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W. S. Merwin: The 'Sirius' Side Of Poetry

W.S. Merwin won his second Pulitzer Prize for poetry on April 20. In a 2008 interview, Merwin talked with Fresh Air about memory, mortality and acceptance.

20:45

Other segments from the episode on April 21, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 21, 2009: Interview with W.S. Merwin; Review of Neil Young's new album "Fork in the road;" Obituary J. R. Ballard; Commentary on Chef Gordon Ramsay.

Transcript

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W. S. Merwin: The 'Sirius' Side Of Poetry

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

The Pulitzer Prize for poetry was awarded yesterday to W.S. Merwin for his
book, “The Shadow Of Sirius.” That’s S-I-R-I-U-S.

The citation describes it as a collection of luminous, often tender poems that
focus on the profound power of memory. This is Merwin’s second Pulitzer. When
he first won, in 1971, he was best known for his poems against the war in
Vietnam.

A couple of years ago, in an LA Times review of his collection, “The Book of
Fables,” Amy Gerstler described Merwin as, quote, “a post-Presbyterian, Zen
poet and channeler of ancient paradoxes. He strikes a balance between the world
we know with our senses and those occult regions we are only intermittently
privy to,” unquote.

Merwin was born in 1927, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He now lives in
Hawaii, where he’s active in environmental issues. I spoke with him last
December, after “The Shadow of Sirius” was published. We started with a reading
of his poem, “A Likeness.”

Mr. W.S. MERWIN (Winner, Pulitzer Prize for Poetry): Almost to your birthday
and as I am getting dressed alone in the house a button comes off and once I
find a needle with an eye big enough for me to try to thread it and at last
have sewed the button on I open an old picture of you, who always did such
things by magic

One photograph found after you died of you at twenty beautiful in a way I would
never see for that was nine years before I was born but the picture has faded
suddenly Spots have marred it Maybe it is past repair I have only what I
remember

GROSS: I love that last line, I have only what I remember, that you have this
photograph of your mother – I assume it’s your mother – and the photograph is
marred, and you only have what you remember.

You know, memory is always such an issue for me. You know, do you struggle to
chronicle your life, to keep the photographs, to document it, to keep journals,
to hold on to all the memories, or do you accept that you have only what you
remember?

Mr. MERWIN: I think we do both. I think we always do both, and what we think of
as the present really is the past. It is made out of the past. The present is –
the present is an absolutely transparent moment, as only great saints ever see
occasionally.

But the present, what we think of as the present, is made up of the past, and
the past is always - one moment, it’s what happened three minutes ago, and one
minute, it’s what happened 30 years ago. And they flow into each other in ways
that we can’t predict and that we keep discovering in dreams, which keep
bringing up feelings and moments, some of which we never actually saw. But
those moments themselves bring up the feelings that we had forgotten we had,
and it’s all memory.

So I think the idea that memory is somehow sentimental or nostalgic, the
nostalgia itself is - the etymology of nostalgia is homecoming, and homecoming
is what we all believe in. I mean, if we didn’t believe in homecoming, we
wouldn’t be able to bear the day.

GROSS: As you get older, do you spend more time thinking about your early
memories, your childhood, your formative years?

Mr. MERWIN: I do. I think this is one of the benefits of getting older, that
one has that perspective on things farther away. One is so caught up in middle
years and the idea of accomplishing something, when in fact the full
accomplishment is always with one.

GROSS: Several of the poems in your book are about your parents. This is one of
them. It’s called “A Single Autumn.” Would you introduce it for us and read it?

Mr. MERWIN: Yes. This is something I think I’d thought about quite often. And
my parents died very close together. I thought they weren’t very close
together, but actually one of their great gifts to me was that neither of them
turned out to be afraid of dying at all. And in quite different ways, they died
without any expression of anxiety or of dread or of clutching at anything else.
And that’s a great gift to be given, that feeling of no fear, and I think I
inherited it from them very early.

But after my mother died - I was away in Europe when she died – and when I came
back, the original, the first funeral - I had – well, it was already over. And
I moved right into the house, against the advice of many friends, and spent
something like a month or six weeks there - and giving away their belongings to
their friends and getting to know their friends and then finally giving away
the furniture and things to my sister. And being there in a totally empty
house, before I just left it and went back to New York. This is about that time
of being alone in that empty house, when if it hit me hard, I was all by
myself, and it didn’t matter. And if it didn’t, I went through all of the
feelings and no feelings that one has at that time - noticing that, you know,
that there were many things that we would never – bits of conversation that we
would never finish.

And so this is a poem about that, called “A Single Autumn.”

The year my parents died on that summer on that fall three months and three
days apart I moved into the house where they had lived their last years It had
never been theirs and was still theirs in that way for a while

Echoes in every room without a sound all the things that we had never been able
to say I could not remember

Doll collection in a china cabinet plates stacked on shelves lace on drop-leaf
tables a dried branch of bittersweet before a hall mirror were all planning to
wait.

The glass doors of the house remained closed The days had turned cold and out
in the tall hickories the blaze of autumn had begun on its own I could do
anything.

GROSS: I love that last line: I could do anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I think – what were some of the things that you wouldn’t have done
when your parents were alive living in that house?

Mr. MERWIN: Well you know, all the inhibitions one has with parents, and my
father was a very – when he was younger was a very repressive, capricious,
punitive, incomprehensible, distant person, and I freed myself from that,
insofar as one ever frees oneself of any such influence, fairly early.

But one was always aware of the things that would trouble either of them, and
all of those things were gone. I mean, I could say or do or think or go or meet
or talk to anything, anybody, the way I wanted to. I was as free there as I was
anywhere in the world, and it was a sort of desolate freedom, of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: When you were going through your parents’ possessions and figuring out
what to give away, what to keep, what to throw away, what did you decide to
keep?

Mr. MERWIN: Not very much. My father was a minister, and he asked me to burn
all his sermons. That was – I mean, they were terrible sermons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What made them terrible? Why do you describe them as terrible?

Mr. MERWIN: Oh, he never finished a sentence, you know, and…

GROSS: Well you never finish – you never even have periods in your poems.
That’s really funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MERWIN: No, these are all dashes, like Emily Dickinson. And they were very
unoriginal, you know, and he just obviously didn’t want them kept.

GROSS: Did you want to keep them for yourself, or did you obey the wishes?

Mr. MERWIN: I did want to keep some, and I wanted to keep various
correspondences that my mother had there that were marked burn this. So I
burned them, and sometimes I feel like the Eric Brod, you know, the way Eric
Brod must have felt very pleased that he kept Kafka’s papers, in spite of
Kafka’s wishes. I sometimes wish that I’d just read through them and kept the
ones I wanted to, but I didn’t.

You know, it’s at that moment you’re very eager to do what they wanted to. But
I kept strange things. I kept things that my mother was growing in the garden.
I potted them up and took them back to the apartment and grew them in New York.
One or two last bits of clothing that were hanging in the closet. Very little,
you know.

They weren’t people who had much money, and there was nothing of great value
there. And oh, odds and ends, a few small things from my grandfather, I mean
the pen knife from my grandfather, little tiny things like that that wouldn’t
meant nothing to anybody else.

And ah, the other thing that I kept from the house - I gave my sister all the
furniture. We divided everything up quite equitably - and I kept all of the
papers. So there were diaries and day books and account books and all sorts of
stuff that I used later.

GROSS: When you say used, you mean used in poems?

Mr. MERWIN: Yes, used in poems and used in trying to – in writing unframed
originals: oh her, she was an orphan. It was her father – her father had worked
for the Pennsylvania railroad, and he had passes for all the railroads that
existed in the very beginning of the 20th century and that had ceased to exist.

It was wonderful taking out of his book of passes and seeing all of the non-
existent railroads that he could ride free on.

GROSS: That sounds wonderful. Do you still have that?

Mr. MERWIN: Oh yeah, I still have them, yes.

GROSS: We’re listening back to an interview with W.S. Merwin. Yesterday, he won
the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his collection, “The Shadow of Sirius.” More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: W.S. Merwin won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry yesterday for his
collection, “The Shadow of Sirius.” We’re listening back to the interview I
recorded with him last December, after the publication of that book.

Your father was a minister. What were you taught about God? What did you
believe about God when you were young?

Mr. MERWIN: Oh, I had to learn the catechism, but it was mostly proscriptive,
things you couldn’t do. We – there was no card-playing in the house and no
dancing and not much of anything that was fun, and it gradually all shelled
off. He got better about it as I got older, and then he became a chaplain in
the Second World War, went overseas.

And so in my early adolescence, I was freed of all that and managed to sort of
get along with it much better in later years. But he was pretty remote. He
didn’t know how to be a father.

GROSS: Did he know that you became a poet, and did he think poetry was
frivolous?

Mr. MERWIN: No, he didn’t. He thought it was fine. And when I felt that I was,
in effect, a pacifist at the end of World War II, and I was put in the psycho-
ward in the Chelsea House Naval Hospital…

GROSS: You were? You were?

Mr. MERWIN: I was, yeah.

GROSS: You were put in the mental ward for being a pacifist?

Mr. MERWIN: Yeah because I had enlisted, you see, when I was 17, and all this
conjutation(ph) about it had come later, and I finally asked to be put in the
brig because I said I’ve made a terrible mistake, and I shouldn’t have ever
enlisted. I don’t really believe in what we’re doing.

And so I was instead put in a psycho-ward, and I was pretty lucky, I guess. But
he came to the Chelsea Hospital and talked to the chaplain there and came to
see me as a visitor and said you must follow your own conviction. I thought
that’s pretty good, you know? He’s never said that before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What year was this that you were put in the psycho-ward?

Mr. MERWIN: Oh, when was it, ’46 I guess?

GROSS: So what was your treatment?

Mr. MERWIN: Oh, it was – they tried to scare me, I guess, but it was –
otherwise it was basically rather humane. I was locked up. I was in a big ward,
and there were some people who had real trouble, I mean hallucinations and DTs
from alcoholism, and brain damage from active duty and all mixed in together. I
made some good friends in the ward room I never saw again.

GROSS: Did being locked up in a psychiatric ward make you question your own
sanity? Were you able to be confident the whole time that you were locked up
under false pretenses, and you were perfectly sane, you were just dissenting?

Mr. MERWIN: Oh, I realized that, that it was because of dissenting. But I
didn’t question – I mean, the more I thought about it, I thought I can’t allow
myself to be trained to kill on orders, to take life on orders.

I mean, I really took the idea of not killing seriously. And I thought whatever
I’m told, killing is still my responsibility if I do it. I can’t say it’s
because I was ordered to because no, I don’t really believe that.

I don’t believe I would kill on orders. I don’t believe I would take life
because somebody told me to, and these are people who are doing for reasons of
their own and for reasons, some of which I don’t know, and the people I’m

supposed to kill are people whom I don’t know.

I can imagine circumstances in which I might do it. I can imagine being in the
resistance or something like that, where I would do it, but it would be extreme
circumstances in which I could feel that I was taking that responsibility on
myself, just as we do when we kill a mosquito or a gnat.

I don’t think we have a right to take life, any life. I think we take it
knowing that we do and knowing that we have no right to do it, and we’re
responsible for it.

GROSS: I don’t know how you feel about talking about this, but how do you feel
about getting older - you’re in your early 80s now – and dealing with the
dimming of some of the senses and a body that isn’t as strong as it was? I
don’t know if you have a lot of pain – you know, physical ailments associated
with that, but you have to accept a certain amount of physical diminishment as
you age. How are you at accepting that or dealing with it?

Mr. MERWIN: The one thing so far that I find a little difficult is that my –
having always had wonderful eyes, my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be,
and so I have to get used to that.

But I have a great guide in this matter. I had a magnificent creature,
incredible character, a black chow who, at the age of eight, went blind,
totally blind. And you had to tell people about that because she always knew
everything.

And she would guide me if the light got – if I was out somewhere taking her for
a walk and forgot a flashlight, and it got dark. She’d take me home, and I
thought, you know, the way she confronted absolutely everything, without fear,
without panic, without anything of the kind, this is one of the great guiding
spirits of my life.

And so as my eyes get worse, I think of Mookoo(ph) more and more often. And
that’s a very pleasant thing to do because I think how would Mookoo have dealt
with this situation, and you know very well how she would have done it.

GROSS: We have time for one more poem, and I’d like to ask you to close with a
poem called “Rain Light.” If you can introduce it for us first?

Mr. MERWIN: I shall. It’s again a poem in the third and the last section of the
book, and it’s about – what is it about? It’s about the very thing you were
talking about. I mean, what happens as you face the fact that the entire world
is slipping, literally dissolving around you, around us?

You know, we have that feeling about our civilization and about our species and
everything else. It’s all endangered. And indeed it is, and we either face that
as a recognition as that’s our moment, or we sort of groan and dread it, which
is a waste of time.

But this is not a rational poem at all. It’s called “Rain Light,” early, early
morning rain, which is something that I love very much.

All day the stars watch from long ago My mother said I am going now When you
are alone you will be all right Whether or not you know, you will know

Look at the old house in the dawn rain All the flowers are forms of water The
sun reminds them through a white cloud touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife that lived there long before you were born

See how they wake without a question, even though the whole world is burning

GROSS: W.S. Merwin, thank you so much for talking with us and for reading some
of your poems. Thank you.

Mr. MERWIN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: W.S. Merwin, recorded last December after the publication of his
collection of poems, “The Shadow of Sirius.” Yesterday, that book won the
Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

The Pulitzer Prize for music went to Steve Reich for his composition, “Double
Sextet.” Here’s an excerpt of the final movement, performed by the ensemble
Eighth Blackbird, which commissioned the piece. I’m Terry Gross, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, “Double Sextet”)
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Neil Young Faces A 'Fork In The Road'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. A concept album about fuel efficient cars
may not sound like the most promising idea for lively music, but it’s what Neil
Young has done with his new collection of songs called “Fork In The Road.” Rock
critic Ken Tucker says the concept worked.

(Soundbite of song, “When Worlds Collide”)

Mr. NEIL YOUNG (Musician): (Singing) Taking a trip across the USA, gonna meet a
lot of people along the way, from far and wide. Floating along on the Rio
Grande…

KEN TUCKER: Neil Young begins “Fork In The Road” singing about how he’s touring
the country, playing music and driving, or playing driving music in every
sense. The bulk of “Fork In The Road” was written in late 2008 during and
between concert tour days. The music has that deceptively dashed-off quality
that’s characteristic of younger-than-Neil hip-hop performers, punk-inspired
rockers, and the rare musicians of Neil Young’s generation who haven’t settled
into complacent craftsmanship.

(Soundbite of song, “Just Singing A Song”)

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) You can play my guitar, see where it goes. Send this song
to a distant star, while the rhythm explodes. Just singing a song won’t change
the world. You can drive my car, see how it rolls, feel a new energy as it
quietly grows. Just singing a song won’t change the world.

TUCKER: Directly addressing that Neil Young generation I just mentioned, Young
composes a tune with a refrain, Just singing a song won’t change the world.” In
Young’s current view from the highway, his 1959 Lincoln Continental retooled to
run on alternative energy, peace and love has given way to pollution and the
economy.

(Soundbite of song, “Fuel Line”)

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Her engines running and the fuel is clean. She only uses
it ‘cause she’s a machine. She don’t use much though, just to cruise around
town. Keep filling that fuel line, keep filling that old fuel line. Keep
filling that fuel line, keep filling that old fuel line. The awesome power of
electricity, stored for you in a giant battery. She runs so quiet, she’s just
like a ghost. Keep filling that fuel line, keep filling that old fuel line.
Keep filling that fuel line, keep filling that old fuel line. Fill her up.

TUCKER: Using blues structures and rock rhythm, Young manages to make almost
poetry out of a lumpy couplet like, The awesome power of the electricity,
stored for you in a giant battery. What sells this stuff is the inescapable
feeling that Neil Young really does think the humble battery is, well, awesome.

(Soundbite of song, “Johnny Magic”)

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Johnny Magic has a way with metal, had a way with
machines, one day in a garage far away he met destiny. In the form of a heavy
metal Continental, she was born to run on a proud highway.

TUCKER: On a first listen, the music can sound repetitive. But pretty soon I
realized that the pleasure I was getting from listening over and over lay in
the fact that this is a jam album. Young and long-time collaborators such as
the multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith blast out lots of noise in the manner of
other underrated Neil Young albums, like 1974’s “On The Beach.” And its
politics are better articulated than they were on more recent records like the
2006 “Living With War.”

(Soundbite of song, “Fork In The Road”)

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Got a pot belly, it's not too big. Gets in my way when I'm
driving my rig. Driving this country in a big old rig, things I’ve seen mean a
lot.

TUCKER: In that title song, Young slips back and forth between the characters
of a truck driver and a, quote, “big rock star.” As the rock star, he sings, My
sales have tanked but I still got you, thanks. Whether talking about gas tanks
or stock market tanks, Young has made a first-rate album for the new economic
policy, how it affects him, you, and the citizens he sees on the road. And as
he advises, never take your eyes off the road.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Neil
Young’s new CD, “Fork In The Road.” Coming up, we listen back to an interview
with writer J.G. Ballard. He died yesterday at the age of 78. This is FRESH
AIR.
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J.G. Ballard And ‘The Psychology Of The Future

TERRY GROSS, host:

The writer J.G. Ballard died of cancer Sunday at the age of 78. In his New York
Times obituary, Bruce Weber described Ballard has having an imagination
attracted to catastrophic events and a melancholy view of the human soul as
been corrupted by the modern world. Ballard was often described as a science
fiction writer. He described science fiction as stories about the here and now,
because we are living inside an enormous science fiction novel. Ballard’s 1973
novel “Crash,” about a deviant sub-culture that has fetishized car crashes, was
adapted into a film by David Cronenberg. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel,
“Empire Of The Sun,” was adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg. It was based
on Ballard’s experience coming of age in a prisoner of war camp during World
War II. Ballard was born in Shanghai, where his father managed a British firm.
In 1943, his family and other foreigners were detained by the Japanese. Japan
had invaded China six years earlier. I spoke with Ballard in 1988.

GROSS: You had very extraordinary experiences as a child. You were living in
Shanghai, and – with your parents – in a British community, and became a
prisoner of war in a Japanese camp during World War II. I was surprised to find
out that unlike your book and the movie based on your book, you were imprisoned
with your parents. In your book you’re separated and you’re imprisoned alone.

Mr. J.G. BALLARD (Writer): Yes. I never made any secret of that. I mean “Empire
Of The Sun” is a novel.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. BALLARD: It’s semi-autobiographical. It’s partly based on my own first-hand
experiences, and part of it, being a novel, is invented. But there are – there
are many points of contact. I mean I’m the same age as the boy Jim. I was born
in Shanghai like him, I lived in that house, went to that school, had those
parents. I was in Shanghai when the Japanese invaded China. I was there in
Shanghai when, the morning after Pearl Harbor, they seized Shanghai. And I was
interned in the same camp.

But - and it’s a big difference - my parents were with me. So I’d say that - I
mean people have said to me, we know it’s a novel, but why, you know, why did
you leave your parents out? And I think the reason is that it was
psychologically truer to my own experiences to present my – my alter-ego, as it
were, the boy Jim in the book, as, you know - to present him alone, because I
think I was alone. I think a sort estrangement took place between myself and my
parents during the camp years. And the book is truer to the psychology of my
own life.

GROSS: Well, you know, you get the impression of a – of a child who is, you
know, fairly repressed, you know, and coming up in a prosperous family,
suddenly being - having to survive on his wits in this camp and becoming very,
very resourceful, learning how to steal and trade to get extra food, to get
books, to get other items that would be of interest or of value. Did you go
through that yourself?

Mr. BALLARD: Yes, I did. I mean some of those - a lot of the boy’s experiences
in “Empire Of The Sun” are taken straight from my own life. I used to run
errands for the American merchant seamen who were in the camp and who had a
hoard of Reader’s Digests, which were, you know - I’d do anything to get a hold
of those.

GROSS: What’s an example of one of the things you did to get a hold of them?

Mr. BALLARD: Well I’d, you know, run general errands for them. I mean things
like crawling through the wire and setting up these pheasant traps, collecting
bits of wood for the little fires that people would light, the general dogs
buddying around the place. I mean I wasn’t constantly scavenging. I don’t want
to give that impression, but I mean this is a big camp, 2,000 people, the size
of a small town, and it was really a huge slum. And as in all slums, it’s the
teenage boys who run wild. And you know, I ran wild.

GROSS: It must be really something to come of age, to undergo puberty while –
while living in a prisoner of war camp.

Mr. BALLARD: Yes. I mean - I won’t say that anything wonderful and mysterious
happened to me, though, you know, one ran around with a pack of pretty wild
girls at the same time. But, yes, it was. I mean it was – it was a huge nuclear
family. I mean this is the bizarre thing. There are 300 children and we all ran
wild together. I mean it’s a strange thing to say, but in many ways I had quite
a good time there.

GROSS: That’s certainly the impression you get from the book and the movie that
– that – that there were a lot of things that you were, a lot of freedom that
you had in your own way, because anything went…

Mr. BALLARD: Yes, well…

GROSS: …prisoner…

Mr. BALLARD: Well, we were out of control of our parents. This is the – the big
– the big thing. I mean in an ordinary family the parents have a certain amount
of leverage on the – on their – on their kids. They, you know, their pocket
money, their treats, little bits of candy or presents. You know, the parents
can say, well, what do you want for Christmas? And all, you know, this helps to
maintain their authority over their children. Now, in our camp there were no
treats. There was no candy. There were no Christmas presents. The food ration,
such as it was, was, you know, delivered once a day.

And you know, the parents did nothing to – to provide for their children in
that sense, though of course many parents starved themselves to feed their
children. You know, I don’t want to give the impression that the children were
totally on their own. They weren’t. But there weren’t those levers to pull. So
particularly the teenage boys like myself did – did – did run wild and got up
to amazing pranks when I look back.

GROSS: I want to ask you one more thing about the younger part of your life.
When you got out of the prisoner of war camp, in which you explained your
parents basically had no control over you and you ran wild with the rest of the
– the kids and the teenagers. When you went back to England and you started
going to school in England, was it possible for any of the adults to discipline
you after that? Did you have any, you know, respect for the authority figures
like parents and teachers afterwards?

Mr. BALLARD: Not much. No. No, to be honest. I – I came to England, you see,
for the first time in 1946 at the age of nearly 16 and went to a British
boarding school, which is rather like a camp, or rather like a prison camp in
many ways. Rather like the camp I’ve been in, only, you know, to be honest, the
food was even worse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALLARD: And I found it weird and very, very strange. I found England - to
be fair, I found England very strange. I wasn’t prepared for it. I mean I’d
come from a very hot landscape of rice paddies and monsoons and summer floods.
I arrived to this dark grey northern country with a light - I mean it seemed to
be sort of - always seemed to be early evening, it always seemed to be raining.
And everybody seemed – I mean England was exhausted by the war.

The country was, you know, physically half destroyed by the German bombing. I
felt - I felt a stranger there and still do in many respects. It was a very
dark, closed sort of, you know, repressed kind of world. And going to school
there and then to university was – it was all very mysterious. Took a long –
you know, the English class system was so complicated, I couldn’t understand
it. Still don’t in many ways. So it was a difficult time, but I mean I wasn’t
unhappy, but it was like sort of, you know, a young American going to live in
Japan, let’s say, in the 1930s. You know, you’re an outsider. There’s no hope
of understanding the complicated social relationships and all the little
rituals and all the rest of it. It takes years to…

GROSS: But you say, it’s not like you moved someplace else.

Mr. BALLARD: Well, you see, in 1949 my father stayed on in - in Shanghai, after
the war. But in 1949 the Communists took over the whole of China, and in fact
my father was caught by the Communists in Shanghai. And he was there for about
a year until he was finally able to get out. And I knew by 1949 that I would
never go back to China, that I had to make my home in England. Then I got
married and had children, and I had always, I mean I always dreamed of going
abroad, still do. But you know, inertia takes over. And I am English. I mean I
can’t pretend that I’m not.

GROSS: There is a book of yours that I really must ask you about. This is a
novel that you wrote - I think was in 1973 - called “Crash.” And the book kind
of was about someone who was almost erotically obsessed with car crashes and
with the wounds inflicted by car crashes. And this character has fantasies of
blood and mucus and sperm mingling on the dashboard of a car after a crash.
It’s a very upsetting book. I would love to know what was on your mind when you
wrote this.

Mr. BALLARD: Something pretty nasty, I think, if I look back. But it was a
serious novel. I mean it wasn’t just a sensational horror story. I mean I was
very conscious in the ‘70s of the way in which, you know, what I call the media
landscape - particularly, you know, TV and mass advertising - was beginning to,
you know, create the world that we inhabited. And it seemed to me this TV
landscape we all live in, or the media landscape we all live in, is hungry for
sensation. And we saw then the way in which violence was beginning to be,
beginning to take the sort of place that sex had occupied up until, say, the
‘60s.

Then attitudes towards sex liberalized and people needed a new thrill. And what
I began to see - I mean movies a got a lot more violent. Television itself
began to show endless scenes of civil war newsreels from the Congo and
Bangladesh, and then of course Vietnam - very, very graphic scenes of violence
were shown but neutralized by the TV screen. I mean people saw incredible
horrors on their living room screens while they were eating their suppers, but
they weren’t touched by the violence. And it seemed to me that I wanted to look
at the way that sort of violence was beginning to enter into people’s
imaginations.

And “Crash” took an extreme example of this, because car crashes, of course, in
movies and so on, play a key role. So I, you know, I try to be honest about it
and let my own imagination rip.

GROSS: Well, I think I read that after you wrote “Crash,” that you were in a
car crash yourself and in fact one in which your car rolled over a couple of
times. Is that right?

Mr. BALLARD: Yeah, that was a little extreme case of nature imitating art.

GROSS: Well, did your book about this person who had eroticized car crashes
affect the way you experienced your car crash at all? I’m not saying that you,
you know, you got into it - but I mean you must have thought about what it
meant that you’d written this book. You had spent all this time seeing things
through the eyes of the character and then you’re in this terrible car crash
yourself.

Mr. BALLARD: Yes, and I often thought if I died in the car crash people would
have say, ah, yes, Ballard was finding, you know, sort of the ultimate sex
death that he’d been writing and dreaming about. Actually by a miracle I wasn’t
hurt at all. The car rolled over on a divided carriage-way and obliterated a
whole lot of street lamps and sign indicators. The roof was crushed down and I
couldn’t get out, actually. It was a miracle that it didn’t burst into flames,
because people were running around the car, rocking it and shouting: petrol,
petrol, gasoline, gasoline.

But, you know, you know, some guardian angel kept watch over me that evening.
But I mean, when one writes a novel one’s, you know, one’s working in - with

metaphors, with materials of the imagination. The crashes are kind of extreme
metaphor to deal with an extreme possibility.

GROSS: J.G. Ballard, recorded in 1988. He died of cancer Sunday at the age of
78.
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..DATE:
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..PGRM:
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Gordon Ramsay: Television's Gourmet Guru

TERRY GROSS, host:

The British chef Gordon Ramsay has won 16 Michelin stars and owns restaurants
from London to Tokyo, New York to Dubai. He is also a television icon at home
and in the U.S., where he has two shows, “Hell’s Kitchen,” currently in it’s
fifth season on Fox, and “Kitchen Nightmares,” based on his hit British
program, “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.” The complete first season of that
original show is now out on DVD from Acorn Media.

And our critic at large John Powers says that the larger-than-life Ramsey
dishes up much more than the usual reality TV star.

JOHN POWERS: When I was first starting out as a writer, movie directors were
superstars and everybody wanted to be a film critic. I remember teasing my
paper’s restaurant critic that writing about food was the lowest adult job in
journalism. Turns out, I’ve had to eat those words. These days, movies are
increasingly kid stuff, and food has become a national obsession.

The new superstars are chefs. None is bigger than Gordon Ramsay, the Scottish
born cook who may not be the world’s greatest chef, though his restaurants do
rank third in total number of Michelin stars. But he’s undeniably the world’s
greatest TV chef. Ramsay doesn’t inhabit the backwaters of basic cable or the
niche programming of the Food Network. He has two compulsively watchable prime
time reality programs on Fox, both of them remakes of shows that were already
hits in the UK.

The more popular of the two is “Hell’s Kitchen.” It’s one of those Darwinian
shows like “Survivor” or “Project Runway” that weekly renders one contestant
extinct. It features a collection of wannabe star chefs who are initially put
into teams. Each week Ramsey orders them to perform various tasks: make tapas
out of leftovers, or prepare breakfast for a squadron of soldiers. As the
competitors beaver away alongside their backbiting compatriots, Gordon lays on
his advice like a cross between Simon Cowell and “Deadwood”’s Al Swearingen.
Tim Gunn he’s not. His idea of saying make it work is you better make it
bleeping work, you stupid bleepity-bleep.

Ramsay’s other and better show is “Kitchen Nightmares,” which is less about
competition than about running a food business. Each week Ramsay goes to a
restaurant that’s on the verge of ruin and tries to help straighten things out
with heavy lashings of advice and disdain — and high praise when it’s earned.
If you’ve never seen this show, there’s no better introduction than the
original, uncensored British version now available on DVD. Indeed, the very
first episode is a classic.

Ramsay goes to rescue a bistro called Bonaparte’s in a small Yorkshire town
with the unlovely name of Silsden. The place is floundering and it doesn’t take
our Gordon long to see why. The owner, Sue, is clueless and uninvolved. The
chi-chi menu is hilariously inappropriate for provincial customers. And to top
it all off, the 21-year-old chef, Tim, dreams of being a star TV chef like
Gordon Ramsay but he has one huge shortcoming: he can’t even cook an omelet.
Here Ramsey talks about serving appetizers and puts a challenge to Tim.

(Soundbite of TV show, “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares”)

Mr. GORDON RAMSEY (Chef): Even when the kitchen’s busy, you should be looking
to get the starters out within 10 minutes of receiving the order. These poor
souls have waited half an hour for their pigeon breast with mushroom ravioli.
And that’s not the only problem.

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #2: Yes.

Unidentified Man #1: It’s burnt.

Unidentified Man #2: Right.

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible) taste that there…

Unidentified Man #2: No.

Unidentified Man #1: Smell it then. You honestly can’t taste that burnt?

Unidentified Man #2: Now you point it out, yeah.

POWERS: Part of what makes “Kitchen Nightmares” so utterly fascinating is that
it’s a wonderful show about process. It teaches you how restaurants work — and
how they don’t work. Week after week, we meet owners who are scared of their
staff or don’t know their market, chefs who ruin expensive ingredients with
absurdly gimmicky sauces, then try to save money by keeping other food till
it’s tainted. Watching it, you realize the sheer complexity of running a good
restaurant; just keeping the orders straight seems exhausting, which is why
when Ramsay revisits these restaurants months later at the end of the episode,
they’ve often fallen back into chaos.

Of course the show’s undeniable draw is Ramsay himself, a mercurial,
charismatic figure who’s at once charming and hot-headed, generous and vain,
sanctimonious and prone to soaring arpeggios of obscenity. Audiences love this
kind of oversized guru figure — and Ramsay is like the Dr. House of sick
restaurants. He invariably makes places better. But what gives his act its
special tang is that he’s a reminder of how much food culture has changed since
the kinder, gentler days when Julia Child first began educating home cooks and
Graham Kerr, the jaunty metro-sexual known as the Galloping Gourmet, taught
Americans to describe a wine as a sporty little traveler.

Now we’re in the heyday of TV’s bad boy chefs — Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali,
Jamie Oliver — for whom even Emeril’s bam seems positively unmanly. None is
more macho than Ramsay - a hulking one-time pro soccer player whose restaurants
may be fussy, even Frenchified, but whose personal style comes heavily sauced
with testosterone.

Watching his shows, one sees just how much male aggression has moved from the
playing fields and into the kitchen. In the world of Gordon Ramsay, cooking is
an extreme sport.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. He reviewed the first season of
“Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares,” which is now out on DVD. You can download
podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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