The Ode To Sunset Interview
with Pat Nolan
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 this novel is more 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, 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 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 Hugh 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.
You make 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 lineage in strophes of praise. The lists provide the superstructure over which the narrative is fit, stretched if need be. Lists essentially supply 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, 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 labyrinth of the paragraph, and others as obvious barefaced lists with no subterfuge attempted.
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 to do. Yet in the middle of all that, at the end of a very manic day in which a lot of 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 the novel presented itself. The beginning and the end, 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.
Ode To Sunset is divided into four sections, Day, Week, Month, and Year. Why did you choose this particular structure?
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 made up 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, shoring up the back story, and, coming full circle, transpires over the period of a single day.
Early in the second section entitled WEEK, you have Wendt in a dialogue about poets who have died. Are you familiar with 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 driving 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”, something from Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, and Apollinaire’s “Lundi Rue Christine” among others. 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. Frank O’Hara referred to masturbation as “the children’s hour.”
Wasn’t it Freud who said that each male ejaculation is a “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 allude to Kerouac in the first section, and introduce a young film maker who is making a documentary about Kerouac. 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. What he was writing, that kind of thinking was deemed un-American in the 50’s. 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 is, to paraphrase an old saw, “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 to being called 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’s not just incidental, it’s his life.
Kerouac died an alcoholic. Wendt is a drinker. Is there a significant connection?
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 will, and shaves time off the expected life span. That and smoking mark him as a kind of throwback, an anachronism, although what poet isn’t?
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 BeBop 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 including 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 next to be lionized. 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 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.
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 Week 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.
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 the 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 television 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 indispensable as inventory, directions, scene setting, scene transition, and summation, dialogue is the story’s engine.
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 proved 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 ambiguity 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.
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 as a linear flight of fancy narrative. There is a narrative but it is directed by random twists and tilts outside and besides causal progression. The novel then becomes a simulacrum of the chaos of everyday life artificially constructed from language, sometimes as sleek streamlined prose and other times as a stream of consciousness Rube Goldberg contraption. It is chaos in search of equilibrium. It is also childishly self-indulgent and self centered replete with petty hopes and fears, an all too human oscillation. There are eddies of confusion and breathtaking rapids as the accumulation of matter, physical and metaphysical, flows in its own serendipitous course to empty into the vast sea of universal consciousness. Prose requires absolutes, or the appearance of absolutes. Poetry can survive on ambiguities.
As a poet, what have you learned from writing fiction?
Fiction is paradoxical in that it only exists 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 if I 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 foreign 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.
You posted the entirety of Ode To Sunset online as a serial fiction, 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 changed to 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.
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.