Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Michael Loveday’s fiction piece, Chewing Glass
John: This piece is very stylistically striking. I know that you work in both poetry and prose. How does your poetry influence your story work, and how do you view the relationship between the two disciplines?
Michael: For me the two clear ‘opposite’ disciplines are prose and verse (“Verse and prose are the real antonyms” (David Lehman)), and poetry is a quality that can be found in both prose and verse. I’m often secretly, or not so secretly, trying to write prose poems.
‘Chewing Glass’ I see as a sequence of short-short stories as much as a single short story (it’s an extract from three such sequences I’m finishing up, about three different characters, and one day I hope to publish them as a single book). But some parts of it I still think of as character-based prose poems in some ways, because the writing of them was image-led not character-led (though whether it ever really becomes ‘poetry’ is up to the reader).
That grey zone between a real prose poem (which is a poem) and short-short (which is a story) can get murky—take the work of Russel Edson, Louis Jenkins (who was my introduction to this field) or some of Tania Hershman’s work for example.
I did a prose poem course recently with the writer Carrie Etter (who writes both prose poems and short-short stories, and has an excellent blog on this area: http://suddenprose.blogspot.co.uk/) and she introduced us to an essay by Ron Wallace, called ‘Writers Try Short Shorts!’. Wallace makes a strong case for a short-short story needing some kind of narrative element of conflict, crisis, or epiphany at the centre. This is how the debate is often settled. But in fact, for me, my short-short stories are often quite focused on imagery and don’t proceed to a narrative conflict or ‘rising action’—they just establish character. I think it’s ok for a short-short story to be quite static narratively—if the language is agile there’s still a sense of movement. Meg Pokrass has said that if it’s character-driven it’s a short-short, if it’s language-driven it’s a prose poem. This is a definition I like, because it doesn’t demand the inclusion of an element of narrative crisis, and allows for character-based stories that are not driven by ‘event’. I’d say that even taken as a whole ‘Chewing Glass’ is driven by character, not event—although there’s an impression of conflict there’s less of the “and then, and then” work visible. What stops short-short stories becoming prose poems is just the degree to which they are perceived as language-driven.
I do approach verse poems (even free verse) much more warily than prose. There’s already an infinite set of problems just selecting vocabulary for prose. So once you start adding line breaks into the equation the problems somehow seem doubly infinite. Verse poems always seem to me so much more provisional. I’ve viewed lineation completely differently since I began to write prose poems—I think line breaks have to add meaning and have an integrity to justify it as verse. I think every poet should try writing prose poems—it’s transformative. I don’t know if every short story writer should try writing poetry. Maybe.
In the story, even as Martyn’s love life is a shambles, his painting seems to be going well. Do you believe that art arises out of suffering? Will we always be forced to choose between creativity and happiness?
To the first question, yes—maybe not exclusively, but wounds are certainly fertile territory. I suppose I believe in art as disturbance recollected in tranquillity—as opposed to just opening a vein and letting it bleed onto the page. Let’s leave that to journals! Even Plath, so often labelled a confessional poet, said she didn’t believe in… “cries from the heart informed by nothing except a needle or a knife. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences.”
I don’t think we need to choose between creativity and happiness. Creativity can be very therapeutic, and even though taking it seriously can be hard, frustrating work, it can still lead to healing in the form of a changed sense of identity, which can mean a kind of happiness. Creativity can itself lead to unhappiness, yes, but so can any form of work. The work needs to be kept in perspective. (If you find out how to do this properly, let me know).
At one point, Martyn muses that “with every relationship the miniature sculptor works with a hammer and chisel on the stone lump of your heart” and that “If you’re really lucky…a man survives well enough to be left in the end with something recognizable…”, which I found both lovely and frightening. Is it all just luck, or is there something else we can do to aim the miniature sculptor in the right direction?
I guess we could pray to her / him, if we’re spiritually inclined. Or just trust that it all works out in the long run. We don’t need our heart to be a work of art, do we. Just recognizable—to someone, even if it’s only one person, and even if that person isn’t a lover. In my own experience you can think the sculpting is finished—Look! I got a Michelangelo!—and then something new happens and someone hacks off a nose. Or worse.