“Still Gathering the Givens”: An Interview With Brian Blanchfield

ProxiesOn Thursday, November 16, UI faculty member Brian Blanchfield will read at BookPeople of Moscow at 7:30 PM. He teaches classes in creative nonfiction (I’m currently in his workshop) and has a background in poetry as well as nonfiction. In anticipation of the reading, I interviewed Brian about his writing, his move to Moscow, what he’ll teach in the Spring, and his recent work.

JK: The subtitle of your essay collection Proxies is “Essays Near Knowing,” which sums up a unique feature of the book: that you wrote each essay using only your own knowledge, and then included a “Correction” section at the end of the book, for any mistakes you made. The book strikes me as a fascinating exercise in vulnerability, in admitting not just that you might be mistaken but that you are mistaken. I wonder if you could discuss the role of vulnerability in your own writing, and what role it plays in nonfiction overall.

BB: Thanks. Well, yes, right, the twenty-four essays in the book all observe a constraint: never to consult authoritative sources—internet off, no reviewing the actual books or films or so forth that I consult only in memory—and nevertheless to conduct these close studies of particular concepts or cultural phenomena: foot washing, house sitting, Br’er Rabbit, the locus amoenus (in literary pastoral tradition), frottage (the sex act), the ingénue, confoundedness, Sardines (the hiding game), and so forth. To go on my own authority invites error and, yes, in the rolling endnote where I redress all those wrongs, it is confirmed how little I know, cringe-worthy in a couple of instances. But the practice seems even more related to the other sort of vulnerability that was necessary for me in this book: to be open and candid and revealing about my life and lived experience. To account only what I knew or estimated or misremembered about a particular subject would inevitably lead me to my personal familiarity with the subject—drawing on experiences, in church and in bed and in campus interviews and in family dynamics—and I have known for some time that where honesty is hardest to articulate is where the heat and high stakes are. I try to disrobe of all covering tactics, and stand for inspection, as some of my favorite authors do. Each essay’s quasi-ritualistic subtitle is: “permitting shame, error and guilt, myself the single source.”

The book is a real miscellany, but I think the essays’ subjects more or less divide into quadrants: sex and sexuality, poetry and poetics, subject positions in American labor and the gig economy, and my upbringing in working class, Primitive Baptist North Carolina.

JK: You described yourself in class as a convert to nonfiction from poetry. I’m curious what precipitated that conversion, and if the switch has changed your writing process or how you see writing at all.

BB: Did I? Oh, that was disingenuous, I’m afraid. If I’m a convert, I’m also a revert, genre to genre. While I’m often at pains, as a poet, to dispute the claim that my book of nonfiction is “lyric essay” (it’s not impressionistic, it’s not diffuse or collagist or especially paratactic), I see now that I very much brought a poet’s thinking to nonfiction. I wrote a book which has, after all, a repeatable experiment, a reset function that creates a serial logic, and which is nonlinear in its narrative, and which, I suppose, strokes a certain love of syntax and its segmentivities. It’s now my work to understand, in the reverse, what the essay has to teach poetry. Something about tracking a thinking subjectivity.

JK: In the Spring, you’ll be teaching a class on the tradition of life writing. What texts are you thinking of including? What features distinguish life writing from other kinds of nonfiction?

BB: Life writing is an umbrella term for the practices of biography and autobiography. But in its contemporary usage the term also carries with it a spirit of adventurous, genre-expanding defiance of category. Thirty years ago autobiography—or more typically, memoir—was understood as the chronological recollection of a notable or exemplary life. Custom had it there was no reason to read one unless there was something to be learned about the subject’s rise to “greatness” or the conditions of a conversion experience or of survival of extraordinary hardship. Artistry was incidental to the life story. Gradually it is understood that, as with the other genres, good nonfiction is good because of the writer’s artful management of her materials. Apart from the noteworthiness of the life. And life writing is no longer incommensurate with, or segregated from, intellection or poetry or analytic essay or, even, the novel. So, I’ll be interested in reading with you all through some traditions of life writing, from St. Augustine and Margery Kempe and Rousseau and Henry Adams, perhaps, up to Beatriz Preciado and Kiese Laymon and Bruce Benderson and Aisha Sabatini Sloan and Alison Bechdel, with some Virginia Woolf and Denton Welch and Colette and Peter Handke and John Edgar Wideman and Hervé Guibert along the way. I will, I must, narrow down the reading list soon.

JK: You’ve lived and worked in a variety of places across the US, and you’re a recent transplant to Moscow. What do you make of Moscow so far? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?

BB: We’re both about equally new to the place. I wonder what your answers are. I think Moscow is a highly particular place. It is, like most of the places I’ve lived, a blue dot in a red region. But, like each of those other places—Tucson, Missoula, Iowa City, Chapel Hill—it is unique. I relish the phase we are in, still new to the place, still gathering the givens of the town and the region and the heritages of the area. It’s like being dropped into a novel—what’s been happening here before I arrived? Its ongoingness is immersive, and I race to catch on. Who’s this fellow Doug Wilson who rose to prominence standing on the rainbow flag and is expanding the Christian university downtown? Has he really been silenced by his fellow church elders? What was, long ago, Psychiana, the mail-order religion that is, as I’ve been told, responsible for the disproportionate size of our post office? Will these wooly aphids that die by the dozens on my jacket as I walk to school return every year at the end of autumn, as a marker of coming winter? What are the woodpeckers doing needling in the bark of the tree I still don’t know the name of in our yard? What’s the deal with the tradition at the local pool, before it closes for the season, of dog olympics? Are the terms “vehicle prowl” and “exit winds” endemic to this place? What happened to that albino squirrel I thought I saw on the roof? New to a town, you become kind of a radical empiricist, investigating and deducing all that is the case, gaining familiarity.

JK: What have you been writing or working on lately, outside of teaching (or even inside it)?

BB: I have a couple of documents open. Prose, more or less. One, I started in Iowa City, where I taught last semester; it opens on the day my partner, John, lifted the blinds of a north-facing window to find a small brown bat hibernating between our window panes, more or less a week before the inauguration of President Trump. The frame, so to speak, is the hundred days I had to study the bat before it flew off. The document file is called Torpor. And another is called “Moscow, Idaho,” some of which I have shared with you and the other students in workshop in our google drive of daybook projects. Stranger-in-a-strange-land sort of record, a living tabulation. Poems, too, have their way of percolating. A couple, in particular, I look forward to spending time with over winter break. Other than that I’ve been writing critical essays, first (on Guibert and his final three AIDS novels) for the New Narrative Conference in Berkeley last month, and now for a conference called Poetry and the Essay, held in Wellington, New Zealand in a couple of weeks. I’m working, too, on a book review of a wild, queer novel I’ll be excited to talk about once it’s published.

Brian Blanchfield is the author of three books of prose and poetry, most recently, Proxies, a collection of essays, for which he received a 2016 Whiting Award in Nonfiction. It was selected as the book of the year by writers in five magazines, including Garth Greenwell for Publishers’ Weekly and Jonathan Lethem for BOMB Magazine. The creator and founding host of Speedway and Swan Literary Radio and recipient of a 2015 Howard Foundation Fellowship, his essays and poems have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, The Paris Review, Conjunctions, Lana Turner, The Oxford American, and other publications.


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