A Conversation between Joan Retallack and Rosmarie Waldrop
[This is the second half of a conversation, begun in 1991 with later revisions, mostly about Rosmarie Waldrop’s two novels, The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter and A Form/ of Taking/ It All. The first half of the conversation was published in Contemporary Literature 40.3 (Fall 1999).]
JR: It’s not a given that a writer, having done a particular kind of book, would — like you — then try to do something completely different. Of course, the writer whose next book is similar to previous ones might say the level or critical degree of difference is in some other aspect of the work, that it's a more subtle difference.
RW: That is true. There are writers who explore in depth, rather than in “width.” They go over the same territory again and again, digging deeper and deeper. Jabés does that. And Beckett. But apparently I’m more interested in surfaces, in going sideways, rather than deep.
JR: The way I would say it is that you are more interested in form. But then what does that mean? I read an essay several years ago in the journal Genre by a Chinese American scholar who said that, in contrast to the West, Chinese culture is entirely preoccupied with form, that the Chinese are “born into” a sensitivity to form. But again what does that mean? Something spatial, perhaps, more than temporal. For a book of poetry or prose, it might be as simple as the graphics of the page — ratios and relations of white space to print, placement of words. Just leafing through your two novels one can already see that things are arranged differently from the norm of the novel. The space is occupied, or unoccupied, in different ways. One sees that kind of thing in Tristram Shandy — there are symbols inserted, a page is covered in black, an entire chapter consists of one short sentence... Or in Gertrude Stein’s poetic novel Blood on the Dining-Room Floor. So, if you think of form in one of its aspects as a framework defining boundaries, like any frame its presence draws attention, helps you focus on what it sets off in a particular way.
RW: Right, or better, form as intersection, rather than something that contains. That’s the model I prefer. There are different ways in which the materials intersect each other, and intersect the page. It’s Pound’s idea of form as “a center around which, not a box within which.” Which is also Merleau-Ponty’s definition of both form and space: “not the space in which, but the means through which.”
JR: So, for instance where you are using captions for sections — ?
RW: It signals “jump.” Except that — I see here “Elegy Continued.” So, the captions also establish continuity across other sections.
JR: A way to keep in motion the play between different levels of disjunction and continuity.
JR: Which the whole book plays with in a variety of ways. One of the things I loved was the recurrent, very precise anatomical description of gestures — a muscular precision that makes them both very specific and entirely generalizable, simultaneously meaningful and oddly empty. And that pertains to the kind of formal sense I was referring to before.
RW: On one level this undercuts narrative one-dimensionality in Musil-style. I give a whole web of anatomical information instead of saying “he lifted the cup to his mouth.” But gesture also interested me as a form of communication that would seem to carry across boundaries of language and culture. Though even the gestures are coded. The Spaniards and Indians probably made as many mistakes interpreting gestures as interpreting words. I wanted to take it back to the level of the body, of muscle and tissue.
JR: If you think about historical narrative, not many gestures get recorded. It’s the particle that doesn’t wave, a micro-level in history. At some point in reading this I started to think of all the billions of people on the planet making gestures over time and thereby determining the course of history.
RW: And half of them women. There is, in A Form/ of Taking/ It All, a whole strand from Frank Wedekind’s novella, Mine-Haha or the Physical Education of Girls. He posits a society in which the girls are brought up purely as bodies. They learn to dance and to play music, nothing else. Then they’re sacrificed to some God. This story has haunted me. Never mind that Wedekind distances it by placing it in Aztec society. This separation of mind and body — and defining them as male and female! When the connection between mind and body is so much more interesting than the famous gap — which, I’m happy to read, seems to be closing in favor of the body. Psychologists like Damasio seem to ground all thought in “somatic markers,” “body-representing neural structures.” So that there is no such thing as “pure thought” — which is what my German schooling seemed oriented toward. I love getting the body into my writing, especially to subvert ideas like “pure thought.” At the same time I’m of course allergic against the stereotype, of the woman as sheer body.
JR: The body usually enters in a rather fragmentary way. Either concentrating on a part of the body or a particular motion of the body. Or in the sorts of things that you do with mid-sentence shifts from the intellectual to the sensual. Whole bodies rarely make an appearance.
RW: Is that true?
JR: Those odd, isolated gestures detached as they are from any pretense of the kinds of deterministic fictions driven by full-blown characters seem to punctuate in a very piquant way all that is not pretensein this book. The relief from seamless narration, for instance. From authorial omniscience. In their place in A Form/ of Taking/ It All is this wonderful choreography of the immense energy of intellect and imagination that needn’t deny the gaps since it’s capable of transmitting across them. There’s something very strong and moving about all those people waving from fragmentary accounts across centuries and cultures. Sort of like the image of the arm sticking out of the water with everything else submerged.
RW: That’s a great image! So much is always submerged. All we get are little glimpses. Of S.O.S. signals! Yes, the arm out of the water is just right.
JR: All of which would be lost — that sense of energized particles, particulars of history that could send waves in many directions were you to engulf everything in a tidal wave of your own narrative intentionality. Interestingly, I’m finding now as we talk about this that I have a heightened sense of the play of the particle in your structure [even before the last section where Columbus sails toward “Unpredicted Particles” and continents] — the sense of the play of particulars, the little coincidences that occur in the mind of the person thinking about history. Author as participant observer whose presence is continually swerving the energy from unpredicted particle meeting particle in the constantly interrupted narrative consciousness to produce the momentarily coherent wave. On page 80, section 2, you write:
And in 3,
This is really about the way, the only way, we can experience history, dispersed as it is in the particles we move through in the everyday life of the present, taking things in according to the particulars of our associative networks of our cultural and personal moment — networks that are made of what we care about, what we think we know, what we long for:
And then in the last section, 11,
RW: Yes, the indeterminacy of all the particulars in relation. One reason why I wanted the initial section to be “A Form of Vertigo,” feverishness, was that it is a state where the particulars lose their boundaries. Also the vertigo of the mind when you make very rapid connections.
JR: Ah, the flaming wave? A hot/cold tension between wave and particle? I think it’s important to identify the form of the poetics here, the precise motions of language and thought and image that attract and repel, intersect and travel parallel to one another. When you’re doing something that you are labeling generically — “novel” — while diverging from certain practices that have come to be seen as defining that very genre — character and plot development for instance. What might be experienced by the reader new to innovative forms is a sense of loss — the absence of the familiar orientations. And even outrage that “the whole story” is being withheld. And yet, delightfully, this is called A Form/ of Taking/ It All![emphasis added] At least one of the operative words in this title must be “it.” This is clearly a different “it” from what usually is taken to be the domain of the novel — the fully fleshed-out content of a story, told with the beat by beat pulse of “real life,” bracketed by the decorum of a beginning and an end.
RW: No, definitely this “it” is something else! Creeley’s poem has intrigued me for many years, partly because you have a semantic change each time you go to another line. First: “mind is a form,” then “mind is a form of taking,” and then “mind is a form of taking it all”! A wonderful progression. But I think the “it all” is really “it All”! All of experience, all of tradition, all that there is, Alles was der Fall ist. Keats’s mind as “a thoroughfare for all thoughts.” And of course it’s impossible to take it all. But a form that would attempt taking it all, or in Beckett’s words, which you often quote, attempt “accommodating the mess.” This grandiose ambition!
JR: In talking earlier about TheHanky of Pippin’s Daughter, you said you were very clear about the need to unload things, to get rid of this initial impulse of getting it all in. And we talked about that as way of submerging a story that was hard to tell. But here, there is a difference. You don’t have that very personal story to tell. It’s a different field of experience and ideas that you’re drawing from. So one might think there could be a less inhibited impulse to “take it all.” And yet, this is a much sparer book than Hanky. Is this a form of “less is more”?
RW: I hope so! A smaller book, with a wider frame.
JR: You are setting some very active particles in motion which are sort of bouncing off each other and the reader, at least this was my experience, could have a sense of expansiveness, that there was always much more than had glanced onto and off the page. When I put this down my mind was in a very active, connecting mode. I was noticing particles of experience outside your text. It happened that I was reading this at Bard and that I had to put it down at one point to go to a meeting. On my way to the building where the meeting was to occur I realized that I felt as though I were walking through the space in the book, or that the space opened up in the book literally gave onto the world outside it. This was partly the fact that I was walking with the rhythm and method of observing and thinking that is the poetics of this book. I had been initiated into that structural process through the engagement of reading it.
RW: Yes, I’ve had that kind of experience. For instance, with Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s work — when I lived a kind of extension of the thought process that she sets going. But, you know, as far as it being a small book, I didn’t plan that. It’s simply that the impulse, the energy that set it in motion gradually wore down.
JR: And yet, you worked on the other book for eight years.
RW: That’s true. So there are two possibilities: either I went beyond the point when I should have stopped, or the impulse can be there for a long time, even across interruptions.
JR: I wonder too if part of that isn’t that the impulse gets realized somehow. That the impulse gets consumed in the realization.
RW: That is what one hopes, but one can never be sure.
JR: I’d like to talk with you, in relation to both of the novels, to all of your work really, about your reference in “Alarms and Excursions” to Georges Bataille’s aesthetic of transgression and glorious waste — excess energy. You are talking about poetry in that essay as a waste of excess energy. Which for Bataille is not limited to poetry; it’s a theory of the excess of art.
RW: Not even limited to art. He puts the Gothic cathedrals and the potlatch ceremony in parallel. Which shocked me at first. The potlatch is no doubt a glorious ritual, but it is sheer destruction. Still, the process, the wasting of energy, is what is glorious whether there remains a result — a cathedral, an artifact — or not. His theory — that the sun’s energy is in excess of maintaining life; so that, when a system can grow no more, the excess energy has to be lost without “profit,” spent gloriously or catastrophically — is the only theory that explains the persistence of art, especially of arts like poetry where there is little tangible “profit.”
JR: You also write about the distinction between the warrior society and the military society.
RW: That’s also Bataille’s distinction. The military society is a business enterprise that wages war for a purpose, expansion of territory and the like. Whereas the warrior society fights for the heck of it, for the sake of fighting, for the glory of some god. I find it hard to choose between them, except when I think of them as metaphors for artists. Then I join Bataille on the side of the “warrior”: the writer for whom the essential is the writing, the intensity of the process, of the present moment, the glory of making a poem, rather than on the side of the businessman-poet who writes as an investment, building a career. Though nobody can be “pure”...
JR: Do you see poetry as a more glorious waste than prose?
RW: Definitely. Prose still has a potential of earning money; whereas poetry does not. So, it’s much “purer” waste. True, there are jobs in academe that go to poets. But still, a novelist can theoretically expect to make a living by his work. But not even bad poets can.
JR: There are one or two exceptions.
RW: Rod McKuen? Kahlil Gibran?
JR: Yes. In A Key Into the Language of America, you’ve talked about having found yourself always on the side with the power in various historical contexts. In Germany, you were not a Jew; in the United States you are not a native American. But, there is one quite striking sense in which you are not automatically bequeathed cultural power. You are a woman.
RW: That’s the kind of contradiction that I try to apply to the conquest of America by Europeans in A Key. My empathy is with both sides. As a woman — and a poet! I am one of the underdogs, but race and education place me among the “conquerors.” This was rubbed in very shortly after I came to the US, in early 1959. When I mentioned to a black fellow student that I was from Germany his comment was: “And you can go anywhere in this country.” One of the things that intrigues me about the conquest of America is that the very masculine Indian culture was put in the position of the conquered female. I’m actually dubious about the gendering of activities, but those archetypes do play into our thinking. The conquest model is the man taking the woman.
JR: What about your role — though you may not think of it in terms of “role” — as a woman writing experimental fiction? I think this is much more unusual right now than a woman writing experimental poetry.
RW: As you say, I don’t think of it as a role. I’m not a fiction writer. I write. Mostly poems. I try to pay attention to words. Occasionally they push into prose. And maybe it means pushing still a little farther out into the margin.
JR: I have some problems with the “margin” trope. It seems to presuppose a monolithic central text and I don’t think the complexity of our cultural milieu looks like that, but I accept it as your image. So, thinking in terms of marginality, might that be why most women novelists tend not to engage in radical experiments with the form? The novel has been a traditional way up the cultural power ladder for women. And it’s usually a project of much longer duration than a poetry project. It must be additionally frightening to imagine oneself even farther out in the margin and on such a long, precarious, time-consuming exploration.
RW: I don’t think I can speak about “most” women novelists. I’m not even a “novelist.” But there is a distinguished line of women who have experimented with the novel form, from Gertrude Stein on: Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy. Recently Leslie Scalapino, Lyn Hejinian. The term “stream of consciousness novel” was coined by Dorothy Richardson. No, wait, by May Sinclair about Richardson’s work. Whereas now when you mention stream of consciousness novel the reflex is Joyce. But your gendering [elsewhere] of “normative declarations” reminds me: When Charles Bernstein put together the series of talks that was collected as The Politics of Poetic Form, he proposed as starting point a pair of dicta on poets as “legislators”. Shelley’s “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” and Oppen’s “Poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world.” Oppen nicely turns Shelley on his head, but neither questions the equation poet = legislator. I found this means nothing to me. I think of poets as language-maintenance crew! Though obviously, while I write I do lay down the rules. At least within the boundaries of my work, I legislate.
JR: Yes, and that role is foregrounded for the innovative writer who is actually inventing some new rules or at least reformulating generic traditions.
RW: But I don’t feel everybody has to do the same thing.
JR: Well, that is your thinking about the world as a multiplicity of individuals writing — the more differences the merrier. But legislative thinking is political and strategic thinking. It’s about marking territory and reorganizing the power structure in the public sphere. Or at least reorienting it to one’s advantage.
RW: Bataille’s glorious waste again. The essential is the present intensity of the process rather than practical concerns about the future. Of course, at some point we have to help our work find an audience. But while writing it seems essential to keep the business considerations out. To make possible what you are talking about, that reckless freedom. To hell with the audience! Let the dialogue with the language take you wherever it wants. You remember Benjamin’s “Art posits man’s physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response. No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.” [This is far from the pressures of the “market place”.] Once, in a Rothko retrospective, I was struck by the division in the work. The early work had an immense, wonderful variety. Then he settled into one basic configuration and explored color. Nelson Howe, the artist friend I was with, attributed this to the art market: once a painting has any success the gallery will insist that you continue in that vein. “That unlucky day,” Morton Feldman called it. On the one hand this seems a terrible limitation, on the other, it can function as a stimulus like any constraint. And of course it’s not possible to sort out the market pressure from all the other factors.
JR: I don’t know. I’ve always assumed that Rothko became very meditative about his work, that he chose this level of exploration for himself. But of course, it’s undeniable that what he chooses to explore at that moment fits very neatly into developing colorist, minimalist movements.
RW: As we said in the preface to our first anthology, A Century in Two Decades, “It is not denying the importance of ‘movements,’ to insist that there is another importance in moving beside or apart from them.” I may be naive, but I think it is poems that make a difference rather than marketing strategies.
JR: Getting back to Bataille, is it useful to think that any genre has, at any given point in its history, excess energy, energy that hasn’t been used up. Or do some forms become obsolete?
RW: Steve Evans’s The Dynamics of Literary Change goes into this very instructively, in discussing Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production. He sets up a dynamic where the “field” absorbs any number of new “position-takings” until there is a flood of them, which forces redefinition of the field. But there is a third possibility: that the “new” reawakens the genre’s unused, dormant potential, that it “draws out of retirement, as it were, a position that already exists somewhere in the history of the field.” The sonnet-form seems to have such dormant energy that has blossomed recently with Ted Berrigan and Bernadette Mayer. And the novel seems to hang on, even though its death has been proclaimed any number of times.
JR: And yet the novel seems to have developed its most characteristic logics — climactic narrative structure, omniscient author, single point perspective, internally consistent characters, etc. — during that late 18th and full-blown 19th century (extending now into the 21st century) period when such constructs were taken to be the unfolding of natural reason. One could, with a certain tunnel vision, find it quite odd that it persists, except perhaps as an aid to nostalgia. Or one might see the current of its energy coming now out of the collision with these very different times, different needs, different senses of ourselves, different clusters contained by possessive pronouns like “our,” different views of the observer and the observed. So, does the excess energy come out of the friction created by these differences? It seems to me to be a kind of “poethical” necessity that there be explorations of the form of the novel that take into account these new sources of energy, and confusion! These are messy things we can’t grasp and package in neat pre-ordained forms without betraying something about how we are experiencing them in the world.
RW: But you keep coming back to a very narrow definition of the novel. The novel is also the least neat, least defined, most elastic genre. By the 1920s, E. M. Forster can’t find anything more precise to say about it than: a narrative of a certain length! If you define it this way it’s impossible to kill off! This is why we can still call “novels” those narratives that don’t fit the Balzac-Flaubert-Dostojewski-Tolstoi model you talk about, but rather fit with your category of the “exploded novel” — or with Tristram Shandy. I recently read two wonderful such “novels.” One is The Christ of Fish by Joel Hoffmann, an Israeli writer. Its structure could be labeled lyrical atomism: extremely short chapters, some only 4 or 5 lines. The narrative line likewise atomized into a mosaic of vignettes. Very little happening. But there are characters. One has a heart “filled with great Hungarian sorrow.” The language is wonderful, full of imaginative leaps that fuse the cosmic and the comic: “Though the Earth was revolving on its axis, the apple strudel was not overturned.”
The other is a German work, W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. It is the narrative of a depression which the narrator tries to overcome by going on a walking tour through part of England. It fuses narrative, research into the history of the area he walks through, comments on books, people, mini-essays, quotations both textual and pictorial. In fact, his use of pictures, many of them, is his most obvious way of breaking up the narrative. They are not illustrations, but reference points placed at precise points of the text, sometimes integrated into a sentence. They at first seem to constitute a reality check, a more objective record than writing can be. But this proves deceptive. In the end, they exacerbate the feeling of inability to hold on to “reality.”
But back to your Realist novel and how it must struggle and change with changed circumstance. Your comment makes sense of the novel’s history after 1900: that the omniscient narrator was the first to disappear, along with God; that we got limited, “unreliable,” and later fragmented, multiple, viewpoints.
JR: In The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter there are sort of cameo appearances of the omniscient narrator.
RW: Actually, no. The narrator plays at being omniscient with explicit warnings: “This is conjecture. I am making this up, and as long as I’m making it up I might as well pretend to know what this character thinks!”
JR: Announcing it as a device.
JR: Years ago, I went to a reading by the novelist Toby Olson. He said afterwards, in the course of discussion, that he felt all the self-consciousness about the constructs of genre was really a waste of time. That these things have always been artifice. The novelist should just go about the business of writing the novel, enjoying the privileges of that artifice.
RW: That it’s all artifice is true enough. I mean, none of the novelists thought they were just mirroring life.
JR: You think not! Really?
RW: I know Stendhal claimed that he was just parading a mirror along the highway. But surely he didn’t believe it. How could any writer believe this! Toby Olson is right about the artifice, but the conclusion he draws seems odd — as if there were only one kind of artifice.
JR: This raises two kinds of issues. One has to do with the way in which certain artificial forms become “naturalized” in the minds of those who use them — both as practitioner and audience. So there can actually be a complete lapse of the memory of the artifice as artifice. Don’t you think there is a sizable portion of the public that believes responsible art, like science, does in fact — or should, if it doesn’t — mirror nature?
RW: Readers, “the public,” granted. But an artist cannot help knowing it is artifice. Well, no, come to think, there are probably lots of artists who have internalized, “naturalized,” as you — and Forrest-Thomson — say, the artifice to the point of not being aware of it. So many movements have been founded in the name of “nature.” But then, when we say “nature” we have actually shifted ground, away from “reality.” At least since Tasso, since Shakespeare’s time, Aristotle’s mimesis has been interpreted as an imitation of natura naturans, nature in its creative processes, not in its products, natura naturata. But I must also admit that, unlike you, I enjoy some “realistic” narratives if the writing is not too transparent. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Mavis Gallant, William Trevor. Why couldn’t we “take it all”?
JR: Well, good question! Though people seem to have a lot of difficulty moving about between disparate modes and forms. This may have something to do with the uses of art — whether it’s used primarily for relaxation-relief-escape-entertainment or for awakening senses and intellect in relation to, say, history or to one’s contemporary situation in the world....It sounds like you don’t have trouble finding uses for (or better yet, pleasure!) in, many different kinds of forms.
RW: Actually, this is not true in poetry, in my “field.” There, my reading is much narrower. There are not too many current “mainstream” poems that I enjoy. And even those, early Merwin for instance, I don’t go back to very often.
JR: What about in your publishing? Do you think of Burning Deck as promoting a particular kind of poetry?
RW: Yes, our bias is for the “innovative,” the “explorative.” Though we try to keep an open mind. The books I have been most excited about are books like Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Heat Bird, Tina Darragh’s Striking Resemblance, Barbara Guest’s The Countess from Minneapolis, or Pam Rehm’s The Garment In Which No One Had Slept.
JR: If you think in terms of “stages of a person’s intellectual development” then you can argue that having gotten to a new stage you must, ipso facto, have thrown off the yoke of the previous one.
RW: But if you look a little later, you realize that what you have rejected has nevertheless had its effect on you. The lines are never as clean as they are in the manifestos. That’s of course why we value them: they simplify and thus allow you to get a handle on a trend, movement, direction. But the works are never as simple.
JR: True, the works are trying to do new things in conditions that still contain the impulses of past forms. But another way to think of this is in terms of anxieties. If you think about criticisms of the 19th century novel — and its attendant prose style — as a seamless, airless panopticon it would very rapidly seem that all conventional prose lacks oxygen. While you, on the other hand, move toward prose for more air! This may seem, or actually be, a real contradiction in the world of innovative writing. But supposing the description of conventional prose as hermetic is actually a self-description on the part of the reader, a description of the anxiety she feels when she finds herself being sucked into a skillfully constructed, logically possible world whose grounding is the erasure of the collisions and swerves and improbabilities of complex real life. Of course, as you may guess, I entirely identify with this since my addicted use of the novel as a teenager was precisely to flee a world that I didn’t want to face or be part of. And retrospectively feeling that all this novel reading was most definitely not a preparation for real life!
RW: No, but it was an alternative to daydreaming and more vital, being vicarious experience. You needed to do exactly that. Just as we need to dream. Nobody could stand conscious life 24 hours a day!
JR: That’s true. It’s not that I would wind back the reel and say, “You may not read those novels!”
RW: It was also an experience of form — even if that form now stifles you. At this point in my life I read at a sort of micro level, I read for the language, the style, the texture.
JR: And not the story at all?
RW: Well, how can one disentangle them? But I get very impatient with any writing that doesn’t have good sentences. Several friends had recommended The Golden Notebook by — what’s her name —
JR: Doris Lessing.
RW: Such scope! they said. But the sentences were atrociously dull — I couldn’t read it and never got to that great scope! Whereas when I open a book and the first sentence is: “When I heard that Isaac Kornfeld, a man of piety and brains, had hanged himself in the public park, I put a token in the subway stile and journeyed out to see the tree,” I’ll definitely read on. This is Cynthia Ozick’s “Pagan Rabbi.”
JR: Well, when as a teenager I read Thomas Mann — in translation — I loved the prose, I loved the story, the “vision,” the intellectual Romanticism. I don’t think I could read it now. In fact I’m grateful for whatever led me to read it then; otherwise I would have missed it entirely. I’m too suspicious of that intellectual Romanticism now.
RW: What is it that you read for now? What keeps you interested?
JR: I don’t read novels at all any more. Yours, and just a few others — mostly by poets — have been an exception just because they are an exception to those elements that stifle me. I like stylistic strategies that undermine the authority of the writer while clearly partaking of her intelligence. What I do love is the complex interplay of fragmentary glimpses — a polylectic, polylogical play — all of which does have a cumulative effect larger than the sum of the parts, but always an unexpected one. And, because of the fragmentation — the invitation to the reader to participate in making sense of things — and the complexity, each reading is a new reading in some truly significant sense. I find this mostly in poetry, since poetry can include everything these days, even prose — but prose fragments. Otherwise, for the security of predictable, but interesting sentences that are reassuring — I admit I want that too — things I can take to bed at night, I read biographies and autobiographies, essays, Buddhist texts, newspapers, French magazines...Though, having said all that, when I read The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter I was interested in the story, but only because that story is wrenched out of the conventions of the well-crafted novel and placed within a delightfully, humorously rigged scaffold. There is an evocation of a very specific culture and historical period in your book that entirely resists being cast into the kind of grandiose metanarrative that one finds in Thomas Mann. I recoil from such things now, in a way I certainly didn’t as a teenager — then, the more grandiose the better!
RW: But the fun with Mann is that he always undermines his “grandiosity,” even in his style. Always overdoing it to the point of absurdity. Never one adjective, always at least three!
JR: What would be a recent example of a novel that you’ve enjoyed?
RW: Mostly I reach for authors like Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian novelist. Do you know her?
JR: I do — The Foreign Legion, The Hour of the Star...They’ve been highly recommended. In fact I picked up remaindered copies, but I confess I haven’t been able to read them. What do you like in her work? She’s writing about another world too —
RW: She spans quite a bit of territory. Some of her stories are really extensions of modernist stories, extensions of what could almost be a Thomas Mann story, except for going more into microstructures. The longer works can be fairly abstract, like Aqua Viva, a meditation on the creative process. But maybe the most extreme work is The Passion According to G.H. in which all that “happens” is that a woman kills a cockroach.
JR: Ah, after “The Metamorphosis”!
RW: And has a mystical experience! A total vision of life, death, everything.
JR: Does the murder take place on the first page, followed by the unfolding vision?
RW: No, the two are completely integrated. Actually there’s also a drawing on the wall. A “dirty” drawing, of stick figures having sexual intercourse, which provides the frame. But disgust with the cockroach, killing the cockroach and then contemplating the little bit of white cockroach viscosity seeping out takes up the whole (very short) novel.
JR: So then the language has to be everything.
RW: That’s it. The language and getting at the functioning of the mind, the thought process.
JR: Do you have the book here? Could you pull it out, to find an example of that texture?
RW: I have it only in a French translation. We first discovered Lispector in French. But it has been translated into English also.
JR: I’m still looking for an example of the actual language that you’re finding of interest and exciting in those terms — of texture. Without an example, it’s hard to have a feeling for it.
RW: But actually a short example wouldn’t quite do it, because the astonishing thing is that she can keep it going up to novel length, and it keeps being fascinating. The structure is interesting too — it’s in very short chapters, about two pages long, and the last sentence is always the first sentence of the next chapter. It’s as if taking a breath and then continuing from where you left off. It makes for a very nice rhythm.
JR: That’s also the form of a “crown” of sonnets. Was she a poet as well?
RW: I don’t think so. Of course I only know what’s been translated. But nearly every novelist has a poetry skeleton in the closet.
JR: I thought it would be interesting for you to think aloud about the relationship between fact and fiction in your work — the inventing that is fiction, that etymologically seems to have something to do with “touching” — touching perhaps things that don’t become audible, visible in the constructs we call “factual.” Though there is a different use of “fact” — those that give the invented fiction a sort of documentary aspect, an historical context, say. I ask this particularly with respect to The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter because what I experience as a ratio of “need to relate” to “need to invent” is so charged with constructive energy there.
RW: There is a lot going on in your phrase of “touching things that don’t become audible, visible in the constructs we call factual.” It’s a good answer to the “mirroring” claim we talked about. It also reminds me of Adorno’s — let me find the quote: “Art does not recognize reality by reproducing it photographically, but by voicing that which is veiled by the empirical forms of reality.” I prefer your active fingers to his more clichéd unveiling. The “touching” in the etymology of fiction seems to be touching clay, hence forming, shaping. So to continue your image, it would be by shaping, molding the clay of “fact,” that fiction can make perceptible things not perceptible otherwise. This means treating as “clay” what is already a construct, i.e. first of all destroying it (to avoid the word “deconstruct!”).
And that is, I suspect, where the energy comes from. The need to tell is rather a need to destroy, and the need to invent, a need to reconstruct, differently.
In the Hanky, some things are presented as fact and others as speculation. But that is a fictional distinction. Actually, I was thinking back to the “realistic” novel. It also treats “fact” as clay. Realism is a technique like any other. It foregrounds other things than a collage technique does, say, or the studies in “voice,” Coover and Hawkes, for instance. But “reality” in any case — it’s one of those big, vague words I’m uncomfortable with, as you must be also. I mean, what is fact?
JR: We might discuss your wonderful headings in The Reproduction of Profiles: Facts, Thinkable Pictures, Feverish Propositions, If Words Are Signs, Successive Applications. This seems to me a perfectly complete uncertain epistemological universe!
RW: Well, there you have it. With some thanks to Wittgenstein.
JR: Then, to evade that question, I suppose it would be interesting to try to trace the genesis of the impulse to tell a story. A story that comes out of your life experience — a good deal of it lived outside of books. A good deal in. But your family experience, say, forming part of that drive to tell a story, to make a story. Actually, when you talk about “telling” a story it’s as if —
RW: It existed already.
JR: Yes, so to “make” a story of it. And memories become part of the material with which you work, as well as information of various kinds — about music, about meteorology, scientific measurement, historical events...A sub-universe of knowledge and imaginative transformation. Making a kind of mosaic picture from bits and fragments. One might ask, Why do this?
RW: Memory is problematic, as uncertain as I claim in the book. I was telling somebody about the wonderfully sinister ending of Hitchcock’s The Birds — when the couple gets back to San Francisco, there’s the Golden Gate Bridge with birds all over it. Keith looked at me, “This is not the way it ends; it is how Hitchcock wanted to end it. You have read this.” I was stunned. I had such a vivid visual image of it in my mind! Now, this has become a joke between us. If I remember something very clearly, it’s certainly false.
JR: Do you think there’s some kind of pattern, in a story for instance, that you may feel a need to construct because of personal experience? Is there some sort of pattern, if not specific detail, that has to remain intact for the charge to be there, or perhaps some sort of pattern that has to change? I think again of that wonderful sentence on the cover of The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter — “The drive to know our own story moves us to see through it and touch the violence inherent in the mechanism itself.” Is there some sort of boundary pattern that must be there precisely in order to not betray the violence of “the mechanism itself” — whatever that might be? You’ve said that for eight years you were trying to figure out a way —
RW: You’re not letting me off with a joke! OK. I’m serious that the impulse to tell comes out of the impulse to destroy, to change — even if it is with the idea of coming to know, of gaining clarity through the process of formulating. But memory does this anyway. My computer has a glitch. If I use the “insert date” function and 2 weeks later want to check when I wrote the letter: the moment I open the file, the date changes to the current date. Memory is like this. Every time we “access” a memory we alter it, re-construct it, so that it becomes more and more fictional as time goes on. The fact of observation changes the data observed. This is the “violence inherent in the mechanism,” be it remembering, thinking about, observing, analyzing. In writing The Hanky, the important moment was when I began to foreground this doubt, when I found this form that dips in and out, goes into “story,” then draws back to the narrator’s uncertainties, then takes another dip. Once I got that rhythm, things started to happen, the fragments started coming together.
JR: So the rhythm was one of launching out to write about characters and interactions between characters and then —
RW: drawing back into doubts, self-consciousness.
JR: What roles did the musical and meteorological metaphors play in this rhythm?
RW: Music was part of the material, an important thing in the family. Which is why I made the narrator a musician. A friend of mine said, “How German of you. You present music as if it could explain anything! What a German idea!”
JR: Yes, music is the Art of the Soul! in German tradition, isn’t it? The picture I have from all my early years (my wasted adolescence again!) of going to concerts, hearing mainly German music — Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert — was that the hall was filled with people (myself included) who felt the music was filling them with great ideas, with a grand and immense felt knowledge. Now I see that we didn’t learn anything at all — except about the patterns of the music itself, that we didn’t walk out any the wiser for having those vibrations strike our eardrums. We had felt a lot, but...it reminds me of Wittgenstein’s question, “How would you respond if someone said, I think it merely strikes you that you know that?” I remember reading a wonderful description of this. The picture was of the “souls” of the concert audience being steadily inflated by the music, hanging over them like enormous hot air balloons. The concert ends and you try not to hear the sssssssssssssssssssssss! I think of it as a very particular repetition compulsion — the continual climb to climaxes — audible alpinisms — particularly in the Romantic period.
RW: That sounds like Musil, possibly. It is curious how immediate music seems although it is time-based arts, just like language arts. With a poem you must at least read all the way through to the end. You may even need more time to reflect, to hold it for a while. Of course in music, too, it takes a while to get the form, but there’s an immediate “attack” on the emotions, even before it gets to the alpinism! What a great phrase! Of course, what we just listened to, the Cage piece, gets away from that. In the novel, I use both the meteorology and the music in terms of emotional atmosphere. I suppose I give the technical details sometimes to make it funny, but mostly to undercut just that effect of “creating atmosphere” —
JR: Yes, yes — and it’s the terrifying continuity and consistency of that atmosphere that again renders me short of breath.
RW: Yes, so instead I look at the technical details that make up atmosphere. There’s more about how the hammers in the piano work than about music. As I enumerate, in A Form, how the muscles in Montezuma’s arm work — going to the mechanism behind the phenomenon. Still intending the emotions, of course.
JR: And then there’s Josef [in Hanky] who is himself so preoccupied with atmospherics and measurements. The recurrent gesture for him is tapping his finger on the barometer. So is this the play within the play of the narrative metaphor? Josef, the character, is doing with his life what Waldrop, the writer is doing with the novel? You are also tapping your fingers on various mechanisms. I find this interesting as an intersection of the form of life of the character, genre, and writer.
RW: Yes, yes, exactly. He can never figure out his wife — her emotional barometer!
JR: As you can’t really figure out your characters, or this particular knotty history.
JR: I’m reminded of Russians I’ve known who talk about how they’re feeling in terms of the barometer. In fact, they seem to think constantly about barometric pressure while monitoring daily fluctuations in their health. Americans don’t think that way. Do Germans do that?
RW: Yes. The air pressure is thought to have a very direct influence. Well, in Munich there is a particular wind, the “Fšhn,” which gives enormous headaches to many people, including me.
JR: Similar to the Mistral? I’ve heard it referred to as a source of headaches and insanity. Perhaps because of the relentlessness of it, keeping people constantly on edge.
Music is of course part of the cultural atmosphere. It can give us different kinds of headaches.
RW: Yes, sound surrounds us. We move in it as we do in weather.
JR: There are some very specific details about performance of particular pieces in Hanky. Are those details functioning metaphorically?
RW: If I’m thinking of the same passages, e.g. about formal control versus “letting go,” yes. Metaphors for problems of writing.
JR: There’s a moment in Hanky — on page 25 — when Josef walks over to the barometer and the needle is pointing to “steady.” It seems clear at that point that this is an indicator of —
RW: the relationship, yes.
JR: It seemed to me the “pathetic fallacy” once removed, mediated by an instrument.
JR: In A Form/ of Taking/ It All you write about the need to make our own connections: “The importance of connecting it all into a cosmos which opens out like the splendid white flower from the red disk of that fall-blooming annual. Metaphor, she mumbles. Half my life I’ve spent connecting perceptions this way, by analogy. But the flower I’d have skipped. Only a scientist can afford such hackneyed comparisons. She accepts, though, that without our connecting them into a picture the dots are not even visible, that being real means having form. Metaphor, muscles, telescopes, travelers.” (17)
RW: Uh huh! I think I would stand by that. It’s only in relation that anything makes any sense. We talked about Olson’s: what matters is not things, but what happens between them.
JR: I think the interesting question for me as a reader, and as a writer, is how much needs to be connected in the writing? To what degree can those dots describe many possible relationships, a kind of choreography where the constantly changing relational tension between them is the source of the energy? Where it’s not only that there need not be fixed lines drawn, but that to draw them would be to skewer the butterfly so to speak, to kill it in order to study it, rather than to live with it while observing it’s quirky movements in nature, accepting that it might get away.
RW: OK, I’m with you that the connection had better not be too explicit. But one still has to create a tension between the dots which they might not have on their own.
JR: I’m not sure there’s really tension in connection — the connection that’s already been made. Tension seems to me to come from the moving parts, the uncertainties in relational principles like juxtaposition.
RW: True, but juxtaposition is a connection.
JR: Well, I’m not so sure about that. Maybe there is a significant difference between connection and relationship. I think a really vital relationship is entirely a matter of context and, if the context is rich enough, there is a constant transforming dialectic in process between particular and particular, context and particular elements, etc. and I really think this is of a different order from connection which — to my mind — has to do with stopping the motion, fixing things in place, tying them together, pinning them down.
RW: Well if you’re defining connection in this way...I was rather talking about syntax in the large sense, the way which elements are placed next to which others on the page. (Which does not exhaust the ways they will rearrange themselves in the mind of the reader.) Not anything juxtaposed with anything will automatically have tension. Some juxtapositions are inert, don’t have the potential to spark. And there is the additional problem that two juxtaposed items might be inert for me, but might have enormous tension for you — the same two things.
JR: Yes. And that’s entirely relational, isn’t it? The relation to the associational contexts I or you bring along as readers or writers. But also, because this comes down to the form of attention, of noticing, that we bring to a text, there is the issue of the way in which that text itself educates, or even “initiates” the reader’s attention so that s/he can notice a range of things unimaginable before the act of reading began. Perhaps this is best done Venn diagram style — areas that overlap just a bit, or barely graze one another, but that do actually touch if only tangentially...These stretch our observational field and then, having warmed up our metaphorical muscles we are capable of reaching for relations that didn’t overlap prior to our coming in as participant observer, collaborator. With this new geometry of attention, we begin to find ourselves making connections, noting tensions that the author may not have had in mind at all. As we do, after all, all the time in “real-life” space, time and chaos, yes/no?
RW: Theoretically. Though in “real life” we can’t muster that kind of attention all the time — it would create an overload and we would — well — explode. Indifference may be a necessary defense.
JR: But isn’t that why art is in fact different from everyday life? — that in the artifice of an abbreviated space-time frame we can afford to risk a heightened attention that might be quite awkward as a daily constant? Of course the encounter with a text is also the encounter with an “other” mind, a mind — thank god — not our own, another culture, ethos, form of life...and that means, to the extent that what has been written is not formulaic or imitatively generic or safely conventional, there will always be a need for initiation. I think readers forget this. The idea of instant accessibility overlooks what every high school teacher used to say about one’s first attempt at a Russian novel: “The first chapter will be very hard, but if you persist it will teach you how to read the rest of the book.” This is true of all literature removed from one’s immediate experience. The first few minutes of a Shakespearean play are hard, then you get “used to” the language. That the same holds true for contemporary experimental literature might be a useful revelation. In reading A Form/ of Taking /It All your obsessions and preoccupations — which were definitely not all mine at the outset — the things that led you to make the connections and juxtapositions and relationships that you constructed, initiated me as a reader into the new world of your text, it’s gravitational and electromagnetic and strong and weak nuclear forces as well as incidents having to do with the New World of the Americas, the new worlds of science, etc. that the text is “about.” Pretty soon the reader is skipping along discovering and making connections with ecstatic delight! What this means is that the process of reading had so refocused, reoriented my thinking that by the time I got to page 50 — where you are simply juxtaposing, supplying fewer connections between things — I was entirely ready to play. In this new constellation.
JR: In The Hanky on page 119 you write, “Outside the story all the sentences are possible, whereas inside, a ‘then’ brings out unexpected threads and lines of force. But there are obvious holes where all that escapes the story looks on. These holes eventually show through. More and more, here, unnerving me. The words land, without warning, among cries and Siegheils.”
RW: Yes, at the beginning, there are infinite possibilities. But as soon as you put down one element you start limiting the options. A “then” implies a temporal sequence, maybe even a causal one, which is what the novel supposedly works with. But the holes are actually more important. The holes, all that escapes the story, the unrealized potential of the narrative. They acknowledge the limits of the artifice and pit it against the stronger presence , here, of history. Even when not talked about, history is present, looks on.
JR: And the form with the holes allows it to look on, allows that permeability to what cannot be contained in the story.
RW: Yes. This gets us back to your favorite bugbear, the closed universe of the traditional novel. The holes are extremely important.
JR: Seeking the closed novel is in a sense seeking to be protected from history.
JR: Yes, this brings to mind another passage in The Hanky, captioned “HOLD ON, ANDREA, I HAVE MORE DOCUMENTS.” Then goes on, “A registered letter from Kreisleiter Müller. A summons, rather. Copies of letters Josef wrote. A scene with Müller I remember by my terror though, at the time, I didn’t know what it was about. And there is my Latin teacher, Professor Acker, who was arrested by the Nazis. Little islands. If I join them all it makes a plot. But should they be joined? The real story is the water washing around them.”
RW: Another image in the same direction.
JR: “And can I get any closer to it if I make myself immobile, without ideas or point of view? So that I disappear into that element of the story which is me: Lucy Seifert, the third daughter. Still unborn at this point”(128).
RW: I guess I was quite preoccupied with definitions of the novel — the attempt at objectivity wasn't working, but present as something to be played against.
JR: We were talking about gestures yesterday — their abbreviation lightens the baggage of the conventional novel. And this lightness of form that you bring, instead of the heavily panting plot, makes me think now of the recurrent image of the hanky floating in air. It comes about eleven times in the course of the book, an interesting anti-gravitational display — Pippin's daughter waving it, or it’s floating on its own, occasionally landing. What is that about? Of course it begins in the title; it is The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter.
RW: I thought of the hanky story as an example of the violent reduction, the foreshortening that we do in fiction, in history, in our daily lives. Our way of constructing a manageable reality out of the overwhelming welter of details. Form = radical exclusion. The whole life of King Pippin’s daughter gets reduced to the one gesture of losing a handkerchief — and that preserved only in a local legend about the founding of a town that does not even bear her name, but that of shepherd Kitz who found the hanky!
JR: Hmm. Interesting. You yourself are writing as a daughter. So are you waving this book lightly, dropping it as your floating gesture?
RW: Hoping that somebody will pick it up!
JR: How early did you know this story?
RW: It seems I’ve always known “how the town of Kitzingen got it’s name.”
JR: As a child did you wonder about her, about the daughter herself?
RW: I know I wondered why it is the shepherd’s name rather than the daughter’s name. But then he found the hanky; she just lost it! The utilitarian spirit!
JR: Hmm. Interesting, the woman’s loss — the gossamer hanky — marks the spot for the man to plant the flag — hanky secured to a pole — and say “I name this Kitzingen!” Or, thinking about A Key Into the Language of America, it’s the diminished — feminized? — natives —
JR: Yes, their loss enables the taking possession, the re-naming. One could wonder about this, this disappearance of the feminine element as precondition for certain kinds of possessive violence — the consecration of the Fatherland.
RW: This sounds good, but in the specific case of my Kitzingen legend, this male-female hierarchy is complicated by the social hierarchy which goes in the opposite direction: a noblewoman and a shepherd.
[Abrupt end of tape!]
Bio: Joan Retallack is a poet and essayist. Her most recent publications are MEMNOIR (Wild Honey Press, 2002) and MONGRELISME: A Difficult Manual for Desperate Times (Paradigm Press, 1999). She is also the author of How To Do Things With Words. (Sun & Moon Classics, 1998) and AFTERRIMAGES (Wesleyan University Press, 1995). Her work on and with John Cage led to MUSICAGE : John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack (Wesleyan University Press, 1996). The Poethical Wager will come out in Spring 2003 from University of California Press. Retallack teaches at Bard College where she is John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Humanities.
Bio: Rosmarie Waldrop is a poet, translator, editor, and essayist. Her most recent books of poems are Reluctant Gravities (New Directions, 1999), Split Infinites (Singing Horse Press, 1998), and Another Language: Selected Poems (Talisman House, 1997). A new volume, Blindsight, is forthcoming in 2003. Northwestern has reprinted her two novels, The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter and A Form/of Taking/ It All in one paperback (2001). She has translated fourteen volumes of Edmond Jabés’s work. Her memoir, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabés, is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press. She has also translated Jacques Roubaud, Emmanuel Hocquard, and, from the German, Friederike Mayršcker, Elke Erb, Oskar Pastior. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island where she co-edits Burning Deck books with Keith Waldrop.