Mark Polanzak – Pop!
In his debut book, Pop! (Stillhouse Press), Mark Polanzak takes several genres off the shelf—novel, short story, literary criticism, memoir—and throws them all together to create a compulsively readable, and altogether original, literary goulash that asks the central question: is there a “right” way to grieve? Polanzak has been pondering this since he was seventeen, after his father unexpectedly died during a casual game of tennis. Pop!’s unusual form combines with its intimate tone, resulting in an addictive reading experience; I devoured its 228 pages in two sittings.
Polanzak is a founding editor of the literary magazine, draft: the journal of process, and he teaches creative writing at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Though he writes eloquently about basketball and other sports in Pop!, he is not even close to being able to dunk. His post-up game, though, is actually pretty solid.
DOUG CORNETT: In Pop!, you constantly pull back the curtain on your own creation, directing the reader’s attention to the mechanisms by which stories are commonly told in literature. You share excerpts from your own “lost father” stories, explicitly identifying key themes and symbols. In one such story, a discarded toilet becomes representative of your father’s sudden absence. You write, “the idea of the story is to link a Super Big Life Experience (DEATH!) to something small and seemingly meaningless (toilet)…It’s craft.” By shining your authorial light on these devices, you seem to be pushing back against the limitations of fiction; you refuse to be bound by its familiar machinations. Do you believe that an excess of “craft” can get in the way of what’s true in a story?
MARK POLANZAK: Yes, I do think that an excess of craft can get in the way of what’s true in a story. But by craft, I’m talking about specific moves that so many stories do and that amount to formula. However, masterful writers disguise the craft elements so well that the reader never notices. With less masterful writers I pick up on the craft elements—the linking of something big with something idiosyncratic (one of the craft things I point out in my own story)—, and this automatically affects my read. I think, I see what’s happening here. In grad school, I kept a log of stories (published and in the workshop alike) that started with the same craft move (the linking of small things to big things in the opening). Things like, “The day I bought the hamster, I discovered my wife was cheating on me…” It became a joke at the MFA program. But those stories are all over the place. When you see the strings like that, the craft absolutely gets in the way of something true.
My embedded short story in the book does the same thing, purposefully, as an experiment to try out a full-on formulaic craft story. They’re fun to write, because you have the groundwork lain out before you. You can feel satisfied when you pull it off with extremely well done sentences and developed characters. But they don’t cause anything to stir in me when writing them or when reading them. In those cases, the reading experience and my brain gets infected with the constant knowledge that the story is crafted by a writer. When I get infected in that way, I become suspicious of the story, doubtful that it can do something new or surprising or something other than what I have seen done a thousand times. It’s a red flag that there’s likely nothing super special about the story, that it is actually trying to be like something else that’s already been written. And for myself, I’m no master, so I can’t sit back and feel confident that an intelligent reader won’t pick up on the craft elements. I see a lot of stories that are so well done in a craft sense. I admire them. The skill it takes to craft the story in such a way. But, in the end, something really well done on the craft-move level is not my aim as a writer or reader. The aim is something surprising, fresh, original in form and craft. If my main take away from a story is how well crafted it is, the story has failed, and I see that sometimes in my own writing. I wanted to pull the curtain back, because I’ve never seen that done before. It felt illegal to write. Feeling like you’re doing something dangerous, illegal, scary, vulnerable in a story is a good sign. Feeling like you’ve really crafted the hell out of something—I say—is a bad sign.
DC: Throughout the book, you grapple with the grieving process. You are never sure if you’re “doing it right,” or if there is a right way to do it at all. Near the end, you express the idea that the book itself has been your vehicle for catharsis. “It worked,” you tell the reader. Do you think this book will have the power to help others with their own bereavement? Did you ever intend it to do so?
MP: Yes, I think this will be of help to someone who has experienced loss. No, I didn’t write it with that in mind. The book is about a time when I was asked to speak at a bereavement group for teens who had lost a parent, and how I was freaked out that I had nothing to offer them; I hadn’t healed, hadn’t grieved right, etc. Writing the book, for me, was thinking through that major fear that I had not worked through my loss in any appreciable way. So, no, I did not think I could help the kids at the bereavement group, and certainly didn’t think I could help during the course of writing it. Now that it’s done, I see how helpful it could be to someone, as it would have been helpful for me—before writing it—to read it and realize there’s no right way to lose and grieve. My experience of losing my dad at seventeen and then becoming a writer who wrote very odd stories about death and loss and something missing is not like anyone else’s experience. However, no two people’s experiences of loss and grief are the same. It is in the sharing of it—the sadness, the hope, the panic, the courage, the fear, all of it—in one’s own unique way that helps another person. This isn’t a self-help book—there’s no advice in there—it’s a tale of individual loss, struggle, and grief. Simply by its existence, it’s helpful to someone going through something similar. Share your story. That’s the best you can do.
DC: Let’s talk about genre. The cover of the book makes a joke about how difficult it is to categorize this book. A non-fictional novel, a fictional memoir, a fabulist memoir. You settle on, simply, “book.” In a moment of reflection, you get at the heart of this identity crisis: “in this book fiction interrupts real life; the real stuff rams itself into the fiction. The two intertwine the way it seemed to in my experiences.” Was it this hybrid form that finally allowed you to tell your story?
MP: I don’t know of any books that have the form of this book, so I didn’t select it; it appeared while writing it. For me, yes, this couldn’t be told any other way, couldn’t be a straight memoir, couldn’t be straight fiction. A hugely important thread of the book is about writing fiction, burying and/or working through emotions of loss in fiction while never talking to anyone in my life about loss. If I removed the fiction from the book, the book would lose the only meaningful experiences I had with coping and grieving. To make it all fictional would have further masked and buried my real-person struggles and feelings. My short stories kept being about this wound in some way. Many stories failed because of this. It was like I was a painter, trying to paint abstract art, but a force within me kept making figures on the canvas. I’d splatter paint, step back, and see—to my disappointment—the paint splattered in just such a way that a landscape showed up or a portrait. In order to get the unwanted intrusion out of my fiction, I had to attack the loss more head on: the character “Mark Polanzak” has lost his dad, and here we go. Discovering that the process of fiction writing was my therapy is the story. So, yes, it had to be a mix of both fiction and nonfiction.
DC: As you say, Pop! is not really a novel, but it’s definitely not strictly a memoir. Still, there is a narrative at work here that will satisfy a reader’s desire for a beginning, middle, and end. How did you arrive at this story structure? How did you balance your wariness of “overcrafting” with the need for a dramatic arc?
MP: The book was not written beginning to end. This came together from little fictional pieces, scattered re-imaginings of real-life events, reworked short stories, commentary on those stories, and re-tellings. There are bits and pieces in this book from 2002, when I was 21 years old, and bits and pieces from as recently as last year. I looked back over so much of my old writing and found many to be thematically related. I gathered them together and began writing about what I had written about. I wrote new pieces that built on these themes I saw developing. The book grew and grew, but not in a traditional B/M/E way.
When I had reached a saturation point of all these little pieces that were connected largely through theme, I was asked to speak at the bereavement group meeting. So I had been pulling together disparate pieces and then was asked to speak at this event in my real life. This became the through-line of the book, that week leading up to the bereavement group. Suddenly, there was a chronological present story that could connect and anchor everything, that could give the reader something to read for, a story with progression and some suspense. The beginning middle and end presented itself—Start on Tuesday morning at the moment I was asked to speak at the meeting, work through that week with my present life, end with speaking at the meeting the following Tuesday. Then it was a matter of threading the stories and re-imaginings and meditations, etc. into that week. There is a progression, an arc in those pieces that only revealed itself to me after I had the chronological story of that week to lay over and become the scaffolding. It felt like discovering the arc instead of crafting it.
DC: You’ve spent a long time working and reworking this book (and others). Now that the work is done and the book is published, how does it feel? Does having a published book change you in any way?
MP: It is hard to go from anonymity to mega-stardom overnight like this. I get mobbed everywhere. But, no, my life is exactly the same. What has changed is my relationship to the book that is coming out. I have had stories published in magazines, and the stories each go through a metamorphosis when they leave my laptop and arrive in a bound literary magazine. They transform from a living organism to an embalmed specimen. That makes publishing stories horrific. But what I mean is that for the writer the stories stop being your own to nurture and work with and become distributable, reproducible, fixed commodities. You don’t own them anymore, have no power to improve or continue them. They belong now to the readers, who can do whatever they like with them. Typically that’s a great experience without much drawback. I want to share and give the stories over to others. However, with this very personal book that served for so long as my confessor, that metamorphosis from something that is solely mine to something that is 6” X 9” perfect bound and available on Amazon feels frightening, like I’m breaking up with a friend who let me talk about my weird struggle without judgment. But it’s also liberating. I will always work through the loss of my father in my life, and it’s a good thing to realize I have to stop working through the loss in book form.
I’m also talking with you about my writing, which wouldn’t have happened before this publication. Some opportunities arise, which is a tangible difference.
There have also been changes to the way I view my writing. At the beginning of the decade, the book was shopped around to all the big NYC publishers, who rejected it, citing a marketing dilemma for its hybrid form. It was essential to some that they label it a novel or a memoir. I had suspicions that there were other flaws with it, that they were all letting me down easy, and the book would never be published because it simply wasn’t any good. It’s gratifying that Stillhouse is publishing it. It’s validation. I can get pretty dark with my inner critic monologue, telling myself I’m a hack and so forth. The publication buoys me, keeps me believing that I have written and will again write things that people value.
DC: You mention that the major NYC publishers balked at this manuscript, possibly because they didn’t think they could sell its non-traditional form. I wonder about the role of experimentation in the big vs small publishing houses. Pop!‘s publisher, Stillhouse Press, is a small press in collaboration with George Mason University. The literary journal that you co-founded, draft, is interested in exploring the processes of writing, not simply the products. Are small presses the future of experimental writing?
MP: There are small places that have been publishing works that the big places shy away from for years. Big publishers are big corporations. They are beholden to the bottom line, and when that happens, you tend to see “safer” work published. There are, of course, amazingly daring, experimental, innovative books published by major publishing houses, but not at the same clip as small presses. Small presses understand that they will not typically make a profit regardless of what they choose to publish. They don’t have the marketing budget, the power to get their books reviewed in super visible publications, etc. So, instead of approaching each book with an eye toward how to market it or sell it, they approach each manuscript looking to be drawn in and excited by the book, regardless of salability. It’s like Hollywood—we all love a blockbuster movie with the big stars in it, but we need to see the indie films, with new actors, directors, different types of stories, smaller budgets. If someone wants to see something new, surprising, or different than the popular book club offerings, check out small presses. I would say they are the future (but have been the past and are currently the present as well) of experimental writing, only when you think of “experimental” as fresh. These are not experimental works in the Donald Barthelme sense all the time; they are just fresh, uncorrupted in a way by the editorial/marketing process.
Small magazines and literary journals are fantastic and necessary alternatives to the commercial magazines. Small mags often have stated missions that seek to represent underrepresented groups, styles, forms, content. They function in opposition to the status quo, in many ways. That can look experimental, but probably only because we have been offered so little of this by super visible publications.
Our magazine, draft: the journal of process, is experimental only in its presentation—we showcase early drafts alongside final drafts of stories, essays, and poems, with interviews about process. No one else does that. Is that crazy experimentalism? Nah. This is how we traditionally learn to write—through drafts and revision and dedication to process. The stories can be very traditional, as it turns out. But you’ll see a fresh take on the whole writing game in the mag.
Find out more about draft: the journal of process here.
Purchase a copy of POP! at IndieBound and a portion of the purchase price will benefit Late Night Library.
POP! is Mark Polanzak’s first book. He teaches English at the Berklee College of Music and is a founding editor of draft: the journal of process. Runner-up for the 2014 Italo Calvino Prize for fabulist fiction, his stories have appeared in Third Coast, The Southern Review, and The American Scholar, and other publications. He received his MFA from the University of Arizona.
Doug Cornett is a writer and high school teacher living in Portland, Oregon. He was awarded first prize in the 2015/16 William Van Dyke Short Story Contest from Ruminate Magazine, and his fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Lime Hawk, Fiction Southeast, Permafrost Magazine, and elsewhere. He is a monthly blogger for Ploughshares.