Tuesday, March 08, 2011

12 or 20 (second series) questions: with Richard Froude

Richard Froude was born in London in 1979, grew up in Bristol and came to the US in 2002. He is the author of FABRIC, published this year by Horse Less Press. New writing can be found in Witness, Birkensnake and Slack Lust. With Anne Waldman and Erik Anderson, he compiles and edits the mail-art journal Thuggery & Grace. An associate of the Arts & Humanities in Healthcare Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, he works with palliative care patients at UC hospital. He lives in Denver with his wife, Rohini.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

In a way my first book was Tarnished Mirrors, my translation of Baudelaire. Then followed two chapbooks. Although the second of these—The History of Zero—was a book length manuscript, it always felt like stuff I had to work through before I wrote a “first book.” So I’m going to talk about FABRIC in this question. That’s what I think of as my first book.

It stopped the anxious feeling that nobody would ever deem a book I wrote publishable. Other than that, if anything changed my life it was the circumstances in which I wrote the book forcing me to face things I had avoided for a long time. This was not because of the book, but the book was because of these circumstances. In the time I was writing most of FABRIC I often found myself overcome with sadness and anxiety. I was meeting with a counsellor who encouraged me to address the things I was feeling by writing: chiefly, absence from my home country, issues with my health and ultimately my own mortality. These were not things I wanted to think about. It’s not like I’m “over that” now, but you could say that being present with those thoughts has changed my life, that is, my interior and imaginary life. Day to day things are pretty much the same.

I think the biggest difference I feel in my recent work comes from allowing myself to stop consciously trying to be a poet because it was something I felt I should do. I have divorced that title. I don’t need it and, of course, it doesn’t need me. If people say I am a poet that’s fine. I just don’t need them to. Now I can write whatever I want.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?   

Well, I don’t think I really did come to poetry first. I don’t necessarily consider FABRIC to be a book of poetry. I’ve been more comfortable thinking about it as nonfiction. I have been to school twice for writing and only applied to those two schools. The first time I had to decide what genre I was writing in was when I applied to the MFA at Naropa. I applied to poetry because you only needed 15 pages of writing rather than 30 for fiction. I was only confident in 15 of my pages. Then when I applied to the DU PhD, although I had not written what I considered to be a poem for two or three years, I applied in poetry because I generally prefer the conversations that happen around poetry over those around fiction or nonfiction. I think the conversation around nonfiction is changing for the better and is now more interesting to me than poetry. But things change all the time.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I make lots of notes. I love notes. I don’t know about how long things take to get started, it really varies from piece to piece. But when it happens, it happens very quickly, then nothing for weeks, then an amazing three hours.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I nearly always write with the larger work in mind. I think perhaps I write more like a novelist in that way. Am I a novelist? A nonfiction novelist? Maybe I am. I very rarely write shorter pieces that are not part of my larger work. When I do, they often find their way into the project.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

That’s interesting to think of readings as part of the creative process. I hadn’t thought of that but yes, absolutely, they are part of my creative process. They press me to make my work as good as it can be. It’s one thing to have it on my computer or even published in a book or magazine. It’s another to stand up in the flesh and deliver it to people. I do enjoy giving readings. I think I’m quite good at them and I love doing things I think I’m good at. Shooting pool, Gameboy Tetris, Facebook Scrabble.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I don’t know what the current questions are. More important to me is that I know what some of my questions are. I do not anticipate satisfactory answers. I think there are also questions I am addressing that I don’t even know I am addressing, or am unable to articulate. I don’t mean to suggest these questions originate with me. They are just the things I come back to:

What does it mean to be alive? What happens when we die? Why do we die? What does “God” mean? Where have I come from? Why do I think I am the person I think I am? Why does this feel like that which also feels like the other? Why do I miss everyone so much? How will all this information around me help? How can I express any of this in language?

I think of these questions less as theoretical concerns and more as just concerns. I mean, qualifying them as theoretical (even if it’s correct) feels unnecessary. I do not come to writing with a theory of how any of these questions might be answered. I want to think of writing as begetting theory in its own becoming. I want to, so I do.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Yes, writers have a role in larger culture. Everyone has a role in culture.

I think the writer’s role should be to discern and express things that matter, undertaken with brutal and disarming honesty about these things and themselves. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done in fiction. I think the core of fiction is honesty.

What matters? Well, do you feel something deeply and powerfully? Does it frighten or overwhelm you? Does it fill you with joy, dread, love, compassion etc.? Does it feel like premonition? Does it not leave you alone? If the answer to any of these questions is yes then it probably matters. When Pound famously said that literature is news that stays news he was pretty much on it.

But, all this said, whatever role you want, that’s your role. You decide. Who am I to tell any writer—or anyone—what they should be doing?

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I’ve only had to do it twice and both times I found it difficult, although I must say that the two people I worked with were very intelligent, talented, generous people. It didn’t matter. It was still very difficult for me. Both of these occasions were journal publications. I’m still open to the process. I think I can see how it could be amazing.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”

That’s what came to mind. My own literary pretensions aside, it certainly bears remembering, especially if, like me, you happen to be a straight, white male.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?

The notion of genre has very little appeal to me as a writer. As such, movement between genres appeals as an act of quiet subversion, especially when that movement can occur without moving at all. That is, to stay still and let other’s ideas of genres move around you. This may seem passive. I’m fine with that because I don’t think it is. Imagine there’s no country. It isn’t hard to do. I love how John Lennon described that song as the Communist Manifesto set to music. I also love how in this interview (http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/book/?fa=customcontent&GCOI=15647100621780&extrasfile=A09F76BE-B0D0-B086-B653FFBC137719A6.html) Kathy Acker talks about Pasolini’s refusal of separation as an approach to genre. It turns the passive into active: an intentional act of refusal.

Excerpts from the project I’ve been working on have been published as fiction, nonfiction and poetry. I see no generic distinction between these excerpts, now or as I was writing them. I mentioned my strained relation to the title of “poet.” My major trouble was thinking of it as something I could call myself. I prefer to think of it as a destination, something others can attribute to you.

I was talking to a writer in New York about this and he said that by choosing to publish writing as a particular genre you are giving instructions on how it should be read. I respect this but I do not feel the need to give that particular instruction. It feels more like a limit. I don’t want limits. Open the doors! Go crazy!

I think moving between translation and my own work is a different question. To me, translation is the greatest apprenticeship I could possibly take on. It feels very different to my own writing. In translation, I am much more concerned with the text beginning at the level of the word rather than the sentence. I love how the intimacy with a text I have translated leaks into my own work. For example, I translated the “Song of Songs” last year. I have found that syntax possessing my current writing in the strangest ways.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I wake up, use the bathroom, feed the cats, read the internet (email, Facebook, ESPN, BBC, Wikipedia), eat toast and Marmite. Most days I don’t physically write. I mean, I write emails and lists and all that, but I don’t generate writing that is part of my creative practice. I make this physical distinction because every day I think about it and this thinking constitutes the largest part of my creative practice.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I tend to just let it stall. It has taken me a lot of time and anxiety to get to a place where I am OK to do that. I think I’m there now. The writing always comes back. If I notice that I’m not writing a lot then I make a conscious effort to read more.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I have no real answer so I will tell you this: the year after college I moved back to live with my mum. I drove to work every morning at 6am past the docks and the industrial estates. On one side of the highway was a huge bakery (more like a bread factory), on the other side a chemical works. The smell was amazing but something wasn’t right. I’d always get a whiff of chemical scent mixed with the fresh bread. I couldn’t tell where one smell ended and the other began. That was in Bristol in 2001. I’ve lived in Colorado now on and off for 6 years. Whenever it’s about to snow, Denver smells like dogshit.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

The books I am interested in reading and writing come from everything. I wrote out a huge long list of things I am influenced by then deleted it because I realized I was trying to write down everything that I can remember. I tried to answered this question in depth in conversation with Selah Saterstrom (www.zeroducats.com/resources/Conversation.pdf). But, to address the idea that books come from books: books have to originate in engagement, engagement doesn’t have to originate in a book.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I’m going to make this list that will surely leave off many I should have included. The most important writers to me have been: Allen Ginsberg, Alice Notley, James Joyce, William Blake, Marie Redonnet, Kathy Acker, Kenneth Patchen (especially The Journal of Albion Moonlight), Neil Young, Bob Dylan, William Carlos Williams, Richard Brautigan, Roland Barthes, Edmond Jabès, Jack Kerouac, Virginia Woolf, Whitman, Emerson, JD Salinger, Donald Barthelme, The Bible. Then the other hundred I didn’t mention.

Thinking of contemporary writers, I am energized by the writing of (among others) Renee Gladman, Erik Anderson, Bhanu Kapil, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine and Selah Saterstrom. Anne Waldman is a writer who has made my world a lot better by her very existence in it.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

See England win the World Cup. I’d also like to go to a posh restaurant and order a porterhouse with a lobster tail. One day I’d like to drive to Alaska. Maybe for a year I could live in Tokyo?

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

If all goes to plan, I finish my PhD on April 22nd this year. This summer I am teaching at Naropa’s Summer Writing Program and starting pre-med classes at UC Denver. This, in earnest, will mark the beginning of my attempt to be a physician.

I don’t think of being a writer as an occupation. Not that it doesn’t involve a lot of work, it does. And yes, there are people who earn their living just by writing, so I suppose I don’t consider my writing as my occupation. It’s in one of Salinger’s books (I think Seymour, I throw this around a lot so I should probably check) where the narrator, Buddy, gives his occupation as “writer” and Seymour tells him that writer isn’t something you do, it’s something you are.

Why did I get a PhD in English/Creative Writing if I wanted to be a physician? Well, I didn’t know I was actually going to follow through with medicine when I started the PhD. And they paid me to read and write for 4 years. After all, they don’t teach you about Blanchot in medical school.

If I wasn’t going to do this I would like to be a carpenter, a professional cricketer or a spaceman. Or maybe all three. Imagine watching the earth rise from a wooden rocket ship you had built with your own two hands after playing a crisp cover drive off the bowling of Glenn McGrath. Doesn’t get much better than that.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I like this question a lot but I don’t think I know how answer it. I write rather than draw, paint, play music etc. because I am better at writing than any of those other things. Creativity is a function of consciousness and as such I don’t think it is in opposition to doing something else but just a part of it. What is that other thing? Being a college professor, being a librarian, an attorney, a physician, a schoolteacher, a secretary, a mother, a father, an insurance salesman, a bartender etc. I do not mean for these to be exclusive. That is, I am interested in people who embrace the overlaps.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I read The Sound and The Fury in December. A little late to that party but holy shit! Last week I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey again. I cannot get over that movie. The last recently published book I read that I thought was really great was Bluets by Maggie Nelson. I really liked There Will Be Blood.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I just finished CAST, a book that orbits Carlo Collodi’s wooden boy Pinocchio. It’s the second in a series of three thematically connected books. FABRIC was the first. I’m about to start the third one which I think will be called RISE. It’s not really a trilogy. Maybe a triptych in the way Redonnet uses the term. The three definitely go together.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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