You ask several times in the book, ‘Why Beckett.” So, why Beckett?
You could ask not only why Beckett but why mention it. I mention it because I think that being transparent about the genesis of such a project is important. It is being honest. Not everyone cares to see process in a work of art, but there you have it. And in Beckett’s work itself, the mechanics of things are stripped down, laid bare. There is very little artifice. But plenty of invention. A principle interest of mine was really “What Beckett?” That is, what would such an innovator be doing today, given today’s technologies and global politics. Whatever I have learned thus far is in this book, to a point. I am still at it.
What are you learning?
For one thing, I’m learning about what’s not possible and how that can be an assertion. And how to go forward from there. Beckett makes camp in negation, and builds a fire there. He looks out from there into a dark. The famous end toThe Unnamable—“You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”—is no joke. Go to those places in those many dark weird texts where identity comes apart and realize what going on means.
And in any attempt to get a handle on Beckett takes you to into interesting territory—to classical music, Irish history, Continental philosophy, World War II, abstract painting, the French language. For a quiet man his interests were voracious. Beckett scholarship has ranged far beyond those seminal early essays by Maurice Blanchot and Theodor Adorno and the studies by Ruby Cohn and Lawrence Harvey. Now, with James Knowlson’s authorized biography, the recently released four volumes of letters, and the digital manuscript project going on in Antwerp, the study of his works is vibrant all around the world.
How does this book relate to your other works?
Since my first book of poems, Elemenopy in 1996, I have been interested in influences, looking for my own voice through that of others. In that book, Jackson Mac Low and Gertrude Stein held enormous sway, and I now realize that I was appropriating texts (Stein’s “Portraits and Repetition”) back then. In subsequent books, the influences of Ron Silliman, Steve McCaffery, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, James Joyce, and some lesser writers like Harold Brodkey and J.F. Powers are rather clear.
What inspired you to import a formal organizational scheme from an abandoned Beckett work and then transform by both extension and contraction?
When I ran across Steven Connor’s essay on Beckett’s abandoned work, “Long Observation of the Ray,” I was thrilled to realize that Beckett clearly played with systems. Having read a lot of Mac Low, and John Cage and several of the Fluxus and Language poets, I liked systems. I felt there was virtue in some compositional restraints, but I had never thought Beckett would agree. Yet in his scheme for “Long Observation,” he appeared to explore an interior space—an absolutely closed space—by mechanically visiting nine themes about that place and doing so in orderly waves of prose. At this time, I was working on eight or nine ideas all having to do with Beckett. After reading Connor’s essay, I thought of interleaving my ideas per the Beckett plan. I thought—impossible! But one night, I dreamt that my job was to make large towers out of layers of felt and stones, one upon the other upon the other, and so I got up and cut-and-pasted four themes, one upon the other and so on. I could see that it was working, that the rhythmic delays and resumptions of themes was both exciting and agitating. Its disruption of normative narrative allowed light and silence to splash through.
Although you have used found texts in the past—or as we now say, appropriated content—you have deployed it here, it seems, in large scale—torture diaries, military interrogation manuals, newspapers reports of terrorist attacks, a tale of Scheherazade’s. What does this bring to the book?
I thought a lot about what Beckett might be doing today as an artist. He died in 1989, before email, before the Internet. But is his career he reacted quickly to new technological developments. When it became possible to write for radio, he did; when it became possible to write and design for television, he did; when it became possible to make a movie, he did. What would Beckett do today? I cannot help but think that the dispersion of self in social media would have interested him and he might just have thought text and image in some cloud were themselves material to be worked with, places to explore. Would he appropriate? Would he be organizing appropriations? All I can say is that my deep immersion in the Beckett aesthetic emboldened me to do so. That’s one reason for the appropriations.
The second reason is less about the justification for such a formal intervention than the specificity of what I chose to appropriate, and why. I wanted my book to be true to something that is true of a typical Beckett work. My decision to appropriate the Guantanamo diaries of Mohamedou Ould Slahi seemed the best way to honor true suffering, and also was another way to convey a central experience of several Beckett works–What Where, How It Is, Endgame, Happy Days, Not I. They depict forms of torture, some stylized, some direct. I guess there is another reason as well, not for appropriation as such but for the terror themes, and this is simply the times we live in. Sometimes historicizing is inevitable.
I must ask you about one of the story lines in your book that is abruptly dropped, that of the rumor that Beckett fathered a child.
I heard that rumor at a dinner party some years ago. It was stated as fact. Of course, I knew different! I had read three biographies of Beckett: he was childless. I had even read essays about his anti-natalism. But I did my own research and it was tantalizingly plausible that he had had a child in the late 1930s, but it has never been proven. It seems to have been disproved. Yet it persists as a kind of myth in certain quarters.
But why is it in the book, and in the book only to be dropped?
Well, the book’s first spark was the Beckett quote, “Being is the greatest threat to form.” This statement can resonate in countless ways—philosophically, aesthetically, politically, socially– but for me it had a personal resonance. Much of my life has been marked by a formal mystery—who I was spilled beyond what I knew of my origins. It was the mystery of who my parents were and where I was from. Until I was 50, I did not know. The issue of inheritances has always preoccupied me, and as a writer, literary inheritances even more. In that “Beckett’s daughter” is a writer, I was fascinated by that dynamic, that is, an aesthetic developing in the presence of gaps and silences. In that this preoccupation was an important engine in the book’s early going, I was unwilling to erase or suppress it–to quote from my epigraph, it is part of the “context of the continuum it nourished.”
What about the baseball game chatter between “Sam” and “Dick?”
Beckett and Richard Seaver—during Beckett’s only trip to America, in the summer of 1964, to make Film starring Buster Keaton—went to a Mets game at Shea Stadium. Seaver tells the story in his memoir. Seaver worked at Grove Press, but had known Beckett since his days in Paris. The two of them sat through a doubleheader featuring the two worst teams in baseball, by far. And since Beckett is, soi-disant, a connoisseur of failure, Sam’s witnessing of such futility on the baseball field seemed too good a thing to pass up. And the nine innings—I cover each inning—helps orient the reader through the first nine sections of the book.
Lastly, tell us about the title.
I went through a few working titles–Why Beckett? Sam Beckett’s Blues, Statement—until I saw a photo of a traffic sign on the approach to the Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin: “Samuel Beckett Closed.” It was exactly right, as by that time I had come to understand that Beckett’s late work was all about closed spaces. No more wandering the countryside, or living in London, or running around within big houses with surrounding parkland, as in Watt. Even the language, never mind the scenery, begins to foreclose on itself via subtraction in the very last works.
Is Beckett now closed for you?
Yes, but there’s no getting out.