Nods of Days Gone By
It was a brisk and foggy morning when I called Jim Carroll at his
office in New York City ("The greatest hero a writer needs," he once wrote). I
could sense a tense anticipation for the first question. Once he began to speak, however,
he was completely relaxed and quite amiable. He occasionally wandered, expanding upon his
own statements, eventually looping back to the main topic as if that had been his
intention all along.
Several observations were made immediately: He was admirably
open about himself and his work; he had no desire to keep the interview formal (quite
alright by me); and his artistic mind is permanently at work. This man in his mid-thirties
bears every indication of having been through an extreme metamorphosis since being a
15-year-old junky hanging out with Allen Ginsberg et al. We spoke about various subjects;
his new book, animal behaviorism, Lou Reed. The following is condensed from a forty-minute
Where did you get the idea for
"Nods"? Have you been writing a lot of them through the years?
Well, when I started to put it together (Book of Nods) I
wanted to fill the whole book with prose. When Penguin re-released Living at the Movies,
when I got my new rock audience, I wanted to get together a new book of poems. I had a lot
of nod-like pieces. Ive actually been writing the Book of Nods since I was
seventeen. The first ones were inspired by any narcotic nod - codeine, smoking grass...
Most people just seem to focus on my heroin thing, but thats not it at all. Most
dont deal with heroin nods. Its kind of a double entendre, really. The main
reason I wanted to call them "nods" and not just "prose poems" is
because theyre dream-like. Yet, Im not into surrealism for surrealisms
sake. If it doesnt have sensitivity it gets into negativity and becomes boring.
Yet you seem to have this thing with
Rimbaud... In one of your nods you talk about him. You meet up with Van Gogh in another.
Do you often get "visitations" from artistic characters, like Ginsberg?
You mean Ginsbergs poem from Blake? Oh no (laugh), I
havent been "visited" by anyone actually. You know, people like to lay
this Rimbaud thing on me. Patti Smith was the first one to force him on me. She had an
obsession with him. I never read him in my youth; the label was just laid on me. Some
people wanted me to quit writing poems at nineteen, like he did. Patti and I were living
together at that point.
I got into him (Rimbaud) when I was living in California. I was living
in the country for the first time in my life. Thats when the "Variations"
(from Nods) were written, and some of the poems at the end. Some longer ones were
written more recently, but when I came back to New York I was too intensely involved in
rock n roll to be writing lots of poems. A big change came into my life then.
One of the best books about Rimbaud is Henry Millers The Time of the Assassin.
It was some of Millers statements that made me get into rock n roll. It
should be more than just poets stylistically writing for other poets. Thats what, I
think, enthused my first album to be by far my best, although Im sure its to
be eclipsed by my new album. You know, a lot of poets cover up with bullshit and lies, and
I wanted to kind of open up. Rock n roll was a way to reach people and change
My nods of Rimbaud come from historical stories. Well, not the one
about him having a toothache, but like him running guns (there werent any bazookas
and mortars at the time, though) and the thing about him being lovers with Verlaine. As
for that one with Van Gogh, where he hits the woman and then says "There! Now you
really have something to cry about!" is from an old Zen story, about a Zen priest who
does the same thing.
You also wrote a nod entitled "Five
Irresponsible Students of Zen". Some of the beats like Kerouac delved into Buddhism.
Have you experimented with it yourself?
No, I just have a lot of Zen friends. Right now the top Zen priest
in America, previously Richard Baker, is an old friend of mine. My old manager had met him
in the Merchant Marine. He really liked "People Who Died". I dont know too
much about their rituals, but once a year, they give these prayer sequences for people
whove died. My song kind of evoked that.
But my pieces about Buddha are just kind of visionary and historical. I
have always understood a natural intuitive sense of Zen, because I was an athlete.
Like the archery story, about not aiming. I knew that when I was young, when I was a
baseball pitcher. But thats just a secular notion for me. I couldnt really get
into Zen. Im too Catholic for that.
When you speak of people from your past is
it a form of catharsis, or rather a simple memorial?
I wouldnt think of it as a catharsis - thats a rather
morbid notion. It is pretty much a memorial. Like "People Who Died" is not at
all a morbid song. Its a memorial to those whose lives were cut off before their
goals could be fulfilled. Theres a heroic sense to that - people dying young within
their own struggles.
As for Nods, there was a reference to the same Eddie in one of
my nods, but most of the characterizations are fictional, except for the historical
figures like Rimbaud.
should be more than just poets stylistically writing for other poets."
You frequently mention a "sister" in
your new book. Is this fictional as well?
No, I don't have a sister, strictly speaking. When I speak of a
"sister", Im thinking about a girlfriend, really. Any girlfriend becomes
sister-like to me, you know, after weve been lovers. Its just a generic use of
the word. In "People who Died" I refer to Eddie as my brother and some people
took it literally. He wasnt my brother; he was just a friend. I do have a brother,
but hes not dead. Hes not really into the things I do, though.
Youve had a close association with
Lou Reed. What could you tell me about the "man behind the legend"?
What can I tell you? I dont know. Hes one of my closest
friends. Hes a sweetheart, thats what he is.
What was that nod you dedicated to him and
his wife, "Dueling the Monkey"?
Its just different Tai Chi moves, really. Lous really
into that stuff. We did this poetry reading in Toronto, and when we were flying back
Lous wife Sylvia was with us, and my wife was with us Lou handed me
this Tai Chi book that I found interesting and I juxtaposed some of the images into the
poem. It had nothing to do objectively with Lou and Sylvia, actually. William Burroughs
works with that stuff all the time. Once, I remember he had this computer and we were all
sitting aroundthere were twelve poets and it made every permutation it could
with twelve lines. It was great.
You just made a trip to Germany. What did
you do there?
There was a music festival in a town called Bremen for a couple of
days. I did some poetry reading one night. Burroughs was there. It was interesting. I did
some walking with Burroughs, and we went into the old part of the city, and it was like
walking in another century. Burroughs seemed quite comfortable, like he became affluent in
it. He didnt seem so science-fictiony, you know? He seemed real for once.
Hes not a close friend, but we like each other. I admire his works.
That radioactive cloud was passing through at the time. The government
told people not to go out into the rain. I wasnt too worried. I dont know.
Im not glowing or anything.
The "terrorism" didnt scare
you away either?
No, I think the nuclear cloud acted like a global can of roach
spray and scattered all the terrorists away, you know? No, a field journalist I talked to
said it was absolutely ridiculous to be paranoid about it. Yeah, I guess I could have been
blown to bits, but I wasnt going to pass up reading fifteen minutes of poetry for
three thousand bucks. Some of my friends were worried, but when I found out
Sylvester Stallone wasnt going to Cannes, I said "Fuck that - if that wimp
wont go, I will." Rambo wont go? What a piss-ass motherfucker. You
know, I saw him once on the street in New York. He wouldnt give his autograph to
these construction workers who climbed all the way down off this building they were
working on. What a dick-heap. They should have cracked his skull in.
© 1985 Karl Irving / Daily Nexus
See Irving's accompanying article, "Visions from
a Razor's Edge"