Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"I Never Wore Earplugs. That Would Have Been Cheating."

Johnny Ramone's autobiography Commando is exactly what I expected. If you've watched any of the early-2000s interviews with Ramone, you know what you'll get here: Johnny's version in Johnny's voice. There is in Commando, as there was in John Cummings' personality, excessive order, and more than a little meanness, and, also like him, there is little stylistic excess. I never met him; I'm friendly with many people who knew him personally and so I'm familiar with his reputation as a Right Wing taskmaster with little patience and a fascistic control of his band's finances and image. In Commando his voice is dry and forthright (you can hear the Borough accent), lacking in self-interrogation. Orwell famously said, "An autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats." Ramone seems to have heard Orwell, however distantly. He doesn't spare himself the occasional self-criticism (granted, "Maybe it was a little out of character for me" is about as revealing as he gets) and he's not shy about exposing some bad decisions and poor judgement, especially in his reckless, aimless adolescence. Commando is hardly Ramone's end-of-life mea culpa, an opportunity to sensitively, unsparingly essay his life for telling contradictions and graphic self-awareness. Essentially, what governs Commando is a late-life shrug: we did what we did as best we could.

I'm a little surprised at—and a bit uneasy with—how appealing I find Ramone's voice. I think that I would've loved talking to him; we could have discussed baseball and rock and roll all night long, and when the subject turned to politics I would've dodged the issues on which I knew we wouldn't agree. But I would certainly have known where he stood. Our shared ground might have been broader than I would've guessed. On rock and roll's joys, myths, and promises, Ramone is great. "I’ve always thought you’re better off playing shorter," he declared flatly.
Ramones songs were basically structured the same as regular songs, but played fast, so they became short. When I saw the Beatles at Shea Stadium, they played a half-hour show. I figured that if the Beatles played a half-hour at Shea Stadium, the Ramones should only do about fifteen minutes. You get in your best material, and leave them wanting more. I don’t think anyone should play for more than an hour.
That's a pretty brilliant ethos, and served the Ramones, and rock and roll, well. Touchingly (ridiculously), Ramone genuinely felt that his band, along with the Clash, was going to become huge, epochal stars and were going to change rock and roll in a revolutionary and permanent way, become the Beatles to the Clash's Rolling Stones. When he admitted to himself that this wasn't going to happen—around the time of End of the Century's commercial disappointment in 1980—life in the Ramones became "a job," the place where Ramone went to work, didn't feel the need to hang socially with his fellow employees (Dee Dee, Joey, etc.), and came home, punching the clock like any blue-collar guy, like his hard-working father, a bar owner and, later, Union rep. In an early 20th Century, self-made-man, charming kind of way, Ramone had a goal: when he had a million in the bank, he was going to hang up his Mosrite and retire in sunny Los Angeles. In 1996, that's precisely what he did (acknowledging that he made considerably more money after retirement through Ramones merchandising).

There are some great nuggets in the book: Ramone's love of rock and roll was ignited by the jukebox at the scruffy bar owned by his dad (Johnny credits "the nameless guy who changed the records"); his ticket stubs from mid-60s Stones and Beatles shows (including Shea Stadium in 1965); Johnny's flipping the bird on the Ramones' first album cover—for decades he was disappointed that so few people appreciated that gesture (distracted by the legendary iconography, I'd never noticed); in 1978 before Elvis Costello performed on, and infamously changed songs during, Saturday Night Live, the Ramones had been asked to replace the Sex Pistols in the slot; they'd refused, via Johnny ("We don't substitute for anybody"); the band turning their backs on the jacket of their last album, 1995's ¡Adiós Amigos!, to better shield their fans from their lined, 40-something faces. Johnny Ramone's story—a borough-bred misfit and juvee, lost after failing at military school, walking hazily through years of drug use and petty crimes, experiencing an epiphany one afternoon on the streets of Forrest Hills ("I don't know what it was, God maybe, but it wasn't something I had heard before") after which he cleaned up, devoted himself to crappy construction jobs, assuming his lot in life, meets up with like-minded rock and roll nuts, gets let go from his Union-protected job via Affirmative Action (so goes the tale), revs up his dormant rebellious, jingoistic side, starts a rock and roll band, butts head with authority, wins, loses, goes to work for twenty years, and retires a millionaire—is utterly, amusingly, American. Of the final fade:
I knew that someday it had to end. What a great job, what great fans we had. I mean, there are people who really have to work for a living. They work in coal mines; they sweep streets; they collect garbage. Being in a band was taxing on the mind because of all the travel, and there were certain pressures, but it was nothing like real work that most people do. I'm sure baseball is more grueling. I was very lucky.
Ramone's personal creed—his job was to work hard with diligence, and to capitalize on luck—didn't leave much room for dissent. He's frankly exasperated with Joey Ramone's life-long Obsessive Compulsive Disorder ("There is no way for me to understand this affliction....I saw it as being irresponsible and unorganized"), Dee Dee's erratic drug use and personality, and the European lifestyle in general. (One of the funniest photos in the book is of a sourly glum Ramone parked out front of a hotel in France, the look on his face saying, there's no baseball, there are no ice cubes, the shower's over the toilet....) It appears that Johnny Ramone rarely took side glances as he lived: everything he wanted, cared for, was straight ahead in the form of tangible, practical goals: a dollar figure in the bank, Republican national might, mercifully short photo sessions, milk and cookies after a show and ESPN Sports Center in the hotel room that night. Anyone who threatened to pull him away from his goal-obsessed march—band members, messy romance, drug abuse, personal sloppiness, hippies, producers—were merely, barely, tolerated. He had work to do.

Judging from people I've spoken with who knew Ramone, this stubbornness and narrow-mindedness could be wearing, and I'm putting that mildly. Confined between book covers, his personality is appealing, if odious at times. Entertainingly predictable. I laughed a lot—you know what you're getting, and what's coming, with Ramone. Many have said that if Ramone hadn't been the whip-cracking, unyielding force that he was, the Ramones might not have lasted beyond 1978. And, yes, rock and roll would have been lesser because of that. Unless, of course, you agree with Johnny himself, who honestly admits that most Ramones albums in the 1980s and 1990s were sub par, and that they were looking embarrassingly old by the end.

Commando's final chapter is difficult to read: Ramone is essentially narrating his own demise, detailing trips to cancer doctors, radiation treatment, genuine suffering and distress, with panicked and wounded cracks challenging his stoic facade. ("By the time you are reading this book, I might not be here," he writes. Ramone died in 2004.) His philosophy of life is not going to be fair, it's going to be life appears to have buoyed him up at the end, that and the support of his wife Linda and their many friends. The book ends, appropriately, with lists. It is revealing that Johnny Ramone's personality can be evoked by a list—he was unsubtle, highly organized, and driven by ranked priorities:

Johnny Ramone's All-Time Top Ten

1. Baseball

2. Rock and roll

3. Politics

4. Elvis

5. Horror films

6. Film

7. Rock films

8. Science fiction films

9. Reference books

10. Television


And this: no one looked better with a guitar.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Problems of Being Alive Right Now: A Conversation with video essayist John Bresland

John Bresland
In 1991 Phillip Lopate published "In Search of the Centaur," an essay interrogating the possibilities of the essay-film, a hybrid genre "that barely exists." Writing years before technological advances made film and videomaking an easier and cheaper endeavor, Lopate wrote that "the camera is not a pencil, and it is rather difficult to think with it in the way an essayist might." He dismisses examples of narrative films that don't feel—or, see—like essays, citing the "confusion between a reflective, self-conscious style and an essayistic one," adding, "While an essay must reflect or meditate, not all meditative sensibilities are essayistic." The essay-film, as Lopate sees it, must exhibit five qualities: 1) an essay-film must have words, in the form of a text either spoken, subtitled, or intertitled; 2) the text must represent a single voice; 3) the text must represent an attempt to work out some reasoned line of discourse on a problem; 4) the text must impart more than information; it must have a strong, personal point of view; and 5) the text’s language should be as eloquent, well written and interesting as possible.

Lopate wrote: "I think this sudden frequency with which the term 'essay-film' is being optimistically and loosely invoked in cinematic circles is not surprising."
Right now, there is a hunger in film aesthetics and film practice for the medium to jump free of its genre corral, and to reflect on the world in a more intellectually stimulating and responsible way. When a good film with nonfiction elements comes along that provokes thought, such as [Yvonne] Rainer’s Privilege, it is understandably hailed as an essay-film. And it may turn out in the end that there is no other way to do an essay-film, that the type of essay-film I have been calling for is largely impractical, or overly restrictive, or at odds with the inherent nature of the medium. But I will go on patiently stoking the embers of the form as I envision it, convinced that the truly great essay-films have yet to be made, and that this succulent opportunity awaits the daring cine-essayists of the future.
John Bresland is one of a group of recent filmmakers who has dared. I became familiar with Bresland via his contribution to the anthology Essayists on the Essay, a version of his "On the Origin of the Video Essay" that appeared originally in Blackbird in Spring 2010. I'm intrigued by both the possibilities and the limitations of the video essay. I'm not someone who speaks in/with visual grammar, yet I'm nonetheless taken by the notion of following one's camera gaze, a first-person point of view, into the world of space and time. Why can't a video camera be as idiosyncratic a tool as my keyboard? Where do the two overlap? Part ways? Bresland's voice-driven essays blend the personal (fatherhood, driving) and the social (environmental concerns, the blitheness of a nation watching Seinfeld as Hutu extremists commit mass genocide), knifing through the world with precision, pausing in reflective takes, thinking on (and with) the screen as his camera probes and documents. Any given shot might be clearly a POV—private, autobiographical, personally-grounded—or it might be journalistic—present but detached. It's this blend of sensibility and witnessing, a dynamic to which no essay is a stranger, that intrigues me.

A suite of Bresland's essays can be found on his website:

POV ("Zero Station" screenshot, 2008)
POV ("Zero Station" screenshot, 2008)
Bresland in the world ("Mangoes" screenshot, 2010)

Bresland teaches creative writing, filmmaking, and digital production at Northwestern University. His audio essays have aired on public radio's Weekend America, his video essays have appeared at Ninth Letter, Blackbird, and Fourth Genre, and his print essays at North American Review, Brevity, and elsewhere.  He's coauthor with Marilyn Freeman of Crafting the Video Essay, forthcoming from University of Chicago Press in 2013.

Recently I virtually sat down with Bresland and asked him about his work.   


How did you get involved with film and video making? Has it been a lifelong interest?

I grew up on Chicago’s far south side in Calumet City, where the River Oaks theater now sits vacant. In the 70’s it was one of the best theatres in all of Chicagoland, with a huge curved screen. I saw Jaws there, Star Wars, Logan’s Run. These effects-heavy films were thrilling for all the reasons you’d expect a seven year-old to be thrilled, but in the car ride home and in days following, I spent a lot more time thinking of the technical side than the story or its characters. I wanted to know how that robotic shark worked, how land speeders and light sabers could be made real. The physical and technical aspects of filmmaking have always excited me—the act of making stuff. I was an avid reader of Mad magazine, which taught me how to question the films I saw, and I loved Fangoria and other film magazines that showed how the sausage was made. I was born at the right time. By my early teens, camcorders were affordable. I did all the usual stuff: filmed myself putting cats into microwaves and pulling out—thanks to miracle of in-camera editing—one fully cooked meat loaf. MTV, I’m sure, was a major influence. The idea of lyrics doing one thing while images did another was shocking to me.

How exactly did Mad magazine teach you to question the films you saw? I'm assuming via the parodies? That magazine influenced a generation of adolescents in such different ways. 

One of their legendary writers, Dick DeBartolo, wrote the best parodies. Some of the titles stay with me after decades—Raiders of a Lost ArtRoboslop. As a kid growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, Mad was about the only voice of dissent, the only venue I had access to that suggested something dark happening to popular film. I suppose Hollywood has always been a commercial enterprise. And even the New Wave guys like Truffaut and Godard were intent on making a commercially viable product. But before Spielberg and Lucas came along, personal films like Five Easy Pieces and Badlands and obscurely beautiful films like Vanishing Point—films that were about something—were flourishing. Whatever cultural or market forces that ruined commercial radio, made it so lifeless and irrelevant in my lifetime, have also bled popular cinema. Anyway, Mad magazine made me feel connected to a sort of shadow world that existed beneath or beside mass culture. Of course DeBartolo was making fart jokes, too—a boy’s got to live. But he was questioning everything about our culture of entertainment. Before Mad, it never occurred to me to question anything.

It seems to me that when an essayist travels through the world, mentally, imaginatively, it's a much different experience than a videomaker traveling through the world through time and, especially, through space, with a defined POV shot. You say, "[essayistic] asking—whether inscribed in ancient mud, printed on paper, or streamed thirty frames per second—is central to the essay, is the essay." The impulse to essay may be the same for writers and videomakers, but the methodology is different. How does that impact the video essay?

No argument there, Joe. Print and video are different beasts—though I’d argue there’s a fair amount of congruence between these forms. Right now I’m reading, or re-reading, The Gutenberg Elegies, a beautiful collection of essays about reading in the electronic age—a book all the more impressive because Sven Birkerts published it in the mid-90’s, well before digital books began outselling their physical counterparts. In one essay about the pleasures and limitations of listening to books on tape, Birkerts locates what I believe is the thing that makes the act of reading so powerful, so personal and perfect. “We don’t just read the words,” he writes, “we dream our lives in their vicinity.” Readers have room to pause and re-read and reflect and dream in a way audiences of time-based media can not. Once the film is rolling, the audience is more or less captive to its pace. Blockbusters and TV, generally, leave no room for viewers to dream their lives into the image. One of the reasons Jaws was so good is because we never really see the shark. Not until the end, and when we do, when it’s chomping idiotically on Robert Shaw, it’s disappointing. It’s just a big stupid rubber machine. But until then, it’s a thrilling shark. The most terrifying thing you can imagine.

Balzac said, "If we could but paint with the hand what we see with the eye." What are the video essay's limitations? And what, to your mind and in your experience, can be done in a video essay that can't be done in a conventional literary essay?

I don’t know that time is a limitation, but it certainly shapes the product. If, for example, you wanted to author a poem for the screen, you might have to make some concessions. On the page, the reader can read and re-read a highly distilled poetic line. But if your poem were committed on the screen, and played only once, the audience has only one chance to absorb that line. This, by the way, is why I have trouble when I attend poetry readings. I feel like my role is spectatorial, a downgrade from reading. As the lines get away from me, as the poem becomes a performance, I grow increasingly passive. In any time-based form like film or radio or live performance, I think there’s a risk of pacifying the audience, of doing violence to the imagination. So, how to avoid that? How do you make the video essay or poem as active and co-creative as a literary experience? Is it even possible? I think it is. When I see films by Kubrick, when the image is never quite what it first appears to be, I think it’s definitely possible. And it doesn’t take big budget virtuosity like his. Agnes Varda and Ross McElwee and Errol Morris and Werner Herzog have been doing it for years, on a dime. What they’re doing, I think, is profiting from the screen’s ability to convey—in seconds, sometimes less—rich human moments with a profound visceral power and immediacy. I hate to say the obvious thing, here, but who wouldn’t want to see these two features come together in an art form? Film and literature are already twined in the academy, sharing floor space in the same department. It was only a matter of time before technology caught up.

It's been suggested that a contemporary person sees more images in a week than a Victorian could have seen in a lifetime. If this is true, what are the implications of this for the contemporary essay? 

Well, the more I learn about the Victorians, the less Victorian they seem. A friend of mine once read to me a passage from some Victorian smut, a sort of 19th Century Penthouse Letters. I have a terrible memory, but I remember the line she read verbatim, and this was years ago: I buttered her twice before uncunting. Now, I realize that’s not the sort of image you’re talking about. But when I think about the visual arts in the 19th century in the context of now, of today, I can’t help but wonder if we’re the ones who are deprived. Because our postmodern brains are instructed by the code of cinema, we tend to look at images with one expectation: that they move. For years I used to wonder why, after trawling though museum after museum, I felt so disappointed and helpless. I eventually figured out that I can’t look at, say, a Modigliani nude, without a sense of disappointment that she doesn’t get up, pull a shot of espresso, maybe do some light calisthenics.

I'm curious if you agree with Lopate that an essay-film must have words, in the form of spoken text or subtitles. Could you part with Lopate here? Your films employ voice-over. Can you imagine an entirely silent essay-film? 

The Qatsi trilogy by Godfrey Reggio has no language—not English, anyway, just a smattering of Hopi. I think the first and probably best film of that trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi, comes pretty close to succeeding as a wordless essay. The visuals are almost always evocative—especially the human portraits, where the dignity of human beings, even those in absurd circumstances, suggests reason to be hopeful about our fate. If Koyaanisqatsi is the exception, though, it proves the rule: I agree with Lopate. I subscribe to his view that the video essay features language, in part because we’re talking not just about a form, but a tradition that’s well established. One facet of the video essay that sets it apart from, say, the documentary is its tendency to question the self, to dispense with the myth of objectivity. That questioning, if it’s to go deeper than basic supposition, is probably going to require language. What helped Reggio, I think, was the score by Philip Glass. It’s pretty great. The mistake I made the first few times I heard it—and saw it—was thinking it was music. Well, it’s certainly music, but it’s something else, too. Glass is the questioning voice of that film. His score rarely takes the image at face value; it only ever comments on the image, questions it, argues with it. Glass himself has said that the job of the composer is not to make music that “matches” the image. He believes the composer’s job is to observe accurately the distance between the image and the music. I believe that’s the video essayists job as well—to observe accurately the distance between what is seen, what is heard and what is said. 

You say, "That the image resists the precision of language is indeed a complication for the essayist. Much in the way, I would argue, that pianos complicate singing. That is to say another skill is called for but the payoff can be sublime." This is intriguing. Could you elaborate?

I forget the precise numbers, but roughly one if four Americans right now owns a smartphone. This can’t be true, right? Because if you factor in children and elderly, this basically means everybody is carrying around a smartphone, or will be very soon as all phones will soon be smartphones—capable of acquiring and editing images and sound, not to mention Kindle-capable. Have you been to a lunch counter recently? No books anymore. And few newspapers. Just glowing screens. The primary conveyance now for text is digital. And since digital doesn’t care whether it’s conveying text or images or sounds—it’s all data—our primary means for “reading” is now equipped with images and sound. Predicting the future is a sure way to look stupid, but I have to say: when text and images and sound are all housed together in the same digital environment, it’s inevitable that walls separating those modes of communication will become increasingly porous. In twenty years, I believe we will mean something slightly different when we use the word “writing,” something a little less logocentric. Text—good old literary text—isn’t going anywhere, of course. But I believe fewer and fewer writers will choose to stop there.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


origin, early 15c., from M.Fr. origine, from L. originem (nom. origo) "rise, beginning, source," from stem of oriri "to rise, become visible, appear." A source that is visible, or rendered visible via the imagination, language, art. Pourquoi.



We only store in memory images of value. Patricia Hampl

We are entirely made up of bits and pieces, woven together so diversely and so shapelessly that each one of them pulls its own way at every moment. Montaigne

Monday, March 19, 2012

Hoodoo You Love

I'm working on a week's worth of posts about Australian band Hoodoo Gurus for Hendrik Jasnoch's One Week // One Band site (it will run the first week of April). Here are three songs spanning the great Gurus' career.

"I Want You Back," Stoneage Romeos (1984)

"If Only...," In Blue Cave (1996)

"When You Get To California," Mach Schau (2004)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

An essay is, an essay is not...


The essay is science, minus the explicit proof. José Ortega y Gasset

The essay is a conceptually constructed work of art; it is a logical structure, but one where logic begins to sing. Enrique Anderson Imbert

The function of the essayist...would seem to be to reconcile poetry and philosophy, to offer a strange bridge between the world of images and that of concepts.... Mariano Picón-Salas

The most richly satisfying essays are those which make the best not of one, not of two, but of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist.... Aldous Huxley

A jesting Pilate who asks questions but doesn't wait for answers is the archetypal personification of the essay, of essay-writing and essayists.... But it is never glimpsed where that wild meadow has been banned from human consciousness even as a memory or possibility, where walls have become absolute and walking itself has become a round of compulsion and routine. Michael Hamburger

The essayist, really, is an arbitrary wanderer over a theme that remains hidden. Guillermo Díaz-Plaja

...the essay is, after all, a sort of secular sermon, including skepticism, and written by the snake. William Gass

In the essay according to Montaigne, the practice of internal reflection is inseparable from the inspection of exterior reality. Jean Starboinski

The essay is not a weighing, an evaluation of ideas; it is a swarm of ideas-words. André

An essay is not a report of research conducted in a laboratory; it is the laboratory itself.... Gabriel Zaid

The essay as jeremiad. The essay as exercise in nostalgia. The essay as an exhibition of a temperament. Etc. Susan Sontag

It's not that the essay in unsusceptible to genre "definition"; it's rather that the nature of the essay asks one to resist categories, starting with itself. Rachel Blau Duplessis


Lively conversation via Essayists on the Essay, eds. Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French

"The Human Condition" via Berlin Black and White

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

An Origin Story

In the photograph, my brother and I are on the couch, we're kids, it's either his or my birthday, and presents surround us, colorful paper splayed open, boxes dug into, the looks on our faces saying Yes to each other and to the bounty, other siblings framed out of the photo, absent though certainly there, the sun leaning through the high living room window in the kind of anointment I'll only imagine, or pretend, later, but what's in the photo that lasts? Love between brothers, that other language, the awkwardness of being on display, and the end table, the wooden hinge of the 1970s plaid upholstered L-couch, pulled a foot or so away from the wall just to the edge of the blue shag carpet against the tantalizing edge of which our dog Molly could rest her paws, but no more, the end table is where I'd go, crawl to on those days when I was peevish, or felt gone though surrounded, and wanted to stare inside myself and try and make sense without the language to do much of anything but fail to name the urge, where I'd fold myself and fit into, my back against the side of the couch, utterly hidden from the family, thus the world, my mom a presence nearby in squeaky shoes, Molly a scent, if that, skittering by and away, brothers and friends as vanished as if they'd never existed, there under the end table, where I'd sit for hours, minutes in grown-up time, vowing I'd speak only when spoken to, dusky in the end table dusk, the melancholy whir of the washing machine and dryer beneath me muffled by the floor, that happy light that once blessed two boys now barely managing to squeeze in there under the end table where I'd go, from where I'd emerge, ready to join again that which I'd expelled, the quiet and solitude I'd gone and found my new scent, but fading, fated.

Friday, March 9, 2012

I Would Have Had to Have Been a Different Person to Listen to Hüsker Dü

maelstrom not being my modus operandi in the 1980s, raised as I was on the Monkees and the "Red and Blue" albums, tuned as I was to the Beatlesesque, to hooks-per-minute, to T.A.M.I. R&B, to Weasel on WHFS 102.3 FM carrying the torch of 1960s AM radio into the alternative decade, noise being for me something I knew all too well internally as a kind of obsessive litany of voices, of personas watching me watching me watch myself, seeking instead through rock and roll a way to lift myself out of my lousy self, a self insisting on analysis and over thinking, seeking in rock and roll grins and self-mockery and good times against the earnestness I heard in hardcore and post-hardcore, and let's face it, the fear I felt in the scowling face of that music, chagrined to this day that I turned down an invitation from the quiet girl who lived above the "Zoo bar" on Connecticut Avenue to see the Dead Kennedy's, turned her down out of silliness, couldn't let go, because as a punk she scared me, not as a "punk," but as a woman who was willing to hear more than I was willing to hear in noise and in formlessness, who stood a few feet closer to chaos, admitting to darkness that I indulged in the books I read and the movies I watched and the bad poetry I wrote, but darkness that I avoided in amplification, preferring Mod to Rocker, skinny tie to Doc Marten boots, the Slickee Boys to Minor Threat, and so I avoided the roar, and when I listen to Hüsker Dü now and regret what I missed—Zen Arcade and New Day Rising, the transcendent shows, the camaraderie among folks who in my puniness unnerved me—I know that I would have had to have been a different person then, a kid willing to fall into the limitless darkness of a mouth roaring, letting go of pop songs and formalism, of mid-60s hooks and riffs and their modest, three-button suit revolts, I would have had to have let go, and when I did and went to see Hüsker Dü at the Psychedelly in Bethesda in 1984, my fears were founded, though played off coolly, as I stood as near as I would have ever let myself to the roar, the loudest show I'd seen, loud in Yes to the anarchic and disorder as well as pure wattage and sound, as Mould and Grant stomped and screamed and required that I look where they're looking, too, my ears ringing and my face red, and when the kid jumped up onstage to sing along to a song and forgot the words and stood next to Mould looking like a lost kid, humiliated, the complicated look on his face was a relief to me, something human, something behind a pose, a kindness, actually, betrothed me from somewhere, so that if I had let go and gone down into the frightening roar this kid and I might've shared a moment of understanding, or vulnerability, something, had I let go.

Photo of Bob Mould via artrocity.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Being Candid: A Conversation with Robert Vivian

In "The Observer Observing," Leonard Kreigel writes, "One must seek out the world one inhabits. That is the only obligation an essayist can not get beyond." This is a commitment that Robert Vivian embraces enthusiastically, if quietly. Vivian has published two essay collections, Cold Snap As Yearning (2001) and The Least Cricket of Evening (2011), as well as three novels, all with University of Nebraska Press. Born and raised in the Cornhusker state, Vivian currently teaches at Alma College in central Michigan. I admire his essays for many reasons: their beauty, their stubbornness, their nervy risk of sentimentality and preciousness, their fearlessness in overreaching, their gentle insistence that the ordinary matters, that an exploration of light tumbling town a basement stairwell might be valuable beyond a poetic song of the mundane, that that light might tell us something about where we find beauty, or where we ignore it.

I reviewed Cold Snap As Yearning for The Georgia Review ten years ago, saying, "Akin to a lyric poem, the characteristic Vivian essay expounds upon a single image or a simple narrative moment, indulging in meditative vertical time as the rest of the world rushes forward, absorbed with itself. Vivian seems nearly obsessed with Walter Pater’s observation that all art 'constantly aspires toward the condition of music,' and with Stéphane Mallarmé’s notion that 'the dream' of great art is to suggest rather than to name." Later in the review, I add, "Vivian’s subjects are ordinary—childhood epiphanies, the bleak siren mysteries of friends, neighbors, homeless, and Midwestern landscapes—but his tireless attention to the emotional origin of his subjects is extraordinary.  These essays are less about anything solid, finally, than about language and the imagination, and memory’s stubborn insistence that both must give shape and substance to the world as perceived.  'One does not choose one’s subject matter,' Flaubert wrote, 'one submits to it.'  Vivian’s essays are truly haunted by their sources."

In "Defense of the Essay," reprinted in the new, fantastic anthology Essayists on the Essay, Enrique Anderson Imbert says, "The essay is a conceptually constructed work; it is a logical structure, but one where logic begins to sing.... But conferring unity to something is already a poeticizing act. Any construction is animated with a touch of poetry when its interior unity has become visible..." In the same collection Ander Monson is quoted recently saying of the form: "Each essay we read is as close as we can get to another mind. It is a simulation of the mind working its way through a problem." Vivian's essays reflect both of these assumptions of the genre. In his recent essays, Vivian engages eastern Europe and its tumultuous history and setting, but his work always circles back to the local: the aimless walk, the reflective drive, the yard, the mind at work making sense.

Recently I virtually sat down with Vivian and asked him about his work.   


You've written plays and fiction. Your essays are essentially non-dramatic, in that they tend to explore emotional/ and intellectual moments rather than to dramatize extended scenes. What draws you to writing essays? Is the impulse different from the impulse to create drama or novels? 

I started writing essays as a break from the rather bleak plays I was working on at the time; I was under the erroneous impression that somehow plays were more important or serious than creative nonfiction. I no longer believe this, thank goodness—and am drawn to writing prose—nonfiction or fiction—because I love playing with language at the sentence level. In fact, I have no hierarchy anymore pertaining to genres. I love all the genres but find myself writing more and more fiction and essays. Writing essays is a great delight in the sense that I come to know something about the world or myself through the intricate play of language and metaphor. I do think the impulse to write essays is a bit different than writing in other forms; this impulse seems to come from a deep questioning and wonder about what I see, experience, or ponder.

It seems with the "Women" section in Cold Snap As Yearning that you're attracted to the marginal or marginalized figure. Is that accurate? Do you feel that's the case in Least Cricket of Evening? Throughout your work? What attracts you to subject matter? 

I am attracted to figures on the margin; my hunch is that those living closer to the edge feel and experience life more pungently and perhaps more truthfully than most, albeit in often difficult straits. I think of what Flannery O'Connor writes in one of her essays in Mystery and Manners: that we're all essentially poor in the sense that we lack or crave something, which is a fundamental part of the human condition. O'Connor was responding to a criticism of one of her readers who said, "Tell that girl to stop writing about poor folks. I see 'em every day and get might tired of 'em." Or something to this effect. So yes, I do tend to write about and from the p.o.v. of such folks: I guess I feel like I'm one of them.

Is your essay style a response to your particular subjects, or more a product of your sensibility and temperament, your personality? 

I do tend to write meditative or lyrical essays, and I think this stems from my earliest literary love, which was poetry. Cynthia Ozick finds great affinities between poetry and creative nonfiction, and I agree with her: maybe it has something to do with the initiating or metaphorical spark, an image or a line that I can riff on and develop. The joy of writing for me resides in its stillness and silence; essentially, I view writing as a contemplative act. I'm rather impatient in every day life, but writing teaches me patience and stillness, two inestimable gifts. And the essays come out of these, I think.

What do you see as the contemporary value of the essay? 

I think the essay does something that no other form can: articulate the self at a very vulnerable and honest level, a level that's like a good friend talking to you about something he or she has experienced, wonders about, or needs to explore. In many ways it's a very intimate form, and this intimacy is part of its timeless value. We get to know the writer in a unique and singular way. The essay will always be relevant because it explores the deepest recesses of the human experience and dares to bring back an intimate and candid report. This is a timeless endeavor, and a precious one at that. 

Do you have a sense of how an essayist pushes through personality to arrive at a representative self free of bias and dogma? I'm interested in how you deal with the tension between solipsism and art in essay writing. 

I wrote a blog piece for Numéro Cinq ("A Few Thoughts On The Meditative Essay") that addresses this very question—of how a meditative essay, for example, can transcend the self by using it as a kind of booster rocket that, once used, is jettisoned into the atmosphere in order for the craft, or essay, to achieve escape velocity. The self is critical, of course, but if an essay stays only at this level with no other outreach, it can feel stifling or suffocating. This is an old idea: to use the particular—the self—as a gateway to the universal. It's a dance and a paradox, but a necessary one. 

Which essayists do you admire? 

So many essayists I admire! James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Richard Seltzer, Kathleen Norris, Thomas Merton, Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, dozens and dozens of others.

Are there any writers who prove especially difficult for your students?

Right now I'm teaching Dillard's For The Time Being, and some students find it difficult to create connective tissue between all the seeming disparities she "throws at" the reader, the nature of sand, clouds, numbers, and birth defects, just to name some elements. I try to gently tell them that there's actually a deeper pattern and counterpoint here of the macro and the micro, the temporal and the eternal, the relative and the absolute. It's the kind of layered complexity I never tire of trying to teach and unpack. The text is luminous with manifold allusions and connections, but it takes some work. 

Your books have been published exclusively with Nebraska. How did that relationship come about? 

I'm a very lucky writer in the sense that I have long-standing relationship with Nebraska Press. They published my first book and I've not really looked to publish anywhere else. My first editor was Ladette Randolph and my editor now is Kristen Elias Rowley. I cannot thank them enough. They understand what I'm trying to do even when I don't myself. What more could a writer ask for? I chalk it up to good luck and timing: when they initiated the Flyover Fiction Series, for example, I realized I need not send novels to any other publisher because the novels dealt with my native Nebraska. The only goal I've ever set myself is to write the strangest, most surprising books I can, and then to let the world accept them how it may. Nebraska gets this. They also publish very beautiful and diverse books. I'm honored to be one of their authors.

Any future books or projects you care to talk about? 

Right now I'm working on a longer work of fiction; I'm afraid to call it anything else. I've found the longer I can stay silent about a work-in-progress the more the subconscious can take over and do its deep work of dreaming. More than anything, I have to stay out of my own way.

Photo of Robert Vivian via Numéro Cinq