An Interview with Zak Smith

In a post outlining my approach to reading Gravity’s Rainbow this time around, I mentioned artist Zak Smith’s picture book, Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Zak has published a couple of other books, Pictures of Girls and We Did Porn, a memoir interspersed with several bundles of drawings and paintings. He’s got a web site at, he tweets as zaksmithsabbath, and he also has an online sketchbook here. He’s also done some work on a project with six other artists to illustrate Blood Meridian and did some drawings for a neat game/art project called Road of Knives. His story is pretty interesting. The GR illustration project led oddly enough to his introduction to the world of alt-porn, in which he performs under the name Zak Sabbath. When I asked if he’d be willing to do an interview, he was game and lightning-fast with (and gracious in) his response.

Infinite Zombies: In the introduction to Pictures Showing…, you write that you worked on the project over nine months of 14-hour days. Can you say a little something about your process, if you had a more or less standard process? Ie, did you read a few pages and meditate on them, then narrow down to an image and begin doing drafts of the work? Or something else altogether?

Zak Smith: Well I’d already read the book twice, then I started doing them in order, but after about 20 pages I decided it wasn’t working, so instead I just started sketching and whenever I started getting something I knew was in the book like “Hey, this looks kind of like a hog!” then I’d look up “hog” in the on-line index and re-read those passages and either start from scratch using what I already sketched as a guide or just finished the drawing so it fit the passage.

Then when I had done like 600 of those I went and finished the rest.

IZ: Pynchon was writing his WWII book at around the time (presumably) of the Vietnam War. You’re drawing pictures of the book during the war in Iraq, just a few years after the World Trade Center came down. Can you comment on art and war, Pynchon’s art and war, and your art and war, and what, if anything, it was like to be making art depicting (in part) a vulnerable city in wartime while living in a newly vulnerable city in a different wartime?

ZS: I know it’s terribly gauche to say this, but I didn’t feel particularly scared or vulnerable after 9/11 and neither did anybody I knew personally who wasn’t already some sort of neurotic. We were like “Ok, that sucked, but life goes on, y’know, more people die of the flu every year.” Anyone in Europe will tell you that terrorists don’t like make one successful attack and then suddenly go “Holy hell, it worked! Now we can do the same thing every day!!”

I did notice we had an oil war, a transparently criminal president and everybody was terrified and listening to extremely bad dance music so, for all intents and purposes it was 1972.

IZ: I believe I’ve read in an interview that you don’t think art ought to just be for rich people to hang on their walls. That you’ve made your illustrations available for free online and in a mass-produced book would seem to support such a position. Another author who comes up often alongside Pynchon is WIlliam Gaddis (whose JR we may take up at Infinite Zombies sometime), and one of his central concerns was mechanization and art, and reproduction of art. I wonder, tangentially, if you’ve read Gaddis or would care to articulate any thoughts about art as a mass-produced and populist concern vs. art as the domain of its privileged owners.

ZS: I read Gaddis’ The Recognitions. It was ok.

The non-populist way art is sold is the reason the art world is so conservative–in film or music or even literature you can make money and live by producing a movie for people who don’t like all the other movies out there, or music for the people who don’t like the other music out there, etc. But the art world is about selling one piece to one collector. But it has to be a “good” collector or your prices never go up to a living wage. And a “good” collector is defined as someone who liked the old art–like you become a good collector by having Felix Gonzales Torreses or Andy Warhols. So it’s very hard to make something new and make money selling it. And of course these good collectors are kinda not exactly young people, so it’s often you’re trying to sell a cultural product to someone who likes terrible old people things like jazz and West Side Story.

In like 1949 Sartre was bemoaning the fact that avant-garde music was not for the masses, not too long after that, Alan Freed had his radio show and now pretty much our whole culture has been bathed in the power of avant garde popular music thanks to the magic of mechanical reproduction and it would be so nice if art could finally advance to the point music’s been at for 60 years where the people get exposed to the new stuff and it’s all available and it all costs the same.

IZ: I know you had been involved in a project with several other artists to illustrate Blood Meridian (essentially another war book, by the way). As far as I can tell, it appears to be stalled. Is it in fact stalled or do you think it’ll pick back up?

ZS: Hard to be sure, we all had shows and things right after it went up so it kinda got back-burnered.

IZ: Although they’re both very morbid, dark books, GR and Blood Meridian are also very different stylistically. Does that influence the way you approach the books differently as a visual artist?

ZS: Yeah, I mean Pynchon–I only realized this after I was done–was well-suited to the project I did. His work is full of these hallucinatory hard-to-pin-down sentences. Try that with other authors? What are you going to draw–Humbert talking to Charlotte for the ninth page in a row? It’d look like a storyboard.

So when I got to Blood Meridian I didn’t want to just endlessly do Cowboy In Landscape, so unlike GR–which I did as literally as possible–I did a kind of did a time change and sex change–I made all the marauders female space pirates. Each of the 6 people on that project did it in a different way. Some went literal, some went abstract, some went surreal.

IZ: Thinking of GR and Blood Meridian and also of much of the porn you describe in We Did Porn, it seems pretty clear that artistically, you’re drawn to grit. Have you done or considered doing work that wasn’t so full of grit, and if not, why? Too easy? Too hard? Just not interesting? Can we look forward to a Zak Smith rendering of The Velveteen Rabbit?

ZS: I like cute things. But grit just…it’s just real to me, I guess. I make pictures the way I do because they’re realer, visceral.

I mean, if you have kids, your house is a fucking mess. If you are heterosexual and male and single, your house is a fucking mess. But if you turn on Full House, it’s immaculate. Things which feel faked have less impact–and they seem condescending. Like we know life isn’t like that. Turn on a Wong-Kar Wai movie and you see all the actual chaos of human life there and it’s extremely affecting.

IZ: Can you comment on the relationship between porn and art? You write a bit in We Did Porn about good, innovative art and bad art that makes people hate art, and you draw a line connecting bad art and bad porn. Like you, I bristle at the sort of bad art you describe (e.g. a quote written in ketchup across a photo of a starlet), but I also don’t know enough about porn (pretty vanilla over here) to understand what makes, say, a movie in which people have sex on the hood of a car non-art porn and a similar movie but with goat’s blood and tattoos art-porn. You get a triple gold star if you can relate this back to Gravity’s Rainbow, quadruple if you can do it without introducing any plot spoilers. (This is a serious question. I worry that it sounds like trolling, but I’m not in any way trolling; I just don’t grok the distinction.)

ZS: I can’t. I don’t think there is “good porn”–it’s subjective.  Incidentally, I never claimed any of the movies I am in are any good. Though sometimes the directors are ambitious–and that means the same in porn as any other medium–they were trying hard to get a specific thing. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. I don’t care, I don’t watch much porn. I just like having sex.

IZ: Many who will participate in the GR read first became acquainted with the site through a group read of Infinite Jest a few years ago. You’ve expressed admiration for Wallace. In We Did Porn, you wrote a bit about the Adult Video News awards. What’s your take on Wallace’s essay on the event and the broader topic?

ZS: One of the reasons I got inspired to write We Did Porn is because two of my favorite authors–Martin Amis and DFW–had written about it and seemed to completely ignore the central issues. Martin Amis because–bless him–his fiction-writer modus operandi is to make very simple characters but then explore their simplicity in depth and he kinda transfers that to his nonfiction (which I loooooove reading but I don’t trust for a second), Wallace because he has this sort of creepy, probably religious, possibly midwestern lacuna about sex. (Made pretty clear in his Kenyon College speech). Like in one review he calls John Updike out:

It’s that he persists in the bizarre, adolescent belief that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants to is a cure for human despair.

And I think: Whomever–and put that “ever” in italics. Whenever? That is completely a cure for human despair. Entirely. All the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders right now. Then after that Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield at the same time and then Helen of Troy and every SI swimsuit issue model and anyone not cured of human despair after that is just being a spoiled brat.

So these are my favorite writers in English–aside from Pynchon–and they have taken on this subject and they each made a witty weekend of it without talking about the grit: the fact that fucking is really good and, at least for most male heterosexuals, it is pretty much the gravitational center of our entire lives (something Amis is usually not so timid about) and how really porn is not just a terrible, funny, sad, frightening industry but also this place full of women who actually do act exactly the way you always wished women acted, sometimes, often when the cameras aren’t even running. And how that is unbelievably strange. So I had to write it.

Interview: Dan Beachy-Quick

I recently wrote a brief appreciation of Dan Beachy-Quick’s Moby-Dick-inspired book, A Whaler’s Dictionary. Dan’s not only a Moby-Dick enthusiast but is also a widely-published poet whose work has appeared in magazines (e.g. Poetry and The Paris Review) that many talented poets would sell limbs and family secrets to appear in. He’s published four full-length collections of poetry, two chapbooks, and the aforementioned collection of essays about Melville’s classic novel. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he now teaches English at the University of Colorado. He has graciously put up with my nagging him off and on for the last few months and has been kind enough to return thoughtful answers to a few questions I sent his way.

Infinite Zombies: You mention having spent a decade reading Moby-Dick. At what point did you begin to realize that you were going to write a book of your own? How did the idea germinate and blossom? Did you read the book straight through a bunch of times or did you find yourself spending more time on certain chapters?

Dan Beachy-Quick: I first read Moby-Dick after graduating with my BA, feeling cast out of the comfort of the classroom, and more poignantly, feeling that I’d learned enough only to gain some sense of how vast was my ignorance. It was in recognition of how uneducated I felt that I picked up Moby-Dick, feeling I had no right to consider myself a student of American Literature without having read it. I worked at a little café unsupervised by any manager, and drank coffee and read for hours. Moby-Dick became for me the first reading experience in which my only resource for thinking about the book was what I could think myself—there was no class conversation, no teacher as guide, no test to prove to myself I’d understood what I was supposed to understand. It was my first experience of reading as a form of Self-Reliance.

I think it is exactly in that sense of needing to find what work I must do in order to be close to that book, to put myself within its issues more than to understand it, that I first gained the sense of wanting to write about it. That next leap occurred in graduate school, during my MFA, where I began reading M-D again, privately, and quite privately, began writing poems located within the characters and crises of the novel. That book is titled Spell, and it is, in my mind, in the light of how I felt it failed, that I began the work that became A Whaler’s Dictionary. Some six years passed between those projects, maybe more. Writing poems about Moby-Dick took me away—or so it felt—from the questions that I most wanted to address. The poems in the end had to pay heed to their own formal life, to turn toward themselves and away from their original intent. I had hoped that A Whaler’s Dictionary might act as a remedy to the way in which my initial attention swerved.

The idea for the latter came from teaching a graduate seminar at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago on M-D. My effort in the class mimicked my own effort of reading-writing: to find a way for us to put ourselves within the squall of possible meaning, and so within the realm of doubt and inquiry and necessity, rather than to find any objective grounds to form a so-called judgment of the book.

I’ve both read the book through many times—I don’t know how many, as well as returned to certain chapters whose nature particularly compels me. My tendency, though, is to read whole, and to respond in writing as a kind of immediacy to the direct experience of thinking within the work I’m reading. I prefer thinking to having thought, thinking to having had a thought, and want the essays to record the strangeness and difficulty of how thinking undermines certainty even as it tries, valiantly if futilely, to create it.

IZ: Can you say a little bit about how you conducted in-depth reading and annotation of Moby-Dick? Do you dog-ear your books and scrawl in the margins, or do you keep tidy notebooks? Any quirks or peculiarities in (or madness to) your method?

DB-Q: I am not tidy—in part, because I’m not a scholar. I’m a poet, and my copy of Moby-Dick bears the traces of my enthusiasm, a kind of archeology of enthusiasm, marked in creased pages and marginalia in a vast spectrum of ink. Put my copy on its spine, and it will open to certain chapters all of its own—a kind of charmed insistence. The cover is half off, repaired poorly with tape. I make notes in the book as I read, and then go back through the chapters to create a set of notes to put myself more firmly within thinking before teaching. The writing emerges to some degree from both of these processes, but is also a process that drives itself. It is all a very unanchored process, more a devotion than a discipline, and so records a different sort of rigor than more academically oriented work. My method is a kind of madness. Or, as Ishmael has it, “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.”

IZ: If you had to pick a handful of A Whaler’s Dictionary entries you find the most vital, or that you’re the most proud of, or that address things in Melville’s book that really speak to you, which ones would you name?

DB-Q: I don’t have the book in front of me, but the entries that I tend to think the most of are centered in strange ways around the work of writing, feeling, generation, thinking: Wound, Tattoo, Child, Writing, and Silence.

IZ: In the front-matter of your book, you mention a book of Charles Olson’s. I hadn’t known until I began doing my own research for this group read that Olson had been a Melville scholar early in his life. I’ve always known him as a poet. As a widely published poet and a writer with a demonstrable obsession with Moby-Dick yourself, do you have any thoughts about that leap from obsessive Melville scholar to obsessive composer of poetry? Is there a kinship at play here? Do you know of other poets who share the obsession? (Stanley Kunitz comes to mind as a potential candidate.)

DB-Q: Charles Olson has been, and is, a poet very much on my mind—both in terms of his own work on Moby-Dick, Call Me Ishmael, which I have read and taught many times, as well as his Maximus Poems, and the large project of unearthing the mythology and cosmology of a given locality. My process has been somewhat the reverse of Olson’s, concentrating on poetry, and from poetry, turning to the work of writing essays on Moby-Dick. As to what to make of the leap you mention, I do think there is an element in Melville’s novel that encourages—even if in an underground, mostly unconscious way—this risk of radical approach. The novel itself is cobbled together in a dizzying variety of vocal registers and literary approaches, a kaleidoscopic quality that also suggests no one voice is able to bear the weight of the whole project. It is a novel that always seeks to trespass into itself. In some sense, the relation of poetry to scholarship is also involved in such trespass, refusing a descriptive approach in favor of an approach that enacts the issues it describes. I’d love to claim a kinship, but perhaps that is a young poet’s wishful thinking. Olson’s work is work that has imprinted me. There are other poets doing interesting work in and of and around M-D: Deborah Meadows comes immediately to mind, as does the critic K.L. Evans.

IZ: After the miserable reception of Moby-Dick, Melville faded into obscurity, writing just a few more unsuccessful books and resorting at last to poetry, largely unpublished. Do you make anything of this?

DB-Q: I don’t have any unique take on this, save the glib observation of how failure seeks out a respite in poetry—or, that poetry has a more accommodating relationship to failure than does the grandeur of the novel of genius. There is in the story for me—well, the history, really—a kind of Icarus-like parallel. Melville in Moby-Dick, as Olson so vividly points out, is driven not by Daedalus’s inventive heights, but by Shakespeare’s heights and depths, brightnesses and darknesses, and in seeking for himself the same audacious genius, and in accomplishing it, suffered a kind of fall. Here the source isn’t the sun’s heat, but the opposite, the crowd’s freezing indifference, which suffices just as well for the crash. Melville, it feels to me, was writing not only in his time, still so close to the large industry of whaling, but was also writing before and beyond his time, breaking through the cultural confines of his contemporaries in ways either unrecognizable or frankly bewildering to the reading public. But it seems to me that genius works this way—always forcing one to the outside of whatever one is in, be that oneself or one’s time. Genius is a peripheral art, or says the center is elsewhere. Perhaps that center ends up in poetry, that art of the margins.

IZ: I began indoctrinating my children into the church of Moby-Dick from as early in their lives (in the case of my daughter) as the womb. Although it’s a bit bloody, I’ve brought both of mine up on Allan Drummond’s short illustrated adaptation of Moby-Dick. How has the book figured in the reading life of your daughter? (Stated another way: Please tell me I’m not a weirdo.)

DB-Q: Well, you are probably a weirdo, but so am I—and, I suspect the same of pretty much everyone obsessed with this book. My daughter, now 5, has an amazing pop-up version of Moby-Dick that we often read at night. She knows of  my love for the book, which instills in her a kind of love. My wife and I are soon expecting a new baby, and Hana makes joke after joke of naming her Ahab, Ahabetta, Ishmaela, and Queeqega. Then she laughs and laughs. I think I’ll wait a little longer to read the whole novel to her—or maybe, I can’t decide, let her discover it for herself, and see if it can be for her what has been for me, the book the showed me the way to the necessity of learning to think for myself.