, and delaying gratification. If you’re a young boxer, you have to know how to take pain, and if you’re a young writer, I guess it helps if you know how to take pain. You can work on something for months or even years, not being sure it will ever be published. That’s a big risk. That’s a fantastic risk. To think that you can invest months of your life in something and it might come to nothing? The same is true of a boxer. You can invest so much effort, and the first important fight he could lose. Somebody’s going to lose that fight.

Huggins

As you said earlier, it’s a constant cycle of failure for boxers. You’re going to continue to keep failing, and that seems like somewhat of a parallel with writing. Not in terms of submissions or publications, but the writing itself.

Oates

Writers tend to set their own levels of achievement. We’re all different. Some feel that if you write all through the morning and have two or three pages, that’s all you really need to keep going, and then in the afternoon you can go for a bicycle ride, and the next morning you do the same thing. That’s a nice schedule. But then there are writers who are fanatic, who get neurotic and obsessed with their work. Maybe they would think that wasn’t enough, or they would rip it all up or get drunk. The schedule is not a solace to some people. I know Robert Stone. He’s taken a lot of drugs—this is not a secret, he writes about it. He’s a very gifted writer, but I know there’s a dark, deep, obsessional personality inside him. I can’t imagine what’s going on. David Foster Wallace is a more contemporary example. You know from his writing that his mind is convoluted, sometimes playful. You have to extract from that what it was like to be him. Maybe he could work for eighteen hours and not be happy with anything he did. Maybe he could have a whole manuscript and hate it, and become so trapped that he would commit suicide. Whereas the boxer is more like somebody’s son. The trainers are usually a bit older, sometimes they’re quite elderly, so the boxer is like a grandson. Say you feel depressed: your trainer talks to you, he’s nice to you, he buoys your spirits. I don’t think writers have anything like that. If someone tries to cheer a writer up, they’re just ironic. Writers are somehow so defensive, or too self-conscious.

Stubson

In the fall of 2012, you wrote on Twitter, “Last night at the Norman Mailer Center awards ceremony in New York City, Oliver Stone said beautifully, ‘A serious writer is a rebel.’” Could you elaborate?

Oates

A serious writer is transgressive. A serious writer sets out to write something that maybe disturbs and annoys some people. You’re not going to set out to write a novel that’s bland and makes everyone say, “Oh, yeah, I agree with that.” Nobody wants that response. You want to turn people’s expectations a bit. I know that some people are annoyed or offended because I wrote about Woodrow Wilson in this way that was not acquiescent or admiring, the way you’re supposed to be. It’s like writing about Abraham Lincoln, whom I do actually revere, or George Washington. Why should we revere these men just because we’re told to? Obviously that’s a little bit of a transgressive act. Oliver Stone is in that tradition—many of his movies are controversial—and Norman Mailer was in that tradition, too.

Stubson

I know you’re interested in Twitter. What appeals to you about it? Who do you follow?

Oates

Twitter is interesting because it’s so short. I find that I spend a lot of time reworking a sentence, throwing out punctuation, changing it around so I don’t need a comma. It’s actually very satisfying. I’ve not been involved in Facebook at all. Twitter is so much more verbal, and it’s somewhat more intellectual. I follow some writers, Daniel Mendelsohn, Ayelet Waldman, Dexter Palmer—writers who are friends of mine. Daniel Mendelsohn sometimes tweets in foreign languages, Latin, German, French. It’s a new art form, I think.

I follow Steve Martin, who’s a friend of mine. Steve will tweet infrequently, but then he might tweet eight times in a row. He’s very surreal, smart and funny. Then I follow the Tweet of God. He tweets about five times a day, and he’s always good. He’s so irreverent, but actually really smart—sort of a wise guy, almost like Mark Twain. He’s a former comedy writer for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The person who does Twitter, line by line, is Emily Dickinson. Her little observations, some of her poems, her letters, they’re all very elliptical and short. You have to read them several times to get any meaning out of them. Then there are people, like, say, William Faulkner, who could never do Twitter. Hemingway could do Twitter.

There’s also a lot of stuff about women, a whole women’s community. There are usually two or three articles that are being read and discussed, like the one from The Nation, about a woman being treated so badly as a writer. Post-feminist, post-something. When I read it, I thought it was very powerful. Then I read critiques of it. She was sort of fabricating it. So there’s a whole issue, and they come and go maybe once a week, these articles. But the big conversation on Twitter is, Are women treated differently as writers, like second-class citizens? There’s a lot of evidence that they are, that they’re not reviewed and so forth. That’s one of the things about Twitter that’s kind of exciting.

Huggins

In terms of Twitter being a breeding ground for conversations about women writers, there is always discussion when the annual VIDA statistics come out. Could you talk about that discussion and to what degree it interests you?

Oates

I think it’s an important discussion to keep roiling and bubbling, sort of like women’s rights, generally. With abortion rights, people think a battle’s been won, but actually it hasn’t. It’s a ceaseless struggle even to having voting rights for people; in the South they’re trying to take them away again. Nobody would believe that’s happening. So too with women and literature.

Women buy most of the books and do much of the writing, but not all of them are literary writers. With literary writers, it’s more of a rarified and controversial arena, kind of pitiless. People are really mean to one another. I was talking with students yesterday about young adult fiction. That’s an arena of writing where people are made to feel welcome: the reviews aren’t nasty, people are given two or three book contracts. They’re treated differently from literary fiction, which is like a battlefield. People are fighting for review space, and they’re bitter. If they get a bad review, they’re angry. If they don’t get any review, they’re angry. It goes on and on. I feel sort of hypocritical if I say anything, because I’m often asked to review, and I turn down most of the invitations. So I can’t go around saying, “Women don’t review enough,” because people can say, “Well, Joyce, we’ve invited you, but you turned us down.”

I probably should do more reviewing. I review for The New York Review of Books, I did something for The Times Literary Supplement recently, and sometimes for The New Yorker. I am a woman writer who is invited to review. At the same time, often I’m given a woman to review. But if I ask for a man, they’ll give me a man. Just left to themselves, I don’t think they’re thinking about it. Four books by women come in: “Oh, send them to Joyce.” A new book by Michael Chabon comes in, they send it to a male reviewer. It’s like a default. I think that debate you mention makes editors think a little more. They think, Well, have I been doing that? And now The New York Times Book Review editor is a woman, but no one remembers that twenty years ago there was a woman book review editor. Nobody seems to know that.

Huggins

It seems shocking that editors would automatically send someone of your stature only female writers to review.

Oates

You never exactly know with reviewing, whether someone has already been approached and declined it. I know at The New York Times Book Review I’ve been asked to review several times, and I’ve had to say no for different reasons. So they go to somebody else, and maybe before me they went to somebody else. You can’t make judgments. I’ve edited some books and special issues of magazines, and I know what it’s like to get work out of people, to have a fair distribution with all kinds of people, and there are some people who just won’t do it. You try getting various people, and they say, “Well, I’ll send you something,” and they never do. So I’m not as quick to criticize editors as people who don’t know what it’s like to be an editor.

Huggins

One result of the discussion following the release of the VIDA statistics was that it motivated some editors to consider the implications of those numbers. For example, the editor of Tin House, Rob Spillman, said that when they started to dig into their own numbers, the slush pile submissions were approximately 50/50 in terms of gender, but when they looked at whether each writer had been rejected before by the magazine, the men were five times more likely to resubmit than the women.

Oates

Oh, they gave up. That’s interesting. I’ve had a number of students at Princeton who were gifted, both men and women. But predominantly it’s the young men who went on to be published. You’ve heard of Jonathan Safran Foer? He had a novel based on his senior thesis. I’ve had quite a few other writers, but most of the ones you’ve heard of are men. Jonathan Ames has been around quite a while; he’s another one who did a senior thesis with me. He worked really hard. After he graduated he wrote to me and said, “I’m lying on the floor of my apartment and I can’t move, and I need for you to help me. I’ve completely broken and I need some help.” I wrote back to him and said, “Jonathan, you’ve graduated. You’ve got to be independent now. I’m not your professor anymore.” Evidently he got up—he’s got a real career—but there were young women in those workshops who were just as good, and I don’t know what happened to them. You can’t really make somebody revise a novel and keep working. I don’t know where they went.

When I had a literary magazine with my husband, Raymond Smith, we published a woman who was about sixty, and she was so happy we’d published her. I said, “You’re such a good writer; where did you come from?” She said, “Well, I had a story in Mademoiselle when I was nineteen, and then I sent them another story and they rejected me, and then I stopped writing for forty years.”

Can you believe it? She said, “Well, I just felt so bad, I didn’t write anymore.” Whereas a man would say, “Okay, I’ll send them another story, or I’ll send it to Esquire.” It’s a lot different. I try not to be easily wounded. When I was a young writer, I would have seventeen stories out to the magazines. It was like fishing with seventeen lines: you don’t expect anything much, maybe you get a nibble. If you have one line out that’s too much depending on it, but if you have seventeen. . .

Werner

How has your writing changed over the years?

Oates

Generally speaking, my writing is more driven now by voice than it used to be. When I started writing it was only one voice, and that was my voice, because I didn’t know how to write any other way. Now if I’m going to write a novel—say I write about some young black people in Newark in 1981, which is one of my new fiction pieces I’m working on—I make it driven by their voices and their personalities. It’s more mediated by the subject, whereas in the past the narrative voice was the author’s voice. That’s the biggest change. I really like writing with voices. That, to me, is exciting.

With any work of fiction, the prism is the character. If you’re writing an intellectual character, your tone is intellectual, your sentences are a little longer and more subtle. If you’re writing about a young person, the sentences might be more impressionistic and shorter. It’s always exciting to find that voice, which is not a literal voice; it’s sort of poetic, but mediated. To me, that’s the exciting part of writing.

Huggins

That sense of discovery?

Oates

Yeah, you have to work a while to find the ideal voice—not too elevated, not too plain—and adjust it. I was saying yesterday that there are certain ways of writing that are gone now, that people don’t do anymore. Once there was an elevated voice that was for everybody to read; Milton had that voice, and was widely read. Now, nobody really writes in that voice. They’re much more likely to write in a vernacular voice. You know Junot Díaz? He’s completely in the vernacular, but poetic. I’ve taught his stories, and he’s deceptive; you think he’s just talking, but you find metaphors, maybe two or three in a story, and they’re really sharp. It’s an American vernacular idiomatic voice but it’s poetic, and that’s a nice voice; that’s something we really like. Whereas a complicated voice, like David Foster Wallace, I personally didn’t find as engaging as some of his contemporaries. To me, it was too much of a wrought voice, too worked over, with his footnotes and so forth. Too writerly, like he was sculpting or carving out of stone rather than the fluidity of Díaz, which is almost like water running along.

Stubson

I’m curious how you determine your persona or your voice in terms of writing essays or reviews. Was finding your voice outside fiction difficult?

Oates

I’ve been writing a lot of reviews since my early twenties, so you find a writerly voice that’s communicative and not too dense. And if you write for The New York Review of Books, you have a sense of audience, which would be different than a newspaper.

Werner

Do you consider audience in your writing? It sounds like you did when you were starting to write On Boxing.

Oates

Only regarding these journalistic things, not with fiction. You can’t imagine any audience with fiction. But with The New York Review of Books, the essays are always well written, by distinguished people who are experts in their field. They write carefully, and the first paragraphs are always so good. I love the New York Review; I just love to read it. Sometimes I sit and underline the prose of these wonderful writers. So when you’re going to write for them, you take a lot of time and care. But basically it’s not voice, it’s just a little more worked over than it would be for some other magazine.

Huggins

You’ve written and spoken about the transcendent nature of art, and you’ve been quoted as saying, “Life without art to enhance it is just too long.” How does art make life bearable?

Oates

Did I say life is too long? You know, I’ve said many, many things. Sometimes I think I might just be joking. I think for most people life is not too long as it nears the end. When you’re thirteen and there’s a long summer, that’s different than when you’re eighty-three.

But in the beginning, I think art was identification with religion. Religion and art spring from the same sources. The earliest kinds of art were probably conjoined with religious symbols. Both of them are ways of transcending, so that individuals are unified through a myth—that they’re all created by the elephant god or the turtle god or something. Then the turtle gets illustrated, so it turns into art, and the two come together, a way of making people feel they’re connected. Which is true—we are all connected, so the myth corroborates that.

I’ll give another example of transcendence in art. Most of us, if we live long enough, will encounter people—maybe ourselves—who suffer from dementia and grandiosity and irrational behavior as they get older. It’s common and it’s mundane and demeaning and probably kind of awful. But the great play, the great work of art on that subject is King Lear. Shakespeare takes a universal experience and elevates it in this extraordinary play. That’s one of the great works of humankind, King Lear. If you contrast that with the experience of, say, going to an Alzheimer’s ward, seeing the difference between King Lear and these people: that’s what we mean by the transcendence of art. Shakespeare takes something horrible and transforms it into an occasion for extraordinary insight. Lear is blundering and irrational and almost collapsing but he rises to these insights about love and the meaning of life. When he dies at the end, there’s a new order as the young people come in. Tragedies have that form, where at the end there’s a new generation, so it’s like the death of the old way, as in Macbeth or Othello. It’s a quintessentially great work of art that takes human anxieties and tragedy and transmogrifies them into something like a new beginning. It’s very hopeful.

Issue 61: A Conversation with Stuart Dybek

issue61

Found in Willow Springs 61

May 18, 2007

Samuel Ligon, Adam O'Connor Rodriguez, Dan J. Vice, & Zachary Vineyard

A CONVERSATION WITH SYUART DYBEK

 

stuart-dybek

Photo Credit: poetryfoundation.org

On September 25, 2007, the MacArthur Foundation named Stuart Dybek a 2007 fellow, noting that his work “dramatizes how a new storytelling tradition takes shape; his writing borrows from the literature and iconography of the Old World yet emerges from the New World—from the speech and streets and music and movies that feed the imaginations of contemporary American communities.” The very next day, he received the Rea Award for the Short Story. “The beauty of these two awards,” said Andre Dubus III, who served on the Rea Award jury, “is that it gives Stuart well-deserved time to create. And that benefits all of us.”

In his work, Dybek explores the memories and legends of his upbringing in the Polish neighborhoods of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. He grounds the reader in the physicality of those places, while at the same time daring to blur the boundary between the real and the dream-like. Time does not often move in a straight line, but seems to spiral outward, and to double-back on itself, in ways that feel fluid and organic rather than planned. “The state you want to get to,” he says, “is surrender. When you’re controlling … you’re never going to find the accidents, which is what art is all about.”

He is the author of three books of fiction: Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (1980) The Coast of Chicago (1990), and I Sailed with Magellan (2003), and two collections of poetry, Brass Knuckles (1979) and Streets in Their Own Ink (2004). His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous periodicals, including The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris Review, The Best American Short Stories, and The Best American Poetry, among many others. In addition to the MacArthur Fellowship and the Rea Award, Dybek has received honors including a PEN/Malamud Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Stuart Dybek holds a B.S. and an M.A. from Loyola University, and received his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. In 2006, after over 30 years teaching at Western Michigan University, he had a homecoming of sorts, becoming Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He spoke with us over lunch at the Palm Court Grill in Spokane.

 

Adam O’Connor Rodriguez

I Sailed with Magellan, while considered a novel in stories, seems linked less by narrative than by something else. How do you see these stories as connected?

Stuart Dybek

One reason to work with linked stories or a novel in stories is to escape a certain tyranny of chronology, without losing the power of narrative in the process. Each story, of course, has its own narrative design, and each story, with the exception of something like “Qué Quieres” and maybe “Blue Boy” is chronological enough. But the arrangement of the stories departs some from linear narrative. Still, there’s a kind of chronology. That is, the stories begin with the narrator as a child and end with a funeral. But the reader participates in constructing a timeline.

I always look for something to counterpoint narrative with: image, mood, thematic motifs, etc. And that counterpoint is often as important to linking the stories as a narrative line can be. The metaphorical dimension of a book can be as powerful a unifying force as story or characterization. What one is ideally trying to do is to generate a dynamic interaction between the various elements.

Of course novels that put their pieces together in ways other than straight linear narrative can accomplish the same reassembling of fragmented reality.

In Magellan, besides the centrality of place around which the stories gravitate, there are other connections, such as the repeated motif of music. Music figures heavily in the characterizations and I wanted each character to have his or her own song. And place is, for me, one gigantic, infinitely complicated image. So when somebody says that Eudora Welty is a writer of place, Joyce is a writer of place, or, as they should say, Kafka is a writer of place—you can talk about geography and so on and so forth, but really, for me, what each of these writers has created is this infinitely multi-layered, gigantic image that encompasses character. Place is metaphorical context.

Samuel Ligon

Can you talk more about the tyranny of chronology?

Dybek

In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust talks about the tyranny of rhyme forcing writers into their greatest lines. But I think the tyranny of chronology is not as benevolent a tyranny as poetic musical patterns that lead to the invention of form, which is what Proust is talking about. One can fall into a forced singsong pattern with rhyme—that’s a danger. And chronology too can invite you to fall into this numbing pattern of first this happened, then next this happened, then next that happened. When I taught sixth grade and asked the kids to write a story, many of the stories would begin with, “Briiiiiinnggg! The alarm clock rang.” They wanted to start a story at the beginning, waking up—then next you brush your teeth and eat your Wheaties, and by the time you get to the part about how you killed your brother, you’ve got five pages invested in just doing your toilette. Obviously there’s a valence that is necessary as to what moments in our lives or imaginations are important enough to get written about that has nothing to do with chronology.

At the same time, fiction is a temporal art. Its main subject is time. Its great power is chronology, because chronology has an inescapable way of translating into cause and effect. It’s deceptive and illusory, but that’s the power of linear narrative. If we write that such and such happened at ten and such and such happened at eleven, we assume they are connected and that what happened at ten caused what happened at eleven. It’s how fiction makes the chaotic world understandable. That’s why people require stories—one great reason, anyway. Stories make the chaos understandable by arranging it along a timeline. But linear narration is only one way to perceive reality, and one of the things I like about a novel in stories is that it offers other ways to look at reality. Stories can be beads on a string but the form of linked stories can also offer a more crystalline, gemlike, faceted form.

Ligon

Are you consciously trying to break chronology? In I Sailed with Magellan, it seems that “We Didn’t” comes chronologically before “Lunch at the Loyola Arms.”

Dybek

Yeah, it does. Jerzy Kosinski, when he was at his best as a writer, wrote a book called Steps, which was called a novel, but is a novel in stories. It works on that counterpoint principle—it counterpoints unidentified dialogues, which I love, with narrative sections. Kosinski called such counterpoint “anti-rhythms.” They break up the pattern of “first this happened and then that happened;” the writer has established another pattern. First a narrative passage, then a more dramatic dialogue, then back to narration, etcetera. If you disrupt linear narrative, you have to replace it with some other form. That arrangement of fictional elements into form can also include a rearrangement of time, so that one isn’t breaking chronology so much as allowing fictional form precedence over it.

Ligon

On my first read of I Sailed with Magellan, I read “Breasts” out of order. And because I read it out of order, when I got to the end, I didn’t understand the shift in point of view—

Dybek

When “Breasts” was published in Tin House and later in Best American, the departure the ending takes was lopped off; the story ends with the guys arm wrestling in the bar. And I like that freeze frame ending, too. But I always knew that in the book the story was going to make a leap and circle back to what actually happened to my brother—which seems outside the frame of the story.

The murder in “Breasts” is based on something that happened in my neighborhood. A small time hood was found with his balls blown off. In writing the story, I tried to research the actual murder in newspaper files, but I couldn’t find any record of it. After a while, I began to think I’d made the whole thing up. Not only that, but my brother, Tom, told me two different versions of the ending. The first version is the one I used in the story. I asked him to tell me his version of the story again, years later. I said, “Hey, tell me again what happened about sticking that rifle through the curtain and everything.” He said, “Oh, no, I never did that.” I said, “You told me you stuck a gun in the curtain.” “No, I couldn’t have done a thing like that.” Damn, I thought, maybe I made everything up.

The story is a composite. Grafted to the story of the mob guy’s murder was an unrelated image I saw once as I walked by a bar in my old neighborhood: two guys sitting there. One guy was in an undershirt and clearly had a case of—what’s that called—you know, when men get breasts? It’s a hormone problem. Anyway, the other guy was feeling him up.

And the image stuck in my mind. Then I was with Paul D’Amato—the photographer whose lovely photo is also the cover photo for I Sailed with Magellan—in Chicago on Cinco de Mayo, and we saw these masked wrestlers in wrestling matches in the middle of the street. They had a ring set up. And it suddenly came to me that one of those guys in the bar was a Luchador, a Mexican masked wrestler. Part of what was pleasurable about the process of writing that story was that once I failed in researching it, I never knew exactly what departures it might take

O’Connor Rodriguez

Do you usually know where you’re going, or what’s going to happen in a story?

Dybek

A lot start out that way; I think I know what they are. But then a digression occurs, and I’ll think, Oh shit, if I do this, I’ve just ruined a perfectly straightforward story and doomed myself to three more months of writing something I could have finished in a week. Because I had it all nice and thought out, and now what am I doing? And those are real risks. It’d be nice to say that every time you make a digression you get a good story out of it, but, in fact, I’ve ruined any number of stories that I think would have been pretty nice stories by chasing after digressions I could never find my way back out of.

Dan J. Vice

The story “Blue Boy” digresses a lot, but the timeline is really tight, like you know exactly what the chronology is and then you can play with it. Is that still a result of muddling around?

Dybek

Yeah, it was a mess. I never knew if that story was going to come together. The other thing is, I didn’t know if it was a story or a memoir. When I decided finally to call it a story, that’s when I knew I had the Magellan book. That was the pivotal story. I realized the characters in it and the place, Little Village, were at one with several other stories I had already written, but now, with Blue Boy, I saw how they were all related, fragments of the same whole.

Ligon

What’s the difference between memoir and fiction?

Dybek

For me the difference is what your allegiance is to. In fiction, my allegiance is always to imagination. And in memoir, it’s to memory. Which isn’t to say that memory isn’t hugely imagined. But it means in fiction that it’s any crazy thing that occurs to you that’s going to make the story better. The more lies, the more you can invent, the better the story. I think even the mechanism is different.

Mary Karr has a wonderful essay she wrote about the James Frey flap, when he admitted to faking his memoir—I’m not going to quote her as elegantly as she said it, unfortunately—but Mary said that because your allegiance is to memory in memoir, you have to stick to that. It drives you to do research that you might not have done if you didn’t feel about it so strongly. And again and again that research leads you to surprises, things you would have never, with your own imaginative powers, concocted. And I think she’s right, that that’s one of the ways memoir works. Now, that doesn’t mean a fiction writer can’t do that; fiction writers do it all the time. But it’s a choice in fiction, whereas in memoir, according to Mary, it’s obligation.

Zachary Vineyard

How do these ideas of allegiance apply to poetry?

Dybek

Nancy Eimers, a poet whose work I admire, was talking to a group of students who asked if she ever wrote fiction, and Nancy, who’s very modest, said something like, “No, I don’t have the imagination to do it. I need to stick closer to my own life. I couldn’t make up stories.” And it suddenly occurred to me that when the whole creative nonfiction and memoir publishing blitz came along, many poets—Li-Young Lee, Garrett Hongo, Michael Ryan, Debra Diggs, Mark Doty, etcetera—wrote memoirs. It seems poets saw the memoir as a form carried over from poetry. Perhaps it was a post-confessional evolution. Yet I think of poetry as a grand fiction. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong vision of it, it’s just how you’re wired.

Ligon

What do you mean by a grand fiction?

Dybek

I mean, to my mind, Eliot and Pound would both be grand fiction writers. Wallace Stevens, as well.
Vineyard. When you mention Wallace Stevens, I think of the “supreme fiction.” He was kind of under this influence that everything was imagined, even the reality that we have, this place, this world, that anything physical is just this imaginative power—

Dybek

Yet you have poets moving naturally into memoir. There’s a connection there, an implicit notion that poetry is autobiography. For me, even though I often work with autobiographical material, whether I’m working with poetry or fiction, I’m thinking of it as invention—an invented reality. I don’t feel Mary’s obligation to root memory in fact.

I remember Toby Wolff saying something along the lines that the subject of a memoir, as he saw it, was memory itself, including memory’s fallibility. Memory’s subjective truth. So there’ differing emphasis, different degrees of objective or factual reality. Rather than walled cells there’s a kind of fluid continuum along which different writers locate themselves. The same writer within the same book can locate him or herself at different places on the continuum in different chapters and sentences, so long as signals to the reader are clear.

And then there are hybrids, the nonfiction novel, or, in the novel itself, you have the roman à clef, a form that predates the whole current fascination with memoir—The Sun Also Rises is one of many examples. Supposedly, people who knew that exile crowd were able to identify exactly who those characters were despite the fictional disclaimer. And that notion of hybrids makes me think of your earlier question about the novel in stories, as that’s a hybrid form too. It shocks me when I think back to the lists that appeared when the century turned—lists like “The Hundred Best Books of the 20th Century” —and left off those lists was Winesburg, Ohio. Such a seminal book. It gives you some notion of this unexamined allegiance to the novel. There are so many novels on those lists that are inferior to that brilliant, still haunting, ever-haunting book by Sherwood Anderson. Or Hemingway’s In Our Time, or Cane by Jean Toomer, which is way underrated. Dos Passos pissed old supporters off later in life when he turned into a conservative, and his writing went to crap too, I guess. But if you look at some of his early books, like Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A., that great trilogy—those are really novels in stories. Mosaics. Crazy quilts.

A novel in stories is a hybrid form. One of the problems with hybrid forms is that they lack good names. The prose poem—what the hell is that? I mean, creative nonfiction—that is such a lame term. You know what Grace Paley said to me about the short-short once? She said, “Stuart, that sounds like a stutter.” No—stammer. She said, “It sounds like a stammer.”

But the novel in stories equates with the most fertile period in American literature, which to me is the 1920s, when everybody was experimenting like crazy and great works were coming out of it. The Waste Land has about it the scale of a novel. Its fragmentation makes one think of a novel in stories.

Vineyard

How do you see place applying to poetry?

Dybek

I wrote an essay on that subject, in which I argued for place being an underrated element in poetry for several reasons. It’s fashionable right now to flee from narrative elements in poetry—and that’s not limited to poetry; that’s through all the arts. Artists don’t want to paint decorative paintings and they don’t want to paint paintings that have narrative. And classical music, which at one time was programmatic, no longer wants to suggest narrative elements. So it’s not strictly poetry that takes that stance.

But if you look at a poet like Frost or a minor poet like Masters—when you start getting into that notion of place, narrative isn’t far behind. And then major/minor gets thrown around quite a lot. Place gets confused with local color. A fine poet like John Haines, for instance, is assigned by some critics a local color, or minor status, because Alaska figures so repeatedly in all his work, whereas that’s not true of fiction. In fiction, being a writer of place is joining a grand tradition, whether it’s Bellow, Farrell, Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner.

No matter what genre, place is image and also a formative element for me, and in that it transcends genre. And I’m interested in what transcends genre. Different genres all have their signature modes. The narrative mode would be the signature mode of fiction. But if you look at Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, Babel, these are great lyricists. In the 20th Century, certainly the signature mode, at least of American poetry—probably Western poetry—would be the lyrical mode. And yet Phil Levine is a great storyteller on the page, and so was James Welch, as was Hugo, who I also admire. That whole Montana bunch liked story.

Vice

We hear about the death of the story, that no one reads stories, and yet every few years we hear that the story is back. Why do you think that cycle occurs?

Dybek

I’m hoping that it is a cycle—that stories will come back. I’m not so optimistic they’ll return as a commercial form. John Cheever was one of my teachers at Iowa and he actually made a living writing stories, but today it’s nearly unthinkable for any writer, with the possible exception of Alice Munro, to support themselves writing stories. And yet overlapping my life are writers who actually did that. I don’t see that happening again. A novel is just a much more commercially viable form. One thing the novel really offers is getting to know a character that you can identify with, and it’s hard to do that kind of characterization in a single story. We have great short story characters, but you don’t get to spend the face time with them as in a novel.

Ligon

Your books of fiction have a similar shape, yet they don’t feel redundant. Do you look back on them and think—

Dybek

If I think about them at all, I think of the accidents that happened.

O’Connor Rodriguez

What’s a good example of that?

Dybek

Once at Case Western Reserve before I read we went out and really drank. Instead of reading, I self-indulgently and drunkenly started telling stories onstage. I felt ashamed as I began to sober up. And the guy who invited me said, “You know, you did go on a bit, but those were really great stories. You ought to write them.” At that time, I was going to tons of comedy clubs and listening to people like Lenny Bruce. I thought, What a neat trick it would be to try to write a poem like a comic monologue—I was never able to pull this off—but poets are doing it now, you know, Billy Collins does it. So I tried to do that with these stories I told on stage, and the piece turned into the story “Blight.” That story was so digressive I needed a principle by which I could digress and come back to the linear narrative that’s kind of threaded through the story. So an accident of sorts generated a literary strategy.

Vice

That style of digression comes up in Magellan, too; it seems like the kind of thing a writing workshop would immediately tell you to remove.

Dybek

Bad advice sometimes, especially when one’s voice is in a formative stage.

Vice

How do you decide when to leave something in, even though it’s unlikely to please a committee?

Dybek

What the workshop’s trying to teach you—and what you’re trying to learn—is control. And I think it’s right that you have to be able to control a story before you can surrender. But control is only a temporary state. The state you want to get to is surrender. When you’re controlling something like that, you’re never going to find the accidents, which is what art is all about. And when you begin to digress, then you’ve opened yourself up to accidents. I was just talking about “Blight,” and one of the accidents that I found in “Blight” was the line, “Back to blight.” As soon as I had that neighborhood phrase—the kids always said “Back to blight”—I had this mechanism in the story from which I could digress and always come back, a transition, and for me the art of the short story is the art of transition. Also a little chorus. And I thought, This is a move I’d like to repeat in another story.

I love Latin American music, how they get into these ecstatic choruses that are totally different than the chorus that appears in a pop song. And they’ll just riff on the same chorus. So, when it came to “Qué Quieres,” I had that chorus/transition again. It was a different version of “Back to blight,” and once I had that chorus, I could keep digressing and coming back. The thing is, the chorus has to be interesting. I couldn’t sit down and make one up. They have to come to you out of the material.

O’Connor Rodriguez

In “Qué Quieres,” you change modes in the end in a different way. Did something intuitive bring you to that?

Dybek

Yes and no. When I listen to Latin music, it’s all based on riffs that are rooted in chant; it’s like rock and roll and the blues—if you go way back, you’re back in church. Those Hispanic singers go back to Santeria, Voodoo, West African forms that became hybrid religions. And Conga players, you know Conga is all about chant. As a kid watching I Love Lucy, Ricky Ricardo would beat this conga drum like a clown, running around yelling. “Babaloo.” We just thought it was a funny word, “Babaloo,” but he was actually chanting the name of a great god.

And so when you’re trying to set up this chorus, behind it all is a kind of chant, and at the end of the story what I wanted to happen was that suddenly you break into this kind of prayer, this litany intended to have that chant quality.

Vice

Growing up in a tradition like Catholicism, do you find that it’s impossible to get away from it?

Dybek

Well, I think it depends on the writer. And even if you define yourself against it, you’re not getting away from it.

Vice

What you’re describing, and the way it seems to function in your stories, is more cultural than spiritual.

Dybek

It is, I think. However, it puts the possibility of the spiritual in the story, and a lot of the vocabulary—I mean, we all do this for whatever reason—the vocabulary of awe and mystery, the lexicon of all that stuff, the religions kind of own it. And so, even when you’re writing about the profane, a lot of times you’re borrowing from religion the vocabulary to express profane moments of mystery and awe. Just as our government reaches into pro football and football reaches into war. I bring it up only because—where do you go to get your metaphors, your figurative languages?

In a lot of cases, these stories that explore the cultural side of religion are about perception—perception changed through intense, sometimes ecstatic moments. There are a variety of rabbit holes through which you can fall down into another dimension. Once you’ve done that, you might not reemerge as a believer, but you come out with your perception changed. And religion is just one of them. So you enter that church, and you’re in medieval times suddenly, and there are all these suffering icons and so on. Or you enter a bar, and everything changes. Or you get on a motorcycle and go a zillion miles an hour. Or you have an intense sexual experience, or you play music and it changes your life. In all those cases, there’s some emotional experience that’s changed your perception.

Vineyard

Are you influenced by the surrealists at all?

Dybek

I’m interested in most all categories of the fantastical, for lack of a better word. I taught a course once that tried to involve it all. Speculative fiction, ghost stories, the grotesque, surrealism. It was an anti-realism class. I know that a real, bona fide surrealist would insist he had a political agenda as well. I’m interested in people who have harnessed dreams—Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Yeats, when he worked with folkloric material later in his career. It’s all one broad category to me. Borges and speculative fiction writers, Calvino.

Ligon

In “Pet Milk,” you’re able to move in many directions with time, and the story seems to be about time and memory. But echoing Dan’s earlier point, a workshop might say about that story, “What does Pet milk have to do with anything? What does the grandmother have to do with anything? We need to get to that train.” Why does that story begin with the coffee and then move to the grandmother?

Dybek

When I wrote it, it started as a poem, and all I was trying to do was write a still life. I love still life's. And of course, you know, so many poets are influenced by paintings. But I couldn’t bring the objects I placed on the table alive. I don’t know why my still life was a can of Pet milk but it was. Actually, I finally asked myself that question and I had the association with my grandmother. The story is based on an image. You have to create the image, and then the narrative is a way of exploring the image. And so it opens with the can of Pet milk—you begin creating the image and layering emotion through anecdote.

There’s this line in Cole Porter’s “Every time We Say Goodbye”—“Ain’t no love song finer but how strange the change from major to minor.” And he’s right. That change from major to minor, which is at the heart of Gershwin and at the heart of Cole Porter, you can’t wear it out. There’s a move like that in writing when an image opens into narrative, or conversely, when narrative closes into image, it’s like the change from major to minor. It’s so beautiful to watch that little motion.

I mentioned transitions earlier and the most important line in “Pet Milk,” is the line in which he looks from the milky coffee and sees the sky doing the same swirls above the railroad yard across the street. Because that’s the central transition in the story. Once you’ve established for the reader that you can make a transition like that, then you can do anything. You have permission to use the image to go anywhere you want. Total major to minor freedom.

Issue 81: A Conversation With Willow Springs Cover Artist Chris Bovey

A Conversation with Willow Springs Cover Artist Chris Bovey

Spokane-based artist and graphic designer Chris Bovey is the mastermind behind the cover art for Willow Springs issues 81 through 86. Each of these covers is iconic Spokane, and his work has forever shaped the look and feel of Willow Springs magazine for the better.

Bovey’s goal is to cherish and capture the heart of Spokane. To glorify the beauty that makes a town feel like home. His work gravitates to the old and new iconic places and landmarks of the area and its signs. Every piece is handmade, signed, and numbered. Each one is made with care, and you can always find Chris’s limited edition prints at Atticus Coffee in Spokane.

Who are the artists and graphic designers you most admire, and how have they influenced you? 

No doubt, Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell. Andy reshaped how we view art and asked his viewers to look at advertising in a new light and see the beauty in it. Rockwell captured a vivid sense of nostalgia and created a sense of place.

Do you have a favorite piece of art (yours or someone else’s) and why? 

I LOVE this Ernst Haas Route 66 photo taken in 1969 in Albuquerque New Mexico. This is the only piece of art I have hanging in my house other than mine. I have spent many, many hours looking at all the detail in the piece. It speaks to Americana and capitalism in the 50s and 60s.

Much of your art showcases Spokane’s more popular architecture, nature, and city features. How has Spokane as a city informed your sense of design? Do you hope your art influences the way Spokanites and visitors alike appreciate the city?

I started this project because so many people thought Spokane sucked. This popularized the “Spokane doesn’t suck” phase, but instead of just claiming that, I really wanted to showcase why it didn’t suck. Instead of comparing ourselves to Seattle and Portland, I wanted to show people how cool this city really is and see it in a new light. Hopefully, people see that.

How has your work with the Inlander informed your life/art? 

The Inlander taught me simple is king. We had a rule there that it had to pass the “across the room test.” If folks didn’t know what it was from across the room, then you failed. I took this lesson with me and it always reminds me that simpler is better when it comes to bold artwork.

You’re really involved with the community in Spokane. What do you love most about that community work, and how do you feel like your art has impacted it or been impacted by it?

People make this city amazing. Whether working with the homeless — feeding them on street corners — or meeting people at my shows and talking to them about their memories of this place. I just love talking to other people and getting to know them and what makes them tick. They influence my work because they guide where this project goes. 

What are some of your favorite galleries, publications, and venues? 

I am an outsider when it comes to the art community. I don’t know if this answered your question, but I have always wanted to make art more accessible to people and bring it to them. So I love the idea of having a surprise pop-up show at a place like Dick’s where no one would expect it. More things like that take the pretentiousness out of art and make it a bit more approachable.

What other interests do you have that might inform your work? 

I dig going to antique shops in Hillyard and looking for rad postcards and matchbooks to see the local advertising of the past and maybe bring it back to life. I can spend a whole day just goofing around there!

Where can people find your work? What are you working on now?

You can find it at Atticus [Coffee & Gifts] and online at vintageprint.us. I was just asked by the Balazs family to do a limited run of the famous “Transcend the Bullshit” piece! It is a huge honor!

Issue 83: Maggie Smith: The Willow Springs Interview

83-cover-for-web-1 (1)

Found in Willow Springs 83

April 28, 2018

JOSH ANTHONY, CAYLIE HERMANN, KIMBERLY POVLOSKI, & TAYLOR WARING

A CONVERSATION WITH MAGGIE SMITH

Maggie-Smith_bw-headshot_Devon-Albeit-Photography

Photo Credit: Devin Albeit Photography

THROUGHOUT HER WORK, Maggie Smith presents vulnerability and softness that comes from someone writing a love letter to the very thing that is trying to destroy her—and everyone else. Smith pulls from fairytales, imagined natural disasters, and biblical stories, but reminds us that the dangers we face are often human. Without an edge of anger or despair, her poems balance love and fear and demand that the reader not lose hope, even when that seems like the most logical choice. Her precise and often mystical imagery and her unwavering lyricism encourage her readers.

Maggie Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017), The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015), and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005). She is also the author of three prizewinning chapbooks. In 2016, her poem “Good Bones” went viral after appearing in Waxwing and has been translated into nearly a dozen languages. Smith is a 2011 recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has also received six Individual Excellence Awards from the Ohio Arts Council, two Academy of American Poets Prizes, and a Pushcart Prize.

In a review of Good Bones for The Rumpus, Julie Marie Wade says, “I think if [Good Bones] has a moral, it’s about learning to grow where planted.” Smith was born in Columbus, Ohio, and remains rooted to her native Ohio today. She has taught creative writing at Gettysburg College, Ohio Wesleyan University, and in the MFA program at The Ohio State University. She’s currently a consulting editor to the Kenyon Review, and a freelance writer and editor.

Maggie Smith’s poems often feel as though they’re balanced on the edge of catastrophe, just trying to hold themselves (and their readers) in place. She explores the fears of childhood, the fears of motherhood, and the fear and excitement of being alive. Through this buzzing exploration of world-fear, she never lets her readers fall into despair, urging them that “This place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful.”

We met with Maggie Smith in Spokane, where we discussed birds, the power of observation, writing within today’s political landscape, and mom poetry.

KIMBERLY POVLOSKI

Good Bones has a lot of what you’d call mom poems, and I believe in an interview you said you’d never want to become a mom poet.

MAGGIE SMITH

That’s true. I’m a poet who is a mom. And I’m a mom who is a poet. But I have a terrible fear of writing mommy poems, which I feel is a derogatory term for a subgenre of poems that are sentimental about one’s children. So I resisted writing about my kids for a long time. Or I wrote about them in oblique ways, hence the fairytales. I wrote an article for the Poetry Foundation about poets like Sharon Olds, Beth Ann Fennelly, Rachel Zucker, and Brenda Shaughnessy, poets who were writing about being mothers in smart, difficult, challenging ways, that weren’t just saccharine. Because that’s the trick: I don’t want to be saccharine about anything. I don’t want to be saccharine about birds, or about trees, or my grandmother, or my parents, or my kids.

The longest period I ever went without writing was the period after my first daughter was born. I just couldn’t do it. Part of it was sleep deprivation, and sanity, but part of it was, what am I going write about? The baby? Am I just going to be someone who writes about babies now? Am I going to write a poem about how much I regret this? Because I have postpartum depression and she screams all the time? Or am I going to wait until that passes and everything is hunky-dory, and this is the best thing that ever happened to me? Does anybody need that poem? Actually, people probably need the first poem. So it took me a long time, and writing The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, to get to a place where I felt like I could not just do justice to the experience, but be honest and do it my way. Being tender and acknowledging my love for them, but also not really writing about them.The poems are more about me, more about the existential shift that comes with being in charge of other people in this world when I can’t even sort it out for myself. I don’t know to process 21st century existence, but I have to because I have to process it for other people. That is the biggest challenge and what inspired a lot of poems in this book. How do I do this? The difficulty of it. The bittersweetness of it. And also, there is, let’s be honest, a gendered response to poems about children. I’ve said this before: when women write poems about their kids, they’re soft. When men write poems about their kids, they’re sensitive—and they end up in The New Yorker. It’s the same way you would never say a woman is babysitting her kids, but you might say that about their father. Something about that response really gets my hackles up.

CAYLIE HERRMANN

You mentioned in an interview that your daughter wanted to be either a writer or a botanist. Do you think that urge to be a writer is hereditary, like a poet gene, or do you think it’s nurtured and you've nurtured it?

SMITH

I definitely would not say that there is a poet gene. I’m the only person in my family who really did anything artistic, so I’m the anomaly. My son’s five now, but even as early as four, before he could write more than just his name, he took a writing notebook to preschool and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pencil case with a pen. I said, “Why are you taking a writer’s notebook to preschool?” and he said, “You never know when you might have an idea.” He’s heard me say that, because I carry around a notebook or talk into my phone. Even if he can’t write, he thinks his ideas are valuable. I find that really moving, and Violet is the same way. She’s a bookworm. I brought her up in a house that’s obsessed with reading. I praise her a lot for her ability to read and tell a good story.

She actually said, “I’ll study plants during the day and at night I’ll come home and paint.” And I thought, first of all, I love you, and second of all, what you need to be a scientist and a writer, maybe an artist—they’re curiosity, attentiveness. You have to be observant and quiet and patient and really plumb the depths of the thing. It made a lot of sense: yes, study the cactus and then paint it and then write a poem about it. I think the botanist thing has kind of slipped. She told me the other day that she wants to write mystery novels when she grows up. She loves mysteries. I told her, “You might be the only writer in this family that makes money. You should totally do that.”

POVLOSKI

You’ve spoken previously about the hawk as a talisman, something that brings you good luck. Was there ever an experience that you had where you were able to observe this in action?

SMITH

No magic has ever happened. I wish I could say, once I fell off the side of a cliff and a hawk came and lifted me up and carried me. That never happened. Growing up in Ohio, I used to do all of these backroad drives in high school, and every time I’d see a hawk, it was this amazing bit of wilderness. I feel the same way about deer and foxes. I see them fairly often. It’s an amazing thing to be able to live in a suburb or a city and see wild things.

So no, I don’t know what it was. It started in high school, and every time I’d see one I’d think, “It’s going to be a good day.” Now even when my kids see one, they’re like, “Hawk! It’s going to be a good day.” I don’t know why that bird more than others. . . . I’m very attached to crows also because they’re so smart. Birds in general. Somebody asked me last week, “What’s with all the birds?” Well, they’re the one bit of wilderness everyone gets to see all the time. Even if you don’t see deer or red foxes, you see birds, and they are wild. You might forget that because you see robins or wrens or sparrows or blue jays or grackles all the time. They’re wild animals you get to see regardless of where you live. We’re coexisting. And I love that.

My parents still get deer in their backyard even though they’re pretty deeply entrenched in the suburbs, and they still get herons and foxes. A creek runs behind their house in some woods, so I spent most of my childhood outside, using my imagination, collecting polliwogs and guppies and salamanders and just exploring.

It’s basically a stand of trees not much more than the width of this room, but when you’re five, it’s the woods. When you’re forty-one it's just the trees in your parents’ backyard. But yeah, I was an explorer and a reader, and I loved art, and I really just wanted to spend the summer inside with a book. Not much has changed. If I had to choose a vacation, I would choose a cabin in the woods over a beach any day of the week. That’s where I feel at home.

HERRMANN

Is your daughter the same way?

SMITH

 They’re both like that. But Violet just wants to read now. She’s reading To Kill A Mockingbird and I’m like, “Is that maybe too advanced?” She’s in third grade, but she seems like she’s really liking it. I figure if she has questions, she’ll come to me. We’ll see. She’s not as interested in being outside. But my son is obsessed. He wants to dig in the dirt and find bugs all day. He’ll bring them in to me. And every time I do the laundry I find acorns, rocks, dirt. His pockets are full of “nature treasures,” which is what he calls them. I’ve made the mistake of putting clothes in the laundry without checking the pockets before, and it’s like silly putty, stones, three rocks, three seed pods. I love that. That’s something I want to foster in them. That it’s all magic and it’s all around you, and you get to experience that all the time if you want to. So maybe you should go outside.

TAYLOR WARING

What were you curious about as a child?

SMITH

Oh my god, everything. I was probably not the easiest person to live with.

HERRMANN

Do your current curiosities come off in your writing?

SMITH

Yeah, I’m writing some poems right now that were inspired by phrases in other languages for which there is no English word. For example, there’s an Italian phrase for dreamer that translates literally as “head full of crickets,” which I find really fascinating. If you explain that someone is a dreamer and in their own head all the time, you’d say they have a head full of crickets. What a metaphor. And in Yiddish the same idea is luftmensch, which translates literally as “air-person.” So I’ve been researching foreign phrases, building poems off of that.

Many of the new poems have to deal with language as language, and I’ve been trying to think of why that is. A lot of the poems in Good Bones are grappling with what to make of the world—so much I’m unable to articulate. That’s the real trouble, and I think part of that inability to articulate is pushing me into exploring other languages and the idea of the untranslatable, or the things we struggle to translate for ourselves, which is sort of what metaphor is, right? It’s a way of translating ideas. I find myself writing a lot of—I won’t call them nature poems, but poems about botany, poems about plants and flowers, and different kinds of trees and things. Then I thought, “Why am I writing nature poems now of all times?”

Somebody always asks me, “What is the role of the poet in these times?” And probably the answer that they don’t expect is, “To write poems about goldenrod and ivy,” but maybe that’s it. It’s a resistance to having to write a poem about anything else. Love is attentiveness—this is the only world we have, so I’m going to pay attention to things that give me joy. I’m thinking of that Brecht quote: “One cannot write poems about trees when the forest is full of police.” I feel myself pushing against that: don’t tell me what my poems have to be about, you know? The trees are going to outlast the policemen, and it’s not the trees’ fault that the policemen are there, and I can write about the trees if I want to. And maybe the policemen will make a cameo, but it’s not my job to ignore the trees to write about the police. Maybe to not write the overtly political poem is a kind of political act in itself, and the freedom to write about what we wish and to not give our poems jobs outside of just being poems, which I feel pretty strongly about.

POVLOSKI

You said in an interview with Upright Magazine that a lot of your work is concerned with vision and revision, orientation and disorientation, your obsessions—could you speak more about that?

SMITH

Some of that has to do with still living in my hometown. I was saying this morning to my workshop that when you live in your hometown, these things become really important. Everywhere you go, you’re thinking, “Well, that used to be a. . . .” There are so many constants that I’m the variable, or my life is the variable. Being in the same place makes me notice changes in myself more than if I moved around a lot because then I’d be like, “Is it because I’m in a different place or because I have new friends or. . . ?” But no, it’s just me. I’m changing, and I know it’s me because I’m surrounded by the same people and the same place, so it's easier to tell those incremental differences. Thinking about Ezra Pound’s “make it new”—it’s a love/hate thing, staying in the same place.

Part of what I need to do to make it interesting is to never let it be the same place. That means always trying to see things that I didn’t see the day before or hear things that I didn’t hear the day before. That’s part of what I’m doing with my kids, constantly asking, “What does that bird sound like to you? What does that tree look like to you? If you noticed the way your shadow looks today . . . and look at my shadow touching your shadow.” I’m always trying to see things and re-see things. It’s a way of keeping things fresh when I could get really bogged down in the sameness of my experience. I feel like a lot of people resist the idea of rootedness. You know? Like, “Well if I move, this change or this experience will give me so much more to write about.” But I’m still in my hometown and I find there’s no lack of material. Part of it is that constant, weirdly vigilant attentiveness to things.

JOSH ANTHONY

Do you think that observance is something that isn’t taught as often as it should be?

SMITH

I don’t think it’s taught at all. Is it? I think research is taught, which isn’t the same thing, right? If you’re taught research methods, it’s not about noticing things; it’s about reading and inquiring. I don’t think we’re ever really taught to observe. We either grow up as kids who do it or kids who really don’t. I’m not going to be that old person who’s like, “Kids now on their phones!” because I’m always on my phone. I’m always checking email, so I’m not anti-technology. But whenever one of my students says, “I don’t know, I can’t get any ideas,” I’m just like, “Put your phone down and take a walk. You will find something. Do you hear that? Do you smell that?”

I think a lot of times we don’t spend enough time looking up. We spend a lot of time looking in our hands and in our laps and we don't spend enough time absorbing. It’s not something that’s taught at all.

I think about what people do when they need a break. People who work long hours want to go to the beach. They want to go to a cabin in the woods. They want to unplug. People talk about unplugging as if it’s something you can only do one week out of the year. We all have time for half an hour, even if it’s at lunch, where you leave your cubicle and you walk around outside and maybe you listen to music. I need it. It makes me feel better, and it brings me joy. And even if I weren’t writing, I think I would still need it. I don’t think poets need more fresh air than the average person.

But are we taught to be observant? I think kids are taught much more to be compliant than they are to be observant. I’m not trying to teach my kids not to be compliant, but I’m definitely teaching them to question before blindly complying. Questioning and observing are two things that if we’re not teaching, we’re not doing anybody any favors. Those are high priorities for me. I hope my kids’ teachers don’t mind. “Oh yeah, your mom’s the poet . . . that’s why you’re always asking, ‘But why? But why do we have to do it that way?’”

Actually, my daughter had poetry in school, and when the teacher asked her to write a rhyming poem, her hand shot right up. She said, “My mom’s a poet and not all poems have to rhyme.” Like, don’t poet-splain your teacher. She came home and said, “I told her!” and I said, “Okay, you’re right, Violet. You’re right, you’re right, simmer down. But some poems do have to rhyme. There are forms that have to rhyme, so if your teacher asks you to write a rhyming poem, that’s a valid assignment and you should still do it. But maybe your next poem will be free verse. Not all poems have to not rhyme either.” But I love that she felt like she could assert herself regarding poetry.

POVLOSKI

In another interview you said that, often, you start writing a poem because of a “seed”—a line of dialogue, an image. You’ve already talked about untranslatable language. Are there any other seeds that are developing in your brain? Is there one in particular that you could share with us?

SMITH

Well, I just finished a poem that I’ve been working on in some way, shape, or form for a few years. It’s not about Sandy Hook, but it references the idea of, “Why don’t we leave the flags at half-mast all the time?” I don’t understand why we even have kids go out into the snow in front of their elementary schools and move it down and up again when they just have to go back out the next week and move it back down. A couple days after Sandy Hook was my daughter’s birthday, and I had to drop her off at school and send her inside. I remember seeing the kids pulling the flag down, so I wrote some notes about what that felt like. Do the kids pulling down the flag to half-mast at an elementary school know that they’re doing it for kids who were shot at an elementary school? Probably not. They probably were like, “Flag Corps, you’re up!” and they sent them outside. I wrote that down, and I didn’t know what to do with it and so let it sit in a legal pad for two or three years. I just went back to it pretty recently and monkeyed with it for like a month and finally, finally finished it. Ilya Kaminsky just took it for Poetry International.

I’ve been working on wrapping my head around the idea for so long. How do you approach that idea? Of the things that we ask of our kids? Of what they know and what they don’t know. My daughter, I’m quite sure, doesn’t know that there’s ever been a school shooting. They have something called lock-down drills at her school in case a bad person gets inside, but I’m pretty sure based on things she’s said, she thinks the bad person’s there to steal computers or something. I don’t think she has any idea that the bad person could have a gun or that the bad person would want to hurt kids. And I’m not about to tell her that because I want her to go to school and not be afraid. But this is the kind of stuff, the high-stakes stuff, that as much as I would love to write about birds and trees, I can’t. Because I have to drop my kids off at elementary school where the flag is half-mast most of the time. For good reason.

A lot of this big stuff I have to sit with for a long time because I don’t want to bungle it. Somebody recently on Twitter was like, “Poets don’t have to be first responders.” You don’t have to write and publish a poem about a disaster the day after it happens. And I kind of laughed about it, but I think it’s true. We can be really clumsy about things if we’re not careful. Some poets do the political, post-disaster grief poem really well, even in the midst of it, but I think it never hurts to tap the brakes and take a breath and process it because some of this stuff is just so big.

ANTHONY

As I was reading The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, I kept reading hints and murmurs of “Good Bones.” Do you feel like you’ve been writing the same poem? Could you talk more about that?

SMITH

Yes, that’s so interesting. I didn’t realize that until the magic of the Internet, and someone posted “Good Bones” adjacent to a poem from The Well Speaks. And there was a hint of “Good Bones” in the last book: “What will you tell your son about this world? That children can be unzipped from the bellies of beasts? No one is out of danger.” Those are all cautionary tales, mostly, about bad things happening to children. That’s what fairytales are. So I think I was starting to go into that territory, and maybe that’s why “Good Bones” happened so fast. They say if you write something fast, it’s not because you were hit by lightning, but that stuff had been cooking in the back of your brain for a long time. Instead of saying it through the framework of fairy tales or some other persona or narrative, I think “Good Bones” was the first time I said it directly, as myself. There is no distance between the “I” and me in that poem; “life is short, though I keep this from my children”—that is how the poem started because that’s what I was thinking at the time.

I had my first child about halfway through The Well Speaks, and so suddenly the stakes went up. It all felt much more present and real to me. And when I was working on Good Bones, I had both of my kids. I was working out the same issues, just in the real world with real people and real stakes and without the . . . I’ve described it before as oven mitts—using persona or other received narratives as a distancing device for holding hot material without dealing with it in a really direct way. I was doing that through persona poems as far back as my first book, and then through a lot of third person narrative poems where I was writing about other characters in The Well Speaks.  Then something just happened and in Good Bones I was like, “I’m going write these poems as close to me as humanly possible,” and so for most of those poems I took the mask off. Which is what made those poems so scary to write.

ANTHONY

Do you think that unmasking had to do with having children?

SMITH

I do. So Good Bones has two narrative threads running through it. One is the poems that are close to me, the “I” poems, and the other poems are the “hawk and girl” poems, the “he she” poems, and those poems—I had like forty of them—I had been considering as a kind of a novel in verse. And then the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of their being in conversation with poems that were a little more contemporary and a little bit closer to me because a lot of the subject matter is overlapping. It was also a bravery test for me, like wanting to do something different. I’ve done the other stuff before, so how do I do it my way, but push myself a little bit? I felt a little bit backwards. I think a lot of people start out writing autobiographical poems, and their work gets more experimental or more elliptical. My last book was a bit pushed away from me and more esoteric, and in this book I just stripped it all down.

POVLOSKI

I wondered if you’re a batch writer.

SMITH

Like . . . series? Yes. Yes, I am. A lot of this started in undergrad, honestly, because I had deadlines. I’m not an every-day writer. I know some people are like, “Every day I write for an hour.” I do not do that. I try to do something every day in service of my writing, so that may be thinking, looking, listening, revising. It may be researching a magazine or sending something out. But it might not be working on a new poem. I just don’t quite work like that. So when I was in undergrad and I had to come to workshop, suddenly I had deadlines. I had to bring a poem in and share it. I thought, well what am I going to write about? And so I started working on series because it gave me a way of having something that I could pull from and do every week and know I always had a fallback. I did the same thing in grad school, which is how those Bible persona poems started.

“Delilah” was the first one I workshopped. It was based on a picture of my then-boyfriend having some woman cut his hair in Poland. He had really long dark hair. I was looking through some snapshots at his mother’s house, and there was a picture of this woman cutting his hair on a patio in Poland. I was like, oh, Samson and Delilah, which is why Poland is mentioned in a poem about Samson and Delilah, which otherwise wouldn’t make any sense. I had so much fun writing it. I thought, I’m going to do this again. I also think it helps us dive into our obsessions, to not write a one-off poem, but to really dig down into something, and ultimately, I end up being happy I did it because it helps me bring my books together when I have enough to make one. I’m always thinking, how can I pattern these throughout the book to make it feel like a book and not like just the sixty best poems I’ve written since my last book came out. A series is one way of creating an arc.

I like to work on a series, and I like to leaf it through the book. I think Disasterology is the only outlier, because one section is the movie-inspired poems and one section is other poems. If it had been a full length book, it wouldn’t be like that. In a chapbook there isn’t enough space to get away with that. But in a book, instead of having one chunk of the same thing and then another chunk of something else, I like the idea of having a series as support beams, a sort of scaffolding, and then you can leaf other things around them. I like that when I’m reading a book.

And let’s be frank: contest culture is brutal. When I’m editing books for other poets, I’m always thinking about the first fifteen pages. Because screeners and judges have a lot to do and a lot of manuscripts. What if you had a series of poems that you thought were really strong, and you put them in the front of the manuscript? The first fifteen pages might be the same kind of poem, over and over, which is great if that judge or screener happens to love that kind of poem. It is not great if they don’t. So hitting a few different major notes in the first fifteen pages, and yes, putting a lot of strong poems up front, is good. It’s not fun to see how the sausage gets made, but I do think, as poets, we have to think about this stuff.

ANTHONY

You mentioned the contest culture being brutal. I think a lot of us are just barely stepping into it now. So maybe you could—

SMITH

Buckle up. It is brutal. My first book, Lamp of the Body, was my MFA thesis with a couple of undergrad poems pulled in at the end, which my committee read and I don’t think realized I wrote them as an undergrad. When I left Ohio State, I sent out the book to like ten presses, at like twenty-five to thirty bucks a pop. I didn’t have that kind of money—who has that kind of money? We’re poets. And it won the Benjamin Saltman Prize, which was crazy fortunate, right? But it gave me a completely unrealistic idea of how easy it is to get a book of poems published.

The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison I sent out for almost five years. I think it’s a better book. It was a runner up or a finalist for every prize I sent it to: National Poetry Series, Cleveland State University, Barnard Woman Poets Prize, Green Rose, etc. It was like: bridesmaid, bridesmaid, bridesmaid. Thirty dollars, thirty dollars, thirty dollars. I don’t know if I broke even. I had one offer on it about halfway through that I ended up turning down because I didn’t like the distribution agreement. And I don’t regret that because I’m also not an academic, and I felt no pressure to publish. I really wanted to wait for a “jump up and down when I got the phone call” situation because I didn’t need it for tenure. I just wanted people to read the poems. So after five years, I got a call from Jeffery Levine at Tupelo that Kimiko Hahn had chosen it. One book got taken right away, and the next took almost five years.

ANTHONY

Were you editing the manuscript?

SMITH

I would add a couple new poems and then take a couple old ones out. This is going to sound so crazy, but it’s true. Near the end of the long nightmare, of me sending this book out over and over, I had a dream. And this is true. This is the magic, not the hawk. I had a dream that I took it back to basically draft one, and in the dream I was like, that was so smart, it was so much stronger before I started monkeying with it and putting in all the new poems and getting away from the original premise. I woke up in the morning, and I was like, “Oh that was so smart . . . I’m so glad I did that. Wait, I didn’t do that, that was a dream.” So I ended up actually going back in, taking out a bunch of the new stuff, going back to some earlier versions, and thinking about what made me write the book in the first place. I wanted to get back to some of the original integrity of the manuscript, with a few new poems at the end. That was the push. It came to me in a dream. I listened. And I think that was smart.

POVLOSKI

Has that happened ever again?

SMITH

No, never. Most of my dreams are terrible nightmares where buildings are falling on me. So if I ever get one about poems, I listen.

And then in the winter of 2015, I sent Good Bones to Tupelo, and in the spring they took it. And that was six months before the poem “Good Bones” went viral. It was called Weep Up, the name of the first poem in the book, even into cover design. Then, April of last year, the poem was on Madam Secretary, and a week or so later, Meryl Streep read it at the Lincoln Center. My press was like, “We need to talk about this.” It seemed to them a missed opportunity, so that’s when the book changed titles.

But yeah, the contest circuit is brutal. I describe it as a many chambered lock and each chamber is like a level of the review process—the first screeners, the second screeners, maybe the editors, maybe the final judge. To get your book to go all the way through, they have to line up just perfectly, and if one is slightly turned, your book won’t get through.

If I’m helping an organization screen, I’m not just sending along art that confirms my own aesthetic. We don’t need that. We should be sending on the most interesting, the most fully realized. Does this book deserve to be in the world? What’s the urgency of this book? Which book do you most want to see in the world? And, unfortunately, there’s usually only one, or maybe two, or maybe three, that get picked out of thousands of worthy manuscripts, good, whole, well-written, strong manuscripts. It’s heartbreaking. I don’t take it lightly because when I read for a press and I have to put something in the no pile, I’m putting that in the no pile remembering that somebody put years of their life into that manuscript, and you’re in charge of sorting it out. That’s a weighty responsibility. But yes, it’s brutal for all those reasons and more. I wish there was some other model. I wish more presses had open reading.

POVLOSKI

It’s really hard not to be swayed by the prestige culture in poetry sometimes, so I think that’s great advice. It seems like a lot of times we’re in competition to be acknowledged or to be published in what we consider fabulous, “prestigious” journals. That can be very discouraging.

SMITH

You know, it’s funny. “Good Bones” was published in Waxwing, which was then a small online upstart managed by two guys and a woman who have babies, who live in different parts of the country. It’s still relatively new. And the poem was rejected by a couple of, as you say, very “prestigious” places before they took it. But the prestigious places that rejected it were print journals. And none of this would have happened had one of those print journals published the poem. It wouldn’t have gone viral. Not as many people would have read it. It would have been a poem only read by those subscribers.

The older I get, the more interested I get in readership and sharing. Online journals do that in a way that some of those old-guard print journals can’t. They just don’t have the readership. And granted some are having online components now, or will share online. And some of them have strong social media presences, which is great. Now, if someone gave me a choice, I would rather have a poem online. Because it’s easier to share. I mean, isn’t it about having people read the poems?

POVLOSKI

Something you said—when you’re reading manuscripts, you’re looking for things that are most urgent for readership. What do you mean by that? Or what do you think is urgent right now?

SMITH

It could be anything. I’m never looking for anything in particular. That’s important to say because it might be easy to think that poems that are somehow grappling with our current moment should be considered more urgent than poems that aren’t, but I’m looking for the poems that are the best. And “best” can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But in the moment, can I not keep coming back to this poem? Can I not imagine that this person’s manuscript would sit for five years or ten years and not get published? Do I want to own this book and have it sit on my shelf? Do I want other people to hold this book? Do I feel like it’s important for me to help shepherd this thing into the world? Right? Because that’s what you get to help do whether you’re the final judge or whether you’re reading the slush. You’re one of those chambers in the lock. Whether I’m reading magazine submissions or book manuscripts, I’m always thinking, what needs to be out there? And it’s never the same type of poems. That’s what excites me the most. It might be really experimental—like the language is doing something that I never would have thought to do in my own—and it might be something political, and it might be something tender and elegiac. Maybe it’s that you know it when you see it.

ANTHONY

In talking about urgency, you might have answered this a little bit, but what makes a poem political? Is it just the urgency? Is it the topic? You write a lot of nature poems, but that can be a canvas for a reader to extract something political.

SMITH

They can come in different shapes and sizes. I think of a poem like “A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay about Eric Garner. That’s a very clear and needful and necessary poem. You know what it’s about. It’s not cloaking itself in anything else. Some of Danez Smith's poems  are so masterful, and handling super-hot, burning subject matter so well. I have a hard time doing that. When I think about political poems, if I try to do it, I worry I’ll bungle it. That’s the problem. A lot of us do. Part of the issue is that whenever we come to the page with an agenda—like, “I’m going to write a poem about school shootings, I’m going to write a poem about the need for gun control, I’m going to write a poem about race relations in the 21st century”—it’s so big that we’re giving the poem a job other than just being a poem.

ANTHONY

Instead of just observing.

SMITH

Yes. I think that’s the only reason I was able to write the poem about the flag being at half-staff. The only reason I gave myself permission to write that poem is because the seed for that poem was an observation about kids in winter coats standing in the snow, moving the flag down after Sandy Hook, at my daughter’s school. And thinking, I don’t know how to process this. What do they know? What are they telling my kid? And how do we do this? But I couldn’t have written that poem without that observation. If I hadn’t ever seen that image, I don’t think I ever would have accessed the poem because it would never be in my nature to write down. I really start with an image or a metaphor or an idea or a question or a problem, and then the poem sort of works itself out from there.

I might get to a political place based on whatever that image is, or a place that could be read as political, or timely. “Good Bones” was an example. I wrote that poem in 2015, long before the Pulse nightclub shooting. And I remember some reporters here and in the UK erroneously saying that it was written in response to the shooting, which was just not true. I never would have written a poem in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting. That’s not what I do. And I wouldn’t know how to do it except in a way that was really inelegant. After something bad happens, I want to cry, I want to donate to causes, and I want to act. But I don’t want to write a poem. To me, those are like different kinds of activism, and that’s not my wheelhouse—although, for some poets, it is.

What makes a poem political? In some ways, it’s how you read it. There were probably poems written during World War II that maybe don’t feel like political poems, but when you consider the time and space in which they were written, they take on a different kind of resonance. And I bet there are poems being written today that people will read in thirty years and feel like, “Oh, that’s got this all over it.” Disasterology was written in the beginning of the “War on Terror,” and that was the framework for why those doomsday poems were so important to me. We’re always writing from within the framework of our politics or fears or anxieties. We’re writing in our times, and for different poets and in different poems, it can express itself in different ways. Sometimes it might be about the police, and sometimes it might be about the trees.

ANTHONY

So The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is written pre-9/11, though a lot of people say it feels like a post-9/11 book because it encapsulates a lot of the anxieties built into that time. I was really young at the time of 9/11, and I think a lot of us here were too. Could you talk about the change that happened around that time?

SMITH

I grew up thinking that bad things happened other places. There’s a poem in Good Bones called “20th Century,” . . . “your horrors were far away and I thought I could stand them” is the line. That’s how I grew up. War doesn’t happen here. People don’t come here and attack us. We go there. That’s our M.O. It was such a weirdly vulnerable feeling to have that happen here. Everything was different—your feeling of safety in your own country.

It feels like a completely different world. It makes me a little bit sad that you don’t remember what the world was like before. Because I do. It was kind of nice. It was kind of nice to feel safe. Whether that was real—safety or perceived safety—is a totally other argument. Also, the privilege of feeling safe in your own country is something that many other countries have never had. We really got knocked down in that moment, in not a metaphorical way. So yeah, writing about those movies was a way of addressing some of those things. But again, I didn’t want to sit down to write a 9/11 poem. I didn’t want to write a Towers poem. At the same time, I didn’t feel, especially at that moment, that I could write poems about trees. It was really hard. I just didn’t know what to do. How do you write? Writing the end-of-the-world poems was a way of me writing my way through that initial shock. “Oh, so this is the world now.”

I think there’s a poem in that chapbook called “Green”—did it make the chapbook? I don’t know. It’s about the color code system and how green was the safe color code, but the reason that the color code system was needed was because there was no more safety. So they named green, but we’d already lived all the green we were ever going to get. Before we even knew it existed, the green that you had had until the fifth grade was gone, and we didn’t even know we were living in it, and we weren’t even soaking it up, because we didn’t know we had it. That poem was an elegy to the time we didn’t know was—we didn’t know we were on a clock. And maybe we should have. Maybe some of us did. But I didn’t know we were on a clock.

I wrote Good Bones before the election cycle. The world I’m talking about trying to love while I’m reading it now feels like “Trump’s America.” But I didn’t write those poems in Trump’s America. I didn’t even write those poems in Trump’s election era. I had no inkling that he was going to run for president when I wrote those poems. I just thought the world was a fraught, dangerous place, which it was; it’s just more fraught and more dangerous now. Those poems are speaking to a moment—like you’re saying The Corrections is speaking to a moment coming down the pike—that I didn’t even see coming. Now the book is out, and I’m traveling all over and reading from it. I say I’m trying to love the world, but my god, it’s a mess.

Poor green! We really should have enjoyed that more. Maybe in writing poems, we’re making our own little greens. I feel like all the time I’m trying to dig up some sort of artifact from the unspoiled past. And maybe that’s why birds, and that’s why trees. When everything else feels tenuous, there’s these things that were here before us, and before all of this stuff, and those things will be here after us. And somehow the serene permanence of those things I find really grounding in all this flag-hoisting mayhem of our current times.

POVLOSKI

Finding a kind of security through poetry.

SMITH

Yeah. Even in language. It’s an anchor. The only thing that’s been constant. I’ve had my kids for nine and five years, but I was writing poems before them. That love of language and also love of nature, really, love of the world, and love of family, whatever that looks like, have been things that pervaded and lasted through everything. I don’t know how to not include that stuff in the poems. That would feel really strange. To only be political, for example, and ignore what gives me joy. I really want to be able to glean some joy. We deserve it.

Issue 84: Rebecca Brown: The Willow Springs Interview

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Found in Willow Springs 84

May 19, 2018

POLLY BUCKINGHAM, J. NEWELL, GENEVIEVE RICHARDS, DANIEL SPIRO, & LEONA VANDER MOLEN

A CONVERSATION WITH REBECCA BROWN

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TO READ REBECCA BROWN'S WORK is to be led by a minimalistic and incantatory voice into a world simultaneously familiar and peculiar. Brown’s stories—true and fictional—are imaginative, obsessive, witty, often dark, and always brilliant. Through her exploration of themes such as violence, youth and aging, loss, and human connection, Brown is a master of blurring the lines between genres. In a review of Brown’s most recent book, Not Heaven, Somewhere Else, for the Seattle Review of Books, Paul Constant writes, “Aside from ‘genius,’ the other word I would use to describe Rebecca Brown is ‘elemental.’ Brown isn’t just a genius at words. She’s a genius at the invisible forces that bind words together. It feels dangerous and exciting, like if she puts her big brain to it long enough, she could completely rewrite the story of who we are.”

Rebecca Brown is a writer, artist, lecturer, curator, journalist, and performer. Her body of work includes collections of stories and essays, a modern bestiary, a memoir in the form of a medical dictionary, a fictionalized autobiography, a play, and a libretto for a dance opera. Her books include Not Heaven, Somewhere Else (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2018), American Romances, The Last Time I Saw You, The Dogs, The Terrible Girls (all with City Lights Books), and The Gifts of the Body (HarperCollins, 1995). Some of her books have been translated into Japanese, German, Dutch, Norwegian, and Italian. Her work has earned several awards, including the Boston Book Review Award, the Lambda Literary Award, a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, two Washington State Book Awards, and a Stranger Genius Award. She has also earned grants or fellowships to MacDowell, Yaddo, the Millay Colony, Hawthornden Castle, and the Breneman-Jaech Foundation. Her altered texts and installations have been exhibited in the Frye Art Museum, Hedreen Gallery, Arizona Center for Poetry, Simon Fraser Gallery, and Shoreline Art Gallery. Her work has appeared in magazines and journals in the USA, UK, and Japan.

We met with Rebecca Brown in her cozy Seattle writing studio, surrounded by books, windows, and endearing mementos, like her Edgar Allan Poe statuette, on a sunny Saturday morning. She showed us photos, gave us books to hold, and invited us into a little slice of her life while we talked about queer literature, collaboration, invisible illness, faith and rituals, violence, and Julian of Norwich.

LEONA VANDER MOLEN

You often write about experiences in fiction that are very close to home. I was wondering how you decide what genre you bring memories into and how that works when you’re writing it.

REBECCA BROWN

I think it’s mostly not a decision. Figuring out what something is in terms of genre or even in terms of theme for me comes pretty late in the process or retrospectively. But certainly in my earlier books there’s this urge to write something, wondering, what is this, and sort of figuring out the shape it’s going to take. My book of essays, American Romance—most all of those pieces someone asked me to write about something. There’s a piece in there called “My Western” about western movies and my father. Someone said, “Write something about movies or write something about the way movies see us.”  So I started writing about westerns, and it was like, oh wait a minute, I’m not just writing about westerns, I’m writing about my dad. So that came in gradually. I did a talk about E. M. Forster somewhere and then someone else said, “Can you write something about Aspects of the Novel for us?” So I’m writing about E. M. Forster and all this other stuff came up. I’m also writing about student/teacher relationships, and I’m writing about illicit love. So it kind of comes in sideways.

I’m also profoundly or puritanically moral: if you’re going to call something a memoir—like the famous story of Isabel Allende where she turned three sisters into one, that’s really significant—just say, “I’m making this shit up,” right? Or if you look at the classical novels like Joyce or Hemingway, they’re novels that are based on real life. Anyway, if I’m going to call something nonfiction, I want to be really clear about what’s nonfiction.

GENEVIEVE RICHARDS

So would you consider yourself to be a purist when it comes to truth in nonfiction? If it’s nonfiction, it’s 100 percent true?

BROWN

I would say more like 90 percent. The squirrel story that appeared in The Stranger happened right here in the studio. But in the story that appeared in the paper, it looked like it happened in the house. I’m not going to say that’s fiction. Really, who cares? But I’m not going to say I spent three years in prison when I spent three nights in prison. You know, that James Frey thing. I actually had this profound moral dilemma more than twenty years ago. My book The Gifts of the Body, about being in homecare, is very closely based on my life. But some characters are composites or invented; the arc I made up. In the book, the girl’s boss, who’s a straight woman, gets AIDS. That never happened in my real life. So that’s a novel. But at one point somebody wanted to publish it in translation if we could call it a memoir. I’m like, would I do this if it could be translated and get lots of sales and money? And I couldn’t. And then, fortunately, the decision was taken away from me because they didn’t want the book anyway.

There’s so much going on now, especially in American writing, about authenticity. We’ve lost respect for the imagination or the craft of, “Oh my god, someone really put that together beautifully.” It’s like, how bad was your life, rather than what kind of artful truth can you get from it. So I’m old fashioned on that.

One of the things I do look at directly in nonfiction is memory. In the story “A Child of Her Time” in American Romances, there’s a scene where the girl, it’s me, is talking to her mother: “Oh I remember this, I remember this,” and her mother’s like, “No, that didn’t happen.” It was so important to me, but she’s like, “Well that didn’t happen.” Why do we make memories certain ways? In an essay in The Stranger, there’s a scene where I’m saying something, and my wife is like, “That’s not what happened.” I’m like, “What?” and she’s like, “Honey, that didn’t happen.” I’d made up in my mind that I’d done this really stupid thing, and she’s like, “That didn’t really happen. You felt really bad, but you didn’t do that stupid thing.” Dealing with the issue of why we tell ourselves certain stories and what are the stories we want to project to other people is interesting to me.

DANIEL SPIRO

The Gifts of the Body has a really interesting structure. I’m wondering how you came to that structure—if it emerged organically as you were writing it or if you had it in mind when you started out.

BROWN

Organic sounds like it just kind of came together. But putting that book together was so hard. I worked as a homecare aid, a bunch of people died, and then I got a writing fellowship to go away to write another book that I proposed, but while I’m away I’m writing letters to Chris, to whom I am now married, about all these memories of people who’d died because I’m away from Seattle and I’m not with my buddies in our grief. I’m like, oh I remember this time, I remember this time. And it’s like, oh god, shit, I’ve got to get to work on my book, and all I’m doing is writing about these AIDS people. So I started thinking, why don’t I make them little stories? Some of them were in the first person, some were in the third person, some were present, some were past, some of them were kind of shaped like . . . there’d be an incident, like the incident of the guy with the bath and the water, and there’s this long, lyric passage of water and lakes and birth and then back to another narrative thing about this guy and then this long, lyric thing—so really a different kind of shape—before we had the words “lyric essay,” boys and girls. And then it was like, I think I want to make a book. How do I make a book?

There was a lot of thinking about what I wanted to do after I’d written a bunch of stuff. And then at some point I had to make decisions, because this chapter is so good in third person and this one is so good in first person, and you can’t have it both ways. It was really important for me to have unexpected people get AIDS, like an old white woman from transfusion and a young, white, straight, married woman. And have that surprise of death. Because we all think, oh yeah, beautiful, young gay men die, oh that’s too bad. And then the New Testament—which is my religious practice, Christian—the New Testament has this thing about the gifts of the spirit. The gifts of the spirit are peacefulness, et cetera. But this is about the gifts of the body. This is like living in the body. So that’s how the structure came up. The chapter titles are like a devotional book in the New Testament.

A lot of people are like, “Oh my god they just flowed, it must have been so easy.” Oh no no no no. But no. You have no fucking idea. Because you want all the backstage stuff to become invisible. You have to make it seem inevitable through labor. The Terrible Girls is in some ways structured similarly. It’s not a collection of separate stories, but you could read each chapter separately.

VANDER MOLEN

Speaking of The Terrible Girls, and also The Children’s Crusade and a couple other books, you do this narrative style where you have one character addressing a “you” the whole time, and sometimes it’s to a very specific character, like Stan in The Children’s Crusade. How do you see that working in your books? Why do you choose that narrative style?

BROWN

It’s not decisive. Some of the pieces I wrote when I was a graduate student, and they were just obsessively written. They started as these obsessive interior monologues directed at this one person, “How could you do this to me?” The first one, where that really kind of happened, was called “Forgiveness,” and it starts, “When I said I’d give my right arm for you, I didn’t think you’d ask me for it, but you did.” Obviously it’s metaphorical, but at the time I was really asking, “How could you do this?” In the wisdom of forty years, it’s obviously not a one-sided thing. It wasn’t like, I’m going write something in accusing second-person and really convey abjection. I’m going to write a letter that I’ll never send. I was getting a lot of this stuff out to this person or about this person. It was eruptive, not intentional. And then it kept going.

Really it’s about intimacy, right? In The Children’s Crusade, she’s looking for her brother and at some point he’s gone, but she’s still addressing him in her mind. She’s looking for the lost boy, whatever that is. It’s really about longing to connect or communicate with a specific individual and then expands to ask, what are you really asking for?

My latest book, Not Heaven, Somewhere Else, is structured like that. My publisher put “stories” on the cover. “Stories by Rebecca Brown.” And then a couple friends said, don’t do that because people will dip in and out. The second American edition of The Terrible Girls they renamed “a novel in stories” so that people wouldn’t just dip in and out, but read it from the start to the end, right? How do you indicate that without saying this is a novel, when it’s not? I think we’re going to call this new book a “cycle,” like a song cycle or a story cycle. The last piece of the cycle is a second-person narrative address. At the end of the book, this is a directive or it’s an imperative or it’s an intimacy.

POLLY BUCKINGHAM

Can you speak to collaboration and having art in your work?

BROWN

I’m looking around to see if there’s any result of that. I wrote a libretto for a dance opera, where we—the dancer, the composer, and me—all went up to Centrum for four days to hash this thing out. And I’ve done work with visual artists. Some of these books over here are books of mine. This little book collaboration I did with a painter friend of mine, Nancy Kiefer, was translated into Japanese last year. And there is an issue of a magazine called Golden Handcuffs. The editor, Lou Rowan, asked Fay Jones for some studies and then invited writers to respond to these visual works of hers and write about them. And here are these bookscbefore they were called “erasures” I was doing the same thing, but I called them “cut and paste.” And this is a whole book, The Mortals, where I painted on every page in the book after picking out words to say what I wanted. That was shown at the Frye Art Museum and Hedreen Gallery and different places. I love working with other people.

VANDER MOLEN

You do a lot of hybrid work. Obviously, all genres are fair game with you. Is there anything you haven’t tried but want to try? I didn’t even know you did poetry, until I found some poems online.

BROWN

That’s so weird—I never think of myself as a poet. There was a period a couple of summers ago that I was in a fucking state, and so somehow, I ended up writing a sonnet a day for a week or so, and I had this great feeling of, “Well, that’s something I’ve never done!” And in this new book there are a lot of pieces that are short lines—they look like little quatrains, so I guess they’re poems. I did a sort of one-woman performance show at Northwest Film Center several years ago. It was really fun. There are at least two more books I want to do. And maybe a third. I’ve got these four essays about the seasons, and I would love for them to be a little book. Or maybe they’d be part of a book of essays. I’m working with Matthew Stadler, who does Fellow Traveller books, on a collection of essays to come out next year. He’s an amazing editor, thinker, and friend. I can’t wait to be part of his list. Roberto Tejada is also working on a book with him to come out next year.

J. NEWELL

When I think of a structure where you start writing and then things piece themselves out and you have to bring them all together, that seems like The Dogs. It doesn’t feel like you wrote it linearly.

BROWN

At. All. The opening of the book is, “One night I saw a dog in my apartment.” Okay. So the night I saw the dog in my apartment in my mind, up on 17th and Madison, was in 1985. Between ’85 and ’98, that was always the next book I was going to write. I was like, I’m going to write this book of the dogs.

It took so many shapes, and there were hundreds of pages. For a long time it was this travel narrative on a bus. And the dogs were driving the bus, and they were going through the desert and the mountains. It was hundreds of pages of stuff, like all this research on dogs—Italian dogs and Renaissance and English dogs. Just tons of shit. I edited so many versions of that book. And then it got smaller and smaller and smaller and I had all these little pieces I was trying to put together of this narrative. I’ve read a lot of medieval literature. I really like the medieval Christian visionaries, the insane, physically and mentally violent images. And that’s the shape of this book. This book is not a novel. It’s not a road trip. It’s not “on the road with the dogs.” But that took years on and off. And I had boxes of drafts of a long bus trip on the road with the dogs book. You wouldn’t recognize it. So that came really retrospectively, too.

And then at some point, like The Gifts of the Body or Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary, in the final shaping of the chapters, oh my god, this vision in which words were illustrated came, and once that was there I was like, now I know how it fits together. So it was a very long process. And when it really finally clicked, it did. But there were certainly many times before it that I thought, it’s clicked, but it really hadn’t yet. But I do think the final shape now is the right one. And these pieces weren’t written in order. The chapter about “I did not kill the child in the garden” came about two thirds of the way through the writing of it.

NEWELL

A lot of people have tried to dissect that book in terms of allegory, and everybody seems to get a slightly different meaning out of it. I was wondering how you felt about that, and then a follow-up question, how do you feel about dogs?

BROWN

Well, we have cats, as you know, and we have squirrels. Dogs are fine. I love playing with them and seeing them on the beach. But we don’t actually have a dog.

Allegory is such an interesting idea. Historically, when you tell an allegory, it’s because you can’t say something directly, like, let’s go have sex. So many of the Christian allegories are about penetrating the rose garden with your lance and your spear. Highly imaginative literature is about opening things up for us. I wasn’t exactly sure what the dogs were. Is it me fighting with God? Is it me hating God and God hating me? Is it living with depression? I’ve lived with severe clinical depression, and it’s like, you’re in or you’re out of it. Is it that? There’s part of the book that’s clearly about being a female with a female body in a male world—you know, a woman is a bitch, a dog, and then how does that relate to men being wolves? All of that, the religious side of it, the medical side of it—what is it? It’s the sum of all those things.

In my experience in my apartment, it wasn’t a psychotic break. It was just like, oh shit. I wasn’t crazy. I knew something bad was going on in my head, I was aware something was fucked. But I wondered, why was it this big, black dog? Then dogs kept going in my imagination. I wasn’t actually seeing things, but I felt like I was seeing things. The mystics actually write really well about modes of perception, seeing bodily, seeing spiritually; they understood it.

Churchill was also a depressive, and he saw black dogs—that’s what he called his depression, black dogs—and, um, Kafka had black dogs and mice, and in the Catholic church there’s an order of preachers started by and named after Saint Dominic, also known as the domini canes; i.e., the Dogs of God.

The thing about allegory is that it can be read so many different ways. That complexity really appeals to me. People have different views of it, and that’s great. Even if they’re completely off the ledge with it, I’m like, whatever.

BUCKINGHAM

I’ve taught “The Girl Who Cried Wolf,” and students all have different interpretations. One—and it connects to The Dogs—is that it’s about psychiatric illness. And how it’s invisible.

BROWN

An invisible disability. And specifically with “The Girl Who Cried Wolf,” the phrases “there, there, it’s fine” and “oh honey, the rest of us aren’t upset.” And it’s like, I know. I know you’re not upset, just patronizing, as if invisible disabilities don’t exist. “The Girl Who Cried Wolf” is in Not Heaven, Somewhere Else. For a while I considered “The Girl Who Cried Wolf” as the title of the book, but with that title it would have leaned more towards fairytale and violence, and I wanted it a little quieter. Now the title seems really right for it.

That’s the thing about allegory, it should open up possibilities, and not say, “Bing! You got it, that’s it.” I went to a reading one time and there was this one person who read one of my stories, and I just couldn’t believe her interpretation, and I was like, hmm, wow, thanks, I guess? But if you put it out there, to a degree it’s yours, but to a degree it’s not. Again though, it’s really flattering that people read your work and think different things.

VANDER MOLEN

In a lot of your books you put your characters through hell—literally take their arms off, sores just won’t heal, bleeding all over the bed. There’s a lot of assault, including sexual assault, and I was wondering how you chose certain actions to happen to characters and how they furthered the story?

BROWN

I have a violent imagination. We live in a really violent culture. And I think also as a woman—you know there’s this thing that women aren’t supposed to express anger—I think some of that writing comes partly from holding in anger, partly from imagining anger as a way of getting through something. But again it’s not a choice. Where did the image of pushing the person down the disposal come from? I don’t know. Where did the image of pulling the walker out from the old lady and stepping on her face until she died come from? I don’t know. But clearly there’s something in me that’s got an extreme imagination and sometimes that violence is extreme—and something about physical violence expressing emotional pain, emotional violence.

BUCKINGHAM

There’s an interplay between what’s interior and exterior. I just read that piece about the kids playing war, “Trenches,” and in some ways it’s a commentary, certainly, about the world in which we live, and on the other hand, it’s all interior.

BROWN

Right, right. Kids! And the sort of ease with which, dear God, the violence, we don’t even think about. There’s torture. Like every single fucking movie I see, there’s a torture scene. When did this happen?

VANDER MOLEN

Do you worry it will turn people off from your work? A lot of times the actions are working in the story really well, but readers might have a hard time with that.

BROWN

There are so many books out there, and very few people read. And if they don’t like your work, they’re going to read something else. Obviously my work isn’t for everyone, but whose is? The only people forced to read your work are students. I get a little worried when I think, for example, about this new book: It’s a little too weird for these people, a little too Christian for these people. Maybe I should just publish twenty copies of it. I can’t really read this out loud there, and if I’m reading with so-and-so, this would upset them, and this is a little bit too woo-woo. . . . That’s the place where I am in my life. It’s like, you’ve written all these books and you’ve kind of made some money, but not really. I’m still teaching half-time. Didn’t get the big reviews, didn’t get the big grants. Hell, I could’ve written different kinds of books, but actually I couldn’t have. Because people say, “Oh those books are so easy to write,” and it’s like, no, you go try to write a well-done, mainstream, well-plotted, character-rich book: that’s hard. And they’re different kinds of skills. Just because you can do one thing, doesn’t mean, “Oh, I could write something if I just lowered my standards.” One, it’s not lower standards, and two, it’s really different.

VANDER MOLEN

You mentioned with The Dogs that you had this image of a black dog in your apartment and how that really inspired you. Were there any other occasions where you were inspired by something outside of yourself?

BROWN

A couple times. Sometimes I’ve had things like, I hear a sentence, and I don’t know what it is or what it means, and I just follow that sentence. Like that sentence, “I did not kill the child in the garden,” which clearly has a rhythm to it, but also it has this mythic, like, woah! What’s that? “One night I saw a dog in my apartment”—same kind of thing. And in a book that I would like to finish and have be my next book, I remember being at the gym one time and I saw this little picture in my head of me on a raft on the Nisqually River. And then I wrote a story from that. A lot of times I’ll hear a part of a phrase and it’s very aural and it’s very rhythmic and like, what is that? What is that? I just try to follow it. Not that you can call up or demand that kind of thing.

BUCKINGHAM

I was wondering about that relationship with readership and publishing. Because you’ve published with a lot of really interesting, cool presses. I’m thinking the London presses—Brilliance Books, Picador, Granta Books—and City Lights and Seal Books, and I know you did handmade books.

BROWN

And my next publisher is Tarpaulin Sky, which is basically one guy, a former student. Small press guy. Here are some of his books. And he has this print magazine. They’re beautifully done books. A really interesting list. But you’re not going to find them in bookstores. There’s so much interesting publishing going on. And so much publishing that I have no interest in at all. So who do we write for, who reads this, how do we access these books? It’s a funny thing.

One of the agents I sent my work to said, “I love your work, it’s really beautiful but I can’t make money. I can’t represent it, but you might think of sending it to City Lights.” So I sent it to City Lights. This was the early ’90s. The editor there was a woman named Amy Scholder, and she said she had been looking for a lesbian writing interesting work for years. There was a lot of lesbian writing around, but it was much more mainstream, traditional storytelling. She was really interested in my formal stuff and the emotional violence. They did like six books of mine, and then they turned this last one down. So then I sent this manuscript to probably four or five different people. I have an agent of record, but I’ve placed my last books on my own—the books don’t make much money. I do read a lot of small presses. And having been involved in this world for thirty-five years, I’ve met different people, and there’s certain lists I really like. Do you guys know Dorothy Press? Phenomenal. Run by Danielle Dutton in Missouri. She publishes two books a year. Most of the books are by women, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful list. I sent it to them. I sent it to Hawthorne Books in Portland. Lovely woman there, Rhonda Hughes. And they all had great reasons for rejecting my book. And I’m like, “Makes total sense, let’s keep in touch, love you guys!” It doesn’t kill me. I’ve published a bunch of books already, and I’m sixty-three. So I just send it to presses I’m interested in.

NEWELL

The queer lit genre has become almost segregated; in bookstores it has its own section, its own shelf. Do you think it’s necessary for it to have its own section, or do you think it can be included in the wider genre of fiction?

BROWN

Being a lesbian writer in the ’70s, there was no section. There was no nothing. So we had gay and lesbian bookstores because they weren’t in the mainstream. And then they were in the mainstream, but only in a certain section. It’s so much more open now that there are actually queer characters in mainstream books in a way there weren’t before. Alan Hollinghurst can get some national book award or National Book Critics Circle Award, and he’s gay.

Anytime you’ve got hyphenated literature—Black-American literature, Chicano literature, women’s literature, queer literature, Northwest literature—on the one hand, it makes it less than, hyphenated means less than. And on the other hand, you go in a bookstore, and you think, I want to read something by a Northwest writer. Sometimes the sectioning really helps. “My grandchild is coming out and I want to read a book about transgender youth. Is there a section for that?” “Yeah, here you go, Grandma. Here’s some books to bring home to your transgender grandkid.” So it can definitely go both ways. But as a lesbian who was writing lesbian work in the early ’80s, that work wasn’t in the mainstream for a long, long time. On the one hand: “one of the best African-American writers of our time”—is someone going to say that about Toni Morrison? No, Toni Morrison: one of the best writers in America, or one of the best writers in the world. But you also want to have something where it’s just like, I don’t have to read through 500 titles before I come across one title by a Chicano author. So you say, “Is there a Chicano author section?”

I remember in the early ’90s when I was teaching at the extension at the University of Washington. I was an out lesbian and, at that time, the only out gay person teaching. At one point, somebody dropped the class because she was like, “I’m not here to learn gay literature,” and I was like, “Okay great, you probably don’t want to be here, that’s fine.” But then there was this incident in the class. A young lesbian says, “I just want to write literature. I don’t want to be categorized,” and I was supposed to say, what? You think I wanted to be categorized? As a lesser-than, hyphenated writer? I would say to adult people in this class, “Let me see a show of hands of people who’ve read. . . .” And then I named like ten gay and lesbian authors, and nobody in the class had read any of them. They were like, “I would read that,” like they had nice intentions and didn’t want to not read books by gay people, but I was like, “But do you?” I’m just saying what the reality is.

On the other side, I teach at the university up here, and I’m the only lesbian person on the faculty, which is fine—it’s a small faculty—but, over the course of the semester, about two-thirds of the way through the semester, there will almost always be at least two really thoughtful, nice, straight, white guys who come into my office and will be like, “Someone called me out. . . .” They won’t say it, but they’ll really be asking, “Did you find this portrayal of this woman offensive?” These straight white guys have not been hyphenated—they’re just targets in academia these days. So I end up actually working with a lot of these poor men because I’m able to assure them that in these particular projects, no, you’re not being offensive just because you are a guy writing about a woman in some of your work. Like, if you’re writing a story about the real world, there’s probably going to be different kinds of characters in your story, right? They’re not all going to be Mother Teresa. It’s just a really tricky time about, um, more “identity-er than thou.” It’s a really, really tricky time.

SPIRO

You mention your religion a lot. I was wondering how your faith plays into your writing process. I’m Jewish and it plays a central part in my writing.

BROWN

I think both Christians and Jews, from what I know, and maybe people of other faiths, have ideas about the word and the flesh. And the idea of the living word and storytelling and action, the necessity of passing these stories down, is profound. It’s profound. And God is that which we can’t see, so we have to tell stories. God has been around longer than us, so we have to use the stories of our ancestors to perceive this kind of divine mystery. Story-carrying and story-making and word and imaging is really a piece of that. I’ve been reading this book Walking on Water: Reflections of Faith and Art by Madeline L’Engle. She’s such a good writer, and I think whether one is a person of faith or not, the thing about the responsibility of the writer in the world and the importance of writing is that it is an act of faith. You write stuff, and one, maybe you’ll never finish it; two, maybe no one will ever read it; and three, you may be self-indulgent. But you just do this thing as a way of self-knowledge and interaction with the world. I’ve been able to think about making art and trying to be aware of the divine as tied up together. With The Gifts of the Body and with The Terrible Girls, there’s this thing of taking a body out of the ground. There’s a bearing and lifting up a lot. And with The Dogs, there was a child lifted out of the ground and placed in a river and going towards the light. Those images happen a lot in Christianity; there’s a lot of drawing on imagery of light and water and darkness and burials that has always been really important to me.

About six years ago, I was fully received into the Roman Catholic Church. Obviously, there are things I disagree with about the dogma of the mainstream Church—Catholics don’t have female priests, there is doctrine against gay marriage. There’s the awfulness of the sex abuse crisis and cover-up. All of that is there. But I guess it’s kind of like being an American. Am I pro-Trump? Am I anti-immigrant or a white nationalist? No. But I stay in America despite that crap and for the good stuff. Chris and I are lucky to have found two very progressive Catholic parishes. And for me the notion of storytelling, going to Mass to hear one story from the Old Testament and one from the New, it’s like hearing the old stories again. It’s like a reading and then dinner together after. And saying we’re trying to come talk and eat together in peace and mercy—it’s just profound. There’s things like going to the altar, a really simple thing, but something happens there that I don’t understand but that is good. The big stuff in life we don’t really understand, we just have it and are grateful.

BUCKINGHAM

Do you think the occult nature of Catholicism attracted you?

BROWN

You know, some of the rituals I really love. And certainly the necessity of ritual. In our community recently, we had three funerals right after the other. It was brutal. Fucking brutal. There was one young person who was disabled, a ninety-four-year-old woman who had a great long life, and a sixty-four-year-old who just fell over—boom—from a heart attack. And we all gathered there, and we all had the meal, and the priest sprinkled the water, and there was the incense, and we were just all like, okay, here’s stuff we don’t understand. We’re really sorry, and we’re going to say the prayers we’ve been saying for 2,000 years, and we will see you in heaven, or not, but we will remember you in this way.

Everybody dies. But in a community with sacraments, it’s not like they just die, and we go home and watch TV. We come together, and we say the old words and water and wine and song. One thing about structured religion is having other people to help you along. Of course, the downside is having other people tell you what to do, you know, don’t be gay, don’t be a woman, have this kind of sex but not that kind, all that, which I guess a lot of structures have.

But there was something about it, you know? I love classical music. I love classical art. That’s very Catholic, all of that western culture stuff, and then once a week, I go to a hospital and I take Holy Communion with people. Most of these people are in trouble—I mean, they’re in the hospital. But they want this, and they want to be with their family and say the old words they know. It’s this profound thing—we’re going to hold hands and say the words and eat this little thing together, that kind of ritual. There’s something bigger than us. Some people don’t think so, but I do. I’m sure there’s something greater than heaven or earth, as the philosophy goes.

SPIRO

Do you have rituals when you write?

BROWN

Not really. I don’t write every day. I have long periods where I don’t write, months of not writing. I forgot this, but my friend asked, “Do you remember two years ago when you said you were done writing?” And I said, “No.” “And how about a year ago?” “No.” I always think I’m done writing and then something else comes out, but no I don’t have any rituals with my writing. I have conditions that are better for the writing. I have this studio, and Chris is retired now, but when she was at work, I had this very open head space. I’m just very porous. I’m very aware when I’m not the only one in the house. Last week I was in my office on campus on a Friday and there was no one around. It was perfect. Solitude is good.

SPIRO

Are there any biblical stories you draw inspiration from again and again?

BROWN

Just literally and simply the story of bringing people back to life. People are dead and they come back. I think of it a little like the downside of bipolar depression, the feeling of, “That’s it, I’m done, no more”—the idea that there’s life after death, and then asking, was I really that dark? What was I worried about? This chemical lifting of light after dark. And the story of Jacob wrestling with the angels—it’s like, who are you? I can’t leave until I know this thing. Who are you, who am I, what’s the name?

Another story that’s incredibly troubling for me is the story of Abraham and Isaac. If you love me, you’ll kill your son for me, and it’s like, no way! If that’s the kind of god you are. It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around that, but I know it’s a story of faith. But don’t ever ask somebody to do that. There’s this book, New Animals, by Nick Francis Potter from Subito Press. They do really great work in Colorado, and there’s this story in there called “Oops, Isaac.” The angel in the story shows up and tells Abraham, don’t do it. In this story, the angel gets lost on his way to Isaac, “Oh, sorry, Isaac.” It’s great—don’t give the wrong angel the job, cause he’s like, “Sorry! Sorry!”

Also the story of Paul: he goes from being really sure and really right and pure and turns around like, “Oh what have I done? I’ve got to stop persecuting people.” And he doesn’t become perfect, he is still kind of awful sometimes. And the one with Jesus at the well and the Samaritan woman—they were so flirtatious. What kind of water do you have? What kind of water do you want? What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here. Well, neither are you. The whole idea that Jesus abdicates the role of being a big Jewish patriarch, a man with a wife and a bunch of kids and a father of a nation. No, for him family is going to be not a wife and biological kids but people who try to be merciful and kind and good to one another; a family of kindred feeling.

RICHARDS

You said that one of the stories you’re most interested in is bringing the dead back to life. I had a question about the moral issues you face whenever you want to write about deceased people in your own life. You’ve said you’re a purist—obviously, you don’t want to make up lies. If you write about the living, you’re able to send them a copy and get their consent before it’s sent out and published, and they can say, “Tweak this. I don’t want people to know my jean size.” But if they’re deceased, they can’t do that. How do you come to terms with that?

BROWN

That’s a great question. I’ll just use a couple anecdotes. In The Gifts of the Body, when I started doing the AIDS work, I totally went not as a writer. Partly, I went into that work because I was sick of writing and the writing world. But one of my clients found out I was a writer and he was like, are you going to write about me one day, and I’m like, no, this is not what I do. Not what I do. But he was like, are you going to write about me one day? Are you going to write about me? So in some ways I felt like he was commissioning me, and the book is partly dedicated to him. I really tried to honor all the people there and not be smarmy about any of them, and it was fiction.

I wrote a story called “The Widow” which is in The Stranger. It’s about a woman who dies of cancer and her husband doesn’t know what to do. It’s a really sad story. My best pal died many, many years ago and her husband had said to me, “If you ever want to write anything, please do.” As I’m writing this thing, I asked him if he wanted to read it, and he was like, “I trust your writing, but if you want me to read it I will, whatever you want to do.” It wasn’t just the story of my friend dying; it was a story about loss and grief and friendship and love. It’s called a story, and the names are changed. But that’s all. Same thing with writing about my mother. That book, Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary, began after my mother died. I did the eulogy at her memorial service, and then my family, who was there, said, can you give us a copy of the eulogy, and did you write anything about when you were taking care of your mom? And then we made this book. When the book was published, my mother’s sister and her husband—she really loved her sister—came to the big opening, and we gave them a copy of the book. It was a real family thing. And so I feel like I try to do that honorably.

I was writing about them and I was writing about me, but I was also writing about the experience, what happens to someone after people die, what you remember and what you don’t remember. To the degree that I’ve been able to ask people, I have, and I think otherwise I’ve tried to honor things as much as I can and not just tell tawdry stories.

I’ve put a lot of my grief about my mom into that book. And there was also a kind of retrospective forgiveness of my father, who was not a bad man—he didn’t beat me or abuse me or anything—he was just a troubled guy not cut out to be a husband or a dad. This book is about embracing and forgiving him and getting beyond that. It’s really helpful to not suppress-contain, but to hold-contain grief. Art as a container for grief can be really helpful. Different friends have said, “I read this book a year after my mom died, and it helped.” Or, “I read this after my friend’s mom died, and it helped me understand my friend.” And that’s good that it can do that. That’s good.

 BUCKINGHAM

I’d love to hear more about the level of mysticism in your work.

BROWN

Do you know the name of the first named woman who ever wrote a book in the English language that we know is written by a woman? Not anonymous, but the name of the woman who wrote the first book in the English language? Julian of Norwich. 1374. Her book is called Revelations of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings. She was living in Norwich. She has a profound illness for three days. They think she’s dead or almost dead. And she has sixteen visions. And then she just describes them—what I was talking earlier about the mystics, bodily seeing, spiritual seeing, mental seeing—she talks a lot about that. She’s really psychologically adept about levels of perception and awareness. And she’s also really bodily. She describes being sick, and paralyzed, and hot and cold, and then she has these sixteen visions, in the course of a day, like May 9, 1374, or around then. And they’re all of Jesus, Jesus bleeding, Jesus whatever, so they’re graphic and gory. She writes little visions of what she saw and then she writes a whole chapter about what it means.

The whole thing about bodily violence, physical violence, and sexual violence: the mystics are all about that. They’re really about the body as a site to try to describe what’s going on in your mind. The violence of your mind is described as getting your head cut off. Or having things gouged into you, or having flowers blossom out of you. Right? That stuff is hugely important to me: Julian; John of the Cross; Catherine of Sienna; The Cloud of Unknowing. They’re just these bodily, intense, deep images that are trying to describe the ineffable. That which cannot be named.

When I turned sixty, I flew myself to England for a week by myself to see Julian’s church, and when I was received in the Catholic Church, I took the name Julian as my confirmation name. I wrote the people at the Children of Norwich church—there’s a little nun’s house next door—and I said, “I want to come to your church. Can I come hang out with you?” It’s this big sixteen-room place, and it was me and one nun. And I’m like, “So, can we watch TV?” The church at Norwich, where Julian wrote this book, is still there. Basically, it’s like a hole in the ground, and they say they built a church around it. I was in the church every day, and one day I closed the inside door behind me, and plaster fell off the outside door. Gasp! Oh my god! Of course, I stole the plaster.

Anyway, that stuff is tough to describe. For me, it’s one of those things about religion versus philosophy, or even psychology. In philosophy and psychology you get the idea that they believe they can explain things. And religion ultimately goes back to, “Actually, we can’t explain this. Therefore, we have mystery, therefore we have ritual, because you really can’t explain this shit.” That’s the appeal to me. To just acknowledge we won’t get it. There’s something we won’t get.

BUCKINGHAM

What’s interesting in what you’re talking about, and when I think about like Joseph Campbell, or the Greek notion of psyche, is that it’s so male-dominated. But you’re talking about female practitioners.

BROWN

Exactly, and particularly in Christianity, the men were the scholars, so they were in the monasteries, they were reading the old texts, and there was this blossoming of females outside the men’s academy, having their own separate female world of education and music and language, because they weren’t studying the scholastic stuff. And Julian’s really big on the motherhood of God. She talks about Mother and Father God, and she talks about the blood from Jesus’s side as actually like a mother giving milk. They’re really about the nurturing-ness of the body. Really profound, whole thinking. Great stuff. She didn’t believe in hell. She couldn’t wrap her head around a god who would send anybody to hell. Theologically, she’s ultimately an optimist and had this profound experience. Her big line is, “All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.”

Plus, she wrote this one book in her life, but she wrote it twice. It took her twenty years. I can get behind that, right? You live in a fucking cell alone, writing this same book twice—Jesus Christ.

RICHARDS

She lived to be really old, too. The back of the book says she’s like seventy-two?

BROWN

She was old for back then. Yeah, yeah. On the other hand, she probably didn’t smoke or drink or have bad sex or anything, you know? No nasty boyfriends or girlfriends, just like, lived alone with a cat. Chillin’ with her cat.

Issue 86: Ramona Ausubel: The Willow Springs Interview

86-cover_auto_x1

Found in Willow Springs 86

March 29, 2019

POLLY BUCKINGHAM, KIMBERLY SHERIDAN, SIERRA SITZES, LEONA VANDER MOLEN, & CLARE WILSON

A CONVERSATION WITH RAMONA AUSUBEL

ramona-ausubel-profile

TO READ RAMONA AUSUBEL'S WORK is to experience a rebuilding of reality. She does this carefully. Empathetically. Like the stranger and the young girl from her debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, who guide a small Jewish community into reimagining reality in order to survive the horrors of WWII, Ausbel uses metaphor and magic to cut a path through our perceived sense of normalcy and reveal the universal weight and beauty of grief, fear, and love. In a review of No One Is Here Except All of Us, Rebecca Lee writes, “Ausubel seems to trust metaphor as much as reality . . . [her] imagination wants to offer consolation for how ghastly things can get.”

Ausubel is the author of two story collections: Awayland (2018) and A Guide to Being Born (2013), and two novels: Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty (2016) and No One Is Here Except All of Us (2012), all published by Riverhead Books. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, The New York Times, NPR’s Selected Shorts, One Story, Electric Literature, Ploughshares, The Oxford American, and collected in The Best American Fantasy and online in The Paris Review.

Winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, Ausubel has also been long-listed for the Story Prize and the Frank O’Connor International Story Award. Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty was a San Francisco Chronicle and NPR Best Book of the Year. Ausubel is currently a faculty member of the Low-Residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and Visiting Professor at Colorado College.

We met with Ramona in Portland, Oregon where we discussed writing about family history, creating empathy, and the power of “What If?”

KIMBERLY SHERIDAN

I read you used to write poetry. Did you always write fiction, too? Or did you transition at some point. And does poetry still influence your fiction?

RAMONA AUSUBEL

I definitely transitioned. I definitely did not start out writing fiction. I took a fiction writing class in college and basically wrote poems. I wasn’t a very strong reader as a kid, so I hadn’t read that many novels even. The House on Mango Street, which I loved, was the first book where I was like, “Oh, wait, a book can be this? This I feel and love.” It was because of the poetry. It was because you can’t not feel the language. So I decided on poetry.

I finished college and went off to work crappy jobs. Then I decided that I wanted to write this novel about both sides of my family. My dad’s mom was Jewish and born in Romania, and they fled for their lives. My mom’s family came from fancy Chicago and was once an “important” family with lots of money and service people and grounds and wings of museums named after them. So I had this idea that I was going write a novel that was going to be the 20th century through those two women’s eyes, my two grandmothers. I understood that this was narrative and that it was a novel and not a book of poems. That was the extent of my understanding. So I applied to grad school. It was not a good first project for someone who’d never written anything longer than like ten lines. Eventually, it divided up and ended up being my first two novels. But the places where I felt most alive were still in the lines—thinking about the language and thinking about the images. No matter what I’m writing, the thing I care about the most is the line to line stuff.

POLLY BUCKINGHAM

Did you find other fiction writers who spoke to that poetic side?

AUSUBEL

Definitely. I had one semester where I was reading Pastoralia by George Saunders and Ulysses, and I was like, “These are doing things that are weird and they’re official literature, too.” I read every page of Ulysses, but I don’t know what’s in that book still. That’s magic. I love that about it. That was a useful lesson. There’s a thousand doorways in this place and every one you enter is going to change the whole house, so have fun. Just walk around, enjoy it.

LEONA VANDER MOLEN

The two novels are very connected to your life and your family’s history. But the short stories have this vein of the fantastic. Do you have plans to write a novel in that style?

AUSUBEL

Yes. Now that I’ve gotten the family things done, I’m off in the wild-lands and can do whatever I want. I’m working on a novel now that has absolutely nothing to do with me, and every character is a version of me. It’s about a couple who are scientists, and they’re working on a project to re-introduce the wooly mammoth in a lab, like CRISPR, all the genetic stuff that people are really doing. So this wooly mammoth is born on the shores of Lake Como. But they have two teenage daughters who are not on board with the project. Aside from having been to Lake Como, none of that has anything to do with me.

CLARE WILSON

In Sons and Daughter of Ease and Plenty, which is half of your background, did you have any fear about writing about the super-wealthy, this part of society that most of us don’t really have access to and perhaps are a little prejudiced against?

AUSUBEL

Yes, absolutely. That whole piece felt really intimidating. The money in the family was gone before I was born. But as a kid growing up with the house that my great-great-grandpa—he was an architect—built, I had the story and this “what we do matters” idea passed down. That summer house is now the Ragdale Colony outside Chicago, and my grandmother turned it into a space for artists and writers. My great-grandmother has a sculpture in the White House rose garden and was a working sculptor, which she could do because she didn’t have to earn a living. There are just so many interesting points of tension. But does the world need to hear about these people? Does the story matter? Do the struggles matter? So yes, I thought about it constantly. In the end I felt like the job of the book was to try to find those places where you see with some perspective and can empathize and imagine a life that was not without pain despite being hugely privileged.

WILSON

There’s a fabulist feeling in the first novel, then basically complete realism in the second, and then magic realism elements, sci-fi elements, fantasy elements, all kinds of elements, in the two books of short stories. Where do you see yourself fitting in the spectrum of literary fiction? Also, do you have other influences and people you’re emulating?

AUSUBEL

“Atria,” the pregnancy story, was the first story I wrote that I hadn’t thought about before I got to school. I wrote it in the five weeks before it was due for workshop, so I hadn’t identified the terrain of being a fabulist writer, or a fantastical writer, or a realist. And also, the fantastical-ness is all in her head, so it turns out that everything in the world is the same as the world we live in. The experiences we’re having, all of us, on the inside, are fantastical. We’re living these outsized emotional lives, feeling things that are a jillion-billion miles long. It might be a tiny thing that you feel this tremendous thing about, that you can never explain to anybody else, because why are you still thinking about that dude you saw on the corner, who exploded your heart for some reason? And then there’s the big things that happen to explode your heart, and the scenarios we’re all playing out—I shouldn’t have said this thing, and what if this happened, what if that bus hits me as I’m walking down the street—that’s actually where we live. Meanwhile, we’re walking around looking like normal people, and none of us are. The fantastical doesn’t seem so distant to me; it feels like it’s right there on the edge of what is actually happening.

I’m always trying to connect to that thing that’s happening on the inside, and I also want to play in as much space as I want. I’m not going to say, “Yes, I am a fantastical writer. Everything I do is that. I will stay in those lines now.” Sons and Daughters was not. I thought, as I set off, “Probably something magical will happen in this.” It just didn’t feel right. That was not what that book was. It’s still super weird. We’ve still got a giant, we’ve still got a badly planned sailing trip, and we’ve still got kids alone. There are plenty of things that are a little bit exaggerated from the world, but the story didn’t want a magical thing. I’m just trying to listen as closely as I can to the work and let the stories do what they need to do and take the best care of them that I can. Sometimes there’s going to be that crazy thing that happens, and sometimes it’s going to be pretty straightforward and just the feelings inside will be the crazy thing.

As far as influences, George Saunders was important. I’ve read all of his work, but “Pastoralia” is still my favorite. That story goes straight to your heart. I drove my now-husband to Las Vegas from LA, where we lived. On the drive, I read him “Pastoralia”—it’s like sixty pages long. I think it was partly a test: “Could I love you for a long time? Because if I can, you have to love this story.” And he did. And now we’ve been together for like twenty years.

I hadn’t really read that much fantastical stuff besides him until I got to grad school because I’d been reading poetry. People were like, “Oh! Have you read Aimee Bender? And Kelly Link? And Márquez?”  And I was like, “No! Tell me all those names so that I can avoid them, because I don’t know what I’m doing yet, I don’t know who I am as a writer, so I just need to not be afraid that I’m borrowing. I need to just be in my own thing.” I read no Aimee Bender, no Kelly Link, no Márquez until I’d finished the first two books. And now I get to enjoy all of them.

WILSON

All of your books are characterized by this sense of the author’s empathy and compassion so that even when really terrible things are happening, there’s still a sense that this is a character we need to view with balanced emotions and compassion. The farmer in No One Is Here Except All of Us jumps into mind as a truly awful character who is portrayed reasonably, empathetically. How do you approach that?

AUSUBEL

If we’re not writing toward that deep understanding of what somebody’s experience is, what a day or a moment or a life is, then there’s nothing. But I also really like when you get that sizzle: “Yes! I see your little heart working and you are trying and also you are completely fucking this up and failing! And you’re terrible right now! What are you doing?!” We are all failing in some way all the time, and we are all trying.

VANDER MOLEN

I wonder about the process of putting them on the page and letting them live because there are moments where I think, I can’t put a character through this, even though I know we’re all supposed to challenge our characters.

AUSUBEL

Totally. I am the most wussiest reader. Like, “No no no! It’s too sad it’s too sad—no no no, just fix it. Make it all okay.” And I think I’m that way writing, too. Obviously I was writing a Holocaust novel, so I knew terrible things were going to happen or they were going to happen in the periphery. That was part of what the book had to do. And my great-grandmother really did escape—we don’t even know where she was, probably somewhere in Russia—with her three children for years. No one knows exactly how long, but a really long time. They really did sleep wherever they could sleep and eat tree bark, and the baby did die in some sort of refuge-camp situation. I knew I had to go to those places. I was writing that story. Those were the points on the map. We’re following this path, and this path leads to all of these different places. But it doesn’t end there. I’m always going to try to rescue everybody a little bit at the end. Maybe I’ll change as I get older, but I don’t think I’m brave enough to end with the misery. I can go to the misery on the way if I know that we’re going to come to something a little bit okay at the end.

BUCKINGHAM

In “Atria” you treat the two men with great compassion, and that creates an edginess because we don’t want them to be treated compassionately. But we’re rewarded when they are. Could you address that dynamic in your work because it seems prevalent?

AUSUBEL

I think that’s true. The person who’s doing the bad thing, I want for us to see through it to something else in them always. Part of what I’m looking for is a way to come from a different angle than we’d expect. The guy in the convenience store was a lot like the boys I dated in high school—like, you guys, what was I doing? They were so pathetic, oh my god, but I saw through the pathetic-ness to something else. And also shouldn’t have bothered. I should’ve been like, “I see that you are a human being, but, also, get out of my house! Do not throw up in my bed!” Anyway, that part’s not in the story, but that character kind of comes from that part of my life. That’s why I wanted to get both of those really strong views on him. We’re going to treat him as a real person, and we’re also going to see just how not-great he is.

VANDER MOLEN

Sometimes you put your characters through hell and write about it very softly. I was wondering how you choose when to acknowledge the trauma and when to step back and let it just be that moment.

AUSUBEL

I’m trying to get the feeling, the experience on the page so we feel what’s happening for them, but also don’t follow all the threads too far. Because trauma is very hard to pin down. It doesn’t stop. It goes forever and it tangles up with every other part of your psyche and life and experience, but also in surprising ways there can be pieces of it that wind up supporting you to do something great. I want to feel the thing as itself. It’s the same way with the endings. Leave it, let it stand, and let it hang in the air, so you have that feeling of the trauma or the experience having endless spiraling lives for this person. It’s not going to be done at the end of Wednesday. If you write the thing too fully sometimes, you’ve created a stop for it when there is none.

BUCKINGHAM

Some of the most devastating moments are the moments you talked about where there’s no resolution. It’s just this strange thing that happens. One of them is the aunt treating the narrator like a baby in No One Is Here Except All of Us. It’s just devastating. Another is the little girl who shoots the ghost . . .

AUSUBEL

That story with the ghost had the weirdest inception. I started out writing it when I read this baseball story by an older, male, white writer. It was a good baseball story, and I was like, “Baseball stories, that’s a timeless, American thing. I should write a baseball story.” So I wrote a baseball story, and it was so boring. It had nothing to it, and I put it away. And then I was looking back through files and was like, “Could I wake this thing back up and make it into something that actually is a story, that’s mine, that matters to me?” So I took the little southern boy who is out playing baseball in his backyard and was like, not a backyard, but way out in the middle of nowhere with no social contact at all, and make the boy a girl. The only thing we need is songbirds and a grandmother who is inventing baseball in her own head. Okay, but what’s happening here? There’s a ghost, not like a scary ghost. He’s a Civil War general. What’s that guy doing? He’s a good guy. He’s been helping out in nursing homes. Okay. But what does he need? It still felt like a game and an experiment. I didn’t expect it to actually turn into a story that worked. But when I figured out who he was and what he wanted—he just wanted to be able to finally be dead—I was like, “Oh, okay, now this matters. Now there’s something of consequence here. She’s the person who can save him, something that she will have done and that she won’t be able to explain, and that will be hers alone.” Once it tunneled down deep enough to get to that feeling of release, and the weight of having to carry that release, then it became a story.

WILSON

In other interviews you’ve said that you do fifteen to twenty-five revisions on stories. Are your drafts that tunneling process, or do you do all the tunneling to get the first draft down, and then work on the line-level? Can you talk about how the story ends up in its final form?

AUSUBEL

Yeah, there’s tunneling all along. There’s no fun, polish-y stuff until the very end. I try to keep thinking about every part as a moving part, all the way through. Draft sixteen, yep, everything can still change. If I discover that the character could change in some drastic way and make things more interesting, that has to happen. And I have to follow that all the way through the whole thing, even though it’s going to take me forever, and it’s going to be really annoying. That is operating policy; that really matters because otherwise a thing that seems like the solution, and works for a while, you get too attached to it, you outgrow it, but then it’s there, and that means you put the story in steel bars. That’s the biggest it can possibly get. But if you build everything out of cardboard for a while, you can find out that it’s twenty-five stories, or that it’s miniature size, the entire thing the size of a dime. So I try to not put in anything that’s completely set ever, until I’ve got it all.

That also makes it fun because every draft I’m discovering things. I’m not just fussing around. When I write the first draft, I usually don’t know what I’m doing at all. I usually don’t have a plot. I can’t outline. If I outline, I’m instantly bored, like it’s already done. I have to have a lot of emptiness in front of me, and that means that the first draft is just wandering. It doesn’t make any sense, the characters are appearing and disappearing, or the setting is changing all the time. The first draft is incredibly mushy. It’s like a slime mold I’m playing with; it’s alive, but it’s not taking a form at all, and I don’t want it to. It gets a little more formed with every draft until it finally feels like I can see it all, and it’s doing what it wants to do.

SHERIDAN

You don’t feel stressed by its lack of form?

AUSUBEL

Oh, I feel stressed out all the time. It’s so stressful! It’s especially stressful with a novel. With a story, it’s only fifteen pages. Whatever, I can live with it if it fails. But with a novel, it’s such a long investment of time. Writing time is hard to come by; it’s not like I have twelve hours a day to work. If I spent a year on something that doesn’t come together, that’s terrifying. It just is terrible. But also, maybe part of why this process feels so important at the same time is because I can still rescue it. I don’t have a novel in the drawer. I have never given up on something long because it’s too heartbreaking to imagine doing that. So I revise eighteen times. On draft three, a wiser person might be like, “This thing is not working. We should put it in the drawer and start over.” But I’m like, “No! We will work this thing until it comes together. We’ll never give up!” Because I’ve already invested two years. I will not let it die. It requires a kind of bringing it back from the dead, every single draft, until it finally does actually take a form. It comes to life. There’s a moment in there somewhere where I trust it, where I know it’s not going to go away, where I know it’s a book. I still see a ton of things I want to do. It won’t be finished for months or a year, but it will get there.

SHERIDAN

Do you get any outside feedback? Do you have friends or readers read it?

AUSUBEL

I don’t like to have people read too early because I can get off-track if somebody’s like, “I don’t get it. I don’t get this whole thing.” Then I’d be like, “You’re right, that’s weird. We’re not doing that.” The wrong reader at the wrong time can really derail an idea. Part of why I feel the confidence in this new book is because I did show it to a little writing group in LA (where I don’t live, so we don’t see each other often enough). You put up the bat signal—“Guys, I’ve got a draft! I’m sending it to you. I’m flying out. We’re going to talk about it.” It’s so, so, so important. And they were like, “Yes, it’s a book. And here’s a bunch of things we notice.” Even just admitting to them that I had it helped me start to bring it together in a way that it hadn’t come together before. So they’re my first readers—there’s three of them—then, usually I’ll show it to my husband, and then it’s almost always ready to go off to my agent. I have other friends who I could ask to read, if I needed another round. But I do like to have it stay close for a long time.

SIERRA SITZES

When a novel hits that point you mentioned where some people would put it in the drawer, what are some questions you ask yourself to push it past that?

AUSUBEL

This is my very favorite exercise, I do it all the time when I’m stuck: write a long list, at least twenty-five, of “what-ifs.” It’s magic, I’m telling you. It’s the most important thing I know how to do. I have this novel. The novel itself is two-hundred pages or so right now. The document of what-ifs is fifty pages. I’ve come to a room with no walls, and I don’t know where to go. What are a bunch of things that could happen? It can be in the plot-world—this mammoth novel—what if there’s something wrong with the mammoth? Here are a bunch of what-ifs about what could be wrong with the mammoth and what those consequences would be. What if one of the daughters gets pregnant? She does, and it’s Neanderthal sperm . . . it’s complicated. But then that also needs to have a trapdoor, too. So what if it’s a possible Neanderthal baby, possible not-Neanderthal baby? By writing all these what-ifs, I decided that the place is going to be a castle. It’s a crumbling castle, once beautiful but now kind of terrible and falling apart, but in this beautiful place. What if for a while maybe it’s India, maybe it’s Siberia? And what if the older daughter is super angry about this thing that happened a long time ago, but the younger daughter feels completely differently? And what if the dad has a crush on the lady who owns the property? What if we rearranged stuff a little bit? You get a new sort of electricity. A lot of times that’s all it is, especially in the first draft—what if everybody had a new arm when they fell in love, and what’s the principle, and what are all the iterations of that, and what if we washed our hands in the cabbage soup?

This mode is a way of opening things up for me. If I’m in the document and I don’t know what’s supposed to happen next, I cannot continue. Whereas if I’m on the list, it’s safe. You can write anything on the list, and the list does not have to go in straight lines. What if there’s a rabid lion? I don’t think there is. So don’t worry about it. Leave it on the list, but keep typing other ideas, too. It can be anything. Whatever feels true, what feels interesting, what feels alive. You get to run all that through all your little instruments and see where things start to ping. It might not work. But all you’re doing is trying. You’ve identified this as an experimenting- and trying-land.

VANDER MOLEN

Many of your endings lean towards the unknown and the unsolvable. I’m thinking of the arm one [“Tributaries”] in A Guide to Being Born in particular. It ends in this lovely picture, but at the same time, I was like, “What?” How do you decide when to end the story, what to reveal for the reader, and what to leave for them to decide on their own?

AUSUBEL

I started that story because I gave my undergraduates, when I was in grad-school, a writing assignment, which I still give, which is to change one and only one rule about the world. Everything else stays exactly the same. So I was listing, “Maybe you have to walk on your hands the whole year you’re thirteen, or the girl’s hair catches on fire when she’s angry at her mother, or you grow a new arm when you fall in love.” And I’m like, “That one’s mine. Don’t do that, I’m doing that.” I assigned them the story over the course of a weekend, and I wrote that story with them. Instead of a story that had one larger arc, I wanted it to be a portrait of the world with this condition. So I knew it wouldn’t have a clear ending, because it doesn’t. You get to scan the whole land—this version of it, that version of it—but then it needed to weave together and connect. Even with an ending that doesn’t have an ending-ending, I still want you as a reader to see where you’re going next.

I don’t like short stories that end in complete ambiguity—“You just dropped me off and I don’t even know where or what path I’m walking”—but I do like it when you get there and you’re like, “Whoa, I have no idea what’s going to happen next, but I see where we’re going, the direction the energy is moving,” and then the reader gets to imagine what’s next, gets to participate. It works especially well for short stories—it’s this little delivery of what-if you get to hold onto, and you get to do this piece at the end that activates a new part of the story.

BUCKINGHAM

It seems like a lot of the stories in A Guide to Being Born end on a tiny gift, a moment of generosity. “Tributaries” does that and “Chest of Drawers” and certainly “Safe Passage.” It’s small. It obfuscates some of the darker tones of any of the endings. Could you speak to that?

AUSUBEL

That’s nice, I like that, doing something nice for somebody else. Maybe that’s because that’s what I feel is the only thing that saves me in the world. All the sad and terrible things are still true, they’ll always be true, but that tiny moment of generosity saves your life over and over again. Coming back to that must matter to me because I keep doing it. It does feel like sometimes that’s all there is, and that’s the only bridge that’s going to get you over whatever the other thing is underneath.

WILSON

You had four books come out within a six-year period, which is pretty fast. What’s your daily approach to your writing when you’re doing this many drafts and this much experimentation?

AUSUBEL

They came out in that time, but the first two I started like eight years before that, so there is actually more time in the frame. I write the first draft as quickly as possible because it’s less scary to just do it and get something done. The first draft of No One Is Here I wrote the last quarter of my second year in grad school in five weeks, and I wrote ten pages a day. I took weekends off. If you write ten pages a day, you’ll have 250 pages after five weeks. That’s enough of a draft to see what you’re doing. Ten pages is a lot, but it’s not absolutely insane; anybody could do that. The second time, I had a one-year-old, so I didn’t have the six-hour stretch. I wrote like five pages a day for a little bit longer.

Then with this new novel, I had a little more faith in the process, a little more faith in myself. I knew that I had done it and maybe could do it again, and that I could live with the not-knowing in a different way than I’d been able to before. So I wrote what I thought of as a half-draft. It was the bottom half, not the front or the back, but like the foundation, like starting to put some seeds in the ground and see what it was. It was about 150 pages, which, now revising it, feels like a good method. I think I’ll do that again because it meant that I discovered a lot about what was happening. I have scenes from the beginning, middle, and end. I have a lot of understanding of who the characters are. A bunch of things are happening, but I’ll have a scene I know is going to get a lot bigger. I know it’s going to stick its arms out to connect up to a bunch of other things. I don’t know what those other things are yet, or I don’t know quite how they connect. So instead of trying and writing the connections when I don’t know them, I’m just writing the foundational posts.

In all that first drafting, actually sitting down every day requires focus and a commitment: “I am in this; I am getting this book to come to life. And so I’m going to have to do that every day for whatever the time is. I have to keep coming back to it. I cannot be interrupted.” And after that, once it’s being revised, there can be more coming in and out. I have never been a person like Aimee Bender who writes for two hours every morning before she does anything else. She has always done that. She writes all the books that way. Which is great. But my kids get up early. Before five? No. We cannot do that. That can’t work for me. I’m okay with like, “For these five weeks I’m writing this first—teaching will fit around it, or whatever else I’m doing will fit around it.” And then I know there’s going to be a bunch of stuff that I have put off, so for a couple of weeks I’m okay with focusing on other things and not writing that much as long as I see that it’s coming back around. It comes in cycles, but I do try to look ahead so I’m looking at a scope of time, so I know. For example, I’m teaching a class next week, and it’s five full manuscripts we’re talking about. So I’ve been reading these books for the last couple weeks. I have not written anything, and that’s fine. I know that the second the teaching thing is done, April is a writing month.

My ideal writing day is four hours long. I write for two hours then go for a walk, and I come back and write for one more hour once I’ve figured out all the smart things that I thought of while I was walking. When in doubt, move across land. That always, always makes something happen. That four hours is actually a lot of time if you’re using the whole thing and not getting distracted.

VANDER MOLEN

You mentioned not needing to define something and put into a box, especially with your own work. I was wondering how that works for publishing because as much as we all don’t like boxes, the publishing world very much likes boxes.

AUSUBEL

They do, it’s true. They like to sort and label. I’ve partly been lucky. So far, the fact that they don’t all fall in line has been okay. I think because they still have a certain similar flavor. It could be that I keep going and somebody’s like, “No, you can’t write that literary thriller, that’s not what you do, we can’t sell that from you.” And that might happen. I don’t know. I don’t think I’m going to write a literary thriller.

I think there’s a really true thing—brand is a terrible word, let’s not think of it like that—but your own thing. You keep doing the thing that’s yours to do. And if you keep doing the thing that’s yours to do, and you do it as absolutely well as you can, and you keep going over that thing until it is a hundred-percent itself, and then you let it out into the world, the world will figure out where it lands. That’s not your job. The “where it lands” and “who it belongs to” is a completely separate project. If you start to think, “Well, there’s this thing now everybody’s writing, like The Girl on the Train, I should try to do that, get in on that thing,” it won’t be yours. Unless that’s really authentic to you, you’ll probably do a less-than-great job at it. Or you’ll do a good job and then the publishing world, because you’re trying to do this thing that falls into the label, will be like, “Oh, we got another one in the pipeline already, sorry, can’t work for us.” And then you’ll waste all that time on something that didn’t really belong to you in the first place.

As writers, we have to do the work, we have to do the art, we have to do the living in it: “I don’t know what this is going to be, and I don’t know if there’s going to be five people who want to read it or a hundred people, or nobody at all, or fifty thousand—that’s not what it is yet. Right now, it’s just this really true thing that’s important to me that I need to make to explain something to myself about how the world works. And I’m going to do it the best way I know how and the way that is most true to me, and then I’m going to trust in the next phase.” And then no matter what happens, even if nobody ever publishes it or nobody reads it, you still have done the thing that mattered to you. So it won’t have been a waste.

VANDER MOLEN

You hear a lot of novelists say, “I wrote this great novel and then they wouldn’t take it, so now I have five in a drawer,” and things like that, which is really disheartening because you want to put it out there.

AUSUBEL

That’s true for all of us, and it’s true no matter how far along you get. That’s no less true for me than it is for somebody who hasn’t published anything yet. I mean, no one has seen this book besides my little crew. They might be like, “No. This is just. What? No.” That could happen. And I’ll have to be able to live with that and also continue on and write something else. That could happen with the next one, too. There’s no knowing. But there is knowing what it feels like to make the thing in the first place.

There are a lot of conversations, especially at places like AWP and writing conferences and workshops, about the reader as the most important person in the room. What is the reader going to feel? What does the reader need? How can we serve the reader? How can we hook the reader? The reader is going to turn that page, is going to close that, is going to be bored. We’ve got to entertain them. It feels a little bit like this tiny little overlord. You, as the writer, are the first reader, and the most important reader forever. And it does need to actually be yours and to do something for you. You need to be answering the question that feels unanswerable, and you need to be writing toward something that is deep or profound or complicated or incredibly sad or incredibly beautiful. It has to be just because you feel that. No matter what else happens. The experience of having done that is what will stay with you for the rest of your life. I still feel so lucky that I have books in the world. I still feel like I got the golden ticket and I got to write, and that’s amazing. The books go off and live their lives, and actually it doesn’t have anything to do with me anymore. I’m done with them. I spent years in those worlds, but the time I spend there is when I’m writing them, not when they’re being between covers. They have a whole completely separate existence.

WILSON

One thing that makes your work unique, beyond the fantastical elements which might catch people’s attention, is the fact that you use many different points of views and very unusual ones. No One Is Here Except All of Us is basically an omniscient first-person, which is really cool and not something I’ve seen before. How do you come to those?

AUSUBEL

I’ve switched lots of points of view as I’ve written and in the revising process. No One Is Here, for many drafts, was all that “we” voice. I knew it was a problem, that it was hard to hold, and the people, those overlord readers, were going to be like “oh gosh.” For many drafts I was like, “I see you there, problem, but I need this. This is what gives the book teeth for me—this fact that they were all together as a group, they were feeling it as a group, and experiencing it as individuals and as one.” So I couldn’t leave it behind. I was like, “Nope, anybody who tells me something differently is wrong. This is how it has to be. This is what makes it a story. Fuck you if you don’t like it.” When I finished at Irvine, I had a second-ish draft.

Then I had a story published in One Story, which was my first publication ever. I got notes from agents after that story came out, and they asked, “Do you have a novel?” And I was like, “Yes, I do have a novel. I just have to do a few things, but it’s totally close.” Because I thought that they were going to slam the door and forget about me in five seconds if I didn’t send them something right away. Which is not true. I was wrong about that. So I sent No One Is Here to a couple of people when it was not done, and it was in that first-person plural, the whole book. I don’t know if I still have some of those rejections, but some of them were nice, “Oh, this is an interesting choice that you’ve made. I can see this. I don’t want it.” And other ones were like, “What are you doing?!” There was some guy who was a little bit mad at me. It was terrible. It was a tough point-of-view. But I was still annoyed: “No! This is the book! Shut up!”

Then my husband and I took this round-the-world trip, and there was an editor who was still reading it. I was like, “She’s going to be the answer.” We were in Morocco and I got this really long, really thoughtful rejection letter from her. She said, “I really want you to think about this point of view. I see why it’s here, I see what it’s doing, but I also think there’s like a distance that this necessitates. That might not be what you want in this book.” At first I was like, “Pssh. Stupid. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I’m right about this.”

Then I rode a lot of long busses, and I realized, “No, that’s true. And I can still have it, and I can also have a person we’re close to. I can have a character who we feel attached to and are seeing the world in a way that makes sense to us through one person, through an experience that is individual, and I can still get that kind of Greek chorus in there.” So I changed the whole point of view over the course of like a week. There are lots of other things that also then had to be changed because of it, but I could see right away the way the story was starting to open up. I could have made a much simpler choice early on: “You choose first or third, that is just what you do, don’t mess around with something complicated. You’re just learning this, don’t be so big, just do a small thing.” But I do feel that’s what made the book matter to me and what gave me access. That’s critical. Think about being your first reader. If you don’t have access, if you’re doing it for some cynical kind of solution for a reader, you’re going to miss all these cool passageways that you would’ve gotten if you’d written for yourself first. Then you can come back and be like, “All right, what does this feel like to receive, and how can I make the process—that reception—both functional and a way of getting all that complicated weird stuff across the bridge?” I’m glad I figured out how to solve it, and that it eventually worked, but it needed to not be so close at first. Those entry points, which point of view often is, are critically important and they change the way the story feels completely.

VANDER MOLEN

Some of your books have very distinct sections. You’ve spoken about the organization in A Guide to Being Born in other interviews, but also No One Is Here Except All of Us, even the chapters have very distinct titles. I wondered if you could speak about the sectioning.

AUSUBEL

Yeah, I really like that part. Partly because it comes later, usually, so I have a sense of what the story is or what the book is and how it’s going to work. In No One Is Here, we’re in this really unknowable place. I’m asking readers to take a leap and be like, “We’re going to believe this with you. We know that it’s not possible to start all over again, but we are going to do that.” What does the title “Chapter Two” mean? You finished that part and now we’re moving ahead, somewhere different. I wanted it to feel like this is a specific place and moment that is nothing else. Nothing else is here. This is what this is. Partly, it’s for me to hang onto. It feels like this is the “Book of the River.” This is a real thing that is firm and important. Not just like, I’m sort of trying to continue moving this story forward.

I just gave one of my students an exercise. She’s working on an historical novel that has all these different characters and they’re all affecting each others’ lives. She’s trying to decide what the larger thing is. I asked her to do an exercise starting with, “It was the era of . . . .” It’s the era of cooking three breakfasts every day because my seven-year-old eats like a man. It’s the era of poached eggs immediately after cereal immediately after whatever. Not just like, “Today I made poached eggs and then I made cereal and then I made an omelet and then I made waffles.” That’s just about today. And maybe that detail sticks around and you’re like, “Okay that’s a lot of food.” But if I’m telling you, “This is the era of poached eggs after cereal after waffles,” it has bigger significance.

WILSON

The first section in A Guide to Being Born is Birth. And the first story is “Death.” I loved that. It was a little window into the author’s intent. Sometimes when you’re reading short stories, you’re like, “This is a great short story, but I don’t know exactly what the author was thinking.” So it’s a little bit of a guide.

AUSUBEL

Exactly. I wanted to reverse the order so you open the table of contents and you’re like, “Oh! We go backwards from birth to love. What does that mean?” Birth and death immediately at the opening feels like a little tension, a little confusion—it puts you on a different alert to pay attention. You know for sure as a reader that it was purposeful. I’m always happy when I have somebody being like, “Trust that this was on purpose.” Because then you get to spend time thinking into that, and wondering why that was, and creating your own map between those two places because absolutely they belong together.

BUCKINGHAM

One of the things that sets the tone for the point of view in No One Is Here are those Yiddish tales at the beginning. They’re one of my favorite things in that book. I wonder from your point of view how that’s operating.

AUSUBEL

I love all those stories. I love when you get to have a piece of storytelling that belongs to everybody in some way and you get to swoosh it into your little world. Those Yiddish folktales, versions of them, were told to me by my grandmother. So they belong to me and belong to other people in different ways. Some of those stories are universal. There’s a version in the Arabic world and a version in the Latino world. We all have ways of understanding the world. We work it into stories. That’s how we process things as humans. It’s a joy to grab one of those and twist it around a bit and make a new version of it.

WILSON

No One Is Here Except All of Us is pretty overtly dealing with religion and doubt about God and prayer and ritual. How did you navigate writing about religious experience?

AUSUBEL

I don’t know that I even thought about it as religious for a while. I was thinking first about cultural significance, the fact of all these Jews being sent away and moving and leaving and running and dying. But you can’t not think about God, partly because it’s a major religion, but also because of people being slaughtered. Where, then, is God exactly? I can’t not have that question. It did not occur to me until about draft sixteen that it was this event at the beginning of the world. Oh. The book of Genesis. The other beginning of the world. You would think that was the first thing I thought of. It probably should’ve been. I could use that language partly as a way for the reader to feel like there’s precedence for this—there’s a reason this makes sense to do and we’re going to go with it and we’re going to believe it. Because that’s a trick. When you’re writing something that has some sort of magic or some sort of huge leap of faith, you do have to get people to go with you. The actual scripture was the way to lift this thing up at the beginning so you were like, “This is how this story goes. This is the only way that they can do it.”

WILSON

Your family is Jewish, and the first novel is obviously very much about Jewish experience. I was curious how that kind of identity shapes your writing.

AUSUBEL

I didn’t grow up with any Judaism but my grandmother was born in Romania and then grew up in New York, and she’s the most proto-typical Jewish grandmother in the whole wide world. You walk in the door and she’s like, “Sit! Eat! Let me see what I have in the freezer.” She’s a perfect Jewish grandmother, and she’s my passport to all of it. Her parents were extremely observant. Very, completely versed. Kept the Sabbath. Did everything. And my grandmother—there were a couple of Polish boys across the hall when she was growing up and they had kielbasa and she was like, “I don’t know. That stuff is good. Did God smite me when I had the kielbasa? He did not. I think this is all nonsense.” She identified God as a hoax when she was eleven and that was that. She still identified culturally as a Jew, but is zero practicing. My Dad grew up in that world, so he had none of it at all. He lives in Santa Fe and does all the other things—like they had a teepee on their land for a while, there’s all the astrology—so he’s taken on all the other ways of seeing the world.

I didn’t even really realize that we were Jewish. It was an insider-outsider kind of relationship, which is part of why I wanted to write about it: this both belongs to me and is completely not mine. I didn’t go to Hebrew school, I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. I didn’t go to Israel on my birthright trip. I have none of the official anything, but it’s in the lineage and the stories. I identified with this history, and I also don’t really believe in god. What does that mean? It was a conversation with myself I really wanted to have.

It was so interesting, especially because that was my first book. Everybody was like, “She’s a Jewish author.” I got flown out to a bunch of synagogues, and I felt like such an imposter. I felt like I am not actually part of this at all. But they totally accepted me, and it was sort of nice. And then A Guide to Being Born came out, and there was none of that, no “Jewish author.” Well, okay. It was fine. I got flown out to do other things. It was a completely different version of myself, which was fascinating and so weird. And then Sons and Daughters came out next, and the Hamptons bookstore wanted me to come. This is so weird. I felt like I needed to put on my tennis whites and pretend to be the waspy part of myself that is also not really there. But it was a good lesson: It all comes from you, and there’s a million versions of yourself in there. And people of the world are going to decide that this is the story and this is the label and this the thing, and then you play that part for a little while. But it will only be one of the parts you play. Then you move on to a different thing, and the different tracks in the road will carry you along. Because I’ve moved around so much and the subject matter has changed in each book, maybe people are going to give up: “You just do you. You do your own thing. We’re not going to figure this out anymore.” We’ll see. Next I’ll be going to natural history museums or something. That’d be great. I’m looking forward to writing all the selves and obsessions I don’t yet have.

Issue 85: A Conversation With D. Nurkse

85

 Interview in Willow Springs 85

Works in Willow Springs 59, 42, 39, and 35

November 9, 2018

JOSH ANTHONY, POLLY BUCKINGHAM, HANNAH COBB, KIMBERLY SHERIDAN

A CONVERSATION WITH D. NURKSE

d nurkse

THE POETRY OF D. NURKSE is hauntingly honest. It’s resonant with generosity, vulnerability, and love for the world while being rooted in unflinching observations of reality and justice. He makes magic of myths, nature, family, and the gritty stoops of Brooklyn. In a review of A Night in Brooklyn, Philip Levine writes, “He should be the laureate of the Western Hemisphere. He possesses the ability to employ the language of our American streets, shops, bars, factories, and any place else and construct truly lyrical poems, sometimes of love, sometimes of anger . . . No one is writing more potently than this.”

Nurkse is the author of eleven collections of poetry, most recently Love in the Last Days: After Tristan and Iseult, A Night in Brooklyn, The Border Kingdom, Burnt Island, and The Fall, all from Alfred Knopf. He’s the recipient of a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship in poetry, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships, the Whiting Writers Award, and prizes from The Poetry Foundation and the Tanne Foundation. Nurkse served as poet laureate of Brooklyn from 1996 to 2001. His work has been translated into French, Russian, Italian, Estonian, and other languages. In 2011, a third edition of Voices Over Water was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for best book of poetry published in the UK. His poems have been anthologized in six editions of the Best American Poetry series.

Nurkse has also written on human rights and was elected to the board of Amnesty International USA for a 2007-2010 term. He was a program officer for the Defense for Children International-USA from 1988 to 1992 and worked as a consultant for UNICEF. His study, At Special Risk: The Impact of Political Violence on Minors in Haiti, was commissioned by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Currently, Nurkse is a long-term member of the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College. He has taught poetry at Rikers Island Correctional Facility and in inner-city literacy programs, as well as at MFA programs at Rutgers, Brooklyn College, and Stonecoast.

We met with the gracious and humorous D. Nurkse in Spokane where over coffee we discussed the role of the MFA, external standards and the internet, riddles and parables, war and religion, and the joy of playing the flute.

JOSH ANTHONY

In A Little Book on Form, Robert Hass says that the form of the poem is often a reflection of the gesture of its energy. In Rules of Paradise, you start out with a lot of single-stanza poems. But as you’re developing in your writing, your poems take on a more organic form in terms of stanzas and breaking. Was this in any way a conscious decision or was it unconscious—did it just develop as you wrote?

NURKSE

I think it’s both. These things really go through millions of drafts; any poem is like a snail that crawled out of the sea and eventually became an accountant. There are many variations. I think all poets write these things down and test them. At any stage, the raw words go through a process of interrogation, and at different stages the process is different. If you look at Elizabeth Bishop’s early drafts of the poem “One Art”—that extraordinary poem about losing her lover—the original really is, “I lost my house keys, rats!” But there was a process that not only made that poem a villanelle, but also made that poem a unified expression of emotion.

I had earlier poems that were broken up. I was experimenting with a poem as a kind of rush of emotions. I think all poems are dialogic. There’s a theory that every line of Shakespeare’s creates a statement and an opposition. Some lines, like “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May / And summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” perceive there’s an opposition between an instant and the flow of time. There’s a theory that there’s an opposition quality in every haiku; in Japanese, there’s even a word for it. Poems want to be dialogic—they don’t want to be monologue. Prose might want to be a monologue, but a poem might be an intuitive or inherent dialogue.

I’ve been working a lot recently on prose poems. It’s kind of cool because it allows you to let some air out of the poetry balloon. Prose poems may be the bar where the poetic author is less of an issue. It alludes to the anonymous parable, the anecdote, the newspaper article; it feels a little bit more insidious. And the voice has to develop; it can be more like a guerilla, random speaker.

ANTHONY

Do you think a prose poem would be more approachable to somebody who isn’t familiar with poetry, or do you think it would be more thwarting?

NURKSE

It’s possible it might be more thwarting. You know, a prose poem is in tension between being prose and poetry. It’s claiming that heightened quality, and you read it wondering why it might be hard to start with a prose poem and work towards the sonnet. It might make more sense to start with the sonnet.

KIMBERLY SHERIDAN

Shadow Wars was published when you were thirty-nine years old. You had many different careers beforehand. Were you writing the whole time or did you put writing on pause?

NURKSE

I was writing the whole time. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. It took me a long time in terms of the poetry industry to publish that first book. I was telling Chris Howell how many times my first book was rejected. He said, “Yeah, you already told me that . . . .” I had the feeling that I should stop telling people how hard it was. I used to tell people I cut my own hair—some people would say, “Obviously.” I ought to be more like other poets and lead with the triumphs.

I didn’t get an MFA, and it helps me as a teacher to realize that there’s an inside and an outside to this thing. I’m sensitive to people who are on the outside. Like when I was a judge in a contest and saw somebody write rhyming, religious poetry—really good—but I knew they weren’t going to win the contest. I want to have an open mind. Maybe I’m over-answering this question but some of the work I did helps me in terms of seeing poetry as it exists outside academia. I did work at a lot of jobs that put me in contact with a lot of people and that’s an advantage. It scares me a little sometimes when I have colleagues who went to college, wondered what to do, got an MFA. They’re teaching poetry, and they see poetry as something that is articulated by an MFA program. It sort of cheered me up psychologically that I taught in inner city programs and taught in prisons, and I did see people not only responding to poetry, but taking it damn seriously. There were people at Rikers Island who told me, “The purpose of my life was to be here and study poetry with you.” It was more valuable to them, rather than less, because it hadn’t been given to them.

HANNAH COBB

Do you think those experiences have given you a different perspective than the traditional MFA professor on what the task of poetry is—what it means to be accomplished and successful?

NURKSE

I don’t mean to put down the traditional MFA professor . . . . I think it’s become a little bit of an industry, but also in my lifetime, I think it’s become more feminist and democratic. Part of the reason I didn’t want to get an MFA was I grew up in that time of poetry gurus and you would admire, typically, a well-published male poet and go to his program. And you would probably see him three times over two years while you studied with underpaid adjuncts. I think that’s changed a bit. There are more diverse people who are MFA faculty members. The converse of that is there’s a bit more of a correlation between being a poet and having an MFA. Yes, I do feel it’s beneficial to me to see myself as outside that.

POLLY BUCKINGHAM

And you had a real variety of jobs, too . . . .

NURKSE

I did have a lot of jobs. I worked in human rights professionally for about six years and there were a lot of very emotionally interesting things at work. I wrote grant proposals for anti-apartheid organizations in South Africa, under apartheid, and that felt more tied into the world than someone writing a protest letter to The New York Times. I did get to, at least in that period of my life, know people who were in the third world.

BUCKINGHAM

That shows up in The Border Kingdom. It seems like your Rikers Island experiences show up there, too.

NURKSE

Yeah, there’s also Leaving Xaia. It reflects a trip I took to El Salvador, as a journalist, during the height of the war. Incidentally, I used my initial [D. instead of Dennis] because when I was writing as a young writer, there were times when I was working for UNICEF or various organizations and was a consultant for refugee services. I wanted to keep the poetic response separate from the journalistic response, which was supposed to be objective.

BUCKINGHAM

Leaving Xaia is really interesting because it feels a little closer to reality, but there’s a surreal feel to some of those poems. Could you speak to the creation of imaginary places that are more real than real?

NURKSE

That’s something that’s always fascinated me. I was born here, but I tend to say my parents were refugees and that might be a little bit of an exaggeration. They weren’t like people leaving Syria, but they did leave Europe on one of the last boats out of Portugal and came here to escape fascism, which is to say, I grew up in America with language around me that reflected huge events. As a kid, I knew there were really important things happening in these distant countries, knew they had really influenced my parents, and my parents didn’t want to talk about it because it was traumatic for them. So I had the sense of a hidden reality taking place in countries that were literally inaccessible.

My father was Estonian. He probably didn’t have US nationality when I was born. My mother had dual French and British citizenship, but Estonia was a place I couldn’t go back to because it was communist at that time. So I grew up with my father having come from a place I could only imagine. There was a lot of traveling in my family. A lot of people had been displaced. Some of them were affluent. Some were dirt poor.

Also, in my reading I was very influenced by Henri Michaux, the French poet. I think, actually, he’s influenced a lot of American poets, though he doesn’t get star billing. It’s very interesting to me now because he was writing in the late ’30s and early ’40s in Europe, so he was seeing how discourse was changing in a society with totalitarian leanings. It was something he really responded to as a poet, and not in an ideological way, but in a poetic way. He’s also the author of a book about an imaginary travel arc where he visits imaginary countries and looks at their strange customs. Technically, that’s called defamiliarization.

It’s something that interests me a lot in poetry—you invent a completely imaginary world. The reader approaches a completely imaginary world, and they’re dealing with things, like the midterms in Florida, that are not in the imaginary world, and people start to see them for their strangeness. We’re an infinitely adaptable species. Warm the water a little bit and we’re happy to be boiled alive. The role of literature in general is to restore the strangeness of being.

COBB

In a lot of poems dealing with wars it’s not clear what war it is, and it’s really far away. The closeness we do get is when the speaker is in the draft office, but they’re not usually on the battlefield. I’m curious about your use of distance to evaluate war and what you’re doing through that distance.

NURKSE

Some of that has to do with my own experience in the war I actually did see, the war in El Salvador. It was, frankly, for about ten days that I was in the war zone and saw people shooting at each other—but it wasn’t for very long. The rest of my life has been, and very much in America has been, that issue of distance. I think as a poet you may be trying to critique or supplement the media.

Certainly, a lot in my youth was determined by the Vietnam War. It was interesting that in the Vietnam War there were far more images of war than there are now. An efficient job has been done of suppressing those images, though some are becoming available over the internet. But TV news used to show massacres. And you would wonder if they were desensitizing people or whether they were informing people.

I’ve had the same wonder about the videos you see of people of color being shot by the police. To see somebody being shot seems like a radical infringement on their privacy. At the same time, it feels very necessary that people should know. That seems like a deep ambiguity. Not to be glib, but those are the kind of ambiguities that poetry exists for, because poetry isn’t claiming to tell you the truth. It’s claiming to give you both the reaction and the critique of that reaction, or a reaction that you could critique as a reader.

BUCKINGHAM

You have a poem where a guy is digging his own grave, “Ben Adan.” Kimberly and I were just talking about this and trying to figure out where the origin of this might have been.

NURKSE

That’s probably one of the few questions I can answer that has a very specific origin. It’s Bagram air base around 2003, the beginning of US involvement in wars in Muslim countries and how those wars were carried out. It was a very specific example of an interrogation technique where people were being interrogated by a mock execution. It’s a complex thing because the mock execution is a little bit of an appropriation of the person’s death, as well as their life, saying, I have the power to kill you but not kill you. You survive the mock execution entirely because of somebody else’s choice, so it trivializes your stoicism and your willingness to die. It’s based on an actual case of a guy who was, I think, a taxi driver, and I think he was interrogated for taking somebody who our military was after to their destination.

That poem is trying to get into ambiguities of power relationships, and even ambiguities of what you might call colonial relationships. There’s a kind of hope for a resolution, too. It’s trying to look at the power relationship and then give it the possibility of changing in any amount of ways—that the person who’s being interrogated is able to see the humanity of the person who’s interrogating—it’s possible that it’ll work both ways.

SHERIDAN

One of the things that was closer to home for us was 9/11. I think you and I were both in New York when it happened. It shifted the atmosphere for a long while. It seems like distance helps in writing about an event. I’m wondering if you were able to write about it immediately or if it took time.

NURKSE

All of those things took time. For Leaving Xaia, I was a poet who’d gone down and seen this war zone and thought I’d write about it—forget about the revisions, it was about a year before I started writing about it. And certainly it took a lot of time to just write about 9/11— also, a lot of drafts, a lot of false starts. I probably have a thousand pages of notes and files, and there’s no book I wrote about 9/11—it might be a total of ten poems—and I fictionalized it or dreamt about it in lots of different ways.

BUCKINGHAM

You write a lot about famine. I’m curious about your experience of it, your witness of it, or the interplay between what you write about and the reality of it for you.

NURKSE

I idolized my father, but people did tell me that growing up in Estonia, he didn’t have enough to eat. Somebody in my family told me they would send him to the store to buy food on credit, and he would be hungry, so he would buy extra food and eat it without telling his parents. Then the bill came due at the end of the month, and there were all these other charges, and they beat the shit out of him. That really got to me as a little kid. So that might be where it’s from because otherwise I’ve been in one war zone but haven’t been in famine zones, so I don’t have any direct experience with it. Then again, my father was also very interested in poverty. He was an economist, but he was not a Wall Street economist. He was interested in poor countries and third world countries. When he was still alive, I remember him going to India and seeing poverty in India, and my mother was worried: would he be able to handle what he saw?

BUCKINGHAM

There are a few poems where there’s a couple and there’s a war in the backdrop. In an interview about Love in the Last Days you said that maybe love isn’t about obedience, but it’s the opposite of obedience. And then, in some ways Love in the Last Days is apocalyptic. I wondered what role you see love playing as an opposition or as a part of our healing.

NURKSE

That is a huge issue in my work, the couple. I think, Well, maybe that’s my parents. Because they were both uprooted by war, left their lives, came to this country, and had memories of war they didn’t talk about. Maybe as a writer I’m trying to just enter that silence and imagine what’s in there. But it’s also a huge issue in my own life. I’ve written a lot of poems about marriage and war, weaving together contrary moments. Obviously, there’s a way marriage gets infiltrated by war, can replicate some of the things of war, and then there’s another way where maybe I’m seeing the couple as an emblem of humanity—they don’t offer a solution to war, but it’s a humane situation in contrast to war. In Judaism, from the very late 18th century, there’s Rabbi Nachman’s proverb: every relationship is infiltrated by the struggles of nations.

SHERIDAN

How did you get involved with teaching at Rikers Island?

NURKSE

It’s something I always wanted to do. I wanted to teach in prison. When I was a kid, I would read Etheridge [Knight’s] poem, “The Idea of Ancestry,” and it’s a poem I still teach. It’s very much a poem by a prisoner about being in prison, a combination of strong emotion, repression, fear, time on your hands. I thought poetry would be a useful tool for prisoners or would be something I could do that would be useful, rather than just try to help some middle-class kid get into college, or some middle-class kid get into grad school, or help a middle-class kid get a job in the local community college. And it was. It was like anything else. I had five prisoners there, and maybe one was a real poet, three “got” poetry, and one wanted none of it. But that was fine. I mean, that’s also true of one in five poets.

But yours is a logistics question. For a while I had a really good hook-up. I became friends with people who were in a nonprofit that had a subcontract with the Board of Ed to provide GED instruction to minors on Rikers Island. I was the enrichment section teaching poetry so there was no subterfuge in what I was doing. I could just call up the librarian at Rikers anytime and say, “I’d like to do a three-day residency this week,” and he would say, “Fine.”

The problem was the guards. Not all of them—even among the prison guards, there’d be one guard who really got poetry and would come to workshops and be like, I want to be a poet, not a prison guard. But mostly, the guards were very obviously opposed to the kids being able to articulate what happened to them. It was very instructive to the political climate because you saw how totalitarian situations need to create chaos. You know, one day I would go to Rikers Island and they would say, “Dennis, you said those Giants were gonna win and they won. Just walk right on in.” And I would walk right on in. And the next day they would say, “You don’t have form 342, we’re gonna have to strip search you.” And it would be the same people. Whether they were doing it deliberately or out of an unconscious playbook, it was to keep everybody permanently destabilized: The truth is what I say it is. Which means I have to say something radically different today from what I said yesterday because otherwise truth is just precedent. And I’m no more powerful than a judge or a lawyer or a parent whose being consistent, so if yesterday I had to say, “You need Form 342,” today my demonstration of power will be, “Walk in and help yourself to coffee.” But it always has to be what I’m saying in this moment.

It helped me to understand the situation we’re in now.

COBB

In an environment that’s consistently destabilizing, can poetry be a force that offers stabilization?

NURKSE

I think it can. It can at least be a force where people can understand their own humanity and have a little space outside the endless conflict. I was moved by some of the prisoners at Rikers Island. I remember a conversation with four kids—and I wonder if I’m slightly romanticizing it as I say it—but I remember these four prisoners. One said, “Last night I woke up in the middle of the night, at 3 a.m., and had a poem in my mind. I really wanted to write it down. But the guard would have jumped on me, so I just had to stay there and try to memorize it until now.” And another prisoner says, “Oh you did? I did, too!” And the third person says, “Wow, you guys, you woke up . . . ? Me too!” The fourth guy says, “Two of you, the three of you . . . I woke up with a poem at 3 a.m.!” James Baldwin said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Through books I learned that the things that most tormented me were actually the things that most connected me to all the people in the world who were alive or had ever been alive.” Which is just beautiful. Each of these kids thought his little subjective, imaginary thing was a thing that cut him off from all the other macho kids. They maybe weren’t writing the same poem, but each was writing a poem.

ANTHONY

Was there a poet or writer you taught to folks in prison who was a catalyst point or was it different for every student?

NURKSE

To be honest, this tended to not be a course in literature. The nonprofit was able to publish the best work by students. They created anthologies of work by young poets who were remarkable. I would, of course, teach people like Langston Hughes, but I would also largely give them examples of these kids who write excellent poems. It’s not about grammar and syntax. It’s about imagination, and that tended to be what we worked with. As part of going to the Crusades in the Middle Ages, Richard the Lionhearted was briefly imprisoned in what now would probably be Germany. He wrote a poem about the experience which begins, “Never trust a poem written by a prisoner.” I thought these kids would be like Yes! because it was really a poem about having to speak in code in situations of power. And they were taken by the name Richard the Lionhearted, and the idea that he was a King and also in prison.

François Villon, in my opinion, may be one of the greatest poets ever. This guy was a petty thief sentenced to death. He wrote about his pending execution and about being raped by a prison guard. He talks about “being penetrated by the dark love” but it’s in a very, very bitter poem. He wrote about being hanged: “My neck is about to find out how much my ass weighs.” Whoa, pretty powerful. You know, it could be hip-hop, too. The kids could relate to some of that. It’s probably less useful to read these kids poems about the coming of spring in a small New England village. We had this nice liberal social worker who gave these kids an uplifting talk about Nelson Mandela. One of the kids said, “Why is she talking about all that? Nelson Mandela was a political prisoner, but we’re just petty thieves.”

The kids told me, “Dennis, promise us you won’t go to prison. You couldn’t handle it.” That’s pretty sweet, isn’t it? Also, the racism of it is just inconceivable. They would say to me, “Dennis, do you also teach in any of the white prisons?” And I would have to tell them, “There aren’t any white prisons in New York. There’s just this. There are white schools, white hospitals, white social clubs, but they don’t have white prisons in New York.” In New York it’s going to be all people of color.

And, believe me, I saw my privileged kids at Sarah Lawrence who felt it was their constitutional right to smoke a joint while there were kids in Rikers Island who had been busted for that. There was a kid there who had been busted off parole for riding a bicycle without a headlight at night. There was a kid, who was a child, who shot a gun into the air on a roof on New Year’s Eve. Nobody said he was shooting at anybody, and he did maybe a year and a half in Rikers Island. Then there were all the kids who were facing trial. Some of them hadn’t committed a crime. They get brought in and they get put in jail for years, and then the DA says, “Well, if you plead guilty, you can go home. If you want a juried trial, you’re gonna be in here for another X months.” And they deal with it, but some, like 93 percent of the cases, do not actually go to trial. They get plea bargained—which is true throughout the country.

BUCKINGHAM

You write about ambiguity and imaginary places. I’m thinking about the spaces you talked about in Voices Over Water and Love in the Last Days. There’s a magical space where love happens and it’s in the forest. It’s like history allows you into a more magical space, and I wonder about what that relationship is: how do you enter that space and why is it the forest?

NURKSE

My book is very different from the original myth, Tristan & Iseult, but I’m still trusting the wisdom of the original myth. In the original myth, there are these forests that stand for psychological states—that part I didn’t make up. In the original myth, there’s a forest of love and a forest of enchantment. I love those ideas. As a poet, I don’t want to be just a pure materialist; I want some room for things that are transformative or profoundly unexpected. Love in the Last Days is kind of an anti-heroic treatment of the myth, and the hero is delusional. He wants to be—and I think there’s a certain psychological truth to this—he wants to be close to his lover, so he must impress her. And by continually trying to impress her, rather than being himself, he drives her nuts. He’s just constantly overcoming trials that are more and more imaginary. She’s like, “Why can’t he just catch a rabbit? I’d like him just fine.”

ANTHONY

With Love in the Last Days, and other books as well, I’m sure there’s an amount of research that goes into drafts. Some writers like to saturate themselves with the research and others are like Richard Hugo, who said in an interview he intentionally halts himself at a certain point in research so he has more space to play with it. Where do you fall on that research spectrum and how you go about researching?

NURKSE

It’s a very important question because I think there are a lot of real world issues that poets could really benefit from researching. I was once sitting next to Mark Strand at a bar, and he said to me, “Dennis—I should be writing more about the real world!” and um, no one believes that. I think there are a lot of poets who do research, but poetry could up its claim by doing scientific and naturalistic research. Obviously, we’ve moved into a world that’s really unknown to all of us, and some of the language that will make it decodable is scientific, and some of it is psychological; I really think the culture could enter those worlds more. But, then, I did a lot of research for Burnt Island, which ends in the voice of sea creatures, marine creatures. At the time, I was writing in response to 9/11, and it seemed like the options were really creepy fundamentalism and consumerism, which was really joyless also. Then, I started to read about nature and realized there are spiders that live miles above the earth on winged currents. They just blow on the wind and mate in the wind.

Lynn Margulis wrote a book called Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth about life on earth, maybe four or five hundred pages long: mammals take up about a paragraph, humans take up about a pause. The largest creatures on earth are fungal networks. You have bacteria that have survived from the origins of the planet, when the sky was sulfur, and they still can only breathe sulfur. They’ll die in oxygen, and they’re living creatures that live in sulfur springs because they’re so ancient. All of those things are really fascinating, and they’re more interesting than a bunch of terrorists or a bunch of advertising executives. All of that is very spiritual to me. I don’t see any contradiction between the astonishing ways life imagines itself and the idea of a spiritual existence.

Let me say a little bit more about that question of research: poems do wander from a dreamlike part of the mind. I have felt that contradiction, and I did feel that very much in writing Love in the Last Days. You intuit that there’s an obstacle between the research and the poetry. There were poems drafted at 3 a.m. that woke me up. And then I worked and worked. And there were other places in the narrative where I needed a poem, but I wasn’t feeling it. And yet, the research structure meant I had to write that poem. It took me forever to write the poem the narrative called for. It would just feel so lame. It took me forever to get the volitional poem to feel as if it was a spontaneous poem.

BUCKINGHAM

I can’t help but think about Márquez’s Nobel Peace Prize speech where he goes into this litany of all the real things in the world that are so bizarre that they seem not real—because he’s a journalist and a magical realist at the same time—and I was thinking about how hyperreal your work is in terms of its context, and yet, how deep image and mythical it is, that you go further in both directions. Maybe you’ve already spoken to this, but is there anything else you might add?

NURKSE

This is just an aside, but when I was a kid, I was in Colombia, and traveling makes you realize how genuine these things are, because Colombia was a magical realism country. It was full of things that boggle the mind. A Japanese tourist who was a dentist got the idea of leading a guerilla band and organized a guerilla band and fled into the mountains. It just seemed so unpredictable; they seemed like they came out of a novel. It’s interesting—and this has to do with something entirely different—the concepts of experiments and classicism: in a way Gabriel García Márquez is a classicist. He was writing at a time when people thought the future of the novel was in French experimentalists. You read these really dense novels that are frankly really hard to read and Márquez is saying, “Let me write a fascinating love story that’s going to be experimental,” and it worked. The experimental label is so often given to more cerebral work.

COBB

I’m interested in your use of religious language, and particularly I’m thinking of The Fall as a book title, and then within The Fall there’s the poem “Born Again.” You’re taking these terms that are defined in one particular way by religious institutions and you’re re-imagining them into something else and defining them in a different way. Can you talk more about that?

NURKSE

I think that’s absolutely true of my work, and it doesn’t stop being true. Some of it is personal. I grew up reading the Bible, and it influenced me. My dad was definitely an agnostic, but these things were important to me. I remember being a little kid and reading about the sacrifice of Abraham. I marched into my dad’s study—he was in the middle of important work—and I said, “Dad—explain this! Are you gonna fucking kill me?” He really wanted to say, “It’s all okay,” but at the same time he wanted me find out for myself, so his explanation seemed really unconvincing to me.

Anyway, there is something that fascinates me in Christianity, in Judaism, and in Buddhism. I’m not Jewish, but I studied these texts with a Rabbi for maybe eight years, an Orthodox Rabbi in a small group of Rabbis. They fascinated me and it fascinated me as textual analysis—they had such a wide range of analysis they were allowed in that culture. Adam named the animals—does that mean he had sexual relationship with the animals? They consider everything in ways that were really very free but that get to some questions about the sacred and narrative that are at the root of being human. I think my dog must live way more than I do, but my dog is probably not as obsessed with putting it into story. To humans, stories and metaphor are really ways of knowing things.

COBB

So then, is poetry for you, at least sometimes, a participation in that Jewish tradition of Midrash and imagining stories in different ways?

NURKSE

Yeah, at times, and I’m also influenced by the Christian tradition. When I was a kid I did read the gospels, and I was told “this is literature that has importance to your life.” It’s not necessarily that I agreed with all of it, but it was an example of literature that was supposed to change my life in some way. Not that I was going to go to church. My dad died when I was eight, but I was super close to my dad, and he definitely was kind of an anti-Christian. Maybe this is an overshare, but when he was a kid, his family would go to church, get very riled up by the idea of sin, and they’d come home and put the poker in the fire and beat him with the poker because he was a sinner. He was like, “This is a crock.”

My mom was a Hindu for a while. This was before the New Age thing was fashionable. She was interested in Hinduism, in the idea of the Bhagavad Gita, of the action that expects no reward. In the Mahabharata, the hero has fought the evil enemy all his life, and he’s fighting for good. The evil enemy has been fighting for evil and everyone is being decimated—both sides are being decimated. The worst of it is the hero had to do horrible things fighting evil. He’s had to kill innocent people and burn their houses. Everything is over, and he’s finally won at a terrible cost. He’s going to Paradise, and all he has left is his little dog. And he goes to the gates of Paradise, and he hears all this feasting and carousing, and he’s really turned off. Why are all these people just feasting and carousing in paradise? You know, they’re supposed to be playing harps—and they’re singing dirty songs. The guard at Paradise says, “Well, those are all your enemies. They’re in paradise, too.” The hero says, “But they were evil, they were terrible!” And the guardian of Paradise says, “Yeah, but God made them. It was their nature to be evil—they were just acting in accordance with their evil. So they’re in Paradise.” And the hero says, “Oh my God—sigh—I guess I better go in. There’s nothing left, but I have to go into Paradise.” The guard of Paradise says, “Wait a minute. No dogs in paradise. That little mangy dog can’t come with you.” And that’s the last straw. The hero says, “OK, I give up, I’m not going to Paradise—I’m just going to wander off into the desert.” He wanders off into the desert, and the little dog says, “That was a good call because I am Krishna, Lord of the Universe. And this story is to tell you that there is no Paradise!” That was why my mom was interested in Hinduism. You do the good deed, but you expect no reward. Once you expect—I’m going to go to Paradise, the other person’s going to go to Hell—that just gets you into objectification. You can’t help but start to objectify the people around you . . . who, say, voted Republican.

BUCKINGHAM

Your father died when you were eight, and those poems run from the first book to the last book. Can you address the way loss shapes your poems?

NURKSE

Actually, there’s future work that goes back and revisits that, too. I think it’s just what makes poetry important rather than something you would do for recognition or validation. Maybe you’ve been talking to somebody all your life, and then from one moment to the next they’re absent, and you have to recreate that. Maybe all of poetry is just imagining another voice that answers you when nobody answers you. I had wanted to be a poet before his death, but I think it was a rupture in my life. I don’t want to overdo it, but my father waved goodbye to me and I was this little too-cool-for-school eight-year-old, and I didn’t wave back. I thought, Tonight I’ll hug him. I didn’t wave back because my little eight-year-old friends were there, and one of them was the star of the soccer team, and I didn’t want to seem lame waving at my shabbily dressed old father. And there was no tonight. And I didn’t see him again. He’d never been sick, but he died. That gave me a sense of the cost of not saying something.

I think everybody has an experience like that in their lives. That’s just the nature of love. I think a lot of poetry is, by definition, the things you would say if you weren’t really a real person living a real life. They’re the things you would say to your partner, which romantically is “I love you” but might feel a lot more complicated than “I love you.” And the things you would say instead of “Honey, have you seen my toothbrush?” The things we just postpone saying to each other.

BUCKINGHAM

The little dog . . . your work has so many inanimate objects speaking and characters that we don’t expect to speak speaking. Can you talk about that?

NURKSE

I’m interested in poetry as the creation of a decoy self. Even if you’re writing a poem about your first marriage and how strange your first wife seemed—if you have to write that kind of poem, you’re still creating a decoy self who is not a real self. For me, it’s the self that people see from a distance. I get into this research that allows more subjects in poems, allows different speakers, and allows more freedom to the poet. This is something I think I’ve benefited from by being a teacher. I would find students who were very inhibited. They didn’t want to hurt a family member. There were students who were able to write about things that were taboo by writing, This is a poem in the voice of a pencil sharpener. I gave the assignment to the students to help them, and then I learned from what they were doing with the assignments. But I’ve also been interested in poems that use inanimate objects. One example is the riddle. It’s an old, human form. An old Anglo-Saxon riddle is: twenty white horses on a red hill—who am I? And the answer will be the teeth in the mouth. While they seem like puzzles, and they are, they’re also projections of the self into some really unlikely area and having that unlikely area speak.

ANTHONY

That reminds me of an activity we did with Laura Kasischke. She said, “Write about a white room. You’re in a white room and it’s silent.” Then, later on in the activity she says, “What you wrote about is your death.” So you could apply that afterwards because you were able to say all these things about the white room and then—I’m sure you can apply anything—but that’s your death. That’s what’s going on with the inanimate objects, right?

NURKSE

It definitely is. Since a coffee cup by definition has no unconscious, when you’re writing from the point of view of a coffee cup, you’re probably liberating your own unconscious. I’m interested in animals, too—maybe personally I just had a closer relationship with animals than I expected to. I’m not Buddhist, I don’t question killing a fly. But if there’s a little fly on me, I’m thinking, “Hmm, could be my Grandma.”

ANTHONY

You’ve been talking about ambiguity within poems, or in narratives, and intuition within the writing and reading. I noticed when you use a lot of narrative within your work, it often seems to push beyond and into the realm of parable. Was that conscious? Or what do you think are some elements of parable? I’m thinking allegory more as X equals Y, so this story has this lesson, and it can’t be looked at differently, whereas parable has a larger ambiguity to it.

NURKSE

The whole question of parable is interesting because there’s a meaning but also withholding. Within the Christian tradition, there’s a very simple story, but half the people are not supposed to get it, so there is a question of meaning becoming volatile. Meaning is not something that’s static. In this sentence I’m going to withhold it; in this sentence I’m going to give you some of it. So it’s almost like meaning becomes a fire, like a volatile, spiritual quality rather than something definable. In the Jewish tradition, a story will be a paragraph long, and there will be volumes written about what it contains. That’s because the meaning is correlated with time, and the meaning is correlated with the person who reads it.

Kafka has this quote about parables where he says, “If you really studied the parables, then you would become a parable, and you wouldn’t have any more problems.” Kafka’s approach to it was really very simple and very complicated at the same time. I think that’s a very hip differentiation—that allegories do seem kind of like, this is just me dressing up as a pirate when I am dressing up as pirate. You know it’s meant to be solved, whereas a parable has that kind of volatility where at different times in your life, it’s going to have very different meanings to you.

COBB

Do you see a connection between parable and riddle and the inhabiting of inanimate objects?

NURKSE

Definitely. Not to be cheesy, but a lot of this has to do with the subject-object relationship. It fascinates me that our basic syntax in our language—and not necessarily in other languages—is either I or Me. In Vietnamese, I can be neither I nor Me. I would be “aging poet” or “Grandfather.” I’d speak of myself in the third person. We can kind of never be both. Once you consider yourself, you’re either the subject or the object of consciousness. If you’re the object of consciousness, you can’t be the subject of consciousness. And if it’s your own consciousness, if you’re the subject, you can’t be the object.

I do think parables are the riddles. It’s not that I think somebody who doesn’t understand writing would say, “They’re being unnecessarily obscure or deliberately obscure.” I think it’s more that they’re inhabiting the tension between “I’m being seen or I’m seeing.” The parable is somewhere in between.

In a way, the riddle really takes place between the riddle and the answer. There’s a change in the frame, a change in the psychological frame, and the point isn’t really the answer. The point is that the frame has changed. You had a chance to see yourself from a distance. This is something that I’ve quoted a lot in my life, but Ralph Waldo Emerson says in an essay on poetry, “When we’re in one thought, we’re stuck in that thought, we’re infinitely far from the next thought; therefore, we love the poet.” That’s kind of a simplification. I don’t know exactly what he means, but I’m extrapolating: poetry is our way of escaping the monologue of consciousness since we’re trapped in associations of ideas. And that is the importance of revision, too, because you’re writing poems not written by you on Friday morning. They’re written by all the different yous over the three months or years and become something different, even if it’s just a very simple sentence.

SHERIDAN

In an interview, you answered the question, “What do you like least about being a writer?” Part of what you said was, “I can’t free myself of the temptation to measure myself by external standards especially in the parkade of the internet.” Can you speak to those external standards?

NURKSE

It’s almost as if part of being a writer now is having a Facebook page, and I don’t do that. The internet throws back at you a lot of reflections of yourself. I’m human like everybody else. I’ll google my reviews and they will come back to me. If it’s a good review, I’ll feel great, and if it’s a bad review, I’ll feel horrible. That is more of a constant pressure than twenty years ago. My publisher might say to me, “Well, Dennis, here’s a new review.” Now it’s like I’m expected to google it.

I do think technology is changing people’s brains. Even to me, I find it’s slowly mulling holes in my brain; just after this interview, I’ll go up to my room and I’ll turn on my cell phone. It’s not just a world with no privacy from the government, but it’s a world where we have no privacy from ourselves, where if you’re walking in the magic forest of love, it’s like the trees aren’t saying anything, but if you turn on your cell phone, it’s speaking to you directly. This is nothing new that I’m saying, but it’s like a chemical hit you get every time that happens, and it’s like being addicted to your own saliva; you’re addicted to that little adrenaline charge. I find the whole thing totally scary. It’s something that I’ve tried to write about a little bit more in forthcoming prose work, but, yeah, I do find it terrifying and it’s scary to my life. It’s like creating a world without absence in it. You realize how important it is to have things like absence and death and distance because this world that we’ve created is kind of hell.

I believe there’s a story of Saint Theresa of Lisieux, and she prays all her life for the conversion of Satan because she can’t stand the idea that Satan doesn’t know the love of God. You aren’t supposed to do that. You’re not supposed to spend your whole life empathetic with Satan; in fact, in Dante it says that the saints have no pity for the damned. Well here’s this little girl—because she died when she was about eighteen—who feels terrible pity for Satan, and they ask her about hell and she says, we know hell exists because human beings created it and for all we know, it [hell] is empty, which seems like a radical answer. And all they can do is kick her upstairs and make her a saint. She visits with the poor and the people with tuberculosis, and she exposes herself and dies at a young age and is obviously all her life enraptured with love, so they’ve got to make her a saint. But you know I do think they, and we, are doing this good job of creating a hell for ourselves, a hell where we more and more see ourselves being punished and tormented, just like how all the worst parts of ourselves are externalized forever on the internet. I’m just assuming the human race will rebel against that, but I’m not going to live to see it.

SHERIDAN

At one point you were a street musician and I was wondering what instrument you played.

NURKSE

I played the flute. And I still play the flute. I played the flute last night trying not to be too loud in my hotel room. I try not to play too loud. Along with studying with a Rabbi, I played gospel with a bunch of black inner-city musicians in Brooklyn. We did a little CD. A couple of the tracks are still pretty nice. I’m trying not to exploit that and write my self-deprecating but warm memoir about the experience, you know? Just let it be. But it is important to me. Poetry is amazing, music is pretty amazing, too: meaning that people from a thousand different cultures hear. Dah duh dah duh, dah duh dah duh, I think it means something to all of them.

Issue 88: A Conversation With Kevin McIlvoy

88

Found in Willow Springs 88

JANUARY 25, 2021

POLLY BUCKINGHAM, JOSHUA HENDERSON,
ALEXANDRA JACKSON, SAMANTHA SWAIN,
& BENJAMIN VAN VOORHIS

A TALK WITH KEVIN MCILVOY

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?

KEVIN MCILVOY

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.

VAN VOORHIS

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?

MCILVOY

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.

POLLY BUCKINGHAM

Who are some other writers who value incoherence?

MCILVOY

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.

JOSHUA HENDERSON

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?

MCILVOY

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.

BUCKINGHAM

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?

MCILVOY

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.

SAMANTHA SWAIN

Who is your ideal reader?

MCILVOY

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.

VAN VOORHIS

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?

MCILVOY

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.”

ALEXANDRA JACKSON

Can you talk a little bit about how you find the element of repugnance coming into your work and how you see it resonating?

MCILVOY

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.”

SWAIN

How does that process of letting everything in and cutting later change when you’re approaching short pieces and genre-bending pieces?

MCILVOY

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.”

HENDERSON

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.

MCILVOY

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.

VAN VOORHIS

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?

MCILVOY

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.

BUCKINGHAM

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.

MCILVOY

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.”

BUCKINGHAM

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.

MCILVOY

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.

HENDERSON

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.

MCILVOY

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.

HENDERSON

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?

MCILVOY

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.

VAN VOORHIS

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?

MCILVOY

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?

BUCKINGHAM

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?

MCILVOY

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.”

SWAIN

Do you have any advice for young writers?

MCILVOY

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.

Issue 87: An Interview with Willow Springs Cover Artist Alexis Trice

87 Front Cover

WINTER 2020

A TALK WITH WILLOW SPRINGS COVER ARTIST ALEXIS TRICE

Alexis Trice

Born and bred in New York City, ALEXIS TRICE has had an obsession with drawing and painting from a very young age, and flora and fauna have always been her subject of choice. After graduating from The School of Visual Arts with a BFA in Illustration, she started focusing on painting in oils. She creates fine art based on the natural world and has a business painting pet portraiture.

“To the self-interested, Alexis’s paintings seem to exploit conditions of entrapment, cruelty, and isolation. But the sense of exploitation falls away as the subjects become more dear to us, begging the viewer to consider what these conditions reveal about the necessity of our nature: to be free, to live without fear, and to propel ourselves into a greater, sometimes unfathomable scope of experience, however manipulative or dire. Horizons menace yet somehow beckon, reminding us where we stand in the scene: constraints serve as warnings, suffering betrays hope, and each contrivance—the better we see it—becomes urgently familiar.”

—Robert Canwell

Who are the artists you most admire, and how have they influenced you?

While I have a long list of artists and creators I deeply admire, I’d have to say first on the list is modern day painter Walton Ford, followed by naturalist and artist John James Audubon. Their deep admiration for and fascination with the natural world and its complexities have strengthened my curiosity and compelled me to explore and divulge my own personal narratives and approach.

Do you have a favorite piece of art (yours or someone else’s) and why?

Nearly impossible to choose one, but the artist who first comes to mind created such a unique niche that any single one of his paintings is an incarnation of his previous—Dutch Golden Age painter Otto Marseus Van Schriek. His work embodies the most seductive and elusive revelations of the natural work. Dark, sultry, curious, and so wonderfully, and sometimes even comically, rendered. His paintings encompass a special toad’s-eye view of the underbrush of the forest floor where our commonplace so-called “vermin” lurk with a hint of menace as well as astounding beauty.

What is your creative process when planning out a painting? How do you decide whether to do a piece in oils as opposed to watercolors?

Usually it starts with a flash of inspiration that I then break down but also build upon. There are particular animals that I feel very drawn to that I am constantly revisiting in my work. There is a language of sorts that I have constructed and portray through them.

Once I have a spark, I typically do a variety of thumbnail sketches, and then I search for photo reference online. I typically reference from many dozens of photos for each individual subject per painting, including plants native to the animals’ environment. From there I will refine and solidify a final sketch, and then move on to painting.

Sometimes I have ideas for work that have a more ethereal or illustrative feel to them, and that’s when I tend to take the watercolor approach. But for more complex, heavily layered and rendered pieces, oil is the way to go.

There is a real tension between the vibrancy of your colors and the darkness of your subject matter. How has the discourse on habitat destruction that we see throughout your pieces influenced your artistic aesthetic? And how have your aesthetic preferences influenced your subject matter?

My aesthetic and style of work has evolved on a separate plane from my subject matter. I suppose one may inform the other, and they ultimately dovetail, but not always. I think the delicate rendering of my subjects is greatly influenced by 18th century lithography, also a time period of peak exploration and attempted categorization of the natural world.

Two major veins in your work seem to be animals interacting with man-made objects or animals as victims of natural disaster. Can you discuss the overlap between these ideas?

Man-made objects are a disaster for animals and their environments, and a lot of disasters leading to endangerment are also man-made. Humanity has become a very powerful animal and force, to the degree that we are altering everything on our planet, including our weather. Let that statement sink in for a moment: the power to alter our weather. It sounds like centuries-old folklore, but it’s the undeniable state and suffrage of our earth. We essentially (human, animal, plant, elements, and so on) have all become victims of our actions and will continue to do so, lest some major and permanent changes are made.

What do you hope the viewer gets from those pieces that deal with the death of an animal versus those that highlight their natural beauty?

To me those are one in the same, cut from the same cloth, indivisible, though to the viewer it may not appear that way initially. I hope that my work can captivate the viewer long enough to sit and sort through the potential feelings of unease and discomfort. Of course, as with any art and viewer, the goal is to deepen connection and a (sometimes unspoken) understanding. There is no life without death, and there is no beauty without suffering.

How has the turmoil of the last year or so (the pandemic, the election, protests against racial injustice, the confluence of natural disasters, etc.) affected your work in terms of subject matter? Has it affected your process or the way you see yourself as an artist?

Ironically (and gratefully), I think the pandemic has made an unexpected deepening awareness between humanity and nature. It has made us slow down, savor and appreciate what our immediate surroundings have to offer and ground us, instead of the infinite world of distraction. Turmoil, so to speak, has had a continuous place in the undercurrent of my work. Because of this, I think my work has spoken to people in a new light, and as for me, I have felt a pivotal importance in my work in the ways of exhibiting and the truth of the subjects we tend to shy away from.

Where can people find your work?

Instagram @alexis_trice

And of course, my website, www.alexistrice.com.

Issue 87: A Talk with Jericho Brown

87 Front Cover

Found in Willow Springs 87

March 29, 2019

JOSH ANTHONY, HANNAH COBB, CAYLIE HERRMANN, & KARI RUECKERT

A TALK WITH JERICHO BROWN

jericho brown

TERSE AND BOTH RHETORICAL AND LYRICAL, Jericho Brown's poems explore race and sexuality with an unflinching gaze. Sometimes formal and always smart, the poems are infused with a sense of grace. Subjects that feel at first deeply personal become part of the experiences of a greater we. At the core of Brown’s poems is a call for love.

A New York Times book reviewer writes of The Tradition, “In Brown’s poems, the body at risk—the infected body, the abused body, the black body, the body in eros—is most vulnerable to the cruelty of the world. But even in their most searing moments, these poems are resilient out of necessity, faithful to their account of survival, when survival is the hardest task of all.” Yusef Komanyakaa writes of his collection The New Testament, “The lyrical clarity in this poignant collection approaches ascension. And here the sacred and profane embrace. . . . Naked feeling is never abstracted, and this poet knows how to see into the dark.”

Jericho Brown is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and he is the winner of the Whiting Award. Brown’s first book, Please (New Issues 2008), won the American Book Award. His second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon 2014), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. His third collection, The Tradition, was a Pulitzer Prize winner; it also won the Paterson Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in The Bennington Review, Buzzfeed, Fence, jubilat, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, TIME magazine, and several volumes of The Best American Poetry. He is the director of the Creative Writing Program and a professor at Emory University.

We met Jericho outside a coffee shop in Portland, the chaos of the AWP conference swirling around us. We talked about formal elements in poetry—in particular his own created form, the duplex—race, the blues, prayer, vulnerability, and love. Jericho was popular among the passersby, and we got to eavesdrop on several enthusiastic conversations with friends and fans. Brown was charming, down to earth, candid and open; he kept us laughing with his raw and honest humor.

JOSH ANTHONY

What are you reading right now, and what do you look for in a book?

JERICHO BROWN

There are a lot of writers who are really good . . . I don’t like this question. I want that in print, that I don’t like that question, but not that I have a problem with you asking me the question. I just think there’s something that happens where people try to figure on you based on your answer to this question, and I don’t like being figured on, you know what I mean? Because for some people there’s a right answer to this question. What I’m really reading right now is George Oppen. I’m reading Keith Wilson’s new book. I think it’s really beautiful. I’m reading Vievee Francis all the time. I’m reading Natalie Scenters-Zapico. Lyn Hejinian’s last book—y’all should read it. It’s really good.

When I was getting a PhD, I was reading a book of poetry a day. I was going to the independent bookstore and if it was there, I was going to read it. I thought it was my responsibility, particularly when it came to Black poets, to know everything. So I’ve read a lot of books. If I don’t think something’s good, I don’t feel like I have to finish it. But I also read systematically. I could read anthologies and find poets that way. When you’re reading an anthology, you can sort of be like, “No. No. No. Oh! There’s something. Look!” I think I found the poet Ai in an anthology. Then I read all of Ai’s books. I had a teacher who used to tell us to figure out who our favorite poet was, who you feel you’re close to. If you read all of that poet’s work, then you’ll be able to glean who their favorite poet was. Then what you should do is read all of that poet’s work, then you’ll be able to glean who their favorite poets were, and you should read all their work, and that’ll take you all the way back to the Bible. You’ll always have something to read, and you’ll get a history of poetry.

No matter how widely I read, I know that there are people out there trying to nail me down, and I don’t want to be nailed down. And I don’t want to nail anybody down. People have aesthetic prejudices. People try to find aesthetic prejudices in other people.

  HANNAH ENGEL

Do you see reinvention as a way to not be nailed down?

BROWN

No, that’s not what I mean when I’m talking about not wanting to be nailed down. As a Black poet, as a southern poet, as a gay poet, as somebody who is comfortable in all of my identities, I want for you to find out as a reader that that identity becomes of use to you, whether you are queer or not. That you are and are not in that identity. People really think that in order to like a poem, it has to be relatable. It’s so dumb. What’s relatable about Wallace fucking Stevens? If you don’t like ice cream, I guess you can’t read “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” It’s so fucking stupid, this idea, “I have to find myself in the thing and then it means I like the thing.” That is the whitest shit I’ve ever heard in my life! Stuff is not good because you’re there. That’s crazy! I don’t like when people feel like they can cordon you off, given an identity or given an aesthetic, then they can say, “Oh, I already know I don’t like that.” Bitch, read my poems! You ain’t read my poems, so you can’t say that. When I really look at it, it turns out not to be about aesthetic or identity at all, it ends up being about friendship, it ends up being about something more social.

So you were talking about reinvention. I think the proper stance to being a poet in the world is that you’re always a little mistrustful of whatever you set down. If you set down something, an idea, if your poems are proving a certain poetic, by the time you write a book, you should be doubting that poetic. My students are always trying to do something I tell them they can’t get away with doing. But then my job becomes, “Let’s figure out if you can do that in a poem.” That’s what I mean by reinvention. You need an idea of what you think poetry is to write your poems, but that idea always must be changing if you’re going to keep writing poems because after a while you keep writing that same poem.

I also think it’s a good idea that whenever we write a poem, somewhere in our writing we’re also thinking, “I want to change my idea of what poetry is in this poem.” What I tell my students about revision and cliché is that when they come upon the cliché, they don’t have to stop writing and lose their minds. You can keep going, but you need to recognize that you’ve written a cliché. If you can say, “Oh shit, I said it’s raining cats and dogs,” you might need to write that to get to the next line, which is killer. If you write, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” and then you write another line, and it’s killer, and we’re in workshop, and you bring me the poem and it still has “It’s raining cats and dogs” in it, we got a problem, because that means you don’t know the difference between the cliché and the killer line. That’s gonna stress me out! If you can have that kind of knowledge on the line level, I think you can have that kind of knowledge on the word level, on the poem level, and on the book level, too: “There are ways of being in a poem that I’ve already done or that have already been done, and maybe I’ll want to find new ways.” You don’t have to find new ways to do everything in the same poem.

I have a whole lecture on penultimates because I think they are actually more important than endings. At least in American poetry something happens right before the end of a poem where everything goes crazy, or where things get really psychological, or where the language slips just a little bit, and it’s that slippage that directs toward the end of a poem. In Frost, for instance, it always happens with rhyme. In “Fire and Ice,” he brings up the new rhyme at the penultimate moment of the poem—all the rhymes had been the same before that. And in “The Road Not Taken,” for instance, it’s “and I—/I,” so there’s a certain kind of double rhyme; he makes a literal enactment of a sigh. Komunyakaa, in “We Never Know,” says “I fell in love” in that penultimate moment.

ANTHONY

You’re really enthusiastic with your rhyming schemes—maybe not schemes, but how you move around with the language.

BROWN

For me, there’s always been, in every book, a great deal of internal rhyme, because I’m interested in the music of the line and the sound of the line and rhythm. That has a lot to do with what I think poems are.

CAYLIE HERRMANN

I love “Bullet Points” and hearing the musicality behind it while you were reading. I often don’t notice rhymes when they’re on the page because it’s not what I look for in a poem, and it seemed very different from the rest of what you do. Why did you make that shift in this book?

BROWN

I was reading a lot of Gwendolyn Brooks, and I noticed that there are times in her career where she chooses a very stark, obvious rhyme, sometimes on monosyllabic words. It seems like she was trying to get at something that was at the root of us, something that was childlike in us. An example of it is a poem called “Song in the Front Yard,” which is literally in the voice of a little girl. Something about that lends itself to song, lends itself to the ballad, and when you have so called “difficult material,” it’s a way of veiling it in what seems to be simplicity, so that if something comes to you as song, you can’t refuse it because you’re enjoying it, no matter if what’s being said might be something you want to refuse. You have to deal with an ambiguity as you are reading or hearing the poem—“I don’t want to hear that, but I want to hear that”—and you’re trying to figure out why.

KARI RUECKERT

Is that childlikeness something you try to inhabit in your own work?

BROWN

Yes. I’m interested in telling the truth. I’m interested in writing adult poetry. I want people to deal with the reality we deal with. I want my poems to be an opportunity to deal with those realities. I like for people to be honest about our bodies; I’d like us to be honest in particular about women’s bodies. I think that stuff feels unpalatable to people.

Most of what I talk about is pretty regular stuff, like Black people are getting shot by the police, or fearing getting shot by the police, or us knowing that Black people could get shot by the police. Why would that be controversial? There’s a way a child learns information—you know, how you can trust children but you can’t trust them, because they will say what’s true, because they don’t know what you’re not supposed to say. That’s really what I was interested in getting at in this particular book [The Tradition].

There’s a poem by Sharon Olds called “May 1968,” which I really love. It has this moment where there’s this woman on the groundcounting, and right after that, she makes the revelation that if her period doesn’t come that night, she must be pregnant. I’ve been teaching this poem since 2002. When I ask the men in my class what she’s counting, they don’t know. They’re like, “I have no clue.” She literally says, if my period did not come tonight, I’m pregnant. But they want to fuck, and I imagine the students in my class don’t want to get nobody pregnant, but they don’t know what she’s counting. How is that? These are 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-, 22-year-old people. All the women in my class know what she’s counting.

ENGEL

You’re talking about poetry as telling truths about the body, but you’ve also mentioned poetry as coming out of the body and from your lived bodily experience. What does being a poet look like, as far as how you live bodily?

BROWN

When I’m in the act of writing a poem, I don’t know what the poem is going to be about because I think that’s a bad idea. I’m interested in following the language for what it will tell me, the sounds of the language—that’s how I write. I try to put myself in the position of whomever the speaker is in the moment of that particular poem. So, like, in the track “Summertime,” I try to put myself in the position of Janis Joplin. “Bullet Points” is in many ways a poem of prayer. What does it sound like in that intimate moment of prayer when you’re asking for something that you really need? If I do that well—this is why it’s sort of funny for me to be writing in front of people—then I look certain ways, literally, while I’m doing it. If I’m angry in a poem, I can start hitting the computer because I’m trying to become the thing I’m doing.

How to be a poet, or how to live as a poet in the body, is going to be different for each poet. For me, it’s very important to get out of my head and into my body in a physical way. So I do one of two things in the morning: I wake up and I do one hundred burpees, then I try to write for two hours. Or I wake up and I eat, and then I write for two hours. That’s my writing day. If I’m really working on something, I wake up and I eat and I write for two hours, and then I go to the gym. During the moment when I’m doing burpees or I’m trying to pick up something heavy, I’m not thinking about anything because I’m scared that this weight is going to fall on me and I can’t have my mind on anything but that. That way, when I revisit the work, it’s new to me. Before I write, I’ll pray. I’ll have a mediation period. I have a time where I read a little bit of a book, which will make me feel more grateful for who and what I am and what I have and where I am.

ENGEL

What does prayer look like for you?

BROWN

I’ll read something either by somebody like Earnest Holmes or Michael Bernard Beckwith, and I’ll read until I get to a sentence that makes me feel enlightened somehow. Once I get to a sentence like that, I put it down, and then I pray in the way that I was taught in my church. I recognize that there is a source, a God, whatever I want to call Him, that particular day. Him, Her, It. I recognize that God has in Him whatever I am affirming in that moment. If I am affirming health, or if I am affirming prosperity, or if I am affirming courage, or if I am affirming time, or if I’m affirming peace, I say, “There is a God, and everything peaceful in this world comes from one source.” I’m doing this in front of my big window in my living room, so I can really, like, see peace, because I have a yard now and I live in a quiet neighborhood, which everybody doesn’t always have. Then I say, “Well, if that God is everywhere, then that God must be in me, and therefore peace is in me.” Or whatever I’m affirming is in me. Then I say some things that are in the world every day of my life where I’m not seeing peace, but if I think about it, there is peace there somewhere. And I sort of affirm that out loud. And then I give thanks for the realization of that, for understanding that it’s there in ways I didn’t understand before. Then I release it. I let it go. That’s how I pray.

I learned that through The Science of Mind, which is where I go to church, the Spiritual Living Center of Atlanta. I grew up in a very Christian church in Louisiana, but I started to New Thought teaching when I started going to Michael Bernard Beckwith’s church, Agape, when I lived in California. New Thought is a movement that started in the 1800s; Ralph Waldo Emerson is thought of as one of its progenitors or founders. Book people, literature people who find their way toward some sort of spirituality are of interest to me.

HERRMANN

In The Tradition, you started this form—the duplex. To me it feels almost like a crown of couplets. How did you come up with that?

BROWN

In a crown, you go from the first line to the last line, then the last line repeats. I kept thinking, what happens if you just get rid of everything in between the repeats? And then I tried it, and it looked bad. And I was like, there’s got to be a way to make this a poem, to make it work. If I can figure out how to merge the formal turns of a sonnet with the juxtapositions of a ghazal with the tone of the blues, if I can put those three forms together, then I’ll have this mutt of a form—just like the person that I feel like I am in the world, a mutt, this person who for whatever reason, when encountered I’m sort of misunderstood. People are like, “What’s happening? What are you? Which thing do you want to be?” I have all these forms that I put together to make what I call the duplex, which is actually one house, but with two or maybe three houses in it. This is the best name for the merger of things that are whole and remain whole even afterwards but with a wall between them. How do you live together with a wall between you is something that I kept asking myself about these couplets—sometimes disparate, sometimes leaning into one another. I wanted some to be narrative and some to be much more lyric and to really live off of their metaphors. I wanted to see how many I could do, and so I worked on a lot of them. And then Michael Wiegers, my editor, told me I needed another one. But the other ones I had sitting around I didn’t like. I was so tired. I was like, I can’t look at another duplex. I was really frustrated with Michael. I’ll show his ass. So instead I wrote a cento [“Duplex: Cento”], which used all the lines from all the duplexes in the book.

When I was working on these poems, I was in a workshop led by Mark Jarman and A. E. Stallings. I really wanted to talk to some people who had worked with form. Because you have to learn a thing in order to do a thing. Obviously, I had written formal poems before, but I knew this was going to be a different kind of an endeavor, and I wanted to really commit to it.

HERRMANN

Do you intend for it to be something that other people can use?

BROWN

Yeah, I want everybody to write a duplex. It’d make me so happy. I want to see duplexes in every journal I pick up! I want a duplex in The New Yorker every other month.

ANTHONY

I keep thinking about the blues, too.

BROWN

It’s really tonally important to me. When I read “Theme for an English B” by Langston Hughes, I just remembered thinking, “This is a blues poem that is also somehow a narrative poem, and it’s also not using the blues structure.” There are other writers who are good at that. I’ve always been thinking about how to get that tone into my poems. There’s a poem by Hughes called “The Island” that I think does it, and a poem called “Suicide’s Note,” which I have an essay about online—I think it’s called “To Be Asked for a Kiss.”

ENGEL

I read an interview where you were talking about the transition from Please to The New Testament, about how you wanted to stay away from musical language at first when you were writing The New Testament because Please was so musical. You said you wanted a new lexicon for The New Testament.

BROWN

I still wanted the poems to be musical, although it is true that the poems in The New Testament lean toward a certain kind of discursiveness, some digression, which also meant a certain kind of flatter language sometimes, which I was interested in trying because I had become enamored of the work of people like Claudia Rankine and Marie Howe and Lyn Hejinian and Anne Carson, who were making use of a flatter language that wasn’t as tinged with music as what I had been interested in before. I see music as the artifice of Please.

ENGEL

Did you find that for The Tradition you developed another new lexicon of words that you were coming back to?

BROWN

For The Tradition, there probably are words that I was coming back to, but not as consciously. When I notice those words return, I push toward them, but in Please, those words are different in terms of the world-building of the book. There are different factors that go into the world-building of The Tradition, and those factors have more to do with what I was trying to figure out in poetry. In The New Testament, and in Please, what I’m trying to figure out with poetry is not necessarily part of the world-building of the book. In Please, I’m just trying to figure out how to write a damn poem. In The New Testament, I’m trying to figure out how to be more discursive in a poem or how to write a longer line. In The Tradition, I was thinking, how direct can a poem be and still be a poem? I was thinking about metonymy as a corrective to metaphor. Can I write poems that are based in the metonym, rather than the metaphor? So that’s why you have these poems like “The Card Tables” and “The Rabbits” where what I mean to do is look at the thing for the thing, as opposed to comparing it to something else, to bring it to the reader, to allow the reader to make whatever assumptions they’re going to make based on the thing, without me saying it’s like something else. And I’m such a metaphoric poet—which is hilarious to me, I’ve turned out to be such a metaphoric poet—but I have to say I wasn’t before.

You watch Beyoncé a long time, you see her improve on something, you see her trying to learn to do a thing, and she gets better at doing that thing, and the same thing with Lebron James, or anybody you can pay attention to. One of the things I’m wanting to figure out was, how do you use a metaphor? And I think I’ve finally figured it out. And then after I figured it out, I couldn’t get rid of it.

ENGEL

So then you were trying to figure out how not to use a metaphor.

BROWN

Exactly. The metonym was what I was trying to make, and then there are these poems titled that thing that’s sort of obvious in the world. And then there are the duplex poems, which, they’re part of the world because you know you can come across a duplex. Right? I’m interested in that as a title because I imagine that when people see the word “duplex” they see a duplex. And so they have to imagine whatever happens in the poem happening in whatever world they think a duplex is.

RUECKERT

You talk a lot about vulnerability as a poet. I see vulnerability as something that’s internal, being vulnerable to yourself when you write a poem, and also externally when you share it with the world. How do both those experiences work together?

BROWN

I don’t know how they work together. I’ll say this one thing: it is really nice to find yourself in the middle of questions of integrity in ways that you may not have found yourself in the past because you didn’t know to question when you had integrity. Vulnerability in poetry is interesting to me because vulnerability is what leads to integrity. If you are really allowing your poems access to everything you know and everything you’ve done and everything you believe, then anything can appear in your poem. And you’ll be like, “Oh shit, I just wrote that thing.” But then there’s an opportunity there because once you’ve written it, you have to decide if that’s who you really are: “I said this, do I believe that?” So simply having a question and trying to answer it, through the poem or in yourself, is the process of figuring out what you believe, understanding that what you believe is going to be based in your ethics and your morals and your values and what you think of as right or wrong, what you think of as gray or whatever. When I’m talking about being vulnerable, that’s what I’m doing. I’m making myself available to the poem as much as possible, and then dealing with what that means when it’s on the page by finishing it and allowing it to work on my life. Once you say something in a poem, you as the poet, maybe I shouldn’t say you, but I as the poet, have to say, “Well, that’s how I have to live, then.” I just can’t be out there saying that if I’m not going to make that revelation a part of my life. So once I make the revelation a part of my life, then questions of integrity come up because I’m going to be asked to do things I can’t do anymore because I think that’s crazy now. I have to realize that.

Being vulnerable to people is a little different. I don’t think I have the same questions about that in the world, probably because of my upbringing and because I had priorities for a long time. It’s not so much that I feel like I’m vulnerable, I just feel like I’ve tried my best to build a world where I can love people and people can love me, and I can trust that I am loved. You know, sometimes you don’t feel that way. But I always have to remember that when I don’t feel that way, that’s anxiety, it’s a conspiracy theory of one, telling myself that I don’t have nobody or don’t nobody love me. There are people who’ve been really supportive of what I do, and I have gotten signs of appreciation. And I think somehow that’s enough for me to know.

Here’s what I really know. I know that poems changed and saved my life, and that they continue to. I know that. Since I was six or seven years old, poems were doing work on me. And I imagine, “I like this poem, because I’m writing this poem, it feels good,” and I imagine it can someday do work on somebody. When it does, it’ll be cool. I’ll be like, “Yay, it did work on somebody,” if that comes back on me. I might not ever get to know, and I don’t need to know. So being vulnerable is easier. Maybe it’s easier for narcissistic reasons. But I think, “It worked for me, it’ll work for someone else.” It’s harder for me to be vulnerable to myself. Being vulnerable to other people—I don’t really have a choice. I have to stand behind my work. I have to do what I can to help it be in the world.

RUECKERT

You said in your interview with Divedapper that the representation of the self is a representation of the truth of the human race. And it reminded me of what James Baldwin said when he said, “The artist’s struggle for integrity must be considered as a kind of metaphor for struggle. And the poets (by which I mean all artists) are the only people who know the truth about us.” I’m interested in what that looks like in your journey as a poet.

BROWN

I just need to know that something about my work can indeed hold a place in one human heart. It doesn’t have to be that much space. Integrity isn’t only about how you live. It’s also about how you write and what you let out into the world. And how precise you are in your language. When I’m writing my poems, I’m trying to get them right before sending them out into the world. For one thing, I don’t want to be embarrassed. I think it’s important that I give the poem everything I could possibly give it and that it’s as good as I can make it.

ENGEL

How do you know when it’s at that point?

BROWN

Well, for one thing, I have good friends. The wonderful thing about the poetry community is that we’re really good to one another. We like to sit in a room somewhere where it’s a little cold and dark and uncomfortable. And we will read up on each other. For nothing, for feedback. It’s a blessing to have people who will invest themselves and support your work. And it’s a blessing to be able to do that for somebody else. And it’s also a blessing to be comfortable about it. It’s not going to be there automatically, but when it’s there, it’s a real lesson and I’m really glad that it’s there.

HERRMANN

I want to know how you get these communities. How did you personally find your community?

BROWN

People are nice. And I try to be nice to people. And I try to tell the truth. People are like, “Oh, he’s telling the truth. Let me go stand next to him. Let me go stand next to him because he’s telling the truth. I don’t want him to get shot.” [Big laugh.] I also try to be sincerely grateful to people who’ve done nice things for me. That helps to build community itself. People thank you in a real way. They remember you said thank you. You wouldn’t believe how many people will not say thank you.

I try to tell the truth, and I try to be good to people. I try to be there for people. If I see there’s something that a younger writer needs and I can meet it, then I try to meet it. Sometimes that’s as simple as reading a poem. And sometimes that becomes financial, or sometimes it becomes writing a recommendation, or sometimes it becomes talking to somebody who’s in the same place in the same city to say, “Hey, can you let this person in your workshop?” If you support the poetry you love as much as you can, that’ll happen. And if you support the poets you love as much as you can, you’re also creating a world where people will want to support you because they see you as a supporter.

ANTHONY

In an interview, you said if you’re not writing you’re teaching, but it sounds like maybe if you’re not writing you’re giving back to the community.

BROWN

Well, teaching really helps because I feel like I’m writing. When I’m really helping a student with a poem or when I’m really talking about something, I feel myself learning that thing or re-learning it or learning it in a new way. My students will see something I haven’t seen, and it will give me something to chase. So I have this entire class or two classes of people who are giving me ideas and they don’t know it. They’re asking, “Can I do this? Is this possible? Can you have a poem that does this?” I’m like, “Let me go figure it out!”

HERRMANN

Did you ever struggle with students who were less interested in poetry in any level where you were still teaching it?

BROWN

Well, I wasn’t good at it when I started doing it. We’re not supposed to be good at anything we do the first time. And we’re hard on ourselves. Writers are hard on themselves about, like, not being Whitney Houston, but even Whitney Houston couldn’t do what she started doing the first time she tried to do it. I look back, and I think about when I was an early teacher. I wasn’t so great, and I feel bad. There are these people in the world who don’t have everything that I have now, but the important thing is that you give them everything you do have.

The younger my students are, the thing that I’m noticing is, anything I ask them, they’re like, “I can just look it up. I don’t have to know it.” If that’s the case, what happens with the knowledge that you gained from poetry? Because you can’t look that shit up, you’ve got to read it. And you have to internalize it. To really gain knowledge from poetry, you have to be a poetry reader. You have to know how to read poetry. I don’t necessarily know how to combat that yet. That’s another thing I’m learning because I didn’t have that experience at first.

RUECKERT

Do you think poets, no matter what, are teaching in some capacity a lot of the time? Even if it’s casual?

BROWN

Yes, poets are always doing something. I actually have a mini essay I wrote about this. Poets are ambassadors in some way. They’re always curating a reading series or writing a review or teaching a class or doing something to give. There is still in us this belief in introducing poetry to more people so they can know its glory because more people need it. I mean, if you’re a writer, you don’t love much else more than writing. A lot of that teaching has to do with creating a space where writing can be made, that the process itself can be made public and therefore you don’t feel like a crazy person.

HERRMANN

You said in an interview with Interlochen that there’s something so recycled about it all—just making literature for other people who make literature. It makes me wonder who you are writing for, if not other poets. It also made me think about not wanting to be nailed down. If you don’t want to specifically be writing for queer poets or Black poets, who specifically are you writing for?

BROWN

I just write for me when I was nineteen. I had really big needs. And I was getting them fulfilled by poetry. I’m trying to fill that need with the poems I write. And it was a future tense need even with this book [The Tradition]. I feel like there are things that he needed to know that are here. But I’m also trying to feel that need for myself, in the present tense. When I’m reading poems, what do I want from poems that I’m not seeing? And if I’m not seeing it, then I’m making it.

HERMANN

You use beginning caps in the overwhelming majority of your poems. Since it’s so unusual, I’m just wondering what your particular reason for doing it is.

BROWN

I do it for two reasons. One is that there is a history of African-American poets doing it whose work I really love like Gwendolyn Brooks, like Cornelius Eady. It puts a kind of pressure on the line that makes the reader have to read each line one at a time and see it as a line. If you have to see each line as a line, then you have to deal with the poem on its terms as a poem of lines and as a crafted thing. You don’t get to dismiss the poem because of what the poem is about. You see it coming to you formally in a way where you have to deal with it just as formally, no matter its subject matter, which I think has to do with why a lot of Black poets were doing it.

ENGEL

That’s working in an interesting way with what you were saying about rhyme. Rhyme has this song quality to it where you have to receive it, even if you don’t like what it’s saying. The caps make it so that you have to encounter each line.

BROWN

Yeah, and I want that to be visible. I want it in the ear, but I also want it visible on the page. I don’t want you thinking you’re encountering anything other than a poem. If you have prejudices about subject matter, I want you to understand that those are your prejudices and your problems. And that you should go solve them. If you want to tell me a poem can be about anything, it just needs to be well crafted, then I want you to understand if you want to pick me apart based on craft, we can go. “You don’t know how to end a poem. You don’t know how to use a metaphor. You don’t know how to black black black black black black”—whatever you want to call your racism today. Something about the way poems are formed on the page, something about the line, something about the line break, something about all those things, any lack of that ability, becomes an opportunity for some people to dismiss your work.

ENGEL

The Tradition feels like it’s doing more explicit political things, particularly with Black Lives Matter, than previous books. Do you feel like you have to push into the craft even more when you’re doing that because there’s even more danger you might be dismissed?

BROWN

No, I don’t feel that. I feel like I have it, and so I’m going to use it because I love it. I mean I actually love this shit. It seems like a silly thing for people who are not us—it seems odd to discuss it as important—but I think it’s really important to know what caesura is and to know what a caesura can do in a line. I think that’s where it is. I’m excited about it. My poems are what people will call more directly political. But I’m not really thinking about any of that when I’m writing a poem. In the midst of writing a poem, I don’t know where it’s going to go, what it’s going to be about, or how it’s going to work out. I do know I have that in me, so that’s a possibility. When you shoot an 18-year-old and then have his body laid out in the street for hours, I have emotions about that. And some of those emotions probably come from the fact that I’m Black. And some of those emotions I would hope are there just because I’m a person. As a person, I think it’s not a good idea to shoot people and to have their bodies laying out in the street for hours. I don’t think that’s cool. And I would like to believe that people will agree with that, that people don’t think that’s okay. That’s in me, somewhere walking around in my body, my psyche, who I am, so that might come out when I’m writing a poem. But when I’m writing a poem, I’m actually thinking much more about, “Should I make a leap here? Should I indent this line? Do I say the next thing, or do I make a metaphor first and then allow that metaphor to become the next thing after that?” As I’m asking those questions, I’m saying things people keep telling me are intense. But I don’t think it’s intense. Look at the world right now! People are out here acting like my poems are controversial. Girl! Seriously! Like, seriously! People are like, “Oh your poems are so sexual,” like what porn do you watch? My poems are so sexual? Me? What TV show are you watching?

I thank God for Alice Walker every day. She wrote a book called The Third Life of Grange Copeland, which was very important to me, particularly given my own childhood and my own past. I saw her giving a speech, and she said this thing about how she didn’t understand why every image of two people having sex on television and in movies now looks like rape. Somebody has got to get pushed up against something every time, and we’re programmed to believe that’s what feels good. But my poems are too sexual? I tell my students, “If you are just being offended left and right, you’re not going to have a good time in my class.” But then, I also say to my students, “And if you are offended by the fact of something in a poem that you love in a movie, we are not going to get along.” People out here are mad that there is sex in poems. But you’re trying to have sex!

“All your poems are so violent.” What? Do you watch the news? It is so ridiculous! You’re out here pretending that we’re not living in this world together. Why are you pretending that? How have you managed to isolate yourself, that you are not aware of the world, or you are trying to pretend the world does not exist? What kind of hatred is that?

HERRMANN

Do you have any advice for young poets?

BROWN

I think it’s important that you say yes to everything. Try not to say no. If there is something that you have an inkling to do, just go do it. If there is something you have an inkling to write, go write it. If there is something you have an inkling to see, go see it. Go make it happen. But I’m also saying be careful. You might have an inkling to walk down a dark road in the middle of the night by yourself. Don’t do that. But other than that, experience and see. Experience and see. Also, I think it’s a good idea to live the life that you claim. Live the life of whatever identity you’re claiming and if you are a poet just decide now what that looks like in terms of your time. For me, that looks like two hours a day. For you, it might look like fifteen minutes a day.

You keep the overhead low, that’s what Grace Paley used to say. Instead of getting the room that’s $127 a night, get the one that’s $125 because you will need those two dollars. Create some discipline in your life when it comes to the writing. I don’t think that has to be at the same time every day, although if it is at the same time every day, you know when it’s going to happen. I don’t think you should be going to sleep without practicing. You’ve got to practice some. Practice a little.

RUECKERT

On an Instagram post, you say rebirth and renewal are kind of like an invitation. What is your perspective of those words, rebirth and renewal?

BROWN

I just love spring. I was born on April 14th, and Diana Ross was born just a few days ago, and Billie Holiday is an Aries as well. I think it’s the poet’s season. I think Persephone, and I think Orpheus, those mythological people who had something to do with coming up from the underworld. There’s something about that that I think has a lot to do with writing. Making something out of nothing. Creating something, recreating something. There are these memories we have and we put them down or these facts we know and we put them down, and that becomes a whole other thing, other than the memory or the fact. That’s sort of my relationship to writing and to the way I think about . . . I love the fact that I can see, smell, feel spring happening all around. It’s a busy time because of AWP, my taxes are due, the semester’s ending. I have a birthday coming up and everybody wants to know, “What are you going to do for your birthday?” Take a nap. A very long nap.