“So,” you think to yourself. “I’m looking to read a long essay–one that riffs on the fictionalization of history, music in the Borscht Belt, and the way that authors can become obsessed with history. Oh, and it should have squid in it. The giant squid, if at all possible.” And lo: you seek out Matthew Gavin Frank‘s Preparing the Ghost, a fascinating meditation on all of the topics in question. Frank begins with a photograph taken by Moses Harvey of a giant squid over a century ago, and uses it to investigate a host of topics, from cultural representations of the squid to his own family’s history.
To learn more, I talked with Frank about the process of assembling the book and its connections to his work in prose and poetry. That sparked a lengthy discussion of topics ranging from failed dance crazes to the magnetic qualities of the Midwest to Frank’s time teaching soldiers at Fort Drum.
It’s probably an obvious place to begin, but: where did you first encounter the photos of the giant squid that are at the heart of this book?
About four years ago, I was in DC; I was there for the AWP conference. I ditched out on the conference, and went to hang out in the Smithsonian. I was in the National Museum of Natural History, and they were really advertising the Hope Diamond, really selling it. Well, not selling it, but pushing for folks to come in the door. I got really excited about the Hope Diamond and went in there; I saw it in this lucite cube on this rolling platform, and these seven-year-old girls were throwing elbows at me so that they could get in front of me and have a better glimpse. It was the cutest mosh pit ever.
I got up there and checked it out, and the Hope Diamond was just profoundly boring. I rounded the corner, and in the adjacent room, they had a specimen of a giant squid encased in this thermal plastic coffin. It looked pretty desiccated. Compared to my expectations, I found it sort of unimpressive–it was dry and desiccated. It looked like if someone opened the coffin lid and sneezed, it would just turn into dust. Moses Harvey’s picture was on the wall. It was a picture of a squid slung over some guy’s bathtub curtain rod, and I read the three-line caption next to it and saw that it was taken by the Reverend Moses Harvey in 1874, St. Johns, Newfoundland. I jotted that information down and got back home and started googling based on that information. I’ll be damned if I didn’t disappear down the rabbit hole of research.
One thing led to another; I found that a lot had been written about Moses Harvey, and the giant squid, but no one had engaged the behind-the-scenes goings-on that had informed that photograph in depth. Moses Harvey got about a paragraph of text, at most, in a bunch of different books, but no one really stayed with him and the photo. I’m a really obsessive guy, and so I latched on. I thought I was going to write a five-page essay. 450 pages later, I found that I had 200 pages to cut.
At what point did you realize that this was not going to be a five-page essay?
Pretty soon after I started writing. One thing just started leading to another, and all of these ancillary burrs started attaching themselves to the main thread of the giant squid and Moses Harvey’s photograph. Instead of sweeping these ancillary threads under the carpet, I decided they needed to be engaged to see how the main thread collided with the ancillary threads. To see how the giant squid collided with, say, my long-dead saxophonist grandfather and his obsession with the squid; with notions of puppeteering; with various expressions of pain and cultural expressions of pain and notions of empathy. All of these things really started latching on to that main thread. In engaging these ancillary threads, it was like drawing a chalk outline around the giant squid, which I found was a more interesting way of engaging with it than looking at it directly, sometimes. The way the giant squid collided with these seemingly dissimilar subjects said something about the squid.
What happens when we hold the squid up to something seemingly dissimilar? Is there an attraction? What kind of collision is it? Is there a repulsion? Is there an odd electricity, and what does one thing have to say about the other? How does this seemingly dissimilar sort of fact or topic serve to flesh out the squid. In writing that way, it grew beyond five pages very, very quickly.
You balance writing nonfiction and writing poetry. Do you find a correlation between the two? Do you generally work on one project at a given time, or do you have a couple of things going at any given time?
I feel like I’m always writing poetry. Prose has always been much more of a labor for me, which is why I’m liking it a little bit more now, actually. I have to think about it a bit more. With Preparing the Ghost, I feel like I really learned something about the essay, and nonfiction writing, that I hadn’t known before. It’s making me want to disown my previous two nonfiction books, which were written in a completely different, more straightforward style. I’m less interested in writing that way, I guess. What I learned in writing Preparing the Ghost is that some of the lyrical sensibility that I employ while writing poems can certainly wedge itself into the piece of nonfiction.
One of the things that I’m thinking about specifically is, in poetry–not just in mine, in a lot of people’s poetry–the work derives its energy from trying to find that perfect bridge ingredient to marry seemingly dissimilar things, or find a connection between two or more seemingly dissimilar things. I feel as if that was a technique that I was using a lot in this book. I felt like I was doing both, in writing this book. It’s very much nonfiction, I think–it’s an essay, certainly. If I do some fictionalizing, I think it’s pretty blatant that I am. Structurally speaking, I think, it certainly doesn’t read like a poem, but I think some of the same imaginative alchemy that I tap into when I structure a poem I was tapping from when I was writing this book.
You brought up your other works of nonfiction; both of them draw inspiration from nature and geography. That’s also very much in Preparing the Ghost. Do you find that that’s what inspires you?
Not necessarily. I feel like I really jump around with my obsessions. The image of the giant squid just really blindsided me. I’m certainly inspired by the natural world. The essayist Patrick Madden has this incredible essay on garlic. He looks and looks and looks at garlic, long after everyone else has stopped looking. He kept scratching at it until its inner holiness started leaking out. I feel as if I something in the natural world that happens to stay with me, I’ll latch onto it. As a guy who suffers from a bit of OCD, for a long time, I’ll continue to scratch at it and scratch at it. But events certainly inflame me, too.
I was just talking to an essayist friend of mine, this brilliant essayist, Karen Hays, about Montecore, the tiger that attacked Roy, from Siegfried and Roy. I think that qualifies as an event. We were talking about how we both kind of latched onto what happened there, and started thinking about tigers. We’re thinking about collaborating on a book-length thing, actually. All of these ancillary things started attaching themselves to that, too. Somehow, the tiger that attacked to Roy relates to, in really uncanny ways, folks who were obsessed with the moon and Edvard Munch and all of this. Sometimes, maybe, my obsession does start with an event, but it devolves or evolves into being obsessed with the things that tend to relate to that event.
You said that you cut 250 pages out of the manuscript. Was that furthering other themes, or are there elements that might show up as standalone essays?
Oh man, Toby, it was heartbreaking cutting some of this stuff out. The book is clearly better for it, and I had a stunning editor who helped me do some of that. Some of them, it was a little bit of work for me to add some connective tissue and a little bit of context; they could work as standalone essays. Longish ones. My editor and I were going back and forth; I was putting the reader through a lot with certain leaps and these long non-narrative pockets, to the point where I needed to shorten some of the non-narrative pockets so that I didn’t put the reader through so much. Get the reader back to Harvey’s narrative and the memoirish parts in there, where I’m walking through Newfoundland, stalking the current resident of Moses Harvey’s house.
We cut pretty much all the stuff about puppets and puppeteering, and my obsession with Dennis Silk, who’s this puppeteer and essayist and theater critic, who wrote this incredible book called William the Wonder-Kid. There’s this essay in it called “The Marionette Theater.” It’s been anthologized; I think John D’Agata included it in his anthology The Next American Essay. Dennis Silk is just this wonderful twitchy madman, and the way he engages puppets and the way he dissects puppets, both figuratively and actually, is really fascinating. The way he looks at the sum of its parts as contributing to its whole was a really interesting way for me to engage the squid, and I engaged it through this lens. Squid parts–the suction cups and tentacles, and how each of them related to the whole, and how we, culturally, have engaged each of these squid parts in various arenas, in science and religion and literature. That went on for a really long time, and it was really tough to retain a small amount of it without retaining all of it. That was one really large thread that was combed out of the book. I’m still thinking about ways to turn it into a series of short essays, or maybe one long essay, but that’s on the back burner.
Do you have a sense of what your next book is going to be?
Actually, I just finished a working draft of a piece, and my agent’s bringing it to my editor…maybe today. I’m hesitant to call it an essay collection, because there’s a through-line. It’s a collection of linked essays, but there’s a narrative thrust to it. It’s 50 essays, one for each of the 50 U.S. states. It begins with a foodstuff that’s typical of the state at hand, and it basically digresses from there; it meanders in a very controlled way from there, engaging the relationship between this particular foodstuff and an at times violent state history, and other sorts of things, too. For instance, the Louisiana essay is about crawfish étoufée and bad weather and autoerotic asphyxiation. And there’s overlap there–it makes sense! I know this is going to sound totally overblown, and it sounds like I suffer from delusions of grandeur, which I probably do, but I think, in the end, I want it to be this interrogation of food writing and this revisionist take on US history. Engaging some of the histories that we’ve swept under the table and forgotten about. It begins with the foodstuff, but it keeps asking the question: what does it mean, what does it mean, what does it mean? What does crawfish étoufée mean? What does Louisiana mean? How do the two relate to each other, and what sort of ancillary subjects will I have to engage in order to stumble towards the illusion of an answer to those questions.
It’s kind of a return to food writing for me, after my first book, Barolo, which was about my time working in the Italian Piedmontese wine industry. I shunned food writing for a while; I didn’t want to be a food writer. I didn’t want to be that guy. Against that desire, I meandered back to it in this weird sort of way.
Your bio mentioned that you’ve worked teaching soldiers at Fort Drum. Where does that fall into your history of writing and teaching?
I was in upstate New York, living in this town called Alexandria Bay. Fort Drum was just outside of Watertown, New York. I was teaching creative nonfiction there to soldiers as part of a program run by SUNY-Jefferson, which is also based in Watertown. Man, it was harrowing and stunning. A lot of these students made these video essays based on footage that they captured in Iraq or Afghanistan. They were these stunning protest essays; they were really beautiful, using firsthand footage. I remember in particular one student who came back to take this class between, I think, his fourth and fifth deployment. He had this video–it was horrific–that they found on the bodies of some Afghanis that they killed. It was footage of these Afghani soldiers themselves blowing up a tank or a van, I forget what it was. They had censored their own faces by putting the image of an orchid over their faces, and the image of this orchid was just bobbing up and down the screen amidst all of this horror. The gaze, unless an explosion was happening, went to the flower. Which was really strange and fascinating. This was part of one of his video essays; there was text involved, too, which I still think about, and just can’t shake. That was soon after I finished my graduate degree, in 2007.
And you’re in Michigan now.
I’m somehow back in the Midwest. I grew up in Chicago and left home at 17 and swore I’d never come back to the Midwest. I remember, years ago, I took this class called “Elements of Psycholinguistics,” taught by this guy Howard Maclay, who is this unrepentant chainsmoker, and had the voice to prove it. I was bitching about the Midwest, and he’d say to me, “Matt, you will go out there and you will find that you are the Midwest.” I thought, “No! don’t say that!” But I’ll be damned it it wasn’t prophecy.
I’m back here; I’m in Marquette, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula, which is gorgeous three months out of the year, and it’s plagued by a nine-month winter. This past winter, Toby, was the worst, cold-wise, on record in Marquette, Michigan, which is saying something. I can’t tell you how many times I used the word “despair” this past winter. It was really tough. I’m about six hours due north of Chicago if I’m driving between 75 and 80.
Has moving there had any effect on what you’ve been writing?
I’ve been reading more about snow than writing about it. You know the essayist Ander Monson?
He was born and raised in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in Houghton, Michigan, which is even worse than Marquette, weather-wise. He escaped and is teaching in Tucson, Arizona now. He has this essay that I turned to three or four times this past winter called “I Have Been Thinking About Snow.” It’s in his book Neck-Deep and Other Predicaments. It’s this wonderful meditation on snow and cold and weight and winter, I guess. I tried not to write about snow so much, though this past winter, it did creep in, as it does, inevitably. Specifically because I was working on this fifty states project; I was telling myself I was going to finish what Sufjan Stevens never did. If I’m writing about Michigan or Minnesota in the wintertime, some sort of delicious and electric despair has to creep in there.
I’ve never been able to write too much about a particular landscape when I’m living there. I think this holds true for a lot of writers: I have to leave a particular place and be away from it for a little while in order to write about it, and for me to become obsessed about it in my writing. Should I get out of Marquette, Michigan, I’m sure there’s going to be a waterfall that hits.
Your grandfather’s music has a significant role in this book, and you talk about one signature song that he had written, but was never recorded. Is that something that there’s ever been any talk of doing?
Toby, I’m afraid it’s lost, so far as I know. He died in ’86. I was only ten years old. His wife, my grandmother, is long-dead, too. A lot of what I know about the song is just familial narrative. So far as I understand, it was the only song that our family knows of that he wrote. He predominantly played other people’s music; he wasn’t the bandleader or anything. He used to play what used to be known as the Borscht Belt, the Catskill Mountains resort circuit. He used to play the ballrooms there.
The one song that I know that he wrote was called “Squid Jump.” And I know that he wrote it, as some of the other songwriters did, with this aim to start a dance craze, which never caught on. It was predominantly instrumental, but there was a bridge in the song that was driven by a lazy drum solo. The musicians would take their horns from their mouths and lean into their microphones and intone the two spoken lines of the song. Those two lines are: “Do the squid jump/ Wave your arms like this.” And the dancers, when they uttered that directive, were supposed to wave their arms in tentacular fashion and jump around in box formation. The lines were uttered four times, and the dancers would do a quarter-turn each time, so halfway through, they would be back-to-back. And upon the last “Do the squid jump/ Wave your arms like this,” they were facing each other again, all the while waving their arms as if they were tentacles. Not surprisingly, it didn’t catch on.
There was a stage, when I was writing Preparing the Ghost, when the working title was Wave Your Arms Like This. My editor stepped in, thank heaven. Unfortunately, I think the song, beyond that information, is lost.
That’s about all I have. Is there anything that you’re reading or listening to right now that you’d recommend?
I just finished Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, which I loved. I got an advance copy of Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation, and I worship at the altar of Eula Biss. I loved Notes From No Man’s Land. It was a dream come true, for me–she and I read together in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, which was just great. I love that book.
I recently re-read, as I have been known to do, from time to time, Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets. That was an essay on me as I was writing these food essays. And I just got an advance copy of Lindsay Hunter’s forthcoming novel, Ugly Girls, in the mail, and I’m really looking forward to checking that out. Also! Elena Passarello’s collection of essays, Let Me Clear My Throat, is just to die for as well.
Image: N. Putens