We’re Both Just Making This Shit Up: Talking with Peter Markus and Robert Lopez
Peter Markus would not be the writer he thinks himself to be had he not found his way to the work of Robert Lopez. Robert Lopez would not be the writer he thinks himself to be had he not found his way to the work of Peter Markus. What we are saying here is that Markus and Lopez are brothers. Is there anything more we have to say? -PM
Peter Markus: Us brothers go back a few years. I remember reading your first book, just the opening scene, a guy standing in line at the bank, as I remember it, and I was immediately made into a believer in the man behind this book, not that I wasn’t already a fan of the short fiction of yours that had been turning up online at the time, but in Part of the World, the opening scene, we are made to feel like the narrator was Hemingway at a bullfight in Pamplona and not just some guy waiting in line to transact funds. I don’t know that I would write a book like Bob, or Man on Boat had I not read “In a Boat about to Drown,” that being when it appeared in Michael Kimball’s Taint Magazine. Over the years we’ve done readings together, some of the most memorable literary events I’ve ever been a part of, us with Gary Lutz is one I hold close, though now I question if said event ever even happened, or who of us was reading with whom, not that it matters. I even begin to start talking or writing in your voice when I am supposed to be writing to you in my voice, but that’s how influence sometimes takes over. What else? Over the years, too, we’ve both bemoaned about us living in the margins of the literary world and I have heard out of both of our mouths us say that this new book will be my last. I find comfort in the saying of this, even if it turns out not to be true. What is truth, anyhow, and maybe it’s underrated is something I come back to when I come back to reading your fiction. It’s all just a story, is it not? All of it just a fiction, just sentences, things being said and not said and in the end—what? It’s the experience in the saying and the unsaying that seems to both of us matter most, the language in us that keeps us alive, or at least reaching yet again for the pencil, to say what otherwise might not get said. All of this is to say thank you, brother, for saying what you continue to say and for making the world and its language a thing that is entirely your own.
Robert Lopez: I think I have to remind myself what’s important and what I can hold and take with me as I move about the world. This racket that we’re nominally a part of is a total drag more often than not. Mediocrity is championed and celebrated and when there are writers who blaze their own trail, who are distinctive and unmistakable, but whose subject matter isn’t sexy or commercial, they are sent to the ghetto and forever marginalized. It’s a pretty cool ghetto to spend time in and every so often one of its denizens is “discovered” by the mainstream and then before long they are sent back to live in the slums. I tell students all the time that writing is a conversation and you have to find the people you want to be in conversation with. Things changed for me when I started reading your stories in lit mags and then when our mutual good friend and comrade, Derek White, published The Singing Fish and Good, Brother. Those sentences and rhythms got inside me and changed what it is I do on the page, how I can operate inside language. The Blindster stories were born from your Brothers and I think this is the best of a conversation, each participant truly listening to what the other is saying and then responding in their own way, putting new spins and english on the language, only to have it played back at them to do likewise over and again. And yes, it’s all a story and it’s the same story and all we can do is tell it how we see it, feel it, and sing it. I also like it that in our years long conversation we have said this is our last dance, after this we’re done, many times over. There’s something about this particular mindset, when we finish a thing we are spent and it takes time to fill back up. I also like it that we get back to work and I like it that others do the same. What is your attitude towards the work after a book comes out? How long does it take for you to re-generate, re-energize? Is it different now in the wake of your first non-fiction book? Let’s talk about Inside My Pencil. When did you get the idea to put your experiences teaching poetry to school kids in Detroit into language, into a book?
PM: After a book comes out is the worse part of it once we realize that it’s just a book and now that it’s out there in the world as a book it begins to—what?—lose its power, it begins its descent into being a thing that is now diminished now that it’s out in the world where to most of us in this world a book is—what?—just a pretty thing for us to look at, to briefly hold in our hands, then to eventually misplace, or lose, or worse, to place it on a shelf which is its own kind of—what?—graveyard? a dive bar? a place where stories go to die? I don’t know. I do my best to hustle but honestly I think I’d be better off going door to door selling vinyl siding. Of course I’m being cynical. We keep doing the work no matter where it ends up. We write it for ourselves. The notion of the reader is perhaps the greatest fiction of all. And yet I’m hustling this new book harder, why? Maybe because it’s not just a book of fiction? Because maybe it has something true to offer to a narrative that has otherwise been falsely delivered to the world, a story whose fiction has too often been claimed to be its truth. Maybe everything I’ve told myself about there being no reader is a fiction I no longer believe in? Truth is, we’re both just making this shit up, right? Doing the best we can to write a sentence that says something we can believe in. Maybe what I’m saying is that I want God to stand up from inside one of my sentences and tell me that I am heard.
RL: I’m all for that, though I’m not sure it’s going to happen anytime soon. We do what we do until we’re done. Any and all of the books on my shelf, ones I’ve put together, you’ve put together, other lesser mortals have put together, I have the same connection and disconnection to all of them. My name on the spine doesn’t change that. I always take note when writers talk about “my novel”, “my story collection”, etc. Most writers talk this way, reference their own work in this fashion. I’ve never said such a thing in print. I use the title because the truth is it isn’t mine anymore. I don’t feel that way about it, Kamby Bolongo Mean River and Good People and All Back Full, none of them are mine, they aren’t my novels or story collections. And this isn’t a cumbaya for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you kind of brotherhood of man kind of deal. I don’t have a good memory when it comes to certain things and this is one of them. I can’t really remember what it felt like putting together these books, as such I don’t have a sentimental attachment to them. Of course, what I’m saying isn’t always true. I do remember some aspects of how these things became things. I’m more than pleased with how they’ve turned out and proud and all that jive, but yeah, maybe we should sell vinyl siding instead. How about aluminum siding? What’s wrong with aluminum?
PM: I like that idea of a book or work of art or music or whatever being its own thing separate from the flesh who made it into its own kind of flesh, the body, the thing itself, as this thing that fell to earth, an alien being, a thread of light made from dark, etc. I know Derek at Calamari is all about that. What’s in a name? is what maybe Stein would say. Your work is all voice, as is any book worth its weight and heft in pulp. A voice from where? the moon, a bus? Both yes. I’m not even sure it matters what the voice is actually saying. What’s it called when a singer sings to just melody or rhythm with words that aren’t the actual words that later come into play? A placeholder? That’s the way I feel your work weaves its spell. Ditto for writers like Beckett, Stein, add G. Lish to this mix. A kind of gibberish or a book made not of words but of just sound. All cadence, all feel. When I teach your work in the classroom and a student starts to talk about what happens within the story or, worse, what the story is about, I’m like “Really, that’s what was going on? I had no idea.” No ideas, I might say, but in the saying itself. I wish more books were made to work in this way.
RL: I like what Beckett said in regards to Joyce’s work, when asked what is the work about. Something along the lines of, when the conveyance is dance the words themselves dance. The writing isn’t about anything, it is the thing. I understand why people want to understand art/literature. It makes a disorderly and chaotic world seem less so if we can make sense of something. But I do wish people would let this go, let this desire and perhaps need to understand disappear into something more productive. Like nothing. It’s Wallace Stevens, too, Let be be finale of seem.
PM: Yes to a fiction that isn’t just about something. Something happens, then something else happens, then what? Then nothing? Then death? Rather it be the death of something than the death of a dog, for instance, yes? So let’s agree that All Back Full is not about a marriage, that it’s not about two people and then three people sitting around a kitchen talking. What is it then? some might want to say, which is to say ask. Or maybe more to the point of what I might want to say, What led to such a book? In the way that a horse is led, or might find, its way to water, or the way that even water itself might find other water. What might you say to or about that?
RL: I wrote a play, which took years to write. Then I decided to make it into a novel. The play started when some lines came to me, two people talking to each other. They were married. They said things. I listened. Then I don’t know what happened after that. I don’t journal and I don’t spend that much time thinking about what I’ve done. I can remember, to a degree, if someone put a gun to my head, but so far no one has. Like you it’s all about language and music. Everything I’ve ever come up with, even this. So, let me ask you something I’m not sure I ever have, at least not in print or whatever we call these lights up on a screen. Where did the Brothers come from? I know how Bob, or Man on Boat originated, but not the Brothers. Also, I can’t remember if you really answered my question about Inside My Pencil. So, let me ask some more. How are you able to get these kids to write these extraordinary poems? What do you tell them to do, what to listen to? What do you tell them not to do? And how has working with the kids affected your own fiction, if at all?
PM: It’s all about listening. I hear myself saying that all the time to students: just listen. If you listen long enough the voices will start jawing. That’s where Bob came from, that voice in my head, me in my car driving into Detroit across the Rouge River Bridge, and Bob in his boat, “In a boat, on a river, lived a man.” I heard it and knew it was a book when I heard the next sentence, the simple one word sentence, “Bob.” Boom. I was hooked. Six weeks later there was a book. The brothers were also voice driven, of course, as is everything as we both know. Though the brothers stayed with me and kept talking to me for over a decade of my life. Had to shut them off deliberately for fear I wouldn’t write another fiction without the word brother in it. That fear, in truth, led me to Bob, and to The Fish and the Not Fish with its monosyllabic constraint I placed on it. I really should go back to them again. I recently started a new book about Bob, when Bob dies and turns into a fish. It begins, simply enough, “Bob is a fish.” But the brothers began in my wife’s belly, when our son was forming inside her, and with son came the word brother. “This is your brother,” we’d say to our daughter. “Say hello to your brother. Set your hand here on Mom’s belly where your brother is here inside.” It was brother this and brother that. The whole world was becoming brothered. The first person became pluralized into this “we,” this “us.” It was beautiful. A gift. I owe everything I’ve ever written to that boy, that girl, and to the woman they call mother. It’s the same with the kids I teach. The poetry is there inside them. The words right there in their pencils. W.S. Merwin writes in his poem “The Unwritten”:
Inside this pencil
crouch words that have never been written
never been spoken
never been taught
Here again it’s about listening and paying attention and getting the kids to believe that inside every pencil there are these words waiting to be brought out. I invite them to look inside their pencil. To see and listen and then they take it from there. It’s really simple. You say anything goes to a child and most kids want to get back to that place where a twig can be a laser. What I tell them NOT to do is what I tell all my students NOT to do, which is to think. Thinking kills most poems or stories right out of the gate, for writers of all ages I’d say. Did you write when you were a kid? I suspect you had better things to do than write poems. I know we both grew up on baseball diamonds and that this thing with language came much later.
RL: I was planning to ask you about the formal constraint of The Fish and The Not Fish. How did you come up with that constraint, other than fear of the Brothers never vacating your head? What was the process of putting that book together? The music of that book is unmistakable and I love its staccato rhythms. I can’t imagine writing a whole book in that fashion. Did it drive you mad? Do you have to be mad to write the kind of books we want to write anyway? I never wrote nor read as kid. You and me, we had other things to do, getting ahead in the count, etc. The only books I read were biographies of Wayne Gretzky and Elvis.
PM: It’s all about getting ahead in the count. Working from that vantage point. Fastballs low and away to get them leaning, high and hard to push them back off the plate. Off speed to get inside their head. Finish them off with something dirty, low and away in the dirt. The constraint in The Fish and the Not Fish was just that. It kept me shoulder-length inside the sentence, toeing the rubber, yes. Knowing my pitch. The only madness is in the thought of the doing. Why else do it? To keep things at 60 feet, 6 inches. Working the black edges of the plate. That said, everything I say or do, on and off the page, comes out of the nothingness of the air I might be holding in my hands or lungs at that moment. It’s all water that eventually runs through our fingers, right? I didn’t start reading until I was forced to stop doing those other things with a ball that has exactly 108 stitches to make its seams, to make it the thing that it is, that holds itself together. There’s poetry and exactness, I believe, in that. I know you find pleasure in playing tennis. I never got too much into that as a kid. I never liked wearing shorts is maybe the real reason if I had to think about it. Eventually the word took hold, its own kind of sport. I was terrible at it for so many years. Every morning I reawaken into that possibility. But then the pen in the hand feels sometimes right, the way a baseball used to, or a bat, a racket, a fishing pole. Cat-gut. The sound of those two words. Cat and gut. I’ve always liked more the words themselves more than the things that the words point to. What others would say is a limitation—what about a story? they might say—I see as a strength. I’ve never been able to bend over to touch my toes. I’m okay with that. In fact, I’m better than okay with that. There’s a question in here somewhere. What can’t you do and how have you turned that into something more-than? And how about this, too, while we are here in the back and forth of sentences that might take the shape of questions, or sentences that are asking for a response back. Talk to me some about the way you look at truth in fiction. I come upon sentences in All Back Full that could serve as a kind of ars poetica for the way I see your books doing what they do. “One could imagine almost anything. And then what, is the question. So what is another question.” Or this sequence of sentences from earlier in the book: “You look at the tree and you register a tree. The rest of the world falls away in that moment.” Or this bit: “They engaged in the standard back and forth with the understanding that standard back and forth is neither standard nor back and forth.” Not unlike this back and forth. What to call this? That might be yet another question. “Everything open to interpretation and misinterpretation.” I might also add and end with this: “If it is important to trace their history in the grand scheme and big picture, then it is something to do. It is a way to pass the time. This is what life comes down to, if it comes down to anything.” Maybe there’s a song in all of this, if nothing else.
RL: There’s so much I can’t do in the world and I haven’t hesitated in using all of it. Pretty much everything, can’t fix anything, build anything, assemble anything. Don’t know anything about cars so the first book has a lot of car stuff in there. Things of this nature have found its way into the work. Funny, I didn’t play tennis as a kid at all, picked it up when I turned 40. Now I’m playing against people who’ve played their whole lives, who played in college, etc. It’s a blast. I was a baseball player, staring down pitchers like you, getting you to throw me what I wanted to hit and where in the zone. All of these disciplines have a lot in common with writing. Both the doing and the undoing, what is said and unsaid, done and undone. The blackbird whistling and just after. This is a song and a fine way to pass the time, what we’re doing. It’s for us, the two of us, brothers. I doubt anyone else will read these sentences and there’s a great freedom in that. Of course, I feel that free any time I string words together and I know you do, too. Even Inside My Pencil is all Markus, all over the page. Can’t see another writer or teacher writing this book the way you did. I hope English teachers all over the country read this book, as they should. I hope all writers do. What next? What now?
PM: What next? How about a book with no words. Maybe just symbols, scribblings that mean nothing. And yet, when looked at, when gazed upon, there is that something, some movement, some sensation, yes? I want to write a book, or even just a single sentence, that is like a painting in that all of it unfolds or maybe exposes itself simultaneously. My problem with books is that they take too much time and time, as we both know, is the enemy. And yet, I often hear myself say, what a book or better still a poem can offer us all is the slowing down of time. Yes, yes, to nobody reading these words, or even any of our words, really—we write books, after all—and the freedom then to say whatever the fuck we want. There is some small victory in that, for sure. And I’m okay with that. A part of me just want to start tapping away at these keys like so:
jijasjfa okj[odjgjagf okopfaoskjf askgko o[fk [kf[oajda[kf ofdmamfe, m[afdkjfmf[‘ km;a”ela’f,’aflgkje,,a[oma[mfdlmf]aeaelmflma[jefm'[aelga[ema ka[amf a]'[gmama[ a'[pgma[ ae[emf[amdmf[
I used to sit my daughter down at the typewriter back when she was pre-lingual and she’d bang away at the keys and then I’d ask, “What does it say?” It was always sublime, in the way that most poetry by children is. I’ll take Derek White’s Ark Codex book over just about anything else in the language. It’s a cave by no other name. There is fire there, and rock, wood, sticks to stir the fire with, and the shadow cast upon its walls.
jigjaigjaigajgpajgjaefajgjgahgaiiemdmkf’emfoemam’e;eofmoej,gpjwemksksmjfjmgaeoa,lagj[aeoma[j[e[fje[ajeimniajg[jae”aos glweokm’a[fke oame'[gle p’ake’apkelm[ae;l mdldlkf[emdlkd ld,lk[ad,dokd’
Give me a new alphabet is all I’m saying. Or give me the pleasure of having to say and having said nothing at all.
I used to find such pleasure in not knowing how to tune the six strings of a pawn shop guitar. And then somebody took it from me and showed me how. That was the day the music died for me. That was the day, though, that I picked up my pencil and looked inside and hoped to find something more. What does Jack Gilbert say in his poem: “We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.” I suppose I’ll continue to take up that old pencil of mine until there is nothing more to see or say.