For a voice level, say something.
My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense.
The first line of “Ode to a Nightingale.”
Wow. I would not have expected you to quote one of the Romantics!
Keats is where I got my start. He’s my guide in a sense: his enameled surface and below that the longing and loss. That combination of polished language and harsh emotion—I have never abandoned it. Words resoundingly in place—with a sense of inevitability even, that 19th-century idea of Poetry—and loss and incompletion riding underneath. For me, that’s what Keats is. In high school, I memorized Keats’s poems and then wrote them out, just to see how it feels to be writing those lines. It was a gestural experience.
That you were calling the poems to you.
That’s right. (Laughs).
Were your earliest writing attempts in verse?
Oh, yes, entirely. My first poem was a sonnet. I had the classic wonderful high school English teacher who got me reading and writing poetry, Marjorie Bruce. For me, poems were something to be fabricated. I started with the sonnet not because I felt that I had something important to say, or that I had to burst out and tell the world my feelings. Rather, I wanted to make a beautiful object with language.
Has that impulse been sustained in your work?
What beauty might be seems more complex, but I still think of my books as three-dimensional objects, globes, and in fact, at the end of the novels there is always something revolving.
At the end of Jack the Modernist there are a series of heads coming out of a body.
And there’s a scene in the beginning of the book that is loosely repeated at the end—a scene where the narrator watches Jack hug someone and wishes he could get a hug like that, only to realize when he does it’s not what he imagined it would be.
In college, in Edinburgh, I took a year-long Conrad seminar. He thought of his books as spherical. That’s where I got the idea. I recognized at once that it applied to me.
More of an understanding that this was your conception for your work all along?
Yes. I am dyslexic and dyslexics tend to think globally, rather than linearly.
Could you give me an example of that?
For a dyslexic, understanding comes in images rather than words or narratives. A lot of dyslexics are visual artists, which I was initially studying to be.
A traditional narrative suggests a syntax of action, a particular order to experience.
Whereas global suggests that experience is one, and that you take it in all at once, even though you can plug into it at different places. I think of my books not as temporal sequences but as incidents that occur on a globe. So it’s not as though one goes from one thing to the next thing to the next. Instead, all those moments, images, and tableaus make one object. There may be different elements but they exist in a sculptural relation to each other.
There are two huge groups of dyslexics in society, one in museum studies and visual arts, the other in prison. Trouble with reading will lead you into a visual field, or you become so alienated that your relationship with society is compromised.
The first pieces of literature you produced were verse poems in traditional forms. You say you were consciously trying to make beautiful things. As I look around your house, I see beautiful art pieces. Your connection to the art world is still very much with you, and you often reflect upon it in your writing.
I have a long, complicated relationship with visual art. In some way, I’m a frustrated visual artist whose medium is language. So, that’s another way of thinking about writing as an object. Add to this, my boyfriends, for the most part, have been artists…
So there’s an erotic dimension.
Perhaps a narcissistic aspiration (laughs).
Often in your work there appears to be little distinction between what some might consider a prose poem, an essay, or a short story. How do you make these distinctions?
I don’t. My way of dealing with it is to not make the distinction. But I don’t really like the term short story—and yet I have story collections. I simply call them stories. Or pieces. The short story has a history I do not feel especially related to. Other traditions are more important to me.
Well, the modernist writer Blanchot made fictions called conts (tales). In these conts, which I admire tremendously, there’s a pressure brought to bear on language itself, and a porousness. By porousness I mean that one sentence doesn’t necessarily pick up where the last one left off. So you find a kind of air between the sentences. They can take any direction at any time. It’s composition by the sentence. These are things I think about, and one could talk about some prose poetry that way, as well as lyrical fiction.
I teach a class in prose poetry, and I teach the different modernisms through the genre: cubism, negritude, surrealism, symbolism, and so on. This inspired me to write my own prose poems, as opposed to what I call prose pieces—those one paragraph prose blocks.
The world of the short story is a world of psychological insight. The classic short story hunkers down into certain plot moments. I want to be lyrical, I want to draw away into historical perspective, or move closer into an intense sensory event. I have nothing against moments of psychological insight, and I hope plenty of them occur in my writing, but that’s not the sole purpose of my work.
Do you see yourself as an eclectic?
I assemble as much as I write. It’s rare for me to just sit down and write something from beginning to end. My old boyfriend Nayland Blake had a retrospective in New York. He asked me to be part of a night of readings where writers respond to his work, so I sat down and wrote what I felt was the trouble with our relationship (laughs). My piece was about bunnies—he uses bunnies in his work—two bunnies who are both bottoms sitting in bed not knowing what to do. They love each other but they don’t know what to do…
They want to fuck like rabbits but can’t?
That’s right! And I talk about diffidence, or even nausea, before the act of creation. I weave those two concerns together.
I get a sense of that weaving in your novel Margery Kempe, where Margery’s story is occasionally interrupted by the story of Bob and L. There are startling juxtapositions between the two contexts.
If my books have plots they’re usually borrowed. The plot of that book was lifted from Margery’s autobiography, whereas the story of L. is really just a frame for her story. It would be hard to put together Bob’s relationship with L. Those interruptions keep reframing Margery’s story. But you couldn’t make anything out of Bob and L.’s story on its own, you could say the exploration and development of their story exists in the Margery sections.
As a reader, I thought Margery’s story was framing—and/or informing— Bob’s relationship with L.
Of course it goes in both directions. I thought about Flaubert when I was writing that book. Flaubert’s reply at the famous trial. Who is this woman Mme Bovery?—C’est moi. Well, okay, I did the same thing. I said Margery, c’est moi. But I included the activity of projection inside the matter of the book. It took me a long while to decide whether to include or edit out Bob and L, because it would have been a purer book to eliminate them. And I wanted the book to be a jewel, I wanted it to be beautiful.
It would have been much more of a meditation. I remember reading the book and thinking the Bob and L. sections were pushing the book in unexpected directions.
In the end I wanted to make a book that could not be closed, that couldn’t be a unit.
Both my novels end when life becomes more reversible because obsessions are subsiding. Bob and Margery are no longer so obsessed.
Things are also potentially more chaotic, too.
Yes, when you’re obsessed, your priorities are strict.
There are other ways in which I try to make my books open and pourous. Margery Kempe is basically a collaboration with Margery. The sentence in that book is half hers. And there are all these notes—I asked men and women to write about their body. I put them in the book too. And there’s Bob, who is a person in the world. Bob lives in the same world as the reader, so there’s a way the book cannot close because you can’t close something or someone in the same world as you. In Reader, I collaborate with the different authors; in Jack I give the book to Jack and he rewrites sections.
In the sense that each of your books is assigned some genre title and your work chafes against certain conventions of those genres, you are collaborating with the readers of your books as well.
Yes, insofar as the audience will act as witness.
Given your interest in collaboration, I’m surprised you didn’t dramatize the fact that Margery dictated her book to a priest. That could have been an opportunity to show the collaborative relationship between them.
I would have had to back up too far to show what dictating to a scribe meant in her period, which is very different from somebody working with a ghost writer today, or even from someone dictating today. In the first place, her scribe was a priest, which gave her work some credibility. Their relationship was like confessor and priest in a confessional. In the second place, it was not unusual to write this way. Masterpieces like Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love were written in the same fashion. And people often had books read to them, even if they were literate. Books were read out loud, even if the reader was standing alone in a room. A book was a script, it was not real until it was spoken. But in the end, I didn’t think all of that material would fit into my book. There were tons of things I could have included…
Do you ever feel you haven’t exhausted Margery, that there’s another book in you about her?
Oh, no, I have exhausted Margery and Margery has exhausted me! We have exhausted each other. (laughter).
Why did you turn to her in the first place?
Well, I first learned about her in 1966 in a Medieval Studies course in UCLA. At that point she wasn’t well known and we read only a few pages of her book in an anthology. Her book had been lost until it was discovered in a castle library in 1934. Before then, all that existed were a few prayers. When it was discovered, people were hopeful that here was another great English mystical text. In fact, her first editor, in his preface, kept referring to her as “poor Margery,” since she was so disappointing—in her vulgarity and self aggrandizement. It’s not a lofty piece of piety. Even then I thought there was something in her story for me. I felt her book was a comedy, like Patrick Dennis’s Little Me, in which Belle the starlet continuously brags about herself, but you realize through her bragging that she is a flop. I felt that Margery was the Little Me of the 15th century. I liked the fact the she didn’t seem to understand her own experience. I felt that she lived at a time when that would have been hard to do because the paradigm itself was changing–just like today. Only a few years after I was introduced to her, I did a junior year abroad in Scotland and I was hitchhiking around Northern Europe looking at the Flemish masters, looking carefully at the Van Eyck altarpiece in Ghent, the Hans Memling museum in Bruges…so that period has always been important to me. In a way, writing Margery Kempe was the fulfillment of that interest.
In the early 70s I tried to turn Margery’s story into a musical comedy. I even wrote songs for it. I liked the idea of a musical comedy that ends with the crucifixion. I liked the clarity of her lust. She’s clear about that at least. She wants the manhood of Jesus. Poor John—it’s his story in a sense. But then it hit me: here I was, a hippie in San Francisco: what did I know about getting a musical comedy produced! Later, during a midlife crisis, I became so obsessed with a man that I found my way back into her story. I couldn’t write about her before, because the story would have been crass. When I became crazy in love myself, I could enter her experience.
I think her story resonates with a lot of gay men insofar as we too lust for the divine manhood in someone.
There are all sorts of ways into her story: the desire for a complete and authentic experience, understanding sex and romance as a way to be safe. Gay men are generally–for good reason–fearful, and some parts of gay culture offer ways of achieving safety. For Margery, Jesus was safety, a way to escape death.
Some feminist critics have argued that she used her divine relationship to Jesus as a way of avoiding the marriage bed.
It’s possible, though John seemed to go along with practically anything. And she did buy her way out of the marriage. It was an era when woman could own property apart from their husbands—an era that soon came to an end. She didn’t need Jesus to escape her conjugal duties.
Back to your composition process. You said you often compose by the sentence. Could you talk about this?
My palette is a sentence. Each next sentence can start at a very different place and so that makes for a kind of porousness, which is a quality I want.
There are spaces between the stitchings.
Many writers will map out where they want their narratives to go and the sentences lead logically from one incident to the next. In composing by the sentence, are you discovering where your piece needs to go as you write it?
Well, possibly. I generally know what a work is going to do before I start. The question is what pattern will it take. How is it going to be organized. In that sense, I give myself more elbow room than many other writers. In prose, when you are telling a story, two things have to happen at once: one event has to follow another with a sense of inevitability; but you also want to create a field of possibility in each moment. I try to pressure that proposition by increasing the possible directions in which a story or a next sentence can go by creating a larger view, say, a long view, or a too-intimate close-up, or I jump to the subject of story telling itself, or to the reader—I abandon the middle distance.
Explain what you mean by that.
Most narrative takes place in the middle distance, which is basically what someone can see. So, Tony walks into the room: He walks into the room, he sits down at the pine table, he wears a green blazer and a fedora with a green feather. Working on this level, I create a kind of guided daydream. Readers project into it and make a story-world in their brains. But why? The naturalism this method supports is a set of conventions that leads to the status quo. The more “normal” the convention, the more it supports the status quo. We take this kind of writing as natural but Chaucer would not have, or Sappho, or some tribal writer. Since I’m the writer, and I can include anything I want, what has made me confine my work to this small palette? Why don’t I say, Tony walks in and relives the orgasm he had that morning. I could say how much money Tony has in his wallet or bank account, as Balzac might have done. I could say what Tony will be thinking about tomorrow, what he will dream tonight, how he emerged from his mother’s vagina, how English torques his brain, what he knows subliminally, Bob’s smell perhaps. I could say how a flue virus is commencing but not yet experienced, how Tony is going to die. I could talk about Tony’s Grandfather’s journey to America. A human being is large and complicated, and the middle distance diminishes him or her.
It also dictates the expectations a reader will have for a text. It tells us what a “good” story “should” have.
Yes, so in a vile MFA fiction workshop, all this would be read as excess. To put pressure on the expectations of the middle distance is a kind of politics. Anything that reorients the reader and writer is political, because organizing a reader’s mind and psychic life involve power.
And such conventions came about through socio-political contexts.
In genre literature, the conventions are emphatic, and they generate pleasure and feeling. I am not the enemy of the middle distance or other writing conventions. I want to understand them and use them consciously.
Frost, in his very folksy way said when we write poems we go a-sentencing. When you go a-sentencing, is there a certain kind of sentence you are prone?
Not that I know. In each book I spend everything. By the time the book is done, the cistern is empty.
So any one book of yours is a reflection of who and what you were when you wrote it?
After both Jack and Margery I didn’t even know how to write a sentence. I had used those sentences up, especially the sentence from Margery. I didn’t know how to begin again.
So it sounds like you’re saying there is a typical kind of sentence within each particular work.
Yes, I think there is.
Could you give an example?
In Margery, the sentences have a lilt that derives from Margery’s prose, an attractive flat-footedness, a beat that asserts itself again and again. The Bob and L. story has a different rhythm, which is part of the reason why those sections are so jarring.
L. is my object in the prose sequence “The Visit” as well. We had taken a trip to Portugal together and those prose poems are about that visit. That sentence is more of a whisper.
With the stories I’m writing now about Ed, my former lover who appears in Elements of a Coffee Service, part of the text comes directly from his journals, and another part he wrote for me. I asked him to write about the day that he was diagnosed and I composed a section by reforming what he had written. He left me his dream journals as well. So, even though this book is being written after his death, it’s a collaboration.
It’s fascinating that you have access to his dream journals.
Well, I started him writing them when we were together in the early 70s. Ed was such a great dreamer—every morning he would relate dream after dream to me in great detail going backwards into the night. I used to pillage them for my poetry (laughs).
So, you have been collaborating with Ed for a long time!
We were artists together. He would draw me, I would write poems about our relationship, first how good it was, then how fucked up. I plan to make all the weather in the book come from his dreams. He was always watching the sky and painting the sky and so I think it will be good to have all the atmosphere come from his dreams.
In doing so, you’re creating an interesting formal constraint for yourself. Do you do such things in most of your books?
In Margery, for instance, all the birds are real, even in her visions of the Holy Land, the right birds appear where and when they should. All the clothing is accurate. Other things are purposely anachronistic. Also, four words appear again and again throughout the book. I wanted the book to hang off them, as though the book were a longer version of those words: exalt, exasperate, abandon, amaze. I wanted the novel to be four words, as well as the longer version.
The prose poem “Mexico” from The Family Poems is a fascinating piece. It could have easily appeared in a collection of stories.
I suppose I’m proposing them all as poems, even though the stories are very much stories. My goal was to put narration back into poetry. My first book, Andy, was verse but it could have been recast as a story. I was using Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and other texts for models. What I’m working on now, “I, Boombox,” is an autobiography. It’s made up of my misreadings, which for me are like dreams, dreaming on the page. Put all these dreams together and you have a pretty complete autobiography.
What does misreading mean to you?
I fashioned this project so that I can recuperate something from my loss, because I make tons of errors. In the activity of misreading there is a kind of creative energy.
An instance when the subconscious is being pushed to the fore.
Pushing itself to the fore. I also like the idea of writing the poem until I die, like the Modernist long poem that is only interrupted by the author’s death. So, my catalogue of errors is my version of the Modernist long poem. It’s a disjunct autobiography. I need some disjunction and fragmentation in order to make writing recognizable to me as it describes the times and my own life, and as it is writing that knows itself as such.
In Family Poems, you often use the ampersand instead of writing out “and.” Why?
I liked the way it looked on the page. It created an interesting energy. Also, I see those poems expressing a kind of exasperation; I just want to push it, make it jumpy, and the ampersand is part of that.
You like to include personal material in your work. Have you ever said to yourself, “I can’t write this; it’s too personal”?
Many times, but that’s not reason enough to stop. Sometimes I will wonder quite a bit if I should keep something in. And it’s not what you would think. I don’t really care about sexual things—though combining sex with the abjections of age gives me pause, but not enough to press delete. In the novel I am working on, I talk about getting rejected by a certain press and how the rejection flattened me. Writers published by that press and the editors are still around. Now that’s embarrassing.
Reader still stands as your most substantial contribution to verse. It also seems very much a unified book.
Originally, all the pieces were called “Learning to Write” and I was quite a ways into the book before I abandoned that tile.
I wanted to return to the freedom of being a student, just trying things out. I was imitating and in a sense becoming those many writers, and each took me in a different direction, which staved off the pressure to produce work of high quality—or even more, to produce original work. That was the first idea for the book.
The book also seems like a collection of homages.
It explores the way one is taken over in the act of reading. Each poem is an instance of possession. When you read someone in a deep way your thoughts and your rhythms are taken over.
Then the book appears to explore the paradox that reading at once empowers you and dis-empowers you. In one sense you are learning a new vocabulary and becoming more knowledgeable; in another sense you commit to someone else’s style and vision.
Extends may be a better word than commit because you extend into somebody else’s world. Writers use your psychic life as a stage to enact whatever they wish. That’s the power of being a writer: to enter other people’s psychic life and stage a drama. Even if the drama occurs on a formal level, it’s still a drama.
Are you cognizant of this when you are writing?
It’s a structural part of the process. But I might want to foreground the reader-writer relationship
Like the end of “Mexico” where you ask the reader, “Tell me, given the options, where would your anger have taken you—where has it taken you?” I was no longer a voyeur in the narrator’s experience.
Yes, the direct address to the reader brings the relationship between reader and writer into the drama, which is one of the basic tenets of New Narrative.
Back to Reader, I was really moved by the prose poem “Hitler.”
There’s a bit of the Holocaust in all of my books—I don’t know why—and the effect Hitler had on the Jews. In Denny Smith I talk about his Americanizing the Jews. The prose poem “Hitler” was my attempt to record a moment of understanding: Hitler’s treatment of the Jews was not a punishment, it was to make something beautiful—that was his impulse.
A terrible minimalism. He was attempting to make what he thought was beautiful: a pure race. Before this revelation, I could only understand the camps as a kind of punishment.
Punishment suggests a certain kind of intimacy Hitler did not seem to have with the Jews. One punishes to redeem. When you punish someone you are invested in them.
I realized that was not the case for Hitler.
Were the earliest poems in Reader the ones you wrote for Kevin and Dodie?
No. The earliest ones were aimed at the grandest historical writers, Wordsworth and Basho for example.
How do these poems work when you read them to an audience?
Some I have only recently attempted, like the double-columned one about Jack Spicer.
Do you share with Kevin an obsession with Jack Spicer?
My obsession is nothing compared to his obsession (laughs). Jack Spicer was ours in a way. He was a local writer, almost tribal in spirit, who happened to be great. Spicer addressed our concerns, yet there’s plenty in him that will remain obscure. He grapples with the largest issues, and he expresses what one often feels as a gay man.
Your comment about portions of Spicer’s obscurity is spot on. Reading his work, I’ve often felt he was writing about something private he didn’t want to share.
Some of it was not meant to be understood, otherwise he would have written it differently. He also liked to travel in the direction of nonsense—nonsense was an important ingredient.
Did you carry some of that into your own work, perhaps writing private or obscure things that either a small group of people or no one could understand?
Let me put it this way: there may have been a small group who would have understood most of his personal references. He was kind of a court writer. There’s very little in my work that my smallest audience wouldn’t get. The obscurity in it is obscure to me too.
In your essay in Biting the Error, you talk about how critical theory was very important to you when you started out. You would, in your own word, “pillage” the texts of critical theorists to work through some of their ideas in your writing.
Oh, certainly, yes. Theory in the 70s meant Marxist theory for the most part. That’s a huge treasure house of critical writing that the world has. Walter Benjamin, the Frankfurt School, Theodor W. Adorno, Lukacs, Sartre. And then came Feminist Theory and to a lesser degree Gay Theory.
I was looking for ways to expand my own little point of view. These critics were giving me a larger frame. Here’s Georges Bataille talking about how sex, death, and community function all together. Who was talking about these things? Sex went from one’s local comedy to an event in the species, to the way our whole society is organized, to loss, to death. And so, without self- aggrandizement, I could see myself in a larger frame. I could hitch up to the largest economic forces, the largest cultural forces. What do we take for granted? How does power work in an intimate relationship. The feminists were talking about that. You understand how power works between classes, then you come home and mistreat your mate. All these shifts in scale created a different concept of what autobiography could be.
Elements of a Coffee Service was written under the spell of Walter Benjamin, his essays are both thinky, lyrical, and intimate—Benjamin and Barthes too. Bataille was a revelation for me. A few others have been as well. It felt like I’d been given a ladder to see over my wall. I don’t know them rigorously—I couldn’t teach a course on Derrida right now. I basically use these writers to help me understand my own experience. If they don’t give me access to my own experience, I’m not interested. I don’t need to know them like an academic who learns his subject rigorously. Bruce Boone is more like that; he’s a completist.
It sounds as if what is Bob Gluck at any given moment is very permeable.
I certainly hope so! The best reading is an uncertain reading. In an essay on Kathy Acker’s work I talk about this. We are educated to think that we should be able to know the meaning of a piece of writing, but what if the intention of the writing is to throw us into confusion, induce a state of wonder, and unravel the basic tenets of our experience?