Magical Thinking: A Conversation with Michael Martone by Kristina Marie Darling


martone-author-photoMichael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he learned at a very early age, about flight. His mother, a high school English teacher, read to him of the adventures of Daedalus and Icarus from the book Mythology written by Edith Hamilton, who was born in Dresden, Germany, but who also grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Martone remembers being taken by his father to Baer Field, the commercial airport and Air National Guard base, to watch the air traffic there. He was blown backward on the observation deck by the prop-wash of the four-engine, aluminum-skinned Lockheed Constellation with its elegant three-tailed rudder turning away from the gates. At the same time, the jungle-camouflaged Phantom F-4s did touch-and-goes on the long runway, the ignition of their after-burners sounding as if the sky was being torn like blue silk. As a child growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Martone heard many stories about Art Smith, “The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne,” and the adventures of this early aviation pioneer. In the air above the city, Martone, as a boy, imagined, “The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne” accomplishing, for the first time, the nearly impossible outside loop and then a barrel-roll back into a loop-to-loop in his fragile cotton canvas and baling wire flying machine he built in his own backyard in Fort Wayne, Indiana, whose sky above was the first sky, anywhere, to be written on, written on by Art Smith, “The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne,” the letters hanging there long enough to be read but then smeared, erased by the high altitude wind, turning into a dissipating front of fogged memories, cloudy recollection.

Kristina Marie Darling: More often than not, your innovative hybrid texts are purposefully incomplete. We are offered luminous fragments, glimpses into an entirety that we are invited only to imagine. For example, in Michael Martone, we are provided with a series of delightful and engaging contributor’s notes, yet the contents of the journal are omitted. Likewise, in Memoranda, we are offered a series of brief, yet very evocative, memos, which ultimately prompt the reader to construct a narrative around them. Can you say more about what fragmentation makes possible within a prose work? What do these textual ruptures allow you to leave unsaid within an essay or story, and why is this gesture so necessary when writing prose?

Michael Martone: As long as I have been writing and working in English departments (nearly 40 years!) there has been this conversation about the making of meaning of the text.

I come down on the collaboration side of things, that it is both the reader and the writer together that create meaning. Having said that, I have also lived during this curious historic moment that saw the rise of the creative writing class and programs of creative writing at universities. The workshop, it seems to me, insists on the other way of wrangling meaning and goes about it in a collaborative setting to authorize the primacy of the author. “If we only work on this piece of writing long enough, we will get it to the stage where every reader will be in agreement with its meaning.”

I agree with Donald Barthelme that collage is the art form of the 20th Century (and our own current one). It just seems to me that my job as an author is more of an arranger of interesting reading environments that readers find their way through.

It is funny in conferences and academic meetings the argument that comes up is always worrying the differences between “fact” and “fiction.” A more interesting binary for me is always the narrative versus verses one. What does the “lyric” look like in prose? How does it behave? The medium we use is existentially linear. It wants to line up. It wants to go from point A to point Z. And chances are that the first lesson we all learned when we first studied the story is that it does have a beginning, middle, and end. Still, there is this cussedness in some of us that resists that convention. We have developed techniques to undermine the linear. Perhaps, it is a sensitivity to the reality of the actual living in a great middle, not being present consciously for our beginning or our end. All middle. And how does the middle express itself? In melodrama. Episodically. Saw-toothed. Random stuff that seems to randomly happen. Plenty of white space. Coincidence. Juxtaposition. Free Association. Ruin. Folly. And fragments. Lots o’ fragments.

KMD: In many of your projects, fragmentation makes possible new ways of thinking about temporality. Indeed, time is very rarely linear. We are offered instead a model of time that is recursive and elliptical. Throughout Michael Martone, for example, the narrative folds in on itself, beginning again and again, moving through the same temporal moment differently each time. What do experimental forms make possible when representing your characters’ movements through time? Relatedly, can you speak to the parallels between nonlinear time in your prose and how memory functions?

MM: I often think of it in terms of magical thinking. In Michael Martone, the character of Michael Martone’s Mother dies in several different pieces, in several different ways. My own mother, who was alive when the book came out, was a little perturbed by these various contingencies. Why was she always dying? I told her first, of course, this isn’t you, my mother, but this character, Michael Martone, his mother. Hmmmm, my mother said. But look, I said, you (or Michael Martone’s Mother) die, but in the next iteration you (or she) comes back. Here’s the magical thinking part, I think. Some child part of me believed that if the specific manner of death was always unknown and takes you by surprise then it follows (the magical thinking) if I could only imagine all the ways one loses a loved one to death I would, well, prevent it. Michael Martone imagines his mother’s death in over a dozen ways, but did not imagine “stroke.” And it was a stroke that killed my mother after all. If I only would have created this other shell, this anecdote antidote to death...

Perhaps too it goes back to the nature of lyric and poetry as well. For me the “poetic” plays with the slipperiness of the language that sends several trains running down the track. The line “poetry makes nothing happen” demonstrates the simultaneity of holding conflicting readings in mind at the same time, yes?

I mentioned a desire to create environments above, but maybe it would be more accurate to imagine the imagination as atmospheric, creating clouds, miasma, thought bubbles. Maps that relate, attract and repel, in three dimensions if not four. Yes, I think I think my memory is like a cloud (funny we now think of digital memory as a cloud) and not as linear files.

I am conscious that writing is an act made up of many micro choices. Ah, the differences between A and The. And I know that Henry James defines the act as “selected perception and amplification.” Perhaps that’s just too critical an act for me to accentuate. Give me Borges’s garden of forking paths. Or even better a book like Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five and the description it contains of the Tralfamadorian aesthetic and perception of time. Unstuck.

KMD: When thinking of how time functions in your work, your prose is reminiscent of some of the most skillful poetry. I’m thinking of T.S. Eliot’s temporal collage in The Waste Land, H.D.’s circular journey through time in Helen in Egypt, and more contemporary poets like Carrie Olivia Adams, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, and Darcie Dennigan. Does your work share a lineage with poetry in addition to the fiction and nonfiction that came before your own? In what ways do our current genre categories create an illusion of separation between what are actually very similar types of writing?

MM: Yes, I was worrying that in the first questions above. The question of genre. Again, I find it very funny to be living at a time when many writers are working in universities that are huge, ancient, scientific, critical sorting machines. We divide ourselves up in to categories, offer classes in genres. We can’t help ourselves. And it cuts in several dimensions. Not only do we divide along genre lines but we also insist there are categories of undergraduate and graduate writing—introductory, intermediate, and advanced. I agree that the critic’s job is to sort and categorize and make generic the strange phenomena in the world, but this does not seem to be my job.

I like to just make things, put them out in the world and then allow the critic or the reader to do something with them. But it is difficult when one works in a university not to be nudged by all the sorting. Just look at the standard design for a prose workshop. There are 12 writers in the workshop say. Usually that group would be broken into four groups of three. So your work as a creative writer is considered once every four meetings, maybe twice or three times a semester. You find yourself then operating mostly as a critic during the term and not as a creator. You are taught to enter into a text (and perhaps most dangerous of all even your own writing) with a critical bent not a curious one.

I have been writing for forty years and in that time I have seen maybe three or four blossomings of what you might call the “prose poem.” It seems to me that these blooms happen when there is a cultural certainty of genre. The critics have pinned down what a poem is, what a story does. And then, boom, the prose poem appears. I like it as a corrosive form, how it gnaws on the boundaries and borders, how it generates little critical commentary. Or, the emergence of “flash fiction” that in defining itself can only muster a word count and not even an agreed upon number of words.

Yes, “She Do the Police in Different Voices” indeed. Yes, The Wasteland isn’t so much a “poem” as it is The Wasteland.

KMD: While we’re on the subject of genre conventions and their inherent artifice, I’d love to hear your thoughts on extended engagements with a single form. In many of your books, we are offered what appears at first to be a series of formally similar texts, only to discover the infinite variety that is possible within these self-imposed constraints. Repetition of a form or narrative structure becomes a vehicle for transformation, rather than an assertion of sameness. Within your creative practice, what stands to be gained from an extended and carefully considered engagement with a single form? From a craft standpoint, what makes for a transformative repetition of a given form or narrative framework?

MM: I do like the geometric paradox that a bounded space contains an infinite number of points. It also seems to me that if you are writer and you have chosen not to work with the linear nature of language that assists narrative with the template of Freytag’s triangle or the notion of rising action, climax, etc., or that map of the upside down triangle, you still need to impose some form—borrow, begged, or stolen—on the arrangement of words.

I said above that I was an arranger; there are many forms out there. I think of that narrative form as skeletal in its strength. I think I deal more in cartilage than bone. If one abandons the narrative, I find what is deployed is purely arbitrary and often numeric. There are twelve months. Twenty-four hours in a day. Fifty-two weeks. These nagging obsessive patterns we all live through give us interesting syncopations of order. And they set up a subliminal signage that allows for exhaustion. When you don’t have a beginning, middle, and end, then ending becomes difficult indeed. Thirty-five sections too few? Thirty-seven too many? Thirty-six? Just right.

There are thirty-six sections in Gass’s collage “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” My theory is that he was using the template of the township (it is set in the town of B., a small town in Indiana). The township is a grid of six-by-six mile squares the entire country has been platted to (save the original thirteen states). Six squared yields a plot of thirty-six one square mile sections. Thirty-six sections to the story! Gass would not give this up when I asked him. But it makes sense to me growing up as I did in Washington Township in Indiana.

Barthelme in his story “Rebecca” writes, “I wrote this story for several reasons. Nine of them are secret.” I am suggesting here that the imposition of these “cartilage” like forms do not have to be visible or apparent. They are something that gives a sense of order to aid in the construction of the diaphanous. The molecular tetrahedral shape of carbon, say, allows for the creation of extended chains, rings, crystals. We see the solid but you are dealing often in the mechanics of the quantum.

Maybe one other thing to be said about repetition is that it forces the reader to inflect, to “read” a line in the way an actor would “read.” Lear’s speech on the page in Act V is “Never, never, never, never, never.” There are many, many, many, many, many ways through and to that “never.”

KMD: You’re also active as an educator, teaching at such institutions as the University of Alabama, Warren Wilson College, Harvard, and Syracuse. In what ways does teaching energize and inspire your creative practice? Are teaching and writing more similar, and less diametrically opposed, than most would think?

MM: You might have guessed by now but my practice of “teaching” has evolved over the years to the point that I don’t really teach anymore. I conduct what I call hypoxic workshops that privilege quantity over quality and process over product. We write a lot and the period of critic is very brief. There is no “gag” rule and the writer leads the discussion with a bunch of writers. My one-on-one conferences are mainly about strategic issues of writing projects, future books, and are not so interested in this one thing on the table. My stated goal of teaching now (and we must all have syllabus published “outcomes”) is that in twenty years my writers will still be writing. My dean asked me how we are to assess this. I answered that in twenty years we will give them a call.

I am fortunate that I “teach” elective classes. The writers who sign up, sign up, I assume, because they want to write. So in a very Montessori kind of way I greet them at the door and ask them what they would like to do and then we go there. And like Montessori and the fictions I create, I like to set up in my classroom an interesting arrangement of things to do or try. I no longer am interested in norming or improving writing. And, yes, I find this a very interesting and inspiring space to be in. Some of my students do not. On the first day I tell them they all get an “A” (there is nothing they can do to change that). I also tell them that they may find this class difficult. I point out to them that what all their schooling has mainly taught them to do is try to figure out as soon as possible what I want so they can get what they have been taught to want, an “A.” But, I tell them, and this is the difficult part, I don’t want anything. I will have several students drop when confronted with the problem of having to know what they want.

It has been a huge relief and quite generative to practice this kind of experiential learning. I no longer worry the control of the class, using carrots and stick of grades to promote behavior, to motivate them. Control means to roll against. I am rolling with. I give free rein, and I am along for the ride.

KMD: What are you working on at the moment? Tell us what readers can look forward to.

MM: This spring semester, I have a semester’s leave from teaching, perhaps my last sabbatical before the Big Sabbatical. I would like to finish up several ongoing projects. The Collected Writings of Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, Edited by Michael Martone is a faux history of an actual historical figure, Art Smith (what a name!), from my hometown. He was a very early aviation pioneer, an innovator of aerobatics and aeronautical design. He was also the inventor, it is said, of skywriting. So that means the first writing in the air was done in the sky over my hometown. The book will be an album of pictures of his skywriting (none exist) and my scholarly annotations.

Also I will finish my book of Indiana science fiction, Amish in Space. Its theme is that nothing happens now in Indiana and in the future nothing happens either. But some things will have changed. Some things will have stayed the same.

Also, a book of essays called Brooding. I continue to create and publish new Contributor’s Notes. I write more Memoranda in the vein of my recently published chapbook Memoranda. And I have finished a book called Winesburg Appendix that augments my hybrid collection of my stories and anthology of others’ stories set in a town I created called Winesburg, Indiana.

Somewhere in there is a novel set in Fort Wayne that features Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television.

And I have a book called You Can Say That Again that is a collection of interviews that now will contain this one.