Sunday, March 16, 2008


Here's part two of my interview with Rob Woodard. I should also mention Rob is responsible for convincing me to read some of my poetry at certain places around Long Beach. So I thank him for that. And if you've heard my poetry, you can blame him for that.

J: You bring up Mike Watt in your writing. He definitely fits into that category.
R: He plays what he wants to play. Nobody told him he couldn’t combine Richard Hell with Funkadelic or the Sex Pistols and jazz. The first mistake people make in the arts is planning to make a living. If you’re really good and stick to your own path, you’ll make a better living than trying to make a living. That’s one of the reasons I got an anthropology degree – I wanted to learn. It’s a good field because it combines archeology, sociology and biology all under one package.

J: Have you incorporated that into your writing?
R: I haven’t so far, but it informs what I’m doing in my new novel. It’s set in the future and is very different than anything I’ve done. I’m creating a society – and it’s not our society – from all these things I learned about social structure, group behavior and all these things. But it’s not a formal thing. Nobody reading that will think they’re reading an anthropologist.

J: You’ve said you don’t write short stories because you’ve never gotten into them. Why?
R: I’ve never enjoyed reading them or writing them. I’m not sure why. Short stories all seem the same. There’s three ways to write them. They have the same rhythms, structures and they don’t interest me much. They’re confining and predicable. There are a few exceptions. I really like Hemmingway because he was a born short story writer, much better than a novelist. I like some of John Fante’s short stories. People treat it like practice and that’s part of the problem. It’s not treated as an art form in itself; it’s treated as a stepping stone to something bigger. People like Hemmingway proved you can say more in a short story than you can in a novel. It’s like going to a baseball game and watching the pitcher warm up. I suppose it’s interesting in a sense. But I must admit, because I never got into them, I haven’t read that many of them so I am more than willing to say I’m ignorant don’t know what I’m talking about.

J: You just started a blog. How do you think this new medium affects writers?
R: It’s a whole new genre within writing. I’m really enjoying mine and I’m still feeling it out. Mine’s really formal in places and it’s not what I want it to be yet. It’s a weird combination of diary, speech making and novel writing. It forces me to think about things like what if radio announcing was writing? It’s going out in the airwaves as you’re doing it. I don’t know where it’s going and that’s the interesting thing. I see books coming out of collections of blogs. It’ll be interesting to see how the printed word and blogs combine. I like the honesty and whether they say it or not, writers are always writing to be read. This brings that to a forefront.

J: I’ve heard you mention how you think today’s underground writing culture is perhaps influenced too heavily by Bukowski.
R: He freed language from the academics. The Beats started the process and his stuff was the death blow. Most academics don’t realize how incredibly irrelevant they are and how far behind the times they are. He changed everything. That doesn’t mean everything he wrote was great, but he opened up real language to come back, especially in poetry. A lot of people don’t understand was what he gave people was the license to do their own thing. But they thought it was an invitation to do his thing and they just keep copying him. In the long run, he’s revolutionized the English language. Eventually, the direct influence will start to fade. He’s only been dead for about a decade. He’s still very fresh and people are still discovering him. Right now, underground literature is buried in Bukowksi and it’s not helping anyone.

J: Tell me about writing poetry. For some writers, crossing the line from novelist to poet is looked down upon.
R: I don’t think writing poetry really helps you do anything. Artistically, it’s who you are. It used to be unusual to do both. Prose and novels used to be considered second tier. The serious people were poets. At some point those positions reversed. Most of us are trained as prose writers. Bukwoski did a lot of that by writing both and the fact that he was trained as a prose writer, he injected narrative back into poems. With narrative becoming important again in poetry, it makes it that much easier for a prose writer to write poetry or understand they can. It never occurred to me to limit myself to one. Knut Hamsun wrote everything. His poetry wasn’t very good, but he wrote it.

J: Is there a difference? Are you trying to say something different or is it just a different medium?
R: I think I am now. My poetry is changing rapidly. I’m trying to move away from narrative. Now it goes in more than one direction; it’s not straight storytelling style. Now that the narrative style brought me into poetry, I’m realizing there’s a lot more I can do with it. It’s taken me in directions that make me nervous. Am I leaving audiences behind? But you gotta do what you do. I can’t pretend I’m something I’m not. There’s a lot more symbolism, the imagery’s different. I’ve always had this fascination with painters. Part of me wishes I had become a painter instead of a writer. From the outside, it seems like there’s more freedom of expression. You can say many, many things at one time, whereas writing it’s much harder to do that. What they’re do with painting, I’m trying to do with poetry. I’m not sure how possible that is.

J: Kerouac tried to incorporate that idea into his poetry, but I’m still not sure how successful he was. He gets an A for effort., but…
R: My guess is that it would read a lot better in front of an audience than on paper. It sounds really pretentious, but everything happening in his poetry is already happening in his prose. It’s distilling and I don’t see any reason for that. His prose says all that. He wrote some really good poems, but if you took all of his best work and put it together, it would be a chapbook. Poetry went off the deep end and Kerouac’s attempt was to bring it back to real people and Bukowksi finished the job. People like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound…I have no idea who Pound was writing “The Cantos” for. I don’t know who can read that. Parts of it are fabulous, but most of it is unreadable and that’s what people think of when they think of poetry. They think of something they don’t understand, something they were forced to read in high school.

J: That’s how I felt about poetry until I read Bukowski. He showed me it doesn’t have to be stuffy.
R: I get really frustrated with Pound because his earlier stuff was so amazing. He took the biggest wrong turn in literary history. You shouldn’t have to take a seminar to have to understand a poem. A lot of poets aren't very good writers because they haven’t trained themselves to write. Especially poets that that’s all they do, write poetry. You can get away with that on the surface, but it shows in the long run. Prose writing teaches you respect for your audience because you have to write something they’re going to read. A lot of poets don’t respect their audience, they attack them. Their basic attitude is, “Look how much smarter I am than you. You should really want to be like me. Buy my book please.” I don’t want to talk to that poet.

J: When will your book of poetry be out?
R: I’m hoping next summer. But there’s nothing set in stone. “King of Long Beach” will be crowned whenever it happens. People keep thinking that title is very arrogant, but it’s actually really self-depreciating.


((Ray)) said...

Really interesting thoughts on Bukowski's influence, and the nonsense of academia in poetry.

Overall I think its a good influence (Bukowski, not academia), but unfortunately there will always be artists in any medium who find it easier to emulate their heroes than find the courage to do their own thing.

Speaking in real language is the essence of American literature, from Mark Twain to the Beats to Selby and definitely culminating in Bukowski.

I wanna go read Women.

But hopefully I won't write something too similar afterwards

Jim Hall said...

agreed. we should all be inspired by the greats, not try to rip them off.