Virtual Memories Show 418:
Sven Birkerts

“Rather than try to think of a book to write about, why don’t I try to think about where I am in the world, in my life, and my preoccupations, and see if an author announces him- or herself?”

Is it unhip to search for a meaningful pattern in life? Sven Birkerts rejoins the show to talk about his new book, Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: Bookmarked (IG Publishing), which explores time, memory, and those aforementioned meaningful patterns. We get into Sven’s history with Nabokov’s memoir, his own impulse toward memoir as he approached 50, and the challenge of writing about someone whose prose is as incandescent as Nabokov’s. We talk about larger questions of literary greatness, the nature of individuality in an age of distributed social networks, whether Nabokov’s best-known book will survive, and what other books and authors have become “unsafe” for undergrad readers. We also gab about packing one’s library, finding the perfect notebook, and what the post-pandemic world may look like. Give it a listen! And go read Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: Bookmarked!

“Rather than try to think of a book to write about, why don’t I try to think about where I am in the world, in my life, and my preoccupations, and see if an author announces him- or herself?”

“If you start to press down on Nabokov’s prose, that really begins to reveal that it’s not just, ‘Oh, that’s a nice sentence,’ but the sentence has an architecture, that many things come together to give it form and create that response.”

“Approaching 50, I isolated a very specific image that captured the impulse to memoir. Things no longer happened singly, for themselves; they resonated against things in the past. . . . Approaching 70, I’m more interested in memory, but I’m hardly interested in anything that happened after 50.”

“I believe if you find the absolute right paper and notebook, and pen, anyone can become Tolstoy. It’s just a matter of those two things.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

Lots of ways to follow The Virtual Memories Show! iTunes, Spotify, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TuneIn, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Sven Birkerts has been co-editor of the literary magazine AGNI since July 2002. Among his previous books are Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age; The Other Walk; Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again; Reading Life: Books for the Ages; American Energies: Essays on Fiction; The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age; Readings; and My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays. He was the director of the Bennington Writing Seminars from 2007-2017 and has been a member of the core faculty since its founding in 1994. His new book is Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: Bookmarked.

Follow Sven on Twitter and Instagram.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded remotely via Zencastr. I used a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Sven by Mara Birkerts, photo of typerwriter & such by Sven. It’s on my instagram.

Virtual Memories Show 417:
Mark Wunderlich

“Is poetry a place where you want to be restrained, or is a poem where you actually get to exercise some freedom?”

A series of deaths and personal losses in 2018 hang over Mark Wunderlich‘s poems in his new collection, God of Nothingness (Graywolf Press). We talk about that writing, how living through it unwittingly prepared him for the past year in Pandemia, and how the current situation compares with his arrival in NYC at the height of AIDS. We get into the uses of autobiography in poetry (his editor refers to his poems as “fiercely autobiographical”), Mark’s queerness being tied to his poetic-self, the inspiration of James Merrill and his mentorship by JD McClatchy, the notion of a poem as a created environment permitting freedom, why his poems go from longhand to typewriter to computer, his experience conducting a Rilke course by snail-mail in 2020, his pandemic-adjustments as director of the Bennington Writing Seminars MFA program, and more. Give it a listen! And go read God of Nothingness !

“The thing that I love about poems is that they felt like worlds I could enter into. Reading a poem like Rilke’s First Elegy is like going into a house and knowing where everything is. They seem so alive still, but speak about things that are eternal.”

“It’s hard for me to think of any writing as being anything other than some sort of fiction. When we’re constructing a version of ourselves in print, how can the first person pronouns stand in as a representative of selfhood, with all that we are, all that we know, all that we have done and experienced?”

“There was certainly mentorship when I arrived in New York, and a bridge to another world, but it was a bridge that was on fire. That really marked my experience.”

“A poem is trying to fix something in time, along a kind of axis of the self’s movement through the world.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

Lots of ways to follow The Virtual Memories Show! iTunes, Spotify, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TuneIn, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Mark Wunderlich is the author of The Anchorage, which received the Lambda Literary Award, Voluntary Servitude, and The Earth Avails, which received the Rilke Prize. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and elsewhere. He is the director of the Bennington Writing Seminars graduate writing program and lives in New York’s Hudson Valley. His new book is God of Nothingness.

Follow Mark on Twitter and Instagram, and check out his more extensive bio at his site.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded remotely via Zencastr. I used a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Mark by Nicholas Kahn. It’s on my instagram.

Virtual Memories Show 410:
Phillip Lopate

“This book is like a tracing of American history through the essay. The essay is way to process ideas. All these problems we face in America I came to realize we had cycled through again and again: immigration, racism, sexism, disabilities. All of these questions of inclusion and exclusion have been tackled by the essay.”

Essayist and editor Phillip Lopate rejoins the show to celebrate the publication of The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays From Colonial Times To The Present (Pantheon). We talk about the origins of this anthology & how it transformed into a three-part series (two more coming next year!), Phillip’s self-admitted megalomania about the essay form, how the essay both paralleled and helped change American thought over the centuries, and just what’s so Glorious about The Glorious American Essay. We get into the challenge of limiting the collection to 100 essays, the value of canons and the need to revise them, the postwar golden age of the essay, the challenge of compiling work from the 21st century, and Emerson’s role as the key to the American essay (and how Phillip came to understand him through reading his notebooks). We also get into how his pandemic is going, how his students’ essays about lockdown life are better than some of the ones he’s read from older writers, his take on the Mets’ new ownership and why he’s glad sports came back during COVID, and what it was like to read so deeply in the history of American essays and thought during the Trump presidency. Give it a listen! And go read The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays From Colonial Times To The Present!

“One of the plights of the anthologist is that, no matter how many pages they give you, if you just had 200 or 300 more pages, you could really nail that sucker.”

“When someone asked me about this project, ‘What about your own work?’, I said, ‘This IS my own work.’ I’m giving four or five years of my life to being the keeper of the essay.”

“My limitation as an anthologist, and perhaps as a teacher, is that I’m always looking for a spark of humor or irony. Solemnity turns me off.”

“The great thing about writing is that sometimes you write something and then you lose it as a living memory, because now you’re remembering what you wrote about it. Writing replaces the memory.”

“The way I see my own work is connected to tradition, connected to the past, connected to Montaigne, and Hazlitt, and Lamb.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

Lots of ways to follow The Virtual Memories Show! iTunes, Spotify, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TuneIn, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Phillip Lopate is the author of To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, and of four essay collections: Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and Portrait Inside My Head. He is the editor of the anthologies The Art of the Personal Essay, Writing New York, and American Movie Critics, as well as the author of Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan, Notes on Sontag, and Totally Tenderly Tragically. A professor of writing at Columbia University’s nonfiction MFA program, he lives in Brooklyn. He is the editor of the new anthology The Glorious American Essay.

Listen to our previous conversations from 2013 and 2017.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded remotely via Zencastr. I used a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Phillip by me from 2017. It’s on my instagram.

Virtual Memories Show 393:
Betsy Bonner

With her new memoir The Book of Atlantis Black: The Search for a Sister Gone Missing (Tin House), author Betsy Bonner explores her sister’s mysterious death by overdose in a Tijuana hotel. We talk about how she knew she was ready to write this story, what it was like to look at her sister’s life like a detective rather than as a sibling, the history of trauma in her family and whether she considers herself a survivor, the process of rereleasing her sister’s music, and the ethics of writing a memoir with some shady characters and unreliable documents. We get into Betsy’s literary influences, the writers she plotzed over when she was Director at 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center, her pandemic life & what she misses about NYC, how her modes of writing differ from poetry to memoir to fiction, how the meaning of family changes over the course of The Book of Atlantis Black, and more. Give it a listen! And go read The Book of Atlantis Black!

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

Lots of ways to follow The Virtual Memories Show! iTunes, Spotify, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TuneIn, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Betsy Bonner is the author of The Book of Atlantis Black, a memoir published by Tin House; and of Round Lake, a poetry collection published by Four Way Books. She is a former Director of the 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center, where she now teaches creative writing. She is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and the T.S. Eliot House. She grew up in Chadds Ford, PA, and lives in southwestern VT.

Follow the linktree of The Book of Atlantis Black.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded remotely via Zencastr. I used a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Betsy by Catherine Talese. It’s on my instagram.

Virtual Memories Show 323:
Hugh Ryan

“I come to these stories in part because I’m trying to find myself.”

Let’s celebrate Pride Month with a conversation with Hugh Ryan, author of When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History! We talk about Brooklyn’s untold queer history and how it reflects the story of Brooklyn itself, the challenge of relating 19th century views of sexuality’s spectrum to a modern audience, and why his history began with Walt Whitman and ended a few years before Stonewall. We also get into the toughest part of his research, the best story that didn’t make it into the book, the commercial challenge of pitching a popular queer history, the accidental scoops he made by being the first person to explore this history, and how he wrote such long hours he broke his wrist. Oh, yeah, and he cringes over Naomi Wolf’s demolition and we share a laugh over his great story of the Coney Island impresario who threw a male beauty pageant in 1929 but had no idea what was in store. Give it a listen! And go buy When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History!

“One of the things I learned was how intimately connected queer history is with the history of prisons and policing in America.”

“I can’t write fiction because I have no imagination whatsoever. Everything has to have happened for me to write about it.”

“Having studied theory helped me understand what I was seeing, but having 20 years away from theory was more helpful for writing.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

Lots of ways to follow The Virtual Memories Show! iTunes, Spotify, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TuneIn, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Hugh Ryan is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn. He is the Founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, and sits on the boards of QED: A Journal in LGBTQ Worldmaking, and the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Buzzfeed, the LA Review of Books, Out, and many other venues. He is the author of When Brooklyn Was Queer, and is the recipient of the 2016-2017 Martin Duberman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, a 2017 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, and a 2018 residency at The Watermill Center. He is on Twitter as hugh_ryan and on Patreon.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Ryan’s office on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of me & Mr. Ryan by me. It’s on my instagram. Solo/flannel photo by Jia Oak Baker.