Katherine Dunn and Portland’s Lost Generation

Katherine Dunn’s death has been bothering me all day since I read the news. Portland lost a great artist (Geek Love) with her passing, and I am unusually saddened, more so than I would have imagined.

I didn’t know the woman well, but I had a number of encounters with her over the years. I have a couple of quick anecdotes about her to share before presenting this interview Happy Home (David Sevedge) conducted with her back in 1978 for the lit pages of the community newspaper I worked on at the time.

First, her kindness and compassion for people, particularly other struggling artists, is now the stuff of legend. I had a taste of that many years ago, several times in fact. She once introduced me to another well-known author with this unforgettable tag line: “this is Terry Simons, a writer, and a fine one.”

I have no idea how true those words were back then, but they have happily stayed with me for all of these years.

I was serving her and her companion beer at the time in the Goose Hollow Inn! I was a borderline schlep, slogging through a bartending job, but I was also a young man trying to write and publish. She acknowledged that because she was a kind person and took a genuine interest in others’ creative endeavors.

I first met KD at the poetry readings that were “happenings” at the Long Goodbye a tavern/club in what is now known as Portland’s Pearl District, in the late seventies. A few years earlier, she’d published two novels (Attic and Truck), enough to qualify for stardom in my then worldview. Being a star in my mind, she intimidated me. But that was my problem, not hers.

When KD read her work at the Long Goodbye, what I remember was her voice, the sound of honey poured through something refined. It was deep and flat out sexy. She knew it and cultivated it and it was never wrong.

Some years later, I invited her to audition for a voice-over on a video project I was producing for Good Samaritan Hospital. I wanted her on the project, but was overruled by my boss, who went with another woman, a friend of his with a high, girlish, squeaky Valley Girl tenor. I was pissed, and I never told KD how much I liked her work, how I fought for her to win that, at the time, much needed contract. I regret that.

When my daughter was born in 1983, KD soon met her in our standby coffee shop that was then all the rage in Northwest Portland. She said, “Oh, my. She’ll be a real heartbreaker.”

What a thing to tell a new father! KD had a way with words, indeed.

My daughter’s mother, Linda, and I went over to KD’s house to watch the first Sugar Ray Leonard v. Tommy Hearns fight in 1981. She lived a half-block away from us. We got the invite to the watch party because my friend Peter Fritsch, another Goose Hollow patron, had only recently married KD. Fritsch was into the fight game, like KD, and a literary man (he introduced me to A Fan’s Notes, by Fredrick Exley, a novel that still resonates with me). For a time they seemed like the perfect pair.

The marriage didn’t last, but I am not concerned with that. (Peter was doing fine the last time I saw him, riding his motorbikes with a new woman.)

In the cloistered neighborhood of Nob Hill in Northwest Portland, for many years, with a nod, a smile, a quick hello in passing, the casual recognition from KD was common for all of us in the hood with literary and artistic dreams.

She finally made deep friendships with elites in the publishing world. Good for her. But she always had time for the rest of us as well.

She was an unforgettable woman, not just for her writing, but for her humble caring.

Portrait of the Genius at 33

Home Interviews Katherine Dunn

HH: When did you start writing, Katherine? Deep question.

KD: I began when I was about seven, starting out with the Chickencoop Theatre: then, the venue being usurped by a flock of Leghorns, I retired to an ancient pigpen out behind the barn, and there I produced a weekly newspaper with cartoons, editorials, human interest stories and a regular column devoted to the natural sciences. By the time I was ten, I was sitting in trees dressed all in green pretending to be Robin Hood cum Tarzan. By then, I was fantasizing my first conversations with editors. They adored me, kissed my ever so discreet knees.

HH: What do you think of Mallarmé’s dictum “Poems are not made up of ideas, they are made of words?”

KD: On one level, I definitely agree. I don’t think there is such a thing as an idea without words, because your language is your thought.

HH: An idea’s not merely a concept, it’s a concept that has been elaborated, spun out in the manner of a spider; it’s been rarefied from its origin.

KD: And it’s been communicated from one cell of your brain to another.

HH: Right, if they’re not communicable, they’re not ideas, only vague notions, mere spectra.

KD: That’s why if you can’t write something, you don’t know it. And most people today can’t write a goddamn thing. Not a greeting card, unassisted. It’s a tragedy, an outright altogether terrifying tragedy.

HH: Do you think “Life imitates Art,” as Wilde averred?

KD: I wouldn’t know, H, I’m not a politician. My own theory about the phlegmatic qualities and properties of the English is the mountain of pure white sugar hydrocarbons they consume every day bloody day of the year—the stiff upper lip is petrified sugar, that’s Bermuda’s revenge, the with death, the rotting future square in the teeth of it. I’ve come to the conclusion that the whole purpose of various forms of art is that they are roadmaps, reliable guides to assist you to reach this particular point of high. I think it is the natural and innate function of certain organisms to secrete beauty in permanent forms we call artworks, to respond to beauty by answering its discovery with a new beauty.

HH: Any plugs you’d like to get in Katherine?

KD: Yes, I would like to plug the recently published volume of poems by my friend H. Home, “Pearls Snatched from Lethe,” on sale at $3.50. It is a very unusual form of poetry—unusual in this day and age—that is exquisitely fashioned and so incredibly disciplined and structurally profound, an incredible lyric dance of the mind, that we really owe it to ourselves to pay close attention to this genius strain of work, better than Coleridge’s, happening right here in our midst. Also, Jay Rothbell, a surrealist poet of genuine merit, and John Shirley, a writer of brilliant science fiction, both of whose work is becoming available in bookstores now. Also, everybody with an interest in contemporary literature ought to frequent the Tuesday night miracle at the Long Goodbye.

HH: Thank you, Katherine; you can pick up your check at the office any time after five. Has calligraphy had a bearing on the content of your work?

KD: I think it has to some degree, because I like the way the stuff looks on the page, and I like the feel of it. It’s a very musical feel. Writing that way feels like talking; it feels like the words sound, it’s almost onomatopoetic. And it’s really very satisfying to get a very lilting flow of ascenders and descenders, to get a nice rhythmic structure set up. It’s very Irish in its intonation.

HH: At what age do you expect to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Katherine?

KD: Probably right around 55. I figure I’ll need it about then…a little boost to my ego.

HH: Do you consider yourself a metaphysical author?

KD: Yes, actually, I do.

HH: Do you believe in reincarnation?

KD: No, I don’t. I’m open-minded about it for other people, but for myself, I’m convinced that this is my first time, and this is also my last time. An intimate core of my being recognizes that there is nothing in me that can go on, there is no spark, there is no infestation of vaporous miasma that has the capacity to continue, and there is nothing in me that wishes to continue. This moment is for me all that there is, and I’m willing to accept it. I’m a worm, I have no soul. For other people, I’m willing to acknowledge there might be possibilities. As for me, I stick with the mollusks. In a funny kind of way, I’ve always considered myself a rather profound mystic, but my mysticism simply has been the defiance of chaos, in a cheerful enough way, of course.

HH: Something I realize about my own work is if you don’t like the content, you won’t like the Arab; non-analogously, is the content the form in your work?

KD: The content absolutely dictates the form.

HH: You don’t hold with the romance of madness, do you? Do you think great things can be done out of hallucinations, delirium, saturnalias, opium dreams, the whole banshee shebang, the Dionysian architectonics and deified machinations of “artificial paradises?”

KD: I don’t actually know. It’s something I’ve been curious about lately. I’ve been studying the Surrealists for a while, and I’m identifying not with the productions, but with the assembly line, the sensibility that produced them. The idea that what is necessary is an explosion of what is normally perceived as a reality, so that you can, in looking through the cracks, discern that thing which lies out there haunting us with its whispering. You get these little glimpses by cracking through, evidently. I think that the basic disruption of reality to allow perception has to operate on a purely stone-sober level. And it seems to be that’s far more effective, and that’s what’s happening. I have never worked stoned, not at all. I have to stay absolutely straight. I drink coffee, and that’s the extent of it. Because you can put your head in the place where all that goes on anyway, and you’ve got a lot more control over it, so you can turn and examine what you need to, when you’re straight. I hold with the Apollonian outlook; it works longer because it’s not self-destructive. If I don’t work on any given day, I really suffer this cottonmatherish affliction of puritanical guilt that this day has been lost, I’ve accomplished nothing. I’ve moved no further along that line of learning I have to go through, my novicehood is abruptly halted HERE. Today I am not a writer, because I have not written. As long as I’ve done that work that day, I can survive anything—the Rockies may fall, the Rock of Gibraltar may tumble over, but I can go on without suffering nervous diarrhea.

HH: Is this perilously close to one of the myriad subspecies of solipsism, Katherine?

KD: Not at all, it’s pure sheer responsibility of the worker to his tools and to his work itself. Something I realized a long time ago was that if I didn’t do my work, nobody else was going to come along and do it for me, or at all, for anybody, not now, not tomorrow, not ever.

HH: Do you believe people can be taught how to write?

KD: I’m afraid people have to teach themselves, and it takes a good hard long time to get any part or parcel of the hang of it, too—Rimbaud is the only child prodigy I can think of in literature. I mean, if you start to write when you’re fifty, it will not take much less time, and no less sweat, to get good at it, than it would have had begun the ascension of Parnassus at the age of ten, simply because language, the good old and everyday renewed stark naked mothertongue, is the most amazingly labyrinthine, the most devious craft-cunning of earthy and starry-cosmic plots and subplots of metaproto-hyper-mathematical superstructure any race of archangels could ever have thought up down and sideways/wise to provide them with enough sport play and pastime to while Eternity away, profitability of course. All the same, such solidarity-by-nature-and-vocation creatures as writers are and have to be, can use all the help they can get, from anybody who can give it or sell it to them. Plato wanted to be Aeschylus, and when he couldn’t master the tragedy in his hometown, he inflicted his blueprint for fascism on the world, gladly bequeathing any number of tragedies of political fashion to the subsequent non-Zen citizenries; still, the man must have had a hell of a sense of humor to have taken down the Dialogues. Deadpan or otherwise.

HH: Yeah, Socrates was as funny as Steve Martin. Sorry, Steve, no hard feeling, I hope. On the subject of funny things, you know I’ve never been able to fathom the craze for Henry James in American academe.

KD: Henry James is as stupid a jackass of pseudo hominid as ever stalked the face, hopefully averted, of the land. If Henry James was afflicted by, or in the simple possession of, an immortal soul, I wouldn’t have one if they offered me the store. Re: us mollusks—they thought we were spineless, but we’re pure guts.

HH: The Irish for you every time—though we are neither of us card carrying paid-in-full members of the Celtic Mystical Brotherhood and Motherly Order, you are perfectly and quintessentially Irish, Katherine, it is the magic of your language. For the next ten thousand years. Think of it, folks out there in TV land, that’s a lot of network seasons. I can’t thank you enough, Katherine. And a tip of the unpretentious Stetson to the Neighbor newspaper, the folks who make us possible. Oh, by the way, is there any tower you’d like to topple out there in the great heathenishness of modern Literature; have you been secretly lusting to even the score or one-up or thumbs down any “rival/competitor/contender: out there? Here’s your big chance, Kid, while still skirting the morass of libel, of course.

KD: Oh, no thanks, H. I don’t believe in hurting the living. For all its Spartanesque athleticism, the decathlonic rigors and exertions, Art is not a sport, nor has it any part in or of the nature of competition; there’s simply no combativeness to it. Artists waste their substance, their essence, and finally their lives fighting each other: it’s a dark ages arena of futility I don’t and won’t descend to.

HH: The blessed hath the blessed art; in a world of scapegoats, quick, give this woman the lordly wreath before the kids gnaw it up, in their sub-goatish lusts.

from Cold Eye: A Generation of Voices (Poems, Prose and Interviews from 1978 Portland, Oregon) Round Bend Press, 2011.

Terry Simons is the founder of Round Bend Press Books in Portland, Oregon.  This story is excerpted from his memoir of growing up in Oregon, A Marvelous Paranoia.