Ivy Grimes is a poet and fiction writer. She holds an MFA from the University of Alabama, and her work has appeared in The Cimarron Review, PANK, Pacific Review, The Broadkill Review, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. According to her twitter, “if there’s no abyss to throw a pumpkin into, there’s no point in having a pumpkin.” She lives in Virginia.
Her story “Free Museum of the New Art” appeared in Potomac Review issue #67 in fall 2020. In spring 2021, PR intern Bella Bergman spoke with Ivy Grimes about Kafka, Kierkegaard, pretending to fit in, and prices that just aren’t worth paying. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Bella Bergman: “Free Museum of the New Art” certainly has a unique concept, but if you’ve traveled to a different country it makes for strangely relatable reading, especially if you like museums. How did you come up with this concept? It struck me as something that felt more personal to you.
Ivy Grimes: For me, travel here is a metaphor for the experience of feeling like a stranger. That’s something we can feel when we’re in a different country, but it’s also something we can feel in our hometown. I think we all sometimes have the experience of feeling that we don’t understand what’s going on in our own lives, or like the people around us are speaking a different language. Museums often work this way, too. They’re places for us to view art or gain some kind of knowledge in a curated space. I love museums, but I also get the sense that I’m playing by someone else’s rules, living in their point-of-view. When I was younger, I felt more intimidated by other people’s attitudes towards art (and everything else) and was more tempted to furrow my brow and nod when I didn’t really understand. Over time, I’ve seen that experts also feel lost. So much of life is pretending like we understand what’s going on when we don’t.
BB: The city in this story remains nameless. As a result, the reader can plug in their own memories and experiences (I found myself imagining Amsterdam). Why did you choose to keep the city anonymous? Did you have a particular place in mind as you wrote?
IG: To be honest, the idea came to me while visiting Rome. I visited a museum that mostly featured experimental art by local students. I had a good experience there. It wasn’t like the story! But the half-finished and experimental nature of the museum inspired me.
I definitely wanted to leave the city nameless, because for me, it wasn’t about the particular city. It was about how the experience of being from a different country enhanced the woman’s sense of confusion and strangeness. It even occurred to me that she could be in some sort of afterlife. I love Kafka’s The Castle, which explores some similar themes. Since the protagonist didn’t have her bearings, I don’t think she is able to perceive the city clearly.
BB: I found the interaction between the server and the protagonist quite striking. She’s trying to order drinks, and he seems genuinely concerned for her well-being, for reasons we can’t quite grasp. What did you have in mind with this scene? What were you looking to signify or accomplish?
IG: If things are going well, I’m usually not thinking too clearly about what I want to accomplish. In this case, I didn’t have a conscious idea for why the waiter was there. If I pretend this is someone else’s story, I’d say the waiter acts as a threshold guardian. He’s like, “Be careful here, because you don’t really know what you’re doing.” The woman doesn’t heed his warning, and she goes on to have her adventure.
As a side note, I’ve found that when I’m a visitor in small communities where everyone knows everyone’s business, strangers will give me advice. I know accepting that kind of advice is the price of deep connection and rootedness to place. It’s a price I don’t think I’m personally willing to pay!
BB: The part with the foam-metal-concrete tree was another ambiguous scene. It almost felt like an optical illusion—the suggestion that perhaps things are not quite as they seem, the idea that our perception of objects and events can be largely informed by something as (seemingly) straightforward as physical distance. Could you talk a little bit about the subtext there?
IG: I usually want things to be open-ended, and I like this interpretation! This is the hardest question to answer, because the tree means a lot of complicated things to me, and some are personal. For one thing, she gets into trouble here because acts like she understands everything. She pretends to fit in (both in the country and in the museum) even though she doesn’t. As a piece of art, the tree draws her in with its illusions, and the confusing instructions from the guard cause her to do something risky. Sort of like Alice going down the rabbit hole.
She doesn’t get stuck, though. She finds a way back down, and ultimately, she has a life-affirming experience as a result of the tree. Maybe the artist didn’t intend for her to climb the tree and come down grateful to be alive, but that’s what happened.
BB: As she moves through the museum, each new room has a sort of funhouse feel to it. What is it that propels her from one room to the next? And after spending all that time, why doesn’t she make it to the final room?
IG: I think her curiosity makes her continue from room to room. She is dazzled by the mirrors and even by the creepy video, but she starts to feel increasingly uncomfortable. Eventually, she feels she’s losing more than she’s gaining. The rooms begin to terrify her, and she loses her trust in the place. I think it’s good to persevere through ordinary amounts of adversity for the sake of something or someone you love (that’s why I write!), but I also think there can be too much emphasis on finishing what you start at all costs. For me, exploring and curiosity make life worth living, but sometimes they get me into jams. And in those cases, I believe it’s better just to walk away, especially when you sense that something or someone is really hurting you. Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference.
And she knows she will always wonder what was in the last room, what would have happened if she’d finished. Life gives us those dilemmas all the time. Whether you finish the course or not, you have regrets. One of my favorite quotes is from Kierkegaard. It’s long, but the beginning is, “If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both…” And he goes on like this for a while.
BB: I love this line, towards the end of the story: “‘But is it enough to be beautiful?’ she asked the gentle man.” To me, it’s a desperate question, the product of a profound doubt. How does that line fit into the rest of the piece?
IG: I agree, at this moment she’s doubting her decision. If she leaves the city, she’ll probably miss it and wonder if she’s made a mistake. But she probably won’t be happy forever in the city. Her experiences in the city and the museum have her wondering whether beauty and novelty are enough to make her stay. Sometimes beauty is enough, but sometimes it isn’t.
BB: The whole experience felt like a test for the woman, conceived by her future boss—a demented, inauspicious, and extremely specific test. Is that the case? And if so, did she pass or fail?
IG: That’s interesting. Yes, I agree with your intuition that the test is a bad omen for her fate in this city and with this company. I see the boss as a malevolent figure. If he’s malevolent, he might be judging her from on high, putting her through impossible tests and punishing her when she fails. If he wanted to encourage her to be more creative, for example, there are better ways of doing this. Thank you so much for these insightful questions!