Tag Archives: spring 2003


Given by Arielle Greenberg Arielle Greenberg
Verse Press ($12)

by Michael R. Allen

In Given, Arielle Greenberg makes dazzling explorations into the secrets embedded in language. Greenberg deals with words as strange objects that offer obscure meanings which might explain life, but she is no simple "experimental" writer—rather, she remembers that what poetry does best is produce complex meaning in the never-ending possibilities language affords.

Greenberg's success is fitting considering that Given is partially an homage to Marcel Duchamp, that pivotal explorer of material phenomena; "Given" is the translated title of Duchamp's final work, Etant donnés. Of course, "given" also conjures the poet's gift of poem to reader, as well as the perhaps divine gift of words to the poet. Greenberg's title hints at the power of her word choices: getting away with swift and easy meaning is not an option for a reader of these poems.

Consider the first stanza of "The Alexander Technique," which runs nimbly through cultural references and poetic evasion:

Joe DiMaggio has not told me any secrets for so long.
God's lonely eye has not turned to tell me any secrets.
Freud developed psychoanalysis to cure his own talking of secrets
out loud to me.
Virginia Woolf's shawled Indian girl hasn't told me any secrets.
A problem.

An American icon has not told (given?) the speaker any secrets lately, but immediately DiMaggio is replaced by "God's lonely eye," something more important but also more abstract. Freud is also involved in the lack of secret-telling, but then the famous psychiatrist is replaced with a modest literary character, and finally the series ends with the definitive statement "A problem." Yet the reader still has no idea about what secrets are being told or going untold—if any. Perhaps the secrets, usually a tantalizing literary puzzle to unwrap, simply serve to facilitate the creation of other mysteries, such as what the speaker wants to know.

Sometimes, however, Greenberg's words give up their mysteries. The interlude joining the book's two sections, a sequence of five poems entitled "(caveshow)," is a beautiful centerpiece that presents the profundity of the peculiar, repetitious patterns of dream recollection. Likewise, the brilliant "House of Precision" revels in its own failure to show the way to its title—"There are maybe three blocks between x and the House of Precision"—"x" evokes the supposed precision of mathematics, but the "maybe" reminds the reader that the poem is not an equation. The prose poem "Nostalgia, Cheryl, is the Best Heroin" offers not directions but shaded memories: "This is a terrible story, Cheryl. It is an instructional essay for a sweet beating. It is an open letter to linen closets everywhere." These memories seem painful, but the poetry seems to recall something longed for as well.

Often with dry wit, Greenberg shows that a poem is an incomplete set of directions to the secrets of life—secrets that are very real and easily knowable if only we were given the precise directions. Through these poems, we might understand some of those secrets, even if we may never know them as prosaic facts.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Blind Huber

Blind Huber by Nick FlynnNick Flynn
Graywolf Press ($14)

by Mike Chasar

A mysterious and entrancing sequence of short lyrics that journeys through the violent, erotic and even gothic world of the honeybee, Nick Flynn's pocket-sized volume Blind Huber feels appropriately like a combination of prayer book and field guide. There is no shortage of book-length sequences in American poetry of late, but Flynn's voyeuristic and disconcerting poems find a suitably tactile vehicle in becoming one of the sweetest and memorable reads this year.

Led through the "labyrinthine comb" by Flynn's version of Vergil—François Huber, an 18th-century blind beekeeper whose observations formed the basis of what is now known about the honeybee—we hear from the drones and workers, their queens, Huber's assistant, and from a hovering narrator who alights on the role of honey and beekeeping in human history. The result is a risky, almost hypnotic polyvocality, what we might call a poetics of the swarm: "we lift, // like the soul as it exits the body," Flynn writes from the point of view of his bees, "except you can see us // & we are not quiet."

Blinded in childhood by scarlet fever, the priestly Huber—whom we hear from in nine poems—explores the hives through the eyes and hands of his acolyte assistant, the sighted but unlearned Burnens. "I no longer know," says Huber of this relationship, "what is outside my mind // & what is in." That partnership has its counterpoint in the hive, a complex society where terrifying military power and precision only thinly veil drunken bursts of violence and chaos. "The virgin / flew this morning / as we dragged the old queen / out," reads one poem:

A drone

failed to follow, a young one,
gorging himself on honey,

& ten of us surrounded him,
held his mouth shut. We are

infinitely more abundant
& we are all the same.

This is a world of primordial desire, power and fear, an unnerving world where the individual is the group and the group the individual.

Flynn's first book, Some Ether, explored the effects of a mother's suicide and a father's homelessness on the coming of age of their son, and it's tempting to locate the genesis of the second book in a passage from the first: "She tells a story of how I swallowed a wasp, / I don't remember / but I always felt a nest building / inside me." One of the more riveting poems in Blind Huber seems to deliberately invert this image, as the obsessive beekeeper and Burnens cover the interior walls of a house with honeycomb "so we can live inside a hive, // my chair dead-center, beside my / queen." Flynn retains the short, clipped, unflinching lines from his first book, but, as the contrast between these passages might indicate, his perspective seems to have shifted.

A poem near the end of Blind Huber mentions how "Archangels // came down once, ordered bees to build / honeycomb in your mouth." In that image is the combination of sweetness and disquietude that makes up the worthwhile poems in this book.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

As Ever: Selected Poems

As Ever by Joanne KygerJoanne Kyger
Penguin Poets ($20)

by Gary Gach

This gathering, an overdue celebration, presents an awesome range of poems with a stunning developmental narrative baseline, from Joanne Kyger's discovery of her "voice" on through 40-some years of evolution into one of the leading literary voices of her generation. Naturally, wide recognition's been delayed merely due to an extra X-chromosome (the same reason that Joyce and Pound are still commonly valued over Woolf and Stein), but also contributory may be Kyger's humility—a stance which makes her work all the more endearing.

Further reasons that Kyger remains a Poet's Poet, and thus too well-kept a secret:

* Hewing to the middle voice.
* Reporting the splendor of mere being.
* Her use of a multi-vocal, intertextual, and sometimes ironic discourse, but referential to an individually lived world, complete with a moral sensibility (like, say, Creeley's), and narrative.

Kyger has evaded affiliation with schools of poetry, though she's been closely associated with Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and the San Francisco Renaissance; the Beats; Black Mountain and Charles Olson's projective verse; the New York School (she's born the same month and year as Ted Berrigan); the Bolinas poets; and more recently the Language school. And she's rooted in Pacific Rim culture, with Eurocentricity still dominant in the apparatus of fame (New York as closer to Berlin-Paris-London; California as closer to Mexico, Bali, Australia).

Curiously similar to the overall trajectory of W.S. Merwin, Kyger's work begins in a poetics of myth and eventually ripens into a poetics of sheer presence. "Myth" here means the personal ("muthos" = mouth), with all its seeming irrationality. Myth is still a vital component in the life of any community ("polis" as place), still a motivating factor in our actions—a matrix of any residual ideology of our civilization.

So she takes points of departure from Homer, such as her examination of Penelope "Falling into her weaving, // creating herself as a fold in her tapestry"—but also widens her horizon (definition of "self") to embrace ethnopoetics, creativity as shamanism, from teachings of the Buddha ("What is this self / I think I will lose if I leave what I know") to Native American myth (power lines of a continent more-space-than-people). Ultimately, she weaves an amalgam of her own design:

Caught up in the placid hills
I must away to the scrub bucket right now. Humbly.
So the wash gods will have company.

Kyger's poetry depicts a human dot in the vast landscape, to lend perspective and to entertain nature, rather than vice-versa. She is concerned with the life of the mind, of particular place, the lives of particular people—and with marrying them.

In As Ever we embark on literal journeys. There's a nine-page novel, chatty commentary, gorgeous thoughts, and flights of fancy landing on both feet. Compact universes. Mantras and koans. Delicious mouthfuls of language. It's a fascinating page-turner, due to the integrity inherent in her work, cohering across time. Thanks is owed to editor Michael Rothenberg, whose strategy to build Kyger’s collection from these disparate elements is crucial to its success. Putting this diversity together in one place heightens some of Kyger's strong suits, such as

* journal entry as poetry,
* a viable vision of the relation of individual to world,
* serial poetry, and
* a commanding voice.

Kyger may be Queen of the School of Diary Entry as Poetry. (In his introduction, David Meltzer pays homage to this power by offering dated entries rather than any single "take.") It's a craft she probably came to early on; a Navy brat, she relocated with her family from Beijing to Pensacola to Bremerton to Lake Bluff. Home away from home, a journal becomes a portable shrine, ontic grounding, liminal companion.

Diary writing may call to mind conventions set by Madame de Stael and Anais Nin, but the genre also possesses East Asian traditions; the form of Chinese rhymed prose, called fu, is one example, as are Japanese classics such as Basho’s travel diaries and many works of women: Izumi Shikibu, Murasaki Shikibu, Lady Nijo, Lady Sarashine, Sei Shonagon. Kyger, who lived in Japan for three years in the '60s, once pointed out to Andrew Schelling that the Eastern journal tradition isn't so much about "who am I" as "where" and "when." As such, it's a Zen genre. Along this optic, diaries are typified by freshness and spontaneity, a certain unintentionality (based in what's immediate rather than projected), and an organic shapeliness to any seeming formlessness. As we know, journals can also be vehicles of spiritual growth or self-investigation, enabling a rigorous process of dialogue by a way-seeking mind.

In Kyger's method, there's a preliminary pass, made in her head, so that her poems are thought through, guided by a sense of intention, direction, disjunctive jumps, and so on, while still remaining open to actual composition in the moment determining the outcome.

Mist     on the orchids
and Mist     across the ridge     warm
sun at the door     come in

This is not writing to say what one feels; it's writing to see what one thinks. These entries record a daily practice of poetry—making real a regular relation to the sacred. And significantly, "journal," as in both "journalism" and "journey," is rooted in "jour," day:

Bird family
boat going out to sea
all this
every day

What can be done, thought, said, in one day. And then another.

Wherever you go, there you are: and so you discover your self in constant flux, and so is born a respect for the population of which one is a part. Compassionate wisdom.

Contemporary students in poetics could do well to consider seriality, of which this book is a sterling example. Seriality offers the idea of poems as connected in progressive dialogue or unfoldment—not necessarily discursive—one from the next, across the measure of a book. Pound's Cantos, Eliot's Four Quartets, and Williams's Paterson are the grand-daddies. Descendants include Olson's Maximus; Duncan's Structure of Rhyme; Oppen's Of Being Numerous; Creeley's Pieces; Dorn's Gunslinger; Diane di Prima's Loba; and many others.

As Ever incorporates some earlier books published in limited circulation, included in their entirety; taking as a unit both poems and sets of poems, the volume suggests itself as a serial poem composed of serial poetry. Boulders made of nuggets of bits—all of a piece.

Finally, it must be noted that Kyger is firmly in the lineage of Dr. William Carlos Williams (as a student at UC Santa Barbara, she arranged his visit to campus)—she perceives the immediate particular ("no ideas but in things") and expresses them in the most vernacular, colloquial way. And, as with Duncan, every line could be sung:

what I wanted to say
was in the broad
form of being there


trying to talk in the tremulous
morality of the present
Great Breath, I give you, Great Breath!

For all these reasons, As Ever offers another day in paradise. Enter here.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Complete Fiction

Complete Fiction by Serge FauchereauSerge Fauchereau
Translated by Ron Padgett and John Ashbery
Black Square Editions ($14)

by Karl Krause

"Art is artificial, nature is natural."
—Piet Mondrian

"Do we look enough at what we'll never see twice? Space is imaginary. Only time exists, and time has no edges."
—Serge Fauchereau

An anthology of an author's entire work can be an exhausting confrontation: failures, successes, coherences, and the unresolved abound. One might expect the same from the title of Serge Fauchereau's Complete Fiction. Not to be confused as Fauchereau's complete writing, this slim book instead presents selected translations by Ron Padgett and John Ashbery—brilliant renovations on a sometimes tender work. Fauchereau's writing fluctuates between the memoirs of a solitary traveler and patently fictional landscapes and events; the setting of these prose poems is never really the place described, but the author's imagination in which they are formed. Its effect is at times macabre but beautiful:

Dig too deep and all you get is a foretaste of the earth you'll have between your teeth. When all that remains of you is a few pieces of bone that a farmer in the distant future turns over with his spade, he'll be wise enough to leave them in the ground—and you'll pass into the plants and into peace.

At its darkest here, the poems lift through whirlwinds of place and travel. Words and worlds collide—Texaco, Philadelphia, Oldsmobile, Washington—delivering a punchy, authentic specificity in the swiftly changing setting of a voyager:

I would know how to get back to Chevy Chase. After all these years, I remember its red and white houses. I'd turn on the radio full blast—maybe "Chevy Chase" would be on. Then the first left on the ring road, then the first right and, after the bank, another right.

Affectedly, beside the beauty and artifice of place exists the persistent consciousness of fiction:

...the police car that just went by, after a speeder—Chevy Chase?—has no more reality than a canvas painted a century earlier, some "Remise de chevreuils" ("Deer Shelter") by Courbet.

It is here that Fauchereau's understanding of art criticism and history informs his fiction. In both prose and figurative painting, a story can be deduced, but only after brushstrokes or words constitute the work of art in mimetic performance. By introducing his work as a "complete fiction," this faithfully translated collection of prose poems intends to operate as an absolute individuation from fact. Sometimes integrating songs or memories into his imaginative act of setting, Fauchereau's constructs often give rise to an intimate maxim concerning time, memory and art. These maxims, including "All the philosophers in the world are not worth a forgotten refrain," or "Space is imaginary. Only time exists, and time has no edges," hit and miss; they cloud the pretext of "complete fiction" by attributing intimacy to the narration, blending "truth" with an opposing, ideally total fabrication.

Padgett's translations, all selections from Complete Fiction, are made with a careful retentiveness, necessary to advocate Fauchereau's theoretical framework. They are also, not surprisingly, done with a touch of humor and an observant articulation of the sonorous differences of language. In "Gare St. Lazare," for example, beginning with a description of Manet's painting by the same name, Fauchereau writes:

...je suis un voyageur sans habitudes : dans le train je m'assois n'importe ù, avec, peut-être, une petite préférence pour les places près du couloir afin de pouvoir déambuler ; et dans l'avoir j'aime aussi bien les places sur l'aile, quitte à avoir le paysage coupé en diagonale par l'aluminium.

Internal rhyme, prevalent in a comparatively smaller French phonetic scale, controls much of Fauchereau's attention to meter, creating here (as elsewhere) the drawn, horizontal tone of a solitary observer. The rhyme of 'habitude' and 'où' followed by five staccatoed syllables, corresponds symmetrically to the rhyme of 'l'aile' and 'diagonale,' also followed by five syllables, imparting an impression of extension as the phrase repeatedly continues beyond its resonance. This idea of a stretched phraseology—innate in French poetics—is especially valuable to enunciate a narrative loaded with time and memory, and essential to Fauchereau's poem. Padgett's translation manages to reproduce this symmetrical meter by rearranging punctuation, with an entirely unique effect:

...I'm a traveler with no particular habits: on the train I sit anywhere, with maybe a slight preference for the aisle seat so I can get up and move around; and on the plane I don't mind the seat over the wing, even if the landscape gets cut diagonally by the aluminum.

Padgett's version replaces rhymed words with a discrepancy of sound (anywhere/around and wing/aluminum), giving an American breath to his translation while still retaining the symmetry of a sentence divided in two, then four parts. Where Padgett takes the liberty to choose, he effectively develops a consistency of tone, necessary for preserving Fauchereau's paradoxical narration between fiction and maxim. Whether using the passive voice, or even reshaping the dimensions of billboards (Padgett substitutes "one meter by a meter twenty" to a more pleasant "three by four feet"), his touches are often fun. Padgett translates "let's not joke around too much with words" with a wry smirk, as humor sheds new light on some serious prose, a welcome and renewing addition.

Ashbery's selections, taken from two early Fauchereau works (Displacements and Demonstrations and Fabulations), also regenerate many of the original echoes—for example, taking "un kilogramme de pommes de terre" to "a kilo of potatoes." Still resonant, the move to English often lightens the previously stately text with a jingle, here made by the curt, cool 'kilo'. Yet these earlier poems offer a slightly different version of artifice. In Complete Fiction—the plot of which, remember, is the development of setting within the narrator's imagination—Fauchereau often attributes an indecisiveness or indifference to his narrator; this largely disappears in Ashbery's selections. Gone are the uncertain randomizing interjections of "let's say..." or "her name is Susan; no, Maria; or else Carole; it hardly matters." These works rest more comfortably in metaphor, and Fauchereau comes through Ashbery's translations with a rare splendor:

At the end of the avenue where the industrial fumes and neon signs have chased away the horses of the sun, the Marlboro cowboy lights up a cigarette while holding the reins of something one doesn't see. One expects the sky to retire, like a manuscript that is being rolled up.

The book's impressive conclusion, offering perhaps its most intimate moments, dissipates the controls of the theory of complete fiction—for in maxims, poems are both fiction and truth at once. Absolutely no writing is real, but the end effect of Fauchereau's work shows instead the idealism behind "complete fiction," as ideal as a "complete truth." The effort to attain a fiction independent of the imitated yields an impressive result: a beautiful book made of two diverse, lively interpretations.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Alphabets Upside-down: the voice of Bei Dao

Blue House
translated from the Chinese by Ted Huters and Feng-ying Ming
Zephyr ($13.95)

At the Sky's Edge, Poems 1991-1996
translated from the Chinese by David Hinton and Yanbing Chen
New Directions ($15.95)

translated from the Chinese by Eliot Weinberger and Iona Man-Cheong
New Directions ($13.95)

by Lucas Klein

One has to be patient with Bei Dao's poetry. Most of us know of Chinese poetry only indirectly, from Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Ezra Pound, and others who have attempted to glean from the ancient world something holy or stable in the chaos of today. Bei Dao's China, however, is 1200 years removed from the ethos these American poets have plumbed; thus his poetry should no more resemble that of the Tang Dynasty masters than John Ashbery's should resemble Beowulf. Bei Dao's lines are also not what anyone only familiar with contemporary American poetry would expect to hear: Bei Dao is one of the creators of a new tradition in Chinese poetry, making him seem all the more innovative when placed alongside poets in this language. While some of his lines could be lifted from Paul Celan or César Vallejo, we have here what we want, if not expect, from a translated author of great magnitude: something very foreign. Indeed, Bei Dao's poetry employs a totally different approach to language itself, rendering his work all the more individual. While many readers will find themselves sliding across his poetry, when his poetry catches them its hold is strong.

Bei Dao achieved a name (literally as well as figuratively: Bei Dao, which means North Island, is the author's pen-name) in the '70s, when the chaos of China's Cultural Revolution was turning into a very differently shaped chaos of post-Mao thaw. In 1979 he and a few other poets, notably Mang Ke, founded the first unofficial literary journal to appear in the People's Republic of China, Jintian (Today, shut down by the Chinese government but reborn in the diaspora in 1990, now available at www.jintian.net). Before long Bei Dao was at the center of a movement, the menglong or Misty Poets, along with friends and fellow Cultural Revolution fallout writers Gu Cheng, Duo Duo, Shu Ting, and Yang Lian.

His fame—or notoriety—began with Jintian's publication of his poem "The Answer," which belts out an apostate's denial of faith:

Let me tell you, world,
If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet,
Count me as number one thousand and one.

I don't believe the sky is blue;
I don't believe in thunder's echoes;
I don't believe that dreams are false;
I don't believe that death has no revenge.

(from The August Sleepwalker, 1988, trans. Bonnie McDougall)

The poem startled Chinese readers, turning Bei Dao into both a popular celebrity and public enemy. In his translator's note to Unlock, Eliot Weinberger refers to "The Answer" as the Chinese Democracy movement's "Blowin' in the Wind": a jaded, disenfranchised "Blowin' in the Wind," with all of Dylan's gravitas coupled with the cynicism of John Lennon singing "I don't believe in Beatles." The poem was shouted at Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, and the poet has not been back to China since.

If "The Answer" was Bei Dao's "Blowin' in the Wind," then the poems in At the Sky's Edge (a re-release of his two '90s books, Forms of Distance and Landscape Over Zero) and Unlock (2000) show Bei Dao at the equivalent of his Blood on the Tracks stage. It is in these volumes that the poet's voice becomes the most internal, the most tightly-woven, and the most Delphic. Part one of At the Sky's Edge, the poems from Forms of Distance, shows the recent exile at his bleakest, as with this stanza from "Midnight Singer":

a song
is the death of a singer
his death-night
pressed into black records
singing over and over and over

The hermetic voice nonetheless emits an unambiguous darkness: for Bei Dao both politically and theoretically, each act of creation turns into an endlessly repeated death, and he cannot help but mourn.

The mixture of obliqueness with emotional accessibility comes from Bei Dao's desire to invent, metaphorically, a new language. In this respect his closest poetic affinities are with Paul Celan; just as Celan worked to break down and resurrect German to cleanse it from the enormity of the holocaust, so has Bei Dao worked to tear Chinese away from Maoist associations and conformist dogma. Indeed, this leads him to perform sometimes stunning poetic gymnastics, moving from classical Chinese sentence patterns to slang to official speech in a single gesture, all the while keeping an eye on a modern Chinese reader's likely associations in an attempt to stretch them. Bei Dao seems to describe his own process at times, for example in "As Far as I Know":

setting out from the accident
I barely reached another country
turning alphabets upside down
to fill every meal with meaning

Even Bei Dao's personal ars poetica fills itself with a metaphor that remains as individual to each of its readers as it is to its author. Speaking to the moments of confusion and crisis in each of us, Bei Dao's lines turn inward, looking back at the accidents he knows we all have faced.

A particularly obscure poem, Landscape Over Zero's "Realm," in which

people chase dogs into history
then excavate
and make them gatekeepers
an old couple turns and hurries away
looking back with a savage gaze

seems to turn on the Communist categorization of capitalists and Nationalists (against whom the Chinese Communists fought a civil war, ending in 1949 when the Nationalists fled to Taiwan) as "dogs." And now these figures, whether Sun Yat-sen or capitalists themselves, are being exalted, causing confusion amongst the older generation, who cannot reconcile themselves to either the past or the present.

The poem, of course, can bloom into an array of differing explanations. Buffeted from dogs to the aged, Bei Dao leads us through a maze with a specific Chinese meaning as well as an open-ended sense relying on the reader's own recollections. While literal-minded readers may grow frustrated with the sealant Bei Dao seems to apply to all his poetry, others will find that understanding is less important, ultimately, than allowing oneself to be touched by the sense—the internal logic and emotion—of the poem.

Other poems in the volume are less drastic in their message of personal despair or historical confusion, delivering a mood as precise—and yet subjective—as any an Imagist might have written, tinged with Bei Dao's own approximation of Surrealism. "Afternoon Notes," for example:

huge breasts on a waitress
strawberry ice cream

an umbrella looks after me politely
sunlight looks after a water-bug

drunkards blow on empty wine bottles
my cigarette and I get dreamy

a siren tightens the horizon
hemming in my time

in the courtyard of a dry water-tap's roar
effortless autumn's risen selflessly

In poems such as this, Bei Dao's invention of language connects itself, outside of politics, beyond Celan to other innovators of language in the 20th century: Pound, Williams, Apollinaire, or Chinese writers of 1919's May Fourth movement Hu Shi or Lu Xun.

The truth of the matter is that for all of Bei Dao's political attention, his literary voice is decidedly apolitical—and yet by concentrating on language above all he initiates a direct relationship with the political regime. The phenomenon of language being steered by politics was alluded to in 1946 by George Orwell, who said, "I should expect to find. . . that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship."

The deterioration of language indeed infected the Chinese when confronted with Mao's elimination of individuality or Deng Xiaoping's mandate to get rich at the expense of nearly all cultural activity. By the time Bei Dao and the Misty poets emerged with their quiet, dark, individual poetry, they were part of a new kind of cultural revolution. These poems' desire to reclaim language is, in fact, no less revolutionary for having no particular agenda.

At times Bei Dao seems aware of this historical paradox, as in Unlock's "Crying":

history has no verbs
verbs are those
trying to push life ahead
shadows push them ahead
toward even darker

Or, somewhat less obliquely, in a poem whose title could stand in for nearly all of Bei Dao's lyrics, "Montage":

gods crane their heads out the window
alone I infiltrate history
infiltrate the crowd
standing around watching a show

Politics are only the elevator music of contemporary Chinese literature, or so novelist Zhang Jie, whose story "Love Must Not Be Forgotten" was at the crest of a wave of late-'70s fiction spurning social realism, has explained. Fading in and out in significance, the politics are always present but never, ultimately, the most important aspect of the work. With Bei Dao the same credo applies. His evolution from Red Guard to political dissident to exile can never leave his poetry innocent of politics, but his voice will always be much more concerned with language as a meaningful entity, with the permanence of literature from start to finish. As he says in "Time and the Road," from Unlock:

set up another stanza like
a dreamless drawer pulled open
all its cracks filled
with lovemaking breath

traffic light marks
the fork of time and the road
this metaphor like a vat of dye
soaks through our clothes
sound of the beginning
color of the end

Bei Dao's essays, compiled in Blue House, also keep the politics at low volume. Certainly the political context—they were translated from the Taiwanese publication, as his post-1986 writing is still deemed unprintable—is important to a full understanding of these pieces, which never fail an opportunity to touch on the stresses of exile. But the force of these essays is their uncovering of details of personality, of recollections from China, of daily interactions, or of pieces of American life most Chinese don't know and to which Americans have long been accustomed. And the whole spectrum of Bei Dao's essays is portrayed in simple, fine language, as open and accessible as his poetry is hermetic; for this reason Blue House may be the perfect place to start in introducing oneself to Bei Dao's Ïuvre.

Divided into four sections, the book opens with a handful of pieces about some of Bei Dao's most prominent friends in the world of international literature—Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Eliot Weinberger, Clayton and Caryl Eshelman, Jonathan Spence, Tomas Transtšmer, and Octavio Paz among them. The section almost reads like a literary gossip column of the day, but it also captures these figures in precise poses indicative of their personalities: Ginsberg as an immense ego of a madman, a warm and sadly moving figure; Snyder as outwardly peaceful as a monk, but with a troubled soul unable to find rest; Weinberger as the Don Quixote of cynicism; Paz as a giant, an "aged lion raising up his head." It also demonstrates each of these figures as some kind of exile: Ginsberg as an exile from his own past; Snyder as an exile from his home civilization and culture; Eshleman as an exile from moderation; Yale Professor Jonathan Spence as an exile—amazingly—from history; Swedish poet Transtšmer, after a stroke, as an exile from his own body.

Trumping metaphoric exile with the exile of reality, Bei Dao's essays then move to China, or more aptly, to Chinese memories revisiting the author in the present. Most readers of literature in the English-speaking world today know of James Joyce's "silence, exile, cunning"; Bei Dao's exile is not voluntary, however, which makes Joyce's trifecta seem quaint. Yet the voice of Blue House is neither overbearing nor self-righteous; Bei Dao wants to go back home, and these essays are semi-fulfillments of his dream. He talks of his friends and heroes from time past with a longing fit for ancient Chinese poetry, but in an even, sometimes stoic tone: "In recalling things past one should never romanticize youth. In those years every one of us was like a lone and angry wolf: suffering, ignorant, selfish and always ready for a fight." And yet when this youth is geographically and sentimentally inextricable from a homeland closed to him for over a decade, we know at what price these words come. "For a Chinese in the West," he writes in the essay "Daughter," "the worst thing is loneliness; a deep sense of isolation. Americans understand this from the time they are born, but we Chinese must learn it. And it is a lesson that cannot be taught; everyone must experience it for themselves."

If the loneliness of a Chinese in the West cannot be taught, at least it can be hinted at, as Bei Dao outlines each of the 15 times he moved between 1989 and 1995 in the essay "Moving." Seemingly the only companion he maintains out of all his contacts and acquaintances in these years of packing and unpacking is a woman he lost contact with years ago, the by-now mythical Maria of Leiden. Perhaps this can reveal the impulse behind the book's title: the "Blue House" is Tomas Tranströt;mer's house in Sweden, but for all its comfort, warmth, and happiness, it can never become home.

And yet, nearly all of these essays end in a final image of transcendent peace. From "God's Chinese Son": "The taxi turned a corner and split off from the moon. The woman put down her camera and began to whistle." Or from "Gao Ertai, Witness": "I watched them, walking hand in hand through the moonless woods, toward the dawn." Or the last words of the book, closing the essay "Reciting": "Sometimes I grow weary when facing an audience. How did our predecessors recite poetry? Raising a cup to the wind, writing verse linked with others, presenting one's sharp feelings on the departure of a friend, birth and death without end."

Chinese is famously difficult to translate into English, with the two languages sharing barely a single cognate. In Blue House, Feng-ying Ming and Ted Huters render Bei Dao's Chinese into a very readable English, gracefully excising extraneous information in tune with the new readership. But if Chinese is famously difficult, then translation of Chinese poetry is all the more of a challenge.

A translation is almost always destined to induce complaints, and with the translations printed with the Chinese poems en face, anyone who can read both languages is bound to come up with a list of mistranslations or infidelities. Even those who understand the benefits of deviating from the so-called literal can become curmudgeons while their fingers move from left page to right, spewing "that doesn't mean that!"

For this reason some translators have opted not to include the original in their publications. Eliot Weinberger, translator of Unlock, stated in his book Outside Stories the dangers of en face translations: "Effects that cannot be reproduced in the corresponding line can usually be picked up elsewhere, and should beÉ Which is why a translation shouldn't be, though it always is, judged on a line-by-line basis." Nevertheless, all of Weinberger's other books of poetry translations—he is most renowned for translating Octavio Paz's poetry and the nonfiction of Jorge Luis Borges—include the English aside the Spanish. Similarly, we have Bei Dao's characters next to the English poems, and this allows us to be picky.

David Hinton, who translated At the Sky's Edge, is an acclaimed translator of a veritable library of classical Chinese literature. He has editions of a half-dozen classical poets, including Li Bai and Du Fu, plus the four great philosophers of ancient China and a recently published Tao Te Ching. Overall his translations are faithful, fluid, lucid, and usually good poetry. His saturation with classical Chinese may lead him to errors in modern, however—the two languages are as different as, say, Latin and Italian—as he has an error on the first page of At the Sky's Edge. In "Year's End" he translates a line as "borrowing the light of the future"; the phrase in question is jie guang, which indeed breaks down literally as borrow or lend light. But in the Beijing dialect, Bei Dao's home tongue, the phrase means simply excuse me or let me pass. The line could also be: "letting the days of afterwards pass by."

Jie guang also snags a poem in Weinberger's translation. More colloquially bent, Weinberger translates a couplet from "Swivel Chair" to read "in regard to enduring freedom / in regard to can I have a light," when "in regard to let me by" might better capture the grandiose/specific relationship of freedom and getting around a person in front of you. In another instance, he mistakes the character ban (the same) for chuan (boat), making "the meteor ship revolves" out of what should be "revolving like a meteor."

I do not cite these examples to quibble. Instead, I wish to suggest exactly how errors can creep into a translation—particularly from Chinese poetry—despite visions and revisions. Moreover, within the context of Bei Dao's renovations of language, I wonder how much these errors actually matter. Surely what is most important is whether these translations read well, whether they inspire in us the feelings that good poetry—and the language of good poetry—will inspire. And they do. Bei Dao's poetry is full of nuance, and the translations convey a similar, if not always exact, sense of manifold meanings. Weinberger is for me the more successful translator; his encyclopedic readings have made him the premier non-academic authority on 20th-century poetry of both Latin and North America, and he seems destined to become an authority on Chinese poetry as well. His sense of language, honed on a lifetime devoted to thinking about poetry, glides forth in the tone and diction of his translations.

Hinton, while also very good, can occasionally read stilted. He has a propensity to mimic the Chinese elision of to be with a contracted is: "now the sea's gone suddenly dry," "death's always on the other side," "who's up over the crack in day," "my shadow's dangerous." Such a move is not always a misstep, nor does Hinton avoid using is or are completely, but in approximating Chinese syntax he has let go of an English poetic phrase that could be smoothed out with a slightly longer—indeed, one syllable longer—line.

The best translation happens when one is not blindly faithful to the original, bending language to its own purposes as Bei Dao bends language towards an interior necessity. Weinberger often swaps two lines in a couplet when the grammar of the Chinese does not fit into English directly, such as "who is the white-haired witness / going upstream?" In the Chinese, the white-haired witness is on the second line, and the going upstream is on the first. When the job requirements necessitate split loyalties to Chinese and English, the subtle alteration detailed herein marks the work of a fine translator who knows how to compromise without needing to sacrifice.

For the sense of Bei Dao's poetry—that sense beholden to its own inner logic, its own hermetic rationale and open-hearted emotion—will ultimately not allow itself to be sacrificed. These are poems haunting and permanent as they come, and only through the exacting art of translators such as Hinton and Weinberger—and those with whom they worked, Yanbing Chen and Iona Man-Cheong respectively—will the English-reading world gain entry into the reconstitution of language and its refusal of sacrifice held within Bei Dao's poems.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Tales of a Jargonaut: an interview with Jonathan Williams

Jonathan Williams photo by Reuben Cox

by Jeffery Beam

Jonathan Williams is perhaps best known as the genius behind The Jargon Society, which has published poetry, experimental fiction, photography, and visionary folk art (including the surprise bestseller, White Trash Cooking); among the press's distinguished offerings are works by Charles Olson, Paul Metcalf, Lorine Niedecker, Lou Harrison, Mina Loy, Joel Oppenheimer, James Broughton, and scores of other works by the American and British avant-garde. But Williams also has an international reputation as a poet, essayist, and photographer. His most recent books are A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude (David R. Godine, $30), an enthralling collection of photographs accompanied by nostalgically heightened commentary, and Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems, Photographs (Turtle Point Press, $16.95), a "celebration of Outsiderdom" in which Williams proves himself "as companionable, jocular, and curmudgeonly as possible in our poor literary times." In both photography and words, Williams never simply reports on his subjects, but seems to converse with them.

Jeffery Beam spoke to Williams on a gray Sunday afternoon at Skywinding Farm, Scaly Mountain, North Carolina, where the man Hugh Kenner hailed as "the truffle hound of American poetry" has resided for much of his life. Joining them was Whit Griffin, The Jargon Society's intern.

Jeffery Beam: Jonathan, who or what inspired you to become, as Guy Davenport says in A Palpable Elysium, " a cultural anthropologist?"

Jonathan Williams: As Andre Gide wrote in The Traite du Narcisse, "Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again." I started collecting the Oz books when I was six years old. I saw Fantasia when I was 10, and began to collect records: Stravinsky, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius for starters. I bought a remaindered copy of the first American edition of The Hobbit when I was 10. I began collecting Indian relics in the fields around the Etowah Mounds in Georgia; I also collected gem and mineral specimens from the North Carolina and Georgia mountains. When I was 12, I began drawing and painting at St. Albans School. I was incredibly lucky at St. Albans in that I had three great teachers: John Davis, Ferdinand Ruge, and Dean Stambaugh. Music, English, and Art were opened up for me on a platter. I cuddled up in bed with about a third of our Class of 1947—but don't be alarmed. They came out straight as arrows and became things like Major Generals in the U.S. Army and members of the House of Representatives.

JB: I think one of the most revealing moments in Blackbird Dust is your story of Stambaugh taking you to the Phillips Gallery to see the Redon and Ryder paintings. You say you realized that the painters were "celebrating human difference." Why does it matter that human difference be celebrated?

JW: Well, at the age of 12, to be put in front of an Odilon Redon painting is tough. It's a world I knew nothing about—mystical and so strangely colored. I think the painting is Girl With Flowers; the girl looks like something out of James Thurber and the flowers are simply very weird. It seemed completely inept. It's like the first time I heard Anton Bruckner, also age 12—I thought, "God, this guy's such a dummy. How can he go on after introducing the first movement of the Seventh Symphony like that?" I didn't have the ears for it at that age; Bruckner's as grown-up as it gets. When you are confronted with people who are so different from oneself, you need to have your eyes and ears wide open... , I felt much closer to Albert Pinkham Ryder's painting Moonlit Cove. I'd been to the New England coast and read some Hawthorne and Emerson. Moonlit Cove is the kind of transcendental night scene he was so great at; I think he's really the greatest American painter of the 19th century and that Thomas Eakins is maybe the second greatest. But let's not get caught up in the "Greatest Game." Charles Ives and Walt Whitman were not great in their own times. We barely know how to read and listen to these men today.

JB: I can see how a 12-year-old would be able to respond immediately to the Ryder—the darkness, the melancholy...

JW: The boat...

JB: ... and the Redon is really the opposite—less accessible because it's not the real world, it's another world. Was there something that Stambaugh said to you that helped you make a connection between the two?

JW: When he saw my laughing distress he told me to hush up. Be polite! (laughs) You are in Mr. Duncan Phillips's home!

JB: So Stambaugh in a way offered that lesson that you've mentioned a number of times in different ways in your work, and that is just to be quiet, and take it in?

JW: Yes—as I say he was a remarkably kind and very astute man. Very quiet. He enjoyed teaching at a prep school. He hardly ever entered his pictures in competitions. He wasn't trying to get ahead of the curve. He stayed at St. Albans, I think, perhaps 30 years. He came from Potter County up on the Pennsylvania-New York border—where there are some hills. He painted these patiently over the years. His landscapes are fine, and as modest as he was, his clothes were impeccably tailored. He should have taught a class in "How to Dress." He had terrific tweed jackets and good shirts and good ties.

JB: So these early guys taught you your "style"... your fashion sense too?

JW: Yeah. Of course, St. Albans had a very conservative dress code. You had to wear gray flannels and a blue blazer, white shirts, and you had your choice of ties. That's what I grew up with and I must say I find nothing wrong with it. Gore Vidal went to St. Albans for a while and photographs of him show it. Even in the country I put on ties, and try to wear decent clothes when we go into Highlands here in North Carolina. It's a dressy little resort filled with Atlanta money, porcine day-trippers in Florida sports dress, and the odd retired proctologist in a black suit.

JB: Do you think that's why someone said that you were "only gay below the waist"?

JW: Below the waist! (laughs) Below the waistcoat!

JB: Somehow the tie and everything else confuses people.

JW: Oh yeah, I've had that happen. I went into The Cedar Tavern in the Village one day in 1958; that's where a lot of the Black Mountain people who lived in New York hung out. And I had been out trying to sell our Zukofsky book, our Robert Duncan book, our Denise Levertov bookÉ I was going around to places like Scribner's and Brentano's and some of the bookshops on Madison Avenue, and I was wearing a brown worsted suit, a beige Oxford cloth shirt, a striped tie, black socks, and brown shoes (well polished). I was tired of carrying this heavy briefcase, so I walked into The Cedars, and way in the back was, of all people, Gregory Corso. I'd never met him, and he'd never met me, but before he shook hands he said, "Why are you wearing those silly, awful clothes?" (laughs) Well, that was all I needed to hear from him, so I went back to the bar and left them to it.

So, you're right, clothes can be misleading. Take Jack Spicer, who was gay as three grapes. I had not met Spicer and I wanted to—this was 1954 in San Francisco. Somebody with me said, " Hey, it's Halloween, let's go to The Black Cat." It was right next door to the police station, interestingly enough, but they didn't hassle the gays. I asked, "How will I know Jack?" My friend said, "He'll be the only guy wearing a business suit!" I really liked that. People ought to dress they way they want to, unless it frightens the police sergeant.

JB: I think of your photograph of Charles Olson at Black Mountain, where he doesn't have his shirt on. When you were at Black Mountain had you already developed this formal way of dress? And while you were there did you stand out as someone who was less relaxed in the way they presented themselves?

JW: Well, I was the only person at Black Mountain who had been to prep school and gone to Princeton and spent time in New York and all that. I didn't dress any differently than anybody else did, I don't think, at Black Mountain. Certainly, none of the faculty made a thing of it É Lou Harrison was rather dressy, but nobody else. Lou had a long-time San Francisco/New York background. I don't think anyone wanted to stand out at Black Mountain. I often wore a blazer on Sunday morning in case people got religion and somebody needed to pass the collection plate.

JB: Is there an easily defined artistic aesthetic that describes what, and how, and why you do what you do?

JW: Uncle Remus says: "Hit run'd cross my min' des lak a rat Ôlong a rafter." I have a mind like that. It darts and shimmies all the time. It thinks of six things (besides sex) all at once. So the trick is to slow down, focus, concentrate. Someone said that craft is perfected attention. I like making well-crafted books, and poems, and images, because it pleases me so to do. And it's nice to please some of one's friends now and then. I have never cultivated a commercial audience. I try never to do anything just for money, and I seem to have been quite successful at that. My old friend, Ephraim Doner (whose father had been an Hassidic rabbi in Poland), once told me about "The Lamed-Vov." In the ancient Hebraic tradition the Lamed-Vov were the 36 great souls of the earth. Wonderfully, they never knew they were great souls, but Yahweh knew. If they dwindled to fewer than 36, then Yahweh would pull the plug and go to work on a better animal. As long as we can sell 36 copies of a Jargon book, we will keep at it.

JB: How long have you been "at it"—that is, at making poems, publishing, photographing, and telling "The Great Unwashed," as you describe the culturally bound, about things and places and people they ought to know about but don't?

JW: 1951 is the precise year, arriving at Black Mountain that summer to find treasures named Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Charles Olson, Robert Motherwell, Lou Harrison, Katherine Litz, Dan Rice, the Fiores, Johanna Jalowetz, Ben Shahn; and fellow students: Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Francine du Plessix, Joel Oppenheimer. One evening Olson told his class this: "There are four legs to stand on. The first, be romantic. The second, be passionate. The third, be imaginative. And the fourth, never be rushed." The Big O dun won the kewpie doll!

JB: Do you ever feel you are, as we say here in the South, "preaching to the choir?"

JW: In earlier times the "Avant Garde" could be defined as a community of particular sympathy, as in Black Mountain College, or a Shaker village. I don't think I am preaching the Gospel of Beauty like Vachel Lindsay. It's more like Beethoven's hope—"from the heart, to the heart." Like I said before, one person at a time. Sad to say, a lot of my readers and supporters are by now dead. A lot are not yet born. Yet, quite a number in their twenties write letters (real ones with stamps, etc.) And some come to visit, look at the view, and listen to the talk. That's a good sign. And the talk is good. Tom Meyer, the fine poet I have been living with for 34 years, talks better than I do.

JB: In 1979, Gnomon Press published a collection of portraits and paragraphs, and in 1982 North Point published an earlier book of essays, The Magpie's Bagpipe. The cult of celebrity was much less monumental than it is now, but many of your subjects in Portrait Photographs were ignored for being "beyond the pale," or "too minor." Twenty-five years ago it somehow seemed more likely that one could chip a little opening in our cultural blinders. Do A Palpable Elysium and Blackbird Dust face a more impossible task than the previous works?

JW: Yes and no. Blackbird Dust has sold maybe 2000 copies. That's better than The Magpie's Bagpipe. A Palpable Elysium is doing okay, the grapevine tells me. It was reviewed in Newsweek; The Washington Post Book World's Christmas issue called it the best picture book of the year; the Los Angeles Times gave it a two-page spread. I assume there are still a few mad people who will run for the bookshop. Unfortunately my most excellent publisher, David Godine, has the habit of communicating with his authors just once a year. All small publishers of prose, poetry, and photography in this country become rather eccentric. One can understand why. Kenneth Rexroth remarked that 90% of the worst people he knew were poets. Charles Olson said: "I make $26 a year from poetry—I mean, in a good year." Olson also called America a pejorocracy—which means every day things get worse. I live in the hermitic trees and miss most of it. I dutifully listen to Jim Lehrer, but otherwise mostly watch Duke win basketball games and Greg Maddux throw the circle change, which, when it gets to the plate, drops off the table.

JB: How did you ever become the German romantic, Carolina crank, French oriole, and British gnarly folly that you are?

JW: I just did it. I never like to think about how and why. Be imaginative, as Olson suggested. Follow your eyes and ears—they will take you as far as you want to go. And remember Duke Ellington: "It don't mean a thing/ if it ain't got that swing."

JB: I know you started out in graphic design—what led you to becoming a book publisher, poet, and photographer?

JW: I dropped out of Princeton in early 1949. Then I studied painting with Karl Knaths at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C. Next I studied etching and engraving with Stanley William Hayter at his "Atelier 17" in Greenwich Village. Next, on to the Institute of Design in Chicago for one semester. I had some terrific teachers there—Harold Cohen and Hugo Weber chief among them. And I was just a couple miles north of the University of Chicago where a pal of mine named Eros was studying English. But Eros was way into Rainer Maria Rilke (a poet I never get) and he let me light no fires. So when M. C. Richards turned up at the ID one afternoon to tell some of us about Black Mountain College's summer program, it sounded just right. Particularly since Harry Callahan would be teaching photography. At the ID he was teaching advanced students. I had yet to pick up a camera.

So, at BMC all cohered, as Ezra Pound promised it would. Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind taught me the rudiments of the camera. And the bonus was the Big O. Charles Olson was the largest poet known to man, the one who had stolen the sacred boogie from Mount Olympus and was ready to push the poet-button in your heart. And he said, "The artist is his own instrument." So I founded Jargon when I was 22. Pound had told James Laughlin to leave Italy and the Ezuversity and go back to the U.S. and be a publisher—hence, New Directions—and he was also 22.

JB: You are a bit of a self-described sorehead—cranky and irascible. Why would such a person take such loving photographs and write such deeply felt essays about oddball, ignored, and neglected art and artists and places?

JW: Ezra Pound—I seem to be quoting him a lot today, but, why not, I still have my EZ FOR PREZ button—once said that all the people he genuinely liked were very irascible. One wants to be irascible in the manner of H. L. Mencken, who said "Boobus americanus is a plant always in season." As one gets older it is astonishing to find out that imbeciles run the world. And remember Catullus: odi et amo—I hate and I love.

JB: You say in your introduction to Elysium that you "have pressed triggers in a very simple, straightforward, square way?" Just what does that mean for the first-time reader and viewer of your photographs and your writings about them?

JW: It just means that I have always used cameras that give you a square image: the Rollei, the Mamiyaflex, the Hasselblad, and the Polaroid SX-70.

JB: Who are the photographers and critics who nurtured this aesthetic?

JW: I worked with Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1951. Much of their output is square format. Pound said that young people in the arts have an obligation to visit the great men of their time. When I was 15 I went to see Alfred Stieglitz at "Gallery 291" on Madison Avenue in New York City. He was having a conversation with the painter, John Marin, and they asked me have a glass of wine, and listen in.

JB: I know there are hundreds if not thousands of photographs and negatives in your collection yet to be curated or printed. Can you describe the process by which these new photographs were salvaged from their oftentimes 50-year sleep?

JW: There are two or three thousand color transparencies still in hand. I started using Kodak Ektachrome-120 film in 1954. I liked the results and, besides, I never set up a proper darkroom at Highlands. I can't describe the digital processes that somehow revive these faded, scratched, torn pieces of film. My expert is David Kooi, who was a photo-lab technician at the Hartford Courant. He's now working in California, enjoying the vapidity of it all.

JB: How did you approach these folks to do these photographs? I mean, was it just something that everyone knew that you did, or did you set out to go to Rexroth one day and say, "Today, I'm going to take your photograph and this is what we're going to do."

JW: I think he probably knew I took pictures. I had taken black and white pictures of him, but I think that that color picture is the best picture of him I ever got.

JB: So you just carried your camera around with you all the time?

JW: Yeah. I photographed him quite a lot but I think that's the best one. The color is really nice. And in its current form, in its digitized form, it's wonderful. It looks better than it ever did.

JB: It's one of the things that I think stands out in the photographs in Elysium, that you capture these folks in the way that they are most real.

JW: Uh-huh. I guess that photograph of Merton, you know, he's outside of his little hermitage and seated at a kind of little metal chair and he's wearing dungarees—dungaree jacket. I somehow didn't expect that cause most of the people, most of the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemane were in—I don't know what the term is—full habit, I guess you might say. And he wasn't. He was allowed to dress in this other way.

JB: How long had you known him when that photograph was taken?

JW: Maybe a year or two. I think I met him about 1964.

JB: But you visited him pretty regularly, didn't you?

JW: Yes, a couple times a year, and through about '67 maybe. I think it was maybe '68 when he was on that trip to the Orient, when he died, through this crazy electrical system in his hotel.

WG: How did you become aware of Thomas Merton's work?

JW: Well, I had read some, and knowing James Laughlin at New Directions, he would send me books of Merton's. It was like that, you know.

JB: Was it Davenport that took you there first, or Guy Mendes?

JW: No. I think I first went there on my own and at some point we arranged a picnic with Merton and I introduced him to Guy Davenport, Guy Mendes, and Gene Meatyard. Those three guys. We just all went down there and had a picnic!

JB: Meatyard took some photographs of Merton, didn't he?

JW: He took a lot. In fact there's a book collecting the pictures.

JB: So all of sudden there's this conversation going. You mentioned this morning that Edward Dahlberg once said "Literature is the way we ripen ourselves by conversation," and that seems to me very much present in both Elysium and Blackbird Dust. How do you think that happens?

JW: Well, as you know, a lot of my poetry is found and I think that's because I'm willing to lay back and listen. It's something to do with living in the country. There are times when Tom Meyer and I will only see somebody from the outside world once or twice a week. And we've known each other so long that we don't talk as much as we might. Tom can talk up a storm, he's up there in the Duncan/Olson class. So I like to listen and I like to hear things, and if you listen carefully then you do find things. I do it all the time. My early book Blues and Roots was done by walking a big piece of the Appalachian Trail: I listened to mountain people for over a thousand miles and I really heard some amazing stuff. And I left it pretty much as I heard it. I didn't have to do anything but organize it a little bit, crystallize it. That's the thing I love about found material—you wake it up, you "make" it into something.

JB: I think that's also true of An Ear in Bartram's Tree: the way you've put the poems on the page allows the reader to "hear" them exactly as you heard them, which is very hard to do because what most writers want to do is to elaborate and editorialize—to try to explain how this person sounded. You don't do that and there's a great lesson in that for all of us.

JW: Well, it's the old Einstein saying: "Keep things as simple as they are, but not simpler."

JB: Do you think this is partly a southern trait? Of course, people think of southern writers as talkers, as storytellers, but it seems to me that there's a great deal of listening that goes on in southern culture.

JW: In the mountains, a lot of people are shy and taciturn. Down in the Piedmont, it seems everybody's out there on the porch jabbering away and whole novels are based on what they talk about on the front porch. I do get a little tired of that. As does Cousin Cora, who's back in the kitchen making cat-head biscuits and buttermilk for the whole crowd.

JB: Do you think it's something to do with the mountain landscape that allows that space for listening?

JW: Yeah. People are very reticent up here. I mean once you get to know them, like Uncle Iv Owens, who lived across the road—he was the best mountain talker I've ever found. He was in a class by himself! This is going back 50 years, but anytime you'd sit with him, he'd just say the most extraordinary things. I'd run home to write them down as fast as I could; I loved his language. He had some of the best language of anybody I've ever heard, and he didn't know how to read or write. He sure knew how to talk—that's the one thing he could do!

JB: You've done the same things with folks in northwestern England...

JW: Yeah, Yorkshire Dales, where you're dealing with people who talk funny as far as the people down in London are concerned. It's a class thing; if you don't sound as though you went to Cambridge and Oxford, you know, it's demeaning. And all the BBC announcers are taught to speak in a certain way. Not quite as much as it used to be, I mean, there'll be the odd Scotsman in there telling you about the weather, which is rather refreshing, really... but I'm dealing with one or two people. I'm getting something from them, and putting it on paper, then I'm hoping a couple of people will respond to it. It's a very simple thing.

JB: I want to get back to the portraits for a second. We talked earlier about how you had said you pressed triggers in a "very square" way. And when I asked about that you simply said that the camera that you used took square photographs. But is there something in the square form that is sympathetic to the way you approach creating a portrait of someone, whether it's through a photograph or an essay?

JW: Well, that format, the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 negative or slide, is what I like. Some people are very comfortable painting square paintings—you know, Mondrian or someone like that. Whereas a lot of people work in rectangles. Almost nobody works in circles anymore, but they used to. I was trained to work with a Rolleiflex, and then the others are just improvements on it. SX-70 Polaroid is great, but having learned that, I've never used a 35-millimeter camera. I've never used a view camera, which is more like 4 x 5 or 8 x 10. The important thing is I now and then get a good image.

JB: And I can't imagine you ever taking up a digital camera.

JW: No, I don't think so.

JB: And there are thousands of Polaroid shots also, right?

JW: Lots of Polaroids and probably three to four thousand color transparencies. I've got a big batch over in Corn Close, the cottage that we have in Dentdale, Cumbria. I've got probably 1000 Polaroids. I've got a few hundred here.

JB: The English collection... is it mostly from walks?

JW: Quite a few portraits too.

JB: It seems to me that those photographs are the most fragile and could easily be lost if something is not done relatively soon—I assume their life span is not very long.

JW: I think they are more fugitive than the other film. But I keep them in albums where they are protected from light. A lot of them hold up very well. I guess I started taking Polaroids in 1977. SX-70 came out in maybe 1976. That's about thirty years ago. Some of them really look good and I suppose can be digitized—I don't know anything about this process, but I would think so. Some of them I self-published in a little book called Twenty-six Enlarged Engorged Polaroids.

JB: I can imagine a work called Jonathan Williams's Encyclopedia Elysium. Are there more volumes of photographs to come?

JW: It would be easy to pull together three or four collections like Elysium. But there have to be 5,000 or 10,000 avid readers to purchase them. I often remember the very dour comment by a London journalist whose name I can't remember: "Only the profoundly unattractive have the time or the inclination to read books."

JB: What is it you look for in a photograph—whether it's a photograph you are taking or one you collect? Is there some one thing or cluster of things that really does it for you?

JW: I'm sure that's a very complex question. Increasingly I think of Charles Olson saying, "One loves only form"É When you think about that you can argue about that a lot. I think it's one of those situations where you don't think, if it's presented in a formal way that's satisfying to you.

JB: Olson's use of the word "form" is a broad term, really. It has precision within it, but it's taking in a whole world of experience...

JW: Creeley then took that idea and said, "Form is nothing more than an extension of content."

JB: I've always like Denise Levertov's revision of that. She changed it to "revelation of content."

JW: I'm not thoughtful enough to want to pursue those things very far, but whenever I think about "One loves only form"—it could be visual, it could be the form of the music, what you see on the page—I think that's true. It's like pornography—I know it when I see it. (laughs) Let's look at some more!

JB: The photographs in Elysium are often very spare in terms of the backdrop, but clearly there are compositional choices going on to help you create such vivid portraits. One of the things I respond to is the contrast of the human being in front of a real space but somehow you've found some abstracted shape in the real space. For instance the Duncan photograph: it's just a remarkable, almost shocking, sort of image, with that great red swath, as if some Abstract Expressionist had painted it. Where was that photographed?

JW: That was some rusted piece of industrial machinery in the Mission District of San Francisco. If you live in San Francisco in 1954 and 1955, you're looking at all that expressionist painting: Clyfford Still, Hassel Smith, Elmore Bishoff, Richard Diebenkorn and whoever. Duncan was very involved with those painters. Anyway, I was going to galleries and I met a couple of those guys and that sensitizes you to see, in the outside world, similar kinds of marks as they were making. When I studied with Siskind at Black Mountain, he said a very good thing: "When other people take photographs of a wall, it's a wall," he said, "but when I take pictures of a wall, it's Siskind." (laughs) He saw himself in that image, which I thought was great, and I think it's very true.

JB: I've seen a number of versions of the Duncan photograph over the years, but all I'd ever seen was the backdrop—so it was really wonderful to see the picture of Jess on the next page, where you get almost like this Greek ruin, or even something more Etruscan or Cretan.

JW: Then you see the whole structure, whatever it is. As I say, I had studied painting. I had spent time in New York and I'd been to Black Mountain where there were certain kind of Bauhaus principles of form, you know. I had experience in a quiet sort of way.

JB: You've been working on a book about visionary folk artists—are any of those photographs yours or just the texts?

JW: You mean the unpublished book? It's called Walks to the Paradise Garden. The photographs are either by Roger Manley or Guy Mendes. The texts are mine.

JB: It seems to offer the same kind of conversation between you and the artists as Elysium. Many of these artists are completely unknown, at least, when you were traveling around visiting them.

JW: They were mostly taken from about 1984, basically through about '89, and then a few more after that.

JB: How many artists are represented there?

JW: I think it's 83—all in the southeast, right, from Virginia to Louisiana, including Tennessee and Kentucky.

JB: Why do you think a publisher hasn't been smart enough to publish that book?

JW: Well, I can't answer that. I mean, I did have an agent and she's a good-willed person, but I don't think she knew much about that kind of artless art—she's a New Yorker, and they don't know about stuff like this. So I don't think she presented it, perhaps, as well as she might have, if she had been a little bit keener on it. She was very helpful with White Trash Cooking; it was featured in Vogue and magazines like that.

JB: I think one of the charms of Paradise Garden is that your texts are as "outside" in a way as the artists that you are talking about. They're a little "wilder" than the texts, say, in Elysium or Blackbird. Has that made it more difficult to sell?

JW: I think it's better written than the 15 or 20 collections on Outsider Art that have been published in New York and at various academic institutions. But, again, the problem is we're sitting in a remote corner of the North Carolina mountains, and I make no effort to go to New York very often. This agent took it around to about ten publishers, and she never really told me what the problem was. But there was one. As there's a problem with my quote book. I've shown it to people in New York and the idea these days is that what you want is a "niche." They want it in sections, like all your quotes about wine, all your quotes about sex, all your quotes about sports, all your quotes about politics—and on and on and on.

JB: What they're not understanding is that just as in these photographs and essays, there's a conversation going on with the way these quotes follow each other without defining them.

JW: It's absolutely chronological. These are the quotes as I found them. It's like picking flowers on a hillside. Here's a daisy. There's another daisy. Let's pick a book full of daisies.

WG: Would you say that publishers are resistant to publishing work that may seem fragmented in some way? People are very put off by not knowing where they are going.

JW: Well, they shouldn't be. It's like walking—one thing leads to another. It's great fun and it makes it more interesting, I think. Here's Thomas Jefferson, here's Thelonious Monk, the next one is Yogi Berra, and the next one is Herodotus. And here's Miss Mae West! Sometimes, inadvertently, amazing things happen—suddenly something entirely new is made.

JB: Well, it's the serendipity and the absurdity of life, which is what keeps us all going. It seems to me that part of the problem is a distrust from the publishing world of the ability of American readers to be willing to work a little bit.

WG: Bunting said "Never explain—your reader is as smart as you." So often publishers assume that the people they are making books for are much dumber than the people writing the books, and so they have to dumb down whatever is being published. It's sad.

JW: Well, we may have to publish Volume One of it. I don't want to wait forever. The first volume is called "If you can kill a snake with it, it ain't art" (laughs), which is a profound statement Lyle BongŽ (photographer) came up with one day. That goes through 1990. Volume Two would go from '91 to now and it's as big as volume one, which went from the '50's through the 80's, so I've been increasing my pickups.

JB: It's another example of Guy Davenport calling you a cultural anthropologist. These in a way are like walking through a ruin and picking up shards. If you put the shards together, all of a sudden you've got something. If you leave them on the ground and walk on then you have nothing. In a way, you collage these shards into an image of literary or cultural thought. A. R. Ammons, another North Carolinian, once said, "A poem is a walk," and every time I read that I think of you. You don't travel as much as you used to, though. Do you miss it? Is there a different focus now with your work?

JW: It's complicated I suppose. I've been having problems with my feet, which means I don't feel that it's safe for me to drive. I'm driving a stick shift VW Jetta, and there are times when I try to get to the clutch pedal smoothly and I don't get there. So Tom has had to take over the driving. He does fine but he's not fond of driving and has trouble with driving at night. That tends to keep you close to home.

I remember I had a letter from a wonderful London publisher by the name of Rupert Hart -Davis, who among other things did the great Oscar Wilde letters. He retired about 25 years ago and he came up to the Yorkshire Dales. We had a mutual friend in John Sandoe, the London bookseller, and John wrote him a letter saying, "Oh you must meet these two American poets who live in Dentdale," and Rupert Hart Davis wrote back to him and said, "Never meet new people after the age of sixty-five." (laughs) "You must not do it. You spend too much time with them, cultivating them and getting to know them, while your poor old friends are like a deserted garden—they're not getting water, they're not getting weeded, and they don't get the attention they deserve. People you've known thirty or forty years, they're the ones that deserve attention." That makes a lot of sense in some ways, because I think everybody's stretched too thin in this society.

JB: It's true, the opportunity to meet someone new is constantly in front of you—the potential to completely drain yourself, and as you say, not water the garden, or weed the garden that's there in the back yard.

JW: Firm friendship. I really took that to heart. Whit has been observing the volume of email that comes in here. There's no way in the world—I could have seven heads and fourteen hands and I couldn't deal with it all.

WG: Even now, as Jargon seems to be floundering in the wake of so much mass culture, it still receives so much email and physical mail—there's no way that even five persons could respond to all the communiquŽs that come through.

JB: It's encouraging in a way to know so many people want to connect whether it's with Jargon, with you, or with each other, but at the same time it's impossible. In the days of letter writing—and you are one of the great masters—you could only write letters to, say, 30 people regularly ...

JW: I write about thirty to forty letters a week, I mean, year in, year out.

JB: So has that changed now? I know I'm guilty of this myself—I much more easily send an email than I write letters now.

JW: I don't think I have more than 15, maybe, correspondents who do it the old way.

JB: A number of your correspondents have also passed away É I know in the last decade you've seen a number of really important and wonderful people leave us. I think that might be one of the reasons your new books have found an audience: people are realizing now that there's a generation of artists and writers that are leaving us—and that you can tell us about them in a way that makes them more present than most people can do.

JW: Well, the color pictures started in 1954 , so that's close to 50 years ago. And I think it's wonderful to see Robert Duncan looking like that in 1955—it's great to see some of these people as younger, younger people. It's one thing I always liked about Albert Langdon Coburn, the American photographer who mostly lived in England for a long time. He's got pictures of people like Sibelius when he's only about like thirty-five—he looks like a completely different person. You know, most pictures of Sibelius, he looks like some granitic old Scandinavian master É and Matisse: he's got a picture of Matisse that looks like a kid! I think that's great. I was lucky enough to know a lot of these people, you know, when...

JB: At that vibrant moment when they are just grabbing hold of what it is they are going to do in their life.

JW: Yes!

JB: You see a lot of that in Elysium and also in the essays—it's that moment when they sort of burst into view.

WG: I know that younger people, like myself, do have a real interest in a lot of the poetry that came from the 20th century. To know there's someone who is active in the world of letters who knew William Carlos Williams, or knew Ezra Pound, or published Lorine Niedecker, gives the younger generation such great comfort and hope that we can fill the roles that people like Jonathan have opened up for us.

JB: It always makes me aspire to do better, and often makes me think I should give up! Knowing you and reading your works has allowed me to know Stevie Smith, Thomas Merton, Frederick Sommer, Harry Partch, Simon Cutts, and countless others I might never have known of in an inordinately intimate way. How did you ever come to know all these people and go all these places?

JW: Like they say: one thing leads to another. Pound, in "Canto LXXXI," says it gloriously: "What thou lovest well remains, / the rest is dross..."

JB: Now that you are here and you're not traveling around so much, how do you spend an average day? Do you work seven days a week?

JW: Well, when it's just Tom and me É He's on a very different schedule than I am. He gets up at 4:30 and runs through the wilds and goes to bed at 9:30 or 10:00 ...

JB: While you're still communing with Elgar at 1:00 a.m.

JW: Yeah. Listening to something. But anyway, I like to read in the morning if I manage to wake up by around 7:30; I like to read for about two hours. I can read well once I'm awake. Then I try to come into the office and do what has to be done. After breakfast I can get started. Tom puts the latest emails next to the bed and I have a look at those and think, "I really wanted to work on something else but I can't do it cause there's two people who insist on having instantaneous responses!" It doesn't happen to all of the emails, some of them have been here over a year!

JB: You're lucky to have Tom who I'm sure vets and answers some things.

JW: Yeah. I don't know the machinery at all. I've only looked at the Internet once, I think; Jargon has a site and Tom showed it to me one day and I thought, "Gee, that's great!" I believe the Internet is the younger sister of the Gorgon Medusa—if you look more than about twice you're going to get turned into stone or something much more unpleasant!

So, as I say, I usually do that until 5:30. We live a very organized time around here; I think it's something to do again with living in the country. The whole operation kind of seems monastic in a way. Comes 5:30, I stop what I'm doing and go downstairs and get in the hot tub for half an hour, jump out and come back up here and watch Peter Jennings and the News Hour. It's like going to Baptist Church. You feel like you've got to do it. Sins upon your head. You've go to do it! And that's probably all the television we watch. I like the Sunday Morning program on CBS and occasionally we will watch Antiques Roadshow. But that's it. We're about a month away from baseball, and I watch that a lot. I probably watch about five games a week. Mostly the Braves cause I'm a Greg Maddux fan. I love to see him pitch! Other than that we don't go anywhere much. We don't have a lot of money to spend on things like traveling, or going out to expensive restaurants. Tom cooks better than most restaurants anyway.

JB: Oh, absolutely.

JW: So we don't need to worry about that. We've got a small social life in Highlands. There are five or six people that we like to see every once and a while.

JB: Over sixty years you've certainly traveled enough to see quite a lot of interesting things. Again the books are testimony to that.

JW: I've traveled a lot. I've done a lot of walking. I know certain parts of Europe pretty well. England extremely well.

JB: One of the new developments in the life of Jonathan and Jargon is that there's a new generation that's finding your books.

JW: Art Blakey, the great drummer, his groups were always called the Jazz Messengers, and every year there were new personnel—some of the best jazz men of the period from about 1950 to maybe the '80s. He said something on one of his records that I thought was just great. He said, "Always stick with the youngsters. When they get too old, get some new ones!" (laughs)

WG: In terms of Jargon, so much attention is paid to the books published with Black Mountain references that it seems like Jargon is overlooked in some circles as a publisher of other people, like Russell Edson—so many have come after the Black Mountain era. Right now you are preparing to publish C. A. Conrad's Frank. How does a manuscript come to you that you really want to publish?

JW: C. A. Conrad came through a poet in Philadelphia named Jim Cory. Jim had published a little pamphlet that had about five or six of the Frank poems—must have been seven or eight years ago. You know Jim Cory?

JB: Of course, Jim has helped to edit your selected poems, which I thought Black Sparrow had been looking at, but Black Sparrow is gone now.

JW: Copper Canyon has it. It's so funny. Publishing is crazy in this country. I had had communications with the kindly Jonathan Galassi who's a publisher at Farrar, Straus & Giroux; he was a friend of James Laughlin. He said, "You must come and have lunch when you come to New York," so we did, and we had a very pleasant lunch. I had asked him could he stand the thought of looking at my new and selected poems and he said certainly and so at lunch I gave him this thing and he wrote back in about six weeks and he said "I really like this book. It's really unusual and it's absolutely 'you' and I'm sure somebody is going to want to pick it up." (laughs)

JB: It's "too" you, "too you for us."(more laughter)

JW: He said, "The problem is I can find no context within which to publish this book." I looked at that word "context" for about a month, scratching my head, and I asked people what it meant, and finally an old friend in New York who is very suave and sophisticated and involved in the arts said, "Oh, that's just a nice word that New Yorkers have come up with so they don't have to say no!" (laughs)

JB: So it was just a no.

JW: I suddenly realized, well, that's it. Though they publish a lot of good books of all sorts. So, about that time I was in communication with Sam Hamill at Copper Canyon—he was wanting the photograph of Rexroth for the jacket of the Complete Poems that is just published. I just happened to mention that I had sent this manuscript of mine off to Farrar, Straus & Giroux and he said, "When the fuckers turn it down, send it to me." (laughs)

JB: Sam Hamill, perhaps, is our greatest salvation. Of course he started Poets Against the War, too. James Laughlin's name has come up also—Laughlin became one of your masters in publishing as well as just a friend and mentor, and yet New Directions was a great commercial and artistic success, while Jargon, except for White Trash Cooking, was never really a commercial success.

JW: New Directions was not in the black until sometime in the Ô50s though. He started about 1936. But he had the rights to Tennessee Williams and some of Merton and any number of other people, and finally William Carlos Williams began to make a little money. James was the heir to a steel fortune in Pittsburgh—he had a trust fund. He spent a lot of money on all these guys, Patchen and Rexroth...

JB: But did he have some sense that he was after commercial success?

JW: He had enough money that it was possible. It's like David Godine says to me, "You've got no business being a publisher. You're too poor." I said, "Yeah, that's true David, but I've published some better books than you have." (laughs)

JB: What is it about the world of fame and fortune that has you turn your face away from it?

JW: I don't know where it comes from but I have never liked the idea of competition. Except, maybe on the volleyball court! But that's why I left Princeton. I was sick of all those rich boys; I didn't want to live with those guys.

WG: I think the anecdote about the $1500 inheritance that you received might be worth telling. You could either buy a Porsche or ...

JW: Or a Max Beckmann!

WG: Speak a little bit about how Jargon came about.

JW: That's so mysterious. I don't even think I know how to explain it. My parents became sort of upper middle class. My father was successful in his business in Washington, D. C. that had to do with designing systems and visible indexes. And I just decided I didn't want to pursue money, you know, and that maybe if I became a writer, and then a publisher, there'd be some money. But, of course, that's not been the case.

JB: If you stayed at Princeton, you could have become an expert on Byzantine art. And clearly there would have been an income and some notoriety in that choice.

JW: I would have had to do graduate work, but I just couldn't like those guys. I stayed three semesters—I only had two friends—they were interesting but strange guys. I just couldn't get on with those people.

JB: So were you a curmudgeon then, too, (laughs) or has that sort of grown as you've traveled and met and developed your tastes?

JW: I'm just a little bit ornery like most hill people!

JB: You mentioned H. L Mencken has been a great hero. A propos of this, do you see yourself in the tradition of Mark Twain?

JW: Mark Twain, Mencken, W. C. Fields, Mae West—these are people, again, who can use language so wonderfully. That's tall cotton as we say down South, but that's what I like.

JB: I think, though, it should be said that you and Jargon may not have done what you have, except because you were outside. It may have been the death of Jargon if there had been endless sums of money coming at you. You've done better with less money than some.

JW: We can only do so much. At this point we can do two books a year. When you get older you really don't have as much energy. All we need is support from a certain number of people to do the couple of books a year we have time for. I've got to push on. Tom is always writing and producing a lot. I'm not producing as much these days but I'm still doing stuff. The third book of essays has just gone out.

JB: Are there any literary models for your essays?

JW: The only model you need for essays is Montaigne. His essays are anything. He's remarkably inventive. It's the style. In a sense there's no such thing as an essay—it's the word "try." You're trying to do something. Trying to interest people in something.

JB: Is the third book more fugitive pieces? Are they spread among the whole range of time?

JW: Yes. A lot of them haven't been published before. I seem to have a lot of things like that. (laughs)

JB: What's the title? We've got Magpie's Bagpipe and Blackbird Dust.

JW: Well, I'm sorry you asked about that. It's another one of "my" titles. One of my nom de plumes is Lord Nose. So this is Lord Nose's Gnosis.

JB: I thought there would be a bird in the title.

JW: It should have been, butÉ the wisdom of Lord Nose. It rambles all over to hell and gone as most of my things do. That's one thing about me, I'm a rambler.

JB: Peripatetic as you've been described. The essay books seem to me somewhat in the tradition of Pound's Guide to Kulchur, Henry Miller's The Books in My Life, and Kenneth Rexroth's Classics Revisited, except they were mostly writing about books written before their lifetimes. You're writing about people and places that you have experienced. Have you ever thought of writing a classics revisited? "The Moon Pool and Others" in Blackbird does a little of that. It would be interesting to see what would happen.

JW: I haven't read as widely as I might have; there are huge gaps in my knowledge of English literature. I'm no scholar. I'm not an academic. I love Tolkien, I love Harry Potter in his way, The Wizard of Oz, the children's books. I read very good children's books when I was a child. Wind in the Willows is a magnificent book, Dr. Doolittle, Kipling's Just So Stories... I've always thought if a kid didn't appreciate books like that, they probably would never as adults like anything much.

JB: I remember you saying one of the things that led you to be a publisher was that you wanted to be able to recreate some of that magic.

JW: Yeah, grown up books that have that same kind of appeal. Some of ours have. One keeps hoping to publish something that does it, you know.

JB: This is a morbid question, but I hope a revealing one. Someday—a long time hence, since you are as mean as a cottonmouth and you're going to live a long time—what would you like your epitaph to be?

JW: It's the one I wrote for Uncle Iv Owens: "He did what he could, when he got round to it." (laughs)

JB: Despite all these serious questions about artistic origins, and aesthetics, and "knowing," the emotion I most think of when reading your work and looking at your photos is joy—childlike, innocent, wild-eyed fun.

JW: Well, Mompou said he never learned anything after he was about ten, and Gustav Mahler, of all people, said the same thing. Everything about his work was based on childhood. Again, it's nothing I think about too much, but I suspect that it's very strong in my own person. But that of course excludes the sexual element. I can't remember having any kind of sexual feelings much as a child.

JB: But children are sexual in a pantheistic way.

JW: They're sexual; I fooled with boys in prep school, but in a very simplistic way. I never really got involved with anybody emotionally until I was 20. But it's the joy of childhood you mean, really. Do you know Schumann's Scenes from Childhood, the piano piece?

JB: No.

JW: It's such a beautiful piece. Poor old Robert Schumann was half out of his head, you know, really crazy, and he wrote this absolutely sublime piece. It's like the world should be. Like somebody said on television recently, Americans need to be nicer people. I hope people think about that. Henry James said, "The first thing in life is to be kind. The second thing in life is to be kind. And the third thing in life is to be kind."

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Shifting the Subject: an interview with kari edwards

kari edwards

by akilah oliver

kari edwards, winner of the 2002 New Langton Art's Bay Area Award in Literature, is a poet, artist, and gender activist. Her artwork has been exhibited in museums throughout the United States, and her writing can be found in journals such as Aufgabe, puppyflowers, and The International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, as well as in the anthology Blood and Tears (Painted Leaf Press). The author of the chapbook a diary of lies (Belladonna Books), and the poetry collection post/pink (Scarlet Press), edwards' latest book is the experimental novel a day in the life of p. (Subpress, $12) which inspired much of this interview.

a day in the life of p. plays with gender construction and the impossibility of a stabilized identity. What is most important is not merely that the novel does this, but how—because it plays with multiple subjects, it lodges itself into a semiotic field of recurrent references, however, because the references aren't located in a reliable "character," the subject does not dictate the action, and vice versa.

So the writing raises some interesting questions. How can one play with (un)gender/ed identities without relying solely on theory or on the authentic "I"? Can we place a novel within the framework of transgressive literature based on both its queered subject matter and on its structural intent? Or to borrow from both Derrida and southern Black American speech codas, what exactly is it about this kind of fiction that troubles the waters, that does nothing to lessen what Derrida calls "essential predicament of all speech and of all writing, that of context and destination"?

With these ideas in mind, I spoke with edwards in January 2003.

akilah oliver: A quote from Luce Irigaray comes to mind: "The transformation of the autobiographical I into another cultural I seems to be necessary if we are to establish another ethics of sexual difference." What was your intent in playing with the subjective I?

kari edwards: I cannot imagine writing an autobiography that is nothing but linked anecdotes—it takes a certain amount of fiction to create a subject that's not a subject but traces like voice, like music, that glides through the memory without becoming a situated subject. So it seems logical that the new autobiography should be a form of fiction, an assistant to get to the truth. The cultural "I" that I'm working with here is the book itself—the book becomes a sort of exploration of my cultural "I" through fiction, a way of learning to understand myself through their/my language that constructs me.

ao: How does the shifting subject play with the idea that gender is socially determined, biologically repressed?

ke: Gender is one of those things that is assumed to be solid, where in reality it is both a social construct and a personal choice. And like everything else gender is neither solid nor permanent; it's only permanence is perpetrated by the state, family, or the church. So the shifting narrative is more representative of life, which goes against the idea put forth by Judith Butler that gender is a performative repetitive pattern which is nothing more than an assembly line of identity. I think identity is more fluid than that. With gender, would we have gender stability if there were not the oppression of gender-centric behavior?

ao: What do you think about how writers like Kate Bornstein and Leslie Feinberg, both of whom you mention in previous discussions about your work, subvert or refashion personal narratives of gender?

ke: I think both subvert the narrative in that their work can be read from many different directions. Both of their works could be autobiographical. They could be how-to books. Both of their works are a direct extension of gender fluidity.

ao: In what way?

ke: Leslie's book is fiction but it gets into whether it's really about Leslie or not, which opens up the text; Kate's book has everything from plays to poetics and I think that also doesn't pin it down to what kind of book it is. In some ways I think that's some of the most exciting personal narrative that I've read. In p. there is a certain autobiographical nature to it, but the I is in doubt at times.

ao: Do you ever use the marker "I"? I don't remember seeing that.

ke: I do use the marker "I" but it's always a fictionalized "I," and in this particular book I guess this feels more cinematic. Very rarely do we see from the interior point of view of the "I" in cinema. This interior "I," that is so present in literature, seems to have disappeared with the voyeuristic gaze of the camera.

ao: Well, the thing about voyeurism—the other trained on the imagined "I"—is that it's not only external; voyeurism is reciprocal in that I am always aware of the gaze, and in that awareness I engage it. Is this also indicative of a political objective and if so, is a day in the life of p. a kind of newly politicized literature?

ke: I'm not quite sure what political objective means in this case. That is not to say p. is not political—I'm not sure how in this day and age to live and not be political—in some sense, by the act of writing it becomes political. That's not to say all writing is political, or maybe it is: I guess either you're supporting the hegemony or you're challenging it.

ao: There's an implied violence that gender wrecks on identity, especially when one thinks of role playing, the medicalization of sexuality, etc. When is violence not violence? There is something sexy about the knife on page 30, for example.

ke: To me this goes back to some of what the Marquis de Sade did. The violence in some of those books was an open-ended form of eroticism, but what's important is it was in books. So when is violence not violence? That's not such an easy question to answer. I was going to say, to the extent that violence is not directed at someone. But on the other hand there's a history of text that has ignited violence. So the question is, does it harm someone? But even that seems to be a loaded question.

ao: The kind of descriptive and implied violence running throughout the text of p. is also dreamlike. What is it that you're doing by using mutilation, scarification, and rape as part of a bizarrely recognizable topography?

ke: It's all dreamlike. Looking back on any situation that has enough intensity to be remembered is dreamlike no matter how violent the situation. And it could be that this is all a dream; what is the difference between dreaming and waking? Maybe we want to think there is a difference, but anything other than the present is a dream—it is our imagination recreating that moment. We live in a land of violence, in a time of violence, where the definition of rape has to be expanded. Are we not all being raped by the incessant need for commodity? Are we not all being raped when thousands and thousands are killed and we never know? Are we not all being raped when a 17 year-old is murdered for not fitting some illusionary gender norm? How could this be anything else but a horrible dream. On the other hand, what is fiction but a dream extension of our reality?

ao: Is the novel a critique of systems?

ke: Yes, and I do see those systems—family, capitalism, the corporal restraints of gender and time—as violence against the subject, but stated in such a way that it seems necessary for the creation and protection of the subject.

ao: Do you resist a certain easy genre classification of the book?

ke: On some levels—at the same time I see this book in the novelistic tradition, especially as it relates to those writers who challenged it in their time: Rabelais, Cervantes, Acker, and others. On the other hand, it could be a poetic form as well. Again it goes back to the book reflecting my "I," or how I go through life.

ao: There's a bit of word play in the book that lends a satirical tone, e.g., "Dr. Fraud" for Freud. What does word play do for you?

ke: It's a form of irony, a way of creating a multiple reading within the text. It could come from my training as an artist, where the object one is working on has to be addressed on many different levels from aesthetics to concept. I think it is all a matter of how to create a horizontal or multi-layered text. Instead of reading it in a left-to-right fashion, one can to read it on different planes. I also like a good joke now and then.

ao: a day in the life of p. seems to consciously break the rules of narrative development in the way certain poets would. Do you consider the book to be a "poet's novel"?

ke: it seems to me that on some level, poetry attempts to get to a deeper truth by trying to describe the indescribable. I guess that's what p. seems to be doing. The other aspect of that is, if this is a fiction that somehow reflects myself, how could I be a linear narrative? The idea of a linear narrative is just another form or another illusion. Having to take the train to a certain destination is all very linear, but during those moments one never knows what will happen, so I am interested in how you write that.

ao: a day in the life of p. also critiques and comments on its own process as part of the narrative dialogue. How do you think that challenges a reader to "read" differently?

ke: It's another way of breaking down the fourth wall—Laurence Sterne used that technique in Tristram Shandy—but it also acknowledges what's taking place between the reader and the book.

ao: Speaking of ways to read, throughout the text you use bold words and phrases. As a reader, I can choose to read the bold text sequentially, with or outside of the rest of the text, and another narrative focus emerges. Were you trying to create that kind of textual layering?

ke: Yes, I was doing this intentionally, as a text within a text. This also becomes a visual element, which is similar to some hypertexts on the Internet. I think now that computers can do so much with text and images that not to use these tools in the creation of a piece of art seems like not using all the tools available. And at times it seems not to use these tools in a visual manner would be to risk falling into a logocentric unconscious.

ao: There's references to numbers in p. which might seem arbitrary. How do numbers and equations work for you as a writer?

ke: I just see numbers and equations as another language. This could also be true with some net language, such as the @ sign.

ao: It seems that the multiple use of tools or conceits can create a kind of density for the reader. How concerned are you with accessibility?

ke: I was just talking with someone about that, and the definition of self-indulgence in relationship to the theater. What is accessibility? I was walking down the street the other day and heard a couple talking and one of them said, "I never read a book unless it has pictures in it." What is accessible? I think it was Theodore Roosevelt that called Nude Descending a Staircase an exploding shingle factory or something like that. I think what's more important is the level of honesty of the writer or artist and how to define that, though it too seems indefinable.

ao: Can you talk about what that language is for you?

ke: I think naming things can be a tool for both liberation and oppression. So for me language becomes a tool that can be used and then destroyed or reused again in a different way. I think for someone who may be coming out for the first time—as in coming out transgender, bisexual, lesbian, or gay—language gives them a position from which to say "oh, that's that," but the problem then is it becomes "that" for eternity. I am a that, which is nothing but artifice and surface.

ao: Within the medium of words, how do you lose language?

ke: Well, I may be fortunate or not to be dyslexic, so I have the ability to look at an object and lose its name; for a moment I'm in the presence of that object. I guess the same goes for gendered individuals. I no longer see it as male-female, but the person in front of me; it could be that they are male or female but I never try to fix them to position.

ao: Let's talk about this thing called "gay literature" how it's stuck in an ÔI' position...

ke: That's the failure of gay literature: the constant need to identify, the innate victimhood of "I am this," a frozen target to be ghettoized into the back of the store.

ao: Is the victimized identity necessarily a static one? Is the opaque identity freed from historical narratives of gendered bodies, racialized bodies, and so on? I guess I'm thinking about the "moving target" as a way to subvert the marginalization that can result from an over-reliance on identity politics.

ke: I think there's an implied victimhood in gay literature in that it seems to be narcissistically repeated as if it's on some kind of tape loop, one coming out story after another after another. Very rarely do I read about the radical side of challenging the hegemony.

ao: There are those of us who have often lamented about the ghettoization of gay literature, about its apparent need to write in recognizable codes that reference an imagined common identity and community. It seems p. breaks with these codes. Do you think that is at all liberating for gay literature, or am I presuming that a text by a queer person immediately falls within a kind of dialogue about identity?

ke: That's what I was saying before, that by labeling it gay or queer means something. I think it's more important to embody the sense of queerness in the text without labeling it as queer. To me on some level it is no longer queer if it's a thing of pathology, of justification, or of placement. True queerness seems more a way of being, so I think in p. I was trying to the write that sense of queerness without naming it.

ao: So how does the book expand or challenge the notion of what queer or gay writing is or can be?

ke: I think gay literature has to move beyond the typical narrative. As long as there is a continuation of this narrative form—"I am this," "this is what it's like to be me"—then on some level it seems to retard any maturing of the literature.

ao: Is this critique we're leveling at gay literature valuable?

ke: I do think it's valuable to challenge anything that becomes an institution, and "gayness" has become institutionally accepted in this society, which has both its good and bad points.

ao: It's seem that out of this critique of gay literature—how it has marked itself in temporal, recognizable bodies—the question of time arises, time as a marker that contains and limits. Can you talk more about that?

ke: In the Middle Ages, the bells would chime at certain times for prayer and to donate money, so there's a certain kind of control. Time is one of those unspoken controls put in place and never questioned. We buy and sell time for time off. We're paid our value by the hour. Time has become another commodity, when what time is really is relative, no matter how we try to corral it into an absolute. So I think that's one of the issues I wanted to address. What is all the time in the world?

ao: What's next, what are you working on?

ke: I am working on a novel based on Joan of Arc's life and the history of literature—in a sort of limited fashion.

ao: Who is your community of writers? Is it important that writers have a community?

ke: I never think of a community of writers. I think of a community as those that are in my circle. Some are writers, some activists, some artists, or whatever, but there seem to be shared views.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003


Jordan Ellenberg photo by Pryde Brown Photographs

by Stephen Burt

A foul-mouthed misanthropic poet from a obscure corner of Europe inspires, in turn, a struggling college in the American West; a superstar professor who decides to stop speaking; and the lucky-in-love misfit student who must watch the professor (in case he starts speaking again). Thus runs the plot for Jordan Ellenberg's The Grasshopper King—both the funniest campus novel in ages, and a slippery, serious-minded investigation of what happens when good languages go bad. If that's not enough, the novel also offers sterling examples of competitive checkers; misguided institutional architecture; "ling-fic" (see below); syncretic cosmogonical folklore; and reasons why people regret ever leaving New York.

Jordan grew up amid friendly statisticians in Montgomery County, Maryland, where the mathematical powers-that-be discovered him early on: after winning international youth-in-math competitions and some televised quiz shows, he studied mathematics at Harvard and fiction-writing at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Now he teaches math at Princeton, where in between proving theorems and preparing for his upcoming wedding, he sometimes writes a column for Slate. We explored the trails of hidden knowledge leading in all directions out from The Grasshopper King, and back to it, via email in February 2003.

1. Is The Grasshopper King a campus novel? What's a campus novel, anyway?

Jordan Ellenberg: Campuses are interesting places for two reasons: people pursue difficult knowledge there, and kids grow up there. The part of their growing up that happens between 18 and 21 seems to them to involve the acquisition of difficult knowledge, but actually most of what they learn is developmentally automatic. So from the juxtaposition of these two pursuits you get some irony, and this irony produces comic novels.

My sense is that "typical" campus novels—or at least, the novels people mean when they say "campus novel"—use that irony as follows: Look! professors think they are in search of difficult knowledge, but really they are more like adolescents at play; that is ridiculous!

The Grasshopper King is maybe a bit different in that I really do believe that pursuing difficult knowledge is, at bottom, important and non-ridiculous; so I'm less interested in the ironic fate of the professors and more interested in the ironic fate of adolescents who take the analogy between their automatic development and their coursework too seriously.

2. How much did it change between the first draft and the published novel?

JE: Drastically. It was originally a long story called "Henderson between the Wars," and I just kept on writing it until at some point it became so long that I had to start all over again and write it as a novel.

3. You've spent a lot of time on a lot of campuses: were you conscious of particular models for the Department of Gravinics or the layout of Chandler State?

JE: No. Chandler City is just a particular dim feeling made into a town with a campus in it.

4, a-f. Gravinic, the language in which Henderson writes, appears to have an infinite number of tenses, moods, and declensions—making it both the perfect language, adequate to all human thought and expression, and an impossible language, which no one can learn to speak. Can you talk about its relations with, and your relations with,

a. Esperanto, which figures in your short fiction?
b. Chomskyan (or other) linguistics?
c. real Eastern European languages with complicated tense systems?
d. creation myths and the language of Eden?
e. misanthropy?
f. math?

JE: I thought for a long time that The Grasshopper King had nothing to do with math, but now I'm inclined to concede that it does. In mathematics, as in Gravinics, you're driven by an intermittent sense that there's a single wire that powers the universe, and you've got your hand on it. But no one outside your in-group is going to understand what you're talking about.

The Johns Hopkins library has a really great collection of books and pamphlets about proposals for universal languages; not just Esperanto, Volapük, and Interlingua, but languages which—even by Volapük standards—didn't catch on. Languages with lots of inflections, languages with no inflections, languages made out of ones and zeroes, languages made out of musical notes... one-man languages. I spent a lot of time going through these, and they're present in The Grasshopper King, for sure.

What I know about Chomskyan linguistics mostly had to be discarded in order to write the book, in the same way that you have to throw out a lot of the physics you know in order to write a good science fiction novel. In fact, the right genre label for The Grasshopper King is probably "linguistics fiction." Does this genre exist? It might consist solely of Jonathan Lethem's Gun, with Occasional Music (see A. 19).

5. Is The Grasshopper King a Jewish, or a Jewish-American, novel? What's a Jewish-American novel, anyway?

JE: I'm not sure I think Jewish Americans feel the same kind of cultural solidarity that, in my fantasies, they did fifty years ago. Maybe because they don't have accents now. So it's not clear what makes a novel Jewish-American, besides the uninteresting criterion that it be loaded with American Jews. I think now that we don't have accents, we (Jewish Americans) have picked up a bad habit of deploying our ethnicity self-consciously, mostly to check it's still there. Do you ever find yourself using a Yiddish word in conversation, then realizing that, just before you spoke the word, the thought "I think I'll now use one of the Yiddish words available to me" flashed across your mind? I do. Or didn't you think that Bee Season was a really good novel, but that the business about Kabbalah was the least interesting (though still pretty interesting) part?

Samuel Grapearbor is a Jew, as I am, but in the book I've self-consciously failed to deploy his Jewishness to avoid self-consciously deploying it as above. I'm not sure that's morally better, but it saved me having to learn a lot about Kabbalah or Shabbatai Tzvi or what have you.

6. Does the math world know about your novel? Do you expect them to find out?

JE: I'm not publicizing the novel in the math world; I'm suffering from a paranoid fear that someone on a tenure committee somewhere will take its existence as a sign that I'm not fully committed to mathematics. Actually, in case any tenure committee members are reading this, I might as well say that I am fully committed to mathematics. The fact is, mathematics is easier and a lot less painful than writing novels. Also, you get tenure.

7. Can you describe your research on checkers? Why checkers?

JE: I wanted to put in a board game because it forces people to pair off—see A. 9. Checkers, in particular, because of Marion Tinsley, who was the checkers champion of the world from 1954 to 1991, a period during which he lost a total of five games. I'm pretty sure he was the best player of any competitive game who's ever lived. In 1994, when he was 67, Tinsley played a match against Chinook, a checkers-playing computer program from the University of Alberta, for the "World Man-Machine Championship." He and Chinook played to six straight draws, after which Tinsley, who was too exhausted to keep playing, conceded the match and the championship to Chinook. He died a few months later. He seems like the kind of person whose story Samuel Grapearbor would like a lot. In fact, the story used to be in the book, but it never sat smoothly there, so I took it out.

8. I was surprised to find absolutely no concealed references to the Baltimore Orioles anywhere in the novel. Did I miss them?

JE: When I was writing the novel I was living in Baltimore, which meant I spent about six hours a day with the Orioles; pre-game call-in show, game, post-game call-in show. I watched the Orioles more or less autonomically. So it never occurred to me to insert concealed references; it would have been like coyly alluding to the fact that I eat dinner every night.

On the other hand, the Orioles of that period (1993 and 1994) were one of the most interesting and melancholy versions of the team. 1993 was the year Fernando Valenzuela pitched for the Orioles. Valenzuela, when he was 21, already had a Cy Young award and was going to be the pitcher of our time, but by 1993 he was seven years past his last winning season. For some reason he came to Baltimore, and he had another losing season. But he brought a bit of noble twilight to the team, a team which was, all in all, a perfect mix of nobly twilit old guys (Valenzuela, Rick Sutcliffe, Harold Baines), young guys who hadn't found themselves (Mike Mussina, Arthur Lee Rhodes, Jeffrey Hammonds), and, maybe most importantly, middle-aged, middle-talented guys who picked that year to have great seasons which they must have known they would never again equal (Chris Hoiles and the incomparable Jack Voigt). It was somewhat shocking to me to look up the statistics and see that the Orioles were actually pretty good that year, and finished in a tie for third. My memory of that team is Valenzuela losing in the late afternoon.

All this by way of saying that the entire novel might actually be a concealed reference to the Baltimore Orioles.

9. Does The Grasshopper King reflect (in ways visible to you) anything you learned from John Barth or Stephen Dixon at Hopkins?

JE: Actually, the single remark that really changed the book was made by Robert Stone; I was lucky enough to be at Johns Hopkins for one of the two years he was there. The whole middle part of the book, which largely consists of four people hanging around in a basement, was—just as it might sound—very muddled and slow in the original version. The advice Stone gave me was that, no matter how many people are in a room, each moment in a scene has only two of them in it. And this became an organizing principle; there are three ways to divide four people into pairs, and I ended up hanging the whole midsection of the novel on the combinatorial framework that results when you consider these three pairings, one after the other.

10. Will you ever return to reviewing works of fiction? Are there living authors you'd like to review but have not?

JE: Reviewing fiction is my least favorite of all the kinds of writing I have ever done. I always felt strung up by my responsibility to the author of the book; he or she spent years on this thing and I was going to pass judgment on it after one or two readings, late at night when I was too tired to do math. The only books I liked reviewing were the ones I knew everyone would like (DeLillo, Dixon, David Foster Wallace, Stone...) where I felt it wasn't my responsibility to get people to purchase the book or not, and I could just spin out an essay carving out some particular section of the existing critical consensus that I wanted to endorse.

I'd love to write about Matthew Klam. I was on the Amtrak last week, and I was sitting behind two consultants, and they spent the whole trip having the most amazingly consultant-like conversation—skill sets were maximized, talent was valorized, boxes and boundaries were thought outside of and beyond, everything! I had no idea what they were talking about. But they were prototypical members of the category of consultants, that was clear. So much so that I started to wonder whether they were actually actors hired by Amtrak to impersonate consultants in order to show that their business class service is, in fact, patronized by the business class.

Klam is, I think, the only person who's made a serious effort to take this kind of talk, which seems to us like dead language, and show that it's a real language by making prose fiction out of it. Well, maybe George W.S. Trow did this too, in Bullies, but he seems to have abandoned the project.

But see? That was much more fun than actually sitting down and writing a review of Klam's book. I'm glad I don't have to do it.

11. Can you think of a novel, besides The Grasshopper King, which sets a crucial scene in a cafeteria?

JE: Sure: A Fan's Notes. Frederick Exley sees Frank Gifford, the star quarterback, across the college cafeteria. Exley tries to pin Gifford with a derisive stare; Gifford smiles and says hello in a vague way that works Exley up to such a pitch that he stays pretty mad for the next 300 pages. I'm glad you asked this question because it led me to open A Fan's Notes again; I'd forgotten how much I'd drawn from it. Stolen from it, I guess I mean.

12. How did you come to write for Slate?

JE: For reasons I don't quite understand, they really wanted to run a math column. They were looking for someone with advanced training in math and experience in magazine journalism; that narrowed it down a lot.

13. In your previous life as a journalist, you covered (among other things) the Modern Language Association's annual convention of anxious English professors and disgruntled graduate students. Are there bits of the MLA in the Gravinics world?

JE: The novel was already more or less in final form when I visited the MLA, so probably no, there aren't. I think the nature of the discipline of Gravinics owes much more to mathematics and physics than it does to literary studies, which is why it is called "Gravinics" and not "Gravinian studies."

14. What about Matter-Eater Lad?

JE: Given his superhuman digestive powers, I expect that, yes, there are bits of the MLA in Matter-Eater Lad.

15. You started the novel as a graduate student, and finished revising it as a junior professor at Princeton. Did your change in academic POV affect your work on the novel?

JE: It helped with one thing. The novel is told from the viewpoint of an old man looking back on his youth; but the old man is only 33. There aren't that many contexts in which being in your early thirties and being an old man make sense together. One of them is the context where you and I live, in which we spend a lot of our day surrounded by nineteen-year-olds. Knowing about that helped make the frame of the novel make more sense to me.

The other context in which 33-year-olds are old men, is of course, baseball—see A. 8, especially Fernando Valenzuela.

16. If you described your background and upbringing in a few sentences, would it save me the potential embarrassment of having to ask several detailed questions about them?

17. Along what may or may not be the same lines, can you reveal any secrets of the Math Olympiad?

JE: Answering both 16 and 17: I learned a lot of mathematics very early in life, which meant that as a child I spent a lot of time sitting in big rooms trying to solve math problems more quickly and cleverly than other children. But I think to describe the Math Olympiad this way misses a lot of its charm; in general, I believe it's inherently kind of delightful when bunches of teenagers from different countries are plunked together for a few weeks, and when I wear my "Mathematics brings friends together" T-shirt, I am not doing so ironically, though I'll admit it tends to happen close to laundry day.

18. Has there ever been a case, to your knowledge, in which a real scholar stopped speaking?

JE: There's the case of Alexander Grothendieck, who, with a kind of immense effort of pure will, completely rewrote the foundations of algebraic geometry in the 1960s, then became alienated from other mathematicians and retired to the Pyrenees to raise sheep. Only a few people are allowed to know where he is. The last few documents he wrote before leaving mathematics ("Sketch of a Program", "The Long March through Galois Theory," "Pursuing Stacks") have acquired a kind of lonely, devoted following, in which I sometimes include myself.

19. The Grasshopper King is one of the funniest novels I've read. Do you have models for humor in prose fiction?

JE: The primary kind of funny I know how to produce is that which comes from enforced intimacy between high diction and low subject matter; I think I learned this from Frederick Exley (see A. 11) and Michael Chabon. Probably visible only to me are the influences of Stephen Dixon and Delmore Schwartz. Schwartz in particular is the master of dialogue which makes fun of its speaker in a way that's not at all forgiving but remains affectionate; this works better than Exley's uncut sourness for almost all novels (maybe all non-Exley novels.) I would count David Foster Wallace and Grace Paley as models if I had any idea how to model myself after them. Paley is impossible to imitate, and Wallace is impossible to imitate without producing parody.

20. Your book describes (among many other things) how socially isolated, academically gifted young men learn to admit women into their lives. If someone began a review of The Grasshopper King with that sentence, would you be pleased, surprised, nonplussed [in the colloquial and inaccurate sense of not-surprised-at-all], or nonplussed [in the accurate but rarely encountered sense of having your socks knocked off]?

JE: I would be happily nonplussed [in the second sense] and possibly a bit chagrined [in the original sense of feeling like I'd been rubbed vigorously with a rough piece of sharkskin, or shagreen] that the structure of the book was so visible. The question this question raises is: What is the Great American Nerd Novel?

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003