Friday, January 16, 2009

Fictions of the Red Night

Being a collection of notes on the strangeness, after and within a life of poetry, of writing fiction.

A poet captured by the idea of fiction is in several kinds of trouble common to captives, the most obvious being the loss of autonomy. Poets like autonomy. We like to use words when and how we please and let the cards fall where they may. We might impose strict limits on ourselves as we are writing, but there is always a safe word we can utter that will allow us to move freely through the poem.

Fiction requires the work of laying the sentences down (well first you have to write the damn sentences) end to end to be able to get somewhere. It is both wider and narrower than poetry. Wider in the sense that you are writing into a whole world of events that will actually open out before you – much as the day does. Writing fiction is for me more engulfing than poetry which I experience as if I am responding to an inner soothsayer reading from some entrails found lying around (mine?) that need to be thought through before they can be gotten rid of. Getting rid of something (I usually call them the ideas) has along been a central need of my poetry.

Or, taking the writing of poetry in a more mechanical direction, the poet, having a few moves he is really good at, sets up verbal situations in which he can perform these moves. He works his way through the routine, adding, if you are lucky, a new flourish here and there, ending on tiptoe with his umbrella balancing on his nose, thereby questioning capitalism, proposing a utopia and possibly getting into the pants of some designated reader. Don’t laugh, this is really difficult.

Fiction seem to me to function with less language play but with more of something like life. Committing to write a story or especially a novel feels like taking on a new job or going on a long trip whose logistical difficulties are likely to far outweigh the fun to be had. As with life, and trips, I think I know what will happen but don’t really know. Eventually, at some extreme point of exhaustion, I will have all I can do to keep up with the will of the characters and the trajectory of the narrative. Not that words don’t do this in the poem, but the presence, in the story, of a seductive verisimilitude which I am both creating and being fooled by cause the writing of fiction to be surprising to me in a way that is other than the surprises of poetry. This might be because, as an old poet, I have written myself into a corner and find it harder to really surprise myself. Fine, have it your way. On the other hand, my characters not infrequently write poems which aren’t entirely like my own. And lately I notice a harshness to my poetry, a kind of anti-beauty, which does in fact interest me, but will anyone else get it? That is another thing about fiction. You don’t have to be a fully trained life long reader of poetry to get it.

Certain poets claim that they never read novels, but I can’t not read them. I too feel the claustrophobia present in the inevitability of the usual plot, but I seem to need several plots (lives) to be unwinding at the same time (it’s never just one novel) just to, you know, make it through. But have I even written a real novel? Or am I writing one now? Damned if I know. And what about poetic novels and novels by poets? From Mount Analogue to 2666, I have found these to be among my favorite books. They are the books we poets hope to write when we are captured by fiction. Just this morning I was being knocked on my ass by how good the books are in Burrough’s late adventure trilogy. I remember the thrill as each one came out in the 80s and I bought them at City Lights. The particular book in question being Cities of the Red Night, some of whose ideas I embrace and some detest, but I like the ride. More on that. Okay, just a taste:

“The name is Clem Williamson Snide. I am a private asshole.”

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