Art Talk with NEA Lit Fellows Suzanne Buffam and Srikanth Reddy
" I’d venture to say that the role of the artist in the community is to make art that explores his or her personal eccentricities with such intimacy and ardor that those curious peculiarities come to feel universal." --- Srikanth Reddy
You know how the story goes: boy meets girl (at the Foxhead Bar in Iowa City), boy and girl fall in love while pursuing their graduate degrees (in poetry at the University of Iowa), boy and girl live happily ever after (while each earning yet another degree in English literature and raising an adorable daughter). Did we mention that this particular boy and girl---Suzanne Buffam and Srikanth Reddy---are also the first husband and wife to simultaneously receive NEA Literature Fellowships? That's not all these two have in common. They both teach at the University of Chicago, they both are interested in crafting poems that owe as much to prose forms as to the lyric, and they both consider the other a collaborator in their work. What else do they agree---or disagree---on? We found out when we chatted with them about their versions of the artist's life, what type of artistic work they might pursue if they weren't poets, and what their NEA Fellowships mean to them.
NEA: What's your version of the artist's life?
SUZANNE BUFFAM: I live with two people who make me laugh every day. We divide up the labor, and spend large portions of our days apart. This seems to me pretty close to ideal.
SRIKANTH REDDY: Right now, my life feels pretty far removed from what I used to think “the artist’s life” would be. Very little drinking of wine goes on in the middle of my day, for example, or in the middle of the night, for that matter. So I guess my present version of the artist’s life consists of methodically trying to clear a space for creativity amid the daily crush of work, parenting, emails, laundry, and what-not. It gets harder and harder to do that over time. But in a sense I think pretty much everybody---whether they’re an “artist” or not---has to deal with that problem of how to clear some space in their lives where they can step out of themselves, out of the ordinary, and into something different. In that respect, my sense of the artist’s life is that it is just like anybody else’s life, only with things like poems or paintings occasionally popping up here and there, thank heavens.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement or experience with the arts?
BUFFAM: I have no flashbulb memory of this, I’m afraid, but some form of the arts has been a part of my life as far back as I can recall. My mother used to read to my brother and me before bed, and to keep us from killing each other on long car trips planned by my father. She read us all of the Narnia tales, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the whole Anne of Green Gables saga, among innumerable others. We also listened to a lot of books and stories on tape. My favorite childhood recording was Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Peter and the Wolf, narrated by a young Sean Connery. So much of childhood, I’m rediscovering with my daughter, consists of daily engagement with the arts---whether it’s drawing, making up stories, dancing, listening to music, building Lego creatures, or gluing pieces of macaroni onto cardboard. If only we could all maintain such a playful spirit throughout our lives.
REDDY: Gosh, I think my earliest engagement with the arts probably came through early childhood education---via the kind of arts and crafts activities that routinely enjoy a brief moment of glory posted on the refrigerator en route to a storage box in the basement. I remember the pleasure of working with different materials in different ways---making my handprint in ceramic clay or cutting out snowflakes from construction paper---and also the special kind of loopy camaraderie that arises between kids in their fingerpaint-stained smocks while they’re immersed in the work of artistic making. Now that I have a three-year-old daughter, I can see that process beginning all over again. And sometimes, when I find myself folding origami Christmas ornaments alongside her, I can feel that original pleasure in myself as well. Sticking googly eyes on rocks---for me, that’s a lot like making poems, making something that was always there right under your nose come suddenly, wonderfully, to life.
NEA: What was your journey to becoming a poet and writer?
BUFFAM: I started writing when I was young and have kept at it for some reason, often in spite of my own very serious misgivings. Over the years, I worked at a number of tedious jobs outside of academia, picked up a couple of graduate degrees, and now find myself teaching creative writing at a university on a part-time basis, after recently quitting my full-time job. I have never been terribly good at long-term planning, and so in that respect, among many others, have married wisely. In the introduction to her collected short stories, Mavis Gallant, who quit her job as a journalist in Canada in the 50s’ to become a full-time writer in Paris, gives the best description of becoming a writer I’ve ever read. She says, and I paraphrase badly, that a writer is like a person who gets into a small boat and starts rowing out to sea. At some point she turns around and looks back at the shore, and can’t believe how far behind her it is. This seems like a pretty good metaphor for marriage as well, come to think of it.
REDDY: Though I feel self-conscious about this, I’d have to admit that my path to becoming a writer led through academia. I began writing poetry seriously in college, in creative writing workshops, and I continued to do so throughout my graduate studies in MFA and PhD programs. In fact, I’ve spent very little time outside the academy as an adult, as I’ve been teaching at a university for the past ten years, and continuing to form a sense of myself as a writer in this particular (and peculiar) context. So for me becoming a poet has been inseparable from the careful and systematic study of poetry, which has gone hand-in-hand with writing from the outset. I try to maintain a sense of humor and perspective on this, as my greatest fear is becoming a purely “academic” poet, but I also owe a great deal to the institution of the university as a place that has allowed me to immerse myself in the art for most of my life.
NEA: Can you please say a little bit about your respective grant projects? I'm struck by the way that both of your projects seem to play with narrative and form and even genre, in terms of the different modes they employ---lecture, prose, etc. Can you speak about your goals in terms of these components, and what you're playing with/exploring/discovering?
BUFFAM: My current project, which has evolved a fair bit since I applied for this grant last winter, consists of a miscellany of genres, including lists, essays, commentaries, letters, diary entries, and poems in verse, in the tradition of the famous eleventh-century Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, but with a decidedly contemporary sensibility. I love the lyric line, but I also love the sentence and the prose paragraph. Why renounce any of them? Basically, my main goal as a writer is to keep surprising myself. Since I find myself revisiting the same themes and concerns fairly consistently in my work, one way to keep things interesting is to vary my approach. Narrative is involved, at some level, in everything I write (as it is, it seems to me, in everything I read, no matter how disjunctive or avant-garde). In terms of the discoveries I’m making, I’m afraid it’s too soon to say. I’ve written two books that play with different genres and forms so far; this one feels like a bit more of a stretch.
REDDY: Right now I’m working on a book-length poem that takes the form of lecture notes, errata, and journal entries by a quixotic speaker who is trying to teach a university course on “Comparative Underworlds.” The idea for the book came out of my own experience teaching World Literature to a room full of undergraduates who could immediately sense my lack of qualifications for the job. I want the book to be about the simultaneous impossibility and necessity of viewing one’s own experience within a global perspective---but also about the imperative to extend that perspective to encompass not only the living, but the dead as well. Of course it’s a ridiculous thing to try to do---to enter into a dialogue with the dead of various cultures, throughout history, despite differences of language and custom and “episteme”---but I’m trying to balance the preposterousness of that enterprise with a reverence toward it as well. Shuttling between the comic and the elegiac and the personal registers has been one interesting part of that process. I just hope I can keep those various balls in the air long enough to bring the poem to a satisfying conclusion.
NEA: What will the NEA fellowship make possible for you in terms of your arts practice?
BUFFAM: Time and materials. Sleep. God willing, a better book.
REDDY: Well, the most direct benefit of the NEA fellowship for my own practice as a writer will be the gift of time. The difficulty of clearing time and space for writing that I mentioned in my response to your first question is, for me, the hardest part of making poems. I hope the NEA fellowship will allow me to clear some of that space and bring this new book to completion. But beyond the gift of time, it’s also very validating and encouraging to know that people out there enjoyed the work-in-progress enough to provide it with material support. That’s another big part of the benefit of the NEA fellowship---the encouragement to go on with what one is doing.
NEA: Can you talk about some of your influences, not just in terms of specific authors but also specific works, whether they're works of literature or other disciplines?
BUFFAM: I’m drawn to artists who trust their eccentricities, and who don’t shy away from trivial pursuits. Robert Walser’s short stories, with their mock-earnest tone and their obsessive self-reflexiveness, were a revelation to me. Every time I read those odd little prose disquisitions (which Walser thought of as poetry) I’m reminded and reassured that to devote one’s life to art---and to contribute a unique body of work to its library---one needn’t harbor any particularly Eliotic goal of securing a dominant place in the canon. (Many of Walser’s best pieces were written as comical throw-away columns in local Swiss-German newspapers around the turn of the last century). Emily Dickinson, of course, is another great example of this kind of devoted humility. Another writer, also mainly of prose, and also hilarious, whose work has made a big impression on me is Lydia Davis, whose Collected Stories also often read a lot like prose poetry. I read a lot of different kinds of books---philosophy, self-help guides, biographies, cookbooks---all of which no doubt filter into my work on some level. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of the comedian Louis C.K.
REDDY: One really important book for me was W.G. Sebald’s strange and wonderful work The Rings of Saturn. I love pretty much everything Sebald wrote, but there was something about the digressive, melancholic reverie of The Rings of Saturn that really opened doors for me as a writer. Before encountering that book in graduate school, I’d been trying to emulate the writing of other poets in my own creative practice. But I always felt like I just ended up sounding like a watered-down version of those poets myself. In Sebald I found that I could transpose my love of a very peculiar prose writer into the formal medium of poetry, and in the process I came up with something that sounded like myself. So I often look beyond poetry for sources of influence, because I think that cross-fertilization of the arts can be very exciting. I also think non-literary forms of writing can be amazing resources for poets. You can find so many interesting tonalities and voicings in medical textbooks, old encyclopedias, philosophical treatises, etcetera---why not reach into those archives and draw out new poetic modes from them?
NEA: Suzanne, how does Srikanth's work inform/influence/ resonate with your own work, if at all? Srikanth---same question regarding Suzanne's work?
BUFFAM: I met Srikanth during the first week of classes at graduate school when we were both in our mid-twenties. Since then, I haven’t published a single page that doesn’t bear the stamp of his influence, as a writer, certainly, but even more so as a reader. Srikanth reads everything I write with a red pen in hand, and as any of his students over the years could attest, he doesn’t pull any punches. Our partnership has been a long series of collaborations from the start, and I can’t imagine what my work---or my life---would look like without it.
REDDY: Frankly, I can’t imagine what “my own” work would look like without Suzanne. I feel, on a certain level, as if everything I write is a collaboration with her, not only because I show her every page as soon as it’s done---or rather, I show her every page as soon as I think it’s done and then she tells me to re-write it completely---but also because my relationship to poetry down to the most fundamental level has been shaped by our ongoing conversation about the art. Of course that leads to the problem of trying to be “my own” writer while I’m in a relationship with another writer who’s been so influential on me! But it’s a good problem to have, I think. I certainly couldn’t do it on my own.
NEA: If you weren't a poet, what other art form might you pursue?
BUFFAM: I once collaborated with a friend on a very short film, which was great fun (the process, anyway, if not the end product). Sadly, she moved away. If I were even just the slightest bit computer-savvy myself, I suspect I’d do more of that sort of thing on my own. As it is, I’m handy with a pair of scissors and glue. So, maybe dioramas?
REDDY: That’s a tough question, partly because I don’t really have any other artistic talents to draw on. But I love movies with an intense, adolescent passion, so I suppose filmmaking would be what I would like to do if I weren’t a poet. When I see really good cinematic entertainment---not just art films, but smart commercial movies that are brimming with imaginative energy and wit---I feel the occasional twinge of genre envy. But it’s quite rare to see movies achieve that level of artistry and humanity, probably because of the distortions the industry imposes on any work as it moves through the production process. In the end, I don’t think I’m constitutionallyminclined to succeed in the film industry. I certainly don’t have the hair for it.
NEA: What's the role of the artist in the community? Conversely, what's the responsibility of the community to the artist?
BUFFAM: Oh dear. I have trouble enough even referring to myself as an “artist” without using scare quotes, let alone speaking for the artist. No doubt different artists play different roles in different communities. That said, I suspect most artists consider themselves members of a community that extends beyond the reaches of the living. On the walls of prehistoric caves in Europe, after all, you can trace conversations between artists tens of thousands of years apart. That sense of the long view, it seems to me, is something artists should always try to bear in mind, and is, at its best, what art can help instill in a culture.
I don’t think a community has any particular responsibility toward its self-proclaimed artists any more than it does toward others. If it’s true, though, that what set Cro-Magnon man apart from Neanderthal was the ability to represent the world symbolically, some sort of public support for the arts may in the long run prove good for the survival of the species. Now as for the survival of the planet….
REDDY: I feel some trepidation about answering questions like this, because I change my mind so often about these issues, and also because I try not to think about them too much. It gets in the way of writing poems, for me. But I’d venture to say that the role of the artist in the community is to make art that explores his or her personal eccentricities with such intimacy and ardor that those curious peculiarities come to feel universal. Not that everybody in the world has an obsession with, say, making tiny parachutes out of gum wrappers, but rather that everybody in the world can relate to what it’s like to have that sort of obsession. When you investigate yourself compulsively, mercilessly, and imaginatively, you break through into an investigation into what it means to be human, I think. Not that I’ve gotten there myself by any means, but I’d like to do that kind of work someday.
As for the second part of your question, about what the community owes to the artist, well, I don’t really feel like it’s my place to say. I feel all right speculating on what the artist owes the community because I, as a writer, feel like I owe something in that respect. But I wouldn’t presume to say that others owe me anything simply because I adopt the pose of an artist in society. If the community supports artists---in the form of grants, like the NEA fellowship, or in any number of other ways---that’s absolutely wonderful. I think of that support as a kind of unexpected thank-you, though, and not as a societal obligation. In other words, I think the artist owes a lot to society, but I don’t know how much society owes the artist above and beyond what it owes to every citizen.
NEA: At the NEA we say "Art works," meaning the work of art itself, the transformative way arts work on individuals and communities, and the fact that artists are indeed workers. What does this phrase mean to you?
BUFFAM: I think it’s in Montessori where the teachers make a point of calling the children’s activities---digging in the sand box, say, or building pillow forts---their “work.” On the one hand this has always seemed to me a little contrived (show me a kid who doesn’t know when she’s asked to do work). On the other hand, who can argue with the goal of teaching kids to take their play seriously? That seems to me, above all, the kind of “work” that art can do.
REDDY: I’ve always liked that phrase, “art work,” in all its contexts, because it draws together what seem at first glance to be opposites---creativity and labor---though they’re actually two sides of the same ancient coin. So yes, I’d think that art performs a kind of work, as you say, “on individuals and communities,” though of course it’s also important to keep in mind what Auden said about how poetry “makes nothing happen.” Still, I think “making nothing happen” can be a kind of useful, vital work in a society where everybody feels such pressure to make things happen. The “work” of art may be to simply clear a space for reflection and feeling amid the onslaught of modern life---and that in itself is a pretty serious act of excavation. To that end, it may help for the artist to think of him or herself as a kind of laborer---while also keeping in mind that play is every bit as important to creative life as work is. But yes, I would also agree that artists are workers on some deep level of their practice.
There’s one last sense of the phrase “art works” that comes to mind, maybe because of my attraction to the grammatical possibilities that arise when you put those two words together. And that’s the sense that art “works” in the way that the surface of the sea “works.” It’s always moving, roiling, shifting, without necessarily performing work on anything else. That intransitive sense of “works” feels alive to me.
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