May 6, 2014 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
At our Spring Revel last month, John Jeremiah Sullivan presented the Hadada Award to Frederick Seidel. Sullivan’s remarks follow, along with three of Seidel’s poems, which were read aloud that night: “Downtown,” read by Zadie Smith; “Frederick Seidel,” read by Martin Amis; and “The Night Sky,” read by Uma Thurman.
As a kind of offsite, ersatz staff member at The Paris Review, I claim the pleasure both of thanking you all for your presence here, and of thanking everyone at the Review—Lorin, and the board, and my colleagues there—for giving me the honor of announcing this award. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word honor in a less glib manner.
When you are in your twenties and living in the city, or any city, or anywhere, and trying to write, there are poets whose work will come to mean something to you beyond pleasure, beyond even whatever we have in mind when we use the word inspiration, and into the arena of survival, into what the poet whose work we are celebrating tonight describes as the “what will save you factor.”
When I was in my twenties and living in New York, the poet who came to mean that for me and a lot of the other younger writers and editors I knew was one named Frederick Seidel, a poet who had come, like another we’d heard about, from St. Louis via Harvard, and from there, via everywhere. Read More »
January 3, 2013 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Ten years ago I was on the highway from Tennessee to Kentucky—can’t even remember the reason for the trip—but I kept the car radio on the AM band, set to “Scan,” because I’d noticed, over several years’ driving around this part of the world, how almost every small town you pass has at least one little church that’s broadcasting a low-wattage radio show, and you often hear fascinatingly crazy preaching on those transmissions and, less frequently, fine singing. That particular Sunday in January it was raining, and I was somewhere north of Memphis, passing depressing roadside storage buildings, when a remarkable live signal came across. The sound at first was like that of a giant wet towel rhythmically slapping on somebody’s back. After a minute I realized it came from hundreds of rain-soaked shoes stomping in unison on a concrete floor. I tried to imagine the inside of the church. It must have been cavernous. Or maybe—more likely—it was a warehouse, where this Pentecostal group had been forced to convene. Slap … slap … midtempo, it filled the car, as the people chanted a single line, “If He sends me, I’ll GO-oooo … If He sends me, I’ll GO-oooo,” a three-note melody, simple to the point of crudity, but with a strange elegance. Folks got up and started testifying. A woman thanked God because on Christmas Eve she’d gone to the welfare office to get food stamps, and there’d been something wrong with her forms—a paper she hadn’t known was expired—“but the man give it to me anyway,” she said. “God softened his heart.”
August 31, 2012 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
This week, our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, stepped in to address your queries.
Dear Paris Review,
I live in the deep south and was raised in a religious cult.
Still with me?
Okay. I’m attempting to throw off the shackles of my religious upbringing and become an intelligent well-informed adult. My primary source of rebellion thus far has been movies. I would watch a Fellini movie and then feel suddenly superior to my friends and family because they only watched movies in their native tongue (trust me I know how pathetic this is). My main question involves my reading selections. Obviously, I have stumbled upon your publication and am aware of its status as the primary literary periodical in English. Also, I have a brand-new subscription to the New York Review of Books, since it is apparently the intellectual center of the English-speaking universe. I am not in an M.F.A. program or living in Brooklyn working on the Great American Kindle Single, I’m just a working-class guy trying to take part in the conversation that all the smart people are having. This brings me to my question: What books should I read? There are so many books out there worth reading, that I literally don’t know where to start. To give you some background info: I was not raised as a reader and was not taught any literature in the Christian high school that I attended. What kinds of books do I like? My answer to that would be movies. I’m desperate to start some kind of grand reading plan that will educate me about the world but don’t know where to start. The classics? Which ones? Modern stuff? Should I alternate one classic with one recent book? How much should I read fiction? How much should I read nonfiction? I went to college but it was for nursing, so I have never been taught anything about reading by anybody.
I realize this stuff may be outside of your comfort zone, as most of the advice questions seem to be from aspiring writers or college-educated people. Please believe me when I say that I am out of touch with the modern world because of a very specific religious cult. I want to be an educated, well-read, cultured, critically thinking person but need some stuff to read. Before I end this letter, I’ll provide an example of just how out of touch I am: you know how "Ms." is the non-sexist way to refer to a woman, and that "Mrs." is sexist? Yeah, I just found out about that. I’m twenty-five.
December 30, 2011 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
In the current issue of The Paris Review our Southern Editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, writes about the discovery of an elaborate prehistoric cave-art tradition in, of all places, Middle Tennessee, and about the archaeologist Jan Simek, the onetime Neanderthal expert who leads the research on these remarkable Native American sites. By a stroke of good timing, this month also marks the U.S. premiere of the German director Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a spellbinding 3-D documentary about La Grotte Chauvet, a cave in the south of France—discovered only in the mid-nineties—that contains exquisite animal paintings more than thirty thousand years old (the famous images at Lascaux go back a mere seventeen or eighteen thousand years, by comparison; Chauvet is another Lascaux back from Lascaux). In the following Q & A, Sullivan talks cave art with two of the more interesting underground explorers of our time.
JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN
Mr. Herzog, you mention in the new film that you were limited to very few days and hours of shooting in the Chauvet cave, because of the possible ill effects (mold and so forth) that too much human traffic could have on the fragile environment. Also you had very little crew, and were forced to keep the equipment light. How might the movie have been different, if you’d been given unlimited access?
Constraints—which in this case were massive—are never really completely productive. However, I had to focus to the very essentials, and probably, with two or three times as much schedule available for me, the film wouldn’t have been much different. It has never, in my life as a filmmaker, made much difference how the constraints were. Technical constraints, schedules, you name it—they always have forced me to be quick and intelligent.
One small thing, maybe, which keeps nagging me, is a sort of a scratched painting, the outlines of an owl. It’s very strange and mysterious, and unique, because you do not have depictions of birds in the Paleolithic caves—with one exception that comes to mind: Lascaux, where there is a bison apparently hit by spears. His entrails are coming out of his belly, and there’s a dead man on the ground, face up, and there’s a stick, and a bird on it, as if the soul of the man were departing him. A beautiful and touching image, but of course, a different cave, and something like 18,000 years later.
The problem with the owl in Chauvet is that you can only film it properly with light coming from profile. And as we could not step beyond the confinements of a metal walkway that runs through the cave, protecting the floor, it would have been very difficult to move a light. Perhaps on some sticks we could have held something, and with quite some time and tricky arrangements, I could have made it visible. But I take it as it is.
December 1, 2011 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Last year the writer Denis Johnson came to Wilmington, North Carolina, where I live, for a conference. Ben George, who edits the magazine Ecotone and was hosting him, graciously asked me to tag along. There were memorable days. Granted, I would file a trip to Food Lion with Denis Johnson under fairly interesting life events. Even so ...
It emerged that Johnson had been fascinated by Venus flytraps since childhood, and Wilmington happens to be the one place in the world where those strange carnivorous creatures grow wild (or at least where they’re truly native: the nutrient-starved coastal soil made them turn to insects for food). We took him to an actual flytrap preserve, behind an elementary school, where you walked on narrow paths through bright green clusters of the plant. You could bend down with a pencil and touch their little hairs, causing them to snap shut. The speed of it made us jump back. We touched only a couple, though, because once an individual trap has clamped down, it can never open again.
The point is, after this excursion, we went to a barbeque joint downtown called Parchies. In the Cape Fear country, and throughout the piedmont of the state, we have this unusual kind of barbeque, which uses a light vinegar sauce instead of the red stuff and tastes totally different than what you expect if you grew up west of here. Strangest of all, it’s served with the coleslaw on the sandwich, right on top of the barbeque. Sounds vile, but when you eat it with a side of finger-shaped hush puppies, you feel that the coronary episode this meal will trigger at some unknown moment down the road makes for an even trade.
Johnson grew visibly excited, waiting for the food. He told us that he had some roots in Carolina and that once, when he was very young, his grandparents had taken him to a barbeque place somewhere in the country and bought him a sandwich. He’d never gotten over the memory of this sandwich. It was perfect. In his mind it had become the ur sandwich. Every barbecue sandwich after it, even the good ones, had been on some level a mockery.
“Hey,” Ben said, “what if this is the one? What if you've been remembering this piedmont-style all these years, and now you're about to reexperience it? Is that a good thing?”
Enter expectation, pressure.
The sandwiches came.
He lifted his and bit into it. Read More »
May 20, 2011 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
A time comes when it’s healthful to put aside obscurantism and turn to bedrock, if only briefly. And while I flatter myself in thinking you know me as a man not prone to get overly excited about digital-remastering projects, nevertheless there are instances in which the beauty of the original song lay precisely in a primary attempt to expose its elements, and in these cases the additional stripping away of hiss and other shit can be revelatory, or in this instance (Best Ever: Buddy Holly, Techniche 2009), transformative.
That plane crash was a Hindenburg of pop. It’s taken me into my midthirties to mentally recover the true damage of it from Don McLean’s rhymes. Ever really listen to “La Bamba”? You’ve probably unconsciously sold yourself on the idea that the Los Lobos version is slightly superior. Not so! It's not the guitar, either, but the voice. When angels sing rock for fun they sound like Ritchie Valens. Did you know it’s Carol Kaye playing rhythm guitar there? Did you know Valens was seventeen when he died, that “La Bamba” hadn’t even been released yet? Snowy field in northern Iowa, flames.
If you listen to the live versions of "La Bamba," Valens played it basically like a sped-up Mexican folk song. Only in the studio did the ecstatic thing happen--at the point of intersection. I read somewhere that Valens didn't even like it.
On “Not Fade Away,” Jerry Allison plays a cardboard box (he’d ripped the idea from Buddy Knox’s lyrically creepy “Party Doll”). The beat is cartoonishly African. If you want to hear where it came from, listen to the song I hope to keep if the people in charge of the survival pod say you can keep only one, Charles Barnett’s “Run to My Jesus for Refuge.” Barnett was a Georgia man in his nineties. Alan Lomax met him at the end of a sand lane near the Sea Islands, right around the time Buddy Holly was making his song. Lomak asked, “Know Any Tunes?”. Barnett flipped a washtub over and started beating on it with two sticks, playing some of the most tenth-dimensional counterpoint you’ve ever heard, with galloping runs that suddenly freeze into cosmic pauses. “Mary, she wore a golden chain, / Every link was Jesus’ name. / I’m gonna run to my Jesus for refuge.” Supposedly Barnett could still jump into the air and click his heels together, at ninety-he-didn’t-even-know-what.