The Lightning Room: Blog People

[PANK] Interviews Editor Diana Clarke is a facilitator of the unexpected. She is a brilliant asker. Her approach both to writing and to conversations with other writers is vivid and curious, articulate and pointed. The fiery result of this approach comes across not only in her interviews, but also in her other work – including her film reviews, her writing about urban space and culture and her work translating Yiddish women poets. The stories she tells – and the ones she draws out of her subjects so deftly – are deeply dimensional.

Below, Clarke talks Lolita, lightning, pleats, vulnerability and Yiddish.


–Interview by Temim Fruchter


1. Many of us are scattered across the country and only know one another, and our writers, from the internet. Where do you blog from?

Mostly I blog from coffee shops. I find I can do the work much better–much truer, with more presence and intention–away from my home. My favorite cafe in Northampton, Massachusetts, where I’m living these days, has huge windows and great people-watching. I love sitting in the ambient communal energy, able to be still because of all the motion around me.

2. Okay, maybe this is a cheating question, but here goes: What is your dream question, the question you’d want any interviewer worth their salt to ask YOU?

My inner fame-hungry celebrity wants you to ask me about my writing projects or my origin story, but really I’d like to answer a question that helps us talk about what’s hard to say: What obstacles do you and your writing face? How do you keep doing the work in spite of them, with them? What about when we must go on and we can’t? (We do.)

3. As [PANK]’s Interviews Editor, you spend much of your [PANK] time in the Lightning Room. Tell me about your closest encounter with lightning.

Last summer I drove home through the Allegheny Mountains in a thunderstorm, nothing but me and the dark, the electricity in the air turning the radio to static. I could see for miles on the top of the ridge, and I didn’t need to, because the sheets of lightning were so close. I trusted the body of the car to protect me from any surge, but of course I remembered that line from Lolita about how casually lightning can kill, the way beauty and death are bound up together: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory…”

4. Because of your Yiddish work, I have to ask you: What is your most beloved Yiddish word and why?

Oof, this question is a hard one. In the Yiddish academic world, there’s a lot of talk about (and shame in) the idea of “post-vernacularity”–meaning treating Yiddish like something that’s no longer a spoken language, but rather a charming object to decorate our lives. (Think oy vey! mugs, Fiddler on the Roof.) That said, with the caveat that around 1.5 million Orthodox Jews and some Yiddishists do speak vernacular Yiddish, I certainly don’t, but I do love the code-switching that my Yiddish knowledge enables. My favorite Yiddish word, actually, is the slightly obscure skladke, meaning collection, fold, or pleat. It comes from the Slavic word sklad, or warehouse. I love ingathering, multiplicities, the way words and meaning shift between languages, the places where cultures intersect.

5. What is the most surprising thing that’s ever happened to you during an interview? The most terrifying?

A few years ago I got the chance to interview the poet Cynthia Zarin about her fierce, tender memoir An Enlarged Heart. I was in a very hard, lonely place at the time, and the seriousness with which she took me and my questions was shocking. She was so kind and vulnerable over the phone that in turn it left me feeling exposed, and profoundly grateful.

6. In what weather – meteorologically and emotionally – do you most like to write? How come?

I write best during external storms, and internal calm though, like many people, I’m more motivated by a deadline. (See question no. 1, re: motion and stillness.)

7. You review a lot of films. How did that come to be? Does the world look different since you started writing about movies?

I interned at the Village Voice while I was in college, and my very kind editor, being fundamentally opposed to unpaid internships, found me paid freelance work at the magazine; it turned out that I loved film reviewing, and I was pretty good at it. As someone who’d long conceived of myself as a primarily verbal person, it was wonderful to burrow into visual vernacular, and because I find myself reviewing mostly low-budget social justice documentaries, I’m oddly well-versed in niche topics like the closing of lobster canneries in southeastern Maine and the politics of Westerners joining Buddhist monasteries.

I don’t know if the world looks different, exactly–I think our culture is so saturated with visual, and particularly filmic, narrative that we learn to think in cinematic structures from a very young age–but I think watching so many movies has made me more aware of what those narratives are, and how there are stories even about the way we should stand in the rain, waiting for a bus. Every instance might mean more than itself, could be framed and x-rayed to reveal its bones.

8. Final [PANK] Jeopardy: Invisible question. What’s your answer? (I realize this isn’t really how Jeopardy works, but I’m going to ask you to suspend disbelief.)

Yes, and. It comes from improv comedy, but it works for everything