Stuart Dybek: Blurring Forms

stuart-dybekStuart Dybek is a quiet master of the American short story. He doesn’t cry out for attention, and he doesn’t seem to need it, yet his stories demand re-reading in a way that few authors do. The wonderful thing about reading a collection of Dybek’s stories is that you not only don’t know what each turn of the page will bring, you don’t know what the next paragraph or even the next sentence will bring. He writes not in service to any conventions of form, but with pure attention to the nuances of the particularities of a story.

Dybek recently published two new books: Paper Lantern, a collection of nine stories on the theme of love; and Ecstatic Cahoots, a collection of short shorts and slightly longer shorts.

What are the narrative benefits of compression?

For me compression has always been a key element in why one can expect from poetry that it can be read more than once. It obviously is not limited to genre as there are numerous prose writers whose work has that same quality, and they are among my favorites—Isaac Babel, Eudora Welty, Yasunari Kawabata, the early work of Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Conner, the Joyce of Dubliners, the Calvino of Invisible Cities, and the writer that Calvino wrote that he most admired, Jorge Luis Borges. These are writers I’ve reread over a lifetime. One way of judging how prolific a writer is might be how many times one will read and reread a story that goes no more than five pages.

I wonder if a label for a piece of writing can be a detriment or an aid. Do definitions like “flash fiction” or “prose poetry” invite different possibilities—or different limitations?

The answer depends in part on the label and its cultural and historic context. I’m certainly not going to argue with prose poem given Baudelaire’s essay and his versions of what a prose poem might be, and what Rimbaud would go on to make out of it. Plus there’s a contradiction of sorts, a suggested paradox to the name that typifies the idea of hybrid at the heart of modernism just as, say, a term like nonfiction novel does or magical realism.

I don’t think the term flash fiction has that kind of resonance or historical clout. I used to call them shortys and I had some genuinely talented students long ago at Warren Wilson, all women, who were writing short form prose and referred to their pieces as jockeys, as in Jockey shorts. I know one could do a panel at something like the AWP in which writers take sides and argue vociferously about how a prose poem differs from flash fiction. It isn’t a session that I’d personally be interested in attending.

You’ve mentioned that writers who blur forms fascinate you, but they’re rare. Why do you think they’re rare?

I don’t remember saying writers who blur forms are rare, though I suppose I might have. Book sellers can be a little uncomfortable with writers who do that. Where are they to be shelved? And forms like the memoir that get shelved as nonfiction but are less beholding to the kind of attention to factual objective truth that good journalism tries to abide by, can and do get in trouble with readers. For me, memoir would be by nature at once a classic and yet a blurred form.

To study genre in the Aristotelian way of university education different genres are kept in different rooms. But forms of writing aren’t locked away from one another, they’re located on a continuum. The Japanese haibun form is a good example of a literary form that exemplifies that, as does the prose poem.

Who are your favorite writers who blur the lines?

Calvino. Mandelstam. Laurence Sterne. Kawabata. I thought what Frederick Exley did in A Fan’s Notes, despite reservations I have about some of the characterization of the women, was fascinating, and the same with the early highly comic memoir/novel writing of Henry Miller. I find him far less interesting in his guru years. Joyce, of course. Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga is a masterpiece that falls into this category, a one of a kind book, and shame on American critics for not celebrating it as such.

But it is also a good lesson in what can happen when a writer makes a genuine departure. And speaking of wonderful blur the lines books—actually, maybe I’ve crossed over to describing one of a kind books—there’s Roberto Calasso’s high-octane, hard to classify, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.

I know haikus have influenced your writing. How? And can you mention a few favorites?

I love Issa. One of my favorite critical books is on the subject of haiku—and so much more—Haruo Shirane’s Traces of Dreams.

How do you decide that some of your especially tiny stories—the ones that are just a couple of sentences—qualify as a story? Are you ever tempted to flesh them out?

One of pieces that you may be referring to as it is only two lines of dialogue long is “Misterioso.” In Ecstatic Cahoots, those two lines that stand alone in “Misterioso” are integrated later in the book into two other, longer stories: “Marvelous Encounters of My Life” and “Naked.”

You say that you like Kawabata because of “a quality of simple but profound suggestiveness.” I can’t think of a better phrase to describe flash fiction. Is this what guides your shorts?

It certainly is a target to aim for in short fictions. I try to find—to sense—resonances in various aspects of a piece—the situation, the images, the title, etc. And I look for counterpoints between elements of the story that imply a connectedness that the reader can supply.

Many of your stories move through memories. What draws you to memory as a way into a life, a story?

Memory is narrative. Or maybe it is the other way around. Narrative is mnemonic. I don’t think we could remember—have history—without shaping it into a story. Even if memory is only a flash of image, there’s a sense of meaning, an absent narrative, to the image.

One reviewer wrote that Ecstatic Cahoots, because of its reoccurring characters, images, and themes, could be one long story, or 50 short stories, or several hundred. How do you think of it?

I hope there’s a sense of stylistic connectedness and a sense of all the myriad narrative and lyrical shapes stories can take.

What’s next? The great American novel?

I have a collection of poems set in the Caribbean close to completion and I’m working on something I am thinking of as a nonfiction comic novel. And I have enough pages for another book along the lines of Ecstatic Cahoots, but haven’t had a chance to shape it as yet.

One Response to “Stuart Dybek: Blurring Forms”

  1. Once a long time ago. There lived a man who liked to become famous bye looking at pictures. People said that he must be very old to gaze into the sky and look into the night that way. The moon is full and the sky is dark to be up this late. You may ask why? But get no answer. The reply is! If you look at it is dark. And two day we say amen too you.

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