Being A Writer
"A small crowd gathered around the dumpster in the rain. Word filtered back that the girl was a teenage hitchhiker. I remember thinking that it could be me, because I was also a teenage hitchhiker."
That's Vanessa Veselka, up-and-coming novelist and Litkicks favorite, telling a harrowing true story about a past run-in with a serial killer in the pages of the latest (November 2012) GQ magazine. GQ doesn't seem to have the story online (have they heard that Newsweek is going all-digital? GQ may want to update its content strategy) but it's worth seeking out. We're glad Vanessa Veselka is being more careful (we think) about her personal safety today.
Eleven years ago, a Litkicks reader posted a suggestion: could I create a free poetry board on this site? I thought it sounded like fun, and thus Action Poetry was born. I added a twist by inviting readers of each contributed poem to write short poems in response.
12,000 poems later, I've had to temporarily shut down the Action Poetry stream for the technical redesign of the site (which, you may have noticed, is still in progress, which is why the design of these pages keeps changing a bit every day). Several friends of Litkicks have asked me how long it will take to bring the poetry board back. The truth is, I am slowing down the restoration on purpose, because I want to rethink the whole thing.
Literary Kicks launches a new design and layout today. I'll write more about that shortly, but for now I'm just glad to be blogging again after a hiatus of nearly two months. My primary goal for the new design is to allow a more natural and spontaneous flow of content on the site, and in the spirit of natural and spontaneous content, here's a great piece of writing by Jack Kerouac: his Belief & Techniques For Modern Prose.
This thirty-point program was tossed off by Kerouac in 1958 in a private (and probably drunken) letter from Kerouac to a friend, but it has become one of his most popular texts. I think of the Beliefs & Techniques often. I didn't have a wireframe for this new site redesign ... but Jack Kerouac's words will serve as a symbolic wireframe for what I hope the new version of the site will be.
Belief and Techniques For Modern Prose
1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
I met Eliot Katz many years ago at St. Marks Poetry Project in New York City, back in a different era when several now legendary figures like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Tuli Kupferberg and Janine Pommy Vega were still alive and never missed a reading at St. Mark's Church.
I first encountered Eliot as part of the crowd that surrounded Allen Ginsberg -- his "entourage", basically -- but I also heard him read his own poems: moving, well-crafted verses with a humorous Ginsberg-ian self-questioning touch, often containing powerful messages about political activism, about life in New York City, about escapes into nature. Eliot was the co-editor with Allen Ginsberg and Andy Clausen of Poems for the Nation: A Collection of Contemporary Political Poems and also published two books of poetry, Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America's Skull and Unlocking the Exits.
When the Occupy Wall Street movement kicked off last September, I expected to see Eliot Katz around the scene, since I know he's an eager political activist who never turns down a good event. Unfortunately, I learned that Eliot has been slowed down by a bout with Lyme disease, and has been forced to participate in the Occupy movement more from the sidelines than he would have liked. However, the sidelines can offer a good perspective for observation. Eliot recently sent me some notes containing his thoughts about how the Occupy Wall Street movement can best position itself to succeed in the future, and I thought I'd give Eliot a chance to air his ideas out with an interview here. Eliot and I got a chance to talk about some more esoteric and poetic topics too. Thanks, Eliot, and I hope you'll be back in full health again soon.
Levi: In an article you recently wrote, you quoted Abbie Hoffman speaking in 1988 at Rutgers University (where you were a student) about one of the discouraging realities of protest movements:
Decision making has been a problem on the Left. In the sixties we always made decisions by consensus. By 1970, when you had 15 people show up and three were FBI agents and six were schizophrenics, universal agreement was getting to be a problem. I call it ‘The Curse of Consensus Decision Making,’ because in the end consensus decision making is rule of the minority: the easiest form to manipulate ... Trying to get everyone to agree takes forever. Usually the people are broke, without alternatives, with no new language, just competing to see who can burn the shit out of the other the most ... Most decisions are made by consensus, but there must also be a format whereby you can express your differences. The democratic parliamentary procedure—majority rule—is the toughest to stack, because in order to really get your point across you’ve got to get cooperation, and to go out and get more people to come in to have those votes the next time around.
Abbie was talking about the need for decision by majority vote within protest groups, and you quoted him to support your own suggestion that the Occupy Wall Street movement ought to create a leadership structure and begin making decisions by majority vote rather than consensus. But wouldn't that harm the essentially open character of the Occupy movement, and create a politicized infrastructure that would inevitably succumb to corruption, favoritism and personality politics? Wouldn't something great be lost if Occupy ceased to operate as a quasi-anarchist movement? Would it be worth trading this in for a more organized movement?
Last weekend's blog post "A Dollar's Worth of Morals" may turn out to be the most unpopular thing I've ever written on this site. Several typically friendly Litkicks commenters posted in no uncertain terms that they hated the piece ... including my own beloved wife.
Ironically, I didn't expect this reaction at all when I wrote the piece. I was only trying to tell an amusing story that had, I thought, a positive and good-natured moral.
Clearly, my writing skills failed me. As they say, "If three people tell you you're drunk, sit down." I now see what went wrong with this piece, and I understand why it left so many of my faithful readers cold. I'd like to explain where I went wrong, and maybe salvage some part of my original message, which completely got lost in this disaster.
The story I told is a simple one: as I was leaving work one day, a co-worker named John T. raced down the building lobby after me, causing a lot of public commotion, so he could give me back the dollar he'd borrowed earlier that day. He evidently lived in moral horror of ever forgetting a debt, and the point of my telling this story was that I found his priorities ridiculous, especially since he had recently disappointed me by failing to speak up to our boss about a workplace problem we were both concerned about.
I was trying to make a subtle and esoteric point, in a non-judgemental way, that we often put too much emphasis on petty issues involving small amounts of money or insignificant possessions, failing to emphasize instead the things that really matter in our lives. I'm very interested in the psychology of wealth and possessiveness, and I meant this piece to reflect upon the same questions I'd brought up in earlier Philosophy Weekend posts like this one or this one.
But a strange thing happened between my conception of the story and my telling of it. I thought I was writing in an amused and jokey voice, but somehow a vein of hidden anger became exposed, and the tone of my story became shrill. I began accusing John T. of following a shallow and legalistic code of ethics, and went off on a strange half-paragraph rant about how he had betrayed our friendship. This harsh stuff did not match the intended warm tone of my blog post at all, and I ended up making readers feel sorry for poor John T., who I was beating up mercilessly for the very minor crime of paying me back a dollar.
HHhH, a remarkable new historical novel by a young French author named Laurent Binet, has been getting a lot of attention. The book, a sly and woolly ponderance of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovokia during World War II, is as good as all the hype suggests.
What makes HHhH stand out is the author's approach to his historical plot. Years ago, before he became a published author, he lived and taught in Slovokia and became possessed by the legend of the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich's assassination in Prague in 1942. He wanted to write a fictional treatment of the event, but he dreaded the banal literary conventions he'd have to grapple with if he wrote a classic work of historical fiction. He also felt overwhelmed by the moral gravity of the terrible story he wanted to tell, and he feared fumbling the fine line between truth and fiction.
So, to make his book possible, he opened up the toolkit known as metafiction. He wrote the story of himself writing this book, interweaving historical scenes with humorous skits about himself as bumbling author. The result is something like the history equivalent of Nicholson Baker's comically self-referential study of John Updike, U and I.
(This is the first guest post in our interview series The Literary Life, in which we present fascinating people who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of creative inspiration. Today, Laki Vazakas interviews Spencer Kansa, author of 'Zoning', a novel, and 'Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron', the biography of an underground film star who worked with L. Ron Hubbard and Aleister Crowley. Kansa is pictured above in 1994 with William S. Burroughs at WSB's home in Lawrence, Kansas. -- Levi)
Laki: What was the genesis of your novel Zoning?
Spencer: I began writing Zoning in my early 20s, and William Burroughs read it during my first visit to his home in Lawrence, Kansas in 1992. It’s kinda funny the comment he made about it – that’s been used on the front cover - because I’d never read Celine before then but, having done so subsequently, I presume that what he meant by it was there’s a similar matter-of-factness in relaying horror.
I then left the manuscript on the shelf for over a decade while I worked as a music journalist, then I dusted it down a few years ago and started hawking it to several publishers.
Laki: Describe the publishing process?
Spencer: Well, to be honest, I was beginning to fear that Zoning was a roman maudit - a cursed novel - because it was actually slated to come out a few years ago with an American publisher but, shysters that they were, they reneged on the contract. Then a Portuguese publisher agreed to publish it two years ago, only to tell me, right at the last minute, that they wouldn’t do it with the original cover design we’d already agreed on. I love the cover of the book. It was created by an old mucker of mine, the hugely gifted artist Dan Lish. It’s beautiful, and its dreamy, druggy quality perfectly evokes the hallucinatory atmosphere and spirit of the book. So I refused to have the novel published without it.
Michael Stutz began exploring the literary/underground/DIY culture of the Internet as a writer for Wired and Rolling Stone so long ago that, way back when I first showed up on the lit/tech scene (which was a long time ago), he was already there to show me around. After a long self-imposed separation from the online world, he has now returned with a three-volume novel chronicling the entire life story of a connection-hungry connoisseur of online culture. Meet Michael Stutz.
Levi: Your novel Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age is a coming-of-age tale, hearkening back to other classics of the genre from Henry Fielding's Tom Jones to J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. But your hero's world is a new one for fiction: the emerging society of online culture, from the early Unix dial-up BBS's of the 1980s to the dot-com mania of the 90s to the more scattered social networking scene of today. What kind of reaction are you getting from readers to the idea that a life lived largely online is one worthy of heroic fiction?
Michael: The novelist Tony D'Souza just called the book's hero, Ray Valentine, "the Everyman of the wired age," so it seems to be natural -- and remember McLuhan: "technology forces us to live mythically." Yet, you know, heroic fiction of the kind we're talking about is almost nonexistent in contemporary literary fiction. Arther S. Trace, Jr., an outsider intellectual, wrote a powerful, prescient book in the early 70s called The Future of Literature. This is about the only book of literary theory to map out and show the decline of heroic fiction. It was a long process, but Trace shows how it really tanks in the day of postmodernism. And you know what? I've always been repelled by postmodernism -- in everything, from literature to architecture. I don't identify with it or fit in with it at all. For decades we've had the postmodern "anti-hero" in fiction, and everything has to be ironic and heartless, and that just doesn't connect with me. I'm Beat and before. Bring me back to that and let's go off in a whole new direction and forget all this other stuff. I want to do something totally different. So if the classical hero is the way, and the new world of the net is my ineluctable material, the combination is pretty much the way it had to be.
1. A favorite baseball player of mine died last week.
2. Here's a fun literary site that's been making the rounds: police sketches based on descriptions of fictional characters, by Brian Joseph Davis. I'm particularly impressed by his Emma Bovary and Humbert Humbert, but I sense subconscious influence in the Daisy Buchanan: this sketch does not have the requisite bright ecstatic smile, and looks exactly like Mia Farrow in the movie.
3. Katy Perry says her song Firework was directly inspired by Jack Kerouac's On The Road. I still don't like the song but this helps a little.
When Bill Griffith was a 19-year-old art student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, he ran into Marcel Duchamp at Manhattan gallery hosting a retrospective by the venerable Dadaist. When he told Duchamp that he, too, wanted to be an artist, the old man sternly warned, “Go into medicine. The world needs more doctors than artists.”
Had Bill Griffith taken Marcel Duchamp seriously, we would be without Zippy (aka Zippy the Pinhead), the best-drawn daily underground comic strip in America, currently running in 300 newspapers across the planet.
Griffith didn’t ignore Duchamp’s advice; he simply interpreted it in the spirit of Dada.
As he recently said, “I did consider his comment, that I should go into medicine, as a Dada statement. On one level, when he first said it, I had an immediate deflated moment of ‘oh no, this is not what I want to hear,’ but then literally a second later, I thought ‘wait a minute, this is Marcel Duchamp, he doesn’t speak the way normal people speak. This is a code.’ I convinced myself that that’s what he meant.”
Several collections of Zippy strips have been published over the years, but the single massive volume that Griffith’s work deserved had eluded him. That gaping oversight has now been partially redressed with Bill Griffith: Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003, a 400-page tome published by the estimable Fantagraphics Books, edited and brilliantly annotated by Griffith. It begins with samples of the work Griffith did in the early days of his career when he was among a group of Bay Area artists—including Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Rory Hayes, Justin Green, and Griffith’s wife-to-be Diane Noomin—who reshaped, reinvented and reinvigorated the comic book form to embrace hip, adult, intelligent readers.