Can you explain your role as cocurator? I would love to know more about the process of organizing, editing, and commenting on the work we see in the finished collection.
When I came along, the collection existed as a course packet David had been playing around with and perfecting for about 20 years. We solicited suggestions for new work, did some research ourselves, and ended up making a few additions and a couple cuts, but otherwise the collection is very much a product of David’s classroom-laboratory. If you’re familiar with Reality Hunger, you might remember that RH originated in much the some way—as a great “life-raft” of hundreds of quotations that he assembled and revised over many years.
It was my role to help transform the course packet of photocopies into a book/anthology. David and I worked very closely together on it throughout. I helped write and assemble the introduction, commentaries and taglines, and did lots of editing. David asked me to take the lead on the prose poem commentary because of my background in poetry, but basically we were cowriting all the way through.
Did you meet David Shields during your MFA at the University of Washington? How did the professional relationship for this project form?
Exactly. I met David during the second year of an MFA in poetry. I’d been trying to write standard narrative lyric poems during my first year—I loved, for example, Plath’s Ariel—but my writing process sort of exploded or imploded (not sure which) over the summer. Suddenly, I was fascinated with the art of arranging fragments (combination vs. composition). David always tells students you have to find the form that “releases your deepest intelligence,” and his course in the personal essay exposed me to new formal options when I was open and searching. He was, and has been, an incredibly important teacher to me, and that is the foundation of our relationship. We both love the essay form, especially collage essay. I came at it from a background in psychology and poetry and he from a background in fiction.
Anyways, after graduation I started helping out on all sorts of little research projects. Several months later the anthology idea came up. At the time, David had just finished up a couple of other collaborations, and we had recently coauthored a review essay of Jonathan Safran-Foer’s Tree of Codes, so we had already established a collaborative writing process.
Can you tell us what it has been like to work with Shields, whose previous work and personality have been so passionately discussed in literary communities?
David’s energy is boundless. He works incredibly hard all day, every day. He is unabashedly passionate. He follows his excitement to the next project. He’s hugely determined, never drops the ball. I walk slowly and work slowly. I’m a details person. I’m cautious. David is fast and full-force and provocative. Often, we are very complementary.
The collection is broken into thirteen chapters, chronologically representing stages in a human life. How do you feel that the individual works change when positioned in this ordered system? Are there one or two works that stand out to you as favorites?
This is absolutely one of my favorite elements of the book—the way it makes an argument, a sweeping shape. Each essay, story, or poem in the book gets recruited to help sketch out that larger human story. I love that the book isn’t organized strictly by literary technique (prose poem, collage) or strictly by theme (lovers’ quarrel, happiness) but instead that the two strategies coexist under the umbrella-metaphor. This creates lots of texture, variety, and interesting collisions.
The first chapter, “Object,” represents the first stage in the life cycle: birth. Each selection orbits around a lost or troublesome object (a fedora, a scarf left behind in a taxi cab, a David Smith sculpture, a stolen wallet). So, there are four separate stories but placed in the same room together, they drive home this beautiful metaphor that at birth we become objects in the world.
In terms of highlights, I’m partial to the “Decades” chapter, which moves from Leonard Michaels’ “In the Fifties” (a gorgeous, list-poem of an essay) to Wayne Koestenbaum’s “My 1980s” (also one of my favorites) to Barry Hannah’s “The Wretched Seventies” to S.L. Wisenberg’s “Brunch.” In this chapter you can feel the torque of the book’s argument: we are painfully alive; then the next generation comes onstage and we’re gone.
You currently work for Poetry Northwest, which strives to adapt to the “changing circumstances of publishing and the demands of growing and maintaining an audience in the digital age.” In what ways do you see the call for brevity in art, and increasing digitization of the everyday, overlapping or interacting?
Strange that we think of brevity and digitization going together when actually it’s the digital/virtual world that’s so vast and the printed word that is bound. While making a beautiful book is expensive, the web is cheap and enormous. We can fill it and fill it with data and the womb of it just keeps stretching.
The problem, though, is that at a certain point the human brain stops processing information. We get numb. My aunt likes to say her “pixels are full.” Brevity is a powerful strategy in the age of information (or to borrow a term from the business world, in this era of “infobesity”) because it’s an antidote to that dead, overfull feeling. If you can captivate people immediately—that is, make an offering that generates immediate pleasure and value—you can cut through. The very brief, well-crafted joke or quote or story or poem or aphorism makes information electric again.
That said, print remains the focus at Poetry Northwest and also at PageBoy Magazine, the other Seattle-based publication I help out with. Both magazines, though, have developed digital avatars. (I should say I stole the concept of a “web avatar” from an essay by Wendy Willis in Poetry Northwest‘s Social Media Issue. Willis and Zach Savich both wrote about the effect of social media on poetry and those essays are now available online here and here. In general, the web content is probably lighter and funnier and flashier and augmentative and the print content is more serious, fetishable, meant to be reread.
What’s ironic to me is that while print feels more permanent, more immortalizing, it’s books that can actually get lost or tossed, which can become unrecoverable to the culture; the web feels ephemeral, light, casual, but it’s the web that’s the more unforgiving archive of our words.
What are your plans for future projects? What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a project jokingly called “Impasse” because it’s taking so long to write, but also because it’s a collection of essays on that theme. A few of the inspirations for the project include ballet choreographer George Balanchine, poet Lyn Hejinian, my boss (who is a 93-year-old blind man), and many other artists, alive and dead.
In general, my motto for the project, and in life, is Montaigne’s: “Que sais-je?” (What do I know?).
You have mentioned psychology, academia, dance, fragmentation—what are some of your other influences and inspirations? How would you describe your own creative process?
In terms of process, I’m still very much a social scientist. My favorite phase of writing is “data collection.” The human world is still the laboratory, and the discipline is still the observatory—whether at an art museum, in the park, at a café, or on the bus. I like to go to the movies and write in the dark, or set up in public and record the scene like a camera, without thinking or editing. It’s a reactive rather than creative practice. I make notes, archives, lists, and from those extract—let’s call it—the statistically significant language and facts.
As you might imagine, I’m left with billions of notes. They’re all over my room and brain. Eventually, the notes get “coded,” or categorized by theme. The eventual synthesis of strange little artifacts from different universes into an essay or poem is my second favorite part of the writing process. It’s the way my bad science becomes art. In “Creation,” which as you mentioned was my contribution to the anthology, there’s very little writing, per se. It’s about arrangement, placement.
I love the way you describe the web as an “unforgiving archive of our words.” Can you speak to the impact that you hope to have as a writer and an artist? What are some of your long-range creative goals?
For me, it’s really about making an offering, a donation, and one derived from meticulous observation. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says the writer should be studying literature, not the world. If anything, I see art situated in perfect service to the world. Maybe this is a ridiculous metaphor, but I want the writing to be a kind of jewelry-tree for life’s earrings, necklaces, and mojo-rings. Or a skeleton for life’s meat, skin, and blood to hang on.
My parents are both doctors, and my dad says that when he spent a year doing research, he started to really miss the clinic. In clinic, you know you’re being useful. You’re putting on a cast, you’re straightening bones. I think that’s the hardest part of making art—just not knowing whether the work will matter to anyone else.