Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lance Phillips

In 1953, when The Paris Review published its first issue and included an interview with E.M. Forster (PDF), the journal made its largest – and one might say only – contribution to literary culture in popularizing what would become a new mode of literary discourse, one perfectly suited to the postwar years of the early 1950s. Kulchur, as Pound or Lita Hornick might have spellt it, was no longer merely the plaything of an educated elite. Just as television, that newfangled thing, was giving images to the radio plays & vaudeville variety shows of old radio & bringing into the home original drama and – especially through the auspices of one Walter Disney – cinema, one no longer needed to head out for an evening of the performing arts. One might even watch Korla Pandit, the African-American organist born John Roland Redd who used a mock-Indian identity to become the first true daytime music star of the new medium. All this occurring in the vast economic expansion that followed the end of World War 2, when the GI Bill suddenly made college accessible to a rapidly expanding middle class. (Thank you, UAW.). Everything from youth culture to rock ‘n’ roll was in the offing.

The interview was the perfect critical medium for this period because it permitted insight into the author as a person, a new kind of celebrity that many of the old modernists had shunned – Picasso was an exception & had she lived a little longer Stein would have been another. It was visibly modeled on the personal interviews that had become commonplace accoutrements of the Hollywood studio system. And, for a variety of criticism, it wasn’t all that critical. This was not Clement Greenberg on the Mount, nor the stern retro pieties of New Criticism. It did not pretend to be the litcrit equivalent of John Gielgud. Sal Mineo would do just fine.

But if you read those early Paris Review interviews, many of which are now online & downloadable, you will notice something very distinct about them, which is the preparation accorded each by the interviewer (often, for poetry, a young Donald Hall in those early years). The interviewer shows up at the interviewee’s door fully informed as to what the author has written, what the author has read, whom the author knows, whom the author has slept with & what the author has said in public & often enough in private also. This affords even a casual reader an enormous amount of intimacy in those pieces – you can tell right away that Robert Graves is a mean-spirited bully, and, frankly, he’s not alone among the greats of that era.

With the notable exception of Tom Beckett, I’ve never had an interviewer as well prepared as seems to have been the norm for the Paris Review in the 1950s, and I’m used now to the post-interview drill of going through a draft transcript closely because I can’t presume that an interviewer will know that there is no “e” in Olson, that Ginsberg’s first name is not Alan, that there is no “u” in his surname, or that Zukofsky has an “f” and no “v.”

So my sense of the form is that it’s one that is easily debased. As I know I’ve recounted here before, my template for the ill-prepped interview is one that I by chance happened to sit in on between a newspaper reporter in Bangor, Maine & Omar Pound, son of Ezra & a poet & translator in his own right. The reporter, a one-time high-school English teacher gone to seed, leaned forward in the midst of this session, held in the cafeteria at the University of Maine campus circa 1984, and half-whispered in a conspiratorial tone to Pound, “So what kind of communist was your father?” Omar blanched, simply looked at me and asked, “How would you answer that?”

Hey, at least the guy knew that Pound had been in trouble for extreme political views. And in 1984, those were the only views he could imagine as excessive. Maybe he was foreseeing the day when Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan & Donald Rumsfeld made fascism mainstream once again, albeit this time with the happy-face logo of America & apple pie.

In recent years, however, the form of the interview has undergone not one, but two fundamental transformations. The first is email & the written interview. This is really an electronic extension of an already existing form – the mail interview, which can be found even fairly early in the pages of Paris Review. It’s how Beckett interviewed me for The Difficulties. There are advantages to this approach: the interviewer isn’t likely to go for the “gotcha” type question, that carryover of the old Hollywood interview & legal cross-examination (&, in Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason episodes, a bit of both); and you can ensure from the get-go that names like Zukofsky get treated properly. But there’s a complication – what is lost when you stretch out the time of exchange in this manner is spontaneity. Might I have said something different if I had been asked the same question aloud, perhaps over tall glasses of ice tea with a tape recorder whirring nearby? Almost certainly. However, this expansion also gives the interviewee time not just to answer (or to seem to answer) the question, but, in doing so carefully, also to direct where the next question might go. If the loss of spontaneity is the downside of the written interview, collaboration between interviewer & interviewee can rise substantially, which from my perspective is a plus.

Most recently, there has been a spate of interviews that in many ways aren’t interviews at all – they’re surveys. Preparation for the individual interviewee is unnecessary because you are asking the same questions of everyone. These are interesting to the degree that the questions are thought provoking – I declined one recently that wanted to know about my theory of washing dishes – and the people solicited are themselves interesting & willing to offer substantive comments.

The first of these surveys that I’m aware of is Here Comes Everybody, which Lance Phillips started in June 2004 & kept up thru January 2007, over 130 interviews in all. Phillips figured out that he was onto something pretty quickly – I don’t think he envisioned that many responses when he began. The questions he asked might be asked of any Anglo-American poet (and with the change of a single phrase in question 4, of any English-speaking writer in the world, from Australia to Nigeria to India).

1. What is the first poem you ever loved? Why?

2. What is something / someone non-“literary” you read which may surprise your peers / colleagues? Why do you read it / them?

3. How important is philosophy to your writing? Why?

4. Who are some of your favorite non-Anglo-American writers? Why?

5. Do you read a lot of poetry? If so, how important is it to your writing?

6. What is something which your peers / colleagues may assume you’ve read but haven’t? Why haven’t you?

7. How would you explain what a poem is to a seven year old?

8. Do you believe in a Role for the Poet? If so, how does it differ from the Role of the Citizen?

9. Word associations (the first word which comes to mind; be honest):

Lemon : 
Chiseled :
I :
Of :
Form :

10. What is the relationship between the text and the body in your writing?

That they might be asked of any poet is both the strength & weakness of the survey form. There were never any follow-up questions. If you have a poet who has a particularly complex relationship to one of the questions, there’s no way to probe more deeply. The late kari edwards worked very hard to avoid being identified as either man or woman, having lived for periods as both – kari once made a point of thanking me when I wrote a review that avoided using any pronouns at all. Here is edwards’ response to that last question:

all I have on this earth is this body, everything else is just things and other bodies doing things. if I do not place myself in the core of my body I can not even attempt to connect to reality and end up in the grand illusion. My body is what allows me to feel others and the universe. if I want to speak of the possible I have to be in touch with the present present in the body that is in my body.

I can’t imagine an active interviewer not following that with a question about gender itself & its place in edwards’ work. Instead, this is the actual end of the interview, a silence that feels even more tragic now that edwards is gone.

Phillips at one point tried to transform these surveys from a blog to an anthology, only to meet with resistance on the part of several participants. Happily, he’s left the blog itself up, and I’ve continued to link to it among the “collective blogs.”

Now, as a couple of people have shown already (here and here), with a survey, you don’t need even to be asked to participate. It’s conceivable, of course, that all 1,700 of my daily visitors could respond to the Here Comes Everybody survey and Phillips would then (a) have more than enough for an anthology and (b) we’d have something like a census of poetry, or at least we’d have some idea how everyone responds to lemon chiseled I of form, which strikes my ear as a decent first line for something.

But I for one miss the old-school in-depth kind of questioning that occurs far too seldom today. What if somebody actually prepared for an interview? Knew the work, the bio, the social networks? Possibly, regardless of the person being interrogated, just possibly we might learn something.