Merridawn Duckler is a writer from Portland, Oregon. Her fiction has been published in many literary journals, including FRiGG, Hobart, and New Flash Fiction. Recent stories won first and third place in the 2019 Jewish in Seattle fiction contest. She was a finalist for the Sozopol Fiction Fellowship and named to the Wigleaf 50. Residencies/fellowships include Yaddo, Squaw Valley, SLS in St. Petersburg, Russia, Vermont Post Graduate Conference, and Horned Dorset Writers Colony. She’s an editor at Narrative and the international philosophy journal Evental Aesthetics.
Interview with Merridawn Duckler
Stauff: You write fiction, poetry, have a play that was recently commissioned, teach theater, poetry, prose, and are an editor at Narrative. Did you start in one specific genre, then move to others?
Duckler: I went to Reed College, a very academic school, and was one of a few students accepted into a creative thesis. That thesis was in poetry which I had been writing for a few years already. My father read and recited poetry—often Housman—to me and my siblings and it was very impactful. Please read poetry to your children! They are never too young. Writing poetry is a fantastic core practice. It emphasizes observation, tone, brevity, the one-two punch, all characteristics of the best writing. I wrote short stories later because there seemed to be more opportunity in publishing for prose and because I loved hearing stories. Not necessarily the professional kind, with a formal, gesticulating person but the kind you’d hear, playing under the kitchen table, while adults gossiped and judged above you, like Greek gods. I loved that stuff then and I still do. I worked for newspapers for a while—another excellent training for all kinds of writing—and I think playwriting was a natural extension of my interest and experience in reported narrative, poetry’s orality and the revelatory prosaic. My obsession is and has always been language. To me, this is the basis of all that is human and therefore all that we share. It’s the through-line of every genre for me. I am especially interested in the everyday, the so-called ordinary and mundane speak. When the guy at the gas station says to me as he hands me my receipt: keep yourself out there my heart just soars.
Stauff: Your story, “Heart of the South,” won this year’s Elizabeth Sloan Tyler Memorial Award for the literary. The main character, Cotton, is sent to a remote spot in Oregon by a country music legend (known as The General) to learn how to write songs for the General’s daughter to sing. In the woods of Oregon, Cotton meets his songwriting teacher, Annie, who is prone to strange fits where she must be tied down. During these fits, Annie sings songs “as awful in their meaning as they were beautiful in their music.” Despite being repulsed, Cotton writes down his memories of what Annie sang, resulting in hit songs and country music stardom. I thought the story was fresh with a hint of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” How did you come up with the characters in “Heart of the South?”
Duckler: Characters are all around us, just clamoring for a part! Some days I feel like everyone I meet is auditioning. I did spend some years in the south. It was a time of happiness and later a lot of distress, which I find oddly Southern. Extreme emotions are expected there. Here in Oregon, where I was born and raised, the tremendous natural beauty, especially of forests, can be a stand-in for western emotional life. Cotton and Annie are surrounded by those woods. Oregonians don’t feel any less, it’s just they keep those cards close to their down vest, which is possible where the land itself is so dramatic. The mountains speak for us. Many of my characters come from myth, legends, and biblical stories. Those people are archetypes of course but I love imagining their real life struggles. That story about David soothing Saul with his music and then Saul trying to kill him had been on my mind for quite a while. One day I overheard a musician telling someone about an older woman who was something of a legend when it came to co-writing songs. He said, she’s totally crazy! That’s when my stories arrive, as a chemical reaction between the epic and casual moments. On one level “Heart of the South” is a parable about creativity. In the throes of it we are all these characters: mute, crazy, bewildered, betrayed, ambitious, regretful, exhilarated. These days people are urged to be creative. Those of us who live in that field recognize it isn’t all ponies and rainbows. Creativity is a shadow organization. It exacts something from the maker and that something is very complex, life-altering and cannot be reversed. The myths and tales that ignite my stories are not sources I care to make especially evident, no one needs to know but me. It’s my protective cloak. It’s the river Annie drinks from and then out comes her true, outrageous self.
Stauff: The narrative voice in “Heart of the South” is strong and supported by fresh metaphors and language that isn’t afraid to take risks. Parts read like poetry with a wonderful musicality. Does your experience as a poet influence your fiction?
Duckler: I love that you above mentioned “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”—a brilliant story that is also a brilliant song. Poetry influences all my writing, though I try and stay away from anything that could be described as “poetic.” I don’t care for that kind of thing. Instead I like to call on aspects that are structurally part of making poems, internal repetition, for example. I love to push against the boundaries of what language can do, without dropping the narrative or sounding contrived. “Heart of the South” was about song, and I’m a strong believer in form following function. So musical language had to be part and parcel. I’m a huge opera fan and I thought to build it a bit like an opera: the innocent beginning, a middle of being swept away by forces beyond our control, the tragic fallout. At the same time, I live in the modern world and nothing about me is nostalgic. I called on the part of opera that is starkly realistic. Cotton has risen far in the world, he’s on top of the world and I doubt he’d trade his experience for anything. But he was an orphan at the beginning and an orphan at the end. As are we all.
Stauff: You had a play commissioned last year for the first time. Can you talk about that, and what it’s like to write across genres? Do they overlap? Does experience in one strengthen your ability in others? Have you thought of writing for the screen? How does teaching and editing influence your writing?
Duckler: It was a fantastic experience and taught me so much. I relish any enterprise that makes me learn and I like to jump in with both feet, even if I can’t see the bottom. I was commissioned for a play about the brilliant Native American Oregon artist Rick Bartow, by a local gallery and his estate. I had always loved Rick’s art but I hadn’t ever met him. I interviewed his friends and colleagues, watched videos so I could capture his physical presence, and lived with his images so intensely they became part of my dreams. One challenge was that Rick was deeply, fervently beloved and a wonderful, giving person—this does not always make for great theater! But he was no saint, though he was, I’m pretty sure, a shaman. Big difference between saints and shamans. Rick was a recovered alcoholic, a wounded Vietnam vet, an irresistible charmer to many women, a brilliant, original painter. In every genre, I’m on the search for a form and when that organizing principle arrives, I can get to work. In this case the estate had commissioned the piece on behalf of authors portraits that Rick had bequeathed to the Newport Library. It was a mystery as to why he picked the seventeen writers he did. Mystery is an excellent basis for theater.
I took three of those authors—Emily Dickinson, A.E. Housman (of course!) and Bertolt Brecht—and had them come to life and interact with Bartow. I got to bring so many genres together, biography, painting, poetry, theater-making. It was incredibly difficult and so fun. I was thinking about genius, as all four were, and how it influences but never duplicates: there can never be another Emily Dickinson, even as writers align themselves with her work. I wanted the play to be funny, sexy, surprising, and moving to those who knew him and those who didn’t. I must have hit at least one of these because we had a sold out run with an extra show added because of ticket demand.
Writing across genre works for me because I always start from an idea. But what is the best way to express it? Is this a poem idea, a story idea, a theatrical idea? I’m looking for the vessel and it helps if you have several to choose from. In prose I am master of my universe, in poetry I hold the reigns but playwriting is a collaborative enterprise. Human beings are going to speak what you write. And they have some questions. It’s like writing with people looking over your shoulder. A big adjustment for me. Every genre has its beauty and damnation. One thing I will say about theater is that I love how it makes the writer necessary. If I write a good poem, awesome. If I write a good story, grand. But a whole universe of actors, directors, stage hands and costumers need me to write a good play, for they cannot proceed without it. Amichai says “The world/ is filled with people who were torn from their sleep.” I see my job as making that painful wake less lonely, more mysterious, and open to the possibility of a sliver of meaning. If we can only remember there is beauty, that’s a plus.
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