Issue #22/23
cover photo of Louise Brooks
publication date 12/17/1983#

Paul Metcalf on Craft, Heritage & Selection

An Interview

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 Point Press).

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 Harrisburg, Pa.

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 hills.

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 much?

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 now?

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!