December 16, 2012      

An Interview With Richard Froude by Neelanjana Banerjee

froude-coverRichard Froude was born in London in 1979, grew up in Bristol and came to the US in 2002. He has since lived in Boulder, CO, Los Angeles, CA, Portland, OR, and currently Denver, CO. He is the author of FABRIC (Horse Less Press, 2011) and The Passenger (Skylight Press, 2012) – and a book of translation – Tarnished Mirrors: Translations of Charles Baudelaire (Muffled Cry Editions, 2004). His writing has also appeared in print and online at Conjunctions, Witness, Tarpaulin Sky, Diagram, Bombay Gin and elsewhere. With Anne Waldman and Erik Anderson, he compiles and edits the mail-art journal Thuggery & Grace. He is the recipient of the 2004 Ted Berrigan Award from Naropa University and the 2010/11 Evan Frankel Fellowship from the University of Denver. An associate of the Arts and Humanities in Healthcare program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, he works with palliative care and hospice patients.

I first met Richard Froude, author of Fabric (Horse Less Press, 2011) and The Passenger (Skylight Press, 2012), at The Dovre Club in San Francisco in 2004. It was one of those semi-epic nights where we drank and talked until dawn about nothing of importance. A few months later I heard him read poems from his series “The Margaret Thatcher Trilogy” at Naropa University, where he was getting his MFA at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. His poetry was arresting; it seemed to draw sharp-edged diagrams in the room. It was the kind of writing that makes you reconsider the writer, but that also makes you reconsider yourself. The poems begin with the line: “When I was younger, I had dreams about Margaret Thatcher,” and go on to include cobblestones, skyscrapers, refrigerators, fire extinguishers, and Richard Nixon. In the third section of these poems, Froude writes: “We are gathering language and letting it go.”

In Fabric, he continues the excavation, the careful decomposition, of language and identity that he had been writing about so many years ago. He writes: “This is my affair with language.” This “affair” makes both of Froude’s books exquisitely beautiful, but more than that, it makes them endlessly re-readable. While The Passenger features shorter sections with characters continually shedding their identities and moving through time and mathematically-poetic structures; Fabric encompasses Froude’s global identities (he was born and brought up in Bristol, England), those of his ancestors and heroes like Jackie Robinson, and then tries to get at the identity of death itself.

After receiving his PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Denver last year, Froude continues to follow the thread of language, this time into the world of science. It took him many months to answer my questions about movement, identity, and immigrant literature in-between Physics classes, MCAT review and a job interviewing uninsured cancer patients.

Neelanjana Banerjee: I understand classical North Indian musical only slightly, but there is a movement in the raga that I find similar to your work. The alap—or opening movement—say, in a concert with a sarode player and a tabla player, begins with the sarode player plucking out the notes that will define the tone of the raga, then the tabla player comes in and the two musicians develop the melody and rhythm further, finally building into a crescendo of tone and notes and adrenaline. Your writing also seeds images and tone in this way, a slow build up, and then everything fits together. In Fabric, this movement is slower, the different sections build on each other and questions of death and identity seem to be at the heart of the matter, whereas in The Passenger, especially in “The Margaret Thatcher Trilogy”, it is more manic; more of a literary game. Can you comment about the movement and pacing of your work, and how and when you developed these structures?

330548-naropacataRichard Froude: It started with the short piece “Practical Math” that begins both the Margaret Thatcher Trilogy (MTT) and the book The Passenger. What was important to me was movement, maybe pace itself as opposed to pacing. And that pace manifested in how urgently I wanted to say what I had to say but with no idea how to say it. I was being told by everyone that I needed a voice—I mean, no shit—but it sounded so pretentious, capital L Literary, and most frustratingly, so baffling and unattainable. But if I look back on everything I have written, and if I truly have my own authentic voice (or perhaps, in a less self-congratulory manner, a structure I am drawn to), then “Practical Math” was the piece with which it emerged.

So manic is right. I was 24 when I wrote it. It’s hard now to think of what influenced it to emerge. There was a piece by Stacy Elaine Dacheux called “Album” in Bombay Gin 29 that felt very important to me. It described photographs, images of her mother placed into different contexts, and it felt urgent. I was hanging out with Stacy a lot at that time. We talked a lot about writing, and it was with her that I really began to develop my first ideas about what it was I wanted to do with writing.

I think the parallels you draw with the raga, although unknown to me, are entirely valid. I have always tended to first let the obsessions of the text emerge—the materials from which the text will be made, the particular centers of energy. Then I let them interact. Then I pull them together. Like walking around a city and picking up the things I am intuitively drawn to, coming home and emptying the bag onto the kitchen table to see where everything will land, then trying to find an order there, a way everything can exist together. Intuition, followed by entropy, followed by intention. I only very recently learned that the word cosmos means order, the deep interconnectedness of all things. When I found out I wrote it down in three different notebooks, my day planner, and I am writing it again here. The deep interconnectedness of all things.

I think the permission to use such pace, such compression came from Richard Brautigan. At the time a few folks assumed this came directly from Jack Spicer but I hadn’t read Spicer, and didn’t until after MTT and Zero (now together, The Passenger) were completed. I think it was actually after most of FABRIC was done too. Initially, I wanted nothing to do with reading Spicer because I was so afraid of finding that my “authentic voice” was actually somebody else’s that had passed to me through reading his influence in Brautigan. Then I decided to stop being such a pussy and I read everything I could by Spicer, everything about him. I did it so I could kill him in my own writing. That was my intention at least: to understand why this connection was made, and to distance myself from it. I don’t know why I was so intent on this distance. Spicer is a genius. And I should be grateful for any connection anybody could make between his work and mine. But it was a kind of will toward originality. Originality? That what I was doing, and what I continue to do, be my own. How could I authentically stand behind my work as my own if I had never read Spicer? I think of that T-shirt Axl Rose wore for the Freddie Mercury concert in what, 1991? 1992? A fluorescent green picture of Jesus Christ with “Kill Your Idols” in black. Jack Spicer was not, directly, my idol, but I still wanted to kill him.

“The History of Zero” (the second part of The Passenger) was written a few years after MTT and was an attempt to take this earlier structure and use it to investigate larger questions of language, the world, and my place in it. I think it’s problematic in many ways. But it is what it is. And I didn’t feel like it could be altered without compromising the urgency (or authenticity) of how it became itself. That would be terrible advice to give anyone. But not this: I feel that you have to write through everything to get to the book, the last book, the book that will end your writing, end everything, the book that of course will never arrive, that you will never write. But you have to write toward it! You have no choice. And the pathway to that tantalizing book will be your collected works, all of the movement and silence of your thought in language. And “The History of Zero” is a major part of that early thought for me.

“Movement and Silence” was in fact an interim title for FABRIC. The subtitle of FABRIC is Preludes to the Last American Book. I did not anticipate becoming an American. I wanted to write a book that was the expression of my situation in the world, that worked toward the impossible book. The urgency was very much still there in the writing, but I was another few years older. I was more patient.

Neelanjana Banerjee: In both Fabric and The Passenger, your position as an immigrant—as a new arrival, as an outsider, as one who is looking back to homeland—is at play in the text: “What is known as the American Dream is a reduction.” Do you consider your work immigrant literature? Why is geography so important in your work?

Richard Froude: Maybe. But if so, not in any way that I feel like I can speak to any immigrant’s experience but my own. My immigration is a privileged immigration, not one of necessity, or of oppression in my origin or destination. Perhaps I can speak to the experiences of other white men with these similar privileges. We can call it immigrant literature in the sense that I am an immigrant and I wrote it. It deals with my experience, and unpacks it, and that is an experience of immigration, but more so my experience of displacement.

Displacement is important to me because it is an immediate fact of my existence, and to various extents, a fact of every existence. It changes the way we perceive things. As much as I love my life here, I came from somewhere else, and I miss it a lot: that culture with its subtle differences that snowball, my family, old friends. But this is not a displacement that can be claimed only by immigrants. That is, it is not only a displacement in space but also in time. Even if the space were closed, there would be the insurmountable obstacle of time. Thomas Wolfe was right, and Steinbeck knew it as he sat at the bar in Salinas in Travels With Charley: you can’t go home again. For me, this has been made more acute by immigration but immigration is not the sole origin.

Time, for now, aside, political geography is important because it is the framework (the mesh) on which my displacement in space has occurred. Physical geography carries the markers of this displacement. The American landscape and its contrast to the Westcountry where I came from: this is the melody of my life for the last decade, the motif that, as you say, builds into a crescendo of tone and notes and adrenaline.

Neelanjana Banerjee: Along with mapping Fabric across America and England, the book is also very concerned with death: trying to locate it, trying to understand ways to talk about it. Tell me about the movement towards writing about death and how, if, it relates with your interests outside of writing.

Richard Froude: I didn’t consciously decide to write about death. Nor did I consciously choose to engage any of the stoner-philosophy-major questions that I have ended up writing a lot about. It just worked out that way. I found that whatever I was writing about, it would come back to these questions. I suppose they were preoccupations. The brute fact of death is terrifying and it is energizing. There are two things that are definitely going to happen to everyone that has ever existed. One is that you were born. The other is that you will die. Negotiations with the latter make up a huge part of what we call culture, whether they be as engagement or avoidance. The questions become subjects of ridicule because the only answers we can provide are exactly that, ridiculous. But, I don’t see that as any reason to stop asking them. It just means that we shouldn’t presume that we’ll be able to provide answers. To further open the questions, to dwell more readily in bewilderment, these are to me more powerful motivations than a will to closure. It seems so obvious this way. Open vs closed. Art is the teacher of this bewilderment, or at least, this is how I want to think of art. Science, in turn, takes it on. And what is common to both is this persistent aperture, this sense of wonder before the question, the knowledge that what we believe we may know may be suddenly blown apart. This possibility is not death but another life. So I think, perhaps, this is why I have come to write about death.

ThePassenger cover visualNeelanjana Banerjee: Fabric is full of alter-egos: Alfred, Jackie Robinson, Gretl, Marjorie—building on a dreamscape, where you, Richard, might appear to me in a dream as Scott Baio. Tell me about this use of people as your characters; stand-ins; alter-egos.

Richard Froude: Again beginning with “Practical Math,” I became interested in what could happen when a name is shaken loose of its context. When dislodged, the social heft—the name’s various associations and attachments—can reattach elsewhere, bringing those associations to new scenery. The dislodged name, ripe with association, is an extremely reactive species. As a reader, I want very much to fit this name into the new context in which it has arrived. The result is an enrichment, an alteration of that new context and of the name itself. To make something new from points of entry that were already known, this is initially what I found exciting, but it also gave me the opportunity to have intimate relationships with these characters, or maybe more accurately, their names or public personas. After all, it was there that my obsessions alighted. I have never known Jackie Robinson, but I feel very well acquainted with the idea of him.

All of this is less true for characters that do not already have a popular association (such as Marjorie and Alfred in FABRIC). I want to think of it in terms of a different Scott: not Scott Baio, but Scott Bakula. More specifically, in terms of Scott Bakula’s greatest role: Dr. Sam Beckett of the NBC Series Quantum Leap (1989-93). At base level, Quantum Leap is the reason I moved to America. But this is a different story. What is important here is the idea of a singular consciousness (the author, here Richard Froude, there Sam Beckett) moving through plural representations. On car or bus journeys when I was younger, I used to close my eyes then when I opened them I would pretend I was someone else. And I would try to reason who that person could be based on the evidence of my surroundings, just like how Sam Beckett would do at the beginning of every episode of Quantum Leap. Maybe I was a weird kid.

But Marjorie and Alfred are not so much alter egos for the author as they are places where my emotions collect: a method of organizing the text. This is similar to how Gass addresses character in “The Concept of Character in Fiction.” The character becomes a compartment of my feelings toward a particular person, group, attribute. For example, Alfred represented my grandfathers, my great grandfather who was killed at the Somme (and whose name was actually Alfred), the idea that some people have to fight wars when I get to sit on my ass and write poems, etc. Quantum Leap illustrated to me very early on how a singular character could occupy plural representations. I loved this about it. As I loved it in Fight Club, then later with greater subtlety and sophistication in Orlando, then I tried to see it everywhere. Even Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: I tried to watch the movie with both Ferris and Cameron as aspects of the same persona. I even wrote an article about it for a film zine in LA (Nathan Jr.) back in 2005. Then it came to my attention a few weeks ago that people know about this Ferris Bueller/Fight Club theory. Somebody even made a fake movie trailer for it. Seriously, put “fight club ferris bueller” into Google. It’s everywhere. It’s mostly attributed to some guy on a message board in April 2009 who admits it wasn’t his idea. I have the copy of the magazine from 2005 where I first wrote up the theory. I learned it as a 12 year old watching Quantum Leap, and it’s been part of pretty much everything I have written since then.

Neelanjana Banerjee: You’ve been studying for many years, poetry and literature for much of the last ten years, and now you’re engaging in a new way of looking at the world: science. In a way, you seem to have built this transition to science on a pathway of language. Does the future look bright?

Richard Froude: I spent six of the last ten years formally studying writing and literature. Four of those years I was getting paid to do it and the stipend represented the lion’s share of our income. It was kind of a dream job. I didn’t know what I wanted to “do with my life” other than I knew there was a lot I wanted to read and a lot I wanted to write. There still is, and in that respect it was the perfect situation. For about six to nine months I seriously thought of my future as in an English department somewhere, but it felt like I maybe I had backed myself into that decision, like it had been made by default. And I realized that maybe I didn’t want that. Now I don’t think it’s as flat as I just didn’t want it. It’s more that I wanted something else as well.

The answer to the question is definitely yes. I am energized by the idea of the future in a way that I don’t think I have ever been before. But I don’t know what I want to say about this because I am completely in the middle of it. I officially graduated with a PhD in English/Creative Writing on the first Friday in June 2011. The following Monday I went to my first chemistry class in 16 years. Next spring (2013) I’ll have finished all the prerequisite classes (plus a few extras and the MCAT) and I’ll apply to medical school. Tomorrow morning I am going to physics class at 8 a.m., I’ll be in the lab through the afternoon, then in the evening I’ll teach an Advanced Memoir class where we’re reading Jenny Boully’s The Body. Then the next morning I go to Human Physiology. (Still the body.) At my other job I interview underinsured cancer patients about the things in their life that mean the most to them. Our research team is trying to measure the positive effects this might have alleviating anxieties, facilitating acceptance of illness. I like to think of it—even in the face of mortality—as the possibility that telling stories might save your life. I don’t mean keep you alive here. I mean it might save your life.

Neelanjana Banerjee’s work has appeared in Nimrod, PANK, The Rumpus, The Literary Review, World Literature Today and other places. She is the co-editor of Indivisible: An Anthology of South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2010). She received her MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University in 2007. She works with Kaya Press, and teaches creative writing in Los Angeles continuation high schools.

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