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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