A hypothetical encounter between poets Philip Lamantia and Bob Kaufman on a San Francisco street corner. Since both lived in the same North Beach neighborhood, loitered in the same cafes, and more than likely knew each other, this depicted encounter may actually have far-fetchedly occurred.
K. is shifting from one foot to the other. He directs his utterances toward the cars stopped at the street light, spontaneously calling out the phrases. These poetic utterances flow from his mouth in bebop cadence; his eyes burn incandescently as he gesticulates his surfacing raw visions with both hands. K. this morning has methedrine in his veins, and a jazz god lodged deep within his psyche.
L. stops at the street corner where K. is engaged in his trance acts, pulling hard on a newly lit cigarette. He has just come from mass at the Catholic church, the one on the north side of the square with the two gothic spires. He has not slept for two days, the manic episodes continuing to torment his hours. L. nods over at K. They are familiar with each other from the readings and café episodes. He stands watching K. syncopate the jazz motions into the word flow, directing fluid utterances toward panicked-looking occupants in idling cars waiting for the light to go green.
K., intensely vocal this morning, indicates that his head is a bony guitar, strung by tongues and plucked by nails and fingers. All his ships that never sailed, he says, he will bring them back, yes, in a huge and transitory way, so that they may yet sail on, freely. K. looks over at L. and says that he has circumnavigated the globe nine times; and yet now, his only living ambition is to be forgotten. This gift of spontaneous bebop is for all the others to transcribe; all he wants is for this fine sweet San Francisco day to be free of this all incessantly violent city noise.
The light now changes, the cars move forward. L. inhales the smoke deeply, remarking to K. that it was his own road that reopened in ‘67 by way of an unambiguous reinvention. It was then that he realized that the crime of poetry was the highest achievement of outlaw language, the one that surrealistic praxis aims to restore, even to the point of canceling out these pompous monstrosities like Ezra Pound and his ilk.
K. keeps shifting his feet while L. speaks, gesticulating at the passing cars. He interrupts, and wants L. to know that he is the one who is fiercely indifferent to the fame of poets; it is only the poetry itself that matters. Poetry’s sound-sheared breasts make his eyes laugh, always round about the midnight hour. Love itself is the only thing that can be philosophically divided by anatomical seductions. And yes, Jazz has this uncanny umbilical memory buried deep within our musical tears.
The light changes back to red. A new queue of wide-eyed tourists gawk at the two poets from behind these car windows with out-of-state plates on the bumpers. L. is staring intently at the bright morning sky over the Bay; he does a hard inhale on the non-filtered Camel. He wants K. to know that certainly, poetry is the incense of the dream, a garden of imperious images, and the blood of creative ignition. The poet wears the mantle of metaphoric light, wandering through the madrone forests, traversing the bridge between sleep and waking, dreaming of a labyrinth winding down through terraces, always desiring the free movement of words and their signatures, within a process magnetized by the resources of the arbitrary, yet intrepidly walking on towards a negative summit of oneiric exhaltation.
K.’s head is impatiently nodding Yes Yes. He looks into L.’s melancholy eyes and says, Like you Philip, I too have these autodidactic inclinations. As a sailor, I have sailed on all the seas, where I learned the poems of Lorca by heart during the solitary nights crowded with acute loneliness. As my reward for reciting poetry in various public places, the police have arrested me many times. I have been electro-shocked and beaten unconscious. After a long decade, I have ended my vow of silence so that my spontaneous verses might again underscore these oral dynamics against this ruined age. All I have left is the desire to celebrate word music. And so, I stand out here on this street corner and speak the poems.
A horn blares, the light returns to green. The panicked faces move on in their conveyances through the intersection.
L. lights a fresh cigarette from the one burning his fingers. His stare returns to the moving sky as he relates to K. that, yes, it would be true he has never really gotten the hang of living, even by moving through the daily horrors of an attempted life, even bulwarked by bona fide resolve. He still dreams of a living emancipation that will yet kindle some kind of preserving fire.
L. indicates that he wants to embody a ruthless intoxication by embracing those inclusive realities which lie beyond all categories, this while he watches the marvelously dark sun exhale its fiery water, hoping to magnetize the arbitrary resources of the Illimitable Void, the one that Breton exalted as the lever of poetic vitality, the one we need to use toward all further transmissions of automatic praxis, that is, toward surreal becomings.
Lowering his eyes, L. sees that K. has turned again towards the cars, and has been oblivious to his soliloquy. K. has resumed speaking to the space of the intersection, the improv verses ringing out against the philistines. He is insisting that the comic book middle class has an abandoned hangover, even as the brief storms that fuel his own sorrows will continue to be disemboweled by a distant world, and certainly yes, he is now forever wishing for his soul to be revisited by the introspective echoes of his once familiar encounters. And then, for all of this strange existence to be, yes, finally forgotten …
Q – In your stylistics at least, you have been compared with various writers such as Beckett and Pynchon. Would this possibly represent an opinionated distortion of your work?
A – The assumption here is one of tenuous identification, one that I assume also involves the particulars of some author’s life mixed in with those of the characters depicted upon the created pages. This would be folly. Sheer folly.
Q – But aren’t the technical maneuvers you use, for instance in your book Pellucid Inferno, such as the shifting points of view in the same paragraph, intended to come across as meaningfully effective? I’m thinking here somewhat like the function of a heat sink in the process of thermal death.
A – Well, that analogy would probably be a real stretch. Yet, one is sometimes forced to make concessions towards what we call progress. Far be it from me to know the quiddity of these matters.
Q – Your style is complicated, convoluted, some would say even opaque. Would this be a residue of the surrealist influences you have alluded to in previous interviews?
A – Yes. It is all about working with fragments, the very increments of consciousness. To juxtapose the quotidian alongside the ineluctable – yes, this would be the means to my end.
Q – In The New Yorker interview several years back, you indicated you thought writing is a process which cannot necessarily be taught through classes and workshops. And yet here you are today, teaching a graduate workshop. Is this mixed message a deliberate obfuscation, or is it just off-the-shelf cognitive dissonance?
A – Both of these, and more. In the everyday sphere, one’s personal beliefs don’t necessarily dovetail with the grim work of earning the daily bread and butter; one certainly must make concessions in the garnering of food and shelter. And of course, the current feelings are ones of ambivalence. So this topic might have to be left to the biographers. That is, if there will be any.
Q – Some of your detractors, if we might indirectly refer to them, have judged that your stories are merely mélange. In other words, more bling than bite.
A – We’re all born clueless. It’s a darn shame that some insist on remaining that way.
Q – What would be some of the triggers that initiate your writing process?
A – Oh, I suppose dumpster diving through the debris of porous memory. And the multitude of surprises that surface when researching the implausible. Random snippets of overheard conversations also factor in. The subculture obliquities encountered while I desultorily roam the forsaken streets. The unexpected whatnot one needs to continuously sidestep daily. Etc.
Q – Do you share in this notion that artists and writers should convey feasible truths in their work?
A – Excuse me, did you say feasible?
Q – In the sense of social responsibility.
A – [a long pause, followed by a gesture of shrugged helplessness involving the palms]
Q – Alright, what would it be that drives your use of the imagination in fiction? What gives you the impetus to create these texts?
A – You mean, aside from some unbounded stupidity? Oh I reckon it has something to do with catharsis. You know, like a mental bowel movement. Frankly, I don’t see much in the way of impetus or having a “point” to this writing business. I mean, is the world really any better off as it fills up with this stuff? I actually garner more satisfaction with helping out the neighbors doing their monthly run to the dump. Or perhaps slapping a little paint on a wall.
Q – Your usage of hyperbole has been called ridiculous and juvenile. What’s really going on here with this technique?
A – Well, aside from walking around nude in public, I can’t think of a more effective way of capturing people’s limited attentions. Which is no small task these days, what with the ubiquity of all these digital devices and their attached distractions.
Q – Is there any pleasure in the writing process for you? Any satisfaction in what is created?
A – You know, I would rather clean the latrines of hell before I ever deliberately decided “to become” a writer. For myself, and I speak in the singular only, it seems to be my fate to do this, as opposed to other pursuits, many of which I have tried and spectacularly failed at. Any personal say-so in the matter seems to have been overruled by unknown agencies. Most days, this sitting in front of the blank pages, well, it just feels torturous, this making of texts and such. But I suppose that’s why I’m condemned to this process, being the lifelong masochist that the Catholic indoctrination so deeply ingrained in me.
Q – How do you know when a book is finished?
A – You don’t. Even with using all your instincts you don’t. When you have become completely sick of working the damn thing over and over, it mysteriously just gets launched one day, and there you are, crossing your fingers that it was all not in vain. Valery’s comment that a poem is never finished, only abandoned, would also apply here.
Q – Literary influences – who and why?
A – Oh, all the big guys, with many unknowns and forgotten souls thrown in. Once I devoured tons of literary stuff, but that was years ago. Now I’m down to reading almanacs and dictionaries, which keeps me out of the bars at night.
Q – Your particular style, which features a cynical black humor, has been characterized as rambunctious, vulnerable, volatile, vehement, and anything but subtle.
A – Sure, sure. Just throw it all into the blender and hit the Frappe button.
Q – And yet, there seems to be a vague evolution to your stylistics. Yes?
A – Maybe. Perhaps in the schizophrenic sense that underlies any effective satire. Perhaps also in the sense that style can become a defensive mechanism against the ubiquitous stupidities of the literal. I really don’t know … I’m just throwing stuff out here.
Q – Well, what about the God question. You allude in several of your stories, such as An Impossible Life and The Patina of Neglect, to our existential status, our place in the cosmos, that this is no accident. That there is some purpose-driven design behind all this quotidian mess.
A – I think it was Santayana who said something to the effect about our existence, that you can either live in despair, or you can live drunk. Those are the only two choices. Having tried both, I think the third option would be to proceed intrepidly, in stoic fashion, and keep smiling. Of course, that presupposes having faith in the event horizon of an apriori consciousness. More bluntly, yes, this mess is not just a random piece of cosmic excrement on the part of a constipated deity. For my part, I do see the act of making books as a resolute praxis of defying nothingness.
Q – These improbable situations you depict certainly are philosophically prone scenarios; ones regarding the meaning of values, and the unusually fresh usage of language. But then the dark humor kicks in, and is used to balance the weightiness of dilemmas faced by the various characters.
A – Ultimately, after everything gets expressed, it finally comes down to just mustering a cogent silence [shrugs again helplessly]. I think Beckett was mostly right on this one.