BARELY SOUTH REVIEW B A R E LY S O U T H R E -
M o n t h 2012 Old Dominion University J a n u a r y 2013 Old Dominion University
The students and faculty of Old Dominion University’s MFA program in Creative Writing form a lively and supportive community of writers in beautiful southeastern Virginia. The Tidewater region’s story is shaped by its history and its diversity—by its dynamic fusion of old and new. There is great complexity in any form or creative assertion of “here,” and it is in this spirit that Barely South Review embraces the opportunity to feature works from emerging as well as established writers. We are interested in great writing in its myriad forms. We seek to present many voices, especially those that defy easy regional, thematic, and stylistic categorization. Visit us online at barelysouth.com. Barely South Review has two reading periods each year: September 1 to November 30 for the April issue, and January 1 to March 31 for the September issue. We seek works of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and art. In addition, Barely South Review seeks entries for the Norton Girault Literary Prize from December 15 to March 15 each year. The Norton Girault Prize is awarded in only one genre each year, on a rotating basis. See http://barelysouth.com for full guidelines, exact reading periods, and genre for the Norton Girault Prize Copyright 2013.
Front Cover: “Head Case” by Elizabeth Licitra, Black & White Photograph
Fiction Ian Couch Lucas Flatt Joshua Norman Amana Katora Tarah Gibbs Nonfiction Jerry Healey Dillon Tripp Lauren Hurston Geoff Watkinson Jodi Denny Poetry Jeff Turner Kevin Oâ€™Connor Alex McGaughan Sarah Pringle Eric Heald-Webb
Editorial Advisory Board Luisa A. Igloria John McManus Michael Pearson Janet Peery Sheri Reynolds Tim Seibles Managing Editor Lucas Flatt Design & Typesetting Eric Heald-Webb Barely South Review logo Josephine A. Carino
Administrative Staff Michael Alessi Liz Argento Andrew Squitiro Lucian Mattison
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Each fall Old Dominion University holds a literary festival coordinated by our MFA program. Tasked with airport pick-up, general chauffering, and sight-seeing (the always inspiring landscape of Norfolk once prompted author Dennis Lehane to squint at our permafrost of concrete and mutter, “Where am I, again?”), we dutiful grad students naturally avail ourselves of camaraderie with a dash of hero-worship, and between shenanigans we make time to talk shop with the best and brightest. What follows is a collection of these conversations, meant to provoke crafty introspection and surfeit confidence for fellow students of writing everywhere (online). Of course we also hope to entertain, and milk some sexy gossip from your favorite writers. Like TMZ but a little smarter and a million times more boring—us editors, I mean. Never our stars and subjects. On behalf of our journal and our program, I’d like to once again thank the 2012 readers. You uniformly kicked ass, left us effervescent, ready to write. Until next time, artists. Cheers. In April we’ll offer another collection of the best prose and poetry we could get our hands on. We’re proud of what we’ve found. Lucas Flatt 31 January 2013
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Eric M. R. Webb Bewildering Obsession: Talking Poetry in the Garden with Dorianne Laux . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Amy Blondell Mixing up the Colors: A Few Words on Craft from Alice Randall . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28
Josh Norman Grits Against War: An Interview with Sean Thomas Dougherty . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
Michael Alessi A Conversation with Yona Harvey . . . . . . . . 47
Lauren Hurston An Interview with Cori Pepelnjak . . . . . . . . 53
Amana Katora Discovering Truth through Film: An Interview with Dustin Lance Black . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60
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Alex McGaughan Poetry, Pottery, Percussion: A Conversation with Jamal Mohamed . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67
Sarah Pringle Poetry and Publishing: A Discussion with Jan Freeman 72
Geoff Watkinson The Collision of Writing and Spirituality: An Interview with Merle Feld . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 82
Kevin Oâ€™Connor An Interview with Patrick Rosal . . . . . . . . . 91
Liz Argento Writing with a Grain of MSG: A Conversation with Yunte Huang . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 95
Lucas Flatt Generous Visions: A Conversation with Allan Gurganus 103
Dorianne Laux Democracy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25 Men . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27
Sean Thomas Dougherty Dear B, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41 O Youth . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43 The Day Dorianne Arrived . . . . . . . . . . 45 Canning Sardines . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46
Jan Freeman Puffballs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 76 The Secret . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 78 And So It Happens . . . . . . . . . . . . . 80
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Yunte Huang To Be An Asian American Poet . . . . . . . . . 100 Afternoon Tea . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
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BEWILDERING OBSESSION: TALKING POETRY IN THE GARDEN WITH DORIANNE LAUX
ERIC M. R. WEBB
Dorianne Laux and I sat on a bench in a small garden on Old Dominion University’s campus. Not only did I have the opportunity to speak with her, but as ODU’s visiting poet, I also had the fantastic experience of working with her on my manuscript. I could tell, immediately upon sitting with her, that Dorianne is dedicated to her students, and values their success and learning. I couldn’t pass up the chance to hear more of her thoughts on writing, poetry, life, and video games. As with her craft lecture and our conference, she blew my mind at every turn. I am happy to share this with you, reader. Eric Webb: So, we’re supposed to talk craft, getting perspectives on poetry, why we write, what it does… I know that in your craft talk you discussed getting pulled into poetry by the sound, that was kind of what you were good at. Dorianne Laux: Right. Or at least that was what I was attracted to, it takes practice to get good at it. You don’t just, like Patrick [Rosal], throw off this whole be-bop thing without having practiced it for a real long time. Until you got it so the words matched up with sounds, the tones, and the textures. So, I wasn’t really getting good at it, but I practiced a lot, and experimented with sounds, “Oh, what does this sound like,” or “What does this sound feel like?” For instance, bewilderment. It’s a four-syllable word, with the emphasis on the second syllable, so the w really stands out. So that could easily be one of those words that might trip you, and I think he [Patrick] even said something about it.
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EW: I think he tripped on it during the reading— DL: But tripping in a good way. As in, waking you up. Bewilderment, what does that word mean? It sounds so much like itself. I think it was Tim [Seibles] last night who said he knew a librarian whose name was Mrs. Word; she became what she was named after. Naming and words are so powerful. So, the way people who are named certain things, go on to do certain things because they feel the power of that word. Children who are given unusual names don’t like them when they’re young, but when they get older, they’re proud of them, and it helps them move through the world. So Mrs. Word, the librarian. It sounds like a coincidence, and yet— EW: And yet it’s probably driven her— DL: Exactly. So, those are little oddities, versus craft, per se. But I think it is part of craft, in a way. Just noticing. What does language do? What’s it capable of? What’s its power? When is it at its most powerful? For example, I was talking to one of the students this week, and she said she had a character in her novel, and she wanted the character to be powerful, maybe even evil character. And she asked what kinds of sounds she could use in dialogue that might make the character sound more forceful. So I told her about the spondee. You know, that’s the mother tongue, the spondee. When you hear your mother say, “Sit down,” or “Come here,” “Go home,” “Stop that,” any of those two-stressed syllables, you know that’s your mom, and you better listen. And immediately the student recognized the usefulness. If you listen hard, and really pay attention to sound, you start realizing. Going back, you wouldn’t hear an angry mother using bewilderment. She’d say, “Stop that. You fool.” But another mother might say, “I’m bewildered by your behavior.” Maybe she’s a certain kind of mother, but that immediately defines her as a mother. You feel it, and immediately think, oh, that’s that kind of mother. That meaning can be said a thousand different ways, and whatever way you say it is going to define that speaker. EW: When did you figure out that writing was a viable way to make a living? DL: It’s still not a viable way to make a living— EW: Well, then when did you decide you would pursue it as a career? DL: Right. It never becomes a viable way of living unless you’re Steven King, or Maya Angelou, or somebody. Right? Yes, I teach at a university,
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but that has nothing to do, actually, with my writing. Or with my books. I get little royalties from those, something like a dollar for every book I sell. I’m not going to live on that. I do readings around, and maybe there is a thousand dollars in that, but I’m not going to live on it. So, it’s not a viable living. And, you know, to say career in terms of poetry is an oxymoron. I don’t know that I ever did come to a place where I said, “Oh, this is what I want to do.” I was just doing it. And then I had to decide whether I would keep doing it just on the side, or do I want to put more energy into it, and let go of other things to do this more. After I had my daughter, I thought, I really want to do something that is something she can look at and see that I’m doing something I enjoy in my life. I want to be a role model for her, and I thought, “What do I do, that I love? I write. So I should go to school, and learn more about writing, maybe get a job, somehow, being a writer.” Although, the job I thought I would get would be an editor, a journalist, something practical. I was thinking very practical, because I was a waitress all my life. This for me would be a step up. EW: I spent a long time doing that. DL: So, I started going to school. But it was just a community college class. I wasn’t going to school school. And then that led to another one and another, and finally I said, “Well, maybe I should just go to school.” Even then, all I did was get my BA in English with a creative writing emphasis. I didn’t go to an MFA program, because they were just starting. There weren’t that many, maybe five. When I found out about them after getting the BA, I wanted to get an MFA, but I had a twelve-year-old daughter, and I thought, “Well, I’ll wait until she’s out of school.” Because I’d already spent a year-and-a-half getting my BA, and I was already not helping her with her homework as much as I should be. So I was looking forward to when she turned eighteen. Instead what I did was write a couple books in the meantime. Not even knowing that’s what I was doing. I was writing poems, and when I got enough of them, I thought, “Well, it’s a manuscript, so I should send it out.” I ended up getting a book published, and getting a job based on my second book coming out. So I never got back to school. But that was pretty lucky, and a very different time. Now, it takes a lot more to get into teaching than when I was starting out. EW: Right. Even with an MFA, it’s very difficult. DL: By now, I’d have to be getting a PhD.
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EW: For me, writing takes time. To sit down, spend some time reading, and thinking about things, and actually getting to the writing point. Do you find yourself having trouble balancing your time, between writing, and teaching your classes, coming to week-long events like this [ODU’s LitFest]? DL: When you do teach, it’s built into the schedule, because you get your summer off. So, for most writers who teach, when the summer starts rolling around, they start salivating. Like a Pavlovian dog. “Oh, summer, I can write!” A straight three or four months, to do nothing but sit around and muse, and think about writing, and read. It’s a lot of time, actually, every year. You’re bound to come up with enough stuff to work on throughout the year. So that’s what you end up doing. You write, you spend a lot of time writing in the summer. Then during the school year, when you don’t have as much time, you use that time to revise. Unless, by the time the summer rolls around, you have enough, then you might use the summer to put a book together. You start revising, working on ordering. You ask yourself, “Yeah, you’ve got enough poems, but is there something there?” With The Book of Men, I thought I had just a bunch of poems, until my husband said to me, “Well, you know, you should send me what you have,” because he knew I had a bunch, and he said, “if something happens to your computer, you’re going to kill me. Just send me the poems in a file, and I’ll have them on my email, and then I’ll put them on my computer in case anything happens.” So I sent them to him, and he printed them out so we had a hard copy too. And he came back two hours later and said, “You have a book.” I said, “What are you talking about.” And he said, “Yeah, you have a book.” I say, “Really, what’s it called,” and he says “It’s called The Book of Men. It’s in two sections.” EW: So, he printed them out, and read them as they were coming out of the printer. DL: Yeah! He’d put some aside, and then “Oh, yeah, I like this one.” And he just started putting them in two files. He just saw it in a way. I just thought it was a jumble of poems in a file, I wasn’t thinking about them in that way. And I doubt it will ever happen again, but in that particular instance, he just got it. If I had taken the time to look, I’m not even sure if I would have noticed I was writing a bunch of poems about men. I might have thought, “Well, these are poems that have men in them,” but they’re about loneliness. Some other shit. Maybe it did take a man’s eye, or even his particular
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eye because he knows me. Just like your teacher, Tim or Luisa, might look at your work and say, “You know what you’re doing here? You’re doing this.” EW: Or you might. When we talked, you mentioned a bunch of themes I hadn’t even thought about. DL: Exactly. You need another person in the world because you’re too close to it. Not always, but sometimes you’re just too close to it. Or, you might come to it in time, but the other person can see it right then. So, for whatever reason, it took him looking at it and saying, “This is what you’re doing.” And I had to agree. It was the easiest book I ever put together. EW: Have you found that with the more experience you get writing, and putting together manuscripts, that you’ve learned to take that step back? Does that become easier, taking that step back from your work? DL: It amazes me how long anyone can be writing, and still write a poem that’s littered with clichés, or that is really just something that’s been done a billion times before. It’s hard to see your own work. Another great example is my husband coming into my studio. He said, “What are you doing,” and I said, “Oh, I just wrote this stupid little poem.” He convinced me to read it, and I read it, and he said, “Oh, that’s beautiful. Yeah, that’s great.” To me, it was just a little throw-away, it didn’t really do anything, but he was all over it. And I do that for my friends, too. Jane Hirschfield sent me a poem, “Oh, here’s a little throw-away, but I thought you’d like it.” I had to write back, “What do you mean, I love it!” It was called “The Ground Fall Pear.” [She recites the poem]. Isn’t that a great poem? But to her, it was just a thing. Just a little throwaway. So, there is that. On the other hand, as time goes on, you do get more sensitive to clichés, to this is something I’ve done before, or everybody’s done this before, and I’m just obviously doing it again. So I think you do become more discerning, more able to pull back and see your work. But, there is always that mysterious, kind of foggy place where you just don’t know. Conversely, you think, “This is the poem I’ve been trying to write all my life.” EW: “This is the Title Poem!” DL: And to you, you are filled with all kinds of emotions or whatever, and you show it to somebody. And they say, “Oh. Yeah, it’s pretty good, it’s alright.” And that’s weird. Because, your internal life, it fills you up. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it spills over onto the page yet. So, I think you
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need the help of others. I think you can still write without others, but what they can do is save you a lot of time. They save you time in terms of being able to identify poems that really work, or that just don’t. And also, to see what you are doing, what your themes are, what poems have in common. EW: Are you at the point where you are thinking in terms of projects? Or do you just write what comes? DL: No, never. Just what comes. I mean, people could confuse The Book of Men as being a book which was a project. But it wasn’t. I was just writing poems, and it turned out, I was writing poems about men. If I had set out to do that, I think it would have failed. I would have been trying too hard. I am much more secure, in a way, not knowing than I am knowing. As soon as I start saying “Oh, I’m going to write poems about this,” I think you’re setting yourself up for failure. How could you possibly write poems about that, whatever that is? Write a poem. In my mind, the whole point of it is you don’t know what you’re writing about. You write in the dark. And that’s the magic of art. You write through the dark, and you write what you stumble into. If you know, if you say “Oh, yeah, I’m going to write poems about Queen Elizabeth, and how she felt about her husband,” you undermine yourself. You know too much. EW: Your internal life holds you up, and you’re going to find the poems come together anyway. You have obsessions at different points of your life… DL: Absolutely. And you’re the last one to know what they are. Just like you’re the last one to know you’re being an asshole. Because we’re in our bodies, we don’t know until somebody gives us a weird look and we think, “Oh, am I being an asshole? I guess I am.” Whatever your obsessions are, they are going to flow through you because they’re obsessions. That’s the nature of the game. For you to try to tease out an idea of what an obsession is, obviously you’re not obsessed enough. Otherwise, it would be blinding. That’s the whole point of an obsession. You’re blinded by it. EW: You can’t see your nose for your face. DL: Right, and in a way it’s good. What is it E. L. Doctorow says? “You can drive through the desert at night, with your headlights on, and you’re only able to see two feet in front of you. You can go the whole way like that.” And I sort of think that’s what you’re doing when you are writing. You’re looking
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a little bit ahead, but you don’t know what’s out there in the vast beyond. Or what you’ll get to, what town you’ll get to or what cliff you might drive off. EW: Your craft lecture was about sound and meaning. “The Marriage of Music and Meaning.” Part of that was recitation, memorizing poems, and hearing them outside of your own head. Could you talk a little bit about memorizing poetry, maybe the role it plays for us? DL: I think it’s very, very sad that we don’t teach children through memorization anymore. I think somebody got it in their head that rote memorization was useless, that it doesn’t teach anybody anything. That instead we use a Montessorri, “whatever the child feels drawn to” approach. Which is great, and there are wonderful things about that. But rote memorization, as we all know, works well. Because we remember everything we did memorize as children. We could sit here and sing the Brady Bunch theme song, and know every word. There are certain songs we learn as a kid, and to this day, you’ve got it cluttering up your head. You know every commercial jingle. Clearly, memorization is a great teaching tool. Why anybody ever thought it wasn’t is beyond me. Except that the idea of rote, that the child isn’t learning this for themselves. But yes they are, through memorization. For instance, in my lecture, memorizing that play [Romeo and Juliet at age 10], I started to realize things about it, and started to think for myself about it. I don’t have the whole thing in my head anymore, but a lot of it is still there. That taught me so much about rhythm, about music, language. What people were really saying beneath the words they were saying to each other. Nobody ever says exactly what they’re thinking, especially in Shakespeare. And it taught me a hell of a lot. I would say, too, that memorization is useful for real difficult things like math. Memorizing math by rhythmic devices, like the times tables. I memorized the 6x table because it was rhythmic. There’s something beautiful about the sounds of that. I really think public schools should go back to memorization. But, don’t have them memorize “The highwayman came riding riding riding…” although that’s not actually a bad poem. I mean, you always will remember that woman with the musket between her breasts and her lover coming, and she gets her finger behind her back and pulls the trigger. It’s horrific, really. But how did I memorize Shakespeare, how did I memorize Whitman, Dickinson? That would go a long way towards educating our kids. Also, within poetry is metaphor. And children learn how to think for themselves through metaphor, and through imagery, and through sound. I began, when I was very young, not only that Romeo and Juliet thing, but—
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because I came from a family that was way dysfunctional—I would read to take myself to a world that was outside the world I was living in. I really think reading books allowed me to find a way out of that situation. I would read a book and realize that people actually lead lives, beyond these kinds of confines. That are different from mine. And they’re smart, they have ways of moving through crisis and disaster and tragedy. They use humor, and they find people in their lives who will help them. I would memorize sections, even of novels that I loved, for their music and beauty, and I would recite them to myself at night to go to sleep. It was mine, and mine alone. You could beat the shit out of me, and you would never take it from me. It gave me confidence, and a sense of self. So, there are other reasons for doing it, aside from the art aspect, there’s the very human survival, the psychic survival of the child. EW: I did a lot of that, too. Falling asleep with a book on my face. DL: Exactly, and you knew that book was like your best friend, it would never turn on you. It would never change on you, it would always stay the same. There’s something wonderful about a book, it will always be whole, and yours, and private. They’re a way to create and maintain a psychic privacy. Also there’s a wonderful book, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos [Gaston Bachelard], and it talks about the importance of those moments, those reveries for children. When you are a kid, sitting on the lawn and pulling at the grass, and riffle through it. You’re completely alone in the world and completely happy. Your mind drifted, and you imagine this or that. You are powerful in the world. You didn’t feel dwarfed by it, it was yours, and belonged to you. Those moments of deep, deep reverie—which is ecstatic, ecstatic to be alive—those moments are poetry, in a way. EW: It sounds a lot like what Wordsworth said about poetry. But it’s not exactly. DL: Well, Wordsworth was thinking as an adult. He talked a lot about the sublime. The sublime takes a lot of adult apprehension to understand. When you come around the river bend, and you see the mountains before you, and suddenly recognize how small you are. “I am such a wisp in the great scheme of things.” But that takes a certain kind of maturity to understand, whereas the child actually doesn’t feel dwarfed by the world. The adult does. The child is like, “Oh, yeah, I belong here. Look at that tree. Of course it’s taller than me, that’s how trees are supposed to be.” They don’t think of things the way that adults do. Poetry is part of both of those things, but you have to get into the reverie to be able to be surprised by the world,
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as an adult. That feeling of awe and terror which makes up the sublime. The child doesn’t actually feel that much terror. EW: Do you ever think about your books having that effect on others? I mean the effect books had on you when you were a child. DL: I think that’s why we write. Living in someone’s book happens to us when you’re young, when you take to reading as a way to shield yourself from the world, but also helping you to step out into the world. I think that’s often why we end up writing, because some writer spoke to us, and saved our psychic world from dismemberment. So we want to do the same thing. I remember when I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I felt, I really believed that Francie was the writer of the book. I thought there was a little girl named Francie, and she had written this book about her life. Because I was a kid. But then I looked up Betty Smith, and she did live in Brooklyn. And I wanted to thank her, for making Francie, for making this world I could enter. In a way, I began to speak back to her. So I think we all want that on some level. Not that it’s in the forefront of our minds, but somewhere back there. Yeah, I want to do this, too. Look how good it made me feel, why wouldn’t I want to make somebody else feel this, too? EW: Right. It’s a lot of responsibility, at the same time. DL: Well, because it’s in the back of your mind, I don’t think you’re thinking about it when you’re writing. When you are writing, you’re just writing. It’s only when you come up out of those reveries that you go “Oh, god, yeah…” And, it’s always surprising. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. Whenever someone comes up and says, “Oh my god, I loved this poem,” you think, “Really?” It’s always a shock, that somebody read something, and was moved by it. I never expect it. I should, because when I read writers I love, I can’t wait to find them and say how much I liked it. But I don’t, somehow, expect it in return. I think maybe if you thought too much about that, it would freeze you up. You’re right, it’s a lot of responsibility, if you think about it. EW: Sean Thomas Dougherty was talking about the same sort of thing, when you run into a writer, even if you have four or five books out, or ten or whatever, when you run into a writer you admire, who wrote something you find amazing, that it’s difficult to realize that they might have the same perspective of other writers, and find them amazing, and so there aren’t walls there. DL: Exactly, and it’s a big family, writers. We recognize that in each other, and we reward it in each other and love it in each other. There aren’t many
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of us. It seems like there is, if you go to AWP. But really, only five or six thousand people. That’s not that many. But it’s important to feel like you have people. Someone might ask what it’s like to be famous for my writing, and I think, “Oh, yeah, I’m famous to literally dozens of people.” EW: Billy Collins said the same sort of thing. DL: I mean, yeah. Billy is bigger than any of us, yet still, nothing. Who knows Billy Collins? Go walk down the street, knock on any door, and ask, “Have you heard of Billy Collins?” “Billy who?” Right? I mean nobody knows who he is. Whereas if you ask if they have heard of Oprah, well of course they have. EW: You are known for your writing, but what else do you do? DL: Play video games. EW: You do? What do you play? DL: Online Scrabble. Oh, like Diner Dash or something. Which is hilarious to me, because I was a waitress all my life, so why the fuck would I want to play Diner Dash? But, it’s fun. I used to love the old Atari games. Things like Centipede and Space Invaders, god I loved Space Invaders. I got pretty good at it, too. It was the way I got Joe’s son, my stepson, to really fall in love with me. We went to the mall and the arcade. He sees me sitting there playing Space Invaders, and he said, “You’re pretty good at this.” From then on he liked me. Other than that, I really enjoy all the other arts. I love going to museums, plays. I went to one recently, of Shakespeare, and it was all forty-nine plays or something in two hours [The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) by Long, Singer, and Winfield]. EW: I’ve seen that before. It’s a fun show. DL: It is a fun show. I don’t know who wrote that, but if you saw the same one that I did, it gets to that point where she goes into the speech, “Oh, what a piece of work is man,” and all this hilarity, and slapstick, silliness, and stupidity, is suddenly gone. She’s suddenly very naturally into this beautiful poem, and the whole audience is just thrown for a loop. Because they’ve been making fun of Shakespeare, and then suddenly the whole audience is stunned. They should end it there. Why hasn’t anyone told them? If you’re out there, end the play there. Really. That’s the whole point of everything they’ve been doing. It’s what they’ve been building up to, this moment where the audience is surprised suddenly by the relevance, and the beauty.
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EW: And it takes your breath away, and your voice away. DL: Yeah. So why they go on after that, and start being silly again, I don’t understand. At that point I don’t care anymore. I don’t believe it anymore. EW: There’s a similar play, called “A Brief History of the United States” [The Complete History of America (Abridged), by Long, Martin, & Tichenor], and I think the same person wrote it. And it’s similar, it’s slapstick and humorous, and then suddenly it becomes serious. But then returns to the slapstick. DL: Why would want to go on after that? Bring it forth, and then deny it. It seems odd. I’m sure they had some sort of theoretical reason. Something like they don’t want to leave the audience distressed. Or uplifted. Because what’s worse than uplifting humanity? If they had done something with that afterward, where it became two-edged the way Shakespeare himself would have written it, that would have been really interesting. “Oh, every time I laugh, it kinda hurts, now, whereas before the poem I was just uproariously laughing.” That would have been really interesting. But they didn’t do that. Anyway, museums, music, art. Any kind of art, I’m into it. EW: Do you write inspired by paintings or sculpture, ekphrastic work? DL: I have. But for the most part, no. I just like to be inspired by it. Mostly it’s through issues that might come up, or scenes. For instance, that play we just talked about, it reconfirms for me the structure of poetry. How it’s different from the structure of prose. The prose arc is one that goes up, and then slowly comes down, with the denouement. Whereas poetry, you have to keep upping the ante, until you get to the very height. Then you end there. There’s no fucking denouement. You end there. And that’s what that play reaffirms for me. So other art teaches me things about, for instance, structure. Or the photography exhibit [Pictures with Teeth was part of LitFest]. I love photography. If I had been able to be a photographer, I think I would have. Or film. I love movies, I love really great movies—I love shitty movies too. But it takes a lot of money. Poetry doesn’t take money or room, poetry you can write in the dirt, or in your head, you memorize it. Or music, I would love to be able to play music. EW: I was never very good with instruments. I played violin and trombone. I sang in a choir for a long time. DL: Yeah. I tried. I’m just not very good at things like that. And that’s the thing. I mean, Janis Joplin was an artist, she started out as an artist, and
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she had a friend. He was also an artist, and he was a genius. And she’d look at her paintings and look at his paintings and realize she was never going to be that good. And she said, “Ok, fuck painting. If I’m not going to be great, I don’t want to do it.” Then she got into singing, and eventually rock and roll. She found herself through that, she realized she was really good at it. I think we all go through that a little. I’m good at writing. EW: Where do you find your poems coming from? DL: I’m really lucky in the sense that I don’t do projects, I don’t feel compelled, necessarily to write political poems, or poems of outrage, or whatever. Not that I don’t write them, I do, but I don’t have any agenda when I write. Just whatever catches my eye when I write. Again, Patrick was saying that attention to the world, I think is a political act. Any time you take time out from making widgets for other people to buy—not that we even make them anymore—or take time out from running around—which ultimately is not what we’re here for—it’s a political act. You are saying, “Rage against the machine.” Sometimes I have approached overtly political subject matter, but never because I thought I was going to write this great political poem, but just because it started bugging me. In an artistic way, not necessarily in my real life. It pisses me off that the Gulf of Mexico is fucking destroyed with all these oil disasters, but in my artistic life, I ended up writing a poem called “The Lyre” about Nero. The whole notion of him sitting while Rome was burning, the historical act of it caught my attention. That it was about the Gulf spill completely surprised me. I thought I was writing about Nero. I was more interested in the violin, the lyre, artistically. So I get poems from whatever is going on. If my husband says something while we’re walking down the street, in his red sweater. Images, phrases, snatches of song, or smells, textures. Any of those five senses, I think that’s mainly what triggers things for most artists in general. Because they’re dependent on that to bring a reader in, to suck them away from the real world. Because the real world is filled with such a number of senses. It’s so sensual, you have to find a way to divert their attention into this page with words on it— EW: Which they’ve been taught is difficult in the first place— DL: Exactly. You have to find some way to pull them in. The whole point of that though, is so they look outward again, and they see things that they’ve
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seen before in a new way. Not that I have that in mind. Mostly I’m writing because it’s fun. I hate to boil it down to something as simple as that— EW: But if it wasn’t fun… I enjoy writing, I like it. Like you say, it’s fun. DL: If I never got a poem published, I’d still be writing. Because it’s fun. I like making things up, and using my imagination and recreating this world. Trying to find order out of the chaos, trying to make sense out of something that is completely without any rationale or logic to it. That helps me find my way through the world. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. It’s something that is a part of me. I live like a poet. I mean look at me, I can’t sit at a bus stop like a normal person reading a newspaper. I look around. I listen to what people are saying, I’m smelling things. You can’t go to a party, eat some appetizers, have a good time. You’re always saying, “Oh, look at that guy over there, what’s his story?” I think it’s a way of life—poetry is a way of life, and you either have that in you—and I think everybody is born with it, seeing the world as one huge poem that they are inside of, and they’re walking through it, amazed. EW: Everything you see is new, when you’re a baby. DL: Everything. Words are almost visible on the air, and they make things come into focus. It’s a magical thing. I think poets are just people who have somehow remained, or maintained, able to keep a lifeline to that time in their lives. Whereas most people cast that perspective aside because, if you’re going to get a degree, and get married, get a job, and have kids, you often have to push wonder aside, and you lose touch with it, and then it’s gone. But that’s why people respond to poetry, because they remember that sense of wonder about the world, and they know that there’s something in them that wants to get back to that. That it’s important to keep that lifeline open. So they hear a poem, or they read a poem, and they remember why they are here, what life is about. Not grabbing a paycheck. EW: Do you find yourself spending a lot of time with your poems, before you feel like they’re ready? You’ve been doing it for a long time, has it gotten any easier? DL: It comes easier in some ways than it did when I was younger. When I was younger, I had fewer boundaries to what a poem was. Now, there are a few more credentials to “a poem.” And in some ways it’s easier because you have more facilities with the language, simply because of practice. Like the runner who has been running all his life versus the one who starts at forty-
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five. The runner who has been doing it since he was a child is going to have an easier time. On the other hand, it gets harder as it gets easier. But that’s what we love about it. Because if it remained easy, it would be no challenge, and we’d give it up. Which I think some people do. Some people who have a real facility early on, who don’t have to struggle much for it, it doesn’t mean as much to them. They end up doing something else. They find something that’s a challenge for them. Whereas, those who have to struggle for it, the rewards are intermittent, but they’re huge when they come. But intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful motivator. You try and try, and then boom—you get it. And you would wait another fifteen years for that feeling, “I would work to get another one of these forever.” As you become more mature in your art, you find things might get easier, but the stakes always get higher in terms of that. You climb one ladder, and you feel great, but then you realize there’s this other ladder, and it starts getting hard again. You start getting frustrated again. The worst thing, of course, is you read some other poet’s work, and wonder, “Ah, fuck, what have I been doing? It’s child’s play compared to this.” You want to achieve that next level of mastery, and you are starting at ground zero again, climbing your way up again. You are using new muscles. The stakes are always higher, every single time. In every single poem, from poem to poem, and from book to book. My next book better be better than this one, or it’s not worth putting out. It’s not worth me doing this if I don’t feel like I’m learning something. One of the things I’ve thought about art is that you can do art up until the day you die. It’s good to be in good shape, to be active, because that activates brain cells, and all of that. Nevertheless, you could be on your deathbed writing one more line. Dorianne Laux is the author of five books of poetry, most recently The Book of Men. Her fourth book of poems, Facts about the Moon, is the recipient of the Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry (finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award), and Smoke. She’s the recipient of two Best American Poetry Prizes, a Pushcart Prize, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
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When you’re cold—November, the streets icy and everyone you pass homeless, Goodwill coats and Hefty bags torn up to make ponchos— someone is always at the pay phone, hunched over the receiver spewing winter’s germs, swollen lipped, face chapped, making the last tired connection of the day. You keep walking to keep the cold at bay, too cold to wait for the bus, too depressing the thought of entering that blue light, the chilled eyes watching you decide which seat to take: the man with one leg, his crutches bumping the smudged window glass, the woman with her purse clutched to her breasts like a dead child, the boy, pimpled, morose, his head shorn, a swastika carved into the stubble, staring you down. So you walk into the cold you know: the wind, indifferent blade, familiar, the gold leaves heaped along the gutters. You have a home, a house with gas heat, a toilet that flushes. You have a credit card, cash. You could take a taxi if one would show up. You can feel it now: why people become Republicans: Get that dog off the street. Remove that spit and graffiti. Arrest those people huddled on the steps of the church. If it weren’t for them you could believe in god,
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in freedom, the bus would appear and open its doors, the driver dressed in his tan uniform, pants legs creased, dapper hat: Hello Miss, watch your step now. But you’re not a Republican. You’re only tired, hungry, you want out of the cold. So you give up, walk back, step into line behind the grubby vet who hides a bag of wine under his pea coat, holds out his grimy 85 cents, takes each step slow as he pleases, releases his coins into the box and waits as they chink down the chute, stakes out a seat in the back and eases his body into the stained vinyl to dream as the chips of shrapnel in his knee warm up and his good leg flops into the aisle. And you’ll doze off, too, in a while, next to the girl who can’t sit still, who listens to her Walkman and taps her boots to a rhythm you can’t hear, but you can see it—when she bops her head and her hands do a jive in the air—you can feel it as the bus rolls on, stopping at each red light in a long wheeze, jerking and idling, rumbling up and lurching off again.
*”Democracy” originally appeared in Dorianne Laux’s Facts About The Moon (W.W. Norton, 2007)
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It’s tough being a guy, having to be gruff and buff, the strong silent type, having to laugh it off-- pain, loss, sorrow, betrayal-- or leave in a huff and say No big deal, take a ride, listen to enough loud rock-n-roll that it scours out your head, if not your heart. Or to be called a fag or a poof when you love something or someone, scuffing a shoe across the floor, hiding a smile in a muffler pulled up nose high, an eyebrow raised for the word quaff used in casual conversation-- wine, air, oil change at the Jiffy Lube-- gulping it down, a joke no one gets. It’s rough, yes, the tie around the neck, the starched white cuffs too long, too short, frayed, frilled, rolled up. The self isn’t an easy quest for a beast with balls, a cock, proof of something difficult to define or defend. Chief or chef, thief or roofer, serf or sheriff, feet on the earth or aloof. Son, brother, husband, lover, father, they are different from us, except when they fall or stand alone on a wharf.
*”Men” originially appeared in Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men (W. W. Norton, 2011)
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MIXING UP THE COLORS: A FEW WORDS ON CRAFT FROM ALICE RANDALL
Short, petite with a mass of curly hair cascading below her shoulders, Alice Randall greeted me with a big, warm smile. She hugged me, apologized for being late and launched into an explanation of the telephone interview she just completed. The author of four novels, her latest book Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess, had just been released that day. She would be reading at Old Dominion University’s 35th annual Literary Festival later that day and hadn’t quite decided what to read but had decided she would probably read a few pages from that. It is a children’s book co-written with her daughter Caroline Williams, with a young, female African American protagonist. There was some skepticism about the book at first; books with heroes rather than heroines sell much better because while girls will read stories about boys, boys don’t like to read stories about girls. Randall’s response? “How do you know until you give them a chance?” Randall speaks with an ease and openness that made me feel like I had known her all my life, something I also felt reading her most recent novel, Ada’s Rules. In it Ada Howard embarks on a seventy pound weight loss journey in a community where size doesn’t matter and thin is definitely not in. Randall describes the book as a combination diet book / novel. An odd configuration? Not for Randall. All of Randall’s novels are hybrids of sorts, as is her craft aesthetic: one part conventional, one part unorthodox. “I’m very much a draft writer. For one of my books I could have ten, twelve, eighteen drafts. And I believe in
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outlines,” she says. “I don’t always do it this way, but I will write a first draft then take it look at it, see what works, what didn’t work, and it could be that three-quarters of that gets thrown away. Then I’ll sit down and write a more refined outline and from there write another draft. I’m also really interested in the individual sentence and the individual paragraph. So I go back and forth in the process of writing between the architectural drafts that are the larger movement of the story to the movement of the chapter.” Sounds conventional enough, right? Randall continues, “I get sense of the shape of each chapter and then the shape of the paragraph. Not just the words of the characters, but what words, the quintessential vocabulary, what the most important words are for that book.” And here is where we begin to broach the unorthodox. “I think one of my oddest approaches to craft is my belief in the importance of adding words to the language.” Randall added two such words to the language of Ada’s Rules. One of them, healthing, referred to Ada’s journey from fat to fit. The other, blutter, means black clutter, the physical and emotional things people in Ada’s world let overwhelm their internal and external spaces. It was the stuff Ada resolved to free herself from. Randall plays with language in an effort to bridge the cultural gaps she knows exist between her likely readers, which is admittedly a rather narrow readership, and the larger reading audience she hopes to attract. (More on that later). First and foremost, though, Randall’s thoughts center on the kind of story she wants to tell. “I’m very much interested in genres because genres articulate expectation. I’m also interested in the idea that each book is its own world and creates its own language. So, I start off with the desire to investigate something. With Ada it was what it means to be black and large and then to choose not to be. I knew immediately that I wanted to write it as a diet book because I’m always interested in places that high culture and low culture intersect.” Randall’s first novel, The Wind Done Gone, she describes as a diary and her second, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades as a suicide note. Her third novel, Rebel Yell, is a spy novel. She says, “One of my abiding themes of how I use craft is I use craft as a cudgel. I want to note what the expectations are, and I want to fulfill enough of them that I cannot be ignored, and I want to explode enough of them to make people think maybe the world is not structured as they think it is.” In Randall’s writing she often pays homage to other writers. She does this by direct reference; in Ada’s Rule Zora Neale Hurston, and Lucille Clifton
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are mentioned by name, as are some of their works. Some of her references, like Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, are popularly known. Others, like Zadie Smith’s On Beauty are lesser known. Other writers she alludes to. In one passage Ada, reflecting on her life, finds joy in realizing her adult twin daughters have become the kind of women the baker would let near the bread, quoting the last line of Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl. Does it concern Randall that her allusions might be lost on some readers? “I care intently and intensely that some of my readers won’t get that. But I will say first foremost my absolute (if you use a modern silly face) target audience is smart black women. And I do not think there are enough books that have been written for us, about us, and by us. I don’t believe that’s what everyone has to do. I think in my books my reach goes from that target reader to a universal reader because the experiences of smart black women are human experiences that inform anyone’s life who is attentive to what it means to be human. If I don’t shout out, and I do in almost all of my pages, to other black writers that have meant something profound to me and about how I want to raise my child or the failings in my own life, then these allusions will be forgotten. Jamaica Kincaid does not become more viable because I refuse to use her; she becomes less vital if I don’t shout her out.” Randall’s books are full of smart black women. Their voices are sometimes vulnerable, sometimes strong, but always honest, and always unapologetically black. In a world where writers are not just writers, they are women writers, or gay writers, or black writers, or Asian writers or any conceivable combination of the subsets (sorry straight white men), she’s not worried about alienating readers who are neither women nor black. “I can’t worry about losing some readers or that my text might be under read. I only can worry about representing lives I know intimately in the language I know.” What language is that? She calls it “the vanishing language of a vanquished people,” It is “the language that I learned as a little girl in Detroit, Michigan that might as well have been called Detroit, Alabama in the early 60s because everyone was straight up from Alabama. It’s an illiterate language, a highly oral language because most of the people could not read or write.” Randall incorporates the linguistic eccentricities of black culture into her writing. “My uncle was a numbers runner in Detroit. And I attended a black Lutheran school. I learned early on that I was speaking multiple languages along with English depending on where I was and who I was with.” What Randall describes, this situational changing of languages, has a name. Linguists call it code switching. In her writing, she says, “I still work with some of my early childhood rhymes and these jump rope and hand clapping rhythms.”
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She recognizes that the cultural connections of her stylistic choices are unappreciated by some readers. “Someone wrote that Pushkin reminded them of Dr. Seuss,” she says, her face falling momentarily. When I ask if that comment upset her, she reflects for a long moment then says, “When it comes to craft, one of the things that concerns me is point of view. Who is speaking, to whom, in what form, from what distance, with what limitations.” She rattles this off expertly as I’m sure she has multiple times in her creative writing classes at Vanderbilt University. “I’m interested particularly in the question of the limitation of [a speaker] having such a different set of cultural references than most readers. It’s clear this person,” (the reviewer who compared her novel to Dr. Seuss), “doesn’t know anything about the dozens, these word patterns whose history predates hip hop and Dr. Seuss even. The first nursery rhyme I heard was: They said the best was Sugar Ray / That’s before we all saw Clay If we don’t put these things in writing, the young generation won’t even know that Muhammad Ali was once called Cassius Clay. And they think that Sugar Ray was Sugar Ray Leonard and not Robinson. All this history of ours gets lost.” I can tell by the smile on her face and the glee in her voice that she loves what she’s doing even though the work can be tedious and may not produce any tangible result. When it comes to writing her novels, the first goal is having a story she feels is worth telling. “If after I finish the first rough draft I don’t feel like the story is worth telling or I don’t know how to tell it, I put it aside. I know a story is worth telling if I can get a clear beginning, middle and ending out of that draft. But if I don’t, I don’t consider that a failure. I consider it a really interesting experiment, a mixing of the colors and getting something that just didn’t come out right.” Randall doesn’t judge her work until it is “done,” and she cautions new writers against doing that. “That would be like mixing up a cake batter and you take a spoonful and you say ‘this doesn’t taste like pound cake.’ Well it wouldn’t. And if you take a spoonful of it two-thirds of the way baked, it would be horrible, too. I’m realistic like that. I think Fitzgerald said he wasn’t a great writer but he was a great rewriter. I’m not sure I’m a great natural writer. My original paragraphs I don’t think they’re particularly good. And I’m ok with that. I think at twelve, thirteen, twenty drafts in I have some amazing sentences.” She pauses a moment, then breaks out in a hearty laugh and says, “I mean, it looks rough in the morning. And I try to be honest about the places all the way through where it might not be done yet.”
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That bit about not being a great writer was actually said by James Michener. But Randall offered more lessons to be learned from Fitzgerald who, it has been said, experiment with both first and third person point of view for The Great Gatsby. She recommends writers do that with all their stories even if it it’s just a formal exercise, “to see what comes out. Experiment with two or three structures, or point of view, or the order of significant chapters to just see if it doesn’t work out much better.” In other words, play with your writing, experiment, mix up the colors. After all, someone had to be the first person to figure out that blue and yellow make green and red and yellow make orange. As our allotted time drew to a close, Randall left me with two more jewels of advice. First, if you want to be a writer, take the best thing you’ve written and find a mistake. Then find another one. Then another one. “The person who should be a writer,” she says, “is the person who can think of at least three things wrong with it. Because if you can’t see what’s wrong in your work there’s no chance for it to improve or grow.” And her final piece of advice? “I would tell writers to write and to keep writing. And to realize that work works and it takes decades.” Here’s to decades more work from the prolific Alice Randall. Alice Randall is the author of The Wind Done Gone, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, Rebel Yell, and Ada’s Rules. Born in Detroit she grew up in Washington, D.C. After majoring in English at Harvard, she headed south to Music City and founded Midsummer Music with the idea to create a new way to fund novel writing and a community of powerful storytellers. In the process, she became the first black woman in history to write a No. 1 country song. Four novels later, the award-winning songwriter with over 20 recorded songs to her credit and frequent contributor to Elle magazine, is writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University where she teaches courses on Country Lyrics in American Culture, Creative Writing, and Soul Food in text and as text.
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GRITS AGAINST WAR: AN INTERVIEW WITH SEAN THOMAS DOUGHERTY
On the day before his reading at the Old Dominion University Literary Festival, Sean Dougherty and I drive out to Charlie’s Diner on Granby Street in Norfolk for breakfast. When we get there, the place is slammed. We’ve got about forty-five minutes to eat and do this interview if we want to make Sheri Reynolds’s reading at 12:30—which of course we both do. Luckily a booth opens up in back. It’s noisy as hell, but the place oozes diner cred— they whip their omelets in milkshake machines. The young waitress takes our order: southwestern omelet for me, fried eggs and home fries with grits for Sean. Our waitress’s pimpled forehead beads with sweat. When she whisks our order off to the open kitchen, I unpack my tape recorder. Sean Dougherty: Careful with that. It looks like you might hit the wrong button and a laser will come out. There’ll be a big hole in the table. Josh Norman: I hope they left it set on stun. Okay. It’s doing something. I guess it’s recording. My first question is pretty generic, but I feel like it’s a decent question, and I think it might segue into the heart of what I hope to get at through this interview. So without further delay, when did you start writing poems? SD: Now it feels all official, doesn’t it? I wasn’t one of those kids—you must’ve had friends like this—who wrote poems when they were little. Did you write when you were a kid?
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JN: No. I read a lot, but I didn’t write. SD: I didn’t either. I guess there were a couple of poems. My mom found a journal from high school that had a poem in it. I think I must’ve written it for class because I don’t actually remember writing it. I didn’t write at all, but I read voraciously. Then, when I was seventeen, a bunch of us went to a quarry, and my friend died in an accident. He drowned. We couldn’t save him. When that happened, I dropped out of high school. For some reason—I get asked this question a lot, but I still can’t get it right—I started writing in a notebook. I would just hang out all day and write. I started working, washing dishes, and I’d write about that. That’s when I really got started. That was the first time I got the relationship between being able to process my internal emotional states and my negotiations with grief. I think that’s one of the things that really helped. Waitress: I’ll be right back with your coffee. And your white toast is coming. JN: Sorry? W: Your white toast is coming. JN: Thank you. SD: So that was the first time I started to actually write. I couldn’t do that for a long, long time. Then I was involved in a lot of performance stuff. It was the early eighties. I was involved in some hip hop stuff. We had a sort of loose association with this group called 32B (Three Two B). We used to do shows. I was about eighteen, nineteen. My co MC Blanca Ceceres cut a record on Select Records with Roger Hicks who did one of the remixes for Too Live Crew. So all of them, they went on. But I stopped doing that. I just started working. I went back to high school, and I finished up. I started working blue collar jobs. I worked for the phone company. I tried to go back to school. I took a freshman comp. course, and I had this student teacher, Gail Rondo. I think I wrote an essay on working in the warehouse, and she said I should read Phillip Levine. So I went to the library and got Phillip Levine out, one of his early books. I can see the cover. It’s like Near Somewhere or something like that. A lot of it’s about the Spanish Civil War. And then I just started going through all of his books. When I found his poems about working in Detroit, it was the first time I’d really seen poems about what I was doing. I just felt so located. That’s when I really started to write. There was poetry in my house. We were poor, but we always had tons of books. My parents really encouraged me. I was very lucky to have them.
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JN: With all of those books around, what was your reading life like when you were a kid? SD: I read crazy. I went through all the children’s stuff. I started reading Dickens when I was like eight or nine. We had that whole collection of Dickens, you know, like my father had when he was little. I remember crying. Being a little kid and reading David Copperfield and feeling the injustice of that. I read all of Mark Twain. And then, when I was like fourteen, I was reading Joyce. I read Dubliners over and over. And since my parents wanted to encourage my Irish heritage, I read Brendan Behan. That’s probably why I was a bad kid. The Irish writers probably did that to me. The Irish writers turned me into a Borstal Boy, a bad ass working class kid in a leather jacket running wild through the millyard of Manchester, New Hampshire. I read all of that stuff. It’s weird though because I was terrible in high school. I must’ve graduated with a 1.9 GPA. When I look back, there were really simple structures and things about learning that I still think about today. I hated that I had to ask to go to the bathroom. Even as a little kid, I thought that was the most depressing thing. Because I always had to pee. I felt persecuted every time I had to pee. I liked reading. I always liked reading. But it took a long time to translate that into a love of writing. I think that’s the most important thing, don’t you? I think it’s the people that fall in love with reading first that become good writers. Because so many people write, but they don’t really read. You don’t get anywhere like that. JN: That’s what kills me about the undergraduate workshops I’ve been in. The younger writers, they all want to write, but they don’t want to read anything. They don’t like books. They don’t see the importance of reading. It’s the most important thing, I think. SD: It is. It really is. I was lucky. We were broke, but my parents had books. A lot of my friends’ parents didn’t. I feel very lucky for that. JN: So earlier, in the car, you were asking me about writing every day. I’m curious about when you do the majority of your writing. In the morning, the afternoon, the evening? In the middle of the night? SD: It’s always so different. Do you have a set time when you write? JN: I try to. Things always seem to hit me at inopportune times. Usually when I’m doing other work like reading a book for a lit. class at the last minute. I just can’t sit down and write sometimes. I don’t have time. So I take a lot of notes.
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SD: Do you need long stretches of time to write? JN: It depends. Sometimes I do. Other times I’ll stay up all night and finish the first draft of a story in one sitting. The only story that I’ve submitted to workshop so far that my teacher actually liked, I wrote in one sitting. Normally I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. That story just happened to work out. SD: You channeled it. JN: It seems like there’s a lot of luck involved when that happens in short stories because you don’t really know where you’re going. Sometimes you get lucky and you get there faster. SD: That’s true. When I’m writing really good, this is usually what I do. I just observe stuff during the day, and I write some notes. So then, when I get up in the morning, there’s pages to work with. If I do that, I always usually get someplace. I get words, and I immediately have something to start with. I don’t write every day. I’ll go six months without writing a word. But over that time I’m collecting, collecting, collecting. Then I’ll sit down. I usually write with a project in mind. Not a “project book” necessarily but some kind of sequence. I write some individual poems, but usually one poem leads to another and often I’ll have some formalist idea or strategy. Then I’ll start to write. From last January to last May, I probably wrote two poems. And then from May to the middle of July, I wrote 200 or so pages, including two full book manuscripts, one of which became Scything Grace, due from Etruscan Press this fall. Then I stopped. I haven’t written much since then. I gather stuff. I’ve never met another poet who does that, and I don’t know why. I wasn’t always like that, but the last five or six years that’s how it’s worked. Instead of thinking about how I’d write poems, I started thinking about how I’d make the next book. JN: Working between genres, what advice can you give prose writers who are interested in incorporating the craft of poetry into their work? And vice versa? SD: Narrative is undervalued a lot of times in contemporary poetry. You have this discursive style with leaps that violate time and space—you see this in avant-garde fiction but not as much in other types of fiction. But these two opposite approaches enable the forms to talk to each other. So rather than try to resist, if you’re sort of an experimental poet, you might find value in that and try to do things with prose that a fiction writer might feel restricted to try. And if you’re a very narrative prose writer, don’t think
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that your work always has to have a narrative. I do both of those things in my work. You said before that you’re experimenting with the voices of children. You might write a dramatic monologue. Then you have this character, this poem. Give it thirty lines and see what happens. See what kind of lyric intensity you can work into your prose. JN: A strong voice seems to make itself known as you write a story. You might have to go back and adjust it in earlier parts of the narrative, but once you’ve found that voice, you’ve got it. You know when it’s the right voice. You can hear it. It starts to sound like a new person. SD: It emerges. It’s so outside of yourself. Isn’t that weird? You’re like, ‘I’m the captain,’ but you’re not. JN: It took me a long time to understand that. I didn’t get that process of discovery. SD: That’s everything. I always say a poem’s dead if I know where it’s going to end. JN: I used to approach plot differently than I do now. I’d map out a story like it was a set of directions for a road trip. And I never really surprised myself. I noticed that in workshop. Janet Peery helped me to break that habit. SD: I know a lot of friends who do that. They write that way. They do all that work, but then they put it aside and write the story without looking at any of what they’ve plotted out. I think that’s an interesting strategy. They have this ghost template in their head, but they don’t have to stick to it. JN: What’s your revision process like? SD: That’s funny because I’m right in the middle of a shift in how I approach that. I think it’s because I write so different now. I go through these long stretches where I’m not writing. I take a lot of notes on these little pieces of paper and I have this basket near my desk where I throw them all in. I get a lot of stuff like that—ideas and images that I collect. But I used to spend forever revising. I’ve got some poems that are coming out in my selected poems that I spent six years on. They were supposed to be in my last book, but they’re not because I didn’t think they were done. I finally finished them though. My friend Corey Zeller, an experimental poet from the area, me and him are always free-styling together. We take our kids to the park and I’ll say, ‘Watch this.’ And I’ll just start to talk a poem and then I’ll be like, ‘That’s for you. You’re my brother. That’s your poem for the day.’ And
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I do this to him all the time. And he says last spring, ‘Why don’t you write that? That’s your real poem. Those are your best poems.’ And of course I say, ‘What do you mean, my poems in the book suck?’ And he says, ‘No, no, no. These just have something that you’re not doing when you sit down to write.’ So he challenged me this year to do that. That’s why in the next book, I didn’t revise hardly any of it. I just wrote the poems like that—I spoke them out loud. I wrote a whole book in thirty days. One poem led to another. Every day, I kept doing that. It turned into this kind of crazy, discursive prose poem. Then these long line narratives. I talked them into being. I just didn’t mess with it. I had a professor, Michael Burkhard, who has an essay that talks about how he got a lot less interested in crafting the poem, as opposed to letting the poem live with its flaws and edges. Because people are flawed. I love that. So now I’m really interested in flawed poems, poems that are incomplete, poems where you can see the edges and that don’t quite close up. I’ve been revising very, very little. I don’t know if I could have done that before. Maybe spending years and working really strict and revising closely has enabled me to do this. Or maybe I was just chicken shit. I didn’t give myself permission to try things. I tried to step out of that slip-stream of living in the language where you’re writing all of the time to catch the flow. I mean, look at all this normal language that’s around us, between people speaking and the little words on the menu. You take all that—life, the way the day is, the rent, the sign about ‘Grits Against War’ on the wall behind me. This table. And me and you talking about our lives. There’s something here around us all the time. I think before, I was trying to make art. Now I’m trying to live art. Waitress: How is everything? SD: It’s good. W: [To me]. It’s bigger than you thought it was going to be? [I’ve eaten only half my omelet]. JN: It is. I’m still working on it. [To Sean] Is that something that you try to convey to your students? SD: All the time. W: [To me]. You’ve got to finish it, okay? JN: All right. SD: That’s like a Cleveland thing.
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W: What about Cleveland? SD: Are you from Cleveland? W: I’m from Cleveland. SD: No! W: I swear to you, I’m from Cleveland. SD: What part, what town? W: Westside. SD: Ah, you’re from the Westside. What are you doing down here? W: School. There’s not a lot of jobs up in Cleveland, unless you’re in the medical field or in the factory. SD: Yeah? I teach at Cleveland State. I teach poetry. Are you going to ODU? W: Yeah, I go to ODU. SD: What’s your name? W: Jackie. SD: Jackie? [They shake hands] Sean. It’s nice to meet you. Jackie: Do you come here often? SD: No, I’m just in town. I’m giving a reading on Wednesday. Do you have to work Wednesday? J: No. SD: You should come to the reading. [To me] What time’s my reading, do you know? JN: 2:30. SD: 2:30. I’ll read a poem about Cleveland for you.
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J: Oh, okay! Where is it at? Just write it down. Here, I’ll give you your ticket, and you can just write it on the back of it. Are you from Cleveland? SD: I live in Erie. But I lived in Cleveland Heights for a while. J: Ah. I know exactly where that is. Cleveland Heights has gotten shady. SD: It really has. Mostly because I lived there. J: But it used to be so nice. Where’s the reading again? You’re so cute, I have to come. JN: On 49th Street. The Chandler Recital Hall. J: Okay. Thank you! SD: You’re welcome. [To me] See that right there? JN: What? SD: Jackie from the Westside. We’ve got our poem!
Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author or editor of 13 books, including Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line (2010) and the forthcoming Scything Grace (2013 Etruscan Books) and All I Ask for is Longing (2014 BOA Editons). He teaches poetry here and there, and in summer of 2013 will teach in the MFA Program for Chatham University. He works at a pool hall in Eerie, Pennsylvania.
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SEAN THOMAS DOUGHERTY
it was such a lost time ago. I remember I used to drive down I 79 through the fields and small towns until the bridges rose and we’d make love all steel and rope, rope and lisping sighs and then go out and drink and then come home wrecked and make love again, and then I’d drive you to work just past light. And the floor of that apartment would be scattered with your poems and books, and on days you didn’t work you’d just talk and talk and we’d read poems. You had piles and piles of poems. I’d never seen so many poems! The floor covered with crumpled words. Sometimes I thought they recited to me as I slept. Wove themselves across the black sunburn on my chest. I remember one night you drank so much I had to carry you into the house, and then you got sick so I had to take your clothes off and put you in the shower and wash your hair and pick the night’s debris from your locks. And then we slept. We slept all day. Sometimes I think all we ever wanted was to sleep , and sex was just an excuse so we could be held— slept and ate, and in-between you talked and talked. I remember the strange dream of it if I let you go too long you might wander off the tilt and the mystery of you with another man
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far away in D.C youâ€™d slip off to for days. You were almost noir. And always the mattress on the floor and sleep in shadows and your hands how they held my head when I locked my mouth and your body shuddered blue light and moans like trains departing. Perhaps it was grief departing then. One car at a time. One car at a time. It ended awkward the way a summer like that can, maybe badly but not as bad as some. I carried that You with me for a long time. Out of the hospitals weâ€™ve survived. We are both still here.
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In a doorway, forgetting sorrow from on high ... Mouth we recognize, to drink the light The steaming completion of ourselves-Who has the answer? Pill bottle. To travel Somewhere one read somewhere If not by bus to cross a beat the DJ spins The Heights whenever and by whatever means Necessary the whole city ceaselessly shines Would stop, it would stop. gridlock Of your heart. That faltering fugue. You are what keeps Returning. Today I loved Your bad luck, (black iron gate to separate us in the afterlife). Huddled
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Under an awning — passing A lit cigarette from mouth To mouth—
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THE DAY DORIANNE ARRIVED
Because the door he ripped is long ago. Because the trees low hum is no longer hidden. Because the immigrant starling. The one that visits me and looks at me like my long dead grandmother. Because the rough wanderings your words seem to know of my own life, and the body’s tumbling and falling, and the chest’s breath never to be closed. For plucked strings, and “Mars rising over flower shops,” how you taught me how to look up, and to look in and listen, and despite this, despite all this corporeal joy, it is the divine like someone whistling, on a summer day, barefoot and broke, for your poems barefoot and broke, how they bloom and blossom, how for decades they’ve nuzzled me and my love to sleep, and taught us to keep struggling through this difficult world.
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CANNING SARDINES (Slavic Grandma Holds the First Sky Over the Next)
Baba hands me the scythe of the strange sentences. Another elegy inside Baba’s silver transistor radio of old country. Baba shows me the world as the track curves takes me to the tin tool shed. Killed without reason then Baba feeds the birds on the invisible bits of chopped fish Baba takes a pill: what is Baba a noun or a verb she orchestrates flowers. She sews our secret dead what is it in Baba that feed them, by hand flare stack rising makes Baba brush you tender don’t shake who will dig out dirt tight around your Uncles’ shoulders, shadows move the knife, Baba packs the oil’s distillation the tiny tin. Baba only buries the bodies’ excess, their scales and tails. Maybe there are two skies? One to fall through, one to climb? Which one is hidden in the middle of Baba, dusk singed— what fire at the mouth of every forgotten killing field?
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A CONVERSATION WITH YONA HARVEY
If you haven’t heard Yona Harvey read one of her poems aloud before, stop right now and find one of the recordings of the artist that exist online (A good place to start is the Audio Archive over at From the Fishouse. Go ahead, I’ll wait.). You may have read some of her poetry and therefore think you know what it sounds like, but you don’t. To hear her voice, which has a unique so-close-to-a-song-I-can’t-describe-it quality, and intonation, which taps into undercurrents of musicality below the surface of the language that you didn’t realize were there, is transformative. I had the pleasure of hearing Yona Harvey read this October at Old Dominion’s 35th annual Literary Festival, where I also got the chance to sit down with the poet and talk about the craft of writing. Michael Alessi: I’d like to start out by talking about your influences as a poet. Who are you influences, past and present, and how do they inspire you to write the way that you do? Yona Harvey: Well the funny thing about that is I think my influences are really more in prose, and really not in poetry, though I write poetry. So they’d be Virginia Hamilton, who’s a young adult writer, and Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, especially in terms of language and sentence structure. When I think about Kincaid, I think about a kind of not quite surreal quality, but a way that they imagine the world that’s really appealing to me. In terms of poets, probably Toi Derricotte, Erica Hunt, Emily Dickenson, and Yusef Komunyakkaa. Again not so much in terms of subject
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matter, but when I discovered their work I felt like my world opened up in terms of what I could actually do in a poem, the sort of freedoms that I could take in poetry after I read their work. MA: You mentioned reading fiction writers first. Is that how you approached writing, by reading fiction and then moving on to poetry? How did you get into writing poetry and why? YH: When I was in high school I had a girlfriend and we would trade poems and write poems together, but I didn’t even know at the time that there was such a thing as being a poet really beyond Mickey Giovanni and Margaret Walker, who I thought were great, but I just didn’t know people in contemporary times who wrote poems or taught. But then as an undergraduate student I went to Howard University, and I thought I would be a fiction writer – I liked fiction, I liked reading stories – and then the more people I met, the more poetry sort of opened up to me, there were a lot of open mics and things like that, and that’s how I sort of got lured into it I guess. But I think I’ve always read more prose. MA: Your website mentions the important role music plays in how you read and compose your poetry, and you cite [famed American jazz pianist] Mary Lou Williams as a regular muse in you work. When did you discover her? YH: Around 1996. I was in Provincetown, in Yusef Komunyakkaa’s workshop, and you know I think in my entire lifetime he said maybe a hundred words to me. So the first twenty words were, one night we were walking around town, and it was out of the blue, really quiet and he said, “You know you should write some poems about Mary Lou Williams,” and I said, “Ok…” and then I thought: Holy shit! Who is Mary Lou Williams? I don’t know who that is. And so that started my digging around, and it just turned out that now I live in the neighborhood where she lived and I love her music, it’s sort of beyond Yusef Komunyakkaa now. She composed a lot of songs for herself and for other people, and I think the influence has more to do with the fact that we both had in common religious upbringing, and a breakaway from that upbringing, and a personal search for meaning in art and sacred things in everyday living. Those are the sort of themes that run through her work, and I think that we have that in common. She was also incredibly tenacious and she grew with the times: For every decade she was alive she was making music, it wasn’t like she said ‘Oh no, they’re doing bebop, I can’t do that, I’ll sit this one out.’ She just rolled with it and kept going.
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MA: Your debut collection is Hemming the Water (forthcoming in March 2013). It speaks to, you say, “the futility of trying to mend or straighten a life that constantly changes.” How does poetry for you factor into that struggle? YH: Unlike prose, poetry forces me to reel things in. It’s more compact. I have to make more of a commitment. I can establish a pattern with syllables, a repetitive sound, or a certain number of lines, but I have to get control of the language a lot faster than I would in a prose piece. So to me that’s the connection. You have all these huge seemingly unmanageable thoughts, and then somehow they’re going to be compressed into a sonnet or something [laughs]. It’s totally futile. MA: When talking about your method you say that you use a lot of collage and sampling from other texts. What kind of work does that entail? YH: Mostly erasures, and sometimes painting or rewriting things over. I’m trying to think of a recent example: I had been working with this artist in Pittsburgh, Vanessa German, and she builds these really wild sculptures where she gets all these old antique tins of hair grease and old products, tonics and things like that. So just borrowing the language from there, looking at the labels, looking at how the words are laid out on the page. I think that process is really really rich for me. MA: What kind of sources do you use in your sampling? Have those sources changed at all over the years? Do you keep exclusively to using print sources, or do you also pull from online sources as well? YH: Definitely print sources, because I worked in university archives when I was young, and I love going to the library. I love digging around in archives. I’m a bit of pack rat sometimes, so magazines. I can’t think of anything that I’ve sampled from the Internet, definitely music though, which can be both. I always go back to the same things like old letters, advertisements, and hair products. I usually see something in the language. I’m blanking on the particular archive they belongs to, but I found the letters of a woman named Violet Lester, and at the time maybe she’s a freed slave and I don’t think she has written a letter, someone else has transcribed it for her, and there’s just something really beautiful about the way she’s thinking and writing. She’s trying to get in contact with her family – they’re separated – and so there’s just something about the earnestness of it and the cryptic or coded nature of the letter too: you don’t really know how they were separated, you don’t really know who’s recording it for her, and that’s the part that drew me in.
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MA: Poets today write in the era of free verse. What restrictions, if any, do you find helpful in writing your poetry? YH: Probably syllables, although sometimes I feel like I get stuck on the same syllable count and I hate that. I think that there’s a count that a lot of poets go back to that they’re not conscious of, so I’m like Oh god, not again! It’s ending. Right. There. Right. There. How can I change that? So syllable count, a certain sound, or a repeated sound. Sometimes it can be a visual transition. If I notice blue jeans, the color of jeans for example, maybe I’ll use that color as transition to the next stanza. That’s not necessarily there for anyone to pick up on, but it helps me to move through the poem when I’m writing it. I need something though; it can’t be all over the place. Once I begin to rein it in and shape it, I need to recognize something for myself that I can use to sustain the poem. MA: In 2009 you wrote a hybrid poem for The Owls Project entitled “A Natural History of My Disasters,” which you created original pieces of art for. Was that your first foray into mixed media? YH: Yeah, that was fun. MA: Has that process changed your approach to poetry since then? YH: I think that it gave me a little more confidence to say yes to Vanessa German, the artist who I’m working with now, and it also formalized that process for me in a way that hadn’t been there before, because I realized as I was cleaning up my insane office over the summer at home, that Oh, I’ve done this kind of stuff before, like I found this old piece that I worked on when I was pregnant with my daughter and it had all these classified ads in it – jobs that I’d wanted to get or apply for but couldn’t, because I was in a new city and about to have a baby – and all the ads are in an outline of a giant pregnant woman, so I was like Oh, I’ve totally repressed this, I didn’t even remember that I’d made that piece, and it was really interesting to look at the words in poems in the background, and I thought that I should get back to that. MA: What’s your take on the growing market of online publications available to poets and writers working today? YH: It’s so empowering. Before it seemed so formal, you had to get permission for everything. I can remember in some poetry book contests there were rules like No pictures, No art, there were just these whole long lists of nos. Now it seems like the total opposite: You have DIAGRAM and other
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outlets that invite you to submit things that are mixed genre, and that’s very exciting. I’m so envious of the MFA students who are graduating now in that kind of environment, because the old way never really goes out of style, but now it’s like, Look, you can do this too. MA: What other mixed genre pieces are you working on? YH: I’m working on my own “Performance Perms.” It’s a personal set of performance pieces based upon the music of women with dynamic hair and dynamic music, so I have Etta James, Nina Simone, and Tina Turner. That’s what I’m working on right now, but I miss painting and drawing. MA: You’re also currently at work on a collection of nonfiction essays about religious upbringing and sibling birth order. What about these topics appealed to you? YH: They come out of my own personal experiences. My mom is a minister. My sister died in 2007, she was younger than me, and so I’m exploring broad issues of personality characteristics, what makes one sibling more resilient than another – supposedly – what makes one sibling more vulnerable? Is that the true nature of the child, or is that something that’s reinforced by the parents? It just became larger and larger, I didn’t really choose it – it found me. And poetry just wasn’t enough. I could not find the poems that I wanted that connected to those subjects, and I could not write those poems. I started amassing these pages and pages of prose until I said Oh look, I think I have some essays going. MA: How was the drafting process different for nonfiction versus poetry? You mentioned before that you like to use found texts. YH: Well I’m trained as a librarian. I have a graduate degree in Library Science, and I’ve always loved archives and research, so in that way the digging around is similar, but it’s more focused. I’m going looking for information to support my argument: articles about sibling birth, articles about depression, articles about religious upbringing and evangelical influences on elections that I found in old issues of The Nation. MA: What’s your favorite tidbit of information you discovered in your research? YH: I don’t know if it’s my favorite, but the most recent was that the National Institute of Health released a study that compared suicide rates across different groups, and they found that white males have the highest
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suicide rate, followed by white women, black men, and then way, way at the bottom of the list with a teeny tiny rate are black women. They’re trying to figure out what accounts for those numbers, and what they can do to study the habits and behavior of black women to help white men coming home from the military with these very, very high suicide rates. There’s so much in this one little article: the numbers themselves, the reasons behind each percentage rate, and then trying to connect the highest and the lowest figures. I think it’s fascinating. MA: So you direct the undergraduate creative writing program at Carnegie Mellon. What’s some advice you give to aspiring writers in workshop who are serious about their working and learning where they fit into it? YH: Mostly I tell them to relax and trust their own instincts, and to not write for anyone else, especially at the beginning stages, the free-writing stages. I try to push them to use outside texts also, so they have a muse – Annie Finch has this really great chapter in her most recent craft book about writing and reading poetry where she lists the nine Greek muses and invites the reader to explore what they do, so I like that exercise as well – if you can draw from someone, it doesn’t have to be a poet, it can be a musician or a fine artist or an athlete. What is it about that person’s process or style that you admire, and how could you translate that in your own writing. MA: What’s the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given you about writing? YH: Oh my God, I should have seen that question coming [laughs]. Ethelbert Miller, a long time ago, when I was a sophomore undergraduate student, told me to take myself out of it. So he’d be reading the poem and here I would come, interrupting it, having to give my own two cents. It was like I couldn’t understand how a poem could exist without me inside of it, like a literal me, “I,” and so he gave me good advice to get rid of that. It doesn’t have to stay there, even if it was what I was thinking about when I started it, that doesn’t mean I have to stay there from start to finish, and I think that’s made my work stronger. Yona Harvey is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection, Hemming the Water (Four Way Books: New York, 2013), and the recipient of an individual Artist Grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation. Her poetry has appeared in Gulf Coast, jubilat, West Branch, Callaloo, and numerous other journals and anthologies. She is an Assistant Teaching Professor in English at Carnegie Mellon University, where she also serves as the department head of the undergraduate creative writing program. She lives in Pittsburgh, with her husband and two children.
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AN INTERVIEW WITH CORI PEPELNJAK
Seeing Cori Pepelnjak’s photography has that indelible quality to it, the kind of image that sticks with you long after you’ve left the gallery. Even now, writing this, I have one particular photograph from Pepeljnak’s “By the Week” project that I can’t shake. From her collection, which documents individuals who make their home in American roadside motels, there is a photo of an African American woman who could be no more than thirty, her tired, haggard face gazing directly into the camera. She sits at the edge of a bed with a dingy floral comforter that looks to be made of uncomfortable-looking oilcloth. Beside her is a pile of starched white towels, the stiff kind that scratches your skin when drying off after a shower. Her hands are clasped together on her bare, bruised legs. The frown on her face is deep, but there’s a calm gracefulness about her. You want to know more. Part of ODU’s Literary Festival exhibition, “Photographs With Teeth,” Pepeljnak’s collection captures the authentic, gritty reality of what Americana has now become. While the portraits certainly show humanity in destitution and poverty, Pepeljnak’s style remains non-judgmental. You feel she is compassionate, but not pitiful. Fitting with this year’s Literary Festival theme, her photography elicits a strong emotional response from the viewer and serves as a reflection on human vulnerability and resilience. Lauren Hurston: Your “By the Week” project is a quite poignant and haunting depiction of these people: portraits of Americana, gritty, raw depictions of the people who live in the motel—their harsh realities. There
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are a lot of half-lit motel signs and rain-slick parking lot at night; portraits of the subjects staring into the camera, almost challenging the audience. How would you describe your intended aesthetic? Cori Pepelnjak: Originally, my aesthetic was inspired by Philip-Lorca di Corcia’s Hustlers work. I didn’t look to his work during the project’s conception, but rather because of an early experience I had photographing a man who went by the name of Cowboy, who kept parakeets in his room, strung Christmas lights and a toy paratrooper from a mirror and went one by one through his vinyl collection with me. The way he wore his hat low to cover his eyes and the various colors of lights that filled his room (reflected street, neon from the sign, Christmas twinkles, TV blue, and glowing lampshades and tungsten from the ceiling) evoked the semi-cinematic style of di Corcia, particularly in Hustlers. This project was a learning project. I had only been photographing for a little over a year when I started. I wanted to work on environmental portraiture and to shoot chrome before it was no longer an option, since film is/ was rapidly being discontinued. The vivid and rich colors chrome film could produce reminded me of the neon and illuminated signs that distinguish these motels and give them their character. LH: On your website, you explain that this is a very personal project for you: “These encounters take stamina, emotional fortitude and vulnerability and after significant hardships in my personal life over the past year I haven’t had these qualities in abundance.” How did your own experience first lead to the American motel? You say it has helped you through some hard times in your life, so how do you hope these photographs will help others? CP: This is a big question. And I think I answer the question regarding “knocking from complacency,” in a round about way, here too. At this juncture all my photography is self-directed (versus assignment or commissioned) and I am currently working on three ongoing projects (one that I have not made public and is quite new). I would say each one is intense and can be difficult to “look” at. Six months into photography/(ing) I learned that I had to shoot from the gut, find something within myself to draw on; it was what would give my work “a voice,” make it distinct, and commit me to it. I didn’t start photography because of the medium itself but because it was a way to create something out of the fantastic, atypical and intense experiences that punctuate my life. I would go as far as to say, give it meaning and relevance—these
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experiences—and through photography, I am able to live in the world as myself, the best version of myself. “By the Week” was somewhat of a response to having dedicated myself to photographing one person (JoJo) and needing to experiment with photographing in a more transient way. I wanted to be moving, on the road, and make myself available to a world that is easy to pass by or outside of my everyday sphere. That being said, I have maintained relationships with several of the individuals I photographed for this project, including attending a funeral of one of the women. Most of these individuals have little or no support network. Many were raised in violent or unstable environments with addiction, abuse and/or disregard. Several continue to persist with untreated or neglected mental health conditions. In my statement, as it exists today, I said that this work can serve as “a case study in resilience” and as I think more about that, I suppose what really concerns me the most in this project is isolation and intimacy. Universally, I think we derive so much comfort and strength from connecting with humans. Simply: I am warmed when I have a random encounter with a stranger—a shared laugh, a roll of the eyes, camaraderie in a frustrating situation, a generous gesture, or the surprising hug or touch on a day when you can’t hold in your sadness or pain. I think the motel creates an interesting physical space to exemplify and potentially challenge intimacy. This is the direction in which I wanted the project to evolve. I can’t pretend to know what our (me and the subject’s) time together and the act of photographing means for any of the individuals. I think in some cases I am a break in monotony; I give them undivided attention; I am an ear and empathetic being; and I am just random entertainment. Being photographed gives many of us a sense of importance or at least of being “chosen” (not in a biblical sense but like gym class and picking teams…). In the most practical terms I do what I can given the context, just tiny gestures and things to lighten their load for a moment, such as supplying a family - via donations from friends - with books, toys and clothing for their little girl; helping edit a resume; running errands; or providing a healthy meal to share. In regards to how I hope these photographs will help others, I didn’t start with this project as a cause. Obviously, there are strong socio-economic underpinnings, especially given the recent housing crisis, the country’s ongoing health and health insurance concerns, and I see it touching on race, immigration and care of aging baby boomers. As I mentioned earlier, I am interested in making people more cognitive of the importance of human connection: physical and emotional.
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LH: I love how you express your feelings about the notes you receive from your subjects: “My hope is the images and stories will serve not only as case studies in hard luck and hard living but also in resilience. Each person I photograph writes a note that I tuck away and take with me.” These notes that you receive from each person, what are some examples of how these have affected your art, either aesthetically or personally? CP: I love the materiality of the notes—the size, the shape, the kind of paper. At this point in the project only 50% of the people I have photographed have had notepaper of any kind to write on, let alone pens. I think this adds a layer to the project. The fact that I leave the subject of the note open ended is really difficult, I think. It is fascinating to see what that overwhelming option results in. Keeping the feelings alive. It is a way for me to reengage the emotions and feelings I had during my time with them. I don’t want to take it for granted, ever. I see it having the potential to reveal something about the process or their view of the experience. In general, I want to work with more than just photographs in my projects. LH: How do you find your subjects or what is your method of contact? How do you approach them about this project? What are some common reactions, if any? CP: This question about asking how often subjects refuse is asked of me all the time. The “how” and “why,” ”How did I meet these people?” “Why do they let me photograph them?” I find my subjects by simply getting on the road and driving with only a casual itinerary. I haven’t photographed at a motel closer than three hours away at this point. I drive the blue highways and along the outskirts of towns and cities. My decision to stop and knock at a motel door or approach someone on a motel property is a culmination of a few things: • The evidence of long-term “guests” such as lots of lights and TVs on but no cars in the lot; trinkets in the windows or posters on the walls (seen through the window); things like BBQs, kids toys, a lone flower pot, or a bike outside the door; and proximity to a job corp training center or day labor offices. • My state of mind and intuition. I have to be prepared and feel comfortable enough to enter into a room with a complete stranger. Often these motels are in areas of high crime and drug dealing (I have been mistaken as an FBI agent or undercover cop several times). I also have to be open and have the time and energy to stay for several hours.
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• Physical elements. The color of the exterior, the play of light and color, the furnishings, the surrounding scene. This is all part of my thought process or consideration but it isn’t something that I am entirely conscious of in the moment. LH: Have you ever had a negative reaction, either from a subject or from a viewer? CP: From subjects: No one has ever said no, except for the wife of a motel manager whose husband, according to her, was very controlling. I have had hesitation of course, and on two occasions subjects said no at first, but they said no and continued asking about the project. In the end they said I could take their portraits. These two hesitant subjects were men. Interestingly, I ended up asking them each to remove their shirts and I photographed them bare-chested (neither of these were in the show). Many of the subjects find the project interesting and like to hear the stories of others. The woman who passed away said she wanted to stay alive (she was bed ridden) to see the project published. I have gotten grief from two motel managers. I had to walk away from one motel. At the Star Motel the manager described his tenants as “down and out” and not wanting to be bothered. I countered by explaining my approach and my experiences thus far. He said “fine,” as long as they were okay with it. I photographed two individuals there. From Viewers: This is the first time I have exhibited the work, with the exception of my website. I still have a lot more images I want to make before I attempt to show the work widely. I accepted this invitation because I thought that showing the work in conjunction with the literary festival and in proximity to the works of Greta Pratt, Yunghi Kim, and Karolina Karlic was a way to add to the potential impact of the work. I have had conversations with other photographers, in an academic setting, about the potential of “taking advantage of” or being exploitive. This is a very common topic in photography in general and a lengthy essay in and of itself. LH: How do you organize the composition of the photographs? Do you give instructions for the subjects or is there any posing involved? CP: It is all very fluid. There is no formula. Sometimes it is very playful, almost collaborative. The light and tight space can make it technically challenging.
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LH: How many photos, or rolls of film do you take until you feel that you have found the one that speaks to you/what are you looking for with each “session”? CP: I shoot medium format film (120 which is 10 shots to a roll) for this project and it is pricey so I rarely shoot more than 5 rolls per subject. Two rolls is my minimum. The light and slow shutter speed is often the reason I shoot more—basically to make sure I don’t have blur, a blink or underexposure, which is easy with chrome film; it has a very limited latitude and is meant for bright sunny days. Honestly, there is no straight answer for how I know “I got” what I wanted with each session. There is so much going on in my head and with my body: relationship / experience with subject, technical, safety, keeping all my gear together, and then composing. It is very overwhelming and intense. It just happens and on occasion it doesn’t or it is darn close but not quite right. LH: What about the American Motel architectural features—the lighting, room design, neon signs—do you find most appealing or intriguing? CP: The motel’s original function and form was about mobility (motor and hotel); a stop-over for business travelers or families on vacation. This phenomenon of motel as home is the extreme opposite of that. These rooms aren’t meant for heavy daily living, not in form, function or quality of materials. The repetition of space and limited square footage helps create a construct/framework for me both physically and conceptually. There is no doubt that the motor inn or roadside motel has a visual appeal, even when in disrepair. The colorful illuminated signs, the exterior colors, the tube TVs, the little soap bars, the faux wood laminate furniture and dingy floral comforters. I think for many of us, motels still represent things like freedom, exploration, adventure, independence and even hope. I believe this deeply influences viewers’ relationship to the images. Don Delillo in Americana describes this affection for and persistent idea of the motel brilliantly and it seems a good way to express how I feel about this project: “There is a motel in the heart of every man. Where the highway begins to dominate the landscape, beyond the limits of a large and reduplicating city, near a major point of arrival and departure: this is most likely where it stands. Postcards of itself at the desk. One hundred hermetic rooms. The four seasons of the year in aerosol cans inside the medi-
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cine chest. Repeated endlessly on the way to your room, you can easily forget who you are here; you can sit on your bed and become man sitting on bed, an abstraction to compete with infinity itself; out of such places and moments does modern chaos raise itself to the level of pure mathematics. Despite its great size, the motel seems temporary. This feeling may rise simply from the knowledge that no one lives here for more than one or two days at a time. Then, too, it may be explained by the motel’s location, that windy hint of mystery encircling a lone building fixed in what was once a swamp…The motel seems to have been built solely of bathroom tile. The bed sheets are chilly and faintly damp….But for all its spiritual impoverishments, this isn’t the worst of places. It embodies a repetition so insistent and irresistible that, if not freedom, then liberation is possible, deliverance...” Cori Pepelnjak’s propensity for dissolving boundaries, situational immersion, and cultivating relationships not only preceded her use of the camera, but also was the catalyst that compelled her pursuit of photography. An astute observer who approaches situations and subjects with a level of guilelessness and compassion, she evokes a rare level of intimacy from her subjects. Cori’s projects elicit strong emotional responses and encourage viewers to reflect on their values and relationships. Primarily selftaught, Cori Pepelnjak began taking photos with real intention in 2008 by undertaking workshops with photographers such as Costa Manos, David Alan Harvey and Debbie Fleming Caffery. Cori was the recipient of the 2009 CENTER Project Competition Award for her ongoing project JoJo and received a generous Minnesota State Arts Grant in 2010. Her work has been included in group and two-person shows at the Rayko Gallery of San Francisco, Art of Photography Show 2010 in San Diego, Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle and IFP in St. Paul, MN.
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DISCOVERING TRUTH THROUGH FILM: AN INTERVIEW WITH DUSTIN LANCE BLACK
If you’re a fan of Dustin Lance Black’s writing for film and television, thank Dostoyevsky. The Academy Award-winning writer studied Russian literature before earning his degree from the Theater, Film, and Television program at UCLA. Seeking an affordable creative outlet after college, he began writing. In an interview on the craft, I learned he appreciates truth, jazz, and a good joke. Amana Katora: Was writing for film and television something you always wanted to do? Dustin Lance Black: It was not my goal when I went to college to become a screen writer. I was an avid reader and I first got an Associate’s degree in Literature and then I went off to UCLA. I got into Russian Literature, so it was all Dostoyevsky and that sort of thing. I had an admiration for writers, but I just never thought I could do it—that I could never live up to my heroes. So I never really tried. I was more of a director and that was my major. When I got out of college I was waiting tables and delivering orange juice with my lovely film degree from UCLA. Even though I did very well in college, they don’t hand you big movies to starts directing right away. I quickly learned the one thing you could do on your own, with zero overhead and control to stay creative in those struggling years, was writing. It was literally the price of printer ink. And so I started trying to write. I failed many times and I pray no one ever finds those scripts. One screenplay I wrote for myself, a personal story, I started to show around town (really I was still thinking
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if I could get someone to be in it, that would help get it made). Instead, I ended up showing it to a few executives who said ‘I like your style. Would you be interested in doing x, y, or z and taking a stab at this TV movie?’ Eventually that turned into writing a screenplay for Pedro, a TV movie for MTV and VH1. Because that got me into the union, I was seen as a writer who was able to get a job, fulfill a job and get something made, and I was able to get a meeting on Big Love. When I head there was a TV show about fundamentalist Mormonism, I thought ‘Boy, I think I’m probably one of the few ex-Mormon writers in this town and maybe I can bring my expertise in that world to this project.’ And that was really my big break, I think. I was finally writing on a show and a subject matter I really cared about, was passionate about, and I said ‘I might actually be able to do all right at this writing thing.’ I think that was the first time I considered myself a writer. If I even consider myself that now, but you know… AK: How does your ideal vision of what you sit down to write change from initial inspiration to fully realized film or television? Has the final product ever surprised or disappointed you? DLB: I can’t say I’ve ever had any project turn out the way I had originally envisioned it and I think—I know—that’s a good thing. I always say I want to hold on to the ‘why’: why do you want to tell that story, why do you want to tell it right now? That’s what you can’t lose. But how you’re going to do it, who your characters are, what your plot is, you need to be willing to change those things and be excited about changing them. At a certain point when a draft is finished, you have to be willing to kill your precious little babies and continue to refine what you’ve done and get back to the original question ‘why.’ It always turns out your shooting draft is very different than that first aha moment of ‘let’s do this.’ That’s because of discovery, with your research, or through executing an outline. You make discoveries and I think it’s best to leave yourself open to those discoveries. AK: When you’re researching figures like Harvey Milk and J. Edgar Hoover, how do you know when you’ve mastered the available material to the point where you are ready to tackle the big questions and begin writing? DLB: I’ll admit I can become lost in researching. I can keep doing it forever. You’re always finding more, you’re finding more specifics, and truth is always somewhat stranger than fiction. It’s exciting to continue to research, but at a certain point you know when you have confirmed or corrected all of the assumptions and have answers to all the questions you had going in. Using J. Edgar as an example, I had some ideas about who the man was and why he did what he did going into it. And a lot of that was contradicted
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by research while some of it was confirmed. At the point in which I had enough of the questions answered, then I needed to start writing. If you’re being honest with yourself, you’re still paying attention to the reason you’re making this movie and why you’re making it now. You know when you’re starting to just do research to avoid writing and because it’s enjoyable. You know you need to get to work. “And I have pretty high standards when it comes to whether something is true or not. I don’t rely on one source. Whenever I can only find one source, I feel very, very hesitant to include that information in the script, especially if the story or the person’s entire character leans on that idea or notion. So I’m pretty aggressive about getting two or three people to talk on a subject. One of the things I do is interview people separately before putting them together in a room on a conference call. We start talking about it again and it’s nice to have two, sometimes three, people because they tend to correct each other’s memory about who the person was, what the event was, and get closer to what really happened and further from say, their memory of the memory. Or in some cases with J. Edgar, some people will quote as memory, and they believe it’s true, but they’ll quote as memory something they read about what they actually experienced. Memory is a funny thing. In research I do everything I can to get back to the truth of it. AK: I imagine it can be frustrating if you’re finding contradicting stories or memories and hearing different things from different people. DLB: You know it’s frustrating when you’re doing research and the person you’re talking to is not depicted in the movie. You feel that they’re either not remembering something clearly or they’re lying to you. But, on the other hand, if the person you’re talking to is depicted in the film, and you know they’re lying or they start to turn or twist the truth, that’s part of your research. You now know what they lie about. You know what they want to cover up. You learn something about their character, so it’s not just the truth that people tell that is valuable, it’s also what they are lying about that’s interesting to me. AK: Is that a skill you felt you’ve had all along or is figuring out when someone’s bending truths or lying something that you’ve been picking up by doing research for so many different individuals? DLB: Well, it’s probably a combination of growing up in the South surrounded by Southern Baptists and being an active member of the Mormon Church. It probably made me sensitive to exaggeration and made me a little sensitive to when people are making things up. That happens a lot in the
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South and I believe it happens a lot in some of those religions. So I’m probably sensitive to it having experienced being told things that were supposedly true, that you later find out aren’t true at all, and knowing what that looks like. But I began working on it because I started in documentaries. All my early work, my early films, are documentaries. My first professional jobs in Hollywood were with The Learning Channel or BBC doing reality. Well, it’s not what reality TV is now, but sort of observational documentary work. AK: I am sad I can’t get a hold of one of your early documentaries, My Life with Count Dracula. That’s one I really would like to see. DLB: Oh, yeah! I know. That’s on DVD somewhere, but it’s so old now. I love that one, too. Maybe one day someone will re-release it. AK: You’ve successfully written screenplays whose characters have unique ways of speaking, Like Harvey Milk, J. Edgar Hoover, and even Southern dialects, like your characters in Virginia. How did you go about capturing these voices and what did you need to do to make sure they didn’t become parodies? DLB: It’s research more than anything. Fortunately for those two true stories, there’s plenty of video and audio on these guys I could listen to. Constantly. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to Harvey Milk’s recordings and speeches and it’s certainly the same with J. Edgar Hoover. I pity whoever’s dating me while I’m writing a script because I start walking around talking like them. And if you’re sitting in a coffee shop while I’m writing, I’ll start acting it out. I make a complete fool of myself. I think, wisely, I started writing more at home than in coffee shops. I say the script out loud. And when you say it out loud, you can tell, ‘Is this the rhythm, is this the pattern, is this the way they talk?’ It can drive people nuts around you but I think it does make for voices that are specific and true. It’s certainly a part of their character. It says a lot about a person—the rhythm they use when they speak to you. And if it’s a fiction piece, I do the same thing but there’s someone in my life I’m basing it on. There’s someone in my life that I’m acting out and I’m using, not their character necessarily, but their voice. AK: When you’re writing a film it’s primarily independent work. When writing for television you’re writing with a staff. How do those writing environments differ and how do you have to adapt to be successful in each? DLB: They are very different. You have to understand that when you go into a writers room, you’re going to have to be collaborative. It’s sort of stating the obvious, but let’s just say this: there are pluses and minuses to
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writing alone or writing with staff. Certainly when I’m writing alone, I don’t have to feel afraid when I do what I call a vomit draft and just put down all my initial ideas, go back, clean it up, and change it. And I find value in being able to do that. It’s easy to make discovery when you don’t have eyes on you. You can experiment more. When you’re in a writers room, not only are their ears on you, eyes on you, minds processing what you say, as you say it out loud, but there’s kind of a competitive nature to the room. Especially in the early seasons because people don’t want to get fired. They want to keep their jobs. They want to get the episodes. So, you have to be very brave and that’s a little frightening. But the advantage to working in a writers room is instant feedback. And as you get comfortable with your room, they become your family (which is what happened to me on Big Love). Their input becomes invaluable and I know we are making our work better. Everyday. You don’t have the doubt that comes from the loneliness of feature writing. You have constant input. You have a conflicted audience. There’s a point you get to when you’re writing a feature where it is a lonely experience and you don’t have someone to be bouncing ideas off of constantly. I think you can lose objectivity easier and get a little bit lost in what it is you have on the page. AK: I’ve noticed quite a few comedic moments in your work. What is your approach to including comedy and what kind of challenges does it pose when dealing with serious subjects? DLB: Here’s the thing: I think the more specific you can get, no matter what the subject is, with what the people are saying, why they’re saying it, the behavior that surrounds the moment, it’s not only going to feel more truthful, but people are going to laugh with it. They’re going to find humor, because it’s so true. That’s part of the core of comedy. You do something surprising that happens to ring true. Isn’t that what makes you laugh? So I feel like, if you’re in a drama, say like Milk, I hope people are laughing throughout because it’s specific enough, it’s surprising, but ringing true. Picking on the universal truths for specificity. Even in dramas. If there’s no laugh, no moment of levity, I often go, ‘Okay. I need to dig in deeper and be more specific with dialogue, more specific with the behavior, and how people are interacting’ because we should find levity even in the darkest hours. That’s how I think. When you can be in a drama, and you hear laughter, you’re probably on the right track. But I don’t mean jokes. I don’t write jokes. I’m not good at writing jokes. What I mean is the specificity of the moment. There are some people who are great at jokes. That’s just not my skill. So I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it—trust me. When I want to sit back and watch a movie, I’m the first guy to turn on old Woody Allen and just enjoy some amazing jokes. And lord knows I watch The Daily Show religiously. I love that, it’s just not my skill set. So my humor is more situational, I think.
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AK: Announced projects like Earthquake and an adaptation of 3 Story seem to be a departure from what you’ve previously been writing. I’d be interested in hearing what led you to those projects. DLB: Yeah, so I’m doing some true stories too. The two I am working on now are Under the Banner of Heaven and Barefoot Bandit. They’re getting very close to being edited and taking all my time. But 3 Story and Earthquake… When I started off, my writing world was fiction. I think at a certain point I wanted to get back and write some fiction. So when people said, ‘Hey, what are you going to do next?’ and I was looking around at things that really moved me, I found this graphic novel called 3 Story and it really spoke to me. It spoke to me about my experience growing up, my experience with family, my experience being different in a world that doesn’t always embrace differences. And it seemed very true to me and I thought, even from a personal place, I know that it’s a magical reality about a kid who won’t stop growing. But it seemed so very true. So it’s not a different process, really. It’s more introspection than reaching out and researching other people’s lives. But I guess genre wise, it’s considered pure fiction. But my process isn’t that different. Earthquake is a film where even though it will have fictional characters, I’m doing an incredible amount of research around it. Not just earthquakes, but about what happens after an earthquake. I want to approach it sociologically. I want to examine it, not just for the shaking and the rumble, but for what comes afterwards and how it affects different people. In a way, it’s beyond fiction. It’s based on characters who are amalgams of folks I’ve been meeting while doing it. To me, it’s all the same thing; it’s where you’re looking for inspiration. Fiction is based on true stories. It’s based upon a true story, but it’s still fiction because no one has ever lived a life like that in two hours. So you’re still making it up. I hope it’s truthful, but it’s not how it really happened. So in the end, it’s all fiction. It’s all fiction. You have to tell a good story, and there’s a different kind of responsibility when doing pure non-fiction because you don’t want to bend the truth so much it snaps and becomes a lie. But you have to bend it enough to fit in two hours. AK: You have a “What I’m Loving Today” section on your blog and you’ve got Ron Howard listed. Whose work, books, or music is inspiring you right now or getting you excited about your own writing? DLB: Yeah, what am I loving today? Ron Howard, Jon Krakauer, and Under the Banner of Heaven, right? It changes every other day. But that’s because I’ve been sitting in a room with Ron Howard, working on an adaptation of the Jon Krakauer book Under the Banner of Heaven. So that’s just what I’m doing today. But musically who inspires me?
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AK: Sure. Some writers work to music because it helps them, or they’ll read a certain type of book or a favorite author before they sit down to write. Do you have any standbys you use to get you into a writing groove? DLB: Well, I’m always watching movies, so I’m always being inspired one way or another. And certainly if I start to do a film in a certain genre, I’ll remind myself of why I love that genre and go look at those films. Usually that’s way before I start writing, before I start outlining. Just to get myself into the mood and the spirit of that genre and whatever works about it. While I’m writing, in general, I listen to one of two things. I listen to a lot of jazz, with no vocals, because it doesn’t influence the mood or the tone of what I’m writing. So it keeps me company to cure the loneliness, because it is a lonely venture, but it doesn’t take me somewhere. If I’m passively listening to something and it’s translating to the page, it seems like a bit of a mistake to do that because the person reading it won’t be listening to that music. So, often what I’ll do is listen to music the person I’m writing about listened to. Or say, with Colton Harris-Moore, I have ideas of what music he listened to and I’ll put together a playlist and listen to it while I’m writing so I can climb into their mind. Same thing with Milk. I knew what he listened to and what he loved, and I’d listen to that while I was writing to get into his head. AK: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. DLB: Oh yeah, no problem. It was really fun. Dustin Lance Black is the writer of Virginia, J. Edgar, Milk, Pedro, and wrote for the HBO series Big Love. In 2009, Lance won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Milk. Upcoming projects include Earthquake and adaptations of Under the Banner of Heaven and 3 Story. He spoke on October 2nd at Old Dominion University as part of The President’s Lecture Series and the 35th annual Literary Festival.
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POETRY, POTTERY, PERCUSSION: A CONVERSATION WITH JAMAL MOHAMED
During the “Words With Teeth” literary festival, Jamal Mohamed gave a very different kind of show, which began in collaboration with Tim Seibles. The performance presented a marriage of poetry and percussion, with Mohamed playing the superlative hell out of his doumbek (a traditional Middle Eastern hand drum) while Seibles read one of his poems. The Barely South Review was lucky enough to get an interview with “the doyen of doumbek” after the festival. Alex McGaughan: Is poetry something you’re generally interested in, or is it just something that comes up when you see Tim? Jamal Mohamed: No, it’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time and always enjoyed; Tim and I have collaborated a lot. I appreciate the rhythm of the poetry, and putting it to drums isn’t really a new thing, but it’s something that influenced me—I used to listen a lot to the last poets when they were around in the sixties, you know poetry to drumming is kind of a precursor to rap music and hip-hop and stuff we hear today, even though it’s more computer generated or electronic drum beats, but it’s basically the same concept. So yeah, it’s very intriguing for percussionists, I think, to work with poetry and words. AM: It seems obvious that drum would influence the poet; do you think the poet influences the drummer in any way other than giving them the rhythm and cues for the feeling? Do you think it enhances their playing?
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JM: Definitely, yeah, I do think so. Well, yeah it has to. What I try to do is listen to the words and interpret some of the imagery that’s being evoked by the words. So it definitely influences what I’m doing on the drum. Of course, dynamically it’s a big part of it as far as being able to get softer when the poetry is happening and then in between the spaces—wherever there are spaces— being able to fill that in and just reflecting whatever imagery the poet evokes. So it’s certainly a big influence. AM: Do you think there’s a similarity there? How poetry uses words to try to express more than what’s on the page, whereas music doesn’t necessarily use words but can be trying to express the same thing? JM: Yeah, they’re both really expressing ideas, but I think the difference is with the words the ideas are really specific, or can be more specific, because the poetry is evoking images through is words that can really define where the audience imagination is going, with a drum or with a musical instrument, music is definitely calling to be evoking certain imagery, but it’ s a lot more open to interpretation. So, it’s a different medium, but they’re both doing the same thing as far as expressing what the artist is feeling. AM: I know that you had a hand in designing the doumbek that bears your name, and I know you also play kitchen instruments and things from your performance, which is very cool. I saw you pick up the bowl and I was like “I hope he put water in it” and then you did—Yay! Have you designed other instruments? JM: It’s a great sound making device, it’s a lot of trial and error. I always discover new sounds I can get out of found objects. The drum I designed for Toca Percussion is a drum made from fiberglass with a plastic head and it’s really based on a traditional doumbek, which has been used since ancient times. I have designed a bunch of other instruments, primarily clay drums; the doumbek is originally made from clay so my first attempt at instrument building was building my own drums, because, at the time, there were not a lot of doumbeks to be found at the music stores. So, I learned how to work with clay and became somewhat of an amateur potter—although I did build drums and sell them, so in a way I was a professional. I don’t consider myself as accomplished as some potters who have been doing it fulltime, but I did attain enough skill to produce some pretty good drums; I came up with different heads—I used fish skins for the heads and I did experiment with various shapes. It gave me a lot of experience. What was good about it was that experimenting with the shapes and type of clay used, the shape of where the head attaches—the bearing edges—and then I would also experiment with the skin, so I’d use goat skin, fish skin, calf skin, various thick-
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nesses. Just being able to hear the differences all these materials made gave me some good experience—and some great sounds. So I have some very unique sounding drums. AM: That kind of trial and error design can be pretty time consuming, but it is enjoyable. JM: Yeah, it is enjoyable. Working with clay for a musician—it was a nice balance. It’s something you see as you’re doing it, working with your hands, something you can hold. So different from an abstract art like music, where you’re producing waves that go in the air [laughs] you know,and they’re gone. Like, they’re recorded, but I mean it’s not [like] with clay [when] you’re actually producing an object you can look at again, you can hold again. So it’s an interesting balance. AM: Do you think by doing other forms of art—like pottery—you might enhance yourself as an artist? Does it give you something else to bring to your percussion work or to your performance in general? JM: Certainly my musical experience helped me when I was designing drums and working with clay, because, you know, there’s a certain rhythm when you’re working— whether you’re painting,or working with clay, or dancing, or almost any art form, there’s a rhythm to it—just like we talked about with poetry. So whenever I would make my drums, I’d also put little designs in the clay and they were very rhythmic kinds of things. So they were kind of the way I went as a drummer. I think just being a drummer I had a unique approach to the drum building, especially the decorative aspects; the decorations on my drum—and just the things I’d paint on with the glaze or with the slip—were very rhythmic in nature, I would say, visually. AM: That’s interesting, the intersections of art… When people have an impulse to create—be it sound, or music, or a painting—it seems like something they need to do, and so how that comes out is interesting. Obviously, for you it’s primarily as a musician; were there ever any other ways you wanted to express that or was it always clear that percussion was the only one that was going to stick around? JM: Actually, I wanted to be a writer first before I wanted to be a musician. When I was very young I really enjoyed reading books and I actually dabbled in writing poetry, so I did that and I always enjoyed poetry and literature and so that was always my favorite class in elementary school until I went to high school, and really got into the rock and roll thing, once I started playing drums, I decided that’s what I wanted to do. but before that
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I wanted to be a writer and I did write, I continued to write, I went through a phase when I played guitar and wrote songs and wrote lyrics so, yeah, writing is one of my expressions as well. I don’t spend enough time doing it, but I do love to write, and I love to read. Writing would be a direction I could see myself going in. [I’m] not saying that anyone would want to pay me for it, but— AM: No one wants to pay professional poets. No one wants to pay me, anyhow. JM: Poets have it harder than musicians—getting people to pay for what they do. You know, when you do things like that, [money]’s not your motivation anyway. You do it because you need to do it and you enjoy doing it. And if you do get paid to do it—and that way you can devote more time doing it—that’s great, but if you don’t get paid you’re still going to do it. I think that’s how all artists work. AM: Tim Seibles has told us a little bit about you two meeting up, but we never actually got the story of how you came to be friends or started working together. JM: Actually, I met Tim in a dance class that I was accompanying and it was in Fort Worth or maybe Dallas, Texas. It was a modern dance class… and he was one of the dancers… and so that’s how we met and we really hit it off… and we started talking about poetry and drumming and we had a mutual friend who played classical guitar, and so we just were hanging out together and just started putting some drumbeats to his poetry. And it just really clicked. We performed whenever we could. We enjoyed performing together. AM: Where would you perform? JM: We did book stores, we did theater gigs, various places, colleges, and actually we did some performances where we added a bass player and a trumpet player and did poetry over jazz. It was in the late 70s and early 80s; there were a number of venues in Dallas at the time, different art galleries, things like that. Friends of ours would be having an art opening or there’d be a thing like that—once a week poetry reading or performances, that kind of thing. AM: And of course, we can’t end an interview without asking if you have any advice for young percussionists, or artists in general—anything you’d like to say to “the youth of America.”
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JM: Well, for aspiring percussionists or any musicians or artists: keep playing—as much as you can—and studying as much as you can, and working with other people as much as you can, and keep your mind open to all the different influences. It will pay off; sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, but I think that perseverance is the main thing if you want to make a career out of being a percussionist or an artist of any kind. You have to really love what you’re doing and do it for the love of it. Jamal Mohamed has presented percussion workshops at venues worldwide and has performed with Sting, Mark O’Connor, Giovanni Hidalgo and many other well-known artists. In addition, his music has been featured in the television documentaries “Ramses the Great,” National Geographic’s “Lions of Darkness” (with D’Drum), and the film biography of bluesman Robert Johnson, “Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl?” Currently, Mohamed performs with the percussion group D’Drum (named the 2010 winner of Drum! magazine’s award for best percussion group), the music group Brahma, and the jazz ensemble Jampact. He teaches at Southern Methodist University.
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POETRY AND PUBLISHING: A DISCUSSION WITH JAN FREEMAN
In October of 2012, I had the pleasure of meeting Jan Freeman and attending her reading during the Old Dominion University 35th Annual Literary Festival. When I was first introduced to Freeman, I was told she was “a powerhouse female poet.” Her collections of poetry include Hyena, Autumn Sequence, and Simon Says. She is a co-editor of Sisters: An Anthology, and is the founder, director, and publisher of Paris Press. While Freeman was in Norfolk, VA for the festival, I was fortunate enough to sit down with her to discuss her work, writing, and publishing. Since Freeman had an interest in seeing a local beach, we decided to conduct the interview oceanside. It was a perfect afternoon; we were two writers sitting on the beach discussing poetry and craft. As we watched the waves roll in, Freeman began to tell me how she used to love to write in her kayak in the mornings. Freeman explained to me that she kept a plastic kayak in her car and that she would wake up early and drive to the lake down the road from her home. She said, “I would get myself into the kayak, and the kayak into the water, and I would float and write for an hour and a half.” She would bring a spiral notebook with her in the kayak and work on drafts, free write, or make notes. For her, “this was a wonderful way to start the day,” as she likes to “move from a dream like state into writing.”
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When I asked Freeman about her writing specifically, she said, “I write out of my own experience, out of emotional experiences… I can only write about my own experience and so I do.” She explained that in much of her early work she used landscape and metaphor but now feels her work is shifting. In discussing her work in general, in terms of her focus when writing, Freeman said: Thematically, the body is important to me. I write about the body a lot, the physical body and the body as landscape. I also look for emotional truth. Being able to feel deeply is something that is hugely important to me. I try to write without censoring myself. This is what made it possible for me to find my voice after graduate school. Sound of language is also hugely important me. I love playing with the sounds of words. I also focus on the pressure of the line. I write in long lines. I want people to be able to read my poems out loud; I hope that they will sound as they sound when I read them out loud. Poems should be read out loud and listened to. I think line breaks are hugely important. I love changing the rhythm, using long pressured lines and then shifting to short lines or staccato lines. The connection between poetry and sound [music] is very important. What I am interested in now is shifting back to the center that I had found for myself 18 years ago so that the poetry is the core and everything else that happens, happens around it. When I write I feel whole, and when I’m not writing I feel like I’m made out of tin. Freeman told me that early in her writing career she worked as a “freelance writer for secondary school literature textbooks.” She said during that time she also enjoyed attending artist colonies. Freeman said she would “work around the clock, and then go away for anywhere from a month to two months, and then come back and work to make money, and then go away again.” She elaborated on the importance of her colony experience by saying, “It was a wonderful way for me to work in an intense way… because you are in a place where you are supposed to be writing poetry.” Freeman said she lived this way for years prior to starting the press. Freeman founded Paris Press in 1995. She told me that her initial goal with the press was “exclusively just to publish The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser.” Freeman explained that the work was originally printed in in 1949 and its second printing in 1974. After that it went out of print. After Rukeyser’s death in 1980 all but one of Rukeyser’s volumes, the biography of the physicist Willard Gibbs, disappeared. Freeman wanted to bring The Life of
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Poetry back into circulation because of its tremendous impact on her and the potential impact it could have on other readers: It is the most inspiring book I’ve read. Anybody who loves poetry has to read this book; people who are afraid of or uncomfortable with poetry need this book; our culture needs this book. It’s about American culture and the fear of poetry. It’s about how Americans are afraid of feeling and how that contributes to a devaluation of the arts. Rukeyser talks about why it essential for us all to live with all of the arts, but especially poetry, in our daily lives in order to be more sensate and compassionate human beings. Freeman said after the publication of The Life of Poetry, she decided to continue the Press in order to focus on publishing groundbreaking work by other women. She explained the new mission of the Press became “to publish literature by women writers that have been overlooked by commercial and the independent publishing houses.” The goal of the Press is not to focus on a specific subject, but to give a voice to women who are daring and innovative in terms of subject matter and style but are not being heard. Freeman said she finds the work of the press to be very rewarding, but also very demanding. She revealed that as a result of the ongoing operations of the press, her writing routine and habits have changed drastically. Freeman explained, “anybody who runs a small independent press will probably tell you that it will take up as much time as you give it, it demands all of your time.” She revealed that since founding the press, “the challenge of valuing my time as a writer is a big one.” Freeman said in recent recognition of this fact she started going to colonies again; “it is physically essential for me to be in a place where I can take chunks of time and write, it is necessary for me for many reasons and that I be disciplined about it.” Additionally, in another attempt to reprioritize writing in her life, Freeman has also taken on a new daily writing routine: In this last year, I’ve started writing at night, which I never used to do. I also decided to put a deadline on writing everyday. I joined a group called The Grind and it requires that you submit something, a draft or a revision, everyday, which is the kind of activity I never thought highly of because I’ve always thought that is not where great poetry comes from. I think great poetry comes from the need to release experience from the body and interweaving experience and emotion, it’s almost like a physical release and it needs to have an urgency. Doing the Grind is really just making sure that I am writing everyday. Because I have many responsibilities, it was really easy for that not to
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happen. It has been good for me because I respond well to the pressure of deadlines. And I now have a body of drafts to work with when I am next able to go away to write. A handful of the Grind poems will springboard into new poems, which is very exciting. Throughout our beach discussion, Freeman emphasized the importance of not only being a dedicated writer but also making writing a priority. As we brought our conversation to a close, I asked Freeman if she had any additional advice or last words of inspiration for aspiring or young writers; she replied: I warn anyone who starts a Press or a journal to be very protective of your time as a writer or any kind of creative person. It’s very easy to prioritize the deadlines that are constantly stacked up in the publishing business. I think it’s great that we live in a time when lots of people can start presses and journals. This is a very wonderful thing as long as quality is something that is considered in the equation, and usually it is, and people have different tastes. And publishing journals and books online is a whole new world, but be careful of what you value most. No one will protect your time as a writer. That’s up to each of us. And it’s really hard to do, but essential–my life as a poet is what feeds Paris Press. Be protective of your creative time! As a young writer myself, it was an amazing opportunity and experience to meet and speak with Freeman. Her purposeful dedication and commitment to her writing, despite the pressures of work and day-to-day responsibilities, is admirable as well as inspiring. Writing is often said to be a labor of love; Freeman exemplifies and embodies this labor and love on a daily basis. Jan Freeman is the author of Hyena, Autumn Sequence, and Simon Says, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. Her poems have been published in numerous journals and several anthologies. She co-edited the acclaimed Sisters: An Anthology (2009). Freeman founded Paris Press in 1995 in order to bring into print Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry. She has been its director and publisher since. Paris Press educates the public about groundbreaking yet overlooked literature by women. The Press has also championed the work of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ruth Stone and literature by numerous other women writers of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.
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Puffballs hanging from the sycamore tree: hi ho hit every head. Puffballs hanging and dropping from the tree: hey there duck, blow kisses while you count. The puffballs — polka dots brightening the sky, pale as chipmunks soft as mice. Split them apart and don’t think twice, hang your head quietly, memorize their feel. Then run like a woodpecker straight up the tree, grab yourself some puffballs and throw them down for fun as if you were the little boy who lives down the lane rather than the baker’s boy, rather than the nun, rather than the sad sack who kicks stones home, keep throwing puffballs, hit everyone who whispers as they swing by or whispers while you pass or whispers from another state, lounging on the grass or whispers in the sunshine or whispers in the snow, puffballs are plentiful — let the puffballs go. And if you have a special friend whose head is filled with lies, send her a puffball and hope she tries to regiment the greedy ones who pack her full of flies.
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Puffballs are powerful beyond their trees and so is the bark and so are the leaves that grow beside the puffballs different yet contained: a myriad of islands when the sycamore rains.
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If the secret goes away, the friend goes away. The one who knew the secret wipes the table clean, wipes the glass, too. Without the secret, thereâ€™s nothing left to whisper. So drop your shoulders, live more easily. Sleep like the dogs or stand like the house. Thereâ€™s no need to shake like the trees, flutter like the birds. Remember who you are open. Without the secret, you are you again before the secret, quieter and less interesting to yourself. No one else knows the difference except the friend who knew
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the secret, and you stop talking to her, so she disappears. You chose her carefully to hold the secret. She wonâ€™t spill it once itâ€™s gone, even when youâ€™re not her friend. She lives along the path in the forest. She talks to trees and collects mica. She kisses the boulders in the forest. Sometimes you miss the secret, and you miss whispering about it. The secret reminds you of birch trees, vulnerable to wind and woodpeckers and ice that forces them to bow against the ground. You are a maple now, or a pine without the secret. At night you try to patch together memories that preceded the secret. Music replaces conversations, candlelight replaces another shape, another voice, snow falls, rain falls, sugar season arrives and ends, the temperature in the forest changes. Time becomes the weeks, the months after the secret. Even without it, your life encircles it.
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AND SO IT HAPPENS For R.C.
You begin to say good-bye to the pine floorboards, to the posts and beams that hold the house together. But you cannot say good-bye to the walls: they still hold you as if they have become your back, your arms, as if they momentarily hold her here in the house on the couch, where she has begun to disappear, the pillows absorbing her, her body hidden, emaciated; the only words in the night as she dreams: I want the restaurant, I want to go to the restaurant. Her arm reaching up. Does she reach for the dead gathered in the trees above the roof of the house? Or is she reaching for you? Speaking to you? This good-bye of the body without words, this good-bye left after the friends left, their flowers and wine bottles scattered on the tables and windowsills as she travels
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closer to the ceiling than the floor, closer to the ocean to the sky, closer to there than the couch in the body of her house.
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THE COLLISION OF WRITING AND SPIRITUALITY: AN INTERVIEW WITH MERLE FELD
I met Merle Feld—author of A Spiritual Life: Exploring the Heart and Jewish Tradition, The Gates are Closing, Finding Words, and Across the Jordan—in her hotel lobby, the day after we were supposed to have met. Her flight into Norfolk, VA for the Old Dominion Literary Festival had been delayed and then cancelled. After introducing ourselves to each other, she asked if I minded if she made a couple of phone calls: she had just checked into the hotel and wanted to confirm her flight back to her home in Massachusetts in a couple of days. I didn’t mind; I sat and drank the free hotel coffee in the empty lobby. Feld was upset that the traveling delays had caused her to have to cancel a trip to a local synagogue, where she was to give a talk on writing and spirituality. She laughed off the absurdity of being stuck in an airport for hours, but was genuinely disappointed by missing her speaking engagement. Feld writes in the Preface to A Spiritual Life, “I discovered that I loved reading aloud this poetry and prose, but I also came to feel how much I wanted to use these opportunities to help the women and men who showed up to further their own spiritual liveliness and introspection. I wanted to expand and shift the focus from me, the visiting poet, to them, the readers in the room, encouraging them to listen more carefully and caringly to themselves and to one another.” This notion of introspection was a primary focus of our conversation.
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Geoff Watkinson: What was the most influential book of your childhood, or the most influential book of your development as a writer? Merle Feld: I’m flooded by possibilities. What comes to mind is The Bobbsey Twins and Middlemarch. It’s actually a very strange and interesting combination. I loved to read as a child. And actually, at this stage of my life, I’m working very, very hard on a new kind of field I’ve created, which is writing as a spiritual practice. I guess at this point there are a lot of people doing that now. But when I started doing it, I didn’t know there were other people doing it. So I always have a need to invent myself I guess. It’s very intense work. My clientele are rabbinical students and rabbis. I help guide them through a personal writing practice as a way of exploring and deepening their inner lives and finding ways of going back to the nourishing quiet places inside as they’re busy tending to lots of other people’s needs. So that’s a whole conversation in and of itself. What is that work about? I have between 50 to 60 ongoing long-term clients, which any therapist I know would say—Oh really, tell me more about that. What is that about? Do you think that’s a bit much, Merle? GW: It’s interesting that you use the word therapy and what you said about spirituality and creativity and family coming together. Do you think that writing, then, is a primary form of therapy? MF: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think it’s a way of coming to know ourselves. And that’s what therapy is about. It happens to me all the time as I writer— I don’t know what I’m thinking until I write it down. And I see it with the people I work with all the time. We talk about their lives and what’s most intimate and what’s most important to them, and out of that context I give them writing prompts. Then they write and then we talk together: what do we do with that? How do we understand that? Where do we go from there? Someday, maybe, I’ll have the time and energy to write about this process. I think what’s unique is I’m doing this kind of work with them through writing, and the advantage—or the dimension that is possible doing it that way—is that on the one hand I’m holding a safe space for them to be doing work that feels scary and difficult and I’m a companion along the way. But on the other hand, the primary dialogue is not with me, it’s with themselves. So the dynamic of that is something revolutionary, when you think about what goes on in therapy – I’m there in the equation only in the most minimal way. It’s like I’m helping them to have this inner exploration—this inner dialogue—and I’m making them accustomed to listening to themselves. And that’s what writing is all about.
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So how did we get here? You asked about my favorite books and I said I loved to read as a child. And in the past ten years or so, I’ve been working so hard supporting and guiding my students and clients that when I finally have time and energy for myself, I basically have a choice: do I want to be writing or do I want to be reading? And mostly I’ve chosen writing. I’m off over the summer—I don’t see my students in the summer—so I purposely accepted no invitations this summer, no gigs. I was just at home on the porch. My students know at the end of the academic year—you know, I ask them, “What’s up with you for the summer,” and then they ask me. And they know that one of the two answers—really in a way, the most blessed answer—is when I say to them, “I’m on the porch.” They understand what that means. But this summer, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t make a commitment to myself to be doing some writing, although I have this idea and that idea. I have the ideas I long to pursue, and I have the ideas I ought to pursue—because they’re important, marketable, whatever—but I barely wrote all summer. Instead I was just reading, and it was like – reading I remember reading: this is how it all started – I love to read. GW: Where did you grow up? MF: Brooklyn GW: Did you live in Brooklyn your entire childhood? How do you think your experiences there shaped you? MF: Yeah. I lived in the same miniature apartment—that’s how I refer to it in one recent poem. Sometimes I am in a particular space and I’m talking about my childhood and I look around and I think—I think my apartment was probably from that wall to this wall and that wall to the front door, maybe it was smaller than that—it was small. GW: How do you think that Brooklyn and that apartment came together to create your writing life? MF: I think reading was a way of escaping that world, and I think writing has been a way of understanding and making peace with that world. I think I always knew as a child that there are worlds and worlds out there. I had no idea how to get from here to there—just the conviction that as soon as I possibly could, I was going to leave Brooklyn. Which is what I did. It’s funny. I’ve lived in a variety of places. For many years, my husband and I lived in Princeton. What was a riot was, the children of our friends in Princeton, their greatest desire when they were old enough to live on their own—
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these kids all wanted to go to Brooklyn! And I thought—I understand, I understand. But surely you wouldn’t want to live in the Brooklyn I grew up in. GW: What was so rough about that? MF: Where is it? I have a poem where I describe…I have a phrase like—I refer to “the pain in the linoleum.” Just. There was such pain in that apartment. It was very, very hard to inhabit a small place, side by side with people when there’s so much that’s verboten to name or talk about. So the final section of my newest book, which I’ll be reading a little from tonight, talks about that. GW: You mention living in a lot of different places and I know you travel a lot to teach. What do you think the importance of travel is, not just in your writing life, but in life in general? MF: This is a bad day to ask me about the pleasures of travel! [Merle’s flights had been delayed and cancelled and so she missed a day of the Festival.] At one point yesterday, when I was just really like—I can’t even describe what happened yesterday at the airport, how completely incompetent the airline was. It was beyond a joke. At one point, completely overwrought, I was fuming at a ticket agent, “I’ve already missed the talk I was supposed to give tonight; I just want to get there so I won’t miss tomorrow.” And he asked, “What will you be talking on?” And I said, “Spirituality.” A moment of embarrassment, recognition – the disconnect between the me at the ticket counter in that moment and the me speaking on spirituality! Once, my daughter was listening from another room and I was on the phone with customer service and whatever it was—some company had just totally screwed something up—and I was yelling into the phone, screaming, “I want to speak to your supervisor.” My daughter calls in from the other room, mimicking, “Bitch on line 3.” Like that’s how she’ll summon her supervisor! I guess we all have many facets, and the facet of who I am when I’m writing and who I am when I’m teaching is the most beautiful of who I am. Not so much with customer service! GW: When you’re not writing, not reading—what do you like to do to get away from all of that? MF: I have a little front yard garden. I live in Western Massachusetts, in a sweet little town. I’m surrounded by neighbors who are serious gardeners, who have lovely corner lot gardens in the front of their houses. It’s so beautiful that it’s almost a hazard—you drive by and rubberneck the gardens. So
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we happen to have more land in the back, but in the front there’s this little garden. I purposefully have never wanted to work at it, like, learning the names of all the different flowers. There are some things I just want to enjoy and not work at. My neighbors, who are very serious and work at it, they’re always walking by— total strangers too – will call up to me on the porch and say, “I love your garden. Thank you. It’s the highlight of my day.” I go to the nursery or wherever and I think, I like that yellow, and that’s a short purple, I need something short and purple – that’s how I choose my flowers to plant. So there’s gardening. There has to be something really terrible going on if it isn’t just dispelled and calmed by an hour in the garden. There’s that. I quilt in the same way that I garden. I never took a course, never properly learned how to do it. My grandmother, I used to say, had a lot of wisdom in her hands. She had wisdom in other places as well. Like if she looked at something, she could figure out how to make it. So that’s how I learned how to quilt. And again, it’s just sort of the fun choosing different shades and colors and patterns of fabric and putting them together in all kinds of unique arrangements. And I sew entirely by hand, which is also very relaxing. And mostly I make baby quilts because they’re smaller. GW: That’s interesting though—with painting and gardening, it still takes an aesthetic vision. It’s not as painful as writing can be, but it’s still structure, manipulation—trying to structure these things together to create something beautiful. MF: Right, right. It’s wonderful to be within that process. I lived in Israel for a year, and one of the things—a gift I gave myself—was to study with a potter in the Old City. It was a class—maybe five Israelis and me. She was a really exacting teacher. I was learning on the wheel. For the first six months, I’d make something and be really pleased. And she’d walk by each of the wheels and look. And she’d walk by my wheel and she’d take a piece of string that you used to cut a newly thrown piece off the wheel to then dry it and eventually put it in the kiln. So she’d take this piece of taut string and she’d slice my new creation in half, down the middle. She’d look at how thick the sides were, and she’d say, “Hm. That’s not bad.” I had thought, well, I’d study pottery for a year and I’d make a bunch of mugs. That was my goal. I didn’t get to keep anything until March, I think. She kept slicing. But I learned a lot. With a lot of amateur potters, you pick up their coffee mug and it weighs six pounds. Heavy lifting. So I got really good. I did a little pottery years later in the States. But I don’t think I’ll do more pottery. There’s too much I want to do and it’s not high enough up on the list.
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GW: You mention something interesting. Israel has been in the news a lot recently. With your experience, how do you see the entire situation? As it is? Playing out? MF: I have a long history with Israel. I first went there as a young woman. I’ve lived there. I’ve spent many summers there. I have many close friends there. And I love Israel. I’m also very critical of Israel. Americans and the American Jewish community by and large have trouble understanding how those two things are possible—how you can love Israel and be critical of Israel. For me it seems obvious and sensible. Are there relationships you have with someone you love where you’re not also critical? And I think what’s maybe an irony is I became most deeply attached to Israel when I lived there and was a busy and committed peace activist. There’s a lot to be said about that, and a lot that I’ve written about that. There’s a lot in my first book, A Spiritual Life [revised edition, 2007] about that. I’ve written a play about it. I’ve written a lot of poems about it. Central for me that year was organizing and facilitating dialogue on the West Bank with Israelis and Palestinians. How I came to do that is an interesting story. During the first intifada, I was dear friends with a major Israeli peace organizer. When I moved there, to live in Jerusalem, I said to her, I want to be your apprentice. So she was organizing dialogue everywhere. All over the West Bank, many Palestinian towns. All of those groups were mixed – men and women—Palestinian men and women, Israeli men and women. And I constantly went to dialogue groups. And it was interesting to see how it was challenging for the women in these groups—not for the Israeli women, but for the Palestinian women—how hard it was to get a word in edgewise. The guys would start talking, often it was their husbands, and they literally couldn’t get a word in edgewise. The Israeli women did not have that problem. It was very dynamic: they would talk over their husbands; their husbands would talk over them. Whatever. So at one point the Palestinian women in this one community, which was a very special community—it was a suburb of Bethlehem—the women said to my friend, we want to have a women’s dialogue group. And she said to me, rather impatiently, “Merle, you’re an American and you know all this feminist women stuff. I don’t know how to do it. You do the women’s group.” That was absolutely a turning point in my life. Because I really felt like I couldn’t take on that responsibility. Like I’m here visiting and I’m an outsider and an onlooker and I don’t have to live with the consequences for my own life and my own family into the future. I’ll be gone in a year. So it’s not appropriate for me to be a leader in this. But the Palestinian women, and then the Israeli women, said it’s not going to
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happen without someone taking responsibility for facilitating and organizing. So I felt like I really had no choice. I was in my early forties, but that, for me—and I was married, a mother, a writer, I was lots of things—but that for me was the dividing line between being a child and being an adult. Well, that and the death of my parents, I guess. Both those things. But it was coincidental—that year was coincidental. My mother was already gone, and my father had died just before. So the same year that I was doing that work was the same year that for the first time I was an orphan in the world. I think part of what I felt was, you don’t have the luxury to be afraid. Just get over yourself. And I think that’s part of what being an adult is. Okay, you’re afraid. That’s fine. Do what you have to do anyway. I’m fond of telling my students—especially at the beginning of the school year, which is High Holidays for them as rabbis, major freak out time. You have to get up and give a sermon in front of 3000 people, and you’re a little scared. I love telling the story: my mother, Lillian Lewis, was maybe around 60. For most of her working life, she had been an elementary school teacher. She taught first grade. And when she was about 60, one autumn she said to me as Labor Day approached and school was about to start, “you know I’m really nervous about the first day of school.” I didn’t say anything, but my face betrayed two things: one, you’ve been doing this how many years? And two, they’re children. How can you be afraid of first graders? This was before I had children or ever tried to work with them! And she just looked at my face and sort of read it and responded, “When the year comes that I’m not afraid the first day of school, I’ll know it’s time to retire.” That says a world about my mother and who she was. It also says so much about having respect for what you do and the people you work with. And if you don’t respect the people you’re working with, you have no business being in their lives. Drive a taxi. There are other ways to make a living. But also that gorgeous sense of—it’s appropriate to be afraid. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to do it. GW: You spoke a lot about fear and curiosity in regards to Israel and spiritual writing. Do you think people can change? Do people change? MF: Your question reminds me of something that eludes me. Of a very recent, powerful experience on exactly that point and it’s not coming to me, so I feel like I need to give a more theoretical answer. Absolutely. Absolutely. I see it all the time. I see it in myself. I see it in students I work with. I see it in my own family. Absolutely.
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GW: W.G. Sebald, the late German writer, believes that no art can be produced after the Holocaust without taking the Holocaust into consideration. Do you believe a statement like that to be true? Or does a statement like that continue to get redefined depending on culture, the trends of world events? Could we say that no art in this country can be produced without taking into consideration national tragedy? MF: I think I would redefine it in the sense of—I don’t know how you can have art of any significance or depth that doesn’t take into account tragedy and evil. That tragedy and that evil can have probably an infinite number of faces and so presumably for Sebald, the face it had was the Holocaust. Whether it’s our own period of time that’s formative for each of us, or whether it’s the personal landscape that’s formative for us, or some combination of both, that’s really, I think, what you’re looking for when you’re encountering serious art. You’re looking to see what does this write know? What wisdom does this writer have about pursuing meaning in life? How does this writer make sense of terrible things in the world? Do you have any hope you could give me experiencing what you’ve experienced? I don’t know if you’ve read To the End of the Land [a novel by David Grossman set in contemporary Israel]. It’s such an extraordinary novel, really one of the finest contemporary pieces I’ve read in a long time. I gotta say, I know a lot of people who are too afraid to read the book—as we talked about fear before. They feel, this will be too painful for me to bear. I can’t bear this. I started reading it, and maybe got 75 or 100 pages in and I had to put it down. It was that painful. And I knew when I put it down that I’d pick it up and finish it, but I just needed a break. It’s like I literally needed to feel— okay, I’m in a period now for the next week or so that I’m feeling strong enough to do something that hard. And two months later I was ready, and I read through the whole thing. You saw my face—however you use this interview, people will not see my face—when you asked me earlier what I thought about Israel: it’s heartbreaking. In so many ways it’s heartbreaking. There’s a particular protest demonstration that has taken place Friday afternoons in a neighborhood in Jerusalem. When I was there, not this summer but the summer before, I went to participate with friends, and David Grossman was there. And I knew people who could have walked me over and introduced me and I was literally too shy and awed. I thought, I don’t know what I would say to this man. I’ve met and spoken with some pretty impressive important people, but I was just awed. By the strength of his soul to write what he’s written.
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Merle Feld is a widely published poet, award-winning playwright, peace activist and educator. Her poems are included in numerous anthologies, in her memoir, A Spiritual Life: Exploring the Heart and Jewish Tradition (SUNY Press, revised edition 2007) and in a recent volume of poetry, Finding Words (URJ Press, 2011). A popular scholar-in-residence nationally, she has facilitated Israeli-Palestinian dialogue abroad on the West Bank and at Seeds of Peace, and has traveled to the former Soviet Union to support and collaborate with Jewish women leaders there. Since 2005 Merle has served as Founding Director of the Albin Rabbinic Writing Institute, guiding rabbinical students and rabbis across denominations to develop and explore their spiritual lives. Merle and husband Rabbi Edward Feld make their home in Western Massachusetts. To learn more about her poetry, plays, and for guidance to support your own writing practice, visit www.merlefeld.com .
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AN INTERVIEW WITH PATRICK ROSAL
Patrick Rosal—award-winning poet of three collections of poetry: Bonesheperds (2011), My American Kundiman (2006) and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (2003)—is a musical and provocative writer, critic, and performer. His writing is imbued with energy, his voice multivariate and expertly modulated. His range of subjects is staggeringly broad. In Bonesheperds, he seems to tackle everything: ethnicity, the remnants and wreckage of colonialism, love, sorrow, sex, music, violence, family, the quotidian, and on and on. His reading at Litfest, which took place in the Old Dominion library, was packed with listeners anxious to be transported by his verse to new realms of thought and experience—to be simultaneously inspired and steamrolled. He didn’t disappoint. After reading several poems in his commanding, electrified voice—a voice that seamlessly fuses “high” traditional poetic language with the vernacular and “street” language (while at the same time complicating and critiquing such distinctions), Patrick treated the audience to a few of his latest musical compositions. In addition to being a poet, he is a DJ, and produced music in the 80s and 90s for the Metropolitan Recording Company. In our interview, conducted via email, I decided to ask him about both his poetry and music, and about convergences he sees between these two modes of auditory expression. Kevin O’Connor: I enjoyed the “hybrid” nature of your reading at Litfest, especially the skill with which you maneuvered between different permutations of traditionally high poetic material, and more “pop” manifestations
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of language. Do you think about this when your write? If so, how does such thinking proceed? Patrick Rosal: I’m conscious of the divisions between pop art and high art, folk art and fine art. Much of our cultural enterprise relies on those divisions. But I try not to be influenced too much by those definitions. I was a breaker, a dj, a musician, a kid in a neighborhood long before I was a reader of books, let alone a professor at a research university. But I’ve also been trained as an academic. My father has a couple advanced degrees. My mom grew up on a little farm. They’re both immigrants. I’m conscious that the Englishes generated by those conditions and that experience have mostly not been represented in American cultural production. So it’s an opportunity for me as a poet to ask what I could make of all of this rich, diverse material given my access. KO: Poverty and struggle are themes that reappear in your poetry, especially vis-à-vis The City and your family’s immigrant history. How have poets dealt with these things in the past and where should the poets of today be taking us? PR: I mean, we didn’t grow up poor. We were pretty solid middle class. We were probably slightly better off than the working class folks in our Edison, NJ neighborhood. Our phone got cut off, so did our electricity. We had roaches, which I guess is a class marker these days, but it was just a fact of our kitchen to me. My folks were never out of work. I guess what I’m saying is, I have a vastly more sophisticated vocabulary about race than I do about money and class. I’m curious about the role of work in the lives of ordinary people. So when you ask where poets should be taking us, I suspect it’s into the realm of inquiry. What is money? What is work? As poets, we spend our lives not just honing language, but honing the habits of attention that generate new connections in language. In those new connections, we can sometimes discover new definitions of things like work and money. Our sensual lives and the language we use to describe it can be tools toward re-naming the role of the human body in a human economy. KO: In your opinion, how does writing a poem compare to composing song lyrics? Where and how do the two processes converge or diverge? PR: I haven’t written enough lyrics to be able to compare. I’ve spent the last decade and a half learning how to write poems and I’m still learning. Though I’ve played and produced music for much longer--about twice as long--I was really focused on the music itself. My musical self-education lacked any attention to lyrics. I really wanted to know about harmonic re-
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lationships and cadences. So when I listened to music when I was growing up, I didn’t (and still don’t) know many lyrics. That’s not necessarily a good way to listen to music. But I guess because I was doing it on my own, I had to focus almost obsessively on listening to instrumentation and arrangement rather than lyrics. Who knew I’d become a poet of all things. Not me. KO: How did you get interested in making beats? Would you ever consider collaborating with musical artist? If so, which one? PR: I’ve been thinking of this. The short answer is, there was music everywhere in my house. My dad and all his siblings were musicians. He plays piano, violin, and flute. We had all those instruments in the house--guitars too. My brothers play music. My mom sang and danced us to sleep. In the early 80s DJ crews started to become a huge phenomenon. And I was deep in it. By 1985 or so, I didn’t just want to spin vinyl, I wanted to make records. I played around with a piece of software called “Deluxe Music Construction Set” put out by Electronic Arts, which is, I think, the forerunner company of EA Sports (it’s in the game!). The program basically let you drag notes onto musical staves and then it played them back to you. The sounds in it were really simple sawtooth and square wave sounds—not the highly sophisticated sampled instruments we’ve had for the last 25 years or so. Slowly I started to accumulate synthesizers and drum machines. My earliest equipment was a linear Roland sequencer, the MSQ-700. I also had cheap Casio keyboards with MIDI interfaces. My first real keyboard was an Enosniq EPS, which was a performance-based sampler. The other thing is that, though you could do some of the beatmaking digitally, we were still recording in analog. So I had a four-track casette tape that allowed me (required me) to record one track at a time on a casette if I wanted to layer, say, drums, bass, keyboard vocals. You only had so many takes before the sound quality sucked. So you had to be pretty good. I did eventually produce a few songs for a dance record label but I abandoned that when my attention turned to jazz soon after. It’s just in the last few years that I have returned to making electronic music. My model really is Paul Hardcastle’s 80s joint “19”. How combine the syncopated back beat of hip hop with spoken word that isn’t heavily rhyme based? We’ll see if the experiment works out. I have some collaborations in mind that I’m sort of working on. But if I were to think wildly, I guess off the top of my head, it would be amazing to collabo with Rakim, Lauryn Hill, George Clinton. There are so many. And if you think about folks that are not even with us anymore: John Coltrane
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would be at the top of my list. Thelonius Monk would have to be up there too. I would have loved to collabo with the great Spanish/Puerto Rican cellist Pablo Casals. And you know if I think of folks who are around right now, there’s this amazing FIlipina percussionist/composer named Susie Ibarra who I’d love to work with. Among other things, she plays kulintang, which is music composed for gongs from the Philippines. Other contemporary folks I’d like to collabo with are DJ Qbert and Flying Lotus who I just got hip to (Thanks, Travis Dubose!). Patrick Rosal is the author of Boneshepherds, named one of the best smallpress books of 2011 by the National Book Critics Circle, My American Kundiman, and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. He has won, among other honors, a Fulbright Fellowship, the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award. His writing has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden and on the core faculty of Drew University’s low-residency MFA.
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WRITING WITH A GRAIN OF MSG: A CONVERSATION WITH YUNTE HUANG
At Old Dominion University’s 35th Annual Literary Festival, I had the pleasure of meeting Yunte Huang. Huang is a versatile writer, writing in both English and Chinese and working in several genres, including nonfiction, poetry, and screenwriting. He is best known for his biography of the character Charlie Chan, a fictional Chinese detective. Originally from southeastern China, Huang is a graduate of SUNY-Buffalo’s Poetics Program, where he received his Ph.D. in 1999. He is now a professor of English at The University of California, Santa Barbara. Our conversation took place at Borjo coffeehouse on ODU’s campus. On our walk over, I noticed the sky was quickly darkening. I told Huang we should walk faster to avoid a sudden Norfolk, VA downpour. Huang, who lives in Santa Barbara, CA, laughed, mentioning how little rain he sees at home. The clouds dispersed soon after we arrived; I thanked him for bringing such fair weather along with him. Once we sat down, I started with a simple question: why do you write? Huang told me he had grown up with the habit. In his small hometown in China, his father trained him to read and write from an early age. While his brother prepared to be a doctor, Huang felt lucky to be chosen to write. He later moved from China to Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1991, a large culture shock that forced him to rethink his writing style. While learning to write for an American audience, one of his greatest influences was Ezra Pound. The mystery school poets, who were at the center of the cultural revolution
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of the 1980’s, also influenced him, and showed him how to write poetry here in the United States. Throughout our conversation, I noticed that Huang was describing two separate writing lives: one in Chinese, and another in English. The transition between the two is far more complex than a simple translation, a swapping of words. As a bilingual writer, Huang explained the cultural differences that influence writing. In America, he explained, writers write in the style of a naked confessional, going directly after the “thing” they wish to convey. But in China, writers and scholars use a detour to access the truth. In this inscrutable Eastern culture, withholding information is thought to be as important as telling. This philosophical difference in ideas greatly affects narrative technique, he explained. But it was not only the cultures that created two distinct voices—the languages themselves influenced the tone of Huang’s writing. He described how his Chinese writing has a more serious voice; his early poetry is often sentimental and melancholic. But, now writing in the United States, Huang has developed a more ironic voice. The English language, he explained, is full of ironies, many of which go unnoticed. “As an outsider looking in, I discovered a lot of fascinating things which are quite often taken for granted by native speakers,” he explained. “Just by standing outside of a language, you’ll discover something.” As Huang explained the differences between these two vast languages, I found myself wondering what the process of translation must be like. Surely, I told him, it must be difficult to do, considering the complex subtleties we had just discussed. I asked him what he thought might be the biggest obstacle a translator faces. It’s not a matter of obstacle, he told me. Translation is a process of creation, about finding new things. “Deep down, everything needs translation. Reading, interpretation is sort of a translation.” For me, this was an exciting way to discuss translation, much more positive than I had originally thought. Huang described the process of discovery, realizing the discrepancies between two languages. “Sometimes the untranslatability, to match or mismatch, is the most fascinating thing. So, the obstacle is actually a great thing: it’s imagination, creativity.” Translation, as he described it, was an invitation, an opportunity to explore a story in two different voices. In the process of stepping outside the language, a writer can sometimes discover more within an original work. It shouldn’t be perceived as a headache or a tedious task, the way I had imagined it. Instead, it could be seen as an expansion of the creative process, an artistic opportunity.
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Huang mentioned a poem he would later read at his afternoon reading, a work that had been written in English and translated into Chinese. Returning to the English version, he allowed the new presence of Chinese culture and language to influence the original work. The new influence came from one particular phrase that did not work for both audiences. “The phrase ‘take it with a grain of salt’—you know what it means in English, it’s a common expression. But, the Chinese would never understand that. If I invite you to my house in China and I cook for you, if the first thing you do is add soy sauce or salt, it’s a great insult, it means I’m not a great cook.” But, he explained, the Chinese can add other things such as MSG. He changed the line to “take it with a grain of MSG” for both audiences, giving the poem a fresh connotation. “Now, it has Chinese flavor.” After moving from a cosmopolitan city like Beijing to small-town Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Huang decided to write about the culture shock he experienced. He wrote some poetic sequences about this transition, but later decided narrative would pull the experience together much better. Once he began writing his experience as a novel, though, his agent urged him to write a memoir instead, as memoir is easier to sell from a novice writer. Coming from an Eastern background, Huang was slightly apprehensive about writing an autobiographical work. He felt shy and did not wish to reveal his innermost feelings in the confessional style that American writers strive towards. He decided to write about his experience in the third person to create some distance, even using a pseudonym. “We tried a few editors,” Huang recalled, “and every one of them came back with the same sort of diagnosis: this guy knows how to write, and he’s a very interesting character, but why the hell is he using third person narrative?” We both laughed at the memory. Huang’s agent, he recalled, then asked if there was anything else Huang would be willing to write, something that would sell better in the United States. After discussing his interest in Charlie Chan, he had an entirely new writing project on his hands. I asked Huang what it was that originally sparked his interest in Charlie Chan. As a graduate student in Buffalo, he explained, he discovered the Charlie Chan novels at an estate sale. As a fan of mystery novels, he could not resist the temptation and bought the entire series. “I was really immediately hooked,” he told me, smiling. “I always had a thing for mystery.” Huang discovered Charlie Chan while working on a dissertation on Ezra Pound, a poet known for his oriental flavor. Charlie Chan was considered a misconception of the Chinese lifestyle, speaking in humorous aphorisms that read like “fortune cookie” sayings. Ezra Pound, on the other hand, wrote poetry that invoked beautiful images influenced by the Chinese tra-
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dition. “I developed this dual interest in the kind of highbrow American modernist orientalism and also popular low brow vulgar, more racist type of orientalism.” He ended up writing about both in his dissertation, but his Charlie Chan study remained a hobby for years to come. Though many thought of the Charlie Chan character as racist, Huang believed the story was much deeper than that. Doing further research on his hobby, Huang discovered that a Harvard student from Ohio, someone with no Chinese background or influence, created the Charlie Chan character. It fascinated him that this man could create such a “lively, colorful Chinese character” under these circumstances. After hearing about his writing endeavors, I asked Huang what genres he preferred to work with, and which, if any, he avoided. He laughed, saying he didn’t think he avoided any. He currently writes poetry, nonfiction, newspaper columns, and book reviews, all while working on his newest genre: screenplay. When I complimented him for being so versatile, he asserted that every writer must learn to work in multiple genres. “If you want to be serious about writing, you basically commit yourself to this life of writing. As far as genre is concerned, it depends on what occasion, but when the occasion rises, you must sometimes learn on the spot.” I agreed with Huang wholeheartedly, but could not help but consider my own MFA curriculum. I asked him what he thought about MFA “tracks”— or, how each student declares a focus in one genre, typically poetry, fiction or nonfiction. “My attitude towards learning with any institution is that the most important part is self-teaching,” he explained. “You teach yourself to do things. Programs are there to put a stamp on you in some ways, to provide some kind of legitimacy.” He described how his experience at SUNYBuffalo helped him learn how to become a scholar, not just a creative writer. “You don’t go there just to learn to write as a poet,” he explained. “It’s actually to learn the other tool, which is to be a scholar.” I then asked Huang how his education has influenced his writing process now, and was intrigued by how pragmatic his technique was. “Well, time management, I think, is one of the most important aspects of writing. When you start a project, you must be consistent and find a regular schedule.” To him, creative writing fit the same process as academic writing: while writing a dissertation, a Ph.D. student must find a rhythm and be consistent. Without a routine, he explained, it can be easy to lose the habit, making it nearly impossible to reach the finished product. “You don’t necessarily have to be diligent, but even if you just manage to sit down at the same time every day, even if you just sit there and daydream, it can still be helpful and produc-
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tive, to stick to the schedule.” We laughed about the eccentric rituals some writers go through, like needing to lie down to type, take a walk between pages, or listen to a certain song every session. Huang, on the other hand, simply believed in the piecemeal method. “If you can get something done in a day, it will accumulate. Very soon, you’ll have a full stack of things.” Not all of Huang’s writing patterns, though, were so simple. When he first moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Santa Barbara, CA, he was shocked to have writer’s block for two years. The place was so beautiful that it almost bored him, and made it difficult for him to connect to the landscape. In Cambridge, the environment was much more scholarly, with academics often passing through. Though Santa Barbara had its share of intellectuals, the community was very different, and didn’t spark his creativity at first. It was not until he discovered a different side of this paradise that he began to write again. He began reading Ross Macdonald, a local mystery writer whose fictional murders often took place in Southern California. “When I realized actually, that there was a darker side of this beautiful landscape, I suddenly felt better in some ways. You know, it’s not just like multi-million dollar mansions that I could not afford to live in. There are actually dead bodies inside,” he said, laughing, “and that makes me feel better about the world.” This helped him overcome his writer’s block. He soon developed a pattern of writing in the mornings, as the beautiful California sunlight gave him energy, making it difficult to sleep in. After learning about Huang’s personal writing habits, I asked if he had any advice for novice writers. His suggestions proved just as pragmatic as his own writing process; he had no secret tips or strategies. Read and reread writers you admire, he said, and take notes is the best way to find your own way of writing. “I mean, I have no philosophical or mystical advice,” he admitted, laughing, “nothing like, ‘go and smoke’ or something. I think writing is a very pragmatic thing. It’s about putting words on the page.” He admitted that he was lucky himself, knowing an agent early on. Luck, he said, has a lot to do with it, though it’s not the only way to find success. “Being consistent, I think, will eventually pay off. That’s your luck.” Yunte Huang is the author of Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (2010), which won the Edgar Award and California Book Award and was also the finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A poet and translator, he has published Transpacific Displacement (2003), Cribs (2005), Transpacific Imaginations (2007), and other books. He is currently a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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TO BE AN ASIAN AMERICAN POET
To be or not to be That’s out of the question Between Asia and America I choose the life of a poet Between English and Chinese I prefer the authenticity of translationese Between black and white I have no choice but be yellow Between truth and lie I would rather get high Between real and unreal Well, depends how I feel I’m a Chinese poet on Angel Island A Japanese poet in internment camps A Filipino poet in sugarcane plantations A Korean poet in LA riots An FOB poet on Boeing 747 A Transcontinental poet on World Wide Web A restaurateur poet in Alabama A Language poet in Buffalo A coolie poet at Harvard Yard An academic poet in Santa Barbara A funny poet in my kids’ schoolyard
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A chicken poet in the year of the Dragon A honky-tonk poet when I’m in love A horny-bitchy poet when I’m alone When they ask me What kind of ‘nese are you Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese? I ask them What kind of ‘keys are you Yankee, donkey, or monkey? I singsong When they ask me to sing a song I tango When they call me Tang O I write a locu When they ask for a haiku I write poems for fortune cookies Where they expect to read “A Great fortune is awaiting you!” “You are a talented person” Or “You are so beautiful!” I put in “Go fuck yourself!” “We know what you did last summer” Or “April is the cruelest month” Where they want to find Their superlotto numbers I write in the amount they will lose To be or not to be That’s out of the question Between Asia and America I choose the life of a poet Between English and Chinese I prefer the taste of translationese Between black and white I want to be a rainbow Between truth and lie I can usually get by Between the real and unreal I prefer the impossible
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do you love a cup of tea in the afternoon or do you love in the afternoon or just love the afternoon as for me i love the tea after
*“Afternoon Tea” originally appeared in Yunte Huang’s CRIBS (Tinfish Press, 2005)
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GENEROUS VISIONS: A CONVERSATION WITH ALLAN GURGANUS
To close Old Dominion University’s 35th LitFest, Allan Gurganus pulverized a packed house with a selection from his upcoming novel The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church. His reading culminated in the pleas of a carnival impresario faced with the murder of his prize elephant. The moment came to life in his gesticulations, his commitment to the accent, mannerisms, complete despair of this wounded man, and too-far-traveled purveyor confronted by a band of cold-eyed savages, bygone denizens of fictional Falls, NC—milieu of much of Gurganus’s work and vision. Adept at probing the margins of Americana and bringing back grace and pathos, Gurganus continues to bolster the legacy of southern literary fiction. I consider him an all-time master of point of view, a stylistic virtuoso, and a writer and man of great kindness. And so I’ve picked his brain on these and sundry other topics. For this interview we spoke on the phone, a few days before Christmas. Lucas Flatt: In his introduction to your reading here, Blake Bailey announced you have several new projects on the horizon. Allan Gurganus: Yes, it’s an exciting time. Harvest after many years of work. My book of novellas “Local Souls” comes out in September. That’ll be followed by a new book of stories. And the novel “The Erotic History of a
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Southern Baptist Church” is on boil at the back of the stove. I always hope for the best. I try my best, after that it is up to fates and the mood of New York reviewers after a long winter. We’ll see. I am in it for the long run. That’s a consolation during short term upheaveals. LF: How was performing as Scrooge in your hometown A Christmas Carol? Did you get over your ba-hum-bugs? AG: This is the eleventh year I have been the grouch onstage. That makes me more cheerful off-stage. We raised about four or five thousand dollars for local charity, including gun control, which is an essential cause and obsession. We had standing room crowds two nights in a row. The Gothic church where we perform was built when Dickens lived. LF: That’s fantastic. You’re very engaged when you read, even supplying accents to your characters. How do you feel about performing someone else’s words? AG: Well, if it’s Charles Dickens, it’s like taking multiple vitamins, you know? There’s something about A Christmas Carol that he wrote when just 31 years old. It’s an astonishing piece of work. I mean, it seems to be an extraordinarily simple unit of writing: a completely self-involved miserly person notices he’s part of a tribe and reverses his life-long stinginess in a single night. Playing him on stage is fascinating. You have to simulate the emotions just by working from the outside in. Once the husk looks right, emotion follows. Both mine and those of the witnesses. If nothing else, you become convinced of the rightness of most decisions that Dickens made. It makes me want to go back and read Our Mutual Friend, or the first hundred pages of Great Expectations. Dickens knew from his first book what he was doing, in terms of broad comedy and virulent emotion. LF: Why only the first hundred pages of Great Expectations? AG: I think those are the greatest he ever wrote. His coincidence level gets pretty heavy after 120 pages. Few novels have ever been as good as the first half. When David Lean made his very great film adaptation, he simply followed the exact visuals of Dickens’ narration, camera angles exactly spelled out. D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin both called Dickens their greatest film teacher. LF: As it happens, I wrote a couple of papers on that very novel during my undergrad and MA, but I only covered that first section. I thought I never finished it because I was lazy.
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AG: Hell, I’m now giving you all the excuse you’ll ever need, Lucas! Quote me if it will give your fiction writing more time. It would be it would be fun to go back and see if you still feel the same way about the second half. There’s a kind of mechanistic clicking that sets in. But especially when Pip is a child, Dickens is able to cleave to that child’s perspective and you really feel that he’s three feet tall as the convict turns him over and he sees the cemetery completely inverted. It’s one of the great moments. And David Lean simply turned his camera upside down. It’s almost as good as the book itself. LF: Is acting something you do often? AG: I think every novelist is an actor. We’re always hearing voices and setting them down, The best way to manage that is to read them aloud. You don’t want any two characters to sound alike and so literally speaking helps. And you also hope to represent every character you create in a way that’s filled with empathy, a kind of pity, a kind of acceptance. In the week after the massacre at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut, it may be easier to imagine imagining victims than the culprits. The final minute if the life of that principal and school psychologist, and even of the children, who’ve already seen so many murders on television that they might have thought this was some kind of joke. The hardest person to imagine is always the killer, the shooter. That I think is where we separate the convenient jingoistic writers from the real artists. Who would willingly venture into that territory? Who can accept not just the possibility of evil but the preeminence of evil on the front pages of papers and in internet news crawls? Who would dare risk undertaking that on the page? I think a novelist has to be both an extraordinary director, and set designer, and costume maker. But he-shut must always subdivide him or herself into all the concomitant roles, every fraction of the novel must be enacted with a willingness past judgment. One reason I am so fearful of world religion: it produces so much judgment and so little mercy. LF: I’ve gathered it’s your policy to read new work aloud to audiences. You revise up until time to take the stage. AG: I want to use every occasion to test the livingness of the work I’m presently doing against the actual lives of my audience members. You hear the laughs, you sense the restiveness. I think reading from a published book is certainly easier, and, especially if the book has been well-reviewed. You might feel you’re putting yourself in a kind of unassailable position, insofar as we can any of us do that. But you’re reading for other writers who are also
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struggling with brand new material themselves. I’m a product of a workshop mentality. I studied writing both as a graduate and undergraduate student. I have I taught both grad and undergrad writing. Presenting wet-ink readings is one way of baring your jugular; it’s a way of showing that we’re all in this together. Not that the writing is new, but this draft might have been finished on the airplane enroute. It’s also a matter of quality control. If you’re really attending to your audience and to your own ears, you can sometimes hear a dead, inert spot, or a redundancy. You have a possibility for correcting work before it goes into magazine or book form. LF: That’s impressive, and I’d certainly be too chicken. AG: If I had a graduate writing program, I would ask all students to learn to read aloud from their work, always in their very own oratorical style. Lots of graduate writing classes ask a student whose work is being presented to read one page aloud. It’s good to hear how the work lies in the voice of that person. To be able to stand up for thirty or forty minutes and hold the attention of a crowd, to feel worthy of holding their attention, that’s a great strength. It shows you put your life and your work on the line for others. LF: You cite Shelby Foote’s “Brilliant narrative history of the civil war” in your Author’s Note to Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Obviously Foote’s work is a useful source for period research, but did his voice influence your work as well? AG: I like how he never pretends to be a computer simply registering with absolute objectivity the march north by northeast for certain troops in Georgia on a certain day. Before undertaking the history, Foote had lots of experience as both a poet and as a fiction writer. So he can conceive The Civil War: A Narrative as a saga, like one of the Icelandic battle myths. That’s one reason the books have endured, and will continue to. Curious, Foote’s fiction tends to be portentous and arty and over-produced. He is too Faulknerian in the arch sense. But when he’s given this urgent material that needs to be chronicled in a more efficient way, he rises to the occasion. He showed Faulkner his first novel. And because Shelby was good looking and from a prominent family, he had the entitlement to go to Faulkner’s house and hand deliver this book. Faulkner finally said afterward, “It’s OK, but do better next time.” There’s a motto for us all! LF: That sounds like one of the quips Foote likes to pepper into his Narrative.
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AG: Exactly. He quotes very well. Essential equipment in any non-fiction writer of note. LF: When you began Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, did you plan on such a large scope? AG: I actually thought I was writing a 30 page story. The initial inspiration was seeing that very phrase in the New York Times—“oldest living confederate widow”. It was a three inch article about pensions for the wives of ole rebs. And I instantly thought, there’s the point of view I’ve been looking for. So I rushed back to my room and typed out the first 30 pages. That became the incident of the shooting at the watering hole. A beautiful kid solider, young Ned Smyth is sacrificed. I actually thought that was it, the whole tale. And I was pleased to have it. I thought it was dramatic enough to be a single story. But then I didn’t know enough about the people involved, and I had to figure out how they got there, and what their families at home were like, and so forth and so on, and the biggest issue was to figure out who was talking. I knew that the speaker was the widow of one of these soldiers, but I didn’t guess half enough about her. So, in a way, the seven years I spent writing was a kind of investigation of whom she was and why she was so forcibly telling the story. Once I realized that she was from an in-town middle class family, I did not know why she kept using country English was so idiomatic, working class, and farm-like. So I typed out on the top of a piece of paper: “Why I say ain’t.” That became the chapter title. And I explained it to myself that her mother was from a prominent family in town but had been involved in a kind of train accident and was saved by a farm kid who spoke as Lucy did. And because she identified more completely with her honest, earnest, poor father than with her pretentious, highfalutin mom, she spoke ungrammatically. I set a series of traps for myself, and for her. They made me chew myself to freedom, in her voice, of course. That’s one reason it took me as long as it did to finish the book. But I think we are often the last to know exactly what we’re doing. The material itself is in truly in control. The material that calls out to you loudest and continues to offer self-renewed mystery is the material that’s worth following, chronicling. Conrad talks about “Heart of Darkness” honoring its own essential mystery. We have to, as writers, live equidistant between intellection and instinct. Very few people with college tenure stake out that territory or can hold onto it long! LF: I was going to ask about the evolution of Lucy’s voice, if you started with the voice or if it developed over drafting?
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AG: Her voice was very consistent from the beginning. It was a kind of miracle that befell me. I still don’t know autobiographically where it came from. Like lots of people who grew up in the nineteen fifties I heard the voices of women long before those of men. Men were almost never in the house. The men were always out earning money or hunting or doing something with other men, their true loves, out far away from the demanding women and children. The voices I heard first were my own blood kin’s and the African American women hired to look after the house and after the children. I always think of myself as having a kind of double citizenship, even though I look extremely like a white guy. My first language was the language of my nurse. This black woman taught me English nursery rhymes and sang to me and took extraordinarily good care of me. She also spoke black dialect and nursed me in that as well. I feel blessed in that being bilingual, at least. Castalia, the freed slave who’s Lucy’s doppelganger in “Widow”, answers that part of my history. It pains me to read very bad black dialect written by white writers. Like the woman who wrote The Help. She seems incapable of writing a true line of black dialect. She resorts to phonetic spellings that sound condescending. So much nineteenth century black dialect is unreadable. “Gwina” means “Going to.”etc. Disheartening in a way to think of all the talented African American writers who have perfect pitch, and then this becomes popular. The subject is so immense, that counts for a lot. And it did give Viola Davis a great role to play in film. I think it’s very important to try to write honest dialect. Maybe especially if you belong to the opposite racial group. You need an auditor who’ll be cruelly honest. LF: In first person, you often use asides and direct address. Do you think that link between reader and audience is essential? AG: In a way, it’s the most ancient form of all. Given what we know of human history, it’s believed that people sang before they spoke. They imitated animals, being animals in fact. Bears or birds or whatever—make a characteristic sound that’s becomes the sound of warning or aggression or invitation. That, repeated on cue, becomes the song, and then the song divides itself into units, particulars, to eventually become language. So, by uncovering the song in our language, we revert to animal urgency, animal beauty. There’s always an element of invitation in narrative, and I’ve always been fascinated with the power of the born story teller who makes a contract with the listener. That very overt and direct contract runs something like, “We’re here beside this fire tonight, and we’re in the middle of the woods so there can be no Netflix alternative. I have this story I’d like to tell you. I can promise you it’s good, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard before, so if you will trust me, I’m going to take you now to a place you’ve never been before. I’ll
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tell you strange and wonderful adventures that you will remember for the rest of your life. Okay? Okay. Comfortable? ‘In the kingdom of frogs, one particular croaker…” This constitutes a really good deal for both parties. It’s essential that both elements of the equation be present, the speaker confident of her power, and a listener willing to cease speaking for a certain number of minutes or hours in order, to receive the thrills and froggy information. Oddly enough, on the page it works exactly this same way. The reader is alone presumably with the book or Kindle in his or her lap. The vocal music exists for the most silent reader. The cry of the beast, the start of all singing. This is the “I” reaching toward the “You.” That direct address in the secondperson is such an implicating invitation, it’s almost a command. One beauty of the second person in English is how “you” stays gender-neutral. That makes it very different from most other romance languages. “You” includes both male and female hearers. That leaves the invitation much more rounded and opened and complete. It gives both the reader and listener a tremendous kind of license for intimate pleasure. I try to invoke then exploit that in Widow and a lot of my other stories. I attempt to create and solicit a partner in the telling, not just a passive vacuum, a mere receptacle recipient. LF: You’ve mentioned that it’s important for you to differentiate the voices of characters. I was wondering if this was a particular challenge in your novella “Preservation News.” And I think it’s handled beautifully. But Mary Ellen is writing her tribute to Tad, and has learned so much language from him and is trying to express herself in a manner similar to his. AG: That’s an integral challenge. Writing this novella, I had in mind The Gospels. Especially a book like “Luke”, in which an apostle of one extraordinary historical figure tries telling how this pivotal unexpected person came into and changed that life forever. The challenge is to register that person’s voice as it was before being called forth by the Christ-like figure, then to register the voice of the prophet himself, and finally register a third voice: the combination of the working man’s original speech made witness to the changed perception and the heightened language that’s the result of being converted. The voice has already outlived the putative messiah being praised, preserved. In “Preservation News” Mary Ellen is a very conventional, fortunate older lady of means. She’s lived that muddle our mothers lived for years: holding household positions that in no way took advantage of these women’s intensity, their intelligence, their superior-to-male capacity for change. But because Tad is trying to save these ancient houses and needs a certain amount of donated money and a tremendous amount of time and
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sophisticated energy, he is capable of calling her out. He summons her from grief after the death of her own husband. He somewhat forces her to take up this work. When Christ summoned the fishermen to be disciples they were still in the boats with their nets. He did not give them time to think about it. They laid down their work and, changed, followed Him. So it’s very much like—I love Caravaggio’s painting of Christ calling the tax collector, Matthew to discipleship. I think that’s what Tad does, he comes into the widow’s house and lifts her. He is both humanely giving her something new to do, a focus that will help her get around her immobility. But he’s also, in a very self-interested way, calling forth a person who’s never truly been tested or appreciated before. And all this has to be accomplished not just in terms of narrative incident, but by governing the language she uses to praise the now-missing boy. It’s a very delicate but basic transaction. And of course I speak as if I’d known all this before I sat down to write the text. I did not know jack. I followed an unknown voice the way those fishermen did. Truth emerges only as you’re writing. Outlines do not pertain here. And if one knew this much information upfront, knew about the psychic and linguistic challenges, then you need never write then story. It’s the very act of a tale’s straining outward that makes these distinctions evident and gives the struggle a pulse, and makes the story memorable. LF: Were you already knowledgeable on historic architecture? Did you research heavily? AG: I live in a house built in 1900, and is, for me, a beautiful old friend. But the house next door to me is 1757, and the cemetery on my other side is also 1757. There’s a signer of The Declaration of Independence buried there, just outside my study. I live in a town that was North Carolina’s state capitol in the 1750s. It’s the town that John Rockefeller tried to buy to be Williamsburg because it had more continuously occupied 18th century houses than any town in Virginia did. And happily for us here the townspeople refused to sell. So I live in a town where historic architecture remains everywhere inhabited, protected by laws from ever being changed. I’d been in quest for my ideal 18th century house for a long time, and was closing in on one when my current crib came available. It was not on the national register. That means you can make changes without having to go through tremendous paperwork and petitioning. So I chose this simpler newer house instead. But Tad’s fascination with pure Federal architecture is very much my own. LF: You’ve lived in and written about a number of places. Do you feel differently writing about your native North Carolina?
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AG: It’s a lucky writer who finds a patch of territory that somehow makes extra sense. And I don’t think one has to be writing about one’s native turf, as I am. It could be like Willa Cather writing about Manhattan, her desired home, not her assigned one. Sometimes you see a place more perfectly by virtue of not being native to that place. But because I’m a fiction writer and not an autobiographical writer in the usual sense, I don’t feel constrained to uphold North Carolina tourism in every piece. Nor do I feel that I want to only present North Carolina as a humane and desirable place to live. Slavery is very much in my own family history and that of the state. But the benefit and beauty of choosing one place—I think of Thomas Hardy using his mythic Wessex County, or Faulkner founding his mythological home county—what’s magical is how one story, like a train-car that hooks to another earlier story, and to a future one. Some kind of quantum momentum develops. Soon you are telling the history of habitation from the Indians forward, and from prehistory, via the landscape, to the present day. There’s a kind of inherent velocity, a thoroughness that overtakes you. You realize that you’re trying to tell the story of everybody who’s ever lived, you’re trying to tell how one generation hooks to the previous generation and the previous, and how they contradict and complement each other. So in my new book, the book that’ll be out in September, called Local Souls: Three Novellas, I’m going to do a drawing of Falls, NC for the end papers. I started out to be a painter. In the map, I’m using not only the sites and the rivers and the homes of the main characters in this present book, but I’m also showing the house where the oldest living confederate soldier died in 1940 and other events that have happened in five other books. So it becomes a kind of mythic fanning out of my imagined landscape. There’s something very unifying about that trust in one location. LF: You’ve mentioned empathy and pity and acceptance, and I’ve also heard you suggest generosity as a necessary trait, or concern, for a writer. Could you say more about that? This is for our Craft Issue, after all, and I’d like to see more generosity in the stories we receive. AG: By generosity I don’t mean forgiving all behavior or writing only about people who are easy to like. The easiest thing in the world is to write a likeable character. That’s where we begin. We start by writing characters who are endearing and easy to sponsor, and who absolutely insist that we identify with them. But given the evil in the world, that’s far too simple. I think we have to write characters that are in some ways as complicated as we ourselves are, or nearly. That can involve the kind of uber-generosity of vision I spoke of when I tried to imagine the shooter’s point of view. I think everybody deserves a chance to tell the truth, whether they know their own
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deeper motivation or not. The Chekhov line I like so much runs, “In fiction and life no one must ever be humiliated.” I don’t like writers who have condemned characters to be villains before the book even begins. I don’t like people who are born heroes, I don’t believe in that entitlement. The right to the title “Batman”! I think heroism is an earned attribute and never one that’s merely assigned. I try to take all that into account as I’m writing. I want everyone fairly represented. I want drama and tension and complication, but the reader should not feel that he’s being turned against any given character. Each of us, as readers should feel that, but for a change of fate or circumstances in the context of the fiction, we could be the villain or the hero. So I look for generosity of vision, which means writers with complicated senses of ethics. That extends to the landscape of the fiction, it extends to simple things: do your characters ever eat? If not, why not? Do you put your characters to bed at night and have them wake up in the morning? What are their pleasures in the course of their days? I’m a big admirer of Raymond Carver and I knew him when he was teaching at Iowa. He was sweet, dear, sentimental guy, a lovely person, but part of the power that he achieves in his five or six page stories is that he’s cut out all pleasure. He’s chosen to write about people who are hiding from bill collectors pounding at the door, people who don’t really care what they’re eating, and who have left all the photographs of themselves as children five or six rental properties ago in the crawl space. They’re people without a history, they’re people without a deep capacity for pleasure, and in a way they’re hostages to fortune, deeply in debt and desperate to survive at any cost. So that’s one way of doing it. That was his world. I grew up in the middle class where a good meal a day seemed a birthright. That separates me from most citizens of the planet. Still I would like to give the reader some peripheral, tangential pleasures along the way. I’m thinking very much in this new book about how to write landscape, how to show the occasional sunrise and sunset, how to look beyond the tension and the warfare that goes on between characters. How can I assert that the earth is continuing, there are bird songs, there are rivers flowing, there are storms happening that, while doing damage to the roof, still have a sort of grandeur. I tell my students to put something funny on every page and something beautiful on every other. What is funny? What seems beautiful? That is their duty and privilege to decide. LF: Since we try to be a venue for new, unpublished writers, I wondered if you have something that you wish you had known when you first started writing fiction?
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AG: That’s a good question. I think I’ve made a couple of mistakes that I would not make now. But there came truly be no regrets in this life. You either do something or you don’t. The saddest people in the world—and they’re all at bars about this time of night, boring others with their mistakes—are those who daily rehearse their mess-ups and lost chances, constantly headed backwards instead of doing the new and next thing. I published my first story, “Minor Heroism,” when I was 26. It was very much a story that I had to write. It was based in part on my very charged and difficult relationship with my own father. He serves in World War II and had come home and prospered. He could now guarantee that my three brothers and I had educations and lived in a kind of luxury that he, due to the world Depression, had not known himself. He secretly resented us for being the people he was funding us to be. So getting this story onto paper was very important to me. Nothing could be invented till this was done. I spent over a year creating the piece. Set in the suburbs, it was a very powerful story to write, I exorcised a tremendous amount. When it emerged, it got a huge amount of attention partly because it meant an honest attempt to admit how impossible it is for fathers and sons to truly communicate. It was clear from the story that these two guys really did care about each other, but for whatever reason were incapable of honestly expressing it face-toface. John Cheever was my teacher at the time, and it was he who sent the story off to a magazine and got it published. That was a thrill. But Cheever then he gave me further sound advice. He said I should write four or five other stories set in the same neighborhood, in the same country-clubby milieu. One might be about the scout master, one about the piano teacher, one about the neighbors down the block who were going through a divorce. He actually laid out for me the subjects of the other likely stories. The assumption was that this would be my first book. Just as I’d had a big success with the first story, I would get lots of notice for this book-length group of stories that he would endorse. And I did not do that. I had every reason to go forward with it. I now think it could have been a beautiful book, partly because both it and I had the unrepeatable energy of beginning. There’s a beautiful kind of righteous force you have when you’re first unpacking your material. Your voice is at its purest, almost like an adolescent boy’s voice who can still sing soprano and tenor, shading toward bass, five octaves if only for three months! I could have enjoyed that range, had I written the other four stories. I could not go back and write those stories now, but I no longer have that voice. The timbre is continually evolving and changing and deepening with experience. I love the title of a William Maxwell novel “Time Will Darken It.”
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So my regret, if I have one, is that I solicited my teacher’s opinion, considered his superb judgment, then didn’t take it. I had genius teachers all along, like Stanley Elkin and Grace Paley, who were hugely important to me. But Cheever gave me this specific career boost, tenderly offered and wise beyond knowing, and I refused it. That was in part because I was 26 years old, and, you know, “Fuck you, I don’t take or need advice, though I did come to grad school for it!” I was too much of an artist to let someone else tell me what to do. There’s no way to go back and correct that. But in terms of the history of my books, it would have been a huge way to consolidate that single story into an important and beautiful book that will never be written. Now I’d say—if you ask for advice from elders, and they give you a reasonable directive, don’t be afraid of taking it. One factor from then was what trended in literary fashion: Donald Barthelme and Ronald Sukenick and Tom Robbins and lots of people that we thought of as nifty at the time— John Barth. They were writing experimental, meta-fictional pieces. That seemed to me far cooler as a form than the straight beginning-to-end narrative that I had always written and that Cheever preferred. I wanted to prove that I could do that too, and I did. And those stories are also all in White People, and I’m very proud of each of them. Graduate students tend to be attracted to what’s most avant-garde at the time. That proves some of the most perishable stuff on earth. Some years you get James Joyce, some years you get Jerzy Kosinki and Marguerite Young. I have a young student friend who recently told me he debating if he wanted to write like Vladimir Nabokov or Aimee Bender. And for all I respect her, I fear the latter doesn’t belong in the same sentence with Nabokov. I think Ms. Bender might opt to be Nabokov, too. One bit of advice might be to skip The New York Times Book Review and McSweeney’s and read un-periodicals where fashion has been superseded by the test of time itself. We are all writing to be useful not just to the fashion of the moment but to the wide open future. I don’t know if this adds up to anything, but those are some detours I wish I had not taken. LF: It certainly adds up, and I should say that I think White People is a marvelous book, and I’m glad that you wrote it.
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AG: Thank you. I appreciate that. I have a lot of respect for what I did do. But the ones that got away, you think of them sometimes. LF: I’ve heard you mention Barry Hannah as a writer who will last, stand up to time. And I’m sure we’d agree that Carver certainly fits into that category. But as you describe Carver’s style I think also of Hannah’s reliance on wild loners run amuck in landscapes of desolation. Is Hannah a generous writer? AG: I think Barry is a genius at language itself. There are sentences that cannot be diagramed but go straight to your heart and untie many cholesterol knots there. His vision was always far more generous to men than women. He’s kinder still to men like himself. The scamps, the scapegraces, the ones in the gutter and therefore nearest to God. But Hannah’s also kind of pitiless about himself. He makes a steady boastful incantation of all his faults and flaws. He admits his insanity and makes a song of it. His tales come to depend on a crazy central figure, a charming drunk, smarter than anyone else, but who can’t meet his own needs or his promised obligations to his wife or his children or his neighbors or his job. Or himself. His drinking gets in the way of his sex life, and nothing should ever outrank that. In a way Hannah is very repetitive in that context of the brilliant linguistic story populated by a guy very much like Barry was before he stopped drinking and, alas, found Jesus. But the compensations are immense because his language stays so pure and original and buoyant. It’s continually fresh. To read his collected works—Long, Last, Happy came out just after he died—is to renew your own lease on language. I’ve been reading it between working at chapters of my own work. I’m also re-reading a lot of Leonard Michael’s stories and they’re extraordinarily energizing and free in some of the same ways. I think every practicing writer should have ten or fifteen books on the desk at all times as sources of power and energy and inspiration. You don’t have to read the whole book, you just need a page or a very short story to remind yourself of what the bargain is. To remind yourself that music is our business, really. That and truth-telling, the necessity to go as deep as possible as fast as possible. To bring back news of complication, news of possible connections. We must give lyrical praise to our physical world. It is more beautiful than even “National Geographic” can show us monthly! Without such praise and awe and acknowledgement of that great bargain and mystery, no poem or song can survive. Allan Gurganus’s novels, stories and essays include the international bestseller Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989) which has been
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translated into 12 languages and sold over 2 million copies. His first published story, â€œMinor Heroism,â€? appeared in the New Yorker in 1974 and offered the first gay character that magazine had ever presented. Gurganus is a 2006 John Simon Guggenheim Fellow. His other published works include a collection of stories and novellas, White People (Los Angeles Times Book Prize) and the novel Plays Well With Others. His latest book is The Practical Heart: Four Novellas (Lambda Literary Award). Local Souls is forthcoming this September.
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The Craft Issue: Interviews With: Dorianne Laux Allan Gurganus Alice Randall
In Sean this Thomas issue Dougherty : Cori Pepelnjak Adam Tavel Jan Freeman Carol Beth Icard Jamal Mohamed Kelly Martineau; valarie clark Merle Feld Zana Previti Patrick Rosal Yunte Huang Dustin Lance Black Yona Harvey