I was very glad to join Sharky Chen of commaBOOKS (逗點文創) at the Taipei International Book Exhibition to talk to readers about the new Chinese translation of Idiocy, Ltd. Here were my comments:
That’s quite brief. Initially I’d planned to spend more time giving some rough ideas of what I’m trying to accomplish with the book. But I didn’t have time to get my comments rendered in Chinese. And anyhow, I’m not sure people sitting there wanted to listen to my painfully accented Mandarin for that long. (!)
Still, I’ll post my draft comments here because, for readers new to the prose poem, they might be helpful.
Eric Mader 枚徳林
On Idiocy, Ltd. and the Jacobian Prose Poem
Thank you all for coming to listen. I’ve been writing seriously for many years now, I’ve published a novel, a collection of essays, and other things, all in English. But since the 1990s I’ve been living here in Taipei, my life is here, I love Taiwan, and so I’m very happy finally to publish one of my books here in Chinese. Because many of my best friends are here, and now they can read some of what I’ve been working on. What’s more, I’m especially happy it’s my weirdest book that’s been translated first: Idiocy, Ltd. I’m thankful to 逗點文創 for taking on the project.
This book is a collection of short texts, including a few short stories, but mostly it contains what we in the West call prose poems. The prose poem has a very odd history, beginning in French in the 19th century with Baudelaire and Rimbaud and eventually being practiced by writers elsewhere in Europe and the US. What started me writing in this genre was my discovery many years ago of one 20th century French prose poet: Max Jacob.
With Max Jacob and a few other European writers, the prose poem took on a very different character from what it was earlier, and became very different from lyric poetry in general. Jacob turned it into a space of play. For one, he used the genre to play with narrative conventions. Jacob mastered a certain tone, both intimate and detached at the same time, a very ironic tone connected, I think, to his Jewishness, and arising from his being something of an outsider to European culture.
What do I mean by Jacob’s “playfulness”?
This will be difficult for me to express in Chinese, so I’ll try to make it very simple.
Whenever you sit down to read a story or newspaper article or novel, you immediately, in the very first sentence, are infected by a rhythm, by a certain style, that determines how the genre works and tells you what kind of thing you are reading. What Jacob did brilliantly was set off in the style of one genre--his first sentences leading the reader to anticipate automatically what kind of writing would follow--but then suddenly he would switch in some other direction, the initial style would stop making sense, or the logic of the writing would break down. In other words, Jacob was constantly tricking the reader, making the reader expect one thing, then surprising him with an entirely different thing. He would begin stories that would go nowhere, that would end up in a joke on the main character, and he’d do it all in a handful of sentences. His writing is intentionally confusing in a way that makes you think not so much about the content of the story, but about the rules according to which stories are told. Or sometimes the rules by which newspaper articles are written. Because Jacob played this kind of game with all kinds of different genres of writing: newspaper articles, love letters, family histories, fairy tales.
I don’t know if you follow what I mean. In a few brilliant sentences, Jacob would mock the way we use language, and the way he would do it would make us notice how stiff our genres are. He would show this stiffness by breaking the rules in funny ways.
I give an example from everyday life: If you’re used to using a knife to cut vegetables in your kitchen, you don’t think about it, you just reach for it and start cutting. But if one day you pick it up and it’s broken, if the blade cracks and falls off of the handle, suddenly you have this odd feeling: “This is my knife that I’ve been using for years. And now?” You look at it as a suddenly alien thing; you notice it. You realize how long you’ve been taking it for granted only because, suddenly, it is something completely different: it can no longer cut your vegetables.
This is what Max Jacob and a lot of modern prose poets after him do with language. They break language in order to wake us up. They show us what we took for granted by misleading us in unpredictable ways. Of course as a writer Jacob does more than this, he does much else as well, but this is for me his most essential accomplishment.
In a lot of the texts in Idiocy, Ltd., I’m working in this way too. In many of them I use the language of persuasion and argument to make claims that aren’t persuasive at all. Or I state facts about things that aren’t actually facts, but absurdities. But I state them in a tone as if everyone already accepted the claims as true. Or I start out in a certain style, say adventure narrative, and shift into something very different, putting the whole notion of adventure in doubt.
Reading this kind of thing, some readers just say “Huh? It doesn’t make sense,” but other readers, they laugh. They’re led to laugh because the effect has worked.
Another thing I want to say about this kind of writing--I mean the kind of prose poem writing that a lot of writers have been working on during the recent decades: it is a method that can take up almost any genre of text and deform it in humorous or revealing ways. So, for example, here are some kinds of texts that could be taken up by a prose poet:
message in a bottle;
public service announcement;
I make fun of some of these in my book by infecting and bending them.
Now this kind of writing is hard to translate into another language, and I’m very lucky that for this book I had Pansy Chen as translator, because she worked very hard to make the odd changes in tone work in Chinese. From people who’ve read the book so far, people here in Taiwan, I can tell that she often succeeded brilliantly. She and I met regularly for awhile, discussing most of the texts in the book line by line, so she always knew just what I was trying to do.
I want to thank Pansy for that careful work. I think any of you here, though you’re likely to find some of these texts just strange or opaque, other texts will make you laugh or make you look at things in a different way. So it’s a book about breaking perceptions, or at bending them in unexpected directions. I’d love to hear from you if you have any comments.
You can look at the handout I’ve given you. I invite you to follow my author page on Facebook and post comments there. In the coming weeks I’ll post any reviews that come out about the book. So you can see what other readers think of it.
Again, thanks for coming.