Formal Poetry Is Not a Museum Piece: The Millions Interviews Aaron Poochigian


Aaron Poochigian, a brilliant formalist poet and translator of ancient Greek and Latin literature, already published two books in 2021, and has a third due in November. In February, Liveright Books brought out his new translations of four Aristophanes plays; his book of poems, American Divine, was published in March by the University of Evansville Press, having won that university’s Richard Wilbur Award the year before. This winter, Liveright will publish Poochigian’s first translation of a modern literary work: Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil.

Poochigian and I chatted via email earlier this year about his career as a translator and his practice as a poet.

The Millions: Did you have any particular agenda when you set out to translate Aristophanes?

Aaron Poochigian: Yes, I did. I worked from the start to bring the full musical virtuosity of Aristophanes over into English. In the last 50 years translators have tended to render his comedies as free verse or prose. In the original, for all their wild and liberating content, they are strictly formal poetry throughout, and certain meters are employed in fixed and dramatic ways. When I say “formal,” I mean there are regular rhythms and variations to those rhythms, so that modulation from one prevailing meter to another has a striking effect. Free verse and prose translations, by their very nature, sacrifice this effect. So, yes, I am a bit of an evangelist, in respect to form, in my translations.

TM: Do you consult other translations while working on your own?

AP: I compare my translations to others after I have completed a mature draft of them. If I find an earlier translator has hit on a mot juste I had missed or has better brought something to the surface, I make minor revisions.

TM: How do you feel Aristophanes has fared in English translation until now?

AP: Worse than most ancient authors. Older translations tend to whitewash the obscenity; more recent translations tend to over-emphasize the obscenity. In addition to recreating the effect of the rhythmic modulations, I strove to recreate Aristophanes’s playful, say, three-year-old’s anality. For example, though some readers of early drafts encouraged me always to go for the more offensive word (i.e. “ass” and “shit”), I often went for “butt” and “poop” because they struck me as funnier and more in keeping with the spirit of the original.

TM: Your translations of the Bacchae of Euripides were performed at BAM a few years ago. Did the possibility of future performances influence your translations of Aristophanes, or did you primarily focus on the plays as literary texts on the page?

AP: Yes, the experience of translating Bacchae, on commission, for the stage changed my whole approach to the translation of plays. Whereas readers of a text can stop to learn about arcane subjects in footnotes and endnotes, theatergoers cannot. In both the Bacchae translation and the Aristophanes translations I tried to gloss as much as I could, unobtrusively, in the text. Thus “Bromios,” a cult title of Dionysus, is translated as its meaning, “The Roarer” or “The Roaring God.” Similarly, in the Aristophanes translations, I tried to pull enough background information up into the text to make the jokes work. There were many places where I failed. Aristophanic comedy is very much of its time and frequently lampoons prominent contemporary figures. I chose to keep the names of the ancient figures rather than updating them with references to, say, Joe Biden or Mitch McConnell, because such references would quickly become passé and I want my translations to have a long life.

TM: How did you approach some of those more challenging passages you mention in your introduction, such as the “lyrical summons of all the avian species” in Birds, or capturing the Spartan dialect in Lysistrata?

AP: In the original Greek of Lysistrata, the Spartan characters speak in a parody of their actual Doric dialect. It is meant to be funny and othering, to make them sound backwoodsy. In his 1964 translation Douglas Parker translated their lines into something he called the “Appalachian” dialect. It reads at times like Black vernacular English. It offended many people. My challenge was to preserve the “othering” effect of the original lines and not to offend anyone. I chose to translate those lines into a country twang specific to no region. Furthermore, I had word choices do most of the work (instead of other dialect markers). Thus, you will find phrases like “y’all” and “I’m fixin’” and “I reckon” in my translation.

The song to summon the birds in Birds is remarkable both for its beauty and for its occasional use of imitative bird sounds as a refrain. The challenge was to bring the original over into equally enjoyable lyrics in English. I chose to use rhyme and off-rhyme in order to suggest, to the English-speaker, that these lines, unlike those before and after, were meant to be sung. I am pleased with the result, but you can judge for yourself. Here is an excerpt:
Epopopoi popopopoi popoi,
Ee-you, ee-you, ee-to, ee-to,
come here, all you endowed with wings,
all you who flutter over acres
of fertile land, you myriad throngs
who feed on grain, you swift seed-pickers
who warble such delightful songs.
Come all that over furrowed ground
twitter, molto espressivo,
this pleasant sound–
tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio.
TM: Later on in your introduction, you talk about these plays as a model for political dissent. It’s one thing to draw comparisons between contemporary and historical circumstances; but I’m more interested in your idea that Aristophanes’s fundamental approach––bawdy, uncouth, and openly hostile toward individual leaders––is something we could use more of today, that “crudity is appropriate in criticizing the crude.” Can you talk more about that, and how you see the function of literature within a democratic society?

AP: I respect Michelle Obama a great deal. But, from 2017 to 2021, we saw that the when-they-go-low-you-go-high approach simply was not an effective response to crude, nasty, hateful attacks. The nasty language got all of the attention in the media and in public and private conversations, and quiet, noble responses got no attention at all. I saw many parallels between classical Athenian democracy and our contemporary American democracy as I worked on my Aristophanes translations. Athenians enjoyed “parrhesia,” a freedom of speech as broad as our own, and Aristophanes made extreme use of that freedom. In fact, he viciously lampooned the warhawk Cleon in his plays—and Cleon was likely in the audience each time. I imagine, whenever a joke about Cleon landed, audience members turned and laughed directly at him. He sued Aristophanes twice, each time unsuccessfully. Aristophanes remained safe in his parrhesia. No doubt the threat of obscene parody in Ancient Greek Comedy acted as a check on the behavior of those in power.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: I see Trump, with his mockery of the disabled, and Andrew Cuomo, with his “sausage challenge,” as ripe targets for obscene Aristophanic attacks. Those are the sorts of characters and behaviors of which Aristophanes would make wicked fun if he were writing in English today.

I cherish our American freedom of speech. I fear, however, that, with the erosion of fact-based “truth,” speaking “truth to power” is no longer enough. When there is merely hateful mudslinging, I see no recourse but to do what Aristophaes did—to get down into the pigsty and strive to sling mud better (harder and more memorably) than one’s enemies. The fate of democracy could hang on whether or not one is successful.

TM: Just a few years ago, Spike Lee adapted Lysistrata for his film Chi-raq, and there have been plenty of other notable interpretations in the past century alone. Why has Aristophanes (and that play in particular) endured?

AP: I feel that Aristophanes has endured because of the “great idea” plot structure he often employs. With this structure a character, say, Lysistrata, comes up with an ingenious plan to end what seems an endless war, by some ingenious means—by having the women refuse to have sex with the men. This plot structure allows the audience to experience an alternate reality and all the amusing implications of it. This sort of dramatic “play” provides a healthy childlike regression for audience members, leaving them feeling rejuvenated.

Oddly, the least known of the plays in the volume is the most relevant to our contemporary situation. In Women of the Assembly, females dress as males (with beards) to vote in the Assembly (the equivalent of Congress) to hand the government wholly over to females. They proceed to radically communize Athenian democracy. There is no more private property, no more rivalry, and no more marriage. The play dramatizes male anxiety over female power and prophecies, as I see it, contemporary American responses to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive women recently voted into Congress. The “great idea” plot structure is where democracy comes to play with possibilities.

TM: Do you feel you have a different responsibility when translating ancient works? When translating from Baudelaire, for example, there are millions of French/English bilinguals who can hold you accountable for your choices. In the case of Ancient Greek, or even Latin, it will mostly be academics that have that kind of authority. As a result, most readers are beholden to the translations that are available. Are you conscious of this as you work, and does it affect your method?

AP: Yes, those of us who translate from the dead languages do have an extra responsibility to reanimate lost civilizations. I just wish I knew cuneiform so I could translate “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” our earliest epic. In my editions, I do all I can with in-text glosses and diction to bring as much of the original cultural context up into the translation itself. Still, there are points where I must resort to notes. They are especially painful to me in Aristophanes’s comedies because nothing is lamer than a joke that has to be explained.

Yes, also, these dead languages have traditionally been the provinces of academic specialists. I do have a Ph.D in Classics (Ancient Greek and Latin language and literature) but I confess I only earned that degree because I thought the knowledge I acquired was essential for my original poetry. That has proved to be true. My career as a literary translator grew out of a series of craft-exercises I did nightly for years when preparing my assignments in graduate school. Literary translation has allowed me to hone my craft and supplement my income at the same time. Because I know Latin, the source of the Romance languages, and have spent years teaching myself to read literary French, I have now expanded my translation business to Baudelaire, the first Modern poet. He is the first poet I have translated who wrote in rhyme, and I put all I have learned in my translation practice to work in bringing his dense, disturbing, and almost magical poems over into English.

TM: Why did you feel studying the Classics was essential for your practice as a poet?

AP: As a freshman in undergraduate school, I had a religious experience while looking at the Latin that opens Vergil’s Aeneid: “Arma virumque cano…” It became clear to me at that moment that I was supposed to become a poet and that I was supposed to learn Ancient Greek and Latin. The poets who stimulated most at that time—Milton and Shelley—had a Classical education, and I felt that, if I were to compete with them, I would need the same background. In graduate school I got all that I wanted and more—my knack is for versecraft, not for academic prose—but I got through all right. My close study of Greek and Latin poets during this time has provided me with more than a life’s worth of themes and tones and voices. After graduate school, my major challenge was figuring out how to take what I learned and cast it into 21st-century language. I would like to think that my new book, American Divine, is the fulfillment of that effort. 

TM: What was the genesis of American Divine? Do you have your eye toward a future collection as you’re writing individual poems, or is it more a process of looking back over your work and trying to build a whole out of the parts?

 AP: My first two books, The Cosmic Purr and Manhattanite, were collections of poems—I took all the best poems I had written over a period of time, broke them up into groups and published them. American Divine is, in contrast, a Gestalt; the whole is more than the sum of its parts. More than just a collection of poems, it is a book that has, as one critic has pointed out, a symphonic structure. I knew years ago that I wanted to write a series of poems in which I bring “old-style,” polytheistic religious experience to contemporary America. I wanted, rather than the distant Judaeo-Christian God of monotheism, many gods to interact with humans in the here and now. The first section of American Divine, with the half-ironic title “The One True Religion,” collects a wide variety of intense revelations and religious experiences. The second section, “The Uglies,” takes the reader to the “dark night of the soul” in which there is only doubt and skepticism. The third section, “The Living Will,” works to reconcile these two extreme perspectives into some workable, livable whole. All my poetry books will, in the future, be written as Gestalts.

TM: The religious and spiritual content in American Divine is fascinatingly broad, and includes a youthful dabble in Satanism, a glimpse of Hindu ritual, a monologue by a figure from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience… Are you a student of world religions, or does this reflect, say, a nonsectarian quest for meaning?

AP: Both, I would say. I am a scholar of religions, particularly Ancient Greek and Roman pantheism, with its religious literature and cult practices. It is because I never cottoned to any religion or denomination that I fear I may be missing out on a central part of human experience. (Another central part of the human experience I am missing out on is parenthood.) I try to make up for the religious gulf in my life by reading about and recreating, through character voices, vital religious experiences for myself and the reader. Though in other ways I am not a relativist, I am in respect to religion: I really couldn’t validate the religious experience of, say, a Christian over a Hindu or a Muslim over an Ancient Greek.

I am in fact still deeply studying, still obsessing over, religious experiences after American Divine is out. I have been trying to curtail those studies lately because I want the next book to be something thematically different.

TM: You have a fondness for the second person. In your novel Mr. Either/Or, “You” is the protagonist, but in your poems “you” is sometimes a specific person the poem is addressed to, sometimes the reader, sometimes a stand-in for a larger idea, and sometimes it’s merely rhetorical. Is this also an outgrowth of the Classical tradition?

AP: Yes, in Classical rhetoric this literary (and artificial) address to a “you” that cannot possibly respond is called “apostrophe.” It is very common in Ancient Greek and Latin literature. I like the I/you dichotomy, and I like the directness of addressing a “you,” especially the reader. With Mr. Either/Or I wanted to replicate the perspective of Choose Your Own Adventure books and that of so-called “first-person shooter” video games, in which “you” the player see through the eyes of the character you play. The “you” in American Divine is occasionally a character (with a gender and history) that the reader is asked to assume. In other places, yes, the “you” is the reader or an exclamatory address to an abstraction.

TM: In addition to getting your Ph.D, you also went on to do an MFA in Poetry. I’m curious about how your work was received within the context of a program explicitly focused on contemporary writing. Did you find yourself at odds with faculty or fellow writers because of your classical influences?

AP: There was some tension at Columbia over my formalism. I was at one point told not to write that way. Because formal poetry is what lights up my synapses, gets me high—whatever you metaphor you want—I could not accommodate that suggestion. I wasn’t rebellious, just sure of myself. After one semester workshopping with the rest of my cohort, I worked one-on-one with Richard Howard who, with his work in syllabics (line-lengths based on syllable count) was sympathetic with my obsession.

That said, I credit my exposure to a broad range of contemporary poetry there with jolting me into the 21st century. The program in general and Howard in particular had no patience for archaisms and affectations, and I now, for all of my Classical training, have no patience for such things either.

TM: What other contemporary writers, if any, have influenced your work?

AP: The major influences on my work have been British: W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin. They are formalists who write in a contemporary idiom. They taught me what I wanted to do and how to do it. Auden did so through his virtuosity in all forms and Larkin through the personal renaissance he made of his life’s perceived deprivation. Another major recent influence has been the late Lucie Brock-Broido, one of my teachers at Columbia, who taught me ways of charging up poetry on a line-by-line basis. I recently taught a Master class called “Charge: Electricity in Poetry,” and nearly half the examples I cited were drawn from her work.

I see my whole project as one which establishes that formal poetry is not a museum piece but a mode that can express the full range and depth of 21st-century life.

Pointing Toward Truth: The Millions Interviews David Hollander


His website never once mentions his name. A Twitter account named The Fexo—of which he dubiously denies ownership—claims to be the author of his work. The self-effacing David Hollander nevertheless showed little trepidation about sitting down with me for an interview, appearing promptly on my computer screen via Zoom one day in July, with the Covid-19 pandemic still peaking in the United States and the September 1 release of his second novel, Anthropica—delayed from May 1st—once again in sight.

Anthropica is the long overdue follow-up to Hollander’s debut novel, L.I.E., which was published in 2000 when the author was 30 years old. A pillar of the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College, Hollander has toiled in near-obscurity for 20 years, publishing fiction in a variety of literary magazines but coming up short in his efforts to publish a second book. Those loyal fans and former students who have kept up with his literary output know that Hollander’s imagination, syntactical verve, and distinctively bleak sense of humor remain undiminished. With its talking robots and scientific mumbo-jumbo,,its awe at the profound mysteries of the universe and alternating love and disdain for human endeavors, Anthropica proves to be a stylistic and thematic culmination after a long period of refinement and reflection.

Two of the three co-founders of Animal Riot Press, Katie Rainey and Brian Birnbaum, studied with Hollander at Sarah Lawrence in the mid-2010s. As his close confidants in the years since graduating, Rainey and Birnbaum conspired from the outset to work with Hollander on bringing out his unpublished manuscript, the initial draft of which was completed around 2014. And indeed, Anthropica is only the second title published by this fledgling press, making it a crucial book in shaping Animal Riot’s literary sensibility.

I was especially curious to hear from Hollander about the process of being published by former students, and the experience of having the editorial tables turned. But first, I wanted to learn more about his writing practice since the publication of his first novel.

The Millions: You published L.I.E. three years after finishing your MFA at Sarah Lawrence. How did it get picked up by Random House?

David Hollander: I got a call out of the blue from this high-power agent at ICM who had picked L.I.E. out of a slush pile accidentally; he mistook my name for someone else’s. He called me, and he was like, “Who are you? I really love your book.” At that point I’d spent a year or more querying blindly, having agents either refuse to look at the book or reject it quickly, sometimes even viciously. But within two weeks of my signing on with ICM, there was a bidding war for L.I.E. I like to hold that experience up to some of my later failures to publish books—I try to remember that rejection doesn’t necessarily dismiss a work’s worth or viability. In many ways publishing is a crapshoot. A book has to get to the right person at the right time, unless you’re connected in ways that I certainly am not.

TM: How did you react to that sudden success? Was there a sense that you were one of the rising stars from your MFA class?

DH: It’s funny. I’m trying to write an essay right now that talks about this, and what my own expectations were then. Yes, I certainly would have been seen as one of the rising stars of my MFA class, and I certainly saw myself that way, although I had adopted a humility so deeply false it almost convinced even me. But in fact, I thought I was the Next Big Thing. Random House had planned to print 25,000 copies and they had booked a national tour for me. But then, when advance sales figures were lower than Random House expected, they started scaling things back. The 15-city book tour became a five-city book tour, then it became a New York book tour, then it became essentially a bunch of readings out on Long Island to about four or five senior citizens. So everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, but I was not paying attention to any of it because I was too young, too inexperienced, and too lost in this vision I had of myself now as a successful writer.

TM: What did you make of the critical response to L.I.E.? Reviews, while mostly positive, tended to focus on the novel’s portrait of suburban malaise, which you’ve said is not its primary subject.

DH: It was a sad thing for me, because the parts of the book that were most roundly criticized were the parts that I thought were the most interesting, or at least the most personal. I was not that far removed from studying philosophy as an undergrad, where I got pretty deep into philosophy of mind and the study of consciousness. I was thinking a lot about selfhood, which I suspected was a mirage. In his essay “The Nothingness of Personality,” Borges keeps repeating a line: “There is no whole self.” That idea was pivotal for me in the construction of L.I.E. Harlan, the book’s protagonist, is discovering that he’s not real, that he’s a character in someone else’s story. The implication was that that’s true for all of us…the self we clutch white-knuckled is just a social construction. Anyway, no one even acknowledged that aspect of the book; there was not a single word about it in any of the reviews. It was shocking to me that I could have written a book that I thought for sure was about X but was perceived as being about Y. I learned a lesson from that, too—not that I should make my intentions clearer to the reader, but that I couldn’t control their responses the way I thought I could. That’s when I learned to expect to be misunderstood.

TM: Can you say more about the philosophical underpinnings of your writing? A lot of fiction that draws on philosophy incorporates some kind of discursive mode, which often uses characters as mouthpieces for ideas that the author wants the reader to consider. But that isn’t the case in L.I.E.; I think you found a way of embodying your theme in the book’s form, rather than making your characters sit around and dissertate.

DH: That’s a really generous observation, thank you. A book I really loved around that time was Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, in which characters are definitely having frequent, heavy conversations about art and philosophy. But that wasn’t what I loved about the book. To me, its philosophy was more fully felt through its structural conceit—there is more than one way to read or arrange the story, which to me spoke to ideas from French literary theory, that hierarchies are in opposition and that you could assemble this same narrative into many different shapes, each one informing a different conclusion. A story like Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter” is, for me, similarly philosophical because its self-devouring structural arrangement suggests something about the nature of reality. It’s not just postmodern gimmickry: the fractured way in which that story proceeds feels much closer, to me, to what it really feels like to be a conscious creature moving through a shifting environment, than, say, the “realist” fictions of Alice Munro, which, while beautiful, don’t match my thought patterns in any way that I recognize.

TM: Are you proud of L.I.E. 20 years later? 

DH: In a word: yes. But it seems to have been written by a teenager. I really wish that there were not so many sexually explicit passages so that I could show it to my kids. In fact I wish I could take a lot of parts out, or rewrite them in a way that was more generous. I did not know anything about what it was like to be a middle-aged adult, for instance, and when characters in that demographic pass through stories in L.I.E. the writing is basically idiotic. But there’s also something about the quick pace and youthful energy of L.I.E. that I don’t think I could reproduce now. And I like that energy and feel nostalgic for a time when I could write that way.

TM: Have your kids read any of your other fiction? 

DH: So far they haven’t been that interested, although my older kid, who’s 13 now, really wants to read Anthropica, and I think I’m going to let them. They’re good at self-censoring, and I don’t think Anthropica has a lot of, like, explicit erotic stuff. There’s a nihilism to it, but my kids know my sense of humor by now and shouldn’t be too startled.

TM: While Anthropica is more conceptually and structurally sophisticated, more refined on the sentence level, and more generous in spirit (contrasted with the frequent nastiness of L.I.E.), to me it is recognizably the work of the same author.

 DH: No one else has said that, but then only half a dozen people have read Anthropica, and of those, only maybe one or two have read L.I.E. But that is good to hear.

TM: Obviously you didn’t know at the time that you would go 20 years without publishing a second book. When did your youthful bravado start to wear off?

DH: It took a really long time. After L.I.E. I worked on this book for a couple of years I was calling No Man Is. I brought a finished draft to my agent at ICM, and he read it and even showed it to a couple of editors. He thought it was interesting and “Kafkaesque,” as he kept saying. That book was me doubling-down on some of the philosophical preoccupations of L.I.E. in a way that was a lot more deliberate. The prose was super dense; I was reading a lot of John Hawkes at the time and was influenced by his stuff. The agent convinced me not to keep trying with that book, even though he thought if we went to a small press, which I did not want to “lower myself” to, there were possibilities. He ultimately said, “Let’s see what you do next, because whether or not your next book sells is going to have a huge effect on your career going forward.” So then I began working on another book that was set in the same fictional town as that second, now unpublished book. I called it Follow Down the Light, which I thought was vaguely Faulknerian. But now I was really out to prove, with every sentence, that I was the greatest writer who’d ever lived. I remember showing it to a good friend and he told me, “This is really hard to read,” which I took as a compliment. I was like, “Yes! I’m doing it! It’s really hard to read!” When I showed it to my agent—now we’re probably six or seven years removed from L.I.E.—he said, “Uh, David, I think it’s time for you to find some new readers.” But I still thought that I was The Next Big Thing, you know, and that it was going to happen. We parted ways amiably, but in my head I was like, “Clearly, mighty ICM agent, you’re a philistine and you don’t know how to represent extraordinary work.” It’s really embarrassing to think about this because he was anything but a philistine, he was a brilliant and good person. But so I found a new agent who was young and hungry, and eager to get a writer who had published with Random House on his list. He tried to publish Follow Down the Light for two years. It got rejected by probably every publisher on earth. During that time I was working on stories, so now I had a short story collection that the new agent also tried to sell, attracting rejections that were becoming painfully familiar in their tone and wording. “It’s extraordinary, it’s amazing, it’s non-derivative… we can’t publish it.” For a long time I took these declarations of my excellence to be sincere, but in retrospect I realize that’s just what editors say when they don’t like something. So by now over a decade had gone by since L.I.E. And I was probably just about ready to give up. It was 2012 or so, which is around when I was meeting you, Seth.

TM: I started at Sarah Lawrence in the fall of 2013, and I took your class in my second year. I didn’t have any sense at the time that you had “given up” on writing. 

DH: I just thought, okay, well, it’s not happening and I don’t want to write fiction anymore. Somehow I started writing Anthropica in this sneaky way where I didn’t even know I was writing it. I was so downtrodden and broken-hearted with how things had gone for me that I could not admit that I was trying to write another book. So I started writing it as a Gchat novel—like you know how you used to be able to put a certain amount of text in the status box of Gchat? I would just write these little set pieces and post them, 300 characters at a time, in my status box where people I conversed with frequently could see them. This is what I did for like a year or year and a half. Before I knew it, there were a couple hundred pages of this so-called Gchat novel. I still was telling myself I wasn’t going to publish it; the whole point was that I was doing it for me. It was fun, and I liked the idea that there was a novel hidden behind a brick wall, and all you could see of it was through cracks in the wall. Something about that gave me pleasure. But it turns out all along I was writing yet another novel, probably the most ambitious novel yet. I just couldn’t admit it to myself. But eventually when I had something that looked like a complete book, I showed it to the agent. He was receptive and had some thoughts on it, so I worked on it for maybe another year or so based on his recommendations and then it went out to publishers. I thought, okay, this is going to be it, because this is the one where I wrote it for myself, the way it was with L.I.E. I had rediscovered the joy of fiction writing after it had become like oral surgery for a really long time. And…nothing happened. The rejections rolled in with all the customary false praise. The agent really tried, too, I have to give him credit. That was crushing. I felt like I was at the end of the line. This time I didn’t just pretend to give up. Between when Anthropica stopped making the submission rounds and the day Katie said she wanted it for Animal Riot Press, I wrote nothing. Not a word of fiction over those two, three years. I don’t really know what the lesson here is. It’s not exactly this uplifting story of perseverance, but it does seem like I had to surrender all hope before something good could happen.

TM: Did you get any satisfaction, over those 20 years, out of publishing short stories in literary magazines? McSweeney’s, Fence, Post Road, and Conjunctions may not be household names, but they’re respected publications among serious readers of contemporary fiction. 

DH: The thing it probably did more than anything else was give me a platform to be able to teach. But I never fooled myself into thinking that it meant anything beyond that.

TM: Your unpublished books were the stuff of legend among your students. Why did you decide to let Katie read your novel?

 DH: Because she kept asking. And I think I had it in my head that if I was unable to publish it, I would send it to 10 people, just so 10 people on Earth would have read it. I think I figured she would be one of them, but then I didn’t really send it to none other people after that. Maybe just two or three. Brian Birnbaum was one of them, but that was later.

TM: How did it feel having the roles reversed, to have two former students not only publishing you, but working with you on the manuscript, editing you? 

DH: What’s weird is that it didn’t feel odd at all. I mean, these were former students, but also great writers who I trusted. I got some good initial notes from Brian, which made me aware of things about the book that were impenetrable. Brian’s a really smart guy, and if he wasn’t getting certain things I knew I should revisit them. But Katie’s notes were honestly the best I’ve ever gotten from anyone. Right away, she found ways to connect the two or three things that were sitting unconnected and that had caused me mental spasms for years. Her notes were just incredible, and then over the course of three or four months, after having these conversations with her, I probably wrote… well, it was the first time I’d written fiction in two or three years, remember, and I would have thought it would take some time to get back into things, to find my voice again, but it wasn’t like that at all—I just immediately hit the ground running and wrote another 120 pages or something. And that’s what filled out the book and brought it all together. So it was not strange to be working with former students, but I was surprised by how great the editorial feedback was, given that that had not been my experience with Random House, where you would think you’d probably get superior editorial feedback.

TM: When you started Anthropica, when you were composing snippets in Gchat, which parts of the book came first?

DH: I’d been having these conversations with a couple of people, including my dear friend Jonathan Callahan, about the central premise of Anthropica, this crackpot idea that everything is only here because we want it to be. I’ve always been skeptical that there could be enough stuff to maintain our levels of consumption. I mean, the planet’s not that big—you can circle it in a swift flying jet in a matter of hours—so how can it have this much oil stored up in its bowels, for instance, or this much coal? It just seems really unlikely. So I was writing into that conundrum. I think the opening Stuart Dregs chapter where he’s coming home, and his wife is intentionally allowing him to overhear her affair, and he has his computer program running—he’s invented this algorithm that can track natural resource consumption—I think that was one of the earliest things I wrote. Almost as a set piece, more like a short story than a novel chapter. When I looked back at my notebooks recently, I saw that really early on, I was already making these little maps for other chapters or sketching out other characters. I was clearly in some way already planning something big. But so originally there was that Stuart piece, and I was writing some bits in the voice of a robot—not like they are in the book, because now a lot of the robot stuff is just these conversations going on in a hangar while the robots play chess—but I was writing these soliloquies in Fexo’s voice, none of which made it into the book. For a while I guess I was just messing around, testing out how many parts the book could hold. I was often asking myself: What would be fun to write next?

TM: Apparently, what was fun to write, for you, was science fiction. Although in no way does Anthropica feel constrained by, or beholden to, any particular genre. Were you conscious of this influence as you wrote?

DH: I grew up on science fiction. But by the time I got to college, which was pretty late for me, I was discovering so-called literary fiction. I remember reading Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and being like, “Holy shit! This is a thing you can do?” I never wanted to go back to what I thought of as straight genre fiction. But my understanding of how science fiction works has shaped my writing, and I frequently borrow conceits from science fiction. My work features a lot of sentient androids, for instance, but it’s almost like the science fiction is a facade I’m erecting so as to have something my ideas can stick to. I like to steal forms for purposes they were never meant to serve.

TM: I also think that much of Anthropica operates in more of a psychological-realist mode, which doesn’t put it at odds with sci-fi as much as it approaches those ideas from a different angle.

DH: It’s almost like realism within a non-realistic matrix. In the course of every hour, I probably toggle back and forth 500 times between feeling like everything is imbued with enormous meaning and beauty and that I have to be responsible to it, and thinking that everything is completely meaningless. I think my inability to remain in either of those two positions—this flipping back and forth like a binary switch—I wanted the book to feel like that, to toggle between things that feel very psychologically real and heartfelt, where there is genuine pathos, and a kind of nihilistic disregard for anything we humans might create or dream up. I think what you’re talking about, the psychological realism within this science-fictional set of parameters, I think it’s supposed to feel a little like that toggle.

TM: That’s exactly how it feels. The scope of the narrative is cosmic; at a certain point, it dawns on the reader that some chapters take place after the destruction of Earth. Yet the reader is never invited to trivialize the everyday foibles of the characters.

DH: I hope that that registers to some readers. I remember writing some of those chapters that are from the future, where characters are being interviewed by the robots after everything has been obliterated. Even though you’re aware of the fact that this is all going to end in fire, it shouldn’t in any way lessen the intensity of feeling the characters are experiencing as they pursue tenure, or an Ultimate Frisbee National Championship, or love. I want those pursuits to feel meaningful despite the fact that you know they are coming to an end.

TM: When did you begin teaching at Sarah Lawrence?

DH: 1792. No, I started when L.I.E. was coming out, September of 2000.

TM: Was that a strange feeling—to teach there so soon after graduating? To put yourself in the position of teaching others only a few years out?

DH: No, at that point it all felt like destiny. At that time my thesis advisor, Mary LaChapelle, was the chair of the fiction writing department, and when she heard that I had a book coming out, she got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to come be a guest and teach a class, and I thought yeah, that’ll be great. I thought for sure I’d be good at it, I’ve been good in classrooms my whole life. And I think I was good at it. I came back for another year, and then a year turned into three years, and then they moved me over to the MFA program. I was still so high on myself as The Next Big Thing that teaching was a lot easier than it’s since become. Plus I was still really close to the age of the students so I felt like I was their big brother or something. Then some time passed and I became like the young, cool uncle. Then some more time passed and I became the young dad. Now I’m older than a lot of my students’ parents. Of course the students are always the same age and you are drifting away from them… that’s a weird and sometimes sad thing about teaching.

TM: Can you describe your practice of teaching writing?

DH: I think the crux of my teaching is that I really have no kind of product that I’m trying to select for—I don’t want my students to write postmodern fracture fiction any more than I want them to write organic psychological realism. I’m trying to help everyone find their way and to give them tools that they can bring to whatever kind of writing they feel like they want and need to do. I think I have an openness, and I also will latch onto something that a student does well and try to get them to develop that thing. The goal is to help each writer maximize their gifts and write the sort of text that they—and not you—would like to read.

TM: When browsing the MFA course catalogue, your workshop description immediately stands out in the way it openly questions traditional workshop practices. You also teach a class called “The Enemies of Fiction,” inspired by a John Hawkes quote—can you explain what that means?

DH: Right. Well Hawkes said that he began writing with the belief that plot, character, setting, and theme were the enemies of the novel. Of course Hawkes’s books had all of those things; it’s more the spirit of the quote that excites me. He believed in structure and language as the drivers of fiction. He didn’t want to write carefully constructed, well-plotted, efficient stories. He wanted to burn down the world. And that’s the thing for me: you can learn to write what I think of as an MFA story—or what I would’ve called an MFA story 10 years ago; the MFA world has become a lot more aesthetically diverse—you can learn how to do that, but if you don’t have anything to say, if you don’t have any vision, if there’s no urgency to the work, then it’s like making a table or something. The Hawkes quote for me is more about the spirit in which fiction is written than about anything inherent to the craft of fiction.

TM: A lot of the books you hold dear are often branded as “difficult.” Do you think of them as difficult?

DH: Difficulty is a moving target. I will tell you my favorite effect as a reader of fiction: you come across something on page 28, and you’re like, “I don’t know what that is, but I’m going to put it in the bank.” And if you read deeply enough, and if the writer has done their job correctly, something on page 147 will illuminate that page 28 mystery. I wanted Anthropica to be like that all the time, where almost every chapter would be something you had to hold onto and later connect to something else. Every time I answered a question that the reader might have, I wanted to raise another one.

But to return to the question of difficulty, if I have to work hard to figure something out, whether it’s in the work of Hegel or the work of David Foster Wallace, then a book seems to have more weight and meaning. If I have to go to the book, instead of allowing the book to come to me, reading becomes a journey, an experience. And I guess I just value the experience of a book, without which reading feels like, I don’t know, watching a movie or something. In fact, sometimes, what gets held up as great—the books that win all the prizes—often seem like crass Hollywood nonsense to me. Everything good or meaningful in life seems to require effort and reading is no different.

TM: There are also different kinds of difficulty. Sometimes we’re just talking about highly complicated sentences; other times, it might have to do with a novel’s structure. But it also sounds like you’re talking about something more fundamental, about works that deviate not just from the methods, but from the very aims of traditional storytelling.

DH: Well, I also think most people are uncomfortable with relativism. People want to know what the rules of life are. They want—and who can blame them?—to settle into the life project knowing what to pursue in order to find contentment. So the idea that all of the strictures and mores that we are creating in an attempt to structure a meaningful life are themselves constructions and arbitrary and could easily be otherwise—that’s a really uncomfortable thing for most people. Wallace insists that you think about those things. And if you don’t want to think about them, you’re not going to enjoy his work. If you don’t want to think about the fact that our lives are extremely short—nasty, brutish, and short—and you want your literature to be an escape from the awful fact of your ephemerality, then of course there’s a whole lot of fiction you’re not going to want to read. It’s the people who want to think about these things and want to find their anxieties and fears—the things they’re hauling around on their backs every day—reflected to them in the art that they interact with…those people are going to be attracted to some of the fiction that’s considered cold or cerebral or gimmicky or yes, difficult. For me, literature, fiction, has never been about telling stories, as it is for most people. For me, it’s been the only avenue that points toward truth. It’s the only way to try to say a true word, and even fiction can’t say a true word, but it’s the only way I’ve found to try to commune with some of these difficult, contradictory, mutually exclusive, paradoxical truths that seem to be with me every second.

Bonus Link:
Fiction Is Better Than It’s Ever Been: The Millions Interviews Brian Birnbaum

Fiction Is Better Than It’s Ever Been: The Millions Interviews Brian Birnbaum


Brian Birnbaum pitched the idea for Animal Riot Press to Katie Rainey, his domestic (and now business) partner, in 2018, following a litany of failed attempts (including a near-miss) to publish his debut novel, Emerald City. After roping in software engineer Jon Kay, the trio decided to make Emerald City their inaugural title. (They have also announced upcoming titles by David Hollander, Annie Krabbenschmidt, and Rainey.) The trio wanted to use Birnbaum’s novel to launch the press before asking any other authors to trust them with their work. But Birnbaum also took particular inspiration from Sergio De La Pava, who had initially self-published his novel A Naked Singularity.

Having also attended Sarah Lawrence from 2013 to 15, I was privileged to read Birnbaum’s Emerald City in a germinal state at the end of our time together there; I later received a revised draft in the fall of 2017 that significantly expanded the novel’s scope and the depth of its characters. The novel’s sprawl is difficult to summarize in a one-line grabber, but, beyond the description featured on the Animal Riot Press website, suffice it to say that it’s one of the most electrifying performances by a debut novelist this side of the year 2000—a heartrending tragedy of addiction, an absurdist comedy of privilege and inadequacy, an inter-generational crime saga to rival The Godfather, a disarmingly touching love story, and, at bottom, a book about the ineradicable ties of family.

Earlier this year, as Birnbaum was in the final stages of preparing the book for publication, I sat down with him in his apartment in Harlem—Chet Baker crooning in the background in harmony with the whines of Birnbaum and Rainey’s dog, Rosetta—to learn more about the evolution of his writing and the practical considerations of running a small press.

The Millions: As I recall, you wrote something like three novels before Emerald City.

Brian Birnbaum: Yeah. Very bad ones.

TM: What did you learn by writing those novels, and at what point during the writing of Emerald City did you think that this would be the one to get published?

BB: I didn’t. I knew I was going to try, but here’s the thing: the third novel I wrote, The Material, I did try to get that published—if you call querying like three or four people “trying.” I got responses from an agent and an editor who were saying “Look, you’re 23 years old, and you’re clearly somewhat good at this, but…” So, I realized immediately: this is not it, and I’m not going to go back and hack this again.

TM: So, you wouldn’t want to publish that today?

BB: Oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. No way. Even at that point, I didn’t want to go back and work on it. That’s when I started Emerald City. I had just turned 24. So, what I learned was that I sucked. I think most people go into writing with a lack of self-confidence, whereas I went in with a wealth of bravado. But bravado is based on insecurity, so subconsciously I knew I wasn’t that good, but I had to have people tell me I wasn’t that good. Also, with [the second novel I wrote] I had to learn not to imitate David Foster Wallace. I had just read Infinite Jest, right after college, and I wrote like him for a year or two and it was just, you know…you’re trying to emulate your heroes kind of thing. It pushed me off track a little bit because you’re not doing your thing, you’re not doing you. The first novel I tried to write was actually a lot better than the second one.

TM: Can you pinpoint what was bad about these early novels?

BB: A lack of ability to express emotional depth, really. That’s what it comes down to.

TM: So where do things stand with the Emerald City manuscript now?

BB: I am fucking relieved to say that I am done, it’s over, it’s with the book designer.

TM: You’ve locked in the text?

BB: I’ve locked it in, the acknowledgements are there, everything is there. Those last few months were hell, and I’m just starting to come out of that hole where I was really abusing myself to get this done.

TM: To what extent were you inspired by Sergio De La Pava when you decided to publish the book yourself?

BB: Very much so. Sergio and his wife, Susanna, were our role models, and they’ve helped us immensely. Susanna is honestly the brains of this operation. She’s beyond brilliant. She helped us write our contracts for our writers, stuff like that. Sergio’s going to blurb it. I don’t know if I told you, Gabe Habash just gave me a blurb, which was one of the greatest days of my life because Stephen Florida is easily one of my favorite books.

TM: Have you been forced to read more contemporary fiction than you used to, just by virtue of being a publisher?

BB: I just think contemporary fiction is where it’s at. I think fiction is better than it’s ever been. Which is ironic because fiction is technologically faded in a certain sense, but it’ll always be an artifact, it’s always going to be of interest. But at the same time, I think it’s better than ever. It’s like anything—you look at the NBA now compared to 50 years ago and it’s like a joke. The ability now is just through the roof. They’re building on things that have been going on for too long.

TM: Is there anything you’re worried about as you go forward with publishing your first couple of titles?

BB: Some of the little stuff, like I’m nervous that we’re going to launch and people will order our book and it’ll have problems. Like, the book’s going to be fucked up or the ordering process will be fucked up. I just want to make sure we’re legit.

TM: I ordered a Animal Riot Press coffee mug and it came in about seven days.

BB: Not bad. And the good news is we have Jon Kay, and he’s a genius. He worked at Amazon, he knows how to program, so we’re pretty good to go. But those are the only things I’m really nervous about. Obviously, I want to sell copies, but I think that just comes as a product of hard work and putting out good stuff. That’s out of our hands. So, I’m not really worried that much. Whatever happens, we’ll just have to learn from it and move on.

TM: Do you enjoy networking within the literary community? I’ve seen you work the room at KGB Bar, and elsewhere—does that come naturally to you?

BB: Socializing comes naturally to me, social media does not. Self-promotion is tough for me. I’m learning social media, I learned Twitter pretty well, I’ve gotten a shit-ton of followers in a short amount of time—which is good and everything, but I still don’t want to be doing it. I want to be reading and I want to be writing and I want to be experiencing existential things that don’t have to do with something that feels like a job. But that’s the beauty of Animal Riot—we are trying to build communities in real life, we’re founded off the Manhattan reading series, we’re building satellite reading series [in Little Rock and Los Angeles], we’re trying to have events, and that stuff is awesome to me. I love people, and as much as I hate people, I love people.

TM: Did you have to talk David Hollander, your mentor at Sarah Lawrence, into publishing his upcoming book, Anthropica, or was he pretty open to it from the beginning?

BB: He was more amenable than I thought he was going to be. I think Katie handled the initial talks. It took a little while, but I read it and it was amazing. It’s so funny and smart. And more than anything, it’s just something that no one’s done before, it’s actually reading something innovative, and that’s the reason we wanted to publish it.

TM: How does it compare to L.I.E., his first novel?

BB: I think it’s a hundred times better. L.I.E. is great, but Anthropica is…The changes I suggested or whatever he goes with, I think it is only a couple rungs from being a masterpiece, I think it’s absolutely brilliant. And I don’t say this as some fucking proselytizer—this book is not for everyone, but that’s fine. For the people that it is for, it’s going to be a masterpiece. The linguistic gymnastics are definitely on an Olympic level.

TM: Now, as to Emerald City: I’ve read two drafts, and I look forward to seeing the final edit soon. The story is very diffuse on a narrative level. It’s a family saga, it’s a drug thriller, it’s an almost Hoop Dreams-like sports drama, and the whole way through it’s deeply attuned to its characters’ psychologies. Did you think about genre at all when you were writing?

BB: I didn’t. I think if you come at a novel from a genre perspective, you are writing from a different place. I think you’re writing specifically for an audience and to disseminate the book. Which is not a bad thing. It’s more of a business approach. My approach is that I’m writing because I love language and I want to tell a story, and whatever that story calls for is what I’m going to write.

TM: Something that came up when you workshopped parts of this novel at Sarah Lawrence had to do with how you portrayed people of color. I remember a long discussion in workshop about the dialogue, and questions of appropriation and representation. Did you have any trepidation about writing characters of other races?

BB: If you can’t write about other races, then the only way this conversation ends is that you can’t write about anyone but yourself. However, if you think that just because you listen to hip hop you can write black characters, you’re sorely mistaken. You have to have experience. You should be able to write about whatever you want, but it has to be good. And I think this is a necessary conversation—if I had chosen to write from the perspective of one of my black characters, that would have been a huge risk—and that’s still something I’m considering for my next novel project, and I have to ask myself, how do I deserve writing about this?

TM: As I recall, you discovered David Mitchell while writing Emerald City.

BB: Very early on.

TM: Did he change the way you write the way Wallace did?

BB: I think he’s probably my favorite writer. Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are pure masterpieces. He’s operating on a level that I’ll never reach. He changed the game because he was the first maximalist writer I read who, paradoxically, reined me in. He’s writing these sparkling sentences that are really punchy, really cogent, and I loved him as much as I loved Wallace, but it was so different. It’s more mature in a way, and where I want to be heading now. Same with Rachel Kushner. She’s a maximalist writer but she’s doing it in a compacted way. The Flamethrowers was revolutionary for me. I think her prose, especially those first hundred pages, are just like—whoa.

TM: You’ve talked on the Animal Riot podcast about your experience in an MFA. You chose Sarah Lawrence because David Hollander was teaching there, but it seemed like you didn’t totally buy into the MFA experience in terms of your development as a writer.

BB: And in hindsight, I totally buy into it. Which I have a problem with saying, because I hate these kind of monetized systems that are just pumping out writers who will never see the light of day. But I will say that my MFA experience was extraordinary. Sarah Lawrence was the best school I could have gone to. The culture we had—not only on campus, but also our own little culture on Stillwell Avenue…it was perfect: being removed from the city, being forced to write, the time that they give you to write, instead of loading you with all this bullshit.

TM: I want to end by returning to something you said earlier. You mentioned that fiction is technologically faded. So how do you feel about the future of books, given that you’ve launched a literary press?

BB: I think writing will become obsolete when we are able to directly access our brains. It’ll be like Hieroglyphs—they’re beautiful, but we don’t need that shit anymore. People will still read books; they’ll be fascinated by them. But I’m not being pessimistic or cynical about writing itself; it’s served a purpose that can’t be overstated. And I’m more than overjoyed to be starting a small press. I think it’s still completely necessary, because we still run on fiction. That’s what the human race runs on because we don’t know what’s going on in our minds.