Interview with CS Giscombe

by Adam Fagin

AF: You often use your journals as source material for your work. Maybe it would be useful to begin by talking about your journals.

CSG: The thing with journals is that in the journal there are no rules. And the stuff doesn’t have to be good, doesn’t have to be polished. And depending on the particular moment in my life, I’m a very good journal keeper or a very bad one. Very bad means a few entries a month. Good means an entry every day.

AF: What does an entry involve? Do you just sit down at the end of the day?

CSG: End of the day, various corners of the day, morning, whenever there’s a moment. The idea of journal is fairly simple. The idea of journal is that you keep track, I keep track, one keeps track of one’s consciousness, you know, as tawdry as consciousness can be sometimes. Or as profound, though that sounds certainly problematic. What I heard a long time ago—and I can’t recall where I heard this—is that every ninety minutes, you know, our brains can reboot, that we go through a little seizure, you know, every hour and a half, and that that’s one of the things that inspiration is, that sudden little interior kick in the head. And, you know, that makes some sense to me. I’ve noted that, sitting at my desk, and ideally, I’ll sit at my desk for three or four hours and work purposefully. Not on journals but on whatever book I’m working on at the time.

AF: Do journals count as writing?

CSG: They don’t count for that three or four hours. Although I’ll certainly sneak a journal entry in there if necessary.

AF: I also wanted to ask, how do you, the way I have it phrased, how do you ‘transfer your consciousness’ from the journals to the poetry? How does it work, technically?

CSG: Technically…

AF: If you could give me an example, if you can think of one.

CSG: Oh…[laughs]. Scrunches up eyes…Technically…

AF: I mean, do you lift a few gleaming phrases? Or do you just…move through it? Or none of the above?

CSG: I’ll move through it. The deal is that because there are no rules to a journal, you know, I tend to write not unconsciously but not consciously—and not for publication. And so…a month, two, three, four months down the road, you know, reencountering the stuff that’s in the journal, I’m encountering another, I hate to use the word, voice that’s kinda strange. It’s like, ‘Oh, shit! I thought that! What does this mean!’ Or I’ll be startled by some observation that I hadn’t been startled by at the time. I’ve always believed in putting the writing, putting the poem in a drawer for a long time, then coming back to it fresh. That’s my experience of the journal. They certainly fuel the work. They fuel it by displacement, by encountering displaced things.

AF: What I noticed in Into And Out of Dislocation, your experimental prose memoir/historical/personal genealogical adventure, is that you have some full journal entries embedded in the text. Did you rework the language at all before they were inserted?

CSG: No. I’m crippled by honesty. Those are more or less verbatim. Those are verbatim.

AF: So how do you relate to this other self? The text itself is so detailed. In Dislocation, you’re describing in detail what you thought and felt in the moment. The journal seems to record the bare facts of your life. So when you interacting with the journals, are you relating to the other voice, another…self?

CSG: You were asking before about poetry. The Dislocation book is a different book. It’s not poetry as such. How can I talk about that? The Dislocation book is an adventure book. It’s somewhat of an excessive book. It’s solipsistic. I get to be the hero, you know, my whole life, my adventures, my travel. I take travel kinda seriously. I allowed myself a thing in that book that I don’t allow myself, that I’m no longer interested in doing in my poetry, which is to be kind of unashamed about narrative and to embrace narrative as not so much something that’s problematic and not something to approach obliquely but to approach directly and to account for adventures. It was a fun book to write, in some ways unproblematically.

AF: Why after you’d finished Giscombe Road, a book of poetry that also deals with the genealogy of the Giscombe family, did you feel the need with Dislocation to continue with the subject?

CSG: We’ll be a little scattershot. We’ll go back to the really early work, a book from the 70s. I had started out very much as a lyric poet. Or I came to that in the mid-70s. I’m not sure how I started out, but I came to be a lyric writer in the 70s. Poems were a page long, a strong I, account of adventures, a lot of epiphonic stuff.

The first book is called Postcards, and that’s what the poems were like. And Postcards has implicit in it, of course, the idea of location, which is something that’s continued for me obviously.  But the poems were all, not all, but I’ll say that the poems in that book, for the greatest part, were kind of closed cages. They did closure stuff. The poems began and ended. They were discrete, you know, in some ways, some fairly major ways I suppose. When the book was finished, when the book was published, it had seemed like…I’d been quite depressed actually. It seemed like a slack, easy book, and I wanted to do more. I wanted poetry to do more, to be more than the book that I just published. And so I didn’t write actually for a long time. And then I began again to write with, for me, more of my mind, or a different part of my mind. To write longer, more open-ended, more inquisitive pieces—pieces that didn’t have an ending in sight before I began writing them, poems I wasn’t sure how they were gonna end before I started writing them

AF: It seems the poems began to contain history.

CSG: The newer work, you mean?

AF: The newer work.

CSG: I think, ideally, what I’m trying to do is not to contain history but to traffic with history instead. But after doing that, after trying to not contain, after trying to traffic and be open-ended for a number of years, at some point in the 80s, I guess, I came to miss the lyric voice that I had pursued, I’d worked from in the first book, in the poems around that time, in the mid 70s, and I—oh, god, this is gonna sound terribly hokey—the place that I made for that voice was essays. And I began writing essays, and the essays maybe contained history. Dislocation contains history, perhaps more. I’m not sure if it contains history or not, but it certainly contains history much less problematically than Giscombe Road does. And the way that it contains history is with a very detailed lyric voice, alluding to very strongly, or trafficking again very strongly in the world adventures. You know, on this day I did this, my wife did this, our daughter did this. We were chased by a bear and all that.

AF: On the topic of history. In your later work what’s always coming up is names. To me they seem to be structures that obstruct history while also allowing it to come through.

CSG: Names do?

AF: Names do.

CSG: Oh, yeah. Names do that. It occurred to me at some point that the world is staked out by names. I had been a member of the American Name Society, which is a real society [laughs]. There is a magazine called Names which I have subscribed to off and on for last, you know, twenty years. It’s really about names, what stuff is named, names of restaurants, names of, uh… The number one insult to people of the Midwest, the bad name, you know what it is? Hoosier [laughs]. That’s the sort of stuff that Names traffics with. Yeah, the world is certainly staked out by names, and in obvious ways names tell stories: they’re a link with the past. All the Spanish names in California, you know, the names of famous people, the names of towns, that sort of stuff. Sure, it’s interesting… Well, as people used to say in cowboy movies, ‘Hey, pardner. What’s your handle?’ How’m I going to address you? They’re usefully utilitarian in that way. And, you know, what I’m certainly interested in, continue to be, is vehicles. Handled vehicles, you see the connection, right? How something is called. It’s a thing that is rather often below our notice. We think about getting from here to San Francisco; we don’t think about BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit], we don’t think about the train. I assume you came on BART? Ok, good. You know, BART interests me very much.

AF: Really?

CSG: Oh, hell yes! [laughs] What’s interesting about it is, one person is in charge of the train. One guy or one woman, interestingly, runs the train. And he or she at the stations will stick his head out the window, make sure that the doors are unobstructed. There’s a remote control device so that, once he ascertains that the doors are closed, there’re no obstructions. He can apparently press a button and the train will go forward without him being in the driving seat, you know, as it were. He’ll carry the remote back to the driving seat and sit down and pilot the train at that point, which is interesting to me, watching somebody look backwards as the train goes forward with the control stick in his hand. The idea that he’s got a clear track ahead of him and can afford to look backwards.

What else is interesting about BART? BART is interesting because it’s banal. It’s a vehicle, it’s a conveyance. But coming into Berkeley on BART from San Francisco, I’m struck at how much of an actual train BART is. There’s an incredible railroad sense that one gets on BART. Railroad Sense, by the way, is the name of the book I’m working on right now, kind of a prose book. You come into Berkeley on BART at the second or third story level of buildings, the longest street named for Martin Luther King. The same is true of Amtrak in Chicago or Philadelphia or other cities—and so forth. You come in, the elevated track is through a section of town where people of color live, very very often. And it comes in, you can kinda look into people’s windows. You can on BART if you’re interested in doing that, so for those reasons BART is of great interest to me. I can go on about BART if you want to.

AF: Maybe you can discuss trains generally as they appear in your work?

CSG: Trains, railroads, they’ve been written about a lot. And because they’ve been so popular, I think what one needs to be aware of the metaphors that they already contain. You know, the clichés around trains. Trains are sexual. Well, duh. They’re phallic, obviously. And they provide occasions for romance, as well. Movies are full of people falling in love on trains, having sexual affairs and so forth on trains. There are racial metaphors as well. What’s of interest to me is not so much the racial metaphor of the wrong side of the tracks, the right side of the tracks. There is no right side of the tracks: it’s always the wrong side of the tracks. That’s kind of interesting, isn’t it? And across the tracks is where the people of color live. What’s of interest to me is that BART enacts that. That, even though BART is not really a train, yes, it really is. But understanding wrong side of the tracks, understanding sexuality, those are received metaphors already, and I’m interested in my own work in trying to get beyond the baggage, using the baggage, the received metaphor, to get to something else that’s much less nameable, that the train gets you to.

AF: Speaking of modes of transportation, you’ve just done some traveling, and that traveling bears a relation to your newest work, no?

CSG:  Oh, heavens, yes. Yeah, I’m just back from a pre-earthquake trip through the islands, through Jamaica and Cuba. I’m interested in island railroads and railroads constrained by the water-borders of islands. The islands I think of are Vancouver Island, first of all, in Canada: I’ve written a lot about Canada and certainly Great Britain— England, Wales, Scotland—is also very much an island with a very intricate train system. I’m interested in trains in Jamaica. It’s not a big island, but there has been a railroad system, which my daughter and I did some work in documenting a couple of weeks ago, and Cuba, which has a very extensive rail system.

I reminded myself—this was in my journal—I’m writing about Cuban railroads. But I’m really writing about writing about Cuban railroads, if you see what I’m saying. The same is true of Jamaica. The journal at this point is still quite raw, and it’s unprocessed. I’ve got pictures in my mind of the places that we went and pictures of the words as well. But I’ve not looked extensively at what I’ve written and probably will not for a few months more.

You know, I wrote extensively. Keeping track of where we were, what we saw and a bunch of other stuff also. Memories of various things, stuff totally extraneous, various domestic dramas, death-memories of my mother, all sorts of stuff like that are there in the journal. And what will happen with this kind of intense two, two-and-a-half-week stretch in the islands, I can’t say. Of interest to me is also obviously socio-cultural stuff. I stayed in Montego Bay. I was there for a number of days. I got there—had to wait for my kid to get there--she had obligations elsewhere—came back from Havana and cooled my heels for awhile in Montego Bay. And I was staying in a hotel, a very cheap hotel called the Carribic (sp?) House, but it was on this thing called the Hip Strip. I was there for two days before I went out walking. The tracks are mostly gone to Montego Bay, but they still appear on the map, and there’s a railroad station in Montego Bay, on the map, and I set out walking in search of it from my hotel, which is right up the street from Margaritaville, literally, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville is right there. And I discovered downtown Montego Bay, which I hadn’t quite realized existed. The place where I was staying, which had a few hotels, places to eat, convenience stores and so on, was the Hip Strip. And the people there were from all over the place, Europe, the United States. There were a number of Jamaicans, and I was made immediately as an American, and people were stopping me on the street and saying, ‘Hey, sir, you wanna taxi? You wanna massage? Need a spliff?’ Downtown Montego Bay was kind of huge. I never did find the railroad station, even though that’s why I went downtown. But there’s this kind of ongoing street, Market, that goes on for blocks: clothes, shoes, food. There’re bookstores downtown. Nobody bothered me downtown. No one came up to me and asked me if I wanted stuff. Also, interestingly, nobody downtown was white—all black and Indian Jamaicans. It was quite amazing what I found on my trip to the railroad station. And that’s also, that sort of thing, what the writing is about: what you find when you’re looking for something else. Something finite, you get beyond it into something…well, you’re handed on to something else. And I like that gesture, in writing and in life, you know, rather much.

AF: Speaking of ‘being handed on to something else,’ in Dislocation, which is very densely woven together, temporally speaking, the reader often enters a scene in a particular moment but is guided to moments far-removed from the original in both time and space. In other words, in Dislocation, you are in one moment, but you are made very conscious that you are in many moments at once.

CSG: Yeah, okay. Yeah, but that’s what thinking is, that’s what consciousness is. We’re here in this coffee shop, and I’m thinking of the Roosevelt Bakery in Seattle or the ABC café in Ithaca or Coffee Hell in Normal, Illinois and the waitress there whose name was English, because that’s where she was from; she was from England. And I’m thinking of Brandy, the old song [sings]: ‘There’s a girl in a harbor town, and she works laying whiskey down.’ Those are the things that, as we talk, are running through my mind as well. There are a lot of tracks going on. That’s why the book was kind of fun to write. I could lay those down into what seemed to me like kind of a clear narrative.

AF: But the narrative is certainly not closed. The book, like I said, is so temporally dense. In a way, we immersed ourselves in your consciousness.

CSG: That dreadful consciousness that’s mine. But Juliana Spahr pointed out something that was interesting that I hadn’t realized that I did. But I’m happy that I did it. Reading the book, what she saw in it was that I documented everybody’s race, which seemed necessary to me. But I guess it isn’t for a lot of people. And in that way I think made the book less comfortable—she said in a good way—which I’m pleased about. Anyway, that stuff, consciousness, observation, is, I think, by my nature, that stuff seems important to me.

AF: What about Canada? It’s such a big part of your work. What is Canada to you? Or is that too big a question?

CSG: It’s a big country. It’s, what, the third biggest in the world, since the Soviet Union broke up? Yeah, it’s huge. It’s the foreign country that you can drive to. I was enthralled with that when I was 8 or 9 years old. I’m thinking, ‘Holy shit! This is a different country. We’re going across the border. Wow!’ I’d glamorize myself if I told you about the stuff I noticed at 8 or 9 aside from crossing the border. But what I notice now is that people’s voices—even in places like Seattle and Vancouver, cities that are very close to each other—people talk differently, their voices sound different from one another’s. Street signs are different, attitudes about stuff are different, assumptions are different. We think of Canada as this place to go for vacations, and there are certainly resorts and all of that. But it looks kind of like the United States, kind of. But then it’s different, and it’s that difference that I’m profoundly attracted to. As I said in the book, border-crossings are always very sexy, very sexual, and they’re very racial as well. And racial and sexual are kinda similar: they’re real kind of bottomless designations of people. And they’re conventionalized, they’re quantified, they’re recognizable in a lot of ways. And at the border all that stuff is kind of visible.           

Yeah, I like Canada a great deal. I’m not unconscious, obviously, of books like Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada, Canada as a refuge for slaves escaping from the prison-house of America, getting beyond the Fugitive Slave Law and stuff like that. I’ve been talking about this in class recently, so again it’s on my mind. There were four, I think, very important migrations of black Americans to Canada starting with the Revolutionary War. And the interesting thing about those four is that they’re non-events in US history; they didn’t happen. You said before, the work I do contains history. History is a very fickle mistress, and there’s things history just don’t mention to you. And Canada is, in terms of black history, Canada is a really interesting continuation—from the San Francisco Migration of 1858, which I talked about in the book, to the Revolutionary War Migration, after the British didn’t win and all the slaves sided with the British and went to Nova Scotia. Those are amazing stories which no one in this country knows. So that’s Canada. And I’ll take issue with that word ‘contains,’ as you’ve noticed I’ve been doing.

AF: I think I really meant ‘includes,’ includes history.

CSG: I’ll stick with ‘contains.’ It’s what you said; first word, best word. And I think the idea of containing something, it’s a really problematic idea for me. Is American history contained by America? Nah! No, man, you gotta look beyond, beyond the border to understand the history of your country. I recall hearing Michael Manley, who was I think then no longer the Prime Minister of Jamaica. I remember him talking at Cornell some time in the 1980s and being impressed. I realized I was in the audience listening to a totally brilliant guy. And he talked for the first time in my knowledge—I’ve written about this someplace—about the rise of multi-national corporations, which he explained meant that the nature of country was changing. And that was kind of a mind-blowing talk he gave. This was 1982 or 83. It helped my view of country and border mature a great deal. And certainly Canada’s part of that.




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C. S. Giscombe's poetry books are Prairie Style, Giscome Road, Here, etc.; his prose book is Into and Out of Dislocation. His recognitions include the 2010 Stephen Henderson Award, an American Book Award (for Prairie Style), and the Carl Sandburg Prize (for Giscome Road). He teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.




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