Interview with a Mad Hatter

Posted on June 10, 2010

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The title of this interview is an allusion to “Mad Hatters Review“, the quirky, crazyxture of literature, art and music which currently delights with a mash-up issue and will publish three pieces by Flawnt this fall. mhr is edited by Carol Novack (twitter name: slumgoddess) whose flash quadruplet was published on Metazen. Meeting Carol online was almost as good as other good things (though not quite as good as yet other things, but it would go to far to explain that), and the interview, which took place over a couple of chat sessions, as Carol was leaving her native NYC to move to NC, has got as rich a texture as anything she writes.

(Photo: Carol Novack – self-portrait with womannikin.)

Metazen: Hi Carol, go meta right away and tell us more about “4 Love Story Poems“, please. Oh wait, these aren’t even poems. Are you trying to fool us?

Carol: What do you want to know? Their intrinsic meaning, whatever they are? Details of their breech birth?  Ach, what’s in a genre classification? And what’s the meaning of “poem?”  I hear and read fiction that has the heart of poetry and poetry that has the heart of fiction.

Metazen: I am not really that keen on the distinction either – I just thought I could get a fox (that’s you) out of her hole by provocation… We’re still curious to know something about how you came up with these pieces … if you’re aware…and if you asked me the same question, I’d probably ramble on without saying anything. Still, you might be a lot more focused than I am!

Carol: I, focused? Where did these little tales come from anyway.  I have no idea.  A germ of a concept, a cluster of words, a character poking her head out of the sea of me, out of dreams I don’t remember or never had. I like to think that my writings speak for themselves, without me. I mean really, the characters were the ones who wrote the tales. I was merely their conduit. I like what you said about the stories in your letter of acceptance, I mean it was very flattering and I appreciate your appreciation, way above the call of duty. I could never have said this myself:

Though i wouldn’t classify your pieces as “poems” they surely are full of love and represent some of the best flash fiction i have read in a while. they also fit together well and the end of “Nostalgia”  – “And so they went and that was the beginning.” – is marvelous. i love it when pieces loop back on themselves: i always think it rounds off the little world that you’re giving us. the characters – Auntie and Happy Henry (poor sod!), Carla, Carl and Mabel, Lili and the mysterious man and, yes!, Rilke himself, Kandinsky as cameo – are breathtakingly drawn. this flash really makes me hungry for more. that i know that this has most likely been it makes me sad and heightens my feelings. oh well. it’s a short life in a large world.”

Metazen: why, thank you. The obscure, unsolicited review is our specialty over at the editorial offices. But a little more about those prose poems of yours: do the characters in these pieces come back, ever?

Carol: They haven’t thus far.  They’re transient.

Metazen: even though I write Flash and only Flash I have noticed that I seem to have a circle of characters, almost like a theatrical company. Is that not your experience? Nobody ever comes back? – Sorry to beleaguer the point.

Carol: Well I do have recurrent themes and words that could be characters.  There are lots of fish in my upcoming collection and there are certain names that repeat, I think.

Metazen: Tell us more about that collection, please, and about your recurrent themes. If you have a favourite word or two, we’d love to print it, too.

Carol: Some words I seem to be hooked on are “bluefish,” “moonshine,” “breast,” “donkey,” and “chandeliers.” As far as the book is concerned, it’s due to be published this summer or fall and is color-illustrated by many mainly Mad Hatter artists. It’s called “Giraffes in Hiding: The Mythical Memoirs of Carol Novack.”  The collection is comprised of what I call “inventions,” for lack of a better descriptive word I can live vaguely with, as I view genre labeling as an exercise in conventional constriction.  There are poetic narratives hovering on the brink of “prose poetry,” prose poem/flash pieces, rhythm-driven stories, a “playpoem,” a dramatic monologue or two or three, even some pieces and bits of pieces that resemble poems, at least in terms of form. I won’t reveal the name of the publisher till the contract’s signed, but I love the press.

Metazen: that’s ok, we can live with openness, in fact we love openness of form and content at Metazen (opens a window, too) . . . As you know, you’re young and innocent. You’re an experienced editor – What do you think Metazen should do/not do as we enter our 2nd year of publication … (takes out fat, empty notepad).

Carol: From my aesthetic perspective, I’d advise publishing writers with distinct, exploratory voices, those who aren’t doing what everyone else is doing.  Try to publish authors that are actually saying something rather than churning out the same old coming of age and domestic tales, Bukowski bar scene stories, cute, glib nonsense, “shocking” sex scenes, stories of drug addiction.  Never publish yourselves and clarify your mission statement, if you think it needs clarification. Avoid publishing an author simply because she or he is popular. Most often, what is “popular” is not “best.”  Go for quality, delight in, and reverence for language. Make your readers think. Not everything has to be easy reading. Not everything has to be amusing.

Metazen: That’s too bad about the sex scenes. Can Mad Hatter Review’s mission statement be expressed briefly in an interview such as this one? Just to clarify because not everyone may understand “mission”. It sounds so corporate – at least to my (ex-corporate) ears.

Carol:  We have an About page that’s an expanded mission statement.  I learned the term when I was in school for my Master’s Degree in Social Work (community organizing).  “Mission” means goal or aim, that’s all. Nothing corporate, perish the thought.

Metazen: John Gardner didn’t like meta-fiction, calling it “by nature a fiction-like critique of conventional fiction.” What do you think of that? And don’t be nice just because Metazen has a heart for metafiction.

Carol: I take issue with Gardner’s definition, at least out of context, and anyway, what’s wrong with critiquing conventional fiction? You know, those little love stories aren’t meta-fictions. I’ve written a few, though.  One is here. The term “meta-fiction,” also called “self-reflective” fiction, as I understand it, refers to stories that are really about the process of writing stories: they’re like those dogs fascinated by their own tails. I think that it’s fun to write obliquely and metaphorically about writing, tongue in cheek really, while also weaving a tale.  But meta-fiction is unpopular in today’s American market, as is literary satire. I was just discussing this with my foreign-born friend Amir Parsa, who has had many books published in France.

Metazen: Two of metazen’s four editors live in europe. one even is a European…I think that metafiction (the way you define it) has always been fairly popular in Europe  perhaps we are more self-reflective over here?  According to our mission, Metazen is “a flytrap for metafiction, existentialism and absurdism”.


Carol: You talk about “existentialism” and “absurdism,” but these are only terms, and “absurdism” is a passe movement rather than an accurate genre label, for what it’s worth, which is up for grabs. One can write a narrative that contains many elements and various genres. One can write a poem like piece, let’s say, in three parts, like two in my book (“Fish Tryptich” and “In the beginning is”) and craft at least one of those parts as prose, in terms of form.

Metazen: I have noticed that your own writing transcends traditional form. I cannot say too much about “absurdism” though my own work is often labeled “absurd”. But “existentialism” i know something about – it is concerned with the human condition and takes questions seriously that may well be labeled philosophical. We do believe that there is a need to ask serious questions and that the meta-position may be a good place to ask questions on issues like: death, birth, aging, love. Are these themes important to you?

Carol: Yes, we have that in common: the acknowledgment of the absurd. In regard to “existentialism,” I think of the writings of Sartre that I’ve managed to read and read about: the burdensome acceptance of freedom from gods and society’s rules, etc., the overwhelming realization that one must create one’s own meaning, the isolated self’s confrontation of its own short-lived existence, the significance of being human and humane. I don’t see how any thinking writer can avoid the big questions.

Metazen: We like writers who think. We think we do. John Gardner also said about “jazzing around” – as a form akin to “metafiction” – that it “is the hardest kind of fiction in the world,” and “the world’s greater praise will go to the serviceable drudge who writes about more or less lifelike people who labor through . . . find their destinies and stir us to affirmation.”

Carol: Well, I don’t think that meta-fiction or “jazzing around” (which I love to do – don’t know what Gardner means by it) is the hardest kind of fiction to write, but it’s certainly an impossible sell here in the States. This is, in general, I shudder to say, a voyeuristic, naïve, infantile society that adores idiotic reality shows, plot-driven novels and “true tales” (memoirs) about people overcoming adversities. Americans are generally myopic Pollyanna’s and Pollyandies. I often write in frustration about the destructive and vapid “hope” hook. That’s one of my themes, I guess. Sure, “everything will be okay.” Look the other way if you happen to see a tsunami coming to get you. Just kill all of those Arab terrorists, whether or not they’re terrorists, and everything will be alright. Conventional “fiction” is formulaic: create and develop a compelling character; create a dramatic arc full of conflicts; never include a thread or character that doesn’t push the narrative forward; always “show” and never “tell;” end with a “resolution,” preferably an epiphany, etc. etc. Yes, AFFIRM like crazy: go for it, boys and girls! Ok. End of rave.

Metazen: (Gasps, in a good way). We know that you’ve got a lot on your plate right now – with a new issue of Mad Hatter’s Review, your move away from NYC etc. – but what do you read, if anything, right now?

Carol: Lately, I’ve been reading “A Vital Fluid” by one of our contributors, Tom Bradley, and an anthology I’m in, “Diagram III.” I jump around a lot, start to read many books and leaf through various journals. I have hundreds of books in storage and the past year has been crazy-chaotic in every respect, not a time to focus; I mean, I’ve moved three times in preparation for the final move, empty and sell my ancient family home and buy another, etc. I’m amazed that I managed to write anything.

Metazen: we are certainly happy you did!

Carol: Thanks!

Metazen: What’s next for you? What would you like to do?

Carol: I’m really looking forward to collaborations, perhaps one with you, and one with Tom, more with Sheila Murphy (the first can be viewed online) and Amir Parsa (see here for a soundbite from the middle of the writer’s life’s journey). Harmonious collaborations expand what you can’t write by yourself… add another creative voice/mind and heart into the mix. I also want to get back to and complete my great European ruminative novel, a novella, and a multi-genre voyage that will contain video segments and perhaps a short play or two. Oh yes, I wrote a one act play that I’d love to see performed, and I’ve started another.

Metazen: We’re running out of time and we did not manage to talk about … (slightly stuttering) the great Americananan novel.

Carol: Is there such a creature? “Great” and “American” and “novel” are open to so many interpretations and possibilities. Is there a formula for “the great American novel?” Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” qualifies as a potent, eloquently scribed statement about the mentality of this society, but what’s the point of calling it THE “great, American novel?” In any case, it’s a wonder that the book made it to the charts, as DeLillo’s a thinking writer.

Metazen: Diana Sheets agrees with you – she has said that the publishing industry, being a global enterprise, places emphasis on “literary tofu” (in an article about why there is not going to be a Great American Novel for our age).

Carol: I like that. Tofu connotes blandness, lack of authentic imagination and originality.  True. That’s what’s happening.  Not to mention skinless, boneless, tasteless chicken breasts, and the ubiquitous, toxic bottled water.

Metazen: We’re happy you could take the time to join us today for this metaview. Thanks a lot good luck with settling in and with the new contest over at mhr!

(reblogged from metazen blog)

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