Documenting the Bazaar of the Bizarre: A Conversation with Greg Brownderville

Greg Brownderville is a professor and a poet from Pumpkin Bend, Arkansas. When he’s not busy editing one of the greatest lit mags in the land, Southwest Review, Brownderville writes innovative narrative poetry with a penchant for odd and arresting imagery. Lately, he’s taken a hiatus from the page and, along with his collaborator Bart Weiss, he’s bringing his bold blend of surrealistic storytelling to your smartphone with his brand-new go-show, Fire Bones. I caught up with Greg on email last month to discuss the artistry native to Arkansas, the best ice cream in America, and how he’s pioneering an original podcast form, among other things.

Ryan Ridge: You’ve been asked this before, but for our Juked readers, will you define a go-show?

Greg Brownderville: Sure thing. It’s a digital series that combines videos and podcasts to tell a single story. Some of the episodes in Fire Bones are poems, songs, and music videos—you can add all sorts of things into the mix, but the videos and podcasts are the core ingredients. The underlying idea is that you’re telling a story, and at every point along the way, you set out to use whichever art form would do the best job of telling that particular part of the story.

RR: Can you talk a bit about the evolution of the project? How long did you work on Fire Bones, all told, from idea to execution?

GB: It’s a complicated story. I developed a version of the go-show concept in undergrad—I was calling it magic theater—but it took a while to nail down the details. In 2011 I started the writing and the fieldwork, but in the years immediately following, I was hard at work on other projects; as a result the progress on Fire Bones was sporadic and slow. Then in June 2016, I got serious about raising money, putting a creative team together, and moving forward. So from the first round of writing until completion, it took me a little over nine years—four and half once I really locked in. It’s been a journey.

The concept of the go-show arose naturally. I’d be working on a poem, for example, and sometimes I’d think a certain phrase or image or whatever really just wanted to be a short film. Or a piece of music. Or a painting. I’d always been interested in the relationship between writing and drawing. When I was a little kid, before I learned to write, I made up hieroglyphs and used them to write poem-like memos. I loved to draw, and made comic strips for the local small weekly when I was in grade school. Later, I was influenced by the illuminated manuscripts of the Celts, the Maya, the East, and individual poet-artists like William Blake and Kenneth Patchen. Partly because of these early influences, I just never bought the notion that the only appropriate visual tools for poetry are a blank slice of paper and prefab computer fonts. Ideas about how to delineate art forms are obviously subject to change, and they differ across time and culture. This kind of thinking propelled me forward in the direction of Fire Bones. I decided I wanted to do a new kind of narrative project, moving from art form to art form as the demands of the story shifted. The go-show was born of that impulse.

It makes sense for our time, I think. Art forms are sometimes heightened versions of common experience. Dancers make art out of the common experience of bodily movement. Poets make art out of words. These days, many of us, every single day, are experiencing audio, video, text, and imagery on our phones. The go-show makes that everyday digital experience the basis for an art form.

RR: Early on in the show, the character Greg Brownderville (played by you Greg Brownderville) and his sidekick Bart Weiss (played by the celebrated filmmaker Bart Weiss) drive to the Arkansas Delta and enter a grain silo that doubles a make-believe spaceship replete with rocking chair seats. To me, this speaks to the power of human imagination. I have sort of a philosophical question for you, Greg: do you think that ingenuity can save us from ourselves?

GB: I guess I don’t really think ingenuity can save us—as far as I can tell, it’s as likely as not to be driven by misbegotten motivations—but a sense of wonder and play can help a lot. That’s what I hope Fire Bones affirms: the spiritual value of communal play and laughter among people who disagree. Not enough of that these days. It’s hard to hate each other when you’re rolling around in the floor laughing together. Carnaval plays a large role in the series. I think of carnaval as the party of the gods. There’s a deep wisdom in it.

RR: Aside from providing thoughtful commentary on faith and race and identity and a whole host of other ancient and modern issues, Fire Bones is a wild and wonderful excavation of place (set in the fictional town of Thisaway, Arkansas). I wonder if you’d speak a bit about the ways Arkansas captures your creative imagination. Why do you think you continually return to it in your books and your art?

GB: Above all, it’s the creativity of the place. When I first took a small crew to Arkansas, and when I first spoke to the art directors, Kaila Rose Parrish and Jamie Lerman, one thing I emphasized was the homemade culture of the Delta. In that world a lot of people don’t pay professionals to make signs for their businesses. They just make the signs themselves. While the Fire Bones crew was driving around my home county, we even saw a handmade speed limit sign. (Does it count? Unclear.) Not to mention: Arkansans commonly make art just to put in their yards and homes. I showed the crew all manner of homemade art because I wanted the project to capture that outsider art aesthetic that animates east Arkansas. We thought of our sets as being akin to outsider art installations, and the website, thanks to Kaila’s illustrations and Loryn O’Donnell’s web design, has that weird wonder to it. Spencer Kenney and I strove to achieve that in the audio, too. Spencer describes the aesthetic of the podcasts as “sci-fi country.”

RR: In Fire Bones, the character Chad Fonda, a Pentecostal preacher/town cheerleading sponsor, says, “People appreciate showmanship in the Delta.” What is it about the Natural State that produces such an inordinate amount of iconoclasts? (Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Tad Falco, Blaze Foley, Sonny Liston, Rudy Ray Moore, Charlotte Moorman, Frank Stanford, Billy Bob Thornton, and C.D. Wright, to name a few).

GB: It’s definitely a combination of factors. For one thing, there’s really no such thing as big-city life in Arkansas. We don’t have big cities. Even if you’re in Little Rock, you’re in a smallish city close to the backwoods. Meantime, a lot of people still live way out in country places that deserve the name of yonder. Basically what happens is, you just sit out there and get weirder and weirder. So you’re isolated, you’re weird, and you’ve got this killer language and music all around you. If you do decide to make art, it’s stupid how much material is right there waiting, begging to be used. And it’s material no one else has access to, pretty much, not the way a native does anyhow.

RR: The inciting event starts with the disappearance of a woman named Amra Boustani, who pilots a crop duster to the Middle East before she vanishes, but on a micro-level, the story swirls around two guys’ quest to find ice cream. I won’t spoil the Amra plotline, but I will ask you about ice cream. I know you to be a bit of a connoisseur of cones. In your travels, who has the best ice cream in the country? Let’s say you had to pick one style and one flavor and one establishment?

GB: Aw man, thank you—this has gotta be one of my tip-top favorites of all the questions I’ve fielded of late. All right, so my favorite kind of ice cream is good old American style with very high butter fat content. And the best ice cream shop I’ve come across in this country is called Coneflower Creamery. It’s on Farnam Street in Omaha, Nebraska. I mean. Get out of here. Literally every flavor I tried was the best version of that flavor I had ever come across in America. Ask Abe Smith—he was with me the day I went. We were both blown away. They’ve got this intriguing flavor—with some cool Omaha history behind it, apparently—called butterbrickle. That would be a good one to start with, but really you couldn’t go wrong no matter what you chose. Brian and Katie at Coneflower are the emperor and empress of ice cream, and the ghost of Wallace Stevens said amen.

RR: Ju Mon Poy is one of my favorite characters in this electric and eclectic cast. When we first encounter him, he’s watching old VHS tapes of Razorback football games and lamenting a lost love—a man mired in the past. This past year, one in which time seemed to stop, had some of us similarly reflecting on history and rethinking life choices. Later in Fire Bones, Poy, now middle-aged, considers walking-on to the Razorbacks as a QB. My question: has the pandemic made an impact on your creative process in any way? Has it affected your artistic concerns or ideas?

GB: The pandemic is obviously a scourge, and I’m dying to hang with family and friends again (Pumpkin Bend, Arkansas, here I come!), but one good thing about the past year—it helped me live slow and quiet. I write much better in a slow life—partly, I guess, because I grew up in the country and my personality was forged in quiet. Over the past year, I spent zero time in Dallas traffic. I didn’t notch a million hours getting to and from joyless meetings. There was time for longer walks and steeping your thoughts and feelings in solitude. I think I’m a better artist for it.

RR: In your interview with Volume 1 Brooklyn, Robert Rea points out some of the aesthetic similarities between Christian Vasquez’s cinematography and the photographs of William Eggleston. I can see that, and I also see some overlap with Robert Yeoman (Wes Anderson’s cinematographer), but Vasquez brings a more surrealistic bent, which I admire. Who are some of the other influences you drew from (either visually or audio-wise) as you put together this pioneering project? Are there any specific podcasts that inspired you?

GB: Yes, definitely. I listened to a ton of podcasts and learned a lot. One that made a major impact, as you might have guessed, is S-Town. A lot of narrative podcasts, whether fiction or non-, rely on page-turner-style plotting, but S-Town gets you with terrific writing, rich characterization, and thoughtful sound design. I also picked up some tricks of the trade from Welcome to Night Vale and the first season of Limetown, especially that one episode about pig consciousness. Speaking of pigs: the Razorbacker character comes right out of college football media (radio, TV, and podcasts). When it comes to the episodes of Fire Bones that feel almost like true crime—episode one, for example—the sound design owes something to a podcast called To Live and Die in LA, which uses pauses and music effectively. Spencer and I listened to a bunch of the same podcasts and talked about what we liked and didn’t like. I also checked out several old radio plays and got some ideas there.

Your comments about Christian Vasquez are on point, and the same can be said of first assistant camera, Kyle Montgomery. When it came time to hire a director of photography, Bart was like, “For this project, it’s gotta be Christian. No one else. He’s got the perfect sensibilities.” Which was true. It’s uncanny how Christian and Kyle melded a lush, lyrical surrealism with the bazaar of the bizarre that is the Arkansas Delta. Those two aesthetic properties wouldn’t usually come together so beautifully. You mentioned Frank Stanford earlier—some of his poems evince a similar blend, I think.

RR: Lots of excellent tunes that you wrote for Fire Bones. Any plans on releasing a soundtrack?

GB: Yep, Spencer and I are recording the last couple of songs right now. We’ll release a vinyl record of Fire Bones music fairly soon—by fall, I hope. For me the music is one of the most exciting dimensions of the project.

I’m also thinking I might release my musical collaborations with Dallas composer Adam Sherlock and my brother, Eric, some of which are featured prominently in the series. I’ve considered putting them out independently on a cassette.

RR: You edit the mighty Southwest Review, indeed one of the finest magazines running. Is there a relationship between your creative work and your role as an editor? If so, how would you describe it?

GB: Man, thank you—I truly appreciate the kind words about SwR, which is a joy to edit. Editing makes me feel much more in the thick of what’s happening right now. I love the constant exchange of energy and ideas with other writers. It’s life-giving. The way I look at magazining, it’s all about creating a scene: you’re hosting a party on the page, and the secret is to make it the kind of shindig you wouldn’t dare miss. Both when I’m supporting other writers and when I’m writing my own stuff, I’m here for the work and to help the work find its crew.

RR: What’s next for you?

GB: I’m working on several things, but my main focus at the moment is finishing the Fire Bones record. I’m also seeking funding for a project—half text, half movie—about the childhood of Beall McClellan, a character from chapter seven of Fire Bones. The first draft’s already written—the novelist Sanderia Faye is collaborating with me.

Just wanna say, Ryan: I’m a big fan of Juked and your own poetry and fiction—keep up the great work. Thanks so much for giving Fire Bones your attention. It means a lot that folks in the literary world have been so supportive.

Thanks for talking, Greg! Readers head here and immerse yourself in the hilarious and harrowing universe of Fire Bones, the world’s first go-show.  

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