Author Q&A: Geoffrey Hilsabeck on AMERICAN VAUDEVILLE
Book Culture is pleased to host Geoffrey Hilsabeck on Thursday, July 1st at 12pm to launch his new book American Vaudeville. You can register for the event here. Below Hilsabeck talks with Holly Mitchell about his new book.
How did you get into vaudeville?
As a kid I loved the Marx Brothers. They were my Lake District: I lived in those movies. At some point I learned that before the Marx Brothers were in movies, they were on stage. Their stage act was absolute chaos, apparently, and different every night. That felt like a profound loss to me, that I'd never get to see one of those shows. Years later I moved to Lisbon on a Fulbright and learned that the Portuguese have a word for that feeling: saudade. Mourning the loss of something you never had, something that may never have existed. The book began there.
How would you describe the end of vaudeville?
A slow drift into obsolescence. Nathanael West's novel The Day of the Locust features an old, out-of-work vaudevillian named Harry Greener who makes a living by selling shoe polish door to door. In his mind, though, he's still on stage. He's always preening and pratfalling. He's fit to be mocked--and is, mercilessly--but worthy too of love. The end of vaudeville was like that.
Where do you see vaudeville echoing today?
It's still very present in a lot of our comedy, slapstick certainly, also stand-up. But elsewhere too. Not an echo, necessarily, but a metaphor for how we experience culture now. Vaudeville was frenetic, various; it mixed high and low; tragic and comic came in quick succession. All that mixing and variety seemed to empty everything out, made it all feel very light, even when the material itself was heavy. That's what scrolling on my phone feels like.
Do you have a favorite performer?
So many vaudevillians are lost to history. The lucky ones survive as a single piece of letterhead or a photograph or a photographic negative (The Great Koppe! La Belle Dazie!). The archives of vaudeville's stars are a little more robust, but I'm most intrigued by the losers. What kept them going? How did they nurture their small gift in the face of so much failure? What did it cost them?
What would you recommend to someone looking to learn more about vaudeville?
Go visit Trav S.D.'s website: Travalanche. Watch Buster Keaton's short film "The Playhouse," which I think of as his memoir of growing up on vaudeville. Then read his actual memoir: My Wonderful World of Slapstick. Visit the archives. Archives are magical places.
When did you start working on the pieces of the book and how might that have affected your writing?
Like I said, the book started in Lisbon, in a tiny American library affiliated with the American Studies program at the University of Lisbon, as part of a lecture for a course I was teaching called "A Historia e Cultura dos Estados Unidos no Seculo Vinte." Naturally I opened the lecture with Buster Keaton, who was born at the turn of the century (in a town he claims was wiped off the map by a tornado). Keaton took me to vaudeville, although vaudeville, it turned out, was already there inside me. This was early in the Obama administration. I was living abroad and feeling a little homesick and nursing that homesickness by reading memoirs by American artists like Keaton, the painter James Rosenquist, Julia Child. The simple, unmannered, but vivid style of those memoirs, in the context of all the Portuguese swirling around me, must have contributed too.
How did you approach researching this topic since the performances, while once the meat and potatoes of American entertainment, are also naturally ethereal?
I'm a poet by trade so that ethereality was very attractive to me. The ephemeral and fragmentary nature of the archival material was an opportunity to dream and muse. I went to the archive and let my mind wander.
Can you say what your next project will be?
I'm finishing an erasure of a history of the wind using a paintbrush and white India ink. I've been working on it a page or two each day over the past year, so it's about disease and capitalism and various systems (the body, language) breaking down. I always wanted to be a painter--words make me nervous--and this project has let me be one for a while. Also I'm listening rather than talking, which appeals to my Quaker side.
To register for the event, visit the lisiting here: https://www.bookculture.com/event/online-american-vaudeville-geoffrey-hilsabeck
Geoffrey Hilsabeck is the author of the poetry collection Riddles, Etc. His poems and essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Believer, Paris Review Daily, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere.
Holly Mitchell is a poet from Kentucky, now based in New York. A winner of an Amy Award from Poets & Writers and a Gertrude Claytor Prize from the Academy of American Poets, Holly received an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University and a BA in English from Mount Holyoke College. Holly’s poems have appeared in several literary journals, including Day One, Narrative Magazine, Paperbag, and Washington Square Review.
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