Brothers Judd interview of Frederick Glaysher, author of The Bower of Nil: A Narrative Poem (2002) (Frederick Glaysher 1954-) (Grade: B+).
November 7, 2002
Dear Mr. Glaysher:
Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. I enjoyed The Bower of Nil and just wanted to ask about your writing and the ideas you express in this particular poem:
Orrin Judd: On your website you say that: "After growing increasingly disaffected with academic literary culture, especially the Marxist antics of deconstruction and the alienated, poete maudit mentality, [you] resigned from university teaching in 1996 and began a career in real estate, having now sold over eighteen million dollars worth of 'bourgeois property.'" That seems to resonate with the criticisms that Dana Gioia made in his essay "Can Poetry Matter?" in The Atlantic Monthly.
Frederick Glaysher: Only coincidentally. Many writers articulated displeasure with academia and MFA poetry prior to Dana Gioia's article of 1991. Saul Bellow, Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Epstein, Alvin Kernan, to mention only a few. Gioia's article struck me at the time as a fair statement but already old hat. Yet he shook the temple walls.
I found much of the ire he provoked quite amusing and confirming. I studied privately with Robert Hayden as early as 1979 partly because I was interested in his writing about American and Black history, subjects outside the self of postmodern obsession. I consciously chose at the time not to go the MFA route. The other day I looked at a copy of Poets & Writers and couldn't believe how many display ads were in it for MFA programs. In my essays, in little magazines as early as 1985, I was already struggling to chart a different course. Early on, Robert Frost had been a powerful influence on my approach to writing, an example of patient perseverance and independence. My master's thesis was on Edwin Arlington Robinson, another loner.
I'd had a class in 1980, at the University of Michigan, in deconstruction, when it was just becoming the new and hot thing. I found it quite repulsive, Marxist, and decadent, from every perspective, intellectual, aesthetic, moral, whatever, and said so openly in class and in my papers, receiving a "C," the grade I'm the proudest of from my alma mater. My preface to Into the Ruins predates Gioia's manifesto.
OJ: Do you think your own poetry is different now that you're out of the academic hothouse and don't have to "publish or perish"?
FG: My poetry was different while I was in it, which was part of the problem, so I don't see now what difference how I earn a livelihood should make. Gioia overemphasizes that, in my view. The problems of modernity and postmodernism are not merely related to how we earn our daily bread. And a mere return to meter and rhyme will in the end amount to nothing.
OJ: Do you feel like you can write things now that you couldn't have in that environment?
FG: There really isn't much freedom of speech and conscience allowed in university departments. The phenomenon has been widely remarked upon and documented increasingly for over a decade by Alan Kors, David Horowitz, and others. It's been herd-think for a very long time, if not by its very structure and definition. My own experiences in a number of colleges and universities impressed that upon me in ways I needn't elaborate. Suffice it to say, I reached a point in my writing that I became convinced I could find more time and peace of mind outside the academic world than within it. That has very much proven to be the case, beyond anything I was able to imagine while teaching. I long ago lost all respect for the campus and its tawdry radical politics, agendas. On all sides, we've fallen into faction, few willing to listen to and allow views other than their own.
OJ: Given that you're now pursuing a non-literary career too, how do you go about writing? Do you have an established schedule? or do you write only when inspired?
FG: I've never been the kind of mill that gets up each morning and churns out another poem on schedule, though most of my writing has always been done in the mornings. I usually wake up about 5:30 am and write or read until about 11:00 or 12:00, seldom later. The rest of the day has always been when I tried to teach classes, take out the garbage, attend to all the mundane necessities of life. Real estate now provides me with a very flexible schedule. People seldom buy a house in the morning. Much preferable to grading piles of student papers, for not even nickels and dimes, I might add. As an independent entrepreneur, I have complete control over my time, working when I need to in order to support my family and my writing. The romantic, Bohemian idealization of the writer is quite flawed, though I've lived it too.
I'm basically a religious, moral soul. Writing crystallizes moments of consciousness, spiritual struggle for clarification, growth, and understanding, often, always really, won at only great cost and effort. My avowed goal has been to write relatively few poems but ones that I hope are worthy of the time of my fellow citizens. It seems to me many poets simply write too much and have nothing significant to say.
OJ: Where do you write and how do you write? Do you have a set room you use? Do you write longhand or type or use a PC?
FG: I took up the computer early when it became widely available in the late '80s. But my poems have always been written longhand, pencil or pen, with much revision before committing to type. I feel once I type up a poem it's more difficult to revise. Initially, on paper, I'm more free to sculpt and shape as need be. My prose, too, I usually write first on paper. It's important to me that the technology not break my train of thought once I get going, and computer bugs have a way of always intervening at the wrong moment. The real struggle and battles of writing are spiritual and intellectual. The current hardware is not important. Wherever I've lived, I've usually had a separate room or study to write in, though I've not always been able to afford the luxury, and at times had to work in a bedroom in order to keep writing.
OJ: In Bower of Nil, Peter Marsh's wife has just been murdered and you recount a long night of philosophical and spiritual struggle that follows this tragedy. Without getting more personal than you might care to go, are you writing from some kind of personal experience of loss here? Or was it important to you for other reasons that Marsh have suffered this kind of loss? If not the loss itself, is the struggle he goes through something you've undergone?
FG: Yes, I'm writing from personal experiences of loss. There are literal and symbolic dimensions. For Peter Marsh, the gods send him the suffering he requires. I'd like to leave it at that.
OJ: Your bio notes that you've lived and taught in Japan, studied in China, with further formal study of India, lived on an Indian reservation, yet throughout the poem, and especially in the middle section, your source material is heavily Western and you've a pronounced Western viewpoint. Is the crisis that you speak of confined to the West? Or is the East not even caught up to the point where it can have undergone a decline yet?
FG: I have a complicated history, I suppose, one that's difficult to compress into a dust jacket blurb, yet, I should acknowledge, is crucial to what I've written and why. I grew up in suburban Detroit, with some of my family living in the inner city. My genealogy is very much a part of my spiritual and literary consciousness, part of what compels me to confront and write about some of the things I do. My people come from England and Croatia, with deep roots in the Anglican and Catholic churches, with others from Germany, Ireland, French Huguenots. Like many Americans, I lived and breathed social change and dislocation before I even began to develop intellectually, began to understand from what I was made. Much of my study and teaching has been, or was, of American and international literatures, non-western. Their stories too are of social convulsion and change, spiritual upheaval, fragmentation. The modern human story.
Looking back, I was blessed to have had two experiences in high school, ages ago. One, I participated in a model United Nations day that set me on a path that continues to have resonance. Second, I had a class in world religions that opened up the range of transcendent experience and sent me off on many years of study down many paths. The interplay of the traditional and modern has always fascinated me. I've been drawn to or sought it out in all the great literatures and writers, East and West. Many take it for granted in Western literature, without realizing how central it is too, in, say, Asian literature and experience. I'd like to think Peter Marsh and David Emerson touch feelingly on these global matters of the human soul.
My essays, some still unpublished, though I hope forthcoming next year, discuss Asian literature much more in concrete detail.
I should say too that Rochester Hills, the city I grew up in and returned to in 1994, is very important to my writing and consciousness. It's one of the few Detroit suburbs with a vital historic downtown, everyday representations of the past. It used to be the country and thoroughly white, but has become one of the most "upscale" suburbs of Detroit, quite international and diverse. Rochester typifies for me all the changes and problems of postmodern modernity. I've lived and inhaled this atmosphere all my life. Late postmodern secular materialism, its rarefied air. I've seen a fair part of the world and country. Rochester's my hometown, my touchstone. I've never been a deracinated intellectual. My roots extend everywhere into Michigan and Rochester. I could tell you more about the history of our little town than you'd care to hear. And I can tell you where my family are buried. I regularly visit and tend their graves.
I've been surprised at times how the real estate business has served my literary interests, revealing the inner-most sanctum of people's lives, how they live, what they believe, incredibly different walks of life. It's all there in an instant for those who have eyes. The evanescent soul made manifest. Struggling under the confines of time. I feel it as a privilege, imposing a burden of respect, to have such access to the human heart of my fellow citizens. Unbeknownst, though it be. Largely a bedroom community for many international companies, the commissions in this city do a lot for a poet who wants to loaf and invite his soul. Anyway, I become perhaps too practical for some, violating sacred clichés of romanticism and university life.
OJ: In that middle portion, which I found the strongest part of the poem, you sound like a cultural conservative--is that a fair assessment?
FG: Liberal and conservative tags and abstractions really have very little meaning to me. They are political and secular historical constructs that fail to represent my inmost being. So I always rankle at them both, loathe all party platforms. Politically, I've always been an independent. In every other sense as well. Group-thinking is very dangerous, whether academic, religious, literary, whatever. All organizations and religions tend to become oppressive to the individual human soul.
Those qualifications aside, I understand your point. I was baptized, raised, and confirmed a Catholic, and I genuinely respect the Church, the Pope, and the social and transcendent order and teachings of Christianity. Marx and murderers like him have never been my cup of tea. What Jonathan Swift called "prognosticators" have been the scourge of modern times. I believe many of our cultural problems are fundamentally spiritual and moral problems, heresy among the academicians these days. On the other hand, Christians who regard the United Nations as the anti-Christ, and so forth, aren't my cup of tea either. Moderation in all things is the old saw we should all do more to reinvigorate.
OJ: Yet in the final section, when Peter Marsh begins to imagine how the pathologies of our age will be healed, you emphasize the advent of World Government and the value of the UN and internationalist institutions, so you sound like a Wilsonian liberal--is there such a dichotomy in your views?
FG: Our time is one of politicization on all sides. We get it in the media, alas, the classroom, everywhere. The Bower of Nil is a poem, first and foremost. Poetry is mimesis. Poetry is a form of consciousness, of knowledge, a way of thinking, the reflection of consciousness, awareness, in words, language. Peter Marsh is a modern soul.
OJ: If the traditional West--the dissipation of which you lament--laid the groundwork for the kind of humane and democratic world governance you imagine will come, but most of the world has never undergone such Westernization, isn't this world government necessarily still a long way in our future?
FG: When I was at the University of Michigan in the late '70s and early '80s, there was no curriculum that would allow me to study what I was drawn to. I had to patch together my own degree under the rubric of a bachelors of general studies--Biblical, Islamic, and Old Testament studies, world literature and history, with large swaths of Asian. Eventually, multi-culturalism and interdisciplinary studies caught up, in a sense, though much radicalized, in my view. It may be that the best answer to your question is to send those interested to my literary essay "The Victory of World Governance," available on my website, the culmination of my reading over 200 books on the League of Nations and the United Nations.
OJ: In the meantime, why is it appropriate for the democratic West to participate in institutions like the UN which include brutally repressive regimes like Syria, Burma, China, Cuba, etc.?
FG: After my first book Into the Ruins was published in 1999, I gave over 230 radio interviews all over the country about my book and the United Nations. Many podunk stations in Idaho, North Dakota, elsewhere, as well as million-plus audiences in New York, Los Angeles, and so on. I learnt a great deal from the arduous experience. A few were recorded and are also on my website.
OJ: The poem includes a Baha'i prayer and you maintain a website (The Bahai Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience) about the Baha'i faith, but the website refers to what seem to be bitter divisions within the faith. Do you consider yourself to be an adherent of the Baha'i faith? How did you become interested in the Baha'i faith? What beliefs does the faith entail? Is the poem informed by such faith? Or other religious faiths?
FG: I converted to the Baha'i Faith in 1976. As with Christianity, human beings have various views on assorted controversial matters. The Baha'i Faith too has a complicated history, complicated all the more by its relative obscurity and the lack of reliable sources. I hope my Baha'i website remedies some deficiencies in that regard. The via negativa is an old Christian form, found, actually, in many religions.
During high school I became aware that something had happened to religion and belief in the modern world. My reading of the Bible and the scriptures of the great religions led me to recognize the transcendent had taken many forms in past human experience, expressed itself through many channels. I respect and affirm the oneness of that experience, the central Baha'i teaching. I realize some dismiss the universality of transcendence as Gnosticism or whatever. At forty-eight, with more than half a lifetime of study and reflection, I know all the arguments and counter-arguments and wish not to fall into polemics or an apologia. I speak only for the integrity of my own conscience.
OJ: Are you working on a new project or projects? Can you tell us something about them?
FG: Well (with a laugh), I worked for nearly twenty years on Into the Ruins and fifteen on The Bower of Nil, so I'm not the kind of poet who cranks out one book after another. I've always tended toward reading a hundred books to write a single line. However, I believe I'm almost done with a collection of essays, The Grove of the Eumenides, and hope to see it finally in print next year. I've begun writing too an epic poem, The Parliament of Poets. I've been thinking and making notes on it for over twenty years. If I'm able and allowed, it will probably take the rest of my life!
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