The Barn Interview: Zac Smith and Lindsay Lerman on Books and Blurbs and Backgrounds

Two book covers

Hello my name is Zac and I have a book up for pre-order from CLASH Books. About a month ago, like all authors trying to promote a new book via live readings, I started looking into 1) what cool cities I’ll be in/near in the coming months and 2) which cool friends or potential friends live in those cities. And I discovered that 1) I was planning on going to Richmond, VA for Thanksgiving this year and 2) Lindsay Lerman, whose debut novel I’m From Nowhere was just released by CLASH, lives in Richmond. Obviously what followed was a riveting tale of burgeoning friendship and authorial cross-promotion: we read each other’s books, we started planning a reading, Lindsay wrote a strikingly kind blurb for my book, I agreed to write a blurb for her book’s second run, and, of greatest benefit to you, the reader, we found ourselves in a conversation that could, given some more structure and copyediting, culminate in a nice, formal, literary interview. And well looky here, we got ourselves a nice, formal, literary interview. We got ourselves two authors in conversation, talking about things like books and philosophy and ecological disaster and All the hits. Everything you could ask for.

Welcome. Welcome to the barn interview, motherfucker.

Lindsay, hello, welcome to the interview. I read your book and loved it, and I want to say that while the death of Claire’s husband sets the stage for I’m from Nowhere, I’m taken by the way her grief rapidly vacillates in scope between the personal and the global. Her descent into existential introspection often correlates with considering bigger and bigger tragedies, from her career and her friendships to global catastrophe. Do you feel like our culpability in and growing awareness of anthropogenic climate change makes suffering through personal grief feel more selfish? Where does the ego fit into the landscape of catastrophe?

I struggled with this for a couple years, as I was writing the book. I knew the ecological catastrophe needed to simultaneously do two things in relation to Claire’s individual grief: heighten or increase it, and also make it insignificant. I think this reflects how many of us deal with any grief, but especially grief related to global catastrophe. We feel it individually as well as collectively (as part of the thing that’s struggling or dying), and we vacillate between feeling the significance of our individual grief (believing that we are individuals) and feeling the insignificance of our individual grief (understanding that we are not really individuals, in crucial senses). I’m interested in this. But I’m especially interested in how Claire, like each of us, is inseparable from the environment. She just is – we just are. This is why I didn’t want to dramatize climate catastrophe too much in the book; I wanted it to feel real, and for this to be distressing.

But yeah, the ego figures in more than it should when it comes to our response to ecological catastrophe. Whether that’s humans positing themselves as the keepers and protectors of the earth (on the kind of positive but still problematic side) or humans at the top of the pyramid/the ultra-wealthy hoarding as many resources as possible for themselves now, knowing that shit will get serious soon (on the very negative side). I’ve been hungry for books and works of art in general that understand humans as deeply embedded in and not separate from environmental-technical co-creation and co-becoming.

Have you found any books you’d recommend that convey that understanding? What are you reading now? And what book do you think most influenced your approach to writing in I’m from Nowhere?

I think there are moments in Jeff Vandermeer’s book, Annihilation, that approach that co-creation/co-becoming, but “climate change” per se isn’t quite present in the book. Knowing these concerns of mine, a friend recommended Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain and Megan Butler’s The End We Start From. A lot of Ursula LeGuin’s writing is carefully attuned to the concerns I’m expressing – she was such a skilled systematic thinker. These days I’m reading as much of Sara Ahmed’s theoretical work as possible, Charlene Elsby’s forthcoming book Hexis, Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, and as much poetry as I can get my hands on. I’m also slowly working through a lot of the philosophy I worked closely with back in the day. It’s hard to say what influenced my approach to writing with I’m From Nowhere. I needed to write something that wasn’t theoretical and that felt urgent to me. (I wrote a lot of it while I was also writing my dissertation.) I needed to create something that felt like it was living and breathing, actually grieving – performing the thing it was interested in understanding. I wanted the reader to feel dropped into the body and life of someone for a few days. I wanted the reader to have to sit with her, to try to understand her, to take her seriously.

Speaking of grief, your poems are not grief poems, but the collection has a kind of mournful, nostalgic quality to it. Is there something going on there, some kind of looking-back that is not entirely separate from something like grieving?

That’s a great question. I don’t know how to answer the question about the relationship between nostalgia and grieving. That feels like a bigger question that someone more qualified than me could answer, haha. But you’re right in that a few of the poems in this book are nostalgic. Picking an arbitrary object like a barn to anchor all of the poems was sort of like looking into my memories with a weird barn-hued filter. There are several poems about my friend James and his/his mother’s barn – that barn is the only real barn I have any relationship with, so it naturally became a focal point, and then that spread to my relationship with James and his family and the small details of that time in our lives, and I think almost anything written about these kinds of details and feelings will come across as nostalgic or mournful. James and I kind of just barely stay in touch now. We’re adults with jobs and families living in different states, and we haven’t spent much time together since high school, but he was a really important part of my life from like 5th grade to college. We made a lot of art and writing and music back then that has lasted with me and has shaped how I still approach making art, but it all turned out to be very ephemeral, just like the time we spent playing ping pong in the barn. So I guess, in retrospect, I’m happy that I’ve now written something that acknowledges that period in my life and that it’s a little more permanent than an mp3 on MySpace page or some collaborative writing on a Geocities site, and what some of the poems are highlighting is that contrast between being in the barn and looking back at the barn.

Your turn: You have a Ph.D. in philosophy and your dissertation topic was on “nonknowledge as a type of knowledge-creation.” I can see the relationship between your academic work on epistemology and I’m from Nowhere, in that Claire’s grief is internalized as a near-nonstop interrogation – she continually asks herself what ifs, why nots, and what nows, ultimately questioning herself, her own memories, her own beliefs. But I don’t know enough about nonknowledge to know if the two topics actually intersect at all. What is nonknowledge? And did you set out to recontextualize your work on philosophy here, or do the seeds for the novel predate your research?

Ooh, no one has asked about my philosophical work yet! My philosophical work on nonknowledge predates the beginning of the novel, but both forms share similar concerns. I think one thing we see Claire struggle with is the impossibility of getting to the heart of things: identity, sadness, horror, love, care, etc. I probably can’t do a vast and wild concept like nonknowledge justice here, but there are experiential elements of it that amount to feeling/knowing a kind of terror, fear, shame, disappointment, and deep recognition of our limits when we aim to get to the heart of any aspect of knowledge. It (the experience of nonknowledge) involves a recognition that almost nothing is fully within our grasp. This throws many people into crisis. Claire’s crisis is precipitated by death and grief, but it was always coming. I didn’t set out to recontextualize my work in philosophy through fiction, but there’s no doubt that I was (and always will be) synthesizing ideas about or related to nonknowledge in all my writing.

Along these lines, I’m curious about your background in linguistics. What did (or do) you work on in linguistics? Does it show up in your poetry?

Haha, I want to say very little of my academic background is in this book. I studied theoretical syntax – Noam Chomsky was my advisor’s advisor, for example, and my (abandoned) dissertation was about the underlying relationship between two categories of weird sentences. It’s not that interesting. During my last year or so in grad school I was working on music and I channeled most of my frustration and negative feelings about my research and life as a grad student into that, and that’s where I mostly left it. With 50 Barn Poems, I’m in a completely different place. I intentionally didn’t want to do any “linguistic tricks” with these poems. So maybe that’s the relationship: it’s one of rejection. A lot of people who write about poetry will write these embarrassing, pseudo-philological treatises about “word inventions” or “linguistic exploration” or something. But in linguistics you have a different relationship with language, you have very technical terms for things, you know about certain patterns and concepts and theories and about how the brain works, about computation, about language change and sociology and psychology. I’ve talked to Giacomo Pope, author of 50 Barn Blurbs, about this because he’s studying black holes for his degree in theoretical physics, and whenever he sees a metaphor about black holes, he gags. Black holes aren’t mysterious or sexy or evocative for him. I feel the same way, but, like, about language, I guess. I have no grand romantic ideas about language, and I guess my poetry reflects that.

“I’m from Nowhere” is a Neko Case song. Tell me about the relationship between your writing and music. Do you listen to music while you write? While you edit? While you read?

A thing this book really made it clear to me is just how much music influences me. I realized that I have a lot of trouble separating poetry, song lyrics, prose, and theory. I can do it – I do do it – but it comes at a cost. (I think we share the lack of interest in understanding language as romantic. It’s a tool to me, sometimes a very poor one, sometimes a good one, but it’s just a tool, a technology. Why expend energy on categorizing all the different uses of the tool?) I often listen to music while I write and edit, sometimes while I read. I had the book title in place before Neko Case’s album with “I’m From Nowhere” on it was released, but the moment I heard the song, I burst into tears because there were a couple parallels that moved me. (I even wrote her a letter about it!) There were lots of song lyrics woven into the book early on, but most of them got cut. In general, if I’m not listening to music and especially if I’m not singing along with it, something is wrong, like really wrong re: my mental health.  

That’s incredible about the name coincidence! Did you hear back from Neko Case?

Haha, I did not.

You’re a musician, right? Tell me about that, and what (if anything) it has to do with your writing.

Great question. I hadn’t thought about it. I think the biggest relationship between the two is that I sort of gave up on producing music in favor of writing after I left grad school. My new life out here isn’t as conducive to making music, in terms of space, scheduling, neighbors, etc. I transitioned to writing as my creative outlet because I could do it silently at 2am on the couch or in a coffee shop or at the dining room table while holding an infant. Recording loud guitar music isn’t possible in those environments. And I only barely ever considered myself a musician to begin with. I am not an expert on any instrument, I don’t know how to play anyone else’s music, and I keep my guitar tuned to a really weird tuning. There’s this interview with Angus Andrew from the band LIARS back when they put out this very rhythmic, droning, experimental album Drum’s Not Dead, and part of what he said always stuck with me: he asked himself “Am I really calling myself a musician when I can’t even sit around a campfire and sing a song on a guitar?” The answer is yes, of course, you are still a musician, but that doubt never goes away. I feel the same way about poetry: I haven’t memorized any poetry, I can’t tell you anything interesting about poetry, I don’t know the poetry canon, I can’t talk to you about enjambment or the different styles or innovations over the centuries. Writing poetry feels like how I’d write music, like maybe my poems are in a weird tuning and I can only do a couple things with them, and maybe people will like it or not like it, but it’s the only way I know how to do it.

On that topic, we talked briefly in private about the philosophy academy and its participants and their relationship with drugs and sex (and rock n roll). Your novel has a strong emphasis on romance as it relates to grief, sex as escape, or medication, or something. What’s the deal with philosophers and earthly pleasures? Is it born out of the existentialist dilemma of determining purpose? Is it something more Aristotelian?

There are a couple different types of philosophers. The first are the knowledge bureaucrats. They are mostly efficient, super smart bureaucrats working in knowledge-government. They have a pretty clear job and they do it well. And then there are the insane addicts, as I put it in our conversation earlier. I’m over-generalizing here, but I don’t think I’m wrong. The insane addicts are the ones who push and push and push at boundaries in thought, and often there’s spillover into the rest of their lives. Sometimes it gets messy. My work in philosophy has always been an attempt to exceed limits and yeah, it’s not always possible to keep that limit-exceeding to the activity of thinking. (And this raises bigger questions about what thinking is and where and when it happens; I mean to use it as broadly as possible here. Even sex can be understood as a kind of thinking, but this is probably a different conversation.) Many philosophers have an uneasy relationship with earthly pleasures, though. Even the insane addict ones. There’s a weird metaphysics at work in a lot of professional philosophy – you’re kind of supposed to be pure mind, all mind, all thought/spirit/whatever, no body. But we are body, and sometimes philosophy fetishizes this. Philosophers might also have a real need to forcibly turn thinking off from time to time, and certain substances can help with this.

In the book, however, I don’t think Claire is a) a philosopher or b) thinking all that much through sex. I think that the sex we see her having might be a bit exhilarating, but mostly I find it kind of depressing because it’s an attempt to quickly create and shore up an easy identity (desired-by-man) in the wake of the death of her husband/her identity. I want more for her, as I want more for all of us.

50 Barn Poems isn’t a sex and drugs collection, but there’s something rock and roll (or maybe punk) about it. I think the general consensus (if you were to poll people on the street) is that poets are more comfortable or in-tune with earthly pleasures than philosophers. Do you have thoughts about this, either in relation to your poetry or in relation to poetry in general? 

I agree that it seems true, that poets have this perception of being the partiers or whatever, but I doubt it’s actually true. I think it’s just that they’re typically the ones who write about it. You look online and see people on Reddit or Quora or Yahoo asking all kinds of questions about their unique experiences, desires, beliefs, and fears. It’s your quote unquote average person with a boring job, a boring family, a boring apartment, but they’re there writing about foot fetishes or drug addiction or extreme grief. I think we’re all basically the same, and it’s a question of how we share it, or whether we share it at all. Some of us just talk to a bartender, some of us keep journals, some of us post comments on porn videos, and some of us try to publish books of poetry.

Re: the barn vibes, I think “punk” as an attitude is just about stripping back arbitrary constructs. My understanding is that punk rock was about non-musicians playing simple songs. It was singing about stuff you usually only talked about at a political meet-up. It was about performing in your street clothes instead of a fancy suit. For most people, I think poetry feels inaccessible and artificial, all impenetrable imagery and symbolism and old white dudes writing about the forest or love. I mean, it’s not actually true, because we live in a great era of radical poetry with, like, a million self-released books and chaps and even people fighting to dismantle the Poetry Foundation because it has a quarter billion dollars in assets and real estate investments. But the public perception is that poetry is still old and stodgy and something you have to deal with in English class. I’m energized by a lot of contemporary poetry that pushes back against formality and symbolism, so that’s what I wanted to write.

I’m From Nowhere is your first book. Was there anything that surprised you in the writing or editing of it? Or did it sprout more or less to spec?

(I love your understanding of all of us as basically the same, struggling with the same forces – all of us either expressing that struggle or not.) It’s my first book, yes, unless you count the dissertation. I think what surprised me the most is that I could do it. I surprised myself by just keeping at it, little by little, year after year, as I worked lots of different jobs, moved around the world, had a baby, had some health stuff to deal with, moved some more, struggled to find the right place to publish it, etc. Now I can finally admit to myself that I’ll probably never stop writing, and I’ll probably never be comfortable working in only one form. I’ll be an amateur forever, and that’s the way I want it to be. That might not be great for my career, if I get to have one, but so be it. Writing is the best tool I have to make sense, and nonsense, and I’m going to do everything I possibly can with it. I’m just getting started.

How about you? This is your first book of poems, right?

Yes, it’s my first and only book. I don’t consider myself a poet so it’s weird that my first book is a collection of poems. I’m trying not to think about what impact it might have on the perception of whatever I try to publish next, which will most likely a story collection or a novel, and which will be very different from the barn poems. Or maybe not, I don’t know. I have a lot of older material that I might not bother putting out there. I think I’m just going to keep writing and see what comes of it. Maybe 50 more barn poems. It’s impossible to know.

Ok, this is the end of the interview. I want to let our readers know that the two of us will be doing a reading together in Richmond, VA on Black Friday this year. We still don’t know where yet, maybe it’ll be at a car wash or something, but if anyone reading this will be in the area, we encourage them to come see us in the flesh and listen to us read with our mouths.


Lindsay Lerman‘s first novel, I’m From Nowhere, is out now with Clash Books. Her first translation will be out in 2020 with &&&/The New Centre for Research and Practice. She has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and lives in the US.

Zac Smith is the author of 50 Barn Poems (Clash Books, 2019). His interviews with a buncha people have appeared previously in Vol. 1 Brooklyn and the Nervous Breakdown, and his stories and poems have appeared in online in places like Hobart, Maudlin House, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and other cool websites. He lives in Boston, where he likes to walk his dogs.

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