Greg Gerke is the author of There’s Something Wrong With Sven. He also helps run a reading series called Soda Series at Soda Bar in Brooklyn Heights, edits very short fiction for Artvoice, and is a member of the National Society of Book Critics.
I read his book on the N train to Coney Island, I read it on the D train to Harlem, I reread about the seven orgasms from “Adult Summer Sex Camp” in line at the post office in Sunset Park. There’s Something Wrong With Sven seems purposely ordered with endings that reiterate the title – there’s something wrong with the endings. A few of the stories seem to fall out of character at the very end, but it doesn’t subtract from the overall impact, considering that the author seems to allude to this fact in “Dreams of You – Chapter 4”:
I don’t accept endings. I don’t accept what I can’t rule. And because of this I think something must be there that doesn’t love myself. In the plainest language I know, in the most direct way possible: make me raw, break me down, make me tender.
The Rumpus: Oregon seems to play a role in many of the stories – any particular reason?
Greg Gerke: The short answer would be I lived there for seven years. Delving more inside, I would say the land and landscape fueled me, but not so as to describe it. “Oregon” exists more as an idea, the idea being that I came into my own there and the circles of memory often play that tune of my emergence from the egg. It’s a comfortable tune, so possibly I set the stories in Oregon to recapture that time of innocence.
Rumpus: You’ve labeled three parts as Bacchanalian, Saturnine, Mercurial. But the story called “Adult Sex Summer Camp” (one of my favorites) is listed under Mercurial. Why not Bacchanalian?
Gerke: I hope to make stories that live and breathe outside the labels. I used to be very put off by video stores grouping films in ‘Comedy’ and ‘Drama,’ etc. The story of life seems to me so variegated—we laugh and cry—so I would think fiction resembles this.
I broke the stories up so there wasn’t a block of fifty stories in the table of contents—perhaps the only time I consciously thought of the reader. But as I said above, the associations of stories to mood are not so clear. In the case of that story, I thought the confusion over multiple attractions fit the ‘changeability’ often associated with mercurial.
I should add that there is something wrong with There’s Something Wrong with Sven the book, because it displays a real beginner making mistakes. It’s me as I was three and four years ago as a writer and not who I am now. My current three manuscripts are hungry to eclipse the existence of Sven.
Rumpus: Bill Macam’s wife in bed with the blueberry granola bar is so Duchamp, or is it . . . Any chance you might revisit that scene in another story? Do you ever recycle characters?
Gerke: Yes, I guess it is Duchamp-like. All those French fellows seem to have done all the absurdities before, but we keep on. The painter Rene Magritte is more of an influence than Duchamp. I was lucky enough to see a show of his in Denmark a few years ago.
I don’t think I’ll revisit that scene but I know I’ll keep revisiting the feeling of being off-kilter and lost in the world, which I probably translated into sex with granola bars.
I don’t recycle but hopefully write the stories and characters better the next time, giving them a new name.
Rumpus: Let’s talk heroes. Stevens I know is big for you; Lydia Davis. Gordon Lish? Beckett? Robbe-Grillet? Aimee Bender?
Gerke: With everything out there, the great thing is one can always discover new heroes. I imagine Wallace Stevens is someone who will be with me my whole life. Whenever I need a little help he’ll be there. Interestingly Stevens had quoted Henry James in his letters to another younger poet, and William Gass has quoted and written essays on them all (not the younger poet). There is a line of tradition. In the past twelve months these artists (Mary Caponegro, Emily Dickinson, William Gaddis, William Gass, John Hawkes, Gary Lutz, Rilke, Christine Schutt [her saying she read Woolf’s To the Lighthouse every year sent me straight to that watery, brilliantine novel] and Virginia Woolf too) and their art have been most influential, and as I thought a year ago that I had perhaps learned more about writing than ever in the past year, I say it again now. Reading James’s The Portrait of a Lady has actually stopped me from writing and I am in the midst of reconsidering many of my notions about fiction and, moreover, life, morality, and the situation of the human race.
I have to thank my Uncle Tom for introducing me to Beckett at an early age. There is much not to ‘get’ in Beckett I think, and that nothing spoke to me. After all, Beckett said, “Nothing is better than anything.” Beyond the language I think Beckett said to me to not take life too seriously—very good advice. Other heroes would be my supportive family and wonderful friends, without whom I would be very much less than the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” as Mr. Stevens says in “The Snow Man.”
Rumpus: I once met a writer who told me, “Flash fiction is a scam. Name one writer who is canonical?” My response to him was Barthelme, whom he had never read. But isn’t flash fiction too new to be asked such a question?
Gerke: Well, some people might quibble with Barthelme because most of the stories are over 2000 words or so, but then there are Beckett and Kafka. I don’t know if anything is too new. Flash Fiction (in whatever form, prose poetry or such) has been around for hundreds of years—this has been outlined in the history section of the Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction by Rose Metal Press.
I don’t know what the fate of short fiction is but I know many people still want novels. I ask around and people tell me they want to live with characters for a while, they want longer books. I can understand this. We want people to be in our lives for some period of time. Maybe flash fiction resembles the ephemeral connections created by the internet and instant messaging. Maybe this, maybe that. Maybe the dictum of every word counts in a small piece is too exclusive. I’m pretty sure Henry James thought every word of his 600-page novel counted.
Rumpus: What are your writing and eating rituals? Notebooks, pens, pencils, laptop? Candle light?
Gerke: My eating rituals are too nefarious and embarrassing to comment on. I write longhand in an unlined artist’s sketchbook—a course taken for many years. I would say the most important ritual before writing is a cleansing of the mind—letting the foggy dew of the media’s grand and salacious distractions disintegrate by unplugging from all electronic and crouching in the cage of my own being. Because I haven’t written many new things lately (fictionwise) I miss this sensation very much. The other great way of getting away—losing oneself in nature—has been difficult to accommodate because of winter.
Lately, if I start writing a story with overly familiar lines and themes I will stop myself, believing it better not to go to that well again in such a similar fashion, but rather to strike a new type of sentence and sensation. This type of work is much more difficult because it seems the flow is no flow, but rather having trains of words derail in my mind before picking them up and making more unique thoughts and observations. Reading Gass and Rilke and Schutt and delighting in their verbal constructions that can’t be so easily groked has reinforced the thought that what is harder and more foreign will stretch me and I need to be stretched rather than relaxing in the kiddy pool of the familiar, both my own familiar and certain early influences. In fact I can’t seem to write a straight story anymore. I can’t think about character machinations without feeling language will in the end subvert character and take them toward a different hole. It’s the language I must push toward perfection. It seems as I’ve become more familiar with story and ways of telling I have opened the door to let language carry me more.
Rumpus: Where are some places in New York you like to go to remind yourself of the vast historical, literary landscape that surrounds us?
Gerke: Literary landscapes . . . A few years ago I was in San Francisco during the Lit Quake events sans the quake and went on a walking tour of the North Beach neighborhood with friends. After visiting the fourth house that Neal Cassidy threw Alan Ginsberg out of or that Ginsberg threw Kerouac out of, I raised my arms in the air, wishing to leave and continue my own writing.
I don’t walk around New York to see the monuments or spots anymore, literary or not. There was a time I did. To me the books are the monuments to have and to hold and to have them at arms length, to have the ability to reach for and read Stevens’s “This Solitude of Cataracts” or Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” makes all the difference, especially when I’m glum, thinking about life, language, and the prickly world too much. Reading these words and especially reading aloud comforts and enlivens me, I start to smile. I edit by reading aloud, sometimes torturing others with my drafts so I can hear the mistakes, sometimes reading them whole novels of other writers. But reading aloud is a joy for me, even a Wikipedia entry on molars. One can’t say “teeth” without smiling.
One thing I still indulge in is pilgrimage to the graves of the giants. I’m gearing up to travel to Mr. Stevens in Connecticut in a few months and have been honored to visit Faulkner in Oxford, Joyce in Zurich, and Beckett in Paris, among Baudelaire and across town in Père Lachaise: Chopin, Oscar Wilde and the painter Théodore Géricault—the tomb, with a statue of him splayed out on top with brush in hand above a bronze Raft of Medusa, is my most favorite in the world. I found Richard Hugo in Missoula with the help of a gravedigger, and being ill-equipped mapwise in Oxford, I spent an hour examining hundreds of graves before finding Faulkner. Years before I helped a Belgian man get to Cesar Vallejo in the Cimetière de Montmartre. I still kick myself over missing Keats in Rome. Being in the presence of these graves has enriched my life in a way I can’t describe. To meet with these writers on some terms, however removed. I owed it to them and I owe them so much more in terms of the words I want to add to that thing we call ‘literature.’
Rumpus: Along with John Dermot Woods you run a reading series at Soda Bar in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, called Soda Series. What I have seen so far at Soda is a pretty high standard of readings. How do you maintain quality control?
Gerke: I think it succeeds because we try to let go of all control. In some cases John and I don’t know the author well but what we have read delights us, and their appearance in the series is more delighting.
The main component of the Soda Series is the conversation after the brief readings. We don’t moderate the conversation too much. Because the bar is filled with lavishly soft couches and ottomans that command lounging and laying about, there is a very easeful manner to the audience, and to break up the drowsiness induced by the furniture and the bar’s banner beer selection, I might call on members of the audience to ask questions. They often deny having something to ask but sometimes the element of surprise works. At first we thought about calling the series ‘Recombinant Soda Series,’ but our lawyers advised us against it.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Gerke: I’ve finished a book of short-shorts I believe to be some of the most honed work. The pieces were written over a few seasons but to me the book reads almost as the diary of a writer rather than the “stories” of one. There is a progression and a change of form to the stories as the author keeps trying to fictionalize his state fully. For instance, the stories in the first section still have character names but these drop away in the last thirty pieces with the only people named being ‘I,’ ‘she,’ and ‘he.’ The book is called Babar Goes to His Friend’s House and Thinks, to take full advantage of that French elephant and invite litigation. I am currently seeking a publisher.
That book also feels like a farewell to flash fiction, as I am poised to put my energies into longer forms. I have started the ubiquitous ‘novel’ most every writer is ‘working on.’ Novels are harder for me, but I notice the more novels I read, especially that sea-change known as The Portrait of a Lady, the more I find myself in a novel-generating state of mind. I want to spill myself over a few hundred pages and see what kind of mark I’m left with.