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The Paradox of Happiness: An Interview with Aminatta Forna

photo by Nina Subin

interviewed by Allan Vorda, with Nina Shanu and Jennifer Otalor

A writer with both a Scottish and Sierra Leonean background, Aminatta Forna was born in 1964 in Scotland near Glasgow, where her father Mohamed Forna was working on a medical internship. After her parents’ divorce, Aminatta moved with her father back to Sierra Leone, where he remarried and became involved with politics: Mohamed was the Minister of Finance before being imprisoned by his own government (he was named an Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience) and subsequently executed. Aminatta returned to England where she received a law degree before writing a memoir of her father’s life, The Devil that Danced on Water. She then turned to fiction and has published four acclaimed novels: Ancestor Stones, The Memory of Love, The Hired Man, and her latest, Happiness (Atlantic Monthly Press, $26).

Happiness revolves around Dr. Attila Asare, a Ghanan psychiatrist, and Jean Turane, an American social biologist who is studying the habits of foxes in London. It is an unlikely relationship that develops slowly but inevitably; the novel tells the tale of two middle-aged professionals who are trying to solve problems in their respective fields while dealing with their own problems. Jean is going through a divorce and combatting the forces trying to exterminate London’s foxes. Attila is trying to help his niece avoid deportation and find her missing son; he is also attending an ex-lover who is battling early onset Alzheimer’s. The unspoken theme is that Attila and Jean are searching for happiness in a world where struggles and conflicts abound, and it is this elusive emotion Forna so deftly reveals through the two characters; although they come from such disparate backgrounds, they might actually find happiness in each other.


Allan Vorda: By the time you published your first book, the memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water, you had already received a law degree from University College London. What made you decide to write a memoir?

Aminatta Forna: In the later 1990s when the war in Sierra Leone was ongoing, I felt there was an urgent necessity to address what was happening in our country in a way that went beyond news reporting. By then I had been a BBC journalist for ten years and knew well both the limitations of the form and the way the Western media served and continues to serve the African continent poorly. The question I wanted to answer was how had Sierra Leone lost its way? My father’s and my family’s story held part of the answer. In a final letter to the nation shortly before his death in 1975, my father had foretold the country’s future if people allowed our then nascent democracy to be subverted. He warned about the end of the rule of law and of coming war. The causes of the war were political; there was a chain of cause and effect. I wanted to write about that, to trace the place where the country left the path. To me it is the task of the writer, of the artists, to address these moments in a country’s story.

AV: What writers have influenced you and can you name a few of your favorite books?

AF: I grew up reading the South African writers: Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton, Andre Brink. These writers revealed to the world what the apartheid regime denied, stripped away the lies to reveal the brutishness beneath. I recently met Isabel Allende for the first time; as a young woman I had been utterly absorbed by The House of the Spirits. Her life could have been my life. I looked to South American writers in my twenties, for the ways in which they addressed political upheaval and social injustice. I teach my students Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman. Can you imagine the impact of going to the theatre to see that play in Santiago in the 1990s when Pinochet was still alive? Dorfman has said he thought that of writing it as a novel, but decided the story needed to be made into a play so that the experience of seeing it would be a collective one. He was forcing a nation to address its conscience. Nearly three decades later the play still resonates, and it could be set anywhere: Indonesia, Syria, Egypt, El Salvador. I adore Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje. Those are some of the books that shaped my writing mind. I don’t have favorite books, but I am drawn to works which ask questions about the human condition. People write and read for many reasons, but for me what fiction does best is to offer the opportunity to interrogate the way we live through the self.

Nina Shanu: The Devil that Danced on the Water is a wonderful, heartbreaking memoir. However, it seems your father, Mohamed Sorie Forna, underestimated the maliciousness of President Siaka Stevens. Do you think your father, who was a physician, was naive not to think Stevens would try to malign him, especially considering the public response to your father’s resignation as Minister of Finance? Why didn’t he get himself and his family out of the country?

AF: My father was thirty-nine when he was killed—he was young, not naive. Stevens’s regime was gathering pace and power, but he had not yet begun to murder his opponents. I’m often asked why my father didn’t leave. I have to say I struggle with this question, as I understand perfectly why he stayed. For a political activist, danger goes with the job description. My father was a political activist who chose to stay and fight. He loved his country and he wished to remain there. After his death my step-mother stayed and I continued to go home to Sierra Leone from my boarding school in Britain during the holidays. We never left. I asked my step-mother about that once, given how very tough it was for her as my father’s widow. She said my father very much wished her to stay and she wanted to as well. She told me: “I would not give them (Stevens and his acolytes) that satisfaction.”

NS: After uncovering the events that led to your father’s death and writing your memoir, how has this changed you?

AF: It gave me a hard-earned wisdom. When I told my sister what I was planning she said, “Be careful, what you discover may be worse than what we think.” I didn’t know how much worse it could be, but it was. I thought I was going to uncover a sophisticated plot that would take me months to unravel. What I discovered instead was that Stevens, when he wanted my father dead, merely let his wishes be known and those around him were all too willing to play their part. The level of complicity was astonishing and the discovery of how it penetrated almost the whole society led me to write The Memory of Love. This, of course, is not unique about Sierra Leone.

I also discovered the face of courage via the elderly couple who hid me as a child. I asked them why they did it and they replied that they couldn’t have lived with themselves if they had done anything else. I’ve heard this predicament called the “Anne Frank test”—it poses the question of whether someone you know is a good enough person that they would hide you if the worst happened. I find myself thinking about people this way now. Which one would they be, the complicit or the quietly courageous? This question has informed a great deal of my writing ever since. It is one we should all be asking ourselves.

AV: Was it a difficult transition to move from non-fiction to your first novel, Ancestor Stones?

AF: The writer of creative non-fiction and the writer of fiction have much in common. Both employ the techniques of narrative, plot, pace, mood, and tone, considerations of tense and person, the depiction of character, the nuance of dialogue. Where the difference lies is that the primary source of the fiction writer is first and foremost their imagination, followed by their powers of observation and maybe a certain amount of research. The primary resource of the writer of creative non-fiction is lived experience which is, above and beyond all, memory. Then you can add observation and research to that. The big difference is that the writer of non-fiction works within the limitations of the story as given, remembered, or told. Non-fiction can be also untidy—there are usually too many characters—whereas in fiction you would use one character for multiple purposes. These are some of the challenges of non-fiction. The challenge of fiction is that there are no “givens” to rely on. It’s easy to lose track of what story you are telling, to lose direction or even inspiration.

Jennifer Otalor: It seems Ancestor Stones used the stories and lives of the women to portray the evolution of the West African nations and their communities. Were these women symbols of this evolution?

AF: Each woman in Ancestor Stones is born into a different period of her country’s history. Asana is born into a pre-colonial world; Hawa is a child of the colonial era; Mariama comes into contact with the missionaries and their ambitions; Serah comes of age at the same time as her country. The women are not so much symbols of this evolution—or transition might be a more accurate word—as they are impacted by political events of which they were often not even aware and in ways they do not realize.

JO: Reading Ancestor Stones reminded me of what I experienced in Nigeria as a child. Were most of the experiences you wrote about in your novel based on true events?

AF: The stories in Ancestor Stones are fiction. Like many writers, if not most, I find inspiration in something seen or heard. Some of the stories grew out of such a kernel. During my research I spoke to many older women about their lives from the 1930s to the present day, for this was not the kind of information you could read about in a library or on the Internet. They were the kind of lives that had gone more or less unrecorded. Once or twice a woman said something that prompted an idea. For example, I first heard about the stones from a woman whose father had thrown her mother’s stones away. Her mother pined and died thereafter. This women did not know what the stones represented, she only saw that they meant a great deal to her mother. Later I discovered the significance of the stones, that they represented a woman’s line of descent, her mother and her mother’s mother and so forth. Each woman added a stone to the collection before she passed it onto her daughter. I found that woman’s single memory so moving and so compelling that I built a narrative around it.

AV: Your second novel, The Memory of Love, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best Book Award in 2011. What was the genesis for writing this multi-layered story that revolves around Elias Cole, his love for the beautiful but married Saffia Kamara, and his betrayal of her husband?

AF: The genesis was talking to people about the 1960s and 1970s in Sierra Leone, people who had been witnesses and sometimes party to events. I was interested to know how those who had been silent or complicit could live with their choices. What was the story they told themselves that made this possible?

AV: Attila runs a mental hospital in The Memory of Love. What made you choose this name and why did you decide to make him one of the main characters in Happiness?

AF: Attila stayed with me, as simple as that. I kept thinking about him. I wrote a couple of short stories in which he is featured. I became very curious to know what he thought of the West and its values. Attila is not such an unusual name in West Africa since there was a fashion for the names of historic characters at one time.

AV: You have described how Sierra Leoneans, in living with the memory of the civil war, existed with a “disassociative condition in which the mind creates an alternative state. This state may be considered a place of safety, a refuge.” You also touch upon this with Duro in The Hired Man (his memory of Anka is based on smell), and you discuss PTSD with Adama and Rosie’s battle with Alzheimer’s in Happiness. How important is memory, both the good and the bad, to you as a writer?

AF: Memories are what shape us. Memories are based on experience, but how we remember the experience is more important than the experience itself. Consciously or unconsciously each one of us creates the narrative of our lives and that is both informed by and informs the way we see the world.

AV: The first thing that struck me about The Hired Man is how physical your prose is—at times I felt like I was reading Hemingway. How do you feel about writing from a man’s perspective?

AF: When I create a character I create a voice for them. I listen closely to people from their world. Croatians in general are economical with words, to the point of dispensing entirely with definite articles. Duro is an excellent hunter, an occupation which demands patience and silence; he prefers his own company to that of other people. So it is his voice that speaks in The Hired Man.

AV: One of the ironies of The Hired Man is that Kos, the blind hunting dog, can easily find his way, yet Laura and Duro are blind to what is around them. It seems inconceivable that Duro can remain in the company of Fabjan and Kresimir after what they have done to those he loved. The same can be said for Agnes in The Memory of Love, who witnesses her husband’s beheading by rebel soldiers and later discovers her sole surviving daughter is married to one of these soldiers. How can these people live amongst people who have been so cruel?

AF: We all live among people who are that cruel, or at least potentially cruel. In peace time most people don’t get the opportunity to live up to their full potential. They need something like a civil war, some breakdown in law and order, which removes the restraints of ordinary society. Duro knows this because he is close to nature and its ways; he has no illusions about human nature. Agnes has no illusions either. Agnes would have grown up knowing poverty and hardship and she would have had few romantic illusions about the world. However, she must endure the consequences of people’s cruelty at even closer quarters than Duro. Both must stay silent, yet Duro has found a way to turn that silence into a weapon against his enemies by threatening to break it. Agnes has no such resource; her silence is turned inward and her mind has found the only way it can to cope with the horror of her predicament.

AV: Your latest novel, Happiness, revolves primarily around Dr. Attila Asare, a Ghanan psychiatrist, and Jean Turane, an American social biologist who is studying the habits of urban foxes in London. One of the reader’s first glimpses of Attila is where you state: “He liked to watch the English perform, enacting a conception of Englishness still held sacred in some quarters, among expatriates who went about their parties, bashes and games of golf with a kind of strained urgency, but also here on home turf, in this room, were gathered the guardians of the flame.” Why is it that writers, such as you and Kazuo Ishiguro, can describe the English so well? Also, since you are Sierra Leonean and Scottish, do you feel English?

AF: There’s a Chinese saying: “A cow can tell you what it feels like to stand in a field and eat grass, but it cannot tell you what that cow looks like standing in a field eating grass.” Possessing more than one cultural influence has gifted me a double consciousness—the ability to view one through the lens of the other. So in a way Ishiguro and I are both the cow and the viewer of the cow.

Do I think of myself as English? Identity is multi-layered and overlapping, far more untidy than I have just suggested. I went to boarding school in England for twelve years and then university. I have lived in London for thirty years and for the last three years in Washington D.C. I am married to an Englishman. I am probably far more culturally English than I am Scottish, having spent much more time in England than Scotland.

AV: Is it fair to assume from your novel that foxes are fairly common in London? Also, based on your research of wolves, coyotes, and foxes, what did you find most surprising?

AF: Foxes are everywhere in London. I’ve seen a fox wander past Buckingham Palace. I’ve seen a fox cross the road in Piccadilly. I have foxes in my garden, where a vixen raises her cubs every year. Like all Londoners I am very used to the proximity of foxes. I never realized coyotes were equally prevalent in American towns and cities; I had assumed them to be mostly rural. A wildlife biologist told me that in Boston you are probably never more than 200 meters from a coyote. The speed at which coyotes evolved from a desert to an urban environment has been astonishing. Their adaptability is what has allowed them to survive strenuous efforts to kill them. You have to admire them for it.

AV:She stroked the fur of his underbelly. Finally she laid her cheek against his chest and felt the beating of his heart, turned to bury her face in his fur . . . The coyote had been Jean’s first. She had never forgotten.” This scene describes when Jean tags her first coyote; a few years later she remembers “the smell of this animal’s coat the day she felled him and collared him, the warmth of his body, the blood beat of his life.” These scenes seem to have sexual connotations. Is Jean, who is divorced from her husband Ray, in some kind of sexual limbo before she falls in love with Attila?

AF: I would not have said this was intended to be sexual. The moment for Jean is in the transition between studying the animal in the abstract and feeling it as a living, breathing creature. If I were to use an analogy I would say, like a parent having a child placed in her or his arms for the first time, the emotions produced in that moment are far deeper and more complex once the idea of a child becomes a reality. Also, Jean isn’t in state of sexual limbo in London; she has had a couple of lovers of which the Romanian truck driver was the most recent before Attila.

AV: Jean has a very contentious radio interview. Was this scene based on something you experienced?

AF: The style of British radio broadcasters is very different from NPR. They are far more direct, even hectoring, especially on more populist shows—although still not in the league of American talk radio. I know how the inside of a radio studio operates because I have been in them many times, both as guest and presenter.

AV: At one point, Attila says “I’m not being cynical, just realistic. War is in the blood of humans.” Do you believe this statement is true?

AF: Look around you. I recently spoke to a conflict negotiator who was, very much like Attila himself, a trained psychologist. He had spent many years working in Northern Ireland, which is where he was from. He told me that human beings reflexively want what somebody else wants and will try to take it by one means or another. A friend of mine, a war correspondent with thirty years of experience, put it even more succinctly. He said. “War is armed robbery.” Somebody wants what someone else has got and sets out to take it. The Ancient Greeks stole women. Most modern wars have been fought over land, and increasingly, wars are fought over resources such as oil and soon enough water. People think wars are fought over religion, race, or ethnicity, but those things merely act as a justification. Look beyond and you’ll see what is really being fought over is material wealth.

AV: Attila thinks to himself that “he knew, every morning when he woke up, what he had been put on this earth to do. Or he had anyway, the knowledge had nourished him for decades. He could not imagine what it was like not to wake with that sense of purpose.” Do you feel similar to Attila in this regard?

AF: When I became a writer I felt this overwhelming sense of relief that I had found the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My restlessness was over. I feel profoundly lucky.

AV: In the novel you mention a statue in Greenhampton, MA called The Wolfer—does this statue actually exists?

AF: No, I made it up. I made up Greenhampton too. My inspiration for the statue came from those statues to settlers who murdered Native Americans, a few of which still exist in American towns. The statues exist to commemorate not those killed but the killer, to venerate slaughter.

AV: Attila notes just before his conference speech “what [people] desired so badly wasn’t happiness but a state of prelapsarian innocence, the things that babies possessed.” Is happiness a paradox?

AF: The paradox is that happiness is not contingent on the absence of suffering, but the reverse—that surviving difficulty can lead to happiness. In this culture we are conditioned to believe that anything other than pleasure is a threat to happiness, that happiness is an all or nothing condition. The central question in Happiness is this: Can you know happiness if you have never known unhappiness?

AV: Do you think being in love is a contingency of happiness? What can we do to make ourselves happy, since it seems happiness is a fleeting thing for so many?

AF: Are you asking whether you have to be happy to be in love? I’m sure it helps. I think happiness remains elusive when it becomes a goal in itself. The more you chase it, the more elusive it is likely to come. The happiest people I have ever met are those who have committed themselves to an endeavor that goes beyond the self. Happiness is a by-product of that activity, whether it is building hospitals or playing the piano. We tend to assume that all people are capable of achieving happiness, but I think a good many people simply don’t have the temperament for it.

AV: The novel ends with Attila writing a letter to Jean that he decides not to send, but to deliver in person in two days. This recalls the letter Attila did not send to his late wife, Maryse, although this time there appears to be some hope for happiness for the older, more mature couple. Nevertheless, doesn’t it seem the older we get the less we laugh and the less happy we are?

AF: Gosh no, I wouldn’t go back to being in my twenties for all the tea in China. I may have had more fun then, but that’s entirely different from happiness.


Click here to purchase Happiness
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Click here to purchase The Devil That Danced on Water
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Click here to purchase The Memory of Love
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Click here to purchase Ancestor Stones
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Click here to purchase The Hired Man
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Four Irish Authors: Joyce, O'Connor, Glavin & Mulkerns

A Hagiography of Heaven and Vicinity
Michael Joyce
Broadstone Books

Joyride to Jupiter
Nuala O’Connor
New Island Books

Colours Other Than Blue
Anthony Glavin
Ward River Press

Ferenji and Other Stories
Helena Mulkerns
Doire Press

by M. G. Stephens

Michael Joyce is often referred to as the father or grandfather of hyper-fiction, and is an important figure in the world of hypertext. Writers such as Umberto Eco and Robert Coover have touted his genius for years. A Hagiography of Heaven and Vicinity is Michael Joyce at his most linear and intellectual. In this collection of prose poems and poetry, he is at times as intellectually rigorous and theologically inquisitive as T. S. Eliot, and yet his work reads as contemporary as anyone writing now.

Like Joyce the progenitor, Michael Joyce can be as staunch and brilliant as any Jesuit. Hagiography comes in a binary form, part one being “Lives of the Saints,” and part two being “Desert Dialogues.” The poems and prose reference figures such as the saints Paul and Thomas, but also Karl Wallenda, the high-wire artist. They are philosophical, impersonal, allusive, reflective, brilliant, erudite, and yet very much of our time. One could easily replace a book of daily reflections with this Joycean book.

From nothing but the dawn
was once a pencil of uncertain light
viewed by the desert fathers perched
like buzzards on makeshift shelves
hovering above a cloud of nothingness
Wile E. Coyote speeding by in silence
running laps in the dim lavender dawn.
(from “Ab nihilo)

Nuala O’Connor’s prose in Joyride to Jupiter is by turns luminous and full of sly wit, and her range of storytelling is imaginative and broadly compassed, including elderly couples facing dementia and even a highly oneiric narrative of the poet Elizabeth Bishop living in the jungles of Brazil with her female lover. That last story, so full of twists and turns and surprises, is really about a young Brazilian boy, though, someone who works briefly for the North American writer.

In “Napoli, Abu,” an incongruous pair of women, one young and hip, the other older and dour, have decided to take a holiday together in Naples. Their conversations about love and life are hilarious.

I sipped my Falanghina and glanced at her: the helmet hair, the miniscule lips, the dour set to her face. Poor shite—what man would even look at her?
“My boyfriend is married too,” she said.
“You have a fella?” I sat up and leaned towards her. “Seriously? A married man? Well, get you, the capaillin dubh.”
“I’m no dark horse, Tara. You expect people to be a certain way, that’s all. Because of the way they look.”

Of course, this being Irish writing, there is always tragedy lurking in every corner of every story here. Occasionally the darker notes obtain, such as in “Girlgrief,” a story about an Irish couple coming to Sweden for their son’s funeral and then interacting with their four-year-old granddaughter, who asks: “Is God made out of sand?” Kelly, that young girl, asks her grandmother if Kelly’s own husband will die when she gets married. Her grandmother says that no, he won’t. “’Actually, he will,’ Kelly says.”

These darker—and richer—notes aside, Joyride to Jupiter is a delightful gallimaufry, sometimes sending the reader to the dictionary to look up a word (polyphenolites, a wogeous headache, sliotars), and sometimes sending the reader into paroxysms of laughter.

The Cambridge-raised, Harvard-educated Anthony Glavin moved to Ireland in 1974 and has, more or less, been a resident there ever since. An editor at New Island Books, he has written short story collections and one other novel, Nighthawk Alley, before embarking on this new ambitious novel. Some writers draw from life, others from the imagination, while the best use experience and fancy equally. There is then a special kind of book in which a writer combines both what they know and what they imagine with their sense of compassion, insight, and wonder about the human condition. Colours Other Than Blue is just such a novel.

In Colours, Maeve Maguire grows up in Boston as the child of two Irish immigrants. She and her brother live across from the Boston Common, as their father is the superintendent of the building, while their mother drifts in and out of bouts with mental illness. Maeve becomes a nurse, gets pregnant but does not marry, and moves as a single parent to Ireland, where she eventually takes a job at a nursing home, and then becomes the head or matron. The novel is a diary that Maeve keeps of her comings and goings in Dublin, along with her reflections of life in Boston with her immigrant parents, both of whom, now deceased, Maeve strives to understand and come to terms with. Improbably Maeve has sought the counsel of a nun who is a therapist and who encourages Maeve to keep this journal.

This is a quiet, psychological novel, all of it told from the point-of-view of a woman in her late thirties who is coming to terms with her own mortality and life ambitions, not to mention the ghosts of her parents, one of whom she loved (her father), the other whom she endured (her mother). This is contrasted with Maeve’s day job as the matron at the nursing home in Dublin, stories about which she tells in her journal with great sympathy and humor. Wonderful little jokes are sprinkled throughout the text, and Maeve’s detailed observations about the quotidian, to borrow a word from the Irish, are “priceless”:

“Why did the Buddha never vacuum?” Declan asks last night. “Is the dust that obvious?” I wince, but Declan just points at Siddhartha on the coffee table. “Because he hadn’t any attachments, Maeve.”

No country has produced writers whose lyrical impulses seem so effortless, but the lyrical is a mixed blessing for Irish writers, just because it is so easy for them to respond to the world in that register. Helena Mulkerns’s Ferenji and Other Stories, by contrast, is a book in which the lyrical is replaced by the observant eye and real experiences. Mulkerns worked for the United Nations peacekeeping operations in Central America, Africa, and Afghanistan. Her stories concern real people working, often idealists, whose principles, beliefs, and sense of social justice are challenged every second by the randomness of war’s violence and its crushing indifference to children and families. Against such backdrops, Ferenji documents intimate encounters by a string of jaded Western observers and do-gooders whose moral indignation has been rubbed smooth by the exigencies of survival in some of the most brutal places on earth.

Take the first story in the collection, “A Child Called Peace,” in which Selam, a small child, notices that one of her family’s goats has strayed off into a rocky terrain. Rather than incur the wrath of her family for losing the goat, she goes off to retrieve it, only to be blown to pieces by a landmine. This is immediately contrasted with two West European idealists from Ireland, Brid and Thomas:

She felt uncomfortable, even overwhelmed patrolling through ruined villages or holding camps, yet Tom seemed to just treat it all like a good pensionable job, counted the days to his home leave and listened to the Irish radio station broadcast at the Base, one foot at home and one in a war zone. Maybe that was the best way to be.

The disparate worlds of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and the indigenous people they supposedly are there to help converge in the makeshift hospital, when the full impact of the landmine event becomes apparent. Mulkerns writes a prose of deceptive unadornment set against elemental landscapes and has an almost antipoetic voice; this starkness makes for incredibly dramatic effects. Ferenji is a read not to be missed.


Click here to purchase A Hagiography of Heaven and Vicinity
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Click here to purchase Colours Other Than Blue
at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

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Perfect Wave: More Essays on Art and Democracy

Dave Hickey
University of Chicago Press ($25)

by Sean Nam

In the penultimate chapter to Dave Hickey’s new collection of essays, Perfect Wave, the typically unflappable art critic describes a moment of sobering vulnerability. Hickey is at a black-tie dinner during one of the more prominent art fairs in the world, engaging the cognoscenti with the kind of gruff offhandedness more appropriate at a dive bar: He ditches a renowned album cover designer in mid-conversation, tries out a lame joke on a well-heeled artist (“another treasure of the empire”), and then embarrasses a friend—the “eighth most powerful person in the art world”—by dredging up an old story in front of his colleagues. Satisfied, Hickey decides to call it a night. But as soon as he steps outside to leave, it occurs to him that he was perhaps not as nettlesome a presence as he thought and that he has “come down with an art world virus. All it took was one big sniff of ambient self-congratulation to induce an ego erection that deluded me into imagining that my behavior mattered in the least. It didn’t. The Cartier debacle wasn’t a debacle. I am an idiot.”

Not that Hickey—thorny, glib, irreverent—would ever deign to care what the high rollers and taskmasters of the art world think of him, but for a critic as self-deprecating as himself and who first made his name in part by the outrage he caused in lofty circles, it comes as no surprise that the art world’s indifference, rather than its opprobrium, would count for Hickey as a gut punch. Provocateurs, after all, make their bones on provoking, on being heard.

With the publications of The Invisible Dragon in 1993 and Air Guitar in 1997, Hickey positioned himself as the art world’s Public Enemy No.1, or so the narrative went. Unlike many of his jaded peers who emerged out of the culture wars of the ’80s and early ’90s, Hickey was the rare observer who talked about beauty without blushing, treating it as a philosophically rich and socially useful concept during a time when it was largely derided by tenured academics as a synonym for the nefarious art marketplace. Piggybacking on Kant’s formulation that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Hickey maintained that the experience of art is totally subjective. From this precept arose Hickey’s well-known invective against the art world and its deep-pocketed functionaries, who in the process of trying to outbid each other on the latest trend, end up determining what matters for the public.

Frequently swift, unsparing, and (of course) stylish, Hickey’s smart and rollicking prose was its own kind of vernacular, as influenced by his ’70s rock magazines peers, Lester Bangs and Hunter S. Thompson, as by the subjects of his doctoral dissertation, Derrida and Foucault. It complemented his propensity for weaving grand stories, however apocryphal, from his own experience and inserting them into the criticism. No institution, Hickey believed, has the right to tell you how to feel. As he put it concisely in an epigram attributed to Keith Richards in Air Guitar, “Let me clear about this: I don’t have a drug problem, I have a police problem.”

While Perfect Wave largely maintains the pugnacity of his earlier efforts, it is also a work that departs from the zeal and optimism of Hickey’s heyday. He writes that “There was a time, you see, when things would remain all right well into the day, when I could make some fresh coffee, walk out on to the balcony, and watch the dawn reflected on the western mountains. No more.” The spirit of stalwart opposition to the art world remains, but, if nothing else, Hickey’s faith in his ability to change anything about it has clearly diminished. And for good reason. The art institutions and administrations he once railed hard against still exist unscathed, charging ever forward with gluttonous impunity toward the green dollar sign. No writer can claim in good faith to be able to change the dynamics of an insular billion-dollar industry like the art world, but with Hickey there was always an impression that he could at least cause a snag in its machinery.

The difference in Perfect Wave is that Hickey does not hide his disenchantment. Still, it is the author’s most focused work in some time. His last several publications have been wanting: two anthologies consisting of his writings on social media and a critical survey of twenty-five contemporary female artists were published last year to mixed results. Perfect Wave is a return to familiar ground, following in the vein of Air Guitar and Pirates and Farmers. Essays on long-cherished subjects like Waylon Jennings, William Claxton, Las Vegas, Robert Mitchum, and Norman Rockwell are dotted with references to cocaine, chintz, rock ‘n’ roll, and Nathalie Sarraute, and buttressed by the usual colorful backstories culled from Hickey’s picaresque past.

In this way, Perfect Wave is Hickey in vintage form. In the chapter “Wonderful Shoes,” Hickey, the committed hedonist, reminds us that he is as pleasure-seeking and materialistic as any young blood on a Friday night on the Las Vegas Strip. “Utopias are all idea,” he writes, as he prepares a shrewd analogy. “Edens are all details. They exist in the fashions, the china, the art, the landscape, and the climate . . . They may require doilies . . . Utopias are inflated, theorized community preferences. Edens are about our desires.”

In one of his most articulate essays, Hickey offers an account of Susan Sontag that straddles a number of contradictory impulses; both congratulatory and glib, respectful and severe, it is quintessential Hickey. What he manages to say about Sontag tells us as much about her as it does himself. “We were kids, and straight, and we ‘got it,’” Hickey writes. “This meant Sontag would never be our Great Mentor. She would never be Gertrude Stein or Joseph Beuys or Marcel Duchamp. She was our uptight big sister, maybe fifteen minutes ahead of her time, disgusted by our feckless penchant for moral free fall, contemptuous of our new tattoos.” Often, Hickey’s glibness and sarcastic tone can get the better of him, but here it plays to his strengths in assessing a giant of the intellectual world.

Always attuned to art’s shifting place in society, Hickey, in an essay called “A World Like Santa Barbara,” decries the political attitudes that continue to delimit the freedom of art: “the right wing by seeking to censor any art that might generate healthy anxiety; the left by explaining away art’s ability to challenge us individually, by presenting art to us in perfectly controlled explained, and contextualized packages.”

In “After the Prom,” a terrific interpretation of the Norman Rockwell painting, Hickey shows his erudition as both a first-rate formalist and astute historian. On the surface, the painting looks decidedly simple, another realist narrative painting by America’s foremost populist artist; it depicts a boy and his prom date sitting at a diner counter interacting with a soda jerk. As Hickey exhaustively breaks down the geometrical significance of each painted gesture, it becomes clear that the painting is a bit more complicated, and that Rockwell has left nothing to chance: the combination of arms, elbows, knees, and the sway of the figures’ garments, Hickey contends, creates a picture that “although harmonious and delicately balanced within itself, does not feel self-enclosed or claustrophobic.” Where others merely see a portrait of a romanticized bygone era, Hickey perceives an implicit tie to the great social paintings of the 18th century. In particular, he notes how the soda jerk’s centrality in the canvas makes him the vicarious focal point, or “surrogate viewer,” a technique that he traces back to the likes of Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Honore Fragonard. The reading here has the force of logic. It has often been said that Hickey’s tastes are too eccentric for others to adopt as their own; at the same time, there is no one better at describing them. Where others only offer staid and insipid accounts, Hickey remains one of the few writers committed to rendering the experience of encountering art in terms that are both thrilling and illuminating.

Not all of the essays are as successful. Some are anachronistic or a tad hokey, like “It’s Morning in Nevada: On the Campaign Trail in Post-Bush America,” a work of participatory journalism. A more relevant article would have been something on today’s urgent political climate—MAGA hats or Mar-a-Lago, for example. Other essays are simply uninteresting and seem only have been included to uphold a particular image: “My Silk World,” a travelogue of the Southwest states, plays to Hickey’s honky-tonk sensibility, and “The Last Mouseketeer,” an essay on Disneyland, similarly affirms Hickey’s standing as one of the few intellectuals who has anything nice to say about theme parks.

But the shadow cast by Air Guitar is long, and what ultimately distinguishes Perfect Wave is the fact that it does not come close to the swelling, near-reckless confidence of its predecessor. Not long ago, a younger Hickey defiantly declaimed in his 1993 essay “Enter the Dragon” that “The vernacular of beauty, in its democratic appeal, remains a potent instrument for change.” Today, the older Hickey is less sanguine about such possibilities. “Art may change the world, incite the revolution,” Hickey states matter-of-factly in the last chapter to Perfect Wave, “but it will almost certainly leave its administrative institutions intact.” The proper job of the artist and critic may be in the “overthrowing and reforming” of cultural institutions, but as Hickey continues to explain, today’s institutions “have rendered themselves virtually invulnerable to overthrow or reform.” It is no wonder that Hickey concedes to feeling a bit powerless these days:

For twenty-five years, I was a journeyman artisan in a marginal industry whose size was commensurate with its public importance. Today, I am a plug-in subcontractor in a bloated corporate culture that has embraced all the wickedness of mass culture and mass education in its quest of dollars at the door. More distressing still, I find myself inadvertently complicit in his lemming-like rush to the mainstream.

Still, for all the doubts and misgivings that Hickey has for the future, as the kleptocrats continue to pull the strings from behind the curtain and generic art school types proliferate, he offers this consolation: the art itself isn’t going anywhere, and its endless pleasures are there for the picking. As Hickey puts it, “I want crazy, if only in a book, dissonance if only in a piece of music, exquisite insanity if only in a painting.”


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Letters to His Neighbor

Marcel Proust
Translated by Lydia Davis
New Directions ($19.95)

by David Wiley

Marcel Proust, author of the world’s longest and perhaps greatest novel, In Search of Lost Time, was a near-invalid who sequestered himself during most of his masterwork’s composition inside a cork-lined, shuttered bedroom, banishing pollen, noise, sunlight, people, and everything else in the world other than his own voluminous memories. Stories of his reclusiveness have become so legendary and proverbial that inside views of his life—such as his housekeeper Céleste Albaret’s profoundly illuminating memoir, Monsieur Proust—read like gospel to pilgrims in search of more shards of the true Proust. He didn’t write any memoirs himself, unless you count his roman à clef as a memoir, but his epic correspondence forms a kind of double mirror to his endlessly refracting novel. Thus, when any new artifacts documenting this monster of neurotic hermeticism come to light, it’s like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves of Qumran. The latest discovery of twenty-six of his letters to his upstairs neighbor, written over a decade during the composition of In Search of Lost Time, will delight any Proustian and will tide the faithful over until new relics come to light.

An American dentist named Charles Williams lived and worked in the flat just above Proust’s—a nightmare for any sensitive person, let alone one who only slept during the day—and nearly all of the letters in this volume are hilariously labyrinthine requests for quiet. Three are addressed to Dr. Williams himself, while the twenty-three others are addressed to his wife, Marie, who like Proust also had ongoing health problems and whose sensitivity and intelligence very slowly made their mark on her complaining neighbor’s empathy. Some of these letters are simply ingenious in how they wend their way toward their true purpose—quiet, please!—but Proust couldn’t help becoming connected to his fellow sufferer upstairs. Although he almost never actually came into contact with her, he nonetheless gave much of himself to her, and he received perhaps just as much in return. Responding to a letter she wrote to him while she was on vacation, he revels in her perceptive descriptions and reflects his own crepuscular experience right back at her:

You, with your pictorial and sunlit words, have brought color and light into my closed room. Your health has improved you tell me, and your life become more beautiful. I feel great joy over this. I cannot say the same for myself. My solitude has become even more profound, and I know nothing of the sun but what your letter tells me.

Gradually recognizing each other’s finely attuned minds, the two eventually began exchanging books—always through intermediaries, despite being a floor apart; in fact, he even sent some of his letters to her via the mail—and early on he began offering her published samples of his ongoing novel, despite his qualms about their level of polish and completion. Sending her magazine excerpts of what eventually became the work’s second and third volumes, he illuminates his expansive method as he subtly impresses her with why she and her husband need to give him the quiet that his labors require:

But will these detached pages give you an idea of the 2nd volume? And the 2nd volume itself doesn’t mean much; it’s the 3rd that casts the light and illuminates the plans of the rest. But when one writes a work in 3 volumes in an age when publishers want only to publish one at a time, one must resign oneself to not being understood, since the ring of keys is not in the same part of the building as the locked doors.

Those Daedalian keys eventually took seven volumes to become almost integrated into the novel’s full ground plan. Proust’s fully articulated vision halted just short of completion when he died eight years later, his revisions and expansions having ballooned the three volumes that he mentions in this 1914 letter into seven nearly perfect halls of mirrors.

Renowned Proust translator Lydia Davis reproduces the author’s idiosyncratic usage and orthography faithfully, mimicking the improvised quality of these dashed-off letters with a slashing verve (this volume’s reproductions of many of the letters attesting to their slapdash nature). The original French editors Estelle Gaudry and Jean-Yves Tadié contribute helpful endnotes, which Davis translates, expands, and emends to great effect, although Davis unfortunately has her hands tied with Proust-biographer Tadié’s labored foreword. Davis’s afterword also indulges in a few too many of her own peccadillos, such as way too much information about what the bank that occupies Proust’s former apartment looks like now. The real magic of her afterword comes in its coda, which tells the story of the grandson of a Norman florist reading extracts from these letters online and subsequently disclosing Proust’s flower-buying habits and etiquette with the Williamses and others, noting the thirty-two times that he visited the shop between 1908 and 1912. Unearthing these intricately revealing records is the true Proustian pursuit, redeeming Davis’s mini-gospel of its few apocryphal lapses and elevating this volume’s host of testamentary material to nearly the level of the letters themselves. A tiny reliquary, this book’s illuminated codex now serves as a minor pilgrimage for all true Proustian communicants.


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Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City

Brandon Harris
Amistad ($15.99)

by Joseph Houlihan

Brandon Harris’s Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make it in New York City is symphonic in scope and expression. The memoir, presented in connected film and cultural writings, tells the story of the ambitions and frustrations of a young filmmaker in the decade after his college graduation. A transplant from Cincinnati, Harris experiences the gentrification of the historically black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, and he strives to come to terms with his own ambivalent relationship to the forces responsible for this change.

As Harris seeks to find a voice in a community quickly losing its historical character, Making Rent examines the role of racial difference in the production of culture and social hierarchy. It follows various threads related to the millennial experience, especially looking at the way that gentrification, or the influence of the globalized corporate economy on urban environments, plays out in the lived experience. A paradox emerges, because even as multinational corporations create a sameness across America, difference persists.

Difference cuts many ways. It can create nostalgia for meaningful cultural identities against homogenization, or even hope for the possibility of multicultural communities. Harris moves from Cincinnati to New York City at the beginning of the current development boom, and settles in a neighborhood being rebranded “Clinton Hill.” As a young black man, he speaks bravely about his ambivalence in relation to this process. He moves between the desire to make art that is meaningful to many people and the desire to remain connected to a coherent cultural and historical blackness. All of this is heightened by the titular challenge: making rent.

The book employs a neat framing device; Harris breaks the chapters down by his many itinerant apartments first in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and then later as he’s priced out, farther afield in Queens. Harris is funny and charming as he recounts his social and romantic travails, reminding us that “all we do is for this frightened thing we call love” (as Allen Ginsberg put it in “Wichita Vortex Sutra”). In an interview at The Rumpus, he expands on this idea, saying “empathy is cheap, engagement is more difficult.”

For Harris, engagement presents the possibility of people living together and loving each other. It's important that he describes some of the almost uncanny fears that come in dating white women. He writes about the middle-class experience of code switching, gently mocking lower-class relatives and then later feeling vulnerable and parochial when visiting a girlfriend in an overly WASP-y New England Brahmin setting. And yet he moves through the vulnerability, because engagement is about reaching out and touching other people. One of the most compelling themes in the memoir is that personal values are meaningless if they do not support networks of caring.

This is true of the aesthetics of place, and it's true about people making art. Over the past decade several critically acclaimed white novelists and filmmakers have made works about coming to terms with an adulthood significantly whiter than their childhoods. Another symphonic look at gentrification, Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude practically screams, “I lived there in the 1970s!” Conversely, Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue imagines a world where people still talk to each other and there is love and compassion in R&B music. It's telling that fewer black voices are asking, “where are all the white people that I loved so much from my childhood?” (America in the age of Trump has a lot of white visibility). But in Making Rent in Bed-Stuy, Harris does capture some of the ambivalence of a person leaving a more multicultural middle-class experience for one of increasing isolation set against the reality of homogenization and downward social mobility.

Hip, and the persistence of cool, is another thread that Harris spins out in the book; he cites early and often some of his heroes and influences, including John Cassavetes, Kathleen Collins, and Bill Gunn. By staking out this territory, he aligns himself with the idea that hip, in the service of a counterculture is worth it. Harris sacrifices stability to grow as a creative voice; he works to support a vital culture that he also seeks to be a part of. And so he reviews small movies, and attends screenings and readings. He works on projects that are not his own, and sends text messages to fellow strivers in earnest solidarity. Even as he does these things, however, things are not quite right. His former best-friend and college roommate becomes a kind of foil in the book, representing the bitter falsehood of the meritocratic promise. The question of making it versus making rent remains unanswered.

Harris came of age in the worst economy since the Great Depression, and of course the black middle class was disproportionately hurt in the 2008 crisis, but Harris approaches this period with wry humor. There’s generosity in his account, and something like straight talk. He’s committed to the artist’s vision, which James Schuyler said is “to be strong / to see things as they are / too fierce and yet not too much.” He strives and he hustles, but even after making it, he has difficulty making rent. He directed a feature film in 2012 called Redlegs, but he was still forced to live on SNAP benefits and write home for money. His parade of part-time jobs and hustles exemplifies the traumatic rupture so many Americans experienced between their perceived sense of self and their lived experience.

In writing a memoir about Bed-Stuy, and the experience of gentrification and corporate homogenization there, Harris is also writing about his own home. In one of the strongest sections of the text, Brandon Harris returns to Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood:

Gentrification works differently back home than it does in New York. In Cincinnati . . . poor people don’t have organizations of resilience that demand political accountability for their needs. While the black community’s highest strata have collective clout that can shake city hall, their working-class brethren, out in the neighborhoods, don’t . . . The city’s long-blighted and now suddenly urban quarters are gobbled up and renamed.

Like many other cities in the post-industrial moment, Cincinnati’s economy is corporate and largely service oriented. A large community development corporation, Cincinnati Center City Development Corp (3CDC), led much of the development of Over-the-Rhine, “with the largest collection of Italianate architecture in America save Greenwich Village,” into a circus of boutiques, restaurants, and beerhalls.

As a filmmaker, Harris was excited to collaborate with a newly established micro-cinema in Over-the-Rhine, but his excitement was tempered by the organization’s reality. Harris is clear-eyed about this because it represents a big piece of the challenge surrounding the relationship between the avant-garde and politics. Although apparently dedicated to experimental work, the cinema was described as not “the place to complain about the 3CDC.” Short of effecting progressive social realities, the avant-garde is often co-opted into the service of consumerist solipsism. His experience that summer in Cincinnati is further heightened by the police shooting of an unarmed black man, leading to protests and frustration as the City entrenched. It’s a vivid and defining account.

Harris establishes himself as a leading cultural critic in this book, and he is strategic in the filmmakers, musicians, and artists he champions. He reviews an early vision of gentrification in Bed-Stuy, The Landlord by Hal Ashby. He writes about Spike Lee and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, as well as Nasty Baby by Sebastián Silva. He cites Julie Dash, Chester Himes, Gil Scott-Heron, and Charles Burnett. Through these investigations, he is dedicated to supporting blackness. By choosing Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the first urban enclaves of free blacks in 19th-century America, Harris is holding up a culture he wants to see persist. This is important, because part of the history of gentrification is based on the changing global economy, but part of it is also the result of explicit racism. Gentrification in the last thirty years mirrors the white flight of the middle century: Slums within urban centers were supported by explicit housing policy, explicitly racial redlining, explicitly racist FHA lending, and explicitly targeted block busting. In this history of Bed-Stuy, Harris tells the biography of an idea worth saving.


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MICHAEL ONDAATJE

Monday, May 21, 7pm
Plymouth Congregational Church
1900 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis
co-sponsored by Rain Taxi, Birchbark Books, and Literary Witnesses

Join us as we welcome the internationally acclaimed author Michael Ondaatje to present his latest work, Warlight: a mesmerizing new novel that tells a dramatic story set in the decade after World War II. Ondaatje will be in conversation with the Twin Cities’ own Louise Erdrich, with a reception and book signing to follow.

 

This event is free and open to the public—
not to be missed!

 

ABOUT WARLIGHT

In 1945, just after World War II, fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister Rachel stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore. They suspect their caretaker, a mysterious figure named The Moth, might be a criminal, and they grow more convinced as they come to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women joined by a shared secret history, all of whom seem determined now to protect Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? And what does it mean when the siblings’ mother returns after months of silence without their father? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all that he didn’t know and understand, and it is this journey through facts, recollection, and imagination that makes this latest masterwork from Ondaatje as beguiling and mysterious as memory itself.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Ondaatje is the acclaimed author of seven novels, as well as a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. His novel The English Patient won the Booker Prize; Anil’s Ghost won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Prix Médicis. Born in Sri Lanka, Michael Ondaatje now lives in Toronto.

I’m Still Trying to Figure It Out: An Interview with Noah Falck

photo by Beth Insalaco

Interviewed by Aidan Ryan

Noah Falck gives me a look that says “I’ll tell you later.”
We are in the deep leather recesses of the bar at the Statler Hotel, a grand and literally crumbling building on Niagara Square, which is actually a Circle, the radial heart of downtown Buffalo, N.Y. Drinks are two-for-one—even Manhattans—and almost no one is here.

Noah has just deflected a question about his most recent project. But in just two weeks, the literary publishing world’s omertà is lifted: Noah tells me that the editors of Tupelo Press have selected his next full-length collection, Exclusions, for publication.

We’re at the Statler to discuss Noah’s poetry—primarily the reissue of his debut collection, Snowmen Losing Weight, from BatCat Press, though we eventually get to Exclusions—but the conversation keeps folding back upon his deep commitments to the community here. A native of Dayton, OH, he came to Buffalo when he landed a position as Education Director at the Just Buffalo Literary Center, the region’s largest literary organization. In that role he grapples daily with what all external authorities agree is a tragicomically doomed and failing public education system—Noah’s efforts expose more and more children each year to living and working writers from their own communities, and provide them a safe space for experimentation with words at Just Buffalo’s free Writing Center downtown.

He’s also the creator of the city’s most singular reading series, which three times each summer brings visiting poets to Buffalo, matching them with local poets, performance artists, musicians, and visual artists for unforgettable encounters in a complex of 130-foot concrete grain silos, relics of the region’s industrial and commercial heritage. Along with a few others, he has changed the way we look at our landscape—instead of a backdrop, it’s a stage, a character, an orchestra.

Poet, educator, curator, urbanist—and editor: now, Noah is wrapping up his work on My Next Heart: New Buffalo Poetry (BlazeVox Books, $18), a project that collects recent poetry from a diverse crop of the city’s finest young poets and literary leaders.

The bar fills up; there is a loud cluster around the shuffleboard. Surprised by the ground we’re covering, I pause the recording—we come up as if for air, but really for another round. The light coming through the curtains has turned from spun-gold to night-marina navy. I don’t tell him this, but I think of his “Poem Excluding Witnesses”: “During the 5th inning, you dance / your way into the souls of an entire / generation in the industrial part of town / where the sky loses every time.”

We start the recording again. He greets the next question—as he greets the next poem, the next project, the next Instagrammed cloudscape—with astonishment. And all around us, the crowd goes wild.


Aidan Ryan: BatCat Press just re-released Snowmen Losing Weight, which came out as a beautiful accordion-style hardback in 2012. Now it’s coming back in an inexpensive, travel-ready edition, introducing an older version of yourself to a new audience, and maybe (re)introducing that older version of yourself, that other time, to you. Take me back.

Noah Falck: I was living in Dayton, Ohio. I remember getting really excited about Snowmen and putting together a release show for it, which included three bands and poets Nick Sturm and Matt Hart. I was always interested in that kind of mix, because I feel like music and poetry are very similar mediums. They are trying to accomplish the same things in a lot of ways. So it was just kind of celebrating this idea of having a book. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what it meant to have a book in the world; I had a few chapbooks out but having a full-length felt to me like a deeper step into . . . this world. It was really exciting.

AR: So you got into poetry through music. What was the bridge?

NF: It seems like an old white guy thing now, especially since Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but I was raised on classic rock, so I would listen to the Beatles, Dylan, and stuff like that. In high school I became a huge Dylan-head. I remember Time Out of Mind coming out when I was a sophomore in college, and I was just infatuated with the lyrics. At the same time I was taking my first “real” poetry workshops. I remember reading Charles Simic at the time, and thinking about the relationship between lyrics and poetry. I know that’s an ongoing debate—can lyrics be poetry, can poetry be music—and my answer to both is yes. I think that was the initial step—listening to the music, but paying super close attention to the lyrics, like a close read of the ear. It has become how I listen to all music, which can be a problem, I’ve realized. But if the lyrics aren’t good enough, I’m just not going to give a shit. Which is hard particularly these days because I have a two-year old, and we’ve just been listening to the Trolls soundtrack, on repeat, all the fucking time. There are some good beats in there, I think . . . but I don’t even know what that means. It’s easy to listen to, but it’s annoying as all hell. Maybe it’s because I hear it all the time, but I feel nothing for the lyrics.

[At this point the prolonged exclamations of a group playing on a well-salted shuffleboard table drown out our discussion, in which we attempt to define “beat” and discuss manifestations of the same in the Trolls soundtrack versus early TV on the Radio.]

NF: But I think that was the step in. Hearing Bob Dylan singing these songs . . . he created a fully realized world within a song. And I think in a poem, even in a short little twelve-line poem, you can potentially create an entire world.

AR: It seems like you try to do that in Snowmen Losing Weight. I was familiar with a slice of your work, but it was much more recent work; here I was struck by—well, by how many of your poems had plot. They were narrative driven, they were condensed . . . like for example “Boss Crashes the Party.” That’s much more plot-driven than your recent work. On the flipside, there are poems like “In The Club of Farmland Thunder” that also create a world without much plot at all.

NF: I think that initially I thought that the poems kind of had to have that narrative structure. And I was really interested in narrative poems. A lot of the poets I read early on—not necessarily Charles Simic, but poets like Stevens, Frost, Bishop, had a kind of narrative and a conversational tone . . . I also went through a Beat stage, and there were narratives in that. But the more I read, the more I realized that the poems could be anything you wanted them to be, and it shifted my thinking on how my voice could work into a narrative. I also became obsessed with the prose poem—I went through a whole stage of writing hundreds of prose poems.

AR: So this originally came out five years ago, and you said some of the poems in it are at least fifteen years old. Which feel the most distant?

NF: “Girl With Silver Pooper Scooper.” That’s one of the oldest poems in here, that I can think of, without looking at my notes. The Crossword poems are fairly old, too; that was a chapbook collection where I pulled some of my favorite crossword poems out and included them in Snowmen. It’s really weird looking at these. Some of them I’ve never read out loud, because I didn’t think they could be understood, like if I read them and said “Here’s the story behind this,” it would be longer than the poem, and what’s the point of doing that?

AR: What’s the point of putting them in a collection?

NF: I think that those poems were a good representation of who I was at the time. That collection in a lot of ways was like, here are the poems I’ve written in the last six years. I had no idea what I was doing in terms of putting them together. If I would look at that now, I would edit the whole thing. I think there’s something to be said about that, too, in terms of . . . are poems ever finished? You know, if you revisit something five years later it’s still part of who you were and what you were thinking at the time, but it's also a way of growing and reflecting as a person and as a writer. There are elements and moments that really shine, but some of the poems are not who I am anymore. I think a lot of that has shifted due to who I’ve been reading and the voices that are affecting how I look at the world. With all that said, I'm still super happy with it, and I love that it's a thing in the world.

AR: It's weird, the act of publication really ought to be for the reader, you know, the ones receiving the poems. But for us—and I don’t think this is egotistical—it’s about sloughing off some of the “selfness” that we’ve accumulated. Generally when you publish one project, you've already moved on to the next—but that next poem or book or whatever sort of lives in the shadow of this unpublished thing, crowding up the house. Publication gives whatever you're working on that necessary room, that license. So people get to ask again—is this new thing a Noah Falck poem? Who the hell is Noah Falck, anyway?

NF: I clearly remember that I had already moved on. I was working on a new chapbook collection, which became the Celebrity Dream Poems (Poor Claudia, 2013), which is a micro-chapbook of twenty poems which use celebrity names as titles and try to interpret the dreamscapes of those celebrities. I also think writing is a daily practice—you can't wait for something to be published. You want to think in terms of books I guess, but you also just have to get work done. Read, write, and have something to look back on.

So going back to your question, I had already moved on—and actually that first poem in Snowmen, "Wind," was a late poem, maybe a month or two before the publication. It's kind of funny looking at that versus the other poems in there. I don't know if people can see the difference or not, but it's weird.

AR: I was going to say, the difference is obvious. This is something I wanted to bring up at the beginning. I came at this book expecting to find an unknown. The first of your poems that I encountered was at the Peach Mag reading in October of 2016, and it was "Poem Excluding Politics." But when I opened up this book and read “Wind” I recognized not only “you,” but something like your efforts in your Exclusions series, which is now going to be your second full-length collection. In “Wind” you're trying to drive down to the essence of one element, or provoke the question of what this thing means to us. In a loose way I felt that prefigured your exclusion poems.

NF: The exclusion poems are a project I probably put five years of energy into. I wrote the majority of those really quickly—within six months I wrote fifty or sixty of them, and then tinkered with them for something like four years. The premise of it was writing an idea or an object or a person out of a poem. So, a poem excluding politics, excluding mathematics, excluding death. Just thinking about what was going to be removed from a poem or a world—and I see poems as worlds—what would be left there? What would be the remaining pieces? And I was fascinated by that because it's, like you said, an act of condensing—a lot of them are like ten to twelve lines, maybe shorter. They really are just trying to get to the point. They were really fun to write. "Wind" was probably a ways before that but was moving in a new direction, clearly less narrative, more about structure in a way, and form.

It's really hard to write a really good short poem. I was studying a lot of Graham Faust’s work at the time, who I think is a master of short form. I was reading William Carlos Williams, Ben Lerner, and Andrew Grace, who wrote that amazing collection Sancta. It also stunted me after that because I've been trying to write longer poems and it's hard to get out of that space. In the same way I was writing prose blocks for a time. The exclusions were all prose blocks initially, and I realized they needed to be broken up. I love that tinkering process, figuring out what is a poem's shape. I like initially starting as a block, and then carving out a skeleton.

AR: So a sort of sculptural approach to poetry?

NF: Absolutely. I like looking at something on a page—I'm really interested in visual components—which the poems in Snowmen Losing Weight don't always have. The choices you're making in giving space between lines, is important, and took me a long time to learn.

AR: If your aim is to exclude something from the poem—how do you begin the poem?

NF: Whatever the idea is, exists. Is it an opposite poem, do you approach it from an opposite point-of-view? I think some of the Exclusions are trying to approach that. There's a freedom in writing against something. In “Poem Excluding Politics,” even though I'm writing something that's going to be excluded, the foundation of the idea is already there. It's in the title. As a reader, you have it. So I'm not directly discussing or breaking into political identities or structures or forms, but I allow this to be a stepping stone that allows me to address it . . . by not addressing it.

AR: Just given the titles, the sort of rule you set yourself, it's hard not to see the poems as an experiment in inclusion by exclusion, such that politics is a silhouette cast in the poem.

NF: That's exactly what I was aiming for.

AR: Snowmen Losing Weight originally came out in 2012; shortly thereafter, you moved from Dayton, O.H. to Buffalo, N.Y.

NF: Yes, I was a school teacher for ten years in Dayton and Cincinnati. My wife is originally from Hamburg, NY. We had recently married and were looking to move someplace else, and we drew up a list of places to move. We had this deal because she moved from New York to Dayton that she’d decide where our next move would be; so we made the list and applied to different jobs and I landed the Just Buffalo Literary Center Education Director job, and her folks were from here, so we were just like, let's go to Buffalo! And it was just at that time that the quote unquote Renaissance had begun, maybe a year or two before. But there was definitely a feeling in the air when we moved here; a bubbling energy. Buffalo is pretty amazing. I remember feeling overwhelmed with joy stepping into the communities that are already formed here, because they’re really open and welcoming. There are good things to come for Buffalo. I think we're lucky to be here, really.

AR: When did you realize you were going to put poetry in Buffalo’s grain silos—probably our most iconic surviving architecture, with apologies to Sullivan, Richardson, and Wright—and then how did you make it happen?

NF: I knew I wanted to do some kind of reading series as soon as I called this place home, especially coming off the book release, which had almost all the elements—it had poetry, it had music, we had all of those communities together. I met my friend Joe Hall, a great poet who moved here the same year we did, for a drink at Nietzsche's, and we talked about being new to Buffalo and writing poems. He had a book coming out and he said, Hey man, do you know any place where I can have a book release party? I said, Yeah, you know, I was down at the grain silos. I went to the City of Night [an arts festival at one of Buffalo’s grain silo complexes] and it was really cool, a little overwhelming, but cool. Being in one of those silos by yourself is an experience. City of Night had installation projects, but there wasn't really a live performance, that I recall. So I went down there and asked Swannie Jim [the groundskeeper], can we put on a poetry reading? They were completely open and enthusiastic about the idea. We did it in the Perot elevator silo, which didn’t have any power; I remember for each event Swannie had to hook up a generator so we could have lights. We had Ahavaraba, a klezmer band, perform, and hung the photography of Thomas Bittner. It was super fun. It was a little art party, which is to me what a reading should be—it should be a party. I'm always interested in inviting new people into the scene and inviting them to experience a poem, and a lot of readings don't feel like that. They feel stiff, like some people aren't smart enough to engage with poetry, or won't get it. I think having the music and art elements are a way of inviting different communities in, saying, this is all poetry as well. That was some of the idea behind the silos. And the space is a poem too.

AR: So if the music is a poem and the visual art is a poem and the space is a poem and the poem is a poem . . . can you define poetry?

NF: [laughs] I cannot. I'll refer to . . . what did Anne Carson say? Something like, "voicing your astonishment." To voice your astonishment you have to notice things that other people wouldn't notice. That's one way of defining what a poem is—something the voice is astonished with. And in the everyday, how often are you astonished? I think everybody has the ability and opportunity to be astonished all the time—which is why children are just naturally connected to poetry. And they learn not to be poets over time. I don't know if it's like a stepping back, or noticing the sky, or a breeze that happens at the right time, or a car passing by with the right music. I think all these things are potentially astonishing. I think noticing that, capturing that, and then telling the world about it, is a poem. And it's hard, as an adult person, to notice things. Particularly in today's world. You're being bombarded with hurricanes and fire and Trump, and whatever just happened here.

[He gestures to a now-empty shuffleboard table.]

AR: Besides the silos, you’ve been able to showcase the city by providing a creative space and a platform for its children. Tell me more about your mission at the Just Buffalo Literary Center.

NF: It's a dream job in terms of being able to work in the educational realm and to put literature and poetry in a more central position. Coming out of the classroom after ten years and realizing how little time and space is devoted to creative writing or writing in general or the thinking about writing, it's been amazing to be at Just Buffalo and to have that as my central core position, promoting creative writing in the schools and in our own Writing Center. At the same time, it's been an ongoing battle to work with the Buffalo School District, and for them to realize how important it is to have this avenue for young people to have a chance to write creatively or think about their own lives. Eighty percent of the writing that we do in the classrooms is informational writing, which is great—it's good to be able to write clearly about a subject—but it's also really important to think about who you are, where you're coming from, and the ideas you're having. It’s exciting to be in this role, but it's been a battle since I got here in terms of finding partner schools and teachers that really want to invest in us the same way we want to invest in them. Not to say they're not out there—it's just been difficult to find them.

AR: It's important to be able to write clearly about a subject—but what about being able to put yourself imaginatively inside another subjectivity? Novels do that. Poetry can do it in the space of one thirty-minute lesson.

NF: Absolutely. I mentioned the Just Buffalo Writing Center, a free after-school creative writing hub. The idea there is we're open Tuesdays and Thursdays, 3:30 to 6, for teenagers 12 to 18 to come in, and each week we offer a new workshop taught by a professional writer. They’ve had playwrights, poets, fiction writers, people from the Buffalo News, graphic novelists . . . They get exposed to all these different kinds of writers and have an opportunity and the space to work with all these different ideas. Maybe it is only for a couple days, but at least they're having a few hours during that week to work in that space, to empathize and think about what it means to be someone else. A lot of that has to do with the world they’re living in, to think about—what if you were a refugee? What if you were an immigrant? It is important to think about these questions, to have conversations about all of it. And to be clear, some of these kids in some of these schools are already thinking about these questions—but I think the vast majority of the time is spent on preparing them to answer test questions correctly, and read the canonized literature.

AR: If they were reading the canonized literature, that would be one thing. But it's somebody else's wacky canon —

NF: That's exactly it. And I think that transition is happening slowly in progressive districts, but literature that's happening, that's out right now, that's making waves today should be taught in schools today. Claudia Rankine—she should be in the classroom today. Morgan Parker—she should be in classrooms today. Ocean Vuong. And if they're not, it's a disservice to the students. And that's a role that we could potentially play with the school districts, to say, Hey, maybe you could invite us in and we could do a week or two weeks of creative writing. And it's all structured around whatever they could afford, it's not necessarily pay-to-play—we have grant funding. I think there's a lot of pressure from administrative staff. I know teachers want to have us in there, but it doesn't always work with the schedule.

So I love the transition of not being in the classroom, not having to fit under that umbrella of what teachers have to struggle with day in and day out. On the other hand, it's a struggle on our end to break down those barriers.

AR: Meanwhile, you've been at work for almost nine months now on another project—My Next Heart.

NF: Yeah, My Next Heart: New Buffalo Poetry is a collection of work that I'm editing with Justin Karcher, a local poet and playwright. It's going to showcase a handful of younger voices that are bright spots in the Buffalo literary scene. It’s been really funny having conversations with Justin, who comes from a different school of thinking altogether than myself, in terms of what poetry is and all that—which is great, having a conversation about what's good, what's not, what these poems are doing. It doesn't necessarily have to represent what Buffalo is, but it is highlighting a large number of young folks writing poems around here. To me it's like a snapshot of what's happening right now in the slam scene, in the UB Poetics Program, people who've been published in Peach Mag, in Foundlings, people who aren’t affiliated with any of that and just writing poems on their own. It's a way of collecting all these voices and putting them in a beautiful, tight anthology. To me it's going to be more of a collection than an anthology—there could be spinoffs, depending on how successful it is. I think there's a relevance to capturing what's happening right now because there's so much being written, there are so many performances night in and night out, there are different types of poetry, different styles, different voices, different ages. But this collection will specifically focus on younger poets, poets forty and under. BlazeVOX is going to publish it in December 2017.

AR: Why forty?

NF: I think we landed on that for a few reasons. A lot of the poets forty and under haven't published all that much, so they are performing, doing readings, and putting on performances all over the city, and this is a way of saying, What you're doing is good, your work is good, and we want to publish your work and celebrate everything you’re doing. On the other end, the folks who are forty-one and up, many of them have published quite a bit. Many of them have their own reading series, their own thing, so it's not to exclude them, it's just a way to turn the spotlight for one moment, for one collection, on these younger voices. There's been some interest in a collection focused on older poets, too. There's no telling what might come out of this.

AR: My Next Heart—where does the title come from? What does it say about the collection, and what does it say about Buffalo?

NF: The title comes right out of one of Janet McNally's poems which will be included in the collection—first published in the magazine Women's Things, and then in McNally's book Some Girls. Janet’s a spectacular poet who teaches at Canisius College. We looked for a title a few weeks back and a lot of the idea was we didn't just want to name it “The New Buffalo Poetry” or whatever; we wanted it to come out of something from one of the poems. I think My Next Heart says exactly what we want the collection to be—it's an emblem for this next generation of poets. It's another movement. Another beat.

AR: It's interesting—the title signals a birth, but a rebirth, not a birth from a void. The poem takes place in a science lab, probably in Sacred Heart Academy, this iconic Buffalo girls school where Janet went. It depicts these girls using elements of "what came before"—inherited tools and techniques and methods—and making something new. The idea is that we change hearts many times over our lives, but there is never, really, a "break" from the past.

NF: It makes me think of the cover art—we have a piece from the artist Chuck Tingley, and it also kind of resembles a building upon the old, building upon the foundation that we're walking on. This collection recognizes that—the history of Buffalo, the history of Buffalo literature—and it wants to take that into the next phase. It's gonna be beautiful.

AR: That sounds to my ears like the distinct optimism of the father of a two-year-old. Has being a young father influenced all these endeavors—your work in education, in publishing, in creating new traditions—in writing?

NF: You know, I don't think so, at this point. My kid has informed me in a lot of ways, but to me what I'm doing with Just Buffalo and what Just Buffalo does in general is create space for a better world. My kid fits into that—she might benefit from that in the future, but I'm not working specifically for her. It's a community thing. I believe in the idea that people need the space to read, that people need the space to have these conversations about literature and what they're thinking and how they're feeling about things; to me that's just what we should be doing as citizens. There's not enough space for that to happen as citizens. We're all living in our own worlds and a great way to bring each other together is by reading and writing and having these events and celebrating the work that's going on in this community. My kid is benefiting from that and living in this community, but at this point, a two-year-old, she's more interested in Trolls—and her beautiful picture books.

But I don't know, that's an interesting question. It's something I constantly think about when I'm writing new work—I don't want to say it’s strictly influenced by her, but knowing that I have a child in this world and that she's coming through it—what this particular world has in store for her—it's scary in a lot of ways. Just the shitstorm that we've been through in the past year as a country, that comes out in my writing subconsciously. On the other side, she's a two-year-old; she doesn't really understand what's going on globally. She will come to terms with that soon I'm sure, but . . . ah, it's terrifying being a parent. I'm still trying to figure it out.


Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

The Aeneid

Virgil
Translated by David Ferry
University of Chicago Press ($35)

by Anshuman Mody

In a poem in his 2012 collection Bewilderment, David Ferry works with a letter in which Goethe says, “To live / Long is to outlive many.” Ferry’s poem is about “The death that lives in the intention of things / To have a meaning of some sort or other.” The imagery of loss and yearning in the work of this mature master suggests how suited he is to appreciate that same profoundly mournful quality in Virgil’s epic, The Aeneid. Every new translation holds its mirror up to the original, so we might ask: by what features might a reader in English come to know Virgil in Ferry’s version?

The tone of Virgil’s poem is frequently elegiac. During passages of warfare, Virgil even tends to be exquisitely delicate, as can be seen in Robert Fitzgerald’s 1983 translation:

The Argive fleet,
Drawn up in line abreast, left Tenedos
Through the aloof moon’s friendly stillnesses

Ferry’s “under the silent / Stillness of the moon,” by contrast, falls a bit short in phrasing the total beauty of Virgil’s “per amica silentia lunae,” but his translation often has a measured eloquence that can be full of feeling:

Aurora rose, spreading her pitying light,
And with it bringing back to sight the labors
Of sad mortality, what men have done,
And what has been done to them; and what they must do
To mourn.

Ferry’s version gains by its simplicity of language, especially as The Aeneid offers “a quick succession of events.” Where another prominent Virgil translator, Robert Fagles, gives us “One hope saves the defeated: they know they can’t be saved” in his 2006 version, Ferry conveys thoughtfully and simply that the defeated are “clarified by despair.” In Book II’s recounting of the fall of Troy, the merit of Ferry’s simplicity is palpable; the narration flows but retains a literary quality. The tone of his work feels carefully accomplished, as when he describes the bewilderment of Turnus as he is pursued by Aeneas to his death:

It’s as in sleep, in the quiet of the night,
Our languid eyelids close and in their dream
Won’t tell wherever we are nor where we’re going
Or trying to go nor can we get there where-
Ever where might be, and who knows who it is
We maybe are, our legs gone weak, no way
To get there where?

Passages both of warfare and human suffering abound in The Aeneid, as they do in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. In Ferry’s version, there’s a notable balance of an eloquent sensibility and a narrative simplicity—both of which Virgil’s epic demands, often simultaneously.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018