questions posed by Selah Saterstrom, October 2006
SS: This first question is really three questions, but I’m interested in the places where they might intersect. With that in mind, when—with what moment or understanding–did you know that language was to be your medium? What does your commitment to writing require of you? What do you to keep your experience of writing vital and honest?
PM: I wish I could concoct some lie, a fiction, about a moment in my childhood where I realized that I wanted to be a writer, where I knew for certain that I was born for such an activity/obsession, but the truth is that, as a kid, I wasn't that kid, if you know what I mean. I mean I wasn't that bookish boy in class, for even when I did have a book in my hand it was a book about baseball, or moreover it was a baseball that I held in my hand (instead of a book) or a hockey stick, or just even a stick for me to turn into a baseball bat or hockey stick or even just a thing that I could use to hit, poke, stick, to turn that object into something other than what it was when God made it. Maybe it was this, this turning things into other things, as a boy, that led me to the pursuit of taking language and using it to turn the page into a place of possibility and resonance in my hands (as the child-adult that I am now). But certainly the notion of play meant much to me, back then, as a boy, and it still does mean just as much to me now, as a man. For me writing allows me to keep on playing and making things up, and I'm certain too that I could go right now over to my bookshelf and pull down Bachelard's book on the poetics of reverie (called The Poetics of Reverie) and find some quote inside there to back me up with the parallels between child's-play and words-play. But I don't think I have to resort to such tactics because I think it's pretty clear, this distinction, this relationship, between the two.
All this said, I did write a book (likely for a school assignment) back in the third grade called How the Turtle Got His Shell, and it's a book that I do still have on my shelf and am proud to say that it is, or was, a product of who I am, who I was. It's still one of my proudest literary achievements and is something that, when I go into schools to talk about writing, which is how I make the bulk of my income-getting (as a poet in the schools), I am not ashamed to show these young writers this work that I produced all those years ago. So it's possible that a part of me knew, or at least wanted to know,
that even as a child I
knew that language was to be the medium that would give voice to the
inner side of
who I was, who I am.
I should add that I am envious of other mediums, other artists, such as painters and paint, where the artists carry with them, or on them (on their hands and on their clothes), evidence of the messy process that art-making of course is. I am also quite envious of music-makers and am a failed musician myself (part of my failure was actually learning how to play the guitar. Once I did much of the mystery of that particular instrument left me feeling a bit cold and too able to fall into rote patterns of chord-strumming).
I might add, too, to my answer to the first part of this question, that it took me some years, perhaps many years, to actually embrace and understand that it was and is language itself that is the medium of the story-writer and not the story itself. There is, I know, a difference, and it took me, as I've said, more than a few years of writing stories that anyone could have written, stories that lacked any singularity on my part, before I gave myself over to the powers and possibilities of the words themselves, that a sentence was its own universe, that a word was an object to be entered into and (here's that word again) played with, much in the way that a child plays with a stick, or a fallen leaf, or with a dead fish, or with a handful of mud.
Up until I became a father and entered into a relearning process with my children about language, about the tongue's relationship to speech, language was just a convention (it was hardly even that, it was the low bird on the totem, a pole that was top-heavy with such things as character and plot). But once I had children the world got turned upside down in a number of ways, the most relevant to our discussion being the ways in which language and perception are linked. My sense of perception was radically altered, the world was totally reawakened, by and through the eyes of my daughter Helena, which began my re-discovery of the fantastical possibilities of our ordinary world, and then a few years later when my son—my daughter's brother—entered into our world, as a way of making a space for him she and I and my wife, we all began referring to my wife's rising belly as Brother. That single word, ‘brother’, a word I hadn't much used prior to this (it's true that I am brotherless), became a sort of mantra word, it resonated for us all, I think, in new ways and quickly made its way onto the page. It hasn't left me or my page since, even when I try to tell it to stay away it keeps on coming, it keeps on calling me back.
Now, to get to the second part of your question, regarding my commitment to writing and its requirements of me, I can say that I do try daily to stay engaged and attentive to the way that words find themselves to me, and am always on the look-out for certain lingual moments that oftentimes show themselves to me when I least expect them to do so. This happens often when I find myself in a position of teaching others to write sentences of their own, and so it seems clear to me that it's true that words beget words and of course this is true too when I am engaged in the act of reading, an act that, for me, at its best, becomes an act that inspires me to put down that other person's book and pick up the pen to make out of language a world that I can call my own.
That said, I do find that as I get older and am finding myself placed in certain placements where the world wants more from me than I sometimes can give back to it—as a father, teacher, husband, son, etc.—that my commitment to the page has become much more tenuous, and I now find that I write more often in spurts, that I am no longer able to carve out a habitual relationship with that sentence-making side of who I am.
As for keeping things vital and honest (to get to the third part of this first question), I am still in search, as a reader, of that one great book that will keep me up no matter how world-weary I might be feeling, and I honestly believe that that one great book is waiting to be written by no one other than me, so that great hope keeps me hungry and eager to find those words that will, like some hidden trap-door, buckle out from under my feet, or under my seat, and will swallow me whole.
SS: In an interview with the Gotham Writer’s Workshop, you talked about words in terms of sounds. You said, “…that sensory place where pleasure meets up with desire to make something out of nothing: to make love.” You also spoke about your stories as, essentially, love stories (despite how they may be internalized by some/other readers). The metaphor of intimacy, in terms of process, is fascinating. I wonder if you could speak about, in particular, your revision process. What metaphorical—or other—paradigms inform your process of revision?
PM: I revise constantly and obsessively at the sentence level and can't move onward in a story unless every sentence that has thus far made its way onto the page is, to me, in every way the right way that that sentence needs to be. This of course makes for a real slow writing process, but it's a process of engagement that, as you pointed out, as I pointed out in the Gotham interview, brings great pleasure to me. I don't at all mind playing around at this sentence level and turning things inside out and upside down to get out of the sentence every last elastic possibility that might be residing inside it. And I'm sure I find much sensual pleasure in doing just that, the same way that I might find that same sort of pleasure in other intimate situations (between the body and the ways in which the body can respond to the pleasures of touch, of bend, of feel, etc.). There is in me the desire to make out of the sentence the most pleasing lingual artifact that I am capable of making and bringing out into the world—an act, of course, that brings me great and sensual pleasure.
I am most certainly seeking a musicality in my work since music is a facet of my life that brings me, as a listener, into a state of feeling whole and connected and tuned in. It's all about that, I suppose, which goes without saying: to feel that sense of pleasure and wholeness and oneness with the world, which happens most often when we are engaged in whatever act we might be born to do. I'm sure bikers and baseball players and long-distance runners, along with writers and artists, are akin in this search, which is what drives them to take to the road, or pick up a bat, or lace up their sneakers, or pick up a pen or paint-brush in an attempt to reclaim that rush or sensation that makes us all in our own way feel alive.
SS: Repetition works in multiple ways and generates multiple effects throughout your stories. Your work has made me think about repetition-as-proliferation in an expanded way—that is, working with few objects/words to generate a resounding abundance. Having spent a lot of time with the paradigm of repetition, what insights do you have about it?
PM: That's exactly it, Selah, your notion of repetition not as a form of reduction, but instead as a way to get as much material to spin out from that set of lingual objects (words like brother and mud and fish and moon) that have preoccupied me for the past nine years in my writing of that monster in a box that I like to call The Book of Mud.
SS: Putting this question of repetition in relation to another question, readers and critics have talked a great deal about the “crucifixions” within your stories,, those narrative crossroad moments punctuated with violence. And as you have said elsewhere, “…there is a resurrection of sorts going on in these stories made possible by the violence.” Could you speak more about this tension/connection between violence and resurrection? In relation to this question, I’m also wondering what your thoughts are concerning the space that literature holds in a complex world wherein there is much violence and suffering?
PM: One of the recurring images or scenes that take place in these stories, aside from the most prominent scene that you mention (the backyard hammer-to-nail-through-hand scene between the brothers), is a scene where the moon shatters into a billion pieces. And each broken piece becomes a star. Most readers might view that image of brokenness as a movement from big to small, but in my eyes it works completely the other way: the moon, in its wholeness, like the word 'moon' itself, when we break into it, when we render it as more than what it is in its actuality, the spin off, the breakage away from the object or word itself, results in what is much bigger, much more expansive, just like the brothers, in my eyes, get larger (in spirit, perhaps) through the violence and the harshness of the world as it attempts to strip them of who they are in that world. And so it is for me as the writer who is rendering this world that the handful of objects/occurrences, the more they are played with, help me to arrive, I like to believe, at a wholeness that wouldn't be otherwise possible.
Certainly my obsession with certain words in my lexicon, beginning as I mentioned earlier when that word 'brother' entered so beautifully and even violently into my world, has carried the burden of the composition itself, and by always going back and revisiting certain scenes and events and even titles, I think what happens in the project as a whole is that the stories have a certain lift to them (and I hope a certain heft as well), as opposed, though, to the way that stories or books of stories are traditionally or conventionally told and articulated, which of course is through a more standard or straightaway sequence of events that move horizontally (and I might add predictably) towards their end/death. In my book of books, it's my hope to keep things alive for as long as possible, to suspend the narrative in a state of limbo, an in-betweenness where I think in any form makes for a more interesting outcome and experience, both as writer and reader alike.
SS: What are you currently reading, listening to, looking at?
PM: The book that has most recently moved me in the grandest of ways is The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You by poet Frank Stanford. Stanford died, by his own hand, when he was twenty-nine, and much has been made about his death cutting short the poems that he would've come to write, which is both true and tragic—but at the same time the work that he did produce at what we all know is a very young age (at least for a poet, not necessarily a musician or an athlete) is some of the most amazing stuff I've been fortunate enough to fall in love with. Stanford's The Battlefield is a book-length poem that is, in my view, the Great American Novel of the 20th Century. When I do readings I like to use a line from Stanford as an epigraph for the reading: "everything good is always nailed down and bleeding." I also sometimes give this Stanford line as a warning to the listener (because I love to do readings and love to read for as long as people are willing to listen): "boys this is going to be a long song so you better take off your boots and spit." So Stanford and his monster of a bad-ass book is the book that I am always in some state of reading.
As for sounds that are most recently making their way to my ears, I listen mostly when I'm in my car, and the songs that I keep going back to, the way that I keep going back to Frank Stanford, are the sounds of Cat Power, Bill Callahan's Smog, Radiohead (unplugged), and also a recent recording by a singer-songwriter and friend, one of my true brothers, Chris Moore. I do my best not to listen to the radio and so it's possible that I am missing out on something new and true, though a better part of me who knows popular radio knows better than to actually believe this.
On the walls of my home, what I am lucky enough to be looking at are the paintings that belong to the hand and eyes that are my wife's (Rebecca Markus), who is as obsessive about her series of recurring subjects (or girls) as I am about my own (brothers). I like to look too into the faces of my son and daughter, especially when they are deeply asleep and perhaps tuned into a world that is completely their own and unknown to me, their father. When I look at them like this, I know that they know things that I could only dream of experiencing, and that too, I hope, will make its way one of these days into my fictions.