Michael MArtone Interview
The Mother of the Muses
Amy Wright: Edmund Jabès says it is not the bird that is free but the flower. When in your life have you felt the most free?
Michael Martone: When I was trapped on an island. The island was Serifos, a Greek island, said to be the home of Perseus. The strange rock formation on the ridges of the mountains were all that was left of his enemies frozen there when he aimed Medusa’s head at them. It was late season, September, and the Meltemi was blowing from the north. I was staying in a house with no running water in the old town at the top of the mountain. Each morning, I would look down at the harbor and watch the sailboats attempt to leave the port but they could not round the point. They stalled, attempting to reach and tack into that wind. I realized, suddenly, that even if I had to be somewhere else there was no way I was going to get there. I had that same feeling when, more recently, I totaled my car going seventy, plowing into a bridge abutment. I lost control over-steering and time, as we know, slowed. And that feeling of great calm came over me, a freedom derived from helplessness. The moment when I was most helpless I felt most free. To control is to roll against, and that, I think, is a kind of self-generated prison. The secret is to roll with.
AW: Have you ever done an experiment on yourself? If so, what was the result?
MM: Odd you should ask. I am currently doing an experiment where I collect all the interviews I have ever done to see how little I actually know when asked. I am going to call the book that results You Can Say that Again.
AW: Lately I think of the world as my guru. The checkout woman at the grocery store, for instance, with her giant, magnified eyes. She squints and smiles, and smiles and smiles. Do you have someone or something in particular that teaches you?
MM: If you look up my neighborhood on google earth—the streetscape pictures—you will see the woman who walks. There is a woman who walks back and forth through town everyday. As she walks she talks to God, sings, lectures. She is very striking. Tall, thin, gray hair, big unblinking eyes, an amazing wardrobe. I was so happy that, as the google truck came down my street, she was walking, she always walks in the road and as the truck goes by she gives it the stink eye.
AW: I like the sound of her. I once pre-loaded payphones with quarters for the walking man in Charlottesville, Virginia. I assume he is still there—walking to blow off his inexhaustible steam, checking the coin returns. He taught me that in spite of, or due to, the fact that I am a homebody at heart, I have long romanticized escape. What does she teach you?
MM: I would never think that her walking would signal escape or unbounded mobility. I think what I learn from her a performance of the paradox. A bounded space contains and infinite amount of space. She walks from city limit to city limit and yet this is not a dramatization of being trapped or cut off. It is the visual of the notion that the key to the treasure is the treasure, the journey and not the destination. She is finally present in a moment and each moment is liquid, sequential. She lives in each step. My last book is titled Racing in Place. Indeed.
AW: What is your most controversial or unexpected go-to text?
MM: I have always enjoyed military history. As a child I built model warplanes and 54mm lead figurines, spending hours researching the color and cut of uniforms. As the Iraq War broke out, I was reading Xenephon’s Anabasis and right now I am reading Thucydides. The Face of Battle by John Keegan is an amazing book where he not only recounts the history of several famous battles but in doing so rewrites the history of how the history of war was and will be written. In the summer, I like to read and reread Patrick O’Brian’s novels of British navel history. I read Paul Fussell’s books as well. So much of Tristram Shanty is about fortifications, star forts. I guess I am interested in the aesthetics of war and the technological imperatives in the abstract. There is a wonderful book by Noel Perrin called Giving Up the Gun. On a slightly different note, I must mention Hugh Kenner’s The Counterfeiters and Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America as go-to texts for me.
AW: Did you ever have a pet lama? An imaginary friend? A time-traveling watch?
MM: No, but I wore black and white saddle shoes all through school and still have a pair I wear from time to time. Saddle shoes were the first gym shoe and were originally made with red rubber soles provided by Goodyear Tire and Rubber, fashioned from automobile brake linings.
AW: How do you feel about ketchup?
MM: I send bottles of ketchup at Christmas for presents. A brand called Red Gold is bottled in Indiana. I like the poetry in the name, the unexpected juxtaposition. And there is the implication of gold being in such a humble product. Did you see that Heinz’s new label removes the pickle and the 57 varieties? They know on which side their bread is buttered or their condiment spread.
AW: Just now, I wonder if you’ve seen the recent New York Times article “Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory.” Given your autobiographical fictions, it makes me curious how you consider the connection they’re raveling between memory and identity.
MM: I did see this research but was not so wowed by it. They admit, after all, that the eraser they are using is still a rather blunt instrument. They can’t pick or choose a specific memory but wipe the whole slate clean. I am so enamored with the drug Versed, the amnesiac one gets during a colonoscopy or wisdom teeth extraction to put you into twilight sleep. For these procedures they need you conscious so they can direct you. You feel everything but you just don’t remember feeling it. It is very strange coming out of such a trip. You tend to repeat yourself because your short-term memory is shot and you reboot over and over, trying to start up your biological hard drive. I always remember that Memory was the mother of the Muses and that art then is the spawn of Zeus, always a safe bet for paternity, and this sub or unconscious mechanism of selection and amplification, memory. Memory already seems to be both a storage facility and its own kind of hobbled and hobbling drug warping, for its own unknown reasons, the what of what happened and the who of who it happened to. The experiments in Brooklyn have nothing yet on the present chemistry of memory that has both its more precise equations to remember and also to forget. Identity, it seems to me, has always been more about the filter, the editing of past experience, not simply this switch but the sieve.