Bellamy: What was life like for you, as an adolescent? Were you already into writing and books, or did that come later?
Senning: It makes sense to talk about growing up in relation to writing, perhaps more than any other subject, because there's a certain amount of reversion to pubescent-type thralls or childish naivete for a lot of writers. Baudelaire said something about genius being the reinvention of childhood.
Myself, I don't have to reinvent or pretend, because growing up for me has been little more than a process of switching to larger clothes. I don't make any claims to have matured in any way but height and hairstyle. At any rate, I recognize adolescence as a period of very important conquests and rites of passage, and I'm still waiting my turn.
As a teen, I remember writing being a natural occasion to practice an important kind of seduction. There are, of course, moods of writing when you're a teen: the nights when you really want to kiss a girl, the days when you really want to kiss a girl, wanting to kiss a girl in the winter. And so it came out different all the time, but with one basic point, that there was a single person that I wanted to write something to. Without them the writing wouldn't exist. I could now get into a Berkleyesque ideological inquiry about "being" having it's predicate in being seen, but I won't. I've just always felt that writing is lousy if it's only for the writer, therapeutic, maybe, but lousy. Every piece of writing secretly wants to be seen.
As for reading, I suppose that came later. There was an intense period when all I did was write, so the younger years were pretty much awash in writing poetry I'm ashamed of and stories that seem, now, somehow already told. But then the appetite for technique became voracious along about the time I realized that a sentence has a special effect all its own. So I did read as much as I could, pretty much all hours of the day, pretty much all the time. The moment I realized that there was art in literature, that was the day I started reading. The reason Pynchon is worth reading more than most other writers is, among other things, that there's a special kind of meaning intended not only in the subject, but in the craft, of every single line.
That said, I suppose an important step for a writer is that period when there is a keen interest in everything, books included. And there's no dearth of things that I'm excited about...
Bellamy: I want to come back to that Pynchon reference in a minute, but first -- One of the things for you to be excited about right now is the successful launching of the Dissociated Writers Project (www.dissociatedwritersproject.com) and the DWP free journal. I say "successful" because of the way other writers talk about it, the energy and interest that DWP has generated. Also, you're about to hold a two-day writer's conference -- the DWP Writing and Arts Festival -- in Chicago, and that sounds like quite an event. When we spoke earlier you talked a bit about how the DWP began -- it reminded me of the Salon des Refuses, where Manet and Cezanne and the like showed their work while the Royal Academy was holding its official Salon. Except maybe the DWP had better music. Could you share that story with Potomac readers -- tell us a little about how the DWP got its start and what it's all about?
Senning: Are people talking about the DWP? I guess I wouldn't be surprised. But only if the first thing they talked about was our atrocious personal grooming habits. Or the night we drank all their whiskey and made out with a sofa cushion. But if they can see through the awkward surface to the substance beneath, that's good news.
Seriously though, thanks for asking. The Dissociated Writers Project is something I'm excited about. If other people are too, that kicks ass, because the DWP is for everybody. The DWP is a thought problem of sorts, how do we host free events, publish a free journal and promote quality writing for free without having to get a second job. The best answer we’ve come up with is to sort of avoid the whole question and eat Purina when the money runs low. The DWP is a cooperative of artists, writers, performance artists, punk rockers, actors and others. We host an annual festival of the arts, publish a journal and books, hold rock concerts and promote reading series.
When we’re not throwing the spotlight on others, we do everything we can to destabilize every notion the public might have about the role of arts in society. We like to say that the DWP started when a marble rolled off a shelf. Which is appropriate considering our simple, absurdist motives. Not that we've ever had a message behind the madness, but not having a message can be a message in itself. And I don't know how else to explain the fact that at the first conference in Baltimore in 2003, there was a woman in an ape suit who sat in on readings eating a yellow pencil. There was also a man dressed up as a news reporter standing outside the conference broadcasting a report with a microphone but no camera. I could say that this last was my favorite because we all feel like that: we have a lot to say and desperately want to say it even if nobody comes to catch us in our most dramatic moments to notice. I think his name was Chuck.
In the sense of the DWP as working outside the system, the analogy to the Salon des refuses really hits home. And that's a comparison that evaded me. The Salon des refuses, if I remember correctly, was a gathering of artists who did not get into the yearly Academy exhibition. All of whom we now consider the great individual thinkers of the French art world. Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Corot, exhibited in a tent, of all places, a stone's throw from the Academy.
We're similarly fortunate to have gotten some great writers involved with the DWP. Who knows if the rest of the world will catch on to their work as they have to the French impressionists. But they're the reason the DWP has the confidence to organize a yearly conference. If the DWP started with a marble rolling of a shelf, it's first event was the 2003 conference. And what we had to compare ourselves to was, in the analogy of the Salon des refuses, the grand Academy's annual event just down the road. The Dissociated Writers Project started in 2003 in the shadow of another writing conference, the AWP. I've been to the AWP and what the Dissociated Writers Project does is literally the opposite of everything the AWP does. The AWP has writers who speak to the crowd. We have crowds that speak to the writers. The AWP has harp music, we have punk rock. The AWP, like us, also has a writing contest. I have to say I've read the winning AWP authors. They stink. If any of the winners are reading this right now, I have to apologize. Your writing is terrible. You’re the reason that people look for a bus to step in front of when they meet a writer.
At any rate, the reason we could confidently plan and promote our first conference, is that we had a talented array of readers, film-makers and musicians willing to perform, and we had the guts to do things different from the Academy. Based on the successes of the first conference, and the increase of our journal's circulation to 5,000 readers in just a year's time, we have another conference planned for Chicago, as you mentioned. And it's going to be even weirder than the first. We have breakdancers, dramatic work, kickboxing, a DWP contest winners’ reading, a mariachi band and a man in a crayon suit reading poetry about the color blue-I won’t say what color his own crayon suit is, but it’s love poetry. Chicago poetry groups, wise to our goals, are participating. What we have in mind for them is anybody's guess, maybe a public beheading, maybe a trip to the ice cream shoppe. And on the last night I’m going to read something new, which is five pages about an author who’s about to cut off a finger for every page he reads. At the end of each page, I’m going to take a sip of water.
Bellamy: O man, my head's spinning. It's like stumbling onto the set of a Fellini movie. Or a Burning Man East... ( It's strange, you might expect Andre Breton or Lautreamont to spring to mind, but what I keep getting is a line from Robinson Jeffers, something like "The brain is the atom that must be split.")
All this has set off a firestorm of resonances in my head... Okay, I think I have it. That last piece you propose to read -- five pages, five fingers. Your stories in DWP do a lot with subverted expectations and self-reference. But this takes it to a whole new level. The fiction projects itself out of the five pages into the space of the actual audience, in the time of its actual reading, to define expectations of what could actually transpire in that space. It is "reality fiction," performance art, a morphing of the terms of engagement with a literary work. And DWP is like that, as small-press literary publications go -- it spills out of the normal frame, forms alliances with local musicians and actors, adapts eccentric forms of guerilla distribution, hosts a conference that replaces the model of audience-as-a-garden-of-flower-faces turned towards a single honeybee-presenter, with a great buzzing celebration of cross- fertilization.
And this is not exactly new territory for you, this reaching outside the boundaries of literary art. Some of the political pieces you wrote at the University of Arizona are still around. And it is pretty hard-hitting stuff -- well-researched, well-written, strongly argued. In one editorial you took on McDonald's use of overwhelmingly expensive litigation to silence critics -- even artists whose offense might merely be construed as threatening the corporate image. In another you address global warming, and yet another is a rather eloquent and passionate statement against the commodification of art. And there are other examples. True, the familiar wit and irreverence are visible throughout the writing -- but so is a sense of deeply-felt concern and the struggle to voice meaningful and cogent opposition.
So I wondered about that sense of impassioned political engagement, with journalism as its medium. Do you still write "political" journalism? Would you? Did you lose faith in mainstream media and the effectiveness of political writing as an instrument of change? Did your interests simply evolve in a different direction? Or is DWP perhaps a form of "cultural activism" that is a continuation of your political engagement, but operating on a higher plane -- a force for change, but not constrained to a narrowly political agenda? Or perhaps DWP is more like self-exile, a way of forging a life and a community of sorts in the shadow of an empire you no longer cared to engage -- like the Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty, Li Po and the Six Idlers of the Bamboo Grove, say, who retreated to the mountains and drank a lot and wrote beautiful poetry and ultimately influenced, among many others, the American Beats...?
I wondered about these things, but then I realized that what I really wanted to understand was something larger -- how you relate your existence to mainstream American society now, and beyond that, to that old spiritual ecos of the writer, "the human condition in our time" (recognizing that the latter is without historical precedent -- with economic, cultural, and political entanglements enmeshing human existence everywhere today in a shared planetary situation of perhaps unfathomable complexity). Elias Cannetti writes somewhere about how great writers of the past could feel responsible for the human situation in their time -- as if through writing they could directly influence reality, correct injustices and illusions, and illuminate the deeper truths and meaning in human experience -- and as if it were their mission to do so. Can a writer hope anymore to be responsive to -- much less feel responsible for -- the human situation in our age? Is it a bad idea for a writer (thinking of Ezra Pound) to engage directly in the political arena; or is it perhaps (thinking of James Joyce) unnecessary to be explicitly political, and more important "to create the uncreated conscience of my race [sic]?" What I really wanted was to understand how you felt about questions such as these.
So then: how do you relate your existence to mainstream American society now, and beyond that, to that old spiritual ecos of the writer, "the human condition in our time?"
Senning: I like that. Reality fiction. Except there’s no dating, no make-overs and no glamorous mansion to live in. Reality fiction not because something real happens, but because, like Pinocchio, it wants to be real.
A lot of what I mean to do with fiction is more performance than anything else, but part of me wishes that fiction could influence congress and create a recipe for the next great snack food. Although a genre like science fiction has a lot of bright ideas, no science fiction author ever writes about a potential world that he wants to live in. It’s all cautionary fiction about political and sociological problems relevant to the time of authorship. Even Don Quixote, the book we think of as the first novel, has within it a cautionary tale about a man who reads too much. Reality TV at least envisions a world in which men find their true loves and women have life coaches to get them through tough times. What I think of when I hear the words “reality fiction” is an imaginary world that the author wants people to actually live in. Maybe I want to do this. At the very least I want to change the architecture of the mind and improve the tastiness of malt beverages. Whatever actually happens is a matter beyond me. There’s a duty at stake in writing, though, which I have to say I want nothing to do with. I know there’s been a debate for centuries about the political role of the author. Let me just state for the record that I have a deep, heartfelt attachment to my ambivalence on this matter. And what this comes down to is whether what I’m doing is “art for arts sake” or writing somehow politically motivated. If all I’m doing is looking at the page, then there’s nothing but the art. If there’s something going on in my mind as I write it’s more often hunger than a coffin for the head of state. But there are moments.
As for the Dissociated Writers Project, in some ways we’re just a bunch of guys reading and performing to the public, as we work our way toward some distant, evanescent, ideal art form. A Philadelphia paper recently said that we were confused. No doubt! When you’re trying to sprint down the dirt track you have the benefit of sunshine and a finish-line ahead of you. We’re lucky if we’ve got a flashlight on a dark, moonless night with nothing but alligators for footing and swamp for miles around. We don’t know where we’re going, but if we can make it through the dishes piled up in the sink, we’re hopeful about our next meal. As for the public, we’re just glad they care enough to watch. If there’s a world we’re envisioning for them right now, it’s one in which there’s just more poetry and music. This seems to please them more than anything else.
Bellamy: Such a light touch with the heavy stuff. I bet you could shoplift a Humvee. You have "...a deep, heartfelt attachment to your ambivalence" on the bristly issue of politics and the writer -- that has an honest ring, with the guts to forego posturing and presumption, but without dismissing the issue either, or ceasing to care about it -- and all with a jaunty attitude that refuses to wear the problem like a crown of thorns. Salut. (And I love the Pinocchio thing.)
So let's get back to Pynchon and craft. Your stories on the DWP site could seem like bits of off-the-cuff invention, eccentric offspring of whimsical moments -- like God making the platypus or the giraffe. But -- just as the giraffe on closer inspection has a curious grace and a delicate exotic beauty (and a powerful kick) -- there's a lot going on in those stories. And maybe it's no accident that species examples come to mind, because you're messing around with the genetic materials of fiction here. For example, fiction typically uses the device of a "dramatic conflict," introduced early in a story or novel and then driving the narrative development as the conflict moves towards resolution. Your piece, "On Going Places," opens with a sentence that could be a textbook example: "It occurred to me yesterday that I missed the airplane to my parents' country on Tuesday." But what follows seems to take the development in a wholly unexpected direction. And then we are jerked back, equally unexpectedly, to the original premise, seen now in a new light -- from which the narrator once again ambles off into the dark alley of another tangent. And so it goes on. The dynamic of development lies entirely in the way the piece plays against the convention of the plot-driving "dramatic conflict." And this dynamic, working below the surface, carries a funny tale with more serious resonances. (In the end, the narrator is still at home, alone, far from his parents, and indulging in a parody of the sort of faux intimacy that lonely people create with pets. He watches a spider crawl onto a hot light bulb and curl up and die, and he names the spider "Doug.")
"Information Theory of Meyer Technic" develops similarly. It jettisons conventional character and plot to present a series of metamorphoses linked by mutating elements of "information." Here, information assumes the role of character in the story's development. It becomes the protagonist in a tale in which identity and the course of events are defined by (mis)interpretations of signs -- so that the sounds emitted by a man inside a trash can initiates a sequence which includes his becoming employed and unemployed on the basis of misconstrued emblems of identity, culminating ultimately in the Escherian spectacle of a man inside a trash can drawing the outside of a trash can. Once again, very funny...and more than that. And once again, the essential dynamic of the piece lies in the way it plays against basic conventions of fiction.
This seems to me a very challenging "strategy" for a writer, something that would be very, very difficult to sustain for long (and yet I believe you have a novel in progress, about..."Breakfast"?). Is it in fact difficult? Do your stories happen as spontaneously and whimsically as they could appear to be created -- or is there substantial effort involved: rewrites, stalling points, all the usual "Here be Monsters" markers on the map of the writer's voyage? How do you work, how do you approach the act of writing? Do you wait for inspiration or do you practice a more disciplined approach, where you write every day regardless? That's kind of hard to imagine, really. The images and events that populate your stories don't come by simply mirroring the world around you, the way a detective novel, say, takes a reader through a familiar world. Where DO you get these ideas? Are there things you do for stimulation, sources you go to for the grains of sand around which the pearls will form -- writers you read, music you listen to, theoretical or scientific writing you study, archaic rites you perform, anything? Or do you simply, as one writer put it, "sit in a chair and sweat blood?"
And finally, quite apart from how you go about it, what does writing mean to you? Do you think that will change if you do take it in a more performance-oriented direction?
Senning: The genetic material of fiction is a good way of putting it, as there are definite formulas in storytelling that, like blue eyes or a club foot, are ingrained in the genetic fabric of telling a tale. The traditional love story has a part where two people meet, then a conflict, then a resolution. If it’s a twisted love story, three people meet instead of two. If it’s a comedy, there’s a conflict, resolution, conflict, resolution, conflict, resolution, etc. If you’re going to write a comedy sketch, you’ve gotta have some rat feces in there. These are hard and fast rules. The trick is telling a story that follows the effects of a formula without following the formula itself. Or not the trick, but the preoccupation, it seems. Or I don’t know if it’s preoccupation, but people certainly think about it a lot. Film-makers, writers and artists. All seem to work from within, while reacting against, time-honored formulas. It could be inverting the formula (Godard did everything the film academy said he couldn’t do—close-ups with a wide-angle lens, shooting action against a white background), or evading the formula (Beckett teased audiences with a plot that never moved forward). But no matter how good an artist is, the formula is still there in some trace form or another. The conflict in a Thomas Pynchon love story may be a man wondering if the woman he’s seeing allows other men to put a finger in her anus, but it’s a conflict all the same.
For me, it was around the time I started getting a series of past due notices in the mail that I realized plot is a series of attention-grabbing moments. This is the formula I’m most interested in, and I will continue to not pay my bills if only to study it. It may be that the plot is the place where the motives of the characters and the motives of the story converge, but it’s also simply the story’s repeated focus. As when staring at a shape for awhile means the shape goes everywhere you look. In a detective story, the clues the private eye uncovers in a steadily revealed plot are symbolic repetitions of the original murder, and the story maintains its plot by way of this repetition. Similarly, in a Hitchcock film, the plot to poison someone is illustrated by showing a close-up of the drink, then a still shot of the drink, then a shot of two people talking tensely through the cavity of the glass. So that repetition is the key ingredient in the suggestion of plot.
As soon as I realized this, I began to write very short pieces in which a repeated word or phrase would create the same effect as a traditional plot. As for resolution in a story like this, I mean it to have more like a “resolution effect,” as when a man and a woman having a fight are next seen having sex. A resolution, as when the fat lady sings or the cannons go off in the symphony hall, is not so much real as understood, through expectations of closure as much as anything else. And right now this is a fun thing to play with. Whether or not I can sustain something like this for an entire novel about breakfast, there are a lot of questions about whether the subject of breakfast is worth a novel. Or whether or not ten days from now I’ll be interested in lunch. In the meantime, I’m eating a lot, because I believe in researching my topics. And on the side I’m writing a new story about answering interview questions, that ends with the word bingo. Thanks for the interview.
Bellamy: Thank you, very much. It was a real pleasure. Now I just have to fight off the impulse to end this with the word bingo...
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