John Colburn is originally from Mantorville, MN, and is an editor and co-publisher at Spout Press. His first chapbook, Kissing, was published by Fuori Editions in 2002. A second chapbook, The Lawrence Welk Diaries, was published by WinteRed Press in 2006. His writing has also appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Fairy Tale Review, Esque, Eleven Eleven, Jubilat, Black Warrior Review, and Post Road. He works as a teacher at Hamline University and at the Perpich Center for Arts Education, and also plays in the improvised music group Astronaut Cooper’s Parade.
TSE: What work/ideas by others has inspired you or is inspiring you these days in terms of their/its vision?
JC: There’s just so much, it really adds up to an ecstatic experience. But let me try to be specific. Three things come to mind immediately. First, there are all these versions of mythic, otherworldly, psychedelic narratives I keep seeing and enjoying. They present archetypal situations to us with the combination of surprise and inevitability, like folktales, yet this is contemporary work, recontextualizing forms of the folk narrative for our time and exploding it forward, which of course must keep happening. Peter Richard’s last book Helsinki was so great at doing that, I thought, and Alice Notley’s book-length narratives, and Guy Maddin’s super-Freudian movies, Miyazaki’s films too of course. Erica Adams wrote a little book called Mutation of Fortune that’s in this vein, and Kim Hyesoon is mindblowing. These are not quite dreams and not quite folktales; they are possibilities. The Greek film Dogtooth has this archetypal quality. Not to mention Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. We just seem to be preparing to step out of historical time and to bring a useful sense of mythic narrative with us. Kate Bernheimer’s work as a writer and editor is really exciting to me —she sees the commonalities and I can trust her choices.
The second thing, which I imagine working in tandem with our increasing virtuality, to balance it, is an experiential deepening of the moment, of nowness, of vertical time. I’m thinking of Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present show at MoMa, which I had the good fortune to see. Also Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, Seun Kuti concerts, the performance work of The Gob Squad, the somatic exercises of CA Conrad. The effect that screen culture is having on identity and persona is pretty fascinating and holds opportunities, but I’m more attracted to a poetics of total embodiment and physicality. David Abrams’ books and Cecilia Vicuna’s installations, and Kiki Smith too. I think Arianna Reines’ poems bring this immediacy of mind and body right to our faces and I love it. Also of course Sarah Fox’s poems and her blog posts on Montevidayo. Mixed in with this somewhere is the grotesque and the opportunities it presents for resistance to patriarchal culture.
The third element has to be the re-emergence of the collective as an arts practice, and in fact not just an arts practice but as a generator of community and social change. For me the revelation here is that it doesn’t require that anti-mystical centralized Marxist dogma to keep it from being fun—the model is more anarchistic and driven by the desires of the people involved, not by theoretical restriction. The spoken word community has had this down for a long time, and really been a leader for the art world. If I look at the way this model is manifesting all over the country, it’s really hopeful. People are preparing for the destruction of the patriarchy and all its little false recognitions of excellence that promote hierarchy and resist inclusion. To me these three developments point to a deep understanding of a necessary impending transformation toward the re-enchantment of our experience of the world. My hope is that these trends will ultimately help make politics irrelevant.
TSE: What did you find compelling about Melancholia [and how might it relate to your writing]? I admire LVT’s work very much but have to admit that I couldn’t get beyond Kirsten Dunst when I started to watch the film. I find her persona juvenile, but perhaps that’s what the film called for. His films feature destruction of females that can be read in multiple ways. And, would you say a little bit about your “writing process”? Like, how is your current project unified, how did you arrive at that project?
JC: OK, first in response to Melancholia, I’m talking about it after only seeing it once in the theater, which is always risky. But the thing I loved about Melancholia is that the hero, KIrsten Dunst, is the one who sees the truth and is willing to say it. Yes, Von Trier’s female characters appear pathological and are broken down, but I think his nastiness has a revelatory purpose. So many people in this film are afraid of the truth, or at least afraid of someone speaking it. The journey the heroine takes through the film is not toward reintegration with patriarchal society but toward the destruction of her image as a member of society and the destruction of society itself. They think she is crazy but she has simply let go of an illusion. The impending apocalypse is personal (each of us will end) and societal (humanity is destroying itself), archetypal (chaos) and truthful (yes, our planet will end). And I love how the institutions of the patriarchy (marriage, work, family, status) can’t stand up to any kind of truth-telling in the film.
So Melancholia for me is a fable about truth-telling at the end of civilization, or at least a certain type of civilization, and a meditation on the inevitability of chaos. Trotsky said that the first characteristic of a really revolutionary party is to be able to look reality in the face. And it seems so simple to say capitalism and patriarchy are destructive to us, let’s begin building something else, but neoliberalism won’t allow that discussion. And rather than an escapist apocalyptic fantasy in which technology may save us from The Ending, or in which the actions of the hero allow the human ego to survive, Von Trier gives us a truth. Frued’s idea of melancholia as a pathological response or a generalized form of mourning is accepted here as a basic part of the human condition, one that we repress. But I think the film is against repression and it’s certainly about letting go of harmful illusions. Though it’s not completely cynical. Yes, each of us will end. But the last act that Dunst’s character engages in is to make a piece of art and embody it, to make of her life a shamanic performance. And to make art of her life in the face of her impending disappearance – not art for the ages, the ego, to outlast our bodies, but art to deepen our most truthful experience of now – that’s the project. Maybe it’s cynical that Dunst’s character is in her element in the apocalypse – the closer the destruction comes, the less depressed and more capable, even ecstatic she becomes. She’s trapped in a patriarchal illusion she has already seen through and its destruction may be liberating, although frightening. The characters finally reach integration in the acceptance of their destruction – they find the ability to love simultaneously with acceptance of the death of their own egos. I love how high the stakes are in many of Von Trier’s films, and how human and bodily they are at the same time, and how they attack the accepted consensus reality without mercy.
Second, in response to your question about my writing process, it changes a lot with each project. But let me use the writing you referenced (a mss. called Invisible Daughter) as an example. Usually some idea or place or image begins to act as an attractor. In this case, I began to recognize the woods on the edge of town where I grew up as a foundational experience in connection to other beings, as the place I learned to extend myself beyond the human. And as the setting of this magical patch of woods began to develop, it attracted all kinds of things – a belief in spirits/enchantment, love of folktales, my relationships to my daughter and stepdaughter, an interest in psychoanalytic inquiry, just all kinds of things. And they started forming something together, so that the ‘story’ of the project came to be about connection. What does it actually mean to connect to another being? To another state of being? From there the narrative began to grow, mostly because I had been reading a lot of folktales and contemporary writing about folktales. And the form began to appear when I realized that both traditional fiction and the kinds of poems I had been writing were restrictions or had become a performance with a predetermined outcome. And I love the paragraph and the sentence as fields of play, so I began telling fragments of a story using paragraphs. The story came to be a series of prose poems or a series of very short fictional chapters, whichever you want to call it.
Another example–right now I’m working on a longer poem called Decasia Companion Text, and I don’t know what it’s about exactly yet. The poem is based on the film Decasia by Bill Morrison. So that film is working as an attractor, as are its themes of decay and impermanence. All kinds of disparate experiences and texts are starting to stick to it. When it’s really going well it seems like everything I run across has a place in the writing I’m doing – it seems like I’m living it. Also, I’m sure that my age and the passing of friends and relatives in the generation before me has unconsciously guided me to this project. To write the poem I watch the film, just short clips of it over and over, and take notes, then start writing. I add my notes just from daily life and also notes inspired from whatever I’m reading and from conversations I’m having. Then I see what is appearing in the text I’ve compiled so far, what is unplanned and coincidental. From there, a form starts to take shape. I can’t talk about this one too much, because it’s just happening now, but it seems like there will be a narrative again. Anyway my writing process works best when I have something waiting in my mind and walk around with the project wide open, letting my experiences stick to it. I need to take in a lot of shows and art and human interactions to generate material.
TSE: Thank you, John Colburn.
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What follows is an excerpt from the manuscript Invisible Daughter. This is from the fourth section, just after the two adolescent boys have spent the night in the woods and been visited by spirits. Here they return to the town.
A creek could disappear. Cold on your feet, the shock that someone could love you, then mud. A creek could change direction, time could erase us. Every place housed spirits and some spirits merged and even some spirits had spirits. Parts of us lived in other beings, or the reverse; at dinnertime rooms grew uneven and smaller, Older Brother and I walked through town, listing its newness. Tragic barn stories, teeth in dreams, cars bursting into flame. At the park someone said They’re rich they have a pool table. An empty van trembled in front of the liquor store. A neighborhood girl told her doll I’m going to make you think about death. We walked to the corn-edged rim. Our town had grown shabby in the night. The new god was green, the next people translucent. Older Brother and I threw rocks into the corn. One rock loosened a blue balloon, or turned into a balloon when it entered the corn, or was of course a spirit. We watched it ride over land. There was nowhere to go and no way to turn back. No one explained how to be a boy. The sudden sharp crack of intellectual life would hurt us. I felt Invisible Daughter’s cold hand or another hand grew. The problem was time.
Somewhere in time winter hovered, lonely and romantic, but now summer grew ripe and made us real, awakened to the pagan charge of boyhood, scrotums like alien plant life, midnight erections uncontrollable and strange, transmissions from a land of perverse ghosts, the ruin of a good story. Why do we learn the names of countries? What is dancing? Now we knew sleep itself was a spirit and gave birth, we loped through its crust in morning light. How to have calm legs? The streets were just coffins, really. Hypnosis, the same buildings around and around, only dreams could be touched and passed through and touched us in return. Evidence shone deep in our bodies. We wondered what ghosts thought or were our thoughts ghosts. Sleep fractured, the tumble of the creek swept us, possessed us. Fat Dewey kept asking. We told our parents it was fun. We felt the minds of crows shift as we walked. Maybe spirits replaced our sleep with a deep ringing, a melted doorway. Maybe after sleep I would be taller, maybe I would know dream from dream.
We slept until noon, we rose and said goodbye to old voices of Sunday School teachers, the grocer, the butcher, the jolly crosswalk guard, those who told one story of one god who painted lines and of people who followed, blind, unfound, wanderers in a narrow chute toward heaven, scripted actors reciting to a lost time. We rose and walked the twelve blocks, crouched behind the two bars, picked up bottle caps and learned to flick them like assassins. Now we wanted girls on bicycles. We rose again and shuffled through vacant lots, looking down, we were still finders. Our rooms paled, sank away, rooms of bone quiet and shaped like miles apart on the telephone, rooms of magnets. We would probably accelerate now. Something had fallen on the surface of the future, just above us, darkening. I didn’t know what to find. Sheets of paper brought on dementia. Each street led its trail of daylight through us. The creek talked crazy and always beneath our thoughts, I couldn’t hear it but I could feel what it was like to hear it. There existed no room to enter, no door to close for protection against spirits in the mind. Maybe a mother put her hand in the creek and a child came out. Maybe a father put his hand in the fire and the child disappeared.
I stood on the bridge at dusk. That creek was a talker. Said a body melts. Said carry me. There was a banker in there. An owl in the creek. A devil in the muddy bottom with crayfish hands. A dusty pickup truck passed and we shared the pale light of our nowhere. That creek wanted us in its family, under the bridge, past the sewage plant, into the river and the next river and the next, around the world. That creek wanted us to be as snakes. We talked to our creek. We fell through our creek. We slept with our heads in the creek, all time in our ears. You can’t bite a creek. We knelt in overalls, the creek trying to drown us, get us drunk, float us to the next life. That creek was a teardrop sliding down a devil’s face. We built a model creek, it washed away, we’re still in there, smaller and smaller. Tomorrow we’ll either be town kids or animals in plaid shirts. Then we’ll drive away and be hollow.
tuesday july 3 1979
We gave up our common lives. We held them in quivering bowls outside the butcher shop. Our heads peeled. Our bodies filled with light again. The town shrank and shrank. No one felt comfortable talking to us. Two girls in tank tops appeared at the post office. Like they had grown up from blades of grass. Our nowhere, crowded with ragweed and cockleburs, became a stage. We followed the girls around, at a distance. I listened for rustling animals; I tried to hear the moon scrape through daylight. I tracked the sound of a dragging muffler. The two girls looked over their shoulders and laughed. I walked around saying Thank you. It got late early. I knew how to make a daughter, but that was it.
If you thought about it too long. If fields steamed and sunlight hit the fender, if you rode in the bed of the pickup. If you thought too long about spirits and people found you strange. If you were a finder. Now we knew the woods wandered at night. Who floated. Who emerged from leaves. What daughter woke from a hand and prayed by the creek’s pooling eye. I felt Thought–Eating Man nibbling away. The fathers all waved. We never waved back, kept walking into the corn, balloons released around us. We loved our town but some days everything around it was a devil, holding our future. We talked to invisible girls, waited behind the liquor store with our ten-dollar bill, told our story into an empty jar with swollen voices. First a black swan arrived at Hughes’ pond and some kids threw rocks. Then we heard a pastor’s wife was buried beneath the church. Then a possum family moved into the culvert. These events were united in the spirit world. Birds sang briefly and disappeared into the creek. What was an egg. What was a gravel pit. Whose dog ran out snarling and what dream did we remember as we ran screaming down the road.
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