Is it humanly possible to know what was going through Walt Whitman’s mind when he was writing SONG OF MYSELF? And, yes, we have the lines from the poem. We know he was thinking of them but what else was he thinking about? What was he dreaming, what was he talking about to friends?
Is it humanly possible to know what was going through Allen Ginsberg’s mind while he was writing HOWL? The lines of HOWL are there for everyone to read. We know he was thinking them and putting them down, but what else was on his mind? He had to be thinking about what the poem would sound like. He had to be thinking about how the words would feel in his mouth, how they would resonate in a room. He had to be thinking about all the alternate words. He had to be constantly making choices. And, he also was talking to other people during this time. What was he saying to them, what kinds of conversations was he having and were they somehow ghost parts of the poem, sections that hover above the chanting and talking of them poem?
Is it humanly possible for any poet or any writer to recall what he was thinking during the writing of a novel or a story or a poem? What else did Shakespeare do while he was writing HAMLET? What else did Dostoevsky do while he was writing THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV? What else did Baudelaire do while he was writing FLEURS DU MAL? Maybe he walked. Maybe what he mostly did was walk. Walk and look at the streets and the people who went up and down them. Maybe that’s what he did because that’s what he had to do. FLUERS came out of his obsessive walking.
I don’t know what I did when I wrote THE NAME IS DILLINGER. I don’t know what I was doing while I was writing RELENTLESS, THE RIDDLE OF THE WOODEN GUN, or RUSSIAN ROULETTE. I don’t know exactly what I was up to when I was writing DEATH SONG, DILLINGER’S THOMPSON, or THE CORPSE IS DREAMING. All I can say is that I know I did the things I normally do. I worked when I had to work. I drove places when I had to drive. And, I always have to drive even when I’m not going anywhere in particular because motion is always important, poems live on motion, I eat it like candy. I guess I ran errands, I made small talk with strangers, I performed small chores around the house. I let my ghost self do all those things while the dreamer inside worked on the big stuff. And, the dreamer inside is always dreaming. The night is scarred with all of my dreaming.
The dreamer inside is always dreaming even though I don’t always know what the dreams are about. The dreamer inside is always dreaming and I think that is why it is so easy for me to slip into the rhythms of a poem like DILLINGER TOOK HIS NAME OFF or THE NIGHT CORPSE. No matter how many different ways I might start or write a poem, the essential rhythms of a poem are the way that I talk, the way that I dream, the way that I see, and the way that I breathe. I am not exactly sure how they work, I just feel them. And, I know I had them and that they were all working when I started to write THE NAME IS DILLINGER. In fact, these essential rhythms had probably been there inside me all along. Maybe from the very beginning. They just needed to be teased into the dream and the explosion of a poem like DILLINGER.
And, yet, the fact that they are there, that they all somehow work like some kind of psychic engine I can start almost any time I want to, does not explain what goes on when I am writing a poem. Writing THE NAME IS DILLINGER was definitely an explosion. Writing THE NIGHT CORPSE was more like listening to a whisper. It came very quickly but the voice I was listening to, and I do listen to some kind of inner voice, was speaking so low and strangely, I had all I could do to pick up all the sounds and nuances of that voice. But as low as it was and as strange as it was, it was as insistent as the voice in any poem I’ve ever written.
While I was writing THE CORPSE IS DREAMING, it occurred to me that the poem was dreaming as well. In fact, almost all the long poems or sections of poems I’ve ever written were dreaming right along with me. And, as peculiar as that sounds, I know that it is true. Poetry is language conjured to the max. Once you start calling that kind of language down into a poem, the poem begins to assume its own personality and it starts to tell you things you never really knew before the writing began. That’s why almost all major poems are double dreams. A poem’s first dream is the way that you write it. A poem’s second dream is how it knows what it is.
And, when you create a huge character for a poem, you are thrust into the center of starting a fire. You are thrust directly into the center of starting a fire and you have no idea how big that fire will be until it blows the hurricane wind of itself into the heart of the poem. This makes me think of the great characters like Achilles, Odysseus, Hamlet, Lear, Faust, Ahab. These are the fires that have been burning almost since the beginning of time. These are the fires that, independent of their creators, continue to burn.
I’m not sure how Cormac McCarthy felt when he created Judge Holden for BLOOD MERIDIAN, but I know how I felt when I realized all the implications for a character like Dillinger. I knew in my dreams and I knew in my blood and I knew in my soul that Dillinger was not going to be any ordinary criminal. There was something in this man and in his violences and in his lunge toward celebrity that somehow defined america darkly. I knew even before I wrote THE NAME IS DILLINGER that he was mythic, that he was legend, that he was archetypal, the stuff that the dark side of america was longing for, is still longing for. If Russia’s dark side begins with Raskolnikov, if France’s dark side is illuminated with writers like Villon and Genet, then america’s dark side is nothing without Dillinger.
Not so much the historical Dillinger. That’s what biographers and cultural historians do. The Dillinger I write about, the Dillinger I create, comes directly out of america’s dark night of the outlaw soul. I may include some history when it is convenient but what I want is Dillinger’s essence. His style, his vision, his skin, his blood. I want his version of the american dream. I want his fantasy and drive toward american fame. I want his energy, I want his movie star lust, I want the fires that consume him. And, I’ll take nothing less than the sum of all these.
The entire time I’ve been working on DILLINGER I’ve been sitting at the center of the biggest bonfire ever. I sit there writing and the flames can’t burn me.