An Interview with Peggy Friedmann and Ruthann Robson
From PARTI-COLORED BLOCKS FOR A QUILT
(University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI)
You’ve published a number of novels and many, many poems. What is the difference between writing poetry and writing prose?
In one the lines stop sooner. (Laughter.)
Poetry is more intense, more concentrated. It is more of a continuum of itself, except for Breaking Camp, [first volume of poetry] where some of the poems are to me very clearly apprentice work; overly literary, overly experimental, overly artsy. But even with a fair number of poems from that book, to me it is one continuity. I’ve improved. I’ve learned to do things, I’ve been able to grasp more, but it is all of a piece; the voice is somehow that same voice.
Whereas every novel is microcosm. It is a little world I create, live in, and depart. Each novel is a new world that presents new stylistic requirements, new things I have to learn – it is a self-enclosed thing. It is like, I guess, some small time construction people who build the house that they live in and then they sell the house out from under themselves and then they move on – there are people on Cape cod like that – and they keep moving their families into other houses. In a way a novel is like that, you live in it and then sell it out from under yourself, and move on.
The novel, because of the size of it, you cannot encompass the way you can a poem. You can’t turn it round and round and round and look at it from all sides. You don’t have the absolute sense of understanding to the depths of what you are doing. With a novel, it goes on for so long, that it is less intense but more extended.
The difference between novels and poetry? It is the difference between a diamond and an elephant. And it is also a matter of what you are aiming to do. Poetry to me is the creation of this artifact made of human utterance. It arises somehow more directly out of human experience and it aims to clarify, preserve and communicate that experience.
But doesn’t the novel do that in just a different form?
No. I think that the basic impulse of the novel is not that kind of utterance. It is not the lyric impulse. The basic impulse of the novel is narrative, stories. And stories are about time; their subject matter is time. They want to tell you what happens if you make certain choices, what happens then, what happens then. And then what happens. Novels are about human choices and the pattern of human lives through time.
And the poem is outside of time? No, nothing is outside of time. Poems use time They use time as music uses time, as part of the measure of the poem. But poems are not about time, in the sense of the novel. The novel’s subject matter is time.
Judy Grahn has said that a characteristic of working-class writing is that it piles up events within a small amount of space rather than spinning out the many implications of one or two events. You writing seems to me very working-class in that regard. Do you consider it so?
Yes. And I think that Grahn is probably hitting on something there. A lot of the most admired writing of our time has to do with a tremendous paucity of experience – an immense amount of style expended on a paucity of experience. I think that probably both she and I respond to that, viewing it in part as a class phenomenon.
You have just compared your novels to houses that you build and then move out of. Isn’t it awfully difficult to move out of the house of the novel?
Capitalism is a great assistance in that. Since you sell you labor, in this case you sell the novel, it is literally bought by somebody else and belongs to them, so you had better cut your ties. Once the book goes into production, you must cut the ties. In fact I went through a very bad couple of days last week when the copyedited manuscript [of Braided Lives] left the house. I went into a three day depression, because that is the point at which you really have to cut the umbilical cord. It is gone. It is theirs, it is not yours, and you can’t even change it anymore.
Do you feel the same way with a book of poetry?
No, because the poems go on being, somehow, because I’m always saying poems. The poems in their most real existence are spoken. They are either spoken by other people who hear them in their head – whether they speak them out loud or not – or actually spoken. Poetry has to be heard in your head if not literally said. I am always standing up and saying poems that I wrote twenty years ago, or ten years ago, or last week. There is a continuity; the poem occurs when I recite it, when I perform it. So it is a different relationship.
Do you ever read aloud from your pose in performance?
Not if I can get out of it. Prose is not designed for that, and it is so hard to pick a little piece out of a novel. The scenes are only dramatic in context. It just seems pointless, although I do it when I am forced to. Poetry is designed to be read. It is an arrangement of sounds and silences. It has its most vital being when the sounds are actually being said.
So you think of your poetry as being in the oral tradition?
Yes. It works to the eye and there are a lot of people who enjoy it and do not hear it, but they will never realize, in a sense, how well it is crafted if they don’t hear it in their heads. Poetry that isn’t well crafted comes apart when you try to say it, and you see how it isn’t put together.
When you first get a bound copy of one of you novels, do you sit down and read it?
No. Maybe five years later I’ll sit down and read it and then I’ll enjoy it. I don’t read it immediately because I have to let go. By the time it arrives, I’ve already started the next novel. I have to be free of it. I reread Small Changes recently and enjoyed it immensely – I even felt some suspense.
Speaking of Small Changes, what happens to Miriam after the conclusion of the novel?
A book is an artifact. What occurs in it is what occurs in it. There is no afterwards, except in you.
But how did you decide to end the novel at that point?
Its like the quotation I have in Going Down Fast by Jay Gould, a nineteenth-century millionaire, that “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” He was responding to why he wasn’t worried about a revolution. And part of what I was doing again in Small Changes was saying that as long as women can be divided from each other, can be set to do each other in, it is hard to improve out lot. It is that dynamic where the oppressed turn and oppress. It is partly that I was dealing with there and partly that at this point Neil is really irrelevant to Miriam. She is being freed of him whether she will it or not. The problems of her life are not of Neil. They are going to be a whole set of other problems. She’ll be freer, living on a different level, more energy, more decisions, and also more monetary problems – the kind of problems any woman alone with children faces.
The men in your novels seem extremely real.
I always thought so!
Male writers have often been criticized, I think justifiably, for having unrealistic female characters. This criticism has also been leveled by men against women writers.
In my first two novels, Going Down Fast and Dance the Eagle to Sleep, (they are both coming back into print this year) there were multiple protagonists, a number of them male. Now, when I wrote those books no male reviewer ever said the men were less than tremendously real because the books had male protagonists and neither of them are feminist novels.
The men in Small Changes are always, except for Phil, seen from a woman’s point of view. And they are seen, in a sense as men write about women, only insofar as they impinge upon women. That was very intentional. You don’t, except for Phil, see them from their own point of view.
But I think Phil is an important exception. Also in Vida, Joel seems particularly real to me.
Well, other people have said to me that Leigh seemed tremendously real. There is a chemistry involved in a novel which doesn’t exist in other forms of art. You respond to the character s in some ways as you would in life – you like some, you dislike others. No novelist can quite control that.
Yet even in your poems, some of the “characters” are capable of evoking a strong response, like for example “The Greater Grand Rapids Lover.” How do you accomplish that?
I wasn’t aware that the character did come through in the poems. I think it is nice if it does.
You have written a great deal about the relationships between men and women. On the back cover of your volume of poetry Living in the Open, you explain that a number of the poems concern “why I still have and am fed by relationships with men.” Do you feel that feminists have been put in the position of having to justify their relationships with men?
Yes, and by now I’m extremely tired of that. There are always in movements pragmatists and purists. Purists want everything to be coherent and often care more for coherency than for impact. I care more for changing the real situation of most women. Frequently there comes to be an equation of lesbianism or lesbian separatism with feminism. Now feminism has an essential part of it a defense of the lesbian choice – the lesbian choice as being an equal choice, a wholly defensible and necessary choice for many women – but to me it does not mean it is a better choice, or by no means the only choice.
In a recent issue of Sinister Wisdom (no.17), you wrote a letter elaborating on the feminist critique.
Yes – I was really upset at Joanna Russ getting attacked for writing what I thought was a very fine review, an honest review. If we cannot tell the truth when reviewing in feminist publications, I don’t know where we are going to do it, ever.
I was very intrigued by your remarks in that letter that we feel we must be “nice in public” and ladylike. Do you think that most women critics have a tendency toward that attitude?
With most women intellectuals and critics, no. the niceness operates on one level. On another level operates the necessity to attack any woman twice as hard, because you really have internalized male values. That’s often the public pose. If a woman writes or does something and it’s not perfect, you have to stomp all over her. In establishment publications, you very frequently get women attacking women much harder than they would attack men or the same quality work, because if a woman does it, it has to be perfect. That is, it must meet criteria based on other critics and the work of dead male white writers.
About the “niceness” – there is apiece I wrote six years ago about the difficulty of disagreeing politically in the women’s movement. We have trouble not taking it as personal betrayal when someone disagrees politically with us. We have to learn to be able to fight politically and disagree politically without experiencing it as a personal betrayal or personal rejection.
You’ve also spoken about the writers obligation to give back to the community. To what extent do you feel writers recognize that obligation?
There is that whole mystique of the alienated writer who is a lone soul. Very obviously, you eat food that other people grew, you wear clothes that other people made, in the watch on your wrist are minerals somebody went down into the earth and mined. You live in a social web where other people’s work sustains you – and you give back. I think that literary production is real production.
Is writing criticism and reviews like that?
Well, that is a simple kind of tithing, more akin to taking out the garbage. I don’t think of reviewing as real production, I think of it as a service activity. You owe it to literature, you owe it to other younger writers, you owe it to your readers to call to their attention other writers who they ought to know about, and you owe it back to your constituency and the movement you’re part of, and so forth.
Do you see feminist criticism as a whole new genre and do you think of yourself as a feminist critic?
I don’t think of myself as a critic. My problem is basically that I went to school in the 1950’s at the University of Michigan and had a dose of the New Criticism so early as to fill me up with an immunity to criticism thereafter. Criticism as an activity in itself – well, I think it is nice that some people are doing that, but I’m not going to read an awful lot of it. In some ways, I’m more inclined to read criticism with a certain amount of sociological underpinnings or historical value, rather than a purely literary criticism. Although occasionally I’ll read something very illuminating. I’ve been interested for example, in writing about feminist utopia. Joanna Russ had a piece in Frontiers which was marvelous.
Your upcoming novel, Braided Lives, is about the 1950s?
Yes. About growing up before there was a women’s movement.
Did you have to go back and do a lot of research to remind yourself of what it was like in the 1950s? How did you get in the right frame of mind to write the novel?
Partly music of the time. Pop music always has that effect. With the fifties, a lot of black music, which is mostly what I listened to then.
Did you go back to newspapers and magazines?
Not on first draft, but when I was getting certain details for second draft I had to do research. Exactly when did the Soviet invasion of Hungary occur? What kind of clothes were high fashion in 1958? Most of the research was done between second and third drafts, but some was done before second in order to get straight the chronology of certain political events.
How many drafts did Braided Lives go through?
Three. That’s normal, although there are parts of it that have been through a lot more than that. One particularly crucial scene, the self-abortion scene in the novel has gone through eight or nine drafts – that is always the case with crucial parts. In Vida, the part set in 1967 went through ten drafts. But generally, all the novel goes through three.
What else are you working on?
Two other books. One is selected poems, entitled Circles on the Water, which will be published by Knopf in 1982. The other is a book for the Poets on Poetry Series of the University of Michigan. That will be entitled Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. I’m collecting review, fugitive pieces, interview, etc., for the critical book, and I’m also writing some essays for it because I’ve never written that much about what I do. I tend to write about what other people do. I’ve an essay on Audre Lorde, one on Joanna Russ, one on Margaret Atwood.
I’ve also written an essay on my own lunar cycle. Since nobody ever writes intelligent criticism of my poetry, I feel as if I must make a bottom line by doing it myself.
You don’t feel that anyone has written any intelligent criticism of your poetry?
There is a little bit. Eleanor Bender is probably the most serious critic I have and she has written an essay about my love poetry. I think if I scrabbled around I’d find a few others. There’s been some nice pieces where people have called attention to poetry, but most criticism that has been written has been most unsatisfactory. So I thought I’d try to build a basement under it by doing some myself.
Obviously you agree with magazines that promote women artists and writers as >Kalliope does. What do you see as the function of little magazines devoted exclusively to women? Do you think there is a need for such magazines, still, even now?
Yes. Because still, even now, most men don’t read women or read very few women and leave us out of the literary landscape. I find the intellectual level higher – I hat to say it, sounding chauvinistic. Not always, of course. Some women’s magazines have that very soft romanticism, that squishy quality where all real controversy, all real sexuality, everything really threatening gets edited out, and you are left with a girl scout camp and pajama party level of reality.
But we are just discovering what we can do. I read women’s magazines with great interest and want to know what is being said and what is being done. There is so much that we have to say to each other, so many interesting controversies.