Lately I've been talking to people who consider themselves non-readers, and in looking for non-readers to talk to, I started talking to Peter Markus about how he reads, and how he believes reading is perhaps a different sort of activity for him than it is for other people. Certainly everyone reads in their own way, with different attentions and a variety of methods of processing the words they engage with, but Peter does seem to have a very different and beautiful relationship to reading that feels incredibly pure and open. He can explain it better so I'll stop there.
For those of you who aren't already familiar with Peter's work, he's the author of a novel, Bob, or Man on Boat, as well as four books of short-short fiction, We Make Mud, Good, Brother, The Moon is a Lighthouse, and The Singing Fish. His fiction has appeared in recent issues of Black Warrior Review, Unsaid, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Chicago Review, and the New York Tyrant. He teaches classes in fiction writing at Eastern Michigan University and is the Senior Writer with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project of Detroit. - Jac Jemc
To my initial request for non-readers to identify themselves, Peter responded:
From a non-reader who makes attempts at reading: what happens when I read is that I see the words and then I hear the words but very little stays with me (in terms of the information that words typically carry) though I can say that I am left with the sensation that the words bring with them once they go in through my eyes and end up in my ears. I believe that the best books create in my body some sort of a hum which is what, in the end, I read for, or listen to music for if you want to know the truth. Meaning, then, means something else entirely for me than I fear it means to most other readers.
I don't know that reading is exactly the same for me, but I can identify with this more than I can with the standard way people describe reading. I'm a slow reader, and I don't think I often retain much of the plot of a thing or uncover deeper hidden meaning or connections. I'm mostly content to live in the work for a time just moving from word to word and being surprised by the combination of those words. I do read some things for content though - occasionally a plot-driven book or long form journalism, where the language is not as surprising but the narrative pulls me through, but it's not generally what I prefer to read. Even philosophy, math, or science books, I often enjoy reading for pleasure, but come away with little new knowledge. Are there things you read for pure plot or information or is it always the sensation or hum that's left behind? News? A children's book?
To move, as you say, from word to word is how I work as a reader and how I work as a writer and it’s all I expect from a thing that is made out of words. When words rub up against each other and manage to make up a sentence that has, as they say, a beginning and middle and end and I can take a breath at the sentence’s end and be pleased with what sensations that sentence may deliver to me: as a reader, as a writer, I am content to live for a while with that. I am a voraciously slow reader, an easily distracted reader. But there are sentences in the world, and sometimes even entire sequences of such sentences that make the world disappear. They cast a spell, set me up into a trance, and when the spell breaks—for whatever reason—I’m not sure that I know, or that it matters, that any sort of action or plot has been enacted. So no, do I read for plot, for story, or information: no, I can’t say that I do, which I’m sure has set me back in situations where I was asked to take in the given information and perhaps even offer a response. There is already too much information in the world. I don’t know what to do with most of what I know. I read for the same reason that I fish. So I can feel what I can’t see. I’m not sure if that makes sense to anyone but me but that doesn’t matter. I am my own reader. Even in something like this which I realize is more about the idea than it is about the words that I’m saying now with my hands. But even here I’m more interested in how I’m saying what I’m saying than I am in what I’m saying. I can’t get away from that. It’s like Barthes says, “Language is a skin.” Ha, I guess by dropping that quote I’m embracing the idea that language means. So maybe it can. But even so, even in the sentence from Barthes, I’m more interested in the image, or in the new way of saying what I’m sure has already been said in other words before.
Breathe. Take a breath. Remove the horn from your mouth. That’s what it’s all about in the end. Breathing. Every word, every sentence, as a form of breathing, which of course is what keeps us alive.
Do you read a lot? Is it something you can idly enjoy or does reading take a lot of concentration and focus? Do you read to relax or to get fired up? Neither? Both?
I reach for a book for the same reason you reach for the radio. I want to hear a voice. I want to be invited to listen. I want to be given no choice but to stop what I’m doing and pay attention. I spend much of my time tuned out, distracted, disengaged. A book or a song or a painting or any thing of beauty can tune me in to its world, and through its world the real world might be made to seem a little more alive, or a little less chaotic, or maybe it’s my own self in it that is made more fit to live in both worlds both on and off the page.
I do like to stare at the things I look at. I can stare at the TV or into the pages of a book or into the face of the person talking to me and most of the time I don’t even know what I’m watching or reading or what the voice that I’m hearing is saying. I suppose that makes me a bad reader or a bad person even but I’m just telling you how it is for me. I tend to tug at my bottom lip a lot too. There are no large thoughts connected to any of this. If anything there is mostly absence in this space.
Barry Hannah says something that I like a great deal and he says what he says in a voice that I keep under my pillow. What he says is that a book, in his words “a whopping good story," can “Bust up time and space. Get me out of this goddamned room and put me somewhere good.” Hannah’s own work does just that, though if you ask me what any of his work is about all I’d be able to say is, “It’s about Barry Hannah.”
Can you talk more about what you think meaning is for other people, and what it means to you?
I teach. I run into young folks all the time, and some folks not so young, who want to know what it all means. I just smile. You tell me what it means? I most often say. I’ve got no answers. Only questions. I mean, what does a tree mean? What does the sky mean? I can’t say what a river means but I can tell you what it says to me. What does Jack Gilbert mean when he writes, “I say moon is horses in the tempered dark because moon is the closest I can get to it.” I think I know what he means but I also don’t feel the need to say it. Such language can create a space, can put us in a certain place, where the moon now feels more alive than it otherwise would. That’s what a good book can do. That’s what words said in such a way can wake us up to.
I think these comments make a great deal of sense to me in regard to your writing. There's such a satisfying hum to your work. It's like being swallowed up in that vibration. What are you thinking about when you write? Are you listening for that hum? How do you make it happen? Is it primarily intuitive?
I try not to think too much when I’m writing. I try my best to listen. To feel my way through the heft of a single word, through its shape, the sound it makes, even the spaces between words. I try to hear and then try to speak to what I think I hear and to see what I wouldn’t otherwise see and say. I think that’s what goes on when I write but I can’t be certain. Again, the words and the staring down put me in a sort of trance and I often don’t know what I say, even after I read it myself I might have a hard time keeping track of what I just wrote or of what happened. I get lost and I often find myself reaching for a word to hold onto, like a breadcrumb in the woods, to help me find my way back and by going back I usually am able to move forward. Everything I do I do intuitively. I have faith that the act of doing and making will ultimately make its own sense and I write governed by that logic and the trust in the logic of the made-up.
Do you listen to a lot of music? How is that experience different for you than reading?
Music is why I became a writer. It’s why I write. So yes, I listen to a lot of music. I recently got my first IPod (a hand-me-down from my daughter) and so I’ve been plugged in to the bands that matter most to me in new ways. I’m hearing new layers by listening to them so intimately (through the earphone) and with the volume cranked up to ten. But here again it’s more of a sonic experience than anything else. The words mean very little to me in a song. I had a conversation the other night with a friend at a bar about the band Echo and the Bunnymen. He had asked me earlier what my favorite Echo and the Bunnymen song was (in terms of the lyrics). But for me it’s not about the lyrics. Are there good lyrics in some of the songs that I am most drawn to? Absolutely. 90 percent of the songs I listen to are Elliott Smith songs. He was a songwriter who leaned on words and the songs, some folks would say, are poems. I don’t disagree. But it’s his voice that I love most. And yes I know he’s saying more than “I’ve got a broken heart.” But ask me for a favorite couplet, or even worse, ask me to sing along with the bulk of his songs: I can’t. I wouldn’t dare. It’s enough for me, it’s more than enough for me, to simply listen. And it’s through my ears that I am made to feel my heart. Maybe that’s what meaning ultimately is for me.
Do you like listening to people read aloud, or do you prefer to find that sensation for yourself? Have you ever found a hum in a certain writer's work, and then had the hum knocked around when you hear that person read?
I don’t dislike hearing people read their work aloud. I do like to hear some writers read more than others. The last time I was at an AWP I heard and saw Pam Ryder read and was happy to say that the voice I was hearing inside the room was the same voice I’d been hearing for years in my head when I read her most amazing work. I did a reading once with Gary Lutz and was blown away by his reading voice that did not sound at all like the voice that I had imagined, but this voice brought out an aggressivity as well as a humor in the work that I now realize is buried in the syntax of his utterances and in the perceptions of his speakers. I suspect the same might be true for Barry Hannah though this, on my part, because he is dead and I never had the privilege of seeing him read his work in this lifetime, will have to be an act of my own imagining.
You mention staring at the TV in a previous response, but I wonder if that's the extent of TV watching for you, or if you're able to engage with narrative or gather more traditional meaning when you're watching a television program or movie. Can you talk about your experience of watching something on a screen a bit more?
I find myself staring into the face of the TV set more often that I'd like to admit. The TV is the one place where I don't mind a little plot. My tastes in the TV tend to gravitate toward movies that bring me to laughter and away from the dark spaces that you often find in books. I make no bones about my belief that Tommy Boy or Step Brothers are works of genius. The older I get the less I am drawn to the artsy, the foreign, though even in the foreign what I was most drawn to in earlier days was the listening to the language whose meanings went in one ear and out the other. But here again the music and feeling of what was said stayed with me.
But on the TV, who among us doesn't like to stare at the made-up? The pretty. It's why I'd rather flip through the pages of Vogue than the pages of The Paris Review. Call me shallow but I'd rather look at the fictions that fashion offers than the fashions of the literati as it has come to be. All that said, I am thankful for the inventor of the remote clicker. I am a fan of certain reality shows about people who work on boats or those who catch catfish with their hands. For my marathons I can spend an entire night watching River Monsters which is where I go to get an equal mix of geography, history, and a dose of philosophy too.
I remember in graduate school hearing tales of this poet, I can't now remember his name, who had met with some pretty good literary success but who had stopped writing and liked to spend his days sitting in front of the TV. I thought then, what a waste. We all did, us wanna-be writerly snobs. I now know that at some point you sometimes have to turn one switch off and turn another switch on just to live with the silence. Or the noise. Or an equal measure of both.
But yeah, TV has a hum too. Its sound lulls me to sleep.