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Interview with John Colburn

William Dempsey

WD: I’m elated to have you here and have the chance to talk to you.

JC: Glad to be here.

WD: I suppose this is something of a generic question but I’ll start off by asking who or what’s inspiring you right now, in art and writing?

JC: There’s a deeper thing; there’s the source material that I always go to, and there’s the thing that was cool last week. And generally when I’m looking for inspiration, I look to traditional stories like folktales. I read a lot of folktales from different cultures to get a sense of how oral story works, or maybe how problems in the psyche get transformed into stories. And as far as what has been inspiring right now—I read a lot of poetry, especially poetry in translation, and there are some poets like Kim Hyesoon from Korea, and Hiromi Itō from Japan, and Raúl Zurita from, who is from Chile, who seem to be farther in their own direction than most other writers that I read, and I really appreciate that.

WD: That’s an interesting way of putting it. Do you see writing—I’m thinking in visual metaphors, now—as something like a spreading out, in many directions? I suppose people sometimes talk about convergence, but it seems you’re more interested in a strong divergence of voice.

JC: Very much so. And part of that is that my experience of reality is divergent. I think that we can get a little focused on a story or writing that is too centered in one reality, and that reality tends to be human-centered, and economic-centered, and maybe discounts the complexity of the way reality is shared.

WD: Other ways of being, so to speak. It’s interesting that you mention this, but you also mentioned folktales, which are often talked about as if they’re the most universal, or most general, human stories, but do you find something more unique or divergent there?

JC: I can see that the universality is the way that the structure of a story can spread from culture to culture through contact more easily. A story is how we transmit information about the deeper psyche. But the world of the folktale allows multiple realities to coexist, and promotes the idea of multiple consciousnesses, not just human, or even animal consciousnesses, interacting all the time; that there are other realities coming from other subjects. It’s not so much of a subject/object kind of relationship in the folktale—the world is enchanted. That feels more real to the world that I live in. So it may not be divergent in form, but divergent in perspective, even in a single folktale, often.

WD: Is the subject/object distinction something you’re particularly focused on in your thoughts and your writing?

JC: It is—maybe it’s because my wife is Japanese and I’ve been slowly trying to learn her language, and the way subject and object work in it are a little different. And also I have a two year old, and she hasn’t learned quite yet this idea of how ‘I’ and ‘you’ move around as pronouns, and it’s interesting to me how in a way she is the world, in her sense right now. She is in the process of building a sense of subject and object, so watching that, it’s very much in my mind.

WD: I’m reminded of Descartes’ cogito argument, which is often presented in academic philosophy in such a way as to imply that the subject/object distinction is the most basic, intuitive one—so it’s interesting to hear you describe a young, new person, a new consciousness, as not perceiving things that way fundamentally.

JC: It’s definitely taught; it’s a learned system of thinking that’s obviously useful, but it’s also one of the early limits of consciousness, I think. The Rastafarians had the right idea, I think, with 'I and I'; I appreciate that viewpoint, just that simple change, as a more inclusive and more equitable system of thinking.

WD: Tell me about your discussion of ‘the void’ in your story. What was informing that conceptually?

JC: The idea that the relation between nothing and something, and somewhat between conscious and unconscious, is always present when I’m not task-focused. And for me it’s a better place to be, not being task-focused. I remember this older story I was reading—not necessarily a fictional story, but just an oral account—it might be from Dakota orators, who lived where I live now, in Minnesota, before European invasion. They were talking about how often an orator would speak into the night with no knowledge of whether others were listening. It’s this act of speaking, of going from nothing to something, which reminded me of the Biblical sense of “in the beginning was the word”, and this sense we have of matter coming from nothingness somehow. This idea that the void is the unknowable generator of all that is. The acknowledgement of the consistency of void in our lives seems useful, but also dangerous. You may remember the old movie about the man who walked on a wire between the Twin Towers—I’ve always thought of that as such a beautiful and obvious and simple symbolizing of what life is. There’s this little string through nothingness that we walk across, and all around it is your death. But the beautiful thing is that he didn’t just go from one point to the other. He danced, he lay down; he really stretched the limits of his little line through the void. It reminds me of a recent work by this philosopher Byung-Chul Han—one of his books recently was called The Art of Lingering, and it’s about the experience of time, and the experience of objects, and how the limits we place around time and around objects can diminish our experience of the sensory world and of our consciousness. And that’s the kind of thing that I think fiction addresses. A story enhances our ability to be in the sensory world. I just finished reading Joy Williams’ novel Harrow, and I had that feeling. It’s a very grim, dystopian book in some ways, and at the end I felt more in the world, maybe more in this slow-rolling dystopia that we’re experiencing. But being more in it, through the book, felt like a gift.

WD: It seems to me that sometimes certain kinds of fiction are decried as escapist or in some sense false, or not about reality, but then it can lead to a stronger groundedness back in the world once you’re finished with it.

JC: And ‘Whose reality?’ and ‘What power does that reality serve?’ are always questions that come up. Somewhere along the line, especially in academic culture, there developed the sense that realistic fiction was more useful than something less realistic, and I really don’t think that’s true. Hamlet is a ghost story; Beloved is a ghost story, but these are very culturally and psychically useful books. And anytime I’m told that “this is the way things should be” there’s that immature part of me that reacts like a teenager, and says “You can’t tell me that” or “Why?” If I’m told that realistic fiction is more serious literature, then immediately of course I want to argue.

WD: There’s a purity to that sort of childlike response.

JC: I read a lot of children’s literature, especially now; I think it’s some of the most important literature for not just developing ethics but also imagination, and a sense of relationship. I love a lot of modernist writing, like James Joyce, William Faulkner, but I can say easily that I’ve been as influenced by Frog and Toad as I have by The Sound and the Fury. The influence is maybe in a different place or on a different level, but it’s certainly not less profound. And there’s a certain point when a child begins to tell a story, and certain point when a child begins to understand causality, and a child’s conception of narrative can kind of be charted according to the development of the brain—there’s a point when you go from ‘This happened and then this happened and then this happened’ to ‘This happened because this happened’. That’s the kind of thing that I find so fascinating—that we have these structures in the system of our minds and brains that allow us to develop the complexity of narrative and use it to develop ourselves. It really is a beautiful thing.

WD: It seems to me that narratives are flooded with causality. The notion of a narrative is highly causal. But sometimes the best stories I read are those in which the causal chain of events isn’t necessarily intuitive to me or quite there on the surface, where I’m forced to think about what’s happening and why.

JC: For most of what is happening in the world, I don’t understand the complexity of all the causes that are working, and if I wrote a story that was more causally straightforward, that would not be at all true to my experience of the world. When I look around—not even including the nonhuman—what I see is so fragmented and contested and doesn’t make a lot of sense, but as soon as you start to include nonhuman realities, and their complexity, I think this idea of chains of causality starts to fall apart in favor of webs and layers of influence. I do know that humans tend to simplify and discount the realities of nonhuman life, and we keep finding out that it’s a mistake. There’s deeper communication happening between plants—we find that out now. Or animals have complex family systems that are emotionally connected—we find that out.

WD: Given that we’ve been speaking on fiction, I also wanted to ask you about poetry. I know that you’ve written quite a bit of poetry, and I wanted to ask where, if anywhere, you think a division is to be drawn between fiction and poetry, or whether they’re continuous categories.

JC: Part of me thinks that separation of genres is mostly for economic concerns of people selling books, but there is also a tradition of poetry that I love and is distinct, and when I write poems I do have the sense that I’m writing in that tradition and in dialogue with poetry that had come before or that people I know are writing. So it’s one of those questions that I try not to think about when I’m writing. I like poems, I like book-length narrative poems quite a bit; I write that myself sometimes, and in that place where there’s a story, there’s a setting, there are actions happening, there’s a progression, it could just as well have been a novella as a book-length poem. But there’s something about the way the language is working that makes it a poem, and I’m okay with that. Alice Notley’s longer book-length poems—she has said clearly that she’s interested in taking back some of what the novel has taken from the public imagination for poetry. And maybe we don’t live in a time when the epic is relevant, considering the myth systems that were alive in the past, but the larger story a poem can tell is, I think, still relevant. It doesn’t have to happen in a novel.

WD: That leads me to asking about your creative process while you’re writing fiction or poetry.

JC: The process is almost always born from a feeling in the body that attaches to language. And once that happens, something starts, and as I’m writing I keep trying to find the next language that makes that feeling. And then often I’m wrong, and it turns out that the feeling vanished and it wasn’t any good, and I move on and try something else. But when it’s right, the feeling keeps its intensity and transforms its being throughout the course of the writing. There’s a sense that I become free when I’m writing, so that anything can go into the writing, and I can make a sudden turn, and the overall feeling still holds together. And when I get to there, I feel like I’m walking around inside my poem, or inside my story when I’m in the world. So when I see something—like right now, I’m in Tokyo, looking out at these treetops out of a fourteenth floor apartment in a high rise, and the tops of the trees, their shapes are a lot like people’s heads when seen from above—well that could be in my story. When I’m inside a story or a poem, everything I see has the potential to become part of it. That’s when it’s going well.

WD: It sounds ecstatic.

JC: I have to admit I’m a fan of the ecstatic.

WD: So when do you know that you’ve reached the end of a piece?

JC: I don’t have a big problem with endings, except for the fact that sometimes I rush because I have a new idea I want to start. But generally I know that I can end it when the poem or story can go on with out me. So that the ending comes and it opens out to the world and I’m no longer in charge. The poem or story can continue or not, irrelevant of what I do. And then I can start something new.