A Conversation with Paul Metcalf By John O’Brien

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1981, Vol. 1.2

Paul Metcalf’s books include Will West (Jonathan Williams 1956), Genoa (Jargon. 1965), Patagoni (Jargon, 1971), Apalache (Turtle Island, 1976), The Middle Passage (Jargon, 1976), Zip Odes (Tansy Press, 1979), and U.S. Dept. of the Interior (Gnomon Press, 1980). This interview was conducted by mail for two and a half years, beginning in 1975, and will appear in Mr. Metcalf’s forthcoming book, a collection of essays and interviews, to be published by Gnomon Press.

JOB: What have been the influences of modern poetic techniques on your conception of prose? I should point out two things: first, the poets I have in mind are Pound, Williams, and Olson; second, I am purposely avoiding the word “fiction,” though you are usually thought of as a novelist.

PM: The poets, it seem to me, have offered us an opportunity to “particularize”—i.e., to break a narrative into its particular parts, and rearrange them according to an original pattern. There is a significant connection between the images from the world of electromagnetics, images used in one case by Pound, and the other by Olson. Pound speaks of the poem as the “rose in the steel dust,” and Olson describes the poem as a thing among things, that must “stand on its own feet as, a force, in, the fields of force which surround everyone of us. . .” Both these images suggest particles in a state of chaos, drawn into shape through an act of imagination, but retaining their character as particles, distinct from one another.

The American dynamic (in their example, the historical dynamic) is the separation and exposure of the particles, spread out and shaping, all in one difficult process, seemingly contradictory but not so, and not to be easily congealed in the European manner—particularly in Olson’s and Williams’ view—not brought together, but spreading and shaping in one gesture, as in the “big bang” theory of the origin of the universe, spreading and shaping.

The poet Clark Coolidge works with even smaller particles—individual words and syllables—and in correspondence with me he has used these phrases: “just what are words & what do they do?”—”manipulation of language particles”—”words surrounded by spaces”—and “particles are interesting.”

Compared to all this, the conventional novel, with its sequential flow of events, seems less “original,” or, more simply, less appropriate to the character and quality of American life today.

A careful reading of Moby-Dick, by the way, will show how modern it is, how much in line it is with what I am talking about here, After a conventional novelistic opening, Melville quickly particularizes, interjecting (between narrative sequences) particles of cetology, the practice of whaling, etc.—”the ballast of the book,” as Van Wyck Brooks put it. Has anyone ever made a comparative study of Moby-Dick and Paterson?

Is Moby-Dick a poem written in prose?

(Clark Coolidge once tried seriously to find any reference to Melville in Williams’ writings. The closest he could come was in a letter Williams wrote to someone: “Flossie is now reading Moby Dick.” No more.)

(And when Olson published Call Me Ishmael, he gave a copy to Pound, and asked him to send it on to Eliot, to see if Eliot could arrange for an English edition. . . .Pound obliged, with a note to Eliot: “I recommend that you publish it, it’s a labor-saving device-you don’t have to read Melville.”)

But this is another matter, that I will get into later: the artificial separation of 19th and 20th centuries. Pound and Williams were evidently so aware of themselves as innovators that they were not altogether conscious of their heritage.

JOB: When you eliminate so many of the conventions of the traditional novel (i.e., plot, and sometimes even characters), what becomes the principle of unity? How do you move from point A to point B?

PM: The principle of unity is “the rose in the steel dust,” and I can be no more specific than to say that this is something inside me, and that effecting its transfer, from inside my skin to outside it, is the reason for writing (as well as the process). The pattern may be clear in its details—or nebulous, only vaguely intuited—but the pursuit, the delineation of its outlines dictates every step—or at least dictates what is point A and what is point B. Then—how to get from A to B—this is best done abruptly. I learned long ago, from a very wise man, that “the only real work in creative endeavor is keeping things from falling together too soon.” A corollary to that notion would be that, having held the structural elements apart as long as possible, when they do come together, let them really clang. And this is not work, it is only the courage to move abruptly. Nothing softens and muddies a piece of writing so much as what used to be taught in writing classes as “transitions.” Let the relation of your particles be implicit, discoverable by the reader. When you have accomplished this, you will have a quality that Guy Davenport has used in describing my writing: tensegrity (which, as near as I can make out, is one of Bucky Fuller’s neologisms, meaning that when you erect a structure, if all the lines holding it are taut or tense, it will stay up. Tension=integrity.).

It might be worth adding that one doesn’t always travel from point A to point B. It might be from A to point L, for example—with points B through K inferred.

JOB: To continue with these connections. Genoa, I think, is a tightly written book, each of whose pages seems to reverberate with echoes of other pages. I can see the smile on your face as you came across a passage in Columbus about feet or a line in Melville about heads: connections, Did you have to keep charts, listing such references, when you were writing Genoa? Did you consciously seek out material that would set up these echoes?

PM: I am flattered that you consider Genoa a tightly written book—this is as I would want it to be. And I humbly (proudly?) confess to the many smiles that crossed my face, as the rhymes and reflections emerged. No, I didn’t have to keep charts; my notes, although lengthy and complex, never exploded beyond 8-1/2×11 (almost entirely handwritten) . In developing the thing, I functioned pretty much according to the premise I outlined for Carl and Michael. I “intuited” the Columbus-Melville connection, by which I mean that a body of knowledge about them, of which I was only dimly aware, may have existed somewhere within me, and when I began to open it (i.e. , research the lives and writings of the two men), the revelations came as a series of confirming surprises.

I draw the line, however, at your last suggestion. I did not consciously seek out these echoes. I didn’t have to. They were all there. All I had to do was find them. And having found them, I then followed the dictum of Mr. Edgar Allan Poe: “There is no greater mistake than the supposition that a true originality is a mere matter of impulse or inspiration. To originate is carefully, patiently, and understandingly to combine.”

JOB: One of your methods for “combining” is juxtaposition, which you do not use as a substitute for clumsy metaphors but rather as a way of focusing sharply on the “particles.”

PM: I am much happier, and always have been, with the word juxtaposition than I am with metaphor. Another term I have used is mosaic, and my friend Don Byrd speaks of immense rhymes: “you pick up these unlikely chunks, and they do slip together, like a perfect tenon mortise joint.” And, yes, this is a constant in my work, this approach.

I think there’s a reason why Don uses the word “immense.” I’m not doing anything much different from a good poet, putting two words or two phrases together in an original way—or a good colorist in painting, Joseph Albers for example, looking for the chemistry of this yellow against this lavender, etc.; the difference is simply the size and proportion of the units I use: instead of words or phrases, I use whole lives, concepts, episodes or epochs.

JOB: In The Savage Mind Claude Levi-Strauss talks about the attention that primitive people gave to naming objects, which they then would put to magical uses, such as curing illnesses or freeing themselves from curses. He says that such naming and use of objects is of no “scientific” value but that these activities meet “intellectual requirements rather than or instead of satisfying needs. The real question is not whether the touch of a woodpecker’s beak does in fact cure toothache. It is rather whether there is a point of view from which a woodpecker’s beak and a man’s tooth can be seen as ‘going together’ . . . and whether “some initial order can be introduced into the universe by means of these groupings” (emphasis added). I want to ask whether your juxtapositions do not serve the same purpose—to group objects in order to create an order.

PM: I’ve thought a lot about this lately—the magic of simply naming things, and then the virtues (homeopathic, among others) of associating, perhaps in a new way, the named and/or described objects, episodes, histories, landscapes, etc. There is certainly a parallel here, between what I try to do and what Levi-Strauss describes among primitive peoples. In my books, it can be found in its simplest form in Zip Odes, which is nothing but names, regrouped; it is this philosophical thrust, I think, that gives a serious tone to what is otherwise a flippant book. It exists at a more sophisticated level, of course, in the other books, where rather than simply a single place, I am dealing with complex entities, histories, cultures, geographies, etc.

This is nothing that I ever set out to do consciously: to be “primitive.” It’s just that I’m sure there was an instinctive feeling, when I was younger, that the old European groupings, the associations and premises of Western civilization that we Americans inherited, were worn out, and that a new grouping and shaping, a new “rose in the steel dust,” based on a renaming and redescribing, was called for.

It’s interesting to see, among readers, whether this works or not. For Guy Davenport, it obviously does: speaking of the three major themes in Genoa, he says that I make “them touch just when they can speak in concert, disclosing ironies, deepening the intuitive evidence that there is a plot to American history.” For Robert Von Hallberg (writing in Parnassus, Fall/ Winter, 1978), the method obviously does not work: “Genoa is a mad book . . .this paranoid modernist view . . . Michael’s contrivances are hilarious . . .this outrageous book.”

There is, I suppose, a certain fatuous aspect—at least one exposes himself to ridicule—in trying to be primitive in a sophisticated world. But it is an important question you raise, and the answer is, yes, all my books must be understood, if they are to be understood at all, in terms of something very close to what Levi-Strauss is talking about. For someone like Von Hallberg, who apparently doesn’t share my mistrust of the old groupings, an attempt to restructure must appear “hilarious” and “outrageous.”

JOB: In my review of Middle Passage I made my own speculations about the possible connections among the Luddites, slaves, and whales. Without asking you to explicate the book, I would like to know what the basis is for grouping these three.

PM: Aside from choosing the sub-title (“A Triptych of Commodities”), and not thinking about it a great deal, about its implications, there was a great deal of innocence on my part in selecting and associating the materials in The Middle Passage, I don’t honestly recall how the choices were made; I remember beginning with the Luddites, and then sort of waiting to see what other fish would come swimming by, catching the slaves and the whales as they came close in.. When the manuscript was finished, I remember showing it to a friend with a Marxist background—and then being surprised, and a little annoyed, when she put a Marxist interpretation on it, and then suddenly, innocently, realizing, why, of course! What a logical extension, I’ve practically said it myself, the exploitation of commodities.

Now, of course, although I wouldn’t want the book viewed exclusively in Marxist terms, such an interpretation doesn’t bother me. Perhaps just the intellectual in me is bothered a bit, that I didn’t think of it myself.

JOB: In looking for fresh language, perhaps another of those “unlikely chunks,” you turn to the cadences and structure of some 19th century writers as well as to “languages” that are usually thought non-literary—scientific, anthropological, medical, mechanical, and so on. Such “jargon” lends a new shape to a line, alters appearance, and finally gives a new conception to the objects that are being looked at.

PM: There’s a lot to comment on in this question, particularly the way you’ve phrased it. First of all, I took and take seriously Dr. Williams’ remark that anything is legitimate subject matter for a poem. (As a corollary to this, I would want to say that the subject matter of a work of art matters only in that it be something about which the artist cares passionately.) Having accepted this, one looks around at language, and realizes that within the various complex disciplines and specialized areas of knowledge that have developed over the years in both the sciences and the humanities (and particularly in those so-called sciences of man, such as anthropology) unique bodies of language, representing idiosyncratic modes of thought, have grown up; these have remained more or less isolated from the broad areas of language that are generally drawn into literature. Why not mine then?—particularly inasmuch as so many of these linguistic organizations are so extraordinarily beautiful, They are part of our legitimate contemporary resource. Anthropology, ethnology, mythology, archeology, geology, physiology—all are there, waiting for admission into poetry. Furthermore, as you say, any object or process may be altered and freshened by the language we use to describe it. This is part of the excitement of literature, this chemistry of rich and varied language; this is a large part of why we read, the search for this freshening!

JOB: What then for you constitutes a good line of prose?

PM: I’m not sure I can answer this question analytically. It sounds as though a proper answer, once achieved, would at once enter the textbooks and there after be taught, and I don’t think writing “a good line of prose” can be taught. It breaks down into 1) what is said? (this involves both extent and limits), and 2) what is the appeal to the ear (i.e., what is the music?). It is sometimes forgotten that prose is as much involved with music as is poetry. Clark Coolidge is a great Moby-Dick fan, has read the book eight or nine times, and one winter, over a period of several weeks, he read it aloud, a chapter at a time, to his wife. He said that when he got to the final chapters, the chase, the climax, he could hardly go on, he was breathing asthmatically, tears were streaming down his face. This intense emotional acceleration was simply the effect of adding the voice (i.e., music) to the process of reading—music that was already in the text, unrealized, until read aloud.

I might also add George Oppen’s remark, which would apply to both prose and poetry: “When the man writing is frightened by a word, he may have started.”

JOB: You have talked at other times about the place of voice in both poetry and prose. I have a few questions that relate to this, and you can pick them up in whatever order you wish: 1) what do you mean by “voice”? 2) how do you go about putting “voice” into your prose? 3) doesn’t this all lead to minimizing the differences between poetry and prose?

PM: It seems to me that every powerful piece of writing, be it poetry or prose, reveals the presence of the author—this is the reason we read him, for his idiosyncratic force. Be he romantic or classical, subjective or objective, distant or intimate, his more-or-less unspoken motive is self revelation. (This is one of the problems with bad writing, the author’s failure to acknowledge this, his attempts to “mask” himself. A theatrical mask, on the other hand, properly used, aims at revelation: character revealed by hiding the hypocritical mask of the face.) I tend to view my work as process, and I seem to have used several different devices to plunge a voice into the writing:

Will West: Will, as an Indian mask, a persona, through whom flows mythology and history.

Genoa: The mind of Michael Mills: he is more static than Will, but the whole thing moves through him, and is projected: Michael as a static movie projector, the novel, disjointed and rejoined, thrown up on a screen—and at times, I, Paul Metcalf, almost ignore my own projector, Michael Mills, and fire my own shots at that screen. The distinction is wearing thin.

PatagonJOB: The persona is gone altogether; now there is just the author and his materials. Rightly or wrongly, I am in pursuit of more direct contact with the reader, trying to achieve this in two ways: 1) inviting the reader’s involvement in my choice, organization and exposition of concerns, or pigments, or mosaics; and 2) devoting the last chapter to unedited diary and letters, traditionally two of the most intimate forms.

My whole career is a process of conversion, of attaining some degree of control over prose, and then converting it into poetry.

Being still somewhat involved in this process, being aware of elements of both prose and poetry in my work (I am not a pure poet, whatever that is), I have thought a good deal about the two areas, about the traditional assumption of difference between them, and whether these assumptions may be challenged; about movement from one to the other, and back; about whether there is a point of junction, a seam that may be worked, a tightrope that may be essayed. I am intrigued that so many poets seem impelled to define poetry, and none of these definitions quite succeeds. And so many writers who work in both fields seem to be better in one or the other, for reasons hard to determine.

The poet Howard Moss has wrestled with these definitions:

” . . . time is different for the novelist and the poet, for the fiction writer is dominated by the clock and the poet by the metronome. They are just dissimilar enough—metronomes can be sped up, slowed down, or stopped—to provide a fertile field of transaction.”

True enough, But then he creates somewhat simplistic categories:

“The mirror is the totem of the poet, who looks at and into himself, who creates himself, as it were. And I would say the window belongs to the fiction writer, who looks out and around, and is a product of the world.”

And he goes on:

“From the beginning of this century, poetry and fiction have borrowed from each other, imitated each other, and in some cases become each other. . . . In the love affair that has occurred in this century, the novelist has flirted with mirrors and the poet with windows.” (“The Poet’s Story,” Prose, #7, Fall, 1973.)

And that’s exactly the point.

For my own part, I can say that there is some profound difference between poetry and prose, and that I have qreat difficulty defining it. As a worker, I am not sure that definition is necessary -it may not even be desirable—and I find it difficult, therefore, to work a seam, or tread a tightrope. I am more conscious of passage back and forth, from one to the other, as though, in walking the earth, I were traversing two vague but powerful geomagnetic fields.

JOB: You seem to be saying two things at once about “voice”: 1) that by putting the voice into writing, the author’s personality is revealed, and 2) that this voice makes the style idiosyncratic or personal.

PM: When I spoke about using several different devices to plunge a voice into the writing, I think I made an unfortunate choice of words; I was putting the cart before the horse. One doesn’t “plunge” a voice in; I think it’s more as Mr. Poe has it, as I’ve quoted him earlier on the subject of originality: “To originate is carefully, patiently, and understandingly to combine.” Of course, there’s much more to it than that; the mere exercise of care, patience and understanding will not produce the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. But what Poe was trying to do here is to de-mystify the process of creation, and I think he is accurate in suggesting that it is in these very processes of combining that “voice” does (or does not) emerge. And “emerge” is the accurate term; no amount of injection will help.

How is it that when we turn on the radio in the middle of a concert and they’re playing a symphonic piece, we don’t exactly recognize it but something about it makes us say, “ah-ha, that’s Beethoven,” or “yes, that’s Brahms “? Something in the way the elements of the music are chosen, and then combined, creates a recognizable signature, and this, I think, is what I mean by “voice.” With the less gifted, the less distinctive composer, all you can say is, “well, that sounds like 18th-century,” etc.; the single voice does not emerge. To what extent I personally have been innocent of “injecting,” successful in permitting to “emerge,” that is not for me to judge.

JOB: Would that section “Processes on the Crank Box” from Patagoni illustrate one of your uses of voice?

PM: If you ever heard me read this section aloud, I think you would have your answer. I read it just as fast (and as loud) as my lips and tongue can move—with the nursery rhymes interjected lightly, softly, gently. Again, the key is juxtaposition: how better could I exemplify what I feel to be the essential extremes and paradox of Henry Ford’s nature—the relentless corporate dictator, and the sentimental, nostalgic rube?

JOB: Ford’s love of “hard facts” also seems to be your love—therefore your growing use of documents. Wouldn’t it have been possible for you to have written these books without using these historical and biographical materials as source and content? In other words, couldn’t you have “fictionalized” these things? Couldn’t you have “made up” the past?

PM: I don’t know if I can answer this precisely—except that it was a notion, shared perhaps with Olson more than anyone else, a notion that we both picked up from Pound and Williams, that is very much a part of Melville (again look at the cetology in Moby-Dick)—a notion that the old masks and artifices of conventional fiction, and of “baring-of-the soul” poetry, were worn out, or seemed no longer useful tools for us, here, now—and that the simple facts of our situation, of our history, were the richest possible lode, begging to he mined.

Having once chosen to be “factual,” the writer gets into interesting situations. First, there is the old saw: what are facts, what is reality?—reality is whatever any given group of people can agree it is. Historians argue endlessly over what history is. Is there such a thing as an incontrovertible objective fact? Is all knowledge subjective?

Since the natural mode of art is artifice—masks, fiction, indirection—the writer is hobbled when he goes to the typewriter with the intention of conveying pure fact. The reader, long accustomed to indirection, assumes that the writer’s facts are simply another artifice, another mask. The old folk notion of art-as-prestidigitation dies hard. How do you tell the reader that you are not trying to “magic” him? And are you sure that you are not trying to do just that, even with facts?

Americans, as empire-builders, are quite naturally a pragmatic people, who respond quickly to “the facts of the matter” and whose politicians love to talk about something they call “straight talk.” Back to the 19th century again: part of the hold that Poe and Melville have on the world’s imagination stems from the odd mix of fact and fancy, invention and autobiography, pragmatism and kleptomania, that went into their work. Poe invented that uniquely native form, science fiction. Poe set out to con us. Was he also conning Poe? Melville occasionally hid plagiarism behind the mask of autobiography. But today, there is still that insistent American hunger for the facts: Watergate had to occur, so that we could expose it; hard core porn was inevitable (the genital mechanics, in living color); Truman Capote invented “the non-fiction novel” (some years after Genoa, I note); and now we have Doonesbury, fact and fiction intertwining in the comic strips.

I go into all this to explain, in a round-about way, that it is not my preoccupation with facts, but a national phenomenon. And all the facts are not yet in.

JOB: Isn’t Patagoni, in which you take off the mask and put yourself directly into the book, a matter of “baring the soul”?

PM: Okay, here we go again: putting myself into the work—injecting myself, if you wish. So be it.

I think that when I do put myself into the work directly, the obvious case being the diaries and letters in Patagoni—the distinction between that and what I call “baring-the-soul” poetry is a matter of both substance and style. Herb Leibowitz served as a reader for the Fourth Pushcart Prize Anthology, and he writes about the labors that entailed: “A depressing sameness ran through most of the poems: solipsism is in the saddle galloping from one bland event and trite epiphany to the next. The massive self-regard was stupefying and finally scary. For the rare reflective poem . . . there were dozens about childhood experiences with grandparents or siblings, the poets rummaging in the attic of memory for tattered bits of nostalgia, of fistfuls in which the poets stood outdoors, in a pasture, watching a mare throw her foal, for the purpose of recording the scene in a poem,” more sinister than these relatively innocent effusions are those self obsessed creatures of the Me-Decade who are organized around a particular school: The New York School, say, with its sanctification of trivial diurnities, or the Freudians, dragging with them wherever they go a trail of personal garbage, like exposed intestines.

The me I have injected (if we must use that term) into my writing is free, I would hope, of all this. The dynamic is not inward but outward: the world observed and experienced. The little Indian boy peeing on the mountaintop in the Andes: I don’t have the sense that he did that just so I could write a poem about it.

I am there, up front, nothing shy. But I have left my suffering soul elsewhere. It is the world that concerns me.

JOB: Is everything in Middle Passage and Apalache taken directly from other sources without any changes or additions of your own?

PM: I did a little cheating there. There are places where I’ve linked things in my own language without so acknowledging. I would say that Middle Passage is substantially taken from other sources, there may be transitions, there may be occasional rewordings of my own, but very minimal, I would almost have to go through Apalache and see where I did what. I think that about the same would apply there. I occasionally made transitions or rephrased things, but where I’ve changed phrasing it’s certainly in the spirit of my source. I’ve never violated a source; I’ve never exaggerated a source or twisted a source to serve some purpose.

JOB: Then what constitutes your work? If not the words, then what?

PM: My work exists on several levels. It exists in the initial instinct which then becomes a kind of conception; to what extent conscious and to what extent I verbalize it to myself, may vary a great deal. It may simply be an instinct of putting certain things together which in the past have not been put together and which I feel have an organic association. I often have an idea of something I want to do or something I want to look for, and I start researching. I go through a great many books or a great many sources until suddenly I hit upon something and say, “Wow! This is it, this is what I’ve been looking for.” I may not even at that point know why it is that I get that “wow” response. All right, the original conception of wanting to do something—present an idea or present a sense of a place or a people or simply a philosophical idea—that is mine. And the material that I choose is an act of choice on my part which again is me at work. And thirdly, the way I associate the materials, order them, the relative weight I give them in relation to one another, the juxtapositions—all that’s my own work. And I think that’s a valid creative process. What am I doing differently, for example, from a poet who takes words and puts them together in a new way? He didn’t invent the words; the words are common property. Likewise, the conceptual material, the scientific material, are common property which I have selected. I am using chunks rather than individual words, It’s no different, really, except in the matter of proportion.

JOB: So there is no difference between a poet or novelist who “makes up” a poem or a story and what you do?

PM: That’s difficult to answer. Apparently in terms of the reader, there are some difficulties in becoming adjusted to my method. A great many readers seem to have difficulty in dealing with that; several critics recently, even those who have spoken favorably of the work, seem to have to go through the process of explaining the novelty of my method. In the final conclusion, I don’t think there is any difference, I’ve always felt that there wasn’t any difference; just my way of working with materials. They are all materials. We can give an example of the cubist painters back in the early part of the century, someone like Kurt Schwitters putting thumbtacks in clippings from magazines onto canvases. He is taking objects of another source than the pigments, so to speak. I don’t see that there is any difference in that and what I am doing.

JOB: So that, for instance, one might use items from a newspaper in making a poem, such as Williams did?

PM: Why not? My sense of how good a form something might be relates to my remarks about the procedure, the conception, the idea, In Middle Passage, for instance, my first instinct for that was in a magazine article I read about the Luddites. That was a blank; I knew only vaguely that they were machine-wreckers. Then I got fascinated, “Wow, that’s something I want to know more about.” Then down the line I began to think that I am going to want other associations. But it began with that response. Why, I don’t know. But to do that in a random way, the way I object to in Bill Burroughs, in his “cutup” novels, where you’re dealing strictly with the accident—the juxtapositions are not intelligent, they’re accidental. That becomes uninteresting to me. I don’t think of myself now, though I did when I was younger, as an avant-garde or experimental writer. Underlying whatever I’ve done is an essentially conservative artistic structure which is not revolutionary or experimental.

JOB: Perhaps we are talking about preconceptions that a reader brings to a book. If he knows that it’s “non-fiction,” then he expects . . .

PM: Yes, to shake up those expectations. Then I would say that I am an experimenter or a trouble-maker. That is all fun to me and I enjoy it very much. I enjoy making readers nervous. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest if they can’t deal with the material in that way. I’ve got a poem I don’t think you’ve seen called “Willie’s Throw,” a baseball poem. The way that poem came about was that somehow or other I got hold of a book called My Greatest Day in Baseball in which each star describes what he thought was the greatest play he had made. And when I got to Willie Mays, he talks about catching the ball, spinning around, and throwing it like a discus thrower. Then I got this idea. Let’s get literal. I said, What is the act of a discus thrower? Then I went back and mined all the classical sources. The juxtaposition becomes funny. It wasn’t really funny to me, but I could see how the result was funny though. I was working intentionally there. To the extent that the poem works, it works because it has a real form and a real structure, and those juxtapositions are not accidental.

JOB: What’s the difference between seeing the original source and then seeing it juxtaposed with something else?

PM: It’s the intelligent juxtaposition. By intelligent I’m simply saying that some thinking or emotion has occurred in the author before the actual choice and juxtaposition are made. That intelligence only becomes evident when we can see that juxtaposition and realize that something happened in this guy which made him choose these things. But again, this is a problem for readers. They want to know whether this is prose or poetry. They want it to be one or another. I can see how in one way this is a legitimate concern for the reader. However, I say, What are you worried about? Just sit down and read the thing.

JOB: Again, we have Williams’ Paterson.

PM: I got a tremendous amount of my method out of Williams. I think that I got more from Paterson in terms of my method than from any other book, with the possible exception of Melville. I think that Moby-Dick can be read as a poem which happens to be written in prose. It’s surprising to me that people have difficulty with my books on that level when there is such a tradition in our background that is aiming in precisely that direction.

JOB: Do you come across materials that you want to use but that somehow do not fit?

PM: Frequently. I may come across something in the library and I get that “wow” feeling (“this is the most beautiful thing, this states exactly what I’ve been trying . . . “). Then I get into the actual process of writing and see that that thing doesn’t work. It just doesn’t belong, frequently because it says it too accurately or too precisely. It makes my point in a way that will almost obviate the necessity for the rest of the book. I would lose all the power that comes from indirection or suggestion.

JOB: What is the measure for books such as Middle Passage and Apalache? What is the appropriate critical norm when an author is using real people as characters and the styles of other writers?

PM: It’s a very old-fashioned standard that is the same that we would use for any work of art: how powerfully does it move us, how strong and significant is the governing idea, how attractive does this writer’s view of the world appear to us? These are almost cliches. I have a daughter, incidentally, who’s now twenty-three years old. She’s not a reader but she’s very, very bright. She says very little to me about my work and has not even read all of it. She read Apalache recently and said, I’ve learned something from reading your book—you’re a closet romantic, She said, Do you know what this Apalache is? I said, No, what is it? She said, It’s a love poem. I said, What do you mean? She said, You’re in love with North America. Now that to me is as lovely a response as I’ve gotten to that book. I was perhaps partially aware, though never verbalized it as such, that that was the kind of thing I was aiming for. But that’s a very old-fashioned idea; nothing novel about that. She was simply a person who was not bothered by the novelty of the technique. Perhaps she was saved from that because she hadn’t read that much. She could come at it as a fresh object. She didn’t have the burden of traditions to worry about.

JOB: Perhaps it is a love poem, and yet, like your other books, it tends to be dark.

PM: More so in Middle Passage, and less so in Apalache. But I see what you mean. I have no quarrel with that.

JOB: But even Apalache ends with the massacre and disappearance of the Indian tribe. There is this darkness that pervades all the books.

PM: Yes. But I do not think of myself as a dark person or a dark writer. I don’t set out to deal with the dark underside of history. I jocularly characterize myself as a cheerful pessimist. I like to think that one of the things that saves my work from mere gloom is its energy. If there is enough energy brought to bear on what is being handled, that will carry the materials without the reader being overwhelmed by the devastation.

JOB: In both Middle Passage and Apalache there is this strange mixture of awe and horror as you look at American life and history.

PM: Yes, I’m guilty of that cliche’. I think that’s what my daughter meant when she said that I’m a closet romantic. And I said, Maybe it isn’t so much in the closet.

JOB: You have already mentioned several writers you have learned from, I would like you to list those writers who you think have made the most important innovations in fiction since about the turn of the century, The obvious purpose here is to shed an indirect light on your own work, though I am not primarily interested here in which authors have “influenced” you.

PM: I’m not going to answer precisely as it is asked, but I hope that when I’m finished you’ll have what you’re looking for.

In the first place, you mention the turn of the century, and I know it’s a great temptation to treat this as a turning point, because so much that has happened since then “looks” different, so much writing—as well as painting, music, and the other arts—gives the appearance of virgin birth. This is an appearance enthusiastically fostered by the writers and artists themselves—and this leads us into the theories of Harold Bloom:

“To live, the poet must mis-interpret his literary father, by the crucial act of misprision, which is the rewriting of the father.” Consequently a poet is not a man speaking to other men, but “a man rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man (the precursor) outrageously more alive than himself.” The great poetic ambition, which only the strongest poets achieve, is to appear self begotten, not only free of the father but . . .the father’s father. (From a review by Edward W. Said of A Map of Misreading by Harold Bloom (Oxford University Press, 1975), in The New York Review of Books, April 13, 1975.)

I think for the word “poet,” as it is used here, we may safely substitute “writer” or “artist.”

In any case, I am much more interested in a flow, a progression, out of the 19th into the 20th century. We can easily see Picasso’s use of primitive African sculpture and prehistoric cave paintings, but it is also evident that the forms (trees, rocks, apples, etc.) of Cezanne’s most mature paintings are pregnant with cubism. Similarly, Pound, Williams, and Olson—whatever they may or may not have acknowledged—and despite or in addition to their classical concerns- these men sprang directly from Melville and Whitman, just as Melville’s stories and short novels could not have been written, at least in their particular form, had not Poe preceded him.

To add a mathematical note: Dreiser was a full-grown man of twenty while Melville and Whitman were still around.

Okay. To make a distinction, now, between writers one clearly recognizes as influences, and writers one has read, and admires, objectively, as innovators, but without tracing a direct influence: this introduces an interesting gray area, where the two groups come together. My views here may be somewhat special, because of my own inheritance from Melville. Except for a casual, teen-age reading of Moby-Dick, I put off reading Melville until my late twenties—after I had already written Will West. When I did read him, seriously and systematically, it was of course a revelation, but a revelation of something that was already there. This experience may have something to do with my notion that influences may be “in the air,” so to speak, and it is possible for a writer to be influenced by books he has never read. Any writer, in a given place and time, swims in inherited currents common to other writers of the same place and time, whether he is aware of this or not. I give expression to this idea in the fragments of knowledge with which I endow Carl Mills, in Genoa: having him quote verbatim, for example, from the Journals of Lewis & Clark.

With this caution in mind, I offer the two following lists:


  • Melville
  • Pound
  • Williams
  • Olson
  • Lawrence
  • Dostoyevsky
  • New York 50’s Painters
  • Frederick Delius
  • Ralph Vaughn Williams
  • Faulkner


  • Douglas Woolf
  • Clancy Sigal
  • Ken Kesey
  • William Gass
  • Guy Davenport
  • Sherwood Anderson
  • Thomas Pynchon
  • Charles Ives

Clearly, both lists are incomplete, and other names will occur to me from time to time, but I will let this stand.

JOB: There doesn’t seem to be a common link among these influences.

PM: I can understand why you are baffled. I am somewhat baffled myself. One easy possibility occurs to me: what I am presenting here is simply a paradox; for example, the lush romantic (Delius, Vaughn Williams) side by side with the hard-edged modernist (New York 50’s painters, Douglas Woolf). A “paradox” is one of those lovely words that allows me to sit here with a beatific smile, and not explain.

Going further, perhaps, I am reminded of my daughter’s remarks about my being a closet romantic. That a man trying to regroup the elements of his culture, as Levi-Strauss describes, could be moved and influenced by the music of Delius and Vaughn Williams—well, perhaps this ain’t quite the paradox it appears to be. As we set ourselves up in the front lines of what we conceive to be the “avant-garde,” we unconsciously and willy-nilly drag all sorts of baggage from the rear, our own rear. And this, “paradoxically,” may in fact strengthen our so-called “modernism.” The poet Kenneth Irby, who writes in a thoroughly modern mode, and is especially strong on American Western and Middle-western themes, is absolutely obsessed with the music of Delius.

I’m not sure how this process works, or if it will stand further investigation. Perhaps it will, although probably not by me. I know that those avant-gardists who lack this paradoxical combination strike me as strident and flat.

JOB: I can largely agree with what you say about the “artificial” differences that are frequently made between the 19th and 20th century; there is evidence for this wherever one looks, if one looks. Your point is particularly well made about Melville. I have been rereading Chekhov and see that a Hemingway doesn’t exist without this Russian doctor having first broken the ground; perhaps Joyce’s Dubliners doesn’t exist either, though Joyce said that he had not read Chekhov. Or one can read Nerval and see that he made Eliot possible. It wasn’t, as we may read in the textbooks, a world war, the decline of Christianity, or Freud; it might be these too, but it was first a Nerval demonstrating that language and structure could be used in a new way. Willing to discard the cliches about the differences between this century and the last, are you also willing to minimize the differences between the literatures of different countries? (Is that a growl I hear coming from the East?) Is there an “American” literature?

PM: There is an American literature, despite all: —something in the character and fibre of the writing that the best writers can’t escape, even if they wanted to. The Europeans know this, they recognize ourselves. Go back to Poe, and the response to him in France. Go back to the early American naturalists, the Bartrams, etc., the way they were mined by the British poets. Hell, go back to The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last major play, oddly different from his other works—as though he were issuing a signal: something new has been added. Ever since then, however much Europe has fought us, patronized us, maligned us, fawned over us, she has demonstrated an often secret appetite for us, and a sharp eye for ways in which we reveal ourselves.

Just what it is, in modern terms—this distinctly American literature—has become increasingly difficult to recognize, as the body of our work splinters, becomes diffuse. Some years ago, the whole world of modern painting became galvanized around the Abstract Expressionists, and the capitol of the art world moved dramatically from Paris to New York. Nothing that singular has happened in American writing; and American painting, today, is similarly scattered.

There is something about the consciousness of the American writer, though, that I would like to explore—particularly in terms of the concept of international influences that you mention: the spores are airborne, like the spores of the morel mushroom, so that the crop sprouts in different places every year.

We have heard much of the Sense of Place in American literature, and certainly Place vs. Mobility has been a major concern of mine (see Patagoni). This is partly due to the historical growth of the country—Place is something we are always leaving, in search of a shifting Frontier (and accompanying this—whether we allow it to surface or not—is a powerful strain of nostalgia, for all those Places we’ve left behind). Partly, also, it is a conscious attempt to use Place as a means of breaking ties with the Old Country, of establishing a native American culture. Much of William Carlos Williams’ thought on this subject sounds slightly dated today—and yet the effect of his thinking, in his magnificent poetry and prose, shows it to have been indispensable. And this, despite the fact that, as time passes, scholars may some day point out that he sounds ever-so much like this or that French or Russian or (God help us!) English writer.

What I’m talking about here is process, elements of which may seem contradictory, or at least paradoxical. In any case, the writer puts down roots, deals with what is at hand, is more or less conscious of himself as an American. There may also be spores blown on the wind, emanating from Afghanistan and Antarctica—who knows?—but the writer better not waste his time courting them; this can be as futile as courting the Muse. And the recognition of these spores is emphatically after the fact, a matter of interest to those of us who read the work, later. So—the writer works within the limits of his material, the limits of the formal structures of his work—and the fibres of those structures will no doubt evince some sort of native quality, assuming him to be a significant writer. As to the spores—the case of Joyce claiming he never read Chekhov is interesting . . . who among us knows what air he breathes? We’re more aware of this, I think, in the sciences, than in the arts . . . two scientists, say, working in isolation, thousands of miles apart, simultaneously reaching a major new conclusion. Now, I’m not so reactionary as to claim that isolation is essential to research and that communication between scientists should be discouraged—but the scientist, like the writer, must work within the term of his immediacies, must call a temporary halt to the acquisition of broad knowledge in order to formulate a use of knowledge; then, the recognition of world conjunctions is something that comes naturally. An interesting example of this is Ezra Pound, who consciously and obviously courted world influences, world cultures. But these cultures were his immediacies—and in the way he chose them, and handled them—if nothing else, in his speech rhythms—he is oddly a prairie man.

We are all aware of the terrible damage exerted by fame (flying the Atlantic was easy for Lindbergh, it was the crowds at Le Bourget that almost wouldn’t let him land—they were the danger). The American writer goes on the lecture circuit, radio & TV talk shows, etc., etc., he travels and travels and travels—and his subsequent work, whatever the value of the work that produced the fame—the subsequent work is usually weak and amorphous. It is just those immediacies that have been violated.

JOB: Let me quote from Emerson, another 19th century figure, and see what bearing these lines from “History” have to your work: 1) “All history becomes subjective; in other words there is no history, only biography.” 2) “There is nothing but is related to us, nothing that does not interest us—kingdom, college, tree, horse, or iron shoe—the roots of all things are in man.” 3) “In like manner all public facts are to be individualized, all private facts are to be generalized. Then at once History becomes Fluid and true, and Biography deep and sublime.” 4) “If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience.” I’ll ask a few things and you can take what you want. First, you have described the movement in your work from fictional mask to biography (the diary and letters in Patagoni). This seems to me to be what Emerson is talking about: history is biography because the mind contains everything, the past and present, the individual and the collective experience. Isn’t this what Michael Mills works with: that not only are there correspondences to find, but that he contains all of history within himself?

Second, is Emerson one more figure from the previous century who has created a tradition to which you belong?

PM: Having been brought up in Cambridge, in a household frequently overrun with academic types—a household imbued with the darker and more troubled soul of Melville—having visited often in Concord, canoed and hunted turtles, as a youngster, in the Concord River—and having, in my teens, suddenly “discovered” Emerson, and, riding that transcendental high, concluded that the world had just that moment been invented— granted all this, it is not surprising that my attitude toward Emerson, today, is peculiar.

In so much of Emerson—the pieces you have quoted above, for example—there is nothing that one can argue with . . . and I guess that’s the substance of my quarrel with him: a man who can’t be argued with is operating on one plane alone, in Emerson’s case, a sunny plane—and who argues with the sun? I am reminded of Olson’s remark about the Mayans, the appeal to him of their culture, their ways of thinking and doing: “the ball still snarled”; and also of this thought from Poe (who hated the transcendentalists with a life-long passion): “It is the excess of the suggested meaning—it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under-current of the theme—which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind), the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.”

Meaning, properly, is deeply encrusted, embedded, often hedged in with contradictions of itself, or at least paradoxes, ambiguities. In Emerson, it is all too clear. I suppose this is why Emerson is a favorite in American lit classes: the strain of the students’ search for “meaning” is minimized. Taking your last question first, sure, Emerson not only defines a tradition in which I and others of my generation belong—he could almost be said to render our efforts superfluous! I mean, if you got the meaning, why bother with all that trudging in the brambles?

Sure, I agree with Emerson, and your interpretation of Genoa and Patagoni in terms of his ideas- the intercourse between history and biography, the objective and the subjective—it’s just that I miss the trudge, the brambles.

Maybe I’m a cranky Yankee, but today is a grim, drizzly December day, and I somehow don’t mind it, I feel no need to “transcend” it, prefer it, in fact, to a land where the skies are not cloudy all day.

JOB: Could you explain, though I know you’ve discussed this elsewhere, the influence that Ron Hubbard had upon Genoa? It seems to me that his theory of dianetics is a psychological, perhaps physiological, description of what Emerson is talking about.

PM: I recently got a letter from a man who laid out a detailed Jungian interpretation of Will West, and who wanted to know if that was my plan when I wrote the book. I wrote back that if such a plan satisfied him, helped him to interpret the book, he was welcome to it, but that no such idea was in my mind when I wrote it. I have never been concerned with psychological or psycho historical plans or interpretations, as such. The nearest I have come to this has been the use of dianetics, in Genoa, which is very specific and pragmatic. Hubbard postulated memory as a “time track,” from conception to the present, from which all events would theoretically be recoverable. I lifted this notion and applied it to Western civilization, or American history, conception to the present. This may sound like Jung’s collective unconscious, but it is much more a mechanical device than a philosophical concept. Hubbard also postulated the engram, or physiological memory, wherein physical trauma is recorded and remembered in the cells affected, such memory being prime and powerful by comparison with memory in the brain cells. This introduced a whole physiological concept of memory and history—and of a term that might embrace these two: evolution. (Have you ever wondered why there are so many 7-foot basketball players nowadays? When I was a child, such men would be found only in the circus—they were extremely rare. Now they are common. What happened? Has the need for tall basketball players suddenly affected the gene pool of the race?) A man’s body—Michael or Carl Mills—brain and physique together—embodies his physical, historical, cultural inheritance. Hence the emphasis I have placed on various physiological anomalies in the two brothers.

JOB: In the course of the evening that Michael Mills spends in his attic remembering his own past, as well as that of Melville and Columbus, it seems to me that a certain irony emerges; namely, Michael Mills is not Melville or Columbus, and that their heroic proportions are not his. After all, there is a kind of grimness to his life, a kind of mediocrity, a certain disparity between the fact and the thought (e.g., his “ship” has a nagging wife in its hull who, along with other things in the novel, keeps reminding the reader of this disparity). What I am suggesting is that, like Joyce, you are not simply rewriting an epic. One can spend a lifetime tracking down all the correspondences between Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey, and yet there is a very basic difference between Bloom and Ulysses. You could have made Michael Mills heroic, but you didn’t, and yet you have all these parallels between his experience and that of Melville and Columbus.

PM: With this question you are into a very interesting level of historical perspective, historical evolution. You may have pinpointed Joyce’s major contribution here: the fact that Bloom must be Bloom, warts and all—he cannot be Ulysses.

It’s a difficult subject to approach, because part of me—and, I think, an even larger part of Olson- wanted to believe that the old epic approach is still viable—but a larger part knows that it isn’t. And yet, at the same time, we reject the celebration of self-pity, or immobility, or mediocrity, for its own sake. So Michael Mills must be Michael Mills, but if he becomes interesting, it is only in terms of everything else he envisions. Scylla and Charybdis, if you wish—and I’m trying to steer a course between them.

A negative look at this can be had through the work of those contemporaries who believe or pretend that the old-fashioned epic is not dead. A good example would be The Donner Party, by George Kiethly. Certainly an heroic subject—but he is unable to bring formal life to it, he bores us instead with endless, dreary triplets—prose, flat prose, lazily cast in verse. He is negative proof that form is only vital when it is contemporary.

Needless to say, both Melville and Columbus—like Michael Mills—were endowed with nagging impediments. To Melville, Lizzie and the kids, if only in terms of their dollar demands on him, must have represented something like this. And Columbus returned from the third voyage in chains. But it’s a question of emphasis, of which facet of the prism shines the strongest. Some historical wheel has turned, the traditional epic approach has gone hollow, irony must enter the presentation of the heroic—and Joyce was perhaps the first to demonstrate this.

(It is the collapse of just this heroic approach that renders the third volume of Maximus so searingly sad . . . Olson, to me, is the last of the great epic poets—or 19th-century romantics.)

All of this—the historical change, the turn of the wheel—has something to do, I think, with ours being a spectator’s rather than a participant’s culture: radio, television, sporting-watching, the innumerable highs of drugs, TM, yoga, etc.—the image that I used earlier, in talking of Michael Mills: everything is projected on a screen, and we trip, and watch.

That removed, contemplative, observer’s spot, that used to be the unique retreat of the artist and the poet, is now the most democratic locale: it is inhabited by everyone.

Not that the mechanic or the pump jockey is the modern hero—although, perhaps he is. But the hero is the do-er, he is the man of action.

JOB: I want to return to what you were saying earlier about removing the persona and placing yourself directly into the text. I have been reading an essay by Olson, published in 1951, in which he says that there are two possible directions for the novel. The first he calls the “DOCUMENT,” in which the author “juxtaposes, correlates, and causes to interact” his materials; the author here is very remote from his work. The second he calls “NARRATOR IN”- the opposite of the first—in which the author directly and in “his own person” focuses upon himself. It seems to me that both of these together describe the movement in your work.

PM: My first novel, which antedated Will West, was conventional; it was not published and it was not good. I wouldn’t want anyone to see it now. It was just a straight, conventional novel as far as form was concerned. Will West was the first one where I started to do funny things- introduce documentary material, ethnological material, archeological material, all juxtaposed in the flow of what was still essentially a conventional novel. Then the novel form breaks down further as we get into Genoa, although I am still hanging the structure on the framework of these two fictional or quasi-fictional brothers. But by the time of Patagoni I am into what Olson is talking about, where I am the persona to the extent that there is a persona. I am the person in the journal section at the end. In the early part of that book I was dealing with straight documentary material. I’ve now got an unpublished recent work in which I go back to the method I use in the last section of Patagoni where I am present as a sort of journalist.

JOB: Why are the letters and diary entries unedited?

PM: As I have said earlier in this interview, I tend to view my own work as process. I think, at the time of writing, I was anxious that the book should itself embody some process, some change within its structure—perhaps because I was now foregoing for the first time the processes accessible in the conventional novel. The book represents two levels of experience: that of the scholar, accumulating and organizing his material, and that of one’s unprepared, non-literary diurnal doings. The historical material on the Indians and Ford belongs on the first level; the stock car race, the trip to Detroit, and the diary and letters, on the second. The process of writing the book was, first, scholarship (controlled), and then action (spontaneous); the most active parts (where the author is most active) are the trip to Detroit (where I try to pick up the flow by doing funny things with punctuation), and the diary and letters, whose spontaneity, I felt, would be absolutely violated by any sort of editing.

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