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An Interview With Clarence Major

In your latest book, Fun & Games, from Holy Cow! Press, over what period of time were these stories, these fictions, being written and gathered?
Well, the oldest story in the collection is called “Old,” and that was written when I was about twenty-five. It was never published before.

That’s the story of the elderly white man who was lived in the same neighborhood for thirty years and is distressed that is has “turned black.”
Right. I would say the stories come from a period of twenty years. The most recent one was “My Mother and Mitch.”

When you mentioned earlier that some of the older stories in Fun &
Games
bordered on poetry, which ones in particular were you thinking of?

I was thinking of the middle stories—the ones about relationships—and those in the last section called “Triptych”; I think of those as prose poems. And “Fun & Games,” “My Mother Visiting”—I think these are a little more playful. I felt a sense of freedom from conventional form, where I could create a more lyrical kind of system.

How do you define prose poetry?
Prose poetry… I’m not sure. I would say that it seems to have about it a kind of self-consciousness; the language seems to be as important as anything else going on in it. In prose poetry, language seems to have the intensity of language in poetry, a concentrated quality. But this can be tricky, because if a person normally reads fiction and turns to this sort of writing it can become very disturbing, and they can be thrown off guard and confused.

I think it’s very important, as a reader, to discover what a piece of work intends to be and to read it with a sense of respect for the writer’s intentions. This doesn’t happen often enough, I think. Not many readers have the kind of open-mindedness that’s called for. We read for taste, mostly. If a piece of fiction isn’t immediately captivating, on our own terms, we dismiss it. It’s too much work. Very few of us come to a piece of writing with the intention of giving it a chance to talk to us; we would rather talk to it.

We do this with people, too.
Yeah. You know, Flannery O’Connor said you can assume that nobody is going to give a damn about your work. In other words, no one is dying to read your work. From there, you work with the challenge that’s set before you—which is to find a way to engage the reader—but I think those of us who are involved in writing and teaching writing work our way into being more diverse and generous, in terms of what we read. We’re a little more willing to allow a piece of work to talk to us.

What about the long poem, Surfaces and Masks¸ that Coffee House Press put out in book form. Is this the first long poem you’ve published?
Yeah, this is the first. I wrote it in Venice, and it was essentially a journal poem that I kept while living there. It turned out to be a record of what I was reading and living and thinking and feeling every day. That’s where it came from. I just finished a big novel that grew out of that Venice experience. It’s half poetry in a way—the protagonist is a poet—and a lot of his poetry is in the book, just as Painted Turtle’s songs are in that book. It resolves any possible dormant conflict, for me, between prose and poetry. I can constantly work at both in a way that is unified.

I want to end with a quick question about small-press publishing. You mentioned to me that you would much rather publish with smaller presses, and I was hoping you’d elaborate on this.
Well, it doesn’t always happen, but when it does, the experience can be very satisfying in that there is one-to-one, personal, caring contact with the editor. With Fun & Games, the editor, Jim Perlman, was in touch with me nearly every day by phone. The chances of that happening with a large press are almost zero. With the larger presses, of course, you have advantages: distribution is better, the book can be found in bookstores—though not always. I mean, just because Random House publishes it doesn’t mean it’s going to appear in a bookstore. But in general, publishing with smaller presses is usually satisfying on the personal level.

 

Alice Scharper currently serves as dean of Educational Programs for English, Arts, and Social Sciences at Santa Barbara Community College in California.

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An Interview With Clarence Major (January/February 1991)
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