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Invitation to Stillness: An Interview with Kate Wyer

By Babak Lakghomi.

I first read an excerpt of Kate Wyer’s Girl, Cow & Monk in an online Peter Markus writing workshop several years back. The newness of its world, the sensory experience it provided through its fresh and poetic language, has stayed with me since. I was fortunate to finally read the full manuscript recently, several months into the COVID-19 pandemic. In this period of uncertainty and chaos, Wyer’s Girl, Cow & Monk felt like a small treasure from a different time that somehow still manages to engage with some of the most imminent issues of our time: our relationship with the natural world on the verge of a climate crisis; the need for imagining other ways of being in our bodies.

I was excited to ask Kate some questions about the book and her writing.

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3:AM Magazine: I am really curious to hear how the project started—in a former interview you called it an attempt at “magical realism, or fabulism.” It seems to me that there has been a progression in your work, from something more realist in Black Krim to the point of view of an animal in Land Beast, to the unique world of Girl, Cow & Monk here. Though some of the thematic interests and the detailed attention to the language are present across all the three books.

Kate Wyer: I need an image to start. Sometimes this comes to me as an idea—like the old man walking barefoot in circles in the snow for Black Krim, or sometimes I come across the image in the world, like the terrorized expression in the female rhino’s eye for Land Beast. The idea for Girl, Cow & Monk came to me as an image of a girl pulling a cow along a sandbar in the ocean. The fabulism that immerged was organic to that setting. I remember making a conscious decision to allow whatever the story needed. I do not plot out the story—each book begins with just the images I mentioned.  For Girl, Cow & Monk, I recognized right away that the setting was leading me into new places, ones that lent themselves to intrinsic myths.

It was originally a full-length manuscript, something like 250 pages. I condensed the book to contain only the most myth-like parts, to distill it into a concentrated experience.

3:AM: Lucrecia Martel (the Argentinian Film director) said “What we call masterpieces of literature manage to weave a very particular toxin into their letters, one that sickens, maddens and then transforms humans into better animals. It’s not something you can explain by describing events or characters. It’s something that happens in the writing. In the order and selection of the words… The particular way Di Benedetto makes use of language in Zama allows us to see something we have never seen before.”

I was thinking of Girl, Cow & Monk in this context and how it differentiates itself from some of the recent works of fiction in the fabulist vein. What happens in the book (the events) seem less important than the way the words are chosen and arranged. How would you weigh the role of the story versus language in your fiction? Or are they inseparable entities?

KW: This book is an homage to the deep history of human storytelling—to The Epic of Gilgamesh in particular. Outrageous things happen in the course of a day within that poem, and it’s just life. I felt so much electricity in that text—in the way the characters transform, act, move. All of it is fabulism, without the label. The same can be said of Anne Carson’s work, especially The Autobiography of Red. She’s playing within the Classics of course, but the ideas are similar. I wanted Girl, Cow & Monk to be in conversation with these ancient (or spins on ancient) texts. I wanted to present the truth of the place—in this case, a place where the people cannot drown—and leave it as fact, in the same way when you read about the thirteen storms unleased on Humbaba, you go along for the ride. I have a strong narrative drive, but I get the most pleasure from writing when I am able to slow down and focus on moments of observation.

3:AM: “Silence means the wet hesitation of resistance a potato makes with each pass of the knife” or elsewhere “It is the strike of a match and the fizz of a flame catching. Of breath ending flame before it reaches fingers.” When the monk finally speaks “It sounds like I am using someone else’s voice. There is an accent of silence.”

Silence seems important in the narrative, but also in the spacing of the paragraphs and sparseness of the prose. In a previous interview, you highlighted your tendency for only leaving the elemental in the text and writing in a fragmented way. I was wondering if you can speak to that, and if silence may be an invitation for engaging in the world in a different way.

KW: Monk’s mediation on silence is one of my favorite chapters in the book. It’s also one of the sections people have singled out to me after they read the work, usually with a comment about how loud the silence is. I love that.

I unconsciously relate the word silence to a lack of human speech. Lack of voice, rather than lack of all sound. When I was young, I went through years when spoken language was not available to me—I had a form of mutism. It was painful; it drove me into writing to communicate. I carry that period of silence in my body to this day. I don’t think I’m intentionally inviting people into more silence, but I would say I invite them into stillness with my work. Quiet observation. My use of white space invites this too.

Kate Wyer, Girl, Cow & Monk (Meekling Press, 2020)

3:AM: You talked about Anne Carson and The Epic of Gilgamesh as some of your influences.  I was wondering about other writers that may have influenced your work.

KW: Alice Oswald and Michael Ondaatje are also central influences of this work. In both of their work you can find a slowing of time—a rich, sensual attention to sensation and experience.

3:AM: The relationship with the natural world seems critical in all of your books. Can you talk about how this interest has developed?

KW: I have always had it. It’s one of the core parts of my being. I was raised Catholic. Although that faith did not resonate with me, you can see it hasn’t entirely left me. Black Krim had a priest subplot that I completely edited out, but I began to scratch that itch with Monk I suppose. Even Monk subverts the formal religion though. By engaging with and observing the natural word, I actively seek to experience the sublime. I worship through my attention to its beauty, but I’m not sugar-coating anything. The ocean is a dangerous place. I do want people to connect with it, to see the interconnectedness of life.  I want people to feel the aliveness of this moment, in this world. And yes, to grieve, but also to not feel helpless.

3: AM: In the essay “Doing Without,” Brian Evenson discusses that fiction is exceptionally good at providing models for consciousness and this is what can allow it to go beyond other media. He argues for “fiction that strips its way down to our nerves and fibers,” and “lets us step outside of our own increasingly simulated experience and sets it afresh, from without.” As I was reading your work, I was not only thinking about how the pared-down language works to this effect, but also how the sensory experience conveyed can hardly be captured in any other media. What do you see as the place of fiction in a culture that is saturated with images and information?

KW: I agree with Brian Evenson, and I’m a fan of his work. Perhaps what he said is true because fiction allows room for the reader to invent the world they are entering—no matter how much an author describes something, that reader is still bringing their own lived experience to in. Most of us think in language—language animates our consciousness—so the art that uses language as its sole medium excels at seeing itself.

3:AM: Are you inspired by any other forms of art?

KW: Wandering though museums, in particular the National Portrait Gallery in DC and The Baltimore Museum of Art, is something that has always impacted and enriched my writing. I have digital access to so much, but the physical experience of walking, without clear purpose other than to absorb, is something I currently miss. I’m a sponge in that regard—I love ancient through contemporary work. I also love film, but I’m finding that my attention span is suffering under the Zooming of a work day.

3:AM:  And how have these Zooming work days—everything that is going on right now—have impacted your writing? Are you currently working on something?

KW:  I’m grateful to be employed and to be working from home. I work in the public behavioral health system of Maryland, performing interviews with people currently receiving services in that system. It takes a lot more focus to do these interviews over the phone, without all the visual body language we rely on for meaning. It could be draining work on a good day, pre-pandemic, but can be more so now. All of my connection with co-workers and state officials is through video platforms. Since the pandemic began, I’ve only written a poem and a piece of flash fiction. The fall is my generative time though, so I’m hoping to continue work on a novel titled, The Pollinator.

It’s about a woman who works on a vanilla orchid farm.

3:AM: “My sickness that first winter could have been from something as small as the memory of my boyhood body in a warm bathtub.” I love how the corporeal experience is central in your book. Your bio introduces you as Somatic Teacher among other things and I was curious to know more about any connections between that and your writing practice.

KW: My formal study of somatics began about four years ago with The Polyvagal Theory of Dr. Stephen Porges. In a nutshell, this theory explains the body’s response to trauma and how trauma can reorganize our nervous systems. It seeks not to pathologize reactions, like depression or PTSD, but to see those reactions as intelligent adaptions to difficult situations. Once we understand how our bodies adapted to these situations, we can thank our bodies for getting us through (whatever it was) and begin to find new ways to reengage with the world. It also addresses the traumas of systemic racism and sexism. Learning the theory was deeply transformative for my life and my own recovery, and now I teach it to places such at the Baltimore County Public School, Division of School Climate and Safety (the resource teachers) and to Mental Health First Aid trainers.

I wrote Girl, Cow & Monk at the end of 2013 and revised it for a year. It pre-dates my awareness of the field of somatics, but not my own felt sense of the intelligence of the body. I would say that my writing’s somatic teacher is Michael Ondaatje. I learned a lot from his early work in particular, about how to sit with and elevate the physical experience of embodiment.

I spent years dissociating from my body, and it is a powerful thing to stay connected to it, to not only stay connected to it, but to celebrate it.

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Kate Wyer is the author of Girl, Cow & Monk and two previous books of fiction, a novel, Black Krim, and a novella, Land Beast. Her work has appeared in West Branch, The Rupture, Necessary Fiction, Hobart, Unsaid and other journals. She works in the public mental health system of Maryland. She is also a somatics teacher and a registered yoga teacher.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Babak Lakghomi is the author of Floating Notes (Tyrant Books, 2018). His work has appeared or forthcoming in American Short Fiction, NOON, Ninth Letter, Green Mountains Review, and New York Tyrant Magazine and has been translated into Italian and Farsi. Babak was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives in Ontario, Canada.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 1st, 2020.