Last words & epigraphs
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Flexing the Imagination with George Myers Jr.
George Myers, Jr. lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he writes for The Sunday Patriot-News, and has lived in Maine, Ohio and East Africa. He's the author of two fiction books, Nairobi: Biofiction/Memoir (White Ewe, 1978) and Natural History (Paycock Press, 1981 ), as well as the critical collection, An Introduction to Modern Times (Lunchroom Press, 1982). His two poetry chapbooks are out of print. Myers also edits Cumberland Journal, a literary monograph series.
An essayist, columnist, fiction writer and visual artist, Myers has had work published in dozens of journals and periodicals including The New Commercialist, Thunder Mountain Review, Benzene, Beyond Baroque, Graham House Review, River Styx, Interstate, Colorado-North Review, Scree, Fireweed, Washington Review, NewsArt and Gegenschein Quarterly.
Interviewers: John O'Hara wrote about the ins and outs of Harrisburg life in A Rage to Live. Since you grew up in that small East Coast town, I'm surprised you didn't wind up imitating O'Hara, or chronicling that life.
Myers: I live in a small town, but hope I don't have a small town mentality. I certainly haven't had a small town education. Being exposed to certain aspects of culture--I've had to reach for it, sure, more than it's come to me--has been a terrific help. As far as O'Hara goes, I've never read that book nor do I feel a great urge to read his stuff because of its being framed in Pottsville or Harrisburg or wherever. I'd rather read about the great whaling towns, or Yoknapatawpha, or Nairobi city. Actually, I'd rather not read about places particularly. It's theme or author's method that pulls me into a book. Besides, Harrisburg's the same as anywhere.
Interviewers: To what do you owe your escape? your experimental streak or taste for jazz and conceptual art?
Myers: I haven't escaped in one very real sense: I have the same problems anyone in an anywhere town has. I'd like to be content at work. I could use a couple thousand dollars. I'd rather not have bad dreams. In those everyday things there is no escape.
As for jazz, I like it because it sounds good. I like and pursue conceptual art because it keeps me limber and open to ideas and thought--two things the everyday world would put under, if it could. Reading a good deal and knowing that there's unusual literature or art out there has kept my creative juices flowing. Thank God for the arts journals. They are a great little and inexpensive escape, unless you happen to publish one. One last thing about Harrisburg: it's a good jazz town.
Interviewers: Working full-time at The Patriot-News Co., and editing a literary magazine as well, how do you manage to find time to write creative material?
Myers: I don't find time. With the lack of time and current financial woes, including Reagan's chewing up of the national arts endowment, I expect that the Hugh Fox monograph, Cumberland Journal's 18th issue, will be the end of the magazine for a while. Changing the journal's format to one author per issue I thought would free me up to read and write more--less correspondence necessary--but the savings wasn't enough. I write piecemeal, sometimes an hour or two here, a weekend there. A few things have got to go if I'm serious about being a better artist or writer. Creativity can only be blocked--with the concurrent loss--for some time. Then there's got to be some exorcising done.
Interviewers: What magazines do you read? What writers?
Myers: Roland Barthes, Melville, Hawthorne, Joyce, Borges would be a few. Guy Davenport, Paul Metcalf, D.M. Thomas are living writers I admire. None of them are poets per se, not even Metcalf (I haven't seen Thomas' poetry), but all of them write as if they were. I don't see any interesting poetry being written right now. I certainly think we're in an age of better prose writers than poets; in fact, I think we're in an age of great prose writers. The books where poetry and prose cross, where disciplines are challenged, those are the ones I generally like reading. Naturally, we read those authors who in some way reflect or support the mode we are working in, even though they may be quite a bit more successful.
Interviewers: Where do you think literature is going?
Myers: It would be presumptuous for me to guess. I only know what I like.
Interviewers: What are the pluses and minuses of the writer as journalist?
Myers: I've become a better writer since working at the newspaper, and for that I'm grateful. I know more about how to make a character walk from one side of the room to another, how to organize action. At the same time, since becoming a journalist I've learned that making a character get from here to there is rather unimportant. It's what happens that is important. Also, it's less painful to write, not so much the tedious process that I've heard so many writers complain about, after having to write for deadline every day and produce a certain number of words regularly.
But I'm sure there are minuses. Complaining about the alleged lack of organization to Natural History, a Washington Book Review critic wrote that I was reacting against apparent journalism standards in my job; so, she said, I spewed out a lot of wild stuff in a kind of loathe reaction. I'll concede the point that I like to stretch and flex a bit in my fiction. Some of that may be a reaction against something but I doubt that it's the newspaper world. I think it's rather against the world in general, to be honest, which is why so many of my stories play at re-making the world. Well, any time you develop a character you're getting into the God business. But as for that reviewer, I think she missed the point of history's continuum. It's not neat. It's not organized. It's downright unruly.
Interviewers: Do you find a division between your critical mind and your creative mind?
Myers: Not at all. Nor do I find a split between my collagist mind or fiction mind or poetry mind. It takes creative thinking to be critical; I see no split. I know, people refer to 'serious' writing versus 'hack' writing, and by hack writing I know they mean book reviews, writing for a general or newspaper audience and the like. I think it takes talent to recognize the audience you're writing for, and to write well for each audience, if one can. It's a pleasure for me to write the weekly "Printed Matter" column and introduce that audience to performance art, experimental writers and whatever might be outside their mainstream. More than once I've taken the same idea, or book, and expanded my commentary on it for another periodical in a method that I imagine that periodical's audience to appreciate. A woman in the art department at the newspaper says I have a 'chummy Uncle George' voice and one that slips into literary opaqueness. Let's just say I know how, in a review, to pull a newspaper reader into a book that generally newspapers won't have reviewed in the first place.
Interviewers: There is a raw anti-religious streak in Natural History and, to a lesser extent, Nairobi. Care to say anything?
Myers: The church is a big pain in the ass. I don't like it and I never have. I always thought that 'blood of my body' stuff during communion was very spooky, something out of some black magic or witchcraft scene. I'm not anti-religious, I'm just anti-church. The more the church is "organized" and the more that people chant in unison and the more that there's a presumption of original sin the more I hate it. I'm religious about plenty of things but with negatives and sin the most redeeming points about church there's no way I can approach the subject comfortably. My sister is what you'd call a Jesus freak. My former father-in-law, a great guy really, is bishop of the Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania, but they aren't a cause for my feelings about the church. I'd like to make that clear. You know, often a run-in with an insurance salesman gives one an overall crankiness to all insurance salesmen.
Natural History took a few punches at the church, sure, but as Kenneth Warren pointed out in his long review (in The Review of Contemporary Fiction) natural history, evolution and church dogma aren't exactly a matched set. Fundamentalists could find fault with several of the book's collages too. There's one collage, for example, of a man running away from a woman with "Do unto others. . . " tattooed on her back. Others make similar comments on certain aspects of organized church.
Interviewers: And what are those comments exactly?
Myers: That the church is not the place to go for peace, rather there's a deadening. Ideas are anathema there, for another thing, and there's no room for creative conflict. The idea that there's just one way, like all those bumper stickers allege, is a pompous falsehood. This only sounds like heresy to someone who is fearful or suspicious of the consequences of his own faith. Assume a faith, sure. Seek an understanding, yes. But it's not too much of an exaggeration to extrapolate on the lesson of Jim Jones and the People's Temple. A kook doesn't have to be called a kook by the media and press to truly be a kook. Not all kooks are recognized. It's quite satisfactory in some tribal practices to kill or even eat certain individuals to appease gods but I'm sure it's not satisfactory to the poor devils who are killed or eaten.
I should add that the most fascinating stories I know of are archetypical ones, and the great archetypes are generated from the Bible. There're some great stories in that book--only a fool would deny that--and I don't mind saying that I enjoy revising some of them. For example, I wrote in Nairobi about a character named Blanks and in Natural History I wrote about Lazarus and Gregor Samsa. The three of them are Christ-like in several aspects, and each of them are sacrificed similarly. Unoriginal? Well, how many original stories are there to tell? Not many. Three or four maybe. Only the telling is original. I'm fascinated by certain revisions of biblical history and yet repelled by the power that they hold over me. It's something that I'm somewhat resigned to. I'm working on a short story now, "Envoi," where the history of the world is retold for what must be the millionth time. Admittedly, it may be a world only recognizable after the explanations of Roland Barthes or Harold Bloom.
Interviewers: What do you see as the relation between language and experience or "history"?
Myers: Language is all we know of history, or all we know of how to explain history. Language is also how we record time, the passing of it, and that's history. Words at their first and last meaning are historical and filled with history. Capsulated museums. The world is text, I say in Natural History, and a baker makes all his life's knowledge fit into the form of a doughnut. History is concentric and all we can do is retell it and retell it again. History is constituted only when we discuss it or look at it, and to look at it we must be somewhat removed from it. That's the beauty of the Heraclitus epigram, "Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar."
Interviewers: Your books display a love of geography, history, travel, linguistic trickery, charades, puns and twisted facts. And you've been described as a "researcher." What has led to this surrealist distortion of reality? These absurdist tracts?
Myers: Life--and by that I mean the 'true' life, not the fictive life--is a collection of things and ideas, all thrown together generally, and without much regard to step-by-step organization. Things also sometimes aren't clear in life. When I tell a story, or depict a reality, I feel I must portray life as I actually see it. How I see it, I guess by your description, is through the eyes of a surrealist and a collector. I see nothing wrong with writing a travel story and incorporating vast quantities of travel data and items that give a sense of reality, or reflect reality, in a fictive life. It's nothing new. Sorrentino does it, among others. It's not something to apologize for, and sometimes not even to explain. But accreditation and disclaimers are all part of what a magician calls his patter, a distraction from the dexterity of his art, and nevertheless part of it too.
I'd better correct myself. Either there's only a true life (in both books and 'life') or there's only a fictive life (in both books and 'life'). I mean, what's the difference? Where's the boundary from where one begins and the other ends?
The reality that I write about is not, to me, distorted. Mine is a romantic art that with great faith proposes certain correspondences and connections in the world. At the same time it's typically modernist in that it shatters its own illusions, refers to its own fictiveness, and denies--with equal awkwardness--that the reconciliation it proposes can exist anywhere outside its own artifice.
Interviewers: What kind of triggering device starts you writing?
Myers: I'm triggered in the head first. Friends know I carry an idea around with me months before I put any of it on paper. Other people's words trigger me; that happens when you read a lot. My own experiences, and how I try and explain them to myself, sometimes unsatisfactorily, also prompt me to put a feeling, the residue of experience, on paper. I'm very visually oriented so paintings or the bend of a pipe often get me aroused. I feel I have to explain, at least to myself, what effect a painting is trying to achieve or how it came to be that a pipe bent one way and not another. Loving language makes me carouse.
Interviewers: How do you approach the reader?
Myers: As one that wants to be teased and caroused with. That's the kind of reader I am. I can only write the types of things that it would give me some pleasure to read. I want the reader intimately involved and interested in more than surface plot or structure. I'll write like a chummy 'Uncle George' if it keeps them around.
Interviewers: A lot of people seem put off by your work at first, but later find the handle when discovering the humor. Your work is often sly, subtle and manipulative. What role does humor play for you?
Myers: It holds the reader close. If I get too abstract and realize it soon enough, I'll ground myself in some idiocy or humor. Come to think of it, humor keeps me close too, to a sense of proportion. Life is short; we'll never understand the great issues; we'll never understand our own handicaps, or surpass them, so let's have a big laugh and a beer. I wish I could adopt that reasoning more often but I can't. I, and my fiction, are stuck in the basic Melvillean conflicts. Hey, how can I laugh and enjoy myself when I know there's a great bone-crushing Whale out there trying to destroy me?
Interviewers: You've said before that Melville is the basic thread that hangs your work together. Why? What books in particular?
Myers: Moby Dick is the great one--the greatest American novel, for that matter. Mardi and Bartleby also are very important to me. I can't compare myself or my writing to the quality of Melville but there are some themes in his work that I feel akin to. Melville's characters all seem to be trying, some failing, to come to terms with their contradictory recesses. He achieves his ends through allegory and symbols. I try to do that. He writes too of the American character as opposed to the European character, and I did that particularly in Nairobi. My characters echo some of his in that some of them exhibit an innocence, a naiveté, in that they don't realize there has been a fall. The incapacity to distinguish between good and evil is innocence. My "unknown historian" in Natural History and the censor in Nairobi are incapable of making important moral decisions, as are Bartleby and Starbuck in Melville. It's a theme that preoccupies me. The knowledge of evil sometimes paralyzes us, as in Starbuck's case, into inaction or self-destruction. This is basically the theme of my novella, The Scrapbooks of Dr. Gikuyu. Like Melville, I seem intent on making my points via unrealistic settings of islands and the tropics and through primitive peoples themselves. My stories, like Bartleby and the lesson of Starbuck in Moby Dick, are about people without will, about people who'd prefer to respond than act and sometimes not even respond. There are pitfalls, deep ones, for those who don't.
Melville was a pessimistic Transcendentalist, and that I can relate to. His novels are part collage and part mythomania. Writing, and novels, that approach life beyond its most basic and literal level--novels that entertain the psychological, moral issues, and allegory--are the ones that interest me most. I respond in piecemeal fashion, and sometimes end up referring to those novels in my work.
Interviewers: Hugh Fox described your "literary referencing" as a "theological conundrum." Some disagree and see it simply as name-dropping. Explain yourself.
Myers: Fox, I think, was describing a certain aspect of my work as a literature that pays homage to itself. On one level, that's true. "Name-dropping" is another level that was true, but is not now. In my early work, poetry in particular, I was dedicating a lot of my poems to dead poets, et cetera, a sin of the younger writer for sure.
Now, as far as the former goes: yes, I use actual living, or dead, personalities in my work just as Guy Davenport does. I don't consider it "name-dropping," because some of the personalities are not important in any large, egoistic scheme of things. I wrote a story about U.S. Grant because he's an interesting personality. I wrote a story, which had Andre Malraux as a character in it because it suited my purposes. Let me explain. We use things and symbols as metaphors already. It's only a step away to use people as metaphors, especially if the people used already mean something in the public eye. I needed a falsifier, a man of brilliance and culture, and Malraux was the first symbol to denote that type of man that came to mind. Now, comes a question: is a man part of the fictive mode, a myth, or was he actually somebody? I liked Malraux because he confused the issue: he wrote a false autobiography, calling it Antimemoires. I'd use that title if he hadn't already. Life, he knew, could be archetypic, completely metaphorical.
Interviewers: I believe "Mask" is your favorite metaphor, yet what I like best about your work is the sense of directness. Even at your most cryptic your narrators develop a real rapport with the reader. They pay attention. Yet there are mirrors behind mirrors and one rarely gets the sense of what the real George Myers, Jr. is thinking. Only once, in the published snippets of your African diary, have you ever revealed yourself. What about this?
Myers: My creative self is more interesting, I believe, than my regular journalistic self. The diaries you speak of--there are six months of them never transcribed--report the basic I-did-this and I-did-that occurrences, not wholly interesting. How interesting can it be to someone else that I did or did not get mail from my girlfriend on such and such a day? I don't expect anyone to truly be interested in my non-creative life; it's completely expectable. When I'm sent poems for Cumberland Journal that are just smarmy replays of someone's life I'm fortified that no one would be interested in any life, including my own, unless it's somehow heightened or intrinsically interesting. I couldn't just write a Henry Miller book with the nitty gritty revealed and expect someone to be interested. Africa, I felt, was intrinsically interesting and so I didn't mind going to the trouble of transcribing a few entries I made while living in Nairobi.
"Mask," you mentioned, is one of my favorite metaphors. True. So is the reflecting glass. "Mask," or the ability to conceal something, is implied in any artifice or fiction. Part of the life is real, part is not (in a story), and quite often an author gives no clues as to which is which. Then again, it's difficult for me to reveal much about my regular life too. I'm not chatty, if you know what I mean. What if I reveal something that I think is of great value and no one else treats it so? Thank goodness for artifice.
Interviewers: You've mentioned Melville, William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson as models.
Myers: Let me interrupt for a moment to clarify something. I like Melville for his brilliance and themes, not to mention method; I like Williams because he was a regular Joe Blow who had a regular kind of Joe Blow job and didn't fool around much with the personalities of his day, though there were a few. Despite his living in a Harrisburg-type lifestyle, he managed to create an important body of work. I use him as an example to myself when things get particularly depressing or if I feel alienated by living in the boondocks. Olson I like to read because I need someone to rail against.
Interviewers: Well, how do you relate to the whole Black Mountain/Objectivist/Language school nexus? Zukofsky, or Reznikoff or Oppen?
Myers: I don't relate to them at all. I appreciate and approve of their push for the American temperament over the European one; I like to read about their lives--Olson's, Creeley's, and the rest--but none of that bunch are role models of any kind. I'd rather read Zukofsky than Oppen, and I'd rather not read Reznikoff. The Language School seems like a country club--I think I'd have to give up too much to join.
Interviewers: How do you approach the structural elements in your work? How large--how explicit--a role do you feel this should play?
Myers: I do believe the old axiom about form being an extension of content. Because of that, I write little--only one to date--in the traditional prosaic mode with time and character elements organized. With writing time short, I tend to write short pieces that yearn for the larger statement; you know, prose poems. Natural History and Nairobi both were extended prose poems. Perhaps three stories in each collection could rest by themselves comfortably as traditional short stories. The Scrapbooks of Dr. Gikuyu is the only lengthy, traditional piece I've done.
Interviewers: What do you have in the works?
Myers: By the time this interview appears in your magazine, I should have completed another collage book. This one isn't in the short story mode or a novella. It's an expository essay, illustrated of course, on art and ways of seeing art. Looking at things has always been a favorite pastime for me and putting it together in a little volume-maybe just 40-50 pages-is something that I wanted to do every since Paycock published Natural History and the illustrations got so much attention. I'll have the thing camera-ready, if I can afford the typesetting, and offer it somewhere. Some of the pieces are quite large and I hope to have them framed and exhibited. To me it's exciting.
The prose poem, Envoi, is finished and I think I've found a press interested in that one. It's an obvious apostrophe to Melville and a creation fable that tells the story of, well, us. I found several hundred early reviews of Melville's work--a hundred-year-old collection of comment and catechism--and have used lines of them, randomly, to supply the text of Envoi. At will, I steered the Melvillean text to comment on creation (the act of creating, as though by a writer), God (Melville, or the envoi of the piece) and the loss of innocence (through reviews, or experience). Envoi is told in seven sections, beginning with "Monday" and ending with "Sunday," the day of rest. John Cage pulled a similar stunt when he "wrote through" Finnegans Wake. Again, my interest in collage and montage, the chief modes of modernism, shows through. Then there's the traditional novella, The Scrapbooks of Dr. Gikuyu. The publisher I had in mind for that one has fallen into difficult financial straits so now there's no one.
I foresee myself doing more artwork and criticism, less or no poetry, and about the same small output of fiction. My favorite type of writing, something that comes quickly and almost easily, is the type I do for your "Culture & Anarchy" column where I can flex my muscles a bit and not expect to lose readers along the way. You know, the Beyond Baroque manifesto would be one example. Something where I can inject a bit of my own personality.
Interviewers: Detractors have said your writing is self-indulgent, feeling several critical pieces were really about you. What do you say to them?
Myers: Detractors, I say, that's no detraction. Anyone who puts a pen to paper indulges. A column is different from a review because one of the column's purposes is to expose the personality of he or she who writes it. A column is not like a piece of fiction. People look for certain columns because of the columnists, I've come to learn. Sure, I let personal references slip in columns. The bit on romance I did (for Gargoyle) was peripherally about me. I've mingled talk about books and camping out together in a Patriot-News column. Mike Royko fills his Tribune column with Roykoisms. Harry Stein and Anatole Broyard, two of my favorite columnists and writers, always let us know it's their own particular view that's being platformed--not some pre-ordained view or the view.
Stein had a perfect and expectable column in Esquire magazine. He'd begin a piece writing about his marriage or abortion or somebody who was about to shoot himself, make a smooth transition into greater ethical questions that readers could relate to universally, and then come full circle to his introductory dilemma which now, somehow, seemed solvable. Sorry to hear he's leaving Esquire.
Interviewers: Many of your asides remind me of Twain, or F. Scott Fitzgerald . . .
Myers: I've only read the bare minimum of them, and that was back in college. They don't figure into my work in any way that I'm certainly aware of.
Interviewers: You self-published your first book when you were still in college. What was the motivation? Have you always been so precocious?
Myers: My friend and I each had a chunk of poetry and prose we thought was worth, even for the memory alone, publishing before splitting up and getting into the real world. Thanks in great part to my uncle, who sent a check to help out, we put together the thing. Half upside-down, each of us had a front cover. It was fortuitous. The editor of Fireweed, who printed my first book of poetry, saw the book, excerpted some poems for six consecutive issues of his magazine and introduced me to the literary magazine world.
Your second question is tough, you bums. No I was a stumblebum dummy until I went away to school in 8th grade. Good old Perkiomen School. I wasn't precocious but I felt I could get away with being interested in several things from that point on.
Interviewers: Any favorites in the performance poetry/art field?
Myers: No, none.
Interviewers: What about musical collaboration?
Interviewers: Your work is hard to classify as either poetry or fiction. How do you determine the style of what you're writing? How do you classify your work?
Myers: Style is an interesting subject but one perilous to be aligned with. To a great extent, style and "personality" are both superficial. Their basic role is to give a certain type of writing immediate appeal, to confirm what we already expect of a writer's fiction or a painter's art. Personality and style don't in any way deal with meaning and value, which is one reason I try not to become associated with a School or style. I guess you could classify my work through its opacity, stylessness (when I can achieve it) and inwardness. Experimental writers, I might add, don't want to reproduce the basic show piece. Neither do they want a pretense of meaning when there's none, masking an emptiness with style. Hey, there must be some things in life that don't mean anything.
Interviewers: Care to say anything else?
Myers: No, thank you.