25 September 2006

interview : trevor dodge

Lance: Would you talk a little bit about growing up in Idaho, not exactly known as a hotbed of radical art (which is odd, actually, given that Matthew Barney, Edward Kienholz, and Built to Spill, among others, hail from it), and how you got from there to the experimental literary scene in Portland, Oregon?

Trevor: My grandfather was a truck driver in Twin Falls, and when I was about 10 years old, I spent a summer with him on the road. He ran a route through San Francisco down to Los Angeles, then back up the coast all the way up to Portland before he hit Interstate 84 and cruised back home. My hometown barely held 20,000 people, so the memories of those port cities are still indelibly burned into me, and I realized fairly early in my teens that I'd need to breathe the more humid air here. I know that sounds way too much like the country mouse visiting the city in those Warner Bros cartoons, but that's a pretty close comparison. I was able to visit Portland several times before finally moving here in 2001, and on each successive trip I was more and more seduced by the overall sleepiness of the area; there are always exciting things happening here, but no one seems to get too wrapped up in any one thing. Except for crystal meth, of course. We can't get enough of it.

Lance: You serve as co-editor of Chiasmus's Northwest Edge anthology series. How did you become involved in the alternative-publishing world in general, and Chiasmus in particular?

Trevor: It all started amidst a round of drinks at Ringlers back in 2002. Lidia Yuknavitch and I had kept a sporadic email correspondence going for a few years, and it just happened that she and her partner Andy Mingo came out for dinner one night. At that time, two girls review was on permanent hiatus, and Lidia was itching to start up something similar to the Deviant Fictions anthology she and L.N. Pearson edited a couple of years prior. Before the evening was over, the three of us vowed to do something together in the near future, but I didn't think too much of it at the time because I didn't know Lidia well enough then to realize that she is one thousand percent committed to backing up every word she says with her art and actions, and Andy is incredibly calculating and business-minded when it comes to pulling things together. As a team, the two of them are a true force of nature, and I quickly (and very gladly) found myself swept into the anthology project that became Fictions of Mass Destruction. It's a couple years later now, but we just followed that book up with the third installment, The End of Reality, which is both an anthology and DVD compilation of the most interesting writing and short films we could lay our grubby hands on, and we're really happy with the end result. So I tend to think of my ongoing association with Chiasmus as one of those rare instances where tavern talk actually ended up walking the walk.

Lance: Kathy Acker strikes me as one of the most important influences on your fiction and thinking. Would you talk a little about your relationship with her and her texts, and what other influences—literary, theoretical, and extra-literary—you feel are essential to contextualizing your larger project?

Trevor: Kathy was first and foremost a teacher to me, and it's hard to believe she's been gone for almost 10 years now. What she taught me was the importance of community in art, and of supporting one another's work inside whatever community that might be. I was very fortunate to work with her on a web project for a couple of years before she passed away, and I am still taken aback today by her generosity. When I started going to conferences fresh out of graduate school and began meeting other people who had been touched in similar ways, I quickly found this was simply the way she was. There's a lot of angel and devil talk out there about Kathy; you don't have to dig too far to find people who describe their relationships with her as both charmed and strained. Perhaps I didn't know her well or long enough, but my experiences were nothing but positive. But then again, I adored her completely.

I'd also say that her insistence upon writing as an act of making reverberates strongly with me. Her writing process is very similar to that of an assemblage or collage artist who uses a wide variety of materials to solve a problem. Of course, her materials are other texts, so reading and considering the work of others is absolutely critical to her process. The ability to inhabit the mouths of other writers, to use their experiences, situations and characters in different contexts, takes a true appreciation for the primary works from which she is rifting. That first section of In Memoriam to Identity where Acker puppets Arthur Rimbaud is probably the most beautiful and stirring piece of writing I've ever read, and I think it comes from her having channeled Rimbaud's agony line by line from A Season in Hell. Like Burroughs before her, Kathy understood that language isn't an indifferent conduit for human experience; it is alive and writhing, sure, but it also has a memory and it has a voice of its own. Acker's consistent claims to have no unique or deliberate "voice" in her writing comes from this understanding that could only be accessed by reading and using other texts.

Lance: In many ways, I think of the fictions in your new collection, Everyone I Know Lives on Roads, as (troubled though the term might be) Avant-Pop explorations. That is, they seem profoundly aware of and shot through by a deeply conflicted pop-cultural sensibility, while at the same time deeply committed to the avant-garde's politico-aesthetic goal of destabilization. Does that sound about right to you? If so, how does a writer so greatly invested in the popular moment resist becoming implicated in the very thing he/she seeks to critique and undermine?

Trevor: First, writers have to realize that becoming implicated or subsumed by this pop-cultural "thing" you're talking about isn't the end of all ends, because being co-opted is actually a tremendous opportunity to corrupt the entity that is doing the co-opting. You mentioned Built to Spill earlier, whose modus operandi is to maximize the benefits of being on a major recording label while making a very deliberate attempt to minimalize all the things that suck about it. This of course takes the ability to discern the advantages from the pitfalls in the first place, and to run the very great risk that your work won't reach millions of people. That is, if you care about your work reaching millions of people. Because if that's your goal as a writer, you need to think very seriously about your choice of artistic medium, especially if you're among those of us in the dead-tree-editions crowd.

So that brings me to my obviously fuzzy answer to your question. Pop culture is curbed only by its own pervasiveness, and everyone who is still reading me ramble here already knows that popular culture in the U.S. is tolerant of text-based art forms, but not at all supportive of them in sustainable or meaningful ways. In other words, few people read books on a daily basis, yadda yadda yadda (and here starts the handwringing over "What's wrong with us?" and "Blame videogames!", blah blah blah). I spent a lot of time worrying about this kind of stuff in college, and can regurgitate a lot of it using the fancy language and theory I was taught in grad school, but ultimately I really do think things are going to be fine in the long run. Ben Marcus came within a whisper of running the Iowa Writers' Workshop, folks. Relax already.

That doesn't mean, of course, that we don't push back, especially given the flattening of virtually every form of discourse in our culture over the last five years. We desperately need to break through the ridiculous either/or-isms that have squelched important conversations in this country about politics, religion, and civil liberties. We need to think primarily in problematics, and secondarily in problem-solving. Nuance. Layers. Militant possibility.

Lance: If you could give two or three bits of advice to young writers seeking to move away from predictable writing and publishing moves, what would they be?

Trevor: If you're not already running a litmag or doing a zine of some kind, start one, especially if you have no idea what one is or where to find one. You will learn infinitely more about your own sensibilities—and thus your own writing—in a few months of wading through a slushpile of cold manuscripts solicited from a post on craigslist than you ever would taking classes at some awful college. Save your money. You're going to need it.

But spend at least a little bit of that tuition fund on a bitchen laptop, one that will simultaneously allow you to download what's going on right now so you can eventually hack the future. Infiltrate places like WordPress, MySpace, YouTube, and Wikipedia and retool them to serve your personal media empire. The future will not be televised, but it sure as hell will be syndicated.