Boxing and Ex-Girlfriends by Peter Moysaenko

Bill Callahan has just published a book with Drag City—Letters to Emma Bowlcut. I’m not sure if it’s a novella, an epistle, or one hell of a big poem. But questions like that are beside the point.

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Over a dozen LPs under his belt and Bill Callahan still looks young. His voice has taken on some further gravitas, but he sounds spirited as ever. He closes his most recent album, Rough Travel for a Rare Thing—a live and original record, audience applause and all—with a re-interpretation of “Bathysphere,” opener to his mid-90s Wild Love. The song’s possessed and drowning tenor has taken on a more celebratory air, jaunty strings, a tongue-in-cheek vocal delivery. I suspect Bill Callahan keeps getting better, or at least isn’t cashing out. He’s just published a book with Drag City—Letters to Emma Bowlcut. I’m not sure if it’s a novella, an epistle, or one hell of a big poem. But questions like that are beside the point. What’s it about? I’m not sure that matters much either, but let’s say it’s about habits and secrets. Ex-girlfriends and boxing. And the Vortex. Really, it’s about 80 pages of right-on writing, which traverses story and symbol, and whose narrator isn’t too abashed to joke around. “The world had gone quiet around me,” he begins, and shortly after writes, “I was chomping at the bit until I found out it was champing. Getting out of the house to stop the film loop in me. The picture is tangled and the sound is strangled.” Callahan’s sleek little book is full of wonderfully rhythmic phrasing, off-kilter hijinks, a mildly gothic vibe. I wrote to him a while back, to ask about things. He answered, with an off-the-cuff kind of wisdom, perhaps the only kind there is. So here’s another generous offering from the man behind Smog. Enjoy.

Peter Moysaenko Sure the epistle affords its author a certain freedom in navigating contiguous terrains of poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction. Is there another reason why you were drawn to this tradition with roots as ancient as those of epic verse? Are you an avid letter writer in general?

Bill Callahan It used to be all that I built my hopes and dreams on, letters. When I was a whelp. There’s a lot of desire and loneliness and happiness, givingness in letters. Letters are for the underdog, for the truth. Weapons. And also how retirees vent their frustration at fast food restaurants that don’t give them the correct change.

PM You’ve talked about the process of writing and editing Letters to Emma Bowlcut as an effort against fakery. Is verisimilitude an utmost concern and measure of compelling writing? If not, what is?

BC It gets dicey when you start talking of the Truth. I know, I brought it up. I prefer to not think of it as truth, but as “not lying.” If I can say I am not lying, that is good enough for me. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the truth. I’d also use the words “right” and “wrong,” i.e., “this sentence is right.” What it is right at doesn’t really matter as long as it isn’t wrong.

PM Did you at any point write out Emma’s side of the exchange? And why no question marks?

BC I did not try. There was talk of the editor, Connie Lovatt, co-writing the book with me with her being responsible for the letters from Emma. This book has been through so much, I can’t remember what became of that idea. This book is like a POW survivor, all the rigors it was put through.

No question marks. The explanation is in the book. The narrator wants to remove as much uncertainty from the life of Emma as he can, so he begins by removing the question marks, symbols of uncertainty.

PM The embarrassed boxer in Letter 19 or the boxer holding his wife’s purse in Letter 35—have you actually witnessed scenes like these? I’m wondering what qualities, in your eyes, makes for an especially beautiful or memorable fight. And does the better fighter usually win?

BC I saw the first one in a match on TV and the second one at a live match in Chicago. I may have spruced the memories up a little. A beautiful fight can spring on you from out of nowhere. It can be for so many different reasons. Joyce Carol Oates said, “Boxing is life.” It’s not a sport, it’s not even a metaphor for life. It is life. The better fighter can often lose. That is one of the best things about boxing. Upsets. Something can spook a champ. Anything. A bad night’s sleep the night before a match. Some thought of which he can’t rid himself. The body deciding not to work. Inexplicably sluggish on fight day when you’d been feeling sharp as a tack for a month. As long as both fighters have some decent training and are roughly the same size/weight as each other, boxing is a pretty even playing field where either one could win.

PM About midway through Rough Travel for a Rare Thing you sing, “There is no love where there is no bramble.” Is love ultimately a violent and selfish affair? Is it possible or advisable to live without hope or desire?

BC I don’t think love is a violent and selfish affair. If it is, you’re doing it wrong. There are obstacles, sure, but what does a horse do when it sees an obstacle—it jumps over it. Squirrels do too. The only animals that run headlong into obstacles are humans.

It could be good to live without hope or desire though. People are always desiring things and it ruins them. Take what you have and love it. Everything is just about equal. Whatever you’ve got needs your love as much as the thing you think you need to have more.

PMWhat’s the last book you’ve read? What’s the last record you’ve listened to?

BC I’m reading a book about wolves that my Dad sent me. Of Wolves and Men , I think it’s called. They asked what I wanted for my birthday and I said, “Give me a book about something interesting.” Last record is Stonehenge by Richie Havens.

PMIs there too much art in the world?

BC No. There’s too much everything if you think about it. There’re too many fucking people! I am a too much person. If you dropped all the art in the world on me, yes, it would be too much. But just like the billions of people, it’s easy to also live in ignorance of all the art. There are a lot of people playing music. It’s clogging up the clubs. I have to plan a tour five, six months in advance now when it used to be one or two months’ notice was needed.

PM Do you derive greater aesthetic inspiration from rural settings than from the environment of the metropolis, or, as far as your art is concerned, is it all just backdrop to a set of creative routines?

BC I like to look at just about anything. I could stare at a pile of rubble all day and get something out of it. The ocean or mountains are just a more socially acceptable form of escape and relaxation. You can’t say, “I think I’m going to the slag heap for my vacation.” But it would be about the same thing.

PM If you could hibernate, would you?

BC I can’t sleep much anymore, so it sounds kind of appealing right now.

Letters to Emma Bowlcut is available now from Drag City Records. Read Bill Callahan’s interview with author Jon Raymond, featured in BOMB 108/Summer 2009, here.

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