These Days I Just Want To Do Something That Makes Me Feel Something: An Interview with Sasha Fletcher
To celebrate the official release of Sasha’s exciting new book, WHEN ALL OUR DAYS ARE NUMBERED MARCHING BANDS WILL FILL THE STREETS & WE WILL NOT HEAR THEM BECAUSE WE WILL BE UPSTAIRS IN THE CLOUDS (Mud Luscious Press), he and I chewed the old question/answer…but first: publisher J.A. Tyler has graciously offered to give away a free copy of the book to whomever leaves the most interesting comment in the comment box below…
HIGGS: I wonder if you’d begin by describing your process. To me, this book seems meticulously constructed: the way certain images and themes repeat and resonate, build upon each other and then collapse or disappear or mutate, the way the final passage almost seems to encapsulate all of those images and themes. Did this book come to you as an idea first or were you just thinking on paper as you went along? Did it take years or days? Did you compose it from opening to closing or did you compose it in sections and then arrange them?
FLETCHER: The book came out of several things.
Thing One: In June 2008 I began work on a book of poems called EVERYTHING HERE IS OK. Before I started this book I read Denis Johnson’s JESUS’ SON, which really opened up a lot for me in terms of structure. The way that the stories slowly build on each other, the way that loose threads are later picked up and made into something like a tapestry, this was really important for me and to me. I needed a way to think about a book as a whole, and the idea of being able to say what I could and get back to it later, but in a really direct and intentional way, really spoke to me and opened up a world of possibility. I have been working on this book for nearly two years and it contains 53 linked prose poems and tying all these things loosely together has taught me a lot about how I structure books. About the ways in which structure not only makes sense to me, but the ways in which I can understand it, implement it, and use it as a means of generating the work itself. The idea of a work that folds back on itself, that uses a sort of recursiveness to propel the narrative, is really appealing to me.
Thing Two: The book is very much rooted in the long poem I wrote [and the video of which you linked to on bright stupid confetti] WHEN I WAKE UP I WILL BURY YOU IN A PARKING LOT. I started that poem after I thought I’d finished EVERYTHING, and it probably also came out of what I’d read of Frank Stanford’s THE BATTLEFIELD WHERE THE MOON SAYS I LOVE YOU. I wanted to write a long poem with page breaks. It was also the first time that my writing felt like it wasn’t grounded in a reality, that it existed wholly in a world that I created one word at a time, and the end of which I could only see when I reached it. It was a really hard thing to write, having come out of the heavily structured EVERYTHING.
Thing Three: At the end of June 2009 I quit my job gutting fish at Whole Foods and lived with my parents for 6 weeks. I had recently written WE ARE GOING TO GET PAID AND THEN WE WILL DRESS FOR THE WEATHER, which was a finalist for the Lamination Colony contest. I was confused about whether or not it was being published and I sent it to J.A. Tyler as a mud luscious chapbook submission. He accepted it. It then turned out the piece was being published, so I wrote another one for J.A. called I LAUGHED SO HARD I FELL DOWN [up now at Alice Blue]. Then I wrote another piece for the Dollar Store Tour that Featherproof put on called BURNING THE AIR BETWEEN HERE AND THERE [up now at Noö Journal]. So there were these three pieces that were all written in the same voice and in relative succession. J.A. had read a version of EVERYTHING HERE IS OK, and based on that, he told me he would be really interested in seeing a novella or novella-length work from me and did I have one? I did not. But I had a lot of time on my hands, and I’d recently written three pieces that seemed to go together, and between the structure of EVERYTHING HERE IS OK, and the semi-sustained narrative of WHEN I WAKE UP, I felt that this was something I really wanted to do, and that I could maybe try it. The worst thing that would happen is that it would turn out to be a piece of shit, and that I would never be able to write 9,000 sustained words, much less the 12,500-some the work turned into, and J.A. would be disappointed in me and I would have learned my lesson that I cannot write a long sustained work at all or ever or at this time in my life. It ended up that he liked it though, so I more or less pulled it off, and that feels pretty great.
Thing Four: I had recently read Deb Olin Unferth’s VACATION, which was a huge help to me. The novel, at least as far as I am concerned, seems to be written one fantastic sentence at a time. The idea of just doing that with this book, just worrying about it one sentence at a time, seemed to make the whole thing doable, and real, and something that I could maybe understand how to do. Sort of like what JESUS’ SON did for me in terms of structure.
In terms of the actual writing of the book, I sat down and linked the three pieces mentioned in Thing Three, and then read over how they worked and made notes and rewrote things. I then wrote somewhere between 500-1,000 words each day. Every night I read over what I wrote and made notes on where it could go and where the problems were, and in the morning I read through everything again and implemented the notes. For me, the writing is as recursive as the structure, in that the rewrites and revisions are at times more generative than the work that they are fixing.
I sent what was I think the fifth draft [and the first finished one] to Shane Jones and asked him to look it over. He pointed out a lot of flaws in it, or what really amounted to one primary flaw, and that was that the book didn’t really have an emotional anchor or gravity to it. So I went through and cut over 1,000 words, and then wrote 4,000 more or so. I did most of that in four days up in Vermont visiting family. Then when I got back to Pennsylvania I edited it heavily, and sent the ninth and final draft to J.A., who accepted it a month later.
In terms of how it came about, whether it was rearranged or written relatively straight through, it was probably a mix. After I arranged the three pieces and linked them at first, I would write straight through and then sometimes in revision move things around and then link them up with new text.
As for inspiration vs. planning, most of it came to me through working on it. At times I had ideas about where it could go, but I spent a lot of the time just sitting down and watching it come out. And then trying as hard as I could to make it readable and interesting. I tend to get really bored a lot, and find it difficult at times to engage with anything, and one of my primary concerns as a writer is writing something that I can be interested in finishing. I want to make something that I can care enough about to actually get it all down and make it into something that will make me feel something. I realize the use of ‘something’ here is really vague. I apologize for that. I want to write something that I can care about, that can hold my interest and possibly excite me. I can only hope it does this for other people.
HIGGS: Could you say more about the “emotional anchor or gravity” that Shane suggested was missing. How did you approach introducing that element? Was it already in the text but just needed to be brought to the surface, or was it something secondary that you grafted into the text? Cutting 1k words and adding 4k words is pretty significant. How did it affect the structure?
FLETCHER: The best example of the sort of emotional heft we are talking about here would probably involve looking at the first 30 pages and then comparing that to the Lamination Colony piece. I don’t want to put words in Shane’s mouth or start quoting from gchats, but the gist of what he said was that the relationship between the two wasn’t clear and that there wasn’t a great deal at stake. There was the underground scene, which remains almost entirely unchanged, but the municipal office and the second half of the fireman story were added, and all the conversations about making dinner were added in the revision, and so was the transition between the Lamination piece and the Alice Blue piece, where he shows up with lunch, and we see the umbrellas again. For me a lot of those are really tender moments, and they added a necessary emotional depth to the novella.
When I cut I went through and looked for lazy sentences. I wanted to trim as much fat and useless repetition as I could, because there is a difference between being recursive and beating someone over the head. I then added all of the above mentioned parts and tried to flesh out the relationship in a way that would allow me to earn the last 14 pages, which carry a lot of weight. I don’t know about what I just said there though. It makes sense but I feel weird talking about whether or not I earned what I did. I feel like I am in workshop. I am not in workshop. I think the book was lacking a more obvious emotional core and there were problems with the fact that I never really showed their relationship when things were quiet. That you only saw it when they were swallowed by the ground or talking about being inside of a whale or dealing with cops coming through the faucet and climbing all over the patio furniture. It seemed like a good idea to try and make something more exist between them, and I am grateful to Shane for saying that.
One other thing I am grateful for is Amelia Gray’s THUNK interview, from where I stole this:
what sort of things would cause you to lose your temper?
Filling a bag with hot water and insisting it is your baby. Climbing onto the roof and refusing to come down. Picking your teeth with the key to my truck. Regicide.
Something about that just opened up the whole ending to me. Which is where that came from.
HIGGS: I really like your point that there’s a difference between “being recursive and beating someone over the head.” I have noticed, amongst contemporary writers, an influx of reliance on repetition of one kind or another, and most of the time it turns me off, seems monotonous, boring. I think what separates your use of repetition from those boring attempts I just mentioned is the way you use it both musically and as a tool for building narrative. Here’s an example, from page 11, that I find particularly successful:
We were all of us waiting to become electric.
We were all of us waiting to become something.
We were all of us waiting.
I am waiting for my dinner she said.
It seems to me that you are using, in that instance, a poetic device in a prose landscape. I wonder how you think about the division between poetry/prose, if this informs your work or if you just think in terms of word construction sans genre.
FLETCHER: Although I agree a lot with what Blake Butler has said here about being writers first and foremost, I consider a lot of what I write to be poetry, or to fall somewhere in between poetry and fiction.
I also want to touch on something you brought up once, and which I have talked about a bit here in grad school, which is that prose is a medium and poetry is a mode. That a sentence is a unit of measure, and that it is the intent with which it is wielded that differentiates between a poem and a story, much like we use intention to differentiate between manslaughter and murder.
I feel that with a lot of my work that this line is blurred a bit sometimes. The line between poetry and fiction. I don’t mean it to be. I am simply trying to put words together in a way that makes me care about what I am doing enough to try harder.
I really like using anaphora [which is a term I have learned here in Grad School] as a means of propulsion. I like the lulling quality of the repetitive rhythm and even more than that I like the ability to turn it. The need to not let the reader down. To take what you have done and to use it to make it into something even more.
I don’t know. I’m a prose poet basically. I rarely break sentences and when I break them I break them where a comma would go. I find it more interesting to take the turn and the volta that enjambment allows for so readily and use them in the form of a sentence and a paragraph, and to try and do it in a way that does not call attention to itself.
That’s probably a big thing for me. To try to use these tools in ways that don’t point out THIS IS WHAT IS HAPPENING LOOK AT HOW CLEVER I AM. I am not accusing people of doing this, but I am saying that not doing that is a pretty big concern of mine.
But to get back to the first part of the question, I like to use it to build up an expectation that you can then use to surprise the reader. Which, really, I mean myself. I read this. I have no idea who else does. I think that I revise a lot. I also have ten years of classical violin, so that probably has helped my ear a bit. I mostly played by ear and was a pretty good sight reader. I didn’t practice as much as I should have and I wasn’t incredible. But I was pretty good at figuring out what to do by listening to what was being done.
HIGGS: Okay, now I want to ask you a couple questions about aspects of your book that seem significant, but which I can’t quite put my finger on. The first is the relationship between nature and civilization. I noticed the recurrence of birds and other animals, sky and blood and fire and water – then on the other hand there is a constant desire to construct, to build, to engage in social interactions with fire fighters and police officers, etc. Is this a conscious dualism you’re interested in exploring?
HIGGS: Hahah! What about these: underground/above ground, inside the body/outside the body, up on the roof/digging into the sand/earth?
FLETCHER: I really really really really like the idea of burying things. Also there was that interview Michael Kimball with Gary Lutz where he says that a plot is something in the ground that you get put on or down into. And I like the idea of swallowing things whole, and being devoured. A lot of that came from old journal entries where I would try and make lists of things that I found important and influential, and a repeated variation in these lists was one based on this idea I got from old blues songs wherein by admitting the powerlessness of our situations we are able to rise above them. That one walks through the fire by doing just that.
I like building things. I like tearing things down. I like putting things in the ground and watching things move around in the air. I like it when stuff happens. I think the only real difference between inside/outside and under/above are the conditions of the lighting.
HIGGS: I kinda feel like that’s a perfect place to end…but then I kinda feel like if we end here then the interview won’t have proper closure. You have any closing remarks, want to situate your book in a particular literary tradition, want to call out another writer to a duel or something?
FLETCHER: I don’t know. I’m sure my book stands in a kind of tradition. I feel it owes a bit to Jesse Ball’s THE WAY THROUGH DOORS and to Frank Stanford’s THE BATTLEFIELD WHERE THE MOON SAYS I LOVE YOU and to the numbered stories in Shane Jones’s I WILL UNFOLD YOU WITH MY HAIRY HANDS. I probably lifted some of the cop stuff from BLACK KIDS IN LEMON TREES, which I think I got around the time I wrote WE ARE GOING TO GET PAID. I was also reading a lot of David Foster Wallace and playing a lot of tennis. I was sitting with my computer on top of a shelf on top of a radiator in front of a window looking onto my yard in Philadelphia when I started the book. When I ended it I was sitting on a porch in Vermont at about 830 in the morning and I was looking at trees that just kept going. Certainly Donald Barthelme and the structure of his novel PARADISE have something to do with this. And James Tate’s casual obsession with domesticity. I also like to think that it’s mine. I know that I come out of a tradition of certain writers, but I don’t feel that I am trying to place myself in any tradition. I am just trying to write something that I can give enough of a shit about to see it through. I had higher aims at first. I had all these ideas about perception. About blurring the line between possibility and reality, and trying to deal with the ways in which we interpret the world vs the ways in which things actually occur in the world. I’m sure that’s still there, but I don’t really bother with it. These days I just want to do something that makes me feel something.