Interview by Sarah Earle and Alyssa Martino
Last week, Barnstorm published Richard Vivian’s nonfiction essay, "Looking, Then Listening." The editors were so intrigued by this interesting, chaotic, and quite lovely form that we had to know more. So, we’re publishing a supplementary interview with Robert about what he calls, “dervish essays.”
Robert is an Assistant Professor of English at Alma College in Michigan, and also teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts low residency MFA program. He is author of The Tall Grass Trilogy, Water And Abandon, and two collections of meditative essays, Cold Snap As Yearning and The Least Cricket Of Evening. He has written more than twenty plays produced off and off-off Broadway, and his work has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Creative Nonfiction, Glimmertrain, Georgia Review, and elsewhere. He’s currently working on a collection of dervish essays.
Barnstorm: How would you define the dervish essay?
Robert Vivian: This is really a timely question because I started writing dervish essays almost exactly a year ago. How would I define this form? One thing I have noticed is that these prose pieces are driven by anaphora and by a seeking to connect disparities large and small, which in no way makes them unique because that's what metaphor does. I think the biggest thing is the impetus behind the writing of them: more and more I'm beginning to like the intense and focused use of language. They are my love letters to the world, as strange as this must sound.
B: How does it differ from poetry or even prose poems?
RV: I think the dervish essays come out of poetry, but my ability to write poetry is probably best embodied in prose. I'm okay with this seeming contradiction. As [Czeslaw] Milosz once said in an interview, "Contradictions feed us and can't be overcome." I probably write my best poetry in prose. It's the container I've been given to use.
B: What are the benefits or challenges of the dervish essay?
RV: The biggest challenge I've encountered thus far in writing dervish essays is that I have no idea where they come from, or how they wrap themselves up in a whirlwind. I'm at their complete mercy. And I've wondered about this because writing novels, for instance, has involved for me a greater measure of control. I have no control whatever in the writing of a dervish essay. And more and more, I'm beginning to think that lyrical writing is a form of chemical urgency—it's not a feeling that can be forced or faked. But when it happens, when I feel it, it's unmistakable. It's a mania of language.
B: How do you know when you’re finished writing one?
RV: I know when I've finished writing a dervish essay when the last line surprises me, when I sense the whirlwind is about to expire. Yes, it's visceral, and yes, it’s spiritual. I less end them then they take me to a brink and I fall over into silence.
B: You’ve published in many genres, from poetry to plays to prose. How has this helped you explore new territory, push the boundaries between genres, or even create new forms?
RV: I've worked in all the genres because I'm ever hungry for new forms; I never want to stop discovering, learning, experimenting. I've written about this in a lecture I once gave at Vermont College of Fine Arts called, “The Second Innocence Of Genre.” When I turn to a new genre, I have what Buddhists call “Beginner's Mind.” It's maybe/probably the best frame of mind to have because it is open and receptive to what comes. It exercises post-critical naïveté.
B: In "Thoughts on the Meditative Essay," published in Numéro Cinq, you write, “It’s good and helpful to realize that there really are no boundaries in this form in terms of style-content: they are, like we are, personal, quirky, and idiosyncratic—but they also come out of an over-arching universal that ultimately binds all of us together.” How does your work explore this universality, these larger truths about humankind?
RV: Any writer or artist who loves, and I mean really, really loves, his or her art form can't help but address universal truths and mysteries about the human condition. I don't write for myself but out of myself: the different prepositions here are key. Sooner or later I'll be nothing but dust: ditto the reader, ditto everyone. Yet I'm ineffably touched by poets like Rumi and Hafiz who continue to speak to so many of us. Love, light, shadow, darkness, suffering: is there a human being alive who does not somehow grapple with these? We are the universal in our own particular and individual form. Simone Weil: "Contradiction is the lever of transcendence." My puny little ol' me is a gateway to the universe. And so is a pebble of sand and a shoehorn—so is everything that is.
B: How do you think the word “genre” will evolve over the next twenty years, especially within the writing/literary community?
RV: Because I work in academia, I have to talk about genre a fair amount. But as a creative writer, it frankly bores me to tears. If I had to stake everything as a teacher and artist, I'd have to say that all written forms—if they are good, if they are kinetic—come out of poetry. Any play I have written is a poem—and so is every novel and essay. I write in these different forms to write poetry. It's all quite simple and mysterious. As Milosz also writes in one of his poems, “The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.” I won't go into my own stupidity because it would take up too much space. But the one vow I have been truthful to is trying to live the life of a poet—albeit one who writes in different forms. At least I have been true to that if nothing else.