Tuesday, September 21, 2010

From the Paris Review Interview Archives: Harry Mathews Tells a Joke

Posted By on Tue, Sep 21, 2010 at 11:43 AM

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The new issue of the Paris Review has just come out—It's new editor Lorin Stein's first issue at the top of the masthead, and once you've read his gung-ho editor's note, you can peruse the somewhat redesigned website (it kinda looks like the , now featuring, as promised, the full and complete text of every single Art of Fiction (and Poetry, Theater, Editing, Publishing, Memoir, Nonfiction and Comics).

In an effort to help you procrastinate better, today we'll bringing you selections from several of our favorite recent Paris Review interviews, as both enriching diversions and subjects for further research. First up is the only American Oulipian, Harry Mathews, interviewed by Susannah Hunnewell in 2007 (The Art of Fiction #191), talking about the joy of constraints, the inner workings of Oulipo meetings, and telling a joke:

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing?

MATHEWS

My first serious work was a poem I wrote at the age of eleven. I went to a boys’ school in New York called St. Bernard’s. I had a wonderful English teacher who created a special class in Latin and in English poetry for me and a few other pupils. One day in class I wrote my first poem. He read it and gazed out of the window with an expression that, to me, said, What have I done? WASP private schools weren’t meant to produce poets, but doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and so forth. He could clearly see that I was hooked.

INTERVIEWER

Do you remember the poem?

MATHEWS

“It was a sad autumnal morn, / The earth was but a mass of clay; / Of foliage the trees were shorn, / Leaving their branches dull and gray.”

When I got to boarding school, I was addicted to poetry. I remember one week I wrote something like eight poems in eight different styles imitating Wordsworth, Swinburne, and Tennyson, among others. I incurred the total disapproval of my teachers and classmates. I was roundly condemned.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

MATHEWS

Because of the idiotic thing that aspiring young writers are usually told: write about yourself. Don’t imitate literary models. Of course, imitating literary models is the best thing one can do. Like painters—they make copies of classical masterpieces. I was cowed, so I wrote a couple of poems about my own experiences, which were close to doggerel. Then I started sneaking back toward more literary, more derivative work. There was a generous, brilliant man who taught at Groton named John Pick, and we became friends. He had written one of the first books on Gerard Manley Hopkins. I went to his study one evening, and he read me “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and my life was never the same after that. There was no attempt to make a visible, logical sequence in the poem. By the time I was thirteen, I knew the work of Stravinsky and Bartók. They too had abandoned what passed for logic in music, which was harmonic organization of the work. It had never occurred to me that that could happen in writing.

Actually my first great aesthetic excitement came from classical music, starting with Wagner. I suppose Wagner is an artist as unlike me as you could imagine. And nevertheless, the obsessive romantic passion that those operas inspired in me is something that is behind all my writing, even though it’s totally suppressed and censored. Can I tell you a joke? What is the question to which the answer is 9 W?

INTERVIEWER

I give up.

MATHEWS

Mr. Wagner, do you write your name with a V?

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