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Jim Carroll: Caught in a Trap

Exclusive: includes the entire Jim Carroll interview!

On Saturday, May 8, diarist, musician and poet Jim Carroll made a rare appearance at Chicago night spot the Hothouse, 31 East Balbo, a spacious setting filled with Brazilian rhythms and flavor. He read from his newest collection, Void Of Course (published by Penguin Poets, New York), to many well-dressed admirers seated among dozens of roundtop tables. Before the show got underway, I managed to innocuously eat my Philly and fries from an opportune stage left vantage, but not without having to fend off a phalanx of pushy waitresses.

Entering the stage wearing a black leather jacket and bluejeans, Jim Carroll was smoking a cigarette and carrying bottled water and several books. The din of the audience dissipated as Mr. Carroll approached the microphone. He spent the first minute slowly and methodically removing his jacket while gazing emptily out into the audience, then giving a brief account, in that protean Noo Yawk accent, of his recent "Today Show" interview. He explained how the questions were purposefully ham-fisted and meant to disturb, describing the sound stage as "surreal." This opening narrative helped to paint the image of a 70’s poet displaced.

Shifting his focus anecdotally, Mr. Carroll went on to tell of his extended Amtrak journey from Milwaukee and of his conversation with a 300-pound redneck. The first coroner on the scene of Jayne Mansfield’s decapitation, the man was carrying a French book on Satanism titled La Ba, which compares Anton La Vey with L. Ron Hubbard. Mr. Carroll quipped, to snickers from the audience, that both authors "knew the real money was in religion." The redneck subsequently related how he and his partner Shorty referred to the head as "she" and to the rest of Ms. Mansfield’s lifeless body as "that." Mr. Carroll went to some depth in his reflections upon the religious and philosophical implications of such particular labels. At this point, Mr. Carroll’s proselytizing ignited the conservative disposition of an unruly fan who rudely belted forth with fuzzy headed fervor, "What the fuck are you talking about!?" Apparently, the aspiring poet could not fully digest the metaphysical nature of this preliminary dialogue. However, Mr. Carroll was able to somewhat skillfully subdue the young brute, who finally shut up after threatening to physically abuse several impatient audience members.

After this colorful interruption, Mr. Carroll proceeded to read several poems, including "A Day At The Races" from Forced Entries, "I Am Not Kurt Schwitterz" from Fear Of Dreaming and, from Void Of Course, "Facts," "Sick Bird" (in which he left out the word "urine") and "8 Fragments For Kurt Cobain." He concluded with some song lyrics off his newest album, Pools of Mercury, giving sprechstimme performances of "Falling Down Laughing" and "the Beast Within."

After the show I followed Jim backstage, where, after a brief introduction, during which he was trying to rouse up a cup of coffee, we settled into a discussion of Orpheus, death, the creative process, and Mr. Carroll’s unique perspective on the current state of poetry. We focused initially on how Mr. Carroll saw himself within a heritage thousands of years old, and on the Greek myth of Orpheus--a Thracian poet whose music moved even inanimate objects. He was able to charm Pluto, god of the Underworld, into releasing his dead wife Eurydice on the condition that he would not look back during his return journey to the surface world. Orpheus, in a moment of thoughtlessness, looked back and, consequently, lost once more his love. Mr. Carroll shook his head in puzzlement at this comparison, and then gibed stone-facedly:

Uhm…I’ve never thought about it [the relationship of his career to the mythology], in relationship to my myth, or to my work…well, Orpheus, it was great that there were hummingbirds around him all the time.

The reimagined story of Orpheus and his journey to the underworld is the subject of Salman Rushdie’s newest work, The Ground Beneath Her Feet. During a recent speaking engagement with the Chicago Historical Society, the author spoke about his writing process, and, while discussing the division of sense and intellect, of inside and outside, brought up the example of a Warhol exhibit he had been to. One piece consisted of a "learn to dance" floor arrangement, framed beneath glass which people were being encouraged to walk over. Halfway through the dance pattern, it became impossible to do. Rushdie went through it himself and also found it impossible. A little girl behind him got to the point where everybody else stumbled through the diagram and she said, "Oh, I see. You’ve got to step off it." Stepping off the glass and then back on, she was able to complete the pattern. Mr. Carroll fixed his eye, carefully digesting the indirect approach I was taking to his work, and then summed up the analogy:

Uhm, she found, uhm, she knew that she had to go beneath the surface voice.

Mr. Carroll was perceptibly resolving the seemingly disparate elements of my preliminary questions into a conversant, and therefore more personable, means of expressing what I was struggling to get at, namely, how he uniquely perceives the world in which he must exist. His thoughts appeared to coagulate as he settled back and, listening intently, sipped his coffee while we turned to his notions of poetry and music, as performance, and of the possibilities for the further integration of these two mediums. In typical Jim Carroll fashion, he managed to respond with skillful abstraction:

Uhm, I always found my own songs and poems to be two quite different mediums, you know. Aesthetically they’d be the same, but technically they’re quite different, you know. I didn’t like it when people would write that I wrote poems with music, you know, cuz they weren’t…and as for the future, I…you know, uhm with the Pools Of Mercury album I decided, well with Praying Mantis I just, it was kind of defiant, I just needed to do no music at all. You know, and uhm, you didn’t need music to you know, to have poetry just like have its own rhythm, you know, the way it should work on the page but, with the Pools Of Mercury album, I wanted to, you know, like, uhm I mean you could just do so many things with music and stuff, and of course it goes back to the Meistersingers and the troubadours and the whole Provenšal tradition and stuff, and uhm, I think that with computers, digitally, you can do so much, you know, you can move stuff around and stuff, technically, you know, to fit a drum beat you can change the phrasing of the writer—that’s a problem. You know, I think it should always be done low-tech, you know, cuz at times we just change my phrasing…I didn’t have to read it over, you know, if you could draw out a word, you know, or put more of a pause between two words, you know, and that’s a kind of dangerous thing, but uhm, fucking computer programs are going to ruin art in one way or another until we realize we’re doing that, and then we’ll revolt against them,…uhm, so I think until then, until we decide to, you know, stop using digital technology and just go back to an analog technology where you participate with the person’s technology—or with the other person’s consciousness and they participate with yours, you know. It’s not such a broad thing, techno-oriented. Then, you know, rock ‘n roll’s gonna be rock ‘n roll and spoken word’ll be spoken word. And if you unite the two together, it’ll sound interesting as a music and the musicians you work with and stuff, you know. Otherwise you’re going to have to write words that are meant to be, you know, done with music, uhm, which is somewhere between a song and a poem, because any poem worth its salt has to work on the page, you know. And so uhm, I don’t think that way…I mean, I read the poems which I knew were lyrical and read well—from this new book, from Void Of Course—but I knew that I had read some of them already, so it was a book that uhm, reading the poems that I knew read well, and then put music to them. And if you’re going to do that, you might as well just write songs themselves you know, and sing them. No matter how limited your technical voice is, you know, you could always sing them in one state or another. But uhm, somebody’ll probably come along and find some way to make, you know, one thing. I think it’s going to happen by, you know, one person will do one spoken word piece with music that’ll bust out and floor everybody, you know. But to sustain a whole album of it, I doubt if it’ll happen. You know, I don’t think people are ready for that.

Pausing momentarily to take in this delightfully circuitous reply, I then refocused and, picking up the reference to Void Of Course, piped in: "I find it interesting you just said that you had written it pretty fast, and yet the period spanned about four years, is that right?"

"Well, it spanned about four years—according to the book—but that’s only because, uhm, the Kurt Cobain poem was written in 1994 and maybe two other poems. The Cobain poem was written after he died in 1994, you know, and that was really the oldest poem in it, uhm…the rest of them I had…all written like in the year and a half before I, uhm, handed in the manuscript. And actually, when after I handed in the manuscript to my editor, there’s probably ten other poems in there that I gave him that I was working on, uhm, finishing second drafts of, while we were editing it. There was like fifty pages of stuff we took out; it was just a very prodigious period of writing poems for me, for the first time. I’m mainly working on these novels. But…when poems came, you might as well just go with them, so I did. You know, it was a life situation, a personal situation that kind of, uhm, made all this happen…and it was my most…profligate period of writing poetry since I was, you know, a young poet at St. Mark’s.

Touching upon his days as a young poet fittingly led to a parallel between his experienced view of a creative process uniquely his own, and the lingering influence exerted by his early contemporaries. "Speaking of the word poem…why the frequency of that generic title throughout the book? Is it an attempt to demonstrate any overarching lack of significance?"

No…it wasn’t meant to demonstrate anything, you know. I mean, I realized afterwards that there’s a lot of poems, say, that Frank O’Hara wrote…if you look at his collected or selected poems even, that are just called ‘Poem,’ and they just refer to them through the first line. Like the poem that are on the album that are called ‘Poem’ in the book, most of them, fortunately, that we chose had titles, but we just use the first line as a title, you know…‘Female as thunder, the air filled with thought, felony, drainage…’ Well, that was just the way to go in that sense, and that’s the usual way you do it—you go by the first line. I remember friends of mine telling me I was always good at doing titles for poems, you know. With this book, I wrote it so fast that I was writing notes or ‘Poem,’ you know, and that was it. And some poems are titled ‘Lines,’ and that’s because I didn’t even, you know, even think about it when I got, uhm, galleys back, you know, ‘Lines.’ Originally I was going to go further with it or rewrite it or something, but I decided OK, that’s OK, but I forgot to really write a title or even change ‘Lines’ to ‘Poems.’ So it was just the first time I was writing on a computer you know and I liked that a lot. You could move the spacing around--you use the spacing to define how a poem should be read for the people that haven’t heard you read it. You know, a short line, it slows down the poem. A long line speeds it up. You hang out a certain word to give it like a double entendre from the end of one paragraph--or is it the beginning of the next? Or stanza--I’m in a prose frame of mind here. At any rate, that’s what you’re able to do so easily with a computer. So, writing on a computer, I actually really started to like know, poetry in that sense--you know, being able to move things and cut and paste them around so easily. Otherwise, uhm, I always liked the idea of writing titles and stuff. John Ashbury once told me he wrote titles--when I was really young--that he always titled the poem before he wrote it, you know, he wrote from a title, which is very hard to imagine when you read his poems--they have nothing to do with the title. But he comes up with a title, then writes the poem. It’s usually the opposite for me, unless it’s very specific. You know, I spent a lot of time investing thought in titles. But, you know, the poems stand how they are--if I want to just call them ‘Poem,’ then it’s OK.

"I just got one more question for you, Jim," I said, lifting my glasses straight up on my face. "just kind of an’s a soul question: is death the ultimate reward for a lifetime of achievement? And what is your advice, if any, for people who aspire to use poetry for their own ends?"

Well, uhm, I don’t see how you could use...well, yes, you could use poetry for your own ends, I suppose. The question is: what would it get you? And then, as far as death being a reward for a lifetime of achievement...Ahh!! No, death...death sucks, man, you know. I mean, there are times I might think "Great," you know, if I think I want to die, you know, I don’t give a fuck about a lifetime of achievement, or a lifetime of failure or anything...I just want to get the fuck away, see what’s happening over there. But most of the time I think, you know...Ahh! I don’t want death being a reward for a lifetime of achievement. Death is just, you know, you die man. If you thought that way, I would have coordinated everything to have...but see, I always think, you know, my next work is going to be my best and stuff. That’s kind of what I’m saying in that Kurt Cobain poem, in that one section...which is kind of an impudent way to think. You know, I remember a review in Creem Magazine once, a fantastic review of the Catholic Boy album that they kind of glommed in--cuz the Basketball Diaries had just come out in paperback, mass-market paperback from Bantham. With the two of them together, they saw it as a whole renaissance and stuff. And they said in the interview if this guy died now, his work would be, you know, his legacy would be done...I don’t believe that, but if I did die,...I would have died a lot prettier and I would have died with a lot more mystique happening to me, especially the way I died...the example for that is Jim Morrison, you know. I mean, did he want to do it by design? I love Jim Morrison’s singing and stuff, and he’s written some good lyrics. But basically I always thought he was really a terrific singer, and he had a great sense of...he had a poet’s sense of phrasing, certainly. But, if that was the case, you know, you got to pick the right time to die in your career, and that’s a stupid thing to do. Like Frank O’Hara said, "You should die for love, not for poetry."


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