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The Big Other Interview: Rob Stephenson

Don’t know Rob Stephenson yet?

Then get to not-know him even more with his new FC2 release, Passes Through. Along with La Medusa by Vanessa Place, it’s one of the most ambitious FC2 titles of recent years. Structurally complex, this is a symphonic “novel” which reminds me, in its refusal to adapt to the novel form, of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

Full disclosure, I met Stephenson at a recent conference during a group dinner (yes, we eat in teams), where I told him about my manuscript of collaborations with different authors including Lance Olsen, Stacey Levine, Blake Butler, and Cris Mazza, among others—titled Book. By the end of the meal, we were ready to collaborate on a longer piece, still very much in process, and to some extent influenced by a mutual familiarity (ok, in my case, wild over-familiarity, with Burroughs).

Since then, Stephenson appeared near Lake Forest College at a Ragdale Foundation fellowship, and we soon after read together at the recent Big Other/FC2 event at the new Green Lantern Gallery in Chicago (2542 W. Chicago Ave.).

As such, Stephenson submitted to the grueling mind-slag known as The Big Other Interview, and as you’ll see below, he barely escaped with his life.

1. What was the writing process for Passes Through?

The writing process of Passes Through is one is its many subjects, so if you read the book, it hints in places of how it was written.  This book asks how it is possible that it is a novel.  Some people say it isn’t.

Basically, I invented several different ways to select material from the ten-or-so year journal that the text is made from and assemble a small percentage of it together with a lot of other material external to the journal.  There were many constraints that affected the whole text of the book and many that were particular to each section.

I have read much about how memory works.  Henri Bergon’s elaborate explanation (in Matter and Memory) captivated me some time ago.  He suggests that it is impossible to experience the present.  Our clunky human mechanisms have to process sensations through physical and chemical means, elaborate systems of sensing based on prior experience.  By the time we realize the world at any moment, it is already an historical moment, one that has passed through our bodily systems of interpretation.

This was the main idea that informed how my narrator experiences the world.  This sensing process works so efficiently in the human body, that we don’t realize it takes place.  It’s super-quick.  So in Passes Through, you could imagine that my character’s condition is one of being caught in this sensing process and being hyper-sensitive to it.  Perhaps it operates much more slowly in him than the typical human who doesn’t notice this sensing lag. It’s as if he is constantly tripping over all of his past sensations and mixing them (and other voices) into what he considers to be his present mode of thinking.

2. You’ve noted the musical characteristics of Passes Through. Tell us about this and your own relation to musicianship?

I started piano lessons in the 1st grade.  I studied for many years and attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in my early twenties. At that time I was sitting in a practice room playing a Beethoven sonata after reading “Silence” by John Cage. An enormous truck zoomed by outside on the street and instead of blocking it out, I listened to that sound very carefully and it seemed incredibly important. I don’t think I ever quite returned fully engaged to that sonata. Something had changed.  I went on to study non-western music, electronic music, and experimental art.  All the while I was writing and working in several mediums.  I was never very good at settling, so the interdisciplinary approach was a good one for me.

Music is never far from my mind, even when I consider words or images.  It’s all there in Passes Through.  I have returned to playing the piano these last years.  Some of the classics seem completely different now.  I have fresh ways of experiencing them.  And improvisation has become more attractive.  I am constantly torn between systematic score-like rigidity and letting in the chaos of the world.

Returning to the attention required to play many-layered compositions on the piano was particularly helpful in the actual day-by-day writing of this text.  It has something to do with allowing things to happen when in a state of mind where many separate concerns are being considered simultaneously.  All of this activity happening with the mind focused.  Coming back to the piano really helped me develop that attentiveness as I was writing.

The central musical influence on the overall text comes from certain late compositions of Morton Feldman.  His mutation of strangely abbreviated melodic and rhythmic bits through asymmetrical layering and patterning seemed to me to spawn poetic illustrations, marvelously delicious ones, of the type of memory operation that Bergson had so intricately described.  The constantly shifting interaction of fragmentary material in Feldman’s work is something I sought to re-capture in my book, especially the long middle section.  His music requires a very specific way of listening, though it is quite possible to enjoy it without knowing what’s really going on.  His music is always re-echoing many other parts of itself at the same time in the most curious way.  It creates a special sort of non-linearity in the midst of linear motion.  I like that.  Other musical ideas of all sorts enter the text in various ways.  As I made Passes Through, I kept a journal to keep track of things like that.

3. What are the three most pleasurable aspects of reading PT?

I’ve never read this book for the first time, so it’s hard to answer the question.  Readers that I didn’t expect to get more than a few pages into the book have emailed me saying they enjoyed it.  So I’m not sure if my conjectures matter here.  I can’t speak for readers of the book.  But I will say that it isn’t necessary to know much about how I conceived of making this book to get into it.  That much I know from feedback, so feel free to ignore whatever I’ve said in 1. And 2. above.

4. What are the three most un-pleasant aspects of reading PT?

See the answer to 3. Several people have told me it’s more pleasurable and readable than I led them to believe.  I assumed that the way I leap around and make unusual connections between things would frustrate readers, but they adjust to it.  I thought some of the subject matter at times would irritate many, but so far…

5. Samuel Delany blurbed the book and you’ve worked with him before.  Is he an influence?  Are there affinities in PT with his work?

I haven’t worked with him before, not in a collaborative way, but he is very gracious about answering questions.  I have written about some of his books in essays and I’ve done introductions to his autobiography and one of his novels.  Certainly, he is an influence.  I’ve read nearly all of his 40 or so books and whatever else I could find that isn’t in books.  His enthusiasm for non-stop production has been a continual inspiration for me to keep on writing and working in all the mediums I do.  I discovered his trilogy, The Fall of the Towers, at an airport bookstore when I was in the 8th grade, way too many years ago.  I was reading scads of sci-fi back then, but the sumptuous otherness of his visionary storytelling completely captivated me and I have been a faithful reader ever since.  Aspects of the way he thinks about writing, put forth in books I read later like The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, did give me better entryways into making stories and texts. But I don’t find Passes Through to be similar to his writing.  If you think it is, feel free to point it out.  It would be a great compliment.  Actually, I am curious to know what he thinks his influence is on my book.  It could be that Passes Through exists because I CAN’T write the way he does.

6. Recently, you told me that you thought methods that appear to be newly in vogue, or in vogue again, such as the cut-up and the found text seem a bit passé to you. I imagine someone may have said the same thing about Burroughs’ cut-up work if looking back to Tzara at the Café Voltaire. I’m not sure I agree with you that the uses of these techniques ever ceased, but certainly, there is a current emphasis on flarf and conceptual writing. I sense that you chafe at this, but tell me why?

I don’t think I said the using of found text and the cut up ceased, but every now and again these things are emphasized with a renewed vigor wearing a new outfit.  I have used found materials off and on since I started making things in the late 70’s.  There are pieces of text from hundreds of found sources in Passes Through.

I have never called myself a conceptual writer, but there are common interests evident at times in my work.  I am much more familiar with Conceptual Art from the last century than I am with the current Conceptual Writing movement.  Some of these artists I do like quite a lot.  I’m fond of John Baldessari, for example, particularly his systems of reframing and altering found photography.  I’ve been an urban gallery and museum junkie for years and years.  I’m full of art.  I love living in New York for the continual exposure to culture.  Still, I like lots of older things going back as far as it is traceable and from all over the world. I’m very interested in putting things into my own categories based on somewhat erratic concerns.  I am my own collage.  I change my mind a lot.  I reshuffle.

Everything is in flux, it seems, but I go on making what I make, where ever and however it can best be made.  In 1967 Alison Knowles made The Big Book, an 8-foot tall book that you could live inside.  It had a stove and a phone in it among other things.  Now, I know a lot of people who live inside their phones.  A book can be something we haven’t paid much attention to yet.  It’s an intriguing time to live in.

<I like that you provided no question 7, davis.  And I like that when I copied these questions from your email into Word, all of the apostrophes in the interview questions appeared in Word as tiny number ones. Code really is deep.>

8. Do you have a favorite simple gesture?

I brought John Cage up earlier.  I’ve been reading a book of late interviews with him and enjoying it, so he’s on my mind.  4’ 33” seems to be a simple gesture, but this little bit of framed non-silence ALLOWS everything around it to become music, to become art.  It does not demand anything except the frame, which requires three separate durations adding up to the 4’ 33”.  It’s not preaching.  It’s not desperate to stake out territory.  In the calmest manner, this piece suggests immense possibility. I am inspired to respond to that possibility as I proceed.  I still want to try all sorts of things that I haven’t yet.

9. What’s next for Rob Stephenson’s work?

Well, I’m collaborating on an amorphous project with someone named Davis Schneiderman.  I’m continuing to make music of my own at home and with others.  I have a couple of novel-like objects lurking in my computer, trying to figure out how they will become what they will become. I’m developing a multi-media performance that is going to be a work in progress for some time.  I presented one piece of it at &NOW.  I really want to do more collaborative projects and do live music.  I have been too busy to explore this as much as I want to.

I sometimes need to try out ideas, methods, and mediums I’m not so skilled at using, so I can’t say exactly what I will be doing a few months from now.  I work often on long-term projects, but also I make time for more spontaneous things.  I just spent three weeks in Europe doing readings and turning every room in which I found myself into a mini-studio.  I did over one hundred small paintings over the course of the trip.  I really worked hard and joyfully on them.  I had not planned to do this, but I’d had the urge to paint for a while and this suddenly became the time to do it.  I harnessed the concentration necessary and made time every day to work on them.  It was very liberating to do this.  I had access to a friend’s out of tune piano that I grew quite attached to in Paris.  I couldn’t get strong WiFi as easily as I expected there and I decided to carry no cell phone.  It helped my productivity to be cut off a bit and to be where I really was geographically.  It was wonderful to be getting my hands dirty on something non-digital, not computery for a little while.  But as well, I wrote, took photos, collected sound, and shot a lot of video, so the digital was still there going on.  It’s always there now – going on and on and on.  And I come back to it.

My next book out is called U (Rebel Satori Press/Queer Mojo).  It’s not much at all like Passes Through.

Davis Schneiderman is a multimedia artist and writer and the author or editor of eight print and audio works, including the novels Drain, Abecedarium, and Blank; the co-edited collections Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization and The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism’s Parlor Game; as well as the audio-collage Memorials to Future Catastrophes. His first short story collection, there is no appropriate #emoji—with collaborations from Lance Olsen, Cris Mazza, Kelly Haramis, Stacy Levine, Tim Guthrie, Andi Olsen, and Megan Milks—will be released in Fall 2019.

His work has also appeared in numerous publications, including Fiction International, The Chicago Tribune, The Iowa Review, and TriQuarterly.

He is Krebs Provost and Dean of the Faculty at Lake Forest College.

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