Looking for Ghosts: A Conversation with John Freeman


John Freeman is well known as an editor and writer. The former editor of Granta, current editor of the literary journal Freeman’s, and Executive Editor of Lit Hub has written The Tyranny of E-mail and How to Read a Novelist.

This fall marks the publications of a trilogy of projects: the anthology Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, which Freeman edited; Maps, his first collection of poetry released by Copper Canyon Press in October; and Freeman’s: The Future of New Writing, the magazine’s fourth issue. Maps is about Freeman’s travels from suburban Sacramento, where he grew up, to Beirut to Sarajevo to London. It’s about physical space but also about the emotional space and distance in families and in the world.

In August, we spoke about the death of his mother, displacement, empathy, and trying to find a way forward in the nation and the world.


The Rumpus: Did you always write poetry?

John Freeman: No. I wrote it badly—like everyone does as a teenager—mostly to feel less alone and occasionally to try to go on dates. [Laughs] In college, I applied to the poetry workshop at Swarthmore. I didn’t get in and I thought, I guess I must not be a poet. I basically stopped and then I started up about ten years ago.

Rumpus: What prompted that?

Freeman: Poetry is about intensity and compression, and sometimes life does the compressive work for you. At the time, my mother was sick and obviously dying and I didn’t know what to do with it as an experience other than stay close to my family. As a writer, it’s not like all experience is useful, but when something is troubling, a form can present itself as a way to think. To put what is essentially chaotic into a container where it can be what it is. It doesn’t feel cathartic, but it’s better for you than many other things that come to mind in times of stress.

That’s really what got me started again. It was a strange recurrence because I would so much rather have not been writing poetry and had my mother in my life for decades more. She used to give me books of poems when I was small—Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson—so starting to write poems again made not just personal and aesthetic and emotional sense, but it made historical sense too.

Rumpus: I’ve been thinking there’s two themes running through the book. One is about place, which may be obvious since the title is Maps. The other is about your mother’s death and family and navigating that space.

Freeman: Originally it was just about loss. I wrote a lot of poems about her, about my childhood. I guess it circles around this uncanny realization that comes—hopefully later for most—that subtraction is actually the biggest force in any of our lives. It’s not accretion and addition. Through that experience and writing about it, I started to look at the world differently. I started to look at what was missing. It completely reorganized my sense of place and of public spaces. Who’s not speaking? What parts of history are excluded? As I started writing these poems, I started writing other poems about places that I was visiting. Sometimes it was seeing the ghost of my mother in Paris, other times it was going to a city like Beirut, and seeing that it was just layers of elisions.

Rumpus: I feel like some of that is summed up by the end of your poem “English Hours, Three Pieces of Advice,” which ends “this / sense of vertigo / sometimes means / you’re home.”

Freeman: I’d been going to London a lot because my partner is half-English and grew up partly there. When I moved there alone in 2009 to edit Granta, I had a completely different feeling. Partly because she wasn’t there but also I felt disoriented because a familiar place was suddenly estranged to me because all the markers I had—people we hung out with, the home I stayed in—were not part of my working life. I was living in a borrowed flat in a grand building up the hill from a beautiful office that used to be a public house. Everything used to be or belonged to someone else.

On top of that, one of my closest friends is an Australian novelist, and when he found out where I was living he asked me if I’d seen the horse track. I said no, there is no horse track in Notting Hill, and he replied when he was living in London, he grounded himself a bit by learning about things that used to be there. So walking home one night, I began to try to trace its pattern and sure enough, I found it; beneath this neighborhood I had no business living in was a horse track, where the rough and tumble came to place bets on horses centuries before. I wrote a fair number of these poems when I was living in London and I think that aesthetic—to look for what was occluded from contemporary maps—grew out of the people I was spending time with, people whose cultures had been mapped by the British.

This, in turn, changed how I imagined where I was once from. There’s an odd feeling when you reach a certain age and where you’re from becomes tangibly familiar and yet also very other. I grew up mostly in Sacramento, and when I go back there I find it bizarre that I’m from that place and yet the smell and the light and some of the sights are so familiar to me that it’s dizzying. I think that experience and memory are far weirder than we account them to be. They’re not just books we take off the shelf and look at as if they are stable texts; they change with time. One of the things I was trying to write about in Maps, is just about how those things—people, places, what we take from them and bring back—are constantly changing. That the way that we orient in them turns into a kind of morality because we’re hopefully constantly looking at what that place means and who’s not there.

Rumpus: In a few of the poems when you’re in Beirut or Sarajevo, it felt as though you were coming to terms with limits of what you knew and these experiences were orienting you to this unknown place.

Freeman: I think a search is not always apparent as a search. I didn’t leave the United States until I was twenty-five. My mother never left the country. My dad just began in his seventies. I came from a very localized generation of Americans. We only vacationed by car on interstates. Meantime, my grandparents traveled the globe by air constantly. I grew up in an interregnum where most of my childhood and adolescent reference points—except for the books I read, and even those to some degree—were American.

I know now as a citizen how dangerous that can be, to not have sensory reference points outside of one’s own nation. It doesn’t have to do with necessarily always learning the intricacies of history. I think empathy grows out of the senses, to some degree, because it is through them that we imagine another—what it feels like to be alive in another person’s life. Had my mother lived, I know she would have traveled, and so every time I got on a plane I imagined what she would see and I’d arrive with a feeling that the city I landed in was full of holes. Her departure was one of the most intense and transcendental gifts then, in the sad sense that it allowed me to imagine the losses of others. I’d walk through every new city looking for ghosts. To me, that’s an interesting place in which to begin a poem.

Rumpus: You open the book with “Rocklin,” which is essentially where half the movies in the eighties were set, this unfinished suburban landscape. There’s this sense of things being in flux and changing around you even if you were not aware at the time. 

Freeman: I grew up in a suburb of Sacramento named Carmichael, a planned development with streets named after Civil War battlefields. My high school was called Del Campo—in Spanish that means “of the countryside,” but there was no countryside anywhere near us. It was just a very well fertilized and sprinklered Central Valley bit of suburban sprawl. You’ve seen it in every horror film. Football games on the weekends where people would tailgate with tricked out mini trucks and Chevy Blazers with raise-kits. Pep rallies began with extremely un-ironic cheerleading. In memory, it feels one ominous keyboard tone away from Freddy Kruger’s arrival—I think partly because I knew what was coming in my family.

Carmichael has changed quite a bit now. I saw this coming as a paperboy. People moved out of houses and no one was moving in. More and more of them were becoming rentals. Our neighbor turned out to be a big time drug dealer. Our house was broken into and ransacked. My class graduated alright, but my younger brother’s class got into drugs in a very un-casual way. Now a big portion of the high school that I went to is on assisted lunches. Kids started carrying guns to school. I feel like in my time there was maybe one fight. Anyway, I was thinking about where I was from. I’d read that Joan Didion (another Sacramentan) book of the same name and I related to some of the migrations myths she was talking about, but the elements of my childhood were so different from hers. Even though they presented themselves as fixed to the point of requiring Xanax to get through a day. That’s part of the myth of the suburbs: an unchanging forever idyll. When I wrote that poem, I basically took the dictionary terms for suburban sprawl and I pulled out all the ones that produced a reaction in me and then I wrote a poem around them. I ended up writing about this thing that my friends and I used to do, which is drag race through this completely unfinished neighborhood. We were so bored, and lucky, that we had to invent danger.

Maybe that is just adolescence—boredom and recklessness. It cuts differently based on where you live though, right? Now I live on a block in Manhattan and I can’t leave it every day without passing at least one or two homeless people. I always think about this because both my brothers have been homeless. It just as well have could have been me, I think. What was that person like at age fourteen? At that age, we can hopefully be almost anything. Then societal pressures and structural inequalities begin to operate on us. I wanted to begin there because that’s in some ways where I was lucky enough to begin.

Rumpus: That’s the beginning of the book and you end with “In the Heart of the Night.”

Freeman: I was with a friend of mine, who’s also a poet, and we were speaking about poems that are hard to write. I realized, in putting this book together, I hadn’t written much about love. Hopefully it’s a big part of your life, it’s definitely a big part of mine, and it was very hard to figure out how to do that without sounding like a love poem.

That poem began as a series of poems. I made them into one when I realized that part of what binds you in love, as you get older, are those subtractions that you experience. One of the closest feelings of loving and being loved is when you’re not actually with the person, but you’re somewhere else and you feel them with you. I spend a lot of time on the road and I spend a lot of time looking at things. I think there is to some degree a morality in looking; it doesn’t mean you can stand on the sidelines. My mind is usually working on four or five or six different tracks. One is worrying about work, another is observing what’s around me, if it’s something recent like my mother dying that’s another thing and then there’s longing that’s always vibrating in the background. I think the best love is the one where you can combine all the things that you are and form out of it, in gratitude, a bond with another. That’s what I was trying to write about.

Rumpus: “Rocklin” is where you are from, and “In the Heart of the Night” is where you are now.

Freeman: I wanted there to be some kind of movement. A journey of sorts from a seemingly stable place to another new seemingly stable place. I think that’s how we think about our lives to some degree. We move, we change. Where we were from and who we were becomes strange. This is increasingly common. We are now in the era of mass migration, by choice or by force.

So many problems have to do with the denial of this reality. Anyway, it took me a while to come to see that maps was the orientating metaphor of the book. I had several different titles and for the first three or four different versions it was mostly about loss but as I wrote new poems, I started to make the connection between orientation in place and within the distance we put between a place and ourselves and the people around us.

Rumpus: As you’ve been writing poetry this past decade, do you think it’s changed how you edit and think as an editor?

Freeman: Yes, it does. I’ve never been more ruthless than as a self-editor. Moving from writing and editing my own poems to editing prose, I find a lot that’s not necessary. Prose can handle a lot more weight. The aperture of it is built for it. I think the best prose all feels necessary, essential to its effects and its goal. I definitely became a heavier line editor as a result of writing poems, though. I think I also became more aware of tropes in poetry or writing about grief. There seems to have been a swell in writing about grief in the last decade or so. I have several theories on this, but one of them is we live in such a suspended state of unreality with constant connections to the internet and the latest lie coming from our government that the one thing that is true is that someone was here one day and is gone the next. There’s nothing more unreal than that, and yet fundamentally at the same time, real. I think that’s the sole mystery of our existence. We’re here one day and then we’re not, and what does that mean? I became more interested in that kind of writing but simultaneously weary of certain easier pathways through the experience.

Rumpus: The themes for the first three issues of Freemans have been Home, Arrival, and Family, which sum up a lot of Maps.

Freeman: Everyone has complicated, interesting lives even if there’s not a whole lot of incident in them. At the heart of it is that we all arrive in the world at some point. We either have a family that we come from or have been orphaned and wonder about it. If we’re lucky we develop a sense of home. Which is one of the primary pressure points in the world today. With so many people leaving places because of conflict or for reasons of economic migration or persecution we’re going to see an age of migration that will approach and probably eclipse that of Europe in 1945–1950 when millions of people migrated across borders into other countries. I feel like literature has to deal with this otherwise it’s really preserving in amber something that’s not static.

I used to really love the work of John Updike. Partly because I was sentimental and nostalgic, but he also had a way of recalling the past and where he was from in such great detail that it was beautiful. It made it easy to imagine that having been my childhood, in all its high definitional force. Looking back on his work, I realize he was not made for the world we live in today. As a critic at the New Yorker, he tried very hard to intellectually grapple with how the United States and the world were changing. But he could only see people within the non-white categories as being categorically defined. This was very clear when he wrote the novel Terrorist, but also before with his women characters, or anyone who was black.

Hopefully now that those titans of American literature that took up so much oxygen—Bellow, Updike, and Mailer—have cleared the room, there’s more space to reflect the world as it is and as it’s experienced. To have writers who aren’t deformed by their inability to see the various people in the world as inherently unique. On top of that, I think as an editor the way to make that a little more possible is to create broad handles for something like a literary journal. Rather than go at themes like Migration or Inequality or Tribalism—which are probably the sharper edges of Arrival, Family and Home—I wanted to go with the basic ones. Some people are lucky and they didn’t grow up in one town and one family. Or maybe they don’t feel lucky for that and had to get out. But by keeping the themes basic for the first three issues I wanted to allow the great variety of human experience to be in the journal.

Rumpus: You can definitely see those empathetic concerns in your poetry.

Freeman: This is one reason I also wanted to push the book away from poems about just grief and mourning; a lot of my life I experience as not my own. I experience it by watching the news or going some place or being a friend and those stories are not mine. I hope I’ve not appropriated them in some of the poems in here, but I think in addition to us being the sum of everything that is subtracted from us, we’re also the sum of what we’ve seen and what we’ve witnessed and how we shape that into our own moral ethos as people. If that were not the case, what would be the point of any vicarious experience like art or literature – surely it’s not just entertainment. Anyway, this book is hopefully the beginning of me writing poetry. In addition to saying where I was calling from, these are the other places I’m from because they’ve shaped me.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about your new anthology, Tales of Two Americas.

Freeman: Tales of Two Cities was a book I put together about New York in 2014 when I first moved back to New York. I was just shocked by the gaps of income and the visible symptoms of that. Just lots of places to buy things and a lot more people on the streets and a general sense of unease. When I went out on the road for events, everywhere I went, including Sacramento, I noticed the same thing. Stores that were boarded up in neighborhoods and people were having 300-dollar sushi dinners. One of the main symptoms of life in late capital America seems to be if you’re in the middle you have to be able to tune that out, the cognitive dissonance of having while others are not. To me, that’s disastrous. It’s how we end up with an election where a lot of people were encouraged to vote only for their own interests. So I put together another book called Tales of Two Americas, which takes in as much of the country as I could fit in a book. I’m happy with how it turned out because it’s not just about income inequality. Income inequality is the keyhole, but the source of income inequality is a great enmeshment of lots of forces in American life that are all coming to the fore. From the long and disastrous effects of slavery and the failure of Reconstruction to the building of the prison industrial complex to the war on the drugs and the way that that was prosecuted to our tax code and how it’s enforced to the development of cities, who and what that pushes out. I wanted it to be written in the voices of people who care—and who also told stories. I think all of us know that inequality is not just on the rise; it’s here, and it’s one of the defining characteristics of many modern states. When you hear something as a story, either about someone’s life or an imagined person, it activates parts of your imagination and the muscles produce not just empathy but action in a different way than, say, a piece of information.

Rumpus: You’re doing something different for the fall issue of Freemans compared to the previous ones. 

Freeman: Maps and Tales of Two Americas and this issue of Freemans are all of a piece. One of the overarching problems of contemporary life is the forces that encourage us to value human life on a gradation scale. If you are from some place or you are something or some kind of person, then you’re more or less valuable than someone else. Nations are one of the primary organizers of this idiotic idea. There was a landslide in Sierra Leone last week and several hundred people died. It didn’t even break the front page. If this happened somewhere in the United States it would be world news. And why is that? Do people in Sierra Leone matter less? I see this very crudely enacted in the way that we talk about and publish literature in the United States. If a writer is from Korea, maybe they’re lucky and have a breakthrough book, but in most cases it’s reviewed as “translated literature” and it’s reviewed as if it is somehow of less value than something by someone from Koreatown in New York.

Similarly, I feel like there’s a problem with that when we talk about genre. So I wanted to clear the slate and put together an issue that looked at the best emerging writers around the world. From all ages. Many “best” lists are all writers under forty. I made one at Granta so I’m culpable in this. But what about the writers that debut when they’re forty or fifty or sixty? Annie Proulx was one of those. Would we say that she’s less valuable than a writer who has two books when they’re thirty-eight? I wanted to put writers together of all genres of all age groups and all nationalities and look at where is the future coming from and what these writers are doing. I talked to hundreds of editors and writers and critics and I traveled quite a bit for this and really read trying to take off nationality, primarily, as an optic. It’s twenty-nine writers. Some of them will be well known, but many of them are not. The youngest one is twenty-six and the oldest one is seventy. There are poets and reporters and novelists. I think we all have come to the point where we agree that what a book or text tells us about the national culture is contra-indication to reading; it’s not the point. No one picks up Bright Lights, Big City over a Let’s Go Guide to New York. First of all, because the Odeon isn’t as nice anymore. [Laughs] But second of all, it’s just not what that book is for. It’s a capsule for the character’s delayed and impacted grief. I hope these three projects are about the need to write about essential things and the need to recognize the variety of places that are around us as writers and as readers.

Alex Dueben's work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Believer, The Poetry Foundation, The Comics Journal and many other publications. He is working on his first novel. More from this author →