Smile Politely

Stories & Beer: season 2, episode 2

Stories & Beer | Sunday, November 14 | 4 p.m. | The Iron Post

First off, if you weren’t at last month’s Stories & Beer, here’s a little taste of what you missed:

Not a bad start, if we don’t say so ourselves.  Sets a high standard for this Sunday’s reading, really.  Luckily, local slam poet Suzy Requart, recent MFA grad Harmon Neal, current MFA students Sean Karns and Eduardo Gabrieloff, and featured reader Andy Devine are on deck to take on the challenge.

Devine (who will fit Stories & Beer into his national reading tour, Being Andy Devine) rounded up his editor (Michael Kimball) and his publisher (Adam Robinson) to chat with S&B host Aaron Burch about the complexities of, well, being Andy Devine.

Caleb Curtiss

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Aaron Burch: This tour is being billed and promoted as “Being Andy Devine” as opposed to, say, just “Andy Devine’s Book Tour” or something likewise simple-sounding or, on the other side of the spectrum, something with a long and goofy title. Explain yourself.

Adam Robinson: The title of the tour is a reference to the difficulty of identity in Andy Devine’s work; who is the author, the protagonist? We also went for the simple thing because it seems like pithy, quotable names work well on the Internet. “The High Emissions Book Tour” and “The Low Emissions Book Tour” being a couple other good examples.

Michael Kimball: Didn’t it also have something to do with that movie, Being John Malkovich and also the phrasing invokes Andy Kaufman? Those are both ways to understand Andy Devine and Being Andy Devine, as I understand it.

Adam Robinson: Being John Malkovich is part of it, especially how Malkovich is struggling against John Cusack’s character for control of what he is doing. That internal struggle is present in the multiplicity of Devine’s presence, both in his writing and in his person.

Aaron Burch: Your work, at least the stuff that I am most familiar with, seems like it would lend itself to having an awkward relationship with readings. Specifically, the alphabetical lists and even the novel, which is essentially condensed to an alphabetical list (e.g. “hour (16x), hours (22x), house (16x), houseboat, houses, how (230x), hug (2x), huge, hugged (15x), hugging, hundred, hundreds, hung, hungry (59x), hurting (34x), husband (4x), husbands (3x).”) Can you talk at all about your relationship to reading this kind of piece aloud, the specific challenges, advantages, etc?

Andy Devine: The true awkwardness comes from an audience’s general presupposition that syntax is as important as the words it organizes, but syntax is simply a method of ordering words, the same as any other order. Imagine the origins of language: there wasn’t an order to which we came along and gave meaning. There was meaning to which we gave order. Disregarding syntax is a way to return to that initial pure meaning. When you break out of this relationship with syntax, you open yourself to a whole new understanding of story and possibilities approaching the infinite–an unabridged dictionary becomes the definitive text of the whole of humanity.

Adam Robinson: See what I mean about Devine’s presence?

Aaron Burch: Along those lines, has writing/compiling and/or reading aloud and/or reading over to yourself these kinds of lists taught you anything about writing and language that you might not otherwise have learned? About language, and about writing, both your own and others?

Michael Kimball
: One of the things that I learned as I edited the Devine’s work was that it helped to read it aloud — even to myself. One thing that happened was that I would become completely lost in the text, which is the highest compliment that I can give to something I’ve read. Also, our minds carry their own individual syntax around with them and to fit those alphabetized words into a kind of sense. The reader/listener can’t help it.

Andy Devine: Mostly I’ve learned how little we got correct in naming meaning. There are some words that echo their meaning–words such as moist, ooze, and a majority of onomatopoeia. But, I’d say 98% of language should represent something else. Also, as you’ve read in my book, it’s taught me which words to use and which words should not be used, and how many people have no clue regarding that distinction. That. And what Michael said.

Aaron Burch: Awesome. There have been a handful of really interesting points made online recently re: “Alphabet City,” one of the most interesting, to me, being the context of its publication in a book/lit journal and how that effects the reader/viewer. To oversimplify and summarize a big point, the discussion was basically how a similar piece, seen in an art museum, would be more likely viewed as art, whereas here we try harder to read it. I thought that was interesting, and also reminded me of Ingrid Burrington and her “Word-Things.” Kimball actually turned me on to her Venn diagrams and I was thinking about how I saw them on a “literary website” so read more of a story into them, whereas had I run into it elsewhere I likely would have reacted at least a little differently (while still loving them, I am sure). Sorry. This is an interesting point, but much bloviated. Regardless, I’d love to hear some thoughts on context and the reader/viewer/artist relationship.

Adam Robinson: Totally fascinating point. How would Andy’s stories convey on a billboard? Some of them are short enough for skywriting. In a book the word lists seem cantankerous. On a painting, would Andy’s love of language come across more?

Michael Kimball: It seems like this aphorism might be a good bumper sticker: “Only jackasses use whom.” Or maybe this one would work on a t-shirt: “There are no synonyms in fiction.” And I could see a bunch of the aphorisms working on protest signs.

Andy Devine: I once misread one of my stories as a grocery list and came home with 5 pounds of ground turkey and a bag of marshmallows. I think Stanley Fish talked about this once. Like you said, it’s bloviated already. Why bloviate it more? Bloviate is a word that should not be used in fiction. I’ve made a note to include it in the next pressing if there is one, Adam.

Aaron Burch: Finally, I am going to be lame and end on those same-same cliche questions that too many interviews are riddled with, but I am curious. What writers/specific works have been most inspirational to you? Who do you feel your work to be in dialogue with? Favorites, currently reading, etc. (and this might, to a degree, be the same as above)? And, finally for real, what are you working on now, what’s next?

Andy Devine: I don’t think it’s any secret I’ve always been drawn more to reference books than traditional forms. I think the first book that really gave me a feeling of grandeur was the unabridged dictionary in my elementary school library, and that’s had a profound effect on how I’ve come to understand literature. Lately, I’ve been fascinated with the art of equations, and have been reading a lot of theoretical physics textbooks–specifically regarding vacuums, virtual particles, and the energy-time uncertainty principle. This idea of emptiness, nothingness, uncertainty/possibility has been consuming me. I read recently how on an atomic level, matter is more space than substance, and seeing the world through that understanding has given me a new appreciation of negative space on the page. I’m not sure where that will take me, but I imagine my next works will come from this obsession, this understanding, and will likely incorporate the new forms of equations and mathematical/physical theorems.

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