When I’m not writing poetry
I’m reading poetry, warp speed. Or, simply put I’m looking for something to read. Some sign some monstrous absolution for swimming through millions of words. I’m prowling bookstore shelves, I’m rummaging through a thousand books in my closet. I’m eyeballing another thousand books on the shelves next to my desk. I’m kicking through a trash of books scattered all around my computer, the books stacked on chairs, the books in boxes, the books emptied out on the worn carpet, the books under my desk. The books at church rummage sales, the books at estate sales, the books in the black cellars of america, the lost books of the world. The incessant books piled and teetering in the universal darkness. I want to taste them and taste them. I’m always looking for something. It’s hard to describe a feeling like this because it feels sort of like a wolf prowling for meat.
Sometimes I’m looking for a novel that reads like a poem but not any old novel will do. It has to have the intensity of DOUBLE INDEMNITY. It has to have the savagery of THE KILLER INSIDE ME. It has to have the coming in and going out of thinking that goes on in AS I LAY DYING. It has to grab me by the front of my shirt and yank me up against the wall. It has to give me no choice but to read it. Sometimes parts of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN will do that. The novel and the movie trading scenes back and forth so that sometimes they both get mixed together. But I have to hear Chigurh talking. Or, I have to imagine Chigurh talking. I have to hear the sound of pure pure murder in someone’s gone voice or it’s no good, it doesn’t work, it’s just the same old boring blah blah blah of reading across and down the page with nothing really jumping out. No angst, no passion, no fury. The description of the description of the description of the description going on forever. No wonder Weldon Kees jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. He wanted to read every inch of his fall all the way down.
And, it is that jumping out that I need more than anything. It is the fact and the feel of that jumping out, that total verbal assault, that all or nothing surprise that I long for and need, call it addictive, call it fucked up, call it the homicidal serene, call it crazy. Sometimes I’ll drift back to Joan Didion’s PLAY IT AS IT LAYS because there is a kind of savvy crazy floating around in that book, a hovering cruising ennui that plays out in impulsive drives across the desert, some I’ve dreamt of, some I’ve read of, some I’ve done. Driving in the desert late at night is like reading a thriller where the desert darkness, the razor blade moon, the glam automatic in the glove box, and the pulsing promise of skinwalkers somehow keep everything stoked.
When I’m in moods like this, I pretend I’m talking to Roberto Bolano about how he wrote parts of THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES while out on the Sonoran Desert, I pretend I’m listening to John Macker tell how he got the idea for writing ADVENTURES IN THE GUNTRADE, I’m interviewing B. Traven about where the origins for THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE came from, I’m asking Tony Moffeit if channeling was part of writing BLUES FOR BILLY THE KID, I’m pointing a 45 auto at William S. Burroughs’ head while I’m telling him to give me the coordinates for NAKED LUNCH. Wouldn’t you?
Some things I have to know in a hurry and a frenzy and the facts won’t do. I read like I write, I plunge through the words searching for something, anything, the scorched debris of the dream and the mind. Even when I know nothing is there, I’ll look anyway because looking is part of both reading and writing. But this is reading and writing revved to the max. This is reading and writing done at high speed, punch it, baby, I have to be gone. This is reading and writing where the sound byte explodes into the metaphor. If I’m reading THE STRANGER I’ll race down the page looking for all the best places, the place where Meursault is shooting the Arab. I need the action, I need to be the action. I need to see M inside the action. Only this time gimme more of it, Camus. And, don’t be stingy. Gimme the blood, I need to see the trajectory of the bullet and if Camus doesn’t give it to me, then I invent it, I give it to myself. What I want in a novel or a poem, it doesn’t make any difference, it can be either one as long as the fireball of the moment morphs toward the agony of seeing that comes out as a scream.
Have you ever read something and at the very same moment you are reading you also want to be writing because what you are reading is so unbelievably good? I’m reading Bukowski’s “something for the touts, the nuns, the grocery clerks, and you” for maybe the ten thousandth time and I want to write a poem. No, not want, have to write a poem. But, not like Charles Bukowski, not like Gerald Locklin, not like Ron Androla, not like Kell Robertson, not like John Yamrus, not like Tony Moffeit, not like S.A. Griffin, not like Raindog Armstrong, not like Mark Weber. They’re all good, they’re all way beyond good, they’re the best. I have to do something. I am getting up out of my chair and then I am sitting down. You can’t write poetry this way, you have to write poetry this way. I am looking for a white bone compass and the dream of all possible dreams. I just want to bleed a poem all over the floor because something about Bukowski’s poem digs into me like a knife point into skin an ice pick through the eye and the intensity of the way that that poem hits me makes me roam the house scrounging for a ball point pen and a torn sheet of scratch paper and by the time I get the paper I know I can never write a tout nun grocery clerk poem like Bukowski though I know I can do something as good and I will burn it all up inside me to find the place where my poem is and the whole time that I am fucking with the pen and the paper I am still reading Bukowski’s poem even though I don’t have the book in front of me now, all I have is a big switchblade knife, a forty five slug, and my unforgiveable emptiness that sinks me toward the abyss and I am reading that poem while I begin a poem of my own and I know it will be a good poem because I have the first line but I also know that I am beaten down and through the corridors of language no matter what I write and it is this sense of still being able to write and knowing that I am beaten that gives me the energy the frenzy the rage to keep kicking through all the desperado lines collapsing in my head to find just the right ones. Not Flaubert’s le mot juste but the absolute raging frenzy of the thing. The way the electricity of it goes so deep into the writing that it burns a sign into space itself.
And, I want to write The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor except that I want to edit it down, make it travel, give it some killer velocity. And I want to write The Last Wrecked Night of Ernest Hemingway where Hemingway actually conjures the shotgun he will use to kill himself with. And, I want to be Old Ben in THE BEAR and I want to feel all those long white scars in the fur. I want to read with all of my skin coming through my clothes, just lunging toward the void.
I am reading the first paragraph of Raymond Chandler’s RED WIND because it is just maybe the best first paragraph of anything I know of. And, I’m always sorry when it comes to an end because it seems as though Chandler had hooked into something a secret energy here and that maybe somewhere Chandler had written more and then dumped it because he wanted to get on with the story and it is that next paragraph which is the continuation of Chandler’s secret poem that I long for.
I am reading Orhan Pamuk’s SNOW but I want it to go faster, I want Ka’s anxiety to be revved to the next level, I want his longing his paranoia his fear to be amped way up I want it to be snowing in his room as well as out on the street I want the snow to be following him everywhere even in his dreams. I’m looking for a poem that reads like a novel. I am looking for a poem that reads like THE GREAT GATSBY. I am looking for a poem that reads like THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY. I looking for a poem that reads like THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE. I am looking for a poem that reads like DILLINGER. I am searching for my other who is writing that version of DILLINGER in an alternate universe.
I am rereading Michael Ondaatje’s THE COLLECTED WORKS OF BILLY THE KID because I want to psychically rewrite his poem/novel as I read it. Now, I want it to hear the narrations going so fast I can just about hear the Kid skip talking while the lines pour ahead of me. It almost sounds like I’m on a cell phone where the voice is breaking up and I can only catch every third or fourth word. Skip talking is where the poem is going all by itself. Skip talking is where the novel is dreaming and I know for certain that all the best novels dream.
I am reading Borges’ Library of Babel because I want to get lost there, because every book I ever looked for, even the ones that haven’t been published yet, even the ones in my sweatiest greasiest darkest of nightmares are waiting in there for me. I want to find the ultimate Hemingway war novel in there, the one he was meant to write but never did. I want to find the novel that Tolstoy dreamt while dying at Astapovo Junction in there. This is the novel that he writes about dying while dying and he wrote it quickly, all three thousand pages of it while rolling through a series of comas and visions. I want to feel the texture and the essence of the poem the novel and the dream. I want to find Bruno Schulz’s novel Messiah in there. I imagine that the footnote in Borges’ dream catalog states that it is both finished and unfinished, depending on the day of the week, the time of the day, and where the pole star is in the night sky. I’m playing russian roulette with a KGB agent for the handwritten manuscript of Isaac Babel’s novel BLOOD which is about Benya Krik tracking down an Odessa murderer who just happens to be Death. In the novel Krik knows he is on Death’s trail because the stink is unbearable. And, Krik who is now a grittier version of Philip Marlowe walks around without a gun because he knows that guns can’t save him. Guns could never save him. This book is a must find or all searches are for nothing.
And, if I can’t read at white heat, then I won’t read at all. If I can’t read a poem as though it is a pistol pointed at my head, then I won’t even read the first line. If a poem doesn’t feel like a grenade with the pin pulled, I’ll stop and go no further. I need poems that read like ransom notes, like suicidal words scrawled on soiled paper, like the last words of a homicide victim finger painted in blood along a dark wall.
I look for poems that are like lit fuses waiting to go off way back in the head. I look for those time bomb poems that go tick tick tick with the very first word and rarely ever stop even at the end. They go on exploding and exploding inside the unconscious for days and no matter how hard I try I can’t shake them out of me, they still have thousands of little explosions left to go off. Like William Carlos Williams’ “To Elsie.” I knew this woman before I read the poem. She washed floors in a loan shark office, she hooked at the hotel, she was maybe the best shoplifter around. And, even now there is still no one to drive the car because driving the car is also like the act of reading and sometimes when my eyes are jumping all over the page it feels so much like driving out of control not driving at all being behind the wheel not being behind the wheel I am reading the poem I am also somewhere else I am writing a poem and reading both at once and that last line is what makes me love this poem so much. I read Hemingway’s stories looking for guns. I read Raymond Carver’s stories looking for the scum of despair, despair so thick I could cut pieces of it out of the raw air and wear them like third eyes all over my body.
I can’t read Kafka’s THE TRIAL without trying to slip Joseph K. a 38 special. He won’t use it but I want him to have it anyway. I can’t read Kell Robertson’s “The Gunfighter” without trying to provoke the poem’s killer into a shooting because I want to see how fast he really is. I can’t read Lorca’s essay on the Duende without trying to discover a black hole in some shaman’s forehead. I am careening through HOWL, I want the words to go fast. Reading is the nightmare of all possible thinking.
The thing is, even when you’re reading, if you slow down, you die.