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Here Comes Jaimy Gordon
Jaimy Gordon was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 4, 1944. Her books
include a novel, Shamp of the City-Solo (Treacle Press, 1974,
reprinted 1980), two novellas, Private T. Pigeon's Tale (Treacle
Press, 1979), Circumspections from an Equestrian Statue (Burning
Deck, 1979), a narrative poem, The Bend, The Lip, The Kid (Sun
Press, 1978), and the masque The Rose of the West (Woodbine
Press, 1976). Her work has appeared recently in Ploughshares, The
Little Magazine, The Missouri Review, and Open Places.
She graduated from Antioch College in 1965, and received her Doctor of
Arts from Brown University in 1975. She has lived in Southern California
and West Virginia and was Writer-in-Residence with the Rhode Island Council
on the Arts from 1975 to 1977. She has taught at Brown University, Roger
Williams College, and Eastern Washington State College, and is currently
teaching at Western Michigan University.
Interviewers: Some of the best young fiction writers I can think of at
this time have been associated with Brown University-Tom Ahern, Michael
Brondoli, Ken Timmerman, Meg Wolitzer, and yourself. You studied with R.V.
Cassill, I believe. Did you also take courses with John Hawkes? Could you
tell us briefly about your schooling and how you got started writing? And
what's going on in Providence?
Gordon: Many of the young writers I knew best in Providence-they include
Tom Ahern, Michael Brondoli, Harrison Fisher, Lissa McLaughlin, Michael
Gizzi, Ray Ragosta, James Shreeve and the late Peter Kaplan--were attracted
to that community at least in part by the magical presence of Hawkes, gave
Verlin Cassill a wide berth, discovered that their intense interest in
Hawkes was not reciprocated, and before their spirits could utterly plummet,
fell in very happily with Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop,
Tbe comment about Hawkes is autobiographical. I appreciated his novels
far better than he appreciated Shamp of the City-Solo while
it was underway, though later, when it was finished, he said he admired
it. With all the belle indifference of an habitual solitudinarian, I did
not choose to work with him when he was less than wholehearted in his praise.
Compared with others of my circle, I was always partial to Cassill personally,
but I suspected that he would hate my fiction so I largely kept it from
him until it was in print. Actually I have never gotten a direct opinion
from Cassill on my work. We had fruitful conversation on other matters.
With Edwin Honig, Jim Schevill, and Michael Harper, all poets I admire,
I had active, inspiriting, useful though somewhat sporadic literary relations.
I came to Brown direct from three years of working on half-mile racetracks,
hardly a literary milieu. I was too used to a solitary writing habit by
that time to be a model member of a writers' workshop, but the great thing
about that M.A. program, that English department, and indeed the Providence
literary climate, is the extent to which diversity and eccentricity are
permissible. Providence is an old and pleasant city with a harbor and a
quite spectral literary past that includes figures like Poe, Lovecraft,
and S. Foster Damon. Robert Coover, another writer whose work I value,
moved there in 1980 with only the slenderest connection to Brown. He and
his family simply chose to make their home in Providence. I thought that
And of course the center of literary life as I knew it in the city was
the Waldrops, whose hospitality, venerable press--Burning Deck--and enormous
personal library comprise the core of the nearest thing to a literary salon
I've encountered in the world of the present. The Waldrops' tastes are
somewhat unpredictable to the uninitiated--no matter how long I know them
I remain of the uninitiated--but they are by no means narrow. For instance
they publish some of the New York language school poets, Ron Silliman and
Bruce Andrews, but also writers as maximalist as Christopher Middleton,
Patrick Fetherston, and John Heath-Stubbs; and, for that matter, myself.
It was Keith Waldrop who guided me to such disparate masterpieces as Elizabeth
and her German Garden and Richard Hughes's A High Wind in
Jamaica. And Rosmarie introduced me to the novels of Edmond Jabes,
whom she so brilliantly translates. But really the list could go on into
the hundreds of books. The Waldrops seem immune from reaching that dark
and seldom discussed saturation point with other people's writing, either
old writing or new, that comes so scandalously early in most literary lives,
even those of people who teach or affect to teach creative writing. The
difference between knowing and not knowing a couple like the Waldrops is
the difference between thinking the whole engine of literature is hopelessly
obsolete, derailed and inoperable and supposing that it just might make
it to the roundhouse. For that reason my debt to them is enormous, and
so is that of a lot of other young writers I know (not that I can still
get away with calling myself a young writer). And of course at Brown I
worked principally with Keith, especially when I was finishing Shamp.
When Michael Brondoli, Tom Ahern, and I were all living in Providence
at the same time and writing elaborate fictions, people began to speak
of a "Providence Baroque." We all cheered on each other's work,
different from each other though we were, and we found a receptive audience
there, not only in the Waldrops. Tom Ahern is the most truly avant garde,
I am the most genuinely baroque in the stylistic and historical sense of
the word, and Michael Brondoli is the most likely to write a great American
novel as that artifact is traditionally understood--though it may be set
Ken Timmerman I didn't know well. Meg Wolitzer was after my time; I haven't
yet read her book.
Interviewers: Your novel-in-progress, The Adventuress, seems
more commercial than your past work. Is this a conscious decision? Are
you trying to put a book over in the New York world?
Gordon: To say my novel-in-progress seems more commercial than, say, my
first novel, Shamp of the City-Solo, is like saying that
the odds on the Titanic coming safely into port are slightly better than
those on the Lusitania. But even non-commerciality admits of degrees, and
I do hope and, I daresay, trust that The Adventuress will
be less non-commercial than Shamp: that is, will be published
by a trade house and will reach an audience at least slightly larger than Shamp did.
But, by the way, there is nothing inherently tortuous about Circumspections
from an Equestrian Statue, nothing strikingly uncommercial
other than the novella length. Literacy, not genius, is required to
read it, but where that exists, the small book which Burning Deck brought
out has proven to be very easy to like. People who are informed about
such things keep suggesting I turn it into a play or a video-play,
and eventually I'd like to do that.
Now let me ask you a question. What do you mean by "commercial"?
I suspect you mean marketable to trade presses, establishment publishing,
New York, the big time. But all the novelists who publish with New York
presses are hardly commercial in the financial sense of the word; often
their books sell no more copies than they would with the older small presses.
Still, obviously, trade publishers are resistant to certain qualities
of prose: the dense, the opaquely inward, the flamboyantly learned. Either
the editors are unable to read these themselves, or they can't believe
their clientele will read them, and they advance statistics, some highly
suspect, to prove it. Of course an independent-minded or powerful literary
editor will from time to time see such a book to publication, and in fact
the literary establishment traditionally keeps a small kennel of difficult
prose stylists behind, or rather in front of, its main house, piously praised
though unread. (How long the conglomerates will continue to keep up genteel
appearances in this fashion is another question.)
Trade publishing, overall, to borrow a trope from William O'Rourke, reacts
to the complete spectrum of prose style no better than a dog's eye to the
color spectrum. They see only the middle range, which has sufficient clarity
or, more correctly, openness about it. Openness means access: they are
concerned with how many readers will troop into the clearing. That Shamp's
prose would not appear to them to sit in the clearing but rather in deep,
deep woods should surprise nobody. It certainly didn't surprise me. On
the other hand, plenty of interesting and by no means simple-minded books
do fall into the zone of visibility, narrow though this zone is, given
the range that English prose can span. I may be writing one of those now,
with The Adventuress. I hope so.
I don't feel any obligation to write Shamp of the City-Solo or The
Fall of Poxdown again, to mention only my two most famously
obscure published works. If I could try, I wouldn't; as it is, I couldn't
if I tried.
Interviewers: Shamp of the City-Solo is a mix of experimental
jargon and traditional mentor relationship. Where did you get the idea
for this now classic work?
Gordon: Shamp is in infantile novel in many ways, and I
don't mean that as any aspersion upon its literary merit. Its protagonist
Hughbury Shamp's obsessive idea is that, if you don't get famous, life
is a mistake, an enactment of doom start to finish, and that was my preoccupation
when I was eight years old, no later. The sexuality in Shamp is largely
pre-genital, that is, infantile. The hero boldly quits his parents in true
picaresque style, but then speedily attaches himself to three masters with
all the anxious fervor of a parentless waif. Even the choice of a male
protagonist is infantile. Hughbury Shamp is not really male; he's an hysterical
neuter with a flair for ornate sophistry and a strong instinct of self-preservation.
That's a version of me in my inchoate state.
It took some years and some shall we say negative encouragement before
I began to think of myself as a woman and a writer at the same time. I
don't believe I write for all other women, only for myself, and so first
I had to be willing and ready to write about a woman who is or sees herself
as a sort of freak. That's what I'm doing now. If the language is not as
opaque as Shamp's, it's still, I think, full of intellect. I haven't jettisoned
my rhetorical fireworks for The Adventuress. I would even
wager that I will pass my whole literary life without once being praised
by critics for writing in a "deceptively simple style." I have
been able, however, to add to my repertory over the years certain conventional
accomplishments of what is nowadays commonly regarded as a novel. I never
disapproved of these conventions, I just ignored them (ignore as in ignorant)
and used what gifts I had in abundance at the outset, which were all rhetorical.
Interviewers: Shamp of the City-Solo doesn't appear to be
as popular in its reprint edition as it was when it was first published
back in 1974. Why do you think that is?
Gordon: The vogue for Shamp when it first appeared, though richly deserved,
was a triumph of tireless one-man promotional jugglery by the editor of
Treacle Press, Bruce McPherson, and of good timing. It was one of the first
small press novels, during a burst of small press activity; therefore it
was a small press pheenom, in a year when there could be such a thing.
The second time around the timing was not as good. I knew it wouldn't be,
but Bruce is an unflagging optimist; that's why he's the editor of a small
press and I'm not. Shamp should not have been allowed to lapse from print
in the first place (it was out of print less than a year after it first
appeared), but a reprint was financially impracticable at the time. I was
delighted to see Shamp in print again, but I didn't want to see Bruce lose
his shirt. However, he keeps going somehow, and the books he produces become
only more beautiful, remarkable, complex and (for the publisher) expensive.
Have you seen Carolee Schneemann's More than Meat Joy? It's
an astonishing object of art in itself.
Interviewers: Why did Treacle Press change the cover and drop the illustrations
from the first edition?
Gordon: I believe that was part of a strategy to make the book appear
more like a trade edition. Of course the illusion fades as soon as the
gentle skimmer, as Beckett aptly puts it, actually cracks the book. The
one thing that might make such convoluted though charming prose appear
more penetrable would be larger type. But that expedient would have been
costly as well as, very possibly, in vain.
Interviewers: The Adventuress features a quasi-picaresque
vein (at least the portions I've seen). The same sort of thing T. Coraghessan
Boyle and Tom Disch have been working with. (And John Barth before them.)
Your novel also has a strong autobiographical streak. Why that fusion?
For distancing purposes? Or just for humor?
Gordon: People who make too clever critics of their own work should be
treated with distrust, since I've noticed that bad writers do this quite
as glibly and cogently as good ones. But I will answer the question, because
I've never been able to keep my mouth shut even when I knew full well I
should. Now in hindsight, looking down on my own work from the lofty perch
of a literary critic, I see the plain below me littered with charlatans
of exactly this type, rhetorical adventurers who betray themselves at every
turn. I seem particularly to enjoy attributing this self-advertising imposture
to professionals, to doctors, professors, clergymen, politicians, so-called
artists, orators, impresarios. The only difference, with The Adventuress,
is that here I am attributing it to a woman and, at that, to a woman who
rather resembles myself, although I'm conscious I'm now committing the
greatest imposture of all--those were fabrications; this becomes a downright
George Meredith, a novelist whom I much admire and feel in some respects
closely akin to in the evolutionary scheme, says in An Essay on Comedy that "any
intellectual pleading of a doubtful cause contains germs of an idea of
comedy." All my characters have doubtful causes to plead or crank
theories to propound, and that is why I am a comic writer, no less so when
I try to use some part of myself as a subject. Intellectual absurdities
interest me. The mediating element is always rhetoric.
Interviewers: Your fiction seems somehow different in tone from that of
most women writers I've encountered. In style, in its language, it has
what I can only describe as a kind of natural authority; the narrative
voice occurs as a given, rather than as a laboriously achieved artifact.
At the same time, it's a highly personalized voice, often with a definite
sexual and emotional orientation. There are a few other women whose work,
I think, could fall into the category--though in other respects their writing
is very different from yours--Shirley Hazzard, Christina Stead, even Jane
Bowles, with her particular stylistic quirkiness. Are you familiar with
their work--and if so, do you see a connection?
Gordon: I find both Christina Stead and Jane Bowles highly interesting
stylists, though one gets an uncomfortable sense that Jane Bowles' stylistic
quirkiness is a map of disintegration whereas Christina Stead's style presents
a truly versatile ability. I haven't yet read Shirley Hazzard. I like Margaret
Drabble, especially The Waterfall, which is a brief, wise
book whose style is informed by all the multiple inner allusiveness one
expects of poetry. I've been reading Jean Rhys lately for the sheer entertainment
of it; the incompetence of her heroines irritates me, but their solitariness
and demi-mondanite (if I may so put it) is always interesting, and her
lucid compact style has the same soothing effect on me as playing with
a box of glass marbles. I lately read Elizabeth Bowen's The Death
of the Heart at Keith Waldrop's recommendation, and found it a
great novel in a technically faultless, intimate and elegant style. Cynthia
Ozick is a fascinating stylist with a Jehovan satirist's discomfiting mean
streak. I'm waiting impatiently to obtain Laura Riding Jackson's newly
republished A Progress of Stories because I know their style
and conception will be fascinating; I know her Voltaire.
(And the "authority" of her voice, by the way, is nothing short
of notorious.) Nearer my generation, Jayne Anne Phillips is a woman writer
of great stylistic gifts, though I prefer her balanced, fluid, beautifully
observed, classic fiction of sensibility to her ventures into expressionism,
and I hope her critics don't overencourage her nostalgie de boue (though
we all must cope with that tendency).
These are some women writers I like (and certainly there are many I've
missed or have not yet read) who illustrate my preoccupation with exceptional
and beautiful style. I don't spend much time on any writer, male or female,
who doesn't have this to offer. Kathy Acker, who wrote The Childlike
Life of the Black Tarantula, has fantastic conceptions but to my
mind ungainly executions, wonderfully original combinations from the high
dive that come down belly flops. I admire her but I can't make myself read
her fictions through.
I don't feel I was significantly influenced by any of the women writers
I've mentioned, nor do I necessarily feel closely connected to them in
motives, ideas, methods, much as I respect them.
Interviewers: I have another question along these lines--one that's a
little difficult to formulate. But, again, it strikes me that this sort
of self-possessed narrative style is more often an aspect of the work of
male writers--almost as if something in the act of narration were inherently
male. Your own protagonists either assume male roles and activities, or
exhibit an intense interest in men, as an indispensable complement to their
own characters. Do you think there might be something in this sort of characterization,
or its sources, that allows access to a particularly male domain/activity?
Gordon: Let me return briefly to Shamp of the City-Solo,
which I suppose is my best-known work. You must realize that Shamp is a
substantially pre-feminist--that is, pre-feminist of-the-nineteen-seventies--document.
It had taken its inevitable shape by 1968. When it was published in 1974,
a few women immediately wanted to know, with some hostility, what I was
doing crouching behind a male protagonist, and I'll tell you what I told
them. I was always going to be a writer, although until I was nineteen
I read many thousand times more than I wrote. At nineteen, in 1963, I began
writing fiction I still consider to be part of my mature oeuvre (though
I may suppress it from public viewing), unguided, and unharassed, by the
program of contemporary feminism, but with complete confidence in my rhetorical
powers, which as I've already mentioned is not quite the same thing as
complete confidence in my ability to write a novel as that genre is commonly
understood. But about my prose style, about my ability to create and sustain
an original narrative voice, to make a beautiful, thoughtful, subtle object
every time I constructed a sentence or paragraph--about these, I never
had the slightest question I could, as they say, compete with the field,
male or female. My extraordinary facility there, in fact, was one of the
imbalances in my nature that made me feel like too much of a freak ever
to put myself, in female form, at the center of my own fiction. There are
few female intellectual crackpot solipsists in fiction--in fact, I can't
think of any, though there may well be some. Djuna Barnes, for whom I had
a cult at age eighteen, was certainly one herself, but she saved the billing
of rhetorical crank extraordinaire in Nightwood for Dr. Matthew
O'Connor. (I haven't read her Ryder; doubtless I should, for it may have
some relevance here.)
In sum, as a woman writer I didn't know what to make of myself, but as
simply a writer neither male nor female (hence, according to the rules
of genus and species nomenclature, male) I didn't have that problem.
Interviewers: Who are your literary forbears?
Gordon: Good, I'll tell you who I think did influence me--they are almost
all male, but that's not surprising, considering how far back they go.
I am attracted to all the cranks but also to elegant and ornate prose traditions,
and where these two, idiosyncrasy and tradition, intersect, that's where
I am. The tradition of English rhetorical style is actually idiosyncratic
from Bacon on; with Bacon that was its point, to imitate what Morris Croll
called "the athletic movements of the mind" in spontaneous passage
from thought to thought in all their baroque complexity. This style was
called base, as opposed to the sublime Ciceronian period, but never deceptively
simple. And it happened just at the moment in the history of English letters
when rhetoric was beginning to mean that utterance of the mind which one
writes down and another reads in private, though the wind, you might say,
of rhetoric as oratory was still blowing with sound and force on the door
of the study. So, given what I've already said of my own interests, it's
not surprising that figure after figure in this tradition--which is not,
however, the dominant tradition of the English novel--captured my attention:
Bacon, Jonson, Nashe, Burton, Aubrey, Browne, Swift, Sterne, Coleridge,
Lamb, Carlyle, Butler, Meredith, for a start; and along the way I couldn't
resist really strange peripheral figures like Beddoes and, to fly far afield,
sexually as well as temporally, Margery Kempe. Shamp owes many passages
to the peculiar admixture of Sir Thomas Browne, Coleridge (of the Biographia
Literaria), and Marcus Aurelius in the George Long translation. Let me
not forget the King James' version of the Bible. And then there's Sir Thomas
Urquhart's seventeenth century translation of Rabelais--that was prominent
in my mind when I was writing Shamp.
Not that I can pretend to compare with any of these forbears in classical
scholarship. My reading is of the most heteroclite and unsystematic. I
know Beddoes better than Hemingway, and I would have to agree with those
of my contemporaries who would call this a moral weakness. On the other
hand, ignoramus though I am, in my knowledge and love of writers of the
past, compared to most of my immediate contemporaries who write, I am a
virtual Aquinas. But that's not saying much.
To return to your former question, what does it all amount to? Self-possession,
yes (that reminds me of another perverse influence, E.T.A. Hoffmann, who
called the quality Besonnenheit) but also, as with Hoffmann, intense, self-conscious
idiosyncrasy. This will sound odd, but I like having a mind, I like thinking,
though I'm aware that I think eccentrically and often ridiculously, so
that my thoughts threaten to isolate me even though they take shape in
the common tongue. I do have confidence that what goes on in my mind, including
but by no means featuring its review of personal experience, can be turned
into something made of language that will be arresting to those who are
susceptible to splendors of rhetoric. I don't know why most women writers
would not reflect on their art in those terms, but if there's a difference,
it lies there, I think. I should make perfectly clear that I don't think
many male writers reflect on their art this way either. Any coincidence
of tone is just that, purely coincidental.
Now, why am I so interested in men, as characters or voices or as the
objects of female scrutiny. Let me answer that question almost as delicately
as it was put. My father was a male. Almost all my teachers, perhaps lamentably,
were male. My lovers were male. I am a solitary person, indeed, by inclination
a solipsist, but I had to pay close attention to these people, and I did.
Interviewers: How would this relate to the traditional concept of a feminine
Gordon: I don't think of men as muses. Hardly. I think of them as a very
earthbound species. But then so am I.
Then again, lest I be accused of insensitively forgetting transitory emotions
of the past, here is a poem I once wrote for a man:
THE DEPARTING LOVER AS MUSE!
What can I sing for such inattention?
Exacting angel, the shape of your heel, taking off,
on my music, is humble laughter
It's plain it will not reconduct you to me
There must be, all the same,
this double to say I lost you, tuned shadow
exampled against the clear song you convey,
return when you will.
I will point out that the tone of that ditty is mannered, courtly, and artificial;
an elaborate compliment, not a statement of aesthetic philosophy.
Interviewers: What books do you teach? What writers?
Gordon: What books would I like to teach, besides those of writers I've
already mentioned? I'll tell you what books thrilled me in the last year
or so, because those are always the books I would teach if I could. I finally
read Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses and thought
it marvelous and quite as wicked as I'd heard it was. I read the first
volume of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, surely
one of the great books of the twentieth century. I stumbled across a novel, Madame
Solario, that appeared anonymously in 1956; I found it somewhat
naive but most delicate and luminous in style, and cloaked in irresistible
mystery--I don't know whether a man or a woman wrote it, though I would
guess a woman. I'd like to teach Edward Dahlberg's Because I Was
Flesh, Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds, Huysman's A
Rebours. I just read J. Christopher Herold's biography of Madame
de Stael, a wonderful book in itself, and now I would like to teach, say,
de Stael's Delphine and her lover Benjamin Constant's Adolphe,
along with George Sand's Elle et Lui and Paul de Musset's Lui
et Elle. But at Western Michigan University, teaching literature
to undergraduates, all this is sheer fantasy. I end up teaching what my
students need to know and can understand--I taught all of Richard Wright
this year, and Rosellen Brown's Autobiography of My Mother,
which has at least one highly intelligent female character, a civil liberties
lawyer, though Rosellen is so wary of her Teutonic faculties that she makes
her come to no good in the end. Quite an interesting book. And I taught
Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,
and the late Malcolm Braly's memoir of San Quentin and other joints, False
Starts. As you can see, I think the freshmen I teach need a political
education and might actually accept one. A direct literary education they
would not accept and so I try to let it steal upon them. As for my creative
writing students, I don't impose my literary specialties on them. I try
to guide them to the best examples of whatever traditions I perceive they
are writing in, however well or ineptly, and whether they know it themselves
or not. I think that's the proper function of a teacher of creative writing.
Interviewers: What do you think of postmodern writing? Moral fiction?
Gordon: Postmodern is a depressing term. I may be doing my own Dance of
Death, but I'm not dancing on anyone else's mausoleum, nor do I care to
waste my energy looking for a school of fiction where none has evinced
itself. I think moral fiction is one of the silliest critical concepts
to come down the pike in a long time, in a field that is always crowded
with them; and Gardner should be congratulated for daring to express it
in public, affording people like me much merriment. I don't know what experimental
fiction is. Perhaps it means running novels through the sort of paper-shredder
which sits under every desk in the Pentagon, and mixing the particles in
a retort with hydrochloric acid to see what is precipitated. I hope so.
Interviewers: You've written several plays and a masque. Could you say
something about your theater involvement? What motivated you in that direction?
Gordon: I am interested in rhetorical charlatanry in all its forms, and
these include the writing of fiction, teaching, inventing short pieces
for the theater, and dominating the conversation at dinner parties, all
of which I sometimes do, after my fashion.
Interviewers: Have you performed?
I should add that Providence has a rare institution, Wastepaper Theater,
co-founded by Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, Jim Schevill, and Edwin Honig,
that provided and still provides poets and literary types like me who have
five-minute theatrical ambitions their opportunity. Jim Schevill is of
course the genuine article, a playwright. At Wastepaper, seven or eight
of us would produce plays in an evening. Twenty minutes is supposed to
be the limit; otherwise it is feared the effects of any one of these productions
could be fatal to the audience. My masque, The Rose of the West,
was first performed there; the performance artist Carolee Schneemann, who
happened to be in town, was inducted as my co-star on twenty minutes notice.
And there, for instance, I brought forth and acted in The Lettuce
Vampire, a five-minute musical with one song. We never got around
to the ten-minute opera we were planning. I heard that Coover had a piece
in Wastepaper this year; I'm sorry to have missed it.
Interviewers: Have you written music?
Gordon: I can write a rather wistful and simple ditty, no more. But that
would not deter me from writing the score for a ten-minute opera. I listen
to a lot of Weill and Schumann. My music is like Weill and Schumann mixed
together and simplified for a ten-year-old.
Interviewers: You're the only contemporary writer I've encountered whose
work reminds me of Twain. Circumspections and Private
T. Pigeon's Tale have that "Jumping Frog" quality about
them. Good old-fashioned yarns with a modernist skew which makes them wholly
unique, wholly your own.
Gordon: That's a great compliment to which I'll say only: thanks. I'm
an admirer of Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, and Innocents
Abroad, though I don't think of Twain as an influence. I did get
some ideas from Innocents Abroad that I may someday put to
use. I'm interested in a pseudo-travelogue as a framework for fiction.
Interviewers: Your prose is finely honed. Do you develop drafts to perfect
a sentence? Is it stored in your head? Or do you write from consecutive
energy in quick takes?
Gordon: I write in longhand first and often rearrange and amplify a sentence
or a paragraph even as it comes to me. Like the baroque prose stylists
I mentioned earlier, I try to imitate the athletic movements of the mind
in its complex irregular race from thought to thought. I also try to imitate,
and occasionally to plagiarize outright, antique prose stylists I admire.
My notebooks are full of minutely written inserts and numbered parts all
over the pages. I have to follow the numbers when I finally get to the
typewriter. I can do it in my head if I must, and often do, when I'm driving,
walking, or lying in bed; but soon I have to get to a notebook. I also
have a bad habit of composing on the fly-leaves of other people's books.
It must be my unconscious urge to take over.
Interviewers: Have you ever considered writing for Hollywood?
Gordon: Hollywood has not yet invited me. For what it's worth, everything
I've ever published I've published on invitation, and I've published almost
everything I've ever written. I'm not coy. Doing business is an effort
for me, while writing is a joy; I've been lucky, in a way, always to be
asked; and doubtless, too, I secretly fear rejection, though I am going
to be as aggressive as necessary when The Adventuress is
finished a year from now, since I think the time has come for it.
Interviewers: Your earliest book, The Fall of Poxdown (now
out of print), was a long poem. Were you writing fiction at that time as
well? How do you determine what will be fiction, what will be poetry?
Gordon: When I am well underway on a work of fiction, I can work twelve
hours at a stretch, and I loathe and fear interruption. But the sort of
concentration I like to practice when I write fiction does not accord well
with the humble necessity of making a living. It becomes a luxury.
Still, I am always writing something. In the beginning, it was usually
poetry, but in hindsight, surveying my poetic productions, one can easily
see that they were all trying to do something more spacious and pluralistic
than is possible in a lyric--except for my collected valentines (I do have
a whole collection) representing each an episode of early love. Beyond
these, there are mainly long poems in concatenated episodes, mock epics,
a masque, a full-length narrative poem. Clearly I was trying to make poetry
do some of the work a novel does for me, a novel by Keith Waldrop's definition: "A
novel is that literary form into which you throw everything that's captured
your attention in the last five years"; and also D.H. Lawrence's: "A
novel is the highest example of subtle interrelatedness that man has discovered."
I should add that I was trying to press poetry into this more capacious
service not only because I didn't have time to work in the novel, my natural
form, but also because I think the lyric or short poem as it's presently
being written has something inherently dull, frozen and repellent about
it, over which it triumphs only occasionally. But most of those who now
write poetry do not share my view and did not welcome my reforming zeal.
I still think all my poems are of some interest, but leagues behind my
prose fiction in establishing a compelling and original voice. I decided
to leave poetry to the poets to fix, although I'm going to return sometime
to the masque in its Jonsonian form: as a working model of an idea and
its antithesis, all its parts turned into voices, with music, spectacle,
Interviewers: We haven't touched on your long poem The Bend, The
Lip, The Kid.
Gordon: The Bend, The Lip, The Kid was certainly a novelistic
poem, as much as I could make it one; it was also a tour de force in the
language of the street corner, which interests me as another variety of
rhetorical idiosyncrasy. I'm trying to say I like slang, and use it when
I can. The Bend arose from the years 1971 to 1973, when I taught creative
writing in the state prison in Rhode Island, and then came to know many
ex-prisoners and their friends on the street. I thought them very eloquent,
not to say theatrical.
I meant the poem to be readable and even exciting, and with lay people
(not writers, that is) who like to read novels, it works well. But for
the most part only poets who are acutely dissatisfied with the present
state of the art seem to approve of it as a poem; while fiction writers
generally find it highly interesting, so interesting they almost always
counsel me to rewrite it as a prose novel, so that a few people may actually
read the thing. And I am considering doing that.
Ich zol azoy lang leben --I should live so long as to complete
all these plans I'm telling you about, considering the speed at which I
Interviewers: In your recent essay in Open Places on the
small press and its audience you make some very perceptive statements.
Could you repeat here the dichotomy as you see it between writing for the
smaller audience and attempts to write for a larger one?
Gordon: Did I say anything about conscious attempts to write for a larger
audience?! My essay was called "The Undeciphered Audience." I
think what I said was that in the present world of letters we have an odd
state of affairs in which the writer's life is felt to be so desirable
that people want to be writers and, by God, become writers, with degrees
and publications of a sort to prove it, whether there is a discernible
audience for their work or not. As Plato says, "Many the thyrsus bearers,
few the Bacchoi." But why do so many feel sure they are Bacchoi? Because
all the available literary audiences, except in the rarest cases, for trade
as well as small press publications, are so small and uncertain that the
difference becomes invisible or one of only the subtlest degree. If nobody
reads much of anything, what difference does it make who wrote what? If
no one reads, anyone can be a writer. Or, if the way to what few readers
there are is through the critics, how do you force reviewers to notice
your work at all?
In the contemporary world I'm full of sympathy for the desire to find
a bearable way of life. I don't want to see anybody flayed for declaring
herself or himself a writer, though obviously becoming a writer doesn't
mean becoming a more generous audience for others. I do try to figure out
how this strange condition persists, not hoping to visit blame, since I
figure I'm as much to blame as anyone. I graduated from a writing program--I
even have a Doctor of Arts, though I try to keep that quiet--and now I
teach in an M.F.A. program. I've had grants, residencies, worked in Artists
in the Schools, published with small presses, etcetera. But it's enough
to make one despair of human nature--yet again--that others who do the
same as I are so unwilling to see how they fit into the pattern. Some of
the earliest to create names for themselves in creative writing as an academic
discipline are now the most vociferous complainers against the public funding
that keeps this generation of writers afloat, though they were the virtual
godparents of that generation. These fellows, who became better known as
publicists than as novelists, now look around for somebody to take the
rap. I think it's very bad natured of them. They must resort to paranoia
not to see the obvious: that the funding institutions are the natural complement
to the training institutions, that both together keep writers minimally
well fed and out of politics, that the whole world of M.F.A. programs,
summer writing workshops, the arts as a public entity, residencies, fellowships
and grants, is one world. The question is not how to cast the lesser scribblers
out into the street. It's how to make more people read literature.
Interviewers: I've read a lot of first novels in the past year--books
by Alice McDermott, Laurel Goldman, Meg Wolitzer, Joyce Maynard, and Linda
Gray Sexton among others--and none of these women strike me as having a
talent equal to your own. Yet they are writing in the New York world and
getting media attention, while you write some of the funniest, most erotic,
straightforward fiction imaginable for literary magazines. Any last comments
on the current state of affairs in U.S. publishing?
Gordon: First of all, thanks. It is no accident that I don't live in the
New York world and, since I began writing, I never have. Some of the reasons
for that are in Shamp, where New York is Big Yolk, the City-Solo, and Hughbury
Shamp never quite gets to it but is consigned to stay on the other side
of the Sump, like Moses on the wrong side of the River Jordan, first for
his physical health, later for his mental. In the past, as I hinted above,
I have not pursued trade publication energetically, but I will soon, and
don't expect to be turned away.
Last comments on the state of publishing. A literary audience is still
there. It may not even have shrunk in absolute numbers in the past hundred
years, but its punyness is most striking in relation to the massive celebrity
enjoyed by other media, especially in an age of so-called universal literacy.
And when such a thing as literary celebrityhood comes about, it happens
exactly as if the person were a film star, and in fact, he shortly becomes
one. This creates the illusion that there's an enormous literary audience
out there that all other writers are somehow missing. That illusion makes
writers sour to other writers and to themselves. And yet the problem of
whom to blame for the fact that Steven Spielberg is more prized by the
populace than Peter Spielberg is beside the point. The only part of the
question that still raises a tremor of weak but hopeful speculation in
me is what on earth, if anything, might make more people cherish significant
works of literature than do now. To abolish television in America would
be hardly a simpler task than outlawing nuclear weapons, and far less popular.
The number of people I know who really love books other than their own
is small, and yet I know hundreds of writers. I haven't come up with any
remedies yet, but I think about it often, just as though there were a future
-Interviewed by Gretchen Johnsen and Richard Peabody circa 1983