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loBURN Magazine Volume 8, Spring 2019


David Herrle interviews David Aronson, visual artist

A painting called Looking Glass was my first exposure to David Aronson’s splendid work, and it hooked me immediately. His intense, diverse, irreverent, grotesque, erotic and often wacky art shares the heft and energy of, say, Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, Felicien Rops, Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Schiele, Otto Dix, Francis Bacon, Mucha and (as Aronson himself specifies) Remedios Varo. Stylish/spiritual/tonal comparisons also include Aubrey Beardsley, Peter Chung, fetish-artist Michael Manning, Escher, John Tenniel, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, Martin Ander, maybe even a little Terry Gilliam. However, Aronson’s stuff is fundamentally Aronsonian, and behind what he shows there is much to say. (See more of his art here and visit his official site here.)

Looking Glass

HERRLE: In Catching the Big Fish David Lynch insists that “the more the artist is suffering, the less creative he is going to be,” but he admits that time and freedom from distractions are needed for art to thrive. Inverting this, Man Ray blames artists’ suffering on the inability to escape “all social constraint,” and funambulist/magician Philippe Petit says that lack of control of the creative process “equals human death.” What do you think?

ARONSON: I don’t really adhere to any one theory of what stimulates creativity or what is necessary to be an artist. I can see, and agree with, the point of view of all three artists you cited. Artists, like people in general, are quite diverse. Everyone has their own reasons for making art and process for doing so. I think creativity is useful for everyone, no matter what form it takes. Using one’s creativity allows a connection between personal energy and universal energy – the energy that created all and lies within all of creation.

Man Ray was a Surrealist and escaping social constraint was part of [the Surrealists’] manifesto. This is something that I strive for as well. It leads to more interesting, unique and powerful art. I also strive to escape the constraints of my conscious mind. Allowing images to arise spontaneously from the subconscious is something else I have in common with the Surrealists.

David Lynch doesn’t see the value of suffering, but I have personally found that periods of suffering, throughout the course of my life, have triggered great outpourings of art and creativity. My work is often cathartic, so that makes sense for me, but not necessarily everyone. If you see a “lack of creativity” as meaning that one feels that their life is out of their control, then I could see that as a form of “human death,” a death of the soul and of one’s will.

HERRLE: On your website’s biography page you are referred to as an “ascetic hedonist,” an oxymoronic/paradoxical term that accords with your apparent humor and tendency to present, to use your bio’s words, “unusual juxtapositions.” What are your thoughts on the ascetic and the hedonic – and on artistic visual/thematic mélange?

ARONSON: At different times in my life I have lived in an ascetic manner and in a hedonistic manner. Eventually, I learned to let those two polarities to co-exist. The reconciliation of conflicting opposites is one of the main themes of my work, both artistically and in the healing work that I do. (I am a certified hypnotherapist, Integrated Energy Therapy master, and professional astrologer and tarot reader.) In alchemy, the stage where opposing forces are joined is known as the alchemical wedding. Hence the name of my site and of my artistic identity as well. I have a tattoo that I designed covering my right upper arm depicting the alchemical wedding. On a more mundane level, I find that unusual juxtapositions in my art, presented in a way that implies a narrative, are more interesting and stimulate people’s imaginations and pull them into the world of the image, rather than just looking at the surface. I’m a big fan of visual mélange for the reasons I just stated.  Combining images that have never been combined before can lead to powerful, thought-provoking and enigmatic art.

HERRLE: The female body (particularly the nude one) still reigns as the primary symbol/locus of sensual beauty and the persistent idolatry in Western aesthetics since the waning of the ephebophilic Greeks and andromaniacal Michelangelo. However, PC erotophobes rage against “objectification” – though, as Camille Paglia says, all art objectifies. As someone who obviously delights in the female form, tell us your thoughts on erotic beauty, female portrayal and such. Isn’t this all power rather than detriment?

ARONSON: Yes, it’s true that I love the female body, but I actually love drawing all bodies: male, female, young, old, beautiful and deformed.  The human body is almost always at the center of my work. I don’t do landscapes, because they always look to me like a backdrop waiting for some people to come along and do something. The body is sensual in a way that combines the physical and the spiritual. Nudity does not equal pornography. Nude women do not equal sexism or misogyny. I tend to avoid these kinds of political arguments, because people become very entrenched in their points of view, and a true dialogue is rare. I do believe that artists should have the right to portray whatever they want in their art, and people also have the right to refrain from looking at it or exhibiting it.  Images are the language of the subconscious, and all of the debates and histrionics about art that have been going on for centuries seem to point to the power of images and the desire for people to control that power.

Then there is also the undercurrent of puritanism which I feel still pervades this country, creating a lack of comfort with sexuality, physicality and the celebration of the body. Another reason I avoid these debates is because I find them a bit ridiculous. Is a picture of a gun more acceptable than a picture of a nude woman? Both are a part of life. When you start dictating what is or isn’t acceptable as a subject for art, then you are hiding from part of life. An extreme example of this is found in Islam and Orthodox Judaism, where art is not allowed to portray the physical world in a realistic manner. I am an art teacher and in one of my children’s classes, a Muslim woman told me that her daughter was only allowed to portray geometric forms. I told her that I couldn’t teach her daughter how to paint or draw if she was not allowed to examine the world around her. Drawing and painting create a kind of communion with the world and if you can’t see the beauty of creation, then I feel sorry for you, but don’t try to tell me what to draw.

HERRLE: Defiant against shameful bush inhibition or erasure, I think full – even unkempt – pubic hair is female genitalia’s best bedding: the wild tufts of Schiele or Delvaux, Courbet’s Origin of the World. Your depictions of females feature both the bushy and the bald, but do you have a preference?

ARONSON: I’ve always love drawing (and looking at) hair, but hair can obscure the beautiful folds and forms of the female genitalia, so I guess I have no strong preference one way or the other.

HERRLE: Many of your splendid illustrations are comic book-/cartoon-like. Have you any favorite comics books, comic artists/writers, cartoonists?

ARONSON: Comic Books were my first love and my first inspiration. I collected them when I was a kid and had thousands.  I sold them all when I was 13, but their influence on my work was already permanently in place. As a child, my favorite artists were Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson, Jack Kirby, Mike Ploog, John Buscema, Joe Kubert, Basil Wolverton, Gil Kane, and many, many others. When I was 13, I discovered Heavy Metal magazine and underground comics. Then I was in love with Moebius, Robert Crumb, Richard Corben, Gilbert Shelton, Victor Moscoso, Robert Williams, S. Clay Wilson, Caza, Nicole Claveloux, and – again – many, many more. The explosion of indie/alternative comics in the 1990s brought me Charles Burns, Peter Bagge, Daniel Clowes, the Hernandez Brothers, Chris Ware, Dave Cooper, and of course, many, many others. I also fell in love with [Neil Gaiman’s] The Sandman, The Invisibles and just about everything Vertigo ever put out. If I sat down and thought about it, I could come up with a list of hundreds of names. I still follow comics, both indie and mainstream. I do find some of them very readable but I accumulate them mainly for the artwork.

HERRLE: In a recent Rolling Stone interview with Jan Wenner, U2’s Bono said, “American is an idea, and it’s a great idea. We want you, it, to succeed, which is why we become fucking obnoxious and shoot our mouths off about it.” This jibes with your “Letter to America” poem, from which this excerpt comes:

I’m so fucking angry at you, America!
You could be the brightest star
of this civilization,
a shining example for all to follow,
but you fumble and drop the ball
and end up with a mouth full of astroturf
time and time again…

 …But I also love you, America,
because you have your sights set on
the highest mountain top.
You want to build a ladder to heaven.
You’re a dizzy-eyed, spirit-intoxicated prophet,
willing to die to free the enslaved and the oppressed,
and ready to set yourself on fire
for what is right and true and just!

Right on. Though bratty ungratefulness is foolish, constructive vigilance is crucial. Tell us more about your complex regard for the U.S. Can this nation still live up to being “essentially the greatest poem,” as Walt Whitman considered it?

ARONSON: Wow. Well, that’s a big can of worms, considering who’s in the White House. I wrote that poem during the second Bush administration, and my feelings are still the same. I see the horrible things done by the government and the power elite, but then I see the passion for justice and just plain goodness in ordinary people. Being a Sagittarius, I have a natural optimism that I fall back on as a default. To be honest, I have been ignoring politics as much as possible since last November. I guess I agree with Bono. I want people to live up to the ideals of the founding fathers, but there is so much greed and indifference, that becoming the visionary idea of America seems impossible at times. I’m hoping that Trump is the nadir and that we have nowhere to go from here but up. And I also hope people learn from this ridiculous farce of an administration and make wiser choices in the future.

HERRLE: In “I’m Not a Self-Hating Jew; I’m Just a Jew Who Hates Other Jews” you blast both collectivism’s subsuming nature and mass reformism’s dehumanizing tendency, recalling your parents immersion in The Schecter Reconstructionists. In their wish “to overturn everything and create a brave new world,” you say that they neglected “the law of nature” (the lesson of A Clockwork Orange). You prefer to “take people on an individual basis,” discounting ancestry’s overrated gravity, which I find redemptive. Tell us about your aversion to tribalism, skepticism against utopia and abstention from the Abrahamic “chosen.”

ARONSON: I have never been a follower. I tried my best to fit in, but it never worked. I tried and tried and as time went on, I realized that it would never happen, and that was very freeing. I could finally be myself. I have been a member of a group here and there as an adult, but I’m still on the sidelines, never becoming a devotee or true believer. I recently had my eyes opened by a book called The Invention of the Jewish People. Its premise is that the religion of Judaism, rather than the Jews themselves, was what spread throughout Europe and Northern Africa during the Diaspora. Therefore, Jews are not a unified ethnic group. I’ve always suspected this, even as a child, but being a good member of the tribe is the guilt they use to hold on to you.

I also recently discovered the Khazar empire or Khazaria. This was an empire that existed in between Turkey and Kazakhstan. In the 9th century the entire population converted from their pagan religion to Judaism for political reasons. When the empire was conquered, the people moved into Eastern Europe, and then to America at the turn of the last century. Most American Jews are descended from the Khazars and actually have no genetic connection with the Jews of the Bible. Once again, this was incredibly freeing for me. It meant that I could renounce Judaism the way an Irishman could denounce Catholicism. Being Jewish was not “in my blood.” Hooray! Don’t get me wrong. If you’re a member of a religion and it helps you to be a better person, I’m behind you 100%. But my life experiences (as well as historical knowledge) have completely turned me off to organized religion.

HERRLE: Your affecting Holocaust Series includes the plight of the Native Americans, which is something I separate, along with the Atlantic slave trade, from what I consider the only Holocaust. I side with philosopher Andre Neher’s belief in its essential incomparability. Jew’s existence was the Nazis’ (non-political/non-religious/non-colonial) extermination reason. To your Why Us? piece the answer is “Because you are.” Do pogromic urges (other than Islamist judenhass) simmer around the globe? Am I wrong to isolate Auschwitz et al from other odious eras?

ARONSON: I see your point of view about the Holocaust and far be it from me to tell you or anyone how to think about it. I don’t want to minimize anyone’s pain. There have been many, many large-scale atrocities throughout human history and all of them make me want to cry. I did the Holocaust series for selfish reasons. I was trying to get in touch with and purge personal feelings of persecution and victimization that came from the twisted way that being a Jew was presented to me as a child. I never dreamed that so many people would be moved by it. I wish I had put more time into the series. Some of the images are weak or hurried.

As far as anti-Semitism around the world, I think it will always be there. Like all racism, a lot of it has gone underground. As primates, we’re hard-wired to think “my tribe good, your tribe bad,” but only when we’re using our reptile and/or mammal brains rather than our human brain (I’m referring to the three-brain model. You can look it up if interested.) The human part of the brain, the neo-cortex, is the newest and smallest part of the brain which explains a lot about human behavior. I highly recommend the book The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. This book gave me a profound understanding of human nature, good and bad. The human need to always have a scapegoat I call “the Sneetch syndrome,” after the story by Dr. Seuss. Ultimately, I think it’s going to take a huge leap in human evolution to finally be free of racism and see ourselves as earthlings before anything else.

HERRLE: There’s a brutal sense of mortality in your work, and you refer to history as a “nightmare.” Japanese poet Issa says that we walk on hell’s flower-covered roof, but G.K. Chesterton warns us not to mistake the siege on the citadel as the citadel itself. Is pessimism reasonable? Despite atrocity, crime, disease and death, have you any belief in teleology, salvation, hope – God?

ARONSON: I am a mystic. I have had many experiences that showed me the unity of all living things as well as the creative intelligence that it springs from and was created by and continues to be created in every moment. This is what I call God. We live in a world of dualities and I have learned not to shy away from the darker aspects of life, but rather confront them and accept them, thereby transforming them. This is part of alchemy; the great work. My work contains dualities. I show the dark and I show the light and I show their dance with each other. So yes, I do believe in teleology, salvation, hope. I am neither a pessimist nor a nihilist. Underneath everything, at the deepest level, I am a healer and engaged in Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world.


David Herrle interviews Michael Walker, painter

David: Like most visual artists, you have a distinct repertoire of pet motifs: trees, sinister or dreamy silhouettes, black-and-white checkerboard patterns, ominous skies, floating orbs, telephone poles, devils, towering wendigo-like monsters and variations of the skeleton (the truly nude body). Are these deliberate choices, or are they embedded, so to speak, in your psyche or whatever the hell you call your subliminal self?

Michael: I try to use images or motifs that speak to our primal selves. Like the trees for instance. I’m not painting Bob Ross “happy little “trees here. Maybe it’s from living in a northern climate most of my life, but, I’ve always been captivated by the contrast of bare, skeletal branches against the blue of a winter sky. 

The checkerboard pattern goes back to when I was just discovering my style, if you can call it that. It’s a simple way to create motion for the eye, and it probably goes back to my reading of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at an early age and tripping out on the illustrations. A lot of the motifs I choose, such as the telephone poles, are used as tools to create perspective in my landscapes and compositions. Simple tricks at my disposal. As for the skeleton, why that’s the most primal of images for our human psyche. It is our true face.

I don’t feel like anything is deliberate in what I create, honestly. These works come to me 100% complete in my mind. In a flash. They change a bit in the process of creation, however, the choice isn’t really a thought-out process. So, I guess they are brought up from somewhere deep in my subliminal self as you put it.  [Image below: Welcome to Wonderland, Alice]

David: In Welcome to Wonderland, Alice you were audacious enough to paint your own version of John Tenniel’s illustration of the demented tea party in Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Your off-kilter style pervades, of course, and the scene’s surrealism has a paranoiac glaze, particularly in the eyes of the White Rabbit and the March Hare. Alice is a murderous harlequin/Goth chick, and the Mouse grips a Reaper’s sickle. Paintings – especially ones by Hopper – are fundamentally silent, but some of yours cackle, as this one does. You’ve reiterated/reinterpreted other iconic images, such as Storm Thorgerson’s cover image for Pink Floyd’s Animals, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Jim Morrison. How do you approach such projects?

Michael: Like the paintings of the original Icon I guess. Jesus was the Pop Star of the Middle Ages when it came to painters, sculptors and artists in general. Think of a photograph of the crucifixion. Could you imagine that? I’m sure that if the crucifixion of Christ were to happen today someone would livestream it on Facebook. We are so inundated with photographic images today, and there is such a wealth of photographic record of our idols and icons, that these images are embedded in our minds. I approach them with a sense of awe and love. To represent them through my artistic perspective but with all respect to the photographer, who is the true artist in this case, capturing those unique and sometimes candid moments of our modern icons, the celebrities and rock stars of our time. Our modern saviors from our mundane lives. The photographic catalog of images at an artist’s disposal today is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in the sense that there is so much to choose from for reference material and a curse in that you feel like it’s all been done and originality is dead.

I was given books when I was young from my artistic mentor and teacher, my uncle Peter Dragovich. He provided me with the fuel for a lot of my art today. One book featured a cinematic history of the horror and sci-fi films from the beginning, to the time of publication, which I think would have been in the late 1970s. This book contained the most wonderful stills from the great monster flicks of the 1930s through the 1950s: Dracula, The Wolfman.  The scenes were beautiful. The staging of the starlets and the stars in a soft, black-and-white glow. Those really inspired me in some of my earlier works in graphite and ink. A lot of what I do comes from my consumption of the entertainment industry and I just regurgitate it as my own art.  [Image below: Steadfast]

David: Speaking of stylizing iconic and/or familiar images, some of your best work is from your Pittsburgh Traffic Purgatory Series, which features selected urban scenes that are familiar to natives and seasoned residents, as well as iconic far beyond our famous city: Mount Washington, the Fort Pitt Bridge, PPG Place, Sharpsburg, etc. Some folks may notice a deviation from more traditional framing of scenes, unlike Kubrickian squared-in symmetry. Are your perspectives purposely skewed? Are these pieces sketched on location or rendered from photos?

Michael: The whole concept of the Pittsburgh Traffic Purgatory series came to fruition through me being stuck in our unforgiving, soul-sucking Pittsburgh traffic. As I drove to work I would be stuck in traffic and try to not hate everyone in front of me. I would gaze off at the surrounding architecture and landscape and lose myself in artistic thought. I would see these angles formed by the power lines and jutting forms of the buildings cutting into the sky. That’s what captivated me. I was trying to convey the view from the point of the hapless soul stuck in a tin can on the way to hell (work). I would snap a photo of the scene with my phone and work from there. I never sketch on-scene, and I rarely sketch out any of my works prior to completing the finished piece. If you could see how rudimentary my sketches are you’d laugh. I’m definitely a studio artist.  [Image below: Pittsburgh Traffic Purgatory Series: Mt. Washington and Fort Pitt Bridge]

David: Often, creating art as a second job can feel isolative and discouraging, but you receive some very worthy recognition: gallery exhibitions (a semi-permanent one at the Carnegie Coffee Company), the mascot/logo on a food truck for The Coop Chicken and Waffles, special commissions and the cover art for a Monolith Wielder album (for which Walkerian eeriness seems to have been perfectly destined). Do you have a preference for either public exposure or patronized projects? How do you view and handle the financial facts of producing visual art?

Michael: “Walkerian eeriness.” I like that! I hope that sticks. I’m fortunate and cursed at the same time. I’ve always created art and always will, but I support that habit by working full-time in other fields, so the frustration of being an artist is always present in my mind. There’s never enough time to create, so I steal moments when I can. 

I would prefer public exposure. I want to have people experience my art. The Monolith Wielder gig was awesome. They just contacted me via social media and were like: “Hey! We really dig this 13 Apostles piece and would love to use it for an album cover”.  It was a perfect fit. When I was a kid my dad had an extensive vinyl collection with the coolest album covers. Black Sabbath, Steppenwolf, Savoy Brown. The cover art spoke to me, and I would gaze at them and sketch them. If something I painted could inspire another human to create on their own? That would be fulfillment as an artist. I’m here to wake people up.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to be relatively unfettered in the commissions I’ve received. My clients are looking for a style or edge for their projects that my work can achieve. The few projects I have “professionally” completed have been commissioned by people who want me to freely express my creativity, and I’m very grateful for that. I’m a starving artist, but I’m free.  [Image below: 13 Apostles as album cover]

David: You strike me as an autodidact, one who’s particularly driven by a personal, peculiar style and pretty liberated from pedagogic pretense. Tell us about your informal and formal (if any) practice over the years.

Michael: You are correct in that assumption. I have had very little formal training in the arts. You probably have a better working knowledge of the techniques and styles I use than I do. I feel that if I spend my time worrying about the academic aspect of my work I’m not creating, I’m just studying.

From a very young age, as I mentioned before, I was mentored in the art of drawing by my uncle. He was probably the best artistic influence in my life. He was self-taught too. Most of what I’ve learned came from emulating his style and copying from books.  I was one of three or four talented students in my high-school art classes who had free reign over what projects we worked on. It was a very liberal upbringing. When I left high school I attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for one semester. I remember my first figure-drawing class. The professor began talking about how she was going to teach us how to be artists. I raised my hand and said that that can’t be done, you either are or you aren’t an artist, all she could teach us were some techniques. Of course I was asked to stay after class to discuss my portfolio.

David: Are you less comfortable depicting human figures than you are of doing fantastic ones? Your rare humans have a slight sprinkle of Modigliani and Martina Shapiro. Tell us about human portraiture versus imaginary, mystical subjects.

Michael: The human form is one of the most beautiful and grotesque forms to render. Sometimes it can be a mystical subject. I wouldn’t say that I’m less comfortable rendering the human form versus the imaginary or mystical beasts that plague my work. I’m more attracted to the mystical creatures. They’re more fun to create and there isn’t much basis to their structure. If I elongate an arm or get something out of proportion, who’s to say it isn’t supposed to be that way?  When I do render the human form in my work I tend to focus on one section of the body. Set it off and crop it or frame it askew. Create a juxtaposition that isn’t quite right. Such as the piece “What Have We Done To Our Fair Sister?” The female form makes up the landscape. It’s not that I am uncomfortable with portraiture, it’s just that, to me, photography rendered realism in painting obsolete.  [Image below: What Have We Done to Our Fair Sister?]

David: In the preface of The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker sums up the primacy of our underlying dread of mortality:

[T]he idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.

One can’t deny your non-denial of death, nor can anyone accuse your art as a death-denying activity. On the contrary, death is dominant in much of your work. Please share your thoughts on our grisly common destination. Is it grisly? Do you feel a dread of death?

Michael: Death is a specter that has clung to me since the time I became conscious of being alive, and I keep it in the forefront of my mind. I think that all the money that is spent in creating instruments of destruction and death ought to be reallocated into serious research into what death is and how it can be stopped. Yes, it is the end of the physical self and this organic matter is what produces the consciousness that allows us to realize that we are one day going to die. But, what happens after and where the hell was my consciousness before it got brought into this mess? It is an abyss of thought that I have fallen into many a night. Usually it is right before I fall asleep, in the dark confines of my room so like the grave that the fear of the unknown creeps in and it’s like a complete panic attack for a split-second. Yeah, I feel a dread of death. Perhaps that’s why I keep it in my thoughts. In my work. It makes all our everyday problems seem like total bullshit, which they are. Nothing quite compares to it. I feature the images of the skull and the skeleton in my work as a reminder to myself and the viewers of the pieces that one day all they are will cease to be. It’s my therapy. As Dickens said, “we are all fellow travelers to the grave.”

David: One of my life’s crusades is repudiation of anti-beauty bigotry, which has been entrenched and wrongfully legitimized by forces such as the Avant-Garde movement, Nurse Ratched gender-feminism (not to be mistaken for creative equity-feminism), naturalism (Flaubert’s “the time for Beauty is over”), photojournalism and hysteria over so-called “body image.” I think much hope lies in the continued power of fashion photography and – dare I say – pornography, thankfully. Do you notice a demonization of beauty in art? If so, what are your thoughts on it?

Michael: I think beauty comes in several forms. The female form in its classic “hot” schoolboy-adolescent wet dream-/pin-up girl/angel/centerfold style is dead, in the sense that we realize that this has been spoon-fed to us for so long, to sell us shit we don’t need, and people are smarter than that now and are starting to rebel against it. But there is no denying that beauty is being scorned now by self-esteem police. Some people are just more attractive than others. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge beauty when we see it and celebrate it.

I paint angels and demons. Both are beautiful to me, but I’d rather fuck an angel.  [Image below: Mr. Mojo Risin’ is Nevermore]

David: Your hashtags make it quite clear that music is a fundamental inspiration for you in the studio. Muster an ideal painting playlist for us.

Michael: My playlists change for the piece I’m doing or a particular portion of a work. For instance, I played Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” on repeat until that image was complete in the Welcome to Wonderland Alice… piece. I guess I would have Portugal.The Man, Built to Spill, Savoy Brown, The Doors, The Beastie Boys, Modest Mouse, Jack White (in any of his many side projects or solo), Pink Floyd, Syd Barret, The Beatles and some Gorillaz.

Any musician or band that has heady, dark lyrics with a hypnotic beat is in my playlist. I’m happy to say that my sixteen-year-old son digs my musical choices, and I have been turned on to some great music by him.  Music is a constant in my creative process and my life. I once heard someone say that music is the highest form of art and I strive to infuse its power in my works. 

Visit Michael’s Mind Slop Art site.
See more selected art here.

David Herrle interviews Bunny Goodjohn, author of THE BEGINNING THINGS

thebegthingscoverMore details


David: Your sense of and knack for character depth is excellent, enough to make me wonder if your cast is composited autobiographically, particularly in the case of Elaine – and even Tot’s, Elaine’s daughter’s, case. Please tell us about your characterization process. Where did this book come from?

It came from unfinished business, from the questions raised by alcoholism and recovery, and from, shall we say, my own somewhat premature entry into the world of sex-masquerading-as-love. And I was lucky: I already had a cast of characters just begging to be given some new lines and situations. My first novel, Sticklebacks and Snow Globes, opened up the lives of the Thompson family, and its final chapter, while offering a resolution of sorts, seemed to leave a door open for deeper examination of family dynamics. So I handed Tot a box full of secrets and had her alcoholic grandfather move into the dining room. Then I just wrote what happened. I think I’m Elaine at heart.


David: The Beginning Things contains a good number of clever similes, which is obviously owed to your basic nature as a poet. (Or am I wrong about that?) Favorite examples: “[S]he gobbled up his sweet interest like a diabetic,” “she felt cold and pathetic, like an iceberg about to lose a chunk of itself,” “the smoke like a canopy of crows against the roof of her mouth,” and (one that belongs in the land of comedic author Tom Robbins or Douglas Adams) “the living room looked embarrassed, like a fat woman wearing a bikini and wishing she had packed her one-piece.” Does prose come to you more easily than poetry, or vice versa?

And I can’t answer this without going back to metaphor. Both forms terrify me in too many ways. But it’s terror that forces me to the page, and it’s terror that makes me go to the spaces in my imagination that have to be explored. Poetry is the benevolent straitjacket. It’s the idea pinned down by form and wrapped up so tight in language it can’t help but confess. Prose is the padded room, a host of ideas bouncing off fiction’s walls: they collide, shatter and then heal into some kind of new cohesion. Neither come easily. But sometimes the experience of the padded room is heightened by slipping on a strait jacket.


David: Tot and Dan, who are granddaughter and grandfather, share a rather cute recurring inside joke of speaking in spoonerisms to each other. (“Tug of me” for mug of tea, “Dummy and Maddy” for Mummy and Daddy, “duddy bled” for bloody dead, “dittle larling” for little darling, “Dangrad” for Granddad – with the bonus of “Dan”.) While this gag by nature teeters on the line between clever and tedious, I think it’s part of the book’s charming abnormalcy and more proof of your own linguistic playfulness. Why the spoonerisms, and do they have a particular significance in Tot’s and Dan’s relationship?

They’re the author’s indulgence. My father harnessed spoonerisms as affection. He isn’t a hugely demonstrative man and back then in the 1970s, he was almost remote. It was as if he struggled to find a way of communicating with his daughters. He relied on humor…but he wasn’t very funny. So when he began to spoon, I leapt on it as a form of shared intimacy. We could talk without the fear of talking. I could say, “I Yuv Loo” and he could say it back. With Tot and Dan, we have two unlikelies struggling to make sense of love and life. Tot is isolated by secrets, and Dan is lonely and scared inside his alcoholism. They lack intimacy in their lives, and out of necessity, they lean on each other as they struggle towards new ways of being. Spoonerisms are tedious. I think everyone else in the family were bored to tears by them.


David: While 12-year-old Tot holds her grandmother’s (Dan’s dead wife Millicent’s) cremated remains in a tea caddy, Dan tells her that there’s a set of words that can’t be spoonerized: “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Some things just can’t spoon, and there’s no getting around it.” This causes Tot to ponder the logistics of cremation and how it’s possible for fire to “turn a damp body into dust and ashes.”

She could accept the crematorium’s fire turning old skin and hair – even bones – to dust, but what about the dampness of flesh, of blood? And what about those really big bones? Like the pelvis? What about Grandma’s gold tooth? What about the screws from Grandma’s hip replacement? And the hip itself? Would it have melted and smooshes pink all over the ashes like plastic bottles did in the garden incinerator?

Unlike Hamlet’s fixation on the personalities and social statuses of the dusty dead, Tot focuses on the radical alteration of the dead body itself, giving the passage a very materialistic vibe. I always say that the blunt corpse is the best argument for nihilism, but Moby-Dick’s Ishmael insists that “Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope,” contrasting Baudelaire’s final “the worm shall gnaw thy cheek.” Talk of corpses turned to dust, faith feeding in graveyards and hope in spite of gnawing worms.

We’re such liars when it comes to death. We keep kids from funerals and placate ourselves with images of Rainbow Bridges and Pearly Gates. The dead are wrapped in white shrouds and graduate to angelic robes and wings. I’m not sure where I stand on the idea of what comes next, but whatever comes next, it comes after the reality of death: hard-fleshed, black-and-blue death. The body falls down and unlike the animals who walk away from or feed upon it, we hide it in boxes and cover it in flowers. If we knew death, we might love life more.


David: Dan’s foot phobia makes the fourth chapter stand out for me. Even the feet of his late wife horrified him. In fact, his disgust for feet is wrapped up in her cruel nature and apparent sadism. Now, I doubt that such a specific and odd detail isn’t cut from whole cloth, so where did it come from? Your own aversion, perhaps? As an outspoken female-foot fetishist (only visually, mind you) who finds intense sexiness in a woman’s feet, has made pedal lust a central part of his latest book and considers the feet to be the hands of the legs, I need to know.

(Smile!) I hate all adult feet. Hate them with a vengeance. I bet I’d hate even Jude Law’s feet. My sister used to pin me down on the stairs with her feet. She would trap my skinny little neck between her big toe and the next one. I can see her with her pale legs and freckly calves. It makes me want to slap her – even today. I like paws and claws, and I even quite like little baby feet, but grownup feet make me heave. And we’re moving into summer and the season for flip-flops and cargo shorts and I just want to throw up. So, yes. My own aversion.


David: In chapter 17 you reveal the reason behind the novel’s title, the concept of “The Beginning Things,” which refers to the evolutionary process of romantic human intimacy: Asking Questions about Unimportant Things, Paying of Compliments, Asker Pays, the 90-day Walking Away and Thinking About Everything (which Tot truncates to The Month of Walking Backwards) – and, finally, Walking Back. Tell us how you devised this relationship primer.

I’m ten years clean and sober and owe much of that to my following (obsessively, of course) a 12-step program. I was intrigued by the idea of clear directions and how they can be useful when we attempt to master new things. I mean, recipes have numbered steps; Google directions have numbered steps; in a way, each of our birthdays is a numbered step. And look at the havoc caused by assembly instructions for bookcases that rely on stupid exploded views and letters rather than on good old numbered steps. I knew Dan would be heading into the rooms of AA, and I wanted Tot’s “recovery” to mirror his experience somehow. So I had them both follow “steps.” Hence the dedication to “Bill” at the beginning of the book. Bill Wilson is a huge part of my own recovery.


David: Dan advises Tot to never “let [boys] know what you want up front” and to “never say ‘love’ to a boy.” I can’t help but link this to Elaine’s disgusted summation of men in the previous chapter, following Dan’s very inappropriate drunken sexual advances: “All of them fools, a waste of bloody space.” Often, a decent person’s fall from grace nauseates more than the predictable offenses of a jerk. That chapter ends with these telling lines: “It was easier this way. No arguments. No men in the game. No complications.” This contrasts the rather pleasant chemistry between Elaine and Simon, and, more starkly, your portrayal of kind, virginal, doting Keesal and his longing for Tot. For a long time Tot doesn’t reciprocate Keesal’s feelings: “[S]he had never thought of him as boyfriend material. Never. Never. Ever.” Oh, the agony of the world’s Keesals! Rakish Gareth Strands tend to be favored by Eros. In my experience, more men seek exclusive love, while more women tend to avoid monogamous – let alone matrimonial – situations. I found some validation for this insight when I read Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men a few years ago:

To put it crudely, now feminist progress is largely dependent on hook-up culture. To a surprising degree, it is women – not men – who are perpetuating the culture…Today’s college girl likens a serious suitor to an accidental pregnancy in the nineteenth century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it thwart a promising future.

Though the aversion for the “good guy” has always been a bane for good guys (just as bimbos and femmes fatales have always outshined girls next door), is the non-monogamous thing a matter of only perspective, or has there really been a table-turning in men’s and women’s romantic sensitivities?

I think this is just the natural swinging of the sexual pendulum. I was a teenager of the 1970s. I saw the pill not as a liberation from sexual repression but a liberation from potential pregnancy. I saw feminism and its fight for equal rights as a new and shiny possibility. I was sexually active because it was expected of me by men, and even with Germaine Greer in my corner, I couldn’t work out how to say no. “Seen and not heard”: that was the yoke placed upon me by family and working class sensibilities. As an educator in the early 2000s, I saw young women demanding equal billing with men on the sexual playbill. I think they got it. The pendulum swings. But it swings back, too: I fear feminism is now seen by young women as somehow unnecessary, an anachronism, an odd thing their grandmothers fought about back in the day. That scares me, that women might have sexual liberation today without the enduring benefits of equality.

I think I was a Bimbo Fatales. I knew nothing.


David: In A Short History of England G.K. Chesterton says “the past is not what it was,” and that line is the first thing I thought of after reading the following aphoristic line from the eleventh chapter of The Beginning Things: “Only those who have travelled too far from childhood define it as a place of simple innocence.” This is one of those statements that become more complex once they’re really considered. Is this similar to the still-popular myth of the 1950s as some golden and pure-snowy social era? Tell us more about this concept.

By the time I was ten, I had learned many things:

How to avoid being singled out in the school playground and beaten with sticks and fists.
How to beat others with sticks and fists in order to escape being beaten with sticks and fists.
That women have to force small human beings out from between their legs.
That women bleed every month.
That boys wanted to touch my body and that some would do so whether I wanted them to or not.
That “almost-men” wanted to touch my body and that some would do so whether I wanted them to or not.
That the people I loved most in the world would die horrible and tragic deaths.
That the answers to the questions I needed answering would be given to me only when I had “grown up” and that until then, I would have to soldier on in silence and ignorance.
There is precious little innocence in childhood. I think it resides in adulthood under the pseudonym Denial.

David Herrle interviews Todd Tarbox, author of ORSON WELLES AND ROGER HILL

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David: I can’t tell you how delighted I was to discover Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts. You had me at…ahem…Hill and O. It’s mentioned in Patrick McGilligan’s astute Young Orson biography, which is quite an honor. Unlike the transcript-style This is Orson Welles and My Lunches With Orson, your book is presented in dramatic form, featuring engrossing phone calls between Welles and your grandfather, Roger “Skipper” Hill, and elevating their private discussions into art. Why did you decide to do the book this way, and how did you manage to, as you say, “tighten and, on occasion, rearrange their exchanges?” This format decision set the stage – ahem – for the planned production of a play adaptation. Did you have a future play in mind from the beginning?

Todd: Thank you for your generous appraisal of my book, which chronicles the remarkable six-decade relationship that began in 1927, when Orson enrolled at the Todd Seminary for Boys, a private boarding school in Woodstock, Illinois, where Roger Hill, was a faculty member and soon to become the headmaster.

The truth is that I’m not responsible for, as you say, “elevating their private discussions into art.” The “art” emanates from their dazzling minds and adroit tongues. To add texture to their discussions, I wove pertinent flashbacks, incorporating snippets from their letters, newspaper articles, plays and speeches. Often their conversations would lead down myriad paths with not infrequent digressions (fascinating digressions, I might add) that often led away from the central subject(s) they were discussing. My tightening involved removing a number of these asides, perhaps to be included in a second play one day. My infrequent – I emphasize infrequent – rearrangement of their exchanges occurred when a topic, such as Orson’s years at Todd, was discussed during several telephone conversations.

Yes, from the first moment my grandfather shared with me his telephone calls and voluminous correspondence with Orson over the years, I was convinced their unique relationship would translate well onto the stage and screen. [Photo below: Welles visiting the Todd School in 1948, with Skipper seated at the right]


David: This remarkable relationship began at the excellent Todd School for Boys, which, according to Simon Callow, “provided the hothouse in which Orson Welles’s exotic talents bloomed.” By the time Skipper became headmaster, Todd was an eclectic wellspring of “creative creators,” as you put it, and Skipper himself described the school as “nutty” and “unique,” adjectives that also apply to Welles. Hascy Tarbox, your father, and Skipper’s son-in-law, rather insightfully observed that Todd provided the zealous individualist with “unquestioned approval by the authority.” Beyond being an accomplished author, educator and genealogical relative to Skipper Hill, you’ve also had the privilege of attending Todd. Please share some of your recollections of that time and place. And please tell us what you think of the magnitude of Todd for the youth who would become Orson Welles. 

I attended Todd from first through fourth grade. The school was closed in 1954, and my family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The school’s philosophy was based on the premise that every youngster is born a creator. The challenge for each student, with the assistance of the faculty, was to develop creative talents and discover how to apply them in and out of the classroom. 

This quest was vastly enhanced by providing every Todd boy with dozens of creative, intellectual and athletic avenues to explore. The school was involved in making dramatic and comic films, as well as documentaries and travelogues. Even before Orson arrived on campus, the school was involved in the theater.  As a result of Orson’s influence, Todd built a sound studio and a number of the student-written-and-directed radio programs were aired over FM stations throughout the Midwest. Athletics was another high priority at Todd. The typical student played several sports, and, given the relatively small student body, there were few bench warmers. Developing an active mind and body were twin touchstones at Todd.

My father, who enrolled at Todd several years after Orson and later joined the faculty, wrote of the school:

Pleasure was blended with responsibility…Skipper tried to put a mature, interesting and exciting face on whatever ventures the kid pursued. It worked because an awful lot of youngsters who graduated from this place named their first-born son Todd. Todd was a wonderful blend of self-directed, creative programs and a rather hard-nosed academic curriculum…Todd was an extraordinary place. It was fifty to seventy-five years ahead of itself as far as educational philosophy…The secret of life that was espoused at Todd was to do something that you wanted to do. And just about every guy who went to Todd has wound up doing just about what he wanted to do. The Todd School for Boys was an incredible moment in time.

What made the Todd School for Boys such an inviting and invigorating place and moment in time was due in large measure to Skipper. Emerson observed wisely that “An Institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”  Though the school closed its doors in 1954, Skipper’s shadow remains vivid for those who had the great fortune of living within his umbra.

One could argue that the Todd School was the only period in Orson’s life where he enjoyed sustained and unqualified success and security. How important was Todd and the Hills to Orson the boy and man? Both were essential in encouraging him to develop and demonstrate his myriad gifts to ever expanding audiences. Todd and the Hills allowed him unfettered creative freedom permitting him to successfully soar in so many directions. Orson’s prelapsarian and prolific years at Todd came to an end after five years, but the memory this halcyon time and place remained green for the rest of his life. Most important, the wellspring of his joy at Todd, my grandparents, never left him. They became his devoted foster parents who provided him no small degree of emotional ballast and joy throughout his life. [Photo below: Young Welles as a Todd student, fourth from the left]

David: A lovely excerpt from your book:

Roger: “I’m a Goddamn bluffer and the only talent I ever had was that people, many of whom were brighter than I, liked me.”
Orson: “It’s because you’re brighter than you think you are…[Y]ou formed the idea that the cute way to get around in the world was to underplay yourself…”

Next to Todd, Skipper is probably the most essential factor in the evolution of Welles. Though 20 years his senior, Skipper maintained an enviable youthfulness and was, according to Hascy, “the adolescent’s adolescent.” While you’ve admitted that Welles was destined for excellence, you believe that his “real existence would have been greatly diminished” if the two had never met. Whether it was unconditional encouragement, exalting in a mutual love of Shakespeare or providing finances, Skipper was Welles’ main tailwind. It does seem that Welles was guilty of benign exploitation of his mentor and other loved ones in his life, including his other surrogate father, Maurice “Dadda” Bernstein, thanks to his adeptness at affection manipulation. Barbara Leaming believed that Welles “played on the rivalry between his mentors” and even caricatured the triangle in Bright Lucifer. Was there an actual rivalry between Skipper and Dadda? Do you think that your grandfather gets the lionization he deserves? Also, with Skipper comes his wife, the remarkable Hortense. What can you share about her?

Todd: There was absolutely no rivalry between my grandfather and Maurice Bernstein. Early in their relationship, when Dr. Bernstein enrolled Orson in the fall of 1927 at Todd, they respected one another, personally and professionally, and over the years that Orson attended Todd their respect grew into friendship. They both appreciated Orson’s unique mind and spirit, desiring that the young “genius” make the most of his creative talents. Upon the death of Orson’s father, Richard Welles, fifteen-year-old Orson asked my grandfather to be his guardian.  Skipper shared with me that he responded: “To do so would break Dadda’s heart. He has known and adored you since you were an infant. You must choose Dadda.” Which Orson did. However, over the years that followed, selecting Dr. Bernstein proved to be somewhat problematic for Orson. [Photo below: Young Welles, Maurice “Dadda” Bernstein, Edith Mason, Hortense Hill and Skipper Hill – October 9, 1929]


My grandfather and Dr. Bernstein provided guidance and affection to young Orson. Bernstein’s was often conditional and overbearing, while my grandfather’s support was unconditional and easygoing. In This is Orson Welles Orson tells Peter Bogdanovich: “I’d say the biggest influence was Roger Hill. He’s still a great, valued friend…I can’t imagine life without him, and I go 10 years without seeing him, but it doesn’t seem like ten years, because I think of him all the time. He was a great direct influence in my life – the biggest by all odds. I wanted to be like him. Everything he thought, I wanted to think, and that wasn’t true of Dr. Bernstein.”

My charismatic grandfather was never in want of being lionized. He possessed the mind of a serious scholar and the heart of a sprightly child, and he was adored by Todd students and faculty for more than four decades. My grandmother, Hortense was as intelligent and spry as her husband. They enjoyed sixty-six years of marriage until my grandmother died in 1982 at the age of 87. At Hortense’s memorial Orson eulogized:

Of everyone I’ve known, she was the most truly passionate. Yes, passionate in every good meaning of a word I choose with care. Other great and good souls may be described as warm or warm-hearted. That’s too tepid sounding for Hortense. Warm is a word for comfort and consolation. The word for her was Heat. Fire. The very element itself. She has gone away and left a black hole in our universe. And yet to mourn is to remember. That shining, vivid, marvelously living presence is back with us again and our hearts are stabbed with happiness. For just to think of her can never be anything but an occasion for joy.

 [Photo below: Hortense and Skipper]

David: Skipper’s conscientious wisdom certainly shaped Orson’s approach to artistic collaboration for the better. Hascy’s words at Skipper’s 1990 memorial are paramount: “You were one of the chosen if you were fortunate enough to have worked with him. For those who did, he bequeathed the greatest gift one man can bestow upon another, the capacity to make you feel important…” That rings like what Welles-protégé Gary Graver said about Welles in his memoir: “[Y]ou always felt as though you were a collaborator, no matter how small your job might have been.”
However, a contrary Hascy quotation about Orson’s precocious directorial power over a Todd production of Twelfth Night appears in your book: “[H]e left absolutely no latitude, no tolerance for self-expression.” Yes, Welles denied collectivist moviemaking and extolled directorial dictatorship, but the obstinate auteur also could be an embracive, even flattering collaborator. In his Marilyn biography Norman Mailer says that facts “always attract polar facts,” so were both Hascy and Graver correct?

Todd:  Possibly so. Orson became surer of himself as a director and actor on the stage and on radio in New York in the 1930s and early 1940s. Observe this exchange between Orson and Skipper:

Orson: There is an actor I know who doesn’t think much of me, who goes on for three pages saying, “I’ve never heard Orson Welles raise his voice or say any unkind thing to an actor in my life.”
Roger: Well, that’s a little overdoing it.
Orson: No, it’s true.
Roger: Really?
Orson: Yes, you’re thinking of my directing the Todd boys. I do all my mean talk to the people behind the camera. Anybody who has to perform in front of the public is treated with great deference. I take it out on poor assistant directors, and usually for the benefit of the actors, to show them what they could be getting.

David: Hascy Tarbox has been presented as a negative rival to Orson Welles, even by Hascy himself (in a sense): “I think that I hold the record for being the longest burr under Orson’s saddle.” Callow called him Welles’ “arch-enemy,” Leaming claimed that Welles was adamantly against her talking to him, and Welles referred to him as “that bastard.” Denying Orson-envy, Hascy believed that the envy was Orson’s, perhaps for Hascy’s remaining at the Edenic Todd School, which he guessed “was the only security that Orson ever had”. A Renaissance man in his own right (he was a rather talented painter, for one), Hascy needn’t have been envious, and this is validated by your praise of him in the book:

Like Orson, my father’s creativity knew no bounds. He could do anything with his head and hands: paint, sculpt, write, act, direct, build anything. Like Candide, he spent a considerable amount of time on life’s small stage tending his garden wisely and devotedly.

It seems that your father, like Welles, has been enigmatized by history’s combers, and I feel that he doesn’t belong among the real and perceived villains surrounding Welles. Please provide a clearer picture of the real Hascy Tarbox.

Todd: My father strode the world with grace, wit, confidence and intelligence. With an artist’s eye, he gleaned and recorded much during his seventy-three years.  Dad lived a life that was rollicking and reflective, as well as perceptive and articulate – be the medium paint, clay, wood or words. His letters, many illustrated with his clever sketches, effervesce with a vigorous toast to life. He created in myriad mediums, but, in the final analysis, he was his greatest creation.

After looking at an exhibit of Dad’s paintings, the naturalist and writer, Roger Caras, said of my father’s work: “The big difference between Mr. Tarbox and the bulk of the material I see is that Mr. Tarbox is really good. He has something to say about our natural world that people need to see and read! He is a designer, certainly, and he is an illustrator as well, but, not to put either of those fine skills down, he adds a dimension of excitement to his work that makes it art of a different kind. There is some magic here.” Dad was truly a magical presence. [Photo below: painting by Hascy Tarbox]

David: Far from being weak for adapting other writers’ material, Welles excelled at innovation, savant-like theatricality and meticulous editing. He even made Shakespeare his own, and his blunders (including the jumbled puzzle Mr. Arkadin) still dazzle. His work also has been and is incomprehensible to many people. For instance, Skipper observed that “[The Magnificent] Ambersons was just too dark and troubling for a public that wanted to be entertained and not enlightened,” which jibes with Charles Higham’s take on the same film: “[F]or intellectuals not dominated by a need to identify at a cinema performance, the film works beautifully; for the common run of people, it works far less well.” In a discussion about The Trial, Welles justified his work’s designed difficulty: “[Y]ou are supposed to have a very unpleasant time.” He also said that his “films are as black as the black hole.” In other words, Welles’ basically melancholic, fragmentary and surrealistic cinema isn’t Capra or Spielberg. How do you rate his filmography, and what might be the most profound benefits of their legacy?

Todd: What is most laudable in life and in art: quantity or quality? I opt for the latter. Leonardo da Vinci – one of the greatest minds in recorded history, a gifted scientist, engineer, mathematician, inventor, architect, writer, sculptor and painter – was the consummate embodiment of the “Renaissance man.” He is most celebrated for his art. His Last Supper, Mona Lisa and Vitruvian Man are a testament to his genius. Is he any less a genius because he wasn’t a prolific painter and fewer than twenty of his paintings are known to exist? 

Johannes Vermeer, one of the most lauded painters of the Dutch Golden Age, left the world only 34 paintings, while many of his contemporaries were far more prolific painters and whose work is far less memorable. Should the paucity of his painting damn him? Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was the best-selling novelist of the 19th century. Its affecting and effecting abolitionist theme is credited with being an important catalyst in starting the Civil War. She wrote more than two dozen other books in her lifetime, including Little Pussy Willow and The Minister’s Wooing, which were modest literary shadows compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Has history damned her because none of her other books achieved such universal approbation?  

Curiously, many who look at Orson’s work as a director admit his genius that is unarguably evident in Citizen Kane, but are quick to disparage him for never (in their minds) approaching the quality of his first film. Had Orson only written, directed and acted in Kane, his contribution to filmography would be considerable. Welles left the world cinematic quality, not quantity. Had he not been such a maverick or had he adequate financing, who knows how many more memorable films he would have left the world? A feckless imponderable, that. Orson’s provocative, profound, and kaleidoscopic “ribbon of dreams” is his enduring legacy. [Photo below: still from The Lady From Shanghai]

David: Welles believed that an artist’s product should speak louder than his or her own life, and he hated that “people today scrutinize an artist’s personality, crowing over his mistakes, his human failings” instead of his or her work. This is why he expressed relief that the dearth of knowledge of Shakespeare and Cervantes liberates their work from befuddlement. Regardless, deciphering artists’ Rosebuds is in our nature, and, ironically, Orson’s art and Orson (who was both Kane and Quinlan, both Lear and Falstaff) seem indivisible, so I ask: How do you sum up the man? And what do you think about the importance or non-importance of the relation between art and artist?

Todd: Summing up Orson, Marlene Dietrich reflected eloquently: “When I talk to him, I feel like a tree that has been watered. You should cross yourself when you say his name.” High praise, richly deserved. It seems to me that art and the artist are one. They are inseparable.

David Herrle interviews Megan Volpert on 1976

1976 cover 2published by Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016

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Illustrations ©Asher Haig

Annoying Introduction

Megan Volpert’s new book, 1976, is jam-packed and overflowing with allusions, anecdotes and parallels, making it both richly enjoyable and exhausting. Lukewarm readers won’t (and shouldn’t) have an easy time with it. There’s very little downtime – if at all, which is to be expected from such a fellow bricolagic brain or “a full head like mine,” as she herself puts it.

Including a famous and infamous cast of pols (George Wallace, JFK, Jerry Brown, Nixon, Kissinger, Gerald Ford, Carter, Reagan and so on), there’s a wide political focus that’s summarized and evaluated through rather liberal eyes, something that I don’t usually mind, though it’s tiresome that many folks (not necessarily this author) tend to be vigilant against the fascist under every bush while overlooking the commie in every tree. Perhaps Lester Bangs, who gets slapped around in 1976, put it best: “[T]hose hysterical paranoid Left-er New Left idiots are just as much to blame as anybody.”  However, 1976 doesn’t stack the deck too much, and many of her observations are worthy and careful, if not right on.

For some reason, one of the parts of the book that impressed and riled me most was Volpert’s excellent analysis and juxtaposition of Marilyn Monroe and Debbie Harry. I found myself getting somewhat defensive on Marilyn’s behalf, which is perhaps part of the whole problem of how people (men and women) tended to treat Marilyn: as something to be saved, from others and from herself.

What I like most about 1976 is the potpourri: Volpert’s deftness in orchestrating a shitload of historical and cultural episodes and tidbits, sometimes unexpectedly and refreshingly unpredictably. One minute she offers an aphoristic line such as “I feel strongly that every person should own a good hoodie,” and the next minute she admits to conflating Raymond Carver with John Cheever (at least it wasn’t Raymond Chandler or Garry Shandling or Chelsea Handler). She spiels about Ron Kovic’s well-known Born on the Fourth of July and even mentions undersung sci-fi author Samuel Delany. (For readers who are, as Volpert phrases it in the book, “into weird voodoo numerology shit,” Delany’s psychedelic and enthralling The Einstein Intersection was published in 1967, the last two numbers of which are 76 reversed). There are Pol Pot and Bob Dylan, Ayn Rand and George Wallace, The Ramones and Rush’s Geddy Lee, Francis Maloy, Jr. and the Son of Sam, Jane Curtin and John Belushi, racing greats Niki Lauda and James Hunt – and even the ghost of Carson McCullers. In other words, 1976 would be an indexer’s effing nightmare.

As usual, I let out my long winds full of devil’s advocates and contextual pedantry, and Volpert responded and rebutted with her usual deftness. And, as usual, she delivered some welcome bitch-slaps, one of them reminding me of a poignant, even affecting passage dedicated to her beloved grandfather (Bapa), which I neglected in a question about her seeming shortage of literary heartstrings. (Sorry, Bapa!) Anyway, I hope this strange exchange makes for a unique read that might result in some collateral knowledge. Knowledge without monumental confirmations or closure, that is. Interviews – like novels, like memoirs, like lectures, like drunken texts, like barbershop gossip – are really just a lot of gab, after all. Let Volpert say it better here: “The importance never arrives though. These things are really about process over product, which is symbolic of our collective human journeying throughout blah blah blah.”


David: Superior to the irritable-bowel 1960s, the tacky 1980s and the truly barf-worthy 1990s, the 1970s is, to me, a culturally brilliant decade (if not just for Columbo and Pink Floyd), so I quite welcomed a book on the era. From 1976’s prologue:

My bag is more about induction, analytics. You pour in the facts and the gumbo gets to simmering pretty quickly. So I’m not worried that these paragraphs will contain too many I-statements for a treatise on a time when I did not even exist. It can’t be a retrospective. It’s a retrospeculative.

In a way that can be taken as poking fun at your own egotism, Gore Vidal’s 1876 novel is evoked: “You have to have real cojones to title your book with just the year, to harpoon your personal human flag into the still-moving beast of time and claim your interpretation of that freeze-frame as the ultimate word on the subject.” Is this evocation self-deprecatory? What about that time before your time fascinates you? How does retrospeculative differ from restrospective?

Megan: Yes, the Vidal comparison is self-deprecatory on my head and straight deprecatory on his head. This whole book project actually began as a kind of joke. Books that are simply titled after the year that they are about tend to be huge hits in the marketplace. To care about that is, in the minds of many writers and readers, to cut against the current of authenticity that essayists are generally expected to maintain. But I’ve always had a fondness for Vidal’s minute hypocrisies, the showiness and almost character-acting implicit in much of his writing voice. Plus, his books end up next to mine on shelves a lot, so there is an odd spatial connection that has always drawn me.

The time before my time doesn’t necessarily fascinate me. I try to be forward-looking, but history interests me as far as the art of telling its story. When history is not written by the victors, it’s written by the rebels. As a teenager, I was keen on some mix of Dave Barry and Howard Zinn. As a young adult, I got into Thompson and Wolfe and gonzo journalism generally, beginning to see my own present as the history of the future. I can’t really go head-on with factual writing; that doesn’t interest me as a writerly pursuit. As a reader, I invest tons of time in straightforward non-fiction, like I’m a big fan of Rick Perlstein. But as a writer I enjoy that more speculative territory, recording snapshots of my own life in the stream of time as if at some future point it will have mattered alongside bands and elections and other things that are more self-evidently powerful in their moment than I am. I insert myself – unasked, full of ambition toward better futures. Like Vidal, I aim to hold it down mainly just by demonstrating I have the big balls to do so. Or more like Fran Lebowitz.


David: Your favorite movie is Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (the 1990s’ American Graffiti), which is conveniently set in 1976. Though I prefer SubUrbia, his more psychoanalytical overnight saga (which elevates both Parker Posey’s and Nicky Katt’s roles), I think Dazed immortalizes an era as deftly as Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, and I like how it favors character over plot, as Linklater prefers. Your play-by-play annotation of the movie is quite remarkable, and I share your adulation of Parker Posey: “Kneel before the sound of every ultra-hot cheerleader queen you have ever met, whose first words are, ‘Wake up, bitch!’” Please spiel about the movie, Linklater, high-school – and the almighty Parker Posey.

Megan: I liked SubUrbia, but actually I don’t think of it as part of Linklater’s oeuvre because he didn’t write it; he directed it and it’s based on that play by Eric Bogosian. School of Rock, which I also loved, also seems categorically different from movies that Linklater wrote. Both those movies have great soundtracks though. There is so much Sonic Youth on the SubUrbia soundtrack. The “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused came out a few month ago, and I’ve written about that here.

My favorite Parker Posey movie is House of Yes. I’m working on an essay about that, for a book project with performance artist Craig Gingrich-Philbrook. The book is about why we have aborted certain ideas for shows over the years. When I was at LSU, I wanted to do a freaky black box adaptation of House of Yes and it didn’t pan out for many reasons. I actually dislike the scripts for many things Posey has been in, but I respect her overall commitment to mainly making independent films and when she nails it, she nails it. Nicky Katt hasn’t gotten as much traction, which I think is a shame. He’s always a great villain; there’s something in his face that says so and I admire anyone who gives off their own weird vibe so effortlessly.


David: Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a film that’s emblematic of a nihilistic strain in 1970s cinema (countered by teleological Star Wars), also premiered in your pet year, and your observation that Travis Bickle “stands out by choice” is apt. Slavoj Zizek thinks Bickle, in pulling the trigger on himself literally and figuratively after the brothel massacre (a scene you highlight in the book), acts out the Lacanian mirror stage, signifying his basic realization that he also is part of the city’s scum. However, despite his hypocrisy and racism, isn’t Travis somewhat admirable in trying to “rescue” Iris? And isn’t he sympathetic in that he, like Shakespeare’s Lear, piteously can’t relate to females, and in his being a confused societal casualty exploited by the world’s Palatines? Are this film and the decade quintessentially linked? And have you seen this generation’s Taxi Driver: Nightcrawler?

Bonus point for Zizek reference. I instantly approved of my niece’s boyfriend based solely on the fact that he could talk to me about Zizek for ten minutes. Actually, I have a theory that Zizek is not one guy, but a collective of a dozen or so people all writing under the one pseudonym. He publishes on too many subjects too much too widely too quickly – and hey, for me to say that is really saying something because I’m a nightmare of proliferation according to anybody who ever went to grad school with me.

I haven’t seen Nightcrawler. My watch list is even more out of control than my listen list, and the listen list current has eighty-seven bullets on it. But your questions about my seeming lack of sympathy for Travis Bickle are pretty leading. You tipped me off with the scare quotes around “rescue.” I want to ask: what is rescue? To save someone from harm? To “save” is a tricky deliverable to evaluate; I know that as a high school teacher. I prefer something closer to tikkun olam, the idea that good deeds repair the world. Bickle himself does not appear to be invested in any notion of repair, even of the chauvinistic white knight variety. Also, I think it would do far more harm than good if we were to extend sympathy to everyone we might classify as “piteously can’t relate to females.” But Taxi Driver is part of the nihilistic strain in 1970s movies, as you say, and I have an endless sympathy for that as a human predicament.


David: Even Rush and their 2112 album get retrospeculated. Rush used to be my favorite band long ago – but no songs about sex? WTF? Their former Ayn Rand association being considered an unforgivable sin does bug me, and, though the uptight, prickly prig would snub me as a shoegazing decadent, I think Rand herself is often misestimated and the popular total denial of her worth as a philosophical writer sucks. (There is honey among the bees.) Regardless, not only was Neil Peart’s interest really Objectivism-lite, but a lot of Rush songs contradict Objectivist tenets. Despite your basic disdain for Rand, you give credit where you think it’s due in this passage about 2112‘s birth:

The band had released far too many concept tracks and nothing approaching commercial blockbuster viability, but they convinced [Mercury Records] to give them one last chance. Rather than deliver the mainstream album they had promised, Rush decided to double down on the things they loved and somehow it all gelled together perfectly in the nick of time. Thusly, 2112 was born through a basic unwillingness to follow the instructions of corporate overlords. It is the same feeling that threads throughout Ayn Rand’s work and in particular adheres closely to the plot of Anthem.

For me, Rush’s prime was from Permanent Waves to Roll the Bones, so I don’t really like 2112, but your analysis of the album is great. Why do you consider it to be “Rush’s greatest work?” And why do you think Peart is “a self-righteous jackass?”

Megan: Roll the Bones is a great album, and “Roll the Bones” is unquestionably more stable, more timeless philosophical ground than any of the lyrics on 2112. But Roll the Bones didn’t come out in 1976, so you see my problem. If I’m going to make substantial meaning out of every major album in any given year, there’s going to be a lot of bullshit transitions imparting a certain profundity to those subjects. I like the way 2112 hangs together as a concept and a complete story. I like that it’s so clearly adapted from a short novel and that it so substantially rewrites the ending of that novel. I don’t think it’s “Rush’s greatest work,” but I sure did say that in the book. Now you’re on to me – again. As well you already know, it’s never safe to assume that my entire narration is reliable, even where it hangs its hat on the factual or actual. A fat historical analysis like 1976 requires a certain quantity of pompous lead-ins, of which the Rush pronouncement is indeed one. I’m like Odysseus; tie me up, because I’ll say anything when the sirens are in striking distance.


David: Aside from being an iconic percussionist, Neil Peart is a motorcycle enthusiast and author of some thoughtful motorcycle travelogues, which provides me with this kickass segue to one of the book‘s lovely motorcycle passages, which rings like something out of Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels:

The aerometry, the experience of air pressure when riding a motorcycle is the thing about the experience that makes it unlike any other thing you can do. We forget that we live constantly submerged in atoms, because most of those particles are invisible. When I’m driving a bike, those tiny pieces gather themselves into a wall, and I can tell the difference between forty and eighty by the amount of force that ghost substance applies to my breastplate.

Your exuberance for being “the lucky bastard sitting on that iron horse” (as you put it in Only Ride) is almost infectious enough to convince me to helmet up. Please tell us how you decided to break your youthful promise to your mother and hit the slab as a “flesh and steel android creature.”

Megan: Thank you! Yes, I very much enjoy Peart’s thoughts on motorcycles. He beats the pants off Robert Pirsig, though that’s a low bar to set. When I was growing up in Chicago, public transportation was enough. In Baton Rouge, I just mooched rides everywhere for a couple of years. Once I settled in Atlanta, where public transport sucks and most people move more slowly than I want to, some form of wheels became a necessity. Picking a bike over a car was super easy; my early negative experiences with cars appear in 1976 also. Breaking the promise to my mother that I’d never drive a bike was just gravy. Hey, promises to one’s parents are made to be broken. That’s evolution. Like it is for Peart, the motorcycle has long been my best stab at religion.

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David: ZZ Top gets great praise in 1976. I love that those tres hombres can jam about “tube snakes” and “pearl necklaces,” and then belt out something as tender as “Rough Boy.” Those guys are certainly dyed-in-the-beard horndogs, “just cars and pussy,” as you put it, and such straightforwardness is appreciated:

Whatever his personal political convictions, Billy Gibbons sticks to the script at a ZZ Top show. It’s just cars and pussy…If it’s any more serious than that, then shut the hell up. I went to fucking graduate school, you know, so I do comprehend completely how the personal is necessarily also the political, but I just do not believe that rock and roll must be personal. Sometimes the tighter you rock, the emptier you get, and with a full head like mine, sometimes that’s a blessing.

Right on! I love Jello Biafra, The Clash, the Minutemen and Midnight Oil, but I prefer politics-free music, cringing with Johnny Ramone at Joey Ramone’s politicism and cheering Kurt Cobain’s stated hope “to come across more personal than political.” What do you mean by “the personal is necessarily also the political?” (Isn’t dictatorship the ultimate personal politics?) How did you come to love ZZ Top?

Megan: Johnny Ramone voted for Nixon and was a lifelong NRA supporter. Nirvana played many benefit concerts that supported fundraising and local ballot initiatives against rape and homophobia. Kurt Cobain’s humanitarian politics were constantly on display, as well as his more ambivalent anti-corporate stance. “Cars and pussy” is a matter of distancing. I’m sure Billy Gibbons has a lot of deep thoughts on numerous subjects. But the key phrase from the passage you excerpt is really “sticks to the script.” Political bands, a la Tom Morello, just for example, have one kind of script. Apolitical bands have a different script. This goes back to what I said about Gore Vidal earlier; there’s a kind of acting involved, whether you want to keep to alleged lowly topics like hotrods or you want to talk about alleged elevated topics like an AIDS epidemic.

I don’t remember how I came to love ZZ Top. I was born in 1981, so probably I first encountered them through MTV’s music videos. Also, not to let your parenthetical question slip by: this is rhetorical sleight of hand accomplished by a small change in syntax. I don’t know what the hell “personal politics” is. I guess if one person only cares about himself and that person is in charge, for example Donald Trump, that’s a personal politics that is also a dictatorship. But I said, “the personal is necessarily the political,” which simply means that the things I do every day have a wider impact on the world that I should perhaps take time to consider. For example, if as a teacher I decide I am bored with teaching subject-verb agreement every year and I want to stop teaching it, then in a generation, there will be several hundred fewer people who achieve subject-verb agreement. There might be consequences if subject-verb agreement is no longer a thing, so I should think about how my selfish avoidance of the topic may have wider negative results.


David: Billy Gibbons was two-hand tapping on the guitar strings before Eddie Van Halen popularized it, which reminds me to ask: Do you dig Van Halen, ZZ Top’s fellow cock-rockers? If so: Roth or Hagar? (I swing both ways.)

Megan: Under no circumstances would I put Van Halen in the same category as ZZ Top. The three guys that signed ZZ Top’s first recording contract in 1970 are the same three guys who have toured continuously as ZZ Top for nearly forty years. I don’t care whatsoever about Roth versus Hagar; the whole feud is ruinous and sets a bad example for younger bands. Eddie Van Halen is a very talented guitarist, but Billy Gibbons just smokes him. I prefer blues and slide, sorry. Gene Simmons of KISS actually produced Van Halen’s demo in 1976, so I had the chance to talk about the band extensively, but I passed.


David: A fascinating passage in 1976 reveals an unflattering assessment of Marilyn Monroe:

The other day, I found myself embroiled in an argument with my father-in-law concerning the intellectual abilities of Marilyn Monroe. He said she was above average in the smarts department and I said she probably wasn’t. At first, his main warrant for this absurd claim was that we should take a look at her husband because Arthur Miller wouldn’t marry a dummy.

Though I’m a Garbolator rather than a Monroebot, I think both underestimation and overestimation of Marilyn are bad. Sure, Saul Bellow said she “conduct[ed] herself like a philosopher,” but undermining terms such as “childlike sex goddess” (Gloria Steinem), “child-girl” (Norman Mailer), “beautiful child” (Capote) and even “baby whore” (Pauline Kael) have been dominant since her demise. Not that Marilyn was a deferred Atwood or Streep, but I trust Sarah Churchwell when she calls her “a greater Gatsby” and pierces the Dumb Blonde perception: “The biggest myth is that she was dumb. The second is that she was fragile. The third is that she couldn’t act.” Contrarily, you perceptively ask: “[I]f she was the total package and couldn’t maintain, what chance do the rest of us schmucks have?” This happens to echo Steinem on Marilyn: “How dare she be just as vulnerable and unconfident as I felt?” Basically, Marilyn offends you for not taking advantage of her advantage:

So if I give her the benefit of the doubt, I’m trapped with a version of history where a woman who was empowered by both her body and her mind could’ve had all the success of which she dreamed so ambitiously, but instead allowed herself to be subjugated to the position of sex symbol until coping with the emptiness inside herself required so many drugs that she torched her own rise to stardom and died in the weakest way at the least opportune moment…I’d rather believe she was a little too dumb to handle it and she just lost control over her own trajectory. I don’t want to believe that Marilyn Monroe was a picture of the consummate professional, full of intellect and common sense, who nevertheless cracked.

Might both “greater Gatsby” and Dumb Blonde be true? As for Marilyn’s (questionable) suicide, Sexton and Plath also killed themselves, so were they “too dumb” to deal?

Megan: I really like Churchwell’s metatextual projects, and though I ultimately didn’t read most of her book on Marilyn Monroe, the way she went at the subject – the nature of apocrypha itself – was very inspirational to me when I was waist-deep in Warhol research. Monroe died long before I was born, so all I ever have to work with will be under or overestimation, even out of the mouths of people who did actually know her. But I enjoy the second-handedness of most information, the way it mutates over time. We’re left with a kind of Pascal’s wager, where I prefer to gamble that she was sort of dumb so that I don’t live in fear of the implications for myself. Because I’m not dumb.

Nor do I think Plath or Sexton were dumb. I admire Sexton’s work particularly. You might argue that they were rather too smart to deal, not too dumb. That’s a perk of being a writer instead of an actor: you’re writing your own history in your own words. There is a cornucopia of archival material for both writers to convey with constancy and consistency how they felt about life, whereas there is comparatively little material directly out of Monroe’s own mouth, and she is not as articulate as those two writers. The chapter on Monroe doesn’t argue that you’d simply have to be dumb to kill yourself. There are some suicides that I would condone, though they tend to be more in the line of euthanization for physical pain than solely for emotional suffering, for example Hunter Thompson’s suicide.

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David: In Making Tracks Debbie Harry said that she “always thought [she] was Marilyn Monroe’s kid.” Even dubbed the “punk Marilyn” (Mick Rock saw more Marilyn than punk), Debbie brought “the whole Hollywood/Marilyn sensibility to [rock],” according to Chris Stein (the Lindsay Buckingham to her Stevie Nicks), and she wanted to be “a mysterious figure that’ll never be able to be truly defined,” echoing Marilyn’s stated desire “to stay just in the fantasy of Everyman.” 1976 presents a fundamental contrast between Marilyn and Debbie: the latter is “in charge of herself” and “campily capitaliz[ing] on her own sex appeal to drive [Blondie’s] image into record sales,” has “actual brains” and excels at puckish duping of fawning males. Later in life Debbie stated the obvious: “Certainly, 50% of my success is based on my looks, maybe more, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow.” Well, duh. As Janet Radcliffe Richards wrote, “Beauty is not a matter of what you are, it is a matter of what you look like.” Might physical beauty be its own sort of genius, as Wilde said? Isn’t love of foxiness more than acumen understandable?

Megan: I’ve wanted to talk about Monroe and Harry side by side since the Warhol book, where I could not find a way to do it to my own satisfaction. So much of that chapter of 1976 is a kind of deleted scene from that other project. In fact, the surplus of thoughts and residual understandings I had during that Warhol project in some sense made 1976 easy pickings among all the other years I could have chosen. It’s no secret that I’m working on a book about Bruce Springsteen right now, and in many ways these books are three of a kind, though they are in no way a proper trilogy.

But you asked me about physical beauty. Warhol, having none himself, sought ceaselessly to collect and then reproduce the foxiness he found in others. Where 1976 openly discusses physical beauty, it’s often as an absence, for example in the chapter on Richard Avedon’s political portraits. I understand that many people think of Springsteen as super hot, but I’m not one of them, and most of those people would likely agree with me anyway that his unusual voice has an ugliness that is the real seat of his rise to celebrity. It’s easy to agree with Wilde because physical beauty on a natural level can be a straightforwardly evolutionary prospect. I also admire people working in fashion, photography, or other arts fields where one is expected to be gorgeous, for the upkeep that maintaining gorgeousness obviously requires – foxiness as a kind of acumen. It’s a skill set, and I do love drag queens. But then eating disorders, expensive cosmetic surgery, and so on. I get through life mainly by displaying acumen, but I’d be foolish and not very feminist to disapprove of Debbie Harry’s good looks or how she used them.


David: Finally we come to the genius Lester Bangs: the virtuoso of disgust, rock ‘n’ roll’s John Ruskin. 1976 brings up his controversial Blondie book, which Chris Stein called simultaneous “condemnation and affection” and you describe as an “angry misogynist rant.” Here’s your stab at Bangs’ underlying psychology:

It was supposed to be an authorized biography, but ended up like an ex-boyfriend’s crazed public service announcement about the bitch that dumped him…He was jilted to discover that [Debbie Harry] was her own boss, and in misconstruing the emotive capacities of her singing as earnest and serious, he was shamed by the sudden realization that she had a tricky sense of humor…He fell for the joke! She was therefore smarter than him and he was threatened.

But Bangs was too smart to fear smart women. Rather, he perceived a vampiric, blues-anemic Blondie, coldly embodied in the glib, irony-clad lead vocalist so unlike “flesh and blood” Patti Smith. This statement of yours really strikes me: “Debbie Harry is smiling at you, only for you to understand a moment later that she’s actually laughing at you.” Well, isn’t that akin to Roger Waters, hot in his hypocrite-socialist narcissism, spitting at his own fan? A superior mind deserves respect, but someone laughing at you? Fuck that. Besides, Bangs hated everything that was out at the time (Rod Stewart also got skewered) – and he was smarter than Debbie. Isn’t divergent but well-written criticism just fun to read? Shouldn’t celebrities’ hearts be hardier than glass to endure sharp-penned Lesters? And doesn’t affection often verge on condemnation?

Megan: I love this question because, I swear to you, every person I’ve ever met who’s even heard of Lester Bangs instantly talks to me from the perspective of being a Bangs apologist. Look, I think he wrote many excellent essays (especially on Lou Reed and Patti Smith) and I even agree with some of his more marginal negative reviews. But he was also such an unthinking asshole who could be put on tilt pretty easily and often unproductively, and then there’s the drugs. Yes, divergent but well-written criticism is super fun to read. And yes, I believe that affection not only often but always verges on condemnation. If those two things are untrue, a lot of what I’ve published is going into the trash bin and even my hypocrisy has limits. There’s a chapter in 1976 where I expound on this belief concerning my opinion of Raymond Carver. These are cautionary tales to me personally; 1976 takes no position on whether Harry herself should have been sad, flattered or pissed about Bangs’ book. For most people, Lester Bangs just didn’t make it onto the reading list. I may be taking him down a peg in the book, but hey, he made the cut. Even Van Halen didn’t make the cut.


David: Debbie Harry once likened her persona to “a wizard’s screen,” and, thanks to Toto, we know to question such screens. In your work you wax ironic but seem to omit metaphysical/emotional blues, let alone existential terror, and, related to Rush avoiding songs about sex, I don’t think you’ve ever spieled about, say, playing on your phrase about ZZ Top, motorcycles and pussy. Your libido-perking gush on Joan Jett is a whet that could’ve been wetter: “She was a fucking cherry bomb of kid. Hello, daddy! Tons of girls, perhaps all girls, feel these feels. We run around in the dark, human and wild, the same as boys.” Call me perv, but I want to feel more of those feels. Do you consciously avoid sexual confessionalism, or is Melville’s Ishmael right that “wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable?” Might a future book reveal a Pascalian shiver at indifferent outer space, spill some tears, skinnydip?

Megan: The book emits existential laughter, not terror. I am a human at peace with the human predicament. But I do think 1976 is very blues-based; it’s a deliberate echo of the gonzo free-styling and the uppity hippie indignation of days of yore, regularly shot through with the anthemic power chords of youthful rebellion. Did you read the letter to my last surviving grandparent in there? Did you read the three pages devoted to Halston’s cologne? The passage about peeing in public? I know you loved the motorcycling parts. That is all some very poignant shit, is it not? The sex is in there, but the explicit stuff you’re after has long faded from my writing.

Here’s an exclusive: I’ve never skinny dipped and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. It can’t be better than doing seventy on a bike with a monsoon pelting your chest. Yes, I do occasionally spill tears (see that letter to my grandpa in the November chapter), though not as often as most people think I should. I cry more often at car commercials than I do at funerals, because one might be art and the other is just death. When I look at outer space, I don’t see indifference; I see infinity and possibility. Look, I do consciously avoid what you’re calling sexual confessionalism, because I make a living as a public school teacher and there is a ridiculous amount of stuff that passes for “moral turpitude” these days. My readership includes some teenagers now, so I go easy on the drug references, too. Have you noticed me even cutting way back on the cursing? Although that is a major fucking bummer. I have also been in a monogamous marriage to my lovely wife, Mindy, for more than a decade – which is to say that our sex life or my fantasy life is no one’s business anymore but Mindy’s.

To return to a previous topic, the focal point of my foxiness is acumen. As a writer and a person, I have been out of the closet as a queer for nearly twenty years. My very existence as such is a public service and one that I am gleefully honored to provide. I don’t think you’re a perv; I just think you’re being a particular type of man at this moment. More on this on your Joan Jett question immediately following…


David: Continuing with cherry bomb Joan Jett, here’s quite a provocative line from the book: “Asking a girl to play guitar is a lot like asking a horse to talk.” More gold:

To be a girl on the boys’ stage, to be playing their instruments and making their noises, and to do it with the same technical proficiency and charisma with which they do it, is vulgar…Asking a girl to play guitar is a lot like asking a horse to talk…Maybe Planet of the Apes is a better metaphor, because the horse that could talk was still confined to his stable, whereas the girl who could play guitar was free, independent. Something can only be vulgar if it is also at least somewhat mesmerizing, and inside that feeling of enthrallment is a quick little drop-off into a pit of willing subjection. The damn dirty apes are running the show. Joan Jett is a king.

You also point out the dearth of recognized female guitar giants and cite Jett’s inclusion on Rolling Stone’s male-majority Top 100 Guitarists list. Why is guitar godhood so testicular? Is it just a fish/bicycle situation? Also, if you had your own rock band, what would be its name?

Megan: I’m super glad you quoted this whole passage and not just the line, because the line alone is likely going down in history as one of the most offensive things I’ll ever write. Guitar godhood is not the only thing that’s so testicular. Fish do not ride bicycles; there is no reason a woman can’t play guitar as well as a man. A lot of life is male-majority best-of lists. In 1977, the Runaways released the Live in Japan album, and there’s a track on there that I think about all the time: “I Wanna Be Where the Boys Are.” The song was written for them by their manager, Kim Fowley, and his seventeen years younger girlfriend, Roni Lee. Lee also performed the song in another more short-lived Fowley band, Venus and the Razorblades. Joan Jett is one of the few women who are (now) where they boys are. She’s an inspiration. I want to get into that space, coasting on enough borrowed privilege to pull the next one up. This is related to Zizek’s musings on Antigone, right? Just knock on the door they told you to knock on, and claim what they tell you is yours if you claim it.

When I parrot some of the most antifeminist rhetoric about her, it’s because I’m in search of strategies for defeating it. There’s an irony embedded in there. In many places throughout 1976, I’m doing an at times sickeningly convincing impression of what I called in the December chapter the language of the “standard American male.” 1976 is really my effort to “communicate like a man.” Hilarious, right? There have been mixed receptions to this concept. Some people are misreading the book and assuming I really do harbor the objectionable sentiments of the standard American male. Most people are reading it as a more nuanced type of butch dyke machismo and crediting me with largely the same ugly opinions but from a somewhat more feminist place. That’s alright by me. More people are figuring out the joke now; I hope I haven’t spoiled it by explaining it. Maybe I will send a copy to Zizek, or the collective masquerading as Zizek, and ask for an essay examining to what extent 1976 constitutes a proper pastiche.


David: From the Ramones section of 1976:

The Ramones did not evolve, ever. They personally grew old and gray and sick and cantankerous, but did not condone or experiment with adulthood in the image they presented to their rabid public…This continuous performance of the Ramones as a coadunation of grizzled teenage soul is so unimpeachable, so thoroughly curated, so perfectly glossy, that I even feel a little bad discussing it in the past tense.

There’s a thread of sameness for sure, but their trademark lowbrow songs seem obligatory (brand rather than band) by, say, Halfway to Sanity or Brain Drain, and certainly by Mondo Bizarro, which includes the world-torn, affecting “Poison Heart.” Joey’s vocals certainly evolved over the years, and his deeper, denser voice seemed to coincide with increased lyrical gravity. Your thoughts?

Megan: Obligatory, brand before band, archaic…look at your word choice. You agree with me. The Ramones did not evolve, ever.

David: “If I’m being honest, Tom Petty saved my life.” That’s how you start your digressive spiel on Tom Petty and George Harrison (with particular focus on Petty’s debut album and Harrison’s Thirty Three & 1/3), which also appears as an essay (with slight differences) in PopMatters: “Tom Petty and George Harrison Were Two Sides of the Same Bicentennial Coin.” You also discuss your gastrointenstinal curse of ulcerative colitis (an affliction Marilyn Monroe probably had, very coincidentally). How do Tom, George and GI disease go together, and how was your life was saved by that lead Heartbreaker?

Megan: Tom and George were the best of pals. I have many more words on both of them, but of course had to stay focused on the two albums they happen to have launched in ’76. I’ve got more than one Tom Petty book proposal rejection under my belt, in fact. I think of Tom and George as my personal spirit guides. One of the greatest and longest challenges of my life will be living with ulcerative colitis. There are times when it causes me unimaginable physical pain – the GI tract has its own nervous system, so when I say the pain is unimaginable, I mean it quite literally. I have an exceedingly high pain threshold, and sometimes the pain still just topples me. It’s completely incapacitating, even blinding (again, literally).

During prolonged bouts with this type of pain, I have sometimes considered suicide. My wife, bless her, has pulled me out of that. On the brief occasions where Mindy has not been able to snap me out of it, the music of Tom Petty has been my salvation. That’s it, no fun story to tell, just a statement of faith. Something in that music speaks to me like no other music can, and for that I’m eternally grateful to him and the Heartbreakers. I suppose I could explain it more vividly or emotively, but I find it more valuable to detach from this type of suffering when I’m not directly experiencing it. Otherwise, as they say in Baton Rouge, it haunts you down.

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David: 1976 is jam-packed with coincidental historical timelines and lightning-quick political analyses that star a vast cast of pols: George Wallace, Jerry Brown, Nixon, Kissinger, Gerald Ford, Carter. In one of my favorite passages, you write “Lord knows all roads through politics lead to a Kennedy,” a rif on an earlier golden line: “Sometimes I get mad about the fact that all roads lead to a Kennedy.” Fuck, if that ain’t the truth! You also admirably admire the admirable Ron Kovic, perhaps America’s most popular wounded warrior and author of 1976’s Born on the Fourth of July. Why/how have Kovic and his autobiography affected you? What do you think of Oliver Stone’s film adaptation? In general, how the hell did you research and cohere all of the historical/political stuff in the book?

Megan: Before we talk about Kovic, I have to give credit where it is due as far as that thought on the Kennedys. That is my really obvious salute to Eileen Myles. My favorite book of hers will always be Not Me. It opens with “An American Poem,” which is for me personally one of the greatest poems ever written. In it, she asserts that she is a Kennedy and then asks whether we shouldn’t all be Kennedys. Just go read the poem. Every line of it feels attached to my personal missions in life, and I just wanted to put a little ghost of Eileen into this book. We have to propagate our species.

OK, Ron Kovic. I haven’t seen the movie, except in pieces in the background in the living room as a kid. Some of my friends are librarians, and so for a long while now, based on the things they have told me, I’ve wanted to write the history of one copy of one book. I just like thinking about a book bouncing from hand to hand, house to house, human to human. There’s an element of chance, but an opportunity for unusual synchronicities, and we make meaning out of the life we’re living regardless of how deliberately we’re living it. Kovic’s book is a memoir, so I figured if I could inject myself as I’d been doing with all the other artifacts of ’76, to do a history of a copy of the book would add a third layer of complexity and also keep the book as a whole more grounded in the lives of regular citizens. So I specifically sought out a used library copy with the seller’s assurance that the library stamps were still on the inside pocket. I had not ever read the book before, and I would say the process of researching the town history of this one copy’s origin affected me more deeply than Kovic’s own narrative. I’ve thought about phoning up those people who checked out this particular copy and asking what they felt about reading it.

As for the totality of the book, my research strategy had grown pretty robust thanks to the work I did on the Warhol book. That was a similar matter of basically: gather a reading list, make a spreadsheet, break it into assignment chunks, read a few things, write something, read a few things, write something. I laid out a spreadsheet with one page for every month in 1976. Then I listed all the dates in each month down the left column and got deep into the internet for a day or two on each month. I filled every date of the entire year with artifacts that were color-coded according to their subject area, like music or the election. Then I tried to find patterns through which to thread a theme for each chapter. Once I selected all my artifacts, it was cut and dried. Soak up all the stuff for one month, then craft all the chunks in the chapter. I’d let it sit for a week, then go back to smooth the transitions between chunks and sprinkle in a healthy additional dose of adjectives or make other voice-related edits. It was written chronologically start to finish. Glad you think it coheres pretty nicely. Thanks.


David: Asher Haig did 1976’s illustrations. His work reminds me slightly of stuff by painters Francis Bacon and Schiele, and even Joseph Schindelman (illustrator of Roald Dahl’s Charlie books). Haig says that he pays special attention to image distribution, the relation of images to each other and to what’s written in each chapter. He’s also an expert in artificial intelligence and psychoanalysis. How did you two hook up for the collaboration? What do you think of his work? Do you have any thoughts on AI?

Megan: Asher is amazing; I feel like I have my own Ralph Steadman. This is such a good story, too. He and I were on rival debate teams in college. Among the debate nerds, he was a minor deity and I was like a little earthbound chaos demon, occasionally knocking down the best-laid plans of my betters. Mostly he wiped the floor with me, as I recall it, and though we were certainly acquaintances who often orbited each other at times of late-night shenanigans, I wouldn’t say we were friends. We had a healthy competition and a mutual respect. At some point, each of us moved to Atlanta.

So Mindy and I are in line at our local liquor store one sunny weekend afternoon, and she was holding too much stuff. A very nice gentleman let her cut in front of him in the line so she could put down the bottles. I only glanced at him briefly in saying thank you, but as soon as I left the store, something clicked. I just felt sure it was Asher, though we hadn’t seen each other in over a decade. So then Facebook, where I discovered that not only was it him, but he does illustration work as something in between a hobby and a job. He was working on illustrating all of Kafka’s aphorisms, which reminded me of how much Asher and I always had in common in our ways of thinking. So then coffee, and I offered him the project, which he was psyched to do. We have a natural language between us, with a lot of comfortable silence. He does beautifully precise, often hilarious work. We’ve already batted around one or two ideas for future collaboration.

Do I have any thoughts on AI? Yeah, sure. I think a lot of intelligence is artificial and I think artifice is a good offensive maneuver.

Cover - Eternal Return PDFC

Illustrations ©Asher Haig

David Herrle interviews Marie C. Lecrivain on GRIMM CONVERSATIONS

61YhYMVT29Lpublished by Sybaritic Press, 2015


Fairy tales and myths continue to fascinate scholars, philosophers, teachers, theologians, mystics and the general literati, thanks to their fundamental power and sublime mirroring of ourselves. Every culture on Earth is imbued with them. TV watchers have been and are bombarded with derivative shows (the campy but popular Grimm and Once Upon a Time most recently), and it would take monkeys typing for infinity to list all of the Snow White-based movies alone. Also, of course, there are countless comic books: Alan Moore’s and Melinda Gebbie’s sexually explicit Lost Girls, Alan Moore’s Promethea, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Bill Willingham’s Fables and Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked + the Divine, to name only a few.

Humorous, weird, clever, silly and explicit, Marie Lecrivain’s Grimm Conversations is a smooth-flowing, entertaining retelling – better yet: fracturing – of familiar fairy tales. Rapunzel is a nymphomaniac, Rose Red advises Snow White to bleach her butthole, “the seven dwarves are gay and polyamorous,” the cannibalistic but diet-conscious witch tries to fatten Hansel with wholesome foods, the fish recommends the Chaldean Oracles to the fisherman, it’s revealed that Noah was an animal-rights activist who saved animals from abusive humans, the wolf declines Red Riding Hood’s offer of hummus instead of her body because of the androgens in its ingredients, and astral plane-visiting Pinocchio (“a chip off Yggdrasil”) longs to have “a flesh-and-blood penis” so that he can penetrate girls without “giv[ing] them splinters.” Some readers might remember the Fractured Fairy Tales segment of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Well, this stuff is Fractured Fairy Tales with an R rating. Needless to say, don’t let Mommy or Daddy catch you reading this book under the covers.

The following interview focuses on Grimm Conversations and uses the book to veer into contemporary hot topics, from spirituality to transsexuality. Enjoy!



David: The medieval and Elizabethan literary traditions accepted and expected emulous plagiarism: Chaucer’s building on predecessors Ovid and Boccaccio, for example. Much later Shakespeare did the same, even borrowing from contemporaries Kyd and Marlowe. Likewise, you tinkered with the standard fairy tales of Will and Jake Grimm, radically innovating time-honored favorites such as Rapunzel, Pinocchio, the Frog Prince and Snow White. What made you even bother to rewrite fairy tales? What do you think you’ve brought to those tales with your creative contemporization?

Marie C. Lecrivain: I grew up reading fairy tales, and the retelling of those tales from some of my favorite science fiction and fantasy authors. Also, Disney’s animated films (Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Pinocchio) had an overreaching and negative effect on my imagination, so much so that it became my mission to read the source material, which, as we all know – those of us who actually READ – are radically different from the “safe spaces” demanded from today’s audience. When the Brothers Grimm started to collect the stories that would make up the massive collection of lore that is Grimms’ Fairy Tales, they either didn’t know or patently ignored the fact that the stories they wrote down and published came from much older oral sources, straight out of the ancient world.

I wrote Grimm Conversations because 1) I wanted to explore my own take on these stories, as many writers have done before me (that desire is nothing new), b) I want to remind the reader about the value of real-life face-to-face conversations, which is being devoured by the abyss that is the Internet of Things. Most of my adult life has been spent working in sales (thank you, Great Recession, for shifting my career back to that path). I spend my days in conversation with other people. Increasingly, I hear “Can’t you email me?” or “Text me the information” or “I’m not used to having to talk this long”. The demands – intellectual/emotional/psychological/spiritual – the investments required to power a real-time conversation are being marginalized, and this makes me fearful of the future. In the beginning was the Word. I don’t believe there should ever be an ending to the art of conversation.


David: In the book’s introduction you cite your childhood encounter with “Puss in Boots” as the beginning of a lifelong love of fairy tales, and you emphasize those tales’ mirroring of humanity:

What’s timeless about Grimms’ Fairy Tales is how much of ourselves we find within them. I’ve been Red Riding Hood, faced with the overwhelming fear of change, and I’ve been the elf in the Shoemaker tale who took a stand against those who would bankrupt me for their personal gain. I’ve also been the witch in Hansel and Gretel who’s selfish to the point of destruction, and I’ve been the immortal salmon in the Fisherman’s Wife who’s tried to have an intelligent conversation about matters beyond all of man’s understanding.

In other words, rather than exotic, “fairy tales are part of our everyday existence,” as you put it. They certainly are mistaken as escapist, for they really open young eyes to the tale-likeness of real life, rather than the reverse. As G.K. Chesterton put it in Tremendous Trifles:

Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

This is similar to the “new hope” mentality of the George Lucas’ Star Wars, a movie that went against the grain of nihilistic 1970s cinema: dragons don’t always triumph, in other words. Share more about your appreciation for fairy stories and their pertinence. Is there a teleological essence to them?

MCL: If you are asking me if there is an “intelligent design” behind fairy tales, I would have to say no. If you are asking me if there is an evolutionary essence to fairy tales, then, yes, I would say so. As humankind becomes more sophisticated in its need to redefine its own mythology, new ways and new perceptions of fairy tales will present themselves.

Joseph Campbell explained this better than anyone. The Hero’s Journey is every person’s journey. Fairy tales give us all the opportunity to reframe that story in a way that we can easily digest, and then complete.


David: Chesterton also castigated the unbalanced seriousness and sadness of modern spiritualism, prescribing instead an undignified spiritualism of humor:

I wish the spirits were more farcical than they are. That they should make more jokes and better ones, would be my suggestion. For almost all the spiritualism of our time, in so far as it is new, is solemn and sad.

This certainly could indirectly endorse your Grimm Conversations, right? Tell us about your decision to inject irreverent humor into your innovated tales.

MCL: That humor came to me, undiluted, from my father. I grew up with dirty jokes being told at dinner time as de rigueur. Also, the original stories in Grimms’ Fairy Tales often have overbearing moralistic unhappy endings. No one likes an unhappy ending. Humor makes the reality of the misery of life more palatable. If you can’t laugh at yourself and your beliefs, then you have no business believing in anything, much less yourself.


David: How has your involvement in Ordo Templi Orientis and as a priestess in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica influenced your work? Many thinkers and artists osmose essential aspects of Judeo/Christian traditions, aspects that season and shape worldviews and artistic sensibilities. Do you agree? Do you happen to have a Christian background? If so, what of that, if any, has survived and been incorporated into your current belief system? Your thoughts on both sectarianism and syncretism? In your “Flounder” story the fish tells the fisherman that “the divine spark is the immortal part of you.” Can you expound that idea?

MCL: For me personally, my involvement in OTO, and as a relatively recent ordained priestess in the EGC, has fundamentally and positively influenced my writing from the first time I attended an ECG Gnostic Mass. I’ve had a lifelong interest in alchemy, particularly in the area of personal transformation. The initiatory process, as well as the gnosis I’ve experienced in my years as a member of OTO and in the EGC, has been infused in everything I’ve written over the last almost ten years, and will continue to do so. Everything I do, all my actions, are to me and in my universe, alchemical.

I was raised Roman Catholic. I attended private school, where I received an excellent education and was made to attend mass twice a week. My parents were Eucharistic ministers and CCD teachers. I was a lector in my teens, which gave me the opportunity to observe the Roman Catholic version of mass at a closer level. I quickly realized I would never be able to be a direct part of that mystery, because I’m female. Looking back at my years in Roman Catholicism, there was very little encouragement to intelligently dissent, to approach belief contextually, but to still come back to the same faith I was indoctrinated in. That came later, in high school, and I watched many of my peers falter and leave the church. It was only a matter of time before I left that which would not let me be My Self.

What did I take from my background into who I am now? My love of ritual. My understanding of mythos, sacred moments, an appreciation for the sacrifice clergy make for the greater good, and my mother’s assertion to fight for what you believe in. That’s about it.

My thoughts on sectarianism: there’s a path for everyone to the Divine. “My” way, like the Buddha said, may or may not work for you, or, to be blunt, “your mileage may vary.” Sectarianism exists because of groupthink tendencies, and the need to dominate over what human beings fear, which is diversity, because diversity represents change, and humanity is not geared to like change, even change for the better. As for syncretism, it’s human nature, and smart politics to take the best bits of something that works to make your own version work better. The Catholic Church coopted local deities and reintroduced them to indigenous peoples under the guises of Mary and Jesus. That’s what Aleister Crowley did when he wrote the EGC Gnostic Mass. That’s what Zuckerberg did with Facebook. (Laugh! It’s funny!)

In “Flounder” I was exploring the idea of approaching gnosis in the way it happened for me, and how I try to respect that process. Judeo-Christian traditions do not emphasize direct access, or more importantly, the acknowledgement of a human as a divine being. It does say that its believers have a connection to their god through an immortal soul (one given to them by their creator), but that the relationship must be, first and foremost, external, and that access is granted through blind acceptance in a slave’s capacity, as well as total obedience. Gnosis removes the middle man, as it were. The work is hard, the process imperfect, and oftentimes will not lead to enlightenment. By the way, I am not an enlightened human being, but I do have a divine spark, which I am, ultimately, responsible for – and it didn’t come from some old bearded guy on high. Those who wake up to their divinity have a lot of questions, and that’s a good thing. However, the ones that ask the questions are usually one step ahead, or, more likely, a half-step ahead of the one asking the questions.


David: All of Grimm Conversations is in dialogic form. Was the unnecessariness of interspersed description, action and often monotonous speech tags liberating, or did you experience difficulty relying on only alternating quotations? Would these stories work as short stage plays?

MCL: I didn’t have too much difficulty writing these stories. They almost wrote themselves. It’s very easy to imagine a conversation with another person, and that’s how I approached writing Grimm Conversations, which, on a very real level, is a conversation with different parts of myself.

I did have a few editors ask me why I didn’t include any background in the stories, often receiving rejections based on that very reason. Sorry: not sorry. I’ve always loved stories that plunge you right in the middle of a situation that needs no explanation or a narrator holding your hand. Also, conversations happen quickly, and they always tell a story. The subtext is left to the reader’s imagination. Would these work as plays? Probably. I’ve thought about adapting one or two, but I haven’t had the time.


David: “Prick” (presented in full here) “Nympho” and “Kink” are my favorite pieces in the book. You’ve a masterful grasp of fetish and aberrant sexuality: Sade-lite, so to speak. In “Kink” the Prince of “The Princess and the Pea” wants to cancel his marriage and confesses to his would-be bride that he has an intense fetish for “the sight of bruises, hickeys, and red welts.” However, instead of offense, the Princess reveals a compatible masochistic proclivity:

“…and one more thing: I am bisexual. I’m a switch. And a voyeur. And an exhibitionist. We’re going to bring Madame Roquefort, the most beautiful ladies maid, and the most handsome captain of the guard with us on our honeymoon. Madame Roquefort can help us break them in.”

“Oh, Princess! How I love you!”

“Now, before we get back to our guests, let me help you get rid of that massive erection. And is there anything else I should know?”

“Mmm…well…Oh, your mouth…mmm…There is one more thing…”

“Mmm…you’re yummy…What?”

“I love to hear dirty bedtime stories.”

Speaking of sex, I do believe that many people today are, in some ways, more sexually repressed than the misestimated Victorians. Self-righteous and/or religious busybodies decry “whores” more out of ashamed attraction and disingenuousness than sincere moral indignation and drive for reform, and much uptight puritanism comes from Stalin-like secular “social justice warriors” and many chauvinistic feminists: assailants of affectionate and erotic interplay, of courtship and flirtation, and create a new kind of body politic, literally a politicized body. Tension between Jane Austen and Anais Nin is natural, but PC activism tends to produce only limp dicks and mute vaginas. Please share your views on erotica, politicized sexuality and repression.

MCL: I wrote “Prick” and most of Grimm Conversations, in part, because I realized that most of what polite society refers to as “aberrant behavior” is, in point of fact, just the opposite. This again, in my mind, is evolutionary diversity reasserting itself. It’s apparent we are no longer a sexually binary society. We live in the age of transition, as well as transformation. As long as these preferences, or what people like to term “fetishes,” don’t harm another person physically, and as long as they are consensual, as in between legal adults, then they belong in the mainstream lexicon of sex, with full awareness/acceptance/understanding. Will there ever be a day when this happens in real time? Maybe. Of course, that would put the porn/professional BDSM/sex toy industries out of business. 

David: In “Gurlz” you blow apart the story of Little Red Riding Hood, introducing not a wolf who preys on the flesh of human females strictly out of hunger and sustenance, but one with an ulterior motive: affordable ingestion of estrogen in support of a deep desire for a female-to-male sex change. A sample:

“You’re being so nice to me, considering I still want to eat you.”

“No, I get it, though I don’t understand why you want to be a woman.”

“Of course you don’t. You were born female.”

“But it’s such a bitch. I hate the crying, the periods, and the acne. The only part I like is the sex.”

“For Spirits, freed from mortal Laws, with ease/Assume what Sexes and what Shapes they please,” writes Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock, reminding me of the transgender issues that are in the American spotlight these days, and, though transfolk have been struggling for respectful recognition for decades, Bruce Jenner’s recent transformation into Caitlyn tends to hog the stage. This is due to both her fame and the fact that male-to-female transitions are much more palatable to the public. (A Candy Darling, Coccinelle, Laverne Cox or Paris Lees outglows a Chaz Bono, Thomas Beatie or Leslie Feinberg.) Are our spirits actually gender-free (truly pneuma)? Is there an alchemical interpretation of gender? Might both gender fluidity and the male/female binary be worthy? And how the hell did you come up with the idea for a he-to-she wolf?

MCL:  The wolf in “Gurlz” is transitioning from male to female. Alexander Pope was a bore, just like Polonius. BORING!

 Fairy tales and myths are full of instances where the symbolic art of transitioning from one sex to another is no big deal (read Heracles’ exploits in Bulfinch’s Mythology: he spent a night in drag, and so forth). We’re in an age of transition, transformation. Alchemy happening in real-time on a universal scale, and documented on both the micro/macro level for all to witness.

The idea of a he-to-she wolf came from my experiences with several of my friends who transitioned from male to female. One friend made the decision to live homeless for a year so she could afford the surgery. Another friend of mine wasn’t prepared for the pain that came with transition. I won’t give details, but it cost her a great deal, both personally and professionally. Then I see someone like Caitlyn Jenner who is able to transition – and not completely (by her own admission) – through wealth and privilege. These resources are not available to everyone, and they need to be. Transition/Transformation is a big deal, and the layers of transition, the ability of being able to occupy both sides of the binary, or even to eventually transform into something entirely new, is exciting! And these processes need to be encouraged, as well as supported, in real-time.

In the Western Alchemical Tradition, there is the archetype of the hermaphrodite. This is part of all of us: within us, the union of opposites, the hieros gamos, and the infinite layers of everything in between and what transcends that process. Why should it be a surprise that it’s happening now, on a global scale? At least in Western society.


David: In “Lunacy” the chocolate-craving Evil Queen of Snow White fame agonizes over retention of youth and good looks. “Why do we have to get old and still try to look young at the same time?” she asks the Magic Mirror. The reply: “Society, Mum…All those illuminated manuscripts that contain pictures of young, nubile flesh are really nothing more than the product of over-worked, horny monks.” When the consoling mirror says, “With age comes reason and wisdom,” the Queen replies, “So, you’re saying that being smart is beautiful.” The Rape of the Lock applies again: “How vain are all these Glories, all our Pains,/Unless good Sense preserve what Beauty gains.” Rejecting that notion, I think the concept of so-called inner beauty tends to abuse very worthy outer beauty. Isn’t the artifice involved in much beauty-making as valid as any other art, and isn’t brevity part of the beauty of beauty?

MCL:  Please stop quoting Pope. He’s an historic dufus (IMHO). Why does a woman become not beautiful when she is no longer able to propagate? You already know the answer to this question. And these women are NOT going to disappear. 

David: Artist Brian Grillo, who seems to be quite a curious and talented person, did the weird and fitting illustrations for Grimm Conversations. What’s the nature of your acquaintance, and how does Grillo’s work enhance the text?

MCL: Brian is a gifted artist, and more importantly, a gift to the world. I met him in the mid-1990s, when he was the lead singer in the band Extra Fancy (still one of my favorite bands ever). Fast forward to the 21st century, and I met Brian again through Facebook. He’s a gifted painter and photographer (both scenic and illustration). He started posting some of his illustrations, and I was impressed with his technique. He also started posting short mini-memoirs with his artwork and photos. I had the pleasure of publishing one of his stories, about growing up in San Pedro, California, in poeticdiversity. There’s a dark and humorous edge to Brian’s work, and there is also honesty, which I prize above all things. He will always remain one of my favorite artists.

When I was writing Grimm, I posted excerpts on my FB page. It’s not like me to do this. Writing for me is private, but I digress. Brian read “Kiss” (my take on “The Frog Prince”) and sent me an illustration he’d done based on that story. The illustration became the cover. I knew it would be as soon as I saw it. I sent Brian my completed stories, and he executed the illustrations. Frankly, Grimm wouldn’t be a book I’d be proud of without Brian’s art. Every time I open Grimm, and I see one of Brian’s illustrations,  it makes me smile. It also makes me grateful. There are not many artists who would work with me or my writing. I’ve tried to collaborate before and it never worked, until Brian. I’m so grateful and happy it succeeded.

Illustrations by Brian Grillo

David Herrle interviews Megan Volpert about ORDER SUTRA

published by Lame House Press, 2015
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What is honor?  A word…Air. – Falstaff, Henry IV 

Comedian Steven Wright has a bit in which he prefaces a silly song by saying “This next song doesn’t go something like this, it goes exactly like this.” Contrarily, Megan Volpert, author of the new chapbook, Order Sutra, seems to always say “This next song doesn’t go something like this, it doesn’t go anything like this.” Thanks to her appreciation for Deconstructive/Post-Structuralist thinking, she delights in language-bending, shuffling signifiers and signifieds like a card sharp, and contributing to philosophical rupture and decentering. Megan’s benevolent sneers and silly giggles at what many consider to be ultimately non-transcendental language might be summed up in Karl Schlegel’s words from Athenaeum: “Truly, it would frighten you if the entire world seriously became comprehensible, as you demand it.” 

It also complies with the laughter and dance dear Nietzsche prescribed in place of either a sick seriousness in the face of illusory truths or the gloominess of realizing that the once awe-striking mountain disappoints us once we’ve climbed it. That is a primary thing he admired in the Greeks: their being “superficial – out of profundity.” I think this is where Deconstruction and such can flourish responsibly, without spirit-slaying nihilism: daring to dissect language, convention, tradition, abstraction, cultural norms and societal sacred cows while also rejoicing in the inevitability and necessity of language’s signs and even chimeras, maturely understanding the worth of some constructs instead of tearing down every time-tested Bastille with reckless glee or spite. After all, it was Jacques Derrida who said that “the experience of a ‘deconstruction’…begins by paying homage to that which, to those whom, it ‘takes on.’” In spite of my overall contempt for Rousseau, a passage from his Essay on the Origin of Languages is apt here: “[T]he dreams of a bad night are given to us as philosophy. You will say that I too am a dreamer; I admit it, but I do what others fail to do, I give my dreams as dreams, and leave the reader to discover whether there is anything in them which may prove useful to those who are awake.” 

“[L]anguage is so limited compared to what we think and feel that we are obliged to lie, words themselves are lies,” says Jorge Borges, who is a key factor in Volpert’s Order Sutra, incidentally. I think it’s telling that in his “Borges and I” this confused conclusion is reached: “I am not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page…I am doomed – utterly and inevitably – to oblivion.” It’s the same self-doubt that David Hume came to. Literary theorist Paul de Man claimed to defend literature, but many think his doubtful readings threatened it. The “This is not a pipe” of Magritte’s Treachery of Images leads Michel Foucault farther astray than the artist intended, I think, so that in his study of the famous “calligram” Foucault concludes that “the ‘pipe’…has utterly vanished…Nowhere is there a pipe.” It’s not that the center cannot hold; there was no center to begin with. The elephant in the room is the realization that there is no elephant in the room. How did Orson Welles describe stylistic filmmaker Antonioni? “An architect of empty boxes.”

Foucault, who is more radical than Derrida (and Lacan, who saw the signified as having a value in itself, as a representation of the repression of the signified), rejects any primal, truly coherent signs and faults the belief in them as fatal to interpretation, and Ferdinand de Saussure, father of “binary opposition” and such, casts doubt on the existence of an actual supra-structural signified. All things trapped in arbitrary language are signs swirling in an ocean of signs, without locus or transcendence. Only expert (or Volpert) swimmers should dare to dive into these waters lest they drown, for, as Manfred Frank put it, “to question the legitimacy of rationality means nothing less than to place the authority whose name granted legitimacy under suspicion.” My favorite Stoic, Epictetus, said that “propositions that are true and evident are necessarily made use of even by those who contradict them.” Add to this what might be my favorite deconstruction of Deconstruction, a passage from C.S. Lewis’ undervalued The Abolition of Man:

But you cannot go on “explaining away” forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on “seeing through” things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it…It is no use trying to “see through” first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see. 

“One does not deconstruct simply by progressing, without risks,” warns Derrida. “One must always reaffirm something of the part in order to avoid a relapse into something worse.” He also said that philosophy kills itself with its own weapons. Extreme Deconstruction easily leads to a kind of destruction, and it has the power to annihilate even precious metaphors and similes. (Consider Mallarme: “I cancel the word ‘like’ from the dictionary.”) Obliteration of language is shown by 2001: A Space Odyssey’s H.A.L., who seems more human than his somnolent human cohorts, until Dave “murders” him by shutting down his synthetic brain and his speech degenerates into childish singing and finally pre-lingual infancy. This, of course, is echoed in the demonic gibberish of a dying and insane Jack Torrance at the end of The Shining. Eventually we come to the end of language and the bottomless fall into oblivion. 

Slavoj Zizek talks of a “blind spot” that prevents us from ever seeing reality as a whole, since that blind spot is where we are included in reality, but, as Renato Pugglioli says, “poetry and language conspire to transcend the world of the senses, to attain a superreality which is at once a sublimation and a negation of human and terrestrial reality.” Yeah, so what? Such grandness comes with the game. And, for the most part, the game keeps a lot of us from becoming gibbering – or infinitely typing – monkeys. (I carry a flask of logocentrism in my pocket, just in case.)


My first major exposure to Volpert’s exploration of this stuff came from her Desense of Nonfense (BlazeVOX Books, 2009), which, of course, brings to mind G.K. Chesterton’s “Defence [sic] of Nonsense,” an essay in The Defendant that basically praises the nonsensical path as an escape into a freer world (not in Dada’s rather sinister style but rather in that of the fairy tale or Lewis Carroll) and “the huge and undecipherable unreason of [Creation].” In a review I called Volpert’s Desense “both a pie in the face and a skewer,” and I still think that’s a perfect way to describe her philosophically/linguistically charged work and her strong humor. For example, I’m particularly impressed by the structure of Order Sutra’s “included in the present classification,” which features word groupings that amble along in alliterative alphabetical order while maintaining a coherent incoherence: from “Autism and Asperger’s always appreciate better brain command, control” to “Xanaxing yesterday’s younger years, your zoo Zeused.” Turning Xanax and Zeus into verbs alone deserves applause. 

Also, Volpert’s strongest strength may be her focus on or specialization in a chosen subject, coupled with a deft ability to present “heavy” material in palatable prose-poems, to use a weak term. My own essayish prose often masquerades as free-verse and tends to be aphoristic, and I think that’s a big reason why I enjoy how Volpert writes, for her pieces can be classified as bite-size essays rather than over-filling four-course intellectual meals. 

This charming chapbook (I have number 27 out of only 100 printed copies) is primarily inspired by the preface of Foucault’s Order of Things, in which he recalls the personal upheaval caused by Borges’ fictional Chinese encyclopedia, the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. Volpert’s poem titles are exact lines from Borges’ bizarre taxonomical list: those that belong to the Emperor, embalmed ones, those that are trained, suckling pigs, mermaids, fabulous ones, stray dogs, those included in the present classification, those that tremble as if they were mad, innumerable ones, those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, others, those that have just broken a flower vase, those that from a long way off look like flies. Borges as a rupturing elemental in a tenuously ordered world is obvious in Foucault’s dramatic account:

This book arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered all the familiar landmarks of my thought…breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other.

When I asked for an electronic copy of the stamped title and “logo” on the chap’s cover, Megan revealed that “because the chap is handmade and stamped, pics of the cover don’t do any justice to the 3D element.” So, even this access problem, this failure of rendering, adds to the whole theme of language’s limitations.

Literary and philosophical theories feed each other overall, and the wonderful richness of discourse is best juggled by performers like the author of Order Sutra, those who seem to smile at what would perplex and even terrify the mass, if the mass decided to finally tune in. Rather than a straight review of this chapbook, I opted to interview its author so that we can take a rocket ride with a wider, wilder view.

In the interview she defends a respect for form over content, repelling a lot of the thrusts of my monologue-ish questions – which results in a near-hostility for the whole nature of interview, undercutting it, as if the interviewer has too much ado about knowing and should, rather, only skate across the icy surface of an artist’s presentation, leaving the water and fish and Lord knows what else underneath alone. But, just like shit, content happens, intentionally or not. That’s part of the overall beauty of criticism and philosophy, the world of swirling symbols that fascinated Swedenborg, Blake and countless others.




David: The subtitle of Order Sutra is “Confirming everything’s probably under control.” Aside from its Dr. Strangelove/Catch-22 vibe, can this be considered a lampoon of logic? I agree with G.K. Chesterton’s belief that logic is as good for “griffins and basilisks as about sheep and pigs,” that logic doesn’t necessarily lead to truth. Nietzsche said that logic has an illogical basis, and he advised realists that their “sobriety contains a secret and inextinguishable drunkenness.” The turbulent human soul certainly confounds logic forever. “On pretty promises quietly rely” is one of the best lines in the book. You could just as well have written “premises” instead of “promises.” What do you think of logic? Explain the book’s title and subtitle.

I agree with Chesterton because logic is a form, not a content. Nietzsche is a VIP on the list of dead people I’d like to see at my dinner table. No comment on the presupposition of a human soul, though I will vouch for a turbulence.

You’ve got my secret tagline and actual tagline there. The stamp on the title page says “confirming everything’s under control” for a couple of reasons. One, every time I’m trapped in a situation with a bunch of other clueless people, they look to me for answers. This has been happening since I was a kid. It’s a flattering responsibility. The thing to do when it’s handed to you is to confirm that everything’s under control, to assure people you’re going to do your best. Two, the quiet meanness of radical uncertainty must be hilarious. We have no reason to believe everything is under control. If that’s not funny, we’re toast. So I tried to highlight it.

The original draft did say “premises” instead of “promises”! I only changed it to wobble the vowel sounds for a quick second, but I’m glad you heard the other word caught in a strong undertow there. The line you refer to as a subtitle is very attached to my personal brand–the embossing stamp we used to make it doubles as my personal stationery-maker–but “on pretty promises quietly rely” is really the thesis statement and ultimate tonal note for what this book is about. It’s what you’d put on the t-shirt–in a font that speaks to the hissing, venomous quality of the idea.

To borrow from Ani DiFranco, I think “every tool is a weapon, if you hold it right.” That’s logic’s essential nature. The title points at the repetitive prayer of the sutra, a faith that at least on its face seems contrary to logic. Order, as a primary symptom of logic, is everywhere in language. So the title hints at a blend of these approaches to communication, the divine dailiness of the thought patterns implicit in our languages.


From your “tame”: “The flower did not possess most of the properties of a flower. I made it out of pipe cleaners…This flower was a sturdy thing that had no concern for sun or water…I had no need for the flowers called real.” This reminds me of Jorge Borges’ “The Other Tiger” poem and Magritte’s The Treachery of Images painting, which depicts a pipe and includes the koan-like text “This is not a pipe.” These two works play with art and reality. From “The Other Tiger”:

…the tiger addressed in my poem
Is a shadowy beast, a tiger of symbols…
A string of laboured tropes that have no life…
But by the act of giving it a name…
It becomes a fiction, not a living beast…

…Yet nonetheless some force keeps driving me
In this vague, unreasonable and ancient quest,
And I go on pursuing through the hours
The other tiger, the one not found in verse.

Borges posits a huge chasm between art and real life. “[T]he moment I write about the tiger, the tiger isn’t the tiger, he becomes a set of words in the poem,” he told Richard Burgin in an interview. Burgin: “You’ll always be trying to capture the tiger.” Borges: “Yes, because the tiger will always be…” Burgin: “…outside of art.” Your thoughts? Is it fine, especially in our age of virtuality, to prefer a fake flower to a real one?

I’ve been pretty near to getting a tattoo of The Treachery of Images a couple of times. “The Other Tiger” beats the same path as John Yau’s “830 Fireplace Road,” which I’ve talked about before. But to keep to your Borges example, I’m super interested in the “always be trying to capture” impulse part, and not particularly keen on art versus life, inside versus outside, fake versus real. I wrote a book about Warhol, you know? Why should we care about the content on either side of the dichotomy? It’s the reaching across the dichotomy, the form of or the act of bridging two things. That I like to investigate.

So that’s the answer your question, but for my money, the main thing about “tame” to focus on is the heavily Victorian diction and syntax. This book showcases a wide variety of kinds of English. I’d be unforgivably remiss not to include a slice of dusty old white sensibility in a museum of Englishes. And to classify it as tame. I think it’s fine in our age of virtuality to prefer fake or real flowers, but it’s marginally smarter just to prefer flowers generally.


“having just broken the water pitcher,” which is structured both like a Mad Lib and a document with suggestive, silly redactions, ends with two grade-A clichés, which dovetails with how you ended a piece called “et cetera”: “and and and, but there it is.” Oh, the insipidity! Often, a loss for words boils down to a barren bromide, a weak or desperate attempt to force terms into space that belongs to the ellipsis. “that from a long way off look like flies,” the final – and cleverest – piece in the book, features Morse and binary code. Its closing line, the binary code’s translation, “What hath language wrought?” (cleverly playing on the first thing Sam Morse ever telegraphed back in the 1840s: “What hath God wrought?”), also is the closing line of the entire book. The page that follows is blank, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s meant as the actual final piece, an answer to the question, no word being the last word. Please enlighten us. Or confuse us further. Or both.

You believe I have everything under control, huh? Right down to inserting a final blank page as a special message for your contemplation? Thanks! I told the publisher, Gina Myers, about precisely this phenomenon, where readers give me 100% credit for every aspect of the book right down to its entire design. She was a little worried that some of the square holes we cut in the front cover had imprecise edges. We sat there and did them by hand together in her kitchen, and I said, “Gina, don’t worry. Because no matter what mistakes I make, my readers credit me with intentionality.” It such a beautiful goddamn blessing. Honestly, I’m lucky my readers are smart, and I’m lucky they work hard to dig into whatever I’m giving them. But I have to crawl humbly back to the hilarity of it when I get interview questions about whether the blank page in the back matter was deliberately put there by me or not.

This isn’t my first back matter controversy, either! My ongoing publisher with Sibling Rivalry Press, Bryan Borland, will vouch for me on this. Somewhere in the edits for the This assignment is so gay anthology, our wires got crossed and I sent him back a copy of the manuscript that still had a giant “blank page – do not cut” watermark across it once all the back matter was already loaded in. Fortunately it shook itself out before the printing, but that’s the level of intent people tend to attach to my work. Truly, it makes me feel like a fucking mastermind. Like Paul Auster or something. I have typos and do occasionally moronic things just like everyone else (including Paul Auster).

“Et cetera” is about the anxiety that is supposed to be alleviated by order. But Hunter Thompson ran for Sheriff in Aspen in 1970, right? “And and and” did anybody feel less anxious because of his ability to impose order? I appreciate so much that the audience for my work credits me with such a profound degree of control over my communications. But I’m basically running a “Thompson for Sheriff” campaign.


Art as commentary on art, language as commentary on language. The fun never ends. The fourth wall has been knocked down; everything is discourse. Oorah! As Renato Pugglioli pointed out, poetry has become “idea-thing” more than “sound-sense.” The first piece in Order Sutra, “belonging to the emperor,” opens with these striking lines: “I love ideas. I am furious and love furiously. This makes my ideas furious. I furiously love my furious ideas.” What are your pet ideas? I assume that you dig Foucault, Chomsky and the like, but who are your other pet writers, literary theorists, philosophers? During research or just for fun, are you a dabbler or a deep-sea diver? What do you think of contemporary self-conscious art?

Poggioli said that at least fifty years ago, likely more, and here we still are. I don’t know if this book should even be referred to as poetry. My native non-fictional tendencies are turning into like a giant whack-a-mole game or something now, just popping up in every creative impulse I have toward a blank page, and I feel like everything I’ve been doing lately is some kind of essay work. This book is flash essay, maybe. And it also pays tremendous attention to “sound-sense,” even just in your sample quote, so if poetry isn’t about that anymore, there’s another reason it’s unwise to classify this book as poetry. I did a good job reverse-engineering that conclusion just now, huh? Logic!

I save dabbling for guitar. My readers expect a deep dive and I do my best on that score. My mind is naturally inclined to it, I think. When I look back at my first two or three books of things I really did think of as poems, I see them now as these enormously unwieldy redactions of essays on language. Like I wrote a doctoral dissertation on linguistics and then selectively highlighted a bunch of buzzwords that boiled down to become the full text. I don’t regret the abstractness of the early stuff, but now I like to fill in the blanks and reach a few more people with many of the same ideas I’ve had for a long time.

But you probably just want me to drop a list on you, huh? OK, here’s a bunch of what my summer included. Dead: Roland Barthes, Mikhail Bakhtin, Aristophanes, George Harrison, Susan Sontag, Alexander Pope (with a hat-tip to JS van Buskirk). Alive: Wayne Koestenbaum, Tom Petty, Peter Sloterdijk, Fran Lebowitz, Anthony Bourdain, Michelle Orange. I can definitely confirm that some of those alive people may or may not be making “contemporary self-conscious art.” And like me, they do not really give a fuck what you call it.


David: Here are highlights from “sirens,” my favorite piece in Order Sutra:

The world is made of icebergs. Inside each is a tiny splinter slowly tearing the entire thing apart, and
the racing of this hairline crack makes a noise meant for just one person. That noise is irresistible. It
compels the person meant to hear it into a pilgrimage toward the sound. Therefore, I am going to
Graceland. If the sound fades as I get nearer, perhaps I will turn instead toward Asbury Park.
Sometimes one reaches the sound only to realize it has been misheard, that it was not a fissure singing
in some block of ice. It was a hurricane. You are not meant to crash upon it. It is meant to crash upon
you. Perhaps you are the iceberg, wetly built by a steady onslaught of hurricanes that frost against the
creeping alertness to what is cold.

Your iceberg and its weird Siren call remind me of the white whale’s elusiveness and obscurity, the thrill of the chase and the ironic failure of incomplete discovery in Melville’s Moby-Dick, a book that, like Shakespeare’s stuff, contains everything. Didn’t Ishmael describe the craving of the craving involved in the futile pursuit of jouissance, or the self’s basic inscrutability, when he said the following? “The more I consider [the whale’s] mighty tail, the more I do deplore my inability to express it…Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will…I say he has no face.” Moby-Dick crashed upon enraged Ahab though Ahab sought to crash upon him. Think of Luke Skywalker training with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, when he decapitates the apparition of Darth Vader and sees his own face behind the despised mask. Am I all wet? Please tell us more about “sirens.”


That piece name-checks the cities associated with Springsteen and Elvis. But then the Elvis bit is actually about Paul Simon, directly copying his “I’m going to Graceland.” Going to Graceland is pretty much the same as chasing the white whale. And there’s a lot of slaying of the father a la Skywalker laced through those metaphors. They’re all a grim pilgrimage, for those crazy few who’re bent on getting healed no matter the cost in the meantime. The more I thought about Simon’s take on it, the more I began to see it as a siren’s song, straight out of Greek mythology. You may be hurtling toward your doom, but hell, you’re doomed if you just stand around here anyway. Might as well fall prey to the sirens.

For me, all of Greek myth is somehow set in a place with warm temperatures. When I try deliberately to think about some of my favorite myths taking place in the freezing cold, that just doesn’t do it for me. But think of all the stories of a grim pilgrimage that do take place in the cold. Liam Neeson made an action movie out of that, you know? Perhaps because of my fascination with logic, I get classified as cold a lot more often than I get classified as hot. So I drew upon my own sense of longing, referencing the music that spoke to me in a way that evoked those feelings, and then threaded it through the image of an iceberg.

Then there’s the big turn right at the end with a little bit of (form alert) who’s-on-first type reversal. I think whenever the stakes in your life are truly high and there’s a lot on the table, it can shake down 50-50 right up until the last second a lot of times. We live in a state of suspense vis-a-vis the future, thanks to our form of time. And we might be doomed or we might be saved. You have to live in the face of that. I think this kind of uncertainty has a theme song, and it’s the song of sirens.


In “belonging to the Emperor” you write “I love the idea of contradiction.” Right on, sister. However, to be honest, thanks to my hetero why-curiosity, I thought Is there much contradiction in the physical part of a gay relationship? I assumed that same-sex affection must be an erotic mirroring rather than complements in tension. In James Baldwin’s lovely Another Country bisexual Vivaldo thinks after sleeping with another man: “How strange it felt, this violent muscle…so like his own, but belonging to another! And this chest, this belly, these legs, were like his…It was…like making love in the midst of mirrors…” Joyce McDougall contradicted Judith Butler’s psychoanalytical concern about gay folks lacking an Oedipal conflict in her point that “there is also the homosexual oedipal drama which also implies a double aim, that of having exclusive possession of the same-sex parent and that of being the parent of the opposite sex.”

More Another Country: “[T]his masculinity was defined, and made powerful, by something which was not masculine. But it was not feminine, either, and something in Vivaldo resisted the word androgynous…But, as most women are not gentle, nor most men strong, it was a face which suggested, resonantly, in the depths the truth about our natures.” Of course, there’s Virginia Woolf’s wonderful Orlando, in which male Orlando turns into a female: “Different though the sexes are, they intermix.” Similarly, in an interview we did several years ago you said, “Like all things, I think femininity and masculinity are distinctive up to a certain point, at which point distinction itself as a mode of understanding collapses.” The free jazz of human bodiness fascinates me – which isn’t to downplay peculiar, poignant male-female interplay. Your thoughts on contradiction, gender and sexuality? Do you have a metaphysic of your nature as a lesbian?

I find your question barely connected to Order Sutra, but that doesn’t mean I won’t answer it. Also, let me point out that I seldom identify as a lesbian. To people that understand what the hell I’m talking about, I identify as queer. “Lesbian” is a label I’ll toss out just to give your grandmother something she might be able to digest. I try to assert my difference using whatever type of English the audience is most likely to comprehend. I don’t have a metaphysic on my nature because having one doesn’t make it any easier to live day to day. So I’m agnostic about being a queer. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like to look in the mirror though. Again, your concern for content is beside the point. Contradiction is a form. Gender is a form. Sexuality is a form. Fill them up with whatever content you want.

Contradiction as a form appears often in Order Sutra. Gender and sexuality, much less so. It seems clear that language can be encoded with masculine or feminine or queer or straight markers. Passive versus active voice in the syntax, particular diction choices about words that men will only use in the company of each other, etc. The “embalmed” piece, which is probably my own favorite in the book, is meant to be inflected robotically. When I read it for an audience, I approximate the smartphone Siri voice. People spend a lot of time on the gendered or sexualizing content of a text, but why not spend the same amount of time on its form? Is contradiction an inherently masculine formation of logic, for example? The voice of that piece does sound extremely masculine, even without knowing the speaker is an emperor. Even without the content of the words. In the end, what I said a few years ago still sounds totally correct: “distinction as a mode of understanding itself collapses.”


“frenzied” involves criticism of hostility toward the Other and satirizes the often myopic notion of true civilization, the utopian Bodysnatcher mentality: “The women are frenzied. The homosexuals are frenzied…You are one of us now. Therefore, you are not frenzied.” While the implications are obvious, please tell us more about the piece. Do you think a more honest discourse and genuine harmony (not utopian, for all utopias are dystopias) can be achieved now that sexuality and gender issues are so prevalent, mainstream and mighty today?

It’s a “waiting for the barbarians” thing, which is about both Cavafy and Nietzsche. This is written in the minor key of irate bosses – a little more honest than it’d like to be, and definitely not interested in harmony. It’s a piece that blue collar folks will laugh about, because they’ll recognize these noises. The voice of this text is holding a clipboard and checking your work, and it’s annoying. But it’s also annoyed. It thinks you’re the dumb one and it has no self-awareness outside of saving its own skin under company policy. It’s faux benevolent and it reeks of marketing.

I’m only a dabbler in guitar, so I know relatively little about harmony. A lot of people find me genuine–too much so. My seeming ability to be genuine may run contrary to any ability to achieve harmony. Though the particulars of gender or sexuality may be proliferating through the courts and televisions, I see no end of otherizing. We rely upon it far too much as a form. I mean, even think about how I’ve structured my response to your questions. I’ve been constantly dismissing your urge to analyze content, privileging instead some idea of functions that purport to be “whatever is outside of content.” To readers of the interview at this point, you’re likely coming across as “frenzied.”

Ah, shit…did I just step into your fantasy that I have everything here under control? You belong to the emperor now, son! Ha ha. Let us please always arrive at a joke together. There’s your fucking harmony. That’s the absolute best humanity can do. Order Sutra is full of jokes, I hope. Some more doomy than others, I hope.


Let’s return to “belonging to the emperor” again. I can’t shake the “I am furious and love furiously” line. So perfect. I’ve found that the deepest, bluest melancholy splits open and spills out a furious love, an indiscriminate joy. There must be something to this, right? Despite all the false forms and illusions, there is love, isn’t there? Well, what the hell is it? And where does it come from?

I don’t know where love comes from, but love is indeed existent. And I know where all existences try to go: language.



David Herrle interviews Bunny Goodjohn, author of BONE SONG

published by Briery Creek Press, 2015
learn more/order 
Bunny Goodjohn’s official site 




DAVID: From your “Hotel” poem:

In a room with flock paper and a dresser
whose drawers had never held anything
precious for more than a few nights,
I used sex—illicit and fumbled—
to wreck a marriage.

Let’s talk infidelity. There seems to be a growing laudatory regard for it as a kind of “empowerment” or a necessary rite for triumph against identity crisis. Such is shown in a lot of TV shows and films (though keener works such as Adrian Lyne’s devastating Unfaithful and Fatal Attraction, Liv Ullmann’s Faithless, and Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz depict cheating’s wretched fruit). Really, in most cases, it’s impulsive rebellion against boredom (a terrifying state) and the natural diminution of passion, a basic mishandling of powerful and brief desire that sows emotional destruction and kicks off a continuous series of highs and abysmal disappointments. Thoughts?

BUNNY: Jesus, it wasn’t lauded when I was doing it! I think you nail it when you title infidelity as a “mishandling of…desire.” I never knew how to handle the rush that came from being wanted – intensely wanted – by another human being. Don’t get me wrong: I grew up loved, but my parents were busy working and earning enough to pay the rent and to feed and clothe us kids. One-on-one attention was in short supply. I also think that my lust for attention (and it was lust) and for its “continuous series of highs and abysmal disappointments” was a prerequisite for the alcoholism that kicked into overdrive in my 30s. Of course, all addiction feeds on those highs and lows. It’s the perpetual motion of craving.

DAVID: Sticking with the infidelity topic, in “Fragments,” one of my favorite pieces in Bone Song, you write “There is never a fantasy of husband, children,/a yellow dog. Just these flints, these edges/of desire…” This is why the courtly love literary tradition has premarital or extramarital affairs as its requisite: the coupling’s success lies in its brevity, intensity and unfamiliarity. Reality and routine spoil the illusion of everlasting ecstasy. Painter John Currin said in a recent ArtNews interview that “good melancholy comes from a thwarted joy, which is another way to describe parenthood or marriage or being alive.” What do you think of the nature of infidelity, especially as portrayed in different kinds of art? Has the pendulum swung too far from the old-fashioned shame of it, or is there more positive power in it than I perceived? “Ah, Love–a golden disintegration” is the closing line in “Fragments.” What do you mean by that?

BUNNY: Ah, three big questions! Currin understands the value of misery. Doesn’t most good art (and action) come from “thwarted joy?” Undoubtedly some art comes from that “it’s good to be alive” feeling, but more has its feet in the bleaker “Why the hell is this happening?” place. Currin talks about “good melancholy” and, for me, the value of melancholy comes from the way trouble – either its grip or its resolution– makes us step back and consider. We step back in order to work out how we came to be standing on this edge, and maybe to work out an alternative route to where we want to be. Back to infidelity. I think it comes from fear and an inability or an unwillingness to persevere. What are we all afraid of, really? Probably death, and given then that marriage is predicated on a commitment “until death us to part” and is often entered into before we’re really old enough to understand the enormity of time, I am unsurprised by infidelity. Perhaps with marriage being put off until later infidelity is less rife. But given our current tendency to prolong childhood, our thirty-year-olds are likely less mature than the twenty-year-olds of the 1970s and 1980s.

I’ve dodged your question about the portrayal of infidelity’s shame/bravado in art. I don’t know much about art. I know I love certain paintings and painters. Currin, of course. Paula Rego, for sure. Rego is all about disintegration: of love, of fidelity, of family. She doesn’t imagine disintegration: she represents it on canvas. Love is a disintegration: of the self, of autonomy. One just has to decide whether love’s reward is worth its cost. The speaker in “Fragments” has come to understand that for her, any kind of love – either the standard husband, kids and dog variety, or the lone woman indulging her own sexual fantasies without any regard for convention kind – requires a certain disintegration of self. But, hell, she hasn’t worked out yet if the price is too high. (“Ah, Love…”)

DAVID: I mention John Currin in the previous question because your “Chronology” poem is inspired by his splendid Pink Tree. A sample from the poem before we go on:

At first glance, I thought Currin had caught us
yesterday in the sculpture garden—see the way
the morning sun gilds your hair like honey
through glass, the way your fingers cradle
the coral branch: petrified blooms in a bright
bone nest. He’s captured the way my eyes
forever scorch the things they crave.

I thought he had caught us before our secrets
crowned last night, before the waitress—
all hennaed hands and glass rings—brought
the tray of kinche, kikalicha, those grotesque
sheets of injera, before you took my hand,
traced HIV upon the tablecloth.

This piece is beautifully composed – and pretty esoteric. Much of Currin’s work is quite erotic, so I wonder if there’s a hazy Sapphic core in “Chronology.” Currin’s been called a sexist, but I think such accusations are often over-simple. In fact, he has reduced his provocative stuff due to being tired of worrying about puritanical scolding. Your thoughts?

BUNNY: You know, David, I think the act of writing allows me to approach myself sideways on. I remember seeing Pink Tree for the first time at the Hirschhorn in DC. At the time, I was firmly married, vaguely unhappy and in what would be the last year of active alcoholism (so far, at least).  I remember looking at those women and feeling something shift within. I realized I was terribly lonely inside my life, inside that life’s choices. I didn’t know what these women had, what relationship they shared but I felt myself lusting for it. I knew at that point that my life was about to jump the tracks and crash. I was at the end of a series of scorchings.  I think I’m still in that “Sapphic haze” and it is a haze. Ten years on and I’m not really sure what I crave now. But the poem allowed me the space back then to consider another life, another love, another direction for my scorchings.

Currin the Artist is a bad boy. He’s quite brilliant and stops at nothing in order to connect with audience. And connection isn’t always comfortable. I don’t think he really cares about that discomfort, or maybe he didn’t when he was younger. But being provocative is exhausting. I don’t know anything about Currin the Man. But I do wonder if his work is representative of his private or of his public self.

DAVID: Your blog is literature in itself. Would you ever consider compiling the best posts in a book of accidental essays, so to speak?

BUNNY: Thank you. I’m not sure about creative nonfiction. I mean, I love it. The tiny essays in Brevity have always drawn me to the genre. But I’m not sure I like the constriction of nonfiction. I mean, I can use my truth in poems and fiction and then deny it. When I’m pushed as to whether the poem is “about me,” I can do the knowing smile thing and avoid. Creative nonfiction lays you bare. I do it as the blog attests. But it makes me worry about my family and how they might feel flayed by my recollections. I don’t know that I have the right to do that, and I could see some flaying taking place if I ever really ran with CNF.

DAVID: You were crushing on – no, “lusting for” – John Wayne, at least his character in Hondo, in a poem called “Falling for Mr. Lane.”

I felt a rush of sap for John Wayne,
a man I had always dismissed
as too old for sex. But
there he was, strutting around
the prairie, patronizing Mrs. Lowe
and puffing out his chest at Indians.

Here’s what Marlene Dietrich said to director Tay Garnett when she saw John Wayne for the first time: “Daddy, buy me that.” Katharine Hepburn also expressed visceral attraction to the man in spite of their polarized politics, which is good, because sudden, palpable attraction shouldn’t be polluted by biography. I suspect that the whole “only beautiful on the outside” thing is for show, and, as artist Marilyn Minter said, “nobody has politically correct fantasies.” Think back to Paula Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” song from the 1990s, which includes a hankering for John Wayne and even the Marlboro Man. (I reject that the song and stuff like it are regressions from feminist progress.) Since John Wayne is an unlikely sex symbol for you, what do chalk this up to?

BUNNY: It’s all about Daddy. I hate to be cliche (and maybe weird) about it, but John Wayne is a sexual father figure. My experience of growing up was that when you were little, you ached for your dad to spend time with you, to play with you, to buy you sweeties. When you got a bit older, maybe pre-adolescent, you vied with your mum for time with dad. Your dad was the first male you flirted with in order to get what you wanted. But one minute you could be sweet-talking your smiling dad in order to get out of eating cabbage and cold gravy (“Daddy, have I told you how much I love you?”) and the next minute you’re grizzling in bed because he’s turned into Grumpy Dad and sent you away so he and your mum can watch Come Dancing in peace. So John Wayne as Hondo, as Rooster Cogburn, as John Chism, is the same character: one minute throwing you over his horse so he can have his way with you (“Ma’am”) and the next minute leaving you behind in the dust because he wants to run after Indians.

DAVID: Alcoholism – your alcoholism, to be exact – is an obvious concern in Bone Song. I wonder if the alcoholic sees a deeper irony in the parallel suffering of fellow alcoholics that “clean” folks may miss. In one of many heartbreaking poems in the book, “Cirrhosis,” you sit by a friend (a former rehab colleague?) named Zed, who is apparently dying of the title disease. A masterful but very sad juxtaposition of images comes in the closing stanzas: “Your tremors cease then shudder/on through a waltz of wasted muscle” and “a memory:/you, in a tuxedo, uncorking champagne;/silver bubbles spinning across the room.”

Films such as Kubrick’s The Shining, Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, Betty Thomas’ 28 Days, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend and Blake Edwards’The Days of Wine and Roses revolve around alcoholics. How do you react to such portrayals? Do you know of any books that deal poignantly with alcoholism? Also, a popular sentiment these days is the insistence that diseases “don’t define you.” But they do – at least in part, don’t they?

BUNNY: Oh, gosh. Such a huge and constantly morphing subject. When I got sober back in 2005, it was a shit-or-bust moment. I had got to the blackout stage, so I was drunk and doing crazy stuff that I had no recollection of. My liver had stopped being reliable in that sometimes one drink would push me to blackout and other times, I couldn’t seem to drink enough to reach the place I craved. So I spent the first three years of sobriety inside AA. I went to meetings every day, sometimes twice a day. It saved me. I watched all those movies, even The Days of Wine and Roses! I had been lonely for so many years, locked inside my drinking. I didn’t know how to be a friend. I didn’t know how to navigate friendship’s boundaries. I practiced with other drunks and addicts in church basements, and they taught me how. I am an alcoholic. I’m not drinking today. Being an alcoholic is part of my definition. Add to that other truths: I’m female, British, liberal, a loner, an introvert. They all begin to explain who I am. They are the shorthand for Bunny. Of course, I am a host of other things, but those are at my core.  I’m more comfortable if everyone knows my truths up front. It saves time.

DAVID: The book’s title poem happens in rehab, and the experience seems more like a cynical countdown to completion more than a fully embraced spirit-cleansing therapy. Your incorporation of the “bone” theme is quite clever: “Day breaks sharp as bone,” “promissory/pills to splint each brittle hour’s bones, “then bare-boned/Gratitudes,” “we queue for Lunch, silent and bone/weary,” “When addiction’s bones/sing to me,” “to watch day’s/end send home the shrinks to rest their own weary bones,” “Red-boned night and birds roost” and “more promises: each one bleak, black, weak as bone.” 
After all those iterations, why, finally, “weak as bone,” considering how much bone is used as a metaphor for strength and durability? Was rehab a nuisance, a breaking of a wild stallion, rather than a benign therapy?

BUNNY: The sestina “Bone Song” is the hinge of this collection. It looks at what happened when my train finally leapt its tracks. Rehab was a necessary part of the process for me. And yet, when I left, after some 15 days when my insurance ran out (oh, how I wanted the full 28!), I still didn’t realize that my life was in my hands. I felt life was a series of transactions: you do this,and then I’ll do that; you be nice, and I’ll be nice; you touch me there, and I’ll touch you there. So I came out thinking that I would make promises about my sobriety (I’ll go to meetings, I’ll get a sponsor, I’ll read the Big Book and so on) and you (my husband, my employer, my friends) would make promises in return (I’ll still love you, we’ll hold your job open, I won’t fuck your husband any more). I came to realize that all promises have their fault lines, their weaknesses. You can deal in fractured promises without realizing it. A promise can be the hip bone that gives way when you’re walking on a sunny morning to the mailbox.

I loved rehab. We had to go down to the hospital basement for a weekly AA meeting. The room was also used for the rehabilitation of stroke patients. So it was full of padded mats and weird benches and equipment. I used to sit there in group and fantasize about living out the rest of my life in that room.

DAVID: Child molestation and rape pop up in Bone Song’s “First,” “The Saginaw Ladder” and “Point of View.”  And, judging by the breath-catching phrase “Daddy’s way of loving us,” one of your experiences of it was incestual. Sexual violation has got to be the worst crime that leaves the victim alive. Though it’s almost too obvious to trace addiction and self-destructive behavior back to such early trauma, can you expand on this unsavory subject?

BUNNY: So, I have to say that not all these poems are autobiographical. But “First” is: I was sexualized at the age of nine. But it’s tricky, David. It wasn’t until my late 30s and a rainy afternoon with nothing better to do than watch Oprah’s show that I realized that much of what happened to me during those years between nine and maybe fifteen would be seen as abuse. I had iced that particularly cake with Love and Romance and Desire. I think what happened (see? still can’t use the A word) skewed my view of the world and of my role in it. The poem “Point of View” is about incest, but it has no direct connection to my own life. However, Paula Rego’s painting Family pushed me into a space where I was able to examine my feelings about my own experience and to compare it to this more standardized “acceptable” face of incest: of Daddy diddling the kids and Mum being oblivious. Again, that wasn’t my experience. But my ongoing questions about what happened to me and what to call it come out in the “remember, there are two sides / to every story” chime. Was I harmed by what happened to me? You bet I was. Does it continue to harm me? I don’t know. I do know that my experience shaped the way I have lived my life. On reflection, I have loved that life, and there is little I would want to change. If someone offered to erase those four or five years, I think I would have to decline. I am who I am today because of what I have done, where I have been, and who I have met. I like who I am today.

DAVID: What about you and dogs? Dogs are the direct focus in “How to Train a Dog” and “Negative Capability,” but they also appear in “Separation,” a piece about how you and your estranged husband continued to share some habitual interaction, and in “Bone Song” you write down “DOG” for a Gratitudes exercise. Tell us about you and dogs.

BUNNY: My oldest sister was allergic to fur when we were growing up. I desperately wanted an animal to love. But this allergy and my mother’s fear of all the extra work a pet would bring (she was already exhausted) meant I never had a dog or a cat. My grandma used to let me play with her fox fur. That was as close as I got. So in adult life, I have made sure to have animals around me. I’ve had two husbands and seven lovers. I’ve had two dogs and nine cats. Today, I choose to live alone with animals. I have a dog called Bubba who is the love of my life. He’s the one who makes me leave the house and walk every day. He’s the one who makes me care for something other than myself. He teaches me about living in the moment, about not caring too much about any one “toy.” I have a cat called Dora who reminds me on a daily basis how heavy I find the burden of affection (that realization – arrived at just now and sideways as ever – just made me cry).

DAVID: “Negative Capability” contains a denial of the common belief dog owners have in their pets’ reciprocal love. You point out that your dog, despite all of the amenities and care you provide for him, prefers to loaf outdoors “with the scrubby grass and all its insects.” Then comes an appraisal of humanity’s alienation from nature, which casts the dog’s preference in a nobler light.

And I am sad. Not because I feel he doesn’t love me
enough to come in, to settle on the bed alongside me, to give me
his paw, but more because I am merely human and

have somehow lost my place in all this, my ability to be still,
to set aside my machinations, to be quiet with beauty,
to love all this like a dog.

I would call humanity’s partial alienation from nature transcendence rather than decadence. Maybe this is our “place in all this.” Oscar Wilde’s Vivian warned of Nature’s destruction of art, and painter James Whistler said that “to say to the painter that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player that he may sit on the piano.” I do appreciate and occasionally share your wish “to be still” and “be quiet with beauty,” but could the common dream of a return to nature be a mistaken panacea? Also, why the title? Is it based in any way on John Keats’ treatment of Negative Capability: juggling contradictions without forcing wholeness and stuffing the world into a proper box? Please expand on your thoughts on nature and human alienation.

BUNNY: It is about Keats’ Negative Capability. That extract from his letter to his brothers is pasted to my wall. For me, it’s not so much a yearning for nature or simplicity or for the ease I think those things would bring to my life. More, I wish I were more willing to “embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity.” That’s what Bubba manages to do. He is absolutely in the moment. He doesn’t worry about upsetting me by staying outside. He’s regularly mystified by the fact that the front door and the back door both lead to the same place…but he’s okay with that mystery. He licks me as if I were ice cream…and wants to tear the throat off the mailman. I think Keats would consider Bubba as having aced Negative Capability.

DAVID: In Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” Strephon explores his girlfriend Celia’s boudoir and discovers that she isn’t the goddess she appears to be. Besides learning the painstaking lie of cosmetics and apparel, the truth of her full toilet confounds him: “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!…Should I the queen of love refuse,/Because she rose from stinking ooze?…Such order from confusion sprung,/Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.” The unavoidable necessity of excretion overwhelms our sense of dignity, says Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death: “Nature mocks us, and poets live in torture.” (It’s no wonder that the Nazis themselves nicknamed Auschwitz the “world’s anus.”) I drag us down into the chamber pot in order to roundaboutly ask you about your view of inevitable entropy, death and decay. Do you believe in a transcendent side to the coin of existence? Must “poets live in torture” after plumbing the depths and sharing in Hamlet’s ponderation of the skull?

BUNNY: I’m fascinated by death and damage. Today, in an email conversation, my sister said she would hunt out examples of “deprivation as grist for my mill.” We were talking about my desire to return to a seaside resort from our childhood, which has fallen on hard times, economic and social. I want to rent a cheap caravan on the clifftop at Jaywick and write for a summer. She cannot think of anything worse.

I don’t think we poets opt to “live in torture”…or at least I don’t. But I want to see some torture. I am the rubbernecker at crash sites. I am the Yik Yak lurker in search of suicide voices. I would have attended public hangings in Hackney. I would have paid my penny at Bedlam’s turnstile in order to watch the lunatics at play. I am fascinated by this side of the coin. My interest in the other side, the transcendent side, is another example of those sideways glances. I am convinced that this grubbing around we do day in and day out cannot be all there is. And yet, in these days of not drinking, I am more drawn to Keats’ Negative Capability than to the endless hours of whiskey-fueled questioning of human (and inhuman) nature. I would rather lie outside in the dark grass with all those insects. 

DAVID: If you’ve the luxury of time, lucidity and relative comfort right before your death, how might you summarize and evaluate what you look back on?

BUNNY: I worry that in those moments I’ll wish I had taken more risks. Perhaps that response comes from having lived the past ten years in sobriety and a place of relative calm. I can contrast this life now with that of my teens and twenties when I was desperate to be accepted, to be normal, to be Everywoman. It was a maelstrom managed only by numbing: with men, with sex, with alcohol. The alcohol solution was new to me in those years and therefore damaging but exciting. My thirties were a hot mess of leavings: relationships, lovers, continents, bad moves and worse ideas. I began to write in my forties. And I began to settle. As I move through my fifties, I can feel some chaos at the edges of this calm life, and I wonder if those risks I think I might wish for if I were to face death today or tomorrow or next week will come to pass in this next decade.

I would not change a thing. Not a liaison, a drunken blackout, a bad marriage. Nothing. Although I might have flossed more.


Read excerpts from Bone Song here


David Herrle interviews artist Lana Gentry

Lana by Kristy Evans

In “As Much Truth as One Can Bear” James Baldwin wrote that “the multiple truths about a people are revealed by that people’s artists – that is what the artists are for.”  This is part of why I love to share the thoughts of worthy artists in my interviews.  SubtleTea welcomes a particularly thoughtful and stylistic artist this time around: Lana Gentry.



DH: I’ve had many Muses, but dammit, I’ve never been a Muse. But you, you’re a living, breathing one! And there are hundreds of portraits of you done by artists from here to everywhere to prove it. You seem humble about being pretty, but let’s be honest here, you’re easy on the eyes (and a former model). Despite your response to praise, beauty is a game of both canvas and palette, and beautifying oneself is an art in itself. How and when did this enviable phenomenon of Musedom originate – and is it enviable? What is it like to see yourself through other artists’ eyes?


LG: I was far too round and short for any runway modeling. LOL. I did some pin-up stuff in my youth to survive. I don’t feel any shame about that.  As far as the portraits go, in all humility, I have many friends who have been painted and drawn quite a few times. Of course it is true that I have amassed a few portraits.  The real answer is that I do not know why the phenomenon is in full swing even now, but I have a few theories I will address in a moment.

First of all, I am not that easy on the eyes. I am rife with imperfections. I feel grateful to be presented in glorious ways: normal and defiling ways. I am not thin, I am not young, my teeth are crooked and gapped, I am not very tall. I stand at 5’3″. I meet no conventional standard of beauty.  I believe the portrait phenomenon is comprised of a few things. I have always surrounded myself with creative thinkers. I always find myself commenting on artists’ works online, chatting them, hanging out with them in real life, writing about them, interviewing them, and sometimes creating portraits as well. I have a very strong connection to artists. I always have; it is a lifestyle. I came from a family of gifted artists. This was true in my immediate family and also my extended family. Both of my parents had amazing creative abilities. I would say the portrait thing has been going on for about nine or 10 years now, if you are referring to the online collection of portraits. I also have portraits of me done by family members and intimate friends, so in that regard, perhaps longer. I do not post them all, but I post the ones sent to me online or portraits the artists have approved for public consumption. I’ve lost count, but it currently exceeds 350. 


DH: Despite my usual hesitation to classify stuff, I’d put your visual art somewhere between Lowbrow and Romanticism. Sensuous, but intellectually seasoned Art Nouveau, mixed with Sendakan fantasy, Surrealism, psychedelia, and an old-school political-cartoon vibe. It also has a slight Giulio Campagnola flavor. I like how you incorporate handwritten text (a la iconoclast Ray Pettibon and mystic William Blake), whether it’s an epigraph or something from your own mind. How would you describe your work? Why are you an artist rather than a lawyer or a riveter?

Well I doubt very seriously I could ever pass the bar. LOL! Although I do enjoy a good debate. My art has been categorized in a number of ways. As classifications go, I hear more than anything else, self-taught or outsider art, folk art, dark art etc.  My work has even been likened to prison art. My father was a convict at some point and an artist as well, so maybe that contributed. These categorizations do not offend me. I’m lucky anyone gives a fuck to hate or love me or my work. I’m not defined by classification. I see my own art as more of a personal type of journaling. When I am inspired by people or life events (both good and bad), I am inclined to document those experiences. Because my creativity mostly excludes conscious influences, I find it hard to categorize it myself. On the other hand, if people wish to categorize it for shows, 
reviews, articles and so on, I humbly accept any observations about what it is that I do.


 But I Do Remember by Lana

I know you’re an admirer of Ayn Rand’s work. Like me, you seem to savor the honey and spit out the bees in you admiration. Sure, her puritanical rigidity, rude infidelity, apparent inability to admit failure, and reduction of fallen-short folks to infidels are turn-offs, but her foibles remind us that even anti-utopian utopians aren’t perfect. I think much of the vehement bashing of Rand (often by lazy bums who haven’t really read her stuff) borders on psychosis. Often she’s mistaken as a Libertarian (an affiliation she despised) or a staunch conservative, while she was anything but and would hiss at GOP pols (“the hippies of the right”) who mix lukewarm Objectivism with collectivist compromise and religion (also despised by her) in their flimsy rhetoric and actions. I think she was ever tormented by America’s muddy waters of morals, economics and politics, fearing a repeat of what the Bolsheviks wrought in her native country.

Bottom line: she said that “there’s no such thing as a worthless human being – unless he makes himself such.”  What is your attraction to Rand, Lana? How do you react to folks who criticize that attraction? How do parts of her philosophy influence you?

LG: Yes I definitely agree that her native country and what she observed had a profound impact on her life and work. I stumbled upon her philosophical fiction in my early twenties and I always saw much of what I did enjoy as more corroborating than influential. I think once her name became affiliated with certain circles (as you have mentioned) this amped up the hatred for her, although this hatred always existed for reasons explained in her works. Her works in fact are about that very hatred that exist in men who have a particular distaste for the individual. Rand’s radical and obvious ideas reject mysticism and blind allegiance to anything. 

I like the term “savor the honey and spit out the bees”.  I do not agree with everything Ayn Rand ever said, nor can I necessarily be in keeping with the stark manner in which it could sometimes be delivered. She was hotheaded on occasion while struggling to have a clear view of reality. She was human.  She was passionate and although she fought her emotional side, she did have one.  She had emotions, although she did not believe they were a good instrument for measuring right from wrong. Having said that, I do admire a lot what she has written. 

To understand my deep appreciation for many of her quotes and writings, you would have to understand my dark past.  I’ve lived in the prison of poverty, addiction, and homelessness. I’ve lived among people who were violent and absolutely unaccountable for anything. There was a lack of reason in my household growing up. Although I love my parents and have made peace with both my living father and my deceased mother, I yearned for stability and accountability. They had virtues and vices like all parents, but I longed for the opportunity to change my reality. It was confirmed through some of the writings of Rand that I did not have to submit to a life of masochism and servitude. In my case I had a mind and an unrelenting fervor to escape my misery and I knew that I could. The thought of taking control of my life to the degree that I could, was frightening but also invigorating and exalting. All the women I have admired have been women who have stepped around obstacles to achieve their goals. These would also include Oprah Winfrey, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martha Stewart, Wendy O. Williams, Camille Paglia, Radcliffe Hall, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Virginia Woolf, and so on. I’ve always been drawn to tough women. I like the ones who step out of line to proclaim their existence. 

I don’t bother much anymore with the criticism railed at me for appreciating some of Ayn Rand’s work. Mainly because it is so obvious that many of the people criticizing me for appreciating certain aspects of her work have based their contempt on non-contextualized quotes, false quotes, agenda-driven motives, and blatant misunderstandings. They rarely venture into the realms of true philosophical debate. Some do and some genuinely disagree philosophically. I can respect opposing views. I cannot rightfully assault people or deem them inept for disagreeing with me while simultaneously requesting their respect for my views.  When certain people make an attempt to engage me though, it usually takes hours just to unweave the tapestry of lies they’ve been fed. They just call me names, and post links to bullshit sites.

Here is a dismantling of some myths that exist about Ayn Rand: Ayn Rand did not support a military draft. Ayn Rand did not revile poor people. Ayn Rand did not support the idea of not collecting social security or disability. This myth has been used to create an illusion of hypocrisy by saying she was a hypocrite for receiving Social Security. First of all I’m not sure it was ever firmly proven that she collected Social Security, although I would not doubt it. She was a part of that system by virtue of living in America. Secondly, it is reiterated in her material, that men who have contributed to society and had their funds taken by legal force through the IRS, deserved the opportunity to reclaim some of what was rightfully theirs. What I appreciated about her work was the idea that blaming others was unfruitful, using emotions as primary tools of cognition was dangerous, and her shining a light on the idea that the world was filled with people who were driven by jealousy, undeserved power, and the need to destroy genius. She acknowledged other malevolent forces, which have historically and consistently crumbled societies. 

Ayn Rand was a staunch atheist, and she constantly rallied for a separation of church and state. She was pro-choice as well. She did not view the “rape scene” as a rape scene in The Fountainhead. She was creating a scenario of tension and passion. She wrote one of the best essays I have ever read about the stupidity of racism.  She opposed nepotism, monopolies and cronyism. She believed that money was not the corruptor of man: that he was either immoral or he wasn’t.  These are some of her virtues, not vices. But you never read about these online. You read about her associations to Libertarianism and Conservatism. She had very strong views that opposed so many ideas in all parties.  Was she perfect? No she was not perfect. But I say show me your heroes, the personalities behind any kind of art, writing, acting, or anything else that you admire.  Show me your music collection, your most appreciated books and films. Show me your heroes and let me do a background check. Let me then decide if I deserve to be spoken to the way people have spoken to me online about quoting Ayn Rand.  I no longer discuss it online, not because I am afraid but because it is an exhausting full time job that creates a lot of division, rage and misunderstanding. If you hate me for appreciating the works of any artist, writer, poet, philosopher, musician or whomever, that’s too bad. Open up that indoctrinated steel trap you call a mind. Better yet, go fuck yourself. 

Despite its flaws,
Atlas Shrugged, the culmination of Rand’s ever-reiterated moral philosophy, belongs up there with books such as 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Wanting Seed and A Clockwork Orange. The novel’s central hero, John Galt, is the apotheosis of the author’s deepest fetishes and highest ideals, including her girlhood crush on The Mysterious Valley’s iron-willed Cyrus Paltons and The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark.  However, Galt is the most boring element in the novel. Rand considered art to be “a concretization of metaphysics,” and I think he is only that, not a character. “You don’t exist,” Rand wrote to herself in the 1920s.“You are only a writing engine.” Galt is an Objectivism engine, a capitalism engine, Rand’s statue-like savior. “Who is John Galt?” All A, no non-A. No nuance, misgivings or ambivalence. 

I know that you prefer The Fountainhead to Atlas Shrugged, and Howard Roark, Galt’s more-blooded prototype and analogue (naïve idealization?) of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. (If anything, she should be recognized for being perhaps the strongest endorser of modern architecture and Wright’s renaissance in the last century.) Tell us about your love of The Fountainhead and your hots for Roark. Does his uncompromising defense of creative integrity affect your own artistic ethos? Also, spiel on the significance of your Ugly and Reprehensible piece, which features a nude self-portrait flanked by the heads of Rand and the intellectual heir, Dr. Leonard Peikoff. 

LG: Many anti-Capitalists are still enjoying Capitalism every day when they wake up. Of course they’ve not lived under Communist or tyrannical regimes. They stand at a distance with expensive lattes proclaiming the virtues of Communism or other evil methods of governing. They’ve not been blocked from selling or making their art or any fucking thing else. They haven’t been to prison or killed for making art. No one’s chopping their heads off for being female, atheist or gay. They aren’t slaves to tyrannical governments the way other people are. They think they are – but they aren’t. Those Neo-Americans, how they long to suffer as much as others do. 

Everyone is A and non-A. I will not answer “Who is John Galt?” because it is the hook that leads to the book. As far as my preference, thanks for doing your homework. I do prefer The Fountainhead to Atlas Shrugged. It has a more natural flow in my mind.  I am not so much influenced by Rand’s character Howard Roark, but, rather, I’m psychologically corroborated by the conviction and integrity his character held with regard to his own creative vision. He had no interest in duplicating existing works. He believed in an honest exchange among men and he chose to work in a rock quarry while maintaining those creative ethics on his journey. He rejected the notion of consistently working in his field until he achieved a state of no compromise.

Both books push the idea of creativity and original thought. They heed a warning about a world to come, that does not allow a man to simply be himself. The idea is that men have so often traded their individualism for collectivism under the guise of being noble. In The Fountainhead, there is a strong message about the rejection of collectivism versus the embrace of individualism. It rejects sheepish thinking which includes religion or any non-religious dogma that resembles it. The Fountainhead illuminated the idea that man’s personal desires, visions, and achievements had the right to stand on their own without contamination or compromise. I would think that even if people hated the works of Ayn Rand, that they could appreciate my appreciation for such an idea.  Are these views popular? Well, fuck no they aren’t. Then again, life’s not a popularity contest. I wasn’t put on this earth to kiss anyone’s ass. That’s not my view of a happy life.

You referred to the significance of my work Ugly and Reprehensible, which includes images of Rand and Peikoff.  This came from a personal experience that happened many years back. I had drawn a very small portrait of Ayn Rand, and I believe I named it Patron Saint of Reason: replacing the religious, mystical figure with one of reason and rationality, Ayn Rand. My friend who was working with me at the time helped me send out letters to many galleries, organizations, collectors to bring light to my work. One such letter was sent to The Ayn Rand Institute because it was related. I knew that Ayn Rand as well as her followers had specific views on art. So I am accountable there. This was one area with which I never completely agreed with the Objectivists anyway. So Dr. Leonard Peikoff, an author, co-writer, intellectual heir and friend of the deceased Rand, returned a scathing and cruel reply via secretary that addressed my portrait, calling it “ugly and reprehensible.”  I didn’t mind the “ugly” as much as the “reprehensible”. 

That “reprehensible” cut me to the quick. It implied that I had some evil intent with regard to doing the drawing. He wasn’t an art scholar or instructor but reading those particular words would not have been easy coming from anyone at that point in my life. Since the organization was so firmly tied to the idea of individualism, it really seemed like a strange thing for him to say.  So that’s why I did the piece, as an answer to what I thought and felt was a hypocritical and unnecessarily cruel note from Peikoff’s secretary, quoting Peikoff. I have since stomached much more criticism and it has trumped the criticism given by Peikoff. I am not unaffected by what people think, but I am much less affected by the things people think and say than I used to be. I understand that he has every right to his opinion, just like anyone, whether it makes sense to me or not. It’s an opinion. I had to also consider that he adored and knew this person. But yeah…whatever.  I don’t hold grudges…much. 

The Fountainhead by Lana 

What degree did you earn at Satan’s School for Girls?

LG: Well I didn’t earn anything really. It was all in jest. Since I already had a heavy fan base of Satanists who were completely convinced I was a witch, I just went along. They all tell me you can be practicing witchcraft without even knowing it. After being alerted to the fact that Anton LaVey, founder of the modern church of Satan, was deeply influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand, it all started to come together. LaVey had apparently paraphrased Ayn Rand’s writings and incorporated them into the foundation of the church. Once I understood this, it was clear why any philosophical words from me, which held in part an Objectivist viewpoint, might be seen as Satanic. I have learned a bit about the history of Satanism from artist Stephen Leyba, who was anointed years back as a Satanic minister (by LaVey). 


DH: Magritte said that worthy painters should specialize in images rather than ideas. Having a soft spot for art for art’s sake, I tend to yawn at political/moral works, especially preachy progressive or religious ones. However, when the frivolous reigns, I want manifestos. And I do reject art that only deconstructs or shatters ideas. 

What matters most to you in your own art – the image or the idea, or is the dichotomy unnecessary? What does art ultimately mean to you?

LG: Some artists think that art has to have a purpose beyond producing joy in the eye of the viewer. Others think that art has a primary obligation to produce joy in the eye of the viewer. There are other interpretations that address the meaning of art and there have been since the beginning of art. I am not a scholar, but an artist. For me personally, art or creative writing represents and releases my thoughts and feelings. That’s it. Everyone is different. Even in my portraits of others, it becomes a way of laying myself bare and throwing back the world as I see it…or feel it. 

Any benefits that may or may not come from it have little to do with what internally drives me to do it. I am just compelled to do it. That’s all I know. 


DH: How far should an artist’s biography color his or her artistic reception? Can one can be in extreme disagreement with aspects of the personal lives and world views of artists, including actors, but appreciate much – if not all – of their work? David Byrne put it perfectly in his Bicycle Diaries: “My definition of what is good art…isn’t determined by the biography of its creator…At what point does the extra-creative activity of the person begin to make a difference in how we perceive their work?”

George Orwell nailed it in his incensed criticism of the ultra-controversial Salvador Dali: “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously to the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other.” How do you approach artists and their art (or art and its artists)? How do you navigate the glory and garbage?

LG: Ah yes, this is a question I have incessantly grappled with within myself forever. It should not differ really from public boycotts of businesses who support views we do not hold, and yet, often, art does. People will forgive certain artists any sin regardless of the weight of its seriousness. The artist as opposed to the art are not always as closely related as people believe. Some are, sure. Many argue that an artist’s work reflects his deepest held convictions and values. However, when you have seen that serial-killer John Wayne Gacy has painted a field of flowers or what might have been an entertaining, benevolent clown had we not known his nature, it gets confusing doesn’t it? Then you have some humanitarians making some of the most disturbing art you ever laid your eyes on. Artists, for instance, may use a swastika or a cross in a work, and if you don’t know them personally you aren’t sure if they are opposing, demystifying or endorsing these symbols.

Thomas Kincade was a very dark person. The Carpenters were dark people. Who knew? We don’t always know people because we know their art. We have to find our own lines. I can admire a work while despising, questioning or misunderstanding the artist. I can separate them – sometimes. LOL. It has to do with degrees of what we will and will not accept.  


DH: Got pubic hair?* (Before you smack me and call me “masher,” that’s meant as a rhetorical question.) In my interview with the formidable painter Susannah Martin, I addressed the refreshing inclusion of female pubic hair on her nudes: “Despite my praise of artifice and mown flora, I applaud the tufts in Courbet’s Origin of the World, in any Delvaux or Magritte nude.” The persistent trend in the last 25 years or so seems to be the sunny patio rather than the shadowy thicket. What are your thoughts on bald versus hairy pudenda in art, fashion, even porn?

 *inspired by the famous “Got Milk?” ad campaign 

LG: Well I have to say that’s an odd question, but given how many vaginas I have included in my work, I’ll address it!  People are far too freaked about vaginas in general. Friend, model, and horror-movie actress Erin Russ once referred in conversation to the overgrown yoni as a 70s power muff. LOL!  She’s always had a brilliant turn of phrase and I found it rather hysterical.

Hair, no hair? I don’t care.  As far as my own, I’d rather not make it a subject of public consumption here. I’m sure the vagina will make an encore in my own work again, because it is relevant in my symbolism. I never add it for shock, it just seems to communicate certain things that wax and wane depending on context. Porn? I dunno. For whatever reason, you can post images of art where people are sliced to pieces and people will nod with approval, which is fine. Show them a pussy in your art, and there’s a better chance they will lose their minds. A vagina is not only a natural part of the body; it’s also a powerful visual symbol, which I did not completely understand until I publicly showed works that included them. I find it shocking that people find them so…shocking! I don’t know. I didn’t invent the fucking thing or how people prefer to view it.  

DH: William Blake saw women’s nakedness as God’s work. Artistic portrayal of the nude female began to surpass the Greeks’ Apollonian worship of the male form during the Renaissance (despite Michelangelo and Leonardo), gained gusto with Rubens and kicked into high gear in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since that grand aesthetic shift the female body, with or without clothes, has been the default locus of beauty.

Of course, “a woman is closest to being naked when she is well-dressed,” as Coco Chanel said. The fashion industry is dominated by female models, who are scarlet-lettered for feeding a traumatic “female body image” that prompts Anna Quindlen to call for the Barbie doll to be slain like a vampire (yo, Anna: Barbie’s about the clothes, stupid). Along with Camille Paglia, I think fashion is high art. How do you view the bodiness of females in art, the woman as the gaze’s target, so-called body image and Barbie? Is fashion art? 

LG: Well, I will start backwards. Yes, fashion is art. It can be bad, horrifying, good or great art of course. Fantastic fashion is an amazing thing. I love the work of Edith Head, Vivian Westwood, Coco Chanel, and the list goes on. As far as Barbie goes, I think that this rigid view is just one more manifestation of America’s ever creeping victim mentality. Barbie is a motherfucking doll. I had them, and they did not ruin my life or my self-image. Do I think it’s wonderful that we have a less narrow view of beauty in print and in toys now? Of course. It’s great. I just think all this shit about “If I played with a Barbie I always felt I had to look like Barbie” is fucking absurd. I don’t think people looked at stuffed Snoopy dolls and cried because they did not look like them, unless they were Furries (wink). I don’t think most little boys looked at 
Stretch Armstrong and cried and said, “I’ll never be like him!” I just fucking don’t. People say ‘But Barbie does not look real.’ Of course she doesn’t look real. She’s a goddamned doll for Christ’s sake. If you’re running around depressed because you never lived up to your childhood toys and icons like Wonder Woman, Superman, Spider-Man, or Barbie, you got some serious fucking issues, man. 

By the way, the idea that the female form is more entrancing or beautiful than the male form is not seen through my eyes. Both men and women can be visually intoxicating and beautiful. 


 Pin-up sketch by Lana

What works of visual art (including films) rock your ass and roll your soul?

LG: Oh my God, too many to mention. I will only add a slice from arenas that are mostly familiar. I absolutely love the paintings of
Dino Valls. I am a huge fan of Eric White’s paintings. I love [Frank] Frazetta’s paintings. Beksinski is incredible. I love the drawings of Paul Rumsey. I have an affinity for Maxfield Parrish and others from the Golden Age: Frida Kahlo, Yashifumi Hayashi, to name a few.

Films.  Well, I love Blue Velvet by David Lynch, Terry Zwiegoff’s Crumb, Wernor Herzog’s Grizzly Man, The Machinist directed by Brad Anderson, Heavenly Creatures by Peter Jackson, Murderous Maids by Jean-Pierre Denis (and its English remake, Sister My Sister), anything [by Alejandro] Jodorowsky, Brother’s Keeper by Joe Berlinger, Four little Girls by Spike Lee, as well as other stuff he’s done, anything by Alfred Hitchcock, anything by David Cronenberg, and on and on and on… I also am a gigantic fan of so many documentaries. The brilliant editorial process involved in presenting a particular view is such a fascinating art form. 


DH: You also write, mostly short stuff – including memoirs, embellished memoirs, dreams, brutally honest observations, and weird but insightful – even koan-like – vignettes. Some kickass lines from some of your stuff: “You can’t choose true suffering. It chooses you.” “No flesh falling from the bone could have ever made you one drop less beautiful to me.” “It’s time to wash all this deceptive sand and molasses from my motor and get the fuck on with it.” “Never was I more empathic than in that moment that I crawled onto and inside of her, to feel every vapor of what she was feeling.” “A man is such a fragile creature. The most fragile creature on the earth.”

LG: HEY! I resent the fuck out of that “embellished memoir” comment you tried to slide in on me!  Did I write all those?  Thanks for reading them back and thanks for your kind words, sir. I stand by them all.  


DH: You also jam poetry here and there, and I noticed that all of your poems rhyme. Is that a natural inclination, or is there a particular reason? Have you ever thought of compiling stuff for a book? Also, spiel about your favorite authors and their works.

LG: They don’t all rhyme but my mind has always easily pulled together rhymes. It’s a compulsion to quickly organize words in a certain manner – and a compulsion for my hands to dance quickly across the keys when I release them. Some people find poetic rhyming archaic, flowery, or childlike. I can only say I love to do it. I love the perfection and lost floral notes of Edgar Allan Poe. I love the metaphor and order of Emily Dickinson. 

Books are great. You already know I love The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I love Presentations of Gender by M.D. Robert J. Stoller, Phantoms of the Brain by V.S. Ramachandron, My Dark Places by James Ellroy, Disco Blood Bath by James St. James, The Power of Positive Thinking by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie – so many. I guess it becomes obvious here that I am inclined to non-fiction and true crime, although I have enjoyed some great fiction too.

With regard to a book about me, I have been approached by an artist and keen thinker about doing a limited edition of books that reference me and my projects and life. We’ll see how it goes. 


DH: You’re affiliated with loBURN magazine, and your most recent contribution is an interview with the inimitable R. Crumb. Like bizarre greats such as Daniel Johnston and Tomi Ungerer, Crumb deserves his cult following and heavyweight title in underground-art history. What a fortunate opportunity. And, as I can testify, you didn’t waste it – the exchange was excellent. How did you convince such a private and discriminating artist to agree to the interview? And what was it like to conduct a dialogue with such a maestro? Tell us about how you became involved in loBURN and some of the other worthy artists you’ve met and/or interviewed.

LG: Yes
loBURN is a quarterly, independent magazine where I can express myself with ease because there aren’t many hard fast rules. I am grateful to do some writing and editing there. Some of the notable artists I have interviewed in the course of my life are are Joe Coleman, Norbert Kox, Pamela Wilson, Chet Zar, Chris Mars, Paul Rumsey, Dave MacDowell, Paul Booth, Laurie Lipton and so many more. 

I write about things and people that interest me. Other creative people also contribute to loBURN: Tatomir Pitirui, Hope Bellgren, Abe Weinstein, and Allisun Talley as solid staff – and many other fluctuating, recurring contributors. It’s a labor of love. 

I’ll address Crumb here. He definitely deserves his place and then some. I did not get an immediate reply when I contacted [him]. He usually does only extremely visible and occasional interviews at this point in his life. He made me fight for the interview, which I appreciated. I was persistent, and he eventually asked me to pitch it while saying he would likely not do it.   I could only pitch it by telling him about my strange life and why his work had always been inspirational to me. 

There was a fascinating back-and-forth process that took place in my trying to get that interview. It was the one interview that I was steadfastly compelled to do. I’m a huge fan of the work. I am a huge fan of his courage, which is unconscious and immediate. I am a huge fan of the way he loves and worships his wife. There is a subtext there between the lines of his “deviant” (if you want to call them that) or natural thoughts and expressions about women, a subtext that contains his adoration of his wife. There is also an open expression from Crumb about the amazing attributes of Aline Crumb. She is also a wonderful artist, a brilliant thinker, and hysterically funny. She seems to completely accept him as he is no matter what he says, thinks or creates. His observations and fleeting thoughts about women or anything else don’t seem to incite any disdain in her. She is powerful. This is my view anyway. I think he is incredibly honest and she encourages him to be honest among other things. They have an impressive simpatico.

Robert Crumb is iconic, not just as a comic artist, but as a living monument to truth and fearlessness. Like so many before me, I just can’t even begin to express what an inspiration he is as an artist and thinker. I think every artist should see Terry Zweigoff’s and David Lynch’s documentary, Crumb, and, of course, they should explore his work in other ways.  


DH: Death is always on my mind. I don’t fear it as much as I resent it. The “death is part of life” platitude seems unacceptable, and I feel that mortality is something very wrong in existence. However, I often envy the majority’s daily suppression of this monumental anxiety. Is denial of death the nucleus of most human activity? Do you fear and/or resent death?

LG: I don’t know that it is really suppression, but maybe it is. To engage it too much while living can obviously be unhealthy. I had a tremendous fear of death in my youth perhaps because my mother died young. I am not without fear I suppose, if I obsessed on it.  I’ve been close to death, and that brought me closer to understanding how the mind can hand it over and be okay sometimes. Tremendous physical pain or mental pain can make a person beg for death. That’s a morose answer, but it’s true. For me, considering ever-lasting life in one present consciousness…is much more daunting than the fear of death. 

When I think of death, my greatest terror is leaving the world with too many unconsummated ideas trapped inside my head that will never come to fruition. This brings me to the resolution of willing my ideas to other artists as I am going (should I have that luxury, woe is me) and mandating that they gather to have a show of my visions as they see them after I’m gone.  How grandiose and neurotic is that? LOL! Still, some other artist will steal that. 


DH: Yet, there’s Joy, isn’t there? In one of my books I speak of an “Imperceptible Door,” a redeeming permeation of what appears to be a closed physical system of ultimate futility. Something you wrote reminded me of this imagery: “I’ve been knocking on a door, that’s not a door at all,/Knocking on a door that is a wall.” The great Chinese theologian and Christian martyr, Watchman Nee, claimed that we fight in vain to enter a room in which we already are in, that grace has already opened the door and let us in. “Think of the absurdity of asking to be put in!” Eldridge Cleaver spoke of an immortal, salvational spark inside all of us, “In the midst of the foulest decay and putrid savagery, this spark speaks to you of beauty, of human warmth and kindness, of goodness, of greatness, of heroism, of martyrdom, and it speaks to you of love.”

So, is there a door, Lana? Are we knocking needlessly instead of listening for a knock? Does a spark penetrate the Abyss? Please share your thoughts about Joy versus despair.

LG: Eldridge Cleaver had it right. Consider Anne Frank. I’m knocking on and listening to everything, whether it echoes or not. People tell me sometimes that I glorify darkness, when in fact I only acknowledge darkness. I don’t glorify it, nor do I ignore it. Life is comprised of joy and despair. Most people have that to reconcile, regardless of their situation. Funny that a life of mostly glory can sometimes create a vacuum of no appreciation. It can also make people ill-prepared for reality. When despair comes to knock, the one who has lived a life of mostly glory has no calluses, no preparation for despair. Each of these forces plays against the other in the course of our lives. I’ve had plenty of despair and tragedy. For me, it has made me a person who can be utterly enraptured by the scent of a rose or the brilliance of a dandelion. I’d like to also think that it gave me an infrastructure of reinforced steel.  Not all events in life allow for such philosophy but it’s the best I can say. Perspective is everything. Despair can make one so very appreciative of joy. It can also teach us that the most humble and simple things in life, can be joyful.

By the way, thanks for letting me bend your ear in an online interview. It gave me a chance to speak my mind in an unfettered manner.

See more of Lana’s art here.  Experience her via social media here.

Lana Gentry is a self-taught artist and writer who lives in Virginia. She specializes in graphite and colored-pencil drawings, and her work has been featured in many group exhibitions, including one in Shanghai, China along with art photographer Kristy Evans. to present a two-woman show in Shanghai, China.  Her numerous writing credits include articles, interviews (particularly in loBURN magazine) and 
fiction (in Dire McCaine’s and D.M. Mitchell’s horror-story collection, A Dream of Stone). Learn more about Lana and her art here.