Wednesday 30 November 2016

Interview with Don Riggs

Don Riggs is an occasional reviewer for TFF-R, as well as poet, scholar, teacher, aficionado of monsters and Alice in Wonderland adaptations. We’ve been working with Don for a couple years now, so we thought we’d invite him over to talk a bit about his work and passions.

Don Riggs went to Dickinson College where he studied Myth, the University of North Carolina where he studied Comparative Literature (Medieval), taught French in South Carolina, was a massage therapist in Mechanicsburg, Pa., taught Humanities and Art History at Harrisburg Area Community College, earned an M.A. in English/Creative Writing/Poetry, and has taught English at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His books of poetry include Bilateral Asymmetry (Texture Press, 2014) and Made of Words (Faurit din cuvinte) (Orizont Literar Contemporan, 2015). He analyzed John Langdon’s Alice and the Graceful White Rabbit at Cambridge University in 2015.

We asked Don a few questions.

The Future Fire: Who was your favourite mythical hero or heroine when you were young?

Don Riggs: Depending upon your definition of "mythical," it would either be Bilbo Baggins, the DC Comics Superhero Green Lantern, the fairy tale anonymous Little Tailor (of "Seven at One Blow"), or Merlin (are any of those mythical, strictly speaking?). I equivocate because, as an undergraduate, I pursued a self-developed interdepartmental major in Myth (I think it was called "Myth in the Western Tradition"). For that, I studied many theories on Myth, including that of Northrop Frye, who distinguishes different historical periods including: the Mythic (where the protagonists are gods), Romance (where the protagonists are demigods, like Hercules), High Mimetic (where the heroes are human beings of elevated status, like Oedipus, Agamemnon, etc.), Low Mimetic (where the protagonists are "ordinary people," like so many of us, neither gods nor despicables), and Ironic (where the protagonists or heroes are subhuman, like Gregor Samsa who, after a night of troubled dreams, awoke to find himself transformed into some disgusting vermin). Bilbo Baggins is Everyhobbit, and I would think of him as Low Mimetic, thus not mythic—at least, in that sense. Merlin I would find a hero (well, a prominent character) of Romance, and possibly Green Lantern as well.

What attracted you to speculative fiction in the first place?

DR: The world they lived and moved in was magical. Also, the Dutch expression, "Als je ben niet sterk, je moet slim zijn" (If you are not strong, you must be smart) worked more obviously in that kind of fiction than it did in my experience of reality. Again, Bilbo Baggins provided me with a model, as a "courage-teacher" (borrowing the term from Ginsberg, re Whitman). There was an element of the uncanny that operated quasi-naturally in speculative fiction, such as the incident, in Sigurd of the Volsungs, when Sigurd is roasting the heart of the dragon Fafnir over the fire (I picture him holding his sword, with the dragon's heart skewered on it), and touches it with his finger to see if it is done: naturally, he burns his finger and immediately brings it to his mouth to cool; having tasted the dragon's blood, he understands the language of the birds, and he hears one telling another that it's too bad he's going to give the roasted heart to Regin, who will then kill him, so he eats it himself and kills Regin. That very realistic sucking his burnt finger leading immediately to understanding the language of the birds is emblematic of what I love about speculative literature.

What monster lives under your bed?

DR: For years now I have slept on a futon directly on the floor, squeezing out whatever monster. However, before that, it was something faceless but with grasping hands. Probably something in the style of Arthur Rackham. If you look at Rackham's monsters from Rossetti's "Goblin Market," you will see some very uncomfortable images; also, from Matthias Grunewald's "The Temptation of St. Anthony," as well as Bosch's depiction of the same matter, and lo and behold Max Ernst did a temptation of St. A. as well. All of those monsters qualify for me as scary as need be…

What ring would you add to Dante’s inferno?

DR: The ring of the Deadly Dull, who do whatever they can to squash imagination and creativity. The ring of the freshmen who regularly introduce themselves to me by saying they want, or expect, or will be too hard-working not to get an A. They will sit there, grading endless piles of freshman writing, impelled by the independently moving forefinger and thumb to circle every error, discuss any divergence from clarity. At the same time, the grader will be gripped by a paralyzing sense of guilt, even before anything happens. And after having graded the enormous pile, student after student will come up begging to do "extra work" to help "bring the grade up."

What artist, dead or alive, do you think would have been the best choice to illustrate Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings?

DR: The artist, whose name I don't know, who illustrated his first edition of "Farmer Giles of Ham," the quasi-medieval drawing style. I also think Arthur Rackham would have been good, but as for painters, the evil spawn of Morgoth and Sauron would have been done well by Francis Bacon. The good characters (Gandalf, Aragorn etc.) would have been well illustrated by John Trumbull (cf. his "Battle of Bunker Hill").

What is the first rule of storytelling that you teach in your classes?

DR: I don't teach any rules; I hope that I exemplify them when I read out loud to the class. I do this often, and perhaps this is the rule: storytelling is a spoken art form, with music and expressiveness in the delivery.

Now give us an example of when to break that rule!

DR: When you are reading silently to yourself, late at night, to the light of one lamp only, and you are transfixed by watching the world unfold around you in you mind and beyond.

Don (R) with John Langdon (L)
and the Rabbit (C)
You have spoken and written about several modern adaptations of Alice in Wonderland. Which of the countless re-writings is the most unusual you’ve come across?

DR: John Langdon's Alice and the Graceful White Rabbit, currently the object of a kickstarter fundraiser. Langdon retells "Alice" with a densely woven overlay of allusions, evocations, and puns tying the original story to a layer of classic rock songs.

And which is your favourite Alice?

DR: The original, with the Tenniel illustrations.

Are you a poet who also teaches, or an academic who also versifies?

DR: A poet who also teaches, but I must admit that my day job takes the vast majority of my time and energy. Still, I write my 14-line poem every morning, and it's no longer a question of needing discipline to do it; I simply do it as inevitably as I get up in the morning. My thought is that I will continue writing long after I have retired from teaching (though I can't afford to do that for a long time, if ever!).

How do myth, monsters, illustration and/or scholarship influence your own poetry?

DR: My three self-published chapbooks (Walks, 1983; Hermenoodles, 1988; Self-Portraits in Words and Images, 1997) have at least one illustration (by me) on each page, with each poem, while Self-Portraits are calligrammes, where the lettering of the poems are also the lines of the drawings. Left is an example. Another is from Poems for the Writing, by Fox and Levin, illustrated by Don Riggs.

The cover of my book of poems, Bilateral Asymmetry (2014), illustrates how monsters sometimes fit in; I like dragons but don't feel comfortable writing about them; ordinary things become monsters in my poems, as in "Dialogue of the Hands": The right hand, in a fit / of characteristic pride, / yelled at the left hand, / "You foot!" / --the most devastating curse it knew. / The feet stood by, / silent as oxen. (from Walks 1983).

Scholarship is impossible to weed out from my poetry, because I write about what I know, and therefore refer to things I've read and seen in my research. For example:

2. Made of Words

Mon cher Edgar, poems are made of words,
said Mallarm√© to Degas, when Degas’d said
he’d such great ideas for poems, but
they never worked out.
                                      Just as a painting
is made up of brushstrokes, he could well have
pointed out, not some puffy-eyed woman
sitting dispirited behind absinthe
next to a red-nosed, scruffy, bearded man

decades the worse for Bohemian wear,
the memories of his student days dabs
of color on the fragmented fog of his
             Life flows by on the sidewalk
as her gaze glazes over. He shrewdly
speculates on how he can score some opium.

That is from Made of Words which was published in Bucharest in 2015, with facing-page Romanian translation.

You’ve been reviewing for TFF-R for a couple of years now. What moment stands out for you, of the items you’ve reviewed?

DR: The moment that first springs to mind is my review of Anna Patrick's Meditations in Wonderland (2015), because it came for review just after John Langdon and I had come back from Cambridge, where I had read my paper on his version of Alice. That immersion in the original material at the conference and in my paper on the Langdon version put me in a perfect situation to see what Anna Patrick was doing in her really quite incredible—and very different—version of Alice.

What's the most interesting thing you have ever found in the garbage?

DR: Whoa. What a question. I think a letter that a woman whom I had yearned for had written me after a visit: the letter itself was extremely understated, but the underlying emotion was incredibly powerful. (It was in a box of materials I had intended to throw out, but had only made it as far as the attic.)

What are you working on now? Anything forthcoming to look forward to?

DR: I'm preparing myself to interview Samuel Delany in mid-December, so when I have the chance I'm reading as much of his work and works about him as possible.

I'm reading a novel by Alex Kudera, Auggie's Revenge (2015), to write a review for a publication in Romania (I don't know the name of the journal).

I'm getting ready to write a paper on Peter Jackson's series of videoblogs that he made to prepare the way for the release of his first Hobbit movie (An Unexpected Journey). I am looking at the series of videoblogs, released in ten units over the 20 months preceding the release of the first film, as a campaign to create a viewership/community to anticipate the release of the film, using Henry Jenkins's theory of intermedia outlined in his book Convergence Culture, and I will present this paper at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando, FL in March 2017.

I have been posting a daily poem on my Facebook page for well over a year now, and I'm getting ready to publish a number of them in a collection of Facebook Poems in the near future. Whether I will illustrate them depends upon how much time I have.

Many thanks for joining us, Don!

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