Home > Research > Interviews > Verbal Entries: An Interview with Jim Carroll (1996)

Verbal Entries: An Interview with Jim Carroll

Perhaps best known as a rock musician, Jim Carroll is also an accomplished poet and writer. His best lyrics, such as "People Who Died," are themselves a kind of poetry. Recently, a film based on his best-selling book, The Basketball Diaries, was released to general acclaim. His first commercially published book of poems, Living at the Movies (1973), was issued when he was just twenty-two. That was followed by The Basketball Diaries (diaries, 1978), The Book of Nods (poems, 1986), Forced Entries (memoirs, 1987) and a selected poems, Fear of Dreaming (1993), which also includes uncollected and newer works. A spoken word recording, Praying Mantis (1991), was released as a compact disc on the Giant Records label - and a two cassette recording of The Basketball Diaries (read by the author with musical accompaniment by guitarist Lenny Kaye) was released by Audio Literature (1994). Other spoken word recordings can be found on various Giorno Poetry System anthologies.

Thomas Gladysz: Forced Entries was you last book of prose. How did that book - a kind of sequel to The Basketball Diaries - come about ?

Jim Carroll: I had made a deal for two books. I hadn't been keeping a diary during the period of Forced Entries, though I had about fifteen pages from then. That was enough to give me a voice. Then, I just threw myself back into that period. Forced Entries is a triple or quadruple entendre, it has all these different meanings. Some keep coming to me. A lot of them were "forced" in the sense that they were painful to write. In that period of my life, I was being pulled in different directions. The effect it had was on my style, on my writing. The thing I needed was stability.

I was living in this hollow flux of desperation, as I describe it at its low point - and at other times it was high hi-jinx. The drug situation was there, though a bit more in moderation. I could work with it while I was on heroin. I never liked the notion that you needed drugs to write or that drugs helped you, except that heroin makes you very neat ! It gives you a sense of control. I like control - in the sense of losing control when you have control. The other type of losing control is when you don't have control in the first place. That's not a creative type of lost control.

I gave Lou Reed a bound copy of the galley proofs. I said to him, " I think the years are wrong. Wasn't it 1970 that you broke up [the Velvet Underground], that summer - the gigs at Max's. 'No' he said, 'it was 1969.' Actually, he might be wrong ! This girl told me she distinctly remembers it was the summer of 1970. Lou told me it doesn't matter, that we would all be better off if 1969 was 1971. So actually, Forced Entries is 1970 to 1972, a two year period. I gave them the title. Of course the publisher wanted - and it was O.K. with me - to have the sense of continuity with "diaries." They wanted diaries [in the title] since The Basketball Diaries had done so well, and they wanted years, so there was the two year time span. It's irrelevant in a sense, it is not a historical document.

Thomas Gladysz: Then Forced Entries are recollections, rather than diaries ?

Jim Carroll: Yes. I was not keeping a daily diary, in the sense in which The Basketball Diaries were written. When I started that book [The Basketball Diaries] I wanted to be a writer - in the sense of being like a sports writer, a journalist.

I was a sports writer for the school newspaper in grammar school. The only good thing I got out of grammar school was this Brother who taught me writing through cutting out the sports columns of Red Smith and Arthur Daley from the New York Times and Sports Illustrated. Underlining metaphors and similes, showing me certain techniques, explaining allegories, sustaining a metaphor - he really taught me a lot. When that summer was over - the summer I was twelve just turning thirteen - I realized I wanted to write. But I didn't have assignments anymore. I thought about writing a novel. I could deal with dialogue and imagery and voice, but I couldn't deal with sustaining a plot.

So, I decided I would write in a diary - not a "dear diary" type of thing, but one were I was writing on days were something anecdotally interesting happened so that each entry could stand by itself. When I got a scholarship to a private school, I got more erudite in my tastes. I wanted to become a poet then. I saw that was what I wanted to do. Poetry wasn't just sissy stuff. In the neighborhood where I grew up, that was the take you had - I thought the same thing. But when I read Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsberg, I thought that contemporary poets had the strength of rock and roll. It [writing] was natural for me, which was strange because I had no family history of artists. My family was totally against it.

The strength of that The Basketball Diaries is its voice, the street rap voice - I could have changed that to something more aloof and made the book more introspective, which would have made it dreadful. With Forced Entries, I needed to establish a voice. I had about fifteen pages of the book. They were usually shorter entries, three pages at the most; and on other days, I just had made notes to remember. When I was writing Forced Entries - stylistically - I really wanted to get back and continue that voice, make it honest, because that is where the strength is in a book of diaries. I still only wanted to write on days when each would stand as a separate piece. By the nature of that time in my life, I had to be more introspective. I had the capabilities as a writer to be more introspective. From when I was 19 on I knew how to write well enough and express myself in terms I couldn't have done during The Basketball Diaries.

A lot of these [entries] are very funny. I believe in counterpoint as the strength of all art - in the formal contrapuntal sense of music, in the classical sense. Counterpoint, like the guitar line running against the rhythm; in pop music, against the hook. I had to offset the funny things with something more introspective, not something necessarily sad, but a coming to terms with a bad situation. It was strange writing it. Looking back, that's what was painful. I started to remember from the notes - which were just surface notes - which would remind me of certain days. I had to go deep into myself, it was like therapy in a sense. It was painful. Someone said to me that it must have changed your life in the present. It didn't, because I purged all that pain by actually creating the work of art.

Thomas Gladysz: One theme in Forced Entries is your desire to gain control, both of yourself and of your life.

Jim Carroll: I wanted control in the sense that I could have it so I could lose it. I always wanted to know the classical rules of poetry, so I would be able to break them. I didn't think there were any rules that couldn't be broken. But, I wanted to know those rules first. As far as control is concerned, in the first section of the book, I had this obsession with making the scene - which was part of being young. My body could take it, I was resilient, I was strong and it had a thrill to it But living at different people's houses affected my writing, and that's what bothered me. I couldn't go back and forth without losing some mental control. I didn't know if I was up or down.

Thomas Gladysz: Would you say that it was your writing that spurred you to take control of your life ?

Jim Carroll: Well, yes, I felt like I had to make some move. Most people felt that I went to California to get off drugs, but that was only one part of it. Also, it was to gain a sense of control. When I went to California and had some kind of stability - more stability than control - I was able to transform knowledge into wisdom. That was all important aside from getting off drugs. That's what I needed in my life then. That was a period in my life when I felt very lost.

Thomas Gladysz: Do you feel then that your desire to be a writer gave you the motivation to quit drugs ?

Jim Carroll: Well, it's hard to really say. I've seen people in every walk of life and people who seem not to have much incentive get off drugs. Guys who came back from Vietnam who never did drugs got back and would do all this junk, like take ten seconalls. That was just a waste of the junk because they would just knock themselves out. Ten reds would knock you unconscious or else you would just be stumbling around and falling on your face. It was obvious they changed over there and they just wanted to die. They probably didn't want to come back in the first place - and when they did, they were going to off themselves as quickly as possible. The guys I am thinking of - three guys in particular, all died at different times. They found all three in the river.

I saw other guys who were in 'Nam who were out of work and strung out. Or who were on methadone and without much incentive - they had a much stronger will than I did. They just decided they wanted to get their shit together, because their lives were nowhere, and they were going to make it better. Being a writer, I don't think, gives you an incentive.

Thomas Gladysz: Something you write about in both The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries is your fear of nuclear holocaust. I suppose it's the one thing beyond our control. Do you still think about it today ?

Jim Carroll: If there were a real crisis I would. I have a fear of it inbred in me as much as the rituals of Catholicism. [Nuclear holocaust] was a religion. As I write in my book, the Russians exploded their first H-bomb the day I was born. That was a new god. Anything with that much power has to be called a god, or a demon. It has too much strength to be called anything else. For me, there's a quality to it as if I were one of the early members of the Church, one of the apostles.

I grew up in this generation where, as in Atomic Cafe, you duck and cover. You go out into the hall or put your coat on your head. Once a week we would have air raid drills. We would go into the hall and get into a certain position and tuck your head between your legs. I remember my brother egging me on the night of the Cuban missile crisis - him saying how the missiles were aimed at us and how the Russian diplomats were leaving town that night and how they were going to bomb us. I also remember this Christian Brother at grammar school said "if those sirens start ringing" (and I didn't like that cause I thought that sirens wail, they don't ring, I noticed that mixed metaphor and it bothered me) - he didn't say, "and I don't think it will," he just said "if it does we have enough food stored down in the gymnasium to last us four months." I can remember every detail of that day. I was walking around scared shitless.

Then a generation passed when the idea of nuclear deterrent idea was really bought and mothers started to assure their kids that it really can't happen. A whole generation didn't worry about it. Then all of a sudden, kids who would sneak back stage or wait in the parking lot after a show would talk about how they could understand those fears. It was pretty scary to them, and to me. That runs pretty deep.

Thomas Gladysz: You knew Edwin Denby, the New York poet and dance critic, and he figures considerably in Forced Entries - your book of diaries. How did you come to meet him ?

Jim Carroll: I remember the time I came to know him, at a poetry reading. I had hung around St. Marks since I was fifteen. Nobody really knew who I was, since I was too shy to introduce myself. Then I had a book of poems published when I was fifteen and a half, called Organic Trains. I gave it to Ted Berrigan - who was a kind of leader of the second generation of the New York School of poets, to give to other people. Ted said "oh, I always wondered who you were." And Anne Waldman, I gave her some copies. She said, "We always wondered who this young red headed guy was."

After a reading, I remember Denby going "now I'm making my way over to Mr. Carroll" and saying "how do you do, I'm Edwin Denby." Someone had given him a copy of my book ! He took a certain interest in me as this kid - this street kid, whom he was going to give some culture to in the form of dance. I took him to a basketball game once, thinking "wait till you see the moves these guys make." He was really quite fascinated. It wasn't all ballet.

There is a scene in the book where he takes me to sit near Ballanchine. That was amazing, as well as meeting all my favorite dancers. I remember going to the Carnagie Deli with Paul Taylor after Edwin had taken me to see Taylor dance for the first time with those beautiful sets by Alex Katz. Edwin had a real influence. He taught me a lot. He had such a generous intellect and was such an interesting man.

Thomas Gladysz: In Forced Entries you also tell of the time you trailed Frank O'Hara a few weeks before he was killed. Did you ever get a chance to meet him ?

Jim Carroll: Never. I followed him around a number of times. The first poem I ever read by him was "To the Harbormaster" (from Meditations in an Emergency) on a friend's bulletin board. I got Lunch Poems and I was totally enthralled and followed him around. What was strange was the TV show that came out after he died. It was announced he had died two weeks after it was shot. In it he read a passage from a screenplay he was writing for a film by Al Leslie, the painter and filmmaker. One of the lines that stuck out was "I feel like going out in the middle of 14th street and lying down in the middle of traffic." Well, that would come soon since he got run over by a beach buggy on Fire Island.

Thomas Gladysz: With Ted Berrigan, you had gone to meet Jack Kerouac, after Kerouac had read parts of The Basketball Diaries.

Jim Carroll: It was hard to get past Kerouac's wife, you know. Guys would come to visit him all the time. He didn't like hippies, and he was real conservative toward the end of his life. His wife kept anyone away from the door who came to make this pilgrimage type of thing with a copy of On the Road. If she did let you in, he might wind up getting high and go on a three day drunk, and she wanted to prevent that at all cost. Ted had trouble getting in the first time he went up there. This was with Aram Saroyan and Duncan McNaughton, I think, to do The Paris Review interview.

Coming back from Maine - where we were staying with this guy from the Fugs, Lee Crabtree - Ted and I were hitchhiking down the coast to Cambridge to do a reading. We were not too far from Lowell, so Berrigan said, "Let's stop off and see Jack." We got there and his wife was very nice and let us in. But he was in bad shape and very crotchety. It really didn't go well except that he had read The World, this mimeographed magazine from St. Marks. It was a poetry magazine, except that they had this prose issue. The story usually goes that he read them (The Basketball Diaries) in The Paris Review, but that didn't come out until after he died. What I did was send him the manuscript.

He liked me in a certain way - maybe because I wasn't too hippie-ish. This was a time in his life when he was advocating William F. Buckley for president - so you can't really trust the things he was saying. Politics was one thing with him, he was on surer ground with his writing.

I got to see him again in New York, between six and eight months before he died. He had to come into New York once in a while to see his agent. He was at Larry Rivers' house, and of course he was surrounded by all his old friends. I went up to him, and he said he had gotten the manuscript. He said he would write me a letter of introduction. I didn't want to publish the book then. I wanted to establish myself not as a street writer, but as a poet. What he was essentially doing was giving me a blurb. When I did decide to publish The Basketball Diaries, Anne Waldman solicited a blurb from Burroughs for the jacket of the original edition.

Kerouac sent me this letter, and said, if your publisher wants a blurb, here. I feel funny about blurbs. Myself, I don't like to use them. But now, I get sent books from people who want blurbs, and I feel like I should reciprocate. Maybe it is bad form not to, but I usually don't do it. I try to avoid it. Certainly, that quote from Kerouac has been wonderful for me. I feel he was being very generous. I know he wouldn't have written it if he hadn't liked the work; I think he felt I was carrying on a certain spirit that was influenced by him. He thought I was carrying a torch, and in a spiritual sense, I was.

I hadn't in fact read Kerouac when I wrote The Basketball Diaries. I didn't read On the Road or even Dharma Bums. I read The Town and The City first, which was his first novel and pretty straightforward in form. I hadn't read him and I hadn't read Burroughs - but I had read Ginsberg by the time I got to the middle part of the book as well as Frank O'Hara and John Ashberry and all the poets in the Donald Allen anthology.

Thomas Gladysz: There is one final thing about which I am curious. There is a mysteriously named character in Forced Entries called "D.M.Z." Who is it ?

Jim Carroll: Larry Rivers.

©1995 Thomas Gladysz

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