An Interview with Jim Carroll
Jim Carroll is an
enigma, and probably has always been so. At night, as a kid, he was a New York street
punk sniffing glue and beginning his heroin habit. By day, he was college material on a
basketball scholarship to Trinity High; winner of the Random House Young Writers Award at
nineteen for exerpts from THE BASKETBALL DIARlES, published in The Paris Review
(written between the ages of twelve and sixteen), and all-round hustler. THE BASKETBALL
DIARIES was called by Jamie James "Catcher In The Rye for real, for bigger
stakes...it seemed to be the charming but trivial work of a precociously gifted young
writer. The catch was that anyone who had read Jimmy Carroll's poetry...knew it was
charming but trivial like Moby Dick is charming but trivial." After THE
BASKETBALL DIARIES, during the seventies, Carroll worked odd jobs for Andy Warhol's
factory. His book FORCED ENTRIES describes the Max's Kansas City "very hip downtown
art scene" and Carroll's experiences with the wildly famous (Dylan, Burroughs, et
al). The last section of the book covers his move to Bolinas, California, where he kicked
his heroin habit. In an interview wttn Barbara Graustark, he said, "Susan Sontag once
told me that a junkie has a unique chance to rise up and start life over. But I want kids
to know it's not hip to indulge yourself at the bottom unless you're planning one helluva
Carroll met Rosemary Klemfuss
in California. They were married in 1978. She was a law student at Stanford, and a disc
jockey on the college station. She took him to see the punk new wave bands. His old lover
Patti Smith also encouraged him--and he read his poetry with her band in San Diego one
night, when a dispute grounded her opening act. "When I did the show with Patti, I
saw that it could be done. It was incredible fun, and it was so intense and scary and
beautiful at the same time." He later wrote, "Henry Miller's study of Rimbaud,
which is really a study of Henry Miller, was the big factor for me going into rock--that
was it. That whole thing about getting a heart quality out of work rather than just the
intellectual quality. A good poet works on both. Miller spoke about the inner register and
how a great poet has to affect virtual illiterates as well as affecting people through the
intellect, and I figured many poets are just writing for other poets today. It's all
intellectual concrete minimal poetry."
Besides the Diaries and Forced Entries, it's a sequel,
Carroll is the author of LIVING AT THE MOVIES, a collection of poetry, and THE BOOK OF
NODS, "prose poems which combine elements of fiction, autobiography and surrealism.
His rock albums include CATHOLIC BOY, DRY DREAMS, and I WRITE YOUR NAME. He is Currently
working on his first novel, and touring for his latest LP PRAYING MANTiS, a part live/part
studio spoken word album for Warner Brothers affiliate Giant Records, which includes new
prose and poetry as well as "club favorites" from the books.
Frank Andrick: PRAYING MANTIS is a departure for you. What compelled
you to go from doing poetry and rock and roll on records to putting out a record of spoken
Jim Carroll: From the time I put out my last record, I WRITE
YOUR NAME, I wanted to take a break from recording and start publishing books again. I
made a deal with Viking/Penguin for them to reissue THE BASKETBALL DIARIES and put out
some new books; I did a three book deal with the DIARIES, FORCED ENTRIES and THE BOOK OF
NODS. At the same time I've been working on two novels which came to me at once. I felt
fortunate in that, because in the past my prose has been largely biographical. I've never
developed a sustain plot to last through a novel. The two ideas are very different from
each other. I just laid it all out in notebooks. I told one of the ideas to my agent, who
dug it a lot. It's about these two priests, and it involves a miracle. One of the two
priests investigates miracles for the Vatican. The other priest reveals his stigmata at
the mission in San Rafael, close to San Francisco. There's also a murder mystery that runs
through it. So that's the straight novel that both my agent and my edior at Viking got
excited about at lunch. They both wanted chapters and an outline. I spoke with them for
over two hours about that book, and then I tried to lay on them the bit about the second
book because that's the one I want to write first. They were already excited ahout the
priest book because they saw it as a real money maker. The second book is the one I'm
working on now. There's an excerpt from it on PRAYING MANTIS. It's a small fragmented
novel about a painter from New York. He feels he has to put aside painting for awhile,
that he has to find some spiritual aspect to put into his work because he feels that's
missing from it and (from) the works of his peers. Then he goes to the Metropolitan Museum
of Art. He goes to this Velasquez show and sees this spiritual arrogance and other
spiritual qualities that just aren't there in his own work and that of his contemporaries.
He's blown away by it. He's freaked. He can't even make it through the show. He runs out
into the street and after that (it) becomes like a Grail quest thing. Every chapter is its
own short story; it's very fragmented. It was an easier transition for me to work that way
than to deal with the structure, the architecture of the novel. From an audience
standpoint, which doesn't mean all that much to me, it's not that far out in left field.
It does take place in New York; it deals with the art scene. It's not rock and roll,
FA: So you've tried to keep the rock and roll persona separate from
your work as a poet, monologuist, novelist?
JC: To me it's a separate thing. I probably wouldn't have become
involved with rock and roll if it hadn't have been for my friend Earl McGrath, who at the
time was the president of Rolling Stone Records. He was the one who played this $100 demo
tape I had made to Keith Richards of the Stones. Earl understood things in literary terms,
and obviously most people in the record business didn't. I mean it is a business, and I
didn't mind being oblivious to all that shit!
(The work is) totally different from my perspective, but they do
overlap to some degree. I've written scme songs recently for the Blue Oyster Cult and also
for Boz Scaggs. I've found myself saving some songs, so I guess subliminally I want to do
a music record sometime. They were the songs I heard music to immediately as I came up
with the words.
FA: What parallels do you see between yourself and Marianne
Faithfull? You're both, if you will, refugees from the 'Rolling Stones School'. Your lives
now entwine around music, poetry and spoken word.
JC: I did this reading with Marianne Faithfull at the Bottom
Line. Six shows with the two of us. She had been hanging around the Naropa Institute. She
was involved with this big Beatnik-type reunion there. They had this huge reading in
Kansas, which I was involved with, too. It was the first time we'd seen each other in
years, since we'd worked together on the sound track of the film, TUFF TURF. We get along
well, so we talked about doing shows. She was at Naropa teaching a songwriting thing, she
was with people like Burroughs whom she liked but didn't really know. And I knew all these
people, I got real tight with Burroughs and Anne Waldman, Dennis Berge, and the rest of
the people at Naropa--I was supposed to do these shows at the Bottom Line. and I
thought,"I'll do them with Marianne Faithfull"--Yeah. That would be great!"
I really had a good time doing those shows. One of the guys from Giant records came up to
me at the show and said, "Fuck doing a rock and roll record album, let's do a spoken
word record!" because he dug it so much. Then I got this call from Island Records,
which is Marianne's record label. They wanted to do an album in that series they do with
people like Burroughs and Ginsberg. When I talked to them, they wanted to get some name
musicians behind it and they started talking about producers and shit. I thought that if I
was going to go through all that, I might as well do a rock and roll album. So I begged
off. Some day I'd like to record and put out a number of nights doing shows with Marianne.
It was really great.
FA: How did the deal with Giant Records come about for a spoken word rather than
rock and roll?
JC: I met with the New York A&R guy for Giant Records, who is a friend of
Lenny Kaye, the guitarist from my band, and the Patti Smith group. He's probably best
known as the producer of Suzanne Vega's albums. He spoke to my ex wife, Rosemary, who is
also my lawyer. His father owns the company that Wilson Phillips record for. He was the
archetypal Jim Carroll fan that loved THE BASKETBALL DIARIES and the CATHOLIC BOY album--a
rich kid from Long Island. He wanted to do arock and roll album and I said, "How
about a spoken word album?" So I had a dialogue going with them on that. Then
Rosemary said, "Why don't you deal with this guy on the West Coast, from Giant? He
really digs your stuff.["] I said, "Spoken word record?" He said,
"Yeah, do you want to do it in live or in the studio?" I said, "Well, why
don't we do a little of both?" So the new CD/cassette was recorded in a studio in Los
Angeles and mostly at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, New York City. (Home of the St.
Mark's Poetry Project.)
FA: What's the difference between performing rock and roll and doing spoken word?
JC: I feel that you don't need to have music to rock and roll. I mean,
PRAYING MANTIS, it's not like it's a dry poetry album. Inside the booklet that comes with
the CD there's a little poem; it's not very good, but it says: "Do you need music to
rock and roll?/Just find the back seat in your heart;/Turn up the volume all the way/Until
you are facing me/eye to eye." I like the idea ofjust doing it. lt's perverse because
I know it's like a test for me to see if there really are people left out there who will
and can listen. Most people have forgotten how to read books. So I made a confession, and
I'm putting it on tape. On a record. To see if there are people who will buy spoken word
without a back beat that's discernible. Usually at readings I do prose pieces first and
then counterpoint. At clubs or colleges, where kids are not used to poetry readings, I
usually read the more accessible, funnier prose pieces, from BASKETBALL DIARlES or FORCED
ENTRIES, like the ones I chose for this new release--some very short pieces and some
longer ones that are really like story-telling...
FA: Tell me about the poets that have been important to you, the
ones that you drew from and hung with. People like Frank 0' Hara, (who besides being a
renowned poet was also a curator at the New York Museum of Modern Art) who--much like
yourself--lived in many worlds.
JC: I read the Don Allen anthology, THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY (published
in 1960). It came to be the alternative to the anthologies of the more academic poets of
the postwar period. I bought it because I saw a poem of his, of Frank 0' Hara's, on a
friend of mine's wall. Some kid I knew in school. You see, I thought at the time that
poety was sissy stuff--as any kid growing up in a rough New York neighbourhood would. We
had that kind of take on poetry. To me (poetry) was a Bob Dylan song, 'cause I was just
getting into Bob Dylan at that time. You know, Phil Ochs and people like that.
In my own work, I was a lot more affected by Frank and by John Ashbery, by the New York
School that they were a part of. I liked Allen Ginsberg out of the Beatnik school, of
course. But he and the Beats were not so influential, they didn't make me want to write
poems like that. I was so completely taken with Frank! He would take walks from MOMA (the
New York Museum of Modern Art) and check stuff out and then go into typewriter shops and
type it, trying it out on the new Olivettis (0'Hara is famous for his LUNCH POEMS.)
I even followed him home from work one time. He died in his sleep that summer. It was
that (following) winter that I became involved with the poetry scene. I didn't realize til
then the enormous influence Frank had on all these young poets. I thought that I had
discovered Frank was going to mould my style (on his) That's how much I was influenced.
Then I started going to these poetry readings, only to find out that everybody on the
Lower East Side had been influenced by Frank They were ALL reading poems very much like
his. It was kinda depressing, in a way. From what I knew of Frank, and having read LUNCH
POEMS, I knew his work came from some kind of immediacy--from just walking around. Of
course I found out later that Frank had not written a poem in quite a while, at the time
he died. He took on more and more responsibility at the museum. He started off in a small
position, like a docent or something, but when he graduated, or I mean died--well, I guess
that's a kind of graduation--he was putting on just about everything that was getting
shown there. A lot of people put the blame for his decline in a poetic sense on that. I
think his last show was the (Jackson) Pollock show, the big one that everyone still
remembers. I have spoken to a lot of people who knew him who claim that (that's why his
poetry work tapered off). When I found that out it was really depressing to me. I thought,
"Is this what happens after a while?" Everything in those days inspired me! It
just didn't seem right that these curator obligations should take over from his own (real)
work. He was so close to all the painters and poets that were on the scene. They all
thought he was a genius; they couldn't understand why he wasn't writing or why he was so
enamored by them when they felt they were the ones really enamored by Frank and by his
FA: Now we're talking about the places where poetry and the visual arts cross. What
about your own involvement with that?
JC: In New York there were galleries. I came along after the big boom of them on
Tenth Street, This was in the late fifties and sixties. Then the whole thing seemed to
open up again in the late seventies and earty eighties. There were a lot of artists with
big spaces. big lofts, and they would have people reading in their lofts. They could
display their stuff--paintings, sculptures, assemblages, whatever--and entertain, too.
There were a lot of poets and painters, other artists doing collaborations. A lot of
people I knew and hung out with got by through writing or working for ART NEWS; at the
time, John Ashbery was one of their main editors. Some of those Madison Avenue galleries
would pay you to review their shows so they could get more press. So everybody
supplemented their incomes by doing reviews in Art News and other papers. It was a time of
a poetry renaissance. There were a lot of hassles between the Black Mountain Poets, the
New York School, and the second generation poets. The squabbling was mostly over National
Endowment for the Arts grants. That inter-faction thing probably goes on even more today
because of the sparcity of N. E. A. grants under the current administration.
FA: How did all of that lead to the publication of THE BASKETBALL
DIARIES? I know you wrote them while you were thirteen and fourteen years old, but they
got published a few years later.
JC: It's like that piece on the record TINY TORTURES. There were
all kinds of readings going on, organised events, performance things, challenges for poets
to do what they normally would not do. I would never have published THE BASKETBALL DIARIES
if THE WORLD magazine--published out of St. Marks Church--if they hadn't had one issue
that was going to be all prose. I didn't have anything, so I just showed them all these
diaries, I didn't know what their take on them would be. At first I wondered if I should
expose THE BASKETBALL DIARIES, but I was stuck with no material, so I didn't think about
it too much. Everybody thought they were great after they were out in THE WORLD. Then the
people from The Paris Review read them and dug them, so I published excerpts from them in
The Paris Review. After that I got a lot of book offers. I just sort of hedged them off
for a while, until I got an agent. Anne Waldman, the famous poet, had to type up THE
BASKETBALL DIARIES manuscript for me. I was just much more interested in doing a book of
poems first. I wasn't interested in doing the DIARlES...it seemed so retrospect from where
I was at. Everyone on the scene dug them. They found it all incredible, really camp. A lot
of people thought that either the DIARIES were made up and I was a total genius or that if
they were real, then I was a complete life genius. You see, 'genius' was a big word back
then. To me it was just another kid trying. I knew it was a book, but to me it really
wasn't literature, they were stories strung together, The Paris Review crowd thought they
were totally camp. My role (in all this) was that I wanted to get away from this street
kid kind of life I was leading. The reason I wasn't so crazy about wanting to become a
beatnik poet was that it was too natural to me. I was so used to that street scene. It
seemed kinda corny to me to see people trying to get in on it. THE BASKETBALL DIARIES had
been written in that (street speech) style. I wanted to find and to write poetry. I wanted
something that could take me completely out of my life! Out of my everyday life. That's
why I found poets like Frank 0' Hara and John Ashbery, poets who were much more abstract,
and erudite, and in a certain way more interesting to me. I finally published the Diaries
in their entirety with Bantam after I moved out to California. It wasn't a hippy book in
and about the Sixties, it seemed there was a much better audience when the punk scene came
along. It was like everything had come around again, 180 degrees.
FA: Let's move now into the seventies and eighties with the C. B. G. B's, Patti
Smith, Tom Verlaine, The Ramones etc.
JC: I was in California for most of that,
in Bolinas, during my recluse period. I kept reading about it in The Village Voice. It
kind of amazed me that suddenly Patti was big. There were unbelievable sums of money being
tossed around. Patti and I were friends much earlier in New York, from about 1969. I
remember Tom Verlaine and Richard Myers--who later renamed himself Richard Hell-- when
they first came to New York City from Delaware. Richard Hell at the time was this little
fat guy. They were hanging out on the poetry scene. They were aspiring young poets; I
mean, I didn't even know that Tom Verlaine played guitar. When we did talk it was about
poetry and art, writing and stuff. But as far as being around in the old C. B G. B's
scene, I was happy being in this recluse period in Bolinas. I was so resolved to it that I
felt fine about it. Of course, I knew I was missing out on something. It was exciting
because for the first time people my age were doing something. Before that everyone had
been much older than me. The poets and painters I had hung with were at least ten years
older. I was really fortunate to have that, but at last young people were doing things.
Actually. Patti had a band in New York when I was still back there. She opened for Phil
Ochs at Max's Kansas City [in 1973]. That was just two days before I left for California;
Lenny Kaye was with her. She sounded pretty good, too. She had all these ballads. I don't
think that anything that she was doing then wound up on any of her albums. It was nice; it
was very weird. It wasn so incongruous (Patti being on that program), really. Of course
the audience was (there for) Phil Ochs. I thought. "They're not gonna like what Patti
But Patti rose to the ocassion. I could see that this was the right genre for Patti as
far as words were concerned: her poems had always seemed like lyrics to me. Patti was
always just so good in front of an audience. She was so good at poetry readings. A lot of
the poets didn't like her work that much; it seems she didn't fit the program at St.
Mark's Church. She got invited to read whh Gerard Malanga, who was a popular poet at St.
Mark's. He was also Andy Warhol's right hand man at the time (that was) before he was
overthrown by Paul Morrissey. So Gerard had Patti read first at St. Marks. She just blew
everybody away. It was her night. She was really great! I thought she would get invited
back within a couple of years. It's a two year cycle no matter who you are, because there
are all these other poets they have to fit in. Everybody wants to read at St. Mark's
FA: Could you tell us about St. Mark's itself?
JC: It's a very old church on Tenth Street and Second Avenue in
the Bowery of New York City. Peter Stuyvesant, the first mayor of (what is now) New York,
is buried in a crypt in the side wall of it. It has a graveyard on each side of the
building with all these Revolutionary War heroes, and tombstones from the late sixteen
It was already a major place in the poetry scene when I came around.
When I got there, Anne Waldman had just started to run the poetry program. On Monday
nights there would be open readings in the parish hall where anybody could read for five
minutes each. Then on Wednesday night the big shots came to read. They would either have
that in the main church or, depending on the size of the crowd, in the parish room also.
Then on other nights there are workshops going on in all these little rooms off to the
side. The National Endowment for the Arts was pretty active in the art scene in those
days. So teaching workshops each week was a good way for poets to make some decent money.
I was working there as a kind of assistant. I was running open mikes and open readings and
stuff. I was about seventeen when I started.
Upstairs they have this small theatre. It's very nice and very well
equipped. The main playwright there at the time was Sam Sheppard. He was only about
twenty-two then. He had already made a name for himself. THE CONNECTION (by Jack Gilbart)
had been put on there. It was a seminal junkie play of the times. St. Marks Church in the
Bowery was the hub for the downtown art scene.
FA: You mentioned the availability of NEA grants. What about your
own dealings with the NEA and the censors effects on two friends of yours, Robert
Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring?
JC: Indirectly I've gotten NEA money, getting paid for teaching,
and assisting at St. Marks, but I've never applied for an NEA grant. I got a grant from
the California Art Council when I was living in California. It carried me through three
years out there in Bolinas. I got it renewed very year, and I got about $350.00 a month. I
was on a drug program when I first went out there. In California I had to (either) teach a
workshop in creative writing at a drug program or teach a workshop at San Quentin. I opted
for the program. You have to do some sort of public service according to your talents. To
give something back. But that was California under Jerry Brown's administration. It was
user friendly to me.
It's funny you should mention Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring. I
just got this thing in the mail--it's right in front of me now--from the John Giorno AIDS
Treatment Project. You know Giorno, he puts out these poetry records with Burroughs and
Laurie Anderson, just about a everybody really (who has been) at one time in the New York
There's a funny picture of Patti and Robert . . . oh, that's from Fifth
Avenue when they were living there. Not together, in different apartments.
Did Robert get an NEA grant for himself? I don't think so, he never
needed it. I knew Robert when he was living with Patti and me in the early seventies. He
was doing ok even then. Patti was working and she was taking care of everybody. Nobody
seemed to need very much money then. Patti was just great, covering our rents and food,
always taking care of her friends. Then after that, Robert moved out when he found his
boyfriend patron, who took care of Robert in a grandiose style.
Then he really made his reputation as a photographer. (The NEA only
affected him) indirectly (through) that place in Washington DC and of course Cincinatti
--places that get grants from the NEA and show works by Robert Mapplethorpe, Joel
Peter-Witkin and Keith Haring. Although, with Keith, I can't imagine how his work could be
offensive. It's like kiddie cartoons, on one level. I went to see the Anne Liebowitz show
yesterday. She has this big show that's at the Photography Center in New York. She had
this picture of Keith Haring--he painted himself like one of his figures, only he was
nude. It was funny. It's really hard to try to figure what people will get upset about.
The other day I heard about a Goya, one of those nude Maja paintings, that was taken down
in Pittsburgh because someone complained that the painting was harassing them. My God,
that's really scary!
FA: One last question: Now that you've joined the ranks of Spalding
Gray and John 0' Keefe in the spoken word and have a spoken word record and compact disc
out on a Warner Brothers label, where can we get PRAYING MANTIS? Do people go to a record
store: is it in a special section? Will book stores carry it? How will it be promoted?
JC: Well, to answer that last part. I'm doing public readings
live and readings on the radio with interviews. I'm touring all over the country doing
shows. Because of the Warner Books connection, it's supposed to be in bookstores also.
Especially ones with a sense of poetry and spoken word. I know in New York it's at St.
Mark's and B. Dalton in the Village has a huge display. I'd like to think it's in City
Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, Cody's in Berkeley, and other appropriate places. Some
of my audience is more rock and roll, some only from the poetry side of things. It's a
strange polemic and sometimes the twain does not meet.
I know these days, right now, I feel much more at home in a bookstore
than I do in a record store. It's much more pleasant.
©1991 Frank Andrick
Frank Andrick is a journalist and has been published
in PRAVDA. He cohosts a weekly radio show of alternative music on Radio KUSF in the Bay
Area. He is also program cordinator of Broadcast Services for the Blind, a spoken word
station that serves the blind community.