The Ode To Sunset Interview
with Pat Nolan
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.
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 Coyote, the fool, the trickster
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 backstory, 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.
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 an 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.
Objectively, how closely does Wendt resemble a typical poet?
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 fortune.
How much of Carl Wendt is you?
Only as much as what was host to a spark of inspiration, a nanosecond prelingual insight that transcended the moment.
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 retired cop who writes a crime novel. 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.
So Carl Wendt is completely an imaginary construct?
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 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.
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 began to come together and from that more 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 inserting my copious notes and lists into the narrative, and then generating enough new particulars to navigate the time spans. Seemingly random events drawn from the day affect events in the 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, not at all. At times he exhibits the traits of poets I’ve liked, 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. Though his antics may ring a bell as some writer you might know of similar authorial boorishness, no such person exists. The poetry world is so 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 about 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.
Yet 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.
Some of the characterizations seem pretty harsh. Are you really as down on poets as you seem to be?
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. And satire, so yes, 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 scenery or backdrop, everything else is made up. No one character is based on any one actual poet.
Aren’t you satirizing particular poets or groups of poets? Some people will likely see themselves as the poets you depict and get upset with your characterizations.
I like to think I’m taking a swipe at everyone equally. This is not a roman à 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 kinds of connections, and succeeded, I think. In general, those who scuffle and struggle to keep the faith will always 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.
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. 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.
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. At this point the more objective writer, the word mechanic, takes over. 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.
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.
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 Petronious 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 been started on the path by conceiving 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.
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 manuscript pages on the other side, and the multiplicity of voices in those books acts as a kind of kinetic energy flowing down the thermodynamic gradient to power my fingers across the keyboard and shape the singularity of my voice in the manuscript.
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. And big fat romances like Henryk Sienkiewicz’s With Fire And Sword. 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.
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. On the one hand, I see it as inane in the same way that Seinfeld and Friends were inane. Ode To Sunset is similar in its apotropaic absurdity. And I either feel ok with that, the silliness, or I contrive somehow, either through rationalization or editing, to rectify it. Poets are constantly on the verge of becoming anachronisms. They barely made it into the 20th century. How are they going to make it into the 21st century? Ode To Sunset poses the question, “Are you sure you want to be a poet?”
The Ode To Sunset interview with Pat Nolan was edited for continuity and brevity from interviews previously conducted during the process of the online posting of Ode To Sunset as a serial fiction. In its final form the interview, posted here as Part One and Part Two, along with Notes On Composition, are part of the final manuscript.
Pat Nolan is the author of numerous books of poetry and two novels. He also maintains Parole, the blog of The New Black Bart Poetry Society. Ode To Sunset is his first attempt at online fiction. His most recent book of poems is the thousand marvels of every moment (Nualláin House, 2018). Volume Two of his selected poems So Much, Notebook-Keyboard, 1990-2010 will be published in the spring of 2019.