Avatar photo

An Interview with Baron Wormser

Note: This interview took place at Portsmouth Book & Bar in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on June 6, 2018, on the heels of Baron’s newly released collection of essays Legends of the Slow Explosion—Eleven Modern Lives (Tupelo Press).  

RC: The title of a book — it’s a good title — will offer a key to the book, its essence. Legends of the Slow Explosion — Eleven Modern Lives intrigued me in a number of ways, or directions, I should say. The first thing that came to mind was Legend, not in the famous or mythological sense, but in its cartographical use — the key to reading a map — in this case, a metaphysical map. Was this use of Legend in part, your intention?  

BW:  In part, yes. I wanted to reference the mythological sense of what a legend is, but I also wanted to reference a sort of inner map and key about what it was like to be in their skins, the different people I wrote about. You need a legend, so to speak, to understand the context of a person’s life — particularly these lives that are larger-than-life lives. So, yes, that sense does pertain.  

RC:  I saw them in that three-dimensional way of time, space, and persons —these eleven persons in the latter half of the twentieth century. They were for me cardinal points — gravitational pulls — and each one had a different quality: ethics, global politics, spirituality, morality, amorality, art, philosophy, music, and culture, each one pushing their boundaries, creating the space of modernity for us to dwell in. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?  

BW:  Yes, each one is pushing the boundaries.  

RC :  You begin with Rosa Parks, and immediately foreground this timeframe in four hundred years of history. The book opens: “To say where it started was uncertain. There was Africa. There were the ships.” A few pages on you refer to Parks as “the coordinates of a few centuries of bad history.” History then, not an impersonal force, but a moral one. Could you elaborate on this?  

BW:   I wanted to begin the book with her precisely because the world focuses, understandably so, on her action, her refusing to move. I wanted to try to get at the immensity of history behind that action. All of my work, all of my writing is about the circumstances of Time in terms of each of us as a human being, being born into the world of historical time —what that does —how that plays out in our lives. Rosa Parks is such a graphic example of that predicament, but also the opportunities that can be present to us in terms of an action; but it doesn’t come easy in terms of the action. I wanted to background that and let it be the opening for the whole book, in terms of the immensities of history. With the George F. Kennan piece, it turns out Kennan’s grandfather went to Siberia, and then there’s the confronting the enormity of Russian history as he goes through the landscape and experiences that — right down to the enormity of Russian literature — how Russian literature reflects that history.  

RC:     Let’s stay on Kennan. That essay fascinated me. He is one of the principal architects of the Cold War as well as the Marshall Plan. He developed the strategy of containment with respect to the Soviet Union. He lives to be 101 years old. His life literally spans the twentieth century, from 1904 to 2005. He’s involved with every president from Roosevelt to George W. Bush…  

BW:   Assuming they are interested in listening to him…  

RC :   Right. He changes over the course of his career and becomes a critic of U.S. foreign policy.  

BW:   Absolutely.  

RC :     You capture him in this beautiful moment. One of the things you do incredibly well — there are two things: You slow down Time, and you inhabit your characters — these are living people, but you inhabit them as a novelist would the characters in a novel. It’s sort of a paradox, because you make them in that way you make characters in a novel, larger than life; but here there is the space to crawl into a real character, and flesh out who they really are — their essence. Everything here comes down to this moment where the train stops. He’s alone — he’s in Siberia — again the landscape which is like a map — the map allusion — and this woman knocks on his window and offers him a piece of pastry to buy; and it’s such a beautiful moment. I’ll just read it:   He opens the window. The woman thrusts a small pie into his hands and names an amount. He smells mushrooms and dill. “Thank you, stranger,” the woman announces when she has pocketed Kennan’s money. Then she crosses herself. He looks down at the pie. Its edges have been carefully fluted. He finds himself staring, as if he were a child. Something about the wages of human effort seizes him and brings him close to tears. He has not shut the window and the air is cold. Almost reverentially, he places the pie on the seat across from him. Eat and be healed. Eat and face another day.”   This is a spiritual transaction, one of profound grace, with a person and in a place I would have least expected. I was filled with wonder and awe. There are many such moments in this collection. How do you winnow with such surprise and delight?  

BW:   (Laughing) I wish I knew. You know this, given that you’re a writer, writing is imagination and intuition — empathy. You read about someone, and at some point, you start to develop feelings about that person. You can use all sorts of language for that. You can say I identify with the person — it’s true — I identify with all these people, including (James Jesus) Angleton, who obviously is not a pleasant character in many ways, but there’s definitely part of me that identifies with Angleton in terms of how he used his imagination in not-so-good ways, you might say. So, with Kennan, I mean foreign policy is an act of imagination, for goodness sakes. There’s nothing written in stone about any nation’s foreign policy. Obviously, World War II is a great example. The Russians at first are our enemies, and then they’re our allies. Well, how did that happen? Historical circumstances. So then this huge imaginative act occurs where the Russians are our allies, our buddies. Stalin becomes Uncle Joe.  

RC:     (Laughing) Neruda writes quite affectionately about him!  

BW:   So Kennan was in many ways a sensitive artiste — a person whom a lot of his colleagues felt was ill suited for the work he was doing, that he wasn’t really, quite tough enough, realistic, pragmatic enough. On the other hand, Kennan had the vision which in many ways was the correct vision — if you’re patient this whole thing is going to implode. This is a house built on sand; but you have to be patient, which is a really, really hard thing for Americans to be: in terms of this electoral circus (laughing) that occurs every four years in the United States, and each party making promises, having imaginative notions. If you look back at the election of 1960, Nixon and Kennedy are obsessed with these little islands off the coast of China, and they’re about ready to blow up the world for these little islands — what was that about? What I’m getting at is imagination. Kennan was also an inward figure. He kept journals. One thing I identify with a lot is he had a hard time trusting himself. He would always rethink things through, triple-think things through, which in one way was really good because once he arrived at something he was pretty certain about it, such as (the doctrine of) containment. In other words, don’t be rash, don’t be precipitous, which is one of the reasons he was very opposed to the war in Vietnam. But it’s also Kennan’s background. He’s a very American figure. He’s from Milwaukee — and he’s trying to understand Russia — you know, that’s a long way from Milwaukee.  

RC:    I saw similar patterns within the eleven selections. Did you see this in the beginning — when you were writing these essays — did you have an outline, or at some point did they begin to assemble themselves?  

BW:  I’ve been writing about people my whole life, whether it’s poetry or prose — that’s what my interest is — writing about people. So, it was natural to take some of my obsessions and start writing about these people; it accrued over time. There was no plan or project, in that sense, where someone is going to write a series of poems, say, about watch pieces of the seventeenth century. The piece on de Kooning appeared in The Best American Essays of 2014, and a year or two later, Jim Schley of Tupelo Press saw that and liked it, and said, do you have more? I told him actually I had been writing them over time, and there was still some more I’d like to write; and that’s when I wrote Rosa Parks and Anita O’ Day. Each one took a lot of time to write — many drafts.  

RC:    Modernity keeps coming up. I traced its concept to an essay by Charles Baudelaire in 1863, “The Painter of Modern Life.” He exhorts his cohort not to look back and imitate the past but be present in the moment. He uses the example of the flaneur — one who has a kaleidoscopic vision and walks among a crowd and collects the consciousness of a city, a group of people. Your essays reminded me of that ability, and to some extent, the way John Dos Passos fleshed out his characters in The U.S.A. Trilogy — “The Camera’s Eye.” As his work captured the opening of the century, your essays closed it.  

BW:  Right. In modernity, our lives are fragmentary. The big, overall story that supported lives such as God and king starts to dissolve. We are left with fragments — bits and pieces. That goes in every direction — modern art, modern poetry. A project like this is very modern. I’m just plucking out these people from the bank and shoals of Time and putting them together. That’s one of the premises of modernity — you can put any two things together.  

RC:    Yes — and give them a story, which is what you do.  

BW: I always say about poetry, one of the questions of poetry is based in simile: what does one thing have to do with another? Modernity has made that the basic question. The basic answer is, I don’t know, but I’ll see what’s there.  

RC:    … See what patterns arise.  

BW:  That’s right. So, whether it’s in The U.S.A Trilogy — all these lives he just puts together — you can sit and talk forever about different aspects of modern literature in terms of this fragmentary — that it breaks Time down: what does one moment have to do with another?  

RC:    This takes us right into Miles Davis, which is exactly what you show him doing, breaking down time, and going underneath time — the signature of time — the whole art form of Jazz. You have him as a musician, and then you have Anita O’ Day who uses her body as an instrument to do the same thing. That was fascinating — I did not know of her. To read of her — someone said there was no precedent. You couldn’t go back and say she was derived from someone else. She seemed to appear fully formed, out of nowhere, broke all sorts of taboos. And you bookend your collection with Rosa Parks and Anita O’ Day — two women — very strong women — immovable objects in their own way, in different spheres: one in ethics, one in aesthetics. Talk about her — Anita.  

BW:  She’s a pretty big deal for reasons you just said — using her voice, her body, as an instrument. Similar to Miles Davis, it’s all about the sense of Time; it’s all about the sense of improvisation. In improvisation you’re making up Time, which seems as though that’s something human beings can’t do because Time is a given. But it turns out in Jazz that human beings can make up Time — musicians have always known this — you can play something slower or faster. Like Glen Gould playing the “Variations” — there are recordings that are twenty minutes apart in terms of the length of how he plays them. But jazz takes that even further. Jazz is asking that question, what does one moment have to do with another, what does one second have to do with another second, because you don’t know where the next note is going to go. Anita was a scat singer, too. There’s that whole talking in tongues, so to speak. She’s breaking down language and entering into this domain of nonsense-sense, nonsense-sense. She’s opening up a tune, a song in ways that who ever would have known what was in there; and again, maybe that’s part of modernity, too — a sort of prospecting. James Joyce is prospecting to find out what’s inside of one day in Dublin, Ireland in 1904. Anita’s prospecting, too, except that she’s doing it in two-and-a-half minutes. All these songs from the great American Songbook that the jazz guys all took, and then went everywhere conceivable was a form of prospecting — and Time investigation. But there’s a whole other aspect of Anita O’ Day, which is she’s a woman, and that she’s entering into this incredibly male domain, which is jazz. There were jazz singers — female singers — before her, but a lot of them are what they used to call “canaries” — the woman who fronts the band. Well, Anita went way beyond being a canary. She was an instrument in the band, but still a woman — who she is in her feelings. How she’s trying to live a life — all that confusion — as I write, she just can’t just go home and make a meatloaf. She’s so out there — as a human being, as an artist.  

RC:    And she’s self-aware. She wants to be respected — she won’t put on those costumes — she dresses in shirts and skirts — she dresses as the male musicians dressed, as a professional, for her craft. It was wonderful to read about her. There was another triptych — I see within the book these patterns of the way you’ve arranged the essays. I was delighted to see that you put Philip Berrigan sandwiched between James Jesus Angleton and George F. Kennan. Here’s two cold warriors, and in between, standing in the gap, as Ezekiel would say, is this rebel priest who is trying everything he can do to dismantle what these other two are all about. My first question: why did you choose Philip over Daniel, who is a prolific writer and poet as yourself? They were both big influences on me.  

BW:  Daniel is the better known of the two. I think Philip was so committed to acts of civil disobedience for which he paid the price in terms of doing time in federal penitentiaries. Their takes on how to be effective were a little different. Daniel was more of a public figure, in a way, whereas Philip was very involved in these actions. Philip’s background was different in terms of what he was doing in the church. Daniel was a Jesuit, and Philip was aligned with the Josephites, I believe.  

RC:    I wasn’t aware of that.  

BW:  So, his people are the Afro-American community in Baltimore, where I’m from. So, I had a feeling for where he was living. I have such deep respect for him. He really brings to the fore — for me — the central question of Christianity, which is, are you going to live a life like Christ?  

RC:    It’s the only question — it really is.  

BW:  Right. And he answered that question. And in that sense, Philip Berrigan is one of the most important people of twentieth century America. It’s not some president, you know, it’s Philip Berrigan who asked that question — who put that question in his life — and acted according to his conscience. Dorothy Day, another formidable figure, really had very strong differences with Berrigan because she was opposed to these acts of violence. She felt that was wrong. You shouldn’t be hammering the warheads and pouring blood on them. That wasn’t constructive. There’s no answer, obviously, to these questions. But again, what he was doing — those were acts of imagination — imagination and conscience together. The country and the media have done everything possible to push that vision away, so we’re not in touch with that vision — it doesn’t exist. But he said, it is there, and this is so profoundly disrespectful to God and God’s creation. You can’t possibly call yourself a Christian and live with these weapons. To me he’s an enormously important figure; and you’re right, I intentionally put him between the two cold warriors in terms of his take on the world that they inhabited. Well, that’s the way it is: we have these weapons, and that’s it.  As I say, we’ve fallen into the world of Time and we all just go, yeah, we have nuclear weapons — pass the toast. One thing that troubled me, honestly, is that he had confederates — colleagues who did this —  

RC:    The Sisters and Brothers of the Ploughshares movement.  

BW:  That’s right, and each one of those people merits being written about. They’re important people who put their lives on the line in that way. It takes a lot of courage.  

RC:    They’re essentially living to be sent to prison. This is their whole life. In between prison, time is spent planning for the next action, which will land them in prison, because out of the whole process is going to be the witness — the courtroom, the testimony.  

BW:  That’s right. Berrigan called himself a peace criminal —  

RC:    (Laughs) That’s wonderful! His eyes were on not only his moment in history, but on a higher law. Then your essay on Angleton where you talk about the CIA as a “Company” that exists almost outside of history — anti history — I thought that was a very weird metaphysics. He was an alcoholic — I would imagine it would drive anyone crazy to try to live in this Alice in Wonderland — espionage and counter-espionage scenario that he was in charge of.  

BW:  Yes, the secrets.  

RC:    Audrey Hepburn — (laughing) — I didn’t expect that one!  

BW:  Quite a crew!  

RC:    Your choices are phenomenal. Another triptych. George Harrison, Miles Davis, and Audrey Hepburn. They are all performers. But I did not see the whole thing coming with Anne Frank: that Audrey Hepburn and Anne Frank were born in the same year, same country, witnessed the same things. One goes to Hollywood and makes fantasy, the other dies in a concentration camp. Within a few sentences, you fall off the cliff. I’m reading about Audrey Hepburn, and the next thing I know I’m sliding — your ability to surprise with such effortlessness — to pull together things you would not expect. I learned something from these essays. They became a reckoning. I find in your work an ethic that makes you question and measure yourself — how far you are, like a compass. These essays are compasses. Talk about that experience of Audrey Hepburn and Anne Frank: how that came together.  

BW:  We all know Anne Frank’s story, but people don’t know Audrey’s story, in terms of where she grew up, and that she lived through that winter, when her people were eating grass, and she could have been picked up at any time, she could have wound up there, too — Nazis driving around picking up young women. It’s a huge part of who Audrey Hepburn was that she lived through the war as a young person. Everybody is a different person in terms of his or her make-up and background. That she winds up as a UNICEF ambassador — she understands human suffering; she knows what suffering is. She suffered in her life — she had miscarriages, went through some very hard things in her personal life. At the same time, there is this elastic joy in her as a human being. It’s mysterious, in terms of this relationship between suffering and joy. I’ve met people over the years, particularly women, for whom Audrey Hepburn is their personal totem. There is this note that emanates from her — sheer joy about being here — precious, not vain, made up. She didn’t want to live in Hollywood. She fell into everything. I tell that story about how Collette looks across the room and says, There’s Gigi! How does that happen? I mean, if you write that in a book people would say, Nah. There’s something about her — spirit — she’s a spirit. She does all these movies, but it’s her spirit that you apprehend. There is something about her being, her whole body — obviously, her face — it comes from that world. We feel that spirit with Anne Frank. We are so moved by her diary — all the passion and feeling and wanting to live that a fourteen-year-old has — it’s in there. Audrey got to live it, and Anne Frank didn’t. In a way it feels like her spirit — Anne Frank’s spirit — went into Audrey’s spirit that comes out to the whole world through the movies. There is that quality about her — think of Breakfast at Tiffany’s — her standing outside in the morning. Each of the people in the book is a spirit messenger in that way. They’re just all different messages (laughing) that they’re giving — from the spirit world.  

RC:    Like oversouls. It seemed to me you inhabited each one as their oversoul. You know these people in this way through your imagination — this is your gift — to inhabit their oversoul, and present that aspect of them. These are the guardian angels, or the guiding angels like Wim Wender’s film, Wings of Desire where you have these spirit beings hovering.  

BW:  Right — Yes!  

RC:    I think we as human beings look to this to guide our course through life, and we see the different lives that are larger than life, and they give us a notion of how we should navigate. The Berrigan brothers profoundly affected my life, and my path went in a completely different direction because of them. They are witnesses of history. Let’s go on to Hannah Arendt. She’s right there at the fulcrum of the twentieth century with the mental discipline as a philosopher, to come to terms with the worst moment — the Holocaust. She’s there in Jerusalem for the trial of Adolph Eichmann — Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Banality of Evil — and yet she presents this horror and brings it down to the human heart. This potential is in all of us. This functionary, Eichmann, was not the person and yet he was the person who should have been on trial. You present Hannah walking along Broadway. New York City is a minor character in these essays. I really like that — the city as a personality. New York City is present in the de Kooning essay. Talk about Hannah, what she found in New York, how she assembled her witness.  

BW:  The piece as it appeared in Solstice (Literary Magazine) is called “Hannah Arendt in New York,” and New York is another character. What interested me is that this woman is so European. She comes out of this Germanic, philosophical tradition, and this whole world of German and European culture, and she winds up in the United States. She’s escaped her death in Europe. She’s seen the dark side, to put it mildly, of Europe. She’s plunked down in the United States — the world of chewing gum and baseball. She’s interested in democracy and this society as an alternative to Europe, the world of kings, (laughing) although my wife Janet refers to Donald Trump as King Donald — we’ve been opposed to kings here. Hannah is writing all these letters to Karl Jaspers about America. Then, she starts to live through McCarthyism, some pretty dark sides of this society. Right away, she’s attuned to what’s going on about race here, how hideous that is. She understands the dark side. She’s involved in this enormous personal project of trying to think through for herself what happened in the twentieth century, which is what in my little way I’m trying to do in this book; ask the question: What Happened? What was this? I’m doing it through these people’s lives — through their spirits. She’s doing it as a philosopher, and kind of what you brought up — a flaneur, an onlooker. When The New Yorker hires her to go to Jerusalem, she’s kind of a flaneur, in a way. And that’s why many people hated Eichmann in Jerusalem as a book because they feel she betrayed her Jewish roots: the things she brought up about Jewish complicity with the Nazis — extremely sensitive stuff. But there’s a part of her, where for better or worse, she’s fearless.  

RC:    Well, that comes out. She’s impartial. She records what she sees and interprets it without judgment, which is sort of, what you’re to do if you’re a philosopher. That’s her calling.

BW: Right — that’s her calling. Her calling, as I say about her husband, is Socratic. She’s going to ask the question. She’s at home with being in discomfort, which is where I’ve been my whole life as a writer. I’m not a career academic — I never bought into that. We lived off the grid for over twenty years. I identify with her. She’s so relentless. But she also has this Jewish humor side. That bit about how the Jews took up all the gas — they won’t be able to kill us when the Russians come. I mean, is that dark humor? She’s so far beyond good taste—bad taste, it doesn’t apply. She’s this extraordinary figure. She links up with all the people in the book: they are people who love life — they love being here — even though they can become confused, some become alcoholic, but there’s a part of them that’s really big on being here. I think Hannah Arendt is that person. She really loved New York, the bustle of it. We were talking about Audrey and Anita O’ Day. I guess the French word would be joie de vivre — the joy of being here.       (George) Harrison as one of the Beatles — this joy-spurt that comes out of the ground. What is this? Who are these people? Harrison is right there with it.  

RC:    You end the Hannah Arendt essay with her hearing the Beatles song “Help!” Perfect — Help!  

BW:  Yes. So what does one thing have to do with another? We were talking last night. (My friend) Candice is a Dinah Washington fan. I’ve got Dinah Washington in the Arendt essay, too. I wanted her to hear an African-American singer and make that connection. That echoes Rosa Parks who opens the collection. I wanted to begin the essays with two women.  

RC:    You have four women. Considering the time, I thought it was a very generous selection.  

BW:  In terms of being, quote, Important. Right?  

RC:    But they’re there. You made a choice to include these four women. Richard Yates, the novelist. Why was he your choice? He’s the only writer in the collection. Again, you’re a writer, so I know it was a choice. What did you see in him that reflected the times, over other writers that were present?  

BW:  If you’re a writer, you’re interested in the legends of the writers, so to speak. Right now, I’m reading a book about the painter Francis Bacon. Bacon says at one point that Proust was the last saint of writing in the sense that he totally devoted his life to writing. Not every writer, but a lot, thinks, hmm, I should be a saint of writing. I love this. What if I totally devote myself to this and let the rest of life go hang. So I don’t pay my bills, I don’t listen to what people say to me, I never dust…  

RC:    Cormac McCarthy would be a perfect example…  

BW:  (Laughs) Cormac McCarthy — yeah! But it’s a black hole because you still have to live a life. So Yates, to me, is one of these saints of writing who then winds up with this disorderly life, acts terribly to many people. On the other hand, he’s utterly generous; he’s good to a lot of people. People still tell stories about him at Iowa. He has no idea how to go from one day to another. Well, I identify with that person as a writer. He has children, he makes this big effort to live the suburban, American, go-getter life after World War Two, which then qualifies him to write a book like Revolutionary Road which I rank with The Scarlet Letter as one of the crucial American books in terms of what happened soul-wise in suburbia. The character April is a Hester Prynne figure in American Literature. For whatever reasons, he bought into the myths about the Great American Novel, and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and he didn’t go to college!  

RC:    Really?  

BW:  He went to the War, then he went to work, and he didn’t go to college. How writing has become so academic, he’s totally outside that. He’s outside the social context. He’s not Fitzgerald — he doesn’t go to Princeton. Married. Kids. Work. Writing. To me he is this hugely important figure. I drew on the Blake Bailey biography. What’s interesting is it turns out that Blake Bailey is Philip Roth’s official biographer.  

RC:  Really? That would be another person who I would say was a saint, who devoted himself, as he says, to spending fifty years writing in a room.  

BW:  You’re absolutely right. Roth is another one of those saints of literature.  

RC:    He gives himself over completely.  

BW:  Yes, he worships at the altar of writing.  So now, someone else is going to ask a question. Is that okay?   Baron’s wife, Janet, and friends, Jeff Toman and Candice Stover, join in.  

RC:    Sure  

CS :   It’s a big question. In the process of imagining yourself into these lives, is there any pattern to the process? These eleven figures — disparate figures from this time — in each case, you imagine yourself into the consciousness, lives, and texture of it. Is there any pattern to your process in doing that?  

BW:  No.  

CS:    You read about Yates, you’re interested in Hannah Arendt, you’ve thought about Rosa Parks, you’ve listened to Miles Davis. Each time you had to start a new essay. I wondered about psychological or creative patterns, or approach. (Like the Dickinson quatrain?)  

BW:  When you write about someone it’s a little bit shaman-like. You’re trying to put their spirit on, so to speak. You’re trying to wear their spirit the way you’d put on an animal skin.  

CS:    You’re channeling—  

BW:  Right.  

RC:    Channeling —I kept reaching for that word the whole time reading the book! (Everyone laughs.) We’ve talked about being an oversoul, but channeling is perfect. Your language changes from essay to essay — very subtly — you don’t need much dialect. The mode of conversation or thought is the skin of the person you’re in.  

JW:   Well, that’s because you’re a poet, I think. It helps a lot, your sensitivity to different energetics.  

BW:  Poetry is the art of essences. Each one of these pieces is about the person’s essence. So part of it is picking up the person’s language and part is setting. The way you said New York figures; or Liverpool figures with Harrison; or the world of clubs with Anita O’Day. Or even with Kennan, I had to find a way into Russia, so it’s the train.  

RC:    Which is like walking for the flaneur? He’s in the train, which is moving through the landscape.  

BW:  That’s right. So for each one — obviously, with Rosa Parks — it’s the bus.  With Angleton, it’s sitting in that office. He never even goes to Russia. What’s with that? (Laughing) He’s obsessed with Russia. Talk about an imaginative act. He’s in this office with a safe where all the secrets are kept. It always comes back to a place on earth, and whatever spirits are emanating from that place. Then the people get in touch with the spirit. With (George) Harrison that’s why I wanted to begin with the War and with Liverpool. Those guys come from Liverpool. They don’t come from London, they don’t come from the countryside. They come from Liverpool. That’s what makes them who they are. The whole world of the clubs — even Brian Epstein who would be a whole other piece to write about — this gay, Jewish guy who becomes their…their…  

RC:    Mother! (Everyone laughs.)  

CS:    The Harrison essay is so amazing because of the absolute palpable constraint of the life he was growing up in, and then the freedom, and the kind of … not bemused, but his ability to stand to one side and watch it all from the stage. It like the perfect balance between being totally tied up and whoosh — busting out to the world.  

BW:  That’s exactly it. Harrison is clearly a spiritual flaneur figure. As Candice was saying, he’s a bit on the side.  

RC:    More so than Lennon.  

BW:  When I was trying to interest someone out there in the world about this book, an editor wrote back, “Why are you writing about Harrison when you could be writing about John Lennon.” Clearly, Lennon is an imaginative genius. But to me Harrison is such a fascinating figure because he is a little to the side, and you sense that all the way through. There’s this other dimension to the guy as a human being.  

RC:  He explored the frontiers of the spiritual imagination further than his band mates did. Lennon got more involved politically — very courageously, in a country that was not his own — but Harrison explored a different terrain entirely.  

BW:  So — no pattern.  

CS:    But shaman is a great word for it because it has everything about going into the cave and putting on the skin and coming out. When you pick up Miles Davis’s voice — it is language, very much, that’s different with each one. They’re not biographical essays, and they are not, thank God, creative non-fiction! (Laughing)  

BW:  She doesn’t like that phrase. (Laughs)  

RC:    These people invented themselves. I don’t think we talked about de Kooning. Here he is, he lands in New York. Again, New York is this Being where one can find oneself, become who one truly is. Walt Whitman would be another example. Whoever he was before he became the Whitman we know, New York did it. As it did for de Kooning…  

BW:  And Hart Crane, Dos Passos, and others.  

RC:    You say about de Kooning and his contemporaries, “These painters believe in modern times but not as something that can be made, advertised and sold. They believe in modern times as a metaphysical enterprise, a challenge. New times demand new ways of seeing and acting.” If I had to choose a passage that would perfectly summarize Legends of the Slow Explosion, it would be this one. How did de Kooning help us to see, and ultimately, to become who we are?  

BW:   We use the phrase “abstract expressionism” routinely but we don’t tend to dwell on the second word enough. De Kooning wrung the expressionist element until it sort of exploded onto the canvas, not the way Pollock did by letting the paint fall, literally, but with this great painterly verve. You feel with de Kooning he had these ideals in his head of what a painting could be and devoted himself to reaching those ideals. There were no paths. He had to create them. In that sense he’s similar to the great Renaissance artists. They apprehended in their minds something human that wasn’t quite there before, call it the force of personality. De Kooning apprehended the inner struggles and joys and got that into paintings that had no representational coordinates, an inwardness you can see. That’s always seemed extraordinary to me.  

RC:    Well, I think we’ve covered everyone. Thanks very much for meeting today. It was a real pleasure to read, and to talk about Legends of the Slow Explosion — ELEVEN MODERN LIVES, published by Tupelo Press. It is truly a mosaic of our times. I highly recommend it, and wish it an abundant entrance into the world.     Baron Wormser is the author of sixteen books, including the novel Tom o’ Vietnam and the memoir The Road Washes Out in Spring. He has been poet laureate of the state of Maine (2000—2005) and received fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He offers workshops throughout the United States, teaches in Fairfield University’s MFA program, and lives with his wife Janet in Montpelier, Vermont.            

Join the conversation