If magic is a deviation in the sequence you believed you were observing, then the poems of Heather Christle and the stories of Alison Bundy work like magic. In a dream, they might be the bird that speaks in the voice of your mother, or the chihuaha for which you feel only sympathy. They say unexpected things with great feeling. I don’t think that you will feel tricked. They will give you something unexpected to believe in.
I asked Alison and Heather some questions by email–about writing, boredom, loneliness, and cognitive science–and they generously responded. Below, you’ll find Alison’s q&a followed by Heather’s. You can click here to scroll directly to Heather’s.
1. Some writers seem to publish a lot–anything and anywhere. You seem to publish less. On my bookshelf I have three books by you: Dunce Cap, A Bad Business, and Tale of a Good Cook. Are there more? Will there be?
I’m sitting on a bunch of unpublished stuff; I certainly hope there will be other books. I probably have enough stories for a new collection (some published, some not), one novel, and am working on another long project (known by the secret codename PJ). I also just finished a translation that I am trying to find a publisher for.
But I really have not done all the “networking” work I need to do to get stuff out there. I am gainfully employed, with health insurance, but this means I have limited free time, and I made a decision to try to spend as much time as I can writing. And I need to get some reading in there too.
There is also the difficulty of finding a home for the short prose form, which I have been told is not particularly viable commercially. I have been incredibly fortunate in having small presses take an interest in my work. I would like to reach a wider audience, and I think the audience is out there; I haven’t yet found the vehicle.
But Russell Edson has been out there for a long time, Lydia Davis, Diane Williams….
Trying to find an agent etc… seems to eat up a HUGE amount of time. I do send work out and have some stories under consideration at places, but this is slow.
At the same time I am a rather slow writer, and have had a slow development. I was thirty before I realized no one else was going to write my stories for me.
2. The first lines of “A Simple Malady”, the second to last story in Dunce Cap, exemplify something about your writing for me:
“Once there was a doctor who wore gloves and coveted an intangible thing. You have perhaps heard of him; the story has settled beneath your memory in much the same way one face may lie beneath another in a painting. This story has been in my memory also, and because I was lonely, or because I could find no remedy for this life, I have written it down.”
This story feels familiar, as many of the stories in Dunce Cap do. The narrator seems resigned to the fact that the story is not new. Writing it is something to do–it isn’t about finding answers or making up something new. People are inconsolable and incurable, and remain in the patterns that keep them so. What the narrator can do is uncover what’s already in the reader’s memory about such patterns, maybe shaking the reader up a little in doing so.
The narrator of “A Simple Malady” seems to make an effort to make the reader the narrator’s equal. This reminds me of some of Robert Walser’s writing–the self-deprecating tone of some of his stories. I’m wondering if you would say more about this tone almost of resignation that seems to pervade many of your stories. Where does it come from?
Also–would you say more about the relationship(s) between narrators and readers? What is it that readers want from narrators, and narrators from readers?
I’m not sure where that tone comes from—perhaps in part from my feeling that there are only a few stories, and that all variation is in the telling. I’m interested in forms of story that grew out of an oral tradition: fables, fairy tales, parables, and am interested too in the idea of language on the page mimicking speech, language as utterance, assertion, preferably mixing the ornate and the confused.
Perhaps part of the continued appeal of these older forms is a feeling I have that, although I’d rather be living now than at any other time in history (what with anesthesia, indoor plumbing, hot and cold running water, and women’s rights), our progress is uncertain.
I think too that there is something quite beautiful about the bare impulse to narrate that these forms highlight.
So I’m quite aware that I am telling a story which in some way has been told before—but never by me, never like this. And then there is the fact that I generally do not take a cheerleading attitude toward life.
The narrator and the reader. It seems likely that the life of a story depends entirely on the reader. This will perhaps make some narrators nervous.
3. What role do loneliness and boredom have in your writing?
Re: boredom. I always think it better to have a project than not. When I tended bar, I used to look at my regulars and think how much they needed a good project. I am not conscious of “using” boredom in my work, but I do have a fear of boredom, and get bored fairly easily, so I write things that will interest me. Of course I hope they will interest others as well.
Loneliness: I feel I am more interested in examining isolation than loneliness, though I might interchange the words occasionally. I’m curious about what a human, left to his or her own devices and feeling more than a touch of melancholy, can drift into in order to stay engaged on some essential level. I find the isolated human figure profoundly moving, and profoundly comical.
4. I like your sentences–they surprise me and I want writing to surprise me. Could you please name some writers whose sentences surprise you?
Beckett. I am re-reading Watt and it is cracking me up. “Personally of course I regret everything.” That is such a great sentence: the false intimacy of “Personally”, the rhetorical flourish “of course”, and then the great flat statement. Six words! If I end up with a gravestone I might want that quote on it.
Which reminds me of a gravestone in a cemetery here in town, where I used to walk my dogs. I forget the man’s name, but the stone said he was a native of Scotland, and then died in Providence.
And below his name, the motto: A man misunderstood.
Jane Bowles. Not a perfect writer, from a formal point of view, but one of my favorites.
Vic Chesnutt, the late, great songwriter.
The beautiful, eloquent sentence of Buster Keaton’s face.
Yasunari Kawabata. This is a different kind of surprise, having to do with where the scenes are left, with what is left out. I love to be surprised by what is left out, and I wish more writers would leave more out.
Robert Walser, particularly the novel Jacob von Gunten.
And I’m probably not even naming the writers I’m most surprised by.
I read poetry to be surprised by language, to hear it again, but if I start listing poets we’ll be here forever.
5. Who have your teachers been, and what have you learned from them?
Michael Harper, Robert Coover, and Keith Waldrop were my professors at Brown. All three greatly widened my reading and my sense of what writing can be.
Michael Harper was the first person who recognized something in my writing and asked me a real question about it, which in some way made my writing more real to me. The force of his personality alone was a lesson.
Robert Coover was a great reader for me, and a champion of my short work. He was very generous, and tried to give me some traction in the publishing world. Unfortunately, due to adverse personal circumstances, I was not able to take advantage of his efforts on my behalf at the time.
My friendship with Keith Waldrop has sustained me.
And then, there are all those who have taught me through their writing, by influence and example.
1. In this interview, Mike Young said, “My friend Heather Christle said that bewilderment is the new sincerity.” Could you please say more about what Mike Young said you said, and about how bewilderment appears in your poems?
I do love Mike Young, but I have to gently correct him here. I remember exactly where we were when this conversation occurred. We had just spent the afternoon having a potluck/barbecue at Jono Tosch’s house in Florence, Massachusetts, and we were walking back to our cars across the street. Mike was probably wearing some kind of Western shirt. What I actually said was “Bewilderment is the new New Sincerity,” which was a very funny joke.
I try not to aim for bewilderment too often, because I find I get more excited about making confident statements, ones that are frequently misguided. I like a poem to steer me wrong. I like an authoritative gasp of the absurd. I don’t want to be a sad little adorable poet in a big confusing world. I want my poems to be the big confusing world.
That said, there are moments when my poems and speakers do get into that bewildered state. It happens. It’s okay.
2. From your poem “The Barbarist”:
I wanted to stomp around the room
shouting at the orioles, but I have to
act now on this amazing offer
or I will spend the rest of eternity
kicking myself in the face.
I think there is anxiety in your poems, and mostly in how your poems seem to make fun of the anxious. The voice in “The Barbarist” talks about having to choose between two things that might seem inconsequential to most adults, so any tension becomes comic. What do your poems have to do with anxiety? Where does anxiety come from?
I think that sense of anxiety comes from my having set up some kind of problem. It’s just a way of courting a reader’s attention. LOOK AT THIS SITUATION WE HAVE HERE WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?!? So many problems do seem comic when you really get down to it. I like that about people; we care about all these small things. We put up curtains in garage windows, you know? We tell people to call us back. We’re capable of great tenderness.
Of course, I get anxious about an abundance of things. For me, anxiety comes from the possibility that I might make a mistake. I do not want to be a fool or a jerk, and it is so easy to be one. (I have an interior Knightley, who is always on the verge of telling me “It was badly done, indeed!”) Maybe that is why I like to write poems the way I do, mistake after mistake after mistake.
3. During the q&a after your HTML Giant online reading, someone asked you about cognitive science (I don’t remember the question exactly, maybe you do?). I took a really great class called Models and Metaphors, and we covered Lakoff and some of his ideas in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. The gist of the class was that metaphors are how we categorize and understand experience: they aren’t decoration we put on some objective reality, they are what we call reality. This idea really excites me! I’m wondering if you could talk more about your reading in this area and how it’s influenced your thinking about language.
Oh I’m so glad you asked about this! I love Women, Fire & Dangerous Things! I included a little slice of it in my Slope gallery: the list of categories in Dyirbal, an aboriginal Australian language. (That’s where Lakoff’s title comes from.) (You probably already know that.) (There are also a lot of other bits of reading from cognitive science in the Slope “reading room.”) I am always thinking about categories and language, how the latter shapes the former, and how both shape our behaviors and beliefs. In my poems, and in my life, I’m often trying to loosen or switch categories, so that I can get access to the trees or the dead. (I am always imagining to myself. “What if I lost my depth perception?” “What if I thought anything moving were alive and anything still, dead?”) (And it’s been lovely, too, to recognize how the shape and structure of our bodies is reflected in our language and understanding. Embodied cognitive linguistics! The future is either in front of us or behind us!)
I am getting ahead of myself. It all began with reading Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. I failed to take a class with him in college, which I later came to understand was an idiotic move, so when I came across the book at Troubador Books in North Hatfield, Massachusetts, I thought I could make up a little lost ground. I was immediately enthralled, especially with the realization that it’s the “simplest” or most “unthinking” elements of consciousness (object recognition, understanding shifty prepositions, etc.) that are the most difficult to reproduce mechanically. And then I found myself reading Lakoff, Richard Dawkins, Douglas Hofstadter, moving into linguistics with Benjamin Whorf (whose work I’d loved in college), Steven Pinker, and then making the tremendous and happy leap into cognitive poetics. (Peter Stockwell’s Cognitive Poetics: an introduction is a good place to start, or you could dive right into Reuven Tsur.) My friend, the poet Emily Toder, was doing some fascinating reading in stylistics at the same time, and we shared some of our discoveries with each other.
In exploring all this (especially cognitive linguistics & poetics) I found that many of the decisions I’d been making in my poems were creating “violations” of standard linguistic patterns. This is not to say I was writing incomprehensible sentences, just that they had enough variation to sound “off” in some way. And the linguists are so helpful, you know, they prepare all kinds of lists of patterns, along with potential violations, and reading them is like being given a basket of ingredients for a poetic feast. (I once went to a wonderful talk on mass and count nouns, where the linguist Gennaro Chierchia pointed at my husband and said “You are a strange group.”)
I think the influence of these readings is more visible in my second book, Very Funny (forthcoming in 2011), than in The Difficult Farm. The poems from TDF were often composed one word at a time (a la Beckman & Rohrer, though I was only collaborating with myself), so the language did manage sometimes to build impossibilities and violations, but the poems are a bit more scattered, I think, than the ones from Very Funny. While working on VF, I became especially interested in prepositions, how they move from the literal to the metaphorical. For instance, here’s a list of phrases beginning with “under,” that move from “100% physical space” to 0% physical space, as mapped out by Frank Boers in Spatial Prepositions and Metaphor:
100% physical space
e.g. The cat is under the table
e.g. I looked under the bed
e.g. I took her under my roof
The jewels are under lock and key
e.g. The truth was right under my nose
Under the umbrella of the health care system
e.g. Under diplomatic immunity
Under my guidance
e.g. Under the circumstances
0% physical space
The preposition “in” is one of my favorites to play around with, like in these lines from “Then We Are in Agreement”:
maybe if I asked nicely you would represent me in court in the future in many ways we are alike
Because of the flexibility of the preposition, we get to see the overlapping categories of concrete & abstract nouns: court, future, ways. I find this very exciting! It’s also often (to my mind) humorous. Sometimes I feel like an observational linguistic comedian. Oh, but it is sad work too. This is important to me; exploring linguistic ideas and patterns in poems need not be dry. It needs to be very wet and full of feelings. But this seems natural. If you let a preposition loose, some kind of plot and emotion seems bound to follow. (Ideas and feelings, they are the same really.)
Because I want so much to make the prepositions or parts of an idiom visible and shining, I tend to tone down the flashiness of the nouns. Gertrude Stein has been a good companion in this way, as have early twentieth century grammar books for children, or foreign language textbook sample sentences. Talk about emotions! The Juans and the Natashas and their adventures make me positively weep!
I’m going to stop now. I could keep going on for too long, far too long. Thank you for asking me about this!
4. Do you think that there is more boredom in the world now than there was in the past? What role does boredom have in your writing?
Well, for some people there is more access to “leisure,” and that can lead to boredom, but it’s all sort of immeasurable. Boredom does not have much to do with my writing. I get very excited when I write. I jump around. I go wake people up and say “Look! I wrote a poem!”
5. What have you read lately that has surprised you?
The last couple lines of “Pool #3” by Arda Collins just destroy me. I love her logic and her fears. You can read the whole poem at GutCult. I recently read Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, & Fiction, and found many of his arguments pretty compelling. My favorite sentence in there has to do with humans’ habit of ascribing agency to everything. He writes, “It is safer to suppose a bush a bear than the other way around.” Today I was reading through a favorite of mine, Ashbery’s Three Poems, and was delighted by a line I had forgotten: “Ever thought about the moon, how well it fits what it has to light?” Ashbery’s so good to read if I’m looking to be surprised. He makes me feel as if my brain’s come off its stem and is floating around in a vat of very high quality abstract fluid, when suddenly a line comes along to reattach it, and by then home—my skull—has never seemed quite so extraordinary.
6. Who have your teachers been, and what have you learned from them?
I love this question, maybe because my teachers have been so wonderful. (And there have been a lot of them!) I learned to love Emily Dickinson with Marilyn Shea, who was my teacher my freshman and senior years of high school. In college I studied poetry with Peter Richards, Deborah Digges, Lee Edelman, and Doug Powell. All four of them led me to many hours of happy reading. Peter was the first person to clue me into the existence of Verse Press, which later became Wave Books. I felt such an affinity with the books they were publishing, and I also didn’t know anyone else who was reading their books, so I felt like I was in on this incredible secret. Maybe lots of people feel that way when they figure out that poetry is still being made. Or maybe the internet has dimmed that feeling a bit?
I sometimes feel bad for Peter now, because he had to help me shake off so many bad ideas and prejudices. I would not want to have taught me in that first year.
Deborah introduced me to Marina Tsvetaeva and taught me how to recognize a dactyl. She was unbelievably kind, to all her students I think. She died last year. I still find it hard to fathom.
The other day I found a note Doug wrote to me about the poems I wrote during his class. (They were, on the whole, dreadful.) He instructed me to “be in command of the language,” a pretty good idea I think I failed to think of much at the time. I’m still learning. I’m studying the language’s habits and can call upon it to do some things for me sometimes. Sometimes.
Then in grad school I studied with Dara Wier, Jim Tate, Noy Holland and Peter Gizzi. It’s so recent that I’m not sure I can easily excerpt or summarize what they taught me about how to read or write. I need a little more time to know. I can say that Dara was incredibly influential in how I think not just about poetry, but how to approach teaching. I hope to treat the poets in the classes I teach with as much respect and generosity as she did all of us.
Those are only the official teachers of writing; there are dozens of other unofficial teachers who disguise themselves as friends or strangers whose books I love, and then official teachers of subjects apart from writing who’ve meant a great deal to me as well. What a lot of instruction there is to be had!
7. A question Kate Greenstreet used to ask in her first book interviews:
“How has your first book changed your life?”
I have more friends on Facebook. I’m a little busier with readings and things. 2009 was a year of many changes, though—finishing grad school, moving from Western Massachusetts to Atlanta, getting married, the death of my grandmother, beginning a new job—and so the book has a lot of competition for space in my thoughts. I’m very happy it’s out there, and so pleased that it happened through Octopus. Zach and Mathias have been tremendous. I feel lucky to be working with people who are fun and committed and very fine poets to boot.
I was born in 1959 in Austin, TX. Early memories include the sound of wind during the hurricane the night my sister was born, and performing a burial ceremony for a dead bird my brother and I found in the yard. We marked the grave with broken twigs. After the ceremony, the boy from across the street demonstrated his dirt-eating prowess.
We moved eventually to Maine and I grew up in rural Maine and in France for a few years, an odd and dislocating cultural juxtaposition.
Began checkered college career at Brandeis University in 1976 or 1977, and proceeded to drop out and back into a variety of schools, working between-times. Learned to drive trial-by-fire on a trip from New Mexico to Virginia, and recall backing up in the center lane to a missed exit, the rules of the road not quite under my belt. Hitchhiked one summer with a friend from Vermont to South Dakota, where we worked building grain silos, and later spent a few days in jail in San Luis Colorado for driving a car with a forged inspection sticker.
Finally ended up with a BA and MA from Brown University, tried for a long time to teach and write. Although I enjoyed the students I could never work on their writing and my own at the same time, as my sense of duty toward them overwhelmed my self-interest.
Eventually quit teaching writing and cobbled together what might be called a living from part-time jobs, waiting tables, bartending, teaching basic plumbing skills (despite an infinite lack of knowledge thereof). Ended up working in the special collections library at Brown University, and went back to school part-time in 2003, to get my MLIS in order to make more money and stabilize my job situation. It hasn’t really worked….
Met Sam Daoud, painter, in 1995, married in 1998. My sister is also a painter and I have spent a lot of time looking at paintings.
Heather Christle is the author of The Difficult Farm, a poetry collection from Octopus Books. She grew up in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, and now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she is one of Emory University’s Creative Writing Fellows. Her poems appear in recent or upcoming issues of Fence, Octopus, and Slope, as well as the notnostrums movie, When You Think of It.