An Interview with Anne-Marie Mai
In the TV series Twin Peaks one of the protagonists, Audrey Horne, falls madly in love with FBI agent Dale Cooper. During an exchange she says to him “there’s only one problem with you, you’re perfect.” Well, the same could be said about “Bob Dylan the poet”, a book written by Danish professor of literature Anne-Marie Mai. An accurate, precise, irreproachable account of what makes Dylan a poet, and why he is deservedly a Nobel laureate.
Mai actually played more than a small role in Stockholm’s bestowal of the award on Dylan, when as professor of literature she obtained the right by the Swedish Academy to nominate candidates. She started proposing him in 2007, and never faltered. When the award came in 2016 it certainly represented a landmark moment in Dylan’s career — a “story of greatness, fall and return”, as Mai rightly points out in her work.
Who would have ever imagined that a songwriter could receive the highest honour in the literary world? Dylan’s achievement was a triumph over the odds. Just as his role model Frank Sinatra had done previously, Dylan reemerged in the Nineties — stronger than ever and with a new iconography — after a period of decline in popularity. A classic American story of fall and regeneration. He and Sinatra shared blue eyes and a kinship with the stars, Dylan said in his most recent interview to date. And — I would add — a determination to fight hard times, to make sure they won’t “come again no more”.
I remember once walking in Sinsheim, Germany, near the TSG Hoffenheim football stadium built by club owner Dietmar Hopp, a highly successful businessman who’s been sponsoring the team in the last two decades. There’s even a street named after him, and he’s still alive. It made me think of the Dylan Archive that was opened at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2016. A place where members of the ever-expanding Dylan scholarship can study materials and carry out qualified research projects. To me it oddly feels like a museum, while Dylan is still alive. Will the academic institutionalization of Bob Dylan make us any the wiser about the content of his songs?
Anne-Marie, you are a board member at the Dylan Institute in Tulsa. Could you give us more information regarding its aims and activities? I’ve never been to Tulsa. Sometimes I feel skeptical, sometimes very excited about the potential of the whole project.
The potential of the project is great, in my opinion. I visited Tulsa and the Bob Dylan Archive in 2019 and I was very impressed with the professional approach of the management and the staff. I had a chance to look at documents regarding Dylan’s visit in Denmark in 1966 when he gave his first concert in Copenhagen. It was very interesting to see all the photos and the film recordings. The material seems immense. I also had a look at some of Dylan’s song manuscripts and they struck me as being the manuscripts of a poet. The manuscripts represented the art of words, and small comments and drawings in the margins showed an artist full of humor, great ideas and an intense awareness of the possibilities of his work in progress. The Bob Dylan Institute seems to me to be a very promising and top-professional institution, that will engage Dylan researchers from all over the world and provide fans and followers with new information on Dylan’s life and work. The institute will conduct seminars, conferences, journals, concerts, performances, exhibitions and meetings. The first Dylan Conference was held in 2019; it had a very high academic standard and a wonderful and friendly atmosphere. Everybody was generous at the conference — everybody shared their knowledge and was kind towards one another. It was a great experience to visit Tulsa and the Bob Dylan Institute!
I’m going to be a little provocative in my next question. The only flaw of your book is that… it’s too perfect. It’s irreproachable on every level. And yet I wish you had brought your work to “a different level” and been more daring. Just to make an example, Phil Mason interprets Dylan’s recent repertoire from a Christian perspective. He might be wrong, but it’s stimulating. Please don’t get mad with me if I say that you didn’t have the courage to be wrong in your analysis!
No offense at all! I just tried to make an academic introduction to the study of Dylan’s work as an immense network of all kinds of actors. I’m inspired by my collaboration with professor Rita Felski and her work on the uses of literature and her introduction of the sociologist Bruno Latour’s ‘actor network’ theory to literary studies. Latour’s idea that social phenomena arise in a complex network, or ‘worknet’, where both people and nonhuman agents influence each other, opens up new approaches to the study of literature and poetry. With Latour in mind, it becomes possible to see how Dylan’s artistic oeuvre is formed in a never-ending exchange and interweaving with other texts and artworks and how fans, critics, artists and Dylan himself keep on collaborating on the ‘worknet’ of his oeuvre.
I love the title of your book — “Bob Dylan the Poet”. You claim that “Dylan’s practice perhaps represents a new way of being a poet”. How would you describe this “new way”?
Bob Dylan is a leading figure in the artistic renewal that started in the 1950’ies and 60’ties — this renewal goes on in Europe, Brazil as well as in the US and involves very different groups of artists: from the American Beat Generation (Allen Ginsberg was a close friend of Bob Dylan) to the French OuLiPo-poets (the Poets of the ‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’) and the German and Nordic concrete poets. Different genres and artforms intertwine: music, poetry, painting, film and performance. Some of these artists were very inspired by cybernetics and mathematics and Dylan has always maintained that his music is mathematical. So, to me he is part of this great renewal.
Your work is so full of different evocations. In particular I really enjoyed your comments on “Narrow Way”, where “song, poetry and prayer remain sources of optimism”. Or your attention to places, location being very important in Dylan’s songs, in the two chapters dedicated to “Mississippi” and “Highway 61 Revisited”. Why are places so relevant in his poetry?
I have always been fascinated with the places of literature and places in literature. I wrote a three-volume history of Danish literature, Where Literature Takes Place (2010–2011) and I have been very interested in place philosophy. So, I have a keen eye for literary places and it is obvious to me that places are very important in Dylan’s songs. He seems eager to remind us of the story of places and to catch their atmosphere. He is also interested in the names of places — how do they sound? And what rhymes do they call upon?
In “Narrow Way” you mention three layers in the song interweaving and interacting with each other. Could we define Dylan’s songs as “multi-layered” songs?
To me it is obvious that there are many layers of meaning and imagery in most of Dylan’s songs. The way he combines very different traditions — for instance the ballad tradition, romantic poetry, modernist narration and popular culture — makes his texts complex, very rich and sometimes almost impenetrable. This calls for close reading, and close reading methods can be very rewarding, but to me the actor network theory also offers an important approach, showing that his songs are networks of words that reach out for each other, interact and create a new ‘mobile’ dimension in the language.
How did Dylan’s nomination for the Nobel Prize in literature come about? Could you provide us with a brief summary of the various steps that led to Stockholm’s final decision in his favour?
Professors of literature all over the world are invited to nominate candidates for the Prize. You may just send in the name of your candidate or you may give a written motivation. I chose to send in a short motivation of three pages when I nominated Bob Dylan. The literary committee of the Nobel Foundation and the Swedish Academy take all these nominations in consideration and start a very long process of decision. It involves the writing of short books on the top candidates, several discussions of the candidates and finally the voting. The night before the final vote the Academy is said to do a test vote and the following day they do the decisive vote. The secretary of the Academy announces the Prize Winner early October. It was professor Sara Danius, who sadly died last year, that announced that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in 2016.
You end your book with very insightful comments on “Red River Shore”. You even define “Red River Shore” as “a self-portrait”. Am I wrong in thinking that this song is still haunting you?
‘Red River Shore’ is one of my favorite songs — I’m very captivated by how Dylan breaks up the chronology of this love story and by the creative melancholy of the song. The singer himself seems to have become a ghost, but still poetry is pictured as almost lost language that brings the dead to life. Dylan often uses paradoxes and oxymorons in his songs and ‘Red River Shore’ is a masterpiece in this respect, linking life and death, sorrow and happiness, song and silence, longing and fulfilment, hope and despair. In my upcoming book, New Approaches to Bob Dylan, a volume of essays from a conference at the University of Southern Denmark in 2018, I have an interview with a member of the Swedish Academy, Horace Engdahl. He gave the presentation speech for Bob Dylan in Stockholm in 2016, and we were happy to find out that we share a special admiration for ‘Red River Shore’.