Transcript - Episode 78: David Naimon
Mike Sakasegawa: Hey there, folks, if you love art—and if you’re listening to this show then I suspect you do—head over to the KTCO Holiday Shop at keepthechannelopen.com/holidayshop, where you will find photographs, letterpress prints, box sets, photobooks, and more from 12 past guests of the show. Your purchases directly support these wonderful artists, and a small portion will also help support the show. Once again that’s keepthechannelopen.com/holidayshop. Thanks!
Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 78. Today’s guest is David Naimon.
Hey everybody, today on the show I’m talking with David Naimon. David Naimon is the host of the literature podcast Between the Covers, which is one of my favorite podcasts in any genre. Burning House Press described Between the Covers as “essential listening for anyone who loves books and thought-provoking, even life-changing, conversations.” And, writing for Colorado Review, Andrew Mangan said “Naimon is what makes this podcast stand out. He’s not only a perspicacious reader—authors frequently lob Naimon’s way such remarks as ‘I’ve never thought of it that way’ or ‘That’s an incredibly clever reading’—but his interviewing skills, research into the author’s background/interests, and fluency with related literary works are downright impressive. The discussions, even with authors with whom I’m unfamiliar, are compulsively listenable.” And certainly I agree with all of that—David’s show is one that, as you’ll hear me say in our conversations, really opened up a lot for me in terms of how to be an interview host.
On top of his work as the host of Between the Covers, David is also a writer, himself, and I’ve really enjoyed the short stories of his that I’ve read. In our conversation we discussed two of those pieces. The first is “Acceptance Speech,” which was published in the Spring 2017 edition of Boulevard magazine, and the second is “The Grebe,” which appeared in the Fall/Winter edition of Black Warrior Review. The latter there is not available online but I’ve put a link in the show notes to where you can purchase a copy of the magazine, and I do recommend it as it’s quite a remarkable story, written, as David says, “in the shape of a poem.”
And then, also, earlier this year David published a collaboration with Ursula K. Le Guin, a book called Conversations On Writing, which was put out by Tin House. And this book came out of a series of three interviews that David did on his show with Ursula Le Guin from 2015 to 2017, all of which were just fantastic, I really enjoyed the heck out of them when I listened to them and then when the book came out, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book, more than just being a transcription of the interviews, adds a lot of little touches like sentence diagrams and things like that, that really make it into something that stands on its own, as its own thing. I do recommend picking up a copy, and there’s a link in the show notes for that.
Alright, now before we get started, I did just want to mention that David was kind enough to add a reading to the show’s bonus archive, which is available to our Patreon subscribers. David read his story “Being Beneath,” and that joins readings from previous guests including Ada Limón, Natalie Eilbert, and Nicole Chung. A monthly recurring donation in any amount will get you access to those bonus readings as well as early access to each episode, and goes a long way toward making this show possible. You can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, and there’s a link in the show notes for that.
OK, as always, if you’d like to join in today’s conversation, you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPod to live-tweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with David Naimon.
Mike Sakasegawa: So how are you today?
David Naimon: Well, I guess the first thing that comes to mind is how much empathy I'm feeling for the guests who come on my radio show because I've been feeling anxiety and nervousness about being a guest and I never really take that into account so much with the people who come on my show.
MS: It's an interesting thing, right? Because like, I mean, I've had the opportunity to be interviewed, uh, only once for audio, but I have for print a couple of times now and it's sort of a strange thing being on the other side of it. Um, yeah, I know what you mean. [laughs]
DN: I mean, I feel like in one regard, the fact that the first book that I have out in the world is conversations with a very well-known legend, so Ursula Le Guin, all the work that I've done in promoting that, whether that be in interviews or otherwise, it feels like—it feels less threatening than I would imagine if I was completely putting myself out there for my own work independent of her. Uh, it's less—maybe it's less vulnerable because it's a conversation with someone else. It's other-focused. You know, we're here today, we have this open-ended conversation about me and so here we are and I'm like, "What is he going to ask?"
MS: [laughs] I think it's really interesting hearing you talk about your book, which by the way, I—you know, as you know, I have purchased a copy of my own, of that book and then I, I love it. I also, even before it had come out and before I knew that it was going to be a book, I had listened to all three of those, uh, episodes of your show with Ursula Le Guin and had adored them. And it's worth mentioning—I've said this to you on Twitter a number of times, but I do just adore your show. I, it's really one of my favorite, uh, not just literary shows, but one of my favorite podcasts in any genre.
DN: Thank you, Mike. That's, that's, that means a lot coming from you. And I love it when our show has overlap. Like when we both had Celeste Ng or we both had R.O. Kwon and I'm listening to your show to get cues for preparation for mine as well. So I love that we have this sort of interviewer relationship both in the social media and then in terms of perhaps thinking about how we want to adjust or do our shows differently.
MS: Yeah, I mean I—it's been, I feel, a very fruitful thing for me to sort of not just listen to your show and see what your approach is, but also to be able to talk to you about it on Twitter as well. But you know, sort of going back to what I was just saying about that book, I think it's really interesting that, you know, both of us are artists in our own right, but I think both of us are at this point probably a little bit better known for the ways in which we showcase or spotlight other people's work. Would you say that's fair?
DN: Right. I think that's true. I would say that's very true.
MS: Yeah. But, and for me, that's a very comfortable place to be. Like if I'm able to talk about how great somebody else's work is, that's like—I love doing that. I get a real charge out of doing that. But I, when it comes to promoting my own work, or even really talking about my own work, it just, it feels so strange, you know, like... I don't know, I get very uncomfortable with that. So it's interesting hearing you say something kind of similar along those lines.
DN: Yeah, I would say that's, you're articulating how I feel too. Like I love showcasing other people. I think you do a really great job of that on your show as well. And um, I don't even mind being interviewed where it's written down and I have all this time to sort of craft an answer and think about it and panic silently off the page.
DN: But uh, yeah, so I—the other-focus-ness is a place of comfort for me. I also think it's sort of an ethos even within my own writing to have something about otherness in the writing. But it is a place where I feel more at home.
MS: It's interesting thinking about that as an ethos. There was like five things I thought of while you were saying that, but... [laughs] I mean it's something that I have appreciated about your show, certainly. Like the variety of people that you talk to, many of whom may not be people whose experiences are necessarily similar to yours, like life experiences. I find that very valuable. But you know, looking at that in your own writing as well. Let me see if I can sort of figure out what I want to say about—like there's something about, uh, you know, I've read a few of your pieces, whether they've been fiction or essays that you've written and there's something about the way that you... Well I guess what I would say is just that, like how you describe that as like sort of incorporating some sort of otherness. Although to me like the word otherness sort of implies a separation. Whereas I feel that the way that you approach all of these things, whether it's in fiction or interviewing or essays, is more of sort of a connective, um, function to the work. Does that make sense?
DN: Mm-hm. I think that's true. I mean, I think if you push on any of these divisions—say, other and self, nature and culture, or different genres—I think if you look too closely at the borderlands between them, they start to fall apart. Wouldn’t you say that it's a false distinction between other and self or between being connected and having otherness at the center of your writing?
MS: Mm. Yeah. That's something that you talked about a lot with Ursula in your conversations with her and it definitely is something that I found really useful sort of just philosophically, you know, her ideas that she had about connectedness. You know, and she took it a step further than just thinking about it in terms of sort of interpersonal separation or cultural separation. And she talked a lot about even the difference between, you know, humanity and animals, or humanity and inanimate objects. I found that fascinating.
DN: Yeah. I love that about her.
MS: Yeah. I guess one of the things that I'm thinking about when I think about your role in those conversations was... You know, something that I think a lot about, as you know, is sort of what the role of the interviewer is in these things. And I feel that on some level I think a lot of people sort of take the idea that the interviewer is sort of a stand-in for the listener.
MS: And I think there's something to that. But I also think that what the interviewer adds, or at least in the best cases can add, is that you have a point of view and you have a voice of your own. And I guess I'm really interested to sort of hear how you think about voice when it comes to your show.
DN: Well, before I talk about me, I just want to do a little plug for people following you on Twitter because you do these epic threads of contemplation on what it means to be an interviewer that I find super fascinating and productive. They're often open-ended questions with also really thoughtful, open-ended answers. But I—if people are interested in this question, which I am, I would highly recommend they follow you on Twitter.
MS: Well, thank you so much. [laughs]
DN: [laughs] But uh, in terms of the role of the interviewer, for me, it's, that's a good question. I don't know. I think it probably evolved naturally through maybe what I considered my strengths. I do feel like I'm more than a stand-in. I do bring forward my own thinking into the interviews and propose questions around my own thinking and try to introduce things that are perhaps oblique to the main topic at hand, but somehow might complement them or get an author to be bumped out of their autopilot because they're going to have, I don't know, maybe 80, 90 percent of the questions that they get on a tour going to be the same or very similar. So is there a way to create a freshness where they feel like maybe they need to pay more attention and maybe they're experiencing an interviewer who's given more thought than the average person who maybe isn't always even reading the book when people are going on a radio show for 10 minutes as they're zooming through town. But I also feel like I want the conversation to feel like it has a through line of a thinking process, that would be my thinking process, strangely. So even though there's a lot of variability and unexpectedness potentially and we don't know exactly where it's going to go, I kind of want there to feel like there's a thread of inquiry.
MS: I think that comes through. And I think, you know, one of the most interesting things to me is when I think about the shows that I listen to, that I actually come back to and really look forward to every episode, you know, sort of regardless of who the guests might be, your show is one in which a lot of times the guests are people that I may not have heard of before. Like when they are people whose books I've read that has a certain excitement to it because I'm really interested to know how you're going to approach the work and whether it will be different or the same to how I approached it. But I think also there's something about the way that you talk to people. I mean this might be kind of a weird way of saying this and I hope it's not, but you know, one of the things that I get from listening to your show is, because your approach to it is very, very different from how I approach the conversations that I hold for my show. That when I was starting out this show, I had this sort of idea about how scripted interviews work and what the role of the host is or ought to be. And I had this concept that I didn't like the idea of the host coming up with questions beforehand. And your show was really instrumental in me figuring out that it's not that format that is the problem, but it's rather the individual person who's asking the questions and how they approach it. Because your questions, it's very obvious that they're ones that you've taken the time to think about and write down and craft, as you sort of talked about, right, beforehand. But they also have this really essential and fundamental generosity to them. And it's not something that I had considered as a possibility before I listened to your show. Which—
DN: Well, I—
DN: Oh, go ahead.
MS: [laughs]. It's not really a question, but it's just something I wanted to throw out there.
DN: Yeah, I mean, I wonder if like ultimately the best interviewers have their own unique style that is most in tune with who they are as a person. I mean, I was thinking about like, so Rachel Zucker's show, Commonplace. She's—
MS: Oh, it's so great.
DN: She's a very well-known poet and she's more published than half of her guests. So let's say half of her guests are people who, uh, she may look up to as mentors who came before her and then half of her guests may have far fewer books than her, but they might even be better known than her. That's possible. But she's sort of a formidable, well-known artist as an interviewer. So she has that going for her. And then Michael Silverblatt's Bookworm. He's smarter than I am.
DN: Or at least he's smarter than I am in the moment. And he has a greater wealth of encyclopedic knowledge to draw from spontaneously in the moment. Neither of those are my assets. And then Brad Listi, who comes up with this ingenious way of talking to authors without talking about their books. So I mean, I'm envious of the fact that he doesn't have to—presumably he does a lot of preparation, but certainly not necessarily the same amount of preparation as if you're having to read the material. But he produces these, this great content that's, you know, people crave to hear about random things or childhood things or other things that are going on in an artist's life. So all of these things are out there and I think of these people sort of finding their strengths and they're very much about them and you either like their personality and what they're bringing forth or not. So they might all be polarizing. There's probably people who can't stand any one of those shows, and my show, and yet I feel like that's kind of the way I want it to be, is I want it to be... I want to feel like I'm not just a stand-in for the reader, like you said, or the listener. I'm actually there in the room and I am influencing the way the conversation's happening in the, with the best of my skills, which are not those skills.
MS: I think you might be selling yourself a little bit short [laughs] on how knowledgeable you are. One of the things that I'm often very impressed with, that I often feel that is... I'm not sure if exactly like you were expressing an anxiety just then, but for me I, at times when I'm comparing what I do to what other people do can feel a certain anxiety. I find that when I listen to your show, one of the things that really impresses me is how, just how well read you are. You know, like you will make references to certain critical essays or any number of other juxtapositions that you will make between the writer that you're talking with and some other writer's work or something. And, I don't know, I just, I don't even know, I spend—I feel like I spend a lot of my time reading and I can't keep up with what you or some of these other interviewers are able to bring to the table there. Yeah, I don't know.
DN: Yeah, I do think that's... I mean, I guess that's where I would say my... If there's a strength to what I'm doing, it's just the absurd amount of preparation that I do.
DN: Maybe that's not a very glamorous answer.
MS: Well, I mean I think that it's, it is evident in the conversations that you have that you have put a lot of time into thinking about what you have read and what you would like to ask. Which is often—it's not to say that I don't prepare when I'm going to talk to someone, but it's, I think a little different for me. I don't know.
DN: No, it is. And you oriented me before the show, and it was exotic to—and I'm sure it's exotic, just like you were mentioning how like listening to me and it's so different than the way you do it and then you were describing how you do it. And I was like, "Wow, that is so wild. It's so different and it's so great."
DN: It's so great. And it's also like the amount of looseness that you allow, or spontaneity you build in. Maybe that feels more frightening to me in some way.
MS: That's interesting. You know, that sort of brings to mind—I'm not quite finished with it yet, but your episode this week with Diane Williams, I've been listening to and I'm almost—I think I've got like maybe 10 minutes left in listening to it. One of the things that you talked to her about in that interview was you asked her... Let me see if I can find it. I wrote this down. Um, yeah. Okay. So you were talking to her about a different interview she'd done where she had mentioned this Yugoslavian artist that uses, that would decide what color to paint just buy whatever his hand happened to fall on. And then also, um, how accident plays when she's sewing. And you said to her, "I wondered if—because these stories and the way you're describing your methodology, it sounds like there's a lot of labor, and they're highly crafted. But is there anything you do like your sewing or like this Yugoslavian artist that is also sort of you're leaving the door open to accident in a willful sense?" What I, what that brought forward to me is, to me your show feels very crafted in a way that—not to say that my show isn't crafted, but I think it's crafted in a different way. And what I wonder is like to what degree accident finds its way into your show and to what degree that's intentional.
DN: That's a good question. I feel like there is a ton of crafting prior to the interview happening and then in the best-case scenarios, a considerable amount of improvisation that happens in the interview. So for instance, in that interview, probably a third of the questions I never asked that I had prepared for, maybe more, and sort of in real time I'm making decisions about various things that I had thought about asking and removing some, or moving them around in order, or um, yeah. So I guess I feel like there's all this crafting that's done and then if I am attentive to the moment, I'm sort of messing with that as the interview unfolds. And maybe in the worst interviews I'm plowing ahead with a preordained agenda despite whatever's happening in the room, which is not what I'm aspiring toward.
MS: It's, I mean I find it to be sort of a difficult balance. Um, and it's something that took me a while to sort of find my feet on, the balance between being prepared and being responsive. Or the word you used was "spontaneous." Like I find that that can be a tricky thing to figure out how to do both of those things. You know, when I first started, I would have a lot of dead air, where I would talk to people and either they wouldn't realize that I was sort of asking them a question in the form of a statement or they just wouldn't have anything, any way to respond to what I said. And it sort of took a while before I was able to figure out how to... And that was really due to lack of preparation on my part. Figuring out how to balance that was difficult for me. Was it for you?
DN: I don't know, like, so I was doing a different show for maybe 15 years before this, a health-oriented show where I was interviewing health practitioners. And then... I guess I would say growing up as a person, I had a pretty rough childhood. I was beat up a lot and I was singled out a lot, and I think that the way I learned to both feel safe and to make friends was by listening to other people. So I feel like there's a way in which sort of interviewing became sort of a strange form of survival at one point. So I guess I would say that I feel like—I don't know if I have a facility for interviewing, but I feel like—
MS: You do.
DN: Thank you.
DN: But I feel comfortable de-centering myself, maybe to a fault. Even though I do talk too much in the interviews. Like so there's this weird paradox I think because I'm, as you say, you notice perhaps a generosity in the questions, but sometimes I'm like, "Oh my God, that question was way too long." And—
DN: But [laughs] but at the same time I do feel like maybe I had a running start with the book show because I had been doing radio for a little while and because I was also comfortable doing interviewing.
MS: Yeah, maybe. I do think, I mean this is something that has come up with me time and again, I just in October was at the Medium Festival of Photography, which I've talked about on this show a bunch. It's sort of the thing that was the impetus behind me starting this show. And I've sort of gotten this weird reputation of being the guy who asks questions in all the Q&A's. [laughs] Which made me really uncomfortable for a while. But I, you know, I've had a number of artists—like even this last time I will feel like sometimes I ask questions that are sort of too long-winded or too... I don't know, where I say too much of what I think before the question ends. And yet those are often the questions that the people that I'm talking with, the artists that I asked them to are, they seem like almost flattered by them. You know, like I had this one Argentinian photographer say to me this past month that getting a such a thoughtful question is really thrilling because it's not something that she gets to experience a lot and I have to imagine that's true for your guests as well.
DN: Well, I would guess that's the litmus test, right? Whether we're stealing oxygen from the room or whether we're asking a really good question is... Everyone knows the person in the question-and-answer when they raise their hand and it's not really a question, they just want to speak.
DN: And they just want to give a speech or make a very long-winded comment. But if the person you're making the comment to or asking the question to is responding with gratitude, I think that's ultimately the litmus test to decide whether what you've put into the room is ultimately of value. At least for me it is.
DN: And it sounds like it is. It sounds like your questions that you're asking at the end of readings is something that the readers are responding to.
MS: I mean, I hope so. I mean [laughs] I feel like on some level the both of us are just doing this thing where we're both saying "I hope that's true. I hope that's true." [laughs]
DN: Yeah, I hope it's true. [laughs]
MS: It's really interesting to hear you talk about how listening to people was a skill that you developed by having a rough childhood. I feel like it's not necessarily a given that that is something that someone would come out with. Because like for me, I got bullied a lot as well when I was young and I feel like I for a long time did the opposite, where my way of feeling in control of a situation was more to sort of lean on a certain sort of arrogance, you know? Like I feel like when I was in high school especially and early college I just really didn't listen to people and I mostly just like sort of talked at people and tried to convince people how smart I was all the time. It's a really different impulse, I think. You know?
DN: Yeah. And I wonder, I mean, part of it could be, you know, what we were seeing in the world and what the context of how we were othered in the world was. I'm not sure but I guess for me it was self-erasure, in a way. Like it was like "I don't have needs, I'm just going to listen to what yours are and show this great interest in what your needs and desires are." As a way to get friends.
MS: Yeah. I, uh—
DN: I don't recommend it—
DN: —as a strategy.
MS: [laughs] Um, I mean—but I do think that there is an interesting thing about this question of decentering oneself. Like, you know, the act of generosity almost kind of necessarily has to be an act of de-centering oneself, if it's true generosity and not just the way of pumping oneself up. I think finding that balance between attending to one's own needs and being able to be generous towards other people is—I don't know, it can be tricky, I guess.
DN: It feels like a lifelong, unanswerable question that is also sort of obligatory to engage with if you want to be alive.
DN: Alive to yourself.
MS: Yeah. Yeah. I do want to talk a little bit more about your own writing. But here again, it's going to kind of come back a little bit to the interviews. You sent me a couple of pieces, one of which it turned out I had actually read before, I'd read "The Acceptance" before and—which I really enjoyed both of these things that you sent me. There were sort of a couple of different things that I was thinking about with them. One is how you've talked before in interviews about how you have an interest in other people's writing when it is sort of more language-forward, and that is something that definitely feels true about your work. But the other thing that I was thinking about was this, again, going back to the conversation you had with Diane Williams where you were asking her about this sort of reluctance she has to talk about the meaning in her work. And it was something that to me—you know, I was thinking about these two pieces that you sent, "Acceptance Speech" and "The Grebe," and I was—you know, I always tend to reach towards meaning and understanding the meaning in art when I approach a piece and I feel like, especially with fiction and especially with short fiction, it can be really hard to articulate that. You know what I mean? Like, and I sort of wonder if that might be the wrong way to approach it sometimes. You know?
DN: You mean approaching meaning head-on?
DN: I feel like I'm pretty enamored with starting with constraints or with pre-ordained limitations outside of oneself. And then finding my way into it that way.
DN: I don't know if that makes sense. But I find that very liberating, to start with some sort of either a pre-existing form or self-created form that then I'm going to discover something new about my own self and my own voice potentially by succumbing to these constraints.
MS: Yeah. In the Black Warrior Review interview, you mentioned the Oulipian? I'm not sure how you say it. The—
DN: Yeah, that's right.
MS: Yeah. The only other time I've heard of this before was actually from... There's a guy, an English guy whose name is Ross Sutherland, who has a podcast called Imaginary Advice that—his is sort of like mostly experimental fiction, but occasionally he'll sort of do cultural critique as well. And I remember listening to an interview with him where he was talking about that same sort of approach and how you work in these constraints, but also how a lot of what he does involves sort of writing down nonsense words to start with that fit in those constraints and then using that to sort of find his way accidentally to something that feels meaningful. Which to me felt like a really interesting approach. When I was reading how you describe working in those constraints, it feels like, to me a really different... It's certainly different from how I approach it as a reader. You know what I mean?
DN: I think that's true, but maybe a good example would be poetry, because it's so common in poetry. So writing a sonnet, why does it have 14 lines? That's just... What's so important about writing a poem with 14 lines? Well, really there's nothing important about it except it has this legacy and history that you're engaging with. But many of the things formally in poetry are somewhat arbitrary constraints which are more obvious than the ones that you could potentially do in fiction, but they obviously produce meaningful work and poets are still compelled to write 14 line poems versus 13 line poems.
MS: I guess one of the things that I think about too is, you know, because you've mentioned in many interviews how you're interested in especially fiction that foregrounds language, and then here talking about these constraints. And then so like, and then thinking about your story "The Grebe," which is in lines, and the way that you and this other interviewer described it was a short story in the shape of a poem, rather than being a poem itself. And to me there's something about the idea of technique and form that I find really compelling but also like I can never quite get my arms around whether form and language are sort of tools or sort of receptacles for meaning, or whether they can be the thing itself. And I kind of wondered what you thought about that.
DN: I wonder if there is not one answer to that. Or maybe there's a different answer for different artists, or a different answer for the same artist at different times or with different pieces. But I remember... So I just finished having a conversation with Layli Long Soldier. Have you read Whereas?
DN: You haven't. Okay. Well, Whereas this is amazing—it's one of the best poetry books of the last decade and it's this amazing engagement with Barack Obama's apology to Native Americans for American genocide of indigenous people. And she, in the interview, she brings up this quote by Charles Olson and I think, I don't know if I'm going to get it right, but he said something like "Form is only ever an extension of content." So, in a sense, that form arises out of content. And she argued that for her, that's not often the case, that sometimes she has an image or a shape or some form that comes to her first and she has no idea what the content's going to be, and that the form is where the content comes from. And I loved that idea. And she does actually play with the visual in that collection. But even if you're looking at just the conceptual with her Whereas poems, she's repurposing—so one of her constraints is she's repurposing governmental, rhetorical, abstract language to her own purposes. She's never using the first-person plural. She's always grounding it in her own personal experience. She never uses the word "white" or "whiteness." And so there are certain rules that she has for herself. No one's given her these rules, but somehow the rules create this scaffolding and a pressure that create the poem. I think there's still a mystery in it. And talking with Ursula about her poetry, it's the same thing. She writes both free verse and in received forms, but she's attracted more to the received forms and feels like in a mysterious way when they're working, they provide her with something more free than free verse.
MS: Yeah. Yeah. That was something that I really responded to in that conversation that you had with her. I guess what I'm thinking about in your work is, especially in the story "The Grebe," because it is kind of an experimental form, and it is something that looks like a poem. You know, it's written in lines like a poem would be, and broken up into stanzas like a poem would be. But it's, I mean you described it in this other conversation as not exactly a poem but rather a short story in the form of a poem, and that makes... There is an interesting thing about that. And the form of it, the way that it looks on the page, and the way that the lines interact with each other, and the language, and the lack of punctuation, all of that informs the experience for the reader. But at the same time, to me when I read that, what I'm responding to is... I mean it is the language and the form on some level, but it's like, to me what I responded to more strongly was the ways in which, for example, the narrator, who is a young boy, is sort of juxtaposed with this wounded bird. How the father is sort of this at first, like an authoritarian figure, but then you see these sort of cracks in it and you see like these ways in which he seems to be a very flawed person, and the ways in which he sort of wants to enforce this idea of masculinity on his son. And to me like, you know, the form, of course it inflects how I receive those things and maybe it makes me more permeable to those concepts, but the thing that I'm really resonating with is what's underneath the form, if that makes sense.
DN: Yeah. I think that for me as a reader, maybe the sweet spot is somebody who finds the tension between pieces that move associatively and pieces that move narratively. I love pieces that do both but still have this thread of story. I love story, I just also... I don't like things that are experimental for just for experimental's sake, with no heart or no obvious connection to meaning. I mean, I guess maybe I like some of that sometimes, but that's not like the center of what I love to read. But people who are working with form and yet also sort of acknowledging the reader in a meaningful way, that's the type of writing that I really love.
MS: Well, I think we need to take a little break, so why don't we do that and then we'll come back and do the second segment.
Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own which can be whatever's on your mind, whatever you'd like to talk about. And so what would you like to talk about today?
David Naimon: I mentioned this before and I'm having second thoughts about it because it seems so heavy, but one of the things that I obsess most about in the types of people I invite on the show—and this is only one minor thread of the types of people I bring on the show—but it's a question that gnaws at me is, is there a way we can change the way we tell stories or poetry for that matter that would be a way to enact a different relationship to the non-human and in a sense model a different way of being with regards to the ecology that we're part of?
MS: Yeah. I mean, I know this is something that I've certainly noticed in listening to your show, that you very clearly have a concern for environmental issues and—the phrase you used in the pre-show was the "global climate apocalypse." Which, yes, that is very heavy, but it's also something that we desperately need to be paying attention to. Certainly in my political work, I often find that it's something that is frustratingly, people are not taking it as seriously as I want them to.
MS: It's an interesting question to me whether art is something that can have big impacts on global and political issues in the world. And the thing that I always think about, there's that long quotation from Vonnegut where he talks about how he doesn't think art can change the world and how like, you know, at the time all of the art world was laser focused against the Vietnam War, but the war continued to happen. But more and more I think he was wrong about that. You know, like, I actually don't think that he's correct that art can't change the world. But I, I don't know, I do wonder what you think about that, too.
DN: I'm going to sidestep the question, but I'm going to... I guess I feel like whether art can change the world, it feels like story, even if it's not art, so let's say biblical stories or stories that we pass down within communities and sub-communities, reinforce certain behaviors and pass them down from generation to generation. Whether it be "Be fruitful and multiply" or some other story, or the fact that we're always framing our stories with the human drama at the center of them. I just am very fascinated by the possibilities of exploding that, and what would happen to our consciousness, or at the minimum the consciousness of the person writing and the people reading these stories if we were to look at different timeframes and different framing, different points of view and allow for other agendas, other than the human writer within the story-making process. Because I feel like, for instance, in the world at large, we constantly are coming up with techno-fixes to work around signals we're getting from the environment. And I'm not saying we should never do that, but whenever we're doing a technological fix, we're always centering human ingenuity above another type of ingenuity or above being part of something that is larger than us and maybe that we don't fully understand. So, at some point in history, we could no longer grow enough food with the number of bees there are in the world, if we wanted to keep growing as a human population. And instead of taking that signal as a limitation and turning our technology and our techno-fixes into, "Well, how can we listen to the fact that there's this bumblebee (or honeybee or whatever type of bee) limitation and how can we create a community that acknowledges this signal?" we put all the bees in trucks and we drive them up and down the coast. And we drive salmon around dams in trucks, bizarrely. So we have all of these things that we do as ways around instead of potentially listening to something that's being told to us. And I, if we come back to like a constraint-based story—and I find some of the most interesting stories come out of constraints—I wonder if there could be a constraint-based society where all of that human ingenuity could be going into listening to what other creatures are saying and what plant life is saying, and then how could we make our society more beautiful and more efficient and create more space for otherness and use all of that specificly human, like, tool-making and problem-solving capacity in a totally different way?
MS: It's an interesting question because you know, probably the majority of human history is something where people were more responsive to and more limited by their environments. And certainly like the sort of cliche among Americans is to look at Native American cultures in that way. But I think even if we look at history in every other part of the world as well, that that was something sort of ancestrally that we were more like back then. And certainly something that I think about a lot is the ways in which sort of the capitalist mindset is one that requires constant growth, which is ultimately unsustainable in a finite world. But at the same time, like I feel like one of the pitfalls of this, of where whether we're looking at indigenous cultures or whether we're looking at ancestral or historical cultures, that there is this way of sort of romanticizing it that actually serves to increase the otherness rather than integrate. Do you know what I mean?
DN: Yeah. I mean I think... Well on the one hand say like the Iroquois and the thoughtfulness towards "How this is going to affect the community seven generations in the future" feels like this really fascinating and wise way to be in the world. But I would imagine also some of the things that worked when there were far less humans on the planet, say like the Yanomami, they do slash-and-burn. But there are so few of them compared to the size of the forest that the forest regenerates. It's a matter of scale, too. And I guess rather than romanticizing past cultures, I think we should try to take what we can from the wisdom of them, but either way, whether we are, we're at a pretty vital pivot point where we're either going to keep doing technological fixes or we're going to figure out a way to cohabitate with otherness and have a restraint on the, on the human impulse to allow for wildness and for mystery. But you know most of what's being discussed now—and that might be where we ended up going—are like geoengineering techniques like putting dust into the atmosphere that would mimic a huge volcanic eruption that would cool the atmosphere. And that may very well work, though we'll never see a blue sky again, the sky will be white. And of course there's going to be all sorts of unforeseen consequences. But we could also be looking at other solutions that we might not be so enamored with from a scientific perspective. Maybe they're not even—they're not glamorous solutions but the answers are already there.
MS: Yeah. I do feel like... You know, something that I say all the time is that I feel like the primary driver of a lot of injustice in the world, and I think that this also goes towards—I'm not sure if you would use the word "justice," but certainly environmental destruction ends up being caused by people's inability or unwillingness to tolerate any kind of discomfort or inconvenience. And I do feel like that is something that people need to be willing to tolerate a certain amount of inconvenience or discomfort in order for things to improve. You know, like people need to be willing to consider the question of their own culpability in a serious way rather than just paying lip service to it. And I guess I do think that that is one of the ways in which art or story or narrative or whatever can accomplish change is by sort of bridging the gap between self and other and allowing someone to step outside of themselves to be able to consider that question of culpability. Then the question for me becomes, is that something that can happen at a large enough scale to matter, in a timeframe for that change to be effective? You know?
DN: I have no idea.
MS: I don't think anybody does. [laughs]
DN: But I would, I guess I would throw that question back, in the sense that I think that the question about art and meaningfulness existed long before we were having a climate change apocalypse. I guess the orientation to the art that I enjoy... I'm not a religious person, but I think art that acknowledges the limitations of comprehension, and wonder, mystery, wildness, wilderness, shares something with religion, in the sense that religion will often employ contradiction or paradox to stop the mind from its meaning-making faculty. And you're oriented towards the ephemeral-ness of human life, towards what is beyond what we know. And I think maybe poetry of the three genres more often comes closest to this, to enacting something that is acknowledging that, and as there's a certain reverence or willingness to be with not knowing. I don't know if that's going to make any difference for climate change, but I guess we're going to see, more and more no matter what, in just general, non-dystopian art, we're going to see more and more climate aspects to art. Just inevitably as we become more uncomfortable and I wonder about what that should look like. Should they be hero narratives? Should they be people figuring out these magical bacteria that eat plastic, and ways to transfer animal DNA onto film and then we'll recreate the animals later in some sort of science fiction? Or should it be an enactment of another way of living? Which this—the same question, I think, would have been true 500 years ago. Maybe during the Enlightenment period we could have had a similar debate about how we want to look at these new tools of navigation and exploration, and to what end. I don't know if they'll make a difference, but I'm... Yeah, I don't know.
MS: Yeah. The word "reverence" that you just used is an interesting one. And I guess something... So like for my day job, I'm an engineer. I'm a kind of person—you know, I went to a science and technology school for college, and historically I've been the kind of person who wants to deal with things in a sort of concrete manner and in a scientific manner. Certainly something that people, a lot of people have talked about for hundreds of years really is this sort of distinction between scientific understanding and reverence. It's something that I feel like can be done in really facile kind of way. But I guess lately, something that I wonder—and I don't think this is a question that you or I can answer in any kind of concrete way—but I do sort of wonder whether orienting oneself towards being able to understand things completely in a concrete manner, in an articulable manner, might be at odds with a concept of reverence, and perhaps be something that that orientation might, I don't know, ultimately be bad for things.
DN: Well, I mean even people who say that they live a rational life or they believe in reason and they believe in progress... There's nothing rational about love and friendship and beauty. Most of the things that people hold as the most valuable things in their life are not rational and can't be reduced to something reasonable. And that's not to say anything against reason. I think reason's super important, as we're noticing now, as facts become something that no one is agreeing upon anymore. I think reason is vital. I just am skeptical about even the sciences that I think we need the most. And of course we need engineering, but the ones that people have maybe less enamored with pursuing like environmental biology or ecology which are multifactorial, and can't be reduced to a science in the same way that say a physicist could do with physics. And the way we put together our medical studies where we have to control for all the variables. And I understand there's great value in doing that, too. But it seems like a limitation of the human imagination to not allow for the multiplicity that may be beyond our full comprehension.
MS: Yeah. Um, so I feel like we could probably continue talking about this for many hours, but we're getting pretty close to time. So there's one question that I always like to close with and that is whether there is a piece of art or literature or creativity in some form that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.
DN: Oh, it's a zinger.
DN: [laughs] Well, the two... I mentioned these both in the interview that I did with Black Warrior Review. So, Jeffrey Yang's Hey, Marfa poetry collection that just came out by Graywolf. And also from Graywolf, Layli Long Soldier's Whereas, which was the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 2017. I feel like they're both maybe examples of and inspirations for how I want to work, engagements with place, and with identity, human and otherwise. It feels like somehow both of those books are enacting something about being a human in place. And I love what they're both doing. They're very different books, but they're both really close to my heart.
MS: Well, thank you. And, um, and just once again, I really appreciate you taking the time and talking with me today.
DN: And I had a great time.
Mike Sakasegawa: Alright, once again, do check out David’s book with Ursula K. Le Guin, Conversations on Writing, it’s just great. And be sure to subscribe to Between the Covers, which you can find wherever podcasts can be found.
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