Max Porter: “Grief is bespoke, as individual as a fingerprint” — Kit Caless

Max Porter is mostly an editor at Granta, one of the most independent-minded and prestigious literary publishers in the UK. However, he is also the author of the book Grief Is The Thing With Feathers (Faber ’15) – a beautiful, devastating treatise on the process of mourning. It has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, Guardian First Book Award and winner of the esteemed Dylan Thomas Prize.

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers centres on a widowed father and his two young sons dealing with the death of their mother. Crow – a trickster, healer, babysitter and confidant, visits them and threatens to stay until they no longer need him. It is sharp, funny and deeply moving. Max Porter’s father died when he was six and he describes the book as ‘a love letter to my brother’.

Grief is something that comes to us in unexpected forms; shapes of sadness at seemingly frivolous moments; flashes of exhilaration in surprise circumstances. Grief is not a singular experience, nor something that comes in a fixed sequence.

Kit Caless: Grief is the thing with euphoria.

Max Porter: I think grief is ecstatic when well played. On Sundays I spend the evening drinking a bottle of red wine and missing my grandmother. These regular mourning sessions for her are as close as I get to full church religion – incense, organ music. I love missing my grandmother, it’s a proper commitment of mine. I think about her a lot and I apply my missing of her to daily life. We are the caretakers of our predecessors outrage, sentimentality and love, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. If it makes me embarrassing to my kids or prone to crying in meetings, I don’t really care.

KC: Grief is the thing with repetition.

MP: Grief is, to a great extent, the very fabric of selfhood, the basic question. And as a society too, how we grieve, how we connect the dead to the living, is fundamental. So yes, something much, much wider that necessarily zooms in time and time again to something hideously specific, with a face.

KC: Grief is the thing with culture.

MP: I was feeling deeply sick about the British character the other day after I’d watched some shit-ghoul Member of Parliament responding to questions about the humanitarian crisis in Syria with thoughts about “what the EU can do for us, what Britain needs from the world”. I realised I was missing, or feeling nostalgia for: the quiet charitable moral clarity of Church of England vicars of my childhood. This is totally at odds with my deep dislike for organised religion and mistrust of doctrinal faith, but I longed for someone who knew right from wrong. I longed for goodness, something to trust, something to hold on to. That was quite close to what we describe in the missing of a loved one. But also in music, and literature, and art, when something passes from freshly discovered and sincere to imitative and commercialised, I think we grieve it.

KC: Grief is the thing with fear and acceptance.

MP: I wrote a book that can be linked only back to me time and time again, it’s a map of my pre-occupations and tastes. Someone said, ‘it’s very unusual because you reveal quite a lot about your own masculinity.’ I thought, really? But I guess I’ve laid bare a certain type of thinking about death and babies and wives. I’ve explained what sort of poetry reader I am, maybe that means people will take me less seriously, or more seriously. There was a moment I just thought, I have to stand up and do this. I like it, it still turns me on in the way I intended to. That’s part of growing up – accepting that this is who I am.

KC: Grief is the thing with privacy.

MP: I’m into folk music now. I listen to country. And Bach, I’m very into my classical music. I came to music through jazz and blues, then I was into jungle, but recently in the last few years, I’ve been listening to a lot of cantatas. This is one of the reasons I wrote this book – I want it all. I won’t have anyone tell me I can’t have extreme sentimentality, and then quite serious literary theory. I want to go from Grime to Gershwin and that not be a problem. That’s how I feed myself now. It’s like a recipe, and I’ve spent many years looking for it. I think when you’re young you’re swayed, preoccupied with trying to have an identity, or being self conscious about what you’re into. And then there’s this moment that changes everything. I’ve embraced the privacy of it. I don’t need to be steered by anything, I can just find my own way.

KC: Grief is the thing with dangerous imitators.

MP: Nostalgia poses more risks than grief, has more manipulative possibilities I think. But both can be commercialised, misdirected, exploited by ourselves or others. Neither are much good to us un-examined.

KC: Grief is the thing with the pleasure of sentimentality.

MP: Sean O’Brien wrote a long review of Jack Underwood’s book Happiness (Faber) accusing him of not being man enough. Along the lines of ‘you’ll grow up, don’t worry. You’ll become a proper poet and stop worrying about this romance and love stuff.’ I really liked that, because it exposes this systemic terror of being vulnerable, especially for men, to accept that they are frail and weak and changeable, and sentimental. I had to stare sentimentality right in the face for this book. I am ‘pro-choice sentimentality’, like people are pro-choice smoking. I know it’s not good for me, but I’ve chosen to do it for a little bit longer because the immediate pleasures are such that it’s too much effort to say no right now. I’ve had a writer, known for raging against sentimentality in books write to me and say, ‘I can’t say for personal reasons, but this is the most moving book I’ve ever read.’ I thought, come on man, open up! Let it in. It’s okay to say you like Bob Marley ahead of Bob Dylan, it’s not a cool thing to say to your followers on Twitter but go for it, be that guy! Don’t be so self-conscious.

KC: Grief is the thing with learned behaviour

MP: If we can learn about grief we’re probably wise to listen to children to teach us; the inexperienced learn it quicker and with more freshness. I think you get better at it. Recently, I was with the Korean author Han Kang and she was talking about the particular devastating work she does into human atrocity, trauma and metamorphoses, pain and blood. She said, ‘everything you do, if you’re making this kind of work, is an attempt to mourn better. To get better at mourning.’ I feel that’s about right.

KC: Grief is the thing with many reactions.

MP: I’m not a snob about grief. You want to move on quickly and get married again within six months, fine. If you want to spend 35 years dwelling on it, also fine. I’m into the idea that we all die and it’s a full planet. People expect me to be some sensitive soul about dying, but I’m not. However, you cannot grieve if you are cruel. Grief is an experience you get only if you love someone in the first place. I am particularly fixated on my dad as a departure because he was a super cool dude who made some poignant fuck ups and he absolutely adored us. So I have a right to think about his mistakes and his generosities and things like that, it’s mine to carve out and process as I want.

KC: Grief is the thing with individuality.

MP: Grief is bespoke, as individual as a fingerprint. Missing my grandmother is bound up with gratitude in having known her into adulthood and for the efforts she made to cherish and nurture our relationship; gratitude for the Welshness she passed on, not least the work of David Jones, RS Thomas, Dylan Thomas and a love of Snowdon’s palette-knifed landscape; immense respect for the awesome lack of time she had for bullshit and bullshitters, and so on. My dad, on the other hand, that missing is bound up with a deep sadness at the timing and circumstances of his death; guilt at my failure to care more for my half-brother; a yearning to recover aspects of his character seemingly lost to time; an instinctive sense of unfinished business on his part.

KC: Grief is the thing with opportunity.

MP: My problem is to be robbed of any opportunity to fuck those key ‘life moments’ up. The chickening out, or the saying the wrong thing, or something funny, or farting or whatever it is that is happens in the moment when you are supposed to be profound and grown up, that’s the interesting thing. I’m grateful for other people’s mistakes. I wasn’t allowed to go to my dad’s funeral, but my brother was. Because of some idiot decision made, which doesn’t matter in the long run – I probably wouldn’t have remembered it – but my brother went and didn’t like it. I’ve spent the rest of my life thinking, ‘I should have been there’. That was a good decision on their part to give me something to chew on. You have chewed on the fact that this nurse asked to say some last words to your dad when he was in hospital but you couldn’t think of anything – so much so that it has planted a seed, somewhere.

KC: Grief is the thing with narcissism.

MP: I think you can romanticise it. I think a certain type of person is myth-building, ego-massaging their way towards a narrative of their own passing that answers some of their own unhappiness at the way of the world in relation to other passings.

KC: Grief is the thing without…

MP: You leave me no choice but to kneel once again before the infinite wisdom and unfathomable brilliance of Emily Dickinson:

[it] sings the tune without the words
– and never stops – at all – 

Kit Caless is a writer and broadcaster living in east London. He writes for Vice, Architectural Digest, The Quietus among others. He is the author of Spoon’s Carpets: An Appreciation, a book on pub carpet design (Square Peg, 2016). Kit co-founded Influx Press, an independent publishing house, in 2012 and has edited and published over 15 books including Imaginary Cities and An Unreliable Guide to London.