IT MURDERS YOUR HEART - AN INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD HELL
"The idea that the author isn't the real author of his works, but is only the instrument of his works, is a commonplace. It's usually a muse or the collective unconscious. I latched onto that concept and started to write a song about it. The notion being that we only know anything about what we do in retrospect -- we never know about it at the time. In fact, one isn't the actual author. It's the flow of time through oneself that makes up everything that one does. No one knows who they are. Only time knows who you are. But I do believe that there is a husk that time whistles through. And that husk is whatever is left outside your works. And by works I mean all your outward manifestations. Those things are made by time."
Richard Marshall Interviews Richard Hell
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RH:Who am I? The new CD set is called Time. It's called Time because one of the songs is called "Time". It's a song that I wrote in the late seventies and I spend half the CD booklet doing my own analysis of that song as if I were a literary critic except that I have the advantage that I also wrote the song I'm analyzing. I've always liked the idea of writers giving the inside story of their work. Like aesthetic gossip. When I was editing a little magazine in the eighties -- called cuz -- in every issue I'd have a poet write about a poem of his or hers that was in the issue, a description of how that poem came to be. So I like that kind of thing. It doesn't change your ideas of what you wrote in the first place, but I think it's interesting data.
When I knew this CD was coming out I posted on my website a request for any advice and suggestions for what to put in the booklet. Probably the most frequent suggestion was that I write about the material. So that song "Time" was one of only two songs that I'd written that were triggered by books that I'd read. Actually, that was something I hadn't realised until I started writing about it. That song was written because I was reading Borges's poems. In 1978. he'd written a poem about Heninrich Heine in which he said a few things about time that made me start thinking. He was describing Heine near death -- as Heine was for most of his life -- having gotten used to the notion that he's dying, thinking about his own poems, and realising that he wasn't the author of them. They were written by time.
Of course, the idea that the author isn't the real author of his works but is only the instrument of his works is a commonplace. It's usually a muse or the collective unconscious. I'm paraphrasing what I wrote. I latched onto that concept and started to write a song about it. The notion being that we only know anything about what we do in retrospect -- we never know about it at the time. In fact, one isn't the actual author. It's the flow of time through oneself that makes up everything that one does. No one knows who they are. Only time knows who you are. But I do believe that there is a husk that time whistles through. And that husk is whatever is left outside your works. And by works I mean all your outward manifestations. Those things are made by time. But it is time playing on something. But that something is very mysterious. It has some kind of existence but I have to think carefully about what it is. I'll have to get back to you on this one!
3AM: Who are you? You thought that was a dumb question didn't you?
RH:You're right, man. But it was a cool question. And then look where the three espressos went with it! Who am I? Oily caffeine!
3AM: You're a writer now?
RH: Pretty much just a writer now yes. I just burned out on music. In the early 80's. I played music for about ten years. First time I picked up an instrument and wrote a song was 1974. Pretty much it ended in 1984. I'd had enough. I had exhausted it and it had exhausted me. I didn't know what I was going to do instead. Writing and reading were always present. But I had to make a living. I was going to have to start from square one. I didn't have any foundation as a professional writer. So I didn't know what I was going to do to replace the music which had been my livelihood. I thought I'd try acting. I'd been in a couple of movies. I thought I had a toehold, but I figured out pretty quickly that I was too inhibited to really be an actor.
To be an actor you've got to be able to physically reveal yourself. It's a funny thing about actors, good actors. They succeed on their charisma, their "coolness," but the charisma actually comes from their willingness to do very unattractive, embarrassing things. . . . You like actors because you identify with them. Stars anyway. That's a lot of what makes them successful. People who go see them like to imagine themselves as the person they're watching. That might seem vulgar, and maybe the greatest acting transcends that, but even in the greatest acting it's there. It's a strange paradox that they've got to be glamorous and appealing for the audience to identify with them, but at the same time they've got to be willing to turn themselves inside out in a way that most people would find excruciatingly embarrassing and uncool to experience or do in public. I've had too much coffee!
It's not the same as the stuff I was doing as a music performer. In music the range of demands on the performer is much smaller, much more narrow. You've got to do your best to express what's inside in a certain way, but you write the script -- the material -- so it's within the limits you set. I took an acting course and I broke my hand in it hitting a wall because I got so frustrated with the experience in class. I found it very hard to come out of my shell, and I also found that most of what was revealed was gigantic anger. Better to leave it be.
I was still picking up an odd royalty here and there, but I would take a job to pay the rent writing a story for a magazine. There was a lot appealing about journalism if you didn't have to rely on it. You could just dream up something you'd like to do and some experience you'd like to have, and then persuade a newspaper editor to pay you to go and have that experience. And then write about it. That's pretty appealing. Such as in 1986 we did that story about going down the Mississippi.
So I started realising that I'd like to try a novel. I'd been writing for these magazines, writing poems all along, my notebooks. Do you know Artifact, my collection of notebooks from the '70s? In that little Hanuman series? Did you ever see them, the Hanuman Books series? They were a set of uniform-format books, really small, pocket-sized, edited by the artist Francesco Clemente and Raymond Foye who's an editor and archivist and art writer. They derived the books' format from Indian (subcontinent) sayings-of-sages type collections. I've seen some of the originals. They're the format for carrying in your pocket the sayings of holy men. Hanuman used the same printers who did those in India. The press is called after the name of the Hindu monkey God -- Hanuman. Little books by painters, some by poets, there were ones by Corso, Ginsberg, John Ashbery, then by Willem de Kooning, by Max Beckman, Picabia, a lot of painters and poets. I had a book in that series of my notebooks. Anyway I had done that and written songs, and I thought that I'd like to tackle a large-scale thing which would use everything that I'd learned and tried in these various forms of writing. So I started writing Go Now in '92-93. It took two years writing that. I really fulfilled my wish by doing that. I see this as a way of life.
3AM: Great book. There's a section where the character identifies with a killer and it broods all the way through. It has a meditative flavour that runs all the way through. It keeps on going and maintains that.
RH: It's all how this one guy perceives things. Though of course there's a fair amount of incident too, and a couple of thousand miles of driving . . . And that was the challenge of it really. Not to let it get too tedious. There's a danger of it becoming a yawn of this guy talking to himself. The trick of the writing is to bring it back to earth before the reader loses patience!
3AM: The book he's trying to write in that book seems close to what you have actually produced in Hot And Cold -- an alien form of life!
RH:Oh, hey, I remember you writing about that! It's actually . . . an alien form of life!
3AM: In Hot and Cold there are drawings.
RH: I did a drawing for Flaunt -- one of these magazines that is all production values and no content. It's how flashy it is page by page by design. Every cover is die cut with two or three layers going on and it's on the finest paper. It's one of those kinds of mags. And they wanted me to do a drawing. Someone has just asked me to do a t-shirt. I always like doing it, and I've always done it. When I thought of something. Every time I've done something visual, a graphic thing, it's been something that I was inspired to do. I've never been systematic about it. It'd be interesting to be systematic sometime. I don't know if I'll get around to it.
I designed Hot and Cold, everything but the covers. I would have done those differently. They kind of took the ideas for the covers from this previous edition that was like a tiny sliver of Hot and Cold, about thirty pages long, that I did in 1998, but they took over on the cover. But I did all the typography, the layout of the pages, the line spacing. I always like to do this. I did the posters for my bands. I've always liked doing this.
It's funny. The British press have been so discreet compared to the American press about the drawings of those genitals and the picture of myself and all that graphic sexual stuff. It's never come up once here in Britain. In America it was always the first thing they talked about. I was really amazed. I wonder why? The British are famously repressed. But I would think Americans are more so. I don't know. What do you think? It's really conspicuous. It would always come up in America. Here in Britain, never. You're the first person in Britain to mention the drawings! And even you didn't say anything about the subject matter, about what was in them, the content! So maybe it's just American me and the sexual content is unremarkable to British you.
3AM: Well, I assumed you'd know! What about influences on your writing?
RH: I like so many writers. If I'm going to talk about prose stylists, then the ones that come to mind are so good all you can do is aspire -- Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Denton Welch -- I'm told there's a new biography of him out but no one in the stores can find it for me on their computers. Some I read when older but I don't think you have to be young to be influenced, to assimilate ideas of good and interesting things to do in writing. Dennis Cooper. I interviewed him once for my literary magazine. He came and introduced himself to me in the early eighties.
I live in this building with a lot of poets. Allen Ginsberg lived there. Larry Fagin who edited an excellent magazine of poetry in New York in the sixties called Adventures in Poetry, John Godfrey who is a really great poet lives there, Rene Ricard lived there for a time -- he almost burned it down! -- other writers too. Simon Pettit. Luc Sante lived there in the '70s. Anyway, Dennis was in the building and he came and rang my doorbell. His poems were amazing. And I liked him when I saw he'd called a poem after "Blank Generation". I love seeing my name in other people's poems. I understand patrons. If I were a little richer, I'd offer a few poets $500 to slip my name into a poem of theirs. Yeah, Cooper's the kind of guy you have to avoid, you don't want to read him while you're writing because he's contagious! It's so effective but it's so specific it would be hard to take from it without being blatantly derivative.
The New York poets, mainly second generation, you know, Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, they had a big effect on me, although not on my fiction but definitely in my poetry. I'm not writing much poetry, not since I wrote music. The urge to write poems was channelled into song lyrics and now it gets channelled into fiction. I might write four or five poems a year maybe. I have a vague hope that one day I would like to get to write one a week or one a day. Sometime I would like to force myself to write one rather than wait for the inspiration. At the moment I don't do it as a discipline.
In New York there's an annual event, a New Year's marathon poetry reading, and I like to have something new to read for that. So that usually leads me to write something that week. And I always like the way it comes out. So I can see that it's possible to do it as an act of discipline. I hope one day I can do that more. For years it's been a trickle. It's not more difficult to write poetry than song lyrics but there's something I saw when I was working on Hot and Cold, the song lyrics, and it was that they were very elaborate. They're full of all sorts of devices, alliteration and various kinds of rhymes -- complex rhyme schemes, different in almost every song -- really over the top like I just set myself patterns to match in every verse. And a whole lot of other complex use of words -- puns, all sorts of double meanings, really elaborate. Constructions. They're not the usual pop music lyrics. Most of pop music lyrics are reeled off -- 99% of them, even the best, are reeled off -- but mine are like clockwork. Really intricate if you take a look at them. I like doing that. I like trying to be as sophisticated as possible with the lyrics. . . . They work on just the level as being eruptions of fury and energy and emotion but secretly have all this depth woven into them. I wanted those things not to interfere with them. . . . They're very different from the way I wrote the poems. They are so patterned. I always rhymed, I always had verses and choruses and verses with exactly the same pattern and so on, the same rhyme schemes and so on whereas the poems were much looser. They were much more going on nerve -- as Frank O'Hara put it -- so the songs were definitely as challenging as the poems to write. The elaborate constructions took some time but I could, when in the mood, take ten minutes to do the verse, but I always set myself high standards. I never took two years!
3AM: So what's next?
RH: I'm working on a new novel. I like the way it's going. Once this trip to Europe is over it's my top priority. I even have agreed with my agent to see if we could make a deal on the basis of what I've done which isn't what I like to do because you're in a better bargaining position when you've finished, and you don't have anybody looking over your shoulder. But I need to get myself time where everything else comes second. I've been having to work on Hot and Cold. I don't have a regular income, so I have to make it as I go along. I don't know how I did that first novel. But I need time to concentrate on this new one. Maybe my standards have gone up. The first thing every day is I work on this new book.
It's going to be really different from Go Now. It's not in the first person -- well, it is in part, but it's complicated. It's primarily about young poets in the late 1960s, early '70s. But that part of the book is a book within the book because it's being written -- in the third person -- by an older guy who's writing it now, in the present, and you also hear some things in his voice, first person. He's in a hospital writing this book about the young poets -- he'd been one of them himself all those years before. Most of the story is about the seventies, and in the 3rd person, but every once in a while the person in the present interrupts from the hospital. That's the book. Then I'm writing poems to be the poems of the writers in the book too. It's fun but it's a challenge.
3AM: You enjoy taking on challenges like this. Pushing the boundaries of your creativity and thinking?
RH: Well, I don't want to do the same thing twice, it's kind of pathological. And I have this problematic impulse that makes me want to try doing anything that I get excited seeing being done well by someone else. If I like a movie, it makes me want to make a movie. If I like a painting, it makes me want to do a painting and that works on every scale. It's dangerous because you fear that you're just a dilettante. Dabbling. But then, I don't care. If I'm wanting to do it, then I'll just do it and not worry about that. I get excited by people who have been good in many realms like Borges or Susan Sontag or Nabokov. People like that give me heart. But then you get scared by someone like Cocteau who gave off the vibe of being the dilettante. But even Cocteau, when looked at without prejudice, made movies as good as any film maker. You can't dismiss him. So I just go with it.
3AM: Do you worry about the general state of art and culture? Is that something you think about at all?
RH: I don't have any particular take really. It's hard to see stuff in context. I'm so wrapped up in what I'm doing I don't know. I sure don't have difficulty in going out and finding stuff that excites me. There's a lot of film makers and writers, music makers, whom I think are interesting. I have absolutely no nostalgia for the past, for punk, for any of that.