An Interview with Nicolette Polek - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Nicolette Polek

[Writer]
by Tao Lin
April 2nd, 2020

“The stories in Imaginary Museums are about how I’ve felt alienated from the world, and writing these stories—in addition to doing other things—helped me feel less alienated from the world.”

Lists Mentioned in This Interview:
List of sentences with “a sweeping filmic lens”
List of natural things
List of the contents of a notebook

Nicolette Polek’s first book, a collection of stories titled Imaginary Museums, reminds me of a definition for “consciousness” that I learned recently, which is that it refers to how many possibilities a thing has, in terms of its future. The more possible futures a thing has, the more conscious—and unpredictable—it is. Trees—which are unpredictable in how they move their leaves and other parts, how they grow, when they die—are less conscious than dogs, and dogs less than people, who, going by this definition, are arguably more conscious now, in the twenty-first century, than ever before.

Imaginary Museums reminded me of this definition of consciousness because its characters seem extremely conscious—they seem to have a large amount of choices in terms of how they can move, feel, and think, moment to moment, day to day—and also because I feel like Nicolette herself experienced high levels of consciousness while writing these stories. She seemed to have given herself many formal and other choices. One story is like a prose poem. One is limited to one characters’ dialogue. One has many scenes set over weeks. One (“Field Notes”) felt to me like a text-based role-playing computer game of life.

Within each story, the perspective shifts from remote to near, outside to inside minds, outside to inside the stories, from a character to a bird, from characters’ emotions to their memories to various of their senses. The sentences and language also seemed unpredictable to me: “The mathematician redesigns her staircase so that some steps are very tall and some very short.” A story begins: “Annie was encouraged to take a painting class after the divorce. Annie painted scenes of herself in empty Arctic landscapes, with long, difficult shadows.” Tennis players on a TV screen in a bar “sound like little angry creatures, weirdly struggling.” Imaginary Museums to me was like Michael Earl Craig combined with Lorrie Moore and Kafka and a nature documentary. I interviewed Nicolette about her book online over months.

—Tao Lin

I. Falcons Fighting

THE BELIEVER: When did you start writing the stories in Imaginary Museums? How did the stories become a book?

NICOLETTE POLEK: The oldest story is five years old, the most recent is about ten months old. Once I began filing the stories into sections, it became a collection. I had read Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories and liked how there were categories, so I tried it, thinking about the categories as wings of a museum, and then the book found a shape. A lot of these stories started from images that I’ve recorded in my notebook… like “Owls Fall From Nitra” started as two falcons fighting, and a green Ferrari.

BLVR: “Owls Fall From Nitra” was one of the weirdest stories I’ve read—weird in a friendly, intriguing way. It begins, “The falconer comes from a winding lineage of loving, mysterious people. Her mother died in an avalanche; her grandmother monitored forests from a tall tower.” I imagined the story being written with the help of a manic, voraciously curious child, by telling the child the story is about a falconer, then answering the child’s questions.

NP: Sometimes I feel like a manic, voraciously curious child. Like, I can’t help but test if inconspicuous doors in public places are locked, so in a way you’re right.

BLVR: How did you choose where to make the story go after starting with the falcon and Ferrari images?

NP: I don’t choose. For the most part, the images naturally bleed out. The image of birds fighting became a more dominant image, which expanded into writing about a falconer I had recently met. The Ferrari fell to the wayside, and the story became a more nonfictional profile on falconry, which was then cut. I fictionalized the falconer and brought in the Ferrari again, to serve as contrast, and I worked to connect the two. When I do writing exercises for myself, I often put disparate stories or images together and try to solve how they connect, like a meaning puzzle.

BLVR: The story is in the “Slovak Sceneries” wing in the museum of your book. The other wings are “Miniature Catastrophes,” “American Interiors,” and “Library of Lost Things.” What shape do you imagine your museum to be, and if you entered it where would you go first?

NP: I imagine the building to be in the shape of a four leaf clover, underground. I’d enter into the center lobby, from an elevator above ground. I’d go to the “Slovak Sceneries” section first, because this wing is empty except for windows, and out of each window is the scenery of each story.  I’d go to a window, then open it so I could listen or smell or look closer, and below see a guide giving someone a tour of a summerhouse property, like in “Sabbatical.”

I once had a dream about a house like this. Each window opened out to a view of an entirely different landscape. Perhaps this was my desire for access…or escape. A friend of mine compared Imaginary Museums to “switching tv channels,” which I like, even though I dislike television, because these stories are in some sense cut short. Desire, for me, is rarely played out in full. But there is satisfaction in glimpsing before slipping out of sight, like in Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love, or the final time you turn around to wave goodbye after going through airport security. There’s hope for reunions, an end of yearning. That’s where my imagination so often begins, in bringing alive the things that feel out of reach. You know how kids smoosh their cheeks onto panes of glass? I’m thinking about two people talking to each other through a window, both of their smooshed cheeks aligned.

BLVR: I like how far your stories go and how quickly and carefully they get there. All but three of the twenty-six stories are one to five pages (the three are six, eight, and nine pages), but I can imagine them as twenty-page stories or novellas or novels. They seem pruned or chiseled down, but could also have been formed in small pieces. Do your stories change length as you work on them?

NP: While writing stories like “The Rope Barrier,” “A House for Living,” or “Invitation,” I constantly stunted my paragraphs and cut them back, for months, so that the stories never became long, like keeping a bonsai tree. But some stories were large to begin with, and I whittled them down in the end.

I recently found out that sounds take a long time to disappear in water. A whale can sing its song and the sound waves will be traveling through the ocean for hundreds of miles. I like writing stories that feel like that, small songs that blossom tenfold. Some of my favorite sentences I’ve read contain actions that stretch over multiple locations and years, and feel like they could continue on into separate stories.

BLVR: What are two sentences like that?

NP: Here are two that share a sweeping filmic lens:

“While looking at postcards of donkeys on a dusty pharmaceutical rack, I learned that Nabokov also spent his summers in Croatia, on the island of Rab, but due to a lack of technology, did not see the things he saw in Croatia in America.” Masha Tupitsyn, Beauty Talk & Monsters

“It is in this scene, which may have taken place in the skies above Jutland, or perhaps somewhere far inside the Buddhist, that we must look for the reason why the Buddhist, four months later, locks himself inside his office with a jerry can full of gasoline and a disposable lighter.” Dorthe Nors, Karate Chop

II. Slovakia

BLVR: When did your parents emigrate to the U.S.?

NP: My father came to the USA in the 80’s but returned to Slovakia when he was diagnosed with dermatomyositis. He ate a lot of beets for months, met my mother, and they both emigrated in 1992. When I’m in America, it’s just me and my parents, but in Slovakia I get to be an active part of this very big family, which is such a rush of joy, but also distress because it never feels like I can be there long enough.

BLVR: How often do you visit Slovakia?

NP: My mother and I visited Slovakia for a month this last fall, after I got the Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award. The last time we had money to go was in 2009, when my grandfather died.

BLVR: What is Slovakia like?

NP: Filled with dense pine forests, the Tatras mountains, castle ruins, looming cement buildings and wooden houses. It’s both humble and vibrant. There are a lot of biosphere reserves there. Bratislava is my favorite city in the world. I like that I can go into a pharmacy and most of my options are plant based. They currently have a woman president, and some would say that the country is thriving now. I want to describe what I love about it, but feel like I’d need to show you.

BLVR: Your stories mention many natural things—lynx, black widow, termites, ladybugs, pug, bird, rabbit, sunflowers, oak tree, honeysuckle blossom, fig tree, lily pad, opium, pear, corn, forget-me-not, crane lilies, elm tree, eucalyptus trees, white roses, lemon trees, coconuts, guavas, tomato, cranberry juice, cheese, watermelon, salami, licorice, nuts, flax, yogurt, grapefruit, ginger ale, sapphire, truffle, asparagus, quail egg—which make the unnatural things seem weirder and more unsettling when they do appear—YMCA, lifeguard chair, iPhone, lotto ticket, Klonopin, air conditioning. You seem more attentive toward the natural world than the average person or fiction writer. Where did your interest in nature come from?

NP: I’m happy that you noticed that. When I was growing up, my parents and I would go on hikes multiple times a week. My mother and I would play the “nature game” which involved us finding “notable” things in the woods that would somehow correspond with an arbitrary point system. For example if I spotted a squirrel I probably got no points. But if I saw a deer I’d get ten points, and a leaf with a worm pattern on it would be twenty points. I usually had a brown or plastic bag for collecting some of my findings. She taught me to pay attention to birds, colors, sounds. She taught me to watch an animal for a long time. I love that I can choose anything in nature, like an acorn cap, and there will be an endless-seeming amount of things to be learned about it. My mother was a scientist in Slovakia and at one point studied a particular enzyme in the stomach of an earthworm for months before deciding she didn’t want to be in a dark lab forever looking into a microscope. Now she sends me blurry close up cell phone pictures of hawks and doves and other things she finds.

I also feel like nature is deeply funny… like in “Field Notes,” I mention the skunk cabbages that mimic the smell of rotting corpses in order to trick flies into pollinating them in the dead of winter, or how beavers build dams because they are biologically hardwired to hate the sound of rushing water. Nature is incredible and puzzling and tender, and such a reflection of God’s character.

BLVR: The nature game sounds fun and calming. Can I see one or two of the cell phone photos from your mom?

NP: These two are birds she spotted in the yard. One of them had been seemingly “sleeping” in one of the potted plants, so she’s been keeping an eye on it since.

III. Readings and Teaching

BLVR: How have your readings and other events for your book been? You’ve had readings in NYC, DC, and just finished events in Berkeley and LA.

NP: At first I wanted the events to be experiences of their own, like the attendees would go to the 26th floor of a corporate business building where I’d read a story in a glass room. Or the audience would board a small paddle boat and I’d read stories over the announcement system as we’d pass small patches of land with various things occuring on them (a flock of cardinals on one, a small boy sitting in a chair eating a sandwich on another). I wanted to give people experiences of wonder, because that’s one reason why I wrote these stories, and maybe because I was afraid the stories wouldn’t be enough, but probably because I was afraid to do normal things like be in conversation with another person in front of a crowd. I’m happy I ended up doing more traditional events, because I got to talk to booksellers and find that there’s a wonderfully kind community out there. But still, I cried before most of my events.

BLVR: I heard on your appearance on the Otherppl podcast that you had social anxiety growing up—you were afraid of saying the wrong thing. I did too. You said teaching helped you overcome this problem. Was teaching hard at first?

NP: It was… my first semester I taught an English 101 at the University of Maryland, and I had to quell my trembling by walking through every hallway in my building up until class started. I prayed so much… At one point, maybe a month in, there was a shift from  “I have to be a good teacher” to “These students have to understand at least one thing they didn’t understand before,” which helped me forget myself a little and try to be in service to them. This is probably such a basic idea, but it did a lot, and changed the way I socialized too… trying to forget about how I seemed, and just listening to other people. Paradoxically, the more I really listened, the more I could speak. I still have to grow in this regard. When I started teaching creative writing classes, I felt so at ease, because stories and writing fills me with joy and encouragement, and it was the greatest thing to be able to show that to students.

IV. Wonderment

BLVR: I’ve been reading a book on the benefits of sleep and dreams. It’s by Rosalind Cartwright, who started researching sleep in the sixties. In one study she did, she compared the dreams of two groups of people who had post-divorce depression—one group recovered after five months, one didn’t. Neither group received treatment. The dreams of the people who did not recover had little to no emotions, little to no story, and were simple. One dream was, “I was dreaming about my husband who was dating this girl that he works with and him taking her out. That’s all I remember.”

Carwright’s description of the dreams of people who did recover reminded me of your stories: “Those recovering experienced much longer [around the length of your stories], more dramatic dreams, with complex plots and changes of scene. They include many more characters. They both include images drawn from older memories mixed with current issues.” They have “time references to past, present, and future” and “a range of emotions.”

What do you think about the self-healing, or other-healing, possibilities of stories? Do you think writing these stories was healing to you in some way?

NP: This is a very nice question. Recovering from a divorce after five months seems impressive.

There are events that I haven’t integrated into my life and when I’m faced with thinking or talking about them, my thoughts become flat, unspecific, and limited… it’s like what Alice Munro says about the “black room at the centre of every house” where all the mystery and secrets are, but sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in the black room and have no perspective of where I am in the house. Once I walk through the “black room,” I can understand it in relation to the rooms that surround it. That being said, the stories in Imaginary Museums are about how I’ve felt alienated from the world, and writing these stories—in addition to doing other things— helped me feel less alienated from the world.

Especially since a lot of them are emotionally autobiographical– I’ve never carried around a rope barrier like in the story “The Rope Barrier,” but I’ve put up boundaries that have rendered friendships impossible. Extending the metaphor, writing that story, helped me understand it through new vocabulary. A lot of feelings are unspeakable and hard to get at. My friend spends time with veterans and teaches them to write poetry about the body, which gives them new vantage points to process pain. Narrative medicine is a growing field. Here is a cartoon about a cat and a tree that helped me name my loneliness.

BLVR: I liked in that cartoon how deadpan the middle parts, the parts without dialogue, were. When something is deadpan, I feel more at ease around it, because I feel like it’s not trying to get me to feel a certain way. It’s like watching funny things happen in nature. Your book has this quality to me. It feels friendly and enlivening and not bleak, even with all the difficult material—despair, loneliness, etc. Do you keep a journal or diary? What besides images do you record in your notebook?

NP: Yes, I really like that quality too. There needs to be a proper balance between awe and difficult material, or else it can turn either to drudge or whimsy. Here is a note from my notebook, it’s Flaubert in a letter to Louise Colet: “What seems to be the highest and most difficult achievement of art is not to make us laugh or cry, or to raise our lust or anger, but to do to us as nature does, that is, fill us with wonderment.” I like this, and on the next page is written something about “useful melancholy.” Aside from images, I record everything else. I have a notebook with numbered pages and a table of contents, with no flaps or tabs or anything, which allows me to have multiple discrete notebooks at once. Here is the table of contents from the notebook I had when writing Imaginary Museums:

Collected notes from March-April 2017:
Mystery, the Impossible
Small white notebook contents
Recommendations
Church/God
Summers
Day observations
Fiction and Houses

BLVR: How do you think this book would be different—or would it even exist—if you hadn’t, as I know from other interviews, begun to go to church with your mom and to believe in God after college?

NP: I feel like I was finally myself and someone new at the same time, and this resulted in me being braver with reading, writing, being in a community, going to grad school, engaging with different people, relinquishing metrics of success and value as dictated by culture, not being so upset and judgmental… everything began to change, so did my writing. It expanded the way I perceived pain and trauma. Suffering, before, had one fixed face. I think my stories had less possibility because of that. The book would have been less weird, more controlled, and I wouldn’t have trusted it as much.

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