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At Work

A Quiet, Meditative Place

March 7, 2016 | by

Joe Gibbons on his drawings from Rikers Island.

Photo: Andrew Lampert

Over a forty-year career, Joe Gibbons has become a legend in the world of experimental film. His work so thoroughly wrinkles the cloth woven by art and life that the question of which imitates which becomes moot. In his 1985 film Living in the World, he stars as a working stiff named Joe Gibbons, just trying to make it through the eight-hour day with his dignity intact. Existentially bereft, he laments, “I read the paper and there’s so much going on that I have nothing to do with.” He quits his job and turns to crime to make ends meet.

When the real Gibbons made headlines last year in an unlikely heist story, that same voice was quoted in the papers as evidence of his moral degeneracy and criminal intent. FORMER MIT PROFESSOR “ROBS” BANK, FILMS “HEIST, the New York Post said. And, later, in the New York Times: FILMMAKER JOE GIBBONS GETS A YEAR IN PRISON FOR A ROBBERY HE CALLED PERFORMANCE ARTRead More »

Under the Skin of History: An Interview with Jonathan Lee

March 4, 2016 | by

Photo: Tanja Kernweiss

Jonathan Lee’s new novel, High Dive, focuses on the events leading up to the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, an Irish Republican Army assassination attempt on Margaret Thatcher. Lee follows both sides, moving with ease between the epic and the intimate. The hotel’s deputy manager, Moose, and his daughter, Freya, show one side of the story, while Dan, a young man swept up in the IRA, provides a viewpoint from within the terrorist plot. But High Dive doesn’t rely on historical significance to give the narrative its weight. Lee’s close third-person narration, full of humor and compassion, follows each of the characters as they approach the explosion that we can see coming.

The novel, Lee’s first release in the U.S. but his third in his native England, is already making waves abroad. I spoke to him about the challenges of writing historical events, especially seen through the compacted society of a hotel.

Though High Dive is focused on a specific event in 1984, it felt very current, with its focus on the dwindling power of men and their confusion in coping with this. Was this a theme you chose to take on or was its emergence more subconscious?

I read somewhere that Grace Paley, when younger writers asked her for advice, would say two things—“keep a low overhead” and “don’t live with a person who doesn’t respect your work.” I think all the major characters in my novel—especially the men, as we’re an insecure species—are aspiring, above all, to live with people who respect their work. Moose wants to be respected and promoted in his job at the hotel, and respected and loved by his daughter, who is seventeen but already wiser than him. And in the sections about Dan, a young IRA recruit, there is of course some vengefulness, but hopefully also this air of performance that is shared with hotel life. He wants to be heard and respected within and beyond his own small community. This above all is what leads him toward his fate—standing in a hotel with explosives in a bag, pretending to be someone else, calling himself “Roy Walsh,” fictionalizing himself. High Dive seems to me to be about people in small rooms, plotting. Plotting an attack that will shake them out of their powerlessness, plotting a promotion that will shake them out of their powerlessness, plotting a speech that will secure their position as Prime Minister—or sitting in another small room, mine, plotting a novel about these things. Fiction felt like the right form for this book partly because there’s so much fiction within the actual story—it’s about men and women making things up and pretending to be people they’re not. Read More »

Not Sorry: An Interview with Jeremy M. Davies

March 1, 2016 | by

JMD.jpg

Collections of stories often lose steam as they go, because even stories that are great individually can sound too alike when read together. But Jeremy M. Davies’s The Knack of Doing steers far clear of this problem—almost aggressively so. His stories vary so wildly—stylistically, topically, even conceptually—that I can’t imagine where half his ideas come from: a series of letters from a father to his children, doled out to them by his ex-wife as she absconds with them on a trans-Atlantic cruise in the 1920s; a cartoonish, otherworldly smash-up of Robert Burns and Flann O’Brien; a tale of hypnotism and metafiction in eighteenth-century France. Davies is a writer of great precision, intelligence, humor, and depth, but if there is a guiding spirit in his work, it’s invention, literature’s endless potential for reimagining its forms of expression.

Davies is also the author of two novels—Rose Alley (2009) and Fancy (2015)—and was for many years senior editor at Dalkey Archive Press. We corresponded over e-mail in January of this year.

Harry Mathews wrote of your first book, Rose Alley, that it “ambushes the reader, not with brutality but with wit, irresistible ingenuity, and a stupefying narrative abundance.” It seems to me these are precisely the qualities you share with Mathews—wit, ingenuity, abundance—all of which are variations on playfulness. What is the role of play in your writing?

Play is of supreme importance to me. Everything I write begins with a sense of play and hopes to engage the reader’s playfulness in turn. Not that I’m always giggling to myself as I work, but I do think writing that doesn’t have a sense of play is going to wind up pretty dead on the page, no matter its subject.

My own rule of thumb is, If I’m not having fun, stop. If I can’t picture someone else having fun reading what I’m writing, stop. Bearing in mind that “fun” can mean many things. Primo Levi writing about life in a condition of absolute terror and deprivation probably wasn’t having fun, as such, but he was engaged—he’d have to be. He wasn’t plodding across the page. He wasn’t being dutiful. The same goes for Ivy Compton-Burnett writing about trivial differences of opinion among the wealthy. The same goes for Robert Sheckley writing about interdimensional travel. The same certainly goes for Harry Mathews and the writers he led me to, like Jane Bowles or Laura (Riding) Jackson. I think the same goes for just about every writer worth reading. They give you permission to play. Read More »

The Beginning of Granary Books: An Interview with Steve Clay

February 1, 2016 | by

A page from John Cage’s Nods, published by Granary Books in 1991.

Last September, Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library opened “The Book Undone: Thirty Years of Granary Books,” an exhibition celebrating Columbia’s purchase of the Granary Books archive. “It’s difficult to fully describe the range and impact of Steve Clay’s Granary Books,” wrote Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. “Beginning in 1985 he has concocted a mix of poets, artists, printers and craftspeople whose work defines an era and fundamentally shapes our understanding of the artists’ book.”

Granary Books began in Minneapolis, but when Clay first visited New York in 1986, he was quick to see an opportunity. “I came to do a one-week summer class in Columbia’s Rare Book School,” he remembered when we spoke in his Manhattan loft, “my first time in New York. Just coming to the city, getting off the bus at Port Authority, that was it.” Three years later, Clay arrived in New York to stay. After looking for a space on the Lower East Side and Soho to start a bookstore, he joined forces with the poet and bookseller David Abel. I asked him to talk about those first years of Granary Books.

We found 636 Broadway, doing it together with no formal plan. On the tenth floor you could display books, artist’s books, that you couldn’t on the ground floor. I lived there on the couch for months, took showers at David’s on Thompson Street. Milk carton on the window ledge. No kitchen. David knew a lot of people, perfect for a shy guy like me. Dick Higgins of Something Else Press came into the store and so did the poet Jerome Rothenberg, who became and remains essential to Granary. We put on a retrospective show of Something Else Books. Higgins gave me great advice on how to deal with the projects people who came to the store suggested—You’re going to have to find a really nice way to say no.Read More »

Translating Tranströmer: An Interview with Patty Crane

January 26, 2016 | by

In the afterword to Bright Scythe, her new translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s selected poems, Patty Crane tells a fascinating, fatalist story about how she came to translate the late Swedish poet and Nobel Prize recipient. Crane moved with her family to Tumba, Sweden in 2007, after her husband took a job overseas at a paper mill. A year into her relocation, she took a summer residency at Vermont College and began flying back to the United States in order to focus on her writing. One evening she sat next to poet Jean Valentine in a cafeteria, and because Valentine had heard that Crane was living near Stockholm, she asked if Crane might deliver a book to her friend Tomas. A year later, Crane was sitting in Tomas Tranströmer’s home, speaking to him in Swedish, and beginning to translate his poem “The Station” into English. A few more years later—and this isn’t part of that fatalist afterword, but it’s part of our story today—a galley of Bright Scythe arrived at my studio in the Catskills and the doors that seemed to bar me from Tranströmer’s work for so many years were blown off their hinges.

Is it weird for you to think that if even one of these events never took place you and I probably wouldn’t be having this conversation?

It is weird. If it weren’t for a flat bicycle tire, we definitely wouldn’t be having this conversation! That’s how I met my future husband, whose future job brought us to Sweden. I imagine there are events in your own life, maybe even a chance encounter, that led to this exchange we’re having. Turn of events such as the ones I experienced—the move to Sweden, learning the language, re-discovering Tranströmer, my chance encounter with Jean, and everything that flowed from that—seem to me to be less about what happens to you in a given set of circumstances and more about what you make happen. I guess I’m talking about opportunity. A door opens and you enter. And look, a new room with more doors. Here I am in Stockholm, taking Swedish-for-Immigrants classes. Here I am reading Tranströmer in the original Swedish. Here’s an early draft of my translation of “From July ’90” with Tomas’s faint pencil lines under the word pit. And here we are, Danniel, having this conversation. How do I reconcile that? I hope with sufficient gratitude, humility and hard work. 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 »