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Thursday
Jul302015

"To Pay the Dentist or Some Other Piper": An Interview with Kathleen Heil

Kathleen Heil’s poems, stories, essays and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in FENCE, Gigantic, World Literature Today, Cincinnati Review, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Guernica, BOMB, Quarterly West, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Born and raised in area New Orleans, she is a 20152016 Sturgis International Fellow in Berlin. More info at kathleenheil.net.

Her essay, "Three Cut Short," appeared in Issue Sixty-Nine of The Collagist. 

Here, Kathleen Heil talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about Umberto Saba, brevity, and moaning writers.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “Three Cut Short.” What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

I have my former professor Geoffrey Brock to thank for learning about Umberto Saba's work and the notion of imitation as a form of translation, which served as inspiration for my “Cut Short” pieces. Brock edited The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry, which includes excerpts of Saba's Shortcuts, and led me to seek out the complete Scorciatoie in the original Italian. (They haven't been translated in full into English but Estelle Gilson's translations of The Stories and Recollections of Umberto Saba [Sheep Meadow, 1993] offers a nice introduction to his work).

Of course this essay is very concise—only three paragraphs, each one standing on its own to some extent, as the title implies. How do you achieve such an economy of language? Did it require a lot of revision to trim down the word count, or does this kind of brevity come naturally?

Hmm. Naturally, I guess, but I have Saba to thank, since his pieces acted as templates for my own. His Shortcuts are aphorisms insisting on the truth of what they proclaim, while at the same time undermining our faith in such statements, since they point to the dangers of making such confident proclamations with their tendency toward the absurd. It's probably helpful to contextualize the pieces in the time he was writing, the 1940s, when faith in ideological certainty had dangerous, disastrous consequences; a time, perhaps, not entirely different from our own, when you consider the dangerously absurd naïveté of young Europeans and Americans willing to embrace the hateful ideological 'certainties' promoted by ISIS.

In the second paragraph you write, “[…] when you don’t pay for something they say it has no value which is why people don’t care about literature and also maybe why writers are always moaning about something most people don’t care about because of money because there are no rock stars in literature and the ones who think they are rock stars are a bunch of weenies (name your names now). But sometimes there is joy and always there is lots of moaning. This is true of religion, literature, and rock music.” As a writer, do you find yourself moaning as described here? What are we moaning about mostly?

Ahh, good question! Most definitely, and all too often. I think writers are an easily aggrieved bunch, and I of course include myself in that statement. I think we often moan about cultural capital, i.e. prestige, as a way of avoiding talking about anxieties related to survival, safety, and love—those old chestnuts. To be fair, it is hard to live in a culture where value at-large is tied so closely to cold hard cash, which is good for rock stars and maybe for religion but not so great for writers. You can't pay the rent with a contributor's copy (and of course, neither can most journal editors, since they often work for salaries either negligible or nonexistent); instead of detailing why I think this is problematic at best, I will simply say that this model has elicited, on my part, more than one crying jag/freak out, when I've been called to pay the dentist or some other piper. That said, I don't think anyone needs to feel sorry for writers (though that, as I said, doesn't stop us from complaining, which, come to think of this response...).

Your website shows that your writing takes many forms: poetry, essays, stories, and even translations. What writing lessons have you learned from one genre that you’ve then taken into how you write in another?

Geoff Dyer's multi-genre and cross-disciplinary writing has served as inspiration for my own approach, which is to let content determine the form and to be suspicious of, as he calls them, “clichés of expectation” surrounding form. A less pretentious way of putting it would be to say that I try to follow my curiosity where it takes me. If I still haven't answered your question, it's because I think the strategies we develop as writers are only semi-conscious at best, and so though I'm confident that writing in one genre informs and enriches my work in another, I also feel somewhat ill-equipped to explain the process.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I'm translating a script from Italian, revising my poetry manuscript more like the weather, and  needing to give some revision love to a novel-in-progress entitled Whale Watch. Finally, as a Sturgis International Fellow, I'm thrilled to have recently moved to Berlin to research and write about the city's international contemporary dance scene, and extend all my thanks to the Sturgis Foundation at the University of Arkansas for their support.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Alejandro Zambra's Facsímil (Hueders, 2015), a novel-cum-standardized test, an excerpt of which was recently published in The New Yorker, in translation by Megan McDowell; All Night It Is Morning, poems by Andy Young (Diálogos, 2014); Gail Hareven's novel Lies, First Person, in translation by Dalya Bilu (Open Letter, 2015); and finally, it's not a recent read, but I'd like to proselytize on behalf of the Russian writer Sergei Dovlatov's wry and touching auto-fictions (I'd suggest starting with The Suitcase, in translation by Antonina W. Bouis [Counterpoint, 2011]).

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