Interviews


Mary Akers: Thanks for agreeing to talk with me about your wonderful collection The New Testament. I enjoyed this collection so much, Jericho. It has stayed with me for weeks, much like your other collection Please did when I first read it. In fact, I would say you write the most haunting poems–in the best sense of the word “haunting”–the specter of them hovers, they follow me around, hang about, shimmer. It’s probably a personal thing, but what do you think makes a poem “haunt” a reader? Jericho Brown: Thanks so much, Mary! This is very hard to narrow down.  But I think being haunted means to be very aware of a presence we cannot see or touch.  I guess all good poems are haunting then, because they ultimately put sounds and images in our heads that are nowhere but our heads.  The poems themselves are only ink on a page.  So I’ll go with music and image as an answer for now.   MA: I like that answer–and now I’m thinking it could apply to all forms of writing. The term “Poetry of the Body” comes to mind when I read your work. I’ve heard several poets use lately, so I googled it and came up with a page that declares, “Poetry should be read aloud, tasted on the tongue, felt in the blood and heart.” I agree, but I wonder how a poet who writes work as somatic as yours feels about that definition. What do you think it means to be a poet of the body? JB: The “poet of the body” is one who reaches for revelations that are made in and through the body before they are fully understood in the mind.  I want to believe that poems ask us to make use of our instinct and intuition, that they create feelings in us similar to hunger or to an itch.  When we get these feelings, we know we need to eat or that something could be crawling on our skin.   MA: Yes. Beautiful. So…bearing in mind that artists and their work can fit into many different categories, would you place your own work in the category of Poetry of the Body? JB: I don’t try to do any categorizing of myself.  It would take all the fun out of writing if I bothered to place myself in such ways.  And because I’m so skeptical of my own habits, it would lead me to writing against something that may well be the thing that makes my poems particular.   MA: Reading your wonderful collection also had me thinking about form. You manage to create work that feels...

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Mary Akers: Hi, Robert. Thanks for letting us publish your wonderful (serialized) story American Epiphany and for agreeing to talk with me about your new novel TUMBLEDOWN, which I loved. This book is satisfying on so many levels: art, craft, story, character, movement, and most interesting of all, its narrative point of view. Could you tell us a little bit about the particular brand of omniscience that you have opted for here and what prompted you to employ it? Robert Boswell: When I was in my middle twenties, I worked at a rehabilitation center as an evaluator. Counselors sent me clients (some with physical disabilities, some with psychological issues, some with mental limitations) and I put them through rigorous two- or three-week evaluations, measuring intelligence, aptitude, interests, and so on. In addition to the tests, the center had simulated workstations, and I could measure more abstract matters, such as the psychological endurance necessary to work a forty-hour week, the ability to get along with coworkers, and so on. My reports were exhaustive and exceedingly useful to counselors putting together training programs for their clients. However, I discovered that the test results were sometimes treated as if they were omniscient measurements, and that made me uncomfortable and led to trouble. I left that job to study writing, but I didn’t try to write about that period in my life for a very long time—twenty years. As soon as I began the novel that would eventually evolve into Tumbledown, I understood that those reports were important. Eventually, I came to believe that the reports represented a kind of unreliable omniscience. And once I began thinking about it, I discovered that there was a great deal of unreliable omniscience in my life, ranging from the GPS system in my car to the nightly news. At some point, about eight years into the writing of the novel, I decided that I needed for the novel to employ the point of view of unreliable omniscience. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to exist. At least, I could find no useful models. So I made it up. MA: That’s a far more fascinating answer than I was expecting. Wow, unreliable omniscience. That’s really brilliant. Once you point it out, it makes perfect sense within the world of your book. It also makes me want to read the novel all over again and study it. Oh, and that’s a great new oxymoron: military intelligence, jumbo shrimp, and unreliable omniscience. You have single-handedly enriched the creative writing lexicon. This narrative sleight-of-hand makes for a really refreshing and surprising read. I imagine some readers could find it disturbing, some exhilarating....

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Okay, so I was a little bit intimidated, interviewing one of my very favorite authors, but Tony Doerr turned out to be gracious and generous and wise. Here’s a link to his outstanding interview at the r.kv.r.y. blog: Clicky Mary Akers: Thanks for agreeing to talk with me today. I loved your short story “Oranges” that appears in our July issue. It’s such a beautiful, wistful story and I really admire how you grapple with decades of time in what is quite a short story. The next-to-last paragraph reads: “In the morning he’ll stand up in front of his seventh-graders. ‘History is memory,’ he’ll say. ‘It’s knowing that the birds who come coursing over your backyard are traveling paths ten thousand years older than you. It’s knowing that the clouds coming over the desert today will come over this desert a thousand years from now. It’s knowing that the eyes of the ones who have gone before us will someday reappear as the eyes of our children.’” This idea of history-as-memory is lovely. It’s also what I’d like to focus on today, if you’re game, and since your most recent book is titled MEMORY WALL, I’m going to go ahead and assume that you are. In your writing, you often travel freely through time–forward, backward, into the future, and even into the pre-human past. This gives your stories such a sweeping feel, such a massive, monolithic presence. Does this style come naturally to you, or do you have to give yourself permission to take those leaps? Do you do it confidently? Or only with sweaty palms and trembling? Anthony Doerr: Thank you, Mary!  Thanks even more so for being a promoter and protector of literary work. Okay, time-travel in fiction.  Let’s see.  I do everything with sweaty palms and trembling, unfortunately.  But I take heart from the folks who have risked failure before me. The first Alice Munro short story I ever read was “Walker Brothers Cowboy” and it includes these lines: “He tells me how the Great Lakes came to be. All where Lake Huron is now, he says, used to be flat land, a wide flat plain. Then came the ice, creeping down from the North, pushing deep into the low places … And then the ice went back, shrank back towards the North Pole where it came from, and left its fingers of ice in the deep places it had gouged, and ice turned to lakes and there they were today. They were new, as time went … The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquility.”...

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I have an interview up at the Storyglossia blog: Clicky. Thank you, Storyglossia!

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