Sven Birkerts

Sven BirkertsSven Birkerts was born in Pontiac, Michigan into a family of Latvian immigrants. He attended the University of Michigan and spent many of his youthful years as a bookseller. He has been a reviewer and critic for various publications including The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, WigWag, Esquire and The New York Observer. His books include An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on Twentieth Century Literature, The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, American Energies: Essays on Fiction, Readings and he has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse. His newest book—a memoir of sorts—is My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time. Sven Birkerts teaches at Mount Holyoke College, is a member of the core faculty of the low-residency Bennington Writing seminars, edits the literary journal AGNI and lives in Arlington, Massachusetts with his family.

Robert Birnbaum: Tell me about the Dylan Thomas poem that the title for this book is taken from?

Sven Birkerts: It comes out of the poem "Fern Hill" that to me is the great poem of the loss of lyrical youth. It’s all looking back in that overblown Dylan Thomas way. It is the inside dream sense of what being a child is about. We have endless outside portraits—but it was the usual thing. You finish a piece and then for me, I try to crystallize the feeling. I usually don’t have a title beforehand. I finish and then I wait until I can identify the little sonogram of what it’s all been about. And then that goes in search of the phrase or the tag that will lock it in. I spent a lot of time going through a small number of books of poetry. I look to poets who dealt with time in a particular way. I spent a lot of time going through Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” They had many phrases I thought could work. I had some things from Wordsworth. And finally, the Dylan Thomas came back to my thoughts. I checked into that poem and then it was pretty automatic.

RB: Why did you write this book?

SB: (Takes a deep breath) Mid-life.

RB: (Laughs)

SB: A one-word answer. I just found—I think about this a lot—there came a moment when my own past became fascinating to me in a new way. I couldn’t have written it when I was forty-two or forty-three even though the components were all in place, essentially. But the feeling wasn’t there. It came on me very immediately, very suddenly at around age forty-seven. It almost became a daily fix, an appetite thing. A need. I needed to do my ritual, which was to go sit in the Arlington Heights Starbucks with my yellow legal pad and spend about an hour or two just immersing—it was this notion which I try to work with when I teach other people aspects of personal writing. It’s the idea that you have to—for this kind of thing to be compelling—have a mystery yourself. You can’t just be preaching on to yourself. You really have to trying to solve something. Don’t ask me to identify what I was trying to solve. I was very much aware, day after day, that I was going back to something and it was like I was working on a case.

RB: I would accept that there was a mystery to solve and that you may not even have solved it. That seems to me to be a given in people’s lives.

SB: I wish more people went around that way. There is too much of a sense I have of people having, living as if there were no questions or they had answered the questions. At least, that’s the public face that greets me. It always makes me feel like an anomaly. I have a lot of ambient time in my days. Walking, sitting, driving, and I find at a certain point that you are working on your life. It is a form of what you do in the therapist’s office, I guess. You just worry something. But in this case, I knew it was not enough to just be processing events in my life but I suddenly wanted to see if they also shaped themselves into a story. I worked chapter to chapter and in order to write each one—and each was a separate event—there is not a big continuous outflow. Each was a separate encounter. In each case I felt that before I could write it I had to identify and work through the inner psychological story of it and find the best way to arrange the particular layers of time. It was going to be a given for me that this was only interesting to me if I could work back and forth freely through the time of my life. So each encounter, each particular epoch, looking back on it, had formed itself into a story I told myself. A way that it made sense to me. Then I had to find a way to dramatize that to anyone who would read it.

There is too much of a sense I have of people having, living as if there were no questions or they had answered the questions.

RB: Your book reminds me of Ed Hoagland’s Compass Points. It was an interweaving of five or six biographical essays…

SB: He did a different thing. I read most of that book. He took the themes of his life…He would take the theme of “Love and Women” and do a chapter there. Or “Working in the Circus” and everything collected around that. I did feel that I wanted to represent the cumulative self. It was an option I considered of completely drifting around through the materials of my life. That’s a higher challenge to me because you need something to get a reader from page to page. Hoagland can largely pull it off because he is just such a fantastic sentence stylist.

RB: I know you to be a very careful wordsmith so I expect that you chose the title, Coda, for the last section with care. Why use a musical term?

SB: I don’t think I have a deep answer to that. Here and there I had seen someone else do it and it seemed right. I didn’t philosophize it to myself as a musical thing. Had I, I would have called the beginning ‘overture’ or something.

RB: Coda is the section dealing with your parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party. Which is culminating…

SB: It is. (long pause) Did you ever read Curious George?

RB: Uh huh.

SB: Well there is a Curious George book that is all premised around the fact that Curious George swallows a piece of jig saw puzzle and has to go to a doctor. At the very end they present him, at the hospital, with the little wrapped thing. And he comes home after all these adventures and it’s the piece that he had swallowed. And he puts it into place. That was my ‘Curious George’ piece. I really didn’t know how to end this. The season was advancing and I knew I wanted to be done and I wanted to deliver it. Then life through this little weekend event of this anniversary get-together—all the players were on stage and there was this moment of gathering for the photo. My favorite moment, in some ways, not all ways, is the little wobble of the camera. We’re all lined up and this drunk shows up in the door and throws everything off—Elsa [Dorfman] can’t quite get the picture right —and the minute he is shepherded off, the whole atmosphere has changed. There is something about that man standing there and there is so much of a poignant sub-text of “There but by the grace of” feeling and we are shunting this guy off and we are about to go off to this big prosperous celebratory event, we are paying a shit load of money for this Polaroid and there is this poor guy with this bag in his hand. That somehow, got me, that scene, and then I felt okay, “We’re done now.”

RB: You suggested that you couldn’t have written this book earlier. Did it have to be written when you wrote it?

SB: I felt that. It was just not the writing of the book it was in order to get on with my mid-life crisis certain things had to just be reckoned with…

RB: I’m shocked.

SB: It’s not that I’m done with it. It’s not that they are fully reckoned with. But I don’t how much longer I could have put off not just thinking about my romantic turmoils in my ‘20s—I thought about those all along—but there is the different thinking that happens when you have to put something into words. The thought itself isn’t deeper but your immersion is prolonged and the processing that happens in the two months that it takes to get a 30-page section right is cathartic.

RB: Let’s table whether it’s deeper. Once you have to make something that is private and perhaps non-linguistic public that is a very different enterprise.

sven birkertsSB: Entirely.

RB: Something that is much tinged with all sorts of emotion. Going from private information to public knowledge. Pretty tough.

SB: That’s been the displacement that the book is. There is the outer event of it and then there is the unseen stuff that goes on behind it. Symbolically, in terms of story making, I felt that I had dealt with the central people of my younger years and my growing up and my parents in that public format. The doing of that opened up the behind-the-scenes situation which then become the other component of the process of the book. The big part of the process is working through it all on the family level and all of the ways in which it has changed things within the family—good and bad—released old reproaches and cooked up some new ones and rearranged people’s, not their affections exactly, but everything is different. I had no expectation of that, and I had always heard the cliches. Anyone, who has ever written a memoir dealing with their family says, “Be careful. You have no idea what you are in for.” You hear that and then you write a memoir about your family. And then you are in the position now, to tell the next young person, “You don’t know what you are in for.”

RB: Not the same thing as saying, “Don’t do it.”

SB: Oh no. I would do it again, but I’d say it has been really rough on many levels. A lot of interesting discoveries (chuckles). Some are very obvious. Rule number one: Anyone who is ever mentioned in a book, they read that book completely differently! They read it outward from their name.

RB: (laughs) Is that a sign of the times or an inherent human characteristic?

SB: I think it goes back. File under, “What about me?”

RB: Ours seems to me to be a particularly self-centered era. “Enough about you” seems to be the by-word.

SB: Breathtakingly self-centered. So one hesitates to even be on record as even having written about oneself.

RB: Not so David Shields, however.

SB: He likes to get revved up by the oppositional paradox of it all, I guess.

RB: When I said I was "shocked" a bit ago, it was that you used such an inelegant and common phrase as "mid life crisis." As people go through the “passages” of their life, they review. Visual artists have mid-career retrospectives…Anybody who spends any time thinking about anything will ultimately think about themselves. Who goes through their life efficiently resolving everything?

SB: You move along a line, and behind you is the aperture of your growing past, and in front of you is the open aperture of your necessarily diminishing future and there is something in the transaction—you don’t know what’s at that end. You do know what’s at the other end. There is a calculation that goes on. There’s a moment when something in the balance of things is skewed and urgency invades. And that’s part of the mid life feeling for me was. And it’s a cliche. That’s the main thing about it. There is no way to talk about any of it…

RB: Originally?

SB: Well, somebody originally might have said something original (both laugh). I was very aware as these feelings came on me: the feelings of self-assessment, looking back at family and wondering…every single one was stamped with a big red CLICHE… stamp on it. That was part of the reason I was driven by the angst of all that, but I deliberately stopped this [story] when I was twenty seven years old. I don’t imagine I am going to later try to dramatize my ‘40s. I think that’s when my life stopped being an external event and it became an internal event in a significant way. Suddenly, once I began writing the deepest focus, the place of hoarded energy, I began writing steadily. Once I found the thing I could do, I went to that. From that point on I stopped having an external life in the same way that I had had it all the time I was looking. Suddenly everything that happened was in part grist for the thought mill. Interesting things happened, but they were no longer on the way to wondering what I was going to do with my life. That question for me had been answered and it changed the nature of all the following events. And really it’s quite a ledge, twenty seven and…just my life after that I can’t imagine what I would say.

RB: To some degree the things you talk about are not extraordinary. I can empathize with much of what you write about, as my life has some parallels with yours. And I don’t think either of us are unique, what struck me as poignant and present was what wasn’t said. Or what you couldn’t say. Your impulse to write the book and what in fact happens to you after you write this book, which is why we are talking about it.

SB: Exactly, and that’s a good occasion for it. Yeah, the hardest work in there was—with any craft or art the maker has the things they are proudest of, which are not necessarily on display. For me, it’s all about transitions. The excitement, going along steadily throughout the revolutionary moments and the private scale of revolutionary moments—when I suddenly found a way to shift from one paragraph and mind frame into another. Or to shift a tense. It’s hard to explain to anybody who doesn’t spend time worrying about tenses and jumps of time. That was where the action was. It gets no response or comment from the outer world except—this was gratifying—I got a little note from a writer I much admire, Richard Powers, and that was the thing he singled out. That was the true music to my ears. It worked for somebody else. Somebody, who thinks that way, saw the inner logic.

RB: Why would one read the memoir of someone who is not famous?

SB: Yeah.

RB: Except to figure out how they came about talking about their life.

SB: Not even necessarily out of a curiosity about that person. It’s to import some of that same feeling or energy into your own thinking process. That’s why I love to read Sebald. Not because I am so interested in the country side of England or some quirky little fact that he has picked up that he integrates. I love to borrow the particular energy of his style of introspection. It’s vampirism. While I am reading I am taking that into my life…

Anyone who has ever written a memoir dealing with their family says, “Be careful. You have no idea what you are in for.” You hear that and then you write a memoir about your family. And then you are in the position now, to tell the next young person, “You don’t know what you are in for.”

RB: I always like William Burroughs’ use of the word ‘vampiric’. When I tried to read Austerlitz it felt like one long sentence.

SB: It has that feeling. I would recommend Rings of Saturn. It get’s these sepia mood immersion things that are endlessly about nothing in a way. They are so about nothing that they are implicitly about everything.

RB: I wasn’t put off but rather found that I wasn’t in the mood for it. It was as Donn Van Vliet [Captain Beefheart] once said about singing in very low registers, “You have to almost go to sleep to sing that low.” Anyway, you remarked that you would go to the local Starbucks with your yellow legal pad to write. When we spoke five or six years ago you didn’t use a computer. Now you have an e-mail address and a computer…

SB: Version one of this [book], even two years ago, was written on a Selectric, in the old way. And then came the moment when I had to put it together and do the editing and so I got a lap top and typed everything in so that I could edit.

RB: I noticed that Alex Beam wrote about a certain pencil that has become a fetish of some writers.

SB: A number one Mohawk or something.

RB: And because it is not manufactured anymore, this pencil is now going for $20 a piece…the wonders of old media. It sounds like a computer is not an aid in the way you construct your writing.

SB: Ultimately, not. For me, and it is a function of the years, indirectly, of the years of laborious typing and being fundamentally lazy, not wanting to type too much when the typewriter was the only major tool, I conditioned myself not to write until I was very near to having ready copy. It was like holding back your orgasm. You just hold it back, hold it back. Kind of a tantric writing. So it’s pretty clean and I can type it and maybe at worst I have to type it one more time. I am finding my method changing now that I have this morphy technology. I can throw up a mediocre paragraph and come back to it ten times and I never would do that. It used to all exist up here. I can’t tell if I am just becoming better, different, you know…

RB: Computers have made it easier for me to write. I have no inhibitions about the quality of my first drafts. I found it liberating.

SB: It depends on your psychology. If you are a person who can’t bear something when it’s not right then it’s an incentive to get something lousy up because it’s irresistible that you’ll begin screwing around with it and you’ll keep doing it until the itch is gone.

RB: On the other hand, the itch is never gone.

SB: Yeah, I know.

RB: I find myself chanting, “Perfection is the enemy of the good.”

SB: Don’t you think you just move your resolve one notch down to the next piece? You read it over and say, “That’s not quite right.” And then redouble your private vow that this time I’m going to nail it.

RB: No, I don’t think like that. I forget the last one as soon as I am on to the next piece. Except if I see it again and then I want to do something about it.

SB: I also find that it is physically impossible for me to go back and read something. I could not care less.

RB: It’s interesting that you are inclined to believe your work is precious but then…

SB: That’s what makes the occasion of a public reading to me a strange one to me—because that is the only occasion when I actually revisit something I have done. I would never be at home and read myself. But suddenly there you are in front of however small or large a crowd. This is you in the past and you are representing it in the present and they are there to have it enacted in the present and there is a certain detachment or divorce you feel. Sometimes the distance is almost pleasurable—something almost intriguing. Like catching yourself from the back in a three-way mirror in a clothing store. One of the only times that you can catch this glimpse.

sven birkertsRB: I suppose rereading yourself can be as revealing as rereading anything…things change and you are partly aware of the choices you made and might make now.

SB: In the deepest sense one’s life and career have an organic necessity and imprint and it makes perfect sense. It’s interesting to me right now, that I don’t know what I am going to do next. But I certainly want to use myself more as a lever into whatever pieces I am writing. Right now I am haunted by little memories of sketchy things that Roland Barthes did on odd topics. And various little snapshoty writing that John Berger has done. There is something that is pulling me about those. I am almost deliberately not tracking them down yet; they haven’t built up enough of a charge. I’m afraid I’ll either get demoralized or steal or something. There is something in the impulse.

RB: Writers steal?

SB: They do. (both laugh) All the time.

RB: At the occasional cocktail party, what is your response when you are asked what you do?

SB: What I am secretly always wanting to say is that I’m a writer because I think that sounds more interesting. But I am aware that it sounds a little pretentious so I usually say, “I teach and I do a little bit of writing.” Then they want to know about the writing.

RB: Geez! What do you mean that you do a little bit of writing?

SB: (laughs) You know, it’s hard to say, “Hi, I’m a writer.”

RB: Why is that? I don’t think you are alone in having that feeling.

SB: Because there are so many…I don’t know…

RB: So many people that claim to be writers?

SB: Maybe that’s it. I don’t know what it is. But there is a definite reluctance, but it’s not a pure reluctance. It’s just a surface reluctance. Deep down you want the person to say, “Oh.” And this becomes a way of talking about all you really want to talk about.

RB: Telling someone you are a writer seems to get instantaneous respect. I wonder if there is pressure to live up to preconceived notions.

SB: (long pause) It’s almost as if in part what you fear is not…you fear something in their reaction that it’ll…

RB: They’ll ask all the wrong questions?

SB: Yeah and that they’ll confirm something that you fear all along which is either that you truly are marginal…

RB: (laughs)

SB: I don’t know. It won’t land in the right way.

RB: A doomed conversation. Starting off with promise and goes nowhere. Since I try to keep up with current affairs I noticed a bit of a stir about you and thirteen other writers [Elmaz Abinader, Julia Alvarez, Robert Olen Butler, Michael Chabon, Billy Collins, Robert Creeley, David Herbert Donald, Richard Ford, Linda Hogan, Mark Jacobs, Charles Johnson, Bharati Mukherjee, Naomi Shihab Nye, Robert Pinsky] participating in a US State Department pamphlet, Writers in America.

SB: That blind-sided me. I’m working on it, I’m thinking about it. I’m not comfortable either with the reproach or with my own response to it. When I was putting down my thoughts on being an American I was skeptical that they would accept what I wrote because it wasn’t very rah-rah. It was really questioning and many sections had a kind of generational anti-Americanism and they couldn’t possibly sign off on this. But nobody had any problems. When that happened, then I thought, “Huh, this is good. If they’ll print this then maybe they are really allowing me to represent my own perspective. So this must be good.” The main line of attack seems to be “Anything you do for the State Department under their aegis is propaganda in its very nature.” I’m trying to see if that’s true. It would seem to me to depend on the writing.

RB: I think the US is the only place where the word ‘propaganda’ has an absolutely negative connotation.

SB: This has two components. One is go forth and travel. They are now pitching me various options, which I’m somewhat reluctant about. I’m not keen about getting on a plane and going somewhere under those auspices. It’s one thing to have written down my thoughts. I don’t know if I can venture forth as a physical representative. There’s probably some contradiction there that I need to unpack.

RB: Has Richard Ford commented publicly?

SB: It seems to me he must have. I e-mailed Robert Pinsky to ask him his thoughts. We were thinking alike in that it seemed the basic pitch of the piece was to broadcast a clearly diverse set of very personal responses to one’s own Americanism. He said, “I liked Ford’s response.” But I didn’t ask him.

I conditioned myself not to write until I was very near to having ready copy. It was like holding back your orgasm. You just hold it back, hold it back. Kind of a tantric writing.

RB: It seems that if writers were unencumbered and wrote from their personal feelings, what’s the harm?

SB: That’s my thought.

RB: That’s what writers do. Someone wants what you want to write, you write it.

SB: And you say what you think. And if it fits the bill than…That’s the thing, I wonder if I am being too easy on myself?

RB: I don’t feel bad that the State Department gave me money for a photograph.

SB: Oh yeah. I am interested to see if this boils up into something a little bigger or not.

RB: Well that’s the thing. I don’t know that it’s much of an issue except that I saw it raised on Mobylives.com. I find myself reading a long article in the Observer about the new Bertelsmann headquarters and what are smokers like Gary Fisketjon and Sonny Mehta going to do? And on and on…

SB: I noticed because I was scanning your Donna Tartt interview/profile and somewhere in there is a thread where you are expressing bemusement at knowing things that you didn’t set out to know but now you know them. For me, my code for that is Larry Fortensky. I don’t want to know that he is Elizabeth Taylor’s fifth or sixth husband or whatever.

RB: (laughs)

SB: But somehow I know it and I feel as if my rights have been violated by knowing it. And I want that name out of my head. We are signed on for the benefits and the downside of the media bath culture. That has to be one of the downsides.

RB: Right. In the case of the Bertelsmann story, who gets to smoke is inconsequential and shouldn’t obscure the real meat of that story, which was the housing homogenization of these revered book publishers. It would seem to be our jobs to edit out the Larry Fortensky type info or who gets to smoke or who is dating whom—as opposed to the less obvious and more meaningful stories.

SB: It’s been in my thought for years now, exactly that. The editing function. And for that to work you have to see a purpose to editing and you have to want to edit. In order to want to edit you have to pledge yourself to some idea of something beyond the surrounding sludge. You edit towards something. You can’t simply edit a piece. You edit for Vogue or whatever. So it’s always editing toward. I’m jumping here but I drive a lot and I tune in to this morning middlebrow WROR and I listen to the chatter. I realize this is the central function and occupation of all those morning radio shows. It is just to deal with and process and try to make something out of the trivia that we live in the midst of. Everyone is calling in and asking stupid and pointless questions and giving away money, if you can identify…You listen to the banter and everyone is in the same boat. Everyone is absolutely clogged with this shit. You don’t know what to do with it. You have to do something with it.

RB: Well, the impulse, for me, started with baseball. As a kid I wanted to know everything about baseball and its players. Since then the things I am interested in, I don’t really have to make an effort to acquire this ambient information.

SB: Someone like Alex Beam is trolling his sources and channels. He writes his thing. Mobylives.com is trolling all day long. Moby picks up Beam and puts Beam in. The readers are getting a double hit and prioritize that information. Quickly secondary commentary is spun off and it becomes within a twenty-four-hour period a lower-case cultural event, of some sort. And everyone runs into and knows something about it. To what end, I don’t know? You are exactly right, you don’t have to set out to get this information. You just have to stand in the vicinities.

RB: I have been scanning the blogging world [the so-called blogosphere] and the frenetic insistence on hyper-textualizing is off-putting especially when it seems to come at the price of any effort at originality [which, granted, is a lot to expect]. That’s what I am going to ask you about next. Laura Miller wrote a piece in the NYT magazine explicating the notion of ‘meta’.

SB: Yeah, sounds familiar. But yeah, go on.

RB: Not being a [former] English major, I wasn’t aware of ‘meta’ as part of the lexicon of that discipline. I know it as a [former] philosophy major, ‘meta’ is a prefix that indicates moving up a level. In your book Readings you refer to Calvino’s novel, of which as least the first chapter seems to be meta fiction…

SB: Upon On A Winter’s Night…the thing that stands outside itself and contemplates itself and that contemplation is part of its content.

sven birkertsRB: So a lot space was devoted to what I thought was a commonplace notion…

SB: I have to read you this piece by Robert Polito (a review of Ray Davies and the Kinks) in it he quotes a passage from Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, which I was reading yesterday. It catches all of this:

“But our beauty lies,” explained Metzger, “in this extended capacity for convolution. A lawyer in a courtroom in front of a jury becomes an actor, right? Raymond Burr is an actor impersonating a lawyer who in front of jury becomes an actor. Me. I’m a former actor who became a lawyer. They have done the pilot film of a TV series, in fact, based loosely on my career, starring my friend Manny Depresso, a one time lawyer who quit his firm to become an actor who in this pilot plays me, an actor become a lawyer reverting periodically to being an actor…” That’s the feeling and Pynchon was there thirty years ago on this one.

RB: The current reference points were Austin Powers. And I’m thinking, “Gee, what about 8 1/2?” Am I missing some cultural phenomenon?

SB: You are missing the phenomenon of successive generations, which I keep in touch with by teaching. I realize, over and over, you walk into a class and it’s all brand new for them. And you say, “How many of you have heard of TS Eliot?” One hand, or whatever. And then you say, “O my God! We have to start the whole game over now. Here we go.” Whereas in your own head you build on a steady cumulative…

RB: I think that suggests a fracture somehow in generational…

SB: There are many, yeah…

RB: When I spoke to David Thomson he told of speaking to a twenty-seven-year-old woman who did not catch his allusions to Casablanca. She didn’t know what he was talking about. Darin Strauss reports that some of his NYU undergraduates don’t know who Kurt Cobain was. Is some pop cultural stuff so demographically localized or that there is so much of it?

SB: It feels like most of it is. The Kurt Cobain one shocks me. That’s a person you would have to try not to know and then you still might not succeed. That’s an interesting phenomenon if you get into a generation to which Casablanca means nothing. That stands for a whole system and tonality of reference and feeling that was navigational for a whole generation. You just did the codes, dropped the lines…and you wonder if the comparable thing is happening do on the level of the twenty-two year old now who knows nothing of Casablanca but has a comparable master text…

RB: What would that be, Richard Linklater’s Slackers? Reality Bites?

SB: Maybe. I couldn’t pick one if you paid me.

RB: I despair that culture has been fragmented into smaller and smaller groups. I wonder if the post-WW2 generation will be the last one to encompass Patsy Cline to John Coltrane, Celia Cruz to Allison Krause…I mean everybody. Is anyone still interested in everybody? Is this generation’s version of generational dissonance significantly different than ever before?

SB: There is the segmenting and boutiquing of cultural generational experience. We all grew up watching the same three channels and then once the ‘60s came along we all listened to the same generic few FM stations. We were all apprenticed to that tradition. Everybody listened to everything. And now the segmentation has already happened. And people don’t listen across. They followed one of those strands out and are living there based on their own identifications.

For me, it’s all about transitions. The excitement, going along steadily throughout the revolutionary moments and the private scale of revolutionary moments–when I suddenly found a way to shift from one paragraph and mind frame into another. Or to shift a tense.

RB: I find it paradoxical that against this segmentation you have a blockbuster mentality. That is, there are only a few books getting attention, a few movies soaking up ticket sales and so on…

SB: Generationally, if we are talking about the under-25 set, music is their token of self-identification. It’s their button much more than any other…I watch my 14-year-old daughter and how she listens and what she allows in and what she leaves out. She’s very clearly styling herself along with the music. She got on to Bob Dylan. She sees herself as anomalous in her 14-year-old culture. But that is a huge part of her self-presentation now. And she is looking around in the world for people like her; the guy who will quote back a Dylan line will be a strong contender. It’s funny.

RB: Last I saw you were…

SB: A book columnist for Esquire for about 18 months.

RB: Then I saw your work in the New York Observer.

SB: That was a little spurt. I did five or six things in fairly quick succession. These things tend to run in these weird seasons based on who is assigning and what their mood is. More recently I don’t have any particular one affiliation. Which I am happy with, in a way. I’m less reviewish than I have been in other eras. I do it to keep my hand in. I write occasionally for Book. I just did the new Donna Tartt and the Annie Proulx for them. It always has been that I mourn the loss of some venue or place and then from some unexpected quarter a new place arrives. New things just swim in and they become interesting for a while. My favorite of all—it lasted for a few years–was Wig Wag. I loved that little magazine. For me, it came right when I needed that freedom just to pick a book and do a thing on it. I think I did twelve. They folded and that was it.

RB: You teach at Mt. Holyoke.

SB: Yes and the low residency MFA at Bennington College. Ten days in January and ten days in June and then the rest is through the mails. And I am editing the journal AGNI at Boston University. So I have three jobs right now. It’s a little hectic.

RB: How often does AGNI come out?

SB: Only twice a year but we are about to put up a web site and change all that. I have very competent managing editor so I come in shuffle some papers and take manuscripts home.

RB: Read anything good lately?

SB: (pause) I want to say yes. I have just been reading the most oddball stuff. A lot of books that I’ve liked in their way for what they are…the one reading experience that gave me the old hit was early in the summer, first time in thirty five years, I picked up Moby Dick.

Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

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