A conversation with Berklee English prof Mark Polanzak about his new sorta memoir
As journalists at DigBoston, it’s hard for us to worship genre-benders who take liberties in weaving fiction into nonfiction and memoir. But while phonies like Ben Mezrich patch together micro lies with fantasy and package slop as real talk, Berklee College of Music English professor Mark Polanzak writes on a different level entirely—one that enables him to step beyond more traditional biographical approaches and get closer to personal truths.
Polanzak’s debut book, Pop! (Stillhouse), is an exercise in breaking literary rules, as well as many of the laws of bereavement. In writing about death, specifically the passing of his dad and the ensuing gauntlet through which he engaged the loss, the author splashes admirable life and energy onto the page. We consider him a promising up-and-comer in the local arts scene, and so in addition to excerpting his book this week, I threw some hard balls at Polanzak, a former Dig writer himself, about his work as well as the regional creative community in which much of it takes place.
DB: Please explain the format, and your mix of fiction and memoir and other genres?
MP: The book takes place over one week in 2008. I was asked to speak at a bereavement group for teens, who had all lost a parent. When I was 17 (1998) my dad died unexpectedly. The main structure is a memoir that explores the events of that week leading up to the meeting. I was 27 and being asked to address kids as an assumed expert on loss, grief, and healing. I was tremendously freaked out by the prospect of talking with these kids, because I realized or feared that I hadn’t done anything right re: dealing with trauma, death, loss, grief.
However, I eventually discover that I had dealt with loss through writing fiction, short stories. I have been writing fiction seriously since high school. So, in the book I go over my short fiction—previously published and not—and analyze them for their real-life revelations. The book contains straight up short fiction that I then pull the curtain back on.
There is a third mode the story is told in. I spend much of the book thinking back through the events that followed my dad’s sudden death, what happened with me, my mom, my brother, my friends. I retell and reimagine these events and myths from the past. I tell my mother’s stories from her point of view, my brother’s POV. In that way, these become falsified memoirs. POP! is a memoir, embedded with short fiction and reimaginings of real life. But there’s a perceivable pattern, and the voice always returns to the grounding memoir-voice.
DB: You seem to be having some fun with the whole meta concept of what’s real and what’s not, and with dancing between the two in your prose while acknowledging the tricks you’re playing. It’s almost like an episode of ‘The Office,’ when the characters look at the camera and break down that wall. How confusing did that kind of exercise get in your writing?
MP: I loved being able to look at the camera, to reveal the artifice and explain what was hidden behind the fiction. It wasn’t as confusing as it was exciting, and I had to ultimately delete much of it in the final drafts. I got so into breaking down the wall that I did it too much in some places. It was a wild experience to actually go into my short fiction and see my personal issues, my grief, my own confusions playing out in the stories. It was crazy to see my work as therapeutic, to finally see what the themes were all along. What was confusing was how I had never before seen that I was dealing with loss and death in my stories. How could I be so dense?
DB: They say your first big book/album/film is often the culmination of everything you’ve done up to that point. Is that the case here?
MP: Oh my god. Yes. Literally. This book contains sections written between 2002 and 2015. I wasn’t working on this book in 2002, though. I was writing fiction that later became subject matter for this book. Everything I have written from 18 to 35 has led to this book, either by direct inclusion or through creative progress. This is absolutely a culmination. I have never written nonfiction before. And this, it’s a memoir of fiction in many ways.
DB: What’s the most embarrassing thing you reveal in Pop!, and how clear is it that it’s something that actually happened to you in real life?
MP: There’s lots I’m embarrassed by that made its way into this book. But that actually proved to me that I was doing something worthwhile. When things got scary or embarrassing or tweaked me in some way, I knew that I had to follow it and see where it led. That’s really exciting writing, when you feel like it’s off-limits, and embarrassing things definitely feel off-limits. The most embarrassing thing? There’s a part where I make plans to visit my dad’s grave, when I am a teenager. Before I go to the cemetery, I go to a video store and get a porn vid. Then I think about going to the grave, but I hesitate, because I don’t want to go to the cemetery with pornography. Like my dad would find out or something and I would be in cosmic trouble, or like I would be disrespectful. It’s embarrassing on two levels: 1) the porn-taboo, and 2) the messed-upness of me as an 18 year old wondering if I was allowed to visit my dad’s grave when I wanted to.
DB: Did writing the book help you deal with your father’s death? Or fuck you up in a different way than you ever thought possible?
MP: Both of those things. The book essentially chronicles how my dad’s death affected every single relationship in my life. I used to bury everything about my dad, never talk about him or the death, hide thoughts, anger, sadness, confusion. Since it’s all public now, that’s impossible, and I feel much more comfortable with the loss and everything that comes with it. It also opened up conversations with my family and friends and wife that were closed off before. Writing the book taught me to open up; it was discovery and admission. I am aware of that positive change. But whenever you write about something from your life, something personal, you also seem to fuck up the sanctity of things—I have written and shared with anyone who cares to read the book, some really, really personal things, intimate things, secrets that people in my life did not know. Turning private matters public has had a profoundly positive effect on my mind, and there’s been a shift in my understanding of what is private and sacred and what is public.
DB: Who are some other writers who have inspired you to kind of take the governor off and throw literary rules out of the window?
MP: The writers that have made their way into my writing either consciously or subconsciously are writers that avoid convention. They do something that seems illegal with structure, POV, voice, plot, style: Denis Johnson, Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, Nick Flynn, George Saunders, Donald Barthelme, John Barth. But I am very much influenced by screenwriters and films, too: the humor and experimentalism of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, the absurdity and meta-storytelling in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation.
DB: Do I sense a bit of Kurt Vonnegut in your writing? Perhaps the less mainstream stuff like Hocus Pocus and Slapstick?
MP: Totally. But I was influenced by Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Time Quake way before reading Slapstick, and I haven’t read Hocus Pocus. Of course, what hooked me was Vonnegut’s control of voice, a voice that could tell me just about anything and keep me entertained, but what artistically rooted itself in me, back when I read Slaughterhouse when I was 19, was the—again—seeming illegal move the narrator makes: the narrator tells you he is working on a book, the book you are reading. The narrator was in the war that the book is about, but then the book focuses on another character. An impossibility. And so much of the story is clearly from Vonnegut’s real life. That mixing of fiction and memoir and the experimental narration POV lit up a part of my writer-brain.
DB: Where do you live in Boston, and how has your neighborhood influenced your writing?
MP: My wife and I are currently living in Canton, with my mom, in the house I grew up in and where I was when my dad died. We were living in Cambridge until the landlord decided to sell the building and kicked us out last fall. We lived three years in Cambridgeport, and then three years just north of Harvard Square. Before that I was in South Boston. Areas that pop up in the book: South Boston, Cambridge, Canton, South Station, Theater District/Bay Village. When I lived in South Boston, I didn’t do really much with writing. I had just graduated from the University of Arizona MFA program and moved in hastily with a girlfriend. The area didn’t inspire me and my life situation at the time basically prohibited creative output. When I moved to Cambridge, I got back into my routine of writing every day. I would read at a bar in Southie and get looks. I write or read at a bar in Cambridge and find others are doing it, too.
DB: Do you consider this to still be a great place to live for a writer? A robust creative community? Do you feel that gentrification and its force on the arts community has impacted that dynamic at all?
MP: A writer can live anywhere. Unlike music, film, theater or visual art, writers don’t need collaborators, local venues, or local industry to do their thing. I write my stuff, send it to my readers, who don’t live here, publish in magazines that are not housed here, and my book’s press is in another state. Writing is done alone, and the cogs of the industry turn elsewhere, which doesn’t really matter. Boston does have a ton of bookstores and colleges, though, which keep books a part of the atmosphere. There’s a reading every single night in this city, which is awesome and not the case everywhere. There are writers’ organizations, writing programs, and book festivals. That’s all great. That said, I am regularly confused and disappointed with the artistic vibrancy of Boston. We have MFA programs, music schools, art schools, so many colleges, and it seems that artists learn here and then leave. I teach at the Berklee College of Music, and so many of my students take off for New York or LA. I don’t think that NYC or LA is more reasonably priced than Beantown, but the necessary sacrifices that one must make to live as an artist makes more sense in those cities. The opportunities are there. Boston doesn’t have the art scene of those places, which disappoints. Is that because of gentrification? Maybe. I don’t know what Boston was like before, when it was a great place for artists. I can’t really imagine it. Where is the arts area of Boston? There are historic areas, great restaurant areas, touristy spots, once-hip sections now dominated by banks… When you walk certain streets in Paris or New York, you see so much art, so many galleries, museums, so many events going on, so many Bohemian cafes and poets’ bars. In Boston, you see a lot of sports bars. Is that because of gentrification? I’d love to know why that is.
DB: What’s it like to publish a book of a personal nature as a professor? Was the potential response of students to certain revelations in the back of your mind the whole time you were writing this?
MP: I wrote most of this book before starting at Berklee. So it definitely wasn’t an issue. After the call came in that Stillhouse wanted to publish POP!, I feared everyone in my life reading it. I showed it to people who made appearances in the story, changed things based on their wishes, deleted things, added things. But I have never worried about my students reading it, because they are artists themselves. They get it. When I listen to their music, and get to experience another side of them, I get it. We are and are not what we reveal in our art. I know that the Berklee musicians live the double life that all artists live and will allow me to as well.
You can hear Mark read from Pop! along with Lucas Mann, who will be reading from Lord Fear, at Porter Square Books on Friday, May 27 at 7pm. You can read more of Mark’s work at his online magazine, draftjournal.com.