What is the last novel that you read that took your breath away?
I have to name two novels. The most recent one that took my breath away is Blindness, by the Nobel prize winning Portuguese novelist, José Saramago. Discussing my own novel, Loud Whisper, with a friend, I said that in it I had dealt with one of my worst fears—becoming paralyzed from the neck down. Another fear was going blind. My friend, the actor, Dan Glenn, suggested the Saramago novel. I bought it and read it while I was in Taos, NM, last fall. In Saramago’s novel, the residents of a city, one by one, are stricken blind, all but one woman. What took my breath away more than the “white blindness” itself, however, was the unspeakable brutality against women inflicted by a gang of heinous blinded men, all of them incarcerated in the same prison by authorities before the entire city goes blind. In this parable, the blindness brings out everyone’s worst—and best—instincts.
The other novel is Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, about a gay middle-aged English expatriate professor at an L.A. State College whose long-time partner has suddenly died. After having read it nearly thirty years before, I reread A Single Man for a class on the English novel I taught at Cal State Long Beach in 2006. It was as powerful as ever for its psychological and mystical impact, its innovative technique, its humor, and its depth of knowledge and understanding of character and situation. Rereading it when I was about the same age as its protagonist, I understood him (George) better. A Single Man is, as Isherwood himself thought, his masterpiece.
What artist’s music makes you feel inspired to write?
From the classical and church music I grew up playing on my violin to the popular music I’ve loved as an adult (liberated from my strict Pentecostal religious upbringing that forbad pop music), I’ve been inspired by many musical artists and written, in poetry and prose, about many of them, to name a few: Billie Holiday, Little Richard, the Supremes, Sonny & Cher, the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Donna Summer, Siouxsie and the Banshees, La Sonora Dinamita, and Selena.
What are your three favorite films of all time? Discuss each of them a little bit.
Movies, like pop music, were forbidden by my childhood religion—in theaters, that is. We could watch them on TV. I don’t remember the first time I saw The Wizard of Oz, but I’m sure it was on black and white TV, so it was a revelation to see the black and white images turn into brilliant and magical color and to hear music to match the images when Dorothy arrives in Oz. The Cowardly Lion was my favorite character. I could identify with him, and he was funny.
After I first saw it in 1972, Cabaret became my favorite movie for many years. Of course I’d read Isherwood’s Berlin Stories on which Cabaret is based, but the narrative had evolved—from the play and movie, I Am a Camera, to the play and finally the movie, Cabaret—so much that its origins barely mattered. What mattered were the unforgettable music (like that in The Wizard of Oz), the performances on stage and off, the period setting (Berlin just before the Nazi takeover), and the characters, particularly the bisexual (actually gay) character played by Michael York. In 1972 this was about as close to real life as it got on screen for such a character.
More recently, Brokeback Mountain, a period piece from the 1980’s in the American West, beautifully adapted (and expanded) the story by Annie Proulx. Its personal and cultural impact can hardly be overstated.
What is a concert that you saw in person that you will never forget?
Deprived of pop culture as a kid (save on TV and whatever snatches I got from magazines and comic books, the radio, or my older brother’s record player), I never went to any pop concerts till my late teens. My first was unforgettable. It was at Melodyland, Anaheim, when it was still a concert venue. Bo Diddley opened. I still remember his one huge R & B self-titled hit, which seemed to go on and on. The big attraction of the evening, however, was Little Richard. I’ll never forget his entrance down the aisle (the same one I had just walked down) dressed in green sequins and gold lamé, as flamboyant and thrilling a performer as I’ve ever seen, singing “Lucille” at high pitch, pounding on the piano, his hair rising above his head as if pushed there by the pulsating rock music. His exuberance wouldn’t quit till he’d stood and sung on the piano and, finally, made his way out as he’d come in.
Complete this sentence: “If I were to teach a course on the works of one author, that author would be…”
Oscar Wilde. In fact, I designed and taught the Wilde Seminar at CSULB. Believe it or not, when I proposed the course over twenty years ago, the committee who approved my proposal had some doubt as to whether Wilde was a major author. No one I know of questions that now.
23 June 2011
What smell will I notice
when I depart?
I knew a woman
who could not taste or smell.
She fed from a tube on her side.
I’ll take the stink of the toilet,
the skunk, the sewer, the dead animal
if also I get the scent of Eternity
from a bottle, lavender from a bush,
night-blooming jasmine, sage,
an orange grove in the spring,
burning fire logs,
the ocean at twilight,
scent of oil fresh on canvas,
pages of a book newly published
or off the shelf of a vintage store
or library,–better still
musky mansmell, clean,
unperfumed, Whitman’s armpit–
yes, that would suffice
to take to the other side.
(first published in Chiron Review,
#95, Summer, 2011)
Clifton Snider is the author of nine highly-acclaimed books of poetry, including The Age of the Mother (1992), The Alchemy of Opposites (2000), and Aspens in the Wind (2009). His novel about a bisexual rock star, Loud Whisper, was published in 2000. His coming out/coming of age novel, Bare Roots, was published in 2001, as was his latest autobiographical novel about two gay brothers, one of whom disappears under ominous circumstances, Wrestling with Angels: A Tale of Two Brothers.
He is also a literary critic who specializes in Jungian/archetypal and Queer Theory. His book, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On: A Jungian Interpretation of Literature, was published by Chiron Publications in 1991. His work has been translated into French and Russian.
Among his awards are resident fellowships at Yaddo, the Karolyi Foundation, and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico.
Moonman: New and Selected Poems (2011) (Poetry)