The Fish and the Not Fish
The way the fairy tale goes, my parents really wanted a boy. I have an older brother, but they still wanted me to be a boy, but when I was lifted from the cut in my mother’s stomach, I wasn’t a boy at all. Disappointed, my father left the hospital without so much as looking at me.
I’ve always yearned for boyhood, except, I guess, in its actuality. I didn’t—and don’t—like dirt or physical play, or climbing trees, and I really hate sweat. These are things I’ve associated—my younger, less feminist self at least—with boyhood, with what I wanted but could not make myself embrace. Peter Markus gives us the gifts of boyhood and brotherhood, its violence and camaraderie, its magical enchantment. Markus’s books share similar concerns—brothers, mud, fish, river, girl, moon—and these words cycle through his lyric prose like a chant that washes us into an elasticized imagination accessible only in childhood. There is a deceptive simplicity to Markus’s writing. In his newest book, however, he leaves his brothers behind for a new constraint: The Fish and the Not Fish contains only monosyllabic words. Although his diction is conscientiously simple and vernacular, his sentences display syntactic virtuosity. As elegant as a Bach partita, his words repeat and syncopate, and his sentences usher the reader into an almost religious trance. Markus gives his readers the permission to access Bachelard’s reverie: one of childhood wonder and imagination and hope and dirt, a whole lot of dirt.
Over the past two months, Markus and I exchanged emails about his powerful and enigmatic books.
Lily Hoang (Rail): The first time I came across your writing, Peter, I was in graduate school, and my immediate reaction was: I can’t believe fiction can do that! Wait: can fiction do that? Of course, years have passed and fiction can—in fact—do that, whatever the that of your writing is. For me, the that of Peter Markus was tri-fold: your threading of magic into the real; the cyclicality of your language and the rhythm it creates; and the weight of your brevity. So, let’s start with magic. Can you talk about how you use magic in your fiction and what urged you in that direction? To complexify things further, the brothers in your fiction are incredibly real, so real in fact that the reader feels empathetic pain—as nails are driven into their palms, as their worlds are stripped of mud, and on and on. And we feel their joy, the brutality of boyhood, the bond that only brothers can access, one which is foreign to me and yet you so gracefully project into my consciousness. Can you talk about the relationship between the real and the magic in your writing?
Peter Markus: Where to begin? What to say to such saying? Let me begin by saying thank you for saying that my fiction came at you in this way, or had that kind of effect on you as the reader you used to be, or were back then when you first encountered it. I suppose there is magic there as you say, but I like to think of it—that magic—as being made in the saying. That said, we are as writers making things up, and there is magic, I imagine, in the conjuring up of what isn’t already here. We must be under some kind of spell, as writers, to come to the page this way and to play like children in the land of the make-believe. So it just makes sense to me that we wouldn’t be limited by or governed by only what is possible in the world that is not the world of our invention. I suppose too I try to look at the making of fiction like this: I try to approach the page and the possibilities of the page and to make out of the limitations of the page and of language the way a child must experience the world when what he or she sees of that world is brand new. The moon for the first time, for instance, or the rain as it falls from the sky, the mud that the rain makes out of the ground, the things that rise up green and flowering out of the dirt. I still remember the day when my daughter Helena dropped to her knees when she first saw a tulip and was able to point to what she saw with the word “flower” breaking into blossom, as James Wright might say, from her lips. Or the time on a subway car in Brooklyn and the moon was big and full and hovering the way only moon can, and on her knees on her subway seat with her face gazing out the window she turned back to face me and to tell me with awe and urgency in her voice, “Daddy, look, the moon!” The 50-some adults sitting in that subway car turned and looked and saw as if for the first time a noun, moon, and its word, moon, and its image, moon, and maybe even its song, moon, as it was born again through the eyes and tongue of the child. I suppose I try to replicate the spirit of that moment when I take my language and my word-playing and the gaze of my eyes and the inner drum of my ears to the page that I am trying to make a world with. Can fiction do that, make a world that is its own, a world that isn’t anchored down by the world in which it is actually written in? Of course it can. In the fiction that I write, maybe because it takes up such a small and marginalized place in the real world, it has no limits other than what I might choose to bring to it. So to get back to your question about the relation between the real and the magic, there is nothing but magic, there is nothing but the spell that I hope to cast, nothing but the incantation that I hope a sentence or a sequence of such sentences might make once they enter into the ear of a reader (though in my mind, of course, the reader doesn’t even exist). Let me say this, too: that there is nothing in my fiction that is real, other than the language that I’m working with. I might write “river” but it is only the word itself that I write and see and so there is no real river behind it. I write “brother” or “boy” but all I see there that is in any way real are the letters that form these words and the sounds of these words themselves. This might sound naïve or I can even see how others might not believe me when I say this, but I say this because it’s true to the way that I write and to the way that I look at the writing that I write. There are words and then there are other words and in the end if the words make somebody other than me feel a particular feeling, then maybe the making of that singular sensation is the thing that makes the make-believe thing—what we call the fiction—the thing that is most real of all.
Or, if you want the nuts and bolts response: fiction is magic, language is spell, it is the music of enchantment. I’ve said it to my students, this dare: “Be a shaman, or don’t be at all.” I believe this and believe in this. Come to the page with your sacred objects in hand and place them together in such a way so that those who take up into their own hands your pages find themselves lost in a kind of trance and can only gaze at what is being offered by you and not by the static distractions of the real world. Therein lies the magic of the imaginative act, the making method, the speaking that leads to our becoming.
And when I say “objects,” what I am really saying is nouns: mud, fish, river, brother, boat, bird, dog, moon, mother, father, man, girl, tree. And here to quote Rilke: “to say them in such a way so that the Things themselves never dreamed of existing.” The language of things can take us to that place, what I sometimes hear myself call the trapdoor to the eternal, what some might call the sublime, or beauty, or truth, or as Jack Gilbert says, a “kind of lying, necessarily …” so that “truth may be told only so.”
So yeah, magic, real, truth, lying, language, nouns, the spell that wraps it all up in its ways of saying which of course is its own way of seeing.
Rail: What kinds of revelation do you dream your reader might see in your books? I am ready for the ayahuasca, dear Shaman, guide me.
Markus: I’m not sure if revelation can be promised by the words that I’ve so far been able to conjure up as fiction, though I do hope that some sense of reverie might be enacted in whoever might be tuning in to the musicality of my work. I might also hope for some pleasures that might be found in terms of the enchanted, or if nothing else I am hopeful that the careful listener/reader might experience, at the most basic of core levels, a sense of what I like to call the hum. The hum is what I’m ultimately and unfailingly chasing after in all of this: when I bring my gaze to a painting, when I lean my ears to any acoustical sound, when I hold in my hands the pages that belong to others, when I enter into whatever kind of church or other kind of cave that I seek to climb and hide inside. Some might call this a search for the primal, or the sublime, or the spiritual, or an encounter with the otherworldly, or better yet the hunting down for that thing itself which hasn’t yet been named. For me that’s what it all boils down to: the wish to tap into the never before. That’s the best way for me to try to say it with words. I want to be transported to a place where words no longer mean what we think they mean. Maybe this is the revelation behind it all, the magic herb for us to place beneath our tongues.
Rail: I’m actually quite obsessed with the concept of the sublime, Peter, and in your work, I see that quality: precarious beauty and awe. Your characters—both human and otherwise—seem to balance between inexhaustible innocence and a dangerous violence. Can you talk about your process of character building? Something that I have always admired about your writing is how the characters seem built in such a way that they are reliant on another, not as foil but as completion. Here, I’m thinking of the brothers—their relationship to each other and their relationship to Girl—or even the fish’s relation to the man as he becomes not fish. In my own writing, I have a difficult enough time building just one character, and yet, here you are, building two at a time!
Markus: Maybe awe is the revelation that I am on the hunt for when you ask about revelation. Maybe awe is the trigger into reverie, into dream, that which opens up the trapdoor to the sublime, quicksand or mud that swallows us down into the eternal. It’s all precarious, this source and sense of beauty, these words, our conversation, our breath. Our time here on earth. Or not. What do I know? Maybe that’s why we lean on the bodies and the bones and the voices of others to see and say what we don’t. Of course it pleases me more than just a little that you see the characters in my fiction as being well built and that they seem to be written in ways that there is a need for some other—some other character, or some other word—to make them singularly or dually whole. I can’t say that was my conscious intention when I sat down and conjured up and onto the page the world that is the brothers, or the world of multiple Bobs in my novel Bob, or Man on Boat, or the sets of boys who show up in the three longer fictions in my most recent book The Fish and the Not Fish. I do see it now, now that you say it, though again I’m not sure I have much to do or say about this occurrence that takes place in my work. Even in the project that I’m presently working on—In a House In a Woods—there is the dualism of two boys at the heart of this book-to-be too. I don’t even know if the world will ever see it, this book, though some parts of it have made their way out into the world thanks to the editors of the Iowa Review and BOMB and you at Fairy Tale Review and my other brother Derek White who puts out Sleepingfish.
But back to your question, about characters, what else about this might I wish to say? I will say this: that I do feel that hummy feeling that I mentioned earlier in this conversation when I came upon the phrase “us brothers” which in and of itself is the major dramatic event of my brothers stories that make up my books Good, Brother; The Singing Fish; The Moon is a Lighthouse; and We Make Mud. The seed of everything else that happens has already happened in that “us” that makes the word “brother” more than just a single boy, more than just a single set of eyes and four hands now instead of just two.
Back when my own two kids were just kids, they formed a make-believe band between the two of them that they named The Us and I suppose there’s that sibling or kindred kind of connection that any of us are looking for when we seek out another to make the best out of this world. I mean who among us, if given the chance, would want to die alone? I know for my own final act, I want to look my gaze up into the eyes of my wife and son and daughter, those real world others who make me whole.
I see now that I’ve dodged my way around the core question here, but I don’t know that I can speak with much authority about the way that I go about building characters in my fiction. I can’t say that I can see any faces behind the names and the words that I am calling forth out of the alphabet. I can see and hear the words on the page but not much more than that. I don’t think too much about the who—the characters—who move in and around these landscapes. I don’t bother to think too much, either, about the what. I tend to pay closest attention to how the telling of what is being told is being shaped, the contours and textures of the sentence, and I have an unflinching level of trust that story will emerge organically by subverting character and causality and plot in favor of style and musicality and voice. Language, for me, in my hands, is raw and elemental and ornamental and if you play around with it long enough or hold it tenderly and reverently in your hands and look and listen to it close enough it’s only a matter of time before good things start to take shape around it.
Rail: I look at any one of your sentences through a high-powered telescope and I see a spiral galaxy. I have never seen a real spiral galaxy, not with my own eyes at least. I have only seen pictures and I know scientists can account for their creation, but I just want to believe it’s all magic. Or, I live in the desert and I don’t have an air-conditioner. I have a swamp cooler, and no matter how many times someone explains the science of how it works, I hear only sponge and so I know only that it works, and in willing ignorance, I prefer to think it’s simple magic. But to focus again: to me, the act of writing is some balance of science (craft) and magic (magic). Balance does not mean an even division. How would you number your proportion?
Markus: I’m a failed musician. As a kid I used to punk around with pals and find objects along our riverbank to bang on, bought pawnshop guitars and drums and broken-keyed organs and made music out of our not knowing what we were doing. It was pure accident, those moments when we found ourselves in the middle of some sound spell. We knew it when we came out of it, the times that we went there, the times we were somehow taken. I can count the times on one hand, but I hold those times in my hand still like stones or fossils that somehow manage to float, have found a way to displace space and gravity and have pushed back against the failings of memory and the thinning out of time. Those moments stopped occurring, it seemed, even then, once our hands seemed to know where they ought to go, what chords they ought to be playing, and it was this sense of knowing (or thinking that we knew what we were doing) that killed the magic of our song. The same might be said about the writing that I write, that my hands sometimes travel to dead spaces, dead water so to speak, and I am at my best when I go to the page as if going there for the first time. I think it’s good to forget what you think you know about the act or the craft of writing fiction and poetry and I’m sure this might be true too of most any other art-making process. Here I’ll reach out to familiar ground and make use of a line from Jack Gilbert: “We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.” I mean, why see and say what’s already been seen and said, right? To gaze up at the sky at night should be a wordless act, a moment that is only reduced by knowing or naming what the eye sees and what the mind can’t contain. Why put anything in a container? What’s the use of a beautiful frame if what is framed is the same old photograph we’ve all posed for before? In the end, if I had to say it straight up, I don’t look for meaning in much of anything that I pick up to press my face against, though I’m constantly on the make or prowl for that which will place me closer in touch with that sense of being in a state of awe which can leave us with its own kind of silence. I’m also not much for numbers, so if I had to break it down, that proportion between craft and magic, I’d say it like this: mud + brother = fish. Or fish + brother = mud. Somewhere in there, this equation, there is a river there, and a man on a boat. Maybe I’m the man on the boat and language is a river and each word is its own kind of fish. Or to make use of my own words already written, from the book I call Bob, or Man on Boat:
There is no such fish that is just a fish.
Every fish is a beautiful fish.
Every thing that is beautiful in this world is a fish.
The moon is a fish.
The river is a fish.
The stars in the sky.
The stones in the river.
The mud on the river’s bank.
Rail: And so we begin our endings—so sad, so mournful—but we must, we must, we must turn to those treacherous wonderful standard questions: what excites you in literature being published today? Will you provide us a few reading nudges?
Markus: I would say that there are more writers doing interesting new work these days than in days when there were perhaps less people wishing or willing to commit their lives to the act of writing fiction. I can flip open most any lit-mag these days and find writing that I wouldn’t have been able to find there 10 or 15 years ago. I’m not sure how so much good writing gets done these days when there is too much already out there to pull at our habits and attentions. I miss those days when there wasn’t so much at the near and ready to steal our gazes away from the page. I’m going to resist the temptation to fashion here a list of writers whose pages offer me the singular pleasures that authenticity seems to be able to bring with it. That said, I am looking forward to the publication of the collected poems of Frank Stanford that I’m told Copper Canyon is bringing out in April of 2015. As for the writers whose words keep me company and offer me both solace and companionship for the long haul, I’d be remiss if I didn’t cite here the names of such poets as Dan Beachy-Quick, Robert Fanning, John Rybicki, Sean Thomas Dougherty, the fictions of Robert Lopez, Pamela Ryder, Dawn Raffel, Yannick Murphy, Victoria Redel, Sheila Kohler, Noy Holland (most especially her long story “Orbit”), the books of image and text by Derek White, “The Pedersen Kid” by William Gass, The Red Truck by Rudy Wilson, The Nick Adams Stories of Hemingway and The Old Man and the Sea, Peru by Gordon Lish, Faulkner’s Benjy and Vardaman, the shorter books of Samuel Beckett, the sentences of Gary Lutz and Gertrude Stein, Blake Butler’s There Is No Year, Airships and Ray and Boomerang by Barry Hannah, Michael Kimball’s The Way the Family Got Away, William Tester’s Darling, the novels of Norman Lock, “The Weather Killer” by Ben Marcus, “Landscape and Dream” by Nancy Krusoe, “The Caretaker” by Anthony Doerr, Stuart Dybek, Matt Bell, Brian Evenson, Lynn Crawford, John Yau, David McLendon’s UNSAID. Can’t forget Cormac McCarthy, especially his Suttree and Outer Dark and Child of God. William Goyen’s The House of Breath changed the way that I read, as did Mark Richard’s The Ice at the Bottom of the World. Can’t forget James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book that makes the daring claim: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here.” The essays and notebooks of Charles Simić. Edmond Jabès. Jack Gilbert. Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey. There is too much good not to praise. Forgive me, I’ve just done what I made the claim I was going to do my best to resist. I’ve failed again and will continue to fail some more. Here’s to poets who make and play with guitars: Chris Moore, Elliott Smith, Bill Callahan, Sufjan Stevens, Jeff Mangum, early Cat Power, the first four records of Echo and the Bunnymen. The young poets of Detroit, I praise them too for furnishing me their sweet nourishment. There is so much good going on in the world it is almost too much good going on in the world. Maybe it’s time I myself go. I am going. I am tired of my own voice.
Rail: Do you have any last words of wisdom or advice, especially for writers who are at the early stages of their career?
Markus: Be open. Listen. See with your ears. Find your sound and follow it. Go where it tells you to go. Keep going. If the going is good, dig in, anchor down. Stay where the fish are. If the going isn’t going, if the water is dead beneath you, pull up anchor, keep going. Go, go, go!
LILY HOANG is the author of four books, including Changing, recipient of a PEN Open Books Award. With Joshua Marie Wilkinson, she edited the anthology The Force of What's Possible: Writers on the Avant-Garde and Accessibility. She teaches in the M.F.A. program at New Mexico State University, where she is Associate Department Head and Prose Editor for Puerto del Sol.