Bryan R. Monte – Walls and Curtains – An Interview with Andrei Codrescu

Bryan R. Monte
Walls & Curtains—An Interview with Andrei Codrescu

Andrei Codrescu’s recent work, Walls & Curtains, an audio podcast in thirteen episodes, is the subject of this email interview conducted in October-November 2021.

Bryan R Monte: What was your initial inspiration for Walls & Curtains?

Andrei Codrescu: My stepfather, who was a brute and a ‘train engineer’ in 1950s Romania, ripped my dog, Nemo, from my arms. I have been trying to find my schnauzer, and take revenge on the brute ever since. I have fantasized about having the man torn by horses à la Middle Ages, tortured on the rack and slowly crushed inside an Iron Maiden. The oeuvre I produced since issues from this spring of hatred, revenge, and imaginative dismemberment. This includes my novel, The Blood Countess (1995), translated in 15 languages (just in case he may have been hiding from my wrath in Albania, or Japan or…), the journal I edited, Exquisite Corpse: a Monthly of Life & Letters (—he was the corpse—and many poems and essays since. I conceive of my literary work as a razor in search of my stepfather’s neck.

BRM: How did your original idea or inspiration develop into this episodic story?

AC: My story is based on a true childhood trauma, but the subsequent adventures of two, ten-year-old boys who decide to find Nemo on the other side of The Wall, is inspired by the times and the place. The dog and the boys are real, but everything else is a collage of adventures that follow various walls and curtains in real and imagined zeitgeists.
      In Romania in the 1950s, the Communist Party mandated public boredom. The suppression of curiosity was the main activity and product of our Soviet-flavoured republic. Curiosity was a state monopoly. The job of the state was to survey the citizenry for possible interest in the workings of power.
      Walls & Curtains is a condensed epic of two boys’ productive adventures intended to break through the hard boredom of optimism to the absurdity of another world. This they (and every citizen of the Soviet Empire), called ‘The West’. The boys imagined this world to be very intelligent and powerfully entertaining. And mysterious: they had no idea where they were going next.

BRM: How long did it take you to write this series?

AC: One Covid year, 2019-2020.

BRM: Were some sections more difficult than others?

AC: I can’t remember. Writing is, for me, a means of forgetting the things of which I am writing. Once written, these things become everybody else’s business. I think 🙂

BRM: Did you plan the episodes of Walls & Curtains in advance or did some develop as it unfolded?

AC: I did not plan any of them—I just sat down and let my trained finger tap my subconscious like a fishing line. Occasionally, I threw back fish that were too small or too familiar. I kept only those things that made me laugh. I believe that if the past isn’t good enough for a laugh, it is better off repressed. Or left to specialists, people like writers of memoirs who went to creative writing programmes.
      In Romania, to get back to the larger context, serial literature after 1956 took a full decade to nearly extinguish the mysterious orality of my childhood. Writing Walls & Curtains I awakened an ancient sit-around-the-fire seed that lay at the bottom of my overwritten self like a forgotten pomegranate seed in a garbage bin behind a food market in Queens.
      The nearly fatal blow episodic orality came from television. When Western television dramas appeared people’s brains froze and their fancies started retreating. In Romania, all work stopped when the American soap Dallas was broadcast. Everyone stared at the screen and the only question visible like a Chernobyl cloud over the heads of the spectators was ‘WHO SHOT JR?’ I didn’t watch it, so I don’t remember if there was an answer, but this is why in my story, Walls & Curtains, the question ‘DID THEY FIND NEMO?’ looms so large over the series—it remains unanswered because I plan a sequel.

BRM: Did you discover any differences and/or challenges in creating a story to be presented orally versus one presented textually?

AC: Yes. I think people like to hear stories now. We live in a post-reader world.

BRM: If so, what were some of those differences and/or challenges?

AC: The main difference is that when we used to read, we would ignore everything that wasn’t in the text. If someone interrupted us, we killed them. This is why most readers in the past were murderers. If someone is telling a story, it’s OK if the bell rings, or a siren passes. You can always make the outer sounds part of the orality in progress.

BRM: Walls & Curtains is set in your birthplace, Sibiu, Transylvania, Romania. Why did you choose this setting? Why do you think you were revisiting your origin story in the first months of the Covid pandemic?

AC: I was very, very bored. Podcasts came into vogue, but I couldn’t listen to any of them. I decided to source my own from an older oral world. This happened to reside in the ten-year-old boy in Sibiu. I carefully unwrapped him out of the mothballs where I keep him whenever I run out of subject matter. Since you read some of my other books, you know that I have unwrapped this boy so many times, he has grown out of his swaddling into a middle-aged man, with a pot belly, who smokes a cigar.
      He is by no means the ‘inner child’ that so many Americans strain to unearth from the lifetimes of entertainment that has turned them into a fine powder of clichés. Au contraire, he is a kindly nursed and well-fed creature that is layered in such a way that I can use my pen like a scalpel to separate him at whatever age seems appropriate for my current project. In this case, I had to remove the potbelly and the cigar, as well as a great many accoutrements of aging, and extract the ten-year-old. Once cleaned of all that mature goop, he was quite serviceable. I oiled him and wound him up. He marched into the story.

BRM: In your books, The Disappearance of the Outside and Whatever Gets You Through the Night, you present two storytellers, Mioritza and Scheherazade respectively, who tell stories which take all night and are told in mythic time or Mircea Eliade’s illo tempore.

AC: Stories that last all night around the fire are no longer common. Alas. We should reinstitute them at friends’ houses. The cold fire of TV is a solitary and sad affair.

BRM: Was this also your intention with the episodes of Walls & Curtains, for example, when one or both of your character fall asleep during their escape in episodes 4, 9, and 13? Is this because the story takes all night or ends in the dark?

AC: Children’s imaginations thrive in the dark. All stories are bedtime stories. Fantasies of escape take place at night because one is invisible then. The best heroes are thieves, dragons, and silent predator animals—they all work at night.

BRM: Which narrative techniques did you use to portray this time out of time?

AC: The same as any fairy tales, folk tales, and 1001 Nights, which is a compilation of fantastic stories. Whether written or told, the voice of the storyteller must be present. The techniques are the property of the storyteller—each one is unique.

BRM: Flight and exile are two recurring themes in your work. In Walls & Curtains, you and Shlezzy are trying to escape to the West.

AC: Reality is nasty and predictable: we write (even speak) to escape it. All humans are traumatized by history, circumstances, luck, poverty, or wealth, etc. The earth is a penal colony, purgatory, prison. Humans are a form that expiates. Escaping it is the goal of all religions, of poetry, and of stories. ‘Realism’ is a sadistic fiction.

BRM: After 55 years in America, why are these themes still so important in your work?

AC: America has more elbowroom to stretch out and explore. Otherwise, it’s a country born in wars like every other place. It is also a country easy to escape from, if there was any place to escape to.

BRM: Do you feel these themes have changed and developed over time?

AC: Yes. There are a myriad of ways to escape. In the course of storytelling or fantasizing, one climbs a ladder of experience. Getting away is tentative at first, then one’s steps become more certain. It takes ten years to get the courage to go to the unknown place that may or may not be there. After that, it’s a breeze. The abyss starts to look familiar. You’ve been there before. Déjà-vu, déjà-eu, but without any practical memory of what’s in it.

BRM: If so, how?

AC: With a pen, keyboard, razor blade and wrist, or socially compatible criminal congeries, or another form of intimate desperado association.

BRM: How similar do you feel your route to the West was to the escapes mentioned in your books, especially the steel door in the Danube River, in Wall & Curtains with the room beneath it stocked with an abundance of American style food and jeans and T-shirts?

AC: My escape was a lot less dangerous, but just as tense. I had to renounce my Romanian citizenship. We were allowed to take only two suitcases with clothes. My mother’s photo albums and my handwritten poetry notebooks were not allowed. The airport police pawed through our clothes for hidden gold coins. The clothes smelled like onions and bacon from their hands when they put back our rags. This was a good thing because I had to start writing everything new, and I had to remember, and then imagine, all the people in the photographs. There weren’t that many, since most of my mother’s family was murdered by Nazis in Auschwitz. The clothes I threw away in Italy.

BRM: Cracks appear often in Walls & Curtains, first as a secret code or map of escape, then as cracks between the gravestones in the Ursuline convent tunnel, and also as the cracks between the floorboards in the shoemaker’s house, into which you lose your gold coins. In another book you wrote about: ‘the cosmic crack that story telling can create, and it is our choice whether to go through it into another reality or to go through the flesh crack and return to where we are.’ What do you mean by this?

AC: As Leonard Cohen says, ‘there is a crack in everything/ that’s how light gets in’. An artist is more conscious that cracks (spontaneous or premeditated maps) are a precondition to entering a (or THE) mystery. Writers are different than priests or therapists because writing (creating or finding) cracks is not an answer or a therapy. The results (god, health) are not predictable, and I might say, not even imaginable. The Internet memes escape through portals constructed by engineers, it is a crude simulacrum of the organic imagination of a true dreamer.

BRM: Your escape through the tunnel reminds me of Aeneas’ visit to the underworld. Like Aeneas, you had a guide, a golem, whose eyeball lights your way through the tunnel.

AC: There are helpers out there, mostly kind animals with bright eyes who thrive on innocence. This is why they help mostly children. There are also plant guides and generous souls of the dead. The guides are not assigned; they choose the children (poets) they guide. I think the dead are free to choose.

BRM: Did you think of The Aeneid or other classical works when you wrote this part of Walls & Curtains?

AC: The Aeneid, like all the classics and moderns, are present in any story: language is a vehicle propelled by the motor of previous stories. This vehicle gets better and faster the more knowledge it consumes. Language has memory, thank the gods.

BRM: You use a post-Modern, broken narrative with many temporal digressions, anachronisms (for example, discussing crypto-currencies or receiving a phone call from Mark Twain in a story set in the 1950s), making self-reflexive comments on your own narratives, and telling stories without endings. In Whatever Gets You Through the Night, for example, Scheherazade says ‘To write a great story, violate the tenses.’ And just before that, she says ‘To tell a great story, leave them hanging.’

AC: Time is permeable. Chronology is a convention of sciences, but even in mathematics, discovery is not necessarily chronological. You did not need Newtonian math to think up quantum, though it was (and is) a great workable math.

BRM: Does this explain why your penultimate episode of Walls & Curtains is open ended for the reader to finish?

AC: Absolutely—there is a sequel—there is always a sequel, or a prequel, or a related (parallel) non sequel. How do we go on? We must find out what’s next or under it all or any ‘why’ that shows up.

BRM: Does this explain why the last episode has an anti-ending with a Nemo imposter?

AC: Every ending is a faux-ending; a red herring. Even death is a red herring. AQ

Bryan R. Monte – An interview with Kim Addonizio

Bryan R. Monte
Now We’re Getting Somewhere
An Interview with Kim Addonizio

Kim Addonizio is the author of eight poetry books, her most recent being Now We’re Getting Somewhere (2021), four fiction books, two books on prosody and writing, and one memoir. Her poetry book Tell Me (2000) was nominated for a National Book Award. Mortal Trash (2016) won the 2017 Paterson Poetry Prize. Addonizio’s other distinctions include Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Pushcart Prize, and the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award. She is also a flautist and harmonica player, who occasionally performs her poetry accompanied by her own music. Her poetry is known for its street sensibility, sexuality, and her love of the blues. Addonizio graciously accepted Amsterdam Quarterly’s request for an interview about her most recent book, Now We’re Getting Somewhere.

Bryan R. Monte: Kim, I’d like to begin with some questions about the first pages of your new book, Now We’re Getting Somewhere. First, I’d like to enquire about your selection of the book’s title, its dedication, and its two epigraphs. How did you choose its title, which you’ve taken from the terminal line of a poem entitled ‘Small Talk’ in the book’s second section? What does this title refer to?

KA: It started out as an ironic title; now, maybe, as we emerge from 2020, it’s slightly more hopeful. Or maybe not. This past year has been one, in general, where no one has gotten anywhere. I had a different title for a long time, but as 2020 progressed, I changed it.

BRM: Who are ‘The Makers’ to whom you’ve dedicated this book? Are they past and/or present writers or artists? Or is the reference more obscure like T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland dedication to Ezra Pound as il miglior fabbro (the better craftsman) from Canto 26 of Dante’s Purgatorio?

KA: As many poets know, poiesis comes from ancient Greek and means ‘to make’. The makers are poets, and by extension, more generally, those who create rather than those who seek to destroy.

BRM: Lastly, why did you choose the two epigraphs, the first from Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’ about an a lying leader and a world populated by liars and cheats, and the second by Elizabeth Taylor about alcohol, beauty, and keeping it together?

KA: The Cohen song, ‘Everybody Knows’, famously describes an unjust world. The lying leader is self-evident. And yeah, ‘keeping it together’ is pretty much the advice. Those represent what I think of as the two poles of the book, the social/political and the self.

BRM: Now let’s talk about the book itself. It’s divided into four sections entitled ‘Night in the Castle’, ‘Songs for Sad Girls’, ‘Confessional Poetry’, and ‘Archive of Recent Uncomfortable Emotions’. It contains poems about writing, sex, alcohol, ageing, hookups in bars, ex-lovers, politics, climate change, legacy, among others. These are quite varied themes. How did you manage to blend them together into one book and how long did that take?

KA: The subjects just reflect what it’s like to live in the world; I don’t see them as disparate. Human life is multi-layered and I think the poems reflect that. There are drafts of a couple of poems starting around 2015; the latest were finished in 2020.

BRM: This book really starts off with a bang with ‘Night in the Castle’ about a poet on a writing grant in an Umbrian castle, with a scorpion twitching on the wall and ending with the speaker’s fantasy sweeping the centuries of what she would do if she were a duchess. Why did you decide to begin your book with this poem?

KA:—Castles and empire, privilege and entitlement, violence and power—seemed like a good place to open a collection. Not sure what you mean by “sweeping the centuries.” The poem actually ends with these lines:

Meanwhile the scorpion is still there twitching blackly
reciting something about violence & the prison of ego

& I can hear the clashing armies on the wide lawn outside
sinking down into history & then standing up again

—which is my (probably somewhat oblique) reference to the last stanza of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’. I found it in a novel as a teenager, and it has always affected me; later, in high school, I memorized the whole poem. It was, I think, my first encounter with real poetry, outside of some charming nursery rhymes and Robert Louis Stevenson verses.

BRM: In addition, I noticed that in this book, your poems, in the last section especially, have longer lines, which sometimes spill over to the line below. Is it because your thoughts were so big that you couldn’t fit them into one line? Did you consciously embrace this new style or did it just happen spontaneously?

KA: Long lines, alas, hardly guarantee big thoughts. But, yes, I did find that I liked the long, unspooling lines as a way of thinking things through. I first used long lines over twenty years ago, in Tell Me. I’m drawn to them, but I’m equally drawn to the kind of compression shorter lines and poems ask for.

BRM: Furthermore, there don’t seem to be as many formalist poems—sonnets, such as ‘High Desert’, New Mexico’ (Section 1), and ‘The Truth’, and ‘The Miraculous’ (Section 4), or villanelle, palindromes, etc. in this book as in some of your previous books. Are you moving away somewhat from formalist poetry?

KA: I’d love to be writing more sonnets, or at least sonnet-like fourteen-liners. But it has just seemed that lately the energy of the voice has manifested itself in those longer lines.

BRM: Your love affair with John Keats, however, lives on in your poems ‘Still Time’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You John Keats’, the latter in which you imagine yourself ‘falling through a wormhole….with medicines sewn in my pantaloons’. Why, of all your loves, do you think this one seems the most enduring?

KA: I wouldn’t say the most enduring, but I do love Keats. I think almost every poet is in love with Keats. I can’t say why. A Romantic poet who died young and had a startling ability to capture sensual experience—all that is part of it, I guess. Early brilliance, a life cut short. And when you can actually go visit the room he lay dying in, and look out the window by the Spanish Steps in Rome and see what he must have seen, and look at the same ceiling he looked at—it’s a powerful experience.

BRM: One of the most popular poems in this collection is ‘To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall’. Was this an actual event you witnessed and reported, was it taken from various experiences, or was it created almost entirely from your imagination?

KA: I don’t know a woman who hasn’t been in this situation, listening to someone sob one stall over. I think it struck whatever chord it did on social media because every woman has been there, and because it’s a poem of solace and hope, which are sorely needed.

BRM: How did you begin to write this poem? Did it come in pieces, a few lines here or there, or in one big block? How long did it take to write?

KA: Honestly, I don’t remember the writing process for that particular piece.

BRM: One the most striking aspects of this book is the ‘Confessional Poetry’ which I think is its most experimental section. Some of these poems are no more than one line. How did you start to write this section? Was there a specific event that triggered it, or did you just collect many confessional, short poems or thoughts?

KA: It’s one poem, spread over about twelve pages with very few lines per page. I can’t imagine these being read separately, though I guess some lines could stand alone. There’s an argument being examined, a line of thinking to follow from the first lines to the last: ‘It’s this. No, it’s this’. The decision to break it out from a page or so to spreading lines over several pages was a late decision, one of those flashes you get: Hey, what would this be like? I wanted to give each thought a little space, to slow down the pace, so each could be considered before you moved on. By the way, I don’t think the poem is ‘confessional’. I think it’s an essay about what we mean by ‘confessional’, and it’s an interrogation of what that label means. It’s performative, a role to inhabit. I expect it to be widely misunderstood.

BRM: My favourite line in the ‘Confessional Poetry’ section is ‘Not wearing waterproof mascara while you’re being tasered’. What is your favourite?

KA: That’s probably my favourite, too. Like: Here you are destroying me and asking me to conform to some standard of beauty; why don’t you fuck off?

BRM: Why do you think there are so many poems about desire, decay, disease and death in this book, especially in the last section entitled ‘Archive of Recent Uncomfortable Emotions’?

KA: As the Buddha pointed out, the terms of life are the inevitability of suffering, illness/old age, and death. The next question is, how does one respond to that, knowing this is what constitutes mortal life? You can give up; or you can make, create, find love, be kind, and especially have a sense of the absurd and some good laughs along the way.

BRM: Many of the poems in this book are related to the speaker’s legacy as a writer. For example in the second section in ‘Ghosted’ the speaker laments “Nothing is being named after me’. In ‘Confessional Poetry’, a ‘male critic is indexing my sins’ and ‘Supergluing my clitoris to the pillar of historical irrelevance’ or in ‘Art of Poetry’ in the final section, the speaker imagines her work discovered ‘sometime before the death of the sun’. Do you feel ‘Time’s winged chariot hurrying near’?

KA: Oh, sure. Who doesn’t? ‘Let us sport us while we may’, as Marvell’s seducer says.

BRM: What do you think your writer’s legacy will be?

KA: I don’t really think about my legacy. I’m just trying to write good poems, to make them as well as I can, and hope they find the people who need them.

BRM: Two lines which especially caught my attention in this book are ‘I really like feeling something when I stagger into a poem / & having a place to lie down & cry’ (from ‘Confessional Poems’) and ‘Eventually you have to go out and walk around in the world like you belong / there’ (from ‘The Art of Poetry’). Do you feel that poetry is your home?

KA: Yeah, I do feel it’s my home. I’ve published novels and books of stories, but poetry is where my heart is.

BRM: Have you got any future projects or books in the works which you would like to share with AQ’s readers at this time?

KA: I’m slowly working on a handful of essays and some new poems. I’m pretty tapped out right now, though, so it’s going to be a while before anything coalesces into another book. In the meantime, some friends just gave me a banjo and I’m having a great time learning to play it. I’m figuring out this beautiful old Stephen Foster tune, ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’, written in 1854. Mavis Staples does a soulful rendition. I’m also looking forward to doing a bunch of virtual readings for the new book, and, someday being able to get back out into the larger world.

BRM: Kim Addonizio, thank you very much for your time and your responses.

KA: My pleasure.           AQ

Bryan R. Monte – Vita – An Interview with Susan Lloy

Bryan R. Monte
Vita — An Interview with Susan Lloy

Susan Lloy is the author of two books of short fiction, But When We Look Closer (2017) and Vita: Stories (2019) both from Now or Never Publishing. Her fiction has been published in Avalon Literary Review; Lock Raven Review; Beecher’s 4 Magazine; Donut Factory; The Literary Commune, UK; Literary Orphans; Jumblebook; PARAGRAPHITI; Penduline Press; The Prague Review; Revolution House Magazine; The Roundup Writer’s Zine; Scarlet Leaf Review; Toronto Prose Mill; Transportation Press; The Writing Disorder; and Revolution House as well as in Amsterdam Quarterly and in The Neighbours Anthology, (Zimble House Publishing).

Bryan R. Monte: How does it feel to have two collections of short stories, But When We Look Closer and Vita: Stories, published in the last two years?

Susan Lloy: It feels like an accomplishment. However, my audience is very limited. It has proved difficult to find ways to broaden the scope of readers.

BRM: Well, you should be very proud of these two books, not only for their contents, but also for their design. Their typeface, cover art, size and bindings make them very attractive. I especially like both books’ eye-catching cover art. Were you also involved in these books’ design?

SL: Only with Vita. I chose the image for the front cover and the book’s cover font.

BRM: What is your academic and professional background, and how has this influenced you as a writer?

SL: I have a Bachelor’s of Design in Communication Design from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design University. I did a study exchange at Parsons School of Design and Cooper Union for the advancement of Science and Art in New York. I studied graphic design at Parsons and the history of experimental film at Cooper Union

BRM: That must have been an interesting and educational semester.

SL: Obviously, New York was a great influence. It was an exciting, fruitful time and it fuelled me with a lust for creative endeavours. I have always been interested in the arts and originally wanted to be a painter, but studied graphic design instead.

BRM: Do you make your living as a writer and as a graphic artist?

SL: No. I work full-time as the unit coordinator on the Cardiac Surgery Unit at the McGill University Health Centre. This takes a lot of energy, so my creative output is quite dependent on what is going on at work. Working in healthcare is an entire trilogy on its own. Maybe someday….

BRM: How long have you been writing?

SL: As far as writing is concerned … I have written from an early age. But I took a long absence from writing when I had my son in the 1990s. I did, however, write a children’s story for him during this period. Currently, an illustrator and myself are seeking publication for this story. All of my work is dedicated to my son, Nicolas.

BRM: How long have you been writing short stories?

SL: Seriously, for about the last six years.

BRM: How long have you been sending them out?

SL: Since the beginning.

BRM: Would you call yourself a disciplined writer? For example, do you have a regular schedule for writing, editing and submitting your work?

SL: When I have an idea for a piece of fiction, I get busy with it immediately. Yet, if I’m in between stories, I can be unproductive. I do, nonetheless, keep a notebook of thoughts and ideas for future tales.

BRM: I believe that what Jacob Appel does with plot in his short stories, you do with character in yours. How do you ‘find’ these interesting characters that draw the reader in and power them through your stories — through experience, observation, or pure fantasy or perhaps a combination of two or three factors?

SL: A combination of all three, as I think this is true for most writers. We all reflect, subtract and bend reality to create.

BRM: Could you be more specific? For example, how did you create the voice of the main character from ‘Mean Waitress’ and some of your other stories?

SL: The voice for ‘Mean Waitress’ is my own. I was that mean waitress. Layla in ‘Layla Was Here’ is pure fantasy. I wanted the verse to portray the uninvited person in her head. The short story ‘Vita’ is an observation in the process of an individual’s death.

BRM: Do you share some of your characters’ obsessions with Amsterdam in your short stories such as ‘Dutch Lite’ in But When We Look Closer and ‘Invisible Matter’ and ‘The Little Bang’ in Vita?

SL: Yes, I can be obsessive. I like to expand on these traits. I find it makes the characters multi-layered.

BRM: How often have you visited Mokum?

SL: I have visited Amsterdam more than 15 times.

BRM: Have you ever lived here?

SL: Yes, from 1987 to 1990.

BRM: More specifically, have you ever sat in a Jordaan café as your character in ‘Invisible Matter’ in Vita waiting to meet an ex-?

SL: Yes. Every time I visit.

BRM: What originally drew you to Amsterdam from Canada?

SL: Initially, I came to Amsterdam to take part in a three-month internship with a renowned design firm. At the time I was at a crossroads in my life following the death of my parents in a car crash. I wanted a change geographically and personally.

BRM: What made you stay?

SL: Love and friendship. Although I knew no one when I arrived, I was fortunate to meet some very good people. From previous visits, I could imagine living in Amsterdam and I thought that I would stay.

BRM: What are three of your favourite places in Amsterdam?

SL: The first place would be the Café de Klepel on the Prinsenstraat, when it was a bar. This was the place where I met most of my friends. Next, would be the Jordaan. It’s the neighbourhood where I lived. I love its beauty and its village vibe. And lastly, the harbour. I come from the sea, so I am partial to ports.

BRM: What made you decide to leave?

SL: My younger sister. It was just the two of us and she was living in Montreal. She suggested I return to Canada as I had lost interest in graphic design and I was unsure of what I wanted for the future. Sadly, my sister died from cancer not long after my return. And though I have remained in this northern land, I travel to Amsterdam in my mind each and every day.

BRM: I am very sorry for your loss.

SL: Thank you, Bryan, for your condolences. They touch me deeply. I have had a lot of loss in my personal life. I often write about this theme. Loss is universal. Everyone gets it.

BRM: Mental health issues are very important in Vita such as in ‘That Screaming Silence’ (anti-social and homicidal behaviour), ‘Voices’ (suicide), and ‘Layla Was Here’ (a woman whose artistic identity was repressed both in her life and in the record she leaves behind) and ‘Mademoiselle Energy’ (schizophrenia). Could you share how and where you found the inspiration for the characters and situations for a few of these stories?

SL: I believe these often, marginalized individuals have a purer truth and also deserve a voice. Mental health is close to my heart. Something innate. In reference to ‘That Screaming Silence’, I have always lived in noisy, urban flats. I wonder what I would do if I finally invested in a home and discovered such noisy neighbours. As far as my other stories linked with mental disturbances, they are completely imaginary, although, I may have chatted with these characters somewhere along the way.

BRM: Rebellion is also a theme in Vita’s stories. To what extent were you a rebel in your teens, 20s or later, and to what extent are you still?

SL: I was a rebel in my youth. And yes, even though I’m longer in the tooth at present, nonconformity remains inherent.

BRM: Structurally, what is the function of the shorter, poetic vignettes between the longer short stories in Vita?

SL: I find that they serve as compact, cinematic breaks between the larger stories.

BRM: Was that arrangement your idea or an editor’s?

SL: This arrangement is my own.

BRM: You prove your versatility as a fiction writer in Vita not only in your shorter pieces, but also in the characters and situations of two longer stories, ‘Layla Was Here’ and ‘California Reelin’. Did they take longer to write than the others?

SL: Yes, longer.

BRM: How long?

SL: It took me a couple of months with each of these stories.

BRM: ‘Layla Was Here’ is written in the form of journal entries from two different people, one who writes the text and the other who finds the text buried in his back garden and his response to it. The story brings together the buried narrative of a seemingly failed, psychologically unstable, female artist and the man who unearths her diary in his back garden. When did you come up with the journal format for ‘Layla Was Here’, at the beginning, or is this something that came to you as you worked on the piece?

SL: The journal format was the idea from the get-go. I also knew the ending from the start. The concept was like the discovery of a diary.

BRM: ‘California Reelin’ takes your characters out of their usual Canadian or Dutch settings. Have you ever lived or vacationed in California in the middle of a cold, Canadian winter? How did you come up with this story?

SL: Yes, I have visited California a couple of times, long ago. It’s beautiful. The inspiration for the story came from a reality show where buyers pay cash for extremely expensive properties. I thought: ‘What sort of mischief could my character get into if she went to work for one of those brokers?’

BRM: In ‘California Reelin’, your protagonist meets a man who convinces her to break into the exclusive Bohemian Grove in Northern California to learn about its secret rituals. How close is this story’s setting and characters to your own experience?

SL: Bohemian Grove is a real place, so I planted my characters into a situation that only those in Bohemian Grove can know the outcome of, whether its based on fantasy or not.

BRM: Did you find it more difficult to write these two longer stories, or did they just seem to flow once you get started?

SL: Once I moulded my ideas for these stories, they flowed rather easily.

BRM: ‘Capture’ is also a departure from your other stories because it is an account of a kidnapped, baby elephant in the voice of that elephant. What inspired you to write this story?

SL: ‘Capture’ is inspired from a photograph I saw in the Guardian International. A young elephant was captured for a Chinese zoo. It broke my heart.

BRM: Do you think you will attempt other non-human narratives in the future?

SL: I can’t confirm that at this point.

BRM: With two books of short stories to your credit now, could you share with AQ’s readers perhaps a bit about some ongoing or future projects? What are you working on at this moment?

SL: Currently, I’m working on a themed collection of stories. These stories are about retirement. Yet, the characters find themselves in unconventional situations. One marries a polygamist. Another murders her husband on a sailing trip around the Mediterranean. Someone else moves to Abruzzo, taking up the violin only to spoil the olive harvest with her inferior playing.

BRM: Susan Lloy, thank you for taking part in this interview.

SL: Thanks, Bryan. I’m honoured you asked. AQ

Naomi Shihab Nye – Teaching was a Lifeline

Teaching was a Lifeline
An Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye
by Bryan R. Monte

Palestinian-American Naomi Shihab Nye is the author or editor of more than thirty books. She won the National Poetry Series for Hugging the Jukebox, (E.P. Dutton, 1982), the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award for You & Yours, (BOA Editions, 2005) and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for her children’s books, Sitti’s Secrets and Habibi. Her book of poems about the Middle East, 19 Varieties of Gazelle, was a finalist for the National Book Award. She has also won four Pushcart Prizes, received Lannan, Guggenheim and Witter Bryner Fellowships and the American Academy of Poets (AAP) Lavan Award as well as being elected AAP Chancellor in 2009. She has lived in Ferguson, Missouri, Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas and has taught at the University of California at Berkeley, the Michener Center at the University of Texas, and the University of Hawai’i, among other institutions. In June 2017, Nye was interviewed by Amsterdam Quarterly about her teaching philosophy, methods and experience, and the roles storytelling and her students have had on her work.

Bryan R. Monte: What is the role teaching has played in your life as a poet?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Teaching—or at any rate, standing in front of a million classes of all ages and encouraging writing (not sure “teaching” is really the best word here)—has been like a continual blood transfusion. It woke me up. It was a lifeline, yes, because it kept me alive in my art and in my greatest love of other people’s art. I was continually digging for poems that might move other people in various moments and situations.

You lose faith in your own passion or process, your enthusiasm dims, and the sorrowful news of the world pours down around your shoulders like a toxic rain—how do you revive?

You figure out what might inspire other people. You find a door, a knob, a hinge, and you move it. Because I was, continually, a freelancer, I constantly had to stay alert, try to find clues about what might work in the moment, and this helped me as a poet. What one does to lead a group in Albany, Texas, a small west Texas ranching town (which hosts public historic theatre events in a massive outdoor amphitheatre, as well as rattlesnake round-ups) is not the same as one would do in an orphanage in the desert in Jordan (all the little boys wearing white shirts)—you keep improvising. For a poet, this is very good.

BRM: Do you believe being a poet is a gift or a skill or a combination of both?

NSN: I believe we have intuitive pulls or interests from early childhood, which might be classified as gifts, but they can definitely be developed and strengthened, or ignored. I do think all people, especially as children, have “poetry channels” in their brains and these are the tunings into remembrance, figurative thinking, mindful attention, daydreaming, interior savouring of certain images for years and years, etc. Also, it is never too late. This channel gets a clearer beam later on, for some people, even if they have not been tuning in intentionally for years.

BRM: Thom Gunn, for example, wrote me that creative writing courses could only really give students, that initial push, beyond which, they were on their own. Do you agree with this perspective?

NSN: I agree with him, but such courses may also convince us we are never alone—on our own, but never alone. They may also make us sturdier about accepting different responses to our own poems, which can be crucial for a lifetime writer—an essential resilience and neutrality about “what other people think.”

BRM: You’ve taught all over the world. What is the most unusual place you’ve ever taught?

NSN: A rollerskating rink in the Aleutian Islands. It was the biggest place to gather in that community, apparently. There were very good writers there too. And lots of background skating noise. And music.

BRM: What is the farthest you have every travelled to teach a class?

NSN: Up to Nome, Alaska? Muscat, Oman? Cities in China and Japan? It never felt far, though. It always felt close once you shared a poem or two.

BRM: Do you usually have a lesson plan or a set of exercises at the ready when you begin teaching a class?

NSN: I am very free-flowing. I usually have ideas, plans, examples, in my pocket, but am ready to change course if intuition guides. I have been in literally thousands of class settings by now so that helps. I do have a general “flow of things” I try to follow—always ending with sharing of work and perhaps further suggestions ….

BRM: What are some of your favourite techniques and media to teach poetry?

NSN: Modelling on existing poems. Group writings, to get words flowing. Questions and answers. Tiny poems—see a book called Braided Creek by Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison. Like tiny modern haiku. Recent observations—within the last 24 hours. Incorporating spoken voices into poems. I encourage a lot of note-taking first—clumps or nuggets of writing—then drawing on those to find a possible poem.

BRM: How have you used and/or adapted these techniques and media to teach poetry in different cultures and in other parts of the world?

NSN: Wherever we travel, there are local concerns, and it’s best to pay attention to some of these and try to incorporate them into writing possibilities. I am always hoping to help other people feel their own lives are as rich, as full of particular details, struggles, glories, essential joys, possibilities than anyone else’s lives. It is startling how many of us feel real life must surely be happening “over there”—somewhere else. I now live in an American state—Texas—for a very long time, actually—with a bad reputation, politically. When I travel to other American states people often roll their eyes and ask me how we can stand to live here. They only know the stereotypes of our state—ignorant politicians, guns, swagger.

By speaking of simple local things—all the richness that makes up daily Texas life—I can touch upon details they all have in their lives too. It’s important as a writer to penetrate stereotypes wherever we can. I’m sure I am carrying plenty of my own about the current American regime, which I find shocking and terrifying. To become human to one another—to find ground we share—to honour the lusciousness of details (which war never has)—all are crucial for connection. In other countries I probably ask more questions than I do at home. We never pay quite enough attention and we never ask enough questions. But a writing workshop is a perfect place to try to do that more.

BRM: What do you see as your primary role as a creative writing teacher? Are you primarily a facilitator, an instructor, a good listener, a mentor, a moderator, a referee, a resource person or a combination of some of these roles and maybe others I haven’t mentioned?

NSN: I feel I am all these things you say. What a terrific and comprehensive list! Perhaps mostly I am an encourager. It’s like a children’s book—if I can do it, you can do it.

BRM: What role does storytelling have in your poems?

NSN: Those of us who favour narrative poems—moments—included dialogue—definitely feel as if we are part of the storytelling family. We are the cousins!

BRM: Do you usually start a poem with a story or does it usually begin with an image that accumulates into a story?

NSN: I start anywhere I can. I start everywhere. Every day is full of beginnings. We need to give ourselves a lot of room to try things out. We need to abandon delusions of perfection.

BRM: Your poetry is definitely a poetry rooted in specific places. Give examples of how living in Missouri, Jerusalem and Texas has influenced your writing differently.

NSN: Thank you for feeling places in my poems. When I think of Missouri, I think of the humid summer heat, the steeping in deep green memory, the cognizance of precious childhood that abides in some of us always, if we have a certain taste for it. I will always be entering my parents’ humble home in Ferguson, imagining them inside there, waiting for me, under the pine trees, next to the cherry trees, interested. I will always be feeling the clash of cultures, the arguing, the depression of my mother that was a very graphic backdrop to childhood years. It was acute. I was deeply concerned. Always trying to make her happy. My father’s endless restlessness…my mother’s frustrations and love for art.

When I think of Jerusalem, I will always be on the high hill outside the city with my father, and he is saying, “This place will change your life forever. Look closely. Do not look away.” He was so right. It was the pivotal time of life, when my world opened up and I became a global citizen—a much stronger feeling than being any particular kind of “patriot”—I think.

And Texas—the long roads—the huge sky—the friendliness—still ongoing. We live near the San Antonio River where egrets and cranes roost in the trees at sundown. I now feel like one of those birds, pushing our baby grandson in his carriage, as he drifts off to sleep. What images will he carry? What sticks? We, who are readers, are very lucky to have lines and phrases, from books we loved, sticking to our minds as well as our own images from experience.

BRM: A teacher once dedicated a book: “To my students, who were my best teachers.” What do you feel are two or three important things you’ve learned from your students about poetry?

NSN: Stay open. Be surprised. Someone else might like something you didn’t even like that much. AQ

Jacob M. Appel – Of Sanity, Illness and Ruin

Of Sanity, Illness and Ruin. An Interview with Jacob M. Appel
by Bryan R. Monte
© 2017 Amsterdam Quarterly. All rights reserved.

Polymath Jacob M. Appel (b. 1973) is a lawyer, physician, psychiatrist, bioethicist, certified New York City tour guide, university professor and award-winning writer. He has won the William Faulkner-William Wilson short story award (2004), the Dundee International Book Prize (2011) for the novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, the Black Lawrence Hudson Prize (2012) for the collection Scouting for the Reaper, the Serena McDonald Kennedy Fiction Award (2014) for the collection The Magic Laundry, and the Howling Bird Press Fiction Award (2016) for The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street. Stories. Below is an interview conducted with him in January 2017 about his writing discipline, his literary influences, and the effect medicine and his Belgian-American background has had on his writing.

BRM: With such a busy life, as a bioethicist, doctor and teacher, how did you/do you find the time to write so many award-winning papers, novels and memoirs?

JMA: It’s easy to find time to do things I love doing. I’ll confess that my relationship with writing is much like the relationship some of my patients have with heroin. I look forward to sitting down at my keyboard each day, and if I miss a few days, I suffer through psychological withdrawal. Being a physician and teacher actually helps, as these are rather flexible callings. If I had to be at the coal mine twelve hours a day, six days a week, it would likely be much more difficult to write.

BRM: Do you watch television?

JMA: No.

BRM: Follow social media?

JMA: No.

BRM: Belong to a gym?

JMA: No.

BRM: Have any kind of a social life?

JMA: Yes. Of course, much of my time with friends and family is spent imagining how our conversations, lightly edited, would sound in short stories or novels.

BRM: Do you have any hobbies other than writing or studying for degrees?

JMA: Reading history, attending the theatre, flirting with barmaids. Since I don’t drink, the last proves rather challenging—most women find it odd when you tip five dollars on a glass of water.

BRM: Do you have a secretary who sends out and tracks your manuscripts?

JMA: I should be so lucky!

BRM: A regular time and place when and where you write?

JMA: I write whenever I can cobble together a few hours of down time, often at the hospital in a quiet nursing station or unoccupied examination room. But most of my best writing is done before I put pen to paper—inside my head, mulling over storylines and characters. The American short story writer Grace Paley used to say that she did her best writing in the bathtub. Metaphorically speaking, I assume, although I was never invited to bathe with Grace Paley. That’s sort of what I do, although rarely in the bath.

BRM: How do you shift gears between working on different genres and projects? For example, I knew someone in San Francisco who had separate tables for writing poetry, fiction, and non-fiction with the pertinent papers and books on each, and he’d visit each one over a three-day period. Do you have a similar system or schedule for your writing in four major genres (drama, fiction, essays and memoirs) or do you do a bit of each, each day?

JMA: That would involve the luxury of having an apartment with enough space for three tables, which might be possible in San Francisco, but is a pipe-dream in New York.

BRM: Yes, he had a three-bedroom house.

JMA: I generally only work in one genre at a time, although I may occasionally write a short essay or even a poem while at work on a longer project. As a rule, I choose the genre and project based upon the time allotted—if I am going to have a quiet month at the hospital, I might embark upon a novel, but if my opportunities to write will be sporadic and short, I choose a project that can be completed in days or weeks.

BRM: You seem to be a very prolific writer. Had you been writing and storing up work that you’d written years ago or did you experience a sudden burst of creativity in your mid- to late thirties regarding fiction?

JMA: I’ve been writing seriously for about twenty years. At least since I attended law school in the late 1990s. Through much of that time, I suffered from “publisher’s block” – this is sort of like writer’s block, only the obstacle to publication occurs at a different step in the process. Slowly (all too slowly!) this is beginning to change, as publishers are starting to show an interest in my work. Alas, my writing is about as commercial as soot, so I still have lots of stockpiled fiction. Particularly long fiction. If you know anybody who wants to buy a novel, please send her my way.

BRM: How have the topics, themes and techniques of your pieces changed over time?

JMA: I think writers have a “natural range” and part of developing as a writer is learning to embrace one’s limitations. Faulkner was wise enough not to write about Russian peasants; Henry James avoided whaling expeditions and tales of runaways on Mississippi rafts. Occasionally, a writer is fortunate enough to claim a very wide range. Henry Green. E. M. Forster. Or William Styron, who can write about the Holocaust and African-American slavery and clinical depression with equally powerful insights. When I started out as a writer, I tried to push myself outside my range of comfort – writing about people whose experiences were alien to my own. With time, I’ve come to focus on what I know well—upper-middle class urban and suburban professionals, clinging to order amidst the frustration and chaos of their narrow, tenuous worlds.

BRM: Have you gone through any stylistic/thematic experiments that you later exhausted and/or abandoned?

JMA: I’ve abandoned countless projects. In the 1990s, I wrote about 75% of a novel that retold the story of Mrs. Dalloway in the past and present…and a few years later, Michael Cunningham published The Hours (a brilliant, moving book) that did largely the same thing, and better, and that was the end of that.

BRM: Which writers do you admire?

JMA: I’ll confess I read mostly classics, often over and over again. I could read Anna Karenina or Middlemarch several thousand times without tiring. (My favourite scene in western literature is when Koznyshev takes Varenka mushroom picking in Anna Karenina and fails to propose.) I love comedies of manners—Fielding, Austin, Lucky Jim. And works that capture, to quote Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook, the “long littleness” of life. But I can also be entranced by the magical if it’s magical enough. What sane reader doesn’t have a soft spot for John Fowles or Thornton Wilder? Among contemporary American writers, I’m very much a fan of Kevin Brockmeier, Dan Chaon, Robert Olen Butler, Elizabeth Graver, George Harrar. I also recently discovered Michelle Herman and Rebecca Makkai. Both geniuses! And I adore Philip Larkin’s poems—even if he might not have been the ideal guest for Christmas dinner. My formers students and mentees like Chanan Tigay, CJ Hauser and Brigit Kelly Young are also brilliant and deserve far more recognition.

BRM: Looking at your short stories, I’d guess that Poe’s atmospheric darkness and O. Henry’s snap endings have had some influence on your work.

JMA: You’re not the first reader to suggest that, but they’re less direct influences than one might think. Candidly, I haven’t read O. Henry (or Maupassant, for that matter) in many years. The most significant direct literary influence on my work probably comes from contemporary drama: Paula Vogel, Tina Howe, Sarah Ruhl. Playwrights who push the limits of the possible, often with humour and whimsy and madness.

BRM: How does a story or memoir first come to you?

JMA: That is indeed the $64,000 question. I wish I could say I’m struck with wisdom, or envision an image, or find my way through a dream, but the not-very-helpful answer is, it just happens. Like falling in love. Or a fatal heart attack. So that’s the best I can offer: coming up with a story idea is something akin to falling in love and suffering a fatal heart attack. I will just somehow know that my next story is about a curmudgeonly landlord who rents an apartment to a mime or an extraterrestrial who finds himself disguised as a Latvian chef opposite an Alabama abortion clinic.

BRM: How does it usually develop?

JMA: That’s an easier question to answer. Once I have a premise—let’s say my mime tenant or Latvian alien—then I map out the scenes needed to tell the story. I always write in scenes and I always know how many scenes I require before I start writing. Even from early childhood, I have always possessed a talent for causing a scene, at least according to my mother, so this part comes naturally to me.

BRM: How do you know when you’re finished?

JMA: Honestly, I know I’m finished when somebody agrees to publish the piece. Or, on occasion, when I return the galleys and it’s out of my hands. The perfect, as Voltaire warns, is the enemy of the good…and fortunately the modern editorial process renders even the illusion of perfection impossible.

BRM: You mentioned to me in another conversation that you’d applied to writing classes at Brown, as an undergraduate, but were rejected. Do you remember the reasons given?

JMA: In my memory, I tell myself they were full and closed to enrolment. But it’s also possible I was rejected “on the merits,” so to speak, but have chosen to block this out.

BRM: Does your publishing success in at least four genres in the last decade seem like a vindication?

JMA: I should begin by saying, while I appreciate the kind words, that my successes are somewhat limited. (I’m not even the most successful writer named “Jacob Appel”; there’s another non-fiction writer, for whom I’m often mistaken, who generally gets better press.) But even if I win the Nobel Prize – and don’t cash in your frequent flyer miles on SAS just yet—it still wouldn’t be vindication. I write from a deeply-held sense of inadequacy, as I imagine many writers do, probably a congenital affliction or one acquired in early childhood. I’m not sure publishing successes will ever cure that…although I am certainly glad to have them. Psychotherapy might, of course, but I’ve worked alongside enough headshrinkers not to trust them.

BRM: What is the significance of your Belgian-American upbringing on your writing? You’ve mentioned it in your memoirs and Allen Lewinter, the protagonist in your short story, “The Current Occupant,” in your most recent collection, The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, mentions his relatives arrived as refugees in America with 15 Belgian francs between them. What influence has your grandparent’s flight from Nazi Europe and their Flemish language and heritage had on your writing?

JMA: I was extremely close to my late grandfather, who was born in Eastern Europe but raised in Antwerp, Belgium, and always considered himself a Belgian-American. He was one of the most generous human beings I’ve ever known; he was also an amateur poet in his youth, and apparently published Flemish-language poems in several small journals in Belgium, although none appear to have survived. (If anyone can find any poetry by Sander Leo Appel from the 1930s, I’d be forever grateful.) As a result of his influence, I also consider myself a Belgian-American: I studied Dutch in college and made a pilgrimage to the alley off the Terliststraat where he grew up. His flight from the adopted homeland that he loved, and the stories he told, have heavily influenced my fiction. Many of my characters are psychological exiles or refugees, even if they haven’t been physically driven from their homes.

BRM: What is the role of medicine in your writing?

JMA: The impact is largely indirect. Because I’m a psychiatrist, I hear the most amazing stories nearly every day…and I’m not allowed to share them with anyone. So I have to push my imagination in the opposite direction – to create new worlds that I’m 100% certain aren’t drawn from reality.

I do find that medicine, and particularly psychiatry, reminds me daily how close we all are to the edge—of sanity, of illness, of ruin. Friendships and relationships are fragile; promises evaporate under strain. These sentiments form the backbone of my writing.

BRM: How have medical concepts, procedures or cases informed and inspired your writing?

JMA: I have written about a few cases in my collection of essays, Phoning Home, including a piece about my favourite patient (with his permission): a nonagenarian who had once been the chauffeur for American President Harry Truman. But I strive to keep my clinical experiences out of my fiction. My worst fear is that one of my patients reads my latest novel and believes I wrote about him, even if I didn’t. Okay, that’s not my worst fear. My worst fear is nuclear winter. But it’s a close second.

BRM: For example, William Carlos Williams’ “A Difficult Case” could almost be considered a memoir of the treatment of one of his patients, yet it follows the standard arc of a short story. Have you had any similar experiences?

JMA: Williams, who was both a gifted writer and a skilled clinician, had a couple of advantages that I don’t have: he was a paediatrician, not a psychiatrist, and rules governing medical confidentiality were much laxer in his day. I can’t imagine hospital bureaucrats threatening to fire Chekhov or Maugham or Walker Percy over violations of federal disclosure statutes. So I work in a system that makes even fictionalised accounts of cases difficult to write and publish. In the United States, permission from the patient is often not enough to print these stories…one also needs permission from the hospital, from one’s colleagues, etc. It’s much easier to make things up entirely.

BRM: What informs and motivates your writing about euthanasia? You mentioned that when you get to the end, you want someone to put a plastic sack over your head. I, on the other hand, want a computer I can write with by moving my eyeball, and as a result of “live organ donor” horrors, I have decided to exempt myself from the proposed, automatic, organ donor programme here in the Netherlands if it becomes law. How do you feel about that?

JMA: I think the most important objective, which I do believe to be possible, is a system that allows both of us to have our wishes fulfilled. I don’t think there’s a “right” answer about how or when to die, but rather, a “right” answer for each individual. From my work with patients, I’ve found that many people who would never choose assisted suicide still benefit from knowing that it’s an option in theory—that there is an “out” if they ever wanted to choose it. So it’s very possible I wouldn’t go through with my “plastic sack” plan, but knowing that’s a possibility is comforting to me. Of course, I think it’s also essential to have system with meaningful safeguards. Failure to protect those who do not want euthanasia is absolutely unconscionable. As we know, many people can live very meaningful lives and contribute considerably to the commonweal while in the throes of severe illness or disability. Steven Hawking. Jean-Dominique Bauby. I’ll have a novel out in 2018 addressing these challenging issues.

BRM: Most of your books are published by what some would consider indie presses (Black Lawrence, Snake Nation, and Howling Bird Press). Is there a reason for this or is this just coincidental?

JMA: Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is at play here. Unfortunately, large publishers in the United States are reluctant to publish literary short stories, especially by writers who lack a pre-existing following. My first novel was published by a mid-sized British publisher and I have a new novel coming out with Permanent Press in 2017, which is considerably larger than many of the independents that I have previously worked with—although obviously not Knopf or FSG. But there are upsides to working with smaller presses: The editors tend to be lovely people, deeply invested in the projects. I have made some wonderful friends working with these presses. It’s harder to imagine that happening with a “Big Five” publisher who also manufactures household appliances.

BRM: I’ve dog-eared many pages of your books that mention Creve Coeur, (Broken Heart) Rhode Island. What is the special significance of this place in your fiction?

JMA: I went to college at Brown University in Rhode Island and later taught there for many years, so “Creve Coeur” is my rendering of Providence. The name itself is pinched from a rather dreary bedroom suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, which happens to be the international headquarters of Monsanto. I have been to Creve Coeur, Missouri, and I cannot imagine any place less romantic—not heart breaking, just heartless. In contrast, Rhode Island is a magical place brimming with the ghosts of whaling captains and mobsters.

BRM: What new projects (genres/themes) are you currently working on that you’d like to share with AQ’s readers with giving too much away?

JMA: I have a novel on the theme of assisted suicide coming out in 2018. And I’m currently working on a mystery novel narrated from the point of view of a psychiatric patient with schizophrenia, who believes one of her fellow patients has been murdered. But mostly, like the rest of the world, I’m trying to keep the photocopier from jamming, and looking for that missing sock, and dreaming, not too realistically, of a date with the novelist Karen Russell. Ah, the glories of the literary life….

Iain Matheson – Marks on Paper: Writing Music, Writing Poetry

Marks on Paper: Writing Music, Writing Poetry
An Interview with Iain Matheson

by Bryan R. Monte
Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte and Iain Matheson. All rights reserved.

Iain Matheson is a Scottish composer and poet, born, raised and educated in Glasgow, who lives in Edinburgh. His musical compositions have been performed in countries such as the Netherlands, France, Scotland, Spain and New Zealand by groups such as the Hebrides Ensemble, the New Zealand String Quartet and the Luxembourg Sinfonietta. His poetry has appeared in The Scotman newspaper, in Gutter, and in Amsterdam Quarterly. Recently, AQ had the opportunity to interview Matheson about his background, how he composes, what types of pieces he writes, the style of his compositions and the relationship in his creative life between his poetry and his music.

Bryan R. Monte: When did you first start to write poetry and music?

Iain Matheson: I started to write music at school, so around age 15; though of course I didn’t have public performances till much later. I wrote a few poems in my teens, a few more in my 30s. I’ve been writing poetry seriously since age 50 (I’ve just turned 60). I think of myself as an experienced musician, but still quite new to poetry.

BRM: So you’ve been writing music longer than poetry seriously?

IM: Yes.

BRM: How much longer?

IM: About 15 years longer.

BRM: What type of music do you write?

IM: I’ve always composed in the classical genre – an unhelpfully vague term nowadays, I know.

BRM: Could you define classical? Whose music is your music similar to?

IM: For me “classical” means, firstly, music that’s completely written down; and then, the potential for formal complexity and experimentation implied in that. The music is transferable: it goes from inside the composer’s head, via marks on paper, to the minds and bodies of performers. As soon as you work with written music, you’re part of a 1,000-year tradition, beginning with people who invented a way to represent music on a page: and you have to decide how you’ll relate to that.

A composer is probably the last person to ask: “Whose is your music similar to?” The answer will probably be someone whose work, or whose name, most
people don’t know. To me, my music is similar to (at least, it comes about through a similar process to) the music of Arnold Schoenberg. It may be more useful to say WHAT it sounds like: people have told me it sounds like tree frogs, or water dripping into a jar.

BRM: What type of poetry do you write?

IM: From the start I was interested in writing formal poetry: I started, as I suppose many people do, with tight shapes and rhymes: ballads, sonnets, sestinas.

BRM: Was there a specific event that inspired you to start writing poetry/music or did you just start writing poetry/music after hearing or reading poetry/music? For example, I remember listening to a poet at my second form read one of his poems whose rhythm imitated that of a tennis ball being volleyed back and forth across the net and I thought—I can do that—and I did.

IM: I played the piano and studied music at school and university, and it seemed obvious to me that I should try to write music, to help me understand what Bach and Beethoven were doing. I’m better at composing than performing; I’m happy to leave the playing to others.

I’ve always enjoyed reading, and writing words seemed a natural way of finding out how real writers put them together. At the time I didn’t question why I wrote poetry rather than prose: I think now that, because I understood the tiny details of moving musical notes around, the distilled language of poetry seemed similar. I’ve begun to think of writing words as a more direct form of creativity than composing – no need to find a performer once the poem is written. But in my mind I’m a composer who sometimes writes poetry: that’s the emphasis.

BRM: What type of music do you generally write?

IM: I usually write in lines (so-called counterpoint) rather than chords: horizontal rather than vertical. I’ve written a lot of chamber music (up to four instruments) as that’s the most practical to find ensembles and performance opportunities. It’s rare to find an orchestra eager to try new music; if only because rehearsing an orchestra is so expensive.

BRM: What type of poetry do you generally write?

IM: I write quite abstract, formal poems: usually taking off from the sound of a word, which leads to other words with similar sounds. I don’t set out to write a poem “about” a particular subject: the subject emerges, if at all, in the writing process. Lately I’ve been writing in syllabics: each line a fixed number of syllables.

BRM: Who are three of your favourite composers and their pieces how have they inspired you?

IM: Scriabin’s music speaks a revolutionary harmonic language within quite traditional forms. Especially in his piano music, the theosophical extravagance of his philosophical ideas leads him to imagine completely new sounds such as in Piano Sonata #9. Haydn’s music is elegant and deceptively straightforward; but he’s always trying something new, taking himself by surprise. He’s a master of silence in music in String Quartet op.50/6. Webern’s music has very clear patterns, and he attends to every tiny detail. He composes in very tight shapes, with just a few notes, inventing restrictions for himself. Again, silence is vital: at times the music seems like a frame for silence as in Canons op.16 for soprano and clarinets.

BRM: Who are three of your favourite poets and their poems how have they inspired you?

IM: I enjoy John Donne’s poetry, especially the late sonnets: flamboyant imagery crowded into very economical shapes. “Holy Sonnet X: Death be not proud.” I’ve heard Kay Ryan reading in Scotland a few times. Her willingness to follow the sound of the words and let meaning take second place is delicious: on paper, short lines make the shape of her poems fascinating in “Blue China Doorknob”. W. S. Graham was a Scottish poet, maybe not well-known in other countries. Many of his poems touch on the process of writing poems, and remind the reader that a poem is a constructed thing such as in “Dear Bryan Winter.”

BRM: How is writing a poem different from writing a piece of music?

IM: I don’t know that writing a poem, in the way I write one, is very different: the difference is in the awareness of how others may read it. Because a poem uses words that people know, they often expect a “meaning” in the way that doesn’t apply when they hear a new piece of music.

BRM: Let me rephrase that question. How is starting to write a poem, different from how you begin to write a piece of music? Do you start with a phrase or an image with a poem, for example, and a series of sounds for music?

IM: I see what you mean. For me, they both start with sound. A poem usually starts with a word, which I take apart to see what sounds are contained within it, and what other words its sound might suggest. A piece of music often begins with an interval (the distance between two notes, one higher, one lower): but that’s almost inseparable from the sound of whichever instrument I know will be playing the piece.

BRM: In what ways are poetry and music similar?

IM: They are comparable systems of making marks on paper: musical notation on the one hand, writing on the other. They can contain similar formal patterns: line lengths, rhythms, repetitions. They can use different sounds (instrumental sounds, or vowels and consonants) to make a specific sound world for each work. They can incorporate silence as a formal and expressive element. They can make the flow of time seem erratic. They can have titles that lead or mislead. They can combine contrasting elements, and invite the audience to find a way in which they relate to each other. Probably these things are true of any two art forms, not just music and poetry.

BRM: How long does it usually take you to compose a piece of music?

IM: It depends on the length of the piece, and the number of instruments. Maybe six months.

BRM: How long does it take you to compose a poem?

IM: Four to six weeks. After that it’s usually clear that something isn’t worth pursuing: though there are some that lie around for months and years and never give up. There’s a difference, though. It’s very seldom that anyone asks me to write a poem: at most, there may be a submission deadline.

BRM: Do your compositions (poems/music) tend to be more organic in that you start with a line or a musical phrase that comes to you and you add to it from there or are your compositions more formal (like a sonnet or a minuet) where you know the restrictions ahead of time and then you plan how you can fit this phrase and other variations or counter arguments into that form to make a complete poetic/musical statement.

IM: Knowing how long a piece of music is to be, is important: once I know that, I can organise the proportions of it, see where certain things will be placed. (For reasons of programming, most performers are looking for music between 5 – 15 minutes.) The instruments involved usually suggest the musical material in some way – highest or lowest note, how they make a sound, how long can they sustain a note, that sort of thing. I seldom start writing anything (music or poem) at the beginning.

My poems tend to be short, maybe a dozen lines. If I’m not given restrictions by (e.g.) a magazine’s submission guidelines, I invent my own. More than with music, I usually write a lot then pare it away till there’s a poem left. I don’t write in established forms now, such sestinas or villanelles, except as an exercise. (Just as, in music, I don’t write fugues or in classical sonata form). I do, however, try to arrive at the shape of a poem early on. That’s usually a case of shuffling and reordering fragments—single lines, couplets—until a pattern comes together.

BRM: What have been your most adventurous piece of music and poem and why?

IM: “Equal Parts” is a small piano concerto, for piano solo and eleven instruments. The length (10’00”), the size of ensemble, and the relatively large number of ideas to be kept in balance made it quite a complex piece to write. You can hear it on my website at

I don’t think any one of my poems is more adventurous than others. Since writing is sufficiently new to me, each is an adventure. There’s a competition at the moment for a poem up to 80 lines: that’ll be a new sort of adventure if I can do it.

BRM: What are two of the most recent poems and musical compositions that you have written?

IM: I’ve recently completed a string trio for violin, viola and cello. I wrote it without a commission, and it’s still looking for a first performance. A short violin piece “Slow” had its first performance in April. I wrote a poem called “About” since people sometimes ask what my poems are about. I think my poem “Web” is finished, but it needs to lie in a drawer for a couple of weeks.

BRM: How is listening to one of your poems or pieces being performed by someone else different from how you imagined it how when you wrote it?

IM: I try to notate my music quite precisely, so that performers can see what’s meant, and there aren’t big surprises (I don’t use improvisation in my scores). But there are always welcome variables: for instance the relationship between players and audience, and the size of the venue, which affects things like volume and speed. Sometimes the comparative volume level of instruments has to be adjusted.

I haven’t heard many of my poems read in public by another reader: only two, I think. It’s the nature of poetry readings that you don’t often hear poems read by anyone except yourself, which to me seems a pity. I sometimes ask a friend to read a poem aloud for me, in private, to test whether the “notation” is clear. When people read a poem in a magazine or on a website, they have nothing to go on but the layout on the page, so I try to make that as clear as I can. But other readers always bring something different; not least, the sound of their voice. Music notation usually includes a direction about speed: poetic notation usually doesn’t, and other readers can have quite a different idea of how fast something should go.

BRM: Where are some of the places your music and poetry has been performed and published?

IM: My music has been played throughout the UK and Europe (the Netherlands, Spain, France etc.): also in the USA and New Zealand. Performers have included the Hebrides Ensemble, New Zealand String Quartet, Kevin Bowyer, Luxembourg Sinfonietta. There are a couple of pieces on CD, and one bass clarinet piece published in Belgium. Here is a link to a performance of Next for solo violin: .

I’ve read my poems at various events in Scotland; in particular, in 2013 I was glad to be invited to read at Shore Poets, which is a monthly poetry event in Edinburgh. Some are published in Scottish magazines, newspapers and anthologies, and some on websites; I was pleased to have poems selected for Gutter, which describes itself as “an award-winning, high quality, printed journal for fiction and poetry from writers born or living in Scotland”. Here is On read by me at Jupiter Artland: There’s a print copy of it on this page (click on “Dowload the shortlist” and it’s #14):

BRM: Where can people find a list of your compositions/poems?

IM: You can find a list of my music compositions, and some recordings, on my website: . The only list of my poems is on my computer…AQ is a major publisher! Four at the last count: Her friend finds cheese in his pocket, (AQ4), Interval, (AQ6), What it is (AQ12), and Inspire (AQ14).

BRM: Where will some of your pieces be performed/published in the next six months?

IM: My pieces, Three and Conversation, will be played along with work by five other composers by the Ensemble Ruspoli on 19 June, in Arnhem, the Netherlands at the Lutherse Kerk, Spoorwegstraat 8, at 3.00 PM. Entree is 10 euros. My piece for organ, Imaginary Music is due to be played in Dundee (Scotland), but the date and venue aren’t yet confirmed. Poems will probably be published, if at all, online and therefore internationally… I’ll let AQ know of any other upcoming performances, publications or readings.

BRM: Iain Matheson, composer and poet, thank you for your time.

IM: You’re very welcome, Bryan

David Trinidad – Straighforward and Candid

Straightforward and Candid
An Interview with Poet David Trinidad

by Bryan R. Monte
Copyright © 2015 by Bryan R. Monte and David Trinidad.
All rights reserved.

David Trinidad is a professor of creative writing and poetry at Columbia College in Chicago. He is the solo author of twelve books of poetry, the co-author of another four, the co-editor of the poetry anthology Saints of Hysteria, a former editor of the literary journal Court Green, and the editor of the works of poets Ann Stanford and Tim Dlugos.

Bryan R. Monte: My first question, David, is that with all your projects and duties, how do you ever find time to write?

David Trinidad: When I was younger it was quite a struggle. I never seemed to have time to write. Or if I did, the actual writing was difficult. I felt such pressure to produce. It’s not something I fret about anymore, thankfully. My teaching job and editorial/scholarly projects feed, rather than hinder, my creativity. Writing, reading, editing, teaching—they all work together.

BM: Do you consciously make time to write poetry or does it burst into your life of its own volition?

DT: It can happen both ways. I’m fairly disciplined. I like to work in the morning, for four or five hours, but not necessarily every day. Poems can happen in one sitting or stretch over many days, even weeks or months. Once a poem is in motion, it’s always there, in the back of my mind. I can’t really rest until it’s finished. Words and lines will come to me as I’m trying to sleep; I have to keep turning on the light and jotting them down. I’ll wake up the next morning with more words and lines, as if I’d been working on the poem in my sleep.

BM: How old were you when you first started to write poetry?

DT: I wrote some poems when I was child, but didn’t really start writing it seriously until I was eighteen or so.

BM: Was there a specific person who sparked you to write poetry for the first time?

DT: As an undergraduate at California State University, Northridge, I took Introduction to Literature with Ann Stanford. I had no idea she was a well-known poet. She showed us an example of found poetry. I was intrigued by the idea that you could take an existing text and make a poem out of it. She said she’d give us credit for one of our assignments if we wanted to try our hand at it. So I went home that night and opened the Los Angeles Times to an article about Marilyn Monroe’s death and formed a poem out of some of the sentences. I called it “With a Phone in Her Hand.” Ann liked it, and that gave me the courage to try other poems. I still have it; it’s the oldest poem I kept from those days. That was in 1972.

BM: When did you first know you wanted to be a poet?

DT: I never presumed that I was, or could be a poet. Or even wanted to be one. I wanted to be a writer, but assumed I would write short stories and novels. When I was twenty-one, something magical happened: I wrote my first real poem. It seized me, came through me very quickly and forcefully. I was exhilarated and astounded. Even though I’d been writing poems for a few years, this one was markedly different. I knew something significant had happened. It was like I’d been switched to a higher voltage. After that, all I wanted was to replicate that experience. I really wanted to be a poet.

BM: Who were some of your favourite poets (both dead and living) as you were learning your craft? What did you learn particularly from these poets and their works?

DT: Anne Sexton was the first poet I seriously connected with. I discovered her work in 1975, just months after her death. Her books were everywhere then. I came across Love Poems in the poetry section of the B. Dalton Books at Northridge Fashion Center. I bought it, took it home, starting reading it, and was hooked. I devoured all of her books, one right after another. Sylvia Plath was very important to me, too. She was also pretty ubiquitous at that time. Through Plath, I learned about Ted Hughes. Ann Stanford was my teacher at Northridge, so I studied her books on my own. She was friends with May Swenson, so I read her as well. Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara were on my radar—I loved those City Lights pocket books. I learned a great deal from these poets. All of them had an honesty and directness that I responded to. Each created a world I could believe in and inhabit. I related to the feelings, no matter how different their experiences were from mine. They made me want to contribute something of my own, something of my self. That was key, the authentic autobiographical nature of their work.

BM: You’ve said that you studied writing with Ann Stanford at college. What did you learn from her? For example, what were one or two specific insights she gave you about your writing and the direction it could take?

DT: I think more than anything it was her clarity and her simplicity. She says what she has to say so precisely, so perfectly, with just the right words. She taught me that you don’t have to overdo it. No need to force your viewpoint or knock the reader over the head with your truth. I also learned from her example what kind of poet I wanted to be in the world. She wrote and edited and published and did readings, but without a big ego. The work was what was important. If your poems were good, you didn’t have to promote them. Publish them, yes. But let them do their work. Poems don’t require fanfare. Ann was widely published, had won numerous awards. Late in life, she told an interviewer that being widely published and winning awards was gratifying to the ego, but not helpful to the soul. That was very telling, very instructive.

BM: Name two or three of your poems from your early, formative years that you still regard highly and explain why.

DT: Of all of my early poems, “The Boy” sticks out. I feel like that’s my voice: straightforward, candid. Language not terribly dressed up. Looking back with longing. I can still read “The Peasant Girl” and “Night and Fog” without cringing. They seem like my voice too, though both are a bit in overdrive. That’s something I often do: get revved up and try to fit as much as possible into a poem. “The Boy” seems purer to me.

BM: It’s interesting that you mention these three poems, because they’re all in your first book Pavane, which I think is a good mix of classical subjects and teenage/young adult homoangst. “Night and Fog” is a great critique of ’70s gay San Francisco, especially how the South of Market scene messed up your friend. How did go from there to your poem “Meet the Supremes,” with its long list of girl groups, in Monday, Monday, your next book, a thread which has continued in your poetry to the present?

DT: There’s actually a gap of seven years between those two poems, during which there was a shift in my writing. But I’d contend that those poems are not really that different. “Night and Fog” is a kind of list, or a litany. “Meet the Supremes” is also a list, or catalog, of girl singers and groups. The former is more direct, in the handling of the deterioration of a friendship. The latter deals with my own downward spiral and alcoholism, but is less direct. All the pop songs about heartbreak are intertwined with the deeper angst of the speaker.

BM: Did moving back to L.A. from San Francisco have anything to do with this change in your writing?

DT: It did, though not immediately. I later became friends with other young poets in Los Angeles and I was exposed to the work of the New York School poets.

BM: Was there some sort of retro-hippie movement going on in L.A. at the time that inspired you to write the poems in Monday, Monday?

DT: I’d say it was more of a “youth movement.” I was hanging out with poets like Dennis Cooper and Amy Gerstler. Dennis created a lively scene at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice. Others in the scene included Bob Flanagan, Ed Smith, Kim Rosenfield, Jack Skelley, Michelle T. Clinton, and Benjamin Weissman. We gave readings, published books and magazines. Dennis had Little Caesar, Jack had Barney, I had Sherwood Press. Through Dennis, I met poets from other parts of the country, like Tim Dlugos in New York and Elaine Equi in Chicago. We were all in our twenties. There was a brashness about these poets and their work, an urbanity and wit, and openness to the pop culture we’d all grown up with. I found it very exciting.

BM: How do you respond to some critics who say that some of your poems list too many things? That sometimes they are only lists or synopses of TV shows or toy descriptions, such as “Monster Mash,” “The Ten Best Episodes of The Patty Duke Show,” and “Essay with Movable Parts,” which they feel don’t really make them poems?

DT: Aside from the joy of list making, I would say that in the poems you mention there were specific conceptual concerns at work. “Monster Mash,” for instance, is both a list of monster movies and a traditional rhymed sonnet. The payoff, for me, was in the juxtaposition of the two. I don’t feel I need to defend the list poem. It has a long and respectable tradition. I guess I like to play around with the form, see how far I can stretch it, what I can make lists do. Some results are more mundane than others. But some have a kind of sparkle.

BM: In Monday, Monday, you also wrote a lot of poems in narrow columns. How did you “discover” this short, poetic line set in columnar stanzas, which you’ve continued to use in your poems?

DT: Poets I admired used that form a lot—Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Dennis Cooper and other friends. I was drawn to it, perhaps, because it seemed less artificial than the stanzas—tercets and quatrains and whatnot—that I’d mostly used in college. Those evenly chopped up stanzas suddenly struck me as bookish. The narrow column—or tube—felt freer and more natural, better suited to a colloquial way of writing.

BM: In your next book, Hand Over Heart (1991), in “November,” you continue with these long, thin poems and references to TV series. Even though the poem seems to be primarily about what its characters consume and their addictions, there’s also the issue of bringing a boyfriend home for Thanksgiving in the 1980s. Why did you choose to talk about this situation using so many references to popular culture?

DT: “November” is a diary poem in which I tried to capture precisely what was going on in my life during that one month in 1985. Whatever pop references are in the poem, those are things that just happened to be there, in front of me, so I faithfully recorded them. There’s one section where we’re watching a Twilight Zone marathon on TV, so I give synopses of several episodes. During that period, I relished putting kitsch in my poems.

BM: Is it because you feel that life is random, boring and banal and that you found more wisdom in TV shows or old films or are you trying to say something else?

DT: Well, again, I was trying to be accurate, faithful to what I was actually experiencing. It wasn’t so much random—it’s not like I put everything in. It was what caught my attention, what I thought beautiful or interesting, even if it was mundane. I admit there was an element of chance: something would appear or happen and I’d think, “Oh, I should put that in the poem.” I thought of those as happy accidents or gifts, though not devoid of meaning.

BM: In Answer Song (1994), in “Driving Back from New Haven,” your line changes and suddenly becomes longer, more focused and intimate as you converse with Tim Dlugos, who has AIDS. In the poem you report what Tim says—“I resent that we were not raised with / an acceptance of death” and “I resent that we do not know how to die”—without any popular culture references or evasions. I’d like to know how you composed this poem and if you were conscious of theses changes?

DT: I feel it’s in keeping with my style at that time. It’s not that much of a departure. My language is deliberately free of adornment. It wasn’t an easy poem to write—my friend was terminally ill. I remember thinking I wanted it to simply be a snapshot of that moment. If I could pare it down to the bare minimum, maybe the gravity of the situation would speak for itself. And I wanted to let Tim voice his anger in the poem, just as he had in the car.

BM: Of course as any gay man who came out in the ’70s, I need to talk to you about the effect of the AIDS epidemic on your writing. What are the poems you’ve written about the epidemic?

DT: I’ve written elegies to Tim Dlugos and Joe Brainard, friends who both died of AIDS. And I write about a number of men I knew in “AIDS Series.” I took some hits from critics in the nineties; they felt I wasn’t writing enough about the epidemic. I resented that. Just because I’m gay I have to write about AIDS? You can’t tell an artist what to write about. In truth, it was too painful—all these men of my generation dying. It took me many years to be able to face it, address such loss in my work.

BM: Which one do you feel is your most successful in capturing that era and your feelings?

DT: “AIDS Series,” I suppose. It’s in nine sections. Each section is about a particular man that I knew. After I wrote it, I felt very strongly that I had paid some sort of debt, balanced some sort of karma.

BM: Answer Song has some dark pieces. In it you describe being raped and your family coming to your aid and also your father telling you it’s not OK to play with Barbie dolls, but you also describe your relationship with Ira, your former partner of ten years. It seems that your poems turn a corner here and zoom in to give a more candid view of your own life. Why do you think you got into this more personal, confessional mode?

DT: I wrote the poems in Answer Song in the late eighties and early nineties. It was a strange time. Many were dying. I was new in New York and in my first long-term relationship. Everything, including the poetry world, was becoming more conservative. Though I’ve always been interested in the personal in poetry, my reaction to the growing conservatism was to become more intimate, more explicit.

BM: Plasticville (2000) seems to me to be about collecting, consumerism, and popular culture—its light and dark sides—but also about betrayal. You write a lot about the things people own, sometimes as passionately as you write about your Barbie doll collection and your dog, Byron. Does this drive to ownership or to collect things from one’s youth say something about these people’s lives?

DT: In my forties, I collected things, mostly toys, from my youth. It was a passionately regressive phase. I desperately wanted the things I wasn’t allowed to play with as a child, the stuff I wasn’t supposed to want to play with—girls’ toys. It was empowering, at a very deep level, to finally possess them, though sad, too. The whole enterprise stemmed from disappointment in my professional life—disillusionment with the poetry world.

BM: “Directions” is a poem about a break up in which the speaker destroys the record of a relationship by ritualistically burning someone’s letters. Does this poem say something about the things in the speaker’s life that he doesn’t control or perhaps explain his desire to collect or order things?

DT: I do think it’s an effort to control some pretty dangerous feelings—like anger and hatred. Imbedded in the act of destroying someone’s letters is the desire to purge oneself of those feelings, as well as that person, once and for all.

BM: I think that some of this desire to order things can be seen in your Abecedarian poem “Arabesque, Gambit, Caprice, Charade, and Mirage,” in which you arrange things alphabetically from board games to TV series, to parts of Disneyland. Am I correct?

DT: Yes, exactly. I used that poem as a way to collect those things, and thereby give them order. I suppose I was also trying to manage the obsessive desire to recapture all those items. Which in turn masks deeper, scarier emotions.

BM: I think some of this consumerism is also reflected in your poem “Something’s Got to Give,” about how Marilyn Monroe’s popularity (she was reportedly one of JFK’s lovers) ultimately destroyed her career. Are you saying here that there is sometimes such a thing as bad or too much publicity?

DT: Definitely. If you believe in it too much, or seek it for the wrong reasons, it can backfire on you.

BM: In “Ancient History,” a timeline of film trivia from 1949 to 1966, are you addressing the historical amnesia or ignorance that’s a part of post-modern culture?

DT: I’m playing with the idea that we know history through movies (Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, for instance, or Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra) rather than from books and that those movies too are “ancient,” a part of the past.

BM: Next we come to what I think are two of your finest poems, both in The Late Show (2007)—the long prose poem “Classic Layer Cakes” and the much shorter “Sonnet”—both about your mother’s death. How did you approach these poems? For example, did you know at the beginning what form each would take, or did the poem’s form reveal itself to you as you began to write it?

DT: I knew that “Classic Layer Cakes” was going to be a zuihitsu, a collage along the lines of Kimiko Hahn’s “Sewing without Mother.” And I knew that “Sonnet” was going to be a sonnet. They’re very different impulses. The zuihitsu is open and free, and can contain quite a bit of information, many lists. The sonnet is limited, in terms of maneuverability; it forces you to be concise.

BM: And what does this say about how you compose your poems and what form they ultimately take in general?

DT: It’s convenient to have a shape or form, in my mind’s eye at least, before or as I start to write a poem. Sometimes, though, the shape emerges as I write, usually early on. It depends. Ted Berrigan said, “You must make what you write be shapely in some way.” I agree. I’m uncomfortable when there’s no ordering device. It’s like working without a net.

BM: Your long poem, “A Poem Under the Influence,” is a tapestry of many of your themes and images from popular and gay culture—Barbie dolls, Supremes wigs, McDonalds, Valley of the Dolls and other films and television shows, therapy, substance abuse, the color pink, memories of other poets, life in New York City, etc. First, if I may ask, who is Jeffery Conway?

DT: Jeffery is a poet. He’s ten years younger than I am. We grew up in the same part of Los Angeles and both attended California State University, Northridge, but didn’t become friends till we were in the graduate program at Brooklyn College in the late eighties. We’ve been very close friends ever since.

BM: Second, what inspired you to write this very long poem?

DT: I wanted to write a long poem in the vein of some of the New York School poets—particularly James Schuyler. I’d been keeping a notebook of images and memories that I caught myself thinking about—a hodgepodge of stuff. I thought there must be a way to put all of this information into a poem. I wanted to write it very quickly, very messily. But it took a while.

BM: How long did it take you to write it?

DT: About a year and a half.

BM: And last, what were some special challenges you faced in writing a poem of this length?

DT: Believing that it would hold together, ultimately, that it would amount to something. That uncertainty. For me, it was working without a net. I’d forget where I’d been earlier in the poem and couldn’t quite see where I was going, or where I would end up.

BM: During the ’90s and the ’00s, you collaborated on many books with other writers, both living and dead. You edited Tim Dlugos’ and Ann Stanford’s (with Maxine Scates) poetry, you wrote Chain Chain Chain (2000) and Phoebe 2002: An Essay in Verse (2003) (both with Jeffery Conway and Lynn Crosbie) and the cento pseudo-celebrity autobiography By Myself (2009) (with D.A. Powell), and co-edited the collaboration anthology Saints of Hysteria (2007) (with Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton) and your college’s literary magazine, Green Court. Was there any reason for this sudden burst of editorial and collaborative work?

DT: Not particularly. I’ve always enjoyed collaborating with other poets and editing various projects. Collaborating is fun, a way to let loose a little. And the editing is a way of being of service to the art, of giving something back.

BM: What did you learn from some of these projects?

DT: Phoebe 2002, which was based on the movie All About Eve, taught me to be more flexible, more spontaneous, to dive in, just start writing, and not worry too much about the results. Writing can be fun—who knew? Knowing I was going to share what I wrote with my collaborators made writing a less solitary, even a less lonely, activity. I would try to entertain them. And I’d often be wowed by what they wrote. The excitement carried over into my own work.

BM: Which one was the most fun and why?

DT: They’ve all been great fun. The piece I wrote with D.A. Powell, By Myself, was especially exhilarating. We alternated sentences from celebrity biographies—a glorious tug-of-war.

BM: Which one was the most demanding and why?

DT: Maybe the one I wrote with Bob Flanagan, A Taste of Honey, only because it was my first substantial collaboration. We alternated syllabic lines and wrote one poem a month for a year, ending up with a chapbook of a dozen poems. We often left lines for each other on our phone machines. Also, we had very different sensibilities, so we each kept trying to steer the poem in our own direction. It was a bit of a wrestling match, a fun one.

BM: By Myself I think is the most unusual of these collaborations. It’s an “autobiographical” cento composed of one line from 300 different celebrity biographies. Were you two trying to say that the components of celebrities’ lives are interchangeable with definite stages to celebrity?

DT: In a way, yes. We jumbled up everyone’s childhood, everyone’s rise to stardom, everyone’s peak of success, and everyone’s downfall.

BM: Were you trying to explode the idea of celebrity autobiographies (since many had ghost writers or assistants anyway) or did you have completely different intentions?

DT: I can’t speak for Doug, but I was just trying to have fun. It was a game. We could only use one sentence from each autobiography. And we didn’t tell each other which books we were planning to use. There was some suspense there: would Doug use Joan Crawford’s autobiography before I had a chance to use it? I think he did, the rat! I didn’t think too much about our intentions, except that we were creating, from all these various celebrities, a character, “Myself.” “Myself” was ambiguous in terms of gender and sexual preference and race. Most importantly, he/she won an Oscar!

BM: Your most recent book of poems is Dear Prudence (2011), a selected retrospective from previous books plus a section of new poems entitled “Black Telephone.” This book I think is even more revealing than your previous ones with poems about your literary influences (Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton), the “AIDS Series,” which you mentioned previously, and even a poem about the car collision you survived but which your good friend, Rachel Sherwood (after whom you named your press), didn’t. Your poetic influences, and their biographical origins, seem to weigh much more heavily in your poetry now. Are you aware of this?

DT: Oh yes. It’s different from when I was young. Then, they were teaching, guiding me, as I learned to write. Now that I’m older, I feel more directly in conversation with them.

BM: What are some of the things you admire about Hughes, Plath, and Sexton?

DT: With these three poets, I would say it’s how their lives and their art end up being—or seeming—interchangeable. All three are nakedly honest, in his or her own way. Sexton and Plath intended this, but with Hughes you get the feeling he’s exposing himself in spite of himself. Individually, there are things I admire about each.

BM: What are some of the things you try to avoid?

DT: I never want to be sentimental. Or predictable. Maybe that can’t be avoided—one is oneself, after all. But I’d like to avoid being all played out. I try to keep surprising myself, trying new things. So boredom! I try to avoid being bored.

BM: There are many references to death in “Black Telephone”—“AIDS Series,” “Moonlight at Temecula,” “The Dead,” “Medusa Redux,” “For Nicholas Hughes,” “Sharon Tate and Friends the Moment Before,” “Ode to Dick Fisk.” Is that what the Black Telephone symbolizes?

DT: If not death per se, then the darkness that surrounds it. I’m consciously dealing with dark material—murder, suicide, anger, loss. The phone has been severed at its root, as Plath says. One has been cut off, is on one’s own.

BM: Is it just a memoriam or are you also now that you’re in your 60s reviewing your life and starting to hear “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”?

DT: I’m very aware of my mortality, and wish to make the best of what time I have left. I’m grateful that I have the freedom to choose what to do with that time. I don’t mean financial freedom as much as psychological freedom. I no longer feel prey to the obligations and insecurities that used to dictate my behavior.

BM: Now that you have reached your seniority, who are some of the younger poets whose work you admire?

DT: Aaron Smith is a younger gay poet I like a lot. He’s unsparingly honest, says what others are too afraid to say. His most recent book is Appetite. Robyn Schiff (Revolver) writes wonderful poems whose emotional complexity is achieved through a meticulous formal sleight of hand. And I find Nick Twemlow’s work extremely powerful. The poems he’s written since his first book (Palm Tress) are astonishing—they let you into his psyche in a very original and daring way. There are others, but these are three poets whose work I especially admire.

BM: What projects and poems are you working on at the moment that you could share with Amsterdam Quarterly’s readers?

DT: I’m currently doing research for a book about Rachel Sherwood, my friend who you mentioned. I find I’m able, thirty-six years after her death, to finally deal with her loss. And create a full portrait of her. I’ve been interviewing many people who knew her. I’m also working on a new book of poems about the actress Frances Farmer, in which I hope to explore my own alcoholism. And I’m co-editing (with Amy Gerstler) a book of Ed Smith’s poems. Ed died in 2005; his work is long out of print. Amy and I were friends of his in the Beyond Baroque scene in the eighties. There is no shortage of projects!

BM: How do they relate to your 9/11 poem, which is published in this issue of AQ?

DT: Like 9/11, Rachel’s death (and the accident in which I was seriously injured) is something that’s taken me a long time to revisit. Just like it took me a long time to write about the men who died of AIDS. It took over a decade to write about 9/11, and that poem was not easy to write. I broke out in a rash when I was working on it. I do feel an obligation to address the really traumatic events in my work. It’s my duty as a writer—or the kind of writer I am. Time and distance are needed, before it feels safe enough to face the pain. That appears to be my process.

Philibert Schogt – The End of the Novel?

The End of the Novel?
An Interview with Philibert Schogt about Einde verhaal/End of Story
© 2015 by Bryan R. Monte and Philibert Schogt. All rights reserved.

On 1 March 2015, Philibert Schogt was interviewed by Amsterdam Quarterly in his Oud-Centrum Amsterdam flat about his new, bilingual novel, Einde verhaal/End of Story. (An earlier interview with Schogt about his background as a writer and his other novels with AQ in 2011 can be found at: ). AQ discussed with him this new novel’s unique structure and content including its exploration of the themes of freedom of speech, religious fundamentalism, censorship and the end of the novel. End of Story/Einde verhaal will be published by Amsterdam’s Arbeiderspers at the end of May 2015.

Bryan R. Monte: I’m here today to interview Philibert Schogt about his forthcoming double novel called Einde verhaal in Dutch and End of Story in English. One of the most unusual aspects of this novel is its design. One side is written in English in the first person. The other, when you flip the book over, is written in Dutch in the third person. These narratives, however, are not direct translations. How did you happen to come up with this form for Einde verhaal/End of Story?

Philibert Schogt: I’m a terribly slow writer. Rather than taking forever to write my book in Dutch, and then waiting even longer for an English publisher to be willing to translate it into English, I thought: ‘Why don’t I write two different versions of the same story simultaneously, one in Dutch, one in English?’ But then, the more I worked on both, the more they intermeshed, until they became a single, bilingual monster rather than two independent books.

BM: But there is also a difference in point of view between the two versions of the story….

PS: That’s right. The Dutch version is written in the third person, while the English version is in diary form and written in the first person.

BM: Why the difference?

PS: I started out writing both versions in the first person, but I think the asymmetry of the two perspectives makes the book more interesting. Also, writing the Dutch version in the third person allowed me to include some background information that wouldn’t have seemed natural from a first person perspective. And for a number of technical reasons which I won’t go into now, the contrasting perspectives will make it easier to translate the book into a single language version, whether this is English-English, German-German or French-French.

BM: I was wondering, since I’m trilingual, how you arranged these narratives in your head, if you can imagine where they are and what your brain is doing with them. For example, some bilingual people say everything is in one box, but I know I’m completely different. I’ve got a German box, a Dutch box and an English box. Is that how you organized them in your head and if so, how did that affect the writing?

PS: One of the terms I use in both versions is “personality shift”. I truly believe that my personality shifts depending on the language I am speaking or thinking, and I’ve talked to other bilingual people and they have that same feeling. It’s not just that languages are stored in different boxes, but your entire perspective changes. That can start with any simple object here on this table: “cookie” and “koekje” for example, evoke two completely different universes.

In his teenage years, my main character is worried about having a split personality. As he grows older, he comes across the term “personality shift”, which is a milder way of putting it and doesn’t have the same connotations with mental illness.

BM: Yes, as a teen I was considered a bit weird because I spoke two languages. When I lived in America, I felt incomplete because when I switched on the radio in the ’60s to the ’70s, it was English from one end of the band to the other and one of the wondrous things when I came to Europe, was when I switched on the radio, every time you moved the dial it was a different language. And I thought: ‘Ah, I’m home!’

PS: I know what you mean. That’s one thing my main character learns as he grows older. Both languages comprise part of his personality, maybe even his soul.

BM: What is your motivation for writing novels, in general, and this novel in particular? It’s a very solitary occupation and it pays little financially. Why do you feel the need to do this? Are you driven?

PS: I am always reluctant to consider my writing an inner calling. It sounds a little too melodramatic and self-important. Then again, when I look back and realize I’ve been working non-stop on this novel for almost six years, then I suppose you could call me “driven”. I’ve always found the world an extremely puzzling, bewildering place and people even more so. To make some sort of sense of the world, or at least to translate it into my own nonsense: maybe that’s why I became a writer.

BM: Let’s move on, and talk about the circumstances related to this story—what it’s about. According to your blurb, your main character is a 69-year-old literary translator of English to Dutch, about to settle into a happy retirement just as he receives one final assignment, the translation of a highly controversial American novel. So, my next question is: Why is it controversial?

PS: In his forthcoming novel, the young American writer Toby Quinn portrays God as a contestant in a talent show who doesn’t make it to the finals. When the opening chapter appears as a pre-publication on the Internet, the Christian right in the United States is deeply offended. Quinn even receives death threats, which he and his publisher exploit to generate more publicity for his book.

BM: So is this a theme that is explored in both the Dutch and English versions?

PS: In the English half of my book, Quinn’s purported blasphemy serves as a catalyst to move the plot forward, but in the Dutch half, it plays a more central role. The Dutch publisher in my novel wants to import not only Quinn’s book to Holland, but also the hype surrounding it. In doing so, however, he also imports the death threats.

BM: Was there anything, related to Salman Rushdie’s fatwah when he had to go underground, that you maybe thought about when you were writing your own novel?

PS: Yes, certainly. The Rushdie affair is mentioned in my book several times. We all remember what Rushdie went through and consider him a hero of free speech, but one detail that people tend to forget is that his Japanese translator was stabbed to death. I don’t want to give away too much, of course, but the main character of my novel happens to be a translator, so he might be in danger, too.

BM: Like the guy who was at the show in Denmark. He was just at the show. He wasn’t an actual writer.

PS: Yes.

BM: So there is collateral damage that results from writers writing something controversial that gets fundamentalist people all riled up.

PS: Yes.

BM: But this was all before the Charlie Hebdo massacre?

PS: Yes, I wrote this all before the Charlie Hebdo killings took place. I wondered briefly whether I should allude to them in my novel, but decided against it. The events were too fresh in people’s minds for that to be appropriate. Besides, my novel deals with the more specific theme of groups wanting to ban works of fiction, so I stuck to my original plan and limited myself to the Rushdie affair.

BM: So fundamentalism seems to be a rather unexpected theme of the 21st century. How did you decide to write about the Christian right in America? Was it something that was in the Zeitgeist?

PS: Any kind of zealotry is dangerous, so I didn’t want to pin it on Muslim fundamentalism. At the same time, I wanted to explore how freedom of speech is being abused for publicity purposes. As the Dutch publisher in my novel points out, Rushdie’s book wasn’t doing well at all until the fatwah was pronounced. Then it became a mega-bestseller. Now he wants to achieve the same thing with Quinn’s book. That’s how cynical business can be.

BM: Then you’ve really been prescient about what would be on the mark at this moment when you started years ago on this novel. I would be interested to see what the response from critics will be once the book is released and if they make the connection with the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the public discussion about censorship—or self-censorship—that is circulating in the press and among book publishers.

On a slightly different topic, there’s something I want to ask you related to your book’s titles: Einde verhaal/End of Story. Are you one of those people who envisage the end of the novel? Is that why you chose that title?

PS: It was one of the reasons, yes. Sometimes, when I’m in a pessimistic mood, I think the novel as an art form doesn’t have much of a future.

BM: Why?

PS: Because people aren’t reading as many books anymore. I think that Internet and computers have a lot to do with it. Attention spans have shortened to the point where people want to move on to the next site rather than read to the end of an article. I’ve heard that online journalists have even adapted their styles because they know after the first two paragraphs, people will just zap, link or click to some other thing. So yes, the title End of Story can be taken to mean that the art of storytelling is coming to an end.

Plus, while I was working on this project, there were many occasions when I was at the end of my tether and thought to myself: “Never again!” So the title is a self-referential joke as well, announcing the end of my career as a novelist.

BM: So do you think people will be able to read these two stories? What about your public, who do you imagine reading it?

PS: Most educated Dutch people are fine with reading English — although those who consider reading a form of relaxation may find it too strenuous to read the English half of my book. But both parts of my book can be read independently, as separate entities. So whether you are a Dutch reader unwilling to tackle the English part, or an English reader unable to read Dutch, you will still be getting an entire novel, albeit a shorter one.

Still, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So I’m hoping that one day, Einde verhaal will be translated into English, so that English-speakers will be able to read the entire book, too. Or that End of Story will be translated into Dutch.

BM: Philibert Schogt, thank you for your time.

PS: Thank you, Bryan.

Philip Gross – Oh, So That’s Where We Were Going

Oh, So That’s Where We Were Going
An Interview with Philip Gross
by Bryan R. Monte
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.

Philip Gross is a prize-winning British poet, novelist, short story writer and university lecturer with more than 15 titles to his name. In 2009, he won the T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize for his book, The Water Table. In 2010 he won the Wales Book of the Year, and his next book, Deep Field (2011), won a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. His most recent book, Later (2013), continues Gross’ reflections on the limits of language, the liminal, fragile places around England’s rivers, estuaries and coast, his father’s death, and the physics and metaphysics of the social and natural universe. In this interview, he explains his development as a writer, his most recurring themes, his writing discipline and future projects.

Bryan Monte: With more than a dozen poetry books and six poetry awards, including the T.S. Eliot Prize, some people might think you began writing when you were quite young. How old were you when you first began to write poetry?

Philip Gross: I was 13 or 14. Prior to that, I had been writing stories. I’d been doing that since, oh, I don’t know – as long as I could hold a pen and write.

BM: Why did you begin writing poetry—for a school assignment or a family occasion or after hearing another writer read?

PG: I was writing a spy story, and there was this character in it, who was a diplomat and a poet. I thought: ‘why not try to get inside his mind a little by writing one of his poems?’ So I did. I never completed the novel, but the character, who wrote the poems, turned out to be… me. I wrote poetry for five or six years, until I went to university to study English. Then… That’s another story.

BM: Where was your poetry first published?

PG: In my school magazine. (Since this was the 1960s, it was an alternative magazine my friends and I, from several schools in Plymouth, started). Some of the poems were performed by a rock band we created too.

BM: Did you continue to write mostly for your own amusement or as an intellectual exercise?

PG: Oh, never just an intellectual exercise. When it threatened to become that, at university, I stopped. Besides, studying at university gave me politics, and some of the critical theory that made it easy to feel superior to the actual business of writing poetry so I thought ‘Why do it?’ There seemed to be more important serious things in life. In fact, the writing also found an alternative channel—alternative, that is, to my state of mind in those years. I wrote songs. Not many years after that, life caught up with me, in the form of becoming a parent—being there at the birth. And you know what? I found I needed poetry again.

BM: Name two or three poets you admired and read when you were young and how you think they influenced your own poetry.

PG: T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land was the first thing to kick me into wanting to be part of that world where I knew the words and images were moving me before my mind could grasp their meaning. In hindsight, certain cadences of classic poetry always physically affected me, but that was as a reader. It was the Eliot that made me need to be part of it.

It also led me into all kinds of haughty solemn mannerisms and a kind of prematurely middle-aged posture that needed to be shifted. Some of the ‘Liverpool Poets’ of the late Sixties helped to do that—a faint British aftershock of the Beats, in hindsight… and not an influence that lasted. But it did a job for me then. I do think writers seek out reading like animals seeking out nutrients in the landscape, by taste and instinct, dimly knowing what will rebalance an imbalance or answer a lack.

Ted Hughes was more substantial, with his combative nature poetry, a feel for the energy locked up in life and language. But all this was in the teenage phase, before the dormant time of university. Afterwards, I’m grateful for finding the different, warmer Modernism of Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, the scientifically-informed surrealism of Peter Redgrove, then the shock of finding that form could be startling rather than consoling, in early Geoffrey Hill … and finally the gracious but raw address to history in Seamus Heaney’s bog poems in North. OK, by then I wasn’t ‘young’ any more – this was my late twenties … but it was a kind of second writing-birth.

BM: Do you remember any song lyrics or themes you wrote for your band that were reiterated later in your poetry? If so, are there any you are still concerned about today?

PG: What stays with me isn’t the words, mainly those of a reasonably gifted adolescent fighting his way through thickets of pretension. It’s the experience of making the music together—still one of my gut-level models of good collaboration. None of us were gifted musicians but just once in a while something passed around the space between us, almost physically lifting us to play better than any of us could play.

The singer-songwriters I came to admire weren’t much like what we played; they were the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen (always sharper and gravely wittier than people tended to think), and Joni Mitchell with her way of twining effortless speech rhythms round the lines of music like ivy round a tree trunk. Later, Tom Waits, with his endlessly unsettling blends of surreal and sentimental, his weird ventriloquisms. All the men, at least, were anything but tuneful singers, but they had voice; it was the music of voice I liked… and still want that in poetry.

When I performed years later with an improvising, free-form band called Vanilla Allsorts, it was in spoken poetry, not song—words having a conversation, on their own terms, with the music round them. If anyone wants a clue to ‘hearing’ my lines on the page now, they could try thinking of the natural syncopations of voice rhythm growing round the musical beats of a line.

BM: Do you think that growing up in Cornwall inspired the recurring setting and theme in your poetry for the coastal landscape and (vague) borders?

PG: I was born in Cornwall and grew up in Plymouth… already a borderline—a real one, marked by the river Tamar with, at that time, only two chain-ferries crossing it. But the granite moors, with bogs and sudden clefts and rock-faces, on one side … and the sea on almost every other side. Yes, that sense of a physical place has always been there, and it’s still my inner landscape … even though I could never say simply where was home.

My mother’s family was Cornish, a long line of Methodist lay preachers, working in a saddler’s shop … but my mother’s father had been born in British India, blown to these shores by the First World War … (curiously like the way my father was brought by another war, another kind of exile.) I wrote a lot about it early on, then not, or not explicitly … and I have a feeling there is more to say about it now.

The sea, though, has often been there, as a real thing and a metaphor, especially when I found myself writing about my elderly father and aphasia. The sea, after all, is what connects the world, even if it sometimes marks a border, keeping man-made nation states apart.

BM: How much do you think your father’s refugee status after WWII and his emigration from continental Europe to England influenced your themes of borderlessness and the ability of language(s) (or lack thereof) to express perception and to communicate?

PG: His language was always good, almost too good to be a native speaker (and that in several languages, too, so I always knew that languages were relative, a matter of choice and of chance). It was his story that was the question, and it has been there in my writing from the very start—very explicitly in the recent books. The story of exile, of travelling on, is not unique; in fact, I’ve come to see it as what the human species, historically and prehistorically, did. In a globalised world, there will only be more of it to come.

But he wasn’t the kind of exile who insisted on his history, on passing it on. He kept it contained inside himself, where it had all the power of the thing not said. From him, I learned more than I realised at the time about open-endedness and implication, evocations, telling clues and hints—all good writerly stuff. For him to have simply expressed it, filled the house with his emotions, all the sentimental songs of home, would have been a pressure I would have resisted, especially when I came to my teens.

As it was, I spent half my life learning to be expressive, to perform a little more. (I was a child with a stammer, so this did some good.) Then, in time, I came to see the different power of containment, of not saying everything—I don’t mean being silenced but of choosing sometimes to hold one’s peace. This need not be forbidding; it can be an invitation. When I write, I never assume I can tell the reader everything; I write to enlist them, hopefully, in the same kind of looking. A lot of what they might see they will see for themselves.

BM: Do you have a specific writing discipline?

PG: In a different life I might have a writing discipline, but for the last ten years I’ve been white-water-rafting my way through a constantly competing jostle of calls from a full-time job, freelance writing and teaching and speaking engagements, the writing itself and family. The poetry seems to survive this pressure, or even perversely thrive on it. It comes up through the cracks. What has suffered has been the writing of long prose, like novels. Maybe that means that, under stress-testing conditions, I find that I’m a poet by necessity . . . and all the other kinds of writers that I’ve sometimes been (of prose, and radio and stage plays) merely by choice.

BM: When, where and how do you usually write?

PG: On the train. In the car, pulled over in a layby, with my small black notebook. First thing in the morning or late evening, in a bigger black notebook/journal/studio-space for words.

BM: Do you know where you’re going when you start a poem or does the destination only become clear once you’re well underway?

‘Writing a poem’ is often not what I think I’m doing when I start. One might emerge from the general mulch of thinking and setting down words. Other times, such as being offered an invitation to write to a commission or a wish of my own to write for a person or occasion, I might start from a kind of alertness for the poem that might resonate in that space, with no idea yet what it might be. Other times again the resonant space might be in the to-and-fro of a collaboration. That would include those times when I’m leading a writing workshop and write alongside everyone else—a guarantee that what I’m asking them to do is something I’d find meaningful to do myself.

Quite a number of poems that have appeared in my books began life in a workshop or a writing game…only to reveal themselves later to be part of a train of thought and feeling going back for years, underground, not breaking surface till they had that provocation. You can tell from that answer that I often don’t know, almost don’t believe in knowing, where a poem needs to lead until it’s done. Or rather, the experience of done-ness is exactly that, when I look at the poem and think: Oh, so that’s where we were going!

BM: How many drafts does one of your poems usually go through before it’s “finished?”

PG: If any students of mine are reading this, here’s a confession. I’m a hypocrite, but only superficially so. I’m always telling you to make time for your writing. I’m always telling you to do draft after draft and . . . well, sometimes I do. Other times I sense a rapid movement of the language that seems so sure of itself that even if I can’t quite see why it must be like that, I trust it and say stet – let it stand.

On the surface, then, I’m a hypocrite. At another level, I know that I’m almost always in a writing posture, in readiness, and sometimes I whip that notebook out in the most inappropriate situations. Living and looking around as a writer is just what I do, and I’m never really off the job. I might say something similar about drafting. The judgment of this-word-that-word-what-about-a-pause-or-nuance-there is just the state I live in. I’m redrafting myself all the time.

BM: Have you ever written a poem that came out after one or just a few drafts exactly as it was later published? If so, could you name some of these poems?

PG: The corollary of this—of always being on the job—is that in one sense you pay over the odds for all the actual poems that get written. And equally, some times you get something that feels like a free gift, made whole, just landing in your lap. (No, I’m not going to out specific poems . . . partly because that feels like making a special claim for them above the others, but mainly because I often don’t remember.) As in real-world economics, the free gifts and the over-the-odds-ness come out roughly even in the end.

BM: Do you develop/address your poetic themes consciously when you start to write a poem or do they come about more subconsciously?

PG: I trust the themes that emerge more than the ones I’ve put in by conscious intention. At the same time I know there are concerns and preoccupations, in the sense of long-running conversations going on inside me, so there’s an appetite to notice certain things, or to catch a glimpse of something I’ve already met at a different angle and say, Yes, but on the other hand . . . Even after a book is published, poems keep on popping up later to remind me there’s more to be said.

And the tremendously strong gravitational field in whose grip my last two collections have orbited, that of my father’s old age and the failing of his body and his language, clearly opens out into questions that stay with me well beyond his death… because, well, it leaves me as the oldest generation in the family, with no one standing between me and an old age of my own.

BM: How do you explain the shift in emphasis in your poetry from personal and social relations and politics in the ’80s and ’90s, to one which is somewhat less social and political but which has embraced, to a greater extent, physics, metaphysics and the limitations of language (for example, in your later collections such as The Egg of Zero, The Water Table, Deep Field and Later?)

PG: It is always revealing for me to have some alert and patient reader discern large-scale shifts such as you feel you are seeing here. Am I aware of them? I do have a sense that Changes of Address: Poems 1980-98 was a conscious packing up and letting go of everything up to that point, a granting myself some permission to find out what comes next. It was also the start of a new phase of my life in other ways—a new marriage, a new relationship to my work in universities, and maybe a new coming-clean about the subtle relationship between being a Quaker and a writer too.

And yet . . . many of the threads there in the early books are still in the weaving. I started my poetry life writing about my father’s Estonian experience; quite recently, in Deep Field, I found myself dealing with it in more detail than ever before. I always responded to the spirit of a place, initially very much in the southwest of England, but the (almost literal) immersion in the estuary landscape where I live now is the same urge, just a different place.

In the next collection, there will even be poems specifically about Cornwall again. As for social and political concerns, living in a complex, multi-ethnic energetic city like Bristol made some of those rather vivid for me. But a forthcoming book will be responding to South Wales, specifically the edgy, wounded post-industrial ex-mining culture and landscape of the Taff valley where I work now.

Maybe part of the shift is to do with how much a poem is about what it’s ‘about’. I think the question of about-ness is intriguing. Early on, I often wrote about a place in a way that reflected a moment of emotion or relationship taking place against that backdrop. Or alternatively, I wrote in, even invented, a relationship to give expression to the place. I suspect that now that multi-layering is just more closely interwoven, so that The Water Table is about the land-and-water-scape . . . and is equally about the yearnings and the losses that we find reflected in it, and about our ways of looking, and about relationships, not least the relationship with our own sense of self. No one of these levels is just a metaphor or symbol of the other. They are equally there.

BM: To what extent do you think Quakerism has influenced your writing—your poetry’s themes, your writing process, and/or how you practise your vocation as a poet?

PG: It has been a slow process, noticing that more and more I explain what I’m doing in writing, and often in the way I hope to enable other people’s writing too, by reference to what Quakers do—the experience of worship as a patient and alert form of listening. You bring your self, your appetites and your thoughts with you, of course, but what you hope to find is something else, something that particular resonant listening space, shared with other people, might present you with. It might be in, or just behind, other people’s words. It might be in the silence. Modern Quakers have a great range of ways of explaining where that something else might come from, sometimes in traditional terms, sometimes not in necessarily religious language at all. The interesting thing is that we might articulate it in different ways, but we all recognise that experience as the same.

The relationship I want with poetry (which means with other writers, past and present, and with other readers) feels very akin to that resonant, listening space. In it, what other people find in your contribution might be different from what you felt you put in, and it may also be true. In Quaker meetings, you don’t debate—you can lay quite different experiences side by side, to be part of a process that might know better than any one of you. To speak in a way that leaves space for other people is a virtue—you might say, a gift.

BM: Is your repeated exploration of zero, negation or loss influenced by Postmodern philosophy which is more concerned with gaps and what’s missing over what’s present and connected?

PG: These un-things, like the number zero, seem almost never to have had a negative feeling for me. (Regarding shifts over time, note that my collaborative verse-fable with Sylvia Kantaris, The Air Mines of Mistila, was doing playful-but-serious business with nothings more than a quarter of a century ago.) Postmodern philosophy wasn’t my door to thoughts on these lines, though it has been interesting, in my academic life, to find myself sometimes in the same room as it, once it peeled back its layers of jargon enough to be seen. As long as I’ve been aware of Buddhism, which is all of my adult life, I’ve known that their Void was the place of endless and emergent possibility. At best, Quaker worship looks towards that fertile space.

I’m aware, of course, that the world has outer darknesses that people are consigned to by all kinds of forces, oppressions, illnesses and so on . . . and that there are silences of suppression and repression, as I’ve said—being silenced as opposed to holding one’s peace. I hope poetry can be aware of all that, too. Some people might want poetry to propose the answers. In a world replete with ideologies, I’m sceptical about answers—we need more and better questions. I would rather contribute to building and holding that resonant, questioning space, in which we can notice more, have wider sympathies and with luck even think beyond our own opinions.

What comes out of that space is not magic. It is our kind of work and discipline—not the only useful one, but the one that I seem to be built for, dealing with these curious contraptions made from words and silence, from the black ink and white space on the page.

BM: Were you surprised to win the T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize?

PG: Yes. That’s not modesty – just an acknowledgement that there are many good poems or books that are worth the keen attention that an award can bring; only some of them catch a fair wind and win one.

BM: Has it changed your life?

PG: A bit of praise is nice, of course—balm for the ego—but for the poems to be really encountered, to be read as if they matter, that’s the real thing. I rarely turn down an invitation to bring the poems to listeners and readers, and of course there were more invitations after 2009. This has hardly ebbed at all since. Winning Wales Book of the Year 2010 with a cross-arts collaboration I Spy Pinhole Eye, and the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education Award for children’s poetry in 2011 with Off Road To Everywhere did not make life simpler.

Dropping this new visibility into a timetable that felt already full with university and writing work and family seems to have taught me a dubious lesson – that with a bit of deft juggling and a lot less sleep the quart-into-a-pint-pot trick can be done. Whether it can be carried off indefinitely is another matter, but I’ve never planned on living indefinitely, either . . . and in the meantime there’s work to be done.

BM: In addition to being a poet, you’ve also written five children’s novels. Do you still have time for novel writing, or is your time taken up mostly with the writing, teaching and talking about poetry?

PG: You point at the one part of the work that seriously struggles to find itself a space. Writing novels is a thing I can’t pick up and drop, dip out and dip back into. Trying to do that simply hurts—like grating the gears of a car into forward and reverse and back again without a clutch. Somehow poetry survives, even perversely thrives, under that pressure. There is more fiction writing I’d like to explore, but it might not be for the children’s market. The novels I wrote under that heading were anyway working their way to a point where you could question whether they were children’s novels any more. So maybe (it occurs to me, for the first time, as I say this) I’m using the enforced pause on this front to let new directions clarify.

BM: Were you consciously concerned with England’s problems related to flooding and conservation when you wrote The Water Table? Do you see this book’s and your other books’ concerns with or awareness of borderlands—the coast, rivers, and wetlands—as emblematic or prophetic of the UK’s current water management problems?

PG: When The Water Table came out I was asked whether it was a response to the then debate about building a tidal barrage across the Severn Estuary. Now it looks as if I was predicting last year’s flooding crisis… though we quickly forget that only the year before there was deep concern about impending drought. No, water has always been the most present element in my writing, and I wrote about the estuary because… because it was there. Crossing it defined a new stage in my life. And it offered an almost fractal elaboration of questions about boundaries and separations, limits and belonging, not least between the human and the natural world.

At the same time, I’m aware, as any thinking person must be, that this last relationship, between the human and the wider context, demands attention. From here on it will be reaching into every corner of our lives, and in unpredictable ways. In a sense it always did, but for most of human history the answer seemed straightforward (if hard to do): defend ourselves, master the surroundings, put the green stuff in its place. Now maybe we are faced with much more complicated choices.

The opening poem in Later gives a birds’-eye view of water, as I saw it from an aircraft flying down the spine of Wales. That’s a view that puts us in our place. The migration of birds meant a great deal to the ancient people of Estonia, and I seem to have inherited that. To me, it also suggests the migratory paths of people – from the start of human history, but especially a visible and public issue now.

In a recent collaborative piece of work on wetlands with a natural resource economist, a cultural ecologist, an anthropologist and a visual artist, I found myself writing the keynote text for the project, a list-form prose poem called “Wetland Thinking.” This attempted the (of course) impossible, to imagine the interconnected world of things looking back at us—not with any heavy eco-moralism, as it turned out, but with a wry challenge: can our famous human ingenuity and imagination help us make that step outside our own perspective, even just for a glimpse?

BM: What are some “projects” in which you are currently engaged?

PG: I mentioned earlier that I have been writing about the Taff Valley—concurrently with the earlier books, and still ongoing business now. This will be a book with artwork and design from Cardiff-based artist Valerie Coffin Price. Like all my work with artists, it will also be looking at the co-working itself, with the different ways of seeing, the resources different arts bring with them. It will be watching our negotiations on that boundary. The Taff itself, famously unpredictable water, sometimes harnessed, sometimes polluted but never quite governable, flows through that writing as well.

And a new collection of poems has just coalesced. It’s called Love Songs of Carbon—yes, that’s the stuff of our bodies, mainly. Carbon and water, in not very stable combinations. Those poems are lying on my editor’s desk right now. What after that? Don’t ask me. Look inside my notebook, or listen to it. There: drip, drip….

David Sedaris — My Life is a Fairy Tale

My Life is a Fairy Tale
An Interview with David Sedaris
© 2014 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

On a sunny, early autumn afternoon, best-selling humorist and NPR and BBC radio personality, David Sedaris, whose most recent books include When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008), Squirrel Meets Chipmunk (2011) and Let’s Talk About Owls with Diabetes (2013), gave an exclusive interview to Amsterdam Quarterly in Amsterdam’s Ambassade Hotel. Sedaris first explained how his experience in radio, live performance and living abroad has affected his writing. Next, he revealed the inspiration behind his last two books and his depiction of his family in his work. Lastly, he described his family of choice and how he discovers new topics for shows and nurtures new talent while on the road.

Bryan Monte: How do you think coming from a background in the performing arts and radio influenced your prose writing? Do you think, for example, that you pay more attention to the sound, timing, rhythm and the duration of pieces than other writers?

David Sedaris: Yes, very much in all of those things; duration especially because I don’t want to read anything over 25 minutes long.

BM: Really?

DS: I would never get up there and read something that’s an hour, because if you’re not into it, you’re just trapped. I like to read at least three stories in that hour. And I always end the evening with reading from my diary, so there might be 10 or 15 diary entries, which sort of function as jokes.

And rhythmically it affects it. I can look back at things I wrote before I started reading out loud and going on tour and some things just sounded so clunky to me, rhythmically so awkward and just not fun. I used to write things so that I could read them onstage. Now I feel that I write things so that anyone can read them out loud.

BM: I asked you that because when I was in radio briefly in the late 80s/early 90s, we had these one, two, five and ten minute segments we had to fill. We had to hit our marks on time—not go too long or be too quick—so everything fit together. Do you ever have to do that when you’re working on your pieces for your performances? Or do you feel, “No, I’ve got more room now, and I can expand a bit.”

DS: I can do whatever I want when I’m in the theatre, but when I started on the radio on a show called “Morning Edition” and then Ira (Glass) invented “This American Life,” Ira would say the story could be as long as it needed to be. But then he would say, “Actually we’re going to have three other stories on that, so you need to cut it down to eight minutes…”


…and if you tell me to write something that’s eight minutes long, I can do it. But don’t tell me to cut down something that’s 20 minutes long to eight minutes. I’m sorry. I might have done that when I was 25. But now I do a show for the BBC called “Meet David Sedaris.” I just recorded several new programmes and every one is about a half hour long. And because I don’t have any stories that are longer than 25 minutes, I’ll fill that (remaining time) with diary entries, one to three minutes long. And then there are other shows where I read two ten-minute things or three ten-minute things. The producer takes care of all that. By the same token, I used to write for Esquire.

BM: Yes.

DS: And sometimes Esquire would say: “Oh, we just got an ad here, so we need to cut 300 words out of your story.” But now I write for The New Yorker, which has never cut anything I’ve written for space. If the story’s too long, then it needs to be edited, but they’ve never said we need to lose 250 or 600 words.

BM: It’s good that you have mentioned The New Yorker because I want to talk to you about your literary influences. As I was researching for this interview, I looked at James Thurber’s life and began to compare his to yours. Are you aware of any parallels between his career and yours?

DS: My eyesight is better. [Laughter] I’ve been fortunate with that.

I don’t think I’m as angry. I mean, I am angry, but I’m not as angry, but I’m not in my seventies yet. I might get there. I write about domestic things the same way that he did. I keep a diary. Didn’t he…well no, I read his letters and his letters almost feel like a diary.

BM: I mention Thurber not only because he wrote for The New Yorker for forty years, but also because of the series of fables he wrote, Fables for our Time, that were illustrated. I was wondering if his fables provided any inspiration for Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.

DS: No. I made it a point not to open Fables for our Time again. I think I might have read it in high school, but I didn’t want to be influenced by him in any way.

BM: And he (Thurber) also went on to have a play produced that I think he collaborated on with a friend. You’ve had plays also which have been produced and put on stage, so that’s why I was thinking, “Ah, this looks very interesting here.” So, he worked at The New Yorker for 40 years. I don’t know how many years you’ve worked on The New Yorker

DS: …it’s almost 20 now. And I think too, when he was a writer, you certainly couldn’t use the word “fuck” in The New Yorker. Now, it’s really hard for me to think of a word you really can’t use.

BM: Are you aware of any other literary influences, such as Pope, Molière, Voltaire, Twain or Wilde?

DS: No. I mean, I think of Thurber again. It was mainly the domestic stuff that could be enough of a subject. I don’t ever feel guilty—I remember my next door neighbour growing up, his mother, when my first book came out, said: “That’s fine, but are you ever going to write anything serious?” [Laughter] And I said, “No. Why would I? Why would you want me to?” But no, I don’t feel bad at all because of what I’m writing. There are people who write about war and deprivation and they move me. Their books move me and can even change me. I will always be there to read their books. They never have to worry about me trying to hone in on their territory. That’s not going to happen.


BM: Well, that’s good. I have another question. Do you think you started writing fables because your own life, as you have mentioned in the past, is something of a fairy tale?

DS: No, actually I wrote them because somebody gave me a book and it was a collection of South African folk tales. It was an audio book. I started listening to it and one of the stories was the hyena and the giraffe. And the hyena and giraffe got married. And on their wedding night, the hyena ripped out the giraffe’s throat. And the moral is: Be careful who you marry. And I just thought, I could do better than that in my sleep. I could write a story about a cat and a baboon. And then it just tickled me. And then I just started writing two a year and I just put them on a pile and then one day, I had enough for a book.

But my life is a complete fairy tale. There is a book called The Secret, and I only know about it because this young man wrote me a letter. He wants to make it in show business and he told me he’d really been influenced by it. He sent me the audio book. [In a whisper] And the secret is, let’s just wish/want something really badly, and you’ll get it. And I thought, I could have told you that. Nobody ever wanted this more than me, nobody. That’s all I ever did and thought about. It’s true, you have to work, and you have to be in the right place at the right time and you can’t arrange any of that. You have to be lucky and you have to want something. And you have to work. But, yeah, I can’t believe I’m the one who got to have it and not the person next to me, who was working just as hard as I was. The person who just wrote 14,000 words on Syria doesn’t get to be in The New Yorker. It doesn’t make any sense to me that I am allowed to be on the radio with this voice and a person with a beautiful radio voice is not.

BM: Well, actually, I think your voice is just fine for radio. Some people have all the highs or the lows, but they’re usually announcers or hosts. Your voice has a very distinctive timbre to it. When I hear it, I can recognize you in just a sentence or two.

SD: Thank you.

BM: I’d like to move on to your latest book, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, an interesting collection of stories, some about your own life and some that are clearly fictional. I read a review in The New York Times where the critic seemed to be taking you to task saying it wasn’t your best work. I also got the impression she didn’t understand the reason you put these somewhat different pieces together in one book. How do you respond to that?

DS: I never read anything about myself. I know that The New York Times review was really bad because my publicist called me up and said: “You might not want to buy The New York Times tomorrow.”


You know a friend of mine, George Saunders, wrote a book a couple of years ago called The Braindead Megaphone and it was essays mixed with little pieces of fiction, so I was hardly the first one to do it. And I just thought: “Why not?” At first we thought about segregating those little stories in the back of the book. And then we thought: “No, let’s put them in there because somebody will be reading them and then they’ll be like: “Wait a minute. A wife? He’s not married.” That might disorient you for a couple of seconds, but I hardly imagine anyone walking out of my house saying: “I don’t know who I am (he is) anymore!”

BM: For me, the combination of the personal and imaginative pieces works. Something else, however, which I want to talk to you about now, is the poem about the dogs in the back of the book. I also noticed a poem on the back cover of your book of fables. My question is: Are you going to write more poetry in the future?

DS: No. I wrote those actually in 2000 or 2001 and then I wrote some poems a couple years ago about food issues, because in the United States, now you can’t have a dinner party because someone is allergic to wheat, and someone else can’t eat dairy…


…and so I wrote most of that about food issues. And I thought: “These will go over real well because everyone has food issues in the audience.” But it didn’t work at all. But those dog poems, however, for some reason, really work. And I thought, “Well, I’m never going to write a whole, thick book of them, so I’ll just throw them in this book.”

BM: Well, everyone loves dogs, especially in England and I don’t know if you’ve read Mark Doty’s Dog Days memoir. It’s mostly about his dogs’ lives mixed with descriptions about his own life with his partners, one of whom died of AIDS, so that way he brings everyone with him because, as I said, everyone loves dogs.

DS: Everyone but me. I hate dogs. [Laughter] I cannot stand dogs. And I realized, if I got up in front of an audience and said: “I hate women,” the audience would be like “Oh, God.” But if I say, “I hate dogs, [the audience says]: “We need to leave.” People don’t like you if you don’t like dogs. And I just don’t like dogs and so that’s what led me to write those poems.


DS: But if I wrote poems about cats, they wouldn’t work that same way. It’s like what you said: “Everyone is crazy about dogs,” and that’s not why I wrote them. The first thing that I wrote that ever worked was that Christmas elf story. And I didn’t write it for that reason. It was just my diary that I kept when I worked at Macy’s. Everybody has to acknowledge Christmas. Christmas affects everybody. That’s why that story worked because everybody is touched by Christmas.

BM: I have some questions also about how living in a multi-lingual environment in Europe has affected your writing. For example, living here in the Netherlands, I sometimes speak Dunglish—Dutch and English mixed together—so instead of time being at the beginning or the end of the sentence, it gets thrown in the middle and the verbs get tossed to the end. Did that ever happen to you when you were living in France?

DS: I really have something against using, putting French words into your writing. You know what I mean? And you see people doing it all the time. And they never put Portuguese or Chinese words in their writing. But they just do it in French because, I don’t know, it sounds good or makes them look smart or sophisticated. But in French, you know, someone could say “regarding that TV” for “watching TV.” I started using that phrase, “regarding TV,” because, in another language, sometimes you hear how a verb is used and you think: “Oh God. That is so much better. That really sums it up.” I don’t use a French word, though. I just try to translate it into English if I want to use it.

In England I find, there are certain words that I use that are Anglicisms. I like the way the English use the word “bits.” They talk about their genitalia as their “wobbly bits.” They just use the word “bit” a lot. We just don’t use it in the United States. They use it a lot. So there are certain little words there that I’ve found myself picking up. One thing is (the word) “proper.” We just bought a beach house on the coast of North Carolina. I think I got it for my family and I write that it’s on “proper” stilts because I talked about how most of the houses now aren’t on stilts. That’s very Englishy and I worry about it a bit, (but) it just sounds better. It’s more precise.

BM: When did you decide to live most of your adult life abroad?

DS: As soon as I could afford it. I had a job after my first book came out. I continued to work. After my second book came out, my publisher needed to get the next book out of me and they said: “You need to make it your job to finish this book.” And they got me this place in Yaddo and then that was when I thought: ‘As long as I don’t have a job, I can go wherever I want.’ I went to France and I was going to go for a year and, you know how that is. I went for a year and the next thing you know, you have grey hair….


….and we were in France and then we were in England, and I’m trying madly to get Hugh, my boyfriend, to move to Germany just for a year. But sometimes I think: I’m always going for book tours and I’m always rushed around. Maybe all I need is a day off and then I’ll be like…I don’t need to move here. I just needed that extra day.”

BM: Well, you travel to so many cities. I was wondering if you ever have time to actually look or do anything outside the hotel room or the place where you need to give your performance.

DS: Generally not, but I wouldn’t trade that for what I do get and that is an opportunity to talk to people and to learn. For instance, I was talking to somebody here (in Amsterdam) the other night when we were having an event, who said when we insult someone here in the Netherlands, we throw disease into it.


That’s what I’ve just learned.

BM: That’s correct.
DS: I mean that is so weird to me, to call someone a “cancer whore.” Who would have thought, you would attach the word “cancer” to “whore?” That is so interesting to me. I would rather learn “cancer whore” than go to the Rijksmuseum.

BM: Really?

DS: Anyone can go to the Rijksmuseum, but not everyone can learn about “cancer whore,” so when I have the reading tomorrow night, I’m going to talk a little about it on stage and ask people if they can give me more words like that. Also, I learn a lot during the book signings. Often when I’m on tour, a theme develops; something I didn’t know anything about. For example, my boyfriend grew up in Africa and, in his final year of high school, he moved back to the US and got a job at the Gap. And people used to go into the changing room and shit on the floor.

BM: Oh dear!

DS: Now, it (this store) was in a mall. There was a bathroom in the mall, but people would shit on the changing room floor. I mentioned it on stage one night and someone came up and said: “Oh, I work in a store and that happens all the time.”

BM: Wow.

DS: Then I mentioned it the next night, and someone said, I work in a library and that happens all the time. And I mention it the next night and all these people told me stories about people who shit in the store. And it’s not about needing to go to the bathroom; it’s beyond that. It’s about something else. And so this kind of theme develops in the course of the tour. And I can’t control it. I can’t control what the theme is or how it’s going to come about.

On my last tour, I was with one of my oldest friends I met in junior high school, and he’s gay and I saw him in Phoenix. We went out to lunch and when the dessert menu came, we decided to split a piece of coconut cream pie. And so, we are splitting the dessert and I looked across the room and there are two gay men our age doing the same thing. And I thought: You know, straight men would never share dessert.” So I started asking straight men: “Would you ever share dessert with anybody?” And they all said, “I may take a sip out of somebody’s drink, but sharing dessert, that’s going too far.” It was just fascinating. I didn’t meet any straight men who (shared desserts), so it was interesting to me—an observation that I had confirmed just by asking people about it.

So, that happens a lot during the course (of the tour) because I get to talk to thousands of people. I never sign someone’s book and just hand it back. I always have a conversation with them. That’s why on my last tour one night I signed books for nine and a half hours. It’s because I talk to everybody.

BM: And you get information about things such as these phrases and behaviours?

DS: “Oh, I loved your last book.” That’s nice and everything, but I really don’t need to hear it. I would rather ask people questions and talk about something else.

BM: So, you’re sort of a cultural linguist. You’re more interested in these things than going to the Rijksmuseum to see all the Rembrandts and Vermeers.

DS: Yeah. Like in Sweden, the government decided, a couple of years ago, that “vagina” is a pretty big word for what a six-year-old girl has between her legs. “We need to find a cute word for vagina.” And they put out the call far and wide and they came up with the word (sounds like SNEE pah). I can’t imagine the American government saying: “Look, we need to do something about the little girl vagina problem.” So that was fascinating to me. Or you know, the Swedes have come up with a gender-neutral pronoun. I’d rather know about that and talk to people about that, than do whatever it is you’re supposed to do in Stockholm.
BM: You write a lot about your family in your books. Is there any topic about your family that you would say: “This is out of bounds.”

DS: Oh, yeah; there’s lots. I mean it (my writing) just gives the illusion of saying everything about my family. But everybody’s got their secrets. Until recently I had four sisters and a brother and one of my sisters committed suicide in May.

BM: I’m very sorry to hear about that.

DS: So I just wrote a story about that. But it’s not about her so much as about the rest of my family coming to terms with it. And there were a lot of stories about my sister who committed suicide and if I told you those stories, you’d be like: “Oh, my God. I cannot believe what I’m hearing.” But I know she wouldn’t have wanted the world knowing those things about herself. So even though she’s dead, I won’t write those things. I write about them in my diary, sure, but I wouldn’t put them in a story—and the same with my mom. She’s not alive anymore, but there were things she wouldn’t want people knowing and I’ve never written those things either. I think I just give the illusion of it. I just had a story in The New Yorker recently and in it I quote one of my sisters as saying: “You know when I was young, whenever I passed a mirror I would look at my face. Now, I just check to see if my nipples are lined up.”


DS: And she knows that’s funny. And she’s not a writer herself. When I read that out in front of an audience, the audience howls and it’s her laugh. That’s a laugh for Gretchen. I mean there’s plenty of things she wouldn’t want me writing about.

BM: That’s interesting to know because I think many people perceive you as the man who can say anything. And I think that’s probably why you have received such notoriety; because you write about subjects other people can’t approach. And you handle them in such a way that they can be published in The New Yorker.

Getting to my next question now and also to the theme of this issue of Amsterdam Quarterly (AQ9), families of blood and choice, how would you define the family of choice that you’ve constructed here in Europe?

DS: I definitely feel Hugh is family. Hugh and I were thinking of who to have over for Christmas and that would be the family we have made. Our friend, Pam, has an eight-year-old boy that she’s raising by herself. We’ve always been involved in his life and there are the grandparents and the sister that we’ve made. We’ll probably see them over Christmas. There is a family with all the members that we’ve constructed. It’s interesting to find as you get older, sometimes, don’t you look for your younger self?

BM: I don’t know if I could recognise my younger self anymore. That’s so long ago and I’m such a different person.

DS: There’s a young man who started writing me when he was 14 years old and now he’s 20. He’s impassioned and it’s so great to hear from a kid that age about the book he’s reading and how he’s on fire with it. He’s the real thing; a real writer. He’s in this for life. I guarantee it. I don’t mean to sound narcissistic, that he reminds me of myself, like: “Oh, I need more of me.” I don’t mean that. But sometimes when you’re looking for people in this life to help, you don’t want the person who asks you for help. You want it to be your idea to help that person.

This kid writes poetry, and he’s real good. Whenever I go to Atlanta, I say: “Will you open for me and read some poems?” Backstage in the dressing room he’s like this—(Shows hands shaking)—like he’s going to have a heart attack right there. But then he goes on stage and Wham! he is masterful. You don’t, (however), want to give him that opportunity too early. I didn’t want people to be applauding for him because they feel sorry for him and because he’s a kid.

And I know how sometimes, especially when you’re gay, older people will take you under their wing. I think straight people think of that as a perverse thing, but it’s not a sexual thing at all. It’s like they see themselves in you. And maybe you’re twenty years old and living in a rooming house, and you can’t really afford dinner every night and they invite you over for dinner, to their house for dinner every single night. It’s a beautiful thing.

BM: Well, that’s very interesting about how older gay men and women can help younger men or women along the way if you’ve got the ability to do it and if someone has the gift.

DS: When I go on tour, I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I get. People say: “Can you help me get published?” and I know, before I open that manuscript, how bad it’s going to be. And I get things in the mail, and they’re really awful. But what people don’t understand is that you want helping someone to be your idea.

I did a reading in Manchester and this young guy assisted me in the bookstore and I asked him: “What do you do?” “Well, I work at the bookstore.” “No, but I know you do something else. What do you do?” “Oh, I guess I write a bit.” “What do you mean a bit?” “Well, you know, I have this thing.” And I had to pull it out of him. I said: “I would really love to see your writing. Here’s my address. Will you send it to me?” And he sent me this thing he was working on and it was the most inventive, spectacular…I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I wrote him back and said when you’re ready to be published, please let me know because there are people I know who would love to see this writing.

And that’s how you want it to be. You kind of want it to be your idea rather than someone pushing themselves. Because when someone pushes themselves on you, that’s their talent: self-promotion. AQ