From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1995, Vol. 15.3
I interviewed Robert Creeley in early January 1993 at his home in Buffalo, New York. I’d been reading and rereading his fiction while in residence at the Millay Colony and had been particularly taken with the sentence concluding his Autobiography, “One had the company.” It seemed to focus his writing’s engagement with others, as well as my own interest in the multiplicity of voices by and through which one speaks. My interest in the interview came to focus not so much on answers to specific questions as on hearing Creeley’s voice in its ongoing conversation with others, in and out of writing. The company, as one can hear, is still very much there, or here, informing. The conversation characteristically began with a book Creeley had been reading, Maria Dermout’s The Ten Thousand Things.
ROBERT CREELEY: This is a beautiful book. What’s curious, you get the tone that makes you recognize that Michael Ondaatje is part of a culture, not simply a singular writer; he’s part of a whole way of seeing reality.
BRUCE COMENS: Not Canadian, but—
RC: Not Canadian, but this, Ceylonese.
BC: I’d never thought of him as that—are you thinking of Running in the Family?
RC: Yeah, but I was thinking also of that kind of curiously melting edge of reality where—not so much to conceptualize or not simply to symbolize—but where the thought of can not only be as real as the actual but the two are almost shimmering. Where the habit of something—what Granddad’s favorite chair is—is the chair it literally is, but it’s endlessly permeated, vibrating in that other, so that a place has all the echoes of what its use has been. Everything is so contiguous and contingent that reality doesn’t inhere in one focus. Yet it’s not contesting. It’s as though all the terms of a family were present at one time rather than his dad and his mum. Not just a present authority, but the resident memory of what qualifies what else is the case. And the form of it is terrific because it’s told in a sequence of narratives. First you wonder if they’re separate stories, but no, they’re not, they’re contingent stories and they form a pattern. And you begin with some of the island as the place to which the heroine of the book returns. There’s a grandmother there and there’s—and this is the Buddhist phrase—”the ten thousand things,” a proposal of the definition of reality. The ten thousand things—it’s more than a few!—standing for all of it, all the others.
BC: That’s actually, getting to your fiction, something that struck me-in The Island, that John’s thoughts about what’s going on are as much his reality as the actual.
RC: I was thinking, for example, of a phrase like Bob Dylan’s, “There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief.” That insistent situation within, say, my own writing or the writing of others that I’ve been moved by, the attempt, so insistently singular, of finding a way out of the oppression of—not so much of the limiting social enclosures, that one wants to leave a small town—but far more the kind of enclosure obvious in Crime and Punishment or Kafka’s The Trial or situations that are basically paranoid, where one feels like the only one in the universe who’s out of step or out of sync or can’t find the way through to the other side.
BC: As one so easily feels in an English Department.
RC: Well, welcome to the bleak fact of company. The irony of our social group is that so often everyone feels this, but there’s no company whatsoever in that feeling. Think of Pound’s great emphasis, the way out is via the door. Then you come to. Does he mean the Buddhist door, or the Taoist door, or what door does he mean? He means the door I presume, the door you open and close as you choose or can. But again, what’s so moving in Dermout’s writing is the complex, echoing, confident, permeating, social experience, far more than her premises. What pervades all the terms of the narrative is the absolute, confidence that the cultural increment creates for it. There’s no make-believe. Again, our narratives are so often of escape or of shock of recognition as they say. I remember once being told by an outstanding landscape architect, Dan Kiley, how he’d met his wife. He’d found himself at the edge of Lake Champlain, in the middle of the winter—very cold and desolate place—he just was absolutely captivated by this lake. Lo and behold, this particular day as he was standing, probably in a blizzard, looking out over the waste, there was another figure, a person, just ten or twenty feet away from him, who proved to be this woman, and his conjecture was that anyone so drawn to such a place must have an emotional affinity with him that was deeply rooted. And that was the basis for their relation! Well, it sounds true, one of the great stories, but you know in retrospect it sounds like a pretty hard way to meet people you care about! When you’re both so curiously isolated that you find company in being the only two in that universe together. This novel is not that way; this narrative is of a culture which is endlessly permeated, not permissive, but endlessly permeated by its own physical reality. And it has no time that’s ambitious.
BC: Do you think that’s a function of the culture being less aggressive, less competitive?
RC: Obviously. I’ve been reading a terrific writer, just not read enough, a poet, David Rattray. He’s got a terrific collection of essays, classic essays of preoccupations and musing and information and experience, called How I Became One of the Invisible. It’s a beautiful book. He’s got this charming active essay vis-a-vis “In Nomine,” this curious form of music, right from the Jacobean period . . . because it involves the whole situation what it means to be in the name of. “In the name of heaven! What do you think you’re doing?” What’s that phrase mean or imply? Anyhow, the point is simply that in saying things, we either try to acquire the authority of the “reality” or enter it in some way agreeable to others—but the premise of being there, curiously, is very awkward, And I was thinking of the season: there is a season for this, and a season for that, again which sounds very comforting and terrific when one first hears it, but only slowly does one recognize that this is an imagination of time as a kind of cupboard for discrete category or this is a sense of order. Again, I loved it in David Rattray when he points out nomine, domine, that kind of punning, but that omen and gnomon are very close; order and naming are, well, very parallel. Don’t name it, as they say, because instantly you offer it to this peculiar authority. And what’s fascinating in The Ten Thousand Things is that although there’s time, an inexorable time of the three generations of lives, actively present, but place is the time, time doesn’t really have to do with simply the human experience of it. Time is always present. Time is memory and the action coexisting, so there’s no separation. You get old here, as a physical act, or fact of something, but you don’t lose the present by that definition. And I think often in our imaginations or senses of things, you fade from the act; as you fade from the activity you imagine to define you, you fade from the present it thus permits. “I don’t see him here anymore, he’s not around anymore. Where is he?”
BC: Yes, he’s disappeared. Which the culture does too, with media stars—if someone doesn’t sell a record or doesn’t do a film for two years they’re presumed dead.
RC: He’s dead, yeah. I was thinking of Jim Kelly now, the great Buffalo Bills quarterback, with his, not displacement, but his having been happily, successfully replaced by Frank Lloyd Reich.
BC: Is that what they call him?
RC: One of the news people: he’s the great architect Frank Lloyd Reich, with the Reich stuff, as they say. So he’s become locally, but even nationally, this pop hero. This peculiar religious feeling that endures.
BC: Well, in Canada they’ve made a lot of him being Canadian
RC: He seems a basically curious person. He lives out in Orchard Park. I mean, to be able to sit on the bench so patiently, for whatever part, and to be able to get up and do something, with such heroic competencies would be great.
BC: Yes, and not mind being benched again.
RC: Oh no no no—God’s will, God’s work. There was a great moment a couple of years ago when Jim Kelly had hurt his elbow and Frank Reich came in and won the game against Miami the next week. He was asked afterwards immediately by the press, what’d you do? He said, well, he’d prayed to Jesus Christ, who’d really come through and all had been well! And I remember they questioned some of his linemen, and they said, well, you know, it may have been Christ, but we were certainly making it all possible. He could’ve been out there all day long thinking about his next move and no one would’ve got to him. We were obviously doing a lot there, too!
BC: Do you think that sense of time is different between prose and poetry?
RC: Yes, sure.
BC: I mean, most of what you’re talking about seems to be a sense of time that you get in prose, because it’s more various.
RC: Yes, the way you come back to time, the way you come around. I’m thinking of that charming phrase: what goes around comes around. I really like that quote from, was it Parmenides? “It is all one to me where I begin, for I will come again there.” That’s what goes around comes around. The sense that in prose there’s time, paradoxically all the time in the world, literally all the time in the world, because it has no necessity to ever leave or complete its own disposition. You set up a time track, but you can equally leave it. In fact, it is left endlessly when a book has become, like The Wizard of Oz for example, the exfoliating conditions and adventures. The pattern of the narrative never of necessity wants to end, it never has to. It can expand or move from any point where it is to an endlessly, yes, usefully digressive net. You can find narratives everywhere it goes. I’m really always teased and intrigued by the sense that it doesn’t matter what poems say. That really isn’t what they’re doing, and I can far more actively understand that now. I thought when younger that the burden of the song or the poem was the emotional condition that it made articulate or the feelings it thus gave voice to, or the this or that, whatever is—and I think all of that is part of its real fact, but paradoxically, I don’t think that’s what defines it. I used to think that, but I don’t now.
BC: Like Williams, saying that all sonnets say the same thing—who cares what they say, it’s the form.
RC: Yes. Yes, and I felt early on, at least in my situation, that one had to be wary of being too formally determining, because that argued you were sliding toward a classicism in the sense of perceived patterns and blah blah blah. All of which was OK, as that proved then, I certainly wouldn’t contradict it as a necessary sense of things. But I was fascinated too, reading Paul Valery talking about the provocation that formal condition gave him; the more restrictive the form, the more stipulating it was as a factual problem—almost like Olson’s how to dance sitting down—and the more inherent the limits, the more insistent the limits, the more interesting the possibility became. And that form was frankly, crucially, what poetry had most intensely to deal with; its very name made that clear. Again like Williams, with the emphasis now regrettable, when a man makes a poem, makes it mind you, he takes the words as he finds them lying interrelated about him. The point is that he makes the poem and that this is insistent in his mind. You were saying that once when visiting Yale, you were struck that unlike Pound, Williams’s thinking was volatile, I mean, did not stay locked into a pattern of concepts that then defined his subsequent necessary behavior, whereas Pound did. Pound kept these things in mind and worked to accomplish them through a variety of moves, whereas Williams not so much changed his mind as shifted his ground, so variously and so insistently. He had, almost, tactics. He was somewhere; he had to figure his next move, always.
BC: And not knowing exactly where he—
RC: Yeah, see I love that, I love that, that’s why he was a great hero for me, not simply that I knew where he was coming from. Don Allen has given me the useful and very pleasant job of writing him some kind of preface for a collection of Jack Kerouac’s journalism pieces, which are everything from an introduction to Robert Frank’s collection of photographs years ago, to a whole series of later stuff he did for Escapade magazine. You can sure tell when Jack is, not so much simply there, but when he’s on; he’s so terrific. Everything becomes vivid and specific, not just specific, but it becomes an agency whereby you can get moving, and the playfulness and the intensity and the vividness with which the words then begin to be there are just dazzling. Yes, the density and the sounds. When he’s bored and he has simply an idea to carry it’s awful, it’s mawkish and sluggish—he’s drunk, you know, you can tell.
BC: If it’s not as important that poems have something to say—that’s not what they’re really about—do you think prose is more focused on that sense of saying something?
RC: That was the way people then thought, that prose had the burden of saying something, that poetry did not. That poetry survived in its formal agencies finally, and that prose survived to get something said. The prosaic matter, to communicate in that particular sense something in mind, something of value, or something recognizable. I don’t know, I don’t know, I think that the apparent line between prose and poetry is a very confusing one because both are labels for kinds of language constructs that have in some cases a long history to identify them as such, but in other cases don’t have much at all.
BC: A social construct that changes.
RC: Yes, exactly, the prose continuum. There’s a wild billboard down the street, I’d almost be grateful if you’d get a picture of it, it says, “If God wrote an editorial in the newspaper, wouldn’t you read it?” And I thought, precisely, because he wrote an editorial, I would not read it; if that’s all God can think to do is to write an editorial. Suddenly the whole imagination of writing and editorial and newspaper and all these presumptions about who am I reading this, and who else other people may be, and all that, it’s so grimly brutal! But it vividly makes clear what the imaginations of journalism—at least of this town—are.
BC: The writer as the ultimate authority, or that’s what you aspire to.
RC: Yes. There are a lot of editorials that have nothing to do with anything like that. But I was just thinking of that sense of prose as being very responsible and perceptive, thoughtful, intimate, and contriving a quote statement. I don’t know, I love the goofs in prose, I think they’re beautiful. It’s a newer form than poetry, it’s much more opaque.
BC: What interested me in writing prose was finding out that you could invent forms . . .
BC: . . . so that it wasn’t a matter of writing God’s message, but instead there was a form for it, and therefore the form made certain demands, and you could go with those or go against those or play with them, or do whatever, so that it was like writing in stanzas at that point. It seems to me your own prose moves away from the heavy plot by means of such other forms.
RC: At least I felt a responsibility for everything that was started. It must have been that New England sense that you’ve got to finish what you start. So the sense was, in some curious way, that the less one impeded what seemed “necessary” in this trip, the less one impeded it with more stories. As a kid I used to love—off the track but not at all, really—these Uncle Wiggly stories; I don’t know if you ever read Uncle Wiggly, but he was really terrific. Uncle Wiggly stories characteristically ended: Well, if such and such, if he gets hold of the such and such, and runs off, you know, to the bubbly wubbly forest, I will return and continue the story, I’ll tell you what happened to so and so. It’s the classic story form. All staying equal, or proving equal, or being equal, this will all continue, and the next time around, we’ll move on to see what happened to Harry after he dove in the river, or who his friend John really was, and so on. So there’s a sense of continuing progression, and a sense of the form—not really wanting ever to get to the end. The awful thing, as a kid reading, was that you came to the end of the story, and that was it. I mean, it would be heartbreaking that there was no more of it. There was no appetite to finish the book except in the excitement to see what was going to happen; obviously, being in the book was the delight. And I still continue that sense of wanting to stay with something. Like this, reading David Rattray, to go down and finish it up. Or reading The English Patient. I know I was reading that in traveling, I was just delighted; after the crash and confusion of the day’s activities, I could go home to that book. No matter how wild reality was obviously often being, it was an absolutely secure place, as a tone and intelligence, and a thing happening.
BC: In that sense it’s like writing.
RC: Yeah, I thought it was a place to be. And the prose, I was brief because I didn’t know when things rightly began or ended. I remember being in writing classes, as a classic person in college, and the teacher was in this case Delmore Schwartz, no less. It was during the time when he was happily feeling a lot of confidence from the success of The World Is a Wedding and Shenandoah, and so on. His own stories and poems were doing well. And he was teaching this class in writing fiction. He was trying to make clear to us the diverse sources for writing, newspapers, everything. He was much involved with the old time western movie star William S. Hart. And he wanted to show us how, by taking such a person, one could invent, extrapolate, or create a whole narrative possibility of this person. In some ways the way that Michael Ondaatje does with Billy the Kid. But I think Michael Ondaatje’s is a terrific book, done not so much by reduction as by spacing rather than detailing. It’s the pace in that book that is as much the narrative as the detail.
BC: Yes, The English Patient seems much more detailed.
RC: Yes. Although it’s still the same curious economy. In any case, Delmore wanted us to learn professional habits. He really required that we all do outlines of what we proposed to write.
BC: A plot outline?
RC: Yes, yes. The whole bit. Had to be a couple of pages to be serious and outline the basic action and the characters and the whole sense of the people, and you’d have a scaffold on which to build. So I remember I did it, and I can’t remember what story it was, but I did a scene, about ten of us in the class, and handed it in. I was very flattered and pleased that, lo and behold, next meeting, he held up my outline. He thought this was great, read it to all the class, terrific. The next session, I’ll look forward to the story, but it was like having told a joke: I couldn’t do it. And I remember him saying, with real confusion, what happened, this is awful. I said well, I felt I was now working to put the bricks up, I mean I just didn’t feel any impulse in any of this stuff. I knew the answers; I just had nowhere to go. He said, that’s extraordinary, it was such a great idea, and you obviously have just destroyed it. But early on I realized I could not outline and move through that pattern. It just wasn’t the character of writing I could use. It had to be exploratory. It still does. I can have a tactic, even an end I want to get to. I remember in writing The Island, I knew where I was going to end. I wanted to end in the absolute confounding of the so-called hero’s circumstance when he thinks his wife has committed suicide, only then realizing by circumstance that she hasn’t. Because that was the end of it all for me. It was really spooky to realize you were following someone to a death that wasn’t even real. You could say simply it was symbolic, but that to me seemed the point where it ended. So it’s really in an old-fashioned sense working back from that as much as anything else; here’s where it of necessity concluded. Then I also had a so-called game plan, much as one might with a football game, of how many chapters and how many pages. I mean that was the novel, for God’s sake. I measured it out the way you’d go over a plot of ground.
BC: I’m familiar with this!
RC: Well, I don’t think there’s any writer in the business who isn’t! I remember once saying to dear Douglas Woolf that I’d thus written, I’d used the pattern of fours and fives, and he said, yeah, my last one I used ones and threes, I used an alternating pattern, one was one, and the next was double, the next was three. That one! Well, Walter Abish does great, really funky takes on how you can measure and continue. I mean, you wouldn’t be laughed at if you said that’s why you had the job, in order to be able to pay the bills and continue to work the next day. It’s as though I’m making a pitch with writing, but I want to see how I can still be there tomorrow. And how this thing won’t close in on me on page one.
BC: Without having it so mapped out that there’s no interest in doing it.
RC: Yes, and you can think of almost anything that could be that possibility, the necessity of a character every three pages.
BC: Yes, that sounds like Calvino—obviously those more elaborate plans work wonderfully for him.
RC: Well, I remember the early Ionesco plays I thought were great, like Bobby Jones, where there would be many characters but all with the same name! So that Bobby Jones would be Bippy, like, many Bobby Joneses, and they would just keep coming. Like the great play in which the moving people are bringing the furniture into the new apartment, and the furniture just keeps coming. I love that sense when something apparently simple is suddenly not even not simple but just not at all what you’d presumed it was going to be. Where its trajectory or its reality is no longer a convenient quote end.
BC: Or it’s the people turning into a rhinoceros.
RC: Yeah. How do you turn it off, right? You have the publication of a magazine where you’ve not only bled through all the ads but they’re screaming on every last, back of page, saying, Don’t go! Don’t go! It’s only just beginning! Stay tuned next month. I would love to have done serial writing, you know where you’re writing from week to week . . .
BC: Oh, like Dickens?
RC: Yes, yes.
BC: Do you mean an actual story?
RC: Yes, sort of. But not a family narrative, but a story that had, not simply “The Perils of Pauline,” but some story that could take anything you could put into it.
I don’t know what happened with me, if I were to think of the economy of my writing over the years. I mean, why didn’t I write more prose. I remember Olson’s sense years ago was that I was going to be a novelist. He was convinced, quite unpretentiously, that was to be my shtick. And Duncan, for example, first turns on, as they say, or first recognizes me as a fellow writer through my prose, The Gold Diggers. That was often the writing that was initially evident or significant for friends indeed. It wasn’t that the poetry was therefore diminished, but it was just that particular exercise was what I had almost determined as a younger writer. And I was most moved by it, I didn’t think of myself remarkably or significantly as a poet for a long time. Williams was as much a hero for me from A Knife of the Times or Life along the Passaic River or those short stories. I loved that form. Or Lawrence, his short stories, or Dostoyevsky or Stendhal, the rhetorical agency of that voice or that way of saying things, was far more engaging to me in prose than it was in poetry. I loved Williams’s prose. And I wrote poems almost as a comfortable facility, you know, I had no sense of effort in it, it was very relieving, easy to do. I seemed to get sufficient respect. I was very pleased, reassured that I was being accommodated and found competent.
BC: So you were expecting to do more novels after The Island?
RC: Oh yes, I had a modest advance for one called The Marketplace, which was to be an account based on my time in Guatemala. It could have been such an obvious book, that whole melee of time and situation in Guatemala.
BC: When was this?
RC: This was in the late fifties, in fact it was ’59 to ’61. 1 was teaching this improvised “home school,” and there were many sorts of diverse presences, people. It was really a curious and tense time. It was just when Kennedy was permitting the training of American troops in Guatemala. So there was much that could have been linked in, or dealt with, from a very small fact of daily people, to a whole, sort of central south and northern American disposition. But I couldn’t find a center for the damn thing. I had at that time, and probably still have, a need to begin somewhere and proceed in some direction I believe possible, and this thing was just a welter. I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a reality that had so many diverse facets and faces, all the same. You know, where you could have thousands of dollars and be dying. They said you could get anyone in the country killed for $25—anyone, including the president. So I couldn’t find a center. I thought at first to use the emotional pattern of myself and Bobbie.
BC: Along the lines of The Island?
RC: Yes, but I thought that really didn’t work. Bobbie subsequently did do that and wrote a narrative of that time. There was no way to really get equal time for all of it. If you set it on the couple, you made the surrounding circumstance a backdrop. If you set it on the surrounding circumstance, you made it the point, and then they were witnesses, you know, “my visit to Guatemala.” And I didn’t want that either. I wanted somewhere where it would all be effectually the same. Where someone striking a match or reading a newspaper could be just as significant in the fabric as the attempt to blow up the capitol building in Guatemala City. Which they blew up. They managed to blow up the country’s one mental hospital, and tried to land it on the communists. It was bizarre, and they were all so personal. That was the point: there was no separation between the real madness of the day being conducted over there and us here at home, dealing with our world—everything was all the same.
BC: Which is what you were talking about in Dermout and Ondaatje.
RC: Yes. I remember, for instance, a curiously alcoholic evening with my employer, Joe Burge, and friends of his, and they were proposing to get a more liberal political situation by getting their workers to vote as a bloc. Sounds just the opposite, but in fact they were quite right. They were trying to deal with the very determined government of the country, very conservative, and very much in the hands of the big powers—expectable. And so they were trying to break this and get more monies for public health and education. So they determined to confront the government agency by voting their peons, by voting all these as a bloc, so they would literally vote all their employees! And you know if you’re working in Guatemala for someone, you’re sure not going to vote against them; each vote, no matter whether it’s private or public, you’d vote them. They would all vote for someone you told them to vote for. And not many of them even knew who was president anyhow, so it was kind of glorious but awful. And I remember it made Time magazine, and I remember Joe saying to me, well, if we make it, Bob, you can be the Minister of Art. Again, a kind of wild colonial spoils trip. Incredible! So that would all happen, at the same time it wasn’t that one was so intimate with power; it was just that there were no distinctions, there were no distances, everybody was there. Which I think is magical, magic realism, that everything was there at the same time.
BC: Yes, without any of the usual stratifications.
RC: Yes. All the abstracting or distances common to our social values are not there at all. So anyhow, I never wrote The Marketplace. I remember trying to return the advance. It was something like $500. My editor at Scribner’s said no, no, you don’t have to give it back.
BC: Were you writing drafts?
RC: I got one chapter done. Maybe it exists somewhere, but it was not very interesting. Just trying to get the focus, trying to get the setup together, just never made it. So everything stays dormant until that curious business with Presences; that was a turn-on, as they say. And I would call that prose, a prose poem, whatever, but it was a form that let me deal with narrative in various prose maneuvers. I loved it, I liked it. It begins really with A Day Book, I always forget, then Presences, and then finally, Mabel: A Story. I thought of that as a threesome. I didn’t necessarily feel they had to interact, but I thought the forms would interact, whether the materials otherwise do or not. So I liked that book. Since then I’ve written maybe three or four stories. I have an endless sense of wanting to do it any minute.
BC: More stories?
BC: And you also wrote the Autobiography.
RC: Have you read that? Where did you find it?
BC: I came across it at the Museum of Modern Art.
BC: Yes, there it was. What was its occasion?
RC: It was one of those classic pieces for Gale Research Company. Parallel to the usual research volumes, they publish one called an autobiographical series. It’s a curious series because they ask a diversity of writers to write an autobiographical scene for $1000 apiece. So that was reasonable. I think, as Charles Bernstein pointed out, I never mention Buffalo, I never mention Penelope.
BC: Yes, the facts of your life are treated as if people already know them.
RC: Yes. I liked it. It’s being reprinted yet again. It’s had a peculiar, a terrific success. It began as one of ten, in a classic autobiographical research number, then I’d sent Raymond Foye, whom I thank forever, an offset or something, and he really liked it—it was perfect for that format—so he published it, with Francesco Clemente. And it had an incredible success. It really sold. Bookstores have been running out of copies. And it got reviewed substantially, it was amazing, I mean, a book of that scale; I was delighted. So then Tom Clark in the last year or so has done a substantial critical biographical study: curiously it’s a setting, a commentary, and also interviews, and then an essay of mine, or a lecture, and then this autobiography concludes it. That’ll be useful. We tried to get it published by California. They in fact asked for it, and then turned it down. At least Kenner said, none of the usual ways of talking about Creeley’s poetry or his life were really going to do it, so this is really useful, this is very interesting. Because it makes clear an economy of what it’s trying to do. It just gives you the locus.
BC: In a way Autobiography is a very straight narrative, but I was struck by the way you were questioning both that construct of the I and then those determinate events that would give you the sequence of the life and, at the same time, presenting it as, nevertheless, the source of the creation of fiction, like Walt Whitman.
RC: I’m teaching a course, I haven’t taught here since ’88, now just this spring I’ll teach an undergraduate course. And I was offered various choices and I grabbed the one called Autobiography. I thought, what can one do with this relatively short period of time? But just as a proposal it’s fascinating. And it has to do precisely with this I, and then the instances of fictionalized autobiography: Robinson Crusoe is one of the great ones; the most classic in our reference is Whitman’s Song of Myself, which is who’s talking and what’s the presumption, and all that. And the I has gotten a lot of bad publicity recently. I mean especially because it got such a heavy use in my generation. Ed Dorn said in a note in New American Story that Kerouac had probably exhausted the agency of that pronoun for a very long time. It would be pretty hard to do anything he hadn’t done and make it seem more interesting, more provocative, productive, than what he curiously got out of it. Then Ed’s own take on I, with Gunslinger. That’s what continues to interest me. I like Wittgenstein, “the I is what is deeply mysterious”; that sense is fascinating to me because, for instance the whole sense of contemporary thinking about the authorial, the authority of the I and the narrative that has been heretofore presumed, the I telling us blah blah blah, and wanting to subvert or to overwrite that, to make it possible for the reader to enter his or her own disposition, and so on and so forth. Yet I remember Robert saying once when we were talking about narrative that the power of narrative is that it acts as a guide or a securing hand through situations that would otherwise be just terrifying, you know—to tell you it’s all right. And that’s the curious power, that you’re being protected by the voice that’s leading you, taking you on this curious trip. To make that ambivalent seems only to enter farther into the nightmare, “divided creation.”
BC: It seems to become ambivalent—I don’t know if you have a choice of making it ambivalent.
RC: Well, Pen’s mother has an aversion to sponge rubber, so someone can give her the most innocuous seeming object made of sponge rubber and she’ll go “Aggh! It’s abhorrent. . . .” And no one can provide for that in the usual pattern. One time someone reported that they saw a woman in Los Angeles in her backyard actually burning For Love, just tearing it to shreds and burning it specifically page by page in an incinerator. Something obviously was said in that book, or was associated with what was said. This person really loathed it. I certainly didn’t write for that reason. So I never had any problem with the reader’s participation in whatever way, or inscribing upon my humble statement. Whatever I thought, I thought the world will always deal with what I say. For Christ’s sake, it didn’t take a great deal of wisdom to know that.
BC: And about the I?
RC: Well, I’m from an older generation that feels that this is not an interesting variable as yet, sometimes. You’ll see in the story [“Homage to Turgenev”]. It’s an interesting story—I think you’re going to like it! Because it’s a story wherein one’s telling a story that someone’s told you. And if you’re a writer, the stories you get to be told most particularly are the stories of other writers, and I always loved the idea of telling the stories that I had read. I remember years ago Henry Blue—if you’re out there, Henry—was a writer who lived in the New York area. His first published novel was accomplished by going to the New York Public Library and getting out ten books by ten esteemed authors and taking a chapter of each one and piecing it together, and he managed to publish it. That was pretty good. He said, yeah, you’d be surprised at how little effort it took to link the chapters. Just give the characters a generic name and you were off! His father was a retired fireman. This was during the time of Bern Porter and George Light and Circle magazine; I guess it was in Berkeley. Kenneth Patchen was involved, along with Henry Miller, who used to have dinners occasionally with his mother and father, and his father now was writing, to satisfy a lifelong ambition to write stories. He would give them to Henry to read, because Henry was the writer; before dinner, while they were getting dinner ready, he would read the stories. He said he was there one night with his wife—the stories were awful, not very interesting, but he would read them, it was his father, dear father—he said, this one was a terrific story, he said it was a great story. I don’t think he stayed for dinner, but instantly zapped it off to Circle, and said they thought it was great, and they published it, and only some weeks later they got a letter from Ludwig Bemelmans: you’ve plagiarized my story! The point being that the old man couldn’t remember whether he’d, in Duncan’s phrase, read it or wrote it.
BC: So it wasn’t word for word plagiarism—
RC: No, it was just the story, he just told the story.
Well, the funny thing with the Turgenev story, which so attracted me, as you’ll see, was he ends with an absolutely irresolvable question. And it’s so clear-it’s almost symbolically involved with what is reality other than what you experience as the case. It’s not didactically proposing that, but the question of the story finally is, this horse—being a gray, a classic color of horse—if this horse is the horse you had, this can’t be your horse because this horse characteristically shifts its color, each year, sheds its old hair, and gets its new—this horse, I can’t remember whether it lightens or darkens, but characteristically it’s an absolute shift. So this horse can’t be the right one. And they said, but it is the horse, because, you know. And that’s where the story more or less ends. Wow! It’s an incredible trip!
BC: It ends with the paradox . . .
RC: Yeah. Do you want your horse or don’t you? And equally the guy saying this isn’t your horse isn’t saying yah or I told you so. You understand? How can it be your horse if it’s the gray you remember because the horse was stolen a year ago, and that means it would’ve shed its winter coat and all, and here it’s still the same color, something’s wrong. So it’s just an observation. But boy it really gets to the guy he says it to. And there it ends. It doesn’t have any wise answer like “The Lady and the Tiger,” which proposes an interesting but finally almost banally managed question. Because this doesn’t have to be anything, it doesn’t even have to be a “horse.”
BC: It’s simply presented as kind of fact, apart from any implied moral.
RC: It doesn’t fall back on “what has one’s life been about.” Turgenev has some classic narratives of that kind: “Smoke,” for example, that whole revolutionary fervor that Dostoyevsky otherwise involves. He and Dostoyevsky had classic arguments, but Turgenev was remarkably benign in his attitudes toward other writers; he thinks Dostoyevsky’s a terrific writer, which he obviously is, and he tries to help him, instantly gets involved with Dostoyevsky’s paranoia. Incredible! And he’s appealing to, not Tolstoy, but Tolstoy’s sister, he says, what is he going to do about the problem. It’s a great letter. Then his illness—a very unwhining person.
BC: Also classically bourgeois in some sense.
RC: Yeah, yeah, but he’s also displaced, he’s classically displaced; that too is interesting to me, as a contemporary. He’s one of the initial displaced people of the world, of our world, like Conrad. I love that in Conrad. He thought English was such an awful language. You know, it was so abstract and useless, it didn’t, he couldn’t move it, in the ways you could move Polish; he just didn’t like it. It’s really interesting that a major writer in the language did not like the language.
BC: Yeah, there are others who write in it as a foreign language, but they like the language.
RC: They like the language . . .
BC: And you, do you like it?
RC: Sure—as long as it keeps talking.