A Ribbon of Language: Blake Butler
Michael Kimball: When I was a kid, I used to think about the way my name was spelled. I couldn’t figure out why Michael had to be spelled with those seven letters. It seemed arbitrary. I didn’t know why Michael couldn’t be spelled, say, Plother and still sound like Michael. I have never stopped thinking about the way that words sound—where the different sounds are in each word.
Blake Butler: I think it’s funny how acoustics occur initially, in the becoming of text. They seem to have several ways. Sometimes I will be doing nothing and words just come out of my mouth. Often they are noise or babble or bits of bad rap songs I let myself listen to. Some percentage of the time my mouth goes on and repeats them. Certain phrases I will say all through out an hour or a day. Other ones stick for even longer. There is one phrase—entirely sound nonsense—that I have been saying to myself in private for more than 5 years. Some of my close friends know the word but mostly I don’t let anyone hear it.
Kimball: Now I won’t be able to think or say anything else until you tell me what that sound is. Is it koosh? No,wait, I think I know it. Is it ludswerrumissitid?
Butler: Ludswerrumissitid is on the right track. I am afraid to say the word on paper, I think. I think that would give it too much room. I will tell you on the phone. Words said in the air have less attack for me, I think. When I speak with my mouth I say the dumbest things. As if there is no good connection between my brain and where my mouth goes. I think that’s why once I allowed myself to begin writing freely, it became an obsession: as when I didn’t have to use my mouth voice, and in the absence of others, I could figure out more correctly what I meant to mean to say.
[Interlude in which a phone call is made and a word is discussed.]
Kimball: I think that’s going to derail me. Now I can’t stop thinking about how a single word sounds, how any two words sound together, how the words sound within a sentence, and how words sound between sentences. I find it difficult to go on if the words don’t sound right. So how do acoustics relate to your writing?
Butler: I think that a kind of accidental bubble is the way acoustics most come into my writing, at least in the mind of opening a new thread of words on paper. Certain phrases will end up ejecting a whole slew of other after them, in the mind of appending or extending that initial impulse. Other times the instigator will be a sentence or phrasing I spat out in my sleep. Whatever way, it’s usually when I’m thinking consciously the least that the thing I get the most out of in mining come.
Kimball: So what kind of phrase would you spit out in your sleep?
Butler: For one, when I sleep I am often speaking. Those things, I never hear what I say. My girlfriend will tell me bits of things I have said inside of sleep sometimes, though often she can’t understand them either, though she knows that they are words. Often the things I say inside my sleep make me laugh inside my sleep. The only way I ever find out what I’ve said inside my sleep is if I happen to, when waking, or sometimes even still all under, write things down: another nod of how I can only seem to get them out not through my mouth. I keep a pad beside my bed, though often it gets moved. I used to sleepwalk frequently but now not so much, though things inside my house will sometimes seem to have been adjusted. Sometimes the writing occurs on the outside of my hands or on my arms. Yesterday I found a note I had written to myself and shoved in a copy of Wittgenstein’s ‘Tractatus’ that I keep beside my bed. It said: My room had had another room above it shaped, then there was some other junk I couldn’t read, some scribble doodle, then it said, + 1 extra door.
Kimball: That kind of thing—notes when I’m falling asleep or waking up—it only happens to me when I’m deep into a novel. But that last bit, it kind of sounds like it’s from EVER.
Butler: It probably does, or could have been. I think everything I’ve ever said is the same thing, comes from the same thing. I like repetitions that do not feel like repetitions: elucidations on the same idea that continue. Beckett is maybe the king of this, as are the best of thug rappers. What about music, then? Does music often or ever instigate or influence your acoustics?
Kimball: I don’t know anything about music from a musician’s perspective, as you do, but I used to read some music theory books—I always felt as if I learned something about structuring a novel from them—and I always found the way that Suzanne K. Langer talks about music to be helpful to me as a writer. She says things like this: “Repetition is another structural principle—deeply involved with rhythm, as all basic principles are with each other—that gives musical composition the appearance of vital growth.” That’s a whole novel right there.
Butler: Repetition has definitely become one of my favorite ideas in both music and the influx of it on writing, which I think is a drastic switchover from how I used to try to make music influence me: which would have been by sheer brute force of will. I think the most effective relations I’ve had with sound in the past 5 years or so have been in the way of having repetitive music like Fennesz or Aphex Twin or Brian Eno’s ambient works that counteract the usual sort of ‘controlled mania’ that I usually feel consumed by when I’m really getting somewhere in my head. That kind of counterbalance, I’ve found, helps put a tonal control on the ideas, and almost allows them to more effectively connect to one another—kind of like a glue between me and whatever I’m writing into. Beyond that, though, I think silence, true silence, when you can find it, which for me has been more than rare lately, can be the cleanest, closest way to go into that mental trophy case—the same way it does with running, or breathing.
Kimball: Let’s go back to something else you said. When a phrase does open up a new thread of words, what is that kind of phrase or how does that phrase catch your attention?
Butler: Mostly I have found that the phrases I think the least about before I let myself sit down and begin to open from them are the ones that cause me to open from them the most other words, or at least words I like. Usually, when I think of words I like, often as if by assaulting, as in, they simply appear inside my head or mouth when I am alone and I say them again inside my head or sometimes again out loud, after I have said them that first time, followed by the repetition or the acknowledgement that I have thought of something that I would like to keep my mind around, I try not to think past it any further in that minute. I try to hold it, as if holding onto body fluids. I make myself hold that phrase or word or words there in my head in a placeholder, repeating if I need, and keep them there, on pause, recircling, until I can get somewhere where I can write them down, and further on. This is both a function of me not wanting to forget the words (as I often fear that I will lose them without focus, though I tend to remember a lot even in my fear of lack of doting) and a function of my wanting to wait until I have freer access (as in I am at the desk where I write, or at least have paper and pen) to continue to let the onslaught of the other words keep coming, in association, or in lighting up. If I let myself think too far past the impulse, I find I either will think more things than I can hold (my short term memory, I fear, is blippy, though this is also an extension of obsession, i.e. fear of loss), or that I will think too far into the idea before I get the chance to let it come out of me as wanted and then will overthink it and begin in orchestration. I spent many years trying to orchestrate beforehand before the actual sitting and writing and for this I have a hard drive full of guff, which I have not yet had the heart to delete because I am a holder-on of things. Ultimately, I find that the less I can know about something, and the less I try to interfere with the signal coming off that first illuminating impulse by inserting my dumb head, the more successful I am in actually saying something new. I know you have shared similar regards for not-knowing while you are writing, and how you use your writing to explore and to surprise yourself. Do you ever feel that those acoustical impulses do not come from you?
Kimball: Those last few sentences, I feel that’s exactly it. I try to not think about what I’m writing when I’m getting it down. For me, it’s just a voice speaking, a voice that is not mine, but a way of talking. It’s not thinking, but it is being receptive. For instance, I have no idea where DEAR EVERYBODY came from when it first came to me. I didn’t even know what it was, but it came out in a rush and would not be denied—a particular way of speaking. At that point, it existed almost solely acoustically. I have had people ask me about channeling voices. I don’t want to make that claim, but writing fiction can make you feel possessed.
Butler: What’s maybe funny, though, is how often those initial impulses get lopped off or rearranged in later drafting, as those impulses, in the repetition and sounding out of what they call after them, begin to build more out of what the initial spurt dislodged from. I think my best work has always come out of an impulse wherein I found I could ride the acoustic of the first bit straight through to whatever way it finds to close itself: though really, it is that creation of the middle area, the connective tissue of the words dictating words, that I think I not only write for, but live for. Is this kind of onset similar to what you experience? Does it function on you in bursts, or more in slow states, or both?
Kimball: For me, the acoustics are almost always accidental to start. Sometimes I’ll write a sentence and love it and not know why. When I eventually figure out why it’s often because of some acoustical relation, something a little buried in the sentence, something often assonantial. But after the accidents, there is a lot of conscious thought. If I’m stuck, if something isn’t right, if I’m just trying to figure out what comes next—I’ll work with the acoustics and/or the syntax. It keeps the narrative from always being semantic. It’s a different way to find the right word, or the right place for the right word. I like the compositional nature of it.
Butler: What is entailed in ‘working with acoustics’? How do you use acoustics to make the sentences extend?
Kimball: It’s really just a kind of close attention. It’s looking hard at the sentence until it opens up. It’s feeling around between words until you find spaces that require new words, new beats. It’s beyond semantics (though it still depends on sense). It’s recognizing the recurring sounds and rhythms and using them to rewrite a sentence that is not what it should be. I don’t know if I’m explaining this well. Working with acoustics is taking a sentence that you know needs to be a better sentence and using the sounds of the words to fix the sentence. Maybe the first word in your sentence has a long a-sound in it and you realize that the sentence will feel finished if you end your sentence with another word with another long a-sound in it. Maybe it’s looking back at the end of the previous sentence, which you’ve just noticed ends with a hard-t sound and then beginning the next sentence, the one you’re rewriting, with another hard-t sound, so that there isn’t any space between the sentences, not even really a pause, and then all of a sudden the narrative speeds up in a way you like. Maybe it’s structuring a sentence around articles and conjunctions and prepositions—the more perennial parts of language—so that you end up with a singular way of speaking, a singular way for your narrator to speak. Maybe it’s only using bouncing meter because you’re working on something funny. Maybe it’s only using rising meter because you want your sentences to have more weight. It can be nearly anything, but it’s figuring out what those things are for you, or for the piece you’re working on, and then using them to some effect. I could make a list of rules that I have for myself, many of them dealing with acoustics, that I put into play as I’m composing or revising. Of course, these rules are always changing.
Butler: Could you give me an example of one of these rules? Maybe the one that feels the most central or at least the most relatable?
Kimball: Move the preposition to the end of the phrase. That was one of the first things that I figured out for myself and I use that in a lot of my fiction. It’s not what we’re taught to do, but it is still quite obviously English. And it creates this semantic link in the sentence—and this vaguely unsettling feeling.
Butler: Do you find you spend more time in revision than in generation?
Kimball: The hard part for me is getting something down on the page. Once I have something to work with, I feel pretty good. So I’m sure I spend more time in revision. Even my published novels are marked up.
Butler: I almost can’t stand to read things I have written once they are in print, as my mind, that much further from the mind that wrote the piece, begins to poke holes and continue that acoustic developing utilizing whatever new fragments of me have become the more forefront ones since the time of creation. I often find myself wondering which of those seeming stutters are ones that could crop up in a reader versus those that just stem from my familiarity and since-then progression. It’s claustrophobic, in a way, but also seemingly just another part of the process. So at what point do you accept that the acoustics of the sentence have become what they were meant to become?
Kimball: I keep seeing new things, so it’s usually a point where it just feels right. I do want a certain amount of acoustical density, but I don’t try to quantify it. It’s just the point where it seems seamless acoustically. It’s difficult to stop, though. It’s always difficult to stop. What is it for you? At what point are the acoustics finished for you?
Butler: Within the confines of the current mind being used for the writing, I suppose it becomes a matter of when I can read through the sentence in one sitting and not feel those groan holes asking me to keep puncturing them. Of course, as time passes, and the brain changes, that above process of the mind redeveloping and changing what it tends to makes the sentences seem to change. And so it becomes a matter of satisfaction within a parameter: of feeling right. I guess this is why I have recently become a fan and purveyor of writing texts in bursts, almost in enslavement. The longer I spend tortured over something and letting my mind change within the period of the writing, the harder it becomes to nail those frameworks and rhythms in the essence of a time. Everything I’ve ever written and felt the most satisfied with has come out of the quickest mind: the more rightly I can channel it in the first instance, the more rightly it feels further on. Though this is a practice that can only be developed with more and more doing, and probably comes and goes. More often it is a matter of reading and rereading in moods as close to one mind as possible and trying to make it feel as if it is closed unto itself enough to open up.
Kimball: And what sorts of things are you trying to do when you’re creating an acoustically sound sentence?
Butler: I like something that makes my mouth or face feel jogged or deleted some, perhaps. Something that within the syllables both allows the syllables to butt up against one another in ways that variously embrace or attack. I think a lot of it comes out of trying to hypnotize myself: I enjoy feeling locked out of my body. When I am really in it, when I really start to feel channeled and beaten up a little by my mouth without controlling it, that’s when those words are really coming and spitting me up. So much of it, I think, for me, comes from the unconscious, from the sleep mind, as if while I am sleeping is when I am writing and when I am writing is when I am sleeping.
Kimball: It’s interesting. We’re talking about the same things, but you talk about the mouth and the unconscious mind, which seems really right to me. And I don’t know if I’ve said it yet, but it’s the ears for me and also the stomach and feeling. I feel the words in my stomach and sometimes in my chest. I hear them inside my head, not with my ears exactly, but with something that is beyond my ears. I see them scroll through my brain, a ribbon of language that I can hear without speaking.
This interview originally appeared in Unsaid #4.
Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, was recently published in the US, UK, and Canada. The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunning.” And the Los Angeles Times says the book is “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” His first two novels are THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY (2000) and HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS (2005), both of which have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. He is also responsible for the ongoing art project—Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)—and the documentary films, I WILL SMASH YOU (2009) and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES (2010).
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