6 Different Languages all on the Same Block: An Interview with Shya Scanlon
Released earlier this year from the magnificent Noemi Press, Shya Scanlon’s full length print debut In This Alone Impulse, is truly of thing of many things. Using 7 line blocks of language to evoke a sublimely confounding string of styles, voices, jokes, murmurs, machines, Scanlon has truly forged from a seemingly simple set of building blocks a highly tuned and deceptively challenging machine of language and idea.
For a taste, check out Shya’s YouTube feed, which features short videos of a wide range of folks reading sections from the book. Here’s a rather rad one by A.D. Jameson, performing, ‘Hansom’:
Over the past few weeks Shya and I talked some about the construction of the book, its influence, becoming, tone, approach, as well as some of his other forthcoming works.
BB: You were working on the pieces in ITAL over a good number of years, I believe, yes? What kicked off the form for you, and how did that form change as a limitation or opening as you made more and more in its image?
SS: I actually didn’t work on these over a number of years at all. I wrote them rather in a burst upon my move to New York City. They happened after I’d given a story to Diane Williams to read (not submitted to NOON, rather just soliciting feedback). She told me that it was a perfectly good story, but that I should spend some time trying to listen to myself, listen to what makes my own language different from anyone else’s. In response to this, to being suddenly alone, and to all the energy of NYC around me, these poems began to gush from me like spastic, crippled children gasping for air. What you may be referring to is the fact that I sat on them for a few years, during which time I’d open up the file and make a few changes–mostly weeding out the ones that didn’t seem to fit (there were 100 at first, so 40 met their death in this way).
As for the form, it happened organically. I saw a kind of grouping, a rhythm, and then “discovered” that there was a rough word count. Say, 100. I could say everything I wanted inside that package. And yes, it did change. Or rather, my sense of it changed. At first it felt like a window–an opening, as you put it–but the more I wrote the more it felt like creation. Like building. And I think the form reflects this. They are architectural in their regularity. They are bricks. But they were also really liberating. I do feel like I discovered something very personal, my own tick or syntax, but I also found that I participate in other languages, and that these other, more public languages are as important to me as the one only I can speak.
BB: I like the idea of the building, as I definitely felt some kind of creation of a certain kind of air being manipulated over the course of the series. A lot of the times the way you manipulate sounds seems to kind of wring around itself, where even I’m not sure exactly what the intended image or effect is, there is some sense of an emerging air or texture space that you are defining and moving among. The overall structure of the book becomes quite sublime in that way, in that it seems to cement a structure that is wholly yours. How did you go about weeding out and then organizing the pieces into the final continuum they make? Were there any outside guidelines or precedents (objects, authors, art) that influenced your intuitions?
SS: This air that you’re talking about is interesting, because I do feel that the sequence is a kind of breathing. That stuttering inhalation people have when they’re sobbing (This like we, likely, is this is, undo. — from Killing, riding) , and the long, smooth blow of a sigh (They take long baths and watch the mud run without spinning down a drain dead center between a world where I breathe under water, and a world where water is the substance of my skin. — from Deeper green, and glowing). Who is breathing? The text? Me? I felt, writing these, that there was little difference between the two. That I wasn’t writing *about* this or that, but was actually composing a self-portrait in some direct way, or a double me. In Body double I explore this directly, I think. It’s a mirror held up to the whole process of becoming– “We work to wait, are filled with nothing coming.” and then, as though to dare the reader to determine whether it’s me or the text who’s more real: “Try this: place one hand above us and one hand below, and see which feels something first.” I think it’s an open-ended question. As for the influences, I opened myself up as widely as possible, I tried to be utterly naked. So there were no precedents that I intended or wrote toward. I now know that there is a rich tradition of writers using constraints, but when I wrote these, I wasn’t aware of, for instance, Oulipo. This doesn’t mean I had no influences, though–on the contrary, I feel like they run through the book quite liberally and openly. Mostly it’s the city itself, with its competing direction, movement and noise. It blew my mind to walk down the street, hearing snatches of conversations in six different languages all on the same block. Radical. I also listened to pop music quite a bit during composition: the first Clap Your Hands And Say Yeah, as well as the first Wolf Parade–both of which had come out in the months before. I felt that jittery, sometimes sweet and dramatic energy really actuated by responses to being alone and out of control. Another influence: bourbon.
BB: Your line “My hands don’t feel their fingers, and so my answers come but do not grasp the reason for their caring.” I think essentially nails what you are coming to here, where that air is a thing that has hands but the fingers are not there, or are ghostly. It forms a collage of a head more than a summation, a kind of rhythm, which Joyelle McSweeney aptly nails to Gertrude Stein. Is this book itself an impulse? What drives you to write?
SS: I’ll answer your second question first. I’m pretty much a maintenance addict at this point. If I don’t write, I feel useless and pathetic. That’s not to say I don’t experience occasional bursts of joy or wonder, but most of the time I write to escape the devil.
I like to think of the book itself as an impulse. A book is a funny thing. It presents itself as a unit, but it’s really an assembly of units, messages sent out at different times under different conditions. If each poem were an impulse, perhaps the book is a brain. A place where impulses live, where they transmit or lie dormant with potential energy. But it’s also an object, of course. Something I can throw across the room. On a side note, I really liked that footage of you destroying Scorch Atlas. I don’t feel like books are sacred objects. In fact, the way they vibrate makes me nervous, and I like to deface them for it. Books are strange intentions and paper pulp.
BB: I agree. I think it adds something to an object when you can tell the creator is not only reverent for the word but rady to poke it in the eye or be poked, kicking out some new ways of talking. I was compelled by how fluidly you mixed L=A=N-G=U=A=G=E, colloquialism, jokes, dream speak, Stein glossolalia, questions, answers, all in a big sheen. Some of them were at first so outside they were unsettling, but then the unsettling became a mode, like shifting ground. How did Tony Hoagland end up here? How much of these things came out early, and much came up in revision?
SS: One of the great things about writing a collection of flash fiction/prose poetry–instead of, say, a novel or even short stories (though of course people do experiment with eclecticism in all forms)–is the ability to express a wide variety of attitudes and/or perspectives and/or ideas. People are all about “finding a voice”, and that’s great for people who have one single voice that they dip into every time they type a word. But my head is teaming with different voices, different interests and hauntings and limitations and quirks, and this book let me let them out. I gave them a little 7 line yard to run around in, a playground, and every recess they had, they found a different game to play. Through this process, one discovers certain repetitions and recurrences, certain motifs (water seems to figure largely throughout the book), but there’s a chaos here too that I found invigorating during composition, and still find invigorating to see/read. It was through this experimentation, this openness, that Tony Hoagland worked his way into the book. Hoagland is not a poet whose name you’d maybe expect to find in a language-y book–though I’m sure he’s a fan of all manner of poetry–and that’s really why he’s there, I think. Both in witness to the greater family of writing, but also as a distant horizon. “Write your own damn poem,” I say to him. As, of course, he does, and will continue to do. All of the voices and impressions in the book were there from the beginning. Revision—when I wasn’t eliminating poems entirely–was largely an intuitive process of fine-tuning for cadence and tone. I’ve thought about going back and re-reading the 40 poems I took out–perhaps even adding a dozen or so into some kind of appendix for the second print run–but I’ve yet to do it. I’m a little scared, maybe.
BB: Do you find yourself often affected by what you read while writing? In addition to the sounds or motions of the environment? Also, does the way you write in this way vary much in procedure than other projects, such as Forecast, which seems of a very different style and mode in your bag?
SS: I used to be affected by what I read, but I’ve found that the more I write and the more I read, the more I’m able to regulate external influences, and the more my own intentions provide their own magnetism, their own pull that guides my production. So unless I’m specifically “responding” to something, or choosing some author, art, or space as my subject, I don’t suffer from much anxiety of influence. While writing ITAI, I think I was reading a lot of Lish students like Diane Williams, Dawn Raffel and Terese Svoboda. But I wouldn’t say that there’s much of that in the book. Would you? Maybe I’m wrong.
The way I wrote ITAI definitely differs from the way I wrote Forecast, or any of the novels I’ve written since. I’m going to use a metaphor to describe the difference, and see how that turns out. It’s probably not completely accurate, but it may be useful. If we were to imagine the process of composition as the operation of an aperture, things like ITAI would require a wide open setting, while a novel would require a much tighter setting. Think of letting the aperture as wide open as it goes: you’d maybe hold the “K” key down and fill up a thousand pages, or just grab your keyboard and smash it over your daughter’s head. A little tighter and you know that you want to use words. Tighter than that and some of the time you’ll be using familiar grammar. I guess ITAI rests just around there. Is that what you meant? Or did you mean, like, mapping things out or planning ahead, etc.
BB: I like that likening, and it makes strong sense. You are right, I don’t see a lot of Lish school in there, beyond the specific attention to tone and syllable bouncing into another with surprise. Do you feel like your process in this way has taught you a lot about approaching the tighter lensed work? What have you been working on since Forecast and ITAI?
SS: I do think it has informed my work in general, but I wouldn’t necessarily say the influence/lessons are readily apparent. Kind of too bad, really, because it would be great if I could bring more fans of ITAI over to enjoy my longer prose. I’m solicited pretty regularly based on ITAI work, and when I send out what I’m working on, it’s normally met with a little confusion, and polite demurral. Anyway, mostly I learned how to draw out and amplify the impact of scene and set piece. I learned also to isolate details, how to suspend an action, or line, or object in a kind of semantic hush so that it gains resonance. As a result (partially), I think there’s a pretty dramatic difference between, say, Forecast, and my later long-form fiction. Whereas in Forecast I was really thinking mostly about leading the reader through from sentence to sentence–all sentences being more or less equal–in more recent work I’ve been more interested in a kind of hierarchy that lends itself to more powerful moments of insight, revelation, or symbolism. I also learned to let go of certain weaknesses I had for florid language and overused rhetorical devices like alliteration. Maybe its because I fell in love with Dylan Thomas at too young an age, but I used to use alliteration in as many sentences as I could. I just thought it was the shit. Forecast is full of it, though I’ve weeded out some in revision more recently. Working in the 7-line blocks of anything-goes that was ITAI really let me experiment with smashing unlikely and even ugly words, ideas and images together to release the beauty–a kind of fusion, I suppose. Anarchic parataxis. But there’s also quite a bit of fission—breaking words apart. This was all to rid myself of all the inherited ideas about what “beautiful language” was. Or rather, that was its effect. It wasn’t the goal, per se.
Since Forecast and ITAI I’ve written three novels: Interference, Uno Che, and Look No Further. Interference is a kind of pastoral drama that takes place in Indiana after abortion is outlawed. Uno Che takes place on a Saunders-esque theme park called Border Run! where people can watch fake illegal aliens get caught crossing the border. Both of these novels are linked to Forecast. They’re each set 100 years apart, starting with Interference, which is set in 2112. I usually refer to them as a thematic trilogy–the primary theme being surveillance. Look No Further is a departure for me–it’s semi-autobiographical, which means I use my name, take events directly from my life, and then change them and mix them with fictional events and characters. It is also linked stories, or a novel-in-stories, or whatever you want to call it. It’s full-on realism, and it was interesting to work within that constraint. No flying saucers, nothing really inexplicable. I really enjoyed it, actually. That said, I’m back to form with the novel I most recently started, which is another dystopian book set in Seattle (apparently, Forecast didn’t satisfy the itch to write about that). It’s about a guy living with his mother in the city after it’s been largely evacuated due to an imminent tsunami. Fun stuff.
BB: Do you feel different now that you have released your first book? Has it affected your mentality, or your forward motion, or other?
SS: Like a lover or a sibling, a published book becomes a vector not only for the good feelings you have about/toward your work, but also for all the anxiety, doubt and self-loathing you have stored up inside you–feelings concerning your role as a writer, your hopes and aspirations for that vocation, and whatever other Big Categorical Issues you may indulge from time to time. In short: it’s complicated. It’s a thrill of course to be chosen for publication, but then there you are, letting someone else (the editor) touch and make decisions about your baby. And then the readers! Are they seeing it the way you intended? Are their criticisms of it valid? Should you listen to it? Should you even listen to the good stuff? Why aren’t they buying more copies of it? Why aren’t you on anyone’s best books/authors list? You know. I’m in the process of publishing Forecast with Flatmancrooked, too, and to be honest, there have certainly been times when I’ve thought seriously about whether or not publishing is worth it. I’ve had to ask myself why I write. Because it’s nice to say that you should write for yourself, and worry only about pleasing yourself, etc., but the extreme of that line of thinking is really: don’t publish. I’m pretty high strung. I worry and fret and can get really sensitive and controlling (warning to all my future publishers), and the act of publishing is a constant lesson in letting go. Letting go of the work, letting go of the outcome, letting go of all the things you like to control. If writing is about the wind-up, publishing is about the pitch. Once it leaves your hand, you can’t control what happens. I never use baseball analogies. I don’t even understand baseball. I don’t understand anything. I thought publishing a book would feel like a triumph, and yeah, there’s some of that, but really, it’s just all your same old neuroses, amplified.
That’s one answer. Another answer is that I’m amazed and honored and humbled by the responses I’ve recieved. Having a book out there is like sending a love letter to everyone, and getting these fantastic letters back–from strangers, from friends, from the world. Every time someone reads In This Alone Impulse, and lets me know, another incredible node is created in the network that is the book, so that the book itself is not really a physical object, but an Idea with many different manifestations or intersections with reality. The book-object becomes a door or portal, and I meet readers on an astral plane. Having a book out is the most concrete evidence I’ve seen of the generosity of people, of writers and readers. Each review that comes out–beyond the content, even, beyond the approval or disapproval–is evidence of a kind of bond that’s been achieved, and regardless of what else happens, that bond can’t be broken. Another amazing thing that’s happened has to do with the interviews, like this one, that occur in the wake of publication. I must say that I’ve come to see them not as a kind of listing or describing-after-the-fact, but as yet another stage in the event that is the book. The living, the writing, the publication, the discussion: each of these are part of the book, and the book changes for me along the way. In discussing IT, IT is made new. This can happen of course on a smaller scale with stories and poems, and places like workshops and maybe Fictionaut, etc., are where you can go for it. But there’s a whole enterprise built around it happening with a book, an infrastructure that makes that discussion, that final and ongoing stage of art-making possible. And it’s an incredible, nurturing part of the work.