A Wild Vitality: An Interview with Jerome Sala

by Jim Feast

I met Jerome Sala in a college class in Chicago in 1970. We became fast friends and, always being hipper than me, he introduced me to many strange byways in poetry, art, and music. I moved to New York City while he continued writing poetry and creating new ways of presenting it in Chicago; in 1981, he was crowned the first “heavyweight champion” of competitive literary bouts in that city, in a format that pre-dated (and inspired) the poetry slam. A few years later, Sala moved to New York City, where he and his spouse, the poet Elaine Equi, have been a vital part of the city’s poetry scene.

Sala, who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from New York University and works as a copywriter, is the author of eight books of poems, the latest of which is How Much: New and Selected Poems (NYQ Books, $20). Other titles include Corporations Are People, Too! (NYQ Books, 2017), The Cheapskates (Lunar Chandelier, 2014), and Look Slimmer Instantly (Soft Skull Press, 2005). His poems and essays have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Conjunctions, Pleiades, Boundary 2, Rolling Stone, among other places, and he keeps a blog on poetry and pop culture called espresso bongo.

Jim Feast: It used to be noted how advertising and political platitudes were woefully diluting terms such as “democracy” or “freedom”; now, as you point out in poems such as “To Content,” it seems all language has lost significance. In response, your poems often take words from corporate jargon that never had any meaning in the first place and infuse them with a wild vitality. Is this one of your goals?

Jerome Sala: Definitely. Having worked as a copywriter for many years, I witnessed how sometime in the ‘90s, all types of creativity—music, video, writing, etc.—got dumped into a single category, “content.” Just as industrial capitalism gave birth to new abstractions such as “labor power” and “value,” the information economy now gave birth to this abstraction, and “To Content” is about this change. It begins:

you are like a word-picture-video flow
whose every element is special, but as part of a feed
(feeding whom?)
             also generic

a textual form of meat product:
like the old Aristotelian notion of “substance”
nothing in itself
but the something out of which all is made

Since, as you mention, language is losing its specificity, I try to bring attention to this through satire; I treat the insignificant, the debased, as a source of great truth. Philip K. Dick, one of my idols, once theorized that the Logos could be found in cheap ads on the back of matchbook covers—I play with this idea in my poetry.

JF: In “Corporate Sonnets,” a sequence of Browning-like monologues, you present a gallery of sham entrepreneurs, cutthroats, business nobodies, and flimflammers, revealing the souls of speakers who, by definition, have no souls. I wonder whether these portraits are taken from life or are invented to represent the corporate typology.

JS: When I first started writing “Corporate Sonnets,” I collected business clichés from email solicitations, work conversations, business magazines, online ads, and motivational books. The idea was to satirize the language by collaging these expressions—none of the poems were portraits of actual people. But I discovered something surprising as I wrote: though the sonnets were made of nothing but jargon, they started to seem, almost by accident, as if they were characters speaking—Browning-esque, as you mention, or perhaps even like the voices in Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. Here is the first “Corporate Sonnet” I composed:

I don’t know if I still have the bandwidth
to think outside of the box. I’m good at
identifying the low-hanging fruit
but innovation? Disruptive technologies?
That stuff may be for the millennials
to decide. Good luck to them. As for me,
well, there comes a time in all our lives
when you’ve got to just drink the Kool-Aid
and get with the program. Ok, sure,
you’ve no longer got the mojo
to break down any silos, but at least your
morale is no longer in the toilet.
I’m still entrepreneurial and proactive,
I’m collaborative, competitively priced and non-reactive.

The fact that this collection of expressions sounded like a someone baring their “soul” made me wonder if our souls were in fact made of clichés. In any case, when I performed the “Corporate Sonnets” at readings, it wasn’t just people who worked in offices that appreciated them; social workers, academics, and factory workers related to them too. It seems all walks of life are now defined by their jargon—and people are delighted when you make fun of it.

Today, cliché has invaded all realms of language. Sometimes I think that a dramatic play in which the actors communicate only in cliches might be both hilarious and poignant—it would “speak” to our moment in a particularly engaging way. As Umberto Eco quipped: “Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us.”

JF: In a dialogue with Jack Skelley on the Best American Poetry blog, you say that in your poetry you often take “the most fleeting instances of culture and write about them as if they were holy monuments.” In conversation, you’ve told me this nuanced approach to pop culture was something you witnessed in the Chicago art and writing scene, and I wonder if you can say more about that here.

JS: One of the Chicago artists I was thinking about was Kevin Riordan, who created the cover for How Much? and many of my other books. With a connoisseur’s eye for trashy culture, he takes pop influence into a whole new dimension, collaging imagery not just from icons, but more esoteric sources. My wife, the poet Elaine Equi, guest-edited an issue of LAICA Journal (Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art) with Riordan on the theme of “discarded icons.” The contents of the issue, derived from ads, comic books, film, etc., wasn’t merely pop, it was obsolete pop—in a way, what was being celebrated was the fact that our culture is impermanent. Such an approach to pop culture is also influenced by punk, another strong force when I was growing up in Chicago. As an example of how Riordan’s pop collage approach has affected my writing of poetry, here are a few lines from “Hollywood Alphabet”:

I am an amateur alien living in Amityville
in a Batman costume, on leave from Babylon 5.
I can’t tell a cat from a canary from a Wes Craven movie from a
   William Castle movie
yet I get déjà vu when I think of Philip K. Dick dancing with Judge
   Dredd after dancing with a wolf.
T.S. Eliot once said that ethnographic study offered a form
   of empowerment for Everyman – that and exploitative cinema.
Well maybe he didn’t. . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

                                                            Hollywood, you see, is more
   about image appropriation than individuation—
as such it’s a Janus-faced town, a kind of Jurassic Park
where dinosaurs like Steven King, Freddy Krueger and Stanley
   Kubrick have gone extinct
quicker than you can say Herschel Gordon Lewis, or the Legend of Hell House.

JF: The approach of treating mass culture as if its icons “were holy monuments” is a perspective not unknown in universities—an environment you are familiar with, since you have a doctorate in American Studies. However, something not typically found in campus productions is the slashing humor you use in such works as “Let’s Hear It for Frederick’s of Hollywood.” Indeed, you often have a triple-barreled comedy, poking fun at the absurd solemnity of pop culture, the pretensions of academic studies of pop culture, and the sacrosanct classics of poetry, which also come in for some good-natured swipes. How did your use of humor develop?

JS: There are three influences I’d like to mention when it comes to satiric/comedic touches. First, I’ve always loved comedians such as Rodney Dangerfield, Jerry Lewis, and Sarah Silverman. Second is a very traditional literary mode, the mock-heroic—I’m thinking here of Swift and Pope, who, to achieve their satiric effects, would write about commodities such as makeup and earrings as if they were mystic, alchemical objects.

Third is having worked as a copywriter. Marx, a great satirist himself, admired capitalism’s tendency to profane whatever it readied for sale, and an ad writer experiences this process in a very intimate way. You work with the arbitrariness of words—anything can be made to mean anything else. From this perspective, not just pop culture but academic study of it can seem a bit pompous. Nevertheless, I value “theory” and academic criticism highly; such writing helped me get through my job as a copywriter by exposing the ideological clichés that fuel business writing (something satirized in “Corporate Sonnets” and many of my other poems).

Speaking of ideology, it’s funny how even a classic cartoon series like The Flintstones reflects it. Historical research suggests that Stone Age societies were communistic; in the cartoon series, though, the society we see is a thriving, industrial capitalist one. The beginning of my poem on this series alludes to this goofy transformation:

stone age

owning property
working for the man
and loving it

as a brontosaurus crane
or a purple
pet dinosaur dog
named Dino

JF: I see your work as addressed to a specific audience. In your early Chicago performance poetry, there was a raucous give and take between you and the audience, with listeners often taking lines as individual insults or jokes. Now, in less raucous days, the audience is incorporated in each poem; not only is a sketch provided of the persona speaking the piece but there is an implicit profile of the audience this speaker is addressing.

JS: Thinking about audiences reflects, I guess, a vain wish that what I write could extend beyond a strictly poetry audience. In the old days, Elaine and I performed to crowds that were literary, arty, and punk. This mix is called out in a playful way in an early poem, “In the Company of the Now People”:

I wasn’t going to talk about all you over-the-hill go-go dancers
but here you all are in your little white go-go boots
and there’s Joe Tiger and Lenny Leopard
along with the lady wrestler with a bone in her hair
and mamma mia what next?
a Dalmatian in a tutu?
it just makes me stop and think—
I must be in the company of the now people

I guess you could say this early work addresses the nightlife of the crowd. Later, I started addressing daytime life—office work, for example. The approach turned to satirizing business talk, or even business fashion, and the funny ways the drama of nightlife gets funneled into the banality of daily work.

I’m not sure whether such writing appeals to a specific audience or not, but, judging from response at readings, people seem to get a kick out of poems written with this goal in mind.

JF: Both you and Elaine are fascinated with everyday products and how they change over time, but there is an interesting variation in the way you write about them. In her poem “Monogrammed Aspirin,” for example, she examines with a phenomenological lucidity how she reacted to the change in pill shape of Excedrin. By contrast, in your Coke sequence, you reflect on the philosophical implications of product change. What do you make of your mutual love of these objects—and the difference in the way you approach them?

JS: I think what both of us find appealing in these common objects and products is their very commonness. We both believe, in keeping with that Philip K. Dick quip I mentioned earlier, that if you’re looking for secrets about the way a culture works, you need to look at what you are numb to—the banal items you encounter daily. As you say, Elaine’s approach is more phenomenological, literally—phenomenology is her favorite branch of philosophy. In her poem “The Thing Is,” for example, she writes about how objects lack “the inner life” once bequeathed them; they have become cold, reified things. Her writing, influenced by Francis Ponge, rediscovers the aura of objects in witty, often humorous ways. An unusual feature of her style is that her writing can be mystical, even visionary, and humorous at the same time. If Elaine’s work is more concerned with the “object” part of the commercial object, I’m more fascinated by the marks of commerce it bears. What caught my interest about the marketing of New Coke, Classic Coke, and Cherry Coke back in the ‘80s was how the flavor of each carried an ideological message: New Coke’s sweetness preached the optimism of youth (it was closer to Pepsi, a brand marketed as “young”), Classic Coke the seriousness of tradition, and Cherry Coke predicted our current moment, in which brands turn profits by marketing diversity.

JF: When we were in college, you introduced me to an older painter, Lady Bunny, and her Bohemian friends. The Bohos, I learned, had preceded the Beats and considered themselves the real outlaws. Your verse sometimes portrays this division between outsider groups. In poems such as “Beatnik Stanzas,” where you intone, “no madness / no angels /  . . .  / no gone daddios / no haunted lightning,” you look askance at the Beat zeitgeist; in other pieces, such as “The Stoners,” you speak of a more authentic underclass group that contains “rogue impulses.” I see this as you suggesting that even if some countercultural groups may end up seeming “square,” there will always be a group resisting the corporate program.

JS: What I was satirizing in “Beatnik Stanzas” was not the actual Beats themselves, who produced some of my favorite writing, but the commodification of their image (think of the classic sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis or Roger Corman’s wonderful film A Bucket of Blood). That’s why the poem is filled with goofy lines like “my visioned darkened / and I threw away my turtleneck / in a dream.” But the phenomenon you mention, one generation casting doubt on another, helped me see how what’s cool can become cliché within the space of a few years. In comparison, a poem like “The Stoners” displays a hint of optimism. As you suggest, it states that no matter how the image of “the rebel” is commodified, a new generation appears with a workaround; punk, for example, appropriated the appropriators—repurposing trashy culture for its own uses—and that appropriation has already been reappropriated, as might be expected. Nevertheless, when something becomes a cliché, there is usually a segment of the culture that abandons it. Lightning cannot be housed in a bottle. As Bakhtin wrote, “There always remains an unrealized surplus of humanness . . . All existing clothes are always too tight, and thus comical.” Or as “The Stoners” puts it,

How is it then that these flaneurs continually rise from extinction

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Are they something more than themselves—
rogue impulses without words or images of their own
but which nevertheless, like a flood
pick up people, houses and trees along the way
to a destination they never reach?

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023

Archival Woman: An Interview with Sarah Heady

by Greg Bem

Sarah Heady’s newest poetry book, Comfort (Spuyten Duyvil, $16), is a marvelous amalgamation of found material and poetic investigations of history and place. Heady’s work, as demonstrated in her previous collection Niagara Transnational (Fourteen Hills, 2013), often finds embodiment beyond the self, using poetry as a conduit for collective voice, cohesive culture, and critical inquiries of the world around us. In Comfort, the poet turns her gaze toward an important resource for women a century ago, a late-19th to mid-20th-century magazine of the same title. But the book is far greater than an archival gathering of texts; Comfort strives towards a deeper love for archives and a deeper commitment to cultivating and maintaining beauty through timeless expression. In this new book, Heady steps forward with a new and refreshing history of American women and the world surrounding them, and the result illuminates not only the past, but our own tremulous moment.

Greg Bem: Let’s start with the title, Comfort. As you’ve outlined in an afterword, the magazine of this title catered to “rural housewives” and served multiple purposes, from marketing snake oil to responding to the isolation of women throughout the U.S. How did you discover the magazine, and what was its role in crafting this collection?

Sarah Heady: Thanks, Greg—I’d love to tell the story of how Comfort came to be. During the summer of 2013, I spent a month at a residency in Nebraska called Art Farm. Ed Dadey, the residency director, was born in the farmhouse on the property, and he mentioned to me that the attic was full of decades-old newspapers and stuff, and that I was welcome to paw through it if I wanted. So one day I crawled up into that sweltering attic, and there I found a pile of musty, crumbling periodicals called Comfort. It seemed to be akin to Ladies’ Home Journal—a very gendered and “fluffy” kind of publication, but one that nonetheless gripped me because of its age. The issues that were salvageable I brought downstairs and started reading and photographing, so that I could continue to study them without further damaging them. I didn’t do this in an exhaustive or systematic way, just tried to capture the pages and pieces that were most evocative to me. 

A few months later, I began examining those photographs and working with the found language I had captured. The source material took many forms: advertisements, advice columns, serialized fiction, sentimental poetry, recipes, and tips on housekeeping, farming, gardening, etc. I would let my eye wander over the text and pull out fragments of bright or evocative language, and with them I would weave these dense, imagistic prose poems. Eventually I sought out other primary and secondary sources, mostly about the settlement of the American prairie, and bits of found language from those also ended up getting woven in.

I should say that about half of Comfort is composed of non-found-language poems—some of which I had written even before going to Art Farm but which came to feel like they belonged in the project because of their rural setting and their circling around questions of partnership, domesticity, and solitude.

GB: Can you talk a little bit about moving from the exploratory phase to intentionally creating a book? When did you know this work was going to become a book-length project—or was it certain from the beginning?

SH: Not at all! It took several years. The oldest material in the book is from 2010 and the newest from 2015, and it was not clear for much of that time that I was writing a single book. 

I definitely want to mention that I created Comfort within the bounds of my MFA program at San Francisco State University. Every stage of the project’s generation and discovery and refinement was supported by the courses I was taking, my teachers and classmates, and what I was reading. The first set of poems that became the kernel of Comfort was a project for an amazing course taught by Donna de la Perrière called “Mad Girls, Bad Girls: Writing Transgressive Female Subjectivity.” That was in my very first semester of grad school, and they eventually turned into a chapbook called Corduroy Road. A few of the pieces in that chapbook were written prior to starting the program, but grouping those poems for Donna’s class was the first time I had a sense of a project I wanted to keep writing into.

The summer following my second semester was when I went to Art Farm. So then I had all the Comfort magazine material in addition to this first set of poems, which started to feel related to the found text experiments I was doing not only with the magazine stuff but with other primary and secondary sources about the Midwest prairie. I continued to scope the project, as it were, figuring out what belonged inside the frame and what didn’t. In Barbara Tomash’s transformative workshop “Imagining the Book,” I gave myself the prompt to create a kind of abecedary in which I listed, for each letter of the alphabet, all the nouns that came to mind for the world of Comfort. This compendium of both sensory elements and abstract concepts became almost like a film or TV show “bible,” a guiding outline for the book—if such a thing could exist for fragmentary, nonlinear, non-narrative poetry.

After a time, when I had a sense of this world, I used every grad school assignment to write into Comfort as I was conceiving it—whether doing experiments with the found language I’d brought home from Art Farm or refining the non-found pieces. Truong Tran’s class on the prose poem was especially important for refining the form of the found text poems. I’d like to think my work itself is concise and concentrated, but I’m a maximalist in my process—I overgenerate and then go through many, many rounds of culling to end up with the final product. At its longest and muddiest point, Comfort was a 400-page compendium of fragments that I sliced and diced and reordered and shaped with the help of many readers, until it ended up as a normal 86-page book. I consider it a book-length poem rather than a collection. And it turned out to be my MFA thesis. 

I don’t say all this to imply, by any means, that an MFA is necessary to write a book, but I always appreciate when artists are clear and forthcoming about the material and social and intellectual conditions surrounding their process.

GB: Visually, Comfort has a rhythm to it; there is a wide range of the poems’ shapes and sizes. Formally, the text rotates between hefty blocks of prose and chiseled, scattered verse. The prose often centers on long lists—not exclusively lists of images or objects, but also states of being, relationships, observations, and consequences. The lineated verse, in juxtaposition, feels more personal, more human, composed of specific voices. Whose voices can be heard in Comfort? Should we be listening to, or for, someone in particular?

SH: It’s true that there are a few different registers of voice in the book, which tend to correspond to shifts in form. The prose blocks are where most of the found language lives, and because of the multiplicity of sources I used, they have a listing quality that is meant to imply a sea of individual voices/experiences/perspectives/moments that have been collapsed or coagulated or sedimented so that they become anonymous and collective. Most of the prose blocks are also literally missing a subject (e.g., “is running a small piece of sand soap through the grinder. is dipping brooms in hot suds. is tying a cord around a glass stopper.” I borrowed this specific form from Pattie McCarthy’s Marybones, although in her book the word “Mary” precedes each prose block and therefore attaches to the following barrage of predicates. “Mary” contains multitudes of characters held by that name and explored in the book: the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary Tudor, Mary Shelley, Mary, Queen of Scots, and millions of regular, non-famous women named Mary who have lived throughout time. In Comfort, the missing subject is meant to suggest even further the anonymity of women in the historical record. C.D. Wright’s technique of collaging documentary fragments, as exemplified by her books One Big Self and One With Others, was another big influence on Comfort as well as on Halcyon, the libretto I wrote about the history of a defunct women’s college.

The lineated verse in Comfort, as you note, has a more personal or singular tone and usually is written in the first person, though I can’t say there is a particular individual I had in mind—perhaps one voice rising out of the sea of collapsed prose voices, and yet still just another farm wife we don’t know a whole lot about. The only “character” per se in the book is someone I call the Seer, a sort of mystical figure based on a historical woman named Susan Gavan, known as the “Aurora Witch” to ghost-hunter-types. She was not a witch, just a woman who died young and inspired rumors much after the fact because her grave is isolated from the rest of the dead in the cemetery in Aurora, Nebraska. But in Comfort, the Seer is indeed a wild and powerful woman who sort of pulls the farm wives away from domesticity, into a more feral state of self-knowledge. And her voice comes through—mysteriously—at various points throughout the book. 

GB: The balance of the Seer reminds me of the role of the poet more largely in our world. As poet, as writer, where has the book of Comfort ultimately taken you, and what can your readers look forward to?

SH: Comfort contains a lot of the existential concerns and questions I had in my late twenties: should I “settle” into marriage and child-rearing, could I do those things without losing myself in the process, how might I manage all the piles of tasks associated with adulthood and not harm myself in the process? I didn’t consciously connect these themes to my real life at the time, but now I certainly do. I can see how, in delving into the found language of Comfort magazine, I was processing questions of domesticity and partnership as well as my own emotional relationship to labor, which is that I am a workaholic/overdoer by nature. 

Well, now I’m (happily!) married and the mom of a toddler, in spite of which I’m much healthier than I was a decade ago with regard to chronic busyness. My work now is to slow down and do less and be fundamentally okay with that. So I really feel like writing Comfort was part of a spiritual movement toward repairing some personal wounds, even though it’s a pretty impersonal book in a lot of ways.

As for what’s next—over the past several years I’ve turned my creative attention homeward, to the place I am from: the Hudson River Valley of New York State. I have a poetry manuscript in progress called “The Hudson Lines,” which documents many years of writing and riding alongside the Hudson River on the Metro-North Railroad. I’m also writing a book of linked essays about landscape and class in the Hudson Valley, which includes topics such as property, wealth, New York City, the river, poverty, accumulation, ruin, scarcity, archives, addiction, apples, beavers, September 11th, Dirty Dancing, whiteness, hoarding, mansions, bungalow colonies, young love, climate crisis, and, actually, the Pacific Ocean.

Click below to purchase this book through Bookshop and support your local independent bookstore:

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023

Stop, Look, and Listen: An Interview with Rae Armantrout

by David Moscovich

There is much written on the life and work of poet Rae Armantrout, including her own memoir True (Atelos, 1998). It was through this book that I thirsted to ask about her Evangelical background, and how a such a meticulous poetics of what Gordon Lish would call “quiddity” could emerge from the fascinating world of fundamentalist Christianity. Regardless of how it comes about, though, there is surely an inquisitive nowness in her timeless poems, a willingness to engage with Guy Debord’s spectacle or to completely ignore it, and a thrilling ability to transport William Carlos Williams’s iconic red wheelbarrow into an uninhibited, semantic, seismic, motionless playground.

Segments of Armantrout’s latest book Finalists (Wesleyan University Press, $35) seem reminiscent of the Harper’s Magazine column “Findings,” a digest about recent scientific research; when placed side to side, its items have a peculiar strobing effect. Throughout Finalists, etymologies inflate and implode, contradict and contort, resisting motion as if they were two magnets connecting. Making new meaning of familiar references is part of this dance of contrast; pop culture grounds Armantrout’s work in the contemporary world, while physics, genetics, and botany enshrine it with her exquisite L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.

Armantrout’s other recent notable books include Wobble (Wesleyan University Press, 2018), which was a finalist for the National Book Award; Versed (Wesleyan University Press, 2009), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; and Veil: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), a finalist for the PEN Center USA Award.

This interview was conducted at the end of 2022, with Armantrout’s punctual feedback, over email.

David Moscovich: You came of age among the West Coast “language poets” of the 1970s. What advice would you give young women writers today?

Rae Armantrout: I hesitate to give advice to young people who will be living in a much harsher world than I have. That said, the old advice to “Stop, look, and listen” travels well in poetry as well as life. Hone your curiosity. Read widely.

DM: How does family influence your work?

RA:  For the last five and a half years, I have been participating in the care of my twin granddaughters. There isn’t much that’s more interesting than the emergence of mind, personality, and language. They are adorable, but, especially since they’re twins, they also provide a front row seat on what you might call war and peace. There’s a lot of fighting, scheming, negotiating, making up, etc. (It’s possible I think this is fascinating because it’s the newest thing in my life.) In any case, their sayings and doings have gotten into my poems lately, just as my parents got into my earlier poems.

DM: Can you speak to your upbringing—how did Vallejo, San Diego, and Evangelical Christianity help form your current approaches to poetry? I think you’ve addressed at least part of this in an essay about your mother, but I wonder if you have anything to add now.

RA: You’re right, I have written about this before—in a memoir called True, published on Lyn Hejinian’s Atelos Press,and in interviews. I grew up in one of those housing developments built after World War II in which there were, say, five models of home repeated down the block. But, no surprise, it wasn’t exactly “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver.” My father was in the Navy, so he was away for long periods. My mother managed a candy store. My maternal grandmother took care of me, but she was a rather taciturn, distant presence.

Fortunately, I discovered reading early. My best friends were books. When my father wasn’t on deployment, things were worse. He was a drunk. I tried my best to avoid him. I got into some minor delinquency as a teenager but still managed to make it to adulthood relatively unscathed.  

My mother and grandmother were fundamentalist Christians, which meant I grew up reading the Bible and going to church. I started to have doubts by the time I was 11 or so. We had an encyclopedia, as families often did before the internet, and I remember reading about evolution. I showed my mother the pages and she said, “Don’t look at that!”  I think I got interested in science as a way to break out of the evangelical cage.

DM: Do you have any work that you have kept private which you are still working on or which you plan to de-privatize?

RA:  Although I wrote about my early years in True, at the start of the pandemic, I decided I would write a complete autobiography. Ha!  So far I’m only up to the age of twenty-six.  I have a long way to go. When I wrote about my childhood and teenage years this time, I decided to write the truer, unexpurgated version. Stanford bought this first installment when they bought my papers in 2021. I don’t intend to publish the thing. To see it, you need permission. I did it this way to protect my family and friends.

DM: Can you recall the very first time you wrote something down and thought of it as poetry (not for publication)?

RA: When I was in first or second grade my teacher had us make up poems. She must have read us some haiku. I wrote, “The little fisheys swim / around and around / and away.” I remember this poem was put into a mimeograph book of class work, but I certainly had no idea of publication.

DM: At which point in writing poems for Finalists did you know you had a cohesive book?

RA: The book is in two parts: “Threat Landscape” and “Finalists.” “Threat Landscape” was written first. I see the two parts as two different manuscripts so, to that extent, I don’t have one cohesive book—I have two that I chose to pair.  Most of “Threat Landscape” was written before the pandemic (with the exception of “Fashion”) and most of “Finalists” was written during it.  So they are bookends, I guess.  (Though I don’t mean to imply that the pandemic is over.) The two parts have some common themes, of course: the climate crisis, and raising children in a world we’re ruining. In “Threat Landscape,” I try breaking the manuscript into sub-sections divided by one or two-line phrases. Mini poems. I’ve never done anything like that before. In “Finalists,” I found myself writing longer poems, some prose poems, and I leaned into that as much as I could during the early pandemic solitude.

DM: It seems the first few poems are broken into sections of one, two, three. How did this form come about? Why threes? And perhaps related: In a poem entitled “System Processing,” you write:

To get an idea
is to place one thing

beside another,
see how they look,

whether they’re a good fit—
though I don’t want them

to fuse.

I know I will want
to move them again.

To what extent might this poem describe a part of your writing process?

RA: I do tend to break poems and sometimes even books into sections. I started to use internal divisions early on as a way to write longer poems. I found I could stretch poems out by juxtaposing different observations done at separate times. This seemed like a natural way to go about it.  After all, the brain bundles perceptions into packets— separate “nows”—each several seconds long.  Now is not continuous. But there are other reasons too. I always find myself interested in how two or more distinct things/perceptions/tones might fit together. What do they have in common? How can bits drawn from different sources or scenes inform one another? This juxtaposition is a way of making implicit metaphors.  But such metaphors will always be knobby. The parts will resist each other. And I think these resistances are at least as interesting as the harmonies. My poems look at what happens when very different things meet.

And, yes, the lines you quote from the end of “System Processing” do describe this process. They imply that an “idea” is always a way of seeing what happens when A meets B. I didn’t start out to write a poetics statement. The poem starts with a quote from something I read on systems theory and consciousness. The rest of the poem is a kind of thought experiment using concrete, down to earth examples to explore and question the heady initial concepts. Somewhere along the way, though, I do start to reflect back on my own writing process.

DM: I was raised with values that fall somewhere between atheist Marxism and secular Judaism, so I have a curiosity about all types of Fundamentalism. Read with an Evangelical lens, I wonder how the logic in “Recent Thinking” might assemble/disassemble a belief in the Christian higher being: What is the difference between simulationism (if that’s even a word) and creationism? They seem potentially related in your eyes:

Some say the fact that the world is computable
is evidence we’re living in a simulation.

And the fact that the simulations we create
are improving rapidly is further evidence of this.

It is reasonable to think that any simulation might
have been created by one more advanced than itself,

a potentially infinite regress in which
the word “simulation” becomes meaningless.

Experience suggests that simulations are games
with both player and non-player characters.

No character has explicitly stated
that we should destroy the biosphere
to test the limits of the game.

I’m interested in the question of when and how deep-seated beliefs, such as evangelism or atheism, might morph or flex over one’s lifetime, in your view.

RA: I think you’re absolutely right. “Simulationism” and creationism have the same structure and the same shortcomings. Both suggest that some humanoid intelligence created us and is watching us. They propose different versions of the Big Other. Both theists and people who believe in simulation theory, for instance, argue that the fact that math works in the world shows that “reality” was intelligently designed by a mind or minds somewhat like ours. That’s actually an interesting argument. I’m not saying that simulationists or (all) theists are stupid. Far from it. But both ideas fall into an infinite regress, which is not where you want to be. If everything must have a creator, then who created God? Or, if the fact that we make simulations implies that we are a simulation created by a more advanced civilization—then who created them? Where does it stop? And where does our responsibility begin? In simulation theory we really have no agency. Similarly, it could be argued (though it rarely is) that if God is truly omniscient, we have no agency. I think we should act as if the world is real and as if we can affect what happens. I also think both theories underestimate the dynamism and creativity of “nature.”

As for how my “deep-seated” beliefs have changed over time, I don’t think the evangelical Christianity I was raised with was really deep-seated.  I mean, I shed it quickly in my early teenage years and never looked back. I was too curious to stay there. I did a paper on comparative religion in seventh grade and that was the end of that.

I do think reading the Bible at a young age prepared me to understand metaphor and parable. Since it was the King James version, it even prepared me for reading Shakespeare. To be clear, I know sophisticated, intelligent Christians—but they aren’t fundamentalists. It’s the Jimmy Swaggart form of religion I’m allergic to. I’m an agnostic, really. I mean, it’s not impossible that we are living in a simulation!  But it’s a very depressing thought, and the argument for it is essentially circular. The poem is an exploration of the way plausible reasoning can go wrong.

DM:  What this brings up, in a way, is censorship, which according to a recent PEN America report on banned books is increasing in the U.S.—1,648 titles were affected between July 2021 to June 2022. Do you know of an anti-censorship argument that might speak effectively to religious-minded folks who hold faith-based objections to books—something that might actually move opinions?

RA: This seems to be the age of censorship. Who would have expected that? People on the left have tried to ban Huckleberry Finn from school libraries because the N word, used by characters in the book, is racist and potentially triggering. But the strongest censorship movement now is on the right, which apparently wants to keep young people from knowing that gay or trans people exist—even though some of these kids are inevitably already gay or trans. They’re also against teaching the true history of racism in this country.  I am against censorship—though I do think curriculum should be age appropriate. Do I know of a good argument against it?  Well, ignorance is seldom good. It’s certainly not what school is about. Kids will find out about all this stuff sooner rather than later on the internet anyway. Why not contextualize it.? You could use Huckleberry Finn in high school, for instance, to teach about racism and slavery, about character and humor, and about the dream of freedom as experienced by Huck and Jim. As for the right wing, I doubt those people are amenable to argument. They want to institute a theocracy. They are on a political crusade and they won’t let a little thing like an argument stand in their way. It’s very dangerous.

DM: I wanted to ask about the poem “Cathexis”:

When we say the world is haunted
we mean untranslated
                                             as yet.

A “cathexis”
is a catch basin
in English.

A result of draining
“here” off into “there.”

Starbucks’ billion plastic straws
are green.

I know the leaves are whispering.

Tell me what my mother meant!

Are the final lines of the poem autobiography?

RA:  Cathexis is a term usually used in psychology; it refers to a concentration of mental or libidinal energy on a particular person, object, or idea. An obsession, in other words. So it isn’t really “a catch-basin/ in English”—not literally.  I like making up faux definitions. This one isn’t so wacky though. Cathexis really does drain “‘here’ off into ‘there’” if we take “here” to mean the self and “there” to mean the fascinating object. As for the poem’s last lines, they are not primarily autobiographical; I see the demand as being spoken to the leaves, to nature. The whispering of the leaves perhaps reminds the speaker of the whispers of her parents when she was a child. 

Nature and the incomprehensible speech of parents are connected here. Adult speech amounts to a kind of “primal scene” for the child, to use a Freudian term. Freud said that walking in on one’s parents having sex is traumatic because the child can’t understand what’s going on and sees it as violent. I’m hypothesizing that the traumatic lack of comprehension extends way beyond that particular sight. So the whole poem exists in a somewhat playful argument with Freudian psychology. (Mother is one, the first, fascinating object of cathexis?)  Did I feel this way as a kid? Maybe. I don’t remember.

DM: You mentioned that you are writing a complete autobiography, but that you do not intend to publish it. Can you explain more about your motivation behind this? How does it feel in comparison with writing poetry, for publication, for example?

RA: It’s entirely different from writing poetry. I’m writing it in a fairly linear way in order to try to remember—and reconsider—the events of my life. It’s difficult both because I’m not used to writing like this and because my memory is pretty hazy. I started it as a project to work on during the pandemic and, I must say, I’ve ground to a halt since things have loosened up. I want to get back to it, though.

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History and Story: Madison Smartt Bell and Jane Delury In Conversation

Madison Smartt Bell is the author of twelve novels, including The Washington Square Ensemble (Viking, 1983), Doctor Sleep (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), and Soldier’s Joy (Ticknor & Fields, 1989), which received the Lillian Smith Award. His eighth novel, All Souls’ Rising (Pantheon, 1995), won the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and is collected with the second and third books of his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy in a uniform edition from Vintage Contemporaries. In 2020 Bell published Child of Light: A Biography of Robert Stone (Doubleday) and The Eye You See With: Selected Nonfiction of Robert Stone (Ecco). His most recent publication is the novel The Witch of Matongé, published by Concord Free Press in 2022; a limited number of free copies are available at in exchange for generosity to a charity or someone in need. Born and raised in Tennessee, Bell lived in New York, Haiti, Paris, and London before settling in Baltimore, Maryland. Since 1984 he has taught at Goucher College along with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires. 

Jane Delury is the author of The Balcony (Little, Brown, 2018), a novel-in-stories that won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; a second novel, Hedge, will be published by Zibby Books in June 2023. Her short stories have been published in Granta, The Sewanee Review, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, Glimmer TrainNarrative, and other journals. Her awards include a PEN/O. Henry Prize, a Pushcart Special Mention, and grants from the Maryland State Arts Council. Her essays have appeared in Real Simple, LitHub, and Poets & Writers.  She holds a BA in English and French literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz, a maîtrise from the University of Grenoble, and an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. A professor at the University of Baltimore, she teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts and directs the BA in English. She lives in Baltimore with her daughters and her husband, the fiction writer Don Lee.

Bell and Delury met in Baltimore at the turn of the century, in an abandoned thread mill on the Jones Falls, then in temporary use as a venue for a literary cabaret fundraiser for the Associated Writing Programs.  Later, Bell read a couple of the stories eventually incorporated into The Balcony, of which he is an ardent admirer, and Jane used his book Narrative Design in her writing classes. They presently discovered that they were both Francophones and to some extent Francophiles, which is one source from which the following conversation flows.

Madison Smartt Bell: I want to ask, do you sometimes have a thought that presents itself in a language other than your firstQuelque chose qui te saut dans l’esprit comme ça? And then, what is your mother tongue?

My own first language is English, or as the French would say, American, in a Southern variation with slightly different manners of speaking used by the gentry, Black folk, and country white people.  And in very early childhood I heard Gullah spoken by Black people in the South Carolina barrier islands, and could speak it a little myself, though presently those people mostly disappeared and the beautiful language with them.

More recently I speak Haitian Kreyol in my sleep (so I’m told) and when feverish (weirdly), Spanish.  Waking, my Kreyol is sharply limited, and I have next to no Spanish at all. Still, I think a mother tongue may sometimes be other than one’s first—something one has a sense of coming home to—unexpectedly, perhaps. Et toi?

Jane Delury: My mother tongue (la langue de ma mère—I love literal translations) is English, flavored by the pronunciation tics passed down to my parents by their Irish parents. We lived in a suburb of Sacramento, California, without much linguistic diversity, but we traveled to Europe quite a bit, and my father spoke and wrote in French and German. He hired a French tutor for me when I was seven. My main memory of those lessons is that my tutor served me madeleines and water with grenadine syrup. I’d say I grew up with the flavor of other languages and cultures. Friday nights, while other kids were watching Gremlins with their families, I was watching The Tin Drum and Picnic at Hanging Rock. And during my teenage years, Les Misérables was my favorite novel. I read it in the original in college and felt as if I were discovering it all over again.

MSB: Were you upset by a bad translation?

JD: The one that comes to mind isn’t literary. It was on a menu in Grenoble, France, where I spent my junior year abroad.  The dish was “salad de crab avec avocat haché” and the English translation was “crab salad with diced lawyer.”

What’s your number one translation trauma?

MSB: Traduire c’est trahir is another French phrase that doesn’t work very well in translation.  Still, I admire translators (and interpreters).  I can’t begin to do what they do and have seldom tried.  There was one occasion soon after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when I was asked by the New York Times to consult on a sampler of literary writing by Haitians or about Haiti, published as “Haiti in Ink and Tears.”  It was a twenty-four-hour turnaround, and our daughter, then in high school, stayed up late with me picking clips and translating.  I remember she and I were both unhappy with the existing translation of Lyonel Trouillot’s beautiful, poetic, and thus near-impossible-to-translate novel, Rue des Pas Perdus.  I think it was Celia who produced a to-us acceptable version of the passage that was used in the piece.

But you were saying!

JD: I ended up spending almost five years in Grenoble after college, and you might say that during the first year or so, I was living in a state of bad translation, as I tried to interpret day-to-day life in a new culture. But a couple years in, a switch flipped. My thoughts came first in French. My dreams were in French.  In fact, I didn’t feel at home in the US when I visited summers.   Everything was too big and too loud and too colorful.

Have you had that experience of going away and seeing your home differently afterward?

MSB: Most def.  I felt it most sharply the first few times I went to Haiti, where a person can spend all day looking for a box of matches, things like that.  Back in Baltimore I’d go to the grocery and freeze in front of fifteen different kinds of orange juice.  On one such occasion the police came to… assist me.  I learned to wait a few days after a return from Haiti before attempting to shop.

JD:  Yes, we Americans do like our endless choices.

MSB: Under those circumstances I found them fairly terrifying.

JD: Has that experience of alienation and confusion affected your fiction?

MSB: I’m not sure how much I’ve used that dislocation of place in fiction, although I think you have, in The Balcony.  During editorial work on The Witch of Matongé I realized how much that story turns on points of linguistic slash cultural dislocation, which in turn has a bearing on personal identity—thus, in fiction’s craft terms, character.

Certain Paul Bowles stories, “A Distant Episode” in particular, started me thinking that identity is really a linguistic construct, and so more fragile than we are usually inclined to realize.  Later experience has reinforced that idea considerably.

I think we are both interested in different kinds of liminal states, when one is neither here nor there, with respect to language, or place, or any number of other conditions.  Your story/chapter “Between” seems to get into that.

JD: Agreed. In The Witch of Matongé, you narrate from inside the French language, in the heads of Francophones. I do the same in The Balcony for the stories told from the points of view of French characters, who were all were based on people I knew from my life in France. As I drafted their stories, I was often translating unconsciously from French to English, certainly with the dialogue.

When I collected my stories into a novel-in-stories, I had to unify the voice of the book. I hadn’t lived in France for years and no longer spoke French much at home. The narrator of the novel is American and twenty-first century, even if they are comfortable in the head of a Frenchman in 1911, as is the case in one story/chapter. But I don’t know if I’d feel the narrative authority to write that original story now.

As for “Between,” that story/chapter is told from the perspective of an American expatriate. And yes, absolutely, even in its structure of direct address to two different men (you, the husband, and you, the lover), that story hovers in a liminal space. The husband is American, and the lover is French. I think many of the chapter/stories (another liminal space) in The Balcony explore the contrasting charms of exoticism and of familiarity. The familiar becomes exotic again when you’ve been away from it long enough. You yourself become more exotic in my experience. Who is the Jane Delury in English, in Baltimore, versus the Jane Delury in French, in Grenoble? I’m much older now, granted, but I also think there are also cultural differences.  If, as you say, identity is a linguistic construct, how does yours change in French?

MSB:  There were attempts to teach me French in grammar school, and more serious and successful ones in high school.  I came away with an ability to read nineteenth and up to mid twentieth century French literature with reasonable facility, and to write the language poorly.  In college I took French literature courses, but I had no real grasp of the spoken language outside a lecture hall.  After college I made a couple of Francophone friends but was too awkward and shy to make much progress.

In 1995 as All Souls’ Rising was coming out, I made my first trip to Haiti and did my first book tour in France.  In Haiti I traveled with one of my Francophone friends, which was a huge help. I spoke only French with him, and began to pick up some Kreyol. We did not meet many Haitians who spoke American or English, especially outside the capital.  We drove north to Cap Haïtien, and by the time we returned to Port-au-Prince, my Anglophone identity had been pretty well erased. The mental effect was sort of like jet lag but much stronger.  It can be refreshing to inhabit a consciousness that doesn’t have many words in it, right?

JD: Yes! And to feel that other identity expand as you adopt expressions that don’t exist in your own language. My favorite is “On n'a pas gardé les moutons ensemble” (we’ve never kept sheep together) when someone is being too familiar.

MSB: Love that.

JD:  I’m going to Paris this fall for the first time in years, and I wonder if I’ll find my French double waiting for me on a bench in the Jardin des Tuileries.

MSB:  On that first trip to Haiti I had a sort of journalistic cover, writing about a Misik Rasins group, Boukman Eksperyans.  During an intermission in one of their concerts I joined a prayer circle with them, and I was dislocated to the point that when I caught sight of my face in a small mirror that had been propped on the wall, my first thought was, Mais c’est un blanc—qu’est-ce qu’il fabrique ici?

In the beginning I was a much nicer person in French, because I wanted so very much to please.  In the same period, I realized that if I was ever to gain any sort of fluency, I would have to accept looking like a real buffoon a lot of the time.  I don’t think I had what it takes for that part when I was younger.

JD: You fake it well, though. You seem comfortable speaking French. Is that an illusion?

MSB: I am comfortable speaking it, though the truth is je ne sais que jeter des fautes françaises à grande vitesse.  That falls a little short of fluency. But I got through the clown phase eventually.  I do remember that on my first book tour in France, two women from my publisher listened to me for a bit, looked at each other, and said Oui, c’est un espèce de Créole.

More seriously, I think that so much of a culture is embedded in its language that in adopting the language you take on much of the culture as well—your mind has to bend to it (or break, which does sometimes happen).  What you can say controls what you can be, with others, and if you begin to think in the language, it controls what you can say in that interior monologue, which changes who you are with your self.  Oh wait—what self?

JD: Yes, and for me, my main connection to French and to France was through my ex-husband’s family. The France I knew well involved soixante-huitards, jazz, and women who smoked pipes. I had a French editor proofread The Balcony, and she came back with notes about the French not doing this or that. In my ex-husband’s family, for instance, the kids call the parents by their first names, instead of “Maman” et “Papa.” Not typical, but true of the French people I knew best.

MSB: Right.  Not all codes are linguistic codes.  And the French are not entirely a monolith either, despite the best efforts of l’Académie Française and l’Abbé Gregoire.

Losing one’s sense of self between languages can be a trippy sort of thing till you get used to it.  When it first happened, I remembered reading Kipling’s Kim a few times as a boy. I reread it recently and it holds up much better than I expected-- it may be the first English novel entirely about code-switching. Practically the only thing I remembered about it was a moment where Kim thinks in English (actually there are several instances of that), and the reader sees it as part of the process of his becoming a member of the British Raj—a Sahib, as he would put it.  I had recently read Kim when as a boy I noticed myself having some rudimentary thoughts in French, and I thought of that scene in the novel then, and many times after.

From 1995 to around 2007, I went to France for some book junket almost every year and went to Haiti a couple of times a year, researching later volumes of the trilogy and a biography of Toussaint Louverture I wrote after.  I carried a notebook, and at the beginning of my stay, I would write proper notes in American, later in kind of funky French, then Kreyol, and finally there would be no more words, only diagrams.  My Kreyol is still pretty limited so I can’t think very complicated thoughts in that language, which reminds me that the linguistic construction of self is not one’s whole being. I think it is mainly the ego that’s wont to seize language as an instrument of domination and control.

JD: Do you ever wish you could be creatively inspired by the Towson shopping mall or a McDonald’s off I-83? I do. My writing seems to feed off other places, other times. I try to write what I know, but I get quickly bored.

MSB:  Well, there’s this Burger King in the northernmost service area of the Garden State Parkway, on the way to the Tappan Zee bridge.  When I first stopped there, it seemed that everyone working in the place was speaking Haitian Kreyol.  I assumed that was delusional on my part, that I’d slipped into another fugue state, like in front of all that orange juice. I do sometimes have auditory hallucinations, though not so elaborate, more like roosters that aren’t really there, things like that.

So I slunk away without saying anything, but the next year, same place, same phenomenon—I addressed the burger workers a few words in Kreyol and got slightly startled replies in the same language… so yeah, it turned to be part of ordinary reality.

There are writers who specialize in rhetorical savorings of the banal, but I don’t think you and I are them.

JD: You’ve made me think of something else. When I lived in France, I taught English, British English. My students knew apartments as flats and eggplants as aubergines, and to make life easy for them, I adopted their English. My native tongue morphed in those years teaching English. I stopped spelling like an American. Humor was humour. Color was colour. That lingered for years after I’d moved back here.   In my next novel, Hedge, the protagonist is a garden historian who trained in England. Now she’s back in the States, but she still explores otherness by looking back in time. That’s how I most relate to her.

What about the past for you? Your novel is so now, but it also feels haunted.

MSB:  You must know how dangerous it is to ask a Southerner about the past.  I’m a white Southerner, so there are layers.  Stuff that really happened that we remember and the Yankees don’t.  Delusions we fed ourselves, for generations, as truths about the past.  Stuff that we completely repressed for generations, much of which is returning to consciousness only now.  So, you know, we can go on about it all for a very long time.

The first literary fiction I read was from the Southern Renascence: Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, Flannery O’Connor, Caroline Gordon, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, of course Faulkner.  This work was entirely by white folks for white folks, although I have always thought that Black writers of the period, like James Baldwin and Ernest Gaines, ought to be included.

Mais pour revenir à nos moutons… The backstory of the Witch has some specialized elements.  A conceit is that the American was with one of the Special Forces A Teams that operated in the North of Haiti during the UN/American “intervasion” of the mid-1990s, hence the knowledge he has of the language and the culture. He also had a Haitian wife and a child with her (nobody in the story knows about them except the American’s erstwhile Special Forces teammate who comes in briefly at the end) who both died in the cholera epidemic following the 2010 earthquake that knocked down much of Port-au-Prince.  The American’s familiarity with Haiti and his ability to speak some Kreyol as well as French gives him a rapport with the Haitian aristocrat Jean-Robert, but there’s an edge there because the American is not only a blan but a blan militaire Americain, which evokes the first American occupation of Haiti beginning back in the First World War, when, not to put too fine a point on it, the Americans usurped Haiti’s sovereignty, introduced Jim Crow social practices, and recreated a form of slavery known as the corvée.

Then there is the witch herself, and her descendants, who are Roma people, who have a long and difficult history which I learned something about through research and stories people told me.

Then there’s Abu, the fatherless Muslim youth who vacillates between the benign (and majoritarian) versions of Islam represented in the story by the Sufi sheik and the violent jihadism of Daech and Al Quaeda, represented by Farouk.

Through a certain lens, my writing those last characters is an act of expropriation that these days would make me eligible to be burned at the stake.  In reply to that point I will quote Charles Johnson, possibly the last real humanist on the planet, who said from a Goucher podium a couple of years back: “If we’re going to have a diverse literature, we have to learn to write the Other.”

But, to return to our metaphorical sheep, my raising taught me that the past can sometimes be experienced as a sort of encysted wound.  That’s true for the American in his personal past, and for Jean-Robert in the relatively recent history of Haiti and Haitians, and in a deeper way for descendants of the long wanderjahr of the Roma people, and the history of clashes between the Islamic and Christian worlds, and in the descendance of African slavery wherever that took place, and so on. 

I’d like for you talk about the ways you deal with deep time in fiction, not only in Hedge, where your heroine shows up with her archeological tools in hand (though layers of time in that book are explored with several other instruments as well) and also in The Balcony, where the depth of the historical dimension comes close to making the place itself a protagonist.

JD: As I mentioned, I grew up on the edge of Sacramento, near the foothills of the Gold Country. The remnants of the nineteenth century were being scraped away during my childhood: subdivisions replacing orchards, shopping malls on the edge of dusty mining towns. That landscape, plus having a father older than all the other fathers and who’d wished to be a historian, colored my view of the world. I played pioneers way past a respectable age, dressing up in petticoats, hunting the cat, rafting over the pool to the other side. I was nostalgic at eight. I grieved the loss of those hills. Strip malls were antagonistic.

MSB:  That all sounds so much like the childhood of Joan Didion, as rendered in Tracy Daughtery’s wonderful biography.

JD:  I love Didion’s work. But she’s less of a romantic than I am. Actually, that’s one of the things I love about her work.  In The Balcony, I faced a double risk of romanticization: writing about the past and writing as an expatriate. Plus, I’m drawn to dramatic plotlines. “Au Pair” and “Plunder” both take potentially melodramatic subjects—a love affair, a death—and, I hope, illuminate them with unfiltered lights.

MSB: I would definitely give you that.

JD: The protagonist in “Au Pair” goes to France starry-eyed, and she grows up over the course of the story. This affects her view of the landscape itself. She also moves from country to the city. My fiction favors the country. I’m most creatively inspired with a view of a mountain or ocean. And, come to think of it, historic places often preserve original landscapes, so that’s another part of the draw in writing about them. As I child, I loved the image of covered wagons rolling over hills, but I loved the hills themselves as well: the endlessness, openness of space. Going back in time is also going back in landscape.

In Hedge, my protagonist uncovers buried gardens, testing the soil to find chemical traces of long-dead plants. I learned about this kind of work at Monticello, the perfect place to think about the problem of romanticizing history. In the end, Hedge didn’t take place at Monticello, but I learned so much there, especially from the archeological work being done on the mountain, away from [ZB1] Thomas Jefferson’s house.  Maud restores gardens in the Hudson Valley and San Francisco’s Presidio, and as she does so, she struggles to be clear eyed in beauty, to be more Didion than Hugo in the way she treats history.

MSB: Hmmm.  You think we can actually do that?  Seems tricky, particularly with the past, which we have to regard through our own eyes, not the eyes of the people who lived in it.  That’s a very different filter factor, I believe.  How fully at home can a twenty-first-century American be in the mind of a Frenchman in 1911?  There’s some interesting friction on that edge.

JD: We can’t. But I wish I could. The heat of that friction creates stories for me.

MSB:  Lately I’ve been thinking that history is just a story after all.  Ideally, it’s a story composed of facts, but nobody tries to use all the facts, because even if you could do that, what it would yield is what Hannah Arendt called “an unbearable sequence of sheer happenings.”  So any coherent version of history leaves most of those happenings out, otherwise it would be shapeless.  That’s true of the conventional history of the U.S. which I imagine you and I both received in high school, and it’s true of Howard Zinn’s correction of that conventional history… and on we go.

JD: How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith is wonderful on this topic.

MSB: I think you worry about the risks of the romantic gaze more than I do.  I think I never think about that, which probably means I’m unconsciously wallowing in it all the time.  Maybe we are guilty of exoticism of a sort. But I do think that unfamiliar circumstances throw the self into a special sort of relief, and there’s an edge that can make a story interesting.

Certainly The Witch of Matongé is meant, in part, as a kiss blown to Paris: Ville Lumière! Ville de l’amour!  Have I just romanticized the place one more time?  It’s tempered by the American’s having a sort of fisheye on a lot of that stuff, like those troth-plighting padlocks on le Pont des Arts.  Then again, he’s not entirely immune, and the book wouldn’t be much fun if he were.

JD: And it is the Ville Lumière!The Ville de l’amour! As well as all the rest. I plan to see the sewers of Paris on my upcoming trip. I’ve always wanted to go and never have. Apparently, I’m still haunted by Les Misérables, all these years later. I’ll try to remind myself that Jean Valjean was running through shit.

 MSB:  I think the Disneyfication probably turned that into chocolate, right?  Me, I’ve only been in the catacombs.  Bones are remarkably clean.

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