I’ve always wondered about the meaning of autobiography, and to go with it, the kinds of disclosures that people make about themselves during correspondence interviews (where conversation can take place over vast scales of time and distance). Written interviews, especially like those collected in the third volume of Tom Beckett’s E-X-C-H-A-N-G-E-V-A-L-U-E-S: The final XIV Interviews +One, focus in equal portions on the life of the interviewee and the work that distinguishes them. Interviews are usually initiated because of the work an artist has accomplished, work that brings about a desire for detailed explanations as to how it came about. Interviews attract us because they promise a look into the mind, working methods, interests and origins of the subject, and they propitiate a desire felt among readers, the randomly curious, the fledgeling practitioner as well as the solitary artisan for the sense of belonging to a community. Interviews attract us because we also want to learn how something complex and beautiful (such as a major poem) actually came about. We want to know the person’s politics, what they’re like at home, find out what’s really going on in line 347 of the poem Gelid Cuspidors in the Bank Lobby of my Heart. In their collaborative interview manuscript Interpenetration of Views, Tom Beckett and Geof Huth have recorded a year (May 2008-May 2009) of daily conversational exchanges and questions. Two days ago, they presented a portion of it in Buffalo as a kind of performance art: definitely as an experiment, but also as a way of “reading” themselves back to each other and to us--as we all shared a proximity that, paradoxically, transformed the intimacy of the interview text into a kind of distanced, objectified formal presentation, such as one finds at serious poetry happenings. Better still, the “Interpenetrations: Buffalo” event seemed to be less about the chance for those assembled in the room to swap shop and dig poetic as it was a chance to examine that “big hulking” manuscript they brought with them. It seemed to sit there, emanating unknown reserves of thought and energy, perplexity and pathos as if it were a record of events that took place long ago and far far away.
It’s interesting to think about how many interviews I have heard, read, watched and even conducted in the course of my life.I have myself conducted and recorded over 45 interviews in the last 10 years—the first of these in a conversational “round” with Brenda Coultas in 2000, and the most recent of these with the artistic director of Hollywood’s Unknown Theater in 2007.
The central reason for lesser concern with the form and the art of the interview is, I think, because it seems to demand far less attention than I gave, or give, to a work of serious literary art—to poetry, to works of complex philosophy, or the mind- and mood-altering books that teach me a new way to read each time I pick them up. What I want to say here is that Tom Beckett and Geof Huth have, I think, initiated, even if somewhat uncertainly, a concretization of the activity of the interview in such a way that it just might provide us a chance to see deeply into what has heretofore seemed (to me) “mere” journalism—or a subsidiary poetics—and therefore less enduring in meaning because it is simply a conversation, as easy as falling out of bed; and engaged in because, as writers, we want to learn from each other, deepen our relationships with each other, commiserate, console, and challenge each other. I see now that, for years, I’ve been assuming that the sources of the work of art really come from some other place (but I don’t want to get into the where of it right now). Of course, I can articulate this now only because I’d been blind for so long as to how wrong my ideas (assumptions, really) were. And, after Saturday night, I can see how nothing seems more obvious than the way that formal interview situations are composed entirely of performances—whether we are performing “ourselves” for the sake of the interview, or we are creating narrative or a valedictory showing of ourselves (despite our dissimulations, shows of humility, candor and deference). Interviews are intended to provide public, personal accounts of the reasonableness of our activities. But I would now say that, in just such a way that they are performances (and Jerry Springer can take credit for making this realization easier, too), they are as available to us to be treated aesthetically as anything else.MORE to come . . .