Lucy Ives is the author of the novel Impossible Views of the World, and of many mixed-genre works, including nineties and The Worldkillers. She has also contributed two stories to this magazine. I have admired her work and ability to connect the literary dots since I first met her in 2009, when she ran an extraordinary reading series in Ridgewood, Queens. We talked via email about her new novel Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World, a book in which a chiseled flimflammer takes a distinguished MFA program by storm with the reluctant participation of a talented agoraphobe.
Let’s start with the when and where. The time in which you set the book is recent enough to remember well, but also feels like a totally different era, a time when Britney Spears kissing Madonna was shocking and the internet was almost quaintly unobtrusive. What drew you to set the book then, and why does a character like Troy Loudermilk flourish in 2003? Could he exist in 2019, when everything is a scam?
It’s a good question. I think the burgeoning popularization of the internet in this historical moment is one key to understanding the worldview of my main character, Loudermilk, who is an oddly low-stakes con artist. Loudermilk’s imagination is at once limited and limitless: He can have a vision of ‘taking over’ a poetry-writing program by means of his own good looks combined with the literary excellence of his ghostwriter/poet-proxy, but the spoils he gains through this elaborate scam (involving moving halfway across the country and lying to people all the time about something he knows very little about) are a meager graduate-student stipend and health insurance.
Loudermilk has a certain amount of information about the world and how to manipulate it, but perhaps not too much – certainly not as much with someone with a will and a browser today. He’s just coming to understand the possibilities implied by email and other platforms affording fungible identities online. He’s thinking a lot about the power of avatars, but he’s not all that clear on what this means. He, like everyone else in the US at this time, has just watched as a war was sold to the public using completely cooked up ‘proofs’, aluminum tubes with ambiguous applications and fake vials of anthrax and so on. There’s a feeling of fantastical flexibility in this moment, combined with a naiveté regarding history I think younger Americans, who have watched this war that was new in 2003 wind violently on and also experienced the financial crisis of 2008 (not to mention the election of the current president), no longer possess.
But I do think that (putatively/in theory) in 2019 Loudermilk is still going strong. Only by now he’s respectable.
‘Respectable’ is such an interesting concept – of course he would be respectable now. He would likely have a large following on Twitter.
So Loudermilk is a hot dummy, albeit a street-smart one. You describe his friend Harry, the reluctant brains of the operation, as undersized and generally unattractive. This made me think of the medieval conflation of goodness and beauty. How much were you working from archetypes in these characters? There are certainly archetypes in MFA programs (i.e. ‘guy in your MFA’); how did that come in to play? I also must ask if you drew from your own MFA experiences.
Loudermilk has a particular idea about the classroom. Poems are tokens exchanged in a game played by avatars called ‘authors’. Loudermilk knows that originality doesn’t matter; it’s all about authenticity. He sees how undergraduate poets are trying to give their personal suffering form. But he’s such a damaged person that when he sees this he just starts looking for a way to monetize it. Like, Oh look, my classmates’ tears are an amazing renewable resource! Loudermilk finds someone who is suffering and whose suffering he abets. He enables his friend Harry’s agoraphobic tendencies and constant low-level panic, even as he pretends that he’s trying help Harry. He creates a situation in which Harry is isolated from other people, a sort of factory for lyricism. This partnership, if you can call it that, between Loudermilk and Harry, allegorizes something I saw in real poetry workshops when I was an MFA student. Students were encouraged to make themselves vulnerable and praised, in turn, for self-exposure. Often the teacher hadn’t developed a more sophisticated take on what a poem is. In these classes, you were effectively trapped in a nineteenth-century paradigm.
Thus, Loudermilk isn’t just a type of MFA student. He’s the one MFA student you would never, ever meet. He’s impossibly aware of how the system functions, not just at the level of the administration, but at the very level of genre. Loudermilk gets genre in a preternatural way, and he sees that the program is hardwired to be exploited by someone who understands the lyric as he does. Also, as one of his classmates notes, he looks like an underwear model, so he’s that guy, too.
I will readily admit that my last question included a reductive summary of these two characters for the sake of creating a duality. Really this book seems to me to be about watching Loudermilk – Harry watches Loudermilk interact in person (and via taped conversations, if listening can be watching); other characters watch Loudermilk to try to solve what they think is the mystery of him. And Loudermilk understands and uses his own inherent watchability. Could you talk a bit about watching and identity in the novel?
I think ‘inherent watchability’ is a great phrase. Loudermilk is indeed a very visible guy.
Regarding identity: Whether this program is entirely homogeneous, there’s a way in which its curriculum assumes a kind of reproduction of a white, hetero, middle-class existence, with the difference that the person who’s participating in this existence is an artist (rather than a white-collar worker). Of course, who gets to be an/the artist is in question. This seems to be part of the reason that two of the main characters, Marta and Don Hillary, who are married to one another and who are both instructors in the program, are about to get divorced. The problem in their relationship is that Marta, who is younger than Don and was originally his student, turns out to be the better poet. In some unspoken code maybe only Don cares about, he’s supposed to be the real poet in the relationship, and she was only supposed to be his hot student, but it turns out she’s very successful. He’s still teaching in the program with her, but he’s not doing as well.
The program was founded by a (fictional) man named Rainer Dodds, who famously had a special relationship with Henry Ford. Dodds was interested in the mid-century cultural ascendency of America. The poets who came after him in the program all wrote the kind of poetry that received critical attention in academia during each of their lifetimes. It was very orderly. Each of the poets had a personal critic, and whenever one of the poets published a book a great review would come out in a prestigious journal, and everyone would be like, Oh goodness this program has the best poets, everything makes sense! My guess is that there started to be a problem around Don Hillary’s generation. Marta, a woman, appeared as the star instructor-writer, and it made the program start to fall apart. This is what Loudermilk is encountering, and there’s a sense in which maybe Loudermilk is going to be the one to show the program that it doesn’t actually have to change. That’s the awful hope. The other students are not consciously aware of this. Many of them are conciliatory and admire their teachers and just want everything to go well, so they aren’t thinking about all this stuff very critically. And this is what makes it possible for Loudermilk to exploit their watching.
Marta and Don’s relationship is fascinating, and so tiring to think about, especially given all of the context you provide in this answer. And it’s certainly there in the reading – you give every named character a weight and a developed personal story, even if you don’t reveal everything about them. Rainer Dodds, who is a huge part of the mythos of the Seminars, is mentioned once, I think. I read in the afterword that you worked on this book for a long time, and imagine you cut a great deal – what is your revision process like? I’m especially interested in the removal aspect, given that you’ve created such a complete world. How do you decide what to leave out?
I’m sorry if I went on a bit long about Marta and Don. I do seem to know a lot about them! And Rainer Dodds. (More I could tell you about Dodds, too, like that he was named after a certain poet and at one time had a Polish last name that was anglicized.)
Regarding revision: I recently discovered about forty-thousand words of a novel that I was writing around the time when I began Loudermilk. Loudermilk was originally just a subplot in this novel, which had the working title of, of all things, ‘Realism’. I groan typing this. ‘Realism’ was about a man who teaches writing at an American university, who is writing a novel about two idiots who attempt to defraud an MFA program. I can’t believe I’m telling you this. It was not a good idea! I eventually saw that ‘Realism’ was a boring campus novel and that I should just get rid of this frame and concentrate on Loudermilk, which was really my novel and which was where the action was, anyway.
This anecdote gives a sense of how I do a lot of the thinking that allows me to write fiction: Most of my stories and my two novels have come out of thinking about some setting in which writing or artistic creation could occur, and the narrative, so called, emerges from this imagined nexus. For me, narratives are always tied to and emerging from other narratives; there is no single beginning, no origin. So on some level you have to sort of flip a coin or hope that the voice that comes to you will give you permission to (gently) separate it from its siblings and other sorts of contexts. This is also why both of my novels contain so much media and inset writing: poems, short stories, other documents; descriptions of images, archival metadata, traces of the internet and so on. Everything I write wants to be with something else.
‘Everything I write wants to be with something else’ is a perfect summary. And Don and Marta are only tiring to think about in the sense that I know that story from being in an MFA and dating poets and being a woman and living in America. But your writing is not tiring in the least. In fact, something we have not yet talked about is that this novel is also really fucking funny. Your particularity with detail is sharp and absurd – I laughed on the train as I read the passage where drunk Don casually sings ‘She’s Homeless’ by Crystal Waters while he putters around in the kitchen. And Loudermilk’s speech patterns – you deploy bro-talk at the level of a native speaker, and it’s brilliantly funny. What’s the role of humor in your work, and what kinds of things are funny to you?
I’m glad that the book made you laugh. I really want readers to laugh; I wrote many of the scenes feeling a mixture of rage and mystification, at what the characters were willing to do, how poorly they understood themselves. I wanted to bring those mixed emotions into a space/form by means of which I could share them with other people. Laughter seems to signal that we have understood something together. Or, since I know that there are many kinds of laughter, I wanted to draw pictures that would cultivate a sort of laughter that might make me, the writer, and you, the reader, feel less alone. I’m not sure what it is that we are in together, but I do think there’s something in laughing when you read that generates a feeling of connection – and you realize that this connection was there all along, even before you read the thing that made you laugh and even before you laughed. This effect also seems to hint at a series of relationships: between and among politics, art and the unfolding of language in time. The US has long been famous for its humor – but lately I haven’t been finding things that make me laugh in the way I most want to. Much of the time I catch myself laughing knowingly or bitterly. Although this novel might give rise to some knowing and/or bitter laughter, I don’t see it as primarily concerned with that sort of relationship between affect and public life. I want it to drum up a thrilling sort of laughter and maybe even a warming sort of laughter. I want to help, if this is not presumptuous of me to say, with the tension we experience and with despair.
This makes sense to me. I don’t think, in 2019, I can find anything solely funny. It’s always mixed with something else. I’m also not drawn to comedy, so when something is funny, it’s a surprise. This book made me laugh several times, and it definitely triangulates toward a kind of humor that is shared and experience-based rather than detached. This seems optimistic to me, so I wanted to know – do you feel your work is optimistic?
I’m one of those weird people who always knew what she wanted to do as a person. I wasn’t very good at reading or writing when I was a small kid, but I loved to hold books and look at them, and once I got better at reading I had all sorts of weird observations and convictions about them, in a way that seems pretty eccentric to me now. One of my convictions was that all the work that could be done with literary writing had not been done yet. I was absolutely certain that there was more to describe, and more precisely. I was also certain that there were many things that were not yet ‘in’ books, whatever this means. It was around when I was realizing these, er, realizations that I also made myself swear to a sort of contract in relation to writing: that I would do it, and that I would do it with certain ends, that I would try. I guess I was about ten or eleven at this time. Everything I do is in dialogue with this imperious very young person. And I suppose there is something optimistic in working in this way, in being accountable to someone who believes that a great deal is possible. It’s probably not the work itself that is optimistic but rather my way of thinking about the possibilities of narrative.
Photographs courtesy of the authors