The Irresistible Literary Way of Poet Djelloul Marbrook. A 30 minutes audio conversation conducted by Martina Newberry

Djelloul Marbrook

Djelloul Marbrook

1. Question: Is there one school or philosophy of writing which is particularly compelling to you?

No. There are certain writers who have strongly influenced me. Among more recent writers I think of Glenway Wescott, Mark Helprin, Iris Murdoch, A.S. Byatt, Elmore Leonard, John D. MacDonald, and of course Hemingway. In a way, I missed my calling as a scholar. I was suited to the scholarly life, but not institutions. I get lost in a crowd of three people. I don’t have good enough filters to deal with more than two or three people in any circumstance, and so this unsuited me for universities. But I have read voraciously and eclectically all my life, even scholarly works. In my early 20s and throughout my 30s I tended to write experimental and often obscurantist poems. Some of them were published in literary journals, and I did receive some encouragement from poets like Rolfe Humphries and Alan Dugan. But in time I began to recognize that I didn’t want to be caught saying what I meant or meaning what I said. I was so rattled by this insight that I stopped writing poetry and didn’t resume writing it again until after 9/11. I don’t know why 9/11 jolted me into writing poetry again, but it did. I began walking around Manhattan, scribbling in little blue notepads, and after a while I noticed that the poetry wasn’t obscure any more.
It was rather demotic, a kind of shorthand conversation, as if I’d stopped in the street and chatted with somebody I found interesting. I also noticed that while I had stopped writing poetry I hadn’t stopped studying it, and so certain skills emerged that gave me a whole new toolbox.

2.Question: How has geographical placement affected your life and your writing?

Powerfully. My life at a Christian Scientist boarding school in West Islip, New York, in Woodstock, New York, and in Manhattan were the primary early influences. Later came the Washington, DC, and Baltimore areas. I’m exquisitely moved by place, street scenes, café drama, but I’m repelled by exhibitionism of any kind.

3.Question: How do you balance poetry and fiction?

I’m not sure I do. There is a great deal of poetry in my fiction, and I wish there were more storytelling in my poetry. I suffer from post-traumatic stress and I think that has somehow prevented me from writing narrative poetry. I sort of write poems between the moment and the next expected trauma.

4. Question: In your poems and in your fiction, there's a balance between thought and emotion. Do you form your writing around an idea or are you writing about a feeling and the idea develops from that?

Well, in fiction I have a person in mind. Sometimes it’s someone I knew. I begin with that person and then incorporate characteristics in others that have intrigued me. Or sometimes I just see someone in the street and I project a story onto him or her. Something in the body language or demeanor of a few overheard words appeals to me. I’m an observer first and a writer second. I don’t have an agenda. I don’t want to make characters say things I have a need to say. I don’t have a great need to say anything, but certain people and what I imagine in their behalf move me to words.

There is a certain line of thought that holds that a good story has to involve evil or at least wrongdoing. That’s a problem for me, because I’m drawn to the goodness in people, to nobility of soul. It’s not that I’m uninterested in wrongdoing. How can we be? But the way people respond to it, the way they overcome it fascinates me. I tend to find bad people tedious. I know they’re there. I’ve had more than my share of dealings with them, but they bore me. They’re not grown up. Grownups interest me because the human race is evolving and I want to see where it’s going. Some people tell me I’ll never write popular book because of this. That’s okay with me. I don’t write to make money. I write because I can, because it’s what I do. If I wrote to make money and have success I’d be more a game-player and less a writer, wouldn’t I?
When I was a newspaper editor I used to argue with my business bosses that the best-seller list belonged on the business pages, because it was a measure of business success, not literary merit. They knew I was right, but they thought I lacked gamesmanship. They were right. It’s been a big handicap as a newspaperman and a creative writer. I’ve always had a hard time figuring out what the game is, and then when I figure it I have an even harder time playing it. I pretty much regarded the university life as gamesmanship, and so that precluded me being a teacher or scholar. I guess you could say I’m a scholar, but we live in a society that demands our papers, our credentials, somebody signing on the dotted line saying we have successfully played a certain game. I’m wildly disposed against that, and it has handicapped me all my life. The only game I ever really played fairly well was the Navy, and that’s because it was so structured and so easy to grasp and so clear to me.

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