Scratches in the Temple Wall – An Interview with Travis Nichols

Travis Nichols is a poet and a novelist, and one of the few who manages to be both in equal measure. Many of his poems (in the collections Iowa and See Me Improving) and his previous novel (Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder) are dispatches from a self who is attempting to build a meaningful life from a body, spirit, and language that refuse to stay at peace. In this way, his new novel, The More You Ignore Me is something of a departure: it is the rant of a self-involved wacko – an out-of-control blog troll – whose great joy is creating turbulence in the lives of others. His life is not ethically valid, and one of the novel’s great achievements is in not trying to sugarcoat that fact through some kind of deus ex empathetica back-story. Travis is not a “gentleman psychologist,” as Susan Sontag said of novelists like John Updike and Phillip Roth. The story here is not one of psychological origins, but of the satire of a psychology.

I conducted this interview with Travis just before The More You Ignore Me was released in the Spring of 2013. Though Travis and I live in the same neighborhood and work about seven blocks apart in Washington, D.C., we did the interview over e-mail, conversation-style: I sent a question, Travis sent an answer, I sent another question, and so on. We agreed to revise the interview because we ended up talking about the most interesting things last, or maybe my questions shed some of their pretense as we went along; I’ve known Travis since we were both freshmen at the University of Georgia in 1997, and we’ve stayed close friends, so it wasn’t immediately obvious to me how we were supposed to simultaneously speak to an audience and to each other. Anyway, the first question below is the last one we got to, which in retrospect seems so odd. – Paul Killebrew

PAUL KILLEBREW: Not to get all Terry Gross on you, but you worked for a time at the Poetry Foundation and specifically on its blog when it was experimenting with open comment streams, which were soon taken over by some truly unlikeable voices. When you first told me about writing a novel that was one giant comment on a blog, I thought it would essentially be a spoof of those Poetry Foundation folks, but obviously it’s something much larger than that. Did the novel start out as a response to evil commenters, and if so, how did you get past that?

TRAVIS NICHOLS: In the “evil commenters” big picture (by Hieronymus Bosch), the commenters on the Poetry Foundation’s site were not that bad. If, for example, you make the mistake of wading into the comments on a big Huffington Post story, you will be able to easily identify the enemy. He is the racist, sexist Neanderthal who seems to be typing with the one half of his thumb he didn’t just accidentally bite off. But on the Poetry Foundation’s site, it was much weirder. The comments section was perpetually late night at AWP on bad acid. Paranoia and erudition and endless self-aggrandizement and somebody bleeding out onto the Aztec carpet. As the designated moderator for the Poetry Foundation’s comments, I felt deeply, deeply bonkers for a few months, largely because I took a lot of the rote online bullying personally. I also wanted to try to figure out how best to maintain a common space for people where not just sanctioned voices got through. Turns out, that’s a tough nut to crack and possibly the Poetry Foundation wasn’t the place for that kind of experimentation. We ended up shutting the comments on the main blog down, which led to a few choice specimens starting their own site on which to, initially, post photos of me and call me a fascist. 

Anyways, I was dealing with all of that – with the narrative of my life being co-opted for someone else’s ends – at the same time I became a minor right-wing punching bag for tweeting a joke about the state of Arizona’s misguided immigration reform. The tweet was: “We should all boycott Arizona Iced Tea. It is the drink of fascists.” I thought it was moderately amusing because, haha, a drink? Of fascists? and it would have disappeared into oblivion except by some truly outrageous twist of fate, the right wing’s hate machine used the tweet as evidence that liberals are dangerous hysterics destroying the nation. Rush Limbaugh said something like, “this liberal idiot is seriously boycotting Arizona Iced Tea over immigration reform!” The dittoheads did their thing (including the New York Post), until the New York Times pointed out that it was obviously a joke, and then everyone went back to living their lives. Except me, who wondered if the people on Sean Hannity’s site saying I should be sterilized and/or killed should be believed. What exactly was the end game here? It was a sad emoticon kind of day, largely because I had become a thing outside myself and I no longer had any control over the narrative of my life. The mob had taken over, or so it seemed, and this ability for people through written language to completely obliterate another person’s sense of self became an obsession.

PK: After Clint Eastwood’s speech at the recent Republican National Convention, Amy Davidson wrote on the New Yorker’s blog that what was so remarkable about the event was that Eastwood put on display the kind of Republican you don’t typically see in the media, but it’s the Republican you’re most likely to meet in the wild: “careless with facts, grumpy, xenophobic, scornful, more isolationist than its establishment realizes, and on the verge of assuming a stance of threat. Also: not clever about women, or the limits of their patience, and pleased with itself to the point of rattling distraction.” That description (mostly) fits your narrator, too, and I totally agree that he represents a wider swath of humanity than we typically like to admit. It also seems like the unmoderated comments stream has given this swath a humanity a whole new platform. Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing?

 TN: Comments are a revolutionary way to monetize hate, so it’s a great thing for people who can just count page views with a clear conscience. For the rest of us? Like the best poetry it’s happy and sad. The great hope of the internet was that it was going to allow universal access to information, so that you could, for example, take a philosophy class at Berkeley while sitting in New Hampshire in your jams. But what it’s turned out to be much more is a gateway to massive amounts of disinformation, leaving everyone in an atomized bubble to sort the truth alone; looking at photoshopped images of Hitler talking with aliens while Sarah Palin tells you your Grandma is going to an apology tour die-in sponsored by 4-H. I read a pitch for a PR seminar that stated matter-of-factly that we live in a “post-truth” world, because there is as much signal as there is noise. This is probably no different than when scratches in the temple wall served as a comment stream, when rumors about witchy behavior were rampant, but I do think comment streams are a reality check for anyone who believes too strongly in the Enlightenment, or in progress. Everything you value is always under threat, always being negotiated, largely by trolls.

Comment sections also show on a minute-by-minute basis how terrible our education system is in this country. And not because the teachers are bad but because public school teachers and students have largely been left for dead by the corporate right, who, of course, love disinformation. The most fundamental attack on freedom is the attack on critical thinking skills. Comments display our universal failure to teach and value critical thinking, leaving the possibility open that both everything and nothing could be true. It’s a brilliant strategy on the part of the corporate right, and it is what makes people like the narrator of this book possible. He makes up his own truth, and it is endlessly adaptable to his own self-interest.

The right now uses the tactics of the radical left for completely opposite ends. That’s what makes the tea party or someone like Charles Koch or, on a very small scale, the narrator of this novel, someone who is essentially an anarchist but operates under the guise of law and order, so fascinating. This tool-into-weapon process has been in the works since at least the mid-nineties, but it’s taken hold fundamentally now. I started a novel in college about Eric Robert Rudolph, the Olympic Park bomber, a character I still find fascinating because he used all the tactics of a romantic leftist revolutionary for right wing fascist ends. He’s like the corporate right’s ultimate foot soldier. This abandoned novel, which I absolutely did not have the chops to write, presenteda Eric Robert Rudolph character in the language of a Che-y revolutionary up to the point when, you know, he bombs an abortion clinic. Happy and sad. The idea was to generate sympathy and thus horrify through art. The More You Ignore Me is not so dissimilar, though this novel actually got done and my hope is that it’s a) better and b) funnier than what I could have done as a19 year old. Though who knows. The More You Ignore Me ’s narrator, like Eric Robert Rudolph or Timothy McVeigh or Charles Koch or any other backlash fascist, thinks despite all evidence that he has been shut out of society’s narrative of success. That he’s the real victim. And so he has two options: change himself or change society. A true backlash fascists, he can’t fathom changing himself–the sense of entitlement runs deep–and so he must change society. No apology tour for him! This is one reaction we’ve come to expect from trying to shame the shameless. The reaction, instead of shame, is outrage. I find this fascinating. Hopefully other people will too, though I get the sense from a lot of people that The More You Ignore Me can cause some serious clenching of the aperture.

Anyways, when I was neck deep in the Poetry comment shit, I often thought: “What would Zizek think of these comments?” I don’t know why, exactly, except perhaps that Zizek is an ongoing conceptual art project that embodies this whole thing, but WWZT helped me realize there was a counterintuitive side to the predicament, that the most obvious position regarding comments is to see them as a filthy waste of space but that the way in which they made me uncomfortable was productive. I usually find doubt to be a generative headspace, and there is a sweet spot when I’ll read something in the great unwashed below that genuinely turns conventional thinking on its head. In the same way that there is something beautiful about the–if you’ll allow me to go back to it–“real” photos of Hitler meeting with aliens. Why would someone believe this? Because the world as it is so desperately wrong, and it’s easier to believe in aliens than to believe it could all just be this bad? 

PK:  To have what most of us would consider a normal conversation, we know that we have to follow some very basic rules: what I say should be relevant to the topic at hand; any longer statements I might make should be coherent and add new pieces of information; you and I should generally take turns speaking instead of talking at the same time; I shouldn’t go on too long without hearing from you; and so on. Though the narrator of The More You Ignore Me is addressing an audience throughout this novel, but he follows none of these conversational rules of the road. He goes on and on about things that are irrelevant, incoherent, and repetitive, and he talks on and on without letting anyone else get a word in. In the novel it’s hilarious, but in real life these kinds of people are terrifying. My question is, why are people like your narrator so terrifying?

TN:  The esteemed (by himself) gentleman of this novel must prove he exists by thrusting himself against other people, and so every interaction is like that of a dog thrusting against one’s shinbone with that black, deep look of the true self in its eyes. The dog and the man would both hump a person’s life away if given the chance. He can’t let any other self into his zone. Assimilate or die if you’re in his path. Truly, truly terrifying but he’s real and he’s out there! Comin’ for ya! 

PK:  That makes it sound like the narrator is radically true to his core self. Why is that a bad thing? Sometimes it’s wonderful and heroic when people refuse to quietly fold the luscious wings of their personalities into normal social conventions, especially when the rights of the oppressed are at stake. Is the problem with the narrator that he speaks for no oppression but his own, or is it that nobody cares about the oppression of Internet trolls?

TN:  Anyone who has the radical self-interest to be an artist would, given the chance, be an epic troll. Imagine de Kooning in a comments section. Goya. Joan Mitchell. Picasso. Faulkner! I just saw a Gerhard Richter retrospective that showcased the painter’s work from the 60 s through the present day, and what struck me–beyond simply the dazzling technique–was that year after year, painting after painting, Richter obsessively pursued some goal that was invisible to me. I could see where he ended up, but it clearly wasn’t satisfying to him, and so he tried the squeegee again, and again, and again, and again. Close, but … no. Another.

 What separates Richter’s dogged pursuit and obsessive repetition from the narrator of The More You Ignore Me are the paintings (obviously) but also the support system set up around Gerhard Richter and other artists, writers, and thinkers who have achieved celebrity status. This celebrity system both indulges and protects these artists from exposing all of their raw nerves to the world. I’ve watched this happen in the poetry world, where someone who is mentally ill and insane in comments sections has become “famous.” This “fame” has then retroactively absolved him from being an evil troll. This type of thing happens all the time, where people clean up after evil jerks out of some sense of decorum. Deferential treatment for the Borg. There are assistants and curators and wives and children who bear the brunt of some obsessive, dogged personality and they all keep the “real” artist away from the world, making the sanitized one available only through his art and selective interviews, profiles, etc. But if we subtract the art

and the system from this equation, leaving only the personality, well, then you have our narrator. Of course we can all look back at the lives of artists and say that this or that personality quirk was worth it for the sake of the art, or that this or that artist had to be a colossal dick in order to realize his vision, but in the present we have no idea what the ends are, we see only the means. And we have to decide if we are willing to put up with a certain amount of bullshit to live. That’s with our friends, our colleagues, our idols, and our peers. No doubt there is a fatal flaw in the great man theory, and yet we perpetuate it year in and year out, especially in the arts. It becomes a contest of who can exert (nearly always) his will over the rest of us, who can behave so poorly that we realize he MUST be great, otherwise why would he act that way? 

PK: All of this reminds me of something Frank O’Hara said in an interview with some high school students: “No artist works hard and long, alone in his studio, because it is a joke.” This is the tragedy of the terrible artist, and, I think, of your narrator: it is a joke. He writes a blog comment as long as a novel in which he aims to solve “the great problems we all face in this fearful and horrid episode called ‘life’.” You could call that heroic, or you could call it cowardice. What do you think?

TN:  I think I love jokes! The best jokes are equal to the best art, in my mind, and as rare. If someone can pull off a novel-length joke, good god! What a feat! I mean, Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy are essentially just two really great jokes drawn out to absurd and terrifying length. All the conventions of the novel are, in essence, set-ups for jokes. “All happy families are alike … ” = “Man walks into a bar …” Obviously, Freud – quack practitioner of medicine but excellent literary critic – was on the right track in his fastidious attempts to unlock the mystery of jokes and riddles. But like great art, something essential dies when great jokes are explained. So what’s the key to telling a good joke/creating great art timing.

Paul Killebrew was born in 1978 in Nashville, Tennessee. Since 2008 he has lived in Louisiana and worked as a staff attorney at Innocence Project New Orleans. His second full-length collection of poems, Ethical Consciousness, will be released by Canarium Books in April 2013