Home > Research > Feature Articles > Carroll Has Llittle Trouble Finding the Right Words

Carroll Has Llittle Trouble Finding the Right Words

Jim Carroll, long known
for his poetry, first-
person prose and music,
is working hard on
finally completing his
first novel.

Photo by Ray Lego/
Cut the Fat

Jim Carroll's sport of choice, as his fans know, is basketball. After all, he was All-City in his mid-'60s New York prep school days and could hold his own against contemporaries such as Lew Alcindor (that's pre-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the hoop-ignorant) and Tiny Archibald.

But it didn't stop him from conjuring football when talking about what goes into his spoken-word shows. And, no, he's not taking the term "poetry slam" literally. "To tell you the truth, I never know what I'm going to read until 15 minutes before the show," he said last week from his Manhattan studio, "and when you're up there, it can make for a metaphor a quarterback calling an audible, or changing the set list with music. "If I'm getting a sense from the audience (that it's not going over), then you need to change what you have planned. It's the sense I'm getting from the audience. If they really are (reacting), you can try new (stuff). You can try a monologue. The better the monologue, the better the piece will be."

Of course, Carroll won't have any trouble finding material, old or new, for his show Saturday night at the Tune Inn. The lanky, 50-year-old redhead, a cult-idol teen poet in the '60s, saw his stardom reach the mainstream thanks the 1978 publication of his autobiographical book "The Basketball Diaries," and the song "People Who Died," from his debut 1980 rock album, "Catholic Boy." ("Diaries" was turned into a wrongheaded 1995 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Carroll; more on that later.) But Carroll has six books of poetry (from 1967's "Organic Trains" to 1998's "Void of Course") and two books of prose ("Diaries" and 1987's sequel, "Forced Entries") on which to fall back. He also has two novels ("The Petting Zoo" and "Stigma") that he started a decade ago and is working to finally finish, and he could pull a passage from them, too. Sometimes, he even whips up monologues off the top of his head. While he said it usually takes four tries to get one down the way he wants, he still talks longingly about the one he nailed on the first take in Boston five years ago at a Jack Kerouac tribute show, about the last bear to die at the Sarajevo Zoo. It's Carroll's personal, haunting holy grail of monologues. "So many people in Boston make tapes (of my shows). Nobody made a tape this night," he said. "This was the first time it came together the first time. If I could just get a transcription. Cassie (Carter, his assistant and Webmaster of his site) puts out a feeler (for tapes of shows), and someone usually has one. But one hasn't turned up yet." Forget the heroin that ruled his life from the mid-'60s through the early '70s, duly noted in "The Basketball Diaries" and "Forced Entries." Forget women though he does seem to stay friends with the ones with which he's been close, such as onetime lover/roommate Patti Smith, who first put him on a rock stage, opening for her in 1978; and Rosemary Klemfuss, his ex-wife, who is also his lawyer. Forget rock'n'roll, his last output being last year's EP, "Runaway." Carroll's most enduring love has been with the word, both written and spoken; after all, he started his "Diaries" when he was 12. And even conversation can be an art form with Carroll. This interview lasted about as long as Saturday's show will 90 minutes. Ask him a question and he'll start his response slowly, haltingly, full of "ums," then pick up momentum and speed and adrenaline and some tangents along the way before, maybe 15, 20 minutes later, winding down but not before pulling back every one of his tangents. And one of the things he talked about is his novels, and he's making an effort to complete "The Petting Zoo" right now. They were enough of a challenge to Carroll already the first third-person novels by a writer whose forte has been first-person true stories. But they just kept dragging and dragging and ... "For the first six years, I didn't do anything but write out ideas for each of them," he said. "The first one was 'Stigma.' It's a straight, linear, narrative novel. When I told my agent, he was thrilled. It's a money book. It's a murder mystery. It deals with these two priests, and a miracle happens. I always wanted to have a whole novel come to me and not be autobiographical." "The Petting Zoo, meanwhile, is "a more fragmented book about this painter in New York who goes on this kind of quest. He goes to this Velazquez retrospective and freaks out at the spiritual aura. He has a breakdown and vows never to paint again until he finds some spiritual aspect in his work. His friends try to talk him out of it. "Both of them, I had to do a lot of research into. 'Stigma' has a lot of arcane religious stuff: the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees and the Talamud. And then I had to write out all the ideas for plot and chapters for both. "Then I had a literary intervention. Three years ago, my agent, my lawyer, who's my ex-wife, and a couple of other people said, 'Listen we don't care.' By that time, we were also offered film rights to 'Stigma.' One producer wants me to do it just as a screenplay. I didn't want to do that. They said, 'You just have to stop your research. Give us a rough draft. Give us three chapters. We don't need an outline. We could get serious money.' My editor was saying that." If Carroll has has a motivation in getting it finished, it's this: "I wanted to forget 'The Basketball Diaries' well, not forget it, but give it perspective." That book has been Carroll's financial and cross-cultural mealticket, but it's also been a source of frustration and misinterpretation from the flap over "People Who Died," based on people in the book (see sidebar); to the film; to people who said it indirectly helped cause the Columbine massacre. Besides, he wrote it more than 30 years ago. It's perhaps a testament to him that he didn't sour on the movies after "The Basketball Diaries." In 1997, director Atom Egoyan bought his short story "Curtis's Charm" to produce as a low-budget film; the movie, written and directed by John L'Ecuyer, was named best Canadian film at the Toronto Film Festival. "I thought, it was a 12-page short story; how are they gonna make a film out of it?" said Carroll. "(L'Ecuyer) had a great literary sense. So did Atom." Meanwhile, the richness of "The Basketball Diaries" was diluted into an extended music video, though Carroll liked DiCaprio's performance. And this was a film whose rights had been sold every year since the book's publication (once to John Malkovich, who, Carroll said, wanted to make the lead character black). It was a film once shopped to John Cassavetes to direct. Instead ... "The director (Scott Kalvert) was the one I had a problem with," Carroll said. "He was an MTV director. He kept saying he had such a passion for it. He gave me whatever I wanted to change (in the script). But this was all before he started shooting. "He kept saying how the album and book had a big effect on his life, but once he started shooting ... all he wanted to do was look at that video monitor. Then I realized I don't know where his passion comes from. It didn't come from anything literary, and always it was hackneyed." On one hand, the film opened Carroll to a new audience. "It was back on the (New York) Times best-seller list. That doesn't happen after 15 years," he said. "The kids are going in to see Mark (Wahlberg) and Leo, then when they bought the book, they bought books of poems and stuff. Now the kids from 13 to 19 and stuff come to the shows." On the other, there's what Carroll calls "the whole (bleep)ing gun thing." He wrote in his "Diaries" about dreaming about shooting off a gun in class not to kill anyone, but to shoot overhead and let off some steam. In the film, it became a dream sequence in which DiCaprio blew away his classmates. And it was reported after Columbine that one of the killers had seen the film. "That's been so wearing on me, and I don't really want to talk about it,' he said. "(Sen. Joe) Lieberman was talking about gun violence and he showed that scene. The reality was at first it only affected the video selling. A lot of stores won't sell it now. I thought it wouldn't affect the book. Now, in some schools, it's totally out. Now I even worry about bookstores. "I cannot put it on the filmmaker and stuff. That's a bizarre, sad situation. People don't understand if you want to be an artist, if you want to exemplify good, you have to exemplify evil. People just don't get that. It's a difficult thing." That said, "I'm not completely burned on (the movies). All the general weirdness, there's nothing you could do about it or say about it."


Event: Jim Carroll (spoken word; all ages)
Time: $15 (includes admission to 10 p.m. show by Arab on Radar, VPN and Skeleton Key; admission to 10 p.m. show only is $8)
Place: Tune Inn, 29 Center St., New Haven
Tickets: $15 (includes admission to 10 p.m. show by Arab on Radar, VPN and Skeleton Key; admission to 10 p.m. show only is $8)
Info: (203) 772-4310

The original article was found at


Site Map | Contact Info | About this site | About the webmaster

The Jim Carroll Website © 1996-2024 Cassie Carter