JACK WILLIAMS interviews RICHARD MAKIN, author of MOURNING (EQUUS PRESS, 2015)
JW: Mourning follows your previous novel, Dwelling. Given the experimental evasion of linearity and plot, how may we view the relationship between Mourning and Dwelling?
RM: There are themes that recur throughouts Dwelling and Mourning, the persistence of obsession, even sequences that are repeated in both books. Likewise the first of the trio, Work, which I’m currently revising.
Mourning is considerably shorter than Dwelling. Was there stylistic reasoning for this change in length? If so, what is the significance of this?
There’s no stylistic reason for the shorter length of Mourning, though it’s nonetheless a substantial text. Work is about the same length, so the trio balances, peaks at the zigzag centre of Dwelling.
The experimental direction of Mourning makes extrapolating personal references a challenge. How far do you consider your use of language and metaphor a reflection of your own personal experiences?
Everything in Mourning is drawn from my own personal experience; I don’t see how this can be otherwise – from lifelong memories or existing texts, film, dreams and other media. The recollections interwoven throughout Mourning are deeply embedded, they remain anonymous, untraceable to the reader (unless one happened to be a witness, and could remember). I’d like to feel that something universal and everyday is being evoked, which could turn a nerve in anyone. I called the trilogy Work, Dwelling, Mourning because I feel this covers just about everything I can think of. Personal experience seems to have no boundaries, everything encountered being harboured therein. I can’t imagine or foresee a non-personal experience.
As plants were one of the persistent themes, several times during my read-through I found myself looking up various obscure flowers. Personally, I read this theme in relation to the process of giving flowers to the dead, but I’m interested to know what, in the context of Mourning, do flowers mean to you?
There are references to many types of flowers in Mourning because I love the lexicon of botany, among many other scientific disciplines: there are numerous references to mineralogy, human anatomy, the periodic table, meteorology etc. I began with my own unfathomable attraction to certain words, allowing them to leach into the surrounding text as they deemed fit. The outcome is neither a species of realism or abstraction – I think of it as a writing that is concrete, and intended to work directly on the nervous system, bypassing interpretation. But yes, flowers for the dead, I hadn’t thought of that: ‘semée of crosses of lilies…’ I refer to Ranunculus somewhere in the book too, the buttercup. I read recently that references to such flowers are being removed from children’s dictionaries as deemed irrelevant to contemporary life.
Your tendency to bend language is fascinating, notably with terms such as “moondoggling” and “circumzenithal”. What role do you consider this propensity to create and reformat words plays in Mourning?
While I do create and ‘reformat’ words, ‘moondoggling’ and ‘circumzenithal’ are not my own inventions. The former is defined by the OED as ‘useless exploration of the moon that is wasteful of time and money’, the latter ‘around or about the zenith’. I envisage such words as spores, emplanting them into the text to see how and what they can germinate. I wrote a book called Forword in the 1990s which was composed almost entirely of invented words (though its grammatical structure was English). This was published through a series of pamphlets as Forword, Universlipre (both Equipage Press, Cambridge) and Too Mouth For Word (Historical Research Ltd). This tendency to ‘bend language’ persists, but doesn’t preoccupy me to the extent that it has in earlier work. Neologisms in Mourning are few, actually, with rare or archaic words often standing in for them, by accident as it were, an undercover obscurity. Such invented expressions that there are would include ‘shoplifers’ and ‘dinner jackals’. I can’t think of any more.
You use brackets throughout, each time pulling the reader out of a metaphor and seemingly addressing them directly. As an editor I initially thought the notes were directions for me, as they often read as self-reflexive instruction. What did the use of brackets symbolise to you? And who were these lines addressing?
There is a sense in which the lines in parentheses are addressing the reader directly, personally, one-to-one. They could be a distant relative of stage directions in drama, or an editor’s remarks to herself and/or an author, while reading through a manuscript – certainly some form of aside, the interjecting voice of another. Bracketed words seem to release tension, changing tack when a change of tack is needed. I don’t feel that they ‘symbolize’ in any way (for me nothing does, things are what they are – I don’t understand symbolism). Ken Edwards observed that my parenthesized ‘waspish comments’ act in counterpoint to gravity, which also seemed apt. Some of these sequences contain attempts at humour, others quarantined irony. They cause the text to change direction quite suddenly, shooting off at a tangent. Many are non sequiturs that have little or no obvious connection to their surroundings. I think these bracketed lines were addressing the author too as he wrote (something along the lines of ‘note to self’). Anne Carson is in accordance when she says ‘Brackets are exciting’. When I use them I feel I’m doing something illicit, in a whispered aside. I’m trying to think around myself, different voices in the head.
Mourning flows almost as one continuous thought, drifting through abstract notions, broken only by chapter headings. How far would you consider Mourning a stream of consciousness?
I don’t consider Mourning to be ‘stream of consciousness’ writing at all, if this is understood as a manner of composition whereby barely conscious thoughts are set down in a more or less unpunctuated flow by the writer, with minimal reflection thereafter. By contrast, Mourning, as with all my work, doesn’t manifest one continuous thought, it encompasses numerous (unnamed) voices. Furthermore, as well as its thirty-three chapters, the book is interrupted by line breaks, often followed by sections that open with italicized subheadings, and is frequently punctuated by the centred labial sign ( ). The text underwent countless revisions – rereadings and rewritings – tireless editing over time. In short, it’s a rigorously considered fiction, to the point of obsession, with great care taken to craft every sentence, in contrast to the unedited acceptance of the first or early draft that ‘stream of consciousness’ suggests. I do find it frustrating that the forms of experimental writing that I and others pursue – this milieu of demolition experts – can only be referenced by the notion ‘stream of consciousness’, and thereafter safely archived under that rubric. The point is that such writing, by its very nature, resists any given genre. (Can this resistance not be contained by an appropriate classification?) Even expressions such as ‘non-narrative’, ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde’ seem to fall short, being partial, or conjuring modernist literatures which, while of indisputable significance, are not necessarily useful signposts when attempting to pin a moniker to current seditious output. We could simply (and stubbornly) call it ‘writing’ or ‘fiction’. So, something else is happening here – Mourning feels more like a storm of consciousness.
Writing experimental prose is an intensely personal process. What was your creative approach with Mourning, and did this process differ from your previous works?
I suspect the composition of any creative prose is an intensely personal process. In making Mourning, the strategies were similar to previous works, in that I began with material culled from notebooks I carry with me, gradually expanding this material over time. Unsurprisingly, I don’t work in a linear fashion – the approach is neural and aleatory, drifting about the pages while in progress, grafting disparate sections together. Larger structures such as chapter order and the position of chapter breaks were altered on occasion, including quite late on in the life of the manuscript. Composition is intuitive; the writing is one continuous accident, a rumoured presence. Hard copy drafts must be read aloud from the music stand. These readings aloud are multiple, and doubtless way beyond what other writers might consider a tolerably sane practice. The text is built of fragments from such extensive sources that I can only begin to list; as I say above, all are drawn from personal experience, as I can’t see where else there is to draw from. These roots include anecdotal detail (experienced/observed/related); dream material (my own and that of others); eavesdroppage; samples from radio, film, lyrics etc.; mangled dictionary definitions; and unacknowledged, often skewed and deeply interred citations, or citations grafted together to form hybrids.
Mourning is the final chapter in a trilogy. Does this mean it concludes your experimental works of this nature? Or do you plan to continue writing in this vein?
Mourning is the last novel in a trilogy, but this does not conclude my composition of works of this nature; I continue to write in this way. My experimental approach isn’t a stylistic affectation I can shed and then shift my attention to another mode – it’s simply how I do things, an attempt to draw structures from being here that seem more resonant than those I have inherited, and invariably struggled against.