How much of Carl Wendt is you?
Only as much as was created in a nanosecond prelingual insight that transcended the moment.
So he is an imaginary construct then, not at all autobiographical?
Most of the time I live in the remembered present but every so often, much to my astonishment, I step to the edge of the now. That’s where I found Carl Wendt. It was enough to conceive of him as a poet who had seen better days. And once he crossed over into the promise land of language, I could assign certain attributes to him. He was wise and he was foolish. Initially I didn’t get beyond that. My idea, as that’s what it comes down to, an ideation, was that the cumulative effect of random events or situations would shape his character. The challenge was then to key off a word, a phrase, a song lyric, an obscure reference and play it out as a narrative, a kind of just-so story, somewhat whimsical and entirely contrived. These shards and irregular shaped pieces form the backstory. There is a shadow of autobiography in that I am also a poet, I have given and attended readings, I have interacted with other poets, and I’ve lived in the Bay Area and in coastal Northern California.
How did you go about randomly shaping Carl Wendt’s character?
I started with a couple of sketches not aiming in any direction, just to see where they would take me. The more I sketched the more the narrative came together and from that other sketches took shape. I set time signatures to serve as constraints to the ever growing accumulation of arbitrary material. Some fit in the span of a day, ostensibly a typical day, and some into the plotting of a week, assuming a typical week. From that developed a routine of folding my copious notes, sketches, and lists into the storyline, and generating enough new particulars to navigate the time spans. Seemingly random events drawn from Day affect those in Week that are then felt as repercussions over a month and a year’s time. Each grouping and juxtaposition spawned further potential and possibility, mimicking, though imperfectly, the Markovian model. At first Ode To Sunset was a place in my imagination I could visit on occasion and exercise my sense of plausible narrative, asking myself what would Carl Wendt do knowing what I know of the character so far? In some very basic way, he and I are similar, we’re both poets, and in others ways, we’re not at all alike. At times he exhibits the traits of poets I’ve admired, or disliked, but all in all, he is a made-up figure representing a romantic archetype, the misunderstood genius. The result is a satiric as well as satyric—both spellings—portrait of a poet, an American genius, indistinguishable from a charlatan yet defined by the purity of his intention. Though his antics may ring bells as writers of similar authorial boorishness you might know, or think you know, no such person exists. The poetry world is much more diverse and comprehensive than anything depicted in fiction. Yet for some reason it is exemplified by its innate pettiness because it is also very human.
Once you had the character, did that give you a theme?
If there is a theme it is how the passage of time can leave you in its wake, will inevitably leave you in its wake, and all your grasping self-center machinations are in vain.
How did you arrive at beginning the novel?
The writing of the novel began in a momentary flash of minor enlightenment that directed my course like the needle on a compass pointing toward a certain arc of limited circumstances yet encompassing a universal synchronicity. Then everything, a poster, a billboard, a headline, a word overheard by chance in a café or public transportation, or a dream was entered into a mental file of like material awaiting elaboration.
Has writing this novel offered you any insights into the writing of a novel? Anything that you didn’t know before you started?
I kind of knew this before, perhaps in theory, but it was proven to me in the actualization of this work of fiction. We tend to think of the novel as a closed system with a beginning, middle, and an end. In actuality there is time before the novel begins because the beginning is merely a point in history. There are also multitudes of middles, and time continues as history even after the narrative has concluded. The reality of the novel is never complete, as Joyce has taught us, and is always in the state of being, powered by uncertainty and tangent possibility. To insist on finality is merely a death wish. It’s an example of narrative fallacy. Narrative fallacy arises from attempts to make sense of the world. Novelists employ narrative fallacy all the time. The world makes sense because of our unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.
As a poet, what have you learned from writing fiction?
Fiction is paradoxical in that it exists only in so far as it can be read. That is not necessarily true of poetry although in the modern scheme of things fiction and poetry often share the same category. In fiction I can imagine somewhere that has never been seen or some event that has never happened. The very fact that I can imagine them takes me there, makes it happen. Also, I cannot conceive of a fiction in which I am not myself present. But even so, these fictions I find myself in are never completely mine. The fictions that I write are fiction for me only under the condition that they move beyond their immediate fictional aspects. This is the paradox of immanence and transcendence in fiction. Immanence because the fictionalized cannot be unknown to the author and transcendence because the fictionalized always contains more than what is written. These two elements of fiction are not contradictory. When I reflect on this notion of fiction, when I reproduce the fictionalized as experience in my imagination, I visualize the kind of evidence proper to the fictional, the appearance of that something which requires its presence and necessarily its absence.
Looking back on what you’ve brought forward as a fiction to its completion as a narrative, has it taken on a gravity greater than the sum of its parts?
Ode To Sunset works as an accrual of subject matter and its placement in layers rather than arranged as a linear flight of narrative fancy. There is a narrative but it is directed by random twists and tilts other than those of causal progression. The novel then becomes a simulacrum of the capricious in everyday life artificially constructed from language, sometimes as sleek streamlined prose and other times as a kamikaze Rube Goldberg contraption. It is chaos in search of equilibrium. It is also childishly self-indulgent and self-centered, full of grand hopes and petty fears, an all too human oscillation. There are eddies of confusion and breathtaking rapids as the accumulation of matter, physical and metaphysical, flows on its serendipitous course to empty into the vast sea of universal consciousness. Prose requires absolutes, or the appearance of absolutes. Poetry survives on ambiguities.
Have you ever considered that your novel could be made into a movie?
Every work of fiction is a potential film. I wanted to dispute that idea with a work of extreme subjectivity and self-consciousness. I wanted to write a novel that could not be exploited by Hollywood, by the cinema. Someone once made a movie of Finnegan’s Wake. Impossible. The Wake is not about images but the play of language, the resonances of the sweet song of an Irish tenor. It is a work that finds its indelibility on the page and triggers the visual cortex with agitations of morphemes and phonemes rather than the flickering itch of light and shadow.
You employ a liberal use of appropriation, what might be termed salting the mine.
Early on in writing Ode To Sunset I became convinced that the Iliad, an epic poem, representative no doubt of a series of oral epics now lost, was the model for storytelling and eventually the prose novel in the West. And one of the really interesting characteristics of the Iliad, besides the siege of Troy and the bad blood between Achilles and Agamemnon, is that it takes great pains in listing the social order and relationships among the gods as well as that among the various clans and coalitions arrayed against the Trojans, declaiming their brave attributes and noble lineages in strophes of praise. The lists provide the superstructure over which the narrative is fit, the truth stretched if need be. Lists are essentially the inventory from which an accounting can be drawn. I kept a notebook full of lists while I was sketching out the novel, lists of author’s names and book titles, spurious or otherwise, euphemisms, litanies, schools of poetry, quotations, poems by historical poets and those of the fictional characters, the dead, the living, and so on. I felt free to insert them at various points in the narrative, salting the mine with literary samplings, as you suggest. Some are represented as dialogue, some confined to the tangle of the paragraph, and others as obvious barefaced lists with no subterfuge attempted.
How much of writing a novel is reading other writers?
I am an avid reader. The novel is a record of my reading. What I read bleeds over into what I write. Figuratively it’s like having a stack of books on one side of the keyboard and blank manuscript pages on the other side. The multiplicity of voices in those books acts as a kind of kinetic energy to power my fingers across the keyboard which results in a record of the singularity of my voice in the manuscript.
Is Ode To Sunset a treatise on poets and poetry as well as a satire?
It is a satire on poets, but yes, it is a discourse on poetry as well, in the sense that all roads lead to poetry or all language leads to poetry. In my incessant obsessive reading I came across passages that applied or spoke to the art and practice of poetry. Very little of my reading occurs in the field of literary criticism though I do make occasional stealth forays into the morass. Most of what I read is philosophy, physics, natural history or fiction. Sometimes all it takes is a little word substitution to make a particular passage or sampling fit my intent. If you’re writing about a poet, you’re going to have to deal with the poetry. Not necessarily the poems, but certainly the esthetics behind them. Part of my process was to fashion bits and chunks of faux philosophizing and lit crit and embed them into the narrative. The bulk of that material ended up in the last section, Year, because there were more opportunities for that kind of introspection. It doesn’t make any of the pronouncements on poetry particularly true, but they are, for the purpose of the novel, reasonably true.
How did that affect your approach to the final section?
I don’t think it changed much except that I had a lot more Carl Wendt material to deal with, a year’s worth and by extension, a lifetime’s worth. And since that section transpires over a single day, it was an opportunity to use the unpredictability of free association to express that. Year is a labyrinth of reflection and opinion, flashbacks and rationalizations, dead ends and aimless meanderings that eventually lead to the exit.
You reference Chinese poetry and Finnegan’s Wake early on in the novel. Were you pointing to that literature with a particular purpose?
I wanted to point to something unique about the West Coast, San Francisco in particular, that it is a portal to Asian culture, and that there is a commonality separated as well as joined by the Pacific. It is certainly an undercurrent for writers on the left coast who extol the virtues of Buddhism and the exotic philosophies and literature of our neighbors across the sea, and is a turn away from the strictures of Anglo hegemony.
But what of Joyce? He would seem to be the epitome of Anglo dominion.
Joyce’s instinct was to resist the cultural assumptions and conventions imposed by Anglo literature in increasingly intricate modes of subversion. He undermined the esthetic of fiction of his day and opened the field for the likes of Beckett, the French Nouveau Roman, and OuLiPo. The imperative of the new esthetic is to reach for the impossibility of the unnovel, the unfiction that tantalizes with its untruth, prurient and willfully enchanting. It is a cosmic goof, as Kerouac explained, the holy incomprehensible howl of Coyote the trickster turning assumptions on their head, the mad carnivalesque two step mocking of order.
In reflection, how objectively can you view Ode To Sunset?
To begin with it is nearly impossible to view with any consistent objectivity something that I’ve been working on for nearly ten years. It is truly a love hate relationship. In reflection I see it as inane in the same way that Seinfeld and Friends were inane. Ode To Sunset has a similar apotropaic inanity. And I either feel ok with that, the inanity, or I contrive somehow, through rationalization or editing, to rectify it. Because poets are so banal, they are constantly on the verge of becoming anachronisms. They barely made it into the 20th century. How are they going to make it in the 21st century? Ode To Sunset addresses, in a very specific way, the question, “What is it like to be a poet in the modern world?”
What was your experience of the physical act of writing the novel?
Writing a novel is like building a house. It’s work, brick by brick. You lay a foundation and frame the walls to support the roof. And for the most part, you are the source of the materials. You mill the intellectual lumber from scratch to fashion your cottage, duplex, or mansion on the hill. It took me almost ten years, six years of fleshing it out, and close to four years of revisions and editing, to get to this point, and I’m still doing touch up.
You recently posted the final installment of Ode To Sunset on your blog, a process that took three years. Do you feel that you are finally done with it?
The posting of the novel is done but the fiction titled Ode To Sunset, itself, is not done until it is entombed between covers as a book, and that may never happen. Until then, there will always be some default setting that can be tweaked, a comma replaced by a period or an exclamation point, a guttural growl with a Latinate lisp. It all has to do with how well I remember what my purpose was, if I had one, and what effect I was going after when I first put that combination of words together on the page. The distance in time from that moment in the past to the present of the rereading of what I have written will play some part in my evaluation, and it may be that a particular passage or way of putting things might do with some updating. And that can go on forever until someone comes along and takes it from me and tells me that’s enough of that and publishes it.
Thanks to the faithful nine for your pushback, questions, commentary and your telling silences.