May 2008

Blake Butler


An Interview with J'Lyn Chapman

J'Lyn Chapman is most recently the author of BEAR STORIES, a prose poem cycle released in 2008 by Calamari Press. J'Lyn has also published work in Conjunctions, Fence and Sleepingfish, among others. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Denver, where she is finishing up a dissertation concerning the work of W.G. Sebald. This interview was conducted over e-mail during a couple days in March 2008.

Bear Stories. A series of stories surrounding and of an animal who can't communicate via language: and so the language in these stories seem to want to gather, to souse things out. There's something of a cataloging going on here, it seems like. A dictionary made out of things undefined. I like how the pages in the book are not numbered. And then the first several pages of the book seem to discuss a litany of things found and brought together. Then the line: "Animal libraries were dedicated in stones arranged in the shape of words to the animals who lost speech for the sounds of speech." How did you come across the want to make Bear Stories? How were they assembled?

I wanted to write a serial poem. I hadn't written more than two or three poems in about six years, and my life was starting to change and expand, and it seemed like writing creatively was the thing I needed to do. Serial poems or "projects," a word I find annoying because I use it all the time, are much easier for me to write than discreet pieces of work -- prose or poetry. I was walking around with this desire to write and sort of waiting for something to write about that was substantial and not just about life changes, blah, blah, blah. And then one night an ex-boyfriend and I were literally telling bear stories. His best friend lives in Alaska, and bears apparently just roam the streets there. Most of the stories we told each other emphasized the absurdity of humankind's encounters with wildlife. In general, I was impressed by the desire people have to tell each other stories about wildlife as well as the desire to tell the strangest story. I’m not actually that interested in wildlife or having encounters with wild animals. I am interested in how language constructs nature and how the stories we tell about nature -- whether this be in the vein of “frontier gothic” or the ol’ chestnut -- create patterns of meaning in which we position ourselves as humans in relationship to the wild. I’m not sure exactly what this position is. I think it shifts quite a bit according to our purposes in telling stories -- the first poem of Bear Stories, let’s say, in comparison with one of the later poems is a good example of what I mean about shifting positions.

Also, I was studying for my doctoral comprehensive exams at the same time that I began writing Bear Stories, so I was reading about the sapphic lyric. I was so taken with the absoluteness of desire as expressed in these lyrics. When you read Sappho, desire seems like the most holy of all our emotions simply because it is uncontaminated, or, on the other hand, because it consumes so totally. I read a little bit about actual bears as well, and the relationship between the bear’s instincts and human desire is uncanny; I think such things can be said without relying on anthropomorphism or on the rather cliché appeal to animal nature in humans, evolution, etc. I suppose I should add that I was also reading a lot of Wallace Stevens, which seems to have very little connection with the poems now, but at the time I was interested in how Stevens defines and delineates “here” and “there.” I believe I stole a line from him.

This all happened a very long time ago. It took me, I think, two years to write 30 poems. To finally answer your question regarding assemblage: the poems are basically arranged in the chronological order in which they were written. That decision makes sense in so far as I wanted the language to start to come undone a bit by the end -- not necessarily decompose so much as create a wild logic (not a “wild” logic). I think diction and syntax did transform as I transformed, and I think the poems reflect this when they are in a kind of chronological order. Derek White, the wonderful man who published the book, was also helpful when it came to assembly. I kind of quit at the end, and he did a lot of the final thinking in regard to presentation.

How much of the process of arranging language is about the discovery that occurs in transit? I guess by that I mean how much do you plan and how much do your sentences surprise you?

The writing situation looks something like this: I have a fairly determined idea of what I want to do… in some cases, you could argue that it is an over-determined idea; then I start to write; then something happens that is either beautiful and strange or trite and boring. If what happens is trite and boring, then I revise, and if that doesn’t work, I just move on, feeling only slightly dejected and usually frustrated. If something seems good to me, I am surprised. If it seems bad to me, I am surprised. I think I might consider myself a “new” writer in some ways and since I’ve sort of picked creative writing back up, I have had to write a dissertation and teach lots of composition and waitress and go through personal-life revisions, so I don’t sit down and write in the disciplined way that I would like to. Writing is like my measly meditation practice -- I am usually flabbergasted that I pulled it off, but the surprise tends to break the concentration. This is not to say that these acts are unsatisfying but that they are contingent.

I realize that you are probably asking a question that has much more to do with the fact that language takes on its own life -- I think that’s true, but I’ve not really allowed myself the time yet to witness the surprise in my own work.

There's a weird kind of duality lurking in here: a kind of creationism melded with apocalypse. The language here births things and then kills them. It ties one weird strip of ruined land to one regrowing: as if histories are created in the process of destruction. I'm curious as to how the pull of these two opposite ideas come together on the same page.

This is a clever and well-articulated observation that you’ve made here. I want to talk about this duality as a creation and destruction (I am reluctant to just write “creative destruction” because it has so many modernist underpinnings that I do not necessarily think are present, at least not consciously) and to do so from both a historical/social perspective and a lyrical/private perspective. My work with W.G. Sebald and critical theory -- Adorno and Benjamin in particular -- has probably influenced this duality in ways that I have not realized until now. The assumption that history is created in the process of destruction is inherent to critical theory especially that which tries to attend to the catastrophe of the early twentieth century and the role positivist thinking had in that catastrophe. Of course, there are nuances to these writers’ ideas. From a theoretical point of view, I tend to reject the idea of a progressive teleology. There is too much destruction and suffering by way of the very apparatuses we have created to end destruction and suffering. In turn, I tend to subscribe to Benjamin’s figure of the Angel of History: destruction is not so much a “chain of events” organized teleologically yet a “single catastrophe.” There is no end in sight, so to speak, but rather a mass of destruction. I’m not sure how apocalypse would look any different than two world wars, genocide, holocaust, melting ice caps, extinction, and just a general disrespect for life.

But I am not so pessimistic when it comes to the lyrical/private experience of these things. I think the lyrical operates in both an abstract way -- it is the private that abuts the social -- and a material way. Abstractly speaking, the lyrical is an “other” space that allows for contingency and also for a truly positive progression of the self. This progression must recognize contingency, however, and in that way it rages against the social that is always pressing down on it. This relationship keeps the lyrical aloft. The lyrical also uses the material of the world -- representational modes -- to create. The lyrical is still a pose, however. I want to make that clear. It’s a discourse, but it is one that is worth entering into.

I was particularly interested in your application of apocalypse to animals, because that's not something I've seen a lot of, which seems funny because the process of destruction is so natural. But it's not just animals here, the function of the human in the destruction is just as key, and in fact the narrative voice seems to take delight in it. Can you talk about that? The fold?

I didn’t think specifically about apocalypse when I was writing Bear Stories , but two people have now told me that that is the sense they get from the poems. I think I wanted to suggest this atmosphere actually, but I saw it as much more lyrical in that it was the spirit of the environment, something foreboding, a space you can’t enter into without being ontologically changed. Perhaps it’s post-apocalyptic in that something happened in the “here” prior to the speaker’s appearing on the scene that the she cannot put her finger on.

I’ve learned from reading Sebald so closely that destruction is natural, if by “natural” we mean a kind of consequential logic to certain causes and our ability to receive these consequences. In After Nature, Sebald’s book of poetry, he writes about “the absence of balance in nature / which blindly makes one experiment after another / and like a senseless botcher / undoes the thing it has only just achieved.” If there was no one living in the gulf of Mexico, for instance, the hurricane (nameless) wouldn’t have much of an affect on us. But we were there, and we are part of nature. We bear witness to it in so many ways -- in our self-preservation, our representations, “the extreme response of our bodies.” And, again, to allude to Sebald, how do we really know what the animal feels? Animals bear witness too.

I remember once when I was a child swimming in a creek in the forest. A rainstorm came suddenly. There was a lot of lightning and trees, which I believe are not a good mix. My mother whisked my brother and me up, and as we were running, we nearly stepped on this cow carcass; we hadn’t noticed it before. It had been hollowed out by animals, but its hide and bones were almost perfectly intact. That was apocalyptic to me.

Where do you write? Is it always the same place? How much do your surroundings affect what you are writing? Are you often interrupted?

My critical writing nowadays tends to take place at home only, sometimes in the library. The more ascetic and isolated the environment the better. I have to cultivate an atmosphere of torture in order to finish my dissertation. Happiness breeds happiness but not dissertations.

On the other hand, I could write creatively anywhere. Maybe this will change when I can commit myself to it. Maybe I will start to dislike it and then have to torture myself in order to do it. I hope not.

My surroundings don’t really dictate what I write, at least not immediately. The setting of BS was very much influenced by my memory of the area in Colorado where I lived until I was in junior high, but this was very much a constructed idea of setting. I went to the Wave Books poetry farm last summer thinking that a bucolic and rustic atmosphere would help me to write. I had a lot of fun and did a lot of reading, but it didn’t help me write at all. I wrote one poem -- the mulberry poem. I like that poem a lot, but I got lucky with that one. Out of all the poems, that one is the most apropos to surrounding in that I was literally sitting under a mulberry tree, eating mulberries when I wrote it. I also had mulberry stains all over my white shirt when I got up. Mulberry trees aren’t for sitting under. It’s funny how that poem uses the word mulberry in various grammars, but it is, of all the poems, the most mimetic.

I think what I learned on the farm is that I need the stimulus and interruptions of my everyday, banal life. The farm experience was so estranging to the person I am that it was quite difficult to adjust to it in such a way that I could be influenced by it in a writerly fashion. For that reason, I’m not sure that I would do well at one of these writer’s retreats/communes. I wish that were not the case because they afford such space and respite. But for me at least, space in which to write is a myth.

How closely does what you are currently reading affect what comes out in your work? I often try to keep extensive notes as to what I am reading while I am writing what? Do you see any confluence here?

I absolutely see a confluence. In fact, I try to research what I write, which I consider as an act that goes beyond just reading. I find just the act of research to be quite fruitful. In BS, I didn’t feel the need to be faithful to any of the research I did on bears. The life of a bear is poetry. The partnership between two people is poetry. I think mining for that poetry is the fun part.

I was preparing for an interview that I did with the writer Lisa Robertson when I was in the last throes of BS, so I tried to read everything that she ever wrote. Her poetics certainly made its way into the work. I feel almost as if BS is an homage to her work. I’m too embarrassed to tell her this or even to have her read the book because she’s just so, so good at what she does, and I’m actually afraid that BS would offend her. Nonetheless, she turned out to be the greatest influence apart from Sappho, who will not the read the work ever for obvious reasons.

My other project -- The Ministry of Sorrow to Birds -- is research heavy and also intertextual. I take notes, I steal sentence structure, I include big chunks of text. It is meant to follow the structure of the archive and then to break the structure, but what this allows is an “entry” form in which “notes” can be added. It’s akin to Benjamin’s Arcades Project and W.G. Sebald’s work, as well as some of the early modern writers, namely Sir Thomas Browne. I’m determined to read everything that I can find about and by Browne. 

You are currently working on a dissertation about the effect of image placed alongside text, particularly in the work of W.G. Sebald, yes? Then there's Derek White's application of bear imagery and paper destruction, and the creation of the tiny parchment-esque pamphlet for Bear Stories, as well as Derek's YouTube video of the creation of the book. How did these images affect your feelings towards and/or view of the collection as a whole? How does Bear Stories as an object feel in your mind now as opposed to the time you spent creating?

Good questions. I initially thought of BS as a larger book, and so I started thinking of covers very soon in the process, before I met Derek. This was helpful to me because it constructed the book as an object in my mind and the idea of a cover literally provided a constitutive visual image. For example, somewhere in the book there’s a description of a painting that hangs over “the old stone fireplace,” right? In the description of the painting, dogs are climbing on the bear, trying to attack it. I swear I’ve seen that painting, a great big overwrought, glossy, oil painting done in perfect verisimilitude and with much drama, but I have no idea if it exists. I scoured the Internet and found some interesting engravings, but nothing like this image in my head. So I recreated it in the book. I love the idea of that painting -- to me it embodies the artificiality of nature in the book. In my opinion, there’s nothing more artificial than mimetic oil paintings. I also like taxidermy for that reason. I love the idea of a natural history exhibit too. I would like to hold a party in a natural history museum among the dusty animals.

In an old New American Paintings, I saw some images from the painter Tiffany Calvert. I love these although there are no bears. They are realistically depicted animals -- mostly elk -- in parlors, against a trompe l’oeil wall. These paintings seem to embody what I was trying to do in BS. I really like the idea of trompe l’oeil wall paintings. I made a few visual images myself of bears. One is a very unskilled and time-consuming beadworking of a bear. I’m still not done with it, but it was very helpful to me. Stitching beads can be very consoling.

Derek’s work came after the fact and was quite different visually than what I had previously imagined, and yet it retains the artificiality and the suggestion of nature. His images are dirty and I like that mucked-over-ness. Like I said before, I wanted a full-length book, but the work seemed to have a defined lifespan. So, the book is small and pocket-sized, and I really like it. I love the images of the bears -- some of which I do think came from a display from a natural history museum.

You mentioned you are currently working on a new project, also animal-related: "Catalog and brief Comments on the Archive Written and Compiled by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds." From bears to birds, and then you also mentioned that there are exact lines that appear in both works. How much do you think one sect of an author's work can disassociate from another? What do you gain out of embracing the overlap, and what makes one line become in the DNA in both? I remember as a chubby teen reading Stephen King and sometime hearing him say something about how all his books were connected and I remember being kind of intrigued by that idea, and it's never really gotten out of my head.

I suppose my annoyance with the word “project” isn’t necessarily justified, simply because it’s so appropriate. I love the idea that all the writing one does is a small part of a larger project or that individual projects can serve as palinodes to prior projects. I believe Lisa Robertson has described her work similarly. It’s a kind of engagement with the world really in which you’re not necessarily trying to get something right but trying to get something using, as Sir Thomas Browne would say, “the five ports of knowledge.” Right now I’m interested in animals. In the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds, I’m interested in the bird as a kind synecdoche with human suffering and our strange relationship with death, but I also feel sincerely concerned with the death of small animals. There are so many dead things that become the detritus that we walk away from or smash under our car tires. There’s something here to do with abjection in the way that Julia Kristeva writes about abjection -- that we push away that which is essential to our identities. Further, in The Dialectics of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer write about how we are estranged from our own inevitable annihilation.

The DNA then between the two projects is violence, the relationship between animals and humans, our attention to our own deaths and to our destructive natures. It sounds so melancholy, but both projects are also about beauty, I think, and the metaphysical nature of creation and representation. I’m beginning to embrace the old-fashioned idea of metaphysics. Sebald has commented about the need to attend to the metaphysical nature of art, and I’m beginning to agree with him. I think it’s important that he said this in one of his last interviews before his death given the melancholic nature of his work.

I think my insistence on certain lines -- the ones that overlap -- is a little bit of hubris. I like them so much, and I think I intend them to become what’s true about the things I’m representing. It feels like an act of freedom to make something useful and beautiful and then to keep applying that thing over and over again because it’s just right. Even if these lines suffer a kind of Ozymandias fall, I am okay with that. It draws out artificiality (which, evidently I am quite taken with). It’s the desire to create permanence that is so interesting, not so much that things or ideas are permanent.

What texts or other stimuli most influenced Bear Stories and/or your other works and/or what works do you feel connected to?

Like I said earlier, Sappho and the tradition of the Sapphic lyric influenced Bear Stories. I also read a little bit of pseudo-scientific texts on bears. Again, I am taken with Lisa Robertson’s work. “Experimental” literature makes so much sense to me because of her. I should add that I have had sublime moments reading Robertson, moments in which I felt I was somehow responsible or implicated in the work.

I also read Giorgio Agamben’s book The Open when I was writing BS; it’s a slim volume of difficult theory. Actually, Agamben does discuss the apocalypse and the end of human history in that book. He begins by looking at a 13th century Hebrew Bible. In one of the illustrations, the messianic banquet on the last day is represented. The righteous, in this illustration, have animal heads. Incredible. I’m not sure exactly what’s going on in that book, but I culled from his discussion of the caesura and captivation. I encourage you to read it. I read Joy Williams’s The Changeling as well. It’s truly apocalyptic.

Sebald and Browne are huge influences. I almost never want to read Sebald again after this dissertation, but it is now woven into me. Bin Ramke is an influence, partly because he is such a dear friend but also because the formal qualities of his poetry are amazing, something I will never achieve. I am inspired by the way he melds outside texts into his work -- not just his work but his creative process.

Blake Butler is the editor of Lamination Colony. He lives in Atlanta and blogs at