The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Paul Metcalf Apalache (1976)


“America’s frontier is endless, just as any other aspect of our past, our history, is endless, and endlessly available to us.” – Paul Metcalf

‘Certain books enthrall us, set us on a quest to discover more — not just the author’s complete bibliography, but the author’s influences and acknowledged peers. I think of them as gateway writers. — W.G. Sebald was one for me; because of my total admiration for his books I sought out I don’t know how many authors he mentioned in their pages or in interviews – Jean Améry, Alexander von Humboldt, Thomas Bernhard (did I already know Bernhard?), Adelbert Stifter, Gottfried Keller… Later there was Joseph McElroy, whose essays and interviews opened the door to truly dozens of books I might not have discovered until much later, or ever: Nicholas Mosley, Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, A.R. Ammons, Michel Butor’s Mobile and Degrees, Harold Brodkey, Galway Kinnell’s terrible Book of Nightmares, E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, and last but certainly not least, PAUL METCALF.

‘In turn, the work of Metcalf came to occupy the same central place in my thoughts as Sebald’s & McElroy’s before, and Metcalf became a gateway author for me.

‘Why Metcalf? Metcalf’s work plunges us headlong into the history of the Americas in all its manifest plurality. Using sophisticated montage techniques and synthesizing reams of material, always with a poet’s ear, Metcalf constructs versions of the historical record that resound into the continuous present. (The past is not even past, to paraphrase Faulkner; indeed, Metcalf’s achievement is in part to have captured that immediacy.)

Metcalf’s landmark works include :

Genoa, 1965. Metcalf’s early novel, written after he had systematically read through the entirety of Herman Melville’s work (Melville was in fact an ancestor of his), explores themes of teratology (monstruousness, and anatomical pathologies), genetics, seafaring, and the elusiveness of identity (in particular, those of Melville and Christopher Columbus).

Patagoni, 1971. Part travelogue, part meditation on mobility across the American continent, via Henry Ford’s invention of the automobile and the native mythologies of Peru, this is as weird and wild as anything Metcalf published. It is segmented into three discontinuous sections. Beautifully published by The Jargon Society — see picture above.

Apalache, 1976. A kaleidoscopic exploration of the geological and human history of eastern North America, Apalache might be the pinnacle of Metcalf’s œuvre. The book’s epic scope and its inventive visual prosody are unsurpassable, in my opinion.

Waters of Potowmack, 1982. A documentary history of the Potomac River watershed, from its discovery and settlement on up to the 1960s, Waters of Potowmack eschews the irregular prosody so characteristic of much of Metcalf’s work, in favor of simple blocks of prose. What we have here is a chronological compendium of a place. In a similar vein is Mountaineers Are Always Free! (1991), Metcalf’s short history of West Virginia (recommended).

‘Those are the big ones. But there are also a great many shorter works not to be missed, including Firebird, U.S. Dept. of Interior, Golden Delicious, and Both. And there are probably a dozen other short ones, in addition to The Middle Passage and I-57. More on these another time, perhaps.

‘Metcalf was never fashionable, come to think of it, although he did elicit the admiration of many of his peers, from Genoa (1965) onwards. I will be writing more about Metcalf, as I am writing an encyclopedia entry about his life & work. It’s going to take some time.’ — jsiefring



Paul Metcalf @ Wikipedia
adopting paul metcalf
Paul Metcalf Archive
A Conversation with Paul Metcalf By John O’Brien
No Wooden Horse
Book: ‘Enter Isabel: The Herman Melville Correspondence of Clare Spark and Paul Metcalf’
Rick Moody on Paul Metcalf’s Genoa
Paul Metcalf papers, 1917-1999
The Unyielding Sea
There are monsters everywhere.





Paul Metcalf (1917-1999)


Paul Metcalf Way

Paul Metcalf Way is a Street in the Lancashire town of Accrington and measures approximately 146 metres long.

There is only one street named Paul Metcalf Way making it unique in Great Britain.

Paul Metcalf Way is within the area of Hyndburn Borough Council Council who provide services such as refuse collection and are responsible for the collection of council tax .

The average elevation of Paul Metcalf Way is roughly 159.30 metres above sea level. with the highest point being 162.90 and the lowest point being 155.20. A change of 7.70 metres.

Paul Metcalf Way is located within the county of Lancashire which is in the North West (England) region of the UK. 181.83 miles North West from the centre of London, 19.14 miles North from the centre of Manchester, 27.48 miles South East from the centre of Lancaster and 33.38 miles West from the centre of Leeds.




John O’Brien: When you eliminate so many of the conventions of the traditional novel (i.e., plot, and sometimes even characters), what becomes the principle of unity? How do you move from point A to point B?

Paul Metcalf: The principle of unity is “the rose in the steel dust,” and I can be no more specific than to say that this is something inside me, and that effecting its transfer, from inside my skin to outside it, is the reason for writing (as well as the process). The pattern may be clear in its details—or nebulous, only vaguely intuited—but the pursuit, the delineation of its outlines dictates every step—or at least dictates what is point A and what is point B. Then—how to get from A to B—this is best done abruptly. I learned long ago, from a very wise man, that “the only real work in creative endeavor is keeping things from falling together too soon.” A corollary to that notion would be that, having held the structural elements apart as long as possible, when they do come together, let them really clang. And this is not work, it is only the courage to move abruptly. Nothing softens and muddies a piece of writing so much as what used to be taught in writing classes as “transitions.” Let the relation of your particles be implicit, discoverable by the reader. When you have accomplished this, you will have a quality that Guy Davenport has used in describing my writing: tensegrity (which, as near as I can make out, is one of Bucky Fuller’s neologisms, meaning that when you erect a structure, if all the lines holding it are taut or tense, it will stay up. Tension=integrity.).

It might be worth adding that one doesn’t always travel from point A to point B. It might be from A to point L, for example—with points B through K inferred.

JOB: To continue with these connections. Genoa, I think, is a tightly written book, each of whose pages seems to reverberate with echoes of other pages. I can see the smile on your face as you came across a passage in Columbus about feet or a line in Melville about heads: connections, Did you have to keep charts, listing such references, when you were writing Genoa? Did you consciously seek out material that would set up these echoes?

PM: I am flattered that you consider Genoa a tightly written book—this is as I would want it to be. And I humbly (proudly?) confess to the many smiles that crossed my face, as the rhymes and reflections emerged. No, I didn’t have to keep charts; my notes, although lengthy and complex, never exploded beyond 8-1/2×11 (almost entirely handwritten) . In developing the thing, I functioned pretty much according to the premise I outlined for Carl and Michael. I “intuited” the Columbus-Melville connection, by which I mean that a body of knowledge about them, of which I was only dimly aware, may have existed somewhere within me, and when I began to open it (i.e. , research the lives and writings of the two men), the revelations came as a series of confirming surprises.

I draw the line, however, at your last suggestion. I did not consciously seek out these echoes. I didn’t have to. They were all there. All I had to do was find them. And having found them, I then followed the dictum of Mr. Edgar Allan Poe: “There is no greater mistake than the supposition that a true originality is a mere matter of impulse or inspiration. To originate is carefully, patiently, and understandingly to combine.”

JOB: One of your methods for “combining” is juxtaposition, which you do not use as a substitute for clumsy metaphors but rather as a way of focusing sharply on the “particles.”

PM: I am much happier, and always have been, with the word juxtaposition than I am with metaphor. Another term I have used is mosaic, and my friend Don Byrd speaks of immense rhymes: “you pick up these unlikely chunks, and they do slip together, like a perfect tenon mortise joint.” And, yes, this is a constant in my work, this approach.

I think there’s a reason why Don uses the word “immense.” I’m not doing anything much different from a good poet, putting two words or two phrases together in an original way—or a good colorist in painting, Joseph Albers for example, looking for the chemistry of this yellow against this lavender, etc.; the difference is simply the size and proportion of the units I use: instead of words or phrases, I use whole lives, concepts, episodes or epochs.

JOB: In The Savage Mind Claude Levi-Strauss talks about the attention that primitive people gave to naming objects, which they then would put to magical uses, such as curing illnesses or freeing themselves from curses. He says that such naming and use of objects is of no “scientific” value but that these activities meet “intellectual requirements rather than or instead of satisfying needs. The real question is not whether the touch of a woodpecker’s beak does in fact cure toothache. It is rather whether there is a point of view from which a woodpecker’s beak and a man’s tooth can be seen as ‘going together’ . . . and whether “some initial order can be introduced into the universe by means of these groupings” (emphasis added). I want to ask whether your juxtapositions do not serve the same purpose—to group objects in order to create an order.

PM: I’ve thought a lot about this lately—the magic of simply naming things, and then the virtues (homeopathic, among others) of associating, perhaps in a new way, the named and/or described objects, episodes, histories, landscapes, etc. There is certainly a parallel here, between what I try to do and what Levi-Strauss describes among primitive peoples. In my books, it can be found in its simplest form in Zip Odes, which is nothing but names, regrouped; it is this philosophical thrust, I think, that gives a serious tone to what is otherwise a flippant book. It exists at a more sophisticated level, of course, in the other books, where rather than simply a single place, I am dealing with complex entities, histories, cultures, geographies, etc.

This is nothing that I ever set out to do consciously: to be “primitive.” It’s just that I’m sure there was an instinctive feeling, when I was younger, that the old European groupings, the associations and premises of Western civilization that we Americans inherited, were worn out, and that a new grouping and shaping, a new “rose in the steel dust,” based on a renaming and redescribing, was called for.

It’s interesting to see, among readers, whether this works or not. For Guy Davenport, it obviously does: speaking of the three major themes in Genoa, he says that I make “them touch just when they can speak in concert, disclosing ironies, deepening the intuitive evidence that there is a plot to American history.” For Robert Von Hallberg (writing in Parnassus, Fall/ Winter, 1978), the method obviously does not work: “Genoa is a mad book . . .this paranoid modernist view . . . Michael’s contrivances are hilarious . . .this outrageous book.”

JOB: Is everything in Middle Passage and Apalache taken directly from other sources without any changes or additions of your own?

PM: I did a little cheating there. There are places where I’ve linked things in my own language without so acknowledging. I would say that Middle Passage is substantially taken from other sources, there may be transitions, there may be occasional rewordings of my own, but very minimal, I would almost have to go through Apalache and see where I did what. I think that about the same would apply there. I occasionally made transitions or rephrased things, but where I’ve changed phrasing it’s certainly in the spirit of my source. I’ve never violated a source; I’ve never exaggerated a source or twisted a source to serve some purpose.

JOB: Then what constitutes your work? If not the words, then what?

PM: My work exists on several levels. It exists in the initial instinct which then becomes a kind of conception; to what extent conscious and to what extent I verbalize it to myself, may vary a great deal. It may simply be an instinct of putting certain things together which in the past have not been put together and which I feel have an organic association. I often have an idea of something I want to do or something I want to look for, and I start researching. I go through a great many books or a great many sources until suddenly I hit upon something and say, “Wow! This is it, this is what I’ve been looking for.” I may not even at that point know why it is that I get that “wow” response. All right, the original conception of wanting to do something—present an idea or present a sense of a place or a people or simply a philosophical idea—that is mine. And the material that I choose is an act of choice on my part which again is me at work. And thirdly, the way I associate the materials, order them, the relative weight I give them in relation to one another, the juxtapositions—all that’s my own work. And I think that’s a valid creative process. What am I doing differently, for example, from a poet who takes words and puts them together in a new way? He didn’t invent the words; the words are common property. Likewise, the conceptual material, the scientific material, are common property which I have selected. I am using chunks rather than individual words, It’s no different, really, except in the matter of proportion.



Paul Metcalf Apalache
Turtle Island Foundation

Apalache is a collage of texts taken from early American journals, exploration narratives, and newspaper articles that Metcalf uses to reconstruct American history in epic scope and form. Like William Carlos Williams before him, Metcalf freely mixes verse and prose.’ — TIF

‘This is one of the great long poems in modern American literature. Never mind that, to my knowledge, Metcalf didn’t ‘write’ a word of it (nor most of his other works), instead he treads like a jackdaw, like the great scholar he is, through various texts (conveniently credited at the back of the book), plucking out what he can use and composing, in collage-form, a poem that manages to capture the continent’s primal beginnings, its native heritage, its early European exploration & settlement, into a coherent whole, juxtaposing the vital language of these various documents against newspaper articles and other, more ephemeral, language, to form a work that appears sculpted and has its own rough music. This book really does belong with the others: The Cantos, Maximus, Passages, Drafts, ARK, “A”.’ — James Cook




p.s. Hey. If anyone would like to watch me, Amy Gerstler, Benjamin Weissman, and Tosh Berman talk about our days as members of a young, go-getter, early 80s writer gang hovering in and around the Beyond Baroque Literary Center in Los Angeles, you can. ** Dominick, Hi, D!!! I can totally see the old tumblr kind of look/vibe. Me too about the contexts. I just snatched them unknowledgeably from here and there. Well, yeah, Owens putting some dough into our film would be sweet. We’ll see. If he wants us to dress all the characters in his clothes, that might be tricky. Ha ha, what a beneficent love, thank you. How about love as baked as the cap wearing, head turning, charming guy sitting by the canal in Amsterdam, G. ** Jamie, Thanks, buddy. Nah, I smoked weed half-heartedly in high school, but after two huge LSD-caused mental breakdowns, weed started making me very paranoid even after a puff, so I nixed it from my lexicon. I’ve been to the cinema twice now, and it’s so, so, so nice to be there. Yeah, I want to do something with that ice video, but I don’t know what. Yes, Butch Vig was really nice. He told me a bunch of funny behind-the-scenes ‘Nevermind’-producing stories, which I’ve mostly forgotten now, drat. Nice Wednesday on your part! Mine, uh … I started writing a blurb for a book I agreed to endorse that’s due today. I started looking at notes for the new Gisele Vienne piece I’m going to write. I watched ‘A Quiet Place Part 2’. I didn’t see the first one, but I found it surprisingly good and effective and fun. And emails and stuff. May your Thursday outstrip even your Wednesday. Love, me. ** Tosh Berman, Hi. I watched the Hammer thing. Yeah, it turned out nice. Thank you so much for doing that, Tosh. ** Bill, Hey. Oh, wow, that CineChamber event(s) look very good. What is that place? Have you been there before. Seems pretty great. As I think I said yesterday, live gigs get the green light here starting next week, so I’m expecting a windfall of announcements. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Having seen Nico again later on, I would say she looked pretty good at the Whisky by comparison. ** _Black_Acrylic, Eek, fun. In the early 70s, long after I’d stopped smoking pot, I was living with my bf, and we let his older brother crash in our garage for a while, and, unbeknownst to us, he started growing pot in our backyard, and one day the cops showed up and arrested my bf and me for growing pot, put us in jail and everything. My bf’s brother was a coward who refused to admit they were his plants, and we were too nice to nark him out, so we were found guilty and had to attend nightly drug rehab meetings for six weeks. What a prick. ** Dalton, Hi! A family of potheads. That’s so interesting. I had a severely alcoholic mom, and I think that’s why I’ve never liked drinking alcohol. So, yeah. I did a lot, and I mean a lot, of LSD when I was young. I loved it. I had to quit because I had two really terrifying freak outs on it. Mm, for me drugs, or at least LSD, did have a massive influence on my thinking and doings a a writer. But I took it specifically to try to learn things that would help me be a ‘great’ artist. I’m not sure if it would have worked if that wasn’t my goal with it. And psychedelics are definitely not for everybody. And I would never take them now. I think I would go permanently insane or something. But I guess I buy into that idea you mention with qualifications. I’m good, how are you? What are you up to? ** Ferdinand, Hi, man. Oh, thanks, about the Interview thing. I tried to look at your photos, but it said ‘This Content Is Not Available Right Now’? If that gets fixed, I’d like to see them, natch. I hope your pre-trip prep goes well. You happy to be heading back south? ** G, Hi. Ha ha. Ah, I see, about your brother. Well, I hope he decides to make the big move. Since Albert has not changed one tiny bit other than being a famous sham now rather than a famous fake prodigy, I would definitely encourage anyone not to fall for her outreach. Nothing good comes from associating with her. If you look at the top of the p.s., there’s a link to the Hammer event right there. [the perfect love-themed gif] ** Steve Erickson, It’s true! I don’t know any of the pics’ contexts, or I guess I mean I don’t remember them if I did. Vague memory of that gun boy pic being from a new story about a boy — that very boy, I suppose — who was nice until he started doing drugs and then robbed some person or store or something, and I think that photo was subsequently pulled from his social media feed to illustrate his downfall? Ah, I think every theater here is open now. There’s almost nothing not open, and even nightclubs come back next week. ** Jack Skelley, Dude at your eyes that are looking at my eyes! ** Right. I think it’s very possible that Paul Metcalf is the most under-known, neglected great visionary American fiction writer out there. I would almost be willing to bet that no one reading this has read him or probably even heard of him. And that’s a crime. I’m spotlighting my second favorite novel of his today. No one writes like him. One of these days, he’ll get his due. Give him and the book some of your brain space today. Thank you. See you tomorrow.


  1. Oops, heres the correct link to my little 35mm retrospective album .. https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.3974816222538952&type=3

    Thats a funny story: forced drug rehab for your once bf’s brothers plants..
    I took a puff the other day with friends and of coarse despite being drunk it instantly rendered me too selfconcious to speak.

    Not excited to go back to S.A. The bread and beer is so good here in Belgium hahaha .. thanks for the well wishes pre trip, getting a bit jittery. Also will take alot more stuff back than what I brought with including books (my loose thread among them, and some unbelievable fleamarket finds (Force the hand of chance lp for 6 euro..) and cameras.. And yeah still all the stuff up ahead that goes with crossing borders in covid times.

  2. Dennis, This is interesting. Especially as Rigby’s at the end of his 6-week hike to the highlands of Scotland and is on his way back. He’s given me updates throughout. Going with the savages indeed.

    Thanks. Yeah, it’s just a matter of getting some time and getting to work on this thing. Still can’t believe how long this first sex scene between the two main characters is, hahaha. I will be tightening that up. There’s something missing, which I figured out and will make sure is there when I edit it later.

    I need to get out buy that Interview issue this weekend. Thought they might have it online but couldn’t find it on their site. Be nice to have a physical mag in my hands again. It’s been years.

  3. Paul Metcalf was unknown to me until today but his collage method is certainly of interest. The man may well be under-appreciated but to get an Accrington street named after you is good going.

  4. Hi!!

    Thank you for sharing “Beyond Baroque and Beyond!” I can’t wait to watch it!! And thank you for today’s post, too! You were right; I’ve never heard of Paul Metcalf. And what a shame indeed!

    Yeah, that’s what I liked about tumblr so much. I could just use it as an online scrapbook – I didn’t always have to know where the images came from, etc. Of course, my page went down as soon as they banned porn, haha. (But, I mean, was anyone on tumblr for OTHER than nudity??)

    Oh, no, haha, this possibility with Rick Owens’s clothes didn’t even cross my mind. Let’s hope he won’t have such ideas!

    I didn’t even have to go back and look up the charming boy in Amsterdam; I remember him clearly. I’ll take him, thank you. Love starring in YouTube videos with his creative, although always imaginary, illnesses, Od.

  5. Today provides a fine introduction to Paul Metcalf.

    Nico was a beautiful trainwreck

  6. Hi, Dennis!

    My apologies again for my disappearance. I had very busy days with work stuff and then I went on holiday and I couldn’t check the blog. How are you doing? I guess you must be fully vaccinated by now. Yay! I hope you didn’t have any side effects and that you’re enjoying all the things you can do now. I got my shot last Saturday. I was dizzy and didn’t feel very well until today. But the good thing is I don’t need a second shot because I already had Covid. Last time you were telling me about Primavera and the chances that you had to be in LA then. The crazy thing is that tickets have sold out. I didn’t think they would go so quickly. This must be the first time it happens a year ahead. There’s a waiting list though. Shit, I’m so sorry.  Did you start reading ‘The Magic Kingdom’?



  7. Hello Dennis! How goes things?

    I’ve been lurking silently for a little while, the English teacher training got kinda intense so I haven’t as much time to hang out and comment. But now it is finally over (until I actually start work, that is), so as it stands currently my summer will just consist of chilling in my hometown, getting down to some serious work on my novel, music and generally hanging out on the beach until September. It’s a nice feeling! How goes things with you? Have your vaccine side-effects subsided? I hope so.

    As you’d wagered, this is the first I’ve heard of Paul Metcalf. As it happens, I’m currently reading a book-length poem, ‘Dart’ by Alice Oswald, that I think was written via similar-ish means to Apache, as far as putting it together from collected scraps of documents/speech, towards creating an image of place. But then I’m sure there’s loads of stuff that employs that particular technique… Anyway the Alice Oswald thing was recommended me by a friend, and even though I’m definitely into the concept, the experience of reading it thus far has lacked any exciting sort of spark… I think it’s because I have a generalised allergy towards any kind of poetry that verges anyway near place/nature/landscape etc. after my high school literature class, so it needs to be doing something hugely interesting for me to give it any kind of time. But Paul Metcalf definitely looks like he’d be safely classified as the latter, with the extract you shared and since it has your strong recommendation. Which is your all-time favourite book of his?

    Anyway, I hope your Friday is like one of those vertical sides at kids soft play areas (one of my passions as a kid), that plunges you with a crazy smile into the weekend.


  8. Hey Dennis, the CineChamber series is at Gray Area, a fairly minimal theater space. But they do have good projection setups and sound systems (maybe it’s Recombinant Media Labs/Naut Humon’s gear? Not sure.) They’ve run a number of big audiovisual events.

    Enjoying you and Tosh’s conversation on the Hammer channel. (I see last week’s installment featured Abdellah Taia, wow.) Good to hear all the stories and see the covers; geez, I remember when I first picked up Tenderness of the Wolves and a few other items.

    Did you ever make a post on Ron Koertge? Didn’t realize he’s still active, or his YA work!


  9. Hey Dennis,

    I’m doing okay/good. My mood has stabilized a bit and current goals are about trying to write more, like they always are lol. I’m very bad at writing regularly or even semi-regularly and so I need to change that. I’m a master at avoidance and rationalization.

    Yeah alcohol also had a quite a big presence in our household too. Mom was(is) an alcoholic and I’ve got a sibling in rehab right now. To be fair, their addiction troubles are a bit understandable because of some really bad family tragedy. And they are getting better too so things are on the up and up.

    If I took psychedelics it would probably be for the same reason. I feel like it wouldn’t be worth it if I didn’t get anything from it.

    I am lucky to say I know about Paul Metcalf. I’m unlucky in that I actually don’t know anything about him so this post was exciting to read. Seems like a writer someone like Vollman probably drew inspiration from.

    Hope you have a good day. Cheers.

  10. Corey Heiferman

    June 25, 2021 at 1:42 am

    I haven’t engaged with this kind of brainy Americana in a while. I might come back to in the future. Come to think of it I’m focused on Tel Aviv, Hebrew, and computers.

    Melville moved to Pittsfield to stalk Nathaniel Hawthorne. I guess some of his descendents just stayed there.

    I’ve been busy recruiting for our next event. I hope my partner and I can figure out how to work together smoothly. It might turn out that we’re effective collaborators but not very good friends.

    I had an epiphany at a reading by the poetry clique whose work I like best. I’d once aspired for the little emperor of this clique to pick me to join his literary harem, publish me, throw a little party for me. That would be nice, but I also started finding this clique dull compared to the motley crew at our event, which is designed to cross-pollinate various cliques together with outcasts. I have to follow up on this: I think cross pollinating various cliques together with outcasts can also be a writing style, not just an aim for an event.

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