You’re having fun, aren’t you?
If having fun is being entertained and being entertaining, then yes, this is a joyful enterprise. I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. After all, there’s poetry to write.
How do you reconcile being a poet and a novelist, and does either impact the other?
I always think of writing poetry as a house of cards. At any point, the poem can be undermined by its own assumptions and come tumbling down. Writing a novel is more brick and mortar work. Even the wildest experimental prose is built from the ground up. Poems, on the other hand, fall from the sky and because they are so ephemeral, they either are or aren’t. Work in either form doesn’t necessarily influence the other outside of the fact that writing a novel demands so many more words and so, more time. Whereas a poem will sometimes appear as a piece, fully formed from the brow of the muse, a novel is subject to revisions and storytelling codes, and follows a blueprint of sorts. Since I write mostly by hand in a notebook, the prose sketches take up a lot of room and energy compared to my poetry jottings. Also the prose is almost immediately incorporated into the work in progress. Poems can lie unattended in the notebooks for years.
When did you start writing this novel and what was the inspiration that started the wheels turning?
Everything probably came together late spring, 2008, or thereabouts. I was putting the final touches to another novel that I’d played with for close to 30 years. I wasn’t in any particular hurry to get it done, and probably for that reason, it was shaping up quite nicely. At the same time I was writing a serial novel, some neo-pulp crime fiction, in monthly installments for the entertainment of a few local writers I know. I also had a couple of other pulp fiction projects that were in various stages of development. So it wasn’t like I was looking for something else to do. Yet in the middle of all that, at the end of a very manic day in which a lot writing got done, I took a break. I had been thinking about writing this novel, this kind of novel, for quite some time. It’s the kind of novel a writer would normally be advised against writing. Mainly because it is borderline narcissistic, like staring at yourself in the mirror, and depending on the light or your mood, you’re either admirable or pathetic. I’d had a germ of an idea at the back of my mind, but at that moment when I was contemplating the work I had just completed or left off, the organizing principle for this novel presented itself. The beginning and the ending, in effect, occurred to me.
You saw the whole thing complete in one moment, as a vision?
I don’t think of it so much as a vision. It’s just the natural process of creativity. The left brain was subconsciously processing information and coming across reoccurring vague ideas of how this kind of novel could be accomplished, and in a moment of unthinking the right brain solved it. It’s not that unusual among artists or writers or musicians. I had a template of sorts to draw on. I had recently seen The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke and his role as a marginalized once famous wrestler struck me as also being the experience of that of a poet. I thought of Ted Berrigan for some reason, even though the circumstances are not even remotely close. Maybe it was just the grittiness, the granularity, of the daily getting on, of being a poet. The challenge was how that could be depicted.
Did you have a name for your main character right away, at the beginning?
Yeah, that was one of the things that sparked the whole process. I had a name. So I gave it a back story, and that led to what was going on in real fictional time for this guy. And when you get down to it, this is a novel of names, populated by names, many of them puns, random literary and obscure allusions. Even typos. In literature poets generally have odd, formal, sometimes pompous sounding names that undercut the gravity of who they think they are. So names are very suggestive, like inkblots, and they can be the basis for sketches and interactions. Carl Wendt lives in a world of names, names of other poets, some of whom he knows and others he’s never heard of. His relationship to those names, first names in particular, when he encounters them, is to personalize them as diminutives, reducing them to a sort of common denominator.
Who is Carl Wendt suppose to be?
Carl Wendt isn’t any one person or poet. He is a kind of literary composite. He has attributes of Charles Baudelaire in that he is a flaneur or dandy, an old school jazz hipster, and he works the margins of the literary scene as a freelance art and culture critic in a way that Baudelaire did. As did Apollinaire. And come to think of it, Ted Berrigan. Also like Baudelaire, and another modern American poet, Charles Bukowski, his poetry offends the delicate sensibilities of the bourgeoisie. He is an opportunist the way Henry Miller is in Tropic of Cancer, always on the hustle, just getting by so that he can devote himself to his art. He’s also Bud Powell in Paris, marking time with his petite vin rouge. And I suppose, capitalizing on the Hugh Kenner quote that serves as one of the epigraphs for the novel, he can, at first glance, be seen as a charlatan, a jive ass. In this sense he is very Coyote-ish, the fool, the trickster.
So is he the literary Everyman?
I think Wendt is characterized by his political incorrectness. He’s white, male, heterosexual, he smokes and he’s a drinker. Most of which is no longer socially acceptable in the gentrified literary world. He’s a social dinosaur heading for the bone yard of obsolescence. That he’s a well known poet just complicates his inappropriateness. He is unaffiliated and eccentric, and embodies the antagonism between the sanctioned poets and the proscribed poets. Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, makes the distinction between the goddess poets and the court poets. The goddess poets represent the vestiges of an ancient tradition, of the shamans as wordsmiths, and the court poets are representatives of the status quo, the lap dogs of convention. Carl Wendt, you might say, is very old school.
Are you really as down on poets as you seem to be, or is it mainly satiric?
Of course it is satire, satirical portraits and situations, social satire, but no real poets are named or, for that matter, are the situations based on events that have actually transpired. There are locations and events that I have physically occupied or attended, but they’re there as scenery or backdrop, everything else is made up. No one character is based on any one actual poet. The characterizations are impressions, kind of like when you’re telling a story and you change your voice or accent to get across the person you’re describing. Satire employs hyperbole. Writers, poets included, are solitary critters and hence all about themselves so that when they congregate in groups their competitiveness is expressed amusingly or as alarming manifestations of ego, all fairly hilarious. The work of fiction is to imagine and exaggerate these situations for their entertainment value. After all, Gogol’s Dead Souls is not a treatise on Russian serfdom, it’s a slapstick romp with outlandish caricatures.
Are you satirizing any particular poets or group of poets?
I like to think I’m taking a swipe at everyone equally. But some poets or poet types are more interesting than others. Those who scuffle and struggle to keep the faith will come up with innovative ideas to keep on keeping on. Those who have an academic sinecure, in my opinion, are perhaps only interesting in the bored depravity of their blind ambition. The vast underbelly or underworld of radical and overlooked poets is at least a thriving undifferentiated nursery of future poetry.
I’m surprised that some people aren’t getting upset because they think you’re talking about them. The “it’s all about me” folks.
This is not a roman a clef. Or ‘novel with a key’ such as in Kerouac’s novels where you know that Alva Goldbook is Allan Ginsberg or that Bull Lee is William Burroughs. There is not that one to one correspondence. It is fiction, primarily a work of the imagination, meaning lies and made-up stuff. No poets are actually named with the exception of dead poets who serve as historical or literary markers as is often required of dead poets. That said, it is fairly predictable that some very self-conscious and paranoid people will think they see themselves represented among these character types. I’ve made a point to avoid those kind of connections, and succeeded, I think. On the other hand, I have given a few friends cameo appearances under unrecognizable names and unlikely situations, and unless they are very perceptive readers they probably won’t be able to readily identify themselves. They’re welcome to try.
Then the novel is not autobiographical?
Heterographical, perhaps, in that it contains elements of biography, autobiography, literary history, aesthetic philosophy, social satire, improvisation, imagination, exaggeration and storytelling. And it’s also personal in the sense that it is something I know a little about, having worked as a poet for fifty years. Kind of like a cop who writes crime novels. And it allows me to talk about poetry, and poets, and find humor in otherwise weighty material. Wendt is a well-known poet and critic, on the verge of having been, and it is his unpredictable path that the narrative follows.
You allude to Kerouac, and introduce a young film maker who is making a documentary about Kerouac. So how does he figure in your narrative? Is he there as a talisman, a signpost?
Kerouac wrote from a working class point of view, and romanticized artists, musicians, poets, railway men, day laborers, what you might call the common intelligentsia, seekers, self-taught men and women, a proletariat of quotidian sensibility. It was a holdover from the political consciousness of the 30’s. Now, when he was writing, that kind of thinking was deemed un-American. Jazz also had a palpable influence, the makers of jazz, the musicians, their manners and mannerisms set the style for a rebellious questioning of authority, the man, and all he stood for. Legends like Lester Young and Lord Buckley provided the lexicon, the argot of the street. Norman Mailer wrote something called The White Negro that addresses those issues. Which brings us to Wendt who was, as a paraphrase of the old saw goes, “too young to be a beatnik and too cynical to be a hippie.” He is a faint echo of that era though he would likely object if you called him a beatnik. If anything, he’s a hep cat. He sees himself as more of a dude, hip to styles, au courant with the arts, not a nihilist, a realist. Yet he is a poet, and it not just incidental, it’s his life.
Kerouac died an alcoholic. Why does Wendt drink so much, or is that something you’ll get into later?
Drink is the creative lubricant, the high is a transcendent zone where Wendt can create, and which he does. But it takes its toll, as any intoxicant can, and shaves time off the expected life span. That and smoking mark him as a kind of throwback. In the last section reference is made to an article that he has published entitled Loss Of Nerve, Alcohol and The American Canon which is a an unflinching look at the array of stoned out lushes that are America’s great writers by someone who is on the tail end of that era, or hopes that he is on the tail end of that era.
(Thanks to the faithful readers who submitted their questions for this interview. If you didn’t see your question answered in Part One, it will undoubtedly be answered in future installments of the interview with the author)