It Has to End Now: The Millions Interviews Dave Eggers

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Dave Eggers’s newest book, The Every, is about a near-future mega-monopoly clearly based on Amazon, Facebook, and Google. It’s his follow-up to The Circle, and follows a different protagonist, Delaney, who seeks to destroy the company from the inside.

Appropriately enough, Eggers has found a way to avoid Amazon during of The Every’s initial release. The hardcover edition will not be sold through the site. If you want a copy when The Every is released on October 5—with one of its 32 different covers—you’ll only be able to get it from independent booksellers. 

The Millions spoke with Eggers about Amazon’s grip on the publishing industry, authorial self-censorship, public surveillance, and much more.

Rachel Krantz: Congratulations on your book, and also on figuring out how to subvert the Amazon behemoth. 

Dave Eggers: Thank you. It has been really illuminating, because the last time I really tried to not have Amazon distribute books, that was almost 20 years ago, and Amazon’s market share and power have grown exponentially since then. So it’s been enlightening just how difficult it is to work around the tangle of Amazon’s influence in every aspect of the book business.

Still, I believe that books will be sold and read and passed around if they’re good, and if you read them and enjoy them and passionately push them onto the next person—that’s how I think our books get read and last and persist. And I think that’s how booksellers and bookstores will last. A bookseller goes, “Oh, this new book just came in the other day,” and tells the customer about it. And if you want that [experience] and choice, you have to remember monopolies will limit choice and always will—that’s the nature of monopolies. If you want choice, you have to put in the work.

RK: My book is coming out in January, and I’m in this group with a bunch of other debut authors. There have been a lot of people grappling with how to reconcile their politics with the fact that there’s basically no way to avoid being dependent on Amazon if you’re at this stage in your career and want to make any money, or get any sort of major book deal. What would you say to authors who feel like they don’t agree with Amazon or want to support them, but have to profit off of them if they want to have a career as an author?

DE: I think it’s a lot more difficult for a first-time author to try and experiment than it is for me. I have the benefit of being around for 20-odd years, and I can hope that I can depend on an existing audience that will support this book, and my platform, I guess, for lack of a better word, where I talk about these issues and bring people into independent bookstores. But I would never prescribe or expect anyone else to be able to follow the same path, because everybody’s situation is so different and I honestly do not know what the landscape is for a debut author now. 

RK: I think what’s scary is that I was having these conversations with friends while reading The Every, and knowing many of the things that you’re predicting about publishing and self-censorship are already here. People I know who are writers right now and are not as established as you are have expressed that they’re afraid to ever say anything negative about Amazon, because how do we know there’s not some sort of retaliation in the algorithm? 

DE: I don’t think Amazon is a retaliatory company in that way. I think that there is more machine-driven presence than you think. I have no fear whatsoever for retaliation, nor would I care, but the fact that your friends have to think about that is a terrifying reality. Really. And we have empowered this monopoly to strike fear into the hearts of authors. And that may be unprecedented in history. Through our own complicity as consumers, their market share only grows. Right now, Amazon sells 45 percent of print books [and 75 percent of e-books] in the US. If it grows from there, then we’re at a really terrifying place. So if we want to avoid algorithms deciding which books are published and which are not, it has to end now.

But as to the amount of fear that there is out there about Amazon, I think it is a function of their predatory business model and also this sense that their power is too great and everyone else is little. The fact that we have empowered a machine that controls books is beyond irony.

RK: And many of us new writers would be completely terrified of going on the record as saying the same, even though we know that probably Amazon’s not a retaliatory company, and could care less about us. But just the chance of that, it’s scary to envision potentially speaking out.

There’s another thing I really see authors grappling with right now, in terms of “what am I allowed to say,” even in fiction, and how much more important the author’s personality and visibility has become. There’s this fear that if you write a negative character who’s not obviously a villain or satirical, that people are going to think it’s you, or your opinions. And so I see a lot of self-censorship happening, just in terms of what you can even imagine as a writer. I’m curious how you think of that impulse, if it ever arises in your own writing, to self-censor. 

DE: I’ll answer it more in terms of the characters who live on this campus in the book. Everything said on campus is recorded and then analyzed by AI for any potential wrongness. And then there are certain words that you have to get permission to say, essentially. They think that they can perfect humanity by having a closed ecosystem and 24/7 surveillance. And that they are uniquely qualified to protect and defend what they deem right, and prevent any wrong action or sentiment. And they can do that with the help of digital tools…

And then in real life, our society, you have a tragedy of a high schooler who tweets something when they’re 16, and has been canceled. I think it’s definitely a culture that lacks the ability to forgive. And we have got to forgive each other and not judge anybody by their worst day, and a word that they used when they were 16. I think that we have to open our hearts a bit and allow people to develop and improve. I think and I hope, because I believe in humanity, that we will find our way to move on to being a forgiving culture, but I do think that when we give this power to an algorithm, to a big company like Amazon to surveil, we become part of the machine altogether. So we find ourselves in the situation that we’re in, and then we become a population of fury. 

RK: I’m kind of surprised to hear that you’re maybe even a little optimistic, because I definitely felt like, reading your book, oh, okay, this is the direction he thinks it’s going — and it’s not particularly hopeful. So is part of your hope expressed in trying to create a severe warning? 

DE: That’s the point of this kind of fiction, to present a dark path that might be avoided when you wake up, and you’re painting a vibrant and terrifying truth of what it could become, in the hopes that people say, “I don’t want to live there. I don’t want that to be our reality.” So to write something like this, I think one has to care. You are painting a picture that—I was trying to terrify myself. 

Like, imagining what would happen if it became a law that you had to have audio surveillance in your house? Well, I think that there’s a 50/50 chance that we’re going there within 10 years, because it’s very hard to defend not having it in your house. On the one hand, you have the right to privacy. On the other hand, it might make families safer and protect children that otherwise might be in harm’s way at home. When we have become a surveillance state, and we are almost a surveillance state right now, how will that change our lives? 

RK: Well, social media has already changed people’s conception of self. That line has blurred already, so it’s not so much of a jump to have these other forms of surveillance, because everyone thinks they’re living a public life and are a celebrity in their own minds anyway.

But then I was thinking, also while reading your book, about all the people refusing to wear masks. And that this is happening at the same time that we’re mostly comfortable being surveilled by corporations—but there’s so much more resistance to the government telling people to wear a mask. So people seem much more willing to let corporations impede on them than the government. How were you thinking about how that was playing out as you wrote the book, why the resistance is stronger in that area?

DE: You nailed something I thought about a lot, that it essentially cuts against a lot of the theories in the book, that I feel like people have sort of a limitless tolerance for surveillance and enforced behaviors. I will say that I feel like those flare-ups as anomalous. When you write a book like this, you have to sometimes leave out some exceptions, I guess. But I think that mask-wearing and vaccine-getting is much more visceral to people than digital surveillance, passive trolling, passive surveillance, passive acquiescence. Whereas if you put a needle in somebody’s arm, that’s a lot different and will evoke a much more passionate response than the sort of slow, pot-burning, boiling-hot way of doing things. 

RK: I also think the mask itself is such a perfect symbol for all of these white people who feel that there are all these things they’re not allowed to say—aka racist things. It’s kind of this perfect symbol for feeling like they’re supposed to be quiet and cover their mouths. 

DE: Right. And there’s so much that’s so analogous about the Trump era that I could never have seen coming. So many strange forces—and so much ignorance, hatred, racial tension, homophobia—all of these things that we California liberals thought were dying quickly off. I spent time at Trump rallies as a reporter trying to figure out exactly what was happening, how this could have happened. I was surprised just how much hatred and homophobia was still out there, and I think that’s the function of this San Francisco bubble I live in. 

Bonus Links:
A Little Bit Beta: On Dave Eggers’s ‘The Circle’
An American Nightmare: The Millions Interviews Dave Eggers

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Karl Ove Knausgaard Will Not Read This Interview

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I’m a major admirer of Karl Ove Knausgaard. His memoir, My Struggle, of course, 3000-plus pages spread out across six books, each of which has its own unique character (Private ranking: 4, 2, 1, 5, 6, 3.) But I also love his short “season” books, especially Autumn and Spring, and his novel A Time for Everything, which reinvents stories from the Bible and places them against a Norwegian backdrop.

I recently spoke with Knausgaard via Zoom about his new novel, The Morning Star, a multi-perspective first-person story set in Norway in which a giant star appears in the sky and earth’s beings seem to stop dying. The novel features nine different narrators. Several appear relatively briefly, but the leads are Egil, who is writing an essay on death that appears toward the end of the book; Kathrine, a priest struggling with her marriage; Jonnstein, a nasty reporter trying to get his crime beat back; and Arne, whose bipolar wife is suffering from a mania, wandering their property at all hours of the night, and painting disturbing images. These characters each have their own dramas—but all the while the world is changing in the light of the new star, with murders, monsters, brutality against animals, and ever-rising heat.

The Morning Star is Knausgaard’s first work of pure fiction in over a decade. He was in London and I was in Brooklyn during the interview, with the sun setting as he spoke until he was in near-total darkness

The Millions: You’ve said that writing a novel is like setting a goal, then walking there in your sleep. When you were in New York a couple of years ago, you told me that you were 40 pages into a multi-perspective novel. Was that The Morning Star?

Karl Ove Knausgaard: Yeah, it was incredibly slow in the beginning until some things fell in place. Then I wrote it very rapidly, mostly during the first spring of the pandemic, from Christmas until May, I think. But before that, it was a long period where I just had it lying around and didn’t work on it.

TM: I saw inklings of the pandemic all over the book. Did you find that it impacted your process?

KOK: I didn’t think about that at the time, but I could see clearly afterwards when it was published that, yeah, very much so, I think. Because the kind of intense feeling I had and probably everybody had in the beginning was of the intimacy of the family, all of a sudden, coming together and spending much more time together. Then you have that threat outside which was really horrible, at least here in London, with all the deaths and the ambulances. Same as in New York, of course. Yeah, it must have somehow snaked its way into the novel. I had four hours a day to write, and then I had to deal with all the other stuff because we were all there. We were nine people in the house, you know?

TM: Oh my gosh.

KOK: But that was good, too. It was a good experience. You had to give it all of those four hours. I couldn’t hesitate. I had to just write whatever came into my mind.

TM: There are nine narrators in The Morning Star, so it’s interesting that there were nine people in your house.

KOK: Oh, I never thought about that.

TM: These characters have their own concerns, and they’re very much private ones. A new baby. A problem at work. Seeing a teacher you don’t want to see in the grocery store. Though it’s getting hot, and animals are acting strangely, and there’s a new star in the sky, it seems like the characters stay focused on the granular, day to day stuff.

KOK: Definitely.

TM: That did remind me of the pandemic. This idea of disaster out the window, but then at home, what are we going to eat, I’m fighting with my partner, whatever.

KOK: I think so. It wasn’t like I thought that was how I wanted to make it. I just wanted to find these people and to be in their life, and then this star appears, and I didn’t know how they would react. So, I think it was kind of—yeah, it was probably also related to what happened, really, and that very particular experience, because the funny thing is, you couldn’t share it with anyone because everybody had the same experience, you know? Couldn’t write about it, couldn’t talk about it, couldn’t call friends and say, “Do you know what’s happening here?” I never experienced anything like it. Never saw something so general in history. But this isn’t a pandemic novel at all.

TM: I was thinking about the idea of the big story, that Tolstoyan concept of the war going on in the backdrop of peace. Or the whale being off-camera for most of Moby-Dick. It’s hard, as a reader, to even picture, exactly, what the morning star is. I was wondering what it’s like to write with something on the periphery of a novel that is so giant, yet moves away right when a reader might most want to look at it?

KOK: Well, I started out and I had this idea about The Morning Star, and I wanted to have nine narrators. That was basically what I had, and then I started to tell the story and I realized, I had just started, it’s going to be more books. The Morning Star is going to be more scrutinized. I think what I struggled with the most was, and it’s probably very understandable, was credibility. That the characters could believe in the star. That’s the only thing I’m really working hard with, trying to get that star up there and make an impact on people.

TM: Have you started, I hate this kind of question, but are you writing the next part?

KOK: Yeah, yeah, I’m actually finishing it. I have a deadline for it on the first of September, so I’m really at the very end of it.

TM: Oh, great.

KOK: You have to write so much. I’ve written a lot today, for instance. I was almost done.

TM: This is a pattern book, but then you break the pattern in many ways. There’s two characters that you only spend a bit of time with, the one watching the baby and the one who was kissed by her brother-in-law

KOK: Yeah, and I felt like I’m starting a novel each time, you know? Just stop them and go onto the next. I will pick them up and go further, but I have no idea what’s going to happen, really.

TM: A technique you use in My Struggle and here is suspension. You see a big thing, you pause, and in this book, sometimes you go 200 pages before you come back to whatever the moment of suspense is. I’m curious how you juggle these moments.

KOK: I have no idea. I’m sorry, it’s very intuitive. It’s a lot about pacing, really, and what you can allow. Suspense allows you to dwell with something and to write about other stuff, and it makes it possible to get to, for me at least, everyday life. Somehow get the sense of intensity to it. For me, writing a novel is a way of creating a room or a space where I can say something that might otherwise have been incredibly banal, or not worth it all. But I never think about those terms in a technical way. Suspense doesn’t mean anything to me, really. It’s just writing.

TM: When we last spoke, you were preoccupied with making the characters feel different. You said that was the biggest challenge you were setting for yourself with this project.

KOK: Yeah, that was something I also discussed with my editor throughout, because every person is written the same way, thinking the same way. It’s like—how to create different characters in the same language?—and I didn’t want to pretend I’m going to other languages, or other ways of writing. I also didn’t want the third person, which could have been a solution, so that was something I thought about all the way through. My editor said to me, “Just write about these people and it becomes an illusion.” I mean, everybody knows you’ve written it. But I set some different parameters in the beginning, and that makes them different in a way.

TM: When you switch back and forth, are the characters waiting for you? Or do you have to write your way back into them?

KOK: No, I can just go into them, but the whole goal was to establish them, because I didn’t know anything about any of them, so I just started the situation and kind of found my way. Then something opened up, and then more, and then there was a life there. For instance, the priest, all I knew was that she would come in on an airplane, and that she had been on a conference for translation of the Bible, which I was part of. I knew this was at least authentic, in a way. That was all I had about her, I had no idea that she didn’t want to go home, that she had these troubles. It was the same with all of them, and that’s the fun of writing fiction.

TM: There’s so many moments in writing, I’m thinking of Stendhal maybe, where you have characters that seem separated by wide gulfs, and then suddenly you learn that they’re linked. For me, finding out that Egil (an important character) went to school with the priest was the kind of moment in writing that makes your heart beat a little bit.

KOK: Yeah. I had great fun with this, and there are going to be more link ups to come.

TM: I found a quote of yours in your Munch book about The Scream, I’ll just read it, because it made me think of what we’re talking about:
What is shocking about the picture…is that the entire space is subsumed into the face and the state of mind it expresses… The space is recognizable, it is Oslo with the Oslo fjord, probably seen from the ridge of Ekebergåsen, but it is greatly distorted…the perspective has been moved into a single person, and the work’s main concern is the place from which the world is viewed, reality as experienced by this single individual is the world. Everything seen is coloured by emotions and moods, which are continually changing.
KOK: Yeah, I think that’s just the way I looked at everything, really. Art, literature, and writing. Yeah. I haven’t specifically thought about that, but of course I’ve thought about the view of the world and of different worlds a lot, and that’s also an opportunity. It’s exactly that, sure. Exactly that, that you could see the same world and it’s completely different. That could be a relation. I wanted this book to exist also in between the characters, not like my previous book My Struggle, which is just one person, nothing else.

TM: I wanted to ask about the character Jostein—I’m sure he was fun.

KOK: He was fun to write, yeah.

TM: Peeing himself, drinking, hitting on girls, ignoring his son’s very clear psychiatric crisis. But then he gets this transcendent journey through a Dantean purgatory. He would have been the least likely character for me to say, “I want to see what he thinks about the river Styx.” How did that sequence come into it?

KOK: He was just this idea of journalists writing about culture while hating culture. Which I know for sure exists, and I wondered why that is, you know? I really hate it, I mean, really, really hate it, and so I had to write about it. Then I just riffed on him through the novel. And he was the obvious choice for that scene, really. I never thought of anyone else. Also, I don’t really know, but I really like it that in that scene everything has to be simplified, simplified, and simplified. He actually doesn’t remember anything. That whole trip to the other world was also very late stage in the novel, and came when I was very in the book, and he was there.

TM: The way the language shifts into something primordial when he drinks from the river was a pleasure.

KOK: Yeah, it was fun, actually, to do.

TM: Another thing that was fun was the essay at the end of the book that you show Egil writing earlier, with that little capsule story of him on the train. And I know your answer is going to be it happened organically while you were writing it, so I’m not going to ask you that question again.

KOK: Sorry.

TM: No, it’s good! I’m the same way. But the use of research and these theoretical opinings on death in a novel about people who can’t die—I do think is worth asking about.

KOK: It was stuff I was reading for the book, mainly, throughout the writing. I read, I do the same thing now, I have not a lot of time to read, so I read before I go to bed, and I have like half an hour, an hour, and that was the stuff I was reading. I knew it was going to be an essay, I wanted an essay in there. We discussed if it should be the start of the next one or the end of this one, but then I started to write it and I realized that the level of abstraction is very high when you are writing romantically about death or whatever. And death is not like that, that’s the thing. It’s not abstract, it’s not something you can really think of. It’s absolutely horrible, as everybody knows.

I needed to move that essay into a real expression, and then I remembered when I must have been 24 or something, I took a train from Oslo and there was this medical doctor. He was an anesthetic doctor. It was only him and me. We started to drink, and he started to confess from his life. Never seen him before, never seen him later. This is now 30 years ago, so I think I’m pretty safe. He just told me everything about his life, and he said, “I know I’m not going to see you again,” and then he told me about an experience he had about being on an ambulance helicopter and actually seeing people who weren’t there. I’ve always thought “I have to use this,” and there it was. Then I just expanded the story and invented a funeral, his anger and sorrow, and the death of his child. Basically, that’s how it works with fiction, you have an experience and then make use of it in an entirely different way. It was very important to end the essay in reality somehow, even though it’s an invented reality in the novel.

TM: In Fight Club, single serving friends, I think is what they call it.

KOK: I see, yeah. It was very powerful, actually.

TM: Sounds like it.

KOK: Yeah. I was very young, too.

TM: Toward the end of the novel, you write that death has been taken out of darkness, with mythological ideas of death turning into scientific processes. And I couldn’t stop thinking about your brain surgery essay about Dr. Marsh, when you’re looking at the brain through the microscope and you see this gorgeous thing. That’s a human being, but at the same time it’s science. What do you think science is doing to our understanding of death?

KOK: That’s a very good question. I’m actually reading a lot about that for the book I’m writing now, which is a very different perspective. And I don’t really want to talk about what I’m doing now, but I think there are several traits about death and about the body and about life that are very fixed in a way; they belong to each other’s department. The interesting thing, for instance, is that the idea of resurrection has always been in religion. It’s been the center of Christianity, but in a way, that idea has been impossible now, because religion has become more rational, so they can’t make it work in an old fashioned, biological, flesh and blood way. We don’t believe in it, but they did. Instead, it’s just moved into science, where it pops up in the most amazing ways. I just read, what is his name, the singularity man, who starts to think it’s possible to defy death and to beat aging. All through science, all through molecules and biology and computers. That’s doing something very weird, because for me, body is earth. Body is animal, body is primal, somehow, and very, very old.

Then you’ve got this kind of modern body, but the body is the same. We are the same. That is what I’m trying to write about again and again, the pull from the earth versus the enlightenment and the brand-new world we’re living in. When death comes, it just smashes all of that and destroys it. You face something completely different.

There’s this wonderful novel I just read, a Russian novel, by Chinghiz Aitmatov. Have you read it?

TM: No.

KOK: The Day as Long as a Century, it’s called.

TM: Oh, wow. Great title.

KOK: Absolutely wonderful. It has a very silly science fiction part, but it works, and it has an incredibly good part down on earth. It’s about a man in the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s, burying a friend. Going on a camel to bury him, and he kind of relives his life. Then there is a completely weird presence of rockets and the combination of those worlds side by side is absolutely brilliant.

I do have the same feeling when I read those crazy futurist American people, that really freaks me out somehow, but still it is very interesting. If you read them, you think yeah, it is possible. We are basically numbers. The scary thing is maybe this is where the hard science is going. That’s very much part of what I’m writing. It’s very existential, but also very much now. You know?

TM: Very much.

KOK: The very simple thought that death is something archaic, is something that kind of sets the rules, and it does something to us. It’s the thing I’m exploring in the first book. And the feeling I have is the same as I had in the beginning of My Struggle: it was my father’s death. It’s something you have to relate to, and it is everywhere, especially now with so many people dying around us. Dr. Marsh said—I asked him if he believed in something after death—and he said, “No, it’s over. It’s nothing. It’s just death. It’s like blowing a fuse.”

He’s seen many people die, so he knows what he’s talking about.

TM: I trust him more than me on that. When you were speaking, I was also thinking of the fundamentalist speaking-in-tongues American beliefs that still have a more spiritual approach to death.

KOK: Yeah. I was intrigued by all of them, all of that, the whole tradition you’re talking about. And Shamanism is incredibly interesting, just as a phenomenon. What it does to your view of the world, which is what I’m interested in. I’m not so interested in if it is true. It’s what it makes the world into. Turns it into something else. That’s what I want to do with this book. In a very, very mundane world, of course.

TM: A Time for Everything is one of my favorite books. You place mythological stories, Cain and Abel, Abraham, in familiar Norwegian environments. Woods that are very much like the woods in My Struggle, figures that we see again in My Struggle. In The Morning Star, too, I was having fun Googling the restaurants you were mentioning in the book and seeing the interiors you described. So, you have this surreal landscape, but it’s very, very strongly mapped onto a real place.

KOK: Yeah. I hadn’t written about many landscapes, and the lesson in my second novel, A Time for Everything, was that when I tried to write those stories, I had set them in vivid landscapes, and it was impossible, because I didn’t have the knowledge or the insight, and if you’re a bit insecure, it’s impossible to be free.

It was a bit the same in The Morning Star with writing from the perspective of women. In the beginning I wasn’t free, and didn’t know anything, so I really wrote badly because of that.

What I did in A Time for Everything was to move it to Norway. I knew the Norwegian landscape, so then I could just be free. I gave those people some traits from my grandparents and so on, as you know. When I was writing The Morning Star, I was in London, but the memories and images of where I grew up were very strong, and it gave an extra dimension.

Because to me, it is real because I was there, but it isn’t here, so I have to make it up anyway. If I have something realistic, then it’s much, much better to let something extraordinary or fantastic happen. To be free in something, I have to know it really well. I do also like a concrete, real world combined with fiction. It’s always something that I appreciate with many of the novels I like. If you read Tolstoy, for instance, you know those places exist somehow, and it’s grounded in the information of the world.

TM: How did you start to feel more comfortable writing the female characters?

KOK: I had to say, “I can’t do this,” because I was being so respectful. I asked myself, “Can a woman think this? Would a woman do this?” Then you’re fucked, because there’s no creativity, it’s just restrictions. I had to let go of all of that, and just write and be completely free, never think about if a woman could think that, would do that. Then the novel in itself started to come alive, because the first person I wrote was the nurse.

TM: One thing I was intrigued by with her was that In the Land of the Cyclops has an essay that’s partially about you working in a place that’s very similar to the place she works, a home for the mentally ill. Were you giving bits of yourself to different characters?

KOK: Yeah, yeah. That’s all over the place, really, because you need something that is true, and it doesn’t have to be true in any direct sense, but there has to be an experience of something you know. I have to have that when I’m writing, so there’s a lot of that spread out and I just use whatever comes in hand. That goes for all of the characters,

TM: You’ve written that having a family member with bipolar disorder changes the you and the I, and creates questions about what is essential to an individual’s identity. I wanted to ask about that astonishing moment where the bipolar character Turid’s painting contains a truth that no other character sees.

KOK: The thing with her is that she is psychotic. Or she is getting psychotic, meaning she is seeing something. Because it’s like a dream, but you are in the real world, and you can’t believe everything. You have the ecstasy with the shamans, and that’s also the same way, that you see something that might not be there. Or you have experiences with mushrooms or whatever, you always see something. It’s just an interesting place to be, I think, if you are in the world with everyone but you see something else. Not that that should be real, or not real, or whatever. It’s a position, and the outer world is completely dissolved.

TM: This book has strong elements of horror. The being in the woods, violence against cats. I wanted to ask about your decision to use fear in this book.

KOK: I set out to. One of my favorite books is Dracula by Bram Stoker. I think I was 14 the first time I read it, and I read it many times. I really, really loved it. I remember playing Echo and the Bunnymen when I read it, so every time I hear Echo and the Bunnymen again, I remember. I wanted to go, the gothic and the grotesque and all of that, those are places I wanted to go. And of course, The Morning Star has many elements, especially cliffhangers and supernatural stuff.

TM: And Dracula can’t die in a normal way.

KOK: That’s true, yeah. Never thought about that.

TM: I was reading your essay on Cindy Sherman’s pig person, and thinking about non-humanness as something that is really frightening as well.

KOK: Yeah. It’s just a fascination I have. We have all of these other living creatures and we’re not afraid of them. They are not us, they’re different, and we accept them and don’t think too much about them, even though it’s very weird to have other creatures that experience the world completely differently. But then think about meeting the devil, not in any fictitious way, but in a real way. If you try to think about non-human creatures like that, or a divine creature, or whatever that people have been seeing throughout history, how immensely scary that is. It’s the same with robots.

TM: I would love to ask about The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, the Kierkegaard text. Egil, the character, writes about how strongly it impacted him, like it was seeing something for the first time. I was wondering if that follows your own journey of reading?

KOK: I actually read it in New York, and I read it English the first time because I bought it in a bookshop there. I was just blown away by it, really. I think the immediate appeal was the repetitions, the poetry. It was like I was transfixed. There is a complete impossible idea that it brings forth which I was intrigued by. I didn’t think I should use it in any way, but I did. I think it’s the common knowledge of living now, the radicality of it and Kierkegaard makes you see it, like you said, for the first time. You see the radicality in it. In The Morning Star, there are two different types of Christianity going on. The priest, Katrina, she’s very much about the social reality, very much about mercy. Then you have Egil, which is completely the opposite, which is Kierkegaard, turning away from the social and looking into the abyss, which Kierkegaard was very good at doing. And then I also did, like Egil, I bought the complete series of all of Kierkegaard’s work in Danish, which I have here on my shelves. Then I read an incredibly good biography about him. He was such a fun character as a person.

TM: Did you find that going back to fiction, was it fun, was it different, did it feel liberating?

KOK: It was fun, but it was in a way also much harder, and I also felt that I took a risk, really doing this. You know? That was part of the fun, and I really enjoyed it.

TM: When I talked to you about My Struggle, sometimes I felt a little awkward because I was asking questions about the character you to the writer you. Is this a different sort of interview for you?

KOK: Yeah, much harder to talk about fiction because with My Struggle, we can just talk about myself, you know? It’s fine, I don’t have to think. With this book, I have to find a way of talking about it and there’s so much I don’t know. I did write it very fast, really. And I haven’t talked much about it because there was a pandemic, so I did like three interviews in Norway, three in Sweden, one in Denmark, and that was it. Which is great.

TM: You don’t read anything written about you, right?

KOK: No, I don’t.

TM: So, I can do whatever I want with this.

KOK: Yeah.

TM: Is it easy to avoid pieces about yourself?

KOK: It’s easy, but sometimes there is a headline, often reviews come out like two weeks before the book, and I’m not prepared. Then I know, okay, it’s a shit review or whatever. But I don’t feel curious anymore. It’s very, very good not to read it. Even the good stuff is terrible. It’s such a good thing to do, not to read about yourself.

Bonus Links:
A Complete Visual Map of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle’
You’re Not a Real Writer Until You Have Enemies: The Millions Interviews Karl Ove Knausgaard
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Seasons Quartet Is a Raw Journey through the Writing Process
Karl Ove Knausgaard Shows You What Makes Life Worth Living
Devoutly to Be Wished: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Consummation

This Thing Feels Alive: The Millions Interviews Brad Fox

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I have trouble getting books in Kyiv. Not books. There are lots of those. Most of which make me wonder if the Russian nationalists burning books in Crimea might be on to something. Check that. Flip it. They’re not on to anything. They’re just assholes. They burn books because ideas scare them and books in Ukrainian and Tatar apparently terrify them.

No, I have trouble getting physical books, in English, translated or not, that are appearing on the American market. And so, last autumn, a publisher I’d never heard of offered me a physical book from a writer I’d never heard of. I read the blurb, looked at the bio, and said yes, please send it.

The blurb was fine. But that bio: Brad Fox left the U.S. at 20; came home to get an education; left again. Came back 15 years later. An American who’d spent the better part of his adult life living in places profoundly not America, doing humanitarian work. The book, and the man behind it, drew me in, in part, because their very existence—both the book’s and the man’s—cuts against the grain of a whole slew of American political and cultural orthodoxies.

And after several hours on Skype with Fox, I found out that being angry, hyperbolic, or revolutionary are not required for great prose when intelligence will suffice. In fact, I’d say the former are counterproductive to writing this strong. Particularly, when it’s a book that is destined to challenge the pieties of anyone who picks it up the way this one will.

The publisher is Rescue Press. The writer—for those just tuning in—is Brad Fox. The novel is To Remain Nameless. And for the hours spent on SKYPE chewing on every bizarre question I threw his way; for a talk that offered serious balm for the sting that comes from getting my hands on only a half-dozen physical books worth reading every year; for offering up his authentic, experienced perspective, I am grateful. Below is some of what we talked about.

The Millions: So, elephant in the room. The audacity of a man writing a woman protagonist with another, pregnant, woman as her foil…no worries about criticisms of appropriation?

Brad Fox: It came from hearing stories about birth. I don’t have kids. I was present at one birth. The parents were very close friends of mine, I helped them get to the hospital and they pulled me into the room. That’s the extent of my personal experience, other than being born myself. But I am married to a woman who worked as a birth doula. She assisted at around 40 births. She’d get a call that one of her clients was going into labor, she’d grab her kit and rush off. She’d come home 36 hours later, euphoric from sleep deprivation. And she had a routine—it didn’t matter if it was 9 a.m., she’d buy herself a couple of beers and half a rotisserie chicken. She’d show up, eat and drink, and tell me what happened. The stories of the births themselves were fascinating, how the woman made it through the process, the body versus the medical system. Then there were the other people around. Partners, family members, everyone pushed to the limit until all their defenses fall away. Who are they? And what do they see at that moment? I thought it was a perfect frame for a story. It forces all kinds of questions about life and meaning. I started looking around to see what had been done with birth narratives. There was the birth scene in Anna Karenina, and some other scattered scenes, but not a book where a birth is the narrative device. But I thought about all that later. First I just woke up one morning and wrote a couple of pages with no plan. The premise came into focus, and I thought: this thing feels alive.

TM: I’ve lived in the post-Soviet space for a quarter century, I’m required to ask: You would be opposed to a proscriptive approach to modes of expression in literature?

BF: I guess you mean the way identity is used to forbid certain kinds of writing or storytelling? There are good reasons why positionality needs to be examined. And there are reasons some people can travel more easily than others. Power dynamics are always involved. But that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed even to try to enter how somebody else thinks or feel how somebody else feels, that it’s impossible to write from the perspective of anyone who’s not strictly who you are.

TM: But, a man, you’re on some foreign soil there, no?

BF: There’s baggage in every identity. If I only write about men, that’s unbearable and wrong. Taking on another perspective is fraught, which means you have to devise an ethics about it. I did a lot of interviewing to get the birthing stuff right. I revisited the hospital ward where it was set. I asked a few writer friends who are mothers to read the book and give me notes. There’s one detail that’s inaccurate.

TM: And that is?

BF: I’d rather not say. But I’m curious if anyone spots it.

TM: I wanted to be there when my sons were born. But if that delivery scene is accurate, I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. Didn’t matter. Ukraine is pretty traditional: No men allowed in the room. Three cheers for tradition.

BF: I wanted it to be accurate and also graphic. Because it’s the confrontation with extreme bodily reality that sets the book in motion. Most of the book takes place in the mind and memory of the birthing woman’s friend—a woman who doesn’t want to have children, who’s disillusioned with humanity, a misanthrope. To have her faced with the reality of a new child, but before that, the struggle, the smells, the weird light. What does that do to her?

TM: So, no hesitation to write about a character whose circumstances you could never fully embody?

I can’t say I did it without hesitation. I thought about the reasons. But the reasons to do it were much more interesting than the reasons not to. I spent a lot of time imagining having a different body. I knew I would need help to get it right, and that in itself was a compelling challenge. I haven’t always decided to go ahead with things.

TM: You have suppressed your own work?

BF: Yes, I have, for various reason. Abandoned things or decided not to show them around.

TM: But To Remain Nameless is different?

BF: Who knows! But I wrote it and the people at Rescue liked it. It was important to me that the editor was a woman. And it’s a book that comes from legitimate concerns, from a sense of what kind of questions a narrative operating on different levels can ask.

TM: To Remain Nameless: That title has some deep roots. Care to elaborate?

BF: I’m a student of apophatic theology. It’s an orientation toward what lies beyond thought and language. It’s more of a disposition than a way of thought. It’s a way of engaging the divine through negation, through terminal dissatisfaction with any linguistic structure. I spend a lot of time trying to read Ibn ‘Arabi, the great Andalusian visionary writer. But also Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius. Many others.

TM: Pseudo-Dionysius! He’s always reminded me of Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes. You know: “I know nothing! I see nothing!”

BF: Please explain.

TM: I’m talking about absence: where else in contemporary fiction can we read an informed perspective that incorporates apophatic theology? What the Old Book describes as “the Spirit interceding in groans that words cannot express.” Mourning in contemporary fiction is typically a device—a decorative bauble, maudlin, self-pitying, not like this—it’s central to her dilemma.

BF: These are two different things. You’re right that here mourning is inseparable from beauty and human connection, the richness of life, but that’s not what I mean by an orientation beyond thought. Apophasis is a matter of using language to point beyond itself, endlessly, endlessly, so there’s a forward momentum in that. Or there might appear to be at times.

TM: Yet her assessment of her ontogeny is pretty harsh. You’re sure she’s no pessimist? Even a nihilist?

BF: She’s someone who’s seen the worst of human nature, now staring into a birthing body. Also holding on and trying to help in whatever way she can. Here is her closest friend in the world engaged in the continuation of life, which she herself has turned away from. It’s a genuine mystery to her.

TM: But the self-abnegation inherent in the work, the self-flagellation of working for an NGO, the suggestion that, well, I have this or that capacity so who cares what happens to me as long as the job gets done? Not nihilism?

BF: There wasn’t much self-flagellation among the NGO workers I knew. It was a pretty hedonistic life. A lot of burn out. But that’s something else. For her, yes, there’s a self-abnegating impetus to serve. She understands the neocolonial reality of what’s happening, sees herself implicated, and sees that any intervention may do more harm than good. Still, the concerns are immediate, and that compels her to keep at it. What else can she do?

TM: How significantly has your own experience internationally, seeing the results of the blind spots in U.S. foreign policy, bled into the writing?

BF: I left the U.S. at the beginning of my 20s. I knew nothing at all. I practically grew up in the Balkans. My sensibility was formed in Sarajevo and Belgrade and later in Cairo and Syria and Mexico and Istanbul. Often, U.S. foreign policy was a matter of life and death. I never went to Iraq, but what the U.S. unleashed with the invasion was the definitive event of the era. I moved back to the U.S. after 15 years away, which turned out to be the 10th anniversary of 9-11. It was a harsh reminder that though U.S. foreign policy may be a matter of life and death elsewhere, within the country there is little awareness of it. That fall of 2011, there were celebrations of veterans’ experiences, the trauma hero, and a sense of victimhood—what happened to us, what we’d been through—but no acknowledgment that the U.S. had rained ordnance on the rest of the world for a decade, causing permanent damage. We had perpetrated outrageous violence. There’s still been no reckoning with that.

TM: It’s like bad clams for lunch: eventually they’re going to come back up. Is that, in part, what’s happening now in the U.S., in this reconsideration of its own history?

BF: I do think the Trump phenomenon is an effect of decades of lies and denials about history and the effects of recent policies.

TM: And yet, in the book you avoid any explicit politicization of your argument. Your character’s politics aren’t ideological, partisan, but pragmatic.

BF: This book is driven by bodily knowledge, by staying close to granular realities. She sees, as anyone would, the damage all over the globe. That’s not a polemic, it’s simply the world. The novel gives space to talk about love and friendship and quotidian struggles and health issues and also politics and mortality in an open-ended way. And to see how all that mixes with desire and pleasure and humor. There are passages that are just following an energetic impulse, like dynamics in music.

TM: So, not a fan of manifestos posing as fiction?

BF: I participated in the movement to oust a group of corrupt politicians from the New York State Senate a couple of years ago. If you want to make changes in policy—and it’s a worthy pursuit, activist movements, criminal justice reform, all of it—you need to do the work of politics. Which is tireless, usually thankless, but social. Novel writing is something else.

TM: A couple more? First, the pain. Why was To Remain Nameless not picked up by a big house?

BF: I had the same question! Querying is so demoralizing. How many times can you hear “I don’t know how to sell this”? But there’s a big world of small presses in the U.S. People who are engaged, who care. For love not money. It’s not a cultural desert; it’s just hard to connect. And then Hilary Plum at Rescue Press saw it. So careful and astute, so beautiful in her attention to it. In my experience that’s really rare.

TM: A story question: That scene where Laura and Tess go out drinking in Istanbul with a couple of Swedish NGO financial guys. Is this the single greatest scene written in contemporary American literature in the last decade? Or just one of the greatest?

BF: Ha! There’s a kind of euphoria in that scene. The frustration of working in the international sector builds up until you have this kind of ecstatic release.

TM: The kiss that follows a piss. You wandering into magical realism?

BF: No, I think it’s real. You do piss out reports and meaningless tax documents, files that no one at headquarters is going to read. They are in your body until you pass them. And then—ahhhh—you feel better!

TM: Indeed, a protagonist at the breaking point but still with so much to offer. Decidedly hopeful, no?

BF: I mean, the oceans are rising, how could you bring a life into this twisted, unjust place? That’s part of her conundrum. It’s the contemplative space of the book. Its structure puts grace, faith, and the hope for something better under pressure and it’s for us to see what comes of that.

TM: A comment, not a question. I’m a snob and the stuff I like to read has to be really good. So, big house, schmig house. To Remain Nameless is a strong, thoughtful read. Honor is due.

BF: That’s gratifying to hear. Thanks.

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

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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

Through the Human Lens: The Millions Interviews Meghan O’Gieblyn

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While it is an admittedly high bar, I’m most drawn to nonfiction books where I feel surrounded by the writer’s manner of thought; I am not merely given an argument, but I am made to experience a mind. God, Human, Animal, Machine, the new book by Meghan O’Gieblyn, is that type of book: an intellectual journey that is generous and generative. I paused the book often to take notes, to ponder O’Gieblyn’s wise and unusual perspectives on big questions, and to even track down her fascinating miscellany (I’m happy that I followed her trail to find the curious essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat” by Thomas Nagel. Great writers, I believe, send us reading.)

Perhaps what I love most about her work is that O’Gieblyn reveals that old, even ancient concerns remain absolutely immediate—unavoidable, perhaps. “Today, as AI continues to blow past us in benchmark after benchmark of higher cognition,” she writes, “we quell our anxiety by insisting that what distinguishes true consciousness is emotions, perception, the ability to experience and feel: the qualities, in other words, that we share with animals.” 

Meghan O’Gieblyn is the author of Interior States, which won the 2018 Believer Book Award for nonfiction. She has written for Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, Bookforum, n+1, The Point, The Believer, The Guardian, The New York Times, and is a columnist for Wired. She has received three Pushcart Prizes for her writing.

We spoke about how metaphor sustains language, our stubborn search for meaning, and what it means to be human in a transhuman world.

The Millions: The subtitle of your book contains the word “metaphor,” and you include lines of poetry from Gerard Manley Hopkins, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Richard Brautigan. You also share a wonderful quote from the philosopher Gillian Rose, who described the act of writing as “a mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control.” What does language—and perhaps language at its most poetic—offer us in our search for meaning? Is language ultimately helpful or harmful in our pursuit of truth?

Meghan O’Gieblyn: I don’t think we can understand the world, at least on a conceptual level, without language. And you could argue that this language is always poetic, if you define that term broadly, as in “reliant on metaphor.” I’m thinking of the research that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson did in the early 1980s that found that all languages are built on spatial metaphors we learn as children, from our interactions in the world. When we envision the continuum of time, with the future lying “ahead” of us, and the past “behind” us, that’s a metaphor, even though we don’t often recognize it as such. It’s difficult to imagine being able to conceive of time without that visual metaphor. Their work, incidentally, ended up inspiring a lot of work in robotics because it suggested that in order for machines to develop conscious thought, they’d have to interact with the world and understand spatial relationships—you can’t just have a brain in a vat.

In the book, I’m primarily interested in technological metaphors, particularly those we use to describe ourselves as humans, like the mechanistic idea that humans are machines, or the more contemporary notion that the mind is a computer. Those metaphors are obviously useful in our attempts to understand ourselves. The mind-as-computer-metaphor has been crucial to both cognitive science and artificial intelligence. But a kind of slippage frequently occurs, where people forget that these are metaphors and begin to take them literally. You now have people working in AI who insist that their systems are actually thinking, or that they understand—words that used to be put in quotation marks. Nobody consciously decided that the metaphor would become literal; it just happened, little by little. It’s not unlike how certain passages in religious texts that were once understood metaphorically are taken literally by later generations. As a writer, I’m both fascinated and unnerved by those moments where language seems to slip out of my control. Every writer has experienced this at some point. You call upon an image that turns out, later on, to be the perfect metaphor for the point you’re making. Or you realize you’ve written something much smarter than what you set out to argue. It recalls the old poststructuralist point that we don’t speak language, it speaks us. Language, like all technologies, is constantly at risk of escaping our control. 

TM: There’s an interesting and generative tension in this book between the personal and the scholarly, the self and the analytical. You consider your time studying theology at a fundamentalist college as a formative part of your life: an experience that contributed to you leaving the Christian faith and worldview. I found myself drawn to your sense (and prose) in these personal moments, and then pulled again by your confession of sorts later: “As soon as I opened a small aperture into my life, people became less interested in the ideas I was discussing than in my personal story and my perspective as someone who was formerly religious.” How do you feel now, as this book is making its way into the world? Do you want to allow this aperture of the personal to grow or to shrink, as it relates to your analytical and philosophical discussions? 

MO: I’ve always felt that tension, as a writer, between the subjective and the objective approach. On one hand, personal writing is often considered less serious than journalism or criticism; that’s always there in the back of my mind. On the other hand, I have a hard time making sense of ideas without filtering them through the lens of the “I.” I think that’s true of all writers, to some extent, even those who don’t write explicitly in the first person. And when we distrust an argument, as readers, it’s often because we suspect the author has some personal axe to grind, or is writing in bad faith. It’s hard to avoid the personal, even when it’s not there, overtly, on the page. 

Throughout the process of writing this book, I struggled to maintain the right balance between the personal and analytical. When I write essays, that balance usually feels intuitive, but in this case, I couldn’t get it right. I kept resisting the use of the “I.” I teach writing, and I often tell my students that craft problems are often content problems in disguise; they tend to enact the very tensions that you’re writing about (or refusing to write about) and can clue you into the story’s larger themes. That’s what happened with this book. There was a certain point during the writing process when it occurred to me that this problem mirrored one of the underlying intellectual concerns of the book, which is the tension between the subjective and the objective points of view. Many of the fields I was writing about—consciousness, artificial intelligence, physics—have reached an impasse over these two ways of seeing the world. We can observe consciousness clearly from the first-person point of view, but from the objective vantage of science, it doesn’t exist. In quantum physics, there’s the observer problem, where the physicist sees one thing, and scientific instruments register something different. Some contemporary philosophers have argued that these problems come down to the fact that we’re not accounting for the subjective vantage. And that’s ultimately the problem I had to come to terms with during the writing process. I was stuck because I wasn’t thinking about what was at stake for me, or why I became interested in these questions. That tension immediately resolved when I put more of my own story in the book.  

TM: “For the medieval person,” you write, “the cosmos was fundamentally comprehensible: it was a rational system constructed by a rational God, the same intelligence who constructed our minds.” The Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin makes several appearances in your book; he strikes me as one whose radical, creative visions assume a certain neatness of construction. In the past year, I’ve been taken by the arguments of his contemporary, Fr. Raymond Nogar, who wrote: “My chief opposition to the vision of Father Teilhard is that it resembles far too much the Thomistic synthesis, and that it is, basically, too archaic to satisfy the demands of our contemporaries. The trouble with the world of Father Teilhard, as I understand it, is not that it is strange, but that it is not strange enough.” Nogar thought that Teilhard believed in “the God of the neat; mine is the God of the messy…His God is the Lord of order; my God is the Lord of the Absurd.” How might a Lord of the Absurd—or perhaps simply the Absurd—connect to your investigations into how we seek meaning and patterns in the world?

MO: Nogar’s observation that Teilhard’s cosmos is “not strange enough” reminds me of something Niels Bohr once said to another physicist, after a lecture. He said, basically, that everyone agreed that the physicist’s theory was crazy but the question was “whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.” I’m interested in this idea that there are truths that remain absurd or paradoxical to human understanding. It’s a problem I encountered in my theology courses in Bible school, where I was first introduced to the nominalist idea that God’s morality, or his sense of justice, is far beyond human understanding—and perhaps even arbitrary. I didn’t realize at the time that this was a fairly modern view of God, one that arose in the late medieval period. The God I’d believed in growing up, the one who appeared in Sunday school lessons, was a lot more like the God of Aquinas, which is to say an entity that could be rationally understood, and whose world was similarly orderly and comprehensible. I’d always believed that my conscience was a reflection of some larger moral order in the universe. But in my courses, we were reading theologians who insisted that morality was based on nothing more than the sovereign will of God—the implication being that it could diverge from our intuitive sense of morality, or even strike us as alien. 

What’s interesting is that modern physics presents the same problem. When you begin looking at the world on the quantum level, it becomes clear that our notion of time, of cause-and-effect—basically everything that allows the world to be comprehensible—exists mostly in our minds, not in the world itself. Reality is governed by all sorts of absurd phenomenon that we can’t explain, like the observer effect or spooky action at a distance. I’m always baffled when self-professed “rationalists” object to the supernatural claims of religion—that a virgin could give birth, that God could be three persons. Modern science contains just as much mind-bending absurdity. It too requires that we take paradox on faith. C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, argues, in fact, that it’s precisely the “illogical” nature of the incarnation that makes it more likely to be true because it’s not something humans could have easily made up. “It has not the suspicious a priori lucidity of Pantheism or of Newtonian physics,” he writes. “It has the seemingly arbitrary and idiosyncratic character which modern science is slowly teaching us to put up with in this willful universe.”

TM:  “Perhaps the real illusion,” you write, “is our persistent hope that science will be able to explain consciousness one day.” I loved how God, Human, Animal, Machine feels like the work of a seeker from first word to final—your skepticism is fueled, seemingly, by a sense of wonder about the world; a respect for the complexity of consciousness (human, digital, and otherwise). You write early in the book that “It’s true that I have come to see myself more or less as a machine.” What type of machine are you? What is your function?

MO: That line is a little tongue-in-cheek, given that nobody really accepts that they’re a machine. (At least I don’t think they do.) But there are important differences between how I view myself now and how I viewed myself when I was a Christian. I am much more likely today to resort to purely quantitative or physical explanations of my behavior and mental states. If I’m feeling depressed, I immediately think about how much sleep I got the night before, or whether I’ve exercised. If I lash out at someone, it’s because I probably need a sandwich. I think most of us rely on these purely physical explanations because they can be objectively observed and quantified (we can now track our calorie-intakes, our heart rates, and our REM cycles on our phones). Whereas our mental lives—what we spend our time thinking about, what we value, and why—are difficult to talk about. Or maybe they don’t seem like a convincing causal force. I don’t think this is incidentally related to the fact that consciousness can’t be accounted for by science. There’s a persistent refrain in academic circles that we in the modern West overvalue our subjectivity, that we believe our minds are more real than our bodies. To me, that feels like one of those instances where the objection has become the consensus. The academic conclusions have trickled down into mainstream culture, such that it’s difficult, even in everyday life, believe that our minds are real.  

TM: You write about those who wonder whether we exist within a simulation, and it feels connected to what Hopkins once conjectured about the inscape of the world: “What you look hard at seems to look hard at you.” This resembles what you write about Jesus:  “When his disciples asked whether he was the son of God, he answered, ‘Who do you say I am?’ as though the faith of the observer determined whether he was human or divine.” In a world that increasingly feels anatheist—seeking God after God—how do we seek to answer the question that Jesus poses? Does the question still resonate in a transhuman world?

MO: I love that Hopkins line, and the reflexivity it describes. If I remember the context correctly, he was talking about how the intrinsic beauty of the natural world bespeaks design and purpose. Even though I no longer believe in a divine creator, I find it very difficult to resist seeing the world as a created object, especially in those moments that involve wonder, or the sublime. I don’t think that’s unusual as we might assume among atheists. Maybe that’s why theories like the Simulation Hypothesis—the argument that we’re living in a computer program created by future-humans—are so compelling. It satisfies our desire to see the world as containing a larger purpose or telos.

The objection, of course, is that we’re simply anthropomorphizing. We ourselves are creators, so we see the world as a created object. Not only that, we see it as precisely the kind of technology that we ourselves recently created—a giant computer. Both science and religion rest on a tension between the anthropomorphic and the transcendent. We can’t help but see the world in terms of the human, to see it in our own image, and this often leads to error. There are commands in many traditions against applying human qualities to God. And the scientific method is designed to keep us from sullying our inquiries with subjective beliefs and assumptions. But then whenever we try to go beyond the human, we encounter absurdity and paradox. 

What I still find compelling about Christianity—and maybe what it can teach us, in an anatheist world—is that it acknowledges this tension is an essential part of being human. The incarnation is a recognition, in a way, that we can’t escape our human vantage, that God had to come down and become flesh so that we could understand. You see that especially in Christ’s parables, stories that are rooted in the human world, but that nevertheless contain these insane paradoxes that are beyond this world. Going back to Niels Bohr: he once said that all the major religions of the world rely on parables and kaons because the gap between the human and transcendent realms can only be bridged by seemingly contradictory statements. I suspect there’s some validity to this, that paradox is connected to truth. This is becoming especially clear as we glean more and more information about the world. We now have so much data, we need AI systems to process it because our understanding and our scientific theories begin to break down when faced with that level of complexity. But I’m skeptical of the notion that we have to build bigger, more sophisticated machines that can comprehend a world that transcends our understanding. We have to find a way to understand the world on our own terms, through the lens of the human. 

You Live and Die by the Prep Work: The Millions Interviews Karen Tucker

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Irene and Luce wait tables at a pool hall in Anklewood, a rural North Carolina town. After a fateful night in which the girls get revenge on a vile customer, they fall under the spell of pills and, at once, become best friends. Written with both humor and gritty clarity, Karen Tucker’s novel Bewilderness is Irene’s devastating reckoning with the year of her life she spent with Luce.

The novel spares none of the joyful details of the characters’ lives, like the hilarious chorus of Reddit users who respond to Irene’s post on r/opioids asking for advice on getting Luce to a meeting. Nor does it avoid looking into the hardest places of addiction, like the moment when a dealer teaches Irene how to use a needle and syringe for the first time.

I read excerpts of Bewilderness in writing workshops with Tucker when we were both attending the graduate creative writing program at Florida State University. For The Millions, I spoke with the author over email about what it takes to write about substance use disorder, the relationship between art and activism, and the importance of prep work—just as in waiting tables—in writing an honest novel.

Whitney Gilchrist: When people ask you what your book is about, what do you tell them? Is it a different answer from how you described it when you were writing it?

Karen Tucker: As someone with questionable skills in the verbal department, I usually say something like, “You know. Friends, drugs,” and let my voice trail off. Sometimes I add the food server angle, and––depending on who I’m talking to and their personal interests––I’ll mention the many pee and poop jokes. I’ve found “trauma and grief and substance use disorder” doesn’t quite have the same zing.

WG: With addiction so stigmatized and misunderstood, you must have made countless decisions in order to write about it responsibly. Could you talk about the choices you made that you felt were important in portraying the opioid crisis?

KT: The correct answer is that I’m an irresponsible writer, since I spent little to no time considering how to present the opioid epidemic in a responsible fashion.

Certainly I did copious research to better understand how this disaster unfolded (late capitalism strikes again!), but my obligation, as I saw it, was to portray these characters’ lives as fully as possible. To not omit the moments of genuine joy and pleasure, and to avoid prettying up any ugly choices or brutal events.

Not that this was easy. Among other things, Bewilderness is about a painful disorder––and who wouldn’t want to inject a hefty dose of order if it meant relieving some of that pain? I did my best, slipped up plenty, and at last I had a novel. No doubt I would have abandoned the manuscript in its earliest stages if either I or the characters always did the responsible thing.

WG: This book is written back and forth in time, and that back and forth seems to grow increasingly untidy as the characters edge deeper into drug use. How did you develop that structure?

KT: As with any other craft choice, I got the nonlinear structure from reading and admiring other novels with a similar back-and-forth quality––probably all fiction is fan fiction to some degree. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American had the most direct influence in that regard, at least in the early stages of drafting.

Once it became clear that Greene’s structure could only carry me so far, I tried to keep a few things in mind when deciding where to go next. Because Irene narrates this story from several years in the future, I considered where her memory might take her as she attempts to puzzle out what happened.

I also thought about the most pressing question a reader might have at the end of each section. Should I address it right away or would it give them more pleasure if I made them wait?

Patterns, too, were on my mind when making these choices. There are few things I love more than a poem or story or novel that establishes a particular drumbeat and then disrupts it by tossing its sticks in the air. And because we need to upend conventional thinking about substance use disorder, it felt vital to take an unconventional approach to this story whenever possible.

WG: How did you come to choose Bewilderness for the title? Were you ever considering other titles?

KT: Back in the first month or two of drafting this novel, Kaveh Akbar posted a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, “First Fight. Then Fiddle,” online somewhere. Among other things, the poem talks about activism and survival and how art alone isn’t enough to make necessary changes. There’s a line, “Bewitch, bewilder…” that rang hard in my head, unresolved. In what I suppose was an attempt to resolve it, my brain answered “Bewilderness.” From that point on, the title––and the poem’s advice––stuck.

I’m under no illusion that this novel will usher in any meaningful change to the opioid crisis, although I hope it gets readers to interrogate their own biases regarding substance abuse, low-income communities, effective treatments for opioid use disorder, and the relationship between painful trauma and the use of painkillers.

Some ways to actively promote survival are to support harm reduction principles, get Narcan nasal spray, and fight for evidence-based medical care, particularly in Black and brown communities

WG: Your characters come across as incredibly real. It seems that you felt desperation, love, and loss alongside them at every turn. Was this book painful to write? How did you push through it?

KT: It’s probably inevitable that writers experience at least some discomfort at some point during the writing process. My number on the pain scale always jumps when I get overly concerned about how poorly I’m doing. “You’re the worst writer ever,” is a popular interior chant.

Lately I’ve found the antidote isn’t to banish thoughts about how I’m doing––but to ask myself why I’m doing. What’s the damn point of your writing? What are you fighting for? Bearing that in mind helps me push through the difficult parts.

WG: There’s a moment, at the start of Part 2, when the voice of the book switches from the narrator, Irene, to what seems to be Teena’s voice. It’s a moment of education about how to stay alive. There’s also a scene in the story when Teena teaches Irene how to use intravenously—previously, she’d only used pills. Those moments took my breath away; I felt like we were looking right into the hardest place of addiction. Could you talk about writing those two vivid, albeit quite different, moments?

KT: Both of those sections came out somewhat quickly, in a single sitting. One in a crowded coffeeshop in Tallahassee, one at my lonesome little desk in Asheville. God I hate it when writers say stuff like that. However! Had I not agonized over the many scenes that came before those two––I’m one of those sinners who revises as they go––and had I not immersed myself in firsthand accounts of similar experiences, the relatively easy labor could never have happened.

I say this in hope of offering comfort to anyone who might be struggling with a difficult scene in their own writing. As anyone in the service industry knows, you live and die by your prep work. You could be the most brilliant waiter in the solar system, but if you don’t make adequate supplies of coffee and sweet tea before the lunch rush, your section will come to a fatal halt. I learned a lot in my 20-plus years of folding napkins and marrying ketchups, and while some of that knowledge I could do without, many of those lessons remain useful in this endeavor, too.

WG: There is a Reddit thread in this novel! I want to shout it from the rooftops! It’s amazing! How did that come to be such an important part of the novel?

KT: Whitney, thank you! That section gets mixed reactions from readers and I’m glad it works for you. It wasn’t something I planned or even had any ideas about until right before I reached that chapter––though I had been spending a fair amount of time on Reddit in my own life. I’d recently left Florida and moved back to North Carolina to finish the novel. Gone were my friends and colleagues. Gone was my in-person teaching, replaced with online comp classes. My partner was working out of the country. It was a lonely period of my life. Which I guess is why, despite its somewhat unnatural format, it felt completely natural for Irene to turn to Reddit during her own unhappy time.

And it cheered me up to write it. Even though the content is serious, I had fun coming up with the various usernames and off-topic exchanges. The break in form felt liberating. Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to include a range of voices and perspectives. Up until that point, narrator Irene has been in charge of the story––and she often fails to get it right.

WG: When you think about the landscape of fiction and the topic of opioids and addiction, do you see gaps? Were there writers who inspired how you wrote about addiction?

KT: Short story writers and novelists taught me everything I know about structure, time, characterization, dialogue, and other craft elements. I was a reader decades before I ever thought to call myself a writer, and the list of authors who have shaped my fiction would probably double the word count of this interview. Three novels with visible influence on Bewilderness are Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce, Problems by Jade Sharma, and Marlena by Julie Buntin.

Also! Many people and communities outside the world of traditional publishing played a role in my effort to bring something novel to this novel. They include anonymous authors of old Bluelight posts and Reddit threads, stars of shadowy YouTube videos, in-person 12-step meetings, online 12-step meetings, Dopey Podcast and the Dopey Nation, friends, co-workers, family members, a string of crappy customers from restaurants past, two terrible photographers, the worst doctor at the worst VA hospital ever, and what I could observe.

Seeing the World More Clearly: The Millions Interviews Maggie Smith

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I first met poet Maggie Smith when we were both in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I was born and raised in the Midwest and tend to seek out fellow Midwesterners—I would say more than half of my New York writer friends are actually originally from the Midwest—and at a resident reading I saw her casually drinking beer straight from the bottle, which reified my judgment, even before I learned she was from Ohio. Her poetry also had that straightforwardness, say of a neighbor you really like who is both kind and an astrophysicist. Smith’s poems refuse to show off, can be brilliant by combining familiar objects from a landscape tinged with nostalgia for childhood, and use Twitter as a springboard all at the same time.

However, poetry tends not to take up much space in our cultural landscape, especially during the last few years, which have been dominated by the simplistic rhetoric of divisiveness and bombast. Perhaps, then, it was not such a surprise to see her 2016 poem “Good Bones,” (published in Waxwings, then in the collection of the same name in 2017) suddenly appear on a an episode of Madam Secretary in 2017, as if such an assault on language and sensibility engendered an equally strong counterpunch. Her newest collection, Goldenrod, was just released

The Millions: Can you tell me about your collections of poetry?

Maggie Smith : Goldenrod (2021), my fifth book and my fourth collection of poems, in the words of poet Ellen Bass, “brims with a fervent love for this gorgeous and wounded world.” These poems celebrate the present moment, and the ways we seek—and find, again and again—the extraordinary in our ordinary lives.

Good Bones (2017) My third collection of poems about motherhood, memory, and finding light in the darkness. The titular poem was published online the week of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando and the murder of MP Jo Cox in England, and went viral internationally. Now I call that poem my “disaster barometer:” whenever tragedy strikes somewhere, it is shared widely.

The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (2015) Ten years passed between the publication of my first and second books. I point this out to reassure writers who are worried about their productivity and their trajectory. Some books take longer to write. Some books take longer to find the right home. Here’s to tenacity and patience.

Lamp of the Body (2005) My first book, which began as my MFA thesis, won the Benjamin Saltman Award. I wrote these poems in my early- to mid-20s, and it’s fascinating to look back on them and see the seeds of poems that would grow later.

My first book of prose, Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, was published in 2020 and to my surprise became a national bestseller. It’s a collection of essays and quotes (I call them notes-to-self) about reimagining your life—and yourself—when faced with difficult changes.

When we met at VCCA in 2011, I was working on poems for The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, but it was there that I also began writing poems that would appear in Good Bones. I met Baltimore-based paper artist Katherine Fahey there and began writing a series of poems inspired by her work, and I think of that series of poems as the structure for Good Bones. Those poems are the load-bearing beams in the book. (A quick plug for writing residencies: the artistic cross-pollination and friendships made at places like VCCA can be magical.)

TM: How did you “decide” you wanted to become a poet and who are some of your influences?

MS: I don’t think I ever “decided” to be a poet—I just started writing poems and never stopped. If you write poems, you’re a poet; whether you try to make some sort of career from writing is a different thing entirely. I began writing as a teenager, as many of us do, probably because it’s a time of questioning and testing boundaries and learning about yourself. The first books of poems I owned and read were by Marge Piercy, Sylvia Plath, Diane DiPrima, Donald Hall, Nikki Giovanni, Anne Sexton, and Robert Hass. I gravitated toward poems with apt metaphors, poems that described things, places, and feelings in ways I could not quite articulate myself. I still do.

TM: Do you write prose?

MS: I do! Keep Moving is prose—quotes interwoven with essays that are lyrical, rooted in metaphor, and relatively brief. They’re the essays of a poet. I’m working on some longer-form prose projects, too, and that has been an invigorating challenge. Even my poems tend to be on the shorter side, so I’m enjoying stretching myself across multiple pages, experimenting with pattern and structure, and resisting the sonnet-lover’s urge to invite the reader into the room and then quickly shuffle them out the door. I’m like, “No, please, sit down, get comfortable, stay a while!” 

TM: Walt Whitman aside, it’s rare in America to have a poet become a cultural figure — I’m not counting Amanda Gorman because her career is just starting. Since I’ve known you, you were a poet who’d beaten the odds by getting published—I don’t think non-poets realize how difficult it is to get a poetry collection published. Then your poem “Good Bones” became truly a cultural phenomenon, as did Keep Moving, which is in a totally different vein. What was that like? Did it feel at all like a natural evolution of the work you were doing—or?

MS: Keep Moving does feel like part of a continued conversation I’ve been having with readers—and with myself, on the page. Each book—each poem, easy essay—is different from the previous one, but I do think there are more similarities than differences. I can look back through the five books, four poetry and one prose, and see similarities between them, because they’re mine. I see thematic overlap: memory, family, how we know what we know, how language sometimes fails us, how we find beauty in a broken world. I see craft elements repeating as well: metaphor, imagery, attention to rhythm and sound in the word choices and syntax.

TM: How do poets make a living, especially if they have families?

MS: Most of the poets I know also do something else: they teach, they work in publishing, they freelance as writers or editors. Some work in healthcare or tech. After my MFA, I worked in children’s book and educational publishing for years, before striking out on my own as a freelancer in 2011. I’ve been self-employed for the last 10 years, cobbling together a professional life from writing, teaching, editing, copyediting, and traveling for readings, workshops, and speaking engagements. No two days are the same. What I gave up in stability (and benefits) I gained in freedom and flexibility, and to this point the trade-off has been worth it. I have so much more time with my children because I make my own schedule.

TM: You have a new collection, Goldenrod. Has your new fame put undue pressure on creating something legible to a larger public? Do you feel different (or have to shield yourself) from the idea that people are looking at you, when your job is more to be an observer?

MS: After “Good Bones” went viral, I had a (thankfully brief) crisis: How do I write the next poem? Are people expecting poems like that from me now? As a poet, I’d felt very free from the idea of audience expectations up to that point—and frankly, free from the idea of much of an audience at all. Poetry has a relatively small but discerning and loyal readership compared to, say, fiction. But I knew I would not—could not, and didn’t want to—write another “Good Bones.” I joked that there would be no sequel, no “Better Bones” or “Good Bones 2: This Time It’s Personal.” In order to keep making poems, I have to tune out the static that comes from the outside world—both negative and positive noise. I need to be able to have a quiet, focused conversation with myself on the page. Goldenrod is a book that came from a place of stillness and observation. It’s hard to encapsulate what a collection of poems is “about,” but many of these poems are about seeing the world around you more clearly.

TM: What poet living or dead have I probably not heard about but should read?

MS: I don’t want to assume anything about your reading habits! You seem to be someone who reads widely and has eclectic taste. I bet you’ve read poems by some of my favorite living poets—Carrie Fountain, Vievee Francis, Victoria Chang, Natalie Shapero, Michael Bazzett, Catherine Pierce, Jericho Brown, Ellen Bass, Caroline Bird, and so many others. But there are certainly some poets who deserve a wider readership, and someone who comes to mind is the terrific Eloisa Amezcua. Her first book, From the Inside Quietly, is gorgeous. I’m really looking forward to her next book, Fighting Is Like a Wife, which portrays boxer Bobby Chacon and his wife, Valerie, and is due out in spring 2022.

Writing Is Thinking: Martha Anne Toll in Conversation with Ed Simon

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As both a daily reader and somewhat frequent contributor, I have long been a devotee of The Millions. In the last several years, I have also become an Ed Simon devotee. Ed’s articles in The Millions are not only fresh and surprising, they are also always about something I had no idea I needed to know. Simon is an intellectual omnivore; his essays cover an awe-inspiring range of topics.

So, I was delighted to read Simon’s quirky, wonderful, and informative new book, An Alternative History of Pittsburgh. At 182 pages, this 5” by 7” volume reads like a microcosm of American history, warts and all. The book is composed in short chapters, largely chronological, that read as both love letter to Simon’s hometown and an effort to reckon with Pittsburgh’s past—the good, the bad, and the ugly. From Socrates to August Wilson, from Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano (whose Open Veins of Latin America is a classic on the deleterious impacts of America ravaging Latin America) to Andrew Carnegie’s rapaciousness, to Pittsburgh’s role as an early American frontier town, to Billy Strayhorn, Major League Baseball, and so much more, An Alternative History of Pittsburgh contains gems on every page.

The book starts in 300 million BCE with a dive into the geologic characteristics that make Pittsburgh unique, and ends in 1985 with the collapse of Pittsburgh’s legendary steel industry due to globalization. In its overarching sweep, coupled with its specificity to place, this book called to mind Tiya Miles’s eye-opening The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits.

Simon sums up his feelings about Pittsburgh toward the end of book: “It must be admitted that the place is almost preternaturally charged with a broken beauty, a tinge of the numinous throughout the landscape itself.”

I was excited to catch up with Simon by email.

Martha Anne Toll: How did you come to the subject of Pittsburgh, other than growing up there?

Ed Simon: I’d always wanted to write a Pittsburgh book. When I was an undergraduate at Washington and Jefferson, I tinkered at a super-pretentious Pynchonesque exercise of a novel that I titled Fourteenth Ward, and that I imagine is still in a box in my mother’s basement. I rightly abandoned it, but I wonder if this new, slim volume is an attempt to do what I couldn’t do with that novel, even as different as the two exercises are. Pittsburgh gets very deep in the marrow of people who are from there. Folks I knew in high school who took great pride in moving to New York, or California, or wherever, bedeck their social media in black and gold on particular days in the autumn. It may sound tautological, but because I’m from Pittsburgh I had to write about Pittsburgh.

MAT: The research in this book must have been a massive undertaking. How did you do it?

ES: As with a lot of my writing—though not all— much of the research was done while I was writing the book. When writing an essay, I normally have a very narrow, circumscribed understanding of what I’m going to cover. A lot of that research is done in a traditional way, i.e., I gather the books I’m going to need, I read what I need, I assemble notes, I organize a flexible outline, and so on. For this book, each one of the chapters— which are short, discrete, and fragmentary— was like writing a type of hyper-intense flash non-fiction. I’d gather what I needed while writing an individual section. While writing those fragments I might come across a reference or footnote that pushed me to some book that I had no idea existed, and I’d mine what I could. This is true for any book, but An Alternative History of Pittsburgh is also a record of me learning about Pittsburgh itself.

MAT: How did you organize what you found?

ES: When I put together my proposal for Belt Publishing, I already had a detailed outline of all 40 chapters, with their synopses as fleshed out as possible. I knew roughly what I wanted for the structure of the book, a largely chronological collection of discrete narratives, character sketches, and thematic arguments. I hoped the relationships between the chapters would manifest an argument about the significance of Pittsburgh that was less historical or scholarly and more literary. There were certain places, people, and events I knew would be in the book—Fort Pitt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, the collapse of the steel industry. I also had more obscure, idiosyncratic things that I wanted to cover, like the utopian colony of the Harmonists, or the 1877 anarchist railroad strike. Ultimately, about 90 percent of what I proposed ended up in the book. Some chapters were merged, some were expanded, and a few were cut entirely.

MAT: Are you a Damon Young fan? I ran into him at the 2019 National Antiracist Book Festival and was too starstruck to speak, other than to blurt out that I was a huge fan.

ES: I am! I was an avid reader of his work with Very Smart Brothas, and his book of essays What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker is simultaneously trenchant and hilarious. As a voice specific to Pittsburgh, Young is crucial in questioning the “Pittsburgh is the most livable city in America” narratives that have existed for my entire life, because he asks— and answers— “For whom is Pittsburgh most livable for?” A lot of Pittsburghers—myself included—are very much in love with the city, but white folks can be blinded to the profound inequities that endure in the city. Damon Young isn’t the only young, gifted writer in Pittsburgh right now; there’s Brian Broome whose Punch Me Up to the Gods is an amazing memoir, and Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which has rightly been hailed as a potential future classic. Philyaw recently announced she’s leaving Pittsburgh, and I’d encourage white Pittsburghers to read and think about the reasons why she gives for that decision.

MAT: Thank you! I was gaga over Deesha Philyaw’s book and can’t recommend it highly enough. I look forward to reading Brian Broome’s. Can you talk to us about the Pittsburgh writers you discuss in your book?

ES: For a city of its size, Pittsburgh has an imposing literary history. John Edgar Wideman, Annie Dillard, Michael Chabon, Rachel Carson, Jack Gilbert, Gerald Stern, W.D. Snodgrass, and of course August Wilson. We’re overrepresented in fiction, poetry, and drama—Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, chronicling life in the Black neighborhood of the Hill District, is arguably the greatest triumph of the last half-century of American theater. Dillard is possibly the most significant chronicler of nature over the past several decades, as is Carson obviously, in a more explicitly scientific way. Gilbert is among the greatest of poets to write in the 20th century, even if he isn’t a household name, as are Stern and Snodgrass. Chabon is a singularly brilliant writer who needs little introduction to the readers of The Millions, and Wideman’s Homewood is every bit as visceral and ghost-haunted as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

MAT: How did you come to writing?

ES: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. My first essays geared for a wider public were published about a decade ago. At that time, I was working on my PhD, and the bulk of writing that I’d done was scholarly. I slowly began to transition toward writing creative nonfiction, essays, reviews, and so on. I don’t write for acclaim, and Christ knows I don’t write for the money. I’m honored that anyone spends their limited time reading something I wrote. My essays pay for groceries, and that’s not nothing. But I saw something on Twitter the other day, where the OP asked if people would still write if they knew nobody would read their stuff, and my thought was Well of course I would. Writers write, that’s what we do—that’s what we need to do. Writing is how I organize my experience and make sense of the world; in some ways writing is itself synonymous with thinking for me.

 MAT: Can you talk about the journey from academia to your current writing life?

ES: Bluntly, the journey out of academia isn’t necessarily a choice—it’s mandatory these days, especially for millennial scholars. There simply aren’t any tenure track jobs left, the profession itself is in free fall. While I know that being a fulltime faculty member must have its faults, my impression is that many working in that role have little clue how incredibly fortunate they were to do so before the profession was in decline. I’m incredibly envious. I’d love the romance of being a tenured professor somewhere, teaching students, and writing what I write right now, but with a salary and health insurance.

MAT: Can you talk about your journey to this publisher?

I first worked with Anne Trubek, founder and publisher at Belt, in 2015 when I wrote an essay for Belt Magazine entitled “The Sacred and the Profane in Pittsburgh,” about St. Anthony’s Chapel in Troy Hill on the Northside, which has more relics than anywhere but the Vatican. This was one of my earliest pieces that was popular—Neko Case tweeted a link! I’ve contributed something at least once or twice a year since. Belt Publishing is incredibly innovative and vital—Anne has created a small regional press with tremendous oomph. She’s addressing a conspicuous absence by highlighting writers and writing from the Rust Belt and the Midwest, regions that are often stereotyped, misunderstood, misinterpreted, or ignored by people on the coasts. The sheer variety of titles and authors that Anne has introduced to a wider audience is remarkable. My proposal was for an odd, unconventional book, halfway between a history and an impressionistic, fragmentary, creative nonfiction thing. Belt has been incredibly supportive, from proposal through publication. We’ve found a lot of readers, which speaks to the work that Belt does.

MAT: Tell us about your writing for The Millions? What are your writing interests? And where do you seek inspiration?

ES: The Millions is my literary home. I first started writing for them several years ago as a freelancer when Lydia Kiesling was editor, and I’ve been on staff since 2018. Both Lydia and now Adam Boretz have been incredible editors—supportive, insightful, and tolerant of my odder ideas. Since I’ve been a staff writer, I’ve been able to write all kinds of unconventional things. I’m so grateful and fortunate to find a wide audience for essays that might be viewed as too eccentric at other sites. I cover religion and history, sometimes writing in the same fragmentary style of my Pittsburgh book. Adam has also published a lot of my pieces centered in what I studied in graduate school, Renaissance literature, high theory, etc. I’ve done literary esoterica, things like a history of footnotes, an essay on marginalia, and a rumination on breaking the fourth wall. My fragment essays have been on things like a history of the color black, or accounts of people who’ve claimed to be messiahs, that sort of thing. There’s no site like The Millions. When C. Max Magee founded it decades ago, he helped create an institution. It’s a place that’s not just focused on publishing, but that’s also focused on reading. There’s a huge difference. It’s an honor to be able to contribute there.

MAT: Tell us about your reading life.

ES: Too much of my reading life is doom scrolling, but I’m the stay-at-home dad for a one-year-old. When you’re exhausted, sometimes Twitter is the easiest thing to read. I try to keep up on the smart literary things that are published, so checking Arts and Letters Daily is a morning ritual. I try to keep in mind advice by Linda Troost, a fantastic professor at W&J, who said we should try to make sure that when we’re at the (figurative) beach, we read a book from more than 200 years ago and a book from less than 20 years ago, so we can stay grounded in history and tradition and be open to the new. One incredible benefit to working at The Millions is that their much-loved year-end Year in Reading series provides an opportunity to stay grounded in contemporary literature. It keeps me centered in pleasure reading throughout the other 11 months of the year. I try keep up with new authors, or newish authors. Since January, I’ve read some fantastic novels, including Anna North’s Outlawed, Emily Nemens’s The Cactus League, Rufi Thorpe’s The Knockout Queen, Danielle Evans’s The Office of Historical Corrections, and the return of Andrea Lee in the incredible Red House Island.

MAT: Did any books in particular influence your writing life?

ES: If I could write something as sublime as Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, I’d be content. He’s a model for a particular type of eccentric, essayistic, exploration of esoterica, an author who can mine threads of obscure information to make an argument about what it means to be human. He writes with a light touch, humor, erudition, and most importantly pure curiosity.

MAT: What’s next for you?

ES: This has been an incredibly busy year. I’ve got two more books coming out in 2021, and a third scheduled for 2022. The first is an anthology of writing which I coedited with philosopher Costica Bradatan entitled The God Beat: What Journalism Says About Faith and Why it Matters, released by Broadleaf on June 8. We had the opportunity to work with a lot of fantastic writers like Ann Neumann, Brooke Wilensky-Lanford, Tara Isabella Burton, Marcus Rediker, Simon Critchley, Daniel Camacho, and so on. It was a tremendous honor. The second book is an art book that I’m really proud of with the absolutely amazing title of Pandemonium: A Visual History of Demonology, which looks beautiful and will be published by Abrams in October, in time for Halloween. Finally, sometime in 2022, Broadleaf will be releasing a collection of my essays entitled Binding the Ghost: Theology, Mystery, and the Transcendence of Literature. There are a few other nascent projects that I’m also working on.  

MAT: I am in awe of your productivity! Anything else you want to talk about?

ES: Thanks. When it comes to an audience for An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, I want people to know that this isn’t just a book for Pittsburghers. One of the central arguments about the book is that Pittsburgh is a microcosm of America, and in its triumphs and failures, its exultation and wickedness, its good and its bad, there is something which the city can tell us about the nation of which it’s a part. Now, when we’re finally having a reckoning with what history really means, I hope my book can in some small way illuminate how we think about the past.

Ferocious and Violent: The Millions Interviews Rachel Yoder

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At home with her newborn son, the protagonist in Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch is starting to feel like a dog—that is to say, she’s turning into one, literally. It isn’t a fairytale or a dream. It’s her life. In turns equally dark and funny, violent and satirical, Yoder’s debut novel doesn’t follow any expected route on its way to uncovering what it means to be a mother, to have a relationship, to raise a child. The turmoil, the vastness of the experience, it roils in this edgy, weird, and brilliant book.

Coming to feel more and more akin to her canine alter-ego “nightbitch,” this mother learns to embrace her instinctual nature: the need to paw the ground, to sniff the air, to roam the streets under the moonlight, chasing and snarling. Her husband is rattled but vapid, while the community around her full of mothers who might also be more than they appear. But her son loves this new side of his mom, how she ignores what the world wants and gravitates instead toward what she feels.

Nightbitch is as unexpected as it is poignant, as quirky as it is well-crafted. To start with such a simple and surreal premise and yet create depth and significance at the same time is truly fantastic. This novel snaps at the heels of art and motherhood, of female power and autonomy, of finding your inner instinct.

The Millions: Is being a mother a joy, a curse, or something else entirely?

Rachel Yoder: Being a mother in a society that praises and encourages mothers’ absolute abnegation of the self is the curse. Imagine being told from an early age that it’s right, holy, nice, and proper to abandon your own needs, emotions, and desires. We are conditioning girls and women to believe that psychological and emotional self-harm is correct. That’s the curse.

Motherhood itself is power. Women understand this power in their bodies, especially during unmedicated childbirth. You truly feel how much of a full, vibrant, and uncompromising self you are as a child tears out of you. You are in touch with a profound creative force. I have to wonder if the entire structure of patriarchal control is a fearful reaction to women’s singular power of creation. “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” sure is a convoluted and roundabout way of getting to the much more fitting metaphor of Mother.

So then, how do women move from self-denial into power? This is Nightbitch’s central question.

TM: The toddler escapades—the eating, the sleeping, the pooping—are rendered with the exact right frenetic energy. How did you go about committing those scenes, that vibe, to the page in such a faithful manner?

RY: I hadn’t written in two years when I embarked on this book. Those two years also happened to arrive after my son was born. So we might say there was a lot of material to draw from. I went to the coffee shop for small chunks of time and wrote as fast as I could. It poured from me.

TM: Were other motherhood-centered books a part of your reading and writing practice? I’m thinking of novels like Kristen Arnett’s recent With Teeth, Makenna Goodman’s The Shame, and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. Or do you abstain from reading anything connective or near your own subject matter during the writing process?

RY: I was incidentally reading books about motherhood in the time leading up to writing and then writing Nightbitch, but it was by no means a concerted effort. I had no plans to write a “book about motherhood.” If anything, I had plans not to write that book because I had accepted the messages that motherhood is boring, unimportant, only of interest to women so not worth writing about, etcetera.

Looking back at my Goodreads, many of the books I read from 2014 when my son was born to 2017 when I began writing had to do either with motherhood or child-rearing in some regard, or else were literary psychological horror or slipstream. I think that Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has as much to do with Nightbitch’s emergence as, say, Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors. The strange postapocalyptic book The Rending and the Nest, in which women give birth to inanimate objects, is definitely a part of the subconscious of Nightbitch, as is Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk.

TM: Where did this novel start? What was its smallest seedling?

RY: I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation years before I began writing this book, and her “art monster” line I consider the very earliest sparkle of Nightbitch’s magic. I copied that passage down in a document on my computer, thinking I would write an essay about it. I eventually wrote Nightbitch instead.

TM: Though there is tension, suspense, and devastation in Nightbitch, there are also frequent pops of humor. How do you manage fun and comedy in your writing?

RY: Comedy is a survival tactic. You can’t let the rage burn bright all the time or else you’ll burn up, too. The comedy comes in to cool you off, to provide a bit of relief. I am reminded of the narrator of Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, another book I read as I was writing mine. (And, it should be noted, a book by a writer raised in the Mennonite tradition, like me.) That book, its story, is full of such deep darkness, heavy sadness, and repressed rage that the only way you as the reader are able to keep your head above water is the relief that Toews offers you via the voice of the narrator. While not a conscious choice on my part, Nightbitch operates in a bit of the same way, I think.

TM: So the violence—the cat episode in particular—showcases some of this blending, mixing the visceral with the comedic. How fun was it writing this character who could pivot so instinctually toward the ferocious?

RY: I was very scared of my anger in early motherhood. I didn’t know how to relate with it. I was afraid of it getting out of control. I used to joke that anger is not part of my genetic or cultural heritage, since I was raised Mennonite, and perhaps this is why the mix of rage and comedy comes naturally to me: It’s the most acceptable mode in which a Mennonite woman can be angry.

The cat scene is where Nightbitch touches the abyss so to speak. Her anger has become unwieldy, and she suddenly and horribly wakes up to this. She must find a way to wield her rage that’s not destructive but, rather, creative. Her anger certainly has an origin in the forces acting upon her, but her greatest anger is at herself, for the ways in which she has abandoned herself, so she must come to terms with her power, and her capacity for creating the life she wants and needs. She must take responsibility for her own story.

It was immensely gratifying to have a female character who was able to be ferocious and violent. There are so few stories in our culture that show women expressing rage, and I was interested in how a female character might write her own story of rage. What would it look like? How can women perform anger so it doesn’t stay trapped in our bodies?

TM: For as much as art and family are in conflict for the mother protagonist, they are also often in service of one another. Is the crux of art built on or made from relationships?

RY: The crux of everything is relationships! Consciousness is a tool for wielding metaphor, which is just another way of saying that we make meaning by actively and seriously negotiating our relationships. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with curiosity and bringing a spirit of curiosity to troubled relationships, and that really does seem to have cracked something open for me, the process of asking earnest, open-hearted questions in the face of relational dysfunction. And isn’t this truly what storytelling is, an exploration of the relationship of characters, of themes, of ideas?

TM: From a craft point of view, you made an interesting decision to keep most of the characters in the novel unnamed. What led to that choice and how did it shape the book?

RY: The only reason I started out this way is because it felt right. I didn’t interrogate the decision too much. I don’t think I ever considered giving the characters names, or if I tried to, it immediately felt incorrect. Now, it seems to me that I wanted to keep these characters as close to archetypes as possible because I was more interested in the ideas they were animating rather than the specifics of their knowable realities. Certainly they do have socioeconomic and historical and racial contexts, because the book is being written from within those frames, but I wanted the main character as Mother and Artist/Creator and Wife to be front and center, because these features are most salient in regard to the ideas I wanted to explore and animate.

TM: In the mysterious tome your protagonist reads—A Field Guide to Magical Women: A Mythical Ethnography—the “aga” or second life is referenced as passing from “the world of the known to that of the unknown.” What do you think your second life will be? Or has it already happened?

RY: Oh, I think this book was largely about my challenges in coming into a workable motherhood and womanhood. I knew how to be the black sheep, the truth-telling adolescent, the prodigal daughter, but I didn’t have a way of being, or an image for, a wife and mother and a fully-emerged woman in a way that didn’t stifle or oppress. I knew I didn’t want to be a “good Mennonite wife” and I knew I didn’t want to be a “self-sacrificing mother,” but what were the other models for these? I had to write them. How can I be fully myself while also being a mother and a wife, these roles that will absolutely take over if you give in to the scripts that have already been written? So I suppose my “aga” is that I feel I am moving into the world of metaphor and, hopefully, a deeper understanding of the metaphors animating and controlling our stories.

Love Is Not a Destination: The Millions Interviews Kaveh Akbar

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“Heaven,” Kaveh Akbar writes in Pilgrim Bell, “is all preposition—above, among, around, within—and if you must, / you can live any place that’s a place.” It’s a fitting line to capture Akbar’s poetic sense: that life—however dizzying, steeped in suffering, and fragmentary—is a tremendous gift.

Akbar’s life as a poet has been guided by a generous sense. For several years, he interviewed poets for his Divedapper site, guided by a simple philosophy: “I want to be able to have meaningful conversations with the poets whose words have shaped the way I experience the world, and I want to share the artifacts of those conversations with as many people as possible.” That sense appears to guide his editing and curatorial work—the feeling that the world of poetry sustains him, and that he can play a part in bringing that good work to the wider world.

Kaveh Akbar’s poems appear in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. He is the poetry wditor of The Nation and a recipient of honors including multiple Pushcart Prizes, a Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship, and the Levis Reading Prize. Akbar was born in Tehran, Iran, and teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency MFA programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson. Pilgrim Bell follows Calling a Wolf a Wolf, his debut collection. 

We spoke about prayer, his literary influences, and how poems arrive.

The Millions: I read much of your book aloud; I think Pilgrim Bell compels me (as Gerard Manley Hopkins hoped for his work) to live in the ear and mouth more than the eye. “The Value of Fear” feels especially aural, the living sound of the opening lines, following the title: “is in its sound, sewing song / to throat. The pale thrush // trills the snow.” Do you find yourself speaking your way through your poems? Where does voice—the mouth open, the words out and heard—exist in your process of composition

Kaveh Akbar: I’m always reading the poems out loud, from the very earliest stages of doodling language through revision and fine-tuning, laying the poem out on the page. The breath hooks into the spirit. In Arabic “ruh” means both breath and spirit. Ditto the Latin “spiritus.” Without some physiological sublimation of the inert font into a living poem—whether via breath or even just the movement of ocular muscles along a line, fingers across Braille—the poem remains ink on a page. If a poem augurs any holiness, it begins in the body.  

TM: We are mutual admirers of the late Franz Wright. Pilgrim Bell feels haunted by him. I think he is one of the great Catholic poets in recent memory, someone who arrived at that faith in his late 40s. He spoke of having a shift in September 1999 from having a longtime intellectual interest in Scripture to feeling a visceral, palpable attraction to Jesus as one who loved absolutely—drawn preternaturally to sinners. I am unable to read Wright without crying. Could you talk about Wright a bit? Do you return to his poems?

KA: He was my first favorite living poet. Everything I make is indelibly inflected by his thinking. Everything I think, really. He was so unwell, holistically, but he made such space in his life for young poets who could do him no good. He granted me the last interview he ever gave, and talked to me seriously, like I was a real poet. Not many had done that before him.  

I actually wrote to him for months trying to strike up a conversation. I was a baby, and a shameless fan. I didn’t know anything. I hadn’t learned that you’re not supposed to appear so desperate. Maybe I still haven’t. But I wrote him letters for months with no response, not even an away responder. It was almost like I was just keeping an epistolary journal. “Dear Franz, Last week I did such and such, read so and so,” that kind of thing.

Then finally, after maybe nine months of me emailing him, he wrote back with just a couple words and a phone number. Which I called immediately. Of course it rang and rang and rang and nobody answered. No machine, no voice mail. Same thing the next day, and the next. I worried he’d mistyped his number. But after a couple weeks of trying the number, his wife Elizabeth picked up. I said who I was and she brought the phone to Franz, who said “Kaveh! Why didn’t you call me sooner!”

TM: The epigraph to your poem “Cotton Candy” is from John Donne: “To go to heaven, we make heaven come to us.” In its original context, the line appears: “All their proportion’s lame, it sinks, it swells; / For of meridians and parallels / Man hath weaved out a net, and this net thrown / Upon the heavens, and now they are his own. / Loth to go up the hill, or labour thus / To go to heaven, we make heaven come to us. / We spur, we rein the stars, and in their race / They’re diversely content to obey our pace.” I love your epigraphic eye here. Who is Donne to you, as both poet and legacy? Why choose these lines in particular from his poem?

KA: He’s a titan. Sexy, ferocious. Magisterial. But what I’m really interested in, as it pertains to Pilgrim Bell, is Donne’s silence. Really all the metaphysical guys were great this way, Marvell and Herbert too. And Hopkins kind of tangentially. But the way Donne could get so bombastic, so loud. And how that volume created such a contrast to the silence immediately after. Like how the silence following a gunshot is somehow deeper than the silence before. “OH my blacke Soule! now thou art summoned / By sicknesse, deaths herald, and champion; / Thou art like a pilgrim.” Maybe I’m tipping my hand too much. But that pilgrim, the silence between “Soule” and “now” conjured by Donne’s exclamation. It’s such unforgettable drama.

TM: Among the glorious lines in Pilgrim Bell, I’ve been returning to these: “God’s word is a melody, and melody requires repetition. / God’s word is a melody I sang once then forgot.” You’ve returned (appropriately) to this theme of return, past and present, and the evolution of self in your work. Your narrators have lived two lives, or perhaps more. They have found and forgotten God, and understood the body and how it breaks (“Show me one beast / that loves itself as relentlessly / as even the most miserable man.”). What is it about poetry (as a form and genre, perhaps) that offers a useful vehicle for this theme?

KA: Even just putting a word in a poem places some tension upon it. Using it again and again, straining it differently each time. Like the chiming of a bell. M. NourbeSe Philip talks about “decontaminating” language and I feel like that’s at the heart of how Pilgrim Bell works. Poems are the best way I know to explore the divine. But the language of my poetry has been so endlessly compromised by its murderous histories. There is something about the iterative nature of lyric that allows me to vet my own thinking.

I once heard the critic Parul Sehgal use the phrase “a productive distrust of the self” in a talk and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I think, as an English language artist, that distrust has become central to my practice. When Brian Eno describes the crack in a blues singer’s voice on record as the sound of “an emotional event too momentous for the medium assigned to record it,” that’s what I’m after. Cracking the poem along the axis of my (hopefully!) productive skepticism of the language. And of myself.

TM: You’re the poetry editor for The Nation, and you’ve selected and presented the forthcoming Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse. How do the modes of editor, curator, anthologist differ from that of poet? Do you find your editorial work generative for your creative work, or do they remain distinct?

KA: I don’t know that it’s so linear as X is generative to Y. I want to be useful, and I think we’ve been able to put a bit of wind at the back of some really fine poems at The Nation. I hope, with the Penguin anthology, we’ll be able to help introduce readers to voices from antiquity, from other parts of the world, that might usefully illuminate something about living. Steadily (re-)orienting myself toward humble grateful service to what I love best keeps me healthy. When I’m healthy, I can write. You know Merton’s prayer? “The fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

TM: I want to return to Wright to finish. I find it telling that he (a poet of craft and rawness, and a person who said of himself, “I’ve been around the block a few times, and have an idea of what men are capable of. I’ve been capable myself”) could be so sentimental and earnest about faith. I find equal parts power and humility in your engagement with the spiritual—I think of you among poets like Jericho Brown, Shane McCrae, Carl Phillips, and Mary Karr, all gifted stylists who live among faith and doubt. So let’s follow Wright for a moment. What, do you think, is the relationship between love and faith?

KA: I remember once, overzealous, I compared Franz to Rilke and he said, “You may as well compare me to Catullus.” That’s how I feel about your question situating me among those titans, moved as I am by the kindness. I am going to try to answer quickly to avoid overthinking myself into immobility. Love, faith. Yes, okay—

Poems, like prayers, orient one toward action. The trouble comes when people believe the poem, or the prayer, replaces action. I have faith in the capacity of writing, as a devotional technology, to illuminate the next right thing for me in my living. How I might learn to better pass through the world without harming it. That is a kind of love. And like every other love I have known, it is not a destination. It’s a marching. Daily, hourly.