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.
I can see Wendt as an old-time hard-boiled detective although his sleuthing seems to be minimal.
Sleuthing was never the real charm of hard boiled private eyes. They were mostly depicted as relying on their doggedness, intuition, and luck.
The Month section has a decidedly pulp tone. It may have to do with the introduction of the police detective right at the beginning. Was that your intent?
Largely, yes. There’s the further emphasis of the serial killer of poets theme at the beginning of the section titled Month. That notion was introduced in the first section, Day, and kept afloat through the Week section in which a poet’s death from various causes, accidental or suspicious, occurs each of those five days. In the final section, Year, the serial killer of poets is revealed in an appropriately metaphorical fashion.
Do you think of Ode To Sunset as being representative of literature in the period in which you are writing?
I would like to think that Ode To Sunset is unrepresentative of the period in which I am writing. I am either ahead of my time or lagging far behind. But wherever I am, I find it useful to be out of step in order to gauge my relative position in a world of obsessive scribblers. As the Flann O’Brien quote that serves as an epigraph implies, a novel is what the novelist says it is, much as Duchamp indicated that art is what the artist says it is. This gives art and, by default, literature an incredible amount of freedom. On the other hand, the playing field has been enlarged and leveled to such an extent that everything appears equal with everything else and this leads ultimately to a loss of perspective. Not only is everything relative to everything else, but everything is subject to change without notice depending on any particularly focus directed at everything.
Objectively, how closely does Wendt resemble a typical poet?
Although he doesn’t have an academic sinecure, Wendt is a scholar. He’s made a name for himself by expressing his opinion. He writes, he reads, he immerses himself in the culture stream, he publishes. He has a network of contacts that include publishers, editors, professors, poets of his acquaintance, artists, and friends who could be any or all of the above. He hustles grants, awards, lectures, writes puff pieces, engages in whatever occupation associated with his craft and sullen art he can including readings, tutoring, consultations, copy editing, and so on. Odd jobs from furniture moving to yard work are not beneath him, nor are sales clerking, preferably in bookstores. He begs, he borrows, and relies on the kindness of strangers. He remains single-minded in the pursuit of his art. All paths lead to poetry, all paths. While I don’t see any poet as being typical, there are some very smart poets on whom Wendt is modeled and whose perspective and experience in defining the American canon has been overlooked, marginalized, because of the workshop industry. They are for the most part unaffiliated with any institution, and are representative of the independent American poets who continue to be part of an antiestablishment community of innovative artists whose credentials are unimpeachable. Many are ignored because they don’t fit into the current faddish mindset of the workshop mentality or they are keeping at arm’s length the intrusive desperation of fame and fortune. Well, fame, mostly, by which I mean celebrity. Everyone can do with a little good fortune.
I also notice frequent reference to clowns and of your equating poets with them, Wendt included.
Poet as fool or clown is a very old archetype of odd man or woman out, on the fringes of acceptance, eccentric as opposed to the gentrified depiction of the poet as someone approved by bourgeois society. The clown or fool has a particular immunity in that he or she is exempt from the conventions of society particularly in pre-literate cultures where the wise man or woman and the fool were often the same incarnation and acted as a psychic sink for the collective neurosis. The fool or clown is a reminder of humanity’s undomesticated origins, a subverter of the order and complacency of the social web in which we all find ourselves entangled. “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” really speaks to the human condition in that the social fabric is a web of conventions and compromises that holds us all in our places. The fool is the truth speaker who points out the inconsistencies of so-called orderly behavior, who violates taboos, upends social hierarchies, disdains political correctness, flaunts etiquette, and essentially profanes the sacred cows of daily life.
Would you say that this is why you’ve written this novel, to speak relative truths about what it’s like to be a poet and the nature of poetry in the 21st Century?
I suppose so, yes.
For whom are these truths intended?
I imagine for the average readers.
Do you expect to help them in this way?
No, actually I expect them to help me.
Well, by drawing attention to the fallacies in my approach.
Has any average reader ever done this for you?
No, but I’m hoping that someone might. That’s what keeps me going.
You actually wrote the novel by hand. I know you’re not the only one besides Woody Allen who does it this way, but why?
I do my thinking on paper and act on my thinking at the keyboard.
At what stage in the writing process do you move from longhand to electronic media?
I normally sketch and take notes on a legal pad, a habit I developed when I first started writing. At a certain point, later in the day or later in the week, I’ll review what I’ve written and take the time to transcribe it into the appropriate word file. It is at this point that the more objective writer, the word mechanic if you will, exercises his skills. Writing by hand allows me the freedom of not filtering the language, not judging whether it is proper or grammatical, simply allowing the words to flow unconstrained and find their own level. Once the handwritten text is transcribed I can look for the little surprises as well as the duds which I then use to my advantage or excise ruthlessly.
How many hours can you write a day?
How long I can write depends on how long I can concentrate. Sketching and plotting I do pretty much on the fly, it is a very spontaneous process and hardly seems to take any time at all. The real work of arranging all the elements of the novel usually depends on whether or not I can face what I’ve written. I have very poor work habits. I do try to spend at least a couple of hours a day on the initial structuring of any prose project. Then when it looks like it’s shaping up to meet my expectations, I can spend the entire day thrashing it out, rereading, editing, rewriting until it reaches a finished state.
Do you have any form of ritual preparation before writing?
I have a gamut of avoidance behaviors that I generally run through.
Oh, compulsive checking of email, surfing news feeds, doing just about anything that is not related to the job ahead. Drinking more coffee. Staring out the window. Counting paper clips. Rechecking email. That kind of thing.
Some writers talk about getting into a zone, where things come in a rush.
Yeah, I’ve experienced such a state of mind. It’s hard to describe. It has to do with concentration, but on so many levels, sort of an intense somatic cerebral synchronicity. It’s actually not a rush, more of a slowing down of time in which you experience the moment with incredible holographic precision.
Do you revise?
Not in the sense that I have a preconceived idea of what I’m going to write and have to strictly abide by it. What I end up writing either works or it doesn’t. I never go into it thinking I’m going to write such and such, actually have a definition of such and such, but merely knowing I’m going to write at my whimsy and from that vectors and directions will follow. Forward progress is determined by the obstacles encountered, the hurdles I’ve placed there, consciously or unconsciously, to challenge narrative complacency. I have language somewhat imperfectly, a mixture of bad habit, laziness, inelegance and bilingual confusion. What you see is what you get, a shabby mix of savoir faire and nonchalance.
Do you write down your dreams?
Yes, I do. When I can remember them. The ones I do often are very vivid, very detailed. I find writing them down to be useful prose exercises. Many of the prose poems I’ve published are dream transcriptions.
Who are your literary precursors?
I would like to claim everyone who ever wrote with the aim of being read. I mean, it’s easy enough to say Whitman or Melville or Petronius or Lady Murasaki, but really my literary precursors would have to be the authors of every book I’ve ever read. Many a fledgling writer has started on the path by imagining alternate endings, sequels, prequels, and spin-offs to a favorite book. There is to my mind an integral relationship between reading and writing, an exchange of energy and information. What you read will affect what you write, how you write, if even only technically, and writing will affect how you read because as a writer you have insider knowledge of the writing process and so should be expert enough to read between the lines.
Were you always a reader? What kind of books did you read?
I came to reading late. Probably because I was raised in a bilingual environment. I was made to attend English-only schools as a youngster, and I hated that I was forbidden to speak the French I spoke every day with my aunts, uncles and cousins, and neighborhood friends. As a result, I did poorly in school. However once I started reading, probably around eight years of age, and primarily in English, I never looked back. At one point my mother had to put her foot down over the number of books I could check out of the library in a week’s time. At first I was quite the indiscriminate reader. Kid adventures, of course, Tom Brown’s School Days, Stevenson’s Treasure Island I read a number of times. I liked Fenimore Cooper, and I remember reading other authors who wrote that kind of early contact wilderness adventure. My dad also had a huge cupboard in the basement filled with paperbacks, mostly westerns and science fiction, some detective fiction, Mickey Spillane and the like. I read all of them, Zane Grey, Max Brand. College ruined me, though. I developed a taste for the academic and the obscure so now I read mostly critical studies, philosophy of science, anthropology, linguistics, among other autodidactic diversions. But whether I read Hammett’s fiction or Edelman’s theory of neural group selection, my writing in some ways ends up reflecting my reading.
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. Redundant questions were answered in as fresh a manner as possible.