September 2009

Jessica Ferri


An Interview with Sarah Manguso

One can label Sarah Manguso as a poet or a memoirist, but it's more accurate simply to call her a writer. For Manguso, the trick is to find the form that will accommodate the necessary material. Because of this approach, her books can't be pigeonholed by genre. While her memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay, deals with a disease that nearly killed her, she says her aim was to write about "paying attention."

Manguso is also the author of two exquisite books of poetry The Captain Lands in Paradise and Siste Viator. The subjects of these poems range from solar systems to love affairs. There is a sharp power behind each, an awareness of history and palpable sensuality. These poems revitalized my interest in poetry.

In 2007 McSweeney's published Manguso's Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, one of three volumes in "One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories in a Small Box," along with collections by Dave Eggers and Deb Olin Unerth. These very short stories deal with shame, cruelty and guilt. After reading this book I was desperate to read more of her fiction. Manguso's work is diligent and liberating -- it's thrilling that she'll next tackle the ultimate monolith: the novel.

Was there a point in your career, since your first book, The Captain Lands in Paradise, was published, that you thought "Now I'm a writer!" or was it a gradual realization?

I think my belief that I am a writer came on insidiously.

You teach -- is it something that you enjoy?

Yes. Teaching helps me think more clearly.

How do you balance writing and teaching?

I save up and write during the summer, when there are fewer demands on my time.

So you don't focus on a writing project during the year?

No, there's no time. Teaching two or three classes, doing an independent study, going to give talks, all the administrative work -- it's a job, and it's my income source, but when people ask in their American way what I do, what I am, I say I'm a writer.

When did you decide to be a writer?

At college I wanted to be a classicist until my last semester, when I took a poetry workshop, applied to graduate school, and was accepted. Then I went to Iowa, having barely heard of literary magazines. Everything was new. During my second year, everyone said you're expected to send your thesis out to the book contests, and idiot's luck, mine was taken the next year, and for a little while I thought: "Yes, I'm a poet." But that whole time, before and during graduate school, I was publishing fairly uninformed criticism in a now defunct book review, and miscellaneous prose on the McSweeney's website -- I was all over the road. I didn't really feel like a poet. Or a writer, come to think of it. In my five-year college anniversary report, I declared myself a Freelance Copy Editor.

Whether the MFA is useful or not continues to be an ongoing debate. But graduate school was important for you -- do you think it's a good path for aspiring writers to take?

In graduate school I learned that what's on the page must be deliberate if it is to elicit a desired response.

That's an important skill.

Sure. But if you have the opportunity to drop out for a while and just read, that's another way to learn, "equal in dignity," as they say. I don't find it useful to attempt judging the categorical value of creative writing programs. It's more useful to talk about the skills we want to teach or learn, and the means by which we might teach them or learn them.

You're about to start teaching at Columbia.

Yes, I'm looking forward to teaching at Columbia. I used to teach at Pratt, and for years I insisted on teaching the freshman studio. I've taught in MFA programs, too, but my freshman BFA students were fantastic. They would try anything and ask anything. They weren't worried about seeming unprofessional.

As a nonpoet I've always wondered when you write so many poems, does the poem vanish after you've written it, or if someone quoted you a line from it years later would you remember it?

That's a fascinatingly strange question. It seems to be about vanity, but it's about memory. You've reminded me of something that surprised me about publishing the memoir, which I wrote entirely from memory. Now that the book exists as an entity outside my memory, I can't remember the material as clearly as I used to.

I wrote down this line that I love: "Not once during those years did I ever mind remembering the doctor shot me full of K."

"The Irishman who shot me full of K." I still remember that guy, but the book has probably made him more camera-ready in my imagination than he was in life.

In order to write a book about your experience, do you have to wait and make sure there's been enough distance between the experience and writing it down?

I think it helps.

Do you think then that suffering or pain creates better art?

No, I don't believe that.

Obviously inspiration is never pure joy or pure pain, but when I think of my favorite writers they were always suffering.

Who isn't? Everyone suffers. One of my teachers said in response to some fussy little poem, "You know, stupid people are feeling things just as strongly as you are."

Aren't stupid people happier though?

Well, I don't know. How stupid? [laughs] And happier than what? I don't know what anyone else is feeling.

Do you think your suffering is what created your memoir?

No, I think that's an oversimplification. I think the suffering depicted in the book is incidental to what the book actually discovers.

So you would have written a book about paying attention regardless?

Honey, I just wrote down what I remembered.

What's your writing process?

In a magazine feature I read years ago, a mathematician was quoted as saying "I am a machine that turns coffee into equations." And at the time I thought, "Oh, I'm a machine that turns coffee into poems." I live a regimented life. I work in a little box, a little room at the back of the apartment, and eat lunch at the same time every day. I'm a simple machine.

I noticed that some of the stories in Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape seemed to be about an individual childhood spent at school, at camp, in the Brownie troop.

That Brownie story describes a moment of such pathos in the character's life. The desperation that public speaking causes her, to come up with anything at all to say, and she just mortifies herself.

I always make the assumption that books are always autobiographical.

As one does.

This book struck me as a collection of the first few times you recognized you're capable of cruelty, and you look back as an adult and realize it.

Yes. Children are interesting when they're guileless. Animals, too.

Everyone has a few of those childhood recollections of extreme horror.

Shame. It makes us interesting.

It's a human feeling. I enjoy writing that emphasizes human qualities.

I do, too. And I enjoy writing as a human. And not just any human -- this human [points to self].

You've spoken about your resentment about being labeled a "woman writer." In an interview with the poet Rachel Zucker, the two of you discuss your different lives --she's a mother, and you are not.

Rachel's a home-birth activist. She sent around a link to a video of the home birth of her third son. It showed me, in very simple, visual terms, the basic subjective divide between mothers and nonmothers.

It amazes me that women are able to accomplish what they do in their careers on top of having children. I find that I resent women who are stay-at-home mothers.

Right, because they're wasting the freedom, they're wasting the opportunity. Women our age are really fed that line.

For me to be angry at them then I'm also breaking the rule because I'm not allowing them that choice, to do what they want.

Sure. Women judge each other, and it's counterproductive.

There was a piece by Judith Warner in the Times today about the media coverage of Hillary Clinton that focuses on her weight and her hair. And Warner said it's not only the wartime rights (equal pay for equal work, for example) that we should work toward; we should also work toward changing the culture so that we perceive women as human. We're programmed to perceive a woman as her body first, and only then as a human. What's the old line? "We'll consider women equal to men as soon as women stop giving birth to men." Something like that. Katherine Koch [the daughter of the poet Kenneth Koch] told me that.

Are there any subjects that you feel are taboo for female writers?

No. Really?

Well, maybe it's just my experience, but when I met Mary Gaitskill right after she wrote Veronica, I told her "I love this book because you're writing about subjects that are still taboo for women writers." And she said, "Really, like what?" And I said, "Well, sex, AIDS, masturbation..."

Weren't we supposed to have broken all of those taboos during the first and second waves?

Maybe. But in your memoir, when you discussed feeling as if you had to catch up, I found it beautiful when you talked about sexual desire.

Thank you. I didn't feel it was taboo. Maybe what you mean is that there are sanctioned ways for women to write about sex.


Maybe it's striking when a woman writes about sex in an unconventional way, but it's also striking when a man does it.

Why is a desire for sex still a negative attribute for women?

I think the pendulum may have swung back since I was twenty-four, because when I was that age, a desire for sex seemed obligatory.

No, what I'm trying to say is the way you write about sex in your memoir and in your poetry I find refreshing.

Well, thank you. I just try to be accurate.

Speaking of cliché, how do you feel about memoir in general? Memoir in general?

A memoir is a personal narrative, but I don't think that's what you mean. You're talking about the marketing category, right? I don't think those matter outside the realm of buying and selling.

At the same time, we also need labels.

Do we? I'm told that in Germany, for instance, there are pretty much only two marketing categories: Literature and Other, which means train schedules and so on.

We need to be able to talk to each other about books. When I tell people about your memoir I usually say it's like poetry.

Well, that will make it appealing to some, but not to others. I dream of a time when books can just be books, where you can say, oh it's the new book by so-and-so, even if so-and-so writes in multiple marketing categories, even [gasp] poetry, and people will read it. If so-and-so wrote a good book, I'll read so-and-so's next one.

There's a lot of poetry that I enjoy, but it's old. I have trouble reading contemporary poetry.

There's more in print, more to wade through. But plenty of the truly awful stuff eventually falls out of print. Plenty of the good stuff, too, of course.

I think people are also intimidated because they feel as if they don't know enough about poetry to read it.

Right, "the highest literary art," and all that.

Maybe then the problem is that to find good poetry, you have to wade. It's rare that I see poetry even reviewed.

There are magazines, but you have to look for them. They aren't at the Rite Aid. Because it's easy to find, the poetry in The New Yorker is the only poetry most conventionally literate people read.

I've been really upset with The New Yorker. It's rare that I read The New Yorker and feel that it's been time well spent.

I've heard that before, and I have to take the bait: I think The New Yorker has created a reputation for itself -- "the best magazine in the world, perhaps the best magazine that ever was" -- that it cannot live up to. People actually read the thing expecting every issue to be the best thing they've ever read. That's a good example of a marketing campaign being too successful for its own good.

So maybe my expectations are too high. But I do feel when I read single pieces from twenty or thirty years ago, there were better writers than there are now.

The house style has changed a lot.

There should be a national magazine.

A state magazine?

No, a magazine that has the circulation of The New Yorker that features readable new fiction by new writers.

I don't think the nation is exactly clamoring for readable new fiction by new writers. And magazines run on money, like everything else. But take heart -- I think there's more than enough to read. That said, the "new writers" designation makes me uneasy. If I see another fireworks display celebrating a debut novel, I'll -- I don't know. Be disappointed. Or more disappointed than usual. A new writer is easy to sell because he or she is an unknown quantity. It's like a new pill. "Maybe this one will make everything good," we think.

What's next with you?

I'm working on what seems to be a novel. I have to figure out how to do it. It's less that I'm trying to produce a novel than that I'm trying to produce a form within which I can write about what I want to write about.

That's a great way to look at it.

It took me a while to get there. But it's called The Guardians, and it's about surveillance and paranoia.