Delany on Close Listening, April 2014
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 theKelly 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.]