FEAST OF WORDS II: RBC INTERVIEW OUTTAKES

Earlier this year I spoke for more than an hour with the writer and graphic artist Tyler Gore about River Bend Chronicle. Here are more outtakes from the short interview that appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/features/interview-with-ben-miller

Q. In the book, every family member seems so separate from each other. How does this happen in a crowded house?

A. Eight people in a three bedroom home. You would think everyone would be close but the fact of closest quarters–and no room for privacy in the physical sense–causes each individual to create a mental shell to curl up inside of, to protect whatever can be protected. There was in that wretched house a constant sense of panic bordering on the absurd, breeding the absurd. That doesn’t lead to the sorts of interactions that naturally develop relationships. So what you had were harried or hysterical interactions continually and not any open, free exchange of thoughts or feelings. “Sharing” seemed liked the worst possible thing that could happen because once you let something out in a house lacking private spaces it would be there for everyone to utilize in any manner they wanted to, and that was scary. So we burrowed and burrowed and burrowed into our brains or–alternately, ran to a neighbor’s house or lost ourselves in sports or partying or other activities to relieve that growing sense of despair and isolation amid a mob. In the chapter “The Reinvention of Ice” and also in the epilogue I comment that brothers and sisters were blurs that raced by. Out of loneliness and love and curiosity we sporadically tried to grab each other, reach and hold each other…but there was really nothing that we gave each other to hold on to. We were all spinning fast, on our own singular mental and emotional tracks, out of control, out of luck, yet with this endless frantic sense of trying to move ourselves forward to some elusive better place.

Q. Also every family member seems to harbor these frustrated, but inescapable, artistic ambitions.

A. I think this gets back to the junkification question and the fragmenting of the family core. That hope of dredging from the wreck some kind of restitution and sense. Art is about freedom, and art is about synthesis, and the ideal of art is one that forever appeals to the traumatized, and rightly so. A second chance is to be had there, or seems available. And a tribute to the strength of that appeal is that it existed even in children who were confronted daily with tragic results of parental art worship. My mother never being able to quote accurately poems she loved, and my father’s dusty shelves of self-published novels no one would ever read. The art pursuit for these adults was darkened and shadowed in the extreme, but STILL it remained very clear to we children why they refused to relinquish the dream of making art. Art was in fact their only chance left to have a synthesis, to gain a firmer grasp on their shattered reality. There would be no other way. They were people who wouldn’t seek medical help. They did not have the money for it, and did not have, I think, the understanding of what it would mean, say, to have the support of a professional in their darkness. They had always been so alone. But solitariness is innate to the art pursuit and art beckoned, in part, because of that. What was hardest to see, and what was most ridiculous at times to see, was how they had fingered art as something good that might help them and yet didn’t pursue it seriously. It devolved into those poems sloppily warbled in a parked car with a dead battery as if Dylan Thomas might get us home! It became that moment when my father asked me to take his decades-old writing to a local writing group to read instead of my own fresh writing. And because of that lack of seriousness, that hope of art, unrealized, forever dangling, only served to deepen their confusion.They wanted it–the art cure–to be easier than it ever could be. And there just seemed to be no way inside them to accept the fact that things weren’t going to be easy–that they weren’t going to get the break they felt they had longed deserved. By break, I guess I mean, incisive sentences and stanzas pouring out like sweet wind. The other wind poured from them: sour. So a genuine love of art devolved into the hollow and bitter gestures. I get this garish image of someone who is drowning and who is thrown the life-ring, and who actually touches the life-ring but then chooses not to cling to it, but rather to lazily put their elbow on it and to rest their head on the elbow. The drowning man, the drowning woman, not clinging to the life-ring! they are sort of, you know, just touching it, not letting it float them, thinking about maybe letting it float them, as if they were not going to drown in a few seconds, as if they had all the time in the world to decide whether to survive. That sums up house extremes of lassitude, of self-neglect. Daily displays of dolor amid crisis drove me, at one point, to post on my bedroom door a sign reading OFFICE HOURS 3-5. I felt all this work needed to be done, and fast.

Q. In the book, your parents seem almost jealous that some children are taking paths to escape the troubled home environment…

A. There can be a desperation, a panic so blinding…that it causes it to you work against the interests of loved ones. A lot of this was understated. Neither parent would would outwardly reject a success a child had, but there was a sense, very thick in the home, that the world outside our walls was a foul world of materialists and elitists and that deep involvement with it was polluting. We were told that on the way to school, warned. And the grain of truth in that idea became the boulder in the living room. We had our fine disaster we were used to! Why trade it for the bigger one of America in the 1970s? Watergate? Greed? Why become a conformist-sheep-to-slaughter? Everything gets turned backwards and sideways, sometimes, in families beset by shame. It was the case in my family that that happened. There was always a sense of you know: we’re suffering, but we need to suffer right here in this room to fulfill our destiny. We CONSIST ONLY of our sense of helplessness, sadness, and the doomed aura those feelings spawn. The dreary equation made each week seem like the climax of generations of ruin–made each trip to Kmart feel like it might be the last. And the death in the air was, in an odd way, as vigorous as hope. It was a massive shadow, a pervading feeling of grief, a long snaking echo of loss, and it ran like a dark river over every frail object in the house, out the doors and over the city like a direction we must sail in, never divert from…

FEAST OF WORDS I: RBC INTERVIEW OUTTAKES

Earlier this year I spoke for more than an hour with the writer and graphic artist Tyler Gore about River Bend Chronicle. In the holiday weeks to come I’ll be posting tasty outtakes from the short interview that appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/features/interview-with-ben-miller

Q. So how many sections of the book were published as stand-alones originally?

A. They all were. I started with dozens of short initial sketches in the early 2000s and then the first finished piece (“Bix and Flannery”) gets in print and thereafter chapters appeared in places like AGNI out of Boston University, Raritan out of Rutgers, Antioch Review, Kenyon Review. Ecotone. The Normal School. It was vital to see what this material looked like on the page and these journals offered me that chance to do that, and to experience the vital process of editing prose that at times can be ungainly in the sense of everything being all…immured? or innured? I think I just made that word up. Innured? Manured? No, no. [Laughs.] All put together in delicate layers: that’s better. I can’t stress enough how vital the journal publications were…they gave me the confidence to continue on with the experimental nature of the project.

Q. Some Urban Iowa essays are still coming out, right? At a reading I attended of yours at KGB Bar you handed out copies of “Cinema B.C.” which is a piece that appeared in Raritan, I believe.

A. Right, Raritan. That one was on drive-in movie theaters and my family’s relation to them. And also the local neighborhood movie theater and the movie palace of the sixties and seventies. That’s not in the book. I like that piece. It’s an interesting extension of the themes in River Bend Chronicle.

Q. What Midwestern writers do you connect your work to? Sherwood Anderson? Hemingway? Bradbury?

A. Eudora Welty is the south but the ways she depicts the complexities of her community really resonates with me. That is, resonates universally, I think, with anyone who grew up within an environment that at least had a reputation for being rural if not being actually rural: a town. And when you grow up in the Midwest, Winesburg, Ohio is something you deal with. Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters is another work that takes the approach of creating portraits of a community to form a chorus that represents something of society’s murk of conflicting agendas and histories. For years and years I considered Our Town to be a Midwestern play even though it’s set in New Hampshire…and partially this is because in my mind it’s very connected to Spoon River Anthology which preceded it as a vocalization of many disparate personalities and their stories coming together to create something bigger, and far richer, than the individual elements. In sum? I liked just about IT ALL. I read as much as I could hold when I was young. I was just a “book hugger,” as some people are tree huggers, and I’m still a book hugger. I will be in used book stores, probably buying old copies of Winesburg Ohio as long as I am around. Books that have lasted you can always learn something from. It’s important to read new things but also there’s nothing wrong with going back and really looking at these books that have endured and trying to figure out why–what in them resolved the riddle of how to make art.

Q. I would like to hear just a little more about “junkification” and “idyll” and the juxtaposition between those warring concepts in the sub-title.

A. [laughs] Oh, that’s a good question. I mean, I think the book is so much about tension. Tension between wishes and reality. Tension of being from Iowa but rarely seeing corn and cows. The tension that is just naturally part of living in a large family of eight loud people. “Junkification” naturally emerged from the matrix of the book crashing energy and depiction of familial and societal wreckage. And “idyll” came along soon after, given my attachment to classic verse when I was a kid. I mean, you know, Dickinson and Whitman and even Ginsburg…these writers were very alive to me, huge. Vachel Lindsay’s another. All romantic in diverse ways…or at least they epitomized my burgeoning romance with literature and its possibilities.

Q. And the form–no paragraphs–could you describe your aims there?

A. I needed to fill the pages but not clog them with familial mess, and that was really one of the core artistic struggles. To create a sense that is often missing in books about messy subjects–a look of the mess, and the sound of the mess, and the shapeless shape of mess! A sense of vagary, of moral, mental, emotional confusion. I wanted to replicate the fierceness without clogging the pages with so much that readers drowned. The challenge was to communicate the sense of swirling chaos while also keeping the narrative going somehow, chugging along. And there are a number of ways to accomplish that, I discovered. With the sentence rhythm. By picking four details instead of putting all twelve in–the twelve harassing my mind. People will look at the book and say “but there’s hundreds of things mentioned! people! places!” Yet there could have been three or four times that amount. And what did not get into RBC resides in sketches and drafts in my poor file cabinet. I mean the book represents about 25% of the writing I’ve done on my hometown.

“ANOTHER NEW SHINY LITTLE THING FOR UNDER A DOLLAR”: RIVER BEND CHRONICLE AUTHOR INTERVIEWED BY TYLER GORE IN THE WASHINGTON INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF BOOKS

“I think there’s definitely a sense of intense mess that I really wanted to portray in the book. I mean, ‘mess’ in a social sense, ‘mess’ in a local sense — this thing of being from Iowa, and never seeing cows — and then at the core, and most importantly, a mess in a family that is struggling under economic pressures and emotional difficulties. And over the top of the mess is that prototypical consumerism, the junk piling up in the household, this crust of toys and other cheap boughten things that just somehow typify, weirdly enough, what is deeply inside you, the emotional confusion and chaos, the cheapening of dreams — and in the end the absolute, almost complete trashing of dreams — that can occur in certain households that are suffering under a weight of grief. In the book, this sense of grief is somewhat mysterious. It was never quite clear what affected my mother and father but there were lots of hints that they had undergone trauma, certainly proved by the way that they behaved. So whatever happened to them created a grief and the pressure of that grief — as in a garbage compactor — scooped up so much from discount stores and pushed it all together into the house, and we children were in the middle of that. And the hope for us all was to go out to Kmart again, or to go to Woolworth’s again, and to try to get another new shiny little thing for under a dollar that would then almost immediately break and make you need to go out again and get another little thing that would break. All of those fragments compiled in the house, and most importantly, inside of each of us. So, you just have this sense in the book of wading through a landfill of a spirit, or a landfill of a consciousness, that has undergone prolonged pressure from the forces of grief.”

Read more here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/features/interview-with-ben-miller