Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rick Moody on Fatherhood, Music, The New Novel and the Folly of Genres

Rick Moody is one of the most celebrated American writers of his generation. His work includes four novels; Garden State, The Ice Storm, Purple America, and The Diviners, as well as three collections of short fiction, The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven, Demonology, and Right Livelihoods. His first novel, Garden State, won the Pushcart Editor’s Choice award and his memoir, The Black Veil, won the PEN/Martha Albrand award for the Art of the Memoir. Moody’s 1994 novel, The Ice Storm, a bestseller, was made into a feature film of the same name that was directed by Ang Lee. His passion for writing is equally matched by his passion for music. A founding member of The Wingdale Community Singers, Rick now writes about music as a columnist for Stephen Elliot’s online magazine, The Rumpus.

Rick Moody lives in Brooklyn, NY and on Fishers Island with his wife, Amy Osborn, and their newborn daughter, Hazel. After discussing the possibility of this interview for over two years, we finally got down to the business of it in early May of this year.

Meg White: Rick, thank you for taking the time to do this. I’d like to begin with your recently acquired status as a father. You have been one of the most prolific writers/artists on the NYC literary circuit for the last two decades; can you talk a little about how this new role has affected your creative life?

Rick Moody: In some ways, it remains to be seen how fatherhood has affected my creative life, because I haven't really had time for a creative life yet! I am finishing up a novel, it's true, and every non-baby-related second has been given over to that. But I will admit that this new book, mostly written a couple of years ago, feels very emotionally antique to me right now. Sometimes that just means that you are done, you know, which I am, very nearly. But in this case it could also mean that I have changed a little bit. I don't think I'm going to be all sentimental now, just because there's a little baby around, but maybe I am going to be more direct, less inclined to waste time. Since I have less time to waste. I have been writing an occasional music blog ( since January, and it is probably the most reliable example of my immediate pre- and post-labor writing. The music writing is, as I say, much quicker to the point, less comic, more philosophical. I am not going to change into an issue-oriented realistic writer, I don't think, nor one who avoids stylistic flights. But maybe I will be a writer, at least, who understands the sacrifices of family, and admires them.

Meg: I'm laughing because you just mentioned wasting less time and there are so many of us who envy the quality and volume of your work. We had no clue you were wasting any time. But, seriously, do you think understanding and admiring the sacrifices of family will mean writing a kinder, gentler, version of the dysfunctional families for which you are so well known?

Rick: I can't imagine that the families will be any less dysfunctional, but maybe I will be slightly less gleeful in the lancing of hypocrisies. It has occurred to me recently, for example, that it's possible my parents did the best job they could. And it's hard to imagine the author of The Ice Storm saying that, right? So who knows? Gentleness may be just around the corner. I am not going to become humorless, but I expect the humor is going to be more compassionate, less malevolent.

Meg: I want to talk more about music, but I feel compelled to ask about the new novel first. Your last one, The Diviners, was a delicious satire of the entertainment industry surrounded by roaming Huns and the founding of Las Vegas. How about the new one? Have you taken on another aspect of our poor, beleaguered, maladjusted society?

Rick: The new book is slightly futuristic and dystopian, like some novels that I loved as a kid: Cat’s Cradle, The Crying of Lot 49, Catch-22, Giles Goat-Boy, Another Roadside Attraction, etc. It's set in a future North America that is economically second-rate and sort of emotionally depressed as well. The story, such as it is, is lifted from a drive-in horror movie from 1963 called The Crawling Hand. There's also a talking chimpanzee in it, and a failed manned mission to Mars. I guess, therefore, that this is pretty much the same approach as in The Diviners, but even longer (the first draft was over 900 pages).

Meg: Does the chimp have much to say? The possibility of hearing our closest evolutionary cousin spout out commentary on its cousins' behavior, culture, hypocrisies, etc. is an interesting and potentially humorous one.

Rick: The chimp won't shut up! I read a Michael Crichton book a couple of years ago (I'm forgetting the name now, because it was a very forgettable book), and it had to do with gene transplant therapy, and stem cells, and there was a talking orangutan in it (if I'm remembering properly), and all the orangutan could do was squeak out a word or two. Not in my book! In my book, the chimp actually becomes irritating because he won't shut up and he thinks he's right about everything. And, for the record, he's very dismissive about us.
The humans.

Meg: He sounds like a lot of critics I know -- Dale Peck for example. Would you classify this new one as science fiction?

Rick: I would not. That would seem to me to be a genre designation, and most genre designations come into play when a work is substandard in the literary department, plot-oriented, or, in the case of s/f, more interested in technology than character. This book, like others I have written, is concerned with psychology, character, and language. It just happens to be very imaginative. It's designed, I suppose, to irritate people like James Wood, who thinks there can only be the one kind of literary fiction, the rigidly naturalistic sort. I come from a different literary world, a more permissive one. And my more permissive literary world loves imagination, the freedom of imagination. Accordingly, the book is not against science fiction. I read from that section of the bookstore when I was young, and I loved some of it. I've taken that license, that permission, from speculative fiction and applied it to some of my usual themes: the high costs of capitalism, the anguish of mind-body dualism, and so on.

Meg: Would you tell us more about the music blog, your relationship to music and songwriting process? What's happening with The Wingdale Community Singers? Are you three still working together and if so, what do we have to look forward to?

Rick: After writing, just about all my time goes to music and thinking about music, so it was natural to try to get down some of the thoughts I have on that subject. I'm probably going to publish a volume of essays on music after I turn in the new novel. I was asked to contribute to The Rumpus on any subject that pleased me, and since I'm trying to assemble writing on music anyway it seemed natural to try to do some of that work there. The challenge for me is to try to write the blog-oriented work quickly, and without excessive punctiliousness. Most people don't like to read discursive stuff online. I’m trying to operate within the form. My results have been mixed, but I have enjoyed the experiment a lot. By the way, the subject of the blog is, specifically, unreleased, unsigned, or self-released bands and recordings, and it's meant to be very interactive. So if your readers have suggestions of new music I should hear, they can contact me there, and I will make every effort to listen to whatever they suggest. With the following caveat: I like really unusual stuff. Boys with big amps and double-kick drummers and mopey lyrics need not apply.

As far as my band goes, we are now four, not three (with the addition of excellent visual artist and singer/guitarist/accordionist Nina Katchadourian), and we have finished album number two, Spirit Duplicator, and it's due out in the fall from a very small label in New York City called Scarlet Shame. We like the name of our label a great deal.

Meg: I think we've covered a good deal of ground here but I have two final questions. Besides the new novel and essays, do you have any idea what we might expect from you in the next few years? And, is there anything else you think our readers would like to know about you?

Rick: Probably, after the music essays, a volume of stories, and then I have in mind a sort of a Washington romance. But who knows? Then we are talking five years out. And I assume your readers, having read this far into the piece, know more than enough!

Posted by meg L white at 10:33 PM
Labels: Garden State, James Wood, Pen Award, Purple America, Pushcart Prize, Rick Moody, Right Livelihoods, Stephen Elliot, The Black Veils, The Ice Storm, The Rumpus, Wingdale Community Singers

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Karen Kubby Talks Politics, Art & Activism

Karen Kubby is the Executive Director of the Emma Goldman Clinic for Women, a feminist reproductive health care clinic that, despite its name, serves both women and men in Iowa City. Her name is one of the most recognizable on the national progressive political circuit and she is considered one of the foremost experts on successful campaign strategies for left-leaning candidates. Karen spent 11 years as an activist member of the Iowa City City Council and has volunteered her time and considerable expertise to a variety of progressive issues including the support of local labor unions, environmental protection, women’s rights, affordable housing, the public library and the new Johnson County dog park. An artist as well as an activist, Karen made her living for two decades (1980-2000) as a potter and beadworker, participating in art fairs throughout the Midwest. On a recent warm, October afternoon, Kubby and I sat on the front porch of my house and discussed the origins of her activism, her time on City Council, her artwork and the state of feminism in America today.

Meg White: Karen, thanks for taking the time to sit down and talk with me. I want to begin by asking why you initially became an activist? Your father was a fairly high ranking military officer as I recall. Do you see any connection here?

Karen Kubby: Well, it certainly set the stage for me being a peacenik but as much as I rebelled against the content of my father’s career, I always loved the process he used. Many of my methods are definitely my Dad’s. You can’t get any more of a bureaucratic framework that’s hard to change than the United States Army. My Dad was an officer but I always saw him trying to work within the system to change it. He tried to make things work better for the people in that system – dress codes, policies, benefits, all that stuff. And my Dad and I agree on a lot of stuff. He’s against the war in Iraq, thinks it is a terrible use of military power and there are lots of Pentagon people and military strategic planning folks who also disagree with the government’s current stance there.

Meg: So what do you consider to be your first endeavor into activism?

Karen: Well, my mother would say that it was in Girl Scouts at camp and I was always sort of hanging with the kids that no one else would hang with. I’m Jewish and daily mitzvahs – daily good deeds – are a very important piece of that cultural heritage. I think there are a lot of activists throughout history who share that faith and that implementation of faith. The Jewish heaven is on earth and so if you look around you and it’s not heavenly, you work to make it as heavenly as possible before your time’s up.

Meg: You are often described as a leader in the Progressive Community. How do you define the term “progressive”?

Karen: That’s like the biggest question because it’s a really simple answer – public policy and personal politics that speak to economic, political and social justice. That’s also very broad and you can define some really perverted things as economic justice so you have to pay close attention to the details. It really is public policy and personal politics that speak to these things but then we can argue like hell about what that means in any particular moment. That’s why it’s a simple answer but also huge.

Meg: You were an extremely popular city councilor despite being very open about your self-identification as a socialist. What do you attribute this to?

Karen: I think people supported me because they trusted my process. They trusted that even if they disagreed with my overall process, even if they disagreed with my core ideology and core values, they trusted that I did my homework. I was open to new information and would be willing to change my mind and explain it half-way articulately. They didn’t have to guess with me.

Meg: What was the most difficult part of being on the Iowa City City Council?

Karen: Just last week I was at the dog park coo-ing over a couple of cute dogs and a woman said, “Hey, didn’t you used to be on City Council?” I said, “Yes but that was seven years ago.” She said, “Oh we stopped watching after you left.” This was disappointing to me because I want people to be interested in larger issues beyond personalities. When I was on Council, a lot of people saw it as an ongoing soap opera - they wanted to see who was going to scream at me that week. There was a lot of disrespect there. An element of it was almost abusive, really, in that my colleagues could not handle me being a peer because of my age, my gender and my politics. It shouldn’t have been allowed to continue.

It gets old after awhile and it wears on you. As a survivor of domestic violence, I‘m very self aware of when I’m being abused and when certain lines are being crossed. I tried to handle it constructively. I would say “Well, Mr. So and So, that was really rude but I think your second point is very interesting and we should spend some time talking about that because it’s important.” I tried to be a role model of a different way to deal with conflict – how not to escalate but to de-escalate, move ahead and be productive.

Meg: How do you maintain your commitment to keep working to make your community and the world a better place? What in particular motivates you?

Karen: Anger. Anger and compassion along with a little bit of manic energy. There’s still a lot of injustice in the world – even in this community. It’s a beautiful and privileged community but there is still a lot of injustice. There’s just a lot of work to do. You do a little bit everyday and then you get somewhere. Anger and compassion are very easy partners. When you know that there are children going to bed hungry at night and you care about that, it makes you angry.

Meg: Karen, you are a self-identified feminist. These days I often hear younger women saying something akin to, “I’m not a feminist or anything but……” and then they say something which is essentially of a feminist nature. What do you attribute this to? Why has feminism gotten such a bad rap?

Karen: I think the term has become associated with man-hating and that has a negative connotation. I think some feminists are man-hating but most just dislike living in a system which benefits men the most. I know things are cyclical and I hope future generations become comfortable identifying with the term. I am a feminist. I think it’s an easy way to let people know you believe in gender equity which is scary to a lot of people. Well, tough.

Meg: Okay, let's switch gears here. Can you tell us about your artistic life? How you first became interested in pottery and beadwork.

Karen: My grandmother was a seamstress and did bead work. She did a lot of bead work on handbags, wedding dresses and cashmere sweaters with monograms so I was around it whenever I was around my grandmother. When I was a student here in town at Helen Lemme in the fifth grade, my art teacher, Sue McNeil, introduced me to clay. Ever since then I’ve been doing clay. I like to throw on the wheel. I let the clay speak to me – some days I’ll have a design in my head I want to paint on a bowl but I just can’t do it but I could throw plates all day. I just honor that process.

Meg: If we could put time on fast-forward, what are you up to twenty years from now?

Karen: I going to have gray braided into my hair. I’ll probably be wearing these same pants. I’ve had them for 25 years and they’ll probably be good for another 20 and they’ll be in fashion again. I’ll be gardening, I’ll be beading and potting and I’ll be walking my dog, or three of four of them. I’ll be an activist – maybe the issues will be different, I hope they’ll be different but they probably won’t. They will be economic justice issues and water. Water is next big issue. It’s the next oil. It already is but I don’t think people recognize it. It will be much more overt.”

Meg: Will you still be Iowa?

Karen: Probably. We have the richest soil on the earth, why would I ever leave?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sandy Dyas talks about her new book, "Down to the River: Portraits of Iowa Musicians"

Self-Portrait w/ Blue Light

Sandy Dyas has been photographing Iowa musicians for over two decades. In June of 2007, the University of Iowa Press released a long awaited collection of over 60 of these photographs entitled "Down to the River: Portraits of Iowa Musicians." In these photographs Dyas captures what guitarist and [the] Blasters member, Dave Alvin, aptly referred to as the “rough and sweet uniqueness” of the Iowa sound.

Sandy is the mother of two daughters and, surprisingly, a grandmother. Her work has appeared in publications such as "Vogue", "the New York Times", and "No Depression". Sandy has an M.F.A. in Intermedia from the University of Iowa, teaches photography at Cornell College, and has a thriving freelance business. We first met on the dance floor at Gabe's in 1994. One of many great Kevin Gordon shows.

Meg: Sandy, this is a beautiful book. What inspired you to begin photographing musicians?

Sandy: Thank you, Meg! It all started in Bernard, Iowa, at a Bo Ramsey show. I suppose I began photographing live shows because Bo asked me to take photos a long time ago for a live album CD of his. Once I began taking the photos at a show, I was hooked. I really loved the vibrancy of the music and visually I just loved the scene—the lights, the movement, the images—but it was always the music that I really connected to. I felt even more connected with that music when I had a camera with me.

Meg: When did you first begin taking photos and do you remember your first camera?

Sandy: I started taking pictures when I was 8 or 9 years old. My Dad gave me an old Brownie camera and then my parents gave me a Polaroid Swinger when I was in 7th grade, and then an Instamatic when I graduated from 8th grade. Back then I didn’t really know what a 35 mm was. My Uncle Bob had one that I saw him use occasionally and I vividly recall his slide shows at my Grandpa Roy’s house. My uncle would invite us over there for the evening when he and my Aunt Lu were visiting. He shot slides—primarily of flowers, trees, and landscapes. Bob was a professor at Iowa State in the Landscape Architecture Department and he and Lu traveled a lot. I was completely intrigued with these large, colorful images projected on that old screen in the darkened living room. I realize now how much those evenings influenced me.

In 1972, my boyfriend and future husband gave me my own 35 mm—a Minolta SRT 101. Quite a few of the photos in the book were made with that camera. That camera changed my life, and what an upgrade from the Instamatic!

Meg: There are over 60 photographs in your book. What was your process in selecting which musicians to include? And which photographs? Can you tell us a little about your production process?

Sandy: I wanted to include the musicians I had spent the most time listening to and dancing to, and I know all of the musicians as friends, so most of the decisions were obvious. Vicki Price was the first person to call me and tell me how much she loved the book. She said it felt like looking through a family album, and I think she really hit the nail on the head there—it is a family album. These musicians have created a community through their music.

This said, editing was a long process. I would print and reprint. Look at the results, spend time with them, leave them alone for a while, come back to them, start it all over again, etc. Finally, when I had it narrowed down, I copied them all into a manageable 5 x 7 size and made a mock-up so I could easily layout the photos and pay close attention to the sequencing.

It was also important for me to pay close attention to subject matter—like the vertical photo of Pieta Brown paired horizontally with her father, Greg. The way the gestures of each of their bodies played into one another and the way the images looked together worked well together. In other instances I paired photos that were taken the same night—such as the two photos taken at a Joe Price show at the Mill.

Meg: As its premier documentarians, what would you say are the characteristics that make the Iowa sound so unique?

Sandy: I don’t profess to really know . . . but I will say I think that this sound comes out of the blues and folk music and, of course, from some rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll. It’s a mix of styles with an emphasis on rhythm—our music rocks and you can usually dance to it. Some of the music is quiet, sad, beautiful . . . and has a lot of feeling in it. I think the common denominator is very good writing.

Meg: Your book comes with a lovely, and surprising, extra —an 18-track CD containing a selection of songs by musicians featured in the book. How did you go about the process of choosing whose songs to include? There must have been some hard calls here.

Meg: You know, I have always wanted to be a musician, but it did not happen. This made it especially fun to arrange a selection of my favorite songs. Some I chose just because I love the song, and others because they seemed to fit better than another one I had picked out. Two of the Kevin Gordon songs I really wanted to include, I could not because of licensing—“Pauline” and “Jimmy Reed is the King of Rock & Roll.” I love the line in the latter song about “Dark sunglasses, sharkskin suit, standing in the broken glass of East Dubuque on a Sunday morning.” We used to do a lot of dancing in East Dubuque and would head across the bridge after a great night of listening to Bo Ramsey and the Sliders at Coopers Wagon Works in Dubuque. The song has a lot of personal meaning for me.

Meg: At the risk of getting you into trouble, I just have to ask if there is any one musician you are particularly fond of shooting. If so, who and why?
Live shows, hands-down it would be Bo. He is the king of cool and just has this look—you know? He has a presence on stage and can really front a band. And he, as far as I know, is the only musician that can really direct and lead an audience in the way he does. Back when shows used to be three whole sets with one band, it was crazy how Bo could build up the crowd . . . slowly, and then bring them down a bit . . . just so the crowd would be asking for more. . . . The night was almost always magical because his timing was impeccable.

Portraits are a different animal all together. Lately, I have really had fun taking Greg Brown’s photographs. The last shoot I did of Greg was for No Depression magazine and it felt more comfortable than earlier shoots. It takes me awhile sometimes to find my groove with people. I think part of why everything worked so well that day was because the night before there was a concert with Greg at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City and it was a phenomenal show. This no doubt added to how I approached him the next day.

Meg: Are there any photographs in the book that inspire particularly strong memories for you?

Sandy: Oh my, I don’t know, there are so many memories packed into this body of work. My friend Justine Zimmer and I talk about that time in Iowa City—the era represented in this book—what it was like. We wish it were still the same, but it’s not. The music scene in Iowa City is always present—but it changes. There seems to be something new in the air right now, for instance, The Diplomats—I love them, but their sound is distinctly different from the roots rock sound we were immersed in during the ’90s and early years of the 21st century. The Pines [Ben Ramsey and David Huckfelt] are of the newest generation of musicians stemming from the roots rock sound that is featured on this CD, but they live in Minneapolis. Pieta Brown and David Zollo are in-between the older generation and the youngest and have their own distinct sounds. The music changes but there’s always a lot of good sound to be be found.

Anyway, I looked through the book and tried to figure out if there were certain favorite photographs and, of course, there are. They all speak to me in different ways, for different reasons, and they are all tied up in memories. I think rather than pick out one of a certain musician, I’d choose the one near the back of the book of a sign outside of Gabe’s in Iowa City. It reminds me of all those impossibly wonderful evenings upstairs on the dance floor—the lights, the whiskey, my friends, and how it seemed as if we had managed to escape to a higher place somewhere out there . . . and it was all due to the music and the community it created. I sure am glad I had the sense to photograph it. Who knew it would never be the same?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Interview with Christopher Merrill

CHRISTOPHER MERRILL’S books include four collections of poetry, among them Watch Fire, for which he received the Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets, and four books of nonfiction. He works as a literary critic and journalist, and his writings have been translated into 25 languages. He now directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He and his wife, the violinist Lisa Gowdy-Merrill, have two daughters, Hannah and Abigail.

The most recent of his four non-fiction books, Things of the Hidden God (Random House, 2005), is a gripping account of the transforming pilgrimages he made to Mount Athos, in northern Greece, in the aftermath of his reporting on the Balkan wars. He writes: “It was time for me to come to terms with the way my life had turned out: the love I had squandered, the misgivings I had about my vocation and my faith, the dread I felt at every turn.” Merrill and I discussed this journey in an email correspondence while he was in London in early January.

Meg White: In Things of the Hidden God, you write about a personal transformation stemming from of a time of deep despair. You have said that in making these pilgrimages to Mount Athos [a small peninsula in the Aegean Sea with 20 monasteries and more than 2,000 monks], you traded “the physical risks of covering the breakup of Yugoslavia for the psychic ones of opening your heart to the possibility of grace.” This was a search, it could be said, for the redemptive power of God’s love. In this respect I consider your book to be a great love story, would you agree?

Christopher Merril: Very much so. In this book I tried to come to terms with various forms of love—spiritual, physical, marital, filial, paternal, vocational—because the crises I was navigating through an ancient faith were all rooted in love—of the world, of my wife and infant daughter, of poetry. Several years of war reporting had brought into sharp relief the consequences of not attending to what most mattered in my life, and my sense of being unmoored from all that I loved carried for me spiritual significance; hence the desire to go on a pilgrimage, with the hope that I might find my way back to the center.

Meg: Can you tell us about your religious background?

Chris: I was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church, where I remain, notwithstanding my attraction to Orthodoxy. My uncle, who is my godfather, is an Episcopal priest, my spiritual father is a monk in the Old Calendar Church, and so I am torn between these two glorious traditions. I am trying to discern my way forward.

Meg:In the book, you write about the inherent problem of the Western, skeptically trained mind wrestling with the concept that insight trumps logic. In this interpretation of the Gospels, the invisible outweighs what we can see with the naked eye—not unlike the difference between fact and metaphor, or prose and poetry—and a direct experience with God means more than rational proof of his existence. How did you put aside your rational, intellectual mind in order to experience God personally? And do you think you would have undertaken this search if not for the despair you found yourself in?

Chris:First, it is important to note that I was seeking not to convert to Christianity but rather to deepen the faith that I had practiced since childhood. But, as you rightly note, this requires a continual opening of one’s heart to the possibility of grace—not exactly a hot topic of conversation on the literary circuit. Nor does this leap into the dark require a divorce between faith and reason. Many great writers through the ages have been believers, and no one questions their intellectual gifts. Faith can be informed by doubt, which is why the pillars of Orthodox theology—penitence, purification, and prayer—are designed to serve whatever intellectual bearing one might possess. Indeed, my spiritual father, who has a doctorate in psychology, is better versed in the scientific method than many atheists I know, and I would never presume to question his analytical powers. Richard Dawkins notwithstanding, there is more mystery to the universe than anyone can account for.

As for my own search: no doubt despair played a crucial role in my decision to travel to Mount Athos. And what I learned there is that whatever progress I might make in the spiritual life will be conditioned by my willingness to open myself up to God. Needless to say, I have a very long way to go.

Meg:Do you think poetry may be more helpful to the reader in abandoning the rational mind and opening it to the possibility and mystery of the experience of grace? To use language to speak to a place which lies beyond it's parameters/

Chris: The experience of reading and writing poetry is not a matter of abandoning one’s rational thought processes, but of opening oneself up to another way of thinking, which embodies the full range of mental activity—imaginative and discursive, analytical and rhythmical. This is not unlike the experience of prayer, particularly the praying of the Psalms, which are poetry of the highest order: one hundred and fifty divine gifts.

Meg: On this topic, what do you consider to be the relationship between poetry and God?

Chris: I had the good fortune at Epiphany to attend the sung Eucharist in St. Paul’s Cathedral, where John Donne preached in the 1620s, and in his poems and sermons he spells out the proper relationship between mankind and God, which of course includes poetry and which may be summed up in one of his lines: “All the way to Heaven is Heaven.”

Meg: Who are the poets you consider to be the most sacred? You’ve called Emily Dickinson “the mother of our poetic search for the divine”? Who else do you especially admire?

Chris: The Psalmist, Chaucer, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Hopkins, Hardy, Frost, Eliot, Williams, Stevens, St.-John Perse, Breton, Char, Elytis, Seferis, Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Montale, Lowell, Bishop, Wilbur, Merwin, Geoffrey Hill, John Ashbery—the list is endless.

Meg: Do you have any psalms that are particular favorites?

Psalm 22, the psalm of Christ’s Passion.

Meg: You say you find the school of confessional poets boring and yet you have written a memoir—a genre that is confessional by nature? What do you consider to be the difference between these two?

Chris:What bores me is derivative literature, whether it is confessional, surrealist, traditional, or experimental. Period styles—and I have lived through several literary periods—are the background noise in which the writer seeks to hear his or her own voice. Yes, my book is confessional, but I hope that it also contains enough vivid description of Mount Athos, its landscape, churches, art, and holy men, as well as of its history and theology, to raise the narrative above the standard memoir. My experience is less important than what I might convey about the mystery and importance of this sacred place.

Meg: W. S. Merwin said of Things of the Hidden God, “Mr. Merrill’s intimately conceived and beautifully told tribute to his deepening relation to the lure of Athos and its traditions, and the discoveries to which it has led him, is a rich and revealing personal chronicle.” High praise, indeed! I will forever associate Merwin with William Stafford. Merwin, our most elegant living poet, read at Shambaugh shortly after Stafford’s death. He said Stafford was one of those rare things—a truly great poet and, also, a truly decent human being. Stafford was a man of great faith. What are the ways in which your search for and faith in God have influenced your work and character? Do you feel it has it made you a better poet and person?

Chris: What good fortune it has been for me to know and be friends with William Merwin. My wife and I used to take care of his house, dogs, and magnificent gardens in Maui, and I remember those weeks tending to thousands of endangered palms that he had saved from around the world as a blessing. His poetry, prose, and translations; his independence and integrity; his kindness—these are for me a model of being in the world.
I feel a similar gratitude toward William Stafford, although I did not know him very well. But his ideas about writing, his attentiveness, his basic decency were from the beginning a spur to me. And I continue to read his poems with great pleasure.

Christian doctrine makes plain that God will judge the role that faith has played in my own work and character. Like any sinner, I can only pray for mercy.

Meg: Would you talk about the ways in which your faith has evolved since the writing of the book?

I suspect that one’s faith evolves often in ways that one may not grasp until much later—if at all. I hope—and I pray daily—that my faith is deepening.

Meg; Which do you consider the greater sin: spiritual indifference or the intolerance and hatred preached by some religious leaders?

Chris: It is not for me to judge the relative gravity of a sin, although it occurs to me that these two sins are related, since each derives from a sense of certainty, either of God’s absence or of His plan for mankind. Uncertainty is my lot, and I am more interested in discerning what God may have in mind for me than in passing judgment on what others believe.

Meg: In what ways did you find the ancient ascetic lifestyle at Mount Athos beneficial to your spiritual practice?

Chris: Asceticism is integral to mindfulness: one fasts not to starve oneself but to be mindful of one’s appetites. And this holds for every aspect of one’s spiritual practice, which teaches us how to live in the present, while remaining mindful of eternity.

Meg: You have said that your experiences in the Balkan wars darkened your view of the world—that the events you witnessed made you question your belief in human decency. Do you believe there is anything to be gained spiritually from suffering?

Chris: In my book I discuss theodicy—the Christian doctrine that seeks to account for God’s omnipotence and goodness in the face of evil—and this has given me a framework within which to understand man’s capacity for cruelty, which as we know is limitless. Because we are blessed with free will, we may decide to ignore the moral imperatives spelled out in all of the great religions, as a host of recent examples make plain—9/11, the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, the beheadings in Baghdad. But what faith instills in us is a sense of obligation to counter evil, within and without.

Suffering is integral to existence, and what every religion teaches is how to transform that suffering into faith. This may seem like small consolation in the wake of a tragedy, but it is for many of us what suffices in our darkest moments.

Meg: What music moves you, turns you on? Which visual artists?

Chris: I am married to a violinist, and so there is classical music playing at all hours of the day and night in my house. I like to listen to everything from medieval chant to Bob Dylan, with a particular interest in folk music. My favorite new band is Destroyer, and I’ve been playing a lot of Keith Jarrett on my travels.

Among visual artists I am drawn especially to Vermeer, Monet, Cezanne, Kandinsky, Chagall, Edward Hopper, Joseph Cornell, and Mark Rothko. I published a book on Georgia O’Keeffe when I lived in Santa Fe, and her vision is an abiding influence on me. Likewise the anonymous icon painters whose works grace the churches on the Holy Mountain. I saw a marvelous exhibit of David Smith’s sculptures at the Tate, which featured an old television interview with Frank O’Hara. The poet’s extraordinarily intelligent consideration of the sculptor’s work has inspired in me new ideas about the relationship between the two art forms.

Meg: How do you define love?

Chris: There is no better definition of love than what the Apostle wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians—the key passage in the Christian marriage ceremony: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” That Christians often forget their wedding vows is no reason to imagine that Paul’s definition has lost its currency.

Meg: Lastly, how do you feel about being referred to as “ever God’s fool”?

Chris: I can think of many worse things to be called than that!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Interview with Laurel Snyder

Now based in Atlanta, Laurel Snyder is the stay-at-home-mother of two young boys, Mose and Lewis Poma. She's married to Chris Poma, a Coralville native she met while attending the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Snyder is the author of two novels for kids (Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains, Any Which Wall) and two picture books, (Inside the Slidy Diner, Baxter the Kosher Pig) as well as two collections of poetry (Daphne & Jim, The Myth of the Simple Machines). She also edited a collection of essays (Half/Life: Jewish tales from Interfaith Homes) and she is a regular commentator for NPR's All Things Considered. She has been the recipient of a Michener/Engle Fellowship, and was a Capote Scholar while a student at the University of Iowa, and when she is not chasing toddlers and writing books, she likes to collapse. You can find her online at

Meg White: Laurel, you first came to Iowa City to study poetry at the Writer’s Workshop and you’ve mentioned you have plans to move back. Iowa is often mentioned in your work and is the stomping ground of your newest book, Any Which Wall. Can you tell us about your time here and the creation of this love affair you have with our state?

Laurel Snyder: It's funny, because my love of Iowa sort of grew from an imperfect grad school experience. I think that often, when people move to college towns, they experience only the surface of the place, because they're so entrenched in their department and the social sphere immediately around it. But I had a hard time transitioning into the Workshop, and so I looked around Iowa City for other social worlds, other groups of friends that were more like my community in Chattanooga (where I'd moved from). I started working at the Hamburg, and hanging out with local musicians, and some really smart undergrads. I started dating someone from Iowa City, and that opened up another world. I dug in, and stayed seven years before I left. And when I look back and remember grad school, it's those people I associate with Iowa; the people who took me dancing in Swisher, home to meet their families in West Branch or Mason City, who explained the state while out driving in the country. I really would like to move back. It's just hard for my husband to find a good job near Iowa City.

Meg: After writing and publishing two books of poetry, you have just published your fourth book written for children - two picture books and now two of children's literature. Why the change in genre? Or, more specifically, what was it that compelled you to start writing for kids?

Laurel: People always assume that I started writing these books because I had kids. But that's not true. I've always loved children's books. I've always read and reread them, studied them. I think there's a lot of freedom in writing for kids. Kids are far more open, as readers, to invention. To language play and silliness. I think children's literature is actually a really natural fit for a poet. There's such a focus on the image, the line and the sound of the language. There's also a real economy to the writing. I sometimes get worried I won't be taken seriously as a poet, now that I'm writing for kids. But that's something I need to get over. I think children are the most important readers. Good books can have a huge impact on a child.

Meg: Do you find there are similarities between the two? Is your writing process significantly different?

Laurel: The process is very different. Poetry for me is about defining the world, figuring something out, getting to the lowest common denominator of some aspect of human experience. I like spare poems, tiny poems, so my poetry writing has a really tight revision process. I'll sit with a line for weeks. I'll cut all but a single word and start over. It's like winding something very tightly, if that makes sense. And while writing picture books feels a little like that, though more playful, writing these children's novels is the opposite. I've had to learn to let go, to let the words just flow and be messy. Then later, I'll go back and hack it all apart, rearrange. I'll cut 100 pages sometimes, or redo the end of a book. But I can't do that work as I go. It makes the prose too controlled.

Meg: Let’s talk about your new book, Any Which Wall. It’s a story about simple, everyday magic and how four children (Henry, his younger sister Emma, Henry's best friend Roy and his older sister, Susan) come to understand it, use it and shape it with their own wills. What was it that originally drew you to the theme of magic? And how did you decide to turn it over to the children and a series of walls to flesh it all out?

Laurel: Oh, who doesn't like magic? As a kid, I certainly thought a ton about what I'd do if I found magic in the world. As an adult, I still play out those impulses. I'm superstitious, and have all sorts of odd little rituals. I think that getting to write out my magical fantasies was a fulfillment of all the make-believe games I played as a kid. The structure of the book is stolen, ripped off from a mid century author named Edward Eager... and I placed the book in Iowa because in Iowa, more than elsewhere, kids are still kids. They ride bikes and run free a bit more than they do in urban settings. And that was key to me since I wanted to update the Eager format, but have the book be contemporary too. Setting the book in Iowa meant the kids could be real kids today, with cell phones and all that, but still be kids the way I remember childhood.

Meg: The book is illustrated with a series of lovely drawings by Leuyen Pham. How did you the two of you hook up and what was the process of collaboration like?

Laurel: That process is usually pretty controlled by the editors and designers at a publishing house. I'm lucky to have a wonderful editor who consults with me and listens to my thoughts, but selecting art is really how an editor shapes a book visually, and how they put their thumbprint on it. I'm sure the marketing folks get involved too, but I know less about that end of things. In this case, I was asked to select some scenes that I thought should be drawn, and then the artist read the book, and did what she wanted to do. And then I went back and made some small corrections later. Like, I had to tell her to take out a camera in one picture, because I'd written the camera out of a later draft. But isn't the art wonderful? I love Pham's work, and was thrilled when she agreed to work on the project.

Meg: You’ve said this book is a homage children’s literature author, Edgar Eager. Would you tell us a bit about him and the extent to which he has influenced you and your writing?

Laurel: Well, he's one of my favorites. There are a few others in that club. But basically, Eager wrote books about regular kids who have magical adventures that connect to their actual lives. As opposed to what I'll call "big magic." I like big magic too, but Eager's flavor always appealed to me more than sword-wielding kids and crazy mythical creatures and faraway fantastical worlds. I think there's a kind of humor you get when magic bumps into, say, your parents, or your math teacher. A kid having a pet unicorn is neat, but a kid having a pet unicorn in their bedroom in Chicago is neat and funny. You know?

Meg: Okay, I can’t let you go without asking about the possibility of a sequel? Can we hope to meet up with Susan, Emma, Roy and Henry any time soon?

Laurel: In theory, there will be a sequel called Anywhere Green. It's a little bit about the environment, and a little bit about what happens when a kid from Iowa moves to a big dirty city. But I haven't written it yet, so one never knows...