Rhizomatic’s Q&A with Robert Vaughan About ADDICTS & BASEMENTS

Rhizomatic: One way of reading Addicts & Basements is as an outgrowth of your earlier work, especially “Ten Notes to the Guy Studying Jujitsu,” from Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits, where the narrator asserts: “Something always takes place of the missing pieces.” “Black & White/ Color,” which Addicts & Basements reprises from the earlier collection, might be looked at as another connecting node, particularly the lines “The last house was the size of a ______________. I avoided it at all costs.” Your choice of the article “a” here suggests that the blank here has some specificity: a subjectivized absence.

Addicts & Basements is peopled by disappearing actors spatially and temporally displaced, like the one who wonders: “Will I / ever know when I am?” Like the brother who was like a “shadow that buries beneath a turbulent sky,” and the sleepwalker who waits “for nothing / as if it will appear.” Evaporations, suspensions, and absences abound, the various voices here reflecting on “not-havingness,” the “vacuum of the missing,” and “sailboats emptying out horizons.”

Would you talk about these absences? What is the “something” that takes place of the missing pieces?

Robert Vaughan: Let’s start with a cliché: absence makes the heart grow fonder. Does it? What if it doesn’t? How about absence makes the heart grow stranger? Or absence trips the feet toward danger? There is inherent in certain words, simply by their definitions, a measured ache or implied pain. Also, the mere human experience elicits an ongoing measured response to what goes “missing”: a physical object (keys), the bed in a house where you lost your virginity, a smell of a first love, a favorite pet’s coat. What replaces these “missing” items varies greatly based on an individual’s reaction, coping skills. I’m interested in transitions, in the moment(s) loss occurs. In the quest to be in these transitory moments, I think I may gain momentary insights into what takes place of missing pieces: sunrise, hope, whiskey sours, the sound of a distant jet passing over the patio at night.

Rhizomatic: Your inventory of spaces—whether empty nest or birdcage, blank shell or vacant heart, gaping hole or fifty-foot hollow—made me think of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, where he talks about “great dreamers of corners and holes,” for whom “nothing is ever empty,” inviting “day-dreams of refuge.” Would you talk about these intimate spaces, their “constructions”?

Vaughan: Space is a vacuum—I’m fascinated by physical (and non-physical) spaces. I’m thinking of those old barns that wither from weather, bleached boards like a beached whale, exposed, raw. Or the woods you almost never found your way out of when you were eight, canoeing with your younger sister when an Adirondack summer downpour came out nowhere. The look on your mother’s face when you arrived at the cabin. Writing about physical (non-physical) space is like being an architect without a blueprint. We construct then we de-construct; we build only to shoot holes in the structure. It is scientific, in that we are in this construct of space-time; yet with physics you can play with these modifications. Sometimes in pronoun usage (as I have, for example, in this response), and also in pushing the poetics of space, twisting words to mean something they do not, using a phrase that is unexpected, writing for sound more so than meaning (modernism, or post-modernism).

Rhizomatic: Addicts & Basements is brimming with misfits and misfires, drifters and grifters, their rifts and ravages, and no small number of myths and missing persons. Is this a poetics of “failure,” failure in the Beckettian sense: the call to fail again, fail better?

Vaughan: Recently, I read the new Marianne Moore biography and was cheered by a friend who described her as someone who might attend a wedding, and notice how the priest’s socks don’t match. Specific yet minute details. I am fascinated by the under-represented, the downtrodden, the riddled, addicted, derelict, bum, town crier, grifter, tarot reader, rental car parking attendant. But less for what they “do” and more “how” they are—who are they? And while life could be viewed as a string of successes (graduations, presidents of clubs, college acceptances, marriage, children, etc.) for the use of poetics and fiction, the opposite of “successes” (failures) are infinitely more intriguing to me. Cars breaking down, trusting someone against your better judgment, a cyclone at an annual picnic fundraiser, a future lover’s betrayal. These contain so much more inherent “conflict” or tension. So, yes to Beckett (!) and his fail again, fail better, urges. This is also highly helpful for re-writing, and editing. Heighten the drama, or up the ante, raise those stakes. In tennis grand slams they employ a term “Lucky Loser.” Fantastic—now how does this particular player receive such a wondrous label? Lose more than once, lose better (than the other losers)!

Rhizomatic: Death pervades these pieces. There are killer ants. There’s the narrator, who likens him- or herself to a “rose, wilting.” There’s “Chris the Cadaver,” ostensibly alive, but who “kills any possibility of intimacy within twenty-five hundred yards.” “The Memory of the Bones” finds a person watching villagers disposing corpses.

Roland Barthes in Mourning Diary, reflecting on his own grief, writes: “We don’t forget, but something vacant settles in us,” which makes me think of the abovementioned absences. Barthes also suggests that “true mourning” is “not susceptible to any narrative dialectic.” Your thoughts?

Vaughan: May I just say what an honor it is to have my work be held up against writers of whom I have such tremendously profound respect—Bachelard, Beckett, and Barthes! My goodness. So, yes: death. Fascinated by the concept, by the inevitable, by its cultural implications. How it lurks, how it attracts, how it is every day, every way, metaphorical and everlasting. And the given, that every moment from birth and arrival we are in some manner preparing to die. While I was writing Addicts & Basements, a best friend from high school dropped dead on his operating floor. He was 50. My first girlfriend (also high school) succumbed to a rare illness. A neighbor took his own life, leaving behind a wife and their young son. A dear friend’s husband lost his battle with colon cancer. Death is pervasive, and it comes. And like Barthes, I’m always attempted to make narrative (poetic) sense of loss. And more often than not, I fail. Then fail better.

Rhizomatic: Would you talk about the formal play in the new collection, its various collisions of prose and poetry?

Vaughan: I love how you use the phrase “various collisions of prose and poetry.” I’d like to live in that intersection! Or near it. I think of writers like e.e. cummings who published a memoir of his experience in WW1 (Eimi) before his first collection of poetry appeared (Tulips& Chimneys). Or Beckett, another great example of a hybrid form writer. Cocteau, Anaïs Nin, Gertrude Stein, Barthes—you were never quite sure what you are reading! Fiction? Poetry? Memoir? I’m fascinated by the poetics of language, how words sound, how poetic devices can heighten, expand, or elongate in ways that purely narrative (fiction) might not. As a reader, I revere the mixed language employed by various writers like Lidia Yuknavitch, Davis Schneiderman, Kate Braverman, Laurie Anderson, Tomas Tranströmer, Charles Simic, James Tate. So many others.

Rhizomatic: Would you talk about why you selected the following quote from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves as one of the epigraphs for the “Addicts” section?

That would be a glorious life, to addict oneself to perfection; to follow the curve of the sentence wherever it might lead, into deserts, under drifts of sand, regardless of lures, of seductions; to be poor always and unkempt; to be ridiculous in Piccadilly. 

Vaughan: I suppose one has to look at my inclusion of Woolf in context: being sandwiched between Burroughs and Morrissey: she is the “monkey in the middle” of this triad of head (Burrough’s “ideas”) and Morrissey’s “heart-felt” pleas to the lover? The other? I read The Waves in its entirety on a redeye flight from Los Angeles to New York in my mid- twenties. I was mesmerized by the experimental language, by the surprising arc, by the structural break by Woolf of her various published works. So, in a sense, Woolf represents for me the ampersand (&) section, used both in the title of the collection Addicts & Basements, and as a bridge, to the infinite possibilities of what may come next, what exists in the infinite unknowingness of “wherever it might lead…”

Rhizomatic: What other texts, literary and otherwise, informed the writing of Addicts & Basements?

Vaughan: A partial list: Charles Schultz’s Peanuts cartoons, Samuel Delany’s The Motion of Light in Water, Beck, The Civil Wars, Michael Gillan Maxwell, The National’s “Trouble Will Find Me,” Laurie Anderson’s “Big Science,” Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Pearl Jam’s “Sirens,” Shann Ray’s Balefire, Marie Howe’s What the Living Do, e.e. cummings, Cocteau, Bowie, Marianne Moore, Bud Smith’s Everything Neon, trips to _______, Derek Jarman’s At Your Own Risk, Barthelme(s), David Wojnarowicz’s Brush Fires in the Social Landscape, Russell Dillon’s Eternal Patrol, Diane Arbus, Meg Tuite’s Bound by Blue, Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook, Spirit of Archtypes tarot cards, Len Kuntz’s “The Dark Sunshine,” a Magic 8-ball.

Rhizomatic: What are some questions you would like Addicts & Basements to raise?

Vaughan: Why am I here? Where do I feel most at home? Most myself? How do I feel about death? Is there someone I know who lost a loved one recently who I can talk to about their process? What am I waiting for?

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