16 August 2010

Interview with Kelly Cherry, Writer

This is the twenty-first interview of the “Where are we now?” series. Take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. I have divided this interview into titled sections to assist you, the reader, in finding or keeping your place in the text. There are also questions for you at the end of this post; please take the time to answer one or more, to keep the conversation going.

NOTE: The text of this interview will be included in an article about Kelly Cherry’s work in the January edition of Windhover Journal; I encourage you to consider subscribing to this excellent journal of writing and faith.

Interview with Kelly Cherry
via email
28 May and 1 June 2010


IA: Please tell us about yourself. In what media do you create or perform? Do you also teach? Are you also a student? Please talk about yourself as an “artist,” student of the arts, and teacher of the arts.

KC: I am a writer. I work in a number of forms: fiction (novel and short story), poetry (formal and free), essay (critical, memoir, and personal), and I have published two translations of classical drama. I am Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin Madison and have continued to teach, at various universities, in retirement. Teaching is important and necessary work, and I feel close to many of my students and enjoy following them in their own careers, but I must admit my primary focus is my own writing: I have something like a mental image of a bookshelf and hope to write all the books that belong on the shelf; there are fourteen to go. Each book, of course, has to take as long as it has to take.

IA: What topics tend to recur in your work?

KC: Love, loss, music, money, philosophical inquiry, an interest in science, the nature of metaphor, Russia’s Soviet past.


IA: What questions of philosophical inquiry have you explored, and why? Do you see these questions as timeless, unanswerable vortexes for endless questioning, or do you see them as simply the starting points for logical syllogisms? Are they answerable or not? And are they purely theoretical, or are the practical and to be lived out? One review of your work says: "Cherry has a unique voice and style, blending feminist verve with formal rhyme schemes that lull you with their steady rhythm, then slap you upside the head with a burst of ideology." What is this ideology?

KC: I did graduate work as a Du Pont Fellow at the University of Virginia. This does not make me a philosopher, although I dropped out for reasons having nothing to do with my work there. My dissertation was going to be on C. S. Peirce’s metaphysics. He was one of the first to propose what came to be called pragmatism; he preferred the term pragmaticism, hoping William James would find it too ugly to beg, borrow, or steal.

This really has nothing to do with writing.

I do think life is riddled with philosophical questions, and that it is useful to be aware of how we answer them. But I don’t write, or at least have not yet written, to lay a conclusion on anybody.

That nice review was in reference to my poetry collection Rising Venus, which explored the concepts of femaleness and femininity. The book advocates no ideology, but the point of view is mostly feminist. I consider myself a feminist; I joined a consciousness-raising group at the first meeting in NYC, in the early 70s; and I nevertheless utterly dislike the feminist notion that women writers should write only strong, independent women characters who can serve as role models for readers. I want to write any character it occurs to me to write.

IA: I notice how you blend the “nature poem” with a metaphysical question in this poem. When you say you have “an interest in science,” does that mean nature poems, mechanical inquiry into how things work, a fascination with cutting-edge scientific technology, or what? Is it age-old curiosity, or a very contemporary kind of materialism?

KC: In college I took classes in physics, biology, geology (current and historical), astronomy, anthropology, and sociology and a number of credits in mathematics. My parents thought it would be great if I became a scientist—and could earn some money—but my interest in these subjects was merely a writer’s curiosity. I certainly had no talent for science. Yet how can someone not be interested in science? It’s the study of where we live—our universe.

IA: What is your interest in Russia’s Soviet past? Do you have a personal connection? How is it relevant for America right now? How does this past comment on Russia’s and America’s literary past and present?

KC: For a number of years a Latvian composer and I attempted to marry; Latvia was then behind the Iron Curtain. I tell this story in The Exiled Heart: A Meditative Autobiography, which is, I believe, still available from LSU Press. But I was very interested in 19th-century Russian literature long before I made my first visit to the Soviet Union and I remain interested in that, as well as in Russian poetry from the early and mid 20th century.


IA: What specific techniques do you use?

KC: I write with a cheap pen, in a spiral notebook.

IA: What I’m looking for here is a discussion of the devices and methods you use in your writing. For instance, in your poetry you sometimes use balladic rhythms and direct rhymes (in some of the “Benjamin John” poems, for instance). You also frequently write long narrative poems, or shorter lyric poems that add up to a suggested or implied narrative over the course of a series or of a book. You work quite comfortably in both free verse and traditional forms. Why? Why ballad meters? Why direct rhymes? Why free verse? Why forms?

KC: The only real way I can answer these questions is, Why not? Why not make use of every device available? Different poems call for different meters, rhymes or no rhymes, and so on. Freedom for a writer is being able to access whatever is needed for a particular piece of work. Right now I’m working on a book-length poem that will be a kind of collage, similar to my early “Benjamin John” but not limited to lyric moments, and, as I say, longer.

IA: I’ve noticed that each of your poems is a gently (and sometimes not-so-gently) skeptical commentary on an aspect of American life—war, academia, marriage, childrearing, love and sex—describing an event with a tinge of bitterness. Is this exemplary of our age, do you think? Does it behoove us, here and now, to write intimate snapshots of moments in individual stories (rather than grand metanarratives) and at the same time to laugh a little bit at those stories, because they are painful, they are passing, and they cannot last?

KC: Hmmm. Well, I hope I’m not often bitter. Perhaps Relativity: A Point of View was a bit bitter, but that was a long time ago, and after a divorce. “Skeptical” I can agree with. I think what behooves us is to approach our cultural “norms” with a questioning attitude. Let’s not sleep away our lives. But I’m working on something that may be a kind of metanarrative right now—the long poem mentioned above—and I’m working on a trilogy of short-story collections that is to be a metanarrative. I’m simply in favor of freedom. Long, short, metered, free, lyric, narrative, meditation—all are choices, and I like working in all of them. Taking cues from others, whether they are writers or not, limits one’s work.


IA: What theories inform your work?

KC: Theories don’t inform my work. The work is formed and informed by characters, structure, point of view, and rhythm. I think that any kind of theory or “message” reduces a book to propaganda. Where fiction and poetry are concerned, it is more useful to speak of vision than of theory.

IA: I find this interesting. What you have just said, of course, is a literary theory. It is a perspective on, an approach to, acts of creation. And then, too, you are a professor, so you are steeped in the cultural theory of the past few decades. I noticed, for instance, that “Sappho in her study” hints at an interpretation of language that is hidden, difficult, private, and subject to endless interpretation. So, then, what is your vision? What do you believe are the limitations and obligations of language and those who craft it?

KC: Well, none of my scholarly colleagues at UW would have dignified my conception of novel-writing as a theory. You are kinder than they would have been. To repeat, my vision resides in the unification of contradictions or contraries. I like writing poetry and fiction that is layered: a surface that attracts, supported by underlying alternative meanings. I think the best work generally does that. It’s why we never tire of reading or talking about a great poem, great story, great novel, great musical or visual composition. Mind you, I’m not saying I have succeeded or will succeed at this endeavor, but the fun is in trying.


IA: Do you think your topics, techniques, and ideas are typical of those working in your genre?

KC: I shouldn’t think any artist wants her work to be typical. The artist wants to come as close as possible to realizing her own vision, which is never exactly someone else’s vision. My own vision has to do with encompassing contradictions or contraries within a unified field.

IA: Do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?

KC: No.

IA: What do you know about the current state of the arts? Please talk specifically about individual writers, etc. whom you know (or whose work you know), their topics/techniques/theories, and in general about your sense of North American arts right now.

KC: My sense of it is that this is an exciting time in America for poets and less so for fiction writers. The democratization of writing can be overwhelming, and in such a climate the writer may despair of finding an audience, but still the variety and range of voices in poetry can only be stimulating. I’m not sure why the same isn’t true of fiction, and of course there are fine fiction writers around, but not enough. I doubt that that’s the result of MFA programs; I think MFA programs serve many good purposes. Probably overall the blame goes to the major publishers, who often can’t recognize good fiction, or even good writing, and when they do, feel it’s not marketable.

Meanwhile, superb writers (some of them both poets and fiction writers) such as Fred Chappell, David R. Slavitt, Richard Dillard, Henry Taylor, Richard and Robert Bausch, Skip Horack, Jennifer Haigh, Sandra Meek, Cathryn Hankla, Renee Ashley, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, ZZ Packer, Edward P. Jones, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Henri Cole, Philip Levine, Francine Prose, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Berwyn Moore, Jim Shepard, Ron Currie, Jr., Michael Chabon, A. G. Mojtabai, Charles D’Ambrosio and somewhere between fifty to five hundred others continue to produce work we need to read.

IA: How do you think the arts (your own or others’) are responding to present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism, the looming “post-human” and phase, and the possible artistic effects of the Eastward orientation of economics and Christianity?

KC: This is quite a question! Well, I’ll just pull out a piece of it. “The looming ‘post-human’” phase has brought about any number of apocalyptic novels, experimental short fictions, and sci-fi movies.

IA: How do you think we got to the phase where we are now?

KC: I think John Dewey is responsible for a lot of how we come to be here now. And for me, the unfortunate aspect of that is evident in what is called “postmodernism,” the mixing of pop culture with high culture. Yes, I still believe in high culture. And I believe in not going pop in order to be popular. Somehow, saying this has become associated with elitism, but what, exactly, is elitist about it? High culture (by which I do not mean merely modernism) is available to all who want to enter into it. The trouble with pop culture is simply that it’s not very interesting or entertaining; there is no seriousness to it, no complexity. In short, it’s boring, or quickly becomes boring. Similarly, I’m not interested in recondite literature that pretends to be serious and complex but isn’t. I’m in favor of thought, of clarity, of extension of thought, and depth. I like humor that’s not mean or predicated on a sense of superiority. I like play that’s fun. I like art that is unafraid of human feeling. And I think that irony is a useful tool that in our time has become unfortunately fetishized.

IA: What do you mean, “irony is a useful tool that in our time has become unfortunately fetishized”? How has it become fetishized? Can you give examples? How ought irony to be used so that it keeps it usefulness?

KC: Irony has been championed to the exclusion of passion. In that degree, it is a type of dishonesty: a desire to be “cool” is necessarily a desire to be someone other than the person one is. Used appropriately as a device, irony can expose hypocrisy, heighten pathos, or make us laugh.

IA: You discussed the boring and simplistic nature of “pop” culture. Is that a matter of form or content, do you think? Is this kind of “art” not great because it is poorly done, because it has nothing interesting to say, or both? In other words, is it a matter of technique or of ideas? And is the boundary between “high” and “low” art easy to demarcate?

KC: It’s both. And the boundary between “high” and “low” is usually pretty evident. If it isn’t evident, I return to it—whatever it is—until I have a clear sense of it. I can say this because I trust my judgment. I am sure not everybody trusts my judgment, but what can I say? I can’t say anything without infuriating someone.

IA: Where are we going?

KC: I don’t think I can answer this better than or even as well as some other folks. Questions regarding war, the environment, vanishing species, immigration, sociology and artificial intelligence make me pay attention, but I can’t answer them. The emergent e-culture frightens me a bit but may turn out to be not a bad thing. Will we survive? Must we reinvent ourselves in silicon in order to survive? Whose work will survive, if anyone’s work survives? What will art mean to robots, or just to future human generations? Darned if I know. Really, all I know is that I have to write.

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