I’m sitting at my desk playing with a switchblade. Clicking it open and shut, open and shut, open and shut. And, falling in love with the way that the long blade swings out into the bright air, like a steel erection that is always hard. Playing with a switchblade has become a sometime ritual I do just before writing. I do it for good luck and am reminded of the way that Switchtrack Jimmy used to dip his finger in a shot glass and touch a drop of whiskey to his forehead just before taking it down straight. Then he’d give my old man a look and say, it’s the next best thing to crossing yourself.
Before I sat down to write the essay that turned into DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID, I spent a few minutes fucking around with a 22 caliber revolver manufactured by Heritage Arms. It looks just like an old Colt single action and when I run the cylinder down my shirt sleeve I can feel it kissing me with its steel and I pay close attention to the rich dark clicking sound that the turning metal made. The thing is you gotta play with guns if you are going to write about Billy the Kid. It’s also a way to acknowledge the presence of death which is everywhere. Especially, if you write poetry. Especially, if you write straight out of the blood and marrow and guts of poetry. The presence of death hovers all around in the air is in the walls infests the clothes we wear is in the trees the water infects the alphabet every line of poetry is a death song that’s why the best poetry is like a left hook that slams you along side the head. A left hook you never really recover from.
Some things you write, if you truly do it from the night, the soul, the heart, the skin, the dream of yourself, you never get over. You think you can because there is always the new poem, the new book that you are dreaming but that old haunted book is still back inside you talking its deathtrash and if you listen closely you can just barely pick up the way that song is going. I would put money on the table that Melville still had MOBY DICK going in his head twenty years after he wrote it. And, don’t tell me Kerouac wasn’t still possessed by ON THE ROAD those last years before died. And, NAKED LUNCH was Burroughs’ central nightmare, love song, and dream. And, it’s a miracle that THE BLIND OWL didn’t drive Sadegh Hedayat completely mad. Keep in mind, he did eventually kill himself.
Now, when I go back to DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID, it feels like I am playing with that sixgun. Reading back into it just to get the feel of the way the words flow, I am reminded of that 22 caliber pistol, the way I can cock it back, the way I can aim it, the way I can squeeze that trigger and imagine that there is a live round waiting under the hammer, the way that hammer will fall and the way that pistol will sound when it goes off.
Isn’t that the natural way to feel about a novel? Especially, a haunted novel. Isn’t that the natural way to feel about a long poem? A demon inhabited long poem. Isn’t that how Rimbaud felt about A SEASON IN HELL? Isn’t that how Baudelaire felt about FLOWERS OF EVIL? Isn’t that how Franz Kafka felt about THE TRIAL? Isn’t that how William Faulkner felt about THE BEAR? And, isn’t that how Cormac McCarthy felt about BLOOD MERIDIAN?
Maybe, maybe not. But, that’s how I felt and feel about writing DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID. And DILLINGER, especially The Dead Zone Trilogy, The Sign of the Gun, Russian Roulette, The Name Is Dillinger, and many more than I have room to name. With the novel, though it was different. I wrote the Dillinger sections separately and with a certain amount of time in between. With DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID, it happened intensely over a period of eight to nine months. The writing was compressed, almost violently compacted, and it felt like a psychic carnival burning inside my skull.
I do have to admit writing Dillinger’s Thompson felt nearly the same as holding a real one. And, if you’ve held one, you know what I mean. Hemingway held one. Dillinger held one. I’d like to think that McCarthy held one. But writing DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID became for me the same as entering the dark and bloody ground, the killing floor, the place of violent spirits, the cave of half devoured bones. And, if you ever get to that place, then you know exactly what I mean.
What happened when I wrote DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID was I entered into the longest, most intense writing experience that I have ever gone through. I’ve written novels before, most were failures, and were nothing like the Kid. However, writing this novel felt like a conjuring every single day that I worked on it. The novel was relentless. It spoke to me like a poem, it sang to me like a poem, it haunted me like a poem. But it insisted on being called a novel.
And, it also insisted on my working on it at all points and in all places. It didn’t want to be written sequentially the way that most novels are composed. I might be working on a scene from the front part of the book after I had already written sixty or seventy pages. When I finished with that I might jump from there to a later scene and work on that. And then some line or remark might occur to me and I’d recall a place near the middle of the book. And, it would go on like that, back and forth. Or, I might ransack an old western pulp novel for a phrase that I would find myself reworking. Or, I might find a phrase that would suggest a totally new scene and I would discard the phrase, write the scene and then salvage two or three words from that phrase and work them in somewhere else. The process was write, rewrite, rewrite the rewriting, then insert something into the revision and then fracture the revision and rewrite that for another place in the novel. I rarely ever left any passage as I had written it. Sometimes the novel became a rubics cube where the words were easily moved from space to space, slot to slot. Or, the paragraphs were shifted and shuffled and splintered. It felt as though I was blowing Olson’s Composition By Field into a linguistic quantum space. The novel, all of it, the lost parts, the revised pages, the early sections I saved, the ones I threw away, the pages I got in my sleep and only remembered parts of, the pages that I deliberately deleted, the original germ for the novel which was the essay, all and the dream origins of the novel that came to me as phantom texts, formed an ideal version of DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID. And, somehow I know that that absolutely ideal version exists in Borges’s Universal Library.
So, I had to handle guns and I had to handle knives just to keep the energy flowing from the visceral touch of a weapon to the way the spirit of that touch would enter the novel because I knew then just as I know now that death surrounds us, the feeling of death, the energy of death, and the counter energy of the novel which began to think for itself and anticipate the death energy so that it could transform the language of the novel into the language of life in conflict with death. The counterweight of all the great novels swings through the black holes and all of the cosmos against the night energy of death and oblivion.
And, if you think a novel or a long poem does not begin to think for itself in the process of being composed, insist on dreaming in the angel of death struggle of being created, then your dreams are no more than the depth of your thumb nail. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is a universe of hysterical thinking. MOBY DICK is a whirlpool of nervous debate. AS I LAY DYING is death trying to talk itself through the surface of language. THE WASTE LAND is a death song trying to heal what it can of the language. You cannot write a great novel or a great long poem without some kind of violent conjuring and some subsequent healing through the way that it talks. Because somewhere in between the violent conjuring which invokes the primal energy and the end of the talking to end all talking, the writer must find a way to heal himself in the death song finale. DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID is both the exalted scar and the annointed cure. It is an apocalyptic death song for Outlaw America.