A Review of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion

Vollmann

(This originally appeared at a blog called Hysterical Realism on the platform Convozine, which recently went offline. I wanted to re-post it in part because of Okla Elliott’s recent passing. I didn’t know him personally but we connected through our interest in Vollmann in this article and stayed in touch via social media and email.)

 

There are only a handful of academic texts about second wave hysterical realists. Dalkey Archive published Intersections: Essays on Richard Powers. Sideshow Media Group released Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Now we have William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (WTVCC) by the University of Delaware Press.  These books are invaluable for readers looking to better understand these writers, their texts, and their place in the world of literature.

Vollmann is both prolific and sweeping in range. He has written about Native Americans, Japanese Noh Theater, hobos, prostitutes, and the history of violence. A reader might be an expert in one of these subjects but not all. Readers need a companion to sift through his range of materials and its relationship to style. And as Larry McCaffery states, “I believe it was Vollmann’s sentences—with their unexpected analogies and their evocation of sensual specifics, their odd mixture of lyricism and abstraction, their wit and self-mockery—that left their deepest impressions on me” (xiii). Vollmann is a tremendous stylist who often breaks with conventions. While the creative writers will want to know how he makes all of these texts work, the academic will ask why. In particular, Buell Wisner studies Vollmann’s use of Elizabethan form in Argall. How does he use style and language to compliment his substance? Or one can read Daniel Lukes’ piece that explores the presentation and reception of his male protagonists with regard to masculinity, sexuality, and prostitution—a defining topic in the Vollmann catalog. One needs a companion to help make sense of these topics. These articles go beyond superficial aspects and dive into why Vollmann is one of the most exciting writers alive.  McCaffery writes, “I soon discovered that Vollmann’s books had changed and disturbed me, challenged my assumptions, made me feel empathies for people I had ignored. And somehow they also INSPIRED ME, made me feel less cynical.”

I discovered Vollmann while living in San Francisco, a stone’s throw from Vollmann’s Sacramento base of operation. My writing instructors weren’t familiar with him. They knew him by name but hadn’t read much of his stuff. I first came across him at Green Apple Books.  Before I had read anything by him, before I had even purchased them, I would open them and study how they were organized. The table of contents to Rising Up and Rising Down, The Atlas, and Europe Central were unlike anything I had seen, revealing a sense of order, exposing a mind at work in way that could teach me something about how big books were built. The scale of those books was immense. His fiction leaned towards philosophy, history, and poetry. I remember getting Rising Up and Rising Down (the abridged version), Europe Central, You Bright & Risen Angels. I would start, typically reading the first twenty pages, but could never finish as a result of school assignments. But the writing in those initial pages dislodged something in me. His voice and sense of building sentences were unlike anything I was studying in school. I knew at some point I would return to his works and read them slowly and carefully, because something there was worth savoring.

For example, I remember standing in Green Apple, on the second floor, right where the stairs end, and there was the table covered with books, I picked up Europe Central and read this:

A squat black telephone, I mean an octopus, the god of our Signal Corps, owns a recess in Berlin (more probably Moscow, which one German general has named the core of the enemy’s whole being). Somewhere between steel reefs, a wire wrapped in gutta-percha vibrates: I hereby…zzzzzzz…the critical situation…a crushing blow.

 

I didn’t know the terms encyclopedic narrative, maximalism, or defamiliarization at the time, but there was something about reading those lines that indicated to me that this book would teach me how to show the rockiness of the rock. Some would claim this type of writing a loose and baggy monster full of purple prose. Those terms carry a negative connotation. But I enjoyed it. Obviously some publisher thought it was worth producing. Someone somewhere was buying it, besides me—again at that point I didn’t know anyone reading him. I was reading in isolation, desperately wanting to connect with other people who valued this type of prose.

During those years of collecting, it seemed like a personal thing that no one else was a part of, a cultish following, which definitely defines many of Vollmann’s readers. I specifically remember asking a woman bookseller if she had anything by Vollmann. She said she did not carry any books “by that pervert.” A line couldn’t have been drawn any clearer. At that point I was well aware of Vollmann’s habit of smoking crack and hanging out with prostitutes in the Tenderloin. But as I read him, it was like Jesus washing the feet of prostitutes. He and so many of the figures in the book were lost causes, so much of the voice was sympathetic. I had never read someone who had such empathy for a group of people that are so often the detritus of capitalist America. The interaction with that bookseller made me aware of Vollmann’s cult status and might also explain why he is such an outsider in the mainstream literary world.

This critical companion is significant for a number of reasons. First, it makes the world a little less lonesome. Readers of Vollmann now have a book that can be found in the library that will offer them the silent conversation of academic discourse. Too often the academic world is purely professional, but for many it can be a place to connect with other like-minded individuals. This book is the starting point for learning and relationships, to say nothing of careers. Second, this book will help readers form a more nuanced understanding of Vollmann’s work, to look beyond superficial understandings of his public persona and to instead gaze deeply into the man and his work.

 

DANIEL LUKES:

Daniel Lukes, a co-editor, tackled one of the most salient issues in the Vollmann corpus—masculinity, sexuality, and prostitution. While often superficially addressed in book reviews, nobody to my knowledge has established groundwork for discussing these issues and how readers make sense of such topics. Lukes put together an MLA panel entitled “William T. Vollmann: Methodologies and Morals.” From there the project slowly snowballed into the book. “One of my favorite things about putting together this book has been connecting with – and being exposed to – such a range of perspectives on Vollmann,” Lukes said in an interview with Biblioklept[i]. I reached out to Lukes via email to ask a few questions about this book and his essay.

 

What is your perception of Vollmann’s place in contemporary literature?

 

I like what you say about the loneliness of the Vollmann reader: and how likely it is that even if your friends and colleagues count literature specialists among them, your direct circle might not include other Vollmann readers. He is something of an acquired taste or literary oddity, on some level, who has not quite attained either the critical or popular mainstream acceptance of many of his peers. I do sometimes wonder if Vollmann might ever pull a Cormac McCarthy and produce some late-career pop hits that make him more of a household name. In any case, literary history is full of authors who took a while to be recognized. Certainly one of the most rewarding aspects of the whole project, first the MLA conference panel and then the book, have been contacting, meeting, and working with other Vollmannists, finding such a sense of camaraderie among them, and sharing conversations and enthusiasm. I recently read Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and “The Part About the Critics” made me think of the growing Vollmann community and the particular challenges involved in doing literary criticism on a contemporary living author; not to mention being surprised by whatever he comes up with next.

 

When did you first start reading William T. Vollmann?

 

I first started reading Vollmann as a young man in my twenties living in London, and his explorations of loneliness made a major impression on me. You read and read and sometimes you find an author who somehow speaks to you in a particularly direct way, as if making your own thoughts and feelings more intelligible to you. For me literary criticism should involve some kind of giving back – to the writers that are important to you – by sharing your passion for them. So when I went back to grad school for my PhD in Comparative Literature, I always intended to work on Vollmann, in spite of the difficulties involved in studying authors who are non-canonical, or controversial in some way. I am very happy to see that in the decade since I started my PhD, Vollmann’s profile has only grown more solid.

 

Can you provide a contextual backdrop for the MLA conference panel on Vollmann that started this book? How did you and Christopher decide to go ahead with the project of assembling this book? What was your motivation to include the shorter non-academic essays in the critical companion?

 

At the MLA panel I remember a sense of amazement that this really was the first MLA Vollmann panel: Vollmann’s worth is self-evident to his readers, but there’s a sense among them that this worth isn’t recognized enough by the literary establishment. This contributes to the outlaw, perhaps even cultish aspect of Vollmann fandom. Vollmann is a writer who plays with the rules, and so even for our edited volume we felt we had some liberty to play around with convention. I can’t remember exactly how the idea for shorter, non-academic pieces came about, but as Chris and I decided on having interchapters, we considered as models for this approach Hemingway’s In Our Time and Vollmann’s own Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs. I am very happy with how they came together: I think the pieces by Vollmann’s collaborators offer the kind of insights into his work that no academic critical piece could do, and thus are the most valuable parts of the book.

 

The relationship between Vollmann’s protagonists, women, prostitution, and sex is a significant issue in his collection of work. And it is often misunderstood. Can you talk about why this is such a significant topic for an academic to tackle and how it might open up a more complete and nuanced readings of Vollmann’s texts? 

 

As for the topics of sex and prostitution, they are a key part of his writing: they are probably what he is most known for and the biggest obstacle to his academic and mainstream acceptance. By being an unrepentant customer of sex workers – a john – Vollmann eschews the kind of scholarly objectivity that is usually posited when studying prostitution: his position is perhaps closer to the kind of immersive ethnographic work that includes in its analytical scope the sexuality and the desire of the ethnographer. At New York University I audited a class with anthropologist Don Kulick: two of his books, the edited volume Taboo: Sex, Identity, and Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork and his ethnographical monograph Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture Among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes were helpful to me in framing Vollmann’s work as being related to scholarly conversations seeking to deconstruct the would-be impartial objective observer of the global or sexual other. It has also been interesting to see how Vollmann’s prostitute writing aligns with sex worker rights activism over the years.

 

OKLA ELLIOTT

Besides emailing one of the editors, I contacted Okla Elliott to ask him a few questions, again via email, about his essay (“The New Universalism and William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down”) and forthcoming book The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (Dark House Press). Elliot is a creative writer and translator with a strong appetite for academic writing. This combination provides for fertile conversation and insight with regards to his essay on Rising Up and Rising Down.

 

What is your background with reading William T. Vollmann? What have you read? When did you first discover him? What influence has his writing had on your own?

 

Interestingly, when I first read Vollmann, I didn’t like his work at all. I started, somewhat unfortunately, with what I consider his two weakest books: Whores for Gloria and Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs. After reading these in my early twenties, I more or less wrote him off as a writer I wasn’t much interested in. Then I read Rising Up and Rising Down and was hooked. And I was off to the races—The Royal Family, Butterfly Stories, You Bright and Risen Angels, Europe Central, Argall, Imperial, Kissing the Mask, Fathers and Crows, and Last Stories and Other Stories—more or less in that order, along with occasional shorter pieces in magazines. You could say I became somewhat obsessed, as is my habit when I get into an author.

As for his influence on my work, there is nothing apparent in terms of style, and any content overlap pre-existed my reading of his work. That said, he is a major influence on me in more indirect ways. His ambition (in the best sense of that word) has inspired me to work harder and bigger than I otherwise would have.

 

Can you tell me about your academic background? It seems that you are, at least on paper, far more of a creative writer than a philosopher. But your essay is quite technical. What was your motivation to address how Vollmann bridges the gap between relativism and universalism in Rising Up and Rising Down?

 

As an undergraduate, I double-majored in philosophy and German as well as double-minored in French and religious studies, so the philosophy angle has always been there. And my dissertation is half philosophy and half literary studies, with a major focus on Beauvoir, Heidegger, and Sartre, so the technical philosophy in my essay for the anthology is not out of character. You are right however that I am probably more of a creative writer than a philosopher or scholar, though I argue those categories are a lot more porous than we tend to think, especially for certain writers, Vollmann included.

As for bridging relativism and universalism, that has been one of my pet projects since my second semester as a philosophy major. Neither system alone seems to satisfy our deepest ethical concerns, so I think it’s really important to find the best of both and see what we can come up with—all the while admitting we will never develop an ironclad system of ethics. We’re going to fail, but we must fail better, to borrow a phrase from Beckett.

 

The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (Dark House Press) has been described as being a blend of Nabokov and Philip K. Dick. But when I first read the description, I thought of Europe Central because of how both are set in a non-western context or point of view. This was long before I knew you wrote a critical essay on Vollmann. Can you tell me about the stylistic research you did with Raul Clement (co-author) to write an encyclopedic novel set in the Soviet Union? What texts did you actually look at as guides for building such an expansive novel?

 

A lot of my scholarly work deals with trauma studies, largely the Holocaust, but atrocities throughout the 20th century more generally. This research came in handy, as did my time studying in Poland, a culture we made broad use of in the novel. For example, the fictional author’s last name, Tuvim, is taken from a famous Polish poet in fact (spelled “Tuwim” in Polish, but pronounced the way we spell it, which we chose to do to prevent the perhaps comical and Elmer Fudd-like “too-weem” that most English speakers would construe it as). Raul and I did tons of research on the medical science of the 1970s as well as work on early surveillance, since the novel is set in a world less developed than our contemporary world. He and I have both also been great fans of Russian literature for years, so we had a lot of material already at hand before we began the process.

William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion is priced for libraries. So before you jump on Amazon to buy it realize that it will come with serious sticker shock. But what you should do is harass your librarian (in the best possible way, with smiles and sunshine) so that they buy it, especially if the library is attached to a college or university. This book is a significant contribution to contemporary literature, the understanding of hysterical realism, and the understanding of William T. Vollmann.

 

 

[i] http://biblioklept.org/2015/02/19/an-interview-with-christopher-k-coffman-and-daniel-lukes-editors-of-william-t-vollmann-a-critical-companion-part-i/

An Interview with Kathleen Rooney (2013)

This interview with Kathleen Rooney was originally published on Curbside Splendor’s website in 2013 but has been offline for a while. In this interview Rooney talks about her book of poetry called Robinson Alone (Gold Wake Press) that was inspired by the poet Weldon Kees and her collection of essays For You, For You I am Trilling These Songs (Counterpoint Press).

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Jacob Singer: Tell me about the moment when poetry became your life force.

Kathleen Rooney: When I was around five my parents read to me The Best Mother Goose Ever (Richard Scarry).  I remember it having an extremely rhyme-y quality.  It taught me to love language as an art form and not just a medium for content.  Words were something that could be manipulated for beauty and pleasure.

There was also I Wish I Had a Computer that Made Waffles: Teaching Your Child with Modern Nursery Rhymes (Fitzhugh Dodson).  While I loved Mother Goose for being old, I realized from this book that it was possible to put new stuff into writing and it could still be a poem.  I think that is a realization a lot of people have when they read Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara for the first time.

I wanted to be a writer before I could even write.  [pause]  Being a writer often means living in an echo chamber of self-reflection and looking back at this answer, it feels intellectual.  But what I am getting at is that many people might point to an emotional event that made them want to write, and I’ve used emotional events for inspiration, but my earliest desire to write wasn’t emotional—it was an attraction to the beauty of language.

JS: Which poets were you drawn to in high school?

KR:  Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson completely changed me.  While I ended up majoring in English, I went to George Washington University in DC with the intention of studying politics.  I was that political dork who carried around files of current events for extemporaneous speaking on speech team in high school and who wanted to be the next president; I wanted to be the first female president.  So it’s interesting to look at those two writers because they are artists and poets who speak about what it means to be an American, Whitman more directly, Dickinson more cryptically.

JS: That’s interesting because one is so in love with the world while the other shies away from it.

KR: It goes back to my first answer about Mother Goose and I Wish I Had a Computer— both poets were very different but I was drawn to both.  So I was studying poetry while preparing for a “career” in politics.  But I just couldn’t give up English, so I ended up downgrading political science to a minor and upgrading English and creative writing to a major.

JS: Can you talk about your journey as a writer, that zigzag between political day job and writing?

KR:  It is very difficult to be a person at this moment in American history, in economic history; and what I mean by that is in late capitalism.  It’s very hard to be someone who isn’t at work all the time—whether someone wants to go home to be with their spouse, kids, or to write.  “What do you mean you want to leave on time? What do you mean you haven’t dedicated your heart and soul to the company?”  Having a life outside of one’s job seems traitorous.  In response your boss will say, “You’re just lucky to be working here.”  Let alone, get a raise!  There is no job security.  Whether an artist or not, a lot of people are just struggling for a place.

My journey has been difficult but not more difficult that anyone else’s.  Throughout my twenties I went back and forth between a career in politics and one in writing.  I ended up losing my job in the Senator’s office for publishing a book.

JS:  You got fired for publishing.  Which piece?

KR:  I was a Senate Aide for Dick Durbin, a job I very much loved.  Like I said, I was a huge political dork.  I wanted to (M)ake a (D)ifference (Rooney indicated capital “M” and “D”) and I hilariously thought I could.

Many of my supervisors in Chicago encouraged me to write and gave me time off to go on a book tour.   Yet when For You, For You I am Trilling These Songs came out in 2010 –just before I turned thirty—some higher up staffers in the D.C. office put the kibosh on everything.  I lost my job.  It was unexpected and heartbreaking.

That very dramatic scenario happened a month before my thirtieth birthday.  All I could think about was that I had ruined my life.  There was this specific feeling of being pulled out of society.  Before I had this feeling that I mattered, then all my illusions fell away. I suspect that this cog-falling-out-of-the-machine feeling is one that many people who suffer a job loss experience.

JS: What was the time span between you working as a Senate Aide and teaching at DePaul University?

KR: I was out of work about four months before I received my visiting assistant professor position, so I was lucky.  But my firing was public.  It was in all the papers and online. Some people—because this is what much of Internet culture can devolve into—in the comments and on blogs were like, “Bitch deserves it.  Bitch is dumb.”  I am not dumb and I didn’t deserve it.

As a teacher I have watched many of my students leave stuff off their resume—if they write, if they’re a musician.  Why?  They don’t want their potential employers to know that they have other interests.  That’s sad because it denies them a chance to be human.  That’s kind of what I meant by saying it’s  difficult to be a person at this point in history. Almost everybody is kind of getting fucked over—or at least is susceptible to it—and it diminishes all of us.

JS: Did it help with promotion? Did it turn you into a more sympathetic figure?

KR: I don’t know if I agree with the cliché that any publicity is good publicity, but I do love Oscar Wilde’s quote, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Had I only wanted to work in politics it would’ve been much harder.  I don’t know if there is a comeback from something like that.

JS: This collection of essays form a memoir of a twenty-something making a go at it in the aftermath of September 11th, which I found refreshing to read because memoirs are typically published by people at the end of their life.  Can you talk about your relationship with memoirs?

KR: When Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object (a memoir about Rooney’s time as an art model and the history of the profession) and For You, For You were published, some made a big deal out of me being thirty; the criticism being directed towards my age and not the writing.  They didn’t understand how I could already be writing about my life.

I think people misunderstand memoir as a genre.  It’s not like I am Ulysses S. Grant with terminal throat cancer sitting down at the end of my life with the goal of covering everything between birth and death.  That’s simply not the only way to write a memoir.  You can write memoirs about a certain periods of time or an occupation.

Also this end-of-life-only notion of memoir doesn’t give credit to young people.  It’s the “kid’s table” mentality that many older people have.  It lacks respect for other people’s experiences.  It seems to be part of a myth that as you get older you get wiser and have greater perspective.  With age one has a perspective but I don’t believe that it’s a straight uphill progression like Freytag’s Triangle.  I don’t think that there is an epiphanic moment where one suddenly knows what it all means.  I don’t think it works that way.

Most importantly, I just love reading memoirs—by people of all ages and experiences.

JS: I totally agree.  We all have these limited experiences and reading allow us to transcend our bodies.  It’s liberating.  Do you think it’s ageism on the part of presses, editors, and teachers?

KR: There seems to be a lot of willful blindness towards why things are the way they are.  It’s a myth and myths are comforting. For older generations it’s easy to tell themselves that they have worked hard and they got ahead by “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”

So much policy has been extrapolated from those personal experiences.  Personal perspective and thought should inform policies but to assume some sort of radical sameness is problematic.  It’s an older generation not wanting to accept that things are different and largely more terrible.  So they just blame the kids.  It is easier to say “they just need to suck it up and work harder” instead of seeing how this economic system, this inequality has created a precariat class.

JS: How do you get your students to understand that they do have something to say and develop their voice in class?

KR:  When I was in Bill Knott’s creative writing workshop at Emerson, he emphasized writing about what people thought was important and what mattered to them.  He wanted students to work on something with a significant amount of personal investment, which is harder than it sounds.  It doesn’t need to be a poem about love, a story about flashy characters, or distant journalism.  I try to encourage students to understand that they already know a lot and that it’s okay to write about their own experiences.

Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” but along this line of thought, if the writer isn’t having fun, neither will the reader.  It’s important for students to write about what’s important to them and not what their teacher’s think is important.  But again as Wilde said, “All bad art is sincere” so I teach that caring isn’t enough to make good art, but starting with sincerity and personal investment can make the work more rewarding.

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JS: Can you talk about Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence” with regards to form in your essays.  In particular I am interested in how you responded to Atwood’s “Happy Ending” in your essay “Did You Ask for the Happy Ending?”

KR: I wrote lots of these essays as what-am-I-doing-now pieces after I finished Live Nude Girl.  I was on a non-fiction kick and started writing these essays as one-offs but quickly realized that these essays were forming a cohesive book about what it means to be a young, ambitious, civically-engaged female at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

What I realized was that as a youngish woman I was looked at in a way that many other people are not.  There is this weird objectifying gaze, and one often feels oneself, as a female, being watched in an erotic way, or not. Women are always being judged based on their appearance. So, formally, one of the approaches I took to this phenomenon throughout For You, For You, was to narrate the stories from different points of view. Which is not to say from the points of view of other characters, but to sometimes regard myself in the third person, and to write “Kathleen did this, Kathleen did that” to convey this sensation of the gaze—of being looked at a certain way, and having that look affect power dynamics, whether I wanted them to or not.  The distance achieved by a third person narration of a personal essay encourages the reader to ask questions about authority—both that of the author and that of the people who have authority over her.

JS:  It also seems to fall back on the role of nudity in America.  It’s always sexual here whereas in Europe it seems to exist in a different category.

KR: There was some interesting backlash online and in print about both Live Nude Girl and For You, For You because I talked honestly about my experience, and some people saw that as vanity.  I understand that these are books with a lot of gray areas, but if you’re a woman there seems to be a right way and a wrong way to talk about your body, and that involves expressing either outright shame or at least humility.  Usually the right way is “Oh, I am so ashamed or embarrassed of my body” or “I am going to talk about it but it’s really a nothing body.” I didn’t want to force myself to do that because that would not have been authentic to the experiences, especially of art modeling.

JS:  It also seems that people can’t deal with individuals who are both intelligent and sexually attractive.

KR: A lot of the time we aren’t allowing women to be full people.

JS:  Do you find that your students are pushing for that level of complexity.  Are college students writing flat, two-dimensional characters that society seems to want or are they aiming for something more complex?

KR:  There are some students who are the followers of Tao Lin and think affectless naïveté is the way to go, and I am not saying that it isn’t, but I think often it’s not the best way.  Typically, I have a self-selecting group of students.  I teach classes like “Writing the Body” and “The Figure of the Fallen Woman in Literature” where it’s really clear in the course description that we are going to be talking about serious and uncomfortable stuff.

I am consistently blown away by what students talk about.  People share stories about being transgender, having an eating disorder, having an abortion.  That’s not to say that if you don’t have some “Massive Personal Tragedy” you can’t be a writer.  I don’t think that’s true and I am careful not to say that.  But I am pushing people to have that personal investment in their writing.  So no, I don’t find their writing flat.   I think new writers want that complexity but often they don’t have it or they are afraid to express complexity because our culture doesn’t allow for it.

Because of anonymity online, it’s possible for a person or group or people to act like a pack of wild animals, especially to women.  That culture might scare someone to simplicity.  Even with some other classes, there is a sense that teachers say, “Don’t write about that!  This is class, not a therapy session.” Class isn’t a therapy session, we have to apply artifice.  Maybe it is good that you write your piece about your abortion.  Maybe that’s a good thing.  Maybe there is something important to learn about that experience. But it’s not enough just to have had that experience, you have to figure out how to write it effectively.

JS:  There seems to be such a dumbed down approach to creative writing—that all stories have to fit into Freytag’s model.  Why don’t we look to how Chekhov used repetition?  Too often I found, and still find, lectures and workshops being oversimplified which ends up being both boring and stupid.

KR: One of the things I try to teach is an appreciation of nuance.  I don’t really want to teach taste, per se—people are going to like what they like. But I do want to help people become receptive to liking a lot of things, and to seeing the potential therein. For example, I am in this book club where we read a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel called Fun Home.  And this selection showed very well who when some people encounter something new, like a graphic novel, they are excited with the new experience.  Yet others don’t know what to do with something that is new or different.  Instead they choose to not engage with it. I want to do my best to create an atmosphere where everybody is up for engaging with everything, regardless of content or genre.

By treating students like adults and showing the complexity of a story, their taste will get better without me telling them what to like.  Over time their taste will be more sophisticated as they have a greater appreciation for nuance.   They will be more comfortable with Keat’s Negative Capability—with being comfortable without making perfect sense of a text.  A lot of things don’t go to a perfect resolve and are still interesting.

JS: That brings us back to Emily Dickinson and poets like Arthur Rimbaud.  I can point out what they are doing with words, syntax, figurative language, and repetition, but often I don’t know what the piece is about.  I love reading them for that reason.  And I tell my students that.  Reading poetry taught me to live in a state of Negative Capability, which has made life far more thrilling.

KR:  I pitch a lot of pieces and get my fair share of rejections, like anybody.  My least favorite response, though, is that an idea is too intellectual.  It points to this assumption by some editors that people don’t want to think, and maybe that’s true, maybe some people don’t.  But if you present material that makes them want to think, maybe not come to an easy conclusion, maybe thinking just leads to more enriched thinking and Negative Capability.

JS: I have been thinking about the reading public’s obsession with people like David Foster Wallace, a “genius”, and compare it with how literature is being dumbed down, how news lacks complexity, how mainstream films have become repetitive formulas for the largest swath of the viewing audience.  I am interested in how Wallace and the other Hysterical Realists fill a void—they offer some sort of intellectual workout.

KR:  I just got done reading a bunch of Willa Cather.  I have a bias towards old books because their age often adds a layer of strangeness that makes me work harder.  I crave that rigor, that strangeness.  I often wish the people who have gatekeeping capabilities would take a chance on riskier stuff.

One of my favorite publications, even before they published me, is the Riff Column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.  It’s not the most academic thing.  It’s not a peer-reviewed study but it’s a smart riff on pop culture.  It’s a chance to take something that might seem, at first glance, like fluff or detritus and consider it in depth.  My husband Martin Seay is a fantastic writer who does these heady think pieces that he publishes on his own blog.  He takes forever on these eight to ten thousand word pieces.  His last piece was in November about what we mean when we say Mitt Romney is a douchebag and Paul Ryan is an asshole, but he goes into the etymology of those words—the subtlety, the nuance, the depth, the research.  Outside of his blog, I couldn’t imagine a place that would let him write like that.

JS:  This goes back to the desire to be youthful, playful, and smart.  Modernism too often feels serious, especially when compared with postmodern writing.  Why read if it’s not enjoyable?  Modernism, at times, took itself too seriously and turned people into fascists, for example Pound.  By making reading enjoyable it can seduce young readers.  It welcomes them into the fold instead of pushing them away. It seems that Martin is doing both high and low brow, that you’re both the smart and pretty girl.

KR:  While I can’t stand David Foster Wallace’s fiction, I love his non-fiction.  I prefer stuff that’s more inclusive, playful, complicated but still invitational, like:  “You don’t think you’re smart enough? Yes you are.  Come over here.”  Terry Castle’s memoir The Professor and Other Writings is phenomenal at this.  It’s citational, quotational, historical, and personal. Dave Hickey, who introduced me to Castle’s writing, has this intelligent way of writing about art that welcomes the reader into conversations about everything from Robert Mapplethorpe to Norman Rockwell.  He always seems to have a subtext that is saying “Don’t be intimidated.  Don’t be afraid.  It’s okay if you’re not an expert; you still have something to say.”

JS:  I keep thinking about Hysterical Realists, maximalism, and intelligent writing.  There is a certain type of boy’s club quality.  It’s different than Hemingway and Carver.  But I also throw in female maximalists like Woolf and Morrison.  What draws me to them is their use of language.  As an undergraduate no one ever talked about poetics or stylistics in prose.  So when I came across the Crying of Lot 49 or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, I found writers who were both smart and funny.  Both had the ability to write sentences that were long but easy to follow.  As I was reading them I kept asking myself, “What do they know that I don’t?”  It comes down to the fact that prose is rarely taught through the lens of language.

KR: What you’re talking about is the same for poetry.  Many say they don’t like poetry but in reality they simply haven’t tried it.  Roosevelt University, where I taught and still do thesis advising, recently killed poetry. That’s horrifying and I mean no disrespect to them.  I know that they want to focus on fiction and non-fiction, but when you take away poetry you take away studying how to use language as bricks or like a painter.  Gertrude Stein is a great example of this, the way she says “rose” over and over again until you see it in a totally different way.  Most novelists will not write prose with the same focus as a poet but by studying poetry, they will know how to construct sentences in an important way.

JS:  It seems that students are learning grammar by studying foreign languages, and style might be taught by teaching poetry but there seem to be gaps that need filled.  A New Rhetoric by Francis Christensen is this gem of a text that has been lost to time, but it shows how to build sentences and how style can create meaning; the same could be said for Richard Lanham’s Analyzing Prose.  So can we talk about how you created a range of voices in For You, For You, especially focusing on this experience of attaining a certain level of success—being a professor before the age of thirty, working as a Senate Aide—but also living in your parents’ basement, baby-sitting interns, and struggling with your career in education and politics.

KR: I starting thinking of these as one-offs and over time began to see connections, themes I kept coming to time-and-time again.  It’s hard getting essays published and often readers are looking for a strong through line.  I started with “Natural’s Not in It”, a lighter piece about Brazilian waxing and feminism, and basically structured the pieces chronologically, ending with “However Measured or Far Away” which is about my cousin deciding to become a nun.

While there is an arc in this book, the narrator didn’t go through a massive transformation.  Events were humbling and disappointing, leaving the narrator in a state of enlightened uncertainty.  There is an arc, but a subtle one.  I did cut some essays and my editor did pull a reflective essay about turning twenty-seven because it was too negative and reflective.  While I am glad she cut it, I am a little regretful that it’s not in there because it was an honest reflection of how I felt at the time and there was an art to it.

JS: One of the tracks I see running throughout the book is an interaction with “otherness”, especially with your cousin choosing a very isolated life which runs against your values.

KR: The other night I was having dinner with Jim Henry (Thank You for Being Concerned and Sensitive) who is probably the best writer you have never heard of.  He now teaches in Dubai.  So over dinner he was talking about having a student from the Middle East who had moved to America.  They hadn’t kept in touch very well, but she knew he was going to be in the States and wanted to meet up.

Some of his peers thought it was a mistake to meet up with her—“She’s in love with you”, “She’s so needy”, “You can’t help her.”  So he asked me.  Now, many people will disagree with me, but I tend to err on the side of the students.  I don’t like to arbitrarily put up boundaries between me and them.  If someone reaches out to me, I will probably reach back.  They’re adults.  There are ethics between teacher and students, but we all react better when we’re treated like an adult, like a human.  I have had a much better time treating people like adults.

JS: I have found that by acting out that philosophy you end up creating a world that you want to live in.  It’s paying it forward.  It’s proactive.  It seems really important that we make the world more like the place we want to live in.  When we are hands off, the assholes win.

KR: I think it’s a certain species of progressive Midwestern sensibility, and Jim Henry’s also from the Midwest.  There is an assumption, often, when one meets people in the Midwest that we can probably be friends until you tell me otherwise, which seems on some level different than the coasts.  I am not saying everyone should be Midwestern or normalize it as though it was status quo, but it informs how I am in the world.

JS: Can we talk about your attraction to men.  In “Staircase” you address “nouveau-riche goobers” while in “To Build a Quiet City in My Mind” you explore your love of Weldon Kees.

KR: One of the things that I am interested in is charm, especially masculine charm which is often dismissed.  Charm can be somewhat ambiguous so what I mean is people being witty, urbane, and other-directed (even if that other-direction is often applied to manipulative ends).  You can’t just be pushy like the assholes in “Staircase.”  Charm is more of a dance.  I think Kees was charming (though, of course, I am sure he could also be a jerk as well, like anybody else).

A good example is the boss figure in the political pieces.  People often think he’s a jerk and they don’t understand why I would put up with him.  But charming people make the world more beautiful and more interesting in a way that pushes me to keep interacting with the person in possession of the charm.  Since I am interested in masculine charm as a person, I explore it in my writing: what is it? why is it? how is it used to manipulate? how is it sincere? why do I think about it so much?

JS: I was glad to hear you use the word “dance” because it reminds me of Viktor Shklovsky’s description of how good plot dances while bad plot marches. Plot should seduce the reader to continue reading.  I would imagine that for a woman there is something about a powerful man using his strength or energy in a seduction.  This also echoes what you were saying about politicians, who have a lot of power, but also need voters and donors.

KR:  On the other end of the spectrum, “Staircase” is about rape culture.  Where do these guys get the idea that they can do whatever they want?  Where do they get the idea that “no” means “yes”?  One of the reasons I like Kees, both in his poetry and in his life, is that he is very interested in others.  Another thing that I am interested in is manners and civility.  I am not talking about pearl wearing, white-gloved Republican ladies.  But manners aren’t superficial.  It comes down to treating someone like a person.  Invading a country is rude.  Manners are the first step towards building a better, nicer place.

It shows that you’ve thought about something and that you’re not just on autopilot.  Another reason I love Kees is that he was massively stylish, which might come off as shallow, but he looks dapper in all his photos.  It communicates how he saw himself and how he wanted others to see him.  Fashion can be one more way to engage thoughtfully with the world.

JS: How did you find Kees?

KR: For my junior year I studied abroad at Oxford.  Kate Clanchy, who wasn’t an official teacher at Oxford, but who was married to one, is this fantastic poet who had me read a bunch of British poets. While I was reading Simon Armitage, I kept coming across the name Kees.  “Who is this guy?”  This was back in 2001 before a lot of Kees stuff was re-published.  It was right at the cusp of his latest resurgence as a cult figure.  Like many people when confronted with something not easily had, I wanted it more!  It had to be great because it was hard to find.  And I had this sense that when I would find it, it would be even more mine because no one else knows about him.  He’s not Shakespeare.  I love Shakespeare but he’ll never be mine.  Kees can be mine.

JS:  Anyone with an English degree can read Keats but have you read Kees! When did you start writing the poems that would become Robinson Alone?

KR: I remember writing a ton of my own Robinson poems in the fall of 2001 and at that point I didn’t think it would be a book, only a series.  What’s weird about Kees is that those who find him, and there are only a few of us, write homages to him.  That was basically what Armitage had done.

It took roughly ten years to get the book finished, but I was doing a lot of other writing throughout that period of time.  I would work on it, take a break, research, and write more.  It went through different incarnations.  I think of it as a novel in poems.

JS: Tell me more about building Robinson Alone. How much did you play with his language?

KR: I took material from the poems, essays, and his biography.  It’s persona.  It’s putting on a mask.  One of the things I do when I read from Robinson is wear a mustache because Kees had one and if the weather isn’t too hot I will wear wool trousers and dress in drag.

One could look at it as a clever little gimmick.  “Oh, that’s so cute.” But it is very serious.  It’s part of the thing I am doing with the voice—I am trying to write like someone else, someone from a different time, different place, different mindset. But I think we share a similar sensibility of language.  Even when Kees is using free verse he has forms, poetic sounds, and music.

JS: As I read the text, I didn’t know how much of the book was a dedication to Kees and how much you were writing about yourself. Both of you are from the Midwest, moved out East, and then lived out West.

KR:  Quite a bit.  What’s funny is the reception of this text.  Robinson won the Eric Hoffer Award for poetry and got great reviews, for which I am extremely grateful.  What’s funny is that reviews for my other books, which are more feminine, have received much more mixed reviews.  I am not saying that they are perfect books and damn the reviewers for not seeing that.  But part of the questions I have about their various receptions is that writing about yourself is often seen as indulgent and narcissistic while writing about someone else is seen as altruistic.  And I think there is a gender thing happening.  When we write as women we are held to certain standards and subject to certain criticism.  But when we write about men those bars are lifted.  Literature that successfully replicates male subjectivity is perceived in many quarters as being categorically more significant than any other type of literature.

JS: It also seems like a paradigm between pop culture and literary culture.  You get the award for doing the literary piece.  Can you tell me a bit about your upcoming novel O, Democracy!

KR: It is a roman à clef written in first person plural point of view of the Founding Fathers, so technically the narrative voice is masculine, but it’s about a character much like one of my past selves who has political ambitions  and works as a Senate Aide.

The book weighs in at 397 pages, but it consists of many very short, basically flash-length chapters and a lot of white space.  Joan Didion influenced me with regard to the structure and the spacing.  Despite it being somewhat autobiographical, a lot of elements are made up—there is a reason it is fiction.

JS:  One last question, I am dying to ask.  How are you so prolific?

KR:  I like to be busy.  Part of it is that I don’t bind myself to a single genre.  In addition to solo poetry, nonfiction, fiction and critical writing, I collaborate with an amazing poet named Elisa Gabbert.  If I were just a novelist, I don’t think I would have seven novels at the age of thirty-three, but because of my interest in many genres, I’ve been able to try them all.  I am not one of those people who tells themself to write a thousand words a day.  I try to follow what interests me and what will hopefully interest readers.

It goes back to Kees.  He was a poet, short story writer, a novelist, a painter, and a musician.  He was a Renaissance man and I think he suffered from what today we would call “branding issues.”  Sometimes I think I am shooting myself in the foot because I feel like I could be mistaken for a dilettante .  But I do this because I love all the genres not because I can’t focus.

 

Please check out her website to find out more about Rooney and her latest books.