Superman on the Roof: Michael Martone with Lex Williford
September 26, 2016 § 2 Comments
Here on the Brevity blog, we limit ourselves to the world of nonfiction, except when we don’t. One of the times that we don’t is when we discuss the art of flash, and here one of the masters of that flash prose genre, Michael Martone, discusses the form (as well as tricksterism, academic idiocy, and the Texas state legislature) with his friend Lex Williford, author of the new Rose Metal Press novella-in-flash, Superman on the Roof.
Michael Martone: Are you a follower of Hermes, the thief, as are your flash fictions? That is to say: Do you regard flash fiction now as a genre or an anti-genre, a genre that resists, by design, generic description? Hermes could not play the lyre he invented. What he could do is see the category of dead animal parts—tortoise shell, sheep gut, horns of cattle—and transform them into a category of musical instruments, the lyre. Is it important that flash fiction have a fixed form or is flash fluid?
Lex Williford: I suppose I’ve been a follower of Hermes at least since 2005, when I met Lewis Hyde at MacDowell Colony.
I’d taught Hyde’s The Gift in several graduate workshops, a book that raised questions I’ve puzzled over for years about gift cultures (like the Trobrian Islanders’) and the place of art in a commodity culture (like ours). So, when I met Hyde at MacDowell, I also bought his new book, Trickster Makes This World, at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough, and read it cover to cover.
The book—about the flip side of gift cultures (givers vs. takers)—is a fascinating treatise on tricksters, who cleverly steal back the power they probably should have never been denied in the first place.
In the chapter “Hermes Slips the Trap,” Hyde writes,
I read the Homeric Hymn as the story of how an outsider penetrates a group, or how marginalized insiders might alter a hierarchy that confines them. Hermes has a method by which a stranger or underling can enter the game, change its rules, and win a piece of the action. He knows how to slip the trap of culture. (204). . . . [With] his stealing . . . and other cunning wiles [Hermes] unravels a particular cultural artifice and weaves a new one in its stead. (205)
When I read this quotation about Hermes, the Prince of Thieves, I also think about another quotation—variously attributed to other trickster-thieves like T. S. Elliot, William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, et al—which goes something like this:
“Good [or mediocre] [or immature] writers borrow, and great writers steal.”
When students hear this quotation, they tend to hear a moral judgment, not the kind of thing Hyde writes about. Hyde’s concern with gift cultures—the notion that art comes from an impulse to give (or to keep the gift moving) rather than to take or hold on to or grasp or make a profit—runs into serious problems in societies like ours, when a huge chasm exists between those who have power and wealth and those who don’t.
To win, to get one’s power back, the loser must somehow trick the winner (rarely a giver), and in art that trick often involves stealing a form, “a particular cultural artifice,” as Hyde puts it, then unraveling it and weaving a new one to replace it.
In many ways, tricksters are born losers. When I talk about the history of the short story to my students, I sometimes say that modern and contemporary short stories—and many ancient ones—are about losers who lose big time, characters living on the fringes, the borders, las fronteras, of society; and telling their stories is a kind of corrective to history (always written by the winners) that allows those who have lost their humanity and dignity to have a voice about their losses and in some way take back their power.
Hermes, illegitimate son of that serial philanderer Zeus, is a loser big time, but not for long. A bastard child, a black sheep, an enfant terrible, he lives in a cave with dear old Mom, Maia, and his prospects aren’t good, but miraculously he turns his theft of Apollo’s (the “good” legitimate half-brother’s) cattle into an advantage that humiliates Zeus in front of all Olympus; then he plays the lyre he created to seduce Apollo. (Actually, Hermes could play the instrument he’d made. In the Homeric Hymn, he plays beautifully—a liar with a lyre; more important, he plays Apollo with his lies and his lyre, then turns the tables on him, offering the lyre to him in a kind of gift exchange for the cattle he’s already stolen.)
Elsewhere, I’ve compared flash fiction to cherries or cherry bombs, to safety pins or snakes swallowing their tails (tales), to wound-up strings that lead us out of labyrinths, etc., but the metaphors, mythical or otherwise, always fizzle. The form is much more fluid than that, than any other contemporary form that I know of, at least in part because so many tricksters—like Hermes, like you, Michael Martone—use the form to thumb their noses at the “rules” or constraints of traditional fiction.
Flash fiction, at least for me, is an exploration of surprise, reversals in character, power, reader expectations, etc., but anyone who tries to codify the form misses the point. The creators of the form and the form itself are tricksters, chameleons, shapeshifters, working in a vast valley between the lyric and narrative impulse, and the form has no secret set of rules except those that each writer must invent for each new piece of flash she writes.
If there’s a trick to flash, I suppose, it’s to become a trickster, to outwit the reader, to write about powerlessness, thereby taking one’s power back and giving it to others, but it’s also based upon the writer’s ability to pose impossible questions, worrying something one has stolen and obsessed over, often for years, until the stolen thing finally becomes one’s own, a gift to pass along.
Michael Martone: All very interesting but so studious, Lex. It is curious, isn’t it, that we live and work in this historical moment where many of us who are plying the trickster trade do so in the hyper-critical, genre obsessed, super-sorting machine that is the university or college—in a program within a department within a college within a school within a university. How does the institution “count” the making of a flash fiction or a prose poem on its annual reports? I am lucky enough to have an option of “other” on my pull down menu. But can the work even be “seen” by the critics? And is it fun to hang out at the crossroads being invisible in plain sight?
Lex Williford: Yeah, give me a tough question and I’ll get studious on you every time.
If we’re required to quantify everything—as the recent obsession with “metrics” at underfunded state universities like UTEP suggests—then I suppose flash writers could argue that we have a slight advantage, at least with the bean counters: We can write a lot of really short stories and count more of them in the vita. (At UTEP, no kidding, we upload our pubs to something called Digital Measures; I just uploaded my fall semester syllabus there today. It’s state law!) When you have legislators who believe god put fossils in the ground to test our faith or think that burning fossil fuels in our cars has nothing to do with global climate change—a hoax!—it’s a bit hard to have a reasonable discussion about something as immeasurable and subjective as quality. Better to focus on quantity, counting things—at least until the bean counters start counting pages.
Being invisible to state legislators and university administrators is something to aspire to, I think. I’m a teaching writer and a writing teacher—both gigs equally important to me. As universities have become just one more “beast” of government to starve, pushing us toward the brink of the so-called for-profit university—increasing the price of books and tuition and student loan debt—all we can hope for is to teach something useful, and there’s no more practical skill than writing a clear, readable sentence.
As long as we feed our students with a rich and nourishing fare of words and craft and give them the time to write what burns most brightly in their bellies, we’re not just doing our jobs; as far as I’m concerned, we’re doing our small part to save the world. Albert Camus writes, “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” That works for me. I can only remain such an idealist because of my students, who, year after year, decade after decade, continue to reveal their miraculous, original gifts.
As for critics: There’s not a stronger argument for the burgeoning and slippery flash fiction form than the hybrid writing being published by Rose Metal Press or Tara Masih’s wonderful new annual, The Best Small Fictions, 2016. I got my copy of the second edition, guest edited by Stuart Dybek, yesterday, and I’ve not been able to put it down.
Michael Martone:: Here is something else to chew on. I have never liked the category of “experimental” writing. I like it even less when hooked up with the binary of “traditional” writing. Often the experimental gets applied to my flash fiction work, another kind of other, I guess. I am more comfortable with the notion of being a formalist, any form in a storm. I saw John Barth in a reading once respond to the question, “What are you reading now?” That standard question really is asking what “good” things are you reading now so I can get a shortcut to “good”. Barth responded by pulling out a cereal box, saying, “I read this this morning.” And then went on to produce letters and postcards; newspapers and magazines; student papers and stories; bills and adverts; freshman compositions; phonebooks; galleys and articles sent to him by his former students; ending with his own finished and published work as well as the writing he had written the day before. He was saying, of course, that all manner of writing might be ripe for one’s writing. Would you think about (now that we have destroyed the notion of ‘genre” when applied to flash fiction) the subspecies of the form and its application of all kinds of writing to the pliant template of the form, flash? Or to say it another way—flash fiction might be a corrosive form but is it also a formal chameleon, a voracious form that eats other forms for breakfast cereal?
Lex Williford: The category of “experimental” fiction mostly seems redundant to me. All writing is experimental—thought experiments with words—even “traditional” or “realist” fiction, which can be as innovative and as “experimental” as something more “post-modern.” I mostly ignore any impulse to quantify or categorize, but I do think that flash seems particularly amenable (amoeba-ble?) to “blended” or “hybrid” forms. I teach a graduate course called the The Prose Poem and Short-Short Story, and when we study the varying, and sometimes contradictory, definitions and examples of both forms, we soon come to consider them as almost interchangeable, prose poems mostly written by poets, flash by fiction writers, even when poets sometimes write the most dramatic stories, and fiction writers the most lyrical.
I had two influential teachers in grad school, James Whitehead (a poet and a novelist) and William Harrison (a novelist, short story and scriptwriter). They’re both gone now, but back in the mid-eighties, they were the Scylla and Charybdis of the writing program I went to. Bill—Uncle Bill, we called him—said, “I don’t give a damn about language; just give me story.” And Jim—we called him Big Jim—said, “I don’t give a damn about story; just give me language.” Such prescriptions were common in the boot-camp workshops we had in those days, and though I tend toward a descriptive kind of critique in my own workshops, thanks to you, Michael Martone, I do think that trying to make both Jim and Bill happy on some level—they were both on my thesis committee—was an interesting experiment in finding a balance between the lyric and dramatic sensibilities.
To put it another way, some flash writers see the form as an intellectual experiment—like trying to solve a new kind of Rubik’s Cube of their own invention—while others see the form as experiments in earning emotion. I’ve tried both, but for me writing is mostly about the latter: feeling along the edges of an intangible obsession in the dark until I can see its shape more clearly, then working hard to earn similar emotions for readers, who each may see a shape different from the one I saw, bringing the contents of their own inner lives to a completely different reading of the same story.
Of course, there’s no right or wrong way to write flash, only the way each of us can write it, some of it amoebic, swallowing and absorbing other forms, some of it corrosive, breaking the forms down into their component parts, then reconstructing something altogether new, a pastiche or a collage, like a story by Donald Barthelme. The point is, after all, to ring a bell in the reader’s head, right?
I’ll never forget the night you and I had dinner with John Barth at the Cypress Inn in Tuscaloosa, or the reading he gave later, bringing out a hotel clerk’s bell and ringing it whenever he’d reached a footnote in his fiction (some footnotes longer on the page than the actual story). Who’d ever think of putting a footnote into a short story? Dude, our students would say, can you even do that? Of course! Why the hell not? David Foster Wallace certainly did in Infinite Jest; so did Junot Díaz in the Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, and it wouldn’t surprise me if reading Barth had given each of them—and you, Michael, since you were his student—all the permission they needed to do exactly what they wanted to do in the first place.
What was it Barth said that night, looking out over the Black Warrior River, just as it was reaching flood stage? “Digress aggressively”? Or was that you, Michael?
Tricksters, all of us, stealing each other’s stuff, always causing trouble.
 Hyde was as generous as his books: He gave me a signed British edition of The Gift and bought me a double-dip ice cream cone at our favorite nearby dessert spot in Keene, New Hampshire, the Piazza Ice Cream Parlor—two-hundred flavors of ice cream! An August afternoon, eating ice cream and talking about tricksters.
 As he discusses Hermes’ thievery and cunning, Hyde also uses excerpts from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave to illustrate Douglass’s “thievery” of literacy—and literature—from those who had enslaved him, using it as a gift to free himself and others.
 Clearly a plagiarized—or stolen—quotation since so many have claimed to say it first.
 “For the Tale to End . . .” Writers Ask, Glimmer Train Stories, Issue 73, 2016: 19.
 For readers: There’s a Michael Martone story in the anthology. Read it.
Lex Williford, winner of the 2015 10th Annual Rose Metal Flash Fiction Chapbook Award for Superman on the Roof, has taught in the writing programs at Southern Illinois University, the University of Alabama and the University of Missouri, St. Louis. His book, Macauley’s Thumb, was co-winner of the 1993 Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in American Literary Review, Fiction, Glimmer Train Stories, Hayen’s Ferry Review, Kansas Quarterly, Laurel Review, Natural Bridge, The Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market 2002, Poets & Writers, Quarterly West, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Smokelong Quarterly, Southern Review, Sou’wester, StoryQuarterly, Tameme, Virginia Quarterly Review and have been widely anthologized. Coeditor, with Michael Martone, of the popular Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, now in its second edition, and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction, he is the founding director of the online MFA program and the current chair of the on-campus bilingual MFA program at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Michael Martone was born and grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Little else is known of his life.