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Friday, June 20, 2008

Interview with Mark Wallace (click here for more on Wallace)

Mark Wallace is the author of numerous works of fiction and poetry, most recently Felonies of Illusion (edge) and Walking Dreams (blaze vox). In his fiction, he takes particular interest in formally inventive explorations of the macabre and horrific. His poetry is equally inventive, and often is filled with sincere, but wry and slightly alienated verse and personas. The following interview took place via e-mail in the spring of 2008. (Click here for Wallace's blog.)

>JH: What were some of your earliest experiences with writing, literature, and the arts in general? Would you care to say a few words about your upbringing in this regard? What effects did your childhood and adolescence have on your writing?JH: What were some of your earliest experiences with writing, literature, and the arts in general? Would you care to say a few words about your upbringing in this regard? What effects did your childhood and adolescence have on your writing?

MW: My parents read to me from the time I was a small child and I have to thank them for what has become a lifelong pleasure and in fact, as I think you’ll see in a moment, a pleasurable obsession. I remember any number of books but my early favorites were the A.A. Milne Winnie-the-Pooh stories, both their humorous and melancholy elements, and later Wind In The Willows. “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” may say as much about my aesthetics as a writer as anything else although I’ve never written anything remotely like it. But my desire to write things that involve barely hanging on to a situation that’s out of control might have been influenced to a very real degree by how much I was thrilled by those scenes. I really do see my relation to the world as like that. I also had a profound childhood epiphany that I’ve never forgotten with a little known Dr. Seuss book, The Pale Green Pants With Nobody Inside Them. It genuinely frightened me, although in a pleasing way, and may have been my first experience of horror. The sense of absence and haunting implied by the title grips me even now.

But then obsession. My father bought a 1969 edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica. Multiple volumes of very long books. And if you’ll believe it, at the age of seven I began a project of counting all the pages in each volume. Every single page in every single book, and I did it, who knows why? To see that they were there? And you know what? Some of them weren’t. In the R volume, I believe, although I’m not sure, the book was flawed and several hundred pages were missing. As a result of my endeavor my father was able to get the flawed volume replaced.

The next year I began making books with several other friends from the neighborhood. I don’t remember who encouraged us to start this project, my parents or some teacher at school. We would draw pictures and write text on folded over sheets that we would then staple into book form. At the time of course I didn’t know we were making something called chapbooks, but that’s what they were. As the game went on over a few weeks or months our creative urges were taken over by competitive ones, and the game began to be a race to see who individually could make the most books. The story lines became more and more minimal and were finally dropped and by the end of the game each book was just a few squiggles on a series of stapled pages put together in a couple minutes. Although I don’t know whether it’s true, I’ve heard it said that at age eight children take on many of the most prominent features of their adult character. I’m a little embarrassed about what that says regarding my competitiveness and desire for speed more than caution. And I wish I could take credit for the Bob Grenier-like unintentional avant gardism of the squiggles, but I can’t say that there was a lot of compositional thought at work.

By my adolescent years I was even more frequently reading and writing and listening to music. I read some combination of mystery and horror books. Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, a Modern Library series book from the 40s was a particular favorite, and horror tales were what I most often wrote. But I also read more serious books, including many of what get called the classics of British and American literature. I had an adventurous reading streak and maybe more than a bit of egotistical pride and I liked to tackle difficult books. I started reading Faulkner at 13 and at age 17 I made a classroom presentation on Finnegan’s Wake. I think it’s safe to say that the adventurousness, enthusiasm, and egotism I put into my literary endeavors were a kind of compensation for feeling bad in other ways about myself and my options. Now that I’m in my forties I’m almost over that, if not quite.

JH. When did you begin writing? Publishing?

MW: I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember. As for publishing, as an undergraduate I wrote a lot for student newspapers, mainly music reviews, then took a job as a journalist in the field of education when I was in my last year of college and a few years after, publishing many articles in various education related magazines and newsletters. I didn’t grow up liking poetry—I had all the conventional American disdain for it—but when I was about 19 or 20 I published a poem called “I Am Not A Poet” in a student publication. Although I’d been writing fiction all my life I didn’t start reading or writing poetry in any focused way until I was 25. I was in a graduate program in creative writing in Binghamton, New York and had friends who turned me on to the idea. I remember going to a Robert Creeley reading there and having one of those classic light bulb moments when the whole idea of what poetry might do suddenly felt like it made sense. The first poem I published in an adult literary magazine happened a few years after that, probably 1991. I think the magazine was Lift. It was edited in the Boston area by Joseph Torra, who has written several fine novels.

JH: I really like Walking Dreams. Each story creates, and is usually built around, a severe destabilizing of one of the foundational elements of Western narrative: setting, character(s), point of view, plot. For instance, “The Flower” follows the slow dislocating of the main character and the setting; “A Walk in the Park” uses repetition to dislocate the setting; “Ecstatic Fritz” severely dislocates character; “The Betrayal” dislocates character and setting; “Amanda Running” dislocates setting and character. Is this how you see the book? As loosening one or more of the fundamentals of the narrative?

MW: That’s a very perceptive take on the stories, although I didn’t set out with quite so intellectually programmatic a goal as “I think I’ll destabilize narrative in such and such a way...” and work from there. Those intellectual goals are related to a more instinctive process. It’s hard to know exactly how I get ideas for a story or a poem. Jack Spicer said it was caused by Martians because he wanted to suggest the degree to which our ideas come from mysteries that are beyond us. More or less an idea just shows up and I see what I can do after that. But obviously our ideas have also been influenced by our experiences, including those of reading. Doesn’t Spicer call those experiences the furniture? In other words writers set up their rooms in certain ways to prepare for visitors.

The stories are certainly influenced by the work of British fiction writer Robert Aickman and what he calls the “strange story.” On some level he just writes ghost stories, but much more complicated ones than are the norm for the field. I don’t know whether he himself ever defined the “strange story” too exactly but it certainly involves the disorienting of time, place, and character and relies on that rather than monsters or gore to create a pervasive unease. What I’m going for in my stories is a sense of being lost in aspects of ourselves and the world that usually we take for granted. I think of it partly in relation to philosophical ideas, such as the unity or fragmentation of identity for instance, but I try to push it a little further. I mean, we don’t need a well thought out feeling about the unity of who we are or what we think about the totality of globalist power structures in order to get through the day, but we do have to put on our clothes, know how to get to work and then work once we get there. What happens when even those practical levels of certainty become unhinged? I don’t think of it as an abstract or purely speculative question at all. It’s more along the lines of “Is there enough of me that’s coherent enough today to get through what I have to get through?” Usually there is, for me at least, but I always have the sense that there may not be, that I and the world around me don’t automatically have quite enough coherence to get on to the next thing. That’s the unease I’m trying to tap into. The sense that even in the most mundane features of existence, things are always in some measure falling apart.

I think a key thing I’m adding that Aickman doesn’t do is, as you say, a loosening or disorienting of the fundamentals of narrative, but as it applies to the literal structure of stories themselves. I’m trying to disorient what we think of when we think of a story. So with luck readers feel that disorientation relative to reading the story itself and not just to the details of the story. Of course there’s all sorts of other fiction that does that; I wouldn’t claim any great originality on that score. But I’ve certainly found the concept of the strange story a fruitful and relatively unexplored ground for structural disorientation.

JH: “All the details of the intolerable city take him away, until it seems that every moment he stands there becomes more weighed down, as if centuries of streets and houses and faces have been hung from his eyelids.” (64) In this quotation from “The Betrayal,” space and time seem to link. “Details” seems to point to objects in space, and “centuries” points to time. What are the connections between betrayal, space, and time in this story?

MW: This seems to be one of those questions that asks writers to analyze critically what they themselves have written. It’s funny: a lot of writers hate those kinds of questions but I don’t seem to mind them, maybe because I write criticism also. In any case I think “The Betrayal” concerns a character who, on the verge of a nervous breakdown maybe (though it’s the verge, not the breakdown, that’s the issue), has become confused about the difference between what others have done to him and what he’s done to himself. I think he sees the existence of the city as fundamentally a history of violence and disorientation that has been enacted on him personally, which is both true and an excuse that enables his deeply sexualized sense of self-blame to keep him both literally and metaphorically impotent. The time and space of the city have betrayed him, he believes, and he uses that as a way of turning how he has betrayed himself into a complicated fantasy about his betrayal by others. I hope people see the beauty of the moment when he imagines someone who may be himself having an affair behind his own back.

JH. “Design for a Chair Not a Chair” to my mind is a great story. Thanks for writing it. A couple times in the story a disembodied voice is quoted. He or she first gives instructions about how to build a chair, and later becomes more philosophical, considering what a chair is. You even have him invoke Plato: “chair-ness.” How would you characterize this voice? Why do you leave it disembodied?

MW: In various manifestations it’s a lecture voice, a voice of authority and detailed explanation. The problem of authority in our lives, though obviously real, is also often disembodied in that we feel subject to conditions of authority even when there is no literal authority in front of us at that moment dictating anything. It’s essentially the same as what Foucault would say about the idea of discipline, that it’s literally in us as a psycho-social operating principle as much as in the social institutions we have to interact with. The voice of authority has all sorts of contexts in the story, some of which it’s quite perceptive about, the history of chairs and of stories and of production most forcefully. But it’s not limited by those particular contexts. It seems to overarch them all. Of course I’m playing games with that voice in the story. It’s at times thoughtful, questioning, ironic, attacking. In the end it even seems to tell readers that all this machinery is out to get you even as the voice itself attacks them.

JH: Does the entire story take place in a single setting, an apartment and a neighborhood, that changes tremendously over time?

MW: Absolutely. On a single street in fact. It’s not modeled on any specific street but on an number I’ve known that have gone through various periods of prosperity and decay. There are several streets in DC and Buffalo that I picture immediately although I don’t remember their names.

JH: One reviewer of this book discussed it in terms of the dream state. How do you feel about that?

MW: It seems as good a concept to start with as any, and it’s in the title of course. The word “dream” has more than one meaning, obviously, what we wish for as well as altered mental states in which imagination plays a more primary role. I’ve always found the phrase “You can achieve your dreams” funny. I mean, partly kidding here, but in a sense aren’t we achieving our dreams every day, since we’re always having them even when awake? And given that, isn’t it true that the boundary between dreaming and conscious awareness of the present moment is very permeable? Dreams always provide a link between what exists and what we imagine, and what we imagine is a crucial source of any change we can make. I have to admit that I may be more of a dreamer than at least some other people, and sometimes in annoying ways. My imagination drifts off frequently and takes me with it, even in the middle of important conversations. Anyone who knows me well has seen me drift like this. In fact maybe this is a good moment to say to lots of people that I’m sorry for my lapses in attention. I like to believe those lapses, those moments of dreaming, are part of what helps me pay close attention to the world at other times, in the sense that taking time out allows me to refocus. But that I do it sometimes when somebody is telling me something important is pretty inexcusable.

JH: In the first poem in Felonies of Illusion, "The Long Republican Winter," you use a poetic form that may be called 'Composition by Field, to use Charles Olson's term. Individual stanzas, almost invariably short with short lines, have a variety of left hand margins, and are isolated from one another. Here is my question: why did you turn to that form, which I have rarely seen you use outside of an Abacus publication from years ago, to deal with this subject? Also, many of the stanzas remind me a little bit of Creeley's Pieces. Do you see a connection there?

MW: I’ve probably used composition by field a little more than most people know but I haven’t published a lot of it. I first used it in a manuscript called The Rip In The Social Fabric Is Going On Between Us that I wrote when you and I still lived in Buffalo, one that I think is worthy of seeing the light of day although I’ve never tried to publish it. In any case it seems to be an approach I use when I don’t have extended time periods for writing, either because I’m working too much or for some other reason. So I pick it up sometimes when I have, say, maybe 10 or 15 minutes for writing poetry in a whole week. In the case of “The Long Republican Winter” I was teaching a lot and also for eight weeks had bronchial flu on and off several times and could barely talk, and that was happening right when the Iraq War began. I think I may be different than some other writers in that for them the war seemed to bring with it a surge of interest in writing, or at least an ability to write that was born of outrage. Events of that kind tend to make me more silent as a writer, in the sense that I feel a more pressing need even than usual to choose my words carefully. Maybe on some level events like that leave me without words because words seem so inadequate to the problem at hand.

If I’m remembering correctly, Pieces is the book in which Creeley begins to write poems that more consistently discuss the dynamics of his own poetics, although he has poems like that in earlier books as well. I don’t think “The Long Republican Winter” has that much metapoetry about it, if you’ll allow me to coin a word that’s instantly out of date. It’s more definitely about things that are occurring at the time that I’m writing. But certainly Pieces is an amazing example for me of how to say a lot in a few words and to do it in a rhythmically fascinating way. But actually I think the most direct influence on “The Long Republican Winter” might be Robert Grenier’s A Day At The Beach. Bunches of fragments that sometimes add up and sometimes don’t.

JH: An early book, Complications From Standing in a Circle (Leave Books), you created by using the dictionary to force you to choose words that were, for you, atypical. That book was published in 1993. The poems in, Felonies of Illusion, have a very similar feeling. Did you use some proceduralist techniques to help you form those poems?

MW: Actually no. It’s interesting that you find a similar feeling there. Maybe because the language games I’m playing in both are fairly extreme? In the “Felonies of Illusion” section there’s certainly some language borrowed from other sources, but those are just instances of me writing down something I’m hearing but not in any systematic way. Mainly what I’m up to there is playing games with connotation and denotation. The poems often seem like they’re image-based but frequently they’re not. I put connotation and denotation in tension with each other rather than using them to support each other. The result is that the feel of language sometimes overwhelms representation. So if the reader is going with it, a big if I know, they’ll be able to handle the disruptions that occur in representations of the subject matter and realize that the interplay of the words is another valid way of making meaning in the world and even about the world, as it turns out. I think the poems have a lot to say even when the representative sense of the subject matter is obscured. And that’s because meaning is created by the way words feel to us even if we don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about.

JH: You also used some proceduralist techniques in one of my favorite chapbooks of yours, The Haunted Baronet. The title, characters, and vocabulary come from a Sheridan Le Fanu 19th century ghost story. The book is composed of 17 poems, one for each of the letters in the title. What's more, down the right margin of each poem you spell the title vertically. In other words, the first letter of the first line of every poem is 'T', the first letter of the second line of every poem is 'H', the first letter of the third line of every poem is 'e', and the first letter of the fourth line is 'H'. What do various proceduralist techniques help you accomplish as a writer?

MW: You know, at the moment there’s a big resurgence in interest in procedural and related writing. The idea of conceptual writing, of appropriation. Flarf. It’s never been the main or sole thing I do but I’ve played around over the years with various procedures. Temporary Worker Rides A Subway has some of that work, as well as the ones you mention. I’m a deeply impure proceduralist though. I disrupt my own methods, and I make mistakes and let them stand. Jackson MacLow, whose work I love, would have been appalled. I mean, I’m kidding; I came to know him a bit near the end of his life and he wasn’t at all appalled at what I was doing. We wrote some letters to each other about what we were both up to and he was always thoughtful. But for him it was crucial to follow a procedure exactly and for me not so much. For me, impurity is an important value, both in writing and in life. Personality-wise I’m really pretty orderly, but I have no interest in living cleanly or thinking of myself as pure in relation to the problems of the world and certainly not in my writing tactics. Unavoidably life has a certain amount of mess and I have no interest in trying to act as if me or my writing is outside that. I’ve caused plenty of messes, believe me. So I guess I’d say that using procedures is a way for me to work through poetic structures and content and their relation to the world but I don’t want them to fence me in. The first half of Temporary Worker steals language in a systematic but also mistake-prone way from a book about 1980s corporate raiding, Barbarians At The Gate.

JH: When are you planning on collecting all of your fine chapbooks?

MW: I appreciate the compliment and the plug. Let’s just leave this one right here and see if any publishers take the bait.

JH: You have a distinct interest in multi-genre work going back to the beginnings of your publishing career. One of your oldest publications, You Bring Your Whole Life to the Material (Leave Books), is part poetics, part philosophy, all written in so-called 'free' verse. Another multi-genre work is the recent Haze. You even wrote, if I heard you right at a reading, some parables in that book.

MW: I’ve always been a restless questioner of genre. The reasons are partly intellectual: an insistence on the centrality of genre categories can be a way of removing ourselves from an engagement with language and the world. The category protects us so that we know where we are, but it also boxes us in. I like writing that doesn’t allow that kind of safety net. But I’d also say my genre shifting and twisting is part of what I’m like in ways that are beyond intellectual decisions. I do get literally restless and I want to try something else or do something a different way than it’s usually done. Again, while I’m more or less stable in my day to day life because I have to be, I deeply dislike stability at the same time. Certainly I dislike it when it becomes a form of hiding from the world. As I’m sure many people do, I really have a powerful desire to live as intensely as I can. A world of going through the rote motions feels intolerable to me, and since a lot of my life, especially my work life, requires that, it’s a problem I’m constantly bumping up against. The last thing I want is for my writing—maybe the one thing in my life in which I can really simulate the freedom I don’t have on a day to day basis—to fall prey to routine. I think a lot of people have absorbed the message that it’s crucial to have just one life, by which I mean one kind of life, around which everything has to center. But in fact we’ve often been different at different times and in that sense are always leading, or at least potentially leading, many lives. I like it when my writing investigates the possibility that life could be different at different times, and at it’s best I hope it embodies that possibility even though I’m sure, in some sense, that it all sounds like me.

JH: You write both poetry and fiction, obviously. What are the differences between writing them? Reading them?

MW: Along with the fact, again, that I like to keep doing different things with my writing, I think it’s mainly an issue of time. It takes more time to write a story than a poem, so there are more moments when it’s possible for me to write a poem or read one. If I’m going to work on fiction I really need a couple of hours a day for some period of days in a row, and I don’t often have that. And there’s also the question of the kinds of reading attention and effort that different books take. Sometimes I’m too tired for the hard work of reading certain books, but I still want to read, and that makes more genre-based fiction, or the most straightforward realism, more attractive. Other times when I have more energy I want reading that challenges me more thoroughly and that’s the most exciting kind because I get even more energy from the challenge and can bring it back to my writing.

JH: In your mind, how do the institutions that support and make possible innovative writing affect that writing?

MW: First of all I’d have to ask how many institutions there really are that do that. A few, but not many. Certainly I don’t have my job as a professor because I’m an innovative writer or whatever you want to call it. I have that because I can teach and do administrative work. I’m supposed to publish, not that I’m given a huge amount of time to do that, but the institution as such doesn’t care at all what my writing is like. Of course some English departments wouldn’t allow writers of this kind of work into their departments at all, and it’s to the credit of my Literature and Writing Studies colleagues at Cal State San Marcos that they have been open to that. It’s great to work with people committed to the idea of change in the field of literature and theory. Some professors have jobs that allow much more time for research and writing than mine does, but even then it’s their careers and professional prestige that the institution is supporting and not that the writing is innovative. So when there is institutional support for innovative writing in terms of a reading series or a conference or a press, it’s usually because there’s some individual or group in the institution that’s supporting those things and making them happen, and sometimes they’re doing that with administrative funding that they’ve worked hard to obtain. I think it’s a good thing that there are people willing to devote their institutional efforts to making things like that happen.

That said, money, institutions, and power are involved in all types of writing. In order to get institutional money for any project, you have to be able to describe the project in financial and bureaucratic terms first and only secondarily in artistic ones, and obviously that changes the nature of what you can ask for. The people who do best with those sorts of things are people who know how to make capitalism and bureaucracy work for them, and that takes a certain kind of personality that may be very different than the kind of personality that some writers have. So sure, movers and shakers with bureaucratic talents get more opportunities than those who don’t have those talents, and those people aren’t necessarily the best writers, although it’s also not true that someone with bureaucratic ability can’t be a good writer too. The structural inequalities that capitalism creates and fosters are part of the world of writing, and writers are no more free of the maneuvering of power than anybody else. Does that mean that some people get unfairly left out? You bet it does. But even when a reading series or press is operated by a group of friends with no institutional resources other than their own funds and energies, people get left out. I think it’s a mistake to assume that having no institutional resources will make someone automatically more honest or fair.

Still, needing a job and wanting to write also leads to psychological conflicts, at least for me and for many others too I’m sure. The way I have to think at my job and the way I have to think as a writer are different, and that’s more true than it might seem given that I’m a professor of creative writing and literature. It turns out that being a professor, at least at the kind of university where I am (one with large classes and where many students struggle with literacy, multiple jobs, and often stressful family situations), doesn’t really have much to do with being a writer. Switching between my professional brain and my writerly brain is difficult and the emotional transition can be rocky for me. But probably that would be true whatever kind of job I had.


  1. Weren't you guys housemates in grad school? Your interview reads as if you're trying to pretend you don't know one another. lol

  2. Tom's right, as in the following line from the interview:

    "I first used it in a manuscript called The Rip In The Social Fabric Is Going On Between Us that I wrote when you and I still lived in Buffalo, one that I think is worthy of seeing the light of day although I’ve never tried to publish it."

  3. Whoa, this one is still getting attention. Actually, I wasn't even thinking about letting people know or not know that Mark and I are friends. This community is so small that to intentionally cover something like that up would be bound to fail. Maybe the interview would be less impersonal if it were not an e-mail one.