Saturday, August 25, 2018

Q&A with Mary Cappello, James Morrison, and Jean Walton

Mary Cappello
Mary Cappello, James Morrison, and Jean Walton are the authors of the new book Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration. They first met in the 1980s as graduate students in SUNY/Buffalo's English department. Cappello and Walton both teach at the University of Rhode Island, and Morrison teaches at Claremont McKenna College.

Q: How did the three of you decide to work together on Buffalo Trace?

A: Buffalo Trace consists of three longform essays--one each by James, Jean, and Mary. We came to know each other in the ‘80s at SUNY/Buffalo’s famous English Department, known then as a cauldron of deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and experimental poetics.  

The essays tell our very different “stories”; but more than that, they sketch out the intellectual contexts of our coming into queer adulthood.

Mary led the way with her essay, written after our last trip to Buffalo, to visit her former professor Marty Pops during the last days of his life.

The fact that all of us had converged on Buffalo, then and now, and had our own very different yet interlocking stories to tell based on that very particular time and place in our lives as young, gay readers and writers eventually inspired all of us to enter into an experiment of writing our own long form meditations. We soon began to realize there was a book in this.

Perhaps our book could contribute to a tradition of tripartite books to emerge from a queer sensibility from Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives to David Plante’s Difficult Women, to Hilton Als’ The Women to Roland Barthes’ Sade, Fourier, Loyola. Our contribution  is “A Threefold Vibration.”

Q: Did you share your work with one another as you wrote, and do you see common themes running through the three essays?

A: Mary’s piece came first, so Jean and Jim had it as a touchstone while working on theirs. We set a goal of roughly 100 pages, each shaping the writing in the way that seemed most true to our own experiences and reflections.

To seal the pact, we’d shared a toast from a bottle of Buffalo Trace bourbon, so the title – with its suggestion of the “traces” Buffalo left on us – virtually proposed itself.

When all the essays were done, we gathered to read them one sunny California afternoon and discovered a surprising surfeit of micro-echoes and little ripples of affinity across the three pieces that we thought would make them work together as a collection in an almost musical, polyphonic way.

Among other things, these reverberations had to do with discovering exciting, dynamic, world-revealing ideas in the state university’s English department while, at the same time, viewing Buffalo itself as something like a caricature of an American city, ugly and unexpectedly beautiful in equal measure.

This tension has a lot to do with how the book treats the twinned themes of coming into queerness in the 1980s and being initiated into the “Life of the Mind” – a phrase that always required scare-quotes in that particular location, however momentous the ideas.

James Morrison
One thing we noticed right away – and will have to wait for someone else to diagnose – is the fact that each of us references Nabokov’s Lolita in some significant way.

Among the other recurrent themes are the limits of expression, the gender of ambition, secrecy, eroticism, academic time, and snow.

We also each inadvertently created portraits of one another, then and now. How did we appear to and for each other 30 years ago, and who are we in this refracted mirror of three long form essays now? We think it’s an experiment worth pursuing for any relationship.

Q: What impact did your years in Buffalo have on you?

Jim: After 22 years in Detroit, moving to Buffalo might have seemed like a lateral move at best. But for me, moving there was as good as roving abroad for one of Henry James’s proverbial innocents.

It opened up the world to me in a very particular way – I could never forget that I was still stranded in the provinces, but I felt in contact with galaxies of thought and being I would never have found at home.

I knew there was still a whole world left to see, but had also learned that the so-called provinces only looked marginal to those whose cosmopolitan inclinations were still too complacent, who had not yet discovered that every corner of the world is a place of its own, and one to be reckoned with.

Jean: There was no one impact—it was a cumulative effect, I would say. I went in to grad school with a very naïve idea of what it entailed, and yet, after my “gap year” working at office jobs after my undergrad degree, I felt very much at home in Buffalo’s program, like I had “come home” as it were.

Then again, even though it was clear that I was not cut out for anything but a life of the mind, my eight years there (it took me that long to finish the degree) were fraught with doubt almost the whole time.

I’d say that the graduate program there was capacious enough, and sort of “free-wheeling” enough that it allowed people like me to “find myself” as an intellectual, without feeling that I had to become someone’s disciple.

Jean Walton
In fact, in comparing my own essay with Jim’s and Mary’s, I’m struck by how much I come across as embattled with my professors, seeking always to define myself “against” even as I was learning so much from them.

Mary: I think of Buffalo as the city that tutored me in the importance of interiors and interiority, and SUNY/Buffalo’s English Department as the place where I came to know the extreme pleasure of thinking, not just alone and on one’s own, but with others—the relationship between thinking and sociality.

The place was a cauldron of new ideas, and it was dedicated to a kind of radical originality, a quirkiness that helped me feel validated in my own odd turns of thought and imagination.

No two professors in Buffalo’s English department thought alike, which might seem like an obvious thing to say, but it was very much the case that the professors I had the privilege to learn from were not much interested in orthodoxy, so even if a seminar represented a shared, new vanguard, which might seem, on the surface, predictable, what happened in these seminars never was.

As a graduate student, I was car-less, and getting to know the city by bus and by foot forged a kind of circuit of desire that is hard to put into words.

It had to do with traversing snow-covered tundra – and the quietude of that – but also the working class cast of the cityscape, which resonated with my own origins in a working-class town in Pennsylvania and which yet was quite distinct from it.

The transit from one small room to another small room where something of great moment was unfolding but for which one had no name. That’s it. Buffalo and the department were the place where I met James Morrison and Jean Walton, life-changers, forever. With both of them, I experienced “love at first sight.”

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: Buffalo Trace is intended in the first instance as a tribute to many great teachers and thinkers. We hope that readers are borne along by the prose of our thinking, that there is a pleasure of the text for them, regardless of what they “take away” in terms of a message or a learning experience.

That’s what we look for in the books we seek out ourselves – a prose style that does any of a number of things: challenge, nourish, revive faith that creative facility with language DOES make a difference, even though so much of what we are immersed in at present seems indifferent to how language sounds, or to the absolutely inimitable environment a book, a really well-written book, can create for us.

Where “content” is concerned, we hope that the book can bring readers to a very specific time and place, UB’s English graduate program in the `80s, where education, and an emergent “sexuality” (for each of us) took a shape that was very specific to that particular historical moment.

One of Mary’s favorite texts is an interview that the French philosopher Michel Foucault carried out in which he proposes that homosexuality’s real threat to the social order has to do with the new forms of friendship it makes possible.

We hope that readers experience an uncommon kinship in the book not just between the three of us, but between themselves and us or the stories that we bring to the page in these essays.

We want readers to experience what the reading of literature always holds out for us—new forms of thought, new ways of imagining how to be in the world.

But we also hope that readers will be led to ask for more interesting things from publishers, along the order of the experimental, the poly-vocal, even books that get beyond the cult of the author.

Q: What are you working on now?

Jim: I am working on a collection of stories and novellas called Late Start, all about characters engaged in belated enterprises, most of them comically misbegotten; or characters starting over in life, a process that is inherently ridiculous but still potentially redemptive.

I’m also working on a triptych of essays on, respectively, failures, renunciations, and prohibitions, called Couldn’t Wouldn’t Shouldn’t – a project given new life, recently, by Trump’s “would/wouldn’t” kerfuffle.

Jean:  I’m in the final stages of two other book projects: Mudflat Dreaming: Waterfront Battles and the Squatters Who Fought Them in 1970s Vancouver is on its way out this fall with Vancouver’s New Star Books—a really great independent literary press.

A place-based crossover book, it is a kind of bittersweet “love song” to the Vancouver of my youth, but also a portrait of the city that anticipates its calamitous current housing situation.  

And I’m in the final revisions of Dissident Gut, a scholarly feminist book (under contract with Duke UP) set in early 20th century Britain and Europe. It’s about how hysterics and suffragettes expressed the desire to resist and change the social order through their bodies.

Mary: I’m working on a book-length essay along the order of one of my other books, Awkward: A Detour, but this time with a focus on dormancy, on all that sleeps and what stirs something to wake, psychologically, physiologically, and culturally/socially.

I’m also working slowly on a collection of short form prose pieces that I am calling “studies” or literary études inspired by what feels like a diminishing ability to study anything at all in the digital age.

Meanwhile, I just finished composing a long form essay on the subject of intimacy between strangers, and am curating a collection of e-mails from my mother, Rosemary Petracca Cappello, for Ninth Letter, called “The Dearest Mary Project.”

Q: Anything else we should know?

Buffalo Trace launches on Sept. 1 (prior to the Sept. 4 release) with an '80s dance party in Providence, R. I. Any prospective reader is invited!

A reading in Buffalo follows on Sept. 28 at the legendary arts venue Hallwalls, co-sponsored by the great Talking Leaves Bookstore.

Later that weekend we’ll appear at the following NYC venues:
Sunday, Sept. 30 at 4 pm.
(208 W. 13th St., NY, NY 10011)

And The Red Room at the KGB Bar, Monday, Oct. 1 from 7-9 pm.
(85 E. 4th St., NY, NY 10003)

We’re generous listeners, readers, and discussants who would be happy to come talk to your group or class or community about writing, reading, and learning. Please feel free to contact us, or to look for other future events around the book on our author websites.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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