Burn This Book: an interview with author Blake Butler
This book burns. There is a quality, a Bildungsroman that ends with what is less a period than an opening, similar to Blake’s picture on his blog, a peeking through a keyhole. He takes out the key here, and bids the reader ‘Hello’ at the end. Which is to say, there is sustenance in memory, what Lyn Hejinian might call writing as an aid to a vital memory, one that belongs to a visionary with a perspective that is not just about perspective, but about being in the now and writing of the search to plunder mines with a shovel. These vignettes are not actually vignettes, but they are, as Jesse Ball says, “a series of maps.” And in these maps we find jewels and the remnants of jewels—what it would have been like to be royal, to own, though without the props that would hold up a reading of a shrugged map. For Blake doesn’t shrug, and his rendering of the atlas is a fire, though not a Promethean one. There is something about knowledge here, but it’s not quite what one would expect: for example, the idea of time. Blake writes that “There couldn’t be much time. Time, the ship, the shit, the sentence.” What would a semiotician do with this? We come to the prior space, the Kantian imperative of pure, to the epic ship, which he sinks in this book, admirably so. But it’s shit. There’s shit on the ship, and maybe he recognizes this as the ship continues to applaud its voyage, the path toward home that somehow we know is mistaken. The sentence comes next. And what is a sentence? It’s unknown, really, but we do know that there will be an end. And then there is a wall: “The wall was still there in the evening and the next morning into noon.” Also: “The wall’s words got louder.” This has to be language. Language, as we might know from reading theory, makes a wall, a visible or perceptible screen. And Blake’s wall wants things, this Other. He (or she) asks for gifts, for names. So that is this knowledge, this burning of knowledge, in refusing to name anything but the Brother at the end, the idea he had of a Brother, a twin. Maybe a bird. Featherproof is the press, and why not a bird (or several)? Blake writes of How the Birds Flew, their goings, their “metal, thorn and neon.” He says that they “nuzzle deep inside me, their squawk becoming logic, ways I know.” But what does one know, and what does one do? Listen: here in these houses. And Blake’s poems have houses. There’s a smoke house, a wordless house, and this too is a poem. He had dreamt of becoming Mother in the television house. And there’s a flesh house with a red morning in its tendrils, delicate, one paragraph, emotion. There are also water damaged photos of what it means to leave a house, an opening into the aperture of a wound. Mother’s handwriting, the stings on teeth, what it is to go: all these things take on an appearance of a wet tattoo with no ending. And yet, in the glitter, there is an alive sky, some kind of shimmer moving through non-existent trees, whose rustle bothers the shadows.
And the key is not to think about it: as in Operative: UP is on no compass. DOWN I’d have to learn to disregard. So there’s a sense of writing without an ending in these paragraphs, these maps. Liquid air, burning grass, mud. All these things make their appearances, like images that precede referents, though referents have become obtuse today. And then, the last paragraph, the coma, the overture to splash, that tells us what to expect if we pick the fruit:
Some morning I will wake up. Come morning I’ll wake up and. And the summer in my elbows. Sun at my elbows, stuttered open. Some morning I will stand up and the floor will swish beneath my feet. My new feet, bruised and washed white. White I wouldn’t recognize, imagine. Imagine home. Some homecoming. I will move
into those lost rooms, wet and depthless, and I will sit against the wall. I’ll sit with the wall and watch the years unwrap a second span. My head. My lips unwrapped and chapped wide open. My colors spilling lather in the reek. Somewhere sandwiched solid something. Zeroes. Greased. Goodbye. Hello.
Laura Carter: Your table of contents in Scorch Atlas reads like a deeply mournful surrealist dream-poem, and the chapter titles are what make me want to call this book a narrative, though it plays with the qualities of narrative and the structures that make up narrative theory. What are your thoughts on that, and do you think that there’s a diachronic structure at play in your book, or do you think that it tends to be more randomly put together, an aleatoric structure?
Blake Butler: I’ve never thought much about narrative structure outside of the thinking that happens inside my body, like digestion. The best way to study how an assemblage of text works is to eat so much text that your skin is thick with it. I imagine I did that. I am getting weird colored spells of déjà vu writing this down.
The final structure of Scorch Atlas, though, came out of a ton of beating. I hadn’t, when I was writing the individual pieces, really realized I was making something that could come together in a larger mode at the end: each piece was written in its own brain, in repetitive sessions of typing and revising until it could stand on its own legs? at least all except the last few sections I wrote after I’d realized that book’s form was hidden underneath.
Once I’d realized the texts were making this larger machine I began to place them next to one another and therein began to play with what ways the text folded or careened against the others. I removed a few pieces that are not in the final book, and wrote a few more pieces that seemed to fill some semantic gap or breath to the structure. Even in doing that I continued to faddle around with them, seeing how the thing as a whole would shift in small semantic jumps of how it felt to have one piece precede another, or vice versa. Sometime in there the manuscript got picked up and I began working with the designer, Zach Dodson, who suggested I use a text that was a series of rains as interstices, crux points, for the larger sections. This was a huge revelation, funny to have come from a design’s eye, but in the light thereafter made so much more sense.
In the end, after I’d made probably several dozen versions, the final arrangement came from taking a clean Word file, and one by moving each text piece by piece into the new slip. A few friends helped me think about this before I began, and even as I was doing it, but it was nice to see how all that puttering and playing and shifting in endless variation made it so easy and intuitive, when it came down to the final iteration, to just move the pieces into place, as if they’d always meant to be there. It felt clean for once, and I slept better. So I imagine, to more directly answer your question: I like assemblages that order themselves, that are puzzles that show their heads not really out of talking to them, or analysis, but simply in sudden blood-made understanding.
LC: You speak in the section Exponential of a wall. This wall continues to compel you to describe it. Could you say more about what this means to you as a writer? Is it what Lacan might call the wall of language, or does it have another meaning?
BB: The wall appeared to me in the same way it appears to the young woman in the text: suddenly one morning, in a space as if it had always been there, and was, and finally in iteration where I could see and touch it. Rather than in my parents’ backyard, through the window of the room where I grew up where I wrote the text, it was inside the screen of the machine I still stare at every day. In some ways my computer is my Brother, which is in some lights a sad offense to the nature of relations, but to me it brings a hand on the face that also sometimes punches. I need to be punched, and can appreciate a relationship with an item like a wall or a computer that gives nothing and takes all. These objects, while inert, in some ways are only come from what is reflected back by you into them, as does the language of the young woman appear on the wall, and though as it continues to shift between names and numbers and her own thoughts, the wall obliterates and understands her life, better than she does. I am waiting to wake one evening to find my computer or some other black and fudging thing standing above me with both its hands across my fat face and come on like the wave.
I don’t know Lacan’s wall of language, but I imagine it is like this every day as well: a something made in nothing of the fabric of what can be walked through unaware, and yet is slept in, breathed and eaten, swallowed and swallowing. Your hair. My tongue and things in boxes in stores I’ll never buy, but are.
Lastly, nothing means anything to me as a writer.
LC: What is your process as a writer? Do you generally set aside time to write, or do you simply wait for inspiration to hit you? You have been incredibly prolific as a writer and editor, and I’m curious as to how you organize your life to allow for so much creativity and production, as they call it.
BB: My process is to get up and think about anything as little as I can. This affords me the leisure of obliterating most potential relationships with non-wall entities unless they knew me larger when I was open and could be OK with touch. Not that I don’t like to be touched but that I am in a state in my life where the doors may have fully closed.
After beginning in nothing, my process is to sit. My process is to continue inside myself inside the not thinking, which can be on the best days like a hallway and on the worst like I am being strangled from the inside. I am fortunate in that I have chosen in life to stick to jobs that ask nothing of me except in the short times I allow them. Currently that is writing for people who take my words and use it as lures for people to gamble their money into another box. My priority in life is to never give anyone anything I wouldn’t give myself, which is often nothing, unless that person’s face appears also inside me in the evenings before I knew them, which has been a certain number of people. I was as a fat child overemotional and can smell that fucker still in there in me and he is the one that is making everything shit out and he is the one that I am going to get out of me one way or another before he gets the wrench.
LC: How would you describe the narrative structure of the book? (Oh, wait, I feel like I’ve already asked this…but what relation does this bear to your actual life, if you don’t mind me asking?)
BB: I like your asking how the structure compares to my life because on the face of this it appears as if not at all and could never, unless. But I do not see this as a fantastical text. Nor do I see it as in the aftermath of some apocalypse, or in prediction of one, or biblical, or dreamscape, fantasy, surrealism, horror, dogma, toy. I see it as what it feels like to go to the refrigerator and take the cold container out and pour it into a cup and get the water on my face a little while I pour it into my mouth because we are supposed to drink water. I went to the doctor a week or so ago for the first time in ten years just to make sure everything inside me was still alive and the woman took my blood sample and I could not believe how blackish my blood was. A wide berth around where she stuck the needle in my arm over the next few days turned brown. The book feels to me like getting out of my car and walking through air like pockets, and putting a key into a door to come inside again and go down another hall to sit in the same room again and be. It feel like eating pasta and laying on the floor while outside there are other machines doing work, too, and sometimes things will rattle at the glass or I will imagine someone knocking and yet there is never anyone to come. The narrative structure is a series of telephone calls I did not receive because I had my head against a wall.