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.