Paul Lisicky Interviewed by Adam Swanson

At Corporeal Writing we’re all about opening the platform, continuously working on new ways to expand participation and experience, and breaking open what writing means.

We’ve created this new series of visiting writer workshops with some pretty phenomenal mammals. We are delighted to have humans in our community interview the writers who will be leading these collaborative workshops at Corporeal Writing Center.

In this third installation we present writer, teacher, and Guggenheim Fellow Paul Lisicky interviewed by Corporeal Writing comrade, Adam Swanson.

Photo of Adam by Sur La Lune Photography

Photo of Adam by Sur La Lune Photography

Adam Swanson: I felt like I witnessed several manifestations of the word tenderness the first time I heard Paul Lisicky read aloud at a packed Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference session a few years back. Paul stood behind an elevated podium in a broodingly large D.C. conference room with a copy of his most recent book, The Narrow Door, in his hands. His voice filled the vaulted space with beauty and brutal poetic dedications to love and friendship and death and forgiveness and time briefly escaped us. 

Paul’s words pack a delicate punch, and I’m thrilled that he agreed to answer some of my questions about his career, his thoughts about writing in community, and his newest book, Later, which is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in March 2020.

AS: In many different ways—through stories, characters, situations, and even language—your writing peels back and forces encounters with concepts of desire. Desire for life. Desire for avoidance. Desire for passion. Do you consciously grapple with desire in your work, and how does desire inform your creative process?

Paul Lisicky: I love this question. Yes, desire. Desire to simply stay alive, on a day by day level—all of my work has probably been about desire even though it might look like something else. Maybe that comes from growing up at a time when ongoingness couldn’t be guaranteed—I’m thinking about the toughest of the AIDS years. But desire is complicated. Somewhere—maybe it’s in The Narrow Door? —I wrote that it “feeds just as it depletes us.” Which still strikes me as true. Too much wanting can get anyone into trouble—just ask anyone who’s struggled with any kind of addiction. So how to manage desire without overly managing it? That question is so interesting to me and it might just propel everything I try to write. 

As far as desire informing my own creative process… well, there’s the hope that when I sit down, I’m going to be entirely present, in my body, in my sensory life, in that moment. And my writing will take me to that place. You know as well as I that that’s a rare, rare thing, but that’s the hope that keeps me coming back.

AS: You’ve been entrenched in literary communities while authoring several books of fiction and nonfiction. Your writing also has strong poetic undercurrents; it makes me wonder about the value you’ve discovered in creating and generating work among the company of other artists, poets, and writers?

PL: I started out as a composer, moved on to poetry. By the time I was in grad school, where I studied fiction, I happened to gravitate toward the poets—they were my people. I knew how to talk to them, understood how they saw things. I felt a sense of kinship with their interest in sound, image, compression, metaphor. One of my best friends for 28 years is a painter and sculptor. So I’m used to borrowing moves from the adjacent arts—or thinking of my work “in conversation with”—and try to encourage students to do the same. Occasionally I’ll say to a class, if this essay were a song by a band, which band would have written it? That’s meant to be partly in fun—but there’s something of value there too, especially if we’re trying to be precise. I can’t imagine anything more turgid than being stuck in a form, feeling duty-bound to follow rules and regulations. Far more interesting to ask questions of rules and regulations, and by that I don’t necessarily mean a default no to them, but to keep a why? in the air.

AS: You’re on the faculty of a well-known MFA program and you’re affiliated with several artist colonies and workshops. I’m curious about where you find purpose in workshop settings, both as a facilitator or teacher and as a participant?

PL: Each workshop develops its own particular culture and sense of community, so there’s a part of me that’s wary of demystifying it. I think when everyone in the room is in it, when everyone’s alert and taking care, we’re also making something together, and that can be very beautiful, all these moving minds bending toward a single paragraph or a page. I believe in any workshop that’s permission-giving, in which we teach one another to be respectful of our idiosyncrasies, even our flaws—how to turn what some might think of as flaws into strengths? Of course there’s a place for saying “I can feel your brain and heart working in paragraph 1 but less so here,” but if the workshop is primarily no-based, the whole experience feels airless and dull and shockingly predictable. And it doesn't help anyone. I think amazing things can happen around the table when people feel safe, but also encouraged to risk.

AS: Paul! Thank you for being open to all my questions. Finally—because I have you—can you tell me what you are most excited about regarding the release of your latest book, Later? And can I press you to spill any secrets about your next book, Animal Care & Control?

PL: Later is definitely more forthright than anything I’ve ever written, and all the energy that went into pushing past the usual self-imposed limits gives the work a different kind of charge—I hope! At least early readers have been using words like “candid” and “frank” to describe it, which is relief, because you never know. You can think you’re putting yourself out there when you’re really not. Honestly I think the work of younger queer writers, say, Garth Greenwell or Carmen Machado or Ocean Vuong, or even the writing of my own queer students, has opened up a field of permission. I’ve always been interested in writing about sex, and all the psychological-cultural-political complexities enacted in sex, the whole mysterious, compelling theater of it, but I turned my attention to other matters in my most recent books. In some way I feel like I’ve come back home to the work I started in Lawnboy.

The other thing that feels new is the book’s treatment of anger. In some ways you could even call Later a meditation on anger. It’s less wary of anger than The Narrow Door, and it wants to think about anger as potentially productive—or at least how to walk alongside it rather than tear away from it. It’s also an interrogation of categories, as well as an investigation of community and belonging. And survival: how do people survive, on a day to day level, especially in bleakest times? 

Animal Care & Control! I’ve been writing the pieces in that book for the past eight years, and a large number of them feature animals—bears, snakes, alligators, and so many others. Some are pretty straightforward narratives, some are more experimental in form. The better part of it is entirely invented—little myths and parables—but a few have their roots in autobiography. I’ve also been writing a book about fathers for the past four years, not just about my own father, but other fathers, and that book is still finding its final shape.

Paul Lisicky will lead a workshop “On Urgency: A Memoir and Creative Nonfiction” on the weekend of September 21-22, 2019, at the Corporeal Writing Center in downtown Portland, Oregon. Save your seat in Paul’s workshop here.

You can also pre-order his forthcoming book, Later, here.

Paul Lisicky is the author of The Narrow Door (a New York Times Editors' Choice), Unbuilt Projects, The Burning House, Famous Builder, and Lawnboy. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Conjunctions, Fence, The New York Times, Ploughshares, Tin House and in many other magazines and anthologies. A 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, he has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he serves on the Writing Committee. He is currently an Associate Professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden and lives in Brooklyn, New York. His sixth book, Later, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in March 2020.

Adam Swanson (@aswanzz) is a writer most recently published in the Emerge anthology. He is a 2018 Lambda Literary Fellow, and a member of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s Consumer Survivor Advisory Committee. Adam holds a Master’s of Public Policy from George Mason University and is an alumnus of George Washington University’s LGBT Health Policy & Practice graduate certificate program. He works at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.