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


Richard Gilbert said...

Thanks for this great interview. I enjoyed Cold Snap as Yearning and it's wonderful to to hear Mr. Vivian's thoughts on the meditative essay, plus the link to his essay on that form is helpful.

For the Time Being is one of my favorite books, but I crashed and burned trying to teach it--admittedly to a class of non-majors, but still. I am having a similar experience right now with Dillard's An American Childhood, alas.

Joe Bonomo said...

My students balk at "Seeing," but when they recognize that the essay must be re-re-read and approached with a different idea of "thesis" than they're used to, they come around. If it's not a late afternoon class. "Living Like Weasels" is more digestible. I haven't given Time Being a shot.

Sophfronia said...

Thanks so much for this excellent interview. I read "Least Cricket of Evening" last month and absolutely loved it. Yes, there was a darkness to it as he walked with the marginalized people, but seeing them through his eyes was an ongoing revelation. It does not surprise me Vivian says he is one of them. Will read everything he's written. I'm now a fan.