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A Conversation with Ed Pavlic

 
  
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."

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: 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 Left Unfinished. 

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.

"Masqualéro" 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 so.

In 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. 

AMK: And jazz? 

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.  

AMK: 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 "happiness."

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?

EP: I'm 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. 

AMK: 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 Announced?

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. 



The Cortland ReviewApril 2008 Feature

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