Nicholson Baker has enjoyed one of the oddest careers as a writer in recent memory. Trained as a musician (a bassoonist!) and composer, he turned to writing in the ‘80s. His long short story, “Playing Trombone”, published in the Atlantic Monthly (March, 1982), was a brilliant, funny, and fantastical description of life in a symphony orchestra. His first novel, The Mezzanine, took place on an escalator, and his second, Room Temperature, was about a father’s thoughts while taking care of his baby. Both books were characterized by limpid prose and a jeweler’s eye for detail. These two short novels were followed by two now-notorious novels about sex, Vox and The Fermata, the former now infamous as a gift Monica Lewinsky is said to have given to her president.
Baker the crusader was revealed in Double Fold, a forceful attack on the way libraries have systematically destroyed printed matter, old newspapers in particular, replacing them, if at all, with microfiche. Perhaps most controversial were Human Smoke, an alternative history of the events leading up to WWII, which questioned the war’s necessity, and Checkpoint, a novel written in the Bush years that some held to be an “assassination fantasy”. Along the way, he’s written two other novels and a personal memoir, U and I, revealing his obsessive admiration of John Updike. Never one to repeat himself, Baker has now written The Anthologist, a tribute to poets and poetry in the form of a novel.
Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization
(Simon & Schuster (reprint); US: Mar 2009)
PopMatters: The most obvious question (to me) is, why didn’t you offer one of your own poems, perhaps a flying spoon poem, in the mix? Yes, Paul Chowder (the narrator of The Anthologist) is a poet of some renown and it might have seemed presumptuous, but you can’t have written such a knowledgeable book about poetry without having written some yourself.
Nicholson Baker: One night, while I was working on The Anthologist, I wrote maybe 20 poems in the voice of Paul Chowder, my hero, including several from his elusive “flying spoon” series. Had a great time. Honestly, though, the poems weren’t all that good—in fact some were embarrassing, and I felt he was doing better work sitting in his plastic chair and trying to explain to us how poetry works and why his whole career was superfluous. Plus I’ve noticed that when poets write well about their lives—say John Masefield, Karl Shapiro, W.S. Merwin, Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop—they don’t quote swatches of their poems.
PM: Any of your poems you’d like to offer in this interview?
NB: No. Okay, yes. In Paris when I was 20 I began a poem: “If I could fold up the sun in an omelet / What an omelet that would be.” I never finished it but I thought it had possibilities. Four beat lines, last beat a rest.
PM: I can’t imagine anyone in the current poetry world taking offense at the criticism offered in The Anthologist. (Even Billy Collins should be flattered that you called him a “charming chirping crack whore”.) The jabs you take at careerist poets and creative writing classes are almost on the sweet side. In other books you’ve been fearless about taking on controversy. Why so gentle here?
NB: Well, I like poets. I like the idea that someone is willing to choose to be a poet. Poets get no glory—neither do most sitcom writers—and they care a great deal about what they’re doing. When I criticize a person in writing, it’s usually someone who has destroyed a precious thing—for instance, an administrator at a library who decides that scrolls of plastic microphotographs should replace the bound original volumes of Pulitzer’s great newspaper, The World. Or Winston Churchill. In Human Smoke, I quote some maniacal things Churchill said because he is held up as the savior of the west and I think he made everything worse.
PM: Any stronger opinions about the current state of poetry that you’d like to offer?
NB: A novel is a good way to mull over something as huge and mixed as poetry—as chowderlike as poetry—because you can be inconclusive and inconsistent. I wouldn’t want to presume to say anything about the “state” of poetry. What do I know? I think we’re basically in fine shape. We’ve got loads of balladeers and rhymers—some of them write pop songs—and we’ve got people doing surprising, heart-jostling, writhingly lyrical things.
Poetry is like all art forms in that it’s inefficient. That’s why my hero, Paul, is so interested in anthologies. Out of the hundreds of thousands of poems published, only a handful are ones that people want to read over and over and sing to themselves. That’s always the way it’s been.
PM: What is it about the Bogan and Roethke love affair that got to you? One feels that there’s almost a whole book, or at least a long story, you could have written on the subject?
NB: Louise Bogan and Theodore Roethke had a lost liquorish weekend together and she wrote that it made her “bloom like a Persian rose bush”—I love that—and it helped her to write her best stanza, in “Roman Fountain”, which I liked so much that I had my narrator go up in the barn and set it to music. The loves and disasters and disappointments of the poets are important to Paul because he’s trying to figure out his own life. He tries to match himself up with other people he admires, the way we all do at one time or another. Roethke was crazy, and Louise Bogan had paralyzing depressions—what’s Paul got? Some minor finger injuries, and sadness because his girlfriend has left him.
PM: How do you account for Richard Ellmann’s including Karl Shapiro in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, if he excluded him for vengeful reasons from The New Oxford Book of English Verse?
NB: I don’t know anything about the history of that Norton collection. I just know, from Shapiro’s autobiography, that he felt as if he’d been X’d out of history when Ellmann cut him from the Oxford anthology. He said it was like dying. That feeling—that everything hinges on staying alive in anthologies—interested me.
PM: What was the impetus for this book? Was your research all recent, or have you been a student of poetry for years?
NB: I’ve gone through several surges of reading poetry. The first was in eighth grade. I began take notes for The Anthologist several years ago, sitting in a chair saying poems over to myself. Sometimes I got up and leapt around near the badminton net, chanting the lines. I felt I had some theories about meter and the sources of the urge for rhyme that I wanted to get down on paper, but I needed to have a character before I could really get rolling.
PM: You have a lot of fun in the book with non sequiturs. (I began to see them as “prose enjambments”.) And, more than a few times you write in the four beat line that you talk about as being at the heart of English poetry. Did I get it wrong earlier, and the book is, if not a poem itself, the Nicholson Baker version of one?
NB: Yes, that’s what I secretly hope sometimes: that the whole book is Paul Chowder’s best poem. I think it may be my best book, honestly, although you should never trust a writer’s assessment.
PM: The Anthologist is also a book about writer’s block. Is this something that afflicts you now and then?
NB: I have a bad time finishing things, especially introductions and reviews. And I’m a wasteful writer: I write hundreds of pages for every one that gets published. But I’ve never really bonded with the phrase “writer’s block”. It’s too heroic. When I don’t write it isn’t that I’m struggling like some muscular naked neoclassical Poseidon against a massive immovable granitic obstacle. There are no floodgates. It’s usually just that I don’t happen to have anything to say that day.
PM: Paul Chowder’s advice on how to be able to “achieve the presence of mind to write a poem” is to “ask myself: what was the very best moment of your day”? (Astonishingly good advice it seems to me.) Is that what you do to write fiction?
NB: Sometimes, yes. I like when books have tips and helpful snippets of knowledge in them. I’ve hoarded that one for years, and it seemed to be time to let it go, because I liked Paul and wanted him to teach a successful master class in Switzerland.
PM: How has your training as a musician affected your career as a writer?
NB: I spent most of high school listening to music and practicing the bassoon, riding my bike to one rehearsal or another. I really wanted to be a composer. For a long time my whole sense of intellectual history was anchored to what I knew about the history of music. I saw the triumph of dodecaphonic dogma and was amazed that only Samuel Barber and a few others were strong enough to keep writing tonal music.
One important thing I learned from music, and from philospher Michael Polanyi, is how much of knowledge is unsayable—you can know a lot about a harmonic sequence without being able to put any of it down in words. You can know just where it’s going without having any terminology from music theory at your fingertips.
PM: Can you share any thoughts on the passing of John Updike in light of your memoir about him, U and I?
NB: He was a prince of a man and an effortless stylist and a teller of truths, especially in some of the essays in Self Consciousness. Once after U and I came out he sent me one of his novels with an inscription. “To Nicholson Baker, who made me famous.” I miss him and I’m very sad he’s gone—that’s all.
PM: Your books have the appearance at least of coming more from direct experience than those of your peers. In fact, they seem to arise from a passion (or obsession?) you seem to be experiencing at that moment—sex in Vox and The Fermata, political anger in Checkpoint and Human Smoke, anger at the effect of technology on libraries. Is this really the case? Do you need this in order to write?
NB: Things pull at you. You want to celebrate them or grieve over them. My wife says that I’m the least obsessive person she knows. I’m easily distracted—I put things off, I dither around, I’m messy. The usual.
But when I finally get close to getting something done, I want it to be thorough. In other words, if it’s going to be about a lunch hour, well then, really look around and find what’s interesting in that lunch hour. Where do the moving objects shine? If it’s going to be about phone sex, okay, then make the whole book a single conversation. It’s never a good idea to write out of anger. Love, yes, gratitude, yes, grief, yes—anger no. Double Fold, Checkpoint, and Human Smoke were written out of grief.
PM In light of your now notorious distaste for George Bush, expressed in Checkpoint, what’s your take on President Obama?
NB: First, I think I’m right in saying that neither of the characters in Checkpoint, Ben and Jay, hate George Bush. At least they talk sympathetically about him at the end. Sometimes I wish I never wrote that book because people who haven’t read it tout it as an assassination fantasy. It’s a conversation between two people, one of whom successfully talks the other one out of a proposed act of violence. The book is an argument against deadly force, not for it. It turns the justification for the Iraq war upside down. Does killing anyone—Saddam’s sons, say—ever get us closer to peaceableness? No, really not.
As for President Obama: I wish he would get out of Afghanistan entirely, immediately, and close all the bases in Iraq, and free the detainees, who are held without legal justification. Those actions are so much more important morally than horse-trading over a domestic health plan that forces people to pay money to insurance companies.
PM: Why is it that funny books of fiction about sex are so rare?
NB: Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is brilliant and funny. I don’t know. My strangest book is probably The Fermata, about a man who stops time. When it came out, some people thought it was funny and some people thought it was wrong and bad and that something unfortunate must have happened to me. This was 1994. Time stoppage was an adolescent fantasy of mine. I figured, be true to the basic toggle-switch idea and have the character have to invent rules and limits to his fermata behavior. He takes off women’s clothes but he thinks it’s okay because he does so lovingly.
PM: Your fiction is full of incredible insights about things most people overlook. You help us see the connections between things. I’m curious to know if these insights are something you have to work hard to arrive at, or do they flood in on you all the time with the best of them ending up in your work? In other words, do these insights enrich your life as much as your work?
NB: Thank you—I think I amble along and have the thoughts everyone has. I just take the time to activate the inner amenuensis and write them down. In the writing I learn more about what I’ve got—I go down the staff corridors a little further. Then I let the notes sit around for several years, or sometimes decades, and look at them and see if any of what I’ve got is of interest. Most of it isn’t, but some seems to be asking for a setting.
For instance, my theory about bad dreams and the need to go pee: I saved it for years, till I finally got it safely into A Box of Matches. It’s a great relief when I publish the thought, finally. Then one day I’ll have it again and think Aha, a thought! Followed immediately by the disappointment that I can’t write it down again. It’s gone, it’s un-write-downable, I’ve already sent it down the aisle.