An interview with Professor Eric Falci, Chair, Department of English

September 20, 2023

For our second interview, I wanted to highlight the professor who was one of the main contributors in helping me start this publication: Professor Eric Falci of the English Department. Professor Falci joined UC Berkeley’s faculty in 2006, and currently serves as the English Department's Chair. I first met Professor Falci through a seminar I took, funded by The Bedri Distinguished Writers Series. For any freshman or prospective students reading, this is a wonderful program which I highly recommend looking into. Each year, John Bedri [Berkeley graduate, class of 1970] funds for a nationally or internationally recognized author to give a lecture and meet with students. In preparation for the visit, a small group of freshmen study every book written by the chosen author. It’s a really amazing experience, especially considering we then get the chance, at the end of the seminar, to speak with that author in person. Last year, the author was Valeria Luiselli. As our professor for this seminar, Professor Falci led us through incredibly interesting discussions, which really inspired me in the decision to start this publication. 

Hello Professor Falci, to start out, I’d like to hear you introduce yourself. How did you first become interested n studying literature? What does your research currently focus on? Do you have any interests outside f literature that inform your studies?

How did I become interested in literature? I guess I was someone who was a big reader—as a kid, as a teenager, as a college student. I wasn’t an English major as an undergraduate; I was a music major, and then I kind of decided after finishing college that I didn’t want to go in the direction that I’d charted, and so I applied to PhD programs in English. I got in, and then did my PhD in English, and the year I was on the job market, Berkeley was hiring in an area I’d worked in, and so I’ve been here since 2006.

My first book is about Irish poetry. I didn’t really plan on going into Irish literature when I got to grad school; I’d thought I’d be writing about American poetry from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. But what happened was, it was my first semester of graduate school, and I did what most first-semester graduate students do—they go meet with the graduate advisor or the director of graduate studies, who helps students decide what courses to take. There was a well-known professor named Louis Menand in the department, who had just won the Pulitzer Prize, and was teaching a course called “The Art and Thought of the 1970s”. I was like, “Oh this is perfect,” because I was interested in poets like Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. I went into the graduate advisor; I said, “I’m going to take this class on the ’70s,” and he said “It’s filled.” I really didn’t have another thought, but then he—and he was a Medievalist—said, “What about this class in Old Irish?” And you know, I’m a first child, and so I guess I’m a people pleaser, and so I was like,  “Yeah, Ok.” So I took that class, and I got really interested—it’s a very difficult and wonderful language. I had no experience taking Irish, and I’m not fluent in Irish. But it was really fascinating learning to read and understand Old Irish and early Irish literature, and then to think about that in relation to the longer poetic tradition. And I really admired the professor who taught that class, and I wanted to keep working with her if I could, so I came up with a dissertation project on Irish poetry—contemporary Irish poetry, most of it in English but some of it in Irish—and she agreed to be my advisor. Her name is Catherine McKenna, and she’s a brilliant teacher and scholar. So, back to music: I guess my music background does help shape a lot of how I think about poetry generally. Of course, notions of measure and meter and rhythm are crucial in thinking about poetry. I’m working on a book now on poetry and music that I’ve been working on for a couple of years, but it keeps getting shunted to the backburner by other books or articles or obligations. But I just have a bit more left to write for that. So music does play a role in my interests; that would be the main one.

I read a little bit about your research before this interview, and I was really interested in the correlation between language and music. I’ve always thought that my own background in music likely affects the way I think about language. When I was in elementary school, we had a mandatory program where we learned music through the Suzuki method. [For readers who might not know, that’s a philosophy developed by Shinichi Suzuki, which essentially sets out to teach children music in a similar way that they acquire linguistic skills. Instead of learning to read music, students of this method learn it completely by ear, as though they are acquiring a language.] Do you think there’s any sort of correlation between one’s background in music and their linguistic tendencies? Do you ever get the sense, when reading, that you can “hear” whether a writer also has musical interests?

I think it’d be really hard, without any context, to put a poem in front of someone, like the literary critic I.A. Richards did [Richards (1893–1979) was a very prominent literary critic who developed the strategy of close-reading. He put works of literature in front of his students, without any historical or biographical context, and asked them to analyze the text. His work definitely shaped the way we think about literary study today: read his book, “Practical Criticism” if you’re interested in learning more!], without any context about when this was written, who wrote it, it would be—unless there were factors within the poem, like if it were a poem about music—it would be hard to know if a poet either had interest or training in music. In part because if it was written before, say, 1910, it more likely than not has some sort of regular metrical pattern (as does a good deal of poetry written after that). And so, it’ll have a rhythmic form and might be understood musically, in a quite broad way. The idea that music and poetry are linked arts is one that goes all the way back, and so in certain ways, it’s almost like we’d want to reverse or reshape the question: We know it’s like music in a lot of ways; we know it’s unlike music in a lot of ways; we know that in some of the ways we think it’s like music, it’s really not like music, and vice versa. I think it would be hard to tell. If you read “The Love Song of J. Prufrock” or something, you know that T.S. Eliot’s aural imagination is firing. But I think just because one might not be able to pick up a surface rhythm, or a series of sound effects, that doesn’t mean that a person isn’t thinking in deeper ways about music. It’s a complicated, big question. 

And with poetry, specifically, I’m really interested in the way that it balances words and language with abstract ideas. I think with prose there’s usually a bigger tendency to more explicitly give readers the ideas or images the author is hoping to incite, but with poetry it feels so much more subjective. How do you think poetry’s artistic form affects its scholarship? Would you say that it’s “harder” to study poetry than prose, or just different?

It’s just different. For a good portion of the twentieth century—the middle section, let’s say—poetry was in many ways the privileged form for literary study and literary criticism, because it was looked at as the well-wrought urn. Questions of the relation between theme and form, and content and form could be unpacked in all sorts of elaborate ways, again and again. And because the New Critical mode was to think about the poem as a kind of isolated art object—as an urn of sorts, something made of words—questions of history and politics weren't really the goal or horizon of such readings. As literary criticism shifted—and I mean, this is an oversimplified version—but as it shifted to think more intensely about history, race, gender, politics, or empire,  narrative forms came to the center of the stage for many critics and scholars. I don’t think that one can think about poetry without thinking about form. Of course, you can’t think about novels without thinking about form as well, but just yanking a bit of a poem out, and simply seeing it as a kind of message, or simply as semantic content, typically isn’t how we think of poetry, because we think about it as shaped language. I don’t think it’s harder or easier than studying narrative; it’s just different.

It always interests me when I hear a person say, “I don’t get poetry.” Nobody really says, “I don’t get novels.” And so there is something really intriguing about the way in which poetry (or, the features of language that we often characterize as poetic) is, at the same time, seemingly elusive or oblique and so fundamental to human linguistic capacity. The thing that we do first in language is work poetically. The reduplication of “mamma” or “dada,” which is often a kid’s first word—that is operating via a poetic function in terms of sound. And if we think about nursery rhymes, and all the ways that poetry, or some sort of verse or poetic language, operate ceaselessly in our life, it’s clear that poetry is something that’s at work in our use of language all the time. But it is also a form of language use and language making that is seen to be elitist or specialized or unavailable, and so there is also this sense that poetry is this thing that someone doesn’t have the tools to understand. It’s one thing for me to say, “I don’t get quantum physics,” or “I don’t get C++”.” There are plenty of things that I don’t get because I don’t have the basic tools or knowledge to understand them. Saying that one doesn’t get poetry seems like a different sort of statement, and it always fascinates me.

I’m also really interested in the fact that a lot of famous literary critics are poets, or studied poetry. Because people like Harold Bloom, or T.S. Eliot, or some of the most famous literary critics, studied poetry. I guess I was wondering whether you think a background in poetry adds anything to one’s literary criticism? 

Yeah, it’s an interesting question, because there’s the stereotype that many critics are failed poets. Harold Bloom really wanted to be Hart Crane. There are relatively few poets whose critical work is of the same level of importance as their poetry. Eliot is one of the very few. They’re just up to different things. People talk about Matthew Arnold as a famous critic and famous poet, but he was always really a critic, even when he was being a poet. And there are plenty of contemporary examples of people who write great pieces of essayistic prose and great poetry. I guess being a poet gives you a certain kind of angle into critical work, but a poet might also approach critical work from the perspective of thinking about their own poetry. It’s always interesting when one hears a poet give a critical account of their own work, and you’re like “hmmm, that doesn’t seem right.” It’s interesting how we understand the status of the things that poets say about their own work. Just because T.S. Eliot said “X” about “The Wasteland” doesn’t mean it’s the only way to read it. It might not be the best way to read it. 

And also something that I’ve been interested in is different forms of criticism. Earlier, you'd mentioned New Criticism, so I was just wondering if you could briefly describe some different ways of going about criticism?

I think the best forms of literary criticism always begin with their object. The thing that I think is often less successful is when one has a theoretical angle, and maybe one names it – like poststructuralism, or postcolonialism, or New Criticism – and then just kind of forces it on the text at hand. I think, rather, that one begins with the object, and sees how these different critical lenses might help to illuminate something in the text itself. The other way to understand that is in a difference in method, whether it’s an individual sitting with a published poem, or a series of poems, or whatever kind of texts, bringing whatever theoretical, conceptual, literary critical tools, terms, idea to bear upon reading the text, or – for example – working in an archive, examining drafts of a poem and related documents, and and thinking about it as a composed object in that sense. The simple application of theory to object often disappoints because the reading that emerges is unsurprising. A lot of the work that I write about is modern and contemporary poetry, and many of these writers were reading the same theory or philosophy or criticism that I might be bringing to my reading of the poem, so it feels dishonest and high-handed to be like, “Well, I will now take a complex idea as articulated by Deleuze, or Derrida, or Butler, and apply it to this contemporary poem by So-and-So.” Because So-and-So probably read the same thing, and so it feels like the wrong approach to undertake a reading of the poem by thinking, “clearly this benighted poet wouldn’t have read Derrida, and therefore it is my task to bring the complexity of Derrida to this poem.” 

Yeah I read, this summer, the famous Roland Barthes’ essay…

“The Death of the Author”? 

Yes, “The Death of the Author,” and I was wondering your thoughts on that. Do you think it matters whether or not an author meant for something to be interpreted in a certain way, or do our own ideas actually add to the work? 

I think that thinking about authorial intention is really complicated. I mean, on the one hand, I believe in authorial intention in the sense that I believe that the author intended to write a poem. Even in a found poem; even when a poet is like, “Oh, I cut out these 47 words from the newspaper, and put them on the page,”: they intended to do that, and to call it a poem. And so there’s authorial intention in that it’s an intentional act, and that’s always important. But the idea that the author intended a certain channel of meanings and that’s it—I don’t really buy that. The texts are often doing much, much more than an author may know about or have considered during the composition of the poem. Even just thinking about it in a purely metrical or technical sense. Say there’s a particularly rich or compelling metrical effect in a line in a Yeats poem that a reader might be able to name (“here’s a trochaic substitution,” “here’s a moment of catalexis”)—I’m pretty sure Yeat’s wasn’t saying to himself, “now I will switch from an iambic to a trochaic foot in order to do this,” but the effect is there. And so, what I think part of the task for the literary critic, especially with poetry, is to argue about texts , and to interpret and analyze, but also to describe: here’s what’s going on, here’s how this thing works. And so sometimes what I think about when I’m writing is, “Ok, How does this poem work? What is it up to?” Not “What does it mean?” It means what it says. There are not a lot of poems that have some secret meaning that is separate from the words that make up the poem. I mean, allegorical impulses, like parables, that’s all kind of happening, and you can read things on multiple levels. But the idea that the poem, as written, is definitely not what it means is kind of this weird shell game that I don’t quite understand. 

And I guess I was also wondering, for literary criticism, your thoughts on using more modern theory on stuff that had been written before that theory existed?

Why not? Shakespeare wasn’t writing about Sigmund Freud, but is thinking about Freud totally illuminating in some ways when thinking about Shakespeare? Sure. I mean sometimes there are anachronistic approaches that don’t quite work but I think that handled flexibly and in a textured way, such juxtapositions can work.

It’s actually funny, because I wanted to ask you that because of an essay I wrote this summer, where I decided to try applying psychoanalysis to Bleak House by Charles Dickens, and I was worried about using later theory on something that had already existed. So it’s interesting that you used that example, because that’s very close to what I was thinking of. 

Yeah, I mean it isn’t like the human psyche didn’t exist before Freud. It’s not like it was invented by Freud. Freud gave a particular description and account of what he saw happening in a clinical setting, but yeah, there are certain ways in which it can seem like one is just trying to plop a new theory down, and make it relevant. But I think we should use every tool we have to help us see texts in new ways.

Something I found really interesting in our seminar was when we talked about the influence of Viriginia Woolf on Valeria Luiselli’s writing, and for me, I was able to see those allusions because I had already studied Viriginia Woolf. But I was curious what it would’ve been like for someone who hadn’t. In literature, I think one of the ways that it’s less accessible is the textual allusions. I guess I was wondering if you think there’s any ways in which literature can do better as an academic subject with accessibility in that regard?

Yeah, I mean, I think if part of a text’s job is to try to give a sense of what it is like to be in the world at that time, in that place, then it’s always going to be inaccessible. Bleak House is going to have dozens and dozens and dozens of details that are representations of “regular” life in the world that it’s describing. If someone wrote about the Berkeley campus, even a description of Wheeler Hall could become a weird, inaccessible set of details to someone else down the line, or in a different place. So I think there’s a difference between the simple fact of the productive strangeness of any text and the presentation of knowledge or information that a reader might not know, and I think part of the reading process is that you can look up stuff, which is kind of easier now than ever. So there’s that, which sometimes might qualify as allusions, but sometimes are in the realm of detail. When authors are particularly calling back to, or working through, other writers, sometimes you’ll know the reference but I think in Luiselli’s case, one didn’t need the Woolf subtext to have her work be interesting. It gives another dimension to it; it’s interesting to discuss, but I mean, we can think of any act of human art along the same lines. You can look at a painting and think about the intrinsic shape, form, quality of the painting, and it will be a perfectly wonderful aesthetic experience, even if you don’t quite know that the painting is operating in this or that subgenre that goes all the way back. And so, it’s nice if you know it, but I tend not to think about it as, “Well, you either have the key or you don’t have the key, and if you don’t have the key, you’re shit out of luck because you didn’t get that the whole thing was really about Woolf.” The texts that do that end up being pretty thin, because once you get it, you might as well just read Woolf. In Luiselli’s text, there’s lots else going on, so the Woolf intertext is just one thread. 

I guess there are some where you do kind of have to understand, though, like “The Wasteland,” I felt was pretty hard in that sense. 

I mean yes and no, right? Some parts, sure. But I take your point. And that’s part of a good deal of modernist literature. It went out of its way to present much more difficulty at the surface of the text, and that’s a feature of it. 

Yeah, and my next question was actually kind of going to be about modernism, but more just generally about experimentation in terms of form. I was really interested in that during our seminar, and I was wondering more about a writer’s goal of presenting life as they experience it, and how that affects the form. Since you studied Irish literature, I was specifically thinking about UlyssesCould speak more on James Joyce, and experimentation in form?

Yeah, it’s such a… it’s an elusive word; it’s an overused word; it’s a kind of inaccurately used word, because when we talk about literary experimentation, we don’t usually mean what folks in the STEM. fields would think of as an experiment. Experimentation can be thought of in terms of boundary-breaking, convention-breaking, as a form of play. Experimentation exists in different ways. Clearly Joyce in, say, the episode “Oxen in the Sun,” – that didn’t just kind of happen. He said at some point in the process, “this will be a compositional mechanism by which I will write this episode.” And so, there’s the compositional experimentation – or procedure, let’s call it – where one wants to know about it, and how it shapes the work. You know, like John Cage’s famous work, “4 Minutes and 33 seconds”. Do you know that piece?

No, I’m not sure.

So it’s this piece where a pianist goes to a piano, sits down, opens the score, opens the piano’s lid, and sits there, doing nothing, for three movements. And that totals to four minutes and 33 seconds. So there’s nothing composed in the piece. If someone happens to fall out of their chair in one performance, that’s part of the piece in that performance. So that’s a form of experimentation, or procedure. Other forms of experimentation are more local, or trying to work against some sort of traditional or conventional form. You know, Whitman’s adamant desire to break away from the iambic pentameter or the blank verse of Wordsworth and many others, and assemble what he took to be an American mode. So experimentation exists at all levels, and Joyce was certainly an experimental writer in a million ways, but even in Ulysses, what experimentation means differs from episode to episode. And in certain ways, it ends up mattering differently for the reader. There are lots of arguments. So you read Ulysses, and Joyce clearly mapped Ulysses onto the Homeric epic of The Odyssey, and he described to his friends afterwards all of the particular ways in which it corresponded. And it kind of goes back to “The Wasteland” question. Is one reading it better if one focuses on all of the Homeric parallels that Joyce told us were there? Even experimental texts like that offer so many different modes of approach. 

And then, the last question: What book would you recommend to everyone reading this interview? 

One recent book I really love is by this poet, who is also a visual artist, named Renee Gladman. It’s called Plans for Sentences. It’s just a wonderful and beautiful book. And the artwork exists separately as well. Plans for Sentences—it’s a great book.