Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: In “Imagine,” you never name your protagonist or give them any identifying features. How did you decide to omit description? As you were writing, did you have specific characteristics or features in your mind or did they remain indefinite?
Karl Plank: The protagonist goes unnamed largely to serve the identification between the character and the reader: both receive the imperative to “imagine” and there aren’t many markers to discourage the reader’s entry. There’s a risk in that. Particulars often provide gateways and personalize a character in a way that encourages identification on the reader’s part. That being said, the character who is asked to imagine — to remember and to project forward — is not unsituated. He’s from the time of the Coppertone ad, a guy who’s spending time in the summer hanging around a swimming pool with a concession stand, and most telling, he’s reading at school John Knowles’ novel, A Separate Peace. That work was published in 1959 and was one of the iconic narratives of adolescence and coming of age assigned to high school students in the 1960s. I read it, as did all my classmates, as a junior in high school in 1968. Thus, with a little bit of detective work, the reader might assume that this protagonist is coming of age in the 1960s. That bit of context might also help explain the reference to war in the second part as an allusion to Vietnam and the loss of innocence and well-being many knew in its aftermath. This protagonist may have been such a one.
RR: We’re interested in the massive tone shift that happens part way through the story, which pulled us in. How did you decide on such a drastic shift?
KP: The piece is admittedly short and thus puts its workings under a severe compression. By doing so, it gains intensity, but risks being overly abrupt. Yet, that abruptness and the sense of disorientation that it may cause seem to me one of the ways we see what’s happening to the character. What he’s asked to imagine is a scene that may be unimaginable at the point he’s asked to imagine it, a scene that comes without preparation and disrupts meaning and expectation. The romance begun at the swimming pool when he takes the dare to dive will be drastically interrupted in a way he cannot anticipate. While some crises take a while to brew and slowly develop over time, others come as an ambush to their participants, as if a switch were thrown and one found oneself suddenly in completely alien territory. This one is of that sort and the whiplashing-shift forces the reader to take up that same imagined space. The readers may not share the same memory of Gwen in English class and at the swimming pool but must move from whatever their equivalents are to project their harsh undoing in their own lives.
RR: Second person perspective is relatively unusual in fiction; can you discuss what drew you to use it for this story?
KP: I use the second-person and imperatives a good deal in poetry and the function here is similar. In terms of genre, this piece might have auditioned as a prose poem because of this technique and the degree to which it is image-driven. Yet, there is a narrator—a speaking voice—that addresses the “you” in the text and sets in motion the character’s imagining which begins as memory and then heads toward envisioning a future. But as I noted above, the use of the second-person also implicates the reader under these same imperatives forcing him or her to join with or become the protagonist of the story. The second-person locks the backdoor through which a reader might otherwise have bolted. Insofar as the piece has a certain degree of narration and actions, even if the actions occur in the imagination, it works as fiction. Yet, I would have no quibble with anyone who wanted to talk about it as a prose poem. That’s a blurry line, I think, and I’m not sure we gain much in trying to sharpen it. This fiction’s rhetorical mechanism is largely poetic, but it behaves as a piece of short fiction might. In final effect, it may also be seen as a meditation on where our stories actually begin, how they take surprising and, at times, devastating turns, and how one might respond to their unforeseen consequence.
RR: We published one of your poems, “After Eden: Hopper’s Pennsylvania Coal Town” in Issue 3.1, and we see you’ve been busy since then, with two recent chapbooks out—congratulations! Since you write in multiple genres, can you tell us how you approach writing fiction versus poetry or other genres? Do you have a favorite genre to write in?
KP: In my academic work (I teach Religious Studies at Davidson), I have been working more with narrative lately, just completing a book on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. This has led me to experiment with writing fiction. Infinite Jest notwithstanding, I teach and am drawn to parable literature, so something like flash fiction and short forms continue to catch my eye. Most of my poems begin with an attraction to a word or phrase, its sound or resonance and how it might become an interesting line. With narrative, I’m conscious of imagery, but also of how it becomes voiced and takes on the quality of a scene and then a sequence. They are not necessarily two different hats I’m wearing. Much of what I do in one form, I do in the other as well, but the degree to which something becomes emphasized will vary. When I stop thinking in terms of lines and stop breaking them, I know to be alert that I’m doing something other than poetry, or poetry as I usually write it.
RR:What kinds of projects can we expect to see from you next?
KP: I’m working now on a critical study of atonement in Cormac McCarthy’s western novels. That’s on the front-burner, but I have also been developing two groups of poems: one, involving Janus-imagery; the other, Appalachian-oriented. At odd moments, I sense a character and voice beginning to emerge in my mind. If that keeps happening, I may have to try a longer story. That would be a welcome opportunity.
Karl Plank’s work in Issue 8.1: