(TREMOLO: Issue #7: July 2012)
An interview with Renee Gladman by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
JOSHUA MARIE WILKINSON: I'm curious about how the pieces in Newcomer Can't Swim have come together. How long have you been working on this project? Did you imagine the overall shape of the book from the start or how did that come to be?
RENEE GLADMAN: The oldest piece in the book was written in late December 2001. That was "Street and Cello." If I thought anything about what I was doing, it was that I would go on writing this series of short episodes until I had amassed a hundred pages, which is my usual (though mostly erroneous) presumption when I begin something. I was between cities at the time, but "staying" in the Bay Area. I remember having a great desire for place, to be somewhere among buildings. After a brief stint in my hometown of Atlanta, I moved to New York in July 2002. Suddenly, I was immersed in city, in one so used to its crowds, its speed, its grime, its verticality, that a newcomer like me could almost see it in abstract. I could throw my thinking against it, use it as an open-ended question of structure, as a problem of integration. I kept writing narratives—each one stylistically distinct from the other, though connected in that they were all about navigating some kind of terrain—until late summer 2004 when I wrote "Untitled, Woman on Ground." Here I knew I'd reach the end of this particular line of thinking, with this self lying there on the ground, having giving up on (or in to) city living, perhaps willing to die. The narratives span about four years of writing, but most of the pieces were finished by 2003. There is the story of the writing of Newcomer and then there is the long story of its journey to publication. I think of it as my "bridge book," what follows looks a lot more like fiction.
JMW: It's striking how different the pieces in Newcomer are each to another; is this a concerted effort to push away from what you've done before?
RG: With this book, I would say it was less a desire to explore various styles than it was the fact that I was changing so much—my thinking, my way of inhabiting space—that made the pieces so different from each other. I think they all share the same question: how do I make a space for myself here? And most of them appear to conclude similarly: the way is uncertain and difficult. But the bodies or shapes each narrative took came out of the first moments of writing, where I was, in whose house I was living, with what question of structure was I engaged that day. Each situation producing a different interaction with the white of the page. Because I felt the pieces were so thematically connected (that they needed each other, were in conversation), I wanted readers to accept the variousness of their shapes. I let that word "installations" slip in to provide a way to say you are entering a space that is each narrative, a space that is wholly its own. You take it in, you move on to the next one. And lastly, the question of how narrative sits on the page is a serious one for me. I think there are many ways to place it, that it's not just creating a beautiful wide white space around a text block (though that is probably my favorite), that it was also about how much language one actually needs to tell a story, trying to get at what a story is.
JMW: What's your sense of the contemporary terrain of literary prose? How do you feel about being called one of the rising stars of innovative fiction?
RG: This first question, the one of terrain, is a difficult one to answer. You would think that as a publisher of experimental prose I would be able to draw a map instantly. But partly, it's because of the difficulty in seeing the terrain that I started the press. In my experience, poets understand a lot better than fiction writers how important community is. If you look at most of the reading series or small presses around the country most of them are geared toward poetry. In fiction, there is more of a tradition of individuality—each person trying to get her big contract—such that, even for non-commercial writers of fiction, gathering does not appear to be an instinct. There are exceptions, of course. But overall, it feels to me that some kind of glue is missing. Something that will allow one conversation around prose and narrative to connect to another, to become a bridge, a place of convergence. Right now, many exciting things happen in this pocket or that pocket, but in an effervescent manner. They bubble, they disappear. But I think this is partly due to the "form" itself. I see prose as a kind of body of text that unfolds, or accumulates, through continuous seepage—it into other things and other things into itself. I find that these texts differ so much from one author to another that the genre connecting them remains a bit of a mystery, which, in some ways, benefits the writing, keeps it from growing stale. But, in other ways, doesn’t provide enough of a center to bring people together. There are prose writers out there doing amazing work. I try to publish some of them. Is it a scene, a community? Probably not yet. Somebody needs to write a book or host a few conferences, I think.
Your second question is a bit too juicy to explore. I'll just say that what is bittersweet about someone calling me one of "the rising stars of innovative fiction" is that people haven't really seen my fiction yet. There are two completed novellas and two that are in-the-making on my desk, right now. What you get in Newcomer is what I'm calling my border work.
JMW: Would you discuss the origin of Leon Works and trajectory of what you hope the press will do?
RG: First of all, I love to talk about Leon, in fact I love to talk about all of my publishing projects—Clamour, Leroy, Leona—they feel like dear cousins to me. But Leon Works, unlike the others, I actually hope to sustain for many years, if not forever. The press officially launched in 2005 with the publication of Mary Burger's Sonny, but it had been on my mind a long, long time. The impetus was quite simple: there were no obvious presses expressly devoted to publishing cross-genre works of prose and new narrative and there needed to be. It was great to find a poetry press or an occasional fiction press that was willing to take a risk in publishing this kind of work, but the work didn't end up (at least to me) making much sense in the larger context of what said press was doing, thus a conversation about form, identity, narrative and the life of the sentence was being lost. I wanted that conversation to be louder and more continuous. Every time Leon releases a new title I feel that I am contributing to the possibility of a sustained look at what is going on in this field. It frustrates me that my resources are limited such that I'm only able to publish one or two books a year. I hope as the press continues, more money will come its way. At times it's a struggle, at times publishing is not what I want to be doing. But I don't think I could go very long without a hands-on connection to the making of books. In terms of trajectory, though, my ideas about prose are always changing. I am trying to get to fiction, to publishing interesting, innovative novels, but I'm held up by how much work there is still to do within the more hybrid realm. I'd like Leon Works to get to a place where it's producing five titles a year, exploring prose or the sentence is some mind-blowing, nuanced way, with an occasional burst here and again of poetry.
JMW: Let's return if we can to poetry. Is poetry where you started as a writer? The Activist seems to bridge the gap between your earlier work and a book like Newcomer, so it's interesting that you find this latter work to be a bridge onto your present and future work. How did you start as a writer? Where did you grow up and what was it like there? Who were the writers that first sparked you?
RG: I did start with poetry. When I arrived in San Francisco in 1994 to attend New College of California for a Master’s in Poetics and Writing, I was really excited to work with Lyn Hejinian and Gloria Frym, having previously studied Hejinian in an undergraduate class, and falling for Frym’s By Ear, which I found in a bookstore in Atlanta. I also had read a bit of Rosmarie Waldrop and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge in that same class. From that exposure I knew that I was drawn to the prose block, though I had a limited sense of what was possible with the form. In my first few months in San Francisco, I encountered Leslie Scalapino’s work, which changed my relation to the “situation” of narrative dramatically. It wasn’t long before my prose poem wanted to become a novel, though it was long before I actually produced anything resembling a novel. The murky part is that it’s not like I was a poet and now I’m a fiction writer, as I sometimes joke. While I’m definitely invested in building narrative structures, it would be impossible to do this work without the silence and expanse of poetic space. In fact, what makes writing fiction interesting is this unshakeable desire to stay still, how that troubles the instinct of sentences to progress.
What makes me think of Newcomer as a bridge rather than The Activist is that the books that follow Newcomer are actual novellas—one hundred page explorations of characters in urban space, focused on questions of structure, time, and folds (like chapters). But the more I think about it, the more it seems everything I write came out of one thing and turned into another. My tendency is to look for what lies beyond the idea that has just come.
I came to writing this way as well. Philosophy, my major in college, was intensely interesting to me. However, I had a huge problem with it. At no time in the three centuries of western thought I studied did I ever feel that my subjectivity was being considered. A black, queer woman was not a problem for philosophy; rather, it was a zero. I needed to think on these things, but in an arena that made sense. When I read Rosmarie Waldrop’s Reproduction of Profiles, I found it was possible to entertain questions of philosophy like, “How do we come to know,” and be in life at the same time. I was most interested in experience—how you obtain it, how you “capture” it—but what led me to poetry rather than fiction, where experience is captured all the time, was a need to slow the whole thing down, to draw out the moments of experience, expose the gaps. I started looking intensely at the mundane. Drinking apple juice. Eating soup.
You asked where I grew up. I was born and raised in Atlanta. I lived in the southwest quadrant of the city, which was nearly one hundred percent black. The first conversation I had with a white person, other than the white boy I had a crush on in second grade, was at age sixteen; there were no Asians or Latinos to be found, not that I knew to look for them. I’d never had garlic or olive oil before college, yet I lived in a city. My exposure to difference was limited to music (thank god for Columbia House!). And though I knew I wanted to get out of the South for college, my having grown up there was not a negative experience. Growing up in a black city, around black people, gave me a relationship to language that I’ve fought to hold on to. The instinct to create a language within a language, to play with speech, to embellish, to obfuscate are among my most precious inheritances.
JMW: Speaking of place, you’ve mentioned the profound effect that New York City has had on your work. How have these big geographic leaps (Atlanta to San Francisco? San Francisco to New York? New York to Providence) affected your work?
RG: San Francisco was a city where I ran into friends and acquaintances as I walked along the streets, and New York was a city where I ran into buildings. The shift in my work, I think, related to the possibility of connection; it seemed to have diminished once I moved east. My narrators now searching for a way in. Searching for events. Where before the city was the site of intense action that exhausted my narrators, here the city stood in the way of action. My attention turned to structure and the grid. The verticality of buildings, trains, busses, and the crowd that does not know you. I think you can see this most in the two unpublished novellas I wrote between 2003 and 2006, where the city-state Ravicka came into existence. I wanted to think on city living without having to think specifically of New York City living so I found this new place.
JMW: I love your idea of thinking of the writing as installation. What is it that’s so appealing about the use of the prose block and white space?
RG: Wow, that’s like asking what is it that I like so much about sugar. Where do I start? The prose block is the articulation of my personality, the body of my thinking. It captures a tone, a feeling toward language that I have not been able to conjure in any other form. In my mind, it’s aligned with the city. The way that you are moving through something as you write, as you walk, that you are unfolding but being structured at the same time. We make things out of grammar, but grammar is a system of rules that mediates and measures the expression of our thinking. And the same with walking: you can choose your own destination, speed, strut, but you are beholden to the logic of the streets and structures you encounter, like parts of speech and punctuation. A block of text is a moment of travel that captures a pattern of experience and holds it there. The white space says, “Look at it!”
JMW: In the mean time, I’ve read Toaf and it brings up so many more questions! I loved it, especially: “I said I have always been a white-space writer. So far I have not suffered because of it.” And this: “I am writing a book about the failed writing of another book, and gingerly placing the events of that failing in a circuit of time; yet, days and years are passing in this memorial.” The back of the book opens the question of genre up—from the outside, and from your bio, no less: “Though she has been exploring multi-genres and hybrid spaces for almost fifteen years, she has no idea how to categorize this book.” This is an exciting signpost at the point of entry for a reader—how did this book come about? What was your process in writing it? You mention the “failed writing of another book”—the very novella this book eulogizes (and draws from)—what are you learning from failure that you couldn’t have learned from just publishing the original novella?
RG: The story of the writing of Toaf really is the story that Toaf is, but for readers who aren’t aware of the work, I’ll say this: over ten years ago I began writing a novella called After That; I worked on it intensely for two years, then on and off over the next four years. In all that time, as I was changing as a writer, I couldn’t get the work to match my thinking, and it’s not that it was always a step behind—where I was two years ago—but rather that it had never fully met any phase I was in. It seemed a liminal work from inception. However, I was very attached to it, to all the time and all the language I had given it. When in 2004 I decided that I needed to put the book away for good, almost in the same moment, the idea of the memorial came to me. If I couldn’t have the book, then I would have the book about the writing of the book, which is Toaf.
I like your question about failure, what I am learning from it. Toaf was such a gift to write, and that has to do with memory. I had never put myself in a situation of writing out of the past, of going back there in my mind, re-living events, which as soon as you do that, alters those events forever. I recalled my life and I fixed things and I embellished things. It was a lot of fun. I also felt in writing the book that I got a chance to talk about my coming to prose, because it is more of a personal story than a theoretical one. That is, it came out of all the streets I walked, the people I met, the way time passed there. To talk about this failure, it was like I could talk about who I am, and share it with readers. It surprised me that I could do that so soon in my life. Then I realized how old I had become.
JMW: Could you talk about Fred Moten’s book Hughson’s Tavern? How did you come to know his work and what’s behind publishing this with Leon Works?
RG: Some years ago, Pressed Wafer published a chapbook of Fred Moten’s called Arkansas. I loved it, and felt that I hadn’t seen anything like it before. I waited to see more from him, but nothing came out. That’s not entirely true. Fred published a critical work called In the Break on black avant-garde practices that is really a stunning and innovative work. But I wanted his voice to be added to the discussion, and not only that of African-American poetics, but poetry in general. While Leon is devoutly a press for experimental prose, and there is a ton left to do in this area, there is the other part of my publishing instinct that I have to attend to. And that is recovery work, making up for what I think should have already been done: the publication of Fred Moten’s first full-length book of poetry. This is not to say that Fred was trying and trying and couldn’t get anyone to give him the time of day. I actually don’t know the story of this book. It may be that he just sat on it. But even that I feel like it’s my job to correct. Hughson’s is such an electric piece of writing, energized in its thinking, in how it works the page, in the questions it answers.
JMW: I’m collecting short pieces for an anthology on teaching poetry, and Fred Moten’s piece for the project begins: “It’s not that I want to say that poetry should or can be disconnected from having something to say; it’s just that everything I want to say eludes me.” It seems to fit your work as well, despite its life beyond “poetry.” What’s next for Leon Works?
RG: Ah, well I’m envisioning a book, something that doesn’t yet exist in the world but should. I don’t know how much I want to say about it, as it seems to change every time I think of it. I want to publish (and participate in) a collaborative project on prose. I’d like to gather a group of writers to conceive as a group a way of thinking about what we are doing when we write the sentences we write. I am loosely interested in questions of event, character, and time as they encounter the experiment of the sentence. That is, the sentence that does not attempt to coalesce the problems of narrating experience in language but rather is invested in exploring the dynamics of these problems. The struggle is in finding writers of experimental prose or hybrid work who are actually interested in fiction. To me, without that context, without the awareness that as you’re moving through language you must come to terms with the instinct of our parts of speech to write linearly with a clear destination, you’re missing what’s so intensely fascinating about the sentence and the relationship of self to it. Aside from this project, I’m awaiting the perfect book. If someone out there has it, please do send.
JMW: In terms of teaching, I ran into an old student of yours (a friend’s girlfriend) who said you were the most intense teacher, and that your focus on the texts in class was absolutely visceral—this was back at UCSD, I think. What’s teaching about to you? What are the texts you return to? What do you hope will happen in the classroom?
RG: I wonder what she meant. UCSD was my first teaching position. I taught there for a quarter in 2003. I certainly did not feel like a visceral reader of books at the time. In fact, I have had to learn a lot about teaching literature over the past few years, and I still feel that there is way farther to go. For instance, I never learned close reading techniques in college. I think, because all those philosophy texts I studied felt so obscure and coded to me at the time, the idea of closely reading them was fairly remote. I learned to read from a place of questioning. It’s been hard to shake this, though honestly I haven’t tried very hard. It seems important as a writer to read from a different perspective than you would as a critic; it is less about counting, enumerating the number of times such and such occurs and what that means as it is about tracing certain problems or concepts of writing through a text. Because we’re not just studying this particular piece of literature but also the genre itself. As a writer, it’s compelling to think through how the writer is presenting or working out ideas of structure, movement, place, action, etc. in his or her work. What I want to happen in the classroom is for my students to get so excited by their own thinking that they forget how important it is to look cool and appear disaffected, such that they are leaping to the board or trembling with enthusiasm. Short of that, the think tank is a model that I try to emulate. Getting across to them that we are in something together, pooling our thoughts so as to get to the next place. It’s a tough goal. It takes a lot of vulnerability on my part that I’m not always ready to show. One thing I’ve learned is that you’ve got to model what you want.
There are a few books I return to, but it’s more a certain idea of the book that is most consistent. Trying to work out notions of “the novella,” or what I sometimes call “the book project,” which are short narrative works that operate as a whole, a long sustained moment of thought or reach, but that due to the direction of their content don’t really obtain to fiction. They are after something else. I’m thinking of works like, Pamela, a Novel by Pamela Lu, Ludwig Harig’s Trip to Bordeaux, Gail Scott’s My Paris, Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar—slender books.
JMW: I’d love to ask a nuts and bolts question about how you write and how it’s changed over time. Do you work by hand? on a word processor? fits and starts? How much do you know in advance what you are working on? How much has evolved in the process?
RG: Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how much my practice has changed since becoming a professor. So much of teaching, as I’ve come to learn, is about a certain kind of performance, an enactment of thinking, of yourself thinking as you stand in front of your class, wanting to give the sense of learning as a kind of discovery, a coming-to-through-thought, and what I find is that this performance lessens the intensity of what I’ll call my private thinking. I wrote incessantly for a long time. Now, I write in intervals. Part of this is due to the stack of manuscripts that I needed to publish in order to go on as a writer. I had convinced myself that there was little use in writing if the work was just going to sit here. It’s funny, because the whole time I was saying that, I was writing furiously. However, now that those books are actually coming out, it’s like I finally got the message: what’s the point of writing? Except, I don’t really feel that way anymore. Now I have to deal with this crisis, which was really about things going on two years ago. Or maybe it’s not that at all. Perhaps, it’s that something needs to change in my work, in how I approach narrative, and I haven’t figured it out yet. In any case, I am writing a couple books right now, but not with the same confidence and immediacy of before.
Certain books I write by hand and others directly on the computer. There’s nothing particular about the books that makes them come out in one way versus the other. It’s more a decision I make about how I want to write in time and space. I started one book last summer on a trip to Mexico. I wrote it on busses, in a hardcover journal that I’d made in my book arts class. When I returned I went on writing it that way. The flow is different of course, less about the paragraph as a unit of meaning than the sentence. Writing by hand is like sculpting. I love the physicality of writing, shaping letters, moving in a line. I love pens and pencils. My handwriting is very clear and orderly, like contemporary buildings.
Writing on the computer is more the default position. I love it too. I love the keyboard. I want to think I’m playing music. Or that I’m hacking into some great web of thinking, where stories come from. But, whichever method I use, I tend to write fluidly, following an impulse. It’s a kind of feeling. I sit in it, and write easily. The first couple months of a project, I feel like the smartest person in the world. Then, the impulse fades, diminishes somehow. The writing is not immediate anymore. I have to reach for it. I have to think harder about what I’m doing. It doesn’t seem to affect the actual tone or weight of the sentences—that is, I don’t think the shift is apparent, I don’t think even I could go back and say where the automatic drive shut off—but in the live moment, that day I sit down to write and it’s not “there” as it had been, a new kind of work begins. I am no longer the character, high on his or her emergence. I’m now more exclusively “the writer.” This is a great space too, because here I learn about sentences, how they work in community with one another, how they seem to have an intuition about where they want to go and what they want to do.
When I’m writing is probably when I’m my happiest. It is astonishing to watch a work take shape, to return to it day after day, writing into this space, translating some elusive feeling or idea, looking at character like it’s a question about existence, working the question out. I never know where a work is going. It is absolutely present time for me. The world takes shape as I move through it. She walks down one street, reaches the end, looks off in a direction, and it’s matter of where she is in her thinking that determines the next step in her route. The character and I engaged in some kind of conversation, both trying to figure something out, something primarily about space and how it is that one moves through it.
JMW: What kinds of things do you do when you get stuck? Do you have certain authors or books that you can return to when this happens?
RG: When I get stuck, I read. I put the work away and work on something else. My favorite book in all the world is 62: A Model Kit by Julio Cortázar. When I want to think about cities, I go to it. When I want to think about prose, I go to it. For writing about multiple characters, I go to it. I only have to read a paragraph before I’m burning with some new or old idea. It helps me remember my project of the sentence and the city. Sometimes being stuck means I need to get up and get a glass of water. Or listen to music. Or go outside, which is often something I have to remind myself to do. Antonioni films help me along, as well. Also, if there is someone around to throw a Frisbee. But, I try not to get upset about being stuck. Failure is so momentary, and over time, becomes just this tiny blip of experience. The work absorbs it, moves on.
This interview first appeared in Denver Quarterly in 2010.