An Interview with Jon Davis, author of Preliminary Report and Scrimmage of Appetite (Buy the books)
Mary: To start with, I found it somewhat amazing in Scrimmage of Appetite how digestible you made the ideas of disconnection, “tumult” (even a section heading), chaos, frustration and the resulting dissolution of meaning. You relentlessly tackle the pointlessness of re-digesting the past or attempting to explain the self. Words themselves are suspect. In “The Sorry Part”—“the script is meaningless” and in “Contingency”—“sentences are perhaps acts of the mind.” The poem “The Bait” is a good example of the meaningless of trying to “come to terms.” I would describe the work of these poems as exploring meaningless in meaningful chunks or an impressionistic collage of disillusion. Do you feel these poems are a defense against this meaningless, a surrender to meaningless, or a protest on meaningless?
Jon: I don’t know what I believe finally. But I know I operate as if the world is meaningless, whimsical, chaotic. I had a brief insight into this recently, because Santa Fe is full of people who will say, “it was meant to be” or “everything happens for a reason.” And then they feel oppressed because they need to respond “correctly” to the “universe’s message” to them. I feel no such compulsion to discern the universe’s intention, because I don’t believe in a meaningful universe. So maybe the poems are a defense against oppressive meaningfulness instead. I spend a lot of time defending myself against hope.
Mary: The capriciousness of causality, (the discomforting violence in the poem “Meanwhile” is a good example), is a recurring theme and it presents reality in a structure-less, rule-less frame. Do you come to this from a foundation of having once believed in the structure? Or was this an organic way of seeing reality that you’ve always had? Are your ideas about experience still evolving?
Jon: Catholicism, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and The Shaggy Dog all terrified me as a young child, presumably because they are all about transformation and the instability of the self. I had a sense, early on, that the self was a flimsy construction, that the syntax of identity was fragile. I had a sense that I might suddenly be someone or something else. There was no comfort for me, therefore, in Catholicism—only terror. I think I wrangled with the mysteries of a standard view of God as creator right through college, not from the position of a believer, but as someone trying to understand how anyone could believe in any kind of ordered universe. I became obsessed with science at a very young age, because looking at the world through science was like cleaning up a wound. The wound remains, but its limits and the prognosis are very clear. But then, at some point in your reading, you hit Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and science signs its deed to clarity over and hits the road, making do, hunting and gathering and sniffing the air with the rest of the creatures.
But another response to this line of questioning is to say that in Scrimmage of Appetite I started to feel what Arthur Sze calls, in his poem “Horse Face,” “the entire danger of the moment.” I grew up poor and somehow found my way into a fairly stable (so far) way of making a living (teaching).
Some days, it’s difficult to accept my good fortune, and I often feel guilty about having as much as I do (which is almost nothing by some people’s standards). Still, I don’t know how wealthy people can justify their excesses, and when I’m sitting under my own mostly unleaking roof, I still have an intensely present sense of other people’s suffering. Not that I have the faintest idea how to make any large, sustainable change, but I’m aware, and that awareness disrupts any sense that the world is an ordered place. I’ve been traveling lately and meeting people from Cambodia, Kenya, Iraq, and VietNam. I’m often e-mailing someone who is in physical danger at the very moment they receive my e-mail.
Mary: There are also poems that showcase an intellectual’s suspicion of intellectualism, (for example, in “Notes to the Haitian Poems of Madeleine du Plessix”). So this suspicious-nature sort of reflects back on itself. You then don’t trust your own intellectualisms. How did this conflicted situation develop? Has a career in an academic institution or life in Santa Fe contributed to this paradox?
Jon: That poem plays with postmodern ideas, which are both true in an absolute, idealist sense, and false when approached from a more practical standpoint. Postmodernism is the uncertainty principle of modern thought—on the micro level, sure, language fails because of its own complexity, identity is largely an illusion, knowledge is often managed and enforced by those in power, etc. But on the practical level, some unsavory truths are probably pretty true, the man with the gun probably is the killer, and the self feels pretty damn real when you’re homeless and hungry and on the run. I’m suspicious of any system that purports to explain everything, and I have serious doubts about scholarship as a way of life. I love research and getting as close to “the bottom of things” as possible, but at some point, you need to go for a walk.
Mary: In “Piñon & Moon” from Preliminary Report, there’s an illuminating moment where you discuss poetry that has “rigorous tenderness, unsentimental, maybe even brutal.” Seen in this way, the idea of sentimentality gets flipped, viewed as the more brutal experience we have to contend with; and accepting brutality is viewed with some amount of understanding, almost tenderness. Is this a flipped point of view that you can see working in your poems?
Jon: The line you quote has troubled me since I wrote it. Every time I decide to read that poem, I contend again with that line. But how might “tenderness” be both “rigorous” and “brutal”? Here I mean to distinguish “sentimentality” from “tenderness.” By “sentimentality” here, I mean something like “insisting that the reader have a particular response and forcing that response through overwriting or abstract commentary.” Although sentimentality is a culturally-relative construct and different degrees of sentimentality are acceptable in the arts of different cultures, an excess of sentimentality will doom most work in the World Court of Art. Rigor in craft, which requires the artist to render tenderness “objectively” is required to let tenderness be itself and not turn sentimental.
There’s a moment in the end of “Brutal Squares” that tempers these lines. In that poem, I’m being critical of another danger I see: That, because risking sentimentality is hard work, the creative writing professor sidesteps the whole enterprise and pushes the student into a brutal, violent worldview—and then praises the student for the resulting work.
Mary: Sometimes I felt I could almost catch a tone of salvation in tactile things (like sand and gravel under feet), like there was something redeeming in lovely anguish, or at the end of Scrimmage of Appetite where there’s “A Conspiracy of Lilacs” and the world is for a moment whimsical. In “The Hawk, The Road, The Sunlight After Clouds” there are “small joys” and there is the lingering porte ouverte quality in “Ma Roulotte.” Is there redemption and peace behind such unexpected doors and experiences?
Jon: Yeah, certain moments are locally peaceful. It’s good to be inside them. As I write this I’ve just returned from seeing Monet’s gardens at Giverney. He painted his famous waterlily paintings during World War I. Was he feeling “the entire danger of the moment”? Was he escaping into those private moments? Or is it possible to be in the moment, be peaceful, and also in full comprehension. The Zen Buddhists have the answer of course: want the world as it is and it won’t fail you.
Mary: Music is also a moment of possible release from the turmoil. In “What Now?” we’re taken through the emotional exploration of Thelonious Monk to the final musical image of a “lingering bust of feathers.” How does jazz your experience of Hendrix or jazz confirm or deny a redeeming order in your experiences?
Jon: Flying back from Europe yesterday on British Airways, I listened to a Van Morrison interview interspersed with his songs on those entertainment centers they have these days. I teared up more than once listening to the unrepentant purist talk about his love for music as music. It was his usual screed against glitz and glitter and the business of music, but it was driven by his deep feeling that music is a kind of salvation, an absolute good. I’ve started, very late in this life, to play guitar and write songs. I wish I’d started earlier. Some of my earliest memories, from when I was three years old, are of my father playing his guitar and singing. Later, I listened to my father’s records—Hank Williams and Johnny Cash—and whatever horrific music was playing on the AM radio during the mostly dead years of popular music in the late fifties, early sixties. Then I heard the Beatles.
Music began again for me the first time I heard the Beatles on the kitchen radio. I can remember the moment, the light, the white plastic radio that my mother turned on every morning while she was warming the kitchen with her cooking. Often the house was cold in the mornings. We didn’t always have money for heating oil, so my mother would turn on the radio and hang blankets in the kitchen doors and let the heat from the stove warm things up. The sound of the radio would filter up through the heating ducts to our bedroom upstairs. Hearing the radio, my brothers and I would race, shivering, downstairs, flip the blanket up, and slip into the warm, light-filled kitchen. But the first time I heard the Beatles wasn’t on one of those cold mornings. Instead, it was one afternoon. My mother must have turned the radio down in the morning, then forgot about it and left it on all day. I’d just come home from school and was looking for something to eat. It was probably the spring of 1964. I was ten years old and WAVZ, the local AM radio station had mostly been playing “novelty songs” for years. I remember crossing the kitchen to the refrigerator when I heard a faint song unlike any I’d ever heard before. I swerved to the radio and turned it up. The guitars were loose and jangly, the voices, well, they were excitable boys and they were excited about something: "Oh, yeah, I'll tell you something. I think you'll understand. When I say that something, I wanna hold your hand!" Something in that song—the just-barely-controlled chaos of it, that guitar bass line, the passionate attack, the almost-hoarse voiced harmonies--matched whatever was going on in my own eleven year old body. The experience wasn’t about listening, or else it was about listening with every pore. The effect was bodily. It was a rough exuberance, full of promise. And the weird thing is that everyone under eighteen years of age seemed to agree: This, these Beatles, were exactly what we we’d been waiting for. And somehow I knew, standing next to the stove, listening to a white plastic radio, that nothing would ever be the same again.
I worry that most of the things I value about music are absent now in the world of technology and glamour. There are great talents, but nearly all of them would sound better without the lights, the clothes, the electronics. As Morrison said in that interview: “People used to care about music. They didn’t care if someone had a shiny jacket or whatever.” Music makes me joyful. I suppose it’s experience given form, made briefly coherent, even as it moves in time toward an ending.
Mary: Despite your explorations of meaninglessness, you haven’t gone fully over to language poetry. Are you on your way? Are you lingering near the edge and flirting? How would you describe where you are in relation?
Jon: The explorations in Scrimmage of Appetite were driven by a need to create a world on paper that looked like the world I see and hear and feel. It was spurred by various other explorers, like Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Michael Palmer, Carolyn Forche, Jorie Graham, some of whom seem to embrace, sometimes, a conception of language marked by futility. I employ a similar approach all the time, but I still believe that poetry, because it employs every aspect of language in a sounded and meaning-filled structure, is complex enough to model the world, that it can control the excess meaning that Derrida claims makes “communication” impossible. I think I stepped back from the edge somewhat in Preliminary Report, and my new book is more like Preliminary Report than Scrimmage, though all of my books are various enough that it’s hard to characterize them.
Mary: One of the elements I loved in Scrimmage of Appetite is the threading, how things come in and out of relief, how in the section “The Ochre World: A Sequence” phrases come in and out of various poems. Is there any kind of structure or form you used to construct this sequence?
Jon: No form, just an intense focus on the composition. I lived inside that sequence for 11 months. Everything went into it. It was a plate I kept spinning in the back of my head. Of course, I quickly understood that the poem would repeat and revise itself as it moved forward. Maybe it’s a Philip Glass composition, maybe more like Book of Nightmares by Galway Kinnell. But I consciously lived my life in a way to finish the poem—what I did, what I read, what I thought about, where I went—all contributed to the poem. It’s taken me a long time to move on from that sequence.
Mary: Both books explore the prose poem. Do you have a sense before you start what will be a prose poem versus a stanza poem? Or are you in the middle of it before you know?
Jon: Most prose poems begin as prose poems. There’s a way of moving through the early drafts that announces itself. A kind of careering through ideas and images and sounds. Prose poems for me are written quickly, in a kind of trance. They are almost a performance. And they are always improvisations. The revising is always about music. The music of the sentence. Cutting unaccented words, strengthening the verbs, tightening the cables so the structure will hold up, even in a strong wind.
Mary: Do prose poems themselves challenge the meaning of the poetic line? For myself, when I find a poem that wants to be a prose poem (usually in the middle of it), I come to view the thing as simply a one-lined poem.
Jon: I love the music of the sentence, all the eddies and swirls that can occur as the language flows to the final period--the drain-hole--and disappears. I try to read a prose poem aloud as if it’s a one-line poem, yes. In composition, line breaks often slow me too much, allow me to think, which, for me, is a bad thing, since my logical mind can break into the poem and spoil all the fun, making me clean up and go to bed early, without my dessert.
Mary: In your prose poems, breaks are rare, indents don’t exist and the poems take on the form of a solid block. What can you say about that tendency not to break up the block?
Jon: I’m currently breaking up the blocks. If I had it to do over again, I might do more of that in Scrimmage and Preliminary Report. It had to do with the idea of the one line poem, I think. Of careering from begin to end, of honoring the initial impulse, the improvisation, the performance. But they can be hard to approach. They’re not very friendly looking.
Mary: One of my favorite poems is from Preliminary Report, “Loving Horses,” when your daughter schools you in being didactic: “Why do you turn everything into a lecture? The poem/is about horse and horses are about themselves.” That was very funny. Your poems (and titles) are heavy conceptually, often dealing with states of thinking. Based on this quote above, does teaching affect your theoretical voice?
Jon: I teach theory, both as friend and danger. Like a horse, theory is, sometimes it can take you gracefully where you want to go. Other times, it makes going anywhere impossible. My course in theory is party defensive—theory will kill a writer, since it always reduces writing to a social construct. Followed strictly, theory does not allow for even the existence of a creature called “a poet.” So I teach its usefulness as a political tool, but I also teach against its tendency to reduce all human action to the exercise of power. Sure, lots of the world can be explained by asking, “Who will gain power from this?” But that’s not the only question, and it’s not nearly the most interesting.
“Loving Horses” has been a favorite of mine since I wrote it. The poem enacts a calming engagement with the world out of a riot of complications, most of which “the speaker” of the poem created his own damn self. I’ve learned a lot from my daughter—and my other children. The poem ends with an engagement with the pure moment.
Mary: There does seem to be a palpable difference between the two books. Scrimmage of Appetite in 1991 is darker and incredibly packed with densely constructed poems. Preliminary Report in 2010 (after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina interestingly) somehow breathes easier. There’s more personal history and more heart-speak in it (“The Incandescence of the Present” is a good example). I could only read 3-4 Scrimmage poems a day. My brain would start to spin out! There was an exhausting questioning of our rational foundations. Preliminary Report let up a little. How did it feel on your end working through each book of poems? Could you feel a difference?
Jon: I wasn’t going to publish Preliminary Report. I kept deciding I was through with poetry—every few days. But I kept writing poems despite myself. I just wasn’t sure it was a worthy enterprise. I think a lot of poets go through a period like that. Fifteen years passed between Scrimmage and Report. I wrote several books of heteronymic poems during that time, co-wrote a book’s worth of cantankerous essays on poetry for Countermeasures, three full length screenplays and numerous shorts, a couple of one act plays, and I created a big body of worthless satirical pieces on Chuck Calabreze’s blog, Voyd of Course. I was having fun, but poetry kept tapping me on the shoulder: Remember me? Eventually I put the book together 100 different ways, tore it apart, reassembled it, tore it apart again, and reassembled it. When it started looking like a book, Arthur Sze, Dana Levin, and Greg Glazner convinced me that I should publish it.
Mary: Because I have been working with you as faculty secretary at the Institute of American Indian Arts, I have a unique perspective. So having experienced your “outside of deadlines” working style, lines like these from “A Brief History of Heartbreak” stand out: “here we are standing with thirteen items in the ten-items-or-fewer line” and this from “Shimmer ”—“They all wanted something to happen and when it did they wanted it to stop./When it stopped, they wanted it to happen again.” To what extent are you attracted to the disarray? And is the structure and all the rules more meaningless or are they a menace?
Jon:I’m actually a good rule follower, sometimes. I’d like to follow the rules—the good rules. I’d like to have a neat office. I’d like to rake the stones every morning. I’d like to have a schedule. Or at least I think all of these things. Then I say “yes” to too many people or have too many things I want to do—like today, I’m helping a former student write an essay, typing and revising three prose poems I wrote on the plane, answering these interview questions, working on a song, and now I’m about to get ready for the five MFA meetings and the two day poet laureate event I somehow signed on for at the end of the week. I suspect I’m scheduled for two doctor’s appointments this week (I’m not even sure) and pretty soon I’m back in the porridge.
Mary: There are some almost theatrical, very funny pieces in Preliminary Report that I loved, the mother with advice in “The Good Life,” the intellectual (Santa Fe-esque) conversation in “Art & Life,” the construction of the “Jade Buddha,” the gesticulations of suffering in “Preliminary Report from the Committee on Appropriate Postures for the Suffering,” Do you feel humor is a useful tool in your newer poems?
Jon: I think my poems have become increasingly funny. For a while my heteronym, Chuck Calabreze, got to be the funny one, but now I’m distributing the humor more equally. The trick for me is for the humor to have an edge. Chuck can sometimes trade in easy ironies. I want humor that’s complex and uncomfortable. Thus, the title poem, which even I squirm at. Humor is a useful political tool. You get to be blunt and direct and still interesting.
Mary: In all the poems, I felt you were digging at the “crust of events” and the most striking line of all was from the end of Scrimmage of Appetite where in the poem “In Privacy” you talk about “sentences lurking in the sagebrush—/When they feel along all of its edges/When they find the seam” and I’m reminded of video gamers who work to find the edge of a video game’s universe in order to break out of the game’s frame. As a writer, when you find the seam and you tear and rip at it, is that a scary place to be? Or a place of epiphany? Where is it that you feel drawn to go?
Jon: The seam is a place of epiphany. But there’s no epiphany without acceptance of the entire moment, so you get danger with your enlightenment always.
The draw is always towards the mystic (ah, there’s Van Morrison again). I don’t know if I believe in any particular metaphysical world. Most days I believe this--this creature life, this arc of time, this strange epiphenomenon called consciousness—is all just biology, physics, a happy accident. At other times, I stand under the stars or watch the horizon and think—impossible, it’s all impossible. I want my poetry to enact that standing-under-the-stars, that awe at this whatever-it-is we call a life.
Mary: Can you talk about how you create poems? From notes? An outline? Do you do free-association?
Jon: I don’t believe in anything called a “creative process.” Poems occur, the good ones do. “Process” is practice, rehearsal; it’s what you do when you’re waiting for a real poem.
I never work from an outline. Sometimes phrases assemble themselves, sometimes I work and work an initial set of lines to make them fresh and well-sounded and they turn into a poem, most times it’s free association, improvisation, sometimes a voice or a story carries the poem, sometimes I’m writing a “shadow version” of a poem I admire, occasionally I make up a form, sometimes I work from sound only. Always I’m working against too much sense-making.
Mary: Do you work towards something or out from something?
Jon: Both. The poem is a voyage, but it must be a voyage from one interesting place to another.
Mary: Can you describe what a good ending feels like?
Jon: There are many different kinds of good endings. Some are not endings at all. A good ending has the right rhythm and sounds and ends the poem by keeping it going, while also “resolving” in some mysterious way, all the thematic and story lines, the images and sounds that have been unleashed over the course of the poem. A good ending, then, is pretty much impossible.
Mary: How do you approach a title?
Jon: The only titles I’m really happy with are the titles in the sequence, “The Ochre World,” all of which I produced in one morning. I have no idea how that happened. Many of the titles were lines from the poems, but others arrived on their own.
The poet Matthea Harvey has lots of good advice on titles. I imagine that can be found on the web. She’s given lots of thought to the subject. I should pin her ideas on the wall above my desk.
Mary: How do you go about organizing your poems for a collection? Do you organize chronologically or by theme or tone?
Jon: Last time I handed it to Copper Canyon with the request that they randomize it. My poems in the last book and the one I’m currently writing are so various in terms of voice, approach, form, and theme that no structure feels right. The structure that the press came up with is largely random, though I can see that they’ve put poems that feel autobiographical (though not all are) together at the beginning and end, then some of the more mysterious or philosophical or political poems in the middle, but then there’s a section of prose poems, many of which could have been elsewhere. So it’s like an IQ test question: Which category does not belong? The prose poems. Yet I love that. The next book is harder still, since there are prose poems and flash fictions both in this book. It will have to be structured similarly, though I want the prose and poetry intermingled this time. We’ll see.
Mary: Last year you were elected Poet Laureate of Santa Fe. Is there a list of responsibilities? What unique projects are you working on?
Jon: I thought I was going to be on sabbatical, giving me time to be poet laureate. Instead, I’m working on an MFA program. So I’ve not been a great, active poet laureate. I’m hoping to complete a reading series, do a project with the New Mexico History Museum, and a couple of educational projects—working with Santa Fe teachers and teens. I have a million ideas—if I had a staff and a budget! Mostly, I’m accepting invitations when they come.
Mary: You also perform as the character Chuck Calabreze and blog as him on Voyd of Course. What inspired this character? And in what ways does being him give you more liberty to express yourself differently than as Jon Davis? Do different poems come out of Chuck?
Jon: Chuck started out as a parody of a poet who shall remain nameless. His early work was quite different from the work he mostly does now. His first public act was to write harassing letters to the editor of the magazine Countermeasures. That would not have been a big problem, except I was the co-editor of the journal. His physical performance was inspired by Gary Glazner (not to be confused with Greg Glazner), who invited Chuck to read to 150 unsuspecting tourists at a local hotel. He gradually evolved into the character you see now—a mixture of Professor Irwin Corey, George Carlin, Bob Kauffman, Tom Waits, Steven Wright, and Charles Bukowski. Writing as Chuck is very different from writing as myself. He brings a recklessness to the page, a surrealism, and, lately, a disregard for good taste. In performance, I’ve found him less confrontational lately, more mystical.He can be lovably cantankerous.
Mary: So now I’ve met Chuck, I have to admit I was intimidated by him. He’s so playfully off-the-hook. And he’s much more interactive than I was expecting. Does Chuck ever push Jon off kilter?
Jon: The day you saw Chuck, he was slightly over-the-top, deliberately challenging people. He was off his meds. I never follow Chuck on stage. I did it twice, and regretted it both times. He’s too big a presence. I felt small and insignificant following him. I felt like somebody’s idea of a professor.
Mary: Who are the writers who had the most influence on your work?
Jon: I’m sure I’ve answered this question with a hundred different names over the years. So here’s a nearly complete list. These are not necessarily the poets I read and enjoy, but poets from whom I can point to my work and say I learned this from so and so. Among poets, in no particular order: Whitman, Roethke, Plath, Lowell, Yeats, Stevens, Keats, Neruda, Lorca, Rilke, Nicanor Parra (!), Jacques Dupin, Max Jacob, Antonin Artaud’s crazy letters/prose poems, Akutagawa’s A Fool’s Life, Charles Olson, Breton, Ashbery’s early and middle work, Robert Duncan (!), Robert Hass, Jorie Graham, Larry Levis, Philip Levine, Richard Hugo, Denis Johnson, Carolyn Forche, Jack Gilbert’s first book, Linda Gregg, Merwin’s middle work, Bertolt Brecht, Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares, Norman Dubie, Ai, Dick Allen, Ted Hughes (especially Crow), Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Laura Chester, Wilfred Owen, Richard Greenfield, C.D. Wright, especially Deepstep Come Shining, Gertrude Stein (Tender Buttons and the prose work, Making of Americans), Anne Sexton’s later, crazier, more open poems, Michael Palmer, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Leslie Scalapino, Fernando Pessoa, Tomaz Salamun, Tomas Transtromer, Brenda Hillman, Jack Spicer, Ezra Pound, Kenneth Koch, Antonio Machado, William Bronk, Paul Celan’s late poems, Hayden Carruth’s lyrics, T.S. Eliot, Mark Strand’s early poems, Sydney Lea’s “The Feud,” John Berryman, David St. John’s first book, Mei Mei Bersenbrugge, Paul Eluard, Edmond Jabes, Stephen Berg’s prose poems, Stephen Dobyns in Cemetery Nights and Black Dog, Red Dog, Seamus Heaney, Dean Young, Robert Penn Warren, especially the book length poem, Audubon, Nazim Hikmet. And my friends Arthur Sze, Dana Levin, and Greg Glazner.
Among prose writers who I suspect have influenced my poetry: Carole Maso, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon. Lately, I have found myself mightily influenced by Naseer Hassan, whose book Dayplaces, I just finished co-translating with him.
Mary: I know you have good taste in music. Can you divulge one of your more guilty pleasures?
Jon: Is Hall and Oates a guilty pleasure? Bruce Springsteen? I’m checking my playlist. I pretty much have impeccable taste, apparently. Though I won’t turn off No Doubt if it comes on the radio. Early Madonna still sounds good on the radio, too. Some great voices are singing some very bad songs poorly arranged these days, so sometimes I’ll listen to that stuff just a little longer than is seemly.
Mary: What books are you reading now, poetry and non-poetry?
Jon: I’m pathetic. I read the same books over and over again. James Joyce, Donald Barthelme, Wallace Stevens, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett over the last month. Ursula LeGuin’s short stories. Louis Shivers’ Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail. I want to write a novella like that. It’s almost a film. Oh, I’ve been reading George Saunders. That’s new. It’s like reading a kinder, gentler Donald Barthelme. I’ve been carrying the short short story “Sticks” in my pocket. It’s difficult to get a flash fiction to carry the amount of emotional force that Saunders gets “Sticks” to carry. I’m always reading Robert Hass and Jorie Graham. And Martin Heidegger’s late works on language.
Mary: What writing project are you working on now?
Jon: Too many. I recently completed a book of co-translations with the Iraqi poet Naseer Hassan. I’m close to having a book of poems, prose poems, and flash fictions called either Reply All or Improbable Creatures. I’m leaning lately to the more “serious” second title. The “improbable creatures” of the title are, of course, humans. I started out calling it Reply All because I wrote so many of the poems (probably a quarter of the book) in emails to friends. So I should add that to my list of ways I write poems, huh? I wrote three of the poems in three consecutive emails to Dana Levin in a two hour period one morning. I’ve also got a Chuck Calabreze book perpetually in the works, as well as an “anthology” of heteronymic works.
From the Proust Questionnaire…
Mary: What is your favorite virtue?
Jon: Is sloth a virtue?
Mary: What do you appreciate most in your friends?
Jon: Their brilliance, their incomprehensible loyalty.
Mary: What is your favorite word?
Jon: I have a new one every day. Today I have two: “bristle” and “grist.”
Mary: Who is your favorite author (and why)?
Jon: Impossible! Maybe the Samuel Beckett of the plays? He makes me happiest anyway.
Mary: Who is your favorite poet (and why)?
Jon: Another impossible question! Wallace Stevens?
Mary: Who is your favorite pop or rock singer (and why)?
Jon: Elvis Costello. He sings good.
Mary: Who is your favorite fictional hero (and why)?
Jon: Is Slothrop a hero? Is he a character?
Mary: Who is your favorite reality hero (and why)?
Jon: Karl Marx? Because he provided an “outside”?
Mary:The reform I admire most (actual Proust question)...
Jon: What was Proust’s answer? [his answer was four dashes, presumably to notate leaving the question blank: "---"]
Mary: How I wish to die (Proust answered “Improved—and loved.”)...
Jon: Painlessly, and loved.
Mary: What is your present state of mind?
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