A Note On Fictional Truth, a Conversation with Ed Pavlic
Ed Pavlić's first
book, Paraph of Bone & Other Kinds of Blue, selected by Adrienne Rich for the APR/Honickman First Book
Prize in 2001, is greatly influenced by jazz great Miles Davis, emulating with language and syntactical play what Davis does
with sound. The rhythms and time signatures of these poems slip and move within and beneath themselves, and, as Rich puts
it in the book's introduction, are "consciously shaped...[flowing] from a denser space, having penetrated a denser reality
[than that available via theory and philosophy], returning via the imagination and its many disconnects."
His second book, Labors
Lost Left Unfinished, The Sheep Meadow Press, 2006, continues to play with language and jazz but shifts to the more
chaotic, vast musical pulse of Charles Mingus in poems that push for a deeper, more tonal encounter between poet and reader. Labors
Lost Left Unfinished, like Mingus' work, is a monster of a book, not only in density or in its musical scope (the soul
voices of Phyllis Hyman and Sade joining with Alban Berg, the great oud player Anouar Brahem, Lhasa de Sela, and many others),
but, more so, in its barter between music and lyric, each line of each poem an exchange, the movement from poem to poem, as
Yusef Komunyakaa puts it, "an alluvial fan that draws everything to a lyrical moment, to a reckoning."
Ed Pavlić's third
book, Winners Have Yet To Be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway,The University of Georgia Press, 2008, deals
directly with the music icon who revolutionized American soul in the 70s with hits that received commercial and critical success.
Arguably, Hathaway's vocal and instrumental genius pushed the nexus of jazz and soul music deeper than it had ever gone, popularizing
soul in a way none others before him had achieved. Hathaway was hospitalized several times for depression, which hampered
his career, and on January 13, 1979, in the midst of a return to musical success, Hathaway's body was found beneath the 13th floor
window of his room at the Essex House in New York City- the glass to the window removed, his death ruled a suicide.
Winners Have Yet
To Be Announced eschews the structuralized, stanzaic form of Pavlić's previous work. Unlike with Miles Davis
in Paraph of Bone or with Mingus inLabors, Winners draws on Hathaway's
work and life in a much more sustained and focused way. Organized in 14 sections or chapters, Pavlić's response to the
music leans against facts borrowed from album liner notes, Hathaway's writings on his own music, and from interviews with
his friends, colleagues, and family. The material from these sources is then reworked in fictional form.
As stated by Pavlić in "A Note
On Fictional Truth," which appears at the back of the book, "all correspondence between the truths of this book
and documented (or as-yet documented) lives of real people are a kind of unintended exhaust...much of this book is a kind
of dance between what I needed to know and not know about Donny Hathaway in order to find what I had to say."
Ed, tell us about this book.
Ed Pavlić: Winners Have Yet to Be Announced took five years to write. I'd listened
to Donny Hathaway for most of my life in one way or another. But the first time I remember being struck by the unique power
of his music was when I was living with two roommates on Avenue C in New York City. This was 1991. This was Alphabet City
before the flood of gentrification in the mid-1990s. We had a bedroom window on the fire escape that had a thick iron gate
on it with an oversized brass padlock to which we didn't have the key. It was August and very hot. We slept with the window
open, measuring the feint cool breeze gained through the bars against the risk posed by whoever might wander up that fire
escape during the night. Anyway, WBLS played Donny's version of "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know." I
remember not having heard this particular version of the song before. The opening is mostly snare drum and chords on guitar.
The tempo is painfully slow. When Donny's voice appeared, "If I ever leave you baby, you can say I told you so / and
if I ever hurt you, you know I hurt myself as well," it was as if I'd heard it for the first time. The voice traveled
out the window through those bars into the air above the courtyard. I remember the impression that the bars on my window were
part of that song, were embedded in that voice. That image stuck with me. I still see those bars and the sky cut by the roof
of the building behind ours when I hear that song.
After that, I kept living and listening to Donny. One by one,
many of his songs seemed to get at the bottom of the joy and pain that comes from connections between people. In a way I don't
feel the need to deconstruct, for me, it was an essentially black sound, a testimony of what people can mean to and for each
other, to the power of human presence. Soul Music. I sensed something wide open, almost torn open, in the sound of his band,
his approach, the keyboard, and, of course, in his singing voice.
A few years later, a woman I was living with-a singer
herself-said that Donny's voice sounded to her like a thick chocolate milkshake. I thought that was close, really. Still do.
But, it wasn't enough. Winners Have Yet to Be Announced is my attempt to articulate, to translate, what
I hear in Donny's music and to imagine its origins, its contradictions and the way it fits and doesn't fit into a world (peoples'
lives) beyond the stage. There's a tonal, non-verbal autobiography in his music matched to the lyrics of his songs. There's
also an intense testimony about the multi-leveled experience of American life-cultural life, racially inflected and determined
experiences, psychological life, economics, artistic life-embedded in his music. I wanted to take his sound and pound it into
a series of narratives, statements-at the time I was calling them intensities-about where he was coming from
and where I was when I heard him. The combination, I hoped, could chart something about the place we're living in.
AMK: This idea of
"fictional truth" seems like a major problem in the book, this idea of taking real people and fictionalizing them
via the construct of their actual lives. By problem I mean an equation that must be balanced. In this case, we
have a man's life and music and those who knew him as opposed to the life and music of this man and these people on the page,
within the poem.
EP: Winners Have Yet to Be Announced is a work of fiction, executed
in prose poems. The central figure of the book is a historical person. I think this is quite a common arena, really. In the
course of the fiction, actual events occur and fictional events and impressions occur around them falsifying them and distilling
them at the same time. So I'm actually not sure there is a problem here. This sounds like all day everyday to me. We do this
with our own lives and the lives of people we know. We choose images that stand in for experiences in our memory, phrases
we've heard that come to account for what people in our lives mean to us. All of this discourse, really, amounts to a kind
of fiction. Experience itself is mute in many ways, there's no perfect way of making it articulate. The philosophers can pick
it up from there.
In the book, I've imagined conversations, monologues, dialogues, third person accounts that distill and falsify
the way the world sounds in Hathaway's music and the way the world has felt while I've been a part of it.
AMK: In your previous
two books you openly and consistently work in various personas or with fictionalized figures who, though we're not sure who
they are, seem like real people. I'm thinking of poems like "Masqualéro" from Paraph of Bone and
"Builder's Guide: The Brick Arch As Rebuttal To Proof Of An Otherwise Malevolent Design" from Labors Lost
How much did your work with figures in previous poems help you prepare for this?
EP: The figures in "Masqualéro"
both are and aren't twins. In "Builder's Guide," we shuttle between the present of two people and the ancestors
of one of them. In that poem, I simply dropped in a letter, word for word, written in pencil on boarding house stationary
by my great grandfather when he gave away my grandmother to another family. Her mother died in the birth. I was struck that
he referred to the baby as "it" in the letter. I'm struck that he apologizes for his handwriting to people whom
he regards as his betters. That letter is a fact. I have it in my drawer at work. The poem radiates out from it and the fictions
pull back thru the substance of that fact. The truth is anything that poem surprised me into realizing and anything that the
resulting narrative and images spark in whomever chances upon it in print. Dialogic, at least.
Many of my poems, the two you
mention for sure, kind of are and are and aren't autobiographical. They deal with real events in my life, the lives of people
I've known. At the same time, the poems aren't really about me or those people. They're improvisations, explorations of the
implications of experience; they delve into levels of experience that don't necessarily get realized as or articulated in
experience. The poems really do take place in a world that's a kind of twin of the world I live in.
happened when I'd given up attempting to make a poem say what I meant (or what I thought I wanted to mean...). The title comes
from a Wayne Shorter composition made famous by Miles Davis's "Second Quintet" that existed from 1965 - 1968 or
the song, the rhythm and time signatures slip and move underneath each solo, the song breathes and each voice (instrumental
voice) sounds like itself at the same time each sounds as if the other voices are wound all up in it as well. From here, I
could see it was a kind of private communion. Back then, I didn't know that but I followed what I heard and what I thought
that music had to do with what I felt like in the world.
Paraph of Bone ends with "Guerilla Calligraphy"
in which the two figures in "Masqualéro" return to the scene of their early meetings on the river. Similarly,
inLabors Lost Left Unfinished, the last poem, apart from the epilogue, "A Brief History of Now : Volume II,"
continues, deepens and expands the insistence on conversation at the beginning of the book.
As a book, Labors Lost
Left Unfinished does to Paraph of Bone what "A Brief History of Now" does to "Masqualéro."
It opens the lens to a wider sense of experience, historical, erotic, political, personal.
Labors Lost Left Unfinished is
a "blown wide open" kind of book. There is a declaration in it I think. I allowed certain images to repeat from
poem to poem inLabors in a way I'd have edited out of Paraph. It's a bigger book in everyway.
I hope it's a step forward, you know, down the stairs.
Writing these books taught me a lot. And, certainly, writing them
taught me a lot about things that went directly into Winners.
AMK: I think that all of your poetry asks a lot
of the reader; "understanding" your work takes a few readings. This is one of the aspects of your work (and
of poetry in general) that makes you fun to read. It is oftentimes difficult and yet delightful and intriguing.
For some readers, however, finding joy in this sort of discovery can be a lot to ask.
I'm wondering what motivates you to write in this
way. Why push image, narrative, and language the way you do?
EP: I think of Miles's advice to young soloists: "Play above
what you know, and finish before you're done." He also talked about the shared privacy of instrumental music and
about how he didn't want to intrude into a listener's experience of music. There's something counterintuitive about what he
means. He's not (as many thought he was...) saying "stay back" or "let's agree to disagree." Some thought
he was saying "fuck you." He may have been saying that, but he was saying something else on that horn as well. Nothing
in his sound supports these fraudulent reductions of what Miles's music was up to. I think what he means is that, somehow,
we can hold parts of ourselves (in this case, verbal selves) back and allow other parts a deeper encounter with each other.
I write poems
to explore options in the world. When an event occurs in our lives or in the world, a host of ready-made meanings and interpretations
swarm to it like locusts. CNN and other news channels actually interpret news as (and even before) it happens. I enjoy this
frenzy of information in a way. In another way, I think there's a fantastic violence in it. People's interpretations of events
(even events in their own lives) are handed to them ready-made. There's a guillotine in this. People are chopped away from
whole realms of possible senses of themselves by identifying (or not) with the tune being named by the culture around them.
They're, we're, being be- and re-headed. We live our lives under layer after layer of invasive representation and interpretation,
many people seem to want to graft their lives onto these representations (or resist them) and watch them as if they're their
own mirrors. They're not mirrors. Many of these representations, I think, are deeply ideological, normative. For whatever
reason, I've had trouble identifying with the shrill tone and pre-fab intelligence I see and hear around me in the American
media. I see American life-inasmuch as it assumes human life can be made happy, clean, and safe-as fundamentally delusional.
None of our private lives can vouch for the assumptions of the public, delusional mythology.
In poems, I replay these events
against my own assumptions and against my own musical sense of reality. Black music offers a set of assumptions (existential,
political, psychological, phenomenological) that simply can't be assimilated into the prevailing logic of mainstream American
life. The people in this music (the characters in the songs) may be all kinds of things, but their presence is not disposable.
In poems, I can improvise other versions of events in the world, I can try out other responses to these events. I can proceed
from alternate, more accurate, assumptions. In poems, I want it to be as if the public, historical world has been swallowed;
in the poem, we watch the public world navigate the pressurized innards of interior, private (though often shared) lives.
EP: Jazz is a laboratory for replaying experience in the way I describe above. Listen to what any jazz solo
does to the melody as the soloist explores various ways of interpreting it, re-playing it. Soul music like Hathaway's-which
certainly has its affinities with jazz-is our most deeply textured account of the depth of what people can mean to each other.
American love and friendship are figured with more intensity and nuance in Soul music than in any other discourse we have.
This thick, tonal, account of our lives is something I've always recognized since I was a six year-old in the early 70s wondering
why Michael Jackson wanted to "move mountains" for some anonymous person to whom he sang. Listen to Donny Hathaway's
version of "A Song for You," see if you can find corollaries for this depth of human involvement in our ready-made
world of news, glam, and so-called truth. I don't see much. It certainly won't be on Seinfeld or Friends or some such, that's
for damned sure. There won't be any compulsive laugh track. What could the sounds of soul music have to
do with a suburban audience wondering when to clap in a TV studio or one of the ubiquitous pre-game, half-time or post-game
shows, or with the chiseled mouth on the network passing off what passes for "news"?
AMK: The notes at the end of the book
mention that you "allowed information from sources other than the music in bit by bit...," which
clearly implies that you composed much of this book while listening to the music of Hathaway. What interests me here
is that this book is so radically different from your other books, which, from what I can tell, were composed in a similar
way. How/why is this book so different?
EP: I wanted a bigger structure and a deeper encounter. I wanted to get closer
to the reader. I remember thinking that when one writes one holds an imaginary reader's eye. All of a sudden, this seemed
very literal to me and I found that I wanted a different way of holding the reader's eye. I think I wanted to take better
care of the reader's eye than I'd done in the past. In my future work, I'd like to take better care of the reader's eye than
I have in Winners but, I think I'm moving in the right direction. Then again, I'm not sure what "better
care" actually means in practice.
AMK: Consistently, when pried by fellow musicians or interviewers in the book, Hathaway
claims he's not a singer. And, yet, it's Hathaway's voice that draws these people to him. Similarly, Hathaway
seems haunted by the difference between what he hears in his head and what he hears when he plays...there's an imbalance there
that he never seems able to rectify. Is it this book's attempt to reveal this side of Hathaway's "illness?"
EP: I read
somewhere that Donny was actually reluctant to sing. His wife has said that he'd call her to rehearse phrases in songs he'd
sung again and again. Clearly he was unsettled by the task. For me, of course, this sits in tension with his brilliance as
a vocalist. At the same time, I can imagine that the singular intensity his voice carries-there really is something
otherworldly in his voice-could well have been disturbing to him. As for the match between what he hears in his head and what
he's actually able to perform, this tension sits at the heart of many creative artists I've known. That kind of match (as
with experience and our sense of it) is impossible in the end. It's what Beckett meant with his famous quip about creative
work, that it's about "failing better." This sense of life and work has a lot to do with the title of the book.
This imbalance is also present in the poems themselves. Just looking at the title page, Winners Have Yet To Be Announced:
A Song for Donny Hathaway, Poems by Ed Pavlić," you can see that there's a conflict between what a song is
and what a poem is.
Is this one of the attempts of the book, to not only display but to embody as you display this imbalance, this conflict?
EP: I've gone
back and forth with the "Poems" part of that. In my mind, the book's one piece, a song. It's the singularity/plurality
issue that's bothered me more than anything.
AMK: What is the difference between song and poem?
EP: The differences between
good poems and songs aren't important to me. They're pleasurable to read like good songs are pleasurable to listen to. For
me, I listen to a "good" song over and over and over, I often replay certain lines and scales. I can never account
for why simple phrases in a song matched to a melody and a rhythm should exert such a powerful impact on me. A good poem operates
exactly the same way. I want to read it again and again, for what it means and simply for the pleasure of having it do what
it does. Again, this kind of pleasure goes beyond and athwart what our culture imagines itself to mean when it deals with
AMK: How, in this book, do these intersect, converge, and diverge?
EP: There are pieces of the book
I want to read over and over and over. Readers will have to make that decision for themselves.
AMK: There are times in the book when
Hathaway exhibits symptoms of schizophrenia. He's often sitting at the keyboard asking and answering questions of himself.
In several sections of the book, Hathaway talks about a man and a woman who are always present but whom no one else can see.
Tell us what you learned
about these encounters, about these figures in his mind. How much have you constructed these scenes and manifestations
from your own idea of Hathaway's mind versus the way Hathaway behaved and what he actually said before his death?
EP: I know
Donny had certain episodes. Breakdowns. Flare-ups. I don't know the clinical vocabulary. Some of these incidents happened
when he was in the studio or in performance. Some of them made it into reviews of his concerts. It's pretty clear to me that
Donny used music to talk to himself and to articulate his sense of how the world struck him. So, events in the world merged
with Donny's deep sense of empathy and his hopes for other people, his own sense of the pain of life, and also interacted
with a kind of chaos operating in his psyche. As for the specific instances, as far as I can remember, I made them up.
There is a
figure, Mr. Soul, who follows Donny around in life and finally narrates the scene of his death. I made the relationship between
Mr. Soul and Donny Hathaway up by meditating on an album called South Side Soul by a trio led by the piano
player John Wright. So, in my mind, Mr. Soul is an imagined John Wright who stalks around in Donny Hathaway's head. Mr. Soul
is a tonal mirror Hathaway measures himself against.
AMK: This conflict between what's real and what's not is an obvious undertone
of the book. Is this theme present due to Hathaway's illness or is this book in some ways your own treatise on "Fictional
Truth?" Is it both?
EP: It's both. I remember, for instance, when I realized what the line "We were alone and I was singing
this song to you" could mean in the life of a schizophrenic. The subtitle of his famous instrumental song, "Everything
is Everything," is "The Voices Inside." Ok? So, I used correlations and insights / extensions such as these
to guide my imagined sense of the world in the book.
AMK: Which came first, the desire to write about Hathaway or the desire
to write this book?
EP: I had the impulse to write a book with Donny Hathaway at the center of it. At one point, it was a trilogy:
one book which is basically Winners Have Yet to Be Announced; another set in contemporary Chicago with his music
on the radio; and a third in the ancestry of two figures in the contemporary. This structure proved WAY to unwieldy for me
to handle as it sprawled out beyond 100,000 words. At some point, I decided to take out all the sections dealing with directly
with Hathaway and then I shaped Winners in and around those sections.
AMK: Why write this book? I mean,
why not just write the man's biography? It seems almost masochistic to try and set all of this down on the page.
First, we have all the problems of writing about real people with real lives and, second, we have the problem of access, not
only for you, but for the reader as well.
Perhaps the question isn't so much why write this book but why write this way?
not a biographer for one. I didn't relish the job of going around attempting to get real people to talk about Donny's life.
It seemed, inevitably, that I'd find myself prying into people's personal lives in relation to what is certainly a painful
set of recollections.
Most of all, however, I wanted to follow what I'd been hearing in his music. I toyed with the idea of calling
the book "the biography of a tone of voice" but I couldn't get that to work quite right.
As for masochism, writing this
book was pleasurable for me. I hope it'll be pleasurable to read...especially for readers who have recognized the brilliance
of Donny Hathaway's work. Recently, on youtube, I saw a comment someone had posted in response to a video clip-an amazing
glimpse, really, search "Donny Hathaway Live" on youtube.com and see-and I thought it was really great. The writer
simply wrote : "your favorite singer's favorite singer." That's what I wanted to write about.
If you were given the chance to define poetry, how would you?
EP: I'd run the other way. If cornered, possibly, I'd say : "Poetry
is verbal art that holds language in a useful tension with its non-verbal elements." Then I'd gesture to the left, say
"look at that!" and run to the right... In a recent essay that I like very much called "Permeable Membrane,"
Adrienne Rich says, of poetry, that "the medium is language intensified, intensifying our sense of possible reality."
Maybe I'd go with that.
AMK: What do you hope readers will get from your poems?
EP: I hope they'll feel something they
wouldn't have felt had they not read the piece.
AMK: What do you hope we will take from Winners Have Yet To Be
EP: I hope the book contains invitations to feel new things. I hope there are a bunch of such invitations
in the book. I hope the book can offer readers of poetry a glimpse into the world of music and into the life of Donny Hathaway.
I hope the book can offer lovers of his music a glimpse at what poetry can do. I hope the mix of music and poetry in this
book doesn't just diminish both, that it can add something to our appreciation of these distinct but interwoven media.AMK: Thank you.