Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis on 'A Mown Lawn' (video)

On Tuesday, April 25, I had the honor of interviewing Lydia Davis. She had come to visit the Kelly Writers House as a Writers House Fellow. The program is associated with a seminar that I teach — in which the students and I read as many of the writings of the Fellow as we can. As I discussed Davis’s work with my students and KWH colleagues, I became fascinated by several micro-stories that particularly read like prose poems. “A Mown Lawn,” a series of permutative phrasings that moved forward from the vowel affinities of mown and lawn and riffed semantically as well (thus starting with suburban lawn care, moving through law-and-order conservatism and finally reaching imperialistic warfare), became a special fascination. 

On Tuesday, April 25, I had the honor of interviewing Lydia Davis. She had come to visit the Kelly Writers House as a Writers House Fellow. The program is associated with a seminar that I teach — in which the students and I read as many of the writings of the Fellow as we can. As I discussed Davis’s work with my students and KWH colleagues, I became fascinated by several micro-stories that particularly read like prose poems. “A Mown Lawn” is a series of permutative phrasings that progress from the vowel affinities of mown and lawn to semantic riffing as well — starting with suburban lawn care, moving through law-and-order conservatism and finally reaching imperialistic warfare. I was compelled by the poem’s radicalization of homonymic improvisation. Naturally, then, when I had a chance to interview its author, I asked her if she would be willing to read it, and comment. She describes this as one of just two explicitly political pieces.

Lydia Davis

The poet's novel

In “Composition as Explanation” Gertrude Stein writes: “The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.” [1].

Lydia Davis is a writer who is a great influence and inspiration to “everyone,” when everyone includes readers of experimental fiction as well as a myriad of poets “doing everything.”

The sort of person you imagine (PoemTalk #18)

Lydia Davis, "A Position at the University"

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

PoemTalk finally goes squarely at the question of authenticity, and - wouldn’t you know it? – we do so through a piece that is not in any conventional sense a poem. Lydia Davis’ “A Position at the University” (published with other similar short prose pieces in Almost No Memory) suggests to Jessica Lowenthal that on this day our show was “PoemProseTalk.” Fair enough. Is it a very short story – in the mode of what we call “fiction”? Not really. Is it a poetic parable in prose? (It struck Al at one point as very much like a pondering paragraph from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.) Thank goodness we brought sociologist David Grazian along. David observes that this piece is like an ethnographic field note. A field note that observes the following: In daily life, authenticity functions the way imagination does. What advantage is derived by writing about authenticity in this linguistically circular manner, in the grammar of mild-seeming discontent? Well, for one thing, it stipulates a poetics; the language of the piece makes us acutely aware as we read or listen that anxiety is the close kin of identity, because identity-naming is always partial whereas the named/identified subject is always hoping for wholeness. That discrepancy – that difference – creates a weird aura, and perhaps this is why Adrian Khactu senses that this piece belongs in the category of mundane SF, the newish sci fi mode in which there are no monsters, scientific abnormalities, cruel transformations. Perhaps the cruelest transformation is what happens every day when a person who thinks of herself in one way is assumed to have a “position” otherwise.

Here is a link to PennSound’s Lydia Davis page, and here is a link to the recording of her reading “A Position at the University” at the Kelly Writers House in 1999. And here is a link to the text. At left, left to right: David Grazian, Jessica Lowenthal, Adrian Khactu.

The director and engineer for this episode of PoemTalk was James LaMarre, and our editor, as always, is Steve McLaughlin. We're always grateful to Mark Lindsay, too, who on this occasion bailed us out of some sort of technical difficulty, major for us, minor for him.

The sort of person you imagine (PoemTalk #18)

Lydia Davis, 'A Position at the University'

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

PoemTalk finally goes squarely at the question of authenticity, and — wouldn’t you know it? — we do so through a piece that is not in any conventional sense a poem. Lydia Davis’s “A Position at the University” (published with other similar short prose pieces in Almost No Memory) suggests to Jessica Lowenthal that on this day our show was “PoemProseTalk.” Fair enough. Is it a very short story — in the mode of what we call “fiction”? Not really. Is it a poetic parable in prose? (It struck Al at one point as very much like a pondering paragraph from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.) Thank goodness we brought sociologist David Grazian along. David observes that this piece is like an ethnographic field note. A field note that observes the following: In daily life, authenticity functions the way imagination does. What advantage is derived by writing about authenticity in this linguistically circular manner, in the grammar of mild-seeming discontent? Well, for one thing, it stipulates a poetics; the language of the piece makes us acutely aware as we read or listen that anxiety is the close kin of identity, because identity-naming is always partial whereas the named/identified subject is always hoping for wholeness. That discrepancy — that difference — creates a weird aura, and perhaps this is why Adrian Khactu senses that this piece belongs in the category of mundane SF, the newish sci fi mode in which there are no monsters, scientific abnormalities, cruel transformations. Perhaps the cruelest transformation is what happens every day when a person who thinks of herself in one way is assumed to have a “position” otherwise.

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