Talking with Okla Elliott
Okla Elliott’s published drama, non-fiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, Natural Bridge, New Letters, A Public Space, and The Southeast Review, among others. He is the author of three poetry chapbooks—The Mutable Wheel; Lucid Bodies and Other Poems; and A Vulgar Geography—and he co-edited (with Kyle Minor) The Other Chekhov. His new book, From the Crooked Timber is out now from Press 53. You can get it from Amazon or directly from the publisher.
To help celebrate the recent publication of From the Crooked Timber I asked him a few questions and got him to talk about a bunch of things, from art to politics to influence to the narcissism of minute differences.
Recently, while doing dissertation research, I ended up reading Gore Vidal’s essay “American Plastic.” First published in The New York Review of Books in 1976, it’s a long-ass piece, and tackles a long-ass list of postmodern/poststructuralist works. Since I know you’ve studied and written about Vidal, I was thinking we might start with a few of the more provocative points he makes in that essay, as an entry point into the labyrinth of your thinking.
So…at one point Vidal writes, “What is art? Art is energy shaped by intelligence.” How does that definition sit with you?
I’ve never really gone in for defining art, but as far as definitions of art go, that one’s not too bad. I especially like it if we take that word “energy” to mean the “life force” the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer calls Will and which the poet Dylan Thomas describes in his line “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” This is also, in many ways, the productive libidinal energy Freud and other psychologists have talked about. (Side note: Freud had to defend against charges of plagiarism, because his notion of the Unconscious and its attendant drives so closely resembled certain Schopenhauerian concepts.) So, I like Vidal’s definition because it links into a handful of history’s greatest thinkers, including Schopenhauer, who is among my favorites.
But I also like it because it includes the unstructured passion the Romantics and their heirs want art to be about while admitting that we do choose words, edit passages, and include just as much structured intelligence in the design of our art. I’d say the percentages of raw energy and structured intelligence vary pretty wildly from artist to artist and even between piece to piece by the same artist.
Vidal is a good example of an author who has a wonderful flow in his writing, which I think largely (though not completely) comes from an intuitive feel for narrative. He has learned when to trust that intuition and when to trim it in later drafts. But he is also a Big Idea writer, so his novels always have a lot of overarching and through-running structure, which is very much his intelligence at play, as are the themes, historical events, and even the vocabulary he uses. So I’d commend Vidal on having made brilliant usage of both. Norman Mailer is another who channeled huge energy through a massive intelligence.
I’ve strayed a bit off topic here, but I’ll continue on. I think that finding this balance of energy and intelligence in any given poem or story—or even just a day’s writing session where we’re futzing around with a few pages of something—is one of the most important things a writer of any genre or aesthetic predilection can achieve. A professor of mine at Ohio State University, Andrew Hudgins, frequently told me to “write beyond my intelligence” and then revise with the new intelligence that process brought me to. This is a piece of advice I’ve repeated to myself constantly over the years. Suddenly, I wonder if it isn’t that energy Schopenhauer and Thomas (and as I choose to read him, Vidal) talk about that makes it possible to write beyond our intelligence in order to extend our intelligence. It is also likely what gives the urge to produce this stuff in the first place.
See that’s interesting, the bit from Andrew about writing beyond your intelligence, because it’s no secret you’re a smart dude—(Elliott is currently the Illinois Distinguished Fellow at the University of Illinois, where he works in the fields of comparative literature and trauma studies. He also has a background in philosophy, and regularly translates from multiple languages.)—so hearing you say that you’re trying to write beyond your intelligence might give readers the impression that From the Crooked Timber is some kind of impenetrable fortress of ideas, which isn’t the case at all. On the contrary, it’s storytelling at its finest, firmly grounded in a convincing world of roller rinks, crack pipes, Wal-Marts, and hospitals. So how did you channel that particular mantra to your benefit with From the Crooked Timber?
Yeah, I see what you mean about how a phrase like “writing beyond my intelligence” could give that impression, but I think what Andrew meant—and certainly what I took him to mean—was that we ought to write beyond our intelligence in nearly every aspect of our intelligence. That means aesthetic intelligence, emotional intelligence, linguistic intelligence, and even, by extension, intellectual/emotional honesty. It means pushing every limit of your understanding so that you can understand more and understand better, thus granting your work more wisdom and clarity. And this can be applied to everything from psychological realism to Nabokovian whimsy to weighty Vollmannesque tomes, as well as scholarly writing. I never shy away from big ideas in my writing, but I likewise never shy away from the quotidian detail that might lend us some unexpected insight into a character (and therefore ourselves). Both extremes and everything in between require pushing ourselves beyond our limits of intelligence and understanding.
Also, in practical terms as opposed to those lofty ones, it’s this pushing past our limits that allows us to mature as artists instead of repeating the same old safe stuff we already know we can do well. Fear of failure often keeps us in a mode of repetition, because entering uncharted territory is an invitation for failure, but it’s also the only way to mature as an artist. I know I’ve let myself lapse into the safety of repetition many times, and that’s when this mantra (as you called it) comes in handy. I think I might say that it is my only real rule for writing.
You mention scholarly writing in the same breath as creative writing, which is something I’d like to ask you about. I’m sure you’ve encountered people who feel that those two pursuits are (or should be) radically separate. Returning to that Vidal essay, he writes, “Except for Saul Bellow, I can think of no important novelist who has taught on a regular basis throughout a career.” The implication being, an important novelist does not belong in (or come from) academia. Granted, Vidal’s essay was written under a different set of historical conditions, but for some people his sentiment does seem to persist. I’m curious, then, to hear your position, especially your thoughts about the relationship between critical and creative writing, and how that plays into your work.
Vidal’s essay was certainly written in a different time period and by an author from a generation in which it was possible for him not to bother to even go to college before joining the ranks of America’s most distinguished figures. That said, you’re right, there are still similar prejudices. I see two main antagonisms in today’s literary world: 1) You have the anti-all-of-academia crowd, and 2) You have the MFA crowd versus the scholarly crowd within the academy. I really can’t wrap my head around why writers and lovers of literature from various backgrounds feel the need for this infighting. The only explanation I have ever been able to find is what Freud called the narcissism of minute differences—which is the phenomenon whereby, among other things, groups or individuals with the most in common fight much more brutally over their minor differences than they fight against those who are actually in opposition to their overall program. For the purposes of standing against the total homogenization and corporatization of our lives, which are what I consider the real enemies here, all of these subgroups ought to be teaming up in solidarity. Instead, however, we stand in a circle, raise our guns, and shoot each other in the face. I have nothing more to say on that particular issue except: Please, please, please stop.
But, politics and psychology aside, it is worth looking at the practical aspects of doing creative work alongside scholarly work. And it’s worthwhile to speculate about the differences in the creative process required to produce a scholarly essay versus a short story or whatever. William H. Gass has a wonderful distinction, by the way, between the essay and the article. The essay explores, admits it does not know, and invites the reader to explore and share in the author’s human finitude. The article wants to assert, wants to prove something, and attempts to cover over what it doesn’t know. I think the article, as he defines it, has very little creative in it besides perhaps the occasional bit of nice phrasing, whereas the essay is equally creative (though with different materials) as any short story or poem out there. And Gass means both the “scholarly” essay and the “personal” essay (and every possible variation in between). So long as it’s an intellectually and emotionally honest usage of language meant to explore what it means to be human or how the world works, then I am interested in it, no matter the genre or sub-genre. Someone might accuse me of oversimplifying there, but it’s how I view the matter, and all these turf wars (either between the literary genres, such as poetry and fiction, or between scholarly and literary production) strike me as kinda silly.
You’ve struck upon an aspect of your aesthetic that seems to me to deserve more attention, when you write, “So long as it’s an intellectually and emotionally honest usage of language meant to explore what it means to be human or how the world works, then I am interested in it, no matter the genre or sub-genre.” Could you say more about your commitment to the connection between fiction writing and humanism? To bring it back to what you’ve identified as the true enemies, the “total homogenization and corporatization of our lives,” do you conceive of the role of fiction writing as a political act capable of combating those foes? If so, how? Are there particular examples in From the Crooked Timber?
Well, I have no illusions that a few well-written poems or stories are going to bring peace and understanding to humanity, but I do think that the acts of enjoying or producing literature are political to at least some degree. And I think this is true even when we’re talking about a pretty little nature poem (though I abhor nature poems). To paraphrase something one of my mentors and favorite human beings of all time, Mark Smith-Soto, said to me years ago: When a writer or reader spends that much time and care contemplating the metaphysical beauty of a daffodil, to take Wordsworth as an example, it is an act of political resistance insofar as it is not a cheap commodification of nature for industry’s sake. Simply saying that, hey, this poem and its subject have aesthetic value in and of themselves, without recourse to sales stats or questions of practical production, is to undermine (in some itty-bitty way) the dominant ideology of our time. Or, to take Ginsberg as an example, it’s a way of saying “go fuck yourself with your atom bomb”—or go fuck yourself with your depleted uranium rounds, as the case may be today.
As for how I think the stories in From the Crooked Timber partake in political discourse, I would not say that any of the stories have an overt political theme, though there are through-currents of politics and how it affects our lives. For example, ”The Long Walk Home” features an Iraq War veteran who lost a leg. The story is ultimately more about his family life, his renewed affair with his (now alcoholic) prom date, and about his character traits, etc, but the story does not shy away from the politics or ethics of his situation or the world at large. The other story that seems somewhat political is ”They Live on the Water,” which is about a married couple whose daughter drowns. The daughter’s death is not political at all, but the fact that the couple came from a rural and uneducated background and consciously fought to rise up the social ranks, ending up owning a nice house on Lake Norman in Charlotte, NC, strikes me as having a socio-political dimension, even though their desire for upward mobility is also deeply personal and individual. Secretly, I think of this one as my John O’Hara short story, since he wrote about social climbing, as well as the myriad causes and effects of the desire to do so, better than just about anyone else in American literary history.
Since I’ve already mentioned William H. Gass earlier in this interview, I should achieve some balance by now mentioning John Gardner. He would say that by reading the stories of people like my characters in ”They Live on the Water,” people from wildly different backgrounds can get some glimpse into the lives of others and thereby learn empathy (or at least sympathy) for them. I think this is more or less accurate, and I think this is what gives literature its ethical and political dimension — much more so than making a story overtly political, especially since proselytizing in literature converts no one. I’ll close by saying that politics in the abstract bore me to tears; how politics affect and form human lives is infinitely complex and interesting.
By referring to ”They Live on the Water” as your John O’Hara story, you got me thinking about the range of your literary influences. The very short piece, “Lonely Tylenol,” for instance, strikes me as akin to the ”Prostitution Trilogy” era Vollmann or maybe Jesus’ Son era Denis Johnson. And other of the pieces exude a distinctly southern element that I can’t quite place. Could you say a little bit more about your influences; or, maybe, how you would situate your work in a broader literary historical context?
This is a tough question, as questions of influence often are. Denis Johnson and William T. Vollmann are certainly influences on my fiction writing, as are Norman Mailer, John Gardner, William H. Gass, Gore Vidal, Margaret Atwood, Jean-Paul Sartre, Fred Chappell, Pinckney Benedict, Simone de Beauvoir, and Joyce Carol Oates (yes, Joyce Carol Oates, though only the 20% of her work that is awesome, not the horrible stuff she also produces)—and the list goes on. But to illustrate how weirdly influence works, or at least how I am sometimes influenced, I will talk about John O’Hara some more. I got into his work about 7-8 years ago, when I was working at a library and would randomly grab books from the shelf and read them on slow evenings. I fell in love with some of his stories and with his novel Appointment in Samarra. Then I more or less stopped thinking about him until a few years later, when I was doing a visiting professor gig at Ohio Wesleyan University and had to teach a Modern American Lit course. I assigned Appointment in Samarra and re-read a few of O’Hara’s stories with one student who wrote his final essay on O’Hara. Then I forgot about him again for about three years, until just a few weeks ago when I decided to pick up his massive novel From the Terrace and to do a complete re-visitation of his work. What I have been struck by is how influenced I am by him, though had you asked me three weeks ago, before this most recent re-visitation, I would not have even listed him in my top-ten influences—and not because I would have considered him and then rejected him, but rather because his name would not have even dawned on me in such a context. But as I was answering your last question, I realized I had written an O’Hara story (in terms of themes, if not structure or voice), and that some of my other writerly tactics were learned from reading him over the years. But I had no idea he was such a large influence on me, in the way I am utterly conscious of Mailer’s or Sartre’s influence. And this is not an example of what Harold Bloom calls the anxiety of influence, but rather an inattention to influence. I just never noticed how much I was picking up from him. And, if anything, I like him even more now that I have uncovered some of the ways his words and worldview have seeped into my unconscious and shaped my writing.
As a final note about influence and your point about the wide (and perhaps schizophrenic-seeming) range of my influences, I will say that one of my primary commitments as a writer is to do as many things as I can in as many genres as I can as often as I can. It just seems infinitely boring to write and think the same way all the time. I hate being bored, and my reading habits reflect this. How this situates my work in a literary historical sense, I am not willing to hazard a guess, but I will say that I have been trying to bridge what is often called traditional writing with what is often called experimental writing by using the tactics of both camps and attempting to achieve the goals of both camps (though I deny that such neat distinctions between the two camps exist). If I would have readers place my work anywhere, it would be as a bridge between those two not-entirely-existent categories of literature.