portrait Lou Rowan

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 171 ~ August, 2011

Lou Rowan (www.lourowan.com) is the author of the novel, My Last Days (Chiasmus Press, 2007), and the short story collection, Sweet Potatoes (Small Press Distribution, 2008).  He’s currently finishing another novel, in the mystery form.

Lou Rowan

Rowan also edits the literary journal, Golden Handcuffs Review (www.goldenhandcuffsreview.com).  A native of Southern California, Rowan lives in Seattle after living for three decades in New York City.  He has worked as a teacher at Friends Seminary, and as an institutional investor at the Bankers Trust and Frank Russell companies.

Derek Alger: It appears you’ve found a creative home in Seattle.

Lou Rowan: In New York City,  you go to a party with “civilians,” and if you say “write” in response to the “what do you do” probe, you get grilled on publisher, agent, sales.  In Seattle, people ask what kind of writing you do and what you’re working on. In general, living in Seattle is easy; in New York I had to fight the environment, once or twice literally during attempted muggings, and especially as my kids were growing up. I don’t thrive on stress, distraction, competition, and so it’s no accident that I’ve finished many projects in Seattle that I began in New York.

I feel truly at home in a city when I can use the public transit;  there’s a sense of openness, of being “part of.” Unfortunately the only western city with real public transit is Portland; Seattle encourages bike-riding, but that scares me. And so we isolate ourselves as we move about the varied neighborhoods. But the ferry-system is great!

Music, especially jazz, dance, and the fine arts are lively here. The museums tend not to catch the local work, the donors going for big names from elsewhere (as they do also with architectural commissions), but the galleries capture the liveliness. And we have an excellent range of independent bookstores.

DA: Tell us a little bit about the novel you’re working on about the “losing of the West.”

LR: I have two projects going, Derek. I’m finishing a relatively short book, A Mystery’s not a Problem. It’s in sections called “Easterns” and “Westerns,” which use the mystery form to tell lighthearted tales of crime and corruption in New Jersey, New York, Tacoma, Seattle. There’s an earnest and charming narrator named Lou Rowan who lives through these episodes, helping us to understand their significance, often with reference to his autobiography. The poor guy has been let down by books, but he assures us we’ll find this the one book we can count on in all ticklish situations.

DA: And the second project?

LR: The longer project you refer to is Corpus, a novel that tells the stories of employees, bosses, and founders of the businesses that developed the West, told from within their experience of work. It runs from roughly “Reconstruction” to the 1990’s. There are also scenes from a US colony, based roughly on Guatemala, whose first peoples manage to find a way to secure justice from us. The discipline, if you will, of the book is that its episodes are retellings of Biblical episodes or passages: so much is made in this country of our roots in that wonderful collection of abused near eastern documents.

DA: Sounds like quite an  undertaking.

LR: Corpus is a lot of work, so you can’t blame me for diverting myself from it over my years out here with stories and shorter novels, not to mention an occasional essay. But as soon as the mystery-book’s done, I’ll go after the “big book” full-time.

DA: You originally hail from the west coast.

LR: Yes, I grew up thinking that the ways of Southern California, the enforced optimism, the car culture, the informality, the fine weather, the McCarthy-ism were “normal,” and that the East I began to live in as a teenager was “weird.” In fact when I first arrived in Massachusetts, I was baffled by all the trees. What good were woods?  Where were the used-car lots, the four-lane boulevards, the barefoot tow-heads? Then more confusion: my prep school was riddled with anti-semitism, and I, who’d been raised totally safe from all minorities in Pasadena and Newport Beach, was at a loss to know what Jews had done wrong. My abiding theory is that the parents of my classmates were being pushed from their economic sinecures by able graduates of the Bronx High School of Science and its ilk, and they were bitter at losing the competition.

At any rate, here was a stratified social order, with the “townies” of Southboro and the “biddies” of the kitchen providing menial services; I, who had experienced only the cream, had my first distorted glimpses of the whole social pudding.  It was not until my senior year that a Latin teacher, one of two or so Democrats in a faculty united in despising Eleanor Roosevelt’s earnestness, stunned me with the revelation: there is social injustice needing remedy. I suppose the upper-middle-class naïveté I brought East is some variant footnote to Henry James’ innocents in Europe. At least that’s how I play it in the mystery-book: the villain of one western section has his ill-nature confirmed at Harvard, and I enjoy treating the Ivy League as the source of pompous venality infecting our culture and politics.

DA: Was it after prep school you realized you were a writer without consciously knowing it?

LR: Yes, Derek, good point. A friend was kind enough to call some of my gossipy letters “publishable.” I was writing to him about a post-graduation party thrown by Philadelphia “Main-Liners” (interesting pun) in a vast house overlooking the lovely Wissahickon River.  A friend who would later become richer running a hedge fund was standing transfixed by a large cake. I bit, and entered the drama: he would never be able to enjoy cake again, he’d just been diagnosed with diabetes. Next thing I knew I was cornered by a woman who made a life of sleeping with boys from my prep school, and who was breaking up with my best friend, a stoic, handsome, uncommunicative Scandinavian. I had just seen the movie of Long Day’s Journey into Night, and attempted wittily to connect her lucubrations with those of “Katherine Heartburn.”

I also sought to entertain my younger brother and sisters with bedtime tales I wrote for them. I’m sure the stories were prolix;  I remember their restlessness.

DA: It couldn’t have been that bad.

LR: I was intimidated by what I took to be the intellectual snobbery of college: I bought into the notion that literature was a sacred text to be parsed, and I couldn’t see myself on that level, so I majored in history. At the same time, I felt that there was something stupid about what passed for modern poetry:  the poet would “cling to a spar” when he meant he was upset. Nothing like John Wiener’s sincerity, playing itself out a few MTA stops away.

But in New York after college Bob Lamberton, the wonderful writer, scholar, translator Robert Lamberton, introduced me to what I’ll call the Black Mountain/New York schools of poetry; Kelly’s side of A Controversy of Poets became my bible, the readings at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery my passion, and after meeting Louis Zukofsky I sure had something to crack my brains on!

DA: You were fortunate to become close with Zukofsky, one of the founders and primary theorist of the Objectivist group of poets.

LR: Oh yes, it was fun, intimidating, moving, frustrating to spend time with Louis and Celia. He was renowned not only for his amazing work, but also for his hypochondria and complaining. He was constantly dodging “drafts” that would send him into some wilderness of symptoms;  one time I told him that he was too old to fear the military draft, and it seemed to become more fun after that. When you have a mentor, you maybe dote overmuch on his every word, but Louis always chose his words so carefully! He was the ultimate editor:  someone who aspired to “perfection” of language, and so when he destroyed quite a bit of my attempts at poetry, I got what I expected and I suppose what I felt I deserved. But then he found work to praise, unearthing a piece I didn’t think at the heart of my work,  and that was stunning.

It was all about diction, and the rest of my excitement he dismissed as “talking about creation”–that was like the “afflatus” he dismissed in Blake (he liked the rest).  I can hear how he drew out the word playfully, “ah flah tuss,” the third syllable reminding me of “tush.”

When he’d relax, he was charming, funny.  He’d bounce in his seat, hearing music from somewhere.  When he’d volunteer something about his work, he’d lower his voice, so that I’m still trying to reconstruct what he said about his “use” of Mallarmé.  His memory of the work of younger poets was striking: I remember his correcting my quotations from Denise Levertov. He mentioned Creeley and Duncan the most.

I knew George Oppen at the same time. It seemed a perversity in Louis to isolate himself from colleagues with his crochets and quarrels, and in fact he told of a time he’d been catty with Basil Bunting, and Bunting told him he was hopeless. It was hard to understand why this brilliant, kind, attentive, funny man could be so petty, and he seemed to be musing on that when he told the story about Bunting.

DA: At one point, you thought you might  become a minister.

LR: Bertrand Russell called St. Paul the “inventor of Christianity.” My experience falling into a confused state between two families (my parents divorced long before the technology of divorce became so extensive), between two coasts, of feeling at home nowhere, and my then-inability to thrive on rootlessness and alienation made me a perfect receptacle for Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, Rudolph Bultmann, C.S. Lewis and others. I was fallen, the world was fallen, and I needed a redemption that could be only partial in an existence I must endure, the whole Pauline version. Now I can question the logic of rejecting the existence I’m given, but then it all fit. I was probably the only member of my class at prep school to take “sacred studies” and the required religious observances with some seriousness. My reading and my earnestness failed to make me the liveliest guy at parties, but I’ve always, probably because of the confusions in my upbringing, felt the need for some kind of coherence.

My family was baffled by this pursuit. They had forgotten to baptize me, and so the beginning of my preparation for confirmation by Bishop Anson Phelps Stokes was being baptized by the little-used font at the St. Mark’s School chapel. I did go briefly to Union Seminary as a graduate school, but moved on to NYU to get my “teaching license” MA, though I returned to Union to take a course in Systematic Theology from John Macquarrie, Heidegger’s translator. Going to Union Seminary was alienating also:  whites from all over validating themselves by ministering to what we then called the “inner city.”  It seemed like missionary work, destructively naive, and I was worried about Vietnam while they were talking about LBJ healing the nation’s “identity crisis.”

DA: Sounds like a crisis over what is truly a crisis.

LR: Now I want to get back to what I might call loosely religious anthropology, of The Bible and other crucial texts, and as I study the history of the settlers out here, I can see them bringing no greater understanding of our environment or our own nature than the spiritual understanding of the Indians they displaced. Obviously their ignorance of water, plants, animals and sociability caused them (and us) abiding grief.

But during and after college I moved to secular texts, and I think I owe it to the early (and I emphasize the early, not the later silly) Henry Miller to say “so what?” to all the anxiety and questioning. I also love the passage in Studies in Classic American Literature in which D.H. Lawrence sends up American writers for being so earnest. I don’t have the book, but he says something like: “The meaning of life. The meaning of life. At the moment it’s a cup of tea.”

Gabriel Marcel was another hero of my theological period, and I was most disappointed when his intonation prevented my understanding most of what he said in his Gifford Lectures at Harvard.  But I’ve used a favorite phrase of his in the title of my mystery-book, and it tickled me to learn recently that he and Sartre hated each other so much they’d purchase tickets to the openings of each others plays, so that they could storm out.

DA: You eventually became an English teacher for a fair spell.

LR: I loved it. It was exciting to go back to work each fall. I still feel guilty for how long I held on to the students’ papers, or for times I’d get grumpy in class. One of the blessings of the to-me weird world of Facebook is getting back in touch with students after these decades apart. The Quaker school I taught in was probably the most eccentric of the competent New York private schools: a good scholarship program for kids of all backgrounds, and an openness to questioning so-called social norms. Sure, many families had succumbed to the economic definition of experience, but their boring anxieties didn’t dominate the curriculum, or the kids’ free time. One of my favorite books is Huizinga’s Home Ludens: a wonder of teaching is the spirit of fun that can animate work. Heck, kids could read Hamlet in the ninth grade, could plow through the whole of The Pickwick Papers, could suffer the intensities of “romantic” poets or Milton in those days. I hope they still can! Yes, the culture’s barbarous jargon infected some of them: I can remember arguing with a young man who couldn’t “relate to” Huckleberry Finn. I was probably pompous enough to point him at e-ducare, suggesting that a leading-out from himself would be quite beneficial!

There were upper and lower Quakers corresponding the high and low church, but there was enough radicalism in the Quaker tradition to keep things lively and open-ended.

I moved on to another kind of work partly for the usual reason, $$, but mostly because the arrival of my own children focused my excitement on them, and you can’t teach unless you’re excited by it.

DA: So you moved on to the world of finance. Was business strange for you?

LR: Mostly yes. But I will say that working with clients to protect their employees retirement security, or with foundations to protect their returns was engrossing, and it took me to unexpected places (like Kalamazoo and Beijing), and put me into situations I never could have imagined.

I went into business partly as a challenge: could I keep up the harsh intensity of the hard-driving, efficient beings whose social milieu I’d left when I stayed East to pursue some kind of life — I was never sure what — -that differed from the upper-middle-class world of my family? I started in the human resources department at Bankers Trust, in the building on Liberty Street that has caused so much heartache and controversy as it disappears, and the first thing I noticed is that the vaunted efficiency of the private sector is merely a religious belief. Murray Kempton wrote that MBA’s are the free-market equivalent of communist apparatchiks, and boy is that true!

Bankers Trust was highly successful but almost totally disorganized. Infighting, corporate envy of Wall Street investment houses (this was before Bill Clinton eliminated Glass-Steagal, creating the “level playing field” on which traders could toy with our economy), reorganization after reorganization based on some abstract “vision,” the constant anxiety that if you were profitable but not “growing exponentially” you were useless–this immature lack of planning or governance was the reality. While all this was going on inside, the financial press was loving us. I’m afraid that this is the reality of unregulated business, and bad actors like Enron or Murdoch are simply the ones who get caught, as Bankers did after I left to join a smaller company I could represent with a straight face.

DA: I suspect laughing at corporate meetings is somewhat frowned upon,

LR: I had been lucky enough to stumble into the highly-profitable world of institutional investing, so big and so profitable that the bank could “position” its boring steady income as a diversification from trading and deal-making in its PR. The traders that took over the bank as I arrived let my department alone for about a decade, after which they couldn’t resist shooting it up with steroids called derivatives — Bankers was one of the “pioneers” of this “rocket science.” Management became younger, and almost totally ignorant of the pension and

non-profit world in which we had thrived, and soon I was working on a trading desk with a “turret” instead of a phone, and people around me were yelling “fuck!” and “let’s tear their faces off!” while I was trying to talk with investment officers at foundations and in treasuries.

The new head of institutional investments, who’d made a bundle for the bank trading derivatives on gold, explained to me that sitting at a trading desk puts you “into a flow” you can’t get in an office. One day all of us in sales and client service were introduced to the number-one derivatives inventor in our business. (I wish I could remember her name, so I could see where she’s gone. The gold trader’s back in Australia, where a yacht race bears his name.) As she was explaining to us new directives to “leverage” fees on our clients, a traditional-biz type asked her, “What about client service and client relationships?” She paused, and with the righteous anger of zealotry asked, “Do you know what a client is? Do you?” We all shifted in our seats.  Had we been missing something all these years? “A client is no more and no less than an opportunity for making lots and lots of money.” I love the seeming precision of “no more and no less.” These are the people that brought down the world economy.

DA: Sounds like a good time to leave.

LR: I went to a much smaller, more reputable and traditional company in Tacoma, and it took another ten years or so before young visionaries succeeded in “leveraging” into hedge funds and other dubious investments, a move which caused it to break the buck in its money market funds and to lay off something like 20% of its workforce, few if any of whom had anything to do with the foolish risks. And so my personal survey of American business has been a bit scary. Of course there is opportunity for honest, interesting work — but it’s frightening how readily that opportunity can be snatched away by “synergistic” deals hatched by execs and investment bankers for whom the companies are tradable abstractions, or by foolish managers who feel that risk goes in only one direction. “Unlocking value” and “leveraging” are faith-based concepts.

DA: It’s all beyond me.

LR: The purpose of business schools and business courses is to train students into the proper attitude, to mold their thought-process into a doctrinal jargon that blinds them to social experience. Case studies are lives of the saints. Recently I went to the memorial service for a great artist at his daughter’s home in suburbia: in the immediate wake of the heartfelt tributes a Wall-Streeter asked me, “Does his work trade?” When I commuted to my teaching job from Westchester County in the 70’s, businessmen would lower the curtains as we traversed the Bronx and Harlem. A friend who succeeded mightily as an investment banker told me he learned nothing in business school — he went to Yale — except the time value of money, and he could have taught himself that.

It’s as if I stumbled into the middle of Zukofsky’s “Inextricably the direction of historic and/ contemporary particulars.”

DA: What does “Golden Handcuffs” mean, and why did you chose that title for the literary journal you edit?

LR: Hey, blame it on Toby Olson! I took a walk with him in Philadelphia in the ’80’s, during the heyday of the large corporate takeovers described in The Barbarians at the Gate. Bankers Trust funded many of them. Suddenly a sheetrock wall would be thrown up between you and a noisy crew of investment bankers –that was the “Chinese wall” that’s supposed to prevent one part of the business from trading on what another part is doing in putative confidence. Trouble was the young investment bankers would chatter loudly in the halls and on the elevators about their machinations. — That’s another thing that stuns me: the youth and ignorance of so many business folk affecting jobs and communities. I’ll never forget the young managers of our “emerging markets” fund bragging about how they’d bullied Mexico’s treasury, threatening to pull our money out unless they “reformed” (i.e., cut benefits to the needy).

Anyway, I’m regaling Toby with corporate buzzwords and out of the blue he says, “If you do another magazine, you should call it that.”–Meaning our illustrious title. That’s what I love about Toby’s work: imagination continuously surprising you. When we were colleagues at Friends Seminary he invented a lovely course called “Fairy Tales Coming True,” in which “folk” sources were lined up with “literary” work.

The title is satirical: “golden handcuffs” are the payments captive boards make to the exec who’ve appointed them, payments meant to keep important execs “on board.” They are never, to my knowledge, tied to results: it’s a privilege to pay these ransoms.

Anyway, the thought never crossed my mind that the title could suggest porn, until I started the website — the name was long gone. And the title reminds me of Blake’s songs.

DA: When did Golden Handcuffs come into being?

LR: I started Golden Handcuffs in the early ’00’s partly to ensure my return to literature, and partly to fill a gap: I’m unaware of any journal with good production values and circulation that focuses entirely on what I call (and no term satisfies) experimental writing and art. Many are open to it, but there’s nothing I happen to know of that’s “pure,” if you will — and especially nothing that publishes all the forms of writing, fiction, poetry, essays, memoirs, criticism. The Review of Contemporary Fiction focuses on the new in fiction only — it was my lifeline during my biz years, and continues to educate me.

And editing has been a fine hike: the writers I’ve followed since the ’60’s, some of them contributing editors, have been very good about introducing me to younger writers unknown to me.  All Golden Handcuffs needs is more subscribers and advertisers to ease the financial burden of independence.

DA: Since you left New York, the scribbling you’ve done over the decades has become two books.

LR: Yes, I’d begun some of the stories in Sweet Potatoes as early as the 80’s. Maybe sooner, because I had a small repertoire of stories about my school days I’d tell my students in the 70’s. Many I left out, it’s definitely a selected stories.

Sweet Potatoes

My Last Days began when I sketched a story about flying about lower Manhattan and Brooklyn in the 80’s, when staring across “concrete canyons” at people in offices like mine made me think of flying right over to see what they were up to. But it was not until I was living on a quiet island in Puget Sound that it occurred to me that I could rid myself of all my anger (naïve wish!) at New York’s business and political shenanigans by having a gullible Superman fight them, exploring his inner child as he fought. I began that in earnest about 10 years ago, and I like my Rupert Murd better than the guy so much in the news these days. Satire’s always a temptation in today’s world–but now I’m looking for something more sane.

DA: How did you choose the title “Sweet Potatoes?”

LR: I went to a London pub serving sweet potato fries during a tense time, and they were a blessed relief. Smitten with their blatant pleasures, trying to ignore the people I was with, it hit me walking around Earl’s Court that “Sweet Potatoes” could be just right.  I wanted the word or the notion “sweet” in the title, for I wanted an aspect of the book to be pure fun. We “play” music, and most of the stories I chose  were improvisations.

DA: In the preface to one section, you write, “. . . these stories play with autobiography, they entertain it. The game is a form, or better a quest for a formal flexibility, not a congeries of facts.” –Could you elaborate a bit?

LR: Sure. There’s something palpable about play, if only the tones and grimaces and timing we use in spoken verbal play, but more often a ball, a stick, cards, a defined space. Why not treat events from my life (or made-up events looking like them) as objects, as playthings? Are not Henry James’ sentences the most finely-spun webs of witticisms? Do they not position his characters on a cultural battlefield as minutely elaborate as My Uncle Toby’s toy soldiers?

When I wrote the “The Alphabet of Love Serial” and “The Accounting” (the sections of it in the book), I heard sentences and voices that allowed me to make mocked-up analyses of people while caressing, or at least touching them.  For example, I can take a lesbian couple utterly seriously at the same time that I educe their social foibles. So I can be dissing liberalism’s Uncle-Tomming of a “minority” while toying with pieces of the kaleidoscope we all are, singular and plural.

Consider all the senses of “entertaining.” Can we “entertain” our knowledge and experience in fiction, putting everything we know in play? These stories were in the first draft improvised: I was finding out what the game was as I was playing it.

DA: I think you played quite well.

LR: When I wrote them, I heard them as a laconic footnote to Henry James’ elaborations, but THEN when I began to read them in public, I found myself sounding like my fond memory of Spencer Holst, who seemed to me poring over and  bemusedly discovering his words when he read his tales.

If I have a theory, and for this California barbarian, literary theory can be to writing as the sports section is to sport, it is that when you really let it in, art is the unexpected.  Responding to the novelty, you re-shuffle your experience, in delight, in learning, even therapy