Talking with Renee Gladman

Renee Gladman's latest book of prose is titled Calamities and I can’t recall ever experiencing reading and writing and thinking and being so closely brought together. For Gladman, being a person in the world is an act of defining, reacting to, and occupying space. In her work, she deftly explores bridging these physical and psychological acts with the task of writing and the key, in her latest, is drawing, a physical act with physical consequences that shares similar physical actions with the work of writing. 

As a writer, as a self-identified poet, I couldn’t read two pages without taking four pages of notes. Her work is so porous that her “calamities” often transmute into my own interests and insecurities as a writer. And they arise in an extraordinary way: a slow, steady, circuitous narrative in which reading and writing and thinking and being become physical acts; the writer is a body, a mind, an artist in the world, occupying spaces from bedrooms to cities to the infinite space between the reader and writer and page.

Gladman will be at Lit Fest 2017, teaching a weeklong workshop and a craft class. Before she gets to Denver, check out her answers to a few of my questions. 

Q. Considering all that you’re working with—prose, narrative, poetics, space, line, etc.—do you ever feel overwhelmed with where to start in your writing or drawing? What kind of constraints, if any, do you use in order to make the blank page, the number of possibilities, more manageable?

A. Unless I have to prepare a lecture or write a blurb or recommendation letter, I rarely find writing overwhelming. I never go into it with a plan, so it’s more like walking into a space and seeing what’s there. If I begin a piece with the words, “About the body I know very little,” in my mouth, what comes after is the adventure, the experience. On some level of my consciousness I’m thinking, “What follows?” Usually I’m writing about conditions of survival or passage, so up from somewhere come the words, “though I’m steadily trying to improve myself, in the way animals improve themselves by licking.” I become light-hearted because I feel I’ve shown some small, private part of myself. Then I keep going, trying to sustain the feeling: “I’ve always wanted to be sharp and clean.” These are the opening lines of the first piece in my first book, which for some reason, I’ve always remembered. I think that combination of sentences, the one coming after the other, perfectly illustrates what it’s like in my mind. I write sentences and build with sentences to create a certain hum of thought or feeling. And now I draw to the same effect, and seem to know when it’s time to write and when it’s time to draw.

Q. How long has your interest in visual drawings been informing/overlapping your written work? Was there a genesis to the meeting of the two disciplines or were they never really separate in the first place?

A. Although I’d been drawing since 2006, it wasn’t until 2013 that I understood writing to be another form of drawing. I was watching the film The Hours when this occurred to me. There’s a scene where Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf sits down in her study to write out some sentences of Mrs. Dalloway. I was struck particularly by the elaborate gesture of that act—Kidman using a quill pen on a large pad of paper to compose, the language of the novel seeming to be drawn up from the well of that white space. Seeing this slow emergence of a beautiful passage from Mrs. Dalloway (I no longer remember which), I felt that I was seeing something that was usually inaccessible to sight: a kind of X-ray view of what it’s like to write, to emit flowing prose from the body. I immediately set out to make a drawing in which I wrote writing. Sometimes it’s hard to get this across. I wrote, but not semantically. This seemed more like the mechanics of writing I was touching, what I call an “inner syntax,” language with its skin peeled back. And I found that to write this way was to see how language behaved when it was not accountable to meaning, when it did not have to stay in line. I could be in the space of narrative without having to write narrative and this allowed me, for the first time, to see narrative as desire for space, to go out and turn back then up and through then back then heavy in a place, again heavy, then to go light, and onward. The drawings, when finished, were maps or documents of energies, the insides of paragraphs. I made hundreds of them because each drawing brought me closer to the present time of writing, each one taught me more about the possibilities of motion within paragraphs.

Q. What is it about visual drawings that especially fire up your thinking/writing practice?

A. I find the lines in the world, even accidental lines, like marks on a wall, absolutely beautiful and engaging. They seem to want to talk to me; they seem to want me to ask them something about what they’re doing to space. Lines in carpets, lines cut into concrete, lines made by building, lines made when one terrain meets another, line of the horizon, lines on faces, lines on paper. What I love most about drawing, particularly abstract drawing, is how the drawing, once it’s complete, retains the story of its process. I love a work that is simultaneously a thing and an inquiry. You draw and you make a shape, and every line of that shape seems to be a question about the shape as well as a question about the space around the shape. Writing is like this for me, but when you’re writing (as much as I would like) you can’t only write about the fact that you’re writing and what it feels like. People want to know something, meet somebody: you’ve got to write a story or write a fact, describe a thing, make events happen. Drawing allows me to be inside without having to say “I’m inside, I’m thinking right now,” and the “inside” I’m in is language, which is hard to occupy when you’re actually using language. It’s a calamity.

Q. Speaking of Calamities, many of these abstract concerns are grounded in the everyday life of being a person in the world, with a body and job and an apartment. Sometimes it’s very funny (the narrator realizing she likes being bossed around by her sister on vacation) and sometimes it’s insidious (the narrator being let go from her academic job because she’s not a “slam dunk”). How do the daily moments of bewilderment also serve as moments of illumination or complication for the poetic ideas you’re continually exploring?

A. For a long time I have said that confusion is one of my favorite modes of perception. I find being a person in the world bewildering to the core; and I’m not only talking about the perplexities of articulating one’s experiences in language, trying to grasp the present in a language that makes you chase your subject through the line, through grammar, trying to understand the difference between memory and experience, trying to locate the moment when experience becomes memory, I’m also pointing to the bewilderment of being a consciousness inside a body, looking out of one’s eyes into the world or looking out of one’s eyes through the world into another’s eyes or many people’s eyes at the same time, as if to obtain the state of their consciousness. For me, all of this trying to see and trying to discern constitutes many minutes of the day. I like that my trying happens in concert with others trying, and that I always seem to live somewhere where there are birds singing and mosses growing.

Torin Jensen is a poet and translator. He holds an MFA from Boise State University, and his work has appeared in numerous journals, including The VoltaAsymptoteCircumference, and the Harriet Foundation Poetry Blog. He's the author of Phase-sponge [ ] the keep (Solar Luxuriance, 2014).