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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Interview with Kass Fleisher

This is the third in a continuing series of interviews with the short story writers anthologized in Wreckage of Reason, a collection of experimental short fiction by women writers. To see the other interviews, click Wreckage of Reason at the end of this post.

"Generation" by Kass Fleisher is an uproarishly funny, but also complexly layered story. In it, she collages questions about standard grammar, quotations from an academic paper, and a narrative about an upset women on psychotropic drugs that make peeing and reaching an orgasm difficult.

1. The story is built around eight questions about standard grammar (subject, verb, dependent clause, etc.). In your afterword you mention "offensive advice about sentences." With this comment, are you referring only to these questions, or to other aspects of the story as well?

I find texts in the strangest places-and in this instance I was standing in a classroom waiting for students to finish some small-group work, and I found this awful old grammar book on the shelf. I suppose that if you truly can't communicate in writing because your grammatical practices deviate *that* much from the standard, then that might be a helpful book to read. But how does telling writers what not to do actually teach them how to mimic the standard? Doesn't it just intimidate people further? And if readers internalize these vicious little rules to the point that they're incapable of reading anything else-the play that exists in language just dies. What institutionalization does to us is: kill the joy we took in Dr. Seuss. So many possibilities are eliminated. And then too what I loved about this book-sorry I have no memory of the title; I think we've all seen them-the body of each chapter is composed in imperatives, but the chapter titles are questions. "How can a run-on sentence be corrected?" Well, why should it be? And so this piece of mine contains many of those (although not necessarily run-ons in the technical sense of that word). What does it mean to "correct" "error"? What social and institutional impulses are at work in that? To me it feels kind of scary, and puts me in mind of Chomsky's famous nogrammatical sentence, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." Kind of a nice line of poetry, that. What does the standardized reader do when confronted with artistic "error"?

This is an over statement, but I put all of that together with "I have seen the best minds of my..."; and the title is "Generation," so: "Howl." (See below for where, but I'll finish this point here.) No, minds aren't being laid waste by standardized grammar, but those sorts of institutionalized controls are doing some serious damage. We have fond memories of Dr. Seuss but can't read Beckett. Culturally, we're a bunch of languaging robots.

2. I have heard of a distinction between "collage" and "montage," in which the former refers to putting together unlike things, while the latter refers to collaging with an evident point in mind. Is this a useful distinction to use in thinking about your piece?

It's lovely of you to ask this question, and my answer is that I have no fucking idea. I would suspect collage, since I don't see  within this piece the sort of narrative progression with which montage is typically associated. I hope that the book as a whole (The Adventurous, from which this is an excerpt) sees the fragments come together, so to speak, in a point at the end. No fair asking me what the point is, though!

3. In your afterword, you make mention of using Ginsberg's "Howl" in writing this story. I wasn't able to find any places where you lifted directly from the poem. Did I miss something? Or do you use him in a nonliteral fashion?

Yes, I know, I was horribly clever-it's buried in the eight subtitles. I just couldn't bear to use the word "sentence" in reciting the questions raised by the source text, so it goes: 1. How can [I] fragments be eliminated? 2. What are the major errors in [have] structure? 3. How can a wordy [seen] be improved? Writers should be shot for being so clever.

4. You cross off words and phrases, mostly when you are working with the "Distant Intellectual" discourse that you quote. What is your aim?

I wanted to look at the notion of "grammar" as exacted by the expectations for literary scholarship and oppose that with the rant-based syntax of this nutty woman who can't pee. The source text is an actual essay in a book written by my partner Joe Amato; he and I edit each other's work, and we can be fairly cruel about it-at least, I suspect, to people who don't know that this is just how we deal with writing. We're brutal, but we're each fine with that (mostly). And I had been reading his paper and making these comments and thecontent of his paper was actually relevant to what I was trying to achieve: "outsider moves" becoming "insider strategem," etc. So it was another one of those accidents, and I have a lot of problems with his prose style-he's a great poet; I would never touch a line-but prose-wise he can be inscrutable. So there I was with my authoritarian red pen telling him (in marginalia) that he's "driving me fucking nuts!!!" What kind of hypocrite am I, right? So I put the whole thing in there; his original, the edits I made, and my comments. I found the final affect to be entirely disruptive; I don't know how readers experience the piece, but that aspect of found text was just a mess, in my view, typographically and otherwise, which I hope makes the point that editing is intrusive, destructive-much as we all seem to love the phrase "constructive criticism." (What does that mean???)  And, what we have here is a plain-terms rant juxtaposed with a rant disguised as literary scholarship. Each grammar is extensive, but to different affect.

5. A character in the story who has taken psychotropic drugs for "anger" is having difficulty peeing and achieving orgasm. It seems that the academic and scientific (drugs) discourses can oppress and even possess the body.

Fuckin-A. And what I love is how PISSED she is about that, tee hee. There's just no one she's not mad at-the poor woman in the next stall, the people in line, the drugs, and herself for being so angry that she has to be on them. She even gets mad at the feds: Rocky Mountain National Park enjoys the highest day traffic of any of the Parks, because of its proximity to Denver, and only two years ago they built a respectably-sized rest room. Unbelievable. More below, but before moving on: I wanted to bring the female body into a variety of grammars that just don't recognize it. You could argue that no sort of body is permitted, unless you view serial assertion as phallic, which I do (sue me). I far prefer questions to answers, circularity to penetration (I'll stop there). But here's a truth: Joe and I do a lot of hiking, and above treeline he can just yank a zipper and whiz away. Me, not so much; and guide books don't typically include information about toilets, even when they exist. So clearly, the shy-bladder female is not welcome at 12,000'. That PISSES me off.

6. The woman who is having this difficulty gets angry with other women who are peeing and shitting around her. She even calls them "cunts" and "bitches." Does the scientific and intellectual use of language not only entrap women, but even turn them against one another?

Yes, it's all of that, and the way vernacular purportedly re-empowers women (and other Others) in the face of this strictly restrictive language standard (although vernacular doesn't actually empower anyone; it's a practice like any other that will shift with societal dynamics-some day the word "cunt" will possess zero power). Ultimately I wanted the woman to find ecstasy both in what some would call angry language and in orgasm (anger and orgasm, chemically, being not unrelated). That the lovers edit each other's language-and the tongue (doubled in meaning) is the basis for ecstasy-well, I'm not sure I want to mystify this too much. Perhaps the piece says that language will set you free-not sure. What I would say is that in the final analysis, what entraps women is patriarchal oppression, which is reflected by standardized grammars (masculinist), by the discourse practices of scholarship (masculinist), and yes, by a science that wants to numb both a woman's anger and her capacity to experience sexual pleasure (definitely masculinist!).

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