William H. Gass: Interviewed by Greg Gerke, 2011
Published in Tin House, Winter 2012
Greg Gerke: Do you view your essays and your fiction in the same terms? Is one more important to you than another? I find the two indispensible to each other—one informs the other as The Tunnel contains some mini-essays, and bits of fictional situations take space in the essays, with political views in each.
William H. Gass: I think in one sense, the fiction’s what matters most to me. But in making them, no. And sometimes the boundaries are better kept than others. The essays are the ones that are likely to veer off into something that isn’t obeying the truth, the perimeters. But I’ve always just thought of it as writing, and a writing problem is a writing problem. The main thing that’s different is — and it’s important — is the fiction’s uncalled for, whereas almost all the writing — not all, but almost all — has been on occasions. People have asked me. There is some occasion or reason somewhere that I’m writing a piece, and the piece is usually “about.” It has an aboutness. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked for a piece of fiction by a magazine or a book.
Gass: No. And I’m still rejected regularly. Fiction.
Gerke: By who? Who would do such a thing?
Gass: The last one, I can’t remember their names. Granta. The New Yorker does. I send them something for fun every once in a while. I’ve published in the New Yorker, but it was a poem.
Gerke: I found that, and I was going to ask you.
Gass: I said to my wife, “Ah, this is bad enough to go to the New Yorker,” and they took it.
Gerke: In the mid-70s, wasn’t it?
Gass: Yeah. And then so I sent them another one, but it had lines about starlings copulating in the trees, and they said, “No, no. You can’t do this.”
Gerke: Maybe they’re more amenable now, because I’ve seen Robert Coover has gotten pieces in there during the last year.
Gass: Oh yes, I think they have changed a great deal since, say, the 70’s, when they were still being crazy. But when it was at its worst was in the 50’s.
Gerke: Being most conservative?
Gass: Yes. Prudent. Prudish. Everybody was. The New York Times was too. It’s much more lenient than it was once. And you’d get all this fussing around.
But the main difference is the essays have a reason to be written, and the fiction has no reason to be written, and usually that’s one of the problems with how the essays have a timeline. They have a deadline. So they get written. Whereas the fiction doesn’t have, and so it doesn’t get written. So there are those differences. And they do affect the nature of what’s happened. And for the most part, then, fiction allows me — because there’s no expectations, no job to fulfill — to be more outrageous, or daring, or whatever you want to call it. Then I have to sometimes think of the poor magazine. The New York Review of Books used to ask me for an essay, and they wanted about so long, and I’d give it to them, and it was twice that long. And for the most part — not always — they took what I wrote. They tried to edit the hell out of it. Eventually, they just got so sick of me they wouldn’t even ask. They’d get it, and then they’d never publish it, never say another word. The New Yorker does that too. So anyway, I think with those exceptions, I tend to think of a writing problem as just the same, and then a lot of the techniques are the same for me. And when I’m writing this essay which I found in my own boudoir…
Gerke: The Borges essay?
Gass: Yeah. I called it “Romancing the Mind.” That was just written by me because I wanted to write it, put it together. And it is perhaps my wildest essay. But it’s about Borges, who does the same kind of thing. I mean, he actually makes stories that look like essays or articles, and vice-versa. Back when he was the most influential writer alive, I think we used to have a little game of inserting into reality by footnotes some falseness. I did, I think, a false Hemingway piece. And I’ve seen it quoted by somebody.
Gerke: You mean within one of your essays?
Gass: Yeah. It was sort of a salute to the master. And then people will quote it as if they had seen it. And that’s a tribute to the master too.
“I hate mankind. But I like people.”
Gerke: “Hate finds nothing hard,” you write in Omensetter’s Luck. In The Paris Review interview you said, “I hate. A lot. Hard.” Can you talk about this agent called hate? Is hate what gets things done in the world?
Gass: Of a certain sort, I think it certainly does. It involves intellectual dislike. There’s hate that’s of course the passion that leads somebody to chop off somebody’s head, but the intellectual hate is Swiftian. I mean, Swift hated mankind. I hate mankind. But I like people. I don’t have trouble with people. But it’s the kind of thing that just makes you throw down the New York Times in disgust, having read about some other horrible business that’s going on, you know. It’s that kind of anger, and that kind of anger is well-sustaining.
There is, of course, the very personal anger. When you’re trying to get started and you want to do something new and no one wants it, and you keep getting rejected. It took me eight years or something. I couldn’t even get a letter-to-the-editor published. Nothing. And you get frustrated and mad at the literary world, and the people who support mediocrity and call it excellence. And that involves your pride and all the rest of it. As you get more successful, that doesn’t go away, because you know philistines are always there, but you are softened by a little success, and it’s harder for you to say — it’s harder for me to say that now now — nobody pays any attention to me. Nobody does, but it’s a different kind of being ignored, you know? So those things change over time. Some people have the bad luck to be received and applauded right away. That’s usually very bad. Because with their second or third book, they are just going to get slapped around. They’ll be very unhappy. So the emotion is many-layered. It still annoys me that writers whom I admire are still on the margin. My fiction’s still on the margin. I have a marginal magazine about to sink out of existence, Harper’s, who will publish what I write. I always, however, get edited there, because I always write more than they ask for, and they don’t have the space. They need to fill it full of advertising, or they just don’t float. It’s not like some very successful magazines. They can swallow a larger piece sometimes, but at the expense of the budget.
Gerke: Do you think it’s good that nothing comes easily to a writer?
Gass: Yeah. Everybody’s different. But when things come easy, then you’re inclined to repeat. The bar doesn’t get set high enough. I think the great writers and artists in general, as they get older, they set the bar higher, and they can fail then. Finnegans Wake doesn’t come first. Dubliners comes first. Dubliners is almost extraordinary as it fits in. It wasn’t thought so when it came out, though. But there you have Finnegans Wake. You know, what is he going to write next? Same way with Beckett and people like this. But it’s true. Beethoven quartets, the later music gets more complex and difficult, but better. James’s early novels are beautiful, but the late novels are challenging, and that’s because even a professional writer like James was doesn’t want to write the same damn thing. He wants to see something else opening up as a possibility. You can want to do it too fast. I think Lowry had that trouble. He wanted to change the novel and the short story overnight. Through the Panama [by Lowry] is boring in many places, but it’s also extraordinarily inventive. The thing is that once you can knit 90 miles an hour, you want to go 100. Otherwise, you just start repeating. My new novel is so simple compared to The Tunnel, say. But I had to do something. Nope, not the same kind of complexity at all. The late work of the most successful artists I know anyway is the best. And that applies to Verdi or a lot of other people. Picasso had broken every rule, and he was sitting there, and the later things are not as good. So you try, but you probably will fail. It’s a business. Failure is what happens.
Gerke: Your reviews of biographies of writers or considerations of their life and fiction, particularly pieces on Malcolm Lowry, Henry James, Proust, Gertrude Stein and, of course, Rilke, are a brew of their own being with your poetic interpretation of their, in most cases, pained lives. These interpretations are often more satisfying than any biography could be because you almost substitute the author’s life into a compelling narrative of its own, spiced with your words. What makes you write in this ecstatic, celebratory way about the masters? Why do so many literary biographies fail? Are they more interested in entertainment and spicing up something with wild, debatable secrets [Henry James]?
Gass: Well, they want to put everything in. “He had a bologna sandwich.” Now, you know, you can make something out of that? Okay, make something of it. But as Gertrude Stein says, ‘Life is nothing but repetition.’ So after you’ve repeated two or three times, there’s no point in repeating it six or eight.
Gerke: You make these metaphors, say, in the Lowry piece, in The World Within the Word, you set up this image about the cantina, and you’re creating this whole other character and situation.
Gass: Literary criticism… In the old days, we had some good scholars who provided interesting material to work with, but most of these critics are just walking through the book again. That’s why I like to write only about the writers I love, to get inside the work and get some sense of how it feels there and not to tell the reader what it’s about. Occasionally, you want to do some analysis, but that’s not about telling the reader more about James, though it may. But in the Lowry piece, what gets you in Under the Volcano is the atmosphere of this magnificent drunk, and beautiful cinematography too that his work involves. And the work is the way he goes at things, it is a cantina. I mean, that’s one critical way of looking at it, and that’s what I try to get to somehow. The reader needs to have some reason for thinking they want to read the book. That they can gain by reading critics that seem to have steered them to what they like. The same way with the biographer. You have to make choices. And you have to try to get it so that the things — the data that you are employing about their lives — is connected to the work in a serious way, and then tells you something about the author. But why do you want to know about the author? Only because they wrote the book that has earned them that interest. And you go back to that author only because you found that sometimes it helps you understand the work. Not always. So by that loop one tries to indicate the path, but earlier biographers—like Lytton Strachey — he would write a book about Queen Victoria, and he’s got his axe to grind, and he hits his Queen Victoria, so it’s very fictionalized in a certain way, because he’s chosen. But he’s writing literature about this literature, as opposed to an article about the book. The great critics are all terrific writers. I don’t think there’s an exception. And the rest write articles for journals.
Gerke: I’ve always been interested in how great artists rarely comment on their peers, or they only comment on some of them. I know you have celebrated many of your peers, such as William Gaddis, John Barth, Stanley Elkin, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, and Alexander Theroux—and those are only the Americans. I wondered if I could get your viewpoint on a few celebrated writers of English that I haven’t heard you talk about. J.M. Coetzee would be one.
Gass: Oh, yeah. Well, there are certain writers that I don’t talk about because they have problems with me and I have problems with them. One of the best pieces written about my book on Rilke [Reading Rilke] — which is, indeed, highly critical — is Coetzee’s essay. He’s good. But I can’t write about him now. Then it suddenly looks like I’m justifying myself. He says some things that are quite wrong. Factual things.
But you know…some of my pieces are celebratory only. I mean, they’re for pals of some sort, because Stanley Elkin used to say, it’s impossible to write something about my books that I like. Not enough praise. No praise. You know, you can’t write something about someone you know and like—that doesn’t mean you like everything they write, but are you going to go around dissing this? You won’t have friends. John Gardner learned that. And he couldn’t win, because Barth was infuriated by the treatment. Hawkes was infuriated because he wasn’t mentioned. What can you do? And I swore a while back, I broke my oath that I’d only write about books I liked. And I stopped writing. The last major I wrote about was a writer I had written unfavorably about a couple times, Roth. And then he wrote, I thought, a terrific book, The Counterlife, which I reviewed enthusiastically. That was different. Why write this cutesy-pie essay on Updike? That was when I was younger and still mad. And I realized that the people I was mad at were not Updike, who’s a true gentleman and a good critic and so forth, but the mediocre level of writing they supported. But it’s easy to be asked to write something about Jack Hawkes if you just get a chance to talk about the sentences. It’s just fun. You, I think, are wise to stay away from an honest critique of people who are still alive that you like.
Gerke: Any thoughts on Sebald?
Gass: Didn’t read him. I read about 10 pages. That wasn’t just to him. But I could see the rush of this wave of popularity that is almost a death now. So I’m going to have to go back sometime when it’s calmed down and see, because sometimes they’re actually very good. And I’m very arrogant about my judgment. I don’t make mistakes.
Gerke: Is that the case with David Foster Wallace too?
Gass: He had great abilities. And I think he needed to tame them. I think he was so good that he should’ve wanted to be better. And he wrote some things that are going to stay around. And I wish he had stayed around and done that. He had lots of smarts too. He was unlike a lot of writers who are sort of dumb, theoretically speaking. Stanley was street-smart but intellectually? Awful. But he didn’t need to be. Pynchon’s a case. I have tried to read Pynchon with no success so far, but then I can’t read Whitman—I try. So we just have blank spots. We can’t like everything, and I don’t see any rule for it. Why should you love every woman that walks by?
Gerke: There are fewer references to cinema in your work — though there is a wonderful scene of Emma going to a movie in the city in “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop” — than to other arts, specifically music, photography, and painting. For instance in a list of avant-garde works in “Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde,” you mention literature, music, painting, and sculpture. How do you feel about the cinematic art form? Do you see many films? Does the art move you at all?
Gass: I have the dimmest possible view. Once, I wouldn’t even look at movies. Now, I’ve seen a lot of movies, mostly bad. I hate the pretentiousness. I hate the missing opportunities, the commercialization. The chances are the more people engaged in making the thing, the worse it’s going to be. There have been wonderful things. But the odds are very much against it. Groups aren’t creative. They’re necessary. Individuals create. But the finest movies, like some of the Japanese, say, are really works of art, are because they’re so visual. The movies are a visual entity, not a story entity. Silence is golden, often, and so on. I did do a piece on that Bogart movie, Casablanca.
Gerke Is that out somewhere?
Gass: I have a book I want to come out, Those Other Arts. But it was published in Conjunctions some years ago now. But I was contemplating writing on how airplanes land in movies. But you can, you know, start seeing what you can see from the different ways, because they’re going to be a real mark of the individuality of the director. Or, of course, when the director is lazy, it’s the actor who does it. I do love movies that are about the theater, like Topsy-Turvy, which is one of my favorite movies. I love Westerns, because they’re so formal. I mean, there’s a ritual pattern, and the fact they’re going to do those, that’s fine. They’re a given, like, a sonnet form, and then you see what they do with it. Sometimes that’s interesting.
Gerke: I noticed a handful of baseball metaphors in your work, most especially this one from your essay on John Hawkes: “The world is not simply good or bad on different weekends like an inconsistent pitcher…” Your father played minor league baseball. In your new book there is a remembrance of your father (“Spit in the Mitt”) and his days after baseball. How much do you feel for the game? Do you still follow it or is it a distant memory? You live in a huge baseball town.
Gass: I’ve written almost nothing about anybody I know, including my parents. I did put a little about my family in The Tunnel, but very little. This new book is one of the few that will have a couple pieces that are much more personal, but I try to avoid that.
When I wrote In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, I thought, I’m spending too much time making sure that it’s not about anything in my life, because I think that’s very important to get straight. Too many writers write about their lives. It’s easier, and it’s seductive, and it can be catastrophic. “It happened to me, and therefore it must be interesting.” You know, that’s sort of awful.
So I was going to write something about where I was living, and I decided I’m going to get the environment straight, but factually the story will be not. And I realized that the more I worked with not doing myself, the more I was doing myself. Like the abstraction has no objects in the world. I didn’t do it, of course, but that rust is no longer really informative about the world except it is. At another level, if you’re doing an abstract painting, for example, every line is undirected by anything outside, even if I’m doing just a bowl of pears. The pears are there. The bowl has to be there. And that saying, you’ve got to conform to the image of the pear and the bowl. But when you do an abstraction, complete? No. Everything you put there comes from you. So when I was doing In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, I noticed that the factual stuff in this town was completely uninformative about me, whereas the other, which wasn’t about me factually, was completely informative. It’s very odd, and I found that to be true about when I’m taking photographs. The more abstract the photographs, the more it was autobiographical, whereas if I was doing facts, they weren’t significant.
Gerke: Many of the artists who created modernism were in Europe around the turn of the century and into the 1910’s and 20’s. Cezanne, Rodin, Stein, Rilke, Picasso, Woolf, Joyce, Pound, Eliot. Some knew each other, others didn’t. Wallace Stevens was anchored in the US. These artists are arguably some you admire the most. How does one account for all of the influence and the general pool of intelligence concentrated in this period?
Gass: I think I was led to it by Flaubert, and it wasn’t the novels that did it. It was the letters. Flaubert taught me about writing. And I think I learned what I should be doing, whether I succeeded or not, from him. And so did all those other people. That is, they were learning the revelation was Cezanne; the revelation was Flaubert. There were other great things going on, but they were ones that seemed to disclose a new world of the inner-medium, new ways to add something to the medium, its possibilities. And I think also I was attracted to European writers more than to American because there was much more intellectual interest in the European, especially the French and Germans. The English were mindless often, but that period from maybe 1830 where they were first writing the attacks against the bourgeois, and the society is shifting, and the arts are trying to escape. Some great things were done. And music became pure, so to speak, in parts, and was just music, wasn’t funereal music. And with Flaubert and Cezanne, it became just painting. And that’s what I wanted, you know, so. And here were all these people doing it. Half the time not knowing exactly what they were doing, or why, but suddenly, somebody isn’t just painting the King of Spain. Some of the greatest paintings in the world are by Velaquez. But you can’t see them the way you’d like to, because it’s the goddamn King of Spain. So get rid of the anonymous person. Fine, that’s a help. But then they’ll turn it into the Mona Lisa. ‘What is she thinking?’ Get rid of that, and then when you start looking in the paintings, and you see all these backgrounds, and the backgrounds are flowing, having a great time. Or gowns are flowing down. And that’s pure painting. So let’s get the costumes just out of the way. And Turner did a lot of that. He’d say, ‘Ulysses discovers the such-and-such and the sirens,’ and you see a figure in the paintings, a little figure here, and the rest is this sunset. It’s pure painting. That’s what I want, and it was the time everybody was doing it. Break the rules. Then when we can come back — because there’s nothing evil about doing the King of Spain — I’ve never been opposed to figurative anything or even another novel about somebody’s love affair with their writing friends or something, you know? Be very hard to make something good come of it, but you know, it’s not just totally worn out. But you can go back to these things after you’ve made the big shout-out and with freedom. So what was marginal — and it tends to happen, I think, in the history of the arts — what is marginal moves into the center, and the center gets marginalized. And Lowry suddenly sees Coleridge and says, “Hey, all those little marginalia in The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, that’s where it is.” Well then you put it all over there, and then you can come back and do it the conventional way. But then now the margins are really something else. Or Mallarme says, ‘Well, yeah, the type, the poem, but look at the blank spaces.’ And we gotta measure those, order them, arrange, and I think he has. Things like that were a great moments. There were moments in Vienna in the 1900s, similar kinds of things. Architecture was doing it. The flight from the object. Now once you get everybody doing it, it’s time to say, ‘I think I’ll do a little homey fairy tale about muffins.’
Gerke: I see. You were talking about all these figures. In looking at everything If I had to make a list of the writers you most admire, those who’ve been the most influential, it would look like this: Plato, Flaubert, James, Valery, Stein, Rilke, Joyce, and Beckett. Is eight enough? If you had to trim it so short would it look like this? I ask out of the spirit of advice: if someone was to read the life’s work of only a few writers and read it again and again, would it be them?
Gass: Well, certainly. I would. But I wouldn’t want to rule out others as well. I think for a certain period it was obvious the leading figure was Flaubert. Then it was Stein. And then it became and still is James. James is the greatest novelist, I think. Though I hate that. The greatest business. Shouldn’t say that. But again, one is led to those feelings when you find the most informative. When I start to take a James piece apart, and not reading it, and I’m not getting a chance to enjoy it as a novel, I’m busy tinkering with it. But it’s so evident. So now I’m back at the Baroque. You know, writers I always loved but they weren’t major forces in my life, but now they are. I think sermons should come back now that there’s only a secular world. But these sermons that are just about issues nobody cares about anymore.
Gerke: Sermons concerning spirituality?
Gass: Yeah, well, all kinds of technical problems. I mean, issues. Did Jesus really have a penis? They worried about that once upon a time. Or, they believed that the cracker they were going to eat was really blood, some of them. Nobody believes that now, I think, but you know, it’s just people will believe anything. It’s removing the audience, the whole thing is just given now as you’re reading Donne’s sermon for Lady So-and-So’s death, and he’s talking about God creating from nothing, and it’s gorgeous. Why should it be gorgeous? It’s like the pears, now. In the intellectual realm, you’re not doing an ad for Bartlett pears. The pear is an excuse. And the religion is an excuse. And it’s a great, wonderful… We go to the cathedral, and we say, “Oh, boy, what a wonderful world.” Same thing with the music. Requiem. Now if you believe in these, they have also this additional power. Fra Angelico. Murals. And he believed what he was doing was actually religious. I can’t share that. But I can empathize with it. But I can see just how those beliefs worked in creating these images. The annunciation is one of my pet themes, but it’s ridiculous. It’s hilarious. But boy, what they did with it. So the Baroque prose is built to discover its material in a certain belief that’s not only not held, but was absurd from its inception. It becomes fascinating and a good way of getting into what really counts. Because something about all that really counts without being a blithering idiot, you know. And this great passage in Donne, where he says we’re talking about death. They just talked about death all the time. There was so much of it. And we, he says, are looking at ourselves helleth all the time. And then we have to inspect our urine to tell us how we are. Some great passages. He puns. He buries witticisms in. He’s just a magician. And people just tend to go to the poems, which of course are obviously wonderful.
Gerke: In your fiction there is a great interest in insects. In “Order of Insects,” a woman dwells on cockroaches. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” and “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop” both contain wonderful sections on flies, and The Tunnel has an extended section on grasshoppers. It seems you have spent some time contemplating them. There is also a rich history of writers using them as Donne has his flea, Yeats his fly, and Beckett gives Molloy some dancing bees. What draws you to insects? What makes them such a fitting metaphorical subject for writers?
Gass: Yeah. I used to study them for fun. Sweet companions. I had a spider that was… We had a downstairs john, and there was a little crack in it, and there was this spider who spun his web, and he was just sitting in the john. You would watch him, and he would come out. And we would have a discussion.
Gerke: This was when you were a boy?
Gass: No. Forty some years ago. When I was living in this little town, I got to know the bats, which I’m very fond of, and the spiders. But then I had a pet butterfly. This monarch. And it got hurt by a highway. This is, I’m assuming, the draft of a car broke the wing as it was flying, and so it couldn’t fly up. It could flutter around. I found it, and I carried him in, fed him, and he would come and sit on my shoulder, and I would feed him on the counter up in the kitchen, just honey and sugar water. He would come down and drink. We’d put him in a vase to sit. And we had him for about six weeks. And at night, I’d put him on top of a curtain. But we had a cat. And that was a problem, keeping the cat from getting that damn butterfly. And eventually, she did. But with the kids, we used to find the larva, and then watch them hatch, and read a lot of naturalist stuff. Yesterday, we had out here on top of the cover, the pool cover — right in the middle there’s some collected water — we had a red-shouldered hawk. Stood in the middle of that and washed up. And we heard this morning the song of the white sparrows, which signify winter coming. This is a great trunk line for migratory birds, all the way up the Mississippi, and people go out just to watch the eagles at migration time. Tremendous. Geese. And there’s a park here that bird-watchers go crazy in, because it has so many different kinds of birds in there all the time.
Gerke: So they’re old friends, the insects?
Gass: Oh, yeah.
Gerke: So you like to write about what you like?
Gass: As long as it’s about my neighbors or something, yeah. The stories I can tell. But that’s off limits. I think it’s wrong to do that. I used to have a few arguments with Stanley about that.
Gerke: About the limits?
Gass: About exposing people in books, so that everybody knows who it is who knows them. It’s a temptation, and it’s a revenge motif, of course. I think every divorced woman in the country is writing a book.
Gerke: In your essay “The Book as a Container of Consciousness,” you say, speaking of the word, “Add radio to print and the word became ubiquitous. It overhung the head like smoke and had to be ignored as one ignores most noise. It was by loose use corrupted, by misuse debased, by overuse destroyed. It flew in any eye that opened, in any ear hands didn’t hide, and became, instead of the lord of truth, the servant of the lie.” How do we live in a world where language is debased?
Gass: Everything is debased. Not just language. Everything. In part that is the result of, I think, what one hopes is a positive thing, namely the masses of the world’s population — most of whom are uneducated and in terrible straights — they’re going to bring down the culture. The culture is going to be brought down. And in fact displace a culture of their own, which might, when they were existing okay even as a tribe or something, they might have developed their own folklore and so on that suited them then. But that’s been almost everywhere swept away, with nothing except the invasion of pop culture. We don’t need soldiers. We should send the culture over there. And people want this crap. And so there’s money in it for the world; the people who organize this create this secondhand culture, and sell it to people. And it’s going to affect, is affecting, has every ideology so that, more and more, it becomes a case of what you supposedly believe will be based on cultural considerations like getting a new car. So I once was a Baptist, but … now I’m an Anglican. I used to buy Fords, and now I buy Cadillacs or something. It’s just increasingly a mode of existence, like the date of a house, or the kind of house you go along, and you buy the house, and you like it and sort of fit into it and change it around to make. People are doing that with ideas, and ways of life. So everything is sinking, and it isn’t exactly people… No one is exactly to blame for this. It’s just a part of progress, in one way.
Gerke: You think it’s a political tool that the U.S. culture is sent out and infiltrates other cultures?
Gass: Yeah. And they all have to try to make it their own, but you know, that’s what starts revolutions what you put in television sets. You get those things in and people see another world. They want that. The Internet spreads the possibility of information everywhere. And that’s going to be done at great cost. I made mention of this a number of times. But I believe that the United States is, as Gertrude Stein says, ‘The oldest country in the world,’ because it’s been in the 20th century longer. Smart woman.
We have suffered the three great equalizers: the gun, the car, and the computer. And each one has liberated people from constraints. And although I might be driving a Model A and you an Oldsmobile, we can both go 50 miles an hour and kill ourselves or somebody else. And with the gun, called “the great equalizer” — the pistol particularly — we are a country of those great equalizers. Now a seven-year-old kid is as dangerous. And kids start driving at thirteen and fourteen, and so forth. They’re equally able to create catastrophe. And then they’re all going to be on the computer, so these are great inventions with catastrophes. And what we have not done is pay attention to what technology does, and all the consequences. The car has been one of the greatest, murderous, horrible instruments in the world. It has used up the environment. You know, I could go through the whole business. And we’re the bearers of that. And that’s all we need to do is to send people that. But it is, to my mind, a kind of hell. And maybe when everything gets shaken up.
When I was a kid, the grocery store wasn’t as half as marvelous as it is now, even though the grocery store is full of false objects. Everywhere. But still, the cuisine of the United States is infinitely better than when I was a kid. There are a few things that have improved in this process. We think, “Well, a car allows you to travel and take pictures of yourself standing against some motel sign.” That’s what most people are doing. They don’t see anything. We have great museums. Take three seconds to see the Cezanne room, so forth. So there’s a false sense of knowledge of things. I go to college, and I think I’m educated. If you’ve got a good education, it just starts there. It just gives you the things ready to do something. And everybody worries about their health, so they’ll live longer. To do what? Golf. God knows what. Not to get more deeply into things, so as I get older, me and the ladies will have a little book club, but we’ll shallowly read a lot of junk. I’ve known a few that are, in fact, really reading difficult texts in a serious way. I applaud them. They’re rare. So it goes, you know, it’s a damn mess. And I keep quoting Calvino’s remark at the end of Invisible Cities, which is a great book. ‘This is hell. What can we do about it? We can only look to those people in hell who aren’t contributing to it, and help them out.’ I agree with that. It’s an incredible, horrible time. Huge changes. We are parasitical on the Earth, and we could destroy the host. And there are many catastrophes awaiting. We don’t seem to learn. And that’s my, I guess, literary message if I have any. Of course, that isn’t helpful. Somebody pops out of the box and says, ‘You’re a bunch of idiots!’ Boom. But the thing that gets me is when the good things are just so simple sometimes. My wife’s very much younger than I. When we were first courting, I had to hear a lot of pop music, because she was an eighteen-year-old. But after a few years, she scorned it and listened to Monteverdi. I’ve watched a lot of sets of people — children and two wives, and so on — get culture. And it’s wonderful to see people deepen. But when I was growing up, I wasn’t seeing people deepen. I was seeing the opposite. And around you, mostly, it’s not. I don’t know what that bears. No wonder I wander in my essays….
“Comfort’s not bad, as long as you have your work.
Otherwise you just sink into the pillow.”
Gerke: I see in your work a great strain of celebration, especially demonstrated in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” where the compendia, the references, and those flies clustering in fruit and forming a “black and moving” sleeve on the narrator—the world is electric and though love is gone, it’s all so beautiful-–bees, apples, his cat Mr. Tick “roll[ing] over on his belly, all ooze.” Not only does this story make me want to be a better writer, I also want to be a better celebrator—delighting and smiling myself silly because I live in a world of such riches and pleasures. Of course, in your essays you celebrate words and art, fine food and wine. Can you talk about the role of celebration in your work?
Gass: I’m enjoying myself. Not the writing, but the thing itself.
Gerke: The things in the world. The art. Food. Wine.
Gass: Yeah. Sports are sometimes quite beautiful, too. Especially football. But it’s very hard to watch all of them. Too many people moving around. Baseball’s much easier to watch, because most of them just stand there.
Gerke: You were talking about how maybe people just dabble, a little bit of this, but don’t really go deep into it. I mean, it’s risky to go deep into something, because you then find out about yourself and about people. It’s very intimate in a way.
Gass: It’s difficult.
Gerke: Maybe that’s why people avoid things.
Gass: Oh yeah. I spend a lot of time avoiding things too. I don’t like trouble. I want to avoid it so I can get my work done.
Gerke: But you’re facing yourself in your work?
Gass: That’s why it’s so unpleasant. Your shortcomings in particular, just one after another. Because when you finish something and you look at it, all you see are the mistakes or the shortcomings. Sometimes, you come back to them after having forgotten practically everything and find something you like, and you’re quite astonished.
Michael Eastman does that all the time with photographs he took 30 years ago. ‘Hey, that wasn’t so bad… I thought that wasn’t very good. It is.’ It’s nice. But Michael’s a good example. It’s work, work, work.
But we’re so lucky to have tasks that pay. Teaching is like that. It’s an almost immediate payment in a way. It’s not what the students are, because there are just too many people, and it’s too private, and you get sometimes ahead of things. But your relation to the material. I used to teach Plato every year for thirty years, forty years. Wasn’t a time I didn’t learn more. And say, ‘Yeah, I should’ve known that all along. It was right there.’ And so I had the best possible material. I was teaching the most wonderful philosophers and had the best subjects. It was just wonderful. I lived well. I’m very fortunate. Or lucky. The world is coming apart. Where’s the filet, you know? I’m very conscious of that. And I’ve always said that the bourgeois knew one thing: comfort. Comfort’s not bad, as long as you have your work. Otherwise you just sink into the pillow.
Gerke: Concerning On Being Blue—did you write it out of a similar mood that may have taken over Sir Thomas Browne when he wrote Urn Burial? For instance, near the beginning you write:
What sinks us to a deeper melancholy: sexual incompleteness or its spastic conclusion? What seems to line our life with satin? what brings the rouge to both our cheeks? Loneliness, emptiness, worthlessness, grief…each is an absence in us…Our state is exactly the name of precisely nothing, and our memories, with polite long faces, come to view us and to say to one another that we never looked better; that we seem at last at peace; that our passing was—well—sad—still—doubtless for the best…Joy-breaking gloom continues to hammer. So it’s true: Being without Being is blue.
Browne seems to say that it is what comes before the last breath that holds the most meaning, as the words, “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us. A small fire sufficeth for life, great flames seemed too little after death,” seem to subscribe to. How much of Brown is in Blue?
Gass: I came to Browne relatively later, but by the time I was writing On Being Blue, it was the beginning of the Baroque fascination. I just couldn’t get around to dealing with it straight on. But the answer, trying to keep it short, is yes.
Gerke: Piggybacking a little on Urn Burial, I wanted to mention Walter Pater, who I think echoes Browne, and his famous closing sentence about art in The Renaissance: “For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” What is your take on this? Do you agree?
Gass: Well, that was a very famous thing. And there are times we should set aside, somehow, to do that.
Gerke: To enjoy art?
Gass: Yes, that is always to be ready if you can. To appreciate the moment at its best and so forth. But it is, of course, not something possible to sustain. It is a moment. And you have to spend a lot of time working in other things that don’t have that reward in order to make possible the moments. Because life won’t let you.
Pater was accused of course of just being a hedonist there, but he’s actually a Platonist. I used to do this with the students. I’d take pictures, a lot of photographs that then I wouldn’t identify, and they would look at them and see this, say, simply shining, beautiful texture in the photograph. I tried to illustrate the Kantian principle, which I share, that a work of art is perceived independently of concepts, meaning preconceived notions. I say, well, that is the floor of an abandoned building where pigeons have lived for years, and all that shining stuff is pigeon shit. The students changed their whole relationship to what they saw. I scandalized this small bit of Boston by photographing turds on the sidewalk, mostly dog’s. But once in a while, a bird dropping. It’d just be great. And I was just trying to get them to see that those concepts removed — that’s why abstraction’s so great. Great relationships. That’s what great ideas do, even when they’re wrong.
Most philosophy is utterly wrong, but oh god, it’s sometimes very gorgeous, and sees connections that can be lived by. Nature doesn’t care how you live. It has no dictates at all. So the true aesthete reduces all the ideologies to house styles. Some live in a federal style. Some live in the Baroque or Gothic. You want some Gothic? Okay, how about a little Catholicism of a certain sort? Okay, that’s pretty good. All we have to do is remove the concept of truth, which is another issue. It’s complicated. None of these phrases can do more than be a phrase. But when I was a kid, I was insufferable. I’m still insufferable, but trained. A Romantic about the greatness of art. But I learned science is just as exciting. And especially for somebody like myself, it’s the most primitive science, that is observation. Careful observation of a butterfly’s wings, for instance. Or any number of things.
Gerke: Just the act of looking?
Gass: Looking seriously and seeing how marvelously it is put together. We do that with flowers around here. I talk to the birds a lot. They follow us of course. They’re used to having us around, and Mary in the garden. There are robins that know that Mary will be digging the ground up, and they’ll come along behind, and they just get right up. ‘C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,’ they say. That’s great fun. To feel at home in your environment, that’s a great thing to have.
Gerke: In On Being Blue, you say, “A muff, a glove, a stocking, the glass a lover’s lips have touched, the print of a shoe in the snow; how is it that these simple objects can receive our love so well that they increase it?” Your answer is because they become concepts, while the bodies of the beloved alter and “escape our authority and powers.” Do we trust objects more than people?
Gass: I certainly do. There was one of these terrible TV things where they are dissecting bodies. And the guy says, ‘This is the time when the body tells the truth.’ And in a sense, that’s so. But it’s worse. Consciousness. There are people whose everyday consciousness may be just awful, but who create a consciousness, a way of seeing things, that is great in itself. Emerson was on the right track, I think, at one point during the end of his life when he was disillusioned, that what philosophy is all about is to provide structures for the various — he calls them ‘moods’ — but emotions and feelings about the world. And they’re all true at some times, because we include ourselves and our relationship to our surrounding. There are days when you are in a Schopenhauer mood, and everything seems the way it is that day. But you’re not, in the normal course of life, aware of all this stuff. You’re just taking out the garbage. It’s the only thing wrong with getting old, too, is you have to watch where you’re walking, not because you want to see what’s there but because you don’t want to fall down. It’s preoccupying. I’m talking about the garbage. But again, when I was photographing, I photographed garbage. And sometimes it was a rotten watermelon—wow!
Gerke: Again and again in your writings and interviews I’ve come across the term “midden pile” — a dump for domestic waste. In an interview, you said, “The world would end up a big midden pile.” Why does this metaphor suit your world view so? Are there just too many things in the world? And by things I mean information as well, such as the Wikipedia article for James Joyce being half as long as the entry for “The Simpsons” TV show.
Gass: We live in the garbage can. There’s so many ways of being great, you know. There’s Proust and Beckett and Joyce and James. Everything. All kinds of paintings and music and everything. All kinds. And then there are these people who come around and say, ‘I mustn’t look at Tchaikovsky. He is terrible.’ I remember going through all those phases. For a while, there was no one after Monteverdi who was any good at all. It was how you learned Monteverdi. But there’s just so much. That’s why I have a good time. But then it is hard to have a good time in this world, because if you have a good time, you feel guilty. So many people are suffering, and so many dumb things are being done. So truth and beauty are really running for their lives in this mess. And you get historians who don’t care about the truth, but only about the story they can inflict on people, which makes them rich or powerful or whatever. I’ve always been impressed with that, and the whole revision business. That’s what the essay “Romancing the mind” is about, all the people are desperate for reassurance. If they only understood what living forever would be. No! Good grief.
Gerke: Concerning the history of Omensetter’s Luck, there is an infamous episode of one Edward Drogo Mork, who stole the only copy of the manuscript from your office in Purdue. He tried to publish parts of it as a play, but was found out. In the afterword of Omensetter’s Luck, you say you may still carry his murder in your heart. Was this sordid episode instrumental in your new novel Middle C, which apparently concerns a professor coming from Europe to pretend teach at a University in Ohio?
Gass: He teaches at a college. The new book, though, is based more on an actual event. When I first started out, I was teaching at a college called Wooster in Ohio. And there arrived on the campus one day, and they had hired him, an Englishman who taught history. And he was charming, and had huge audiences for his classes. And he’d been there about two or three months, and the authorities came around and said, ‘This guy is a fake, a bigamist, and his name is Peters, and he’s wanted by the English and the Canadian police.’ And everybody was shocked, because everyone had made over him as such a brilliant man and so forth. And that was all that actually happened, but I thought, Well, I want to talk about — or deal with — somebody who’s a counterfeit of that sort. He gets his positions — he’s a decent enough person, really — but he gradually expands his dream land to include the classes he starts to teach. It says a lot about the academic world, because it partly covers when he is a student in a school, as well as when he ends up a music teacher. As a fraud, he’s better than most genuine people. And he’s the one who, as he is there at that school for many years, eventually, who starts to create in his attic the museum of human catastrophes. “The Inhumanity Museum,” he calls it. So he’s doing that, and then he has an obsession, a sentence he’s just trying to get straight, and it never seems to go together right.
Gerke: One sentence?
Gass: One sentence. And it is something to the effect of “He” — or somebody — “used to be concerned about the fate of the human race, and that it might be destroyed. Now he’s worried that it won’t be.” It’s a much lighter book. There’s a lot of talk about Schoenberg because he pretends — when he goes to this Ohio college town college — he pretends to be a Schoenberg specialist, because nobody knows much about Schoenberg. They hate him, but they’re worried about it. So he can get away with it. And that’s why he picks Schoenberg. He doesn’t really like Schoenberg.
Gerke: Is it as long as the Tunnel?
Gass: No. About 350 pages. No, it’s not long.
Once, when I was going to graduate school, I was surrounded by positivists, and one of the guys had a baby. His wife had a baby. And I said, ‘Well, how’s the baby?’ And he said, ‘It’s this long.’ That’s the positivist for you.
Gerke: In an interview at the Lannan Foundation with Michael Silverblatt, you said that in primitive times everything had its own soul. Beckett and Rilke forward this in their work, with many discourses about objects filled with being and even in The Notebooks, when Rilke describes the death of Malte’s grandfather; the death itself has its own soul. How has the world seemingly gone away from this? What happened to animism?
Gass: Animism, well, all of that is based on some books that Gaston Bachelard wrote. The Poetics of Space and Philosophy of No. But what he proposed was looking at — it’s a sort of mirror of his own career—was the history of people in terms of stages. That we pass through these stages.
But he had become a philosopher of science. He was an engineer first and then worked with chemistry and so on. As did alchemists. All kinds of people working in the sciences with very bad theories, very wrong concepts. And ether was a good case. And he worked with what he calls ‘obstacle concepts,’ which get in the way, stop researchers at a certain point, and so forth. And he starts with animism. He doesn’t spend a lot of time there, because he wants to get onto the scientific, better world, or different world. But according to him mankind begins in this world. Everything else is alive. And then he starts to whittle it down and make a distinction between living and dead things. So initially, a creature was alive when it was alive, but then when it died, it what? The died was still alive as a ghost, a spirit, a this or that and so on. And then as we lost that contact with the natural world, we substituted naïve realism, so his notion is I try to pick up a stone, and it resists me. The stone has its own feelings. It doesn’t want to go anywhere with me. And so it’s heavy. It resists being moved. That’s the animistic side. That of course leads to “if I’m nice to the stone, maybe it’ll let me move,” and so on.
But if I move to the stage of naïve realism, things are heavy when they either look big or feel hard to lift, that’s all.
And then the third stage is a positivist kind of stage where I measure away things, and I say, ‘This seemed heavy to you, but that’s because you’re a professorial weakling,’ but to somebody who’s strong, it’s not much of anything. Or, like, when the newscaster says, ‘It’s gonna be 72 degrees, but it’s gonna feel like 80.’ The ‘feel like 80' is the naïve realism, and the other’s the measuring. Things are measured, weighed, and so a mathematical principle and an objectivity are incurred, and then that is basically the footprint of science. First, careful observation, and then measurement. The paradox there is that you start out being empiricist, but you don’t trust your eyes. So you replace the human sensing of these things with something objective, measurable. And then you go on to what he calls rationalism from this empirical thing, and then to complex rationalism.
We’re arriving now at rationalism — Newton, and then Descartes, and so forth. And then when you get to complex rationalism, it’s Einstein. And then you get to super rationalism, which is quantum mechanics. We don’t entirely pass through each of these stages. And each of us will have a separate history. How much animism is still left in me? How much of a positivist is still around in my life? And the strange part is that the more mathematical, and the more successful and abstract our science becomes, the more distant it becomes from ordinary life. Ordinary life is a gap coming up in the failure to explain it. And so there will be a certain amount of animism in me still, and all of that is obstacle.
So when Bachelard writes the Philosophy of No, we all wanted to be abstract mathematicians. But then he switched his interest from that to psycho-phenomenology, and he did books on fire and the elements. And then pretty soon on poetry. And that’s because what he decided was happening is that the mind goes in one direction toward mathematical complexity. As Plato had said, ‘We’ll know some things and call them a science only when we can treat them mathematically.’ And the other is to reach back to the original animistic character of life. As a child, we pass through all these phases, but not entirely. There will be some left. And it’s good for us to go back, because that’s all about how to live in the world, not what the world is, but how to live in it. I’ve always been fond of this view, this general thing, because then your epistemic profile will show how rationalist you are, how empiricist you are, how much you are living in the world of quantum mechanics, or seeing the world that way. Once, when I was going to graduate school, I was surrounded by positivists, and one of the guys had a baby. His wife had a baby. And I said, ‘Well, how’s the baby?’ And he said, ‘It’s this long.’ That’s the positivist for you. So anyway, the need to go back to recover, and the arts do that, in his scheme.
Gerke: Recover the soul?
Gass: Rilke does that beautifully. Suddenly, it’s to feel that relationship to the world. There’s another way of putting it: Everything is alive, has its own wants and aims, so you stub your toe on something, and you kick it back. You’re acting animism. But it’s no longer a dumb mistake. It’s much more wonderful to live in the animistic world than it is to live in the quantum mechanic world. Because the world, you understand it, and you are equal with it, and you’re in it, and so on. So we’re pushed ahead by our mind, and it’s fun, I think. It makes sense in a certain way. And he was trying to explain why alchemists thought they could do these things, or why there was an ether and concepts in science that are still blocking the way, so there’s a lot of Freudianism in it in a certain sense.
Gerke: In that same interview you said something that has fascinated me, but I’ve always wondered what exactly you meant. You were speaking about words and music. “Reading is accompanied by muscular activity. I wanted the words to be in the mouth, to be chewed. The great writers put things in your mouth,” you said, adding, “Only in Rilke do women have this experience.” I thought maybe you were saying that there’s something in Rilke’s works, or poetry, that women respond to.
Gass: Well, that is true. That’s true. But he cultivated it. Not every poet might do that. But he cultivated wealthy women.
Gerke: You mean in his personal life?
Gass: Because he lived off of them. He was a housesitter.
Gerke: In the Duino castle?
Gass: Yeah. And he was an entertainer of rich people. Really disgusting activity, when you start to think about it. But, like the court jester, he was the court reverend. And he monkeyed around with women who were fond of Blavatsky and other spiritual leaders. He even was tempted to go and hold hands and watch a table, you know? Things of this sort. He had enough sense to back off from these things for a bit, but that was an attraction, and lots of women… And then he wrote these marvelous letters to people — he was great at making love at a distance. But then they would take care of him. But there is an element in him of mock religiosity, even though he’s not going to accept any given religion, but there’s that aspect. And it ruined him in the critics’ eyes for a while, after his death. And he was regarded — by the hardboiled Marxists — as some toy of the rich countesses and counts. And there are some men in there, the husbands, but by and large, it was a female world. He had a gift there.
Gerke: Do you edit by reading aloud?
Gass: Yeah. All the time. Everything. Over and over and over.
Gerke: All of The Tunnel? You read the whole thing out loud?
Gass: Every step of the way. Oh yeah, many times. The same way I had to just read more than once Elizabeth Bishop’s The Moose to practice. Your eye goes too fast. She’s a slow boat really, because you have to put a lot of weight on every word. I remember trying to teach, when I was teaching her, I’d have to say, ‘Whoa! Slow down.’ It had partly to do with her compulsion with the facts. Had to have all the facts just right. She fitted The New Yorker just perfectly, because The New Yorker has all this junk about ‘Do flowers really bloom in New Brunswick in October?’ And she’d run off and consult old issues of magazines to justify her mentioning them and quoting from them or something, as In the Waiting Room.
Gerke: The National Geographic details—getting it exactly right?
Gerke: In talking about the differences between so-called language-driven writers and story-driven writers, I’ve almost come to understand (at the same time reading that you espoused, “You do not tell a story; your fiction will do that when your fiction is finished”), that story is always implicit in the language-driven writers’ works, the story takes care of itself. Yet there is a bounty of crust to that pie. Take Ulysses—it’s one day, but so many things have already happened in Bloom’s life; his son has died, his wife is cheating, etc. What we get in King Lear, The Lime Twig, and The Portrait of a Lady is a miasma of color and sound, the world is all things no matter if description or dialogue. Raymond Carver couldn’t write The Recognitions, but Gaddis had written, overwritten, and contained Carver in only his party scenes. Do you feel the implicitness of story as you write? For instance, as you wrote The Tunnel, did you know you had a man in a chair telling about where he was in his life by looking back? Or did the prose rhythms press you into those areas?
Gass: Sometimes. Actually, you have a little story, even in a sentence. For me, formally, the sentence is a narrative in the sense of what word comes after what, that whole linear progression. So I have to read the words that way. Then with my mind, I am bringing back everything in the predicate to the subject and making the modifications that have these various pieces that make whole sense of the sentence or paragraph, or whatever it is. And then it’s the narration that gets complicated, because narration at that level is just “Shall I put Goliath first in ‘David slew Goliath,’ or’ Goliath was slain by David?’ And of course, the grammarian isn’t going to help you there, because they think that the passive voice is, first of all, weak. But why weak? They don’t even know. And they don’t see the tremendous difference between those two sentences. They tell a different story. In the one story, it’s obvious whose side you’re on. So the same thing: I have, in the new book, an essay on narrative sentences. Now all sentences are narrations in the sense of when you drop a word into the ongoing sentence, James loves to hold you in suspense as he goes on. How are we going to get back here? And then you can withhold the real subject by putting it in the rear, like the Germans often do. And you can speed up. I have sentences that are climbing hills, things of that sort, because there’s a mounting set of clauses, maybe. A bunch of diagrams to go with it, where I’m trying to diagram not the grammar, but the meaning of the sentence aesthetically and structurally.
Gerke: Spindle diagrams?
Gass: When you’re just talking about it, it sounds so dumb, but I’ve been working for a long time with all kinds of various, crazy things. Here’s a sentence, diagrammed, in the old-fashioned way, really. You can read it all. It’s a James sentence. So here is the whole thing. They, the visitors, looked touched, vaguely pretended to consider, but with skepticism, and so forth. And this space, architecturally… This is what I mean by… So you start in. The morning pleasant, we decant early, proceeding on, rising gently for several miles over. Once we get there, which presented to view on every side of this is the judgment. So you have a journey to the view, a judgment of the view, you’re up on top of the [?], and then a depiction of the view as viewed, and a depiction of what can be heard from the spot.
Gerke: So this is like, almost notating literature in reverse, like a musical notation?
Gass: Well, these are the notes for the aesthetic of the sentence. Here’s a spindle diagram from the conclusion of Finnegans Wake. So what you do is show how all the words in a certain pattern…
GG: The rhyming words?
Gass: Rhyming and just, yeah, just see how… And it’s old, and sad, and old, and sad and weary, I go back to you my cold, we’re going with old, cold, and stuff. I, my, my, my, and so forth. There are patterns here. And then they don’t all stay the same, but they’re functioning similarly. So diagramming is, in terms of connections that have to do with sound rather than… Here’s another. This is, of course, I’ve used before the Henry James. This I used because this is a diagram of an actual medieval — well, it’s a Renaissance, really — from Frances Yeats’s book on the memory theater. And this is another kind of diagramming. Arranging sentences, or ideas, in terms of a pattern that you’ve decided. This house is sort of done that. I mean, this is the American and English literature section, and so suppose I put things I’m thinking about — and I’m thinking about a Virginia Woolf, or whatever — in this space, and my idea about it is located. And that’s what they did. We have the German room, and the French room, and so forth. Well, what you did is you choose figures from mythology and actual memory theaters were built, so this wasn’t just a… Oh, this is also a pedigree of man. People did these things, once upon a time. This is of course a diagram that’s not mine of just the family tree. And this is a walking to [pray/prey?]. And it goes with… It’s a similar kind of diagram.
Gerke: In Life Sentences, in the essay called The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence, you quote Wallace Stevens as he says, “Those of us who understand that words are thoughts and not only our own thoughts but the thoughts of men and women ignorant of what it is that they are thinking, must be conscious of this: that, above everything else, poetry is words; and that words, above everything else, are, in poetry, sounds.” You then quote three lines from “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” and say that Stevens’s “music leads meaning by several meters.” This makes my mind flutter. Again and again, one hears so much emphasis on things other than language both in poetry and fiction today. It’s been posited, at least in the fictional world, that people are still, for the most part, writing the stories of Dubliners again and again. The great music (or the great language) of poetry and fiction is difficult, but eventually is the most satisfying aspect, because it gives again and again, like anything by Stevens or Joyce. How does one almost untrain oneself and start believing that words are also “the thoughts of men and women ignorant of what it is they are thinking”?
Gass: Well, all you have to do is you practice on yourself. How do you know what is to come next in the sentence? Well, you have some sort of general idea, but what the sentence choice turns out to be is dictated more and more as you’re even listening to your own work, to elements that don’t directly belong to the concepts you’re dealing with initially. And so you’re led ahead. There’s something about what’s happening in your musical mind, say, that is leading the sentence to appear, choosing the words for you. When you get everybody pulling together, you’ve got it. And so what is nicest is, of course, you find you’re being led by the sound, but you don’t want to have every sentence sound like Edith Sitwell. You want to organize and make sense out of it in a conceptual level as well as the physical, or musical level. And indeed, spatial level. There are bunches of levels. And it’s just one of the elements, not all of them. And some poets are better at one thing than another. Now, if I were to take the poem and write it out as a sentence, it would appear to be what it is: prose. The best poetry in the later part of my lifetime seems to be written by prose writers. All you have to do is pick up the books and see how the language flows, and read some of the poets. It’s scary how nothing is there of the poetry. Hardy’s very good to study in this regard. He gave up novel writing. He wrote some great poems.
Gerke: The poetry came at the end?
Gass: Most of it. Not all. First came architecture, actually. He was an architect, sort of drew and things of that sort as well. And then he wrote all these novels, but boy… And it’s all with childlike simplicity. Except The Dynasts, which is different. But I mean, it’s a lot of forces leading or advising or pushing the writer for space, and for word choice. Even just as I’m now, I’m always these days struggling for words to say what I want to say. And that’s because the language is supposed to satisfy a lot of different things I want to say, or not say, at any particular moment. And sometimes it’s just a crash. And I’m denied, you know, saying it — whatever it was going to be. I’m very conscious of that now especially. But when you get all of the things that are involved going to a unified conclusion, then you really have the great lines. And often that happens as…not inspired, it just appears. And you can usually tell when somebody is led by the musical side. But it is possible to be led by the spatial side too. But all kinds of demands in the person themselves. And then, of course, the language that’s chosen or not chosen, the idea can be the same. I mean, so I’m quoting, let’s say Donne, who uses “urine” as the word. He could’ve used “piss,” or he could’ve used “urination,” different levels of putting it. And the one you ultimately choose out of the many has a history of social level on which they exist, and you have to get that right. Henry James is magnificent at getting the language of the society and world that he’s talking about all rightly placed, and then the words he chooses, and that he wants them to come in on the scene in a certain way, and it’s just incredible how complicated, but then how supreme — serene — it can be once he gets it going right. And again, as in Finnegans Wake, so much of it just sings. And when that happens, I have a terrible memory, my rote memory’s just awful. But I have no trouble remembering pages in Finnegans Wake. It’s like hearing Mozart. You anticipate. You’ve never heard this particular piece, but you know the genre, you know the artist. You’re hearing these particular patterns. You know what’s going to come, how the music resolves itself is so often predictable and satisfactory. It has to go this way suddenly, and not other. The patterns are built up, and they must be fulfilled. That sort of thing. And when that is happening, then it’s certifying the presence of the idea, the organization, the way it’s put out in terms of all the other things that are being demanded. It’s like going on a picnic: You want the food to be terrific, but you also want the day to be mild. All the things that you want for the ideal thing. And it’s what Shakespeare loves to be very complicated when things are at a low degree of passion. When they’re of a high degree of passion, they’re very short and direct. He knew what he was doing, of course. But I just think that not enough people are paying attention. You can’t just write by spilling the words on the page. You have to arrange them. And you have to arrange them not only in terms of one another, but with the sentences that came before, and the sentences you haven’t written yet. They have a demand.
Gerke: They’re waiting for you to make good?
Gass: Yeah, that’s right. Just imagine passages that you know that are so great, and then take out the key term and put in another word with the same meaning, or roughly. It’s just ruined. Why? Because so much of what you want to say isn’t just said in so many words on the page. That’s one reason why I frequently quote some writers people say are difficult. Well, by difficult they don’t really mean hard to read. Nobody is easier to read than Beckett. It’s all third grade, simple words. It’s why is this being said, what is going on. And why is James so convoluted? There’s a platonic principle first made popular by sufficient reason. The natural world — the world we know — it has no sufficient reason. It just is. There isn’t an explanation. He thought there was, but there isn’t. But in a work of art, there is a reason why everything happens. Sometimes the author doesn’t even know what the reason is, but some part of them has picked and chosen and arranged. And the art is getting all those demands right, I think.
Gerke: I wanted to ask about the Why Windows are Important to Me philippic in The Tunnel. Two key lines appear on opposing pages (296-7). They are pleas, really. Plangent, ornate triumphs. “To be free is the greatest blessing the world never gives” and “Why should another’s body be so beautiful its absence is as painful as the presence of your own?” Particularly the second speaks to a condition that some people experience. I could be backward enough to call it love, but don’t some experience loving as painful? They leave themselves just enough to be surprised that the other they love is not them and a recoil begins, as we often see love turning to hate. These questions have been with us forever and literature has been saturated with them. Again, are we just voices in the dark, a la Beckett, asking to be recognized, asking for someone or something to take mercy on us?
Gass: It’s close. That may be even stipulating more than is happening.
Gerke: Well, they’re powerful enough to make me examine them. They have an effect. Not even intellectually. On so many levels.
Gass: Well, that’s why in Middle C, this guy thinks somehow, that if he can get the sentence right, something important about everything… You know, if he can just get the one sentence right. He eventually does too. Twelve tones, twelve words arranged in exactly the right way. But yeah, you know, Beckett is quite good about all this, because every time one of the characters completes something — which is almost never — it just dissolves into another task. And explaining the universe is like that. Every once in a while some magazine or something asks all kinds of people what the meaning of life is, and of course, it has no meaning. It isn’t a sign. No. So we have to give it meaning. And that’s why you have to decide whether you want to live in a Catholic, four-bedroom house, or a Jewish, three-bedroom house, you know? Or something modern that has no ideological frame. It is nice to live without beliefs. People don’t understand that. They think, “Gee, he doesn’t believe this. He doesn’t believe that. So he’s miserable.” But no.
Gerke: You have no beliefs?
Gass: Oh, I have some. Like, we’re going to have pork for dinner. But Bradley — an English philosopher, who’s marvelous — he said, ‘Beliefs are like fish. You must keep them held constantly at an arm’s length.’ And when I read John Stewart Mill, I run down the street saying ‘Stinking fish!’ Wonderful.
Gerke: In thinking of American writers and the sexual, I keep coming back to you and John Hawkes. The sexuality in at least a few of his books (The Lime Twig, The Blood Oranges, The Passion Artist, and Travesty) is orgiastic, but dark and murky as well. When you talk about the sexual, particularly in The Tunnel and “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” such as the line, “I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river. I’d follow a vein with the point of my finger, hold your bare feet in my naked hands,” you have a more celebratory view. It’s also in the essay—metaphors of great desire, lust, touch, kiss. How important is sexuality and the sexual to your writing?
Gass: Oh, very. I’m a forsaken Freudian. I passed through a period. But one has to, first of all, disentangle talking about sex and using a word associated with sex. It’s quite different. Because my work doesn’t have much sexuality in any direct way. It’s very small. There’s none, almost, in Middle C, by deliberation in terms of the character. But as in On Being Blue or in The Tunnel, there’s plenty of the words. The sex or the sensuality comes in the treatment of the language, by which you might be putting on a pair of dungarees, you know? The scene may need not be sexual at all, but the language should be. And often you have a scene that is full of sexual words, but there isn’t much sex to it at all, because it’s just words, or not. Most of the words that we think of as sexual aren’t sexual. We destroyed that. It’s very hard to imagine it. And it’s idealized sex. And when we say, similarly in music, when a violinist caresses some notes, it is a caress, but nobody had to take his shirt off. Explicit sex, I hardly ever write anything about that. A little bit, a tiny bit. A few pages in The Tunnel. That’s it, as far as I remember. Another reason for avoiding that subject in an explicit way is that I want to avoid as much as possible situations, extreme situations, whose reality is strong, because then the reader is reading it like a newspaper or something. If you’re going to write aesthetically about it, you have to defuse its power in order to get anybody to pay any attention to the nature of the prose. And that’s what 90% of bad literature is. It’s just referring to these scenes in so-called real life that would be quite shattering, or pornographic, or whatever. And it isn’t art. When Faulkner did the scene in Sanctuary where the girl is raped with a corncob, people read that book sometimes and never even know that happened. He defused it. And in Greek tragedy, nothing happens with all this death that’s going on all around hardly any of it ever on-stage. And, when it is put on-stage, the critics just scream. It’s so the chorus or the characters can talk about it, announce it, report it. And great language. That’s one of the great difficulties Hawkes has, is to take something that is so revolting in life and write about it beautifully. And that makes people mad, you know? Because they think you’re doing something, you’re advising or approving or whatever of the situation, which isn’t the case. That’s one reason he liked violence. There are scenes in The Lime Twig that are so beautiful, so awful. That’s art, boy. And Beckett. People say, ‘I don’t read Beckett. It’s too grim.’ It’s not grim at all. I mean, wow. But you have to go visit that and know how to disarm the world in order that it’ll make room for you, your handling of it. If tragedies weren’t tragic, nobody would go to them.
Gerke: So it’s kind of again the question of how far do you want to go into life rather than all the car crashes, that are kind of the sensory popcorn feeling.
Gass: The passage where I had to face this that’s most obvious in The Tunnel is the pit, the scene in which people are being machine-gunned. There’s your extreme event. You want to get that horror examined and the event presented, but you won’t want anybody screaming. I mean, you want the opposite of, and of course you get an intensity of a different sort, you hope, but you don’t want to change and say ‘What fun.’ That’s not what you’re after. But it’s easier to dismiss the newspaper report: So many hundred people were killed yesterday by… Oh, that’s terrible. But if you do the Dubno pit right, they don’t forget the Dubno pit. And that’s what you want, but it’s a different level of feeling of things.
Gerke: You quoted that passage in your “Retrospective.” I read it aloud to my girlfriend. How you have the father saying lines to the son till the last moment they live. The world within all those worlds. The time for people to be living and dying. It’s all there, in that space, that section.
Gass: Well, you hope. But you know, one of the things, as they say, you have to disarm those moments. If you don’t, you’ll get the TV, and people will grow used to it. There’ll be no revulsion of the sort that you need. I used to go to some Holocaust meetings. I wrote a couple essays about it. There is the kind of person who goes to funerals, who loves funerals, who likes it. And there were people who loved the gore, the horror of the Holocaust in the sense of reading about it and consuming it. Not nice at all. There’s an awful lot of that. And of course then there were people who made their careers out of being a victim.
Gerke: That’s a slippery slope.
Gass: It is, indeed. An Italian—I can’t think of his name now… Primo Levi. He really does a beautiful job.
Gerke: Oh yes. I read the book. Survival at Auschwitz.
Gass: Well, he wrote several about the Holocaust. And of course, there’s nothing cathartic for the author about art. And it didn’t work for him. He had, I think, people who survived the Holocaust who think it was a terrible thing to survive. Think of killing himself the way he did. But there would be a scene. If you were doing it, how would you do the scene of his decision to throw himself over a stairwell? So you want the horror of it without the horror of it. And there are some people who just never get that part, who just don’t experience it, I guess. They just think you’re exploiting, or writing nicely about it. So you have to write badly about it. But you can’t pay attention to what the world thinks. Better not.
Gerke: Right. It seems like your entire opus comes down to wrestling with the question of evil.
Gass: Well, that’s certainly one. That’s everybody’s problem. We live in times where it’s not just that maybe there were other times worse. When things happened badly in medieval time, probably only a minor fraction of the people alive knew about it. Here, we know about these things from every corner of the world. We’re bombarded with not only the St. Louis daily murder of somebody and the deaths in Somalia, but then with this and that, and you know. And it’s brutal. And we sit there and say, ‘Oh my god, this baby was in the lap of her mother sitting and looking at the TV when a bullet came through the house and killed it.’ Oh dear. Next page. It’s incredible. But we do it. We have to live in this world. So we go on to the next catastrophe. We have young boys out shooting one another. I think if I were black, I would shoot white people. I wouldn’t shoot black people. We happened to be in California when one of the periods of riots were going on in L.A., and burning places. We were watching this on TV.
Gerke: You mean the riots in the 90’s after Rodney King verdict?
Gass: Yeah. And it was just awful. And we lost several nights sleep over it. You get inured. That’s the horrible thing that it does to you. And you have to be, or you can’t continue. If you have depressive complexes, they seize on that. There’s plenty to be distraught by. But we can set it aside and be cruel, indifferent, and study ignorance and so forth. But if you aren’t, you get torn to pieces. I don’t know how many people have a bad defense mechanism in being callous. But to just sit around and say, “These guns, goddammit.” It’s just ridiculous, like howling at the moon. And people die. A number of people killed by our friend the automobile, you know, over and over. I remember when we used to — we don’t anymore — we used to count the number of people killed on Labor Day in the country. And there would be a little headline in the paper. ‘This Year: Record Broken. More People Killed This Weekend…’ as if it was a score, a contest. I remember headlines all the time.
Gerke: From your writing, I get the sense that injustice affects you in a very deep way.
Gass: I don’t know more than anybody else. During the 60’s, I went out and did what everybody else was doing.
Gerke: You mean protesting?
Gass: Yeah, making speeches, getting myself in a lot of hot trouble.
Gerke: Against the war?
Gass: Yeah, it started at a time when two big things were happening in first the foundation of the United Nations. And I was preaching against the veto power of the major powers. This is just not going to work right. Nobody can have a veto. That was one. And the other was my speeches about Israel. And I hated the founding of Israel, and speeches about how it was going to be an international ghetto, and the Palestinians had rights, and history gives you no particular right. It confers no right on somebody that is the fact that my grandmother owned this property, and that it was an example of people — especially Europe, by then, because we were, on that occasion, more receptive to Jewish migration than they were — but other nations didn’t want anymore Jews, so they put them all in place. Well, anyway, that’s over the dam. So then I had to make my peace with Israel, and we all rooted for them. But it’s just been a mess. Anyway, that was going on, and then there was the Civil Rights stuff, and then of course the Vietnam War. And then there were the flower children, the sex stuff. Ugh. And so I did my little time occupying buildings and marching up and down and making speeches. I was at Purdue then, and Purdue is a very conservative place.
Gerke: So you were in your early forties around this time?
Gass: Yeah. That’s when I met Mary, just about that time. They wanted to fire me at the university. In the town, they threw garbage on my front porch and stuff like that. And then I was denied gasoline at the station. But that was my big time in activism.
Gerke: Was that instrumental in you leaving Purdue?
Gass: Well, I certainly wanted to. I wanted to leave everything. I had a family who I wanted to leave. Yeah, I was ready to go. And it was just fortuitous. And they handed around copies to the Board of Trustees of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. They wanted to get rid of me for that horrible business. And then the head of the student newspaper, who was a terrific young man, he was in trouble. And I was the cause of all of it, because he was a philosophy student, and I was the head of the Faculty Action Committee. Our action. The Futility Committee, it should’ve been. But it was easy to see through much of it. Most of the students were mobilized, because they were afraid of going to the war. I don’t blame them. If we still had a People’s Army and they were carrying their own guns into battle, we wouldn’t have as many wars. I found out very quickly — it wasn’t hard to find out — that the sexual revolution was machismo to the nth degree, and women were being exploited and misused.
Gerke: But what about Occupy Wall Street now? It’s in every major city.
Gass: I wish it would grow. I wish they would walk and occupy, take over the stock exchange.
Gerke: Well, it’s pretty impossible. There’s barricades and there’s police everywhere. I work down there, but it’s amazing that they still have the park.
Gass: I think they should make it a permanent fixture. Take it over. ‘Witness Park.’ Something. ‘Fuck You Park’ would be good. I just don’t know what’s going to come of it, though, these bastards running things. And I don’t think they even recognize it as anything more than a rabble anyway. They can fool themselves.
Gerke: Well, I think they’re scared. Bloomberg keeps flip-flopping…
Gass: If I were mayor, I’d be flip-flopping and ducking. What a job. And what a time to be President, Jesus. I mean, he should’ve picked a better time. Whenever that was. The difference is too — and Roosevelt was elected after the Depression he had a Congress that went in with him in the avalanche of stuff, so he could do things. This is just… You’re in the lifeboat, and there are no oars. You can’t just sit there and say, “Oh my.” It’s awful.
Gerke: Do you write many letters?
Gerke: So one day there won’t be a Collected Letters of William H. Gass?
Gass: No. The problem is simple. It suddenly takes me forever to write the letter. That’s writing. And then I keep thinking, ‘Well, Keats or Lawrence or Byron…’ Some of those great… Did you ever read Byron’s letters? Wow, they’re wonderful. And of course the masters — James — all these people wrote. James got his carpal tunnel not from the novels, but from the amount of letter writing he did. So he had to dictate at the end. But they turned out tons of it, and it’s so good. I couldn’t do that. I’m very slow and inept. And then I would have to think I was writing a letter, oh boy. Flaubert. So if I write letters, it takes me too much time. I don’t want to spend it. And then I don’t write the letter I wanted to. I’m better with email, because it isn’t letters. Thank heavens. But I’m very bad. I don’t even have the social graces.
We have some students who are sort of working out in our International Writer’s Center, and some of them have done very well for themselves, and one is Michelle Komie, who is now an editor at Yale Press. She sends me marvelous books just for free now and then. It’s hard for me just to write her a little note. She has the annoying habit of writing a longhand letter. So it’s bad. I have a dear friend who is a great person, an amazing person, and is in the philosophy department here. He’s retired. But he writes me letters all the time — long letters, wonderful. And I have never answered a single one. I don’t know why this is. I just can’t do it. So I do get the email out okay. But I hate the phone. I can conduct business on it, but I can’t chat. Mary chats with the children all the time. Thank god. Somebody should. I don’t want to do it. So I’m no good about those things.
Gerke: Do you spend a lot of time on the computer?
Gass: I do some Internet researching now and then, but very little. I have my library, and it does really do — most of the time — the job. I always wanted to live in a library, and I am. And that’s one thing in my life I’m proud of is my library. The basement is full of racks, lines of books. The third floor, where Mary has her studio, she has a terrific architecture library, is books. The Latin American, Italian, and Russian collections are pretty good. It’s not history. It’s all literature, mostly. But in the basement I have history and philosophy. There’s a lot of philosophy books. And linguistics. I pay attention, though they write so terribly.
Gerke: So at one point, you were writing longhand?
Gass: Oh, no. I’ve been writing on a typewriter since I was… My parents got me a typewriter when I was, I think, fourteen. Something like that. Underwood Portable. And I kept it for years. And I wrote on that typewriter. But I didn’t go to a computer until it was 1990. I went to California. The Getty Museum. And they said, “What kind of computer do you want to use?” It was a wonderful place.
Gerke: It was a sabbatical?
Gass: I was invited to come there and research. Finish anything. I had been writing on architecture. And I think that’s what they expected me to be doing. And they were very happy to accommodate. Actually, they were wonderful. And it was the deal of a life. We were in a little apartment in Santa Monica, three blocks from the ocean. And two blocks from a great open air market. God, it was wonderful. And they were then in a bank building that went up about twelve floors. The bottom two were bank. And then they took up all the rest of the floors. And that’s before they built their little acropolis. And the library was open twenty-four hours. It had a wonderful little room, a great chair to nap in. I used to work fourteen hours a day. Mary had her own place. It came just at the right time. The kids had gone off to college. And her firm—by that time, she was running it. She closed it down and came out. They gave her a room just like mine and treated her entirely as an equal. And then there were very good people in my year. Wonderful people too. There’s nothing like having a patron that has six billion dollars. Hooray for capitalism. It was marvelous. And we had nothing… We just went down the street and bought all this great stuff to eat. And they sent us on wonderful tours. We got to go on private trips through the Frank Lloyd Wright stuff. And we had no concerns except we watched riots. We watched earthquakes. Santa Monica was great. Good bookstores, too. I was surprised. I didn’t expect that. And I came out there with 600 pages of The Tunnel done. And I wrote half the book there in one year, because the circumstances were just marvelous. No distractions.
Gerke: You needed that to finish it.
Gass: Yeah, and I had been bottling up. It was also easier, because the last part of the book was supposed to be easier to get a hold of than the front part. And I had every assistant. I had a poor guy that was there trying to be helpful. He was doing his own work, but he was a fellow. He got us tickets to symphonies and got me in with the Lannan people who were out there. That was a big help for me later. And I found out I could work just nonstop. There was nothing else to do except that. And so the book doubled. And they took all my typescript and transferred it, spacing and everything else, onto the machine. They did it in off-hours, or when they weren’t busy, the secretaries. It was a terrific job, a difficult job, and they were wonderful. So I had that. Now and then, gifts fall from the sky. Not just calamities.
Gerke: So you wrote it pretty much sequentially?
Gass: Yeah, not entirely, but close.
Gerke: Because it did seem there’s less of the drawings and the boldings and different fonts in the second half of the book.
Gass: I wanted to move away from that. I wrote some sections of the front part and then deliberately broke them up, scattered pieces through, and arranged them. But for the back part I didn’t do that.
Gerke: Kohler seems to get more honest with himself to some degree.
Gass: I wanted a sense of sliding downhill after having got to the top. But it sort of started to come without much difficulty for a bit. I didn’t get hung up at anytime. That was lucky. Because this was, you know, I knew I’d never have time like this again. I’ve had sabbaticals. One of them was we had twins.
Gerke: You’re retired now?
Gass: Now I’m retired, and I’m turning down things, which I didn’t do before. Like traveling a lot. I used to travel all over the world, courtesy of the department and other innocent people. And I loved it. And Mary went on some of those things. But yeah, I’ve been turning down things and thinking, ‘My God.’ But I just can’t take it anymore in the way I used to. So I didn’t go to Finland. The Germans just wanted me to come over there. I wanted to go. But then when I saw the schedule… And so I consulted doctors, and they said don’t. And Mary is happy to be settled too. She traveled. But it’s different when you’re traveling just to take care of somebody.
Gerke: You are now eighty-seven. Many of the writers you have been mentioned with have passed on, except for John Barth and Robert Coover. How is it to have lasted so long?
Gass: Barth keeps in shape. I don’t know if that even really works. It’s just… I don’t know.
Gerke: It just what is?
Gass: I don’t drink as much as I used to. But I drink a lot. I have a salt-free diet. But other than that, we don’t do anything special. I never did get a lot of activity, except when we traveled. There was a lot of walking. In the old days, I cycled. I used to ride a bicycle all the time to school. When I was at Purdue, it was several miles I’d bike. But then less and less. I became more and more like Kohler. I got fat. But I was sixty when I did. People don’t realize that sometimes. Mary and I have been married for forty-some years. I suppose people thought, when it happened and she’s young and I’m in my forties, that won’t last. But it did. I got lucky.
Gerke: Do you feel you’re a philosopher of sorts?
Gass: No. I teach philosophy. I’m not a philosopher.
Gerke: Or philology?
Gass: No. I’m none of those things. I’m a professional amateur. I’m always pursuing stuff in fields I don’t know much about, and I never get to be an expert in anything.
Gerke: Well, fiction, literature.
Gass: Yeah, but I don’t like critics, mostly.
Gerke: What about Davenport, though?
Gass: He’s my sort of essayist. He’s terrific.
Gerke: Going along with Bishop, you’ve recently written a review of the books released on the 100th anniversary of her birth for Harpers and in the article you were especially fascinated by her punctuation and how the New Yorker editors were confounded by it. I was looking at her book of letters, One Art, and her last letter she wrote on the day she died, in which she told an anthology editor she didn’t want notes affixed to her work. Why do you think Bishop’s appeal is so broad? Because she wrote so simply? Is it the loose narratives of some of the most famous poems: “At the Fishhouses,” “The Fish,” “In the Waiting Room,” and “The Moose”? How relatively easily one can follow them? Might it be the fact that she published only 101 poems and they were all monumental or close to it? When you read the beginning of “The Moose” yesterday, I couldn’t believe it started that way.
Gass: Yeah, it’s like a movie you forgot started that way. I have that all the time. When is it going to be the movie I expected it to be? What’s all this stuff?
Gerke: Where’s the moose?
Gass: Yeah, the moose comes in for two stanzas. When she was writing, I think for a long time she was tarnished. She would get awards and people in the business often thought, “Well, she just suits the New Yorker,” and she did just suit them. But they weren’t reading her properly either. And she was at first too inclined to do what they wanted. She needed people backing her up, and Marianne Moore was of course a kind of a tentacled octopus for adoration, and Lowell. But it took me a while to take her seriously. It’s just that I didn’t pay attention at first. But she is best, I think, when she’s the simplest. And there is originally a certain kind of shock that comes from violating, how Pound used to do it. He was one of the worst at being ‘poetical.’ And she was no special thing. No elaboration, no poetry. This is the moment. A very down to earth stuff. But then her ‘I’ in ‘The Moose,’ for example — the metaphors are just screwed down. They’re really marvelous. I taught her along with a bunch of other American women writers for a while, a lot of them I had in one course. Anyway, she has one on the spring, and the dogwood, etcetera, and they have a little sign on them, like a cigarette burn on them. I thought, “Okay, lady,” and I marched out to my dogwood. By god, it was there. And a lot of everything — it’s like that. And if she had written, “And Joe always sleeps in his underwear,” you’d say, “So? Oh! Joe sleeps in his underwear.” There’d be mountains piled up on top of it. But she’s also somebody, I think, a poet that is so attached to her existence, and certain kinds of problems that she’s having with the world, that it’s hard to appreciate her without knowing her autobiography, I think. She’s tied to it. All of Stevens has it there, but he escapes. “What word is this?” She’s not, I don’t think, in that category, but Stevens is unbelievable.
Gerke: Yeah, Stevens seems like a cipher, almost. A cipher of himself removed 12 degrees.
Gass: He’s, I think, our greatest poet. I remember first reading him years ago now, and thinking, ‘Ha! There he is.’ Same feeling as I had when I was first reading Yeats. Oh my god. I was in graduate school. Wow. I just gobbled up the collected poems and then started all over again.
Originally published (in shorter form) in Tin House Winter 2012). Learn more about Greg Gerke here.