A Conversation with Deb Olin Unferth

by Kyle Minor

Deb Olin Unferth is the author of Minor Robberies, a collection of stories, and Vacation, a novel, both published by McSweeney’s. Her new memoir, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, has been excerpted in Harper’s and The Believer. It will be published tomorrow in hardcover by Henry Holt.

MINOR: You left college in 1987 to join the Sandinista Revolution. You’ve written plenty between then and now, but not this story. Why did it take so long to decide that this was a subject for a book, and then to write and publish the book?

UNFERTH: I was very self-conscious about writing a memoir. For many years I wasn’t sure if it was a form with enough intellectual energy, which I now know was silly, since I’m very excited about memoirs and feel like they have tremendous intellectual energy. It was probably just an excuse for me. Also, I think maybe the story wasn’t over yet? Maybe I had to live a little more to figure out what the story was. Also I think I’ve struggled as a writer to figure out how to open up and reveal myself. Writing my novel, Vacation, helped me figure out how to do that, and afterwards I was ready to jump into the memoir. People had been telling me to write up my “revolution story” as a memoir for years. Tao Lin mentioned it to me I don’t know how many times. Also Nate Martin.

MINOR: What was the thing you figured out that allowed you to open up and reveal yourself more than you had in the earlier stories?

UNFERTH: I started out as a philosophy major. And I’ve always had an interest in form and in more intellectual styles of fiction writing. I think I was afraid to write with bald emotion, I thought it was too feminine or something. I think the breakthrough came when I read Chris Ware. I read that big red book of his, the compilation of Acme Novelty Library. It was very formal and right from the first pages dealt with ideas and theories about art and philosophy, and yet it was one of the most emotional books I’d ever read. Then I read an interview with him where he said he tries to put as much emotion in his work as possible. I found that very freeing. I saw that I could do both. My first effort was with Vacation, and then in Revolution I found it easier to open up.

MINOR: The book’s progression is not strictly chronologically linear. We open, for example, with the McDonald’s chapter, where the returning would-be revolutionaries meet a pair of parents at the border, and even though your father would have taken you anywhere you wanted to go, you wanted the familiar fast food. I wondered about that choice — why not start at the beginning? Or, if the idea is to hook the reader with something like a movie’s teaser trailer, why choose something that comes after the book’s major action. But then I started to think about how it’s a beginning that undercuts all the romantic associations the title might promise: Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War. And I thought similarly about the way the book manages information from then on. There is a tentativeness that seems to match the interior life of the narrator and the person she was during the time of the events. She doesn’t have a confident narrative to offer. Instead, she seems to say, like the poet Molly Peacock: “Here, use my rags of love.” And, of course, there seems to be a corresponding confidence beneath that choice: I’m not going to give you the story I want or the story you want. I’m going to give you the story I’ve got.

UNFERTH: Oh that’s nice. I especially like what you say about not having a confident narrative to offer. I had such a hard time with the tone and the voice of the book. Once I got that down, I realized the book could work, but until then, I thought it probably wouldn’t work. The voice had to contain all the doubts and fears I had about everything having to do with this project: the going to “join” the revolution in the first place, the writing about it later, all of it was tinged with self-conscious hesitation or even embarrassment. That had to be part of the voice. And the confidence you detect is my realizing that I found the voice.

MINOR: And yet there seems to be a continuity between this book and the fiction that precedes it. Sometimes the fiction seems to draw on similar source material (“Passport,” to give one example.) And there are certain formal similarities between the short chapters and the very short fiction.

UNFERTH: Yes, in fact those stories and even big chunks of Vacation are evidences that I was always half-writing this book. Or trying to figure out how to. This subject matter was part of my shadow-life, always had been. Maybe what you are doing at eighteen forms you even more than what you were doing at five or two (to argue against Freud for a moment) and that might be because at eighteen you are taking control of your life, probably for the first time, you are becoming. I say this because when I started looking at memoirs I realized a huge number, a ridiculous number, of them were about being eighteen or thereabouts. So if you see the subject matter being dragged through all my work, that might be why. And the formal similarities — yes, there is a Deb Olin Unferth style and voice, that’s for sure. Like it or not, I do have that, if nothing else.

MINOR: Do you have the fear, then, that you might have exhausted the material that is at the center of your consciousness, and what now?

UNFERTH: Ha! You know, there is another part of my life that I’ve written about over and over and over. After I finished grad school and moved back to Chicago, I was kind of floundering there for a few years — I touch on it a little in Revolution, toward the end. They truly were the worst years of my life and nearly all of my published stories came out of the experiences I had during those years. Or at least all the stories that weren’t about Nicaragua. And what now? Indeed. I do feel an exhaustion, but it isn’t with writing. It’s some of kind of sensory overload. Or brain overload. Or my brain is breaking down or something. But I think it’s okay for the moment. I’m willing to wait it out a bit. In the meantime, I’m working on a couple of things that are interesting to me.

MINOR: Here is the most extraordinary description of a person’s attraction to evangelical Christianity that I have ever read: “I liked how confusing Christianity was, how it required so much explaining: why we’d sip blood, why we’d pretend to sip blood, why God would punish us, why He’d punish someone else and pretend it was us, and so on. The enormous mystery of God was much more congruous with my disorienting experience of the world than the arrogant certainty of atheism.”

UNFERTH: Ha. Yes, that’s how it was! It was very, very hard to figure out how to write about Christianity, how to express the reverence I once had, the strangeness and the beauty I saw in it, without flat out making fun (what could be more boring than another writer coming along and poking fun at Christianity for being nonsensical?), and at the same time I couldn’t be simply reverent, because I’m no longer reverent and I’m so irreverent that I doubt my previous reverence. I tried to think back and remember, impressionistically, what it was that I loved about it. I tried to capture the initial attraction and desire and piece of me it filled up.

MINOR: And yet there is much about the young woman in the book that is willing to place limits on reverence and its corollary, control, even to a degree that the adult narrator later comes to regret. For example, the moment in the orphanage where she takes a stand against Hermana Mana over the issue of wearing a bra.

UNFERTH: Yes — she? I? –that young woman was, at heart, a bit of a brat, and I do regret that. Over the years I had written that scene and played it in my mind so many times, wishing I could play it differently and that the ending would be me being a bit of a hero, a caretaker of children, a soldier for the poor, and so on, but it just wasn’t me.

MINOR: The other major figure in the book is the man you call George (I assume that’s not his real name.) There’s a real wrestling with him throughout the book. He is an attractive, charismatic figure, and it’s not difficult to see why the speaker is attracted to him. But he is also an enigmatic figure in some ways — he hasn’t yet figured himself out, even though he acts out of a confidence that would seem to indicate that he thinks he has. Even the adult narrator seems puzzled about what to do with him, and it’s a puzzlement that announces itself from the first chapter. On page 27, we get this: “Maybe he’s sitting somewhere looking typical right now. Maybe for years now he’s been looking that way, and no one around him knows who he really is.” But did you? Do you? Does he? How difficult was it to construct his character in the pages of this book?

UNFERTH: Wow, yeah, good. It wasn’t hard to have the image in my mind of who he was. That was easy because it was already fully formed and has been sitting there for me to measure everything I’ve ever done against over and over since I was eighteen. It was hard to create that outside my head. I felt immensely sympathetic to his vision and defensive on his behalf against anyone who might criticize him for God-only-knows, not being a responsible enough citizen or some such. I’ve always felt like I had this unique person during a formative time in my life, and also that this figure represented a generation, and that what he was isn’t around much anymore. I felt like I wanted to preserve it.

MINOR: That protective impulse seems to manifest itself in other ways. You don’t tell us his name, you obscure the name of the college and the megachurch and even which state the early part of the action is set in. It’s a tightrope, right?, this balancing act between what to give and what to withhold in a memoir in which you’re the only character who signed up for the job. How did you think about these matters and make these choices, and are there ongoing consequences, personally and otherwise?

UNFERTH: The school of writing I tend to gravitate toward — a more minimalist, even slightly Lishian school — frowns on proper nouns, for the most part. I’d been in the habit for years of shying away from place-names and proper names. Actually I was doing that before I encountered or learned about Lish, and when I started coming across his students’ work, I recall it was one of the ways I knew I’d found friends: I noticed the resistance to naming. So when I started the memoir, I was pretty stuck. I’d confronted the problem in Vacation and I got away with a lot. The wife has no name. Several other characters have no names or have place-holders for names or have names that sound slightly fake. But a memoir, boy, that’s tough. And on top of that I did want to protect George’s identity as much as I could. So if you read carefully you can figure out where all this stuff is taking place in the passages that are set in the U.S. Colorado is eventually mentioned, for example, but I tried to keep as much away from it as I could, until we get to Central America — that was a completely different challenge because I wanted to identify everything, and how to do that and keep the tone and voice and humor and style? Rough going.

MINOR: I wanted to ask you about the ending of the book. I’ve never read a memoir with multiple endings before. It seems right — these are the things we’ve been talking about, right?, the narrative persona that ultimately must give itself up to the irresolvability of the narrative in the conventional sense. Of course I was thinking right away of what Malamud did in The Tenants, except that in that novel, there were three literally different endings, whereas in this memoir, there are multiple choices for endings that are raised by the narrator as possible places to “land” (“land,” again, not quite conveying the openness that is intended, if I’m reading the book intelligently.) And I wondered — what is it like to take a survey of the big story at the center of your formative years and walk away requiring a multiple ending? Is this what it means to be an adult, or is this another way in which the narrator places herself in opposition to expectations toward sometimes productive and sometimes unpredictable ends?

UNFERTH: At one point when I kept going back to Nicaragua in the early 2000’s, I met up with another former Internacionalista (one who seemed to have actually accomplished a few things) and I told him I was writing a book about Nicaragua (I don’t even remember which horrific incarnation the book was in at that point). He asked me what the ending was and I said there would be two or three endings. And he said that any book about Nicaragua had to have more than one ending. I thought that was a perfect statement. The history of Nicaragua is like that of a person to me. I can see the hopes and desires, the strivings, the failures and lessons learned, the energy, the personality. It feels that way to me. And I suppose in order to fully express the identity of a person, you can’t just have one ending or have one final word on them. A person or a country is too complicated for that, and narrative does them a disservice to pretend otherwise. Also I wanted to create a sort of yoyoing sensation, where you first think one thing, then another, then another, and your understanding of what happened keeps shifting and changing. Part of the reason for writing the book was to express that shifting feeling.

I Can’t Really Help It: A Conversation with Ben Marcus

by Guest Post: Colin Winnette

The following conversation between Colin Winnette (colinwinnette.com) and Ben Marcus (benmarcus.com) took place during the brutally mediocre winter of 2011.  Both men carved a desk along with extra elbowroom into the walls of their unnecessary ice huts and began a steady email exchange.  This was a final attempt to stay warmish.  Listed below are the contents of that attempt. Special Thanks to Cassandra Troyan   -The Eds.

Ben Marcus is the author of three books of fiction: Notable American WomenThe Father Costume, and The Age of Wire and String. His new novel, The Flame Alphabet, will be published by Knopf in January of 2012. His stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Harper’s, The Paris Review, The Believer, The New York Times, Salon, McSweeney’s, Time, Conjunctions, Nerve, Black Clock, Grand Street, Cabinet, Parkett, The Village Voice, Poetry, and BOMB. He is the editor of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and for several years he was the fiction editor of Fence. He has recently served as the guest fiction editor for Guernica Magazine. He is a 2009 recipient of a grant for Innovative Literature from the Creative Capital Foundation. In 2008 he received the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he has also received a Whiting Writers Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction, three Pushcart Prizes, and a fiction fellowship from the Howard Foundation of Brown University, where he taught for several years before joining the faculty at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

*Portions of this interview first appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of the Tex Gallery Review

CW:Could you talk a little about your upcoming book, The Flame Alphabet?  Its genesis and where things went from there?

BM: I’d been thinking for years about language as a toxic substance.  Language itself making people sick.  Speech and text, all of it poisonous.  If you read a road sign you get nauseous.  That was the original idea, but after Notable American Women I really didn’t want to write another heavily-conceptual, modular book.  With that book, every new chapter felt like I was starting over.  I wanted to write something continuous, a straight shot powered by one voice.  I tried a lot of voices, forms, and approaches, and threw all of it away.  But then I was doing some reading on underground Jewish cults and I found a pretty natural way to connect a language toxicity to a really personal narrative, even if that meant liberal falsifications and misreadings, and a story sort of bloomed fast out of that: a husband and wife who are sickened by the speech of their daughter.  Literally.  So sickened that they have to leave her.  A situation so bad you’d have to abandon your child.  This really frightened me, and I couldn’t even imagine it, which meant I had to chase it down.  That was the opening premise, and once I had that I wrote the book in just over a year.

CW: When can we expect to see the new book?

BM: Knopf is publishing it in January 2012.

CW: How do you see it fitting in with your last two books, The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women?  Those books helped develop a reputation for you as being an “experimental” writer, but more recent work like The Moors, in a recent issue of Tin House Magazine, shows a capacity for more conventional narrative structures and imagery.  Is there a particular dialogue you’re interested in developing between the works, or is each piece written for itself?

BM: I see some overlap because I seem to write about language a lot.  Language as a physical substance with deviant powers.  A powder, a drug, a wind, a medicine.  I can’t really help it.  But this book is a chronological narrative told by the main character.  It’s got scenes and a story and sometimes it might even be suspenseful.  It’s formally a lot simpler than my other books, and it felt entirely new to me when I wrote it.  I’ve never written a single book-length narrative that has a clear plot.  I loved being in such strange waters.  It made me feel vulnerable and confused and completely unskilled, and this drove me crazy enough to bring everything I had to bear on the writing of it.  In the end I want to write things that I don’t know how to write, because this seems to command the most energy and desire and attention from me.  It makes me sort of sick with anxiety.  When I’m uncomfortable and confused and curious I tend to try much harder to figure things out.  Some of the basic narrative building blocks, which other writers seem to have mastered early in their careers, were just totally foreign and difficult to me.  I’d dismissed them years ago for no good reason (other than fear and ineptitude).  So I used techniques I’d never used before, even though people might consider them conventional.

This issue of experimentalism is hollow to me.  I can’t figure out the actual content of the problem.  I’ve never tried to write anything experimental, because I don’t even know what that would be.  I’ve just written what most compels me at the time, what I’d most want to read myself.  Does anyone self-identify as experimental?  Anyone?  When Notable came out, there were people who said it wasn’t experimental enough, and I’m sure I’ll get that again.  But all I want to do is write something good, and not just return to familiar material or approaches.  The Flame Alphabet, to me, seems far stranger and agonizing than The Age of Wire and String—it’s both weirder and sadder—but I realize that my own perspective on this hardly matters.

CW: Do you connect your experience as a writer, the motivational qualities of your anxiety and sickness with regard to your own language (or potential language, what you will write) to that of the husband and wife in The Flame Alphabet?  Is this something you thought about with regard to the content of the book, or is this vocabulary of sickness and anxiety something that occurred to you later on?

BM: No, these are different things.  I’m only talking about feeling vulnerable when I write so I can throw my whole self into it.  Somehow it makes me feel more attentive.

CW: There are, or at least seem to be, strong autobiographical elements in your work, particularly in Notable American Women.  But even The Age of Wire and String has a journalistic feel, if that’s the right word, a sense of someone privately mapping the world.  Is this an impulse that comes out in the writing, or a conscious decision on your part to engage with a certain kind of narrative framework?

BM: I gravitate toward trying to make things seem true.  I like the autobiographical tone, if not often the content.  But those books aren’t remotely autobiographical, at least in the literal sense.  Someone wrote an essay about The Age of Wire and String, declaring that it was essentially about a brother who had died, and the book was engineered to disguise and disclose the resulting pain the narrator felt.  Except my brother is alive.

CW: Tell us a little about him.  What does your brother do?

BM: He’s a public defender in Los Angeles, working on death penalty cases.

CW: You’ve championed the work of authors like John Haskell, work that blurs the distinction between fiction/nonfiction, but your work, to me, seems less interested in any kind of narrative truth-telling.  Rather, you seem to extract what might be the emotional content of an autobiography, the confessional intimacy, and infuse it into a bizarre world of cloth, birds, masks, silence, etc., in a way that is thrilling, terrifying and eerily familiar.  What’s your interest in these distinctions?  How do you negotiate fiction versus nonfiction, or are these even useful thoughts to have?

BM: I think you’re right: the emotional content of autobiography.  That’s it exactly.  But really, in the simplest terms, I want to create feeling.  I want to make readers feel things.  Wouldn’t a lot of writers say the same thing?  And these kinds of images and stories are the best way I know how, so far.  But I am fascinated by nonfiction.  Some of my very favorite writers are essayists.  D’Agata being a huge one.  I love writing essays, and I’d love to write a novel that is structured like an essay, but I haven’t figured out how to do it yet.  I have some fictional essays in the collection of stories that’s coming out after The Flame Alphabet.  From my earliest pieces, I was drawn to nonfictional rhetoric.  The language of the encyclopedia, semantical authority, prose that seemed informationally inviolable.  But I guess I burned out on that after a while.  I think the interest is still in me, but until I can find a way to replenish it and do something different, I’m going to wait.

CW: You’ve said your work is often about language.  The Age of Wire and String, seems particularly interested in the potential for revitalization, or its malleability at least.  When you’re setting out to write a book, are you interested in setting up a problem, like, say, the limits of language, and either working through it, or simply exhibiting it?  Does that kind of thing even occur to you?

BM: I don’t really have to set up a problem, because there are so many problems already set up, already waiting.  I tend to find the problem half way down the first page, and if I like it, which means that it scares the shit out of me, I might keep writing.  I try to figure out the best way to trigger adrenaline, and then I look to escalate everything as quickly and believably as I can.  Tom McCarthy described Remainder as a set of escalations on a theme, and I really like that idea.

CW: What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever written?  A line, a story, a book, a word.  If there’s too much, maybe just make a short list of the first things that occur to you?

BM: Can’t think of anything anymore, because it all gets neutralized pretty fast and it stops scaring me.  I’m always chasing it.  Maybe it’s what I’ll write next.

CW: What was the most recent thing you read that stuck with you?  Excited, terrified, disgusted, depressed, etc.  What do you find tends to most often elicit a response?

BM: New translation, by Mark Ford, of Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa.  About a Mountain, by John D’Agata.  Of course The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte.  Best novel of the last few years.  I’m really glad I can’t answer your last question.

CW: Finally, a question about MFAs.  I imagine it’s difficult to say, but what’s your advice to writers considering, or pursuing, a graduate degree, a second graduate degree?  Could you talk a little bit about your experience at Columbia?

BM: I think writers should do exactly what they need to do to get their work done, whether that means going to school, going abroad, taking a job on a tanker, licking men’s backs, or hiding in an attic.  Lots of writers thrive in the MFA atmosphere: tons of critical feedback, heavy reading, broad exposure to different kinds of writing.  But other writers don’t really get much out of that kind of community.  To me it’s about knowing what you want, understanding what might help you develop.  Some programs revolve around the workshop, with some low-impact electives in the background.  Other programs have a rigorous curriculum on top of the workshop with lots of craft-based courses.  Again, it depends on the writer.  What I love most about Columbia are the students.  Year after year there are intense, curious, hard-working students, and they are all different.  I feel lucky to be around people who care so much about writing, who want so much to improve, and who test out their instincts so fearlessly.  This is the best part of the job: a community of people with the same passion.

CW: Annnnnd, had to ask, how was it working with James Franco?  Any workshop stories worth telling?

BM: James was a great student.  Serious and hard-working, hugely committed to his writing.  He’s well-read, curious, and incredibly productive, and it’s been great to watch his work develop.  The novel he’s working on now is pretty fascinating.  Can’t say any more than that.

CW: Thanks for talking with me, Ben.  Anything more you want to say before we go?  Anything you wish I’d asked?

BM: …


Ben Marcus will give a reading from his forthcoming novel The Flame Alphabet at Tex Gallery in Denton, TX on Saturday, April 2nd, 2011 at 9pm.

(texgallery.org, or check facebook for more info, and visit Colin Winnette here)


When I Turn Off My Brain: An Interview w/ Christian TeBordo

by Blake Butler

In the summer of last year, Featherproof released The Awful Possibilities, the fourth book by Philadelphia’s Christian TeBordo. It is an assemblage of extreme range in sound and direction, as TeBordo’s work manages to funnel a kind of well-orchestrated, rising mania across a range of perspectives and situations, including teenage suburban thug rappers planning a school shooting, a logic-fucked woman involved in shady black market business in a hotel, a dude trying to buy a new wallet, deathbed advice minds, and several other hybrid enactments than in other hands would lack the flair of TeBordo’s ability to funnel livelanguage and feeling into seemingly any kind of body. As says George Saunders: “Christian TeBordo shows that it is possible to be, simultaneously, a wise old soul and a crazed young terror.”

Last month, Christian and I took some time emailing about the book, Christian’s experience of influence by Brian Evenson and others, the process of assembling a text, getting along in sound and structure, approach, revision, and nudie pics.

* * *

BB: The Awful Possibilities is your first collection of short fiction after having published three novels. Do you see yourself more as a novelist, and is there a difference in your approach? Were these stories written over a long period of time?

CT: Let me answer these backwards, because that way it goes from easy to really hard. The stories in The Awful Possibilities were written over a little more than 10 years. One of the stories in there is the first I ever made that I considered a story. The most recent (the postcards), I sent to featherproof after they’d accepted the manuscript. Actually just before the book got laid out. I wrote and published my three novels during the same time. I don’t approach the forms differently when I sit down to write. For me it’s just the sentences and the persona that generates the sentences telling the larger work where to go. On the other hand, I try to do something different each time. People who read my last novel might recognize a sensibility or tendencies in The Awful Possibilities, but I hope nobody would be able to predict what one would be like having read only the other. The question of how I see myself is a little tougher. As a writer, I’m happy doing both. Stories are fun because sometimes you can just bulldoze through a draft in a sitting or two. Or you can spend weeks being really meticulous and crafty with a few paragraphs without getting disgusted by what you’re up to. Novels are fun because you have some sense of what you’re going back to each night and there’s more room to surprise yourself. The truth is, though, I feel more comfortable with short stories because I do want to be read, but I want my stuff to be an all-out assault, too, for now at least. I think people are more willing to put up with that for 10 pages than 200.


BB: I think you definitely succeed here in shifting prediction: each story in the book seemed to reinvent itself in both approach and tone, and by that I don’t mean form and voice, but more a way of coming into a way of speaking. There is the sense of discovery at both ends, as if the creator on the other end isn’t dictating some endless idea, but is worming out of a consideration or into a consideration, elucidating in itself in its moment, if that makes sense. It’s interesting that the stories came out over ten years, as there is also that same kind of continuity in the overall structure of the stories as a whole, I felt: that in their constant reapproaching they are able to more quickly and with more surprising depth a kind of overall world, the body of the book. Do your stories most often come out from sounds, ideas, songs, images? How much of this is a product of obsession and/or revision?

CT: First, thanks for saying that the shifts in the stories succeed. I’m taking it as an observation rather than a compliment (though I’m happy to take it as a compliment, too), because the more people respond to this book, the more I’m realizing that the perceived success of the book as a whole, and any individual story, seems to rest on whether people buy into them (the shifts).

Which brings me to your question: is it too obvious if I say the stories come out of sentences? That might seem unimaginative, but look — sentences can include sounds, ideas, songs, and images. For me the sound aspect is the most important. But once you’ve written that first good-sounding sentence, you’ve eliminated a lot of the possibilities for the second. Once you write the second, and you think it sounds good, too, you’ve kind of bound yourself up. By the third, your only job is to make sure it keeps sounding good and you don’t get bored. You know who’s saying the sentences and you know what that person would or wouldn’t, could or couldn’t say. It’s not always conventionally beautiful or grammatically elegant, but you’re trying to make a certain kind of beauty arise from the context, which is the art of it.

So, yeah, sentences encompass all of the aspects you mentioned. Except ideas, I think. I wouldn’t be able to say to myself: I want to write a story that explains my take on ethical interiority. Or: it’s time for me to write that story about race. At the same time, I think and hope my honest take on those issues will come out as the sentences do.

Obsession and revision — it depends on the story. I definitely get obsessed with my own work, but I’m not one of these folks who get doctrinaire about revision. Revision can be the most important part of the process for a particular piece of writing. But it isn’t the most important part of writing. Professors invented that claim so they’d have an excuse to charge bad writers tuition. (Love you professors; sorry bad writers.) Ever since computers, first drafts are only first drafts when they’re written by hand. (I mostly write by hand.)

This all sounds really abstract, so maybe I should use examples?

Probably the most obvious from my book is “Moldering.” The first line is: “I was growing moldy of wallet from hoeing down and the sweat therefrom.” To me that sounds like a pretentious take on a mildly-gross subject. It came out of me joking around with myself when my own wallet got a little stank from dancing one summer. I got the sentence in my head just walking around thinking about how I needed a new wallet and why. I was making fun of myself, but I also started thinking of it as a kind of pastiche of Brian Evenson (one of my favorite writers and probably the closest I ever came to having a mentor), who often applies high/grandiose diction to low situations. As soon as I started writing, I knew what the narrator was going to end up doing. To me it’s the only real logical conclusion.

As a negative example, I’m going to risk getting my writer card revoked. I love David Foster Wallace, and I think his stories are just as important and innovative as Infinite Jest. I go back to the first two collections all the time, and they’re probably the best examples I could come up with of what I want from a book of stories, which is a willingness to try anything. But sometimes I question his follow-through. “Girl With Curious Hair” is an amazing aesthetic accomplishment, but that passage toward the end, where we find out that the narrator got his dick burned by his too-intense Marine dad, is a copout. It tries to suggest that that’s why he is the way he is, when if he were real, it would be ridiculous to give a single reason why he is the way he is. I think people tend to accept these kinds of explanations as a way of dodging the awful possibilities (hence the title of my book) of being human.

It’s not unlike how, when a celebrity gets caught texting naked pictures, he or she goes to rehab, and people accept that, even though alcoholism doesn’t actually explain it. Maybe they think it’s more palatable than a world where everybody feels comfortable sending complete strangers naked pictures.

There’s beauty in the awful. What I mean by that is, please send n00dz. Blake has my address.

BB: RE: ideas & revision, in context of the Wallace detail, do you find yourself ever catching yourself in the midst of an idea that is defuncting? Like, your narratives definitely have this kind of sporadic but of a certain mind feel to them. I wonder how an author might catch his or her self in the moment of that wrong cue, and how to stop and find the right way in the moment of inspiration? I’m thinking particularly here about your story “The Champion of Forgetting,” the voice of which is so astounding, and it seems like almost anything could have happened as long as the voice stayed true to itself. This makes me wonder how you know which mode is the right mode: is it about feel, during the writing? Evenson is indeed a master of this, having that energy that functions into such surprising ends that you can tell have not been over-orchestrated. Maybe there is something specific you could outlay in learning from him?

CT: I’d like to think I’ve gotten to the point where I can trust myself to “stop and find the right way” sooner or later, but I have to admit I’m not particularly good at stopping my self “in the moment of that wrong cue.” I think all writers have that mystical feeling when a good story seems to almost physically descend on our heads and we feel like if we could just get it all out at once, not, like, in one sitting, consecutively, but every word at the same time, like the print equivalent of a photograph, it would be absolutely perfect. Though come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever asked any other writers if they feel that way. In any case, I get that feeling all the time (I don’t bother starting a story without it), and of course, it never works out perfectly.

“The Champion of Forgetting” is a case where I did work straight through a story, but I did it over the course of a couple years. What happened was I was sitting in a McDonald’s in Syracuse, NY, and there was a woman in there talking in this strange monotone that didn’t seem to have any punctuation but periods in it. Even though it was a monotone, she sounded more viscerally sad than apathetic, and I jotted down some of the things she said. When I got home, I kept it going, and it was a fairly easy voice for me to maintain because it had enough idiosyncrasy that I could focus on the rhythms rather than how miserable she sounded. After about a page, I stopped, for two reasons. One was that it felt like it was going too easily (at the time I was using a lot of constraints — I’ll get to that in a second) and the other was that the pieces were adding up to organ thievery, which just seemed too nu metal to me. I put it in a folder and forgot about it.

A couple years later I was living in Philadelphia. I’d been blocked for over a year, plus the reviews for my first novel were starting to show up in places I hadn’t expected to get attention (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly) because I was working with a really tiny micropress. Pretty much everybody hated it. It was kind of an absurdist noir, but written with some very “brainy” methods. I was crushed because I was young and I thought (and still think) it was a good book. So I was going through my folders and found the page I’d written. I wrote “Here is a list of failures” at the top, and otherwise started exactly where I’d left off. There was a petty revenge aspect to it, like, all right, let’s show them what happens when I turn off my brain and write with my gut. As though anyone cared (although assuming no one cares is also liberating).

You’re right that “anything could have happened as long as the voice stayed true to itself,” and this might be where the obsession that you asked about earlier comes in. Once I got it in my head that the lady in McDonald’s was talking about organ thievery, it was either write about organ thievery or don’t write the story. (I should mention that the topic doesn’t seem shocking or fantastic to me. I grew up the son of two ministers in an economically depressed rustbelt city, so my version of naturalism might be skewed. Or everyone else’s is.) I finished it fast and no one has called me nu metal yet.

I could contrast that with a story like “SS Attacks!” which was an assignment from the Lifted Brow. That one I spent months of false starts trying to do it in a third person minimalist voice. Finally, a week before it was due, the first line came to me. The voice sounded like a blog entry from a relatively intelligent backpacker (as in early 00s rap, not Lonely Planet), so I just plowed through in a sitting using way too many syllables, tons of internal rhyme, and words like “imagine” and “remember” for the hooks. Easy once I hit it, but the hardest story I ever wrote if you count how far I got into the first few drafts. And that’s the last proper story (as opposed to the postcards) I put in the collection. So yeah, I know what’s wrong, but it can take a long time to find what’s right.

As for Evenson, I don’t know if I could express how much I learned from him. Almost any one of his stories is an example of the value of following the narrative where it needs to go (rather than where it’s most comfortable, or to some pretty epiphany about the essential goodness of even the darkest people). The critical and public response to his work suggests to me that, if you allow yourself to grow as a writer while being honest with yourself about the work, people will eventually be willing to read you on your own terms. And as a person, he was always willing to approach my work from my perspective and show me how to make it better (as opposed to dismissing me, or worse, blowing sunshine up my ass). I also like how he writes fucked up shit and is still a really thoughtful, considerate dude. During the semester he was at Syracuse, people would go to him for all kinds of life advice that had nothing to do with writing.

Writing about Evenson here reminds me of something I wanted to ask you based on your first question. I think I see an Evenson influence in your work, but I think we take very different lessons from him. Maybe we’re both as concerned as he seems to be with tone, but where I use it to push a story forward as fast (velocity, not composition time) as I can, you seem much more comfortable creating atmosphere with fragments, imagery, and a lot of Germanic roots. Because of this, generic distinctions (novel, novella, short story, even prose poem) don’t seem to apply as much to your stuff. Do you make these distinctions when you write? I ask, because, like I mentioned before, I seem to get different reactions based on how I present things, and also because I personally find Evenson’s short stories to be much more successful than his novels (Dark Property excepted).

BB: That’s an interesting distinction. I like the idea of atmopshere in writing, in that sometimes a mood or a way of speaking I think can propel a text forward with velocity even if nothing in particular seems to be happening; this is definitely something Evenson’s prowess in influenced me with, such as in his story ‘Two Brothers’: that story is so mood and image; things happen, but they kind of become shattered and the shards then can move forward in affect or feeling, inside the reader, even if the subject isn’t necessarily sure of itself inside itself. The biggest moments with Evenson, for me, are ones where he seems to invoke this kind of second layer, behind even what the narrator or voice says it is doing, or what it thinks it is doing, and more this like thing behind the thing. I think Robbe-Grillet was a big influence on Evenson in this way, and some of his books are all that kind of ‘talking about the thing without talking about the thing,’ which for me has always caused the greatest amount of fear. Fear is most powerful when you don’t know exactly what you’re fearing, because then you are defenseless. Evenson definitely taught me by scaring the crap out of me with things he didn’t even say, but circled around, and that to me is a real invocation of power.

Thinking about affect I think is a really important thing in writing, particularly because writing too much out of voice or motion without the idea of what it being intuited or made in surrounding can leave a text dry or too “story for story’s sake.” Your book really impressed me in that the way it caused affect changed so rapidly, from story to story; I was never able to get comfortable with how you brought on new information, in a good way, and yet the book as a whole develop this tone of something lurking, in ways the characters in certain stories, particularly as the book continues to shift, don’t even realize might be going on; this makes it even more affective, in a different kind of way, which was really refreshing. I think it could also be missed by readers reading for story’s sake and not to the accumulative effect the book has, in different modes of social function all underneath this kind darkness; from school shootings, to shifting identities, to private abduction, and on until you have the kind of heartrending series of “Rules and Regulations” where the pain is so direct it’s made into a dictation.

I definitely see what you mean about your writing being concerned with velocity; the voice seems manic almost, often, but also in a funny, ‘get me there’ kind of way, which interests me a lot: did this come out of some organic tendency in your practice, a method of how you approach being at the desk? What other writers or books in particular were instructive to you learning how to write, or made you want to write at all in the first place?

CT: It’s interesting that you’re asking about influences at the same time as you mention affect and effect, especially with regard to this risk that the reader might miss what I’m aiming for by reading strictly for story’s sake at the speed the stories are written. I guess I knew even before I put the book out that it wasn’t just a risk but a likelihood. Actually I knew it when I was still an undergrad and I workshopped what would become the story “Took and Lost.” I handed it in under the title “A Relation of How the Man Who Lost Something Reacted to Losing Something,” and in the end, there was a mention that the man who took something was chewing gum as he walked away. Earlier on the narrator points out that the man who lost something had a pack of gum in his pocket. So some of the kids in the workshop said they liked the story but they didn’t think it should all be about a piece of gum. I had put the gum in there under the influence of Nabokov. I don’t think he was all that into gum, but I loved how he would repeat images, slightly altered, at different places in a book for what seemed like fun.

But the story wasn’t about gum. I’d meant it to be about how we generate meaning by interacting with each other. So when I went back to edit it (again, a few years later), I took out the line about the gum, struck a lot of adverbs and other British-y sounding language that I’d put in there because I was young, changed the title, and that was about it. I can’t be sure that people are going to read it the way I want them to now, but there’s a certain point where I draw the line. It’s intuitive. I’ll take out the red herring if it seems like a real obstruction, but I’m not going to come out and say: “That was when the man who lost something realized that, whatever the man who took something had taken, he’d also taken his sense of life’s absurdity.” Because people don’t really have realizations like that. Or they do, but they have no effect on the way they’re living five minutes later.

I guess what I mean is, while I’d like to think that Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Barthelme, Padgett Powell, Barry Hannah, and to some extent Stein, Beckett, and Babel are influences (and they are as far as I can point to them and say “this is what inspired this” or “I was reading this when I thought of this”), the truth is, a weird form of ghetto Calvinism got to me before I ever heard of any of them. The Awful Possibilities probably owes as much to my parents’ sermons and Kierkegaard’s Either/Or as it does to any work of fiction.

Anyway, it’s okay with me however anybody wants to read it now that it’s out. But I’ll buy you a beer if you want to talk Kierkegaard.

BB: Those kinds of cross overs of the expectation of a direct punch coming out of the swing instead of seeing the swing kill me. I don’t know exactly where people learned to read that way, perhaps some amalgam of boring reading lists and responses in high school, mixed with narrative television and pop crap, but I expect that that kill of the mystery and the formality of how a story is told is a big part of the reason why reading is less prevalent in general than it used to be, or why it seems marginalized, or people don’t seem to give it the time.

I find your style in this context really compelling, particularly having seen you read, in that it does have this weird air of diction, almost like you can tell that you had British modes in there and went in and erased them (heh), but also conversational, and maybe even hyperactive, which ends up feeling like you are synthesizing so much into one focus while also making it seem at the same time slick and heavy; I’m not sure if that’s well put, but for instance, in the opening story here “SS Attacks!,” you reference Myspace, thug rap, teenage mysticism, school shooting, and even call the reader “little bitch,” and yet in delivery it takes on an extremely well paced and constantly moving monologue, getting something bigger in that very amalgam of culture that in other hands would often come away blank. I feel like you are a writer who could succesfully talk about almost anything and make it effective, stirring.

Does the way you read aloud come into play when you type this way? Do you feel like you are influenced by your surroundings: film, music, people talking? I’m wondering about how sound fits into an idea; so many people start with the idea and try to make the sound fit (or ignore sound), while others go so hard on sound they miss ideas; you seem, like Evenson, a fuse of the two, but also in some ways totally different than Evenson. Maybe Saunders, who I know you studied with, played a big role? And in general: how did you go about structuring the order of the stories?

CT: Both Saunders and Evenson had a big effect on the way I read aloud, but in indirect ways. I’ve always liked performing — I was in hardcore bands throughout high school and did a lot of freestyle rap shows in college — but I never liked reading in public. Maybe because performance was so tied to a kind of violence (the former) and improvisation (the latter), I always thought of being on stage as a chance for catharsis as opposed to the conscious crafting (even when it might seem out of control) that I’m aiming for with fiction.

It was in grad school, where I studied with both Evenson and Saunders, that I had to start thinking about how to get some of that energy into the readings, because we were strongly encouraged to read aloud — it was even a part of our graduation ceremony.

Anyway, Evenson and Saunders are both excellent readers, but I noticed that Evenson’s characters sounded totally different in his mouth than I’d heard them on the page, while Saunders’s sounded exactly like I read them. The risk in going the Evenson route is creating too much dissonance between the performance and the words on the page. The risk with Saunders is that you could write with you’re speaking voice too much in mind. If you’re really opening up, there are things that you can say on paper that you can’t say convincingly with your own tongue.

My solution was basically to accept that there are things that I write that I can read well aloud and things I can’t. I can rock “SS Attacks!” or the postcards, but I’ll probably never have the guts to attempt “The Champion of Forgetting” at a reading, even though it’s among my favorites. It’s not about the quality of the stories; it’s just what my voice is capable of.

But yeah, it’s pretty much limited to sound. I spend a lot of time thinking about the way people talk, and also music, in strict and broad senses, but I’m not a very visual person. I watch movies and sometimes get inspired by them, but what I steal is pacing and rhythm. Even imagery becomes voice. I basically see rhetorically.

I wish I could take credit, but Jonathan from featherproof put the stories in their final order. When I saw it, I realized he was dead on, but it made me realize there was something missing. I asked if we could include the postcards, and Zach made up the idea of getting all design-y with them. Those guys are brilliant.

BB: What are you working on now? What’s next?

CT: I finished a novel a while back and I’ve been sending it around. That will probably be the last one for a minute because I’ve got a four month old son. We spend a lot of time making faces at each other and chanting “who? who? who?” Then we stare longingly at his mom/my wife. I’m trying to turn him on to theoretical physics and basketball because I have a feeling basketball-playing scientists really get a lot out of life. Otherwise I’m doing short stories — mostly Ayn Rand fan fiction — and my treatise on love.

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The Awful Possibilities is available now from Featherproof Books.

The Rolls Should Be Warm: An Interview w/ Michael Earl Craig

by Guest Post: Zachary Schomburg

Michael Earl Craig’s third book, Thin Kimono, was recently published by Wave Books. He is one of my favorite poets. I asked him some questions when he was traveling in Michigan, but normally he is in Montana. -ZS

ZS: What brings you to Michigan? And what do you think about Michigan’s fudge?

MEC: The Michigan trip is for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.  We’re in Leland, Michigan. In addition to my parents, my brother and his wife and their daughter are here, as well as my sister, her husband, and their three kids. Susan and I brought our Chia Pet, Nancy.  When we were kids we’d vacation for a week (sometimes two) in this part of Michigan, so we have a lot of family history here.

And the fudge is big time in Michigan.  My favorite is Murdick’s Fudge—the store in Traverse City, specifically.  There are a few other Murdick’s stores but the Traverse City one is the best.  I normally don’t eat fudge.  Fudge is usually gritty and makes me want to knock my front teeth out on a banister.  But this fudge is different.  It’s creamy.  It melts in your mouth (or wherever you put it).  My favorite flavor is Black Cherry.  Also Vanilla Chocolate Chip.  And the Maple is very good.  And the Chocolate/Peanut Butter.   I know I sound like some sort of candy hillbilly here but it’s all true.  When you eat this fudge it changes you.

ZS: What else do you eat that changes you?

MEC:  Fudge is the only thing.


ZS: Through Thin Kimono‘s opening poem, “Do Not Disturb,” you immediately establish a relationship for the book between Author and Reader. The Author is dead, but working on “something very important” and the Reader is inclined to participate in his work, but is assured that this would be “wholly unnecessary.” How so? What is this poem teaching us about how to read this book? Do you see your readers as participants in your creations?

MEC: In this poem it’s not really the reader who is inclined to participate, but rather the speaker/narrator who’s worried about what the reader might be inclined to do. There is a dead man posing as an author. But he’s just a character in the poem. Then there is the author of the poem, who’s hiding behind his speaker. But in the end I guess it’s the same thing, if you count the speaker as a kind of author-voice, I mean, shit, listen to me, it’s all a big puppet show, really. Is this poem somehow instructing readers on how best to proceed?  No, not really.  Not intentionally, anyway.  If I were the reader I would ignore it.

ZS: To me, these new poems feel less like a puppet show, like the author is the speaker here. You seem more laid out like a mummy on the table. In “Today, For Example” for example, you seem to be questioning your actual (the author’s) career choices. Inevitably, when your poems come up in my conversations, someone will bring up your career as a farrier, as if this were a way to talk about your poems, a way to put them in some magical context that is contrary to the rest of our poems’ contexts. What question is this particular poem answering? How important is that question to your poems, to your voice, to this book?

MEC: I think I sense skepticism in your words when you write, “as if this were a way to talk about your poems, a way to put them in some magical context…”  Because there isn’t a magical context (there have been no magical contexts since 1811). I’m looking at the poem, “Today, For Example,” again and yes, I agree with you, it has an overtly autobiographical feel to it. And yes I do have days where I wonder if I’m wasting my life, like maybe I should be more serious about my writing, etc. But I had those days of doubt when I was in school, too. I would catch myself wondering if I was wasting my life on college campuses. It’s silly, because I don’t really see any of it as wasting life. It’s just that sometimes I’m struck with a kind of fleeting panic.

What question is this poem answering?  I honestly don’t know. I think what you’re asking is this: Is there a stance against academia that recurs in the work and informs the voice, the poems, the book, etc. Although I mention academia in the poem, I don’t generally see myself at odds with academia, teaching, editing journals, and so on.  It’s just not a stance I’m interested in. (Is it?) Not a recurring stance, anyway (one that might inform my voice or this collection of poems). But it’s possible I’m the wrong person to ask, and I don’t say that facetiously. Trying to answer this question has been a little like stepping out into quicksand.

ZS: I know that you listen to music while you write poems. What do you listen to? Why thatmusic? What does listening to music do to your poems?

MEC: I don’t always listen to music while writing, but I remember noticing, a long time ago, the habit of listening to music after a poem had been (for the most part) written, when I was pushing it through a series of revisions. It seemed strange to me at the time–like some sort of home stretch biscuit I would allow myself, similar to the cigarette that the cyclist would smoke back in the day on the final leg of the Tour de France.

Probably what’s happening is I am too engrossed and/or confused for music in the beginning stages of a poem. Then when I feel I have a handle, like maybe I can see the direction emerging (the tone or the mood), I can get up and do something else. There’s that feeling of relief, right? I mean the sense of having nothing, of being lost, has passed. And when I eventually return and drop back into the poem, music is not distracting but more like a breeze at my back.

One album I have listened to hundreds of times and just don’t seem to ever get tired of is the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me, which is interesting because I’ve never seen the film. I also love the soundtrack to Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her. Erik Satie washes the room nicely. And Ethiopiques Vol. 4. Those are just some cds that come to mind. Oh, and the Sigur Ros album that has no title–or the title is ().

The Fire Walk With Me soundtrack is something I don’t listen to in any other context.  I don’t put that on while driving, or chopping parsley.  The feel of that album just suits me perfectly. Poems should be dipped in it.

ZS: Do you use films in a similar way? What is your relationship with Werner Herzog and his films? I sense some sort of kinship in your voices and visions.

MEC: I love soundtracks from films. Quite often the music from a film goes on to be much more important to me than the film. Well, probably that’s just because I’m checking back in with the music more frequently than I am with the film. For example, Broken Flowers.  I loved the film, bought the soundtrack, and consequently discovered Dengue Fever and Mulatu Astatke. Some of David Lynch’s soundtracks I have are great. And the soundtrack to Il Divo is amazing. Also the soundtrack to Fatih Akin’s Head On—amazing.  (Help me with some new adjectives.) The music puts the mood of the film in the room, and after a while the music takes on a second life as a kind of den wash.  Do you know what I mean by den wash?

With Herzog, for whatever reason, I find myself watching, re-winding, watching, re-winding, certain scenes. This aggravates my wife. Even the dog dislikes it. Then I re-watch the whole film listening to his director’s commentaries. Usually this bores the shit out of me (director’s commentaries), but not with Herzog. I usually take notes while listening to his comments—he has great things to say about art and the creative process. Even when people point to things he’s said that are ridiculous or self-aggrandizing I love it. I don’t know why. I just know he is better than Ron Howard.

Sometimes I’ll take photos of the television with an interesting image frozen there–I’ll send you some from Where The Green Ants Dream I’m not saying Herzog can do no wrong, I’m just saying he typically puts blood in my veins. His use of sound and music is stunning, haunting, beautiful, mysterious and sometimes corny.  I don’t mind corny when it’s Werner Herzog corny. Like the 70s rock music used in Fata Morgana… I think it’s a waterfall scene.

On top of all this Herzog is a brilliant writer.  Of Walking In Ice and Conquest of the Useless are great books.  These prose passages are gorgeous and strange and sometimes hilarious.  It’s the poet in Herzog that I love.  He just happens to be a filmmaker.

ZS: What is a den wash?

MEC: It’s like that body spray that jocks spray all over themselves in the locker room, only it’s sprayed in your den.  A kind of audio den-spray for poets.

ZS: You’re the guest tweeter for the Harriet Blog during the month of September. What attracted you about that gig? How has it been so far? What have you learned?

MEC: Someone at the Poetry Foundation contacted me and asked if I’d be interested.  My first thought was NO.  I was actually a little afraid, to be honest.  I had never tweeted, the whole thing seemed completely silly to me, and when I tried looking at various “twitter feeds” (I pictured feed bags) they left me feeling a little hollow. But I didn’t like these feelings I was having.  I didn’t like being THE HAND (as in, speak to the hand…).  My reaction was making me feel old and tired. So I eventually decided to dive in. Plus there’s a nice chunk of cash involved, which never hurts.

What did I learn?  Well, I learned how to tweet, and it was fun.  This type of writing, of condensing, is something poets have always done, so it really wasn’t so strange after all.  Counting characters is like counting syllables or peanuts.  I never really cracked into the whole interaction thing, though.  I pretty much sent out little messages in bottles.  Only once did I post a link to a website—an online arts journal—but I have to say it was exciting to do this, to click on the link and drag it into the twittorifice.  Near the end there I was beginning to see more of the possibilities.

ZS: How much does writing your poems feel like sending bottled messages into the Twittorifice? In the poem, “The Neighbor,” the neighbor asks “But seriously, who is it that you’re writing these for?” The speaker says,”I couldn’t imagine any other person.” Can you speak about what you may or may not have in common with this speaker? And about how you like to eat your dinner rolls?

MEC: Well I’m definitely not the speaker from “The Neighbor”—a poet who can’t imagine “any other person.”   And no neighbor ever asked me that question—“but seriously, who are you writing these for?”  (The dinner roll thing though, that happens a lot around here.)  But I do think, as writers, we lose track of the reader during the act of writing.  It seems like it’s only later, during revisions maybe, that I begin to think of what I’m doing as “communication.”  It happens, yes, but later.

I heard an editor interviewed recently on the radio and he was talking about humor in writing (among other things) and he said something along the lines of, “there can be no humor without an audience.”  I was eating dinner when I heard this, and one of the dinner rolls started rocking back and forth a bit on its plate.  My first reaction to this statement was one of disagreement.  I think I just looked at the ceiling and said NO.  The editor went on to say he thought it would be absurd to imagine a writer sitting at his desk just cracking himself up, etc.  His point was that in order to have something taken as humor there had to be an audience, a recipient, at least one in mind—communication had to be happening.  Anyway, that was kind of how I took it. And I guess I do see his point.  Even though during the act of writing the audience may be way off in the background, and maybe not taken into consideration at all (at least consciously), they are always there. We’re writing. We’re using language. We are attempting to communicate. This is true whether we’re writing poems, sending messages out in bottles, or tweeting.

Some poems are written and I can immediately sense the role that the reader will/might take, whereas with other poems it’s more like working on math problems or something, and the connection to a reader isn’t felt. I guess it’s there—right?—but I’m just not aware of it yet.

For some reason tweeting felt more like sending messages out in little bottles than writing poems does.  I think this is because it’s so quick, so trashy (in a good way), and so, well, digital.  You click TWEET and the computer sort of burps and it’s over.  Then you turn computer off, stand up, go to work. But yes, the similarities probably do outweigh the differences—it’s language, it’s weeding out the non-essential, it’s putting your head into the duffle bag.  Deep into the duffle bag.

When it comes to dinner rolls I’m a traditionalist.  I like to take mine with a whipped, slightly salted butter.  The rolls should be warm.  And rolls in waiting should do so beneath a white cotton cloth.

ZS: Right, a white cotton cloth.

MEC: Right.

ZS: Yeah, right.

MEC: Yeah.

ZS: It’s true that any time we use language we are communicating. And in poems, that deliberate sense of communication is heightened, even manipulated. But sometimes I feel as though I’m just talking to myself, trying to reveal something to myself I wasn’t quite conscious of before. You said sometimes your poems can feel like math problems to you. Can you say more about that? I’m thinking of a comedian sweating over the structures and timing of jokes. Do you think your poems are funny? How important is humor in these equations?

MEC: Instead of “math problem,” maybe “wrestling match” is better. Sometimes a poem comes quickly, effortlessly, and other times it’s like a wrestling match—multiple drafts, various changes, removing something, adding something else, pushing language around, hating it, changing it, okay this is working now, and so on.  Sometimes the poems that are like wrestling matches end up in the trash, but not always.

Some of the poems are humorous I suppose, although I don’t think of them that way usually. The humor is sort of a surface tone maybe, and perhaps a direction I can’t help going in.  I think sometimes some readers stop there—they don’t see much beyond the surface of a poem that appears to be “wild” or “weird” or “jokey” or whatever.

I think humor in poetry can be alienating for some people.  I’ve met people who just don’t know how to talk about poets like Russell Edson or James Tate without calling them clowns or comedians.  It’s just too difficult and strange a terrain for them to navigate. Meanwhile they might just love a kind of poetry that sounds completely dead to me, that strives for profundities that are as predictable as wheat toast, and that makes me think of Hallmark cards or the cheesiness of wedding vows.

ZS: Sometimes I think humor in a poem allows readers to feel a purer weight of what’s not so funny. Edson and Tate, especially, are great at that. Do you know what I mean?

MEC: Yes.  The deeply funny things are always riding side-car.

ZS: What are you working on now? What seems so important?

MEC: I’m just working on more poems.  I wish I had something more exciting to report—some new project, or a novel or something.  I always have this anti-climactic feeling when a book is finally done and out.  A hollow feeling.  So I’m sort of fighting that. But not convincingly. Just a half-ass kind of fight. I always want to wake up and just write new poems—a new kind of poem—but the corner I envision turning is never a sharp and obvious one.  The corner that gets turned is… well, it’s probably not even a corner.

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[Thin Kimono is available now from Wave Books.]

[Zachary Schomburg is the author of Viking (McSweeney’s, forthcoming 2012), Scary, No Scary(Black Ocean 2009), and The Man Suit (Black Ocean 2007). He co-edits Octopus Books andOctopus Magazine. He lives in Portland, Or.]