Dee Sunshine Interviews
New Yorker Carol Novack comes with JD and MSW degrees, but no MFA. She practiced criminal defense and constitutional law for the worst part of two decades, writing little else besides briefs. Carol is the author of a poetry chapbook and the recipient of a writer's grant from the government of Australia, where she resided during tender years. Writings may or will be found in The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets, Diagram, American Letters & Commentary, Action Yes, Anemone Sidebar, Big Bridge, First Intensity, Knock, LIT, Notre Dame Review, Del Sol Review, 5_trope, Milk, Opium, Orphan Leaf Review, Otoliths, Word Riot, Unpleasant Event Schedule, Muse Apprentice Guild, Newtopia, and other publications.
Carol publishes and edits Mad Hatters' Review: Edgy & Enlightened Literature, Art & Music in the Age of Dementia and occasionally, a blog, and teaches lyrical fiction writing at The Women's Studio Center.
Dee - You worked as a lawyer for twenty years, from 1983-2003. Tell me, did you find the work satisfying? And why did you quit?
Carol - The work was much too uncomfortably stressful, much of the time. I practiced primarily criminal law, most frequently (when I branched out on my own) as an assigned, City-paid counsel (my first job was with the Criminal Appeals Bureau of The Legal Aid Society in NYC). I knew the moment I decided to go to law school that I wanted to become a criminal defense attorney, and in practice, I was a thoroughly committed and zealous advocate. The battles were almost always up very steep hills, and I mistrusted and disliked the “justice” system for various reasons. Though I took pride in my work, particularly my written motions and appellate briefs, and I won an important federal constitutional action on behalf of visual artists (Bery v City of New York, et al.), I burned out.
Dee - Before you became a lawyer, you were a promising writer, and indeed even had work included in The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets. Why the sudden change in direction? And did you foresee that you would be sacrificing your creative life to the law?
Carol - Yes, I suppose you could call me a “promising writer.” I also had a chapbook of poems published in Australia, Living Alone without a Dictionary, and received a writer’s grant from the Australian Council of the Arts. This was in the mid-late 70’s while I was living in Sydney. I became restless and left the country without a particular destination in mind – travelled around Europe for nine months and ended up back in New York, much to my surprise, bewilderment, and consternation. At that point, I needed to make money. I was feeling blocked as a writer, and academia didn’t appeal to me. So --- I decided very impulsively and unexpectedly to embark on a legal career, to develop my analytical skills and champion the underdog. I didn’t foresee such a sacrifice. There are many lawyers who write.
Dee - And now you are no longer writing briefs your writing has become creative again. After such a long spell away from the muse, does it feel exciting? And how does it compare with the way it was first time around?
Carol - It’s been very exciting, really exhilarating to return to writing. I’d practically given up on the idea; I wrote so few creative pieces during my legal career. Then suddenly, I was back in the saddle, trotting fast and finding voices I didn’t know I had, developing my own, unique styles. Returning to writing so unexpectedly was much more of a thrill than writing “the first time around.”
A couple of interesting tidbits from my lawyering years: I wrote a story, Crazy Broad, in the late 80’s/early 90’s, and like any novice submitter, sent it to The New Yorker. The fiction editor actually wrote me a personal rejection letter in which he complimented me on my writing and encouraged me to submit again. He turned down the story because it “began nowhere and ended nowhere.” Meaning, of course, that it was a slice of lifer, which I gather wasn’t in vogue in those days unless you happened to be Raymond Carver or Gordon Lish.
The other story: I met the well-known and respected writer Joy Williams circa 1990, showed her the very few pieces I’d managed to complete, and asked her if she thought I was a lawyer or a writer. She seemed to love the story The New Yorker would ultimately reject and encouraged me; her verdict was that I was a writer. That really made me feel wonderful.
Dee - Not satisfied with just writing again, you have gone into editing too. Tell me what drove you to launch Mad Hatters Review? And what's the thinking behind the title of your web-zine?
Carol - In 2004, not long after my second coming (laugh), I decided to create a different kind of journal, one that didn’t continuously publish writings by the same authors, often friends of the editors, one that didn’t publish the same MFA, rule driven and “realistic” fictions and poems, the same uninspiring, non-risky, unsurprising kinds of writings I was seeing in the majority of e-journals (and most print journals). I also wanted to add exciting, quality art and music, tailor-made to accompany the writings we’d publish, mini-movies (videos), art galleries, and other elements I wasn’t seeing in most other e-journals.
The title is explained in the “About” page on our website.
Dee - My experience of editing etc is that there is little time left for a creative life. Are you finding this to be the case?
Carol - Yes and no. I do find myself working nearly round the clock to promote the magazine, as well as my own writings. It’s a crazy scene here in the USA – don’t know what it’s like over there, but writers are consuming an awful lot of time in self-promotion. Anyway, if I were disciplined enough to set and follow a daily writing routine, I’d write more. There’s always time to create if you make it. Well, perhaps. That’s simplistic. At the same time, I find that I’m processing thoughts and experiences in an unconscious way, so that all of a sudden, I’ll start a new fiction, prose-poem, fusion, or dramatic piece whenever the right image or concept compels a new creation. I’ve tried to force myself to write everyday; it doesn’t work.
Dee - Magazines come and go with amazing regularity. Do you think Mad Hatters Review will still be going in ten years time? And will you still be at the helm?
Carol - I seriously worry about that, Dee. Instead of making money to keep me at the helm and pay staff and contributors, I’m digging into my dwindling bank account, though we do get some donations. I need to raise money to keep the magazine alive. I also need jobs that pay. That’s difficult. So… we’ve gone bi-annual. I organized a multi-media fundraiser in June, and I’m organizing another next May --- the 4th, at The Bowery Poetry Club. I barely came out even the first time, so I’ll be trying to learn from my mistakes. We do have a fiscal sponsor, so USA donors can donate tax deductible “non-profit” sums), but what I really need is a committed cracker-jack optimizer and marketer.
Dee - You've had a pretty busy, active life so far. Some would say you've really crammed it in. But no life is ever done until it's done, so have you any unfulfilled desires? Any other plans?
Carol - Unfulfilled desires? It’s possible that only a Buddhist or Gurdjieff adherent or other “mystical” type would deny s/he has any. I doubt very much that I could learn how to rid myself of desires. Others may be capable of it. Years ago, I flirted with so-called mysticism, and found Gurdjieff’s and Ouspensky’s concepts enticing. From my perspective, life means nothing other than the meaning one gives it – a la Sartre. Many or most people want other people or some god or other as interpreted by other people to give them meaning, I think. The majority of god-fearing Americans seem to hate or at least look down on atheists as much as they hate/are horrified by homosexuals (who aptly term themselves “queers”).
So yeah sure, I’d like some presses to publish my writings and I’d love more and more people to read and delight in them. I’d like to be recognized as a unique, compelling voice, but really, I recognize that “fame” means nothing. I will die with dust mites, as I say in one of my pieces. And that will be that. May I enjoy food and wine, the beauties of nature, and communion with fellow humanistic creatures of this planet. (May there be no wars, no famine, no cruelty. In our dreams, at least.) That is all. I’ve always been extremely ambitious and disgusted with myself for being so.
Dee - Looking through your CV and stuff I see no mention of your date of birth. I'm guessing from the fact that you were editor-in-chief of Prologue from 1967-68 that you must be round about 60 now, yes? I know a lot of women round that age have issues with their age. Do you?
Carol - We will all cease to be. Don’t push me. I’m younger than 60 and I hate the idea of ceasing to be. When you realize, REALLY REALIZE that both the shit and the delight won’t last forever, you have issues with aging – well, I do, maybe the next person doesn’t. Some people claim not to have any issues with aging or death. Acceptance of anything isn’t my forte. Hypocrisy and self-delusion aren’t my fortes either, though I’m sure I’m at least a little deluded. Ha.
Dee - Sticking with mortality for a moment. Any fear of dying? Any religious/ spiritual awakenings?
Carol - I’m a born again atheist; I used to call myself an agnostic. It’s ironic to be afraid of ceasing to be. But I think we all are afraid of not being, which of course we can’t possibly imagine, I mean not being I, and that fear is connected with our fear of not being “recognized” and loved by others, and ourselves, our fear of being insubstantial, ephemeral, awfully temporary. Take away life, take away the breast and breath. Of course, I’m not expecting to meet “God” before I die. I don’t believe in religions or fairy tales except as metaphors of the human experience, the wish to be saved, the wish for happy endings, the absurd trials we set up for ourselves, the meaningful journeys, and always the rules, the rules, the rules. We’re a very limited species.
Dee - You probably don't know this, but my father's an inventor and he's just put together a prototype of a time machine. As yet, he's only tested it a couple of times and there have been a few glitches, but he's back and he's in one piece, though no longer of sound mind. I'm tempted to use it myself, but I'm the cautious type. I'm probably going to let someone else try it before I do. Are you game? And if so, where and when would you set off to? Is there any literary figure you are dying to meet?
Carol - I don’t know what a “sound mind” means, really. Does that entail acceptance and/or belief in the definitions of “reality” that other people create? Good luck to your father, Dee. May he delight in his visions, whether or not he’s of “unsound” mind. May he delight, period. If you want to try his invention and you don’t think you’ll get electrocuted or otherwise maimed in the process, that’s your decision. I don’t think I’d try it myself, though who knows? I might be persuaded. Certainly, I would if I knew that my willingness to believe he were doing something phenomenal would make him happy. And then I’d pretend I’d been all over time and place, having wonderful experiences. Where would I go, you ask? Eons of light years from now, towards or back to a cosmos inhabited by wise sentient beings, including cats.
Ok. I’d love to meet Samuel Beckett, just to be around him, not necessarily talk. I’d love to collaborate with him, Barthelme, Dorothy Parker, Fellini, and Bunuel. Quite a combo, eh?
Dee - As far as I can work out, the thing that fried my father's mind was going into the future. Would you be tempted to head off in that direction?
Carol - I’m already in the future, so to speak…. The present becoming future and all that. I don’t like to think about the distant future. I won’t be around, and neither may anyone else. I mean, the future as it relates to this species and the other sentient beings that inhabit this planet.
Dee - If I took a ride into the future on the time machine I'd be well-tempted to check in and see where I am in ten years time! Would you? And what do you imagine you'd find?
Carol - No thanks. I don’t want to know.
Dee - Staying with the time machine for a wee while longer, how do you imagine the USA is going to be ten years down the line?
Carol - USA? The way we’re going, ecologically speaking, this nation may not exist in any recognizable form. It may be gone, as in eradicated by climactic shifts, as may be many other countries. Otherwise speaking, I think this country has been pulled backwards in time and there aren’t enough powerful people with vision and guts to propel it forward. I don’t see much evidence of intelligent signs in the universe around here. Or anywhere else really. I get attacked for negativity, but I’m only talking about what I see, read, and experience I ask my attackers to provide evidence that things are going to improve; they never respond. I’m not a Pollyanna and I don’t believe that human beings have evolved into an ethical species, capable of thinking and acting beyond their own interests. In general, of course. I view my perspective as much more realistic than cynical. Remember – I was an attorney for many years. I value evidence.
At the same time, I applaud the activists who fight the powers that be and recognize that activists can be remarkably effective these days, many thanks to the power of the Internet. I’m not a stranger to activism myself, though my focus at the moment is on publishing and writing. Of course, take a look at my comic strip, The Perils of Political Polly, and many features in Mad Hatters’ Review, including Marty Ison’s powerful cover art for Issue 5, and columns by our non-fiction editor, Pete Dolack. We’re not exactly apolitical. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though there are many artists and writers who seem to believe otherwise.
All of the candidates for President want to be seen as powerful change agents. While the thought of another Republican in the White House depresses the hell out of me, the major “Democratic” contenders are practically indistinguishable from one another when one looks at their voting records and their records hardly evince a progressive mentality. So… it comes down to a popularity/image choice. I find Edwards to be the most credible and persuasive of the three, but I don’t expect him or anyone else to be as progressive and gutsy as I’d wish our next President to be. For instance, all three candidates are pro death penalty, all against same-sex marriage. Corporate interests dominate our country, control our media. Even a progressive like Kucinich would have a tough time battling these interests, which pervade Congress, as well as the Executive branch. And --- if you take a look at the (de) composition of the very powerful Supreme Court, which interprets the US Constitution, any progressive will want to crawl into a ditch and stay there. The regressive judges (in the majority), like all Supreme Court judges, are lifetime appointees. It’s frightening.
Dee - You've done a fair amount of travel in your time. Is there any place that's special to your heart? Would you retire there? Or are you going to see out your days in New York City?
Carol - Retire? Huh? See out my days? Huh? There are many places I’ve loved, including the town of Molyvos on the isle of Lesvos. I lived there a couple of months. I also miss Australia. The Queensland beaches and rain forests are gorgeous and Sydney’s lively. I want to visit India again -- a totally fascinating country, intoxicating really -- a nation of strong contrasts, an assault on the senses. I love parts of Ireland, France, The Netherlands, Italy.
I don’t think I’ll die in NYC, at least, not if I can help it. I’ve lived here so long, it’s been time to move on for so long.
Dee - You spent some time in Scotland during your travels and even ended up staying a while in Dingwall, which is not the most obvious of tourist destinations. So, what's your impression of Scotland?
Carol - I was in Dingwall a very long time ago. Pretty terrain, but the people I met (not writers and artists) impressed me as uptight and overly conventional in terms of “Christian,” anti-sensualistic/hedonistic, imaginative thinking. They also impressed me as generally unhappy and a bit xenophobic. Maybe Scots, in general, tend to feel inferior, put down by the English, neglected. I don’t know what impressions I’d have these days, but I was in Wales several years ago and noted a lot of anger against the English. Always good to hang out in pubs to know what people are thinking and how they’re feeling.
Dee - Did you check out the Scottish literary scene? If so, did any poets or writers make an impression?
Carol - Our Mad Hatters’ Associate Foreign Editor Peter Robertson is originally from Scotland. You know, he created a special Scottish section for Issue 7, featuring fabulous writers, a top artist, and a composer. I’d recommend reading all of the poets and fiction writers Peter Robertson solicited for us, including the famous Alasdair Gray.
Dee - My impression of the literary scene in the USA is that it's fairly insular. Quite a few magazines over there will only publish writers from their particular State and a lot of them won't publish overseas writers. Also, whenever I hear a poet from the USA state their influences I invariably hear Bukowski, Ginsberg, Whitman, Collins, Wallace Stevens etc, but never Garcia Lorca or Yevtushenko or even Robert Burns or William Shakespeare. Why do you think this is? And do you think it should be rectified? And if so, what non-US poets would you recommend to your fellow Americans?
Carol - I’m weary of the Bukowski craze. It’s primarily a guy thing, I think -- a sex thing. Americans are so sexually obsessed, perhaps so emotionally hungry, that they still get off on shock value, and the romanticized getting drunk/out of control appeals to Americans who lead lives controlled by others (clock in clock out).
Ginsberg, well… yeah, ok, Howl. Whitman and Williams, ho hum. I just never related, so I’d better shut up. They’re gonna kill me over here. Wallace Stevens went to my law school (way before I did, of course) and actually, he’s my favorite of all the writers you’ve mentioned … very cerebral, imaginatively philosophical. Shakespeare? Everyone who talks literary has to talk about Shakespeare, as if nobody had written anything significant in any culture before he came along. Well, there’s also Dickens and Joyce. They’re popular in literary circles. Some of us go crazy over Kafka and Camus.
Mad Hatters’ Review has published a few Aussie poets, including Rae Desmond Jones and MTC Cronin, both wonderful, and there are the Scottish ones, the English and French ones we’ve published, and an American Icelandic poet. I don’t read all that much poetry, to tell the truth. I don’t read much of anything except submissions, and writings by my friends, though I’m managing to get through a collection by the late Jane Bowles. Not enough time. Occasional poems in offbeat journals tickle my fancy. Contemporary American poets: I love include early Merwin (“The Lice”), Edwin Torres, Sheila Murphy and Stephanie Strickland. I’m into frictions and fusions, prose poems of the lyrical as opposed to flash variety. Why do I think Americans don’t read great writers from overseas? Other than top sellers like Salmon Rushdie and Zadie Smith, and Angela Carter, contemporary foreign writers aren’t sufficiently marketed. It’s all about marketing, mediocrity, popularity, charisma, beauty, sex appeal, networking, accessibility of language and …money, as in follow the money. Of course, there’s also “sensibility” to consider. And youth. America’s in love with youth. Nothing original about that observation. One reason that Obama’s been doing so well, at the moment. Also, I guess people assume that because he’s relatively young, he’ll change things. Assumptions are dangerous things.
Anyway, the literary fiction (not counting the so-called genres such as speculative fiction, which I write, to some extent) tends to offer accessible uber “realism” ad nauseam; and “minimalism” is in vogue. There’s little interest in the sounds and rhythms of language, metaphor, strong imagery. To me, the predominant fiction’s like furnishings by IKEA and Castro Convertibles, mostly beiges and browns.
One of my favorite poets is Rilke. I also love Yeats. My absolute favorite writer of all time is Beckett, whose plays are poetry. I’m in love with lyricism, rhythm, the music of language (no, I’m not talking rant/hip-hop poetry, aka Slam). Americans these days aren’t generally in love with the music of poetry or prose. Lyricism’s out of fashion. They want poems and stories they can relate to and they want everything to make sense as if the world made sense and they think A is causally related to B and B to C…. blah blah blah. The general public, including most publishers and journal editors, want “safe,” easy music, “safe” literature that conforms to the established rules (eg, in fiction: plot, character development, arc, resolution). They love the confessional, suicidal poets like Plath and Sexton. Though Plath was an incredible poet. Emily Dickinson’s way too minimal and earthly to suit my taste. End of rant. Just my opinions which are worth no more than anyone else’s. I get in trouble all the time. Women should be agreeable.
I don’t know what non-American poets I’d recommend to students other than the writers we publish and the dead ones I’ve mentioned, plus Lorca and Neruda and and a few others I can’t think of at the moment, though I have a new friend, Tony Sanders, who’s an excellent poet and lyrical to boot. I spent many years of my life NOT reading poetry.
Dee - In truth, the accusations I've levelled at the USA could equally be levelled at most countries. Here, in Scotland, high school kids rarely study anything other than Scottish poetry. The nearest they get to foreign poetry is Seamus Heaney (Ireland) and Ted Hughes (England); and their only experience of American poetry is through Sylvia Plath and T.S. Eliot who for all intents and purposes became naturalised Brits. So, lets say you luck out and get a highly paid job teaching American poetry to ignorant Brits. Who are you going to introduce us to?
Carol - As I’ve said, I’m interested in writers focused on language, whether they’re writing “poetry” or “prose.” Also, writers who are actually saying something universally profound in an original, surprising manner, rather than memoirishly confessional, and therefore emotionally accessible. Ho hum. I’ve taught “lyrical writing” in workshop context, introducing my students to lyrical and rhythmical passages by writers few people (other than coteries of “literary” writers and their readers) have heard of. Apart from the American poets I’ve mentioned above, I’d introduce British students to both fiction and poetry writers Donald Barthelme, Steve Tomasula, Lydia Davis, and Martin Nakell. I’m sure you’ve heard of Barthelme, but not the others. Of course, there’s Gertrude Stein, as well! And quite a few others, possibly including Rikki Ducornet and Harold Jaffe, whom we’ll be publishing. I need to read more.
Dee - And what about Australian poets? You spent six years over in Australia, is it the cultural backwater that most Brits think it is?
Carol - I don’t think so. There are some very fine Australian poets, as I’ve said above. I had lots of poet friends down under and I’m in correspondence with a few of them. My favorites are not the most renowned and published. But I’m not all that au currant on the present scenario over there.
Dee - Okay, getting close to wrapping up now. You spent 20 years as a lawyer. So, you 'll be able to answer this question with some authority. Is the law an ass?
Carol - The law is a white rabbit what falls into black holes.
Dee - Finally, you've just finished a gruelling interview and it's time to kick back and chill out. You pour yourself a glass of wine and choose a DVD to watch. So, what's it going to be "Erin Brokovich" or "Plath"?
Carol - Oh good grief, neither. Inland Empire’s more my speed.
© Dee Sunshine & Carol Novack, 2008