Time-Stopping, Points of Friction, and Other Narrative Events: an interview with Mary Burger

photo of Mary Burger by Rod Golden

Photo by Rod Golden

By Kevin Kilroy

A transmutation of the boundaries between poetics and prose seems to be occurring, and Mary Burger's various work demonstrates how this activity affects far more than just literary vocabulary, but rather extends to our everyday relationships in and perceptions of the outside world. Sonny, (Leon Works, $12.95) her most recent book, opens doors for the reader/writer as much as it shows how the author herself has explored these rooms of narrative and poetics and the powers of combination. The narrative is constantly shifting between the worlds of a small-town family and the team efforts of the Manhattan Project, and the spaces between become the means of travel. What they have to do with each other becomes a question of how we look at the world—ethically, epistemologically, and physically—rather than a direct narrative correlation. The text becomes an active field, an event for readers to take part in through their subjective understanding, misunderstanding, and willingness to break the many assumptions one might have about how the mess of living is structured.

In addition to Sonny, Burger is the author of The Boy Who Could Fly (Second Story Books), Thin Straw That I Suck Life Through (Melodeon), Nature's Maw Gives and Gives (Duration) and Bleeding Optimist (Xurban). Since 1998 she has edited Second Story Books, a series of short works of experimental prose. She is also co-editor of Narrativity, an online forum on experimental prose, and Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Coach House), an anthology of Narrativity contributors.

This past July, Burger visited The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University to teach a course entitled “What is This Thing Called Prose?” Her course description illustrates the innovations in writing she admires: “Among the progeny of new American poetry is the emergent genre of writing that uses elements of narrative—time, place, event, subject, sentence, story—while breaking with the conventions of fiction; that preserves the poet's attention to language—tonal sensitivity, semantic multiplicity, rhythmic pattern, super-rational shifts in consciousness—while adhering to the forms of prose. What's going on here? What possibilities does this writing hold for us as readers? As writers?” We sat beneath the sycamore tree on campus to discuss Sonny, New Narrative, and time.

Kevin Kilroy: What writers are you teaching this week?

Mary Burger: One we're looking at is Truong Tran. He's a Bay Area writer originally from Vietnam, who emigrated to the U.S. as a child during the war. He has a recent book called dust and conscience(Apogee Press), which is a series of narrative poems each made up of brief prose blocks. The work uses aspects of storytelling—memoir, travelogue, fable, letters home—that all have a narrative effect, but at the same time there's a pervasive quality of ambiguity and ellipsis and multiple meanings that puts the work in a space of poetry. Formally, the text is in full-justified blocks, in more or less syntactic sentences, but there is no capitalization, no punctuation of any kind, which heightens the ambiguity and open movement in the writing.

Thematically, Tran works between notions of home and story, where home is sort of a place of arrival, a place of peace or contemplativeness, and story is about movement, agitation, or change. In part the work is about him traveling back to Vietnam and exploring that as home, but as he's there he's also away from home, from the home he knows in the U.S. There's a very complex attention to the ambiguities of the immigrant's relationship to place. There's a lot about family, disruptions of family that have happened because of the war, and the larger cultural changes and generational differences that happen within the family—for example, his mother's difficulty in talking to Tran about the male lover he meets in Vietnam. It's a really interesting navigation of social space and private space, of private space being mediated by public identity. That's been interesting to bring up in class.

I'm always interested in what Renee Gladman is doing. We're looking at Not Right Now (Second Story Books). We've been talking about how piece works as a kind of "philosophical documentary." There's a chronicle of a life in a city, the details and events of a specific urban space (told with a humorous, almost absurdist particularity), permeated by deep ambiguity in subject identity, a constant migration between "I" and "you" and "we" that makes it impossible to draw an absolute line between self and other or inner and outer.

Another we looked at is Brenda Coultas, especially her piece A Summer Newsreel (reprinted in A Handmade Museum, Coffee House Press). I think of Brenda as an archivist poet, sorting through traces of her own past and other pasts, and examining her relationship to that material in very self-conscious interpretive acts. Her writing constructs a kind of mythology, myths of origin, using story-telling techniques of the historian and the imagery and detail of the poet.

Another writer whom I hoped to talk about, but didn't quite fit in, is Stacy Doris. I've been reading her book Conference (Potes and Poets Press), published about five years ago. It's in the form of a set of dialogues and monologues, interspersed with narrative prose sections. At the beginning there is a “character key,” a list of symbols or glyphs, which each represent one character or multiple characters in the drama. Some of the character identities are full of contradiction (the second one is identified as “Tragedy = Comedy = Me = Jar = Folding-chair…” and on and on. Some of the characters are explicitly identified with the narrative “I” and many of them aren't. It's a real cacophony.

Throughout the text, each passage or speech is preceded by one of the character glyphs, and sometimes more than one. So she really plays with the idea of “conference,” a multiplicity of voices and identities coming together and addressing one another. There's a lot going on about the slipperiness and mutability of identity, and how identity works in relation to other, simultaneously shifting identities.

We've also been talking about some pieces in Biting the Error by Kathy Acker, Aaron Shurin, and Camille Roy that give a lot of theoretical tools for talking about narrative writing.

KK: Two parts of Sonny stand out for me—the scenes with Oppenheimer and other members of the Manhattan Project, and the scene with the Russian leader and the president. Like Truong Tran, you add quick and graspable events of history that contextualize many of the themes running through the book. What are your thoughts on using history in this style?

MB: Well, the invention of the atomic bomb, the Trinity bomb test, the bombs dropped in Japan, are such monumental events, so extensively studied and interpreted, that I thought there was no way I could look at it all head-on. I had to be elliptical or oblique to find any new relationship to it. What I wanted to do was explore the incidental events that happened in the course of the development of the bomb, because even huge historical events happen as a result of incidental decisions.

Also I wanted to tie the story of the bomb to the very particular, peculiar family story I was telling in parallel with it, and look at what these things could possibly have in common with each other. The interstices or intersections that I found were really about incidental moments when the figures in the Manhattan Project became ordinary human scale, because of the small experiences they had or small decisions they made or small details that are available about them.

So it was really a gesture of trying to bring a huge and overwhelming historical phenomenon down to a scale that it seemed I, or anybody, could respond to effectively without being paralyzed. Sort of a lesson or source book on how to respond to what's going on politically today in the name of the “War on Terror” and related issues. I mean, the invention of the bomb happened sixty years ago, and in certain ways the event has been almost rendered inert by the fact that the bomb has been so normalized. We take for granted that nuclear weapons shape most of our foreign policy and our military strategy—well, not that we take it for granted but that it seems permanent, it seems like something that we'll always live with. But there was a time when these things didn't exist, and it wasn't that long ago. So I was trying to find a way into the hegemony of that history, by measuring it with a smaller scale.

I was reading a slew of books about the history of the Manhattan Project. There's no end to them, but the ones that really fascinated me were the ones that weren't necessarily well written, but were filled with anecdotal memories. There was a scene where Oppenheimer walked into a room where Fermi was sitting, really struggling with an equation. Oppenheimer made some correction on the chalkboard, and, you know, the light went off for Fermi, he found his solution. There were a lot of moments like that, that were small but significant turning points.

And there's the anecdotal history of the pilots who were training to drop the bomb, how they were just like any other guys in the military. They wanted to feel special, they wanted to feel like they were doing their part, that they were important. They didn't even know the details of what they were training for. They knew they wanted to be heroes. Or, there are the incidental things like what Oppenheimer said to his wife, these very accessible details of story that help us realize that in any moment something can go differently, nothing is predetermined, and small decisions can change the course of these very consequential events.

KK: The other thing I was thinking about was how in Sonny the pronouns shift so much—you write from all these different characters, all these different voices. What kind of process was it for you to assume those voices?

MB: It was a really hard and confusing process actually, to get beyond the point of just a scattered sense of multiplicity that would not become something more than its parts. It was something where the editing process with Renee [Gladman] was really an important part of doing the work, because she's someone who has developed a very fictional sensibility in terms of looking for story structures that carry the work forward. The questions that she put to me were very obvious questions yet very hard to deal with. Like, who are these different “he”s? Who are these different boys and how do they relate to each other? Why does the “I” shift so much? And I really had to push past a certain level of complacency, I think, instead of just saying, “Oh, you know, it's an open text and people can put the pieces together.” But there can be lethargy in that.

So for myself, I wrote a lot of backstory that didn't end up in the book. The hardest questions for me were: What does the Manhattan Project have to do with this family history? Why put them in the same book, and where's the energy of putting them together? Small local people and large public people—what's the point? And I really tried to follow up on points of friction where there was a confusion that would be generative rather than just obfuscating. The confusion about this boy who was riding a horse, and he seems to, in some way, be a witness to the bomb, where does he come from and what relationship does he have to any of it? There were incidents that for me that tied these different stories together—the blending of scale between the very local story of this family and the small domestic details of these public figures that made them seem more similar than different.

KK: Could you talk about trying to create, as you say, an “open text” and also making sure that there is energy and connections between the events and characters? How hard was it to balance these two vital notions of ambivalence and narrative?

MB: Well, like I said, I generated a lot of backstory as a way to work with that process, a lot of really narrative and fictional stuff that I decided not to put in because I didn't want it to turn into a conventional novel, and I didn't really want to just tell a story about people living their lives together. I really needed to stay in a very tense and tenuous sense of present. I was talking about that at the reading Tuesday night when I gave a few words of introduction, about this idea of caesura and interruption. Interruption that just keeps happening in a way, like when a CD gets stuck and there's a real jitteriness where this moment is supposed to be going on and it's not going on. So that sense of static time, at the same time that these huge, significant events and historical processes are taking place.

KK: Did you write Sonny in fragments, or interrupt it after the fact?

MB: It's very definitely written in fragments. The final published book represents a lot of reorganizing and literal cutting and pasting, sitting on the floor and laying out the pages and trying to find the organization that sustained that kind of energy. I think the thing that I really come back to again and again with narrative is that I can't let myself relax into a sense of narrative continuity that represents some kind of escape from the immediate moment. And so I'm kind of compelled to keep interrupting any sense of continuity, but it has to be to a certain end, not just eruption for its own sake. So what I wanted here was that tension of something enormous just about to happen and the ambivalence that something like the invention of the bomb represented. I mean, the people who worked on it—the military and political leaders who sponsored it—really did believe that it was necessary, and that if we didn't do it, someone else was going to do it. So I was trying to get to that sense of urgency but the sense that many people involved knew, even before Trinity or Hiroshima, that, “Oh, this is going to have a lot of bad consequences, this might be the wrong thing to do.” But there was a momentum that couldn't be stopped—or could have, maybe, you know, but the way the history is written now, it seems like no individual could step forward. There was this machine of political and military decision-making—in any case no one did stop it. That was the moment that I wanted to be arrested by and have the text arrest the reader by—that moment when there's that question, is there something that can be done? Is there a way to influence this moment? Are we passive, or not? I think we can all definitely feel that in the current moment—what can we do, politically? People are on edge about what's within our control. Can we prevent further military expansion, environmental degradation, loss of social connections?

KK: There are places where the text becomes overtly metatextual and seems to be talking about the form the narrative itself is taking, places like, “After something blows apart, its wholeness is a fiction you construct. Pick any piece—the wholeness that it comes from comes from you.” And: “Nature, which in all its forms, always against us, knows no meaning. Knows nothing. Is mindless. Inhuman. Every beauty that we see is our perception.” These definitely stopped me and made me wonder why it was necessary for you to come so far out of the text in order to speak about its relationship to the reader.

MB: Those passages are partly about the epistemological ideas I was working with—how knowledge operates, the ethics of knowledge, and particularly the ethics of modern physics. I was thinking about the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and what happened in Western ideologies that brought us to the point of being able to create something like the atomic bomb. What model of knowledge lets us imagine the bomb and say, “This is the solution to our problems; this will stop the tyranny and the totalitarianism that are so threatening us.” So those passages in particular were about my having sort of tried to walk this line between inhabiting what the physicists might have believed, what Oppenheimer might have believed he was doing with the tools of science, and what we after the fact have had to learn about the limits and consequences of our own knowledge.

In particular I was thinking about the limits of our models of knowledge in regard to nature. How for so much of Western history, nature has been something to be acted upon, something passive, something that we use to see what we can get out of it. The more we threaten nature, the more we understand that that ideology doesn't work, that we need to work with nature if we want to survive, and the arrogance of that sort of frontier or invader mentality will destroy everything including ourselves.

I think that also refracts into a set of guideposts for the reader to work through the text and to problematize the notion of a coherent or consistent or stable reading—that the text is something like nature or the weather: it has no inherent meaning, but we impose meaning on it. I mean, that's a little specious; a text is more like a set of tools, kind of a machine, for working with ideas and imagination, for working with the intellect of the reader (it's not a pre-existing entity). But anyway, I wanted to work with the idea that a reader brings things to the text that the writer doesn't foresee, and the text has contradictions that the reader can't contain or resolve. There's no sense of the whole text or the self-contained text, and also no sense of the complete reader. The reader is incomplete and the text is incomplete, and each time that the text is read it's a unique act.

KK: Do you think about how available your texts are to readers?

MB: I do think about it, and I think that it's something that a lot of experimental or theoretically informed writers think about. It's a very self-conscious community that we create and the texts can be exclusive, they can require a certain kind of education or a certain introduction. I don't think that should be seen as exclusionary. I think it means that we need to bring an impulse to educate along with the texts, and rather than throwing them out there and saying, “Take it or leave it,” that we're sort of proselytizers, or envoys, because hegemonic ideologies, totalitarian ideologies, are very invested in missionary work, in proselytizing and recruiting and absorbing and extending their reach. We have to be just as invested in extending another kind of reach—a reach toward connectivity and away from tyranny.

My sense of readership for the book I think is, of necessity, a particular community within the large community of literary readers, but I don't want to intentionally limit it. I think that the people who are interested in this kind of work come out of all kinds of communities, and you can't predict why someone will be interested in certain work. I think it's important just to make it available, to make readings happen in as many places as possible on a really pragmatic level. One gratifying thing is seeing the people who emerged in innovative writing communities, the New York School and St. Mark's Poetry Project for example, now having their works more widely distributed. Maybe it's a matter of larger communities being able to develop a relationship to the work over time and not instantly.

KK: I think Gertrude Stein said it takes forty years. Would you say your approach of erupting the form and making choices based around the subjectivity of the text is more in conversation with experiencing yourself in the world or experiencing yourself through literature?

MB: I guess I don't really make a distinction. Literature is something I came to in part because I needed tools for thinking about how to live, how to understand a place in the world. But I guess there's always a sense of conflict or anxiety about how experience relates to literature or to any creative work. We've been talking in the workshop about how a text navigates social space or social identity, looking at the work by Renee Gladman and Truong Tran and others. One way to talk about those texts is to look at how the writers place themselves in the social world, what they notice, what they engage with, what is relevant to them, what they problematize. So, I guess the intersection is often at the point of problem and anxiety. The impetus to write comes because there's something that isn't completely tranquil. I think the impulse to create doesn't come out of tranquility or resolution or satisfaction, I think there's an unrest that underlies it.

KK: How do you create adequate room for the subjectivity that a reader might bring to the text?

MB: I have a real impulse toward ellipsis. It comes up when I feel that I am being too explicit. It's not necessarily an urge to “say as little as possible,” but “don't say anything that over-explains,” or that shuts down the possibility of multiple readings. I think there is definitely a tension, if you're interested in narrative, if you're interested in creating a notion of a subject in time and space, social space, there's a danger in under-representing, under-explaining, a danger of just losing energy. But generally—sort of like touching a hot stove—when I feel that I've said too much, when I feel that the text becomes static or oppressively over-explained, that is when I'll draw back. I think that's such an interesting space to work in, to try to explore—when is ambiguity generative and when is it obfuscating?

KK: What about your interest in time? Is there any tension between the way that you are socially conditioned to understand time and the different ways that you have come to perceive it? Or is this question just some personal bullshit I think about?

MB: No, it's not. That's something that I try to talk about, or try to think about. One of the fascinating things about text is the way it enables you to experience simultaneous, multiple scales of time or relationships to time. In the workshop we looked at Kathy Acker's essay “The Killers” in Biting the Error. She talks about the different relationships to time that happen in a text. There's the immediate moment of interacting with the text—reading the text or hearing the text—and the physical time of the writing the text—when was the writer actually creating these words—and also, the various levels of conscious time that are being explored within the text and the many movements between those.

I think what we colloquially refer to as “time,” the linear, one-way sequence of events, is something that we measure through our biological lifespan as organisms. The fact that an organism is born, that it comes into being and eventually dies, is a linear process. I mean, whatever Buddhist or Hindu notions of reoccurrence you might have, there is a particular organism that lives and then dies. But beyond that, there are variations in our experiences of time, changes in scale, speed, and duration, shifts in perspective, simultaneity, recurrence, deja vu—the “uncanny”—that belie a simple linear model of time.

Creating a narrative text is for me not only about trying to understand what it is to experience the passage of time, but also about trying to understand the representation of time, how slippery that is and how complicated it is and how hard to pin down exactly what it is that makes narrative—what makes a series of sentences into something that represents or enacts or performs the passage of time. What is the difference between experiencing time and experiencing the representation of it, or is there a difference? I mean, sort of the Lacanian notion of the unconscious as a text or the unconscious as a language. Is written language another representation of the kinds of experiences—subconscious, psychological experiences—that we have of time? There's a multitude of questions to ask about how that works, like, what values, what philosophical values or political values are we enacting by making certain kinds of representations of time? Our representations of time have a lot to do with how we view connections and relationships to others — values are revealed in what we incorporate about other beings in our representations.

KK: I just came across a quick summary of Gödel's theory of timelessness and his idea that time is a space—do these types of physics texts and notions interest you?

MB: That's something I'm really interested in, in regard to theoretical physics. Beyond our experience as a biological organism with a finite existence, it seems to me that, when you get into issues of understanding matter and the relationship between energy and matter in these highly theoretical but palpable measurable things, linearity ceases to have value or ceases to have relevance, that in talking about these dynamics there is an interrelationship, a cyclicality, a spiral. The difference between Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics is that shift, I think, to understanding things in a sense of interrelatedness.

KK: And how that shift from Newtonian physics to quantum weirdness hasn't really been in enacted in our everyday lives. We're still taught Newtonian physics in school.

MB: I think the political implications have to do with notions of realism—in a straw-man argument, it's the reductive idea that there is an absolute reality that we all participate in, that determines what is ethical, what is just, what can come up in discourses about political events, and what is validated. It's abstract and seemingly esoteric, but I think there are ways of talking about what the political consequences are for having a limited notion of time and our being in time.

KK: On the back cover of Biting the Error is a statement by Antonin Artaud: “From this moment of error there remains the feeling that I have snatched something real from the unknown.” It feels extremely important that you call back to the writers who have opened up the possibilities of a new form of narrative. Could you talk about New Narrative, the Narrativity website, and the Biting the Error anthology?

MB: New Narrative writing was a particular historic moment that happened in particular around the Bay Area. If you have a chance to look at Robert Glück's essay “Long Note on New Narrative” in Biting the Error, that's one of the best written histories of the evolution of that. He was one of the people, he and Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy and Bruce Boone and a number of others whom he mentions, who really developed New Narrative writing.

Bob writes about having been a young writer in the Bay Area in the '70s when the Language poetry discourses were really energized and had moved into a more public space. Language poets were making a very conscious articulation of their own poetics, politicized and confrontational in the sense of wanting to shape the current literary conversation. It was a discourse that was particularly about removing a static or complacent sense of the subject or experience or the body, about removing the assumption of a stable identity from the text, and having the text be more about sort of post-structural operations of meaning. Bob writes about the invigoration of that, but also about issues that were excluded or ignored by that poetics, his own issues of being a gay man and having so much meaning, so many political consequences, associated with the experiences of the body and with the experiences of social identity, and needing to write those back into the text.

So New Narrative seemed in part a response or a contrast to the poetics of Language poetry, saying, we need the interrogation of power in language, but we need these other things too, we need the experience of the social space and the body to be part of the writing. And that including those issues in the text could also be an interrogation of power and language, could also be radical. That writing that addressed social identity could confront complacencies in reading and writing and thinking, and could confront static power structures.

That was all a big influence on me, these writers were some of my heroes when I moved to the Bay Area in the '90s. I was really amazed at the possibilities that New Narrative writing opened up, in having this impulse toward autobiography or mining the self as material for how the subject is represented, and at the same time having this attention to the politics of language, and to language itself as material.

The project of Narrativity and the website evolved for me through my association with Camille Roy. She in turn was closely associated with Bob Glück and Gail Scott. We wanted to get a conversation going among writers who were using narrative to look at issues like those that had come up for New Narrativists, and going off in other directions—writers doing cross-genre work, exploring form and subject and social identity in self-conscious ways that really paid attention to how the text was operating and to its function in political and cultural contexts.

We wanted a forum, we wanted prose writers to have as much of a discourse as the language poets had developed. We wanted there to be a "poetics" of prose. There were writers who were already working on that kind of discourse, very self-conscious critiques or analyses of narrative prose, exploring their methods and ideas and integrating theory with practice. But we also had to push in some cases to get prose writers to make statements about their practice. People would send us creative works and we'd say, “Could you also send us a statement of your practice?” because we didn't want the project to turn into a place to publish interesting short stories. Of course there needs to be a place for that, but we wanted to make a place for discourse, a critical forum. I think, especially with the anthology coming out, there's a way for that to start to take shape, to have these works play off one another and develop some conversations.

KK: How political do you think New Narrative is?

MB: I don't think there's a simple way to encapsulate it. Going back to Bob Glück's essay, he really goes into some detail about what was political about introducing the body—and the conflicts and desires and pleasures and embarrassments of the body—into the space of the text. “Politics” permeates the writing we're talking about, in one way or another. I keep coming back to this idea of navigating a social space and navigating between a social space and textual space; the ways that we instantiate subject, and what entitlement the subject has, how much authority the subject takes over describing the world and imposing an order, versus allowing room for interpretation.

The idea of realism and this notion about a predetermined set of descriptions or tools to describe a world that we're all supposedly participating in, the hidden politics of realism and the presumptions that it makes and the questions that it precludes—these are the areas where experimental narrative writing is pushing the boundaries and saying, "No, we're not going to make those presumptions, we're going to open them up." So in that way it's irreducibly political to open up questions and to allow for new ways of connecting as opposed to shutting down.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006