An Interview with Meredith Quartermain, Part 3

Part 3 of my interview with Meredith Quartermain, whose new short story collection, I, Bartleby, launched April 23rd.

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On Language  I Bartleby by Meredith Quartermain

RS: There’s a tone established here in these stories: whimsical, light on the surface, with a cadence that pulls the reader in deeper. This tone comes to me as if a fable. For instance, the first story of the first section, seems both a light drawing room piece and also, at the same time, inextricably linked to the Bible (KJV), and perhaps, Cosmos, by Carl Sagan. And of course, Herman Melville. The language of these stories is at once microscopically precise and, within that density, open to interpretation. In both style and content, one moves from the particular to the universal, and deftly! Each story in each of the five sections is but a mere handful of pages. Please comment.

MQ: You’ve certainly hit on something that fascinated me as I wrote these pieces – how to keep the storytelling voice perched on the edge of literal sense and figurative sense. What’s at stake in these stories is not so much issues like will she get her man or will she have revenge, but rather how do we make sense of humans in a world they are rapidly destroying?

Titles and Sections

RS: Each title of each section seems to contain behind it many novels’ worth of influence, sub-texts, findings, mystery and pointers, as in those graphic representations of hands that would point to text in Victorian novels or “How To” books of a certain era. For example, in Caravan: well, what an extraordinary title, invoking all kinds of images (caravanserai!). I read the stories in Caravan as a kind of extended “thought-fox” (Ted Hughes) sequence, replete with meta-physical-meta-fictional and possibly auto-biographical layering, in prose so polished it glistens.

MQ: The titles evolved from the pieces themselves and from their clusterings. I enjoyed making titles resonate with threads or glimpses elsewhere in the book, the way a painter will create interplay by repeating a colour in a distant corner of a painting. For instance, the image of camels in a desert came up in “A Natural History of the Throught” and that led to the title “Caravan.”

Long ago I read an essay of Lisa Robertson’s called “How to Colour” and the title stuck with me, the way its simplicity worked ironically against the vast history of social uses of colour that she was discussing. I chose this kind of title for an equally vast subject: how to write. The section collected stories about my own training and also stories of other writers and writing practices. I echoed this title motif in “How to converse” and How to remember” (in “Caravan”); the phrase also evokes musing and mulling things over to oneself.

Each section begins with a title that links back to the figure of Bartleby, the epigraph from Melville, and the question posed at the beginning of the book: “If I, Bartleby, am a copyist, what am I copying?” Am I copying the physical world onto the page? Am I copying centuries-old language? Am I merely replicating mechanically centuries of culture? Where is originality in this? What is outside this copying?

RS: Why is the title Orientalisme italicized? Is it a referent to Edward Said’s book Orientalism, and if so, in what way? There are 10 stories within Orientalisme: the first story reads to me as personal witness by a narrative “I” who is also “he”…and possibly the author’s father. The subsequent pieces I read as prose poems, as short songs, filled with a kind of crafted lyricism, unabashedly embracing repetition, and yet several of these pieces are only one page, the entire section an encounter with The Other. Comments?

MQ: Yes, it is intended to refer to Said’s discussion of how Western Europe fabricated a discourse to define and dominate what it called the Orient. The result is that anything tagged “oriental” has no free subjectivity in western culture; and cannot speak to westerners through its own self-definition. Women are similarly exoticized and denied free subjectivity by patriarchal discourse. The filters or categories that we use to sense things determine what we see and hear. They cause silences like the one I address in Scriptorium between men and women. Bartleby is in a sense a figure of what is closed out; he cannot be heard in his own terms because the culture has eliminated those terms. All he can do is refuse the cultural imperatives.

Yet here was I looking at Chinese written characters, writing through them and about them, and I had grown up with a Caucasian father who romanticized oriental people and cultures. I wanted to acknowledge my potential complicity in Caucasian views of the foreign, the Chinese, and yet own the territory of my personal experience, so I filtered the title through another cultural layer, namely French, as though to say there are always distorting filters at work, no matter which way you come at it.

The Personal is the Political: and heart-breaking…

RS: How long have you been writing Scriptorium, the middle section in this book? The two essay-stories in this part of I, Bartleby sear us with intensity, with an immediacy of the personal that is also political. Might Scriptorium be an autobiography of, well, shall we say, M.Q.?

MQ: One answer might be I’ve been writing these pieces all my life. Yes, the two “Scriptorium” pieces contain a lot of autobiography. The first piece “If I, scrivener, print a letter” was originally titled “Pallets”; it grew out of a meditation on colours. The second piece “Scriptorium” – well, what can I say – it speaks for itself, and it’s good to know it has searing intensity; that’s what I wanted.

RS: The Father character reads to me like a personal-historical-political-saga of Canada, paradoxically and perhaps inevitably because of that story within a story: about the extraordinary 14th century Christine de Pizan. What first drew you to Christine?

MQ: Christine de Pizan was an outstanding 14th-15th century scholar and writer, who was court writer for several French dukes. Funnily enough, I think it was Christine Stewart whose interest in de Pizan (while she was writing her thesis on Lisa Robertson) sparked me to read her work, particularly her book on women building a city for themselves and creating knowledge and culture free of patriarchal oppression.

RS: Was it difficult/painful to enter into the narrative space necessary to write about your father and mother, and the school and work scenarios in the “Scriptorium” section …. through these scenes, Canada is glimpsed, petal by petal, unfolded. Interested in your response…

MQ: Difficult in the sense of standing naked in my naiveté and vulnerability, yes – that is difficult. It also demanded a lot of honesty and willingness to look at something that had been a closed subject in my life for years. But what led me to it was the realization that my father’s obsessive writing habits, and his enjoyment of poets like Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg had probably helped to make me a writer. So I had to ask myself how could I put the father I loved as a young child together with his belittling sexism to my mother and myself that led to my complete refusal of him?

RS: Thinking about your earlier works, how would you situate, I Bartleby in terms of genre and in terms of “an approach to writing”…for instance, in reading Michael Turner’s poetry and novels, I came to see his work as one extended long poem. And you reference, in “How to Write” that most erudite, urbane, and lovely of Canadian/American life-long poem’ers, Robin Blaser (as R)…would you be open to seeing all your works as one poem? With reference to the character “R,” how much/how little of “How to write” was “really what happened,” dare I ask?

MQ: I think it’s hard to see my novels as part of one long poem (I say novels because I’m almost finished my second one). Their method of sensemaking is quite different from what I associate with most poetry, which has to do with meter, rhyme, associative plays, ironic juxtapositions and often non-narrative structures which if you throw them into a novel drive readers nuts.

On the other hand, A Thousand Mornings, Matter, Vancouver Walking, and Nightmarker do coalesce as one long investigation of dwelling place – where I dwell in language, among writers, among species, among settlers/first nations, as urban or non-urban, as gendered, as middle-class – one long cartographic expedition.

“How to Write,” where R appears, is highly autobiographical. It concerns my week-long sojourn at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Colorado in 1996. I traveled there with Robin; I was in Rosmarie Waldrop’s workshop; and I met Norma Cole there as well. The piece is entirely based on detailed notes that I kept while there. It is the story of a woman taking the first crucial steps toward defining herself as a writer despite rather negative signals from her surroundings…

Stay tuned for Part 4, forthcoming next week. 

I, Bartleby is now available. Cover image featured with permission from Meredith Quartermain.

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