Jason Price Everett’s “Xian Dyad”
Jason Freure: First of all, you write in your travelogue, Xian Dyad, “A sincere and true travelogue undresses the traveller and masks the places travelled.” Why did you write a travelogue, and what elements of travel did you uncover or unmask?
Jason Price Everett: When I first decided to spend a year in China teaching English, I knew exactly how I expected to use the experience: I wanted to create a long poem about motion, interior or exterior, something along the lines of the Anabase of St-John Perse. I thought that I could accelerate the verbal process a bit, and write something that was more in accord with the way that contemporary reality is experienced—instead of hearkening back to Xenophon—but still make it work as a long poem. Needless to say, it didn’t come out quite right—one can’t force that sort of thing, and SJP is a daunting standard to match—so instead I ended up with a handful of fragments, short poems that captured the effect in fits and starts, but that wouldn’t combine into a greater whole. (The patient angels at Spuyten Duyvil had the good sense to talk me out of including them in Xian Dyad.) I was then left with the remains of two different diaries: one in which I had scribbled the mundane details of my working life as a visiting professor of English at a nondescript Chinese university in Xi’An, and one that I kept over the course of a month-long journey through southern China and southeast Asia in February 2005. I sifted the material in both notebooks carefully, rearranged and rewrote a few portions, fitted them together, and—in a manner wholly unexpected—it worked. Xian Dyad, in effect, is made of what are essentially two long prose poems combined: the first half is a diary of stasis, and the second half is a diary of motion—comprising one of the many dyads involved (man/woman, light/dark, love/hate). The end result is what could be considered as a binary novella, or a poetic travelogue.
JF: The city in Xian Dyad, or at least the university and the attached village, does not come across as an especially picturesque place. The shops in the village have no names, and the university is a ten-year-old concrete complex. What about it appealed to you?
JPE: Let me answer that with a story: thirty years ago, when the world was very different, I was thirteen years old, in middle school, and my homeroom seat faced a slightly antiquated globe. I have no idea what that globe was ever used for—it never seemed to change position, and it always kept the same hemisphere turned towards me, such that for three years, every morning, I found myself looking at a region of western China that was labeled “Sinkiang” (it was an old globe, like I said), and, in the very middle of this strange region, a small dot, the only dot in this unmarked emptiness on the other side of the Earth, with the evocative label “Urumchi.” I became fascinated by this “Urumchi”—it’s spelled “Urumqi” nowadays—and I said to myself: One day I will go there. I will go to Urumchi.
Fast-forward twenty years or so, and there I was teaching English in China and writing what would become Xian Dyad, and suddenly I realized that I would never have a better shot at actually setting foot in Urumchi in order to transform the dream into reality, so I went there, alone, and not fluent in Mandarin. After being on the train for days, I took a bus from Turpan to Urumqi to cover the final stage of the trip. In the middle of that bus trip, the bus stopped at the highest point of a pass over the Tian Shan mountain range, where there was a sort of tumbledown, Central Asian convenience store that sold the refreshments endemic to that part of the world: bottled tea, preserved eggs, shashlik, and so forth, and I got out and walked around the unpaved parking area and felt the wind on my face—a cool sharp dry air, like breathing crystalline quartz—and there was nothing. I was as far away from anything that I had ever known on this planet in this existence, culturally, linguistically, informationally, as I had ever been, or ever will be again. There was no one with me who could interpret for me, who I could talk to, or with, or through. No communication possible. Jagged mountains, inanimate, enamel blue cloudless sky, no animals, no plants—just this perfect beautiful emptiness. Just myself, and a landscape without referents. And I like it because it allows me to impose my own sense of order on the surrounding world of experience completely undisturbed, with as little resistance as possible from the reality of things, or interference with the signals of other communicators. Xian Dyad is the perfect imposition of a self-determined and self-induced order on an effectively informationless tabula rasa. I felt this way on the university campus in Xi’An, too—it was so new, so featureless, so indistinct, so lacking in character that I could fill in the blanks as I pleased when I wrote Xian Dyad.
As I recall, J.G. Ballard mentioned a similar effect when he was on holiday in southern France: the drowning of the world in bright sunlight, the indistinguishable hotels, the incomprehensible radio and television and newspapers—the communicative act expands to fill in the perceived blank zones. Sometimes I wonder if this may be one of the many peculiarities of the English literary tradition—a sort of inbuilt linguistic dominance, or arrogance.
Jason Price Everett several years before the launch of “Xian Dyad”
JF: In Canada, at least, I sometimes hear the complaint that there are too many writers and not enough uninvolved, or “average” readers. At the end of Xian Dyad, you defend writing, not just your own but the practice in general:
We still cling to a medieval superstition regarding the written word, an uncritical worship of the majesty of text … to trust an anonymous and faceless writer, whom one has most likely never met and will likely never meet, with one’s very words and concepts is the most abhorrent form of the renunciation of personal responsibility that can exist.
Do writers lament the lack of an “average” reader in the United States as well?
JPE: I would say that the currently popular writers in the U.S., up to and including those that win literary prizes, enthusiastically celebrate the overwhelming preponderance of the average reader—if by “average reader,” you mean people who just read the books that the Internet, television, radio, and the newspapers tell them to read, without thought. These people buy the book of the moment—sometimes they even read it—and then they throw it away and buy the next interchangeable commodity-unit. And that’s just how the system was designed to function by the few remaining major publishers, which have been owned by multimedia conglomerates for quite some time. This is the audiovisual distribution model applied to text-based works, for a mass audience. The corporate profit imperative functions as a form of censorship in our society.
A few small presses these days have the courage to attempt to emulate risk-takers like Maurice Girodias, Barney Rosset, and James Laughlin, but the corporate multimedia oligarchy is much, much stronger now than it was fifty or one hundred years ago. Basically, it comes down to two separate spheres of the book publishing and book reading experience: “official literature,” force-fed to the consumers in the same manner as popular movies, music, and television, and “microliterature” (ad hoc groupings of individuals sharing a common aesthetic with writers and readers merged synonymous), where (potentially vast) circles of people who are sincerely concerned with the aesthetics of the written word—who share a certain intimacy of thought, and who truly care about the existence, encouragement and promulgation of literature for its own sake and not for the profit motive—both read and write constantly back and forth between each other, sharing their work, and publishing their own books themselves.
Jason Price Everett is the author of Unfictions and Hypodrome (8th House Press). His most recent book is Xian Dyad, a travelogue from Brooklyn based Spuyten Duyvil.
Part Two of this interview will appear on Thursday.