CNF Conversations: An Interview with Mary Cappello

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Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In (A Mood Almanack). University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Mary Cappello is the author of five books of literary nonfiction, including Awkward: A Detour (a Los Angeles Times bestseller); Swallow, based on the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum; and, most recently, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Salon.com, The Huffington Post, on NPR, in guest author blogs for Powells Books, and on six separate occasions as Notable Essay of the Year in Best American Essays. A Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow, a recipient of The Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination, and the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize, Cappello is a former Fulbright Lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow), and currently Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island.

About Life Breaks In:  Some books start at point A, take you by the hand, and carefully walk you to point B, and on and on.

This is not one of those books. This book is about mood, and how it works in and with us as complicated, imperfectly self-knowing beings existing in a world that impinges and infringes on us, but also regularly suffuses us with beauty and joy and wonder. You don’t write that book as a linear progression — you write it as a living, breathing, richly associative, and, crucially, active, investigation. Or at least you do if you’re as smart and inventive as Mary Cappello.

What is a mood? How do we think about and understand and describe moods and their endless shadings? What do they do to and for us, and how can we actively generate or alter them? These are all questions Cappello takes up as she explores mood in all its manifestations: we travel with her from the childhood tables of “arts and crafts” to mood rooms and reading rooms, forgotten natural history museums and 3-D View-Master fairytale tableaux; from the shifting palette of clouds and weather to the music that defines us and the voices that carry us. The result is a book as brilliantly unclassifiable as mood itself, blue and green and bright and beautiful, funny and sympathetic, as powerfully investigative as it is richly contemplative.

“I’m one of those people who mistrusts a really good mood,” Cappello writes early on. If that made you nod in recognition, well, maybe you’re one of Mary Cappello’s people; you owe it to yourself to crack Life Breaks In and see for sure.

“Are we sometimes not astonished by the beautiful futility of encountering some sudden fugitive moment that renders us so vulnerable to ‘unanticipated forms’: of perhaps an inner light or an inner dark? Here, with Mary Cappello’s ravishing prose, lies a vibrating scalpel that intricately parts the belly of little swirling vertigos that we have no name for but know so deeply.”
— The Brothers Quay

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“Mood is alpha and omega, it is everything and nothing” – Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In

Julija Šukys: Mary, first of all, congratulations on your book. Life Breaks In is learned, rigorous, and, at times, intimate and devastating. On the one hand, the text is incredibly wide-ranging: you take the reader through subjects as varied as Joni Mitchell’s music, mood rings, your father’s darkness, your friend’s death from cancer, taxidermy, and the weird queer history of children’s books. But on the other hand, your book is impressively focused and disciplined as it continually loops back to thinking about mood as sound, as space, as reading, as color. It does so in an almost oblique way and manages to look closely at something that is otherwise almost invisible.

You have written that the challenge of the book was “not to chase mood, track it, or pin it down: neither to explain nor define mood – but to notice it – often enough, to listen for it – and do something like it without killing it in the process” (15). It seems like mood is something that you can only see through the prism of something else, like those ghosts in children’s cartoons that become visible in the dust beaten out of a chalkboard brush. Can you say a little bit about how you came to your subject? And can you talk a bit about the title, Life Breaks In, and the role that rupture plays in a meditation on mood?

Mary Cappello: This question of how we come to our subjects is perpetually intriguing to me. Some subjects for me have been urgent givens (for example, cancer); others, I’ve arrived at through intricately circuitous routes even though, once there, they greeted me with a kind of “ah-ha” or “but-of-course” feeling (e.g., awkwardness); still others were the result of an accidental encounter, what Barthes might call a “lucky find,” almost like a punctum in photography (e.g., the Chevalier Jackson foreign body collection). Mood happened for me in yet another way—in its own way—and it was as though it was always hovering. The subject has played around the edges of my consciousness for many years, and, by the time I brought the book to completion, it felt as though it was the work toward which all of my work had been tending.

Sometimes I’ll be reading a book I’ve read a thousand times, and I’ll find marginalia that I wrote in it dating back twenty years relative to mood. I guess I’m trying to say that mood felt to me like the thing I’ve been writing about all along but that had never announced itself as such—which makes me wonder if this is a sort of experience relevant to all writers. Unlike my other ostensible “subjects,” mood seemed to be following me rather than vice versa.

The title is a phrase lent to me by Virginia Woolf who wrote these wonderfully suggestive lines in one of her diary entries: “How it would interest me if this diary were ever to become a real diary: something in which I could see changes, trace moods developing; but then I should have to speak of the soul, & did I not banish the soul when I began? What happens is, as usual, that I’m going to write about the soul, & life breaks in.”

I’m really interested in the time/space that mood exists in—I mean, moods seem to be a bedrock of our being (we’re never not in a mood of one sort or another), at the same time that moods seem to exist quite apart from our ability to perceive them. Are moods co-terminus with the thing we call “life” or “living”? Does life interrupt mood or do moods interrupt life? This is related to the aesthetic problem that you refer to in your question—I mean, here’s this thing that is ephemeral, amorphous but ever-present and foundational. It will not let you pin it down, and it might only come into view when you aren’t trying to discover it. If you look too directly at it, it may not show itself, or will vanish. And the minute it does materialize, life is sure to break in, and poof, it’s gone.

I hope that readers take pleasure in the unexpected ways in which breaks enter in to the book, and I’d hardly exhaust those ways if I mentioned just a few, like day break and breaks in clouds; breakthroughs and heartbreaks; the breaking of a silence and the breaking into song.

As you know, I read this book very slowly, in fits and starts. At first, my pace embarrassed me (confession: I’m a slow reader at the best of times), but the deeper into the book I got and the more I thought about what you were doing in it, the more I made peace with my meandering methods.

You’ve subtitled the book “A Mood Almanack” and elucidate it like this: “the almanack is a revelatory book and a book of secrets. A book whose tidings we look out for and consult from time to time…. A book to wander in a desert with…. A book whose only requirement is that we float into and out from the streets where we live, pausing long enough to feel the mood beneath us shift.” (16) It occurs to me now that this is a book that values the slow reveal and invites a reader to go off, wander around, and return according to her inclinations (or, indeed, mood).

Can you say a little more about your notion of the book as almanack? (By the way, my autocorrect keeps trying to remove the k at the end of that word!)

All that I can say about the slow reveal is: yes, yes, yes. Meandering methods, both in writing and in reading, yes. I’m so glad that this is how you experienced the book, Julija. I seem to have found my ideal reader!

Mood called for what I describe as “cloud-writing,” which asked for an aesthetic of hover and drift. Like my second book, Awkward: A Detour, this book can be dipped into, read front to back, or not. For the reader interested in moving front to back, the book is structured to allow for various more and more voluble returns (as you note in your opening lines here), and a frame tale relative to voice and mood (most especially, the role of the voices of our earliest caretakers, how we may have come to receive those voices and, if we grew up to be writers, how we later constructed voice-imbued atmospheres in the form of writing).

I had a lot of reasons for calling the book an “almanack,” and with that older spelling, too. I wanted to nod in the direction of those early autobiographical experiments of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, but also the less well-known book by Djuna Barnes, her Ladies Almanack (1928) and its wonderful sub-title, “showing their Signs and their Tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers, written & illustrated by a lady of fashion.”

Formally, though, the “almanack” appealed to me for its generic specificity and range: an almanack (especially a “farmer’s alamanack”) shares a kinship with mood-writing because it’s a place we turn to for chartings of weather patterns and cloud movements, the prospect of a good harvest or a drought, and it’s a space where different types of knowledge on a subject can intermingle, where folk wisdom meets philosophy, aphorism and recipes coincide—more to the point, where a kind of non-knowledge or useless knowledge (à la Gertrude Stein) prevails. I didn’t structure the book like an almanack—this would have felt artificial to me—but when I learned more about the etymology of the word, I couldn’t believe how fitting it was for a mood-book: from classical Arabic, munaā­k, it refers to a place where a camel kneels, a station on a journey or the halt at the end of a day’s travel. Simultaneously, it derives from cognate Arabic words for “calendar,” and “climate.” This blew my mind because it seemed to bring together so many mood-relatives: temporality, charts and unchartability, atmosphere, rest and pause. There is also a warmth to the Farmer’s Almanack that I was hoping to invoke.

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Kim Dana Kupperman

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You. An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person, edited by Kim Dana Kupperman, with Heather G. Simons & James M. Chesbro. Welcome Table Press, 2013.

Kim Dana Kupperman is the author of the award-winning I Just Lately Started Buying Wings. Missives from the Other Side of Silence (2010) and the lead editor of You. An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person (2013). She is the founding editor of Welcome Table Press, an independent nonprofit devoted to publishing and celebrating the essay, and the editor of the press’s periodical pamphlet series Occasional Papers on Practice & Form. She has received many awards and honors, including fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the New York Center for Book Arts. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Essays; Blurring the Boundaries. Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction; and An Ethical Compass. Coming of Age in the 21st Century and appears regularly in literary periodicals. She teaches in Fairfield University’s low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing.

About You: Up close and personal, this first-of-its-kind collection showcases contemporary essays that explore failure, planetary movement, and love, among a variety of topics. The candor of these autobiographical, lyric, personal, and segmented narratives is tempered by the distance, intimacy, humor, and unsentimental tenderness that the second person point of view affords both writer and reader.

Buy the book here.

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Julija Šukys: Kim, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. The subject of the second-person voice came up a number of times during my seminars this year – especially my graduate seminars. I, for one, really like the second-person voice and have used it at least twice, in two different essays and I’m always interested to see what others do with it. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, and it turns out to be a little bit controversial. Some readers/writers see the use of the second-person voice as contrived or too cute. Some find it distancing. I’m so interested to hear what you have to say about all of this!

Kim Dana Kupperman: I’d like to make a distinction before we begin: when I say “second-person point of view,” I’m mostly referring to the grammatical pronoun you; this somehow feels different to me than “second-person voice,” though I think I know what you mean, or, at least I interpret what you mean as “tone,” or “effect,” or, even, “mood,” all of which can be evoked by using a second-person point of view.

That’s a really helpful distinction: point of view vs. voice. I like the precision of the former.

Tell me what drew you to the idea of pulling together this anthology of essays devoted to the second person. Were most of these pieces commissioned for this collection, or did you draw from the world of literary journals?

As a reader, I’ve been very interested in the second-person point of view, from its obvious and historic epistolary use, to the briefer asides to the reader in prose (nonfiction and fiction), to longer works such as the stories in Lorrie Moore’s Self Help and Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, to Stewart O’Nan’s novel A Prayer for the Dying, to name three examples. There was no anthology—at least not one in print that I knew of—that collected essays devoted to the second person, written by contemporary writers. In fact, I’m not sure there are any anthologies that have collected such essays by writers in any century. As an editor and publisher, I sought to fill that gap; most of the pieces were solicited in a call for submissions as well as direct requests to writers and editors whose work the three of us—Heather Simons, James Chesbro, and myself—admired.

I was interested to find that in many of these pieces, the “you” appears to stand in for the “I.” By this I mean that the “you” is really (and often quite clearly) the narrator. I’d say this is the case with pieces by Natashia Déon, Susan Grier, Brenda Miller, and others. What is to be gained by switching from “I” to “you”? How does the second-person point of view change the way that we read these otherwise first-person narratives? Or am I being too simplistic and mischaracterizing them?

“You” often stands in for the “I,” but sometimes, “you” masks the “I.” I like to think of this particular usage of the second person as one in which the narrator is writing to a self who no longer exists, which is the case with all three of the examples you mention: Natashia Déon’s here-and-now narrator is addressing her adolescent self at moments of great reckoning; Susan Grier’s narrator is standing on a threshold of understanding her role as the mother of a child who will become transgendered; and Brenda Miller’s speaker is in the midst of undertaking a transformation. So in some ways, it’s as if these particular narrators are recording messages to be placed in a time capsule: “See who I was,” the you says in these instances, of a specific instance or time. Perhaps that’s why we might call this usage “diaristic”: just think of those moments when you examine a diary in which what you wrote was written by another iteration of yourself: it is a kind of first person removed. As Joan Connor puts it, “The I creates a you; the you creates an I, in a Mobius strip of recursive identity.”

There are, of course, a number of pieces here that play with the question of who exactly “you” is. For example, Michelle Auerbach wonderfully satirizes how-to books and advice columns in “How to Screw Up a First Date.” Becca Lee Jensen Ogden’s “Nothing Good Happens after Forty-One Weeks” plays with the form of online pregnancy journals digests (It starts: “Hello Becca! You are now thirty-eight weeks! Your baby is now considered full-term”). I found Ogden’s piece particularly moving. It’s a very effective use of the second person in part because the target or referent of the “you” shifts subtly partway through the piece. Her “you” is both a voice addressing the narrator from outside as well as from inside. Among other things, it’s a wonderful metaphor for the experience of pregnancy. Do you see the “you” working in other ways that I’ve perhaps overlooked?

In the introduction to the anthology, I mention specific uses of the second person: first, the you as I (i.e., the “diaristic”); second, the epistolary, in which the writer creates a rhetorical apostrophe, or an address to someone who is absent (or who cannot—yet, and for whatever reasons—read what is being written, as in Brian Hoover’s “A Rock Snob to His Infant Daughter”); and third, the note-to-self or how-to manual. We’ve included essays in this collection that feature the more traditional use of the second person, a direct aside, or invitation, to the reader, though the essays are unconventional in their approaches (for example, Amy Leach’s “You Be the Moon” and Sarah Stromeyer’s “Merce on the Page”).

As I mentioned above, some of my students have commented on the distancing effect of “you” – especially when the “you” stands in for “I.” For me, intimacy returns (? I’m not sure this is the right word…) when the “you” addresses someone as one might do in a letter. This is how I’ve used the second person, and it’s how a small number of your contributors have used it. For example, Elizabeth Stone addresses her late father in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackguard” (another piece I found to be very strong). I wonder if you have any thoughts on narrative distance and intimacy and the use of the second person. Do you see it as potentially (if perhaps productively) distancing? Do you see ways of creating intimacy using this pronoun, as I do?

The second-person point of view has the ability to distance and create intimacy at the same time. Intimacy, as you so accurately point out, is created especially in the epistolary usage, in which a reader may feel addressed directly by the narrator, even though the narrator is writing to a specific person (e.g., Kim Adrian, Marsha McGregor, Elizabeth Stone); distance is achieved when the you stands in for I; or, perhaps, a certain remoteness is created, which takes the I out of the equation and allows the writer to scrutinize, perhaps more closely, the subject at hand.

Next: a question on form. I was very interested and intrigued by the brevity of some of most of these pieces. Amongst my favorites is Eduardo Galeano’s “Dreams.” It’s a tiny jewel of a text, only two paragraphs long, with a “you” that refers not to the narrator himself but out to an unnamed interlocutor. The text itself is dreamlike and imagistic. Another text that struck me was one you’ve mentioned, Sarah Stromeyer’s “Merce on the Page.” It is a tiny text about text: about the effects of layout and font choices and the physicality of letters on a reader. (The “you” here seems to address me, the reader, in perhaps the most direct sense of all the pieces.) What do you think is it about the use of the second person that cultivates brevity?

This is a terrific question. Perhaps part of the answer has to do with the seemingly experimental nature of the second person—readers will tolerate the schism between distance and intimacy only to a degree (although Stewart O’Nan manages to sustain the second person for the duration of an entire novel). Think about reading Gertrude Stein, and the kind of suspension—not only of disbelief, but of narrative expectation—required to enter into some of her texts; the effort is well worth it, but it requires a certain readerly stamina.

What is the greatest hazard of using the second person?

When you use it to be clever. Cleverness is not a hallmark of the second-person point of view. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.

And conversely, what can it achieve that a simple first-person (or third-person) point of view can’t?

As we’ve noted, the second-person point of view distances the writer from what might be painful to write. In a way, the you becomes the ultimate persona—or, if it doesn’t, it serves as a process that might help developing writers better understand persona. This speaks to, perhaps, what you have called the “second-person voice”: voice is an element that is part of persona, the disguise adopted by a narrator to tell a story. And by using the second-person point of view, the narrator assumes a mask—distance, in this case—that infuses how s/he sounds with a kind of remote quality that cannot be achieved with first person (but certainly can be realized, without the dual edge of intimacy offered by second person, using third-person omniscient).

Which texts in this collection surprised you most in terms of what they were able to achieve through the use of the second person?

That’s a tough question… I think I was more surprised, in the acquisition process, by writers and editors we encountered who felt that the second-person point of view was too trendy, misused, or, simply, not their cup of tea. Certainly, there are instances of misuse with every experimental form. Some of the work in this anthology may have been better rendered in first person. But the writer stuck to the second-person point of view and had reasons to stick to it. In some ways, that stubbornness surprised me. In other ways, I find it charming.

Kim Dana Kupperman, thanks so much for doing this and for putting together the anthology. I know this conversation will find a place in future seminar rooms and in readers’ hands. 

September 4, 2014

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