Geoffrey Gatza, The Albatross Around the Neck of Albert Ross: Strange Stories for Wild Children (Lavender Ink Press, 2020)
H. L. Hix, The Gospel (Broadstone Books, 2020)
GG: So tell me, how did you come to write The Gospel?
HH: I’ve been preoccupied for my whole adult life with the gospel, no doubt because in childhood and youth I was socialized into a religious tradition (evangelical fundamentalist protestant Christianity) that identified four particular Gospels as literal and infallible communication from God to humans. I didn’t even know there were or ever had been any other Gospels until I was in college. I haven’t identified with any religious community since college, or believed the canonical Gospels to be unique in origin or essence, or believed in God, but that hasn’t diminished the preoccupation: I experience a lot of literature as powerful and life-influencing, so my not seeing any Gospels as different in kind from other literary works is not a criticism.
I’ve carried the preoccupation with the gospel with me for a long time, and I deeply distrust the institutional forces and social structures that enforce the “manufactured ignorance” about the Gospels into which I was enculturated as a kid, but have never wanted to approach the matter with scholarly critique. Not long ago, though, work on a poetry project led me to reading in the Nag Hammadi library, and “a switch flipped”: I don’t have to state my disposition toward the gospel, I can act it out.
I hadn’t learned until college that the writers of the canonical Gospels had drawn on the sources available to them, composing from those sources a single narrative. Two thousand years of institutional enforcement warns against doing what the Gospel writers did, but I find the forces behind that proscription suspect, so my sense that I could compose this Gospel was closely followed by the sense that I should.
Your collection is “for wild children,” so I’m guessing there is some analogy or other between my coming to write my book and your coming to write yours, no? There must be a reason for offering stories specifically to wild children.
GG: Yes, I understand that impetus of distrust in institutional literature. One of my first poetry projects was a look at the Gospel of John run through a beatnik notion of freedom. I was in college and made a CD-ROM of the poems set up as a series of webpages. This was in the late 90s, when that sort of thing was cutting edge tech. I had a fascination with the Apocryphal Gospels in a similar vein of anger, something within me bristled at the institution of the Catholic church and their removing what I considered relevant texts. So I admire your project, this is something not so subversive today as it might have been several hundred years ago. You might have been killed, or worse, for collating this kind of document in Europe during the fourteen hundreds. And even today, your choice to change the genders of the Gospels to their non-binary forms is something that might raise an eyebrow from a certain kind of religious reader. So I see a great deal of bravery in your decision to compose your own Gospel. It is very similar to my own choice to write for Wild Children, and a fine example would be found in the last story, Edwin and the Nightingale, which is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale.
Andersen is the focal point for children’s literature and in some wild sense, I wanted to find my own version of the nightingale in my own voice, and support both Andersen’s story while establishing my own narrative within that canonical structure. This is not as disruptive to the original as yours to the reader’s sensibilities, but it does stretch the boundaries of what is possible. In Anderson’s story, the Nightingale can be seen as the hand of god, the Gospel messages flow through the original story. But I changed that to be focused on personal freedoms, understanding of the self, and the notion that art is fundamental to life. And these themes run through each of the six stories in the collection.
What form of freedom did you find writing The Gospel?
HH: To me, the distinction between listening to and listening for is important. Both are valuable, but it’s easy to overemphasize listening to, at the expense of listening for, and social/institutional forces most often enforce listening to and prohibit listening for. As you and I speak I listen to what you say, and listen for what you mean. They’re not mutually exclusive: I can do both at once. But they’re not the same: I can’t listen to what you mean, I can only listen for it.
The difference shows up all over. In constitutional interpretation, for instance, Supreme Court justices we tag as “conservative” attempt to listen to what the Constitution says, and those we tag as “liberal” attempt to listen for what the Constitution says. I know that’s oversimplified, but you get the idea. Listening to seeks finality and closure; listening for seeks continuity and openness.
The religious tradition in which I was raised very heavily emphasizes listening to. The Church enforces listening to the Gospels (the four it has chosen). The freedom I found in writing The Gospel was listening for the gospel.
I value the disposition entailed by listening for, and I value some of the possibilities it creates. I can’t go out into my yard and listen to the kent of an ivory-billed woodpecker, but I can go out and listen for it, even though I know full well there are no ivory-billed woodpeckers where I live, or indeed anywhere at all.
In this experience we are now enjoying, of noticing points of similarity or commonality between our two seemingly unrelated books, this might be another such similarity. It looks to me as though the characters in your stories often decide for themselves to listen for, sometimes despite being told to listen to. I’m thinking, just for one example, of Astra and Thomas, in that glorious closing paragraph of “The Appearance of Astra Eleanor Sprigg”: “So they set out, resolutely invisible, to do the impossible. And nobody saw Astra and Thomas go out into the world together, as brother and sister.”
Is that anything like how you would characterize the freedom your characters find (or create) for themselves?
GG: There is a fully realized freedom in your voice that I find refreshing. I find myself getting lost in the readings of biblical stories I know very well, but your poetry makes passages I am familiar with a richness of language, a modernity which gives a clear meaning. And in the Apocryphal stories, like the nursing infants in Capernaum, there is an openness in your retelling that leads into a glorious interpretation of the lost sheep parable. Here is a fine example of your distinction in listening to a thing as opposed to listening for something. Charles Bernstein talks about this difference in his essay on poetry readings, Close Listening. At the end, he says,
The poetry reading is an ongoing convention of poetry, by poetry, for poetry. In this sense, the reading remains one of the most participatory forms in American cultural life. Indeed, the value of the poetry reading as a social and cultural form can be partly measured by its resistance, up to this point, to reification or commodification. It is a measure of its significance that it is ignored. That is, the (cultural) invisibility of the poetry reading is what makes its audibility so audacious.
The cultural invisibility, as Bernstein refers to Poetry, is similar to that of the Gospels. I have been thinking of the last time I actually encountered any of the Gospels in their entirety. Mostly I find snippet quotes tucked into odd places used to underline some political or social message, or as memes plastered with pink angels dancing on fluffy clouds on Facebook, or as chapters quoted in religious services. But never the whole item, or as fully put together as your book. So, from your description of listening for an ivory-billed woodpecker that may or may not be there, I hear a similarity in your freedom to listen for the Gospels, your task in rewriting them, make them audacious under Bernstein’s description of the poetry readings, “audibility.”
In my previous book, A Dog Lost in the Brick City of Outlawed Trees, (Mute Canary, 2018) I used an elongated metaphor of change ringing, which is the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a mathematical sequences with precise variations in their successive striking. There is no melody, but rather a series of changes, variations in the pattern which provides a very different kind of music, something that provokes a different kind of listening. By replacing a single word with a corresponding bell, I took simple sentences and let the words flip over and over again to achieve what you refer to as, “as listening for seeks continuity and openness.” The variations make your ears tune into what is being rung, and that attentiveness is the power I wanted to capture in my poems and fictions, which you see so keenly in “The Appearance of Astra Eleanor Sprigg.”
Would you tell me about your choices of pronoun and gender noun uses, such as, Xe, xer, fother, mather?
HH: I would describe the impulse in terms very like the description you’ve just given of A Dog Lost in the Brick City of Outlawed Trees. It’s one thing to say that the saturation of our daily lives with melody-centric music (pop songs, commercial jingles, smartphone ringtones, piped-in music in public places) reveals something about our conditioning, rather than about an essential feature of music itself. It’s another thing to make non-melody-centric music.
Similarly, it’s one thing to say that what designating God as male reveals is societal patriarchy, not a feature of God. But continuing to pray to Our Father who art in heaven deflates the claim, so I just decided to stop designating God as male.
We’ve figured out in other areas of life how important it is to change the language. If we want to stop treating marital status as the defining feature of women, let’s stop imposing the false dilemma Miss or Mrs., by inventing another possibility, Ms. If we want to stop using one gender to designate all persons who share an ethnic heritage, let’s stop having to choose between Latino and Latina, by adding Latinx to the language.
In the context of gospel narratives, it actually turned out to be easy to invent new pronouns and gender nouns, by analogy with such precedents as Ms. and Latinx. So even though my coinages are novel, they do draw on precedent.
We know that how we deploy pronouns has everything to do with identity, with who we understand ourselves to be, and the same is true of how we depict ourselves in relation to other animals. (I’m thinking of the various attempts to distinguish ourselves from animals: we have souls and they don’t; we’re rational and they’re not; we have language and they don’t; we have self-awareness and they don’t; and on and on.) But The Albatross Around the Neck of Albert Ross is full of crossovers between the human and the animal: Fredrick Frère is a rabbit; Edwin has long conversations with a nightingale; Albert hugs his albatross and it hugs him in return; Crispin and his Mom are turned into butterflies and back… What’s at stake in the narrating of these crossovers?
GG: I think your pronouns and gender neutrality works well for your Gospels. I find this disarming, maybe even dispelling in the way it sweeps aside our society’s mundane reflections on the extramundane. I found myself becoming very used to the novelty of a genderless god, and how that opens up what a deity could be, rather than how myth and sacred scripture tend to weigh down an omnipotent being with words and rules. But, Gospels function as both an object of comfort and as a set of strict guidelines on how one should maintain relationships within a specific group, and ultimately, with god.
There is a constraint on this text that is not within other books. If you reinterpreted the Iliad with all of the supplementary plays that accompany that whole story, there would be less at stake within your project. And in that constraint, I read a form of freedom in your Gospel. A freedom within a system of thought that is primarily out of your control, meaning the two thousand year tradition of study on the Gospels and, separately, the Apocryphal books. I read a freedom within your Gospel by your combining them together. The act of going against a tower of study is similar to the stakes I place my characters into, finding a truer sense of self under the constraints of power systems they do not fully understand, or appreciate.
My stories revolve around the endlessly complex, frequently surreal experience that is growing up. Some concern anthropomorphic animals, there is magic in some stories, but just enough to make the story happen. This serves as a catalyst to forge stronger relationships between characters, or as an act of self-discovery. This leads me to Fredrick Frère and his Uncle Edward. This story, A Rocket Full of Pie. Takes its cues from Robert Creeley’s essay, Was That a Real Poem or Did You Just Make It up Yourself? Creeley took the title from a question asked by his student, if the poem he had just read was in fact a real poem or, as the title suggests, did he just make it up? In his essay, Creeley discusses his activity as a poet and considers William Carlos Williams’ contention that “the poet thinks with his poem, in that lies his thought, and that in itself is the profundity….” For Creeley, the act of writing poetry was that of revelation, finding the poem in a grouping of feelings, emotions that are not always accessible to the forefront of the mind. So the idea of what a poem is, really is, is the concern of A Rocket Full of Pie. How poetry is accepted by both the reader and the writer, outside of form, is to find some kind of objective manifestation of (lower case) truth. This is the tension for the young rabbit, Fredrick, who is aghast that his Uncle Edward rewrites the poem he is to recite for his class. With this in mind, and my being a bit cheeky, I would like to ask, is your Gospel a real Gospel or did you just make it up?
HH: We share a love of that Creeley essay! And your cheeky question of course gets at a real crux: what is a real Gospel? what makes it real? The account I was given as a kid in church was that there were four and only four examples of real Gospels, and that those four were made real by being each directly communicated from God to the writer. The analogy was that Luke, say, was taking dictation. From which it was assumed to follow that, as each Gospel writer had received what was given, so was I obliged to receive what was given.
Only later did I learn that that origin story wasn’t accurate. But if the story isn’t accurate, then the inference to my obligation isn’t warranted. If the Gospel writers were not passive recipients of the text, but agents engaged interactively in the composition, then maybe my readerly role is not best understood as passive recipient of the text but as an agent engaged interactively with it.
So even though the surface answer to your question is that nothing in The Gospel is “just made up” (everything in it comes from a prior text, nothing originates with me), the answer that responds to what I take as the point of your question is like Creeley’s answer in his essay: that the opposition between “made up” and “real” doesn’t hold; they’re not mutually exclusive.
Which, again, looks to me like a point of contact between our books. No doubt there are books aimed at a certain age group that appropriately inculcate a passive recipient mode: stories with a moral that amounts to “Obey your Mom and Dad!” But at some point it’s good to figure out that things are more complicated than that, and that I bear more responsibility as a person than merely fulfilling orders. The protagonist in each story — from Albert in the first story through Edwin in the last — is shown sorting out how to take on that more complex responsibility. What if obeying Mom doesn’t happen by relieving me of having to use my own judgment, but by intensifying the demands on my own judgment?
GG: Yes indeed, there many points of contact between our books. The foremost being that the Gospels are, in one sense, children’s books. If a child can read a book, doesn’t that make it a children’s book? You mention how your perception, or more accurately, your misperception of the Gospels led you to a new understanding of the difference between what was real, what could have been, and what was crafted to become the four books we recognize as the The Gospels. And a place of freedom developed for you to craft your book.
In some of the best stories for children the moral is not “Obey your Mom and Dad,” but rather, they separate the characters from their parents, or their parental control, and place them into situations of perceived freedom. From Carroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland and Grahame’s enchanting Wind in the Willows to contemporary series like Rowling’s Harry Potter and Pullman’s Book of Dust characters are taken out of their main mode of authority. Responsibility of action and personal judgment is placed in their hands. Freedom is desired in children, which is often forgotten in adulthood. Meaning, adults often forget that children are people. As such, each person wants to be seen in the world as themselves, as they would like to be seen. This is almost impossible for a child, the world is designed now to make sure that children are kept safe. And in that safety, a want for the unsafe develops. That want is also found in the Gospels, no?
My stories have a suburban warmth to them, a contentment that is disrupted by an uncomfortable situation that coveys a loneliness within shared existence. The perils of sudden freedom from parental governance, as Albert Ross is with his Albatross, find an adventure that allows his family to see him as he sees himself. The opposite happens between Astra Eleanor Sprigg and her brother as they become invisible, and are out-of-sight from their mother for the whole afternoon. The nightingale reclaims his freedom from Edwin and the musician, preferring solitude to the conflict found in social settings. That is until the moment he returns to entertain Death with song. The world vibrates with alienation, and personal judgment is the gift we all have to find within ourselves to truly grow-up.
So at the end of your journey to write The Gospel, what have you found about yourself in this project? What does that freedom feel like to you?
HH: It’s true, the canonical Gospels, and many of the noncanonical ones (especially infancy Gospels), are explicit about being children’s books. Jesus’ calls to childlikeness were among the most frequently-cited passages in the sermons I heard growing up, such as Mark 10:13-16, which is included in The Gospel and translated as: “The apprentices scolded some people who had brought young children to xer, to have xer touch them. Seeing this, Jesus was displeased, and told them, Let the children come to me, don’t prevent them, because the realm of the god belongs to just such. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the realm of the god like a child will not enter into it. Embracing the children and putting xer hands on them, xe blessed them.”
Also, Gospels often are explicitly about the kind of differentiation of child from parents that you’re pointing out. That passage affirming children is closely followed in The Gospel of Mark, and in The Gospel, by this one affirming differentiation: “Then Peter began to speak to xer, Look, we’ve left everything and followed you. Jesus answered, Truly I tell you, no one who has left home and brothers and sisters and mother and father and children and lands for my sake and for the sake of the good news will not receive now for this moment a hundred times those homes and brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers in persecutions, but in the age to come timeless life.”
I love your way of stating here what your stories so beautifully show: the centrality to human existence and co-existence of seeing as. Seeing another person as they see themselves contributes to love and care; not seeing them so impedes love and care. Seeing oneself as others see one contributes to self-understanding; not seeing oneself as others see one impedes self-understanding. And so on.
It’s one pleasure of this conversation, how well you yourself have just identified one way the freedom we’re discussing feels like to me. Freedom feels perilous. I get that feeling from your words just now, from the political drama of our current historical moment, from reading your stories, from working on The Gospel….
Your sentence “personal judgment is the gift we all have to find within ourselves to truly grow-up” reminds me of James Wright’s declared desire to “write the poetry of a grown man.” If growing up is an ongoing project, rather than a one-time event, is it fair to say that your protagonists — Albert and Astra and the others — are available to children and adults alike partly because they all are young, but exemplary to children and adults alike because they prove themselves heroes of personal judgment, which is to say grown-ups?
GG: I agree, growing up is an on-going project, or I should say, I prefer writing about it as such. I never felt there was one day in my life that I felt, yes, “today I matured.” I am sure you feel the same way. It is very like the examples you mention, and you capture it aptly in this verse, “Xe said, That’s how it is with the realm of the god: as if a person were to toss seed on the ground, and sleep and rise night and day, and the seed sprout and grow, though the person knows not how.” One never knows how maturity happens in the body, it does. When it does, it is there, inside us, and we, as people want it to be seen in us. The opposite is true as well, the mind never fully appreciates how experience ages the body.
Your Gospels bring in some of the wonderful children’s plots of the Apocryphal texts. From observations of Mary as a child who could, at the age of three, untangle wool with the skill of a thirty-year-old. As well as some of my favorite stories of Jesus as a child, the story of the twelve sparrows, the hundred-fold of wheat, and the best, Jesus lengthening a plank of wood to make it fit the size needed for the job. This is the finest accomplishment a carpenter’s son could perform. It has a touch of magic with a sensitivity towards a child’s desire to impress an adult with the impossible. These short narratives supply a stepping off point for a leap of faith for the both Jesus’s teacher and his father to see him as divine. This takes a formidable imagination and binds it in the written word.
Just as James Wright’s famous lines about wishing to write the “poetry of a grown man,” This is one of those statements that made me distrustful of Wright for many years. I felt that tautology should override his statement, as a writer can only write as the gender they identify as and at age that they happen to be at the time of the writing. So yes, of course, an adult man would write the poetry of the thing he is. So, what he wishes for is always within his grasp. But I know from making plenty of jokes on the subject, Wright meant this in a less than literal meaning, as he sought to write, “the pure clear word.” And this makes for a more direct way to understand why Wright would seek to put away childish things and focus on larger, mature issues in his writing and how he chose to use to voice those concerns.
Wright’s idea of the “the pure clear word,” is a fantastic way for us to discuss how our books depart. My stories can be read one way, the Gospels are meant to be read in several. This is idea of writing the “poetry of a grown man,” is not a problem for the poet, but it is the children’s writer who happens to be an adult. The septation of age can be fatal to crafting something that is to be read, enjoyed and seen as a true children’s story. This is a very tight line to walk. The metaphor must be readily acceptable to the audience, who can be as young as six, or seven, and be read literally as a story, a fable, or a myth. But this is not the case with the Gospels. They are read both literally and figurately, and the differentiation between the understanding of that reading has real life political ramification on many people of many faiths and has been so for centuries.
However, your text bypasses this problem of translation, rendition, and politic that leads a reader to both ends. Your writing of the collated stories elucidates clear images, a distinct message that crystalizes a specific way in which to approach the stories of, as you delightfully put it, the boss the god. What sort of writing methods did you employ when you found the correct voice in which to address your vision?
HH: Yes, I love that story of Jesus lengthening the plank of wood to help Dad on the job! And something “clicks” for me in what you’ve just said. Let me try to get at it.
There’s a question-of-all-questions quality to your concluding question. Methods (what we do), voice (what we say), vision (what we see and think). I don’t mean to put too much pressure on what you’ve asked, treating as global what is asked locally. But I think there’s something “global” about it. That’s what we as writers are trying to do: reconcile or integrate what we do with what we say and see and think.
And that’s what we do as always-trying-to-grow-up persons: try to accommodate others and to accommodate ourselves to others, try to see others’ worlds and show them ours. It makes me associate the Jesus-stretching-the-wood story with this luminous moment early in the title story of your book:
“Watch out for seabirds, Albert,” his mother warned, as her thumbs nervously pecked at her phone. “They’ll try to eat you up!”
“I’m too big to get eaten up, Mom,” Albert insisted and tugged at his shirt collar then resumed his treasure hunt.
A bird can’t eat me; I’m way too big, Albert grumbled to himself, twisting his lip and scrunching his face. He was seven, and in his eyes, he was almost halfway to being a grown-up. But his mother never noticed how mature and strong he was becoming.
Albert is hard at work reconciling Mom’s vision with his own, her words with his own, her methods — “Watch out for seabirds…” — with his own. That matching of method to voice to vision, and the matching of my method/voice/vision with that of those around me, is a way of construing maturity. Albert is only seven, but he has started in on that process, so maybe he really is “halfway to being a grown-up”!
GG: In both our books, which seem very dissimilar, have common ground in the writing and the hopes to plant an understanding in the world around us, and have the world around us grow together. That is what we do through experience, accommodate others and ourselves to others in a form of symphysis, the act of growing together.
This symphysis brings us full-circle to your initial disposition toward writing The Gospels. In a larger sense, we both have the desire to “act it out,” and counter ideas that endorse, as you put it, manufactured ignorance, by integrating actions with methods, matching voice with vision. This is very like the mustard seed parable:
“Xe said, That’s how it is with the realm of the god: as if a person were to toss seed on the ground, and sleep and rise night and day, and the seed sprout and grow, though the person knows not how. For the earth produces grain on its own: first the stalk, then the head, then the mature seed in the head. Once the grain ripens, the person applies the sickle, because harvest has arrived.
And xe said, How compare the realm of the god? By what parable reveal it? It’s like a mustard seed: smallest of the seeds we plant in the soil, but once planted it grows into the largest herb, spreading such broad leaves that birds from the sky can nest in its shade.”
You phrase this passage beautifully here, as you have with the whole book. It is what we all want, to sprout and grow, then have hopes to provide a plesant space for birds in the sky to nest in one’s shade. Be that our souls or our living, always-growing bodies.