AP: An English guy interviews an American writer over the net. Is this proof that the Internet can be a 21st Century version of the Bateau-Lavoir or the City Lights basement, a truly free and independent meeting place for artists from around the world. Potentially, what do you think this could eventually lead to? Do you think it could ever actually replace the tangible thrill of likeminded people meeting in person?
KB: This is a fantastic platform for me. As an artist, American commercial consumerism and the breach of culture/pop culture has made American writers outlaws. There is no intelligentsia anymore. Reality and virtual reality are given the same value. One is punished for speaking out. I’ve been in Gitmo for decades.
I’ve carried these questions for weeks. We’re not in a collective fern grotto, with rare orchids, boldly stark and singular, drift above. Or are we? Air dense with a powder that could be curry or some subtle contraband, local, known only as thing. Assault of mocking birds in lust with the summery persistence of white night blooming Madagascar. Lamplight. Christ.
But wait. Listen to this. I am about to debut in the Warwick Review. A short story of mine will be published. It’s called What Women of the Ports Know.
An email is a sequence of electrons without meaning. The thrill of visiting a writer in situ, in his Westwood brick backyard, with its roses in more than a casual curtsy. There were family epics in soup terrines. It’s the baby writer’s first breath beyond utter ignorance. Then, a study wall. You are being shown your first Miro, Picasso or Diebenkorn.
Beware, I shall offer dissent of what I expect to encounter. When I find it, I may become virulently impassioned if the ineluctably fundamental is degraded. No.
No. The Internet is not “a truly free and independent meeting place for artists from around the world,” in some lyric, Byronic, post-post romantic poet spending afternoons poisoning herself with absinth and infidelity. The girl with the moon crescent tattoo and a mouth promising to taste of blueberries and onions. That’s a visual of this period, call it Chagall.
But, alas, the Internet is not filled with artists from all over the globe, breathlessly reading their just birthed poems to comrades in arms in Barcelona or Brazil.
First of all, most artists of my period learned the Internet late in our careers. That’s part of what’s being lost in the obliteration of the writer’s essential arsenal, her tool kit, her palette, her bag is sound. It’s the sound of the language, which is meant to be read out loud. In that way, when I picked up a phone, say, I’d ring off immediately if I was working. We called it composing.
The page as it has been classically known is a 3-dimensional surface, not flat, containing a sound track, thought tract, scent and lighting script within it. I stress the 3-dimensional aspect of the page because beginning writers don’t recognize how fragments are composed. Then the fragments are moved around. There’s assemblage work, there’s the carpentry of the thing, the scaffolding.
To make a change, an entire page had to be retyped. The second drafts were so filled with notes, rewrites, written by hand, in all colors of pen—- blue, black, red, purple. I had notebooks for the numbering. Color-coded. Other pages were stapled and taped, and it became a literal fabric. The sense of intimacy of a hand on good paper. It was alive in the way computer pages aren’t, the pages of what couldn’t be folded or contained.Palm Latitudes in particular. It couldn’t even live in a box. It lived on the carpet like an oriental rug. That’s a historical singularity, the way a writer didn’t have the time to consider that you had when making your changes word by word, in sharp pencil; there was such physical interaction with the page. The computer doesn’t have pages. It has screens.
You seem enthusiastic about this “meeting place for artists from around the world.” As a working writer, I often view the computer as my private rack. It’s an instrument of torture. I work on the computer. I work long stretches straight. For decades, I’d unwind from a day of fiction by “doing my email” which consisted of more fictional hours spent with people I felt intensely enmeshed with, despite the fact that I did not really know them.
This distinction has become more important to me as I see that the computer must be avoided, as TV, for the artist.
So, a real artist would not be using the Internet for recreation. They are making works of art. The computer is like a café where everyone carries Rimbaud and Joyce. But alas, there is no such place. I live in San Francisco. Here, so avant-garde, they are radiant just being votives. I call it a city where everyone has a dozen devotees, like a bouquet of red roses, and it’s always Valentine’s Day. The ship has come in.
But there are few artists and so many answer, yet so few are called. A slight spasm, a partial gesture, a grunt, and we think we are saved. O, no, the artists are writing with their hours and months and decades. It’s part of the sacrifice. You are defined not only by what you know, but also by what you refuse to know.
For recreation, a writer wouldn’t go to the computer. It’s where stranded teenagers go, to find other “poets” (articulate, verbal, sensitive) in other regions and they intensely love the artist they think is in them, and they are a fictional creation and the computer manifestation, which is also a fictional construct. They they’ve bonded through the electrons flowing like glass blood from them to the other, who is also a fictional creation. 5 years ago, I went to the people I knew from the computer, and this was not the person I was intrigued by, trusted, on the computer. It’s for poseurs. There’s even a sense of obscenity, as in the unintended door you looked through, glimpsed the sordid. One isn’t presented with a name and address, but entire compendiums of information—reviews, photographs, and critiques.
It was raining, Hawaii. I was 36 and desperate and lonely. I was going to the hotel bar. Then I thought, what are the chances I will meet somebody? If there are 50 men in there, not a single one will come up to me and ask me if I prefer Neruda or Paz. There’s no possibility of someone with sensibility there.
There’s en evolutionary process. You stop. You walk to the Dictionary. It is extremely heavy. Whenever I go to the Dictionary, as I read through, I find better words than the one’s I wished for. You cannot write with a spell check program. It doesn’t give you enough possibilities, not like a Dictionary, mine is 40 years old, where the words are like rivers, then branch off into tributaries, creeks, a sudden island.
Tiresias. I know you. The examined life blinded you. Now you need canes and a trained dog. But you will not find Tiresias on the highway of AOL.
What is it leading to? Young writers seem to accept the rules of the Market Place as holy and commonplace. It’s accepted the way orbits and gravity are. It’s the deal breaker. It’s the new Book of Common Prayer. They accept that they will shape their vision to the Market Place. I wrote as an act of insurrection. Of course, I’ve lived to see the obsolescence of ink. Publishing has fallen apart. Writers no longer believe that they will write a book that will change human conscience. That will tear down the walls. That will be a revolution.
20 years ago, they changed the sort of paper and print used, the bindings. Books are no longer designed to last a lifetime. I recently examined a 150-year-old book. Each sibling is named and mentioned, engraved in the leather. Family was part of what author’s offered. But the global culture has a minimal patois. The image is supreme.
Man is defined as the “tool maker.” Actually, man has co-evolved with his tools. We are having this communication because our tools have made this possible. I’ve witnessed the extinction of the poets. It’s been a holocaust.
The thrill is in the actual meeting. You can watch a documentary about lions in Africa, but until you feel the sun on your skin, and smell the blood on the fur, and hear the cracking of bones, you can’t quite know why they’re always showing one the Serengeti.
In fact, the fact is that Q & A by email is a flat sequence of fait accomplis. We aren’t actually talking, I can’t see you cringe, weep or run blood from your palms. We can’t respond to the kinetics of the moment, and identify it, and shape it.
It’s in walking on the rope without a net. That’s why I love rewriting. It becomes new every time I touch it. The improvisation is what I love, riffing through sounds, being lead from sound to sound, which is a different scale than the visual, which is only designed to lead from one idea to another, that’s following the numbers. That’s filling the page in. I want the page to fill me in.
I know I’m late on this interview. I’ve been nearly a year with Obama fever. Just got off the road from Denver. Santa Fe, where I picked up my gmail and some guy had written in that he’d just read in McSweenyes a story of mine, The Women Who Sold Communion. The German translator wrote. She said, you can’t possibly mean that the protagonist actually imagines she will open a stall by the highway with her mother and sell lilies and communion? I mean, we are a Catholic country. I don’t understand. I couldn’t begin to translate such a concept. So I said, change the title to What the Lilies Know. All the new stories have that in their title.
In my town, the bookstores have boxes of free books lined out along the outer walls. Or they cost 5 for a buck. They’re giving away Faulkner, Kafka, Hemingway, Cheaver, Roth, Bellow. Mainstream writers are revered, even them, now for free. Novels. Collected short stories. Sitting in boxes at curbs, yours for the taking.
The book had a good run. Admit it. 500 years since the Guttenberg Printing Press. That’s a monumental period for a book to rule the intellectual world. But the word has passed. The concept of writing a book that can change the world would not occur to them.
Bertrand Russell said history was about chemical imperialism. We’re still in the Dark Ages. Our tools will co-evolve and then we’ll be sentient chemistry. We won’t read. We’ve never read. It was di rigor for the aristocracy. Then it was socially required, one had to have an artistic opinion. That is no longer necessary, it’s irrelevant. Once freed of the social obligation “to read”—people did other things. Golf. Bowling. EBay. Iphone. Blogs.
Orwell was right about the diminishing of language. We call that egalitarian. Wake up, you of our sweet English tongue, wake up. It’s a dumbing down. I have to fight for every extra syllable, each epiphany, fought for, syllable-by-syllable and no car chases.
The politics of this country has driven them mad. Bloated, withering, crippled, is whiskey makes them see elevation in their squalor. Fuck them.
AP: In Frantic Transmissions and Incantation of Frida K you seek to melt the boundaries between fiction and memoir/biography. Do you see this blend as the future of truly original writing? Does pure fiction still have the power to surprise and inspire you?
KB: Pure fiction does surprise and inspire one. That’s how you recognize it. But literature lived by print media, it can’t really transition, and the book reviewers and book review sections are gone. So illegitimate was that rusty apparatus, now even its gone. The lousy newspapers and sycophantic magazines. It’s now solely about the new flavor of the month. The concept of reputation no longer exists. Then they are unmasked, the new find, a book or two down the line, and it’s predictable. I call it the course correction and the previously (overly, extravagantly) praised is now another Market Place reject.
No one seems to have a career anymore. I’ve noticed that. There are more people writing poetry than there are reading it. There are a dozen people who know who the dozen poets are. It’s been exhausting.
When I write and I have no idea what will happen, and between the first sentence and the last line, a short story is an act of grace. The celestial choreography, you hear it, with your ear, like music.
In the future, reading as an activity will be esoteric, like playing the cello or having as an activity, reading or translating Coptic.
AP: What power do you think the artist still has in activism in the 21st Century? Do you think the post-modern condition has taken away some of the unifying power that artists have? Do you think an artist can still bring together people in the way Kahlo could?
KB: The global world is one without literature. But it can do things. I love William Gibson, particularly Necromancer. That’s about an AI. Classical theory says (a method of by which they can degrade and dismiss it) no writing came out of the 60’s. It all came out in the 70’s. Didion. Robert Stone. Thomas McGuane. Hunter Thompson. It was a fire zone of invention and experimentation.
The links between 1960’s counter culture and the activism/political issues of today are well documented. Do you think the 1960’s activists could be accused of naivety and how do you think the counter culture today relates?
Yes, I’m still naive. I believe. I’m on my way to the Democratic Convention in Denver. If Obama could be President, this is a country I’d want to live in. Be a citizen of. Being a citizen would be a work of art. Discipline. Action. Creativity. This consensual entity that has reared up and the words it said were Barack Obama.
Being an artist in the United States these days is beyond disappointing. It’s possible that the kind of writer’s life I imagined was already fading as I stormed in.
It’s essentially a difference of motivation and commitment. I long ago merged with my persona. We’ve lived as one. Being an artist, that is necessary. It’s got a military feel. Nothing you can’t walk away from. The work is first last and always. It is grace. And you kneel and are blessed. The dumbing down of this country, the retrograde radical Christian right-wing flight of this country, a flight into a fiction they want to embrace.
The so-called citizens of the first world seek diversion and consumerism. This has made this country spend more on medical care and have a sicker population than any other in the G-8. But we can stop this apocalyptic course. Yes we can.
AP: You are quoted as having said ‘A poem is like a kiss, a novel is like a marriage but a short story is a love affair’. Aren’t the best marriages made up of lots of kisses? I really adore the mix of poetry and hard subject matter in Palm Latitudes and Lithium for Medea. Is the juxtaposition of sweet and sour an artist’s biggest weapon? How important is poetry when attempting a creative non-fiction piece like Incantation or Frantic?
KB: Marriage is the ultimate topic. All my fictions, short stories and novels come from poems. You use yourself as the laboratory construct, it’s all architectural, you should be able to move it around like clay. My innovation was creating forms specific for my abilities. I’m a poet who can write dialogue. Plot is of no interest to me. My language is the plot. I’m writing a novel about marriage now.
AP: As a European it has been fascinating to see the rise of Obama and his popularity over this side of the pond. Do you think, if elected, he could go someway to repairing the damage of the Bush years?
KB: Obama has already changed my life. This is it. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. I’ve been waiting since I ran away from home to Berkeley when I was 14. Obama will change the planet. I’ve never considered actually being a citizen of this country, as I am not white, not a man and not a Christian. And I came from Los Angeles. But I was marginalized so profoundly, then Vietnam, the ghastly proxy wars we had, the squalid dictatorships we propped up, not my country. But now I’m answering this interview as an act of literary good citizenship.
Let me put it to you this way. I picked up the phone, got my representative, Nancy Pelosi, and told the receptionist I wanted to get invited someplace. She said we could go on the Gold Package, that is $ 28,500 plus 10 in the past. I bought a TV around January. I wanted to see, watch them, and study the debates. I wanted what I found, discussion, panels, a riot of opinion to triangulate from. It’s called spin. The pundits, that MSNBC, Keith Olbermann is remarkable. Jon Stewart. Rachel Madow. I became increasingly obsessed with Obama. Once I was driven, in this altered, it’s really a fictional state, to spend what will be more than fifty thousand dollars, I’ve been watching and analyzing for months. I’m engaged. This is the country that gave us Vietnam and my husband refusing induction and spending 6 years underground. When I spent a year re-writing the ending of my Graywolf Prize non-fiction prize book, where we drove across the country in 2004 and our lives washed over us, I wrote about this. Then they refused to publish it. This country is a distorted mockery. But if this country were to elect Obama, then we would be the ones we have been waiting for. And we would know it was our time.
So we’re hitting the road tomorrow. I’ve seen it all in real time. As an official Consumer Delegate, I took to all day television with an astonishing ease. Spin is an art form. Improvisation in an historical context. Improvisation is my favorite art form. I go to comedy shows and one-man shows.
Look. I thought, all the fifty thousand dollar (when it’s all said and done, really) moments of history I’ve craved and collected. The pyramid flown, driven and rowed to, the foot on the certified sacred snapped, already digital. Mt. Everest and Tiger Tops. Bali. Venice. The Amalfi coast. 4 weeks in Bora-Bora. Prague. The Swan River winding through southern Idaho.
This is beyond the temple we frame ourselves in front of. We’re on time this time; it isn’t yet a no-fly zone. Not yet. Imagine, for once, knowing the precise moment, longitude and latitude of history and I will be there. When Barack Obama is President, the United States will have evolved into its founding premises. The 60’s won’t have been lost, that singular other breath we were the ones that breathed it, birthed it, and witnessed its degradation. Obama can’t save literature, that’s going into the newly birthed collective post-national global culture and it will be deleted. Literature was never really part of the ordinary agenda of human beings. But as a people, the American people, perhaps we can get our voice back, our voice which has been defeated by the silence of the Market Place, by fear, the fear that has increasingly run publishing in this country. And we could have that rare second chance.
Yes, I’m packing and driving to Denver with my Gold Circle invitations and outfits of all descriptions. History. Bring him on.
I believe by refusing to publish my new ending to Frantic Transmissions, the ending where I step out of my ordinary, expected middle-class mask, and talk about the country as it was in 2004. When the country was divided into blue and red states, and I tried to write an epiphany to squandered empire. Of course, it would have given Frantic Transmissions a moral and prescient view of that moment. Its suppression makes me think that I’ll never get to tell the stories that must be told. They didn’t publish it, one woman made that decision, Gray Wolf, the so called crème of the little academic presses, deprived the book of its moral stature, its clear trajectory. It was diminished, as Hillary kept making the field smaller in the debates, as McCain will do now in the general.
In between, I think of obituaries I should write. Fidel. I hope there’s someone else left to send the last transmission from America. May Day. Empire down.
For full transcript visit http://katebraverman.com/.
About the author:
Alan Perkins is a London based writer and journalist.