Posts Tagged ‘Don Peteroy’

What We’re Reading: Campus Satires

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

Don Peteroy: Come mid-February, I will stand before three examiners and, hopefully, demonstrate that the University of Cincinnati’s English department didn’t make a grave mistake when they accepted me for PhD candidacy. My areas of study are Skepticism on the Early Modern Stage and Comic Fiction. Since May, I have been trudging through my reading lists. One of the modules in my Comic Fiction area involves campus satires. I hadn’t chosen this deliberately; after about a month of reading I’d noticed an unequal proportion of humorous novels that take place at colleges and universities. At first glance, one might be hesitant to read campus satires insofar as the genre might presuppose specialized knowledge of institutional practices and utilize professional discourses that, to anyone outside of academia, would sound like gibberish. The four novels (of about ten campus satires) I’d like to mention—Moo by Jane Smiley, Straight Man by Richard Russo, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, and Blue Angel by Francine Prose—are wholly inviting to readers, even those who have not experienced nonsensical departmental meetings, tenure committees, the constant threat of funding cuts, interdepartmental rivalries, academic infidelities, and, of course, irate students. While these four novels contextualize their narratives within the university system, academia is simply the satirical medium though which we gain access to—I hate to use this phrase—universal human folly. In other words, the pressures inherent to these institutions bring out in the characters shortcomings that anyone can relate to.

Each novel uses humor differently, though they all gesture toward tragedy. Unlike novels by Christopher Moore, Douglas Adams, and Carl Hiaasen—where the comic elements are the consistent, primary focus—the particular novels I’ve chosen either begin funny and evolve into tragedy (though some portray the inverse), or they’re primarily tragic with moments of comic relief. The common question raised in campus satires concerns the extent of individual autonomy: Do institutions necessitate “bad behavior,” and how difficult is it to free oneself from the institutional script? The humor in these novels lies precisely in individuals’ efforts to stand apart from the inevitable rivalries, conflicts, infidelities, gossip, and backstabbing.

Amis’s Lucky Jim follows James Dixon’s catastrophic trajectory during what might end up being his final year as a lecturer of Medieval History. Naturally, he wants reappointment, but his immaturity—often manifested in his resistance to institutional etiquette—gets in the way. He’s a master of self-sabotage—an alcoholic and a compulsive prankster—and he manages to conflate the disasters of his personal and professional life with utmost expertise. For any reader who fantasizes about raging against the institutions that govern their own lives, Jim provides a perfect vicarious experience. His tragic fate is inevitable; by the end of the first chapter we know he’ll lose his job, but the pleasure in Lucky Jim is in the journey,which builds up to a final scene in which he must give a high-stakes public lecture. He’s drunk, cynical, heartbroken, and unprepared. As readers, we’re divided: we want Jim to get something right for once, but we also want to see just how far he can push his own ruin. Typical of the final act of classic farces, everything goes wrong, and more. It’s one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read, but I’m not laughing at Jim—he isn’t the fool here. It’s the entire system that made this train wreck possible.

The humor and satire I enjoyed in Russo’s Straight Man and Prose’s Blue Angel center on classroom and departmental power dynamics. In Straight Man, William Henry Devereaux, Jr, a professor and an unlikely chairman of the department, must deal with the possibility of budget cuts (his diplomatic maneuver: he threatens to kill a duck a day until the budget passes), ridiculous rivalries, and extramarital temptations. The novel asks whether Devereaux is competent to do anything, and the narrative moves form one trial to the next, offering both funny and heartbreaking episodes that reveal what Devereaux is really made of. Blue Angel is similar, though Prose is doing something courageous, bold, and downright terrifying. Returning to the question of how much autonomy individuals have in institutions that more or less construct and define individuals’ behaviors and identities, Prose puts Ted Swenson, an “innocent” and content middle-aged professor who loves his wife unconditionally, in a situation in which he experiences urgent temptation to conduct a sexual affair with an undergraduate. This is a rather sophisticated and complex circumstance: readers are convinced that Swenson would never act so disgracefully, yet something subtle suggests his act of harassment and infidelity is inevitable. We can’t pin the blame on him entirely: the institution he’s wrapped up in makes his disgrace inexorable, and the young woman clearly desires him for self-serving reasons. Yet, we cannot exonerate him either. This is, essentially, a novel about a man who is in denial of his act of sexual harassment. It’s haunting, it’s gross, and it manages to be funny (its humor, like in the previous novels, centers on exposing the pretensions of academic culture). Prose embraces the height of ambition here, making us laugh in the most uncomfortable of situations.

I’ve found that humorous novels delivered in first-person and close-third seem to exhaust the humorous voice after about fifty pages. In Moo, Jane Smiley overcomes this obstacle by narrating in a roving third-person POV, each chapter focusing on a different individual within the academic institution. As a result, each segment is fresh: we get voices and modes of interiority characterized by wild idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, the characters work in different departments within the university, so we experience diverse discourses. Ultimately, these eccentric voices clash, so the pleasure and humor never run dry.

What We’re Reading: Winner of the National Book Award

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Don Peteroy: For the last four months, I’ve been reading humorous novels exclusively, trying to unpack how humor works, looking for ways the written medium imposes limitations on a writer’s ability to provoke laughter while also granting opportunities that you wouldn’t get in, say, standup comedy or film. I’m particularly interested in how writers sustain humor throughout a novel; I’ve found that most of the books I’ve read are funny for about fifty pages, and then the humor exhausts itself.

Jincy Willett’s Winner of the National Book Award is one of the few books that kept me laughing until the last page.

Hurricane Pandora is about to strike a town in Rhode Island. Dorcas, the local librarian, is hiding in the library. She busies herself with one of the new nonfiction arrivals, In the Driver’s Seat: The Abigail Mather Story. It’s written by Dorcas’s sister Abigail, and Hilda DeVilbiss, Abigail’s friend. Dorcas isn’t happy about this book—it’s a “wife abuse expose” that chronicles Abigail’s sexual deviance and eventual marriage to the venomous writer Conrad Lowe. While abuse narratives aren’t funny, it’s the book-about-a-book—the metafictional distance—that allows Willett to draw humor from the story of Abigail’s traumatic marriage. Dorcas leads us through the book chapter by chapter; she comments, criticizes, exposes Hilda and Abigail’s embellishments, and reveals what’s been left unsaid.

Winner of the National Book Award shows two competing narratives that tell the same story. Dorcas’s corrective rendition is stylistically sophisticated and brutally honest while In the Driver’s Seat’s is bombastic, sentimental, and full of absurd speculations. For instance, Hilda attempts to explain the primary cause of young Abigail’s excessive sexual appetite, relying on inaccurate psychological explanations:

“Abigail Mather’s great sin was, of course, in growing up. Her father, likely out of his own inchoate sense of guilt, precognizant of his own incestuous desires, withheld from Abigail the male approval necessary to her erotic self-esteem. Just when she had the greatest need of him, he declined to validate her sexuality. . . .”

The humor lies in Dorcas’s mockery and refutation of these fanciful “facts,” her resistance to pop-Freudian psychology.

The characters themselves are pitiful, and it’s their awareness and proud embracing of their deplorable natures that makes them so funny. Conrad Lowe hates women. He’s a former gynecologist who’d been attracted to the field only because he wanted to understand what’s inside women. Then he became a novelist who embodies all of the stereotypical pretensions. In an interview with the Journal-Bulletin, he talks about his latest novel, a thriller called Night of the Gorgon, which is “in the Mantis tradition.” The interviewer asks, “Is that, more or less, the Stephen King tradition?” He responds, “No . . . it is exactly in the Stephen King tradition.”

She asks, “And how do you think your work compares with King’s?”

He says, “It’s worse.”

Willett provides a never-ending procession of satire-conducive excerpts of In the Driver’s Seat; new characters provide fresh surprises, embodying stereotypes pushed to the max: we meet a male “feminist” poet who is obviously a sexist in denial, his enabling wife Hilda, and a depressed Unitarian minister undergoing an existential crisis. The humor endures and escalates in direct proportion to the tragedy because there’s always something outrageous happening, always a twist.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: The Case of the Poltergeist Proxy

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

It’s September, y’all, and Don Peteroy is not only blazing back onto our blog, he is also claiming a chair in our cluttered little office. Many of you know him by his rap moniker Freezy P, but to his colleagues, fellow staffers, and to readers of his work, he is known as, um, well, Don. We’re excited to have someone new around to good-naturedly needle, not to mention coffee runs just got easier (he drinks his Starbucks black). This time out, the hapless focus of Freezy’s irrelevant inquisition is CR contributor Andrea Scarpino.

Andrea Scarpino is the author of the poetry collection Once, Then (Red Hen Press, 2014) and the chapbook The Grove Behind (Finishing Line Press, 2009). She received an MFA from The Ohio State University and has published in numerous journals including The Cincinnati Review, Los Angeles Review, and Prairie Schooner.

Question: You are currently on a book tour, which is great. Let’s imagine that tomorrow, when you show up for your reading, you see a sign on the bookstore’s door. It reads, Andrea Scarpino’s reading has been cancelled. You’ve been replaced by a different poet. The ghost of Samuel Taylor Coleridge will be reading “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” You’re okay with this; you’re too awed to be upset. But when you show up for your next reading, in a different city, you see the same thing has happened. And the next, and the next. You write some new poems, send them to literary magazines, and they all get accepted. But when you get your contributor’s copies, you notice that your poems have been replaced by “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” You email the magazine editors and they respond, “Sorry. There’s nothing we can do about this.” The same ill-fortune occurs in every venue: AWP panels, chapbook publications, book reviews. You track down and call the agent who represents the ghost of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She never returns your calls. Finally, you try to approach the ghost. You do it on three occasions, and every time, the second you start speaking, he vanishes. You even try this at a reading, and the crowd gets so mad, they throw Danielle Steel novels at you. Tell me. What do you do?

AS: First, I get myself to a safe place. An angry Danielle-Steel-wielding mob is not something to be taken lightly, especially since those glossy book covers pack a real punch (take my word on this). I find a bathroom near the bookstore’s café—I will need to be well-caffeinated to think through my next move—and I try to remember back to all those undergraduate English literature classes. And I realize, slowly, how much Coleridge and I have in common.

Coleridge was addicted to opium, for example. I am addicted to sugar, which causes a high in similar parts of the brain. Coleridge wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem I think is terrible. I wrote a book-length poem about water that I now also think is terrible. Coleridge had a thing for albatrosses. I have a thing for crows (Hughes’s Crow and/or otherwise). Coleridge was a Romantic. I’ve been known to be romantic. Uncanny, really, how similar we are, I realize as I sit in my locked bookstore bathroom, Stevia-sweetened almond-milk cappuccino in hand, angry mob gathering and lighting torches on the other side of the door.

And the truth slowly dawns on me: I am Coleridge’s ghost. Or he is my ghost. Or the Ghost of Samuel Taylor Coleridge is both of our ghosts. The workings of the supernatural world are difficult to hold to any particular space-time continuum. The point is that I am writing his poetry (as terrible as I may think it), and he is writing mine (as terrible as he may think it). I unlock the bathroom door and quell the angry crowd with my best Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman impression. And then the Ghost of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and I share a lemon poppy seed muffin.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: Smell the Page

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Donny Boy P. is back on our blog with an olfactory edition of Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions—a whenever-he’s-not-swamped-and-can-actually-get-writers-he-admires-to-respond-to-his-crazy-questions series, this time with John Henry Fleming, who, obviously, responded.

John Henry Fleming’s story collection, Songs for the Deaf, has just been released from Burrow Press. He’s also the author of The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, a novel, Fearsome Creatures of Florida, a literary bestiary, and The Book I Will Write, a novel-in-emails originally published serially at the Atticus Books website. His short stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, North American Review, Mississippi Review, Fourteen Hills, Kugelmass, Better: Culture and Lit, and Carve, among others. He teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida, where he is advisory editor of Saw Palm. Visit his website at www.johnhenryfleming.com.

Question: You have many devoted readers. Ideally, what would you like your readers to smell like when they read your fiction, and why?

JHF: Ideally, the reading experience of any good book changes the scent of the reader. Can you not tell, stepping into a coffee shop, which patron is reading Flaubert and which Tennyson? It is written on the breeze. Well-crafted language transforms; one has only to open one’s receptors and activate one’s glands. Pheromones are released, poisons get sweated. A once-secret self broadcasts like the charged air before a storm. Are there words for it? No, if the scent could be contained in words it would not be itself. It is you but not you. It is you on books, on this particular book, this story, this poem, this line. It’s good, you say, looking up at the sound of my deep inhale. Have you read it? No, but I’ve read you reading it, and sometimes that’s enough. I know you better now. I love you, reader of books. I love the scent of you, the multitudes your book-scent contains, worlds so light as to drift on the breeze, settling now onto steamed milk like dustings of cinnamon. But don’t let me interrupt your reading. Cinnamon is fine, too. I can absolutely accept cinnamon if that’s how my readers smell. Warm crayons are also good. Either way, thank you for smelling.

Readin’ Around the Christmas Tree

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

There’s a reason we can’t stop hyping our anniversary year: We’re super excited about it! Get in on the celebration by purchasing a subscription for a loved one this holiday. For just $15, you can provide your bbff (best bookish friend forever) with a year-long supply of surprise and delight, including poems, stories, reviews, visual art, musical scores, and a graphic play.

And while we’re making merry, let’s raise a glass in honor of our talented staff members who have recently published books (any or all of which would make amazing gifts for aforementioned bbff’s). Congrats, friends!

  • Assitant Editor Brian Brodeur’s second collection of poems, Natural Causes (2012), was selected by Denise Duhamel for the 2011 Autumn House Poetry Prize.
  • Volunteer Luke Geddes’s short story collection, I Am a Magical Teenage Princess, was published by Chomu Press in 2012.
  • Volunteer Julia Koets’s first book of poems, Hold Like Owls (2012), was selected by Nikky Finney for the South Carolina Poetry Book Prize.
  • Volunteer Don Peteroy’s novella, Wally, was published by Burrow Press in 2012.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: Greenpeace Edition

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Like a human harpoon, Don Peteroy drives into the capacious, frenzied, sophistical, groping, transient, contentious,  flameproof, satiate, igneous, whale-loving heart of Michael Czyzniejewski with this latest edition of Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions.

Michael Czyzniejewski is the author of the story collections Elephants in Our Bedroom (Dzanc Books, 2009) and Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions (Curbside Splendor, 2012), as well as a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He teaches at Missouri State University, where he serves as Editor of Moon City Review.

Question: You, Michael, are not an adverb and adjective addict. I’ve read your two collections, and not once did I write in the margins, “For the love of God, Michael, ditch the modifiers!” You use them sparingly because, I assume, 1) you understand that simple nous and verbs should do the job, 2) you trust your reader’s imagination, and 3) you don’t want to be considered an inept writer.

I have bad news for you. For now on, whenever you decline to use a modifier, another whale dies. How will you conduct your career as a writer, knowing this? Be careful of your response. It could massacre many whales.

MC: What I’d do is this: I’d rampage for a while, staying away from writing, you know, back-alley cockfights, some underground Russian roulette matches, a few androgynous prostitute weekends, a gun/military memorabilia show or two. That sort of thing. Refreshed, I’d then make up a character who has a magically real speaking disorder that invokes a string of adjectives before each noun. For instance, he’d greet his mother for morning porridge by saying, “Top of the fantastic, invidious, bright, officinal, clear, iatric, monosyllabic, hairy, hypnagogic, disingenuous, clavate, pregnant, invasive, Zeitgeist, phony, bibulous, polyamorous, gooey, volant, shameful, malodorous, sullen, acephalous, yellow, meretricious, common day, divaricate, Kafkaesque, redundant, trabeated, cheery, saliferous, divergent morning to you, Mumsy!” At that she would smile and give him his porridge.

At that point, I would feel as if I’d saved enough whales for me to sleep at night, enough adjectives in the bank. If I had to use adverbs, however, I’d just let the whales die: Krill would love me, Ahabs would want to be me.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: Solipsistic Collapse Edition

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Don Peteroy is at it again, asking relevant writers irrelevant questions. But could this be the last Irrelevant Question he irrelevantly asks? Writer Andrew Farkas imagines this grim future, and provides an answer that Peteroy didn’t want to hear. At this posting, Peteroy is still recovering from his psychic break.

Andrew Farkas is a fiction writer from Akron, Ohio. He is the author of Self-Titled Debut, which won the 2008 Subito Press Prize for Experimental Fiction, and has published fiction in Northwest Review, New Orleans Review, Whiskey Island, Emprise Review and The Brooklyn Rail, among others. He currently lives in Chicago, Illinois, where he helps run a letters racket on the Near West Side. We published his short story “Sky Party” in Cincinnati Review 6.1.

Question: What’s my next question going to be?

AF: Don, you’re a good guy, so I hate to be the one to tell you this, but your next question is going to be “What’s my next question going to be?” It’s also going to be the question after that. And the one after that. Don, have you ever read one of those old horror stories where someone gets caught in a loop and consequently they’re doomed to repeat the same actions over and over again forever? Have you, Don?

When we read those stories, I think the reason we think they’re so creepy is because in our world, things don’t keep repeating themselves in exactly the same way. By reading one of those stories, we’re forced to look at a world that is completely foreign to ours and wonder what it’d be like if that sort of repetition existed here. You can never step in the same river twice, you can never go home again, that’s the world we live in, but not you, Don.

Oh, at first it’ll be funny. You’ve asked me this question, then without really even thinking about it, well maybe you’ll ask Michael Martone or Lydia Millet or anyone, really, and you won’t worry about it. For a little while this question will be your schtick. But then you’ll say, “I’m done with this question,” only to your consternation, you’ll find that, once again, you’ve asked that very same question. And then again. And again. I hate to be the one to tell you this, Don, but soon CR will suspend your portion of the blog. They won’t fire you or anything. They’ll just say you need some time off. Of course you’ll want to ask why, but when you try to ask you’ll say, “What’s my next question going to be?”

It hurts me to do this, but someone has to, so I’m going to fast forward now, fast forward to the future, where you’ve stopped talking, terrified of what you might say. You’ve gone on a search to find how you might move beyond your one and only inquiry. Alas, this search has been in vain. You can’t get to the heart of your problem without asking some other question, though for you there is only the one. Perhaps you’re on a mountain top there in the future, or in a desert, desperately wondering if you will ever be delivered from this sad fate ripped right from an old horror story. But just like in those old horror stories, and I hate to do this to you, Don, we have to leave you there, because I can’t see anymore of the future than this. But I thank you, Don, for letting me take part in this interview. Let me know if you have any other questions.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: The Curses Edition

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

When Cincinnati Review staff member Don Peteroy isn’t busy reading for class, writing 200-page translations (via Google Translate) of 16th-century German adaptations of Hamlet, or playing in his band, he likes to ask writers he admires irrelevant questions. We’re honored to have two replies to share with you, from Lauren Groff and David Yost.

Lauren Groff is the author, most recently, of the novel Arcadia (Voice, 2012), as well as of The Monsters of Templeton (Voice, 2008) and the story collection Delicate Edible Birds (Voice, 2009). Her short stories have appeared in many journals, including the The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, and Glimmer Train, as well as in the Best American Short Stories in 2007 and 2010. She lives in Gainesville, Florida.

Question: Where are your shoes? I’m not talking about your literal shoes, but your metaphorical ones.

LG: To understand where exactly my shoes are—which is a very good question for me, in truth, because I prefer to go barefoot at all times, splinters be damned—I need to first understand what my shoes are. Is it strange that I thought at first of the less-common genre of shoe? Not the kind that lovingly cups tender toes and protects those sad and fallen arches from shattered glass; not my authentic cowboy boots, bought in a flush of glee when I found out I’d won a fellowship I was longing for; not the soccer cleats, a whole size too small, to which I’d sacrificed many blackened toenails, but which were the only shoes ever to allow me to score. No; I thought of a rusted horseshoe above a barn door at a farm in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, where my family lived for a few years before returning to Cooperstown for good. The horseshoe door led to the paddock, where our tiny pony, Imp, lived. Imp was a nasty bastard. Once, when I was five years old, I was contentedly riding on Imp’s back when the jerk tore out of my father’s grasp, rushing me headlong toward a fence, an oak, an apple orchard; I narrowly escaped brain damage by clinging to his mane with my fists and teeth like a flapping human limpet. His horseshoe had been nailed up above the door—for good luck, I was told. On the day I noticed that one nail had come loose, canting the horseshoe down and spilling some of its luck, I found our poor white cat, Marshmallow, in a trough inside the barn. He was stiff and, it finally dawned on me, dead. For a long time afterward, I stood in the doorway, under the horseshoe, unable to go in or out. Inside, all was dark, humid, stinking, a trash-bin full of dog food crawling with maggots, the beloved cat who wouldn’t stir. Outside was an angry pony, ready to spill my brains. Inside, safety but obscurity; outside, risk and sun. We are born with a certain amount of luck, and the rest we have to make for ourselves. I took a step, choosing the light, the flight in the face of the demonic. That’s where my horseshoe still swings, half full of luck, half ready to be filled.

A former Peace Corps Volunteer, David Yost has served on development projects in the United States, Mali, and Thailand. His fiction has appeared in more than twenty publications, including Southern Review, Witness, Pleiades, Asia Literary Review, and The Sun. His anthology Dispatches from the Classroom: Graduate Students on Creative Writing Pedagogy is forthcoming in November 2011 from Continuum, and his story “The Carousel Thief” will appear in our next issue, due out in May. An appreciation of that story—written by Luke Geddes—appeared on our blog earlier this week.

Question: Let’s say that an angry God has put a curse on you. The God says, “Every time you write a new story, poem, play, or essay, a Shakespeare play will vanish from both history and collective memory.” Would you continue to write stories?

DY: Do I get to pick? A world in which nobody reads Pericles, King John, Cymbeline, The Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII, and the three plays of Henry VI would be basically the same as ours, so that buys me eight more stories at least. I imagine I’d draw the line at Coriolanus and The Merry Wives of Windsor and then try to break into television.

Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Yes, blog readers, it’s yet another installment of the peculiar probings of Don Peteroy—a CR-hosted series in which the ever-provocative DP pitches profoundly preposterous questions at hand-picked prosists. This week’s featured writer is one of our own—Margaret Luongo—who has made three appearances in our pages, and who was last seen wearing a blaze-yellow babydoll tee printed with the words DEAD INSIDE.

Margaret Luongo is the author of the story collection If the Heart is Lean (LSU Press, 2008). Her stories have appeared in Tin House, Jane, Fence, Granta on-line, The Cincinnati Review, The Pushcart Prize anthology, and other venues. She teaches creative writing at Miami of Ohio. One of her best friends teaches Shakespeare and wears combat boots.

Question: If you had to eliminate one author from the canon in exchange for three months of world peace, who would it be? Explain your answer.

ML: I’m sure many contemporary authors, if they were so privileged to be in the canon, would take themselves out of it for three months of world peace. Then there’s the problem of the existence of a canon; haven’t we been trying to alter it or get rid of it? But let’s say there is one and we all know who’s in it.

My husband and I talked about this. Shakespeare’s name came up. Eliminating Shakespeare from the canon would really screw the economy. Think of all the professors and actors who would be out of work. On the other hand, ejecting Shakespeare might cause a backlash and increase the popularity of his work: protests by the 20% (People Who Make a Living Off Shakespeare) might ensue. Actually, I think it would be very good for Early Modern scholars to be cast aside this way; they would become defiant and achieve punk status. Films could be made about their dying art. When the Chinese government banned the Chinese opera, a moribund form became suddenly wildly popular. While interest in Shakespeare’s work hasn’t diminished, maybe this exile from the canon would spark interest among populations previously alienated. It’s tiresome and obvious, but maybe Shakespeare is the answer? I am already more interested. Can’t you imagine publicists for dead or aging authors fighting for the right to be cast away? “This three months’ peace sponsored by the Melville Estate.” Cormac McCarthy could consider giving back; we’ve been tormented by his apocalyptic vision in prose; now he could give us the gift of peace—and probably increase his sales.

Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: It Lives

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

Our regular blog-readers (whom we casually yet affectionately refer to as bloggulers) are already familiar with Don Peteroy’s recurring feature, in which our volunteer-cum-inquisitor poses a single, and singular, question to a hapless group of innocent wordsmiths of his choosing. (He likes them—a lot—though sometimes it’s hard to tell.) Don is also a musician, a fictionist, and he takes a whole lot of vitamin E for reasons unknown to the rest of us (probably to give people the impression that he’s healthy when, actually, his diet consists of blue Jello sprinkled with either Corn Nuts or black olives—depending on his mood). Anyway, this time around, Don takes his questions—and his choice of “writers”—to a cosmic level. We casually yet affectionately refer to it as the “Whoa, dude” level. As for Don, we refer to him as Jasper. (We like to keep him guessing.)

Adrian Matejka is the author of The Devil’s Garden (Alice James Books, 2003), Mixology (Penguin USA, 2009), and The Big Smoke (Penguin USA, forthcoming 2013). He teaches at Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville, where he serves as Poetry Editor for Sou’wester and as Co-Director of the River Styx at Duff’s Reading Series. You can find him at www.adrianmatejka.com or on Twitter: @adrian_matejka.

Question: At a reading you gave in Louisville, you mentioned that at one time, you were a huge R.E.M. fan. I was too. Like many long-term R.E.M fans, I’ve often wished that they’d return to their old sound, the beautiful music they made between 1982 and 1989. Let’s imagine that we can alter history. Let’s say that a new old REM album could suddenly appear. Let’s put it between Life’s Rich Pageant and Document. It’d be full of great songs. There’s a cost, however. You will have to give up your favorite poem; that is, erase it from existence. Would you be willing to do this, and why/why not? Screw it, let’s keep this going. I know you like funkadelic. How about we add another twenty minutes to Hazel’s solo in “Maggot Brain” for your next five poems? How about we give Public Enemy another album, between It Takes a Nation . . . and Fear of a Black Planet at the cost of every poem you’ve written in the last two years.

AM:It’s great that you asked about R.E.M. because I was just reading an interview with Michael Stipe this past weekend. In response to a question related to what he would miss about performing live, Stipe said: “I have to give everything I have for every song or I’m just that sad guy that’s in his 40s and holding onto some teenage dream. We didn’t move through the last decade with that feeling at all. I gave everything I had.”

I think there is a direct connection between my drive to write poems and my own “youthful dream” of leading the Africa 70 or spitting rhymes over a 9th Wonder beat. The drive could just be a function of having failed as a musician, but I’d like to think it’s also part of the mechanism we employ as writers of poetry. As Ezra Pound wrote, “Poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.”

Or maybe the “teenage dream” is really about audience or artistic relevance or social impact. I mean, music is the universal and can made with an ear toward a community of listeners that has the potential to be very large. It is a social construct as well as an artistic one. Especially now, with so many avenues for musical networking and the shift in the ways music is distributed.

The thing is, poetry doesn’t have the same kind of social permission or potential universality as music. Partially because of its self-referential nature, poetry is written with an ear toward an already-established (and very small) audience. But even with that limited audience, poetry is the closest thing to music we can make with our words, and it can alter the way a listener/reader interacts with the world.

I’m thinking of how Pablo Neruda’s Love Poems reify our perception of what “love” is. Or the way Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Amiri Baraka’s “Black Art” cause us to reevaluate the intersections of poetry and politics. Or how Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem  “the mother” works in a space that was so ahead of its time that the always-incendiary Richard Wright suggested she take the poem out of A Street in Bronzeville.

I doubt anyone has this kind of life-altering experience reading or hearing my poems, but I know people have been changed by R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe.” So no question, I’d go for the transformative and trade poems for another R.E.M. album. Not only that, but I’d feel like the Yankees swapping cash for Babe Ruth when I did it. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’d like to see somebody write a book of poems that’s the equivalent of this lost R.E.M. album. I don’t have the chops to do it, but I bet someone else could.

Greg Benjamin lives in Ohio with his wife and children. He has written a critical line of business software for the medical, financial and public industries. He’s written seven novellas in invisible ink. He is writing next-generation mobile applications software for his start-up, Fourth Landing. He ’s always available for lease and can often be found maundering near local airports and museums.

*Interviewer’s note: You might be scratching your head right now, wondering what, exactly, Mr. Benjamin has published. The fact is, Mr. Benjamin hasn’t published a thing, and he has no interest in writing fiction or poetry. He writes code. He’s proficient in many computer languages. Does that qualify him as “a writer”? I’m inclined to say yes.

In 1997, when I wanted to be a poet, a friend loaned me a poetry collection by Jackson Mac Low. Mac Low used “non-intentional” composition methods to construct him poems: random number generators, computers, algorithms, and so on. The poems were beautiful. Check him out: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/maclow/

Here’s the question: Can something be considered “art” if it’s essentially machine gibberish? Better yet, does something cease to be “art” when it serves a practical purpose (like Mr. Benjamin’s computer code compositions)?

My answer: code is art.

Question: Why do you eat things?

GB: I have no idea what the hell that means. Right now, as I sit here in front of an LED screen, debating the effect of crossing parallel polarizers—which, of course, are oxyrepublican lunch boxes of ionic compounds and double refraction properties—it occurs to me that the sitcom pilot always crashes and burns upon departure.

I could get into a fist fight at a local bar, have my face bashed in, my lungs collapsed, and my spinal cord contorted just enough so that I can be intravenously fed the delectable goodness of the finest university hospital. But I’ll do nothing of the sort. Speaking of sorting, there’s a certain melancholic sway that comes with each beating compression of a keyboard. I liken it to the comfortable uneasiness you get when returning to your desk after your car stalls in the ladies restroom and you tap out your pass phrase only to realize a second too late that you did not scrub your paws with the office hand sanitizer and your fingerprints recede into seclusion and your skin takes on the grainy white reflection of southern Kentucky mash, and right there you have it: without eating things, I’d have nothing in my stomach. I write 479,133 lines of zero’s and one’s when 11 lines will do the trick. I’m saving the world, one keystroke at a time.