Apropos of the falling snow
Interview with Kevin LaTorre: Part II
As promised, here is the second half of my email conversation with Kevin LaTorre, author, poet, and writer of the blog. We covered a lot of ground in the first half of our conversation, which you can read here; in this half, Kevin shares two new poems and discusses his novel-in-progress. Along the way you can read his thoughts on the “stuck culture” trope and what he really thinks about Jonathan Franzen, Tolstoy, and the concept of focusing too much on the artistic products of past cultures. Kevin has given me, as Madame Blueberry says, “much to think about,” and I hope you find his opinions and perspective as valuable as I do. So! . . . Shall we go, you and I while we can?
Love in the Floods
My guide stands crooked, muttering roll calls of the long dead, his boater’s pole averting the distorted rooftops that grasp for our raft from below. We float the black waters of what was once a city brimming, now a sulfuric marsh of man retaken. Our odyssey began in the estuaries, we hope to reach the sea for the birth of the next eon. This crude city of mills was blued by use, beaten, before it drowned. Once-neon signs peek pastel and charred, there are tinsel balloons hanged in reddened telephone wire. Plastics from flooded marts bob in uneven, clicking coats over the waters, applauding the stranded periscopes of gaunt swallowed streetlights. Mottled houses, submerged to the eyes, squat like the high grotesques of cathedrals. We seek the human but find its counterfeits, even in our own company. No movement of gasping life in this marsh, a starved wake trailing our raft—oh, this world for a blinking face who could smile her firm ivory teeth to us, just once, in our drifting centuries.
WC: Your new poem “Love in the Floods” was quite a treat for me. Fascinated as I am by the ruins motif, I’m also struck by how the destruction and waste surrounding the narrator are really only a backdrop to reflections of a personal nature. In a landscape of ruins, what remains important? I enjoyed how you kept the poem grounded in these human concerns. The genre of post-apocalyptic literature quite often veers toward big pronouncements about fate and civilization but it’s good to remember that the survivors of a cataclysm are still individual people.
KLT: Thank you! Your phrase “reflections of a personal nature” is a good pun, by the way, both the poet brooding and the poetic persona looking down into a body of water, so well done yourself. Reflecting the person by “human concerns” is usually how I try entering into the poems I want to write, since human concerns are in the observable details that spur the feeling of This image needs a poem (the only feeling by which I’ve been able to write any). Human detritus are more like hints, implications, than full-on pronouncements, and spotting them word by word is easier when they’re spotted by a small-eyed individual poetic persona. Apocalyptic pronouncements are a crowded field in our tradition, and I can’t presume to out-write John in the throes of divine vision.
What were your inspiration for the poem? The mental image of floating around on a raft in the midst of industrial detritus reminded me of the scene in Wall-E where the title character is punting through some sludgy ooze with Eva along for the ride, but he can’t communicate with her.
Here I was, thinking the poem very Adult, very Grave, very Serious. My inspirations for poems are difficult to describe accurately even while I’m steeping in and writing them, so recounting them now may turn out scattershot. I suppose I was struck by certain images lifted from my reading: the witness of religious damnation in Dante’s Inferno, added to the indifference of cosmic processes like those in The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis. Then there was the memory of eastern swamps in North Carolina, near Goose Creek State Park, where the water is coffee-black, still, and silent. Inferno relies on the inhuman heat of hellfires for its spectacle and meanings, but I tend toward what’s colder and quieter, hence the choice of water over flame. As to the mood? Being human in a place that does not deign to notice you is unnerving, and being among others without human connection is a miniature apocalypse, I suppose.
I’d like to talk about your novel for a bit. You’ve shared some vague hints at its mood, form, and structure on your newsletter. Please be as prolix as you want.
Since the end of December 2022, I have written over 30,000 words of a novel I’m calling, hesitantly, I Seek a Country. It is the second novel manuscript I have ever begun, and I’m fragmenting the manner in which I wrote the first one, when I began with the first words and ended with the last. With this new manuscript I’ve instead written bits, backstories, and bobs to introduce this novel and its style to myself. It’s lowering my mind into the stew to loosen up and see what might bubble to the surface. Much of my pleasure in I Seek a Country so far has been the speedlessness of the book’s development, since 2021 when I visited the the late autumn Appalachian holds of Asheville, and also since 2019 when I read a story about game parks in Kenya whose managers recruited former mercenaries to live near-ferally in the bush so they could hunt and kill poachers.
Essentially, the near-germinal novel takes place in the 1970s and follows a married couple and their two sons who live in the liminal Appalachian mountain range between North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The husband is a state wildlife protector who polices newly-created black bear sanctuaries against poachers who have hunted black bear for over a century; the wife is a budding naturalist taken with the land; both are isolated, not only from their immediate neighbors who distrust them as northern meddlers but also from their founding belief systems as the disillusioned children of immigrants. Facing the dread of existential anxiety and without belief to anchor them, they each meet with attractive new ideologies that lead them, little by little, from home and from one another. The husband takes up with a fellow game warden who punishes poachers with balancing wrath well beyond the law. The wife takes up with a visiting civil servant alive with fervor for the new environmental movement, newly christened by the regulatory and cultural institutions that marked the start of the 1970s. Both of these friendships tend toward environmental extremism, because extremism is itself an anchoring belief for a time when many had already failed.
Interspersed with this narrative is a parallel story of the tarnished journalist washed into Appalachian State University to teach composition to future teachers, a man who seeks meaning for himself through the decade’s decadence of music, sex, activism, drugs, power, and nihilism. He himself follows a magnetic figure through this kaleidoscope of beliefs: the wandering lounge pianist called the Sage of Boone, who alone among the academy sees that the country’s desolation is a spiritual grief, more than anything else.
Hopefully this description and all its dressings of noun, adjective, and intrigue piques your interest. If anyone would like to read passages from the manuscript, I’m interested in sharing what I can, if only because the prose will describe itself far better and more truthfully than I have
Your description reminds me a lot of some of the tone and mood from Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads—have you read it?
I have not. Though I am looking at its title and author on the TBR list I have pinned into the cork board over my desk. Several times I have weighed removing Crossroads from my TBR, though for now I haven’t. I’m wary of its influence on my little manuscript, much as I’m wary of the Franzen I’ve read (most recently, his tedious essay on “evangelical nature writing” in The New Yorker). I’m wary partly because I circled Crossroads by reading reviews but not the novel when it first appeared, which is certainly my worst habit as a reader. But that’s how I’ve learned a thing or two about his domestic travails, suburban church settings, and plans for a capital-T Trilogy of societal fictions, none of which interest me. Unlike Franzen, I’m not a teenager of the 1970s but its grandson, and I don’t want an ounce of nostalgia in this novel. Right now I want to avoid even the chance of reading a text which treats that period as a remembered adolescence. It could be irrational, but I’m writing a novel, when else should I be irrational? All that said, I also don’t want to rule out ever reading it as a possible contrast in form or theme, something to sharpen against. Maybe once the manuscript has true legs and vertebrae and brain, I’ll read Crossroads. Or maybe I’ll scratch it from my TBR tomorrow and forget all about it.
I’d like to ask you to unpack something you said about the novel, that the married couple and two sons are “without belief to anchor them.” I know you are too honest, and too respectful to your readers, to write a novel which shoves belief down the throat of your characters (and by extension, readers) . . . but as a Christian, do you imagine the novel to have a moral center which defines belief, similar, for instance, to The Brothers Karamazov? Or will it be more like Middlemarch, where the moral center is extremely ambiguous and we are left with the wreckage of the characters’ choices?
I plan to not condescend to readers by deigning to preach. Much as I love the pastors who have discipled me by their teaching, I am not a pastor. I Seek a Country is not a sermon. The novel as I see and write it works most truly, dynamically, and imaginatively when its moral center is ambiguous and found mostly by implication or inference from the characters’ choices and suffering (“wreckage” is a little too dramatic and Franzen-y for my taste). I plan to define belief several times, through the several characters who find themselves both believing in and disbelieving the ideologies, people, and faiths swirling around them. While I myself have Christian skepticisms about how we often misunderstand belief, my novel shouldn’t be so ironclad. Its definitions will need to suit the characters who enact them, given that the novel examines belief as a concept and practice, not only my beliefs as a Christian. There will be a country reverend in a supporting role, but his Christian beliefs will be one form of many the novel explores.
I haven’t read Middlemarch and so can’t take up its mantle, though I have read and died for The Brothers Karamazov and so can disavow its delivery of belief, though hopefully not its truth or thorniness. I say delivery because I struggle to believe in characters who deliver Karamazov-style monologues. They can be enthralling passages of fiction, but they are also of a classical style that feel too gargantuan for this novel, so that including any would be a messy graft. Again, I prefer the above implication and inference, the lodestars of how I read and write fiction.
I note that the pianist is the only character who is able to accurately diagnose the “spiritual grief” of the surrounding country. I would like very much to believe that you are being purposeful in putting this diagnosis in the mind of an artist! Do you think artists—musicians, novelists, and all the other kinds—are able to notice this kind of thing more clearly or accurately than the rest of us?
I think you (like many a character in I Seek a Country) have misplaced your belief. Instead, the setup of the pianist’s spiritual keenness is an ironic one, given that he is a psychedelic, vagabond seer from Scotland who exists in a parodied university setting where all the most accepted and fashionable theories of life and society are the wrong ones. Compared to the mountain sections which will form the bulk of the novel, the academic section will be more light-handed and satirical, hopefully as a complementary counterpoint to the other section. The campus setting seemed a better home for the paranoid, dilapidated postmodern style of comic fiction that sprang up in the 1970s.
But, of course, I have a pair of pennies for your question: Do artists better notice spiritual desolation, compared to other people? I don’t think so, and I’m also not sure. (Due to their dodge, both those answers might be worth less than $0.02.) I can say more firmly that artists have the well-trained, visionary imagination to express desolation differently than the people around them by their art, at best in a singular and vivid way. But I use the words visionary, singular, and vivid instead of prescriptive, helpful, and corrective because artists don’t always find the spiritual accuracy we need for instruction, which can make them poor spiritual teachers to guide their people from the quagmires they sense are drowning them. Look to Tolstoy here, that titan of the Novel—as a self-proclaimed holy man teaching societal solutions later in his life, he replaced Christ with himself and so emptied Christianity of the radical transformation he genuinely wanted from it. Philosophically and spiritually, Tolstoy the writer understood and depicted the futilities of we finite men, maybe better than any writer before or since. But it did him (and his wife, children, and country) little good by the end of his life, vivid as his novels remain. If artists noticed our desolation better than anyone else, I’d think that they would also sense better solutions for that desolation. They certainly notice it differently.
On Rereading Joyce’s “The Dead”
There plays such acclaim for the illustrious dead that their arias and feasts to gild square tables, ballroom skies, and piano covers for their guests in from the night are so nearly uneaten, unheard. Could it be for fear? For shame of ear and taste to be ourselves only shades caught in shadow on the staircase, wordless, still. For pain of the distant music, of mystery and grace, we listen to the air of a few struck chords, a Dubliner’s few words inerrant. And I not even a shade, here at the stairs’ base in my lame and useless words. The dread heart in the Christmas singer catches me still—the song by which he braved death. He remains immovable there in the world’s night, his form leaning on his ashplant beneath the dripping tree he planted. I, no true student nor fair rival, a face in the glass as his snowfall continues to coat the living, the language, and the dead.
I really enjoyed this poem. When I first suggested to you that you write it, my touchstone was Keats’ “Upon first looking into Chapman’s Homer.” The Keats poem has such a wonder, a sense of hitherto-unknown possibilities; but yours is just the opposite. I loved that line at the beginning: “acclaim for the illustrious dead”—a good double meaning there! But also, it is certainly prevalent that people praise the works of the past to such a degree that there is an ensuing diminishment of the works of current practitioners. Henry Fuseli has a drawing called “The Artist Despairing Before the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins” that I think captures the mood pretty well.
Also, Alex Ross, in The Rest is Noise, describes the feeling as it appears in the world of classical music, thus:
Inscribed above the stage of Symphony Hall in Boston, one of America's great music palaces, is the name BEETHOVEN, occupying much the same position as a crucifix in a church. In several late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century concert halls, the names of the European masters appear all around the circumference of the auditorium, signifying unambiguously that the buildings are cathedrals for the worship of imported musical icons. Early in the century, any aspiring young composer who sat in one of these halls—a white male, needless to say, blacks being generally unwelcome and women generally not taken seriously—would likely have fallen prey to pessimistic thoughts. The very design of the place militated against the possibility of a native musical tradition. How could your name ever be carved alongside Beethoven's or Grieg's when all available spaces were filled?
Certainly your poem takes a very self-consciously literary approach, but do you feel the “grandeur of the past” is a definite concern? Is it hard to get out from under the weight of the past, especially as a creator of new works?
Thanks for saying so! That’s kind of you. With any text Joyce wrote, I can often feel the same as that sculptor, and I’m tempted toward exaltation of dead writers like him at the marked denigration of contemporary writers. But today’s writers—you, me, any of us trying to write anything meant to last—are Joyce’s inheritors, which means the grandeur of the past and its weight should be our definite concern. For one thing, we tend as writers to imitate the styles that enchant us as readers. Early Cormac McCarthy wanted to be late William Faulkner, and not to his own benefit. I wanted to be Rick Riordan when I first started writing, and even my mongrel, Joyce-imitating early poems were better than those first immature imitations. This temptation leaves you only a derivative if you’re not careful, which is one reason I don’t self-consciously think of Joyce (or other writers I count as influences) while writing my own fiction or poetry. Their literary inheritance can be pared, so that it weighs less and more easily teaches us. Or, if you prefer another metaphor: I like to think of literature as an unending, lively conversation that I get to hear and add to for a short time, before I stop speaking and the conversation continues without me. I ought to know a good amount of what’s been said, but to be informed by and respond to it, not to just repeat it word-for-word. No one appreciates the parasite who hovers behind the conversationalist so he can repeat his friend’s every phrase but much louder and from closer range. We can’t just parrot what we have inherited, or else the conversation stagnates.
Your poem has many allusions to things being “still” or “immovable”—there’s almost a preserved, frozen-in-place, snow-globe quality to your language. I’ve heard lots of talk about our being in a “stuck culture”—that for some reason or other, our creators aren’t able to come up with new cultural artifacts and we consequently are unable to proceed to the next phase of cultural development. It does seem that movies are stuck in a vicious feedback loop of remakes and cinematic universes; music, too, seems more about nostalgia than anything else. What are your thoughts on the “stuck culture” trope?
Foremost that it is an old concept—the Joyceans’ word for it is “paralysis.” Joyce has it riddle and immobilize the characters of Dubliners. I included stillness in the poem because that is where Joyce slips beauty and epiphanies into “The Dead,” in the silent seconds when the hustling, noisy hubbub of the aunts’ party has died and only contemplation is present. Poems are suited to such seconds.
As to the “stuck culture” trope, I find it makes for striking literary conceits but redundant cultural commentary. To name the three classic nets, Joyce felt that his hometown of Dublin was stuck within Catholic repression, British colonial structures, and the lacking imaginations of Irish nationalists. Their three-pronged snare makes for an immobile population where even small outbursts, decisions, or words ring with revelation—it is a striking conceit for Dubliners. Every letter of its short stories can brim with symbolic meaning, thanks to the specter of paralysis that has so thoroughly eliminated meaning from the characters’ lives.
But for our own considerations of uninventive cultural development? Those are just self-evident to me, certainly in the remakes, adaptations, and shadow-play universes of film and television. We might also face a plague of motionlessness that has enclosed literary fiction, but I haven’t read enough small-press or self-published literary fiction to say that for certain nor name specific books (*coughs* Trust, by Hernan Diaz). But. Rather than discuss those paralytics and others beyond this paragraph, I’d rather write what I can and enjoy the books, films, and music that don’t feel lifelessly stuck by the cultural conglomerates whose members are too frightened to not rely on existing properties. The polemics I have in my head don’t have good shelve lives; once I’ve discussed them with my wife, my friends, my wife, my brothers, and then my wife again, my complaints usually peter out. They’re usually kvetching rather than essays, and they’re never as much fun as I’d like. But the stories and prayers in my head, the celebrations of what I enjoy, have greater stamina and pleasure than my complaints, however much I love a good gripe to go with my dinner.
Despite your poem’s evocation of inadequacy—you call yourself “no true student / nor fair rival” to Joyce—there is quite a feeling of reverence in it. But it’s important to remember the ethical element here: what should our attitude be toward the ruins of previous cultures as manifested in their art? Is reverence for the cultural artifacts of the past just another form of idolatry?
Well, I still wrote the poem, didn’t I? And “reverence” is accurate, because reverence requires a response to the object that inspires it. I might well feel (and be) inadequate before what Joyce wrote in “The Dead,” but my best response to him is to write something aware of what he wrote, my own text attempting to explore his on its own terms but not afraid to touch it. That—complete, fair observance intent on engagement—is the respect I can pay to Joyce and his writing, for reverence also requires respect. That is what I feel I ought to do with “The Dead” and it’s what I have done, hopefully to the great extent that the story deserves. If you’d like to generalize the “should” behavior from my behavior, then reverence for art from the past isn’t idolatry if we reverently engage the art. Experiencing a short story from Dubliners, or the careening strings of highest Rimsky-Korsakov in Scheherazade, or even prehistoric cave paintings, but then declining to engage them because we decide they’re too far above us is idolatry. We usually decline to touch, engage, or challenge the things we see as being set apart from us—the term there is holy. If we regard the works of the dead as holy by not engaging them, that is textbook idolatry. When we respond to them in kind, it is generative conversation rather than consecration. What better respect can we give to the artistic dead than taking up the generative expression they themselves sought?
Or to put it another way: is my deliberately-cultivated stance of “regarding the ruins” another form of cultural stuckness?
Only if “regarding the ruins” is all regard and no reply.
I’ll let Kevin drop the mic with that—really, that last thought deserves a while of silent contemplation. But when you’re done, I would encourage you to sign up for Kevin’s excellent newsletter here, and give his writing the consideration it deserves.
Next week will be our traditional seasonal link drop, and then I’m taking a week off to catch up on reading. Thanks, as always, for giving me your time and attention.