An Interview with Joshua Corey by Ari Lieberman
Joshua Corey lives in Evanston, Illinois, with his wife and daughter. An associate professor of English at Lake Forest College, he is the author of four poetry collections: Selah (Barrow Street Press, 2003), Fourier Series (Spineless Books, 2005), Severance Songs (Tupelo Press, 2011), and The Barons (Omnidawn Publishing, forthcoming)—with which, according to John Ashbery, "Joshua Corey has reinvented the good old-fashioned American avant-garde epic poem (Whitman, Stein, Crane, O’Hara) and thrust it, kicking if not screaming, into the early 21st Century."
Corey just published a clever and delightful novel with dark streaks, a detective story of aesthetic breadth and philosophical depth: Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014). I'm going to put to him a few questions about it and about him.
Joshua Corey, where and when (and why) were you born?
On October 2, 1970 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, to two parents, Ronald and Judith. He was the cosseted firstborn son of assimilated Chicago Jews; she was the brilliant and depressive daughter of Hungarian Auschwitz survivors. I’ve been negotiating that temperamental and historical split my whole life.
You and I, it turns out, are coevals. For my seventh birthday I got a 12-inch Spider-Man action figure and one of his nemesis The Lizard. You?
1977 means to me one thing and one thing only: the year Star Wars came out. I got a toy Tie Fighter, though what I really wanted was an X-wing. (Standing in line with my dad waiting to go see the movie is another early memory, as is the movie itself.)
Returning to earlier days: could you describe your very first memory?
I glory in my New York origins, but after eighteen months of bliss on the Upper West Side, around the time of my younger sister’s birth, we moved to New Jersey where we lived in an archetypal white suburban house with a gravel drive. One afternoon my father drove home in a new car, a Chevy I think, and I remember hearing the gravel crunching and running out to meet him. Other memories from that backyard: the ripple of the air above the grill while my dad was cooking hamburgers; my mother smoking Salems on the porch; the winter the snow was deep enough for my sister and me to tunnel through.
You are a poet. What possessed you to write a novel?
I’ve always wanted to write a novel, and there have been several failed attempts, at least one of which extended to hundreds of pages. But I lost interest in fiction for most of my thirties. Partly that was triage: I was a poet and a PhD student and spent many pleasant hours grappling with Adorno and Lacan on the one hand and the big modernist epics on the other: Pound’s Cantos, Zukofksy’s “A”, Williams’s Paterson, H.D.’s Trilogy, Olson’s Maximus Poems. Partly it was because the fiction that I was encountering on a casual basis, on the display tables at Barnes & Noble or in the New York Times Book Review and in The New Yorker, bored me to tears. Contemporary American fiction seemed confined to literary realism, and literary realism seemed played out; even if there were exceptions that I considered worth reading (like Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, which I have devoured three times), I couldn’t imagine that they were worth writing: too much connecting the dots. I knew about the major American postmodernists—DeLillo, Pynchon, Wallace, et al—but they mostly left me cold. Then, gradually over the past decade I became aware of more interesting things being done with narrative by primarily non-American authors: I discovered Marguerite Duras and Georges Perec and Julio Cortázar and W.G. Sebald, and rediscovered Italo Calvino and Virginia Woolf. But the writer who really broke things open for me when I first read him was Robert Bolaño. Not only did he identify as a poet who happened to write novels but those novels were mostly about poets! Very permission-giving. For Bolaño poetry and literature are a mythic homeland from which he has been exiled (like Chile under the dictatorship) and which he writes about ceaselessly with a volatile mixture of nostalgia and cynicism and dread. It’s the literary imagination itself that’s at stake in Bolaño’s writing; that’s what makes him a Romantic and for me opened up the dimensionality of storytelling. Suddenly narrative seemed possible for me, even urgent, and I went to it.
How is writing prose different from writing verse? Was it a difficult transition for you? How does it feel to be a slave to Narrative?
It’s precisely being a “slave to Narrative” that I wanted to avoid for so many years; I knew I couldn’t write fiction except as a kind of fugitive from narrative’s demands, from what Woolf calls “the appalling effort of saying what I meant.” I found, I find, that I can only write fiction if I preserve for myself or for my language the sovereignty of the page that poetry permits. What I mean by that is the absolute right, every fresh day of a long project, to face the blank page and write what that page, that moment, seems to demand, rather than filling in whatever corners were left to me by yesterday’s efforts. If those corners end up filling naturally and of themselves, well and good; but I rather like a narrative filled with leaps and gaps and folds, which projects itself through a kind of triangulation through the reader’s imagination. It’s the virtuality of writing that fascinates, that third space between reader and writer, where everything happens. In other words, I try to write fiction by honoring the same impulse by which I write my poetry. And yet of course there are differences, character being the biggest.
Let me quote from your novel: "He does and does not look the part, as she, dreamer, puckering crimson lipstick beneath a black bob, fails to resemble her limp-haired daytime self" (p. 5). There are traces of verse in this prose, here and throughout the novel--which you're calling an elegy. What role does verse, the reading and writing of verse as opposed to prose, play in this narrative?
I suppose the biggest difference between verse and prose, at any rate the most obvious one, is the tension between line and sentence created by line breaks. A poetic prose arises when the spirit of the break, or the turn or volta, is introduced into or between sentences. This can be done paratactically, by juxtaposing unlike sentences and clauses; it can also be done hypotactically, as in Proust, through sentences that are so long that they become little universes in themselves, collaged in a narrative whose vastness helps give it that virtual quality that I prize so highly. I wrote Beautiful Soul as a kind of test of prose, to see what it could do or what I could do with it, in spite of what I felt to be its primary limitation, which is its tendency to say things, to present them as definite—the opposite of the power Mallarmé finds in poetic speech, a la “I say: a flower! and out of the oblivion into which my voice consigns any real shape, as something other than petals known to man, there rises, harmoniously and gently, the ideal flower itself, the one that is absent from all earthly bouquets.” It’s not “the ideal flower” that I’m after, at all, but rather summoning that effort of idealism from the reader.
Elegy, meanwhile, is a search for consolation in the face of irreparable loss, a doomed attempt to replace in the virtual what has vanished from the actual. There are many losses that my novel elegizes: the death of the heroine’s mother, which is the encoded loss of my own mother; the utopian possibilities referenced by the words “the events of May ‘68” and by the Sixties in general; and the death of reading itself.
You say this is an American elegy, and yet the core of the novel is set in Europe; the direction of its lament is Europe. Shouldn't you have called it a European Elegy?
The spirit of Henry James presides over the novel in many respects, not least through the adoption of a heroine rather than a hero and the deployment of what James called his “international” theme: the confrontation between American innocence and European experience. Ruth, my heroine, is the granddaughter of Jewish death camp survivors; her mother, who is referred to as M, was an immigrant to this country whose childhood was haunted by the unspeakability of her parents’ experience. M returns to Europe in the late Sixties in an attempt to discover the truth of that experience, at the very moment western Europe seemed to be presenting a new flowering of innocence. Ruth hires or imagines a detective, Lamb (his name is an homage to Lambert Strether, the hapless but detective-like protagonist of The Ambassadors), who returns to Europe decades later, on her mother’s trail; but as in all good noir fiction instead of shedding light on the story only succeeds in making the darkness and impalpability of M’s story more palpable. The mutual incomprehension of America and Europe, and the inability of either side to fully understand or reckon with the historical experience of evil: that’s what my subtitle tries to capture, albeit obliquely.
Why beautiful soul?
“Beautiful soul” is Hegel’s term for a phase of historical consciousness that lives in terror of commitment and so withdraws from the world so as not to get its hands dirty. As Hegel writes in the Phenomenology, “The ‘beautiful soul,’ lacking an actual existence, entangled in the contradiction between its pure self and the necessity of that self to externalize itself and change itself into an actual existence… is disordered to the point of madness, wastes itself in yearning, and pines away in consumption.” You could apply this term, with varying degrees of accuracy, to the New Left of the ‘60s which turned its back on dialectics in favor of ecstatic hedonism; to M, whose experience of historical trauma renders her as homeless in Europe as in America; and to Ruth, whose obsession with her mother leaves her incapable of functioning happily in her own role as wife and mother. But I was conscious of course that many will read this title unironically, even mawkishly, as a term of praise (there’s a nonfiction book out there called Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, which seems to use the term in ignorance of Hegel and to mean something entirely opposite, since nothing is less heroic or more married to confused notions of its own extraordinariness than the victim of “beautiful soul syndrome”). Of course it’s also not a bad term for a ghost, and Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy is very much a ghost story, among other things.
Dial M for Murder. Any thoughts on the connection between Hitchcock's 1954 film and your novel? What is an "existential noir"?
Really the cinematic “M” that resonated most for me while writing the novel is Fritz Lang’s M, about a tormented child murderer who is marked, Hester Prynne-style, by that letter. As for noir, my understanding of noir is that it’s a form of narrative in which the hero, in attempting to unravel some form of evil conspiracy, discovers that he himself is a pawn of or participant in that conspiracy: the archetype here is Oedipus, working diligently to solve crimes that he himself has committed. You can see, I hope, the connection to the “beautiful soul” idea there. I use the phrase “existential noir” to get at the idea that the mystery that Ruth tries to unravel is ultimately the mystery of her own existence: as daughter, as mother, as wife, as reader, and not least as a character, trapped Howard-the-Duck-style in a world she never made.
This is the story of a young mother in search of her own (departed) mother. What did you learn, in writing this book, about womanhood, motherhood?
While I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself woman-identified, I do find that much of the poetry and fiction that moves me the most is written either by women or about women or by men who seem capable of accessing feminine imagination, which I would characterize as being an imagination conditioned by its understanding of its own embodiment and fragility. To put it in another and more provocative way, women are more human than men; they are more likely to feel and express the mortal vulnerability that men conceal from each other and themselves. My father is not without his artistic side, but it was my mother with whom I identified growing up: she read and wrote poetry, she conveyed through her words and deeds that openness to experience and sensitivity to language were all-important. She taught me to question authority and to play with words. She died of cancer when I was twenty-one, and I’ve been trying to console myself for her loss ever since. The novel is another attempt to feel close to her, and I found that the mask I needed to wear for that purpose was a female one. Naturally I was a little nervous what women readers would think—whether they’d find Ruth credible—and I was relieved when Maggie Nelson, who was gracious enough to provide one of the novel’s endorsements, wrote that she admired my “conjuring of Ruth: fulcrum of readerly empathy, inheritor of mysterious and difficult histories, navigator of the present’s strata, honorary ‘new reader.’”
M for Mother, M for Murder, M for Memory. What else? Is the answer to be found in the Rabelaisian rumble of M-words on pages 306-307 ("Madeleine. Matutinal. Marianne, Maribelle, Maria, Mary. Monday, Monday. Murmur martyr, my mother. Murk, mist, maledictum...."), or is this a series of decoys?
Let’s not forget M the Minister of Intelligence who is James Bond’s boss, portrayed most memorably recently by Dame Judi Dench (my mother’s name was Judy). M for maximus and minimus, for the multiplication of identities and the minusing of a usable self. M for May ’68 and M for middle of the alphabet. M as empty and overflowing signifier, as unfulfilled and uncapturable as motherhood itself, the ungainly tripod to its sleek bipedal neighbor N(arrative).
Why is Ruth/Elsa labeled "the new reader"? Who is the old reader? Am I insane or is reading another word for being? This is, after all, an existential noir.
To paraphrase Robert Hass, all the new reading is about loss and the response to loss; in this it resembles all the old reading. I have always read to feel myself in contact with other minds, including the otherness of my own mind. The fact that reading has become distributed in a new way, so that I can now get a nearly instantaneous response to something that I’ve written on Twitter or published in a magazine—this experience only concretizes my sense of reading and writing as the most intimate sort of community, which in my case began with a community of two: me and my mother, side by side with our respective books. Given the role of the mother’s body in psychoanalysis as that from which the child struggles to distinguish himself, is it any wonder that I conflate reading and being? So you’re not insane, at least not for that reason.
A substantial part of the narrative is set in Paris, May 1968. Pourquoi?
What’s that Radiohead line? I wish it was the Sixties, I wish we could be happy / I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen. (I should have included “The Bends” on my Largehearted Boy playlist. May ’68 seemed a suitable historical object on which to project my own imaginations and fantasies about a period that our parents’ generation has overlaid, to a suffocating degree, over my generation’s sense of historical (im)possibility. The fact that it’s Paris and not, say, Chicago makes it possible too for me to pursue the “international” theme. And it was such a pure moment that seems to have distilled its entire era, a moment when on the one hand “poetry ruled the streets” and on the other hand the actual achievements on a political level seem to have been transitory at best. And yet such utopian moments, infrequent as they are, live forever (“now in the mind indestructible,” as Pound said about his rather different Fascist utopia), and serve as a constant goad to our historical and political imaginations, like the Commune in 1871, or Russian Futurism, or Occupy Wall Street.
"It’s a bad habit of Ruth’s to always identify people by their Jewishness or lack of Jewishness" (p. 126). Jew? Jewish? Jewishness?
I haven’t foregrounded my Jewishness much in my writing, unless it turns out that I have! My first book of poems is titled Selah, after all, for that mysterious liturgical word that occurs in the Hebrew Psalms, and its first poem is a homophonic parody of Paul Celan’s poem “Psalm.” I was raised “Jewnitarian” by two fundamentally secular parents, but I’m getting more Jewy as I get older—my daughter’s in religious school at our local Reconstructionist congregation, and I’ve been taking Hebrew classes on and off to keep up with her. I don’t have Ruth’s tribal instincts, but I know plenty of Jews that do. There’s no question but that I feel part of that larger historical experience, and I identify closely with any number of Jewish writers, thinkers, and visionaries—Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Paul Celan, Edmond Jabès… the list goes on. Jews have soul, thanks to their experience of exclusion and suffering; our souls are also in peril as we try and act in the world, like anyone else. Again I go back to my dual legacy, as assimilated all-American consumer (Dad’s side of things) and as immigrant from a realm of ashes and black horror, which also remained, paradoxically for my mother and for me, the only civilization that counted. My Jewishness is like an antenna through which I experience what Roger Shattuck calls, regarding Proust, the “intermittency” of human experience and human character. It’s always changing. It’s the same for Ruth, who imagines for herself an alter-ego who can act on her behalf, Lamb, who is explicitly male and implicitly goyishe.
"Her parents were in Auschwitz. My grandparents I mean" (p. 151). The Holocaust is in the background of Beautiful Soul. Were you tempted at any point to put the Holocaust at the center?
It’s absolutely at the center, the same way a black hole might be the central gravity well around which dead and wounded planets are orbiting. I consider all attempts to tell Holocaust stories, that aren’t told by the survivors themselves, to be obscene. My grandparents were survivors and so technically was my mother, born in Budapest in 1942 and living in hiding with her grandparents until the war ended. What is my relationship to that story, to that utter void or overplus of significance? The novel is, obliquely, an attempt at finding that out.
If Beautiful Soul is made into a film (and it will be), who should direct it? Who should play Ruth/Elsa? Who should play M? Who should play Lamb the detective?
The novel engages pretty directly with cinema and cinematic conventions—parts of it read like a film treatment—so this seems like a natural question. Natalie Portman would make a good Ruth, I think, and M could be played by Rachel Weisz as a young woman and Judy Davis when she’s older. I confess that while I was writing I sometimes pictured George Clooney as Lamb, but he’s too handsome and a little too old. It should probably be somebody quirkier. Crispin Glover? As for a director, I’d love it to be someone with a distinctive vision of his or her own, who would warp the narrative in pleasing and surprising ways. David Lynch! Jim Jarmusch. Or maybe Sofia Coppola could do something interesting with it.
Will you write another novel, or are you done with this plebeian sport?
I continue to be fascinated by narrative’s capacity for virtuality, which I’m currently exploring through writing some very short stories or surrealist flash fictions or whatever you might want to call them. To project the barest outlines of narrative possibility through the presentation and juxtaposition of a few details is very appealing to me; I like the idea of what the Australian writer Hazel Smith calls the “synoptic novel,” a novel in ten lines or whatever. I’m also becoming more interested in narrative poetry; I’m a huge fan of Alice Notley and how she brings fictional strategies and conventions into her writing. In some ways Beautiful Soul resembles her great book Disobedience, in its poetic engagement with noir tropes; there’s one passage from the section “What’s Suppressed” that could have come from either text: “I dream I’m a detective a man / trying to catch a woman,” waiting for her to come out “into this room of the self full / of others and mirrors. // She is the soul.” One of my current projects is a kind of hybrid text or poetic novel based on the romance between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger called Hannah and the Master, which reimagines their relationship in the 21st-century context of global warming rather than Nazism. But another full-fledged prose novel? Never say never.
Ari Lieberman was born in Mexico and grew up in Israel. He is the author of Out of the Blue (Yediot Books, 2014) and editor of the collaborative storytelling project uprightdown.com. He teaches comparative literature at the University of Georgia.
Born in New York, raised in New Jersey, at various times resident in New Orleans, western Montana, the San Francisco Bay Area, upstate New York, and now, Evanston, Illinois. A more complete bio can be found at the Poetry Foundation.
I write poetry, essays, and fiction, and teach English at Lake Forest College. I am available for readings and lectures.
Contact me at corey (at) lakeforest (dot) edu.