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Comix and Poetry
Interview with Vidhu Aggarwal at Digital Journal about micro-comic "Lady Humpadori"
Interview with Vidhu Aggarwal at Digital Journal about micro-comic "Lady Humpadori"
|Cover of "Lady Humpadori" by Bishakh Som, cover artist for SPECS 2 "Faux Histories"|
The Body's Physics
by Janée Baugher
Tebot Bach, 2013.
“…our eyes from the gallery, burrowing into her
waiting to see what she has to give.”
What is immediately effective about Janée Baugher’s new book of poems, The Body’s Physics, published by Tebot Bach, is how she creates a theatrical distance in perspective between her readers and the various paintings and other artistic works embodied in her poems. She has, in essence, created a literary proscenium arch through which we may both read well-crafted pieces of poetry, and experience a grand collection of artwork through her eyes and with her voice leading us on intimate tour through her ideal museum. Her works are, at the surface, primarily ekphrastic – meaning that they are poems and collections of poems written to embody other pieces of already existing art, and to say something new and fresh, from the poet’s perspective, about their merit and importance as work contributing to the human colloquium. “At the top of the canvas, a new-blue sky, / stratus clouds aligned one next to another. / Jutting into sky’s day, a tree’s stoic silhouette.” This stanza, from “The Empire of Light,” is one of many where Baugher effectively blurs the texture between the medium of the art she’s observing with that of the natural world. As a contributing artist, she has taken her language far beyond mere commentary and added her aesthetic colors to the spectrum to form new works of art in her own medium.
“You are the body
that makes shadow possible.
is light’s filter on shadow.”
Baugher’s vision in this collection is not simply aimed at superficial conversation about selected paintings and the artists who made them, but rather towards exemplifying the experience of creativity in all its forms. She’s striving to tell us how art, light, the tangibility of a physical medium, and the combination of the body, heart and spirit are all connected and come together to form the extraordinary material of human existence. The motion of this combination is embodied well in this stanza from the first poem “The First Spark of Day,” “You wake to red rotation / to the orange urgency of motion / to the emptiness of white. / And you quake black if you must.” Art is the sum of the human condition. Baugher has raised her artistic selections to a higher level of language to better understand their nuances and social commentaries; there she has expanded upon them. Light and darkness, colors and greys, temperatures, emotions, all lend themselves in myriad examples of human experiences as metaphors to bring her scenes, pastiches and vignettes to life, and there she has made a place for herself among writers who have something to say about art.
“The painter’s arrested her here,
alone in her room where no one paws at her laces.”
An Interview with Elaine Neil Orr
by Philip F. Deaver
An Interview with Elaine Neil Orr, author of A Different Sun, about which the wonderful Lee Smith writes, “As lyrical and passionate a novel as ever has been written . . . A memorable and altogether original story.” A Different Sun is scheduled for release in April, 2013. (Check out Orr's story, "A Hausa Trader," in SPECS 3 archives: http://scholarship.rollins.edu/specs/vol3/iss1/13/)
March 28, 2013
Philip: First I want to say I agree with Lee Smith’s sweeping comment about your new book. It raised my heartbeat and took me away. Your story is centered on an old diary your mother gave you. Could you tell us about that? I’m very interested in how you fleshed that material out to make this remarkable book.
Elaine: When I was working on my memoir in the late 1990s, my mother gave me her mimeographed copy of Lurana Bowen’s diary. She, Lurana, had, at 21, married a former Texas cavalryman-turned-missionary and traveled with him to West Africa. The story of missionary life wasn’t new to me. What tantalized me about the diary was the silences and the disasters only glancingly recorded. “Feelings deeply wounded. Have been sad all day.” “Very much unwell.” “A neighborly present received and sent back.”
What had happened? Who was unwell? What was the illness, the gift, the wound?
At first I imagined a book part-biography, part-fiction, part-memoir (my own musings on my fascination with this woman). But as I began this book, I was also experimenting for the first time with short stories. I was feeling the lure of fiction. Ultimately, there was more I could imagine than I could fit into the frame of a book that was anything less than a novel. I knew much out of my own mother’s life. I knew, for example, that white American missionary women spent most of their days in the company of African men who were their cooks and assistants and laundrymen. What was that relationship? Especially for a pre-antebellum woman from Georgia whose father had owned forty slaves? What happened in her psyche when these men of Africa looked her in the eye?
Philip: One of the many vivid scenes in A Different Sun occurs in the early pages, before Africa. It dramatizes the shock young Emma experienced as she grows to understand what slavery is and how it works. I believe this revelation (which provides Emma the enormous motivation that had to be there to cause her to leave Georgia and sail, in the 1880’s, to West Africa) is at the heart of the book and part of what makes it relevant and beautiful in our times. Was this hinted at in the diary or did you discover it intuitively as you wrote?
Elaine: Emma’s early epiphany about slavery is central to the novel. One of the primary tasks a novelist faces is the question of motivation. What spurs a character’s action? I am enough of a Freudian to believe that early experiences are pivotal to who we become.
The diary did not hint at the motivation the novel conjures. The only existing photograph of Lurana Bowen with her husband, Thomas, taken just after they married and before they sailed for Africa, does. His chiseled, handsome features gaze at us with arresting intensity; beside him, Lurana’s face is rather plain. I knew instantly that he had come to town and swept her off her feet. She may have been the only woman in Georgia who would risk her life for him. But the piety of the diary convinced me she was not a frivolous woman. What was the deeper reason for her decision?
When I visited her home town of Greensboro, Georgia, I found my answer. Beautiful old homes built by Lurana’s extended family still stand. Their wealth was significant, built up through land ownership and forced labor. The primary crop was cotton. Lurana was an intelligent, young woman deeply impressed by the gospel. When she brought these two visions together: slavery at her doorstep; the witness of Jesus: into what role was her father cast?
I created a single incident to represent this awakening. That’s how fiction works. In ordinary life, we muddle through years to learn a lesson incrementally. In a novel, it has to be quick: a sudden realization and a heart ferocious enough to carry through.
Philip: It will take a long time for me to forget Uncle Eli volunteering himself to be whipped in place of Mittie Ann. Emma’s father accepts this substitution. Uncle Eli, a really good man and a slave long trusted by Emma’s father, got whipped, and more. This was outrageous to Emma. It is this event, early in the novel, that lets readers know we are in good hands. Did you research the kinds of treatment that slaves of that time endured from their masters in similar situations? It seemed Emma’s father had the opportunity to be both just and merciful, but he was afraid that to show such “weakness” would cause him to lose discipline and respect among his slaves. Through all of this, Emmas is watching. Quite moving.
Elaine: I am grateful for your response to this early scene in the novel. I have taught American literature for years--to college students--and a central text is Frederick Douglass's slave narrative. It, and other narratives in this genre, offered a foundation for what I needed to write. And then there are important novels that also instructed me: Toni Morrison's Beloved and Edward P. Jones's The Known World.
A form of punishment was to cut the Achilles heel of an enslaved person. I was trying to get at a horror almost impossible to speak. The cruelty that was American slavery should make us mute. But it is the novelist's job--if she takes up the subject--to render it as truthfully as possible. Whether the particular rendering I provide is "accurate" isn't the point, any more than it is significant to know whether children really put out their parents' eyes, as Shakespeare imagines in King Lear. What action will make the reader feel? That's what counts and must count in fiction.
Philip: Well, throughout the novel you make the reader feel, but the Uncle Eli debacle in the beginning launches the book and, we know, launches Emma into West Africa when she’s finally of age. A Different Sun is 370 in book pages. May I ask how long it took you to write and what the journey was like?
Elaine: Once I realized I was writing a novel, I began to write scenes. I wrote a scene of crossing an African river on calabashes. This moment is briefly captured in the diary. Then I began to write scenes in Georgia. I didn’t yet know how I would structure the novel. It was summer and I had some months and I was just writing. At the end of the summer, I probably had fifty-five pages. In the years that I wrote this novel, I did my sustained work in the summers. But I was also researching all the time, reading, writing out little scenes. The book was alive in me most of the time.
I knew early on that I wanted three points of view: the point of view of Luraua who became Emma; her husband, who became Henry; and a “native” assistant. He became Jacob. I was lucky to figure out point of view early. It saved me a lot of rewriting.
Still, I was just learning fiction. I hadn’t even written a short story when I began. My chapters were “material” more than they were “scenes.” I didn’t yet know how to bring a character into a room, begin a conversation, weave internal thought with external action. Some aspects of fiction I was already good at: setting scene, evoking mood, creating atmosphere. But fiction is drama on the page, even when the drama is internal.
Naively (but as it turns out, blessedly) I read for groups of writers at artist colonies. Gently I was steered toward what I needed to do to bring the book to life.
Somewhere along the line I stopped reading for research and I stopped traveling—to locations in Georgia and North Carolina and Nigeria—and I began to read the best novelists madly. I studied scenes to learn how to do all those things no one had taught me. I surrounded myself with these gurus.
In the summers I would come back to the long draft. First 55 pages, then 225 pages, then 375 pages. At one point, I’m sure the novel was over 500 pages. Each summer I retyped the manuscript. I cut, I added; I added, I cut. The shape evolved.
I always knew the mystery that was at the core of the novel. That never changed. It has to do with Emma’s calling—why she travels. I wanted every part of the novel to be capable of two readings: a reading from a Western point of view and a reading from an African point of view. I hope I achieved that.
Philip: So that would be about three years in the works, four? It is astonishing that this is your first fiction, but it seems to me that if a first book is to be excellent, how you went about writing it is almost exactly the necessary path. One of the things I noticed about Emma, and I wonder if this is true about you as well, is that she was alone so much. In many ways, Emma was alone even when she wasn’t—perhaps this was a function of point of view. Were you aware as you wrote how fine a character you were writing in Emma Bowman?
Elaine: Actually the writing, from first early sketches--all of which had to be burned (they were worse than bad)--to the last draft delivered to the press, took six years, five summers. Well, it was a sometimes circuitous path, the writing, but then African paths are circuitous: one must walk around the old walls of towns, around the baboab, around the ant hill, around the hill itself--these things are not moved--or they were not when I was growing up--to put in an inter-state highway.
In creating Emma, I was first working between Lurana Bowen and my own mother: pious women called by God. I have never been pious and I have not been called by God in the same way. I had to stretch myself a good deal. This was very good for me as a writer.
But there were ways in which my life and Emma's and my mother's converged. While Emma grew up in Georgia in the 1840s and my mother in South Carolina in the 1930s and I in Nigeria in the 1950s and 60s, we all had black men and sometimes women working in the yard and around the house.
I can't say that I knew how fine a character Emma would become. I was guided by a remark that a friend attributed to Henry James though I have never found it: "We love our characters not because we understand them; we understand them because we love them." I do love Emma. I can't imagine writing a novel in which I did not love the characters, though I understand that there is another school of thought entirely: the school that says we must not love them.
Emma's solitude is a fact. My mother felt hugely alone in her first West African years. Emma would have been more alone: her husband ill, or off exploring; she not yet knowing the Yoruba language; her entire known world elsewhere. But she is already an internal person living in Georgia, unlike her pretty, socialite sister, Catherine. I might say there are two “stages” in this novel: the internal stage of Emma’s heart and the external “stage” of Georgia and then West Africa. My mother says that I was always happier alone. This may be true, but even in my aloneness growing up, I had the security of a home, parents. Emma has lost all of that and she is only twenty-one years old.
Philip: One way Emma copes with her aloneness is by keeping a diary, just as the historical woman who inspires the novel did.
Elaine: Yes. It wasn't simply the diary that intrigued me but the idea of this woman carrying her writing box on her trans-Atlantic voyage, keeping that diary all along: a bound red-leather diary. Since I bore a child in the second year of my Ph.D. coursework, I have been interested in women writing (as well as women's writing), the process and the production. How do women get writing done? That question has been central to me.
Most of the novel takes place in Yorubaland, in what is current-day Nigeria. How did Emma find the time and energy to keep a record: during the fevers, after the day's journey, in the midst of her own culture shock, in the dark of night or the demanding hours of a day in which she was trying to maintain a household, care for her often ailing husband, deal with her own pregnancies, make headway in her ministry?
The diary becomes a companion. It is her secret drawer, an almost divine vessel. As the reader learns, it is a vessel for other things as well, some items she has brought from Georgia to this new land. Returning over and again to her writing box and the diary, she is at a deeper level discerning another mission that dwells below the surface, in her sub-conscious, some labor of love that she only dimly intuits.
So these currents run through her writing: her records of the day, anguishing moments that record her deepest losses and profoundest hurts, humiliations and loves. A young boy who becomes her companion is often close to her in her writing. He becomes her pupil and rightly discerns that her writing is actually her oracle.
There is also a strong sexual dimension to the writing box and to Emma's writing. She is most naked there, most capable of seducing herself. It is not difficult to fall in love with Africa and Emma does.
Philip: It is a beautiful and amazing book, and I’m so glad to have had the chance to hear you reveal your inspirations for writing it and to experience the depth of feeling you have for these characters and this story. It seems to me now, hearing you talk about it, that the story itself, how you found it by writing, with elements and factors that connected to your own life and your mother’s, was the dynamo that created the energy in you to write it over and over until it was right. I am trying to picture you typing the chapters from scratch, perhaps with the most recent version in hard copy for reference, but not short-cutting the process by accessing the copy on the hard drive. Is that how you did it?
Elaine: One summer, I remember cutting and pasting short sections into a new manuscript but then retyping them and then deleting the old copy. It wasn’t very effective. For the most part, it was just as you say, sometimes even using the very old fashioned method of cutting pages with scissors, finding paragraphs I wanted and then retyping. And always, I was also typing out of journals, scenes I had composed. Sometimes the journal was of the small hand-held sort I could carry to the grocery in my purse and the composing had happened while I sat in the parking lot. Sometimes the journal was a large black hardback I had carried to a writing residency where I wrote sitting outside. So I was retyping from hard copy, typing new scenes out of hand-written copy. This was my method up until the very end, until the copy-edits. And even then I was writing in little changes I had imagined in transit or written in the night after waking. I have a determined will. Once I set my mind to this novel, there was no turning back.
Philip: Before we end, could you take a few moments to discuss your previous book, the memoir?
Elaine: The memoir was a book I had wanted to write for a long time. I have always been a stranger but not always a stranger in a strange land. As you remark at the beginning of this interview, I was born a daughter of missionaries in colonial Nigeria. I was an oyinbo, a white person on a black continent. But the land was not strange; I felt completely at home. I was home. Coming to the U.S. at age sixteen and passing as a white girl in her own country—that was strange. I was in culture shock for three years without really knowing it, until I became so depressed that I dropped out of college.
In writing Gods of Noonday, I retrieved my home and my country and simultaneously made sense of my American life. I was pressed into writing it because I was facing end stage renal disease. The experience of dialysis and waiting for transplants forms the backbone of the book. I begin with a routine visit to Duke Medical Center to meet with my nephrologist. But a brush up against something that reminds me of Nigeria sends me plunging back through the years to a Nigerian road and the pages open up to my childhood. Throughout the book, we surface briefly to be reminded that the writer of the narrative is a woman facing a potentially mortal disease. These chapters are brief and usually painful. And then the writing dives back into my Nigerian past, large swaths of writing in which we are in that place and time, in the real world of mangos and tropical rivers and Nigerian towns.
When you are struck with end stage renal disease, your body is filled with toxins. Dialysis is the artificial process by which those toxins are removed. Writing Gods of Noonday was a spiritual cleansing, a coming clean about who I really am. But it was also the space in which I made a life-changing pivot , from scholarly writing to creative writing. Africa is where I want to be in my mind. In everything I write now, I have at least one foot in West Africa.
Join us at the AWP Bookfair, Boston, March 6-9
Jaylee Alde, Molly Bendall, James Brubaker, Joel Chace,
Cathy Colborn, Anderson Cook, Anna Elena Eyre, Michael Filas, Scott Fynboe,
Jitender Gill, Jesse Glass, Marvin I. Guymon,
Sandy Olson-Hill, Michelle Matthees, Ivan de Monbrison, Claudia M. Reder,
Matt Reeck, Sarah Rosenthal, F. Daniel Rzicznek, Marissa Schwalm, Glenn Shaheen,
Jody J. Sperling, Angie Spoto, Jade Sylvan, Eliza Tudor, Josh Waldrip, Changming Yuan
by Daniel Fanelli
We at SPECS had the opportunity to interview poet Scott Fynboe, one of the many authors featured in our latest issue "Outsourcing." This interview was conducted in November 2012.
What was it about the Binghamton Massacre that caught your eye? Was it a matter of proximity to you living in New York at the time when it happened?
Proximity had something to do with it, yes. At the time, I was living in south Mississippi, and it was surreal to see images of my hometown on cable TV. Actually, it wasn’t just the city that got to me. It was the specific street. Front St. is one of those parts of the city I had walked many times in the past, and I knew each building, each store (both past and present). For example: A block away from the shooting was a solid independent record store next to an Irish bar I once took a girl to on our second date. I could visualize everything in a three block radius – along with the people I knew who worked and lived nearby.
So the poems were born out of trying to process each angle of the event, particularly a disembodied feeling which I described to a friend at the time as “I'm from there, but I'm not there.”
But there was also some bitterness in me. Not solely for what the shooter had done, but a sort of “great, so this is what we'll be known for.” In the past, Binghamton had been known for positive things. Then it faded from the pop consciousness – only to return to prominence because of a mass murder at an immigration center.
You juxtapose the loss of big corporate companies that gave the townies jobs and slowly killed off the life of this town, but did the massacre happen as a result of this?
I can only speculate on the role of economics in the massacre. As I recall, the primary motive was rooted in mental illness (the shooter, Jiverly Wong, was paranoid about police prosecution). However, Wong had lost his manufacturing job when the plant he worked at closed a few months prior.
After the major industries left in the 1990s, a depression settled over the town, and it hasn’t lifted. Each time I go back, I see it in my parent's generation and my friends who never left – a feeling of each day simply coming and going, with nothing to indicate change in any direction.
And I’m not alone in this observation. In 2011, a Gallup poll ranked Binghamton as one of “the most depressed cities in America” and that it tops the list for “least optimistic residents.”
Therefore I don’t think the loss of “big business” can be fully discounted. But, at the same time, I don’t feel like I’m qualified to do much more than muse on its influence.
You emphasize that information on the massacre could not be told properly except through talking to the locals. Do you feel though, that your poetry conveys a stronger sense of what happened in the massacre than the news publications which covered the massacre?
The nature of journalism is “move in, move out, move on.” (Move in when the news breaks, move out when it is over, move on to the next story.) The nature of Binghamton’s residents though, as I see it, is “move in, stay.” Or, sometimes, “move in, move out, move back.”
This goes back to something I said earlier, about being bitter when I started writing poems about the massacre. There was a fear in me that the “four Ws” of journalism would be all that “outsiders” would read about Binghamton in a newspaper. But there was, and is, more going on in that city. I did not see myself, though, as championing a cause – starting some kind of a “save this city” movement – so much as simply wanting to tell my readers more about the area than what a news story could cover.
Do you feel that your poems are a statement of the times in America and the Global Recession or a statement focusing solely on what happened to this town?
I’ve never really thought of myself as making a broad statement about global, political, or economic issues, be it in these particular poems or any others I write. I’m more interested in the smaller, internalized things – namely memory, pop culture, and personal history. But I think it’s cool that people can identify with these poems and the story I’m telling.
As I see it, these poems are about this incident. And this town as a whole. I’m proud of my roots. The first poem I wrote about the massacre opens with a quote from Rod Serling. In it, Rod states that Binghamton is his hometown, and no one can take that away from him. And I deeply feel that about my past – I was born and raised in Broome County. My mindset, my world view, and my personality were all formed there (altered as they may be now), and to deny my past is to deny everything I am. Yes, I may rip on the town in my poems, say some nasty things. I may speak of it with a sarcastic snarl in a conversation. But in between the lines of the poems is someone so in love with the place – the glory of its past and the good things still there – that he is unable to let go of even one shuttered store window.
Your poetry features some radical enjambments in both "Death Comes to Town" and "What Binghamton Puts on their Postcards," while "April 3, 8pm CT" appears to follow regular speech patterns. Could you talk about this?
I admit that a lot of my line breaks and enjambments are unusual, because they often come from a combination of gut intuition and my own speech patterns. I want my poems to be read aloud as well as be seen on a printed page. So when I’m drafting a piece, I tend to “talk my way through it,” meaning I’m reading it aloud over and over, trying to mimic or translate my vocal patterns into text.
For example, take these lines from “What Binghamton Puts…”
clutch on cigarette, smoke on his coat / like clouds on a September night
When I read that aloud, the second line “reads” as if I’m trying to figure out a way to describe it if I was conversing in, say, a diner. “You know, it looked sort of [pause] like clouds on a September night.”
I do have one hard and fast rule, though: Beware of the last word. The last word in a line carries weight in that the reader’s eye is naturally drawn to it, sometimes to the exclusion of the preceding ones. I’m conscious, then, of the word, often asking myself what it should be. Sometimes that choice goes against my natural speech pattern but is done for emphasis, such as using “Lockheed” and “Industry” in “Death Comes to Town.” In those cases, yes, the line break does heighten the drama.
Does the downward movement of the states in your poem "Death Comes to Town," (Virginia Carolina Georgia) mimic your move to South Florida?
The progression wasn’t so much a representation of my personal journey as a way to help the reader visualize the migration of business and the ones who traveled down the East Coast to relocate. Virginia is where I believe IBM relocated. But soon after, I remember hearing about people moving even farther south, down into the Carolinas. Almost as though Binghamtonians were spreading down the coast like kudzu. I stopped at Georgia because I couldn’t recall anyone – aside from me – moving to Florida.
Other than as retirees. And maybe as tourists.
by Frankie Mastrangelo
JG with Meikai International Puppet Theater Puppet Buddies
FM: In a 2006 review of your book, The Passion of Phineas Gage and Selected Poems, poet and professor David Axelrod said: "As is often true, America exports its culture far and wide. With Jesse Glass, we have sent a fine poet abroad-to live in Chiba, Japan… where he teaches Literature and History at Meikai (Bright Sea) University. There he goes on creating some of America’s finest experimental poetry." As the theme of this year’s journal is "outsourcing," a concept that often involves the exportation of cultural products, how would you define you and your work’s relationship to this word?
JG: David Axelrod seems to put his finger on the whole issue of “outsourcing” when it comes to people who have left their country of origin and have taken up residence elsewhere in the world. But, all hyperbole aside, have I really been out-sourced and have I become more or less an unofficial cultural ambassador for America, as David Axelrod seems to suggest? Furthermore, do all outsourced people become unofficial ambassadors? And who is that “We” he mentions? Yes, I’ve been “sourced-out” in the sense of being the stranger at the feast for as long as I can remember, and “sourced-in”: a something generally not available to those around me in my country of origin and therefore cut off from what I was somehow “supposed” to be. Yes, even when I lived in America in the Red, White and Blue sense, I’d have to say that I have always been outsourced, but self-sufficiently so, like a motor that runs on tap-water and star-light.
Perhaps it also has something to do with “speaking to the higher self, or one’s Enochian “Angel” which occultists imagine they do at the end of a long, drug-tinged ceremony, or even the emptying out of glossolalia, or even the more extreme xenolalia: speaking in tongues unknown to one: like a medium or an evangelical Xtian. Embracing the metaphor and becoming one of its poles is a problematic business, for metaphor always indicates absence, or a pointing away from text, self, world—in short a real sourcing-out-- akin to sex and definitely akin to death. In fact, attempting to live metaphorically can be downright dangerous business. “Je est un autre” went pretty far in destroying Rimbaud, and variations on the same vatic schoolboy utterance in the cases of Baudelaire, Lautreamont,, Alfred Jarry, Hart Crane, Hijikata Tatsumi, Isidora Duncan, Artaud, the Marquis De Sade, William Blake, Simon Magus, Jackson Pollack, Chatterton, Kleist, Holderlin,, Sitting Bull, Simon Bar Kockhba, Michael Jackson, Charlie Parker, Christ, and others, show us—the children of the moment--the staggering extent and tragedy of this inner out-sourcing, or outer in-sourcing.
FM: After living in a Japan for over twenty years, what does the concept of “home” mean to you?
JG: Home, I suppose, is where my family resides and where my Internet connection is. That’s my concept of home. In that sense, I feel that I’m at the forefront of a rising community of dispossessed people migrating across the world, but perhaps truly at home almost everywhere. Fortunately my situation did not involve fleeing from despots, or seeking the bare necessities of existence as is increasingly true given the current economic, political, and now—environmental—troubles man and woman kind must face. In my home, I have a Currier & Ives print of a Mississippi steamboat above my easy chair, which is located right next to the glass doors of the balcony. From this vantage point, I can watch the trains arriving and leaving from the station until they cease at about one a.m. and resume at 5 a.m. I spend a great deal of time writing and reading in this chair and often I fall asleep in it. Sometimes, in the early morning hours, when a typhoon is lashing the balcony and I feel the fists of wind dissolved to mere compressions of air flowing in around the seals of the door, I imagine that this place is the first steamboat ever to breast the Mississippi River and that the typhoon is actually the great New Madrid earthquake of 1811 dragging the land under and refashioning the face of the world.
FM: I am thinking of how your work blurs genre lines and offer deconstructed takes on traditional artistic modes. When it comes to creative expression, what do you feel constitutes a boundary and why do we think we care about crossing them?
Yes, I admit that I’m a termite endlessly biting away at boundaries so that the liminal eventually becomes fore-grounded in the immediate. I was first inspired to write poems that are novels, plays, and movies by the 1855 version of Leaves of Grass. Just as a case was made by critics in the 1970’s for Pound’s, Olson’s and Williams’ use of the typewriter to impose structure and closure on their poetry, so the word-processor has helped me—and perhaps younger generations of poets—to exploit another way of structuring the poetic line and to achieve closure; one, paradoxically closer to an inclusive, Whitmanic, form. To continue with the out-sourcing theme: the middle-ground that I inhabit electronically most of the time, is also reflected in the intertextual ambiguities of my latest writing.
One gentleman said that I was “in exile” here, but that’s really too dramatic. What being out-sourced has done for me is to send me back into an intensely remembered previous existence—and when you go a day or a week at a time without encountering anyone who speaks your language or knows or cares who you are—the past looms up with a vengeance. What I’ve discovered in this Bardo of memory is a landscape peopled with fathers—fathers that I’ve found it necessary to kill over and over. (These fathers refuse to remain dead.) For my generation it was the Beats—which I like almost everyone else was influenced by, but which now I think is a pernicious blockage in the American literary psyche with eruptions of Kerouac’s “latest” discovered manuscript like some Clearasil-resistant acne, and whole bookshelves groaning with collected editions of the works of Allen Ginsberg and special tomes and study guides telling of the significance to world literature of City Lights, William Burroughs and all that jazz—I mean here’s the Buddha, as they say—just asking to be butchered. However, the Beats won’t die off but have become an American brand like Listerine Mouthwash, Coke and McDonald’s. The old creaky living Beats have become zombies continually crashing the party and seducing the boys and girls who don’t know any better while the Crypt-Keepers of the Beats continue to fatten at the troughs of rancid blood.
In the 1990’s I had a chance to have dinner with the wonderful Helen McGehee, who was for years the lead dancer for Martha Graham, a teacher at Julliard, a choreographer, a friend of Merce Cunningham, whom she had met as a fellow Martha Graham dancer, and widow of the artist and writer Umanna. Helen said something that stuck with me—so many dancers—she said--were patterning their range of movements with the screen in mind. This mind-set, she felt, has been terribly restrictive on new dance, and has proved a deadening effect on the non-reproducable elements of individual dances--which are so very much more than an image on a screen.
This, along with thinking about Benjamin’s idea of the “aura” coupled with an encounter with the marionettes of the Chinese National Puppet Theatre at Quanzhou, Fujian Province, during a stint as a visiting professor in 1993. The puppets were beautifully made, the puppeteers deft, and I had a chance to work with both. They had an orchestra, and I recall “playing” the Urhu, the Chinese one-string fiddle, to the infinite amusement of the children in the audience. The marionette play they featured was The Monkey King and it was a cymbal-crashing, acrobatic delight.
It was then that I began to understand the importance of not reducing art—or out-sourcing it, as it were—to a screen, or to think of it in terms of a screen-based activity, as per my earlier comments about poetry. You know, I like to think of Phineas Gage as the ultimate out-sourcing man: he sent a sizzling part of his brain 100 feet up into the afternoon sky on the tip of a three foot, iron rod way back in 1848, and LIVED! How can you really box that experience?
FM: The refusal to reduce art to a screen is seen in your own puppeteering work. Tell us more about your work with the Meikai International Puppet Theater.
The M.I.P.T. was conceived as both a learning and promotional device for the English department specifically and for Meikai University in general. The idea was to create a vehicle whereby Western culture could be taught using an age-old method: hands-on participation in performing its literature. The Western puppet theater, like its Asian counterpart, has a long history stretching back to the Greeks. Over the centuries, the old stories and archetypal themes were brought to life and passed on to younger generations with puppets. Puppeteers literally bring their own culture’s stories to life, as both actors and technicians using a set of learned and practiced skills. That is, becoming involved in a puppet production activates the intellectual, the creative and the physiological skills of the participant. In contrast to videos, television, Internet and even the theater, students who participate in puppet productions are breaking through the “third wall” in order truly to become active learners. In addition to its being a learned art, puppetry breaks down both linguistic and social barriers, and is just plain fun.
We “do” an outsourced version of Faust. This story has two famous forms: one by Goethe in which Faust ultimately ascends to heaven with the aid of his girl-friend and one by Marlowe in which the universal scholar who sells his soul to the Devil King for knowledge pays the ultimate price. The latter version is the one I chose because it’s much more clear-cut, and therefore has more potential for fun, and consequently the seventh and first floors of my university have been filled with marching devils and the giggles of students. Of course, this has raised concerns among our “born again” missionary-minded contingent (yes, they’re still here, acting as though the Xtian martyrdoms of 17th century Japan were still happening), three of whom secretly called the whole project “evil” without realizing what they were saying. The Faust legend has been central to Western culture’s quest for scientific knowledge, acting both as an incentive and a warning to the over-achievers who attempt to know “too much.” Interestingly enough, Faust was a yearly tradition at the Copenhagen Institute for Physics performed by the very people who developed the atomic bomb, and it has become a hoary truism to say that J. Robert Oppenheimer is the Faust figure of the 20th century. Another idea (among out-sourced hundreds) that we explore with the puppets in this land of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The script’s been translated into Osaka dialect, a pungent form of Japanese used by popular comedians here to bring down the house. The title is “Faust and the Golden Keitaei” (Japanese for cell phone) My script is filled with rhyming couplets, references to popular candy bars and satires on the pandemic of cell-phones. In fact, Faust is pulled screaming to hell after answering—for one last time—the “Golden” cell phone he trades his soul for.
FM: Do you plan to return to the U.S., or have you been exported for good?
JG: As I see it the penultimate out-sourcing is the broadcasting of the artifact of Self in the vehicles of literature and art. I've been engaged in that auto-out-sourcing (my small attempt at reversing the second law of thermodynamics) since my teens when I was forced to dance to the linear death-throb of factory work and stumbled one blessed 15-minute break-time across the words of Leonardo Da Vinci (paraphrasing here): make your business one that involves the eternal rather than the temporal. When I found William Blake saying pretty much the same thing, I knew I was on to something.
Will I ever return to the land that gave me birth? Probably not, but I have the final out-sourcing already planned. Maya and my family have agreed that after my cremation they will send some of my ashes via post to parts of the world I've never visited: the North Pole (or what might remain of it), South Pole, South Africa, Russia, etc. They will not include a return address on the envelopes. Maybe my cremains will end up in the dead-letter office, but that will be entirely appropriate.