Here's another interview, "Eight Questions and a Duck," by Rafe Posey for COBALT.
Saturday, July 21, 2012
This interview by Richard Schemmerer just went live on Nonlinear today.
Richard Schemmerer: Tell us little about your upbringing and how that informed your world view today.
Paul Lisicky: I grew up in a new suburb across the river from Philadelphia. For a long time I said that the restlessness of that place might have had something do to with my need for change and stimulation, but I’m not sure I buy that anymore. I’m at this point in my life where I’m ready to tear up everything I thought I knew.
RS: What was your parents’ dream profession for you and when did you realize you could be a professional writer?
PL: Well, outwardly they wanted me to go to law school, but I secretly think they wanted my brothers and me to be famous, as silly as that might sound. My brothers and I are all in the arts. My middle brother is an architect, my youngest brother is a symphony musician. I was going to be a musician too. I played piano, trained to be a composer through my teenage years until I took a fiction workshop in college, then that started to become my thing. I was never going to do anything I didn’t love to do--I was always stubborn that way.
RS: Unbuilt Projects is your latest book. What subject matter are you addressing?
PL: Unbuilt Projects was written during the last years of my mom’s final illness. Dementia changed everything I knew about narrative, coherence of character, time, all of it. Not all the pieces in the book are directly about my mother, but they’re all shaped by questions of how we know ourselves, how we tell stories.
RS: Are you telling yourself a different story about your past?
PL: I think of this book as being in dialogue with Famous Builder, which probably has a friendlier surface. What happens when the family story is under siege, and the center character is imploding?
RS: In which famous children story would you have liked to show up?
PL: In Peter Pan, because there’s a big Newfoundland in it.
RS: Which people are welcome in your house of joy?
PL: People who like animals, people who like trees, people who like music, sex, books. People who laugh, people who like to make others laugh. People who are curious and awake. I don’t know, anyone, really, unless they’re too grumpy or mean. Even them, I guess. You can’t leave people out.
RS: I hear many gay men talk about their childhoods and they say that their parents had wanted a girl. Do you see some kind of correlation to that?
PL: You must be referring to that line from “The Boy and His Mother are Stuck!” I don’t know, honestly. My mom already had two boys by the the time the third was on the way, and she probably thought, enough already. Some estrogen, please. It must have been lonesome to live in a house of boys.
RS: Where does your inspiration come from and how much in your writing process is technique or automated?
PL: It used to start in image for me, and now it starts in sound--the sound suggested by a particular set of words. There’s usually an image imbedded in those words but sound comes first. Inspiration. Well, that’s just the inner life, and what’s bearing down on me at any moment. What problem do I need to pay attention to right now?
RS: Does bliss have also horror attached to it?
PL: I guess it might because it’s unsustainable for one thing, and even when we’re in it, we can’t help but anticipate it ending. Maybe it’s hard on the body too. The body needs to be relaxed, or even bored, in order to know what bliss is when it comes.
RS: Is wholeness an illusion or delusion?
PL: I’d go with illusion, because I do believe patterns reveal themselves over the course of a life. Are patterns indications of wholeness, a larger scheme? I have no idea. I just think that “delusion” is too strong a word. It’s too wrapped up in certainty, and I’m suspicious of any kind of world view that professes to know too much.
RS: What kind of role does your writing serve for you?
PL: I think I’d go crazy if I couldn’t make things. I’d probably need to be medicated, or some kind of addict. I feel lucky that I was able to find this vehicle for pent-up feeling. I also like the fact that writing is intended for someone else. It wants to be an act of communication, if not literally then figuratively. The best writing has always made me feel a lot less isolated, and I’d like to be able to give at least a little of that back.
RS: What is your perspective on mother son relationships and the expectations we have on each other?
PL: There’s a whole book there. I’m not sure I can begin to talk to that adequately. My guess is that mothers probably have much more influence on their sons than fathers do. The mother’s face: isn’t that the first thing a baby looks to? She’s the first source of acknowledgement and approval--and the opposite too. I think we probably look toward other versions of the mother’s face for the rest of our lives.
RS: Is there a distinction between a poet and a writer and how much liberty do you prefer when writing?
PL: I’m pretty much genre-agnostic. I want my work to be part fiction, part poetry, part lyric essay. Music, too.
RS: “THE PHYSICS OF THE KNOWN WORLD” seems to question what can be known and also the merit of asking questions.
PL: I’ve never thought of it that way, but that’s a cool reading of it. I thought I was writing about desire, about the object being indifferent to the subject. The necessary equation, which is sort of another take on that old line: “I wouldn’t want to be a part of any club that would have me as a member.” But of course one always wants one’s work to be larger than one’s intentions for it.
RS: What is good sex and would you want to have sex before the lights of the world go out?
PL: There’s intimate sex between people who know and love each other. There’s basic, primal sex between people who don’t know each other at all. I think both are good. Both have their joys. And of course to the last part of the question.
RS: What kind of God makes you hungry for some spirituality?
PL: A God of mystery. A God of silence, wordlessness. A God of humility.
RS: What would you like to be taught?
PL: The loveliness of things I’ve dismissed or overlooked.
RS: What do you think about public reading?
PL: It’s one more way to know the work. It has more in common with music than the experience of private reading. I like writing that works on both levels, spoken and on the page.
RS: Are you striving for an emotional bond with the reader?
PL: I’d be dishonest if I said no, but I wouldn’t want to overdetermine that emotional bond. We’ve all read work that tries too hard to move the reader, and it often comes off as gooey or manipulative. A reader is moved when she’s shocked awake, and that can only happen when the writer is paying attention to sound, description, structure.
RS: How much does the thematic in a book influence your state of mind and are you still carrying unbuilt projects within you?
PL: On the literal level, I’m not exactly conscious of carrying that work around with me, but I think it rewired how I’ve come to think about so many things, and I think it’s influenced the writing that’s come afterward. There are so many unbuilt projects in me, I couldn’t even begin to count them all. So many books put aside, songs put aside...
RS: How do you want this book to be understood?
PL: I would like the reader to bring his own meaning to it. Once we write something, it sort of escapes us. You want it to escape you and take on a life of its own. I would like it to mean many different things to many different people.
RS: How autobiographical is this new work?
PL: It’s all emotionally autobiographical. Some pieces are literally autobiographical; some pieces are invented. But they do reflect two years of my inner life--or at least try to.
RS: What would you ask your mother now?
PL: What does death feel like? Is there anything there?
RS: “WHAT MIGHT LIFE BE LIKE IN THE 21st CENTURY.”
How has it turned out to be?
PL: It certainly feels a lot better to here, now, alive, than I would have expected a few years back. At the same, I think we’re all in a really hard time. A lot of the myths that held the culture together have more or less crumbled. Maybe that’s a good thing. But there’s so much easy, casual cynicism in the atmosphere. There’s a lot of passivity, a lot of blaming, a lot of brutality, and all of that makes me nervous.
RS: What does the word identity mean to you and how much have your parents formed you?
PL: One should be able to identify with many different cultures and ways of seeing. It would be terrible if one were only given one set of values to make meaning of a life. My parents were oddballs. They encouraged my brothers and me to make our way--not explicitly, but through example. We never had to follow some externally determined plan, and I’m grateful for that. We were geeks. It’s not easy being a geek, but I think it’s probably a hell of a lot worse in the long run to be the high school quarterback or the class valedictorian. It’s hard for geeks to see that when they’re overlooked or bullied.
RS: What fears have you overcome and which ones do you still have to tackle?
PL: I have a lot less stage fright. I used to come into a classroom, or walk up to a podium thinking I had to prove myself, and I’m much more relaxed about all that now. Maybe not relaxed, but I know how to have some fun up there. I wish I were a better communicator in my private, non-writing life. My wish to be liked, my wish to be kind, my fear of hurting other people’s feelings has probably come at some cost to me and maybe even to the people I care about. I could get better at all that.
RS: In which way do you fit into part of the American social structure and where do you collide with it?
PL: Well, I teach at a state university. I get a paycheck, and all the perks that come with it. Otherwise I’m usually at odds with the social structure. Think about how we treat the poor, think about how we treat the elderly. Otherwise decent people get away with saying the cruelest things about older people, such casual cruelty everywhere. I think ageism might be one of our culture’s greatest crimes against itself.
RS: In HINCHCLIFFE you seem to play with the idea of shame and how it is taught and mimicked. Have you carried any of this with you into the future?
PL: I think shame is so vast and deep that it’s often impossible to see it, to know how it’s shaping your everyday decisions. I think you can say, I don’t feel shame and totally believe it, and not have any clue about its workings in you. That piece is so much interested in the way that fear of shame encourages us to lie, to say the acceptable nice thing. Soon no one knows what’s real, and everyday life loses all its mystery and wonder.
RS: Childhood, how can we improve on it?
PL: Read D.W. Winnicott, the psychoanalyst. I started reading him after reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? He’s a major part of Alison’s book, and I don’t know of anyone who’s so clear and sane and kind on the subject of childhood development. He’s a beautiful writer too.
RS: What keeps you young in a sense of keeping interested in life?
PL: I think you have to be willing to keep revising what you know. I don’t know how not to be interested, really. The world changes. It changes you. The real work would come in trying to hold all that change at bay. That would strike me as doomed.
RS: Where do you draw power from and what does youth mean to you now?
PL: I feel youthful as an adult, but the irony is that I was miserable as a younger person. I was so ready to be an adult as a kid, I can’t even tell you. I couldn’t stand being subject to others’ whims: so little autonomy, no power. I was bored out of my mind. I was ready for the real life to start.
RS: What role does the truth play in your life and how is it informed?
PL: I don’t believe in truth per se, but I believe in truths. And in that there has to be room for flexibility, compromise, negotiation.
RS: THE END OF ENGLAND seems to be dealing with social political criticism. What is your vision of (or for) America?
PL: I think the piece implies it better than I could say it. I’m wary of summing it up. I think other people would be better at the business of cultural critique. I need to enact, to turn idea into feeling, to work from the senses.
RS: In “2. FRIEND” you are dealing with rejection and maybe self worth?
PL: Both of those things, and more. Shame, a fear of ugliness, a desire to transform oneself, a wish for any other body than the body we were given.
RS: Has your sexual awakening been traumatic for you?
PL: I think sexual awakening happens continually over the course of one’s life. I don’t think it’s a one time occurrence. Our bodies change with the years. What we want is often shaped by the person we’re with, or what’s going on in the culture around us. I think we’re always waking up to something new.
RS: How essential is an intimate relationship with another human being for you?
PL: I’m not really even sure I know what intimacy is any more. I’ve thought a lot about what it might be, but I think it’s so vast and it means so many different things to different people. Is it just about holding someone, being held? Is it about revealing oneself to someone else? Being there? Or is it sexual abandon? Is it all those things? I don’t know.
RS: “LIGHTEN UP, IT’S SUMMER!”
Is it that we can’t understand the world or that we are too lazy to get informed?
PL: I think that piece wants to think about the power of conformity, and I guess the desire for conformity is tied to what we can know--social norms, trends, success, power, and achievement. I think the laziness in those characters is entirely performed. It’s hard work; it comes from wanting to fit in, desperately so. And all that is up against the wild world of trees and animals outside that pool deck.
RS: Do you have a nostalgic bone in you?
PL: Oh, sure. I’m cautious of that in myself, though. We’ve all met people, even young people, who bemoan the loss of better days. That can be trouble. It can get in the way of seeing what’s in front of you and ahead if you’re always shining light on the past. It’s a tedious way to live.
RS: “THE LITTLE SONGS”
How great is the danger to get lost in someone else?
PL: That’s probably the biggest challenge of being in any relationship--how to be yourself, but together with someone at once?
RS: “IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT”
Do you have enough for one life. Of course what I am asking is would you be ready if you had to die?
PL: I feel as if life is just starting for me now. I’m not ready, no. I don’t want to miss a thing.
RS: In which areas are you striving for perfection and what is it’s down side?
PL: I think striving for perfection is troubling and misguided impulse. Striving for striving’s sake is important if we’re talking about art. But I think art has to make room for flaws, or else it just doesn’t feel human or spontaneous or real.
RS: Some of your stories seem to deal with manning up or being enough. What insights have you gained over time?
PL: I think my own sense of what masculinity is keeps changing. The anxiety of not being man enough drives people crazy, no matter how they know themselves. It’s been said that masculinity is just a costume, a pose, something that’s worn. I think that sounded true a while ago, and now it just sounds too rote to me. Is it a position one takes in relationship to one’s body? Is it about behaving a certain way?
RS: Can we really forgive someone or can we only forgive ourselves?
PL: I think we can do both, sure, but I don’t think that that’s easy. That kind of work is continuous, ongoing. It probably takes a lifetime.
RS: Memories whom do they serve or are they making us the slaves?
PL: Memories are there for us to make use of if we’re interested. Memory is flexible. How we understand Incident X is different at age 20 than it is at age 40 if we’re paying attention.
RS: “VERY GOOD.’
Isn’t a very good life already more then we were promised?
PL: That piece wants to make fun of an empty phrase which the central character thinks is being used to diminish her work. I guess it’s hard to be satisfied with the designation “very good” if you’re part of a culture that only places value on the highest honor. “Very good” is sort of bronze medal, which is absurd if you think about it. Third place. Bronze medal. Rah rah.
RS: If you look back at your parents life was it really all about choice?
PL: No, not at all. There’s lots of accident there. My father was the only one of his siblings to go off to college, but I think that had a lot to do with the G.I. Bill. He had ambition, but opportunity presented itself, even though he had to certainly pay for it by leaving home, being a soldier. My mom’s life was quite literally shaped by accidents: her twin brother’s death in a car crash, her father’s suicide. You have to have a certain amount of privilege to think of yourself as having choices.
RS: What are your thoughts on predestination?
PL: It’s far from how I experience the world, which feels like it runs on some collision course between order and chaos. That’s just an intuition.
RS: Which traits of your parents live on in you and how do you feel about that?
PL: My mom liked to laugh and she was pretty silly. She was curious about the world, not so much the bigger world. She was never interested in going to, say, India, but she was very awake to the world in our backyard. We were always going on little rides, looking to see what was up ten or twenty miles away. I loved that about her. My dad is very restless to this day, even though he’s 88. I think the way he manages that restlessness is through working at something. Neither of us does very well with sitting around or relaxing.
RS: “THE SUPERMARKET OF OUR CHILDHOOD.”
Which store compares to your childhood and which one would you like to live in for a day and a night?
PL: You should ask my brother this--he writes books about defunct American department stores. Which store stays with me? I guess Bamberger’s, which was collapsed into Macy’s back in the eighties. I remember it being on the swank side. The handwriting of the logo was a sweet script. In the Newark flagship, back in the sixties, they apparently had a fully furnished model house on a high floor for a development of Montauk summer houses. I guess I’d be up to living inside that model house for a night, but no more. A little love shack.
RS: “THE DIDACHE”
Do you live according to some unwritten, unspoken law?
PL: I wouldn’t call it a law because that sounds too rigid. But, sure. Respect, dignity, kindness-- I don’t know how you could go through your daily routines without asking questions about those things.
RS: Can we be whole without a concept of God?
PL: I’m sure that’s possible. My guess, though, is that people who aren’t interested in concepts of God aren’t terribly interested in concepts of wholeness. They’re okay with fragments. Or okay enough.
RS: Are you like a burning house and what kind of fire is it?
PL: I guess I feel like that sometimes. I just hope it’s not the kind of fire that consumes Isidore, the central narrator of my novel. He doesn’t seem to be able to uses that energy to good ends. It almost does him in, though I think he does understand something crucial by the end of the book--a clearer way to see people. A way to see others as separate from himself.
RS: What did it mean to you to write Unbuilt Projects?
PL: I never had a grand plan for that book. I was just in the experience, trying to name what it was I was seeing, feeling. It was a lot like walking through the woods at night--the woods appears over and over in that book--just the barest hint of moon lighting the way. It was scary at every turn, but there were also moments of beauty. It might just turn out to be the saddest thing I’ll ever write, but I hope it’s funny too, in the way that the saddest things are often the funniest.
Monday, July 16, 2012
I've been trying to figure out why it's been two weeks since my last post. It's not for any dearth of life. I've been working on new stories, I've been revising the new memoir, which must get done by the end of the summer. I've been spending some days at the beach, at Asbury Park mostly. Plus, I've been seeing someone new, which I wouldn't have expected as recently as April. He is wonderful and sexy and smart and very, very funny, and gradually the dark of the last three years is beginning to lift.
It just occurred to me that I have all of fourteen more nights in this apartment. I am moving to Asbury Park two weeks from today, and though it will be a much longer commute to school, I'll be near the ocean, three blocks in from the ocean, from my usual beach. The house I'm renting will be furnished, though, so I'm about to embark on a passage when I'll be putting most of my things in storage. It's funny that this is happening a little less than a year after I started out from scratch, with nothing but my clothes, three paintings, and my brother's old black-upholstered Bertoia chair. I needed not just a bed, tables, chairs, and lamps, but scissors, a tool box, a vacuum cleaner, kitchen utensils, and a good knife, which felt a little like going off to grad school again, but two+ decades later. Assembling it was pretty much my creative life for a couple of months last fall. I'm taking it all down again, which must mean that I must feel a little more settled, at least in my bones and brain and blood. I always suspected this was about in-betweenness. Why else would I have picked an apartment in a former hotel, so high the birds don't even fly up here?
Lightning storm from my window last night:
Lightning storm from my window last night: