Douglas A. Martin isn’t your typical creative writing professor. I distinctly remember feeling uncertain during the first few classes I took with him. He spoke metaphorically, posed this-way-and-that-way atop his chair, and drew messy pictures on the chalk board while explaining his readings. I wasn’t used to such an unconventional teaching style. Soon, though, it became abundantly clear that Professor Martin knew what he was talking about. Despite his ebullient persona, he takes writing deeply seriously, and he guides his students with his thoughtful, empathetic, and openminded lens. Beyond that, he gave me perhaps the most important thing one can give a young writer: respect.
In Acker (2017), Martin’s most recent book, he writes criticism with his heart as well as his head. From the first page, it’s clear that he cares profoundly about his subject, Kathy Acker. The book is structured in short vignettes and winds its way through analysis rather than ramming a main argument through its pages. It feels like a cop-out to say it, because Martin uses the term so often during his classes, but it’s elliptical. And I mean elliptical in multiple ways here. The writing circles back on itself, finding meaning in each pass, and circling through Acker’s voice. It’s also elliptical in the sense that Martin largely omits heavy exposition or summary and instead opts to engage with Acker’s story through his intimate analysis. In that spirit, here’s what Martin and I discussed on a muggy spring afternoon:
Sage Marshall: You’ve published a lot of work in many different forms. I’m wondering if you could talk about how those forms might inform each other. For instance, how does your poetry inform your prose, or your fiction inform your criticism?
Douglas A. Martin: I’ve always been most interested in poetry, and I probably still am, because of the way that it allows one to take apart the “I,” the first-person. In poetry, I could express without necessarily creating a mirror. At some point, my poems became longer and longer, by many pages, and I realized I was actually just writing stories with line breaks. I began thinking about what it might mean to harness that, to take the line breaks out and see what a story actually needs.
In terms of criticism, I wanted to be as electric as poetry. I don’t think that any genre should keep any other genre out of it. They should learn and enrich each other. When I was writing autobiographical novels, there was a way that I felt I could draw upon and find support in the assumptions that one would have about the story to allow me to get a vantage on my own situations. I kind of like the idea of passing within a genre, you know. If a genre is doing its work, that designation doesn’t matter anymore. I mean, it’s a bit old fashioned now, but I am somebody who’s trained in a certain way where genre is related to gender. There’s a way that genres themselves discipline writing in a way that is restrictive. My trick is to try to make a piece of work pass as a couple of things. I’m writing my best if something I write could be read as a poem and also a short story, or like this book of criticism [Acker] could read in some ways like a novel.
SM: I imagine that teaching is an incredibly time-consuming activity for a writer. Are there ways that mentoring students helps aid in your own creative production?
DAM: It helps me check a lot of my own assumptions, like what matters to me. When I bring my primary concerns or values to a group of people and I see that they don’t light people up, it makes me rethink things. More and more, I’m increasingly aware of generational concerns. I grew up feeling like one writes because one is actively struggling to deal with a certain set of problems, and I don’t feel like those quite exist. You know, writers don’t come with that same kind of baggage that I began with.
SM: Can you give me some details?
DAM: When I started writing – the reason I started writing – there was the assumption that one’s sexuality would mean that they would have to leave home. For me, writing was creating my own house. What does it mean if that’s not the driving impetus, if you’re not teaching a group of people who aren’t homeless in that way or who don’t have that need to create the thing that can hold who one ultimately wants to be? I think that some of that is just the blessing of a good family, or not, but I think some of it is where we are society-wise.
And now, it’s also cultural. Subversion used to mean a certain thing, and it doesn’t mean that anymore. There’s a different kind of responsibility right now that I didn’t begin making art thinking about. It has something to do with privilege and understanding – no matter how desperately I might feel like I need to create a voice for myself, that is still caught up in another set of privileges. Like, I always assumed that to write the “I” down on the page was a subversive act because I thought I was speaking for myself when I felt like I didn’t have a voice. Now, I understand that if somebody looked at me they would assume that I do have a voice. So, it’s about understanding what context is now. I’m trying to think about how one continues to develop one’s voice as a writer as the context of the world continues to shift. Do you write into that or do you write into yourself? Then, is the work calling out or is it just calling to you?
SM: Going off of that, one of the most interesting parts of what I’ve read in Acker is how you talk about how Kathy Acker makes different “I”s, how the knowledge of different selves sits together. A lot of this book is about identity. How has Acker, as a subject, influenced the way that you think about identity as a writer?
DAM: With Acker, the “I” is this idea that if she doesn’t know the story of her “I” and just keeps track of the various impressions through her eyes, then she can step back and look at everything that’s gathered. She’s going to have a very different understanding of who her “I” is rather than if she went about imposing some sort of narrative character building.
In my own work, I feel like I did the inverse of this, understanding there was a lot more to stories than what I was telling. I was very strategic about what kind of evidence I was putting out there, because I wanted to create particular impressions about my narrators, about my protagonist. I don’t think Acker cared at all. She wanted complete disclosure and to let you make your judgments and to decide what you wanted from her. There wasn’t the same end goal in sight.
There was a moment in my career where the thing that one needed to do in publishing was to put the different “I”s together in a novel. That seemed like the biggest transgression in the world to me. Willfully putting these two “I”s together would equate them both and set up a continuing story, which was not at all what I wanted, even though I was writing first-person driven work. What made the books different was what I was keeping out. To gather more and more of the story and put it together would’ve made the stories themselves hollow.
We think about emotion differently, Kathy and I, and I think that has to do with composing. I felt like I needed to put a self together, and I don’t think her work is about that at all. The fact that she’s already seen as put together is what was holding her back.
SM: I was struck by the way that, for a book of criticism, you channel Acker’s voice a lot in each small section. For me, it almost reads as an interaction. Even now, you speak of her in the present tense and put her in the same temporality as yourself. What does that sense of criticism do that you couldn’t do with formal academic criticism.
DAM: I think the subject would already be dead. She lives in me because I live in her. There’s not a clean cleave there, and that has to do with the actual technique of the book. Our voices are lying beside each other.
If something is already in the past tense, then it’s been decided upon as far as I’m concerned. Then, there’s the issue of what kind of games the critic is playing – a kind of already understanding of why things are being framed. Whereas, you might think of this sort of criticism as improvisatory. You put a note out there, you put another note out there, and another. How do you then create a symphony?
The present-tense keeps my writing from being top-down criticism. It allows me to be more tentative – always writing forward.
SM: I’m really curious about how you went about taking all of these notes and structuring them into the book. I don’t know if this is just me reading too far into it, but you write one beautiful thing about the way that Acker maps dreams and tattoos them. Does the structure of your book have anything to do with mapping?
DAM: For sure. Well, what you have now is a cut-up of a different book, one that existed in six chapters and was a more standard doctoral dissertation. But, even with that, the standard dissertation is five chapters, but I did six parts and each part has two halves that mirror each other, and each of those three parts has their own set of concerns. Then, when I really wanted to make it a book outside of an institution, the goal was to blend those things together but to not get lost in doing so. The numbering helps. I tried to recreate the mirroring, but now there’s just two mirrors.
I had every page out on a very big kitchen table where I would spatially arrange blocks of text. I would think, if I read this first and then I read this next, how am I being led into this next concern? And then, I actually shuffled them. Reading these blocks of text in different runs, I decided how emotion was swelling, and in the service of what? Was I setting something up or was I deflating it?
In terms of maps, I think about it as the kitchen table that I composed it on. How far away did I want these text blocks to be? What were the platforms I needed to get along to the next one? I made piles and puddles of things I knew went well together. I still write a lot like that. It’s mobile in space.
SM: I think it’s really interesting to actually lay it out spatially rather than to always encounter a text through the chronology of a book or a computer screen.
DAM: It allows for the writing to be more variously compressed. It’s related to that tense thing that we were talking about earlier. I always felt that all one needs to do is drop down the page and start over. You get to put your feet on the ground anew, reset the clock.
SM: I wanted to ask about your opening line: “A fact I had to frame: I believe she died November 30, 1997, in Tijuana, Mexico.” I’m curious about what “fact” means in the way that there are often competing facts or facts that are unclear in the book. Why did you choose to frame it with a fact while also saying that you had to frame it? In some parts of the book, facts seem to be important and in others they don’t.
DAM: In that opening sentence, “had” is functioning two different ways in the same sentence. It is creating the effect of what I’m doing with fact in the book and the idea of framing fact. There’s the fact that I possess that I can use to frame something, and there’s the fact that I have to somehow frame to get out of the existence of the fact. Those are the two key motions in the book – using what’s recognized as fact in the world and then figuring out what I’m going to do with it.
As much as I wanted to write a book that took very seriously Barthes’s idea of the death of the author, I had to start with that fact because I wouldn’t have been writing the book otherwise. If she [Acker] was still alive, I wouldn’t be writing a book about her. Why is that? I began my intense study of her because she died and wouldn’t write any more books. Rather than being able to experience her in real time or in a linear way, I came up with a way to reinvest myself in the books, to create a new reading of them, to put them back together. In that first sentence, like you yourself say, there’s everything there that she’s just about belying. It’s a curious relationship with fact that she has, and it changes over her career.
For me, there’s this Francis Bacon quote that I’m quite obsessed with, and I used as an epigraph in another book – the idea that fact leaves its ghost. We can only know through facts, but I mean “through” there in a very particular way. Like, I’m not going to stand in front of fact. You know by moving through fact to something else.
SM: You’ve mentioned before that Acker helped you to develop your own approach to writing. I’m just thinking about other young writers as Reverberation Mag is geared towards younger people. How would you recommend young writers or artists to approach their influences when they’re trying to create their own artistic approaches?
DAM: Because of the way Acker’s work resonated with me, I became interested in her influences and the people that had taught her to think the way she thinks. She taught me how to value what I was doing, which, before I found her work, was more instinctual.
So, it’s important to read your inspirations as deeply as possible. The more deeply one reads in an author, the more you can begin to understand how it works for them. Like, I’ve seen that writer frame this particular episode six different ways, in six different books. I myself can give that to myself, not feeling like you have to get it right in that one go. You get all of the chances you want.
Everything that an inspiration has done or made is just another part of the conversation, another hour of living with that person. I think about it that way. Also, read their inspirations. Then, don’t be afraid to claim them. I think it probably creates a lot of needless frustration to not cop to who you want to be. When I began, I just wanted to write like Marguerite Duras. I have no problem saying that. Take that influence and think about what you want to put on top of that. Like, Marguerite Duras in America or Marguerite Duras as a boy. It can be really liberating.