EDWARD MULLANY INTERVIEW
Edward Mullany recently released his first book of poems, called If I Falter at the Gallows. I heard him read at a series called 851 in an abandoned loft on Haight Street in San Francisco. He caught me off guard. His deadpan style reading only heightened the impact of his work. His pieces are so visceral and brief; I could listen to him read them for hours. Luckily I serendipitously caught him the second night at another house reading, spoke to him some more, and finally bought his book. You can buy his book here: http://publishinggenius.com/?p=59
Here’s one of my favorites from him, followed by the interview I’ve been fortunate enough to conduct with him.
“The Dogs of War”
Two men dancing the foxtrot
in tuxedos on the beach were shot
at midnight, simultaneously,
as they danced, so that both fell
while executing, or attempting
to execute, a step, and were thus
found dead in the morning by two
female joggers who’d jogged
together for years and who’d said,
jokingly, they wanted adventure,
but who now, in the gray dawn,
having first mistaken the bodies
for pieces of black driftwood,
were frightened to differing
degrees, one of them in tears,
the other glancing nervously
at the cliffs.
Matthew Sherling: What first drew you to making poems?
Edward Mullany: I like how poems can convince you of something without communicating the exact nature of that thing they are convincing you of. When I read a good poem, I feel as though whatever kernel of belief still exists within me has suddenly been fortified. I think this actually applies to every form of art.
Matthew Sherling: I’m interested in your use of “belief” here. Can you expound upon that?
Edward Mullany: Art can remind us of the human situation, which, to me, can be phrased like this: humans exist in relation to eternity. This is a very particular belief because it posits eternity as fact. And insofar as eternity is a religious concept, I am a religious artist. So when I say that “art fortifies the kernel of belief that exists in me”, I mean ‘belief’ in a religious sense. But I also mean it as separate from doctrine. What revives me, in making art and seeing art, is the reminder that the human will face eternal consequences. I realize not everyone believes this.
Matthew Sherling: So, when you say “eternity,” are you referring to a sort of afterlife in which we receive judgment, reincarnation, or a certain immortality through art (as in, your art will last a whole lot longer than your physical body)?
Edward Mullany: I’m referring to an afterlife, as in: when I die, my soul will persist, and the circumstances under which it will persist will be related to the manner in which I have lived. I say this because I’m Catholic, though the thought itself is not exclusively Catholic, and though angst, rather than faith, might be the prevailing characteristic of my work.
MS: Very interesting, I wouldn’t have identified your Catholicism through your work.
Do you experience this fortification of belief during the process of making a poem as well?
Also, how much spontaneity / premeditation / editing is involved in your process?
EM: In making a poem, if I feel that I’ve said something true in an original way, then I experience that fortification, though maybe “fortification” is too grand a word.
I’m thinking of the difference between poetry and prayer. In my view, prayer ‘fortifies’ faith and chases away doubt, even if the prayer itself acknowledges the existence of doubt. But a poem cannot be fortifying in the same way. It must leave itself open to interpretation. It recognizes the problem of being human, without trying to solve that problem, while a prayer does try to solve that problem. A prayer is a means of relieving one’s angst through the contemplation of the divine.
What I’m saying is that prayer, to a believer, at some point becomes more necessary than poetry, though poetry itself can shape a person’s faith, can lead that person to it, and can be a reminder of it.
My poems are generally short; sometimes I can’t tell if I’m editing as I’m writing, or if I’m editing in the moment after I’ve written.
MS: I’ve heard you say that you read a lot of fiction - perhaps more even than poetry. Have you ever tried to write fiction? What do you think accounts for the brevity of your work?
EM: I wrote fiction before I started writing poetry. Gradually, the stories I was writing became shorter and shorter until what I was looking at, on the computer screen, could have been described as poems. I don’t actually think of myself as a writer of poems. I just tend to write these short things that sometimes have ‘story’ in them and sometimes don’t.
The reason for the brevity is, I think, the importance I place on absence, or omission, in a story. Much of this came from reading Hemingway, but it was crystalized for me when I was shown the work of Lydia Davis and Amy Hempel. They taught me that the parameters of a story can be warped. You don’t have to start with ‘exposition’, or develop the ‘rising action’, for instance. You can just start right at the climax, even of the most trivial human event, and explore it with a kind of insane precision.
MS: That’s beautiful. I love those writers, especially Lydia Davis. Thank you so much, Edward, for your time and insight.
As a last question, what’s your personal take on how advanced technology—especially the Internet—is transforming the writing culture?
EM: It’s hard to overestimate the influence that the internet is exerting on writing culture. We will still have people who continue to write manuscripts that are turned into printed books that will be sold in bookstores, but a new kind of writer or literary artist is going to emerge (and already has been emerging), and what this type of person produces will be interesting too. I see these people constructing themselves more as ‘personae’ than as ‘authors’, but I don’t mean ‘personae’ in an easy way, or in a pejorative sense. I mean it in the sense that the careers these people will construct for themselves will arrive through a kind of eccentric mastery of several different avenues of internet media.
We’re seeing it already with people like Jimmy Chen, Mark Leidner, Melissa Broder, Steve Roggenbuck, Blake Butler and Tao Lin. These artists (for I don’t think they need to be considered solely as writers) might also produce printed books, and may in fact become most known for the work that they produce as authors, but no longer will there exist a silent and respectful distance between the ‘author’ and the ‘author’s work’. The internet is creating the opportunity for something like ‘livestream’ art, wherein the challenge is to manipulate the given platforms in a way that results in the creation of an original and compelling persona, one that can be updated, and viewed by the general public, not only on a daily basis, but on a minute-by-minute basis. I use the word “manipulate” very consciously, or seriously. Forms of social media are most interesting to me when the person who uses them is able to divert them from their most straightforward purposes, and into something slightly or radically askew.