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


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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A Human Mind Bomb

Travis Nichols on Greenpeace’s New Reggie Watts Campaign

Droughts, superstorms, floods, resource wars, and a hellacious buffet of other climate disasters.

Have you noticed that we’re currently dying miserably?

It’s hard not to feel like our fossil-fuel-loving corporate overlords are winning the battle for the future handily.  It’s also hard not to feel like joining the march, signing the petition, or waving the banner isn’t going to do anything to stop our slide toward the inevitable dystopian nightmare sponsored by the Koch Brothers and Exxon.

I think this is especially true for artists, writers, and musicians—people who spend their time interrogating language, visual patterns, and sounds. It can be hard to coordinate when your brain is full of chaos. And it often feels like “the movement” values the work of artists, writers, and musicians in the exact same way corporations value it—as a resource to be mined.

This is depressing.

But we’re not going to win if we keep playing on the corporate overlords’ gameboard. Which is why I love these Reggie Watts videos:

The environmental movement is currently in a curious moment. Climate activists are doing massive work every day to hold the effects of climate change at bay and those responsible accountable—and yet it still feels that corporations like Shell, Duke Energy, and Amazon are making everything worse. I think we make it too easy on them when we only play by the established rules of activism—when we keep “serious” work in a box far away from our “playful” work.  Obviously, direct actions take courage, and we desperately need them (in Ferguson right now, for example), but we need to know what else we can do, too. Corporations have had forty-plus years of practice handling activist tactics and they have seasoned response teams who know what to do when they rear their gnarly heads. Corporate PR disinforms and proceeds as planned.

So what freaks them out in a way that short circuits their defenses?


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"A kind of friction in the midst of frictionlessness."


Felix Bernstein in Conversation with Vanessa Place

I first met Vanessa Place a year ago, when I performed alongside her and Cecilia Corrigan at a reading. The grouping couldn’t be odder: Corrigan started the evening out, playing a bubbly femme David Letterman with Place and me as her guests. Then I came on cloaked in black, and perversely sang along to a collection of strange YouTube videos that projected behind me. And finally Place dryly read from The Scum Manifesto, changing the words “woman” to “man.” After the show, I went over to Place, offering an eager compliment for her brilliant, fastidious study of criminal law, The Guilt Project. In response she seemed indifferent, superior, and cold—as sinister as her mythic press photos: Conceptual poetry’s dark woman, Vanessa Place CEO, never smiles in pictures, dresses sleekly in black, and speaks only in Lacanian riddles.

Place is, without a doubt, dark: her magnum opus Statement of Facts is made up of appropriated material from the kind of rape cases for which she serves as a defense attorney. This work was controversial both with critics and sensitive audience members, who walked out during performances. Corrigan must have gotten the same vibes as I did: soon after that night we both published critiques of Place’s work. Many critiques of Place dismiss her instantly, finding her appropriation tactics to be point blank: hostile, sexist, racist, classist, or masculinist. But Corrigan and I were both intrigued by Place as a powerful and complex innovator, whose breadth comes with interesting and generative flaws. Many works that we pass over as morally acceptable and progressive never have us thinking a thing, but Place forces even her sharpest critics to think, and forces all of us to wrestle with our complicity with negative social values. We are too quick, on the left, to think ourselves free from oppressive systems (i.e., capitalism, patriarchy, rape culture, the prison industrial complex, coterie, name dropping, social climbing, media whoring) and Place won’t let us off so easy.

Even as, in my Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, I critically spar with many of the proclamations she and Fitterman espouse in Notes on Conceptual Poetry, I do it not merely with that old proverbial “love” or wide-eyed reverence or coterie-building friendliness but, more crucially than any of that, with respect for an ingenious provocative mind. Which is why Place and I decided to take what started as a private Facebook chat into another agora, one which could also prompt another kind of phobia.

—Felix Bernstein


FELIX BERNSTEIN: I’ve always had a campy fascination with your presence, though I’ve had many serious critical reservations. However, your rabble-rousing Facebook antics sweetened the cup. When you appropriate self-promotional statuses by poets you no longer implicate merely the lyric subject or the naïve consumer of poetry but you implicate all your “friends.” We are all implicated, (as the community that pretends to transcend community or be non-normative): the point being (as with the logo that runs across your face on one of your memes): “I Am Social Capital.”


FB: And such status appropriations make us all (in the “poetry community”) squirm a bit. Because here we all are, using Facebook as a self-promotional vehicle: and nothing gets more “likes” than a nice promotion.

VP: Yes.

FB: A problem I had with your work when I first encountered it was the repetitions of tropes that had become stale art world clichés that triggered the popular October journal 1980s debates: “is the neo-avant-garde as important as the first avant-garde?” However, aesthetically, your repetitions become eerier over time. You become sort of like Marlene Dietrich: statuesque and unrelenting. 

VP: Yes. This is rather fun. 

FB: The self-consciously statuesque is the absolute opposite of what I grew up with: a father whose topsy turvy postmodern play would hardly admit that it could congeal into any sort of authoritative persona. And yet it was the withholding of the statuesque, the law, the phallus, which was so torturous. So I find perhaps more than just aesthetic delight watching you live as a statue. I find it psychosexually comforting, because it is seems to be what I was never given: A father who admits to being the father. Of course, this is problematic: any of the feminist critiques of Lacan can be applied to your practice (it continually reinscribes the law and the master in a supposedly generous gesture but in the end becomes a foil for incomprehensible tyrants to dominate without any checks or balances). However, one critique that I have leveled against you that does not stick is that your work is overly proscriptive and dogmatic. When in fact, you of all the conceptual poets, are the least likely to produce a “school of followers.” In fact you make that nearly impossible. You have none of the persuasive sweetness of Kenneth Goldsmith. You seem like a dark alien in the poetry world. And I still think that despite the validity of the claims that there is nothing “punk” or even idiosyncratic about institutional critique, you are the bizarre case in which, somehow, you always seem to stand-alone, as this weird dark alienating enigma that remains even after you are toppled over through critique and thrown out as “trendy role model.” In other words, you are so passé that you should simply vanish. But the more passé you grow the more towering becomes your inferno (the more inches it gains, as you would say).


VP: Well, at least I’m consistently lesser and redundant, and certainly appreciate the confirmation of my lack of “persuasive sweetness.” That would be a horror. And it’s doubtless true that our current complaint is against the postmodern rather than the modern. We’ve got no problems with the modern—why should we? After all, who doesn’t secretly adore a grand narrative, especially about ourselves? Otherwise, what would be the point of “liking” anything? And still the thing that remains is what one could term the Real, which is immune to proscription. I am never proscriptive. Critical, yes, but never proscriptive. And so, why are the two of us on Facebook?  

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What Would Twitter Do?


In the final installment of What Would Twitter Do?—where I talk to some of my favorite people on Twitter about their tweeting philosophies and practices—I interview Kenneth Goldsmith. Kenny is the creator of the avant-garde encyclopaedic archive project, UbuWeb. He is also the author of a book of essays called Uncreative Writing and many experimental books, including one in which he transcribed every word he said in an entire week, Soliloquy, and another in which he wrote out an entire day’s New York Times. He also created the project  Printing Out the Internet for which he invited people around the world to help him do just that; he collected over 10 tonnes of paper from 20,000 contributors. He is the editor of a collection of interviews with Andy Warhol, I’ll Be Your Mirror, and is the first poet laureate at MoMA. We spoke this morning over gchat.

Sheila Heti

SHEILA HETI: You said that if any artist could make a work of art as great as Twitter… Well, not exactly that, but can you tell me if you think of Twitter as art?

KENNETH GOLDSMITH: Twitter is not art. But it inspires me in the way that art used to inspire me. Art used to make me see the world differently, think about things in a new way—it rarely does that for me anymore, but technology does that for me on a daily basis. Rather like the feeling when I first saw a Dan Flavin fluorescent tube. It made me rethink the entire world. It’s Twitter’s combination of simplicity and complexity that is astonishing in the same way that minimalist sculpture was inspiring and enlightening.

SH: How do you think of your own work differently since being inspired by Twitter?

KG: I’ve begun writing more compactly. I now favor the slogan and eschew the paragraph. I’ve traced this change during the ten years that I’ve been working on my rewriting of Benjamin’s “Arcades Project.” When I first began, I was doing a Benjamin-like grabbing of long paragraphs—pages and pages of passages. Now, after five years on Twitter, I’m taking snippets, headlines, slogans, and almost never paragraphs. It’s had a tremendous impact on my writing in general.

SH: Is it because you actually enjoy reading more aphoristic-like things now, or because it feels more current?

KG: Short attention span is the new avant-garde. Everyone complains that we can no longer intake huge chunks of text. I find that a reason to celebrate. It’s something that has deep roots in modernism, stretching from the Futurists’ use of typography to Pound’s use of ideograms to concrete poetry. David Markson feels particularly relevant now. Twitter is the revenge of modernism.

SH: But that makes me think that some artists will soon start writing impossibly long and unfragmented things, because Twitter is a corporate place, and the slogan is a very corporate technique.

KG: Back in the 80s, artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer taught us that the corporate slogan was, by simply moving it from one context to another, ripe for détournement and could easily be used against itself. Twitter lends itself to this sort of misuse. But to answer your question about the return to longer forms, I wonder if Knausgaard would’ve written the same books today had been using Twitter. It wasn’t around when he was writing those books. Those books were written during the age of the blog, with its big verbiage. The landscape has completely changed today.

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