A Conversation with David Naimon
David Naimon is the host of the radio broadcast and podcast Between the Covers and co-author of Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing (Tin House Books 2018). Naimon’s own writing appears in Tin House, AGNI, Boulevard, Zyzzyva, DIAGRAM and elsewhere and is cited or anthologized in The Best Small Fictions, Best American Essays, Best American Travel Writing and the Pushcart Prize anthology.
A Conversation with David Naimon
Interview by Chase Burke
David Naimon is a Portland, Oregon-based writer and host of the radio show Between the Covers. His story “The Grebe” appears in BWR 45.1. We corresponded over email over a couple of weeks, discussing forms of fiction, constraint exercises, influence, and inspiration.
Black Warrior Review: I want to start with your story, “The Grebe.” I think the thing that most immediately stands out is its form: you’ve written a story in the ‘shape’ of a poem, or at least in the shape many people will associate with a poem. What drew you to that shape, that form, for this story? Was the shape of the story influenced by the first-person voice (that of a child)?
I often find myself looking at form as a sort of ‘key’ to the way a story is told, literally. Is that what happened here? Can you walk us through the origin of the story’s voice, and how it did (or did not, if that’s the case) affect the story’s presentation?
David Naimon: I think you are right to call this a story in the “shape” of a poem rather than a poem. The starting off place for this story was a real in-the-world encounter with an ocean bird that seemed stranded in the surf. Due to the determination of some fellow writer-friends we problem solved how to retrieve the bird and hunted down a woman in this small coastal town who had converted her garage into a bird rescue clinic. This life event stuck with me not because I thought it would make a good story or essay, I didn’t. Rather it was the images and physical details of retrieving a bird from the water and how it behaves when you do, of watching a bird get a physical and how it was revived in a clinical setting, etc. When we learned what had happened to the bird and what would happen to the bird going forward, the scenario seemed so strange and counterintuitive that I wanted to find a way to include these details in a more compelling narrative.
I liked the idea of making the protagonist a child for a variety of reasons. I did want to exploit the gap in understanding between what the child experiences and how he interprets it and how we do as readers. But I also wanted to explore the more immediate and intense relationship children often have with animals and the ways animals can become cathected with the anxieties and fears and hopes around things in the human world that may be just beyond a child’s understanding (or if he understands it, beyond his ability to articulate it). So I knew that I wanted there to be a limited word bank to draw from and a simplified syntax but also with a lot of emphasis on elemental imagery. When I wrote that first weird musical line “Sand Stone Sand sand stone Sand Jelly goop Stone” I think it was just instinct to have it be in lines going forward rather than sentences, to foreground the physicality of language, the way it feels in the mouth and the way a child might speak it to himself as he walked on the beach.
Leni Zumas and Christine Schutt, both prose writers with poets’ hearts, were readers of this story in draft form and the way they both employ poets’ tools in their prose inspired this story and inspires me in general. At one point the story had some punctuation in it. Leni suggested I pull it out entirely and I’m glad that I did.
BWR: Would you characterize “The Grebe” as being in your wheelhouse, so to speak? Meaning, is this the kind of story you normally write, or is this the kind of material you are normally drawn to?
DN: My immediate response would be ‘no,’ that I don’t typically write stories in lines, with a limited vocabulary, about ocean birds. But I think the truer answer is ‘yes.’
For many years I operated under the false assumption that writing short stories was a good trial run for writing a novel, that once I was regularly writing and publishing stories ‘successfully’ then I’d be ready to embark on a novel. I didn’t realize then that they require very different skills, have very different demands and that the skills learned in one don’t automatically transfer to the other. It also took me a long time to learn that the demands of the conventional short story didn’t play to my strengths.
Eventually, I took a seminar from the poet John Beer and the fiction writer Leni Zumas on constraint-based writing (called “Writing Inside the Box”) where much of what I wrote, formally and tonally, I would not have recognized as my own prior to the class. There was a liberation from the voice and point of view I reflexively fell into when I sat down to write. I enjoyed the writing more. It felt more playful and joyful and more deeply connected to my own peculiar relationship to language. It was the first step down the path of figuring out the type of prose I wanted to create: language driven and syntactically chewy stories, stories that didn’t neatly conform to the dramatic conventions of Freytag’s Pyramid, stories that might not exactly seem like stories. So while “The Grebe” is my only story in lines it arises from the same spirit as my stories that read more like fictional essays or prose poems.
BWR: I’m glad that you mentioned inspiration (or ‘guidance’ or ‘influence’), as it relates to what you read or who you might have worked with, because that’s something I think about a lot. Nothing makes me want to write more than getting to live in another voice for a little while — that’s what reading is for, right?
But you do more than just read — you run a well-regarded and popular interview series/podcast called Between the Covers. [Ed. note: In March of 2018, David interviewed 45.1 chapbook author Vi Khi Nao.] Does this kind of (semi-)regular conversation with writers influence or inspire your own work?
I guess I’m thinking of this as something separate and unique from the act of reading, because of course it is, yet I imagine that engaging with writers and thinkers in thoughtful conversation must have an impact on your own writing life. Maybe I’m projecting a little bit, because I definitely think it would have an impact on mine.
DN: Hosting the show may actually have the biggest impact on my writing and I do think it is directly related to its effect on my reading. Knowing that I’m going to be talking to the author of a book shortly after I finish reading it, and knowing that this conversation will be an interview where I will need to craft questions to pose to the author, changes the reading experience in a fundamental way for me. If I’m going into the reading experience looking for how the author creates a certain effect, wondering about certain choices of craft that are being made, or paying closer attention to the gestures the book makes, I feel like this approach to reading directly enriches my toolbox as a writer. It is likely at the expense of being fully swept away by a book because I’m always trying to peer behind the curtain, but I feel like it is a good trade-off for a writer.
I gravitate more and more anyways to writers who foreground language vs. ones who try to cast a spell where the reader disappears into the story so much that the language seems to disappear. My interest in indeterminate or hybrid forms, or art that troubles genre boundaries, in my own writing runs parallel to my interest in interviewing authors who are working in this way. It becomes a reinforcing feedback loop. Questions I have about craft or form, or curiosities I may have about certain ways of writing that I find appealing but haven’t yet tried, I’m sure inform the choices I make regarding who to interview even when I don’t realize it.
I’m attracted to writers who write both poetry and prose, or writers who are also translators, writers who have some language-making activity in parallel to the work that we are discussing that is qualitatively different from it. I think it often creates a richer conversation, but I also suspect it creates richer art to begin with to have those two parallel activities. Perhaps the radio show, in relation to my own writing, serves that purpose. At least I hope it does.
BWR: I really like this idea that the mere presence of parallel modes in a writer’s toolbox might lead to a different kind of conversation, or just to a different kind of writing. Hybridity is something we really value at BWR, and the way “The Grebe” moves — the way it occupies the space of ‘poem’ and ‘story’ at the same time — is something that really appeals to me.
I’m also intrigued by what you called the “reinforcing feedback loop” of your own interest compounding itself with the work (the writers) you seek out. Because that’s so true, isn’t it? We want to read what we’re interested in, and we want to write about what interests us, and so often that interest comes from what we read, or what we expose ourselves to. (Though that latter point might be making some assumptions about why people write.) So interest sort of inspires itself, in a way.
To return to something you said earlier, I love that you mentioned constraint-based writing. This is something I feel pretty strongly about, and that I use regularly to break open or apart whatever it is that I think I’m working on, in order to see it as a new thing or in a new way. Constraints are useful, is what I mean — every writer should keep a few in their toolbox. (Even though it’s impractical, I always think of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, and the really amazing way she wrote that book. One would need a juice-factory-sized toolbox, but still, it’s fascinating to think about.)
Are there any forms or modes that you return to often? For example, I like to set word limits for myself: write a scene (even a story) in exactly 50 words, that sort of thing. Do you have any go-tos?
DN: I love that you mention Valeria Luiselli’s book. It is a delightfully extreme example of constraint-based writing, where her work is written in weekly installments, with a regular repeating deadline, and then critiqued by a group of juice factory workers who were also her intended audience. She would receive audio files from their workshop in Mexico City back in New York and then need to respond to them in the next installment. This was partially inspired by the tradition of tobacco readers in Cuba, people who would read literature to those rolling tobacco in the factories all day long. Another great and extreme example would be Joyce’s Ulysses. To write a book that chapter by chapter tracks Homer’s Odyssey but have his version of the epic journey occur in one day and never leave Dublin is setting oneself a pretty daunting task.
Weirdly, however, I do think that sometimes the constraints that seem to be less connected to anything obviously meaningful to me can sometimes produce the most meaningful work. I don’t have any go-to constraints but the word limits you set for yourself reminds me of an Oulipian reading series here in Portland, Oregon called “1000 Words.” Each participant has to write four 250-word pieces (precisely 250 words) and use various arbitrary phrases in them. Thus when the six readers would each read prompt #1 you would hear those repeated phrases reanimated in utterly different contexts (similar to Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style). Everything about that exercise is arbitrary but the final piece that I wrote is something I feel very personally connected to and proud of. I’m definitely of the belief that formal constraints are the secret to writing liberation.
BWR: One last question for you (and my favorite one!): what are you reading right now? Either for simple pleasure or for work — though I imagine there is significant overlap for you.
DN: It’s true, there is significant overlap. Almost a one to one correspondence actually (except for whatever we are reading in my book club). I’m about halfway into Jeffrey Yang’s marvelous new poetry collection Hey, Marfa. Yang is the the poetry editor for New Directions and he is also a translator (including of the Nobel Peace Prize winning poet, Liu Xiaobo). I enjoyed his aquatic poetic bestiary, An Aquarium, and his book-length poem Vanishing-Line (both with Graywolf Press), but I’m truly head-over-heels in love with Hey, Marfa. If getting Hey, Marfa into more people’s hands and hearts and minds was the only thing that came from this interview that would be enough. A book of image-verse, a meditation on and interrogation of place, on what we choose not to see or speak or remember, a book that is formally playful, that with the lightest of touches is raising the most vital questions — ecological, historical, ethical, linguistic — about our relationship to the land, to language, to otherness, and to narratives that run counter to our own.
I’m also, at the same time, rereading Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. I was supposed to interview her last year but when she found out she was a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry she needed to be in NYC the week she was supposed to be in Portland. I’m grateful that I have a second opportunity to have this conversation, to revisit a book that was a highlight read for me in 2017, that deepens with each revisitation. There are definitely cross-book conversations happening between Yang and Long Soldier as I read them in tandem. Both books are enacting conversations we need to be having as Americans and as a species I think. Needless to say, it isn’t often that I’m reading two books that I feel this much love and admiration for.
In my book club we are finishing William Gass’ Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, which is great. I have a particular soft spot, however, for Eliot Weinberger’s Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei as my favorite meditation on translation (that and Anne Carson’s essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent”). That said, I’ve heard Kate Briggs’ This Little Art would give all of these a run for their money. If, however, something doesn’t improbably entice Briggs across the Atlantic to my small city in an out of the way corner of the country, and I am unable to convince my book club to vote for it, I may never read it!