Issue #22/23cover photo of Louise Brookspublication date 12/17/1983#
Paul Metcalf’s books include Patagoni (The Jargon Society,
1971), Genoa (Jargon, 1965), Middle Passage (Jargon,
1976), Apalache (Turtle Island Foundation, 1976), U.S.
Dept. of the Interior (Gnomon, 1980), Zip Odes (Tansy,
1979) and Will West (Bookstore Press, 1956). His most recent
book, published in November, 1982, is Waters of Potowmack (North
Metcalf has a way of writing himself into his novels–along with his great-grandfather
Herman Melville, Columbus, John Wilkes Booth, Edgar Allan Poe, Willie Mays,
the development of Alaska, you name it. Talk Metcalf and you talk America:
the frontier, the Indians, the legends and scampish characters. Metcalf’s
characters reach the length and breadth of this continent.
Metcalf’s a novelist, primarily, and one who makes paragraphs out of
swatches of found material, frontiersmen’s journals and geographic explanations.
Mixed together, it reads as a special poetry reads, as it must to redefine
the New World. He writes in a bare-bones style with everyday language as
his tools. The following interview developed after a Metcalf reading in
Interviewer: Your Potomac book has just been published. Can you describe,
for those who might not be familiar with your technique, how you put that
specific book together?
Metcalf: My intention was to write a comprehensive, documentary history
of the Potomac River basin–that piece of geography that literally defines
itself by the borders of that river’s drainage basin. I wanted not only
the human history, pre- and post-Columbian, but the history of the land
itself, the geology, and the land’s non-human tenants, the flora and fauna.
It quickly became apparent that major events in American history have taken
place within these borders; and, further, that an event such as the Battle
of Gettysburg, say, has its parallel in the interdigitation of plant and
animal life, northern and southern, on Potomac islands, or West Virginia
The method worked out for handling all this was to establish a chronology
of human history, from the Indians and the earliest whites to the nineteen-sixties,
the "present" when the book was written; and to interject here
and there, throughout the book, data on the geology, geography, plants,
birds, fish, animals, etc.–the earth and our co-tenants as an ever-present
setting for human events.
Interviewer: One more thing about that book–do you think it will make
the biggest ‘splash’ for you to date? Is it because of North Point’s distribution?
Or is it your best book?
Metcalf: First of all, it is not up to me to say which is my "best" book,
or my "favorite" book. I make no such choices, and if I did they
would not be appropriate. These are judgments to be made, if made at all,
by the readers. Although Waters of Potowmack is clearly a "Metcalf" book,
it perhaps offers fewer formal innovations, is less "experimental," if
you wish, than some of the others; hence it might have a broader appeal
to the general reader. And certainly North Point’s excellent facilities
for design, production, publicity and distribution offer the book a chance
for wider circulation than I have had before.
Interviewer: At my place, last spring, you mentioned how Charles Olson
was adopted into your family by your mother and that once, just once, you
and he got into some kind of argument. Others have commented on the whole
Olson-Melville-Metcalf connection, but, tell me, what do you see as Olson’s
lasting effect on you?
Metcalf: Herman Melville was always a mythic figure in our family. My
mother’s memories of him were only those of a child–she was ten when he
died. Thus, when the Melville scholars began invading our household during
the twenties and thirties, when I was growing up, they too were non-human
figures to me, in search of someone remote–with the single exception of
Charles Olson. He treated me, from the beginning, as a real person; and
later, as a nascent writer. It was through his eyes that I began to see
Melville as a real and human figure. He also established a bond for me
with writers such as Pound and Williams, who were alive then, but with
whom I had no contact. That entire literary inheritance, which he and I
shared, each in his own way, became genuine through Olson. During the fifties,
there was tremendous excitement, for me at least, when he was starting
the Maximus poems, and I was working on Genoa–and we were both living
in North Carolina then, thirty miles apart. Finally, my respect for Olson,
for the way he helped pass on a world of literature to me, and for his
contribution to it, his enrichment of it, in ways useful to me too numerous
to enumerate–this will always be with me.
Interviewer: I gather you’ve worked out most of the frustration with your
great-grandfather Melville in Genoa. Is it a pain in the
neck for you to be introduced through Melville, or doesn’t that happen
Metcalf: Yes, it happens from time to time. And your question is one that
I’m often asked. No, it doesn’t bother me at all; in fact, I feel it’s
more the questioner’s problem than mine.
The writing of Genoa was a true catharsis, in the psychological
sense. In the process of writing that book I both embraced Melville and
placed a distance between myself and him–so that now I’m able to deal
with him as I wish. "He’s a big boy now, he’s going to have to get
along on his own." Obviously, he’s a major figure in my past. Whether
that connection is genetic or literary or both is a question I don’t find
particularly interesting. On whatever terms, I am comfortable with him.
Interviewer: Your life, completely apart from your creative writing, would
probably make for an interesting autobiography–straight and factual. Have
you ever considered writing one, or do you consider The U.S. Dept.
of the Interior, Genoa and your "documentary
poetry" to be autobiographical enough?
Metcalf: I have no interest in writing an autobiography. As much of "myself" as
I care to present is in the work itself, however obliquely. There is, possibly,
interesting material in Melville, my mother, Olson and myself; Tom Churchill
wrote about this in The Review of Contemporary Fiction. He
is now working this into the form of a novel, and I am much intrigued.
Interviewer: What’s I-57 about? When can we expect to see this work?
Metcalf: I wrote I-57 as a random challenge to myself. I was 57 years
old at the time, and I made the Interstate Highway, I-57, running north
and south through Illinois, the focus of the book, much as a river is the
focus of Waters of Potowmack. Many other ideas were eventually
incorporated, but the highway is the center, the spine, if you wish, holding
together the land, the history, the people around it. Station Hill Press
has promised to publish the book, but there is no timetable.
Interviewer: Since your books are nailed together, often plank by plank,
and often with the words of other people, what constitutes a good line
of prose to you?
Metcalf: I have tried to answer this question before, in another interview,
and sort of talked around it. It’s a temptation to generate an aphorism,
that would look good in a college text book, but really wouldn’t tell anyone
anything. It would have something to do with the content, the material
of the line, what the author is trying to describe or say; and, secondly,
with the quality of the "voice," the appeal to the human ear.
Interviewer: Do you like your own words or another’s, perhaps a frontiersman’s
words, best in your books?
Metcalf: I would hope that, at times, my own words will match up to those
I have discovered and quoted; that my language will emerge from theirs,
as "naturally" as the present emerges from the past. At times,
I think my critical skills exceed my creative, i.e., I can select and quote
better material than I can write. In any case, those quotations form a
challenging and salutary model for me, when I come to generate my own prose.
Interviewer: Is America’s frontier endless? Can we, or have we, beaten
Indians, and cowboys and coonskin caps to death?
Metcalf: America’s frontier is endless, just as any other aspect of our
past, our history, is endless, and endlessly available to us. However the
frontier may have been trashed with platitudes and clichés, the
psychology and effects of the frontier are subtly evident in our consciousness,
our attitudes, our behaviors. I recently spent three months in southern
California, my first extended experience of that part of the country; to
a crabbed old Yankee like me, the evidence of what is called the "California
malaise," the uneasiness of the people who have "arrived" simply
by being there, at the end and best of the westward drive, was not far
beneath the surface. This is a still very current and active working out
of the frontier impulse and experience.
Interviewer: What should our lesson be in going through old documents
Metcalf: I’m not sure the word lesson is appropriate; it sounds a bit
pedagogical. What drives us to the old documents? And, once among them,
what or which seems to resonate in our ears and minds, today? What suddenly
seems fresh to us, what excites, frightens, pleases us? And which two or
more, randomly located, seem to strike together in a new way?
Interviewer: Should Metcalf be a more important character in your books
than, say, the unidentified frontiersmen who populate and speak through
your books? Is there one persona or character to concentrate on?
Metcalf: As in every good book–and assuming mine are good books–the
author is everywhere, he is where you find him. It is my feeling that I
am every bit as present, as selector and organizer, in the quoted documents,
as I am in, say, the deliberately unedited letters and journal entries
of Patagoni, which are as personal as I could make them.
I have made no conscious attempt to confuse or obfuscate; nor have I tried
to shove myself forward, as a constant foreground figure. No, there is
no single persona; the author is where and what you find him . . . .
Interviewer: Can you tell me something about the Gnomon Press book that
is to include interviews with you and other marginalia?
Metcalf: Jonathan Greene, founder and editor of Gnomon Press, originally
suggested such a collection; but the project is on the back burner now,
and I’m perfectly happy to have it stay there. So long as there is new
work, new books, coming out, and/or being generated within me, I would
prefer to postpone such a "gathering" as this.
Interviewer: Who do you like for the 1983 NCAA basketball playoffs?
Metcalf: Did you deliberately plan this question to be no. 13 the unlucky
one? As you well know, the teams I picked for 1982 were summarily demolished,
before our very eyes. Perhaps I’m a better historian than a prophet (although
the two should go together!). Okay, I’ll play it safe and go with the ’82
winners to repeat: North Carolina and Georgetown. Don’t ask me again!