Go Forth (Vol. 30)

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Go Forth is a series curated by Nicolle Elizabeth that offers a look into the publishing industry and contemporary small-press literature. See more of the series.

Lance Olsen is the author of several novels, including Girl Imagined by Chance, Anxious Pleasure: A Novel After Kafka, Head in Flames, and Calendar of Regrets, among others.  He’s also written books on postmodernism and several story collections. I spoke with him recently about his newest novel, Theories of Forgetting, which is just out from Fc2. His website is here: http://www.lanceolsen.com/

—Brandon Hobson

BH: Lance, in terms of structure, Theories of Forgetting is a challenging book, with several stories running across each page, images, illustrations, and marginalia—and with such a great payoff.  As a reader I love to be challenged, and I really loved this novel. What is it that interests you most about a novel’s structure both as writer and reader?

LO: For those unfamiliar with Theories of Forgetting: as you say, it’s comprised of three narratives.  The first involves an experimental filmmaker completing a short one about Robert Smithson’s extraordinary earthwork, The Spiral Jetty.  The second involves her husband’s slow disappearance across Europe and Jordan in the wake of his wife’s untimely death. And the third involves the marginalia added to his narrative (which may be a novel he wrote, may be his memoir) by his daughter.  And along the way there’s a pandemic called The Frost, whose symptoms include an increasing sense of cold coupled with amnesia, and a religious cult called The Sleeping Beauties that, in reaction to The End Days, has come to worship barbiturates.

The first of those narratives runs across the “top” of the page from “front” to “back” of Theories. The second runs “upside down” across the “bottom” of the page from “back” to “front.”  The daughter’s appears in blue script around and sometimes over the second.

And so: what is it that interests me most about a novel’s structure as both reader and writer?  Like you, I’m all about challenge from both perspectives. That is, I find what I think of as manifestations of the difficult imagination extremely alluring—books that make us work both intellectually and emotionally as we navigate them; that refuse to deliver comfortable narratives in comfortable ways.  I’m thinking here of myriad heroes of mine from, say, Laurence Sterne, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett to, more recently, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, David Foster Wallace, Mark Z. Danielewski, Ben Marcus, and Anne Carson. Their complex undertakings teaches us continually to be curious, thoughtful, crazy. Teach us to misbehave in incandescent ways.

The appeal for me of such writing practices lies in the argument made at a structural level: that there are other ways to experience reality, other lives to live, other stories to tell about our worlds and about ourselves than the ones that we’ve been pelted with so often we’ve begun unconsciously to imagine them to be something like the only ways we have to narrativize experience. 

In other words, the difficult imagination reminds us that experience can always be different than it is.  There’s no more powerful political and existential affirmation.

BH: As a writer, do you enjoy coming up with a book’s structure as much as writing?

LO:  I don’t think I see a distinction between structure and writing.  Isn’t it structure all the way down—from a novel’s architectonics down to a perfect phrase, how assonance enhances this word or that?  Recently Robert Coover visited the university where I teach and met with students for an informal conversation. Someone asked him about how he structured his novels. His intriguing and revealing advice was that, instead of thinking about character first, say, or scene, or image, or plot, he asked himself what his guiding metaphor would be. Then he infused that metaphor all the way through his in-process project.

I love that.  In retrospect, I realize that’s my usual method, certainly the one I used when composing Theories of Forgetting.  The question I started with was this: how does one fully engage with Robert Smithson’s The Sprial Jetty in fiction? The beginning of the beginning of an answer became those central narratives I mention above literally spiraling around each other in a text that refuses the straight line.

But there’s another key metaphor that arises out of Smithson’s thought that began to obsess me: the idea of entropology, a term he appropriated from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s World on the Wane, and one that houses within itself both the concept of entropy and anthropology.  Lévi-Strauss felt there should be a category of study concerned with the wearing down of things—from people to cultures—and Smithson appropriated that idea in his ever-receding-into-the-landscape Spiral Jetty—which, I should mention, also takes the shape of a labyrinth, an essential one for Smithson that has been associated for millennia with travel from this world to another.

Theories thinks through the metaphor of entropology—from its overall layout (which materializes decomposition in various ways), to dying Alana and dispersing Hugh (which is to say poor you and me), to conventionally designed pages breaking up into ruins, to a multitude of linguistic undoings, from failing sentences to crossed-out words and deliberate typos and misspellings. 

BH: When you were writing Theories of Forgetting, did you switch around among Hugh, Alana’s, and Aila’s sections, or did you compose each one separately all the way through?

LO:  Alana’s and Hugh’s voices and visions were too strong, too much themselves, to allow me to jump between them. So I wrote each separately, sans fancy layout, as pretty straightforward-looking novellas. While working Hugh’s narrative, I began to hear Aila—his daughter’s—initiating a one-way conversation with him.  I came to understand she was the one who received the manuscript he wrote after his death, that she used it as a springboard to contemplate their relationship through her marginal (one could even say, in certain ways, parasitic) comments, often directed at her father through her estranged brother, whose name happens to be Lance, and who apparently edited the volume the reader of Theories is navigating.

I didn’t just want to write a novel.  I wanted to build one.  I wanted to actually construct each page, think of each page as a visual possibility space. So, after writing out the narratives in fairly traditional form, I spent several months teaching myself InDesign and laying out each page individually.  The result is that no two pages appear the same, and the entire work becomes a visual as well as verbal conversation.

BH: That was my next question. Your books all seem to have a visual element to them—does that visual every occlude your narrative when you’re working? Or does it do the opposite and provide motivation?

 

LO: More and more I’m thinking of the visual as another part of the narrative—maybe part of the setting. 

I’ve been married to an artist for nearly 34 years: Andi Olsen, who works in video, photography, and assemblage. Over that time we’ve collaborated on a number of pieces. You’ll notice, for instance, that she’s responsible for a number of the faux photographs that make up Girl Imagined by Chance, as well as a film one can link to from Theories of Forgetting (you can see it here: http://lanceolsen.com/tof.html). And we’re currently working on what we’re thinking of as a novel in twelve films—the films, in fact, that Alana in Theories made during the course of her life. The idea is to display those films in a gallery as part of a retrospective of Alana’s work.  Andi and I want to create a novel you can walk through.

All of which is to say Andi has taught me to think about seeing. I don’t think I can divide the visual from the narrative anymore.  The visual is always-already a form of narrative; it’s just that we’ve forgotten to look at it that way.  And the visual always-already carries with it narrativity—even if it’s the viewer who must provide that narrativity, as when he or she looks at an abstract painting.

The visual in my work never illustrates the narrative.  The narrative never describes the visual. Rather two components energize each other. In that space arises a tremendous dose of aesthetic opportunity.

 

BH: Earlier you mentioned David Foster Wallace, who spoke a great deal about the nature of fun in writing. Your work, aside from its passion, humor, and gut-reaching prose—I’m thinking particularly of Girl imagined by Chance, Anxious Pleasures, and Nietzsche’s Kisses, as well as Theories of Forgetting—breathes fun. Is the nature of fun in writing something you teach to students and also follow yourself as a motivation for the novel? 

LO: Some readers, I’m guessing, associate what we’ve been talking about—narrative and linguistic complication, the serious politics of innovative writing practices, the problematics of the non-conventional page—with the opposite of fun.  I’m not one of them. Just before turning my attention to our interview this morning, I was trolling—as I pathetically do for far too long every morning before starting to write—Facebook, where I bumped into a great Angela Carter quote.  Talking about reformulating fairy tales, she says: “I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the new wine makes the old bottles explode.”

Sure, we could speak about her metaphor in terms of its inherent sober politics and call to challenge received norms. And we would be dead on. But we could also—and this is what I do with my students, what I do with myself in every sentence I compose, every page I construct—speak about the metaphor behind Carter’s metaphor: innovative writing as a possibility space where everything can and should be tried, thought, questioned.  (I talk about this at length in my anti-textbook Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing.)

Behind Carter’s quote in particular, behind experimental aesthetics in general, is an urgent invitation to remain mindfully playful with language, form, time, character, genre, you name it.  Stay impish.  Stay curious.  Stay crazy.  Don’t follow directions. Don’t compromise.  Don’t settle.  Don’t take anything for granted. Push yourself. Take chances. Ask yourself how you can write the contemporary rather than rewrite the past.  Try to fail in ways that interest you.

Now what do we have, and why?

 

Brandon Hobson’s novel, Deep Ellum, is available from Calamari Press. His writing has appeared in The Believer, The Paris Review Daily, NOON, Post Road, and is forthcoming in Conjunctions. You can read more about him here: http://brandonhobson.com

 

“ALL OF THESE THINGS ARE POETRY.”

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An Interview with Matthea Harvey About Her Syllabus 

This is part of a series of conversations with writers who teach, where we discuss how they develop an idea for a course, generate a syllabus, and conduct a class. Read the full syllabus here.

Matthea Harvey is the author of five books of poetry, including Of Lamb, Modern Life, and Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form, and two children’s books. Her newest book, If The Tabloids Are True What Are You?, features a wide variety of art forms, both poetic (sonnet, erasure, prose poems) and visual (photographs of miniatures submerged in ice cubes, embroidery depicting instruments, illustrations of mermaids with tools for tails). Harvey teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

—Stephanie Palumbo

I. BASEMENTS COULD BE POEMS 

STEPHANIE PALUMBO: How do you, personally, define poetry? 

MH: That’s a hard question. I think poetry involves heightened noticing or imagining as well as creating a certain made shape. On the other hand, that shape can be made just by pointing at something and saying, “That’s a poem.” My husband Rob started a literary magazine with some friends called jubilat. They would publish an interview with a perfumer, a list of wrestling terms, and lots of poems, with no distinction. It was a way of saying, All of these things are poetry, which is the case for me too.

SP: Is anything explicitly not a poem?

MH: I’m thinking of all my least favorite things. I don’t like basements, but definitely basements could be poems. Not fond of skin diseases, but again, there’s a pattern. Probably anything could be a poem. 

SP: How is studying poetic forms useful for students? 

MH: I try to get them to think about form as something they can invent themselves. I’m giving them the tools to go to the blank page and start to write. Often I’ll be writing and notice that there’s a form emerging, and that gives me a little bit of a dance partner. Ideally, a form should give you energy, an engine to keep you going. When a form is shutting you down, and you’re just trying to make rat rhyme with hat, that’s depressing and not fun.

SP: You use visual forms in the class as well.

MH: I give the students lots of images—a photo of Jean Shin’s deconstructed shirts or Yuken Teruya’s tiny tree cut out of a Tiffany bag (called “Notice Forest”). Both artworks are working with a given form. Or I’ll give them an essay on how to make arbor sculptures, and ask, how might you translate this into a poem? 

SP: How might they translate it?

MH: Some arbor sculptures are made by putting two trees together, so you might write two word lists and see if a poem can come from braiding the two. 

SP: You teach this class to first year students. How is that different from teaching grad students? 

MH: I think because they’re first-years, they come to poetry with very few preconceived ideas. If you say to them, “Make a poetry comic,” they say, “Okay!” There are maybe twelve people in the world making poetry comics, but the students just accept it, and there’s a kind of freedom in that. 

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Memento Mori

Ann DeWitt on Annie Leibovitz’s Photographs of Susan Sontag

In Greek mythology Proteus was able to change shape with relative ease—from wild boar to lion to dragon to fire to flood.  But what he found difficult, and would not do unless seized or chained, was to commit to a single form, the form most his own, and carry out his function of prophecy. 

— Marvin Israel, Birthday Card to Diane Arbus, 1971

In 1973, Susan Sontag said of the nation’s increasing obsession with photography, “Kodak put signs at the entrances of many towns listing what to photograph.”[1]  Sontag’s own life could have populated a town and had its very own sign.  But in 1973, America’s focus was on other landscapes.  As Sontag notes in On Photography, photographers, laymen and otherwise, were capturing images of a once hidden middle-America through the scope of the photographic lens.  The American family was embracing the photo album with a catholic philistinism, reclaiming Nature as well as the nature of time in a “program of populist transcendence.”[2] It had been that way, says Sontag, ever since the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, when the camera rode the rail West.  Like so many of Sontag’s essays on aesthetics—rife with literary comparisons and insistent on bridging the gap between literature and the “craft based arts”—here Sontag stakes photography’s evolution with Whitman: “Nobody would fret about beauty and ugliness, he implies, who was accepting a sufficiently large embrace of the real, of the inclusiveness and vitality of actual American experience.”[3] “The United States,” Whitman offered, “themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”  Sontag interprets the work of Walker Evans and Diane Arbus through a similarly optimistic intersection: “All facts, even mean ones, are incandescent in Whitman’s America—that ideal space, made real by history, where ‘as they emit themselves facts are showered with life.’”  It was photography’s job to demystify the ordinary lives people already led behind closed doors.

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DEVELOPING THE BEAUTY OF THE RIDDLE

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Rick Moody Interviews David Ryan

The really astounding teaching experiences, for me, have come in moments when I have believed that teaching had nothing new to tell me. Such was the case when for a brief moment I taught in the low residency writing program at Bennington College. There were many reasons to teach this class: I liked Liam Rector, who founded the program; I was going to get to team teach during the residency with Amy Hempel, always an idol of mine; the setting was beautiful; the colleagues were great. These things were enough to persuade me to take the position. What I didn’t know to expect was the caliber of the students. That first class I taught at Bennington was like some dream team of writing students. Five very different writers, four out of the five on their way to publishing books (and the fifth showing very positive signs of doing the same), all of them ambitious, curious, driven, poised, ready to try anything, uncontaminated by readerly prejudices. It was so easy to be in that class, and I learned so much from it, that it kept me teaching for a good ten years afterward, just from the adrenaline. The inspiration came in deluges. Chief among the standouts of that class was the writer before us today, David Ryan, not only a great presence in the room—soulful, funny, gentle, generous, sophisticated—but so unique in terms of his interests that I looked forward to whatever came from him in the way of new work, then and after. I have never, once, in more than fifteen years, doubted that David Ryan would be a writer of great importance. I felt certain he was possessed of all he needed. I happened to meet him when he had just effected a great transition in his life, having left behind a very successful career as a musician (of which there is more below) in order to write. That is just one of the rather profound twists and turns in the David Ryan story. He’s one of those artists who has been gifted enough to have a career twice. For whatever reason, probably because of the vagaries of the publishing scene these days, it has taken David a long time to see the authoritative first publication he has deserved, but now that moment is at hand. Animals in Motion, Ryan’s collection of stories, which assembles twenty years of short fiction, has the kind of confidence and fully-formed vision that we associate with truly great debut collections. As a reader always on the lookout for something that surprises me, I couldn’t be happier to be possessed of this book. It is full of delights and scarcely contained revolutionary moments. And because David once interviewed me, years ago, I leaped at the chance to turn the tables, in order to celebrate his work in the same way he did mine. This exchange, therefore, took place by e-mail over six weeks at the beginning of summer, and it rings with the dulcet and brilliant sounds of David Ryan. But don’t let it be a substitute for reading the stories themselves. This is a writer not to be missed.

—Rick Moody

I. WHAT HAUNTS THE SPACE OF THE WORK

THE BELIEVER:This collection took a long time to finish. Can you talk a little bit about your long journey? How did you know you were finished finally? 

DAVID RYAN: I’m only now realizing how lucky I’ve been that the process was so drawn out. A couple of these stories I wrote when I was in my early twenties—twenty-one, maybe twenty-two. I’m in my forties now. If I am the single author of this collection, the stories, one to the next, represent what seem to me like a few lifetimes—huge shifts in what I thought was “me.” The older stories feel nowadays like some kind of archaeological artifact, some crude implement, set into the silt of others. The newer stories—“The Canyon” and “The Runner” for instance—have the benefit of a couple of near-death experiences, and the fact that I now have a kid. I couldn’t have imagined how rich my life could be, back when.

The earlier work was all about energy. Writing was just this raw id kind of thing. The energies of the newer stories in this collection are dissipated, evened out with something else. I hope they’re deepened, actually. I don’t think the energy of the collection is lessened. It would have felt thinner without the more recent stories. You know, you always think you’re living a full life. You may think it’s a fully crappy life, but it’s full. You have your twenties and your thirties—you get into all kinds of trouble, do all kinds of things. And so I naively thought that I’d seen everything and that I’d settle in my forties—things would quiet down, and I’d live forever. Once you learn that none of these things are true, something deeper begins to inhabit the writing, hopefully. My forties have been the most turbulent and the most beautiful so far, and I feel that the more recent stories work that out, puzzle through that kind of richness. It’s a voice I’ve only hashed out in the past few years. I’m happy about that, but I’m happier that a first collection of mine could cover the ground that this one has. The schisms, their relationship to my life. 

BLVR: Music has been an important inspiration to you here. Can you talk about that a little bit?

DR:  Yeah, I think I feel so connected to music that I don’t really notice how saturated I am in all these strange ways. My father was (and still is) in radio. He was a disk jockey early on, but eventually became an engineer, then chief engineer, then a sort of nationally recognized expert. I would go into the radio stations with him, sit in the booth with the DJs as they did their thing live. He also played the bass, and my mom was a singer. We had this giant string bass in the living room. Its presence there was just like another piece of furniture. It felt perfectly natural by the sofa. My mom and dad made a little extra money singing together on jingles for a local advertising company. I was a child singer in a chorus at my school, which did tours around the area.  So I grew up around music, and when I fell into it—when I got my first drum—it felt like a given, I think. And because of my dad’s engineering job, we had a rather elaborate home recording studio, a huge mixing board, tube microphones, an Ampex 1” four-track, in the basement with my drums. I used it to record with friends.

I got really interested in how music was put together. Not just recording, but the notes and harmonic motion and form. I wanted to take apart everything I was listening to, break it all down. This all started to come together when I was thirteen or so. My dad also had a huge library of reel-to-reel tapes—the library, basically, of the radio station he was working at. I could play them, slow them down to half speed, pause, write down what I was hearing, then hit “play” again, crabbing through these songs. I did a lot of drum transcriptions like this. It became, I guess, my own version of a hobby, beyond practicing the instrument.

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