Rappahannock Review Editors: We love how “Dental Therapy” uses the subject of dental visits to explore the passage of time and aging. How did you come to write about these experiences?
Geoff Martin: If you can get past the tiny metal instruments jabbing at your gums, being in a dentist’s chair can be surprisingly meditative. Those corner-mounted TVs are never quite visible and the programming is awful anyway, so there’s nothing to do but resign yourself to the invasion of the mouth, find a regular rhythm of breath, and wander off down existential thought-trails. As I’ve worked at improving my daily journaling habits in the last few years, I’ve felt prompted to pen down some of those dentist-visit thoughts and experiences. And since I’ve made two big moves in the last three years (IL to MA to CA), each place has brought yet another round of new-patient X-rays and a burgeoning collage of dentist stories.
RR: We enjoyed the humor in this piece, and how it comes through when we listen. How do you capture humor, especially in terms of voice when you’re writing?
GM: David Sedaris advises that if something you say catches a laugh or a good response, write it down. “These can be spun into something later,” he says. “Dental Therapy” emerged directly from a journaling exercise inspired by listening to Sedaris’s Masterclass lessons alongside Calypso, his most recent collection of stories. While I’m pretty lighthearted in my day-to-day life, my essay writing tends to veer towards more somber, historically-laden topics. I wanted to play for some of Sedaris’s deadpan humor that he mines so well from everyday occurrences. And that humor comes out, I think, from the juxtaposition of different “incidents” and an attention to moments of irony or disjunction between what is happening outside a person and what they are thinking or feeling at that moment.
RR: How does your process differ when writing a piece intended for audio as opposed to print?
GM: I’m not usually thinking about audio vs. print at the drafting stage, but I’m interested in sound and, especially, the lyric notes of written language. I’m frequently re-reading my drafts aloud and editing lines depending on how they sound to my ear. Whenever I’m teaching writing, I urge my students to do the same, not just to catch grammar mistakes more readily but because it’s the only way to literally hear the intonations of paired words or the rhythm of sentences playing into and against each other. That attention ends up working well for audio format.
RR: Are there any other audio projects that you’re currently working on?
GM: I’m in the process of recording a piece called “Still Water Sing,” a prose poem in four parts surrounding the birth of my child on Christmas Day two years ago. We were between homes in Western Massachusetts just then, preparing for the arrival of this baby while also planning a springtime move to California, and we ended up renting a family’s two-bedroom cabin through the winter. In the most extraordinary way, the frozen lake outside the window seemed to take on the condition of pregnancy, expanding and contracting audibly—literally heaving—as temperatures plummeted each night and then rose through the day. I’m working at layering ice recordings into the piece, trying to playfully arrange the harmonies and dissonances between the four inside/outside sections of the piece.
RR: We understand you’ve written on spirituality and the environment in the past. Can you tell us more about your interest in these topics?
GM: My interest in spirituality and the environment reaches back into my devoutly Christian childhood and my constant out-of-doors play in various Ontario forests and lakes. I’ve now taught and written about climate change, and my environmental concerns are also elemental, spiritual concerns for our one and common home. As I write, I find myself drawing on religious symbols and metaphors for use in new ways (the communion of bread-baking, for example, as an exploration of personal and historical grief in my essay “Baked Clay”). My writing practice has also, somewhat by surprise, restored to me a sense of prayer—long-neglected and now less about asking for or demanding something than about seeking to be fully present (on the page, in the moment). “Absolute attention is prayer,” claims the Christian mystic Simone Weil, a lesson I note in my tree-planting audio essay “Burning Silence.” Attention is, I think, the essential practice of life and writing.
Geoff Martin’s work in Issue 7.2: