Interviews, Recent

Interview // Possible Tethers: A Conversation with Caryl Pagel

by Alyssa Perry | Contributing Writer

I met Caryl Pagel in Iowa City in 2013 in what would prove to be a liminal year for us both. Caryl had moved back to town; I claimed to be moving away but I stayed. I joined the small team of Rescue Press, where Caryl is editor, and we became friends swiftly in a mournful-strange-joyous-uncomfortable year of late-night beer backs and burgers, mostly unwelcome surprises, and dance parties in a house with a perpetual gas leak and a room we called “the sad room,” on whose two twin beds we’d pile our winter coats. Since we met, Caryl’s second book of poems, Twice Told, has come out twice; we have both moved to Cleveland, where Caryl directs the Cleveland State University Poetry Center and teaches in the NEOMFA; and Caryl’s first book of prose, Out of Nowhere Into Nothing, is recently out from FC2.

Long have I loved Caryl’s ear, its agile attunement to echo, the unknowable depths made sensible in her verbal surfaces, the charged drive of the speaker recounting what once was or maybe is to come. Out of Nowhere Into Nothing, described by FC2 as “essays on the apparitional, the incomprehensible, and the paranormal in conversation with art, travel, and storytelling,” extends Caryl’s lyrics into ranging, roving, unresting prose. These essays give two effects that ought to contradict: ceaseless motion and a slowly expanding moment. This has, I think, something to do with the slow sinuosity of the sentences and the fixed fidelity to the narrator’s perspective, in contrast to attempts to constitute for readers a visible character or well-defined narrator. In reading I am in the grip of miraculous kinetic accuracy, following a mind’s ambulatory transcripts. 

To describe these essays, I am tempted to try to enumerate their contents, an impulse Caryl describes in an essay on, among many other things, Inger Christensen’s alphabet. Another essay, “What Remains to Be Seen,” traverses a child’s birthday party, confetti, a Howardena Pindell exhibition for which the essay is named, threats overheard from a hotel corridor, plastics coagulating the oceans, a Yayoi Kusama infinity mirror room, a trip to an island where volunteer researchers document tern migration patterns, and Nathan Truesdale’s “Balloonfest,” which chronicles Cleveland’s 1986 attempt to gain the world record for most balloons released simultaneously. The record to beat was held by Disney, one-up’d by the essay’s sly parting shot: Let go. Let go. Let go. It’s a dazzling, devastating kaleidoscope of refuse, the future of childhood: the confetti, Pindell’s hole-punches, the ill-fated net of balloons, the departing terns, the crowd in the mirror-lined room. 

ALYSSA PERRY: The essays in Out of Nowhere often take up collective memory, mythology, and languages, particularly at the hyperlocal level—anecdotes passed among friends, fragmented familial memory, and ongoing games that accrete inscrutable hilarity: e.g., “cracker, lime, or nothing,” “see you in hell,” “small or far away,” “beads, beads, beads,” and one played again around our house last night, “soft Gs.” When I first read Out of Nowhere I was tickled by the resurfacing of anecdotes I was first told years ago in a dark-lit bar, and surprised by the occasional restoration of events long forgotten.

Now, seasons into a quarantine where I see only a few friends, these collective ways to make meaning (to stay some horror, despair, absurdity) feel more obvious and beautiful than ever. Last week—you were there, or you may have left just before—I was straining to recall some trivial detail of a recent conversation, I didn’t remember who with. But then my every recent interaction had taken place in the presence of someone on that porch, so if I recounted the vague contours of almost any half-remembered story, someone else could fill in the details. I guess what I’m describing is the feeling of being part of a many-headed organism. I wonder how these essays’ meditations on small town life and collective storytelling have been reiterated, extended, or shifted this year? I remember you recently taught a course related to this subject.  

CARYL PAGEL: I’ve always been interested in writing that reaches outward, that situates the self not as the source of all insight or action but as a possible tether between perspectives and ideas, or as a participant in a public performance. I’m interested in literature that depicts a person or community’s lived experiences as a wholly social conundrum. It’s a chaotic approach, one that requires collaborative tendencies, flexible arguments, and fluid or meandering structures. When one’s writing a book with or among or for others you can’t know exactly where it’s headed, you have to work through interruptions, tangents, or redirections. 

Out of Nowhere Into Nothing experiments, as you mention, with reiterations of collective memories, explorations of local and historical mythologies, multiple points of view, many-threaded (many-headed!) storylines, collage, chorus, amendment, and an outwardly focused descriptive vigilance. The narrator (some version of me) traces the ways that storytelling—for the purposes of art or science or history or diversion—requires the input, language, opinion, response, adjustment, or details of others. And yes, that pile of others is smaller these days . . . or just farther away? These essays gain energy from the essential human tension—familiar to anyone who’s lived in a small town, or close-knit community, or family, or pandemic—of feeling perpetually lonely though rarely alone. 

In the remote, alone-but-not-lonely grad class I taught this fall we read essays and excerpts of socially-minded nonfiction including Lynda Barry’s “Documenting All The Small Things That Are Easily Lost,” Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary (tr. Richard Howard), Caren Beilin’s Blackfishing the IUD, Annie Ernaux’s The Years (tr. Alison L. Strayer), Lauren Haldeman’s pandemic comics, Mitchell S. Jackson’s Survival Math, Mira Jacobs’s Good Talk, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, Lit Cleveland’s collaborative pandemic essay, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me, Sarah Minor’s Bright Archive, Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, Studs Terkel’s radio archives, Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping, and Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye. Each of these pieces incorporates interviews, testimonies, direct address, oral histories, collaborative anecdote, or conversation. They wouldn’t exist without some made or formed community, without talk. 

AP: A reader a little familiar with W.G. Sebald’s work will recognize formal echoes upon flipping through Out of Nowhere Into Nothing’s pages of continuous prose, unbroken but for images. Obviously Sebald’s hardly first or alone in blending text and image, but these essays are also ambulatory and dilate the present such that a sentence might traverse long avenues of memory and historical time. And despite these long, intimate pacings, despite the rambles, I feel the narrator’s distance and reserve preserved. After this obvious affinity, I could name others—but I would rather hear you talk about who influences these essays. 

CP: Sebald, yes! What a revelation; Rings of Saturn was life changing. But before Sebald, in the trajectory of my reading, there was Claudia Rankine. Rankine was the first poet I ever saw perform in person and she projected sound and image work on a screen alongside her reading (this was 2002ish, before the publication of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, these might have been early versions of what became her “Situations” collaborations with John Lucas). The video work was powerful and discombobulating, interestingly related to and separate from her genre-blurring text. Rankine wasn’t using image as mere illustration, but as complicating physical accompaniment, a way of playing with tone and distance, gesture and evidence. 

I’ve been interested in the visual, spatial aspects of writing since I first started making “books.” When I was young, I’d write stories by combining something like historical fiction with news clippings, drawings, charts. Later, my journals took on a similar scrapbooky form and in college I wrote poems with “pockets” built in, from which one could pull out and unfold gigantic, blurry black-and-white images of, you know, a skyline or a rock? In grad school I gave readings with a clothesline arced around me, from which large greyscale photos swung. In the decades of writing before publishing (or even knowing what publishing was), most of the language I created was provoked by or adjacent to images. That’s how I thought. 

An image can create and preserve the remove you refer to by making the prose’s world visually expansive, by adding horizon or texture. I like to think about expanding space in or around writing through image, sound, repetition. Sebald famously said photographs helped give his prose a “degree of mutedness,” which is one possible consequence of this concurrence of media. Text and image placed side by side naturally shift the volume, scale, and pacing of each other as when in a collage a magazine clipping recontextualizes the depth of the painting it’s taped to. A hope is that the photos in Out of Nowhere work in several ways: as ekphrastic impulse, caption, or joke; as punctuation, door, or disorienting difference. 

Other influences on these essays include Renata Adler’s Speedboat, James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things, Renee Gladman’s Calamities, Peter Greenaway’s The Falls, Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives (tr. Minna Proctor), Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, Lucy Lippard’s The Lure of the Local, Leonard Michaels’s Time Out of Mind, Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls, Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, and a bunch of art, architecture, and performance pieces. 

AP: Your work, which also includes the poetry collections Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death and Twice Told, conjures the uncanny without eking out or clarifying its mystery. I don’t want to try too hard to stabilize this quality of the work, but it involves repetition, from incantatory rhythms to figure doubles both within and across texts. Perhaps my sheerest pleasure in reading Out of Nowhere was to experience its resurfacings, its intimations of a many-stranded web. This method of meaning making is self-contained and difficult to impart: and here I think of William James’s writings on the mystical experience, which cannot be passed along or parsed, in The Varieties of Religious Experience. A great pleasure of this text is its attention to echo. 

One form that echo takes is intertextual—I’m riveted by the title essay’s recounting of the Sherwood Anderson story “War”:        

The four-page story begins with the narrator on a midnight train rushing through bleak Midwestern prairieland, just one passenger among a crowded train of nameless strangers waiting in a drowsy daze to arrive at their undisclosed location. Our narrator makes quite clear that the story he is telling simply occurred, the story that would stick with him in such a way that he was compelled to forever share it had just arrived; it arrived unasked for from a woman on a train who, as if in a trance, delivered it to him, a fortunate stranger, for no reason other than his presence. The woman started her story (we were midway through ours) by telling the stranger that she had been to war.  

Which brings back up the specter of “Old Wars” in Twice Told, recently re-released by University of Akron Press, a doubling I can’t not mention here (with thanks to Mary Biddinger and other Akron editors): 

You are trying to remember how
it happened      You are trying to
remember these events in a sensible
order      The narrator you think met
the old woman on a train
She had been to war or
at least you think you recall
reading that she said she had
The story started on the train
The narrator in this case was
mostly incidental      The narrator in this
case was made to listen patiently
and account for       The woman’s tale
you recall was too strange to
be told straight      You needed to
hear it from a distance       From
another mouth or source      The narrator
met the woman on a train
She had been to war 

Can you say more about the logic of mirrors and infinite return (in books, across books)? Or thoughts re: intertextuality? I keep thinking of the narrator entering one of Kusama’s infinity mirror rooms in another essay . . . 

CP: I still feel caught up in Anderson’s story’s woman’s circumstances. The character is a lasting figure in my consciousness, though it’s difficult to say why, which is probably the reason I return to her. I’m moved by her cunning bravery, her age, her fed-up fatigue, and the implications of her supernatural abilities. I want to know why she switched souls with the officer. I want to know how the train mate knows her tale (and who I’m supposed to tell?). The story’s meaning is enigmatic, churning; it leaves fierceness and bewilderment and heat in its wake. Every decision Anderson made about the story—the strangers talking on a train, the prairie-night, the endless framing, the multi-generational war story—is its own infinity room. I can’t grasp it all, or the effect it’s had on me, so I go back. 

Powerful literature requires return and response. You have to look again, you have to say something, often because it’s both meaningful and mysterious. You can’t quite put your finger on it. You have to ask something, someone, at the bar, in your writing, via marginalia, or muttering to yourself as you stomp around the block. There is a vision just out of your grasp. It takes up space in your brain and if you’re lucky or persistent you can make something of your desire to understand it. Powerful literature provokes more language (or image, movement, love, art); it creates a developing spiral of attention in which one doubles back, possessing a different balance of knowledge or feeling or experience in each rotation. The shape of the spiral was an engine of the essays in Out of Nowhere. A spiral reviews the questions of the past while moving forward; it reaches for the infinite; it’s an organic, hypnotizing mechanism that might coil as gently a fern frond or as violently as a tornado. 

Repetition is also a necessary aspect of love, humor, and ritual. To me, there’s little pleasure greater than a shared joke or anecdote, one dependent upon a community of tellers or repeated frequently to keep it bright. As you mention in your intro, this is the kind of story you can fill in for each other or revise in real time. It belongs to no one and is (unlike a published text) a unique performance. Along with the wish to echo, some of the intertextuality in these essays is a result of my reading habit. It’s not just that reading is how I spend a lot of my time, but that I feel most awake when engaged by language. I’ve heard certain comedians say they only feel alive on stage—I feel most myself when in someone else’s book. 

AP: Among the subjects of these essays is Kurt Schwitters’s Hannover home turned sculpture Merzbau

his life’s work . . . in constant flux, an autobiography that coiled in on and interrupted itself, constricting the physical flexibility of its domestic inhabitants . . . and ornamented with themed pockets—drawings, patchworks, effigies—that would be concealed or revealed by additional bulges, refrains, erasures, and paintings. The engine of the piece was continuation; concepts would disappear as they developed, buried below the surface, never to be seen again, or were alternately excavated as the sculpture shifted organically.

I’m interested in Merzbau as one figure for these essays—and, as another, Merzbau’s delirious, delicious smear into Alex Jordan Jr.’s House on the Rock in Wisconsin—a fun house abounding in automata and “ludicrous trinkets and insane bucolic panoramas,” tapering to a “bridge to nowhere”—in the final essay, which describes the narrator’s honeymoon and functions perhaps as a rejection of coupling-off, of mise en abyme, of bridges to nowhere. The difference between Merzbau and House on the Rock may be accretion and preservation. I am not sure if I am asking about writing or community or conventions of marriage or of history or . . . But the motion between Merzbau and House on the Rock describes a tension in these essays. And then there are other houses in the book that contradict the easy binary I have just built. 

CP: There are many homes in Out of Nowhere Into Nothing: some are haunted or imaginary, some are houses cut in half or moved from one state to another, some are feelings or weather, and some—like Merzbau or House on the Rock—are excuses for epic (domestic) art projects or ridiculous ongoing collections of kitsch. Perhaps in contrast to the idea of home is the incessant wandering, the constant unmooring, the restlessness, refusal, and abandon of the narrator. These essays are peripatetic in nature and often look at artists committed to travel, momentum, the outside world, and performance: Vivian Maier, Howardena Pindell, Marina Abramović, Robert Smithson, etc. Home, as concept or place, becomes an obstacle to the narrator’s desires, which are to stay in motion, respect doubt, get lost.

So yeah, agreeing that preservation v. accretion feels like useful framing (ideas that come up in documentary writing, which would be one way of reading this collection). I think these essays also wonder how one might reimagine certain institutions or structures (home, marriage, academia, politics, cities, religion) that fail to serve the best interests of so many of their participants. One way of living is to reject these constructions outright, refuse to engage or preserve them. Another is to redesign, dream new routes. There are other ways. Art can be the experience of seeing them.   

AP: On a walk through a tree-lined path that bisects my neighborhood last year, you mentioned that the book’s planned architecture had changed over time. I keep thinking of this book in terms of a mirror room, one with the added uncanny of unpredictable windows that break the infinity room’s recursive certainty. Had the text been linear in mind? Had it been more mirrored? 

CP: At times I thought Out of Nowhere was a collection of discrete essays and at times it felt like a fluid book-length project. It landed somewhere in between, but the tension was on my mind. There were certain shapes or metaphors (spiral, mirror, carousel, bridge to nowhere) that guided each essay and yet I couldn’t settle on a single unifying formal strategy. I wanted the essays to be meandering, peculiar, associative, and then when they were those things I saw they weren’t everything else. The book’s more of a walk through a junk-speckled grotto than a tree-lined path. More of a garbage patch vortex than a waterfall? I love your phrasing “unpredictable windows,” thank you, that’s such a generous way of describing the tangential trance-like long stares into the distance that arise in these pieces. 

For examples of what a book can look like or be I’ve gone back to work by Mary-Kim Arnold, Brian Blanchfield, Douglas Kearney, Wayne Koestenbaum, Chris Kraus, and Brandon Shimoda with admiration. There’s that famous line from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men where Agee says he’d rather his writing was “photographs… fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement,” and I relate to that as someone always seeing my essays as a rotting pile of reminders. A vanitas poetics!

AP: You’re also an editor and a professor and a parent. I think we are both bored by many questions I could ask here—but I am interested in the process of negotiating (such a biz word) and moving between the psychic space of writing and ongoing labors and responsibilities. We’ve talked about the need to be alone in order to write, and about how it is also possible to be alone with other people. Maybe this is also a moment to discuss less obvious practices that bear on the writing. 

CP: I was just thinking about how before the pandemic I was often reading in public: editing a manuscript in the Poetry Center, student work at the coffee shop, a friend’s draft at the bar, a book while cooking, standing in the middle of the library, listening to a novel while walking around the block, waiting on a stoop, in a line, at the doctor’s office, etc. All the places readers sneak in their reading. And how this behavior used to feel like the swiftest way of opening a door to solitude, an introvert’s secret. During the pandemic I’ve seen fewer people, have rarely been in a crowd, so now I read to be social? 

But you asked about process. I’m a sporadic writer. I’ve never really written a book or poem or essay the same way I wrote another, or with trackable discipline, so have learned too little about what “works.” I like change. Before the last few years—as you reference in your intro—I moved a lot, changed jobs frequently, my friends lived all over. I’ve edited and published a lot of different kinds of books. I’ve rarely taught the same class twice. I’ve, you know, been a part of things. But to me writing is about going beyond or away from my so-called self. Writing feels most magical when it’s transportation, a train speeding through the night, life left behind, nothingness and a stranger’s story as company. I want to write from the perspective of the ghost selves I am when I’m in other people’s books, which feels both like my truest state and no state at all. So how to set things in motion. I look at art. I take very long walks. I travel. Related to my earlier answer, I recently realized my writing never happens at home, wherever home is. I need to get away, it doesn’t matter where. I wrote all the essays in Out of Nowhere at a friend or family member’s house, in hotels, on park benches, on the road. My dream is to lose myself (in language, research, logic, description) and then, instead of writing into certainty or clarity, to follow clues toward a weirder and more meaningful state of confusion. I’m interested in the feeling of being no one and no place doing nothing on the way to some tangle of attention I’ve never paid and couldn’t, in the same way, again. 

Alyssa Perry’s recent writing appears in Annulet: A Journal of Poetics, Denver Quarterly, The Canary, and Yalobusha Review