Stan Mir: What would you say some of the most formative experiences have been for you as a writer?
Mark Wallace: One thing that occurs to me to say is that I grew up not liking poetry, or thinking that I didn’t like it, like almost everybody in America is trained to think. Fiction was what I was mainly doing, and when I went for a graduate degree in creative writing, I did it in fiction, a collection of short stories. I think the thing that changed me about all of this was while I was at SUNY-Binghamton in the creative writing program; Jerome Rothenberg showed up and taught there for one year. And that one year that he was teaching there, Robert Creeley gave a reading. I didn’t really know Bob Creeley’s work. I didn’t really know anything about contemporary poetry at all, and I had one of those classic, cliché light bulb moments when Creeley was reading, “Oh, I get this, I love it. I want to do it.” Before that I had played around a little bit with poetry here and there, but not seriously. I think there was something about the contemporary nature of what Creeley did, the angular rhythm, which shook up my conventional idea of poetry. I had read the Romantics in college and just wasn’t interested. So I think that is the moment, and I started writing poems instantly after that. I walk into a reading and I walk out with a completely different perspective. And later on, I worked with Bob a bit, because he was at Buffalo.
SM: So did that influence your decision to go to Buffalo?
MW: Oh yeah, very much so, because I was getting a creative writing degree, an M.A., at Binghamton. It was certainly on my mind that I would go and study poetry with him. That year that I was at Binghamton and Rothenberg was there, we also had a big literary festival, I can’t remember the name of it. That was the first time I heard Charles Bernstein perform, the first time I heard Steve McCaffrey perform and do his “Library of Cruelty” piece, where he dresses problematically, orientalist, but it was still brilliant and the festival had a fascinating mixture of unique performances. I met all of those people, and of course, Charles was not at Buffalo at that time. He wasn’t a professor at all. I had been at Buffalo for two years before he became a professor there. He came in, I think, in my second year, as a visiting professor for one semester. I had class with him my second year, and then my third year he was there permanently. I forged a very good working relationship with him, and have tremendous admiration for Charles, not only for the quality of his work, but for the extra steps he goes with the students who want to work with him. So if you want to talk about formative moment, that’s one, where I suddenly got very interested in contemporary and experimental work. Right around that time there was a Boundary Two issue that collected a lot of Language Poets, and someone I worked with there, who was a theorist, a professor named William Spanos, who basically was a Heidegger scholar but was also into some contemporary poetry, was then the editor of Boundary Two. He didn’t put together that issue, but he was responsible for the Creeley issue and the Olson issue. I read the Language Poetry issue very heavily. I had only met Charles once before, but studying with him later I learned more about that context.
SM: Before arriving at Binghamton and encountering Spanos and McCaffrey and Bernstein, had you ever experienced any type of art that worked the way their art was working, maybe in terms of fiction?
MW: That’s a good question, and I’m trying to figure out what the answer is. I had taken a postmodern fiction course taught by Spanos, and we read Gravity’s Rainbow, and If on a winter’s night a traveler, and other books of course, and I felt very open to the idea of new approaches. But my collection of short stories that I wrote for my Master’s thesis is essentially conventional realism. My earlier writing was more influenced by people like Jack Kerouac, which probably doesn’t come as any surprise.
I was also involved—although I’m not a musician —with a lot of friends in the D.C. music scene. I was involved in the punk rock and new American rock scene. I was a big fan of the Minutemen and stuff like that while I was in college. I wrote and published reviews in college. The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime and the Meat Puppet’s II, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade were albums released and big back then, so I was already interested in non-mainstream practices. I’m not sure when I became aware that there was a similar kind of split going on in the world of literature.
SM: What first attracted you to fiction as a genre and what continues to attract you to it?
MW: I’ve been reading all of my life, and first became interested in the idea of becoming a writer probably in third grade, when my friends and I made a lot of little books. I was a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe, was very interested in gothic, that sort of thing. You know, there is a gothic element to a lot of my fiction, and some of the poetry as well. In a sense I’ve been writing fiction almost since the moment I knew what it was. My parents also, and I greatly appreciate this, read to me a lot when I was small. We read books on a regular basis. So, I developed an interest in books very early, and thank them for exposing me to all that.
SM: A lot of your work, whether it’s poetry, fiction, criticism, seems to be very driven by ideas. So, in terms of fiction, are there particular types of ideas you wanted to work out?
MW: There’s a moment when William Faulkner says why he wrote The Sound and the Fury. He says, I can’t remember where, and I’ve always remembered it, maybe I’m paraphrasing, that “I had an image in my head of a little girl in a tree with muddy drawers, muddy underwear, looking in a window,” and he said, “I wanted to know what she was doing in the tree. So that’s why I wrote the book.” It turns out, what she’s doing in the tree is looking in on her mother dying, but remember, she’s not allowed to go into the room where her mother is dying. So I guess I say that relative to The Quarry and the Lot, because I had for many, many years an image in my head of an old man by a pool, who doesn’t actually appear in the novel ultimately, telling a story that I knew—and I can’t remember where I first heard the story, although I know it’s a tale in my family—about having a jaguar on the roof of his house. I had for years the idea that I would write a novel about that. The jaguar story ends up connecting to what I’m trying to do in the book, a sociological uncovering of how the suburbs work. I’d also say about my first novel, Dead Carnival, I finished the first draft of the first half of it in summer of ’93, or ’94. In August of ’94, I left graduate school. I went back to D.C., and like many other other things, Dead Carnival was a project that I was like, “Well, it was a nice try,” but I had other things to do. And so it was a project I just dropped. Then, in the summer of 1999, I was writing some prose poems, and realized that they were actually part of Dead Carnival. And then I wrote the second half of the book, without having gone in with the intention of doing that at all. I found myself thinking I was writing something independent, but oh, no, wait; it’s part of that book.
SM: I’m curious, too, about your critical interests. Where does your interest in criticism come from?
MW: I was an English major in college, and I was always interested in reading books. I had the same kind of education in literature that almost everybody gets in college, by which I mean to say I wrote a lot more essays than anything else. The essay form was one that I was just more familiar with from school experiences, and so it doesn’t feel particularly unnatural to me. In fact, one of the problems with the fiction I was writing was that I couldn’t separate fiction from the scholarly vocabulary that I had learned. It took me a while to get the criticism out of my fiction, the elements that make something critical writing. I had to purge that. Or just find a different way to make use of it.
SM: You are frequently referred to as someone who asks us to question genre. Do you think—and maybe this question is too obvious—do you think that writing in, say, the three genres that you’re writing in, encourages you to openly question that? Because I think that some writers who do write in multiple genres don’t seem to engage in the types of questions that you want to ask.
MW: I will say that for me the writing in multiple genres and then playing around with the genres even when I’m writing them—we could call it that—you could say it’s some definitely articulated-in-advance critical idea, but actually it isn’t. I mean, I can talk about it in that way, but I think I’m just a restless writer, and person. I’m restless with forms and genres just like I’m restless with everything else. So part of it is just an emotional function of who I am, and has nothing to do with some kind of intellectual desire to write work that people are going to say is questioning genre, but of course I’m also conscious of doing it. It does have an intellectual element as well. I just want to try different things when I’m writing. That’s what it comes down to, and whenever I’m in some kind of received form, I don’t want to do it the way I received it. I want to do something else. This newest novel [The Quarry and the Lot], which on many surface levels might seem like conventional realism, is actually doing a lot of things that I think conventional realism doesn’t do, and it undermines a lot of things in a more postmodern way than might seem apparent.
SM: In Part Two of the novel, your narration is different. I haven’t figured out what it is yet, because I’m not far enough into it, but that is something that I wondered as I was reading. I thought, “Wow, he’s probably not going to continue this four-strain narrative that he does with this first part,” and sure enough you get to Part Two and it doesn’t feel that way at all.
MW: And Part Two is only one chapter. Part Three is going to go back to the four voices. That middle chapter is there for a couple of reasons. One is, I’m finally in a moment in that book where everybody is present, and so it just made more sense to have a different kind of narrative approach to it. The other thing is that the third-person voice in that chapter signals a distance from the problems of the characters by the way it sets up this outside perspective that is still a point of view. In other words, it’s no stable, objective thing. It looks at things from a distance, which turns out to be just another point of view. So I’m doing a lot with that book with the idea of subjectivity and what can or can’t be objective.
SM: The second section makes me think differently than the first section, where the four narrators have obvious biases. Even though the second section narrates in a supposedly objective third-person, it shows bias. This made me reflect a little bit on novels where a writer sticks with a third-person narrator all the way through. If you had stuck with that third-person narrator all the way through I wouldn’t have been asked to think any differently about perspective and narration.
MW: It would’ve been too easy an approach, for me. Because the fact that you have these four voices, with very different experiences from each other, and then very different perspectives on Joseph, is part of the point. Realism is often an analysis of character. I’m also working in this book with the idea that character is fundamentally unknowable. We have our perspectives on other people and there are things we can say about them, but the idea that one character can be grasped in any clean way is something that I’m working against. This is a kind of portrayal of human life that’s not usually what realism does.
SM: I’d like to keep talking about genre, but with a slightly different focus. In light of your essay on genres, “Conversion Experience,” from the book Haze, you demonstrate that the behavior in genre circles is akin to “expressions and postures of elegance found in religious rites, and that the writer serves as a marker that one has been initiated into and shares the practice of the group, that in fact one believes in the genre in question. Genre becomes not the practice to explore, but something to believe in.”
SM: You then go on to suggest that this “religious model of genre behavior, especially among the avant-garde, must be relentlessly and continuously questioned…. We’d be better,” you say, “to explore what particular acts of writing are doing in particular instances.” I was wondering if you could talk, in ways we haven’t yet, about how you see your work exploring acts of writing.
MW: I like that question. For me, every new project is a new focus of exploration. Writing for me is the act of uncovering what the writing is going to be about. I obviously have ideas going in, but I never know what’s going to happen until I test those things. I think that’s the way I approach my writing: let’s see what this will be. Sooner or later, the work gives me the fact of what it is.
Because I write in multiple genres, I’ve always been a little bit…“frustrated” is too strong a word, because it doesn’t hurt me or anything, but there are people who say, “I don’t read poetry, or I only read fiction.” Or even belief in poetry itself—you know there’s no such thing as poetry itself, right? There are just these things, these words and ideas. Some of which I believe in, some of which I don’t. It’s hardly as though poetry is some pure preserve above the complexities of culture. Poetry is just another expression of the complexities of culture, as well as of individuals. So I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical of the attempt to divide, which is usually “divide and conquer,” that’s the expression. I’m skeptical of the territorial nature of claims that run, “I do this, I don’t do this.” I think it’s a hierarchy in people’s minds, and it affects the way that they approach their involvements.
SM: Along those lines too, I notice a tendency in a lot of your work to call into question institutions, whether it is the institution of the university or the institution of politics, of government, or the institutions of day-to-day life. I guess that all just fits in with the relentless process that you’re talking about.
MW: I grew up in the Washington D.C. area, and I grew up in an environment where I went to church every Sunday with my family at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, two blocks from The White House, so I’ve always been relatively aware of politics as an ordinary, daily practice. It is different in Washington than in other places. It gives me a different relationship to politics. It’s not this other, distant thing to me that it may be for others. For a lot of people, it’s these powerful other people doing things that you can’t stop, and that’s true, but it also is this ordinary, not often benevolently ordinary, human practice. Politics is inevitable.
Getting involved with the whole punk scene and all—I’ve always had an interest in outsider politics, I would say. I won’t say that my politics have always been clearly and purely defined by left perspectives, but outsider perspectives I think have always been important in terms of what institutions are. At the same time I have a lot of experience of how difficult it is to get outside the space of the institution, in any areas of our lives. There is no such thing as the pure outside; there are just these negotiated spaces or relationships between and through these various institutions that we all have to work and live with.
SM: I want to come back to institutions in a minute, but while we’re still close to genre I want to ask a question about a comment you made during the January 2009 reading that’s up at PennSound. Halfway through the reading you mention that you not only want to call into question genre, but that you want to stretch how you work with tone. Could you talk a little bit about how you see yourself doing that, and why you feel that’s important to do?
MW: Again, the answer would begin the same: that every project is different. There’s a lot of literary, critical debate about the idea of a poet’s voice and such, and I don’t really care much about that, except that a thread that sounds like one’s own writing does emerge whether you want it to or not. I like the idea of a poetry and fiction that is not in one vocal register or tone. I like the idea of multiple voices, of writing something that seems like it’s bringing together different voices, or to make the impression of a channeling of cultural voices. I guess varying the tone, on some level, is a matter of listening. I don’t want to generalize about why people would do things in one tone, because I’m sure they have their reasons, but it becomes just too stable of an entity in the world of one’s writing for me. I’ve been very influenced by Jack Spicer. I like his idea of the Martians, how you have to arrange and let stuff come through, because—I wouldn’t use that Martian metaphor myself—that is my experience also. My writing is often an attempt for me to process and channel the constant barrage of information that I am receiving about the world, and to do something with it in a way that leaves me feeling less overwhelmed. Writing is often a process of filtering out impressions of the world and putting them in some other shape.
SM: With that in mind, is writing for you a daily process of filtering, for the sake of getting past whatever the detritus might be?
MW: The first thing to say is that it’s just a space that I like to be in; I have a writing habit. I don’t say that being a writer helps me make sense of the world, because I don’t think you can make sense of the world entirely, and I certainly don’t think that one’s writing could do that. It is for me a necessary response to the world in which I find myself. It’s my way of responding and—there’s a Robert Duncan essay where he talks about the idea of, I believe it is, responsibility being the—
SM: The ability to respond.
MW: The ability to respond, and I think that idea is very interesting to me too. It’s not a making sense out of chaos, but it’s my way of having some emotional, intellectual, and also physical interaction with the world of information and culture. Sometimes it’s a way of fighting back; sometimes it’s a process of sorting it through. I’m trying to channel other voices and see where that takes me.
SM: I’m curious, too, about the role of place in your work. In the novels it’s very clear that they’re taking place in a place, and the place often has a name, but in your poetry, it’s clear that it’s happening in a place, but it’s often not a named place. I was thinking about this particularly in relation to something that appeared in Ixnay. It’s an excerpt from Notes from the Center for Public Policy. In your interview with Leonard Schwartz, you talk a little bit about how that work was influenced by the architecture of D.C. Could you talk more specifically about the role of place in some of your other works, focusing specifically on the poetry?
MW: I think, for me, walking down the street has been one of the central practices of my life. We’re talking about processing information and that’s the place where a lot of the information is coming in. I’m walking down the street and I’m having this experience of who the people are, what the buildings are, of how I feel in relationship to that. To the extent that an influence from the New York School shows in my work at all, and maybe it does in a few places, it’s being on ground level, being in the culture, moving through the culture, that is, I think, fundamental to me. Now, how I’m relating that to a particular sense of place in any given piece of writing is going to be different. The End of America poems, which I’ve been writing since I went to California, have very much to do with the cultural context of that environment, by which I mean social environment. Actually, I use this term a lot these days, social geography. A lot of geography programs move in a multi-disciplinary way. If one thinks about geography as containing cultural and political questions, then that’s the kind of social geography that I’m working with in those poems That’s because California, although I’d been there many times, is not a place that I had a tremendous experience of living in, so you can feel me trying to come to some ground of understanding about where I am, which I didn’t need to do in the same way in Washington.
In Notes from The Center on Public Policy, there’s a certain level of abstraction that’s part of it, but it, the poem, is a conceptual architecture. So I’m interested in people who are working with architecture, like Lisa Robertson. One of the things that I’m channeling in that book is, though I don’t believe in the totality, an institutional situation that approaches total control, and what I tried to do in that particular work is use no conventional humanizing words or ideas. Everything is dehumanized and oddly objectified. There are no people, no characters as such. There are systems. I have a lot of different names for what people are, but it’s never people.
SM: It’s funny, sometimes little bits of dialogue seem to appear, and they’re concrete and yet not concrete.
MW: Right, they’re between. Everything is a node in this larger architectural system. I think that poem is a confrontation with that, and is meant to show an encounter with something overwhelming. Lorraine, who I’ve lived with for many years, K. Lorraine Graham—this is a story I’ve told in relationship to that book—she was working in public policy for a few years. She speaks Chinese and lived in China for a few years, so she was involved and working with a couple of think tanks which monitor Asian and Chinese-American relations and things of that kind. She goes to the Pentagon one day for this meeting that she’s going to be part of, and she had quite an experience in the Pentagon. One was that there was an intense color-coding on the floors for where she was supposed to walk—there was the blue, there was the red. She couldn’t quite follow it and asked directions from some guy, who said, annoyed, “Women can never follow the color-coding.” When she finally gets to the meeting room, and she’s there with a bunch of men and only one other woman, she sits down in a room where the art that’s on the wall is a whole series of photographs of mushroom clouds.
MW: So there they are, in the Pentagon, surrounded by mushroom-cloud art.
SM: Oh, my…
MW: Right? That, for me, is one of the things that I was thinking about when I was working on that material. Also, the whole poem is like being in some labyrinthine building that you can’t really get out of.
SM: Wow, that’s far out.
MW: Right, and I think the other woman who was there leaned over to her and said, “I think it’s their idea of a joke.” That’s a story that sets up for me the kind of architecture in that poem and what’s at stake in things hiding inside of things. The poem is like a room inside a room inside a room inside a room. It’s a shell game. That is the experience that I’m trying to work with. We don’t have tremendously tall buildings in D.C. Nothing can be over thirteen stories because nothing can be taller than the capital, except for the Washington Monument. So you don’t have tall buildings looming over you. What you have are huge, squat buildings—the Pentagon, over the border in Virginia, obviously being the biggest one. It’s like the equivalent of ten blocks by ten blocks long—it’s tremendously huge. That squatness, and that sense of being a node inside a room inside a room, is what I’m working with.
SM: And that’s something I’ve always felt when going to D.C. The architecture is also incredibly bright. It’s just blinding. So it not only seems to demonstrate its power and authority by size, but also by the amount of light that seems to shine.
MW: That’s interesting, I don’t know that I have that experience of the light, but I understand what you’re saying. Certainly, it has all of that open space, parks and so on. But even those are very spare. You’re always squared off. So, that’s one way of working with place. Clearly, in The Quarry and the Lot I’m also working with place. I’m working with the suburbs and their relationships to cities. The suburbs are always lurking out there. For me, one of the ways in which the book is like Wuthering Heights, one of my favorite novels, is that you have this incredibly concentrated environment that everybody’s in. There’s this bigger world out there, but usually when they go out to the bigger world, they go off the stage. And the world of the novel gets a little bigger, they move into D.C. later on. Still there’s this sense of being somewhere very specific, constricted. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, when he goes off, he goes off for years at a time, and you never know what happens. He goes off and he comes back rich, but what has happened is happening in a world out there that you never access. I’m not saying my book is like that precisely, but I did like the idea of a suburban area as a compressed, oddly isolated environment which is nonetheless hooked into all these larger systems.
SM: There are two moments from The Quarry and the Lot that come to mind: one where I think Nick is talking to Amelia about Luke, and saying something like, “Well, didn’t Luke want to live in the city? What’s he doing here teaching at this community college?” And then another, even more interesting, moment is in Part Two, when Amelia is back in Maryland and—I can’t remember what she’s surprised by, but she’s surprised to see…
MW: Is it the patriarchal nature of the Klein family?
SM: Yeah, and she said, “Being in San Francisco, I forgot about this.” So there is that feeling of there being an outside, but it’s an outside that seems mysterious to the people on the inside and once someone like Amelia goes outside, that inside seems mysterious.
SM: Like, “What the heck is this?”
MW: That is fundamental to my experience of what the suburbs are. The suburbs are places where a lot of people go so as not to have to notice the rest of the world. In the city, circulation is more constant. It’s what a city is about. Part of the reason that you go to a city is to see different types of people. Part of the reason you go to a suburb, or you stay in one, is that you do not want to see those different types of people. You certainly don’t want them in the neighborhood where you live. So if the city is about who you might meet, then the suburbs are about who you won’t have to meet. At the same time, that layer of protection is a false protection. Living where I live now, outside of San Diego, I have students who live in North County, San Diego who’ve never been to Los Angeles. It’s two hours away. They don’t go there, they’re afraid of it. This kind of suburban isolationist mentality is extremely common. They don’t know anything about what the city is like. They live absolutely in an isolated era. They often have racist stereotypes. You know, “It’s dangerous, they’re going to attack me.” That’s all they know. The urban environment is a total mystery to them. And that doesn’t make them feel safer. Instead they seem to feel threatened, a lot of the time.
SM: Even San Diego doesn’t have the same vibe as L.A.
MW: San Diego is barely a city in the same sense. On the other hand, I also find it to be true that any number of my urban friends either don’t understand anything about the suburbs or don’t want to understand, or haven’t ever been there. You can block that out too. Still, the urban person is more likely to know what the suburbs are than the other way around. But you think you know what it is, and then you’re there, and somebody says to you, “Oh, well he’s that way, he’s Jewish you know.” And it’s like, “Wow.” You don’t hear that in Philadelphia, not nearly as often. You do hear that in San Diego.
SM: Ah, interesting. And you see Joseph playing around with that exact idea by challenging the older guys.
MW: He postures people into thinking he’s things that he’s not so he can attack them, because he’s aware of that issue. He has a pretty good understanding of what he’s dealing with. He’s very hostile towards you. So that kind of tension between the urban and the suburban is going on there, even though Joseph is someone who never really leaves, mentally anyway. He does when he goes to Germany, but he’s at war, always has been, with the environment that he’s living in. One of the things the book is about is the continuing power of the so-called sheltered environment and the mentality of war. We think, when we live in cities, that the city is the center of power, but I don’t know that it is anymore.
SM: You even say something along those lines in the book, that the city supports the suburbs.
MW: That’s how Washington D.C. is. Washington D.C. is where people from the suburbs go to bring their money back to the suburbs, like the city is the place that you rip off.
SM: I also want to talk about “Felonies of Illusion,” the sequence in the book with the same title. I’m interested in those poems because they are a sequence of lyrics. And then also, when I was preparing for the interview, I was looking at your blog and I noticed, I think in a brief review that you wrote on James Meetze’s book Dayglo, that you mention being suspicious of poems that are consciously setting out to be beautiful. We often think of lyrical poems as consciously setting out to do that. But in Felonies of Illusion, you’re definitely not trying to make anything beautiful.
SM: It seems, though, as a listener, they have beautiful sounds to me, just because of the way that they’re working with language.
MW: It depends on what you mean by beauty, right?
MW: An unquestioned ideal of beauty, an unquestioned standard of beauty is a problem.
SM: Right, and it seems that that sequence ended up calling into question what we might think of as the traditional lyric. Could you talk a little bit about the process of composition of those? Because line-by-line they seem to have chunks of recognizable phrases, but they seem all jammed up…
SM: …which creates really fascinating rhythms when read aloud.
MW: Right, yeah. That’s a good description of what’s going on. They are not representational poems. In other words, they don’t picture a world. They almost appear to; they’re very much drawn up out of the specifics of a world. But one of the things I was working with there was the idea of poems that aren’t descriptions of the world. I’m also working with the process of connotation. That is, words mean not through what they picture, but through how they feel. A lot is communicated in that book that is not picturing anything exactly, but because the structure of the words, the connotations of the words create an attitude. I was aware of working against representation, highlighting connotations rather than denotations. The process of creating them was kind-of crazy.
SM: I thought it might be. [Laughter]
MW: I would read some Clark Coolidge poems as the TV show Friends was coming on television, reruns, and I would watch Friends with the sound off, while reading Clark Coolidge and also listening to music loudly. A number of phrases that come into those poems are taken from that TV show, a few literal lines. Not much of it, but some, and I did that process again and again and again for about a year. I was watching the show and mining it for material. I was purposely both cocooning and alienating myself by putting Clark Coolidge up against the television, the television up against the shrieking music, and then trying to do something. A very intellectual approach! It was a particular time in my life when I was feeling defensive and hostile about a lot of things. I was walling myself off from people, and by the time the process was over, I felt better about a bunch of stuff. What is it Kasey Mohammad says about the poems, they’re like being “upstream without a paddle,” that old phrase. So there was a degree of anger and hostility and alienation that I was trying to work through in the writing of the poems, but there was also this process of putting myself in this weird sound and visual state. And I repeated it for every poem.
SM: Which Coolidge books were you reading?
MW: The one that I was mainly referencing was The Rova Improvisations. I’ve got almost all of his books, but his most recent books I’ve not been so interested in. I was also reading Sound as Thought and Solution Passage. If you look at Sound as Thought and Solution Passage, those are the poems that helped make Felonies of Illusion, more than anything else, in terms of a way of approaching language. Coolidge is also an example of someone who frees me up from denotation.
The TV is over-determined denotation versus this free flowing language. So, yeah, I was very much trying to write what would look like a conventional lyrical poem on some level. You’ll look at them and say, “Oh, these are poems,” but then, that’s deceptive. It seems like a conventionally welcoming surface, but then you find the sense of…
SM: Once you get in there, it’s totally different.
MW: And that part of that book is something that a lot of people have had trouble with. A fair number of people of all sorts of different schools of thought that know a little bit about my writing, almost everybody, if they come from a lyric context, compliments me very seriously on the first part, “The Long Republican Winter,” and they say nothing about the second part. The second part is simply more aesthetically extreme. I have a bunch of poet friends in Vancouver who are reading it and liking it. So if you have a certain level of theoretical information and so forth and so on, then you can access those, but a lot of people simply can’t. I’ve had more than one person ask me, “I don’t understand, what were you trying to do?” I explain, or not, but if people have no history of understanding the anti-representational urge in literature, then those poems are a mystery.
I have mixed feelings and ideas about work that can only be accessed by those with the proper theoretical vocabulary. The answer is, sometimes I’m interested in doing work like that and sometimes I’m not. What I also did in that book, on the subject of genre and form, was to take two very consciously different sets of poems with different kinds of processes, and put them in the same book. That’s an idea of hybridity that I’m interested in. I have a critique of the notion of hybrid that became dominant in the Cole Swenson and David St. John anthology [American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry]. That’s not what I mean by hybrid. That’s more what I think of as being about synthesis, which attempts to resolve differences. What I want to do is put two things in the same book that would collide against each other. In other words, they don’t seem like they belong in the same book. I guess I got what I asked for. Some people can only read the first part of it.
SM: It’s funny, that first part is open, almost airy, and then you get to the longer section and it’s very dense. Even though, if you look at it, like you said, it looks like it’s just going to be a lyric poem, but then you get in there and all of a sudden it just feels as if you’re surrounded, or coming into something really thick. I found myself thinking, “Well, ok.” I was reading it on the subway at first, and I would tune in and tune out as one does on a subway, and then I realized, “When I get home I need to read these out loud.” When I started reading them out loud, I thought, whoa, these are totally different than when I was reading them in my head. They seem to demand, the way Coolidge does sometimes, to be read aloud.
MW: Yeah, I think so. I think that’s part of the process. The rhythms are pretty jagged, right? It’s not smooth lyricism. I think it goes back to what I was saying about the process. The poems set up a lot of connections and distances, they pull in and push back, and you can be inside them, or you can feel yourself outside them. At the same time, from piece to piece, I’m varying the rhythmic approach, the stanza length. I think some people can experience them as monolithic, but I don’t think they are. You have to go with that kind of density and frustration a little bit, and then they open out in other ways.
SM: I also wanted to ask you about horror as a genre. Lately, you’ve been posting on Facebook, lists of horror films that you’re about to watch.
MW: This friend of mine, a former student who writes about horror literature, Brandon Reynolds and I, we get together and have a horror night every other month or so. We have fun, we study the genre a little bit, we watch a lot of different things.
SM: Could you talk a little bit about your interest in horror as a genre? Then also, I’m interested to hear your take on what you think horror does that other genres don’t, because I think that a lot of people would think that it doesn’t do anything intellectual.
MW: I grew up reading Edgar Allan Poe. I grew up watching horror movies. ABC had a weekday 4:00 PM to 5:30 movie for years. This is years ago. They had different approaches every week, and they would have a horror week every once and a while. So I would watch horror movies all week in my basement when these would come on, before video/DVD, before all these other ways of watching movies existed. Watching horror is a way of channeling my anxious fear, and I think that anxious fear is something that I work with a lot and write about a lot. I’m a confident person in many ways, it’s not that exactly, but things make me anxious. Horror is a site for exploration of the dynamics of the anxiety of fear, and so I’ve always been interested in horror. Dead Carnival is a book about the philosophy of monstrousness. There’s an idea about what “monstrous” is; it’s a crazy book, I know. There’s some other part to your question that I haven’t…
SM: What do you think it does as a genre that other genres don’t? Maybe, what types of questions does it ask?
MW: Again, I think that anxious fear is the subtext of horror. Great horror books and movies tap into the real cultural dynamics of fear, and how fear is also politically and socially manipulated. In fact, I think fear is one of the driving notions of all human life. Certainly, in the United States, much of what passes for our public political context is just an unquestioned articulation of fears, which are usually just prejudices. In other words, you don’t have to defend your prejudices in America, just speak them. Politicians speaking for us, too; they manipulate our fears. The manipulation of fear is something that I’m interested in in Dead Carnival and in the horror genre generally. Fear is shown to us and manipulated, given back to us, and we enjoy the manipulation. There’s a David Bromige line that I like, “If you’re reading about it, it isn’t happening to you right now, and what a pleasure that is.” That’s the thing about horror movies. They’re not happening to you, at least not right that second. It’s like, “Okay, so it’s out there.” When I’m watching them, my anxiety about the world is less free floating. It becomes focused on the thing that I’m watching.
SM: Are you saying that it becomes, for lack of better words, traditionally cathartic?
MW: Maybe. Yeah. But on an emotional level, just for me. It’s fun to watch, I like it.
SM: In literary circles, I often find it rare for people to be interested in horror as a genre. Because either they do get a little too anxious or scared from watching horror movies, which is understandable, or it simply does not seem serious enough to them.
MW: Oh, the thing I wanted to say, I knew there was a part that I forgot, but now I’m remembering, do you know the writer Thomas Ligotti? He publishes some of the best contemporary horror fiction. I mean, it’s genre, but it’s well beyond genre. And in the introduction to an earlier version of his Selected Stories, he has several Selecteds now, there’s an essay in it talking about horror. He acknowledges that some people don’t like it and some people do. He says, and I’m paraphrasing a little, that either you have had the kinds of experience in your life in which horror makes sense to you, or you haven’t. He says, “I don’t wish that on you,” if you don’t have it, but for some of us, horror makes sense. You have to be the kind of person for whom that experience is already meaningful, and who doesn’t mind exploring it through the odd lens of a certain kind of fiction. I think that I have experienced the world many times as horror, and that is one of the things that makes the genre interesting to me. I like that line of his very, very much. I think he makes clear that he’s interested in horror literature as an exploration of trauma. Some people are interested in returning to the scene of the trauma, and that’s the reason that I watch horror also.
SM: Before we finish up I want to ask about D.C. and your friendship with Rod Smith. When you went back to D.C. after living in Western NY, were you already aware of Rod and various others in D.C., in terms of experimental writing?
MW: I met a number of the D.C. poets in Buffalo, at the Writing of the New Coast Conference in 1993. Rod Smith was there, Joe Ross was there, Leslie Bumstead, who has published with Edge Books, was there, Jean Donnelly, who won the National Poetry Award with one book, was there. It was getting near the end of my graduate school experience. I was trying to figure out where I was going to go, and my family lives in D.C., so it was likely I was going there. I stayed in contact with those poets. I got to know Joe Ross very well right away, but he left D.C. after I’d been back for a few years. He lives in Paris now. When I got to D.C., I became friends with those poets and many more, but I met them only about a year before going back to D.C.
SM: What would you say would be the most influential aspects of your friendship with Rod? He’s published a couple of your books, and you guys ran a reading series together, if I’m not mistaken.
MW: No, Rod has always run Bridge Street Books’ readings on his own. Then I ran one reading series, and Buck Downs ran another one. In fact, different people run them at different times. We had a lot of people running readings, and we did them as a group, but sometimes, with Bridge Street and elsewhere, everybody was able to make their own decisions. You know, Rod’s one of my best friends, and he’s influenced me in ways that are beyond counting; his generosity as a publisher, as well as a person, as someone who really believes in poets, and I say this positively of him, when I myself am sometimes more skeptical of poets. Rod Smith is not skeptical of poets, or at least of the poets whose work he really likes, whose communities he supports, which is hardly all of them, but quite a lot. He believes in poetry, he believes in poets, and he works very hard for the community of poets he believes in. And he’s a fantastic poet. He’s got a style that is like no one. And I’m not sure it’s going to become a school of poetics or anything of that kind. It’s just so unique. It takes some things from the New York School, it takes some things from the Language Poets, but it’s not either. It’s just that crazy Rod Smith line, and the crazy vocabulary; he can really twist the phrase and the image; that sense of torqued-ness in his work has been a profound thing for me, because I’m also interested in the angular and off-rhythm, to not be conventionally lyrical or smooth. For years in D.C. we would just sit up late, drinking beer and talking. About everything: politics, poetry, history, sports, all sorts of personal matters. You know, whatever it was that we had to talk about. My history with poetry is unthinkable without him. There are a lot of friends that have been important to me too; we’re just talking about him for right now.
Buffalo was more divisive. We were young poets in graduate school, and only some of us could get along with each other. There was a lot of not being able to get along. I think that gets easier as people get older. In D.C., I was immediately able to work with many people well, and D.C., I think, continues to be known as a very friendly town for all kinds of poetries, and a very cohesive community of writers. They gave a D.C. reading at the most recent AWP and a lot of people who were there and were not D.C. people were very impressed by the mood of the reading and the quality of the work. I just found the people, when it comes to poetry, to be incredibly supportive of creating this alternative community. We created a reading series, we brought people to town, we read books, we talked about books, we listened to music. Some of us became jazz fanatics. The end of graduate school is a difficult time. By the end of graduate school I was not on my own two feet in the best possible way, but within a few years in D.C., my life was much more effectively going where it should go. I certainly do credit the fact of being involved with that community for giving me a lot of energy. I put out a lot of energy, and I got a lot back. I think in that sense, and I’m walking cautiously for the right vocabulary here, even though I’d been working since I was sixteen, I think it’s not until I was in D.C., after graduate school, that I became a functioning adult. Graduate school picked away at my ability to earn a living and things like that. But I’m glad I got my PhD. It was a good experience in a number of ways, but it was not a good experience in terms of learning how to function in the world. It was just the opposite.
SM: So D.C. became a place where you could learn how to function as an adult. You start making a living but you also learn how to function with poets outside of the academy.
MW: A city, or at least a community, of poets. Absolutely. Beyond the classroom and so forth. We just all worked together really well. We talked together well: about what poetry was, about what the world outside poetry was like. Not that there weren’t problems; they’re always are. Still, I can’t underestimate, for me, what that kind of community and friendship did for me. I don’t know what would have happened to me without it.
Mark Wallace is the author of more than fifteen books and chapbooks of poetry, fiction, and essays. Temporary Worker Rides a Subway won the 2002 Gertrude Stein Poetry Award and was published by Green Integer Books. His critical articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, and he has co-edited two essay collections, Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s, and A Poetics of Criticism. Most recently he has published a book-length prose poem, Notes from the Center on Public Policy, and a novel, The Quarry and The Lot. He teaches at California State University San Marcos.
Stan Mir is the author of Song & Glass (Subito, 2010) and The Lacustrine Suite (Pavement Saw, 2011). Recent poems and reviews have been published in Denver Quarterly, Fact-Simile, Jacket