3AM: Your new book, Godlike, is subtitled "A Novel" which smacks of playful provocation as you keep playing around with its generic identity. It is presented as the "Hospital Notebooks of Paul Vaughn", but this first-person narrative, supposedly written in 1997, is interspersed with Vaughn's third-person "memoir-novelette of R.T. Wode" set in the early 70s. Paul Vaughn -- a very unreliable narrator ("I don't have the best memory in the world," p 10; "My memory's not the best, and I don't trust memory anyway," p 23) who is on one of his regular spells in the psychiatric ward of a hospital ("I may be in the loony bin but I am not an unreliable narrator"! p 90) -- explains that he initially planned to write about R.T. Wode "in the form of a novel" but finally heeded his editor's advice to include all the disparate elements found in the notebooks ("letters, diaries, poems, even an essay," p 10) thus creating a bric-à-brac effect which, incidentally, is reminiscent of your 2001 book, Hot and Cold. Did you start out, like your narrator, trying to write a book in the form of a traditional novel, or did you have this more complex, metafictional format in mind right from the start?
RH: I knew the basic structure and form from the beginning. Or nearly the beginning. I wanted to write a novel about young poets in New York in the early '70s. I knew that'd mean including poems in the book. I didn't have a particular plot though. Then I thought of a famous pre-existing story of poets I could use as the basis for it. I started writing that, and then almost immediately realized I wanted another layer. Because I wanted the book to treat something else that was on my mind, namely what it's like to outlive your youth, to become middle aged. That led me to the idea of this book being a mixture, a book within a book, where you get the third-person story of R.T. and Paul in the '70s, but also in the context of Paul in the late 90s, when he's over 50 and just sort of rambling around, and talking about what's on his mind. And then a lot of other themes and ideas to keep myself interested, other ways of writing. But it is a novel, there's no "provocation" there. What else would it be but a novel? People call Don Quixote the very first novel, and it contains a more mindbending mixing of "reality" and "fiction" than I do in this, five centuries later. Look at Ulysses or Pale Fire for "form mixing". And those are relatively conventional by now. That's a lot of what's cool about novels -- they're beyond elastic.
Also, I'd maintain that Paul Vaughn is not unreliable as a narrator. I'm not being coy there. I'd say that he's exceptionally reliable. People are always publishing "nonfiction" that is full of lies and distortions and errors. Half the stuff written about me for instance is flat, demonstrably wrong. Most writers are incredibly irresponsible that way. Paul Vaughn is not. That's why he calls his memoir of R.T. Wode a novel, because he knows that the only existing record of most of it is his memory and he's honest enough not to present his memories of twenty-five years ago as flat fact. Also he wants to be able to write scenes that he can only surmise from things he's been told, things that happened when he wasn't present, so he writes it as a novel. But as he says in the book, all the past is a book or a movie, something recounted and formed by the teller, which is nothing like a perfect reconstruction of what "actually" happened.
3AM: Paul Vaughn/R.T. Wode are like an inverted Theresa Stern -- the female character you invented by imposing your likeness on Tom Verlaine's in the early 70s. Instead of creating a character by juxtaposing two people, here you have created two characters out of one: yourself, then and now. Would you agree with this?
RH: Well that's pretty sharp, but not exactly correct. It's not "then" and "now". But I guess I'm going with certain personal tendencies. Which is pretty natural, right? My wife said the same thing: both the characters are you. Though I did write something on the lines you're saying once, in a song of mine called "Destiny Street" which is about a guy in his early thirties meeting himself as he was ten years earlier. He takes that version of himself home and seduces him! I think it's also a useful way of interpreting dreams. If you want to learn something from a dream, you have to work on the assumption that everybody in the dream is you. It's all internal, you're battling things out inside yourself. Your immediate first guess about the significance of the dream in this light is usually "correct" and interesting and helpful. In the book everybody is really you. How can it be otherwise? It's all mixed up with the concept of all writing is translation. You're limited to your own faculties and experiences.
3AM: If you bumped into the mid '70s Hell, would you like the guy? Would you try to seduce him?
RH: Ha ha! You never know what would happen next. Don't want to rule anything out. It's true that if I were going to have sex with a man I think I'd want it to be myself. But I've often had some kind of encounter with a trace of my mid '70s self and been really repulsed. On recorded interviews, I can hear myself slurring with narcotics in my system. I just seem pathetic and maddening. Mostly, I don't like that world, the world I inhabited then. I got out of it because I didn't like it. There was about eighteen months that were kind of ecstatic, but then it turned into the whole pop music thing, and being a public figure in that way, no matter what scale, where you're expected to stay current, and somehow speak for your constituency as some kind of representative of youth... And it's really competitive, everyone is always chewing each other up, and I found it hard to take. It had me turned around a lot. I'm just not interested in that. I don't go to any clubs. I basically think I wouldn't be interested in the mid '70s me. Punk is all water under the bridge. Frankly the only meaning of that to me is exploiting it. It's something people are excited by so I can take advantage of that in certain ways to make it possible for me to do the things that interest me now. Which I don't mean to be saying is cheesy or sleazy -- I was there, I earned it, I did what I did, and god knows the payoff whatever it is is smaller than what a half-competent sleazebag "Christian" evangelist gets or even an average insurance salesman.
3AM: In spite of what you say about your former self, the past seems to be a major preoccupation for you right now with the novel set in the early 70s, a CD anthology (Spurts: The Richard Hell Story) and your forthcoming autobiography. Why now? Is this the end of a stage in your career?
RH: The CD is consciously an effort to close the book, and dispose of unfinished business and stamp a finish. I've wanted to do the CD for some time, but had to acquire rights that were complicated and time-consuming to get. I wanted to do it because none of my existing CDs satisfied me. Now I have no regrets, and can put it all behind me. I proposed to Warner Bros that they should present it as my "only" recording. They didn't want to be that final, but we made it pretty clear. As for the novel, it takes place in the late 1990's as much of the time as the early '70s. Though, granted, it is partly about the self-assessment and mortality-consciousness that comes with hitting middle age. There is no forthcoming autobiography. I have a little inclination to tell some stories directly from my life as a pretext for my next book, but I'm not sure whether I'll really carry that through or not.
3AM: Are you still writing songs?
RH: Not really. Once in a while, somebody commissions something on terms I can take. It's a shame in a way because I like making records, but I left the music business because I'm not really cut out for it. You have to rehearse with a band, deal with record companies. All the elaborate business around making records. You are required to go out on tour in support of them. There's a lot more required of you than writing songs and recording them. Not to mention finding a way to sound a way you can stand when you're not a natural-born singer. As an author, I just sit down and write.
3AM: Paul's point of view is that "all poetry is translation" (p 84), because each reader apprehends a poem in a personal way. But then he takes this idea one step further when he argues that translated poetry is more poetic because it is the most allusive (and therefore, from a Parnassian point of view, the most poetic) of all: it alludes to the original ("What does a translation do but allude? . . . In the future, all poetry will be translation," p 87). The idea is repeated again later on ("All poetry is translation!" p 122), but this time as an injunction to write your own poetry. This idea that translated poetry is more poetic than the original is fascinating, but could perhaps be reinterpreted in the light of the title: Godlike. Paul refers to the Parnassians (the original "godlike philosopher poets," p 101) who transformed art into a religion, as well as to Mallarmé in whose poetry the subversive dislocation of the signifier and the signified begins (in a nutshell: God creates and then names what He has created; if the signifier is arbitrary then there is no God). Maybe "all poetry is translation" because humans are incapable of genuine creation: we can simply translate what is already there -- or destroy it (self-destruction being another Rimbaldian legacy).
RH: There's a chapter in the book, which is an essay by one of the characters, Paul, and it proposes that translations are more interesting than "original" writing and that in the future all poetry will be translation. Now, that is a kind of provocation, although he does make a case for it, and I could make a case for it too, and I kinda like the idea. It's food for thought. It's not as if it's meant in any more dogmatic way than that -- though your interpretation, or extension of the idea, that only God creates, human beings translate, is really cool. Maybe I'll use that in the second edition… That essay in the book refers a lot to Mallarmé, a poet who is notorious for being untranslatable. The essay was stimulated by doing some translation myself, that was meant for the book. I was trying to translate from the French and... I don't speak French. So, I would use French dictionaries and look at other translations, and do my best to make my idea of a good poem using all the info I could gather. I felt a little bit daunted: can this possibly be legitimate? It was interesting and fulfilling, but it still seemed a little shady. Then it occurred to me that when two people read a given poem that is in their own language, they're reading two different poems: They're translating it into their own personal spheres, with their own connotations. Reading it in itself is an act of translation. And furthermore, nothing written is original anyway -- everything is just shifts in emphases. I don't make any great claims for this idea. Doubtless it's been proposed and destroyed in academia forever. I just went with it in my own way and took it places.
3AM: The central relationship is clearly reminiscent of Verlaine (Paul Vaughn) and Arthur (R.T.) Rimbaud: Vaughn's spurned wife, the reference to "true life" being "elsewhere" (p 124), R.T.'s precocious brilliance, his disappearance and rejection of writing, the shooting episode... It seems that all your life has been lived under the sign of Rimbaud. Were the New York School poets (whom you once described as the "ultimate bohemians") also influenced by Rimbaud?
RH: I appreciate Rimbaud. But there are other people even within his own vicinity who have had a greater effect on me: Lautréamont and Baudelaire, if we're talking 19th-century French poets. Rimbaud isn't a strong influence; Ted Berrigan is a greater influence. There is a correspondence between Paul and RT in my book and Verlaine and Rimbaud. That's one of the patterns in the book. There are a lot of little patterns in the book, and that's definitely the biggest-scale of them. It's true though, that the longer I live the more I love Rimbaud and it's possible he has come to mean more to me than those others, though they meant more to me when I was most susceptible. I avoided him when I was a kid because I was a snob I guess and everybody wanted to claim Rimbaud. Most of the New York School poets were more influenced by Apollinaire and his French contemporary crowd (Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy), and then Raymond Roussel and others who were influences on the Oulipians. Ted Berrigan did a great very free translation of "Drunken Boat" that Joe Brainard drew as a book though, and Kenneth Koch did a great translation of "The Poet at Seven". The New York poets were sure conscious of Rimbaud.
3AM: Godlike is clearly a roman à clef, but to what extent can you recognise real-life people? There's obviously a lot of you in both characters (Paul's hero is Robert Bresson, he is a survivor; R.T. hails from Kentucky, doesn't like "the 'love and peace' shit"; there's the Lower East Side milieu, the numerous cinematographic references...). Is there some Paul Verlaine in there too? And what about the minor characters? Is Ted based on Ted Berrigan? Did Tom Bennett really exist? What about the homemade poetry magazines: um and Space Pee?
RH: In a way, it's a historical novel, but it is not a roman à clef -- I didn't use real people as models any more than the majority of novelists do in the majority of their novels, with the exception of the way I freely riffed on the relationship of Rimbaud and Verlaine, and even that is no closer to their real lives, I'd estimate, than the protagonists of typical novels are to the real people (composites usually) in a "typical" novel. I did call Ted "Ted" because I saw Berrigan in my head but that was completely subordinate to whatever I felt like writing about the character -- in no way was I trying to portray Berrigan. I just used my conception of him as a point of departure.
3AM: A few years ago, you told Matt Thorne (The Independent on Sunday 14 April 2002) that "the original DIY ethic" came from the "underground writers" of the early '70s, and announced your intention to give these "anti-academic street poets . . . the level of glamour and respect" that they deserve. I was therefore quite taken aback by the relatively small number of topical references in Godlike. There's a couple of poetry readings. The clothes, the drugs, music and youth culture ("Youth ruled in those days," p 37) are briefly described or alluded to, but most of the book focuses on the relationship between the two protagonists who are outsiders within bohemian circles. Why this choice?
RH: I do think the book is an homage to poetry as a way of life, which was my first motivation. I did a fair amount of research about what was actually going on in the New York poetry worlds back then. And I was writing and publishing poetry in New York myself in that period, when I was a teenager and in my earliest twenties. But I was not part of any circle of mutually-supportive poets, I was separate, though I was inspired by poets like Berrigan and Padgett who were centered around the St. Mark's Church Poetry Project, and I knew a few of them a little. But anyway, I ultimately decided against trying to spend a lot of time and effort evoking that crowd and world which I didn't really know first hand, but to write what I did.
3AM: You include many poems in the novel -- some by real-life poets and others which you attribute to your characters. How difficult was it composing those poems? (I imagine that some must be instances of pastiche.) Had you composed any of them before writing the novel?
RH: Yeah, at one point I thought I'd use enough real-life pre-existing poems by real-life poets from the time that it'd be a tiny anthology within the book, but it didn't work out that way. Yeah, so apart from those five or six incidental poems by outside real-life poets that show up in the book because the book's characters are thinking about them, all the others -- the ones by characters in the book -- were written by me specifically for the novel as I was writing the novel, though some of them are arrived at by various systems too. I'm not sure what you mean by "pastiche". None of them are really collages -- the lines were pretty much written in sequence when I came to a place in the book where I wanted a poem. Though you could say there was a kind of mental collaging going on, especially for some of T.'s poems. It was hard writing the poems, frustrating sometimes, maybe a little harder to do than the rest of the writing in the book, but it was really interesting and fun too.
3AM: Tell us about your recent Purcell Room reading in London which was part of Patti Smith's Meltdown Festival... You started off by saying that you felt a little out of your element or something…
RH: I feel as though I'm pretty confident as a reader of my work, but I hardly ever agree to read in a music context because then audiences come on the basis of me as a musician. With likely no real interest in books and writing. They'll be expecting some kind of act. Over the past few years there have been a number of music people who have worked up acts around writing they've done. Their public appearances aren't simple readings, presented around the basis of them being skilled writers, but are rants and comedy. Or people like Henry Rollins presenting himself as a role model, giving advice to people. I don't know what they're doing, but it's not what I do. I don't have an act. I'm a writer, and though I do think I'm reasonably entertaining, when I found myself in the context of a music festival, it made me a little uptight. It made me dread it a little. But it may be a mistake to make that sort of disclaimer at the beginning. It's never probably wise as a performer to make a quasi apology.
3AM: It was kinda charming… There was a lot of energy at the reading; it still had that spiky quality.
RH: It's not something... I don't really know what I was doing... I don't know what kind of vibe I was putting across. You step up, and try to rise to the occasion.
RH: I'm of two minds. In a certain way, it's an ordeal. But I do find I need to do it. I need to do something in public every so often. Otherwise, I become dissatisfied. What was weird for me, also, was that the book was so obscene and offensive and gay. I knew there were people in the audience who were unprepared for the gay content. That being the diceyest factor: my feeling of standing there and reading this stuff. There were people in that audience who were old friends and music-war buddies who come from a fairly macho background. I still don't know whether I freaked out a person or two... But I've given five or six readings with this book, and I do find that I'm more shocked than anyone else. I also find that once I begin, it all falls away, because it's not that I have any reservations about the book. I can't deny that I have this impulse to provoke but it doesn't feel like I want to provoke for its own sake, unless you just mean provoke thought, propose things to consider. But there's a lot about life that people know is there, but don't want to look at. I tend to want to include those areas in the stuff I write. I guess that is obnoxious. I embarrass myself sometimes, but I don't know what else to do. My excuse is I just don't wanna leave anything out. It seems that a lot is left out, about people's existence, in most works, and I want to include everything. But it's probably not intellectual. I'm just in the throes of my nature like everyone else.
3AM: How has the gay community reacted?
RH: My wife was saying something to me about that last night. She asked me if I had heard of the Politics of Identity, and I didn't know what she was referring to. It's a component of political correctness in academia: a writer isn't supposed to write from the point of view of some other form of identity in society than his or her own, whether it's race, gender, sexual orientation, unless he or she is putting them in a good light. The message must be positive. It's a principle. She thought it was refreshing that I didn't do that in my book. But I can't take any of that stuff seriously. I'm opposed to the concept of political correctness. I have standards -- there are a lot of things that offend me morally or ethically in writers' works -- but I don't have any hesitancy about describing things as they are in the world. Obviously people of all ethnic and sexual identities behave in all sorts of ways, and I think it's ludicrous to restrict me from treating any of those. I'm not worried though. As a matter of fact, the book is in a series edited by Dennis Cooper. He's gay, and he obviously endorses the book. Then again, he writes about gay people killing each other for fun. Although that doesn't cross the politics of identity boundaries, I guess, because he's allowed to because he's gay.
3AM: The bottom line is that it's about the white heat of obsession...
RH: Yeah, I'm curious to find out how much the size of the audience is limited by the fact that it's between men. There are a lot of other things in the book that will limit the audience. Primarily, the preoccupation with poetry! (Laughs.)
3AM: How did the Dennis Cooper connection come about?
RH: No major publisher would touch the book, but Akashic wanted it. I accepted Akashic's offer and then they told me that they had a little imprint that was edited by Dennis and that he liked the book and wanted to have it in his series if I would let him. They didn't know I knew Dennis a little, and I didn't know Dennis had an association with them. Akashic left it up to me whether I just published the book as an Akashic Book or chose to have it go with Little House on the Bowery, Dennis's imprint. I went with Dennis, thinking how interesting it would be to be edited by a writer I thought was better than me. Well, as I half-expected, of course, Dennis, being a writer himself, and a very busy one, doesn't really do much hands-on editing. His editing is that he chose to attach his name to the book. He basically recommended some commas and gave me his opinion about a couple of things I wanted advice about.