“I’ve never consciously strategized about how to make a sentence, let alone a poem. But I can see, even in the earliest poems, that my way of making a sentence involves enacting the push and pull of my interior life, a way of approaching a statement while also making room for its opposite.” In the year since the poet Carl Phillips wrote those lines in our conversation for Image, I’ve lingered over their sound and sense. Their wisdom. How we might discover ourselves through syntax.
No literary action is more instructive for me than the longform interview. At Image, we feature one interview per issue: an anchor for the surrounding words and art. I’ve long admired Phillips as a poet, but after our conversation I more fully appreciated his method. Interviews partially reveal the mysteries of process and vision. Literary magazines—spaces where craft and contemplation reside—are the perfect homes for these conversations.
The Winter 1985 issue of Southwest Review includes a great poem by James Merrill, “The Fifteenth Summer”: “Why were we here? / To flow. To bear. To be.” Yet I was quickly drawn to the interview featured in the issue, titled “Virtuous Dogs and a Unicorn,” a conversation between Jo Brans and Iris Murdoch, the British philosopher and novelist.
Brans taught at Southern Methodist University, where the Southwest Review has been continuously published since 1924. The magazine was founded in 1915 as The Texas Review, and published at the University of Texas at Austin. Stark Young, the founding editor, published one of the great literary journal manifestos: “The Texas Review comes into the world with no mission, nothing so flamboyant or remonstrant or overt. It has in mind the law of thought and life and letters only; neither to upset nor convert the world, but only to speak with it in its finer and quieter moments.”
Young was advised to publish poetry, a diverse range of articles, to “eschew book reviews that are perfunctory and done on a formulary,” and most of all, to let the magazine “reek of the soil.” Young scoffed at the idea. “The one unusual thing in Texas seems to be the opinion at home and abroad that there is something quite unusual about us.” Young ended his manifesto with a request: have “patience if we do not always reek.”
Young would have loved Brans’s own wit. She started an essay for the June 1982 issue of D magazine: “I haven’t met him yet, you understand, but he’s out there somewhere, my third husband.” During a party, someone read her palm “and there he was, hovering guiltily in a crevice between lifeline and love line—my third husband.” She joked: “No one wanted him around.” She and her husband, Willem, were happy. They remained married for 45 years—until her death in 2019.
Brans was a prolific interviewer for the Southwest Review. She spoke with Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Margaret Atwood, Donald Barthelme, and Eudora Welty. Brans begins her interview with Murdoch by asking about Zed, the Pomeranian in Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil and Mingo, the Alsatian in Under the Net: “I wondered why these dogs often seem to be a lot better than some of your people.”
Murdoch agrees. “Yes, they’re virtuous dogs.” “Dogs,” she says, “are very different from cats in that they can be images of human virtue.”
Murdoch, of course, was preoccupied with virtue—with truth. “A writer,” she tells Brans, “cannot avoid having some sort of moral position, and attempting to be nonmoral is in a way a moral position, an artificial one.” Brans asks if Murdoch is religious. Murdoch thought she gave that up long ago—when she became a Marxist—but had since ditched that ideology. “I thought when I gave up believing in God that religion was gone out of my life. Then I realized that this wasn’t so after all. Religion is still there, even if one holds no supernatural or dogmatic belief.”
Brans then asks Murdoch if “grace touches your life?” It is a delicate—dare I say doctrinal—question. I love Murdoch’s answer: “Oh, yes, though again not in the dogmatic, supernatural sense. But I think that there are forces of good that you suddenly can find, streams flowing toward you, whatever the metaphor would be. Yes. And I think sometimes people try for a long time in a rather dull way to do what they think is right, and then they’re suddenly rewarded or cheered up. Some sort of vision holds the world together, and this is part of the subject matter of literature.”
I appreciate how Murdoch later ends the interview: “Stories are a very good way, you know, of getting away from one’s troubles. Now let’s have a drink.”
A few issues later, Brans interviewed philosopher and writer William H. Gass for the magazine. Brans says that Murdoch’s occasional phrase “the corruption of philosophy” refers to Murdoch’s belief that “philosophy keeps us from knowing right from wrong.”
Gass responds: “Yes, she wants to say that with philosophy we’ve banished good and evil, and she wants to make those metaphysical categories again. Which is another philosophical enterprise, of course, though it’s not the prevailing mode. And again, she’s wrong, but it works wonderfully for fiction. She should think that way. Her fiction’s wonderful.”
It is. I also find myself, as usual, nodding in agreement with Gass.
Gass was one of the most playfully pugilistic writers of his time. His jousts with John Gardner, he once told me, were sharpened for public view. Gass bantered with the novelist Stanley Elkin in the Winter 1976 issue of The Iowa Review (the conversation was actually taped in June 1975 by Jeffrey L. Duncan).
Early in the interview, Elkin says: “It seems to me that when a writer talks about himself he talks an awful lot of bullshit, and after I have been interviewed—see the thing in print—I think, oh God, what a jackass I am.” He thinks most interviews that make it into the pages of magazines are rewritten, polished, and pressed: “Essentially what the writer is doing in an interview is just some more writing.” That sounds like a venial sin—but I understand his lament, in spirit.
We expect the literary interview to reveal; to be an inner view, as the quip goes. The act of an interview might be a moment of intimacy, or a moment of artifice. Perhaps, like most literature, it is both.
Elkin had published early stories from Gass in Accent, a quarterly literary magazine at the University of Illinois. He remains interested in Gass’s current work, which Gass first described as a rather unwieldy long essay. “Oh, it’s a book which will be about eighty pages, I guess, called On Being Blue. It’s about the word blue, as sexuality, melancholy, perception—that is, the color blue—and the imagination. The initial impetus is about the difficulty of writing about sexuality and the nature of blue language, but it’s basically about the imagination.”
Gass was by training (and occasional trade) a philosopher, and those familiar with such discourse and syntax will find it within On Being Blue—but the book is preternaturally formed by the eccentricity and amalgamation of literary journals. Literary magazines allow Gass, and others, to be chameleons of both subject matter and form. “I don’t think of myself as a novelist,” Gass tells Elkin. “I want to be in any format that will let me play with language the way I want to… I just want to get in the words and go.”
In that vein, they talk about film, plays, and poetry (Elkin: “There just ain’t no people in poetry, nobody’s home.”). Gass is characteristically punchy, but also aware that a good interview needs to offer small gifts. Writers are often the central audience for literary magazines. Editors hope they will do so to “familiarize yourself with what we publish.” That’s fine. Yet writers—hopeful creatures we are—want a little enticement through mystery. We want a little guidance.
Gass offers some: “The writer’s responsibility is to turn out good writing, to do what he is required to do, not by [the audience], but by the demands of the art he’s practicing. It’s like achieving a proof in mathematics: if it’s proved it’s proved, and there it is. That’s the whole point of the artistic adventure, to achieve some thing that says it for itself, that proves itself.”