“I was afraid of the strangeness at Naropa, so I clung to Ginsberg, who seemed familiar. That Allen Ginsberg was perhaps the least bizarre person around should tell you much about Naropa.”
1. What’s the relationship of your critical/analytic writing (19th-century scientific naturalism, discussions of Darwin, George Eliot) to your fiction and poetry?
This question, your first, is probably the most difficult one to answer. That’s because academic writing took over my writing life for years, and for too long I considered the two modes – academic and “creative” writing – incompatible. This notion, of course, is institutionally reinforced by English departments, which hire people as poets, as fiction writers, or as scholars. One is suspect if one attempts to span more than one periodic category, let alone “creative” writing and scholarly writing. The structure of many departments is so rigid and the demands of either one of these areas are so great that anyone who attempts both is considered a fool, a dilettante, or both.
However, I had some breakthroughs in academic writing that freed me from this dualism, making me feel that I need not be defensive any longer about having an appetite for other kinds of writing. I am fully capable of writing the academic essay, of whatever length, which is mostly what I teach. I need not fear losing it.
As you point out, my primary field is 19th-century science and culture. One thing I can say about it is that it’s the past: it’s not going anywhere, at least not in the conventional sense. The scholarship is moving, but the period is not. And the scholarship is not moving so fast that I can’t take my eye off it long enough to do other kinds of work. And frankly, even in terms of scholarship, I can’t pay exclusive attention to 19th-century scientific and cultural history. That’s simply not enough to satisfy my appetite. I also have interest in the intersections of the humanities and technology, the Internet and writing/authorship/identity/power, the question of the cyborg, post-humanism, genomics, nanotechnology and robotics, and in how all of these areas connect to discourses that have generally found homes in the humanities. My graduate studies at Case Western Reserve University and Carnegie Mellon University were deeply theory-based, so I’m fairly well versed in any number of postmodern theoretical notions, and these also have become important in my non-scholarly writing, both in terms of “topic” and method. The fiction I’m working on presently involves issues of online identity formation, online dialog, writing on the network, the question of what becomes of the subject in networked digital spaces and times, what becomes of the narrator and narration, what becomes of who (or what) is speaking, and how or what it matters.
I may even begin to meld the historical work with the fiction, and the poetry. I can see an historical novel that involves intrigues in the sciences, for example, with consequences for the contemporary moment. Charles Lyell’s uniformitarianism, and his assertion that humans could not have an appreciable effect on the environment, comes to mind as an example. Such writing would require deep immersion in the field, even more than what is required by scholarly work.
So I’m only recently beginning to understand the compatibility of these activities, and their common source, which for me is artistry. I enjoy studying the artistry of those who’ve gone before me, including that of scientists, poets, fiction writers, scholars, theorists and others, and the way their artistry can be incorporated and revived in my own work. That’s what scholarship means to me now. It’s a way of comprehending, in the fullest sense of the word, the expression of others.
2. You have a book of fiction (The Thief and Other Stories) and a book of poems (Breach: Collected Poems) both published in 2013. Although they share a sense of disconnection, distrust, a dark world view, your fiction seems to be more anarchic. When the impulse to write comes upon you, how do you decide whether you’re going to be writing a story or a poem?
Until recently, I did not plan my fiction in the way that I suppose (from attending an M.F.A. program briefly) most fiction writers do. I was not a planner. Stories began with an event, an action, an idea, then developed on the page as the writing more or less unfolded. I didn’t know where things were headed when I started, or even from one passage to the next. I let the situations develop as they might in the world, by accident. This may be what you are referring to with the word “anarchic.” As for “disconnection,” I think you may be referring to the sense of disconnection from the social spaces that the characters and speakers display in both the fiction and poetry. Also, in the poetry at least, I believe you can see disconnection between lines, between words, even within words.
So, you’re right, in terms of the fiction, it’s anarchic – there’s no government, no governing plan. In the short stories of The Thief, I begin with a premise and start writing. In “Police State,” for example, I begin with a paranoiac whose concatenation of foibles brings him to such a point that even the slightest accident will trigger his arrest and reactivate an adjudicated felony charge. The accident in question happens to be vomiting in public. I began with the idea that a person could be in a state (a Police State) such that merely vomiting in public sets off alarm bells, triggers an arrest, forces a crisis. This anarchic method seems less contrived than what I’m doing now, which is to plan out exactly what needs to happen to eventuate result “x,” and what has to happen to eventuate result “y” —followed by a decision as to which path to take.
The poetry, on the other hand, has usually started with a thread of language that I sense and simply and carefully begin to pull forth and onto the screen (or, in the past, the page). The trick is to pull the thread without breaking it, or without finding it too short or too particular to be of any use. Sometimes what you get is crap. Much less frequently, one is surprised to find something of worth. I have boxes full of crap, and boxes of crap that I’ve burned, and a few poems that I believe are worthy to be read. I’ve spent much more than the requisite one thousand hours writing poetry. I’ve probably written more than Milton. Most of it, however, is garbage. At one time, I quit, not seeing the point. I will talk about this a bit more in the answer to your final question.
But poetry is an attempt to make ideas materialize out of language, whereas fiction is an attempt to make language materialize out of ideas. That’s how it works for me, anyway. I know I am going to start a poem when I have a thread of language, which may end in an idea. The specific words come first, not the concept. On the other hand, I know I’m starting a piece of fiction when an idea, situation or concept comes first, and the words have to follow behind to actualize it. Finally, I know that it’s poetry or fiction, rather than argumentative prose, when I’m not trying to prove a point, but rather am attempting to create an experience, a virtual reality.
3. Because Breach is a work of collected poems, stylistic changes are apparent. Could you discuss how your voice or how your approach has altered since the ‘90s when The eros of the baby boom eras and other poems was published?
Yes, Breach is a collection from my twenties through the present. The book isn’t set up in chronological order, although there are more early poems in the first part of the book. The book starts at the end of the story, with a moment of retreat (into a monastery) from where the telling of the story unfolds, as if being remembered there. This isn’t really obvious for the reader but it is the subtext or the rule for how I ordered the poems. A man with children leaves his wife and children and enters the monastery (a fantasy I entertained for years while married). From there he tells the story of his early adulthood, married adulthood, child-rearing adulthood, divorce, etc. The book ends with a meditation and final commentary on humanity: “Humans, they taste a little salty.”
Stylistically, the first poem, “Five Poems,” and the last, “Stolen Lines,” represent the final mode that I undertook over this time period. Here I am working on a method similar to that of the “language” poets. But before this I had experimented with rhyme, with something close to blank verse, and of course, with free verse. Some of the poems, the best ones, have no real models. They are the closest I ever have gotten to a “voice” that I can identity as my own, rather than being derivative. These include “All the Beds in the County Are Full,” “Duffy,” “The Eros of the Baby Boom Eras,” and perhaps “Degas’s Wax Horses,” “The Finish Line,” and “My Background.” When I’ve managed to leave all emulation behind, I have arrived at poems that were my own. I know this is a romantic idea. But there’s something to it. Whether they are any good is another matter. This started happening for me from around age twenty-four and later. But it has not happened all the time, by any stretch. Many times, I’m emulating something I don’t even recognize or remember.
As I said, until relatively recently, the method is one of finding a language thread. In more recent poetry, I use methods akin to those of the language poets or other postmodern methods. I draw on “ambient language,” language in my immediate environment, which I collect in various threads that stop and start. I stitch these into patches using some rule or other, such as, “take only one clause from any one source,” “take only one word from a source,” or “take one phrase including its punctuation.” I don’t do this all the time, although the method does inform the poems in which I don’t do it. I’m writing some poetry now that combines this theft of ambient language and the language that arises from “within,” whatever that means. I stumbled across language poetry before I went back to graduate school at Case Western, where I later learned the theoretical underpinnings, explanations, or justifications for this kind of method. More on that, in the answer to your last question.
4. I can’t resist asking about the early years—your years as “an apprentice poet to Allen Ginsberg.” Could you talk about that a little?
Surprisingly perhaps, although it was decades ago now, this is a period of time in my life that I am still processing. Yes, it represented a privileged and quite rare opportunity – to be able to study and work with such a legendary character as Allen Ginsberg at twenty years old. I recorded the highlights in a eulogy for Allen, which is available from my website at www.michaelrectenwald.com.
But this isn’t a eulogy, so I can say other kinds of things. I had started my undergraduate studies at Allegheny College in Meadville, where I was a pre-med student and earned straight A’s. But I spent a good part of my time reading and writing poetry, not for any requirement, but to become a poet. Much of what I did was to trace the reading history of Allen Ginsberg, to read everything he mentioned in his published diaries from the 50s and 60s. I did as well as I could, and kept it all to myself.
Meanwhile, I was supposed to be headed to medical school, and had already lost interest. After living this split personality a few years (or maybe my entire life to that point), I left college, went back home, and, with nothing to do, sat in a rocking chair, and stared at the trees outside the window. I was stuck. The bare trees appeared to me as they do in Bergman films: gnarled, utterly alien, and menacing. It was here, back in the family home, where I hadn’t lived through much of high school, that I underwent the strangest of transformations. This is what I refer to in the short story, “The D,” included in The Thief. I was seized by the darkness. And the world would never again appear as it had previous to this. William Styron describes it well in his book Darkness Visible. David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” is also descriptive of what I was going through.
I had no hope for relief, so when I wasn’t sleeping, I immersed myself in reading and writing, like never before. I believed that what I was undergoing was the requisite initiation for becoming a great poet. I wrote to Allen Ginsberg, enclosing some of my best poetry. He invited me to study with him as an apprentice at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, at Naropa Institute, in Boulder, Colorado. Everything about this seemed apropos of my condition: disembodied, poetics, Kerouac, Ginsberg. I had no choice but to go.
Boulder was visually milder and more beautiful than Pittsburgh, and Naropa was a hodgepodge of Buddhists, failed and former beatniks, wannabe poets, acid trippers, mushroom poppers, Carlos Castaneda aficionados who thought they could fly, and many stripes of New Ager. Thus much color and texture was added to my experience. I took classes in Basic Poetics, Eastern Religions, a poetry workshop with Ted Berrigan, and of course, the Ginsberg Apprenticeship. I was afraid of the strangeness at Naropa, so I clung to Ginsberg, who seemed familiar. That Allen Ginsberg was perhaps the least bizarre person around should tell you much about Naropa. My job in the apprenticeship was to help Allen edit an anthology, and to type his poems. In return, he would read my poems, and discuss them with me at length. We spent many hours together, discussing matters of all kinds, but especially poetry. I wrote, and showed what I wrote to Allen, who was impressed, but surely also somewhat concerned. He had attracted his share of lunatics, and I suppose he wondered whether or not I was yet another. I didn’t want to be just another anything to Allen, and I would make sure of it.
Among other books, Allen inscribed to me, in his characteristic handwriting, his New Directions copy of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. He knew that I was having my own season in hell, and that he was a character in it. That’s not a bad plot line for the unconscious to conjure. If you’re going to have a hell experience, why not undergo it with one of the most famous poets alive, one best known for his hellish visions? Why not have Allen Ginsberg, like Virgil, accompany you on your personal sojourn into the Inferno?
Yet, in true Blakean dialectical fashion, my time in Boulder with Allen was also a marriage of heaven and hell. I had my share of epiphanies. Once, while Allen sang Blake’s Songs of Innocence in Basic Poetics class, I fell into a trance and had a vision of the Lamb of God weaving a web of sleep around the heads of little children. I talked and wrote about this, causing some alarm in Allen and my advisor. However, I proved that I wasn’t crazy, referring to it as a heart, rather than a head case.
Allen traveled a lot, and during one of his longer absences, I had been asked to look after his apartment and its temporary occupant, Billy Burroughs, Jr., the son of the famed novelist, William Burroughs, and Allen’s godson. I wrote about Billy in a poem included in Breach. Billy had been a speed addict, and now was a paranoid alcoholic with serious health problems, including kidney and liver conditions. At barely thirty-three, his speeding and drinking had nearly killed him. Although born into the Burroughs adding-machine dynasty, he ranted at length about how horrible his life had been, especially having seen his father shoot his mother in the head in front of him when he was eleven years old. His father had tried to hit the apple on his mother’s head, but missed. This trauma was compounded by the fact that Billy’s father had advised him to become a drug addict in order to make his mark on literature. The logic was this: he, William senior, had covered heroin. That was out. Ginsberg had handled LSD. What was left? Let’s see. How about amphetamines? Like the good son, Billy complied and became a speed freak. He dutifully produced his work of fiction, the word Speed blurred across the cover.
I left Boulder when Allen was out of the country reading poetry on the other side of the world, in China I believe. He came back to find his apartment empty, with Billy and me both gone. Billy had taken a bus to Florida, and like Ratso, died on the way. He left a suicide note on the table, which I still possess. His ashes were brought back to the Rocky Mountains. I, on the other hand, got out alive. I went back to Pittsburgh to try and make sense of it all. I finished my B.A. in English at the University of Pittsburgh, but for many years, I remained wistful about the surreal experience I had had with Allen Ginsberg.
5. Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make these two books possible?
Yes. I would be very remiss if I did not include a discussion about Case Western in an interview about these books and my artistic, intellectual and personal life. I entered Case Western as a part-time M.A. student in 1993. At this point, I was thirty-four years old, had already exhausted a ten-year career in advertising, and was teaching advertising and running the advertising department of a radio station at Penn State, Erie. You might say that after finishing at Pitt, I had run away from myself as a writer and intellectual, and into Advertising (and Alcohol), as an escape. But it didn’t work for long. Advertising was repetitive and banal. As in Madmen, my career was fueled by alcohol and bullshit. I could go on. So my plan (finally, a plan!) was to try and use the job at Penn State, Erie to segue into an academic career. I travelled from Erie to Cleveland – once a week at first – to undertake graduate studies in English.
My first class was “Cultural Criticism” with Martha Woodmansee, who introduced to me to a realm of scholarship that I had not even known existed. The course was a massive primer in theory and some cultural studies. Theory had only begun to penetrate English studies when I was an undergraduate, so it was all news to me. I was immediately enthralled, hooked. I remember ordering every book I could by every theorist I could find from the Penn State library system. I’m talking everything, from the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, through structuralist Marxism, to post-structuralism, feminisms, queer theory, and so on. I had no idea at the time that some of these positions were utterly incompatible. I didn’t realize, for example, that post-modernism was anathema to Marxism. That didn’t matter to me. I wanted it all. As I said, some of these ideas entered my poetry, both topically and methodologically.
Martha’s next course was “The Construction of Authorship,” a much smaller class, but no less an awakening. A couple things were happening by now. First, the Internet had come into being. Second, for me, Martha’s class in authorship came as a huge relief. Once exposed to the historical and theoretical underpinnings of modern authorship, I felt disburdened of a great weight, the weight of the “author construct.” I took a lot of the energy that I had devoted to poetry and fiction and turned it to the essay, and to arguments with conservatives in those old Usenet groups on politics, on the Internet. While I was being disabused of the need to be an “author” as such, I could write at length on intellectual and personal matters. I had also met Diana Hume George at Penn State, Erie, and she became my creative mentor, while Martha was my academic mentor. During this time, I had an essay published in an anthology on academic life as it intersects with family life in a book called The Family Track: Keeping Your Faculties While You Mentor, Nurture, Teach, and Serve, edited by Diana George and Constance Coiner.
The prospects for jobs in academia were poor, and I was warned, but I couldn’t stop. I took an Independent Study with Bill Siebenschuh on the 19th-century novel. One of the novels was Middlemarch. I took notice of the scientific allusions in the book and began research in what has since become my field: 19th-century science studies. I wrote an essay on science in Middlemarch, which was awarded the Neil McIntyre Prize in 1997. This essay also served as my writing sample for admission into Carnegie Mellon’s Ph.D. program in Literary and Cultural Theory (later changed to Literary and Cultural Studies).
Several of the poems in Breach and a few of the stories in The Thief were written during this period. But for the most part, I took a hiatus from “creative” pursuits. As I became more immersed in academia, I thought that I was done with poetry and fiction forever, and had all sorts of theoretical justifications for their abandonment. But all of this, I realize, was merely a self-deception that I had needed in order to establish my credibility, perhaps mostly to myself. If I believed them incompatible, I could not be both a scholar and a creative writer. Nevertheless, like the return of the repressed (despite Foucault’s assertion about its construction), poetry and fiction have resurfaced – but not with a vengeance.
Only by establishing an academic career have I been able to resume my writing in a meaningful, deliberative and sustainable way, and to incorporate it within a life that affords the space and time for its pursuit, allowing me to put out books like Breach and The Thief, which, I hope, will not be my last “creative” efforts. These “dark” books were written and revised from a lighter, more hopeful space than ones that birthed them. By successfully launching me on an academic path, Case Western’s English department helped to make these books, and the person who has survived to see them published, possible. I am forever grateful.