Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Interview with Kevin Powers

Kevin Powers talks to Colin about his critically acclaimed first novel, The Yellow Birds

Meet Kevin Powers on Friday, May 10th at 7:30 at The Weyerhaeuser Chapel, on the campus of Macalester College

CGB: You earned your MFA in 2012 after serving in the U.S. Army, but I was both surprised and--after reading The Yellow Birds--not surprised at all to learn that your degree was not in fiction, but in poetry. What inspired you to conceive of a novel instead of a collection of poems when it came to writing this book?

KP: I was working on both simultaneously. I started writing poetry when I was about 12 or 13, but it wasn’t long after that that I started trying to write short stories and prose. They’ve always both been a big part of my life as a writer. And because I had a certain amount of personal investment in the subject, I tried to take every approach I had available to me to explore it with the depth that I wanted and in search of the clarity with the material I was hoping to get. I actually have a book of poems I was going to bring out at the same time.

C: Having written then a novel and a book of poems, did you have a moment, or several moments, of thinking you might write a memoir?

K: It never occurred to me. And as far as I can tell, through thinking back on it, it probably has to do with the kind of reader I am. I do appreciate nonfiction, but the nonfiction that I turn to is more larger scope stuff. I really like history and things like that, but for me, when I’ve been interested in the more personal story, I always seem to find satisfaction with fiction and poetry’s ability to represent the interior life of an individual. 

C: A review in The Daily Beast that I thought shone a light in its appraisal of your book said that in a media saturated landscape, most of us get information, in general really, but especially about our conflicts overseas on a “granular” level; one that’s easy to sink in, but difficult to let sink in or take time to evaluate, writing, “Everybody’s paying attention and nobody’s paying attention.” It seemed to me his point was that the language of your novel is what not only changes our understanding, but provides us with an understanding of the war in Iraq, based in part on the subjective experiences of your characters, but also on how you, the writer, shape those experiences. Did language help you to frame or reconceive of your own experience in the war?

K: I have a belief in the capacity and quality of language beyond carrying information; that the sonic qualities of the rhythm can communicate something to a reader intuitively. It’s a way of accessing parts of our perceptive abilities that’s different than just conveying information. So I was trying to find some form that would pair well with the extremity of the experience, something that would be capable of communicating how surreal it was. I thought if I paid attention to the language I could communicate that to a reader, while also telling a story and talking about things that are actually happening, but with an atmospheric quality that’s really important. And again, as a country, our relationship to the war is sort of constantly present, but always in the background, so I thought perhaps if I could get somebody to pick the book up, immediately, upon encountering this language, the information they’re so familiar with might somehow become new again.

C: My sense of things is that, in terms of ownership, readers still associate works of fiction and poetry with authorship. And this, I’m sure, has more to do with my ignorance about the war, but I kept wondering whether you struggled to “own” the background, or topic, of the novel, which is so embedded in our culture, for better or worse.

K: In a way, I did. But I was conscious about, and I tried to deliberately define the boundaries of what it was I was trying to own. I was trying to present one possible example of what the war was like. Not necessarily making any claims or definitive statements, or anything like that, but “here’s one possibility,” “here’s one manifestation of that thing,” which is probably foreign to most. So, within those boundaries I wanted to make a statement of a kind.

C: At the beginning of the book, in Bartle, there’s a kind of fissure through his idea of himself as an existential survivor in the war vs. the idea of himself as a solider in an army. He seems to perform a kind of emotional mathematics in order to relate to himself as someone who will live as others around him die, except when it comes to taking lives himself, in which case he’s certain that it’s better to be together in order to transform his act of killing into an act of solidarity among companions. And yet, the young man is, at times, disgusted with his apathy in this regard, hating the fact that he needs to be called on, screamed at in order to participate. This kind of contradiction, or ambiguity, struck me, again, as an outsider, as a uniquely 21st century disposition toward war. Was it your intention to represent the kind of war we’re fighting now? Or has ambiguity always been the reality of the individual in combat?

K: I think it’s something that’s probably, if not universal, the experience of being a soldier in combat. It’s probably very common, this idea that there’s some fluidity between your desire to save yourself or to be apart of the group, or allow yourself to be subservient to this larger thing. In the case of Bartle, he gives himself this task of dressing it all up so he can determine his individual level of accountability. That’s one of the challenges of trying to sort through those moments, when your perspective on even your ability to understand your place or significance within any given situation is changing all the time. It’s something that probably contributes to survivor’s guilt or whatever you want to call it: this idea that of course there’s a fundamental, evolutionary instinct toward self-preservation, but there are also societal influences and expectations that are put upon from the outside. “You’re a soldier. You’re supposed to put your brothers above yourself.” So there’s this weird negotiation that is always happening between your fear, your self-loathing, your desire to be good. It’s just this sort of swirl that’s really difficult to sift through, and ultimately I wanted to present that difficulty. 

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