Vol. 2 No. 2, Fall 1997 (#7)

An Interview with Richard Grossman

Richard Grossman is a poet masquerading as a novelist. In both his first novel, The Alphabet Man, and his newest effort, The Book of Lazarus, Grossman concocts a dizzying amalgam of genres and voices, typographical daring and visual sophistication. But it is the spirit of poetry that haunts his pages, whether echoing through the mind of an unraveling serial killer or creeping forth from a deranged and wandering man. It's a bumpy ride, but by the end the reader emerges shaken and haunted, if not wiser.

by Randall Heath

Rain Taxi: You've embarked upon a project entitled the "American Letters Trilogy," a trinity of novels beginning with The Alphabet Man and continued with your new book, The Book of Lazarus. How did you first conceive of this project?

Richard Grossman: When I wrote The Alphabet Man I had no idea that it was going to be the start of a trilogy until after I had finished the book, which is the way that things normally work for me, I accrete; and eventually, of it's own weight or gravitational force, a new idea emerged and I headed in a new direction. I did try to develop a fairly large and challenging concept when I developed the concept of the trilogy. I wanted it to be difficult, but within my capacity as a writer to achieve. The logic of the trilogy is quite intricate and demands that I jump through hoops that get smaller and smaller as the project moves further and further along.

RT: You began your writing career as a poet and then turned to writing fiction about poets—primarily murderous and insane ones. Why the connection between poetry and madness?

RG: Well, I think it's a direct connect. Every poet is somehow mad, and if there isn't a component of insanity in a work of literature, it cannot be called a poem. On the other hand, poetry demands incredible civility and precision and an overall ability to rationalize existence in sophisticated terms. And that tension is the constituent force of poetry in its highest forms. What I'm doing in terms of the "American Letters Trilogy" is dealing with these forces on the street level, where the madness is associated with the madness of the nation. There's a parallel with both the underground political situation in America and a spiritual dimension similar to what one finds in The Divine Comedy, which is what my trilogy is modeled after. And this madness allows the poet to ascend, in Baudelarian terms—to take wing like the albatross and at the same time to sink down. So you have that critical movement through society, that the mad poet can reach up and pluck the fruit, and at the same time dig out the truffles.

RT: So there's a sense of divine wisdom associated with the poet.

RG: Yes, the poet is the embodiment of divine wisdom.

RT: Your writing also favors the explicit and the extreme. Why is such an approach necessary?

RG: First of all, I think that life is incredibly violent and that individual people are incredibly violent on one level or another. I'm just picking up on the isotope with my Geiger counter, it's just there, it's everywhere. I don't try to change life to suit my writing; in a certain way I'm a naturalist of the nineteenth century school. I write about life as it exists within houses and on the streets. And there's nothing, hopefully, in any of my characterizations or in any of my plottings or in any of my valuations that doesn't ring true to life. I'm a novelist. I'm not a theoretician.

RT: Yet there are some incredibly daring things going on here, one of which is the way that you've blended genres. You have lines of poetry contrasted with a stream-of-consciousness fiction juxtaposed against the devices of the conventional murder mystery.

RG: If there is anything unique about my writing it is the way that I combine poetry and prose, not just on the level of having a poem here, prose there, but that it really is a true amalgam. For example, in The Book of Lazarus there is the Emma section, which is pretty much a straight murder-in-the-family genre novella, first person narrative telling the tale, and on the opposite side of the spectrum, there are the fortune cookie poems, isolated by a black surround on both pages, to indicate in a visceral way that this is pure poetry. Those little lines that you see on the fortune cookie slips, that's the love of a dead woman for a man gone insane. You can judge it any way you want, but it's a pure expression of love. And then there's everything in between, including iconography.

RT: I'm glad you mentioned that. In The Alphabet Man you use typography as a visual expression of a character's psychological state, and in The Book of Lazarus you have expanded the use of iconography to include photographs, handwriting, and drawings. Why do we see so few writers embracing these possibilities?

RG: As far as iconography is concerned and how that works, you need to have a visual sense. If you're going to start dealing in icons then you're basically dealing in the visual dimensions of art. An icon is something that is not just visually demanding and visually pleasing. It's something that's freighted with historical and religious significance. That's why half of Russia wanted to destroy them. And if you're dealing with something that's iconic, you have to start out with a template of artistic sophistication. And that's an excruciating, long and difficult process. I'm not a particularly quick study; I've been in the art world for twenty-five years. But the sad fact is that most writers are visually prepubescent. Generally speaking, the literary world is provincial when it comes to matters of art. And it always has been. You go back to Pound liking Gaudier-Brzeska—give me a fucking break, hack work—or Rodin being admired by Rilke. No way. A miserable fourth-rate artist. So the requirements for starting out are difficult. I'm thinking that my third book will be about music. Well, I've got a lot of studying to do. Because I'm not just going to play chopsticks in my novel. People expect that there's going to be some sophistication, so if I'm notating music, it had better be good music. I'm a great lover of the German concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, although I think that Wagner was an idiot. But I love grand scale. One of the things that everybody mentions is that my novels are beautiful objects in the sense that the elements of the actual book are being extruded and re-contextualized. And that same thing applies to the innards of the book: the language is recontextualized outside the frame of the traditional novel. Of course, that's something that a lot of people have tried to do, but I'm trying to do it in a way that's uniquely my own.

RT: How does this recontextualization allow you to express your ideas?

RG: I express my ideas spatially. One of my heroes is Barnett Newman. He moves me in a way that very few people move me in terms of vision. And sometimes I think of my work as being similar to a Barnett Newman zip painting. I wonder whether the third book should be two pages in length, or like Raymond Federman's twenty-page novel, just that; there's all this expansiveness and then this little thing of heaven that's a pamphlet, and that's my trilogy. I don't know. But the point I'm trying to make is that I think not in two or three dimensional terms but in five dimensional terms when I consider a novel. There's height, width, and depth, there's the time factor, and then there's the factor which I call the cerebral factor of the reader, the way the reader adjusts to all the other dimensions, which is the fifth dimension. So that when you're reading my book, you're not in a four dimensional continuum, you're in my continuum, the Grossman continuum. It's not about different components that fit together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, it's about creating the space around the components, which is almost as important as the components themselves. And that space changes and blends depending upon what the components are.

RT: Let me back up; you began your writing career as a poet but then turned to fiction. Why the switch in genre?

RG: That's a long story. But I will say this: I started writing poetry in 1962, studying under the New Critic Yvor Winters, who was considered to be an extremely intelligent, capable teacher, but a real curmudgeon and an extremely conservative literary analyst who felt that poetic practice began to dissolve in the middle of the seventeenth century. And I was more conservative than he was, and still am, and feel that English poetry, generally speaking, isn't of much value after 1620. So I'm truly an outsider in the poetry world. When I started writing, I was trying to move my poems away from modernist lines. The people that were respected when I went to school at Stanford were the likes of Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Williams, and Stevens; and with the exception of the last, all were abominable writers. I wrote a book in my thirties which in many ways was a parody of confessional poetry, Tycoon Boy. It's about my experience as a businessman, written in the voice of a child—a light exercise, but with a tremendous amount of pain in it. And that book was totally misunderstood because the notion of the businessman poet in the 1970s . . . I mean, it's like, who cared? And then right after that I wrote The Animals. I spent three years writing a five-hundred poem book. I published a lot of those poems in literary magazines, but basically the work was only picked up by a few people. And I felt, quite frankly, that there was no point in my continuing to write poems. Fifteen years later, as a result of changes in my life, I decided that I wanted to take up the enterprise again, of trying to show new ways that poetry can be developed. I went baroque in my middle years—maybe it was the result of a minor embolism—but I decided to write in a more intricate and demanding style, which required more maturity on my part and a broader, deeper palette. Instead of the austere, ceramic approach of The Animals, I decided to perform through the broader forms of fiction; that if I were going to write about poetry, I had to get outside poetry, to redefine poetic practice and demonstrate the value, the necessity of poetry in America, and in the world. In one sense my work is an argument that the globe cannot survive unless there are superior poets.

RT: In an interview with Dennis Cooper, you described yourself as an idealist and yet your books are filled with brutality, madness, and destruction. How would you account for this seeming paradox?

RG: I don't think that brutality and idealism are mutually exclusive: the Alphabet Man is a tragic figure, but he is a quintessentially optimistic serial killer. He's on a crusade to save a woman, a modern Galahad. And it's quite obvious that Robert Lazarus, the central figure of The Book of Lazarus, is a revolutionary idealist who made unbelievable sacrifices to change American life. It's a common denominator in my work—rabid idealism.

RT: Robert Lazarus is just one example of a main character you've cast in a fairly conflicted light. The book is filled with social revolutionaries who are junkies, murderers, misogynists, and pedophiles, who nevertheless manage to provide some rather lucid commentary on the flaws of the political system as it exists. Are these the true agents of political change as you see it?

RG: I'm trying to draw a careful bead on revolutionary activity, which becomes etherealized, dogmatized, stereotyped, as soon as you get half a step away from it. In my opinion, revolutionary activity tends to be flagrantly irrational and very personal. And like any other frenetic activity one has to step back from it and synthesize various aspects of it in order to come up with some kind of truth. For example, reading through the aphorisms in the novel, there are some sayings that are obviously misguided and some that are right on the money, but you get a definite feel for an insurrectionist at work, for a committed mind in the process of creation. What I'm really doing is portraying revolutionary activity at the cellular level. And in the '60s and '70s, the kind of people who were engaged in that practice were junkies and pedophiles and smelly hippies who screwed nine-year-old little girls like Emma. And I'm sure if you paged through the secret annals of Russia, Cambodia, China, and so forth, that's what you'd find in the cells and student movements—viscous bands of perverts, mouthing out their slogans.

RT: So who's carried the torch, so to speak, in the '90s?

RG: In terms of revolution? I'm not interested in revolution, I'm a centrist. There is a lot going on socially that I don't like, but I feel that in a democracy you work from the center, not because I like the center—I'm a marginalized person politically—but because the center is where things get done. And the center is where democracy is preserved. I'm a staunch civil libertarian; I really believe that the individual is more important than any societal value. And that's enshrined, actually, very well in American democracy. The problem with American democracy is the American corporation, which is a slave holder construct, pure and simple. It's totally invasive, and people are as tightly controlled within the walls of a corporation as they are in a totalitarian society. More so, actually, because corporations are more sophisticated in their procedures. People don't understand that. They overlook it because they get paid to overlook it.

RT: One of the threads running through the trilogy so far is the need for salvation in a world that has spun out of control. What is the meaning of salvation as your characters experience it or search for it?

RG: Salvation is an individual relationship with God. I've always considered myself to be a devotional poet, and I consider myself to be a devotional novelist. I have a strong spiritual commitment, and I try to express that in my work. Salvation cannot be worked out in human terms. The point of my writing is to touch upon the systematics of prayer and on how we arrive at a method of achieving spiritual coherence in our lives. Stated differently, salvation is the primary consequence of faith. In the third novel I'm going to deal with these issues more explicitly because I shall be dealing with redemption. So I'll probably be dealing with somebody who is incredibly wise. The novel will be about the vault of heaven.

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Fall 1997 Table of Contents