Saturday, August 11th a full house packed Footnote, the newest cafe/bar and event space by Foothills Brewery, for the launch of Chris Wilson’s Mogul fashion line, a ready-to-wear series of t-shirts, hoodies, hats, tank tops, sweatpants, leggings and other streetwear.
Mogul is fashion with a passion that is close to Wilson’s heart. He lost his brother CJ to suicide in the early 2000s and, as a result, he has made it his mission to raise awareness and promote positive mental health by donating portions of each Mogul sale to Suicide Prevention and mental health programs.
“Elevate” was the title and theme of the inaugural Mogul show. Wilson tied the event together by walking the runway between rounds, sharing his mission and passion for bringing Mogul to the public. He described his goal for the evening and the Mogul brand as a whole to “Elevate your Life, Elevate your Mental Health, Elevate your Wardrobe.”
Wilson designs all of Mogul’s graphics and collaborates with other artists on featured pieces. He holds his line to a high standard and carefully selects the garments he produces. Some pieces are custom manufactured. Mogul’s graphics are screen printed by Machine Gun Graphics and embroidered by LOCAL Apparel. For Elevate, he teamed up with Air By Alkali for hair and makeup.
“Elevate was amazing,” Wilson said, “and I would love to continue the conversation around suicide prevention and positive mental health. A lot of people, ones I didn’t even know prior, came up to me after the show to tell me thank you and share their story and how they connect with my mission. That’s what keeps me going.”
This is only the beginning. Mogul is moving forward. “As far as future projects I have some pop-up shops planned,” Wilson said, “collaborations and other fun projects, so everyone stay tuned!
What speaks loudest about Mogul is Wilson’s heart and passion for his brand’s mission and the honest elevation of positive mental health and awareness of a real issue affecting our community.
Chinese art and politics are often inseparable. While propaganda immediately comes to mind, so too do ink landscapes which covertly address political animosity. However, some artists intend to employ technical skill and aesthetics in order to express a complex emotional interiority. Mona Wu, a Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based artist, does exactly this by drawing upon her extensive background in both art history and practice in order to explore surface design and aesthetic beauty. Her work, although declaratively apolitical, proclaims rather politically that contemporary Chinese artists are not required to rely on State critique––criticism of one’s government––to create meaningful works of art. All of this considered, Wu’s refusal to follow trends within contemporary Chinese art, in addition to her identity, index their own political statements to her work. Through beautiful prints that reference Chinese culture, art, and poetry, Wu further highlights the inherent politicization of Chinese art and art history, pushing for more within her cultural heritage.
As a beloved member of her local arts community, Wu received the 2003 Artist of the Year Award from the Sawtooth School for the Visual Arts, a community arts school where she teaches Chinese painting, calligraphy, and printmaking techniques. This is an unlikely story for the Macau-born artist who, after moving to Hong Kong to study nursing, could only practice art-making in her free time. In Hong Kong, Wu enrolled in Chinese painting and calligraphy courses, copying and learning the styles of the dynastic master ink painters. She immigrated to the United States in 1970, ultimately settling in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In 1996, she earned a Bachelor’s degree in art history at Salem College with Professor Penny Griffin, a specialist in East Asian art. During Wu’s undergraduate career, she took up printmaking courses and continued to audit with Professor David Faber at Wake Forest University for the next eighteen years.
In order to gain a critical understanding of Wu and her work, I arranged a studio visit and interview at her home in Winston-Salem. Upon entering her house, a two-story colonial at the end of a cul-de-sac, it becomes apparent that art permeates every aspect of her life. To the left of the foyer, a large 16th-century dynastic ink painting depicting a drunk yet contemplative scholar hangs as the centerpiece ensconced among white furniture, crisp white curtains, and glass décor. Wu mentions her intentionality in designing this room in order to complement the painting. In the living room, flanked by two panels of her own prints, even her television becomes a triptych. After a tour of her home, Wu leads me to her basement gallery and studio space, showing me various artifacts, including ink paintings, prints, and books. In her studio, myriad scraps of prints, blocks, and acrylic cut-out shapes litter the room, all employed by her to achieve variations on similar themes within her oeuvre.
Wu’s work emits a strong sense of antiquarianism––a fascination with history and artifact. She thoughtfully references 11th-century Chinese bird-and-flower paintings and blue-green landscape painting (青绿山水). In Yellow Mountains Remembered (figure 1), she employs visual language established in the blue-green landscape painting genre popularized in the Tang dynasty and subsequently practiced until the end of the Qing dynasty. In this print, she incites the past through memory. Wu reinvents the bygone painting traditions of blue-green landscape paintings and bird-and-flower paintings through a minimalist design aesthetic that avoids political issues. While Chinese landscapes are generally allegories for political strife, using landscape elements as metaphors for emotion, she says that her art allows her to “escape from politics as a safe space.” This sets her work apart from the common trend of State and political critique within contemporary Chinese art.
While some Chinese landscape painting historically addressed inner political struggles—often represented by the distorted trees and bleak wintery mountains of rural China—Wu focuses her attention on aesthetics in order to pay homage to her visit to the Yellow Mountains in the Anhui Province. Yellow Mountains Remembered, through its design and aesthetics, employs the same strategies as paintings such as Wang Ximeng’s One Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains, painted in the Northern Song period (figure 2). Sinuous clouds evoke Gu Kaizhi’s iconic feminine adornments, and mountainous peaks and valleys invoke the emotional excitement of a rollercoaster (figure 3). However, the solitary red temple Wu places amid the Yellow Mountains instills a calm amongst the thrill. She manages to achieve an emotional upswelling within the viewer separate from any political meaning. Despite this rejection of political discourse within the work itself, Wu succeeds in expressing an enriched emotional interiority turned outwards.
Another work, Farewell Moon , draws upon 11th-century bird-and-flower painting (figure 4). The artists working within the bird-and-flower genre typically create displays of anatomically correct flora and fauna, with myriad-sized life in order to show the size and scale of a cricket as compared to a turtle or lotus flower. Works like Huang Quan’s Birds by Sketching Life , painted in the Song dynasty, exemplify the scientific accuracy inherent to these paintings (figure 5). Farewell Moon features two minimally depicted clownfish and a turtle within a body of water. On a separate perspectival plane appear a maple tree and a bar of coral disjointed from the surface of the water, thus retaining atmospheric perspective––the fogginess elicited through receding ink wash largely associated with Chinese art. However, through this minimal depiction Wu reinvents the bird-and-flower genre by rejecting its scientific nature. The poem, composed by famed Southern Song poet, Xin Qiji and overlaid through a ghost print, poses questions to the moon such as “Is there another world, where you will rise in the west?” and “Is there another planet, to where long wind will take you?” Although not a particularly political genre, Wu’s reimagined bird-and-flower prints further prove her ability to employ genres of dynastic Chinese art, while refreshing their associated meaning in order to serve her own purposes––the joy of art making and display of technical mastery.
While Wu’s work is arguably apolitical, there is often an inseparable intersection between politics and Chinese art. The 1942 Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art represents the seminal conceptualization of the relationship between art and politics in twentieth-century China. There, Mao Zedong famously said “there is, in fact, no such thing as art for art’s sake… art that is detached from or independent of politics.” Mao suggests two ideas through this quote: 1) that Chinese artists employed their art for one of two purposes, to help or hurt the Chinese communist party, and 2) that art is a political commodity. The underlying implications illuminate a sentiment of artists possessing ulterior motives, thus proposing that Wu in fact does harbor political ideologies within her work. While she did grow up during the Cultural Revolution, she lived in the colony of Macau, far removed from Mao’s politics. Since moving to the United States, she has enjoyed the freedom of expression, a right still unavailable to many Chinese artists living and working domestically. Therefore, the function of covert political messaging is not pertinent to her work. In fact, if she insisted on criticizing Chinese politics, it would perhaps serve her better to do so overtly.
At the same time, Wu’s works do indeed take on their own covert political messaging through their apolitical nature. Focussing on formal innovation and technical experimentation, as they service the aesthetic likeness of her works, she offers a counterpoint to the highly politicized nature of contemporary Chinese art. While other contemporary Chinese artists such as Ai Weiwei and Yue Minjun have permeated the art market with their State critique, Wu offers her own political statements on the condition of the Chinese political landscape by avoiding just that—obvious political criticism.
Must Chinese artists exercise their freedom of expression by criticizing the communist leaders of China? Wu references a history of politicized art in dynastic China, offering her audience a link between the past and present. She reveals Chinese art to be an inherently politicized genre and asks more of her history. Her work feels refreshing and light-hearted, allowing for the appreciation of technique and design rather than contemplating and romanticizing either a communist or anti-communist sentiment.
Beyond any political statements regarding the state of Chinese art, Wu’s art is inherently politicized by her identity as a Chinese artist working in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that two percent of the population of Winston-Salem self-identifies as Asian and roughly ten percent are foreign-born. Having lived in the U.S. nearly 50 years, Wu offers a valuable perspective of diversity through her art, enriching both her local arts community and the culture of the greater Piedmont Triad region––an area in north-central North Carolina marked by three major cities: Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem. However, by boldly asserting her Chinese identity within a majority white space, Wu’s art inevitably becomes political.
However, Wu’s hybridity ultimately allows her to develop an apolitical politics. While her work is still heavily influenced by her cultural heritage and the education she received in China, she is equally influenced by her education at Salem College. In the catalogue produced for her 2003 Artist of the Year Award, Billy McClain writes “[Wu’s] work continues to exhibit her interest in combining Oriental techniques and imagery in western printmaking processes.” The result is something new entirely, an art of her own.
If Mona Wu’s work interests you, you can see more here, or in person at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on view from October 18 to November 18, 2018.
An earlier, alternate form of this essay previously appeared on SEM TÍTULO
 Barnhart, R. M. (2002). Three thousand years of Chinese painting. Yale University Press.
 Cheek, T. (2014). Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art. In Mao Zedong and China’s Revolutions: A Brief History with Documents (pp. 112-117). Palgrave Macmillan.
You have always disturbed my nights, Homunculus, and I am making no mention of days here, for you’ll never have the slightest idea what they are. Both are one and the same to you, as alike as, say, the sun and the moon…
You thus deeply aggrieved me, Homunculus, when I spotted that laboratorial halo in your frail being.
I was a wretch at the time, young man; too diffident to sniff the scent of my victory. Nay, I even thought I had lost…
At times, your halo pushed me into doubts whether I should acknowledge it as such or not. Anyway, what good are my doubts? What matters now is but the fact that you are a made-up creature, threatening to pass your contrivance onto other embryos ever conceived in fertile, healthy wombs.
This is what scares me, Homun. This is what I am scared of…
Scent of Linden Blossom
After such a long time, scent of linden trees on the streets. Scent of linden! On occasion, greenery blasts in blossom when least expected.
I hurry to finish my errands before sunset, for, afterwards, bats give me the creeps, running against walls and getting nowhere!
It’s horrible to be robbed of your eyesight, my friend. Horrible!!!
“Why are you insisting to interrupt me, Homun? If the scent of linden offends your nose so badly, farther down, on the right of fall, there are some crags.
There you can sit and wait for your buddies, the bats…”
A lab is a woman, but not a mother, Homun. In there, songs hit the glass panes like meaningless sounds and the cuckoo’s call may reach you like a refrain of sirens.
A lab is merely a woman, my dear. The gestation within a shell’s womb swells up in skeletal dimensions.
A mother it will never ever become, as long as its wills be entrusted to the memory of leaves and infinite blueness be not accepted as the ultimate limit…
A Memory from Two Oak Trees
(instead of a good-morning greeting)
On the trunks of two oak trees up on the mountain, I and you, Homun, used to carve our names.
You wouldn’t stop laughing at Faust, while he toiled to engrave our names on stone: “Go, master Sisyphus, go!” you would cheer.
Today, I am taking a walk on these parts. Alas, our oaks must have been cut down long ago. Legible is but a FA in the quarry of sounds…
It Was Your Ultimate Role, Homunculus!
Incense of fire Incense of fire Incense of fire Through breezy fingers over two guitar strings.
The orchestra begins to heat up for no good reason…
I don’t dance that dance, Homunculus. Age-wise, I am a perennial leaf, and my every effort to arrest the air is rewarded with phantom flights.
Incense of fire Incense of fire Incense of fire Through breezy fingers over four guitar strings.
Neither should you dance that dance, Homunculus, a creature contrived as you are, nought born. One must love way too much to not perish altogether.
Dancers of your like got scythed by a gust of wind while, in extasy, they were busy cutting hyacinths. You are the last one of that dynasty, Homunculus!
Incense of smoke Incense of smoke Incense of smoke The guitar vanished in thin air.
Ah, my son, why wouldn’t you for once listen to me?! That was your ultimate role toward perfection, that was your single role…
Requiem to the Exile-Bound Light
(time: 6.59 AM)
Thirstisdrying even the shores to the last drop! Weak of vibe and wing,
the seagull is lost in doomsday thoughts
of her homelands soon to remain but memories. Vengeful pangs, of a darker purple than sunsets,
command her to silence, prayer, and back to silence. Amen!
Alisa Velaj has been shortlisted for the annual international Erbacce-Press Poetry Award in UK in June 2014. Her works have appeared in more than eighty print and online international magazines, including: Michigan’s Best Emerging Poets (USA), San Diego Poetry Annual (USA), FourW twentyfive Anthology (Australia), The Journal (UK), The Dallas Review (USA), The Linnet’s Wings (UK) The Seventh Quarry (UK), Envoi Magazine (UK) etcetc. Her poems are also translated and published in Hebrew, Swedish, Romanian, French, Bengali and Portuguese. Velaj’s digital chapbook The Wind Foundations, translated by Ukë Zenel Buçpapaj is published by Zany Zygote Review (USA). Alisa Velaj’s poetry book With No Sweat At All will be published by Cervena Barva Press in 2019.
I drive to Charlotte and meet Ray at a mansion where he’s shooting his latest music video. The vibe is electric. His family and team are there cooking food and hanging out. Everyone’s super cool, chill, and welcoming. I take out my camera, grab some shots, and talk with Ray about where he’s headed next.
Ray GotIt is a rap artist living in Winston-Salem, NC. He’s released two mixtapes and has a full-length on the way. You can find his music on Spotify, Apple Music, or Spinrilla, where you can download his mixtapes for free.
Noted in this interview are Justin Barnett (JB) and Ray GotIt (RGI).
JB: What’s been up with you?
RGI: Chasing a bag and preparing myself spiritually, mentally, & physically for my flight to Phoenix Arizona. A lot of changes. Ready to work with my new record label and
produce some great music. I’ve been on a promotion tour for a few weeks building my
following, but I’m ready to get back to work in the studio.
JB: How has your location affected your music?
RGI: It’s better for me in some ways. I’m able to make music that’s more relatable to the
masses since leaving home. The more I take in, the more I have to give to my fans.
JB: How has your traveling with the music been?
RGI: Great. It’s no feeling like gaining new fans and supporters who enjoy good music. You often get more support on the road over where you’re born and raised. I suggest every artist travels, whether you have a deal or not. Everyone you start with won’t make it to the end but you have to trust the process and move forward everyday.
“It’s always better to choose something over not choosing anything” —RGI
JB: What inspires your decisions in production?
RGI: I’m all about the vibes and energy of a beat. I like to kick back, smoke, and let the
instrumentals play. I choose with my heart, not my mind. I’m a storyteller, so I put pain
and passion on all my instrumentals. No trap rap. Everything heartfelt.
JB: What’s the story behind your name, Ray GotIt?
RGI: Honestly, the name came from just being a guy who ALWAYS finds a way to work
things out for others. Don’t matter what it is, I GOT YOU. “Man with the plan” is what
many called me. I often put others’ happiness before mine, and I used to take pride in
making their day even when I was in bad situations personally. I haven’t always had the
best solution or methods, but I’ve always cared enough to give those around me “the
best of me,” period. Effort is everything. I also made good money hustling in the streets
for several years before my first record deal. That gave the name “GotIt” a different
meaning to the public that also fit my life and what I had to offer to others. Nowadays I
feel God has blessed me with many talents and has chosen me to help change HIS
people through music.
JB: What impact do you want your music to have?
I want it to cause people to believe in themselves! I make music for those who are down
but NOT out. My music’s all pain/struggle mixed with positive messages. I need people to listen and meditate. Life has been a struggle for me, I just look better than what I been
JB: If you had the choice to do a cross-genre collab with any famous artist, who would it
RGI: Rihanna or Chris Brown
JB: What are some “bucketlist” type goals you have for your music career?
RGI: Billboard charts and getting booked overseas.
“Life has been a struggle for me, I just look better than what I been through.”
JB: Can you give us a hint on what’s next from Really Getting It?
RGI: Major flight to AZ up next… Huge video dropping on WorldStar this month… A lot of community events are being put in place this year for the kids who are less fortunate, sponsored by Gotit Ent. It’s time to show why God chose me!
my poor wife! all i ask of her is telepathy,
maybe some antlers, the ability to eat
glacier and spit out flame. lawyers on
radios say this happens all the time.
still i’m queasy about turning our
backs on the view off catalina. or
even a grub eating a leaf, nazareth
miracles on stained glass windows.
don’t tell the starving children
about the buffet left untouched,
the five-star gourmet dumpster.
skies as plush as a child’s toys,
mountainous clouds tumbling
down barton, farther down a
rust-coloured stain, relentless
as gangrene, and aldermen
building castles out of sand.
the sign says yield but i’m
too stubborn. in a frenzy
like before the evacuation
we take heat lightning
as a sign of the divine.
angels or mirages, go
ahead: surprise me.
Darrell Epp is a poet living in Ontario, Canada. His poetry has appeared in over 120 magazines on 6 continents. His third collection, Sinners Dance, was published by Mosaic Press in April. Read an interview with Darrell Epp.
Gavin Engholm is a young artist from San Diego, CA, now living in Bentonville, AR. His goal has always been to spread more creativity in the world, but specifically to bring more west coast culture to Northwest Arkansas.
He uses skateboards as his canvas, fusing styles from multiple different art cultures as he travels the world, inspiring artists into a whole new industry among this fast-growing city of Bentonville.
I’m not wiping sweat from my forehead but cobwebs from the metal ferns; I appear to be drunk on 23rd street having forgot the name of my hotel again; I see the scaffolds around famous Chelsea her velvet claws sticking out like the hotels sharpened teeth dripping blood onto fire hydrants and the busy streets below;
I talk with bar-men who speak with two accents yellow cabs pierce tall smoky traffic queues I hear a city that never sleeps whisper to me down blocks of red brick and repetition of basket-ball parks where the smell of Cinnamon from a Deli drifts next to an Irish pub cooking fresh chowder— breathe in the smell and break the chains of morning;
I hear a city that never sleeps whisper to me, it’s time for bed.
Matt Duggan’s poems have appeared in The Journal, Into the Void, Lakeview International Literary Journal, Osiris Poetry Journal. Matt won the Erbacce Prize for Poetry in 2015 with his first full collection Dystopia 38.10(erbacce-press) and the Into the Void Poetry Prize in 2016. He has a new chapbook out called A Season in Another World (Thirty West Publishing House) and has just returned from a reading tour along the East Coast of the U.S., including Philadelphia, Boston and New York, where he wrote this poem.
We meet at Tate’s off 4th street. I’m running late, and as I rush from the afternoon sun through the door, the darkness of the bar is almost overwhelming. Slowly, my eyes adjust to the ceiling of string lights, and I find Eric Wilson seated down at the far end of the room, contemplating a glass of bourbon.
He looks like a rockstar, with a black sport coat, t-shirt, jeans, and boots. His hair is high and tight and silver. He looks just like he did when I first met him as a grad student in the Wake Forest University English department. “You know what I loved about being a grad student?” he had asked us during orientation, leaning back in his chair. “The professors didn’t give a shit.”
From that moment on, I was a fan. I read his essays that appeared in the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. I devoured his books of creative non-fiction: Everyone Loves a Good Trainwreck, Against Happiness, and Keeping It Fake. In his writing, I quickly found a model for how I, too, wanted to write—an encyclopedic lyricist, but also honest, direct, and kind.
His newest book of fiction, Polaris Ghost, is closer in vision to William Blake, closer in tone to David Lynch, but unmistakably still Eric Wilson, a crafted persona he parodies and ultimately dismembers.
[Noted in this interview are Alex Muller (AM) and Eric Wilson (EW). Later, they are joined by a barfly named Will. This interview has been condensed and edited, slightly, for clarity. I’ve mostly removed my own dumbass interjections of “cool,” “that’s interesting,” or “I see.” Occasionally I’ve made notes in brackets, as I did here.]
AM: Thanks again for doing this interview.
EW: I’m glad to do it. I like talking about myself
AM: Who doesn’t, right? Well, cheers to you.
EW: Cheers to you too, Alex.
AM: Now what are you drinking again?
EW: It’s a kind of bourbon.It’s called “Bulleit.” It’s called—embarrassingly—it’s called “the frontier whiskey” because the bottle looks like it might have come off the Deadwood set. And it’s not spelled “bullet” like you would expect—it’s b-u-l-l-e-i-t. [Laughs]
AM: Oh, I gotcha. That’s good. I would have spelled it the plebeian way.
EW: Of course when I think of bullet, I don’t think of the bourbon but of the great Steve McQueen film. [Spelled Bullitt, interestingly enough]. It came out in like 1967, when McQueen was at the height of his cool. He plays this kind of world-weary, melancholy, nihilistic cop who is offered the luscious love of Jacqueline Bisset. But all he cares about is his bullets. [Laughs] It’s like if Camus wrote cop films. That’s what this would be.
AM: Yeah, so I’m kind of a film novice, but I have been on a pretty big Lynch kick recently. One of the parallels that’s been drawn between Polaris Ghost and Lynch is Blue Velvet, which maybe we can talk about in a moment, but a couple of the Lynch films I’ve checked out recently have been Dune and The Art Life. So I’m interested in connecting to—well, maybe not Dune. But definitely The Art Life. Your postscript in Polaris Ghost refers to that book, which influenced Lynch and gave him the title for that documentary.
EW: So for my postscript, I made up a quote from the guy who wrote The Art Life—whose name I can’t remember at this point. But I thought it would be interesting because my epigraph was from Blake’s art teacher, Basire, which I also made up! But in doing so, I’m following the lead of Edgar Allan Poe, who more than once made up an epigraph attributed to someone real. I just love that idea of creating a kind of fake authority.
The book has what I would call a kind of gnostic sensibility, meaning it’s very much pushing against any kind of oppressive thought system. And to me, the most oppressive idea in the West is the idea of a cogent, unified, autonomous self. So the book’s interested in exploring a self as irreducibly fragmented. There’s this idea that there are authorities who pass down knowledge to individuals that shape them. I was just trying to play around with that by making up these fake authorities. And they’re kind of inside jokes because I doubt really anyone would know, which is the same as Poe—no one knows.
So, The Art Life is interesting. I did look at it at some point, even though I don’t remember the author’s name. It’s almost like a self-help book. It’s like a collection of aphorisms with this kind of “aw shucks” American spirit. It’s like if Emerson crossed with Norman Vincent Peale wrote an art book, that’s what it would be. “Get up and go today, boy! Atta boy!” Which is very Lynchian, you know. As Mel Brooks said, Lynch is Jimmy Stewart from Mars, so Lynch himself is always saying things like “golly gee” and “gee whiz!”
But that’s what makes him so weird, right? Because he’s this avant-garde filmmaker, but he comes across as if he’s still living in 1956 Montana. And in his publicity line, he often writes “Eagle Scout: Missoula, Montana.” As if those are the most salient facts about him.
AM: That’s true. As if it’s like his MFA program or something.
EW: But that’s what’s so cool about Lynch to me, because in his film and in his persona I never know if I should be serious or laugh.
AM: I think that’s interesting in the context of your work as well. You know, I’ve read what I call the Eric Wilson Trilogy, starting with Against Happiness, then Everybody Loves a Good Trainwreck, and Keeping It Fake.
So, one thing I was surprised to find in Polaris Ghost was the subject of grace. You write about grace pretty extensively in your other work. But fairly early on in Polaris Ghost you have a father telling his daughter, “This is grace. It’s a stroke of luck that saves you from dying.” And when I read that, I was kind of taken aback because I didn’t expect grace to come up here. After finishing that chapter, I wasn’t sure how seriously to take it—if it was a sincere form of grace or something else.
I wonder for you how grace factors into this work.
EW: Okay, good. That’s great. So, I guess I’ll start with what I would call “serious grace.” Now, really that comes out of my reading of Blake. In my book My Business Is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing, and also in my memoir The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace, I see grace in a pretty traditional way. If justice is a world of cause and effect, grace—connected to mercy—kind of breaks that up.
It connects to that great moment late in King Lear when Lear sees Cordelia. He kind of gains his senses for a second and says to her, basically, “You have much cause to hate me.” And she says, “No cause, no cause,” which just captures beautifully this idea that mercy and grace push against causality. And in a way, therefore, break the idea of temporality entirely.
AM: So it’s kind of gnostic in that sense, then, like you said before.
EW: Yes! And I would even go further and I would connect it to—well, kind of a darker version of this: If you read Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be,” he’s constantly using the infinitive. It’s like he won’t conjugate a verb. And Keats does this at the beginning of “To Autumn.” So, the infinitive, it’s like a verb not yet tensed, and it suggests a kind of infinity, and I feel that’s kind of what grace does. It lifts us up to infinity, to this state of pure potentiality, where you’re not yet tensed into past, present, or future.
AM: I’m wondering if the openness of the text would kind of be a form of grace itself—this kind of splitting of this Polaris figure and these fragmented identities.
EW: I think it’s a very sophisticated understanding of the book that I myself didn’t even imagine, but I’m thinking of it now.
I saw the fragmentation more as a kind of self alienated from itself, and therefore in despair. But I like to think—there are these moments of vision in the book—let me back up.
One of my favorite films is Last Days, directed by Gus Van Sant. And it’s about the last days of Kurt Cobain—loosely. It’s a film about all these 20ish-year-old people who are totally disoriented—
[At this point, a young man a few chairs over from us at the bar interjects. He introduces himself as Will]
Will: Excuse me, you guys are talking about writing. Do you mind if I just sit here and listen? I’m having a hard time hearing you from my seat over here and it sounds very interesting.
[We introduce ourselves and catch him up on the conversation, The Arrival, Polaris Ghost. One of my favorite Modest Mouse songs starts playing in the background].
EW: So, all of these alienated, despairing 20-year-olds, one of whom is the Kurt Cobain character, are totally disconnected from anything significant. But then, occasionally, you hear this weird ambient sound of chimes ringing, or trains, or children singing. No one else hears it. It’s like this other realm that no one else gets—and this movement is a soundscape symphony called The Doors of Perception.
Only at the very end, when the Kurt Cobain character is getting ready to walk into the greenhouse to commit suicide, he turns around as if he hears the chimes. It’s like this visionary world that just floats above this world of fragmentation.
So there are moments in Polaris Ghost where I discuss moments of polar discovery, and those are meant to be those moments of this world of unity and light that Polaris isn’t getting. So I like the idea that the fragmentation, like in Eliot’s The Wasteland, suggests a panorama of futility, but also there’s the possibility that the very breaking up of self opens up the possibility of a reformation of something new.
AM: Yeah, in Ben Lerner’s work he connects it to Giorgio Agamben’s idea of “the coming community,” where, like you’re saying, there’s this hovering world, almost the sublime hovering world, that’s superimposed over our own. And these glimpses where we see how they come together are both fragmented and unifying.
EW: I mean, it’s a very Christian idea. That only by having the body ripped apart can the spirit thrive. It has a long history, and a pre-Christian history—you have the descent into hell with Odysseus—that only when you go down into the darkness and become dismembered—like Odysseus, like Dionysus also, and Yeats says it too—something has to be torn and rent before it can become whole.
AM: I’m wondering too—at first in my mind this was an unrelated question, but now I’m wondering if it’s related. [I turn to Will]. This is a total spoiler alert—are you into Twin Peaks at all, Will?
Will: Is a fish—uh, YES!
EW: As a fish takes to water, you take to David Lynch?
Will: Well, the new stuff gave me too much of an existential crisis in the first three episodes for me to continue, but I plan to go back to it in about six months.
AM: That’s understandable. Well, don’t listen to this question because it’s one of the final scenes—
[Will sticks his fingers in his ears].
That last scene in the new season, the scream. I’m wondering about that moment of utter anguish, where this character has become two different identities, and there’s this scream that’s both kind of a moment of realization and unity, of things coming together, but also total disparity—and despair.
I was wondering about the scream in that moment, possibly in connection to the idea of being ripped apart, and also in the very end of your book, when the husband who’s become a boar is coming back to himself and making this animal sound—or trying to—and that incredible last line: “if anyone could have heard it, it would have been a sound that was almost human.”
EW: So, one of the reasons Lynch likes crying so much in his films and in Twin Peaks—you know the Pilot, everybody’s constantly weeping—weeping for Lynch is a bit like screaming. It’s like a pre-linguistic or an alinguistic expression of a powerful emotion. And I think one of the reasons Lynch is so skeptical of language, both in his films and in person, is that he has the sense that language is always abstraction. It always removes us from an experience. The minute you can talk about something, you’re not that something anymore.
So I think that in some ways that scream at the end has that same power. On the one hand, it’s horrifying. It’s terror. But on the other hand, there’s a sense of breakage in normal ways of making sense of the world through language. So there could be a sense of something-else-ness that comes with the scream, that can often come with the crying. I mean, it goes back in some ways to Lynch’s interest in surrealism and Dadaism, this idea that meaninglessness has a kind of power. Because if meaning is always linguistic, it’s somewhat oppressive. So meaninglessness can be liberating in some cases—screaming, crying.
I guess that’s what I’d say about that right now, but I think it does have that duplicity you’re talking about. It’s horrible, but it does suggest there’s something else beyond our normal ways of making sense of the world.
I would say that the experimental qualities of Polaris Ghost—I think it reads clearly from page to page, but overall it’s quite enigmatic in ways that I’m not sure I can explain. And I don’t really care because I was really suspicious of “meaning,” you know, theme and motif, symbol and allegory. And that’s one reason I got so interested in fairy tales—the book has these seven weird kind of fairy tales.
Fairy tales are these vehicles of very traditional meaning or morality, and I wanted to set up the expectation that “this is a fairy tale, there’s going to be some greater meaning,” and then in the end there’s nothing at all.
But there’s a difference between confusion and ambiguity. Confusion’s when you see a movie or read a work of literature and you’re like, “What the fuck is that?” And you’re ready to walk out. Whereas ambiguity, to me, suggests lots of potential meanings, but you can’t quite get to them.
AM: We’ve talked a lot about fragmentation, but when I read this book, having read some of your previous work, it feels so cohesive in certain ways—in the sense, perhaps, that this is the book that you were always coming to. This is the book that was always on the tip of your tongue before. Is that something you thought about as you were writing it?
EW: Yes. Very much so. Well you know, you’ve read my philosophical essays and what you call my trilogy, which is a very flattering thing to say. Were you at Wake when Brian Evenson read?
EW: So that was a fucking watershed moment. It really was a huge moment. So, I heard the reading, and he read this story about the two girls who both experience the absence of the parents in radically different ways. And I just thought, “Wow.” It’s like he’s going into an ordinary situation of childhood sadness, but going into it and describing it in such a way that feels like a fairy tale from 3000 years ago. And then of course he read that story about the woman fucking the mime. [Laughs]
So I immediately got the book Fugue State and I read it. And it opened something in me. I was like, “Fuck. You can write fiction that way?” I mean, I know Kafka did it, but. So, I immediately wrote what became the boar story, like three days after Brian Evenson read. And then I wrote the first two stories, the one about the boy wanting to see the dead boy and the one about the boy finding the dead cat, or the dead things under his bed. It just came.
And I just thought, yes. This is what I’ve been wanting to write, and I’ve been afraid. I’ve been hiding behind ideas and theories and nonfiction. And those are fine books and all, but I really felt like something was released. I felt like I was born [Laughs] to write Polaris Ghost.
I mean, not all of it came so easily. But Hawthorne said of The Scarlet Letter, “I more and more came to see the writing of that book as a form of music.” And he said, “All I had to do was get in the right key and I could write forever.” In other words, it’s not the plot, it’s the voice. And I kind of felt that way about Polaris Ghost, with the kind of deadpan voice in the fairy tales. I felt like I could write forever, like 1000 pages in that voice. It just felt so right.
So, in some ways, I feel like Polaris Ghost is my very first book. [Laughs] My first real book.
AM: I love that idea of music. I was also interested in the voice you adopted—and kind of crafted—in these stories. There’s several voices, but the two that I’m most interested are the kind of straightforward fairy tale voice—“I am doing this, we will do this, and then we will do that”—and the other is almost like an inversion. And that comes through a lot with Ella, where you get all these introductory clauses that lead up to the final meaning of the sentence. But by the time you get there, you’ve almost lost the train of thought.
And I’m wondering, to come back to your previous point on the infinitive and the infinite, if that inversion is a play on that?
EW: Well, it wasn’t consciously, but I think in terms of these voices that makes sense. What’s appealing to me about what I’m calling the “fairy tale” world is that there’s this sentence to sentence simplicity and clarity, where I know exactly what that says and exactly what that says. And then where you get to the end—if it’s an interesting fairy tale—you’re like, “What the fuck?”
So that voice was more declarative. And I was going for a more deadpan, meaning removed, as if it’s a kind of folkloric voice. As in, I might be telling this story around a fire or something, but it’s not about my subjectivity. It’s more about me voicing the story.
Now, the Ella voice is a much more lush, lyrical voice that I wanted to suggest. Well, Emily Dickinson was really behind that: “I dwell in Possibility— / A fairer House than Prose—” And Dickinson’s idea that the poetic pushes against the prosaic. So, I wanted Ella’s voice to be lyrical and almost inscrutable.
And so, whereas the fairy tales are paratactical—“I did this, and I did that,” etc.—the Ella stories are more hypotactical—“Although she did that, he did that.” They’re more dependent on that subordination where you can lose the meaning. But it’s less about the meaning and more of a reverberation, like you only get the meanings as they kind of echo after you’re done with the sentence.
AM: Because of that effect with the language, it forced me to go back and re-read, especially at the end of certain chapters. I would get to the end and then have to go back to find where I had lost what was happening.
So, this was one of the many senses of doubling, for me as a reader, where you have both the expectation of what you’ve read and the reality of what the text says on the page.
To give you an example of that, one of the coolest moments for me was at your book release back in March, at Bookmarks. And you read one of the first pieces I had read from this book, the chapter “Oddity.” I had originally read it when you shared it on Facebook, so as you were reading in the bookstore, I was grinning like an idiot, following along with my memory of where the story was going. But by the time you had gotten to the ending, I felt like there used to be more to the story.
So, you have all these examples of women throwing jewelry—rings, necklaces—I was almost positive the earlier draft brought in Laura Palmer throwing her locket in Fire Walk With Me. Was that ever part of it?
EW: Wow. No, but now I wish it was. I think it definitely connects, but no, it was never in there.
AM: Well now the mystery is solved.
[At this point, Will brings up how the locket in Fire Walk With Me is depicted differently than it was originally in Twin Peaks, and we talk about how David Foster Wallace was one of the few who had praised the film, specifically for its redemptive representation of Laura Palmer’s subjectivity.]
AM: Well, to come back to Lynch. One of my favorite moments from The Art Life is when he describes bringing his father down into his basement, where he was keeping all these jars of bugs and just kind of grotesque experiments. He was so excited, for whatever reason, to show them to his father. And as they’re coming back up the stairs, his dad says to him, “David. Don’t ever have children.” [Laughs]
I can appreciate that moment, where your family is legitimately concerned because of these things that you’re creating. That anxiety shows up throughout Lynch’s work—probably greatest with Leland and Laura Palmer—and I wonder how you feel about that with your own work.
You’ve written a lot about your daughter in the past, and she appears in this book as well, although somewhat transmuted. So, on some level she’s your daughter, but she’s also an element of your psyche—as is the wife, as are the other characters throughout the book. And I’m not trying to conflate you with the narrators, but I wonder what it’s like to write about your daughter.
EW: Not that one should engage in biographical criticism, because we totally shouldn’t, but yeah, I guess that fear in Polaris Ghost came from a fear of losing my daughter. You know, my marriage was falling apart, and I was afraid that I would lose my daughter.
But the book is also very much about the loss of innocence, almost in a Lynchian sense, and also a desire for innocence, a desire for pure possibility separate from cause and effect. And separate, in a way, from time itself.
But there’s also this idea that the daughter is a kind of sign of innocence, if innocence is pure possibility. So to lose one’s child—there’s the pain of losing the child, but it also symbolizes a loss of something deep within the self, the sense of possibility. And without possibility, where are we? In Hell. As Dante says, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” and what is hope but possibility?