Tuesday, November 5, 2013


KIRPAL GORDON: For over three decades you've been fashioning a prose style focused on the ultra-minimal. Publishers Weekly has called you “one of the innovators of the short short story,” and Luc Sante, a guy who knows, wrote of your most recent collection, Lift Your Right Arm (Pelekinesis, 2013), “It's the equivalent of a whole shelf of books.”

I loved its humor, especially the way words kept meaning and unmeaning themselves as cliché, pun, shorthand, commentary and joke. Is it too much to say that you've broken away from writing as a text in favor of writing as object, artifact or plastic art?

PETER CHERCHES: I started thinking differently about the page around 1979 or 1980, when I was writing “Bagatelles,” one of the short prose sequences in Lift Your Right Arm and a breakthrough piece for me. It coincided with my move to the East Village from Brooklyn, where, at the time, there was a real hothouse environment of writers, musicians and artists cross-pollinating. I wrote a short memoir of the downtown scene of that period: http://www.mungbeing.com/issue_44.html?page=8#3414

The scene pushed me to start thinking about where I was going as a young writer, what I wanted to do. I was especially awed by the beauty and purity of Mondrian's grid paintings, and “Bagatelles” started as my attempt to invent a kind of “geometric fiction.” I decided to use a relationship to represent aesthetic or formal relationships, and kept the materials very spare. And the title, “Bagatelles,” was an homage to Webern's “Six Bagatelles for String Quartet,” an ultra-minimal composition full of strange beauty and mystery. Yet at the core was also the impulse to tell stories--but it was the mechanics, the conventions of storytelling that interested me more than the content of any particular story, if that makes any sense. I do agree that what I'm trying to do is “make things” rather than say things, and to me “text” implies a representation in language of something outside the work, so, yes, I think so!

KIRPAL GORDON: “Bagatelles” is geometric and with utter hilarity exposes the x-y axis of coupledom doom, the inherent incompatibility of the dyad relationship in its constant misreading of the other, putting on the reader's front burner the kind of stormy subconscious that generally brews on the back burner and giving new meaning to that old Disney/NY World's Fair jingle, “It's a small world after all.” I found it very liberating and quite akin to mindfulness meditation. It's a lot harder to take my own subconscious content seriously as factual after seeing myself in your two characters.

It's the second of the book's five tales, and I thought “Mr. Deadman,” with its gallows humor and yin/yang flips a great intro to the collection. You thoroughly permutate, a la Bird, every twist and turn in a word and the word is dead.

PETER CHERCHES: I think that's a generous compliment rather than a question, so thank you!

KIRPAL GORDON: Permutate as in to play out every combination of elements but also as in to finish, to put to rest, to erase. Each skillfully ordered section does this in a different way, which, in a book that gains more by saying less, is a particular delight. Nevertheless, weighing your existential Borscht Belt stylin' and your remark, “I'm trying to do is 'make things' rather than say things,” what's the difference between reading Lift Your Right Arm and hearing it performed, particularly the deadpan “Mr. Deadman” or the zen-like “Dirty Windows” or the nutty triologue, “Trio Bagatelles.”

Checking your Facebook posts about your recent book tour in California, I wonder what selections you read from and how you feel about the page over the stage or the spoke over the writ.


PETER CHERCHES: Having turned primarily to performance for a time in the '80s, the live delivery of my work is important to me, and I hear the cadences and silences in a certain way and deliver them the way my writerly ear hears them, but I also like the fact that each reader may bring her own inflection to the page. That was partly the point of “Trio Bagatelles,” the most “anonymous” of the sequences in the book as there are neither names nor genders specified. For the readings in California I chose a few selections from each sequence except “Trio Bagatelles,” which doesn't really work solo. In addition, I read outtakes for each of those sequences from my new companion ebook. I also mixed in some other short pieces from my collection in progress of real and fake autobiography and memoir.

KIRPAL GORDON: I want to get to the autobiography, but first a word on those outtakes! Your publisher, Mark Givens, at Pelekinesis just announced that Outtakes From Lift Your Right Arm is now available exclusively for the Kindle (http://www.amazon.com/Outtakes-Lift-Your-Right-ebook/dp/B00F8GO6OM/) at the incredibly lower price of $.99. Are you happy about all this access and has the changes in the publishing industry given you hope or despair? Do have other ebook projects in the works?

PETER CHERCHES: The idea for the outtakes ebook grew out of a blog I started to promote Lift Your Right Arm. I had quite a number of pieces written for each of the sequences that didn't make the final cut for various reasons, not necessarily quality (I address this in my preface to the ebook). After I put a bunch of pieces up on the blog I approached Mark with the idea of an ebook that would function like the extra features on a DVD or CD, like alternate takes from a jazz session or a film's scenes from the cutting room floor. We see it as a supplement to the main book as well as a promotional vehicle. Time will tell, but we're hoping the low price might help introduce new readers to my work who may then want to go for Lift Your Right Arm, the “real” book.

I like how the technological shift has allowed for a project like this, but I don't think I'd want to do ebook-only projects in most other cases.

On the other hand, though it took me quite a while to get comfortable with the idea, I think the move to web publishing for most “little magazines” is great, as it gives more people access to the work, and allows the writers to share the work on their blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Since nobody, writers or publishers, was making money from short-run print journals, this new paradigm makes perfect sense to me.

KIRPAL GORDON: I hear you on the difficulties of the indie press to make dough. Nevertheless, with so much literary content available for free on the web, it seems increasingly difficult to earn a living as a writer, especially for those who, like yourself, question the status quo or at least milk it for a few laughs. Is it fair to say that novels and story collections are going the way of the compact disc in music, that is, people will still “consume” them without having to pay to do so? Is there an upside to this for you? I know that you have been awarded two fellowships in creative nonfiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and that you also write about food and music. Is this the future of the downtown scene, being able to hustle honorably from many different revenues?

PETER CHERCHES: I think that's the history of the downtown scene. But since I've never made significant money from my writing, that aspect hasn't changed much for me. I've pretty much always had to hold day jobs. As far as the future of reading technology is concerned, there doesn't seem to be a consensus from the pundits, and in this area I'm no pundit.

KIRPAL GORDON: I know you're a big Thelonious Monk fan and have penned lyrics and performed a whole series of his tunes, one of which can be seen heard at https://soundcloud.com/peter-cherches/blue-monk. I wonder about jazz as a primary influence and its impact on your writing at the intersection of art and music. Would you say that writing's “meaning” or representation is only a by-product of process?

PETER CHERCHES: I'm going to treat that as two questions.

I'm music obsessed, yes, and music has been an important influence on my prose as well as, more obviously, my performance work with musicians. For me jazz is a kind of parallel to making things with language, with the underlying structure, the chord changes, the tune, being langue, and the solos, the “utterances” being parole, to borrow concepts from linguistics. So, there's the object nature of my prose, addressed above, but there's also a very conscious musical sensibility, with sound and rhythm being essential components of the work, the desire to make sentences that sing and dance. Perhaps this, coupled with the brevity of my work, is what has led many to call me a poet even though I came to the work I do as a distillation of the fiction I was doing before (and continued to do to some extent). There's a side of me that's a frustrated composer/arranger, and I think I often approach writing from that sensibility.

In the '80s I also started doing a lot of performance work, and eventually music (I studied singing with a fabulous singer and teacher, Nanette Natal). Some of my prose pieces were adapted as performance pieces, and certainly the performance work affected and enriched the written work. I'm actually getting back to writing song lyrics and vocalese (setting words to instrumental solos) after some years, and plan to rekindle my collaboration with songwriter/pianist Lee Feldman.

As far as “meaning” is concerned, it really doesn't interest me (and this isn't just a “stance”). But you really couldn't call my work abstract, like, for instance “language” poetry. On the surface the work is very concrete, tight and polished, but for me much of the interest is in the paradox of that kind of closed prose system and an open-endedness as far as “meaning” is concerned. If my work is successful, then I think each piece is a different “trip” for each reader.

KIRPAL GORDON: Yes, a different trip for each reader. That's the aesthetic of the downtown scene at its best---paying the reader the ultimate compliment by not over-directing her attention. This is the artistic milieu you not only draw from, but report on and celebrate. Case in point: your memorial tribute to Butch Morris: http://petercherches.blogspot.com/2013/01/butch-morris-superconductor-1947-2013.html. Like Morris' Conduction, your stories create their own frames of reference. As an example of your most recent work, I came upon “Spinning Exercise #1” in an e-zine called Mung Being:

get under my skin, because that's exactly what you're doing, needling me. What are you talking about? I'm talking about your needling; why do you insist on needling me? I'm not needling you. Oh, come on, sure you're needling me, trying to get under my skin. You're crazy; I'm not needling you; I'm not trying to get under your skin. So what do you call calling me crazy? Well, if you insist that I'm needling you, then I think you're crazy. You're one to talk. What do you mean? You're one to talk about crazy, needling me in your crazy way, trying to get under my skin. My crazy way? Yeah, your crazy way, your crazy way of needling me, your crazy way of trying to get under my skin. I don't know what's gotten into you. Oh, you don't know? No, I don't know. Maybe it has something to do with your needling, your perverse need to get under my skin. Perverse? Yeah, I'd call it perverse, the way you're needling me, trying to get under my skin. I think you're the one who's perverse if you think I'm needling you. Oh yeah, so what are you doing? I'm trying to have a conversation with you. Some conversation, one-sided needling, trying to get under my skin, that's what I'd call it. I don't know what's gotten into you; I don't know how you can accuse me of needling you when I'm just trying to have a conversation with you. I'm "accusing" you, if that's what you call it, of trying to

It's a spin on spinning that--dare I say?--comes full circle.

In perusing Mung Being, I came upon selections from your book-in-progress, Autobiography Without Words, describing as nonfiction and fiction a character named Peter Cherches. What's up with that?

PETER CHERCHES: I wrote a piece called “Autobiography Without Words”  -http://www.mungbeing.com/issue_49.html?page=15#3628 - earlier this year, and my dear friend and one of the great short prose writers, Peter Wortsman said to me, “That has to be the title of a book!” It started me thinking. Over the years I've written the occasional nonfiction memoir, but I've also written a number of tongue-in-cheek, outlandish fictions where the main character is called Peter Cherches. Wortsman's comment crystallized an idea for me--to do a collection of pieces, both fiction and nonfiction, where I'm the main character, but it will never be explicit which stories are true and which are fake. In most cases the reader will be able to figure out which is which, but some might present a conceptual challenge.

KIRPAL GORDON: However minimal in length or scope, your tales are maximally inventive and that goes double for what I've seen of Autobiography Without Words. Would you agree that in earlier collections, like Between a Dream and a Cup of Coffee, you worked the one-two combo of jabs of long description followed by a deceptive KO one liner? Condensed Book, on the other hand, quite like Lift your Right Arm, shifts its style of humor to suit each section. “American Tales” is scary funny howling at its madhouse moon. “Myron, Sam & Gertrude: Three Ways to tell a Story,” is a witty send-up of Cohen, Beckett and Stein. “Reading Comprehension” evokes the absurdity of SAT test questions in the age of the nuclear test. The final tale, “Eating Soup,” and the book's front cover, evoke Warhol's famous can.

PETER CHERCHES: Those two earlier books are, of course, very different from each other. Condensed Book is closer to Lift Your Right Arm in that it's mostly short prose sequences, but some have more to do with a parodistic aesthetic than the more consciously minimalist approach of most of the work in the new book. All of the work in Lift Your Right Arm postdates Condensed Book except for “Bagatelles,” which appears in both volumes. But for me the parody-type pieces also fit in with my conception of writing as object, in this case borrowing familiar forms like the standardized test or the Borscht Belt joke meets avant garde literature as the basis for a literary piece.

Between a Dream and a Cup of Coffee is really a pamphlet or a chapbook, and the work is completely different, as the stories are all based on actual dreams. My technique for writing dream stories is to recount odd or interesting dreams to friends, and over the course of telling the dream multiple times I start to embellish and the dream turns into a story. By the time I actually “write” it, the story has already been pretty much completely formed as a narrative.

KIRPAL GORDON: I read somewhere that you attended Columbia's creative writing program, but your style seems the antithesis of the mainstream workshop group mentality. What was your experience?

PETER CHERCHES: You hit the nail on the head. I was a kind of aesthetic pariah my one year at Columbia, where the ideal was to publish in the New Yorker and go to AWP and Bread Loaf conferences. But being an outsider also helped me strengthen my ego; I figured if my work was getting such strong reactions I must be on to something, so I used that negative energy from my peers and teachers as fuel. I finished the degree at Brooklyn College, a much more hospitable environment, where the fiction program was run by Fiction Collective authors, and where I had the opportunity to do a tutorial with John Ashbery, who was extremely hospitable to my work.

KIRPAL GORDON: Connecting with Fiction Collective and hanging with Ashbery sounds like the best of all worlds. Who are some of the contemporary writers you're reading?

PETER CHERCHES: I'll stick with American writers, and if you had asked me two months ago the first two names would be missing, as I've only just discovered them. And since quite a few of the writers I love are also close friends, I'll avoid playing favorites by mentioning none of them.

I recently finished, and was blown away by, Blake Butler's There Is No Year. Butler is a young guy (born in 1979) who is writing some wonderfully weird shit, and is in complete control of it. The work is mysterious and surreal, the language compelling and often disconcerting. It's remarkable that a book like this was published by a mainstream press (Harper Collins) and has received positive reviews in major media. As a younger writer I might have been envious, but now I'm happy for Butler and for American fiction. I've seen his work compared to Burroughs, but I don't think that's quite accurate. To me it's more kindred to Russell Edson's prose poems, but obviously reviewers of novels would be much more likely to know Burroughs than Edson.

Another recent find is Peter Markus. I first saw his work in an anthology, and that led me to purchase his recent story cycle
We Make Mud. Markus has created a word-world with odd diction and running characters where mud is both metaphor and metaphoric “material,” as if the stories themselves were composed of a kind of mud.

Meg Pokrass is a prolific Bay Area flash fiction writer of quirky, funny, intense and often disturbing tales. A very strong voice. When I had an offer to do a reading in San Francisco I sought her out to share the bill.

For me, the two towering figures of American fiction of the past 25 years are Lydia Davis and David Markson. Davis is our contemporary master of compressed prose that can pull the rug out from under you. Markson's late work was sui generis, though I don't think it's coincidental that he was of the same generation as many of the fluxus artists, Cage, the minimalists. His novels of accretion break all the rules, really ought to be boring and infuriating, yet they're compelling and brilliant. They insist they're not novels and dare you to agree--but you can't agree. I imagine him tinkering endlessly with the sequencing of his sentences. 

KIRPAL GORDON: How can Giant Steps readers stay better informed regarding all of your projects---print and ebooks, readings, performances with music, blog posts?

PETER CHERCHES: I really should do a single, dedicated website, but in the meantime there's my Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/PeterCherchesWriter

A page with links to my online publications:

A blog for news about Lift Your Right Arm:

My food and travel blog is mostly dormant right now, but who knows when the spirit will move me again. It has five or six years' worth of pretty heavy content, and also includes early drafts of pieces for Autobiography Without Words.