02-18-11:Two Books Alan Cheuse : 'While Mortals Sleep' by Kurt Vonnegut and 'Caribou Island' by David Vann
"I read for a couple of years and this family came into my mind..."
One of the most enjoyable aspects of working with Alan Cheuse are the mutations our to-talk-about list goes through. We've been back and forth over this one for a while, and it was happy coincidence that had me speaking with David Vann about 'Caribou Island' before I spoke about it with Alan Cheuse. Add to that the latest set of new old stories from American Master Kurt Vonnegut, and you have the recipe for a really fun conversation.
We started out talking about the Kurt Vonnegut book, which, while it is not Vonnegut's best work ever, is surely worthy of your reading time. For me, it worked best as a sort of time machine into the period when it was written and the audience it was written for, which, amazingly, actually thought that reading was a form of entertainment. Magazines would publish short stories by youngish writers, taking chances. Big names were in the future that Vonnegut was soon to be writing about.
Not surprisingly, we both liked 'Caribou Island' by David Vann, though we did differ in our take on it, which is one of the reasons these conversations are so enjoyable. I'll let listeners hear our discussion without discussion, as I found the twists and turns quite enjoyable myself.
We finished up with a preview of Things To Come; no, not the H. G. Wells novel, or the movie based up it (which I actually think is quite superb and memorable). We talked about some upcoming releases for the spring and summer. Shockingly, I don't think Alan expected to discuss his own book, 'Song of Slaves in the Desert,' but I brought that issue to bear immediately. And to tell the truth, equally shocking, I while I was rather tongue-tied on the upcoming SF (I hadn't yet received Patrick Rothfuss's 'Wide Man's Fear,' and embarrassingly, could not recall the title), Cheuse was right on top of them. You can hear our discussion by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
02-17-11:A 2011 Interview with Sam Sax
"It's like walking around the city and talking to myself."
Sometimes it is best to let the work speak for itself. When I sat down with poet Sam Sax at the Mechanics' Institute Library in San Francisco, I could have started with a few questions about the nature and origin of his work. But he was going to perform later that night, and had a few pieces of paper in his hand. I decided to ask him to simply read a poem to begin with; he told me that he wanted not read a poem but recite one — that was about two minutes long. I told him to let it rip, and he literally did just that.
Two-something minutes later, I was sitting there wondering just how he had managed to pull his — still untitled — poem off with such aplomb. It's really quite a remarkable performance. Sax and I talked about how me composes his work and how he tours. He comes out what he calls a hip-hop background, though to me the real calling card is Allen Ginsberg.
For reasons I cannot even guess at, I had something of a bee in my bonnet about, uh, making money. It seems to me that in the olden days, he would have been an easily published poet and would be settling back into a career of academic work matched with poetry. But those days are gone, gone, gone, and in their place we have the new "free" culture, which seems to be pretty much what Stanislaw Lem predicted in "Pericalypsis," that is, art done with no potentiality for profit. In fact, in Lem's vision you should have to pay to perform.
"We try to replicate the experience of what the show was like."
A variety of mega-corp publishers, brainless pundits on and off the internet, and television commentators would like you to believe that books, reading and literature are on their death bed. It is true that too many fine, independent bookstores have gone out of business, crushed by high rents and lowball sales from chains and *.*. But reading culture, literary culture is in fine fettle. In most major cities in the US, and not a few smaller ones, you can spend every night of the week out at literary events. Evan Karp has not just lived that dream; he's brought his video tape camera with him and uploaded the results to Litseen.com.
I spoke with Evan Karp at the Mechanics' Institute Library and Chess Room, in San Francisco California, and a finer example of literary culture cannot be found. In a one-hundred year-old building on Post Street, the Mechanics' Institute Library and Chess Room is an oasis of calm and high decorum. It is a perfect Victorian-style wood-lined, old fashioned library with lots of books and a number of lovely reading and meeting spaces. There's a big room full of chessboards and games-in-progress. It's almost as if someone plopped something from a Sherlock Holmes story into the middle of a modern metropolis.
I spoke with Evan Karp in a meeting room generously donated by the library for three interviews. We pulled up a couple of perilously hard chairs and sat down to talk about Evan Karp's science experiment — at least, that's what it seems like to me. We talked about the origins of Litseen and exactly what it is (heading north of 2,000 videos of literary events in the San Francisco area). Karp's approach is scientific, but his results to my mind are a new sort of community artform.
But Karp is a busy guy, so we also talked about his own series of literary events, Quiet Lightning. This is, as Karp describes it, something along the lines of a rock band's tour, with the performances being entirely drawn from members of the audience who step up to the stage without introduction and speak their piece. It's clear that Karp has a very certain and ascetic, almost pristine vision. No frills are required where language is king.
I'm guessing that readers will find the spoken voice of David Vann something of a surprise. His book is written in a carefully crafted prose that is the equivalent of a cold mountain river; powerful, inescapable and very fast. His personal backstory, which I will let listeners hear for themselves, is every bit as powerful the ones he spins in prose. But go to meet him if and when you are lucky enough to have him visit your town, and you will meet a man who is happy and quite genial, effusive even.
Vann was kind enough to make the trip down to Santa Cruz on windy but warm winter day, and we sat in the KUSP meeting room to talk about his book. Now, I knew much of the personal story that informs his work. Here's a guy who has written 'Legend of a Suicide,' a collection of stories that circle around his own father's suicide. But to me, it's too easy to just push the personal tragedy button and see what happens. I wanted to talk about Vann's craft and his vision, not play the part of tough therapist.
And I was quite happy to find that I didn't necessarily need therapy myself because I thought that much of 'Caribou Island' was quite funny. Vann intended for it to be what I describe as "antic tragedy." We also talked about his prose, how he pares it down and pares it down by pulling out every unnecessary word. He alluded to what he called "pure content." The upshot is a book that is powerful and very readable.