Verbal Entries: An Interview with Jim Carroll
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
Gladysz: Forced Entries was you last
book of prose. How did that book - a kind of sequel to The Basketball
Diaries - come about ?
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.
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.
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.
Gladysz: Then Forced Entries are recollections,
rather than diaries ?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Gladysz: One theme in Forced Entries is your desire
to gain control, both of yourself and of your life.
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.
Gladysz: Would you say that it was your writing that spurred
you to take control of your life ?
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.
Gladysz: Do you feel then that your desire to be a writer
gave you the motivation to quit drugs ?
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.
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.
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 ?
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.
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.
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
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 ?
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."
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.
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.
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 ?
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
Gladysz: With Ted Berrigan, you had gone to meet Jack Kerouac,
after Kerouac had read parts of The Basketball Diaries.
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.
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
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 ?
Carroll: Larry Rivers.
©1995 Thomas Gladysz
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