Monday, March 31, 2008

Interview with Debra DiBlasi

1. First, what inspired this existence of this person Jiri Cech?

The character, Jiri Cech, was inspired by a real Czech with whom I was having a somewhat torrid sexual affair, and by a couple of racist comments he made. Although I’m certain everyone is racist to a smaller or greater degree – and I mean everyone – I was disturbed that my continuing to sleep with this guy was a kind of racist collusion, which brought up questions regarding sexual desire vs. morality (troglodyte ape vs. human ape).

At the same time, I was teaching an experimental writing course at Kansas City Art Institute, wherein one of the major assignments was to write a ten-section fiction using randomly selected sentences, phrases and images cut from magazine and newspapers – an experiment in creating meaning from random information. I always do the assignments with my students; thus came to be the first story in The Chronicles, “Czechoslovakian Rhapsody Sung to the Accompaniment of Piano.” Proof that you can turn any factual unrelated information into fiction involving real issues in your real life.

2. Instead of presenting him just in a written form, for what reasons did you choose to show Jiri Cech using multimodal fiction?

Basically, I expanded the experiment of meaning-from-randomness as it relates to Systems Theory, something that I’ve been interested in for many years (and which I’m discussing at the forthcoming &NOW Festival of Innovative Writing & Art). Multimodal fiction is really just a manifestation of Systems Theory.

Systems Theory focuses on interconnections, attempting to understand not just the whole or its parts, but the whole, its parts, and their connections to each other and to other wholes and parts, ad infinitum. An example that often used is the system of a tree: There is the trunk and branches and leaves; the birds, mammals and insects that live on and under the tree that help disseminate its seed; the fungus that feeds on the tree’s roots that, in turn, helps the tree absorb water; the air cleaned by the tree’s biological systems so that birds, mammals and insects can breathe; the tree as it relates to other trees, to its climate and particular landscape; and those to the state of the environment; and the environment to the state of the planet; and so many other interconnections of which we are not even aware.

I used myself as primary catalyst (like a single tree) in creating conceptual aspects of my investigation: racism, vengeance, sexism, societal fear of death & dying, terrorist paranoia, religion, suburban sprawl (greed) as it relates to the decimation of the environment, the advent of new home computer technologies that allowed for greater democratization of aesthetic decisions and their public presentation, to name just a few.

Secondary catalysts were those that “entered” The Chronicles: editors who published Jiri’s poems without knowing he was a fictional character; or Google searches of a word that resulted from a Google search of a word that resulted from a Google search of a word… Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these.

3. Is Jiri Cech supposed to represent a particular type of person, culture, or way of life?

Jiri is full of contradictions in a way that most fictive characters are not, but most real humans are. Why is this so? Because most fictive characters are based on literary rules and standards – based on previous literary characters accepted by and in the public realm – not on that indubitably gray area that is the real world in which real people live.

The writer/critic Steve Tomasula (who, by the way, interviewed Jiri for the CD, “Steve Asks Jiri: ‘Does Poetry Suck?’”) was one of the few people who recognized the looming contradictions in Jiri. Most readers still, and childishly, want their good guys wearing white hats and bad guys wearing black hats lest they have to reconsider their own flaws and assets. But life and people are simply not this or that. It and we are this and that. I’ve befriended drug dealers, mobsters, street people, and sundry ne’er-do-wells, and I can tell you that absolutely all of them, even the hit man, had good, admirable qualities as a human being. I prefer to think that there are not bad people, merely bad behaviors. And if you cannot also love the person who behaves badly, then you cannot also love yourself – nor will your fictional characters seem confoundingly real.

There are to date, in reality, nearly 500 individual works of prose, poetry, video, music, audio interviews, consumer products, and websites in The Jiri Chronicles, not including what I know in my head that has not yet been made public. I’m guessing that you read, saw and heard about…what, 50 of these works? So what does that tell you-the-reader about what readers [can] know about Jiri? What does it tell you about what you [can] know about other people? What does it tell you about a fiction that’s so expansive that almost no one – in fact, probably no one – will ever read the whole of it? And therefore what does it tell you about what we [can] know about the world, about any one system in this myriad of systems within the possibly limitless universe?

Jiri loves capitalism and hates communism because of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, but he also hates conservative politics and politicians because they represent to him the same type of fascists that kept Bohemia under foreign rule, from the Nazis to the Soviets. That’s just one example and, as you can see, it results from Jiri’s particular experience in the same way a real hit man is what he is because of his particular experience.

Jiri is you and he’s me; he’s us in all our contradictory glory and shame. He’s what you can and will never know about a person you love and/or hate. He’s a reminder to stop judging someone unless you’ve walked miles in their shoes.

Seymour Glass would have appreciated Jiri – but would’ve still killed himself at the end of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

4. Jiri Cech’s sexuality defines a large part of his individuality and habits. Why did you choose to use this as a major characteristic?

One of Jiri’s likeable traits – and he does have a few – is that he’s very open about who he is, what he desires, what he loathes – even if I don’t always agree with his desires and loathings. He enjoys sex, as does any healthy human being. But he’s a vampire, a predator, a user. If I were a psychoanalyst, I’d say that his sexually predatory nature is the result of his youth, when he was a refugee Switzerland, selling sex for beer, food, and paper on which to write poetry. when he was prey. Therefore now, for Jiri, sex is not only physical gratification but revenge. And he’s learned that the more sexual he is, the sweeter, more thorough the revenge.

5. What is the significance of the cover art of the Jiri Chronicles?

That’s Jiri as a baby, one of the images from his set of autobiographical postcards. (I designed a better more relevant cover, frankly, that used the whole naked Jiri baby floating in blue sky and clouds, but the publisher wouldn’t use it.) Jiri claims that his mother thought he was “Jesus Christ himself.” And, ah, here is one of the external catalysts in The Chronicles!

In question 4 above, I referred to Seymour Glass. If you’ve read Salinger’s Franny & Zooey (and if you haven’t well…shame on you x 10 because the Glass Family Chronicles are tremendously important works of fiction and philosophy) then you’ll recognize the above phrase as relevant to the end of F & Z, requiring that you build interconnections between all references.

And this aspect of The Jiri Chronicles is terribly important: Readers are expected to be active participants in the “system” that is The Chronicles, and to explore that role, and draw conclusions about themselves and the world based on that participation. Reading is too often a passive experience, with readers expecting, even demanding that writers give them everything they need to expend as little energy as possible while being superficially entertained by a story. Essentially, they want to watch TV. That’s why we have Chick Lit, and Lit light and hoards of mediocre novels and short story collections that meet these middle-brow expectations and offer no new insight in contemporary culture and global society.

6. What is the reason for adding using four dots with the word Umlaut?

After naming Jiri’s metal band Umlaut, he and the lead singer, Hans, discovered that there were at least three other bands called Umlaut. So the two of them decided that having four dots would make their band better than the other Umlauts. Thus their new name: Umlaut with 4 dots not 2.

7. In Jiri Cech’s poem, Notes to Myself, what is the significance of making “regret this year’s luxury”?

The first section poems in Jiri’s collection, Whither: poems of exile, were written during Jiri’s stay in the refugee camp (about which I wrote in #4 above). When he fled Czechoslovakia, he took not much more than the clothes on his back. His poverty was acute. Merely surviving took precedence over everything. During this gloomy period of his life, he often dreamt about being rich, about traveling the world, about having money to spend – and being so confident of his “worth” that going broke in London, Paris, or Rome would seem only a momentary setback. I agree with Jiri: Regret is a luxury for someone who doesn’t know where tomorrow’s meal is coming from and therefore is always scrabbling toward the future, without the extravagance of pondering the past.

[These poems were actually written using only the definitions in a Czech-English Dictionary.]

8. Why does Jiri Cech promote so many different forms of music including “blues to African, ballads to Native American, and genres so bastardized they're absolutely unidentifiable”?

Hm, I’m not sure the word “promote” is quite right. Jiri’s just a dabbler, a dilettante. He’s wealthy and, like some of the wealthy I know, thinks his bank account corresponds to his cultural knowledge. He’s wrong. He’s also lazy: As you may have discovered, almost nothing that Jiri creates takes more than 10 minutes – first, because he writes experimental poetry while sitting on the toilet. and if he sits longer than 10 minutes his legs go numb; second, because he’s too busy breeding the virus that is suburban sprawl. Thus, when he sets out to create a Native American piece of music, the result is usually, well, hideous and often based on some weird stereotype of what that music sounds like.

9. Does Jiri Cech really believe he is a vampire?

Ah, the big question! What do you think?

10. Will Jiri Cech be trying out any new type of media any time soon?

My goal was to make Jiri or his work extant in all media. To date, he has not made it onto television or in the movies. I’m still working on that.

Unfortunately, Jiri was recently arrested in Johannesburg, South Africa. I’m not quite yet sure why. Something to do with a woman: “chasing tail,” as he calls it. As a result, we won’t be hearing much from him until his lawyer is able to get him out of jail.

11. Do you consider The Chronicles of Jiri Cech in this multimodal form Avant-Garde?

I use the term “avant-garde” in its original incarnation: to mean “the front guard” or “in the forefront.” (Much more on my definition of avant-garde on my blog, http://gertrudesbasket.blogspot,com/) So, yes, in hindsight I do consider the multimodal to be avant-garde because I’m investigating issues regarding 20-21st century media’s relationship to the writing and reading of literature using literary systems directly related to 20-21st Century technology & media, and the socioeconomic and political implications therein. By the way, the term “multimodal” only came about in the past couple of years, and then in the U.K. Multimodal has made its way to the US via Allison Gibbons, a PhD student in Linguistics who uses it in her dissertation that include deconstruction of part of The Jiri Chronicles, Steve Tomasula’s writing, and others of similar hides.)

Speaking as a teacher of experimental literary forms: When you set out to actually write & explore, avoid labels as much as possible. They’ll only corral you in the redundant past or inside the publishing market which is teeming with idiots. If you need constraints, use those based on linguistics (like George Perec & OuLiPo) or other disciplines like science, math, visual art, and music.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Final Essay Assignment

Now that the semester is drawing to a close, what have we learned in this class? What is "avant-garde" writing? How is it different from traditional writing? How are these texts different from each other? What makes these texts fundamentally different from New York Times best-sellers? Why aren't these texts taught in other English courses?

Basic Guidelines:
1. This will be an 7-10 page essay.
2. You will use MLA & have a Work Cited page.
3. You will offer smart, critical analysis.
4. This is NOT a book report!

Essay options:
1. Write an essay in which you compare a text from this course to a text you read for a "traditional" literature course. What are their similarities & differences? Where can see literature converge & separate? What risks are taken in which texts? What is exciting about each? Are there risks that push one text too far from the reader? Are there a lack of risks that makes one text less provocative?

2. Write an essay in which you compare a text from this course to a New York Times best seller. What are their similarities & differences? Where can see literature & pop culture converge & separate? What risks are taken in which texts? What is exciting about each? Are there risks that push one text too far from the reader? Are there a lack of risks that makes one text less provocative?

3. Write an essay in which you compare 2 texts from this course. What are their similarities & differences? Where can see literature converge & separate? What risks are taken in which texts? What is exciting about each? Are there risks that push one text too far from the reader? Are there a lack of risks that makes one text less provocative?

4. If you have an idea of your own, let me know. Run it by me.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Interview with Stacey Levine

1. Is Munson a real place? Is it completely imaginary or did your personal past experiences create Munson?

Munson is fictional—-a representation of a small town. I intended the representation to both echo and tweak/play with the lived experience of living in a place like that. Writers brings their experiences to writing—it’s unavoidable. It’s preferable that this happen, in any case. So yes, of course I considered, drew on, my own experiences in order to create the setting.

Did you design the appearance of the book? What is the significance of the size and appearance of the book?

I did not design the book, though I was asked if I preferred the fuchsia color on the cover to a brown/tan cover. I said I preferred the brown one and they ignored me! The book was one of many interesting volumes published by Clear Cut Press ( ) between 2003-2006 or so. It is/was an endeavor that experimented with business models and sought unique ways to get books into readers’ hands. Clear Cut developed a very specific aesthetic regarding their books, designing pocket-sized volumes similar to paperback books in Japan. They were edited and designed by some very talented folks. The books were printed in Asia and distributed through not only networks of friends and small businesses, but through some major distributors.

Do you consider yourself and/or Frances Johnson avant garde? If so, what about the book makes it avant garde?
I have serious doubts as to whether the avant-garde really exists in today’s culture of hypercapitalism. In order for the avant-garde to exist, there would need to be a space in the culture for provocative, outsider art that has no overt goal of gaining publicity or monetary worth. This culture doesn’t support that. In addition, the society would need to be more uniform, less fragmented, in order to support a renegade or underground aesthetic. Did you touch on things like this in class?

What is the significance of Munson and Little Munson?

I am interested in fictional expressions of dominance/deference and strength/weakness, as in litters of rats or cats in which one baby tends to grow fatter while others grow leaner or runtish. This can happen in personal, social, business, and other relationships too.

Why is Frances Johnson the only person in Munson who questions her life and her surroundings?
She’s really not the only person who questions these things: Ray and Kenny do, to some degree, too. Frances is a version of the stereotypic young person who embarks on the stereotypic journey to discover who he/she is, and that requires questioning the life she has led up to that point. The book is meant to slightly spoof “coming-of-age” novels and also old romance novels.

A few symbols seem to repeat in the book: volcano, annual town dance, oil, and the raisin in Nancy's car. What is their significance?

I try to not think of these as symbols; I was trying to get away from that. Instead, I wished these to contain the oddness of things we encounter in our lives and culture, weird features of the world that we try to make sense of. The struggle here for me as a writer is that it is impossible to avoid symbols. History and culture has trained us in the art of seeing/interpreting them. So it was a fun but failed experiment. That said, all these elements you mention, such as the volcano, have qualities that correlate to the characters in a psychological way. I wouldn’t pin it down to a specific meaning, like the volcano = pent-up anger, but more to a dream-like sense that these features kind of suit the characters and story.

Why are the townfolks so obsessed with Doctor Carol's marriage to Frances?
The townfolks are the resistance to Frances’ growth as an individual. I’m sure if you’re around 17-22 years old, you may have experienced something like this--some force in your world that asks you not to do the things you want, and proposes another plan that is disappointing or frustrating to you.

What is the purpose of asking rhetorical questions about Frances.
The rhetorical questions are partly compositional. I thought the narrative would look prettier with the interruptions of these sentences. They are so different-looking from the rest of the book’s declarative sentences. The questions also simply echo and/or refract the theme of the book, which has to do with Frances becoming individuated, whole, and separate from the town of her origin.

What is the purpose of the ballerina? Is she a reflection of Frances' feelings?
Doesn’t the ballerina, Linda Del-Adam, inspire the admiration of Frances’ mother? If so, how do you think Frances would react to another girl gaining her mother’s approval, while the mother is simultaneously critical of Frances?