“There are thresholds or shelves where we go from having incremental change to systemic moments of transformation.”
In the ’90s, Sven Birkerts cautioned us about the impact of technology on reading with The Gutenberg Elegies. In 2017, we mute our iPhones to talk about his new book, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf Press). We dive into the impact of digital technology on perception and identity, but also get into the way life becomes a thematic puzzle in middle age, why he stepped down from his role directing the low-residency MFA program at Bennington, the joy of bringing his favorite writers in as instructors (and the ones he regrets not getting), the challenge of interviewing fiction writers, his big literary 0-fer and what I’m missing about Virginia Woolf, how he’s adapting to a year-long sabbatical and how he understands his writing life, what he’s learned editing the literary magazine AGNI, and why the prerequisite for anything he’s reading is that it has to be more interesting to him than whatever it is he’s vaguely brooding about. Give it a listen! And go buy his new essay collection, Changing the Subject!
“When I was your age, I discovered the doubling over of one’s own experience. . . . Themes, recurrences and motifs in my life began to manifest. Then as if on command, the whole sunken continent of memory began to detach from the sea-floor.”
About our Guest
Sven Birkerts is the author of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age and nine previous books, including The Other Walk: Essays, The Gutenberg Elegies, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, and My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time. He recently stepped down as director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and he also edits the journal AGNI based at Boston University. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, and he’s on Twitter as svenbirkerts and Instagram as cyberbirk.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Birkerts’ home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Mr. Birkerts by me. It’s on my instagram.
“I want to use this media, which is all about going somewhere else, to say, ‘Just here. Just stop at these woods, this snowy evening. Just here.'”
For more than a decade, Princeton literature professor Jeff Nunokawa has posted daily mini-essays using Facebook Notes. We talk about how he discovered that form, the audience that grew around his work, writing without links, the experience of producing a print edition of the notes, and his ambivalence over the final product. We get into the negative review that affirmed all of his self-doubts and pushed him toward his goal of becoming transparent, the benefits of consolatory drivel, dreaming of the next day’s note and making writing a source of pleasure, his mixed-race heritage (his dad’s Japanese, his mom’s caucasian-American) and his childhood in the 60s, his 30 years at Princeton, his joy at living in the same world as Torres and Ronaldo, and why you have to feel homesick before you feel home. Oh, and there’s a heartbreaking story of how he came out to his parents, plus I do a lot more talking than usual. This is one of those beautiful, soul-diving conversations, so give it a listen! And go buy note book (Princeton University Press)!
“My father said, ‘I was trying to turn you into a samurai, but you were actually a poet, and I went the wrong way.’ My father never apologized to me for anything, and that was as close as he came.”
“This project, which began as a lark, has become the single most serious thing in my life.”
About our Guest
Jeff Nunokawa teaches English literature at Princeton University and lives in Princeton and New York.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Jeff’s apartment on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Prof. Nunokawa and me by me. It’s on my instagram.
It’s time for our year-end Virtual Memories tradition: The Guest List! I reached out to 2015’s podcast guests and asked them about the favorite book(s) they read in the past year, as well as the books or authors they’re hoping to read in 2016! More than 30 responded with a dizzying array of books. (I participated, too!) So now that you’ve got your Hanukkah and/or Christmas gelt, the Virtual Memories Show offers up a huge list of books that you’re going to want to read! Get ready to update your wish lists!
This year’s Guest List episode features selections from nearly 3 dozen of our recent guests! So go give it a listen, and then visit our special Guest List page where you can find links to the books and the guests who responded.
About our Guests
The guests who participated in this year’s Guest List are Derf Backderf, Anthea Bell, John Clute, Michael Dirda, Matt Farber, Jonathan Galassi, Brad Gooch, Langdon Hammer, Liz Hand, Jennifer Hayden, Ron Hogan, Dylan Horrocks, David Jaher, Kathe Koja, Jonathan Kranz, Peter Kuper, Lorenzo Mattotti, JD McClatchy, Scott McCloud, Michael Meyer, Dan Perkins (a.k.a. Tom Tomorrow), Summer Pierre, Witold Rybczynski, Dmitry Samarov, Elizabeth Samet, Liesl Schillinger, Posy Simmonds, Levi Stahl, Rupert Thomson, Irvine Welsh, Warren Woodfin, Jim Woodring, Claudia Young, and me, Gil Roth! Check out their episodes at our archives!
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. Most of the episode was recorded at Virtual Memories Manor on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. A few segments were recorded by the guests and e-mailed in (which is to say: don’t blame me!). Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro.
“I’m now older than the two most important men in my life were when they died: my father and James Merrill.”
The great poet, essayist, librettist and bon vivant J.D. McClatchy (Sandy, to his friends) joins the show to talk about outliving his idols, adapting my favorite novel (The Leopard!) to opera, having his life changed by a course with Harold Bloom, collecting letters from the likes of Proust and Housman, and marrying Chip Kidd! We also get into his friendship with James Merrill, pop culture’s triumph over high culture, his genetic inability to read comics, why he loathed Ezra Pound as a person and as an artist, how sexual politics has replaced social politics, the experience of teaching the first gay literature course at Yale in 1978 (and getting dropped from the university because of it), how a serious poet writes for the dead, not the living, and more! Give it a listen!
“I think the problem of all young poets — which I shared — was that at the age of 20, 25, I didn’t have anything to write about.”
We also talk about the unique challenges of his various genres (poetry, prose, libretti), the benefits of a career in academia, the notion that the great treasures of western civilization have created us and are needed to sustain us, the true stakes of writing poetry, his commonplace book (being published next spring), his Ouija experience with Anne Sexton, sailing the Atlantic for his 70th birthday, how three Ring cycles equals one San Diego Comic-Con, and why it took him four years to begin writing in a new home. This one’s a great conversation, so go listen!
“The experience of watching kids grow up imaginatively, and grow out of themselves — rather than into themselves — in the first shedding of a false skin, is something I take very seriously in my responsibility as a teacher.”
We mention a few books in this episode. Here they are:
- American Writers at Home – J.D. McClatchy, Erica Lennard
- The Leopard – Giuseppe Lampedusa
- James Merrill: Life and Art – Langdon Hammer
- The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime – Harold Bloom
- Braving the Elements – James Merrill
- The Changing Light at Sandover – James Merrill
- The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
- The Honorary Consul – Graham Greene
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari
- Sentenced to Life – Clive James
- Latest Readings – Clive James
Also, during the episode I promised to show you the official image of What Your Host Feels Like When He’s Reading Poetry, as illustrated by Roger Langridge. Whoomp, here it is:
About our Guest
J.D. McClatchy is the author Plundered Hearts: New and Selected Poems (Knopf, 2014), as well as seven previous collections of poetry and of three collections of prose. He has edited numerous other books, including The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, and has written a number of opera libretti that have been performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, and elsewhere. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, where he served as president from 2009 to 2012. McClatchy teaches at Yale University and is the editor of the Yale Review.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. McClatchy’s Stonington, CT home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. B/W photo of Mr. McClatchy by Geoff Spears; color photo by me.
“Chanel was trying to gift herself to women, and give them something that would lend them an allure that would be useful.”
Rhonda K. Garelick, author of Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History, joins the show to talk about Chanel’s impact on women’s fashion and French national identity, how she managed not to get tried for collaboration after the war, the one figure from our age who compares to Chanel, what it’s like teaching the accordion-and-beret crowd, and more! Give it a listen!
“I remain certain that there is no one else who has had this sort of aesthetic influence.”
We also talk about Chanel’s pleasure in hiring fallen royalty to work in her boutiques and factories, the need for myth-making in fashion, the challenges of getting Chanel’s associates to talk to her, the psychological similarities of fashion and fascism, and the decision to structure Mademoiselle around Chanel’s relationships. Also, I make the major mistake of letting Rhonda ask me a question, which sends the conversation utterly off the rails.
We talk about a couple of books in this episode. Here’s a list of ’em (Note: if I ever go to a Patreon crowdfunding model for the show, this is the first thing that goes subscriber-only):
- Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History – Rhonda K. Garelick
- Steve Jobs – Walter Isaacson
- Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
- The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture – Scott Herring
- Private Lives, Public Deaths: Antigone and the Invention of Individuality – Jonathan Strauss
About our Guest
Rhonda K. Garelick writes on fashion, design, performance, art, literature and cultural politics. Her books include Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender, and Performance in the Fin de Siècle (Princeton University Press, winner of the Kayden Award for outstanding manuscript in the humanities), Electric Salome: Loie Fuller’s Performance of Modernism (Princeton), and, as co-editor, Fabulous Harlequin: ORLAN and the Patchwork Self (University of Nebraska Press, winner of the 2011 award for book design from the American Alliance of Museums). Her new book is Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, New York Newsday, International Herald Tribune, and The Sydney Morning Herald, and numerous journals and museum catalogs in the United States and Europe.
She is a Guggenheim fellow and has also received awards from the NEA, the NEH, the Getty Research Institute, the Dedalus Foundation, the American Association of University Women, the Whiting Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Prof. Garelick received her B.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature and French from Yale University. She splits her time between Lincoln, Nebraska and her hometown of New York City.
At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she is Professor of Fine and Performing Arts and English, as well as the founder and director of the Interdisciplinary Arts Symposium. For the academic year 2015-2016, Rhonda will be the Stanley Kelly, Jr. Visiting Professor of Distinguished Teaching in Comparative Literature at Princeton University. Garelick has also had a long career as an international business consultant, specializing in the fields of fashion, media, and journalism.
Credits: This episode’s music is Cri de Coeur by Edith Piaf. The conversation was recorded at an undisclosed location on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Prof. Garelick by Agaton Strom.
“What I really cared about most, what drew me, was the relationship between lives and work, between how we live and what we do, and what we do with it. And that’s one of James Merrill’s major subjects.”
Langdon Hammer, Chair of the Yale English department, joins the show to talk about his new biography, James Merrill: Life and Art (Knopf) (and one of the best books I’ve read this year). We discuss Merrill’s allure as a poet and the alchemy that allowed him to turn base wealth into artistic gold. He also talks about learning the art of literary biography on the fly, the challenge of recreating Merrill’s life in Greece, Merrill’s silence over AIDS, how we can understand the Ouija board-derived poems of Merrill’s masterwork, and more! Give it a listen!
“Alchemy is a theme in Merrill’s writing. How is he going to make his own gold, how is he going to transform the lead of his father’s money into a higher value?”
We also learn about Langdon’s decades at Yale and how students have changed during his time there, what the globalization of English poetry means for the form, why he considers The Book of Ephraim to be James Merrill’s greatest poem, and the farthest he traveled to research the book.
About our Guest
Langdon Hammer is chair of the English Department at Yale and the poetry editor of The American Scholar. His books include Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism and, as editor for the Library of America, Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters and May Swenson: Collected Poems. His lectures on modern poetry are available free online at Yale Open Courses. There’s a more extensive bio at JamesMerrillWeb, if you’d like to check that out.
Credits: This episode’s music is Lust for Life by Iggy Pop. The conversation was recorded at Prof. Hammer’s office at Yale on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro.
“The literary writer still needs someone to have a dialogue with, to help shape their book, understand it and make it as presentable to the world as possible.”
FSG president Jonathan Galassi has been a literary editor and publisher for more than four decades, so how did that experience prepare him for publishing his first novel? Find out in this week’s show, as we talk with Mr. Galassi about Muse (Knopf)! We talk about his history (and future) in publishing, how he wound up a publisher-hybrid of Roger Straus and James Laughlin, how he learned to shut off his editor-self in order to get in touch with writer-self, why he took the challenge of writing a character’s world-changing poetry, and more. Give it a listen!
“The most important thing an editor has is taste. And how do you get taste? By reading a lot of books, and coming to understand what makes them good. Having a visceral love or detestation is important.”
We also talk about Muse‘s affectionate satire of the New York publishing world (okay: he calls it a “revenge fantasy” in our conversation), why he enjoys the rough-and-tumble aspects of the biz, the degree to which authors’ expectations have changed over the decades, the degree to which publishing relies on luck, the best training for an editor, our favorite Philip Roth novels, the value of big advances, where he falls on MFA vs. NYC, why the better literary writers should shouldn’t self-publish, and whether it was a taboo for him to venture into fiction writing after spending so many years editing fiction writers. (Photo: Yvonne Albinowski/New York Observer)
“You go into publishing because you love literature, and you end up reading a lot of crap.”
About our Guest
Jonathan Galassi is a lifelong veteran of the publishing world and the author of three collections of poetry, Morning Run, North Street and Other Poems and Left-handed, as well as translations of the Italian poets Eugenio Montale and Giacomo Leopardi. He has served as a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, and as executive editor and later president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In 2008 he received the Maxwell E. Perkins Award, which recognizes an editor, publisher, or agent who “has discovered, nurtured and championed writers of fiction in the U.S.” A former Guggenheim Fellow and poetry editor of the Paris Review, he also writes for the New York Review of Books and other publications. He lives in New York City. His new novel is Muse.
Credits: This episode’s music is Caçada by Bebel Gilberto. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Galassi’s office at FSG on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Galassi by Yvonne Albinowski/New York Observer.