Bryan R. Monte – Vita – An Interview with Susan Lloy

Bryan R. Monte
Vita — An Interview with Susan Lloy

Susan Lloy is the author of two books of short fiction, But When We Look Closer (2017) and Vita: Stories (2019) both from Now or Never Publishing. Her fiction has been published in Avalon Literary Review; Lock Raven Review; Beecher’s 4 Magazine; Donut Factory; The Literary Commune, UK; Literary Orphans; Jumblebook; PARAGRAPHITI; Penduline Press; The Prague Review; Revolution House Magazine; The Roundup Writer’s Zine; Scarlet Leaf Review; Toronto Prose Mill; Transportation Press; The Writing Disorder; and Revolution House as well as in Amsterdam Quarterly and in The Neighbours Anthology, (Zimble House Publishing).

Bryan R. Monte: How does it feel to have two collections of short stories, But When We Look Closer and Vita: Stories, published in the last two years?

Susan Lloy: It feels like an accomplishment. However, my audience is very limited. It has proved difficult to find ways to broaden the scope of readers.

BRM: Well, you should be very proud of these two books, not only for their contents, but also for their design. Their typeface, cover art, size and bindings make them very attractive. I especially like both books’ eye-catching cover art. Were you also involved in these books’ design?

SL: Only with Vita. I chose the image for the front cover and the book’s cover font.

BRM: What is your academic and professional background, and how has this influenced you as a writer?

SL: I have a Bachelor’s of Design in Communication Design from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design University. I did a study exchange at Parsons School of Design and Cooper Union for the advancement of Science and Art in New York. I studied graphic design at Parsons and the history of experimental film at Cooper Union

BRM: That must have been an interesting and educational semester.

SL: Obviously, New York was a great influence. It was an exciting, fruitful time and it fuelled me with a lust for creative endeavours. I have always been interested in the arts and originally wanted to be a painter, but studied graphic design instead.

BRM: Do you make your living as a writer and as a graphic artist?

SL: No. I work full-time as the unit coordinator on the Cardiac Surgery Unit at the McGill University Health Centre. This takes a lot of energy, so my creative output is quite dependent on what is going on at work. Working in healthcare is an entire trilogy on its own. Maybe someday….

BRM: How long have you been writing?

SL: As far as writing is concerned … I have written from an early age. But I took a long absence from writing when I had my son in the 1990s. I did, however, write a children’s story for him during this period. Currently, an illustrator and myself are seeking publication for this story. All of my work is dedicated to my son, Nicolas.

BRM: How long have you been writing short stories?

SL: Seriously, for about the last six years.

BRM: How long have you been sending them out?

SL: Since the beginning.

BRM: Would you call yourself a disciplined writer? For example, do you have a regular schedule for writing, editing and submitting your work?

SL: When I have an idea for a piece of fiction, I get busy with it immediately. Yet, if I’m in between stories, I can be unproductive. I do, nonetheless, keep a notebook of thoughts and ideas for future tales.

BRM: I believe that what Jacob Appel does with plot in his short stories, you do with character in yours. How do you ‘find’ these interesting characters that draw the reader in and power them through your stories — through experience, observation, or pure fantasy or perhaps a combination of two or three factors?

SL: A combination of all three, as I think this is true for most writers. We all reflect, subtract and bend reality to create.

BRM: Could you be more specific? For example, how did you create the voice of the main character from ‘Mean Waitress’ and some of your other stories?

SL: The voice for ‘Mean Waitress’ is my own. I was that mean waitress. Layla in ‘Layla Was Here’ is pure fantasy. I wanted the verse to portray the uninvited person in her head. The short story ‘Vita’ is an observation in the process of an individual’s death.

BRM: Do you share some of your characters’ obsessions with Amsterdam in your short stories such as ‘Dutch Lite’ in But When We Look Closer and ‘Invisible Matter’ and ‘The Little Bang’ in Vita?

SL: Yes, I can be obsessive. I like to expand on these traits. I find it makes the characters multi-layered.

BRM: How often have you visited Mokum?

SL: I have visited Amsterdam more than 15 times.

BRM: Have you ever lived here?

SL: Yes, from 1987 to 1990.

BRM: More specifically, have you ever sat in a Jordaan café as your character in ‘Invisible Matter’ in Vita waiting to meet an ex-?

SL: Yes. Every time I visit.

BRM: What originally drew you to Amsterdam from Canada?

SL: Initially, I came to Amsterdam to take part in a three-month internship with a renowned design firm. At the time I was at a crossroads in my life following the death of my parents in a car crash. I wanted a change geographically and personally.

BRM: What made you stay?

SL: Love and friendship. Although I knew no one when I arrived, I was fortunate to meet some very good people. From previous visits, I could imagine living in Amsterdam and I thought that I would stay.

BRM: What are three of your favourite places in Amsterdam?

SL: The first place would be the Café de Klepel on the Prinsenstraat, when it was a bar. This was the place where I met most of my friends. Next, would be the Jordaan. It’s the neighbourhood where I lived. I love its beauty and its village vibe. And lastly, the harbour. I come from the sea, so I am partial to ports.

BRM: What made you decide to leave?

SL: My younger sister. It was just the two of us and she was living in Montreal. She suggested I return to Canada as I had lost interest in graphic design and I was unsure of what I wanted for the future. Sadly, my sister died from cancer not long after my return. And though I have remained in this northern land, I travel to Amsterdam in my mind each and every day.

BRM: I am very sorry for your loss.

SL: Thank you, Bryan, for your condolences. They touch me deeply. I have had a lot of loss in my personal life. I often write about this theme. Loss is universal. Everyone gets it.

BRM: Mental health issues are very important in Vita such as in ‘That Screaming Silence’ (anti-social and homicidal behaviour), ‘Voices’ (suicide), and ‘Layla Was Here’ (a woman whose artistic identity was repressed both in her life and in the record she leaves behind) and ‘Mademoiselle Energy’ (schizophrenia). Could you share how and where you found the inspiration for the characters and situations for a few of these stories?

SL: I believe these often, marginalized individuals have a purer truth and also deserve a voice. Mental health is close to my heart. Something innate. In reference to ‘That Screaming Silence’, I have always lived in noisy, urban flats. I wonder what I would do if I finally invested in a home and discovered such noisy neighbours. As far as my other stories linked with mental disturbances, they are completely imaginary, although, I may have chatted with these characters somewhere along the way.

BRM: Rebellion is also a theme in Vita’s stories. To what extent were you a rebel in your teens, 20s or later, and to what extent are you still?

SL: I was a rebel in my youth. And yes, even though I’m longer in the tooth at present, nonconformity remains inherent.

BRM: Structurally, what is the function of the shorter, poetic vignettes between the longer short stories in Vita?

SL: I find that they serve as compact, cinematic breaks between the larger stories.

BRM: Was that arrangement your idea or an editor’s?

SL: This arrangement is my own.

BRM: You prove your versatility as a fiction writer in Vita not only in your shorter pieces, but also in the characters and situations of two longer stories, ‘Layla Was Here’ and ‘California Reelin’. Did they take longer to write than the others?

SL: Yes, longer.

BRM: How long?

SL: It took me a couple of months with each of these stories.

BRM: ‘Layla Was Here’ is written in the form of journal entries from two different people, one who writes the text and the other who finds the text buried in his back garden and his response to it. The story brings together the buried narrative of a seemingly failed, psychologically unstable, female artist and the man who unearths her diary in his back garden. When did you come up with the journal format for ‘Layla Was Here’, at the beginning, or is this something that came to you as you worked on the piece?

SL: The journal format was the idea from the get-go. I also knew the ending from the start. The concept was like the discovery of a diary.

BRM: ‘California Reelin’ takes your characters out of their usual Canadian or Dutch settings. Have you ever lived or vacationed in California in the middle of a cold, Canadian winter? How did you come up with this story?

SL: Yes, I have visited California a couple of times, long ago. It’s beautiful. The inspiration for the story came from a reality show where buyers pay cash for extremely expensive properties. I thought: ‘What sort of mischief could my character get into if she went to work for one of those brokers?’

BRM: In ‘California Reelin’, your protagonist meets a man who convinces her to break into the exclusive Bohemian Grove in Northern California to learn about its secret rituals. How close is this story’s setting and characters to your own experience?

SL: Bohemian Grove is a real place, so I planted my characters into a situation that only those in Bohemian Grove can know the outcome of, whether its based on fantasy or not.

BRM: Did you find it more difficult to write these two longer stories, or did they just seem to flow once you get started?

SL: Once I moulded my ideas for these stories, they flowed rather easily.

BRM: ‘Capture’ is also a departure from your other stories because it is an account of a kidnapped, baby elephant in the voice of that elephant. What inspired you to write this story?

SL: ‘Capture’ is inspired from a photograph I saw in the Guardian International. A young elephant was captured for a Chinese zoo. It broke my heart.

BRM: Do you think you will attempt other non-human narratives in the future?

SL: I can’t confirm that at this point.

BRM: With two books of short stories to your credit now, could you share with AQ’s readers perhaps a bit about some ongoing or future projects? What are you working on at this moment?

SL: Currently, I’m working on a themed collection of stories. These stories are about retirement. Yet, the characters find themselves in unconventional situations. One marries a polygamist. Another murders her husband on a sailing trip around the Mediterranean. Someone else moves to Abruzzo, taking up the violin only to spoil the olive harvest with her inferior playing.

BRM: Susan Lloy, thank you for taking part in this interview.

SL: Thanks, Bryan. I’m honoured you asked. AQ

Naomi Shihab Nye – Teaching was a Lifeline

Teaching was a Lifeline
An Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye
by Bryan R. Monte

Palestinian-American Naomi Shihab Nye is the author or editor of more than thirty books. She won the National Poetry Series for Hugging the Jukebox, (E.P. Dutton, 1982), the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award for You & Yours, (BOA Editions, 2005) and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for her children’s books, Sitti’s Secrets and Habibi. Her book of poems about the Middle East, 19 Varieties of Gazelle, was a finalist for the National Book Award. She has also won four Pushcart Prizes, received Lannan, Guggenheim and Witter Bryner Fellowships and the American Academy of Poets (AAP) Lavan Award as well as being elected AAP Chancellor in 2009. She has lived in Ferguson, Missouri, Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas and has taught at the University of California at Berkeley, the Michener Center at the University of Texas, and the University of Hawai’i, among other institutions. In June 2017, Nye was interviewed by Amsterdam Quarterly about her teaching philosophy, methods and experience, and the roles storytelling and her students have had on her work.

Bryan R. Monte: What is the role teaching has played in your life as a poet?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Teaching—or at any rate, standing in front of a million classes of all ages and encouraging writing (not sure “teaching” is really the best word here)—has been like a continual blood transfusion. It woke me up. It was a lifeline, yes, because it kept me alive in my art and in my greatest love of other people’s art. I was continually digging for poems that might move other people in various moments and situations.

You lose faith in your own passion or process, your enthusiasm dims, and the sorrowful news of the world pours down around your shoulders like a toxic rain—how do you revive?

You figure out what might inspire other people. You find a door, a knob, a hinge, and you move it. Because I was, continually, a freelancer, I constantly had to stay alert, try to find clues about what might work in the moment, and this helped me as a poet. What one does to lead a group in Albany, Texas, a small west Texas ranching town (which hosts public historic theatre events in a massive outdoor amphitheatre, as well as rattlesnake round-ups) is not the same as one would do in an orphanage in the desert in Jordan (all the little boys wearing white shirts)—you keep improvising. For a poet, this is very good.

BRM: Do you believe being a poet is a gift or a skill or a combination of both?

NSN: I believe we have intuitive pulls or interests from early childhood, which might be classified as gifts, but they can definitely be developed and strengthened, or ignored. I do think all people, especially as children, have “poetry channels” in their brains and these are the tunings into remembrance, figurative thinking, mindful attention, daydreaming, interior savouring of certain images for years and years, etc. Also, it is never too late. This channel gets a clearer beam later on, for some people, even if they have not been tuning in intentionally for years.

BRM: Thom Gunn, for example, wrote me that creative writing courses could only really give students, that initial push, beyond which, they were on their own. Do you agree with this perspective?

NSN: I agree with him, but such courses may also convince us we are never alone—on our own, but never alone. They may also make us sturdier about accepting different responses to our own poems, which can be crucial for a lifetime writer—an essential resilience and neutrality about “what other people think.”

BRM: You’ve taught all over the world. What is the most unusual place you’ve ever taught?

NSN: A rollerskating rink in the Aleutian Islands. It was the biggest place to gather in that community, apparently. There were very good writers there too. And lots of background skating noise. And music.

BRM: What is the farthest you have every travelled to teach a class?

NSN: Up to Nome, Alaska? Muscat, Oman? Cities in China and Japan? It never felt far, though. It always felt close once you shared a poem or two.

BRM: Do you usually have a lesson plan or a set of exercises at the ready when you begin teaching a class?

NSN: I am very free-flowing. I usually have ideas, plans, examples, in my pocket, but am ready to change course if intuition guides. I have been in literally thousands of class settings by now so that helps. I do have a general “flow of things” I try to follow—always ending with sharing of work and perhaps further suggestions ….

BRM: What are some of your favourite techniques and media to teach poetry?

NSN: Modelling on existing poems. Group writings, to get words flowing. Questions and answers. Tiny poems—see a book called Braided Creek by Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison. Like tiny modern haiku. Recent observations—within the last 24 hours. Incorporating spoken voices into poems. I encourage a lot of note-taking first—clumps or nuggets of writing—then drawing on those to find a possible poem.

BRM: How have you used and/or adapted these techniques and media to teach poetry in different cultures and in other parts of the world?

NSN: Wherever we travel, there are local concerns, and it’s best to pay attention to some of these and try to incorporate them into writing possibilities. I am always hoping to help other people feel their own lives are as rich, as full of particular details, struggles, glories, essential joys, possibilities than anyone else’s lives. It is startling how many of us feel real life must surely be happening “over there”—somewhere else. I now live in an American state—Texas—for a very long time, actually—with a bad reputation, politically. When I travel to other American states people often roll their eyes and ask me how we can stand to live here. They only know the stereotypes of our state—ignorant politicians, guns, swagger.

By speaking of simple local things—all the richness that makes up daily Texas life—I can touch upon details they all have in their lives too. It’s important as a writer to penetrate stereotypes wherever we can. I’m sure I am carrying plenty of my own about the current American regime, which I find shocking and terrifying. To become human to one another—to find ground we share—to honour the lusciousness of details (which war never has)—all are crucial for connection. In other countries I probably ask more questions than I do at home. We never pay quite enough attention and we never ask enough questions. But a writing workshop is a perfect place to try to do that more.

BRM: What do you see as your primary role as a creative writing teacher? Are you primarily a facilitator, an instructor, a good listener, a mentor, a moderator, a referee, a resource person or a combination of some of these roles and maybe others I haven’t mentioned?

NSN: I feel I am all these things you say. What a terrific and comprehensive list! Perhaps mostly I am an encourager. It’s like a children’s book—if I can do it, you can do it.

BRM: What role does storytelling have in your poems?

NSN: Those of us who favour narrative poems—moments—included dialogue—definitely feel as if we are part of the storytelling family. We are the cousins!

BRM: Do you usually start a poem with a story or does it usually begin with an image that accumulates into a story?

NSN: I start anywhere I can. I start everywhere. Every day is full of beginnings. We need to give ourselves a lot of room to try things out. We need to abandon delusions of perfection.

BRM: Your poetry is definitely a poetry rooted in specific places. Give examples of how living in Missouri, Jerusalem and Texas has influenced your writing differently.

NSN: Thank you for feeling places in my poems. When I think of Missouri, I think of the humid summer heat, the steeping in deep green memory, the cognizance of precious childhood that abides in some of us always, if we have a certain taste for it. I will always be entering my parents’ humble home in Ferguson, imagining them inside there, waiting for me, under the pine trees, next to the cherry trees, interested. I will always be feeling the clash of cultures, the arguing, the depression of my mother that was a very graphic backdrop to childhood years. It was acute. I was deeply concerned. Always trying to make her happy. My father’s endless restlessness…my mother’s frustrations and love for art.

When I think of Jerusalem, I will always be on the high hill outside the city with my father, and he is saying, “This place will change your life forever. Look closely. Do not look away.” He was so right. It was the pivotal time of life, when my world opened up and I became a global citizen—a much stronger feeling than being any particular kind of “patriot”—I think.

And Texas—the long roads—the huge sky—the friendliness—still ongoing. We live near the San Antonio River where egrets and cranes roost in the trees at sundown. I now feel like one of those birds, pushing our baby grandson in his carriage, as he drifts off to sleep. What images will he carry? What sticks? We, who are readers, are very lucky to have lines and phrases, from books we loved, sticking to our minds as well as our own images from experience.

BRM: A teacher once dedicated a book: “To my students, who were my best teachers.” What do you feel are two or three important things you’ve learned from your students about poetry?

NSN: Stay open. Be surprised. Someone else might like something you didn’t even like that much. AQ

Jacob M. Appel – Of Sanity, Illness and Ruin

Of Sanity, Illness and Ruin. An Interview with Jacob M. Appel
by Bryan R. Monte
© 2017 Amsterdam Quarterly. All rights reserved.

Polymath Jacob M. Appel (b. 1973) is a lawyer, physician, psychiatrist, bioethicist, certified New York City tour guide, university professor and award-winning writer. He has won the William Faulkner-William Wilson short story award (2004), the Dundee International Book Prize (2011) for the novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, the Black Lawrence Hudson Prize (2012) for the collection Scouting for the Reaper, the Serena McDonald Kennedy Fiction Award (2014) for the collection The Magic Laundry, and the Howling Bird Press Fiction Award (2016) for The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street. Stories. Below is an interview conducted with him in January 2017 about his writing discipline, his literary influences, and the effect medicine and his Belgian-American background has had on his writing.

BRM: With such a busy life, as a bioethicist, doctor and teacher, how did you/do you find the time to write so many award-winning papers, novels and memoirs?

JMA: It’s easy to find time to do things I love doing. I’ll confess that my relationship with writing is much like the relationship some of my patients have with heroin. I look forward to sitting down at my keyboard each day, and if I miss a few days, I suffer through psychological withdrawal. Being a physician and teacher actually helps, as these are rather flexible callings. If I had to be at the coal mine twelve hours a day, six days a week, it would likely be much more difficult to write.

BRM: Do you watch television?

JMA: No.

BRM: Follow social media?

JMA: No.

BRM: Belong to a gym?

JMA: No.

BRM: Have any kind of a social life?

JMA: Yes. Of course, much of my time with friends and family is spent imagining how our conversations, lightly edited, would sound in short stories or novels.

BRM: Do you have any hobbies other than writing or studying for degrees?

JMA: Reading history, attending the theatre, flirting with barmaids. Since I don’t drink, the last proves rather challenging—most women find it odd when you tip five dollars on a glass of water.

BRM: Do you have a secretary who sends out and tracks your manuscripts?

JMA: I should be so lucky!

BRM: A regular time and place when and where you write?

JMA: I write whenever I can cobble together a few hours of down time, often at the hospital in a quiet nursing station or unoccupied examination room. But most of my best writing is done before I put pen to paper—inside my head, mulling over storylines and characters. The American short story writer Grace Paley used to say that she did her best writing in the bathtub. Metaphorically speaking, I assume, although I was never invited to bathe with Grace Paley. That’s sort of what I do, although rarely in the bath.

BRM: How do you shift gears between working on different genres and projects? For example, I knew someone in San Francisco who had separate tables for writing poetry, fiction, and non-fiction with the pertinent papers and books on each, and he’d visit each one over a three-day period. Do you have a similar system or schedule for your writing in four major genres (drama, fiction, essays and memoirs) or do you do a bit of each, each day?

JMA: That would involve the luxury of having an apartment with enough space for three tables, which might be possible in San Francisco, but is a pipe-dream in New York.

BRM: Yes, he had a three-bedroom house.

JMA: I generally only work in one genre at a time, although I may occasionally write a short essay or even a poem while at work on a longer project. As a rule, I choose the genre and project based upon the time allotted—if I am going to have a quiet month at the hospital, I might embark upon a novel, but if my opportunities to write will be sporadic and short, I choose a project that can be completed in days or weeks.

BRM: You seem to be a very prolific writer. Had you been writing and storing up work that you’d written years ago or did you experience a sudden burst of creativity in your mid- to late thirties regarding fiction?

JMA: I’ve been writing seriously for about twenty years. At least since I attended law school in the late 1990s. Through much of that time, I suffered from “publisher’s block” – this is sort of like writer’s block, only the obstacle to publication occurs at a different step in the process. Slowly (all too slowly!) this is beginning to change, as publishers are starting to show an interest in my work. Alas, my writing is about as commercial as soot, so I still have lots of stockpiled fiction. Particularly long fiction. If you know anybody who wants to buy a novel, please send her my way.

BRM: How have the topics, themes and techniques of your pieces changed over time?

JMA: I think writers have a “natural range” and part of developing as a writer is learning to embrace one’s limitations. Faulkner was wise enough not to write about Russian peasants; Henry James avoided whaling expeditions and tales of runaways on Mississippi rafts. Occasionally, a writer is fortunate enough to claim a very wide range. Henry Green. E. M. Forster. Or William Styron, who can write about the Holocaust and African-American slavery and clinical depression with equally powerful insights. When I started out as a writer, I tried to push myself outside my range of comfort – writing about people whose experiences were alien to my own. With time, I’ve come to focus on what I know well—upper-middle class urban and suburban professionals, clinging to order amidst the frustration and chaos of their narrow, tenuous worlds.

BRM: Have you gone through any stylistic/thematic experiments that you later exhausted and/or abandoned?

JMA: I’ve abandoned countless projects. In the 1990s, I wrote about 75% of a novel that retold the story of Mrs. Dalloway in the past and present…and a few years later, Michael Cunningham published The Hours (a brilliant, moving book) that did largely the same thing, and better, and that was the end of that.

BRM: Which writers do you admire?

JMA: I’ll confess I read mostly classics, often over and over again. I could read Anna Karenina or Middlemarch several thousand times without tiring. (My favourite scene in western literature is when Koznyshev takes Varenka mushroom picking in Anna Karenina and fails to propose.) I love comedies of manners—Fielding, Austin, Lucky Jim. And works that capture, to quote Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook, the “long littleness” of life. But I can also be entranced by the magical if it’s magical enough. What sane reader doesn’t have a soft spot for John Fowles or Thornton Wilder? Among contemporary American writers, I’m very much a fan of Kevin Brockmeier, Dan Chaon, Robert Olen Butler, Elizabeth Graver, George Harrar. I also recently discovered Michelle Herman and Rebecca Makkai. Both geniuses! And I adore Philip Larkin’s poems—even if he might not have been the ideal guest for Christmas dinner. My formers students and mentees like Chanan Tigay, CJ Hauser and Brigit Kelly Young are also brilliant and deserve far more recognition.

BRM: Looking at your short stories, I’d guess that Poe’s atmospheric darkness and O. Henry’s snap endings have had some influence on your work.

JMA: You’re not the first reader to suggest that, but they’re less direct influences than one might think. Candidly, I haven’t read O. Henry (or Maupassant, for that matter) in many years. The most significant direct literary influence on my work probably comes from contemporary drama: Paula Vogel, Tina Howe, Sarah Ruhl. Playwrights who push the limits of the possible, often with humour and whimsy and madness.

BRM: How does a story or memoir first come to you?

JMA: That is indeed the $64,000 question. I wish I could say I’m struck with wisdom, or envision an image, or find my way through a dream, but the not-very-helpful answer is, it just happens. Like falling in love. Or a fatal heart attack. So that’s the best I can offer: coming up with a story idea is something akin to falling in love and suffering a fatal heart attack. I will just somehow know that my next story is about a curmudgeonly landlord who rents an apartment to a mime or an extraterrestrial who finds himself disguised as a Latvian chef opposite an Alabama abortion clinic.

BRM: How does it usually develop?

JMA: That’s an easier question to answer. Once I have a premise—let’s say my mime tenant or Latvian alien—then I map out the scenes needed to tell the story. I always write in scenes and I always know how many scenes I require before I start writing. Even from early childhood, I have always possessed a talent for causing a scene, at least according to my mother, so this part comes naturally to me.

BRM: How do you know when you’re finished?

JMA: Honestly, I know I’m finished when somebody agrees to publish the piece. Or, on occasion, when I return the galleys and it’s out of my hands. The perfect, as Voltaire warns, is the enemy of the good…and fortunately the modern editorial process renders even the illusion of perfection impossible.

BRM: You mentioned to me in another conversation that you’d applied to writing classes at Brown, as an undergraduate, but were rejected. Do you remember the reasons given?

JMA: In my memory, I tell myself they were full and closed to enrolment. But it’s also possible I was rejected “on the merits,” so to speak, but have chosen to block this out.

BRM: Does your publishing success in at least four genres in the last decade seem like a vindication?

JMA: I should begin by saying, while I appreciate the kind words, that my successes are somewhat limited. (I’m not even the most successful writer named “Jacob Appel”; there’s another non-fiction writer, for whom I’m often mistaken, who generally gets better press.) But even if I win the Nobel Prize – and don’t cash in your frequent flyer miles on SAS just yet—it still wouldn’t be vindication. I write from a deeply-held sense of inadequacy, as I imagine many writers do, probably a congenital affliction or one acquired in early childhood. I’m not sure publishing successes will ever cure that…although I am certainly glad to have them. Psychotherapy might, of course, but I’ve worked alongside enough headshrinkers not to trust them.

BRM: What is the significance of your Belgian-American upbringing on your writing? You’ve mentioned it in your memoirs and Allen Lewinter, the protagonist in your short story, “The Current Occupant,” in your most recent collection, The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, mentions his relatives arrived as refugees in America with 15 Belgian francs between them. What influence has your grandparent’s flight from Nazi Europe and their Flemish language and heritage had on your writing?

JMA: I was extremely close to my late grandfather, who was born in Eastern Europe but raised in Antwerp, Belgium, and always considered himself a Belgian-American. He was one of the most generous human beings I’ve ever known; he was also an amateur poet in his youth, and apparently published Flemish-language poems in several small journals in Belgium, although none appear to have survived. (If anyone can find any poetry by Sander Leo Appel from the 1930s, I’d be forever grateful.) As a result of his influence, I also consider myself a Belgian-American: I studied Dutch in college and made a pilgrimage to the alley off the Terliststraat where he grew up. His flight from the adopted homeland that he loved, and the stories he told, have heavily influenced my fiction. Many of my characters are psychological exiles or refugees, even if they haven’t been physically driven from their homes.

BRM: What is the role of medicine in your writing?

JMA: The impact is largely indirect. Because I’m a psychiatrist, I hear the most amazing stories nearly every day…and I’m not allowed to share them with anyone. So I have to push my imagination in the opposite direction – to create new worlds that I’m 100% certain aren’t drawn from reality.

I do find that medicine, and particularly psychiatry, reminds me daily how close we all are to the edge—of sanity, of illness, of ruin. Friendships and relationships are fragile; promises evaporate under strain. These sentiments form the backbone of my writing.

BRM: How have medical concepts, procedures or cases informed and inspired your writing?

JMA: I have written about a few cases in my collection of essays, Phoning Home, including a piece about my favourite patient (with his permission): a nonagenarian who had once been the chauffeur for American President Harry Truman. But I strive to keep my clinical experiences out of my fiction. My worst fear is that one of my patients reads my latest novel and believes I wrote about him, even if I didn’t. Okay, that’s not my worst fear. My worst fear is nuclear winter. But it’s a close second.

BRM: For example, William Carlos Williams’ “A Difficult Case” could almost be considered a memoir of the treatment of one of his patients, yet it follows the standard arc of a short story. Have you had any similar experiences?

JMA: Williams, who was both a gifted writer and a skilled clinician, had a couple of advantages that I don’t have: he was a paediatrician, not a psychiatrist, and rules governing medical confidentiality were much laxer in his day. I can’t imagine hospital bureaucrats threatening to fire Chekhov or Maugham or Walker Percy over violations of federal disclosure statutes. So I work in a system that makes even fictionalised accounts of cases difficult to write and publish. In the United States, permission from the patient is often not enough to print these stories…one also needs permission from the hospital, from one’s colleagues, etc. It’s much easier to make things up entirely.

BRM: What informs and motivates your writing about euthanasia? You mentioned that when you get to the end, you want someone to put a plastic sack over your head. I, on the other hand, want a computer I can write with by moving my eyeball, and as a result of “live organ donor” horrors, I have decided to exempt myself from the proposed, automatic, organ donor programme here in the Netherlands if it becomes law. How do you feel about that?

JMA: I think the most important objective, which I do believe to be possible, is a system that allows both of us to have our wishes fulfilled. I don’t think there’s a “right” answer about how or when to die, but rather, a “right” answer for each individual. From my work with patients, I’ve found that many people who would never choose assisted suicide still benefit from knowing that it’s an option in theory—that there is an “out” if they ever wanted to choose it. So it’s very possible I wouldn’t go through with my “plastic sack” plan, but knowing that’s a possibility is comforting to me. Of course, I think it’s also essential to have system with meaningful safeguards. Failure to protect those who do not want euthanasia is absolutely unconscionable. As we know, many people can live very meaningful lives and contribute considerably to the commonweal while in the throes of severe illness or disability. Steven Hawking. Jean-Dominique Bauby. I’ll have a novel out in 2018 addressing these challenging issues.

BRM: Most of your books are published by what some would consider indie presses (Black Lawrence, Snake Nation, and Howling Bird Press). Is there a reason for this or is this just coincidental?

JMA: Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is at play here. Unfortunately, large publishers in the United States are reluctant to publish literary short stories, especially by writers who lack a pre-existing following. My first novel was published by a mid-sized British publisher and I have a new novel coming out with Permanent Press in 2017, which is considerably larger than many of the independents that I have previously worked with—although obviously not Knopf or FSG. But there are upsides to working with smaller presses: The editors tend to be lovely people, deeply invested in the projects. I have made some wonderful friends working with these presses. It’s harder to imagine that happening with a “Big Five” publisher who also manufactures household appliances.

BRM: I’ve dog-eared many pages of your books that mention Creve Coeur, (Broken Heart) Rhode Island. What is the special significance of this place in your fiction?

JMA: I went to college at Brown University in Rhode Island and later taught there for many years, so “Creve Coeur” is my rendering of Providence. The name itself is pinched from a rather dreary bedroom suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, which happens to be the international headquarters of Monsanto. I have been to Creve Coeur, Missouri, and I cannot imagine any place less romantic—not heart breaking, just heartless. In contrast, Rhode Island is a magical place brimming with the ghosts of whaling captains and mobsters.

BRM: What new projects (genres/themes) are you currently working on that you’d like to share with AQ’s readers with giving too much away?

JMA: I have a novel on the theme of assisted suicide coming out in 2018. And I’m currently working on a mystery novel narrated from the point of view of a psychiatric patient with schizophrenia, who believes one of her fellow patients has been murdered. But mostly, like the rest of the world, I’m trying to keep the photocopier from jamming, and looking for that missing sock, and dreaming, not too realistically, of a date with the novelist Karen Russell. Ah, the glories of the literary life….

Iain Matheson – Marks on Paper: Writing Music, Writing Poetry

Marks on Paper: Writing Music, Writing Poetry
An Interview with Iain Matheson

by Bryan R. Monte
Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte and Iain Matheson. All rights reserved.

Iain Matheson is a Scottish composer and poet, born, raised and educated in Glasgow, who lives in Edinburgh. His musical compositions have been performed in countries such as the Netherlands, France, Scotland, Spain and New Zealand by groups such as the Hebrides Ensemble, the New Zealand String Quartet and the Luxembourg Sinfonietta. His poetry has appeared in The Scotman newspaper, in Gutter, and in Amsterdam Quarterly. Recently, AQ had the opportunity to interview Matheson about his background, how he composes, what types of pieces he writes, the style of his compositions and the relationship in his creative life between his poetry and his music.

Bryan R. Monte: When did you first start to write poetry and music?

Iain Matheson: I started to write music at school, so around age 15; though of course I didn’t have public performances till much later. I wrote a few poems in my teens, a few more in my 30s. I’ve been writing poetry seriously since age 50 (I’ve just turned 60). I think of myself as an experienced musician, but still quite new to poetry.

BRM: So you’ve been writing music longer than poetry seriously?

IM: Yes.

BRM: How much longer?

IM: About 15 years longer.

BRM: What type of music do you write?

IM: I’ve always composed in the classical genre – an unhelpfully vague term nowadays, I know.

BRM: Could you define classical? Whose music is your music similar to?

IM: For me “classical” means, firstly, music that’s completely written down; and then, the potential for formal complexity and experimentation implied in that. The music is transferable: it goes from inside the composer’s head, via marks on paper, to the minds and bodies of performers. As soon as you work with written music, you’re part of a 1,000-year tradition, beginning with people who invented a way to represent music on a page: and you have to decide how you’ll relate to that.

A composer is probably the last person to ask: “Whose is your music similar to?” The answer will probably be someone whose work, or whose name, most
people don’t know. To me, my music is similar to (at least, it comes about through a similar process to) the music of Arnold Schoenberg. It may be more useful to say WHAT it sounds like: people have told me it sounds like tree frogs, or water dripping into a jar.

BRM: What type of poetry do you write?

IM: From the start I was interested in writing formal poetry: I started, as I suppose many people do, with tight shapes and rhymes: ballads, sonnets, sestinas.

BRM: Was there a specific event that inspired you to start writing poetry/music or did you just start writing poetry/music after hearing or reading poetry/music? For example, I remember listening to a poet at my second form read one of his poems whose rhythm imitated that of a tennis ball being volleyed back and forth across the net and I thought—I can do that—and I did.

IM: I played the piano and studied music at school and university, and it seemed obvious to me that I should try to write music, to help me understand what Bach and Beethoven were doing. I’m better at composing than performing; I’m happy to leave the playing to others.

I’ve always enjoyed reading, and writing words seemed a natural way of finding out how real writers put them together. At the time I didn’t question why I wrote poetry rather than prose: I think now that, because I understood the tiny details of moving musical notes around, the distilled language of poetry seemed similar. I’ve begun to think of writing words as a more direct form of creativity than composing – no need to find a performer once the poem is written. But in my mind I’m a composer who sometimes writes poetry: that’s the emphasis.

BRM: What type of music do you generally write?

IM: I usually write in lines (so-called counterpoint) rather than chords: horizontal rather than vertical. I’ve written a lot of chamber music (up to four instruments) as that’s the most practical to find ensembles and performance opportunities. It’s rare to find an orchestra eager to try new music; if only because rehearsing an orchestra is so expensive.

BRM: What type of poetry do you generally write?

IM: I write quite abstract, formal poems: usually taking off from the sound of a word, which leads to other words with similar sounds. I don’t set out to write a poem “about” a particular subject: the subject emerges, if at all, in the writing process. Lately I’ve been writing in syllabics: each line a fixed number of syllables.

BRM: Who are three of your favourite composers and their pieces how have they inspired you?

IM: Scriabin’s music speaks a revolutionary harmonic language within quite traditional forms. Especially in his piano music, the theosophical extravagance of his philosophical ideas leads him to imagine completely new sounds such as in Piano Sonata #9. Haydn’s music is elegant and deceptively straightforward; but he’s always trying something new, taking himself by surprise. He’s a master of silence in music in String Quartet op.50/6. Webern’s music has very clear patterns, and he attends to every tiny detail. He composes in very tight shapes, with just a few notes, inventing restrictions for himself. Again, silence is vital: at times the music seems like a frame for silence as in Canons op.16 for soprano and clarinets.

BRM: Who are three of your favourite poets and their poems how have they inspired you?

IM: I enjoy John Donne’s poetry, especially the late sonnets: flamboyant imagery crowded into very economical shapes. “Holy Sonnet X: Death be not proud.” I’ve heard Kay Ryan reading in Scotland a few times. Her willingness to follow the sound of the words and let meaning take second place is delicious: on paper, short lines make the shape of her poems fascinating in “Blue China Doorknob”. W. S. Graham was a Scottish poet, maybe not well-known in other countries. Many of his poems touch on the process of writing poems, and remind the reader that a poem is a constructed thing such as in “Dear Bryan Winter.”

BRM: How is writing a poem different from writing a piece of music?

IM: I don’t know that writing a poem, in the way I write one, is very different: the difference is in the awareness of how others may read it. Because a poem uses words that people know, they often expect a “meaning” in the way that doesn’t apply when they hear a new piece of music.

BRM: Let me rephrase that question. How is starting to write a poem, different from how you begin to write a piece of music? Do you start with a phrase or an image with a poem, for example, and a series of sounds for music?

IM: I see what you mean. For me, they both start with sound. A poem usually starts with a word, which I take apart to see what sounds are contained within it, and what other words its sound might suggest. A piece of music often begins with an interval (the distance between two notes, one higher, one lower): but that’s almost inseparable from the sound of whichever instrument I know will be playing the piece.

BRM: In what ways are poetry and music similar?

IM: They are comparable systems of making marks on paper: musical notation on the one hand, writing on the other. They can contain similar formal patterns: line lengths, rhythms, repetitions. They can use different sounds (instrumental sounds, or vowels and consonants) to make a specific sound world for each work. They can incorporate silence as a formal and expressive element. They can make the flow of time seem erratic. They can have titles that lead or mislead. They can combine contrasting elements, and invite the audience to find a way in which they relate to each other. Probably these things are true of any two art forms, not just music and poetry.

BRM: How long does it usually take you to compose a piece of music?

IM: It depends on the length of the piece, and the number of instruments. Maybe six months.

BRM: How long does it take you to compose a poem?

IM: Four to six weeks. After that it’s usually clear that something isn’t worth pursuing: though there are some that lie around for months and years and never give up. There’s a difference, though. It’s very seldom that anyone asks me to write a poem: at most, there may be a submission deadline.

BRM: Do your compositions (poems/music) tend to be more organic in that you start with a line or a musical phrase that comes to you and you add to it from there or are your compositions more formal (like a sonnet or a minuet) where you know the restrictions ahead of time and then you plan how you can fit this phrase and other variations or counter arguments into that form to make a complete poetic/musical statement.

IM: Knowing how long a piece of music is to be, is important: once I know that, I can organise the proportions of it, see where certain things will be placed. (For reasons of programming, most performers are looking for music between 5 – 15 minutes.) The instruments involved usually suggest the musical material in some way – highest or lowest note, how they make a sound, how long can they sustain a note, that sort of thing. I seldom start writing anything (music or poem) at the beginning.

My poems tend to be short, maybe a dozen lines. If I’m not given restrictions by (e.g.) a magazine’s submission guidelines, I invent my own. More than with music, I usually write a lot then pare it away till there’s a poem left. I don’t write in established forms now, such sestinas or villanelles, except as an exercise. (Just as, in music, I don’t write fugues or in classical sonata form). I do, however, try to arrive at the shape of a poem early on. That’s usually a case of shuffling and reordering fragments—single lines, couplets—until a pattern comes together.

BRM: What have been your most adventurous piece of music and poem and why?

IM: “Equal Parts” is a small piano concerto, for piano solo and eleven instruments. The length (10’00”), the size of ensemble, and the relatively large number of ideas to be kept in balance made it quite a complex piece to write. You can hear it on my website at www.iainmatheson.co.uk

I don’t think any one of my poems is more adventurous than others. Since writing is sufficiently new to me, each is an adventure. There’s a competition at the moment for a poem up to 80 lines: that’ll be a new sort of adventure if I can do it.

BRM: What are two of the most recent poems and musical compositions that you have written?

IM: I’ve recently completed a string trio for violin, viola and cello. I wrote it without a commission, and it’s still looking for a first performance. A short violin piece “Slow” had its first performance in April. I wrote a poem called “About” since people sometimes ask what my poems are about. I think my poem “Web” is finished, but it needs to lie in a drawer for a couple of weeks.

BRM: How is listening to one of your poems or pieces being performed by someone else different from how you imagined it how when you wrote it?

IM: I try to notate my music quite precisely, so that performers can see what’s meant, and there aren’t big surprises (I don’t use improvisation in my scores). But there are always welcome variables: for instance the relationship between players and audience, and the size of the venue, which affects things like volume and speed. Sometimes the comparative volume level of instruments has to be adjusted.

I haven’t heard many of my poems read in public by another reader: only two, I think. It’s the nature of poetry readings that you don’t often hear poems read by anyone except yourself, which to me seems a pity. I sometimes ask a friend to read a poem aloud for me, in private, to test whether the “notation” is clear. When people read a poem in a magazine or on a website, they have nothing to go on but the layout on the page, so I try to make that as clear as I can. But other readers always bring something different; not least, the sound of their voice. Music notation usually includes a direction about speed: poetic notation usually doesn’t, and other readers can have quite a different idea of how fast something should go.

BRM: Where are some of the places your music and poetry has been performed and published?

IM: My music has been played throughout the UK and Europe (the Netherlands, Spain, France etc.): also in the USA and New Zealand. Performers have included the Hebrides Ensemble, New Zealand String Quartet, Kevin Bowyer, Luxembourg Sinfonietta. There are a couple of pieces on CD, and one bass clarinet piece published in Belgium. Here is a link to a performance of Next for solo violin:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3KZoLNg634 .

I’ve read my poems at various events in Scotland; in particular, in 2013 I was glad to be invited to read at Shore Poets, which is a monthly poetry event in Edinburgh. Some are published in Scottish magazines, newspapers and anthologies, and some on websites; I was pleased to have poems selected for Gutter, which describes itself as “an award-winning, high quality, printed journal for fiction and poetry from writers born or living in Scotland”. Here is On read by me at Jupiter Artland: https://soundcloud.com/jupiterartland/on-iain-matheson. There’s a print copy of it on this page (click on “Dowload the shortlist” and it’s #14): https://www.jupiterartland.org/learning/writingcompetition

BRM: Where can people find a list of your compositions/poems?

IM: You can find a list of my music compositions, and some recordings, on my website: http://iainmatheson.co.uk/index.php . The only list of my poems is on my computer…AQ is a major publisher! Four at the last count: Her friend finds cheese in his pocket, (AQ4), Interval, (AQ6), What it is (AQ12), and Inspire (AQ14).

BRM: Where will some of your pieces be performed/published in the next six months?

IM: My pieces, Three and Conversation, will be played along with work by five other composers by the Ensemble Ruspoli on 19 June, in Arnhem, the Netherlands at the Lutherse Kerk, Spoorwegstraat 8, at 3.00 PM. Entree is 10 euros. My piece for organ, Imaginary Music is due to be played in Dundee (Scotland), but the date and venue aren’t yet confirmed. Poems will probably be published, if at all, online and therefore internationally… I’ll let AQ know of any other upcoming performances, publications or readings.

BRM: Iain Matheson, composer and poet, thank you for your time.

IM: You’re very welcome, Bryan

David Trinidad – Straighforward and Candid

Straightforward and Candid
An Interview with Poet David Trinidad

by Bryan R. Monte
Copyright © 2015 by Bryan R. Monte and David Trinidad.
All rights reserved.

David Trinidad is a professor of creative writing and poetry at Columbia College in Chicago. He is the solo author of twelve books of poetry, the co-author of another four, the co-editor of the poetry anthology Saints of Hysteria, a former editor of the literary journal Court Green, and the editor of the works of poets Ann Stanford and Tim Dlugos.

Bryan R. Monte: My first question, David, is that with all your projects and duties, how do you ever find time to write?

David Trinidad: When I was younger it was quite a struggle. I never seemed to have time to write. Or if I did, the actual writing was difficult. I felt such pressure to produce. It’s not something I fret about anymore, thankfully. My teaching job and editorial/scholarly projects feed, rather than hinder, my creativity. Writing, reading, editing, teaching—they all work together.

BM: Do you consciously make time to write poetry or does it burst into your life of its own volition?

DT: It can happen both ways. I’m fairly disciplined. I like to work in the morning, for four or five hours, but not necessarily every day. Poems can happen in one sitting or stretch over many days, even weeks or months. Once a poem is in motion, it’s always there, in the back of my mind. I can’t really rest until it’s finished. Words and lines will come to me as I’m trying to sleep; I have to keep turning on the light and jotting them down. I’ll wake up the next morning with more words and lines, as if I’d been working on the poem in my sleep.

BM: How old were you when you first started to write poetry?

DT: I wrote some poems when I was child, but didn’t really start writing it seriously until I was eighteen or so.

BM: Was there a specific person who sparked you to write poetry for the first time?

DT: As an undergraduate at California State University, Northridge, I took Introduction to Literature with Ann Stanford. I had no idea she was a well-known poet. She showed us an example of found poetry. I was intrigued by the idea that you could take an existing text and make a poem out of it. She said she’d give us credit for one of our assignments if we wanted to try our hand at it. So I went home that night and opened the Los Angeles Times to an article about Marilyn Monroe’s death and formed a poem out of some of the sentences. I called it “With a Phone in Her Hand.” Ann liked it, and that gave me the courage to try other poems. I still have it; it’s the oldest poem I kept from those days. That was in 1972.

BM: When did you first know you wanted to be a poet?

DT: I never presumed that I was, or could be a poet. Or even wanted to be one. I wanted to be a writer, but assumed I would write short stories and novels. When I was twenty-one, something magical happened: I wrote my first real poem. It seized me, came through me very quickly and forcefully. I was exhilarated and astounded. Even though I’d been writing poems for a few years, this one was markedly different. I knew something significant had happened. It was like I’d been switched to a higher voltage. After that, all I wanted was to replicate that experience. I really wanted to be a poet.

BM: Who were some of your favourite poets (both dead and living) as you were learning your craft? What did you learn particularly from these poets and their works?

DT: Anne Sexton was the first poet I seriously connected with. I discovered her work in 1975, just months after her death. Her books were everywhere then. I came across Love Poems in the poetry section of the B. Dalton Books at Northridge Fashion Center. I bought it, took it home, starting reading it, and was hooked. I devoured all of her books, one right after another. Sylvia Plath was very important to me, too. She was also pretty ubiquitous at that time. Through Plath, I learned about Ted Hughes. Ann Stanford was my teacher at Northridge, so I studied her books on my own. She was friends with May Swenson, so I read her as well. Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara were on my radar—I loved those City Lights pocket books. I learned a great deal from these poets. All of them had an honesty and directness that I responded to. Each created a world I could believe in and inhabit. I related to the feelings, no matter how different their experiences were from mine. They made me want to contribute something of my own, something of my self. That was key, the authentic autobiographical nature of their work.

BM: You’ve said that you studied writing with Ann Stanford at college. What did you learn from her? For example, what were one or two specific insights she gave you about your writing and the direction it could take?

DT: I think more than anything it was her clarity and her simplicity. She says what she has to say so precisely, so perfectly, with just the right words. She taught me that you don’t have to overdo it. No need to force your viewpoint or knock the reader over the head with your truth. I also learned from her example what kind of poet I wanted to be in the world. She wrote and edited and published and did readings, but without a big ego. The work was what was important. If your poems were good, you didn’t have to promote them. Publish them, yes. But let them do their work. Poems don’t require fanfare. Ann was widely published, had won numerous awards. Late in life, she told an interviewer that being widely published and winning awards was gratifying to the ego, but not helpful to the soul. That was very telling, very instructive.

BM: Name two or three of your poems from your early, formative years that you still regard highly and explain why.

DT: Of all of my early poems, “The Boy” sticks out. I feel like that’s my voice: straightforward, candid. Language not terribly dressed up. Looking back with longing. I can still read “The Peasant Girl” and “Night and Fog” without cringing. They seem like my voice too, though both are a bit in overdrive. That’s something I often do: get revved up and try to fit as much as possible into a poem. “The Boy” seems purer to me.

BM: It’s interesting that you mention these three poems, because they’re all in your first book Pavane, which I think is a good mix of classical subjects and teenage/young adult homoangst. “Night and Fog” is a great critique of ’70s gay San Francisco, especially how the South of Market scene messed up your friend. How did go from there to your poem “Meet the Supremes,” with its long list of girl groups, in Monday, Monday, your next book, a thread which has continued in your poetry to the present?

DT: There’s actually a gap of seven years between those two poems, during which there was a shift in my writing. But I’d contend that those poems are not really that different. “Night and Fog” is a kind of list, or a litany. “Meet the Supremes” is also a list, or catalog, of girl singers and groups. The former is more direct, in the handling of the deterioration of a friendship. The latter deals with my own downward spiral and alcoholism, but is less direct. All the pop songs about heartbreak are intertwined with the deeper angst of the speaker.

BM: Did moving back to L.A. from San Francisco have anything to do with this change in your writing?

DT: It did, though not immediately. I later became friends with other young poets in Los Angeles and I was exposed to the work of the New York School poets.

BM: Was there some sort of retro-hippie movement going on in L.A. at the time that inspired you to write the poems in Monday, Monday?

DT: I’d say it was more of a “youth movement.” I was hanging out with poets like Dennis Cooper and Amy Gerstler. Dennis created a lively scene at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice. Others in the scene included Bob Flanagan, Ed Smith, Kim Rosenfield, Jack Skelley, Michelle T. Clinton, and Benjamin Weissman. We gave readings, published books and magazines. Dennis had Little Caesar, Jack had Barney, I had Sherwood Press. Through Dennis, I met poets from other parts of the country, like Tim Dlugos in New York and Elaine Equi in Chicago. We were all in our twenties. There was a brashness about these poets and their work, an urbanity and wit, and openness to the pop culture we’d all grown up with. I found it very exciting.

BM: How do you respond to some critics who say that some of your poems list too many things? That sometimes they are only lists or synopses of TV shows or toy descriptions, such as “Monster Mash,” “The Ten Best Episodes of The Patty Duke Show,” and “Essay with Movable Parts,” which they feel don’t really make them poems?

DT: Aside from the joy of list making, I would say that in the poems you mention there were specific conceptual concerns at work. “Monster Mash,” for instance, is both a list of monster movies and a traditional rhymed sonnet. The payoff, for me, was in the juxtaposition of the two. I don’t feel I need to defend the list poem. It has a long and respectable tradition. I guess I like to play around with the form, see how far I can stretch it, what I can make lists do. Some results are more mundane than others. But some have a kind of sparkle.

BM: In Monday, Monday, you also wrote a lot of poems in narrow columns. How did you “discover” this short, poetic line set in columnar stanzas, which you’ve continued to use in your poems?

DT: Poets I admired used that form a lot—Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Dennis Cooper and other friends. I was drawn to it, perhaps, because it seemed less artificial than the stanzas—tercets and quatrains and whatnot—that I’d mostly used in college. Those evenly chopped up stanzas suddenly struck me as bookish. The narrow column—or tube—felt freer and more natural, better suited to a colloquial way of writing.

BM: In your next book, Hand Over Heart (1991), in “November,” you continue with these long, thin poems and references to TV series. Even though the poem seems to be primarily about what its characters consume and their addictions, there’s also the issue of bringing a boyfriend home for Thanksgiving in the 1980s. Why did you choose to talk about this situation using so many references to popular culture?

DT: “November” is a diary poem in which I tried to capture precisely what was going on in my life during that one month in 1985. Whatever pop references are in the poem, those are things that just happened to be there, in front of me, so I faithfully recorded them. There’s one section where we’re watching a Twilight Zone marathon on TV, so I give synopses of several episodes. During that period, I relished putting kitsch in my poems.

BM: Is it because you feel that life is random, boring and banal and that you found more wisdom in TV shows or old films or are you trying to say something else?

DT: Well, again, I was trying to be accurate, faithful to what I was actually experiencing. It wasn’t so much random—it’s not like I put everything in. It was what caught my attention, what I thought beautiful or interesting, even if it was mundane. I admit there was an element of chance: something would appear or happen and I’d think, “Oh, I should put that in the poem.” I thought of those as happy accidents or gifts, though not devoid of meaning.

BM: In Answer Song (1994), in “Driving Back from New Haven,” your line changes and suddenly becomes longer, more focused and intimate as you converse with Tim Dlugos, who has AIDS. In the poem you report what Tim says—“I resent that we were not raised with / an acceptance of death” and “I resent that we do not know how to die”—without any popular culture references or evasions. I’d like to know how you composed this poem and if you were conscious of theses changes?

DT: I feel it’s in keeping with my style at that time. It’s not that much of a departure. My language is deliberately free of adornment. It wasn’t an easy poem to write—my friend was terminally ill. I remember thinking I wanted it to simply be a snapshot of that moment. If I could pare it down to the bare minimum, maybe the gravity of the situation would speak for itself. And I wanted to let Tim voice his anger in the poem, just as he had in the car.

BM: Of course as any gay man who came out in the ’70s, I need to talk to you about the effect of the AIDS epidemic on your writing. What are the poems you’ve written about the epidemic?

DT: I’ve written elegies to Tim Dlugos and Joe Brainard, friends who both died of AIDS. And I write about a number of men I knew in “AIDS Series.” I took some hits from critics in the nineties; they felt I wasn’t writing enough about the epidemic. I resented that. Just because I’m gay I have to write about AIDS? You can’t tell an artist what to write about. In truth, it was too painful—all these men of my generation dying. It took me many years to be able to face it, address such loss in my work.

BM: Which one do you feel is your most successful in capturing that era and your feelings?

DT: “AIDS Series,” I suppose. It’s in nine sections. Each section is about a particular man that I knew. After I wrote it, I felt very strongly that I had paid some sort of debt, balanced some sort of karma.

BM: Answer Song has some dark pieces. In it you describe being raped and your family coming to your aid and also your father telling you it’s not OK to play with Barbie dolls, but you also describe your relationship with Ira, your former partner of ten years. It seems that your poems turn a corner here and zoom in to give a more candid view of your own life. Why do you think you got into this more personal, confessional mode?

DT: I wrote the poems in Answer Song in the late eighties and early nineties. It was a strange time. Many were dying. I was new in New York and in my first long-term relationship. Everything, including the poetry world, was becoming more conservative. Though I’ve always been interested in the personal in poetry, my reaction to the growing conservatism was to become more intimate, more explicit.

BM: Plasticville (2000) seems to me to be about collecting, consumerism, and popular culture—its light and dark sides—but also about betrayal. You write a lot about the things people own, sometimes as passionately as you write about your Barbie doll collection and your dog, Byron. Does this drive to ownership or to collect things from one’s youth say something about these people’s lives?

DT: In my forties, I collected things, mostly toys, from my youth. It was a passionately regressive phase. I desperately wanted the things I wasn’t allowed to play with as a child, the stuff I wasn’t supposed to want to play with—girls’ toys. It was empowering, at a very deep level, to finally possess them, though sad, too. The whole enterprise stemmed from disappointment in my professional life—disillusionment with the poetry world.

BM: “Directions” is a poem about a break up in which the speaker destroys the record of a relationship by ritualistically burning someone’s letters. Does this poem say something about the things in the speaker’s life that he doesn’t control or perhaps explain his desire to collect or order things?

DT: I do think it’s an effort to control some pretty dangerous feelings—like anger and hatred. Imbedded in the act of destroying someone’s letters is the desire to purge oneself of those feelings, as well as that person, once and for all.

BM: I think that some of this desire to order things can be seen in your Abecedarian poem “Arabesque, Gambit, Caprice, Charade, and Mirage,” in which you arrange things alphabetically from board games to TV series, to parts of Disneyland. Am I correct?

DT: Yes, exactly. I used that poem as a way to collect those things, and thereby give them order. I suppose I was also trying to manage the obsessive desire to recapture all those items. Which in turn masks deeper, scarier emotions.

BM: I think some of this consumerism is also reflected in your poem “Something’s Got to Give,” about how Marilyn Monroe’s popularity (she was reportedly one of JFK’s lovers) ultimately destroyed her career. Are you saying here that there is sometimes such a thing as bad or too much publicity?

DT: Definitely. If you believe in it too much, or seek it for the wrong reasons, it can backfire on you.

BM: In “Ancient History,” a timeline of film trivia from 1949 to 1966, are you addressing the historical amnesia or ignorance that’s a part of post-modern culture?

DT: I’m playing with the idea that we know history through movies (Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, for instance, or Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra) rather than from books and that those movies too are “ancient,” a part of the past.

BM: Next we come to what I think are two of your finest poems, both in The Late Show (2007)—the long prose poem “Classic Layer Cakes” and the much shorter “Sonnet”—both about your mother’s death. How did you approach these poems? For example, did you know at the beginning what form each would take, or did the poem’s form reveal itself to you as you began to write it?

DT: I knew that “Classic Layer Cakes” was going to be a zuihitsu, a collage along the lines of Kimiko Hahn’s “Sewing without Mother.” And I knew that “Sonnet” was going to be a sonnet. They’re very different impulses. The zuihitsu is open and free, and can contain quite a bit of information, many lists. The sonnet is limited, in terms of maneuverability; it forces you to be concise.

BM: And what does this say about how you compose your poems and what form they ultimately take in general?

DT: It’s convenient to have a shape or form, in my mind’s eye at least, before or as I start to write a poem. Sometimes, though, the shape emerges as I write, usually early on. It depends. Ted Berrigan said, “You must make what you write be shapely in some way.” I agree. I’m uncomfortable when there’s no ordering device. It’s like working without a net.

BM: Your long poem, “A Poem Under the Influence,” is a tapestry of many of your themes and images from popular and gay culture—Barbie dolls, Supremes wigs, McDonalds, Valley of the Dolls and other films and television shows, therapy, substance abuse, the color pink, memories of other poets, life in New York City, etc. First, if I may ask, who is Jeffery Conway?

DT: Jeffery is a poet. He’s ten years younger than I am. We grew up in the same part of Los Angeles and both attended California State University, Northridge, but didn’t become friends till we were in the graduate program at Brooklyn College in the late eighties. We’ve been very close friends ever since.

BM: Second, what inspired you to write this very long poem?

DT: I wanted to write a long poem in the vein of some of the New York School poets—particularly James Schuyler. I’d been keeping a notebook of images and memories that I caught myself thinking about—a hodgepodge of stuff. I thought there must be a way to put all of this information into a poem. I wanted to write it very quickly, very messily. But it took a while.

BM: How long did it take you to write it?

DT: About a year and a half.

BM: And last, what were some special challenges you faced in writing a poem of this length?

DT: Believing that it would hold together, ultimately, that it would amount to something. That uncertainty. For me, it was working without a net. I’d forget where I’d been earlier in the poem and couldn’t quite see where I was going, or where I would end up.

BM: During the ’90s and the ’00s, you collaborated on many books with other writers, both living and dead. You edited Tim Dlugos’ and Ann Stanford’s (with Maxine Scates) poetry, you wrote Chain Chain Chain (2000) and Phoebe 2002: An Essay in Verse (2003) (both with Jeffery Conway and Lynn Crosbie) and the cento pseudo-celebrity autobiography By Myself (2009) (with D.A. Powell), and co-edited the collaboration anthology Saints of Hysteria (2007) (with Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton) and your college’s literary magazine, Green Court. Was there any reason for this sudden burst of editorial and collaborative work?

DT: Not particularly. I’ve always enjoyed collaborating with other poets and editing various projects. Collaborating is fun, a way to let loose a little. And the editing is a way of being of service to the art, of giving something back.

BM: What did you learn from some of these projects?

DT: Phoebe 2002, which was based on the movie All About Eve, taught me to be more flexible, more spontaneous, to dive in, just start writing, and not worry too much about the results. Writing can be fun—who knew? Knowing I was going to share what I wrote with my collaborators made writing a less solitary, even a less lonely, activity. I would try to entertain them. And I’d often be wowed by what they wrote. The excitement carried over into my own work.

BM: Which one was the most fun and why?

DT: They’ve all been great fun. The piece I wrote with D.A. Powell, By Myself, was especially exhilarating. We alternated sentences from celebrity biographies—a glorious tug-of-war.

BM: Which one was the most demanding and why?

DT: Maybe the one I wrote with Bob Flanagan, A Taste of Honey, only because it was my first substantial collaboration. We alternated syllabic lines and wrote one poem a month for a year, ending up with a chapbook of a dozen poems. We often left lines for each other on our phone machines. Also, we had very different sensibilities, so we each kept trying to steer the poem in our own direction. It was a bit of a wrestling match, a fun one.

BM: By Myself I think is the most unusual of these collaborations. It’s an “autobiographical” cento composed of one line from 300 different celebrity biographies. Were you two trying to say that the components of celebrities’ lives are interchangeable with definite stages to celebrity?

DT: In a way, yes. We jumbled up everyone’s childhood, everyone’s rise to stardom, everyone’s peak of success, and everyone’s downfall.

BM: Were you trying to explode the idea of celebrity autobiographies (since many had ghost writers or assistants anyway) or did you have completely different intentions?

DT: I can’t speak for Doug, but I was just trying to have fun. It was a game. We could only use one sentence from each autobiography. And we didn’t tell each other which books we were planning to use. There was some suspense there: would Doug use Joan Crawford’s autobiography before I had a chance to use it? I think he did, the rat! I didn’t think too much about our intentions, except that we were creating, from all these various celebrities, a character, “Myself.” “Myself” was ambiguous in terms of gender and sexual preference and race. Most importantly, he/she won an Oscar!

BM: Your most recent book of poems is Dear Prudence (2011), a selected retrospective from previous books plus a section of new poems entitled “Black Telephone.” This book I think is even more revealing than your previous ones with poems about your literary influences (Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton), the “AIDS Series,” which you mentioned previously, and even a poem about the car collision you survived but which your good friend, Rachel Sherwood (after whom you named your press), didn’t. Your poetic influences, and their biographical origins, seem to weigh much more heavily in your poetry now. Are you aware of this?

DT: Oh yes. It’s different from when I was young. Then, they were teaching, guiding me, as I learned to write. Now that I’m older, I feel more directly in conversation with them.

BM: What are some of the things you admire about Hughes, Plath, and Sexton?

DT: With these three poets, I would say it’s how their lives and their art end up being—or seeming—interchangeable. All three are nakedly honest, in his or her own way. Sexton and Plath intended this, but with Hughes you get the feeling he’s exposing himself in spite of himself. Individually, there are things I admire about each.

BM: What are some of the things you try to avoid?

DT: I never want to be sentimental. Or predictable. Maybe that can’t be avoided—one is oneself, after all. But I’d like to avoid being all played out. I try to keep surprising myself, trying new things. So boredom! I try to avoid being bored.

BM: There are many references to death in “Black Telephone”—“AIDS Series,” “Moonlight at Temecula,” “The Dead,” “Medusa Redux,” “For Nicholas Hughes,” “Sharon Tate and Friends the Moment Before,” “Ode to Dick Fisk.” Is that what the Black Telephone symbolizes?

DT: If not death per se, then the darkness that surrounds it. I’m consciously dealing with dark material—murder, suicide, anger, loss. The phone has been severed at its root, as Plath says. One has been cut off, is on one’s own.

BM: Is it just a memoriam or are you also now that you’re in your 60s reviewing your life and starting to hear “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”?

DT: I’m very aware of my mortality, and wish to make the best of what time I have left. I’m grateful that I have the freedom to choose what to do with that time. I don’t mean financial freedom as much as psychological freedom. I no longer feel prey to the obligations and insecurities that used to dictate my behavior.

BM: Now that you have reached your seniority, who are some of the younger poets whose work you admire?

DT: Aaron Smith is a younger gay poet I like a lot. He’s unsparingly honest, says what others are too afraid to say. His most recent book is Appetite. Robyn Schiff (Revolver) writes wonderful poems whose emotional complexity is achieved through a meticulous formal sleight of hand. And I find Nick Twemlow’s work extremely powerful. The poems he’s written since his first book (Palm Tress) are astonishing—they let you into his psyche in a very original and daring way. There are others, but these are three poets whose work I especially admire.

BM: What projects and poems are you working on at the moment that you could share with Amsterdam Quarterly’s readers?

DT: I’m currently doing research for a book about Rachel Sherwood, my friend who you mentioned. I find I’m able, thirty-six years after her death, to finally deal with her loss. And create a full portrait of her. I’ve been interviewing many people who knew her. I’m also working on a new book of poems about the actress Frances Farmer, in which I hope to explore my own alcoholism. And I’m co-editing (with Amy Gerstler) a book of Ed Smith’s poems. Ed died in 2005; his work is long out of print. Amy and I were friends of his in the Beyond Baroque scene in the eighties. There is no shortage of projects!

BM: How do they relate to your 9/11 poem, which is published in this issue of AQ?

DT: Like 9/11, Rachel’s death (and the accident in which I was seriously injured) is something that’s taken me a long time to revisit. Just like it took me a long time to write about the men who died of AIDS. It took over a decade to write about 9/11, and that poem was not easy to write. I broke out in a rash when I was working on it. I do feel an obligation to address the really traumatic events in my work. It’s my duty as a writer—or the kind of writer I am. Time and distance are needed, before it feels safe enough to face the pain. That appears to be my process.

Philibert Schogt – The End of the Novel?

The End of the Novel?
An Interview with Philibert Schogt about Einde verhaal/End of Story
© 2015 by Bryan R. Monte and Philibert Schogt. All rights reserved.

On 1 March 2015, Philibert Schogt was interviewed by Amsterdam Quarterly in his Oud-Centrum Amsterdam flat about his new, bilingual novel, Einde verhaal/End of Story. (An earlier interview with Schogt about his background as a writer and his other novels with AQ in 2011 can be found at: www.amsterdamquarterly.org/issues/aq1-philosophy/philibert-schogt-writing-across-two-cultures/ ). AQ discussed with him this new novel’s unique structure and content including its exploration of the themes of freedom of speech, religious fundamentalism, censorship and the end of the novel. End of Story/Einde verhaal will be published by Amsterdam’s Arbeiderspers at the end of May 2015.

Bryan R. Monte: I’m here today to interview Philibert Schogt about his forthcoming double novel called Einde verhaal in Dutch and End of Story in English. One of the most unusual aspects of this novel is its design. One side is written in English in the first person. The other, when you flip the book over, is written in Dutch in the third person. These narratives, however, are not direct translations. How did you happen to come up with this form for Einde verhaal/End of Story?

Philibert Schogt: I’m a terribly slow writer. Rather than taking forever to write my book in Dutch, and then waiting even longer for an English publisher to be willing to translate it into English, I thought: ‘Why don’t I write two different versions of the same story simultaneously, one in Dutch, one in English?’ But then, the more I worked on both, the more they intermeshed, until they became a single, bilingual monster rather than two independent books.

BM: But there is also a difference in point of view between the two versions of the story….

PS: That’s right. The Dutch version is written in the third person, while the English version is in diary form and written in the first person.

BM: Why the difference?

PS: I started out writing both versions in the first person, but I think the asymmetry of the two perspectives makes the book more interesting. Also, writing the Dutch version in the third person allowed me to include some background information that wouldn’t have seemed natural from a first person perspective. And for a number of technical reasons which I won’t go into now, the contrasting perspectives will make it easier to translate the book into a single language version, whether this is English-English, German-German or French-French.

BM: I was wondering, since I’m trilingual, how you arranged these narratives in your head, if you can imagine where they are and what your brain is doing with them. For example, some bilingual people say everything is in one box, but I know I’m completely different. I’ve got a German box, a Dutch box and an English box. Is that how you organized them in your head and if so, how did that affect the writing?

PS: One of the terms I use in both versions is “personality shift”. I truly believe that my personality shifts depending on the language I am speaking or thinking, and I’ve talked to other bilingual people and they have that same feeling. It’s not just that languages are stored in different boxes, but your entire perspective changes. That can start with any simple object here on this table: “cookie” and “koekje” for example, evoke two completely different universes.

In his teenage years, my main character is worried about having a split personality. As he grows older, he comes across the term “personality shift”, which is a milder way of putting it and doesn’t have the same connotations with mental illness.

BM: Yes, as a teen I was considered a bit weird because I spoke two languages. When I lived in America, I felt incomplete because when I switched on the radio in the ’60s to the ’70s, it was English from one end of the band to the other and one of the wondrous things when I came to Europe, was when I switched on the radio, every time you moved the dial it was a different language. And I thought: ‘Ah, I’m home!’

PS: I know what you mean. That’s one thing my main character learns as he grows older. Both languages comprise part of his personality, maybe even his soul.

BM: What is your motivation for writing novels, in general, and this novel in particular? It’s a very solitary occupation and it pays little financially. Why do you feel the need to do this? Are you driven?

PS: I am always reluctant to consider my writing an inner calling. It sounds a little too melodramatic and self-important. Then again, when I look back and realize I’ve been working non-stop on this novel for almost six years, then I suppose you could call me “driven”. I’ve always found the world an extremely puzzling, bewildering place and people even more so. To make some sort of sense of the world, or at least to translate it into my own nonsense: maybe that’s why I became a writer.

BM: Let’s move on, and talk about the circumstances related to this story—what it’s about. According to your blurb, your main character is a 69-year-old literary translator of English to Dutch, about to settle into a happy retirement just as he receives one final assignment, the translation of a highly controversial American novel. So, my next question is: Why is it controversial?

PS: In his forthcoming novel, the young American writer Toby Quinn portrays God as a contestant in a talent show who doesn’t make it to the finals. When the opening chapter appears as a pre-publication on the Internet, the Christian right in the United States is deeply offended. Quinn even receives death threats, which he and his publisher exploit to generate more publicity for his book.

BM: So is this a theme that is explored in both the Dutch and English versions?

PS: In the English half of my book, Quinn’s purported blasphemy serves as a catalyst to move the plot forward, but in the Dutch half, it plays a more central role. The Dutch publisher in my novel wants to import not only Quinn’s book to Holland, but also the hype surrounding it. In doing so, however, he also imports the death threats.

BM: Was there anything, related to Salman Rushdie’s fatwah when he had to go underground, that you maybe thought about when you were writing your own novel?

PS: Yes, certainly. The Rushdie affair is mentioned in my book several times. We all remember what Rushdie went through and consider him a hero of free speech, but one detail that people tend to forget is that his Japanese translator was stabbed to death. I don’t want to give away too much, of course, but the main character of my novel happens to be a translator, so he might be in danger, too.

BM: Like the guy who was at the show in Denmark. He was just at the show. He wasn’t an actual writer.

PS: Yes.

BM: So there is collateral damage that results from writers writing something controversial that gets fundamentalist people all riled up.

PS: Yes.

BM: But this was all before the Charlie Hebdo massacre?

PS: Yes, I wrote this all before the Charlie Hebdo killings took place. I wondered briefly whether I should allude to them in my novel, but decided against it. The events were too fresh in people’s minds for that to be appropriate. Besides, my novel deals with the more specific theme of groups wanting to ban works of fiction, so I stuck to my original plan and limited myself to the Rushdie affair.

BM: So fundamentalism seems to be a rather unexpected theme of the 21st century. How did you decide to write about the Christian right in America? Was it something that was in the Zeitgeist?

PS: Any kind of zealotry is dangerous, so I didn’t want to pin it on Muslim fundamentalism. At the same time, I wanted to explore how freedom of speech is being abused for publicity purposes. As the Dutch publisher in my novel points out, Rushdie’s book wasn’t doing well at all until the fatwah was pronounced. Then it became a mega-bestseller. Now he wants to achieve the same thing with Quinn’s book. That’s how cynical business can be.

BM: Then you’ve really been prescient about what would be on the mark at this moment when you started years ago on this novel. I would be interested to see what the response from critics will be once the book is released and if they make the connection with the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the public discussion about censorship—or self-censorship—that is circulating in the press and among book publishers.

On a slightly different topic, there’s something I want to ask you related to your book’s titles: Einde verhaal/End of Story. Are you one of those people who envisage the end of the novel? Is that why you chose that title?

PS: It was one of the reasons, yes. Sometimes, when I’m in a pessimistic mood, I think the novel as an art form doesn’t have much of a future.

BM: Why?

PS: Because people aren’t reading as many books anymore. I think that Internet and computers have a lot to do with it. Attention spans have shortened to the point where people want to move on to the next site rather than read to the end of an article. I’ve heard that online journalists have even adapted their styles because they know after the first two paragraphs, people will just zap, link or click to some other thing. So yes, the title End of Story can be taken to mean that the art of storytelling is coming to an end.

Plus, while I was working on this project, there were many occasions when I was at the end of my tether and thought to myself: “Never again!” So the title is a self-referential joke as well, announcing the end of my career as a novelist.

BM: So do you think people will be able to read these two stories? What about your public, who do you imagine reading it?

PS: Most educated Dutch people are fine with reading English — although those who consider reading a form of relaxation may find it too strenuous to read the English half of my book. But both parts of my book can be read independently, as separate entities. So whether you are a Dutch reader unwilling to tackle the English part, or an English reader unable to read Dutch, you will still be getting an entire novel, albeit a shorter one.

Still, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So I’m hoping that one day, Einde verhaal will be translated into English, so that English-speakers will be able to read the entire book, too. Or that End of Story will be translated into Dutch.

BM: Philibert Schogt, thank you for your time.

PS: Thank you, Bryan.

Philip Gross – Oh, So That’s Where We Were Going

Oh, So That’s Where We Were Going
An Interview with Philip Gross
by Bryan R. Monte
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.

Philip Gross is a prize-winning British poet, novelist, short story writer and university lecturer with more than 15 titles to his name. In 2009, he won the T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize for his book, The Water Table. In 2010 he won the Wales Book of the Year, and his next book, Deep Field (2011), won a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. His most recent book, Later (2013), continues Gross’ reflections on the limits of language, the liminal, fragile places around England’s rivers, estuaries and coast, his father’s death, and the physics and metaphysics of the social and natural universe. In this interview, he explains his development as a writer, his most recurring themes, his writing discipline and future projects.

Bryan Monte: With more than a dozen poetry books and six poetry awards, including the T.S. Eliot Prize, some people might think you began writing when you were quite young. How old were you when you first began to write poetry?

Philip Gross: I was 13 or 14. Prior to that, I had been writing stories. I’d been doing that since, oh, I don’t know – as long as I could hold a pen and write.

BM: Why did you begin writing poetry—for a school assignment or a family occasion or after hearing another writer read?

PG: I was writing a spy story, and there was this character in it, who was a diplomat and a poet. I thought: ‘why not try to get inside his mind a little by writing one of his poems?’ So I did. I never completed the novel, but the character, who wrote the poems, turned out to be… me. I wrote poetry for five or six years, until I went to university to study English. Then… That’s another story.

BM: Where was your poetry first published?

PG: In my school magazine. (Since this was the 1960s, it was an alternative magazine my friends and I, from several schools in Plymouth, started). Some of the poems were performed by a rock band we created too.

BM: Did you continue to write mostly for your own amusement or as an intellectual exercise?

PG: Oh, never just an intellectual exercise. When it threatened to become that, at university, I stopped. Besides, studying at university gave me politics, and some of the critical theory that made it easy to feel superior to the actual business of writing poetry so I thought ‘Why do it?’ There seemed to be more important serious things in life. In fact, the writing also found an alternative channel—alternative, that is, to my state of mind in those years. I wrote songs. Not many years after that, life caught up with me, in the form of becoming a parent—being there at the birth. And you know what? I found I needed poetry again.

BM: Name two or three poets you admired and read when you were young and how you think they influenced your own poetry.

PG: T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land was the first thing to kick me into wanting to be part of that world where I knew the words and images were moving me before my mind could grasp their meaning. In hindsight, certain cadences of classic poetry always physically affected me, but that was as a reader. It was the Eliot that made me need to be part of it.

It also led me into all kinds of haughty solemn mannerisms and a kind of prematurely middle-aged posture that needed to be shifted. Some of the ‘Liverpool Poets’ of the late Sixties helped to do that—a faint British aftershock of the Beats, in hindsight… and not an influence that lasted. But it did a job for me then. I do think writers seek out reading like animals seeking out nutrients in the landscape, by taste and instinct, dimly knowing what will rebalance an imbalance or answer a lack.

Ted Hughes was more substantial, with his combative nature poetry, a feel for the energy locked up in life and language. But all this was in the teenage phase, before the dormant time of university. Afterwards, I’m grateful for finding the different, warmer Modernism of Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, the scientifically-informed surrealism of Peter Redgrove, then the shock of finding that form could be startling rather than consoling, in early Geoffrey Hill … and finally the gracious but raw address to history in Seamus Heaney’s bog poems in North. OK, by then I wasn’t ‘young’ any more – this was my late twenties … but it was a kind of second writing-birth.

BM: Do you remember any song lyrics or themes you wrote for your band that were reiterated later in your poetry? If so, are there any you are still concerned about today?

PG: What stays with me isn’t the words, mainly those of a reasonably gifted adolescent fighting his way through thickets of pretension. It’s the experience of making the music together—still one of my gut-level models of good collaboration. None of us were gifted musicians but just once in a while something passed around the space between us, almost physically lifting us to play better than any of us could play.

The singer-songwriters I came to admire weren’t much like what we played; they were the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen (always sharper and gravely wittier than people tended to think), and Joni Mitchell with her way of twining effortless speech rhythms round the lines of music like ivy round a tree trunk. Later, Tom Waits, with his endlessly unsettling blends of surreal and sentimental, his weird ventriloquisms. All the men, at least, were anything but tuneful singers, but they had voice; it was the music of voice I liked… and still want that in poetry.

When I performed years later with an improvising, free-form band called Vanilla Allsorts, it was in spoken poetry, not song—words having a conversation, on their own terms, with the music round them. If anyone wants a clue to ‘hearing’ my lines on the page now, they could try thinking of the natural syncopations of voice rhythm growing round the musical beats of a line.

BM: Do you think that growing up in Cornwall inspired the recurring setting and theme in your poetry for the coastal landscape and (vague) borders?

PG: I was born in Cornwall and grew up in Plymouth… already a borderline—a real one, marked by the river Tamar with, at that time, only two chain-ferries crossing it. But the granite moors, with bogs and sudden clefts and rock-faces, on one side … and the sea on almost every other side. Yes, that sense of a physical place has always been there, and it’s still my inner landscape … even though I could never say simply where was home.

My mother’s family was Cornish, a long line of Methodist lay preachers, working in a saddler’s shop … but my mother’s father had been born in British India, blown to these shores by the First World War … (curiously like the way my father was brought by another war, another kind of exile.) I wrote a lot about it early on, then not, or not explicitly … and I have a feeling there is more to say about it now.

The sea, though, has often been there, as a real thing and a metaphor, especially when I found myself writing about my elderly father and aphasia. The sea, after all, is what connects the world, even if it sometimes marks a border, keeping man-made nation states apart.

BM: How much do you think your father’s refugee status after WWII and his emigration from continental Europe to England influenced your themes of borderlessness and the ability of language(s) (or lack thereof) to express perception and to communicate?

PG: His language was always good, almost too good to be a native speaker (and that in several languages, too, so I always knew that languages were relative, a matter of choice and of chance). It was his story that was the question, and it has been there in my writing from the very start—very explicitly in the recent books. The story of exile, of travelling on, is not unique; in fact, I’ve come to see it as what the human species, historically and prehistorically, did. In a globalised world, there will only be more of it to come.

But he wasn’t the kind of exile who insisted on his history, on passing it on. He kept it contained inside himself, where it had all the power of the thing not said. From him, I learned more than I realised at the time about open-endedness and implication, evocations, telling clues and hints—all good writerly stuff. For him to have simply expressed it, filled the house with his emotions, all the sentimental songs of home, would have been a pressure I would have resisted, especially when I came to my teens.

As it was, I spent half my life learning to be expressive, to perform a little more. (I was a child with a stammer, so this did some good.) Then, in time, I came to see the different power of containment, of not saying everything—I don’t mean being silenced but of choosing sometimes to hold one’s peace. This need not be forbidding; it can be an invitation. When I write, I never assume I can tell the reader everything; I write to enlist them, hopefully, in the same kind of looking. A lot of what they might see they will see for themselves.

BM: Do you have a specific writing discipline?

PG: In a different life I might have a writing discipline, but for the last ten years I’ve been white-water-rafting my way through a constantly competing jostle of calls from a full-time job, freelance writing and teaching and speaking engagements, the writing itself and family. The poetry seems to survive this pressure, or even perversely thrive on it. It comes up through the cracks. What has suffered has been the writing of long prose, like novels. Maybe that means that, under stress-testing conditions, I find that I’m a poet by necessity . . . and all the other kinds of writers that I’ve sometimes been (of prose, and radio and stage plays) merely by choice.

BM: When, where and how do you usually write?

PG: On the train. In the car, pulled over in a layby, with my small black notebook. First thing in the morning or late evening, in a bigger black notebook/journal/studio-space for words.

BM: Do you know where you’re going when you start a poem or does the destination only become clear once you’re well underway?

‘Writing a poem’ is often not what I think I’m doing when I start. One might emerge from the general mulch of thinking and setting down words. Other times, such as being offered an invitation to write to a commission or a wish of my own to write for a person or occasion, I might start from a kind of alertness for the poem that might resonate in that space, with no idea yet what it might be. Other times again the resonant space might be in the to-and-fro of a collaboration. That would include those times when I’m leading a writing workshop and write alongside everyone else—a guarantee that what I’m asking them to do is something I’d find meaningful to do myself.

Quite a number of poems that have appeared in my books began life in a workshop or a writing game…only to reveal themselves later to be part of a train of thought and feeling going back for years, underground, not breaking surface till they had that provocation. You can tell from that answer that I often don’t know, almost don’t believe in knowing, where a poem needs to lead until it’s done. Or rather, the experience of done-ness is exactly that, when I look at the poem and think: Oh, so that’s where we were going!

BM: How many drafts does one of your poems usually go through before it’s “finished?”

PG: If any students of mine are reading this, here’s a confession. I’m a hypocrite, but only superficially so. I’m always telling you to make time for your writing. I’m always telling you to do draft after draft and . . . well, sometimes I do. Other times I sense a rapid movement of the language that seems so sure of itself that even if I can’t quite see why it must be like that, I trust it and say stet – let it stand.

On the surface, then, I’m a hypocrite. At another level, I know that I’m almost always in a writing posture, in readiness, and sometimes I whip that notebook out in the most inappropriate situations. Living and looking around as a writer is just what I do, and I’m never really off the job. I might say something similar about drafting. The judgment of this-word-that-word-what-about-a-pause-or-nuance-there is just the state I live in. I’m redrafting myself all the time.

BM: Have you ever written a poem that came out after one or just a few drafts exactly as it was later published? If so, could you name some of these poems?

PG: The corollary of this—of always being on the job—is that in one sense you pay over the odds for all the actual poems that get written. And equally, some times you get something that feels like a free gift, made whole, just landing in your lap. (No, I’m not going to out specific poems . . . partly because that feels like making a special claim for them above the others, but mainly because I often don’t remember.) As in real-world economics, the free gifts and the over-the-odds-ness come out roughly even in the end.

BM: Do you develop/address your poetic themes consciously when you start to write a poem or do they come about more subconsciously?

PG: I trust the themes that emerge more than the ones I’ve put in by conscious intention. At the same time I know there are concerns and preoccupations, in the sense of long-running conversations going on inside me, so there’s an appetite to notice certain things, or to catch a glimpse of something I’ve already met at a different angle and say, Yes, but on the other hand . . . Even after a book is published, poems keep on popping up later to remind me there’s more to be said.

And the tremendously strong gravitational field in whose grip my last two collections have orbited, that of my father’s old age and the failing of his body and his language, clearly opens out into questions that stay with me well beyond his death… because, well, it leaves me as the oldest generation in the family, with no one standing between me and an old age of my own.

BM: How do you explain the shift in emphasis in your poetry from personal and social relations and politics in the ’80s and ’90s, to one which is somewhat less social and political but which has embraced, to a greater extent, physics, metaphysics and the limitations of language (for example, in your later collections such as The Egg of Zero, The Water Table, Deep Field and Later?)

PG: It is always revealing for me to have some alert and patient reader discern large-scale shifts such as you feel you are seeing here. Am I aware of them? I do have a sense that Changes of Address: Poems 1980-98 was a conscious packing up and letting go of everything up to that point, a granting myself some permission to find out what comes next. It was also the start of a new phase of my life in other ways—a new marriage, a new relationship to my work in universities, and maybe a new coming-clean about the subtle relationship between being a Quaker and a writer too.

And yet . . . many of the threads there in the early books are still in the weaving. I started my poetry life writing about my father’s Estonian experience; quite recently, in Deep Field, I found myself dealing with it in more detail than ever before. I always responded to the spirit of a place, initially very much in the southwest of England, but the (almost literal) immersion in the estuary landscape where I live now is the same urge, just a different place.

In the next collection, there will even be poems specifically about Cornwall again. As for social and political concerns, living in a complex, multi-ethnic energetic city like Bristol made some of those rather vivid for me. But a forthcoming book will be responding to South Wales, specifically the edgy, wounded post-industrial ex-mining culture and landscape of the Taff valley where I work now.

Maybe part of the shift is to do with how much a poem is about what it’s ‘about’. I think the question of about-ness is intriguing. Early on, I often wrote about a place in a way that reflected a moment of emotion or relationship taking place against that backdrop. Or alternatively, I wrote in, even invented, a relationship to give expression to the place. I suspect that now that multi-layering is just more closely interwoven, so that The Water Table is about the land-and-water-scape . . . and is equally about the yearnings and the losses that we find reflected in it, and about our ways of looking, and about relationships, not least the relationship with our own sense of self. No one of these levels is just a metaphor or symbol of the other. They are equally there.

BM: To what extent do you think Quakerism has influenced your writing—your poetry’s themes, your writing process, and/or how you practise your vocation as a poet?

PG: It has been a slow process, noticing that more and more I explain what I’m doing in writing, and often in the way I hope to enable other people’s writing too, by reference to what Quakers do—the experience of worship as a patient and alert form of listening. You bring your self, your appetites and your thoughts with you, of course, but what you hope to find is something else, something that particular resonant listening space, shared with other people, might present you with. It might be in, or just behind, other people’s words. It might be in the silence. Modern Quakers have a great range of ways of explaining where that something else might come from, sometimes in traditional terms, sometimes not in necessarily religious language at all. The interesting thing is that we might articulate it in different ways, but we all recognise that experience as the same.

The relationship I want with poetry (which means with other writers, past and present, and with other readers) feels very akin to that resonant, listening space. In it, what other people find in your contribution might be different from what you felt you put in, and it may also be true. In Quaker meetings, you don’t debate—you can lay quite different experiences side by side, to be part of a process that might know better than any one of you. To speak in a way that leaves space for other people is a virtue—you might say, a gift.

BM: Is your repeated exploration of zero, negation or loss influenced by Postmodern philosophy which is more concerned with gaps and what’s missing over what’s present and connected?

PG: These un-things, like the number zero, seem almost never to have had a negative feeling for me. (Regarding shifts over time, note that my collaborative verse-fable with Sylvia Kantaris, The Air Mines of Mistila, was doing playful-but-serious business with nothings more than a quarter of a century ago.) Postmodern philosophy wasn’t my door to thoughts on these lines, though it has been interesting, in my academic life, to find myself sometimes in the same room as it, once it peeled back its layers of jargon enough to be seen. As long as I’ve been aware of Buddhism, which is all of my adult life, I’ve known that their Void was the place of endless and emergent possibility. At best, Quaker worship looks towards that fertile space.

I’m aware, of course, that the world has outer darknesses that people are consigned to by all kinds of forces, oppressions, illnesses and so on . . . and that there are silences of suppression and repression, as I’ve said—being silenced as opposed to holding one’s peace. I hope poetry can be aware of all that, too. Some people might want poetry to propose the answers. In a world replete with ideologies, I’m sceptical about answers—we need more and better questions. I would rather contribute to building and holding that resonant, questioning space, in which we can notice more, have wider sympathies and with luck even think beyond our own opinions.

What comes out of that space is not magic. It is our kind of work and discipline—not the only useful one, but the one that I seem to be built for, dealing with these curious contraptions made from words and silence, from the black ink and white space on the page.

BM: Were you surprised to win the T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize?

PG: Yes. That’s not modesty – just an acknowledgement that there are many good poems or books that are worth the keen attention that an award can bring; only some of them catch a fair wind and win one.

BM: Has it changed your life?

PG: A bit of praise is nice, of course—balm for the ego—but for the poems to be really encountered, to be read as if they matter, that’s the real thing. I rarely turn down an invitation to bring the poems to listeners and readers, and of course there were more invitations after 2009. This has hardly ebbed at all since. Winning Wales Book of the Year 2010 with a cross-arts collaboration I Spy Pinhole Eye, and the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education Award for children’s poetry in 2011 with Off Road To Everywhere did not make life simpler.

Dropping this new visibility into a timetable that felt already full with university and writing work and family seems to have taught me a dubious lesson – that with a bit of deft juggling and a lot less sleep the quart-into-a-pint-pot trick can be done. Whether it can be carried off indefinitely is another matter, but I’ve never planned on living indefinitely, either . . . and in the meantime there’s work to be done.

BM: In addition to being a poet, you’ve also written five children’s novels. Do you still have time for novel writing, or is your time taken up mostly with the writing, teaching and talking about poetry?

PG: You point at the one part of the work that seriously struggles to find itself a space. Writing novels is a thing I can’t pick up and drop, dip out and dip back into. Trying to do that simply hurts—like grating the gears of a car into forward and reverse and back again without a clutch. Somehow poetry survives, even perversely thrives, under that pressure. There is more fiction writing I’d like to explore, but it might not be for the children’s market. The novels I wrote under that heading were anyway working their way to a point where you could question whether they were children’s novels any more. So maybe (it occurs to me, for the first time, as I say this) I’m using the enforced pause on this front to let new directions clarify.

BM: Were you consciously concerned with England’s problems related to flooding and conservation when you wrote The Water Table? Do you see this book’s and your other books’ concerns with or awareness of borderlands—the coast, rivers, and wetlands—as emblematic or prophetic of the UK’s current water management problems?

PG: When The Water Table came out I was asked whether it was a response to the then debate about building a tidal barrage across the Severn Estuary. Now it looks as if I was predicting last year’s flooding crisis… though we quickly forget that only the year before there was deep concern about impending drought. No, water has always been the most present element in my writing, and I wrote about the estuary because… because it was there. Crossing it defined a new stage in my life. And it offered an almost fractal elaboration of questions about boundaries and separations, limits and belonging, not least between the human and the natural world.

At the same time, I’m aware, as any thinking person must be, that this last relationship, between the human and the wider context, demands attention. From here on it will be reaching into every corner of our lives, and in unpredictable ways. In a sense it always did, but for most of human history the answer seemed straightforward (if hard to do): defend ourselves, master the surroundings, put the green stuff in its place. Now maybe we are faced with much more complicated choices.

The opening poem in Later gives a birds’-eye view of water, as I saw it from an aircraft flying down the spine of Wales. That’s a view that puts us in our place. The migration of birds meant a great deal to the ancient people of Estonia, and I seem to have inherited that. To me, it also suggests the migratory paths of people – from the start of human history, but especially a visible and public issue now.

In a recent collaborative piece of work on wetlands with a natural resource economist, a cultural ecologist, an anthropologist and a visual artist, I found myself writing the keynote text for the project, a list-form prose poem called “Wetland Thinking.” This attempted the (of course) impossible, to imagine the interconnected world of things looking back at us—not with any heavy eco-moralism, as it turned out, but with a wry challenge: can our famous human ingenuity and imagination help us make that step outside our own perspective, even just for a glimpse?

BM: What are some “projects” in which you are currently engaged?

PG: I mentioned earlier that I have been writing about the Taff Valley—concurrently with the earlier books, and still ongoing business now. This will be a book with artwork and design from Cardiff-based artist Valerie Coffin Price. Like all my work with artists, it will also be looking at the co-working itself, with the different ways of seeing, the resources different arts bring with them. It will be watching our negotiations on that boundary. The Taff itself, famously unpredictable water, sometimes harnessed, sometimes polluted but never quite governable, flows through that writing as well.

And a new collection of poems has just coalesced. It’s called Love Songs of Carbon—yes, that’s the stuff of our bodies, mainly. Carbon and water, in not very stable combinations. Those poems are lying on my editor’s desk right now. What after that? Don’t ask me. Look inside my notebook, or listen to it. There: drip, drip….

David Sedaris — My Life is a Fairy Tale

My Life is a Fairy Tale
An Interview with David Sedaris
© 2014 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

On a sunny, early autumn afternoon, best-selling humorist and NPR and BBC radio personality, David Sedaris, whose most recent books include When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008), Squirrel Meets Chipmunk (2011) and Let’s Talk About Owls with Diabetes (2013), gave an exclusive interview to Amsterdam Quarterly in Amsterdam’s Ambassade Hotel. Sedaris first explained how his experience in radio, live performance and living abroad has affected his writing. Next, he revealed the inspiration behind his last two books and his depiction of his family in his work. Lastly, he described his family of choice and how he discovers new topics for shows and nurtures new talent while on the road.

Bryan Monte: How do you think coming from a background in the performing arts and radio influenced your prose writing? Do you think, for example, that you pay more attention to the sound, timing, rhythm and the duration of pieces than other writers?

David Sedaris: Yes, very much in all of those things; duration especially because I don’t want to read anything over 25 minutes long.

BM: Really?

DS: I would never get up there and read something that’s an hour, because if you’re not into it, you’re just trapped. I like to read at least three stories in that hour. And I always end the evening with reading from my diary, so there might be 10 or 15 diary entries, which sort of function as jokes.

And rhythmically it affects it. I can look back at things I wrote before I started reading out loud and going on tour and some things just sounded so clunky to me, rhythmically so awkward and just not fun. I used to write things so that I could read them onstage. Now I feel that I write things so that anyone can read them out loud.

BM: I asked you that because when I was in radio briefly in the late 80s/early 90s, we had these one, two, five and ten minute segments we had to fill. We had to hit our marks on time—not go too long or be too quick—so everything fit together. Do you ever have to do that when you’re working on your pieces for your performances? Or do you feel, “No, I’ve got more room now, and I can expand a bit.”

DS: I can do whatever I want when I’m in the theatre, but when I started on the radio on a show called “Morning Edition” and then Ira (Glass) invented “This American Life,” Ira would say the story could be as long as it needed to be. But then he would say, “Actually we’re going to have three other stories on that, so you need to cut it down to eight minutes…”

[Laughter]

…and if you tell me to write something that’s eight minutes long, I can do it. But don’t tell me to cut down something that’s 20 minutes long to eight minutes. I’m sorry. I might have done that when I was 25. But now I do a show for the BBC called “Meet David Sedaris.” I just recorded several new programmes and every one is about a half hour long. And because I don’t have any stories that are longer than 25 minutes, I’ll fill that (remaining time) with diary entries, one to three minutes long. And then there are other shows where I read two ten-minute things or three ten-minute things. The producer takes care of all that. By the same token, I used to write for Esquire.

BM: Yes.

DS: And sometimes Esquire would say: “Oh, we just got an ad here, so we need to cut 300 words out of your story.” But now I write for The New Yorker, which has never cut anything I’ve written for space. If the story’s too long, then it needs to be edited, but they’ve never said we need to lose 250 or 600 words.

BM: It’s good that you have mentioned The New Yorker because I want to talk to you about your literary influences. As I was researching for this interview, I looked at James Thurber’s life and began to compare his to yours. Are you aware of any parallels between his career and yours?

DS: My eyesight is better. [Laughter] I’ve been fortunate with that.

I don’t think I’m as angry. I mean, I am angry, but I’m not as angry, but I’m not in my seventies yet. I might get there. I write about domestic things the same way that he did. I keep a diary. Didn’t he…well no, I read his letters and his letters almost feel like a diary.

BM: I mention Thurber not only because he wrote for The New Yorker for forty years, but also because of the series of fables he wrote, Fables for our Time, that were illustrated. I was wondering if his fables provided any inspiration for Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.

DS: No. I made it a point not to open Fables for our Time again. I think I might have read it in high school, but I didn’t want to be influenced by him in any way.

BM: And he (Thurber) also went on to have a play produced that I think he collaborated on with a friend. You’ve had plays also which have been produced and put on stage, so that’s why I was thinking, “Ah, this looks very interesting here.” So, he worked at The New Yorker for 40 years. I don’t know how many years you’ve worked on The New Yorker

DS: …it’s almost 20 now. And I think too, when he was a writer, you certainly couldn’t use the word “fuck” in The New Yorker. Now, it’s really hard for me to think of a word you really can’t use.

BM: Are you aware of any other literary influences, such as Pope, Molière, Voltaire, Twain or Wilde?

DS: No. I mean, I think of Thurber again. It was mainly the domestic stuff that could be enough of a subject. I don’t ever feel guilty—I remember my next door neighbour growing up, his mother, when my first book came out, said: “That’s fine, but are you ever going to write anything serious?” [Laughter] And I said, “No. Why would I? Why would you want me to?” But no, I don’t feel bad at all because of what I’m writing. There are people who write about war and deprivation and they move me. Their books move me and can even change me. I will always be there to read their books. They never have to worry about me trying to hone in on their territory. That’s not going to happen.

[Laughter]

BM: Well, that’s good. I have another question. Do you think you started writing fables because your own life, as you have mentioned in the past, is something of a fairy tale?

DS: No, actually I wrote them because somebody gave me a book and it was a collection of South African folk tales. It was an audio book. I started listening to it and one of the stories was the hyena and the giraffe. And the hyena and giraffe got married. And on their wedding night, the hyena ripped out the giraffe’s throat. And the moral is: Be careful who you marry. And I just thought, I could do better than that in my sleep. I could write a story about a cat and a baboon. And then it just tickled me. And then I just started writing two a year and I just put them on a pile and then one day, I had enough for a book.

But my life is a complete fairy tale. There is a book called The Secret, and I only know about it because this young man wrote me a letter. He wants to make it in show business and he told me he’d really been influenced by it. He sent me the audio book. [In a whisper] And the secret is, let’s just wish/want something really badly, and you’ll get it. And I thought, I could have told you that. Nobody ever wanted this more than me, nobody. That’s all I ever did and thought about. It’s true, you have to work, and you have to be in the right place at the right time and you can’t arrange any of that. You have to be lucky and you have to want something. And you have to work. But, yeah, I can’t believe I’m the one who got to have it and not the person next to me, who was working just as hard as I was. The person who just wrote 14,000 words on Syria doesn’t get to be in The New Yorker. It doesn’t make any sense to me that I am allowed to be on the radio with this voice and a person with a beautiful radio voice is not.

BM: Well, actually, I think your voice is just fine for radio. Some people have all the highs or the lows, but they’re usually announcers or hosts. Your voice has a very distinctive timbre to it. When I hear it, I can recognize you in just a sentence or two.

SD: Thank you.

BM: I’d like to move on to your latest book, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, an interesting collection of stories, some about your own life and some that are clearly fictional. I read a review in The New York Times where the critic seemed to be taking you to task saying it wasn’t your best work. I also got the impression she didn’t understand the reason you put these somewhat different pieces together in one book. How do you respond to that?

DS: I never read anything about myself. I know that The New York Times review was really bad because my publicist called me up and said: “You might not want to buy The New York Times tomorrow.”

[Laughter]

You know a friend of mine, George Saunders, wrote a book a couple of years ago called The Braindead Megaphone and it was essays mixed with little pieces of fiction, so I was hardly the first one to do it. And I just thought: “Why not?” At first we thought about segregating those little stories in the back of the book. And then we thought: “No, let’s put them in there because somebody will be reading them and then they’ll be like: “Wait a minute. A wife? He’s not married.” That might disorient you for a couple of seconds, but I hardly imagine anyone walking out of my house saying: “I don’t know who I am (he is) anymore!”

BM: For me, the combination of the personal and imaginative pieces works. Something else, however, which I want to talk to you about now, is the poem about the dogs in the back of the book. I also noticed a poem on the back cover of your book of fables. My question is: Are you going to write more poetry in the future?

DS: No. I wrote those actually in 2000 or 2001 and then I wrote some poems a couple years ago about food issues, because in the United States, now you can’t have a dinner party because someone is allergic to wheat, and someone else can’t eat dairy…

[Laughter]

…and so I wrote most of that about food issues. And I thought: “These will go over real well because everyone has food issues in the audience.” But it didn’t work at all. But those dog poems, however, for some reason, really work. And I thought, “Well, I’m never going to write a whole, thick book of them, so I’ll just throw them in this book.”

BM: Well, everyone loves dogs, especially in England and I don’t know if you’ve read Mark Doty’s Dog Days memoir. It’s mostly about his dogs’ lives mixed with descriptions about his own life with his partners, one of whom died of AIDS, so that way he brings everyone with him because, as I said, everyone loves dogs.

DS: Everyone but me. I hate dogs. [Laughter] I cannot stand dogs. And I realized, if I got up in front of an audience and said: “I hate women,” the audience would be like “Oh, God.” But if I say, “I hate dogs, [the audience says]: “We need to leave.” People don’t like you if you don’t like dogs. And I just don’t like dogs and so that’s what led me to write those poems.

BM: OK.

DS: But if I wrote poems about cats, they wouldn’t work that same way. It’s like what you said: “Everyone is crazy about dogs,” and that’s not why I wrote them. The first thing that I wrote that ever worked was that Christmas elf story. And I didn’t write it for that reason. It was just my diary that I kept when I worked at Macy’s. Everybody has to acknowledge Christmas. Christmas affects everybody. That’s why that story worked because everybody is touched by Christmas.

BM: I have some questions also about how living in a multi-lingual environment in Europe has affected your writing. For example, living here in the Netherlands, I sometimes speak Dunglish—Dutch and English mixed together—so instead of time being at the beginning or the end of the sentence, it gets thrown in the middle and the verbs get tossed to the end. Did that ever happen to you when you were living in France?

DS: I really have something against using, putting French words into your writing. You know what I mean? And you see people doing it all the time. And they never put Portuguese or Chinese words in their writing. But they just do it in French because, I don’t know, it sounds good or makes them look smart or sophisticated. But in French, you know, someone could say “regarding that TV” for “watching TV.” I started using that phrase, “regarding TV,” because, in another language, sometimes you hear how a verb is used and you think: “Oh God. That is so much better. That really sums it up.” I don’t use a French word, though. I just try to translate it into English if I want to use it.

In England I find, there are certain words that I use that are Anglicisms. I like the way the English use the word “bits.” They talk about their genitalia as their “wobbly bits.” They just use the word “bit” a lot. We just don’t use it in the United States. They use it a lot. So there are certain little words there that I’ve found myself picking up. One thing is (the word) “proper.” We just bought a beach house on the coast of North Carolina. I think I got it for my family and I write that it’s on “proper” stilts because I talked about how most of the houses now aren’t on stilts. That’s very Englishy and I worry about it a bit, (but) it just sounds better. It’s more precise.

BM: When did you decide to live most of your adult life abroad?

DS: As soon as I could afford it. I had a job after my first book came out. I continued to work. After my second book came out, my publisher needed to get the next book out of me and they said: “You need to make it your job to finish this book.” And they got me this place in Yaddo and then that was when I thought: ‘As long as I don’t have a job, I can go wherever I want.’ I went to France and I was going to go for a year and, you know how that is. I went for a year and the next thing you know, you have grey hair….

[Laughter]

….and we were in France and then we were in England, and I’m trying madly to get Hugh, my boyfriend, to move to Germany just for a year. But sometimes I think: I’m always going for book tours and I’m always rushed around. Maybe all I need is a day off and then I’ll be like…I don’t need to move here. I just needed that extra day.”

BM: Well, you travel to so many cities. I was wondering if you ever have time to actually look or do anything outside the hotel room or the place where you need to give your performance.

DS: Generally not, but I wouldn’t trade that for what I do get and that is an opportunity to talk to people and to learn. For instance, I was talking to somebody here (in Amsterdam) the other night when we were having an event, who said when we insult someone here in the Netherlands, we throw disease into it.

[Laughter]

That’s what I’ve just learned.

BM: That’s correct.
DS: I mean that is so weird to me, to call someone a “cancer whore.” Who would have thought, you would attach the word “cancer” to “whore?” That is so interesting to me. I would rather learn “cancer whore” than go to the Rijksmuseum.

BM: Really?

DS: Anyone can go to the Rijksmuseum, but not everyone can learn about “cancer whore,” so when I have the reading tomorrow night, I’m going to talk a little about it on stage and ask people if they can give me more words like that. Also, I learn a lot during the book signings. Often when I’m on tour, a theme develops; something I didn’t know anything about. For example, my boyfriend grew up in Africa and, in his final year of high school, he moved back to the US and got a job at the Gap. And people used to go into the changing room and shit on the floor.

BM: Oh dear!

DS: Now, it (this store) was in a mall. There was a bathroom in the mall, but people would shit on the changing room floor. I mentioned it on stage one night and someone came up and said: “Oh, I work in a store and that happens all the time.”

BM: Wow.

DS: Then I mentioned it the next night, and someone said, I work in a library and that happens all the time. And I mention it the next night and all these people told me stories about people who shit in the store. And it’s not about needing to go to the bathroom; it’s beyond that. It’s about something else. And so this kind of theme develops in the course of the tour. And I can’t control it. I can’t control what the theme is or how it’s going to come about.

On my last tour, I was with one of my oldest friends I met in junior high school, and he’s gay and I saw him in Phoenix. We went out to lunch and when the dessert menu came, we decided to split a piece of coconut cream pie. And so, we are splitting the dessert and I looked across the room and there are two gay men our age doing the same thing. And I thought: You know, straight men would never share dessert.” So I started asking straight men: “Would you ever share dessert with anybody?” And they all said, “I may take a sip out of somebody’s drink, but sharing dessert, that’s going too far.” It was just fascinating. I didn’t meet any straight men who (shared desserts), so it was interesting to me—an observation that I had confirmed just by asking people about it.

So, that happens a lot during the course (of the tour) because I get to talk to thousands of people. I never sign someone’s book and just hand it back. I always have a conversation with them. That’s why on my last tour one night I signed books for nine and a half hours. It’s because I talk to everybody.

BM: And you get information about things such as these phrases and behaviours?

DS: “Oh, I loved your last book.” That’s nice and everything, but I really don’t need to hear it. I would rather ask people questions and talk about something else.

BM: So, you’re sort of a cultural linguist. You’re more interested in these things than going to the Rijksmuseum to see all the Rembrandts and Vermeers.

DS: Yeah. Like in Sweden, the government decided, a couple of years ago, that “vagina” is a pretty big word for what a six-year-old girl has between her legs. “We need to find a cute word for vagina.” And they put out the call far and wide and they came up with the word (sounds like SNEE pah). I can’t imagine the American government saying: “Look, we need to do something about the little girl vagina problem.” So that was fascinating to me. Or you know, the Swedes have come up with a gender-neutral pronoun. I’d rather know about that and talk to people about that, than do whatever it is you’re supposed to do in Stockholm.
BM: You write a lot about your family in your books. Is there any topic about your family that you would say: “This is out of bounds.”

DS: Oh, yeah; there’s lots. I mean it (my writing) just gives the illusion of saying everything about my family. But everybody’s got their secrets. Until recently I had four sisters and a brother and one of my sisters committed suicide in May.

BM: I’m very sorry to hear about that.

DS: So I just wrote a story about that. But it’s not about her so much as about the rest of my family coming to terms with it. And there were a lot of stories about my sister who committed suicide and if I told you those stories, you’d be like: “Oh, my God. I cannot believe what I’m hearing.” But I know she wouldn’t have wanted the world knowing those things about herself. So even though she’s dead, I won’t write those things. I write about them in my diary, sure, but I wouldn’t put them in a story—and the same with my mom. She’s not alive anymore, but there were things she wouldn’t want people knowing and I’ve never written those things either. I think I just give the illusion of it. I just had a story in The New Yorker recently and in it I quote one of my sisters as saying: “You know when I was young, whenever I passed a mirror I would look at my face. Now, I just check to see if my nipples are lined up.”

[Laughter]

DS: And she knows that’s funny. And she’s not a writer herself. When I read that out in front of an audience, the audience howls and it’s her laugh. That’s a laugh for Gretchen. I mean there’s plenty of things she wouldn’t want me writing about.

BM: That’s interesting to know because I think many people perceive you as the man who can say anything. And I think that’s probably why you have received such notoriety; because you write about subjects other people can’t approach. And you handle them in such a way that they can be published in The New Yorker.

Getting to my next question now and also to the theme of this issue of Amsterdam Quarterly (AQ9), families of blood and choice, how would you define the family of choice that you’ve constructed here in Europe?

DS: I definitely feel Hugh is family. Hugh and I were thinking of who to have over for Christmas and that would be the family we have made. Our friend, Pam, has an eight-year-old boy that she’s raising by herself. We’ve always been involved in his life and there are the grandparents and the sister that we’ve made. We’ll probably see them over Christmas. There is a family with all the members that we’ve constructed. It’s interesting to find as you get older, sometimes, don’t you look for your younger self?

BM: I don’t know if I could recognise my younger self anymore. That’s so long ago and I’m such a different person.

DS: There’s a young man who started writing me when he was 14 years old and now he’s 20. He’s impassioned and it’s so great to hear from a kid that age about the book he’s reading and how he’s on fire with it. He’s the real thing; a real writer. He’s in this for life. I guarantee it. I don’t mean to sound narcissistic, that he reminds me of myself, like: “Oh, I need more of me.” I don’t mean that. But sometimes when you’re looking for people in this life to help, you don’t want the person who asks you for help. You want it to be your idea to help that person.

This kid writes poetry, and he’s real good. Whenever I go to Atlanta, I say: “Will you open for me and read some poems?” Backstage in the dressing room he’s like this—(Shows hands shaking)—like he’s going to have a heart attack right there. But then he goes on stage and Wham! he is masterful. You don’t, (however), want to give him that opportunity too early. I didn’t want people to be applauding for him because they feel sorry for him and because he’s a kid.

And I know how sometimes, especially when you’re gay, older people will take you under their wing. I think straight people think of that as a perverse thing, but it’s not a sexual thing at all. It’s like they see themselves in you. And maybe you’re twenty years old and living in a rooming house, and you can’t really afford dinner every night and they invite you over for dinner, to their house for dinner every single night. It’s a beautiful thing.

BM: Well, that’s very interesting about how older gay men and women can help younger men or women along the way if you’ve got the ability to do it and if someone has the gift.

DS: When I go on tour, I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I get. People say: “Can you help me get published?” and I know, before I open that manuscript, how bad it’s going to be. And I get things in the mail, and they’re really awful. But what people don’t understand is that you want helping someone to be your idea.

I did a reading in Manchester and this young guy assisted me in the bookstore and I asked him: “What do you do?” “Well, I work at the bookstore.” “No, but I know you do something else. What do you do?” “Oh, I guess I write a bit.” “What do you mean a bit?” “Well, you know, I have this thing.” And I had to pull it out of him. I said: “I would really love to see your writing. Here’s my address. Will you send it to me?” And he sent me this thing he was working on and it was the most inventive, spectacular…I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I wrote him back and said when you’re ready to be published, please let me know because there are people I know who would love to see this writing.

And that’s how you want it to be. You kind of want it to be your idea rather than someone pushing themselves. Because when someone pushes themselves on you, that’s their talent: self-promotion. AQ

Edward Mycue — Time is a Worn Thread

Time is a Worn Thread
An Interview with Edward Mycue
by Bryan R. Monte

During May 2013, Bryan Monte conducted an e-mail interview with poet, Edward Mycue. His books include Damage Within the Community (1973), Root Route & Range: The Song Returns (1979), The Singing Man My Father Gave Me, (1980), Torn Star (1985), Edward (1986), Nightboats (2000), Mindwalking (2008) I Am A Fact Not A Fiction (2009) and Song of San Francisco (2012) among others. Mycue has been published in magazines in the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India, Japan, Russia, Brazil, Argentina and Africa, and his papers were acquired in 2011 by the Yale Beinecke Library.

Mycue was born in Niagara Falls, New York, in 1937 and moved with his family to Dallas, Texas in 1948. In 1950s he attended North Texas State before going to Boston University on a Lowell Fellowship. While in Boston he also worked for WGBH and was a MacDowell Colony Fellow. In 1961 he worked for the Peace Corps in Ghana, then for the Department of Health Education and Welfare first in the Southwestern US from 1962-65 and then in Washington DC from 1965-68. In the late 1960s Mycue lived in the Netherlands, Germany and France before moving to San Francisco in 1970.

Bryan Monte: You moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s, where you have lived ever since. What was San Francisco like then?

Edward Mycue: I arrived in San Francisco in the Haight at Haight and Masonic Streets on June 1, 1970. It was just after a big shootout between rival bike gangs at the Magnolia Thunderpussy Café on the opposite corner the night before. There were bullet holes in the second-floor flat windows where I lived with my sister, Margo Mycue, the booker for the New Shakespeare Company—San Francisco. We had just come up with the Company from Los Angeles.

BM: What did you do in San Francisco?

EM: I booked the Company on its travels across the country.

BM: And what was the Haight like—after the bikers left?

EM: It was a pretty busy, dozy, buzzy place. I lived with actors, artists and sculptors in a two-floor flat.

BM: You met a lot of writers in San Francisco, also didn’t you?

EM: Yes.

BM: Who were some of these writers?

EM: Within months I met George Oppen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Duncan and Jess Collins. George and Mary Oppen became most dear to me. George got me onto Lawrence Fixel’s group that met in his living room monthly that included Jack Gilbert, Laura Ulewicz, Shirley Kaufman, Ray Carver, Nanos Valaoritis, Morton Marcus, and Lennart Bruce. Josephine Miles and Harold Norse and others swung by too. I soon also met Paul Mariah, Tillie Olson and Jim Watson-Grove. But before any of these, I met Stephen Vincent at the open readings on Upper Grant in North Beach at The Coffee Gallery. And, within a year, I met my lover, partner, friend, Richard Steger, a painter a few years younger than me.

BM: Wow, what a list! I remember Josephine Miles reading at Berkeley when I was a student and Robert Duncan, once or twice at the Newspace Gallery on Valencia Street just before I went to Brown. Who were some of the poets outside of San Francisco who influenced you?

EM: Laura Riding, Gertrude Stein, William Butler Yeats, Richard Hugo, Ann Stanford, Elizabeth Jennings (UK), Charles Olson, May Swenson, Philip Larkin, Basil Bunting, Lorca, Brecht, Montale, Valery and many others.

BM: That’s also quite a list.

EM: It’s hard to choose. It changes.

BM: What were some of the literary things you did in San Francisco after meeting or studying the writers mentioned above?

EM: I “curated” (as is said nowadays) a reading series at Panjandrum Press in what has come to be termed “The Duboce Triangle” within the Castro, Market, and Church Streets area and, later in the decade, I attended one at the Grand Piano on Haight Street, where my sister, Jane Mycue, cooked.

BM: In the early 80s, you were also active in a gay men’s writing group run by Robert Gluck out of the back of Small Press Traffic Bookshop on 24th Street. That’s how I met you. I think there were the three of us, (you, me and Gluck), plus Kevin Killian, Richard Linker, Paul Shimasaki and David Steinberg. Is there anyone I forgot?

EM: Roberto Friedman, Bruce Boone and maybe Roberto Bedoya.

BM: Tell me a little bit about Lawrence Fixel’s group. I know he played a great part in your development as a poet. What was his modus operandi as a workshop teacher?

EM: He came up with what I call Fixel’s law for poets and writers; four simple injunctions about writing that are: 1. begin where you are; 2. learn from the material; 3. believe in the process; 4. become your own reader.

BM: Could you explain a bit more about the role of process in your poetry?

EM: My work, as I have seen (it) from the start, is more (a) weaving of a tapestry of different threads and themes that recur in all our lives. I create and earn my own vocabulary and alphabet to enter into again and again as I mix and remix the cannibal/ pirate motifs (motives). Paul Valery explains in The Art of Poetry how a true artist proceeds: “A work of art is never necessarily finished, for he who makes it is never complete.”

BM: I think your poem, “Time is a Worn Thread”, which was published in AQ4, especially reflects your ars poetica.

“poetry” is an odd and restricting term.

marianne moore (“i too detest it … but find in it … a place for the genuine.”)

william carlos williams (“men die every day for want of what is found there ….”)

avoid and don’t censor with the corset of “poetry.” just write.

grow into technique, your own vocabulary.

fight.

bang out your stuff.

operate simply.

(pulse).

get a move on.

time is a worn thread.

BM: You’ve published nine major poetry books in 40 years. What has been your favourite book, both in its content and its realization?

EM: That has never happened though it was partly achieved in 1973 with Damage Within the Community through Richard Steger’s artwork and vision for the book, Dennis Koran’s publishing and editing skills, typography imagined by master printer Martin Ilian, and myself exercising a discipline learned from Lawrence Fixel, George Oppen, Ann Stanford and Josephine Miles.

BM: What was one of your most problematic books?

EM: Song of San Francisco. It was in limbo for 26 years, from 1987 to 2012. In the early days there were many poems and it spread out over 100 pages. I got to view it as my “Bridge” in the sense of modelling it on Hart Crane’s swing line. Then, the times and my situation became grimmer. Everything melted away while ten pieces, more like hard, bloodless stones, remained by the mid-1990s. I sent it to Paul Green of Spectacular Diseases Press in Peterborough, Cambridge, England, who in the mid-90s published my chapbook, Because We Speak the Same Language. He offered to do it, but he wanted a special cover showing the usual San Francisco touristy highlights. I asked Richard Steger my painter, partner, spouse with whom I’ve teamed on books since the early ‘70s. Richard, however, never takes orders. And so that was a delay.

In 2000, I sent the group of ten to Paul Strangeland who published the Poetry Conspiracy monthly calendar with poems in the San Diego area, and he put them in that.

Then around 2010 or ’11 with Paul Green hitting 69 and losing his job there over in the UK and getting old, he wrote: “Let’s do it.” I responded: “Yes, let’s do it” on a 1937 postcard of the San Francisco Bay with a sketch of what the Bay Bridge was to look like. He responded that he wanted to use that card (on the cover). I didn’t see that it said in small print “San Francisco Queen City”—funny that! And odd because it’s Cincinnati, Ohio that has always been called the Queen City—that’s where my mom lived in her teens.

BM: We’ve just talked about your last book, let’s talk about the two that preceded it—Mindwalking, 1937-2007 (2008) I Am A Fact Not A Fiction (2009). I’m curious, how did you choose 61 poems from your hundreds if not thousands of poems that you’ve written for Mindwalking?

EM: Laura Beusoleil, the book’s publisher from Philos Press, chose the poems. I sent up fistfuls/manila envelopes of copies of poems to her that I raked up—at least a couple of hundreds. She wanted to choose, and that was just fine. When she decided, she asked me if I had others I wanted to include and she chose the order. I chose the title. And Richard chose the cover painting.

BM: Well, it’s a very impressive collection, a poetic, biographical retrospective of your life from your birth to 2007. Do you have any poems in this book that are particular favourites?

EM: “A Fight For Air” in six parts covering four pages in Mindwalking is part of my history beginning with a road trip from Niagara Falls to Dallas when I was eleven and ends when I’m 24. It also includes a speech, as if from a play, by my dad, a dream, and a summation. “San Francisco Bridge” describes what I saw on a hill in Oakland looking back over to San Francisco on a day trip. And “Always” is a meditation in the form of a psychological autobiography, written in one, formless exhalation.

BM: Your next book was a little bit different, your first e-book. What was your experience publishing it online?

EM: It was a nice experience because again I was among friends I respected, even loved. Jo-Anne Rosen asked me to do it. She had seen the zillions of my poems. Laura Beausoleil shuttled down from Lacey, Washington near Olympia (where she was the Olympia poet laureate) to help Jo-Anne. We knew each other also. Laura was admired by Larry Fixel and had done some work for him. I’ve known Laura since early 1970’s and she is a fine poet, grand storywriter, and artist of collages (we used them at Panjandrum Press for the readings series fliers and posters.)

Jo-Anne had wanted to establish a literary publishing arm to her enterprise (she had a commercial design business producing books, pamphlets, and fliers). I was to be her first in her literary choices where the writer didn’t have to pay. She chose 25 poems. I okayed it. She suggested the title, I Am A Fact Not A Fiction, from one of the poems.

BM: Would you like to publish another e-book in the future?

EM: Yes, I would like to have another.

BM: How did you come up with the sections of this e-book: “War/Peace”; “Life/Time/Memory”; “Histories”?

EM: Jo-Anne divided the book into three parts and she named them. She also already had images of Richard’s work and she and he decided the one to use for the cover.

BM: Do you think your poetry is becoming more self-reflective or do you see yourself moving outward with your poetry or are you doing both? In I Am A Fact Not A Fiction, for example, in “My Policeman,” you write about a man you knew in your 20s (I assume), who later killed himself in his 30s that you wrote about 30+ years later. In “Tale of Outlaws in the Commons” you retell your experience in the Peace Corps in the early 1960s.

EM: I don’t know about the self-reflection. Maybe. I’m old enough that that could be a natural development. But I am a storyteller in my poems usually with a language I have to make because most models aren’t adequate to my ‘story.’

BM: Let’s talk now about your last book again. What inspired you to write the series of poems or “Song Cycle” as Sean Carey refers to them in the introduction refers to them in Song of San Francisco?

EM: I wonder. I started the Song of San Francisco poems as a group: one day it began and one day, years later, it stopped. I didn’t have a title then. But the clouds of knowing were there. It started, then stopped.

BM: Did the AIDS epidemic inspire this cycle and/or something else? I say this because you tackle the big question, the meaning of life in your first poem, “The Song of Cities Like Viruses.” I will quote it in its entirety.

is survival about leaving a message of what works
accruing gradually out of a pool of variations
because up to now evolution has no message call waiting.

Do you see yourself as a survivor?

EM: It was a hard time. Yes, these were the AIDS years. As if they were book-ended by this and that other side of the world. I don’t see myself (as) a survivor, but I am here.

BM: What is your writing discipline like? How and when do you write? Do you write only when you feel inspired or do you follow a schedule? How often do you send work out to be published?

EM: I am always writing, even in exhausted reveries. I am better especially nowadays in the mornings. I write little parts often and gather them up when sometimes I get this energy too. Other times I am writing and there is a space and I hear parts of previously written pieces that seem to fit as if these themes went back in for further viewing from some other perspective. I write all the time.

BM: How often do you send work out to be published?

EM: I used to send poems out often, very often, and if as usual, they were returned, then I just sent them out again. I made mistakes on what I sent to magazines and strange how they took it. So I began to feel what a mag said it wanted wasn’t what they might take. So it I got that I just didn’t care what I sent to WHOM. The ‘whom’ wasn’t important to me – only what I sent was important because I had no belief in editors except just a few special ones. But some periods of hard work on poems and successes I felt, there would be a poem that seemed to come whole effortlessly and be good in a way that I could see its completeness and quality but not in a way that it was my effort and my poem.

I don’t have compulsions to scale a schedule ladder. I have sent out poems this last month (May 2013) five times. But in March, I only sent out once and maybe in January once.

BM: Some of your correspondence and publications were recently acquired and are being archived by Yale. How did that happen?

EM: Yale, through a middleman broker at Bolerium Books on Mission Street near 17th Street, took 110 boxes (some really big and crammed) and 10 more packages of odd and oversized objects including tubes and posters and artwork. I didn’t catalog things. I had to move, was disabled, and at the point of putting them all in a dumpster or two. A lot of stuff did go that way.

BM: What was in those boxes? What did they take?

EM: I am not sure what they have. About 7,000 books, mostly pamphlets, and slim volumes that I cared about I gave away to Friends of the San Francisco Library, to numerous little bookstores, and to thrift stores such as Out of the Closet, the Salvation Army, etc. I’d valued them as a collection of the five decades of writers I felt part of even when I didn’t care for their work. But they were from my time.

What went to Yale of mine was most of the 2,000 zine and mags and papers I’d published in, and this huge/jinormous group of rejection slips and letters. And all sorts of letters and stuff and I don’t know what else (I can’t pull up a visual picture). It was a trip that took a year and the local weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, took this material to hold (as I couldn’t take it with me to where I was moving and I couldn’t find the money to store the stuff). The Bay Guardian had favorably reviewed my first book in 1973, Damage Within The Community, and from time to time published my poems, usually in the spots where advertising hadn’t been sold and thus, were so small you had to look really hard even when you knew a piece was supposed to be there.

Plus my sister, Margo, had been with the New Shakespeare Company—San Francisco and the San Francisco Mime Troupe after teaching at Santa Clara University in the 1960’s. (See how lucky I was.) Bolerium Books knew me from years before with my Wobbly friends and marginal political friends I was palsy with. So Yale, the rare book and MSS library part called the Beinecke, bought my stuff.

BM: Why do you think Yale was so interested in your particular collection?

EM: They used to do all the right-wing capitalist stuff and hadn’t taken any real people’s stuff and thus I lucked out because of the big hole they had. Plus, I was seen as some sort of old fag, maybe an überfag, since I was in the early gay liberation movement 40 plus years before and because before that I’d cut my teeth on the Civil Rights Movement causes and activities and that got me blackballed in some southwestern states when I worked for a federal government agency back when the world was just as bad but better camouflaged.

BM: What is your current project? What are you working on?

EM: My current project I began several months ago. It’s called Vanishing Point. It actually began two years ago when one of Richard’s nieces, who is in her late 20’s and a striving graphic designer, asked if I could send her something to use as a project. Then she changed jobs, etc., and hasn’t asked for more and I just got the oars and have kept going. After that I want to resurrect some poems that keep coming into my mind and haven’t been published in any book.

BM: Thank you for your time, Ed

EM: You’re welcome.

Joan Z. Shore – An American Writer in Paris

An American Writer in Paris
An Interview with Joan Z. Shore
by Bryan R. Monte

On 4 January 2013, Joan Z. Shore was interviewed in her Left Bank Paris flat about her work as a journalist, feminist and creative writer. Shore, a Vassar College graduate (BA art and architecture), worked for nearly a decade as the Paris CBS News correspondent. During that time she interviewed such people as the Ayatollah Khomeini, three French presidents—François Mitterrand, Valéry d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac—and former US first lady, Nancy Reagan. Shore has written for The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, several Condé-Nast publications, and Boomer Times (Florida). For the last six years she has been a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post. Shore is the author of Saging–How to Grow Older and Wiser (2000) and a novel, Red Burgundy (2011). Her current work, Collage, an “auto-fiction” about her life in Europe since the 1970s, will be published this year.

BM: You’ve had a very interesting, 30+ year career as a journalist and more recently, as a creative writer. Could you fill my readers in a little bit about the chronology of your life — for example, when and why you moved to Europe — and what you did in the first years after you moved here?

JZS: My husband had a job offer to transfer to Brussels for a six-month assignment and—lo and behold—we stayed on there permanently!

BM: And what happened in your life in Brussels that made you the independent woman that you are today. How did you go from being a married…

[Laughter]

JZS: …housewife….

BM: … housewife in Brussels who followed her husband for six months?

JZS: I should say I was a corporate captive, a corporate camp follower! Actually I urged my husband to take the assignment when the possibility came up. He wasn’t certain. I said: “Let’s go!” We gave up our New York apartment and moved to Brussels and I put my three young sons into a French-language, progressive, private school so they could learn French. And that was where I started working as an art critic and journalist—just freelance, part-time, against my husband’s wishes. It was truly a major turning point in my life. I have no regrets about coming over here.

BM: And it was completely serendipitous? You didn’t know ahead of time that this was going to happen? You had no plans of living in Europe then?

JZS: No. I had always wanted to go to Europe. My parents gave me a trip to Europe as a college graduation gift. But because I was engaged to be married, many people said, “You can’t leave your fiancé for a whole summer and go traipsing through Europe!,” so I gave that up. And I always felt, “He owes me a trip to Europe!” But I never thought it would end up this way.

BM: So then, you lived in Belgium for how many years?

JZS: Close to ten.

BM: And what did you do during those years?

JZS: I started working as a journalist because I couldn’t go to architecture school in Belgium. I had been working in interior design in New York, but the easiest, most accessible thing for me to do was to join an English-language publication, The Brussels Times, where I worked as the art critic until it folded. And then I worked as Features Editor for The Bulletin, a weekly magazine, for many years. So I moved from art criticism into straight journalism. And that was how I also got a weekly news program in English for BRT (Belgian radio).

BM: Did you do anything else while in Brussels?

JZS: Knowing so many artists, I started an art rental business and organized a number of exhibitions. And I founded a group for English-speaking women called Women Overseas for Equality (WOE!). And that was a very interesting period because we coordinated a lot with Belgian, Dutch and French feminists,

BM: And what were some of the things you did with this group?

JZS: Ten of us—all English-speaking but from different countries and different ages—formed a “consciousness-raising” group, meeting every week for about a year. We supported each other as we went through life changes—marriage, pregnancy, divorce, continued education, career changes, illness, widowhood….We marched with Belgian and French feminists who were demanding the right to abortion, and we organized a Women’s Weekend with special guests such as Germaine Greer.

BM: And why did you decide to move from Brussels to Paris?

JZS: Because my husband and I were divorcing. I had gone as far as I could go in journalism as an American journalist in Belgium. My Belgian radio programme gave me the experience I needed to apply to a major broadcasting company. CBS, NBC and ABC were all in Paris at the time, not in Brussels. So I applied to all three and it was CBS that came through first with an offer. That first year, I wasn’t sure if I would like CBS or Paris, so I commuted every week down to Paris from Brussels and then back to Brussels on Friday night until I decided I liked Paris and the job!

BM: And then you moved there?

JZS: Yes. After the CBS bureau in Paris was closed, I worked for Voice of America and CNN as a free-lance correspondent, and I wrote a lot for the International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and several Condé-Naste publications.

BM: When were you Paris correspondent for the CBS News?

JZS: That was at the end of the ’70s into the ’80s.

BM: And do you have any idea of the number of stories that you wrote or filed that were eventually broadcast during that period?

JZS: I had, on average, one radio story every day and several in a day if there was something big happening. For major events, we would file a television report for the Evening News with Walter Cronkite. And I must have had about a dozen of those television stories over the years.

BM: So what were some of the things that you reported about as a CBS News correspondent?

JZS: Oh, everything!—economic issues, political issues, occasionally cultural issues and interviews with people. You know, people asked me what I specialized in and I said I didn’t specialize; I was a generalist journalist! You know, whatever was happening, whatever seemed newsworthy, I would report on it.

BM: Can you remember some of the newsworthy articles that you wrote about?

JZS: There was the Amoco-Cadiz disaster, there was the Baron Empain kidnapping, there was a balloon crossing of the English Channel that didn’t quite make it. There was the visit of the pope to Lourdes. There were several summits with Carter and Reagan. There were OPEC meetings in Geneva. There were a few scary, frightening events too, like hostage-takings and a bomb at Orly Airport. This was all breaking news that required on-the-spot reporting.

BM: So then you were really talking to people who influenced world opinion or politics. Do you remember maybe two or three of these people whom you interviewed, the more interesting ones, the types of interviews that you had?

JZS: Well, I guess my most extraordinary interview was with the Ayatollah Khomeini. He was in exile in France for a few months and one of his followers, his right-hand bodyguard, drove me out to Neaufle-le-Chateau to interview him. And I went with a camera crew and we did the interview. Of course, I had to cover my head completely. His Farsi was translated into French for me, and I filed the story –- in English, of course — but CBS never aired it!

BM: Why not?

JZS: Because in October of 1978 they didn’t believe there was going to be a revolution in Iran and they simply cancelled the story. It’s still in their archives somewhere, I suppose.

BM: Who were some the other “high profile” people you met to get a story?

JZS: There was Nancy Reagan, Leonard Bernstein, a few French presidents….

BM: What were some of these high-profile people like, close up?

JZS: The Ayatollah was intimidating. I didn’t expect him to be quite that severe. I met Bernstein several times and he was charming and wonderful. Mitterrand was very formal, but friendly. Chirac was delightful while he was mayor of Paris, but became rather rigid once he was president.

There was an interesting incident with Giscard d’Estaing because he came back from a big summit meeting in Venice and it was at a time when American and French relations were at a real low. And he held a press conference at the Elysée Palace and three hundred of us—journalists and cameramen—were there; it was broadcast live that afternoon. And I was dying to ask him a question about Franco-American relations. He used to take questions in groups—the economy, national affairs, international affairs, etc. At international affairs, I raised my hand and he called on me. He said, “Oui, Mademoiselle, je vous écoute.” And I heard “Mademoiselle” and I kind of froze. I thought he should have been calling me Madame. So I corrected him! I said “Madame.” He was taken aback and the whole room laughed. And then he took a few other questions and he came back to me and said: “Bon, je vais répondre à la question de Madame”—emphasizing Madame! Everybody laughed again. Back in my office, everyone had watched the press conference and they were shocked and amused. They said, “Joan, how did you dare contradict him?”

A few weeks later I got this big envelope from the Elysée addressed to Madame Shore and it was an invitation to the 14th of July party (Bastille/French Independence Day) at the presidential palace! It was all very funny. A lot of papers picked it up and said: “The President should have known better. He should have called her Madame and not Mademoiselle.”

BM: Then from being purely a journalist, you changed your career in the last decade or so to concentrate also on creative writing -– becoming an essayist, memoirist and a novelist. Lets talk about this more recent work and what brought about this change. For example, you published Saging – How to Grow Older and Wiser in 2000. What inspired this book?

JZS: At some point, probably twelve years ago, my parents were growing old and I was growing older and I just sat down and somehow this book came to me, this whole concept of growing older and wiser. So I devised the term “saging” — a mixture of sage and age — and I thought of nine different qualities, or characteristics, that I thought were important throughout life, especially as we grow older. It starts with simplicity and humor, and goes up through honesty and tolerance and dignity.

The book kind of wrote itself. It was amazing. It had been bubbling up in me all those years, I suppose. I published it quickly and have been giving a lot of talks on the subject, especially in Florida where there are many older, retired people. I want to republish it, design a new cover, and perhaps add a new chapter or two. But basically, it’s still valid. I’ve asked people I’ve lectured to: “Can you add anything else? Can you think of anything that I’ve missed?” And they can’t!

BM: So would you see it in the genre as, for example, books where people write about passages in their life in their thirties or forties?

JZS: I know there are a lot of books like that. This one isn’t—it’s not medical, it’s not spiritual. I guess you would say it’s psychological—how we look at life and how we feel about ourselves. I don’t even want to call it a self-help book. It’s not that. It’s a compendium of attitudes that are helpful and positive for us.

BM: Well, that’s interesting, but how did you get from Saging to Red Burgundy, (2011) which is a novel set in Burgundy in the 1980s. How did that come about? It sounds like you went through another gear change.

JZS: Right!

BM: And Red Burgundy was written in 2011, was it?

JZS: No. I wrote Red Burgundy before I wrote Saging and then put it aside. For some reason, I just didn’t do anything with it, although some French editor was interested in publishing it. I just forgot about it for a while. I wish I had published it earlier. The idea for it came to me after a visit to a cooking school in Burgundy run by an English food writer and her husband. She was the founder and director of La Varenne cooking school in Paris, and during the summer she gave courses at their château in Burgundy. She invited me there one week and I was just thrilled. First of all, I love cooking. But also, the place was so beautiful. There was a group of mixed nationalities attending the class and I thought instantly what a wonderful story this would make. I wrote this story using different names and details. That was around 1988. And I just put the manuscript aside and didn’t do anything with it until I pulled it out two or three years ago, read it again, and realized it was still good.

BM: Well, that’s interesting because it means it was a contemporaneous novel, not a retrospective view of what life was like in the Burgundy region twenty-five years ago.

JZS: It was just before the euro came in, just at the beginning of the whole European community taking shape. And this is why, in the book, I have a map of the Burgundy region and it very specifically says “1988”. Most of these people would not be alive today. The political scene has changed so much now with the euro and new EU members.

BM: Well, that is interesting. Because when I first read it, I thought it was a sort of nostalgic look back, sort of like some former East German reminiscences of life before reunification. What’s also interesting is that in the book there are World War II partisans still evening the score in the 1980s, especially after a collaborator is discovered living under a new identity. The partisans, sort of take care of things à la Casablanca where Bogart’s at the airport….

JZS: [Laughter] … definitely.

BM: And then they round up the usual suspects.

JZS: Right.

BM: So it’s based partially on a real situation….

JZS: An actual place….

BM: But the characters in general…

JZS: …are fictional. Although, I got in touch with the woman who had the cooking school. I told her about the book and sent her a copy, and she was quite thrilled and ordered a dozen copies for her friends. I said: “I hope you don’t mind if I turned you into a different type of character. You are seduced in the book by the Italian.” And she was kind of amused.

BM: Well, let’s talk more about Red Burgundy. It’s not only a novel; it’s being developed into something else…

JZS: …a film, hopefully, yes. Compared to the films that are being produced today, it’s rather mild. There won’t be any need for special effects or monsters or weird things happening. It’s a kind of nice, old-fashioned story with a twist. Somebody in England now is writing a screenplay for it. I wouldn’t dare try to write a screenplay—it’s another form entirely! But it would make a wonderful film, and I’ve thought about people who could act in it. Making a film is a long and complicated process, you know. You need a producer, a director, actors, backers. But I think it would be a really fun film.

BM: And you’re currently working on Collage, a memoir, about the Women’s movement in Europe in the 1970s and ’80s?

JZS: …no, no, no, No, NO!

BM: OK, well tell me what your current project is then.

JZS: [Laughter]. Well, Collage, the book that I just finished, is about my life but written, more or less, in the third person. It covers my adult years in Europe—and that means Brussels and Paris basically—and the women’s movement was simply a part of that during the ’70’s. But it was extremely important to me at the time.

Collage is what the French call an auto-fiction. I don’t want to call it a memoir. I don’t want to call it fiction, either. It’s somewhere in between. It’s about my life, but it’s written with almost a third person voice—I’m the main character, but with a different name. It sticks rather closely to the facts of my life, but I’ve changed the names of most of the people I talk about. It’s a series of fairly short chapters, almost jumping from one subject to another, and some of it is interspersed with essay-type chapters reflecting on something—Paris, love, politics. It’s a hybrid kind of book. And because of that, because it doesn’t fit into a specific category, I think it will be difficult to get it published.

BM: Are you currently working on or considering any other projects?

JZS: I would like to pull together all my all my articles, the essays, the 110 for the Florida publication and nearly 90 for Huffington, and make a selection of the best and put them in a collection and publish it. The title would be Hungry Women, Fat Men. That’s one of my funniest pieces.

BM: Well, now that we’ve talked about your writing’s historical and thematic concerns, what’s the relationship between journalism and creative writing in relation to your writing style? How has being a journalist helped and shaped your writing in other genres—essays, memoirs, and novels?

JZS: It has helped me with the structure of writing, I believe. When you are writing a 60-second spot for radio or a minute and half for television, you have to be very clear, concise, and correct about what you’re saying. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from an old radioman at CBS who said: “Joan, remember that you’re writing for a guy who’s in the bathroom in the morning, shaving, or he’s driving to work listening to the radio. And you’ve got to get it clear and simple and correct. And that was the best advice I ever got. And maybe I just had the natural inclination to write in that way.

Certainly those years writing for radio and television honed my capability, and I think it’s carried over into my other writing because I don’t use a lot of unnecessary words. I don’t use a lot of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. I don’t go into flowery descriptions. Maybe you could compare it to Hemingway. It’s clear, simple prose and it’s the idea behind it that counts, not the affected way it’s said. I don’t like a lot of embroidery in writing, but I do like the rhythm of words. So that’s how writing for radio and television really helped me a lot. It gave me a certain sense of clarity and speed in my writing, and the rhythm seems to follow naturally.

BM: So, a minimum of adjectives, as short as possible to fit it into the time space, but powerful and effective and informative at the same time.

JZS: Yes. But also, for essay writing and novels, you want to use some imagination and add some humour. You know, things you do not get in news writing.

BM: Now where does that come in then? Where do the imagination and the elaboration come from?

JZS: I don’t know. I think probably I just have an off-kilter view of things and of the world. ’m not cynical really, but critical. And sometimes the critical is mixed with humour. I think that is what my writing and certainly my essay writing are about. You know, seeing things from a different angle and expressing it clearly and vigorously. That’s what I enjoy most.

BM: What is your writing discipline like? Do have a certain time that you get up in the morning that you sit down at your desk? Every few days or so, you think it’s time to write again?

JZS: [Laughter] No, no, no, no! Writing now, freelance, on my own, I write when the spirit moves me. Obviously, when I was at CBS or Voice of America I was under time pressure and the events had to be written about quickly. But now I’m just possibly too free. I don’t have any disciplined programme. I don’t tie myself down to a certain number of hours a day. I’m just not that kind of writer. I rely more on my inspiration.

BM: And how often are you inspired to sit down and write?

JZS: One could say not often enough, but for The Huffington Post, I’ve been inspired every couple of weeks. I’ve written close to 100 articles for them. Before that, for 10 years, I was writing a monthly column for a Florida publication, Boomer Times and Senior Life, and every month I was turning in an article about any subject I wanted . It could be about the holidays. It could be about traffic in Florida. It could be about politics in Paris. I had a total freedom. I produced over 100 articles for them over those ten years.

BM: To change the subject a little bit, this issue of Amsterdam Quarterly (AQ6) is about ekphrasis and writing about art and architecture, music and dance. How have some of these things affected your writing? How has living in Paris sort of changed you or helped form you as a writer?

JZS: It’s hard to say, because when I was living in America, growing up in America, I didn’t write very much, only for school papers. I was actually a winner in Vogue’s Prix de Paris (for creative writing), but it was only as a journalist that writing became a full-time activity. And coming to Paris, I don’t think really changed me. Certainly not in the early years because I was writing for an American network and it was news and it wasn’t creative writing and I was simply a reporter. So there were no real changes there.

These days, I go through periods where I get jaded about Paris. I am really fed up with all the books people are writing about Paris—How to be a Chic French Woman and Why French Women Don’t Get Fat and The Parisian Diet. Or someone comes to Paris for a few weeks and meets the love of her life in a restaurant! There’s a plethora of books about Paris and I’m fed up with it, and I’m really tempted to write a negative book about Paris!—all the things that are ordinary or wrong with it. Paris is not just the Champs-Elysées and the Eiffel Tower and the Left Bank. It’s also those little neighbourhoods where you have Africans or Asians or Arabs living, which are very run down. You do have slums in Paris — Paris is not just glamour. Paris is a living, breathing city and I’d like to show that side of it, if I ever do write something about it. I would be more critical and more realistic, I think.

BM: Well, I think I’ve seen a little bit about that in the pieces that you have written for AQ, especially in AQ5 with your “Stay Home! A Tirade Against Tourism:”

Listen folks. Paris is not a playground. Nor is it a quaint leftover from your history books. It’s a place where you can write, paint, philosophize, dream, stroll, eat, drink or simply lose yourself. If you wake up early, it’s sunrise on the Seine. If you get lucky, it’s love in the afternoon. I’m sorry, but your presence here in droves distracts me, drives me fou.

JZS: Yes, I definitely write about the tourists because there are more and more coming every year. It used to be just spring and summer and now the season is year round. And it’s interesting to see the change in the nationalities because at one point, it was people coming from the Middle East, and then Japan. After that it was tourists from the newly liberated Eastern European countries, and then the Chinese. The Chinese are now coming in very strongly. But the problem is that it is year-round. They are certainly helping the economy, but they are not helping me! There are tourist buses, most half empty, that fill the streets, and people who are looking for bargain restaurants, or simply making a quick visit to the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. I don’t want Paris to become an artificial city like Venice, for example. And yet it’s becoming harder and more expensive for native Parisians to live here. They’re being squeezed out in terms of the real estate, in terms of the prices, in terms of the availability of restaurants and so on. I understand that economically it’s great for the city to have all this tourism, but its not much fun if you’re living here.

BM: OK. But what’s it like to be able to look out your dining room window and see Notre Dame…

[Laughter]

BM: …across the Seine…

JZS: … and the boats going down the river?

BM: How does that affect you as a writer?

JZS: It calms me down. I love living near water, whatever city I’m living in. Brussels had no body of water, unfortunately. In New York, I lived near the Hudson River, and luckily in Paris I’m near the Seine. That’s very important to me. It’s an aesthetic thing. What is it like? It’s pleasurable. I can put up with a lot of nonsense—like plumbers who don’t show up or mail that doesn’t get delivered—because I do have something to look out on and contemplate!

I also lived in the South of France for eight years at Cap d’Antibes. And that was a rather privileged period even though it was rather desolate because there isn’t much you can do down there in terms of journalism. I think it was probably too lazy, too easy a life. I need stimulation. I need the cultural advantages of a big city, and I’ve got that here in Paris.

BM: So in other words, there is an influence that a city has on you as a person. I know you talked to me yesterday also about writers in New York. To paraphrase you, you said: ‘I don’t know if could run around and go to all those events if I had to be a writer in NY. I like to live in Paris, because Paris is…’

JZS: …easier. It’s slower. Sure, not as much happens in Paris as happens in New York, but whatever there is, it’s accessible. If you want tickets to the opera or the theatre, it’s not a big hassle, so I appreciate that. I go to New York from time to time, because at heart I guess I’m a New Yorker and I still have many friends there, but I don’t know if could live there again because it’s too frantic, it’s too hectic. Paris seems to be the right pace, the right dimension for me.

BM: I noticed last night coming in from the Gare du Nord metro station and transferring at Odéon, riding the subway wasn’t as big a deal as in Manhattan. Yes, it was rush hour, but people just got on and off without bouncing into each other too much and someone even gave me their seat because I had a cane.

JZS: Yes, there’s definitely that side. But it’s changing, of course. The younger generation, with their iPhones and iPads, are certainly changing the rhythm of the city to a certain degree. But it’s still a comfortable place to live. It’s a place where I can take it easy or I can work very hard. Of course, that’s where I am in my life right now, because I’m not holding down a full-time job. But I feel that I have a lot of freedom here, whereas, in a city like New York, I would feel very pressured.

BM: What are the things you read most often for “inspiration?”

JZS: Well, I guess I’m still a journalist; I’m still a newsperson because I look at The New York Times every day on the Internet. I also read the French news, and whenever I’m home, I watch the eight o’clock French news. You see, I’m still a news junkie! I’ll never get over that. I also read my horoscope every day! I’m very busy corresponding with people, with friends, and a lot of websites come to me that I’m not interested in, and I’m trying to eliminate some of them—particularly about American politics. I get many e-mails from groups that are trying to save animals or trying to save historic sites or trying to save the world. I’ve just gone through a process of eliminating a lot of these because you just can’t respond to all of them. You can’t spread yourself that thin. And the political ones this past year have been very annoying.

BM: Is there any architecture in Paris that has inspired you to write a piece or an article?

JZS: Well, of course, when the Pompidou Centre opened, I wrote about that. I interviewed the director for CBS television. The newest museum, the Musée de Branly, I don’t like at all. The architecture is terrible.

Nor do I like the Arab Centre, the Institut du Monde Arabe. Both are by the same architect, Jean Nouvel. They’re badly designed in terms of their façades and the way they exhibit their products.

BM: Could you compare the Pompidou to these two buildings? Just mention why you like the Pompidou?

JZS: The Pompidou was extraordinarily conceived. And it’s still extraordinary. It’s a building that’s literally turned inside out!—all of the plumbing and the stairs on the outside. It’s expensive to maintain, but it’s extremely adaptable and spacious. People hated it when it was built. They called it a factory. And it’s now the most visited museum in the city, even more so than the Louvre. And it’s stood up well over the years, whereas the Branly Museum and the Arab Institute are so badly built that I think they’re falling apart. So, that’s one that I like and two that I don’t like.

The pyramid at the Louvre was also a big deal. Everybody was against it. Frankly, I was negative about it, but I went to a press conference with I.M. Pei, the architect, and the way he explained it, he completely won me over. He said it was the most difficult project he had ever undertaken because he was dealing with something sacred to the French. But he said it was a bastardized building, destroyed by fire and rebuilt, and he decided to do the pyramid because it was the most neutral shape that would not interfere with anything. It didn’t relate to any particular French period, and it had to be as transparent as possible. Anyway, it was a brilliant press conference and I left totally convinced that this was a good thing to do.

BM: So he won you over then?

JZS: Totally.

BM: So if I were to describe you, you would say that you have a journalist’s cynical attitude towards the world, but you have an open mind.

JZS: [Laughter] Should we say cynical or skeptical? I may be cynical about politics, but for the rest, I’m skeptical. But I have a great deal of curiosity. For example, I’m interested in physics—it fascinates me. The Large Hadron Collider fascinates me. Maybe I’m an intellectual dilettante—I can’t limit myself to one subject or any one field. I’m interested in a lot of things. And people may say, “You’re spreading yourself too thin,” but that’s how I am—a thinly-spread intellectual!

BM: Well, Joan Z. Shore, thank you for your time and your hospitality.

JZS: You’re welcome!