a conversation with ROSMARIE WALDROP.
Rosmarie Waldrop, in Contemporary Authors Autobiographical Series
I don't even have thoughts, I say, I have methods that make language think, take over and me by the hand. Into sense or offense, syntax stretched across rules, relations of force, fluid the dip of the plumb line, the pull of eyes. What if the mother didn't censor the child's looking? Didn't wipe the slate clean? Would the child know from the start that there are no white pages, that we always write over a text already there? No beginnings. All unrepentant middle.
Rosmarie Waldrop, A Form / of Taking / It All
Rosmarie Waldrop, whose reputation in this country and in Europe is primarily that of poet and translator, has written two novels that are gravely, playfully situated in that "unrepentant middle." They are works of compound attention, permeability and generous humor--the kind of humor that renovates medieval notions of temperamental fluidities into piquant conceptual shifts. The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter (1986) writes over and through textual contusions, surface tensions, odd autobiographical particulars of a small-town German family's life during Nazi rule. A Form / of Taking / It All (1990) opens the novel's pagescape to topologically redistribute historical figures--political and scientific--in discursive gaps whose space-time coordinates yield to the new physics even as they evoke the irredeemable legacy of the European conquest of the Americas. In this book quasi-autobiographical characters and personae enact a quantum comedy of manners with figures and grounds and relativities of historical complementarity.
Waldrop composes the cultural flotsam and jetsam out of which we fabricate memory into shifting mosaics whose energy derives from interactions of textual particles (captions, lists, anecdotal fragments, descriptive glimpses--data of various, humorous sorts) and narrative/speculative waves that raise questions about our relation to art, science, politics, history. The moving principle in both her novels is transgeneric, a textual graphics of prose and poetic intersections--cultural invention in intercourse with historical crime. The effect is photoelectric, illuminating a contemporary poethics of the formally investigative novel with, given the urgent matters addressed, an improbable lightness of form.
As twentieth-century writers and thinkers we have continued to live in the shadow of a nineteenth-century narrative dictum: affix one unit of prose to the next with the uber-glue of interpretive transition. That this rule has been so spectacularly transgressed--by Stein, Dorothy Richardson, Woolf, Joyce, Beckett, Calvino, Queneau, Sorrentino, Perec--may mislead us into thinking that novels experimenting with other logics--associative, collage, paratactic, recursive, procedural, permutative--are numerous. In fact, the scene of the novel is dominated by hundreds of thousands of securely coupled units (sentences, paragraphs, chapters) hurtling like locomotives toward the meta-engineered marvels that configure the architectonics of Romantic profundity--psychologically and philosophically penetrating tunnels, epiphanic climaxes, mirror-image vanishing points.
Nineteenth-century mechanics, in philosophy and literature as well as science and technology, exploited the power of continuous, contiguous, piston-driven momentum toward the transfer of godlike qualities (overarching wisdom and judgment, omnipotence, omniscience) to "man" as author. Twentieth-century, "feminine," gaps and collisions and sensible uncertainties set off alarms, ruptured the nineteenth-century illusion of controlled historical continuity. The intellectual tragicomedy of the Godelian aftermath has been staged as a dramatic inventory of cultural logics--theological, historical, aesthetic--whose unmoved movers have been, with heavily theorized ceremony, pronounced dead. All the while poets and theorists of complexity have been cavorting in delight as they engage in newly energized explorations.
Complexity--the network of indeterminacies it spawns--is the condition of our freedom. That freedom, insofar as it is exercised as imaginative agency, thrives in long-term projects, like Waldrop's novels, that reconfigure patterns of thought and imagination. (I wonder if human agency--in contrast to human rights--can at this point in our self-conscious cultural undertakings be usefully modeled by isolated instances of "free choice.") This is why, with all the disruptions and anxieties of an age of uncertainty, we are seeing a renaissance of literary and scientific invention brought about by the peculiar twentieth-century dialogue of questions and forms. Things are much more interesting than warmed-over narratives of decline and fall would have it. Where once we thought exclusively in terms of linear developments, with very few first-class tickets or window seats available for the ride, we now notice proliferating opportunities in fractal surfaces--the extraordinary number of detailed contact points that compose the cultural coastline. Draining the "profound depths" of symbolist metaphysics has presented us with the infinite potential of recombinatory, chance-determined play. On the historical surface, whose geometries are more about topological stretches and folds and global networks than developmental chains, it is not surprising that Waldrop's work with the form of the novel resembles Tristram Shandy more than The Magic Mountain or Buddenbrooks. Most importantly, her novels are imaginative, material inquiries into our contemporary conditions. On this matter of timeliness, Gertrude Stein set, many times over, both the modernist and postmodernist scenes: "The whole business of writing is the question of living [one's] contemporariness.... The thing that is important is that nobody knows what the contemporariness is. In other words, they don't know where they are going, but they are on their way" (How Writing Is Written, [19; Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1974] 151).
If logical systems are, as Kurt Godel tells us, inherently incomplete; if mass is energy, particle is wave, space is time, and vice versa; if natural and cultural histories are chaotic, if complex surfaces are fractal (allowing infinite detail to exist within finite space-time delineations), then the question arises, What is implied about the forms with which we attempt to make meaning out of our experience? The answer has not detached itself from the known literary universe. Waldrop, writing attentively out of her own times, explores patterned currents of discontinuous motility and porousness that are all historical residue. But this fluid topography enacts a refusal to stop the event with descriptive certainty. In her prose-poetic spatial manipulations there is such a vigorous widening of the investigative impulse that single point perspective becomes a reversed current flowing right off the page into the ongoing puzzle of contemporanaeity. "Facts," the opening prose poem in Waldrop's The Reproduction of Profiles (1987), articulates a reimagining of aesthetic truth patterns:
I had inferred from pictures that the world was real and therefore paused, for who knows what will happen if we talk truth while climbing the stairs. In fact, I was afraid of following the picture to where it reaches right out into reality, laid against it like a ruler. I thought I would die if my name didn't touch me, or only with its very end, leaving the inside open to so many feelers like chance rain pouring down from the clouds. You laughed and told everybody that I had mistaken the Tower of Babel for Noah in his Drunkenness.
In the perverse annals of recapitulation one could say that childhood has always foreshadowed the way in which we lost our (purported) grip on things in the twentieth century. Childhood, in the calmest of eras, is a scintillating scene of absurd and terrifying disproportions. Alice in Wonderland or any random selection of fairy tales can be read as instruction manuals for negotiating the speed and glare of associative light as it obliterates the boundary between stable figure and quaking ground. Does the dangerous passage into the dotted-line equilibrium we call adulthood ever end on a personal or historical level? A major source of the practice of storytelling seems to come from our need, first as children, to hear stories that contain the terror, that seduce us in as night-tourists only to skillfully deliver us into the daylight on the other side of a door clearly marked THE END. (Yes, dear, don't worry, the nightmare does stop. Mommy/Daddy/your author will see to that.) There is as well the crucial impulse to tell one's own story, to exercise for oneself the power to fashion a version of reality that can be exited intact.
Now we think we know that the stories we tell tell us as well. This dialogic rhythm forms whole cultures. The panoptical novel reflects and abets a culture of docile bodies, hierarchical power, politically conscripted detail. The romantic and brutal and precise folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm cannot be without some connection to the romantic and brutal and precise fantasies that Hitler and his myth-manufacturing cronies visited upon Europe.
Rosmarie Waldrop spent her childhood and adolescence in Nazi and postwar Germany. She was not a designated victim. Her family was not Jewish, Gypsy, Communist. As far as I know, no one close to her circle was homosexual. Nonetheless, as a child growing into a sense of her world, she had to contend with the pervasive effects of rampant paranoia, systematic deceit, unjustifiable certainties, rumor, betrayal that formed the atmosphere of Hitler's Germany, as well as with the logical schisms, absences, and terrors associated with any war zone. Bombing raids on the Bavarian town where she lived, Kitzingen-am-Main, brought one's ultimate vulnerability home. Waldrop is the first to say that amidst the bizarre tensions of a family with its own peculiar psychodramas attempting normal life in the context of a major entry into the catalogue of human-constructed hells, there were consolations: her piano, recordings of her favorite music, books, friendship. Under the Allied occupation, the young girl who was then Rosmarie Sebald met an extraordinarily witty, widely read American soldier, Keith Waldrop, who became her dearest friend, literary collaborator, and, a month after her move to the United States in 1958, her husband.
Waldrop's internationally respected career as poet, publisher of Burning Deck books, translator, novelist has taken place entirely in this country. She is most widely known for her poetry--over thirty volumes (some with Keith Waldrop). Among them are the influential post-Wittgensteinian, postpropositional poetics of The Reproduction of Profiles, her marvelously titled investigation of feminine logics, Lawn of Excluded Middle (1993), and her very specific, word-centered exploration of European intersections with Native American culture, A Key into the Language of America (1994). As a leading translator (into English) of Edmond Jabes, as well as of Jacques Roubaud, Paul Celan, and Emmanuel Hocquard, Waldrop has made award-winning contributions to Franco-American letters. The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter was the product of a long-standing "impossible" desire to transmute the disequilibrium of ordinary life patterns and Nazi nightmare into a novel. What this finally meant in practical terms was eight years of struggling to find a form, an agon between the vanishing points of irredeemably nasty memories and the complex necessity for what I can only see as poethical courage--the nerve to resist packaging unruly memories in the nineteenth-century conventions of novel as written by God in possession of a world that makes sense.
Waldrop's own statement about Hanky is revealing: "The drive to know our own story moves us to see through it and touch the violence inherent in the mechanism itself." That violence is, in part, the refusal of the material to conform to the palliative gestures of an existing decorum. The twentieth-century paradox of storytelling is that the disturbance that becomes the "drive to know our own story" must enter the form itself, thereby making the desired knowledge impossible. Samuel Beckett is interesting on the story as form:
What am I doing, talking, having my figments talk, it can only be me. Spells of silence too, when I listen, and hear the local sounds, the world sounds, see what an effort I make, to be reasonable. There's my life, why not, it is one, if you like, if you must, I don't say no, this evening. There has to be one, it seems, once there is speech, no need of a story, a story is not compulsory, just a life, that's the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough. ("Texts for Nothing 4")
Oddly or not, this may constitute a functional either/or--"story or life" rather than "story of life." If one chooses "story of" over life, one chooses the consolation prize of an understanding that removes one from uncertainties and disruptions of extratextual worlds; one is put at rest. The objective is a kind of "moment of inertia," a parameter useful in describing the rotational motion of rigid (inorganic) bodies. The urgent knowledge that erupts onto the page and into the form sends one into the swerving, turbulent patterns of life principles--the messiness and loveliness of ecological interdependence, synergy, exchange, chance. This is what John Cage meant by art that imitates not nature but her processes--processes that render us cheerfully and tragically inconsolable. I suspect it is precisely Beckett's refusal to be consoled (a rejection of sentimentality) that allowed him to "go on." When Waldrop says she doesn't have thoughts, she has methods that make language think, she is referring to a similar movement away from grammars of inertia. Waldrop turns her own restlessness and anxiety of insufficiency into a navigational project, a poetics of formal choices that throw text into motion as life processes themselves. This has to do with material energies of language--vocabularies, syntaxes, juxtapositional dynamics, interpretive coordinates.
The conversation that follows came about in order to discuss matters that I call "poethical" in relation to the lived ethos I've been referring to in this introduction, for writer and reader, as it came to be embodied in Rosmarie Waldrop's novels. Since their publication by Station Hill Press, both have more or less fallen off the edge of a generically flat literary world, in which anything venturing outside certain well-defined conventions tends to remain all but invisible. My hope in asking Waldrop to participate in a taped conversation, beginning in her kitchen in Providence, Rhode Island, on July 13, 1991, continuing over a weekend and then (with multiple interruptions) by mail into the end of the decade, was that the record of our conversation would create a conceptual lens to bring these two remarkable works of literature into greater visibility, perhaps even into some kind of useful cultural intelligibility. My immense admiration for Waldrop's achievement, along with my writerly curiosity, stemmed in part from my own failed attempt at a generically similar project.
In his 1958 essay "History of Experimental Music in the United States," John Cage wrote that in the midst of "all those interpenetrations which seem at first glance to be hellish--history, for instance ... one does not then make just any experiment but does what must be done." Of course, we all must decide for ourselves "what must be done." The urgency of a perceived necessity, even in a universe so brilliantly perforated by chance, is what connects experiment with passion. A passion of working through, transfiguring, the materials of one's times can involve all that the word "passion" implies--"suffering" (undergoing, enduring) but also the way in which the register of emotions, from anguish to dread to humor and joy, turns our intellectual and imaginative inventions into richly suggestive humanist prisms. What distinguishes this from sentimentality is the realism and courage involved in a gamut of feelings that makes us permeable to dire intercourse with our world, with others, in the form of love, anger, desire, lust, competitiveness, friendship, the rushing conceptual tumult of shared humor. (Sentimentality, on the other hand, is protective of a closed-down sell hermetically self-serving, in retreat from real consequences.) It is just this that separates the truly consequential experiments in the arts from pro forma imitations.
Rosmarie Waldrop humorously illuminates the emotionally charged character of experiment in her 1990 essay "Alarms and Excursions" (in The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, ed. Charles Bernstein [New York: Roof]):
In the early stages of my writing all the poems were about my mother and my relation to her. Rereading them a bit later, I decided I had to get out of this obsession. This is when I started to make collages. I would take a novel and decide to take one or two words from every page. The poems were still about my mother. So I realized that you don't have to worry about the contents: your preoccupations will get into the poem no matter what. Tzara ends his recipe for making a chance poem by cutting out words from the newspapers and tossing them in a hat: "The poem will resemble you."
The remarked coincidence of experimental results with what one most cares about happens only when the active consciousness of the experimenter precipitates a focused urgency of choice, one that cannot help but affect the shape of the indeterminate elements. The moral is that in the hands of the poethically innovative artist we need not fear dissociative or denatured or depersonalized forms. Waldrop begins an autobiographical statement (for the Gale's Dictionary of Literary Biography) with a quote from John Cage's Silence, "Poetry is having nothing to say and saying it: we possess nothing." This means bringing disparate linguistic units into a patterned synergy that will unavoidably emanate from the writer's being in the world, that has tangible sources but which also honors the active intelligence of the reader precisely in the extent to which it eschews ownership or authority over the way in which it is construed. It is sent out into the world in reciprocal dialogue with its other.
In Hanky there is a captioned framing, a paratactic pace that serially interweaves the personal anecdotal, the journalistic documentary, the epistolary, the philosophical, the helplessly humorous with a quest for meaning that is neither pretentious nor falsely modest given Waldrop's acknowledged remove from the worst horrors of Nazism. Waldrop arrives at this strategic nexus, one could say, in order to depart from it not as victim but as composer of a novel that, under the pressure of the grotesqueries of Nazism, transmogrifies into a kind of linguistic comic strip. This book could in fact be fruitfully read together with Art Spiegelman's Maus, volume 1 of which was also published in 1986. It does with language some of what Spiegelman does with the visual conventions of cartooning. Both Waldrop and Spiegelman are writing about their parents' relation to Nazism from an intimate remove that, though differently situated, leads each to transgress and exceed the scope of the conventional novel in material engagements with impossible material. Spiegelman's humor erupts out of his relationship with his father, whose irritating quirks may or may not be the result of victimization. A similarly important questioning of the limits of victim status is what makes humor possible in Waldrop's work.
Waldrop's "strip" has features of Mobius as it traces the process (not necessarily progress) of moving from personal narrative to narrative persona. It does this by discarding the self-justifying strategies and sentimentalities of certain kinds of novelistic prose--prose that never undermines the power of the narrator even within the conventions of "unreliability." Waldrop has literally turned the uses of her language inside out and in again to leave us with that paradox of all consciously postmodern fictions--that of the acknowledged lie of acknowledging the lie that is the sinister engine of selectivity in all forms. Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale begins with the humor of its own title and the problematic of its first caption, "My Father Bleeds History." The first caption in Waldrop's humorously titled Hanky is "LAST SEASON'S BESTSELLER WAS GREED." Both novels sort through dubious legacies of parents who are simultaneously trapped/free agents in/of their cultures. Humor is located in conceptual shifts between "trapped/free" playing out in Hanky as "Jewish/Aryan" in linked "Franz/Josef" figures of the mother's "Lover/Father."
To Theodor Adorno's despairing sense that after Auschwitz it would no longer be possible to write poetry, Edmond Jabes replied, "I saw that we must write. But we cannot write like before." Waldrop, close friend as well as translator of Jabes, has enacted this realization in her own work. Adorno himself attempted to moderate his poetic pessimism (at one point saying it is only lyric poetry that is barbaric after Auschwitz) to the very end of his life. The challenging means to a reinvention of possibility was already apparent in his Minima Moralia, written during and immediately after World War II: "There is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity, holding fast to the possibility of what is better" ([19; London: Verso, 1985] 25).
This raises--in a manner both stark and energetic--the life-and-death urgency of questions of literary form as we navigate through the range of joys and catastrophes and commonplaces and shades of anomie of our violent times--the unexpurgatable mess of lived history. Imaginative structures orient and initiate our intuitions as we confront the congealed givens that can stop breath and hope. Some forms point toward what is yet fluid, what is possible; others encapsulate the brutality, rendering it somehow palatable. By the last vanishing-point punctum at the end of the last beautifully constructed paragraph of the undeconstructed novel, even the Holocaust can acquire a harmonious aspect. One must question the consequences of conventions that protect the formal dynamics of literary production from the terror. This is the reassuring--market-friendly--production of innocuousness: the misleading solace of work too timid to disturb the logic of the universe in which the violence continues to occur.
We are always writing through the impossibility of after. This chronic, dispiriting condition can grind imagination to a halt or send it tooling in nostalgic circles. The most vital of our new writing addresses our need to stay in motion via the disparate and humorous logics of inventing and reinventing our contemporanaeity. Such a process must always take place in acknowledgment of the fact that the materials of invention are nothing other than historical detritus. All the more reason to affirm a poethics, of the improbable--our perennial challenge, the heart of an engaged optimism.
J.R. Rosmarie, the poetics of structure, process, image, idea in your work--prose as well as poetry--foregrounds issues of form for me, the uses and consequences of form. I'm curious about the kinds of distinctions you tend to make, whether intuitively or analytically, between the various genres in which you work--particularly between your poetry and the prose books, The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter and A Form / of Taking / It All.
R.W. Well, I'm tempted to say the prose books are just larger. I don't usually start by thinking, Is this going to be prose or verse? I tend to think in terms of tension, and one tension is usually between the impulse to continue, to have a constant flow, and the impulse toward fragmentation. Sometimes one wins out and sometimes the other. The impulse toward flow, for instance, dominates in the poetic text The Road Is Everywhere, or Stop This Body. All the sentences merge. The object of one sentence is always also the subject of the next, so that there is no complete sentence, but each poem as a whole becomes one continuous, strangely shifting, ungrammatical sentence. This rapid flow is stronger than the verse's pull toward pause, but not strong enough to become prose. It needed the obstacles of the line-ends to have a rhythmical shape. On the other hand, in When They Have Senses, also poetry, the subject matter conspired with my tendency towards fragmentation. The relation of men and women is so complicated that just getting partial little glimpses seemed all I could do. Of course, both tendencies are always present, it's not a matter of one winning out over the other, but of the emphasis being more on one. For instance, in the novel The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter, in a larger structure, I really got going once I had found the form that could accommodate both flow and fragmentation: many short, little chapters that have a certain amount of closure and at the same time don't have any closure at all because a sentence may actually continue across chapter boundaries, title and all. The tension cuts across the difference between verse and prose, though in verse it seems to be located between the line and the single word, as well as between line and sentence, and in prose, more between single word and sentence as well as between sentence and the larger units, paragraph, chapter, et cetera. Even so, obviously, verse is very different from prose, a matter of rhythm.
J.R. Does that have anything to do with different formal intentions? For instance, telling a story ...
R.W. Yes. Yes, I don't know quite how it connects, but the novel came out of getting claustrophobic with my shorter and shorter verse lines. They were getting so tight that it seemed hard to say anything. Also, this having the object always topple into the subject of the next sentence really makes for a main-clause highway. It did not allow any roads off to the side. It made for speed, but down the middle of the road, as it were. I began to hanker for subordinate clauses, for excursions, amblings. It seemed exhilarating to go from those very short lines to a novel which, at least theoretically; would have room for anything, which would be spacious, not so tight and pared down. An impulse towards plenitude. And also, well, I realized that anything I wrote about my childhood would have in some way to address Nazi Germany. I was ten when the war was over. So I grew up learning about this horror--the immediate past was this horror! Which seemed impossible to name, talk about. It seemed, if I could write about it at all, it would need space so I could approach it very indirectly, via detours, from various angles, from the margins, as it were.
J.R. One of the remarkable things about the book in which you address the Nazi past, The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter, is how you manage to write with both "lightness" and "multiplicity"--to use Italo Calvino's normative terms, from his Charles Eliot Norton lectures Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Or, one could equally characterize that novel as a dynamic equilibrium of humor and complexity. You've accomplished this while in fact dealing with a subject of such enormous gravity and horror that many would assume lightness or humor to be a breach of some fundamental decorum. The very particular way in which you build in that lightness page by page, syntactically and graphically, allows you to explore, to question the persuasive narrative momentum associated with the traditional impulse of the novel, as well as with the propagandistic forms of the Nazi era. Specific devices that you employ with the language, like using the beginnings of sentences in the short sections as--
R.W. Chapter headings.
J.R. Yes, as paratactic captions; or the end of a sentence becoming the heading for a new section. It's both a framing device and an interruptive pattern that resists the usual novelistic strategy of paragraphs merging as informational tributaries to tell a unified story, of course via fully achieved authorial transitions. You don't allow the narration, the stylistic self-justification built into continuous-flow narration, it's explanatory force, to become too compelling.
R.W. Right. I think it's partly because it is such impossible subject matter. It is impossible to "deal" with.
J.R. So you've avoided constructing the kind of narrative that might entirely conceal in its smooth transitions, or even deny, the fact of that impossibility.
R.W. That would be a false continuity. And also, yes, there is always the feeling that I never have enough information. The process is not so much "telling" as questioning. This implies interruption. And in the gaps we might get hints of much that has to be left unsaid--but should be thought about.
J.R. How did you come to that? You have a very particular balance in that book between trying to say as much as you can, but not too much, not more than you can. Not pretending that--
R.W. That I know, that I have answers.
J.R. Yes. Yes, that epistemology of incompleteness is something you make available in the content of the narrative when you say things explicitly about the limits of knowing, but it's also very much embedded in the form.
R.W. Right. As you said, one of the themes is the novel as an attempt to understand, but, even more, that any attempt to understand is a construction, and a violence. Keeping that in mind, especially when the subject involves something as horrible as the Holocaust, even if you only touch on the fringes, how can one pretend to "understand"? And at the same time, I needed to get at some of the things, to understand, or imagine, how people like my parents lived through that time, to what extent they went along. That is the wound of this book. To know that I have come out of this. Trying to deal with origins in this nasty framework. It took me a very long time to write. I worked on it for about eight years. Not exclusively, true. There were other things that I was writing in between. I kept having to put it aside, getting stuck. If there's lightness, it was come by laboriously.
J.R. Well, lightness is an artifice. You worked on Hanky for eight years to achieve that artifice. I presume that if we were to look at pages from early drafts they would appear, graphically, quite different from the published version.
J.R. So, it took you a while to discover the form for this book?
R.W. Yes, quite.
J.R. What kind of process was that? Was it a process of subtraction?
R.W. Of addition and subtraction. The very first things were just character sketches of the parent figures, of Josef and Frederika.
J.R. Who are closely related to--
R.W. Modeled after my parents. Yes, they are. Then I realized that I couldn't possibly talk about them without bringing in the Nazi times. I finally thought of giving the mother a Jewish lover as a way of bringing the "times" in and yet anchoring it all in the personal. Then the manuscript got very large--I mean for me. It is still a mammoth book for me, and it's only 150 pages! But the manuscript got large because I started, in a state of exhilaration, to pack in anything--anecdotes friends had told me, things stolen from other books, just wildly packed-in material. This was my reaction against the tightness of the poems that preceded. Of course, later I had to cut most of it out again.
J.R. Was all that in part, do you think, to submerge the story? Did you become afraid of the story?
R.W. Very likely. I didn't think about it in those terms, but it may well have been. Yes. That's a curious idea.
J.R. Thinking about the urge to tell that story, or the need to tell it, I like this sentence on the jacket of Hanky: "The drive to know our own story moves us to see through it and touch the violence inherent in the mechanism itself." What I think is interesting about that statement is that it refers to the violence of the content of "our stories," but--
R.W. But also to the violence of the process of telling.
J.R. Exactly. When I asked whether you were bringing things in to submerge the story, I was thinking more of the content--though these things of course bleed into each other, make each other bleed. What about the violence in the mechanism of storytelling?
R.W. Any telling is a falsification, is doing violence. Even the "truest" telling is at least the imposition of a perspective and a radical foreshortening. My title refers to this: according to legend my hometown was founded on the spot where a shepherd, Kitz, found a handkerchief dropped by the daughter of the Merovingian king Pippin the Short. This is around the year 750. Nothing else is known about this woman, not even her name. A woman's whole life reduced to one legend--to one little gesture, dropping her hanky. So the construction itself is necessarily violent, more so with the weight of being put on paper and not just thought. At bottom, all speaking/writing is an exercise of power, is violent. Even on a very general level, experience is necessarily "killed" when transformed into writing; it is rendered absent. Also, on a simpler level, it's a nasty story. And some of the material is the life of my parents who are dead, and about the dead you're not supposed to say anything but good.
J.R. You use the word "nasty" in the book. Between reading Hanky for the first time and rereading it before coming for our conversation, I saw the German film The Nasty Girl. Have you seen it?
J.R. I wondered if you had any feelings of connectedness to that. I don't know what the title is in German.
R.W. It's just Das Schreckliche Maldchen, "The Terrible Girl." It's not quite as good a title as the English, as the "Nasty."
J.R. On page 98 of Hanky you write, "This particular nastiness actually had a pigment. Brown. A perfectly decent color. It can't be blamed for the people who put it on."
R.W. That's not the nastiness of telling. That's the Nazi color, "Hitler brown."
J.R. But you also felt nasty telling this story?
R.W. Yes, also mixing "truth" and fiction. I used family structures and stories but went beyond them, bending them to my purpose--making it much worse. Formally too, for instance, making the dialogue between the two sisters a quarrel all through. To get a dramatic tension going between characters.
J.R. Is the sibling structure in this novel from your family? Do you have twin sisters?
R.W. Yes. This would have been easy to change. But I liked having literal twins when there are so many other doublings, "twinnings" of characters, stories, past and present, facts and fictions, unwanted selves ...
J.R. So there's the sense that this is a nasty thing to do, and yet you obviously had to do it.
R.W. I obviously wanted to do it.
J.R. Wanted to do it.
R.W. Yes. The changes that I made go in the opposite direction from what most people will do in using autobiographical material. I made it worse rather than better. I made it nastier. I guess that was why I felt odd.
J.R. Well, there isn't the sense that you were prettying up the story in any way--
R.W. On the contrary.
J.R. But on the other hand, the form makes it more than tolerable; it makes it an exhilarating experience to read, because of the lightness, the movement.
R.W. That's great! I'm happy you were feeling it that way. I was hoping it would do that. Form as exorcism.
J.R. There's a lot of humor in the form. Of the sort that doesn't have to do with jokes, but has to do with quickly shifting temperaments, perceptions, following an intelligence that is simultaneously in control and on the verge of not being able to cope with "the story," a hop-skipping over danger zones lightly defined by dotted lines.
J.R. One of the things that was so exciting about this book for me--and it was immediately exciting to start reading it knowing what it was about, seeing how you were handling it formally--I was exhilarated by the constructive tension I found in relation to many traditional uses of storytelling. Often stories are used to make things seem more intelligible than they actually are, more palatable, smoothing over rough edges, building denatured, seamless word-worlds in which anything can turn out to be O.K. Really, almost anything! Mass atrocity, personal brutality, paranoid violence, rape can become oddly palatable as chaos and ruin turn into well-made sentences. No matter how awful the images that the sentences are evoking, there can be a kind of lozenge-like shape to it all, each unit--sentence to paragraph to chapter--designed for easy swallowing. This use of stories is both understandable and worrisome. With your work on the Nazi era, and on the conquest of the Americas in A Form / of Taking / It All, the resistance to the paved-over silences of certain novelistic conventions invites one to think about the material terms of the novel and about the organizing intelligence in relation to the chaos of history. Now I'm thinking specifically of terms surrounding the "art" of the novel: "fiction" coming from the Latin fingere, "to touch"; "story" from historia which originally meant "wisdom"; "narrative" from narus, meaning "knowing." Did these things--touching, a search for wisdom, knowing--bear on the process as it unfolded for you?
R.W. Yes, as something to react against! At least the wisdom and knowing part. Because I thought exactly the opposite. Even if you write fiction with a limited perspective, you are still pretending to be omniscient. That's what I didn't want. In the same way, we say it's a fault in a novel if there are loose ends, it's all supposed to be tied up and neat. I thought of this as all loose ends.
J.R. Though there is a kind of weaving. The image that comes to mind actually is of a braid that has loose ends sticking out along the way, so while there's continuity of overall pattern, there's no illusion of entirely continuous strands.
R.W. I like that image. There has to be connection. Dallas Wiebe called this interweaving Wagnerian, but I hope he is wrong! Not just because I hate Wagner. But my weaving has too much interruption to weave a spell. I think the interruptions are in the service of consciousness, of thinking, against a narrative rhythm that might become mesmerizing.
J.R. Did you feel that you had come to know more, did you gain wisdom, did you touch previously untouchable things in writing Hanky?
R.W. Well, "wisdom" is a big term. But I think I came to understand some mechanisms, for instance how prejudice operates, racial prejudice. That it takes very little to activate it in somebody who maybe didn't think he was a racist, that it may take just one little action to let all of the stereotypes come flooding in. This is what I do with Josef when he finds out that his wife has been sleeping with his friend. If the friend were not Jewish he would have to deal with it in other terms, but since the friend is a Jew he can use the stereotypes as explanation. That "nothing is sacred" for Jews, et cetera. An available substitute for thinking.
J.R. There may have been some sort of modulation of perhaps an initial horror that there could be activations and enactments of this prejudice in your own family, but then also gaining an understanding of how it could happen to anyone within a systemically racist society. Did that change your feelings about the characters? Did you feel you had to see them in new ways as you moved along in order to continue writing?
R.W. I suppose. On one level, the book was an attempt to understand my mother, with whom I had always had a very hostile relation. Yes, it's almost paradoxical, but I think I learned something personal, about an actual person, by subjecting her to imagined, fictional situations.
J.R. Is that different from what happens to you in the process of writing poetry?
R.W. I don't know. There is a mimetic framework in the novel. But there is "thinking through" in both, thinking through form.
J.R. I love what you wrote in relation to this in your essay "Alarms and Excursions." At some point you realized everything you had ever written had been about your mother. You decided to experiment with nonnarrative forms in an attempt to free yourself from your preoccupation with your mother. And though it wasn't direct or explicit, you were--
R.W. Still writing about my mother, even when making collages!
J.R. Your feelings about your mother were inextricably connected to the energy in your need to write.
R.W. This was a great discovery of Tzara's. He has this wonderful poem, "How to Make a Dada Poem": Take a newspaper article. Cut it into single words. Put them in a bag. Shake gently. Take them out and copy carefully. And, here comes the punch, the poem will resemble you. Even if you seem to abdicate choice, you are still choosing, if at a remove. You don't get away from your preoccupations, your passions.
J.R. Yes. It's your consciousness that is making all the decisions, whatever they may be. The order of the elements in the procedure. The experimental framework is designed by you.
R.W. Yes, as we have said about Jackson Mac Low and John Cage-- who both go very much farther than I do. I use a lot of collage. I like choice at one remove, but I never go to a strict system and keep to it. Yes, one's obsessions will out. There's no getting away from them.
J.R. Well, given that fact, if it is in fact a fact, that no matter what you're doing and no matter what your procedures are, you are always shaping the material in the terms of your preoccupations, your obsessions, then what does it matter that you tell it more directly? If it's all about your mother anyway--
R.W. Good question.
J.R. Why not leave it at that?
R.W. I'd be bored.
J.R. Well, actually, can we let that hover a bit? As you can see, I'm curious about the very specific consequences of form, of the choices you make about language units, spacing, graphic presences, absences--how, why you find yourself working with one kind of structure rather than another.
R.W. When I first started thinking about this material, I thought I would have to do it in a realistic way. Which was strange for me. I wasn't sure I really wanted to do that. And wasn't sure I could! Actually, I found out in trying that I couldn't. I came away with a great respect for plain straightforward narrative. It is incredibly hard to do. I found I couldn't sustain it. So my leaps are really a disguise of my limp. I exaggerate my defects and try to make them an asset.
J.R. Hmm, I find that a little suspect!
R.W. I now think I felt it was material that maybe shouldn't--couldn't--be monkeyed with. As if "realism" weren't also "monkeying," as much of an artifice as any other form. In any case, the only way I could do it was indeed my usual way, trying both for small, fragmentary glimpses and then Weaving or braiding, as you say, those fragments together in a kind of musical flow, with recurrences for rhythm, et cetera. So it was the forms I had practiced in poetry--not in fiction--that enabled me to write this piece of prose. Not to mention the reliance on metaphors.
J.R. As you were talking, I thought about something you say in A Form / of Taking / It All. You are talking about the importance of images making connections of certain kinds. You say, if we didn't connect the dots, we wouldn't know the dots were there.
R.W. Umm. That sounds better than ... I think you must have formulated that!
J.R. No, you say that.
R.W. Here we are with Pound and Charles Olson and Whitehead, et cetera: what matters is not things but what happens between them. Or if you take the linguistic model, it is not the phoneme but the connection of phonemes that makes language, the differences in the sequence. It's always relation.
J.R. Yes, a moving, dynamic relation that allows things to glance at or by one another--in both senses of the word "glance"--seeing, recognizing, but also glancing off of and past, moving on. So there isn't a connection in the sense of a static bonding.
R.W. This is another function of the interruptions. The gaps keep the relations in question.
J.R. That way of working with shorter threads, abbreviated, almost anecdotal stories, juxtaposed perceptions, a motley assortment of narrational and descriptive and linguistic units--things you're choosing to attend to--creates a very different kind of world within the text than what we find in the sustained, internally coherent narrative of the more conventional novel. That form, unless it has moved from its nineteenth-century forward-thrusting track toward the "impossible" impediments and complexities of certain modernist novels, is a fully furnished panopticon, doors and windows sealed shut. The reader is led through from well-marked entrance to well-marked exit by an ever-present, entirely solicitous tour guide. Not much chance to wander and turn up things for yourself.
R.W. That's a good image.
J.R. Quite distinct from this, The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter was for me a much more permeable form--not fully furnished, more breathing room for the reader. A textual world more inviting to things that lay outside the author's mind.
R.W. Yes, the movement is not that of guiding--a tour or anything else--but of forays, of exploration. This is made thematic, in fact. The way the two narratives and two generations interact in a way parallels the reading and writing processes. On the one hand, the "narrator" is trying to understand her own story while trying to "read" that of the parents--the way we "glance off" into our own meditations and bring them into the text we are reading, as we always do, except maybe in a novel "you can't put down," which really "holds you captive." On the other hand, the sisters' knowledge is spotty so that there is constant conjecture, doubt, inventing or imagining what went on in the past, often using their own lives as a model to project onto the past. The past is a text alternately read and written.
J.R. And yet for me this text has an atmosphere, just because of the very particular world that you're evoking--that particular time, that place--that is contained and exotic. The experience of reading it has a quality of breathing a different kind of air. In that sense there is an enclosed quality, because the prose is holding that air in place. And yet ... again Calvino comes to mind, his thoughts on how many modes must exist simultaneously to make a really exhilarating novel. He wrote in his Norton lectures about the importance of having it all--lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity. His sixth lecture would have been about consistency had he not died of a sudden heart attack before completing it. Do you know the collection of these lectures?
R.W. No, I've not seen that.
J.R. I've had problems with the nineteenth-century form of the novel for some time, after an adolescence of living among its native characters, wanting to become one, and of course its well-made plots--longing for a life with a well-made plot. I felt I had to reject all that in order to live in the real, twentieth-century world. But recently I found myself wanting to reopen the question of the novel as contemporary form--not just holdover from the nineteenth century. I found Calvino's Norton lectures very helpful. He talks about those characteristics I mentioned--which, incidentally, I feel he didn't come as close to achieving in his own novels as you have, except possibly in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. In the lecture on "multiplicity" he talks about the encyclopedic novel, but also the novel that presents the reader with a system of systems, so that though you feel the kind of containment that even multiple systems create--
R.W. I felt that in "If on a Winter's Night" the system became obtrusive. The initial exhilaration wore off for me. I didn't quite finish it.
J.R. We're all, I think, painfully aware of the fact that we are at this historical moment entirely self-conscious about genres and styles--
J.R. That's why I've been so curious about the particulars of your reluctance to engage in the conventional act of fiction--telling a stylistically "realistic" story.
R.W. Well, as I said, it was at least partly inability.
J.R. Though I had the feeling, from things you said earlier, that you really were not so sure you wanted to do that kind of straightforward narrative.
R.W. Well, it goes a little against the grain.
J.R. Yes, that's what I'm curious about. Why?
R.W. Discontinuity is the natural state to me. It's how I see the world.
J.R. Talking, though, about forms that I confess induce claustrophobia in me--entering into certain internally consistent and "compleat" fictional worlds--I wonder is any of that a negative experience for you?
R.W. In writing, yes, but I often enjoy reading those novels. In fact sometimes I really get a craving for a real "solid" ...
J.R. Book! [A book on a nearby shelf falls over.]
R.W. I wonder which kind this is!
J.R. I can't read the title from here; it's that brown one. Do you know what that is? Ah, what just toppled was Harold Brodkey's Stories in an Almost Classical Mode.
R.W. Obviously the vibrations.
J.R. Criticizing the conventional novel has consequences!
R.W. I don't think it's simply a negative for me. In fact, the idea of closure--"closure" has become a dirty word, which is a bit silly because there has to be some closure for a form to be perceptible at all. There has to be some "coming together." But the problem is the degree of closure. It's rather like "aesthetic distance"--a very fine line. You want things to be cold, as cold as possible, as far away from the sentimental as possible. But there is a line beyond which it gets so cold that the reader can't get interested. That fine line is as far away from the "warm pulsing" as possible without tumbling over into freezing temperatures. My feeling about closure is similar. It's a matter of balance, the paradox within the term "open form." The question is how little closure we can get away with and still have the text "come together."
J.R. Yes, I think about that in terms of permeable and semipermeable membranes--the containment within a membrane, but also its openness to breathing, exchanging air with things outside it. That's what makes life possible, isn't it? A form that's alive somehow has to have permeable boundaries.
R.W. This is an interesting complement to the way Charles Bernstein talks about absorption and impermeability in "The Artifice of Absorption." He is more concerned with the reception, the reading process. His "impermeable" is all the formal elements that go against that other artifice that aims at absorbing, captivating the reader. But your image is actually closer to Rilke's image of form in the ninth Duino elegy: "Krusten, die willig zerspringen, sobald / innen das Handeln entwachst und sich anders begrenzt." Literally, crusts that willingly split open as soon as the inner action outgrows them and seeks other boundaries. Except that Rilke sees the energy totally "within," whereas your membrane puts it at the intersection of within and without, as Charles Olson's "skin" does. I like that better. And I would perhaps describe my own process as rather in the opposite direction: I always have multiplicity, scatter, and must search for the jelling point, the point of intersection, something fluid, but with cohesion.
J.R. Whose forms, whose work do you admire? What do you like to read?
R.W. God! So many people.
J.R. Maybe those are two different questions: (1) Whose work do you admire? (2) Whose work do you like to read?
R.W. Well, I go through times when I read one particular writer very avidly and with great intensity. I've had periods of Stein, Pound, Creeley, Ashbery, for instance--when I was really absorbed in them, and absorbing them. And then comes a long stretch when I hardly read them at all because I'm surfeited. I'm just coming around to reading Ashbery again.
J.R. Ah, I think immediately of Flow Chart because you often use the word "flow" about your own work.
R.W. I've heard him read part of it. It was stunning.
J.R. What are your thoughts about the relation of that kind of form--a poem that invites in disparate fragments of a life--in relation to your novels? Again, a question of genre. I wonder if certain things are able to happen in that form, a poem, that couldn't happen, even in the most complex interweavings of a novel, and vice versa. What about writers of fiction, novelists?
R.W. I love Djuna Barnes. In fact there are parts, phrases from Nightwood in The Hanky.
R.W. That was one of the books that got put in, along with friends' anecdotes, in the expansive period.
J.R. From Nightwood? I'm ashamed to say I didn't notice.
R.W. At this point I don't quite know which phrases or sentences were worked out of it again and which are still in there. But it's definitely one source. And I love Robert Musil. He may be at the top of my list. Along with Kafka. Then there is Woolf, Lispector, Svevo, Hawkes, Coover, Harry Mathews, Dallas Wiebe ...
J.R. What about Musil, what do you find in his work?
R.W. In Musil? Everything!
R.W. Well, if we take The Man without Qualities, first, the story itself is hilarious: Austria, in 1913, is planning a great celebration to rival the planned celebration of the German emperor's birthday in 1918 when we know both countries will be in the war within another year, and devastated by 1918. This may seem a fairly heavy irony, but it's delightful all the way through and constantly undermines the plot, the very progress of the novel. And there is another irony: whereas the plot is driven largely by the celebration committee's desperate search for an idea, which they of course cannot find, the novel is what you would call highly permeable for ideas, reflection, sociopolitical analysis, almost small essays worked in. So there is an openness, a grid structure that allows great complexity, a nonlinear narrative, there is a story that is exhilarating in its irony, and the style, the texture is just incredible. The sentences are so good.
J.R. That's interesting. You are describing things that I think you accomplish with Hanky. But in such a different way.
R.W. Of course Musil also has a mystical dimension, which I don't have at all. Which comes in the later part--where incest is presented as an attempt to cross borders into some original state of unity. This you probably haven't read, because it's part of the posthumous material, which was not part of the translation until the new one that came out just recently.
J.R. I wasn't aware that there was anything missing. So what about your Franz Josef in Hanky? Is there anything like mysticism or incest--crossing borders--with the best friend who is Jewish? "Franz Josef" as "the father" is in itself very suggestive historically, and then the fact of this character sort of copulating with himself ... There seems to be a thread in this novel that has to do with crossing borders and with genetics, biology. If Musil is moving toward a kind of unitary vision through incest, is there anything like this in Hanky?
R.W. Mysticism, or religion, is only there through Josef's kooky metaphysical and astrological systems, but not in a serious way. That's not an area that's being investigated at all. No, actually, the closeness of Franz and Josef--the reason I wanted to make them literal blood brothers through a transfusion is again that I wanted to approximate on a small, almost microscopic level something that is much too large for me to deal with. If you look at German literature, in fact, German culture, contrary to what the Nazis were saying, it is impossible to excise the Jewish component. There is an article by Gershom Scholem that argues that the German Jews embraced German culture to such an extent that the Germans felt ousted from their own patrimony. It's a curious idea that the very degree of their assimilation was in fact what irritated the Germans. He does not go so far as to say that if the Jews had been less assimilated the Holocaust might not have happened.
J.R. In Hanky one of the characters--or perhaps it's the narrator--talks about a typical Nazi accusation, that the Jews really don't have their roots in Germany; they are using the culture on some level without really being committed to it.
R.W. Yet they "used" it so well that they actually shaped it.
J.R. Yes, that's what I want to ask, when you say "assimilated the German culture--"
R.W. I mean they were part of the mainstream of the culture. When you think of the incredible blossoming of the arts from around the turn of the century until it was cut off by Hitler, you simply cannot take out the Jews.
J.R. You write about the blossoming of literary culture just prior to the horrors of Nazi Germany in your essay "Alarms and Excursions." You're referring to the idea that language can save us, that the forms we make of our language can improve the world: "The two decades before Hitler came to power were a period of incredible literary flowering, upheaval, exploration in Germany. All the dadaists and expressionists had been questioning, challenging, exploring, changing the language, limbering up its joints. So the German language should have been in very good condition, yet the Nazis had no trouble putting it to work for their purposes, perverting it to where what was said was light years from what was meant. So, while language thinks for us, there is no guarantee that it will be in a direction we like" [in The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, edited by Charles Bernstein]. Are you familiar with Allan Janik's and Stephen Toulmin's historico-philosophical analysis of fin-de-siecle Austrian culture, Wittgenstein's Vienna?
R.W. No. Not yet.
J.R. There was an enormous, blatant corruption in the use of language, public language at that time. They argue that it was the character of Viennese culture--in which public language was used primarily for denial and lies--that brought on the unprecedented attention to the nature of language in the work of Wittgenstein, Freud, Karl Kraus, and others. And that, of course, could strike one as ironic. In the discourse of intellectual circles all that attention is being given to linguistic hygiene--truth functions, language games, the language of the unconscious; it seems to have no effect whatsoever in the larger culture, on the widespread credulity with which Hitler's rhetoric is received.
R.W. But of course I pose as a little more naive in that essay than I really am. I mean, the word implies the lie, the possibility of the lie. The possibility of misuse is always right there. Language has nothing to do with ethics. It can be used for good or evil.
J.R. In other words, there is no essential connection between language and ethics.
R.W. There's nothing inherently ethical in language, I think.
J.R. Well, if they don't essentially or inherently connect, should ethics and aesthetics have something to do with one another?
R.W. It would be nice.
J.R. When you are putting together a literary form, do you think that you on some level need to perform an ethical act with your use of language? Do you think of your uses of language as having an ethos? Do you, for instance, feel the need to be "honest" in some way?
R.W. Well, "honest" in a formal way. Exactness of language. Listening to the words. But I get bothered when people say, This piece of writing is not sincere. What does it mean when people say that about a work of the imagination? I've been thinking about this in connection with the objectivists. Zukofsky keeps talking about "sincerity." Keith [Waldrop] pointed out what must be the source of his statements, the definition of the ideogram for "sincerity" in Pound's translation of Confucius: "pictorially the sun's lance coming to rest on the precise spot verbally ... to perfect, bring to focus.... The eye looking straight into the heart." That image is beautiful. The combination of light, focus, and location in the heart. A work should shed light rather than obfuscate. And it should not be a mere technical exercise, showing off your virtuosity, but grounded in some way in the core of your being. Your postulation of a "poethics" is more radical, I think. And Cage's "One does not then make just any experiment, but does what must be done" seems to imply a responsibility to history, to the cultural moment. But I don't see this as a matter of ethics. I rather think we can't escape our cultural moment anyway. So for me this is as far as the ethical dimension of literature goes: that the form would have to be "true," in the sense of light, precision, and the heart.
J.R. Hmm. "The heart"--a term I have trouble with. "The heart" seems to me problematic. With "light," I think of Descartes--"the light of reason."
R.W. True, light we're more comfortable with.
J.R. Well, the light of reason gets deflected and refracted. If light--the experience of it, the metaphor--implies anything about knowledge, that what we can see is what we can know, things are already very complicated. What we know and what we invent are closely related.
R.W. It also gets complicated because in Western culture the complex light-clarity-knowledge is set up as the measure of value. Blanchot speaks of the "imperialism of light"--that light lets see, but is not itself seen. It gives illusion of direct knowledge, immediacy: we see clearly on condition that we do not see the light. This sounds rather like the realistic novels you have been talking about, that pretend to transparency.
J.R. I wonder about a possible connection between ethical and formal concerns. I mean, every form has an ethos, doesn't it? For instance one might think of constructing enough syntactic and semantic openness so that a reader's mind is not engulfed by your world, so that she or he still has some autonomy and agency, critical distance--the sorts of things that are said about valuing and supporting the "active" versus the "passive" reader. Is it, for instance, an ethical act as a writer to stun the reader into passivity?
R.W. I don't think about it in those terms. You exaggerate the power of the writer.
J.R. Well, I do think there are powers of seduction that writers quite consciously use.
R.W. The reader is after all free not to pick up the book. But I don't think about the reader at all while writing, r don't go as far as Benjamin, who says in "The Task of the Translator": "Art ... posits man's physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response. No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener." But the reader is in the future. Once a poem is done I can think about her or him. While I'm writing all I think about is trying to make as good a structure as I can, that is true to--well, I guess, true to what I feel. It's curious. I have problems with these words too--sincerity, heart, feeling. It may be because we are women, and the literary "domain" of women used to be the emotions, the heart, the sentimental story or poem. We don't want to be defined--limited--this way. Maybe our unease with those terms means that we are still fighting a stereo-type which is still around, for that matter.
J.R. Yes, there is that. But also more generally, there can be a sense that if you just feel something intensely enough--and this goes back to the unease with sincerity--that somehow it, ipso facto, has value of some kind, including truth value. There have been in the last decade or so what I think of as more interesting ideas about feminine and masculine (not always corresponding to female and male) modes. Do you know, for instance, Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice?
J.R. Though I'm uneasy with hard and fast categorizations and feel it's important for artists to take it upon themselves to transgress and hop across all the chalk lines and put any kind of puzzle together that we like, I do think certain distinctions at certain historical moments can be helpful. Particularly when they draw our attention to things we haven't noticed in a particularly fuzzy or heavily stereotyped area. Gilligan writes about what she identifies as a "female," and what I would call "feminine" (because persons of any anatomy can have it) preference for a kind of web-structured thinking--being attentive to, concerned about, the complex and multidirectional patterns of connections between people, about informal structures between people within communities. So that, for instance, a moral problem might be thought about in the complex pragmatic terms of those affected by certain choices and actions.
R.W. Rather than in terms of categories.
J.R. Yes, rather than by the abstract simplifications of linear logics, the hierarchically arranged deductions from first principles. Of course it has been those Occam's razored thought processes that we culturally identify with all the values in "clear, masculine thinking." Remember the compliment "She thinks like a man"? Gilligan wanted to say, It's not that women don't reason as well as men, it's that their experience leads them to have different kinds of concerns, values, awarenesses. That's why they tend to think differently, have a different moral consciousness, about the consequences of actions. So, for instance, given an ethical dilemma, a woman prefers the role of concerned mediator to that of arbiter. Which brings to mind your saying in "Alarms and Excursions" that you are uneasy with the idea of the writer as legislator.
J.R. It seems to me one implication in what Gilligan is saying is that characteristically feminine writing (often enacted by men, such as James Joyce or Calvino's example, Carlo Emilio Gadda) might in one way or another reflect patterns of weblike connectedness. Things that you care about in very different domains, for instance, being brought together with equal weight and value--a horizontal, commodious, generously attentive system, rather than the exclusions and abstractions of vertical hierarchies.
R.W. Piaget's studies with children seem to point in a similar direction. That the girls--even very little girls--already think in a kind of ecological way, more than the boys, who seem to go by rules. But it's hard to know how much of it is cultural and how much genetic. Because the nurturing process is obviously different from the start.
J.R. Well, we seem to have a culture that supports different, somewhat complementary, though invidiously compared, gender modes--our own Western yin-yang, with the so-called female mode being consistently devalued. Even though it's been theoretically superseded (and I myself have since written about the insufficiencies of that female-male binary model), Gilligan's book was an important cultural event. She came to write it when tests to gauge levels of maturity in moral thinking--tests that had been designed in trials with all-male Harvard students--continuously resulted in invidious contrasts between the "mature" moral thinking of men and the "immature" thinking of women. I suppose what this amounts to is my desire to prod you a bit more about your penchant for writing decidedly nonstraight narratives, and perhaps for avoiding "ethical" issues. I'm just not convinced by, "I didn't write a more linear, self-enclosed, `realistic' narrative because I'm inept," as opposed to--
R.W. What the reasons might be--why was I inept?
J.R. Yes, exactly. There might be a considered, even lived resistance to operating in that sort of structure that has something to do with how you operate in the world and what you value.
R.W. Well, discontinuity seems the natural state. It's how I see the world. We come to know anything that has any complexity by glimpses. So it is best to have as many different glimpses from as many different perspectives as possible, rather than trying to develop a linear argument where one thing follows from another.
J.R. Which is an artifice anyway--given the messiness of life as lived by anyone in this world.
R.W. Both modes are artifices. But, as far as fiction goes, maybe the biggest artifice is the narrative thread--the so-called narrative thread. Which, by the way, is another wonderful aspect of The Man without Qualities. Musil starts out by questioning the narrative thread. The first paragraph is a long, detailed list of meteorological data. A long, long paragraph. And at the end of it, he says, "In short, it was a nice summer day in August, 1913." You come to what would be a traditional narrative opening only after you've been given a whole web of information. And this pattern holds for the whole novel. When he gives you narrative line it is in ironical juxtaposition with a grid or web structure. Which either makes Musil, by Gilligan's criterion, an honorary woman or shows that writing is beyond gender distinctions, which is what I tend to think. Writing, at least good writing, would be androgynous, would partake of both male and female modes of thinking.
J.R. Yes, I think that too. And I think some of the problems arise if you try to lodge these characteristics in what seem to be the "naturally" corresponding bodies: masculine mode in men only, feminine mode in women only. My feeling is that the healthier ones among us manifest and acknowledge both feminine and masculine elements in our ways of being in the world.
R.W. Yes, persons are not archetypes.
J.R. And we are not writing in an inherently "phallogocentric" language. Language is woven from feminine and masculine elements.
R.W. Even if men dominate the use of language in society, the first encounter with language is usually through the mother. Our feeling about language is at least partly shaped by the female, which makes nonsense of claiming language as the domain of the male archetype exclusively, let alone of identifying the signifier with the phallus.
J.R. Yes, our feelings for language are developing from the first moment of audibility--probably in the delivery room, perhaps in the womb. Obviously most of us are coming into contact with the mother's voice, as well as the language rhythms of Mother Goose, at a time when we are accumulating all sorts of associations and resonances that have to do with structures outside of rationalist logics, having to do with very tangible, immediate sorts of experiences. And though, as we "mature," we are systematically trained to ignore them, words are chords, carrying these polyphonic associations and resonances, along with semantic meanings, to our ears and eyes.
R.W. And this is maybe what makes literature, or at least poetry, possible. Even thought, Blanchot would say. He postulates that thought needs the "dark" to be stimulated into activity, into finding its own light.
J.R. Getting back to the idea of the early acquisition of language being in most circumstances more intimately bound up with the relationship of the child to the mother--not just with a female person, but with the material character of that early interaction--we are gathering all sorts of associations and navigational skills as we're learning language. Words are the attractors that increasingly draw us into the patterns characteristic of our culture's norms and forms. As Wittgenstein puts it, we're not just learning a vocabulary, we're becoming part of a form of life. As we begin our formal education, we are increasingly asked to put aside a vast store of intuitions that have informed and colored our experience of language--to think with language only in ways that conform to a few closely defined, legitimated and regulated logics. It seems to me that the most valuable service poetry can perform for us estranged, alienated creatures is to awaken in us that store of rich intuitions, the complexity of the conversation between those intuitions and our logics. First off, the poet gets to exercise a fuller self in the act of writing.
R.W. Yes, that's why one of my books is called Lawn of the Excluded Middle.
J.R. Ah, tell me how you think about what you're doing in that book.
R.W. I work with the idea of the empty center as a place of resonance and fertility: the womb, the resonance body of an instrument, or, in logic, the excluded middle. So I code as female what refuses the alternative of true or false and what therefore, according to the rules of logic, doesn't exist. This doesn't mean I reject logic (as if one could!), rather I would like to enlarge, enrich it in exactly the manner you were speaking of. In fact, I use vocabulary from the new physics because it is the discipline that seems to have the most negative capability at this point. It seems to be able to handle the conflicting pictures of classical physics and, say, quantum theory. As A. S. Eddington puts it, we use classical physics on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and quantum theory on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.
J.R. Lovely! One of the things that's of interest to me in both Hanky and A Form / of Taking / It All, novels by a writer who is primarily a poet, is that both--most dramatically perhaps A Form / of Taking / It All--do allow a more complex entry into language and the way it "really" works in our lives, full of multidirectional and even contradictory vectors, full of layers of experience. For me, much more rewarding than a straight and narrow narrative form. Here's a silly question: When you were writing these books, did you feel like a poet writing a novel, or did writing a novel mean that you had to put something of yourself as poet aside?
R.W. I suppose I always feel I'm a poet. And the extent to which I work with metaphor in The Hanky has made this obvious. More basically, although the novel has different requirements, like plot, characters, et cetera, I still feel, whether I work on poetry or a novel, that writing is a dialogue with language. I feel the differences mostly as differences of breath and rhythm. The units are larger in the fiction. In poetry, I have almost a compulsion to great concision.
J.R. What do you mean by breath and rhythm? "Breath" can be a sort of loaded, projectile term ...
R.W. It's getting hard to use any word! Well, the engagement with language structures--a dialogue, I would say--is fundamentally shaped by my ear, by the rhythmic units I work in. The rhythm of a paragraph is harder for me than the rhythm of a sentence or line. I think of this as naturally short breath. Otherwise I haven't really questioned why some things go toward prose and some go toward verse. There's been only one case in which a work of mine has gone back and forth between them in different versions, Differences for Four Hands. It ended as a prose poem. It started as an exercise, using Lyn Hejinian's Gesualdo as a syntactic matrix, putting in a different vocabulary and then expanding, playing. I tried to put it into lines, but it didn't seem to work. It is a testimony to the strength of Lyn's prose sentences that I couldn't pull them into verse.
J.R. I think of sentences as something you initially hold your breath for. Particularly long German sentences. Like playing a wind instrument where a long phrase or glissando requires taking in an enormous gulp of air and then letting it out slowly, steadily. There's even the technique called "circular breathing."
R.W. Yes, but I often have the feeling that I'm panting!
R.W. Hyperventilating. Whereas prose needs the deep breath. I don't know if it's a higher anxiety level that makes me feel so short of breath, so panting, the pressure of the white space.
J.R. The white space always seems to me to be possibility---open, uncharted territory. Allowing the units of language to breathe more fully, or in a less impacted way--
R.W. Emily Dickinson's "Moving on the Dark like Loaded Boats at Night, though there is no Course, there is boundlessness." This wonderful "though" that leaps into another dimension, breathes infinite possibility. But if everything is possible, nothing is. So any start of a poem or a text is extremely anxiety-laden for me. Whereas once there's the smallest little word given, the smallest choice made, I'm in much better shape.
J.R. I've always imagined that James Joyce was very anxious about white space, that he experienced it as uncomfortably empty space.
R.W. He needed to fill it up.
J.R. Yes, to create a plenum--a full, actually overflowing, universe with every potential gap stuffed with more potential meaning. But then in that sheer complexity a new kind of space, the fractal space of indeterminacy, opens up.
R.W. In the very extreme, the fullness joins the emptiness. I want the white space; it's needed. Clark Coolidge says "to create is to make a pact with nothingness" [in "Notebooks 1976-82" in Michael Palmer's Code of Signals]. I want as much of it as possible, because in a way the silence carries the words. But at the same time it is an overwhelming challenge to the words that have to be in dialogue with it.
J.R. That's what I'm hearing. That there's a balancing act you're working out between this anxiety of leaving things empty, and yet--
R.W. I know you want to talk about the novels, but this gets very much at the Lawn of Excluded Middle, which works with the metaphor of the womb as a central emptiness. The empty space necessary for resonance, understanding, fertility, everything. This is where the "law" (of the "excluded middle") turns into "lawn." It's a sort of a structural metaphor behind the whole sequence. It's almost bizarre that they are prose poems, that I didn't work with lines, with the constant facing of the edge where the word meets silence. I seem to have moved the silence from the literal margin to a thematic/ metaphorical middle.
J.R. The tension between needing to in some way restrain oneself from making too many marks, too many words, the need to leave things to some degree really empty for, as you say, resonance and possibility, and yet needing also for something to enter into the space for signs of life, this makes me think of what you say in "Alarms and Excursions"--that writing has to do with uncovering possibilities: "My key words would be exploring and maintaining. Exploring a forest not for the timber that might be sold, but to understand it as a world and to keep this world alive." Now to go from the womb to the forest is a stretch, but--
R.W. Actually, that is an expansion of a statement by Valery who very beautifully said, "the poet enters the forest with the express purpose of getting lost." Only then you begin to see. He pits this against the person with a message to deliver, who would try to get through the language/forest as quickly as possible and therefore would cut a road which both ignores and destroys much of the forest's life. That has always stuck in my mind.
J.R. When I read that in your essay, I wondered about the fact that such a metaphor has to do with exploring a world that already exists, that's already in some way a part of your experience. So you might see it in a new light and work to nourish it, but this is not about "creating or inventing a new world" as the act of fiction is sometimes taken to be.
R.W. Yes, but we don't. We don't ever, quite, invent a wholly new world. Language exists already and potentially contains all that can be said in it. I think "the forest of language" is a very good metaphor. It's something we can move around in, there is so much of it. We never completely explore, let along master it. But we can discover things, make new connections, et cetera. But we don't invent anything ex nihilo.
J.R. No, of course not. What we mean by invention or creation is not "out of nothing" but is always no more, and no less, than arranging-composing things in such a way that a relatively new pattern emerges, with a critical difference of some sort. Something that perhaps is connected to critically different processes, changes, that are taking place in the world. This is, after all, what we mean by "contemporary," isn't it?
R.W. Yes, as Gertrude Stein puts it [in "Composition as Explanation"]: "Everything is the same except composition and as the composition is different and always going to be different everything is not the same." Always new forms, new structures, new perspectives, new ways of thinking, new ways of putting things together. But all contained within the strange and marvelous structure of language.
J.R. Though language itself has changed pretty radically over time, as we see in our etymological dictionaries.
R.W. Not "radically." Change of usage, of word-meanings seems on the surface to me. We can still read Old English--albeit with a bit of work. I'm thinking of the "deep" structure of language (though not in Chomsky's technically linguistic sense), even of something like the "central kinship of languages" that Benjamin posits as what makes translation possible. I may have this feeling of language being there beforehand more strongly because I changed my language. Wittgenstein says somewhere that you can't come into language as into a room. But I think, at least for your second language, you can, provided you take certain "steps" of learning. Or into a forest. I walked from one forest into another.
J.R. So you walked into the forest of English and got lost?
R.W. Very much so! I hope I'll never find my way out.
J.R. You wrote, in "Alarms and Excursions," "I don't even have thoughts, I say, I have methods that make language think, take over and me by the hand into sense or offense. Syntax stretched across rules, relations of force. Fluid the dip of the plumb-line, the pull of eyes. What if the mother didn't censor the child's looking, didn't wipe the slate clean? Would the child know from the start that there are no white pages, that we always write over a text already there? No beginnings, all unrepentant middle."
R.W. I'm happy that you picked that one out. But if there's the palimpsest then why am I anxious about the white space? It's contradictory. Or is it? Actually, the text already there is, for me, the whole past of the particular language, the whole culture, that is to say, a plenitude almost as large, almost as unlimited and full of possibilities as emptiness.
J.R. Later you say, "A sentence is made by coupling." Which is an interesting metaphor because of course it means connecting, but also something sexual.
R.W. Sexual, yes, I mean it to be.
J.R. And then "the progeny of the sentence."
R.W. Right. I'm casting language itself in the role of the muse. More than muse, even--that it's language itself that takes over and (pro-) creates. And that our work as writers is to learn to prod the language structures within us and without us into becoming active. I have taken this from Edmond Jabes. He sees the writer as mere catalyst. The words have their own affinities: "Light is in these lovers' strength of desire."
J.R. If you take that far enough, you have a form of mysticism--that we all are sort of swimming in, navigating through this vital, energetic, inspirited medium ...
R.W. Yes, I would agree to that. Language is the one transcendence that I find available to me. I mean God ... is God.
J.R. Well "God" is part of the language.
R.W. Exactly. "It's a word my culture gives me," Jabes said when I asked how he reconciled his atheism with constantly writing about God..And there is a parallel, if we can disregard the difference between a concept and a whole symbolic system: both "God" and language are human inventions, but inventions that are larger than the inventor, that transcend their origin. Rather a mystery--or at least a paradox.
J.R. Are you interested in theories of the origin of language?
R.W. Not really, but that was a very strong German preoccupation that I grew up with. All the eighteenth-century German thinkers wrote about how language might have come into being.
J.R. The "first word."
R.W. The first word is like the first principle. It's very much like God. But also trying to get back to something like the essence of humanity, how it could have come about. Kant wrote about it. Herder wrote about it. Wilhelm von Humboldt.
J.R. Given the philosophical atmosphere in which you grew up, with ideas of connections between language and a supposed "essence" of what it means to be human, I wonder if you have any sense of creating the form of your own humanity in your use of language as a writer, how enacting or participating in language in the way you do, with the forms you use, in some way creates and recreates you as a certain kind of human being.
R.W. Oh, definitely, definitely, yes.
J.R. Could you say something about that?
R.W. I agree with your statement. Writing is an existential act. In writing I am created and creating myself through language. But I'm not sure how much farther I can take it.
J.R. Well, I think, as an example, of Tina Darragh, who enacts with her language investigations of various sorts. Interesting, it feels awkward to say in the third person, "She's creating herself as Tina Darragh"--as someone who undertakes a questioning, a very specific quest via her writing, while inventing very specific systems that might invite answers but always have an indeterminate quality so that they never entirely close the investigation down. And it's of course the particulars of her use of language, of her constructed procedures, that make all this possible. She gets to generate and shuffle certain texts and vocabularies and come up with certain kinds of surprises that keep the question alive, rather than killing it off with pedantic research. And she has talked about this as being the move she had to make in her work in order not to write sentimental autobiography.
R.W. Aha! Yes, this last applies to my case too. I have already told you that I turned to collage in order not to write about my mother. But there's more to it. The method of collage goes a long way toward embodying the way I feel I am in the world. There is an immensity of data around us, and to choose the ones that are relevant and to connect them is my sense of life also. And, again, there is an anxiety of the too much, of wanting it all, of the impossibility of choosing. I'm now thinking again of the page as palimpsest, the anxiety does not only have to do with the boundlessness of the possibilities, but also with what has been censored, what is there, hidden underneath.
J.R. So, perhaps, one of the things that the explorer in the forest does is make clearings here and there?
R.W. Yes. Sounds like we're getting back to the empty center. In growing up, my greatest anxiety was that I was scattered into all the things that I was doing, experiencing, reading--that I had no center, no self. Out of that developed a strong need to be alone, quiet, sitting at a desk. And trying to put words on a piece of paper became an act of centering. The problem was that I thought of the self as something like a "content"--I was still a long ways from accepting the center as empty, the self as a kind of crossroads, force field, a "form," as Creeley calls the mind. In fact, my sense of form has changed in the same direction, from a kind of "container within which" to an intersection, or multiple intersections around which. The Man without Qualities was no doubt a factor in this change, both for the psychology and the form. Along with Merleau-Ponty and others.
J.R. My guess is that those most anxious about the self are those most closely wed to the first-person singular pronoun. The inability to let go of that--
R.W. Because it is so uncertain.
J.R. Yes, uncertain, and somehow the belief in the "I" as a kind of concentrated force that will bring things back--a magnet pulling at the past, or a centripetal force that can counter loss.
R.W. Yes, I think that also comes back to your question of Do I create myself as a writer? Given that the page is such an aid to thinking, a great intersection, it's no surprise that the "I" as an intersection of thought, experience, et cetera would as it were "take place" on the page, on paper
J.R. Though you're not someone who uses the "I" as much as many other writers. It is there; you haven't banished it.
R.W. It is there. Claude Royet-Journoud is very proud that in the whole book The Notion of Obstacle, he never once uses the word "I." I remember asking, Why are you so proud of that? If I remember correctly, he talked about it in terms of a reaction against the surrealists who always were descending into their "I," and down into the subconscious. He wants a kind of objectivity. Which, to me, is also a little questionable. In any case, in writing, I don't have any desire to get rid of the "I." It makes smaller claims than objectivity!
J.R. And you never have had that desire?
R.W. There is no getting rid of it anyway. Even the scientists admit that the presence of the observer is always part of the data.
J.R. I was just wondering if you had ever had a crisis of the "I."
R.W. I told you I didn't feel I even had an "I." It had to come about through words.
J.R. There's an interesting entering of an "I" that I take to be you as narrator-persona, rather than character, in A Form / of Taking / It All. There are shifts from character to narrator to historical figures entering into motions that characters have begun, a feeling of there being forms of movement that could be entered by many different bodies, many different personas. I'm curious about the relation in that book between the character Amy, the narrator, and you.
R.W. The narrator is very much an alter ego of mine, a woman who writes. And the narrator's reflections about writing in the third section are very much mine. Whereas the character of Amy is doubly removed in that she is the creation of the narrator who is also present as a character. And she is for me a figure of otherness both as a poet I do not feel close to and as a gay woman. The first germ of this book goes very far back, to a joke Keith and I had in 1970. We were in Paris, both on fellowships, Keith on an "Amy Lowell," I on an "Alexander von Humboldt." We decided we must write a work about their "mystical marriage"!
J.R. Were you talking about doing a collaborative work?
R.W. Yes, but it quickly became just a joke. Keith never did anything with it, but with me, it stuck. It became an exploration of otherness: the discovery of America, which forced the Europeans to revise their whole image of the world; relativity and quantum theory, which have forced us into a revision even more radical, because the old image is not replaced by another image, but by mathematical formulae that defy being pictured; and, on the personal level, the encounter with another person. This is where Amy Lowell comes in, the enormous woman poet with cigar, in love with another woman.
J.R. You talk about "Keith and I" at one point.
R.W. I had not remembered this. Do I? In the third section probably.
J.R. Yes, and I was curious about that sudden eruption of the "I" that seemed to actually be you.
R.W. Yes, the boundary between the narrator and me is weak. Still, I'm puzzled that I did this. It is actually Alexander von Humboldt whom I to some extent identify with. We're both part of the enormous invasion of America by Europe, wave after wave of explorers and conquerors. Of course I prefer Humboldt, who comes as explorer, to Cortes and the other conquerors. But the two are not altogether separable. Even I, as an immigrant, come both to explore and conquer. And this involves/questions male-female archetypes because it is a "masculine" activity--the conquering and exploring--whereas the woman is supposed to be the territory. It also makes homosexuality relevant to the book, beyond the biographies of Amy Lowell and von Humboldt. Actually I'm not done with this yet because the Roger Williams book I am working from [A Key into the Language of America] again goes at that--Europeans coming and taking over the land of the Indians, putting a very "male" culture in the position of conquered female. So this seems something that obsesses me, that "works" me.
J.R. You are in an interesting position personally with all this. The Europeans come. They take over the land of the Indians. They establish a Eurocentric language-culture which you as European come to and must enter and explore and get lost in and which then, with all its American transformations, takes you over. The American language really has to some extent claimed you and can be said to be exploring you, if we think of the way in which language itself has the capacity to draw out patterns.
J.R. A very interesting, very complex pattern of connections and movements. Since we're talking about these patterns of attraction and interaction, one of the levels that A Form / of Taking / It All is operating on has to do with the tension between gravity and movement. The book ends with that wonderfully titled poem "Unpredicted Particles." When I had finished it I thought about one of the blurb statements on the cover talking about the formulation of quantum theory as being a major thread in the book.
R.W. It's really only in the fourth section.
J.R. Yes, but given the directiveness of blurbology, I was looking for it throughout.
R.W. In a way this is exactly right. After all, I do fuse the two large-scale discoveries--America and the quantum--by having Columbus discover the new physics, as it were. I fuse Columbus and Heisenberg, as it were. Not that it would need to be Heisenberg, but most of the scientific quotes happen to be from him. Also, formally it is there all through, the paradox of quantum and wave, in the simultaneous presence of fragment and flow. But explicitly only in the last section, in "Unpredicted Particles."
J.R. You know, I don't feel this book really ends there.
R.W. Do you have trouble with the last section, with it being a poem?
J.R. That section seems to me something else in a way, something apart from what preceded it. And it may be that I'm not reading it correctly.
R.W. You may well be.
J.R. Whatever "correctly" means, but I'm curious about how it came to be in that form, just what it's relation--in your process--was to the previous three sections.
R.W. Robert Coover liked the book up to "Unpredicted Particles" but thought it a copout that I went into verse. I--defensively--chalked this up to his maybe not being comfortable with poems in general! It's true that the first three sections are in prose, but each section is in a different form--stream of consciousness, collage of historical materials, first-person meditation--so that the expectation of continuity is frustrated each time. The change into verse is a more radical move, but not totally unprepared, it seems to me. There is formal otherness with each new section. And that the change is more radical seems to me justified thematically. The new physics doesn't just make us revise our images. There are no more images, period. No more apple falling as in the Newtonian gravity model. Analogy has been replaced by mathematical formulas.
J.R. Aren't particle and wave images as well?
R.W. Those are still images, which is perhaps why I keep talking about them. But they don't get us very far. When I try to read books on physics--popularizations, mind you--I very quickly hit a point where the images give out, and where I am totally lost. It just occurs to me that this might have been a reason for going into poetry: poetry has so long been identified with images, especially metaphor, analogy; and I have worked so long against this definition that I may subliminally have intended a kind of manifesto: poetry can go on in this brave new world without images! But of course I use images in the poem! I think of it as a kind of summation: beside Columbus and particles, sexuality comes back in with quotes from Musil's story "Tonka." Which also means I allow prose in, both narrative and theoretical, the latter with quotes from both physics and from Todorov's The Conquest of America.
J.R. I see this book as raising interesting formal questions. There are brackets for this book that are poetic. The title itself is poetry, three lines from Creeley with line-break indicators. Creeley's lines are "mind is a form / of taking / it all." You drop "mind" and present the line without a subject so that it could be read as formal self-reference. I've tended to read it that way and to think that poetry as "a form of taking it all" is quite a statement! That's the initial bracket, and then at the end you yourself move into poetry. So thinking in terms of genre, I've wondered, when we get to page 76, just prior to the section that is clearly poetic, "Unpredicted Particles," is it that we don't, can't yet have "it all," whatever that might mean? That we have to move to poetic form for all that eludes prose? Are you at that point in some sense moving into an enactment of poetry as a form of taking it all, or perhaps not that at all? Perhaps, quite the contrary! What would "taking it all" mean anyway?
R.W. The book started with the second part, "A Form of Memory." Which is the most disjunctive, the one that juxtaposes the most disparate materials. I thought of this already as an enactment of "taking it all." The interior monologue of the first part was to provide a frame that would allow people to ease into it, to interpret "A Form of Memory" as a fever vision of Amy sick in Mexico, that is, to "normalize" it. But then I decided this was as far as I wanted to go in that direction. The other parts would have to break it open, not try to hold it in.
J.R. There's a history of novels that have incorporated other forms, including poems. It's always an interesting formal decision, that sometimes works better than others.
R.W. The first time I consciously encountered such a novel was Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen. What struck me there was that the poems are not ornament. You couldn't skip over them and get the plot. The poems forward the action almost as much as the prose. The narrative line continues across the genre difference. I find this very interesting. As I do also the novels that incorporate essays, like Hermann Broch's.
J.R. In planning this book did you think, "I'll have a section that is poetry"?
R.W. No, I did at first not plan beyond "A Form of Memory," which is modeled on a very wonderful book by Konrad Bayer called The Head of Vitus Bering.
J.R. You mean the form of that section?
R.W. Yes. All I knew was I wanted to do something like The Head of Vitus Bering, but also different. For example, I take the collage farther than he does in that I often have my shifts within a sentence.
J.R. Yes, a motion that I particularly associate with you, in your poetry as well.
R.W. Yes, which subverts the linearity a little farther yet. But it was only gradually that I realized this collage would need other things to go with it.
J.R. It's clear to me, and I'm sure to other readers, that you have a great sense of latitude in what can enter a book like this, that you're not laboring under strict generic rules.
R.W. No, but this is the freest of all my books. I've not done anything else where the expectation gets jolted that often in different directions.
J.R. Did this come before or after "Alarms and Excursions"?
J.R. I see some similarities in--
R.W. In the structure? Yes, definitely. "Alarms and Excursions" is really the first essay I've written that I'm happy with. My earlier essays are more or less academic articles, you know. I was pleased to break out of that form. And it may have been possible because I had done A Form / of Taking / It All before.
J.R. And had Hanky in some way led you to the point where you could do A Form?
R.W. Probably. Also to the point where I began to write mostly prose poems.
J.R. It's not a given that a writer, having done a particular kind of book, will then stand as if on a threshold and say, What new adventures does this position me for? Whatever I do next it's not going to be the same thing. In fact, most mainstream novels that are being read by most people are familiar formulas being used over and over again.
R.W. Right. But that gets boring. Creeley quotes Franz Kline as saying, "If I paint what I know, I bore myself. If I paint what you know, I bore you. So I paint what I don't know."
JOAN RETALLACK is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor Of the Humanities at Bard College and a senior fellow at the Institute for Writing and Thinking, Bard College. Her books include Afterrimages (Wesleyan, 1995), Musicage (Wesleyan, 1996), How to Do Things with Words (Sun and Moon, 1998), and Mongrelisme (Paradigm, 1999). The Poethical Wager, a collection of interrelated essays, is forthcoming from the University of California Press. She is the recipient of a Lannan Foundation literary grant for 1998-99.3
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|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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