The Sage of Carolina speaks
Interview with Kevin LaTorre: Part I
Among the many twinkling stars of the Substack firmament, one who has shown himself to be consistently worthy of sustained attention is Kevin LaTorre, who writes the estimableblog. Of all the writing I receive through the email, Kevin’s essays are the ones I’m most likely to print out and file for future reference (notable examples include “Transcend the Transgressive,” a very thought-provoking and searching—and very Christian—treatment of Nabokov’s Lolita, and “The Dictated Worth of Intensive Texts,” his plea for the continuing validity of complicated writing in a world where our attention is pulled every which way). Kevin frequently features his own poetry on his blog as well, and he was kind enough to send me a poem appropriate to this blog’s preoccupation with ruins and decay; the poem incited a discussion which transformed itself into an email interview, the first part of which is presented below. In the end, Kevin was superlatively generous and responded to a commission of mine to produce a short poetic work on James Joyce’s story “The Dead” from Dubliners.
Our email exchange has been rearranged for the sake of clarity and focus; riches abound—Come all ye, and away!
WC: Could you talk a little about your poetics in general? Are there any forms which appeal to you more than others? Do you have a “tendency” or “theme” to your poetry? Do you identify with any specific literary movement or style—even one that has long passed its prime?
KLT: It’s difficult—for me to describe forms, theme, movement, or style from my own poems requires that I review them as a critic and not a poet. Those are different roles, to me, since the former relies on labels and comparisons and value-judgements while the latter needs sensation, desire, and expanse (if only at first in the deepest heart).
Tendency is a more helpful word: I tend toward the quiet, the restrained, and the cold. As a bookish boy who grew up in a few Protestant denominations and gets sweaty quite easily, that’s to be expected. I tend to write the same poem in each first draft: moody, autobiographical, depressive in a shallow way. Those could just be my first instincts. I tend in revisions to vary the form first, so that it goes beyond the I, or shrinks so far within it that the eye itself is forgotten, or ends up fitting a persona that can use I after all. That part is according to the content of the poem. If I have a style I can accurately describe, it happens in the act of bringing the structure, syntax, vocabulary, and voice of a text into harmony with the content, according to the content’s thematic feel. It is a response, maybe a submission, to the qualities of that Creation (mine is sub-creation, hopefully with respect). An existing and simpler phrase for that act is “free indirect discourse,” but I try to make my style from immoderation of that technique.
I would love to identify with a literary movement, but they are defined accurately only after they’re over, and they usually ended up disillusioning their most prominent members, turning them either toward or away from communism. As a reader, I most enjoy modernists of the twentieth century like Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Beckett, and Ellison for their exactitude of rendering sensations on the page. Realist, Romantic, naturalist, and postmodern writers before and since them don’t have that same exactitude, to me. Writing down a static row of symbols that can flutter like a light touch on the inner wrist, or hurtle forward headlong the way an anxious thought moves from eye to mind to chin to tongue, or tremble with the mirage-heat of a summer day in the countryside, and have a stranger 100 years later receive that motion from those static symbols, is amazing to me. Those names (and so many others) took that paradox of motion in stillness to new sensations by their daring techniques. I want to do that, as a writer, and to stretch that ability taut to fit my own interests. But as a writer I do not want to be called a modernist because it invites the comparison to those people I just named, which would be death to the meaning of my own work (not to mention an aesthetic comparison where I end up looking like a bonobo in a queen’s ball gown).
From reading your blog, I gather that you subscribe more to an “Old Europe” attitude and aesthetic; you yourself reside in North Carolina, which has a considerably longer history of settlement than my rather young Nebraska. Does this sense of place and history inform your work—consciously or unconsciously? What differences do you think would arise from the perspective of a resident of an old culture versus one who is part of a younger culture?
Honestly, both sets of my father’s grandparents (Italian and Czech, iron immigrants all) would keen if they heard that one of their descendants holds an “Old Europe” attitude. That said, I do think it’s an accurate description. European history was an early but subtle visitor, for me. Our family stories about their lives of assimilation informed how I knew place and history even before I really learned to sense or understand either term. History to me was first and foremost a story of immigrants arriving and families moving, before I encountered it as the concept debated in volume after volume of scholarship.
Speaking of family moves: I’m not originally from North Carolina. I came of age in Texas, but I’m not originally from there either (I was born in Delaware but left twice before the age of four, for the trivia-minded). Texas was annexed to the U.S. in 1845, about two decades before Nebraska became a state in 1867, but they share a history clothed in a certain frontier mythos that does feel different from the old colonial history present here in North Carolina. For one thing, Texas history is not publicly noted with the same exactitude of the plaques I enjoy near our home here in NC, where “James Hogg” or “Billy Strayhorn” or “Elizabeth Cotten” or “Washington Duke” are commemorated within 200 feet of the locations where they’d lived centuries ago. (While I mention this public practice: Duke University’s monument to its tobacco-scion namesake in its tobacco-free campus is hilarious to me, itself a case study in the treatment of history.) I find this tangible sense of the immediate place around us, both its history and its remaining natural environments, extremely inspirational, though at the moment my writing is more ecological than historical. (Refer, though, to my future descriptions of my current novel-in-progress and be sure to call me a liar.)
Inheriting an “old culture” versus a “young culture” usually means placing a different value into traditions, I’ve noticed. Here in the U.S., we’re a historical adolescent with our 247 years, and so sometimes it feels like we treat our traditions lightly, as though they’ve only existed for our parents’ lifetimes and never drew quite bloodily from several strands of English, Judeo-Christian, and Enlightenment philosophies whose roots are much older. Being so new to history, and having a cultural sense that history is most often a burden, can make traditions more optional or suspect, to Americans.
Meanwhile, European countries with bottomless medieval histories still have everyday traditions rooted in those histories (though our inexorable, light-handed American sense of tradition is on the global march). I once visited St. Brigid’s cathedral in Kildare, a huge stone church flanked by a stone tower reaching about 100 feet into the Irish sky. St. Brigid founded a church and abbey on the spot in about 480 A.D., and while the cathedral was burned and rebuilt and refurbished between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries, that stone tower is a remnant of the original structure. That site in Kildare is also the origin of squarish crosses woven from reeds, literally called “St. Brigid’s crosses” for the story of how she wove the first one to convert a pagan lord. Those crosses are still sold in both Kildare and Dublin, 1,498 years after that woman of God died in 525 A.D. The numerical depth of history in a place like Ireland, and the physical persistence of that history in small objects like St. Brigid’s crosses, makes the traditions of that history feel more valuable, at least personally. If a tradition has persisted fifteen centuries rather than two, it feels more untouchable. Though, if modern Irish writers are any evidence, living beneath untouchable traditions can drive you mad in a way that benefits your artistic vision.
I’d like to pivot from discussion of your own work to more general topics. You’ve published your poetry on your Substack newsletter several times, but I know that you’ve submitted both poems and stories to literary journals. How do you see the landscape of lit mags changing in the internet era, and particularly this new Substack-centric moment we seem to be having? Do you think there is a continuing future for literary journals run through colleges or other small presses? Are there unique challenges that confront the writer who submits to a print magazine versus an online journal, or who publishes their own work on their personal blog?
Beware, ye who enter: my spiritual gifts do not include prophecy, and I hop between cynicism and pessimism. But let me answer the questions from last to first, as Christ would.
For writers considering between print, digital, and self-publishing: for all options, the inescapable tension is between readers, payment, and rejection. If I submit to a magazine, I can receive its assured payment and its preexisting readers but I risk editorial rejection. If I self-publish, I do not risk rejection but I become responsible for building my own audience and generating my own payment. If I submit to a print magazine, I will likely be paid better and appear in a physical object that the reader is likely to keep longer, but rejection is (in my experience) more likely and I will have to write within more restraints. If I submit to a digital magazine, I will likely be paid little and live only on a reader’s one-time screen courtesy of a digital shout-out, but I will have less chance of a rejection thanks to endless journals bobbing in the shoreless sea of the internet. And if I write as though there is a system within these options that I can game and die an artistic millionaire, I will go insane, reject my own work, never reach any readers, and die unpaid. The above is why I try only to choose all three options at once, keep my day job, and trust that God will give me enough rejections to keep me brash but enough acceptances to keep me encouraged.
For literary journals’ future through the university: I expect they will continue as long as universities continue to teach literature (which will be at least another generation but maybe less, depending on your region and university). I’m certainly glad that universities have taken magazines, presses, and writers into themselves, because it gives them more institutional longevity and financial stability, but I do worry over the continued ghetto-ization of literature if the university becomes its only home. The university is an ill-shaped container, honestly. Much as I loved my undergraduate studies and thrived in their environs, the university is not wide enough to fit all the styles, forms, subjects, and ambiguities that a robust literary ecosystem needs to support. If literary journals continue to live in the shadow of their academies, I hope that their editors seek out work beyond what the narrowing market and political forces of the university incentivize. Better yet, I hope that funds and readers and imagination also take root in good, in-person soil outside the university.
For literary magazines in the digital era: Rather than the future, I’m still trying to get a clearer sense of the present, including an answer to the present question of whether Substack is a turning point for writers. I try to avoid Substack sub-commentary in my own newsletter because it’s grown insider-ish. That said, because you’re asking: I do not think writers at large are having a Substack-centric moment, and I need to wait until at least 2030 to see if Substack can fulfill its mission of saving writers financially. I’ve enjoyed the community-first features (and the community!) of the platform and the ease of its payment system, but ultimately I try to understand those benefits as the services of a tech platform and not as the face of a writer’s utopia. When Substack copywriters tell me that Substack will remake future digital writing forever, I tend not to believe them, however much I enjoy the Substack staff interpersonally (which is to say, digitally). Copywriting in tech (which I’ve done) relies on grand pronouncements, while tech products themselves depend on shaky venture capital, endless iterations, and no small amount of unlikely luck. Literary magazines, and independent writers like the two of us, can thrive on Substack, which is a good thing and blessed to see. If they are well-written and well-managed magazines, they will survive should Substack disappear. Artistic merit, media-organization savvy, and dogged persistence are what can make literary longevity, not the social media platform that might incubate them. I’m thankful that Substack gives writers their own mailing lists and access to one another, but I wish its marketing wouldn’t position the platform as the key ingredient to a literary Internet or try to turn us all into little media entrepreneurs writing on its behalf.
The topic of verisimilitude is one that has been a part of literary conversation for a very long time now—as a reader and writer, what do you think of literary conceits? I’m thinking of stories told in such an implausible manner that no one would ever unknowingly suspend disbelief. William Golding’s Pincher Martin is supposedly narrated by the main character who turns out to be actually dead the whole time (the same thing happens in Billy Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard). Do these kinds of affectations have a merit? Is your attitude towards authorial gimmicks different as a writer versus as a reader?
Literary conceits can be valuable as the piece of artifice that enables the voice, plot, or characters of a story to develop—either as a constraining or freeing piece of artifice that the writer needs. I do think the writer is more likely to notice a literary conceit than a reader, given that the conceits are usually subtle or given away a little at a time as the novel progresses. (Though the dead narrator you mentioned is a gotcha! primed more towards readers’ surprise). Their merit is that they enable the writers to invent their fiction with a flourish of the form. But the difference between conceit and cliché is thin, and shrinking every day, which is where I hesitate with particularly obvious conceits as both a writer and a reader. We are lucky, lucky readers to have an endless wealth of literature, which means much dazzling experimentation in form has already happened (though there are experimental harmonies still to come). A daring conceit today will invite those comparisons to other writers which I’ve already said terrify me, which I don’t want as a writer nor to slip like a rope over other writers as a reader. Recognizable conceits like the dead narrator, the novel-taking-place-over-one-day, the why-dunnit, and others are familiar to us, sometimes too familiar for comfort.
You’ve mentioned before how you enjoy Pale Fire above all the rest of Vladimir Nabokov’s novels—what would you say to a reader like myself, who doesn’t care for the novel as a whole but who finds the poem on its own to be very good?
Pale Fire is the serene middle child, published between the rock-and-roller antagonist Lolita and the magisterial and much-spoiled Ada, or Ardor: a Family Chronicle. It is calmer than the latter and kinder than the former, but it is certainly an odd bird. I heard it described in a review as a “centaur” of a book, and because of the difference in its two parts—the man’s chest of “Pale Fire” the poem and the horse’s ass and legs of “Pale Fire” the commentary—it is tempting to wish we could cleave them apart. But Pale Fire is one living, fantastical creature composed of both parts. The novel cannot exist without the commentary latched onto the poem by the fictional John Shade, given that the commentary of the thoroughly-insane Dr. Charles Kinbote so fully (and hilariously, depending on your mood) distorts the poem. This past June I reread the poem by itself, and I learned that Kinbote always and only obscures Shade’s actual text with his own. He recommends that readers flit from line to footnote, which is a means of reading that ultimately replaces the poem with the interpretation. That’s the action of the novel: the replacement in the reader’s mind of a macabre, solace-seeking poem with a madcap geopolitical intrigue from a country that does not exist. Why read the full novel? To see its form in light of that maneuver, to read it on the terms Nabokov devised for it.
There are piles of other novels (House of Leaves, Infinite Jest, The Sound and the Fury, etc. etc.) which make particularly taxing demands on the readers’ powers of interpretation. How do you feel as writer about those kinds of books? I know you are an admirer of Joyce—do you ever feel tempted to write something in a “difficult” style similar Ulysses?
As it happens, I haven’t read House of Leaves, Infinite Jest, or The Sound and the Fury, though I have read Ulysses, The Magic Mountain, As I Lay Dying, and To the Lighthouse and so can speak from one more limited scope of very particular modernism. I admire those novels for their audacity and its vindication in their skill, which as a reader I need to see paired together. An ambitious novel is overpowering when it grasps its aims in both hands, but offensive and foul when it can’t. But for myself, thinking of the people I know who read me, I would hesitate to write something so self-consciously “difficult.” (My dad will of course tell me in person sometime soon that this interview was self-consciously difficult for his taste, so a pox on both houses.) When I consider experimenting at that level—in my mind, usually for the pleasure of other writers—I can’t escape the feeling that I would be a showboat. Now, given that I aim to write intensive texts, I can’t say I will never stage a showier fiction in the future. It depends on what the story itself needs for its best expression.
I’m also interested in your thoughts on the nature of literary virtuosity. It’s easy to pick out examples of musical virtuosity—“that was an awesome guitar solo!”—and to think of them as merely aspects of the artist’s desire to show off their skills. In poetry, virtuosity can be evidenced by the poet’s assuming a complicated or difficult form, meter, or rhyme scheme. Is there a corresponding virtuosity in prose fiction?
Oh good, I’m likely one of the “easy” commentators because of how I assume that other writers indulge the urge to show off because I spot it in myself. There is certainly a virtuosity possible for writing fiction, which I find most often in the sustained, skilled writing that crosses through several styles or modes without losing its power. It’s similar to the virtuosity you describe for poets: the writer’s choice of a “complicated or difficult form” and then success in writing it, only the success is multiplied by the variety of forms. Joyce in Ulysses is the clichéd but true example of this skill across different modes, as he ranges over Anglo-Saxon, parodied journalism, hallucinatory stage-play, and other literary forms throughout the eighteen episodes of the novel. It certainly gets cloying and too technical towards the end, but the unmatched “Molly” monologue is lying in bed and in wait, just when the reader thinks that Joyce had gotten more artificial than artistic. But a contemporary example from 2006 is The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis, where her narrative voice morphs without losing itself between human subjects, animals’ consciousnesses, and cosmic processes. I wrote about this novel as narration of deep time last year, but in that essay I hadn’t considered Davis as a virtuoso who glides among the styles and subjects of that novel (I was reading her by the lens of John 1). The atmosphere is consistent, even as Davis tells a story of minor resurrections, the souls of extinct animals, and the progress of prehistoric glaciers. That is virtuosic fiction. And for a drive-by counter-example of virtuosity which fails because it doesn’t have the skill to work across modes, I’ll name-drop Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr and then not elaborate.
While we’re on the subject: what are some of your favorite passages of prose in English? One of mine is the last two pages of the “Mr. Toad” chapter in The Wind in the Willows, where the atmosphere moves quite suddenly, yet logically, from a country judge’s chambers to a medieval prison, and also somehow manages to evoke the entire culture and history of the British Isles, culminating in my favorite sentence in English: “The rusty key creaked in the lock, the great door clanged behind them; and Toad was a helpless prisoner in the remotest dungeon of the best-guarded keep of the stoutest castle in all the length and breadth of Merry England.” Virtuosity!
My kingdom for a better memory! I’m more in the habit of memorizing poems and their parts than memorizing prose, but if I can find a few of the fuzzily-remembered prose passages that please me . . .
Here is a stunner from The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivak: “the Alpine landscape into which Zlee and I were sent that early winter seemed a glimpse of what the surface of the earth looked and felt and acted like when there were no maps or borders, no rifles or artillery, no men or wars to claim possession of land, and snow and rock alone parried in a match of millennial slowness so that time meant nothing, and death meant nothing, for what life there was gave into the forces of nature surrounding and accepted its fate to play what role was handed down in the sidereal march of seasons capable of crushing in an instant what armies might—millennia later—be foolish enough to assemble on its heights.”
Here is a bête noire from Pnin, by the aforementioned Vlad the Impaler: “if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible. One had to forget—because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past. And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood.”
Here is a wound from The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright: “The next few months were all about work and there was something frantic and lonely about our love in that little house (don’t get sentimental, I tell myself, the sockets moved in the wall every time you stuck in a plug). We clung to each other. Six months, nine—I don’t know how long that phase lasted. Mortgage love. Shagging at 5.3 per cent. Until one day we decided to take out a couple of car loans and get married on the money instead.”
Here is a prayer from The Wind That Lays Waste, by Selva Almada (translated by Chris Andrews): “Whenever he remembers that day, which was to determine the rest of his life, the Reverend is overcome by emotion. Whenever he feels himself weakening, he summons that memory: the day of his baptism, the afternoon when the river man plunged him in the filthy waters of the Paraná to lift him out again, purified, and give him back into God’s care.”
But wait—there’s more!!! I will leave you till next week, when I will share Kevin’s two new poems as well as discuss with him the progress of his novel. We dive into a few related topics in the second half of our discussion, and Kevin shares some insights on what the appropriate response should be towards the artistic remains of previous ages. Until then, I hope you’ll take some time to read Kevin’s archive, which is full of gems. Goodbye!