I Don’t Have Time for All These Rules: The Millions Interviews Kendra Allen


Kendra Allen’s debut poetry collection, The Collection Plate, was released by Ecco earlier this year and the restless mind, playful sense of language, and concerns with form and structure seen in her first book, the essay collection When You Learn the Alphabet, has grown and changed in interesting ways. In her poems, she crafts a world where her personal life and familial history, patriarchy and religion, sex and death, Super Soakers and the reality show Naked & Afraid intersect and build upon each other in unfamiliar and at times unsettling ways. We spoke recently about music and religion, our grandmothers, and what it meant to call oneself a poet.

The Millions:  I came across an old interview from when When You Learn the Alphabet was released, and you were talking about the essay form and being intimidated by poetry because “in poetry everything has a name.” I wonder if you could talk about what poetry meant and writing the poems that became the book.

Kendra Allen:  Like I said in that quote, I always feared saying that I’m a poet because I didn’t really know the names of those forms and I felt constricted by them. Fearful to even dive into poetry because I’m not trained in this the way. I’ve spent the past years learning the art of essay writing, and narrative essays, in particular. What’s ironic really is that when I started writing the poetry, that fear I had of feeling stuck and strained because of my ignorance of form ended up being the thing that freed me. It made me fearless in terms of form and content—and how form and content coincide with each other. When I sat down and started to actually see these poems go together—these poems could be a collection—it really was freeing because I wrote what I wanted to and how I wanted to. I didn’t have second thoughts about form. I’m studying form now because I want to know, but at that moment of my life, writing The Collection Plate was a moment to be free and figure out my own form in a way that expresses what goes on in my head in the clearest way.

TM:  I understand. You’re busy trying to write and can’t be thinking about counting syllables while you’re doing that.

KA:  Yes! I don’t have time for all these rules! I have a story I’m trying to tell. It’s not even rules, but suggestions of what makes something good craft wise, which I think can lead to same-old same-old if you think about writing in a strictly craft way.

TM:  Form is important to you, though. In your acknowledgements you mention L. Lamar Wilson, who told you that the poems needed to be “put in somebody’s mouth.” Which is such an interesting bit of advice. Where did you take that?

KA:  Lamar single handedly made this collection a collection. I had most of the poems, but they weren’t that good. They were in the first-draft stage. Lamar read them and he said, these are good but you need to put them in somebody’s mouth. I spent a few weeks trying to process what that meant and I sat down on the floor one day and I was looking at the poems and I was listening to a song about how a father was a doctor and all the impatience of this person probably stemmed from their father. I saw that I was talking about religion and church and family and fatherhood, and I just changed the first line of the first poem from whatever it was to “We say Our Father.” I capitalized the O and F and it became like a character and a thread and a recurring character throughout the collection. It can be symbolism but also it can be duality between our father in heaven, which is what I was taught, and my literal father and patriarchy in general. I can talk about all three in conjunction with each other just by creating this character. Once I did that, the collection just started falling into place like puzzle pieces. If Lamar didn’t tell me that, I would have never thought of that. I’m very, very grateful.

TM:  And the Lord’s Prayer, which begins “Our Father,” is one of the first, if not the first, prayers we ever learn.

KA:  It’s the first thing I learned. Before I learned to tie my shoes, I learned the Lord’s Prayer.

TM:  As you were rewriting the poems and thinking about how they fit together, how did that idea shape them?

KA:  The short “Our Father’s house” poems were initially one very long trash poem. [Laughs.] It was not good at all. I was so tied to it. I don’t know why. I wouldn’t let it go, but it just didn’t fit. I started breaking it apart and making couplets from it and once I broke that poem down, I was able to make better transitions. I’m very big on transitioning. I think my favorite albums are as good as I think they are because of how each song flows into the next. I think when I broke the “Our Father’s house” poems up they provided the through line and thread that helped me connect them.

TM:  You have two sets of poems that are paired together, though in different ways. One is “Naked & afraid” and “Afraid & naked.” Were they always two poems and was that idea there from the beginning?

KA:  I was taking a documentary poetics course at the time, and I was writing about the desegregation of Alabama swimming pools. I started thinking about water in my life. Also, one of the shows that me and my father watched together was Naked and Afraid. [Laughs.] It’s a wild show if you haven’t seen it. I was trying to figure out how to bring journalism into poetry. I thought about how you cannot survive without clean water. A lot of the contestants on the show have to leave because they didn’t pick the right weapon, which is a pot to clean water, and then they get sick and have to leave the show. I started thinking of Flint, Mich. It was a mirroring in terms of capitalism, race, class, and all these factors. I wanted this mirror of how we see this reality show with these mostly white contestants who are able to get help when they run out of clean water. But in actual reality, we see these poor black people who are denied the human right of water for no other reason than they’re poor and black. I really wanted to show that mirroring in a very clear way. Reality show and actual reality. Being seen as human is very different if we’re talking about something that is scripted to an extent, versus something that is lived out and is still going on.

TM:  So you had the idea of two poems that would begin and end much the same, but reframing certain aspects.

KA:  I was writing them both simultaneously while also working on an essay where a portion of it was where I would write about the same thing but from a different point of view. I was like, let me try to do it like this. It wasn’t in the front of my head at first to be the same poem but use different words, but once I did it, I saw it was the poem. It was one of the easiest poems for me to write. I didn’t have to do much revision on it. It’s clear.

TM:  Water is one of the themes of the book, and I’m curious why.

KA:  It’s definitely that class. I was getting my MFA and in my last semester and I was taking that class because there was nothing else to take. You picked a subject and they wanted it to be about where you were. I was in Tuscaloosa, and I picked the desegregation of Alabama swimming pools. Of course, as I was doing my research and trying to write poems, I was getting mad. I didn’t want to read about it because it would just make me angry. So, I pivoted and changed my topic to documenting Lonnie Johnson, who invented the Super Soaker. A lot of the “Super Sadness!” poems were originally about the invention of the Super Soaker. I ended up shifting those and making it more about myself and my mental health issues, but I still wanted water to be a metaphor throughout the collection. I wanted it to not just be about other people. I wanted it to be about what I was going through in my head and blend cultural commentary with personal narrative. I kept changing my topics, but water was always there. Baptism. Getting my hair washed. Learning to swim. All these ways water was in my life.

TM:  The two “Super Sadness!” poems are very different poems and are paired in a very different way.

KA:  That first one was really about Lonnie Johnson inventing the Super Soaker and gatekeeping and racism. I didn’t change that poem a lot to make it fit my life. I just shifted a few words around and I think once I changed the title from “Super Soaker” to “Super Sadness!”, it aligned in a way that made me feel like this is what I’m supposed to be writing. When I was talking about Lonnie Johnson, they felt empty. His story is amazing, and I would love to document it, but I couldn’t just make it work. I wrote the second one because I didn’t want to finish the first one. It was a poem about what I was going through at that very moment. I’m not a writer who can write in the moment. I need time to assess what I actually felt, but when I was writing those “Super Sadness!” poems, I was able to write about what I was feeling in the moment, which was brand new for me.

TM:  There were a few poems that really got to me. I’m sure you’ve heard some of this, but “I’m the note held towards the end,” which was a good poem is also brutal and I would imagine not easy to write.

KA:  It’s actually my favorite poem in the collection, along with the last poem. Just because I like how that one looks. [Laughs.] But yes, that poem was brutal, but extremely necessary for me to write. I got to get that out of me through the lens of this song that I love, but I’m writing about something very, very difficult. Also, during this time, I had started therapy and was dealing with repressed memories that I had never talked about. Writing that poem was a brutal and beautiful experience. It also made me realize that I could listen to music and get so many different takeaways from it. On the surface this song is about sex but also the way that she holds the note, it feels like pain and release and banishment. It was very quick to write this poem. I did it in one take. Over time I edited it, but the meat of that poem came out very quickly. I’m learning to trust when that happens. The content made me think, I can’t share this, but also: you have to share this. So yeah, it’s a very special poem to me.

TM:  You said before that you need time and distance to process things and write about them, and there are a few poems like this one that are about the process of stepping back from things.

KA:  And being able to see it clearly for what it is.

TM:  Some of that distance and clarity comes from having the language to understand what happened.

KA:  What you said. Having the language. I wouldn’t have been able to write it without that time where I could access the language. I literally did not have words for these things. Giving yourself time and space to form the language is so, so important.

TM:  I really wanted to talk about “Happy 100th birthday.” My grandmother had dementia for years before she died, but there are lines especially—for example—“All yo history / in rooms with none of you / in it”—that resonated in beautiful and brutal ways.

KA:  Thank you. I came home to Dallas and it was my great-grandmother’s 100th birthday and my granny wanted to go to the gravesite. My family is not the type of family who goes to visit gravesites except after the funeral. So I went with my aunt, my mama, my uncle, and my granny and I realized that we had a lot of dead family members in this graveyard. [Laughs.] I had a realization that I was so thankful to have been able to spend time with my great-grandmother, because she lived into her 90s. She died of Alzheimer’s and one of my biggest fears is forgetting my life or losing myself, because I saw that happen to her. When I started writing that poem, I wanted to document the times I remembered her on the decline of her memory. I felt like I had to write it for my granny, as well. She never really talked about losing her mother. It had to be hard to see the way that she went. I really just wanted to show those memories in the midst of her losing her memories. Because it is terrifying.

TM:  You mentioned loving the last poem, “Gifting back bread & barren land,” which is a very ominous title, especially as a final poem.

KA:  That wasn’t the last poem at first. It was the opening poem. I had a few people tell me, no, but I couldn’t let it go. I was just so married to this poem. I think because I felt like a poet for the first time when I wrote it.

TM:  What did it mean for you to feel like a poet?

KA:  It was scary! [Laughs.] It was a happy scared. I was excited but also, oh shit. You work towards something and you’re happy that its done but also, you’re fearful because you’ve got to do it again. [Laughs.] It was the first poem I wrote that I was super proud of. Before I wasn’t sure if my poems were poems, if that makes sense? But with that one I knew, this is it. I wanted it to open the book. I feel like it encompasses a lot of those underlying messages. I’m not 100 percent happy with it at the end, but I know it makes more sense at the end than at the beginning.

TM:  Was part of feeling like a poet is just feeling out this structure and the voice and the themes—and making it feel like you?

KA:  It was that. I really took my time on it. I felt like a poet because I felt like myself. I didn’t feel like I was trying to mimic the poets I love and am inspired by. I took time to figure out the language. I always think about rhythm. I felt victorious writing that poem. That’s dramatic to say. [Laughs.] I felt like myself and that made me say, you are a poet. There’s not one way to be a poet. Poets don’t all fit the same aesthetic or idea. Writing that poem felt like me and the way that I talk and how my mind shifts from subject to subject in the middle of a sentence. It felt peaceful.

TM:  In your poetry and essays your language has this musicality, and there is this restlessness in terms of moving from one topic to another and making connections between them.

KA:  You’re saying the perfect words. Restlessness. And recklessness! [Laughs.] And rhythm. All R words! That’s something I don’t want to lose. I think that’s why I feared saying I’m a poet. I felt like I might lose that urgency that makes me want to keep writing. Which is crazy, because poetry is the greatest genre of writing ever.

TM:  Music is so important for you. Was finding a way to bring musicality to your language, and finding a way for that to work on the page, the big challenge for you as a poet?

KA:  My biggest writing inspirations are people who write songs. I’ve always been a person who studies lyrics. When I listen to a new album, I’m going to listen to it the first time and read the lyrics alongside. If I don’t like what you’re saying, it’s hard for me to care about the music. When I first started taking writing seriously, I really just wanted to mirror songwriters that I like. I wanted to write like Amy Winehouse, who is an amazing songwriter with an amazing voice. I think about people I obsess over and how can I insert myself into the conversation. I hear certain phrases from certain songs, and I will want to write around those phrases. I’ll create prompts like that. Musicality has always been the thing that I feel like I’m reaching toward in my work and I want to honor how much music in my life has saved me.

TM:  Do you enjoy giving readings?

KA:  I’m learning to. I’m learning to love reading poetry aloud because I’m learning my own flow and my own rhythm of how I want it to come out versus how it looks. That’s why I like points like Danez Smith because Danez is one of those rare talents who is just as effective on the page as they are on the stage. You don’t see that a lot. Sometimes something will hit when you read it, but when you hear it, it’s all right. I’m learning to like reading, but I’m one of those people who can’t concentrate at readings ‘cause I get stuck on some punctuation. [Laughs.] So yes and no.

Pause is the thing I want in my work. In music something can hit so hard and so viciously because there’s silence between the words and that’s where the music comes in. I want to be able, as a reader, to honor those pauses and that silence because that’s what I do with my line breaks. To explore those pauses. I’m learning. But I’m getting better.

TM:  Now that you think of yourself as a poet, are you writing more poems? What are you writing now or thinking about next?

KA:  I haven’t really been writing poetry, but I know it’s coming. I’ve been working on essays and I’m working on how to make the essay as imaginative as possible. I don’t like being bored when I’m reading or writing. I’m taking a lot of the things that I learned from writing this collection and trying to bring it to essay writing. I’m trying to figure out how we can bring lies into creative nonfiction—and how it can still be the truth. [Laughs.] So I’m experimenting with that in terms of form and content.

Bonus Link:
Into the Liner Notes with Kendra Allen

Celebrating What Defines Us: The Millions Interviews Joshua Bennett


2020 was a big year for Joshua Bennett with his first nonfiction book, Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and The End of Man, out in the spring and last fall, his second collection of poetry, Owed, was published by Penguin. Originally a spoken word poet, Bennett has taken to the page in a remarkable way. His first book, The Sobbing School, was a National Poetry Series selection; his new book is a work of poetry and a work of cultural criticism and personal reflection, which seeks to reclaim what his childhood meant, and celebrate his true influences. Currently the Mellon Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College, Bennett and I spoke in October about our shared experiences; of being a scholarship student at private school; rejecting the narratives others wanted to craft for us; coming to rethink our childhoods and parents as adults; and teaching during a pandemic.

The Millions:  Joshua, I know you came up doing spoken word and poetry slams. What was your introduction to poetry?

Joshua Bennett:  My introduction to poetry was strange and multifarious: Sunday mornings indelibly marked by the rhetorical brilliance of Black Baptist and Pentecostal preachers; my sister taping Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” to the front of her bedroom door; the sounds of Motown each weekend as I did my chores begrudgingly. I grew up understanding poetry as an occasion for celebration and gathering. That has always anchored the way I encounter the page. I’m a self-taught poet. My approach to poems is rooted in love and continuous study. I had to read a bunch of books to figure out what I was doing and how to make it sing on the page the way I had always heard it sung aloud.

TM:  There’s always this tension between spoken word and written word and how to capture it on the page. A handful of people—Patricia Smith comes to mind—have been able to do both well, but it’s not easy.

JB:  Spoken word was a way for me to make friends. There was something about the incredible privacy of writing my first book that instructed me in other approaches to putting language together. I had to sit by myself with my fears and my shame—my joy and my dreams, too—to remain in that quiet and try to create something beautiful that no one would ever see or hear until I put them in a meaningful sequence. The part of my mind that composes for the stage, in that sense and others, feels like it’s working in a different mode than the part that composes work that is meant to be read.

TM:  People our age grew up surrounded by hip hop and that influenced so much about the way we thought about rhythm and lyricism.

JB:  I hope that’s right. Certain kinds of secular music were banned in my household, so my introduction to hip hop was my sister having Common’s Like Water for Chocolate as a kind of contraband item I could listen to when I got home from school. My friend Vincent would use Limewire to make mixtape CD’s that he sold for five dollars. I was one of his most consistent customers. That was my introduction to Biggie, Big L, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, and any number of other MC’s I would come to love over the course of my teenage life. The Diplomats eventually became another one of those early inspirations. Not only the rhythm and tone of the work, but more this particular approach to thinking about the relationship between violence and value. The music struck me as strange, insightful, astonishing. On-wax, the personae they invented and perfected were adventurers, outlaws. These were men essentially narrating their lives at the edge of life, without the protections of civil society. I didn’t grow up with money, but I grew up protected in a certain way. My father integrated his high school in Alabama. My mother grew up in a tenement in the South Bronx. They had a relationship to danger that was quite different from my own. In part because they did so much to try to shield me from it. That wasn’t always possible. But I developed a relationship to music that became a way to tell not just my own story in some pure, autobiographical sense, but rather as a way for me to imagine myself as a character in an elaborate origin myth that I could expand whenever I turned to the page.

TM:  I don’t think this is so much true anymore but, for a long time, you wouldn’t hear much hip hop on TV or in commercials, and a lot of parents wouldn’t let you play it. Hip hop was both a public and a private art form in a way, and I feel like I can see you straddling that.

JB:  I will say this. I don’t put anything on the page that I don’t think sounds beautiful when it is read aloud. But I do think there is a distinction between exceptionally good spoken word poems and poems that sing on the page. Some of that is about pacing or diction, and a great deal of it, of course, is one’s capacities and talents as a performer. Poetry slam is its own art form. We can discuss the ways that these genres and approaches overlap, while still honoring the fact some people are undeniably gifted when they step in front of a microphone, and that their mastery in that realm deserves its own kind of attention and recognition.

TM:  As far as your new book and the double meaning of the title “Owed” and “Ode”. The cover is a picture of you and your father and I kept thinking about what we owe our parents and the frame that they provide for our lives in so many ways, which is one of the threads running through the book.

JB:  That’s a beautiful reading. It’s also, I think, a way to approach the entire collection. What do we owe the people who made us possible? The book begins with my literary ancestors—Gwendolyn Brooks and James Baldwin and Herman Melville—three of my favorite writers and the ones that really taught me how to think about the social, political, and psychic roles of literature. The cover is a photograph that my mother took in 1992. It’s an image of my father holding me. His strength, his grace and vulnerability, are what laid the groundwork for me to pursue my life as a writer. He worked in the post office for 40 years and before that fought in the Vietnam War and before that was a little boy in Alabama eating red river clay and trying to dream his way out of his social situation in the segregated South. The reason he enlisted as a teenager was that my uncle wanted to fight in the war, and the recruiter told him that they wouldn’t take two sons from the same family. And so he tried to lay down his life for his little brother. He did the same for us every day. He worked a job he did not enjoy very much so that I could go to fancy schools and read books he had never heard of. In this way, he offered me a model for what it meant to be a man, a human being, a moral actor, that was immensely instructive.

TM:  An ode is celebratory and I don’t want to say everything in the book is a celebration of your parents and growing up, but looking back you find joy and strength and celebrate that.

JB:  Joy is the through line. And it always requires work. Or at least, in the contexts in which I first earned to talk and think about joy, this was the case. Pain or terror persists in the night, but joy comes in the morning. You have to go through a gauntlet to get to joy. It’s not easily gotten or reached—or sustained. So alongside celebrating my family and my neighborhood I wanted to celebrate spaces like the barber shop, the 99-cent store. I wanted to take my time and meditate on what made these places, people, and things wonderful and worthy of praise.

TM:  They definitely resonated with me and some of my memories of childhood and finding a way to look back and reconsider what that means as an adult.

JB:  Could you say a little more about why and in what ways?

TM:  My parents were the first to go to college and I was a scholarship student in private schools, and reading your books I could feel and relate to what it felt to be in those spaces and not fitting in. The ways that as an adult you recenter what you value and what it meant.

JB:  I hear that. And what I eventually learned, at the level of craft, was how to more insistently, consistently, praise the forms of social life that made the sorts of educational spaces you’re describing here livable for me.

TM:  The Sobbing School opened with a poem about Henry Box Brown, which was a poem about the fear about being defined by trauma, and Owed is very much a refusal to think that and celebrating what helped define you.

JB:  I don’t think I knew how sad I was supposed to be until I spent real time in the sorts of places we were just talking about. Does that make sense?

TM:  It does. We knew we didn’t have money, but so many people there defined us as lacking not just money, but so much more than that.

JB:  It wasn’t until I got a scholarship to attend an elite private high school, and spent my mornings and afternoons with the other scholarship kids—and this was quite a diverse group, it bears mentioning—all taking various buses and trains to get to Rye, NY that I realized I was supposed to understand my life as a tragic story. Arriving at this place was meant to represent a narrative shift. This was the moment where everything would change for the better if I made it through. A number of the poems in The Sobbing School reflect my attempt to work through some of that, how forms of this logic persisted through my educational experiences as an adult.

In Owed, I’m elaborating upon the grounding assumptions that structured my first collection, and its opening poem in particular, which is centrally concerned with the historical figure Henry Box Brown, as well as the larger relationship between trauma and performance. I discovered, writing the second book, another set of organizing questions. Who is to say that the places which formed me were ones defined, primarily, by lack and deprivation? What if my aesthetic sense as a seven-year-old of what was valuable, what was beautiful, was much more worthy of exploration? I wanted to honor that perspective. I wanted to honor the vantage of the living, irreducibly complex human beings from my neighborhood who supported that first book and posted my poems on Instagram and sent me notes about what it meant to see the places we grew up represented in a book. I had to work through, differentially, a certain angst about not being or belonging to the old neighborhood anymore in the same way. In this second book, I wanted to kick things into another gear, and assert a set of principles about what beauty is, what poems can accomplish.

TM:  As you were learning to write poetry and thinking about what writing for the page meant, who did you read and who were you looking to?

JB:  You already mentioned one of them: Patricia Smith. And especially her collection, Teahouse of the Almighty. I carried it with me everywhere. I’ve been on tour since I was twenty years old. I started performing at colleges and universities, high schools and middle schools, when I was quite young, so this reading practice while on the train, or plane, or in the back seat of a cab, was the training ground for me to become a poet whose work could live a full life on the page. Smith was one of those people who helped me to make that leap. Lucille Clifton was another. William Matthews. Amiri Baraka. Gwendolyn Brooks. W.S. Merwin was central. Especially because at this time I was thinking so much more about nature poetry for my larger, critical theory project. This interest brought me to people like Merwin and A.R. Ammons, who was also influential. You’ll see that more in the new book project I’m working on. Those are the first people I was reading. I was also engaging more consistently with authors I first met through the national spoken word scene. People like Sonia Sanchez, who I met at a poetry slam when I was nineteen years old. Thinking about her work in the context of the Black Arts Movement was helpful to me. June Jordan. B.H. Fairchild. Robert Hayden. This constellation of writers became my base, my foundation.

TM:  Was Terrance Hayes a big influence on you? I’m thinking especially of the influence of American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin on Owed.

JB:  For sure. I actually just taught his American sonnets alongside Wanda Coleman’s and my students loved it. I’m teaching a literature course with about fifty of them on Zoom right now, and the experience has been absolutely surreal. I met Terrance at the Hurston/Wright Foundation summer workshop that he led maybe five or so years ago. His work was formative for me, especially Wind in a Box. After discovering that book, I read his collections out of sequential order—Hip Logic then Lighthead then Muscular Music—before reading the most recent two in rapid, chronological succession. As a poet just starting out, I was blown away. I didn’t know you could do those sorts of things with poems.

TM:  You mentioned teaching and you’re at Dartmouth and I’m curious how you’ve had to reteach thinking—sorry, rethink teaching. [laughs]

JB:  “Reteach thinking” is interesting! I want to linger with that slip for a bit, because it resonates. I have always been interested in discovering—in part through my ongoing practice as a reader and teacher—more about what thinking is or can be, how that process is honed, sharpened, beautifully complicated by collective study. There is always some of that involved during a new class. What I’ve discovered anew teaching this course is how much of the classroom teaching business simply does not work without tremendous buy-in from students. This has, of course, always been the case. And perhaps if you’re especially charismatic and can get up and be James Brown for two hours no matter who is in the audience, it doesn’t matter if students are all that interested or vocal. But for me, looking at fifty students on Zoom panels is only a productive pedagogical exercise because they do the reading, and we can have a collaborative, productive discussion where people have interesting things to say about what the work makes them feel, what it helps them to imagine. It’s clear that we’re all going through it. I have gotten any number of emails from students dealing with heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Folks whose economic situation has changed during the pandemic. And in some of these messages, they’re apologizing because they feel like they can’t participate in the class in the same way. I always want to reassure them, in the spirit of Lucille Clifton, who taught me this lesson: Your work is not your life. This class is not your life. Your life is your life.

Put another way, I have had to re-think what exactly is that we’re doing here, and why. The class is called “Modern Black American Literature: Education, Abolition, Exodus!.” In this first section, we are discussing the ways that 20th and 21st century Black writers render schooling in their works, how for so many of them—and here we’re talking about Zora Neale Hurston, David Bradley, and W.E.B. Du Bois among others—unforgettable moments of racial antagonism and alienation occur in the classroom. In Du Bois’s “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” for example, the theory of double consciousness, as he narrates it, has its roots in a moment of racist encounter with a classmate. That’s when he sees the Veil descend. Teaching this material in our current context has been instructive. So many of my students, since I have come to Dartmouth, tell me that they are taking classes in Black literary studies because they want to learn how to be more thoughtful, decent people. That’s a tall order for literature. But it’s brought me back to a series of first questions. What is the philosophical content of African American literature, of Black poetry, as such? What does it make and demand of us? How might we think together about a way to save our souls and be good to one another? How do books, songs, poems, help us get part of the way there?

TM:  It is a tall order. And it sounds like you’ve managed to find a routine this year in the midst of everything.

JB:  My wife and I are expecting our son to arrive any day now. Before that, we moved from our old place. Finding a routine has been difficult, but it’s also been absolutely necessary. I had to finish these books. In part because I’m under contract, but also because I’m not going to have a lot of time to work on any of this stuff soon. That knowledge changed my relationship to writing. I had to wake up, feed our dog, Apollo, go for a run with him, and put in my hours with the poems and prose every single day. In that window, I wrote a new monograph, which you will all hopefully see soon, and put the final touches on Being Property Once Myself and Owed. It’s been a wonderful journey. I look forward to what the future holds.

Always Make it Personal: The Millions Interviews Adrian Tomine

- | 1

Adrian Tomine was a teenager when his self-published comic Optic Nerve first received attention, and in the years since he’s carved out a career as an illustrator, occasional New Yorker cover artist, and one of the great cartoonists of his generation. So much of his work revolves around silence, unexpected encounters, characters grappling with time and change. Tomine has made short nonfiction projects before, but his new book The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, which is designed to look like a journal, with pages in a simple grid layout, is as revelatory and complex as anything he’s ever made.

The book consists primarily of awkward moments, slights, humiliations, uncomfortable scenes that have stayed with him over the years. At the same time, Tomine drops the reader into each scene, jumping ahead months or years, his circumstances changing sometimes radically with few clues as to the details. The book, like in all his work, focuses on small moments and interactions that so often define our lives, and we see in these pages how Tomine thinks about and sees the world. It’s a moving portrait of the passage of time, the struggles of the artistic life, and the joys of fatherhood.

The Millions: You’ve made nonfiction comics before, but this is a very different kind of book for you. What made you interested in making something so different?

Adrian Tomine: For that very reason. Since around the time of my book Shortcomings I started trying to make each subsequent book in response to the previous one. Not wanting to repeat myself, at least in terms of form or tone. I felt like after finishing Killing and Dying—which was fiction, full color, short stories—this seemed like the natural alternative to that.

TM: In the final scene of the book you depict yourself getting this idea and starting to make the book. Was that how it started? Did you have this rough idea of the book more or less when you first sat down?

AT: I started an early version of it in a sketchbook and later realized that that might be my next book. Because I’ve had this job since I was a kid basically, whenever something negative happens in my life there’s some well-meaning person who says, it’s all good material. Usually it annoys me at the time, but I have to play along gamely. This book is a case of trying to make that true. Accumulating memories and experiences that might have been painful or annoying at the time, and trying to take control of them and make them into something that might be enjoyable or entertaining to other people. Including myself.

TM: Do most of your projects start in your sketchbook?

AT: To a degree. If you look at some other cartoonists’ sketchbooks you see that it’s their subconscious put down on paper. They’re compulsive in their sketchbook work, and they just open up their brain on the paper. Over the years I’ve moved away from that. Partly for practical reasons. I’ve got two young daughters I’m spending a lot of my days with, so I don’t have the time to mindlessly doodle the way I used to. But you can find evidence of all the books and stories in my sketchbooks. It’s not so much I stumbled upon it in the sketchbook and turned it into a book, but a lot of the work was done in my mind and getting it down in a sketchbook was a way of not forgetting it.

TM: You’re not making a whole book or even necessarily stories in the sketchbook, it’s just where they start.

AT: This one was different because I did start to sketch out very rough versions of some of the incidents that I described in the book. But it was much more rough than the printed version.

TM: The design of the book resembles a sketchbook or diary. And maybe this is obvious because its nonfiction, but it felt like it was your most personal book.

AT: It is. I think people will pick up on that right off the bat, as you said, because of the format and the main character is supposed to be me. The challenge for me with this book was to make an explicitly autobiographical story try to approach the level of revelation or confession that I’ve embedded in my fictional books. I feel like for my personality and my style of art that maybe these fictional stories like Shortcomings or Killing and Dying are the best way for me to express myself. When I took up the challenge to do an autobiographical book I didn’t want it to be like the Scenes from an Impending Marriage book, which was autobiographical but very lightweight and maybe a little bit generic in terms of how deep in delved. If I was going to attempt this, I wanted to get into a deeper level of introspection.

TM: I was thinking about how I know many cartoonists have similar stories. In thinking about what stories to include and how to approach it, were you thinking about not just how personal you wanted it to be, but how relatable?

AT: The first priority for me is to always make it personal—and make it true to my own experiences. With an autobiographical book like this I almost have to trick my mind into not thinking about an audience much and not worry about how it’s going to be received. Along with that, not worry about who’s going to relate to it. I’ve always said that I’m constantly trying to trick myself into the mindset of when I first started making comics as a teenager. I was making them purely for myself and when they ended up getting published, it was an extra bonus on top of the pleasure of having created them. Now that this book is going out in the world it’s interesting to hear from people who have had similar experiences or can relate to it. It’s really nice to hear from other artists of any kind that there’s something they found in common with these experiences. That’s a real reward for me.

TM: The book collects moments that are painful and awkward as you said, but they take a lot of different forms. There are moments of awkwardness, uncomfortable scenes of tour. There are moments of casual condescension towards comics. Odd moments of racism.

AT: Right now people are seeing excerpts from the story and it’s important to read it in full and get the context. A pretty long span of time progresses over the course of the book. There’s a lot of threads that keep coming up, but some of those things like the condescension towards comics is more in the earlier section of the book. Later on I’m at a New Yorker staff party. Hopefully when people read the whole book they’ll see there’s a primary action that’s happening in these very specific anecdotes, but with the passage of time there are background stories about the way that comics and cartoonists are treated. The fact that I go from sleeping on comic shop owners’ floors on tour to staying in hotels. You see my personal life evolve in the background. Suddenly there’s a kid—and then another kid. I hope that people will read an excerpt and think it’s funny but then get a little more out of it when they read it in the context of the full book.

TM: Narratively speaking, I couldn’t help but think that is one of the things that attracted you to this book and this idea. Getting to tell a story and depict time in a different way.

AT: I definitely started with the idea of all the anecdotes of being a professional cartoonist and then almost by default when you tell those stories in chronological order you have to show where you were living at the time or what the circumstances were. I started to see that it was hinting at other stories beyond the specifics of the personal embarrassments.

TM: The moment that really got to me was at the end. Where you imagined you were going to die but you weren’t thinking of work but of your family and that line “I guess I’m not as much of an ‘artist’ as I thought I was.” I’m sure you’ve heard this from others, but that was gutting.

AT: I’m flattered that people take that in an emotional way, but I wanted to present it as something of a relief. Something that might inspire people to give themselves some leeway. Especially among the cartoonists and artists I know, there’s such a pressure to be a great artist. And to be an artist above all else. When I had that experience, in a way, it was a pleasant thing. I took it as a positive thought to come to terms with who I really was and what my priorities are.

TM: Obviously having kids changed your life. Do you think it changed your work?

AT: I think so. Of course there’s no way to see the alternate path and see what the work would have been like otherwise, but my suspicion is yes. I was working on the book Killing and Dying over the course of both my kids’ births. It took me that long. I don’t think that the book would exist the way we know it if it weren’t for those experiences. Obviously the new book ends up being very explicitly connected to being a parent and being a husband.

I am totally open to the idea that some people might find it changed my work in a direction that isn’t to their taste. I think that the longing and loneliness of being a single guy in the Bay Area was really tied into the early years of my work. As a fan of other works of art, sometimes you want an artist to stay the same and keep delivering what you fell in love with about their work in the first place. I’m hoping there are some people who have aged and evolved alongside me and can still find something to enjoy now in my work. I can definitely understand if someone was just discovering my early work, they might be perplexed to see what I’m doing now.

TM: I understand that. I haven’t read 32 Stories in years, but I know I wouldn’t respond to it now like I did when I first read it in my early 20s.

AT: I sure don’t. [Laughs.]

TM: I know the film and story The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, but where did your title come from?

AT: That’s a good question. I think people would be shocked to know how much time and energy I waste on my titles. It’s not like they’re that exciting or explosive, but for some reason I fret over them a lot. The other autobiographical book that I’ve done was the wedding book and the title was based on the Bergman film Scenes from a Marriage. I thought, maybe my autobiographical books will take their title from a much grander and more respected work of art and pervert it for my own uses. That helped narrow it down for me. In the end I found the title that I settled on was the best description of what was inside the covers for me.

TM: Do you like the film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner?

AT: Yes. The funny thing is sometimes people will assume that those allusions are done in tribute to my favorite works of art. It’s not the case. I definitely am a fan of the things I’m riffing on, but I don’t know that that would be my favorite Bergman film—and I would be stretching the truth to say the film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is something I watch on a regular basis. The author of the source material, Alan Sillitoe, is great as well. A lot of times it’s just a balance of what’s something I can use that works best with my material. If the reference was something I really didn’t like, I probably would shy away from that.

TM: The story and the film were about running to find this physical and emotional escape from life. Being out there alone. It is the perfect metaphor.

AT: I feel a kinship with those themes. I’m sure actual athletes would scoff at the idea of comparing drawing comics to what they do. While I was working on the book I was thinking about cartoonist friends of mine who are older than me and have devoted their life to this. Trying to sort out the different feelings I had of admiration and thinking of them as role models, but at the same time feeling a little conflicted about whether I wanted to spend the next chunk of my life as devoted to the work as some of them had been. I think the loneliness aspect is open to interpretation. Especially now. I miss the solitary aspect of sitting in a room all day by myself and drawing. But I also would not want to miss out on a lot of the other aspects of my life that that might get in the way of that.

TM: The simple fact is that your life has changed, and your relationship to your work and to loneliness has changed.

AT: Now it’s a struggle to find alone time. I don’t have a separate studio. I’ve always worked from home. People will have their own opinions about it, but like I said it’s a bit of a relief when you can let yourself off the hook to a degree. “My friend did three graphic novels in one year and I didn’t do anything!” You can really drive yourself crazy sometimes.

TM: At end of the book, you’re questioning: Should I have spent my life on this? Do I want to keep doing it? It sounds like you’ve found an understanding and a balance.

AT: Yeah. I don’t know why it is exactly, but making these books is not easy for me. I’ve talked to other cartoonists and some feel the same way, but some have no idea what my problem is and don’t know why I can’t bash them out faster. Every time I’ve finished a book—probably going back to Shortcomings—there’s a part of me that thinks, this might be it. Maybe this is the last one. The idea of getting from that point to the finish point of another book just seems so daunting. I guess I’m in that same phase again where I finished this book—which in my mind was going to be a quick and easy one. I would make it sketchbook style, it would be autobiographical, and all these things that I thought would make it easier, but it still consumed my life more than I expected and took longer than I expected. It might be that I’m forcing myself to do something I’m not very suited to. But then I’m once again in this position of finishing another book somehow.

TM: Have you started thinking about or working on other ideas since?

AT: I have been. If I’m honest, the quarantine ended up falling at a fairly convenient time in my life. The book was done and was in the process of being printed. I gave me the opportunity to put being an artist on hold and assume the full-time responsibility of homeschool teacher–full-time playmate–personal cook–butler, all the jobs I’m doing for my kids every day. But I have a little bit of time here and there to do things. It’s nice to have this parallel career as an illustrator where I can take an assignment and be done with it in a week or two. I’m grateful that a few of those opportunities have popped up. Also I haven’t talked about it too much, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time the past few years screenwriting, which is another daunting and slow process. Over the last few years, there have been projects where someone else was adapting my work. Stuff where I’ve adapted my own work. Stuff with me generating something completely original. It’s been a little bit of everything. I should mention that none of it has come to fruition yet, so it’s possible that this will be the only record of that work!

TM: I’m glad all this happened at a moment where you could catch your breath.

AT: I’m grateful for that. My children don’t know it, but they are benefitting from the timing of this. I’ve always been in a bit of a bind about juggling my work and my parental obligations—especially since I work from home. I think this would have been a lot tougher if I was just finishing this book or trying to make a deadline on a book. Who knows what it will mean for my career or my income, but I’m trying to enjoy being a full-time parent as much as possible.

It’s Our Time: Cave Canem’s Founder on the Power of Poetry

- | 1

In her five books of poetry, Toi Derricotte has joined a generation of writers who have picked up the mantle of the confessional poet, seeking to blend personal experience with larger questions around race, gender, sex and identity. There is a specificity and an unflinching candor that runs through Derricotte’s work, incisive and unsparing toward everything and everyone—especially herself. This could seem cruel, but it’s tempered by what I called, in our conversation, a spiritual quality—she uses her poems to understand herself and to be understood by others, viewing self-knowledge and communication as vital, life-affirming acts.

Derricotte has received many award—including the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry in 2012 and three Pushcart Prizes—and is a Professor Emerita at the University of Pittsburgh. Derricotte is also the co-founder of Cave Canem, which has become one of the nation’s great literary organizations, receiving the Literian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community in 2016 by the National Book Award Foundation.

Derricotte’s new book is “I”: New and Selected Poems. We spoke recently about her work, career, and being hopeful at this moment.

The Millions: What was it like to assemble a new and selected volume of your poetry? Because this is your chance to define yourself and your work.

Toi Derricotte: My editor suggested I do a new and collected. When I started putting the book together I realized that it was an opportunity to think about all of my work as one long project. I have always thought of every book as its own project. How many writers get to look at 50 years of their writing in one book? I think that’s rare and I feel really good about it.

TM: You open the book with a quotation from Czeslaw Milosz: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.” I keep thinking about how much of your work has this almost spiritual element, interrogating your own life because you are seeking to understand and be understood and through that to find connection with others.

TD: I didn’t used to call my writing process “spiritual.” I don’t know what I called it. I thought of it as purely artistic. I knew that in my life I didn’t want to do harm to others the way I had experienced harm in my childhood. I wanted to find ways to be myself and to express myself without harming people. Putting difficult feelings into poems seemed a perfect way to do that. My mother was not happy about a lot of my work because I said things about my childhood that she considered to be untrue. She actually had a totally different memory of my childhood than I did. She didn’t believe she or my father had done physical or psychological damage to me, so in that way my writing opposed her belief and did harm to her. It’s difficult to sort out your truth from others’ truths, especially if your truth is not a truth that makes the ones you love comfortable. I grew up with a violent father and I had to be silent about my feelings. I had to figure out how to have power and how to express that power—and even figure out what power is, a different power than the one used against me as a child. As a black woman, there are so many layers to figure out—not only who you are and how you can be yourself in a racist world, but what is a self that is your own and not a response to someone else’s idea. It’s been a long journey. Now I think that journey has been about connecting to a deeper power, which is, I guess, what I would call a spiritual power.

TM: As you were talking about violence—I’m not religious though I was raised in the church—I was reminded of a quotation about hell being the absence of God.

TD: It’s funny you should say that because early on, that’s the way I was taught to believe in hell. In Catholic school we were taught that hell is a place in which you are out of communication with God forever, isolated from God. The most terrifying idea for me is to be someplace where I can’t be in touch with what I feel is the most beautiful and powerful part of myself, which is the way I think of God. Maybe that’s what depression felt like for me, being out of touch with the most beloved part of myself. Now I don’t think of God as something out there that I pray to. I think of God as working through me, and as a part of all of us. So yes, that belief is deeply at the root of my need to express myself and to be connected to others.

TM: I remember your poem “Speculations about ‘I’” when it was published a few years ago. Why did you decide to call the book I?

TD: My son came up with the name. I was going to call it Speculations about I and he said, mom, that’s boring, you should just call it I. Recently I have been thinking about how all of our life we’re in communication with our teachers—and we’re still learning from them, and arguing with them, too. In the book, I mentioned some of my teachers—Ruth Stone, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, and Galway Kinnell—but one of my teachers was M.L. Rosenthal. When I was in his graduate class at NYU in the late ’70s, we never read a woman writer in his class on Modern American Poetry. I remember questioning him, “Why aren’t we reading any women writers?” He said, condescendingly, one day, “We’re going to read Sylvia Plath because Toi has brought this up as something we must do.” Then he gave this brilliant talk about Plath’s work. He was the one who coined the term “confessional” about the work of Sylvia Plath, Lowell, and Sexton. He was a great critic at the time and when he used the word “confessional,” he meant it pejoratively. I think autobiographical writing has always had that tinge of, “Oh it’s just people talking about their feelings.” The poem “Speculations about ‘I’” was written 40 years later. In a way it is an argument with M.L. Rosenthal, but really it’s my defense of myself to myself because all along I was my own worst critic.

TM: What’s the earliest poem in the book?

TD: Probably “the mirror poems.” Those poems happened at the same time I started writing The Black Notebooks. I was in a suicidal depression, the worst one of my life, after my husband, son, and I had moved into an all-white area 10 miles from New York City, Upper Montclair, N.J.. We were the first black family. Three months after we moved in I remember just sitting at the dining room table scribbling on a piece of paper. Just recently I found that piece of paper. I had scribbled, “The Black Notebooks,” which was the beginning of the book I didn’t finish until almost 30 years later. “The mirror poems” happened just as I was coming out of that depression. They’re such strange poems. They’re not autobiographical. In some ways I think they mirror the voice in “Speculations about ‘I.’” They kind of bookend each other. In both poems there is an external voice, as if it’s not the person, but a voice from somewhere else, a kind of mirror voice that is speaking about the person writing.

TM: The Black Notebooks is a truly great portrait of depression and the way you wrote about your illness and self-loathing really resonated with me and has stuck with me over the years.

TD: I’ve heard that from a lot of people. But of course I hope it’s much more than a book about depression. I meant it to interrogate aspects of the self through the lens of race. In my interactions with people, because of my light skin, I’m not recognized as black, so there is a lot of emphasis in that book on the dangers and internal conflicts around visibility and invisibility.

How do you come out of silence, which is so terrifying, and make a real connection unless you face the thing that makes you most fearful? For me, it was rejection, by isolation and alienation from my “family,” from my deepest roots, from other black people. As a matter of fact, when that book was published I got a phone call from a man at the Black Caucus of the American Library Association who told me that The Black Notebooks had just won the award for the book of the year. I said, “No, it didn’t.” [Laughs.] He said, “Yes, it did.” I said, “No, it didn’t.” I had prepared myself for the worst thing I could imagine: to be hated by the people that I most wanted to be accepted by, to be hated for having conflicted feelings about being visible as a black person. It was a great gift. I realize now that it was a message from the universe that I was on the right track: that being vulnerable, telling the truth about myself was helpful to others.

TM: There are many reasons why I can’t imagine what it was like to be at NYU back then, but you also came up at a time when Plath and Lowell had done important work, but they were also dismissed, and they had difficult lives. It feels like it was harder to have a model about how to write and live.

TD: Every writer has to speak for the time. The important work that Lowell and Plath were doing was breaking open some things that were stuck. Certainly ideas about what it was to be a woman. Plath didn’t have a community in which she was accepted and understood. I think that was a big problem. Lowell was stuck in this weird aristocracy, but he was also mentally ill. They were doing very important work as poets and I identified with that work. I too wanted to write about parts of my experience that were damaging. When I was looking for a community for support, for other writers I could identify with, I found myself among feminist and lesbian women writers, Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, where I felt safe to explore aspects of my life that weren’t “pretty.” In some ways I think I was afraid that some of the poets I admired in the Black Arts Movement would feel that my poems betrayed blackness, because I talked about internal doubt and problems. Over the years, I have not found that to be the case. I have been loved and supported by many writers who were major poets within the Black Arts Movement. My advice to a new writer is go where you need to go to get the support you need to write. You have to find the cracks where you can get a little juice and live on that.

TM: I was thinking about that, in part, because one of your newer poems is “As my writing changes I think with sorrow of those who couldn’t change.”

TD: That’s so true. That’s what can happen, I think, with success, you’re appreciated for a certain kind of work and you get stuck; you’re afraid to change. It’s scary to change.  That could happen to me. I don’t know. Success is hard for a writer.

TM: Has how you write changed over time?

TD: It’s certainly easier for me now. Every book is formally very different. I’ve always had to find a formal way to handle the new material I needed to write about. Bringing content and form together has meant that every book looks different—and I can see that in the new and collected—because the content is always different. I had to find ways to formally express that difference, though I always felt at war with form. I saw form as an expression of the dangerous aesthetics that had demeaned and excluded black poets.  I had to find ways to both contain the poem and, at the same time, explode form. I think it was good because it produced the tension that holds the poems together; but I don’t feel that same tension in my writing now. I feel like the work just flows from a place that feels more me, me in a bigger way. I don’t know. I just feel more in the center and in control right now.

TM: I wanted to close by asking about Cave Canem, whose motto is “a home for black poetry.” I feel like almost every African-American poet I know or have interviewed has some relationship to Cave Canem. I interviewed Kwame Dawes a few years ago and he said something that I feel like you can relate to, “We are not inventing a community. What we are doing, though, is adding to the community’s ability to communicate.”

TD: Yes, it’s all of these places where energy is being connected. Cave Canem starts each year with the opening circle. All 50 or so fellows, faculty, and staff sit around in a circle on opening night and talk. There are so many things that happen at Cave Canem, and not because Cornelius Eady and I sat down and thought, we want this. I’m not saying we didn’t have a plan or we didn’t work for it, but a lot of things happened just as a result of us figuring things out in the moment. Like, the first night of Cave Canem, I’m not sure why we moved the chairs into a circle. I remember the room being set up in a traditional way with all the chairs facing the front. I’d been working in the Poets-in-the-School program for 20 years and I always had the teachers arrange the chairs in a circle and I knew the advantage of this. It’s not that it was an accident that the chairs were set up in a circle at Cave Canem, but the way that happened is like so many things that are central to why Cave Canem works. The idea of a circle is that there’s no real leader and everybody’s an equal part of the way we’re all connected.

I think it’s an expression of something bigger too. This is a hard thing to talk about, but I visited a lot of white homes when I was a child. I could visit white homes because I think the white parents didn’t know I was black, and so I had a few white playmates that I’d leave Conant Gardens to go and visit. Both blacks and white weren’t supposed to cross the dividing line. Our parents said that cars would hit us if we crossed Ryan Road, which was a busy street, but I think we all knew that the real reason was the dividing line between whites and blacks. However, the black people in my neighborhood didn’t stop me and I was curious. This was in the days when kids just went out and played. They weren’t watched that much. I’d go to the visit white friends, but I never wanted to be white. There was something that I did not feel was happening over there that was happening in my neighborhood, and among my own people. It’s true it was terrible in my home, much sadness, anger, and depression, but there was also vitality and joy and love. I have no idea where it comes from or why it’s there, but I think it’s a way of connecting. I think the power of Cave Canem is in the ways of connecting that are becoming more and more available now. It’s like coming home and finding all of the people we were separated from in the Diaspora. It’s like heaven.

TM: I think it’s impossible to talk about 21st-century American poetry without talking about the people who have been a part of Cave Canem: Tracy K. Smith and Terrance Hayes and Patricia Smith and Major Jackson and Elizabeth Alexander and Claudia Rankine and Natasha Trethewey and Yusef Komunyakaa and others.

TD: That is really, really true. Of course Cornelius and I did not have this in mind when Cave Canem began.

TM: So, you did not intend to transform American literature? I’m making a note of that for the record.

TD: [Laughs.] We were hoping to make it from one day to the next! But I do remember when we started saying things like, “That guy will be getting the Pulitzer Prize.” We started thinking this way probably six or seven years into it. But we knew it was a powerful thing on the very first night. It was beyond anything we could have imagined. From the first night, we knew how powerful it was.

You and I talked about spirituality. Some people don’t want to use this word but I really see Cave Canem as evidence of something at work beyond us. We had a closing circle at our first retreat and I remember this huge gold moon shining over us. I really felt it was the universe saying, “This is your time.” It’s our time. It’s something to do with change—with changing literature and maybe changing the way we see our country, and even the world. Tracy K. Smith organized an event at Princeton a couple months ago, a coming together of African-American poets and scholars, and it was wonderful. People were saying, “Is it possible to think that poetry can change the world? Can poetry make change happen?” People are starting to ask this. Not saying that poetry makes nothing happen, as the line in Auden’s poem suggests, but that poetry can make something big happen. This is a fragile, scary, but actual thought being spoken.

Writing Has to Have an Edge: The Millions Interviews John Edgar Wideman


For more than four decades John Edgar Wideman has written novels, short stories, and nonfiction books that have chronicled contemporary American life while considering larger questions—historical, cultural, and existential—that underlie it. His new book is American Histories: Stories, a title could encompass a lot of Wideman’s work. John Brown and Frederick Douglass, Romare Bearden, and Jean-Michel Basquiat make appearances, but the stories are also about suicide and teaching writing, family conflicts, and relationships.

The book comes out less than two years after Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, about the father of Emmett Till. For people of Wideman’s generation, Emmett Till’s story is personal but also universal. Many Americans have talked about growing up with that photo in their houses, and what it meant. Wideman sought to uncover more about Till’s father Louis, who was courtmartialed and hanged during World War II, and to interrogate what his life and death mean for the present moment. That journey and the resulting story, which is ultimately about what our society was–and continues to be–is an example of how Wideman has always balanced the personal with the universal.

I began reading Wideman as a teenager and he was one of the first writers whose work forced me to consider structure and genre in new ways, think about how new narrative structures and ideas can be a valuable way to rethink the past. His work taught me to be conscious of the author, reconsider what a novel could be. These two new books are among the best of his career and I would place American Histories as his very best collection of stories. Now in his 70s, John Wideman’s work is as relevant and timely as ever, and he remains one of our best, most important writers.

The Millions:  Some writers think of themselves as primarily novelists or short story writers. Do you think of yourself or your work in that way?

John Edgar Wideman:  I definitely don’t think of myself as anything but a writer. Number one, that gives me a lot of license, but number two, that’s really how I think. When I start a piece I don’t start it as a scholar, as a short story writer, as a novelist—I just start writing. I have some things on my mind and maybe I get a couple words down, maybe I get a lot of words down first time through. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. The point is for me to have something that stirs me up enough that I go ahead and start thinking about it and put words down on paper about it. That’s the process. What I come up with, that’s kind of problematic. It depends on where the piece goes. A piece about Nat Turner or a piece about my sister can go in any direction—towards memoir or towards history, and that’s not my choice. I might think I’ve written a piece of memoir and somebody else might think I’ve written fantasy. The labeling is a part of the publication process, the settling in of the work with the public, and I don’t worry too much about that. In fact, I love the freedom of just starting out. That’s the whole point for me.

TM:  You might sometimes write a book like The Island, which is a nonfiction book about a specific subject, but otherwise you begin by just sitting down and writing.

JW:  I was speaking to the impulse in me. I have ambitions. If I’m working on a book of short stories and I want to have a couple more, then I’m in that mode. I’m thinking about stories and maybe I go back and read some of my favorites like Heart of Darkness, or Benito Cereno—just to get a little humility and put everything in perspective. [Laughs.] I’m working on a novel. Or I think I have a novel idea. I have a couple hundred pages written so I’m thinking like a novelist. I’m thinking this thing has to have some weight and some heft and direction so it’s a different mindset, a different framework. But it’s the work, it’s the doing it, that matters. Not what somebody calls it. Not even what I call it, for a while.

TM:  As far as a novelistic mindset goes, I think about your novels and I’ll cite The Cattle Killing, which is both my favorite and I think your best novel, and it does not function and it is not structured the way we think of a novel working.

JW:  Well, I would hope not! [Laughs.] One of the criteria for me of almost any work is how is this piece I’m reading connecting to similar kinds of material or similar attempts that I really like. How is it pushing those? How is it talking to those other works? What is it doing to try to talk to me about the tradition that I want to be a part of? It’s a kind of community and I want to see signs that the particular work I happen to be reading is pushing at the limits, opening up new doors, opening up new ways of seeing things. I may be paying attention to transitions in the new work that I’m reading or writing. I may be paying attention to characters. What are the boundaries in terms of chronology, in terms of isolation, in terms of context? Is the work I’m reading shifting these things and making them interesting? If not, then very quickly for me, I lose interest in the new work. Or interest in my own work—for a while anyway—until it begins to come into conflict with the borders, with the tradition, and ask questions about limits and tradition.

TM:  You’ve always been interested in that. One of the short stories in American Stories is a conversation between Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The way that Bearden used collage and the heart of his work, about changing perspective and ways we think about the work, is important for you.

JW:  Extremely important. It appeals to me that Bearden could spend a lot of time just holding a piece of material in his hands and looking at it. A literal piece of material, like part of a quilt made by traditional Southern quilt makers. He could hold that in his hand and live with it, maybe put it on the wall and think about it for a long time and daydream. That seems great. How the hell do you get that thing into a collage? Do you make a cartoon of it? Do you cut a swatch of it out? Do you try to reproduce it with a sketch or a painting? And what was so important about that anyway? What about the smell of it? What about the fingers and hands that made this? Is there a place for them in the collage? Maybe that’s what the collage is all about? Fingers and hands. Are they dark hands? Is that a connection? You go from there.

I want my interests to be piqued. My imagination is restless. I don’t work systematically. That’s not true; I do work systematically because I work hard. I’m very demanding of myself. I read about Bearden—I read a lot about Bearden—I scrutinized his work, I read biographies of Bearden, though not all in the same week or day. That Bearden-Basquiat story had an early form as an essay for a book about Bearden. For that essay I had done a lot of homework and had been back in Pittsburgh and walked some of the streets he walked, talked to some people who were Bearden experts. Reintroducing me to a part of the city that I thought I knew but had changed over time. Learning all that was fun and eventually some of that got into the story that appears in American Histories.

TM:  That’s been true throughout your career. There are events and ideas and concerns which you return to in different ways and different forms.

JW:  I think it’s been that way from the very beginning. I’ve just become more conscious of how my mind and imagination works. I’ve tried to take advantage of that and also prune it and control it and use it to my advantage. And the advantage of the readers. You mentioned The Cattle Killing and it’s a kind of collage. A very ambitious attempt, maybe, to squeeze into one moment the history of two or three cultures and many individual folks and many stories and many epochs in history.

TM:  You were saying that your mind may wander and be open to possibilities, but you work in a very disciplined way.

JW:  Yes, and I expect that in what I read. If not, then very quickly what I’m reading becomes a kind of beach book. All kind of writing is difficult. Any good genre of writing is difficult to do. It takes a certain kind of genius and skill and I respect it greatly. Distinctions are invidious. You read something and it grabs you and you enjoy the hell out of it and that’s that—Thank you, author, thank you, book. You don’t have to put it on the shelf of classics or beach books. It has a lot of qualities that connect it with both classics and books that people read on the beach and have fun with. So I respect good writing, but the stuff that keeps me going, that I want to come back to, has to have an edge. There are certain formulas at work in genre fiction that I get aware of. If you’re in the mood, that’s enough. But I’m more demanding in my reading time. I want to feel I’m pushed. I want to feel that I’m learning something about writing, about expression, when I am taking the time to read books.

TM:  American Histories is your second book in less than two years. Writing to Save a Life had a collage quality to it. The book was about trying to look at something from multiple perspectives and approaches.

JW:  One side of it is always the personal. My family background, my history. That’s where I come from. That’s the world I write out of and that is a certain kind of language—or many languages. They connect themselves to that world. I feel comfortable when I go there. And then whatever else happens beyond my mind, whether it’s the Berlin Wall or a sonata by Bach or a question about time, what makes some things visible and some things invisible—all that, it all starts from the personal, from the family. That’s what constitutes me. And then where I take that becomes either a good story or not such a great story or becomes a novel or becomes an essay. That’s freedom. I think I earned that freedom to move in many different worlds by becoming more and more certain about where I come from. My specific world even though that world always is changing. Hence collage. Hence at least two very different kinds of elements, the personal history and the larger history, cultural and sociological and political. The context in which I find myself.

TM:  Your work has always been very personal. You’re not the narrator of every story in this book or most of your work, but I feel like “you” keep coming up. Are you conscious of that?

JW:  I think what you see is what you get. I don’t want my presence as a narrator to be oppressive. I don’t want to foreground myself in the same manner with the same intensity again and again. I think that the whole idea of a narrative voice telling stories gives me—gives anybody—infinite possibilities. Like singing or like dancing or how you play a particular moment in a basketball game, it’s always changing. I work hard not to be the only character in my fiction or in a particular story, but when you get right down to it, what is a story? It’s a voice recollecting and putting together a narrative. So you start with that voice and how you erase it is just a matter of what, a matter of convention? I guess what I’ve been suggesting is that because I write narratives from my point of view all the time I’m demanding—demanding of other writers and myself—with this infinitely flexible range of possibilities, what am I doing with it? How do I not become overbearing? How can I avoid the kind of cliched methods of disguising my presence that traditional fiction offers? Any sophisticated reader at one level knows, I’m in the hands of a single person no matter what’s supposedly on the page. No matter what’s on the page, there’s somebody telling a story. We all know that. What’s funny is the range and the variety and how we keep coming back to the written word, how we keep coming back to story. The same way we continue to make love with each other. Even though we know where that’s going. [Laughs.] But you don’t, do you? Because it’s Susie this time and George next time or whatever. We know the game at one level, but good art makes it seem like a new game, a different game. One that we’ve never played before.

TM:  As you were saying that, I thought of your story “Writing Teacher“where readers might assume the main character is you, but by the end, that doesn’t matter because the story is ultimately about other things.

JW:  Whatever voice is telling the story of “Writing Teacher”—and it may be the voice of the writing teacher—is a conundrum. The forever receding thing here is that you cannot get to the end of. That was fun to try to play that out and attempt to make that very complicated set of affairs—writing and who’s listening and who’s doing it and how you do it and who’s explaining—which is always at work in fiction or teaching fiction, seem simple.

TM:  I’ve never thought of your books as simple, but I also don’t think of as hard.

JW:  Thank goodness. [Laughs.] I want more readers like you!

TM:  There was a very nice profile of you in The New York Times Magazine last year and part of it was about you being solitary and alone. Do you feel that way? Or is this what random journalists and essayists say about you for whatever reason?

JW:  Who knows? That’s another sort of writing and another set of conventions that people fall into. I enjoyed the writer of that piece. I enjoyed his company. We had a good time. He was a good reader and respectful and I respected him. We had a good walk, we had a good meal. All that was cool. I think maybe that’s why you liked the piece because it was produced from a sincere conversation that we both contributed to and had fun doing. A demanding conversation, however. But to your question, I am a solitary. I spend a hell of a lot of time writing in a room shut up with just myself. And when I’m not doing that I spend a hell of a lot of time walking alone. Hours. At this stage of my life I enjoy it. On the other hand, I depend very much on my wife, I call my family all the time, I travel to see people. But I think it’s inevitable as you age. Your family and friends are both the living and the dead. That’s kind of the hard truth. People are melting away and leaving all the time. So rather than protest too much, I think I’m just trying to accommodate myself to the way things happen to be. We’re born alone and we die alone and that’s unavoidable. But I like to have fun. I like to talk, I like to hang out, I love the company of my wife and friends. If you read a lot of my fiction, it’s about loneliness. It’s about wanting what is not available a lot of the time—a person, a place, a thing. But it’s also I think about sociability, about playing a game, about a crowd of guys on a playground. The ones who are playing and the ones who aren’t create a community and these communities are very, very important to me. Whether they’re in the past or whether I’m living in them right now.

TM:  One reason I ask is simply because so many profiles of writers seemed stunned to discover that the job involves being alone so much. There is a lot of loneliness in your work, but as you said, we’re born alone and we die alone.

JW:  I think the time I spend alone is more unusual than a lot of the time people spend looking at a phone or listening to a phone and talking with it. That’s not my thing. I’m not that generation. That seems to me a much more deeper kind of loneliness comes out of those sort of interactions. If I grew up that way I probably wouldn’t feel that way. Or feel so alienated from that experience of you and your phone or you and your screen. So I take walks. I don’t have earphones and I don’t keep the phone on. But I’m trying to do the same thing people do when they pick up those phones, I guess. Amuse myself and be in the world.

Words Can Sustain and Save Us: The Millions Interviews Marie Howe

- | 2

Over the course of three books, Marie Howe has established herself as one of the great poets of her generation. Her first book, The Good Thief, was chosen for the National Poetry Series by Margaret Atwood, and awarded the Lavan Younger Poets Prize by Stanley Kunitz. Her second book, What the Living Do, is about her brother’s death from an AIDS-related illness, and it marked a shift both in what she wrote and how. Since then, Howe has published the poetry collection The Kingdom of Ordinary Time and edited the anthology In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic.

In her new book, Magdalene, Howe writes about Mary Magdalene, but she’s also writing about all women. The seven devils that plague Mary are devils common to us all and the book depicts Mary raising a child, listening to the news, missing her teacher. She is struggling to be fully alive and to be a spiritual being. Howe writes about growing up in the Catholic tradition, about family, but also about words and the ways that they shape us, sustain us, and can save us. We spoke recently about these issues, The Lives of the Saints, public art, listening in the contemporary world, and how they play out in her new collection of poetry.

The Millions: Where did this idea for a series of poems about Mary Magdalene come from?

Marie Howe: I was raised in the Catholic tradition, and grew up with the stories and images of what we called the Old and New Testament. As a young girl growing up into a patriarchal world the female archetypes I absorbed weren’t the Greek gods and goddesses but were Mary and Mary Magdalene and the other saints: women who seemed to be the subjects of their own lives. They weren’t defined by a  prescribed plot. They were struggling to understand who they were, what they were here for, trying to reach through the muddle of whatever it is we live in to touch something authentic.

Like so many young women growing up in this tradition I was presented with two deep  archetypes: Mary the Virgin Mother and Magdalene the Repentant Prostitute. The early church fathers had created these myths. They manifest this intended split between the spirit and the body, the sacred from the sensual. Women have been wounded by them for  a long time. The wife and the whore—the subject and the object. How can a woman integrate her sexuality and her spirituality in such a culture? Magdalene has carried the burden of shame for the sensuality of women. I feel like I’ve been trying to write through her all my life. Failing—and failing and failing and failing. And then one day several years ago I was walking along the sidewalk and I remembered that she had been possessed by devils. I went back to the gospels and read Luke—Mary called Magdalene from whom seven devils had been cast out. I got to thinking what those devils might have been. That really opened this version of her. For years I’ve trying to write these poems and throwing them out, throwing them out. So many. And suddenly there she was. Well—she, me, who knows—but a voice came. And the devils of course were the devils that beset us all. They’re internal, they’re psychological, they don’t have to be blargh.

TM: I remember reading “Magdalene–The Seven Devils” a few years back before the book came out. It opens “The first was that I was very busy” and then you go through these devils and keep revising them. I kept wondering how autobiographical the poem is, which is a question I hate, to be honest.

MH: The whole book of course is autobiographical–and yet, not. In writing you use your life like wood and you burn it up to make the heat and the energy for the poem. To point out the details of the wood seems not as interesting as that. The wood is used to transform something into something else. What I can say is that when I read “The Seven Devils,” or many of the poems in the book, people come up to me and say, I know about that. My hope is that people feel more liberated and more identified with each other. There’s a quote in the beginning of the book from the Gospel of Thomas: “When will you be visible to us? and when will we see you? He said, When you undress and are not ashamed.” What a thing to say? When you undress and are not ashamed. I wanted Mary–a woman–who lives throughout time. Not just back then, but alive now. I wanted her to be able to undress and not be ashamed. Undress her consciousness, if you will.

TM: One reason I phrased it that way is that in this poem specifically you manage to be so very specific but in a way that so many people can see themselves in it, like a mirror. Stanley Kunitz had a line about art so transparent that you could see the world.

MH: “The dream of an art so transparent you can look through it and see the world.” My whole life changed when my brother John grew ill and then died with AIDS because that transparency became really important to me. Because the thing as it was was enough. It doesn’t have to be a simile or a metaphor. The thing as it is. The ice water next to his bed, the glass shining in the shaft of sunlight, John’s hand. That’s enough. It didn’t have to be anything more than that. In fact to make more of it was to diminish it

TM: I was raised Protestant–and I’m a guy–so I only know The Lives of the Saints through women who were raised Catholic and obsessed over the book.

MH: And I bet you loved those women, Alex. [Laughs.]

TM: Well, yes. [Laughs.]

MH: Perhaps women were looking for lives of women who led passionate lives and acted on that passion. The truth of the inner lives of women wasn’t available to me growing up. In 1980 Lucille Clifton and Sharon Olds and Audre Lorde began to open the door to poetry. The real stories of women’s lives. In the 1950s, in the early 1960s, I was looking and looking for stories of how women searched for God or searched for meaning. My mother had nine children. All of her sisters had nine or 10 children, so I had 100 first cousins. Their lives were–god bless them–given over to this. The saints weren’t necessarily mothers, they had chosen another way. They had chosen a life that wasn’t necessarily in the service of others–although sometimes it was. There was an excitement in reading about these people who might have entered a monastery or led an army of France and also they were the only stories I had ever read that were about women’s psychological and spiritual development.

TM: In your previous book you wrote a series of poems about Mary, before she was a mother. Did this book grow out of a similar impulse?

MH: I used to write Christmas plays we kids would put  for our parents  My brothers and sisters did not always enjoy this. They grew increasingly alternative. By 1968 the angel carried a machine gun. [Laughs.] The Jewish tradition of midrash, which is imagining your way into the silences of the stories of the Torah–what we call the Old Testament–has existed for centuries. You could actually imagine what Eve and Adam did on the first day out of paradise—did they have sex? did they not? That tradition has long existed and I didn’t know it until I was older, but I feel that the imagination is a way into truth. Wallace Stevens said, “God and the imagination are one.” There are so many silences in the stories and for me, they carry archetypal values. So Mary Magdalene who was in all the paintings the repentant woman in red–that’s nonsense. I wanted to write about a woman’s real life–her sexual life, her psychological life, her interior life, her desire for a teacher, her desire for meaning and peace. The dualism that we all live with in this culture is so much rougher on women. Men suffer, too, but women suffer terribly from objectified dualism: virgins or whores, sexual or sacred.

TM: One poem that jumped out at me was “The Girl at 3” and the line “the interiority we create by reading is rich and lonely.”

MH: We chose logos over image–word over image–long ago, and there are those who suggest that’s what separates us from ourselves and from reality. I think I was reading into that and at the same time my daughter was learning to recognize letters. And of course I was thinking about the paintings where Mary, the soon to be mother, is reading something in the painting and the angel appears and she holds her place in the book to receive the angel. We know that when  any annunciation occurs–no matter what it is–you’re not the same person after it happens. Maybe it’s I no longer love my husband, maybe it’s I no longer believe in God, maybe it’s I’m going to adopt a child. After any kind of annunciation we’re not the same.

The notion of Mary reading at all is of course a fiction. Meister Eckhart says that perhaps Jesus is the fruit of Mary’s enlightenment. Isn’t that radical? Jesus is the fruit of Mary’s enlightenment. I love that. He goes onto say that each of us can become the mother of God. And he means that in an almost Buddhist sense. That we are that which we seek.

 TM: One writer I’ve talked with has pointed out that grimoire, the old word for spellbook, has the same etymological root as grammar. That to write and read and name things is a form of magic.

MH: In the beginning was the word and the word was made flesh.

TM: The word preceded the world.

MH: Or as Meister Eckhart said in his first sermon, every creature is a word of God. The word of God–whatever God is, I don’t presume. When I say God, I wish there was another word. This energy or whatever–every creature is an expression of that. Yes, a spell. But poetry is a spell, isn’t it? That’s what one hopes. A spell that returns us to ourselves. Not that it bewitches us, but I feel like the poetry that I love is the poetry that returns me to myself whole for a minute. It’s so rare to feel that way.

TM: Do you think of writing as a spiritual act at its core?

MH: I do, because it involves a wonderful contradiction which is in order for it to happen you have to be there and you have to disappear. Both. You know, nothing feels as a good as that. Being there and disappearing–being possessed by something else. Something happening through you, but you’re attending it. There are few other things in the world like that, but writing is pretty much a relief from the self–and yet the self has to be utterly there.

TM: People have talked about the relationship between poetry and prayer and how do you think of that relationship?

MH: As Bob Dylan says, you’ve got to serve somebody. [Laughs.] Might be the devil or might be the lord. I feel like poetry for me is in service to something greater than myself. Everything is greater than myself. [Laughs.] But [in service] to the great mystery of being alive. So many people I have loved are dead now. And I will be dead one day. How strange is that? To know that we’re alive and that we’re going to die. Poetry can hold that. It holds that knowledge and it holds that dialectical energy field–we’re alive, we’re going to die, this is now, and in a minute it will be past but it will still be now. All of that that occurs when we read a poem.

TM: Writing is its own thing, but to read poetry, to recite it, definitely has some of the quality of prayer.

MH: I’ve been thinking about the word sacrament lately and what is sacred in our culture. I think poetry is one of the last places where the inner life of someone is held sacred. How it feels to be alive is held sacred. That reading it is a sacrament. Writing it–when one is in the right attitude and position, whether it fails or succeeds–is a kind of sacrament.

I studied with Joseph Brodsky the great Russian poet and how do I say this, he thought we were lazy American students. We had to memorize 500 lines a week and come in and write them out for him. He said, you Americans are so naive. He said, you think that evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots and climb up the stairs–it begins in the language. Look to the language. He said, in the Soviet Union, nothing is permitted and everything is important. In the United States, everything is permitted and nothing is important.

What is important? Especially now that so much is externalized through social media. The inner life, where we actually live most of our minutes of our days, is still a sacred place. That’s where transformation occurs, where all sorts of things occur, but it has to be nurtured. My concern is that with externalizing of experience many, many young people are not nourishing that inner space. It hurts to do so. It hurts to read a poem sometimes. It’s demanding in a way. It calls you to yourself and it’s sometimes difficult.

TM: Speaking of language, your last book was titled The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, which is a phrase with religious meaning. Today people talk about real life and real time in a way no one did just 15 or 20 years ago.

MH: Remember how it started, when things began to be in quotes? Like “home made” food or “natural” food. When people began to put those words in quotes, what does that mean? Now the quotes are gone. It’s real life, real time. There’s no way we can stop this, but we can drag our inner lives along with it and try to make sense of it. I feel like people are hungry. People my age want to be together and read books and talk. I wish we could spend days talking about what we’re losing with all of this speed. People are lonely. We want to be in the same room with each other. We want to talk and hang out and we’re just so busy. It’s consumerism and capitalism. Capitalism has stolen our sense of time–that truth that time belongs to us.

TM: You were the Poet Laureate of New York state, you did a lot of public events, and when you first got the post, you said that you wanted poetry to be as ubiquitous as Gap ads. Which I love. I think that’s my fantasy of a city.

MH: Wouldn’t it be great? The Poetry Society of course puts poems on buses and we need more and more and more. People are hungry for it. We just did a huge event called The Poet Is In at Grand Central Terminal. We’ve done this three times now but this one was the biggest. At Central Terminal at Vanderbilt Hall, right next to that clock, from 11 in the morning until 8 at night, there were six desks beautifully produced by the MTA art and design people and a production company called Wizard.

There were six poets that changed every hour so you could come and sit down and talk with the poet and the poet would write you a poem after talking to you. Forty-eight poets participated in the course of a day and the line of people waiting for a poem was an hour and a half long. And people waited. An hour and a half. It was so amazing. You would ask a lot of questions and then you would take their answers and transform them and give it back. You would type it out on the typewriter with carbon paper, stamp it, sign it, separate it and you would read it to the person. People cried all the time. The person cried, the poet cried, and then you would give them poem to them–free. I want to do this all over the country. I think we’re not used to being heard. We’re not used to someone listening to us. And somehow transforming what we said to them and giving it back in a way that only poetry can do. It’s so startling.

TM: Right now we’re at a moment where rapacious capitalism is running the government and they don’t believe in arts funding among other things, and people are now asking in a very fundamental way about what is important and what do we value.

MH: I was just outside Chicago and in Indiana and the world is so big, the country is so big, but everybody wants to read a poem when their father dies. Everybody wants to read a poem at their wedding. Everybody wants to read a poem at these crucial moments in their life. When there’s a ritual. When there’s a sacrament, essentially. They want something that can hold the moment. If people don’t turn to art and they don’t turn to religion, we’re left with consumerism.

After September 11th in New York these big sheets of paper would go up and people would write on them. Like by the arch in Washington Square Park. People were reading what other people had written. It was so amazing. People would crowd in and read all sorts of things that other people had written. We need public squares.

TM: We need moments where we stop and listen to each other.

MH: Poetry stops us and gives us something in common. I still believe that we could get poetry more into the public world. Unfortunately a lot of people believe they can’t read poetry because they were taught in school that it was difficult. Some poems are difficult, but many are not and so people are afraid–they don’t know where to go they don’t know what to do. I feel like we have to ambush them with something to realize that they don’t need to do anything more than just read and they’ll receive it.

TM: The last line in your book is “the moonlit path over the un-walkable water.” It’s a beautiful line and I feel like moonlight is an image that comes up a lot in your poetry.

MH: I’m in love with the moon. I mean, who’s not? It’s so amazing. To me, what we’ll call the divine is unseeable, unknowable. But we can see a reflection of it. We see it reflected in each other’s faces, we see it reflected in art, we see it reflected in the beauty of the world, the sorrow of the world. My friends actually mock me about this. We spend time in Provincetown every summer and the moonlight across the ocean makes that path, that wide amazing radiant path. It looks as if you could walk upon it to whatever is next. But of course you can’t walk on the water. I was also thinking of Peter who walks on the water when Jesus says, you can do it. Jesus walks across the water to the boat in the storm and he tells Peter, come on, and he starts to, but then Peter says, I can’t walk on water, and falls.

It is un-walkable for most of us, and yet it’s so compelling. The sun is the source of life and everything that is, but we can’t look at it. We can only look at it indirectly. The beauty of that indirectness is also the moon and how it falls onto the ground and onto us. I just love the whole physicality of it. What Mary is facing is human limitation, sensing that there’s energies that are beyond us and yet seemingly known, but not being able to utterly participate. It’s what you said early, just there but not quite.

TM: I guess in some sense that’s poetry. It’s the word describing something, a reflection of the thing itself.

MH: Beautifully said. The word isn’t the thing itself and yet it can be close enough because we have this imagination and we can say apple and we can picture an apple.  And the apple is there.

The Story Is Never the Whole Story: The Millions Interviews Daniel Mendelsohn

- | 1

Daniel Mendelsohn is one of the most prominent classicists in America today. A contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, he’s also a professor at Bard College. His 2006 book The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Memoir, among many other awards, recounts Mendelsohn’s attempt to discover what happened to six relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. It is also a book about storytelling and how we construct our identities and our relationship to the past, issues that recur throughout his work, including the memoir The Elusive Embrace. He has also translated the poetry of C.P. Cavafy and established himself as one of the most significant critics and cultural writers of the moment. Mendelsohn has the kind of wide-ranging mind one hopes for from a critic. He ends up writing about topics that one might expect, like the films 300 and Troy, but he’s clearly a pop culture junkie writing about Mad Men and George R.R. Martin and Patrick Leigh Fermor and the meaning of the Titanic.

His new book An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic is about his father. At the age of 81, Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, attended his son’s weekly seminar on The Odyssey, and when the class finished the two took a cruise retracing Odysseus’s steps through the Eastern Mediterranean. His father died not long after; the book is about teaching The Odyssey, about the last year of his father’s life, and about Mendelsohn trying to better understand his father. Which happens to be one of the themes of The Odyssey. An excerpt of the book appeared earlier this year in The New Yorker. We spoke recently when he was jet-lagged in Paris on book tour.

The Millions:  Where did this book start? You wrote a travel article about going on the cruise with your dad not long after it happened.

Daniel Mendelsohn:  All my books accidentally end up being books. As soon as my dad asked me to take the course, I thought I would do something with it because the experience at a certain level was just so amusing. I may have even called my editor at The New Yorker. When we were on the cruise, I think I started thinking that it was going to be a book. It was after he died that I looked back at what had turned out to be the last year of his life and saw that the whole thing was one story—the classroom and the cruise and the hospital. On the cruise I started to think it would be a book but I didn’t know at that point what the narrative was, what the shape of it was, but I knew I had a story. Several months after daddy died I started thinking, this is the book. I knew that I wanted to map the structure of this book onto The Odyssey somehow and figuring that out took me a while.

TM:  Anyone who reads you knows that structure is very important to you, and I can only imagine how much time it took to figure out the right structure for the book.

DM:  That’s a shrewd observation. I had a lot of material. The classroom was so funny at times and also so poignant at times. Then the cruise with the cave and the guy with the scar on his leg—and not getting to Ithaca. I thought, life is handing me a great story. The Lost took me one third as much time to write as did this book, although one could say it’s a much more gigantic story. It took me a very long time to figure out how to map this onto the structure of The Odyssey. It was not easy. It took a long time. People said, it’s taking a long time because it’s your dad and he’s passed away now and it’s so sad and emotional. I said, no, actually that’s not the reason. I love thinking about my dad every day. It was like a nice haunting. It was hard because I wanted to be echoing both the structure of The Odyssey and the development of the themes of The Odyssey. Going from this education of the son to this metaphorical emphasis on recognition at the end of The Odyssey and then at the end of my father’s story. That was not so easy.

In my review of the movie Troy with Brad Pitt I began by quoting Aristotle—which is probably too big of a stick to use on Brad Pitt. Aristotle has a very interesting observation about the other so-called epics about the Trojan War that did not survive. Every aspect of the Trojan War had an epic about it, from the judgement of Paris to the death of Odysseus. We only have The Iliad and The Odyssey. Aristotle said some of these other epics just weren’t that good, and the reason why is because they told the story in the order that the events happened, which is a mistake that Homer did not make. I realized about two years into writing this book I was making exactly that mistake. In other words, I told first the class, then the cruise, then my father’s illness, and death in that order. Each element was interesting, but it didn’t have an interesting structure. I never share my work while I’m writing except with my editor and a close friend and mentor of mine, Bob Gottlieb, who used to run Knopf and The New Yorker. This was literally only a year ago. I had hundreds of pages and Bob said, the problem is when you get to the end of the school year, you don’t want to go on. That’s the narrative, the class. You have to think of a way to work everything else into that. Literally the minute he said that I burst out laughing because of course, I need to do this Homerically, which is, to think of a way to fold the other aspects of the story into the classroom narrative. The class is the spine of the book. I have to talk about the cruise while we’re discussing Odysseus’ adventures at sea in the class. I have to talk about the illness and death when we’re coming to the end of the class. Then the whole thing fell into place and I was finished in two months.

TM:  As soon as he said that, the structure presented itself to you.

DM:  It clicked into place all at once. He said, you have to think of something and he didn’t know what it was, but the minute he said that, I thought, duh, you have to think like Homer.

TM:  You make the point in the book that The Odyssey is much more narratively and structurally complex than most people understand.

DM:  Oh my god, yes. The Odyssey is—in an almost postmodern way—aware of its own narrative devices. In fact it draws attention to its own constructed-ness, so to speak, in a way that is just amazing. I remember reviewing a very good book, that I quite liked, by Zach Mason called The Lost Books of the Odyssey for The New Yorker. I said this book is very clever and interesting, but you’re never going to be more clever than The Odyssey itself because it already anticipated all these games. One of the things I really wanted to make people aware of in this book—through getting to be a fly on the wall in the seminar—is how incredibly structured The Odyssey is and how alert it is to the tricks of narrative. All of my books, starting with my first memoir, are obsessed with narrative and truth-telling and the way that lived history becomes narrated. It’s very interesting to me. It’s a theme that binds all of my memoirs together certainly.

TM:  I think thats true. Your books are about how we construct our identity through narrative.

DM:  Precisely. When I was writing my first book, my grandfather, who reappears in The Lost, is sort of the figure of narrative. He is a great storyteller. In both books I become alert to the way in which the self fashioning through narrative can be misleading. Not necessarily in a sinister way. I think quite often people narrate themselves not with the intention of deception but because they honestly believe that this is who they are. That this is their story, if you see what I mean. I’m fascinated by this. It’s also a way of alerting my readers to the fact that even though these are true stories that I’m telling in my book, they are constructed as narrative. The story you’re reading is never the whole story because if you told the whole story, it would just be boring.

TM:  I know you’ve written about this a lot, and I’ve written about it a little, but the fact that the memoir isn’t a recitation of events; it’s about the psychoanalysis of the self, it’s a consideration of what those events mean, it’s much more complicated than just what happened.

DM:  The memoir is a highly crafted version of unedited reality. Nobody wants to hear a boring story. The Lost is highly obsessed with the dangers of narrative because I’m trying to get at a historical truth. When I was on book tour for The Lost, a woman in the audience very nicely said, I loved your book and I’m so glad that somebody has finally told the whole story of this one little town. I burst out laughing and I said, if I had told everything that I heard, it would be 2,000 pages long and unreadable. It’s not a matter of fact or fiction, it’s not a matter of you’re making it up or whatever—even if you’re just relating things that happened or things you heard, you’re shaping it, because people want to be enticed by a narrative. In this book I’m doing that very deliberately by evoking parallels with the themes and structure of structure of The Odyssey—which is itself a text which is very alert to the enchantment and seductions of narrative. It’s over-determined in a kind of fabulous way, but of course I don’t talk about the boring parts of the cruise or the days we just sat around waiting to get somewhere or the questions that people asked at the site of Troy that weren’t interesting. You’re always shaping and when you’re writing this kind of thing you are writing in a way to convey what you think are the insights that you have had about yourself. But of course who knows what you’re doing unconsciously, right? That’s for the critics to figure out.

TM:  I think you were harder on yourself than you were on your father in a lot of ways.

DM:  I take that as a huge compliment. I think when you’re writing memoir obviously the great danger is to glamorize yourself. Even through a kind of disingenuous negativity by saying, oh I’m so terrible. I think I’m pretty tough on both of us. The Lost was about the search for the identities of people I had never known. So in a funny way even though the subject matter was so painful, it was easier to write. This book was about my father, and for that reason I was bending over backwards to not sentimentalize either myself or my relationship to my father. I thought that was very important and I think it’s something he would have approved of given the kind of person he was. [Laughs.] He didn’t like mush. You’re probably right. I may have bent over too far, but the hero of this book is not me. The hero of this book is my father. It’s like those bunraku puppeteers who dress in black but you only look at the puppet? I wanted to be like those puppeteers, not intruding too much because it is about my father, although obviously through the lens of my relationship with him.

TM:  I guess what I mean is that you don’t overdramatize anything, you’re not overly sentimental, and you write that when you were young you were embarrassed by him. You make it clear that this isn’t about a distant father and a dutiful son.

DM:  Absolutely. When you write a memoir, you have an unwritten pact with the reader that you have to expose even the unattractive aspect of your narrative. I’m not talking about, I had a problem or I had an addiction. I mean really embarrassing things that make you squirm and might make the reader squirm, but I think you have to do that because that’s why the reader is on board. In particular, reading a book about a father-son relationship, I just felt I owed it to myself, I owed it to my father, and I owed it to the readers to put those mortifying, uncomfortable moments on the page because that’s the bargain you’re making. Look, no one has perfect relationships with their parents. We’re all embarrassed by our parents at some point in life, but only a few of us get to write about it. That’s the point hopefully when the reader will say, aha, I never really went there or talked about this, but I know what it’s like to have a parent you’re sometimes just mortified by. I don’t think it reflected well on me but I was 14. This is life and you have to be honest about it.

TM:  As you were writing these moments seemed to present themselves. Like the man on the cruise with the injured leg. The emotional climax of the book is your father revealing himself to you and the class when you’re discussing Book 23, which was echoed in the very last scene of the book.

DM:  I reflected on this a lot when I was writing The Lost when there were so many extraordinary coincidences. Truly amazing things happened that you wouldn’t believe if it were a novel. I had a long passage in The Lost where I reflect on that and I say it happens because to some extent you make it happen by putting yourself into this story. If you sit at home on your sofa nothing’s ever going to happen. Just by putting yourself out there you make things happen. You know what this is like as a writer when you’re working on a thing, suddenly everything becomes about that subject. Everything becomes irradiated because your perceptions and sensitivities are engaged. It’s not that more things are happening or more coincidences are happening, you’re just noticing things you never would have noticed before because you weren’t writing a book about them. I was just lucky because the one time my father really responded positively to The Odyssey was on the last day of class when he said this amazing thing. If you read the passage it’s not like he bears his soul, but for him…That’s a great vehicle for talking about how you turn experience into a narrative. What I had to do in order for that moment to feel like a climax, which is how you just described it. It is the emotional climax of the book, I would say. What I had to do was to create my father as a character in such a way that for him even to say that feels like a huge climax. Everything before then I have to choose out of everything that he said and did, those things which I thought illustrated his character in such a way so that by the time you get to that I think amazing moment where he started talking about my mother in class you’re like, whoa.

TM:  And then you play with structure and time so that you jump to you relating it to your father and show her reacting to it.

DM:  Here also I’m imitating slightly something that Homer does; he gives you reaction shots, as it were. I felt that to be an extraordinary moment in the classroom and I know that some of the students did, but then I choose to narrate the conversation that I had with my mother about that because she thought it was amazing too. It was a way of locking the significance of that moment both when it happened and afterwards. I didn’t have to describe the conversation I had with my mother—although that conversation leads to what I think is the second big emotional moment at the end of the book. I was trying very hard in this book to avoid over-dramatizing and that’s why you get in the conversation with mother as a throwaway remark the information that finally explains why my father didn’t go to the high school he always wanted to go to. For me that was a very big emotional moment, but I bent over backwards not to spotlight because I think it’s more devastating if you experience it the way I experienced it, which was in passing. It’s a throwaway remark from my mother because she’s not thinking about what I was thinking about at that moment.

TM:  That’s also a narrative tool, to have a great emotional moment but not to dwell on it or emphasize it.

DM:  That’s a thing that happens in the work that I admire the most. You’re not showcasing the big emotional moments and I think they’re more devastating for that reason. I always think of Proust where you meet Odette de Crécy early on in the novel. She’s a major character and the focus of a lot of narrative attention and you’re led to believe that this fancy aristocratic name that she has is one of these made up names that high-class courtesans gave themselves. I think it’s in the fourth or fifth volume where in passing the narrator meets the Count or Maquis de Crécy and you realize that Odette really was married to that guy. Every time I encounter that I’m just blown away by how brilliant it is. A thing that interests me is retrospective emotion, when you think oh my god that’s what that thing was and you get that kind of pang. I’m fascinated by that because to my mind it has 10 times the power of some big drumroll cymbals clashing kind of climax.

TM:  It gets at this point, which is at the heart of so much classical Greek literature, that character is destiny.

DM:  Right. It’s interesting when you think about what is this book about. Yes, it has a plot, which is the classroom and the cruise and the hospital, but like The Lost is a search narrative, the search here is just to know who my father was. You can say, well who cares who my father was, except that we all have fathers and mothers and we never quite understand them. This book I would say what it’s about is a series of gentle revelations about things that I never guessed about my father or why he did them. I thought I knew who he was and then through a kind of odyssey and sequence of events, people saying things—sometimes knowingly sometimes accidentally—reveal the key to major episodes of my father’s life. That’s about character. So much of Greek literature—particularly tragedy, my scholarly specialty—is about how events reveal character. That’s all that tragedy is about, one could say. That’s what this book is about. As with tragedy, you could say who cares about that person’s character, but you want to do it in such a way that it can be enlarged and become a metaphor for a certain type of experience. In this book the type of experience that I’m interested in is a child’s partial knowledge of parents and a child’s partial understanding of his parents’ marriage.

TM:  You get at this in the book that so much of The Odyssey is about this father-son relationship and the education of a son into the wider adult world.

DM:  I think that’s about as good a way you could put it.

TM:  You’ve been teaching these works for years, I wonder if there’s been a shift in how students respond to Homer?

DM:  It’s an interesting question. I don’t mean to be evasive, but I have two answers to that question. On the one hand, I don’t want to call it superficially but certainly the students now are interested in things because they’re being raised in a different culture than I was raised in, so they’re focusing on things that they have been trained to notice. I got here yesterday afternoon and a kid who graduated from UVA who I met and kept in touch with is in Paris so we had dinner together. He had just finished reading The Iliad and I said what did you think? What he was focused on was why aren’t there more female characters, why there aren’t more strong female characters, what is Achilles’s sexuality exactly, to what extent is the text explicit about his relationship with Patroclus. I thought well of course because he is a product of contemporary college education where—and I say this with approval—they’re focusing on issues of gender and sexuality. Every generation has its own focuses and lenses, let’s call them.

That said, at a whole other possibly larger level, I would say no, there is no difference. [Laughs.] I started teaching as a graduate student in 1989. The fundamental elements are still fundamental and it doesn’t matter what gender or sexuality you are—or what class, something contemporary students are rightly zeroing in on. Who are the slaves? Beyond that I think they’re all finally susceptible to the great power of both The Odyssey and The Iliad in the way they present in the strongest and also most stylish way the fundamental issues of human existence. That’s why they’re classics. I always like to say that the great advantage to teaching great books is that they are great. It’s not like we’re trying to sell you a bill of goods here. [Laughs.] We’re not trying to sell you a lemon and dress it up as a Cadillac, they really are great.

I had never really understood the extent to which The Odyssey is obsessed with familial relationships and particularly father-son relationships, as you were just saying. Even people who haven’t read The Odyssey know that it’s a famous story about a guy who’s trying to get home to his wife after 20 years away from home. But in terms of pure real estate, more of the poem is devoted to father-son relationships than to husband-wife relationships. I’ve never done a count, but my hunch is it’s just as much if not more so. The Greeks were obsessed with this as a patriarchal society. Surprise! Odysseus in the book has a double role. He is both a father to a son he doesn’t know and didn’t raise and who has found other father figures to be his father in his absence, but also at the end of the book there’s his old father that he has to reconcile with, come to terms with. As I think I point out in the book, the climactic reunion of The Odyssey is not Odysseus and Penelope, it’s Odysseus and his father. Even structurally the emphasis is clearly on that relationship. I understood this, of course. I taught it a million times, but somehow it just hit me this time around. Look, we all have parents. We all watch them getting old. Those of us who have children watch our children growing up. I think many people feel, did I miss something in my child’s growing up? This is a text that speaks very loudly and clearly and powerfully.

TM:  One reason I ask is because the military has been sponsoring performances of Greek tragedies for soldiers and veterans and using them as a way to talk about war and trauma. I know The Odyssey is often talked about in a post-traumatic context.

DM:  I’m not a big fan of those readings. It’s not because I don’t think they’re not true, but I think it leads to the possibility of a reductive reading and I am always militating for expansive reading rather than reductive reading. I reviewed one of those productions, of Euripides’s Herakles, which is adapted as a war hero with post-traumatic stress disorder. I think the danger of that is reducing the complexities of extremely complex works of art for the purposes of contemporary psychologizing. It’s not that I think they’re wrong, but because their emphasis is on trauma I don’t like the idea that people will think that’s what they’re about and thereby exclusive of other readings. Ajax suffers this kind of madness for reasons that are made very explicit in the text that have to do with hubris and Greek theology and the whole system of honor and heroism. I’ve spent my whole career trying to argue for the continuing, vivid relevance of these texts, but there’s more to the story than just this kind of interpretation. I have been certainly been keeping abreast of these performances before veterans and obviously the veterans are responding. If you get a group of soldiers and they’re crying during Ajax, I’m never going to argue with that. But there’s a much bigger picture. I’m a product of a certain moment in classical education when I was in grad school. One was constantly reminded that they were a very different and often strange civilization in comparison with our own. One can go down a slippery interpretative slope if you want them to be a perfect mirror of contemporary experience because they’re not. They had this wacky religion, they had very weird ideas about gender and sexuality, and you have to be careful about how you use them I guess is the point of this digression.

TM:  When I talk with people who are adapting or interpreting classical stories, we talk about how pop culture stories are often fundamentally different from classical stories. Classically character was destiny, and in contemporary stories that means everything is awesome, I guess. I still remember your review of Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man musical and how she was trying to combine the comic book transformation with the mythical tradition of transformation and they don’t quite match up.

DM:  Exactly. Listening to you one thing that flashes through my head is that maybe these Greek texts have a kind of hardness and durability because they don’t make a mistake which I think is the great mistake of so much popular entertainment—sentimentality. Modern superheroes are all essentially optimistic visions of transformation. The transformations are always empowering, where you need to only read two pages of Ovid’s Metamorphosis to understand that the ancient transformations are very problematic. The essential vision of life is pessimistic and these transformations are punishments, so [Taymor] was trying to conflate two essentially incompatible visions

TM:  This is incredibly geeky but Spider-Man always fights people who go through animal-like transformations—The Lizard, The Rhino, Doctor Octopus—and they are flawed tragic characters caught up in this web of hubris and obsession. Who are then defeated by, I guess, a can-do American attitude?

DM:  I think that’s a brilliant observation. The Greek dramatists would focus on the villain in the Spider-Man stories, not on Spider-Man. That’s so interesting because they’re all grandiose strivers who go wackily wrong—both physically and mentally because of their grandiose ambitions. Those characters would be of much more interest. Back to Taymor, you have made a much more interesting way of stating the issue that I was talking about in the Taymor production—the villains are so much more interesting.

Because the heroes are so obviously heroic, the drama about the American hero versus the Greek is they have these double identities. The drama is generated by the necessity of keeping the heroic identity secret. That’s the great anxiety. There is no inherent drama in the way the Greek mind would understand the word drama in these heroes. I’m not saying this is a lesser theme—especially today when we’re so alert to issues of identity and concealment. There is drama in that, but it’s not what a Greek dramatist would be interested in. Obviously identity and self-revelation are very interesting to Homer in The Odyssey.

TM:  You wrote that great piece in The New Yorker about Mary Renault and your correspondence. I was curious if you planned to write more about it or do something with the piece?

DM:  I do have an idea for a book. Bob Gottlieb suggested it to me after I wrote that piece and I always listen to him. A book with a title like My Old Ladies. I published that piece on The New Yorker website about this fabulous elderly French lady that I boarded with when I was in college. I could write about [my teacher] Froma. How continually I’ve come under the influence of these very strong older women. As I recall, that Renault piece was probably 14,000 words. I think to amplify it would be a matter of adding more detail but not more structure, so I don’t know that I’m going to revisit that but I would like to assemble some of these ladies in one place. I could write about my mother. It might be a fun book.

TM:  I also read that you’re working on a book about reading the classics.

DM:  That’s my next book, which I’ve thought about doing for a long time. When I’m on book tour, there’s a huge number of people who really want to know why these great texts are supposed to be so great. Not in a skeptical way, but a lot of people are like my father, for whatever reason they didn’t get to read the classics or they sped through them in high school and as adults they have some sense that these texts have tremendous amount to say but they need someone who’s going to be the professor. I thought it would be a good to write a book, which in some sense is like these pieces I’ve done for The New Yorker about The Iliad or Herodotus or Thucydides. A number of chapters on different authors or genres, and just say, here’s what it is, these are the issues, let’s sit down and look at them together.

TM:  The description of An Odyssey sounds like the description of either a new sitcom or an Oscar nominated film, so I have to ask, have you sold the Hollywood rights?

DM:  [Laughs.] As my grandmother would say, from your lips to God’s ears.

Patricia Smith Wants You to Hear Every Gunshot: The Millions Interview


Over the course of her career, Patricia Smith has a reputation for tackling complicated ideas, combining humor and tragedy, and bridging the gap between spoken word and lyrical prose. She’s a four-time National Poetry Slam champion, a finalist for the National Book Award, and has received many other awards for books like Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, Blood Dazzler, and Teahouse of the Almighty. She edited and contributed to the prose anthology Staten Island Noir, and has contributed poems to many anthologies including the recent Bearden’s Odyssey.

Smith’s new book is possibly her best work to date, but it’s also a departure. Incendiary Art is a book-length sequence about violence and rage and fear. There is no narrative arc to the book, rather the poems and the sequences of poems function like a mosaic covering the life of Emmett Till, the voices of mothers whose children were killed, fathers who kill their own children, and urban violence ranging from the Tulsa massacre of 1921, the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, Los Angeles in 1992, and other events. It is also a very personal book; Smith writes of witnessing the 1968 riots in Chicago following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and many summers spent in the deep South with family. Her mother kept the photo of Emmett Till from Jet magazine on the wall of their house. We spoke about her challenging, complicated book, and why she felt it needed to be written.

The Millions:  Incendiary Art is an amazing book, but it’s also a really hard book.

Patricia Smith:  It’s funny you should say that. I’m so used to doing readings to promote a book. You pick out poems and you have your favorite pieces—balancing long poems with short poems, funny poems with serious poems and all that. It’s so hard to read from this without inserting poems from other books because there’s very little light in these pages. That’s not to say there’s no variety in the book, it’s just a really difficult listen unless you can work in a breather somehow. It’s been pretty revelatory because I’ve been reading poems that I haven’t read in years. This book has changed the idea of what a reading is for me.

TM:  I’ve heard and read your work for 20 years or more now, and Incendiary Art feels very different from your other books. Where did it start? With a single poem? Were you always thinking in terms of a larger project?

PS:  It started in a very strange place, with the sequence “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters.” I think I wrote “The Five Stages of Drowning” poem first. I had those two news items and I wasn’t sure where they were going to go. I wanted to examine the particular dysfunction that would lead a man to feel so disconnected from his daughter that he would use her as a pawn to punish the mother. My initial idea was to do a book on the many ways–both physical and psychological–that fathers can drown their daughters. For example, there are the stories about fathers in the heartland who “married” their daughters to keep them chaste until they were old enough for their own husbands. I started seeing a lot of things like that. I began to collect a lot of clippings and do a lot of reading about father-daughter relationships—not necessarily just black fathers. Because I had a really special relationship with my father. It started there, but I realized pretty quickly that that was a dead end.

Around that time, I was a teaching a class, telling my students they they should always listen for the voices they weren’t hearing. I talk about taking the time to look for an unexpected entry point into a poem. At the time, every two weeks or so there was another shooting of an unarmed man–usually by the police. I had my students look at news stories and I said, what is the voice we’re not hearing? I realized that there was always a very frantic shot of a mother in the beginning of the story and another frantic shot of a mother at the end when the person responsible for the death of her son or daughter was deemed not responsible for the death of her son or daughter. And then after that last frantic shot, the mothers disappeared. I thought about these mothers trying to re-enter their lives and what might be like. And so the “Sagas of the Accidental Saint” poems began that way. They wound up being the center, the focus, of the book for me. I tried to build everything else around that.

TM:  It is interesting that the Emmett Till poems came later, because those poems and the Incendiary Art poems are really the spine of the book.

PS:  The Emmett Till poems happened because Mamie Till was yet another mother whose son was gone. And I began thinking about the Incendiary Art poems during the riots after the death of Mike Brown. I realized how many times fire entered the picture, burning the landscape clean. I also heard someone ask, why do they burn their own neighborhoods? That made me think of the riots after the King assassination, which is when my neighborhood burned down. I spent some time trying to mix all these things and find a common entry point. Then I realized it wasn’t the subject matter, it was the fact that I was the one handling the subject matter. The same feelings kept rising to the surface even though I was looking at different topics. I decided that the idea of the changing landscape, the landscape that’s cluttered and confusing but that gets burned to the ground and starts over, was what I wanted at the center of the book. That encompassed all those different parts in my eyes. And hopefully in the readers’ eyes, too.

TM:  The Incendiary Art poems loosely connect Chicago in ’68 and Tulsa in ’21 and the MOVE bombing, and they’re all about fire and violence and rage, but the connection is in part, as you said, that it’s you telling this.

PS:  I guess there might be a stronger connection in my head simply because I was right in the middle of the riots in Chicago [in 1968]—and every time I see a riot of that type, it pulls me back to all that heat and chaos. It also makes me think of what it must have been like in Tulsa and wherever. I wrote because the connection felt strong for me and I hoped that some semblance of that connection would come together for the reader.

TM:  I know people who still talk about Emmett Till in a certain way and it was because he could have been them and they’ve never forgotten that.

PS:  That’s what my parents felt and that’s what they tried to drill into me. That’s why they had the Jet magazine picture in the house, the picture of Emmett in his casket.

TM:  How did you come up with the idea of writing about Emmett Till in the style of a “choose your own adventure?”

PS:  I used to love those books when I was a kid. And I as I get older, I look back on things and think a lot about the role of chance. I had just read about Mamie Till trying to get Emmett to go with her to Nebraska and then giving in and letting him go to Mississippi. I went through his whole story and said, where else could things have changed? I was one of those kids that was sent South. I was sent to Greenwood Mississippi every summer to get away from the city and run and be free and all that, but as soon as I got there I was presented with a whole set of rules. I was told how far I could go down a certain road or what man I should definitely not speak to if I happened to run into him. There were those same types of rules on the west side of Chicago. The South looked freer. It looked like you could run and play and do things you couldn’t do in the city, but it just operated under a different set of rules.

My mother probably didn’t think of it this way, but it was so frightening to have that picture torn from Jet Magazine in the house all while I was growing up. My mom believed that the way to get through life was to be as beholden as possible to white people. If she was in a room and a white person walked in, her whole body would get smaller. She tried really hard to teach me how to live like that—not only because she thought that was how to be successful in the world, but because it was the way to stay alive. You don’t talk back, you don’t do this, you don’t do that. If you said the wrong thing to the wrong person you might wind up in a shallow grave somewhere–and you never knew who the wrong person was. I thought about that a lot.

TM:  “Sagas of the Accidental Saint” is the center of the book in a lot of ways, and you have this long sequence where you have one line on a page–“The gun said: I just had an accident”–and it goes on, page after page. It’s a long and complicated series of poems and those 10 pages with one line each were almost exhaustingly long. How did you decide on that length and that effect?

PS:  I knew the whole sequence was going to be long. I worried that people wouldn’t know that first long sequence was in the mother’s voice unless I said, this is in the mother’s voice. I really wanted to impose some form on that segment. I assume everyone reads aloud—which may or may not be true—but I wanted there to be something intriguing about the passage outside of the content. A sound that a reader wanted to keep coming back to. A lament. I didn’t want to have names that people necessarily recognized immediately in the cases I cite. I want people to know that while they see these things in the news every once in a while, the tragedy is a more constant and consistent drumbeat. There’s a case in the news and then maybe a case a month later, but no, it’s more often than that. It’s something unfortunately that’s numbing and a certain portion of the population gets used to it. If there’s something very public or brazen about it then maybe it makes the news. Nowadays it makes the news usually because there’s film. I wanted people to say, I don’t know that name, I didn’t know that name, I didn’t know how many times people committed suicide with their hands tied behind them. I wanted it to be relentless, but I didn’t want it to be too much.

About the repeated bullet line—when I had it printed out to read, I realized that I would pause a certain number of beats between each repetition of the line—and that it was just enough time for a page to turn. So I then printed it out with one of the lines on each page. There’s something striking about the physical act of turning the page. If you say it and you breathe and you turn the page, people have said to me afterwards, you feel like you’re being held captive. You don’t realize it until maybe the third time, oh my god, she’s going to do that 10 times. Because there were 10 shots. I want you to hear every gunshot—and in order to replicate that feeling, it’s not enough to stay on one page and say this happened 10 times. The time you take to turn the page is enough time for the gun to fire again. I’m always trying to give the reader at least as much of me in person as I can on the page. Whenever there’s something like that, when I can do something to help you hear me saying the poem, I’ll do it. I was afraid that when I spaced those out the way I wanted that the publisher would say, this is too much, this is too long, but they were very supportive. They knew exactly what I wanted to do and we kept it that way. It also helps me when doing readings because if I read the whole “Sagas of the Accidental Saint,” it’s half an hour. It helps me to be able to take two or three of those cases out of Accidental Saint and read them as individual pieces.

TM:  Have you always written that way? Thinking about sound and meter and trying to replicate the way you read on the page?

PS:  Almost from the beginning. Because I got introduced to poetry by getting up on stage. The audience can only hear the poem once. Normally they don’t have a copy they can read again. You have to be very cognizant of not only the poem’s content, but the fact that it is able to be received and interpreted relatively easily. I didn’t know I was doing this consciously until I started to really study poetry, but I talk aloud while I write. I say one line over and over until the next line comes and then I say those two lines until the third line comes. Not only will I have internalized the poem somewhat by the time I’m done, but I’m really conscious of the way the words reach the air, how they sound. I think that is the result of me spending so much time doing poetry for an audience, before the idea of the reader was ever really clear to me.

When I started to study poetry, I realized that there were poems I go to again and again. I even know them almost by heart. But every time I see these poems I read them all the way through—why do I do that? Because the poet did something technically to help heighten my response to the poem and I didn’t know what it was. I wanted to know what those sounds were called and what was happening with meter. They have to work hand in hand—the content has to be something that draws the reader in, but so does the sound. If I can take something horrible and lend music to it, you have to read it. If I can take something beautiful and add some sort of cacophony to it, you have to read it. Meter is something you have in your toolbox that can really enhance a poem in a lot of ways. It would be overwrought if you did it all with the content, but you can do something that the reader can’t point to right away, and they can leave the poem with the feeling you want them to leave with, without knowing how they got it.

TM:  You contributed to the recent anthology Bearden’s Odyssey, about Romare Bearden, and I liked your poem in the book, but I kept thinking that the way that Bearden used collage is similar to what you tried to do in Incendiary Art in some ways. Were you conscious of this? Were you familiar with Bearden’s work?

PS:  Not really. I mean I’d seen pieces of his before, but I never studied his work. I looked at more of it when I was presented with the idea of the anthology. The idea of collage however, goes back to Blood Dazzler. There’s a poem in Blood Dazzler about the 34 nursing home residents who were lost in Hurricane Katrina. People ask me about that a lot. It’s sort of a juncture for me because I so often turn to persona. That was the first poem, and I thought that was going to be the only poem, resulting from Katrina. That’s the poem that I had. I didn’t intend to write a book. Our lives are one long narrative and every once in a while you see something and you take a picture—I want this moment, I want this day. I pictured a camera moving around that room. The lights are out, the water is rising, and people are pushing call buttons and no one is coming. I wanted a camera to scan that room and I wanted it to stop and maybe it only stops for a second, but a second of life is better than none.

In Incendiary Art, I felt for a long time that I needed to do more to pull together the sections. It wasn’t enough that we’re talking about different types of loss. That’s overarching. If I think about African-American lives and I think about those long narratives and those snapshots, if you put all those snapshots on the table and someone looks at them, they’re going to have a hard time putting together a story. But if you realize what narrative they came from, then you’ll know what the story is instinctively. That idea of the line of lives and pulling what we need from it—those moments, those instances, those days—whatever you need to piece this life together.

One of the things about Incendiary Art is that I didn’t know how to end it. There is so much I felt that I needed to keep in the conversation. This happened with Blood Dazzler, too. I had people say to me, you’ve got to hurry up and get this book out because people are going to forget about Katrina. The idea of someone forgetting about something so huge and important was so amazing to me. How? And now I hear people saying, you hardly hear anything about the men and women who died at the hands of the police—I hate to keep saying that—because of all the political turmoil that’s now piled on top of it. People were paying, or pretending to pay, a lot of attention to that until our very survival as a country became an issue—and now our focus is in a million different places at once. All I want is for someone to pick up Incendiary Art or pick up Blood Dazzler and say, that’s right, this is happening. That’s what I want. Maybe it won’t last long, but for the moment they’re reading those poems I want them to be thoroughly involved in what they’re reading. The idea that things have to be tied together tightly or that they have to lead so directly one into the other, I think I’m walking away from that idea.

TM:  I could feel rereading those last few poems that you were trying to find a way to close the book. You couldn’t have an Emmett Till poem be the last one because him being alive wouldn’t work, even though you make it clear that only chance keeps him alive. But you seemed to be trying to find some light.

PS:  It was a difficult book to close. There’s not a narrative arc in the book. I wanted that last Incendiary Art and that last Emmett Till. We talked about the gun said I just had an accident, and that was another way to close the book, with that ellipsis that keeps going. I wanted Emmett to be laughing and alive—which goes back to that idea of chance. Taking this turn instead of that turn. I was in a store here in New Jersey the other day and in the current political climate someone can very nakedly stare and sneer at you publicly, as if they’re daring you to say something about it because they’re emboldened. The question is, because I’m a very impetuous girl, do I say something back? If I say something, does the person get in their car and follow me home? There are dangerous situations in places where I’m not used to being frightened. That idea of not knowing who your neighbors are. Having people who were content to be hateful in private in their basements are now out in the open. When I look back, I tend to say, that’s the way it was, but not the way it is now. To see that again—that’s as much light as the book could find. One of the things I ask my students is can we find beauty anywhere? Can we find humor anywhere? I think there might be a couple of moments where something visually is a little lighter, but there’s no humor in this book. When you said it’s a different book, I think it is.

TM:  After finishing a book like this, is it hard to let go? Do you really need to spend time with something funny and lighter?

PS:  It’s a combination. For a while after Blood Dazzler people would come up to me and say, well there was just this major tragedy in you-name-the-place, what are you going to write about it? Well, I’m not going to. I’m not the tragedy writer. I’m not the natural disaster writer. That was what I was moved to write about at that time. When I say that Incendiary Art was a hard book to finish, it was hard to finish because things kept happening that should have been in the book. I would see something and immediately say, I want to write about that but where is it going to go? I’m writing in reaction to a lot of things. I’m writing because I’m angry and I’m sad and I’m trying to make something make sense. If I keep doing that, I’m going to wind up with exactly the same kind of book. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but I do want to be funny and I do want to find ironic things and play off of them, and now I’m frightened politically. If we write to move our lives forward, we’re constantly writing about those types of things.

I’m working on some fiction that came right out of Incendiary Art and the mothers of those murdered people. I wonder about the folding back into what an ordinary life should be. How do you do that being a woman who woke up one morning with a son or daughter and went to sleep without one? I have my Guggenheim proposal, which I haven’t started. My husband and I collect 19th-century photos of African-Americans and I want to do a book of dramatic monologues using some of those photos. There could be light in that for me. Luckily I have six weeks of residency this year. I’m not thinking I wrote a dark book so now I have to write a light book. I would like to, for my own psychological health, pull up and out a little bit. I’d like to write a children’s book again. I haven’t done that for a long time. I think of myself as a storyteller and not necessarily a poet and so you look for the best way to tell a story. Hopefully I can get something that lightens the landscape a little bit, but I go with what presses me to be written.

Not Just a Riddle to Be Solved: The Millions Interviews Ann Beattie

- | 2


Ann Beattie has been writing short stories for more than 40 years. For some readers, she remains associated with the Baby Boomer generation and specifically the 1970s when she first started publishing. But her style and approach have changed over the years, and even if she’s not as associated with the zeitgeist as she once was, her output in the 21st century — which includes both new and selected volumes of short stories, novels, novellas — demonstrates that she has not slowed down, nor has she abandoned new ideas and approaches.

Beattie’s new book The State We’re In: Maine Stories is a collection of loosely linked short stories about people living in the state, some more permanently than others. We spoke back and forth over e-mail while she was on the road about linked short stories, Maine, and ending a story.

The Millions: Where did the idea for the book start?

Ann Beattie: I never have ideas. I don’t plan or plot. My husband was in Europe on vacation with his brother, and I decided to sit down and start writing and see what happened. The month before, I’d written [the short stories] “Road Movie” in rough draft, and “Missed Calls” in more-or-less final form, so maybe I was also slightly in a Maine state of mind…but if I remember correctly, when I wrote “The Fledgling,” I was just seeing what I could write in the first hour after I sat down. Then I remembered how much fun it can be to write.

TM: Why do you find Maine an interesting fictional space?

AB: I suppose I might feel so much an outsider, or simply so negative about a place that it wouldn’t be something I’d want to visit in fiction, but Maine is like any other place to me. I wasn’t at all trying to define anything about the state. Since I’ve lived here for about 25 years part of the year, of course some things were right there at my fingertips. Had I found the fledgling in the recycling bin in Virginia, I would have set the story there, I guess.

TM:  There are a lot of people who will read this book who have never been to Maine and only know the state through Stephen King, Richard Russo, Carolyn Chute, and Murder, She Wrote. Were you thinking of this and playing with that knowledge or expectation?

AB: Yes, would be the short answer. I hear conversations all around me, I know both people who live here 12 months a year and tourists, and the state also gets tons of publicity, so I think I have many perspectives on how people think of Maine. While I do think vaguely of my audience when I write (though I hope it’s never a predictable audience; I really write for myself and a very few other people, initially), I write whatever I’m inclined to write, because a writer shouldn’t outguess or in any way condescend to her audience.

TM: What made this a story collection as opposed to a Robert Altman-esque novel with many central characters–or a Beattie-esque novel like Falling in Place, say?

AB: Good question. But I’ve already written Falling in Place, so wouldn’t want to use that exact structure again. Also, at first the stories seemed more unrelated than they turned out to be. In many cases, I fought the impulse to have more cross-overs or walk-ons, or scenes in which this character meets that character (which would have been easy). I didn’t get to the character I think of as most central, Jocelyn, until I had about half the stories in what became the book. Then her story got longer and longer. If the whole thing had been a seesaw, Jocelyn would have easily tipped the balance and sent the other characters up into the air to dangle. That would have been counter-productive, so I didn’t restrain myself from writing so much about her in first-draft, but afterwards — inspired by my husband’s helpful thoughts (hi, honey!), I realized it might work well to divide the material and intersperse her ongoing story with other stories that were not inconclusive, but best understood in terms of their stand-alone connotations as separate stories. Is that clear enough? What I mean is, her story was too big to stand alone and not interrupt the book, but I hoped that the little stories orbiting her would work two ways: that hers would comment ultimately on them, and that they would add some perspective, etc. to hers.

TM: Why did you resist having characters appear in other stories. I ask because I suppose that’s an obvious option when writing stories set in the same place. Even in a book like this, do you want each story to stand completely on its own?

AB: One way to answer the question would be that the reason I resist writing related short stories has to do with my writing method, which is not to pre-plan a story. If I knew characters were hovering in the wings that should be incorporated, I’d worry that it would determine, too much, what story I wrote next. That doesn’t seem to me enough of an answer. I’m quite aware that things reappear in my stories, such as Patsy Cline songs. I deliberately take something — some object — and see if it looks different, or works differently, from story to story. Like everyone else, I also take the chair in the living room and see if I like it better in the bedroom. That doesn’t exactly answer the question, either. With the disclaimer that there are books of stories in which the characters reappear that I like very much, I tend to be moved by stories in which the writer begins and — I guess — in some sense concludes lives. It’s a little like watching someone dance under a strobe light. How you capture what it looks like is the initial difficulty (even sunlight is really no less of a problem), but if you represent the dancer, even if she’s moving through differently colored lights, or waving her arms more than before, then it’s the dance you’re watching, not the dancer. I suppose the argument could be made that that would be just fine. Or the joke: Ah, Beattie’s next collection will be linked stories. I doubt it.

TM: I know that you live there part time, but does Maine feel like home to you?

AB: No. The house in Maine feels more or less like home, but then I go out.

TM: Does that make it easier or harder to write about a place?

AB: I honestly don’t know. I think, in general, it helps me to feel comfortable enough in a place, but not too comfortable.

TM: Do you write and discard — or at least not publish — a lot of stories?

AB: I’d say 30 or 40 percent are discarded entirely.

TM: How long did The State We’re In/em> take to write and how does that compare to other collections?

AB: Not so long. It’s one summer’s stories, though that says nothing about how they were ordered or what time I took discarding individual stories and making revisions.

TM: How do your stories typically start? Did it change in any way for the stories in this collection?

AB: It did change with this book. I didn’t set out to write a book, just to see if I could write some rather short stories that I hoped would be on some level pretty direct (such as the ones that involve conversations, like “The Stroke” or “Silent Prayer”). It took me a while to realize how much almost all of them were stories about how people tell stories — whether epistolary (“Missed Calls”), or mostly gossip, or with people trying to write stories but living them instead (“Duff’s Done Enough”). If you look at the book as a collection of women’s voices — different women, telling stories — that would seem right to me. That strikes me as more of a common denominator than the state of Maine. As for the first part of the question — almost everything I write starts with a visual image, even if its position gets rearranged later.

TM: Do you write stories with an ending in mind?

AB: Never.

TM: So how do you know when you’ve reached the end of a story? Because so many of them don’t conclude per se.

AB: To me, using a different way of thinking (a different part of my brain, no doubt), I’ve begun to sense, as a story stretches out, where it is going and what small things are operative (motifs, etc.). I try to allow myself messy rough drafts, but that’s different from having good instincts and eventually guessing, as I write, where a story is headed (though the specifics surprise me all the time). How do I know when I’ve reached the end? When there’s a critical mass I could explain, but since any good story is never just a riddle to be solved, nothing would make me articulate that, except in the vaguest sense, to myself — functioning as writer first, but thereafter as reader.

TM: In your Paris Review interview you said that when you started writing, there wasn’t another short-story writer you wanted to emulate. Do you see writers now who have followed what you’ve been doing?

AB: No comment. But not unrelated: writers are in dialogue with other writers. Sometimes they’re mimics, rather than originators — right?