Mathew Gavin Frank is an essayist, poet, and a former professional chef. His most recent books of prose are The Mad Feast (2015), a collection of lyric essays masquerading as a cookbook, and Preparing the Ghost (2014), a book-length, tangent-chasing essay concerning the first photograph of a giant squid. He came to Iowa City to read from The Mad Feast, lead a discussion of Sarah Vap’s End of the Sentimental Journey, and recite James Dickey’s “The Sheep Child” while standing on a table. Later, he joined us for lunch at a local diner that offers fresh takes on classic Midwestern standards or, in this case, chicken wings with slightly-above-average hot sauce. There was a thirty minute wait for a table, in which time we took refuge in a quiet back alley and, huddled around a dumpster, talked about the essay.
ER You started off in poetry. When did you start to write essays? Do you have an essayist coming out story?
MGF The self-serving answer is boundless curiosity. Unrepentant curiosity. But, I guess I should have thought about this before we were standing in this back alley.
As a poet, I began writing longer and longer poems and then busting them out of verse, writing essentially these flash essays. I didn’t necessarily know what they were but I did feel like a lot of those flash prose pieces were embodying the same sort of imaginative alchemy I was using when writing poetry. Essentially, I was taking two (or more) seemingly dissimilar things and attempting to find the perfect third ingredient that could bridge them, that could create the impression that their marriage was driving towards some version of a truth. I come from a long line of folks who suffer from OCD, and I feel as though I’ve learned to channel that by latching onto certain bits of ephemera—be it the first photograph of a giant squid or something as mundane as deep-dish pizza—then scratching and scratching at those crumbs of subject matter until their inner holiness or horror begins to leak out. Writing essays is a healthier way to engage with these consuming obsessions than triple-checking the locks every night before bed.
ER This is such a thing, isn’t it? Poets turning essayists. Why do you think that’s happening?
MGF I don’t know. Are there more poets-turned-essayists than essayists-turned-poets? I’m not sure. I’ve always been the sort of person who loved testing the perimeters of a subject and sometimes that means writing about it in a poetic form and sometimes it means writing about it in an essayistic form. The secret is that when I went back to do my M.F.A. in poetry I took a lot of creative nonfiction courses there. My thesis was a book of poetry, but on the side I also wrote a draft of my first nonfiction book. I also retranslated Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, because—at the time—I spoke Italian fairly decently. Calvino expressed reservations about William Weaver’s translation. He hated it, actually. But Weaver was a friend of his and his wife’s. I thought the translation sucked, that it lacked the sound play of the original, and so I retranslated it and tried to introduce some of the sonic leaps that Calvino had made.
ER Did you do anything with it?
MGF A publisher did want to pick it up, and I was in contact with Calvino’s estate, with his agent and through him his widow. But it turned out she—the widow—had apparently developed a relationship with William Weaver so she shut it all down.
ER A romantic relationship?
MGF Yeah, such was the rumor. A close relationship. She said, “We don’t want another version of Invisible Cities out there right now.” I don’t know if she was referring to herself and William Weaver or herself and Calvino’s ghost.
ER Maybe she made Weaver dress up as Calvino….
MGF Wouldn’t that be amazing? I would love to be a voyeur to that. But it all will become public domain in 2035 so I’m saving up hope. But, yes, this is all to say, I feel like I’ve always written in various genres. So I don’t know why poets become nonfiction writers, but I feel as if when the lyric essay—whether you love or hate that term—became, at least in the cloisters, the form in which we operate and thrive, a lot of poets found their segue into prose. It gave them permission to make all these crazy leaps, put them into a prose piece, and see what happens.
ER Speaking about that tangent into Mrs. Calvino’s seedy romance, your recent books are known for their digressions: A giant squid in Newfoundland might lead to ice cream, which might lead to the demographics of Chicago, to your family’s history, to songwriting, and back again to giant squid. How do you know when to digress? How do you know when it’s time to loop back around? Do your nominal topics determine your digressions by organic association, or do you search for topics that can accommodate things that you’re already thinking about? That is, are you revealing your actual process on the page?
MGF A version of it. Of course it’s not the process because, then, of course, these books would be horrible. Our allegiance is to the art over facts, to the art over any kind of fetishization of representing process. Even though I lean towards that, I know that sometimes those moves can be artful and sometimes they can be… not artful. So, for me, I digress not necessarily to—well, this might sound funny, but I don’t digress in a linear fashion. All of the digressions that remain in Preparing the Ghost or The Mad Feast didn’t necessarily occur as I was writing the piece straight through. I imposed a lot of digressions in subsequent drafts because I thought of other things that I was interested in that could leash up in some way to the primary subject matter. In terms of process, I would describe it in the terms of architectural diagrams, the schematics they draw—blueprints, I guess they’re called. They have those onion skins—those perfectly thin sheets of paper—they lay down over the primary blueprint. They lay down onion skin on top of onion skin and, almost as if it were animated, you can see the building coming together. If you lay down that perfect number of onion skins you have this lovely finished building which a reader can inhabit. But one too many onion skins and, of course, the building collapses and then you need to start peeling back. Sometimes, yes, it is a struggle to know when to stop.
ER Speaking of that difficulty, we had a question about working outside the traditions of narrative. How do you maintain momentum, how do you come to a climax, in something like a lyric essay that’s dealing in digressions, that’s using a more associative logic?
MGF I’m trying to be clear and avoid metaphor…. Surprise matters. If the writer is surprised by the bits of ancillary subject matter that attach themselves to the main thread, then there can be the illusion of narrative and journey. Actually, fuck it. I will speak about it metaphorically. Think about a meadow. Sometimes I feel as if I have a destination in mind at the other side of this meadow, and as I’m walking towards it all these burrs start attaching themselves to my pant cuffs and shoe laces. They’re uncomfortable and they even hurt a bit and they need to be wrangled with rather than ignored for me to get towards that destination in a meandering sort of way. I feel like picking at those digressions, stopping and starting, allows both the writer and reader to be surprised and can, in a weird way, ratchet up the same sense of suspense they experience in traditional narrative and plot, even if the medium and intent are different.
ER So it’s the burrs that actually make the journey?
MGF Yeah. Basically, the reader is watching the writer paint themselves into a corner and wondering: how are they going to get out of this? How are they going to get back to, you know, the photograph of the giant squid or the Minnesota hot dish? That’s exciting for me. We’re blessed with the ability to manipulate connection between anything we want, however seemingly dissimilar. We can do it with research, with leaps of language, with other kinds of imaginative alchemy. It’s our duty to manipulate and I think a responsible reader turns to art in order to be manipulated.
ER Many of your essays in The Mad Feast read like embodiments of the places, the people, and the histories that you’re writing about. But they’re also subversive. Murder shows up in Connecticut clam chowder, we find accused witches pressed to death in the layers of our Boston cream pie. Wherever we go to satisfy our hunger, we find the aftertaste of hardship and violence. Maybe it can be said essays want to do two things: They want to embody an experience, to resurrect it on the page, but they also want to pick it apart, to critique it. How do you balance those impulses?
MGF It’s always a struggle to balance passion and affection with critique and indictment. Segmentation helps; you can live in one segment at a time. Actually, I originally wrote The Mad Feast in segments, before shoehorning it out of that form after some editorial advice and rendering it paragraph by paragraph, which actually increased the disjointedness in a way I really appreciated. There are these strange about-faces from the sensual to the clinical, from the scene at hand (or the dish at hand) to a critique of it through some lens that bears the smudges of historical atrocity or beautiful regional history. It can be similar to how one balances two I-voices in a piece, the I-in-action and the I-in-reflection. The I-in-action runs along the surface of the piece gathering up all the sensory detail and passionate responses to the experience at hand; the I-in-reflection runs beneath that, as if in an underground current. Every so often and—like whack-a-mole or a spike on an electrocardiogram machine—the I-in-reflection punches through and decides to comment on the scene at hand. Then, of course, it repeats and the I-in-action continues to move forward as if unaware.
ER Has there been any singular influence on your essaying?
MGF I love W.G. Sebald. When I realized he was dead—I knew he was dead, but when that really hit me that he was dead and that I’d never get to share a meal with him—it was a really depressing moment. Reading Rings of Saturn was a game-changer for me as a young essayist. It read, for me, like a guidebook to digression, for drawing that chalk outline around the subject matter. He doesn’t talk about all the atrocities that attended the Holocaust in the book, not directly. Instead, he talks about the atrocities enacted on silk worms, because any way of writing about those sorts of atrocities would immediately trivialize and so you had to find a different way to talk about them. It’s like turning away from the stars. When you’re looking straight at the stars, sometimes of them are indistinct, you need to turn sideways and glimpse them from the periphery to bring them into focus. I think that’s what Sebald was doing, and it taught me quite a bit.
Apparently he was just a silent man. He refused to talk to people. He would give one-word answers; it would have been like the Oprah/Cormac McCarthy interview. He would just sit there and say nothing at the dinner table. But I wanted that in life. I wanted to sit across from Sebald and feel awkward while he said nothing and twirled his spaghetti.
ER So which of the dishes from The Mad Feast would you have shared with Sebald?
MFG Now, this is going to require a bit of thought. There are easy answers: beaver tail, rat stew… but, no. You know what I’d want to eat with Sebald? The Moravian Spice Cookies I wrote about for North Carolina. They’re these super thin, fragile, heavily spiced cookies. A lot of the pumpkin pie spices go in them, clove and cinnamon and nutmeg and allspice, so the flavor is heavy-handed but the texture is just ephemeral, almost like a Listerine strip. They just dissolve. That gauzy texture, that heavy flavor, that’s just the kind of confusion-in-the-mouth I’d want to share with W.G.
ER What is the future of the essay? Where do you see it going in twenty years? That might be a cute place to end this discussion.
MGF Well, I think we’re eventually going to give the essay, give our essaying qualities—as we do with most of our human qualities and abilities—over to the machines. The future of the essay lies in the machines we build to essay. So, robots. That’s what I’m saying. Robots will write for us, and we’ll simply respond.
ER Robots searching for that universal robotic truth? Code on the page? A loose sally of nuts and bolts?
MGF Yes. Or maybe we’ll hire robots to do the responding too. Wouldn’t that be something?