Clichés As Social Lubricant: An Exclusive Q&A With Claire Vaye Watkins, Roberto Ascalon, and Alex Osuch

Posted Wed, 3/16/2016 - 3:53pm by  |  Category:

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In less than a month, four artists will grace the Hugo House stage for the April Literary Series. They come from a variety of backgrounds. One’s a native New Yorker who has found Seattle an inspiring home away from home. Another recently grabbed national headlines when she wrote a piece critical of her own work called “On Pandering.” The third uses his literary ear to craft the proper soundtrack for the evening and the fourth, well, the truth is, all’s fair in love, war, and publishing—and he’s on deadline to finish his next book!

The night of April 15, they’ll face the same challenge (and it’s not “file your taxes”). They’ll infuse an old cliché—all’s fair in love and war—with new meaning. Read on to learn what they have planned, the projects that keep them busy, and what clichés they just can’t quit.

Find out more about the April Literary Series and buy tickets.


Q: What can you tell us about your Literary Series piece?

A: I’ve been thinking about how a city changes and what that has meant in my life. That in mind, I’m considering writing about graffiti in New York City, my hometown, and how the act of writing your name on the wall is part of this huge pushback against gentrification, essentially capitalism.

New York doesn’t look the way it did when I was growing up anymore. All the currents of chaos have lessened. I didn’t realize it then [as a child] — that deep sense of humanity in the city. How beautiful, independent, and wild it was. How art [in the form of graffiti] flowed on the trains beneath the city.

Q: What’s one piece of creative advice you always try to instill in your students?

A: It’s more that my body knows when something has or hasn’t occurred in the classroom. I have a tell for that deep dialogue where learning occurs, where transformation occurs; the hairs on the back of my neck and arms stand up if someone is being present in who they are. To see someone traversing the dangerous spaces within themselves while reading aloud — I can tell when that’s happening.

As for what I want my students to know: As long as they’re being present, actual physical things can happen. Their body is affected. Their words have magical effects.

Q: What cliché do you most like using in everyday life, and why?

A: ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ It’s not really a cliché but still, I use it all the time.


Photo: Heike Steinweg


Q: What can you tell us about your Literary Series piece?

A: I can’t tell you anything about it because I am a very superstitious writer and I feel like works-in-progress are these little fragile eggs, that you could crush them with a word. But … the challenge of the prompt is that it’s a cliche; [that’s] so devious to do to writers, you know, to try and breathe some new life into this tired thing, so I will say that I’m finding it very challenging.

Q: You often write about the West and your home there. With that in mind, what’s it been like working at the University of Michigan?

A: I find that it’s easier for me to write something from the periphery, as an outsider, positioned as an outsider. I never wrote a word about the American West while I lived there. It was only when I moved away that I got the perspective and distance to start to think of it as an interesting place. You know, I’m just kind of continuing in that vantage point.

I go back to the West a lot to replenish the well but, you know, there’s basically a choice between a spiritual fulfillness or an aesthetic fulfillness that I have in the American West versus actual food to eat, which is what my job in the Midwest gives me. But most writers do well positioned as outsiders, anyway.

Q: In the wake of Battleborn, Gold Fame Citrus, and “On Pandering,” you’re no stranger to media attention. What’s one thing you wish interviewers asked you but never do?

A: I always just want to ask the interviewer questions about themselves. I just find myself so uninteresting at this point. I want to be like, “What are you reading?” and “What do you think about regionalism?” I think that the question I never get at that I wish I was asked is “Do you have any questions for me, Claire?” And I would be like, “Yes. How’s your love life?”

A novelist and a writer is kind of a rubbernecker and a lookie-loo. We like to watch people and observe them, so it doesn’t quite feel right to be the one being observed. I would rather be on your end of the phone.

Q: What cliché do you most like using in everyday life and why?

A: One’s that’s been my favorite for years is something being referred to as “the silent killer.” My sister and I have a years’ long list of silent killers. Aside from a bullet or a screaming murderer, everything is pretty much the silent killer. Maybe not lightning but, you know, all diseases … the idea that something is a “silent killer” versus other deaths that announce themselves like, you know, six or twelve months ahead of time in a polite way is so funny to me.

I like really empty phrases that help us deal with tremendous, incomprehensible ideas like “it is what it is.” Like, OK, it is what it is. I like all the euphemisms and empty clichés about grief. I like when people say, “I don’t know what to say” or “Words fail.” And it’s like, actually, we have a whole catalog of handy clichés just for this moment saying “I’m so sorry for your loss” or “She will be missed” or “You’ll be in our thoughts.” We have these go-tos because it’s stuff that’s difficult to talk about.

There must be a whole subgenre of just email cliché. People kind of sneer at you for using them, but you have to use them; if you don’t say “circle back,” it’s just like, “Hey asshole, talk to me!” Clichés are a vital social lubricant.


Q: What do you keep in mind when DJ-ing a literary event?

A: I write/perform often enough for conventional music shows that getting to create new work for an unusual venue is exciting. Lit crowds are distinct from concert crowds because they engage more, or are less easily distracted, or both, at least during the performance.

Listening to poetry (especially, but also prose) is an active and reflective process. They’re expecting the pieces to go somewhere. I’m looking forward to presenting work somewhat in that vein. It’s a chance to be a bit more cerebral. It’s possible to make people laugh, which is not particularly easy to do in a loud club. Lit audiences love to laugh. Also, I’m looking forward to prefacing each of my pieces with a long expository monologue.

Q: Your work has been called “an auditory narrative in a similar manner to a collection of linked stories.” What inspiration, if any, do you draw from literature?

A: A lot, actually. Literature is a major artistic pillar of influence for me, alongside cinema/TV and, of course, other peoples’ music. A focus on narrative (on plot, really) is the key inspirational element. Music can powerfully evoke space, literal or metaphorical, but the writer in me is always seeking some type of action to take place once we’re inside that space.

I tend to visualize and narrate pretty heavily in my head as I work. I could probably transcribe any of my tracks as a one-page screenplay, or something similar. I also get a lot of inspiration from reading, from certain authors and specific books. The Waves by Virginia Woolf comes to mind immediately, in terms of its formal mode and its extreme levels of resonance and insight—definitely something to strive for. Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie is another one for the mood; I only need fifteen pages of that book to be ready for a forlorn love song.

I also consider the process of writing an album itself to be somewhere between writing a novel and a collection of linked stories (The Dew Breaker, for instance) in that there’s recurring snapshots of characters and a world, but it’s really up to the listener to make sense of it, to perceive the glow within. I suspect writing a novel/collection is harder, though.

Q: Can music have instrumental clichés, and, if so, which ones come to mind?

A: Electronic music often relies on clichés, or at least generates a hierarchy of output with a sizeable cliché-laden tier. Even ‘underground’ electronic music is trend-driven and perpetually exhausting (but then also rejuvenating) itself. I should acknowledge that there’s a thin line between “pleasing genre convention” and “cliché,” and it’s not uncommon for sonic elements to cross that line several times as the years go by, so context plays a role.

I’d say a sound becomes a cliché when it has been excessively deployed in order to consistently provoke a strong but unearned reaction. Usually it’s some recognizable vocal sample or sound effect, like the Jersey bed squeak or a pitched-up cry drenched in reverb, or a “throwback” ’90s rave piano progression that comes out of nowhere. The presence of a recognizable sound is supposed to indicate that the track is having this or that effect on you, even if it isn’t.

Structure within a genre can also become cliché, so that you’ll basically be able to predict what’s going to happen next in a song you’ve never heard, by just counting bars. The good news is that there are more than enough legitimately creative people making truthful music, whether here in Seattle or elsewhere. I’m grateful to be around for this era.

Q: What literary cliché do you most like using in everyday life and why?

A: The ones I end up using the most are often just transparently useful, like “if you read between the lines” or “actions speak louder than words.” The ones I enjoy the most are the ones that employ an extreme level of exaggeration, as in “it took forever” or “you cut off your nose to spite your face.” How to choose?

I always enjoy a chance to refer to something as the “same old dog and pony show.” I guess I’ll commit to “actions speak louder than words.” There was a time in my life when I fundamentally didn’t understand what that phrase meant, and unsurprisingly I could not get my shit together. Now I’m a little older and a little wiser.

Find out more about the April Literary Series and buy tickets.