Some years ago the poet Rob Halpern, in that OMG-you-haven’t-read-him? way that we have about the authors we are passionate about, insisted that I read Bob Glück. Enabling my impending addiction to the author, Rob gave me early editions of Glück’s novel Jack the Modernist and his first book of prose, Elements of a Coffee Service. Now I, too, am a Glück pusher. I have taught his work repeatedly and shiver and shudder to think I might have lived without reading his original, tasty, and oh-so-queerly reflexive rom-com. If I may borrow the expression, he is a writer’s writer’s writer, rotating, as he has, at the axis of intersecting literary cults that have radiated brilliance outward, anon. But in fact, with his disarming tone, his highbrow/lowbrow narrative aesthetics, and the luminous precision of his autobiographical insight, he is any reader’s writer. His self-teasing and his striving to be awake as he tells his true stories are, I think, ways of befriending and including us, the very dear reader. Gossip and friendship are central to Glück’s oeuvre, particularly his friendship with Bruce Boone, whose own collection of stories (tellingly entitled My Walk with Bob) is regarded as a core text of the New Narrative movement, said to have stemmed from Glück’s writing workshops in his Noe Valley home in San Francisco.
Part of the pleasure in reading Glück lies in the loosening of the grip of certain rigid self-hyphenations: self-judgment, self-destitution, self-protection, self-abandonment. Roland Barthes meets Groucho Marx; observant wit meets existentialist slapstick. If to ridicule is to imply you have nothing in common with your victim, to intelligently tease is to give the other (reader, lover, friend) a chance to feel equal to the relentless dilemma of herself, i.e., forget self-help books: read Proust, Barthes, and Glück and know your scandalous self. From Jack the Modernist: “Getting fucked and masturbated produces an orgasm that can be read in two ways, like the painting of a Victorian woman with her sensual hair piled up who gazes into the mirror of her vanity table. Then the same lights and darks reveal a different set of contours: her head becomes one eye, the reflection of her face another eye and her mirror becomes the dome of a grinning skull/woman/skull/woman/skull—I wanted my orgasm to fall between those images. That’s not really a place. I know. The pious Victorian names his visual pun ‘Vanity.’ I rename it ‘Identity.’ ”
Glück is the author of nine books of poems and narratives, including two novels, Margery Kempe and Jack the Modernist; a book of stories, Denny Smith; a book of poems and short prose, Reader; and, with, Bruce Boone, the collaboration La Fontaine. The recipient of too many awards to name here, Glück was codirector of Small Press Traffic and director of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University, and was named one of the ten best postmodern fiction writers in North America by the Dictionary of Literary Biography, in 1994. Elements of a Coffee Service has just been reissued in a new edition by Ithuriel’s Spear. He teaches at San Francisco State. This interview transpired via email in San Francisco, in the spring of 2012.
THE BELIEVER: Your writing is often grounded in place. What are your decorating/homemaking influences?
BOB GLÜCK: This is a good place to start, because at present I am hiding out at home, endeavoring to enter my writing while undertaking the secretarial chores of assembling a book of essays. Yesterday I got to “Yoko” in my documents folder, the last item. Now I will start going through file cabinets. Being at home without outwardly directed work, like classwork, is a great pleasure. Sometimes I abandon my writing and settle into a movie. Daytime TV—forbidden fruit! I am particularly fond of precode films from the early ’30s. Sometimes I go online and look for dates or hookups—the fascination of the hunt, or is it the fascination of shopping?—or I just witness the broad, mighty river of sexual self-description that is craigslist. One day I will write an essay called “Carpal Tunnel as an STD.”
But there is more to domesticity than screens. I have often written about the objects that touch me physically. The wooden spoon I eat with, which has been worn away over the years—its humility and loyalty are moving to me. I have a white glass cup that has often appeared in my fictions. It is the simplest of shapes, nothing fancy, more the idea of a cup, tipping in and out of existence. It’s in “Purple Men 2000,” and the book I am writing now, and lord knows where else.
It is a kind of language of the body, these objects that are worn by use, by touching, washing. I got rid of my dishwasher—I never ran it, I just stored china in it. That’s because I want to touch dishes—washing them connects me to a benign history, an ancient activity, like pouring tea. These objects have a humility that is also a kind of glory, shoes rubbed by our feet into different shapes, a triumph of the vernacular shaping and subverting the mass-produced. As [the Jesuit scholar] Michel de Certeau might put it: a music of hosannas. That they are ephemeral, that they do not appear on the stage of history, only increases their splendor. Let’s say it is part of the ongoing discovery of the irreversible. Rubbed smooth, abraded, softened, torn. Processes that work against conservation, that give an object an opposite valence. A story of decay and death and transformation. I mend my clothes and I turn the collars on my favorite shirts in gratitude. When I die, some of these objects will find a place in other households and lives, and help define what is normal and even invisible.
If you think of it, the other senses have art forms that isolate them aesthetically: music, food, visual art, perfume, but there is none that isolates touch. Sex? It involves all the others as well.
Especially moving are objects from other households. They were chosen and used for whole lifetimes, for several lifetimes; they carry that intimate history with them when they are new in my household. After a while that frame disappears, though not always. I just bought a nineteenth-century porcelain pap feeder in Maine, white porcelain, about seven inches long. The spout is half the length of the whole shape; it looks like a creamer except the spout is a tube that sticks straight out. It’s for giving pap or panada to babies and invalids, the dying and the newborn.
I suppose this is just another way of talking about the body—which is torn, rubbed smooth, abraded, softened. There is a passage in The Waves that I often think about, about a woman who becomes a farm wife, the opening and closing of the bins and cabinets, the heavy sacks of flour, raisins, sugar—now where is my copy of The Waves! Is this sentimental?
These objects that we touch are not a part of the estrangements of our lives, which are so topical and easy to discuss, so they don’t have value in that conversation. Our relation to these objects seems to exist before language, in the language of gesture, similar to our relation to pets. A relation so pure because it occurs before language, before narrative, so it does not take part in that most spectacular and goriest of summer blockbusters. To eliminate it from our writing because it does not jibe with the towering estrangements, outrage, satisfactions, damage, irony, and horror that are also part of life, and partly generated by the contradictions of our historical moment, is to falsify our experience.
There is another way that objects operate in my life. I’m a collector—art and obscure ceramics, Jalan, California faience. And sentiment cups—lumpy, abject cups from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries decorated with mottos in faded gold luster: THINK OF ME, LOVE THE GIVER, and, my favorite, A PRESENT. (It’s like Achilles’ shield.) When I was seven I had a china collection—mostly bone china and ivory—and a cabinet to display it. I wanted to be somewhere else and these objects were like passports. I suppose the collecting impulse is like any obsession, that is, the desire for safety, the impulse to put something between oneself and death.
BLVR: You speak of how, at death, belongings, passed on to others, “help us define what is normal and even invisible,” and of how those objects’ frames disappear, “though not always,” as with the porcelain pap. If the pap’s frame doesn’t disappear, is it because the object is obsolete, so its frame is static? In this way perhaps an object’s obsolescence can make it visible to us as such, make it appear on “the stage of history.” Once it is an “antique,” is that the end of the line for the object, in terms of how it might be perceived? Hannah Arendt said that at home we are all alike, that it is in political activity that we distinguish ourselves. Between our time and hers lies queer and feminist theory, among other activisms that blur the lines between the personal and the political, but isn’t there something to this, that part of what’s so desirable about domestic life is that it is where we do not have to distinguish ourselves?
BG: I disagree with Arendt totally. Her vision of domesticity is threadbare and apolitical. So there are no power relations at home? There are no rights and transgressions of rights? There is no politics of food, of sex, of aging, of commodity life? Her lack of interest makes distinctions vanish. Every domestic arrangement is a separate subculture, a subspecies or even a whole different species. Its rituals and norms will seem strange to its neighbors. Every household is “made-up”—a stage or, better, a workshop for our relation to self and the world. One could write an essay on the perfect but seemingly uninhabited environments of some very wealthy people and what the evidence of daily life means from the point of view of class. In such environments, what would the verb be? That is, how personal is your personal life?
I went to the Stein show at SFMOMA, in which Gertrude and Leo’s collections have been reassembled. It is a great show, and by “great” I mean great, because it really allows one to visit that parlor, that primal scene of modernism, in which domesticity and play co-cohabited in a self-aware fashion with the trumpets of history. Every marriage is an invention, and none more so than the marriage of Gertrude and Alice. Or the marriage of any gay couple.
I suppose home can be thought of in the first place in terms of safety, a place where being gay is normal, but then, what, 70 percent of accidents occur in the home, and that should include psychic accidents as well. A place for feelings to emerge—that obvious but inaccessible inner state—that I am in love? That I am exhausted down to my molecular matrix? Attics, basements, a place to keep the unconscious. But that is not so—I am as inaccessible to myself at home as elsewhere, the unreachable, unimaginable referent.
le referent. We had a little earthquake the other night, and I suddenly had a pang of fear that the massive breakfront my mother seemed to need me to have—furniture as immortality—which is not yet secured to the wall against earthquakes, and which is moreover on wheels, would come barreling forward, and take the room with it, the house, and the universe…
If home means family, then home is our national forum. Politicians must drag their families onstage for the nomination, and the press drags them onto the front page. I think that is why there were so many coming-out novels in the ’70s, at the beginning of gay publishing—which were really family novels. The family was not very important in the lives of these writers—that is, at that stage of their lives. But for homosexuality to exist publicly, it must occur in the context of the family.
I certainly agree that there is a public face and a private face, and I only wish that were a greater distinction for us, as it is in many other cultures, or perhaps every other culture. Italy is a good example. There is the phrase bon figura, which is the pleasing face one shows to the outside. It is rare for an acquaintance to be invited into a French household. And at least until recently, the private life of their politicians was just that: private.
In an essay, Rob Halpern cites a passage from Jack the Modernist that I had forgotten about. It was oddly startling for me to read—LOL! It’s about role-playing. I’m the dad; “I become Brian’s father and make Brian suck me off and then I piss on him while he kneels, that first spurt of urine an outburst of contentment that truly can be called domestic.”
BLVR: How has activism seeded your aesthetics?
BG: At various points I took part in the local radical politics—the free-speech movement in Berkeley, various gay matters, like picketing clubs that discriminated, forming human walls around “preachers” who were luring gay men to Christian internment camps that offered salvation in the form of heterosexuality. In the early days of Small Press Traffic we hosted Freedom Socialist Party forums and such. I was most active during the ’80s, though not in the unendurable San Francisco AIDS activism, but anti-nuke and some anti-interventionist politics. We did guerilla theater, but mostly organized demonstrations targeting arms development. I went to jail too many times to count and I went to prison for two weeks. I belonged to a gay men’s affinity group, Enola Gay. Everything was decided through consensus. It made the meetings very long! Some of these men were such dedicated workers, it was an honor to know them. There would be ideological differences to surmount. Like some of them would want to go to the beach and bury a crystal to create world peace. I used to say, “I will attend the ritual when it involves human sacrifice.”
We had a fashion show outside of Neiman Marcus: “Dress for Suck-sess.” We dressed in frocks, and the announcer somehow connected our outfits with conflicts around the world. We gathered a large crowd. One man I loved, a big hairy bear who favored delicate floral prints, was being compared to the contra war in Nicaragua. Just then two elegantly dressed women stepped out of Neiman Marcus and said, “We’re from Nicaragua!” The crowd cheered for some reason, and the announcer said, “You don’t want us to invade your country, do you?” And they said, “No, no”—and the crowd cheered some more. It took a while for me to realize they meant they did not want ten men in dresses to invade their country.
BLVR: Ha! “Drag” as a whole other kind of armor—the armor of amour! The armor that disarms… but speaking of disarming, about the obsolete object and your description of our relationships with objects as pure, occurring before language (pap—that word pap!), Heidegger wrote, “When we discover its un-usability the thing becomes conspicuous.” An object breaks, or is estranged, or is just historically unfamiliar or culturally illegible, and it becomes paradoxically visible, alive. The useless (but not speechless) object becomes a subject of discourse when we have to ask, “What is it?”
BG: Remember my white glass cup? Pyrex, 1953. It’s an early model of this kind, the walls are thicker and so more insulating than the cup Pyrex produced even a year later. Our friend Jocelyn moved, as you know. Having unpacked her kitchen, I know that cups are the last thing she needs, but once I got the idea of giving her a pair of these particular cups for a housewarming present, I couldn’t do anything else. So, for the first time, I looked on the bottom of mine to see who made it and how to find some more. My cup is a little rare, as it turns out, but I did find a pair—they are in better shape than my own cup, which has been used every day for forty-five years.
But I had to think about this. My cup had passed the test, the ongoing test. My cup asks the question that pure things do: is all of life a distraction? I am suspicious of purity, the love of purity; it is the version of sentimentality that I am most wary of and feel most repelled by and that of course I am also most attracted to. I used to be a potter, you know. At a certain point there was great reverence and nostalgia for bowls and cups, forms that contained—emptiness! There is a mystery to it. You can see it when children play, putting one shape inside another, taking it out, putting it back in, a kind of spatial mystery, or possibly wit.
BLVR: What are your metaphors for writing practice? People describe writing as gardening, lucid dreaming, ventriloquism, mapping: do you make use of metaphors for writing in teaching?
BG: I wish my metaphors were of gardening or lucid dreaming, the glow of the screen and the charm of my own mentation as it unspools in endless elation! I often say writing for me is like sorting through haystacks. Haystacks on my computer, in my notebooks, on my desk, in my head. Haystacks of notes, sentences, phrases, single words. I am really a collagist, and writing is a process of fitting bits together, finding juxtapositions that interest me. Then, I am obsessive, I am obsessive especially about sentences. By the time I am done with a book, I haunt the sentences, I remain in them, that is where I exist. Finally, I tend to make my books too difficult for me to write: beyond my ability, whatever that is. That’s when I find my commitment to the particular project. By “too difficult,” I mean I have to be a different person in order to do what I imagine. I have to know more, or come up with a solution to an impossible formal conundrum, or an ethical one. Right now it is: how can I stitch together sixty pages of dreams for the last section of a novel, About Ed? Ed’s dreams—I have twenty-five years of his dream journals. One dream is fascinating, a few dreams can be interesting, but sixty pages? Deadly, perhaps. I want the reader to feel that Ed is inside me because I read this massive record of his inner life. And how should I organize the dreams, etc.? I’d like the plot of the book, twenty-five years of his life, to be refracted through them, recognizable—will that be possible? I’d like the reader to feel transported into a state of endless unfolding narration—that is, heaven. Overall, I think of my books as spherical, especially the novels. I had a yearlong Joseph Conrad seminar when I was at the University of Edinburgh, and he described Nostromo in terms of a sphere. A light went on. Suddenly there was a way for me to think about fiction. I tucked this away for ten or twelve years, till I began thinking about Jack the Modernist. To salute this notion, I have some kind of revolving image at the end of each novel.
I have very few rules for students—I just can’t come up with any. Form—what is it really? A character—what is it? I accept different approaches to fiction with pleasure, but I don’t like to work on poetry that lacks the ambition to be innovative. Yes, I am intolerant where poetry is concerned, so that tells you what church I attend. I guess I think any piece of art is a modulation of intensities, and keeping track of the tension is a good idea. Where does it lag? For example, I don’t think it’s a good idea to start a story at an intense moment, as many inexperienced writers do, followed by a page or two of flashback that leads up to that moment. It demonstrates a lack of trust in the story and the reader, and the startling beginning is undercut by the flashback, which usually causes a loss of tension, since the reader already knows what the flashback is leading to.
I suppose the heart of teaching is recognizing what the writer is doing and articulating that. It is the very hardest thing to do, and the most helpful. It gives the writer a place to stand, a place from which to move forward. I will sound sentimental, but it is an act of love. You could compare it to therapy, perhaps, if you subtract the notion of health.
After that, there is the workshop, something that became the norm of creative-writing pedagogy in my time and now is being reconsidered. When I started taking classes, in the ’60s, the workshop was full of psychodrama, and you didn’t feel that something had occurred unless a writer collapsed in tears. The workshop became professionalized with the proliferation of MFA programs. But when a student with a sick expression carries out fifteen closely annotated copies of her story, is that really helpful? I try to turn the workshop into a pure brainstorm session, lots of ideas. The writer gets to decide which ideas are useful. Often a workshop is good at identifying a problem, but typically the writer solves it in her own way, so suggesting a lot of fixes is generally not useful. Assign a problem to your subconscious; wait for the solution; it will come.
BLVR: I use your work in my classes on a regular basis to model, among many other things, sentences. Sometimes in the way your sentences move there is a sense of the comma as a hinge, a swerve or a pivot to a next thought that is so fresh and unexpected that one can imagine it coming as a surprise to the writer himself. I remember the year that I read Remembrance of Things Past, I would sometimes look up from those sentences and feel almost out of breath, it would be so long before the period would arrive. The reader syncs up with punctuation; we almost can’t inhale until we get to the period, the end of the sentence, the mark of the end of one permutation, or one vetted, or netted, thought. Whereas with Woolf, sentences seem to be discovered, moment by moment, the author collaborating with language in the act of sensing it. Is stream of consciousness important to you, as a concept, technique, or as an approach?
BG: I rewrite obsessively, so I am finding my way, sometimes to a resounding expression that brings word, idea, and feeling together, a language that engraves its subject in stone—John Keats—but more often to language that opens up the subject—Maurice Blanchot. Like you, like any writer, I am leading and being led by an ensemble of forces that are contradictory, to put it mildly. I have spent my life trying to wake up, and when I find the right combination of words and sentences, I experience the feeling of being fully awake.
I am not fond of the term stream of consciousness. I prefer to apply it to the few writers who developed techniques to represent the mind as it speaks to itself, with its stuttering and distractions. So, Joyce and Woolf, Dorothy Richardson. Proust closely observes consciousness, but his sentences do not reproduce it. He translated Ruskin early on, and if you look at Ruskin’s sentences and think of Proust, the influence is apparent. Proust claimed that he actually knew Ruskin by heart, so Ruskin transformed him. They were not duplicating the operations of the mind; they were building palaces. You could say they were investigating time in those sentences. From another point of view, they were pushing the translations and imitations of Cicero they did in school in a mannerist direction. They are not “natural,” they are artificial.
After Frank O’Hara, I immersed myself in Proust. But I never could become Proust. I spent a year with him— a mountain range as great as Shakespeare and as impossible. I stood in front of his handsome grave yesterday at Père Lachaise. What to make of a spirit so commodious nesting in a body, mere ephemera? One could try for the felicity of phrase, already an antique goal in Proust’s day. One could imitate the construction of metaphors so empowered that both terms are paraded along parallel fronts with the equal sign aloft between them. What I took, and in that sense what I became, was the murmuring, the whisper that is a meditation that unfolds on itself, seeming to make itself up as it goes—the idea that you could tell a story and at the same time you could endlessly speculate on its meanings and the nature of storytelling itself.