Keith Backhaus was teaching conjure magic under the guise of facilitating a workshop for writers. I found him listed in the catalog alongside the title: DIScourse: Mysticism, Allegory, and the Adversarial in Writing Practice. I read the title again and probably again, it was a kind of fate and I knew that much.
The lesson was an experience. We were charged by the topics we covered and talked happily over one another even though we were missing dinner service. Of course, that is what we all came for anyway; a dose of the medicine that affirms life and creation and manages to hold the truth that our worst fears are utterly applicable. It is a special kind of medicine, a terribly rare potion, honestly.
Keith Backhaus carries himself with the confidence of a man who simply does not care what other people think or what other people fear. His presence is both compelling and endearing. As a writer and a teacher, Keith openly invites us into his thoughts and his complicated renderings of what it means to be human, he just doesn’t care if you approve. It stands out as an aspect of his person because for Keith Backhaus this is real, not a posture to throw you off guard. In a world that worships popularity, Keith Backhaus leans outside of the paradigm and questions the verisimilitude within our desires.
If we are to exist at all, we must tell our stories beyond the purview of the colonists, the conquerors of the human spirit, the money changers through time. To exist at all, we must determine our own value and from there, our own lives. To exist at all, we must conjure ourselves where we stand, every day.
Enjoy these words. Absorb this medicine.
Michelle Embree: What did you first begin with in creating? When you were a kid, what did you start doing first?
Keith Backhaus: Well, quite honestly my first artistic memory doesn’t truly come from my own experience. Both my mother and father are artists (among other things), a painter and a musician respectively. So I can honestly say it is a kind of messy splatter of color and sound–very likely a kind of bricolage experience that first characterized what ‘art’ would be for me. Myself, I did not have a knack for art when I was younger…I spent most of my time playing in the woods or the dirt looking for bugs and other things that crawled/flew/etc.
Most of my ‘makings’ were stories filled with these beings–to me, that miniature world was so much larger than my own. I can remember wanting to be small all the way back to my very first experiences. The first tangible object that I truly remember was a book that I wrote in 4th grade (I think)–it was for a bookmaking project–mine was about monsters; everything for me is about monsters if you get right down to it.
Michelle: Did you ever get other people involved in the stories you made up about
Keith: Absolutely. In fact, that collaborative experience is the foundation of all the art that I make. It was that very same year that one of my friends from school (prompted and introduced by older brothers) began to play Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (2nd Edition) with me. Those experiences have continued through the present day, and friends of mine and I still regularly get together to ‘tell stories’ together in that uniquely participatory and fluid manner.
At any given time, I am likely involved in at least a few ‘games.’I think, in a way, that process of game-making becomes a kind of predictive/reactive space not unlike the work you do with tarot/i-ching etc. Both, I think, have a foundation in that connective space that exists between participants.
Michelle: When you start a process of writing a story with multiple authors, where does it begin, what might that process look like?
Keith: Well I think ultimately that entire structure has a number of factors that are somewhat difficult to quantify. I think the stories that are created in the process of the lived-experience of a ‘game’ and a story that one deliberately attempts to fabricate alongside another author are two different animals. And these, of course, separate from the stories created when any thinking or living beings decide to exist in consensus-reality.
Books, that is, formal stories that have been codified for ritual purpose and these begin with the shared act–the decision ‘to make’ with set purpose. In ‘game’ the process is much more messy, as the experience of the making and the making coexist in real-time in a different way; they layer multiple perspectives both within the story and within the process itself.
For me, I’ve always been interested in collaborative work despite the pitfalls and the seeming disinterest in the literary community, and I got to realize that process more fully working with my dear friend Meghan Guidry–our collaborative work Axiom Radnor: Year One explored a world-making process as essentially reactive: a kind of call-and-response process that changed the world as we wrote it. I think that was as close as I’ve ever gotten to recreating that more dynamic story-making.
I think it is necessary to formalize the process of living in ritual–writing a book is just one way of accomplishing that.
Michelle: Tell me a little about Meghan Guidry and give me an idea of what small things happened in the process, this call and response? Were you working by e-mail or from shared files, how did it work in a practical sense?
Keith: Meghan has been with me since the earliest beginnings of the press (Empty City Press). Probably the most innately empathetic human being I have ever met, Meghan knows how to really dig down to the very depths of human experience; she and I exist on the same ‘plane’ but move very differently–our worldviews are not drastically different in tone, but our operation in them is a pretty serious contrast. We complement one another very well emotionally/spiritually and consistently challenge one another intellectually. I would not have been able to write what I’ve been able to write without her.
She has two manuscripts currently in process that will be put out through Empty City Press. Both are going to blow people away, and I am not a person prone to hyperbolic p.r. garbage. Our first true connection came by the way of a shared project. Meghan, myself, and fellow Goddard alums Michael Dobos and Daniel Heacox embarked on a rather ambitious collaborative project–what would later become Axiom Radnor. Meghan and I had been orbiting one another for a year or so at Goddard; we were part of different cliques, but had some tangential meetings due to the fact that we were both working within speculative fiction (though I would say in the amorphous edges). She had a similar interest in rigorous language and the construction of complex ‘puzzles’ and so it seemed natural.
I did not want to tackle publishing without some confidants, and the idea of a shared work that would keep each member accountable really appealed to me. We set up a plan to essentially do a serial. Each week we would all put up a post. Those posts would immediately become canon; the only rule was that we could never directly jump into another’s story–everything that touched would be at the barest edges, or to display the ripples that happened from the narratives. Thus, for the next week, I would have to respond to what my friends had put up… This meant that if there was a bar on ‘x street’ then that was to be so for the remainder of the project. If someone burns down that bar, then that was to be the new reality. But it could also play out in more subtle ways–the fashion in which different characters and narratives (for the narratives themselves build a kind of gestalt perspective) perceive that same event and respond to it.
The possibilities really did feel endless, and we really pushed one another. Thus, we had
a constantly reflexive setting that responded to the stories more or less as they happened. Daniel and Michael unfortunately had to drop out due to a variety of life-factors (though who knows, we may be able to release some of their contributions in a volume of ephemera someday), but Meghan and I kept the process going whilst spending copious time on gchat hashing out world-rules and the philosophic principles behind the narratives. And I mean copious time.
There is actually an entire second volume that has not yet been published; I still bug Meghan about it now and again, but I think in some ways she may feel she has grown past Radnor as a space, which is totally fair–it was a very temporal experience I think. Someday I’ll be able to convince her and we’ll release a really badass omnibus volume of both years alongside extra materials. The original plan was to make the whole project a massive multimedia experience with soundtracks played by friends’ band projects etc etc. It would be awesome to return to the decaying city someday, or even to work with some other authors.
Michelle: The book as object, as a ritual object, just talk about that . . .
Keith: Well I’ll start with something silly… Which is, I’m sort of nuts about books. The books that I own are kept in immaculate condition; I let no one touch them. I clean and arrange them regularly. I think of them as loved ones essentially, which likely makes me some kind of psychopath. But consider this, I guess: if we can indeed prove (as we have) that emotions/thought/etc have direct physical manifestation (whether biochemical or physical in the ‘physics’ sort of way) in the world, then clearly intention does as well, as does the somewhat shakier idea of connection. People tend to get on their high horses about so called possessions as indicative of all the damage bourgeois values have inflicted on culture, but those possessions carry weight. This weight is all the more serious if you infuse your being into those objects. Is your boyfriend really more important than that beloved stuffed animal from childhood? What about that bicycle that carries you to safety every day? I have lived in books for much of my life, and I don’t identify or define my life by what I find in them, but I do recognize their significance in the shaping of myself and the necessary sacrifices made in order to infuse them WITH that meaning. But that’s the silly.
I think ultimately a book acts as a very important conduit. I wrote about this in a recent essay for the Grey Alley anthology… Essentially a book is a fetish–not in the sexual sense, but the classification of idol/spiritual conduit that is both symbol AND thing. It is a space we briefly enter/occupy and that occupies us–it is a kind of mutual possession (do we not love the double meanings here?) that reifies our world.
Books are a way for us to view our own perspective with at least the illusion of difference. This is because we can offer a fragment of ourselves to a book or other ritual object in a way that we cannot with another person–that other person’s personhood gets in the way–we become preoccupied in colonizing or being colonized by their perspective. We cannot truly explore our own. A book allows for us to read ourselves–and that is the key, for reading is an exercise in transformation–of TRYING to separate the symbol and the thing WHILE TRYING to unify them. It is about as dynamic experience as a human being can have. In formalizing it, in giving it clear edges (which is important to us all not going out and trying to be Ishmael or what have you) we briefly occupy a space as creator and experiencer both–reflecting the divine experience.
Michelle: I follow. That is all very true, our need to enact our will in a space that leaves others to their own lives/selves, it is the biggest story of our own moment in time. It is a clear rendering of a major imbalance in our interacting and it has solutions, the endless technology of story. The idea that we are in need of formalizing our social rituals, this is a key in my life right now. What I go to do, whether it is reading stories that I write or leading workshops, I realize at some point in the prep that I have to go have this experience in this room with these people. It’s a ritual disguised as something else. I realize that I have to set up the magical aspects and step away, so to speak. I’m just doing it suddenly. What experiences do you have like this and what are some of your general thoughts; people are starving for ritual, for ritualized devices that will free us to acknowledge the stories we are playing out, or, that is one part. People are starving for ritual .
Keith: I could not agree more. I mean the evidence for this frantic desire is all around us:
we consistently watch ourselves and watch others doing the watching. I mean we could get into the whole photographic gaze conversation, but I imagine most have an understanding of that. More disturbing, I think, than the realities of that penetrating gaze is the manifestation of ready-made as the real–the hyperreal as not a theoretic space but instead as the lived space. We have been infected with a desire that cannot be fulfilled–we seek to duplicate experiences endlessly in order to escape what we perceive as time. The duplication of reality has become the norm for memory. The notion that we can preserve a duplicate reality removes the totality of reality itself–a dangerous prospect I think.
If we remove the totality, however, it becomes much easier to ascribe varying states of value…and thus sell reality–to each other, to ourselves, to reality as brokers. Ritual is quite the opposite of ownership, and yet it has been ruthlessly redirected for that purpose. ‘OUR’ memories, ‘MY’ ‘space’ etc etc There was a period when I really fought with these ideas in a violently directed fashion–two music projects that really sought to subvert and redirect the readymade by breaking it into caricature. Unfortunately, the scary thing about the nature of those ‘discussions’ is that they happen on terms that we as individuals can’t control. The buzzword version is: Capitalism is so deep in everything that infinity itself is a commodity.
I think the attempt at ‘just doing it’ is as close as we can get–and you use a very important term–magic. If we think of the importance of ritual and magic, they are about expansion–our culture is obsessed with reduction.
Michelle: Yes. All of it yes. I appreciate your take on redundancy, that we do it to stop time. I love that. I take redundancy to be the deepest expression of the fear of being wrong. Nostalgia, we know it, AND if we just keep doing it, time stands still. Wow. I’ll be thinking about that for awhile. Infinity as a commodity, it’s true. Infinity as an entity will have to resist, break free. See if you can isolate one thing that desperately needs a ritual. For me, it is adulthood initiations. I feel like I needed several, 13, 16, 23 . . . something like that. What from your life do you feel the loss of ritual surrounding it?
Keith: Well I think there is something that needs a more complete ritual–and that is an actual affirmation of the completeness of suffering or hurt. Part of this commodification process is the notion that one can compartmentalize life and ‘move past’ things–our culture is obsessed with healing, and completely uninterested in investigating hurt. We investigate it to SOLVE it, but never really come to grips with its inevitability and ubiquity. We ignore it, essentially saying ‘suffering is banal’ when it may be the only thing that we can actually use as a true conduit.
So I think the adulthood initiations is absolutely emblematic of that–we move through life in stages, as we experience, reflect and learn. But learning isn’t moving past, its moving with–I think we need to ritualize or come to commune with our hurts. Not to attune with them, but to keep them as part of our own dialogue.
For me I think, I wish I had taken the time to really slow down and realize the importance of loss in terms of space. I think a lot of the moves that we perform physically in our lives take on significance out of difference, but not out of loss. Even if you hated where you were, that motion reverberates in perpetuity through infinity…if you don’t recognize it, you do not even have the benefit of perspective within that infinity–you’re drifting without purpose.
Place is crucial to the understanding of self, and people tend to imagine it as static, rather than a process that occurs alongside our occupancy. Love where you live (even if you hate it)–recognize that connection.
Michelle: The latest book is I, Dagger. Tell me what you mean when you talk about consciousness as a dis-reality. When I read those words, I think of how much information we assume, impose, infer, expect. I think of how we fill in visual blanks with what we know. What are you getting at in this work?
Keith: Well I think you’re on to something there, in that there is a kind of innate confrontation going on when we experience anything–a kind of conflict between the self and these other things–the things that make up consensus reality or experiential circumstance. I think, perhaps in direct conflict with many of my colleagues, that we should not attempt to reduce this dissonance, but instead push it. The ‘dis’ is kind of an inside joke in a way–in the punk community dis takes on a direct role as an adversarial principle and you can find it placed alongside pretty much any other term. It is used in much the same way as ‘anti’ and serves to provide a kind of knowing wink and stance all at once.
As I outline in an essay before ‘A Fitting Epilogue’–my ‘big’ novel–consciousness itself
as a precept naturally defies divinity. It ‘kills’ it in a sense–we are all born as a kind of luciferian cognate and it is our duty as sentient beings to try and destroy the divine, or merge with it…I think it’s ultimately a choice…but I like having a self, I guess? So I’m going to kill it. It for me is reality itself. That’s why I work in the much maligned (at least in the literary world) genre of ‘fantasy.’ I have absolutely no interest in consensus reality whatsoever; like all reasonable people, however, I fake it in order to function in culture.
The work itself has a bit more of a pointed purpose, but I think that it was the next step in my outlined purpose before ‘Epilogue’ to use fiction to hurt reality.
Michelle: The future is a myth. That is part of the description for I, Dagger on the Empty City Press page, is that the more pointed purpose? Are we in a kind of delusion about what we are truly doing in daily life? I get you on the consensus reality. When I hear someone say something along the lines of: “Well, medical research is always going to benefit the pharmaceutical companies.” I have this shock reaction to that because I know the point of the statement, said with a kind of shrug, is to prevent themselves from attack as an idealist, that the statement is intended to assert their personal reasonableness among other things, but for me, I feel, well, shocked. Disappointed. I feel the future weakened under statements of that sort. We do live in a delusion. Why is the future a myth?
Keith: Well I think that you’ve hit the real zeitgeist (yes, I did in fact do that…we can all be embarrassed) for the early 21st century in all of its postmodern angst. We have gotten to the point where we recognize the necessity for extremes within ourselves but we dare not live them. Instead people just want to be spider-man or whatever. And I don’t mean want to BE spiderman, but want to entertain the idea of being spider man. Actually being anything terrifies pretty much everyone, myself included.
Instead of being we name constructs and claim those as being: ‘oh I’m progressive’ or ‘I’m a lawyer’–whatever it happens to be. Identity politics as the hallmark of our era, and the nature of identity is division. That way we don’t dare have to be anything, we can just step into these neatly bounded suits. Being requires vulnerability and nakedness. Assuming a mantle is nothing more than building a wall out of insecurity.
So I think that’s it, Michelle, so many people desire those ideals, but we’ve learned to bound ourselves. I mean there is something to be said for community, I’m not arguing against the importance of those labels for how people see themselves…just that we have allowed those lenses to be HOW we see. People tend to think of the Panopticon as a construction of social and temporal power, but I think it is a much deeper, more insidious device. For me, the statement ‘the future is a myth’ has to do with the nature of suffering and how we more or less constantly attempt to reach into/extrapolate into the future and we never can. It’s that desire for being that will never be being because we have to reach into the future to grasp it.
Michelle: It is vulnerable to be something, to be someone. I’ll be thinking a great deal
about what you are saying here, the extra abstraction you are getting at. That we don’t even want to be Rock Stars anymore, we want to entertain that idea. Wow. It can just keep going. I want to entertain the idea of entertaining the idea of entertaining the idea of being a Rock Star. It’s deep. We do imagine the future without suffering, and so it can never truly be. I get that. What is the outline you made Before A Fitting Epilogue. Are you outlining where you want you overall trajectory of work to take you? Is writing a kind of experience that lifts you over your own sense of limits?
Keith: Well first off–wow, yes. I think that the rockstar example works super well. The idea of the infinite regression is pretty accurate I think, as it mirrors how we think, right? I touch on that in I, Dagger in that awareness itself cannot be removed from the awareness of that awareness etc. And I’m in the same spot…is it a fact, or is it a sort of societal nurturing. I like that! Hah…well as for an outline for A Fitting Epilogue there was none. I had no idea what was going to happen.
In order for the book to work I had to walk alongside Salvador (the main character) the whole way; I did, however, know where he was to be by the end…as the conception for the follow up work (many many many years away) was concurrent. But in terms of ideological focus, I think so. I mean, I’ve always had grand plans for the work--in a pie in the sky sort of way that entire book was to be only a single chapter in a much larger conceptual work…a work that would come out (if all the ‘chapters’ were equal) at around 84,000 pages? And then I wanted to do a set of encyclopedias written ‘in world’ as accompaniment?
But I have to eat and sleep and be a human…so no dice. I could, by then, have immersed myself so completely into the world of the books so as to remove myself completely from this one, or at least that was/is the hope. An analogue virtual reality if you will. I wish writing could get me to where you allude, but I find writing extremely taxing and demanding, physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. If anything, the act makes me feel very small and very limited–that may be why I write about fantastic spaces.
Michelle: Writing is physically taxing and, yes, feeling like a tiny, gnat seems to be part of it. I have a moment from time to time where I am exalted by the act, but when I look at it later– it is senseless and possibly even illegible and scribbled in colored pencil on my desk pad. Honestly, those bits of writing will always be my favorite even though I throw them away and don’t remember what it meant when I did it, like dreaming or channeling. Which of your books should a new reader choose first?
Keith: Channeling is precisely it. Channeling our true selves–those unbounded things that exist around those constructions we make. Our spirits. It’s so wonderful that you can get to that space. I envy writers that regularly reach that space–for me, that is a very, very rare occurrence. Nihilism has its limits hahah. In terms of my work…heh, I think any of my current readers would be pretty quick to say that I’m an acquired taste, as my style borders on decadence and all of my works tend to be long, deliberately printed in small font, and well, let’s face it, a little hateful of pretty much all of reality. In all honesty, I think a safe bet would be to check out the anthology I curated entitled The Grey Alley Vol. 1–I have a short piece in there that pretty well sets up my stylistic sensibilities; by doing this, readers that feel nauseated by the end can simply turn the page and read someone else’s work! There are numerous very talented folks in the anthology, and I stand by them.
Michelle: You work with a publishing imprint; Empty City Press. Tell me a little about that project and what you are releasing into the world through it.
Keith: Empty City Press is part of a larger lived position for me, so I apologize if I grow a bit less erudite and a bit more ‘mouthy.’ I suppose I should not beat around the bush regarding these things… I am an anti-capitalist anarcho-individualist (and here I just got finished talking about identity politics hah!). I take that as seriously as I can, separating myself from the damaging portions of culture around me as much as humanly possible without living in a shack and becoming a cannibal (though someday, god-willing…).
Empty City Press began to breed in my mind after a number of conversations I had while at Goddard with the very talented faculty there. All of those conversations and wonderful people were extremely helpful, what I needed to hear, and a little harsh for me emotionally at the time… They boiled down to ‘Keith…no.’
My writing isn’t marketable, my identity isn’t marketable. I am precisely the sort of author that is not going to appeal to most, and I certainly won’t sell to the general public. And I saw all around me folks that were incredibly talented being told ‘no’ again and again–and they weren’t even writing anti-culture, existentialist fantasy!
Even those that got ‘yes’ seemed to get hammered with ‘no’ right after. It was (and is)
total bullshit. Consider these realities… Major publishers make millions of dollars a year. They take what, something like 95% of the profits of the book sales? And what is it that they do FOR authors? Promote them? After that first ‘hit’–the author’s name promotes their work better than any sales campaign or interview where they are paraded around as some kind of celebrity. Their work, ultimately, promotes them.
The art world is full of middlemen (critics are included in this scumbag universe) who profit from producers…artists. They profit from pushing papers around and being ‘people people’–making ‘deals’ (whatever the fuck that means). You make something, and some slick asshole in chinos and a tie or a tailored pantsuit is going to smile, go to a few luncheons and make you a ‘star’–for who? For them.
I mean that’s just the microcosm; the same principle applies to culture itself–people can even be tricked into becoming middlemen for themselves. Small presses, however well-intentioned, can also fall into this trap as they grow. I didn’t want a part of any of it. I want to write books. I don’t want to keep a promotional blog. I don’t want to post shit on social media to try and stay ‘visible’ or ‘relevant.’ I don’t want to go to fucking luncheons and have some false human being tell me they ‘care’ about my work.
I want to write books. So that’s what I’m doing. Other, like-minded authors have joined me, and the press allows them to do that with minimum interference–it facilitates what THEY want to do, not what the ‘market’ dictates. The press, while run by me, is essentially driven by our members. You set the price for your books, you decide the content, you make the marketing decisions you want to make. We are here to help, as a collective–help support one another’s work, help to collaborate and just well…be human beings to each other, not commodities. Not vectors for money. There’s no ‘angle,’ no ‘strategy;’ I try to minimize that ‘public’ business speech that people have ALLOWED to somehow hijack our interactions.
It’s time people start to consider others, and yes, even themselves as people–that’s where value stems from; the fact that authors/artists/performers of all sorts are even the slightest bit concerned about ‘making a living’ doing what they do disgusts me. Stop thinking about ‘making’ a living. Live. We will not change anything from within. Reform is a convenient, paternalist platitude that comes to us from existing power structures.
It is not enough to take that power and give it back to the people. Who has the power isn’t the problem; all human beings are equally exalted and equally garbage. The notion of ‘power’ itself is the problem. Write books. Love each other. Destroy culture at every opportunity.
Michelle: Thank you so much for spending some time talking with me. These subjects are truly inspiring for everything I am making right now. We need conversations that make us think. It matters. Thanks for the words, Keith Backhaus.
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Check out the new title from Keith Backhaus: I, Dagger