An Interview with Percival Everett

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02/03/2009 4:30 PM |

By Thea Brown.

Percival Everett is an award-winning author of nearly 20 books of fiction and poetry — including the acclaimed novels Wounded and Erasure — as well as a painter, scholar, and teacher. His most recent book of poetry, Abstraktion und Einfühlung — a title borrowed from an essay by the early twentieth-century art critic Wilhelm Worringer — was released earlier this year by Akashic. Everett recently took the time to email with The L to talk about his new collection.

The L: When and how did you first become acquainted with Wilhelm Worringer’s theory of “abstract” art and “realist” art? Did it immediately strike you as something you wanted to investigate creatively?

Percival Everett: I was aware of Worringer long before I knew anything about his thinking about primitive art and, by extension, abstract art. I struggled through the work with my limited knowledge of German and my English/German dictionary. I didn’t know when I was studying it that I would use it in any way.

The L: How did you decide to borrow the title of his essay for your collection?

I love the title. Also, just like Worringer’s work, it captures my thoughts about the nature of so-called non-representational art.

The L: How do you see your work in this collection in relation to Worringer’s ideas? Were you aiming to demonstrate a process — a move from the realist to the abstract?

PE: I don’t imagine this work in relation to Worringer. I appreciate the importance of his work in art history and criticism, but I cannot pretend to understand it so thoroughly as to exploit it. I am demonstrating a process, but it’s perhaps more a fiction of my making.

The L: So, what level of comfort do you think an artist should or needs to have with another’s work in order to engage with it creatively?

PE: One needs to understand well enough to play. I think one can neither worship nor despise the source, but there has to be a genuine engagement with the work. It may well be that my understanding is incorrect.

The L: As I understand it, Worringer’s essay was primarily concerned with visual art. When you were working on your poems for this collection did you seek out (or happen to find) congruencies between the creative methods of your painting and your writing?

PE: I was very much attempting to employ my method of painting in writing these poems. I love non-representational art. I avoid the term abstract, because I find it misleading. I think non-representational paintings are realistic, perhaps more realistic than literal representations.

The L: How so?

PE: For me non-representational work is an extension of my vision rather than a replication of my perception.

The L: The distinction between realist and non-representational art seems as immediately applicable to poetry as to visual art — how do you think it might or does play out with fiction?

PE: In fiction it seems nearly impossible to be fully non-representational, whatever that "fully" means. I want very much to make a story or novel like one of my paintings.

The L: Meaning non-representational, or at least partially so?

PE: Yes.

The L: How did you choose the lines from the second sections of these poems to pull out and focus on for the third sections? Could you describe how you transformed those lines into their new incarnations?

PE: I wish I could explain my method. Actually, if I could explain it, I probably wouldn’t share it.

The L: Fair enough! Your poems seem to point to a struggle, when dealing with art, to fully appreciate the work (i.e. glean all its implications, both literal and figurative) without losing meaning through over-analysis. Do you think there’s a line that can be crossed with analysis in that sense?

PE: There is always a struggle, with every word, with every line, with every slash of paint. There is no line that cannot be blurred or crossed.