Monday, April 26, 2010


Rob Stephenson's new book Passes Through (FC2) is truly a book like no other. It's poetic and plainspoken. It's wildly transgressive and it is also, at times, kind of homey, especially once his voice is in your head. Rob passed through Providence a few weeks ago and he was kind enough to read for the cousins assembled at Abe's. And he submitted to this Q&A:

Can you describe the composition process of Passes Through? How did that process dictate its structure?

The text was made by passing four times through a journal I kept for over ten years. The journal started out as description of daily events and morphed over the years into detailed thoughts on all sorts of subjects. Eventually, I tired of keeping the journal. I never intended it to be published. A few years later I considered the time I’d spent writing it and decided it should be transformed into a fiction. Prior experience with writing memoir and autobiographical essays left me dissatisfied and questioning the value of expressing truth about the past by using traditional storytelling. I decided to move in another direction. Using innumerable constraints, I deleted most of the journal and combined the remaining pieces with all sorts of material external to the journal. The form (and formlessness) of the text grew into its shape as I moved along. Without going into all of the specifics, the architecture of Passes Through comes from an improvisatory linear accumulation over time within a semi-rigid overall scheme designed to create non-linear movement.

The book makes me think of David Markson's description of his work: "nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like, an assemblage." Those terms apply to
Passes Through, but in addition, there is a genuine narrative and a strong sense of the narrating character. What were some of the benefits to this lyrical, collage-like approach? Were there specific challenges that emerged that would not have been a factor if you had taken a more conventional approach?

I’ve been making art of various sorts with found material for over 30 years. At 19, inspired by punk rock concert posters (whose creators were sometimes inspired by Dada poets, Burroughs, or the Situationists), I cut up the pink entertainment section of the San Francisco Chronicle and taped words to paper. I only remember one phrase: “Your hero moves to a boring age.” Soon I was cutting up abandoned grammar school science textbooks and remaking them into my own stories. I still have some of these. I felt comfortable with non-linear approaches very early on. For years I made short or small pieces using various systems of organizing material: films, texts, music, drawings, photo collages, videos. I have always based a certain amount of my work on bringing disparate elements together to see how they suggest something that is not there when they remain separate. I’ve made many shorter precursors to this book. Paris Over Paris possesses some of the qualities that became more elaborated in Passes Through. I am now more interested in making extended pieces that take on other qualities altogether. One challenge for me in making Passes Through was to invent good methods and then trust and finesse them enough to carry them out for longer than I usually do.

And WOW. This is the third time in recent weeks that David Markson has come up in conversation about Passes Through. I finally read a book of his, The Last Novel, about a year after finishing my book. I loved it. Really loved it. It moved me in ways that I did not expect to be moved. It’s such a beautiful book. I was completely unprepared for the way the last fifteen pages left me dewy-eyed. The only other long list that has affected me in an emotional way is on Maya Lin’s powerful Viet Nam war memorial. While it’s true that Markson and I both use short bits of text that accumulate over time into something unexpected, I think our intentions and modes of composition are quite different. And from what I surmise, I often built things up from much shorter elements in Passes Through, than he did in The Last Novel.

Stylistically, there are many incomplete sentences in this book. Which I love. I always tell students that incomplete sentences are OK as long as meaning is not sacrificed. You somehow make more significant meaning with your incomplete sentences. Can you say how this style developed for the book?

I often work with much less than sentence lengths of text. Passes Through especially points up one-, two-, three-, and four-word combinations. If you have ever kept a rambling journal, you know that a lot of mistakes creep in and a home-grown shorthand emerges. Sloppiness gets the upper hand late at night. I kept, even embellished, aspects of that in Passes Through. My rhythmic flow became a finely tuned word-by-word, sound-by-sound jaggedness. I was interested in creating a version of English that mirrors the way thoughts bounce around in a mind over time with all sort of collisions and interruptions between inner modes of being and external distractions. I pushed hard against the way most people tell stories by progressing linearly through argumentation or by using uninterrupted chains that build towards specific inevitable goals. All sorts of voices coalesce and compete to infiltrate the narrator as he speaks. He becomes all of the voices that are speaking. My hope is that the reader, by the end of the text, has adjusted to this Hydra of selves and feels in spite of it all that they do perceive a narrator. You, in fact, did feel “a strong sense of the narrative character.”

You are a composer as well. How does writing music inform your prose writing? And vice-versa?

Music influences everything I make in a number of ways. I think of my writing as music. Passes Through is as much a musical composition as it is a novel or a long poem. The text is tuned to my speaking voice and inflections. I consider the sound and rhythm of words as much as the meaning of words.

Compositional methods from medieval to contemporary times directly influenced Passes Through. Specifically, the constantly shifting and momentum-driven multi-layered music of J. S. Bach permeates the work as much as the Moment Forming and Integration theories of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the asymmetrical pattern distribution techniques of Morton Feldman, and John Cage’s thoughtful forty years of chance operation deployment. Composers create wonderful abstract languages, how can contemporary writers not look to them for inspiration?

Passes Through was published by (the great) FC2. What was it like working with them?

Absolutely terrific! I am amazed and grateful to have such a beautiful book object with my name on it. I know, I know. The author is supposed to be dead, but I’m secretly glad I’ve lived long enough to become one.

You read from
Passes Through at AWP recently and you're touring to promote the book. Can you describe this life on the road? And can you describe audience response to your readings?

Though this is my first published novel, I have been reading for years in public and I enjoy it very much. I get strong responses from audiences, mostly positive ones, but sometimes my subject matter causes some negative reaction. That’s fine with me. I feel it is important for writers to know how to read and perform their work. (This is the composer in me speaking.) I have been to many readings by authors who mumble their way through a passage as if it’s a bother or who have no idea how to relate to a microphone or a sound system and have never considered how the sound of their voice changes in every public situation according to the acoustics of the environment in which they find themselves. Reading out loud is as much about communicating something as is writing the book. By reading your text, you are asking an audience to absorb and contemplate something (usually a small piece of something longer) that they could probably more easily understand by taking it off the page at the rate they are comfortable with and that allows them to reread at will. I think readings in general would be more compelling if authors thought more about what is special about these events and how best to make their words have a life off of the page. I’ll save the part about using video projections, pre-recorded animal sounds, and having someone peel and chop onions during the performance for another time.

(our standard closing question) Can you name some of your literary cousins (contemporaries or precursors)? That is, what writers inspire you to the point that you feel a kinship?

Among my favorite fiction writers are Michael Snow, Brian Ferneyhough, Charles Darwin, Robert Altman, Alice Aycock, Daniel Liebeskind, and Robert Ashley. I can’t come up with a short list without feeling that I’m leaving out so many I ought to mention. I’ve loved so many writers long and hard that you will find tiny bits of them sprinkled liberally throughout Passes Through. Even Marguerite Duras’ cookbook makes an appearance.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Cousins Reading 3: May 2nd

Sandy Florian is the author of Telescope (Action Books), 32 Pedals & 47 Stops (Tarpaulin Sky), The Tree of No (Action Books), Prelude to Air From Water (Elixir Press), and On Wonderland & Waste (Sidebrow Press). She lives in San Francisco where she is an affiliate artist at Headlands Center for the Arts and works as one of the “other” editors for Tarpaulin Sky Journal.

Elisa Gabbert is the author of The French Exit (Birds, LLC) and the chapbooks Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press) and, with Kathleen Rooney, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness (Otoliths). She is the poetry editor of Absent.

Lara Glenum is the author of two books of poetry: The Hounds of No (Action Books) and Maximum Gaga (Action Books). Her chapbook, The Hotling Chronicles, is due out from Tarpaulin Sky later this year. With Arielle Greenberg, she is the co-editor of Gurlesque (Saturnalia Books), an anthology of contemporary women’s poetry and visual art. She teaches in the MFA program in Creative Writing at LSU.

Leslie Patron lives in Providence, RI where she is an MFA candidate inPoetry at Brown University. Her poems and stories have recentlyappeared or are forthcoming in Dewclaw, OCHO, and Parthenon West Review. Her hometown is San Jose, CA.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Friday Night Email Chat with Amish Trivedi

Amish Trivedi, amanuensis of the Trivedi Chronicles and curator of the Museum of Vandals, will be reading for Cousins on April 18th. I promise not to ask him any stupid questions that night. It will be purely, purely his poetry.

COUSINS: Have you by chance read Museum of Accidents by Rachel Zucker? I ask because that book title seems to me to be a blaring statement of Zucker's poetics... And I wonder if you see Museum of Vandals working in that way?

AMISH: I haven't read it to be honest and I only became aware of the title after Vandals was set to come out. For titles, I usually think up something and Google it. If it asks me to try without the quotes, I take it as a good sign.

Or I could phrase the same question differently maybe: Do you have a method of, or allegiance to, wreckage or breakage in your poems? And I guess I mean wreckage/breakage in a sort of playful sense... "Vandals" makes me think of kids destroying things for the fun of it. Your poem "Rowboat Over the Atlantic" seems to work like that.

(We interrupt this question to bring you 'Rowboat Over the Atlantic')

I have become
my own airbags, admitting
I'm more willing to break
than be broken. These words are
not mine
anymore, but they are a revenge
lay. And I used to sit
outside, slumped over feeling
boxed or stigmata over the
soil. Steps line a side, which is
a jar. Rain and saliva become
the next tabloids.

And if I'm completely
wrong, set me straight?

AMISH: I hadn't really thought about it, but yeah, I am very interested in the destruction of language. There's no method, I guess, but whatever we build, we can take down. I grew up with parents that had moved from India, so I came to understand language as being built however you choose to build it. (That sounds really frumpy.)

COUSINS: The way your poem "Letters and Soda" works makes me jealous. How do you do that! And by "that" I mean---hmmm---make a kind of non-linear sense that seems playful and irreverent but also not random, not meaningless...

Letters and Soda

My craw-daddy penis
has so many claws!

I thought you'd written
that psalm: one is drunk and

the other drunken. About
the rain? I was the

one that buried
it in a wall.

AMISH: The first line came from my friend Mark Mattes in Iowa City. Mark's a great guy and he is incredibly playful. He just screamed that line out one night and I told him I was going to steal it, and if it ever got published, I'd get him a case of beer. I have yet to pay up. But I think in a lot of ways, I think in random thoughts (you can ask my wife) and so, with a poem like this one, it's about giving in to the randomness. But there are patterns in everything, I think, even if you are trying to avoid them. Sense, like language, can be created from what you want to put into it.

COUSINS: Also, would you be able to list here a simple recipe--an idiot's guide perhaps--to writing good short poems? I would give you Bill's fifth-born child for the knowledge.

AMISH: I have rewritten my answer to this question several times now! I think the only tip I can really give for a short poem is to cut the fat, so to speak. You have to want to keep it short and the thing kind of is, you can't let the poem settle at any one point. It's like making a custard: if it settles, you're screwed.

COUSINS: In your piece in Octopus on Ceravolo, you wrote that after reading Transmigration Solo, "I probably didn’t even put pen to paper for a bit, thinking that everything I could do wouldn’t be what Ceravolo had already done." I know that feeling of deep admiration inspiring a kind of hopeless paralysis... Do you actively try to imitate him in your work? Or work against him? Is there a poem by him that you have sort of set for yourself as a goal?

AMISH: I think maybe there was some desire to imitate Ceravolo in some poems, but I don't think I ever really tried it because I realized it was impossible. I figured eventually it was better to write my own crappy poems than attempt to ruin Ceravolo's. In terms of poems of his, it's hard to pinpoint. Chunks of Transmigration are so fantastic- I remember sitting in two different Special Collections rooms at libraries just pouring over it.

COUSINS: Has there been a writer or book since more recently who has struck you dumb? (a/k/a Who are your literary cousins?)

AMISH: I have no idea! Graham Foust comes to mind right away, especially because I am obsessed with his first two books that came out in '03 or so. I almost don't want to name anyone else because I don't want to drag them down! BUT if I had to name my largest influence, it's my old TA from UGA, Johannes Goransson. I didn't even know I could get an MFA or do anything with poetry until I met him. He always pushed me (and still does really) and that's been the great influence. "A New Quarantine Will Take My Place" is probably one of my favorite books because there's so much that appeals to me: the threads, the language, the thematics- it really is something nearly perfect for me and each reading reveals something more to me. Beyond books, I'd say I have always drawn a lot of inspiration from films: Lynch, Bunuel, Godard, Svankmejer, Varda, and Bergman especially. In Lynch and Bunuel, I think I'm drawn to something that you mentioned earlier: at first glance, things can seem random, but the pieces fit in a way.

COUSINS WHO ARE LOOKING FOR ANSWERS THEMSELVES: Once you finish your MFA, how will you make your way in the world? Will you continue to write? If so, how are you imagining that you will
set up your life so that you can do that? What else are you besides a writer? What could you do or accomplish or be in your life that you would consider worthwhile?

AMISH: You should never ask such questions! I have no idea- part of me wants to keep going with school- maybe a PhD in literature/English, but I would say I ultimately want to teach. I know it's a lot of work, but I'm drawn to the classroom with the goal of creating a good experience for the students. I'd love to do little more than teach workshops, but I'm guessing I'm 2-3 books/10 years from that right now. I don't think I can really quit writing, to be honest. It's nearly a compulsion. I'm addicted to it, in a way: I'll wake up, and say I'll never do it again, and within 20 minutes, I'm deeply embroiled in a poem. In terms of accomplishment, I've decided I just want to be comfortable. I want to write and publish, course, but I don't really want anything out of that. Does that make sense? I'm not looking for poetic achievements/milestones, and don't really expect them to come any time soon. I'd just like a nice little life of poems and teaching and maybe a Ferrari at some point. Nothing major.

Finally, if I gave you one of my poems, would you vandalize it for me?

I could try, sure!