Providence Baroque:
Here Comes Jaimy Gordon

An Interview

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 significant.Jaimy Gordon photo

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 in Turkey.

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 lie.

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 muse?

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? Experimental 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?

Gordon: Constantly.

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, and dance.

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 write.

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 to consider.


-Interviewed by Gretchen Johnsen and Richard Peabody circa 1983

 

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