“CRAZIES FLOCK TO PARADISE”: Sixteen Questions Between Kyle Coma-Thompson and Ahab Cloud
In general, author interviews attempt to motivate an author to talk about him or herself. Talking about their work–i.e.. some book they have just published–often offers a convenient means of their accomplishing this. By talking about the work, they are encouraged to talk about themselves. But as Robert Wyatt has said, “I have many interests, but I am not one of them.”
The following interview, conducted between Kyle Coma-Thompson–who indeed has a book recently published, a collection of stories, Night In The Sun–and an old friend and co-conspirator who spies and writes under the name Ahab Cloud, aspires to a humble inversion of the norm. Instead of talking about his work, the author will talk away from it. Instead of doing most of the talking, the author will mostly ask questions, and hear most of the points he would have liked to have made voiced by his collaborator. Through a scarce mentioning of the author’s work, the work is evoked. By deferring to his friend’s eloquence, he gains a small measure of his own.
This interview was conducted via email over the last days of August, first days of September. As Robert Wyatt didn’t say, “Interviews are best conducted in the waning days of summer.” Hopefully what follows here is proof: he isn’t wrong.
Kyle Coma-Thompson: It’s been almost twenty years since we met, when we’d both moved to Virginia. I was coming from Kentucky, you were coming from Boston. What was it like for you, moving to the South? Same things, or were there any noticeable differences?
Ahab Cloud: My first concrete memory of Virginia is the moment after I had unloaded my stuff in my apartment and organized it enough to want to take a look around. I didn’t really see or acknowledge Virginia until that point. I stepped outside and was immediately consumed by light and a screeching wall-of-sound of insects, which must have been crickets or some other insect that plays itself like a violin. At that moment, I felt as lonely as I have ever felt in my life. I’m not sure if this emotional response had anything to do with the South, though it’s possible that it did. That creeping sense of slowness, of being swallowed by landscape, of slipping into a drawling, historical narrative: these things seem distinctly Southern to me, but I couldn’t tell you why. In Boston, and before that, New Jersey, I found my way by scraping against hard edges and consonants — these were gone by the time I got to Virginia. Maybe I was the hard edge, then.
KCT: William Blake was important to you back then, and to me too. What was it about Blake that you identified with?
AC: I wouldn’t have articulated it this way back then, but looking back, I can guess at what drew me to this man: He was both domestic and wild. All the stories you heard about him generally involved him spending time at home with his devoted wife. But he’d often head out back to converse with angels. Now, who knows if this is true, but back then such larkery was potent bait to someone nursing a romantic streak the size of Texas.
He was a craftsman, sturdy. He made things with his hands. Like a poetry mason. So I wasn’t afraid to tell my father, who was a pretty tough guy, that I was studying a poet like Blake. And later, my father quoted Blake at my wedding.
His writing raged against form, and ultimately, became uncontainable. Look at the Four Zoas or some of his prophetic writings or The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There was an energy in those works that spun through the ages and showed up in people like Billy Childish, William Carlos Williams, William James, Nick Cave, and John Peel.
He made works of art that were completely and utterly sui generis — born today, he’d probably be making crazy websites or experimental films soundtracked by Flying Lotus. He was out of step with his time, in some ways, looking for an art form that required a technology that didn’t yet exist. May we all be so lucky.
He left breadcrumb trails for the initiated. He once said, I don’t make art for people who are not intelligent. That was an ingenious marketing strategy, if you think about it. Even if it wasn’t true about you, the reader, you wanted it to appear to be. So you chipped away at it. And the more you persisted, the deeper you went, until you landed at the front of your own classroom, teaching English, and trying not so much to tell students what mystery means, but how to know the ones worth working.
KCT: Having known me for twenty years, I’m curious to know: were you surprised to hear I’d started writing fiction?
AC: In 7th grade, I fell under the illusion that basketball was part of my bloodline. I started carrying a ball everywhere, training like I was living in a Rocky movie, and competing intensely and wherever possible. I was a point guard in the Bobby Hurley mold — sunken eyes and no-look passes. My chief rival was from a few towns over, as we would have said back then. As a seventh grader, he was an utter man-child, complete with rippling muscles, thick patches of body hair, and the ability to grow a beard with six hours notice, if need be. When I played him, he worked me over and always won. I was a string bean with heart and some natural ability, but he was the king of the court.
We ended up matriculating to the same high school, a Catholic School, and I was secretly devastated. I played on the freshman team, but his superior physicality allowed him to play on the Varsity right away. By the time we were sophomores and I, too, was flirting with securing a spot on the Varsity team, he was the starting point guard. And then something very interesting happened, very informative. He worked harder than anyone during the summers. But the way he practiced ultimately destroyed his game. He would take hundreds of shots from just a few spots on the court. Then he would dribble the same pattern. He was trying to work his game, the game itself, into a formula. And, in games, he played mechanically, robotically, mimicking his training. He would dribble left twice, then right twice, then left twice, his butt to the defender. He only shot from the same four places. And the game just passed him by, because the game was fluid and the best players played with lightness and joy and improvisational spark.
To continue playing the way my rival did, as if the game could be reduced to a formula, ultimately disparaged the game. Everybody knew it. To talk about your short stories as if they are not poetry is also a form of disparagement. I’ve known you a long time, so I can tell you that.
KCT: I’d read a story this morning about Gene Vincent. During a tour of England in the early 60’s he received a telegram in the middle of a concert, which he read aloud for the audience. It said his daughter had died, and asked him to come home immediately. The crowd laughed but he was serious: he left the concert and flew back to the States. Turns out, though, his daughter was alive, which he knew, of course, because he’d sent that telegram to himself. Any thoughts on this?
AC: Just yesterday, I was driving in the car and I heard a new Tom Waits song. A huge fan, I turned it up, excitedly.
And then, immediately, I felt deflated. I heard all the familiar Tom Waits trappings — the growling, the talk of crooked Chinamen and stolen watches, the description of a world describing a shadow world, the endless patois . . . And I thought to myself, Tom Waits has finally begun to parody himself. He’s doing the kinds of things Tom Waits is supposed to do. He’s recycling all the old moves. Then, the DJ came on the radio and said, “every now and then you have to go back into the vaults.” It turns out, the song was from Heart Attack and Vine, which came out in 1980. Thirty six years ago! I just hadn’t heard it before.
With that said, I think that what Gene Vincent did could, today, be called a “life hack.” And efficiency experts could probably devote entire chapters, if not entire books, to such tactics. Back then, though, it was just Gene Vincent planting the seeds of future parodies that never happened.
Okay, now I have a few questions for you.
Ahab Cloud: What is the literary equivalent to the opening scene in Stop Making Sense — you know, the one with the boom box?
Kyle Coma-Thompson The first draft of something that has real energy and the cut of an interesting idea in it. Refine the thing, work through it, maybe you’ll have something more defined and authoritative and convincing; but in doing so, there’ll always be that measure of spontaneity and uncalculated fluidity that’ll be lost. Call it the “21 Grams” factor of the completed artwork. It’s done, it’s dead, but somehow weighs less. So along comes the reader to make up for the difference, put some soul in the thing.
AC: Business casual or business causal? Feel free to answer this question in more than one hundred words.
KCT: Neither. Business casualty. Makes me think of Nietzsche’s remark: “A joke is an epitaph on the death of a feeling.” But also of Rowland S. Howard: “…that’s one of the great things about rock music. You don’t have to be thrusting your intelligence into people’s faces all the time. If you’re really smart you know when it’s appropriate to be dumb.”
AC: I have a distinct memory of you playing the card game Spite and Malice with your mother. It was in Virginia, around the year 2000, on a makeshift porch, and there was a sense of stillness about the game that made me question my own ability to be still around people for whom I cared deeply. It’s a memory that I am very fond of, and to be honest, I’m afraid to read your story of the same name because I’m afraid it will somehow affect my understanding of the game and of that moment. Should I read the story? And, if so, what kind of mental defenses should I muster?
KCT: That’s funny, a few weeks ago my mother and I were talking about that. She and my aunts had asked me to teach them how to play the game again, which was strange, considering there was time when we’d play it whenever we got together. That time in Virginia–I’m not sure if you remember this–we’d brought a cardboard box out onto the porch, flipped it over, used that as a table. It was winter, so cold we could see our breaths, bundled up in our coats and sock caps. I’m sure we looked pretty low rent and crazy, and I could tell that was the case by the looks people gave us as they walking by.
If you remember that day, if it made that strong of an impression on you, I have to say, I don’t see how reading a short story would threaten the integrity of the memory. It’s not about Spite & Malice, really; it’s more a piece of writing that moves the way Spite & Malice moves. Subjecting information–history and language, specifically–to the rules and energy of play of the card game. It’s probably one of the most autobiographical stories I’ve written and still it has nothing to do with me personally; it’s filled with things that people have mentioned to me one time or another. It’s a secret history of attention paid to others, you could say.
I don’t think any mental defenses you’d bring to playing it are going to help you. The more defenses you have, the more your freedom of movement will be impeded. They’ll only slow you down. Speed and agility are essential; a well-fortified player is a plodder.
Which is to say, the game is just a metaphor for a way of processing experience. But of course, in the end, the game can kill you.
Kyle Coma-Thompson: You’d lived in mid-town Manhattan for a few years, in a high rise. Whenever I’d visit, we’d sip something nice and sit before the windows at night and watch the traffic on the highway along the Hudson and listen to Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies on repeat. You called this Erik Satie Theater. Define Erik Satie Theater.
Ahab Cloud: That way of experiencing time with a friend was the boiled down simplicity of dozens of complicated ideas and proofs. I’ll do my best to retrace some of my steps, with the understanding that, someday, we will co-author a book called Erik Satie Theater to explain it in full and make it possible for others to arrive at its apogee, as we often did back in those days. Or maybe it’s better to allow people to find such theater on their own? A conversation for another time. . .
Though I’m not going to fact check this, for reasons I can explain later if you remember to ask me about that practice, Erik Satie went through a period where he was creating something called Furniture Music. He designed such music to play between the acts of theatrical events, and he did not intend for people to actually, actively listen to it. It was supposed to exist in the background and, I suppose, to couch — figuratively — lowgrade human activity. Chatter, jokes, updates, gossip, maybe the clinking of glasses, indirection, trips to and from the bathroom, glances, flirtation. But, the story goes, the music was so captivating, so enchanting, that it didn’t work. People stopped their mindless, superficial, ritualistic behaviors . . . and engaged with the music instead. They turned toward it, stopped in mid-sentence. One can imagine a distinguished crowd at the intermission of an opera, out to see and be seen, suddenly downshifting into open mouthed awe, and, meanwhile, the opera director and his backers sitting backstage and realizing, “we’re finished, we can’t compete.” And then sending out their thugs to find Satie and rough him up for sneaking in a Trojan Horse filled with such rare beauty. Of course, the joke was on Satie and no one else because the music didn’t do what he wanted it to do. As an artist, that must have been utterly demoralizing; the beatings by thugs, which didn’t actually happen, would probably have been a relief. Apparently, he would storm around the aisles telling people to stop listening to the music, to go about their business.
Erik Satie Theater was — and still is, I’m told by its remaining devotees — an attempt to leverage the wondrous flaw in Satie’s calculation in order to return the world to its proper dimension. So, let’s say you are sitting in a high-rise in Manhattan with an old friend. It’s late at night and the children are sleeping, so you have to be relatively quiet. The lights on the cars on the Westside highway look like a child coloring with a highlighter. You call a session of Erik Satie Theater at this moment, putting on music that is supposed to drift into the background and help to amplify what you are looking at. But, because the music is so gorgeous, it calls your perceptions to it, and the subject of your attention (in this case, the cars on the highway) becomes secondary, becomes furniture. This exercise is important. The thing you thought you should be paying attention to is maybe not the thing you should be paying attention to. The thing you framed as beautiful and worthy is maybe not as important as the broken part of some small thing to your right, just off stage, living in the corner of your eye.
There’s a scene in Five Easy Pieces, an early Jack Nicholson movie, where his character is stuck in a terrible traffic jam with a friend. They are literally parked. And they are both very inebriated. Nicholson’s character eventually gets out of the car, and as is his way, he starts to bump into other cars, to knock on windows, to bellow and shout, to dance drunkenly with the world around him, unafraid of a scuffle or a waltz. Ultimately, he climbs aboard a flatbed truck that is holding a piano. He sits down at the piano and begins to play — with utter virtuosic precision. It’s the first time in the movie, as far as I remember it, where he shows off this talent that he had otherwise been hiding. And then his talent simply takes over. He goes into a trance, a flow state, and doesn’t realize that the traffic is breaking up a bit and the flat bed truck is pulling off the highway and driving away from his car and his friend and presumably his current responsibilities. So he takes an unexpected left turn because he found the right instrument in the right moment — and his habitual program was short circuited, quite productively, for the time being.
Erik Satie Theater.
KCT: You have two kids, a boy and a girl. What are the most memorable or enigmatic things they have said or done, one for each. Something you can’t explain, that you don’t know where it came from.
AC: On vacation once, my son did a cannonball right into the center of a ring of women, aged 35 – 55. They were standing around and talking, sipping cocktails, and being careful not to move deeper into the pool than waist level. I watched my son run around the pool, with the pitter-pattery feet of a seven year old, launch himself into the air, and then scream “cannonball.” The ring of women was collectively appalled and started looking for his parents as he made his escape. I hid behind a shrub, half laughing and half marveling at the misfire in his brain that could have caused him to both conceive of, and execute, such a perfectly mischievous act. He definitely thinks of himself as a prankster, but he rarely shares this gift so overtly with the world.
My daughter writes little poems that, on some levels, are entirely accurate and wise. Her latest, which now serves as my personal mantra is, “Wherever you go is somewhere good to go.”
KCT: Your favorite Cassavetes movie?
AC: Anything starring Matthew McConaughey when he was still playing romantic lead roles in PG-13 romantic comedies. Also, A Woman Under the Influence, a movie that requires so much emotional energy that you can only recover from it by consuming a decade’s worth of pure entertainment. Which explains my first sentence.
KCT: If ever I was going to commit to a binary, it’d be this: there’s people who think failure’s funny, and there’s people who don’t. What is it about failure that’s so funny? Or I guess I should say, what isn’t?
AC: Failure in the face of utter and absolute certainty is funny, but before going further, we have to be clear about the term funny. The best comedy doesn’t always make you laugh. I know you know this, but I’ll continue for the sake of the people sitting near us right now. Perhaps they will overhear something that will be useful to them, something that will encourage them to order a different kind of latte next week.
The best comedy moves us quickly out of frame and then back in, but after that, the frame looks a little ridiculous or ill fitting. (It’s like watching PG-13 romantic comedies after watching A Woman Under the Influence.) Or it asks the question that no one realized or didn’t want to ask. It’s why the court jester was the only one who could speak truth to power — the King — without being killed. If you were a king, you killed the messenger, but you laughed at the clown. Only later, when he was gone, did you wonder, “hey, wait, what did he just say . . . did he just imply . . . am I, are we, really . . .? ” That’s funny and I think healthy: it’s a way to shed postures, to release bad tension or ideas that are past their prime. The best people I know find ways to constantly take a little bit of the air out of situations wherein people are taking themselves, or their work, entirely too seriously. Functionally, such deflationary acts usually help the situation, and the people in it, move to a successful completion. Comedy holds the door open for us, just a crack, allowing us to slide through it and become human again, to embrace humanity again. Sometimes it allows us to choose this departure and sometimes the comedian is so good at her job that she throws us right into the next room without our choosing.
As for the second part of your question, I’d say, convincingly I hope, that failure that comes from repeated or ingrained acts of selfishness is generally not funny or healthy, though it can help us, generationally, to learn what we do not want to be. But, then again, some of this kind of failure can’t be instructive because it’s part of what it means to be human. We’re going to keep doing certain things again and again, even though they hurt us or the people we care most about. You’d have to be a real clown to think something like that is funny, but being a real clown means you’re a gift to us, to humanity, so I fear that I have simply failed in my attempt to answer your question.
Ahab Cloud: Moving on then . . . You spent a year at Exeter, as a visiting poet. How was the food?
Kyle Coma-Thompson: What can I say? 2006 was the worst year of my life, but I ate well. Before then I hadn’t had the requisite experience to realize that depression takes your appetite first, before it takes the rest of you. In hindsight I’m definitely tempted to stand back and see this as the details of one big metaphor: at the banquet halls of high affluence, though I was amazed at the spread, I just wasn’t hungry. But if I was, I would have had some excellent meals.
This may be faulty memory, but I do recall the father of one of the students shipping in a bunch of lobsters that were caught fresh off the coast of, I think it was, Maine. I don’t eat lobster but it was a sight to see high school kids cracking them open in a cafeteria. I remember saying to myself, “Well, this happened.”
AC: Shine a little light on a local Louisville artist if you will, preferably one I haven’t heard of.
KCT: There is this painter-turned-musician, Dane Waters, who has been a consistent source of inspiration for me over the past few years. In the past five years she’s put out two solo records and two records with Softcheque, a group she put together with her husband Warren. All of them are wholly unique, imaginatively crafted–varied in their approach, but uniformly beautiful. She also collaborates with a new group or artist every few months, it seems. And also works with the Louisville opera. Somehow during all of this she had a daughter, so on top of all the music she’s making, she’s raising a child and by all accounts doing a wonderful job at it. Whenever I catch myself in moments of frustration, struggling to find time for creative work, I can always call bullshit on myself and say, “Look at Dane.” From a distance, it seems the more she spreads herself thin, the stronger she becomes as an artist. In that case, compared to most of us, she’s an anomaly.
AC: At your wedding, I recall a moment where Bruce Springsteen was playing and I was suddenly surrounded by gleeful Bosnians. Are these the same Bosnians who show up, from time to time, in your work? (Feel free to say, “that never happened” and move on.)
KCT: I’m tempted to say “this happened” and then move on. Yes, two of my close friends, guys I met when I moved back to Louisville in 2007, are Bosnian. One still lives in town, the other has since moved to Salt Lake City. Alen is a poet and Fedja, a historian.
When the question of influence comes up among writers, there’s often a very formal response that involves the retrospective and highly conscious shaping of a personal lineage of forebears, composed mostly of other writers, often dead. And often I think this is a sleight-of-hand and an avoidance of the plain fact that a writer’s primary influences are often his or her friends.
Making art, for me, has often been an excuse for initiating friendships. Those two guys know how enjoy themselves, how to be honest and unguarded, and more than anything, for as long as I’ve known them they’ve been curious about almost everything. Their curiosity is a form of comedy. There’s nothing they won’t ask, with the utmost playfulness and innocence, no matter how personal the point in question. Any amount of time spent having a beer with them is subtly liberating.
AC: Tell me about your most recent walk, in excruciating detail.
KCT: Half an hour ago I came back from a walk to Seneca Park, which is four blocks from the apartment. My wife and
I walk there every day, do one loop around the park (approx. 1.3 mi.), morning or night.
During this walk I scanned the recycling bins placed on the street curbs, looking for any errant reading material, old newspapers or magazines, the occasional book. This is an old habit of mine and one I felt I should keep to myself, until I read that in Lexington Guy Davenport used to collect junk as well on his walks–mostly fallen twigs for his fireplace. My friend Claude, who had a friend who lived near Davenport, recently told me he used to see him walking around, collecting the stuff. Little did he know he was watching a polymath bend to pick up his evening kindling.
So I leave my apartment, head down my street, McCready, to where it intersects with Ingle, head to Cannons Lane, then walk three blocks to Seneca Park. It’s early September but in Louisville that means it’s actually still the high heat of summer. The trees are big, there’s a lot of green to walk through. I pass a couple walking their pit bulls.
The path around Seneca is paved asphalt and cuts a long ellipse around a grass field. There’s pick-up games of soccer going on. I’ll usually stand and watch for a few minutes. Guys from all over playing in those games–from Africa, Europe, the Middle East, South America, playing with American dudes. I made the mistake of joining a game once. One guy, a middle aged portly Iraqi, schooled me so bad, dribbling past me. I’m in good shape and he’s not exactly in his prime, but his footwork was so quick and skilled he had me falling all over the place, taking every one of his feints. Got to the point that he felt so bad for me he started giving me advice about how to defend him, while I was defending him. Needless to say, now I just stand by and enjoy the aesthetic precision of people who really know how to play.
The park is filled with people, joggers, children, suspected perverts. To my right I pass a group of guys standing by some tricked-out trucks, listening to their friend describe strategies of an offensive linebacker, in football (American style). He’s gesticulating like a ham Shakespearean actor, and it’s wonderful.
When I cut past the tennis courts, I notice one particularly heated game where one man is yelling at his friend during a volley, “Yeah, that’s right, bring it, motherfucker!” When I walk to the other side of the courts I can see his friend laughing.
This takes me past the playground, where the kids keep a close eye on their adults. Down the last stretch I study the soccer games currently in progress, from the opposite side of the field. I should mention that during this time I’m taking out my pocket notebook every three minutes to write down some line that’s occurred to me, or a detail of something I’ve seen. This morning, during my first walk with my wife Marie, I wrote down her quote of the day, something she’d said off the cuff, on the subject of disgraced gurus leaving L.A. and bringing their little cults to Hawaii: “crazies flock to paradise”. And leaving all the sane people in the more mundane places? I don’t think so.
When I get home, I sit down and type this out and think to myself, “Okay, I think that’s it here. We’re done.”
KCT: Last question. Are we done?
AC: God, no!