Tom Fleischmann: Could you talk about the notebook idea at the heart of this writing, and how that process might affect the work?
Aaron Kunin: The notebook is the deepest layer of my work as a writer. I don’t remember exactly when I started writing in notebooks, maybe age nine or ten, whenever I read Louise Fitzhugh’s novel Harriet the Spy. Before that, I tried keeping a diary, but somehow that never worked for me. Fitzhugh suggested a way of having a special relationship with a book that would be close to you, carried with you at all times, that wasn’t a diary. Her character Harriet is a spy, which suggests that her writing is based on observation, but it isn’t. Harriet is interested more in impression than perception. She does not accept the universe. She writes in her notebook to transform it.
My practice as a writer has changed completely since I was ten years old, but my notebook has been consistent. Most of what I write is carefully planned and worked over, and some of the notes I take are related to projects that I’m working on or planning. But the rest of the notes are not for anything. They are just notes representing something that interested me for a moment, written in the first form that suggested itself.
It’s the latter kind of unformed or minimally formed writing that is represented in Secret Architecture. The title is taken from Baudelaire’s dubious claim that a system of occult correspondences between levels of reality governs his decisions as a writer. For Baudelaire, both the architecture and the secrecy are important. This is his ethics as an artist: that there is a structure, that he knows it, and no one else does. Personally, I don’t see the point of the secrecy; I like to be able to examine all the devices and decisions in a poem. So I use the phrase "secret architecture" a little sarcastically. It could mean, as in Baudelaire, that an unseen, intricate constellation connects these apparently formless language pieces. I prefer to think that the shapeless lumps are the architecture behind my writing. Or anyone’s writing–the line "Building complicated machines to confirm your prejudices" is intended as a universal slogan, one to which any person, or any group, could honestly subscribe. This is what writing has always been saying, and now it’s finally saying it!
Tom Fleischmann: Are you approaching new notebook writing, like “Awkward without w," differently than Secret Architecture?
Aaron Kunin: The notebooks in Secret Architecture are from 2001. Later I transcribed them, corrected spelling and usage, and deleted things that were written for other projects or that seemed unfair to someone or morbidly personal or boring. The final step was to lift a phrase out of each notebook to be used as a title.
After we did Secret Architecture, Noah Eli Gordon, who published the chapbook, asked if I wanted to try putting together a book-length selection from my notebooks. So I did, and "Awkward without w" (a notebook from 2002) is taken from that manuscript, which is called Grace Period. Here the process was the same, with the addition of a new layer of consciousness and doubt. "How did I do this when I compiled Secret Architecture?" "Am I remembering my procedure correctly?" "Am I sure that the procedure I used before was the right one?" And so on.
Tom Fleischmann: Awarding Secret Architecture the essay prize places it in a genre where you didn’t entirely intend for it to be. How do you think your project fits in with other contemporary essays, or with the lyric essay as a genre?
Aaron Kunin: Like lyric poetry, the prose essay has traditionally been comfortable saying “I.” Montaigne: “I myself am the substance of my book.” Maybe what distinguishes the essay as a genre is that its speaker positions are easier to locate. The speaker in an essay is talking to somebody. When essay becomes lyric, it develops a problem: where does the speaker’s voice come from? The convention that lyric is overheard speech sits uneasily with the convention that lyric is a virtual discourse. When I read a poem, I eavesdrop on someone else’s monologue; and at the same time, I become the speaker of the poem. These two features of lyric are not always incompatible, but it takes some work to keep them from repelling one another. The forms of lyric are a history of possible solutions to this problem.
Lyric in this sense is the basis for pretty much everything I do. When I get interested in something from another genre, such as a novel or a movie, I tend to look at it as an anthology of lyric pieces. Either that, or I only care about one of the pieces. So I have no objection to putting lyric to work in essays.
Tom Fleischmann: You talked about deleting things from Secret Architecture that were "morbidly personal or boring." Would including something that was too personal or revealing upset the rest of the project?
Aaron Kunin: It’s more a question of not upsetting people. I don’t think the book itself would be hurt by an excess of personal detail. The deletions are motivated by a sense of self-protection and a corresponding sense of courtesy to others who might not want to recognize themselves in my notebooks or in other published writing.
Here are two examples of the kind of thing that I delete. I often do sketches in the limited vocabulary from the “Sore Throat” poems–just testing to see what can be said in the vocabulary, in case I ever want to work with it again. I also seem to do a lot of descriptions of people eating. I don’t think any of that material shows up in Secret Architecture, but it is one of my major concerns. Maybe someday I will want to do a book of that, descriptions of people eating. That might be the most unfair, personal, and boring book that I could write.
Tom Fleischmann: I’m curious also about the choice to not move or rearrange the writing in the notebook. Is this connected to your desire to reveal the structure behind the writing? What would be lost if you did change the order?
Aaron Kunin: The chronological order makes everything in the book flow in one direction, forward. Unlike a diary, where the units are standardized, the notebook never becomes a reliable timepiece; between two sentences there could be an interval of an hour or several days, or no interval. Still, the drift forward gives a vague, familiar, daily shape to time. There’s also a contrary tendency for each sentence to separate from the others. The slight tension between the isolation of each sentence and the suggestion of a temporal movement out of which the sentences have been picked gives the book a bit of a shape. Changing the order, you would lose the vagueness and slightness, and you would probably bend time more aggressively.
Tom Fleischmann: Could you talk a bit about your interest in negative anthropology and ways it might be reflected in your writing? Particularly, the way this essay seems to reject a traditional impulse to derive knowledge about character, scene, etc.
Aaron Kunin: When asked to supply a biographical note, I sometimes describe myself as a practitioner of negative anthropology. It’s a joke that doesn’t seem to get old for me. It comes from the Raul Ruiz film Three Lives and Only One Death (originally entitled Three Double Lives and Only One Death), where Marcello Mastroianni plays six characters, one of whom is a professor of negative anthropology. In my case this imaginary branch of anthropology might suggest a slight skepticism about the reality of my academic appointment, which is in an English department.
Negative anthropology could also be an unrecognizable name for misanthropy, and in this sense it is genuinely relevant to my work. I’m not really interested in the hatred of humanity, but in something more objective: the act of withdrawing from the world. What happens to the world when the misanthrope withdraws from it is that it becomes two worlds. There’s the human society left behind, and the new and potentially better society that the misanthrope projects.
If the misanthrope is a paradigmatic character, then I would say that my interpretation of character is traditional. It reflects an older tradition than the one that would locate character in irreducible particularity. As I understand it, a character is an expression of an ideal. This is something like what character means to the Girl Scouts, for example.
Tom Fleischmann: As a reader, I find myself assuming your presence not only in the first person and in the role of observer, but in some of the "he’s" as well. Is this a misreading on my part, or are you sometimes placing yourself behind that distance?
Aaron Kunin: I sometimes write about myself in the third person (masculine and feminine, singular and plural). Like the first person, the third person is a kind of abstraction, but it’s a reportorial rather than lyrical way of generalizing. "He" also specifies masculinity, and thus comes with more of a context than "I." Is that a distancing device? I don’t think so. To maintain distance between speaker positions, you need the distinctions between the intimate and formal modes of address that modern English has relinquished.
The autobiographical "he" in The Education of Henry Adams probably is a distancing device. "He" is an attempt to separate the Adams who survives into the 20th century from the Adams who received an 18th-century education. "He" allows Adams to treat his own achievements with bitter irony; for example, the chapter covering his brilliant academic career, including the composition of the History of the United States, is entitled "Failure." The book is also famously reticent about basic facts such as his relationship with Clover Adams. (On the other hand, Adams dramatically closes the distance in the hymns to the virgin and the dynamo.)
There’s a line in "Awkward without w": "Same values, different suits." That might be a good way to think about the speaker positions. Unlike Adams, I don’t consistently write about myself in the third person. I call myself I, we, he, she, they, you, and one. I even use thou and it occasionally. (Maybe not in "Awkward without w.") But I also use these pronouns to speak for and about other people. Also, I sometimes make things up, but I’m not very good at that. So, to answer your question, you could be misreading.
Tom Fleischmann: The pronouns seem to conflate you with society in some ways, making the separation between you and other people uncertain, or at least hazy to the reader. How does this work with your interest in "withdrawing from the world?" Is it a forced engagement with society? Another move toward the invisibility of a uniform?
Aaron Kunin: I’ve noticed that problem in La Rochefoucauld. He has a cool, impersonal way of dealing with moral issues, which makes the modality of his writing somewhat ambiguous. His use of the pronoun we, which seems to collapse writer and reader in a single figure, is insidious; he also has a sneaky habit of qualifying his generalizations with phrases like "almost always" and "usually only." The collective that his "we" speaks for could be a norm, an ideal, or a simple majority. He might be imagining himself as the rule or the exception. He might think that his society could be improved, or he might think that it’s perfect, or he might think that there’s no other way to organize a society. One can say, at least, that he must be trying very hard not to indicate mood.
This interview, conducted over a month-long period, was made for the Essay Prize by Tom Fleischmann, the nonfiction editor of DIAGRAM magazine, and a graduate of the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa.