Luke Rolfes: Richard Terrill is the author of Essentially, a wonderful new collection of essays from Holy Cow! Press that I just had the privilege of reading this summer. Thanks for spending the time to discuss your work with us, Richard.
Richard Terrill: Thanks for asking me, Luke.
LR: I thought we’d start holistically. Can you give us a sense of the genesis of this book project and how it all came together?
RT: I wrote the essays over a number of years, and as you have noted, I’ve placed them in three distinct sections. To my mind, the common element is the voice of the writer/narrator. I’m sure we’ll get around to discussing that. The title is meant to suggest a thematic thread as well. The title essay, “Essentially,” is about the American obsession with collecting stuff—what used to be called “Materialism.” Stuff is clearly not essential, that essay says. But what is essential?” Finally, I don’t claim to know the answer. If I did, I’d choose another subject.
LR: Two threads play back and forth in the first section of Essentially---a juxtaposition of jazz and the great outdoors, as well as a stitching together of aging (yourself and the ones around you) and the want to be at peace with the natural world. You’ve always been a writer who is drawn to nature. Could you talk about how the natural world shapes these essays and your writing process? I’m also curious how your relationship to nature has changed as you get deeper into your career and life. Has it moved from recreation to something different---communion maybe?
RT: “Communion with nature” sounds a little touchy feely, but if we’re ok with that, I think I’ve always been in that camp. Even as a kid I was more into just being out there than catching the biggest fish or taking the longest hike. This comes out in my essay “Yet Again to the Lake,” in which I go trespassing at what was once our family cottage and remember growing up there. I’m trying to lay to rest a lot of memories of that cabin and the outdoors that have turned bittersweet with time and change. The title, obviously, is borrowed from E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” and White makes an appearance in my pages. What I learned trying to write about nature and the outdoors is that you can’t just go somewhere and transcribe. Either something has to happen, or you have to reflect on experience. Reflection is how I make meaning in these essays--about trout fishing, paddling, the family cottage--that would otherwise be merely descriptive. I
have no trouble including in the section essays about playing jazz. That’s another kind of communion—with the audience, your fellow players, and everyone else who’s ever played the music. Being in nature and playing music are both “essentially” spiritual pursuits.
LR: One thing I admire greatly in this book is your ability to transition between scene and deep, cerebral reflection---especially in essays like “Trout Fishing: A Manifesto.” Is that something that comes naturally to you as a writer? Are your instincts to reflect after a poignant scene?
RT: I think it does come naturally to me. It might be an offshoot of being a little too opinionated. The essay “Trout Fishing: A Manifesto,” for instance, may be more manifesto than it is trout fishing! I say things like “trout fishing is best carried out alone,” and tell the reader to beware of young men with fly rods. One reason the essay form is so much fun is that it allows you to make outrageous statements and then step back to see if you agree with them or not. And of course, there can be a lot of humor in that give and take.
LR: In part two, you shift directions and, in most essays, travel backwards in time. The arc of this collection becomes contemplative about recent and historical artists---gone-but-not-yet-forgotten stars of stage and screen, jazz musicians whose life-forces have already flamed out. My favorite piece in this section explores the oft-unremembered pianist Bill Evans---one of the best jazz players to have existed, who accompanied Miles Davis on Kind of Blue, lived hard, and died young. I get a sense of urgency in these essays. It’s almost as if you are recognizing a fleetingness not just of genius but the recognition of genius. Time marches on and art is replaced, fading with each passing year. Do your essays fight against time’s want to forget? Can you give us some insight into your thoughts on this section? Is the impermanence of art something that all artists should worry about?
RT: I suppose our writing, like all art, is impermanent. But we have to write as if it isn’t. I think at least some of the time (most of the time?) you should push yourself to write for people who haven’t been born yet. By writing nonfiction, you’re telling people in the future what it was like to live in the early 21st century. As for these essays about jazz and film in this section, the impetus is simply that it’s so much fun to write about things you love, especially if you think other people don’t know about them. I call what I’m doing in this section, “personal criticism.” I’m appreciating these great artists—Bill Evans, Miles, Yasujiro Ozu--but I’m doing so from a distinctly subjective platform and sometimes bouncing their experiences off my own. As with more conventional criticism, the goal should be to help a reader appreciate a work or an artist, and thereby try to make that art last. As for the essay, “Who Was Bill Evans?” it’s the best example of something else I like to do: take up a subject I don’t understand, so that the writing becomes an inquiry or quest. Nobody really knew Bill Evans. He was a ghost, a mass of contradictions. I mean, why does one of the musical geniuses of the 20th century destroy his
health and his life with drugs? He said, “I had to work harder at music than most cats because, you see, man, I don’t have very much talent.” If you’ve ever heard Bill Evans play you know that statement is absolutely crazy. So where did that attitude come from? We have to ask, even though we’ll never know. Bill Evans’ widow read the essay, wrote me and said, “I think you understood some things about Bill that few other people did.” That’s what I aim for.
LR: I’m interested in how you switch back and forth between music and writing. You have been a jazz saxophonist for most of your life. You mention that you don’t like to practice nearly as much as you like to rehearse, and you don’t like to rehearse nearly as much as you like to perform. Your enjoyment of the art form, in turn, is heightened by the presence of others---by an audience. Is it difficult to switch to the mode of creative writing, which relies so heavily on individual attention and work, and exhaustive repetition versus improvisation? How different are these two forms in your mind?
RT: Yeah, music is a lot more fun because you do it with other people and there’s immediate gratification. People applaud if I play a good solo; I stop to listen, but I don’t hear anyone applauding in my study if I write a good sentence. I try to avoid writing and practicing a lot in the same day. It’s hard for me to get immersed in one pursuit, stop for lunch, and then try to get fully immersed in the other. But for me the music of the language drives what I write, even in prose. That’s the similarity between playing jazz and writing: I think I have a pretty good ear. Friends have read my prose books and said, “This is a 200-page poem!” because of the rhythm and music in the language, meaning a compliment.. But I shouldn’t say that too loud or nobody will buy my new book!
LR: One more question about music. I’m curious about your influences and inspirations. Are they more musical or literary? A combination of both?
RT: Musical influences are musical, literary influences are literary. One thing that possibly makes my playing different from other sax players is that as much as I listened to famous sax players, I also listened to singers. The common element, of course, is words. I find it very difficult to memorize poems, but I know the lyrics to hundreds of songs. With poems, my strongest influences remain the four teachers I had when young: Bruce Taylor, Steve Orlen, Jon Anderson, Mark Halperin. I hear their voices. But with memoir and essay, I had no teacher, so I think the voice is more internal, more native. I don’t mean this un-humbly, but I can’t think of another essayist I’ve read who has a voice exactly like mine. Christopher Hitchens, but his subject matter is completely different and he’s a lot smarter than I am. Edward Abbey, but he was a tough SOB and I’m self-effacing. The self-effacing part may come out of Orwell, believe it or not.
LR: The third act of this book contemplates domesticity. In this section, you are surrounded by neighbors who have lives of their own, and who are, at times, forced to interact and make community---sometimes begrudgingly. Can you talk about the shift in subject matter in this section? Was it difficult to move from studying the artists of yesteryear to studying, say, your patriotic neighbor Jerry?
RT: While the essays in the book are not in chronological order, it’s true that six of the seven essays in the last section are among the last completed--quite a number of years after the earlier pieces in parts one and two. I hadn’t thought about this before, but this taking up of domestic subject matter—trying to figure out my neighbors, training my dog, fishing with my brother—may be a result of the pandemic. I’m not a fan of most creative writing that tries to describe the COVID experience; it tends often to tell me things I already know. But it’s true that being cooped up made us all see what is immediately around us in a different way.
LR: Mortality and what remains after death is a theme addressed in this book several times. The final entry is the lovely and haunting “Two Stories,” which brings this collection full circle. It’s a tale about getting lost in the woods with your terminally ill brother, and then a connected tale in which you encounter a group of hunters who have shot and killed a bear. Between the two stories, you offer an anecdote of another friend accusing you of always writing in the elegiac mode. Because of this anecdote, I want to read this final piece as an elegy---perhaps even the book as a whole. Have you come to see this book, in its totality, as a type of elegy or lament for something lost?
RT: I think you’re right that it is. That’s why I try to write with humor as well, and I want those two instincts to play off each other in evocative ways. By the way, I like that in the previous question you referred to this last section of the book as a third act. Precisely. “Act” because I do think of the three sections as a progression, as in the theater. And in the other sense, “Act III” is about getting older. We’ll all have, or are having, an act three. If we’re lucky. There’s an element of memoir in essays throughout the book—recounting things that happened to me in the recent or distant past. I think most good memoirs are about two things: they’re about whatever they’re about, and they’re about Time. Then and Now. I used to be, but now I am. The world used to be, but now it is. The “then” side of the then-and-now construct must include what has been lost. How do you write about nature, for instance, without the knowledge that three billion birds have disappeared from North American in only the last fifty years? How to think about that? We must bear witness to what has been lost, make a record of what was. Otherwise, we leave history—the collective as well as the personal past—to those who would shape it for their own purposes.
LR: I’m excited for the release of this book! What is next for you and your writing? Are you back to writing poems, or are you gravitating more toward longer form?
RT: I don’t know what the next writing will be, but I have a feeling that it will be something different from what I’ve ever done. Not unlike the fact I mention in the book that Miles Davis never went back to listen to his old recordings. He was always moving ahead. And then there’s this great anecdote I heard once about a Zen student going up to his master at the end of a lesson and saying, excitedly, “See you tomorrow!” To which the Master replies, “Maybe!” So, we’ll see what happens. Probably.
Bio: Richard Terrill is the author of Essentially: Essays and What Falls Away Is Always: Poems & Conversations, both from Holy Cow! Press. Five previous books include Coming Late to Rachmaninoff, winner of the Minnesota Book Award for Poetry, and Saturday Night in Baoding: A China Memoir, winner of the Associated Writing Programs Award for Nonfiction. He has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Wisconsin and Minnesota State Arts Boards, the Jerome Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, as well as three Fulbright Fellowships. Work has appeared in journals such as Iowa Review, Georgia Review, North American Review, River Teeth, New Letters, Fourth Genre, and Crazyhorse. He is Professor Emeritus at Minnesota State, Mankato, where he was Distinguished Faculty Scholar, and currently works as a jazz saxophone player. He lives in Minneapolis. https://richardterrill.com/