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An Interview with Harry Mathews

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by Barbara Henning

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Barbara: It seems like one has more latitude writing fiction, using categories and structures and in between you have all this room for invention and improvisation.
Harry: First it should be said that the Oulipo does not have a great repertory of narrative methods, but practically all its methods can be used to create a narrative. Some look as though they were dealing only with words, but those words can be extended into paragraphs or chapters. That more or less describes the genesis of Cigarettes.
Barbara: I reread Cigarettes a few weeks ago and the characters are still in my mind.
Harry: How was it?
Barbara: It was great. I especially liked the characters Phoebe and Lewis. They are the characters that are the most alive, the most suffering …
Harry: Yes, and Lewis turns out to be the narrator in the end and that changes everything. It makes him a much more sympathetic and humane character than he seemed before.
Barbara: I was wondering how you invented this narrative. Somewhere you talk about how the structure enabled you to work with some autobiographical material.
Harry: Not so much autobiography, but my early milieu. New York, and the Hamptons, disguised in the book as Saratoga Springs. When I was writing Cigarettes I found myself confronted with this abstract list of events that had no meaning at all. But it finally gave me access to the circumstances of my early life. I didn’t know that was going to happen. I had set up a series of five-item lines of events, moronically simple events like A meets B, B dislikes A, A falls in love with B, B flees. . . and you have no idea who A or B is and they are not the same always. Anyway, I’ve spent years concealing this.
Barbara: Tell us.
Harry: Well, let’s say there are five lines and then you transpose the things. You take the first item from the first line and put it into to the second line, and the third item into the third line, and so forth. You get a completely different story. I had this whole thing laid out in front of me, but there was no indication of who anyone was or where it was happening….
Barbara: How did you come up with that?
Harry: I just kept looking and little by little and situations and characters started emerging. It was extraordinary. I had had no idea what I was going to do.
Barbara: It reads like a Victorian novel.
Harry: Well, that was deliberate.
Barbara: When I finished it, I thought that it almost invites a structural analysis, and maybe that’s what you started with. Or maybe the critics would come out with something totally different.
Harry: (laughter) They would come out with the detective aspect of it. What seems to have happened didn’t happen, it turns out he and she were not behaving the way you thought they were. That’s what people think is Oulipian about it, but it has nothing to do with it. It was just something that grew out of the structure. It was arbitrary in the sense that I lined up the different events, but they were after all very basic. They didn’t signify anything substantial.
Barbara: It wasn’t really a mathematical structure—
Harry: It was because the situations were permutated, as in a sestina; their order changes in a precise way. The sestina, by the way, is a wonderful form. The Oulipo has done lots of work with not only the sestina but with what we call n-inas or queninas: that is, the principle of the sestina extended to poems whose stanzas have any number of lines (not merely six). This was the work of Roubaud, something not conceivable thirty years earlier.
Barbara: My students are writing sestinas this week, using sentences instead of lines. I’ve been doing this every semester in the flash fiction classes I teach.
Harry: Do you know my prose sestinas?
Barbara: Yes, you gave them to me long ago. They are in the course packet with your assignment. I’ve been using them for years. What was the relationship between the New York School and Oulipo? You were involved with both groups.
Harry: There is no connection, except for me. Incidentally, the original members of the New York School denied its aesthetic existence. I got involved because I had met John Ashbery, we became friends and soon started the magazine Locus Solus; Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler were the other two editors, also charter members of the New York School. Look at those three poets: they don’t have much in common.
Barbara: Yes, they are very different from each other.
Harry: They had something basic in common, like “clean” writing. I don’t know how to define it. There was some unspoken rule perhaps that warned against self-indulgence.
Barbara: But with O’Hara and Jimmy Schuyler, there’s this intimate voice… I think that’s what a lot of the poets in the second generation New York School picked up on.
Harry: You’re so right. I particularly like what Ron Padgett has done with that. Have you seen his last book, How Long? In fact his last two books are packed with rare jewels.
Barbara: It’s sitting on my to-read shelf. What you were doing with Oulipo was quite different from what they were doing. I’m thinking there is this experimental edge to the New York School, an interest in collage and . . .
Harry: I don’t think there really was, certainly in the case of John Ashbery and we’ve discussed it often enough. You know he isn’t really interested, I mean occasionally he’ll use a formal procedure but it’s exceptional.
Barbara: What about his pantoums?
Harry: True enough. The Oulipo was also interested in the pantoum. Jacques Jouet was the one who led the way; he eventually wrote an article on the pantoum, including its oriental traditions, that is as useful as such things can get.
Barbara: And you wrote a sequence of haiku in your latest book, The New Tourism.
Harry: Oulipians have been writing haiku for years. The haiku has become like the sonnet, something you can do in your sleep. I mean it is not a really demanding form. Some people find it difficult, but all you need is five plus two fingers. However, I discovered a mistake among my own haiku, one of them is missing two syllables in the second line. Let’s call it a clinaman.
Barbara: I wrote a sequence of sonnets for a Leave Book pamphlet long ago and I was looking at them recently and noticed one was only 13 lines.
Harry: It is still a sonnet. By the way, Ron Padgett wrote a great self-definitional haiku: “First five syllables,/ Second seven syllables,/ Third five syllables.”
Barbara: Richard Wright wrote a book of haikus at the end of his life, a terrific book.
Harry: I wrote them because they are so short. At the end of the day I’m usually sozzled and sleepy; it was interesting to see what emerged from the day. Was it you that said they were little glimpses into my life?
Barbara: Yes, I did say that in a letter to you.
Harry: I don’t know why I stopped, but I’m glad I did since there are so many of them already. It’s thanks to the guys who run this little press that I put them in; I’d found many of them defective as poems, but that doesn’t matter: it’s having the long sequence that matters.
Barbara: I like to collect haiku images either in my notebook or with my camera. It keeps me sane, in a yogic way of speaking.
Harry: It was at the moment of the day when I couldn’t . . . well they probably did, kind of relief and abandonment of ego, which is half way there.
Barbara: Did you know Laura Riding when you were with Robert Graves in Majorca?
Harry: No I never met her. She was long gone by then. They broke up in 36. And I met Robert in the fall of 54. No, I wrote this long piece on her, it’s in my collected essays, The Case of the Persevering Maltese.
Barbara: I remember reading that essay some time ago.
Harry: At the time, they had just republished a wonderful book of hers, called Progress of Stories. I wrote this enthusiastic review, it must have been the most enthusiastic review she ever received.
Barbara: She was still alive then, wasn’t she?
Harry: Yes, oh alas, and I really figured the whole thing out and not in an ah ha way I’ve caught you, but in a respectful way, but unfortunately this was the pretext for her grousing. I said, you know, her name has changed so much, the only thing that is consistent is Laura, so I’m going to refer to her as Laura.
Barbara: You must have known how she would respond to any critical writing about her. Did she write you letters?
Harry: She wrote a letter to The New York Review of Books, an absolutely loathsome letter which I answered with three lines. I wasn’t going to argue with her. She was too insane. But I love her all the same. I love The Telling, too. Did you ever read that? It is a terrific book. I pay tribute to that in this review, too.
Barbara: Yes, years back Lewis Warsh gave me a copy of The Telling. That’s the first time I read Riding. I also wrote a piece on her (after she died) that I presented at a panel for The Poetry Project. It’s on-line. I’ll send you a link. I spent quite a bit of time in the library reading all her letters to the editors and made a poem-essay in response.
Harry: I have a student who has become a very good art critic and historian, Rafael Rubenstein. When I was his tutor at Bennington, he wanted to write on Laura Riding. In the end he sent her his thesis; I said, if I were you I wouldn’t. She just stomped on it.
Barbara: She created her own empty spot in literary history. Even now she doesn’t show up in lots of anthologies where she should. I may be almost out of questions today, but let me ask one last thing about Cigarettes. When you were writing it, when you got involved in these two scenes, the one with Phoebe’s terrible mental suffering and then the sadomasochistic sex scene with Lewis, how emotionally involved were you?
Harry: In the case of Phoebe I was very emotionally involved because among other things, even though she is unlike Niki de Saint Phalle, Niki suffered from hyper- thyroidism and the description of Phoebe’s disease was really a replica of Niki’s. It was a ghastly, terrible experience to witness, and I was happy to be able to write about it in fiction, about someone who wasn’t Niki, rather than writing about her. In the case of Lewis, Lewis appears on the first page of the book. He’s the one who is saying I want to write a book about these people. They are showing him a letter from Owen and he can’t believe that anyone wrote this and he’s there speaking as “I” and . . .
Barbara: And then the reader completely forgets about it until in the end you realize you have been listening all along to Lewis. There’s one tiny reference at the very end that made me realize that. What was it?
Harry: It was some reference to Morris. So my heart went out to him. He seems to be a creep but actually he is the person remembering everything so he can tell the story. I felt sympathy for Lewis. I suppose I was thinking about myself in my less sociable days.
Barbara: That’s all the questions I have, Harry, except—how did you hurt your finger?
Harry: There was another French writer, Hélène Cixous, a feminist whom years ago I was ridiculously pursuing –– she was obviously gay. One evening friends of mine started making fun of her and I got very mad and swept my hand across a table full of glassware and cut my finger open very nastily. I went to an emergency ward up the street. They put me in front of this woman doctor. She was relatively young, but she had a solid older nurse standing behind her. She looked at my finger and said, But you are bleeding terribly! Oh, no, I said, this is perfectly normal. I spent my whole time reassuring this woman who was scared shitless of sewing me up. She took a hooked needle –– she was chain smoking through this –– and got it into one flap of my gaping wound, then she got it through the other, then she pulled the thread right through both flaps of skin and out the other side. It was extremely painful. I learned how many nerves there are in the extremities. Of course she had to do it all over again. Are you suffering pain? she asked and I said, Oh, no, nothing at all.
Barbara: So now your finger is bent like this because you were defending Hélène Cixous.
Harry: Yes
Barbara: I have one more question. Why did you call the book, Cigarettes?
Harry: That’s a very good question. Everyone asks it.
Barbara: You didn’t lay out cigarettes as you were laying out the permutations, did you?
Harry: There’s no explanation. The explanation is that it’s a good question. After looking at that title every page after page after page, people wonder, why is it called, Cigarettes.
Barbara: I never thought about it until we were sitting here talking about Obama smoking. So you chose it because there would be no possibility of connecting it with the novel in a meaningful way.
Harry: Only in a clichéd way, life or love is like a cigarette, you finish one, you start another, all that kind of junk. And I don’t see that. I think the title is getting better and better because no one smokes anymore, well, only two-fifths of the population.
Barbara: The sidewalks are now full of people who smoke.
Harry: It reminds me of Tlooth. Here you are in the middle of the Venetian episode and the guy goes out to the prophetic marsh and sinks his or her leg and pulls it out and the marsh says, Tlooth. What happens at that point is interesting because the reader looks at the top of the page and realizes this has been there all the time and for a moment the book becomes an object, calling the reader back to reality.
Barbara: It’s already four o’clock and I have to head downtown. Thanks Harry for sharing your afternoon with me. And thanks for lunch, too.
(click pages menu below to read the rest of the interview)

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