DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID is one of those things that just happened. It was an unplanned book, a dream aberration, a wild adoration, a fire in the ice that hypnotized me all the way to the veins. It began as an essay. Then it morphed into a hyper essay. Then it went from there to super discussion with my alternative self. And, finally it just became something I couldn’t resist.
Some house fires get started that way. They begin with a spark, smolder awhile, then bloom into flame, and finally explode. This novel was born of brag, dream, whisper, yell, and howl. If you try to read this book the way you might read THE SUN ALSO RISES or SNOW or HAM ON RYE or THE GREAT GATSBY, you will almost certainly be perplexed. DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID probably is closer to David Jones’ IN PARENTHESIS or Paul Metcalf’s GENOA or Michael Ondaatje’s THE COLLECTED WORKS OF BILLY THE KID. Some of my friends have called it a collage or non linear novel. Those tags come close but they don’t really begin to describe what DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID is about.
I use the word novel knowing full well that THE KID might also qualify as a long poem. Which is fine with me, too. Though, I prefer the word novel because for me it is the novel at its farthest extremity, the novel poised at the mouth of a literary black hole. It’s a novel not so much because I say it’s a novel. It’s a novel because FINNEGAN’S WAKE is a novel and THE BLIND OWL is a novel and PETERSBURG is a novel and TERRA NOSTRA is a novel. It’s a novel because it contains a cast of characters and voices who move back and forth in time searching for certain existential answers. Or, in lieu of that, just looking for oblivion. Keep in mind, this is not so much a definition of the novel as it is a way of explaining how I imagined the novel as I wrote it.
And that is a story all by itself. It began when I tried to write an extended essay on the myth of Billy the Kid and how it influenced such poets as Tony Moffeit and John Macker. But the essay refused to lie down and be a good essay. Instead, it wanted to stand up and howl like a blue norther. So, after awhile I let it. And, then other voices began to intrude. Doc Holliday wanted to say something. And, Billy Clanton wanted to say something. And when Sam Peckinpah decided he wanted to say something, too, I realized this was really more than just an essay. The truth is Peckinpah became the unifying voice of the novel. Not just the unifying voice, but the soul and the conscience of whatever this thing was becoming.
Peckinpah was shooting THE WILD BUNCH, the Earp-Clanton feud was getting ready to explode, guns were going off everywhere. And, this was the cue for Antonin Artaud and Jaime de Angulo to make their stage entrances. Artaud was an exiled surrealist in search of the Tarahumara Indians. De Angulo was searching for the perfect magic animal/shamanic poem. He wanted to roll in the ditches with shamans. I discovered de Angulo almost by accident. La Alameda Press had just brought out a book of his poetry, HOME AMONG THE SWINGING STARS, COLLECTED POEMS OF JAIME DE ANGULO, edited by Stefan Hyner. This book virtually gave me de Angulo’s voice and style. Once I had that I started using a few fragments from de Angulo’s poems. But, I realized I needed to have complete poems in his voice in order to approach any kind of continuity and instead of stealing his work, I just simply started to write the way he did. I wasn’t plagiarizing. I was reinventing de Angulo’s voice and incorporating those poems spoken through me into the text of the novel. This happened somewhere around page seventy or so.
At page seventy two, through some computer glitch, I lost the novel. It just completely went sideways on me. But, I had enough pages printed out and enough notes, and enough scenes in my head to allow me to begin again. Within a month I had recovered everything I needed and then some. Maybe, in a peculiar way this had to happen. In some very strange way I had to take a look at this novel’s oblivion so that I could eventually reenvision the text. Since then, I have lost text to the computer several times, but never as much as seventy two pages. Still, I was able to learn a few strategies to keep from losing everything.
By this time, you have probably guessed that I mostly compose directly onto the computer. Despite the dangers of lost text or the computer crashing, composition this way is almost instantaneous. I love the way that I can fire off page after page of writing right into the ether. It’s fast, it’s of the moment, it’s like watching the fire of the mind being translated into the raw meat of language.
One assumption I’d like to clear up at this point is that DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID looks like a grab bag of notes that I just kept putting in without regard to placement, rhythm, or logic. Wrong. In fact, as I wrote, I continually revised. I, more often than not, found myself taking as much out of the novel as I put in. And, the phrase putting in suggests using found material. Probably ninety nine percent of the book is text that I wrote as I went. There are a few quoted lines here and there. But they are damn few and far between. The novel is meant to appear as though it is composed out of bits and pieces of other books. In a very technical sense it is, but most of those other books are just simply inventions. Borgesian tricks revved to the max. Of the actual books that I did use, I would say I mostly borrowed fewer than seven consecutive words at a time. In very rare cases I might have used a dozen consecutive words at a time. In this respect, DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID has as its precursor THE WASTE LAND. But, it is a WASTE LAND that T. S. Eliot could never have written even on his best day.
Once I finished the novel, I took a week or so and tried not to think about it. But, I quickly discovered that that was impossible. If DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID is anything, it is haunting. It wouldn’t leave me alone. It infected my dreams, it was something I found myself thinking about, day in, day out, it was in the very air I breathed, the food I ate. There were entire nights when I found myself reliving scenes from the novel. They played out in my night movies like flickering trailers that wouldn’t go away. And, the next day I’d have to go back over key scenes just to see if they measured up to what I had dreamt. It’s a habit I developed when I first started writing poetry. Going back over and over the poem. Letting my inner voice read the poem out, letting the rhythm take over. Testing for any nonessential words. Listening for the music lying just underneath the music and then the psychic music underneath that. I know I have read almost every sentence of this novel at least a dozen times or more. Some sentences, scenes, and pages have flowed through me like phantom rivers, again and again and again. The water of the language flooding through me.
Occasionally, I’ll find a glitch, a misspelled word, a phrase that doesn’t work. Or, some random but totally electrical sentence will hit me. Something Doc Holliday had to say or something that Billy Clanton had to know the way a man knows that fate tastes like iron or dreams taste like shorting out smoke slashing the dark. And, that will have to go in.
A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about this book. It hounds me, it haunts me, it’s the shadow moving next to my feet. There have been many three o’clocks in the morning when I was ready to consign this novel to the Royal Gorge, oblivion, and the bottomless well of amnesia. Adios motherfucker, see you in hell. But, I know and I know this with everything that I know that DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID is just simply there. Like the sphinx, like Ahab, like Hamlet, like Judge Holden, like DILLINGER. Especially like DILLINGER. It’s a force to be reckoned with. It won’t go away.
Todd Moore, 8|22|2007