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the dictionary project author interview: ander monson

Today, we feature an interview with Ander Monson, author in all genres and known innovator in the world of nonfiction. I think what I appreciate most about Ander’s work is how he brings to the forefront the unexpected and neglected musings that are often relegated to the sidebar, the footnotes, the parentheses. These ideas are investigated, interrogated, violently disassembled and put back together again in surprising, compelling, and sometimes confounding ways.  As he once told me, the essayist’s job is to show the inner workings of the writer’s brain on the page. Enjoy these synapses, these nerve endings.



1. Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:

I’ve collected old dictionaries for years, starting mostly when I lived in Alabama, and happened on a whole pile of them at Alabama’s Thrift Store, now named, instead, America’s Thrift Store. I’d buy them all. I must have had forty. They were all well outdated. I wondered what worth there was in an outdated dictionary. But they had the most lovely images: etchings, woodcuts, weird handmade diagrams of things. I got excited. I kept them for four years, acquiring more, but had to discard most of them when my wife and I moved to Michigan. They weigh a ton. They take up too much space. But first I pillaged them. Now I restrict myself only to specialist dictionaries (medical dictionaries, photography dictionaries, tool-and-die dictionaries, mathematics dictionaries, etc.) and to my OED condensed, 1971, in micro-script. It comes with a magnifying glass.

2. What is your current favorite word?


3. What is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?



4. What word has been your (recent or past) muse?

I almost never think of words as muses. To me they’re tools—sometimes worlds.


5. Could you talk a little bit about the interaction of words and space in your work? 

Well, that’s a big question. I’ll narrow it down a bit. The piece I wrote for this, Dear Sepulcher, is part of this book project I’m finishing up this fall in which I write short, associative, compressed essays in response to things happened on in libraries: five words (in this case), a passage from a book, a striking image, an snatch of overheard conversation, a human hair, a punch card, homophobic marginalia, a packet of seeds, a due date stamp, just to name a few. Once written, they are originally published back into the book in the library in which I found the originating thing. So they’re words written in response to words I found in any one of a series of particular spaces (libraries, loosely defined), and published back into that space as a communication to a future reader. In this way I’ve been thinking of the library as a medium, a meeting space for brains to find each other. I’m also collecting these short essays as 6×9 cards, unbound, unordered in a box. So in their production I’m thinking about space and language, image and design (as I often do in my work). How language can be a tool of design—or design a tool of language. Either can serve the other, but they work best when they can have a conversation.


6. Please respond to the following words and definitions*, picked exclusively at random for you:


se·pul·cher  (ˈse-pəl-kər),  n.  [ME. & OFr. sepulcre; L. spulcrum < sepelire, to bury],  1.  a vault for burial; grave; tomb.  2.  a place for the safekeeping of relics, as in an altar.  v.t.  to place in a sepulcher; bury.


Al·a·bam·i·an  (ˌæləˈbæmɪən), adj.  of Alabama.  n.  a native or inhabitant of Alabama.


ken·nel  (/ˈkenl),  n.  [ME. kenel, keneil;  OFr.  *kenil; LL. canile < L. canis, a dog],  1.  a doghouse  2.  often pl. a place where dogs are bred or kept.  3.  a pack of dogs  v.t.  [KENNELED or KENNELLED (‘ld), KENNELING or KENNELLING], to place or keep in a kennel.  v.ito live or take shelter in a kennel.


Pa·pe·e·te  (pəˈpētē), n.  a seaport on Tahitia: capital of the Society Islands and French Oceania: pop., 8500.


re·ta·li·ate  (riˈtalēˌāt),  v.i[RETALIATED (-id) RETALIATING], [<L. retaliatus, pp. of retaliare, to require, retaliate < re-, back + talio, punishment in kind < talis, such}, to return like for like; especially to return evil for evil; pay back injury for injury: as, if he is hurt, he will retailiate.  v.t.  to return an injury, wrong, etc. for (an injury, wrong, etc. given); requite in kind.







*Definitions taken from Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, copyright 1955.



Ander Monson is the author of a host of paraphernalia including a decoder wheel, several chapbooks and limited edition letterpress collaborations, a website, and five books, most recently The Available World (poetry, Sarabande, 2010) and Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir (nonfiction, Graywolf, 2010). He lives and teaches in Tucson, Arizona, where he edits the magazine DIAGRAM  and the New Michigan Press.

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