Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Interview with Joe Bonomo
Joe Bonomo is the third interview at The Fine Delight, and I'm pleased to share his words. This interview was conducted via e-mail. A bio note, as well as links to Joe's books, follow the interview. Thanks so much for speaking with us, Joe!
1. "After Cornell" is a wonderful essay about the sacrament of confession. Does writing ever feel like a form of confession to you?
It’s interesting that you ask if writing ever feels like confession to me, as opposed to being confessional (i.e., confessing in writing). That’s a cool distinction, because my memories of confessing when I was young involve the process of talking, of sharing, more than the specifics of what I confessed. I remember the standard disclosures: I swore; I told on my little brother, etc. But mostly I remember talking toward a silhouette. And that process of conversation, of muttering toward a vaguely recognizable human figure, is a crucial connection to writing personally. There’s an implicit, sometimes explicit connection between me and a future reader. That relationship is obviously the crux of the sacrament of confession, the priest being the spiritual representative, the penitent being the talker essaying his near and far past for transgressions. The quiet in the confessional box is another connection, I think, that solemn space for reflection and, again, muttering, of finding the right words through trial and error, coming in prepared but also being open to digression and, ideally, for epiphany of a sort. And listening, to yourself and to another.
Now, the priest absolves the penitent’s sins, provided the penitent is contrite and does penance, makes amends. And there the connection to writing weakens a bit, or becomes entirely metaphorical, however you want to look at it. The essay doesn’t require forgiveness! In Catholic dogma, no one can forgive me my sins except God through the sacrament; in the secular sense, I wouldn’t consider forgiveness a part or a product of the writing process. I often encourage my students to avoid writing as therapy or as an act through which one might forgive oneself some transgression, or to right a wrong, because that kind of essay leads by agenda, a sense of purpose that might be too rigid to allow for surprise and discovery.
As I write about in “After Cornell,” sometime when I was 12 or 13 the sacrament at Saint Andrew’s moved to an open, face-to-face encounter in an office near the church’s main doors. That changed everything, for me anyway. It was all very seventies—thought I didn’t use that expression at the time. Very in-touch-with-your-feelings, raising awareness in a public way. I didn’t like it. Folk mass started around this time, too, “Up With People,” acoustic guitars. Even at that age I intuited that contemporary doesn’t always equal quality. I think that there might be a kind of parallel metaphor to the rise of the confessional essay/memoir in the 80s and 90s, the comfort with which many writers felt confessing to a visible audience. But I can’t take that connection too far, as it implies a Catholic past for writers who may not have had one. In moving to a face-to-face confession something essential was lost for me, a perceived lowering of hierarchy, maybe? Something solemn disappeared.
2. Your poetry collection, Installations (a National Poetry Series selection), feels metaphorically connected to "After Cornell" (the sense of rooms as boxes, the performance of art vs. the ritual of Catholicism and mass). Even the prose poem form feels like prayer. Do you find Catholicism implicitly influencing your non-Catholic content?
Yes, many times, implicitly usually. It seems to me that the sense of the confession—in terms of finding the right words, offering them toward a human shape, and then reflecting—is a very real aspect in my personal writing. And as so many Catholic writers, devout or not, have said, being raised Catholic tattoos you. In another essay, “The God-Blurred World,” I write that attending church, and specifically being an altar boy for several years, really immersed me in the wonder of art, being in the presence of huge stained-glass narrative windows and sitting and worshiping under the intense images and story of the Stations of the Cross, leaving church moved, when I was, not only by mass but by the artful renderings all around me, and by the pleasures of storytelling, and by the art of metaphor, which in my young cynicism and rebellion I was already using to replace transubstantiation. Erotics of art.
And it gets into my non-Catholic content, as well. With Installations, in the way you point out. The rooms in that imagined museum become sacramental places, places where mystery and the mystifying occur, or can occur. And the spectator is changed by the end of the book, moved, the world appearing new and maybe strange to him, similar to the way one can feel both enlarged and humbled at mass, or at any spiritual service or ritual. In writing Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found I was as interested in Lewis’ epic battles among wine, women, song, and a fierce Pentecostal God as I was his amazing night at the Star-Club, in Hamburg. His struggle with faith and sinning is classic, of course, and has come to define Lewis nearly as much as his music; he might say that his belief defines him entirely. And in my 33 1/3 book on AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, I was writing, in part, as someone brought up Catholic who listened to and loved that album in complicated ways. The album came out as I was graduating from Saint Andrew’s, on my way to a private Catholic high school, hitting puberty hard, and beginning, mildly, to question the church and my role as a practicing Catholic. I really resist analyzing rock & roll too closely—as Keith Richards said, it’s music for the neck down—but it’s pretty clear to me now that I was loving the album in a secular, I-love-rock-and-roll way but also as a kind of key that opened a door onto feared sinning—exciting and urgent excesses of all kinds—that I was warned against in church, taught against in school, and for which I hungered. For the final third of the book I got in touch with several of the kids at Saint A’s who graduated with me, and I asked them what it felt like to listen to the album then, and what it felt like now. Let me tell you, the scrim that’s dropped between Catholicism and AC/DC is hard to pull away completely. I got some interesting responses, especially from kids who I remembered as the bad kids, the sinners. I recommend that all Catholics listen to Highway to Hell very loud, and then go from there.
3. Your essays have an associative, and yet focused, structure that feels both carefully planned and yet also natural. What's your process when writing non-fiction?
Very roughly speaking, with essays I lead with intuition, with the full-length books I lead with a firm sense of subject. Two different roads that can intersect in some interesting places. I usually have at least a vague idea of subject when I start an essay. I might begin with a memory, a shard, an idea, an image, maybe even just tone. But it’s always (hopefully) only a door. If I open that door and there’s a room there, with hallways that branch off with more doors that I didn’t know were there let alone closed, then I’ve got something. If not, then maybe it’ll have life as a prose poem, or maybe I can salvage a line or two or an image or idea, or maybe I’ll have to scrap the whole thing. I always say that writing an essay is like building a house without knowing in advance how many rooms or floors you’ll put in. The house builds itself. I like what Edward Hoagland said about the essay, that it doesn’t boil down to a summary the way an article does. If I find that I’m starting an essay with a summary in mind, then I might be in trouble. It’s best to go in to the dark room, stub your toes on the furniture, let your eyes adjust.
With my music books, it was much different. There, the story was already laid out for me. So I worked from outlines. I didn’t want to leave anything out. That was especially helpful when writing Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, because that story covered three decades and the intersecting lives of half a dozen men, plus many tangential figures. I needed a clear outline or I would have lost my mind over the five-plus years it took to write. It was the same with the Killer and AC/DC books. I started with outlines—a sense of the book’s shape, the number of chapters, a rough idea of the narrative arc, the historical context—and then added and moved things around as the books took shape. It was important for me to leave some room for surprise and discovery, less in an essayistic sense—what Patricia Hampl means when she says that she writes in order to find out what she knows—than in the biographical sense. Halfway through writing I discover some great, salient event or quote that I was unaware of and know that it’s got to get in the book somewhere.
4. Your writing about childhood Catholicism is some of the best I've read, and your essays have appeared in great magazines (Fourth Genre, River Teeth, New Ohio Review, Quarter After Eight)--any plans to collect these into a book?
Thanks. I’ve collected them in a manuscript titled This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began.
5. What are the elements or traits of Catholicism that make it so appealing to writers?
The ritualistic aspect, and the immersion in mystery and doubt. That very sentence could be plucked and dropped into a lay, writerly context, and make sense. There’s a real connection between the sacramental and the urge to write, in my experience, anyway. And of course the notion of being born sinning, being expelled from the Garden, of wrestling with faith, what Hebrews call the evidence of things unseen—this is great content for being human, let alone for being a writer. A writer is charged with documenting or dramatizing the world in artful ways, to present the world new again. And the essential tenets of Catholicism—I’m referring not to the engine of the church here, its very human and sometimes reprehensible machinations, official decisions, behavior—but the tenets of the faith—of sin, and forgiveness, and benevolent treatment of fellow humans, of compassion and, maybe above all, of humility—these are bedrocks upon which a writer can create, engage, and essay his or her self and place. That’s crucial stuff.
6. Any Catholic literary influences?
Sure. The first three that come to mind are Flannery O’Connor, Andre Dubus, and Patricia Hampl. Maybe they’re a “Holy Trinity” for Catholic writers. I love O’Connor’s marginalized, unsympathetic characters, many of whom are surprisingly, movingly close to a grace that is often preceded by violence, in O’Connor’s view, which mirrored her century interestingly. And I love that she detested the idea of Christian fiction, fiction led by agenda and full of allegory and abstraction. For her, the real world is fallen, full of grays, not black and white. Hampl is, I think, one of the great Catholic writers out there. Virgin Time’s a great book, as is I Could Tell You Stories. She essays her past with diligence and seriousness, but she never loses sight of the majesty of mass, and of being raised Catholic, and how it imprinted in her a lifelong quest for meaning. Dubus is one of my favorite writers, period, and his wrestling with the Catholic dilemmas of the modern world is brilliant and profound. His characters are real, they’re ordinary people struggling with what it means to live in a moral universe, to be able to choose to do the right things, and what the implications are in those choices. This isn’t religious fiction either; it’s uncompromising, humane, complex renderings of ordinary people. Everyone should read “A Father’s Story,” a great story of Catholic dilemma and maybe one of the great stories of the Twentieth century.
The poet Tom Andrews was another influence on me, and he was also a dear friend. He wrote about what he called his “awkward faith,” and about being born a hemophiliac, what it means to be grateful to, and for, God and for being born into and living as a flawed body and into a world where language of devotion and gratitude often fail us. He gave great thanks in his work, but never failed to ask important questions too, about belief in a fallen, increasingly secular world. I miss him a lot.
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?
Hampl writes in Virgin Time, “Nobody says, ‘I’m Catholic.’ It’s always, ‘Yes, I was brought up Catholic.’ Anything to put it at a distance, to diminish the presence of that heritage which is not racial but acts as it were.” She herself denies sharing that same “hopeless congenital condition,” but she recognizes it. And I’m somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, between believer and non-. I no longer attend mass, but often feel the gravity of the church’s teachings, and especially the mystery and loftiness of the mass and of the Eucharist. Attending church taught me a crucial thing for a kid to learn, that to be serious was OK, that it was OK to be contemplative, even if it at the time it was dull and you wanted to be somewhere else or doing something else. I carry inside me the high seriousness of mass, for which I’m grateful. And Catholicism also gave me a good education, I must say, a fact for which I’m grateful to my parents. My Ethics class in high school made a great impression on me; I was encouraged to write psalms and personal reflections, so I was encouraged to believe that self-interrogation and writing were noble pursuits, not to be scoffed at, though they were by my peers and sometimes by myself, of course.
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?
I’m not sure. Catholicism as represented by the Vatican is pretty self-sealed. I was fortunate to grow up within a fairly progressive family and in progressive Catholic schools. My younger brother is gay. He came out in high school, the same Catholic school my brothers and I attended, a school where a kid had killed himself amidst queer and fag rumors. Coming out was a brave and humane thing for my brother to do, and the only thing he could do, of course. To the church, my brother is a flaw, and this is unacceptable to me. And, frankly speaking, this was one of the major issues I had, and still have, with the Catholic church. Many gay Catholics, among them Andrew Sullivan, have written movingly about the profound contradiction of worshiping in a faith and endeavoring to serve within and love an institution that condemns you. It’s a disconnect that I find insufferable. And I understand that some priests, some parishes, fight this, and that’s good. So I might say to the church, listen to Jesus’ teachings closely, be skeptical but always open, ignore agenda and love tradition but decry unfortunate, mean-spirited history, and act within a fully humane impulse consistently. Listen to differences and love and accept them. Or maybe just reflect on what O’Connor said: “Ideal Christianity doesn't exist, because anything the human being touches, even Christian truth, he deforms slightly in his own image.”
9. What project(s) are you working on now?
I’m writing essays, and blogging. I’m choosing among book projects. I’m not sure which direction I’ll go in yet.
Joe Bonomo is the author of Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Installations (National Poetry Series), and Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band. His essays and prose poems appear widely, most recently in Quarter After Eight, Hotel Amerika, The Normal School, Fourth Genre, Brevity, and New Ohio Review, and his work has twice been cited in “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays. The recipient of fellowship awards in both prose and poetry from the Illinois Arts Council, Bonomo teaches at Northern Illinois University, where he was awarded the Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction Award. He appears online at No Such Thing As Was.
Joe’s Amazon Page
Joe's Essays at Scribd
Posted by Nick Ripatrazone at 6:11 PM