I Wanted Something Sharp – An Interview With Kate Wyer

Kate Wyer’s Pushcart-nominated story, “Radio Ferry, Tern Mouth,” appears in Unsaid 7.

Blades

UNSAID: Your story has the sense of expectancy I associate with Beckett, yet you don’t seem to share his utter bleakness of vision. In place of Beckett’s terminal culture, you seem to substitute an interminable drive in nature. Have you passed through Beckett to something new or have you arrived at this place through other means?

KW: I have passed through Beckett. In one of my art classes, the teacher showed a video of Billie Whitelaw’s performance of Not I. The mouth and driving repetition stayed with me. Of all of his work, that play is the one I can point to as most influencing my writing. My story isn’t quite as bleak, but it is still bleak. The terns leave the two people for good, and that signals to the people no ferry will come, ever. The people are left to whatever there is after the waiting. Without the waiting, what will they do?

UNSAID: The radio is such a powerful imagine in modern literature, and your phrase “Our tuneless radio” seems to condense so much experience and sentiment, perhaps even nostalgia, into one discrete unit. Could you unpack that phrase for us a bit?

KW: I believe the phrase does have some nostalgia. For about five years I couldn’t listen to music on the radio. I could barely listen to music. I don’t know if that was entirely my frame of mind, or if it signaled something larger was happening—a general tunelessness. Even now I can take only so much music. Strangely, I started to make it a year and a half ago, well, make isn’t quite right. I started to learn how to make music and that means I have to listen to it first. I don’t participate in really hearing music though. I deconstruct it into patterns I can repeat. I think that at the core of this is a tunelessness I haven’t escaped. So, yes, I am nostalgic about how I once participated in listening.

UNSAID: I’m struck by your foregrounding of phonetics more than in previous work of yours, and by the image of the knife gate, a device for regulating flow. Do you find you have used this image to say something about the mechanics of the vocal apparatus?

KW: Knife gate was originally just the word sluice, but that word wasn’t entirely working. I went looking for another. I like that knife gate is jarring. It causes a moment of confusion, of slowing down. Sometimes I use sluice, sometimes I use knife gate. I was able to interchange the words and follow the sounds. When writing this story I knew that it was an unfamiliar word combination, and because it was unfamiliar it could seem like I made it up. Sluice, to my ear, creates more of a gradual, sliding closure. I wanted something sharp, I wanted knife. I wanting slamming a gate. I liked that I could interplay these phonetically and still keep the meaning the same. Spenser and the narrator want sound, but they don’t get it. Their words are restrained by waiting. The anticipation of sound is what moves this story forward. In this way, yes, the knife gate is silent and stagnant.

UNSAID: I’m also struck by the brevity of this piece, and the way it moves forward by way of repetition? To what extent does the simplicity of the visible text mask a complex writing process? Is the piece more the product of additive or subtractive composition? sedimentation, intrusion, or erosion? Or are you up to something different?

KW: I wrote this piece as an assignment in one of Peter Markus’s online workshops. The assignment was to analyze the poetry form sestina, and then write a story after choosing six words that will appear over and over in the piece. The sestina form was familiar to me, so instead of just analyzing the way it works (there are six words that repeat at the ends of very rigid stanza constructions), I went ahead and wrote a sestina first and then broke it apart. After I broke the story from stanzas, I added more story and more repetition. I’ve used the sestina as a way to generate new word combinations before, because the constraints force you to make things work and bring unexpected words together. If you read the story again, you will most likely be able to pick out my six root words. Ultimately, the constraints allowed me to build the waiting and the tension, because the story goes forward and then is forced back onto itself. To answer your question, it is built by addition and intrusion. And honestly, I was mostly up to having fun. I enjoy the challenge of constraints.

UNSAID: I know political engagement to be a central concern in your life, and yet this piece seems to be a detached subjective revery. Does such writing serve as a salutary and necessary respite from politics, or are there ways in which revery, lyricism or expression might relate more directly to outward action?

KW: This question took me by surprise! It gave me some insight into how I can be perceived—thank you for that. I wish that marching for climate justice didn’t have to be seen as a political action. I don’t see myself as involved in politics. The state of the planet causes me so much distress, so much anxiety, that to manage my anxiety, I control what I can control. To me, that means making deliberate choices and it means showing up at rallies to have fellowship with other people. I hope to be buoyed.

I don’t want to hit anyone over the head with a message. Even in Land Beast, where the narrator is a female rhino, I don’t ever come out and say poaching is wrong. That story happened after I woke up in the middle of the night with the image of the rhino’s chainsawed face. I didn’t set out to write an anti-poaching story. It wasn’t something that would have occurred to me to write.

I wanted her interior experience of external violence to be something with which people connected. However, I knew the story would not change a poacher’s mind. The most I could hope for would be to change a consumer’s mind, but that wasn’t on my mind at all when I was writing. There is that Kafka quote, I may not have it correctly, but I remember it as “I write so I can close my eyes.” I wrote that story to close my eyes to the horror. I know that if someone else wrote the story, it would upset me too much to read it. I would turn away. So, to answer your question, I do not actively analyze my process as being engaged in politics, or as a respite from political action. I write whatever comes. In a sense, all my writing is closing my eyes—be it to loss, or to violence, or to wanting.

UNSAID: Finally, I’m interested in your interest in life outside the economy of the human. Is there something in the thought or feel of action unencumbered by self-consciousness which informs or directs your writing?

KW: I put consciousness everywhere. In the rhino, in the terns, in sand crabs, and cows. For me, everything is encumbered with self. I throw my net of compassion wide and let it all in. I am driven to connect and process, and I try to do so without becoming overwhelmed.

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