In Conversaation Russell Bittner

M.: Russell, I met you (digitally) in 2004 in Zoetrope’s Virtual Studio. Back then, you had an amazing amount of work being accepted by superb editors, in respected publications, on both the Web and in print. I have only to Google your name to find some of your credits. How long have you been writing?

R.: Actively writing (with a view to publishing) for all of eight years. I spent many years in preparation--perhaps too many--mostly reading. This preparation entailed almost a decade in Europe studying other languages and, eventually, reading the literature of those languages. As I wasn’ t born a trust fund baby, I realized upon my return to the U.S. that I’d have to get a day job. That’s where the trouble began. I got my first real job
upon graduation from college; I got married; I started a family. My writing in earnest began only when all of that fell apart.

M.: What made you decide to write?

R.: It had always been an ambition and a dream, but my first loyalty and my first responsibility were to my family. When I finally settled down to it, I did so as a last resort. I couldn’ t find a j ob in the world of television broadcasting and satellites I’d known for eighteen years, and I was already too old--or so I thought--to start out again on a new career. (Events have, since that time, proved me wrong. There hasn’t been a
new career; there’s just been a succession of jobs spiraling ever downward. ) We lost everything, and then I lost my wife and kids. They moved out and left a great, gaping hole behind. You could say that my writing was motivated either by pure denial or by a wish to find some replacement for what had been, up until then, what I felt was my only real purpose in life--raising my kids.

I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t sound very “artistic. But my motivation for writing was hardly artistic. It was a combination of pragmatic and therapeutic.

M. : It’s fair to say that when things fall apart we all go back to basics; your grounding was sound. What languages other than English do you speak, and do you write in languages other than English?

R. : When I first went abroad to Europe in 1972, it was with the intention of staying for eight years and learning four languages. I figured--rather arbitrarily, I might add devote two years to each language. I ended up staying for nine years and studying a fifthnlanguage: Russian. I hadn’ t planned on Russian. Nor had I planned on spending any amount of time in the then-Soviet Union. However, there was this Russian woman I met in Berlin, you see …

Do I write in other languages? No, not really. I can think and write well enough in several of them to use them when I believe it makes sense, when I firmly believe it will add some authenticity to a story. I’ve used Spanish rather extensively, as Spanish is de facto the second language of the U.S. I wrote a novella from the POV of an adolescent Parisian girl visiting the U.S. for the first time. It was her “coming-of-age" story, but I wanted to make her sound distinctly French. I’ve used German (which is
probably my strongest language, given that I lived for two years in Vienna and two years in then-West Berlin) , Italian, Russian and Swedish sparingly, only because relatively few people in the U. -S. have any knowledge of those languages.

The one and only novel I’ve written has dialogue in eleven languages. Why? you may well ask. My only excuse is this: (1 ) I was able to do it, although I relied in every case on native speakers either to proof my translations or do the actual translation from English into the appropriate language. For instance, my protagonist is a Danish-born woman who lives in New York. I don’t speak or write any Danish; (2) at least a third of the novel takes place in Europe--specifically, in France, Portugal, Italy and Denmark; (3 ) both my male and female protagonists are authentically polyglot. It’s part of their charm and success in life. It’s also part of their downfall. The novel is ultimately a tragedy. Perhaps for that reason (among others) , it hasn’t been published. I doubt that it ever will be -- at least in my lifetime. When I’ve suggested to potential agents that the novel is my attempt to carry on the tradition of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary--albeit a contemporary Anna or Emma, I’ve always been met with blank stares.

M. : It’s your obvious strive for excellence that I take as your hallmark. Where does your literary influence come from and what writers have influenced you in your own work?

R. : Thank you, Marie. However, striving for excellence and actually achieving it are two very different things. What I’ve actually achieved is a dead end. Oddly enough, I didn’t read English letters in college; I read Philosophy. My reading of literature, here in the U. S. and in Europe, was not for credit or with some specific academic end in mind. I read belles-lettres for the pure love of reading. The irony of all that is that right up until 2002, I don’ think I’d read a single literary work written after 1950. Most of what I’d been reading was two or three centuries old.

That said, if I have to name one author (or rather one book) I’d consider my “favorite," I think that book would have to be Call It Sleep, by Henry Roth. I like different writers for different things. And while many of them wrote in English, many of them did not.

M. : What college did you attend? Philosophy was an interesting choice of subj ect, had you any particular reason for choosing it, and how much of your own subconscious is reflected in your work?

R. : I graduated from Columbia University here in New York. I discovered Philosophy (and, I should add, my love of it) only in Europe. I’d started out my university career as a Pre-med maj or, but I had little affinity for, or talent in, hard sciences. The only “hard" science course I took at Columbia was something we all referred to dismissively and self-deprecatingly as “Physics for Poets." I was intrigued by knowing how things worked, but only to a degree. I lacked the mathematics for any real understanding. I was frankly more interested in the lives of men and women of science, what made them tick., I’ve always been a great admirer, for instance, of Chekhov as both writer and physician.

If I had to do it all over again, his is the path I’ d follow. I’m not really sure how to answer your last question, Marie. When I write, I’m not aware that my subconscious is at work at all. I do experiment with different voices and different points-of-view, but I’m not sure how successfully. Most of what I’ve written and cared to submit, whether in poetry or in prose, has been accepted and published, whether in print or on the --Net. But you have to believe me when I say I’ve had far more rej ections than acceptances. My publications are more likely the product of persistence than of talent.

I compose very carefully -- then edit and re-edit more than I care to admit. Prose comes more easily than poetry. But perhaps that’s because I’m a formalist, and metrical poetry--if it’s not of the greeting card variety--takes an enormous amount of patience and work.

As Oscar Wilde allegedly said or wrote: “I spent the morning putting a comma in. Then, I spent the afternoon taking it back out again. I can’ t tell you how many times I’ve thought of that quip at the conclusion of a day’s work.

M. : I don' t believe you about the rejections btw: ) and didn't the Druids consider that it took one eleven years, to train, to become a poet/writer. Anyway, I've always thought that it is hard to be completely obj ective when writing as it's such a lonely occupation. One of my favourite poems of yours is the very beautiful, 'Aubade to Marit Haahr. ' How long would you work on a piece like this?

R. : Too long, Marie. After I’d whipped off the blank verse version of the piece in a bit less than twenty-four hours, then managed to get it accepted by the International Journal of Erotica (U.K. ) a few months later, I set to work on expanding the piece into a series of five sonnets. I’ve been at it now, on and off, for six years. I think I’m finally finished--although I think just that at one point or another about all of my poems … then find a reason to modify a verse or two when I re-visit a given piece over the years. I don’ t exactly know why. But if someone were to suggest that I’m a tad compulsive about my poetry, I certainly wouldn’ t attempt to contradict him.

M. : Do you consider yourself a poet or story teller, or in your opinion is it possible to separate the two?

R. : Both--but primarily a story teller. I believe that even poems have to tell a story of sorts, albeit a compact one. Just as I’m a formalist in my poetry, so am I a traditionalist in my prose. I believe that stories have to have a beginning, middle and end--and, above all, a point! I’ve read far too much modern literature that, at least to my way of thinking, has no point. Yes, it gets published in magazines and reviews I can’ t even touch. I just
wonder how much of it will survive that first publication.

I’m not necessarily writing for the present. (For one thing, if I were, I wouldn’ tbe writing poetry, much less formal poetry. ) Since I started in earnest in 2002, I’ve taken it as a silent, personal mantra that I’m writing for my children so that one day, if and when they read any of it, they’ll know I wasn’t a total loser.

After having been a consumer of literature for so many years, I decided at one
point I wanted to attempt to become a producer. My production may or may not
eventually find an audience. I’ d like to think it will find an appreciative audience of at least two little people--even if their appreciation is ultimately just of the effort.

M. : Given a chance, out of your published portfolio, what would you choose to produce?

R. : I’m not sure what you mean by “production." But if you mean “promote" so that it doesn’t simply die a slow death, I suppose that would be the second short story I wrote after having come out of hibernation: “In the Animal Kingdom." The story had a brief life on the Net before the site that accepted it went under.

It was revived by Per Contra under a different title (“Tines") and even nominated for a Pushcart Prize. However, it didn’t get beyond the stage of nomination.

It has now spent the better part of a year in the slush pile at a thing called
“Selected Shorts" stories broadcast on the radio by National Public Radio (out of Symphony Space here in NYC) .
I suspect it will die there and may never even earn a form rejection.
To give you some perspective, my first short story--Waltzing Matilda--earned
me $400 and was published a number of times, most notably (and remuneratively) by St. Martin’s Griffon Press in an anthology titled ext Stop Hollywood: Short Stories Bound for the Screen. I wrote it in one sitting. It was crass, commercial, two dimensional.

I hated it. I hated the two characters in it. I hated the fundamental premise
of it. But I wrote it in anger, and it seemed to work--at least for publication.

“In the Animal Kingdom" is an entirely different kind of story. I wrote it from the heart in quiet and sad celebration of my favorite American holiday: Thanksgiving.

M. : “I was looking at the moon last night," I say. “At the man in the moon." My father leans forward in his chair. “Sometimes, I’d look away. Then I’d look back again. Other times, I’d just blink. And each time I looked again, the man in the moon had a different expression. Sometimes he looked happy. Sometimes, sad. Or surprised, or disappointed, or even confused. The more I looked at his eyes, the more wrinkly they got. Mostly, around his left eye. It looked like he had a black eye, or maybe a scar. Do you suppose he was ever a boxer?" (from “Tines").
Is this fine piece of work autobiographical? Did you have a happy childhood?

R. : Yes, Marie--it is the most autobiographical piece I’ve ever attempted--and thank
you for the compliment. And yet, while the piece is largely autobiographical, there are some significant departures: (1 ) I wrote the piece from the POV of my son, albeit
fifteen years into the future; (2) there was no such Thanksgiving reunion following my
separation from my wife; (3 ) my wife and children, happily, do not live in poverty; I do.

No, I didn’ t. But this story isn’ t about me--at least not about my childhood. My
childhood was one of relative plenty. I was one of six children. We never wanted for
food--especially not at Thanksgiving. Especially not at Thanksgiving.

My favorite short story in all of the literature I’ ve ever read is O’Henry’s “Gift
of the Magi." Call it maudlin if you will, I don’t care. My fantasy has always been that “In the Animal Kingdom" might one day become to Thanksgiving what “Gift of the
Magi" is to Christmas.

America is a country of incredible wealth. It’s also a country of incredible
poverty. The wealth is easier to take--it’s part of the ethos, the national myth. The
poverty? It’s our great national shame, our silent shame--except when natural
catastrophes shine a brief, public light upon it. Unlike Ireland, we don’ t suffer blights and famine--at least not publicly--that force much of the population to emigrate.

Consequently, when we suffer at all, we each suffer silently, privately. The myth must, at all costs, be kept. No one wants to have to admit he’s tried and failed--not in the “land of opportunity" where the roads are paved in gold.

Most of what I read these days is non-fiction. I find that real life is interesting
enough without my having to resort to fiction to make it more so. And the more I read
of authentic Americana--the stuff that never showed up in textbooks, at least not while I was still in school--the more amazed and astounded I am at how many notable families got their start in questionable ways.

Self-made millionaires (and now billionaires) in America are few and far between.
Most of the “old-money" families didn’t amass their fortunes through hard work and self-sacrifice. Rather, they made those fortunes either through exploiting the labor of others or through deception. In that regard, nothing has changed.

If “our century" and our time are finished, it’s probably long overdue. And so,
it’s now time to pay the piper.

M. : Yep, I agree. Thoughts brought on by the financial crises: the Da makes the money, mostly through ill-gotten gains, and buys status for his family name by ensuring that his sons carve out a political career--that, or maybe he’ ll buy them a publishing house--and society gets stuck with tainted government and publishers who pay slight heed to good writing. Very European sentiments, Russell. So what are you working on at present?

Your first short story collection Stories in the Key of C. Minor was published by
Faraway Journal last year. Have you another planned" or maybe a chapbook, a
R. : No, Marie. At least not anything “literary."

I’ve been carrying on a one-way correspondence with my children for the past
eighteen years, but I doubt it will have any redeeming value--never mind “literary
value" --unless they manage to achieve something pretty spectacular on their own.
(He’s an aspiring actor and sometimes-writer, by the way, and she’s an aspiring
dancer. They’re both very good at what they do, but time, circumstances and age have
a way of deciding for all of us what’s “good" and what’s not. And they’ve both seen
enough of my own catastrophe to know that “art" exacts a heavy price. )

By “one-way correspondence,-- what I mean is that I’ve been writing to each of
them on their respective birthdays every year since their birth--my son, Chris(topher) ,in 1 991 ; and my daughter, Alex(andra) , in 1994. They’ ve known of the existence of
these letters all along. But my son didn’t see his until this past November, when he
turned 18. My daughter won’t see hers until she, too, turns 18--in June of 2012.
In these letters, which I frequently started weeks if not months in advance of their
actual birthday, I talked about their development over the course of the preceding year, as well as about what brought them to that stage of development (aside from the natural process of growing up) . The whole purpose of these Letters to My Children was to document the events of their youth and of their two parents’ parenthood so that one day they’d know what made them, as adults, tick. There’s “nature" in these letters; there’s also “nurture."

I suppose I could undertake a kind of sequel to George Orwell’s Down and Out
in Paris and London. But I feel that since it’s been done, what’s the point? I’ ve been down and out in Vienna; in Perugia; in Berlin; in Madrid; in NYC; and now in Brooklyn.

I think a reader would grow weary of the downward slide and wonder how and why I
couldn’ t just get a life somewhere and keep it. It’s a question I’ ve often asked myself, by the way.

Moreover, people don’t successfully write about failure these days. No one’s interested in another’s failure, because they’ ve got enough of their own. How to Fail in New York on $5 a Day is not a formula for a best-seller.

At the end of this month, I’ll lose my apartment, my Net connection and my
computer. With luck, I’ll be able to sell a lot of my furniture. I’d still like to be able to put my book and music libraries in storage for my kids when I’m gone so that, one day (if they so choose) , they’ll have the opportunity to consider--to the extent they don’ t already know it--what was important to the old man. We’ll see. The clock and the calendar are ticking swiftly by. This may be the last thing of mine to appear in print.

And with that, Marie, I want to thank you for this opportunity to sound off. Since
we know each other through poetry, I’ll conclude with a poem I wrote a few years ago
to both of my kids, and which I’d hoped at the time would succeed me on my tombstone
here in Green-wood Cemetery if I should pass away prematurely (which I firmly believed
at the time, and which I have even more reason to believe today, even if it would no
longer be quite so “premature").

Epitaph: To My Children

You are, grave girl, my daughter;
and you, brave boy, my son.
No writ, here wrought in rock, shall try
to rend that fact undone.
From the first orgasmic token
till all of us lie dead,
our thread shall not be broken,
nor aught of it gainsaid.
Your sperm are mine, re-booted,
your egg, my alter-egg;
the sum ofwhich-my last, best giftyou
freely may renege.
You're a splash ofmy libido,
a dash ofmy posthaste,
a burst of brash albedo with
élan vital to taste.
You, bright boy, are my soldier,
and you, sprite girl, my sun;
now let the two of you make hasteyour
race has just begun.


Writer’s Bio

Russell's poems have been published on paper by: The American Dissident; The Blind Man’s Rainbow; The Lyric; The Barbaric Yawp; The International Journal of Erotica; Wicked Hollow; Æsthetica; CRITJournal; The Raintown Review -- which nominated one of his poems for a Pushcart Prize in 2007 ; and Tuesday; an Art Project and Trinacria.

On-line, his poetry can be found at: Quintessence; ken* again; SpillwayReview; Erotica Readers and Writers; EdificeWrecked; GirlsWithInsurance; ThievesJargon; SalomeMagazine; LauraHird; MadHattersReview; 3 A. M.; Dogmatika; Mindfire; ALongStoryShort; OpiumMagazine; SouthernHum; JustusRoux; DifferentVoices; VoidMagazine; PWReview; Zygote in my Coffee; ALittlePoetry; PlumBiscuit (a j ournal of the New York Writers Guild); TheCentrifugalEye; SlipTongue; 3 rdActs; AscentAspirations; The Linnet' s Wings; The Evergreen Review; Chantarelle’s Notebook; The Ranfurly Review and at Per Contra’s Spring 2009 Light Verse Supplement; Dogzplot; Clockwise Cat; The Formalist Portal and TheCentrifugalEye.

On paper, he has published stories with The Edgar Literary Magazine; The International Journal of Erotica; Beyond Centauri; SwillMagazine; The Angler; Sein und Werden; and Hobart Park. One of his stories was published by St. Martin’s Press in May, ’ 07 in an anthology titled Next Stop Hollywood: Short Stories Bound for the Screen.

In the dot. com world, his prose can be found at: Pindeldyboz; DeadMule; writeThis; Per Contra; VerbSap; GirlsWithInsurance; SkiveMagazine; ThievesJargon; Quintessence; MannequinEnvy; UndergroundVoices; Hackwriters; 10,000 Monkeys; DeadDrunkDublin; ALongStoryShort; SouthernHum; SuffolkPunch; VoidMagazine; the Canadian Writers Collective; SlipTongue; The Angler; 3 A. M.; RedPeter; the Squirrel Cage; Sein und Werden; SUSS; and the uncommon Yankeepotroast. org. The story in Per Contra earned him a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2006.

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