Friday, December 31, 2010
Interview with Paul Lisicky
So pleased to have Paul Lisicky as the first interview at The Fine Delight. This interview was conducted via e-mail. Photo credit goes to Star Black. A bio note, as well as links to Paul's books, follow the interview. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us, Paul!
1. "The Didache" is a beautifully layered prose piece that engages the sacrament of the Eucharist, and the title refers to the non-canonical, yet essential document of the early Church. How do you envision the connection between the title and the narrative of the piece?
A little patch of the actual Didache has always stayed with me: "As this broken bread was scattered on the mountains and was gathered and made one, so may your church be gathered together to the ends of the earth." That translation probably comes from one of the liturgical songs I sang (or wrote?) during my teenage years. I know I was thinking a lot about brokenness at the time I wrote the piece. My late mother seemed pretty broken health-wise; she also seemed broken in terms of her identity. As her memory went, she had a range of selves that stood in for who she'd been. My father? Well, he was sometimes known to her as Bernice, the lady who ran the (non-existent) restaurant on the ground floor of their condo.
There was a day, on a family visit, when my mother insisted on making a sandwich for me, when I knew it was very hard for her to do that. I could see the concentration in her face, her attempt to steady her hands. That gesture seemed profound to me--can I say Eucharistic? I needed to let her make the sandwich, though I could have done it myself. I must have been wondering whether there was a beauty to brokenness, to all the selves we'd been (or almost been) over time. So the piece wants to gather all those selves together in a single gesture. In that way, the piece wants to echo the intent of the document it takes its name from.
2. Could you discuss how music (and your experiences as a composer) connect to, and enhance, Catholic mass and faith?
I can't imagine the Mass without music; most of those texts insist on being sung. Compare a sung Holy (Sanctus) to a spoken Holy. The latter thuds along and it's over before you know it. It's all murmured at the same pitch, no highs and lows, no contours. All monotone. So much of the mass is fragmentary. Responses and acclamations need the emphasis of melody and harmony or else they're swallowed up.
It's a beautiful thing when an assembly is singing together, without fear, their breaths practically in sync. The experience is physical, it takes us out of ourselves; we're part of the larger body. Something extraordinary about interconnectedness is enacted rather than just instructed. At the same time, it's very intimate. We get to meet our own bodies again, as well as the bodies of the people to our right and our left.
3. Famous Builder, your memoir-in-essays, contains some wonderful representations of post Vatican II Catholicism, especially the organic, "joyful" sense of celebration with mass. Has the Church gone in another direction since that post-conciliar optimism?
That's hard for me to talk to, as I go to Mass at an urban parish, where progressive politics and progressive theology are very much alive. Lay people of all colors, income levels, and sexual orientations, etc. are involved in the liturgy. They're lectors, Eucharistic ministers, cantors--all that. Interestingly, the assembly applauds at the end of the final hymn, and it never feels like self-congratulation, or simply about the good job the choir did. It's pure gratitude--or maybe awe that something meaningful, on a communal level, could take place in a hard and cynical world.
It's funny--I didn't go to church for decades after having been so involved in liturgical music as a young person. As writing took over my imagination, art became my church, and that other world fell away, gently. The church doesn't often look so good from outside, when you're not in it. That's not exactly news to us. I couldn't help but think, well, the church of my childhood, the church interested in social justice and transformation of self and culture--well, that's just dead. I felt sad about it for a long time. It's been reassuring to learn that the story's more complicated than that, at least on the parish level. I think the parish is where grace is actually transacted, especially in the liturgy. There are good people out there, very quietly, very humbly, doing their part to change things.
4. Could you discuss your appreciation for the writing (and ideas about writing) of Flannery O'Connor?
I've always been stirred by the relationship between disruption and growth in her work. Grace doesn't often happen without confrontation, especially confrontation between strangers. I'm also interested in the relationship between irreverence and reverence in her stories. You can't have reverence without the other, you know? The Grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" doesn't reach out to touch the Misfit's face until after she mumbles, "Maybe he didn't raise the dead." That's the first point in the piece where she actively doubts, the first time she asks a question. The religion of complacency and denial and reward for social achievement--gone up in a flare. I don't think that she would have come to that radical connection with the Misfit unless she'd opened herself up to doubt.
I also love what O'Connor does with tone--the almost slapstick, vaguely sitcom-y opening of "A Good Man" morphing into something so grave and pressurized that it's almost unbearable. Try reading that whole story aloud in a group setting: It's on fire. I'm always relieved by any piece of art that escapes its original terms, that's given permission to leap and stretch and go to strange, anarchic places. Of course there's still humor, dark humor, in the gravest parts of the story, but the story's become another animal in its final pages. There's such a lesson in that, not only in terms of content but form, too.
5. Any Catholic literary influences (besides O'Connor)?
Ah, definitely Denis Johnson. JESUS' SON is about as important to me as anything, not just its thinking, its accommodation of heightened perception, but its economy, its disjunctions, its room for inference. A beautiful, wounded mind that's always struggling toward clarity, grace--and what it means to recognize other human beings. It's music in language.
6. What are the elements or traits of Catholicism that make it so appealing to writers?
The grandeur and mystery alongside its down-to-earthness. I think the meeting up of those two points of view is a fertile place for art. And I've always been drawn to its space for questions, its room for contradiction. I mean, number the contradictions in any O'Connor story--it's instructive.
If we're talking about potent traits...How about the respect for fallibility, screwing up, the deep, shadowy side of any human character? I think that might be partly why I've never been able to bear the notion of "likable" characters in fiction. Who's interested in likable characters if redemption is a dynamic, ongoing thing? Likability always strikes me as being so externally determined, never organic to the character in question.
7. Michael Leach has written that "If Catholicism can enchant and enthrall your imagination in the early years of your life, you will always be haunted by it. As novelist Alice McDermott said, with considerable pride, we are forever doomed to be Catholic." What is about Catholicism that has once (or continues to) fascinate/enlighten/help you?
I might have already spoken to that, in different ways, in the questions above. All I know is that for the years I didn't go to mass, I felt a terrible pang whenever I walked by a church and heard singing coming from inside. It's home to me, even if I'm troubled by the conservative turn the (larger) church has taken in the last twenty-some years. The rhythm of the liturgy is really intrinsic to how I think, to how I make art. I miss it when I'm away from it for too long. It's exile.
8. One of my theology professors, Rev. Patrick Madden, has discussed how the Church can benefit (and has benefited) from the scholarship of independent Catholic theologians. What could the Catholic Church learn from writing and writers? Do you have advice for the Church?
To be open to theologians, writers, artists who might not be friends of Catholicism. To respect other points of view, not necessarily Christian points of view, but Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, atheist points of view. I'm a great fan of the liberal Dutch church, the music and texts of Bernard Huijbers, Huub Oosterhuis, Antoine Oomen, and Tom Lowenthal. I've loved that work since I was a teenager, its dignity and common-sense, its lack of sentimentality, its respect for social justice. When I listen to that music, I can't help but think it could change the world if only we had it in ourselves to take it in.
As for what's hard to take? Dead language, mawkish language. I think all of that does more soul-damage than we know. That's what makes us cringe: when we hear people talking too easily, too certainly, about the divine. It's embarrassing. Empty, overworked phrases that are expected to stand in for the hard work of seeing, naming. Those Oosterhuis texts, even though they're decades old now, make an active effort to resist that.
9. What project(s) are you working on now?
I'm close to finishing the second draft of a nonfiction book called I'D SURE LIKE TO SEE YOU. It's a book about friendship, particularly about my friendship with the late writer Denise Gess, who was in many ways a mentor, a sister, my best friend. It wants to be part JUST KIDS, part THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, part something else. Passages about friendship are interspersed with scenes of the planet in trouble: the Deepwater Horizon spill, the wars, the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, the costs of global warming. It might just be a big old mess, but people seem to be liking what they've heard.
Paul Lisicky is the author of LAWNBOY, FAMOUS BUILDER, and two forthcoming books: THE BURNING HOUSE (novel, 2011) and UNBUILT PROJECTS (short prose pieces, 2012). His work has appeared in PLOUGHSHARES, THE IOWA REVIEW, FIVE POINTS, BLACK WARRIOR REVIEW, GULF COAST, THE SEATTLE REVIEW, and numerous anthologies. He has taught in the graduate writing programs at Cornell University, Rutgers-Newark, Sarah Lawrence College, and Antioch Los Angeles. He currently teaches at NYU. In Spring 2011, he will be visiting writer in the MFA Program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. His awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was twice a fellow. He lives in New York City. His blog, MYSTERY BEAST, can be found here.
Posted by Nick Ripatrazone at 11:15 AM