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Hear the full interview on Yale Radio:

http://museumofnonvisibleart.com/interviews/andrea-scrima/

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Making art was a form of archaeology, of excavating the inscrutable. It revealed itself through fragments, through their reconstruction. Why this dot, this smear—why did they resonate in such an unmistakable way? It was essential to recognize these events, to understand the patterns of their repetition and to narrow them down to a visual vocabulary. These were the elements at our disposal, there were never more than a handful of them, and they remained irreducible. Process was everything: there had to be a truthfulness to it, a conjunction between the act and the impulse that had propelled it, an economy in which every mark stood for something—not as a means to an end, but at the very moment it was being made. It required a suspension of conscious will; it was about locating one’s inner sensorium and learning to pay attention to it, to trust it. It was the point of convergence between the self and the world: the place where, if only for an instant, a universal language might be revealed. I stepped back to view the large canvas. Subtle shadows were visible across the white expanse now, caused by the topography of the scraped surface beneath it. Swirls of pigment had come to rest in the turpentine on the floor, and as I bent down to spread a few sheets of newspaper over the turbid puddle, my reflection bent down with me and reached its fingertips up toward my outstretched hand. 

— from the novel-in-progress Like Lips, Like Skins

MARGARITA MEKLINA and SNEŽANA ŽABIC

with Andrea Scrima

 

Wreckage of Reason II: Back to the Drawing Board
(Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, 2014)

Andrea Scrima invited two of her co-authors in the anthology, Margarita Meklina and Snežana Žabić, to take part in a conversation about what experimental writing means today—beyond the marginalization the label inevitably leads to, both in terms of commercial viability and literary visibility. Meklina emigrated to the US from Russia at the age of twenty-two and lives in Oakland; Žabić, who eventually settled in Chicago, was forced to flee her native Vukovar when the wars in the former Yugoslavia broke out. Scrima, who was born and raised in New York and has been living in Berlin for more than half her life, soon noticed that cultural displacement was an element each of them had in common; as she began to question the effects this may have had on their various literary projects—whether it fostered a critical distance to mainstream culture, or a skepticism regarding its definition of success—she decided to ask Meklina and Žabić to discuss their experiences. What follows is a conversation about emigration, identity, and the many unforeseen ways in which an initial loss of language can grow into a reconsideration and regaining of language. In the process, Scrima, Meklina, and Žabić explore the question Skolkin-Smith poses early in her essay on the anthology: “How do experimental literary writers continue to foster their literary legacy, to offer up profound depths, language, and soul, to grow as writers willing to risk, and to toss up, around, and about meanings and connections in ways that rise above entertainment?”

Read the entire conversation here: 

http://brooklynrail.org/2015/07/books/parataxis-and-ponzi-schemes

 

wreckage2

A Lesser Day by Andrea Scrima, published by Spuyten Duyvil Press in 2010, available for Kindle since 2014

 

me, goodies

Photo: Uli Sauerland. Schlachtensee, Berlin, May 2016

 

Hi Andrea, congratulations—the English print version of “A Lesser Day” currently seems sold out. What are your plans with the book?

I’ve just sold the German-language rights to a fine literary publisher in Austria; the translation will be coming out in the spring of 2018, and so it seems like a good time to plan a second edition of the book in English. It was a small print run with an independent press, and while it’s not entirely sold out, it’s getting close: there’s a small number left in stock at Small Press Distribution and in independent bookstores around the US, but I think Amazon still has used copies available. I was very glad that Spuyten Duyvil released a Kindle version two years ago, because it keeps the book available to readers—although the actual physical book is a nice thing to have. This might sound a bit strange, but I did the typography, layout, photography, and design myself: a luxury and freedom I never would have enjoyed with a mainstream publisher. The cover image, a dribble of paint on a sidewalk whose paving stones were at some point dissembled and put back together again, but in a different order, with the dribble no longer a continuous flow, but a fragmented line going this way and that, is a metaphor for the reconstruction of time and experience in memory—the way in which we perceive our lives in retrospect. It’s a metaphor that occurs in the same paragraph as the book’s title, the two are thematically intertwined, and so the physical book is like a small work of art.

I saw on your website that you transitioned from visual art to writing. Can you talk about how your art developed in this way?

I studied fine arts in New York and began my studio work as a painter. Gradually, I moved on to installations that incorporated, in various different constellations, small objects, writing, painting, and photography. At some point I began doing mostly text installations, that is, I wrote short pieces, essentially very short stories, and then painted the letters of these texts in Times italic onto the walls of various spaces. Most of these installations were site-specific: they were written in response to a particular location and engaged directly with its architecture. It was an exacting process in which doors and windows and, indeed, every last electrical socket and light switch fit precisely into the flow of the text on the wall. I did these works because I was interested in what happens to a story when it’s read in a very different way than, say, on the printed page. There was a choreographic element to it that fascinated me. It always sounds a little complicated when you talk about how something functions in an art context, and so I should probably say that the stories were psychological studies on particular states of mind, written in a language that sounded confessional, like a journal entry. I was interested in drawing in the reader/viewer, in catching him or her off-guard, in creating a kind of intimacy in a public space.

Gradually, however, after completing around a dozen of these large-scale works, I came to realize that my artistic process—the thing you do that keeps you “in the flow,” the way in which you do your creative thinking—had shifted from painting to writing. And so the logical question became: what would happen if I cut everything else out? Was it time to try to write a book? It was tempting, but it was also a scary prospect for me, because it meant that I’d be leaving one profession mid-career and trying to gain a foothold in another—as a total beginner. It didn’t matter that this transition had come about as an organic development in my work. In professional terms, art and publishing are two separate worlds, and there’s nearly no overlap. I had no idea if my writing would hold up in a literary context.

“A Lesser Day” feels very neatly organized, like a mosaic of small pieces fitted together. What was the writing process behind it: did you have the pieces or the whole picture first?

I wrote “A Lesser Day” in the first year and a half of my son’s life. In other words, during a period when I had very little time to myself. I kept a notebook with me, and I used every available moment in between nursing and naps to write. It was usually just enough time to home in on a particular memory and explore it fully before I had to close the book and attend to my son again. I began with short descriptions of whatever recollections I had of certain places I’d lived in over the years, and eventually pieced them together until I saw a kind of pattern emerge. It was a stroke of luck that I’d happened upon a form that fit perfectly with my life at the time—I mean, it’s very hard to think through even a single thought when you’re taking care of an infant, but for some reason the fragmentary form made it possible to concentrate in short, intense spurts. And then, one day, I realized that the page I’d just written was how the book would end. It startled me. There it was, the entire shape and structure: the narrative arc, all the themes and leitmotifs, the formal rhythm. And so I began to identify the gaps, and sew together the various narrative threads, and eventually I was able to make a cohesive book out of it, which I dedicated to my son.

The idea had been to explore memory as a thing that’s interwoven with the places we’ve inhabited, places that encapsulate a certain period of our lives in a particularly vivid way. But I think the experience of becoming a mother—of being the door through which another person enters the world—of no longer being merely a person, but also, quite suddenly, a “place” for someone else—is the fundamental metaphysical inspiration behind the book.

Do you ever go back to the settings where the book takes place? Areas like the Wrangelkiez are hotspots of gentrification in Berlin these days, and it must have changed a lot since you lived there.

Oh, yes, all of these places have changed enormously. Of the five locations in the book, one was an apartment in the East Village of the early eighties that cost two hundred dollars a month in rent, another a summer sublet in pre-gentrification Brooklyn, and another a beautiful waterfront loft I lived in the year before I became pregnant with my son, in a building that I can happily return to now and again, because friends of mine instrumental in getting the NYC Loft Law passed still live there. The two locations in Berlin are in Kreuzberg, but I have to admit, I don’t always feel comfortable returning to places I once lived in. There’s something beautiful about the way a place can be conserved in the mind, when it doesn’t have to compete with its own ghost.

I’m sure you have some new projects under way.  Can you tell us something about your upcoming book?

I’m currently finishing a novel, and the writing process has been very different this time. It’s a book in two parts, and it takes place over a twenty-year period in a woman’s life. Each of the characters in the book is traumatized in some way: a mother whose foiled attempts at achieving independence lead to an eating disorder that eventually devours the entire family; a daughter whose emotional outbursts lie beyond her understanding and control; a boy who sets out to find the father that abandoned him when he was three; a young man from the former GDR who was expatriated to the West after being released from juvenile prison. The book explores what all of these various different types of traumatic imprinting have in common: the ways in which pain is stored in the mind and body, and the detours taken to swerve around that pain in whatever way possible. The book isn’t quite as dark as it sounds, however—and in the end, art emerges as a powerful tool for self-discovery.

 

A Lesser Day

 

Excerpt from A LESSER DAY:

Kent Avenue, and the trees that had grown along the fences in the neighborhood, chain-link fences closing off empty lots filled with used refrigerators and rusty car parts. Weeds no one had bothered to cut back, supple shoots winding in and out between the diamond-shaped grids, weaving through like sewn threads and growing from year to year until their stalks began to stiffen into branches and there could no longer be a question of unraveling them; they were inextricable now. And then the spring came, and there was an explosion of green everywhere, the first fresh leaves sprouting from the bound trunks. And here and there a tree had been cut down, and a segment of chopped wood would remain caught in a fence, because the trunk had grown and swelled, incorporating the wire into its wounded flesh and covering it with layers of scarred bark.

 

 

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Kent Avenue, and the trees that had grown along the fences in the neighborhood, chain-link fences closing off empty lots filled with used refrigerators and rusty car parts. Weeds no one had bothered to cut back, supple shoots winding in and out between the diamond-shaped grids, weaving through like sewn threads and growing from year to year until their stalks began to stiffen into branches and there could no longer be a question of unraveling them; they were inextricable now. And then the spring came, and there was an explosion of green everywhere, the first fresh leaves sprouting from the bound trunks. And here and there a tree had been cut down, and a segment of chopped wood would remain caught in a fence, because the trunk had grown and swelled, incorporating the wire into its wounded flesh and covering it with layers of scarred bark.

— from A Lesser Day

Excerpt from the interview:

A.S.: You ask about the significance of the locations in A Lesser Day: Eisenbahnstrasse and Fidicinstrasse in pre-Unification West Berlin; East Ninth Street in the early ’80s; pre-gentrification Bedford Avenue and Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Essentially, I’ve used these different addresses as a framing device, beginning each fragment with a place name to tell the story of a young artist’s peripatetic life: the never-ending scramble of hand to mouth, boxes stored here and there, works of art in the making, and always looking at things—looking and wondering. I’ve noticed that my experience of space structures my mechanisms of recollection; I don’t know if this is the case for everyone, but it’s certainly true for me. My memory tends to organize itself into blocks of time I’ve spent in particular locations. I have a coherent sense of the year I spent back in Brooklyn before my son was born, for instance—sitting in a chilly riverfront loft in the former Ronzoni spaghetti factory building, working on a first novel that was never completed with a blanket over my knees and my grandmother’s armchair nearby, which I’d rescued from the basement of the house I grew up in; staring every day at the World Trade Center across the river, the year before the towers fell. This time is clearly circumscribed in my mind, whereas other years blur together, years during which not much external change took place in terms of traveling from place to place.

What are these places in which we spend our days, live our lives—these vessels that contain us and keep us warm, that absorb our memories and store them in some mysterious form—and that have the power to reflect our selves back to us? What happens when we return to a place we used to live in? I’m interested in how a period of life becomes, in retrospect, circumscribed by the walls that contained it—the time I lived here, the time I lived there—in ways that go beyond a mere framing of experience. It’s as though a time and a place merged into some other synthesis of being that we become part of not only in a physical sense, but perhaps a mystical sense as well. And while the marks we leave behind are one manifestation of the time we’ve spent somewhere, I often find myself wondering if some part of our spirit remains as well, some part of whatever it is that perhaps transcends place and time.

Read the interview in the May issue of The Brooklyn Rail online:

http://www.brooklynrail.org/2015/05/books/in-the-gaps-between-things-andrea-scrima-with-leora-skolkin-smith

Now in the December/January issue of The Brooklyn Rail

Leora Skolkin-Smith
Edges 
(re-released by The Story Plant, 2014)

In the drizzling rain, the Jordanian hills seemed closer than when I tried to see them from the bedroom upstairs. They lay to the east, though named “The West Bank.” The boundary between the Arab and Jewish regions was drawn by a fountain pen years ago when some British engineers came to canvass the rough land in the 1930s. The ink they had used was green, and so the border was called “the green line,” my aunt told me. The border had remained vague and uncertain, she said, subject to weather and other forces. No one ever seemed to know where it started or ended, the barbed wire often arbitrarily strewn to make up for the absence of clearness. A little more than a hazy outline still in the distance, there were thick layers of barbed wire on both sides of the border.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine from today’s perspective of heavily guarded checkpoints and border controls and ugly, towering walls, but Israel was a very different world in the mid-1960s, when 14-year-old Liana Bialik and her sister accompany their mother Ada to her native Jerusalem to take part in “The Ceremony of the Graves.” Syrian dams are under construction; snipers and terrorists dot the border to Jordan in a campaign to cut Israel off from its water supply, but Ada has retained the freedom and defiance of her earlier days—and it is this fierce and fiery side, hidden beneath the Westchester housewife persona known to her daughters, that suddenly emerges when they arrive in her home country. The remains of Jewish fighters in the War of Independence against Great Britain are to be excavated from their resting place in the Jordanian cemetery in the old city and moved to a new gravesite on the Israeli side of the border. Ada’s brother Elizar is among the dead; as she and her sister Esther reminisce about earlier days of smuggling ammunition in their girdles and brassieres past British soldiers too proper to even dream of stopping them, and look forward to celebrating the repatriation with the other members of the old division of Jerusalem’s underground group, the Haganah, in a grand ballroom of the King David Hotel, Liana has a difficult time absorbing the scorched landscape of her mother’s homeland: the inscrutable, vigilant faces of the people living there; the lizards darting in and out of rusted, sprawling barbed wire and then slithering into the dust; the battered warning signs and discarded gun shells scattered everywhere.

Read the rest of the In Conversation piece here:

http://www.brooklynrail.org/2014/12/books/mother-tongue

Edges cover

Now online at Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics: 

“Fragments, Shards and Visions” — on the Swiss poet Erika Burkart

Introductory essay by Marc Vincenz and interview with Ernst Halter, Burkart’s widower.

erika_burkart

The following prose by Erika Burkart is translated from the German by Andrea Scrima from Am Fenster, wo die Nacht einbricht. Erika Burkart, Aufzeichnungen, ed. Ernst Halter, Zürich: Limmat Verlag. 

Childhood / Ninepins and a Thunderstorm

Ninepins. They’re playing ninepins, said my father, as above us the sky’s protective vault shook with the muffled rumblings of thunder. Who dared to hold a game of ninepins in the House of Angels? They did, blithely unconcerned about turning the cathedral into a wooden heaven. Elfi, our waitress, said a wooden heaven was just a room full of drunken men.

The ninepin lane took up the northeast corner of the garden terrace: because of their finger holes, in which I saw eye sockets, the solid wooden balls reminded me of skulls as they rolled down a splintering, tree-length plank of fir. No one played on workdays; ninepins was a Sunday game. In the morning the bells rang out, in the afternoon the glasses clinked and the balls rolled. The men, made jolly by the beer, played with passion. They’d laid their dark Sunday vests, called smocks, on the backless wooden banks; they rolled up their white shirtsleeves. Starting in the meadow of the pub garden, their eyes fixed on the goal, they picked up speed before dropping to one knee and letting the ball leave their outstretched fist, letting it roll as they followed its course, still in a bent-over position. Rumbling, the ball shot down the lane; as the man stood up the pins fell down, nine of them, rapidly, one after another like dominos, or, if it was a champ shooting, all at the same time as the fellow wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.

After the ball bounced back from the low earthen wall surrounding the platform the pins were positioned on, I helped Hans, the pin boy, to set them up again, which had to happen quickly. It was already the next player’s turn, and his dismissive gesture signaled for us to stand aside.

Nearly every Sunday, unnoticed in the heat of the play, a thunderstorm that had been brewing all afternoon in the southwest put an end to the game of ninepins. Literally bowled over by the rumbling balls, the boastful cries, the cursing and swearing when a ball swerved out of the lane and strayed off into the grass, they hadn’t heard the faraway rolling thunder. It was a stroke of lightning that brought an abrupt end to the match; in no time, the players were gone, scattered up the garden steps and into the pub. One lightning bolt followed another, and the pin boy and I crept beneath the steps. Our chins propped on our bare knees, we crouched in the cave and listened, keeping our heads down and ducking at the claps of thunder, which were now coming in shorter and shorter intervals. The lightning’s flare reached all the way into our dark cavern; there was no time left to count the seconds in between. Hans, poking his head out, said that the strokes of lightning would tear the world apart. I drew closer to his side and saw, momentarily blinded, fiery zigzag snakes shooting straight down from the sky. The rain hadn’t yet begun to fall. Then, a capital peal of thunder knocked us into a heap and released the flood, which then pelted onto the slab of concrete in front of our bunker. After a time, which dissolved into a rushing, timeless sound, there came the rattling of machine guns. The clamorous clattering echoes sounded like the rumbling wheels of a hay wagon driven by trolls over a bridge in Hell. — We’d left the pins where they were. Twenty steps away, they lay there every which way, felled, fallen ones staring with a frozen gaze into the flashes of lightning as the rain trickled into their gaping mouths.

No one had looked for us in the excitement. From one moment to the next, the host and hostess were faced with the task of finding room for twenty new men flushed from the match, all of them crowded around the door with their jackets tossed over their shoulders; tables were pushed into place and chairs moved as Elfi balanced the serving board above their heads. The pub was small; lightning flashed in each of its four windows. They knew the situation, and feared it. Squeezed into a corner of the stairwell, both curious and anxious, they had been watching the events that recurred every Sunday in fair weather.

Removed from the chaos, in the smell of damp mortar, Hans and I waited for the thunderstorm to end. The white of my Sunday shoes radiated marvelously against the fresh green of the dripping grass in the meadow, where a pale gleam shone from the long wet planks of the tables. Sparkling behind the clouds, it found its way through the rifts and into the empty pub garden and, in the bush-enclosed northeastern corner, to the fallen ones, which in this light were nothing more than ordinary, rain-drenched pins that bore a strange resemblance to the beer bottles that had been left behind on the tables: these, too, were childhood plunder, the way it crawls out of the box of tricks at night when the summer lightning flashes in the east to rehearse a scene from the ghost game of a life whose images are pieced together differently in each epoch. Bewildering end game. Blindly, we relinquish.

 

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Follow the link to issue 7–1 of Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics. 

Senior Editors: Andrea Scrima and Carole Viers-Andronico.

Essay and interview begin on page 25 of the full-issue PDF, followed by a selection of Marc Vincenz’s translations of Burkart’s poems and my translations of the Aufzeichnungen, which begin on page 58.

http://contramundum.net/2016/02/27/hyperion-vol-7-1/

Or open the PDF extract: Hyperion Burkart 2013

... from the moment I sat down and began the first text segment of A Lesser Day, which opens with a father dying and ends with the sounds of a distant television drifting down a hallway to the ears of a frightened child in bed, I was working strictly from my own memory. And the interesting thing was, the closer I adhered to what I remembered, the freer I felt to focus on the words themselves, their rhythms and repetitions. It enabled me to develop the book in a formal sense: with its fragmented narratives, recurrent leitmotifs, and negative spaces or gaps in the narrative that seem to resonate with the unarticulated.

 

3. this small sacrifice detail

 

The interview is no longer online—here it is in full:

 

THINGS I’D RATHER BE DOING — INTERVIEW WITH ANDREA SCRIMA  

John Kenyon, June 10, 2010

 

J.K. Reading this, I assumed it was nonfiction, but it is listed as fiction. Does either designation do justice to the story being told, or is a different classification required to accurately describe its contents?

A.S. Most of the material in A Lesser Day is autobiographical, although I’ve found the nature of autobiography to be a slippery one. I’m not even sure it’s correct to equate autobiography with nonfiction, given its subjective nature. Although I have some difficulty with the category “memoir”—to my mind memoirs are written by public personalities with eventful, tumultuous lives bent on setting the record straight or exacting revenge—I made the decision at some point to call A Lesser Day a memoir. Despite this, the Library of Congress has catalogued A Lesser Day as a work of fiction. Spuyten Duyvil Press responded by listing the book both on their fiction and their nonfiction pages.

Actually, A Lesser Day is my second book; the first book is an unfinished novel. In writing it, I was concerned with revealing as little as possible about the people I’d based my characters on—people I care about and whose feelings matter to me—and as a consequence, much of the task entailed inventing settings and essentially lives to explore the psychological phenomena I was obsessed with at the time. But then a strange thing happened. The more I strove for fiction, the more revealing the writing seemed, the more naked, even—and it made me increasingly uncomfortable. I was never able to resolve this, and I abandoned the work after three or four hundred pages.

On the other hand, from the moment I sat down and began the first text segment of A Lesser Day, which opens with a father dying and ends with the sounds of a distant television drifting down a hallway to the ears of a frightened child in bed, I was working strictly from my own memory. And the interesting thing was, the closer I adhered to what I remembered, the freer I felt to focus on the words themselves, their rhythms and repetitions. It enabled me to develop the book in a formal sense: with its fragmented narratives, recurrent leitmotifs, and negative spaces or gaps in the narrative that seem to resonate with the unarticulated.

And so, in answer to your question, I really don’t know what classification best applies to this book. In any case, the closer I stuck to my own memory, the more “fictional” the writing became, while the further I delved into fiction, the more revealing and autobiographical it seemed. But I can imagine that many writers experience this; the existing categories don’t really approach the true nature of writing, as far as I can tell.

 

As a visual artist, you communicate one way. Now, with the written word, you must communicate in a different way. How did that shift affect the story you were able to tell? Could you tell this story through visual art, and how would what is communicated differ?

No, there are things I’ve found I’m only able to do in writing. I’m seeking answers to some basic questions, and this process takes place in language as opposed to color or line or compositional form. I’ve discovered something odd, something I’m almost embarrassed by: I don’t seem to be able to think very clearly in words. I have to write to fully understand what I think, which is very different from the artistic process, in which I need to turn off the inner noise and empty my mind as much as possible.

Each discipline carries with it its own available content. In my writing I’m interested in exploring memory, family relationships, childhood, the lonely inner space of the self. It would never occur to me to explore these themes in my art; for me, art doesn’t need to be “about” anything. The formal language of the medium carries with it its own inner logic and manner of storytelling, which remain largely abstract.

 

The passages, though brief, are rich with detail. Was that your visual artist’s eye at work?

I think my visual sense informs my writing to the extent that in seeking to create mental images in the mind of the reader, I try to be as precise as possible about how these images unfold, how they follow one another in sequence.

2. this small sacrifice

Installation view of This small sacrifice, museumakademie berlin, 1998.

At some point in my artistic work, I had arrived at a synthesis of word and image in the form of text installations, which were essentially stories I’d written and painted onto the walls of exhibition spaces, thousands of letters wrapping around walls, running in and out of window wells and doorways and composed such that the period of a sentence would end at a light switch, for instance. It was a way of choreographing the reader/viewer through a space. This period culminated in an installation I did in Dresden about a woman’s recollection of a man she once loved. She realizes that she’s begun to forget him; she scours a photograph for any power it might still possess to conjure his living image. It was a visual work that consisted entirely of writing which sought to convey the fugitive nature of the remembered or imagined image.

I don’t think, in referring to myself, that I can speak of an artist’s eye or a writer’s mind or sensibility; it’s all interwoven, in the way that all human beings speak and see and think in terms of words and images. It’s only different in that I actually use these various disciplines in an active way.

 

The oft-quoted knock against music criticism is that it is like dancing about architecture. In similar fashion, it is difficult to accurately convey the depth of a work of visual art through words. You were trying to do so to some degree with your own work here. Did that give you a different perspective on arts criticism and reportage?

In A Lesser Day, I describe several newspaper photographs I’ve incorporated in my work. I was interested in what kind of parallel mental image I’d arrive at through sheer description: this is happening in the foreground, this is happening in the background; people’s arms are raised in a certain way, their bodies are positioned in a certain way. I wondered whether a ghost of the original image might result, or a shadow; how far from the original image the description would take me in spite of my efforts at neutrality, at accuracy. There are also passages in which I’ve described the painting process — but this is all very different than trying to describe a work of art. To my mind, the descriptions here are analogous to the process of writing itself, of making sense out of non-sense. Art criticism is another task entirely, with a stake in power relations and an object’s relative value as a commodity on the art market — or, often enough, the relative commodity value of the artist herself.

I’ve written about art on a number of occasions, most recently for the website of A Gathering of the Tribes, a small arts organization on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A few friends of mine had a show of drawings and asked me to write a review. I enjoy doing this on occasion, although I prefer to write essays and not criticism per se. I’m not interested in judging art or in promoting anyone; I’m only interested in trying to think my way inside the work, to adopt its logic as a set of cognitive parameters and understand it from within, as it were.

 

The shifting “you” in the text is jarring at times as the reader must work to determine which “you” is being addressed. This confusion shifted the context on a given page, adding layers to what was being shared. Was that your intent, or is that a happy accident of the more minimalist narrative structure?

I’m glad you’re asking this. Actually, the entirety of A Lesser Day is addressed to one or another “you.” It’s a book written in the first person singular and addressed either explicitly or implicitly to an unnamed person I’ve felt emotionally close to at various points in my life—my father, a series of lovers, or a version of myself at some particular age. The shifting “you” is a construct I happened upon very early in the book; it reflects the sense that so much of what we tell ourselves when we’re alone is actually directed at a specific recipient, and that while this person might change periodically, the inner monologue carries on, like an ongoing appeal or tribunal.

 

It seems this same story told in a different way could have been a much different book, placing much more direct emphasis on inter-personal relationships and socio-political issues. You touch on things tangentially that in a more conventional book would be addressed head-on, seemingly intentionally focusing more on “lesser days” than on those that were monumental. Was that the intent from the beginning or was there a process of stripping things away at any point?

I agree, there were a number of potential books to be had from the same subject matter: the events in Berlin immediately after travel restrictions were lifted and East Germans began pouring into the city; the dismantling of the GDR I’ve alluded to, for instance in the segment about the former East German state circus, which was bought up by an entrepreneur less interested in the circus’ history or the welfare of the animals than in making as much money as possible. Or the East Village of the ’80s: the danger we lived in at the time; the drug deaths and this collision with inner city brutality and poverty. Or, I could have developed each of the characters and then let them interact with one another to reveal their natures, as in a novel. But I wasn’t interested in writing a novel; I was more concerned with the way life leaves a kind of sediment in the places we’ve lived—the way location encapsulates memory—and I sought to express this through the book’s structure and form, as well. And so it wasn’t as much a paring down as a formal choice to restrict myself to a particular narrative structure in which the larger historical reality hovers on the periphery, ominous but still extraneous to the workings of the inner self.

 

Everything from the book’s size and layout to the name of the publisher had me thinking this was an import from some small European press, something the sections set in Berlin helped to reinforce. Yet, at its heart, this is an American story about identity, loss, creativity and travel, though one told in a non-traditional way. In a way this feels like a genre of one, but in another it is very much of a piece with contemporary American literature. What space does A Lesser Day occupy on the literary continuum to you?

That’s an interesting question. I’m gratified that you recognize A Lesser Day’s place in contemporary American literature. Identity, especially cultural identity, cuts close to the core of what it is to be American, whether we’re the descendents of slaves or relative newcomers, second-generation Italian or Irish or whatever. At one point in the book, the narrator—who has her possessions crated and shipped following the loss of her childhood home—ponders the odds that the overseas trunk accompanying her immigrant great-grandparents during their original sea voyage to New York, where they settled in the Bronx 117 years previously, might have actually departed from the very same port in Hamburg. We are always looking for home, it seems. And so maybe it’s this sense of loss that makes the writing of American exiles so urgently, paradoxically American—Gertrude Stein comes to mind in this regard.

Yet for an exclusively American sensibility weaned on colloquial language and its self-referential manner of plugging into collective TV history and the like, the minimalist narrative structure of A Lesser Day might present a problem. If you look at the past century of works written in the English language, however, you find Virginia Woolf constructing fragmented narratives 80 and 90 years ago—not to mention Joyce, of course. Personally, I feel a strong kinship with Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights and Christine Schutt’s Nightwork. European literature has also had a deep impact on my writing—Natalia Ginzburg and Marguerite Duras in particular; Thomas Bernhard and W.G. Sebald as well. But there are so many German authors that have either never or only scarcely been translated into English, like Marie-Luise Kaschnitz, who wrote a book titled Orte (English: Places or Locations) that was published in 1973, the year she died. It’s a beautiful book somewhat similar in structure to A Lesser Day.

It bears mentioning that only a small press would have given me the freedom to cultivate each individual aspect of this book—from the cover design, photography, size, and typography to my decision to put an excerpt on the back cover and not a string of redundant blurbs. Nava Renek and Tod Thilleman, themselves authors, have joined forces to make Spuyten Duyvil one of the most inspiring publishers on the independent scene. I feel a true affinity with Thilleman’s Gowanus Canal, Hans Knudsen and Renek’s No Perfect Words, two exceptional novels that undermine narrative structure to reveal the deeper meaning inherent in form—and so this, too, has become a context for me, a literary home. It’s not about a niche or an experimental ghetto, however; it’s about contemporary literature as it survives within or in spite of the shifting priorities of present marketplace conditions: what we expect of our literature as a culture—and where we want to take it as writers, as critics, as publishers.

To my mind, American literature must be evaluated in a broader context. Important contemporary writers like Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín should be included in our literary discourse—but because they’re Irish, they’re considered foreign, which is absurd. The same goes for the Scottish writer James Kelman. Compounding this is the short shrift given to translation, a vital task left to smaller presses like Dalkey Archive, Spuyten Duyvil, and Twisted Spoon, who were one of the first to publish Andrzej Stasiuk in English. This has isolated American literature from the rest of the writing and thinking world, which is not, I believe, where we want to be.

 

Having completed a significant writing project like this, is there anything you’ll take back from it creatively to your visual art? Is there more writing in your future?

I write because there are things that can only be expressed in words, or because language is required to fully explore something I need to understand. And when I make art, it’s because words fail to express everything we’re capable of experiencing or perceiving. I try to identify the medium that is most conducive to a particular aesthetic or emotional concern, although this is not the cleanly organized conceptual approach it might sound like. On the contrary: it’s largely aleatory. It’s difficult for me to negotiate these different processes and states of mind; for the most part, I’m governed by gut instinct. Often enough, I find myself working in the one and longing for the other, hard-pressed to distinguish between my own limitations as a writer or visual artist and the limitations of the medium itself. I’m a purist by nature, I long to do one thing only, and so perhaps I’m working towards that, one day.

I believe writing has become for me what painting used to be: a kind of being-in-the-moment process that connects me to my own thought patterns and associations as they surface in my mind. Writing is the most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to do, yet I seem to be moving more and more in this direction.

I suspected I was a writer when I realized that the books I was reading had a far more profound impact on the development of my painting than anything else. Literature peels away the layers of my stupor and makes me alert to myself. It seems obvious, but it was like a miracle for me when I discovered what it means to share a language—the fact that words are, despite all their vagaries, a common currency.

A Lesser Day was rejected at least 75 times until Spuyten Duyvil Press took it on board. So my threshold for pain is considerably higher now, my faith in the way a book eventually finds the right people to support it has increased, and my determination to see my literary works through to publication has only grown. I guess we’ll just have to see. In any case, John, I’d like to thank you for your insightful questions and observations—it’s been a pleasure to have this conversation.

 

 

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