“The Practice of Grief: An Interview with Will Daddario,” conducted by Zach Savich

Will Daddario is a performance philosopher and a theatre historiographer. In addition to To Grieve, his published works include Baroque, Venice, Theatre, Philosophy, numerous essays on the intersection of theatre and performance, and two co-edited volumes of essays: Adorno and Performance (with Karoline Gritzner) and Manifesto Now! Instructions for Performance, Philosophy, Politics (with Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca). He lives with his family in Asheville, North Carolina. Our Associate Editor, Zach Savich, recently had a chance to ask Will a few questions about his newest book.
Zach Savich: In To Grieve, you mention the limits of the “tried and true cliches” offered by grief manuals, compared to the “poetic thinkings-through” of works like Karen Green’s Bough Down. But you also cast the essay as a related kind of manual, and often return to statements that wouldn’t be out of place in a more conventional handbook about mourning. Yours is certainly a “poetic thinking-through,” and it typically explores its ideas through etymology, metaphor, wide reading, and anecdote, rather than through the tidy case studies that one might find in commercial self-help literature; but though it can seem notational, I read it as more directly expository than works like Green’s or Carson’s Nox. There are passages of overt autobiography, but, overall, the essay feels closer to a meditation than to a memoir in the style of some of the books you mention. It could be seen, I suppose, as an introduction to those works, a guidebook to guidebooks; but it also stands on its own.

Its inclusion of notes that you and your wife made during the first year after your son’s death add to this variety. The essay might be seen as a kind of marginalia (to experience, to reading), and these notes are marginalia to it. But they also provide direct, compressed, even wrenching glimpses of grieving (at times through moving obliquity, as in the one from December 5 that reads, simply, “No struggle”).

How were you thinking about these dynamics–about the interplay of genres, the defiance of simple category, the limits/benefits of guides–while writing the essay? Does it draw on (or deviate from) other writing you’ve done?

Will Daddario: Finlay died on June 5. I think I had drafted To Grieve by the end of July. I needed to write it. I gave very little thought, at least very little conscious thought, to its form, voice, or even its content. Your questions prompted me to look back in my journal to see if I could retrace the genesis of the work, and it looks like I had originally felt the need to write something specifically for fathers of children who died. I’m sure that came from reading memoirs of women who had lost babies—like Ash and McCracken—as well as the more pedestrian “how to” manuals, both of which contain references to husbands/partners/men but never really focus on the strange position occupied by the father. In the present, I’d call that position “wit(h)ness.” I first witnessed Joanne hear the news of our son’s death (I was watching her eyes as the doctor in the room told us that he was gone), and then a few (l o n g) moments later I realized that they were talking about my son. During the days of recovery in the hospital afterward, I felt like I was experiencing all of this with Joanne, but the “with” was particular. Given my background in theatre history, my mind goes to characters from Ancient Greek Tragedy who are present but never speak, like Eurysaces (son of Ajax and Tecmessa) or, more famously, Antigone in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Those characters never speak but are extremely present. They also serve as eyewitnesses to the tragedy (crucial for historical narrative to the Greeks). They act as wit(h)nesses. I felt something similar...of course I couldn’t be silent and so I eventually found my voice.

The thoughts that eventually found their way into the piece started as notes in my journal, notes that I took while reading Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary and Anne Carson’s Nox. I had found those books during a feverish search for philosophical treatments of death and loss. As I read them I started to meditate on a few passages here and there. One in particular, the Barthes’s quotation that acts as one of the epigraphs to To Grieve, seems relevant here:

“In taking these notes, I’m trusting myself to the banality that is in me.”

He wrote that four days after the death of his mother. In typical fashion, Barthes has taken a word—banality—and exposed its underside. If “banal” usually denotes something unspectacular, it picks up another meaning in Barthes’s hands. This banality inside him, i.e., the tendency to write and put regular words to this heart-wrenching experience, is going to reveal his great capacity for thought and emotion. We learn by reading Mourning Diary that his banality is something to emulate because it speaks to a resilient perspicacity (or maybe a perspicacious resiliency).

I knew that I was going to cultivate something similar. I knew that I would eventually fold this experience inside of me, metabolize it, make it part of me and thereby grow stronger because of the pain (though, it’s important to note that I’m struggling to digest everything; I feel like Saint-Exupéry’s bloated snake).

But here’s the rub: to write my way through an experience like this, and, through writing, to trust my banality, I have to realize (1) that I will be exposing my most fundamental self to others (since, why write if there is no reader?) and (2) the writing experience will double as an index of where I’m at (like, philosophically, spiritually, ethically) in my life at this moment.

So, looking back, I can see that the act of note-taking was the first step toward writing To Grieve, that this act hid within it some kind of awareness of the literary form the piece would take, and that, despite the fact that I have written a lot and learned about rhetoric, style, audience, etc., I wasn’t going to rely on my Writerly Self as I moved forward. Instead, I was going to lay myself out in order to get a better look at myself and Finlay’s death and the whole thing. In a sense, I was writing in order to act as wit(h)ness to myself.

Barthes realized something similar: “I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it—or without being sure of not doing so—although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths.”

Let me resingularize this: In order to think about literary form, I have to confront an internal difference opening up between the self that actually wrote the piece in the wake of Finlay’s death and the self that is able to comment upon that history from the present moment. The act of historiographical annotation in the present is inescapable, and I think it’s important to comment on it because of Barthes’s fear (“making literature out of it”).

I was keenly aware of “making literature” during the typesetting and design phase of the book. Ugly Duckling Presse is amazing for a lot of reasons, one of which is their attention to detail and willingness to find a form that matches the content of the book. In one of the early conversations about the layout of To Grieve, I was asked what shape I wanted the book to be, what kind of font I wanted, what color text, etc. These questions were nearly impossible for me to answer because I had never thought too much about aestheticizing the work. And yet, I did think about it. One of my first suggestions for the shape of the book was to make it long and slender like the Vade Mecum of the past. I liked the idea of a reader being able to slip the book into a coat pocket. In this light, your comment about To Grieve as a guidebook to guidebooks is quite apt.

All together then: In the present, I very much like thinking about the book as a guidebook. I see it as a guidebook to the practice of grief, which is a practice that never ends. I am the primary audience member of the book, so a lot of the tone—call it meditation, instruction, poetic reflection—is actually just the sound of me talking to myself. Having one’s eyes opened by grief, however, leads to the realization that you are part of a giant community of grieving people. In this way, even though I’m talking to myself, I’m also talking to this community. This work of writing is in many ways very different from my other writing. I’m an academic, but one who tries very hard to resist the dryness of academic prose. The international research network I helped to start—Performance Philosophy—is committed to finding a form of writing and thinking that matches the form and content of the art practices we study. Even when writing about Theodor W. Adorno, someone I have published quite a bit about and someone who was notorious for denouncing lyric poetry after WWII, I play with mimicking his style in order to activate the prose and engage the reader. But I create all of that writing with specific audiences in mind. I’m usually hyper-aware of the voice I use, the words I choose, the sentence-length, etc., etc. To Grieve is different. It had to be written.

ZS: I’ve been thinking about a haiku by Issa that I had in mind often while reading your book, written after a son’s death, one you probably know. In some conglomerate of translations I’ve read, it’s settled in my memory as: “This dewdrop world / is just a dewdrop world. / And yet.” I had it in mind as a parable about the limits of philosophy: one can achieve a kind of detachment (to see the world as its parts, which are just its parts–which don’t “mean” but “are”), and yet affection, attachment, grief snap back through. But maybe I’d been hearing it wrongly, and the final line startles not necessarily in contrast with the first two but as an extension of them, not a rebuttal (“and yet I am not consoled; emotional experience unsettles easy wisdom”) but a furthering (“and yet there is also/at once more; the wisdom itself unsettles”). It’s probably wrong of me to have thought, in other words, that philosophy conflicts with the primacy of “and yet,” rather than seeing the “and yet” as part of a philosophy. The poem is sometimes rendered to end with a dash, which I used to hear as a choked-up interruption of the sayable, the poem overcome with grief, but maybe it’s better to see it as an expectant looking up, into something similar to Barthes’ “banality.”

To Grieve quotes Barthes, also, as saying his mother’s death “is the one thing in my life that I have not responded to neurotically”; the non-neurotic, he says, is “not good, not the right thing,” but neurosis is also “the worst part.” You discuss this seeming contradiction: “Now gone, this worst part cannot breathe and serve as a conduit for his depression. Its removal is a gift, but only in the sense of gift-as-promise, something that will have to prove itself to be rewarding in the future.” And I think of the literal gift of the salmon described in the book, which becomes not just a gift that appears, and invites ritual and reflection, but a unit of time. You say you wished to “cultivate” and “metabolize” these experiences of grief, which maybe speaks to the twin impulses one might feel to preserve and to transform. The effect of this kind of “gift-as-promise,” you note, isn’t the reward of a specific insight but of a behavior, to “reach out beyond himself and speak to his friends”–a kind of “and yet” that opens its arm?

So, I’m curious about bodily and behavioral types of knowing, particularly as they interact with your background and instincts as a philosopher, since the text often feels measured, reflective, though it’s content can sear. I’ve returned to its discussion of the etymology of “solve”–“to disperse, dissipate, loosen”–and how that might be both an effect of grief (which disrupts connections and connectivity) and a response to it (to soften)?

WD: The Issa haiku is beautiful and challenging.

tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara

this world
is a dewdrop world
yes… but…

This dewdrop world
Is but a dewdrop world
And yet—]

The part you singled out—“and yet/yes…” “but…”—is full of meaning, and I tend to read it along the lines of your second (more recent) interpretation. Issa, almost humorously, says, “Yeah, I know what the texts say, but I still feel things.” Furthermore, the feeling is painful, but the pain is an index of his aliveness. If pain and life are linked, then perhaps they are so not as opposites but as momentary traveling companions.

But the first part of haiku is also curious. Why the repetition? It’s like a Gertrude Stein sentence (a kinship that shines through if you run the Japanese text through Google Translate: “While the world of the dew falls as the world of the dew.”) If the “And yet” conjures up the oft-cited image of the Lotus rising up through the mud—insofar as realizations like that offered in this poem seem to link back to the notion of Enlightenment at the end of a long, torturous journey—then perhaps the first part is also linked to that image? To properly name that which is, an act related to the challenge of seeing clearly, requires traveling through life. Traveling through life will cause pain (in fact, living is pain and suffering, according to this Buddhist tradition). Therefore, by the end of one’s life, a wise person will be able to turn around, look back, and say, “Yep, that was life.” And there’s nothing more profound than that.

I understand what you mean when you say that the text of To Grieve is measured. I’m thinking through philosophical concepts in order to find language with which to instruct my future self on how to grieve (something that the future self will already know something about since I will have learned through grieving). Again, though, “philosophy” for me is not only analytical. At least, it isn’t “analytical” in the sense of professional (academic) philosophy where “analytical” means something like, “to state as clearly as possible” or “to unravel a statement of belief down to its bare fibers.” Philosophy is a mode of doing life. Philosophy is a practice. It isn’t necessarily more or less fruitful than, say, a musical practice or a devout ascetic practice; rather, it is one of many practices that, when honed, helps us to understand what’s happening here. It utilizes a certain kind of language (thought this language is quite diverse) and a certain reservoir of images. I gravitate toward philosophy because I believe the act of doing philosophy connects my body and mind in such a way that will make me healthy and strong enough to live until I die of, hopefully, natural causes. Philosophy keeps me alive and it helps me live a life worthy of the name.

My wife, Joanne, and I met while pursuing our PhDs at the University of Minnesota. She is my wisest traveling companion and my best friend. While I was writing To Grieve, she was gracefully falling into grief’s darkest places. She was beginning a long walk that would lead her away from academia into a program on herbal studies and holistic medicine. Along the way, she did Reiki 1 training (which convinced me to eventually do it, too), and the sensibility that comes with Reiki has really been a hallmark of her grieving process. At a time when she hit the depths of despair, she still had the ability to intuit her way out of it. She would tell you that I helped her with that, and I did, but she did most of the wayfinding.

When I got the call about my father’s death, she was right by my side. She sprung into action and helped me sort through all the logistics, not to mention the emotional devastation. She was my wit(h)ness. We made it through that stretch pretty well. When Finlay died, everything was dark, but we kept ourselves moving, as the notes in To Grieve indicate. When my step-father died in October 2014, we started to sense the dark humor that comes from so much sadness. We laughed a lot because we couldn’t believe how hard everything had become. But we were still doing our work, like literally sitting at my mom’s kitchen counter a couple days before the viewing working on an article for publication about progressive pedagogy.

As the next year unfolded, we started seeing the world with a new kind of clarity, and it became clear that we just couldn’t stay in Illinois. Teaching at the University there was not right for either of us. We were needed elsewhere – though we had no idea what that really meant or where we would go. Asheville came out of nowhere: I don’t think I had ever said the word Asheville before in my life, but there I was saying, “Maybe we should move to Asheville.” Reiki. And so we went out to visit, but during that time I was horribly depressed and I couldn’t tell up from down. I was crying in our AirBnB saying, “If this feels right to you, then let’s do it. I can’t tell anything.” And she said that it felt right, so we moved. We moved when she was 6 months pregnant.

The settling-in phase was short lived because we had to kind of just BE THERE and be ready because of the baby.

As I write this, Joanne is holding Phalen in her arms. They are both 60% asleep. Phalen is working through his first illness (a fever and a lot of not-having-it). Sickness has registered in him as a less-enjoyable form of life, but not one too far removed from ordinary/non-sick life. He’s a role model in that way. And I mention this because this is what our lives have been like for going on 4 years now: a tough roller coaster ride that requires both of us to alternate turns at the helm while knowing full well that neither of us knows (rationally) what the hell we’re doing.
Zach Savich’s latest books include the poetry collection The Orchard Green and Every Color (Omnidawn, 2016) and Diving Makes the Water Deep, a forthcoming memoir about cancer, teaching, and poetic friendship. He is also the author of the poetry collections Full Catastrophe Living (University of Iowa, 2009), Annulments (Center for Literary Publishing, 2010), The Firestorm (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011), and Century Swept Brutal (Black Ocean, 2013), as well as a book of prose, Events Film Cannot Withstand (Rescue Press, 2011). His work has received the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Colorado Prize for Poetry, the CSU Poetry Center’s Open Award, and Omnidawn’s Chapbook Prize. His poems, essays, and book reviews have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, A Public Space, VOLT, jubilat and other journals and anthologies. A former editor with The Kenyon Review, Savich teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, and co-edits Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series.