Home > Research > Interviews > Nods of Days Gone By (1986)

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 conversation:

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. I’ve 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 that’s not it at all. Most don’t deal with heroin nods. It’s kind of a double entendre, really. The main reason I wanted to call them "nods" and not just "prose poems" is because they’re dream-like. Yet, I’m not into surrealism for surrealism’s sake. If it doesn’t 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 Ginsberg’s poem from Blake? Oh no (laugh), I haven’t 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. That’s 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 Miller’s The Time of the Assassin. It was some of Miller’s statements that made me get into rock ‘n’ roll. It should be more than just poets stylistically writing for other poets. That’s what, I think, enthused my first album to be by far my best, although I’m sure it’s 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 things.

My nods of Rimbaud come from historical stories. Well, not the one about him having a toothache, but like him running guns (there weren’t 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 don’t know too much about their rituals, but once a year, they give these prayer sequences for people who’ve 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 that’s just a secular notion for me. I couldn’t really get into Zen. I’m too Catholic for that.

When you speak of people from your past is it a form of catharsis, or rather a simple memorial?

I wouldn’t think of it as a catharsis - that’s a rather morbid notion. It is pretty much a memorial. Like "People Who Died" is not at all a morbid song. It’s a memorial to those whose lives were cut off before their goals could be fulfilled. There’s 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.

"It should be more than just poets stylistically writing for other poets."
— Jim Carroll

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", I’m thinking about a girlfriend, really. Any girlfriend becomes sister-like to me, you know, after we’ve been lovers. It’s 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 wasn’t my brother; he was just a friend. I do have a brother, but he’s not dead. He’s not really into the things I do, though.

You’ve had a close association with Lou Reed. What could you tell me about the "man behind the legend"?

What can I tell you? I don’t know. He’s one of my closest friends. He’s a sweetheart, that’s what he is.

What was that nod you dedicated to him and his wife, "Dueling the Monkey"?

It’s just different Tai Chi moves, really. Lou’s really into that stuff. We did this poetry reading in Toronto, and when we were flying back — Lou’s 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 around—there 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 didn’t seem so science-fictiony, you know? He seemed real for once. He’s 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 wasn’t too worried. I don’t know. I’m not glowing or anything.

The "terrorism" didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t going to Cannes, I said "Fuck that - if that wimp won’t go, I will." Rambo won’t go? What a piss-ass motherfucker. You know, I saw him once on the street in New York. He wouldn’t 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.

See Irving's accompanying article, "Visions from a Razor's Edge"


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