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Gilbert Sorrentino, photo by Vivian Ortiz

Gilbert Sorrentino feature:
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This interview is 13,500 words or about 20 printed pages long

Two nibs


Gilbert Sorrentino

in conversation with Barry Alpert
Westbeth, New York City, April 7, 1974

Gilbert Sorrentino was born in Brooklyn in 1927 and entered Brooklyn College in 1950. His education at Brooklyn College was interrupted when he served in the US Army Medical Corps for two years, and resumed in 1953 where he studied the classics. In 1956 he began Neon, a literary magazine for which he edited six issues. In the early 1960s he was an editor and a contributor for Kulchur magazine and served as an editor for Grove Press from 1965-1970. He taught at Stanford University and now lives in Brooklyn. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Lannan Literary Award.

Shoveling coal

BA:Barry Alpert: When did you begin writing?

Gilbert Sorrentino: I would imagine you mean seriously writing.

BA: The first thing you took seriously as a writer.

GS: I must have been 19 years old. In 1948 I began to work in what I guess you would call a serious way.

BA: Was it prose or poetry?

GS: It was poetry at the beginning. I had got out of high school and I had no idea, really, what I wanted to do, except that I knew that I didn’t want to go to college. I had no interest whatsoever in going to college. So I got some kind of a job, as a clerk, I remember. As a matter of fact, it was a job as a clerk in a textile factoring company on Madison Avenue. And while I was there, by some odd occurrence (I don’t know exactly how it happened) I began to read Walt Whitman. And I thought, well, I can do that too. I should preface this by saying that when I was in high school I was always good in English. I could write easily and I used to get the best marks in the class on compositions and the like. But given the kind of working-class background that I came out of, there was literally no conception in my mind that I could become a writer, a serious writer, an artist, as it were. So either because of that attitude on my part toward writing or because of my mother’s hope for some kind of a career for me when I grew up, I always thought of myself as perhaps becoming a journalist — going to a school of journalism. I think that was a kind of invention to cover my writing sins. If I was sitting at home scribbling something, and my mother said, what are you doing, I would say, well, I’m writing. And that would be all right because, after all, I was going to become a journalist. I began writing Walt Whitman-like poems; I guess I was about 18 or 19 years old.

BA: When did you write your first piece of what you’d call serious prose?

GS: That was about 1950. I wrote a story that I later published in a Brooklyn College magazine, that won a prize, as a matter of fact, for the best story. The magazine was called Landscapes. I wrote the story in 1950 and I believe it was published in 1956. Actually, the reason that I published it in 1956 is because I was terribly broke at the time and they were offering a $25 first prize. And I said, if I can’t win this prize, with all these terrible writers published in this magazine, I better hang it up. So I pulled this old story out and touched it up and sent it in.

BA: Did you think that that was the best piece of prose you had around at that time?

GS: In 1956?

BA: Yeah. Is that why you sent that to them?

GS: No, not at all. It’s just that it was the only thing that was short enough to give the magazine. At the time, I was working on a novel, a very long novel which I think I completed that year. A novel of about 600 pages, which took me about 3 years to write.

BA: And that one’s not going to see the light of day?

GS: That will never see the light of day. It’s a terrible book, really a hopeless book, but I learned a great deal writing it.

BA: Do prose, poetry, and criticism exist more or less as equal possibilities at any one moment of your writing ‘life?

GS: If I’m working on a novel, which I’m now doing, I’ve been working on it for some time, almost 2½ years... During the time I’m working on a novel, if I’m very deeply engaged, which I usually am, I hardly ever write poems. My mind is focused on the grueling problems of writing prose, which is really what they are. It’s like shoveling coal to write prose. You have a plan, of course, and each day the plan becomes more complicated. You have to concentrate on what you’re up to and then you have to remember that there are things that you have earlier written that you want to revise. So that what you’re writing at the moment has to be written in the knowledge that it is being written in terms of a revision that you are later going to make in earlier... You’re concerned with technical problems. It’s very hard then to write poetry. I write poetry in a rush, I don’t labor...

BA: What do you mean by “in a rush”?

GS: I don’t labor over my poetry. Poems simply come. Poems come to me and I write them. I very rarely revise poems. By that I don’t mean that whatever I write is a sacred text. What I mean is that if the poem doesn’t come out right for me when I write it, I don’t tinker with it, I usually junk it and start the poem over. As a matter of fact almost all the poems I do write... very rarely do poems come out right the first time. In a sense, the first draft of a poem, for me, is a kind of talking to myself, because I don’t know exactly what I want to say. Somewhere in the middle of the poem will perhaps come what I want to say, but I don’t know that as I write.

BA: So you keep it around for a while.

GS: I keep it around and then maybe 3 or 4 days or 3 or 4 weeks later I’ll look at the poem and I know it’s not right and all of a sudden I’ll see that in the middle of the poem there’s the line that really should begin the poem. Then I dump out all the stuff in front of it or sometimes simply juggle it. I’ll see that the last 10 lines of a poem should be the first 10 lines of a poem, or that the first 10 lines of a poem don’t belong there at all, and so on. Then I rewrite the poem right from the top. I hardly ever refine, tool the poem, although I did when I was younger, when I was beginning to write. I used to labor, labor diligently over poems, but in those days I used to work in very strict forms, very strict rhyme and measure. Now, occasionally, I’ll change a word or punctuation to sharpen the focus.

BA: I was going to ask later how deliberately formal or closed is your prosody? Now? It was...

GS: It’s still, I think, very formal, even though maybe the poems don’t look formal.

BA: Your poetry still seems rather formal to me. Is it “never more than an extension of content”? You’re influenced by that school of thought, but there is a certain kind of formality about them. I wondered whether you established... like Thomas Hardy for example would set up the architecture of his poems. Do you ever work that way or did you ever work that way?

GS: I’ve rarely worked that way, although at times I decide to write in quatrains and so on. The poem always follows, in a sense, its own rationale or its own logic or, with me, lack of it, except when I used to work in very tightly controlled rhyme... Very few of those poems were published, if any. They were poems I wrote for myself. Not that I didn’t want to publish them in those days. There was no place to publish them, let’s face it. I mean I was a young, totally obscure writer.

BA: Do you still write poems for yourself, pretty much?

GS: Oh yeah. Absolutely. As a matter of fact I think I... without trying to sound precious I think I write everything for myself. I very rarely think of anybody reading it. Very rarely. If I get pleasure from it, it’s enough for me.

BA: Yeah, that’s what Pound used to say. I was always taken by that attitude myself. I thought there was more play with audience expectations in your fiction, but we’ll get to that later. The poems seem to me self-contained.

GS: As a matter of fact the poems that I’ve been writing lately, and I have written some poems while I’ve been working on this book but they’ve happened in odd moments. In other words, if I’m stuck on the book, say, the next day suddenly... a poem. Poems come to all poets in odd ways, of course. A poem will often come to me because I’ll read a line of somebody else’s poem. I’ll be reading poems or I’ll be rereading old poems that I love dearly...

BA: I was going to ask you a question that then I decided not to ask you but it now occurs to me that it’s a possible question. That is, do you ever think of yourself as writing what some people might term “occasional poems”? By that I guess I mean prompted by news.

GS: Never. I used to do that.

BA: I think in your first book there are things that I might call “occasional poems.”

GS: Yes. Right, that’s when I was involved in, I think, a very different conception of myself as a poet. That was a kind of tyro-work. The Darkness Surrounds Us is really, you know, apprentice-work. I thought of the poem in a different way, I used my influences in a different way, I thought of my contemporaries in a very different way. My “ranking” of contemporaries has changed greatly.

BA: Did the dream incorporated in one of those early poems, “Midnight Special,” prompt the poem? Maybe there was a connection then between dream and art for you, but is there now?

GS: No. No, I’ve never tried to accurately transcribe dreams in any way. It’s just that this...

BA: There are a few early poems in which apparent dream situations are dealt with. I just picked on “Midnight Special,” but I remember 1 or 2 in Black and White.

GS: The problem, of course, is that often they were not dreams. Often I decided that I would cast them as dreams in the poem.

BA: Oh I see. So they’re literary dreams in some sense.

GS: Some of them are literary dreams and some of them are true dreams which have been changed around, or one thing has been taken out of the dream in order to, as it were, hang the poem on it. To me, dreams mean what they say. They have no special literary value, no more so than waking reality, certainly.

BA: Does the mood of the speaker color empirical reality in a number of the poems in Black and White and The Perfect Fiction or are you moving towards a more abstract sense of color?

GS: Black and White is a book I don’t really even know how to think of anymore. It seems like a sport. I mean I can’t quite place the book myself.

BA: It was a gathering of your poems over a period, but the title and the sense of color suggested that there was some sort of focus in the ordering, more focus than in The Darkness Surrounds Us.

GS: Yeah, that just happened to be the best poems I had over about 4 years. The usual first book. For Black and White I really tried to put together poems that more or less had the same tone, I think, to them. I thought they had the same tone. But now, as I say, I don’t really know how to look at the book. The book is somewhat interesting to me because I think it’s the first book I wrote in which I began to realize that the poem literally did not have to be a statement about anything: it could be itself. I had given lip service to this, of course...

BA: In the prefatory note to The Darkness Surrounds Us...

GS: Certainly. Everybody. I mean everybody.

BA: Your criticism expressed that as well.

GS: Right. Every young poet says that, has got to say that. It’s just that I never understood it before. And I think in Black and White I finally began to realize that you could literally make a poem out of the air. You could nail a poem together that had a kind of reverberation to it — that didn’t say anything, that made a kind of aesthetic whole. You presented a kind of excellent article that you had made and you said, here this is. I think this looks fine and sounds fine and has beautiful edges to it. It’s a kind of sculpted figure and it doesn’t mean anything. As I said before, the dreams are not dreams. It just seemed to me the word “dream” might function in a poem in a kind of curious way. Let me use the word “dream” and see what happens. That’s why color or various words for colors came into the poems, because I began to see that you could indeed do this with a poem. Mallarme’s “flower” never seen in any bouquet.

BA: So that evokes the world of visual art: that a poem can be like a painting.

GS: Right, because at that time I began to see pictures more than I’d seen them before.

BA: You mean you saw more painting?

GS: Literally saw more painting and became acquainted at the time with a lot of painters. And began to listen to them and talk to them. I think that was essentially... It’s hard to remember because the book it was published, I think, in 1964, but the poems were all written about 1960-1961. The Darkness Surrounds Us was published in 1960 but those are poems from 1957 and 1958. I had completed all the poems for Black and White in 1961, but Corinth did it and it just sat and sat and sat. The usual routine.

BA: Are you more satisfied then with The Perfect Fiction as a book? That seems to me a well-structured and well-crafted book.

GS: Yeah. All told, although I think I’ve written better individual poems than appear in The Perfect Fiction, as a book of poems it’s my best book.

BA: Was it indeed written as a book-length project over a period of a year, as you state?

GS: Absolutely. I think it took me a little more than a year. Every poem was conceived as being a part of the book. I think I wrote maybe 90 poems for the book and then cut...

BA: What other sorts of writing did you do that year? I don’t know when that book was composed; it was published in 1968.

GS: I think I began Steelwork right after it.

BA: So pretty much that preoccupied your writing that year?

GS: Yeah. It was about a year’s work, and as I say, I wrote about 90 poems for the book, out of which I took roughly half. As a matter of fact I probably wrote much more than 90, but some of them were lost from the start. They were literally hopeless poems that had nowhere to go. I mean they never came out of my notebook; they just sat there and they’re still there. Maybe I can use pieces of them in the future.

BA: And then what about your last book Corrosive Sublimate: was that constructed as a whole book or was it a gathering of your poems?

GS: It’s a gathering of poems, but I gathered poems together that again seemed to make a book.

BA: How would you unravel the title?

GS: Well, corrosive sublimate is a deadly poison; it’s also an antiseptic. So that was in my mind. And then simply the idea of sublimation, the chemical process of sublimation which is defined, I believe, as... heating a solid material to a gaseous state and returning it to a solid state so that it never passes through a liquid form. In other words, it’s purified as a gas and then returns to a solid. And I flattered myself into thinking that somehow the poems worked that way. They were kind of pure, those poems, and yet they had a solidity about them that made them valid for me.

BA: I was particularly impressed with “The Coast of Texas”: it seemed to me in some ways your best...

GS: It’s a good cycle.

BA: I’m always impressed by long poems and that was the best long poem.

GS: Yeah. It’s hard for me to make a book of poems in the Jack Spicer sense, mostly, I think, because I have been preoccupied with prose for some years. So my poems now happen to come in interludes — I mean I write them in interludes. It’s difficult for me to think of a book of them, although I’ve been working for a couple of years on 50 little poems, called Fifty Oranges. They’re really for myself.

BA: Is that like a project that you’d set up for yourself? Do you work better under those kind of circumstances? Obviously Spendide-Hotel is a project somewhat comparable to The Perfect Fiction.

GS: Yeah, absolutely. I love plans. I love them: the more complicated they are the better I love them.

BA: Do you usually find that you realize them as originally conceived?

GS: Never. Never. Worse or better, but never the same as conceived. What happens is that the plan usually becomes more complicated. I see things that I didn’t at first envision. Let’s say that something that would be considered in my original plans as A-1 becomes A-labcd. Then often B will be thrown out and be replaced by C, which then becomes B. But I love the concept of a plan because I then can see if I can achieve it. I have also tried to set up problems that I don’t think I can solve. I’ll make a situation up that, on the face of it, seems really impossible, and then I’ll see if I can do it. I don’t like to write over again what I have already written. If I succeed in my own terms in writing a book or part of a book the way I like it, I don’t try to write that over again.

BA: You try to exhaust that particular procedure.

GS: Right. I may use the same technique over, but in a very different way. I don’t take the same thing and polish it and see how refined it can become. It’s probably common among writers. I’m always most interested in what I’m writing and when I’m finished writing it I hate to read it, for a long time. As a matter of fact, sometimes I can’t bring myself to read it for years. I’ve never reread The Sky Changes. I can’t reread it. I always say, I’m going to reread this book — I can’t reread it. I can’t reread Steelwork either. I can reread my poems, but I can’t reread my prose. I think it’s because it recalls the weariness of composition.

BA: How formal a procedure was the writing of Spendide-Hotel? Exactly what was the pre-ordained schema? Just to run through the alphabet?

GS: Actually, no. The alphabet was secondary, tertiary. The original idea was to try to take... The beginning of the writing of the book was not conceived as... Let me put this a different way. I did not conceive of Spendide as a book when I began writing it.

BA: What did you conceive of it as?

GS: I was trying to write what they used to call prose poems. A cashiered term.

BA: You weren’t trying to do something on the order of Spring and All — interspersed prose and poetry.

GS: No, not at all. Although I have thought of doing that. But not in Splendide. In other things that I’ve fiddled with, doodled with, that I have in my notebooks. No, what I did was... I was reading Rimbaud, I had been reading Rimbaud for some time and once again I was taken with the poem “Voyelles” in which he deals with the colors of vowels. So I said, let me take the vowels, aeiou, and see what I can do with the 5 of them. And then I did “a” and I did “e” and then somehow I got the idea of doing one for... I believe it was the one for “c” because I was thinking of a C-note, you know, $100, or a shape of a crab. So I did “c” and then I said, wait a minute now. Why can’t I incorporate Rimbaud — his work, all his life, my own considerations of them, certain facets of my own life — and I’ll do a short book. And I mean I had the attitude and the idea that it would indeed be a short book. As a matter of fact, it’s a little longer than I intended. I really intended to write about a page for each letter. It came out a little bit longer because I got involved in other things. Particularly with my obsession to list things; I love to list.

BA: Let me ask you then what do you find attractive about doing that?

GS: I don’t know what it is that makes me like it. It’s a kind of exhaustion of the substantive, you see. That’s really what it is. Simply taking a noun and making it do the work of many sentences. It’s also a kind of insistence on the reality of words per se. In Imaginative Qualities. I try to take many shortcuts in the book by avoiding describing a character’s psychological make-up or his particular character. I give you a list instead of his likes and dislikes. And then you can kind of fill in the blanks, as it were. In other words, if a man does this and likes this kind of music and reads this kind of book and wears this style of clothes, well, then, you know who he is, or what he thinks he is, at least in a social and superficial way, which is, in a sense, all I’m ever interested in. I don’t care about psychology and “depths” in my books; I’m not interested in probing anything.

BA: You’re interested in a certain kind of surface?

GS: Surfaces, I’m interested in surfaces, really. For me, life is right in front of you. Mysterious because it is not hidden. I’m interested in surfaces and flashes, episodes. I’m an episodic writer.

BA: Well you say that in Imaginative Qualities.

GS: I’m an episodic and a synthetic writer. Or, let’s say I use episode and synthesis to achieve my effects.

BA: What do you mean by “synthetic”?

GS: I like to synthesize; I hate analysis. I don’t like to take a subject and break it down into parts; I like to take disparate parts and put them all together and see what happens. I believe the old saw that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Of course, it may also be less. But it’s the parts that interest me; it’s not the whole. I used to think that I wrote books like The Sky Changes and Steelwork, which are in very short chapters or episodes, because of the conditions under which I have usually worked.

BA: That do you mean by that?

GS: I used to work at night: I used to work a full 8-hour day and I did my writing at night. There was no possibility of machined plots. I wrote as best I could.

BA: And those 2 novels were written during that period in your life?

GS: Right, both books. Well, The Sky Changes, no; The Sky Changes was half and half, as it were. As a matter of fact, that’s not true. The Sky ChangesI had time to work on that book. The Sky Changes was really an experiment (if you’ll pardon the word) in writing prose — I didn’t know if I could write a novel. And I said, let me see if I can write a novel.

BA: The earlier 600-page “novel” was completely dismissed by that time?

GS: Oh yeah. That’s a real “novel.” Oh, that has character, motivation, and what happened to whom, and who did what, and the obvious. That’s the whole thing — that’s a John O’Hara novel. It’s a real “novel.”

BA: Well, some of the qualities you just enumerated I thought were evident in The Sky Changes: character motivation, psychological motivation, etc.

GS: Oh yeah, there’s a little in there. Sure. There’s little past, though: I mean real past. The characters are kind of in a vacuum — they’re sort of floating in a time vacuum, as it were. You know that they come from somewhere and that they’re going somewhere, but I don’t think it really matters. They appear and vanish. They don’t even have names, let alone histories. There are a lot of flaws in The Sky Changes. If I had it to write over again. . .

BA: Yeah, I had a question along those lines, “If there was a publisher interested in reprinting it, would you go back and revise it?”

GS: Yeah, absolutely. Sure. As a matter of fact, I know... right off the top of my head I know there are... There are 2 sections that are missing from The Sky Changes.

BA: Really? That were in the original manuscript?

GS: No, no. That should be there and are not. I mean I know they should be there — it’s just that I didn’t put them in because I didn’t know enough to put them in. I was rushed and anxious. And now I know they should be there. There are also sections that should come out. There are lapses in tone, not fatal, but there they are. There are sentences that drag and limp — that shuffle along. There are those sentences that don’t do anything except tell you things. The kind of fictional prose I can’t abide is the prose that tells you things. I like sentences that work the way sentences work in poetry: every sentence has to be doing a little dance, acrobatics, a flash and glitter. I don’t like sentences that just tell you things. Nonfiction — that’s good for nonfiction. Or for journalism. Fiction, no. I’m not interested in that.

BA: On a formal level then was Steelwork a deliberate companion-piece to The Sky Changes?

GS: No, it wasn’t. Not at all. As a matter of fact I had a lot of trouble starting Steelwork because I literally didn’t know how to grasp it.

BA: But if you read one after the other, the sectioning seems rather similar, except for the change from place to time. I thought they might have been composed in that manner: one after the other.

GS: No. Halfway through Steelwork I realized this, though. I said, oh, look at this: The Sky Changes deals with space and now...

BA: You wrote Steelwork when The Sky Changes was a thing of the past.

GS: Already published.

BA: What was the period over which The Sky Changes was written?

GS: When was it published?

BA: It was published in 1966.

GS: I began it in 1961.

BA: Oh you began it that early.

GS: Yeah. And then I couldn’t write anymore on it. I wrote about 40 pages and then I simply could not work...

BA: That was then the second novel you attempted.

GS: Yeah. The first one, of course, I’d long forgotten. In 1961 I wrote about 40-50 pages of the manuscript and I simply could not continue — I couldn’t go on with the book. It was rather frightening to me. So I put it away. 1961 was it? 1961. And then I think I finished it in 1964, I guess. But now that you mention it, I wrote a book of sketches, sometime after my first and hopeless novel — maybe in about 1957.

These were very short impressionistic sketches of people. These were people I grew up with, but fictionalized, romanticized, and prettied up, in a “literary” sense. People from my old neighborhood. I had always been interested in writing about my old neighborhood, but I never quite knew how to do it. The first novel I wrote — the gigantic novel — was about my old neighborhood. But that was the true novel, you know, the narrator growing up, Studs Lonigan, that kind of stuff. Ah, sensitive plant facing life! The second one was this book of I guess 30 sketches of people I had grown up with. I thought perhaps I could approach this neighborhood in that way — by simply dealing with the people and not with any of the activity. And then I saw that I didn’t want to do that either because it came off as a kind of... Well there was a terrible preciosity to it. It was a kind of fake omniscient look at the lives of people “struggling to maintain their humanity.” No, I couldn’t do that either. I didn’t yet know that one did not have to invent reality by probing beneath the surface for something that is not there.

So finally I thought that I could find a way to do it in Steelwork, by simply dealing with the neighborhood episodically and shifting the time back and forth and not having a central figure at all. There’s no protagonist in Steelwork, except for the neighborhood itself.

BA: Did that book bear any relation to diaries you may have kept? For example, that segment “Libby: From A Diary”? Did you write that when you writing the book or did you find it in your diaries or journals from...

GS: I took a lot of material from old notebooks that I used to keep when I was a kid.

BA: That section I singled out seemed preserved as it was.

GS: There are changes. I’ve always used almost everything that I can put my hands on. I hardly ever throw anything away.

BA: Why is that?

GS: Because I always know somewhere I’ll be able to use it. I’ll write something that I know is really rotten, see. And I’ll keep it and know that somewhere, some place in the future I’ll be able to use it as an instance of something that’s rotten. I keep things like that, I mean I keep all sorts of things, old poems of mine that are terribly embarrassing. But they’re very valuable because they show an absolutely embarrassing poem. One can also take lines and phrases out, things that are ludicrously bad, sincerely bad.

BA: Now were any of those presented in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things?

GS: No, those are all invented. Those are all parodies, but I know those writers’ poems so well I really can write them the way that they would write them, except twisted to make their flaws obvious. Their flaws and their hollowness.

BA: How precise is your dating of the segments in Steelwork and why didn’t you pin it down to the month or even the day?

GS: Because I literally couldn’t remember the month or day. They’re really as precise as I could make them. The year is really precise: I mean in terms of let’s say songs, clothing styles, things that were happening at that time... I remembered them in terms of my own experiences as a boy and I knew that... When I was 11 years old I knew that I went and saw this particular thing, let’s say. And then from that I would remember, well, if that was the year that I did this, then this also happened. I could more or less pinpoint it exactly as to the year; I couldn’t get finer than that.

BA: I notice that some of the characters pilloried in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things are carried over into Splendide-Hotel and also that section from your new novel that I read in the Chicago Review. At least the names are there. What are your intentions?

GS: I really want to make the reader, if you will, realize that he’s reading fiction: that these people aren’t real. In other words if a character, John Brown, appears in novel A, that doesn’t mean that John Brown lives in novel A. John Brown can live in novel B too, be-cause he’s a fictitious creation. I’m not interested in fiction as a surrogate reality; I’m not interested in people really living in fiction. I’d just as soon use their names... And, if you will, if the reader knows my work it would seem to me that it might be interesting or amusing or funny for him to come across a character...

BA: That’s exactly what it was for me, except that it was simply coming across a name, not a character. From Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things you get the name Bart Kahane in a list in Splendide.

GS: Right. Well, you see, since Bart Kahane is a certain sort of guy in Imaginative Qualities, if you see him in the list as a resident of the Splendide, well, you realize, this must be a funny hotel because Bart Kahane, you see, is... Well that’s really in a sense where he should live. It serves to remove him from the boredom of fiction as a register of factual events.

BA: But what I’m saying is that I suppose we’re getting an internally reflective fiction like in Joyce’s Ulysses, except that it’s over a span of separate books.

GS: Right. And the new book I’m working on, it works that way — in spades!

BA: Does Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things represent a deliberate break with the practice of The Sky Changes? It seemed to me that Steelwork was a transitional work to get to Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. I have trouble figuring out what comes after that because the big novel you’re working on now isn’t published.

GS: Yeah, I think Imaginative Qualities is a novel in which I first began to see the possibilities of... Well, to simplify it: of doing anything I damn well pleased. Literally, of doing anything I damn well pleased.

BA: You didn’t think The Sky Changes had that kind of freedom?

GS: Well, I was very hesitant with The Sky Changes because it really was the first piece of fiction that I seriously considered as having some artistic value. The first novel I wrote, of course, I was deeply serious about it, but I knew almost as soon as I finished it that it was really not publishable. It was a kind of school to which I went.

BA: So it was valuable in that sense.

GS: In that sense, right. I tried out lots of crazy things in that book — things that still interest me. As a matter of fact, I may someday go back to the book and use them, revised and changed a great deal. But there are a lot of odd things I use in that book that I invented for myself and tried out. There’s one passage in the book in which I deal with a party: a young people’s party — these are all just post-adolescents — they’re about 18, 19-year-old people. And it’s kind of a drunken, silly brawl of a party with boys and girls and fumbling sex involved. And I decided that I would describe the party itself, and the events just subsequent to it, from different points of view, a la Rashomon. Except that I didn’t want to describe it from the points of view held by various guests at the party. I wanted to describe it from different fictive, stylistic points of view. I wanted to use different techniques of fiction to describe the party. I’ve never been interested in psychology of fictitious characters, as I’ve said. I don’t really care about that, it’s not my concern. I’m concerned with the way the event occurs in the prose itself. So what I did in this section (this is strictly from memory, because I haven’t looked at this book since I wrote it in 1956)... The beginning of the party I believe is described as a travelogue, the way a travelogue would be written. The wee hours of the party are described as a passage from a book of the Bible, the Old Testament. When the party breaks up and the revelers go into the street — that’s described as a dirty joke. In other words, I described it in 7 different ways and it was interesting to me to do it, particularly as a young writer. It’s, I think, a little heavy-handed, I don’t think it’s essentially successful. The reason I mention it to you is because that’s the kind of writing I’m interested in. I’m interested in making the prose surprise me. I want the prose to surprise me. Have 2 people meet who have something to say to each other; they wind up going to bed, an essentially romantic liaison: then describe it as a truly vulgar dirty joke, a schoolboy’s joke, and see what the prose has to say about it all.

BA: You’re setting up an exercise.

GS: Set up an exercise and see if you can do it. I’ve always been interested in that: how would it work if I did this? The sentimental and the romantic disappeared a long time ago in my writing. Some of it still gets in there, but I try to expunge it as best I can. I’m not interested in that; I’m not interested in the “wonder of things.” I sometimes like it in other people’s work, but it’s something I am not interested in doing. When other people do it well, it intrigues me. If it’s done well, if it’s not the kind of really Pollyanna stuff, you know, Look! The Wizard of Oz. Wow! Golly gee! I mean there’s an awful lot of writing like that, and often it looks very tough.

BA: Whose?

GS: Oh, well, Fielding definitely. That’s one of the things I’ve always . . Well, Fielding and I used to argue about this years and years ago, you know. And he never understood what I was saying, and I guess I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I can never... Fielding has a Midwestern mind. This is not fair of me to say now, because Fielding and I haven’t spoken about writing in years, literally years. Fielding could never get over that this was New York, you know. New York! is what I always imagine Fielding saying. New York! Wahoo! like those old movies where a guy used to stand at the window and look out at the skyline and say, I’ll beat you yet, New York! But that’s not strictly Fee’s attitude. I’m being simplistic. This is a truism, but there’s an enormous difference between being born and raised in New York and coming to New York, even if you then live here. If you come to New York when you’re an adult, and you live here for 40 years, you still don’t think of New York the way I do. Because New York is simply my home town. It’s not New York!

BA: It’s always been that to me, because I’ve lived in the suburbs of New York: that is, Philadelphia and Washington. This is the first time I’ve ever lived in New York.

GS: It’s very hard to make people understand that when you grow up in New York this is where you live. When you say, I’m going home for the holidays, you’re going to New York, see. You don’t go to New York to have a big time; you go home, that’s all.

BA: Do you think of yourself then in any sense as a provincial writer — the province being New York.

GS: In a way. Sure. Definitely. I think I’m a New York writer. I definitely think I’m a New York writer. But I don’t have anything to do with the “New York School”; they are all rubes.

BA: No not all of ‘em.

GS: Well, no. But they all do say New York! Or as I say in Imaginative Qualities, they all think of New York as being a chocolate bunny — sort of like something you come and eat. Then you leave when you want to, when the city just goes blindly on. No, this is a real city; it’s a very hard place to live because nothing really dents it. Some people get very bitter about that. You know, I mean I love this place — I love New York. There is no other place. Other American cities seem dead or cute or vulgar.

BA: You’d never think of living anywhere else?

GS: Never. Oh never. Never, never. I might go away but I’d come back. There’s no place else to live. Everybody else is... I mean all other places are sort of like... I don’t know how to explain it, except by explaining it negatively. Whenever I’ve ever gone anywhere else for any length of time I’ve always said to myself (never to hosts, because I didn’t want to insult them or hurt their feelings) oh, if I were in New York I could get this. If I were in New York I could go here. Now where can I go in this goddamn place?

BA: That’s awful.: I used to hear that during New York’s invasion of Northern California in the late sixties. That was impossible.

GS: I don’t say it, because I know what a crude thing it is, but it’s always in my mind. You always say to yourself, Now what else have you got to show me! It’s really a funny thing. I confess that I brag about New York to people who put New York down, because they don’t know anything; they don’t know anything about New York. Most of them have this boring idea that New York is Manhattan. Grotesque. There are few writers who know things about New York really, least of all New York! writers. One writer who really understood New York beautifully in his work was Paul Goodman, amazingly enough. A writer that often isn’t thought of in that way; as a matter of fact, not often thought of at all. Paul Goodman is usually thought of as a kind of social writer, a writer of social possibilities... He’s a beautiful writer, Paul Goodman, a really beautiful writer. I didn’t know him very well, but the little that I did know him... He was one of the very early contributors to Neon, by the way.

BA: Since you mention that I wonder if you thought that Neon would inhabit a realm first populated by Origin and Black Mountain Review?

GS: No, I actually didn’t. Neon began before I’d seen the Black Mountain Review or Origin. I’d never even seen them. I had returned to Brooklyn College after the army. I’d come out of the army in 1953 and I’d begun this massive, hopeless novel. I lived literally, totally, out of touch with anybody you might consider a writer. I mean literally out of touch. I can’t describe the fifties to you; they seem unbelievable. I can’t imagine what the fifties were like for a young writer living in Cincinnati, let’s say. Because even in New York they were... I mean they were literally impossible. A sterile, dull, and ludicrous decade.

BA: You wouldn’t think it would be the same for a young writer who went to Brooklyn College in 1970? The connections would be easier to make?

GS: Oh yeah. The connections are there; I mean the writers are available, as it were. There are writers almost your peers who are around. Quite incredible. I can’t describe the feeling in New York in the early fifties; I cannot describe it. You lived in a kind of absolute vacuum.

BA: Why do you think that was the case? Do you think it was the same in the teens or early twenties?

GS: I don’t know. The only thing that I know is that the writing that I was doing when I was a young man when I got out of the army in 1953, when I began to write this vast novel and then began to write poems was without foundation. The only contact that I had with a kind of writing that interested me was through books. And few of those. Williams was the man, really. Williams was the man who said in his work, no, it doesn’t have to be Auden, no, it doesn’t have to be Roethke and it doesn’t have to be Viereck and it doesn’t have to be Lowell. It can be this. Except that of course Williams, being much older, didn’t...

No, let me put it this way. People have talked for years about the impact of Jack Kerouac’s early writing on them: what happened to them when they first read Kerouac’s work. But it seems to me that a lot of it has been spoken of as a technical achievement. In other words, Kerouac said, I can do whatever I want in this novel — the hell with plot and the hell with narrative, and character development — I’m just going to wail, you know, like a jazz player. Then there came the great clichés about bop prosody, blah-blah. What it really was is that Kerouac did what we all, in these isolated pockets where all of us were living at the time — Kerouac did what we all knew had to be done, which was to incorporate our own experience into what we liked to think of as being serious prose. We had come out of an experience in which... As young men we were not involved, let’s say, in classical music and political movements.

We hardly understood the concerns of the thirties — and there was no “nostalgia.” America changed completely during the forties — it became cynical and hip. Our experience was rooted in bebop or the beginnings of abstract expressionist painting, a restlessness about our role as young men and women. No one had ever written of this. And the problem was — how do you incorporate an experience that’s reality to us in a prose that will be accepted as, say, art. Because, you know, jazz . .

BA: There’s no precedence for that kind of writing.

GS: There’s no precedent; that’s what Kerouac really did. He said, I listen to Charlie Parker and it’s valuable. I’ll put that right into my story. I mean the idea of Charlie Parker. And we read this: it was a kind of burst of light, that we could do such a thing. It really wasn’t a technical achievement. Everybody was sort of scuffling around and trying to twist prose and make it do what you wanted it to do. Make it look different, by Christ! There was an enormously conscious drive among many lost young writers at that time to make the prose look different from the prose in the Partisan Review of the day and the Hudson Review of the day and, oh God, Commentary, all those. . .

BA: Those were the “bigger and more renowned magazines” to which Neon was an alternative, as you put it in an editorial note.

GS: I don’t know if you know Seymour Krim? Do you know Seymour Krim?

BA: I read one of his anthologies in high school.

GS: Yeah. He came of a generation, really my generation, but maybe 5 years older than I, and his whole drive was toward becoming a writer like Mailer and Bellow and Baldwin and Styron. And when I began to write, the unbelievable boredom of reading Mailer and Baldwin! You didn’t want to write that stuff! No, there was something else you wanted to write: it was your life, it was your knowledge of the reality of your generation that had to be written. We had slid out, somehow, from the oppression of the Classic European moderns — we were Americans, for better or worse. Mailer didn’t know from this; I mean he literally didn’t know about it. He still doesn’t, talking about writing as a kind of philosophical “thought.” He didn’t know about it then and... That’s what you ran into, right. And everybody was in these odd, weird pockets — the isolation was devastating, crushing. The only other writer I knew at the time had not yet really begun to write: that was Cubby. Hubert Selby.

BA: He was a friend in the vicinity?

GS: Oh, I’ve known Cubby since I was 14 years old. A childhood friend. Sure. Dear, dear friend. Cubby’s been my friend since we were 13, 14 years old. But at the time that I began writing he was not writing — he had not yet begun. He was the only “writer” friend I had, nonetheless. I went back to Brooklyn College, and I met a few people who were working. I mean, you know, writing. They were in the same boat as I was: no place to place the stuff, you know, no place to get it published. So I said, why don’t we start a little mimeographed magazine? And I think the early issues had writers like John Richardson, who has more or less disappeared, but he was associated for some years with the beats in San Francisco. He went to San Francisco and disappeared, as it were. A common occurrence. I’ve seen him since, but not in many years now. But it was John Richardson, Cubby, myself, I’d written to Pound to see if he could tell me...

BA: Yeah, I was going to ask about Noel Stock and William Fleming...

GS: Yeah, Pound told me. Pound said, write these guys. So that’s where they came from, you know. God, I was floundering around, naive and hopeful.

BA: How did you get the poem by William Carlos Williams entitled “To My Friend Ezra Pound”? You just wrote him?

GS: Oh, well, I knew Williams, see. What had happened. . .

BA: You had met Williams by that time?

GS: Yeah, I had met Williams; I had met Williams, as a matter of fact, before Neon came out.

BA: Oh really.

GS: I met Williams in 1956, early 1956. This is a curious tale, now that you mention it. Oh, it’s really odd to think about all these things, because the endless connections and, as it were, how it all began is...

BA: I’m quite interested in that, as a literary historian. I mean I didn’t know how you got in contact...

GS: Well if you will bear with me I’ll see if I can remember it all.

BA: Sure.

GS: Let me see. When I was in the army, I was on a maneuver in Ft. Hood in Texas: a gigantic operation called Exercise Longhorn, which involved, I think, 150,000 troops, more troops than there had been in the field since D-day. Oh, it was just massive — it took up all of south Texas. A massive operation. There were 4 full field divisions, plus all the supporting troops, artillery, everything. While we were in Ft. Hood, in the middle of the exercise, they gave us I think a day and a half off. The umpires had to decide who had won a battle or something between the 82nd Airborne and the 1st Armored Division, which were down there at the time. So we got a day and a half off while the umpires wrangled. About 2 months before that, I had been stationed in Ft. Sam Houston, in Texas. And I’d gone down on weekends to the Mexican bordertowns. And I was incredibly impressed with these bordertowns. The brothels, particularly, because coming from the United States... there was literally nothing like that in the United States. A brothel that was not only wide open but that wasn’t sinister, you know. It wasn’t sinister, it wasn’t tawdry, it was open, it was almost gay, it was incredible to me. Incredible to a young American. The lack of guilt and furtiveness. During this time off at Ft. Hood I had written a story, an impressionistic story called “Bordertown,” 6 pages long I think. I wrote it in a notebook and stuck it in with my stuff. That was in 1951. When I got out of the army in 1953, I began writing this gigantic novel, and about 1954 I began to seriously read Williams.

BA: His poems?

GS: His poems. Through reading Pound, I think, because I had begun reading or devouring Pound before I went into the army. It was manna. About 1950, I began to read Pound. I ultimately came across Williams’ poem, “The Desert Music,” which is about a trip to a Mexican bordertown. Okay. So I dug out this old story and with great trepidation, by now this was about 1955, with great trepidation, I sent the story to Williams, saying how much I admired his work and I thought it an odd coincidence that I had written a story, an impressionistic story, in a sense more like a sketch or, if you will, a prose poem, about a visit to a bordertown. And I wrote to him and sent him the story. As I say, with great fear and trepidation — I had never written to a real writer before. Never. And he wrote back to me, and told me that it was obvious that the story was the work of a young man, but he said something to the effect that if you continue in this vein you’ll ultimately develop into a fine writer; it’s a remarkable story and I’m delighted that you sent it to me.

BA: Well that’s very pleasant. It must have been encouraging.

GS: So that’s how I got to know Williams. And then about 3 months later he invited me to dinner, on a Sunday. So I went out and had dinner and then we became friends, as much friends as one could then become with Williams. At the time he was in his seventies and ill and I was about 24. But we continued a correspondence up until the time he died. And he decided that he would like to contribute to Neon — he would always contribute to a little magazine. And it was through Williams that Cubby got published, you know.

BA: No, I didn’t know that.

GS: It was through Bill Williams. Sure. Cubby finished his story called “Love’s Labours Lost,” which is the first part of what is now called “The Queen is Dead,” but at that time was the only part he’d done.

BA: It’s in Neon, right.

GS: No, is it in Neon? No, “Love’s Labours Lost” was published in Black Mountain Review. He sent it to Williams, Williams read it, and he wrote back and he said, I’m absolutely knocked out by this story. This is the most incredible story. You’re certainly never going to get this story published. You have to remember this was 1956. Cubby couldn’t publish in 1956: it was hot stuff, very potent stuff. Williams said, I know some very crazy guys down in North Carolina and this is their meat. So he sent the story to Jonathan. Jonathan read it and sent it to Creeley. As soon as Creeley got it — I heard later from Max Finstein — Max was there when Creeley got the story — he said Creeley started to jump up and down and said this must go into Black Mountain Review. That’s how Cubby was first published — through William Carlos Williams.

BA: How did you get involved with Jonathan Williams and LeRoi Jones? And you were involved with Yugen and Kulchur — how did those connections get made?

GS: Let’s see. When Cubby sent his story to Bill Williams, who then forwarded it to Jonathan, who forwarded it to Creeley, Jonathan wrote Cubby. Cubby wrote back and he said he had a friend, Gil Sorrentino, who’s starting a magazine, maybe, who knows, if we can get a little money, and so on and so forth. Jonathan then wrote back one of Jonathan’s letters saying I know you’re all crying in the wilderness up there because, you know, the canyons of New York, whatever Jonathan would say. And he said, I know some people up there you might be interested in. One of them is a guy named Joel Oppenheimer who’s living in some horrible place in the Bronx (which he was — he was living in the Bronx at the time), and maybe you’d like to get in touch with him. So Cubby got in touch with Joel and he said, I have a friend named Gil Sorrentino and he’s starting a magazine. Maybe you’d like to contribute to the magazine. We all met one night in the Cedar. That’s the first time I met Joel; it was in the Cedar. Then we chatted and Joel had some poems and he said, that’s great because there’s no place to contribute anything, you know, blah blah blah. Everything is dead and Black Mountain is closed and the Review is dying and this and that. In the meantime I had... There was a little publication that came out of New Mexico called The Naked Ear.

BA: I’ve seen that recently; Larry Eigner sent it to me.

GS: A tiny booklet, sort of. They put out 10 or 12 issues. And in that magazine there were poems by Creeley and Max Finstein. I had never seen Creeley’s work till I saw The Naked Ear. It’s the first time I ever saw his work. And I was absolutely taken with it. And with Max’s work as well. So I wrote to Creeley and asked him if he had any work. And at the time I don’t think he had anything, but he said a friend of mine, Max Finstein, has some work and besides he’s coming to New York. So Max came to New York and started to live with Joel; he had no place to live. He lived with Joel in the Brox. Then one night there was a reading given at a loft that was inhabited at the time by Jorge Ficke, a painter who now lives in New Mexico, and John Chamberlain, the sculptor. They lived in a loft across the street from Grace Church on Broadway. And there was a reading being given by Jonathan, Joel, no, Joel and Max were going to read. I had, as I said, met Joel briefly in the Cedar and never met Max, but was interested in his work, from The Naked Ear. And Jonathan was going to give a talk and a slide show. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of Jonathan’s slide shows?

BA: No, I’ve missed that opportunity.

GS: Oh, they’re just terrific. They’re just terrific. Jonathan shows slides of poets, you see. And places, and talks about them. Home movies, you know. A unique and civilized man, a gentleman. Anyway, I went to the reading, and at the reading met Joel again and Max and Fielding. And, of course, Jonathan. I had never met any of them except Joel. And then we all repaired to the Cedar. And Fielding had at that time already met Cubby. How that had occurred I don’t know; I think Cubby at that time had separated from his first wife and was living in the Village and had met Fielding somehow. So he introduced me to Fee and then Fielding knew I was putting the magazine out and became very interested in the magazine. He sent me an early draft of “Captain America” which we argued about. His was a really constant enthusiasm; Fielding was a terrifically enthusiastic guy, a remarkably energetic man. I can’t really overemphasize Fielding’s energies in that area, apropos Neon and Yugen. Okay, at that time LeRoi sent me some poems for Neon.

BA: On the advice of whom? I wonder where he would connect from.

GS: I think he came out of the blue. I think he had probably found the name of Neon either in James Boyer May’s old directory, Trace, or he had picked it up in the 8th Street or the Gotham, which were carrying the first and second issues. Anyway, he sent me poems and I didn’t publish the poems because I had no idea when the next issue was coming out. I held them, but nothing came of it. It was an unbelievable struggle to find the money to publish these magazines. Then one evening I went to an opening at the Martha Jackson Gallery and Roi was there with his wife Hettie. And we met. And of course repaired to the Cedar from the gallery and in the Cedar... It was one of those incredible situations — you just bumped into people. Dear Paul Blackburn, Dan Rice, a kind of constant interaction. It was all fermenting. The Black Mountain Review had folded, Origin had folded, Neon was fumbling along, and Roi had just begun Yugen. I think he had just put out Yugen 1. Roi at the time was a Villager. The curious thing was that nobody at that time seemed to live in Manhattan. You know, everybody lived in these oddball places: I lived in Brooklyn, so did Cubby, Joel was in the Bronx. And others were to hell and gone, or in transit. Nobody lived in Manhattan except Roi; Roi lived in the Village. And Roi had met, I think, Jack Micheline, and some other Village writers at the time. Then he met Allen Ginsberg and guys like that. Kerouac, Corso. So in Yugen he had Phil Whalen and Ginsberg and early stuff of Ray Bremser. Yugen was more or less oriented toward the whole beat thing. Neon had become oriented toward the whole defunct Black Mountain thing.

BA: Towards the end it gets that way.

GS: Right.

BA: The supplement is certainly . .

GS: The supplement, and #4 and #5 — the last was never published, though I did an Obit.

BA: But it rather varied before that.

GS: Yeah. #1 was just “us.” #2 was whatever writers I could find who were willing to contribute. #3 was a terrible issue; I mean #3 was hopeless. It was terribly edited; it was totally unintelligent. I have no idea how that happened. It was a severe aberration on my part.

BA: I wondered about that issue. Did you suddenly just get swamped by manuscripts, out of being listed in Trace?

GS: Yeah, something like that. It was horribly printed, there were errors all through it, typos... I had become somehow involved in correspondence with guys from Southern California. You know, like Carl Larsen and James Singer — I don’t even remember their names anymore — they’d started to send me material. You know, the point is, I decided to publish work that was not academically oriented.

BA: You didn’t know who you wanted to publish at that time?

GS: I just wanted to publish people that I thought could not be published anywhere else. I was also ignorant of many writers — the San Francisco writers most especially. In a sense it had very little to do with quality, because I just knew, there’s no way that these guys can publish anywhere. So I figured well I’ll publish them here. What’s good is good — what’s bad will die. But while Neon 3 was in the works I met Joel and Jonathan and...

BA: Oh I see. I wondered how and when the change in orientation came about.

GS: That’s what happened. I saw that there were good writers around and that I had a place for them. The curious thing is if you look at Neon 4 and Yugen 4 (they came out at the same time) I think there must be 50 or 60 different writers represented in those 2 magazines, and literally, they were almost every writer worth publishing.

BA: At that time. What time was that?

GS: It was 1958. Oh yeah, just about every writer worth publishing, and remarkably enough, Fielding did both covers. And he did them both black and white. But you see that was Fielding’s... Fielding did that absolutely consciously. As a matter of fact, I seem to remember Fee saying, this is going to be a knockout! Here’s Neon with a black and white cover by Dawson and here’s Yugen... Yugen was Fielding’s drawing, black on white. He did the cover as a negative so it would be a sister to his white on black collage for Neon.

BA: I didn’t know that.

GS: Sure. In some bookstores (I think maybe the 8th Street was one) Fielding set the magazines in the shelves that way, Neon and Yugen side by side. He said this will be a knockout! And it really was, it really was. And then out of that came Kulchur, which I still fondly believe to be the best critical magazine of the past 25 years.

BA: What were your motives for writing criticism? I always thought you did very good putdowns: I like things like your take on Lowell and Snodgrass. What were your motives for doing that sort of writing, and then for positive pieces? You wrote a lot of stuff.

GS: An awful lot of criticism. Jesus, for Kulchur I wrote almost every issue, I think, sometimes more than one thing. Dozens of pieces. Well, I had a terrible drive in those days, a sense of duty, as it were, to lacerate what I thought was rotten writing, thinking it might disappear. Of course that doesn’t happen. Most of the people I put down plod on — they seem indefatigable.

BA: Yeah, I thought there was some sort of moral imperative.

GS: Oh, it was a moral imperative and as a matter of fact not only was there a moral imperative but I felt constrained to cite the great masters of the past in my work. You know, Wyndham Lewis says this, so if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me, and therefore... That sort of thing. Sustenance from the past. Well, I just felt compelled to do that. I called them as I saw them and made plenty of enemies. Roi used to do some remarkable writing like that. Roi wrote some of the most deadly putdowns of people. Brilliantly funny.

BA: If you had the outlet today, would you write as much criticism?

GS: No, I wouldn’t. Not at all. Probably none at all.

BA: Do you think that any of your motives for writing criticism get into your fiction now; that is, in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things?

GS: Oh, yes. Oh, sure.

BA: That seems to me a work which combines fiction and literary criticism.

GS: Sure, but it’s strictly ad hominem, see. I’ve always been taken with ad hominem attacks — I love them — they’re so deliberately unfair. There is no rational reply to them except a sputter — and rage.

BA: Except that the names are... I mean, that is, can one usefully read Imaginative Qualities as a roman-à-clef?

GS: Oh, one can. Sure, one can. You don’t have to know that, though, to read it. That seems obvious. You do not have to know that. The thing that has always disturbed me about the reception Imaginative Qualities got, which was very hostile indeed...

BA: I understand.

GS: Hostile, cold, and silent. They were the 3 states. Or let’s put it: hostility, frigidity and silence. The book was born into those, that climate. But, you see, the thing that has always annoyed me about the people who were deeply displeased with the book is that they did not see in the book two things: the comic aspects of the book, which I think are obvious, and the compassion in the book. These are very compassionate portraits of people who have quit, given up. Of course, a man doesn’t like to read that about himself, a man who takes that character to be himself, but on the other hand you think, these are writers who are being annoyed by this. Writers should know how writers work. The model for Leo Kaufman: how do I know if that man is washed up? I mean he’s liable to have another 50 years of creative life, you know. He may become a Yeats in old age, or a Thomas Hardy. I don’t know. But my Leo Kaufman is forever fixed, you see, in prose. He’s a fictitious character who’s nailed down in that book. Well, I don’t see why... Rather than trying to wriggle out of it, I don’t think I am, though... I really think that a writer should understand another writer’s motives.

BA: Except that you don’t think that happened for the people who recognized themselves in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things?

GS: Oh no, I know it didn’t happen. They were immediately appalled. Hurt. Baffled. As a matter of fact, a guy that I know, who I really think should be nameless, said that he met the model for Leo Kaufman after he had read Imaginative Qualities. He said he never would have recognized him, had not the model spent most of his time complaining about being used as a model. So you see you get this odd thing. Why does a person who has been used as a model go around saying, oh, the son of a bitch, why did he use me? And I thought he was a friend! ad nauseam.

BA: I met someone who claimed he was the model for one of the characters and he didn’t understand your motives. I think I see your point though. There is some of the ameliorative quality of the Kulchur criticism in Imaginative Qualities. The character sketches are acts of literary criticism, it seems to me, only in a different guise.

GS: Literary-social criticism. What happens in this particular facet of the New York literary or art world to certain people who decide to live their lives a certain way. To say that those characters are real characters... it’s really malarkey.

BA: I know what you do, too. They aren’t, in a lot of places.

GS: Things are pulled from all over. I mean there are facets of my own personality in characters that I assault. It seems to me that that’s clear enough; that’s what surprised me so much at the reception the book got from other writers. That writers pretend not to know how other writers work seems to me unbelievable.

BA: My first take was that it represented a deliberate break with the literary associations that you were talking about earlier.

GS: Oh, I think they were already broken.

BA: They were broken already so that this didn’t act to break them.

GS: Oh, sure.

BA: I wouldn’t know that, you see, so that’s why...

GS: Curiously enough, though, they weren’t broken in any kind of ambience of ill-feeling or hostility or...

BA: They just faded away?

GS: Yeah. What happened, really, is that I stopped hanging around in the “art world.” I mean, I had a lot of work to do, and I couldn’t get it done if I spent 4 or 5 hours a night at a bar. Could not. Also I was at that time... It’s only since I got this Guggenheim or just before, when I was teaching 1 day a week at Sarah Lawrence, that I could work in the daytime. I mean I used to have to work at night after an 8-hour-a-day job. Okay, if I went to work 8 hours a day, dropped into the bar for 3... No way.

BA: So it was practical in other words.

GS: It was practical: I literally needed time to work, so I stopped going out.

BA: Did your experience as an editor for Grove Press have any impact on the writing of Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things?

GS: Yeah. Oh sure, sure. Because you learn a lot of things about . .

BA: Was it written at the time when you were...

GS: I was working for Grove when I wrote it.

BA: Oh is that right. I was wondering about that.

GS: Oh, you learn a lot about the ins and outs of the official world of New York publishing when you work for a trade publisher. Particularly a house like Grove, which was a very small and intimate house. I mean it wasn’t as if you were one of the peasants down on floor 12 and all the big shots were up on floor 17. No, you were right there; you saw what happened to manuscripts, you saw what happened to books, not all bad certainly, but you learn things that are, I think, surprising. They were surprising to me when I first learned them. Like how certain books are treated, or how books are treated, period. Manuscripts that come in, unbelievable, literally unbelievable. The things that are rejected, the hardly credible mistakes

BA: Well Grove was fairly notorious. I mean it’s had a reputation . .

GS: A nice house, though, in its way. A really nice house. They really were free-wheeling; they would take a shot at anything. But like all trade houses, they had no true focus. A good book, a bad book, a fake book — they all piled out.

BA: How long did you work for them?

GS: 5 years.

BA: From when to when?

GS: 1965 to 1970. As a matter of fact, I wrote the whole last chapter of Imaginative Qualities in Grove — in the office.

BA: In the office!

GS: Yeah. I was supposed to come in at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, and it was June, and I was just about finished with the book. I had made an arrangement with the managing editor to come in at 1 so that I could work on the book in the mornings. But came June and vacations began and he said, look, I really hate to do this to you but you better show up at 9, as usual, until the summer is over (I was going on vacation in the fall). There really won’t be anything to do, but the phones might ring, there aren’t enough people to cover everyday editorial things that may come up. There should be an editor here at all times because the other editors will be off on vacation. So I said okay. I came in at 9 and worked on my book from 9 to 1. I finished the book at Grove.

BA: That’s quite nice. And then Pantheon published it, not Grove.

GS: I didn’t even give it to Grove. It was my own sense of nicety: I didn’t want it to be published by Grove because I worked for Grove. I didn’t think it was right. You know, aha! He works for Grove and his book is published by Grove — how sweet! Not that it mattered a damn when the book arrived to deafening ovations.

BA: Yeah I see. Are you surprised at the response to your novel-in-progress; that is, I understand that parts are going to appear in the Partisan Review, the Tri-Quarterly, and the Chicago Review (which just came out).

GS: Astonished. Totally astonished.

BA: You’re astonished. What do you attribute their interest to?

GS: I have no idea.

BA: Can you figure it?

GS: No. I literally have no idea. Particularly Partisan Review.

BA: Are you pleased by this?

GS: Oh, delighted. It tickles me. It doesn’t matter that, you know, Partisan Review... Fifteen years ago I couldn’t pay them to take anything I wrote. It’s just a curious thing that’s happened. Perhaps glorious fame has found me in my 45th year.

BA: My last question would be: could you describe the structure of the novel you’re working on now? What is it? I’ve just read the section “Catechism.”

GS: It’s hard to describe. Certainly, it’s comic. Have you ever read a book called At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien?

BA: No, I don’t even know that at all.

GS: Well, Flann O’Brien in At Swim-Two-Birds deals, partially, with characters in a novel living their own lives outside the novel. I think the idea that came to me from reading At Swim-Two-Birds and that really delighted me is that Flann O’Brien makes it very clear in his book that a character can be used in more than one novel, as an employee.

BA: An employee of the author?

GS: Right. And then another author can take him over and use him. Well, that’s where I got the idea.

BA: You don’t take anything over from Flann O’Brien do you?

GS: Characters.

BA: You do take characters over.

GS: I’ve got characters from lots of writers in that novel. I tried it in Imaginative Qualities where I put Lolita in the book. That was before I read Flann O’Brien, oddly enough. What happens is I have a writer in my book who’s writing an avant-garde “intellectual” detective novel. A terrible book, I mean a really rotten book, but one that has its moments. This is an inept writer, an inept avant-garde writer. And his characters are so disgusted with the incredible dialogue he gives them to say and the adventures through which he puts them that they are tempted to leave the book, to run out on him. They live a totally different life when he’s not dealing with them than they live when he’s running them through their paces. The book poses, as you might guess, enormous problems, because I have to write a book in the book. And the book has to be a strange, odd, bad — yet not altogether bad book. It all has to be presented straight face.

BA: Is it a particularly lengthy book? [The book in question was Mulligan Stew.]

GS: Yeah, it’s going to run about 600-700 pages. It’s going to be vast. I’ve done about 450 pages already, in the almost 3 years I’ve been at it now. I’m more than half through but I’m not anywhere near the end. It’s open to anything. I can put in anything that I want to put in and somehow work it into the structure of the book as either a part of my writer’s life or a part of his novel or a part of his characters’ lives when they’re not being his characters. Plenty of room to do anything I want. If I want to change things around I can change them. Talking about synthesizing material: this is a project in which anything goes. I mean I can pull anything out of the air and find a place for it in the book. It’s a great deal of work to write this book but at the same time it’s a remarkable experience. I am pleasing myself.

BA: Do you read books to use them in the book? What would your reading be like now?

GS: I read everything. I’ve been reading Joyce, Finnegans Wake particularly, mostly because of the way Joyce uses lists and catalogs... and anything else. Letters, signs, advertisements, reviews.

BA: But in other words your reading now perhaps would be with an eye towards using it in the book?

GS: Lots of it. Lifted direct, parodied, twisted, used for cadence, and so on. I have a sheaf of poems in the book by a “lady poet” who writes liberating, erotic poems. Remarkable junk. I flatter myself that they are hilarious.

BA: Which you wrote?

GS: Which I wrote. The slightest disturbance in a sentence can make it comic. I like to do that. I have no idea when the work will be done, but as I said before, I’m absolutely amazed at the response that people are... Magazines that I’ve never heard from before are asking me for sections.

This essay first appeared in VORT (Gilbert Sorrentino/ Donald Phelps Issue), Vol.2, No 3, Fall 1974 (NY and Maryland, USA) — republished here with the kind permission of VORT editor Barry Alpert.

Barry Alpert was born in Philadelphia, and now lives precisely between Washington, DC, and Baltimore. In 1977, The Poet in the Imaginary Museum: Essays of Two Decades edited by Barry Alpert was published in Manchester, England, by Carcanet Press and in New York City by Persea Books. He edited the literary critical magazine Vort, which merited three grants from the NEA. His audiotaped “literary performances” have been widely published in the U.S. He has lectured or given literary performances at numerous museums and colleges of art. His interviews, essays, scholarly articles, poems, and reviews have appeared internationally in many periodicals. In 2001, his on-line text was exhibited at The 49th Venice Bienniale in Italy.

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