AN INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD MCCANN
Wesley Gibson: I'm here today with Richard McCann, and we're going to talk about his book coming out from Pantheon in April, Mother of Sorrows—it's a very beautiful collection of stories—and we're going to talk about your earlier work, too.
In Ghost Letters you describe a photograph of people in a burning house, and you describe the fire as at once a trap and a way out. And it seems to me that that pretty well describes the narrator's relationship with his past in Mother of Sorrows, trying to come to terms with it through examination, through storytelling as the trap and the way out.
Richard McCann: First let me say that I like it that you combine . . . question Ghost Letters, a collection of poems, with Mother of Sorrows, which is prose and which is nine stories, I think, that fit together and make something like a novel, because I think the concerns are not really terribly different between the two works, even though the forms are . . . That quote, of people in a burning house, being burned in it and that fire is at once a trap and a way out, is from a poem actually I wrote for my brother, David, who is a character in Mother of Sorrows. It's actually an older poem. It's not as old as the image I had in mind for that line, but the image I had in mind of people in a house that is burning around them was actually the image of the Symbionese Liberation Army house burning, with the people from the SLA inside that house being burned alive. I remember in the writing of it, thinking of that house in really literal terms of my brother's and my childhood house, the desire to escape that house and the ways in which escape, I suppose, also felt like a death for us. How could we live outside that house where we had been. At the time I also actually remember thinking of that in terms of, the house was also America, not just the house in which I was raised, and I think this is where the Symbionese Liberation Army and Patty Hearst and Cinque and all those people came into it was that they were trying to flee the house of America and they were also very deeply trapped in it, in their own violence and stuff. I guess that double-edged movement, of being in a fire that is at once obliterating and liberating . . . seems to me we're very tied to the work of autobiographical writing, which my work is. Often it seems to me that autobiographical writing has in it a kind of doubleness about the painfulness of looking at the self and the ways in which one sometimes feels obliterated and also recreated by examining the self and also by proposing a self in writing.
WG: So when you were in the process of writing those stories, do you feel like in a way in that sort of examination and that self-examination, that examination of your past and your history, do you feel like it did help you to recreate yourself in reimagining it?
RM: I hope so. That was the aim of writing the stories, in some ways. I turned to fiction, I suppose . . . I'd never written fiction in any serious way until about, I guess, about twenty years ago, I started giving it a try. It was actually right after I moved back to the United States after living abroad for some years. And I was in Washington [DC], which is where I grew up, and I was walking up Connecticut Avenue and it was a hot summer day, it was August, and the bus passed me by and left me in its wake of black noxious gases. It was like a hundred and four degrees and it was miserable and I thought, "This is what my life feels like, this is what it felt like growing up." And I remember thinking: growing up. And I'd never really taken that on as a subject. I'd never written, even in poetry very much, about what it meant to be a child.
To me, the great effort of life as a child was, close your eyes and wait until you stop being a child and you can flee the small suburban house and get to someplace grand and fabulous. And here I was, returned and returned pretty much a few miles from where I grew up. And I found that very difficult, and in some ways I think I began writing prose, began writing narratives to kind of try and figure out what the narrative was that I had been raised in. My mother was a really good storyteller. She was an inadvertent storyteller. She was actually kind of a rambler in speech, but she was so good at sort of mythicising herself and making herself dramatic that I think I learned something about first-person narration from her, but [I] also felt like a necessity, if you will, to start narrating something on my own because when I was younger . . . I think one of the reasons I didn't write about childhood was not only that I wanted to flee it, but I really had no way to apprehend my childhood or to apprehend my family other than the ways in which my mother had done so. I would re-tell her stories, as it were, and try and maybe give them a little flourish, a signature gesture. But they were hers, they weren't mine. And so narrative for me was a way of kind of trying to stake out a territory of myself and to stake out a narrator, too, which meant there would have to be somebody who was perceiving, a consciousness that was perceiving who wasn't the same one as I [was] exactly, who was going to be, maybe, a little bit farther ahead of me.
WG: Why did you decide to write the narrative as fiction instead of memoir, because it is deeply autobiographical. And, sort of a related question, what do you think the poems do? . . . because some of the poems do deal with the same material. What is it that the poems can do that the stories can't do, and vice versa?
RM: First of all, I guess I should say, about fiction and memoir, I am my mother's son, and that impulse toward myth-o-mania is mine as well. I never thought in writing these stories that they were fiction, and I never quite thought they were memoir. If I thought of them one way or another, I thought of them more as nonfiction than fiction, but I was aware that I was traveling away from facts and sometimes in a large way. Ultimately, the decision to publish this as fiction had to do with the fact that I really had stepped away from fact in some pretty significant ways in a number of them. The narrator of the last story . . . it's the same narrator all the way through, but in the last story he has HIV. I don't. When I wrote that story I had thought, he needs a really big disease, and I only have liver disease, which, in fact, I have. I thought my disease was not sufficiently dramatic. I just needed to wait and find out that wasn't true by events that happened later, but things like that seem to me to really say, "This has moved into the realm of fiction."
I find the line between those things pretty difficult. I find it difficult in the usual way, that is to say, what is remembered truth and how reliable is memory and what ways do we make myth out of memory, and I think we do, but I also find it difficult because once I'm into something, I feel like I've got an allegiance to the way things start to unfold. And I never plan that things are going to fold away from the facts. It's never my intention. I never ever have started writing by saying in a sort of holiday mood, "What can I invent today?" It's just that something's moving in a certain way, and I see a prospect and I try it, and it may not be the literal truth . . . and it seems to me something I want to go with.
I suppose often that's meant some of the things people often do: it's meant compressing time, it's meant exaggerating characters. Above all, it's meant leaving things out. In that Mother of Sorrows is a family of four. I actually had two brothers, mine was a family of five. There are things that are so significantly different that I thought, well, really I am following a kind of imaginative impulse here as much as I am an autobiographical impulse. I'm allowing both to interplay with each other. And that's what I think of this work as being. I think of it as being, in poetry actually as well as fiction (if I may use that word), I think of Mother of Sorrows as being a kind of homage to reality. It's not reality. It is not exactly the way reality was, but it is an homage to a particular lived reality. And I think of the poems rather in the same way. In poetry, people don't ask these same kinds of questions. There's an assumption in poetry, and I wrote poetry for a long time, that it is at once autobiographical and not autobiographical. In fiction, one is asked to be a little bit, particularly in the post-Jason Blair age, fact-checking, one is asked to be a little bit clearer about that.
WG: You know, a lot of the work is concerned with . . . the project of it is this narrator, and even in the poems, too, is trying to come to some sort of terms with the past. And I do sort of want to hear your take on that because Mother of Sorrows ends with those two characters: "Who goes there in the dark? I whisper. We do, Helen answers." They're out on the boat, and they're out on the lake, and we believe they're seeing their reflections in this . . .
RM: . . . the water's too dark for them to see themselves reflected; it's night.
WG: The "Helen" character is struggling to come to terms with a very tragic past, the death of her young son. And the other character is struggling to come to terms with his present, certainly with his illness, but he's also struggling to come to terms with all this death that's accumulated, all these friends who have died. That ending to me, it does seem to imply that it's maybe not possible for them to come to terms with those pasts, that they sort of have to maybe live within those pasts, they're sort of—I don't know if I want to use the word "condemned," but I can't think of another one—to wander those paths, to live inside of that history.
RM: Yes, that is a very dark ending, and the narrator, and his good friend Helen whose son has died . . . and the narrator's lost many people to AIDS and other things and he himself is sick . . . are out in a boat, in the middle of a lake. But the line he says to her, "Who goes there in the dark?" is actually a line he remembers his brother having said as a child, when his brother, now dead, used to hide in the shrubs by the front porch at night and when somebody would go past the brother would go, "Who goes there?" To me, it's significant that the narrator is saying something his brother said a long time ago. Significant in a couple of ways: in other stories one would find that he's actually had a hard time reconciling himself to the ways in which he's like his brother, and so I think there's a kind of a nice merging of him and his brother there that he's often refused. But also, he's saying years later something his brother said as a child, which is to say, he's memorializing in language, through the act of saying something. He's also making a metaphysical point; he's also remembering his brother, who said that long ago. And in that way, yeah, I think there is no escaping the past. They are out in a rowboat in the middle of a dark lake and it's the evening of Tish'ah B'Av, a Jewish holiday, and they're out there saying Kaddish for the character Helen's son. But I like to think that "Who goes there in the dark . . . We do, Helen answers," that "in the dark" is equalized by "Who goes there?" By the action of that verb. Are you marred? Yes. Are you moving through the dark? Yes. Is the past difficult, is memory difficult? Yes. Are you moving? Yes. Then you're alive.
WG: They're also together.
WG: And one of the things I like about that story is that they're together through some difficulty in the story. They're supposed to go and memorialize her son and it doesn't quite work out the way they want it to and it works out in this other way. That leads me to leap to another question I was going to ask later . . . I do think of a lot of your work, the stories, the poems, they read like elegies to me.
RM: I think of my work as really elegiac also in a lot of ways, not just that . . . or I also think of it as sometimes, particularly in Ghost Letters, redefining what the elegiac, or attempting to redefine (let me not reach too far) what the elegiac might consist of. We think of an elegy as a memorial. We think of an elegy as a tribute. But it actually does do . . . There's a beautiful set of elegies by Paul Monette that I really love called Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog. They are very hard, fast-moving, wrenching, shouting, angry, weeping poems. They're very tilted out over the top and they're very beautiful. In one of them, the first one, I think, the narrator, who's Paul Monette, is at the grave of his now-dead partner, and he's saying, "There's only one green thing left" now that the partner is dead, and the green thing is "here, right here," he keeps saying, "here, right here." And he also points out that where he is, he, the narrator's also sick. I love that "here, right here" because I think one of the things the elegy really does is it takes that which is absent and makes it present again. It's not eulogizing, it's not just lamenting, but it's also a real effort of taking what is there and making it here. Taking that which is gone and making it present. I think my work is really . . . if you were to rub two opposite forces together, that you would find maybe those forces are the effort to preserve and the effort to escape, sort of like what you asked in the first question. And I think that a lot of the elegiac impulse comes from that effort to preserve, and also because in Ghost Letters a lot of those poems really are coming out of the experience of the AIDS pandemic. It's hard to even re-enter some of that time . . .
WG: We were talking [about] the end of The Way We Live Now when Susan Sontag says, she says something like, in a photograph or painting you can't say "is," because the fact of the photograph automatically conjures the past. But she says in a story or in a poem or in language, you can say, "He's still here." And I think the story ends with the line "He's still here," and that's part of her memorial to all of her dead friends.
RM: As a teacher, I'm often in the position of explaining to my students why when writing about a work of literature they say, "The character so-and-so is going down the street," the way in which the form in critical analysis . . . that works of literature are to be discussed as if they're forever in the present. There's something to that about what it is I think we want from the encoding into language.
WG: I guess you've talked about this a little bit, you talked about reinventing the self, but is that the purpose of examining our history? You said you felt like it actually had helped you to sort of reinvent yourself.
RM: The thing I didn't mention is that I began writing prose at the exact same time I went into psychotherapy the first time, and those are not coincidental processes, since they're both essentially narrative enterprises about trying to find structures for stories that might not be the structures that were the ones delivered to you, the received structures, and trying to find out the role of the narrator, one's self, one's endlessly interesting, wonderful self within those stories. I guess I think . . . you know, I don't really know what I think about inventing a self. I don't want to make any claims for a reinvented self, exactly. You know, you say that and then that night you think, "My god! That was my mother speaking when I just said that." These claims that people make for a new and authentic self worry me. They seem very large sometimes. Nonetheless, I guess I have thought of writing as a kind of way to apprehend myself in some way that had not been possible without it. I stopped writing. I wrote when I was in my twenties and I stopped when I was about twenty-six until I was about thirty-four. A lot of that stopping had to do with the more I wrote, the more I was beginning to stumble upon a self who was making me really uncomfortable. For instance, he had things to say about sex that made me really uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable . . . I don't think until Ghost Letters, I ever wrote anything that had any anger in it. That was not something I was comfortable voicing at all. And in a lot of ways I stopped writing because I was starting to engender a self whom I couldn't deal with. He scared me, so I just dropped him. We broke up, and when I started again . . . I have felt at many points that what it would mean to keep writing would be to keep being able to risk a kind of self-discovery and to risk a kind of steady broadening of what the pronoun "I" might mean to me, and to admit more and more and more.
WG: I want to jump ahead to a question because that sort of brings up tone for me. The tone of the last story, "My Brother in the Basement," I think is different from the tone of the other stories in the collection. I think that part of it is angrier, I think it's a little less forgiving of the mother, even though there's still that incredible connection there, I know that you said earlier that that story feels different in tone to you as well.
RM: It does. If I were to chart a tonal diagram for myself, I began someone writing prose as a poet and I began interested largely in the lyrical prospects of prose, and over time I've gotten more and more interested in some of the other prospects, the more frankly narrative prospects. I really love beautifully made language, I'm sucker for it, most every time. On public transportation, in bars . . . all you have to do is say a nice sentence. But I don't want to get suckered by it too much.
WG: What do you think are the dangers of getting suckered by it?
RM: A couple of things. One, the danger of what Dick Bausch once called "language language-ing." More urgently for me, you can fall into the rhythm of a beautiful sentence, and it takes you farther and farther from the truth than you might want to say, it's a rhythm you know. And sometimes I think also for me, something I really have struggled with at times is in my compulsive revising—and I'm incredibly compulsive about revising and I want to make everything gem-like—I feel I have to warn myself off it so that things don't get all too hard, the surfaces don't get too hard or too polished so that they resist a reader or resist feeling. The aim of language, for me, as a writer, is to produce feeling, and one of the difficulties in writing is that you have to have the feelings to produce them. One isn't always that eager, after all. Maybe a kind of defense, I think sometimes, is you can make things too beautiful because the feeling kind of gets beautied out.
"In My Brother in the Basement," that's a story that's really based on an autobiographical thing, on the fact that I had a brother who was a year older than I who was also gay. His name was David, and we were Ricky and David Nelson, and people always thought of us in these almost twin kind of ways. And we were very different and very alike, both. And I suppose in our families it would be fair to say that I was the good boy and he was the bad, taht's was how it was understood; its a very gross and pathetic reading of the situation, but that was the one we were given to understand. I have felt bad for many years—my brother died of an overdose twenty years ago this year—and I have felt very bad for many years about ways in which I did not support him in the last few years of his life. He was a very difficult person, but I wasn't always supporting him. For instance, he was far more "out" in my family than I was. He was much more out there, in terms of being out as a gay person, than I was. I was always trying to be a pleasing homosexual. He wasn't interested in that, not at all, in fact he was quite interested in being displeasing, the other end of the spectrum. I wanted in that story to start approaching him in a way different than I had before. It wasn't my intention to heal our relationship through a story . . . it's kind of late. As the old Amharic saying goes, you can't build a house for last winter.
But I did want to approach our relationship and that story took me by surprise in a lot of ways. There are some very long scenes in there that are to me horrible and also very strangely funny. As scenes they're very long and they're very dialogue-y, and that's not the way I usually go. I usually try to keep speech in a more crystalline kind of form, but there I really wanted to, and I didn't want to observe—I couldn't observe, it wasn't a choice—the lyrical so much because I was aware of the fact that more anger was beginning to flow into that story than I had anticipated. You know, you say to your students sometimes, "What is the story you plan never to tell in your life?" And I knew that was the story I planned never to tell in my life, was my story with my brother, my dear brother. My editor was really on my case because I turned in this book without the story, and he kept saying, "The brother has a bit of a shadowy presence in this book. You need to bring him up." And I was like, "Well, I can't." And he was like, "No, he really has to." And I was like, "Doesn't need to." And he was like, "No, he has to." And I understood this meant deal-breaker "has to." And finally he said, "Just write a really short story, like five pages, about your brother." And I said, "Okay. I can do that. Five pages." And I thought, "Okay, I can do five pages." It was almost as if somebody had said to me, "You only need to think about something painful for ten minutes, I promise." And once I took that agreement, that's the longest story I've ever written. It's like a forty-page story. Once I made that agreement, I couldn't stop, it had its own momentum, and I was very glad he made that insistence, very glad, because I was ducking. He was right; the brother was too much a shadow. What was in fact in my mind originally, a book about a mother and a son, became a book about three people, through the addition of that story primarily.
WG: That's going to lead me to something that I was thinking about when I was reading the essays, which is again that difference in tone, particularly in "[The] Resurrectionist," where I felt, again, because you are a very lyrical writer and you have a gift for that, it's a great pleasure to read those very beautifully, skillfully crafted sentences. And I really felt like, particularly in "[The] Resurrectionist," that there was a real resistance, you were really resisting that lyrical impulse in the way that the essay keeps refusing. Different, maybe sentimental ideas of who this person might be and what this relation might be and trying to see it, it feels like it's trying to see it with a kind of clarity, that that's the important thing, is to see it clearly. And so once again, the language of that felt very different. Even though it's still very precise, it's not as lyrical as your other stuff. Do you agree with that?
RM: I don't know if I do or not. I should say, just by way of . . . you know the whole story of this essay, "The Resurrectionist," and right now I'm working on a collection of essays—I'm not supposed to use that word because it's so deadly in terms of publishing—but working on a collection of autobiographical narratives that arise from the occasion of a liver transplant I had in 1996 and that you, of course, know tons about because you were one of the people that really helped me through that time. "The Resurrectionist" is about that, and the essay and this collection of essays are about the experience of illness and the experience of mortality and what it means to live in a body like mine that is being kept alive through the organ of someone else who is now dead, my liver, in this case. I've actually enjoyed writing those essays, the ones I've done so far, including "The Resurrectionist."
They've probably been among the hardest things I've ever written because that was an incredibly traumatic experience. And also parts of it are real lost to me. I was on a lot of steroids. I had to go, on as many transplant recipients do, I was on so many steroids I became psychotic and had to go on Haldol. It's not exactly all crystalline in my mind, and maybe if you sense, I don't know, but maybe if you sense a desire for great clarity, maybe it's actually partly a desire of mine to try and figure out what the hell happened in an experience that is in some ways extremely stark and clear to me, and in other ways quite gauzy, you know, since I was medicated a lot of that time . . . and also because when you have end-stage liver disease, which is what I have, you often have encephalopathy, mental confusion. You might probably remember, I was really confused.
So part of it is that, but about the lyrical, those essays specifically come out of a desire of mine: I used to go to a transplant support group and I should go back, actually, but even there I became aware that there were ways you were supposed to talk about the transplant that were acceptable and ways that were considered a little too dark. And as long as you were on the page of, "Yes, sir, my donor gave me my gift of life," you were doing great. But if you strayed into less well-illuminated territory, such as the fact that your donor didn't actually donate something to you; the person was dead. Or if you strayed into the way that, yes, it's a gift of life, predicated on death, as all life is, then the transplant support group was a little more urging you to quiet down. And I didn't want to quiet down; I couldn't quiet down. I found it a very difficult—I think many people do—difficult psychological adjustment, to be alive through the offices of another person's death, very difficult adjustment.
So in those essays I really feel like there's a lot of different kinds of language slamming up against other kinds of language together. I've really wanted to use a lot of medical language. I know, I've been dealing with liver disease for fifteen years. I always feel like I should be given a medical degree because I've learned so much. I really love a lot of that language. I also have wanted to write against that language, as much as I've wanted to use it and to write against the language of transplantation, which is gauzy: "gift of life," saying "harvesting" instead of "dissecting the cadaver." So there's been an effort to lyricize but also, I think you're right, a distinct effort not to, to try and look at this, at some facts, some stark facts: I am alive, that person is dead. I am alive because that person is dead. And look at them kind of squarely. I do think there are real lyrical flourishes that go on there. Maybe some of the settings, the fact that they're set in hospitals or that it's around surgery takes some of that away, but to my mind there are places of real sort of heightening that go on in those essays and against there were poised moments that are much more stark.
WG: Yeah, I would agree that I think there are moments when you're trying to come to terms with, when you are trying to get to the sort of complicated acceptance that isn't, as you'd say, in that sort of banal, almost Hallmark sort of way. But again there's a lot of language that's sort of very direct. I mean, I'm even thinking at the beginning, when you go to see your mother and there just seems something that was very direct in your descriptions of everything, which I liked a lot. And I actually felt like the language itself was doing what the essay was trying sort of emotionally and intellectually to do, that the language was struggling with that, too. And I thought was why it was so stunning.
RM: As you say that, t occurs to me that when I began writing I really thought of myself as a lyric poet. I was after the moment, the lyric moment. And over time—and I mean, and that phrase "over time" is important to this—over time I feel like I've been less and less after the moment, because the longer you stay alive, the more interesting the medium of time becomes. Things change, people change in time. I'm not so interested in this sort of high lyric moment as I once was.
There are a number of books that made me want to write prose, and one of them was Edmund White's Nocturnes for the King of Naples, which is so lyrical most people bounce right off of it. I can't figure out a word of what it's saying. I worship that novel. I went back and read it about six or seven years ago, and I realized I still loved the novel, but I didn't worship it. Having come through the experience of many friends' deaths and what it's meant to be in a hospital a lot with AIDS, from other people with liver disease, for myself, having had to learn what it is to sort of like get someone's attention to go, "You get me that glass of water or I can get you fired," that lyricism didn't seem so valuable as it once did. To me, the place where I sort of most questioned lyricism—oddly, not oddly—or challenged, I felt, was actually in Ghost Letters, where, although there's a number of lyrical poems, there's a lot in there that is really, in my mind, sort of poised against the idea that putting something in language is about its lyric-lifting and its transcendence. And I began to feel very distrustful of language like that. Some of the poems that began to speak to me and works that began to speak to me were actually things that were plainer. I think of Marie Howe's book, What the Living Do, a book I really love. And she has such an extraordinary gift for a kind of delicacy and hardness and clarity all at the same time.
One time I was walking down the street in Provincetown with Tony Hoagland and Mark Doty and Marie Howe and someone else, and Tony said something about—it started to snow, that was it—and Tony said something like, "Oh, oh, Mark, I know how you would see the snow." And Mark said, "How?" and Tony said, "As a beautiful transcendence, as a kind of metaphoric aspect," and Mark says, "Yes, yes." And he said, "And Richard, you would see it like . . . " In fact, I don't remember how he told me I would see it, maybe I don't wish to remember how I would see it, but then Marie said, "What about me? How would I see the snow?" And Tony turned to her, and he said, "As snow. You're the only one who sees snow." And I thought, oh, right. And I thought that was a really great lesson for me as a writer, to realize Marie was seeing snow.
WG: That sort of reminds me—and I'm not going to remember this exactly, either—in "Nights of 1990," the opening poem, long poem, in Ghost Letters, where at some point someone comes into the room, I can't remember if it's a nurse or if it's a chaplain or somebody, and she says something like, "A miracle is happening in this room," or "Something mysterious is happening in this room," and you think, "In this room? In this horrible . . . ?" So there's this . . .
RM: I think it says, "In this lime-green room?"
WG: . . . Right. There are those oppositions in that book where some of it is really sublimely lyrical, but you are constantly, sort of . . . not even so much pushing, I feel like you're sort of really crashing against that sometimes, because you don't want to fall into the trap of the gauze, maybe.
RM: I hope so, and you've brought this up as a question of tone. Ultimately, what is tone? It seems to me, more and more, that tone is actually about juxtaposition of diction and juxtaposition of voices. That tone is derived, not from finding a note, but from actually smashing different kinds of notes together. So that, for instance, ironic high-fag talk is often, at once, really street argot and spoken like a real lady. Probably the first prose writer I loved avidly—I had loved dramatists before that—was probably Jean Genet, whom I started reading in high school. And when one looks at him, he is a master of taking like eight different kinds of tone and throwing them together into a small space, and creating something that is at once so sacramental and so base. And I've always loved that, that combination.
WG: I do see Ghost Letters as a kind of dance between physical desire and death. There's a lot of sex in there, it's very explicit, some very explicit stuff; and in Mother, not so much, you know, there isn't so much. I mean the sort of . . . one story, I'm not going to remember the title now, "Medina" . . .
RM: "Some Threads Through the Medina."
WG: "Some Threads Through the Medina."
RM: That's an almost-sex story.
WG: That's an almost-sex story, and that's sort of, that's about as close as it gets. And I was wondering if you had any thoughts about why that might be so. I mean there's all sorts of ardor and passionate desire in that book, even in "[Some] Threads Through the Medina" but it's not of the physical type. And not in the way that it, again, that it is in Ghost Letters; that's what made me think of it.
RM: That'sthat’s a great question. I don't know the answer; I can only say that maybe it was more possible to write of sex, and specifically of anonymous sex, in Ghost Letters. I mean that's probably the kind that's most often limned, if I may use that, in Ghost Letters. Maybe because, in fact, it was going to be short, because they were poems. Maybe because in a poem you're making contact with your material in a very intense but not long way, the way you do in prose. In prose, if you're going to write about something, you have to live with it for like weeks and weeks and weeks to get through a scene. I've never really tried to live with writing sex for weeks and weeks and weeks. I think the obvious thing for me to say is that, aside from gossiping and speaking of it in certain gossipy kinds of ways, even with you about ourselves, I'm comfortable talking about sex like that. But I feel like, writing about it, oh my goodness. You have to come to something with such authenticity, in my eyes, to write about it, and I hardly know how to begin.
WG: It's tough, you have to be writing about . . . it's not interesting unless you're really writing about something else, unless you're really describing something else, so I think that is what’s interesting about "Some Threads Through the Medina."
RM: That guy, I kind of like him. He was really kind of, I think a lot of what he says, his narration there, is touched by a kind of old-style homosexual speaking. There's a kind of elaborateness, there's a kind of decorum, when he uses like four-letter words and stuff, he backs away from them. There's a kind of decorousness that is in his speech that's right up against his longing and, above all, his actually really frank longing and his lonesomeness. I really enjoyed working on the story because I enjoyed being able to sort of access this sort of idea of a slight touch of a homosexual voice that I think no longer exists. The decorous, regretful, slightly used language, to push experience slightly back a bit because "it could be harmed" kind of thing. As to why it doesn't appear much in other stories, while a lot of them are set in childhood—goodness knows I wouldn't want to be unseemly—but I think maybe, ultimately, it's the longing that I'm most interested in describing.
WG: It's a longing of a different sort. I do think of Mother of Sorrows as a love story. She does seem like certainly one of the great loves of the narrator's life, and that love, it is nourishing, it does help to create him. And I think that it helped to create a certain sensitivity and an appreciation for beauty and for something that's large, when you talk about the self-mythologizing we do. And so I feel like the love gives him all sorts of things and it's also, it's damaging, I mean, it's sort of, going back to the image we were using, it's the trap and it's also, I think it's a way to break free of the trap. I was wondering what, not that you would have a final take, but what your take on that relationship . . . did it change over the course of writing the book?
RM: Very much. I do think it's a love story, and I probably had not thought of it with a mother and a son, I had not thought of it that way for a long time, when I began. I think first of all, how ultimately embarrassing: Gay man loves mother. I mean, excuse me, where is the reinvention of a narrative there? Is that not the most primitive . . . sort of like sitting in ninth grade reading about what homosexuality is, a man who loves his mother? So it was humiliating to me that that was my story, and I didn't really want to tell it. And you are one of the few people, very few people had ever read this manuscript in its entirety, if I can use that word, in its jumbled entirety, before I finished it. You were one of the few who read many different pages that were supposed to be an entirety. I remember you saying, "Well, this should end with a wedding, you know, it should end with the mother remarrying," as she does. And I thought, "What a brilliant idea." And it doesn't end like that, that wasn't how it went, but I remember when you said that thinking, "Yes of course." Because it's a love story and it's not a happy one, it's an unhappy love story; the mother and son don't marry. Well that is, of course, the unhappy and the happy ending, isn't it? The mother and son don't marry.
WG: Yes, it is.
RM: And what a relief, and what a tragedy, because they are, for each other, objects of real longing. I suppose the mother creates the son to fulfill her, and the son, in turn, never feels real or whole without her. And so he can't live without her because he doesn't feel whole, and yet in order to live on his own he's got to repudiate her. It's built also into mothers and sons. I always remember Adrienne Rich saying in her book Through Woman Born [Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution], a book about motherhood, an experience and institution, saying that there comes a time in the life of a boy when he must repudiate the feminine and the female both. And that's very sad. And I wanted to get at that sadness in Mother of Sorrows, the sadness of having to repudiate. And I think there's also a necessity to repudiate; it's not a gendered necessity, it's not a necessity created by "the masculine must repudiate feminine," but in fact that boy in that book, he does have to get angry at her in order to claim himself.
I don't have a final take on that, I don't at all. Sometimes this mother and this son are based on a mother and son I know, my mother and me. They're not us, exactly, but there's a lot of overlap here and there. I think sometimes, "Well, now you've done what you needed to do in life, you've written about that relationship," which was so primary to me. Other times I think, "What a stupid idea that you think it's over. You've never written about your mother when she was very old, for instance, in a nursing home." And I think, "Oh yeah, it's not over, not over at all." So I have no final take, I don't really have an urge to have a final take. I do have an urge, and I hope I can act on the urge, to present a complicated rendering of a very complicated relationship that I myself wouldn't know how to resolve. Maybe that's why the book doesn't end with a wedding.
WG: I will say that I do like the sequence now, and I was actually thinking about this on the way up today, because there is sort of a lot of the lyrical stuff. And then there’s, the last two, are "My Brother in the Basement" and then . . .
RM: "The Universe Concealed"
WG: . . . and "The Universe Concealed," and so it sort of ends, I think, with more of this sort of anger toward the mother and an acknowledgement of the damage in the penultimate story. And then the final story is really this narrator making a life away from her . . .
RM: Yes, that’s right.
WG: . . . and making a life with friends and having to reconfigure or reinvent family. And so the love story sort of does end, and I liked that. I liked the sequence of it a lot, I mean I liked the arc of that a lot.
RM: I'm glad. To me . . . the mother appears in that last story, but she appears in recollection only as having been in a nursing home and as now being dead, which my mother wasn't when I started that story, but she now is. I didn't want it, but when I assembled the stories, I thought I really did like this idea of closing with his having . . . the story's about an effort to make a home, and he does and does not make a home for himself. And in that way it is about an effort to found a family that doesn't look anything like the family he was raised in. It's him, a gay man, this straight woman friend, and both of them out flirting with others and drawn back together in grief. But it is a bond, a very strong bond, and I thought it was the place where he actually steps out and he is actually living on his own. Not so much, fully, in relation, whether a relation of longing or a relation of anger to the mother.
WG: It seems like the perfect ending for the book to me.
Everybody who's ever met you knows that you're one of the funniest people alive, and everybody says that, but you don't use that as a . . .
RM: That's a killer.
WG: . . . you don't use that as a strategy in your art. "My Brother in the Basement," that does have sort of some funny kind of cutting stuff in it. I'd like you to talk about that. Is that conscious, or are you just not thinking about it?
RM: Oh, it's not conscious, it's not conscious. I'm aware of what you're talking about; I do think that there are—it looks like I'm pleading, like, "I do think there are some funny bits. Really, there are some funny bits."
WG: Well, like when you say "In this horrible, lime-green room," I mean there is something painful and funny about that moment. I think the pain overrides the humor of it.
RM: Yeah. I think in "The Universe Concealed," that's probably where there are the most jokes and that's also, to me, one of the most painful stories. What I tried to do in that story, and in that story more than any other, I was aware of wanting to use humor—black humor, but humor. And I wanted to get at that more than I'd ever been able to, or had let myself. It's a complicated arena for me. First of all it thrills me to think that everyone who's met me thinks I'm hilarious. And second, a lot of humor, for me, in any case, is defensiveness. There's very little I like quite so much that sort of like enacting a self who's not quite me and parading around, you know it's thrilling, it's enlivening, I feel so alert.
Writing has been an effort to get underneath my own defense systems. That's the strength of my work; it would also be a strength to do something more that I have not been able to do, I think, which is to use my defense systems more in my work and to let them exist there more. Not just like acting out, et that be on the page, too. In "The Universe Concealed," I tried to make something that is a lively subject for me—a kind of interplay between horror, or grief and horror, and joking—part of the fabric of that story. I hope to do that a little more. There's some of that in the transplant essays; there are little macabre jokes about cannibalism and stuff like that. And I've realized that they're not going to float me on Jay Leno. Still, they probably are more in the Dr. Phil realm, but they are my idea of jokes, and they're close to the way I do jokes.
I also think that probably—I don't know if this is true or not, but I've noticed, I've wondered—when I first started writing, and it was poetry in this case, but when I first started writing, men wrote in certain ways. And I remember the first time I ever read Frank O'Hara, I thought, "My God. I'd never seen a man be giddy on the page before." Men I had seen had been sort of august or thoughtful. I wonder sometimes how much of a kind of sense of seriousness derives from an early sense of what it is to be a man who writes. I wonder, and I worry: Do I rule out certain kinds of campiness? Do I rule out certain kinds of giddiness a priori because they're not what a man writes? They're not part of a public self, they're behind the curtain? I wouldn't want to do that, so that's why I ask these questions.
WG: Well, I wonder if it's also that the lyrical involves, it doesn't admit as much humor, because I think that the best sort of humor, the best sort of funny writing, is often bitter, it's angry. It's coming from a different impulse and it's not a lyric, it's not a lyrical impulse at all. It's trying to do other work, and I think that might be it. I just thought that, I don't know if that's true or not . . .
RM: Well, I would think you might because you're very funny in writing, you can do that.
WG: All right, I think I've got one more . . .
RM: Not in person.
WG: . . . I've got one more question. In the poem in Ghost Letters, "Saint Genet," you refer to the "painful ascension toward the solitude of desire." I think in Mother of Sorrows and in Ghost Letters, it does seem like a lot of desire does lead to . . . it doesn't lead to connection. It does seem that it leads to, it seems like it does lead to solitude.
RM: Yeah, it's sort of sad when I think about it. I think probably that's true in the work, that desire often is, ultimately, solitude. And it's, you know even though it's an act, people having sex or something like that, but desire is so often about a kind of inward dreaming, as I imagine it. It's funny because that line is actually from a poem called "Saint Genet." You know, it's referencing Jean Genet and probably—it's almost ridiculous to say, I feel like I've got his stamp all over me—I write about people living in a working class suburb in 1963. What could possibly be Jean Genet about carrying your lunchbox to [unintelligible] Elementary School? But nonetheless, I feel strongly affected by him in that sense, that dreamy sense that desire is about longing. It's not about a connection to the actual object; it's not about living in time. It's romance, not marriage. And that always is a more lonely enterprise, isn't it? That is, it's the dreamer dreaming.
WG: It's certainly a more solitary enterprise.
RM: More solitary, yes. You're right, that is part of, I think you said that, that part of lyricism. It's almost the dreamer dreaming. I do think of desire that way. I have to say I suspect that a lot of that has to do with growing up, to enter the social, psychological stage, homosexual desire specifically is not to be enacted. No one grows up gay without some kind of, I think, marred and deformed sense that things must be kept hidden, that desire must be kept hidden, and it must be kept inward. And you learn very quickly. One of the first things you learn, if you feel homosexual desire, is never to express it. And so I think it becomes a very inward kind of desire. It becomes fluted and ornamental; it becomes a kind of, it's a privation that you decorate with longing. It's not a privation that is going to be easily answered by being able to be enacted in social terms. At least not the way it was. And so, of course, who wants to look at it as privation, it becomes a kind of beauty in itself. So I think that it's necessarily connected to shame; that, I think, in homosexual desire, that the relation to shame, since to feel desire as a young gay kid is in fact to experience shame, and that those things become so conflated that they develop a terrific inwardness, and it's hard in those conditions to reach the object.
WG: We’ll end with that, that's a great answer, and I thank you for all these eloquent answers to these very fumbling questions. I would like to encourage people to buy Mother of Sorrows; it's a very beautiful book. And to buy the book of poems as well, Ghost Letters. I was even more stunned by it, reading it again, than I was when I first read it. I think it's a great book.
WG: So, thank you for talking to me, it's been great to see you.
RM: Thanks, Wesley, it's really nice to see you.