Miranda July on her experiences meeting strangers from the PennySaver and the relationship between her book It Chooses You and her film The Future.
Miranda July’s second book It Chooses You (McSweeney’s, 2011) is a series of interviews with twelve people she found through the PennySaver in Los Angeles. While having a rough time figuring out what to do with The Future—her second feature-length film—she flipped through the PennySaver, and as though there were gods speaking through pennies, she realized she ought to find out more about who all these people were and why they were selling their precious things, spread far and wide across the city. If there was a secret magical underworld of buyers and sellers, the PennySaver would be a portal to finding divine answers from strangers, most of who have so much to say.
Told in a series of interviews, alongside photographs by Brigitte Sire, It Chooses You is a fearless poetic document that uncomfortably examines the desire for human connection, failure, loss, loneliness, and despair, among other things. It’s also an open-ended, never-ending narrative on the hopeful premise that if you listen to the universe and follow your gut wholeheartedly, there’s nothing to lose. Miranda July is an interdisciplinary artist, filmmaker, writer, and performer currently living in Los Angeles. She is the author of No One Belongs Here More Than You (Scribner’s, 2007). Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) was her first feature-length film and The Future (2011) was her second feature-length film. This interview took place on Skype one Sunday evening in California.
Feliz Lucia Molina In the book, why do computers appear as motifs for almost every PennySaver stranger you interviewed?
Miranda July Even though I wasn’t initially focused on computers, the absence of them and of the kind of mentality that computers enable became palpable. I think I’m always interested in absences, especially in when they’re fleeting. Even in five years there’ll be way fewer people who won’t have computers—computerless people will die and computers will get cheaper. So that was interesting to me too, that it was a way to pinpoint an exact moment in time.
Ben Mirov on Ben Mirov.
I feel confronted by space in Ben Mirov’s work. It is a physical presence. A temperate ether. I am reminded of 1987 when I was on Epcot Center’s ride, Spaceship Earth. I was unaware that I was hearing Ray Bradbury’s penned narrative, preparing me for the future world, perhaps. But what was significant to me was around the ten-minute mark, where you were suddenly thrust into a large blackened cavern, some representative flickers of stars in the distance, and below, the illuminated visage of planet earth. I felt vulnerable. I was frightened. But the following three times I looked forward to that moment in space; I felt its weight, I felt the cool jets of air conditioning, I felt holy.
In a matter of forty-eight hours of first meeting Ben, we had traveled 982 miles, played ping pong to ELO cassettes, altered our states of mind numerous times, vomited blood, potentially went to the hospital, saw the demise of our host’s house cat, and did a reading. In Ben’s poetry there is truth, there is proverbial surrealism, there are alternate versions of his one self. Ben is aware of these holograms, these are his chakras. I looked forward to discussing his new book, Hider Roser, out now on Octopus Books, through the following email exchange.
Eric Amling I spent a summer Sunday reading Hider Roser. There was Campari and no breeze. But the tranquil dexterity of the lines made the heat bearable. Being familiar with your new collection of poems in its various stages, I’m still left with the feeling of being in a temple inside of a space station. I feel this is accurate, not as your projected goal, but that the poems leave you in this superior loneliness. Is that okay with you?
Ben Mirov There are several people in the world who have an instinctive understanding of my poems. You are one of these people. I think it has something to do with the way you value images in your work. We have an affinity for images as things in themselves. Not image as a means to an end, but as an end in and of itself. In both our work, images are like points of valence offering many different meanings, not vectors directing towards singular meaning. They are meaning potentialities. I think I realized this by reading your poems, and then later, after I became a devotee of your collages.
Dorothea Lasky on her new book, Thunderbird, transformation, color, and the demons that haunt her poetry.
What would it be like to not be alive anymore? To leave this world of colors and tactile sensations and friends and strangers and grass and insects and smoke and oceans and wild dreams? It is a question that you’ll inevitably confront when you pick up Dorothea Lasky’s new collection, Thunderbird. The flavor of sensate mortality is thick on these pages—flip through them and read windswept sadness and world-hurt. Read good and evil, confusion and acuity. Read also a howling authority, a life grabbed by its gnarled horns and shown itself in the bathroom mirror. Fan the pages with your thumb and hear a thunderbird as it roars.
Jonathan Aprea One thing that’s very evident in Thunderbird is the quantity of plane crashes. There are plane crashes in “Misunderstood,” “Plane Crash of the Thunderbird,” and “Death of the Polish Empire,” and I was wondering about that recurrence in this book. It’s evident that the idea of the thunderbird ties into planes in some way.
Dorothea Lasky I guess that the thunderbird, aside from a lot of American cultural references—I’m thinking of the Native American references, and you know, there’s a lot—is basically a Zeus-like figure that controls lightning and weather and the skies. It’s a figure who is in charge. It’s like a universal spirit sort of deity thing. I guess that I was trying to find a similar image in our culture that really is like a thunderbird, and that to me is a plane. Especially because planes transport you through time and space. I mean they’re changing time, they’re changing space, and when you’re in them you’re sort of contained in some way within this world. That kind of idea is what’s really important to the book. Because if the book is about spiritual transformation or the I going through different states of being, then that’s what’s possible in a plane. And you know, so if there’s a plane crash, what does that mean for what’s happening to the I?
The I is going through a transformation in this book. I really see the three books as a trilogy. The I has gone through a whole process. And after Thunderbird the I is going to be—you know I don’t exactly know what the I is going to be—but it’ll be something else that couldn’t have happened if it hadn’t gone through these three books.
Wendy Lotterman on the twists of logic and the syntactical turns in Ernst Herbeck’s Everyone Has A Mouth.
The poems in Ernst Herbeck’s Everyone Has A Mouth, slalom down the border between sense and absurdity. The initial nursery-rhyme simplicity pulls you through a landscape of soft logic and distorted syntax, ending with a blow of mystification. It is difficult to impose a blueprint on these broken riddles, which is what makes them so kinetic. The space between a list of plain facts and the nonsense by which they are concluded may be crossed by an inexhaustible variety of bridges. Herbeck’s poem “Red” reads:
Red is the wine, red are the carnations.
Red is beautiful. red flowers and red.
Color itself is beautiful.
The red color is red.
Red is the flag, red the poppy.
Red are the lips and the mouth.
Red are the reality and the
Fall. Red are many Blue Leaves.
An almost sarcastically factual litany is followed by a gradual decay of sense and grammar. We are left with the enigmatic falsity “Red are many Blue Leaves.” The internal friction of this statement is different from that of a statement like “Red are Blue Leaves,” leaving you curious as to what accounts for one red leaf being red and another being blue. It is tempting to read any list poem as a staircase, each line one notch closer to the punch-line balanced on the top-step. Herbeck’s poetry is like this, and it isn’t. Each poem builds a platform on which his twists of language and grammatical games are performed. But there is no simple lock-in-key relationship between the facts and the fiction.
Nick Earhart on the unstable, hallucinatory afterworld in Miranda Mellis’s The Spokes.
In Miranda Mellis’s short novel The Spokes, the narrator, Lucia, embarks on a journey to the afterlife, to reconcile the apparent suicide of her mother, Silver Spokes. It is “a realm whose primary substance is not time,” a hazy echo of our own, living, world. The dead wander confused and purposeless, pondering questions of existence. Musicians play age-old tunes to fill the cold air. We meet gods who are clueless and spaced-out kids who talk to their hands.
At first, it’s unclear what Lucia has in mind for her trip. A customs agent warns her not to eat the food, which, of course, she does, almost upon arrival. She speaks of a unique sort of “jet lag,” and for the first page or so, it’d be fair to think she had boarded a cruise ship to the Bermuda Triangle or some other vertiginous land. But once she sees her mother, it becomes apparent what this story is really about: relationships in peril and the fallout of a catastrophe that could have been avoided.
Kate Zambreno on the careers and marriages of her modernist Heroines.
Blending scholarship with memoir, Kate Zambreno’s Heroines is a gossip’s dream, full of digressions about the author’s own career as a novelist as well as the careers and marriages of modernists Jane Bowles, Vivienne Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Zelda Fitzgerald, and others. Although Zambreno delves deep into the personal lives of her heroines, her focus is on their writing—how their work has been dismissed, derided, or ignored altogether. In Heroines, Viv is no longer “the wife of T.S. Eliot,” but emerges as a fully rounded character, an eccentric woman of ambition, among other things. Zelda, who so desperately wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, is given her due through Kate’s close and idiosyncratic readings of her work and biographies. However, Heroines isn’t mere revisionist history; it is also an ebullient testament to the romance of reading. It’s a book about literature, and Heroines takes it as granted that books matter. It was in this spirit that I wrote to Kate about interviewing her for BOMBlog. As an editor at a small press, engaged in the process of editing, reviewing and promoting women’s writing, I wanted the conversation to continue, and to continue in the writing itself.
Elizabeth Hall More than anything else, Heroines is a book about books: how women writers are read and how female characters are policed. But it is also about the thrill of reading, “the ecstasy of influence,” that rare, ripe pleasure of total engrossment. Early in the book, you describe reading as a narcotic, a pleasure to be savored by the whole body: “I read with my hands down the front of my pants . . . Sometimes I feel guilty about getting my lubed fingers all over library books.” When did your love affair with literature begin? What are your go-to books for getting off?
Kate Zambreno I’ve been recently reading Sontag’s early journals, and she waxes poetic about Rilke while still a young girl. And there can be an impulse, reading that, to think—oh, that’s how a genius is born, reading literature in translation from the womb. And anyway, it’s not like any of us can measure up to Sontag. But I think if you poll many woman writers about their childhood reading habits, you would find a similar mix to mine of inhaling the core girl texts as well as more “serious” literature. AND I think my reading habits as a girl have really defined who I am as a writer.
Luis Jaramillo on genre-blurring, memory, toast, and his new book, The Doctor’s Wife.
Early on in my conversation with Luis Jaramillo, I admitted that I’d never spent any appreciable time in the Pacific Northwest, the setting of his new collection, The Doctor’s Wife. Of course, ignorance lends itself to mythology, and I certainly mythologize the region; mile high trees, virgin air, and ten thousand hearty hikers are delights that come to mind. But I reasoned, prior to reading, that my unfamiliarity with the Pacific Northwest wasn’t necessarily bad. In fact, perhaps it provided an ideal reading state. My mind, unhampered by experience, might conjure a place rendered by this collection alone.
I was grateful, then, that the stories in The Doctor’s Wife not only accommodated my regional make-believe, but also grounded themselves in an understated, graceful prose; each piece is exacting and all the while generous. These taut vignettes work together to limn a family that spans three generations. Within this family, we follow three siblings who grow up together with much mid-century vigor. Their vitality is as much a product of one another as it is of their idyllic surroundings. Here we are witness to the kind of West Coast family whose children hurry to change for the lake, their bathing suits “still slightly damp in the lining from the day before.” They play Monopoly under a tree, beg for another dog, and pick their zits. Their father is The Doctor, and their mother—The Doctor’s Wife—is everything else: a costume sewer, a community organizer, and a breakfast maker. She is also now a mother of four, but her new baby is not well. Quietly, it’s this terrible illness that plagues the family, though the game playing and lake swimming continue. Later we track young adulthoods darkened by loss. The third generation does not escape this tragedy, and in fact yearns—as we discover—to uncover exactly how this sadness settles amidst their family’s past. All the same, we’re warmed by this family, the woman at its core, and the stories they all must tell.
Michael Jeffrey Lee on ugly writing and his short story collection Something In My Eye.
I read Michael Jeffrey Lee’s debut collection of short stories, Something In My Eye, this past winter, and I have not been able to shake it. Each story is delivered in a peculiar voice but all of them have a feeling of being imperative; every opening gives the feeling that a valuable secret lies in the next few pages, and Lee delivers on that promise. Some are startling or grotesque, but none are transgressive for the sake of being transgressive. Ideas and conventions around sexuality, class, violence, religion, and nationalism are taken on in narrative form, all with humor and bizarre elegance. It’s no wonder Francine Prose named this collection the winner of Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction.
Catherine Lacey Before this interview can go anywhere, I need to know about your career as a nightclub singer. Where do you sing (or did you sing) and what are your standard songs?
Michael Jeffrey Lee Well, I am really ruing the day that I ever wrote that bio for myself, not realizing how permanent it would be. That part of my life is more or less over, and I’m happy about it. No more lugging my own gear everywhere. I used to sing at places in New Orleans like the Circle Bar or Siberia—another cozy little spot—but both recently lost their music licenses and now feature nothing but improv comedy. The standards I sang had titles like, “I Will Think Much of This Kindness,” and “The Angel,” and sometimes I would sing Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” but not in a way that would have made the master proud. I regret the other things I listed on my bio as well: none of them really apply anymore.
Poet Dean Young on his new collection Bender and making vehicles to another world.
In graduate school I took a class with Dean Young that pretty much saved my life. Amid coursework that seemed to have little relevance to the life of an artist, Dean’s class was crucial business. The books he assigned (Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, for instance), his challenging prompts (write a poem that makes no sense whatsoever), and some of his aphoristic classroom remarks (“The most vibrant forms are emergent forms”) still resonate with me today.
In a weird process of backwards detective work, I began reading Dean’s poetry to reaffirm a set of values I had but wanted more of. I understood immediately that I’d found a flexible skeleton key.
To read a Dean Young poem is to move quickly. The reader’s mind shoots through it like the steel ball in a pinball machine, dinging around, racking up points. Dean’s poems are amazingly fun; they’re stuffed with high-flown hilarity and a sorcerer’s orchestration of wild energy. Even better, they open to reveal a center that’s gorgeous and morally evolved. They’re practically advertisements for the best human causes: liberation, love, and the need to live life knowing its fragility and worth.
Dean Young There’s a goose honking somewhere around here.
Anthony Tognazzini That’s because the interview’s about to start. How are you feeling these days?
DY Alive, happy, and trying to get my writing legs under me after the blender I’ve been through. Since my transplant I’ve been listening to a lot of vintage Yes as a way of calling me back to myself. After all these years I’ve finally figured out how to hear “Soundchaser,” one of their most insane songs.
Chris Kraus on the notions of “real life” and freedom in her new novel Summer of Hate.
I first met Chris Kraus in 2005, after I contacted her about her novel, I Love Dick. We began an email correspondence and I told Chris about a book I had just started writing, Beauty Talk & Monsters, my first. She asked me to send her the manuscript. Given that I’d been a life-long reader of Semiotext(e) titles, particularly Native Agents—Chris’s visionary imprint of experimental, first-person writing by women (an American equivalent of the Foreign Agents series launched with Cookie Mueller’s Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black)—publishing with Semiotext(e) and being part of this inspiring roster of titles, an anti-canon of New Narrative talent, was a dream come true.
I started sending the pages of my book to Chris literally as I was writing them. She was supportive and generous and would email me replies from the road, telling me she was reading the stories in her car. Her third novel Torpor, the end of a trilogy, was coming out, and she was just starting to write Summer of Hate. A parable and noir on border politics, poverty, and incarceration, Summer of Hate also takes place on the road, and depicts the everyday horrors, injustices, and banalities of the 21st century American landscape, specifically the Southwest, during the second Bush administration. I was introduced to Chris’s writing while writing my own first book, so ending with Summer of Hate while doing my first interview with her marks another important genealogy for me, one in which Chris continues to chart and track not just her own intellectual and creative biography, but the creative and intellectual biography of many women writers and thinkers.
Masha Tupitsyn In 2007, Semiotext(e) published my first book, Beauty Talk & Monsters, a cross-genre book I feel like people are only starting to understand now. You were my editor and publisher. Throughout the years, we’ve stayed in touch, done readings together, and you even teach at The European Graduate School, where I’m now doing my PhD. I continue to follow your work, and you have continued to read mine, so doing this interview seems like a natural thing to do.
Chris Kraus I think so too! I remember when you were working on Beauty Talk, the problems you had with people thinking the book had to be either criticism or fiction. But you persisted . . . and I think LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film answers this question of genre so elegantly. It’s a personal essay, manifesto, confession, a critical investigation, all at the same time. Really this obsession with genre is a false question. All of these qualities are literary.
Christopher DeWeese on writing what you don’t know you know and his new book The Black Forest.
When a person is lost in a forest, he will begin to walk in circles. This is evident in Christopher DeWeese’s The Black Forest, which was published by Octopus Books earlier this year. The difference is that when lost in The Black Forest, I’m pleasantly reminded that existence and telling-about-it require a certain circumlocution. Through these poems, a paradox arises, where their performance is both a means of navigating the forest and the forest itself. The forest and the poem’s place in it remain inscrutable and undefined, but although I am certain there are terms of this existence, at the same moment I am uncertain what those terms are. Thankfully, this is also the situation of each poem’s narrator, who undertakes a sort of line-by-line conjecture, a literal laying of ground on which each poem proceeds. At which point a mysterious form of traveling begins, and I’m glad to follow the voice that emerges to tell about itself in each poem. As I journey through, these poems renew my sense of poetry as a process of being and being as a process of creating. I feel invited to wander, as DeWeese’s narrators do, through land, history, and also through the self.
Jack Christian The poems in The Black Forest make me consider the “I” in poetry. I find there’s a particular pressure on the I in these poems—they read to me like dramatic monologues in which the speakers seem to be interested equally in spinning and unraveling. How do you think of these speakers and their personas in these poems?
Christopher Deweese I’m really interested in how titles and first lines create a context for a poem’s readers to understand and inhabit. I think part of the reason there are so many book-length sequences and “project” books being written and published these days has to do with context: if the book’s structure establishes some kind of context for the poems to fit inside, it takes some pressure off each individual poem in terms of the work they have to do to “make sense” or provide some sort of foothold for the reader. And of course some poets use biographical paratext to establish context. When readers know the poet was a soldier for many decades, many of them will bring a different contextual understanding to the stuff of the poems. Part of each poem’s “sense-making” will come from outside itself.
Dale Peck on how New York ruins itself and his new novel, The Garden of Lost and Found.
I sit in Dale Peck’s downtown apartment on a rainy New York day, his massive black cats curling around my feet. I grew up in the streets around his building so Dale and I discuss the monumental, moneyed change we have seen in the past fifteen years. A longing for the vanished city of my childhood I feel increasingly embarrassed by. Yet, Peck’s latest novel The Garden of Lost and Found is a haunting homage to a Manhattan that once was.
The crumbling, seedy alleys and expansive, sunny lofts of Peck’s novel evoke a city the world fell in love with. The protagonist James is pulled to the city by his mother’s death and mysterious legacy, but also by the dangerous thrum and throb of the island itself. On lower Manhattan, in sight of the Twin Towers, James begins a tortured quest to dig into his painful past and uncover the secrets his mother inherited to him: a cluttered building with a crazy caretaker, a dark sexuality, and a key he wears in a chain round his neck.
The novel has an interesting history of its own. Peck began writing in in 1997, yet shifts in publishing and then the devastating effects of 9/11 changed the fate of the book. Fifteen years later, Peck and I wind up with the rain hitting his windows—his book party a few weeks away.
We talked about the forgotten New York we both remember, 9/11, AIDS, and how histories—both Peck’s own and that of his novel’s main character shape our lives, fill them with hate or love.
Royal Young There’s a line in the beginning of your book, “pointless memories molder . . . nostalgia and self-pity.” I feel like generally when people think about memories, they’re good. Let’s talk about the negative side of memories.
Dale Peck My mother died when I was three, so I have very few memories of her. Moving away from Long Island, we lost touch with her side of the family. My father had a very attenuated relationship with his own family. His childhood was so outrageously traumatic, that to him, his entire life was an effort of forgetting. Memory was just a terrible thing that brought up so much pain. My mother’s family also has a very strange, complicated relationship to its own past. My grandmother was just this fascinating character. I don’t even know if she’s alive anymore. When my mother was a teenager, her mother just disappeared. No one will really tell the whole story. My mother died when I was quite young and then my aunt Carol died I think the year after, which is when my grandmother showed up for the funeral.
In anticipation of the 2012 Poets Forum, our friends at the Academy of American Poets will conduct a series of six-question interviews featuring six different poets leading up to their event this month, October 18–20. BOMB is excited to be able to share the first interview in this series, a conversation with Ben Mirov.
Poets.org How do you know when you’ve finished writing a poem?
Ben Mirov I usually get a vertiginous feeling followed by nausea.
Poets.org What word are you proud of sneaking into a poem? What word would you never put in a poem?
Mirov I once used the word “exsanguinate” in a poem. That felt pretty good.
I can’t think of a word I’d never put in a poem. Poetry has contexts and mutations for even the clunkiest of words. If I were to think of a word I’d never put in a poem, poetry would prove me wrong.
That being said, I kind of hate the word “heart.”
Gregory Lawless and Robb Todd on happiness, Cormac McCarthy, and Todd’s new collection, Steal Me for Your Stories.
Robb Todd’s debut collection of short fiction, Steal Me for Your Stories (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2012) offers an alternately gritty and lyrical exploration of contemporary urban adventure and malaise. Each of the fine pieces in the book is driven by voice as much as event. Todd’s narrators never give you the whole story; they don’t tell you their names; and they don’t smother you with exposition. Instead, they offer glimpses of larger traumas, erotic encounters, and romantic collapse. Their fragmentary narratives and crackling, minimalist disclosures might seem, at first, like down-and-out confessionals, but they’re really records of spiritual growth and defeat, scouring for beauty in street litter, and the aftermath of love. Steal Me for Your Stories is a tremendous book.
Gregory Lawless Your debut collection of short stories, Steal Me for Your Stories, features a lot of microfiction. Many of these great pieces seem stolen in that they appear to be ripped from some larger narrative that the reader will never get to see. In one piece I really admire, “Wanted,” the narrator recalls being confronted by a female cop because he looks like a sexual assault suspect. He doesn’t say much about himself aside from briefly comparing and contrasting his appearance with the man captured in the cop’s suspect sketch. Part of what’s fascinating about the story is how little he gives the reader (in terms of back story), how listless his defense is in the face of troubling facts and/or coincidences, and how the touching but tragic confession that closes the piece, “I do not see myself as others do,” reveals that his own place in the narrative is unclear to him as well. He is the victim of facts and details that were too narrowly selected, but his drama intrigues me, in part, because he restricts what he tells us about his circumstances.
Could you tell me about how the short short stories allow you to steal/present different moments than longer pieces? And do you feel more comfortable telling, in the best way, only a fraction of the story instead of the whole story?
Robb Todd With very short pieces, the emotional force heightens from the absence of distraction (information) surrounding the incident. You can zoom in on one idea without the brain clutter that only serves to reduce the moment. The shorter stories gain simply by pushing the rest of the story out of the frame. The effect can be achieved with longer pieces, too, but it is much more difficult to pull off because the demands on the reader become greater.
My favorite stories—long or short—are the ones that leave me feeling like something important just happened, but I’m not totally sure what it was. “Big Two-Hearted River” comes to mind. Beckett. And everything and anything in [Denis Johnson’s] Jesus’ Son.
In anticipation of the 2012 Poets Forum, our friends at the Academy of American Poets will conduct a series of six-question interviews featuring six different poets leading up to their event this month, October 18–20. BOMB is excited to be able to share the first interview in this series, a conversation with Randall Mann.
Poets.org How do you know when you’ve finished writing a poem?
Randall Mann A poem is finished, I guess, when each successive stanza, line, word, and punctuation mark adds up to an argument—for lack of a better word—that is clear yet compellingly elusive.
Poets.org What word are you proud of sneaking into a poem? What word would you never put in a poem?
Mann I snuck the word “snuggle,” one of the most appalling in the language, into a recent poem. I like that. I don’t think I can afford to ban words.
Poet Paul Legault on the slippery process of interpretation that informed his new English-to-English translation of Emily Dickinson.
Have you ever felt a desire to simplify when reading certain poetry? Maybe it comes from our wish to fully understand whatever it is the poet is trying to show us, to put it into terms that we can understand and carry around with us, or maybe it’s just fun for some other reason. Either way, when reading a poem we perform a sort of translation, taking the poet’s words and, through synthesis, replacing them with our own. This is what Paul Legault has provided in his new book, The Emily Dickinson Reader, in which he’s translated Emily Dickinson’s entire oeuvre into 1789 compact constructions, each often no more than two or three lines. He’s reduced Dickinson’s poems to their most essential meaning, skimming off all of those superfluous caesuras and meter schemes to leave us with a perfectly clarified Emily Dickinson.
Legault’s use of standard English is a funny choice for Dickinson, and the result heightens her work to an almost painful comedy. You finds yourself laughing over real poetic anguish, leafing through page after page of profound abandonment of hopes and happiness. But through this dark, dark comedy shines a certain genius. Despite the short length of most of these translations, the profundity of the originals still seems to find its way in. Just take a look at 653:
Against the apparent perpetuity of space and time, I cannot reasonably assert my individuality.
Some might be thinking: Why translate something that’s already English into more English? Well, there are a lot of reasons, and Paul was nice enough to meet with me to discuss this and other questions.
Jonathan Aprea When I read The Emily Dickinson Reader, I feel like the mode of translation that you apply to Emily Dickinson could be applied to a lot of different poets. I was wondering whether or not this mode of translation came first, or if your choice to translate Emily Dickinson came first, and why you conjoined those two things together.
Paul Legault An interesting enough answer is: simultaneously. I was in a course at UVA on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, so all we did was read Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. And when we got to the Emily Dickinson, everyone . . . it was an academic course and I was sitting in as an MFA student, and everyone in the class was digging through her biography and trying to figure out what each poem meant in terms of like, Oh, well her cousin had just died, and she wrote this poem immediately afterward, and this poem is obviously, you know, about the death of her cousin. So they would translate the poem as: I’m sad that my dead cousin is dead.
Andrew Savino on seeming versus being in Scott Hutchins’s novel, A Working Theory of Love.
A father commits suicide. The son (and protagonist of A Working Theory of Love), Neill Bassett Jr., heads westward for San Francisco, looking to replace his duties as a scion of an old Southern family with progressive California living. However, the city does not offer Neill the golden fulfillment it so seductively promised from afar. Rather, his twenties leave him divorced and unsatisfied, bound to the banal routines of 21st-century bachelorhood. Desperately seeking a jolt out of the ordinary, Neill finds a second chance in a wine-brewing Italian scientist, the brilliant and ridiculous Henry Livorno. Livorno’s company, Amiante Systems, is attempting to beat the infamous “Turing test” and create the first “intelligent” computer. To defeat the test, Livorno’s team must develop a program that—30% of the time—can fool people into thinking it too is human. Livorno needs a voice; Neill needs a fresh start. To join the project, Neill Jr. offers his father’s legacy: 5,000 pages of diaries written by a physician over the course of 20-plus years. Along with an energy-drink-addicted tech genius named Laham, Livorno and Neill Jr. focus on beating the “Turing test,” providing a perfect opportunity for Neill to reevaluate his relationship with his father; to search for him in the depths of Amiante Systems’s newest program, named “Dr. Bassett,” after Neill’s father.
Throughout the novel, Neill explores the mind-body problem and the differences, if any, between seeming and being; his father seems to be there, on the other side of the computer screen, but is his father’s essence, his consciousness, truly present? If so, could Amiante’s technology allow humans to conquer death digitally, to live forever in (or as) machines?
In anticipation of the 2012 Poets Forum, our friends at the Academy of American Poets will conduct a series of six-question interviews featuring six different poets leading up to their event this month, October 18–20. BOMB is excited to be able to share the next interview in this series, a conversation with Mark Bibbins.
Poets.org How do you know when you’ve finished writing a poem?
Mark Bibbins When I no longer feel the need to tinker with it, which might take days or years. The components click into place in a way that I can’t explain, but reading aloud is always crucial to the process. Joy Katz compares figuring out where to end a poem to bending a piece of asparagus to see where it snaps; ending and finishing are not synonymous here, but I like what the analogy says about ceding some control to the thing that’s being made.
A person recently reported having written two or three poems one morning and submitting them to journals or wherever the very same afternoon. I would advise anyone who is not Eileen Myles not to do this (I say so not knowing if she does this).
Poets.org What word are you proud of sneaking into a poem? What word would you never put in a poem?
MB Not sure how one would sneak a word in—acrostic? French? Sometimes I have to sneak them out: I didn’t realize I had used the word “subsist” three times in my last book until just before it went to the print factory. I don’t mess too much with pride.
Any word I would never put in a poem is also hideous enough for me not to broadcast here, but there are plenty of poetry moves that should be retired—like saying a mouth is shaped like a letter O. I’d be happy never to see that in anyone’s poem again, let alone use it.
Poets.org What do you see as the role of the poet in today’s culture?
MB To point out that today’s culture has spinach in its teeth and egg on its face.
The question chafes a little, partly because of the definite article lurking in front of “poet,” but I also understand why you wouldn’t ask it of the cellist or the tree surgeon. It reminds us that you can’t “just” be a poet—which when rent is due is absolutely true—therefore we get pretend titles like Ambassador and Legislator and Seer. The upside is that we are free (or, downside, forced) to find or invent roles for ourselves (and our poems) that engage differently with the material demands of our culture.
So do I want to make and/or read poems that act like doilies or smoke alarms? It’s reassuring to know a vase isn’t leaving rings on the credenza, but I’d also like something to wake me up if the place is on fire, which it is.
In anticipation of the 2012 Poets Forum, our friends at the Academy of American Poets will conduct a series of six-question interviews featuring six different poets leading up to their event this month, October 18–20. BOMB is excited to be able to share the next interview in this series, a conversation with Timothy Donnelly.
Poets.org How do you know when you’ve finished writing a poem?
Timothy Donnelly People love to repeat the famous Paul Valéry quote, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” and I don’t blame them. I just quoted it myself. It’s snappy, and memorable, and there’s truth to it, too—in the author’s lifetime, no poem is ever finished the way a race is finished when the time runs out, or the way a bottle of champagne is when the last drop is drunk. A poem has no temporal or material fixity like that—the author can always dive right back into it if he or she decides to do something differently, or thinks of something to add or to take away. After the author dies, however, his or her poems are all finished, like it or not. Even the unfinished ones.
But at some point during our lifetime we have to learn to let our poems be. One aspect of the beauty of almost all art has to do with the fact that it didn’t have to be, by necessity, the way it is, but had instead the liberty of being pretty much however, or whatever, the artist desired it to be. So that no matter what the artwork would seem to represent or intend, if anything, it is always also a record of that liberty, that desire. We have to become content with the fact that a poem seldom clicks into place with mechanical perfection, and we have to remind ourselves that when a poem does strike us as impeccable in its construction, we often experience less liberty and desire in it. I think the very best poems aim for a perfection that they wisely let themselves surpass by missing. They veer off in favor of something more sensuous, flawed, complicated, and exciting.
And we have to become content, too, with the fact that a poem won’t be all pulsating and bright like radium when we get it exactly right, indicating we’re ready now to advance to the next poem. There isn’t a science to it, and if there were, it wouldn’t be an art.
That said, to answer the question, I know that I’m finished writing a poem when I feel that I am. After two decades of experience I have come to trust that feeling, almost entirely. Or I know that I’m finished when I can read the poem from beginning to end and it feels in my head the way it feels in my gut and arms and chest. Or when I can look at the poem typed out in front of me and my limbic system approves. I don’t mind error or irrationality if they capture the morphology of feeling and thought in a fresh, distinctive way. For example, I just now realize that a footrace isn’t finished when the time runs out, but when the first person crosses the finish line. Or is it when the last person crosses it? Or maybe the race starts only once, when the gun goes off, and then it ends as many times as there are racers.
Ryan Sheldon and Victor LaValle dissect the horror and humanity in LaValle’s latest book, The Devil in Silver.
Victor LaValle’s latest book, The Devil in Silver, has already been billed as a masterpiece of literary horror. The praise is well deserved, the categorization perhaps less so. It’s certainly the closest LaValle’s come to writing a work of genre fiction—The Devil in Silver follows Pepper, a “big man” who’s wrongfully admitted to a mental institution in New Hyde, Queens, as he navigates its terrifying environs and attempts to make an escape (spoiler: his chance at an expedient discharge disappears rather quickly)—but one needs look no further than the novel’s title to understand its precise vision of true “horror.” A visitor to New Hyde explains that the phrase “the devil in silver” became a dark euphemism for the silver poisoning suffered by miners in the nineteenth century, which often caused its victims to become delusional before causing their deaths. This historical referent is well chosen; throughout the novel, LaValle explores how the pressures of a flawed, oppressive system—in this case, the horribly mismanaged mental institution in which his characters find themselves—can precipitate madness. In this way, the very real horrors of medical negligence, abuse, and mental illness run parallel to legend that circulates throughout New Hyde’s inmate population, which believes that the Devil has taken up residence among them. LaValle’s treatment of systemic evils gestures toward a battery of political issues—race, immigration, and the worrisome states of our healthcare and financial systems—which beg our address on a daily basis.
LaValle’s two previous novels, The Ecstatic and Big Machine, feature fantastic elements that verge on disturbing; his brilliant debut story collection, slapboxing with jesus, does not take the supernatural as its proper subject, but charts the ways in which the ghosts of memory—fragmented recollections of childhood, litanies of nostalgia and regret—mark our pasts. In each work, LaValle’s approach to chills and psychic discomfort is never reducible to straight genre writing, and if his investigations of mental illness and personal unraveling unsettle readers, it’s because they remind us of how fragile, impressionable, and precious the human mind can be. LaValle is ever quick to converse with tropes of literary horror, and his interest in jumping the rails of conventional narrative reflects a desire to show just how easily a standard vision of reality might—and often does—collapse. In The Devil in Silver, the scope of this exploration is larger than he’s yet attempted.
In anticipation of the 2012 Poets Forum, our friends at the Academy of American Poets will conduct a series of six-question interviews featuring six different poets leading up to their event this month, October 18–20. BOMB is excited to be able to share the first interview in this series, a conversation with Mary Jo Bang.
Poets.org How do you know when you’ve finished writing a poem?
Mary Jo Bang For me, the poem is finished when I feel the gestures it makes to the thoughts that went through my mind as I wrote it are sufficient, and when the sound patterning of the language I’ve used for those gestures satisfies me. Form also does some poetic work, so as I write I keep taking the measure of what the form is doing. That includes the appearance of the poem on the page. This can sometimes take a very long time.
I suppose you could say that I decide the poem is finished when I resign myself to the limits of what can be done with language, sound, and form. I don’t pretend it’s possible to find an exact equivalence between the poem and my mind, because language is never identical to thought; it’s merely language.
There’s an element of play involved in manipulating this tangential relationship between language and thought. All elements of poetry are play to me and I’m sure part of the sense of resignation comes from the fact that I can tire of these obsessive games I set up for myself. When I reach that point, I abandon the game and invent a new one.
Poets.org What word are you proud of sneaking into a poem? What word would you never put in a poem?
MJB I wanted to put a culturally taboo word in a poem but my friend Timothy Donnelly said I couldn’t. It was a persona poem in which I was going to have Cleopatra use the word to say that’s how people thought of her. I thought that might be an acceptable usage, but I now see that I’ll never put that word in a poem. I don’t think I’ve sneaked any words into a poem, although you might say I snuck the word “table” into this sentence: “I thought that might be an acceptable usage, but I now see that I’ll never put that word in a poem.” But I don’t think that’s what you meant.
Sarah Gerard on life’s closing and Gerald Murnane’s fifth novel, Inland.
“In all the world there has never been, there is not, and there will never be any such thing as time. There is only place. Eternity is here already, and it has no mystery about it; eternity is just another name for this endless scenery where we wander from one place to another.” –Gerald Murnane, Velvet Waters
Gerald Murnane has never left Australia and rarely even left the state of Victoria, but his fiction is widely traveled. In his fifth novel, Inland, available for the first time in the U.S. from Dalkey Archive, a writer sits alone in a manor house among books he doesn’t read, and pages he struggles to write, and “travels” as far as the American plains, the Hungarian Alfold, and the Australian interior. Places are overlain with other places, assigned unspecific or fantastical-sounding names, tableau settings, or two different periods of time. Many of the vignettes one encounters in Inland are taken from Murnane’s own childhood, and transplanted, in whole or in part, into different settings, with different characters. Walking the border between autobiography and fiction in this way, the book is an exploration of memory’s relation to time, time to place, and truth to language, fiction, and dreams.
A few days after finishing Inland, when I had moved onto Wuthering Heights in anticipation of writing about their respective uses of landscape, my mother called to tell me that my grandfather’s body was “shutting down.” He would likely die before the end of the day Saturday, and it was currently Friday. My grandparents lived in a semi-rural suburb of Cleveland called Pepper Pike, in a house surrounded by rolling lawns and woods I liked to explore as a child. I had bought a ticket to see my grandparents later in the month, when they would celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary. But within minutes, I was on the phone changing the dates of my trip, and within hours, was departing JFK.
Maxi Kim on Jarett Kobek’s third book, If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write?, a sobering diagnosis of the collective state of the American mind.
If you’re familiar with Los Angeles’s DIY art culture, the third and final anthology of Penny-Ante in 2009 left you with a certain inner satisfaction. Despite the decade-long decline of American popular culture, there was, in the three-hundred-plus pages of Penny-Ante, an archive of a contemporary cultural milieu that did not cater to the tastes of commercial taste-makers. After a three-year hiatus, to the delight of its admirers, Penny-Ante has rebooted itself as Penny-Ante Editions, an independent press and arts-based company. To mark their transition, a new series of works titled Success and Failure will be released throughout the fall, including a limited release of the film Dream Warfare 3 created by underground performance artist Jason Wallace Triefenbach and Blabber and Smoke, an edition of scratch and sniff stickers that smell like ashtrays by artist Jason Yates.
Along with Triefenbach and Yates’s new visual and olfactory art, Success and Failure will consist of literary works from avant-garde-minded authors, starting with agent provocateur Jarett Kobek. Set at the dusk of the neoliberal utopia, Jarett Kobek’s third book, If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write?, is perhaps the most sobering diagnosis of the collective state of the American mind. Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, National Enquirer, Radar Online, Sun, TMZ, Us Weekly, VH1, etc, etc: it’s all grist for our ever-increasing, ever-collapsing entertainment economy. And it is all undoubtedly the end result of a post-Enlightenment ideological obsession with “being famous for being famous” that, as prominent cultural critic Norman Klein put it, is aiming to metaphorically and quite effectively hollow out the Western psyche.
Rachel Mercer speaks with author Claire Vaye Watkins about her first collection of short stories, Battleborn, and about home, homesickness, and moving on.
Battleborn is Claire Vaye Watkins’s first collection of short stories. The author grew up in Nevada, and this particular setting infuses her work. While in each story a different set of characters grapples with a different set of problems—situated either in this millennium or way back in 1800s—the telling is consistently awash in the bright light, open spaces, and howling winds of the west. Location, minutely described, inherently felt, is the unifying force in Battleborn, similar to the way films about the Wild West begin with a panorama of a desert landscape. However, the book is no old Spaghetti. Watkins’s stories are undeniably modern: they portray everyday people in everyday situations, which are often bleak and uncertain.
In “Rondine al Nido,” two teenage girls visit Las Vegas for a night, finding themselves partying in a hotel room of a casino with three strange boys they’ve just met, and watching as the lines between right and wrong, fun and fatal, become blurred. In “Ghosts, Cowboys,” Watkins explores her family history, which includes her father’s involvement in the Charles Manson Family at Spahn Ranch in California during the late ’60s. “The Diggings,” set during the California Gold Rush, tells of the unraveling of the minds of two brothers as they search desperately for “color” in the unyielding waters of the river. “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past,” explores the inner world of a brothel in the Nevada desert—the people who live, work, and visit there, and the cracks and seams that run within each of them. Throughout the book, Watkins exposes and explores many paradoxes, quandaries that ground her characters and make them real.
I got in touch with Watkins and established our common southwestern roots before the interview began. Reading Battleborn called up in me the exact feeling of standing in the sun with a dry wind whipping my face, looking across the sagebrush at a dark blue storm building majestically on the horizon. This natural element serves as a backdrop for Watkins’s work, standing in contrast to the seedy towns—all strip malls and fast food chains, gimmicky tourist shops selling turquoise and silver, and power plants cutting the skyline—that populate much of the southwest. What moved me about the book was the way it captured both beauty and horror and how the juxtaposition of these realms spurs Watkins’s characters toward beautiful and horrific acts.
Rachel Mercer You incorporate a lot of history into your stories, especially “Ghosts, Cowboys” and “The Diggings.” I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you go about researching—or if you knew all that information before—and how you integrate it into your fiction.
Claire Vaye Watkins Yeah, I knew everything. I’m omniscient, which is really helpful. (laughter) I always do a lot of research for every story, and in “The Diggings” and “Ghosts, Cowboys,” it’s probably more obvious—in “The Diggings” especially, because it’s historical. And “Ghosts, Cowboys” kind of foregrounds its constructedness so you can see that part of the accumulation of information is in fact what the character is interested in, thematically.
Jeff Nagy on Ariana Reines’s translation of Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl.
After Tiqqun, a group of anonymous French authors behind a short-lived journal of the same name, dissolved in 2001, some members (allegedly) reformed as the Invisible Committee, source of The Coming Insurrection, much detested by Glenn Beck and beloved of Occupiers, direct actionists, and their glued-to-the-livestream fellow travelers. Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl is the latest volume in Semiotext(e)’s ongoing English-language archiving of Tiqqun, whose stock continues to rise despite the widespread collapse of OWS in the past months.
Us Americans might be said to know a thing or two about Young-Girls. En Jeune-Filles, on s’y connaît—pardon my French, I took a cours de civilisation, once. We might be said to know a thing or two, might even be said to have invented them. But despite our birthright expertise, as with so many other American exports, the Theory is Continental. Let’s pretend we didn’t already have it flat out and ask, obligingly, What Is The Young-Girl?
E.C. Belli talks to Mary Ruefle about Madness, Rack, and Honey, the many moons of planet Poetry, and naming lipsticks.
My inability to express myself/is astounding. It is not curious or/even faintly interesting, but like/some fathomless sum, a number,/ a number the sum of equally fathomless/numbers, each one the sole representative/of an ever-ripening infinity/that will never reach the weight/required by the sun to fall. (“Lullaby,” Selected Poems by Mary Ruefle)
Heart wrenching, incisive, witty, and occasionally provocative, Madness, Rack, and Honey, a new volume of collected lectures, spanning twenty years of Ruefle’s teaching, invites readers to consider an array of subjects, from cats to craft. Though her initial concern is poetry, the lectures’ implications are oftentimes universal, and we find Ruefle turning her craft into a steppingstone, raising us slowly toward the larger concerns that bind us all: think passion, think mutability, think memory.
Ruefle’s pieces, which evolve from relatively standard lectures to tiny fragments of contemplations (imagine a modern Montaigne or Rousseau moment), have—and paradoxically so—despite all their charisma and brilliance, a quasi-monastic quality in their wisdom, a bareness in the simplicity and truth of their message. Visits into this book are akin to a temple stay or a poultice for the mind. Each piece is a small compress to apply to the wound (a wound you were unaware you had until Ruefle revealed it), each piece making you feel more in the world, more connected to the fabric of things, with a new tenderness for what is.
Civil Jar editor—and Silver Jew—David Berman talks to Minus Times editor Hunter Kennedy about his new book and his former neighbor James Dickey.
The Minus Times is the long-time gatekeeper to a specific cultural Hades where Barry Hannah and Rob Bingham sit chatting at the bar. Founded by Hunter Kennedy in the early ’90s as a one-page broadside, the zine-like literary magazine grew slightly thicker as the decade progressed. It was heavily informed by a Southern sensibility and displayed an unerring taste in cartoonists, collages, and horse racing roundups by Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich. I also enjoyed the goofy drink recipes on the last page, Will Oldham’s VHS recommendations, and the short interviews—always the same questions—with everyone from the aforementioned Hannah to Harmony Korine to Chan Marshall to Thomas McGuane.
The Minus Times Collected is a great big coffee-table style book, out now from Drag City and Featherproof Books. Within it you will find everything that ever came out between The Minus Timess brown covers. It’s pretty great.
Kennedy spoke with David Berman—former Silver Jew and frequent Minus Times contributor—about the origins of the magazine. Mostly though, they talk about Kennedy’s childhood neighbor James Dickey.
David Berman The Minus Times started out as a one-page mish mash of snips and clips and blips and quips left here and there for anyone and everyone. How did it start? What drove you to it?
Hunter Kennedy Sheer isolation. The epistolary tradition. An opportunity to subvert the newspaper format on a miniscule scale.
DB Were there any precursors that influenced The Minus Times?
Lindsay Stern, author of the new novella, Town of Shadows, talks to BOMB’s 2012 Poetry Contest Finalist, Laura Goode, about childhood fears, eavesdropping, and the color of her voice.
In 2008, a writing student of mine named Lindsay Stern emailed me to set up a meeting to “talk about poems and college apps.” Lindsay was 17, and had recently finished her junior year of high school. In preparation for the meeting, she sent me a handful of poems.
One of the poems, “The Rug Doctor” began arrestingly:
Pierre keeps his autobiography under the sink. It reads:
March: Pierre is a boy of ambitions.
April: Pierre makes his living extracting salt from seawater.
June: Pierre and Selma buy a house with daffodil wallpaper.
July: A chandelier falls on Pierre.
August: Pierre recovers.
September: Pierre learns to play the flute.
October: For Halloween, Pierre is a frayed hem.
December: Pierre becomes a rug doctor.
I remember sitting back from the poem in a kind of awestruck stupor, my thoughts drifting back to the humiliating drops of latrine-sweat that I called poems in my own college applications. My response to the remarkable work now before me came in the form of her calendar:
January: Lindsay Stern sent me six poems, but they’re not really poems.
February: I don’t know what to call these, but I like them.
March: These whatever-the-hell-they-ares are fucking great.
April: A teenager wrote these?! Christ.
May: This Lindsay Stern is really something. Does she know how good she is? I have to tell her how good she is. Dear Lindsay Stern, you are so, so good.
June: Has anyone seen the top of my head?
Christopher Higgs on reading Olivia Cronk’s Skin Horse in New Orleans.
With a roiling stomach, after six hours zipping across I-10 from our Magnolia Heights neighborhood in Tallahassee to the Lower Garden District in New Orleans, presumably attributable to the consumption of fast food, an uncharacteristic activity for me, I snatch Skin Horse from my bag, rush to the restroom in our hotel room, plop down on the toilet only to find my body is too big for the little seat. I have to squirm to make myself fit. I am reminded of Žižek’s commentary on the relationship between toilets and ideology, an extension or elaboration or corruption of Kristeva’s theory of the abject, of course, and instantly I begin wondering about the cultural significance of a toilet seat so small as to be unable to comfortably accommodate a person of my figure, which is to say an average figure for a man in his mid-thirties who exercises half-an-hour to forty-five minutes a day and eats fairly well balanced meals and is only slightly overweight, and I begin to worry for those people who are obese, who seriously could not fit themselves on this tiny seat. I wonder what it would be like to have a body of such proportion. My bowels explode, regardless, as I open the book.
Peter Rock on the collection and distillation of information, the interplay between fictional and real worlds, and the dogged process of revision, in his new novel The Shelter Cycle.
In the fall of 2011, Peter Rock sent me an early draft of a book he was working on, asking for thoughts and comments. Subsequently, I read two more versions of what has become The Shelter Cycle, which will be published in early 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The novel centers on the lives of children who grew up in the 1980s in Montana and whose parents, along with many others, were involved in an organization called the Church Universal and Triumphant, led by a woman named Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Prophet warned about an imminent nuclear holocaust and offered salvation to those devoted to the Church, inspiring monumental efforts to build underground shelters for when the disaster reigned. On March 15, 1990, thousands of people disappeared into the subterranean shelters, believing they were bidding the world as they knew it goodbye.
While the past is the foundation for the story, the novel takes place twenty years later, focusing on several characters, now adults. Francine is happily married and about to give birth to her first child. She has been reticent about her past with her husband, Wells, but is forced to reckon with it when her childhood friend, Colville, appears at their door one night after the strange disappearance of a young girl in the neighborhood. This encounter spurs each of the characters on separate journeys, during which they must attempt to reconcile the past—all its contradictions and unanswered questions—with the present.
It was a pleasure to witness the development of The Shelter Cycle through its various drafts, to see the process by which the story and characters came into themselves. Pete’s work is highly attuned to the strange, the eerie, and he treats his subject matter—which is often off-kilter to begin with, and involves characters that exist on the fringes of society—with language that is spare and quiet, yet forceful. In his storytelling, Pete upends expectations and opens up possibilities, suggesting unforeseen and unfamiliar ways of seeing, thinking, feeling. I always feel unhinged after reading Pete’s writing, but also refreshed and invigorated.