An Interview With Douglas A. Martin

Photo Credit: Bobby Abate

Happiest of birthdays to one of Nightboat’s own, Douglas A. Martin! To celebrate their 50th, we had a conversation with the renowned poet, novelist, scholar, and educator (and surely all of those in combination). We discussed Douglas’s work, from Outline of My Lover to Wolf; their artistic affinities, which span from Hart Crane to Catherine Clément, and back again; and how “a grain holds a lot,” as they say here. Take a look at the full conversation below!

—Dante Silva

Dante Silva: Happy happy birthday! How are you celebrating? 

Douglas A. Martin: Thank you, Dante. One only gets to be fifty once, right? My partner has a residency on Governor’s Island currently, and the night before his open studio day, he has planned a big dinner out for me with many of our friends who inspire me in my New York City life. A couple have known me even since my twenties, one from back in Georgia, another from my time as an MFA student. And coincidentally, the actual birthday, there will be a performance of Arthur Russell’s “City Park” on the Wesleyan campus, as reimagined and arranged by the performance curator and concert director Nick Hallett. It was originally written in the year I was born, and I lent my voice for a part in this version. People can also catch it in New York City at the Aids Memorial on the 30th. It’s free.

Dante Silva: It seems appropriate to start with your debut, Outline of My Lover — the first one of your books I was introduced to. For those who aren’t familiar, Outline of My Lover follows a college-aged adolescent through his obsession with an older artist-musician. I remember how I devoured the story, its dealing with intimacy and all its discontents. I’ve continued to return to it for these reasons, and as I do I discover more that I hadn’t noticed before. 

I want to talk about that — the book as an object, one that accumulates meaning over the course of its life. What does Outline of My Lover mean to you, now? 

Douglas A. Martin: It marks the moment in my life when everything changed for me from being the writer I was trying to be as a poet and suddenly a number of other audiences were also interested in my work, not always in a positive way.

That book was powerful in that it brought people to me at the same time that it ended some exchanges. Some rooms I was never going to be in again because of how the story actually related to me was not disguised as enough of a fiction. Other doors opened. When I was a student working with Colm Tóibín, it was already published if not widely distributed, and I gave him a copy. He said to me how people would always want to know me forever for having written it. I still treasure that he believed in it, that my first boyfriend in the New York, Brian, believed in it. This was when I did not feel like I was allowed to be proud of it.

Periodically I will wonder where I might be if I had never published it, or published it in some more fictionalized form, this shaping that I had willed and lived through and with but also needed to get a clearer grasp on to begin moving more forward in my life. Writing it did at least that. Publishing it made me feel not alone in my feelings there. It still feels very much like a living thing to me because it did set the course for what has turned out to be the second half of my life so far. It’s really the end of an adolescence. I didn’t know how to be an adult and I didn’t know how to be an artist. I just wanted to stay under one wing.

Dante Silva: There’s an autofictious impulse that appeared in that book, and that continues to appear in your own [other?] writing. You’ve spoken about the criticisms that come with this — in a previous interview you said “I’m stealing from my own life in a way, and from the people around me, but in service of getting somewhere else.” I was wondering if you could say more about this — What do you take from life, in your art? How do you turn, distort, make it strange? Where is somewhere else

Douglas A. Martin: Once I must have believed there was a point to arrive at where the choices made to survive would be understood. I had been looking back at one of my epigraphs when I said that.

An epigraph about taking from someone else to take off, a Catherine Clément book I actually “stole” when I was hanging around the Verso office, when they had a New York one over by Film Forum. I think I would probably pitch that a little differently these days.

That’s a book where many things clicked into place for me, like cracking a safe. Plus, I wanted to sound like someone Genet might love or Genet himself, but Genet as Acker had “borrowed” from him? I’m relaxing diction now, whereas before I was trying to heighten something, dressing it up this way to illustrate. Like you take someone’s cloak to wrap yourself. I used someone else’s words to put a kind of point on an action or to attempt to feel authorized, and then words will come to trail you, train you.

I work with the guides of constraint, no matter what. When I’m composing more in a mind of fiction but still with historical characters, I cannot seem to let myself invent anything. I don’t know why. Part of this is how proud and brazenly Marguerite Duras would toss out: Again, I invented nothing. But each piece of writing has to find its rhythm in my life and I mean that beyond day-to-day living.

The somewhere else is how it gets developed, like how you might take the film already shot, pushing stops if not using your phone, or if using your phone the filters and such, you know. I think you know. I want to be able to be beside myself in a way here. Words are images too, yes.

Is the somewhere else among company I would like to keep? Is part of that who I have been?

Dante Silva: Shortly after Outline of My Lover you worked on The Haiku Year, in which you and several collaborators made a pact to write haikus every day for a year as a way to keep in touch with each other. I know that you’ve continued this practice — I loved watching your interview with PBS in which you spoke about “the art of paying close attention to the everyday” — and I appreciate the haikus that appear on your Instagram

 What does this form mean to you? Is there a politics to these short, ephemeral moments? 

Douglas A. Martin: Oh, I’m glad to hear you liked seeing me going on like that. I only wish they’d said “they” introducing me. I am feeling that now. We wrote those first haiku before I started any drafts of Outline of My Lover, when I was still not sure how to write a novel. I wanted to write in my journal every day and was not someone who thought ever I could just publish my diary. The haiku kind of become that for a point. But I was very resistant at first. One reason was I was just dismissive of any form. But then how I might live too with or along someone else’s contours, that began to feel sustaining, and when Tom Gilroy asked me to try to get it going again with him and some of the old group and some new participants too for another year, I felt again how coming across what seemed like it might hold as one, a haiku, that made me feel complete somehow in the day. That’s what it means to me.

What feels different often about the haiku for me is it is less about a moment trapped inside me to begin with and more about seeing how life is going on outside of my own regulatory patterns, my own daily pacing. And if I do not write something each day, it can seem to me like I am asleep and not in a good way. Something suddenly becomes larger than a minute, or it scores a different breathing around it all. The haiku somehow deregulates me as much as it also provides patterns? And then with the tradition, the seasons and such part of it, what does it mean to take up that signal as we move into the eradication of the predicable with any weather, any stable sense of return. I think about that. Or all the birds that once were, birds as dinosaurs. They are also messengers from the future we are not going to have. A grain holds a lot.

Dante Silva: Your Body Figured followed three artists and their different relationships — between art and life, artist and model, subject and object. You reference a wide range of artists —Balthus, Bacon, Rilke — in that book, and also in your other work. In what ways do their practices inform your own? What intimacies do you share with the artists you write about? 

Douglas A. Martin: My workroom is a horror, but I’m always trying to get it more like Bacon’s studio. I wonder if those I am most drawn to are those going through some model or understanding of “self” to try to get out of that? But I think there’s also another shade here—that the predicating grounds of that intimacy is based on or becomes the terms of the work we then come to make together. I also come to hold them in my mind in some familial relation: who might be better to me than any father ever was, for example. Who can I feel like a sister towards, etc. Especially in cases—like my mother and my sister—where those once trusting bonds, the “real” life counterparts have somehow turned disastrous to me.

Sometimes too it’s just would I have wanted to go to bed with this creator or not and so what might be the next best thing, honestly, if that’s never going to happen. Like there was one picture of Hart Crane that I would just not stop looking at.

Dante Silva: I’ve always found it strange that we ask writers to categorize themselves. Over the years you’ve done this in many ways — poet, scholar, novelist, and all amalgamations of those. I won’t ask you to define your practice, although you’re more than welcome to. I’m wondering instead — Where are you looking, when you’re writing? What forms excite you? How do you come to know what you know? 

Douglas A. Martin: I might add poet-teacher, I think. I look to my students a lot. I love the dedication of Anne Carson’s Decreation. I used to look to photography, pre-social media, in a way I sometimes look at painting now. And I think at times how a book might be an installation. I look to translation. I look to make or find a writing mobile enough it might hold more corners of my moods. I have a lot. When coincidence echoes what I have been circling around forming, then I will feel excited to go on.

Dante Silva: Wolf struck me as somewhat of a departure from your other work, both in form and content. I know you’ve cited Duras’ L’Amante Anglaise as an influence, which could be described as a crime novel, and other, experimental work (Genet comes to mind). What is your process in crafting a project? How did this one differ?

Douglas A. Martin: It used to be with a novel I would write a draft for like a year or whatever, never looking back, just forward new pages every day until I had something like a thick stack, three hundred pages say. Then I would wait at least a year before reading it all then and arranging and cutting to a shaping, always cutting down, usually the manuscript by half it always seemed. I wrote a number of books this way. Printing out the pages and inking over them, lots of linethoughs, and pulling out words and joining them to other places on the page or further ones. Usually I got something in this second pass. Wolf had that going back many more times. And the first attempt at a draft was summoned forth from a spiral notebook where I had taken these initial longhand notes on the case while haunting NYU’s Bobst library. I had ways I could sit in there all day. I think, if I remember correctly, for a couple of months this was. It began by a fragment or sentence or two, very rarely more than two, just an inkling of a thought or direction or this phrase that felt right to me as both poetry and reality’s complication, that would get set down on the page. The next day, I would turn the page and start a new blank not looking back at yesterday. Trying not to check over my shoulder. There was a draft eventually I lost an agent over. I tried to get a colleague to help me and give me advice. She went cold. This kind of door shuttting trying to have it be something, happened over five or six years if not seven. Eight is probably not an exaggeration, if not sustained. Putting it away from me, taking it back out. Also it was the only fiction I worked on while doing the PhD. I worked on it summers I wasn’t in classes. Then there were three or more drafts.

Plus there was the moment I realized why I was really writing it, in another revision. I can see myself at a kitchen table in some woods upstate NY and very late, starring at the fact of what I’d almost become, what each of us can if only desperate enough. There were other things I remembered I didn’t use directly in the book, didn’t give to the boys. I cried very hard for myself trying to get to sleep by calming down in the shower, very dark. I told my boyfriend how it was the hardest thing I had ever done. That was true.

Dante Silva: Marguerite Duras (whom I also love) once wrote, “It’s not that you have to achieve anything, it’s that you have to get away from where you are.” Where are you looking towards, when you write? What can we look forward to in your work?

Douglas A. Martin: With Wolf I also moved from France to Austria in my aesthetic ideals. I have been writing “alongside” I’d say Elfriede Jelinek’s dismissed poetry since about 2015 now, in and out at first but since the publication of Wolf, basically exclusively. I’ve been trying to become a scholar of translation it seems, without wanting to be taught through a system this other target language. I write now each day for the Jelinek in a zone of focus I strive to find and until I feel the words, with what I am learning of them in the context of her life, and then what is happening in our world, feels like to me it can become a note in a chord.