Saturday, August 6, 2011

What Passes For Meat In Heaven: An interview Kim Gek Lin Short

GL: The The Bugging Watch and Other Exhibits (TBW&OE) is, to a certain extent, a story of grief and recovery. Harlan, one of the paired heroes/intimates of your beautiful book, wants to use the artifacts of his post-traumatic present to recover the past with his beloved and "cure his broken Toland." Toland, however, "touched everything" before she fell apart and away and therefore cannot be adequately preserved. Dan Magers at Sink Review was keen to note your curatorial interests in this book. And it sometimes seems like Harlan wants to collect his Toland back to life. I wonder if you could explain or at least comment on the link between grief and curatorship, between suffering and the longing for preservation in Harlan’s character.

KGLS: Hey Greg! Thanks for the interview. Stories are loopy things, and there are so many ways to tell them. Even not telling a story is a way of telling a story, stories are capable of such fishslippery. The story in The Bugging Watch is a sort of fishslippery, a curation, not linear, a collection, an exhibition. Yes, it is an idiosyncrasy of “denial” that links grief and curatorship, it is a way of denying the end of something (something linear), and a way of manufacturing a future. Preservation has that suspicious quality of broadcasting as much about the past as the future. Curating especially is tuned into this station. Have you ever been to a retrospective of an artist’s work in a museum or gallery and had the prescience that the effect was not as much to honor the truth of the past as to create a future for that work that person that (now) subject? So this is how Harlan takes Toland to Tuesday in his world where it is always Monday.

GL: The second section of TBW&OE, “The Bugging Watch,” features footnotes that tend to complicate/enrich Harlan and Toland's narrative rather than clarifying it. This kind of approach seems, broadly speaking, to dramatize a kind epistemological notion: the more we pursue knowledge the more we are rewarded with and further enmeshed in our own mazelike pursuit of it. Harlan and Toland are dazzling poetic figures prone to Carrolian utterances and ingenious turns of phrase. They are dynamic & mysterious characters to begin with, but in The Bugging Watch, their stories become even more labyrinthine (and fun) through and because of the footnotes. What I'd like to know is: Does this corridor of poems in the middle of the book seek to entice by threatening (the reader, the poet with) a loss of control (not being able to make sense of a "larger narrative")? Does it, in other words, woo readers away from trying to make sense of the story behind these characters and try to encourage them to admire instead their many arrivals and departures?

KGLS: This is a book about a departure, and the fantasy of an arrival. In a manner of speaking, Harlan is trying to find another way of looking at a door that is always used for leavetaking. It is another way of looking at leavetaking. The footnotes dramatize this “stage” full of doors, full of entrances and exits. Is there sense to be made of it? Yes. Is there also non-sense? Yes. Is the story that is bobbing under the surface of these poems a cocktease? It depends on the cock. This is not a purposeful comment on epistemology, although I am delighted if this text dramatizes an epistemology for a reader. Knowledge is not a sure thing. I hope it woos readers away from needing sense, but I’m also happy if it just woos them enough to be okay with all the halfsense. Would it clear things up if I said that I think questions are more important than answers in art? Didn’t Milan Kundera write that the brilliance of the novel comes from having a question for everything? I like that. I think it is true. I think it is also true of poetry. And prose poetry novellas! Narrative tends to breed a kneejerk assumption that its function is to clarify. But with poetry, readers don’t expect clarity or answers. Readers of poetry have bigger fish to fry. They want truth. They want the animal to awaken. That true animal inhabits all true comers—tall tales, teeny hunches, towering questions—that “yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes.”

GL: So far in your brief but formidable poetry career, you've concentrated much of your efforts on exploring characters that have weathered considerable trauma. These figures are both sustained and potentially crippled by their fantasies that lead them away from their suffering. Delmore Schwartz wrote: "In the unpredictable and fearful future that awaits civilization, the poet must be prepared to be alienated and indestructible. He must dedicate himself to poetry, although no one else seems likely to read what he writers, and he must be indestructible as a poet until he is destroyed as a human being." Masculine gender bias aside, do you see any value in Schwartz's above proclamation and prescription for the poet? Must a poet be (at least temporarily) "alienated and indestructible" in order to dramatize suffering in her work? Or should the poet share in the suffering of her creative progeny in order to reveal it?

KGLS: Ah, civilization and its discontents. The future is scary. People suck. Poets rule. Yes, poets should prepare themselves for a good dose of marginalization, Schwartz’s prescription has some truth. This sort of glorification of artistic alienation always put me in mind of The Residents’ Theory of Obscurity, the idea that the artist creates work in isolation for the art itself without consideration for audience, or “market.” In the case of The Residents the artist goes so far as to conceal her “real” identity, which doesn’t matter, only the art does. Artists like Fever Ray and even Lady Gaga do this to a limited extent. So this is like what Schwartz is saying about the indestructibility of the poet and the destruction of the human being. Although I don’t think Schwartz is prescribing concealment of identity, but rather that the poet and the art merge to transcend finite material existence. It is an exaltation of poetic identity, a superidentity. At its best, it has something to do with souls, or that part of ourselves that is eternal, the stuff we hope our art is made of.

Great works of art can come from alienation or not, to answer your penultimate question. As for the final question—“should the poet share in the suffering of her progeny in order to reveal it”—yes. This is not to suggest that a character or a character’s circumstances in a book should be conflated with the author or the author’s life, they shouldn’t. But if there is suffering, or any measure of emotional depth in a work that exceeds the merely rhapsodic, that lives and has truth and guts, it is because the author has experienced that emotion.

GL: The geographical backdrop of Harlan/Toland's fantastical story is Denver, Colorado, a very real place colored by powerful fantasies. Denver was one of late twentieth-century America's biggest boomtowns, gaining affluence, wealth, and both white-collar and progressive prestige steadily as the century closed. Its suburbs have been portrayed as both middle-class Edens and, at times, Cheeveresque nightmares. How and why did Denver, with all its signifying baggage and promise, present itself to you as the landscape for your twenty-first century Gothic tale?

KGLS: I do think of The Bugging Watch as a period piece, and the period it inhabits is a sort of gloomy afterperiod. That sounds very precious and meta but Harlan’s world—the drippy architecture of his lost hours with Toland—is just that: a reminiscence constructed in a future. So why Denver? Harlan and Toland live in Denver because I lived in Denver when I first wrote about them. I lived in a tiny and buggy first floor w/ basement of a Cheesman Park duplex. The exact address was 1412 E 14th Ave, here is a Google map.

But Harlan and Toland do not inhabit this exact address, their address in The Bugging Watch is 1412 Humboldt Street. Humboldt is one of the cross-streets for the aforementioned address on 14th Ave. In real life, there is no 1412 Humboldt Street, and the fictional place where Toland and Harlan dwell is a pretty convincing facsimile of the buggy 1st floor w/ basement I lived in for a few years. So why did I bother to change the address from 14th Ave to Humboldt St? I liked the way Humboldt sounded. I liked the word. I chose the music over the truth, to borrow from Richard Hugo (“All truth must conform to the music”).

Still, it wasn’t just that. It is never just that. Harlan and Toland do not live in the 1st floor w/ basement that I lived in. They live in a once-a-past-a-time-ago of it, in a place that is part real and part fantasy, so I put them inside walls invented near-real—a made-up address in a real town. And even though the exact address is not a place I have ever seen before, it is a place I have seen my whole life. Because, to keep borrowing from Hugo, “the poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another.”

GL: You recently expressed some grief through correspondence over sending your forthcoming MS, China Cowboy, to the publishers. Why the sorrow of letting this book out into the world? And what comes next, or don't you know?

KGLS: The characters in my book China Cowboy are characters I’ve had in my life for many years. Sometimes it feels like these characters are part of my family, as demented as that is considering how demented they are. But I talk about them with my family like they are real people. We have inside jokes on them, we imitate them, we make fun, and we Stevie Wonder their flaws. My daughter has a stuffed animal she calls La La, for instance. Is that twisted? Maybe. It is part of our dysfunction. I guess we can still do all these things even though I have put China Cowboy out of my house. But it isn’t the same.

What’s next? I have a couple works-in-progress, a novel and a collaborative hybrid. I am not letting either of them out of my house yet.

Kim Gek Lin Short is the author of two full-length collections, The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits and the forthcoming China Cowboy, both from Tarpaulin Sky Press. Her chapbook Run was the 2010 Golden Gloves selection from Rope-a-Dope, and a previous chapbook, The Residents, is available from Dancing Girl Press.