Distinguished author reveals his ‘Poe-etic’ language

Michael Chabon, the winner of the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Novel, gave a speech at Elon University. He asked the audience to believe that he was the reincarnation of poet Edgar Allen Poe. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

by Marlena Chertock, March 3, 2010

The winner of the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Novel asked the audience Wednesday night at Elon University to believe for an hour that he was the reincarnation of American writer Edgar Allen Poe.

“I looked at (a picture of) his upstanding black lapels, urbane mustache, deep, dark eyes, a glow of disappointment and defiance and I thought ‘I am the reincarnation of Edgar Allen Poe,’” Michael Chabon said.

Through humor and his own stylistic flair, Chabon explained his love affair with the distinguished and disturbed writings of Poe, which began when he was a child.

In 1975 when Chabon was in middle school, he found a biography of Poe for young adult readers.

“I consumed it one sitting,” he said.

In the “transformative evening,” as Chabon called it, he found company in imagination, fictive space and Poe’s writing.

Chabon has written six novels and several collections of short stories of his own. In 2001, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Amid laughs from the audience, Chabon pushed the belief of his reincarnation further, explaining how he walked the school halls with a sad, gray-eyed scorn and Poe-esque arrogance.

“And it was there in the silent house, in the reverberating echo of Poe’s last sigh, in the last page of his life, that I entered fully into the kingdom of Poe,” he said. “I met myself.”

So Chabon said he began to seek out writers whose work invited phantom.

“Imaginative literature was an atlas, a kingdom, with irresistible temptation for the scholar fan to pitch his or her tent in the wilds,” he said. “In the armchair of my solitude (I found) a fellowship and a company in all those other cartographers’ imaginations, whether published writers or not.”

Chabon said he has wished to attempt to reawaken Poe’s style of writing, which he said “rocked the American language.”

Poe produced popular art unreservedly and unmistakably, according to Chabon.

“Like ‘Citizen Kane,’ Poe’s work is self-conscious about what it means to be a hit book or record, but not embarrassingly,” he said.

Chabon’s inclination toward Poe has influenced him to write stories he likes to read, stories with a lyrical form, with the pitch and rhythm and resonance of words.

“I have no interest in books that arrive uncontaminated by plot, crusts with no pizza,” he said. “No foreshadowing, no cliffhangers.”

Chabon said he always tries to keep a copy of Poe near.

“Like a fire extinguisher or perhaps like a box of matches,” he said.

Chabon called Poe romantic and demonic. The poet was “a human candle who sets his head on fire and lights up the whole world for a few short hours,” he said.

The core of Poe’s desire is mystery with a capital “M,” according to Chabon.

“That some other story underlies the written one,” he said. “Some other nature of our world trembles just beyond or below the surface of things. Some never-to-be-imparted secret whose attainment is destruction.”

Through pretending to be Poe in a reincarnated form, Chabon said he found solace. He said Poe rose “to heights of greatness and acclaim” despite his sufferings. When comparing the afflictions of Poe to his own, Chabon said he sees his troubles as trivialities and annoyances in the cosmic scheme of the world, a motto that “affirms your secret worth, your wild but unrecognized talents.”

In his five-part essay, Chabon argued that Poe never stopped writing poetry. He always practiced his chosen art, Chabon said, he just threaded it into different forms. Poe had to venture into prose and fiction writing for monetary reasons, according to Chabon. He was going hungry and needed the money.

Though Chabon said he does not believe in reincarnation anymore, he said he seeks out Poe’s writing the most frequently.

Poe chose to write what would sell, according to Chabon. Chabon said he also strives to write art he can sell. Readers pay for the writers who take on personas, encoding themselves in their own work, according to Chabon.

“It is only the lie that matters, that we lay down our money to hear,” he said.

Writing is a sort of act, according to Chabon, in which poems and stories are performances where the writer impersonates the narrator.

“The point of writing, like the point of art, is not just to fill your belly, though you must fill it,” Chabon said. “The point is to feel yourself a part of something greater than yourself, some collective, ongoing enterprise.”