An Interview with Douglas A. Martin

Martin Photo
by Andy Fitch

After publishing my Sixty Morning Talks interview collection, I have begun work on a more focused, single-press interview series, offering a comprehensive oral history (a cinéma vérité, in prose) of Nightboat Books’ diverse and ambitious output over its first decade of publication. For this newer project, it particularly interests me to track interpersonal and intertextual constellations that have helped to shape the work done by Nightboat’s authors, publishers and designers.

This present talk focuses on Douglas A. Martin’s Your Body Figured. Martin is the author of eight books across genres, and his Kathy Acker exploration will be published by Nightboat in 2017. He teaches in the low residency MFA program in creative writing at Goddard College, and is a visitor in the English Department at Wesleyan University.

Andy Fitch: If we could begin with this book’s epigraph (“So I’m a thief. . . . born to plagiarize, to imitate, to act as the promoter of my masters. I steal, I take, until the word ‘take’ can be altered: I take off”): I loved those lines from the start, but as I read through Your Body Figured, they seemed to pick up increasing resonance. Proceeding modes of writing through or out of existing texts, both in your own work or in someone like Kathy Acker, come to mind. Or certainly the legacies of Western portraiture and religious/historical painting, which have their own modes of taking—both from the study of the physical world and from the history of representation. And in terms of this particular book’s structure, I most immediately recalled Stein’s Three Lives, though also, strangely enough, The Sound and the Fury and The Hours, especially in the Hart Crane section, with its impending death by drowning. But here, more broadly, could you talk a bit about your own poetics, about your own personal or literary lineage in relation to that impulse to take until one takes off? What appeals to you in watching others take until they take off? What draws you to that type of art-making practice?

Douglas A. Martin: I can start with the idea of taking until you can take off, through the idea that all of my writing foregrounds the idea of how I’m taking from my own life. I’m stealing from my own life in a way, and from the people around me, but in service of getting somewhere else. I’m starting with an autobiographical impulse, to get a better vantage on the circumstances of the life that I happen to be in at the moment and how that life connects to others. It’s a movement forward from the kind of ethical questions that get raised by my more nakedly autobiographical “I”-driven work: what do so and so think of your portrayal of them? The kinds of questions a painter doesn’t get much, I imagine.

So a problem or an investigation around a representation that’s being worked out in the service of a greater picture, a greater fiction. The thief aspect for sure—me going into these lives and taking the bits of them that I need, that I want to make off with. There’s that. But also, in Clément’s epigraph, it’s very important to me the flight in the phrase of “take off,” in the sense that Clément means lyric flight, yet I also mean disclosure: taking off the costume, the realist trappings of more traditional fictions or novels. So there’s that.

And then Clément’s book itself brought a lot into focus for me in terms of what kinds of stories we tell ourselves, why we tell ourselves these stories. In her book, she is mainly concerned with how the Wolf Man is seduced by seeing his story affecting Freud. So he becomes involved in manipulating the image of himself he’s putting forward for Freud, which perhaps could just be boiled down to transference or countertransference or that fancy language. But the idea for me was that there would soon be no grounds actually for the story being told other than to seduce. That was important to me.

yourbodyfiguredClément’s book also aesthetically operates with these more straightforward case studies interlaced with her own responses to her reading and writing and transcribing at the time. That’s something that I wanted to bring into the second person the book operates in—this second person that’s calling out to the figure that I happen to be narrating, but that’s also fulfilling my intent to narrate how well I think the dynamics of the book are going at any particular time. Certainty Stein is a big part of what I hope to echo and take permission from. Three Lives particularly was a real turning point for me in my prose writing, to see the kind of ekphrastic writing that she was doing. Not in an attempt to recreate, but to create in parallel ways. People know her attempt to do in prose what Cézanne and Picasso were doing in painting. For me, it became an idea here of how to write a sentence that would look like a face in a Francis Bacon painting, in the way that particular smears and abstract gestures are also interacting with more figurative elements, straight-up representational elements. Clearly such moments appear in the Hart Crane section, but around that more subliminal space as well. What would the background of writing look like in the actual paragraph, in an actual sentence? I thought of each paragraph as a kind of canvas I was framing. So what particular elements am I bringing together into the frame? My goal with this book was to take these three aesthetic touchpoints and to make my writing mirror in some way the dynamics of their own production, also their lives.

I wanted to move from the more classical representation of Balthus into the more fragmented, visceral Bacon. And then the way Bacon’s life is haunted and his painting is haunted by the body count that is collected in his actual life. There’s also a kind of body counting that’s adding up in my narrative. Those become the ghosts of my own writing-forward. There’s an attempt to bring this together in various frames. I’m also taking from Bacon the triptych, letting the three parts work as three separate panels that have their own narratives within them. Painters, and then the poet Hart Crane . . . these figures, these images and personalities I was not particularly invested in before I began the project. If I already had been, there would have been overdetermination. When I truly think about a painter I want my writing to be like, outside this conceptual frame, it’s Rothko. Stein was doing Cubism, but how would I do his kinds of vibrations, kinds of blocks against each other in sentences or passages?

For Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury: I’m reading that right now for the first time ever. I spent my early writing life, my twenties, avoiding Faulkner, because I already came from the South. He was the master of what one must do to be serious. But I don’t understand why people haven’t moved forward from that, why that’s not where the line in the sand is that you would see from. When I think about the reception of my own writing and what seems “difficult,” there is an actual precedent, you know?

AF: I’ll try to pick up on a few of those topics—processes of seduction, translation, mirroring especially. A different form of constructive theft in this book takes place through the phenomenon of mirror-stage identity, let’s say, or through tropes of projection. The Narcissus figure often comes up. First we encounter Balthus as a young artist studying his own image, or thinking through his own image in relation to selected figures: “You are a boy studying his own image through selected figures of myth, those you think might resemble you. There is Narcissus.” In this Balthus section, we also encounter viewers finding their likeness in museum paintings, mothers seeing themselves in the springs of their daughter’s steps. The city then becomes a reflective surface on which Hart Crane, and presumably all other urban residents, search for themselves. Crane as writer and reader searches for himself in reflective projections on Rimbaud. Crane’s suicide closes on the act of watching oneself die. The sea becomes a mirror here, as, in the Bacon section, does a drink. The surface of a drink in a pub becomes a mirror. The mirror behind the bar makes these cramped confines perhaps seem more spacious. And Bacon’s violent mode of portraiture reveals the narcissistic edge in all boxers, who square off in various places in this book. Or the “ai, ai” of Greek tragedy becomes “I I.” So I think of how painters’ canvasses, presumably authors’ and readers’ pages, all provide further reflective surfaces.

DM: Something that Bacon’s paintings show us is how reflections distort. It’s actually part of the content of his paintings. When you see a mirror in a Francis Bacon painting, you also see what the mirror is framing or holding within its glass, and you note a disjunction between two planes kind of faced off against each other. So you see in the shaving mirror how George Dyer could see his cheek looking like its portrait’s palette. That becomes emotionally resonant for another viewer. At the time that these paintings were being made, Dyer himself was a viewer of them, too. So he sees his own self become an abstraction before his eyes. He’s also seeing a subjective view of him from the person he’s with—held in that partnership and that pairing’s reflection. That’s intense.

In terms of how different sections of this book gain access to different emotional registers, it’s important that Bacon wanted his paintings placed behind glass. There’s the glass, as at the meat counter. The meat behind the glass. There’s you trying to get at, to be able to touch. There’s you in front of a painting, seeing your own self caught in the glass somewhere between the painting and the thing holding the painting away from you. You yourself are interpolated into the Bacon painting through the medium of the glass put in front of the painting. Balthus’s paintings do not have glass in front of them, because they are meant to present more of a classical control.

When you’re viewing a Balthus painting, like The Mountain, a pretty epic breakthrough painting for him, what you’re seeing is people are living together on different levels of reality. Some of their eyes are almost meeting. Some are turned away. One figure has stationed himself more on a particular peak and understands how to set himself up in physical space. So how much of this life or that is mirroring my own, and can I represent it? In doing that, am I doing violence to it or a violence to myself? When a life is distorted this way, it is distorted in the service of what?

Between Balthus and Bacon, Crane the poet becomes the place this all gets funneled into for me, in my reading of the surface of Crane’s poetry coming out of an autobiographical torque. I attempt to read Crane as if I could enter with him into a dynamic of getting ahead of himself or behind himself. How rarified a thing did the line need to be for Crane to have the frame of it and be done with it? Disjunction for me begins to play out in his life between the work he’s creating, the kind of genius he’s expecting of himself, and how a specific kind of spiraling despair doesn’t match up—and entrenches him.

It’s like: what can I take from each life, to try to read the next life through these sets of givens, these types of tropes? Here is how Balthus would paint an orange; here’s how Crane would write about an orange; here’s the orangeness of a Bacon painting. Narcissus, Hyacinthus: I’m thinking about those myths, boys who have been turned into flowers, for very different reasons. There are a number of versions of that. I began to work with this idea. We accept it in myth that there are a number of versions of how so and so was turned. We don’t allow ourselves that elasticity when we approach biographies of artists. There has to be a reason why Crane jumped off the boat. But truth resonates between the levels it's true on.

As a gay writer and someone who began by writing autobiographical fiction, it’s hard to get away from chatter of “You’re just a narcissist,” “You’re just a gay man,” “You’re just looking for yourself in somebody else,” “Why does your boyfriend look like you,” a kind of baggage that you already have to create in the face of. So for Bacon or Balthus: how am I going to do the figure, given the many ways that the figure has already been done? And when I look into Narcissus and see actually there’s a kinder read on that myth (which is that he doesn’t think he sees himself in the water—he thinks he sees his sister), how does that change the landscape? If I look at the Balthus body of work not as little girls that he wanted to sleep with, but as little girls that he might have rather been arrested in having been, it opens up. It opens up a frame. Then with Bacon, to feel the actual tenor of his work, his colors, his palette…no, you can’t have Narcissus with Bacon. But you could have Hyacinthus, because Hyacinthus has his own post-Apollo moment, because he got a disc brained in his head and blood blooms. That’s resonant.

Reality, the dynamics and the drama around it, is pitched to various frequencies. One can almost think about how in some ways a Francis Bacon painting is shrill, suggested by the screaming, the mouth, that kind of thing. And the “ai” sound echoes because of the way that Bacon’s paintings are being written about in the context of Greek myth—which he specifically moves to in the end of his life in paintings after Dyer.

AF: In terms of how reflections distort, or how partnerships get reflected, or interpolations within the representation: could we draw in the reader a bit more too? The Narcissus myth does carry homophobic pejorative connotations, and definitely the reader gets implicated as a narcissistic figure here. You mentioned the “you,” the figure of the “you,” and I always have admired how you, Douglas, succeed across your almost-autobiographical writing at slipping into myth. In this book, early on, Rilke emerges as “the one who wants to teach you how to slip into myth, will father you in that.” And this book’s immersion in the second person helps it slip into myth in a variety of ways. Across its historical triptych, “you” always remains: the character at hand, the embodied reader pulled across the text’s historical pivots, the reflective author consolidating and restructuring these narratives (more like you, Douglas). Also it seems, just from what you’ve said in the past, that this book might have some never-named real-world addressee, a “you” in your life at that time. So the “you” here stands for all of these multiple things in one. It becomes the papering over of a contradiction. That, if I remember Roland Barthes correctly, would fulfill one definition of myth.

DM: It’s the most interesting subject-position in English to me, because it’s tense. You run a risk of mistaking yourself in front of it. For me, “I am an other,” and there’s Rimbaud, enacting that crisis constantly in front of my face. It’s always Lacan’s mirror stage. It creates a site where you yourself have to reflect on being distant from yourself, to cast yourself outside of yourself. You’ve taken something off. You’ve flown out of yourself.

I like “you” also because it’s so impossible at times to discern if it’s singular or more plural, more general. It’s the thing in English that can do what the “on” can do in French—being a kind of permissive space, because ungendered, unmarked, not so freighted in certain ways. A tense that will allow me to get away with things in English that the “I” would trap me in. If you’re reading a book that I’ve written in the first person, without named characters, you will periodically perhaps as a reader remind yourself: Well, this is or isn’t the author. This is a character.

I think the second person turns that dynamic onto you, or situates it within you: This isn’t really me, but what aspect of the character is really me? That creates a loop of seduction, here thinking very much of Baudrillard’s book on the phenomenon. The circle wraps you within itself. It’s caught up in the lyric tradition for me. Why are we calling out? What are we calling out to? Are we calling out in the hope to be put back together? “I” asserts a distance “you” wants to bridge, to wit: Crane.

AF: Or again in terms of how this overall triptych holds together: you mentioned Lacan, and Your Body Figured provides this sense of depth or of layered registers of a perspectival self, all of which get implicated in this book’s “you.” And when I think of the Lacanian mirror stage, I think of the attraction of the coherent surface, of the projected/reflected image, versus the ever-unsettled intertextual depths of the self perceiving that surface. And part of what interests me is how the various layered elements of this book’s “you” work so well in attracting us to the exquisite surface, to the assured syntactical movements of the text—and make those all the more alluring because they have the eloquence that we think we lack as multi-perspectival beings. So when I read “You are studying the sun through the steepling of your hands, shading over your dark lashes, hands held first as if in prayer, then more splayed laid out, the light dappled,” something about the delicacy of that sentence embodies me as a reader. Then by the next page, when I get to, “Why don’t you go into your room and read, dear,” this embodiment of the reader gets literalized. Overall, the preceding syntactical movement (its mood) anticipates the delivery of the definitive statement, somehow further implicating me in the narrative. A sentimental education precedes an articulation. Do you admire such affective sequences in certain authors? Have you deliberately constructed them for us here?

DM: It’s me bringing together a couple of things that I respond to in disparate writers that I read. So that kind of sensation thing is really true and very resonant and embedded in the book, a kind of undertow of the entire book.

At the same time, or around beginning to write this book, I was reading Gilles Deleuze’s book about Francis Bacon, The Logic of Sensation. When I’m reading books like that, it’s not a matter of buying it or not. It’s just for me a different way to approach a reality I am immersed in already. So Deleuze has all these different ways to read that I haven’t been taught to read. I want to try to create from those propositions of his and see where that might take me—to lay my own assumptions aside. That’s also on the page, in the actual composing, that dynamic at work as well: I myself am chasing after something.

Narratively, whatever sensation I’ve tried to entrap in that movement of the sentences (the steepling, the light, the dappling), that ironizing of the very levels of language that I’m playing between determines how in or out of focus I am, how metaphorical or not I’m being in what I’m asking the reader to follow. There are moments when I also want to take the reader’s hand and say, “Yes, we are on the same path,” or, “This is how the path that we are going to go down has been marked.” There’s a practicality for the reader. We’re following the same direction, and readers can then recalibrate focus or not, with these sentences like the pointers pointing me towards where I want you to hone in.

AF: It interests me that the pointers come later. That seems the inverse of how, say, a title works, at least if we think of a museumgoer contextualizing this moment of perception by first reading a title and having that frame the experience of seeing a painting. I love in your writing how, if such clarifying moments do appear, they come almost as afterthoughts, given the experiential process that the reading already has induced.

DM: Yeah. I don’t think that the writing works on readers if you give them the answer before. To go back: an early boyfriend who’s very connected, for me, to Crane, and also to the problems that I have with Crane, gave me the idea when I was writing my first manuscripts that writing itself should be revelatory. It’s not that I myself know that I believe that. But the person I wanted to read my book believed that. So I was going to make that happen.

I’m thinking about how my writing does or doesn’t reflect what I love or appreciate about a writer like Colette (huge for me). Colette, Kristeva says, wants to give us “the flesh of the world.” But my world is so so different than hers, much plainer. Anemic, even. That itself feeds into the writing style that feeds into the setup of the book. Balthus could romanticize a certain part of his life, childhood with Rilke, because Balthus had somebody there at that moment to vouch for what he was doing.

Crane wants to romanticize poetry. He keeps falling down with the ability to romanticize his own life or to enact his romanticism because, in my view, he has nobody there with him.

Then with Bacon and Dyer, it’s watching any romanticism that one might have be destroyed before one’s eyes: both of them share that. That’s what I’m interested in too. It’s really essential how the confusion in the last part of the book exists in the second person—the “you.” Is this the figure I’m narrating to? Is this the figure I’m narrating narrating to himself? Is it me narrating to the reader’s attempt to narrate the figure? I want that kind of opening up of the plane of the horizon. Is the “you” the writer? There’s a kind of confusion too between the subject and the object that happens all throughout the Bacon/Dyer section. I’m the subject of these paintings. How easy is it to receive myself as that objectified subject? I can’t, because of my subjectivity. Does that make sense?

AF: It does. I wonder if we also could bring in some historical context here. For this sequence of three biographical narratives, I sense something progressively less “successful” about each individual. At the same time, homophobic pressures effect these characters on a familiar historical trajectory. For early-modern Balthus, gay desire never seems to and perhaps doesn’t need to get explicitly stated. No such category needs to exist. And homoerotic desire can remain a nurturing principle throughout. Crane seems to encounter the most overt external aggression, and the most corrosive social circumstance, with the tragic trajectory of Crane finally finding this resilient traction and self-expansion near the end, just before capitulating to some hetero-normative dream that’s never going to happen, and then suicide. With Dyer’s case, homophobic critique seems the most internalized, domesticated, gendered, even as broader public sentiments now seem slightly more accepting. So you’ve described the aesthetic trajectory of these three figures. Could you discuss the historical eras or historical sweep depicted through these individual characters?

DM: I think that’s how this is a historical “novel.” Those cultural dynamics lead to how these three characters are to greater or lesser degrees able to mythologize themselves. The mythology of Dyer that attracted Bacon was one that Dyer himself became trapped in. I think Crane too becomes trapped in a myth that poetry should be operating at a certain level, that there’s the real world and the reflection of that real world. I don’t exist in any of these historical periods. I exist in the period in which I’m writing the book. So I only attempt to frame this in a way that I myself relate to. I have to give each of these figures my own issue, and explore how that would play out within their time frame, in their particular dynamics. In that way, I’m like Narcissus and each of them is like the pond. I’m trying to find my reflection in them, right? Does that root me or not? And is that a good or a bad thing? When I’m brought up before, am I brought up before in a satisfactory way, or short of something?

For the book to work there is a maturation that happens, a maturing of an aesthetic. A kind of tweaking of the aesthetic. That’s why also it starts with Balthus’s willfully idealized childhood: which I feel very separate from, which allows me to shape that section differently. Then come the middle years of Crane. It’s specifically Crane in the city. It’s me in the city at the time of writing the book, myself feeling like I’m not a poet, I’m not quite a novelist, or I want to write sentences that represent painting and documenting. There’s that. The last section is a kind of failure of the very thing that Crane could not get.

In the earliest incarnations of the book, the first two sections went into female figures as well. The Crane narrative had a whole other section that went into Georgia O’Keeffe, and had a really complicated circuit of O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz being at a Crane reading, with Crane feeling Stieglitz was getting at in photographs what Crane wanted to do in poetry. As a reader of Crane’s poetry, I get completely befuddled by this perception. Also within that, O’Keeffe for me is a success in part because she leaves the city. Historically, I’ll think: What would Hart Crane’s poetry look like in the time of Frank O’Hara? It would look like Frank O’Hara, right?

AF: Yeah maybe because we met at the CUNY Grad Center, and because I think of you as a scholar as much as a novelist or poet (obviously with no need to make such clear distinctions), it here interests me to track your theory of the case in each section for each artist. Balthus takes refuge in eroticized images of girls as a screen for his own remembered, idealized, eroticized relations to Rilke.

DM: And to his mother, I would add. This is important—how I’m translating or projecting Freudian theory onto these people.

AF: Then with Hart Crane, you depict distorted elements coming out of family life, with Crane reinventing himself by adopting names from both his feuding mother and father, with such tensions best crystallized in Crane’s effusive/diffusive vision of the bridge. You talk about that bridge figure signifying male-male sex. And then, with Bacon, you imply that his mode of portraiture, at its best, should get directly traced to his oft-dismissed relationship to Dyer. Normative critics might consider that relationship an indulgence, whereas you consider it much more generative and fundamental to his work. So my broader questions are: what sorts of empathic, projective research did this book entail? Did you discover these theories of the case for each figure through the writing itself, just progressing sentence by sentence? Did you arrive at these positions through reading or through participating in something like scholarly discourse on these people? And how has your empathic mode of research on these three figures fared? Have you talked to readers who identify strictly as poetry critics about your take on Crane, or art historians about your take on Balthus? What happens when the myth of this book moves into the external world of purported truth—into something like scholarship?

DM: I’m writing as I’m reading. I’m constantly already engaged in dialogue with the critics. None of these are my ideas solely. They are my form of entering into a dialogue with ideas that are already out there, and calibrating how much sense these make to me or not. I want to be responsible to the work that has already been done. But that’s part of the thieving as well that I’ve taken up with Clément. The basis. Was The Bridge a failure, and if so, why? Because Crane tried to make it into more than it could hold? Well what in my book mimics or mirrors or could offer a set up of The Bridge? This becomes the touchstone for the structure of my book. If one critic says one thing about Rilke and Balthus, I can begin to proceed from that. I’m trying to make sentences that hold up in light of what I know. What can I still illuminate in light of the actual lay of the land? What can I still find? How do I cruise around that (to use a gay metaphor)?

I quote or misquote Bacon as saying “Fact leaves its ghost.” A kind of ghosting of the facts, this, but to what end and in whose service? To tell a narcissistic story to myself. OK fine, so I’m going to claim narcissism and feed that back into it as well. It’s an attempt to recuperate everything that could frustrate the image I would stand before. Then when I’ve made that image, when I’ve done what I can with what I’ve been given, what ultimately am I left with? I’ve gotten to the place where I can step out of that, come back down to the ground and be there in front of it and look at it, so am I sad? It’s kind of like . . . I know I’m bastardizing Roland Barthes for sure, but I’ve created a reality effect, and what are my affects around that? Then I go back to the work with that in mind. Like I’ve put all the brushstrokes on the canvas now, and this has got to be a bit more, or this brought into closer contours with this.

So I’m reading the critics. Not novels about these artists. I’m reading the art critics. For Crane, I’m reading the scholars. This person would think this because of being homophobic, and I’m going to fight him on that. Or I’m reading some little footnote in a Balthus biography, about a poem that Rilke dedicated to Balthus. I go find that poem and read that poem. This is really charged from my viewpoint, but nobody has written about that. A kind of uncovering happens, to go back to the opening epigraph, if I can clear away particular agendas by writing around these figures who have become my characters.

So each of these characters, in a way, does become a screen for me as the author. But not for some coherent identity or biography. Perhaps for particular emotional states. A painting doesn’t have to tell a story, right? You just look at a painting and you’re meant to feel. So how do I make feeling happen between me and the reader? Not how do I make the reader feel what I feel. How do I lay out a set of propositions? A set of positions? How do I model my feelings so that a reader can have reactions to them, can be in a kind of active dynamic with me? Rather than: “Oh yeah, they got what I meant to say about so and so.”

AF: You had mentioned emulating an author like Stein, who somewhat transposes Cubism painting into prose. But it fascinates me how much this book seems ultimately to be about reading. And based on everything you’ve said, how did you then present this manuscript to Stephen? What kind of book did you tell him you had sent him? Or how did you describe what the book is or does?

DM: At the time when I was writing this book, Stephen and I lived in the same neighborhood. We live in the same neighborhood again now, but it’s a different neighborhood, weirdly. And our houses upstate are by each other’s. We keep following each other around, and he has always kept abreast of my work’s development. Stephen was very aware of the setup of this book, and that there was a really big agent attempting to sell this book as a breakout.

I’m always writing a new book even when books are being shopped around, and none of my books has been published in the order that they have been written. I wrote Branwell after this book, although Branwell was published before. This book was the first book of prose that Nightboat did after the Fanny Howe reprints. Stephen was aware of the history of the manuscript. It had not come out like I’d anticipated it would. He asked to read it, and he gave astute notes. It was with Stephen that I got rid of all this Artaud stuff with Balthus, and decided to actually keep Balthus in childhood before that mountain painting, again a pretty monumental juncture in his career. But that’s another thing I decided to do with each of the artist characters: to find particular, potential turning points (or not) within their own developing work—as this book was for me as well.

Then when Stephen decided to publish it, we were trying to decide what to put on the back of the book, how to actually classify it. My thought was not that I wanted it to be fiction. I wanted it to be labeled lyric essay/art criticism. I don’t see myself as one thing particularly. I say sometimes that I’m a poet but I work in the novel form. That’s what I do. That’s what makes sense to me. I think of myself as someone who makes particular interventions into genres that already exist.

I was very flattered for this book to come out after Radical Love. And where the press has gone, since this book, has been really incredible.

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