Patrick Madden teaches writing at Brigham Young University and is the author of the essay collection Quotidiana. His essays frequently appear in literary magazines and have been featured in The Best Creative Nonfiction and The Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies. He pays close attention to the details of the every day, infusing humor and self-deprecation, combining observations of life with pop culture and literary traditions, to mine the extraordinary.
We discussed, over Skype, his recent collection of essays, Sublime Physick, including an examination of family, rock music, the tragedy that pushed the drummer of Rush to write a memoir, protocol for buying books, artistic appropriation, and the pangram haiku.
The Rumpus: Are essayists becoming modern poets?
Patrick Madden: Thomas Hardy speaks to this; he says, “If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have left him alone.”
There’s this idea that poets, as subversive as they may be, don’t have much audience, they don’t inflict much damage to the status quo. And there have always been peripheral essayists; the majority of us speak to other essayists. We support each other, and if that’s what you’re asking, if poetry/essayists are for poets/essayists primarily, I’d say, for the most part, yes.
Still, some essayists have power that holds sway over the way people act and think; they have a larger platform. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen won the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry and was a finalist in criticism, and among my crowd, it’s seen as an essay collection. And Zadie Smith’s essays appear in newspapers in New York and London, accessing a broad audience. Or Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic.
But my essays are in the academic-essayists club, people who share a reading knowledge and background. And, yes, I think we’re largely inconsequential.
Rumpus: At the same time, your topics are important, for example, family.
Madden: Yes. I can achieve great joy through writing, but it doesn’t compare to the joy I get from my family. As priorities go, I would choose my family every time. In fact, even though it takes time and effort to my children with their homework, to eat, to get up in the morning, go to practices and games, they provide a lot of material. Sometimes in brief statements they don’t realize are wise. I think of when my daughter—she was still pretty young—said to nobody in particular, “I’ve never seen the top of the head.”
That’s a statement you can use metaphorically. How we’re trapped, we can use mirrors and other devices, but it’s very hard to see the top of your head. And so I spun that out and wrote an essay. She also inspired one of my first successful essays, the one on laughter, when, at two and a half months old, she just started to laugh.
There’s one essay in the new book about a Halloween when my youngest sons got lost for two hours. Your mind imagines all the worst scenarios. I don’t use the experience dramatically. I tell you pretty close to the beginning that we found them in a neighbor’s house where they’d wandered. So, children can inspire essays even when they’re causing you the deepest grief.
Rumpus: In another essay you segue into the protocol authors have for buying books.
Madden: I definitely buy new books from my favorite authors and authors I know (and there’s lots of overlap). I go to readings and buy books there for full price, get them signed. But also I want a lot more books that I can afford. So I often buy through third party, used-book vendors. I realize I’m playing off personal and family economics against the whole economic system of writing. The way books are sold, the way spoils are divided, is not getting any better; the middle men are the profit reapers.
I do feel that conflict and pain of complicity in maybe undermining the system that I’m relying on. At the same time I actually can’t rely on the system because I wouldn’t be able to feed myself on the income from writing, let alone supporting a family.
Rumpus: In some ways it’s more important to support the publishers, Hawthorne, Two Dollar Radio, Tyrant, Melville House, Coffee House, Milkweed, Graywolf, Tin House.
Madden: Right. Those are the ones that I’m more inclined to buy from. They’re selling for academic readers who will actually read these books. They have booths at conferences, like AWP. I always come home from AWP with a stack of books from places like you mentioned: Melville, Graywolf, and Milkweed, and there’s also Sarabande, and the university presses— Iowa, Georgia; Nebraska—who do consistently good literary nonfiction.
Rumpus: You’re a postmodern writer. How does technology influence you?
Madden: Pop culture references are inherent to me. It’s natural to think of music lyrics or books and television and movies when I’m into a subject. And if I want to access something I remember only partway, the Internet is a wonderful tool. In my books, I appear to be more knowledgeable than I am, because I have access to this vast resource. But it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand I can look up the date of the moon landing when the astronaut dropped his hammer and feather to demonstrate uniform acceleration of gravity in the absence of friction. I can find examples of songs that sound similar to Joe Satriani’s “If I Could Fly,” which he sued Coldplay for plagiarizing, and I can say, “Wait a minute. Other songs that pre-date Satriani used this melody. Why is he getting an out-of-court settlement?” But I can also get distracted and not write anything for long periods.
Rumpus: Your book, in many ways, reflects on music.
Madden: I grew up listening to music with my dad. We’d play Beatles records and sing along. They’re a really intelligent band in the way they absorb so many different styles. They were already subversive of the machine that fed them. They were huge, in part, because they fit the clean-cut expectations of the crowd that seemed very keen to manage them, but they were also rebellious. Their music became more than something you can dance to. It became a way of thinking.
That continued when I discovered the band Rush, which challenges the status quo (of music, of culture) in similar ways. Their lyrics are very intelligent and astute, highly allusive, and their melodies are musically and rhythmically complex, beyond four-four or three-four time. They play so-called “progressive rock,” mixing time signatures and odd keys and composing multi-part songs that subvert the ever-popular simplistic formulaic pop music. I’ve read so many works of literature because they appeared in Rush lyrics, you know?
Madden: I’ve learned about Greek mythology and our Apollonian vs. Dionysian motivations (in the side-long song “Hemispheres”); I devoured Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and watched Citizen Kane, which both served as inspiration for the song “Xanadu”; I read Shakespeare’s As You Like It simply because of the line in “Limelight”: “All the world’s indeed a stage, and we are merely players, performers, and portrayers, each another’s audience outside the gilded cage.” I’ve revisited Mark Twain’s two major works because of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” which, truth be told, doesn’t have much to do with Twain’s book. John Dos Passos’s novels The Big Money and The Grand Design were both borrowed for Rush song titles. More recently, I’ve sometimes read the literature before finding its reference in a new Rush song, such as with Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence” and Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Vain Glory”; Voltaire’s Candide inspires a number of songs on Rush’s latest album.
Rumpus: Are you familiar with Neil Peart’s memoir?
Madden: You mean Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road? Yeah, he’s quite a good writer. He’s the drummer of Rush, but Ghost Rider is not about being the drummer of Rush. It’s a book out of tragedy. His only daughter was killed in a car accident at age nineteen. And within a year his wife died from cancer at age forty-two. So he took off on his motorcycle for fourteen months and just rode.
Rumpus: It’s a wonder how writers mine tragedy. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
Madden: Right. That’s a similar book. I think Peart’s book is a really affecting memoir. Years earlier, he wrote a travelogue about cycling in Cameroon. He weaves in history, both indigenous and colonial history of West Africa, as well as Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. That’s a pretty smart book, too.
Rumpus: My favorite essay of yours, and it’s the longest, might be “Independent Redundancy.”
Madden: Yeah. You know that quote: “Bad artists borrow, great artists steal”?
There are a lot of variations. It’s been attributed to Picasso, Bob Dylan, T. S. Eliot making a critique of another poet.
I’m convinced now that too many people maintain a naïve view of originality. That is, thinking of originality as stark ex nihilo construction, like a flash of inspiration; eureka! You devise something brand new, never before seen. You can only believe in that if you’re not looking closely, you’ve not studied, or you’re not expert in the field.
I can play a few instruments, but I’m no music theorist. In music you’ve got twelve notes or your eight-note scale, however you count, and then combinations in terms of tempos and rhythms and chords. But within those constraints, even if there’s functionally infinite possibility, you’ll hear a similarity and repetition. I believe artists at different places and times can come up with the same melodies without any plagiarism. Without anything unethical. I don’t know who “started” the blues, but the blues overcame this; nobody really cares about who “owns” the basic twelve-bar blues.
But in popular music money is big and involved. For instance, in the Tom Petty case, he stated that he would not pursue any sort of legal action against Red Hot Chili Peppers. But with Sam Smith and the song “Stay with Me,” which is similar to “I Won’t Back Down,” he contacted Smith and they made some settlement.
Why? Is it possibly because music is no longer as lucrative as it once was with so much streaming and stealing, fractions of pennies per play, Spotify or whatever?
Rumpus: The essay also goes into palindromes, portmanteaus, neologisms, and the pangram haiku, a haiku using all twenty-six letters of the alphabet
Madden: Right. The essay could’ve become something argumentative, trying to push back against our litigious culture, but I wanted it to be more playful. I include examples of fun I’ve had in rearranging language, which is what writing is, I think. When I was younger I liked to think of myself as an “original,” you know? Unmatched and uninfluenced. But my teachers would tell me, “We’re all influenced by our culture, by our language.” That’s so obvious to me now. We’re restricted, we’re constrained within language, and I like having fun with it. The pangram haiku is one example. Haiku and the pangram already exist. I didn’t invent them. Artists must use pre-existing materials that have developed through the centuries. And I don’t hold a patent, so if other people wrote pangram haikus, that’d be tremendous.
Rumpus: And if someone can make money off it, well, there’s something to sue for.
Madden: Right. As soon as Adele creates a pangram haiku song, I’ll sue her, and make my millions.