Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Nevermind, it's an interview

Ron Silliman's blog post on interviews gives me an excuse to repost, with some additions, this one of my own. Ron talks about the famous Paris Review interviews, as well as the late, lamented Here Comes Everybody questions, namely:

1. What is the first poem you ever loved? Why?

2. What is something / someone non-“literary” you read which may surprise your peers / colleagues? Why do you read it / them?

3. How important is philosophy to your writing? Why?

4. Who are some of your favorite non-Anglo-American writers? Why?

5. Do you read a lot of poetry? If so, how important is it to your writing?

6. What is something which your peers / colleagues may assume you’ve read but haven’t? Why haven’t you?

7. How would you explain what a poem is to a seven year old?

8. Do you believe in a Role for the Poet? If so, how does it differ from the Role of the Citizen?

9. Word associations (the first word which comes to mind; be honest):

Lemon :
Chiseled :
I :
Of :
Form :

10. What is the relationship between the text and the body in your writing?

These questions presume an awful lot of interest in the interviewee, and in the interviewee's interest in him or herself. Where does the impulse come from to glean insight from what someone says instead of from what they actually do?

The OED dates the earliest usage of the word interview to the sixteenth century, when it meant "a meeting of persons face to face." The word is today commonly employed to mean "to talk with or question so as to elicit statements or facts for publication," a meaning not documented until the nineteenth century. The citations for this sense emanated from New York City, a media capital even then: The Nation, disapproving of it in an 1869 editorial, observed with embarrassment that "'interviewing'" is confined to American journalism." It wouldn't remain so; by 1886 the innovation had spread to Britain, where the Pall Mall Gazette grumbled that "The interview is the worst feature of the new system [of journalism] - it is degrading to the interviewer, disgusting to the interviewee, and tiresome to the public."

In response to the increasing popularity of the practice, the Scottish poet and essayist, John Davidson, concocted a wry "prose eclogue," called, "On Interviewing," collected in a volume of 1909. Its characters interrogate each other about being interviewed. "Did you ever interview anybody, Basil?" Basil admits that he has, but says he shall never do the like again:

Brian: I suppose you felt very small.
Basil: Yes. Not nearly so small, however, as the man I interviewed.

(Menzies, it turns out, has been interviewed:)

Basil: How many times were you interviewed?
Menzies: Four times.
Basil: And about what?
Menzies: Myself.

In Basil's grisly metaphor, it is "a most miraculous device whereby a man's brains were picked with his own consent." The interviewee becomes a snob, "however temporarily," while the interviewer is "on the same footing as a lacquey." Worst of all, it is injurious to "pander to the idle curiosity of the public" - books are to be read on their own merits, and not because of a "mawkish interest" in their authors. Moreover, formerly, "in literature we have had Creators and Spectators; now we are having Experiencers. All our work is becoming more and more conspicuously autobiographic; and we must invite experience, we must offer ourselves to the vivisection of circumstance." Menzies, finding in retrospect that his mind worked slowly in his interview, is ironical: instead of "giving plain answers to plain questions," he might have prepared an "ideal autobiography couched in telling phrases," and he theorizes that the interview "existed in embryo in the first movable type."

I can't trace it back that far, but perhaps the interviewing of literary figures has antecedents in Jonson's Conversations with William Drummond, Boswell's interrogations of Johnson and Hume, and Eckermann's Conversations of Goethe. In Eckermann's introduction, Marmontel is quoted as saying of Diderot that "whoever knew him from his writings only knew him but half; but that as soon as he became animated in actual conversation he was incomparable..." These "conversations" purported to present what Eckermann calls the "living intercourse" of a writer: they were attempts to body forth a personality that suffuses - yet also lives apart - from the written word which issues from the writer's hand. Yet unlike interviews, nobody seems to regard these books as degrading to the participating parties.

What makes the modern interview different is that, as Davidson feared, the literary interview has become an indispensable branch of literature itself. It is as if, in Hazlitt's once-ironic formulation, there were more to be learnt from authors than from their books. From the Paris Review interviews to Bill Moyers' popular American public television show and tie-in books, there is ample evidence that, as William Packard wrote in the preface to his 1974 anthology, The Craft of Poetry, "we live in the age of the interview" - and so we have, for quite some time now.

Packard identified four varieties of interviews: professional, opinionated, gossipy, and craft interviews. I suppose these categories have inevitably been collapsed together over the years. Flaubert's Parrot's Geoffrey Braithwaite says: "if you love a writer, if you depend upon the drip-feed of his intelligence, if you want to pursue him and find him," then "it's impossible to know too much." And yet here we are, in an age of TMI. The late Michael Hamburger once wrote in PN Review that for a poet to spend most of his time doing readings of his poems, or talking about them in interviews, "calls for a mode of attention which, for me, makes the writing of a poem impossible." There'd be, in his view, a conflict of interest between poet and interviewer.

Well, now that you've been thoroughly prepared (unless hearing that poets fall asleep over Eliot and Lowell or have trouble memorizing poems shocks you a little), you may proceed guardedly, if you haven't already, to H.L. Hix's collection of "answers" from a number of Poetryville's typical, if not usual, suspects (e.g., Ron Silliman, Stephen Burt), over at the swell Best American Poetry blog. You'll get "answers" to the following questions:

1. What poet should be in Obama’s cabinet, and in what role?

2. If you could send Obama one poem or book of poems (not your own), what would it be and why?

3. What other poetry-related blog or website should I check out?

4. Who is the most exciting young/new poet I’ve never heard of, but whose work I ought to find and read?

5. What’s the funniest poem you’ve read lately? What was the last poem that made you cry?

6. William or Dorothy? Robert or Elizabeth Barrett? Moore or Bishop? Dunbar or Cullen? “Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully” or “No ideas but in things”? Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas or Tender Buttons?

7. Robert Lowell wrote a poem called “Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid.” What supposedly immortal poem puts you to sleep?

8. Even for poetry books, the contract has a provision for movie rights. What poetry book should they make into a movie? Who should direct it, and why? Who should star in it?

9. What lines from a poem you first read years ago still haunt you now?

10. What poem do you love, love, love, but don’t understand?

11. If the official organ of the AWP were not the Chronicle but were the Enquirer, what would some of the headlines be?

12. If you were making a scandal rag for poetry in the grocery store checkout stands, what fictitious poetry love triangle would you make up to outsell that tired Hollywood story of Angelina and Brad and Jen?

13. This is the Best American Poetry blog. What’s the best non-American poetry you’ve read lately?

14. We read poems in journals and books, we hear them in readings and on audio files. Sometimes we get them in unusual ways: on buses or in subway cars. How would you like to encounter your next poem?

15. What poem would you like to hear the main character bust out singing in a Bollywood film? What would be the name of the movie? What would be the scene in which it was sung?

16. Do you have a (clean) joke involving poetry you’d like to share?

17. Tell the truth: is it a poetry book you keep in the john, or some other genre (john-re)?

18. Can you name every teacher you had in elementary school? Did any of them make you memorize a poem? What poem(s)?

19. If you got to choose the next U.S. Poet Laureate, who (excluding of course the obvious candidates, you and me) would it be? Of former U.S. Poet Laureates, who did such a great job that he/she should get a second term? Next election cycle, what poet should run for President? Why her or him?

20. Insert your own question here.

(Hm. My own question would be... who the heck cares what I think?)

Mark Twain called interviews "pure twaddle and valueless."  To someone who'd tried to interview him he wrote:
For several quite plain and simple reasons, an "interview" must, as a rule, be an absurdity, and chiefly for this reason—It is an attempt to use a boat on land or a wagon on water, to speak figuratively. Spoken speech is one thing, written speech is quite another. Print is the proper vehicle for the latter, but it isn't for the former. The moment "talk" is put into print you recognize that it is not what it was when you heard it; you perceive that an immense something has disappeared from it. That is its soul. You have nothing but a dead carcass left on your hands. Color, play of feature, the varying modulations of the voice, the laugh, the smile, the informing inflections, everything that gave that body warmth, grace, friendliness and charm and commended it to your affections—or, at least, to your tolerance—is gone and nothing is left but a pallid, stiff and repulsive cadaver.
Such is "talk" almost invariably, as you see it lying in state in an "interview." The interviewer seldom tries to tell one how a thing was said; he merely puts in the naked remark and stops there. When one writes for print his methods are very different. He follows forms which have but little resemblance to conversation, but they make the reader understand what the writer is trying to convey. And when the writer is making a story and finds it necessary to report some of the talk of his characters observe how cautiously and anxiously he goes at that risky and difficult thing. "If he had dared to say that thing in my presence," said Alfred, "taking a mock heroic attitude, and casting an arch glance upon the company, blood would have flowed."
"If he had dared to say that thing in my presence," said Hawkwood, with that in his eye which caused more than one heart in that guilty assemblage to quake, "blood would have flowed."
"If he had dared to say that thing in my presence," said the paltry blusterer, with valor on his tongue and pallor on his lips, "blood would have flowed."
So painfully aware is the novelist that naked talk in print conveys no meaning that he loads, and often overloads, almost every utterance of his characters with explanations and interpretations. It is a loud confession that print is a poor vehicle for "talk"; it is a recognition that uninterpreted talk in print would result in confusion to the reader, not instruction.
Now, in your interview, you have certainly been most accurate; you have set down the sentences I uttered as I said them. But you have not a word of explanation; what my manner was at several points is not indicated. Therefore, no reader can possibly know where I was in earnest and where I was joking; or whether I was joking altogether or in earnest altogether. Such a report of a conversation has no value. It can convey many meanings to the reader, but never the right one. To add interpretations which would convey the right meaning is a something which would require—what? An art so high and fine and difficult that no possessor of it would ever be allowed to waste it on interviews.
No; spare the reader, and spare me; leave the whole interview out; it is rubbish. I wouldn't talk in my sleep if I couldn't talk better than that.
If you wish to print anything print this letter; it may have some value, for it may explain to a reader here and there why it is that in interviews, as a rule, men seem to talk like anybody but themselves. 
All that quoted and said, there is one interview I can stomach: the Ploughshares "conversation" between George Starbuck and Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop wasn't modest, but she demurs at almost every turn. She was a writer, not a celebrity. Mostly, she allows ruefully that she has "wasted a lot of time." When at the close of their interview George compliments her on telling a good story, she responds:

EB: Oh, in their interviews, Miss Moore always said something to make one think very hard about writing, about technique — and Lowell always says something I find mysterious. . .

GS: Would you like to say something mysterious?

EB: !


Jennifer Flescher said...

Well -- this makes me want to abandon my book project; thanks!

not to, again, take your humor too literally but...

but these takes are certainly missing something -- I heard an interview this morning on NPR with a photographer -- you know, it's easy to say, it's all about the art... but really, it's all about the people. We interview and it is a conversation and a connection with a life...

Anyway, you had me at OED.

Jordan said...

Suppl'y demeaned.

Anonymous said...


I've conducted quite a few interviews with poets over the past couple decades, and I have one I'm finishing up that I think is going to be, hands down, one of the most mind-boggling interviews ever done with an American poet. But I can't reveal who the poet is. Does that make this a gratuitious comment?


mgushuedc said...

I would argue that the first literary interview was Socrates interviewing the rhapsode, Ion, as recorded by Plato.

Interviewees have been in trouble since.