Ken Sparling is the author of Book, Intention Implication Wind, and Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt. Sparling has had short pieces published by Mud Luscious Press, New York Tyrant, and Gigantic magazine.
"In a market ruled by long, historical fiction tomes, he keeps putting out slim, fragmented – some might call them postmodern – anti-narrative “novels.”
Ken Sparling is the author of Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall, For Those Whom God Has Blessed with Fingers, Untitled: A Novel, and Book. His recently re-released novel Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt is what we're here to talk about today, and you should check out Amazon to find out about buying the book, and to see some reviews and interviews. Sparling's writing has regularly appeared in New York Tyrant over the past few years, and his new book, Book, just came out with Pedlar Press and is available at indigo.ca. Additionally, Mud Luscious Press has contracted to re-issue Dad Says He Saw You At the Mall, probably in 2012. Look for it!
*This interview originally appeared in Keyhole Magazine. And Dad Says He Saw You At the Mall is available from Mud Luscious here.
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MOLLY GAUDRY: Hi Ken, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions about your recently re-released novel Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt. Let's dive right in. What can you share about your use of dialogue and how it functions here?
KEN SPARLING: The dialogue functions as a recommendation to the reader for a way of being in the world, and it calls upon the reader to be in the world in that way while reading the book. It calls upon the reader to treat the reading of dialogue as an example of what it might mean to read well. The dialogue in Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt functions as a request to the reader be open to an approach that might not be something she is used to encountering in her reading, to be open to an approach that calls upon her to be active in her reading of the book in a way that turns the act of reading itself into a form of dialogue, a dialogue between the reader and the writer, rather than a form of passive reception.
The dialogue in Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt also functions as an opportunity to recommend a kind of talk that gets forgotten, the kind of talk kids engage in until they get to a certain age. It functions as a recommendation to resist abandoning the impulse that leads to childlike dialogue. It's a recommendation to resurrect the impulse for childlike dialogue.
The dialogue in Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt is a recommendation to trust. The dialogue inside the book looks outside the book for a reader who will listen to the impulse that makes the sort of talk that is happening possible, and who will embrace that impulse and respond to the book as though reading a book were itself an opportunity to participate in a dialogue that could function as a recommendation. The dialogue in Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt functions as a recommendation that the reader make of her reading a recommendation.
MG: Would you call this a semi-autobiographical novel?
KS: The idea of autobiography, as I understand it, is that something happens in a person's life and then it happens again in a book. For me, the creation of a book can never be the representation of something that has already happened. The creation of the book is itself the thing that is happening. I make my life happen when I write, in the same way I make my life happen when I read a book, or walk to the corner, or have a conversation with my wife or kids, or eat a taco. I understand the notion that a page of words can somehow represent past events, but I don't think I want to participate in that notion.
MG: Will you offer a few thoughts about the difference between the way you released this book the first time — out of your home, bound with duct tape inside retired library books, with cover illustrations drawn by your children — and its re-release form?
KS: I remember that I was very excited about the idea of making things by hand around the time I decided to make Hush Up myself. I was buying all kinds of used books from the used book store at the library, especially children’s picture books. And there was a place down in the basement of the Toronto Reference Library (where I had just been relocated) where they had a couple of huge recycling bins that were used by the Friends of the Library, who run the bookstore, to dispose of books and magazines they couldn't sell, and there were often a lot of magazines in these bins, like National Geographic, or fine art magazines. I wasn’t a very happy guy right after I got relocated and, wanting to get away from my desk and the crappy work I didn’t want to do, I would go down and fish around in the recycle bins and get magazines with pictures I liked. I’d cut the pictures out, or tear them out, and glue stick them into the children’s picture books, usually covering up the words.
At first, my intention had been to cover up all the words in the books and put my own stories into these picture books. I even took one of the altered books to a reading and did a kind of variation on the story programs they do at the library for kids, where I read a page of my story and then held up the picture book so people could see these pictures that actually had nothing to do with my story. In the end, I didn’t do very many books where I put my own story in. I ended up mostly just obliterating the stories that were there, so that the books were all pictures – the pictures the children’s book illustrator did, and the magazine pictures I’d ripped out and glued over the words in the book.
I’m not sure what the impulse was here. I would spend an awful lot of time at work gluing pictures into books. It might have just been that I didn’t want to do my real job. It might have been that I hated words at the time and wanted to find a way to obliterate them, to shut people up… I’m not sure. Around the same time, I was trying to figure out how to make Hush Up into a book without simply handing it over to someone, like I'd handed Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall over to Knopf, and I was talking a lot about this problem with Derek McCormack – my writer friend who wrote the brilliant intro for the Artistically Declined version of Hush Up. I remember asking Derek about what it would cost to get the book printed, and at the same time I was working on defacing these children’s books, and at some point I realized I could buy old hardback novels from the used bookstore and rip the guts out and put my book in. I figured I could create the inside of the book myself using a photocopier and a sewing machine and duct tape, and stuff the book inside the covers of these old, used library books. So the difference between the experience of making the book myself and publishing it with Artistically Declined is vast. When you get a book published by a company – even the greatest publishing company in the world – all you really do is hand it to the publisher and wait. At the time that Ryan asked if he could publish Hush Up, I hadn’t handmade any copies in a while and I thought, sure. It was kind of weird, because I had no idea who this guy was, he just emailed and asked for copies of some of my books, then a little while later emailed to ask if he could publish something by me, maybe Hush Up, which he'd calculated I started making ten years ago. Somehow I thought he’d read the book before he asked for it, but then he asked for a handmade copy, so I knew he couldn't have read it.
MG: How has your experience been with Artistically Declined Press?
KS: Great. Ryan Bradley, who initially contacted me, has been amazingly enthusiastic and industrious about getting the book into print, about making a great cover, and about promoting the book. He made a website called stinkypoobutt.com dedicated entirely to the book and trying to get it out there into people’s hands.
And the other half of Artistically Declined, Paula Bomer, had me and my son, Mark, staying at her house in Brooklyn for four nights last weekend while I was in New York for a couple of readings, one of which Paula orgainzed and hosted at KGB.
You know, in the end, I think it really comes down to the people you deal with in the projects you decide to engage in and the people I've had a chance to work with because of my association with ADP have been incredible, they have such an amazing work ethic and are completely dedicated to creating beautiful things.
When I first started hand making Hush Up by myself, I guess I didn’t want to have anyone else involved. I wanted to go solo. Again, I don’t know if it was that I hated having to rely on other people, or I hated what happened when you just signed up for some experience and then waited around for other people to decide what was going to happen next. This was a hard thing for me to get over, this waiting for other people to take care of things. My first attempt to stop handing my life over to other people was to just wrench the whole thing away and do it all alone. This satisfied me at the time, but it made me kind of cranky, and I’m trying to get over that, and it's taking some time.
With ADP, I’m really reveling in the opportunity to get to know and work with a bunch of wonderful people. The trip to New York was great because I met so many great people and great writers and participated with many of them in readings – Sasha Fletcher, Shya Scanlon, John Madera, Giancarlo from New York Tyrant, Jennifer Knox, and I got to see Greg Gerke and read with him again (we read together in Toronto a few months back) – but most especially it was great because I got to stay with Paula and her partner Nick and their two kids, Hal and Jack, and they are such a great family. A lot of what I think I’m about, and what Hush Up is about, is the problem of doing good family. So this was cool, to see this amazing family working together, dealing with conflicts, sorting things out, getting meals taken care of, and to be a little part of that for a few days.
Also, Paula put me and Mark in her basement, which is a big room with massive bookshelves on a couple walls, and these bookshelves are loaded with incredible books and journals. When I wasn’t out with Mark at the jazz shows he took me to, I was in Paula’s basement reading. Some of the stuff I read was stories by Paula, which are beautiful, heartbreaking stories. She’s such a great writer, with this unbelievable ability to write utterly convincingly from the male perspective, and I didn’t know this until I found myself in her basement and read a few of her stories in journals she’s got down there. She’s got a book of stories coming out in the fall and I’m really looking forward to it.
Honestly, from my perspective, the experience of working with ADP hasn't had as much to do with the project of making an object called Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt as it has with working out together ways of making me and the book and ADP more visible, sort of leveraging the strengths and positioning of a bunch of people to create something that swirls with life.
MG: What are you working on now? What's next?
KS: I've been taking passages that I cut from other pieces of writing, writing that I did years ago, or passages that I've transplanted wholesale, passages that I've saved over the years, handwritten notes I wrote ten, twenty, even thirty years ago and put in a drawer and forgot about, passages in old computer files on computers that still have floppy drives, and I've been bringing all these passages together in a single document, and then going through the document looking for a way to unite the material in a manner that makes it seem as though I intended for these bits and pieces to be together all along, but without losing the sense of discontinuity I reach for when I bring together a bunch of bits and pieces and toss them into a single document. The process of working through the material to develop a kind of unexpected unity, or unity through a common call among the pieces to be unexpected, often transforms the original bits to the point where they have no relation to what they were when I started out with them. But I want to believe that where they started, as bits forgotten in drawers, somehow informs what they become. So far, how that happens is a mystery to me.
This way of working happened accidentally, much as the process for Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall happened accidentally as I worked with Gordon Lish to try to figure out how to make a book out of all the little bits of writing I was producing back then.
The evolution to this more recent process, where I mix bits of old writing together into a single document and then work through the material again and again, re-encountering, rearranging, stirring, moving, culling and recreating, began when I decided to try to straighten out my mess a bit. My wife, Mary, finds it very frustrating living in amongst the mess I leave behind wherever I go. So I thought if I could clean out old files, condense things a little, I might be able to get some things off my desk, and off my bedside table, and off the floor beside my bed, and at least get a bunch of stuff hidden away in drawers. I was just trying to tidy up. I took files full of old handwritten stories, and notes, and little inspirations I'd had over the years while riding my bike or travelling to meetings for work on the subway, and I sat out in the backyard and read through these files looking for bits worth saving, bits I could use – although what I was going to use them for was never clear. I was just listening to the sound of what I'd written echo in my head, trying to hear if any of it was musical. So I might tear the bottom off a sheet of paper that had a sentence or two that struck me as worth saving, and recycle the rest of the sheet. At some point, this changed, and I started inputting everything I came across into a single document – without passing judgement on anything I'd written – until I had enough words for a book. When I had enough words for a book, I started going through the document, trying to make something happen with any of the stuff where it felt to me like nothing seemed really to be happening. This process was accelerated when I got a laptop for the first time, and I could take it out to the backyard, and I no longer had to save up scraps of paper with bits of writing on them, and then take these bits of writing into the house later to input them into the computer. I'm at the stage now where I try not to be judgmental about anything I encounter when I'm first putting a document together. I try to trust that, even if the writing seems off, the impulse is good and it's a matter of staying with the material and being patient enough to wait until the impulse uncovers itself through my working and reworking the material.
MG: Why do you write? How long have you been at it? When did you decide to write books and why?
KS: I write because it excites me. It excites me to read certain combinations of words in a way that no combination of words should be able to excite anyone, and I want to figure out how it is that a bunch of symbols that are meant to function as pointers to more substantial bits of the world can come to excite me in this way. A good way to explore these symbols is to produce my own combinations. Certain other writers have created combinations of words that compel me in ways I don't understand. I write partly to try to demystify this process, but more and more these days I write to participate in the mystery.
I've been writing since grade school, which is when I first decided I was going to be a writer. Over the years since I made the decision to become a writer, even though a lot of times during those years I wasn't actually doing any real writing, I was always working on the plan in one way or another, exploring strategies to make it happen, acting like I was a writer, even when I didn't feel like I was a writer, waiting for a time when it wouldn't feel like I was acting anymore, when I would feel like I was really a writer.
MG: What advice do you have for young writers?
KS: The only way I've ever felt at all comfortable giving advice to another writer was by marking up a manuscript of their writing, and I haven't always felt entirely comfortable doing that. I always felt most comfortable marking up a manuscript that I already found compelling, where the marks I made seemed inevitable, in the sense that the work itself yearned to find the sort of release that was possible through the deletion or rearrangement or re-visitation or reconsideration of certain words in the work. Any advice I give would have to come in the form of a recommendation, and the only way to recommend something to another writer is through writing, either by writing something yourself that stands as a recommendation for a way of writing, something that attempts to make visible an approach; or by marking up the other person's writing, in which case the act of marking up stands as a recommendation for a certain approach to engaging an existing combination of words, a recommendation that would stand as an example of excision, recombination, resurrection, reconsideration. . . . In other words, a recommendation to practice a certain approach to writing that involves a particular manner of editing.