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It was late in the smoke-painted bar, a quarter past the blue hour, when The Interviewer pulled The Poet into an even darker room. And in the dark of that darkness, came the first question. Tell me, said the Interviewer, where do your poems live?

You’re asking so you must have them and have them alive in the hand you hope will one day hold me.

The dark room was the color of closed eyelids now. Music reached in through a window deprived of its pane. With his eyes on the music, The Interviewer asked What was the last sin your poems committed?

My friend, my friend, I was born
to a father who didn’t want what I am. I am
doing reference work in sin, and born
to fuck married men with no shame in
confessing it. This is what poems are:
willing to burn in public
with mercy
and liberty and justice for not but
for the greedy,
and the six other sinners who say
they are the tongue’s wrangle,
the hair follicle,
the world’s pottage, the rat’s star
playing the chitlin circuit I call home.

A blade of moonlight cut The Poet’s body in half. The Interview liked this. The Interviewer wondered which half wanted most to be taken. Drinks appeared at the table without explanation. I want to know, said The Interviewer, pausing to take a sip of his drink,what your poems dream about?

They dream they are dreaming, and in that dream they never have to wake again.

Minutes were hours in that shut eyelid-colored room. The moon turned into the sun without apology. Music that had been reaching through the window pulled its hand away. The Interview looked less himself. Tell me, please tell me, what have your poems come here to do?

No big thing really—jus wanna fuk wit yr I’s til u c yrslf well enuf to admit that u 1 evil bitch.

It was late in the smoke-painted bar, a quarter past the blue hour, when The Interviewer pulled The Poet into an even darker room. And in the dark of that darkness, came the first question. Tell me, said the Interviewer, where do your poems live?

My poems have roommates, and until two weeks ago, slept on a loft bed they bought in 2006 while still a paralegal. The last girl my poems had over called that shit a bunk bed. They forget to take out the trash on Sunday. They are from Ohio, and know enough to start there. They live lives I can almost imagine, and rarely, but sometimes, ones that I can’t. In the subway, in karaoke dive bars, in my grandfather’s house. In my mother’s text messages. They’re trying to fall in love with someone tangible and special. Their stomach flips when the landlord sells the building. I know my poems can’t live in a nicer apartment than I do.

The dark room was the color of closed eyelids now. Music reached in through a window deprived of its pane. With his eyes on the music, The Interviewer asked What was the last sin your poems committed?

It’s the future you can change. Not the past. My poems don’t pick and choose when they want to be themselves. If anything, they’re party to the sin of silence. But that’s not their choice. That’s a muzzle I build for them. They’re everywhere: When I open the refrigerator. When the last of my hometown friends are married and having children. When I’m gentrifying a neighborhood I’m about to be priced out of. If my poems don’t materialize, I’m the one who makes that silence. When they’re afraid to speak. When I don’t read enough to nurture them into reality. That’s me. They’re waiting to love me. I try to be brave enough to reciprocate. They know when to listen, and what needs to be said. They know when I’m lying, and help me right that ship. They help me be bold. It takes a lifetime.

A blade of moonlight cut The Poet’s body in half. The Interviewer liked this. The Interviewer wondered which half wanted most to be taken. Drinks appeared at the table without explanation. I want to know, said The Interviewer, pausing to take a sip of his drink, what your poems dream about?

That all sixty-four of my great-great-great-great-great grandmothers are in the same room. That the poems are being watched by something larger, not judgmental, just something that is to them what they are to me. And that supervising presence is made from, not just the writing that came before, but playgrounds, divorce papers, two hours past my bedtime camp fires, journeys that ended in bloodshed, or silence, or catharsis, or surrounded by children each two years apart. Whatever explosion happened a million years ago to build the old light we see on this canoe ride. That’s who my poems dream to meet. Who they answer to. Who they often don’t find, but when I’m really proud of them–when my stomach has an ache akin to sorrow, but not quite. A somber pride, that’s when I know they are reaching. That they’ve dreamt big.

Minutes were hours in that shut eyelid-colored room. The moon turned into the sun without apology. Music that had been reaching through the window pulled its hand away. The Interviewer looked less himself. Tell me, please tell me, what have your poems come here to do?

Like quarter notes, brush strokes, like windmills. We journey to find the art. Our minds have to train, not theirs. The poem’s agenda is the specificity of truth, which is complicated, and delicate. Full of broken rules and emotional history. They aren’t here to save anyone’s life, and not because they don’t have the heart for it (I’d argue that art is the single most empathetic force in the world), but that salvation is not their journey to dictate. When I read something beautiful and my heart tells me it is true, that’s my pilgrimage to walk toward. To dissect, and wear in my mouth, to let change me. To experience the magnitude of something that doesn’t turn away. A force that can (and many times over, does) save me, yes.

But this happens in retrospect for the art, the artist, the audience. The poem whose foundation is a desire to effect change and alter the emotions of others, risks compromising its relationship to discovery. To saying what needs to be said. If I’m writing from a base of trying to make others turn right, I risk not being able to turn left, or backwards, or do a somersault. I turn the key and try not to crash. I open the rodeo gate and wrap my arms around the bull’s head.

Bob Marley songs, for instance, feel like they came to make so much available. But I’ve seen enough daytime frat parties where everyone’s singing “Buffalo Soldier” to understand that with every person comes a new way to experience and utilize a piece of art. Art’s job is to exist. To belong to the air around it and the eyes and imaginations that see it. An invitation to consider something deeper. I strive to know that whatever change comes from that, for both artist and audience, is on us. Not the music. Not the poems.

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Jon Sands is a Brooklyn based author known for electrifying readings. He wrote, The New Clean, released in 2011 from Write Bloody Publishing, and starred in the award winning 2011 web-series “Verse: A Murder Mystery” from Rattapallax Films. He is Director of Poetry Education at the Positive Health Project (a syringe exchange center located in Midtown Manhattan), an adjunct with the City University of New York, as well as a Youth Mentor with Urban Word-NYC. He’s represented New York City multiple times at the National Poetry Slam, tours extensively, both nationally and internationally, and makes better tuna salad than anyone you know. Say yes to www.jonsands.com.

Interviewer: The Paris Review has one quintessential question, which it has asked everybody from William Faulkner to Ernest Hemingway. What is the implement that you write with?
T.C. Boyle: I use my toenails actually—collect them, hammer them down, mold them into shape …

William Styron didn’t write in notebooks. He tried notebooks, but they didn’t work for him. They do work for Paul Auster, though, so he writes in notebooks. He likes the ones with gridded lines, which he calls “quadrille lines — the little squares.” When Auster’s done with the notebooks he types everything up. He has a typewriter he bought in 1974.

What is that supposed to tell us? What does this reveal about Styron? What do we know or understand about Auster that we didn’t before?

The Paris Review has been interviewing writers since 1953, and for more than five decades they’ve been asking this question about implements, about the actual, tactile things writers use to write. The question is, why? What is it we actually want to get at with this “quintessential” question? What are we supposed to know when we know the answer?

Hemingway would sharpen all his pencils — seven No. 2s — before he started writing. This is what he said, anyway. He said this in the Paris Review interview in 1954, which is about half way between his Nobel Prize and his suicide, after he’d stopped publishing books, and in the interview, when he says it, it sounds like it could be a joke, or maybe a self-made myth, a little mystification.

I don’t even have any pencils in my house, much less seven, and the last time I can remember writing with a No. 2 was when I took the SATs and filled in those little bubbles. If I had them, though, I’d take them out now and sharpen them all and lay them out in a row. And then what? What would I know?

It’s possible, I realize, that I’m thinking about this wrong. It’s possible the question isn’t probing at anything deeper. Maybe we really are just earnestly interested in typewriters and notebooks, pens, paper and blank computer screens. Maybe it’s just interesting to know. It’s framed, though, as an important question. The question seems to me to be about more than it’s about. It’s like a fetish. We seem to think there’s a secret here, a revelation to be revealed, a mystical, magical something we want to learn.

I’ve been thinking about this question because I’ve been reading all the times it was asked in those old Paris Review interviews. They’re all online now, as of a few weeks ago, which means they can be more easily looked at as a group. I have often liked particular interviewers and found them interesting and useful. As a whole, though, as a corpus, there’s something disturbing there.

There’s something very canonistic about them. Something … institutional. By which I mean, literature is presented in a weird way; its mystified, presented as if authorized, and made into something sort of magisterial.

Maybe its the problem with the interview as an art form: the condition of the interview is that the subject be worth interviewing, be an institution, be recognized. The author, in the interview form, can only be approached respectfully. The author is given, granted, this assumed position of authority to speak with finality, an authority that’s something like God’s. The author-god gets the final word, gets to answer the question about meaning in final way. That’s the ground of the form, the assumption of it. If the author-god protests against that assumption not least because it diminishes the work itself, marks he work as insufficient to itself, as something that needs this supplemental pronouncement, if the author-god protests as Faulkner does in his interview, saying “The artist is of no importance,” and “If I had not existed, someone else would have written me,” the protest is feeble in the face of the force of the assumption. Even as he says it it’s undermined by the fact he says it as Author. Anything he says is said from this position of having the right to the last say, and of course even if the author refuses to answer, that only heightens the mystery and makes us surer, because we were refused, that the author has the secret, the ultimate answer.

It’s not an accident, I don’t think, that the Paris Review interviewed its first author in 1953, inaugurating its “alternative to criticism” in a series that developed and popularized a form of discourse giving authors ultimate authority to pronounce on (and foreclose) the meanings of their texts. This was the same year and the same place that Roland Barthes published his first book, Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, which looked at the arbitrariness and constructedness of language, beginning a career that developed and popularized the school of thought that pronounced authors dead. It’s literary equivalent of the parting of Abraham and Lot, when Abraham dwelt in Cannon and Lot went down to the cities on the plain. The interview form might well be thought of as the counter movement to the movement that killed the author, though the effort wasn’t one to keep the author alive as much as to enact a kind of deification. But, just as the death works to liberate the work, to open it up to criticism and to thinking, the enshrinment of the author acts to canonize literature, it lock it up in an orthodoxy.

This can be seen in the Great Books movement, which happened in America at the same time: The great works of Western literature were bound in black and peddled from door to door, 54 forbidding volumes of works you were supposed to read.

They were, with this mystification, authorized, and elevated, raised to an aspirational level where they would be safe from reading. Instead of literature as a loud conversation, this was literature as a cathedral. It was conceived of as a class marker, a taste marker, as something genteel the middle classes could work towards and aspire too.

Don’t misunderstand, this isn’t just an attack on the great books. Or even The Great Books capitalized as they so often are. I went to the college I went to so I could read the canon, and I have read and value having read Virgil and Dante and Milton, Chaucer, Cervantes, Whitman and Hawthorne and Melville. But reading, for me, only makes sense as a struggle. Reading is a fighting-with. It isn’t and cannot be an act of reverence, because to read I must engage, and engagement implies a kind of conflict, a struggle. More than one conservative old prof. told me I was doing it wrong, but for me the great books is a big street brawl.

I guess this is what bothers me about the quintessential question they ask at the Paris Review. Writing is mystified with this question. The objects are presented like they’re magic, and they become objects to fetishize.

Joseph Heller wrote stuff down on 3×5 cards he kept in his wallet, which he called a “billfold” in ’74. Gore Vidal writes fiction on yellow legal pads, but essays and plays on a typewriter. John Updike had a typewriter too and Jack Kerouac had two. Gay Talese wrote outlines in different colors of ink on the shirt boards he got when his clothes come back from the dry cleaners.

What if none of this information actually acts to reveal anything? What if what it does is conceal? I think the question could offer a chance to think seriously about the materiality of writing — Don DeLillo does this, a little, with his answer, as does Jonathan Letham — but most of the time the question and these answers act to do the opposite, to cover up the complications and contingencies, to mask writing and make it mystical. It could be a good question. It could be followed up with questions that open it up: What difference does it make that you write the way you write? How does how you write shape your writing? Do the tools you use naturalize the text for you, make it kind of invisible, or does it heighten your awareness of the text as text and make more apparent the texture of the words?

It could, I think, really open some questions about writing up to thinking, but it doesn’t. Instead we end up with pin-up pictures of typewriters.

It’s like seeing a math equation with all the work erased. This is the example Roland Barthes uses, talking about Einstein in popular culture and how a fetish developed about his brain. Culturally, Barthes says, we began to talk about his brain as a machine, but not to actually reveal the thought and explain how the thoughts were thought, but to veil it in the mystery of genius. He says,

“Popular imagery faithfully expresses this: photographs of Einstein show him standing next to a blackboard covered with mathematical signs of obvious complexity, but cartoons of Einstein (the sign that he has become legend) show him chalk still in hand, and having just writing on the empty blackboard, as if without preparation, the magic formula of the world.”

If they asked Einstein, at the Paris Review, “what do you write with? what is the implement you use?” he would have said chalk. He would have said, “I write on a blackboard.”

But the answer to the quintessential question wouldn’t tell us more about his writing, but less. It wouldn’t reveal, but conceal. It would enable us to make a fetish out of his chalk like we make a fetish out of his brain, and we could put his chalk next to Heller’s note cards and Hemingway’s pencils, but we wouldn’t have a better critical understanding of the formula of the world, or how it was different because it was written with chalk then it would have been if it was written in red ink, or in a margin, or on a note card on a rooftop at dawn.

I really think it could be a good question. It could do what Charles Bernstein said he wanted to do in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Vol. 4, when he said he wanted to “establish the material, the stuff, of writing, in order, in turn, to base a discussion of writing on its medium rather than on preconceived literary ideas of subject matter or form,” a way to make the materiality of writing visible instead of repressing it and “making the language as transparent as possible.”

What we end up with, though, is a fetish. Another way to not think about writing. The quintessential question is quintessential as an “alternative to criticism,” which is also, I think, an alternative to thinking, and isn’t just an alternative, but actually a defense against it