What made you write Ode To Sunset?
The motivation was personal, and largely sentimental. I had the notion, the urge to memorialize friends, poets, who had died. To accomplish that, without indulging in biography, I had to write about their element, which is poetry. That which gave them joy and sorrow. Because that’s what poetry does to poets, it makes them happy and it makes them sad. In order to convey the joys and sorrows of being a poet, I needed an agent, a guide to the poet world, a fictional sentience who is not quite Charles Baudelaire and not quite Charles Bukowski, and who goes by the name of Carl Wendt. And it had to be irreverent, amusing, a satire. My dear departed friends would expect no less of me.
I assume that it’s a social satire. Is it also political?
Most social interactions are political by nature. In the world of poets that seems even more extreme in that everything is viewed through a lens of political correctness and consequently everything, no matter what you do, is political. Publish a book, it’s political. Start a reading series, it’s political. Publish an essay, it’s political. Attend a reading, it’s political. Give a reading, it’s political. Turn down a reading, it’s political. Avoid other writers, it’s political. Praise someone, it’s political. Do the opposite, all the more so. It’s like running a gauntlet of assumed motivation, theory of mind gone sadly awry. And that’s why it’s ripe for satire.
Early in the second section entitled WEEK, you have Wendt in a dialogue with someone about poets who have died. Have you ever heard of the rock song, “People Who Died” by Jim Carroll?
Interesting that you should make that connection. Wendt is having dinner with his benefactor, Dorian Pillsbury, and they talk about people, poets, they know who have died. The poet Ted Berrigan, who along with Jack Kerouac, is the guiding spirit of this work, wrote a poem entitled “People Who Died”, a list of people he knew who had died. Ted was in a position to encourage Jim Carroll when Carroll started out as a young writer. Jim appropriated the poem as a song, with or without Ted’s blessing, when he became a rock celebrity. I wrote that passage as a direct allusion to the Berrigan poem, yet you came to it from a totally different source, and that validates it. “People Who Died” is the starting point for the improvisation that results in the conversation about dead poets and addresses the plot driven question of who or what is killing poets. It also allows me to introduce, as Berrigan did, the names of friends and acquaintances, all poets, who died.
Are there other poems that serve as points of improvisation?
I’ve used Frank O’Hara’s “Talking To The Sun”, and Apollinaire’s “Lundi Rue Christine” among others. And of course the obligatory references to The Wizard Of Oz. Wendt’s adventures and misadventures are all poetry related and generated by literary allusion. The masturbation scene that follows the “People Who Died” bit is based on literary hearsay. Berrigan again, in a notebook or an interview, wondered why no one had ever written a good poem about masturbation. That caught my interest. He may not have been aware that Philip Whalen had written a perfectly good example in On Bear’s Head. Masturbation is the imaginative set for the word play that follows.
Wasn’t it Freud who said that each male ejaculation is a “the little death”?
Something like that. Although I’m not going to claim that the coincidence to the death and dying theme of the novel is intentional. The idea was to work up a routine on the euphemisms for that particular autoerotic predilection. I found quite an extensive list online and picked a few examples to prime the pump. In a manner of speaking.
You got that list online? I thought you made them up. I particularly liked “erecting a singular proposition” and “grasping the awful truth”.
Those are original with me, so, good eye. Once I got into the rhythm of the dialogue between Wendt and Dick Granahan, I invented my own euphemisms. “Rowing with one oar” is one I’m particularly fond of. “Going blind on a date with yourself” catches the underlying cultural shame and folk prohibition regarding the consequence of the act, that you’ll go blind.
You’ve published two other novels. How is this one different?
Ode To Sunset is certainly more ambitious, conceptually. The opening quote by Flann O’Brien sets the tone, or the bar, in O’Brien’s case. “A satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity.” For me, other than Joyce, who stopped the novel dead in its tracks with Finnegan’s Wake, writers such as Raymond Roussel who employed world play throughout his novels as the catalyst to create his texts, and Raymond Queneau who plotted his novels from mathematical schemata, are my inspiration in constructing this fiction. I deliberately employ puns, word play, and what you might call extra-narrative methods to enforce a kind of distance from the circumstantial material. And it also insures an unpredictability I couldn’t achieve if I left the plotting entirely up to my imagination. The situational character of the narrative is based on whimsy and word play.
Why do you think it’s ambitious?
It’s ambitious because it engages a larger allegorical tableau, death and dying, poets and poetry. When you reach a certain age, your parents, people you’ve known for years, friends, die due to sickness and old age. And with each notice of someone’s passing, there’s the inclination to memorialize them, personally, or if they weren’t that close or merely someone of significance in your milieu, a notation in a journal or a moment of self-silence usually suffices. That meditation on the transitory nature of our existence is the concept behind Ode To Sunset. In as much as allusions to poems and literary history are threaded throughout the tapestry of the story, it is a fiction about poets and poetry as well. The subtitle, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, which spontaneously attached itself to the title, by the way, takes its inspiration from Kenner’s quote about American genius, in this case that of a poet, as being difficult to distinguish from charlatanism at first glance.
How is the novel a tapestry of poems and literary history?
Actually it’s more like a literary road map of the State of Poetry. All actions or situations relate to poetry in one way or another as you might say all roads lead to a parking lot. A literary impression, the title of a poem or the subject of a poem, are the threads or starting points for the development of the various random aspects of the narrative. Because Wendt is a poet of the modern/post-modern era, it is fitting that his story begin allusively, with that most modern of poems, Mallarme’s Un coup de dés, as a roll of the dice that will never abolish chance. By chance, a bolt of inspiration out of the blue, is how the novel was conceived. When something like that happens you are pretty much obligated to follow it through.
Ode To Sunset is divided into four sections, Day, Week, Month, and Year. Why did you choose this particular structure to present your fiction?
Since the story is comprised of so many random elements, I felt it was necessary to contain them within time frames as preset conditions. A day consists of twenty four hours. A week is comprised of days, a month, of weeks. And a year is made up of months. It occurred to me that each of these frames, these temporal conditions, might affect the narrative process, either by the extent of their duration, their wavelength, or the manner in which the circumstances were related, stylistically. Day is a quick sketch, to get the shape of the situation, a recognizable outline to follow through the incidentals of a twenty four hour period, a short story, in effect. Week requires more angles, reflective surfaces, facets to add heft to the portrayal of the poet, and the span is that of a novelette. Month inhabits a larger duration where time is marked off by discrete events rather than by diurnal regulation, and is essentially a novel in itself. Year, by necessity, is represented as a very long postscript, filling in the blanks, patching the holes in the narrative, and coming full circle, transpiring over the period of a single day.
You’ve published two complete sections of your novel online so far. Has that affected how you view your completed work?
In posting Ode To Sunset as a serial novel I’m looking for a perspective other than my own. It’s a way of enlisting feedback from a more or less anonymous readership. Also, because I’m posting installments rather than each section in its entirety, I’m able to view the writing close up, warts and all, magnified, and that has helped with the basics of copy editing, the mechanics of the writing.. On the other hand, because I can imagine others reading my words, conscious of a theory of mind, so to speak, by posting the novel as episodes I’m able to view the work from a distance, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, other than just being locked up in my head with the writing.
For the average reader who is not tuned into the politics of the poetry scene or is not all that familiar with literary history, a lot of what you’re doing might go right over their heads. The scene in the Be Bop Dim Sum Café, for instance, about schools of poets, seems to rely on too many in-jokes.
I don’t think it’s necessary to get the in-jokes or the literary allusions to appreciate the story. There is a sub-layer that has to do with my own personal amusement in writing, and includes what I know about poets and poetry, material I’ve accumulated through experience and personal scholarship. The schools of poetry routine is a very funny take on the factionalism among poets and the names that adhere to these various factions and states of mind about poetry. I used it to illustrate a couple of things. One was to point out the sheer number of poets and the impossibility of knowing them all or even keeping up with who is who. And it’s a way of emphasizing, again, how Wendt is, to a certain extent, out of the loop, that he’s no longer all that au courant. He looks over the poetry anthology Andy Porter has shown him and has to ask “Who are these clowns?” Of course that was my cue to name the clowns, and they are all names of silent film comedy actors. That’s the in-joke. Otherwise, Wendt has Andy explain what the poets in the anthology are about and that leads to the list of popular abbreviations for different poet factions and cliques. It’s a humorous exchange between the two poets over pot stickers and noodles. I had the movie My Dinner With Andre in mind when I wrote that, hence Wendt’s lunch companion is named Andy.
I always enjoy your dialogue. What would you say is the difference between dialogue and narration?
Narration is stage directions, mood music, landscape, portraiture, focusing on objects or subjects as well as explanations and internal rumination which might or might not provide motivation for a character’s actions. I think of dialogue as a list. Each person adds to the list by contributing to the conversation what they think is necessary to keep the list going. I also like that conversations can be totally random and drift from topic to topic, changing shape and emphasis. Dialogue is voices, sound, language exchange, not necessarily communication but presence, with all the facial indicators of emotion or lack of emotion behind the saying. Narration supplies a description of those mood indicators. Narration, in this way, is the ground to dialogue’s air. Dialogue can moves the story along at a rapid pace, but dialogue alone can also be flighty and confusing if that’s all there is. Narration tethers the dialogue to the situation and provides a break from the back and forth rhythm of the dialogue. I prefer to write dialogue because it has a familiar dynamic. My first experience with storytelling as a child was listening to radio comedy shows and adventure stories. They were all told as dialogue with the exception of instances of voiceover narration. I had to rely entirely on my imagination to picture what was going on and what the characters looked like. Later on, movies, and eventually televisions shows, some based on the very shows I had listened to on the radio, left little to the imagination. Still dialogue dominated the interaction between the characters. Narration, more and more, ends up being sidelined as the result of the visual storytelling of photography and the cinema. So I see the nature of narration as undergoing change in the modern novel. Lengthy, meticulously depicted scenes, landscape panoramas, or the psychology of objects are viewed as obstacles. We have pictures for those things now, as part of an accumulated visual library, and we can provide our own psychology. What I realized in writing this novel is that while prose narration is indispensible as inventory, directions, scene setting, scene transition, and summation, dialogue is the story’s engine.
Your novel has more characters than an 18-inning ballgame. How can anyone keep track of all the players without a scorecard?
Keep your eyes on the mound. There are a lot of peripheral characters that are, as Dylan would say, “standing around like furniture”, there to give an idea of Wendt’s milieu, the scene, his web of allies and foes. Wendt is a peripatetic character, priapetetic, in fact, who is the focus of the story, which is about his random wanderings through his element, the poetry world, a world of poets, something I don’t know all that much about and so have had to invent, build a reasonable facsimile, a diorama, a tableau vivant of sorts, that depicts situations, at a remove, that might happen in a largely made-up scenario.
San Francisco is the unsung character in this novel. How long did you live in San Francisco?
I lived in the city briefly, in the early seventies. At first I stayed in a by-the-week hotel in the Tenderloin and then I shared a loft on Market Street. This is when they were blasting the underground tunnels for BART. I was often awakened by the distant explosions. Most of the time that I lived in the Bay Area, I lived in Oakland. I would make weekly excursions and visits to the city for events and visits with friends. What I know of San Francisco is fairly limited. In my mind some parts of the city are absolutely gorgeous, unique, and otherworldly. To make up for my lack of familiarity with the city I made lists of location that I found in online news articles. Then I went to those locations on Street View to kind of get a feel for the architecture, the ambiance, that kind of thing. I functioned like a second unit crew out scouting location shots. Many of the places I visit in the novel are no longer there so it’s mainly a San Francisco of fond memories. I include well-known landmarks like North Beach, Haight Ashbury, the Richmond district, the Mission. And I have a particular affection for Clement Street, Enrico’s, Café Trieste, and Vesuvio’s, essentially the Beatnik tour of San Francisco. I also changed some of the names of recognizable places to suit my need to fictionalize certain events or situations.
What would you say is your writing style?
The style I find myself favoring might be characterized as naked hard boiled pulp. Not a lot of introspection and inner moaning, letting the events and development speak for themselves. Wendt has much in common with wise-cracking private eyes, and as a poet, he is the ultimate private eye, visionary, a loner, knight in tarnished armor, troubadour in the court of the muse.
Thanks to the faithful readers who submitted their question for this interview. If you don’t see your question answered this time around, it will undoubtedly be answered in future installments of the interview with the author.