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Dialogues: An Interview with Aaron Stern and Jordan Sullivan

June 22, 2016 | by

Rebecca Norris Webb, Blackbirds, color photographs. From the series “My Dakota,” 2005–2011.

Rebecca Norris Webb, Blackbirds, 2006, color photograph. From the series “My Dakota,” 2005–2011.

A few weeks before the end of 2014, Aaron Stern and Jordan Sullivan wrote me to request permission to reprint the poem “My Gift to You,” by Roberto Bolaño, which was published in our Summer 2012 issue. Stern and Jordan, both of whom are photographers, had recently opened a small space called 205-A in which they hosted group photography exhibitions with the aim of creating an artistic community in dialogue. They had also begun publishing small-run books; “My Gift to You” was intended for a book pairing images by nine photographers with the work of nine poets. Titled 36 Photographs & 20 Poems, the slim volume is published under the heading Dialogues 01, indicating future installments in a series.

The book appeared in limited quantity in 2015. Its dimensions are slightly smaller than those of the Review, and its pale pink covers are unassuming: with only the title and a white rectangle on the front, suggesting an empty frame, it has the austerity of a classic Éditions Grasset cover. Stern, who lives in New York, spoke with me in person; I corresponded with Sullivan, who resides in Los Angeles, over e-mail. The assembled conversation returns again and again to the linked ideas of collaboration, correspondence, and correspondences.



The epigraph is from Arseny Tarkovsky’s “On the Bank,” a sublime and foreboding poem about the natural world. The book’s opening photograph, by Rebecca Norris-Webb, depicts an army of brown, bowing sunflowers and a plague of birds and echoes Tarkovsky’s line about “the terrible, vegetable sense of self.” Why did you choose to begin this way?


The poem explores the moment when one realizes nature has a language, though that language is incomprehensible. This realization makes the world both troubling and beautiful, and perhaps the world made more sense to him before he was able to contemplate it, before he was fully conscious, before he “counted life in years.” This narrative speaks to this large cosmic complexity, and I think it makes for a nice ground from which the rest of the poems and pictures in the book can grow. Essentially, this book is an exploration of the world at large. There isn’t a concrete thesis or message we’re trying to convey. We were more interested in presenting poems and images we found interesting and organizing them in a way where meaning could be generated from their interaction. Whatever that meaning is, it will be different for each person. Read More »

Bodies in Space: An Interview with Garth Greenwell

January 19, 2016 | by

Photo:  Ricardo Moutinho Ferreira

Photo: Ricardo Moutinho Ferreira

Garth Greenwell’s “Gospodar,” which appeared in our Summer 2014 issue, is a slow-simmering story of unease, humiliation, and eroticism—it concerns a man’s experience with sadomasochistic sex in Sofia, Bulgaria. Greenwell, also a poet, is exacting in the language he uses to describe the encounter; the result is an intimate and intense intermingling of desire and trepidation.    

Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, out today, dilates those same concerns: over three sections, the book’s unnamed narrator plumbs the feelings of exploitation, loneliness, and overwhelming desire that are produced by his complicated, compulsive affair with a bewitching male prostitute named Mitko. The first section is a revised version of a novella, Mitko, which won the Miami University Press Novella Prize in 2011 and marked Greenwell’s first foray into fiction. It follows the young American teacher, new to Bulgaria, as he engages Mitko for sex in the bathrooms under Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. The second section comprises a single unbroken paragraph that reflects back to the narrator’s childhood, and the third returns to his troubled relationship with Mitko.

I met with Greenwell last November after eagerly reading an early copy of the novel. He spoke easily and at length about growing up gay in Kentucky, erotic freedom, and the many faces of desire.

I thought we would start by talking about sex.

Great. That’s my favorite thing.

The novel is concerned with sex and desire, and often we think of those two things as being intertwined, but they’re largely kept separate in this story. Sex and desire are sometimes linked, but they’re also independent entities.

Maybe that’s tied up with the experience of growing up queer in the eighties and early nineties in Kentucky. I remember very clearly thinking about sex all the time when I was twelve or thirteen and feeling an intense desire that I was pretty sure I would never be able to act on. I remember asking myself, Will I ever be able to do any of these things? Will I ever find anyone with whom to do these things? It really did seem possible that the world would never accommodate my desires. And so in that way, desire was separated from sex. And then when I did finally have sex, I found that the world accommodated those desires in these weird marginal spaces, where sex wasn’t exactly analogous with desire—places like cruising bathrooms and parks—and where there can be a circulation of bodies that, if it’s about desire, it’s about a kind of desire that can be detached from specific people. Read More »

Long Story Short: In the Studio with Aidan Koch

December 29, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

Photo: Amanda Hakan

Photo: Amanda Hakan

On Aidan Koch’s cover for our Summer issue, six panels depict a woman lounging and reading and ruminating at the shore. Each panel exists both as a discrete event—here, she looks at her book; here, she shades her eyes—and as one sentence in a paragraph about the woman’s day at the beach. The issue also features Koch’s comic “Heavenly Seas,” the story of a woman who travels to a tropical location with a man she doesn’t love. It is twenty-eight pages long and contains just over a hundred words of dialogue and no narration. The difference between “Heavenly Seas” and the cover sequence is like the difference between Lydia Davis’s long short stories and her very short ones.

Koch, a native of Olympia, Washington, is the author of three book-length comics—The Whale, The Blonde Woman, and, most recently, Impressions. She also makes sculptures, ceramics, and textiles that reinterpret the classical motifs that appear in many of her comics. Her narratives are elliptical, fragmentary, and open-ended; it seemed appropriate to include “Heavenly Seas” in an issue that is largely about translation. Last month, I met Koch at her studio, in the basement of a tatty mansion she shares with eight other artists and a corn snake named Cleopatra, in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Where did the story for “Heavenly Seas” come from?

I’d been trying to think about how to utilize the idea of traveling. I’d read a couple of Paul Bowles books, and I liked how well he captured the mindset of how foreign places can seem to the traveler and how that’s seductive but also scary. He also thought about people’s attitudes in different countries and in confronting different cultures. That’s something I’d been considering, since it’s a big part of my life. I’ve been traveling constantly for the last three or four years. I left Portland in 2011 to travel and just didn’t stop. I went to Spain and Turkey, then I was in Scandinavia and around Europe. My book Field Studies documented 2012, when I lived in a different room in a different city every month, just because I didn’t know what to do with myself. I thought maybe I’d figure it out along the way. Read More >>

Invisible Adventure

December 9, 2015 | by

Watching a film about Claude Cahun.


When Alan Pierson conducts, he stands with his feet together, sometimes springing onto his toes and then plunging forward at the waist. Other times, he takes a step forward, only to return immediately to his original spot. He is tall and thin, and his reedy build exaggerates his movements: he could be one of Robert Longo’s flailing suited men, but he is poised, like an exclamation mark.

He is conducting Alarm Will Sound onstage at Merkin Concert Hall as part of the Sonic–Sounds of a New Century Festival. He is also onscreen at the back of the stage, in a short film in which he conducts the same composition but without orchestra or audience. The live Alan Pierson conducts with his back to the audience in the hall, but onscreen he frequently appears frontally and in close-up, and his expression—of delectation and wonder—is fed by his body’s exuberant movements. Read More »

Big, Bent Ears, Epilogue: We’re Not Actually Here

October 14, 2015 | by

Joseph Mitchell amid the wreckage of Lower Manhattan.

Joseph Mitchell amid the wreckage of Lower Manhattan.

Big, Bent Ears,” our ten-chapter multimedia series with Rock Fish Stew, has come to a close. Over the past seven months, this “serial in documentary uncertainty” has enfolded a host of writers, artists, and musicians, including Joseph Mitchell, Jonny Greenwood, tUnE-yArDs, Sally Mann, Cormac McCarthy, Grouper, Nazoranai, Matthias Pintscher, Tyondai Braxton, the JACK Quartet, Swans, Tacita Dean, and Cy Twombly, as well as artists of a different stripe: a family of piano tuners, a chef, a translator, and, of course, a documentary team. There were also multiple audiences, an earthquake, strangers on a train, and the city of Knoxville.

We’ll leave you with an epilogue in which Sam Stephenson and Ivan Weiss return to Mitchell’s midcentury chronicles of New York City and sift one more time through his collected objects. This postscript is also an introduction to a filmed interview with Laurie Anderson, whose comments typify the spirit of uncertainty that binds the series.

 Read the epilogue here, and catch up on the rest of the series:

Nicole Rudick is managing editor of The Paris Review.

Bringing Voices from Chernobyl to America

October 9, 2015 | by

Svetlana Alexievich in Berlin. © Photo M. Kabakova

Svetlana Alexievich in Berlin. © Photo M. Kabakova

Svetlana Alexievich, the latest Nobel laureate in literature, has said that “after twenty years of work with documentary material and having written five books on their basis I declare that art has failed to understand many things about people.” But art is precisely what she has made: a “novel of voices,” as she has described her work, built from fact and feeling. Voices from Chernobyl, which Dalkey Archive Press published in 2005, is Alexievich’s fourth book but only her second to be translated into English. None of her other works have, to date, been published in English.

I asked Chad Post, who was then Dalkey’s associate director—he’s now the publisher of Open Letter Books—about what led him to publish Voices from Chernobyl in America and about his first impressions of Alexievich’s work, a blend of narrative and reportage that doesn’t offer conclusions. “Why can’t we say, I don’t want to be a slave anymore?” she said in a 2013 interview. “Why do we suffer again and again? Why does this remain our burden and fate? … I don’t have an answer, but I want my books to motivate readers to think about the question for themselves.”

What struck you about Alexievich’s writing when you first read her?

That it’s very political of course. She’s writing about the way the government ruined people’s lives. People died, they knew it, and they covered it up. They didn’t care. But at the same time, her writing is made up of all these voices—there are hundreds of people are in the book, but each one is fairly distinct, and even when their stories overlap, they retain their own voices, their own particular tales. That made it feel very human. It’s miserable to read, but it’s made very human and very powerful because of the way she allows their voices to tell truths that are hard to take. When those truths in the context of a narrative, of someone telling a story, it’s much stronger than if the experiences had been reported. Instead of “Then, on April 24, this thing happened, these people died in this way,” she let someone say, “My husband brought home his firefighter’s hat, and gave it to our son, who later got brain cancer and died.” Read More »