“The Place From Which You Dream,” An Interview with Ander Monson
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Leah Newsom. Of the process, she said, “My copy of Letter to a Future Lover is nearly destroyed with marginalia, highlighting, and sticky notes. I am honored to have had to opportunity to interview Ander. I’m sure I could have asked him a hundred questions, but I think these fifteen really get at what I loved about his collection.” In this interview, Ander talks about the future of books, writing “adventurously,” and the woman sitting next to him on an airplane.
Superstition Review: The original print of Letter to a Future Lover was a collection of unbound library cards in a box, to be read in whatever order. How did the idea for the book come to you, and how did it evolve over time?
Ander Monson: It emerged from the practice—an ongoing one, by the way, that didn't end with the book's publication—of writing in libraries and finding things there, not just quotations from books or whatever, but physical manifestations of other readers, usually. Then I'd write a little essay in response and publish it back where I found the object, so usually I'd print it on a 6x9 card and tuck it in a book, or sometimes write it in the margins, or whatever. So the natural form of the book was going to be these cards, unbound in a box. I ended up doing two limited edition versions that embodied that form and a trade edition that was bound traditionally, in part because librarians don't really want a book that you can take the pages out of. Those books end up being housed in special collections, not a bad thing, but with major tradeoffs in terms of accessibility.
SR: In your essay “Text Adventures” you discuss the idea of reading, and how writers should interact with readers. You state, “The reading experience is an experience of exploration of a created world. The question is how closely do you want to control your reader? What work do you want her to do? What work are you willing to let her do? Good readers like work. We like focused work, when the writer’s made a thing meant to be interacted with, whether it’s trying to solve a crime or understanding the subtext of an evasive bit of dialogue….” What kind of work are you asking of the reader in Letter to a Future Lover? What sort of experience are you intending your reader to have?
AM: Letter asks—or invites, rather—readers to do a little more work in assembly. Throughout there are directives to the reader, trying to get her to navigate it less like a bound book. It's meant to be read in whatever order. I recognize that 97% of readers won't do that, since we are very well trained in how to navigate the technology of the codex, the bound book. But my hope is that the reader will hear the invitation and accept the challenge and make a little more of the meaning for themselves. Happenstance and chance are part of the many pleasures of reading printed books and finding them used or in libraries.
SR: In the same essay, you compare essay writing to video games, that we (as writers) find ourselves “delaying our return to the subject, or maybe by the time we get there we realize that wasn’t our subject at all, and we’re at the bottom of a very dark well without a flashlight, looking up.” Did you find yourself distracted by sub-quests, or potentially in the bottom of a dark well, while writing Letter to a Future Lover? What did you learn as you were writing?
AM: Yes, of course. I'd get sidetracked in these little essayistic bits of research (like about the history of Saran Wrap, a side quest that in a longer essay could be explored in a lot more depth). But the constraint of publishing these back into books meant for me that I had to limit myself to 750 words (about as many as you can get on a 6x9 card). What I had to learn was how to write an essay that short. This necessitated giving up on a deeper exploration of some of those ideas--or required me to think about ways of distributing those inquiries on one idea or image over the course of several essays. And this also necessitated some constraint-based writing.
SR: Your previous book of nonfiction, Vanishing Point, has web-based interactive material on your website, in which one can get lost in the clicking vortex of each essay. Though Letter to a Future Lover has an interactive element on the website as well--a catalogue of all the found items--the collection as a whole romanticizes the tangible nature of books, libraries, library cards. What interests you about these two, seemingly opposite, mediums? How is the process of writing different in each?
AM: Letter was in many ways a response to Vanishing Point. For the book to interact with the website meant that I had to entertain and think about questions of the age such as, well, why do we even like physical books? What's superior about this technology? What do we give up when we interact with digital texts? For a writer, these are crucial questions: do we want to be writing content or do we want to be writing books? What does a book do that an ebook doesn't and can't? I love the flexibility and expandability of the digital, and how it's searchable and aggregatable, but you lose the intimacy you get with a physical book. I don't think you can be intimate with a pdf, and that fact is going to keep a lot of people reading books—not ebooks—for a very long time.
SR: In your essay “Mirror Work” you pose the question “What is a book?” You contemplate how static it has to be, whether or not it must be bound, or if it simply functions as a container for human thought. While writing Letter to a Future Lover, did you find yourself coming to an answer? If so, how?
AM: I'm not real interested in coming up with a definition as I am in pushing on the edges of what people seem to mean by it. I mean, it's the same as a library: is it books that makes up a library? If so, how few can you have and still have one? Or do you just need a librarian to have a library? There's something, surely, about the technology of the bound codex that you can hold, but it doesn't have to be a codex. A book can most certainly be a box. But I do think it has to be holdable. You can embed the digital within the analog, but for me a book has to at least be in an analog frame. It doesn't need to be static--and they don't really stay static anyway, as you know if you reread books and find something new in it. I mean, I know it's me that's changed and not the text, but the ability to come back to it and hold it in your hands again seems to me central for what a book is. It has to be physical.
SR: Many of your essays refer to significant locations: Tucson, Michigan, Lithuania, and, my favorite, “United Airlines flight 5437, Tucson to Denver, 5:15am, Seat 10D backseat library.” How does place influence your writing?
AM: I think most people write from a sense of place. Or I guess I do, anyhow. There's the place you're in, and there's the place you're from, and those two things sort of overlap and connect and provide a tension that an essay can explore. So place for me serves as an emotional landscape (the place I'm from) and a subject (place I'm in) on which I can report in any given essay. The United Airlines essay is a great example of this, where the one leads me to the other. Of course a seat on a plane is a place but not much of one, since it's mostly a way of getting between one place and another.
SR: How long were you working on Letter to a Future Lover? When did you know it was complete and ready to publish?
AM: Hard to say exactly. It feels like I've been working on it my whole life. I came across the inscription mentioned in the title essay (the one in the Gary Snyder book) maybe seven years ago, though I didn't write about it at the time. The first actual essay I wrote for the book, the essay about the Railroad Convention Report, was from 2011. I had a pretty good sense of the project and the scope and a manuscript I sent to my editor at Graywolf by 2013, and at that point the book was accepted and scheduled, but I kept writing them. I did the Kickstarter for the special editions in 2014, and kept writing essays for those editions up until publication--and after, even. I've written probably a dozen since the book came out and started a new one this week in fact. Is it complete? I don't know. Calling something complete means that you feel like you're done with it, and I'm not done with this, not yet.
SR: You’ve written a considerable amount of essays to people who scribble in the margins of library books. Do you still find yourself in libraries writing to “defacers”? Why, or why not?
AM: Not all defacers are worth writing to. Not all defacements are interesting communications, or invite communication, or ask us to speak back. I'm not above responding--in books or in essays or in margins--if and when I find someone that needs someone to say something to them.
SR: In an interview with Redivider, you say you’re not fond of the term “experimental” when referring to writing, that you prefer “adventurous.” Where is the line between adventurous writing and unadventurous writing? What keeps you writing adventurously?
AM: Adventurous writing doesn't settle for knowingly driving in someone else's tracks or using your mother's hand-me-down tools. If you feel like it's been done before, why do it unless you can do it better or make it your own? I don't know why else anyone ever writes. At the same time, since the more you read the more you understand that most of it's been done before or tried before anyhow, it takes a kind of hubris and ignorance and stupid will, obviously, to even want to or believe we can do what we do. So I want to be feeling like I'm trying to invent something or rework it or reinvent or bend it if I'm working with something (which I usually am) that someone has made before. If there's no real fear of failure--and sometimes there's not if you're doing what you already know how to do and feel comfortable doing, you know, the kind of poem about your dad you can always go to that taps the emotional well you've tapped so many times before. That's not necessarily a bad poem, but it's not going to to anything for you as a poet. You know, though, what it feels like to be really at risk, really out there in the darkness. That's the floating feeling you want to be going after as an artist.
SR: What was your experience with Kickstarter like when printing the original copies of Letter to a Future Lover?
AM: The limited editions aren't the "original" copies: they're another version. I think that each of the four versions has its own artistic integrity, and is made best for the form it exists in. The only really original version is an edition of one, published across 90 or so libraries. I didn't go to kickstarter because I needed the funds to make the thing: more, it seemed like a good way to collaborate with some like-minded people, and to sell a subscription to the edition so I kind of knew who I was writing to. It sold out in a few days, which was satisfying. I didn't want to scale up and make more. Since they were all hand-assembled, it took me quite a lot of time to produce the 150-copy edition. I can't imagine doing a thousand.
SR: In a few of your essays you make reference to other writers: B.S. Johnson, Mark Z. Danielewski, and Maggie Nelson. How have other writers influenced your work?
AM: Those writers--and others--work as sourdough starters for my work. I can usually tell I'm reading something good if it give me ideas, if I have to stop what I'm doing to get writing.
SR: In your essay “An Impossibility,” you describe writing, whether it’s essays or marginalia, as a means of leaving something behind for future readers. You say “...if our minds find another’s in passing, a stranger’s a decade or a century along, well, maybe that’s enough: a way to leave a trace of us, who we were or wanted to be, what we read and could imagine, what we did and what we left for you.” How does the idea of leaving something behind propel your writing? Which authors have left traces of themselves for you to find?
AM: The equation changed somewhat when my daughter was born, and when my wife was pregnant with her, in that the future seemed a lot more immediate and specific all of a sudden. I mean, I'm not writing for her exactly (except the letter that's addressed to her), but that desire to manifest how it was for us this day, this plane flight to cold Chicago with the overlarge woman with the purple shirt and the Walgreens Nice! trail mix pressing into us as we try to cramp our arms to type out sentences. It's nothing special, but it's ours, and to try to hold that for a moment and contain it in a sentence or on a page or in a draft email like I'm doing is a powerful desire, even as I know it's an impossibility.
SR: Your essays are heavily lyrical, so linguistically captivating. In your essay “The Fold” you write, “To iterate a thing is to make a fold in language, to damage or construct by duplication, knowing then that this thing must exist again in another couple dozen pages, a few punctuation marks away, a breath a break, a day away.” How do you relinquish linguistic control? Do you have to warm yourself up to focus that heavily on language?
AM: You do have to warm yourself up, I think. To get into the state of mind that's conducive to creation and doesn't involve the critical mind overly. The critical mind is anathema to composing, though it's key to revision which is where the work comes together. Robert Olen Butler calls it "The Place from Which You Dream," a sort of loosened space that he talks about accessing for composition of prose. Some writers went to great lengths to alter themselves chemically to do it. I don't do that exactly but in writing most of these I relied largely on language and the subconscious to move things forward, at least in the composition stage. This means letting yourself follow sound, for instance, without feeling obliged to have to follow expository logic or whatever. The revision stage is where you see what you have and which of those ideas are workable--can be made to mean--and which (most) should probably not be pursued. But it also helped to think of these essays--and to draft them first, often--as poems, and then relax some of their metrics in revising.
SR: Many of your essays speculate about the future of books. In your essay “Dear Unsighted” you compare books to “1990s movies about the future of the world,” that “we ain’t got that far that fast.” In a time of digital reading, what do you think of the state of books as tangible entities?
AM: If writers want to write books--like physical books--we should keep in mind what makes the technology of the bound and printed page special. That is, write freaking books. Study books and how as a technology they are much better suited to intimacy than a screen. And write things that think about how the technology works and what the form does and can do, and make use of its possibilities and how it manifests itself to your reader. I mean, if you want to write content, then go ahead and write content, that's fine, but then you don't get to complain about how nobody values your content as a book and woe betide America. As for me I plan on continuing to read and write books. How about you?
SR: What does your writing space look like?
AM: These days I don't have a stable one. I mean I have a couple offices that I use, but composition has increasingly been done on my laptops in borrowed spaces (largely libraries, obviously). All I really need is a book to start with and some sense of the reader who last was here, and my Macbook Air, and maybe some headphones and a sense of curiosity, and I'm good to go.