Charles Rafferty Interview with Jonathan Cardew
Thank you, Charles, for joining us for the September Issue at Connotation Press!
Can you tell us a little about the genesis of “A High, Unignorable Note”? Have you ever experienced toads raining from the sky?
No, I never experienced raining toads, but it's something that's always fascinated me. It apparently happens from time to time. I can't remember the actual genesis of this story, but I suspect I just wanted to start off with a wild premise and then see if I could make it sound sensible, or at least less strange, by the time I exited the story. That's how many of my poems and stories get written. I derive a lot of pleasure from making the strange seem ordinary.
I love this prose poem of yours in the New Yorker:
As a poet and short story writer, is the prose poem where it’s at? Do you sit down with the intention to write a prose piece or a poem, or does it evolve as you set pen to paper?
Yes, prose poems are getting more popular now, though I hope that's not why I've strayed into the form. For years, I resisted the form, insisting that a poem had to be lined. That was stupid, overly compartmentalized thinking on my part. I turned to the prose poem about 5 years ago in an effort to stop writing the same kind of poem over and over. I felt my poems were becoming too predictable – that the ending could be arrived at by the reader simply by reading the opening lines. The prose poem has allowed me to be a little wilder in my choices. I'm not sure why this is. After all, I've merely jettisoned the requirement for lines. Nevertheless, the form seems to allow me to say things I wouldn't otherwise say. In fact, many of the prose poems I'm writing now deliberately try to make the connections between the start and finish as tenuous as possible. I don't want them to devolve into nonsense, of course. But I'm attracted to the idea that barely connected thoughts will add up to something substantial, despite the fact that it isn't paraphraseable. That's my hope anyway.
Many times, the distinction between prose poem and very short story isn't there. I will often send them out labeled as both poems and stories, depending on what the magazine is looking for. I suppose I'm more likely to call something a story if there are a couple of characters involved. That is, if I want to see two people bumping up against each other, and to incorporate dialogue, I'll call it a story. Admittedly, this is a flimsy distinction.
Speaking of predictability, where, in your opinion, is the line between predictability and style? For instance, I know when I read a Murukami short story or novel, the narrative will take tangents, sometimes wild ones, in which stories are found within stories. I love his work, and I expect that. In my own work, trying 'something new' can feel inauthentic at times, but I also feel an urge to 'progress' or 'change'. What are your thoughts on this?
Predictability is certainly an element of style, and that's in part what I'm bristling against. If a writer starts to feel dogged by his own predictability, the reader is almost certain to feel the same way. Boredom is another word for it. James Dickey and Arthur Rimbaud are my models here. They both abandoned a successful way of writing because they got bored with it. Better to strike out on a new path than risk writing the same poem till the day you die.
Who are some of your favorite poets and short story writers?
For poets, I like Stephen Dunn, Emily Dickinson, Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Donald Justice, James Dickey, and Arthur Rimbaud. For fiction, I like Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, Jessica Treat, James Joyce, J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
I love the opening sentence of your story, “It had been raining toads for weeks”—so matter of fact, yet suggestive of more. I’ve thought a lot recently about how a good first (and last) line can make or frame a story. What are your thoughts on first and last lines? Any favorites to share?
I'm glad you like this opener. In both poems and stories, the opening line or sentence is crucial. There is so much to read in the world that I've become much more severe in what I let myself spend time on. If the writer doesn't grab me right away, I'll put the work aside. Life is too short to read something mediocre. The last line, of course, is also crucial. In the best works, it should nail the story or poem shut. If it comes at the bottom of the page, I should feel like there's no point in turning the page to see if the work continues. It's got to announce its closure with authority.
Here's a first line I've always liked from Amy Hempel, from her story "The Harvest": "The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me." Why do I like it? It gives me an insight to the character of the narrator. Something in her life has changed, and we're seeing that demonstrated in her pronunciation of a common word. It's a quirky thing to point out. It promises more strange observations to come.
What projects are you working on at the moment? Any new books in the pipeline?
I've always got a lot projects going – another collection of prose poems, a book of short stories, a novel, a collection of aphorisms. In fact, "A High, Unignorable Note" has become a chapter in my novel, "Moscodelphia," which is currently looking for a home.
For a reader new to your work, what would be a good starting point (poetry and/or fiction)?
Well, I'm always going to point people to what's newer -- if only because I haven't been able to find the missteps yet.
Here is a link for poetry: Charles Rafferty | The New Yorker
Here is a link for fiction: Bovine and Defenseless – Issue 3, Razor Lit Mag
Thanks so much, Charles, for your time and excellent fiction!
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