Editorial note: Episodes of Susan Howe’s show aired on WBAI (NY)/Pacifica Radio are available at PennSound as the result of a collaboration with the Archive for New Poetry at the University of California, San Diego. On April 22, 1979, Howe hosted a conversation with Bernadette Mayer for WBAI/Pacifica. They discuss Mayer’s work as editor of 0 to 9, how to lead writing workshops, the tribulations of writing and motherhood, and Mayer’s composition of her long poem Midwinter Day. The recording of the interview can be found here. This conversation was transcribed by Michael Nardone and edited slightly for Jacket2. — Kenna O’Rourke
Susan Howe: I think you mentioned Bill Berkson’s workshop in New York —
Bernadette Mayer: It was my first connection with any other poets, except for the fact that I had known Vito Acconci since I was about fifteen years old, and he was devoted to becoming a writer. That enabled me to really think about that as a possible thing to do. He was more than devoted to it, I suppose. He was obsessed. He was really the first connection to the outside world. Then, in Bill’s workshop I met a lot of the people who are now considered to be the New York School of poets. They were the first poets that I ever talked to. It was a great workshop. Bill would bring in the complete works of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, and he would do wonderful things with them like pile them up side by side and say “Look how high Ezra Pound’s pile is and look how short T. S. Eliot’s pile is!” Bill was very eloquent and inspiring. I was in that workshop about a year or two before I started doing 0 to 9.
Howe: Was Vito in that workshop too?
Mayer: No, he was pursuing a …
Howe: A more conceptual —
Mayer: A different track.
Howe: You were working with conceptual art for a while?
Mayer: Well in the early years, Vito was a devoted writer. He didn’t actually think about conceptual art until towards the end of the last issue of 0 to 9, which was full of the works of Robert Smithson and many of the conceptual artists who were not well known at the time, and who had never published in magazines before. We broke the bank publishing that issue because it was full of illustrations. Not only could we no longer afford to publish the magazine as a result, but Vito decided as a result of that issue he wanted to go into that world, and he was very adamant about no longer writing. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. So then when we stopped publishing the magazine I began to think about it and I inadvertently started to write Moving. And after I finished Moving I realized I really still wanted to write, and not try to be an artist.
Howe: I would say that the conceptual artists brought your work a lot of strength, though. I mean, there’s a kind of experimenting going on in it.
Mayer: Well, there was also a rigorous kind of argumentation that was going on all that time that was really forcing everyone to think a little bit too hard. It wasn’t easy to defend writing at that point in time.
Howe: The two writers who, to me, it’s almost as if they were your parents in literature, would be, I assume, Gertrude Stein and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Mayer: What a couple! I suppose I could talk about them at once and in the same way, in the sense that here all these sentences that were endlessly interesting to me, both of those completely, two completely different kinds of sentences, from which I could lay them out side by side and tell you how I learned to write by just observing the sentences of Gertrude Stein next to the sentences of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I feel an affinity to those writers beyond that, almost in a mystical sense — although it’s “not okay” to talk about Gertrude Stein anymore, you know? She’s too famous now. But we can still speak of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Howe: Do they continue to be important to you?
Mayer: I must admit I can still go back to Hawthorne’s works and learn a lot from them. I have ceased to be able to learn anything from Stein’s works, but I think that in the future I probably will be able to again. Partly that’s because my interests now are causing me to read writers like Milton and Chaucer, and all the old English writers whom I never read before. I find them about a hundred times more inspiring in a momentary way than I do Stein’s work. Although, I must say, that Stein’s work, whenever I go back to it, I find something new in there too.
Howe: What particular work of hers, would you say?
Mayer: I guess my favorite work of hers, or the work that never ceases to astonish me, is Stanzas in Meditation. It’s also the only work I’ve never quite finished reading. I always save a few parts of it for later. And of Hawthorne’s works, I guess the work that always had the most effect on me was The American Notebooks, and also The Marble Faun, and also an unpublished novel of his called Septimius Felter.
Howe: You seem more closed talking in an interview than you do in some work you do, in diary work that you’ve done or dream work that you’ve done. Do you find the interview situation unpleasant?
Mayer: [Laughs.] I guess it’s just a self-protective feeling. One doesn’t want to particularly have a personality in an interview. Then again, the other thing that happens is, in writing, where it’s between you and the writing, and you can make great leaps. Those leaps and that ability to take the thing higher, a little bit higher, enables you to approximate the truth better. It relates to critical writing, too, because in discursive writing and in discursive speaking, then one feels that the truth is fleeting much more so. You always feel that you’ve possibly said the wrong thing. [Laughs.] It’s a moral attitude.
Howe: That sounds like a rather puritanical, moral answer! The flesh is weak, and the written word is —
Mayer: Sacred. Yeah, well it sure is easier to write than to speak extemporaneously, somehow.
Howe: But that wasn’t a problem for you when you were running a workshop.
Mayer: Well, that’s different, because you know who you’re talking to. But even then I always felt that one’s chickens come home to roost. A lot of people still to this day will tell me something I said in the workshop that I no longer believe. They’ll say: “How can you write poems that have rhyme and meter in them now, when you said in the workshop, in 1971, was this thing that you said,” and so on. The answer to that is that one changes. I mean, hopefully one is learning something. The whole idea of a poet going through certain kinds of changes is a subject that any poet can talk about in that sense, but nobody really wants to hear about it. Someone said to me after they had read The Golden Book of Words, from which I was reading those poems, “Oh, you’ve finally found a style you can really nestle into!” And I said, oh, that’s the last thing I ever want to do. That’s a horrific idea to any poet.
Howe: What about the difference between The Golden Book of Words and Eruditio ex Memoria?
Mayer: Actually those books were written more or less at the same time.
Howe: And they’re quite different. Can you write poems at the same time you’re working on a prose piece?
Mayer: Sure. I always feel like prose is a great comfort to me. Prose is like mother love. If I sit down to write a piece of prose, I can feel that I can go on forever, and it’s a great pleasure to me. Poetry is in some ways much harder work, because it’s something that I’m learning. I think that all the prose I wrote when I was younger, it was easier for me to write. It seemed much more natural to me, and poetry was something that I had to learn how to write. I never knew how to end a line. It took me many years to know where to break the line. It took me many years to understand that I was allowed to use the kind of feeling I had for rhythm and meter in a poem. A lot of contemporary poets don’t do that. You can even read William Carlos Williams’s indictment of meter, and at the same time you can read Milton’s indictment of rhyme. So, it’s really been going on for a long time! I never knew if I was allowed to do that, and also, in poetry, I suppose poetry has always seemed like, as I grew up with it, a place where one speaks about feelings and emotion, and I never really knew how to do it. I could do it in prose because it could take me a lot longer to do it in prose. Then I could do what one calls experiment with it, and learned about that way, and all that learning ultimately went into learning how to write poetry. Although, I’m not saying I’m not writing prose anymore, but I wrote a book recently which I thought was going to be a long prose book, and that was my intention when I sat down to write it, and it turned into a long poem, so I don’t know.
Howe: You have children, and small children. Do you find that has fragmented your time a lot?
Mayer: Well, fragmented is exactly the word. I’ll tell you the bad parts first: one is always dividing one’s time into these little sections. You can’t ever figure that you’re going to have a good six hours or so to do anything anymore, sometimes even to sleep. At the same time I find that I end up having more time to write since I’ve had children.
Howe: Why would you say that is?
Mayer: Well, in the past, before I ever even dreamed of having children, I was never disciplined about writing at all. I would never think that I would write every day. When I had a project that I was working on or a book or something, then I would sit down and work on it for every second of the day and not do anything else. And if I was writing just occasionally, then I would just write whenever I felt like it. Once I had children, I realized that if I was going to keep writing, I had to structure the day around the children and retain a time every day for myself. And so it’s really the first time for me that I’m writing every day. Ultimately, it provides me with much more time than I ever had before to write just out of that sense of some schedule.
Howe: What about the lack of women who are mothers, role models as poets?
Mayer: Well, first of all, I’d like to say at this point in time, I think I have tremendous admiration for almost any kind of poet who can manage to continue to write poetry and really do it and be a mother too. It seems like an incredibly exhausting and difficult proposition. There’s not really any older poets who’ve done that, you know. Well, who are they? Like the old ones? There are a lot of prose writers like Georges Sand and Harriet Beecher Stowe and people like that who’ve had fascinating lives as mothers and as writers. But among the poets it’s been a little sparse. Alice Notley is a mother who is a poet, and I find a lot of inspiration from her work. I know I find it anyway, but I also find it interesting to compare notes about the proposition of working as a poet as a mother. I wish there were more.
Howe: In the past —
Mayer: In the past there are none, and it’s a little bit alarming because one instantly realized why there aren’t any. It seems insane that we’ve been somehow cheated historically out of this great pleasure of having not only women as writers, but women writers who could be mothers too, conceivably.
Howe: Who are some writers that interest you, apart from Hawthorne and Stein?
Mayer: I could list a few things that I’m reading, but ultimately I think it’s more important to say somehow that I’ve had to, in the last three years — I’ve had to make the choice between reading and writing, and I always seem to opt for writing, because it makes me sane. When it comes time for me to do some work, then what I want to do is write, and not read.
Howe: You read a dream piece at St. Mark’s this last reading of yours. Can you talk about what you do with dreams — you write them down and then transfer them?
Mayer: I’ve tried everything. The piece I read was the first section of a poem that is in six parts, and it’s entirely about one day. The first part begins with me relating the dreams that I had before waking up that day. This particular poem is kind of the flowering of everything that I’ve learned about writing poetry in a very rational way. I’m very interested at the moment in that work, in writing about dreams in as rational [a way] as possible. In the past I’ve written about dreams maybe in some much more primitive or childlike or experimental or whatever you want to call it ways. These dreams, I was interested in relating them and talking about them in almost a Freudian sense, and making a narrative out of that. I wanted to try and make a narration not only [of] that part of the poem which is about the dreams, but of the entire poem.
Howe: What about the difference between the diaries and dreaming? You’ve worked with writing a diary, too. You and Lewis did that together: one would do one day, and one would do the other. Now, when you actually do that, how much rewriting do you do?
Mayer: In the case of that book Lewis and I wrote together, we did a lot of rewriting, but that was really the first time we’d ever done it. We wrote that book, and I used my sections of that book as a way to study how to write coherent, sensible sentences with periods and punctuation, to make it something that would be really accessible to everyone, almost like writing a letter to a stranger. At that point in time, that was very hard work, and I was devoted to taking what I might call the “gibberish” out of that book. Whenever there was a […] space accounted for by just two or three words, the way one does it in poetry, say, I would expand it and explain it like a letter or even like a phone conversation or something. It was very much a one-to-one arrangement.
Howe: You worked with a tape, too.
Mayer: I find that very hard to do. I work with a tape recorder in a lot of different ways. One of the ways is that I would try to talk prose into the tape recorder. That was okay; that was easy. Then I tried to talk sensible prose into the tape recorder. That was a little bit more difficult. Then I tried to talk poetry into the tape recorder. That was impossible. But I do find that the tape recorder is very useful for making notes, you know, certain kind of notes, like in a situation where you’re sitting around in the afternoon with babies who won’t let you write things down, I can keep the recorder in the closet or something and run over and make a few notes if I want to. Now the babies are older and they let me take notes. [Laughs.] But I don’t know what to do with it anymore, actually, because I really hate transcribing it. I find it such a chore. I think maybe if one had somebody else do the transcribing that it would be a more useful method for writing.
Howe: You published 0 to 9, I mean you were editor of that, and you and Lewis are editors now of Angel Hair. What do you feel about publishing your own work?
Mayer: I’m all for it.
Howe: Could you sort of say why?
Mayer: Well, why not? Nobody else is going to publish it! [Laughs.] I think it’s great to publish one’s own work. I never felt any vacillating about that whole thing. The first book of mine that was ever published, which was this book called Story, I published myself. It seems like a way to disseminate writing in a very efficient way. You can get it to all the people who you know are going to read it. There’s no fooling around. You can do it the way you want it done. Nobody ever tells you: change this or that, or I’m going to put this cover on your book. It’s all in your own hands. It’s now even to the extent that Angel Hair has turned into United Artists now, and we handle absolutely every level of the production of the books. We do everything. I prefer it. With all the books of mine that have been published by other people, there have always been these difficult problems, including emotional ones that have to do with friends. I prefer it. I know that none of us as poets are ever going to be published by the so-called publishing companies, because ultimately the government has written us out, haven’t they? It seems that way. It seems John Ashbery and James Schuyler are probably the last great poets to have contracts with real publishing companies.
Howe: You think that’s true?
Mayer: I don’t know. I’ve talked to a lot of people about it and nobody seems to know the answer. Some people have a definitely paranoid feeling that that’s the reason that small presses can get publishing grants now from the government rather easily, I mean, if they’re devoted to it, to some extent it’s because it’s an accommodation to that situation where none of the publishing companies are even acting independently really anymore. So they won’t publish poetry because they’re all owned by the entertainment conglomerates. It does seem like a plot to keep people from reading poetry. And I know that a lot of poetry by me and by Ted Berrigan and by Lewis and by Alice could be read by a much wider audience. That’s how it stands, and it’s so intractable. If we’re going to continue, and to continue to publish at all, then these are the terms we seem to have to do it on. I don’t mind it, except in the sense that I wonder if people are being cheated out of reading more poetry, because certainly whenever a book of poetry does get published, it doesn’t ever get any kind of publicity or advertising or anything like that. Nobody ever reviews it in The New York Times. We publish books now in editions of 1,000 copies. That seems to be about as many as can be distributed, and that’s not too many.
Howe: Do you spend a lot of time on the publishing business now?
Mayer: Yes, we do. It’s very time-consuming. We’re publishing the books and we’re also publishing a magazine, also called United Artists. Between two of those things, between me and Lewis sharing the work, it’s a full-time job. The magazine is mimeographed, which makes it very time-consuming.
Howe: Would you really like to write a novel? You’ve said that. I mean, would you?
Mayer: No. [Laughs.] Well, I wrote this poem a while ago; in the beginning of it I’ve said: “Everybody tells me now to write a novel.” No, I’ll never write one. I think it’s a terrible idea. A lot of people say to me: “You could write the ultimate novel about that Catholic girlhood and that whole thing.” Well, I’ll let somebody else do it. Lots of people do, and actually there are some great ones. It’s just not my talent, I think. No, I can’t do it.
Howe: In a lot of your work I notice the word “nun” occurring. In fact, I was thinking I could just ask you some words, and you could to do a take on them. You do bring in a lot of saints’ names, and Dante is running very strongly a lot.
Mayer: Yeah, he runs with the nuns.
Howe: But what about a girl who receives a Catholic education from nuns?
Mayer: Does it matter anymore? Is anybody ever going to experience that again?
Howe: Maybe it gives you something quite rare or special.
Mayer: Well, I did see them every day from the age of five to twenty, or somewhat less than that, so they’re bound to be in there. They are startling-looking figures, and they always had startling ideas. There’s no way that I’ll ever get them out of there. Although, I think I’ve managed to get rid of them to some extent. I don’t know. I always think that one shouldn’t write about them and certain other things, but that you just can’t help it. I think a lot of the things about the Catholic church, I mean, nuns, think of nuns: what a startling visual image they are. I spent as many hours as I did doing anything else contemplating their habits, and I don’t mean their habits, I mean their black and white costumes and all the starchiness of them, and the idea of what they were supposed to be. It was always a matter of total perfection, and that way of looking. Boy, just having your head encased in white starched material and long veils. The Ursulines that I had in college had these incredibly dramatic capes to wear when it rained. And when they walked across the college, they looked like wraiths. They were always running into the church with giant black umbrellas to kill the bats that were literally hanging in the church belfry. There’s no end to the drama of it. But as for other things about the Catholic Church, even besides all those — and don’t get me started on the priests — would be other amazing visual things. The church that I went to as a child was highly decorated with painted statues, and marble, and a very high ceiling with an imitation of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and stars interspersed with the pictures of God and angels, and everything glittering in gold, and expensive. It was either church or home. That was how it was, and church was sure different than home. The ceiling was so high that it did have a lofty effect on one’s thoughts. Some ideas of meditating as a Catholic have always stuck with me. Levitating. See, I don’t even know how to talk about those things. The vestments …
Howe: They’re magical.
Mayer: The Latin, every trapping of that was totally inspiring. Then again, there are many poets who were brought up as Catholic who really never mention it. I wonder how they can contain themselves.
Editorial note: The following has been adapted from a Close Listening conversation recorded November 5, 2009, at the Kelly Writers House for PennSound and Art International Radio. Keith Waldrop was born in Kansas and attended a fundamentalist high school in South Carolina. His pre-med studies were interrupted when he was drafted to be an army engineer. He received his PhD in comparative literature from the University of Michigan in 1964. Waldrop and his wife, Rosmarie Waldrop, have coedited Burning Deck Press since 1968. A Windmill Near Calvary, Waldrop’s first published book of poems, was nominated for the National Book Award. He has translated many French poets’ writings, and he has written poetry, fictional memoir, mixed verse, and prose. His poetry collections include Several Gravities (Siglio, 2009), a collection of collages; Transcendental Studies (University of California Press, 2009), a trilogy of collage poems which won the National Book Award for Poetry; and a translation of Charles Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (Wesleyan, 2009). Among many other works, he also wrote the trilogy The Locality Principle (1995); The Silhouette of the Bridge, which won the Americas Award for Poetry (1997); and Semiramis, If I Remember (2001). For his contribution to French literature, he received a medal from the French government with the rank of Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters. He has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Berlin Artists Program of the DAAD. He teaches at Brown University. This interview was transcribed by Kate Herzlin and has been edited for Jacket2. Listen to the audio program here. — Katie Price
Charles Bernstein: Welcome to Close Listening, Art International Radio’s program of readings and conversation with poets presented in collaboration with PennSound. My guest today, for the second of two shows, is Keith Waldrop. My name is Charles Bernstein. Keith Waldrop grew up in Kansas and studied at Aix-Marseilles and Michigan Universities, earning a doctorate in comparative literature in 1964. His most recent collection of poetry, among many others, is Transcendental Studies from University of California Press, a trilogy of collage poems. Sun and Moon published a fictional memoir, Light While There Is Light. He has been a prolific translator of French poetry, from Charles Baudelaire to contemporary poets such as Anne-Marie Albiach and Claude Royet-Journoud. He teaches at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Keith, welcome back to Close Listening.
Keith Waldrop: Thank you, thank you.
Bernstein: Keith, can you tell me about your earliest experience or encounter with poetry as a young person living in Kansas? One of the poems you read in the first show, you had a line “at least I will not die in Kansas.” [Waldrop laughs.] Although you really can’t be sure of that.
Waldrop: Nah, I can’t be sure, though I haven’t been there for over fifty years.
Bernstein: Even so!
Waldrop: But it’s true, I could be going through there —
Bernstein: You could be abducted and brought back there. [Laughs.]
Waldrop: Yeah, yes. [Pause.] Well, until I went to high school, I think basically I read almost nothing but comic books and the Bible.
Bernstein: Which comic books did you like?
Waldrop: Oh, I read Superman and Batman, they were all in an early phase at that time, in the ’30s. And then I actually went to high school in South Carolina, to a fundamentalist school in South Carolina. And it was there I started really reading poetry and started trying to write it. I wrote — I remember writing a narrative poem about the universal flood, I hope no trace of it remains. I think it’s gone.
Bernstein: Actually, there are now ways we can retrieve things in the brain, bring them out, and make printouts.
Waldrop: No, not in this brain. [Laughter.] Actually, my first love was really theatre, and I was writing, trying to write plays mainly. And then —
Bernstein: This is high school still you’re talking about?
Waldrop: In high school. And then I started trying to do both poetry and stories. But I had thought I would — I never thought of myself as a writer, but I always thought, I’ll write, whatever else I do. And for some reason I decided I would become a psychiatrist. And so in college I was a pre-med. And went back to Kansas, actually, for college. And then I was drafted, but I lacked two courses of finishing my BA, and by the time I got out of the army — but it had started long before then — I had soured to the idea of being a psychiatrist. I had sort of come to my senses.
Bernstein: Let me back up for a second, because obviously this is something you evoke in Light While There Is Light. I’ll just use the term “artist” — literary artist, playwright, so on. How did that connect up with your surroundings growing up as a Christian, and how does Christianity itself — this is the big question in a way —
Waldrop: Well —
Bernstein: — figure in your work, Mr. Waldrop, throughout time and eternity? But let’s talk about the first moment, in which the way, the art in relationship to the kind of belief systems that you were a part of and the surrounding relationship.
Waldrop: Well, I sort of realized from a fairly early time that my — this is especially in high school, but even slightly before that, but in high school it was definitely there — that I realized my only salvation, salvation, mind you —
Bernstein: I’m hearing that, that jumped right out at me.
Waldrop: — was to know the Bible better than the people who were telling me what to do. [Bernstein laughs.] And so I managed to get a very good knowledge, not [just] of the Bible, because I don’t know any of the languages it was written in, but the King James version, which I have a very good knowledge of. And in fact, I teach a course sometimes at Brown, which is called “The Bible as a Literary Source Book.” And I point out all the things in, or many things in the language that come from the Bible, which doesn’t indicate that the person using them is religious, or thinks of the Bible at that moment or anything. They’re part of the language because it’s a Protestant country in which everybody was reading the Bible. Even if they didn’t read it, they knew it, because they heard it. And that has been extremely important to me in my language. Years ago, I also wrote poems about biblical characters and such, but I haven’t done that for a while. But the biblical language and the, in some ways, something from the tone of biblical language, although I hope my poems don’t sound like the Bible, but —
Bernstein: Well, part of what you’re saying is that the King James Bible is a source for a whole range of metaphors and symbolic language —
Waldrop: That’s right.
Bernstein: Even if you reject it, it still pops up.
Waldrop: And for a kind of sound that is there.
Bernstein: And yet your work seems so relentlessly to avert, in that Emersonian sense —
Waldrop: Yes, yes.
Bernstein: — a biblical sound of authority. That’s something that I never noticed in any of your works.
Waldrop: No, no.
Bernstein: You must be very consciously —
Waldrop: I have very consciously avoided, yes, you’re right, exactly. And it remains a background, nevertheless, one that’s in some ways completely rejected but in other ways I don’t try to avoid any sound at all from it.
Bernstein: Well you know, Claude Lévi-Strauss, who died a couple of days ago, compares the way to deal with the “other” as one system that we have in the United States, that we incarcerate it or attack it, but another system, as in cannibalism, is that you eat it, or you digest it.
Waldrop: Yes, yes.
Bernstein: So perhaps you’re —
Waldrop: Well, I digested it, all right. Yes, yes.
Bernstein: Now, you mention going into the army. And what was that like? What year did you go in?
Waldrop: Well, I was drafted, it wasn’t my idea. And it was an awkward moment, although it turned out to be something rather wonderful, because I went in — actually, at the very end of the Korean conflict, after it was practically over, but it wasn’t quite over, so I got the GI Bill.
Waldrop: Technically, I’m a Korean veteran, though I never went near Korea. Instead, I was made into an army engineer, believe it or not [Bernstein laughs], and sent to the engineer school in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where I became a water purification specialist. And was sent to Germany. And so I was in Germany for some time, which is where I met Rosmarie. And —
Bernstein: — who was also interested in water purification.
Waldrop: Well, the water there was —
Bernstein: [Laughter.] You could hear Rosmarie in the background.
Waldrop: Well, the water there was fine, but actually I became clerk typist once I was there because I was the only person in the company who could type fast.
Bernstein: What is a fictional memoir rather than an actual memoir or fiction?
Waldrop: Well, it’s a, it’s, I use —
Bernstein: The choice seems real.
Waldrop: In a sense, it’s a novel about my family. And some of them are in there by name. But it’s not all true, and I wrote it as a novel — that is, I wrote it using the material of a memoir but writing it as a novel, which meant that it was more important to me how the formal things came out, how the chapters sounded, than to get the facts right. And much of it is fairly what happened.
Bernstein: Right, it evokes so much, from my reading of it, of what must have been your life experience.
Waldrop: Basically it is, but if you went into details, they’re not all right.
Bernstein: Right. So, place names, and characters, things like that.
Waldrop: Yes. I kept the original names of my immediate family, though my siblings all have a different last name, and I never put that name in anywhere.
Bernstien: Do you want to tell us what that is now?
Bernstein: Black? [Waldrop laughs.] You had, I thought, a hysterically funny line, which I remembered from before. That you were “between two generations. [Waldrop laughs] The drunk and the stoned —”
Waldrop: Yes, Yes.
Bernstein: And I’m taking that, like a reference to the King James Bible. That is actually a cultural reference, not just a literary reference, between baby boomers and perhaps what Tom Brokaw calls, “the greatest generation.”
Bernstein: And in a way, confessional poets, and a certain texture, people drinking in the ’50s versus something else. So I’m interested in how you think about that in terms of your own literary affiliations and affinities, which remain very open and ambiguous. I mean, you’re a poet who’s managed to not be looked at always in the context of a number of other poets or within generations, schools, groups [as they] often get configured in the New American Poetry. And this comment was very funny, from that point of view, to me.
Waldrop: Yeah, well I’ve always felt — not belonging to a … there’s a generation older than me and there’s a generation younger than me, and I don’t, I wouldn’t feel comfortable being mainly in one or the other, or either one. I feel sort of in-between.
Bernstein: Yeah, I mean, you’re for me, you and Rosmarie, although you both, you fit slightly outside my exact crazy dates but fit into what I think of as a very important generation of people who are very young during the Second World War. And so therefore, older than the so-called “baby boomers” but also younger than the main New American poets. So Susan Howe, for example. Clark Coolidge, Robert Grenier. All of whom are actually characterized in a way by a deep sense of disaffiliation, as I would call political, but the very fact of disaffiliation would suggest it wouldn’t want to be characterized as political in a way.
Waldrop: Yeah, right, right, exactly. Yeah, you’re quite right.
Bernstein: So what was your sense of the poets who you first sort of connected with, either somewhat older than you or your own contemporaries, that gave you a sense of context for your writing? Not people doing what you were doing, but sort of, you felt, maybe even a camaraderie with.
Waldrop: Well, I read the Lowell/Wilbur generation. And actually, I like their poems — that is, I like Wilbur’s, and I like early Lowell; later’s something else. But then I discovered Creeley, and that group. And they meant a great deal to me. Trying to think of who —
Bernstein: Do you feel that there is a conflict between these two configurations, as has often been figured, especially in terms of the ’50s?
Waldrop: Well, I never felt it as a problem. I know at that time you were getting the war of the anthologies, and you were either called an academic or a beat.
Bernstein: Raw and cooked.
Waldrop: I always thought that was rather silly, so when we started the magazine Burning Deck, I continuously made the point that this was a — it was not an academic or a beat, it was something that was to publish the poets that we liked, whatever side. And we reviewed — I reviewed mainly — people of all sorts.
Bernstein: And yet your own work, would — again, not from your point of view, but from an external point of view — seem to clearly fall into a New American Poetry context and not into the other context, as it has a social and external reality, not talking about the internal dynamic of the work.
Waldrop: Well, that’s partly because my earlier poetry wasn’t mainly published at all, and it would give more of a doubt to that, you know. It would be more balanced between very formalized metrical things and rhyme and such.
Bernstein: And you’re talking about your work before Windmill Near Calvary?
Bernstein: Yeah, ’cause it comes somewhat later in your — I mean, you were young, but not as young. So, well there is an interesting issue too. Goes back to a generation older than you, and what we’re talking about, but the sort of free verse or what I would call nonmetrical, or polymetrical poetry —
Waldrop: Yeah, yeah.
Bernstein: And metrical poetry. Which is something I know you have continuously been interested in and work in. How do you think about that? Now, I’m not asking about what you think about the larger issue, in terms of American poetry, but in terms of your own work. I wouldn’t characterize your work as “free verse”; for one thing, I don’t like that term — it implies a lack of patterning and sound.
Waldrop: Well, I, in looking through my poems to find something to read for this, I was very surprised how many rhymes and how many metrical lines there were in the first book. And before that, I had been writing some completely metrical things, and for a while then I got away from it completely. Now I don’t consciously think, you know, I want this to be something like five feet long or so many syllables, but I don’t think of it as free in the sense that it’s like prose.
Bernstein: Well, it’s like you’re saying with the King James Bible; it’s sort of internalized in your ear so it may come out in a dispersed way.
Waldrop: Yeah, exactly. Yes, yes.
Bernstein: I want to come back to that, the second one when I ask you about collage. But I want to ask you just to talk about one poem that you read, The Locality Principle. Talk a little bit about the sources of that poem, any kind of compositional thoughts or structures you may have had beforehand, or looking at it in retrospect.
Waldrop: Yeah. The Locality Principle is an unusual book for me because it was all written in one year in a particular place; we were living in London. It’s the only one of my books that has a date line at the end telling you when and where it was written, because otherwise I usually have things that I wrote ten years before or just put in or whatever. It’s mainly a book which is prose and proceeds; it’s not a novel, but it has a kind of story in it. Then at the end, it has a group of poems which sort of compress the main elements that were earlier in the prose, so that what I read of “Theme,” for instance, very differently tuned, like violin and piano. There’s a small chapter in the prose talking about the fact that a violin is tuned. If it’s playing with a piano, it tunes to A, but then the other strings are tuned by beats rather than by the piano, and therefore they’re really, they’re tuned differently than the piano. And of course, really when you’re playing a violin it doesn’t make that much difference, because you don’t usually play, you use the open strings anyway, put your fingers somewhere, and you cancel that difference. But it’s two instruments playing with a different tonality and yet they go together, and so the poem in the back sort of brings that into a small statement, and in a way the poem only makes sense if you’ve read the rest of the book, or read the earlier part of the book.
Bernstein: Thinking of polyphony, or chordal overlayering –– I want to ask you about your use of the term “collage,” your interest in collage. But in multiple senses. You have a new book of your visual collages — that is to say things that are made by taking cut-up pieces and pasting together — but there are poems in relationship to that, so it has an ekphrastic aspect, that is to say essentially poems that relate to or interact with the visual work. But you also speak of work in your new book, and otherwise of your own work, as collage.
Bernstein: So, could you talk about those multiple senses of collage and what they have to do with abstraction, representation, organization, polyphony?
Waldrop: Transcendental Studies is probably my only full book that is basically collage poems. I started doing them because I had to become the director of a program, you will appreciate this, maybe. [Laughs.] I found that I was —
Bernstein: At your job at Brown University?
Waldrop: And Brown, yes, in the writing program. I found that –– it wasn’t that the job was difficult –– but it was one of those endless things where you keep thinking, you try to think of anything, you think, tomorrow I must do this or yesterday I should’ve done this, and I found I wasn’t writing any poetry, and so I decided I must. There are various ways of writing poetry. Well, in any way you write poetry, there are certain amounts of drudgery to it, of doing some things that are not part of really, you really don’t have to think about. And for instance, if you’re translating, just to get the meaning of the words, what does this text mean, and then you have to start really translating. So I decided I would do a kind of collage, and simply put some books out and get phrases from them and see what happened. And this was simply my way of finding poems, it wasn’t that I was trying to do a particular kind of collage. I wasn’t trying to prove anything about collage. Once the collage elements managed to make a stanza, let alone a poem, I would change things if I felt — well that word isn’t good, I’d rather have this other word. And someone who is passionate about, you know, this is supposed to be collage, would say, “That’s not fair.” But I didn’t really think anything about collage; I wanted to find poems.
Bernstein: But you were using a range of different sources that were external to your own composition, re-editing or remixing them —
Waldrop: Exactly, yeah.
Bernstein: — mixing them up, and then reediting and remixing them.
Waldrop: Yes.It’s like what Wilbur claims [is] the advantage of writing rhymed poem; that is, you have the necessity of finding a rhyme for this line. Well, that means that the first word may be wrong, you may not find one, you may have to change that. So that makes your imagination work.
Bernstein: So it’s an external constraint, although in this case it’s a soft external constraint rather than an OuLiPo-ian one.
Waldrop: Yeah, exactly, that’s right, that’s what it is.
Bernstein: So what’s the relationship of that to a visual collage? This is not an answerable question, by the way, because it’s very hard to discuss the difference between verbal and visual work, but still, since you’re raising it in such an interesting way in that book, where you have those visual collages and then you have the poems, I’m curious as to how you’re thinking about that now.
Waldrop: Well, I’ve never really done very much where there was visual and verbal collage that went together. In fact, the main poem that’s in there, I must say, doesn’t have that much to do with the collages. Although —
Bernstein: Until it’s in the book.
Waldrop: The editor, it is in the book, yes —
Bernstein: Well, once it’s in the book, it has everything to do with it because there it is, bound together.
Waldrop: Well, I’ve done collages for many years, and often I find myself doing them to get away from words. Because I just don’t want to use them all the time.
Bernstein: You say something very amusing, which I could relate to — you often do in many of your works. But in the introduction, you say, “It’s because I couldn’t draw” that I took to collage. [Laughs.]
Waldrop: Yeah, yeah. And I’ve always intended to do more of interlacing the words and the images, but in a way that goes against what I’m getting out of it, and that is that when I get tired of images I use words, and when I get tired of words I use images. And it’s, I don’t know … I’ve never felt that they quite go together, the verbal collages that I do and the visual collages. But I enjoy doing both of them, so I do them.
Bernstein: With the visual collages you don’t have the symbolic associations, for example, with the Bible and so on. You don’t have those kinds of resonances.
Waldrop: Right, right.
Bernstein: Or metrical or sonic references, so to some degree it frees you up from that. But do you feel there are ways in which working on that reflects on your poetic work, or inspires a different sort of way that you were working with the words? I’m now talking about the California book of collages. Is that influenced by your visual collages? That would be another way to ask you that question.
Waldrop: I wouldn’t say that it is, actually. Though I mean, it probably is in ways that I don’t understand. [Laughs.] But when I start doing a verbal collage, I don’t think, oh, this is like bringing in a picture from here, tearing a piece of that off.
Bernstein: That’s why I said in the beginning it was an impossible question to answer, The fact that you don’t make that analogy and that you don’t understand it are one of the things that contribute to making the work so interesting.
Waldrop: Yeah, yeah.
Bernstein: That there’s an activity which you can’t rationally connect up, but you’re using the same word for it, so that it really raises this issue of the visual and the verbal.
Waldrop: Yeah, yeah. Well, it does come from tearing something up and making something else out of it.
Bernstein: You’ve done a lot of translation, and I want to end with that, and for a wide range of poetry, nineteenth and twentieth century. How do you feel that translation as a practice affects your poetic work? I could ask you more specifically with a specific translation, but I’ll just leave it that way.
Waldrop: Well, translation, I’ve always translated. I’ve picked for a particular translation works that are not like what I would ordinarily do, so that in a way for instance if I translate Anne-Marie Albiach, I could never write anything like that. But it gives me a possible range that I wouldn’t have otherwise, that I can write it because I’m writing her, her work. And I don’t think anybody looking at my work after that would really find anything but, maybe I’m wrong, I can’t imagine they’d read my work and say, “oh, this must be a person who’s translated Anne-Marie Albiach.” I don’t see that there’s much connection. And I’ve translated very different people. Paol Keineg is very different. And I’ve translated a number of very young French poets. And it — I always, I’ve always had this sort of suspicion that something creeps over into my work from what I translate, but I can’t see it, I don’t know what it would be. I don’t think of it as changing my work at all, outside of looking for more things to translate.
Bernstein: Except perhaps you are a Baudelairian poet. [Waldrop laughs.] You’ve been listening to Keith Waldrop on Close Listening. This program was recorded on November 5, 2009, at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. James LaMarre is our engineer. Close Listening is a production of PennSound, in collaboration with Art International Radio. For more information on this show, visit writing.upenn.edu/pennsound. I am your humble servant, Ch. Bernstein, on assignment in … Close Listening.
Editorial note: The following has been adapted from a Close Listening conversation recorded as part of “The Motion of Light: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany,” a program hosted at the Kelly Writers House in April 2014. The conversation was transcribed by Tracie Morris. Listen to the audio program here. — Julia Bloch
Charles Bernstein: Welcome to Close Listening’s Clocktower Radio’s program of readings and conversations with writers presented in collaboration with PennSound. Today’s show comes to you live from the Kelly Writers House of the University of Pennsylvania as part of “The Motion of Light: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany” to honor Delany’s contribution to Temple-Penn Poetics. And as such is being taped before, what has every appearance of being, a live audience … though, I’m not one-hundred percent sure. [Audience laughs.]
My guest is Chip Delany. Delany is a towering figure in contemporary science fiction, fantasy, fiction, memoir, social commentary, and literary theory and criticism. He has been teaching at Temple University’s creative writing program since 2001, coming to Temple after a short stint in the Buffalo Poetics program. My name is Charles Bernstein. Chip, welcome to Close Listening.
Samuel R. Delany: Hi there, Charles.
Bernstein: As poets we’re celebrating you here today and as was just mentioned in the toasts, you don’t write poetry — but I wonder if you could talk about the relation of genre to your work. It’s one of the most basic questions but you work, probably, in more different genres than any writer I can think about [Delany laughs] and have a deep commitment to their specificity. In The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, of course, you talk in the most illuminating way about understanding science fiction, or speculative fiction, as a genre that circulates in a way that I found comparable to the way I think poetry circulates. But what is your commitment to the specific genres? Both the differences and the possibilities of each and the relationship of the ensemble in what you’re written?
Delany: Well one thing I’ve thought about genres for a long time is that we probably put too much faith in their ability to solve various problems for us. Probably one of the questions I’m asked most frequently about genres, and I’m glad to say that you did not ask the most frequently asked question, you get points for that, Charles —
Bernstein: Oh. I’m disappointed. [Delany laughs.]
Delany: — is “Do you feel that as a person who works in a marginal genre, and who is a marginal person, because you’re Black” —
Bernstein: The reason I didn’t ask that question is that that’s news to me. [Audience laughs.]
Delany: Ah ha. “You know, you’re Black and you’re gay, do you think that working in a marginal genre makes it easier to write about those people?” To which the answer is, absolutely not. Genres don’t do the work for you. As Raymond Chandler says in one of his most popular essays in “The Simple Art of Murder,” at the beginning of his collection of the same name, “there are no vital art forms.” That is to say, there are no significant genres. There are different genres, yes. But they are not significant because they exist. He says there are no significant art forms, there’s only art, and precious little of that. And I think he was right. Which is to say, you get a good writer, or a writer who’s interested in dealing with marginal peoples and marginal situations working in whatever genre that he chooses, be it poetry, drama, science fiction, comic books — it doesn’t really matter — if they are decent workers, and they also are committed, and they have a vision that they want to put forward, then you will get good art about these things. And if they don’t have this, it doesn’t matter what the genre is, you’re going to come up with very ordinary stuff. And that’s the way I think it works.
Earlier, Tracie was talking about various and sundry people who were not here this afternoon. How many of you recognize the name K. Leslie Steiner? Is there anybody who does?
Bernstein: Three people in the audience raise their hand.
Delany: So we have four, a few people who recognize K. Leslie Steiner’s name. K. Leslie Steiner is a critic, and she was also invited this evening, and she couldn’t make it. So she sent a bunch of questions to me that she thought she was going to ask herself. Charles is doing a very good job of replacing K. Leslie Steiner on the program here. However —
Bernstein: I am K. Leslie Steiner. [Delany laughs.] Surprise!
Delany: Yes. I believe that. At any rate, one of things she mentioned, which is kind of interesting in terms of one of the things that was said earlier, she said: “At one point in the WisCon journals, which was a little book that was published from the feminist science fiction convention, WisCon, [in issue] number three, they asked you to write an essay on power. And at the very beginning of that essay, you started off by saying you believed that the most important political problem in the world today is the treatment of women. You know, you said that, and why did you say that? It seems like an odd thing for a gay, Black, science-fiction writer to say.” And the answer is — you can find it in the main paragraph of the essay — is simply that the oppression of women is the model for all other oppressions in the world. It is the model for the oppression of Black people, it is the model for the oppression of children, it is the model for the oppression of workers by their bosses, whenever there is a power differential, people learn how to do that because of the way women are oppressed in this society. I believe that down to the bottom of my heart. There was another thing … Ms. Steiner’s second question, which she sent me and that was, and again, it relates to something that we were talking about earlier, “In an essay that you wrote back in 1974, back when you were a single gay parent living in London, taking care of your daughter at one, you wrote about this. It’s included in the revised edition of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, it was published in Khatru’s “Symposium on Women and Science Fiction” in 1976, you wrote that one day you went into a commune in the north of England and there on the back wall was a banner and it said, ‘Mother Is a Job’ and you seemed to find that kind of life-changing.” Well it did. It did. It was one of the things … that was for me, the moment where maternity and paternity were both degenderized. And, you know, I had this baby strapped to my belly and, you know “Mother Is a Job.” And I thought, “Okay. That’s one of the jobs I have to do.” And you know, you just went on living that way. It was a very very fortunate thing. So that was one of the ways that I dealt with one of the questions that Fred Moten, was talking about a little earlier. Both of those are very important.
Now, how do these relate to being a queer, Black science fiction writer? Well, one of the things is simply that in the same way that the model for all oppressions is the way women are marginalized, underpaid, you name it, this is the way homophobia is structured. It’s the same kind of thing. And I will be talking about that a little later when I do introduce my reading. Very, very quickly and I hope with a light touch because I think these things are better laughed at than taken too seriously.
Bernstein: So genre is famously related to race and to —
Delany: Right! It’s related to every category that is exploited and that is stuck in a power structure where you are not happy with how the power structure works. And every time the power structure changes something is gonna make somebody unhappy. So, what do you do? You think a lot. That’s how you start. And then you start to do something to change it in a way you want to do it, you want to change, and also a way that changes other parts of the power structure because if you don’t it’s going to turn around and bite you in the ass. And this kind of thinking is something that I think really needs to be encouraged, and it’s something that … I think there’s precious little art, there’s also precious little of this kind of, dare I call it, global or holistic or ecological thinking that goes on in the world. So one of the reasons, again, to just quickly — ha ha — one of the, to get around to answering my own question, because what does this have to do with being a gay, Black science-fiction writer is simply that I know a great deal — not a great deal — because nobody knows a great deal in the world we live in now, about anything. Let’s put it this way, I know more than I know about anything else, about being a gay man. I happen to know something about being a gay man with a child. I happen to know something about being a gay man who has been living fairly happily for the last twenty-five years with my partner. How did I learn these things? From living the last twenty-five years with my partner. These are how things work, the experiences that go into your life and these are what I try to mine, all the time, in my fiction. Somebody mentioned that Babel-17 is some sort of mining of the experience. Yeah! I was married to a poet. I was married to a poet, who, for a while, was an editor at a science-fiction publishing company where she got really tired of the treatment of the women characters. And who would she come home and complain about to? Me. [Audience and Bernstein laugh.]
And so I had to write something for her. The first few books that I wrote, the first six really, were basically … she was the audience, for those books and I wanted something that she could enjoy. And each one I didn’t, did not succeed perfectly from the very beginning. Each one was a learning experience and I had to do something more. And that’s — I’m very glad that I did, “the more” and finally at one point I decided oh, I’ll go do something else. And I did something else and I’ve been back and forth to it ever since.
And I haven’t changed — just because you go and do something for which you happen to have immediate data, doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten the main things you think are important. I still think the same things that Ms. Steiner asked me about in those first two questions. And I don’t feel that I’ve abandoned any of those ideas by writing about the situation of gay men, for instance. And I don’t feel that I’ve abandoned writing about the oppression of gay men by trying to write about gay men who are not oppressed. I hope that makes some kind of sense.
I don’t think, I don’t think the way to do everything is to talk about, you know, the very real ways in which we are victims. We don’t have to talk about only that. We can talk about ways we’re not as well. Because that highlights problems of making people victims so there’s, it’s a very complicated thing. I try to do it with a sense of how these things relate to the other things, this ecological thinking, this global … I try, and I fail all the time. Again, that failure is built into that. One of my definitions of success, which I’m very very fond of, I got it from the actress Ruth McClanahan who mentioned it on a television show, and she, she said, stole it from Winston Churchill. “Success is going from failure to failure with enthusiasm.” [Laughter.] And that is what success is for me: going from failure to failure — with enthusiasm. And so everything is going to be a failure to some way, but I do the best I can. And I try to do it enthusiastically.
Bernstein: And you see that would be a great appeal to the young poet, whose life necessarily must be going from failure to failure with enthusiasm. [Delany laughs.] And this is something you address in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw very specifically that relates again to the question of genre where you say that writers who try to work in unmarked forms, that are appealing to everyone … fail in a different kind of way than what you’re talking about —
Bernstein: — fail conceptually. In that sense you restore the sense that poetry is a subgenre in the way that it’s not a major form, but it’s redeemed by being a form that’s more like science fiction. So skirting around the issue, which you’ve addressed here, that genre fiction is thought to be less significant than —
Bernstein: — fiction that doesn’t mark itself as genre. What do you think about the nature of Coleridge’s distinction between imagination and fantasy? Because imagination could be understood as being that greater thing and so what I’d say one of the things that I find very powerful about your work is that it resists the idea that poetry would be better off aligning itself with imagination and recognizes that what’s significant about the kind of poetry I want is its connection to fantasy.
Delany: Hmm. Okay. Do you remember how exactly he said, he actually said it, ’cause I assume it’s something from Biographical Literaria …
Bernstein: It is —
Delany: … but I don’t remember the actual …
Bernstein: For Coleridge, imagination is the higher form that goes beyond. Fantasy is feminized, seen [as “passive and mechanical,” as in] fairies or demonic dreams. … [It can’t be] totalizing and sublime.
Delany: I see. I think there’s room for … both. [Chuckles.] Again I don’t, I, I don’t usually think either of prose narrative or poetry in terms of fantasy versus imagination, the imaginative.
Bernstein: You could also just speak of it in terms of what your commitment is to fantasy. Not as a genre but as what it can potentiate, both for readers and for yourself as a writer.
Delany: My incursions into fantasy are restricted to one fairy tale that I’m very fond of, written very early in my career, called “Prismatica,” that I just got out in an anthology. That tale was anthologized by Neil Gaiman, who was mentioned a little earlier. And I reread about a third of it and thought, “Hey, not bad.” Which is nice, nice to have that response to something, and then the Nevèrÿon books have been mentioned by a number of people from this very area of the room, where we are. I would say, they are more fully imagined, certainly than, say, Prismatica. I don’t know.
Bernstein: Well, that’s hardly a “just” that series of books. It’s an immense body of work …
Delany: It’s pretty ah, four volumes, four volumes and a million pages [chuckles], no. Four volumes and a lot of pages. Again, could you give me a text that I might have read that you can then talk about —
Bernstein: Well you can talk about it in terms of sexual fantasy or other that may contribute to your work but that purportedly screen some readers out … if one wanted to have a general reach that would appeal to all humanity with a universal address —
Bernstein: — one of the things I’m asking about genre also came up today, especially in Terry Rowden’s talk: each of the kinds of work you do, might potentially appeal to different aspects either of ourselves or of even different bodies of readers. It doesn’t assume one elevated reader who appreciates the greatness of your imagination, but rather calls upon different aspects of ourselves, or indeed different communities, to respond to different things.
Delany: Well, one of the things, when you say “fantasy” that intrigues me, that affects, the first thing that I think of is a fairly seemingly non-problematic word masturbation fantasies, which I have been writing my own down, year after year after year after year. Poor Ken [Kenneth James] has had to put up with them, in the last half of all those hundreds and hundreds of notebooks. And as several of the critics of my most recent novel have said, reading someone else’s masturbation fantasies is hell. [Audience laughs.] And it is! [Laughs.] You know I think I said that in an essay a long time ago. I’m not surprised when one of the critics basically [is] quoting me back to myself and I kind of agree with them. There is however something that happens when — this is the way I would relate it to imagination: I think you can turn by subjecting the fantasy to a certain order of observation, of mentation, of imagination, where you have to bring in the term imagination, and to write it down, and to make it more realistic. And when that happens, um, you do something to it. Certainly it’s something I’ve written down, about, my essays. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that a fantasy that you do write down, before you write it down, it retains its sexual charge. And you can revisit the fantasy again and again over a couple of weeks, couple of months, even. And as soon as you write it down and you really try to realize it, you know, what they are actually wearing, what did this guy’s shoulder look like, then the next time you jerk off, the uh, the sexual charge is much greater. And then it’s over. Goes away entirely and you think of it again, and it doesn’t have any, for me. Rarely does it have any leftover sexual charge. For me this is interesting and I think this would interest Freud. It’s very similar to the completion of dreams, in the way that he talks about back in the Interpretation, you know back from 1900.
I think it has something to do with, dare I say it, realistic fiction. I think there’s something in the sketchiness in what we might call a fantasy, that you submitted to this kind of discipline, and it’s a discipline, that allows it to be … called up more. Scott McCloud, in a book called Understanding Comics, and I hope a bunch of you are familiar with that because much of it is a brilliant book and I think some of it is … crazy. But the part that is brilliant is really brilliant, and the part that is brilliant is whenever he talks about lines and when he talks about other things, he kind of goes off into cloud cuckoo land, but that’s my humble opinion.
At any rate, one of the things that he says is that a picture of a recognizable person, if you draw a picture where there’s a real likeness of a person, and there’s shading and what have you, we look at that and we see that as a picture of an “other.” When we look at a cartoon, you know just a circle of an eye and a nose, a little thing for the mouth, when we look at that, what we’re looking at is the inside of the mask of our own faces. So that when we look at the cartoon we see ourselves, when we look at the realistic picture we see the other. That all drawings, as long as they represent another face, we can — and you know he points out that we see faces everywhere. You open a beer can and you look at the top and there are two drops of beer on the side and it’s got that hole there and it’s a face. You know, you look at a socket with two prongs and the third prong, and it’s a face. We’re programmed to see faces all over the place. And some of them are schematic and some of them are more realistic. You look at the line that has collected on the shower curtain because you haven’t washed it in three months, and you’re sitting there and you see a very realistic face, complete with lots of little things, so you know, that’s an other. But then you look at the iconic one and that’s a fantasy face. And in the fantasy stuff, you see yourself. And I think that’s what’s going on in general between what I think of when I think of fantasy as opposed to something that is disciplined by an imaginative realization of it. So I think both of them have their places and both of them, you can do stuff with. You can do things with them and when you do things with them, they’re very interesting. I would not want to exclude either one from the republic [chuckles].
Bernstein: We’re listening to Chip Delany on PennSound’s Close Listening, ArtOnTheAir.org. You spoke earlier about how your own work is rooted in your own particular experiences. And yet, there’s another aspect of your work which would suggest something else. And so let me ask you in this way: What about the imagination of lives and practices that can’t be imagined, or at least first might not be seemed to be able to be imagined?
Delany: Well, you try and you decide, can they or can’t they. And if you can, then we’re back at Wittgenstein’s proposition seven … [Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.] —
Bernstein: But you have certainly, in your work overall, pushed the borders of what one might imagine, one could imagine, by imagining it and letting other people including themselves, experience it. And much of it isn’t related, at least ostensibly, to your immediate experience because part of the project, the process that you’re involved in consists of pushing beyond that so that the readers anyway can experience things that are other than what they might have.
Delany: Yeah, but I think every fiction writer worth his or her salt, does that. I don’t think that’s — again I don’t think that it’s a function of a given genre. I mean Melville does it. I’m just reading —
Bernstein: I’m not asking you in terms of genre in this case but rather the desire to include things which are outside even your own ability to accept them, because they engage situations or possibilities that many of us, certainly me, I can’t speak for you … many things in your works force me to think about things that normally I wouldn’t be able to acknowledge or recognize. I constantly come upon the very narrow limits of what’s either in my fantasy or my imagination.
Delany: I say the same things about your poems, Charles. Right back at ya. [Bernstein chuckles.] There are lots and lots of things in your poetry … “Ooh, I’ve got to kind of move my head over here.” I think any writer who is at all interesting, and I include you in that group! [Chuckles.] I certainly do, I think makes that happen. I think that’s because we all —
Bernstein: In that sense we all, we share that. But I think a lot of writers don’t do that.
Delany: That is true and those are the writers I’m not terribly interested in. I think there are a lot of writers who do that for some people but don’t do it for others. You want to get the work to the people who will get something out of it. That’s a whole … that’s another curricular question or a heuristic problem that you’ve got to grapple with rather than a general abstract …
Bernstein: Lots of writers, including myself, suffer from various kinds of disabilities with respect to writing such as dyslexia.
Delany: — so do I. I’m, you know, hopelessly dyslexic.
Bernstein: And I’m interested in you talking about that both as an experience — because one aspect of it is just to imagine the amount of material that you’ve produced, that you were talking about earlier. Just stuff, textual stuff. Thousands of pages. And the difference between your doing that, someone who has disfluency, as we say it versus fluency. At least in that area. And also how dyslexia relates to issues that you write about and think about.
Delany: Well, again, there were lots of writers who are dyslexic.
Bernstein: Many, many that I know.
Delany: And historically there were. Flaubert was one of the most famous dyslexic writers. His family used to — his nickname in the family was the “idiot de la famille,” the idiot. Sartre, borrowed for the title of his great three-volume biography.
One of the things that dyslexic writers learn to do very quickly is to rewrite, because they have to. Because if they don’t rewrite, nobody can understand what it was they put down on the paper. And that was my problem all throughout — and before people even knew what dyslexia was, here I was a very bright Black kid from Harlem, who if you gave him a non-reading test, his IQ, my IQ, was off the fucking charts [Bernstein chuckles], if I may speak bluntly, was over 160, you know, but I couldn’t spell the word “paper” three times correctly in a row. Not only that, I would do it right once then do it two times wrong and the two times wrong would be entirely different from each other. And, you know, two pages apart.
And people would say, “What’s going on?” And they assumed it was some kind of horrible carelessness. This was very cruel. I would occasionally write … sometimes I would start on the left side of the page and sometimes it would start on the right, and it would come out like Leonardo Da Vinci’s mirror writing. And I had no control over it, up until the time I was like in my second year in high school. One of the most painful things I can remember was Mrs. Levy in my sophomore year at high school, you know —
Bernstein: This would’ve been in the Bronx High School of Science.
Delany: Uh huh —
Bernstein: — where we both went to high school.
Delany: — Bronx High School of Science! And standing at the head of the class and her saying, Mrs. Levy, “Mr. Delany. Is this some kind of joke?” [Bernstein chuckles] — and I was mortified. And she handed me back the paper and just rolling her eyes to heaven. I ran into the bathroom and I stuffed it down in the thing. I didn’t cry, but I stood there breathing incredibly heavy, I was just mortified. I didn’t know what the fuck to do — excuse me. And you know, this is the way, you know — and one of the reasons I was so broken up by it is because I had already been sent to psychiatrists to find out what was the reason for his attention-getting behavior. I wasn’t trying to get anybody’s attention, you know, the wiring is all screwed up. There was nothing I could do about it. It was not until I was about twenty or twenty-one, and I had published a couple of novels, that I finally, that again, Marilyn, my wife at the time, found an article on dyslexia. It was the first time either one of us had heard the word. It was not something, knowledge, that was rampant in the ’50s. And it described this condition. It was me. And we both said, “Oh!” And she said, “Chip. That’s you! That’s just what you do.” And it’s interesting that my daughter, who is now a doctor, has inherited it. And when I watched her grow up, she had the same, identical symptoms of it. It manifests itself the same ways, and I thought, you know, “Yeah, there it is.” And it was like watching me grow up again, and in one way it was good ’cause I could tell her “Hey, don’t worry, relax. You’ll find ways to get around it. One of the best ways to get around it, is to become very good friends with someone who doesn’t have it. [Bernstein and Delany laugh] — who is willing to look at what you write and say: “From here to here is totally incomprehensible, try writing it again so I know what you’re saying.” And slowly but surely you do get musical habits.” If you hear — I can’t remember anything I think, but I can remember what I say. So you know when I put the coffee in, in the morning, I take the coffee out and I count out loud: one … two … three. If I don’t count, I have no idea how many scoops I put in. You know, and that’s how you do it.
Yeats did not know how to read until he was sixteen. His father used to read to him, constantly. Another dyslexic writer. I mean it’s a real problem and you figure out what to do. When Yeats says something like, “The problem of what’s difficult has made me an old man,” that’s what he was talking about. He was talking about, just the ordinary act of putting it down on paper, difficult. One of the things it does, as I said, it encourages you to rewrite and you get into the habit of rewriting because you can’t do anything else, and it also means, believe it or … People like to say, of all genre writers, that because they’re genre writers they’re very prolific. I am not a prolific writer. I’m just not. If you actually — it’s very funny: I’ve just been made “a grandmaster of science fiction.” Whee. [Some audience members clap.]
Delany: — but one of the things. Now everybody’s saying, for a grandmaster he sure hasn’t written very much. He’s written like fourteen novels. You know Philip [K. Dick], you know Arthur C. Clarke, has written about sixty-five. And it’s true but you know I don’t write a lot. And I certainly don’t write a lot for a genre writer, I never have. And I doubt very much that I ever will. And especially now, on my side of seventy-two. So you know, that’s the way that really works.
Bernstein: [whispering] It’s almost time.
Delany: And you know when people say you’re so prolific, I smile and I nod and I think, well obviously they haven’t looked at my bibliography or at least they haven’t compared it to anybody else’s in the field. And I’ve been doing this for fifty years. Up until the first thirty-seven, I was doing it eight hours a day, every day. And that’s … it still averages out, especially if you take … okay the first five were written in two years. And I did nothing else except write and screw. That’s all I did. Hour after hour, day after day after day, and I had a nervous breakdown. That was overwork. [Laughs. Bernstein laughs. Audience also laughs]. That was overwork and it really was. Anyway, so there you go. I mean that’s …
Bernstein: You’ve been listening to Samuel R. Delany on Close Listening. The program was recorded on April 11, 2014 at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. Close Listening is a production of PennSound in collaboration with Clocktower Radio. For more information on this show visit our website: writing.upenn.edu/pennsound. This is your earth-bound host, Charles Bernstein, ushering you beyond the babel and into the cosmos of Close — close — close — close Listening — listening — listening — listening.
Delany: Thank you Charles. Thank you, Charles. Thank you Charles. [Audience claps.]
An interview with Andy Fitch
Note: This interview between Zach Savich and Andy Fitch centers around Fitch’s Sixty Morning Talks, published in 2014 by Ugly Duckling Presse, a volume of sixty transcribed interviews with poets who released books in 2012.
Zach Savich: Reading Sixty Morning Talks from start to finish, I became very aware of the date of each interview. I started to think of the book not only as a collection of exchanges but as a chronicle of several months in 2012, a kind of memoir or travelogue, in the sense that Dante’s Commedia would be a travelogue even if you removed everything except the dialogue. In one nine-day period in June, for example, you conducted eleven interviews, with poets including Daniel Tiffany, Vanessa Place, Forrest Gander, John Kinsella, Dorothea Lasky — and these are substantial conversations; they suggest both significant preparation and your talent at following talk where it leads. How did you prepare for this project? Did you begin it with central lines of inquiry in mind? I’m wondering because the book offers hints of narrative, or cumulative investigation (“I’ve interviewed [Rob Halpern, Dana Ward, and Thom Donovan],” you tell Brandon Brown, “and you come up in each of their books”), but these continuities don’t result from repetitive questioning or by focusing only on poets with narrow affinities, and they aren’t emphasized by an introduction or other critical framing. Perhaps some of these connections were particularly unexpected?
Andy Fitch: Thanks, Zach. I have much admiration for your work both as a poet and as a reader of the contemporary. As we start this conversation, I only regret that you did not appear in the Sixty Talks book. To begin with your broadest question, regarding whether I had central lines of inquiry in mind: I would say not really (unless the deliberate lack of such central inquiry counts as its own agenda, with its own politics).
This particular project served as my antidote to doctoral work, though I don’t mean to disparage my graduate program. After finishing oral exams, then a dissertation, I just assumed I never would read again. It didn’t seem to happen anymore. And the need to streamline my dissertation’s argument, to make it focused and timely, always felt fraudulent. I couldn’t understand any longer what critics do, or how they could speak convincingly of wider trends within contemporary poetics, or within a grouping of poets, or often even within a single book. To be honest, unless criticism gets written in lucid and compact prose, I zone out almost instantly, due to reductive formulations that have little to do with my reading experience.
So critical writing seemed to have moved off limits for me, like reading.
But before too long, that neglect or fear of critical writing had built up its own allure. I wanted to go back and try this form that felt so hard. I read Craig Dworkin’s article “Seja Marjinal,” which calls for an “ever more local, focused, specialized, and ad hoc” mode of criticism, and I always look up to Craig. So I decided on the sixty talks approach (in an instant, alas, while eating breakfast — somewhat copying Hans Ulrich Obrist, who has assembled many similar interview collections with artists). Miraculously, Anna Moschovakis at Ugly Duckling accepted the project before I had written it, saving me from the need to persuade potential interviewees that such a whacky book would appear in print one day. I started asking around somewhat randomly (but grounded in my own social circles, my own artistic biases, sure) about who had new books coming soon. I asked some favorite publishers to point me to authors. I had a sabbatical approaching, so time to read for once, though I had to haul a bunch of manuscripts to Buenos Aires. I found the world’s greatest transcriber, Maia Spotts, without whom this project’s completion would have remained impossible. Then just before the interviews started, my wife and I spontaneously bought our first house. So I think I had to interview somebody a couple hours after the closing. Then a few days later we left to teach a study-abroad course in Japan. For many of the early interviews, I would eat breakfast with my students, then head back to my room in our boarding house, as if to shower or something, then sneak in an interview via Skype (I didn’t want the students to complain I had neglected them). Then when the talk had finished, instead of decompressing, I would walk straight down to our den and lecture on Japanese history, about which I had read my first textbook the week before. It was total inner chaos, which allowed me to keep functioning and talking to whomever came next, but also left me quite dependent on the interviewees to pull us along. So endless thanks to them. Then by that nine-day stretch you mentioned, things had settled down a bit. My wife and I had made it to Australia, for a real vacation, and so for example I would have visited Wilson’s Promontory outside Melbourne during the day, learning about how wombats live, then would talk to Forrest and John later that night (it was always “morning” somewhere).
Anyway, I hope you can tell that I appreciate your reading the book straight through, and your comparisons to travelogues and memoirs-by-conversation. This lengthy response of mine has sought to demonstrate that, through the trappings of vague autobiographical narrative, I hoped to short-circuit the need for any dominant argument about contemporary poetics to emerge, but without the overall momentum dragging. I wanted to create focused intellectual space where poets I respect could speak at length for themselves, but wanted to maintain some sort of “plot” progress, since interview collections certainly can drag if they get too diffuse or too repetitive. So the book came about between those constrictions. I also had this dream about what Vasari had done, without my ever having looked at him.
And you make another good point: no introduction to the interviews — again, that inevitably would have excluded or seemed insensitive to certain contributors’ accomplishments. I harbor adolescent desires for all cultural gatekeepers (most have bad or superficial tastes, in poetry as much as elsewhere) to disappear, and don’t wish to become one myself. I still get excited when the Smiths sing “Hang the DJ, Hang the DJ, Hang the DJ.” So, instead of an introduction, an erasure-based afterword by the poet Amaranth Borsuk. This afterword rearranges forms of interrogation, offering no fixed answers. Amaranth comes first in the interviews, and so I liked having her bookend the collection. Amaranth and I now have a collaborative book just out, so one project bleeds into the next, into a new idiom. As for Rob, Dana, Thom, Brandon: it excited me to see all of these smart poets rethinking New Narrative work. Typically, I’m out of it. I only discovered this development through reading. Throughout Sixty Morning Talks, I tried to turn ignorance, laziness, and/or denseness into virtues. Everything felt fresh.
Savich: This “antidotal” approach helps complex ideas feel accessible — I can imagine teaching Sixty Morning Talks as an introduction to contemporary poetics, for students who don’t already care about poetics — and it can lead to delightful exchanges, perhaps reflecting the ways in which you absorbed, and also turned yourself loose from, your doctoral training; one shouts “Hang the DJ” from caring excessively about music, after all. This, as you suggest, feels fresh, far from reductive — “I’m just formulating the Boyesque on the spot,” you say to Nick Twemlow. I could list many such moments, which show inspired thinking about what, elsewhere, might be treated as dry concepts, diligently rehearsed (“You can find rocket fuel in lettuce, also,” Hoa Nguyen reminds us).
And yet, were I to teach this book to undergraduates, I suspect they would note the frequent references to philosophers, critics, theorists, and other artists, the ways in which current talk about poetry can be highly referential, framing poetry as a creative parallel to critical scholarship. As soon as I say that, I remember rangier instances (Brandon Shimoda reporting a recent dream, for instance). Perhaps, then, an undercurrent in the book is contemporary poetry’s relationship to critical ideas. Several poets in the collection, such as Brian Kim Stefans, note their interest in taking on concepts from the academy for divergent ends, while others, such as Vanessa Place, present poetic action as a critical incursion. How did these interviews change your thinking about poetry’s enchantment with and anxiety about and reorientation of critical sources and discourse? Or would you encourage my hypothetical undergraduates to conclude something else from these interviews, to focus on another aspect of how these poets talk about poetry?
Fitch: Brian in his interview presents a good model for, as you say, poaching from academic domains (here early Anglo-Saxon poetries) in pursuit of unsuspected pleasures. More generally, part of what most interested me about interviewees’ engagement with critical precedents was that their smart resulting hybrid projects appeared to have such little purchase in contemporary critical debates. Scholars seem much more concerned about tending to timely conversations within their professional fields, rather than acknowledging the interloping endeavors of poets. So, to start with, your students should know that anything poets touch becomes permanently tainted as poetry/poetics, and that poets should feel encouraged to absorb any idiom or disciplinary approach they come across, with little fear of losing their poetic side. I found Lisa Robertson’s book Nilling totally amazing, for example, profound and poised line-by-line, continually exhausting and refreshing, and if I ever get named college president, I personally will hand a copy to each freshman, cancel the first week of classes, clear space for an impromptu reading period. But I sense that my more strictly scholarly friends would take a glance and say: “I hear she’s great, but who thinks about Hannah Arendt today?” (or they will say that five years from now).
And for many other poets whose critically minded books I read for Sixty Morning Talks, I could anticipate something similar. Yet rather than disparage contemporary criticism here, which isn’t my intention, I should just answer your thoughtful question by saying that creative/critical binaries deny, among many other possibilities, the attractive third-way potential for poets to write of/from poetic criticism in an untimely fashion — one of my favorite genres. And I know I’ve now reinforced reductive binaries by using categorically terms such as “poet” and “critic,” but that’s the best I can offer after a long afternoon hike in the sun.
Vanessa’s Boycott book remains subtle and surprising and insightful throughout. I love Boycott and assigned it in class last year. Personally, though, I again think of it and of Vanessa’s work and public presence in general as virtuosic poetic performance, rather than as a reshaping of critical discourse. Yes, conceptualist poetry has received much critical attention in recent years (as it should — since it has produced many of the most compelling books), but I think conceptualist panache perhaps disarmed many critics, who soon will return to more driving political preoccupations.
If I haven’t yet really encouraged your hypothetical undergrads to feel one way or the other, then could I assign them, for next class, to read all of Roland Barthes and Avital Ronnel and In the American Grain and My Emily Dickinson and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, The Grand Piano and “Poetry and Grammar”?
Savich: OK, assigned. Along with many of the untimely interlopers mentioned throughout the book. Lisa Robertson, for example, mentions that one piece in Nilling opens with “a citation [she] found in Louis Mumford, from the Greek rhetorician Eubulus.” So maybe I’m wrong to emphasize poetry’s relationship to criticism — its ability to produce a third-way text — rather than, more basically, to the process of reading; Robertson’s interview didn’t cause me to research Eubulus, but to think about coincidence, conversation, the conversion of ideas across time. Dan Beachy-Quick, speaking of his essay collection Wonderful Investigations, makes a related suggestion, saying that he hopes the book provides “the experience of needing knowledge, or moving toward knowledge, a knowledge that these essays realize they can’t really offer.” Your interviews offer a similar experience, if only because readers are unlikely to have read every title under discussion. If we extend your role as curricular director for one moment, are there featured books that it might be particularly interesting for one to read after reading the interview?
Fitch: Sorry to offer such a meek response here, especially given my enthusiasm for all sixty interviewees, but I have thoroughly repressed any sense of which books I prefer, or feel ought to be foregrounded, so I’ll have to struggle to offer some selections. Could I suggest some broader trends I found intriguing, and perhaps point to a representative interviewee or two? Younger poets responding to New Narrative we’ve already covered. Poets probing the future of the book, such as Amaranth Borsuk and Tan Lin, might fit well here. Publisher-poets rethinking publication strategies come to mind, Shanna Compton and Matvei Yankelevich among them. Poets pursuing relational practices of production (and their critique), like Thom Donovan and Bhanu Kapil, could offer interest context. Mónica de la Torre provides smart parallels to any number of contemporary art forms, as does Catherine Taylor to nonfiction. I’m just truncating my celebratory list, leaving out some of my favorite poets and people, so that this doesn’t drag on.
Savich: The book (as I flip back through it) invites such a list to keep shifting, which fits the critical vision sketched above, its principled fluidity. There’s a related, perhaps more formally derived, fluidity that results from the book’s conversational mode; the interviews remain directed, yet they are closer to oral histories than to the kind of interviews that simply trigger talking points or promote an author. You mentioned Obrist, whose work I’ve only heard of. What did you learn from his volumes? Were there other models that helped guide your technique as an interviewer? David Antin comes up several times in the book, so I’m tempted to connect this collection to a poetics of “talk” more broadly.
Fitch: Others before me have praised Obrist’s stamina as an interviewer. He engages artists from any number of cultural and historical contexts, involved in a wide variety of aesthetic and critical practices (a much more diverse array than you find in poetry), yet always seems to offer at least one question indicating that he could have gone so much further in depth if he could expect the reader to follow him. He demonstrates a great intimacy even amid his admirably heterogeneous and expansive scope. I don’t think anybody really understands if this comes from copious preparation, or persistent art-world gossip, or uncanny impromptu readings of his interviewees’ affective presence, but it helps to possess that sort of mystique as an interviewer, so that you don’t have to make yourself felt in some more obvious or obnoxious manner.
Aside from Obrist, and more specific to poetry, I long have listened to and admired and assigned segments from Charles Bernstein’s and Leonard Schwartz’s respective radio programs. Charles characteristically plays the wisecracker while landing one disarming insight after another, keeping it fresh and engaging regardless of whether he talks to an old friend or a figure with ostensibly opposite intellectual and/or aesthetic values. Leonard takes serious risks as a questioner, really putting himself out there, so that you never can predict whether even the syntax, let alone an answerable question, will arrive — and then it does, with great eloquence. Leonard raises the stakes and thereby ensures that a constructive, highly distinctive form of poetic/philosophical inquiry takes place, one that only could come through conversation.
And I could list a ton of terrific interviewers who have remapped, reimagined, reinvented what interviews can be (here Stephanie Anderson, Rosebud Ben-Oni, J’Lyn Chapman, H. L. Hix, Cindy King, Krystal Languell, Jonathan Stalling, Tony Trigilio, and Jeffrey Williams, for instance, come to mind). I have considered it an honor to work with these individuals, and with The Conversant’s many unnamed yet equally exceptional contributors. But I was poorly informed when I started Sixty Morning Talks. I thought of Charles and Leonard, how they had achieved a productive, fluid rapport with their interviewees. I thought that, if I needed (and I did need) to differentiate my own form of investigation from theirs, and if they had to concern themselves constantly with keeping the audio conversation crisp, lively, good-natured, then I should, by contrast, pile on the convoluted questions, apologize profusely for my vagueness but keep pushing forwards, give respondents time to reflect and experimentally formulate, and then clean it all up later. So that might provide a David Antin connection — to his lovely concept of vernacular thinking.
Savich: And perhaps to The Volta overall, which I, at least, tend to read as though I’m constructing a conversation between an interview at The Conversant, poems and poetics statements elsewhere on the site, and so forth. In a related way, my experience of new poetry is increasingly embedded in — and probably inseparable from — conversations and chatter on social media, its vernacular. You have other books both published and forthcoming that seem to have varied relationships to conversation — as metaphor, principle, practice. It’s common to think of artistic enterprise that way, as exchange and response. What feels most fruitful or promising to you now, two years after you conducted the interviews in Sixty Morning Talks, about projects designed around overt conversational models, especially those that might deviate from the conventions of an interview like this one?
Fitch: Alas, I again only can speak personally, since I probably miss billions of compelling poetic developments every day. I have bad vision that makes social media pretty difficult, and can’t read even Conversant or Volta pieces unless I print them (though I experience joyous appreciation and admiration each month when I see a new Volta main page posted by Joshua Marie Wilkinson or Afton Wilky). But in terms of conversational or dialogic models that now appeal to me, I feel increasingly drawn to the negotiations involved in cross-gender collaboration. I consider myself quite fortunate to be working on projects with Amaranth Borsuk and with Danielle Pafunda — two of my favorite poets. Also, since starting The Conversant, I’ve become just as interested in curating conversations as in conducting them, and in thinking through how to track, clarify, stimulate broader forms of innovation and inquiry by creating space for authors I admire. At Essay Press, which my publishing comrade Cristiana Baik and I now edit, we soon will launch a series of three-talk chapbooks examining what creative nonfiction (my official field, according at least to professional job descriptions) stands to learn from the vibrant small-press poetic culture cultivated in the last forty years. We’ll have poet-publishers interview each other, people who curate reading series doing the same, oral histories of localized artistic communities. But I still like old-fashioned, straightforward interviews too, if that’s what this is (really it just seems like you asking smart, generous questions). I have a bad back along with the bad eyes, and during my daily stretches I always listen to Charlie Rose and the Political Gabfest and such. I dislike participating in chit-chat, but never get bored reading or hearing other people’s discussions. Needless to say, Andy Warhol remains my artistic and intellectual hero. Or like Roland Barthes, I confess — profess — lifelong devotion to the informal, unprofessional, semi-domestic mother tongue. Or all of these dialogic projects just provide desperate compensation for the one essential conversation I’ll never have, with my dog, asking her what else she wants.
An interview with Stuart Ross
Note: It has been many years since he stood on Yonge Street in Toronto wearing a “Writer Going to Hell: Buy My Books” sign (he sold 7,000 of his books this way in the ’80s), but Stuart Ross (b. 1959) continues to be an active and influential presence in the Canadian small press.
Through his work as a poet, fiction writer, essayist, performer, editor, organizer, and publisher, Ross has been an advocate for small press writers and publishers since his late teens. Ross is a prolific writer. Several of Ross’s own books and chapbooks, including Dead Cars in Managua (poetry, 2008), Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (short stories, 2009), Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew (novel, 2012), and You Exist. Details Follow. (poetry, 2013), have received or been shortlisted for awards. His most recent book is Our Days in Vaudeville, a compendium of collaborative poems written by Ross and twenty-nine other writers. Ross lives in Cobourg, Ontario, a small town on the shore of Lake Ontario, east of Toronto.
In July 2014, we discussed surrealism, collaboration as a significant part of his practice, the relationship of his poetics to both Canadian and American traditions, popular culture, mentors, teaching, humor, the small press, improvisation, “nutso” imagery, and his current projects. — Gary Barwin
Gary Barwin: Let’s begin by addressing the surrealist elephant in the room. We’ll leave the sewing machine and the umbrella for another time. Discussions of your work often invoke notions of surrealism, and in fact you edited an important anthology of Canadian poetry that engages with surrealism: Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian Poets Under the Influence (Mercury Press). How do you see your work in relation to “realism,” language, the “real” world, and surrealism?
Stuart Ross: I don’t much concern myself with issues of what is real and what is surreal. I don’t set out to write surrealism, or to include surreal elements in my work. When I write, I simply don’t bother obeying laws of reality, and I have no problem if one of my characters, or some object, transforms into something else or flies, or sizzles, or otherwise does the “impossible.” My reading covers a real range: Patricia Highsmith is one of my favorite writers because I like the closet of terror and paranoia she thrusts me into, and she’s as real as it gets, but I also love Roland Topor’s Joko’s Anniversary and B. S. Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry and Roberto Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain. They’re real too, but they’re not real by being realistic. The “real” world: I don’t think there’s any such thing — or there’s nothing that’s not part of the real world. Language: it’s the thing I write in.
Barwin: But to follow up on your relation to the “real world”: I wonder about how you consider the relation of language to the construction of self, to the experience of being human (or the experience of flying and sizzling)? Much of your language, that “thing [you] write in,” plays with what seemingly bears some relation to a situation outside the language (if such a thing can exist). Your poems often play with the notion that language is a trickster that may appear to construct something that corresponds to the world, but also constructs a parallel world that, based on the experience and expectations of reading, may delight, deceive, beguile, or surprise.
The event takes place.
Sounds are heard.
You exist. Not yet.
(“The Event,” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
How do you imagine the process of reading, of moving through, a text of yours? How do you think about how a reader experiences your unfolding textworld?
Ross: I think more in terms of the discovery of self than the construction of self. That said, I don’t see my writing as a way to discover myself, but instead as a way to explore my interests, to amuse myself, to connect in some way to people outside of myself (however few those people will be), and hopefully provide some amusement for them, or get them to think in ways they find interesting. I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying regarding language as a trickster, but when I’m writing I do like that you can immediately contradict yourself, or skew expectations, or provide another perspective on reality (as in “You exist. Not yet.”).
I like the question about how the reader might experience my work; it’s something I don’t think much about. I mean, how would I know how an individual reader would read my poems or stories? I don’t know their lives, their experiences, what they’re bringing to the act of reading. But I hope that they might look at my poems, especially, the way they’d look at a painting by Bosch. That they’d keep noticing new and weird things. That it might make them laugh at times and unsettle them at other times. I imagine they read the first word, and then the second, and then they keep going, and every so often something strikes them, and maybe they back up a bit or skip down to the bottom of the page. They might attempt to inflict meaning where I don’t intend any, because some people are oriented that way. That’s great! I love reading student papers on my work, and I love reading really in-depth explorations of my writing by creative and thoughtful thinkers like Alex Porco and Lance La Rocque, rare as such explorations are in my case. Throw whatever you got at me! It’s just nice to know someone is considering your work in whatever way.
Barwin: Can you speak about the energy of certain words? Sizzle. Poodle. Potato. (I think you might be the poet laureate of the word thing.) And what about tonal shifts, juxtaposition, and personification?
When we met, the sky had taken a cigarette break, and the clouds, caught
off-guard, were flailing, panicked.
(“When We Met,” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
The ground had a hunch.
Furniture made no sense.
(“You Exist. Details Follow.” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
have you heard of time?
It’s a thing that matters,
like that other thing,
but less …
(“You Exist. Details Follow,” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
Ross: The word thing is something I love, and I try not to overuse it. On a side note, when I was working with David W. McFadden on his volume of selected poems a few years back, he made a lot of revisions to early poems. He often got rid of the word love and sometimes replaced it with the word thing. But while my interest is mostly in image-based poetry, and I use abstractions sparingly, there’s something big and beautiful about thing — as if you’re talking about something very specific but you actually don’t know what you’re talking about. We’re often bewildered by what is confronting us, and we wonder if what we are seeing is what we think we are seeing. Thing fits that situation nicely.
As for words with energy, like sizzle, potato, and poodle, or moon, canoe, and baboon, or gizmo, spelunk, and Parker Posey, they’re a lot of fun, but again, you’ve got to watch for oversaturation. You don’t want to show off. Poems aren’t about your own cleverness. But these effective, unusual, quirky-sounding words are crucial to my own poetry. They’re like characters in my poems.
Tonal shifts: it’d be boring if the tone of a poem didn’t change. Juxtaposition: again, used sparingly, it can be the heart of a poem, the poem’s energy. Personification: doors are people too, and hammers and broken clocks. One of my favorite novels when I was a teenager was Russell Hoban’s Kleinzeit. It was filled with pieces of furniture and sheets of paper that spoke. I think it’s Hoban’s masterpiece. I see no reason to limit inanimate objects. That said, I’m also interested in stories where the main characters are inanimate objects that don’t think or speak or have any personified qualities. I’ve written two of those, and I’m working on another.
Barwin: Robert Bly writes about poems “leaping” from the conscious to the unconscious. In your work, I imagine not only a leap around the brain but also a leap around the culture. Your poems, in their incorporation of “non(traditionally)poetic” words and tones, popular culture (Parker Posey), and the forgotten material of the contemporary world (e.g., an elastic band, the inside of a shoe, a half-eaten hamburger), as well as larger themes of loss, family history, and more general existential themes, also do a lot of leaping — or perhaps, in some cases, it could be considered “synthesizing.” Also, much of your work uses a deliberately simple tone and sentence structure, often self-consciously so, which is played against more profound issues.
Hi there, inventory of my life.
(“Inventory Sonnet,” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
How do you see the role of this juxtaposition or integration of registers, this creation of a characteristic multilevel style of tonal and image? And maybe this would be a good time to also ask about the role of humor in your work. I like what Victor Coleman said about that: “the message in the chuckle is a punch in the gut.”
… a better poet than me
would insert a really good sediment
metaphor right here. (Or, more poignantly,
(“Sediment,” in I Cut My Finger)
Ross: The simple tone, as you call it, is the tone I feel most comfortable with. My high-school English teacher once wrote on one of my stories something like “Why are all your characters such blockheads?” Or “so dense”? I can’t quite recall. It felt like an attack, because I identify with these characters. We people, we think we’re so smart, but we’re really not all that smart. So I like those who embrace simplicity. It’s a state that many of us yearn for. Simplicity is a good place to start from to learn profound things. I don’t understand your question, but I hope I have answered it here. I also don’t follow how Parker Posey and the “simple tone” lead to the issue of humor — ask away!
Barwin: Why humor? Sometimes the surprise or incongruous appearance of minor pop-culture figures is humorous. Parker Posey. Montgomery Clift. David Carradine. Or the way the character speaks — often “simple” or earnestly, using non-standard English syntax — is funny in itself while at the same time evoking pathos, empathy or self-recognition. I see these “simple” characters as Beckettian figures. One feels great empathy for their existential or emotional situation and great solidarity with their struggles to express themselves. And one feels a kind of dramatic irony in knowing that they haven’t quite been able to find the right words, but yet, paradoxically, their inability and the language that results is somehow much more telling.
Did I be happy correctly? Do the smile go on my face right? … Am
people in general liking me?
(from “Happy” in Hey, Crumbling Balcony!)
One also feels somewhat the way one feels with Chauncey Gardiner in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There. The simple language, or the naive yet inventive way of expressing things (“The year is invented.” “The water is solid.”), carries the weight of profound insight, a kind of Zen-like wisdom and presence. This, to me, is also humorous or, at least, piquant and droll.
My father and I build a tent
by the water. The water is solid.
We wait. The year is invented.
He teaches me what it can do.
(“The Tent,” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
Do you see this existential humor in some of your work and in the speakers you create, often a kind of everyperson Busterkeatoning through the language?
Ross: Montgomery Clift is a major pop culture figure! Or a major artist, depending on how you look at it.
But to your question, I don’t see this stuff as humorous, though I know a lot of people do. I’ve become used to people laughing during my readings when I’m reading something I see as poignant. I don’t hold it against them. I’m glad they’re responding. I see beauty in the simplicity of these characters and the kind of language you’ve pinpointed. I feel relief using such language, because it liberates me from having to sound “poetic” like A. F. Moritz or Ken Babstock; for me, this kind of language is more my experience of life, so I embrace it. Again, it comes from a yearning for naïveté, innocence, childhood. Just about everyone in my family has died, so of course I yearn for my childhood. Maybe most people do, unless they had horrible, unspeakable childhoods.
I love your comparison to Chauncey Gardiner. Being There was huge for me when I was a teenager; I’ve never thought of it as an influence, but it must have been. It’s interesting that no other Kosinski character has that “innocence” that Chance had. His other characters are burdened with “knowing” and “intellect” and “conscience.” And then it all implodes in The Hermit of 69th Street, a widely hated book that Kosinski continued to revise even after publication, until he killed himself. That’s his most fascinating work after Being There, The Painted Bird, Steps, and The Devil Tree. The poet David UU had a copy on his “current reading” shelf when he took his own life in 1994.
As for Buster Keaton, he’s also someone whose work I have loved for many years. One of my favorite films of his is Alan Schneider’s Film, from the script by Samuel Beckett. But now when I think of Keaton, I see he had a similar “innocence” in so many of his works. And part of this innocence is self-doubt and self-consciousness. Who of us hasn’t thought, “Am people in general liking me?”
And I think of most of my “characters” or narrators as being everypersons. Everypersons facing existential crises or decisions they are unequipped to handle. Perhaps this is why these characters become fixated on the “thingness” of things. A frozen lake is solid water. A year is something whose invention you must await. Then someone has to teach you what you can do within this thing you’ve maybe never heard of before — this year.
Stuart Ross performing as part of Donkey Lopez (photograph by Laurie Siblock).
Barwin: On the back of your book of reflections about writing and culture, Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (Anvil Press, 2005), the reviewer George Murray is quoted as saying: “If Stuart Ross was living and working in the United States, and writing the exact same poetry he does now, he would be rich and famous. Well, famous, at least.”
If you do ever become rich, I’m expecting you to buy me a beer … made of solid gold … but do you agree with him about the difference between the US and Canada in terms of poetry, its reception, and the consideration of different styles? How do you conceive of being a writer in Canada?
Ross: George wrote that in his 2003 Globe & Mail review of Hey, Crumbling Balcony! Poems New & Selected. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that line! I’m not sure if I would have been rich and famous if I’d been writing in the US back then, but there would have been a lot more sympathy for my writing. There’s been a shift over the past decade or so away from such strictly nationalistic reading, where poets here barely read the Americans. I’d been reading the Americans since I was a little kid, and as I got older, I was especially blown away by Ron Padgett, Campbell McGrath, James Tate, Bill Knott, Larry Fagin, and a lot more. I loved how crazy these poets’ works were: it was different from what was happening in Canada. Now there’s more cross-border reading — at least in a southerly direction, especially with a new generation of American poets who have some audience here: Lisa Jarnot, Matthew Zapruder, Dara Wier, Mary Ruefle, and others. There’s been a good influence on Canadian poetry. Though I do see the formalist movement increasing here, too. Time for a mud-wrestling match.
As to how I conceive of being a writer in Canada — it’s not something I think about much. I try to write, and find poetry I like to read (which is a very small fraction of the available pages), find a way of paying my bills. We’re lucky here in some ways — because of the existence of various municipal, provincial, and federal arts-granting bodies — but I think the academy has too much clout here. It seems to me in the US you can be taken more seriously for writing more nutso stuff. Or is the grass just greener there?
Barwin: The range of your writing — through your many, many books — has expanded from an interest in (to use your term) “nutso” imagery, structured within a “nutso” narrative to include some other modalities: explorations of more abstract structures (many of your more recent poems include more parataxis, some based on list structures) and some engaged more generally with an increasingly abstract consideration of language. However, at the same time, you have poems that more directly refer to human experiences (for example, grief or loss). Are you now a “deep nutso” or an “avant-nutso” poet? How do you think about the development of your work, from that sixteen-year-old suburban Toronto poet who published The Thing in Exile way back in 1976 to the mature small-town Cobourg poet?
Ross: On my way to look up “modalities” and “parataxis” in the dictionary, I decided to hail some parataxis and let them fight it out over who gets my fare. And I don’t know what you mean by an “increasingly abstract consideration of language.” You have a PhD. I’m just a word schlepper.
Also, do you think I’m a small-town Cobourg poet? I think of myself as a poet who happens to live in a small town. Just as I used to be a teenage poet who lived in suburban Toronto. I don’t believe my poetry was suburban then, or small-town now. A lot of my interests are the same along the whole trajectory from 1976 to 2014. It all comes out of my panic about figuring out how to live in this world, how to arrange events and images so I’m more comfortable. Questioning things — such as the very idea of “good poetry” — because I’m not drawn to formalist verse and I can’t put things in order like the writers of formalist verse do. Given this context, I would say all my poetry refers directly to human experiences, centos and list poems included. It is all emotionally autobiographical, and some more factually autobiographical. Just about every poem is a kind of self-portrait. We choose words and phrases and images and juxtapositions, and all of this says a bit about who we are.
Grief, however, has become increasingly present in my poetry. After the death of my mother in 1995, my brother Owen in 2000, and my father in 2001, the idea of facing the world parentless and practically familyless, of losing friends to death, like John Lavery, Robin Wood, Barbara Caruso, Crad Kilodney, Richard Truhlar, to name a few, and losing other friends to … well, I’m not entirely sure in some cases; the deeper understanding of just how absurd our existence on this wobbly sphere is. It all manufactures grief. But I’ve been strongly influenced by Nelson Ball and by David W. McFadden, and I do try to find joy, too, wherever I can.
As to “nutso,” it’s just nutso. Back in my twenties, I used the phrase “demento primitivo” to describe my poetry. Sometimes I use the word stupid to describe some of my poetry, sometimes goofy. But I still take it seriously.
While your back was turned just now, I looked up modalities and parataxis. They’re good words, and yes, parataxically speaking, I have moved in many of my poems in recent years toward shorter, simpler sentences. In fact, I’ve been writing poems over the past year or so that contain two full sentences in each line. It creates interesting effects and tensions. It contradicts the idea of the line as a breath. It creates two gasps instead.
Barwin: I don’t see you as a “suburban” or a “small-town” poet, but I do see how place and the culture of place appear in some of your writing. The zeitgeist and the spirit of place affect the work, if only because as “self-portraits” the poems often enact the process of thinking, and your context affects you, not to mention providing specific imagery. (I think of the work of David W. McFadden and Ron Padgett in this regard, too.) Does that make sense to you?
Ross: It makes a certain sense to me. But place is just one element, if you’re talking about one’s context. If I am a small-town poet, I am also a Jewish poet, a prematurely white-haired poet, a socialist poet, a youngest-child-of-three poet, a chess-playing poet, an orphaned poet, a nonacademic poet, a poet born in the last scrap of the 1950s on John Glenn’s and Nelson Mandela’s birthday, a poet who dislikes most poetry, and a poet doomed to obscurity. I wouldn’t want any one of these things alone to define me.
Barwin: I want to ask you about collaboration, which has been a significant part of your work. I think these collaborations relate to this idea of poems enacting the process of thinking, or, at least, enacting the process of creation and/or the occasion when they were written.
You’ve written collaborative novels (indeed, we wrote one together, The Mud Game, almost twenty years ago), as well as many collaborative poems. In fact, your latest book, Our Days in Vaudeville, is a collection of poems each written by you and one of twenty-nine different collaborators. What is your experience of collaboration (I mean, other than the fact that collaborating with me was the best experience of your life)? What is it like working with different writers? What does the process bring to the writing of both the collaborative work and to your own solo works? How is a book written with twenty-nine collaborators different? Does it affect how one reads it?
Ross: I’m glad to talk about collaboration, because I believe in it deeply, and I’ve collaborated in many different ways throughout my sorry career as an artist. My first collaborations were with Mark Laba, my oldest friend. We wrote stories together and worked on sound poetry together for about a decade and did a collaborative serialized novel called The Pig Sleeps (it was published in the early 1990s, but we’re currently revising it for an e-book reissue). I was intrigued early on by collaborative works: in my late teens I came across the novels Antlers in the Treetops by Ron Padgett and Tom Veitch, A Nest of Ninnies by John Ashbery and James Schuyler, and Lucky Daryl by Bill Knott and James Tate. (Knott was furious with me a year or two ago for mentioning that book, but I really love it). Later on I gravitated toward poetry collaborations by jwcurry and Mark Laba, and by Brian Dedora and bpNichol, among others.
Of course, I collaborated with you on several poems, a clutch of sound poems, and a short novel. And I’ve worked with a lot of musicians collaboratively — beginning in the early 1990s when a band called the Angry Shoppers lost their singer and guitarist and brought me in as a replacement, adapting my poems to their tunes and vice versa. (You can find clips of that ensemble here.) I have become increasingly fascinated by collaboration. Around 2008, I published, through my Proper Tales Press imprint, a book of Ron Padgett collaborating with Allen Ginsberg, Larry Fagin, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, and others: If I Were You. And then a few years later I decided to start compiling a book of my own modeled after that. I collaborated with a few dozen poets and eventually published a book with collaborations with twenty-nine of them, Our Days in Vaudeville. I was hoping it would be the first of many such volumes, but so far the book has been met with almost unanimous silence. Strange, because my books are generally widely reviewed.
On a basic level, I’m excited about collaboration because it allows me to take part in texts I could never create on my own. I can work with writers who fascinate me, often writers whose work is very different from mine. I like that each collaboration begins with negotiation, whether it’s just the idea of taking turns and deciding who goes first, or actually coming up with a form or a constraint to work within. I like the idea of the collaborators, after this initial negotiation, not discussing the collaboration while it’s in progress, because it enforces a more equitable creation of the work — you don’t get to influence what’s happening in the piece beyond your actual writing of the text.
As to what collaboration brings to my solo work, I have no idea. At least, I’m not conscious of it. But collaborating gives me new experiences and exposure to different ways of writing, and I’m sure it ultimately influences my solo work in some way.
There haven’t been many books of collaborative poetry, and those that are out there are rarely taken seriously. Look how little collaborative work appears in literary journals. I’m not sure how people read these books and how it is different from how they read books by single authors. I know that, for me, I became giddy reading Knott/Tate and Padgett/Veitch, for example, because suddenly anything was possible, even beyond the anything-is-possibleness of those individual writers. Some people talk about collaborative writing as being about “play,” but I think all writing is at least partly about “play.” Some see collaborative poems as carnival freaks, and I’m certainly not disputing that with the title and cover of my new book, but carnival freaks are worth taking seriously.
Barwin: You’ve been active since the late ’70s in the micro and small press world. You’ve been called an “activist,” a “guerrilla,” and a “racketeer” (e.g., Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer). You’ve sold your books on the streets of Toronto, organized (with Nicholas Power) the influential Meet the Presses book fair (which became, for a time, the Toronto Small Press Book Fair and has now become Meet the Presses Indie Literary Market). Through your Proper Tales Press, you’ve published a great diversity of writing — in chapbooks, books, leaflets, and other ephemera — of new writers (e.g., Nicholas Papaxanthos, Sarah Burgoyne), legendary figures (e.g., Bill Knott), mid-career writers (e.g., Alice Burdick), as well as your own work. You’ve also edited small press literary journals (e.g., Dwarf Puppets on Parade), created Mondo Hunkamooga, a journal about small press, and have run online poetry periodicals. In addition, you have your own imprint (“a stuart ross book”) at Mansfield Press, a small press out of Toronto, and you’ve been a literary editor for This Magazine.
So, a simple question: What has been the role of the small press (and by this, I include micropress) in your writing and in the writing world in general?
Ross: Before I get to your “simple question,” I just want to correct one thing. The monthly Meet the Presses event over 1985 didn’t “become” the Toronto Small Press Book Fair (in 1987). The MtP evenings at a local community center featured six to ten small-press publishers selling their wares, plus readings, talks, films. The Toronto Small Press Book Fair came about because the huge Toronto Book Fair collapsed, and Nick and I were approached to create something new to fill the gap. So we invented the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, the first of its kind in Canada. I was involved in organizing that event, which was a completely open, non-curated fair, for its first three years. When a rift formed in the Toronto small press community about twenty years later — when the then-organizers of the fair threatened me with a lawsuit after I constructively criticized, on my blog, the job they were doing — about a dozen small-press publishers and writers and former organizers of the fair came together to create an alternative event, under the umbrella of a collective called, again, Meet the Presses (both Nick and I were part of this group). We distinguished ourselves from the deteriorating Small Press Book Fair by making a smaller, strictly curated event called the Indie Literary Market. The idea was to gather the best of the area small presses into one room and create the highest-quality one-day bookstore we could imagine. The first couple of Indie Literary Markets took place while the Toronto Small Press Fair was still gasping its last, disease-ridden breaths. The Market still happens annually, and there are other Meet the Presses events as well.
Now, the role of small press in my writing: publishing, for me, quickly became a practice inseparable from my writing. Writing, publication, performance, and audience happened almost simultaneously as soon as I began publishing, at age nineteen or twenty. Also, I was influenced by the processes and products of other small presses and mags of the era: Crad Kilodney’s Charnel House, Opal Louis Nations’ Strange Faeces, Lesley McAllister’s Identity series, Kenward Elmslie’s Z Press, Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesar Press, and Jack Skelley’s Barney: The Stone-Age Magazine, and of course that insane era of Coach House Press when bpNichol, Victor Coleman, and David Young were there. I later discovered Larry Fagin’s Adventures in Poetry and Poco Loco, Ron Padgett’s White Dove, and many more. And then there were all the other amazing presses that burbled to life, including Beverley Daurio’s The Mercury Press, Daniel Jones’s Streetcar Editions, and on and on.
As to the role of the small press “in the writing world in general,” that’s a pretty huge question and has been dealt with a million times. The main nugget to take away is that small press is the breeding ground of invention. While a ton of bad shit gets published in the small press (as in the big), it’s where the most exciting things can happen, where the most exciting writers find homes. Sometimes these crazily inventive writers pop up in the big presses like Kathy Acker and Donald Barthelme and B. S. Johnson, but most of the activity, the sacrifice, and test-tubing goes on in the very fertile underground.
Barwin: We’ve spoken mostly about your poetry, but you are also a prolific fiction writer, and you’ve done work in sound poetry. Recent books include the short story collection Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand, 2009) and the novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew (ECW, 2011). And the improvisational sound trio you’re part of, Donkey Lopez, has just released a CD entitled Juan Lonely Night. How do you see the relationship between your fiction and your poetry? And how does your sound work — I guess it could be categorized as a kind of “sound poetry” — relate to your other writing? While we’re at it, perhaps you can talk about the place of performance and improvisation in your work, too.
Ross: The primary relationship between my poetry and fiction is that I wrote both of them. And there have been times when I have published the exact same piece as poetry and as fiction, so there is definitely a blur. And when I was having trouble finishing my novel, Larry Fagin suggested to me that I just think of it as a poem; that really helped me barrel through to the end.
I don’t feel my sound work relates much to my other writing, except in that I am its creator. The improvisational work I’m doing with Donkey Lopez (the other members are musicians Steven Lederman and Ray Dillard) is mostly unrelated to my writing, except that I often use elements of my writing in it — I riff off of lines from my poems, and once or twice I’ve used a poem in its entirety — but mainly I see my role in Donkey Lopez as one of three instrumentalists (I play voice).
The sound poetry I did with you and with Mark Laba, and occasionally with jwcurry, was more closely related to writing. But even there it’s blurry: last year in Ottawa John and I did an improvisational piece that was almost devoid of words.
As for improvisation in my work: all of my fiction and poetry is improvisational but exists primarily for the page. I do readings because it’s a good “workshopping” experience, I like doing them, and they help me grow an audience and sell books. I have occasionally done works meant to be performed, such as “The Ape Play,” a puppet show I’ve done a few versions of with ape toys as my actors. The sound poetry, obviously, exists for performance, as does the sound work I’m doing with Donkey Lopez.
Barwin: You are a mentor for many writers. You coach, advise, edit, and teach writing to both adults and kids. At the same time, you are a big supporter and promoter of experienced writers and have enthused about their work and their influence on your own writing. I’m interested in your thoughts about community and the role of the writer as colleague, mentor, and apprentice.
Ross: All those things are optional. They come to some writers more naturally than to others. They aren’t conditions of being a writer. Obviously, I like community. I have organized a ton of readings, workshops, talks, fairs, etc., and for the last six or seven years I have sent out a free weekly email listing of literary events in Toronto (to about 1,200 subscribers currently) called Patchy Squirrel Lit-Serv. But some writers are solitary. They don’t have colleagues.
I apprenticed the poet and anthologist John Robert Colombo for a year or two when I was a teenager. I helped him piece together his anthologies, and he critiqued my poetry in exchange. When I was a teenager I also learned from older writers like Victor Coleman and Sam F. Johnson and David Young and Robert Fones. So perhaps that’s why mentoring comes naturally to me. I began teaching workshops with elementary school students when I was in high school myself.
I am not one of those writers who goes on endlessly about themselves when they talk to other writers (except in interviews like this). Those blowhards are tedious, and they are many. I’m more interested in talking with other writers about their work. I think the deep interest in others is what makes me a good teacher, and what made me a good writer-in-residence at Queen’s University, and what makes me a good editor. But writers don’t have to be collegial, or mentor anyone, or apprentice anyone. I thrive on that stuff, so I do it.
Barwin: I know it’s hard to generalize, but what approach do you take in your workshops and individual mentoring — I mean, other than helping the students create jaw-rending heart-dropping works of impossible brilliance?
Ross: What I want to do in my workshops — and my mentoring — is to expand the possibilities for writers I’m working with: introduce them to new writers and works and ideas and writing strategies, shake them out of their habits and assumptions and complacencies. I want to introduce them to new experiences, help to expand their palettes, dare them to do something in their writing that they are resistant to or uncomfortable with. I like when they write something and say, “Holy shit, did I write that? It doesn’t sound like me. Can I put my name on that?” But I always encourage, and I am always positive. I admit, when I was writer in residence at Queen’s, I told a great young writer, Nick Papaxanthos, that something he’d written was “an insult to poetry.” I figured he could take it. And at the group reading at the end of my session there, he read that poem and introduced it as “Here’s a poem that Stuart called an insult to poetry.”
Barwin: And you eventually published a cool little chapbook of his, Teeth, Untucked (Proper Tales Press, 2011), so I guess both of you saw it as part of a more complex ongoing mentorship based on respect and not platitudes.
Finally, can you speak about your current and future projects? What kind of things are you dreaming up? Where might you imagine your writing going in the future — I mean, assuming there’s not a zombie poodle apocalypse?
Ross: I am currently working on ten different book projects (a story collection, two poetry books, a memoir, a book of essays, a poetry translation, a collaborative book-length poem, three novels). Some of these remain dormant for a few months at a time, or even a few years, but they will all be completed, unless I croak first. I’m trying not to add many more projects, because I’m fifty-five in a few days, and even if I publish one book a year, I’ll be sixty-five by the time I’ve caught up with these. It’s a race against time. And given that I edit about twenty books a year, and do teaching and one-on-one coaching, I don’t have much time for my own writing. Luckily, I’m fast and I think I’m good.
I am entering my literary decline (from not such a great height) reputation-wise, and I have neither the burden of fame nor agents nor audience expectation. There’s a freedom in that. Besides, I don’t want a complacent audience, however tiny that audience. With each book, or each writing project, I try to do something I’ve never done before, to push myself into a new discomfort zone. When I was in my twenties, I dreamed of writing a psychological suspense novel à la Patricia Highsmith. I know now that that will never happen, and that’s freeing, too.