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SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

A Conversation With Award-Winning Poet/Novelist Jack Driscoll

by Duff Brenna

Jack Driscoll is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and three books of poems. Winner of the AWP Short Fiction Award, his stories have appeared regularly in The Georgia Review and The Southern Review. He currently teaches in Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program in Oregon. Driscoll’s latest story collection, The World Of A Few Minutes Ago, will be published by Wayne State University Press in 2011. The spring issue of The Georgia Review lists Driscoll in their Best Fiction of the Last Twenty Five Years, and their website includes his essay about his fiction.

Duff Brenna: You have four books of poetry published. Did you start out as a poet?

Jack Driscoll: I wrote as a poet and a poet only for the first twenty-five years of my writing life, and I never once—not a single time during that stretch—considered a foray into fiction. Whatever part of the brain functioned to fashion a “story” seemed foreign to me back then, though in retrospect I wonder how I ever could have believed that.

DB: Which poets have influenced you the most?

JD: Frost. Robert Lowell. Emily Dickinson for sure, big time. Whitman’s sense of poetry’s democratizing possibilities intrigued, though I suspect that awareness all came later. Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, Anna Akhmatova’s commitment to “exalted love” resonated when I first read her and it does still. These names come immediately to mind, though on another day I’d no doubt reconfigure an entirely other personal early canon.

DB: A poet friend of mine said that there are certain beloved poems and lines of poetry that she has committed to memory. She says the poems orient her and inspire her and give her hope and make her want to write. Have you any poems you turn to for inspiration or solace or hope? Could you quote a line or two that you particularly like or love or maybe even hate but can’t forget?

JD: William Stafford’s “Traveling Through The Dark” had an enormous impact on me, road-kill poem or not. It seemed wonderfully uncomfortable—that thinking “hard for us all”—and I thought if this constitutes a poem then maybe I could break out of “form” and write like that too. It felt so conversational, so easily said, and I found myself reading and rereading it, and then I typed it up and carried it with me in my wallet like a photograph of somebody I loved. “My Papa’s Waltz” was also huge for me, so emotionally complex, simultaneously lovely and disturbing. It was Joyce who promised that Irish sons like me would eventually reconcile with our fathers, which may or may not be true. I’m still working on that. But what I love about the Roethke poem is how the reader understands—even in the midst of the young speaker’s fear—that the father’s drunken dance is a metaphor for love; and the poet himself, all those years after the event, with the perspective of time and distance, comes to understand that too.

As for particular lines, these from Galway Kinnell’s “The Road Between Here And There” I quote often:

“Here I sat on a boulder by the winter steaming river and put my/ head in my hands and considered time—which is next to/ nothing, merely what vanishes, and yet can make one’s elbows/ nearly pierce one’s thighs.”

They remind me that every breath taken is a record of another moment gone, and that maybe we ought—in our inevitable passing—acknowledge our awareness of mortality as both lonely and lovely. Which is nothing more, I suppose, than my romantic, melancholic Irish sensibility underscoring how apparent opposites can, in fact, be one and the same thing.

DB: Though Thomas Hardy wrote novels and stories, he thought of himself primarily as a poet. After the vicious reviews he received for Jude the Obscure he returned to poetry for the last 28 years of his life. Do you think that could ever happen to you? Have you ever been savaged by critics for any of your books?

JD: My wife has been asking me for years if I’ll ever write another poem. It has been about fifteen years since my last one, and so I refer now to myself as an ex-poet, though a former student of mine chided me for saying that at a reading one time. She said there is no statute of limitations—once a poet always a poet. In a recent introduction I was referred to as a poet masquerading as a novelist, which I liked a lot. So who knows, maybe I will, in spite of all my protestations, find myself thinking again in lines and stanzas instead of sentences and paragraphs. But if so, it won’t be the result of having been savaged by reviewers. It’s dispiriting to read a blistering review, or even a dismissive one, but if the writing becomes unsustainable because of one critic’s assault, then maybe it’s time to put down the pen and consider another line of work.

DB: William Faulkner is another writer who started out as a poet. He said that he knew he would be a writer as soon as he read his great grandfather’s novel, The White Rose of Memphis. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote This Side of Paradise because he wanted to win Zelda. Thomas E. Kennedy said that reading “Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield when he was 17 was the seminal moment when he knew he would be a writer. Was there a moment when you knew you would be a writer? Were you raised (like Archie Angel in How Like an Angel) in a house full of books?

JD: Well, and I pause here because I was raised in a house full of books, but their function was decorative: gorgeous leather-bound sets of Dickens and Mark Twain and Shakespeare lining the walls. We’re talking ceiling to floor, but the children—there were five of us—weren’t allowed to touch them. My mother’s vocation was real estate, but her passion was interior design, and she made of our English Tudor house a museum. And because we weren’t allowed to remove any books from those solid oak shelves, I became more and more intrigued by the forbidden, by what might be discovered there. Not that my mother was worried about such things, but in my imagination I nonetheless created some vague sense of literature as subversive and mysterious and immediately I wanted to spend time there.

As to when I knew I’d be a writer? Sometimes I still wonder if I am. By which I mean simply that the prospect of actualizing a life in language was so foreign to me growing up that I had a hard time telling anyone who asked what it was I did. Mostly I’d say “teacher,” unless I wanted to dead-end a conversation, and maybe then I might tag myself as a poet. After all, my first four books were poetry collections, though I never even mentioned to my parents that I’d ever published anything. And yet, from the time I was ten or eleven, I wondered if there was a way to express myself through some creative medium, and for a long time I believed it would be through photography, where in my twenties I’d already had a modicum of success. But finally, when push came to shove, it was language I trusted would save me.

DB: The first story in your collection that won the AWP is called “Wanting Only to be Heard.” My impression is that the title pretty much thematically controls the entire book. Does that comment make any sense to you? Would you agree with it or no?

JD: In 5th grade I had a teacher named Miss Dunn, and in the confines and meanness of that classroom I learned to hate school. Terrible things happened there, both physically and psychologically, and I wonder even now how any of us survived it; and why this angry, penurious adult desired only to filch from us any desire to question or imagine. We were taught to sit still and be silent and the remembered experience of enduring that assault—and it was that—became, years later, the background for my very first short story. It’s in the collection, and I agree that every story included does speak, in one way or another, to our need to be heard, and more so, I suppose, when the characters tend to be—as my characters are— inward and somewhat inarticulate, and therefore fearful of saying the wrong thing, which inevitably they do.

DB: You have a knack for titles: Wanting Only to be Heard; Lucky man, Lucky woman; How Like an Angel are all titles that not only are appropriate, but also are microcosms of the stories you tell. Are titles difficult for you? Do you try out several titles, or do the right ones just come in a flash? Have you ever looked through Shakespeare or the Bible or through books of quotes searching for a title?

JD: It’s all hard for me and titles are no exception. I must have tried out a dozen for the story collection before my editor suggested “Wanting Only To Be Heard.” At one point I’d called it “The Wilderness State” and he said, “What, is this some kind of ‘how to’ into the interior?”

And no, I never have gone consciously in search of a title by reading other writers, in the same way I’ve never gone in search of an epigraph. I did, however, discover the title for my novel How Like An Angel while reading Thomas Traherne’s “Wonder,” which begins, “How like an angel came I down.” My narrator’s name is Archie Angel, and as soon as I read that line I thought, “Yes.” I thought, “Perfect,” and never once considered changing it to anything else.

DB: Nearly all the stories in Wanting Only to be Heard deal with father-and-son relationships that “feel” cathartic at times, and at other times seem to be groping towards an answer to connections so complex they might defy Freud. Were the stories cathartic? Did writing them purge any demons?

JD: Writing/finishing anything that might hold up is for me in some ways cathartic, though I doubt that’s ever the impetus for writing the story. As for my obsession with father-son relationships, yeah, it’s true. It’s there in the work, especially in my fiction, the result of my dad being semi-absent in my growing up. He worked 364 days a year. Up and gone before the kids awakened, and back home in the early a.m. well after we’d all gone to bed. His presence was felt everywhere but he existed—at least in my imagination—more as an apparition than the flesh-and-blood person my mother referred to as “your father.”

I was of that generation that was expected to go to college, and there were years when all five kids were either in private boarding schools or in college. Imagine the cost of that. But there was another cost, too, and for me that translated to him never being around, never sitting in the bleachers for our little league baseball games, or at the dinner table, or with us on vacation. Instead he was always at the Elm Café—which he owned—pouring shots and beers. No hobbies or outward interests, nothing for himself that I ever knew about, and that kind of total renunciation—that work-driven ethos he served—can only announce itself in terms of love. But there was a cost, and the older I got the more I missed that imagined history I might have had with him but never did. And so there it is in the stories, those tensions resulting from that perplexing fusion of love and disappointment, that terrible feeling of estrangement from one’s own father, no matter how clearly you understand why and how it all came to be. How maybe it even had to be.

But as for exorcising any personal demons, for healing the heart in the process of getting something said well, probably not in the context that you mean.

DB: Each story leads to some kind of turning point, some kind of revelation of Self or others or both. For instance, in the story “Land Tides” the narrator, referring to an experience he had with his father and Lillian, the father’s girlfriend, says, “There are things that happen that can break a person’s heart.” The story concerns the narrator’s betrayal of the father, and we end with the sense that nothing will ever be right between them again, that both of them end up with broken hearts. Are you conscious of those turning points in your stories? Are you aware of the revelations that some of your characters have, or do they surprise you?

JD: It’s all a surprise for me, which I love. At most I only ever have the vaguest sense of where a story is headed. Stephen Dunn refers to what he calls “unconscious informing elements,” and I live by that—the unconscious knowing—and something like a turning point in the story is simply the byproduct of following each new lead given me by what that last sentence has announced. I would never in the writing of the story stop and say, “Okay, here’s the turning point.” Though I might, of course, understand it as exactly that after I’d gotten out of my writer brain and revisited the finished story as a critical reader.

DB: Would you call yourself an intuitive writer? Or do you plan your plots carefully?

JD: Entirely intuitive. As a poet I never had to think in terms of story or plot, and as a fiction writer I still don’t, and even if I wanted to my brain would refuse to function like that, in linear fashion. Really, there’s nothing more alien to me than the notion of a story line or outline, or any sense at all that such things can be predetermined, at least by minds such as mine. A story’s thrust for me is determined first linguistically, by the rhythms of those first sentences, and almost never by anything else. Language first, followed by character and place and, if I’m lucky, those elements will, in combination, discover the story. But story first? I don’t think that’s ever happened for me.

DB: In nearly all your stories, I am reminded of Joseph Conrad’s obsession with moments of truth and how those moments define us. Would you say that “moments of truth” is one of your reoccurring themes? Are you conscious of certain themes guiding or propelling your work?

JD: The recognition—and admission—of our complicity in something is a kind of truth, an owning up or coming clean, and so yes, I see my characters functioning and thus defining themselves in that way. But I’m never aware of themes, certainly not in the process of writing. Afterwards, yes, I do become conscious of a particular moral place I inhabit, and how certain repeated issues or themes rise from that place and define my interests and concerns as both a writer and a person. W.S. Merwin, in a poem called “Fly,” has a line in which the speaker says, “So this is what I am,” having just admitted to his participation in a cruel event. It’s one of those “moments of truth” that you mention, and I can’t imagine any of my characters not arriving by story’s end without a similar recognition.

DB: We talked about poetic influences, but what about prose influences? When you decided to try your hand at fiction were there particular writers who inspired you? Based on the lyrical way you use language I’m going to guess that if you have a list of favorites, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner are near the top, possibly John Updike as well?

JD: I think it was Robert Creeley who said that good teachers lead their students to good models, and the three writers you mention—most particularly Updike—were extremely important to me. As were Flannery O’Connor and Richard Yates, and Cormac McCarthy more recently, just to mention a few. I’d find myself underlining and reading aloud certain passages just to hear the authority and originality of phrasing, my ear animated by the sheer beauty of the language. The meaning of a sentence is always for me inherent first in its physical rhythms, its musical accumulation, to the extent that I might even take that sentence apart and score it. It’s not a leap for me to think of words as notes on the page. It’s the musical trope that brings those words alive and gives them their momentum.

Conversely, language that’s tin-eared or clunky—no matter how charged a novel or story might in other ways be—will for me as a reader inevitably disappoint.

DB: The Upper Peninsula of Michigan has obviously been crucial in shaping a lot of your work. You are definitely a writer who adores nature, the outdoors, fishing the Platt River and being entranced by the beauty around you. Were you raised in the U.P. outback? Were you or are you now a fishing guide like Archie used to be?

JD: I was not raised in the Upper Peninsula, but I have lived more than half my life in northern Michigan. I never once before I arrived thought of it as a destination, but landing here for the Interlochen job was the great good fortune of my life. This is where I came to define myself as a teacher and a writer, and where I came to understand what John Muir meant by wildness. The terrain is both gorgeous and unforgiving, the winters so harsh I wonder sometimes if I’ll make it through. So far so good, and I like how this place pressures and informs everything about my characters—language, psychology, etc.—and how the literal physical boundaries create an ongoing tension between what the place provides and what it can’t possibly give. It’s first of all a practical place but it’s also a spirit that informs everything that finally becomes the story. Try locating the stories elsewhere and they no longer exist.

As for me being a fishing guide like Archie? No, though I am an avid fly-fisherman, and have recently finished a piece for The Nature Conservancy on the Two-Hearted, the river Hemingway made famous; and I like the idea that he’d fallen so completely in love with this part of the world, too.

DB: When you won the 1991 AWP for Wanting Only to be Heard, how did you find out? Who told you? Phone call? Letter? How did you feel when you heard? Had you published many short stories before winning the award?

JD: Antonia Nelson, the final judge that year, phoned to tell me I’d won. What I remember about the conversation is that I babbled nonstop and at a feverish pace, because feverish I was, my glasses steamed over, heart racing. And what I thought in that first moment of repose—after understanding that this wasn’t some cruel joke or awful error—was my absurd good fortune. I mean, there’s never more than an off-chance that something like this will ever happen, and when it does...well, it’s hard not to be buoyed up in a significant and faith-sustaining way.

And yes, I had by then published most if not all of the stories in that collection: Ploughshares, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, etc., as well as a few nods from the PEN Syndicated Fiction Project. And yet none of that prepared me to anticipate winning the AWP. It all seemed not so much a long shot as it did a literal impossibility, an insane fabrication.

DB: Writing is such a hard way to make a living or make your mark. What did you get out of writing when you started? Why do you still do it?

JD: I never believed I’d make a living as a writer, and I sort of don’t, though my income these days is directly attached to my writing life: teaching, readings, workshops, craft talks—that sort of thing. As for making my mark? I always figured, if it happened at all, it would be a byproduct of writing hard and well, and I simply fell in love with the labor of attempting over a lot of years to do just that. To “put something down someday in my handwriting,” as Gertrude Stein said. I started when I was eleven, rhyming and playing in language, and I’m sixty-one now. It’s who I am. Take that away and I cease to exist.

DB: You teach a lot of creative writing, so you must believe that it can be taught. Or do you?

JD: I’ve heard it referred to as “writing school,” the echo of skepticism alive in that phrase, and there are, of course, much more cynical applications, everything from cash-cow to job scam; but I don’t listen to any of it, and I find the conversation predetermined and uninspiring. The tradition of writers welcoming other writers is longstanding, and that assumes a kind of mentorship, likeminded souls who are willing, perhaps, to read and respond to one another’s work, and this includes editors who I have found to be wonderfully helpful and insightful.

As I said, I teach at an international boarding school for the arts, where students major in music, dance, theater, visual arts, film, and creative writing; and I find the notion preposterous that all disciplines other than writing can be taught. What can’t be taught is talent. Craft can be taught, models held up, and the whole process expedited when one doesn’t have to figure it all out in isolation. Plus I find it a buoying experience to be around people passionate about writing, and about the function of language as it both means and feels.

DB: Write about what you know, some teachers say. Do you go along with that? Should we do the Hemingway thing and go gather experiences before we sit down and write? What about the woman who is mostly housebound and taking care of two or three kids, but she wants something more out of life? She wants to be a writer. What advice might you give to her?

JD: The poet Louie Skipper said, “When I write is where I begin to believe in what I say.” Emphasis on “begin,” because we come to what is said well slowly, over time, after experience, and though I agree that we write what we know I’m more a believer in writing beyond to what we don’t yet know, and can only discover in the process of getting it down. Those are the deeper, more mysterious truths I’m always after. And I doubt one has to “scour the world” looking for material. A lived life, even for the housebound—ask Emily—will provide all the material one needs to speak about feelings, and to give them shape and expression through the prism of language. In fact, sometimes I think the secrets inside the house create a kind of dynamo unmatched anywhere else. Anyone who has lived awhile has plenty to write about—it’s then more a matter of accuracy and imaginative depth, and that’s by far the taller order.

DB: Are you working on another novel now?

JD: I’ve learned over the years not to be so unequivocal—as I used to be—about what I will or won’t be doing at some future time, but for now I’m clearly not thinking “novel.” How Like An Angel took me five years, and I can’t at the moment begin to even process in those terms. I’m back writing short stories after a long hiatus, and in doing so I’m reminded how much I’ve missed working in shorter forms, and corresponding again with journal editors. My latest story collection, The World Of A Few Minutes Ago, will be published by Wayne State University Press in 2011, so I’m really happy about that.

—Previously published in Contemporary World Literature (February 2011)


SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

Duff Brenna

is the author of six novels, and recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel (The Book of Mamie), a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year (The Altar of the Body), a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short Story of the Year Award, and a Pushcart Honorable Mention.

Brenna’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Cream City Review, SQ, Agni, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, The Madison Review, New Letters, and numerous other literary venues. His work has been translated into six languages.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury