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The Art of Composition and Play

An Interview with Richard Powers
Jean-Yves Pellegrin et Richard Powers

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Since Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985), his first novel, Richard Powers has published thirteen books. In a career spanning nearly forty years, he has explored a wide range of subjects, and a variety of writing styles and compositional methods. His work includes texts with complex narrative structures and a sophisticated style, such as The Gold Bug Variations (1991) and Operation Wandering Soul (1993), as well as more conventional novels, like The Time of Our Singing (2003) and The Overstory (2018), which have won him widespread acclaim in the United States and abroad. Regardless of the type of novel or subject matter, Powers’s work is dedicated to mapping the complex interactions that underpin a living reality in constant evolution, and to question the place of humans within it; his entire body of work is a manifesto for the power of fiction to enlighten readers and illuminate the world.

The following interview was conducted online on July 4, 2023.

Photo credit: courtesy of Joan Maloof

Jean-Yves Pellegrin: As Bruno Latour has pointed out, your fiction is not concerned with “matters of fact” but with “matters of concern” (Latour 263), which means that it is not content to expose particular objects, but explores and experiments with the dense and intricate networks of which those objects are a part. In that sense, your fiction has always been political and committed (witness the many warnings against artistic practices that are out of touch with the world or seen as a refuge from it, be it the Sailing-to-Byzantium temptation in Plowing the Dark, or story-telling as lethal escapism in Operation Wandering Soul), but it seems to me that the later novels address the question of commitment in a more explicit and ambivalent way, portraying activists or suspected activists (Alyssa and Robbie in Bewilderment, the eco-warriors in The Overstory, Peter Els in Orfeo) whose actions seem misguided or desperate, leading to failure, suicide, or death... Does your later fiction reflect an evolution in your understanding of (political) commitment and the role of the artist?

Richard Powers: I am really glad that you started with Latour. I still think of him almost every day and I miss him a great deal. He planted an enormous, planet-wide seed that has already had astounding influence on the world and in art. I don’t know of any thinker in the humanities disciplines who has cast a wider net or who has influenced more people in as many ways. He spent his life assembling groups of very provocative and not always like-minded people, but always very productive people, into meaningful conversations, into intense interactions, and I was fortunate to be in that group of people whom he saw as constructive allies. He often looked for names for the school that he was trying to assemble or put together, and he played for a long time with this idea of composition, compositionists in the analogical sense of putting something with other things. Of course, that process as you said, “matters of concern,” matters of negotiation–the process of investing, through your values, of assembling and reassembling what you take to be desirable, is to compose, in a collaborative endeavor, a kind a reality that is tenable, and healthy, and fit. The name never really stuck but I always took a great deal of pride in being the kind of artist that Bruno would look at and say, Yes, this is not only an instance of, but a representation of this stumbling, improvisatory, evolving process of composing. So, many of my books literally take as their subject matter this constant process of composing, whether it is music, or writing, or any of the other traditional humanistic arts, or as is the case with the majority of my books, the process of composing technological masteries and scientific corpuses of comprehension or knowledge. The comprehension is itself a function of evolving composition.

Now, your broader question is whether that interest in composition has shaded over into a more overt embrace of activism, which you call commitment. There are a variety of names for this threshold that you cross over into from merely describing–the merely aesthetic–to the political, to an advocate position. Have I crossed that line? I have to answer yes. I have always chafed a bit against an art that was merely aesthetic, merely about evoking sensation or feeling, or moving a reader, and been always attracted to an art that actually does something to alter or expand a reader’s hierarchy of values. For a long time in Western art, and certainly in the art of the novel, there has been a proscription against anything that looked like efficacy. The belles-lettres writer, the modernist and the postmodernist, were encouraged to be a kind a deistic god, if god at all, to remove yourself from this realm of stating which of the values in contention with each other inside your drama are the ones that you embrace or the ones that you would advocate. All these aesthetics that say that an artist should not prescribe, that an artist should merely describe–I understood that, I believed it as a younger person, and I see the great value of detachment, of allowing a reader to stumble through a series of defective identifications towards kinds of emotional knowledge that are directly given to him by the maker. I still see why that is an extremely powerful technique, but I also see in that whole fine arts approach–the encouragement of detachment and the banishment of efficacy–I see in that approach a kind of collapse in the belief about what art itself is capable of dramatizing or accomplishing. So, I tie this in some ways to my growing understanding that there is a kind a dramatic conflict that has grown out of most of the literature of the last hundred and fifty years, and it is the conflict between the desires of humanity and the desires of the living world. So long as art limited itself to this kind of focus on individual values, on the primacy of the subject, of the self, so long as fiction was saying that the best we can do is show crises between individual subjects or inside individual subjects, so long as the tacit message was that all attempts to understand conflict between the aggregate desires of humanity and the aggregate desires and agencies of the living world was no longer necessary, that kind of fine arts detachment made sense. But once you reintroduce this idea that we are in a precarious place, wanting untenable things in a world that is at best indifferent to, and often explicitly hostile to how we would like to live, the call for engagement, the call to compose ourselves inside the living word comes back and the difference between an art that describes and an art that prescribes begins to disappear. You basically need to say, Here is what I believe will be necessary for our survival. And I think in the last thirty years, the West Wing culture which had lured itself into thinking that it was entirely safe, entirely ascendant, and entirely victorious in its struggle to assert its right to exist on the face of the planet, has now disappeared and been replaced by a growing awareness of just how precarious and tenuous our existence really is. This call for an art that says, Here is how we can stay here, becomes more defensible.

JYP: While listening to you, I thought of Dorothy and Ray in The Overstory. To me, they symbolize how fiction can be effective, since they learn from books about the place they live in, and what they learn prompts them to examine and explore the place in greater detail, “as if they had travelled to another planet” (443). They experience a sense of wonder, they learn about their precarious place in the living world, and eventually want to protect it by turning their backyard into a pocket of resistance. Is this the type of commitment you advocate or would like to inspire in your readers?

RP: Yes, I think it is a very strong reading to see the two of them as a kind of proxy for this journey from a passive and merely aesthetic relationship to the texts around them, whether they are composed human texts or the texts created by the rest of the agency-filled more-than-human world. And that they make a long journey with two very different trajectories and two different sets of values was important for me too. I wanted to create a kind of dynamism that allows them to spur along, and scare, and be inspired by one another. I do think that the move that they make away from a reality that exists entirely by, for, and through the self, and opens up into a growing understanding that meaning is out there beyond the self is very much the journey that I have been making. Is resistance a necessary part of that? Yes, because they are living in a culture that asserts the primacy and in fact the exclusivity of private commodity-mediated individual meaning.

JYP: Speaking of the efficacy of fiction, Neelay asks in The Overstory, “[W]hat do all good stories do?” Answering his own question, he says, “They kill you a little. They turn you into something you weren’t” (412). Ever since your first books, you have stressed the power of stories to transform the reader. In Prisoner’s Dilemma, the narrator describes fiction as “[t]he plans for a place to hide out in long enough to learn how to come back” (354). Your novels compose worlds from which readers emerge with a revised, more complex, and richer map of the place they live in, and are therefore better equipped to inhabit that place. By looking at things from different perspectives–like the point of view of cranes in The Echo Maker or that of trees in The Overstory–your fiction helps readers see the world in new ways. However, you also suggest that we can only look at things from our own limited perspective. As Theo puts it in Bewilderment, “even if [one] did succeed at last in opening the locked room of another person’s head, we would still never know what it feels to inhabit that place. Wherever we went, the view would always be from here” (95). Even though we can’t actually feel and think like forests or animals, what is the closest alternative that fiction can provide and what strategies–narrative, poetic, and aesthetic–does this endeavor require?

RP: There are many questions in there and many possible directions to take. One good start would be to go back to Latour again, saying a compositionist is actually composing the multiple, polysemous, polyphonic quality of experience into something that somehow reflects, or articulates, or extends the set of values that that composer is struggling to understand and to articulate. I said that Ray and Dorothy were justified in this motion toward activism because in a culture that deifies individualist commodity-mediated meaning, to resist that culture is also itself an act of composition and a way of making your life into art. Now, what can a book do or not do with regard to moving a person out of the prison of their own self? I think that part of what your question asks is what is the nature of the efficacy of art. We know that art has efficacy because we know that people respond with all the capacities of their brain to a composed microworld that is an artistic work. We know that they get new ideas, new cognitive formulations. We know that they are emotionally moved, and to go into the etymology of the word move is very interesting to see the displacement effect on their sets of affects. That’s a very real thing that art does. Since we know that the experience of a work of art can be profoundly powerful in a number of different ways, does it release the person from the prison of their self? No. Does it rearrange the furniture inside the cell? Definitely. It gives the engager with the work of art new capacities for composing their own understanding of the world. The history of literature is filled with examples of works that had very real, measurable real-world effects. We know that Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to touch off the Civil War in the United Sates, and we know that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle actually directly resulted in food and drug laws that saved hundreds of thousands of lives. So, there is a way in which fiction can function as directly efficacious political tract. That is to say, a good story, as Patricia points out in The Overstory, may be the only way of getting people change their minds. But aside from the idea of a work of art as a political tract, which I don’t necessarily see as a badge of shame, having turned my own back on the aesthetic remove I grew up in, I now see that a book that has left its mark on the world in a productive way is a very laudable thing, but I want to cast a larger net too. I want to say even those books that do not have a measurable impact on the world have a great capacity for effecting a kind of ability to relocate the source of meaning from entirely self-created to collaborative, to composed. Maybe the most efficacious, the most valuable thing that a work of art can do is make the receiver of that work conscious of the degree to which he or she is actually participating as collaborative artist in giving this thing the power to move, the power to expand.

JYP: This is the just experience I have when reading and translating your books, this growing awareness that meaning and power are not things I can construct on my own but things that emerge from collaboration.

RP: That is precisely the aesthetic I have been moving toward for thirty years, away from this idea that we are the solitary makers of what we take to be the case, toward this vision of inter-being and interdependence. It is interesting to go back to this idea of the tyranny of living in a culture that advocates for the creation of private desires through market-driven forces, which is the best way I can characterize where we live. To detach art from the desire to reveal that colonial aspect of the culture is to acquiesce to that culture. You have put your finger on something quite essential to understanding the challenge of the books I have been writing in the last ten years, what I have put forward in my late stage of life. If you look at the review of The Overstory by Nathaniel Rich in The Atlantic, he says something like When a work of art has a set of beliefs and its intention is to promulgate those beliefs in a reader, there is a name for that. He doesn’t say the name but he clearly means propaganda or something like that. And to him, that is the dirtiest word that you can throw at a work of literature. Put alongside that the comments that I have received over the last five years about that book from very ordinary readers all the way up to former President Obama who say, This book made me think differently about the world that I live in–if that’s propaganda, I accept the label. The defense of writing of a book that has advocacy is that the culture itself has advocacy. We are living in a world where there is a huge, widespread, monolithic, and powerful consensus that the function of a work of art should be to entertain and actually reinforce the values of the consumer who engages the book as a commodity. You read the book, you immediately go online and you choose a commodity evaluation, a numeric evaluation to place on the commodity, the way that you would a vacuum cleaner or a leaf blower. And the chief criterion for giving that book a commodity score is whether or not you liked the book and, inside this culture, like means reaffirm the values that I had when I went into the book. So, now you see what commodity-culture people and compositionists both believe. They believe that there is a choice between seeing a work of art as something that leaves you on the far side either as more deeply confirmed in values that you had going into it, or challenged, changed, as Neelay says, “killed a little”–that you are going out of that book a different person than you went in, that you have evolved, that the work of art was part of the process of that evolution. Think of evolving, unfolding. What that actually entails in the biological world. Every act of evolution requires complex kinds of death. It is differential death that drives the evolution. So, to become something else, we have to die away from the things that we were. Now, to go back to a point that I made in my initial answer, right now it is becoming increasingly clear to the people who pay attention, the people who are intelligent enough to comprehend, that we are facing a moment in history where there is an absolute choice: evolve or die. Either you die away from the set of values that you have and that are now clearly untenable in the world, or you die altogether in a world as an unchanged person who wanted to like those things that had such a catastrophic effect on the world. The question is in what ways, and how far, and how powerfully can works of art be part of the process that unfolds us to new ways of being. And it doesn’t seem to me controversial to say that–as composed and distilled essences of all those provocations in the larger world that have caused the maker, the composer to get a grasp on the urgency of his or her condition–works of art should be efficacious. If carefully made, if effectively made, there is no more powerful a way of making us someone else than we were when we started.

JYP: Unfolding the reader to new ways of thinking and being in the world may involve, among other aesthetic strategies, a revision of the concept of character which the art of the novel has defined as an individual endowed with consciousness, memory, desire, intentionality, and so on. Some of your characters partly align with this convention but quite a few don’t. In Galatea 2.2, for instance, one of the main protagonists is a network of electronic circuits. In Gain, it is a family business that grows into a world company. In The Gold Bug Variations, it is DNA... Like Louis Kahn who asked a brick what it wanted to be, your novels seem to ask all kinds of nonhuman entities what they want to be, and you ask your readers to pay attention to what these entities say. This is clear in the novels that concentrate on more-than-human life. They assert that this life wants something from us. This reminds me of what German philosopher Andreas Weber says in Enlivenment. Toward a Poetics for the Anthropocene: “The world is matter desiring to come into contact with us and with other matter, and it creates meaning to the degree to which this desire is realized or not” (Weber 8). Could this thinking, which finds agency, intentionality, desire, and meaning beyond the human, be the larger framework in which your definition of character lives?

RP: I’m not sure I can do justice to that topic more than you have already done. It is a delightful prompt. I love that quote. As you were formulating the position, of course, I went back and thought of Latour. This was his great, great insight to extend agency away from individual actants and actors into this notion of interdependence. And it is no coincidence that Galatea 2.2 was the first book that caught his attention because I was stumbling my own inchoate and much more intuitive way toward that same appreciation that Latour had, this challenge to the introspection that people arrive at, that somehow they have agency, that they have integrity, that they are a kind of impermeable actor, a unified and intact thing that is out there in the world, and independent of the millions of prosthetics that actually compose their person. It was Latour’s great insight to say that all those things that you have externalized are actually part of what you think is merely your own agency. My books have tried to show that the idea of an autonomous, independent, wholly formed character is an illusion, that the world itself is filled with entities, actors, agents, networks that themselves comprise the interdependent, reciprocal processes that form real character. Again, why succumb or acquiesce to an illusion, a culture that is saying, You are real and you have to assert your independence, and your autonomy, and your private meaning in the face of all these other things that have actually composed you and constructed you? My books have always tried to challenge this idea of private destiny and the traditional sense of independent or autonomous character. I have tried to show, as you very articulately and eloquently expressed in your setup, the ways in which those processes are much larger and more reciprocal and multivalent than a lot of art gives them credit for. It is interesting that part of the resistance to the way I formulated a character in the early part of my career, and I guess into the middle part of my career as well, is this idea that somehow there were a lot of ideas in the books and that there was not a lot of richly developed character. From the beginning that criticism never made sense to me because there was something about the assumptions of that position that made the notion that people in my books could be passionate about ideas as somehow not realistic, or not robust, or not mimetic. To me, it was just an internalization of a way of constructing people in modernist and post-Romantic literature that privileged the idea of a Romantic self, that somehow cognitive processes were not part of personality processes.

JYP: Your books even go beyond the idea of challenging the Romantic or post-Romantic vision of the self. They use nonhuman beings as central characters, which raises a technical question. Maybe this is just a side issue but I’m curious. When you extend the concept of character to nonhuman entities, how do you characterize these entities? Does it require that you personify them and make them look like us, the way Patricia Westerford does in The Overstory when she thinks that “plants are willful and crafty and after something, just like people”? (114) Is it possible to see nonhuman entities as characters without comparing them to human beings, and does this comparison create a risk of reinforcing the dualism that distinguishes between humans and non-humans (since viewing humans as a reference indicates that they might be the sole beings that really possess consciousness, intentionality, and desire)? Or is the risk averted because your fiction also redefines the human?

RP: That’s not a side issue, that’s a central question in my existence. I have been asking it for forty years and I ask it every morning when I wake up. How could I put moonlight into a chamber, as Shakespeare says, which I used as a leitmotiv in The Gold Bug Variations. How can I make this intensely astounding and magnificent world comprehendible or moving to individual readers? Now, every human being and each separate reader is going to have all kinds of different capacities for making emotional and intellectual transferences onto nonhuman things. But in the aggregate, we are shaped to find ourselves incredibly interesting. There has been a lot of study of this, at the psychological level, at the physiological level. And it makes sense from the standpoint of natural selection that there is adaptive advantage in an animal that is going to be a social animal–there is adaptive advantage for acute sensitivity to reading other people. So, we developed these huge capacities for interpreting the nuances of creatures that look and move and sound like us. They are on our physical scale, they unfold basically in our own time frame. The human will always be the most salient and significant thing to just about anybody. Newborn infants show a preference for human stimuli over all other kinds of stimuli. So, the question of how to open up the cage of that predisposition, of the affordances that we have inherited inside that organ shaped by natural selection that is the human body, how to open up those affordances to resonate more fully with the incredible and astonishing set of agencies and networks that lie beyond the human, that is a primary task of the artist. How to heighten and render acute and astonishing things that would otherwise pass beneath the radar as they don’t look immediately as something that needs to be attended to for your own self-preservation or advantage.

JYP: So, maybe making those astonishing things look like us could be a way of prompting humans to pay more attention to those beings that would otherwise go unnoticed?

RP: That’s certainly one strategy to personification. There is an interesting meditation in The Overstory about this prohibition against anthropomorphizing that the sciences have really refined. You can see where it started out as an essential part of the preservation of the empirical process: Don’t fall into this trap of our human predisposition to see human-like things in the world. I think that is really essential. In order to fully feel the whole range of potential and meaning that lies beyond the human, we do have to keep from saddling it with human analogy. But in the sense that homeopathic medicine uses a little bit of the poison to spur a kind of immune response against larger doses of poison, I think as an artist you can develop the ability to judiciously invoke, or tease, or titillate those natural predispositions to be interested in gossipy kinds of things, you can titillate those affordances in the human psyche. There is a little bit of bait-and-switch involved here.

JYP: This process also raises the question of metaphoric language and its efficacy. When you liken nonhuman beings to human beings, whether explicitly or not, the likeness is achieved through a metaphoric process. You have explored this idea in Gold Bug, which basically tells how the syntactic message that encodes what a gene wants to become can only be understood as and through a metaphor. And when you write in The Overstory, “The tree is saying things, in words before words” (3), we can read this statement either as an insightful analogy or as a questionable projection of the human focalizer’s thoughts onto the tree she is looking at. In that case, how does your writing navigate the shifting line between insight and delusion which is perhaps the hallmark of metaphor?

RP: By moving around. By constantly testing, exploring, modulating, by not remaining too didactically committed to one or another approach, because the reality is that the way we interpret all experience and not just verbal transactions is always situational, always contextual, and is always itself evolving. To have a single algorithm or creed, a mechanism, a shibboleth by which you can determine the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of a certain approach–none of that is going to be useful to the artist because the artist has to be as supple, as variable, as ephemeral, and as transitory as the phenomenal experience he or she is trying to open up the reader to. So, this is probably a good moment to introduce this semantic field that has become increasingly interesting and important to me, although again, if you look back to my work, it has always been present. It is an acquiescence to the idea of play. The relationship between play and metaphor is profound. Metaphor as an insufficient but necessary intermediary, a kind of limping interlocutor between us and reality–I don’t find that avenue to be all that interesting and productive. I grew up in a world that wanted to call attention to the prison house of language, the fact that all these currencies that we use to exchange semantics with each other are more barrier than they are bridge. That may ultimately be demonstrable in some kind of logical or broadly philosophical way, but the reality is we get by. We use all these questionable metaphors and it is their failure to precisely convey the semantic that is in the transmitter that can often produce a much richer field in the receiver than the transmitter intended. And that is where play comes in: words, not as a failed system of more precise and locatable, stable meaning, but words as the elements by which the endlessly fecund and productive processes of play and have-play can be given play.

JYP: Maybe your idea about metaphor and play–metaphor as a process that productively plays around with what it tries to put together–aligns with what Paul Ricoeur says in La métaphore vive about the truth value of metaphor. According to him, the metaphoric play creates a new relevance by binding what is to what is not.

RP: Yes, that is brilliant. If you take the functional approach and say that we are using metaphor to convey a sharper, more probing, more revealing semantics–when I say that A is somehow analogically embodied in B, or can be conveyed by B, that A is like B–that kind of production, the position that wants to see effective results, asks Has that metaphor succeeded in saying something richer about A? It will be a successful metaphor (A is like B) if somehow the recipient of the metaphor sees something new about A. In your point and in my own approach, the meaning of the metaphor is not just in the metaphor itself. The license to invoke a metaphor rather than a more prosaic description is interested in B as well, and in a relationship between A and B that never existed before. The primary purpose of the metaphor is not merely to make A sharper or clearer. A metaphor is not only to invite the reader to think more subtly or expansively about the ways in which the elements of the metaphor relate, but to actually call attention to the mind at play, and in calling attention to the metaphor-making mind at play, to invite the recipient of that metaphor to be playful as well. A large part of the meaning of metaphor is not semantic at all; it is procedural.

JYP: Your books believe in the capacity of story and language to enlighten us. They enable us to “learn the place” as Jan O’Deigh has it in Gold Bug (86). Language explores, names, and describes the complexity of the world to denounce simple views, arouse a sense of wonder, and hopefully prompt us to “become indigenous again” (Overstory 339). But your work also suggests that language is the most efficient instrument of the appropriation of the world by humans, a source of empowerment and authority. Many characters in your books are authors/creators devising models of the world through language or code. Language is also what divorces us from the world by turning it into symbols. We live in maps of the world, because they are cleaner than the world and better suited to our desires, like the massively multiplayer online game devised by Neelay in The Overstory, a game aptly called Mastery. In this respect, language is perhaps the main source of dualism. The line we have drawn between us and the world out there is drawn by symbolic language which puts the world at a distance. In short, your fiction describes language as a double agent. How does your own writing negotiate this paradox?

RP: I’m looking for fresh ways to come at this… There are metaphors that have long been invoked about the multiple affordances of language and that unstable, uneasy relationship that a linguistic set of mental processes has with the other processes that we have and by which we know and engage and participate in being in the world. And to say that language is a double-edged sword… The first time this metaphor was ever made, it was probably quite delightful, because it was a kind a rabbit hole as you sat there and contemplated how language is like a sword that has two sharp edges on it. Well, with the one edge you wanted to swing at something else and cut that some other thing with it, but the edge that is toward you could possibly… So, the person working out that metaphor is being enriched by its strangeness and is also saying, But wait a minute. If language is double, that metaphor itself is, and that whole process of being aware of conflicting affordances of that entire, essential, treacherous but unavoidable way which we have engaged in, attaching ourselves to interbeing, is richly reinvoked. That’s what I would like to do again now. I remember sitting on a panel, the very first time I ever did a public event with Bruno back in 1997 in Urbana, Illinois–that notion of the multiple affordances of machine mediation was being put forward to us as a challenge, and of course Bruno was sitting there with his head in his hands because this person who is challenging the notion of machine agency has entirely missed the degree to which that double-edged machine agency is already in the agency of human beings. I tried to make a point and said that all technologies, including the technology of speech, the technology of breathing, the technology of metabolizing in the world have multiple affordances, are not fixed entities but are themselves trajectories through space and time, will always have costs, will always be able to be employed for the destruction of their own goals and attempts. I tried to use this simple metaphor of a knife. It is a huge advance to civilization but it is also a deadly weapon. You can use it to chop vegetables but you can stab your spouse with it. Is the knife good or bad? The whole point of working toward a compositional understanding of the world is to say, Stop talking about the strengths and weaknesses, the guilt or virtue of the knife. Start seeing the knife as part of a constantly unfolding and revising attempt to employ and engage and participate in the world. Shift your focus away from products, from commodities, toward processes. Why is it that we can only think of language and reify it, as if it is a set of blocks that are either very productive or very treacherous? What if they were simply force vectors that are operating on whatever it is that evolution is unfolding? I mean, all sensory perception is also treacherous and can also completely undercut the validity or desirability of the things that those senses are asserting about the world. You know, language is a late comer. Its affordances are incredibly powerful. It may be the single thing that has allowed us as a species, in the blink of an eye, to completely manhandle the world for better and for worse. So, the question needs to be asked, but are there creative ways linguistically and also alinguistically, to get to the dual affordances, the ambivalences, the treachery and double-edgedness of language more productively, more playfully, more usefully? And my answer is only the beginning of the way in which to make that question as productive as it might be.

JYP: I would like to ask one last question about the potential analogy I find in some of your books between the act of writing and the living world’s dynamic processes. I’m referring to the novels in which narrative and language shape the objects they map but are also shaped by them in return. For instance, the structure of The Overstory is modeled on that of a tree in the same way as of the nested structures of The Gold Bug Variations are patterned on the idea of variation. As a narrator and writer, Jan is dreaming of a text that could continuously improvise and revise its own form: “These notes, my evolving, catchall phylum, live and die, propagate their own excess. I arrange them, perpetually revising, inventing writing as I go” (322). This is also what Douglas is longing for at the end of The Overstory when he turns the word “Still” into a piece of land art that will grow and change with the forest. Now, how far can this go–this project of a writing that is as spontaneous and alive as the living world? Does it materialize in your poetic practice, or is it just another metaphor, since writing can never be as spontaneous and autopoietic as life itself, if only because the author’s plans and the author’s authority always get in the way?

RP: I feel as if we have come back to a place where the two large preoccupations of this conversation are merging into one river. Latour’s compositionalism and my own increasing preoccupation with play. Writing is very different than speaking, and both writing and speaking are very different than being. They are parts of being, but we think of speech as necessarily improvisatory, and my own aversion to doing interviews comes from the fact that it really is a real tough sport. If you spend forty years composing, actually placing each word on the page where you want it, even if where you want it keeps changing and you have done fifteen or more drafts, the reality is you have this illusion of control, this illusion of mastery as you refine the placement of words. It never happens in speech. And so, anyone who has spent forty years writing, composing, is going to be a little bit terrified about the real-time precarious nature of just talking. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I forget where my subject and verb is? What if I lose my way? What if I can’t quite find that word I was looking for? Then it is not the perfect compositioning. Well, neither is the written composition. The acceptance of the precariousness of speech is also the embrace of play. But here is the thing: speech consists of both play and composition, with play outweighing composition, whereas writing consists of both play and composition with composition outweighing to some extent spontaneous play. By the twentieth draft, you might still have some aspect of playfulness that still have survived your constant desire to perfect and improve, but the point is that play and composition are reciprocally connected components of evolving. Go back to the etymology of evolve, meaning to unfold and to fold away from. That is the goal of play, and it is also the goal of composition. So, my practice consists of trying to use the two impulses, the one impulse toward governance, the one impulse toward spontaneity and invention, to use them productively to hold one another in a balance in this larger tertium quid, this thing which both of them are trying to attempt, which is to hop onboard that trajectory that is constantly dying away from one place and coming into another place. Evolving and living.

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LATOUR, Bruno. “Powers of the Facsimile: A Turing Test on Science and Literature”. Intersections. Essays on Richard Powers. Eds. Stephen J. Burn & Peter Dempsey. Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2008, p. 263-291.

POWERS, Richard. Prisoner’s Dilemma. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988.

POWERS, Richard. The Gold Bug Variations. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.

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Jean-Yves Pellegrin et Richard Powers, « The Art of Composition and Play  »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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