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"Sheets of Sound": An Interview with Jaydn DeWald

Jaydn DeWald is a writer, teacher, and musician. Recent poems, stories, and critical essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from Best New Poets 2015, The Carolina Quarterly, Fairy Tale Review, Puerto del Sol, Writing on the Edge, and many others. He lives with his wife and two kids in Bogart, Georgia, where he’s a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. 

His two stories, "Lineage (5)" and "Lineage (6)," appeared in Issue Seventy-One of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about jazz, writing in the domestic sphere, and how a word compares to a musical note.

“Lineage (5)” and “Lineage (6)” are part of a larger “Lineage” series. Can you please describe this series and tell us how these two stories fit into the larger project?

The “Lineage” series is an ongoing narrative experiment triggered (in part) by Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, a study in which Russian fairy tales are broken into and analyzed as thematic and narratological chunks, which tend to be, Propp discovers, sequenced in particular ways. I won’t belabor this point; instead, I’ll simply mention that I was struck by passages like this one: “The names of the dramatic personae change (as well as the attributes of each), but neither their actions nor functions change. From this we can draw the inference that a tale often attributes identical actions to various personages.” My “Lineage” series attempts to create “versions” or “variations” of a single narrative, but rather than attribute “identical actions to various personages,” the series attributes various actions in identical (or almost identical) sentence structures—most notably the opening sentence of each “Lineage,” wherein the triad of the narrative is established: “My grandmother’s alone, more alone than I, though less alone than my grandfather…”; or, “I’m handsome—a bit handsomer, I think, than my brother—but perhaps not quite as handsome as our father…”; etc, etc. For this reason, each “Lineage” is not so much connected narratively—I don’t think of the characters as members of an extended family, for example, à la the soldiers in William March’s WWI novel-in-vignettes Company K (1933)—as connected morphologically: particular words and phrases and sentence structures, particular narrative moves and units, appear and reappear, like strands of linguistic DNA, across the series. The “Lineage” stories are, to my mind, blood relatives.

On a personal note, I find “lineage” as a subject endlessly fascinating—I’ve become a writer of the domestic sphere—“I like to get lost in my house,” as David Shapiro once wrote—and it’s linked for me to a larger life project: the intricacies of familial relations. My partner, Kali, and I have two kids, a three-year-old daughter and a two-month-old son, and though the “Lineage” stories are by no means autobiographical, writing them has been a valuable, even vital, experience whereby I reaffirm for myself the importance—as well as the difficulty—of intimacy and connection.

In “Lineage (6)” there is a moment in which the speaker addresses the reader. “[D]on’t you think?” he asks us, in reference to his handsomeness. When a narrator or speaker addresses the reader in a story, how do you think that changes our relationship with the text?

Before answering your question, I’ll mention that this address—“don’t you think?”—is one of those linguistic strands of DNA mentioned above: “Lineage (6)” followed the heels of another “Lineage” (which takes as its epigraph this line from David St. John: “Yesterday is so boring, don’t you think?”) wherein that address is repeated like a refrain or, more accurately, a conversational tic. Anyway, considering his extreme solipsism, the “handsome” protagonist of “Lineage (6)” is likelier addressing himself—his own reflection, as it were—than anybody else.

But to your question. I must admit I’m rather ambivalent about the proverbial “reader”—even though I adore those “dear reader” moments in old novels—seeing as my own readers (the people to and for whom I write) are specific people: my partner, my father, a few long-standing writer friends, a few teachers. And yet does one ever really believe that nobody else will read one’s writing? For this reason, I tend to experience readerly addresses as private, despite a text’s ability or inability to communicate widely, so that the general “reader” is in fact a voyeur, eavesdropping on a private conversation. On the whole, such an address will force me to peer deeplier into the peephole (so to speak) of the text. My unavoidable outsiderness arouses my desire to enter.

In “Lineage (5)” the speaker, like you, is a writer. What is the benefit (or what can we learn) by writing about characters who share our passions, our hobbies, or other important aspects of our personalities?

“Lineage (5)” is an aesthetic exploration, which is, of course, always already an existential exploration: Why should I be this particular way, to the inevitable and inadvertent exclusion of other ways? But I wasn’t interested in writing an aesthetics essay. I was interested in enacting—an aesthetic stance in itself, no?—the conflict(s) between generalized areas on the aesthetic-existential spectrum. In any event, for me, the benefit of writing about a writer is that I can enlarge myself: I can enter into the consciousness of a writer whose output exceeds, and whose aesthetic-existential range varies from, my own. Because the occasional battles in writing workshops tend to arise in my experience not from “problems” of execution, say, or attraction/repulsion to particular subject matter, but rather from the clashing of aesthetic sensibilities, the benefit of writing about a writer (a writer unlike oneself, anyway) is that one can become a richer and more tolerant writer, reader, teacher, peer, and maybe even person.

You are also a musician. Do you find any similarities between music and writing as art forms?

Absolutely. Playing music, especially jazz—and I played electric bass for the DeWald-Taylor Quintet for over a decade—one develops valuable, multidisciplinary instincts: one’s body knows more (or better) than one’s mind; twelve notes is more than enough; every instantiation of a tune is a different tune; silence, too, is music; listen and react, listen and react, listen and react . . . How can these instincts (and many others) not influence my writing? This is just to say that, for me, the useful similarities between music and writing relate principally to practice and approach.

Yet there are useful differences, too. Consider musicians like Miles or Jaco Pastorious, musicians who can wound us with a single, arrow-like note. Writing, alas, cannot compete. Even the strongest writing cannot appear (on the page, at least) in a single word, but rather requires an alchemy of words, seeing as a word in isolation cannot be written uniquely—cannot be played, so to speak—though I once dreamt that my laptop keyboard was a piano keyboard, and words were chords, and each letter could be sharped or flatted at will. On the other hand, a single word culled from a gazillion possible words—isn’t that far more precious than a single note, which is merely one of twelve? I love parsing out these differences, and I find the impossible task of obliterating them—the differences, that is—extraordinarily generative.

Do you listen to music while you write? Are there any musical artists who have inspired your writing?

Almost never. Language is its own music, just as music is its own language. Even so, while writing I’ll occasionally listen to a particular piece of music over and over again, when that music is (I mean this quite literally) the soundtrack of the poem or story or essay—as when a character listens to a song on the radio, for instance.

As for musicians who have inspired my writing, they are many and various—too many to responsibly introduce here—though the “Lineage” series is very much indebted to Coltrane. Jazz critic Ira Gitler famously described Coltrane’s solos as “sheets of sound,” and the “Lineage” stories are almost all long, single-paragraph stories, which I rather fancifully regard as Coltranian sheets of sound. Furthermore, Coltrane had a gift for extending phrases beyond their expected conclusions, for broadening or artfully complicating the improvisational units of which his solos are composed—there’s a real reluctance to pause or stop. In one well-known anecdote, Coltrane, defending the length of his solos, tells Miles, “I can’t find a way to stop,” to which Miles replies, “You might start by taking the horn out of your fucking mouth.” My “Lineage” series tries to channel the spirit of Coltrane, refusing the impulse to place periods and end paragraphs—to take the horn out of my mouth—preferring longer, more complicated compositional units.

I suspect this all sounds rather intellectual. Yet when you’ve played jazz and admired Coltrane’s virtuosity for as long as I have, it feels very personal indeed—an act of reverence and reciprocation. As Clark Terry, the great jazz trumpet, once said: “There’s nothing wrong with being a copycat, so long as you copy the right cats.”

What projects are you working on now?

I’m putting the finishing touches (I hope) on a cross-genre manuscript. I’ve also been writing new poems, stories, essays, and occasionally setting poems to music and/or soundwork. Most importantly, though, the project of raising two kids—my own lineage.

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