Vlad Savich: In my youth, the French chansonnier Joe Dassin was popular. Today my guest is Joe Linker and as usual I will ask him to introduce himselfto us. Tell me a little about yourself, Joe.
Joe Linker: South Santa Monica Bay LA working class kid. Big family. Catholic school. I was no chansonnier, but I did play guitar. Paid attention to the folk revival. But on the radio we listened to Motown, pop, rock. On TV were the dance shows, and the afternoon soaps my sisters and mom watched. I bought a pool table for the house. We rode bicycles. I got into surfing and jazz and the Beats.
VS: You were born, baptized, studied, and when the writer Joe Linker appeared. What became the point of bifurcation?
JL: Nothing was annihilated. The writing temperament comes to light as a condition of being. I hope I’m still appearing. Still looking for the magical mix. But if there was a point, it was learning to read.
VS: What is the author of a literary work for you: is it a beard, a high forehead, a bald spot or something else?
JL: I recently put Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to a country western chord progression and was about to give it a Johnny Cash voice when a neighbor asked did I not know what an asshole Robert Frost was, as if Frost’s being a mean man had something to do with stopping by woods. Maybe it does, and that’s biographical criticism. But the dismissal of a poem by virtue of it’s author’s personal failings is part of the naive notion that reading can make us better persons or that authors are somehow good people because they’ve written a good book.
We should not judge a work by its author, and we should not criticize a work for not being the work it was not intended to be. An author’s circumstances, the predicament she’s born into, may or may not predict the work. There seems little in Penelope Fitzgerald’s predicament to predict “Offshore” or “The Bookshop.” Though she did put her experience to good use, as did Henry Green, but again, Green paid tribute to observation of others and in do so doing pointed to them and not to himself. There are writers saintly: Simone Weil, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton. Who among their fawning readers can follow them?
VS: The book must be kept lying or only truth and nothing else. Tell me, Joe, are you deceiving your readers?
JL: I’m reminded of the jazz musicians of the 1950’s who turned their backs on their audiences. Miles did that. He was trying to avoid deceiving himself. But deceit is a way of catching one’s attention. I knew a woman once who seemed to believe in a literal reality of her favorite TV soap opera characters. She talked about them as if they were real people. She gossiped about them. She might have made a good writer, but she didn’t know how to read.
VS: To which genre of music would you define your literary works?
JL: From the Beats I got jazz and early on wrote a few poems intended to reflect the Beat influence, music, form. But I think of jazz as a form of folk music. But I was also influenced by John Cage, but more by his writing than by his music. Both of my novels contain music, songs, folk in nature. Does my writing sing? And if so, what genre? I don’t know.
VS: What is the tonality of your creations – minor or major. Moreover, what in our life is more of a joy or sadness?
JL: I am living now in a winter of writing. The sky is ironic, the ground frozen in satire, the words shiver and cling together trying to keep warm. I don’t know if this writing will see another spring. But writing survives and even thrives in winter. Joy and sadness roll within that circle. I pray the Nine Prayers, which I got from Thich Nhat Hanh. Begin by saying “I” in each prayer, then (in the place of “I”) say the name of someone you love, then someone you are neutral to, then someone who causes you to suffer:
- May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
- May I be free from injury. May I live in safety.
- May I be free from disturbance, fear, anxiety, and worry.
- May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.
- May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.
- May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.
- May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.
- May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
- May I be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.
VS: If you could create the world how would it be: gloomy, gay, intolerant, tolerant, imperialistic or communist?
JL: I suppose we all have a bit part in the creation of the world. I might want to use Buckminster Fuller’s “Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth” as a guide:
VS: Your literary world is born in your head or you take it from your life.
JL: Observation, reading, listening, imagination, suffering, love, experiment, epiphany, failure, animal and plant life, dream world of sleep, ageing, work, play. Joyce chose Ulysses for his all-rounder character (husband and father, soldier and sailor, traveler explorer ruler exile cuckold lover), but Bloom’s Odyssey is made from everyday experience.
VS: Thou Shalt Not Worship False Idols. Do you have idols in the world of literature?
JL: This relates to your earlier question about how we might see an author. City Lights put out a Nicanor Parra book titled “Anti-Poems.” Just so, we might think of an anti-author: Bukowski, Celine. Joyce and Beckett lived anti-establishment lives, in spite of their middle class predicaments. Faulkner despised Hollywood, and he went back home. After Beckett’s Nobel was announced he said he felt “damned to fame.” Warhol explained the age of the celebrity. It’s probably best not to idolize, the false or the real.
VS: Reality is a fact or an illusion?
JL: I attended a Robert B. Laughlin lecture some years ago, read his book “A Different Universe,” and very much enjoyed his explorations. I wrote some blog pieces for a time, thinking about physics, trying to watch what was going on. Around the same time, Lisi came out with his “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.” In the intro to his book, Laughlin says, “Seeing our understanding of nature as a mathematical construction has fundamentally different implications from seeing it as an empirical synthesis. One view identifies us as masters of the universe; the other identifies the universe as the master of us…At its core the matter is not scientific at all but concerns one’s sense of self and place in the world.” We need to know how to do things, build a bed, fix a toilet, change a flat tire, ride a bicycle, grow vegetables and herbs, in pots on a sidewalk if necessary, play guitar, help others, save a cat or a dog, walk, swim, relax.
VS: ‘play guitar’ Do you play on musical instruments?
JL: Yes, guitar. I’ve been playing since I was a kid. My first guitar, an acoustic folk, was a gift from a neighbor who had picked up a better one. This neighbor taught me a few licks. Then, one day, my guitar was on the floor and my girlfriend at the time hopped off the top bunk and landed on the guitar. My next guitar I bought for $25 from an ad in the South Bay Daily Breeze newspaper. My favorite guitar now is a Telecaster I bought used in 1985. It was one of the first guitars out of the Fender Japanese factory, the first built out of the US. It’s a good guitar, industrial. I have a couple of amps, an old Roland Jazz Chorus 50 that is too big for small rooms, and a small Crate. I also play a Takamine classical built in 1977. I have a Yamaha FG180 purchased new in 1970 for $100. It’s probably still worth $100. Great investment. I also have an Ovation acoustic electric, but I don’t play it often. I use flat wound nickel jazz strings on the tele and the Yamaha folk also, which has an after market pickup that fits into the sound hole. The FG stands for folk guitar. I’ve put up a few experimental pieces here:
I still favor folk, blues, and jazz. I like Indie and support the indie effort. I’ve mixed feelings about the changes in the music industry. But those changes have enabled much more experimental, original, less commercial, efforts to emerge. The self-publishing, online and text versions, have similarly disrupted the
traditional publishing world, and the literary indie movement has also enabled more possibilities, though these efforts reach smaller audiences. But that’s ok. The age of the blockbuster book, driven by mass marketing and distribution, like the big stadium concert, is giving way to the smaller venue. It’s a bit like the difference between one of these so called mega-churches and a smaller gathering of searchers.
VS: What form expresses more feelings: music or poetry?
JL: John Cage said jazz doesn’t work – if you’re going to have a conversation, he said, have it, and use words. Cage’s piece called “Water Walk” is entertaining and funny. I’m not sure it evokes more feeling than a comparable poetic piece might, but it seems to do so more efficiently and effectively. And it seems all of Cage’s pieces are conversational. What is his piece for piano titled 4′ 33″ if not a conversation? But what is “feeling,” and are we predisposed to “feel” a certain way given certain arrangements. Minor and major modes, for example, melodic or harmonic scales. Music might be more direct, an express bus full of party goers on the way to a sensorium, while poetry is a taxi stuck in traffic. Can an idea evoke feeling? Can a poem about ice cream produce the taste of a banana split? The sentimental often jars feelings, and some composers and writers seem to want to avoid the sentimental. Why? Rimbaud’s “Illuminations,” when I first read it, caused emotions in me I’d never experienced before, couldn’t understand, but wanted more of.
VS: For writing good literature a writer needs: freedom or tyranny?
JL: Dostoevsky’s Underground Man says “suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.” Seems a Christian sentiment. Soul origin. Kierkegaard. Tyranny alone seems totally destructive to the individual, while total freedom seems a utopian ideal. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” was it an invitation to a tyranny of one’s spirit or an invitation to free oneself from the tyranny of one’s birth predicament, from attempts to shame used to control and tyrannize? This much we might know: as writers we are interested in freedom from tyranny. But maybe writing is tyrannical, the writer a tyrant. Come, read me!
VS: What does freedom of speech mean for you?
JL: In the introduction to his book “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers,” Kwame Anthony Appiah addresses values: “There are some values that are, and should be, universal, just as there are lots of values that are, and must be, local…the model I’ll be returning to is that of conversation – and, in particular, conversation between people from different ways of life…Depending on the circumstances, conversations across boundaries can be delightful, or just vexing: what they mainly are, though, is inevitable.” I believe in the freedom of speech, but to say that, the freedom of silence is also a beautiful thought.
I believe freedom of speech is, or should be, a universal value, and If we are going to engage in conversations across boundaries, we must have freedom of speech. Later in his book, Appiah says, “Politeness is a value term from the repertory of manners, which we usually take to be less serious than morals…Our language works very well in ordinary and familiar cases. Once things get interesting, even people who know the language equally well can disagree.” Appiah’s book is one of the best discussions I’ve seen on “Moral Disagreement,” “Whose Culture Is It, Anyway?,” and “Kindness to Strangers,” (titles to some of the book’s chapters), and I think his method can be applied to issues of freedom of speech – though that term does not appear in his index, I think it’s implicit throughout the work.
VS: How do you think the sun shines to all people, equally, or for good people, it shines more ?
JL: What’s complicated about that question might be how we define good, a good person. In any case, I don’t think that way, that “good people” are somehow favored or graced. I don’t doubt many people who consider themselves good people are nevertheless in debt to bad habits. Likewise, many people who hold positions that presuppose good prerequisites are demonstrably not good at all. Moreover, we are most of us most of the time it seems irrational or non-rational – we don’t necessarily choose what’s good for us. We might not even know.
VS: If literature is a river that we have to cross, on which shore have we located: the near, the far or on the middle?
JL: Great question. Most of the time I’m drowning, and the lifeguard critic is no help. You hope for an island in the stream.
VS: If the writer is a ship crossing the ocean named “Literature” then what is the sail on it: thoughts, words, letters?
JL: A few writers might be ships, oil tankers, schooners, cruise ships, but most of us are paddling on surfboards, thinking words are fishes.
VS: Everything has its beginning. How did the writer Joe Linker begin?
JL: Maybe everything does have a beginning, but becoming can still take a long time. At least becoming has been a long road for me. My writing, or wanting to write, or thinking I might write something, began with reading, listening, the smell of paperback pages and ink. The smell of mimeo machine paper and ink, the dark purple ink-runny letters, those handouts in grade school. The acoustic sounds of the manual typewriter, the shapes of the letters engraved, you could feel them with your fingers on both sides of the paper. So it was physical and sensual this beginning, the feel and smell of books and paper and shapes of letters and the train-clacking of typewriters and the swirl of the mimeo barrel. And writing was and is dissent, argument, style, as well as something to do with your fingers and hands. In 8th grade, we had an Irish nun who read aloud long works to us: The Scarlet Pimpernel; A Tale of Two Cities; David Copperfield; Hamlet. And she read poems and speeches and stories. Everyone responds differently. My father was not a reader, other than the newspaper, and he read blueprints and showed me how to read a blueprint, but he was a talker. He was garrulous, because he liked people, he loved talking to people. He was a good listener. He couldn’t hear worth a damn, but he was a good listener.
VS: Is the writer the preacher the absolute power of the word or is he the absolute slave of the word?
JL: “In the beginning was the Word….” And, “The fall is into language,” Norman O. Brown said, in “Love’s Body.” Thomas Merton suggests prayer without words is possible, and maybe preferable. Where is the poem without words? There might be a symbiotic relationship between the Word and the writer, the one who prays. We might have several different vocabularies, the one we talk with, the one we read with, the one we write with, one for poems, a different one for negotiating. How many words do we need? For what? Language is on the move, if not on the make.
VS: I’m looking now for a hockey match. 22 players earn more than all the writers of the United States. Judging by the salary hockey players are more important than writers. Maybe we need to open the Coliseum for writers ? Where prose writers would have fought against minstrels and poets against bards.
JL: Rewards are distributed randomly. Audiences are fickle. There’s not necessarily a connection between financial success and talent, skill, or intelligence, nor is there often any equity in amount paid for difficulty of task. I assume hockey players work hard and probably play just a few years (I think the average playing life of NFL players is only about 3 years). What’s important is to follow one’s calling, if you can hear it amid the roar of the crowd.
VS: How do you think. Does time affect literature or literature at the time?
JL: In “Kafka and His Precursors” Borges explains how Kafka influenced Shakespeare. This is because human nature over time has not improved. We are no better than our ancestors, however far back you want to go. Technology does not improve our nature. Nor does it make it worse. We are the same. In that sense, time has no influence. But when something new is written, we might read what came before it in a different light, and find that it’s changed.
VS: I still can’t understand what literature is, it’s a section of art or a way of communication. How do you think about it?
JL: Depends. Lots of ways to look at literature, ways to think about it. Using McLuhan’s definition of technology (an extension of the senses), literature is the extension of dreams and thoughts, where experience goes back out. We can’t know what it’s like to be a cat or a dog or an elephant or a snake. We might not know what it’s like to be a human. Literature is a way of explaining or illustrating what life is like. But notice how indirect it is. But certainly literature is art and art communicates. Literature is also a business, and like all human enterprise seeks to grow itself, advertise and market, compete in the marketplace.
VS: In addition to literature, I also practice theater. I’m writing a new play right now for my theater. How do you feel about drama. Do you consider it literature or something else?
JL: Drama is literature in action, as well as a kind of literary criticism in action, since each performance interprets the work in question. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote a wonderful book about an acting school. The title is “At Freddie’s.” I like small theatre work. Awhile back I sat in the front row in a very small theatre, the last seat by a stage door. An actor would open the door and it would hit my chair. I almost felt like I was in the play. It will give you an idea of the size of this theatre when I tell you its name: the ShoeBox Theatre. But they do everything, and you get acting, sounds off, settings, lighting, music, and a live audience to share the experience. The audience is literary criticism in silent action. Drama includes all of the characteristics of literature – narrative, plot, characters, setting, language, metaphor, symbol, plus costumes!
VS: How do you think. Is it a word to treat people or does it make them cripples?
JL: Huxley in “Doors of Perception” argues that the five senses act as much to keep reality out of the mind as to let it in. Blake says the same thing – that our senses limit our awareness. They seems to be saying that if the scales of the senses were lifted, we would be overwhelmed by reality. This is what Rilke means with his angel, and so yes, and again as Norman O. Brown said, the fall is into language. But I don’t think words as we have them necessarily disable us. They are what we have to work with. They are part of us, part of our body reaching out to grasp the world.
VS: I think that in the future the written language will change. Are you trying to come up with new letters, punctuation, etc., etc. ?
JL: I have recently started to voice text on my phone, instead of typing. The result can be confusing. For one thing, I’ve not figured out how to punctuate, or how to capitalize or not. But we could be heading toward a future without a written language. Or a written language that attempts in a bureaucratic way to avoid confusion entirely. This would be a purely mechanical writing, with no overtones, suggestive meanings, subjective implications. It would also be a dead language, all conventions fixed for once and all into one. (Let’s hope it’s neither MLA nor APA). Kafka’s writing is often perceived as confusing, dreamlike, yet his writing is very specific, very clear.
VS: Thank you Joe for an interesting interview. What do you want to tell our readers?
JL: Thank you for the interview, Vlad. I hope our readers are inspired to read and to write, from the poem written on a napkin at the table on a cafe sidewalk to a hopeful submission to the local zine, to the novel growing in a spiral notebook. Do not be overly concerned with writing as a kind of stuff we fill our living space with. Try writing to someone else, for someone else.
Joe Linker has published two novels, “Penina’s Letters” and “Coconut Oil,” and a children’s book, “Scamble and Cramble: Two Hep Cats and Other Tall Tales.” “Saltwort” is a collection of selected poetical writings. Shorter works have appeared in Berfrois, Queen Mobs Tea House, The Christian Science Monitor, The Oregonian, Glasgow Review of Books, Rocinante, The Sultan’s Seal, VerseType, Miriam’s Well, Silent Quicksand, and at the blog The Coming of the Toads.
Vlad* Savich was born in the USSR, where he was educated, married and fathered his daughter. As soon as the chance appeared to leave, he did. At present he lives in Montreal, where he writes, directs for the theatre and breathes the air of freedom. He can be found online at savich.lit.com.ua.
*He prefers not to be called Vladimir, so as not to be associated with the disreputable activity of a certain barnardine Russian leader.