Go Forth (Vol. 31)

An Interview with Dolan Morgan

Where did Dolan Morgan come from? The stories in his first collection—just published by Aforementioned Productions—make you wonder. Here, psyches stretch the dimensions of physical space, and the most intense aspects of relationships (yearning, loss, pursuit) are played out on geographies that may feel like game boards. The weather is alive.

Morgan came from Connecticut. He grew up in a family that was both large and miniscule, in a space that was both rich and poor. He got himself out of high school early, and at age seventeen he headed to New York City and never looked back. He became a full time schoolteacher and quit in his twenties when he realized he was looking at the rest of his life. Now he designs curricula, and writes fiction and poetry. Currently, he’s thinking about hijackings as myths, as well as the literary subgenre that features monster sex.

When the Knives Come Down also happens to be the first full-length, one-author work to come from Aforementioned Productions. Since 2005 they’ve been publishing work online, in chapbooks, and in an annual print journal. This is a glorious debut for both parties.

—Nelly Reifler

I. JEFF GOLDBLUM OFTEN FAILS

NELLY REIFLER: So, my first question is about your sense of That’s When the Knives Come Down as a whole. Each story has its own, complete world, and the characters and their experiences feel completely organic within those specific worlds. For me, the contrasts and echoes from story to story make the book and its arc super strong. I’m wondering if you conceived of the stories as pieces of a collection while you were writing them? Did they respond to each other? And if so, how?

DOLAN MORGAN: In some ways, the collection is just a bunch of unrelated stories without any kind of theme tethering them together. No rhyme, no reason. Just one thing after another blindly shouting at you without aim or purpose. But of course that’s not actually possible. I’m willing to admit that I’m a person and I wrote them and I have things I care about and those things shine through whether I write about goats or planets or monsters.

In an earlier iteration of the collection, I intended for all the stories to be linked around a central idea. That idea, taken broadly, was catastrophe, and in particular that everyone secretly wants disaster to happen to them. The original structure was contrived and a bit forced, and I ultimately made a lot of changes to the lineup, but that initial concept still shows up in a lot of places. Characters lust after bad choices, pray for things to go wrong, and gently nudge their lives in the direction of collapse. Likewise, I’m obsessed by good acts being the root of all evil, that somewhere behind every abomination is a series of reasonable decisions made by people trying to do the best they can. There’s that old tale about a beggar who runs into death at the market. Death points at the beggar, inspiring so much fear that the beggar borrows a friend’s horse, rides to the city and hides for the night. The friend, pissed to lose a good horse, asks Death why he scared the beggar like that. Death replies he was merely surprised to see the beggar in the marketbecause their appointment was for later that night in the city. The end. Anyway, it’s possible that all of my stories are that story, except that the beggar usually knows exactly what’s coming. 

NR:  It’s true that, in many of these stories, there’s a sense of people desperately (secretly, perhaps unconsciously) wanting to be delivered from the cages of their lives by some powerful and painful outside intervention.

Did you have readers through these different conceptual phases? If so, who was reading the stories and how did you work with them?

DM: For a lot of the stories in That’s When the Knives Come Down, I shared initial drafts with a small group of friends. They’d help locate points of confusion and amusement. I wasn’t interested in deciding if a story was good or bad, but more along the lines of: What happens if I do this? Or this? Or that? Like a science lab. I wanted to gauge effect/impact of specific maneuvers more than quality/value overall. I think this approach stems most likely from my sense of wonder/awe (abject fear?) at the chasm that exists between a person’s brain and the rest of the world. How does anyone manage to say anything to anyone. It’s a lot like Jeff Goldblum trying to teleport things in The Fly. He has two chambers, and he tries to get something in X to travel to Y. You know, like from the inside of my head into anywhere else. And in the movie, like me, Jeff Goldblum often fails. The item in the teleporter won’t translate correctly. Things aren’t received as intended. The steak tastes funny. The monkey dies. That’s how I feel most of the time, and feedback has helped me to know if I’m writing a story or accidentally transforming into a human/insect hybrid. 

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"The point for me is largely pleasure."

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 An Interview with Eric Jarosinski

Whenever Eric Jarosinski ran late for our class (“Nietzsche’s Modernity”) at the University of Pennsylvania, he’d invariably send us mass emails with subject lines like, “Thus was Zarathustra 10-15 mn late.” Or after news of a snow day: “Die Another Day. In Venice.” For an email ominously titled “Krank,” he’d add, “That’s German for sick. Because that’s how bad I’m feeling right now.”

That constant impulse to write playful, incisive, well-punctuated aphorisms has made Jarosinski a Twitter phenomenon. He has almost 88,000 followers, an incredibly large number considering Jarosinski’s favorite topics include hermeneutics (“Another beautiful day for signifying nothing”) and grammar (“An Oxford comma walks into a bar. Orders a gin, and tonic.”) Under the handle Nein Quarterly, a fictional magazine that may soon become real, Jarosinski takes on the persona of “Nein,” a zeppelin-flying alter ego of Theodor W. Adorno that turns a critical, monocled eye on the world.

Jarosinski’s tongue-in-cheek self-identification as a #FailedIntellectual after he decided to leave academia resonates with an audience looking to think outside traditional academic boundaries. His most earnest tweets come when promoting crowd-sourced or free resources for thought, like the avant-garde UbuWeb or the “PDF library” Arg Dot Org.

Our interview took place over email; he responded on various Apple devices.

—Brenda Wang 

I. MAYBE WATCH A WERNER HERZOG DOCUMENTARY

THE BELIEVER: You’ve recently inked a book deal for NEIN. A MANIFESTO, which means you’re moving back to writing books, this time in “small but potent clusters of text.” What does that mean exactly? Is Nein really Nein without Twitter?

ERIC JAROSINKI: Embarrassing. I don’t really know. That’s promotional text I didn’t write myself. I think it means “short but good.” That’s what I’ve been trying to write anyway, with varying degrees of success.

And yes, Nein is still Nein without Twitter, at least in spirit, but not exactly in form. I am trying to write for the book as a medium, just as I’ve tried to learn to write for Twitter as a medium. I know nothing about music, but I’m tempted to say something about tweets being about dissonance and sharp counterpoints, but for print I’m trying to think more in terms of composition, maybe some sort of little textual fugues. Uh, small but potent clusters of, uh, textual fugues.

BLVR: The promotional text on Lebowski Publishers’ website says that the book will, “As good old Horace would have put it, instruct and delight in equal measure.” That seems a little medieval for Nein—what are you hoping to instruct readers about?

EJ: You’ll have to ask my agent. The only thing I’ve ever tried to teach is a type of respectfully irreverent spirit in approaching the authors, thinkers, and ideas that have meant a great deal to me. At my best, I’d like to think I’m helping in some very small way to put the critical back into critical theory—by demystifying thinkers whose very objective was demystification.

BLVR: What is your schedule like now that you’re no longer a professor? Do you find that you have more time to think and write without a defined career, or less?

EJ: Well, it’s summertime, and the damaged life is easy… Though not for much longer, as I just got my last professorial paycheck. I get up relatively early, read a lot of German news, play basketball in a South Philly playground for an hour or so, usually writing some jokes in breaks, then often end up in a favorite dive bar by mid-afternoon to write. In the evening I grill on my front steps, read, maybe watch a Werner Herzog documentary. Most of my writing is done late at night. The uneasy sleep of an ongoing mid-life crisis is good for that.

BLVR: It’s funny that you say you watch a lot of Herzog’s films, because Nein’s tweets often remind me of Herzog’s dramatic voice-overs in his documentaries. What interests you about them?

EJ: I’m fascinated by Herzog’s own fascination, his intensity really. Every time I watch one of his films I’m reminded that I’m wasting my time if I’m not living with some degree of passion. And for a long time I wasn’t. Your question reminds me that I applied for Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School in LA in August. Haven’t heard anything. Probably not good news.

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Various Paradigms

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Various Paradigms is a column by Ann DeWitt about words, art, film, politics and poetics. The title is a tribute to conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner’s typographic texts.  Weiner once wrote, “Bits and Pieces Put Together To Present A Semblance of A Whole.”  This column hopes to follow in that tradition of engagement, intimacy and experiment.

Douglas A. Martin in Conversation with Darcey Steinke

“She was my teacher,” I say happily of Darcey Steinke.  That was 1999, and she had published three novels (Up Through the Water, Suicide Blonde, and Jesus Saves). In the time since then and that we have been a part of each other’s lives, she has produced three more books (Milk, the memoir Easter Everywhere, the forthcoming Sister Golden Hair).

Our first night of class, she said simply, clear-eyed, how you never knew what work of yours was going to take off. Later in the semester, just as frankly to someone’s objection to a story on grounds of “too sad,” she countered how if you couldn’t come to terms with the fact that life sometimes is, you might as well just pack it in. I remember, too, a fortuitous encounter with her in Chelsea, her daughter still in a stroller, and helping Darcey carry her up the steps of an art gallery. This year that same daughter starts Bard College.

Darcey has been connected in some way to almost everything good in my life.  She has blurbed me three times, and when asked if I would interview her on the occasion of her new novel out this October from Tin House Books, I rose to the occasion. Sister Golden Hair is her masterpiece.

In the spirit of Various Paradigms, what follows are “bits and pieces put together to create the semblance of a whole.” The topics following were suggested through both an excising and selecting of a many hours conversation (four? plus a stretch of a half-hour or so of recording discussing her desk’s origin, spirituality, and ritual in writing and the raising of a child, ex’s, etc., lost due to my fingers hitting the wrong button a martini or so in) and digressions on the back porch of Matthew’s on Main, Sullivan County, NY.

Thanks to Ann DeWitt for hosting this exchange.

—Douglas A. Martin

I.  THE FEMALE NUMINOUS

DOUGLAS MARTIN: Say it again?

DARCEY STEINKE: In a perfect world, it would be incorporated with religion more. The sort of moment filled with grace.

DM: A moment of coming into your power as a woman?

DS: It’s not a full gorgeous feeling but these little tiny feelings. You have to track them down.  That would be what my work is basically.

DM: Where have you been at in your life for each of your books?

DS: With my first book (Up Through the Water), I was trying to figure out how my desires for everything—for life, for sex—seemed so oversized.  Cooking, you’re getting turned on. Just walking, you’re getting turned on.  A woman’s desires versus the concerns of family, that continues throughout my books.  It was the year after my MFA.  I was twenty-six.

DM: You were still living in Roanoke? 

DS: And on the island in North Carolina where the book is set. Then I came to New York, and Suicide Blonde was my experience of how weird and creepy it seemed in ways.  I met my first husband. I was reading all the Semiotext(e) books.  I started to read more widely. I discovered Kathy Acker. I was reading Foucault. It seems embarrassing to say.

DM: No. The Care of the Self

DS: Yeah, I went through all that like a maniac. Leslie Dick, Tropic of Cancer, Genet.

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“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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