'C.B. Smith Interviews Peter Markus'  Banner by Nut-head Productions
Mad Hatters Review 07/17/2005:
Interview with Peter Markus, author of the story collection The Singing Fish, published by Calamari Press.

MH: Reading the story collection The Singing Fish, one is struck before turning page one with the odd and imaginatively rich picture of a singing fish. What on earth is a singing fish and why must the fish sing to operate complicit to your motif?

PM: The person responsible for the cover image of The Singing Fish is no other than Derek White, a word-and-image man who I owe much to for bringing this small little book into print. In my world, a fish is a thing of beauty, and things of beauty sing for me on all levels (emotional, physical, lingual), so I suppose that's what I'm hoping to get down to the bottom of when those words "singing" and "fish" are backed up side to side (not unlike the brothers themselves). To go even further into the phrasing of said coupling, words-at least the right words, when spoken at the rightest time-sing, or at least words are a potential instrument for such singing. Other than this, I'd say too that just the image of a fish that sings is one that resonates for me too. I might also add that the brothers love the fish and the river so much that it is the potency of their brotherly affection for said fish that make these otherwise songless creatures possess the ability to be acoustical objects. As a writer of sentences and of sentences that might be tuned and turned into fictions, I am always on the look out for those acoustical objects. In other words, those lingual events that might be the genesis for conjuring up an otherwise unseen and unknown world.

MH: Words, fictions, song, acoustical objects. I imagine that being around busy culturally rich places like NYC as you are now, must keep you ever attuned to the resonant cultural voices and sounds emanating sometimes simultaneously all around you. The question: Are you or have you been a musician?

PM: To tell you the truth, the music of places like New York City is mute to a man like me. I much prefer the silence of the thing itself, the quiet that I enter into when I enter the page and it is here, on the page, that the singing for me begins. Am I or was I ever a musician? I'm grinning right now because if I answer yes to this I'm bound to be heckled by those who really know me. Have I ever played an instrument in a musical (or even non-musical) setting before, in ghetto bars back in the teenage days of my adolescenthood when pals of mine would band together in garages and basements to bang away on things that most other people would not call musical instruments (oil drums, fire extinguishers, along with more conventional instruments, like guitars and such, guitars that were so out of tune-we didn't know how to tune them-that any other real musician would cringe and want to make it sound right and save said instrument from the hands of such abuse? Well, the answer to this last part is yes: I have played and have found much pleasure in making noise come out of those things and places. And I still find pleasure in letting my hands strike certain keys on the piano that I really have no right to play. And yes, I do still have in my possession the very first acoustic guitar that I ever got back when I was a small child. It is now four-stringed and rusty-sounding which is exactly how I like it. Does listening to music ever move me to write? Do I ever listen to music when I am writing (as I know other writers sometimes do)? Never, no. Like I said earlier, I need the quiet in order to hear those first sounds that go into the making and the breaking open of that inaugural sentence.

MH: The first sentence: the place where all tales begin. Can it from this be inferred that the sentence following the first and so on is organically created rhythmically, textually, or melodically, perhaps as ameliorative to occupy the empty space?

PM: Everything issues from that first line, which for me this first line, when it is the right first line, brings with it to the page a sound and a pleasure that is unique to itself. Sonically, textually, the way that first sentence either rivers out or stutters out or perhaps even erupts out-that first line is the first event in the sequential process of what some other writers might call plot. I know nothing, as I've said before, about music-making in the traditional sense of that phrase, but since we have mentioned music already in our conversation, I might say that the first sentence is the first chord, it is uttered in a specific key, it is either strummed or struck or maybe even banged out on whatever given instrument is available at that given time. And sticking still with the notion of music, I would say that I was most ably able to render my choice of musical instruments most originally back when I was just a punk kid who did not know how to play, back when I knew very little about chords and fingering and instead relied purely on instinct and the pleasures of the ear. This, I like to believe, is what I still aim for when I pick up the instrument that is the pen: to know very little about what is going to be said or how I am going to say it. To move and be driven not by notions of story or character or plot, but rather to be taken in, to be seduced, by the possibilities of a sentence, of sentences. As to that empty space that you make reference to, it is a place of great possibility that is made greater than by the possibilities that are waiting in that initial utterance that breaks silence and makes a sound that calls out to me to come here. To take what is blank, what William Gass refers to as a "flimsy white page" and to fill it, to give it shape, to get beneath it-the space within the space-to make from that flimsiness "a sheet of steel" (Gass's image), to ultimately leave a unique mark on that place-this is what I hope for every time I sit down to face down the page. To see and to hear in that space that which has never been seen or heard before.

MH: Indeed an organic process. Not possessing the ability to play an instrument "properly" and instead relying entirely on the instinctually tuned ear is a cornerstone of the musically nihilistic Punk movement. In like manner, being seduced by the implicit possibilities of the blank page itself is akin to facing the moment of truth when approaching an object of one's infatuation. So in effect you are not literally or metaphorically making music but the music is making you?

PM: Yes, yes, that's it precisely and I couldn't have said it any better. I am nothing, I am just a man-just a man!-when I am going about the routines of my day-to-day business. I am father and husband and son and friend and in all of these regards I am, I'm sorry to say, doomed to failure and disappointment. I am governor of nothing. I am, in other words, the world's creature, and so I play along, by the rules and by certain expectations, just like everybody else. But on the page-on the page!-I am the maker of all rules. I like to believe that the page is a game too but here on the page I play solely by the motives and the boundaries (the boundlessness) of my own rules. In fact, I'd say there are no borders or boundaries there, which is what I like (which is what we all like, do we not?). It is a world that, once the music finds its way outside myself-beyond myself-from that interior place that resides perhaps in the heart, or the brow, or the bowels, the ear (who really knows where that sound that we are speaking of rises up from), it is a world that I can wholly call my own. I can go at and pull out from the page an exactness that no place outside the page seems to allow. Where else might I be able to go to be able to say a thing like that? I've gone looking elsewhere for that sensation, but it is the page that I keep coming back to, to the solace of that place.

MH: It is a writer's liberty and luxury to become at once creation and creator thereby feeling in some microcosmic way the implicit joy and pain in the creational process. Which begs the question: There is seemingly some Christian symbolism in your writings: the crucified fish, Cain and Abel, resurrection. Is this intentional or does it spring naturally from your unconscious in some type of Jungian expurgation?

PM: I do think it's there (I won't deny anyone that), though I can't say that any of it, back in the beginning, was an intended decision on my part. I would like to believe that things, images, that might be construed as symbols (like the fish, like the various scenes of nail hammerings that play out in my stories, not to mention the theme (that I'm sure is ever-present) of resurrection-all of these elements present themselves to me inaugurally and then, if I choose to do with them any further manipulating (as I'm sure I do), it seems to me that the symbolism is more organic to the process itself than it is a forced and therefore artificial device. I remember when I first starting writing these particular stories that have made their way into The Singing Fish (there are over two-hundred more of these fictions taking up bulk space in a manuscript folder), an editor of a literary magazine who was among the first to publish them asked me if I ever went looking into the lingual origins of these certain key and recurring words, and my answer to this, of course, was no, I never have, I never will, I will never need to know-I don't want to know-where these words come from or what they might mean when held up against the bigger picture of the linguistic and literal and literary world. They mean what they mean only to me. Which is to say that they mean nothing and by virtue of me being able to say this, I might also say that they mean everything in the world to me (these words like mud and river and fish and brother and girl). I will say this though, as far as the symbolism goes: that the references that you make to certain scenes and images from The Bible have brought me moments of great pleasure and intrigue. What could be more mysterious and fascinating and sensational to any of us (or to a young boy like myself) who on occasion went to church with his family and listened as best as he could to those stories and the images that the stories conjured up in him about a man being nailed to a wooden cross, or to a man walking on water, or to a man who, after three days of being dead, rises up again out of some burial cave. Simply put, that's great stuff. I wish I had been the first to come up with that!

MH: A man of simplicity and depth. The Christian mythology that started for me as naïve awe has progressed to a sort of envy like you that I wasn't the creator of these great stories. But on the note of symbols, I can also see that the dying fish can be inferred as symbolizing the emptiness of defeat while further stressing the beauty of life. The fullness of being simply alive comes beaming with power and touches life as the brothers make resplendent with their fluvial joys and creation of girl and the fish head totem. Do you have brothers?

PM: Symbols aside, a dying fish, at least where I come from, and speaking too as a man who fishes rather than as a fisher of men in the Christian sense of those words (I won't go elsewhere with the other suggestions of that phrasing), a dying fish, once it is dead, becomes a fish that is to be eaten and to be relished and revered in that other most fundamental of ways. Simply being alive comes with its own set of unique pleasures, and for me again the fishing for and the catching of and the eating of fish is something pure and divine and holy. I am brotherless (blood brotherless), though I do have a number of friends, I am happy to say, who I do call brother in the largest sense of that word. It's possible that out of this absence of not having for myself a boy to call brother gave rise to the brothers who inhabit my stories. Though in truth I also know that what really triggered these brother stories was the fact that the word brother began to inform my family's own personal lexicon when my wife and I and our little girl found out that there was a boy-yes, a brother!-growing on the inside of my wife's belly. I can point to that inception as being fundamentally responsible for the genesis of those other brothers who live for me on the page and like to make mud.

MH: Fair enough. As one who has brothers I can vouch for the fact that it is a path strewn with honey soaked thorns. At any rate, I thank you for taking your all too precious time to attend to the questions occupying the mind of this interviewer and by proxy all Mad Hatters everywhere. I know it is quite late for you this eve and as I again thank you I will leave you with this which in effect could be your Zen motto: be the fish!

PM: Oh, I am nothing if not the fish!

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