Massive People (10): Vanessa Place

place_medusa-193x300At the end of last year, I read Vanessa Place’s mammoth novel of forms recently out from FC2, LA MEDUSA (linking Amazon because FC2 site is down, but buy from the press).

Though it is a monster of a book, in size in mind, I found I could not stop reading it once I started, blasting through all 616 pages in 4-5 days of continuous reading. Among its many forms and voices, it contains one of the most vivid scenes I think I’ve ever read: simply consisting of one of the main characters eating at a Mexican restaurant by himself, getting more and more drunk, and eating among a kind of mental fury, almost as if over the other pages of the book encasing him. It is truly a definition of how words can capture moments in a way no other art form is equipped for.

LA MEDUSA, I think, is a book of appetites, and cataloguing. There is something post-Beat in it in that way: lists (a list of strange barbies, a list of synonyms for vagina, though worked into the narrative thread somehow, a kind of shapeshifting that continually occurs in midst of the reading without managing to interrupt), and hyper consciousnesses, and combining the high with the low in these really rhythmic and syllabic and smart sentences. LA MEDUSA reminds me a lot of Lynne Tillman’s AMERICAN GENIUS, which is another of my all time recent favorites.

Anyhow, in the wake of my admiration, I spoke to Vanessa some about the ideas in the book, and her creative process, including ekphrasis, managing many voices, and craft.

Vanessa is also the author of DIES: A Sentence, which is literally a 50k+ word sentence, out from Les Figues Press (and is also a massive presence for innovative lit), which she co-directs. Her nonfiction book about sex-offenders and the morality of guilt will be published in 2008 by Other Press.

Do yourself a favor and check out her work: it is incomparable.

Interview after the jump.

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BB: (a) I’d like to open our discussion of La Medusa by asking about its birth in you, as an idea. Over the span of its 500 pages, the text manages to worm through quite an insanely number of shells and forms, I believe I read somewhere that you worked on La Medusa for quite a number of years, so I am particularly interested in how the shape of the book continued to evolve and expand within itself as you found yourself deeper in the pages.

(b) What I find really interesting, is that among this huge sprawl, too, is that the bulk of the narrative consists of a set of interwoven strands that focus on the main ‘camps’, if you will, of the discourse, which are in a way defined in the very first sentences of the book:

“Doctor Casper Bowles eyes his mirror’d visor.
Feena checks her pink Barbie mirror
while Athalie her mother looks at her own hand.
Jorge can’t see for shit ‘cuz of the sun,
And the golden-bellied woman stands blind as a proverbial bat.
Then there’s me, flattened & weeping in one hundred and one windows”

These strands are attended to so fervently, and with great poise, so that often it seems like some scenes in the book that may occur over a short period in the timeline of the narrative, actually sprawl out as if minute by minute, almost in the way that David Foster Wallace managed to capture time as time in ‘Infinite Jest,’ and also how Gass used language to define space in ‘The Tunnel.’ I was wondering if you could speak more about directing the complex trajectories of each of these narratives over time and perhaps some of the process involved in how the evolving form dictated content and vice-versa.

VP: I think I will collapse your two into one, just for fun. /Medusa/ began as a conceptual project: write everything that pops into the head for 41 days. One day longer than Moses spent in the desert, because I’m no mouthpiece of the divine. The characters are “camps,” as you note, though I hadn’t thought of them in these terms. But the term does fit the project: I wanted to write all of Los Angeles because they said it couldn’t be done, because Los Angeles is a city of many camps and no core. Similarly, the fragmented nature of the book reflects Los Angeles as fragmented city, the self as fragmented memory and the brain as fragmented whole which works in phase-space or chunks that operate more or less simultaneously with more or less coordination between parts. Thus /Medusa/ became a place of plate-spinning, dashing between spinning narratives sets to keep them going with sufficient attenuation to let myself go further in the in-between. As you also know, the entire work of fiction (and this is the closest thing to a pure novel I’ve written) is to attenuate. Delay. Delay more. Delay past the point of perception. Beckett knew this, and so studied Proust, and both perfected the ability to blow seconds up out of all proportion but not beyond sentiment. I have failed in this, and plan to continue failing: my current project is an attempt to go past time and my single-sentence book, /Dies: A Sentence/, to be in all time. I like the Gass comparison for /Medusa/, as I am an admirer of /The Tunnel/, as well as of Pound’s Cantos, and for the same temporal-spatial reasons. Pound cut space into time, Gass time into space. And the carving of the page into more than one space and the carving of the text into more than one time in /Medusa /spawned some typographical fluctuations and many text-boxes, which are a somewhat unsatisfying answer to the problem of multifarious existence.

BB: I like the delineation of ‘everything that pops into the head’: does this mean to say that you write in floods and bursts, sentence by sentence? I am interested greatly in the manners of controlling syllables and rhythm via confines of tiny spaces in large fields. In that, /Medusa/ is another kind of wonder for its array of self-contained rooms and structures, in the form of the aforementioned text boxes, as well as columns, clips, stage directions, etc. I was wondering how much of narration you develop was incurred or controlled by these spaces that you set up within the book, and at the same time how much perhaps the text dictates the space. I know from reading an earlier interview with you that /Medusa/ a lot of the text’s spaces were jarred out of ekphrastic responses to art objects, which made me wonder if there were some system to the objects chosen that then led into a larger intentional framework, or if this was something you allowed to develop out of itself via association and intuition?

VP: No floods & bursts, but crawling & crabbing, forwards, back & to the side. I work very slowly and with a jeweler’s eye. One great craft lesson I learned with Medusa was to set my screen margins to reflect an actual book page: there was a great deal of revision needed for the final to contain what had been in the larger/longer draft. And even so, certain visual elements had to be eliminated or otherwise significantly recomposed. Medusa was somewhat ekphrastic, though the project I’m now working on is much more so, in part because of the limits of Medusa. I was constrained in the novel by novelistic conventions, so the art objects chosen had to hover around or emanate from things already associated with other things. But what I began to do in Medusa, and have done deeper since, to quite literally treat the page as canvas, both procedurally and substantively. In other words, there’s not so much the cause/effect that you suggest, but more of a cut of temporal/visual space.

BB: Would you talk about the particulars of setting parameters on a text before or during its creation, and how those parameters, whether rules or dimensions, or other kinds of constraints, end up in a way dictating the text, or at least making you, the author, bring out words or ideas that you likely would have not without the imposition of constraint? I am particularly interested in how this method of controlled germination continued to change (or perhaps not change at all) over the creation period of Medusa?

VP: My parameters tend to be conceits: Medusa was dictated in part by the parts of the brain represented. The choice of brain parts was, in turn, dictated by some obvious tropes (wanting the language centers, for example), and some less obvious (wanting the sections to be half limbic, half cortical). Each section then became self-generative in the sense that there were plot/character/language turns that occurred simply as a result of the extended metaphor of that particular cerebral constraint (anger/fear in the amygdala section, asphasia in the Broca/Wernicke’s areas). Too, there was the plane of the page: using boxes (mirror frames) to enclose the Skull passages (up until those begin to break down and the seepage becomes apparent) meant that text had to be set in certain sized boxes, creating a variant of the lyric line break. (This fit nicely with the excess subjectivity being enacted.) These frames/breaks had to be constantly reconfigured as the dimensions of the page changed, and as the text waxed and waned. In my current project, I’m working with a set page dimension, and a ekphrasitic conceit, leaning more into the constraint/conceit of the page as image/text as image. This also comes into play in some of the appropriation work I’m doing. I suppose you could say it’s a combination of rules & rulers, of both the physical and subject variety.

BB: I really like your description of the containing and the contained, and how the shell in some way dictates itself innards. I wonder, then, how much of the progression of Medusa could be seen as cultivated more than purely dreamt: that is, if your process, in fitting to the forms, is more akin to a sculptor chiseling a form out of an amorphous face of stone, than say, someone taking photographs?

VP: I like the sculptor analogy as opposed to the photographic analogy, though only if we can agree that the sculptor is not finding the statue inherent in the marble, but putting form into another form. I might like the photographer comparison if we can carve out the part where the photographer is also creating artifice from the occasional real– sometimes the readymade isn’t quite ready enough. The progression here is thus neither cultivated nor dreamt but constructed and contained; certain angles surprise me in retrospect because they facet in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

BB: I’m curious, too, in particular, about the way the extremely varying styles and voices are arranged and affected by the forms as they shift. For instance, the character who speaks mostly as if freestyle rapping: I was pretty amazed by the great control you managed to assume over every single line, even in as free a form as freestyling. And, too, how spot on your were in nailing such a difficult format of voice. Rap is such a difficult style to incorporate into fiction, or written word, I think, in that so much of it is about tone and delivery, and yet there was honestly no point among all the rap sections that I thought you wavered from full on high wire prose. How did this particular voice germinate for you?

VP: Hours of dissecting pleasure.