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Matthew Tiffany interviews Joseph Coulson for Condalmo litblog

I recently reviewed Joseph Coulson’s fine Of Song and Water (Archipelago Books) for The Quarterly Conversation. I took up the book for review knowing very little about it —read a short blurb about it somewhere, saw that jazz was involved, said OK— and, frankly, I was at a bit of a burn-out point on reviewing. I couldn’t have picked a better book to turn that around. Coulson’s writing has jazz in it like an old 50’s nightclub has smoke.

He graciously took time from a busy schedule —including preparing for a book tour— to be interviewed via e-mail for Condalmo.

Matthew Tiffany: Let’s start with some background on your writing. Lots of ink being spilled about young writers these days, but then The Nation turned that around and made hay about you delivering your first novel a few years past your “young turk” days. Were you biding your time? I haven’t read The Vanishing Moon yet, but I don’t think Of Song and Water could have come from someone in their twenties, or even thirties.

Joseph Coulson: I started writing The Vanishing Moon when I turned forty, and I don’t think I was ready to write a novel before that time. I’d been carrying pieces of the story around with me for several years, but I was waiting for those fragments to reveal the full measure of their meaning. I have to have some sense of what the story is about on a level beyond plot and character before I can start writing. It’s not that I want to reduce the story to a single theme, but when I begin to recognize the recurring moods, patterns, analogues—the common threads that link or underscore what seem to be, at first, disparate elements—I begin to see how a longer narrative can take shape. For me, the implications that emerge from the first scenes in a novel provide direction and, ultimately, serve to hold the story together.

While I was waiting for all this to happen, I was mindful of something I heard Vonnegut say when I was much younger. He was giving advice to writers who wanted to write a novel. He said, “Make sure you have something to say.” It’s also true that as a teenager and college student, I never imagined that I would be a novelist. The idea of writing a lengthy piece scared me. I started out writing songs and then I gradually moved to poetry, feeling comfortable with the lyric impulse, particularly given its musical possibilities. I eventually went to graduate school at the State University of New York at Buffalo to study with John Logan and Robert Creeley, and in trying to understand the rigors of their poetics—very different but both very rich—I slowly learned to write, which in large part was developing a better ear for the music of language—its euphonic, dissonant, and rhythmic possibilities.

MT: I was especially taken with the scene that had Otis holding forth on the “death of jazz” and other topics, while simultaneously playing for Coleman: “it came off as some sort of musical essay, an extemporaneous lecture with a soundtrack.” Then, when he runs out of things to say, he takes all those pieces he’d been noodling over and tries to tie them together, just working it out as he goes. It’s one of my favorite passages in the book, and leads me to two questions: first, do you see Otis as a sort of a surrogate father for Coleman? I got the impression that you were trying to suggest this without it being implicit, necessarily. Second, where did you draw from in coming up with Otis?

JC: It seemed to me that if I showed the disconnect between Coleman and his father, and then had Coleman seeking out the company and counsel of Otis, then the idea of Otis as an artistic or even spiritual father would emerge. My life was shaped by wonderful teachers, and I was lucky enough to spend a great deal of time with some of them outside the classroom. As a student, I listened carefully to their conversations—Creeley could riff all night—and I tried my best to understand and remember. So Otis is probably a composite of those teachers that had the greatest influence on me. I dedicated the book to my mentor, Steve Tudor, and there’s a good bit of him in Otis. Al Young, now the Poet Laureate of California, by way of Mississippi and Detroit, was also a conscious model.

MT: In my review of Of Song and Water I tried to put some emphasis on the skill with which you took jazz and not only made it one of the central pieces of the storyline, but also found a way to evoke a feeling of jazz in the writing itself. I see that as a high-wire walk; it could easily fall into jazz cliches, maybe some noir cliches, but it doesn’t. I’d love to hear about how you made it work.

JC: When a jazz musician plays what we call a standard, a classic tune, it’s very much about the phrasing—how the musician executes a particular line or measure, perhaps a familiar one, and makes it fresh or compelling. Through phrasing, tone, and tempo, the musician can evoke a mood, imbue the song with his or her emotional pitch, and color the piece in ways that are specific and original. I wanted to do the same thing with the words in Of Song and Water. While writing poems, I came to understand the line as a unit of sound and meaning, and I was deeply influenced by the notion of measure in poetry, especially as practiced by William Carlos Williams and Creeley. So I wondered if I could get some of that same feel into the prose. Interestingly, the passage you chose to quote in the review, though it’s not about music in any literal sense, is actually a good example of how musical devices contribute to the emotion of a scene and, in this case, shift and increase the tempo to build narrative momentum. The thing I always had to keep in mind while writing Of Song and Water is that Coleman and his trio play ballads, the sort of slow-burn pieces that you referred to in your review. So, in the sentences, I tried to sustain measures and cadences and tonal flourishes that would suggest a song like “Stardust” or “September Song.” I’ve been interested for a long time in how the language of a story can mirror the situation. I first saw the power of this technique reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A contemporary example would be The Hours by Michael Cunningham.

MT: I also liked the way you shifted back and forth, timewise, revealing H.M.’s past, Dorian’s past, revealing it both to Coleman and to the reader. Did you work with this idea from the start—the shifting—or did it evolve as you were writing?

JC: The temporal shifts were there from the beginning. It was the only way I could make the story work. I also felt that Coleman’s interior life, and this is true for H.M as well, would be the point of entry for the reader, at least in terms of empathy. Surfaces alone are not often attractive or inviting. But I also wanted the energy and inventiveness of improvisation in the prose. The shifting in time and the fluid movement from one image or idea or memory to the next gave me the latitude to try and create the equivalent of jazz riffs and solos.

MT: You dedicated the book to Stephen Tudor, who, like Coleman’s father, was lost at sea. Tell me about that—was Tudor’s disappearance one of the starting points of the book for you?

JC: Here, again, there’s a lot of time involved. Steve was lost on Lake Huron in 1994, but I didn’t start writing the book until August 2003. So it wasn’t so much his disappearance, though the grief of it fuels the book in many ways—instead, my starting point was what he taught me about the lakes and sailing and about the profound connection between art and a life well lived, the importance of craft and precision in all things, and the transcendence of sailing free, whether on water or in a poem. I had no emotional or intellectual relationship with my own father, and so, for many years, Steve took his place. Perhaps only once or twice in a lifetime does one experience such generosity of spirit.

MT: Finally, given the role of music in this story, I’d like to borrow a page from the fine Largehearted Boy site and ask you about some of the music that would comprise your “soundtrack” for this book—jazz that you listened to while writing it, that informed and inspired the story, that you would envision being on Of Song and Water: The Soundtrack.

JC: Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”; Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine”; Joe Pass playing Duke Ellington; Kenny Burrell, “D.B. Blues” and “Summertime,” and Wes Montgomery, “Bumpin’ on Sunset” and “Down Here on the Ground.” Just to confuse people, I might toss in Willie Nelson’s renditions of “Stardust” and “September Song.”