Austin poet and photographer Cindy Huyser, author of Burning Number Five: Power Plant Poems, talked to Anis Shivani, Houston poet and fiction writer, about his new book Soraya: Sonnets, and other things writing-related. Huyser will host Shivani for a reading and discussion at Austin's original feminist bookstore, Bookwoman, on the evening of May 12, 2016.
Huyser: When did you first start thinking of yourself as a writer? What drew you to writing?
Shivani: Although I've answered versions of this question many times before, it's almost an impossible question to answer. I was always a reader, a reader not in the sense that people today like to claim they're readers, but a reader in a sense that's almost extinct. And that went back to earliest childhood, and has continued throughout life. One is a reader before one is a writer, one cannot be a writer without being a certain kind of persistent reader. When one reads so persistently it is not unreasonable to start thinking of oneself at some point along the line as someone who wants to write as well. In retrospect, a real reader is just learning to be a writer, even if the intention isn't stated as such.
I became a writer because every other occupation seemed compromised and unsuitable to my character. Whatever job one takes on in the modern United States, besides creating art, only serves capitalism--and in fact most of writing and art only serves capitalism too. With writing there is at least the possibility that it allows one to develop one's character to the fullest extent possible, that one can discover oneself through and in writing, so in fact deciding to become a writer takes enormous daring because that's how one finds out what one is all about--if there's any there there. Formal education, on the other hand, usually takes a person in the other direction, even if the education is in literature or the arts, it seeks to distance the art from real discovery.
Huyser: You've published books in poetry, fiction, and criticism, and you actively contribute to the Huffington Post. Do you have a primary identity as a writer? If so, what would that be?
Shivani: The recent online articles are barely the tip of the iceberg. I have put together a gigantic book recently, Reflections on an Era of Terror, which is not the sum total but only selections from my political writings in many print and online journals over the last fifteen years. I have not done political writing consistently, because there are long periods of time when I have decided to disengage and take a break, such as in the middle Bush years or through much of Obama's presidency, but there is little historical memory these days, people see the latest appearance of one's opinions and don't have a recollection of context and little desire to trace it.
Immediately after 9/11, early in the Bush years, I was writing regularly for progressive websites, questioning from the get-go the whole narrative that was being established about the war, about terrorism, about civil liberties. It is the same skepticism toward "reality"--which is basically the insane world of slavery and commodification and loss of identity and enforced joylessness that is the sum of the bourgeois capitalist world--that propels me to take a distanced view toward politics, and also motivates me to write fiction and poetry.
Although I've written four poetry books in the last year alone, I would still consider my primary identity as a fiction writer, and within that a novelist first, and then as a poet, and then as a literary critic, and finally as an essayist on matters other than literary. That is the hierarchy for me. I have done too much literary criticism and other forms of nonfiction and would be happy to distance myself from this stuff almost completely. The novel is the most difficult form of writing, but poetry has its own sweet gratifications. You grow more aware of yourself in the world as a novelist, but you grow more like yourself as a poet.
Huyser: How has your background in economics influenced your writing?
Shivani: I am a hardcore historical materialist in the Marxist vein--not that I'm calling myself a Marxist by any means--but I do tend to interpret things from a rationalist understanding of socioeconomic forces. Personalities matter little to me, because historical forces have the upper hand. You can see easily how this would influence my reading of politics, because I'm not likely to be distracted by personalities, as journalists tend to be, and I take a long view of history, rooted in economics and other material forces like science and technology. I think this same ability to stay focused on what's really going on historically--not the superficial aura of events and personalities, but the underlying material dynamics behind historical change--informs my fiction and poetry as well. It is not just the training in economics and the social sciences, but also a family background that is very worldly and not rooted in a single time and place, that allows me to remain distanced from the immediate distractions that often sway people in writing.
I probably can't ever be a sincere "confessionalist" because I know too much about the hard realities of poverty and suffering, which are not destinies but choices, collective and conscious choices, so it is difficult to take one's own travails in isolation and take them too seriously, which I don't. Someone like Hermann Broch, with his Sleepwalkers trilogy, and his business background, appeals greatly to me for similar reasons, as a model writer, and my favorite poet of all-time, the insurance executive otherwise known as Wallace Stevens, also has this combination of hardcore understanding of the world combined with a utopian imagination. If you take reality seriously, you can't be imaginative, and therefore you can't be utopian, and it is only in utopia where truth can be found.
Huyser: Your collection of essays, Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies, offers a bracing critique of MFA programs. What first turned your critical attention to these programs?
Shivani: About fifteen years ago--or even longer now, in fact--I was studying very seriously everything that was being published in the quality literary journals, beginning to submit to them myself. I noticed the uniformity of writing, whether in poetry or short fiction or the then emerging genre of creative nonfiction, and it made me wonder about the similarity of tone. Also politics--by which I mean awareness of the world at large, outside one's solipsistic self--was missing from nearly all this writing, published by MFA graduates, as is true even to this day. It was, and is, a very curious, hermetic, escapist writing, which seems on the surface to deploy the tropes of literary realism, but is not even realist in the reductionist sense that, say, nineteenth-century realism was. My own writing, produced in complete isolation, was like nothing I was seeing in the print journals.
I started making the connection between the MFA workshop and the kind of writing that was being produced, which seemed to be the "artistic" extension of a certain form of capitalism, neoliberal capitalism we would call it today. I did a lot of thinking, and writing, about how this branch of the media establishment--yes, I would call institutionalized creative writing just that, part of the media landscape--is nothing more than an ideological cover for capitalism. That's it, that's all it is, the academy is producing no real writing, it is just an outlet for a certain form of permitted "self-expression" that fits very well with capitalism's aims.
Huyser: What alternatives do you see for writers who wish to better themselves in craft? How have you found community that has helped you grow as a writer?
Shivani: How about reading? What should be the proportion of hours of reading to hours of writing, when you start out? 100 to 1? Or what I am more likely to hear, astoundingly, 1 to 1?
I have started asking this question of students I'm encountering in "workshop." I'm actually teaching, for the first time in my life, writing, starting at a local conference, and now at home, aka Monsoon Art Space in Houston. I was very curious if I could come up with an alternative model of teaching, distanced from the institutionalized model that I think has clearly failed, and this experiment has taught me a lot about the teaching of writing. I don't teach what they teach in workshop, my model violates every single rule followed in a conventional workshop, but it works, it works phenomenally well, the progress students make from knowing almost nothing about a genre to producing publishable work in short order is mind-boggling. And yet my advice--not that in an era when people expect to pay for something and get what they want in return, this will mean anything--is that people don't take workshop, any workshop, and people don't seek community.
Community is the antithesis of writing. I am part of many different literary and artistic communities, some of which I have formed and promote, yet none of it has anything to do with writing. Community is typically a substitution for writing. You certainly shouldn't be seeking community before you have formed yourself as a writer.
So my question to you, if you want to be a writer, is: Are you willing to shut yourself down and read, read like a writer, the ten or twenty thousand books you need to read before you can know anything about writing? Are you willing to give the best years of your life to reading and writing, are you willing to make writing the first and only priority in life, more than your family and the people you love or money or health or security or anything else? And all by yourself, in solitude? If yes, you can be a writer, if not, you can't. Community is optional and dispensable. It's something you do, perhaps, after you've established your identity as a writer, not before. But today the cart comes before the horse, it's the opposite of what it should be.
Huyser: In My Tranquil War and Other Poems, I see form's use as a container, as in the couplet poem "I Watched Executions Last Night with My Sister." How do you arrive at the form a poem will take?
Shivani: I have ceased writing individual poems for some years now, I visualize only books, I see the form poems in a book are supposed to take, typically the same form throughout. So Soraya was 100 sonnets of the exact same style, then I wrote Death is a Festival, which is 70 sonnets in the Soraya style but more baroque and impenetrable. But Death is a Festival also has 70 pages of other kinds of "poetry" and of outright "prose," mysterious reworkings of mythology and folklore. Then I wrote The Art of Love, which is 70 pages of four-line poems, identical in style and tone, with a middle fifteen pages of longer poems with long broken lines playing with a very open field. Then I wrote Confessions I, which is 100 poems of 7 lines each, though not true to any meter, and then finally, most recently, Confessions II, which is 100 poems of 10 lines each, all in exactly the same style, staying close to iambic pentameter, but very experimental. So I'm no longer thinking of a poem in a particular style, I tend to think in bunches, a hundred or so, so I can get more out of it by repetition, by varying on a theme, by telling a narrative, and staying focused on the arc of the story, having gotten the form out of the way.
As for earlier books like My Tranquil War, and the few that followed, that was a different thing. I was adapting a lot of conventional forms, pretty much the whole range available to a poet writing in English, for contemporary, even postmodern, uses. In My Tranquil War you have almost a bravado display of forms, which all excited me at the time, as vehicles I could rely on to express what the poems wanted to say in ways that far exceeded what I could have attained had I just written "formless" free verse--not that good free verse is ever formless.
It is more difficult, of course, when you are just writing random poems, one at a time--which I don't do anymore and haven't for a while--because you have to discover the form for each poem, whatever makes sense for it. A sestina pushes you in a certain direction, as does a ghazal, as does a villanelle, and likewise for all the variations of meter and rhythm, the form dictates its own sense, it takes control, or you push against it which is another form of control, so you give up certain forms of arbitrary authority in order to gain other kinds of authority.
"I Watched Executions" was a short poem, written a dozen years ago, and the few brief couplets, written without overt expressive emotion, seemed suited to the theme of observing executions in Afghanistan, in a way that hinted darkly at sadomasochistic oppression. There are a couple of abbreviated lines in the middle of the poem, which came about at the suggestion of David Hamilton, then the editor of Iowa Review. To this day I'm not sure if shortening those lines helped or hurt the poem!
Huyser: The thread of the sonnet runs through all of your books of poetry, most strongly, of course, in Soraya. My Tranquil War's "To Djuna Barnes, on Nightwood," with its Shakespearean structure, Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish's "December 31," with its appropriately Mayer-like form, and the experimental sonnets of Soraya seem to detail a movement in your own aesthetic. How has your approach to the sonnet shifted over time?
Shivani: This is true, the sonnet is a consistent strain, I enjoy discussing the sonnet with others who've used it to different effects, I enjoy teaching it, I enjoy the infinite variations possible. Early on I wanted to master all the traditional forms, I wanted to be in total control of traditional prosody, so that later when I varied from tradition it would be second-nature to me and it would be in my arsenal to do with as I wished. So the sonnets in My Tranquil War are relatively conventional, although there were even more conventional ones I wrote that never became part of that book. As my writing in general has moved in a consistently more experimental direction over fifteen or twenty years, my use of the sonnet has moved in a parallel direction.
I love the sonnet for being one of the most humanist forms--perhaps the paradigmatic humanist form in poetry--because it allows, or rather pushes toward, an internal dialectic, an exploration of the self, an argument with oneself that leads to understanding and compassion, as has been true from Shakespeare and Petrarch onward. The structure of the sonnet compels this conversation with oneself, this aroused skepticism, and this is suited to exploring, from a confessional-but-not-confessional standpoint, such difficult topics as love and death. I think of the 10-line poems in Confessions II as abbreviated sonnets, they don't have the scope for counterargument as in a fourteen-line sonnet, but they have some of the same brio of relentless self-questioning. Perhaps in Confessions III, whenever I write it, I may return to the full-blown sonnet, I don't know.
Huyser: As you've looked to publish poetry, how have you gone about finding publishers? How has the experience you've had with Soraya differed from your first two books of poetry? From your books of fiction?
Shivani: Each book, each publication event, is a unique experience so generalizations are not possible. I will say that one doesn't "go about finding publishers," I think what happens is that you establish your legitimacy as a writer, above all by doing the hard unavoidable work of deepening the texture of your writing. As you do this arduous work over a period of years possibilities start opening up, there are glimmers of hope as to book publication, some things you might look on as distant prospects, others that seem nearer at hand. And then what happens is that editors and publishers come to you, or rather there is a natural meeting of the minds, and you decide you want to work with publisher X. as someone with whom you will be in a relationship of great trust and respect and cooperation, and likewise publisher Y. might feel the same about you, that this is someone whose work they might support to the extent of putting their own imprimatur behind it.
I have been very lucky in finding such publishers, whom I think of as very old-school, in that the desire to sell books and seek audiences is of course there, but there is a greater vision of what good literature is all about, what they want to put out in the world and why. Very old-school, as I said, in terms of loyalty, mutual respect, gentlemanly or even scholarly behavior, and just being overall fantastic human beings to work with. If you persist in doing the best work you can and put it out there, book publication will happen.
I have great respect for each of the publishers who took a chance on me, and of course whenever a publisher picks up your book they are taking a chance on the unknown, no matter your reputation or track record. I have always been drawn to publishers who respect the integrity of the word above all else, and it is something to whom each of them have dedicated their lives.
In the case of Soraya, my experience has been like a dream. Black Widow Press, the preeminent publisher of surrealist writing in this country, has the kind of idealistic, even utopian, attitude toward books and their care and nurturing that one only dreams of encountering. Joe Phillips and Susan Wood, publishers of Black Widow Press, and also owners of rare and antiquarian bookstores in Boston, New Orleans, and Sarasota, are very old-school in their conduct and professionalism and priorities. This kind of happy experience is what makes all the sacrifices and difficulties of a writing life worth it. I respect them more than I can say. One wants each book, which is a treasure one is yielding up after all, to have a home one can be prouder to point to than even one's own home.
You asked about fiction. You go through more editing, of course, compared to poetry, so it creates a different relationship of trust over time. With poetry typically you deliver a completely finished product. My first publisher ever, Colleen Ryor at Black Lawrence Press, had the independence of judgment, distanced as I think she was from established tropes, to notice and pick up outstanding work again and again. We didn't do any editing on Anatolia and Other Stories, short stories typically need less work than novels, but with my novel Karachi Raj, there were years of slow-gestating editing, and my editor Manasi Subramaniam at HarperCollins/Fourth Estate, has the patience of a--well, since I like the middle ages, let me think of a medieval comparison here--a fresco painter, or an illuminator?
Huyser: What are your current writing projects? What do you see on the horizon in the next couple of years?
Shivani: I have lately become superstitious about talking too much about writing projects in progress, so I will refrain from specifics. But I'll say that I hope to finish a few novels, write a substantive book of poetry that will depart from the tendency I established in the five books between Soraya and Confessions II, and in the meantime put out all the completed books, including a cat novel, a memoir (a first for me), and a trilogy of very substantive and bulky and challenging books of criticism. I stopped writing short stories almost ten years ago (although I published two books of short stories), but I may return to stories in the near future, I can see how I can use the form without burning up material that ought to be saved for novels, that threat is gone for me. I am also interested in writing sets of novellas, this is another form, an in-between one, that tremendously excites me.
Huyser: Which writers have been your strongest influences? What is the most recent book of poetry you've read?
Shivani: Pretty much since the beginning of my writing life, now twenty years old, and even twenty-five if you count college, the modernists have been my lodestars. All of them. I don't need to name them, they have all been strong influences, whether American, British, German, French, Russian, or Spanish, you name them. I believe that modernist writing and art was the greatest work ever produced by humanity, and that there has been a constant decline since then--but that's because the exploding star that was modernist writing was so bright that everything pales in comparison still, and perhaps will continue to do so for another hundred years, or another five hundred, who knows. There is really nothing new in writing today, it was already done a hundred or ninety or eighty years ago in either perfected or embryonic form, so all we're doing is living off the legacy of the modernists, and will continue to do so for some considerable time.
As I mentioned, Stevens was the most profound influence, but also Lorca, Mandelstam, Apollinaire, Auden, Oppen, Zukofsky, Duncan, and in fiction, likewise, all the modernists, Woolf, Forster, Ellison, Bowles, Brecht, Henry Miller, Nabokov, Waugh--and most recently Philip K. Dick, perhaps the greatest writer of the second half of the twentieth century, anywhere in the world. I should say that I also appreciate the nineteenth-century realists, all of them, because they were the first to invent a form as comprehensive and self-justifying and death-dealing as capitalism, the antagonist they were dealing with.
Last week I read a brilliant poetry book by Matvei Yankelevich, translator of the Russian absurdist-futurist Daniil Kharms and founder of Ugly Duckling Presse. Matvei also gave a brilliant reading at Brazos Bookstore a couple of weeks ago, one of the best I've witnessed there, and was part of an illuminating dialogue on translation at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The book, Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt, responds to a series of 60 drawings called "Dr. Vogt" that were part of an installation in Bridgehampton, NY, in 2011, by the artist Koo Jeong A. Ekphrastic poetry is one of my abiding interests, and it's fascinating how Yankelevich constructs a self-sufficient world that may well take from the art but is really a comment on the nature of poetry (poetry as an abstraction one is supposed to respond to, as reader and listener, in a twenty-first century world that has lost almost everything poetic about it); so it's an act of continuous construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction in that book, as if Yankelevich were building his own 60-drawing installation, heeding but not heeding the hard concreteness of physical art. It's the kind of impossible book that saves my faith in poetry. Also, like the writers I'm most fond of, I found Yankelevich to be old-school, gentlemanly, scholarly, a little otherworldly, and above all driven and consumed by literature and ideas and the integrity of the word. The real deal.