During a recent trip to New York City, I stopped by Richard Hell’s apartment in the East Village. We had coffee, made literary small talk, and recorded an interview. Several days later I sent him a transcription of the interview along with an unfinished introduction to the piece. What follows is Hell’s spirited response and critical comments to my introduction.
25 February 2005
Listen, last night I looked at the interview. I'm pretty inured to ignorant journalism, and the second half of my double take regarding your introduction to the interview took about twenty minutes to fully develop, but once it occurred it was energetic enough that it resulted in the attached annotated version of your intro.
Dude, I don't know what remedy there is for your condition but some hard knocks. Anyway, for the record, the line that really ignited my slow burn was, "As a poet now, Richard Hell is perhaps not as good as he could have been had he not spent upwards of twenty years playing music." Though as indicated in the attachment, the whole intro is consistent with the obnoxiousness of that line.
To be fair, I have to admit that when I was around your age, I was nearly as bad, maybe worse. When I was 18 and had started that literary magazine I mentioned, I wrote Allen Ginsberg for a poem and then when he sent one I rejected it.
But, you know, this interview is nothing special. Under the circumstances I'm really not going to break my butt to have it ready for you. It might be interesting to include this exchange with it. If you want to suggest a simple way to salvage it, I'd consider it. The cool thing would be to take an extra week and include this exchange (with the attachment below), but I don't expect that. Otherwise, if you're determined to go on with the process, I'd suggest you write a new slightly more appropriately humble intro, and I'd do the work I'd need to on the interview proper over the weekend when I can find the time. Otherwise, let's just write it off to experience and forget about it.
ATTACHMENT: (Lines from the original introduction are in bold type.)
If Richard Hell had died fifteen years ago he would only be remembered for his essential contribution to the beginnings of punk rock in New York in the 1970s. No small feat, I’d say.
You would? You'd say? You would say? You'd say both those things? You? Mr. Adam Travis?
Many rock and rollers become rich and famous, but few can claim to have also had a significant impact on culture at large.
I don't think it's a real interesting subject, but how about Elvis Presley, James Brown, the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Sly Stone, The Sex Pistols, Run-DMC, and Madonna? It's absurd and embarrassing for you to place me among those who "can claim to have also had a significant impact on culture at large" as a "rock and roller" with a throwaway line like that. I do not make that "claim." On what basis do you? You think you're flattering me, but you're just being a condescending twat.
That kind of accomplishment, especially in such a here-today-gone-tomorrow genre of music,
What?--more poetry survives than music? And/or--what?--poets have anywhere near the "impact on culture at large" as pop musicians?
can be a major obstacle to being taken seriously in any other medium. Since music Hell has devoted himself almost entirely to writing (mostly novels), and occasionally poetry. In fact, poetry was the first thing he did seriously (before music) when he came to New York in the late sixties.
The first thing I did seriously at that time was get drunk, the second was try to figure out how to support myself financially. Poetry was a distant fourth or fifth.
As a poet now, Richard Hell is perhaps not as good as he could have been had he not spent upwards of twenty years playing music.
Fuck you. If you want to say something like that, say it to my face. You don't hear me making claims about how "good" my poetry is, but who the fuck do you think you are? All this writing of yours is presented as if you're a person called upon to make judgments from some position of earned respect. That's not who you are. You're a callow kid with a job reading slush for a pretentious irrelevant "poetry" magazine [Poetry, not Bookslut]. You sought an interview from me, I was kind enough to grant it, and now you're being an asshole by exercising some grotesquely deluded misapprehension that your role in this includes some call to fucking critically assess my skills. Also, it was not twenty but ten years I spent with bands.
That statement is so obvious of any occupation it probably doesn’t even need to be made.
Except by an incomprehensibly self-satisfied fool.
But whereas most poet-rockers’ involvement with poetry doesn’t go beyond one or two volumes of crappy verse,
Again, who gives a shit what your opinions are concerning "crappy" verse? What have you said or done for us to have any reaction but baffled impatience at your presumptuous, casual, throwing-around of such epithets? This writing of yours is what's crappy: it betrays nothing but unearned self-importance and a complete lack of understanding regarding the nature and purpose of the journalism it's purporting to practice.
poetry seems actually to have been a significant part of Hell’s life and work.
Thanks for your prized approval.
Even his forthcoming novel Godlike is all about poets and poetry. It is a commonplace to say that poetry does not matter to the rest of culture – and true, most writers, musicians, painters, and even actors, lead careers that are influenced almost not at all by poetry. It is hard, though, to imagine Hell’s work without his involvement with poetry.
Gee, does that mean I'm accepted into your approved pigpen of the cognescenti?
It seems that a lot of you rock n’ rollers in the 70s were also poets. What do the two -- rock n’ roll and poetry -- have to do with each other?
I think it was just a moment in cultural history when it occurred to kids who liked to read and liked to write that they could also form bands. But really, it was only Patti Smith and me, anyway. Tom (Verlaine) was always primarily a musician; basically he only published in conjunction with me or Patti. I don’t think it’s because there’s really much in common with poetry and rock and roll, except that the kids who also ended up writing had seen the power of physical music and how it could be combined with all the possibilities of writing, too. Anyway, it’s boring. Being called a poet as a rock ’n’ roll musician is like being called a physicist as a baseball player. It might have some application but it’s pretty remote.
Do you still see a lot of the people you played in bands with in the past?
No, I’m pretty much a reclusive writer now. I don’t see a lot of people period, and most of them have to do with my life as a writer now. I have an album coming out this summer. Kind of a “best of” compilation of all the stuff on one record that I think would sound good together. Doing that has required that I be in touch with a lot of the musicians I’ve worked with. And something like that comes up every year or two. So there is contact, but mostly I’m sequestered in my hovel.
What was your first publication of poetry?
Well, I started a magazine when I was 18. I can’t remember if that was the first place I had something published. But I had stuff in the New Directions Annual when I was 19; and in little magazines published by the writers I came into contact with. In retrospect though I sort of squirm a little bit thinking about it because it was like a high school literary magazine. I was only finding my bearings as the magazine was published. By the final issue I liked it, but the first issue was really hayseed and really backwards. I didn’t have a clue and there wasn’t much of an identity to the magazine, or me. Like I said, though, I was very young, like high school age. I dropped out of high school and came to New York when I just turned 17 and started the magazine within a year. (The magazine was called Genesis : Grasp.)
Were you into the New Directions poets of that era?
Well, New Directions and Grove were the interesting publishers. When I was a kid I was Dylan Thomas crazy. It was the romantic idea of a poet as much as the actual poems. All the lush lyricism and music was thrilling. But I outgrew that pretty quick. Didn't I? Maybe not.
Did you guys do a lot of self-publishing back then?
I had this magazine, but it didn’t last very long. I don’t know what you mean by a lot of self-publishing. No, is the short answer. I would put three or four of my own poems into every other issue of the magazine. I did a little collection of broadsheets. By the time I was finishing the series of stuff that I was publishing, and moving into rock n’ roll, I actually had a printing press in my house, a little tabletop machine. I typeset the magazines, etc., myself, using a Varityper, which was an early sort of desktop publishing machine, a big IBM typewriter that was capable of justifying text and allowed me to change fonts by switching type-balls. The last thing that I did was Dot books in 1972-1973. I had four or five books in process, including one by Patti Smith, one by Tom Verlaine, one by me, and one by Andrew Wylie, who’s this monster of a literary agent now. But the only ones that actually got printed, before I gave it all up for music, were the Andrew Wylie and a collaboration between me and Verlaine, called Wanna Go Out?, which was a book of poems presented as being by this Hoboken hooker.
Have you ever cared very much about what the bigger literary magazines were doing?
No. Well, there may be exceptions. The Paris Review was great when I was here as a kid, when Tom Clark was poetry editor, and he was publishing all the young “second generation” New York poets.
Do you think that playing music has made you care more or less about what your poems sound like?
Well, it’s a real subjective thing, the music of lines of writing. I mean, I wonder if people agree about what is a pretty sounding sentence. I think it may be as shared -- or not -- a perception as, say, one's preferences in instrumental music. But sound has always been really important to me. It stayed that way in writing lyrics, but it began with poetry. I feel like I brought my need for a good earful to writing lyrics, rather than music somehow influencing the way I write sentences. I really like a good crunchy sentence.
What do you care more about, music or matter?
Why not both at the same time? You can’t separate what a word sounds like from what it’s invoking. I think what interests me in writing is exploiting all the possibilities, which is probably what ended up taking me to writing fiction, sort of in the same way that I went from poetry to being in a band. I like having as many areas to work in at once as possible. For instance, my new novel, which is about poets, has poems in it. It has a few poems I got permission to quote -- poems in context, usually that the characters in the book are reading or thinking about, by writers such as Ron Padgett, Edwin Denby, and Rene Ricard -- but also poems by the characters in the book, which of course I wrote. Or sometimes came up with a strategy to conjure up. I don’t like repeating myself. I like looking into all the possibilities of work that can be done. I’m not looking for a style, and I don’t have any sort of specialty. I just try to stay interested. I’m not trying to stake out ground; I’m just trying to keep myself amused.
Can you quote me an exceptionally musical line of poetry?
Um, I’m really bad at that. It would be easy for me to find something, but I don’t memorize poems. Ok, I’ll go to the shelves. You know who writes some of the most musical lines these days is a novelist, not a poet, Cormac McCarthy. Check Suttree. I’ll quote basically the first sentence of the book: “Peering down into the water where the morning sun fashioned wheels of light, coronets fanwise in which lay trapped each twig, each grain of sediment, long flakes and blades of light in the dusty water sliding away like optic strobes where motes sifted and sprung.” I actually half-imitated, or riffed on McCarthy's style, in a couple of little passages in my novel Go Now. Here’s one of them, a description of a sunset in the desert seen through the windows of a big old speeding car:
“Purple climbing on pink and green with little mosaic checkerboards of mown and puzzled diamond inset, and faded tapestries interwoven along, in grainy streams upon which one could just discern the motif of crimson-mouthed and grinning long-nosed golden hounds wildly pursuing a rabbit with blazing cigars of dynamite amouth. The hounds have legends shaven in their flaring hides. I can just make out a motto and it reads, 'Donut take and not the tear conceal.' Was it tare or teer? Donut or do not? Fringes of plaid that stretch from pole to pole are fraying and all the chilly world is blurred occluded in, as ruffled wind makes giant shields of snowy chips that mount like seashells of irridescent mail upon the desk of shoulders. They climb like masses of beetles become spirit in the effort, beautiful enough to let you sleep. And all rejoice in silence, quoth the missing fowl. In silence... Heretofor unheard of...”
I was also thinking of John Ashbery a little too. Most of that novel is pretty straight--I just dropped that into a chapter in honor of the sunset and those two men.
Oddly, the other outrageously musical writer that comes to mind is also a novelist, Frederick Rolfe, known as Baron Corvo. I once appropriated a few of his lines for use in a poem: “viewed from below against the twilight world of cloudless sky and smoothest sea, all made warm, liquid, limpid heliotrope and violet and lavender, with bands of burnished copper set with emeralds, melting, on the other hand, into the fathomless blue of the eyes of the prides of peacocks, where the moon rose, rosy as mother-of-pearl, bones like the fleshless feet of peacocks danced and who am I to assign a character to the facts, o most affable reader?”
You know, a lot of the best fiction these days is written by poets: Denis Johnson, Dennis Cooper, Jim Carroll, Eileen Myles.
In your new novel Godlike, a lot of the poets’ lives are so full of drugs and illicit sex that it’s a wonder they get anything done at all. Is this what it was like for you as a young poet?
Well, it’s sure true in music. And there sure was a lot of drug taking and flamboyance among the poets. It is a different set of aims and values than straight society.
Have any other languages had a significant influence on your work?
I don’t speak any other languages, but the literature of other cultures has had an influence on me, mainly the 19th century French poets, and some from the 20th century. I’ve read a lot of different translations of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, some Mallarmé. I was greatly inspired by Lautréamont when I was young. And Verlaine to a certain extent, and some, but less, Apollinaire and other so-called "cubist" poets in that time and place, as well as surrealists, like Breton.
How is your mature artistic life different from that of your youth?
Much more focused. I spent a lot of time floundering around, or fucked up on drugs, insecure, if arrogant, and scatterbrained. I was erratic to say the least. Now I’ve been working steadily for fifteen years. Basically all of my writing has been published since 1990. I’m always working on something, big projects, small projects. I’ve developed a self-critical facility and specific ambitions. There’s no comparison between the last fifteen years and the years before that.
When’s the last time you wrote a poem?
I don’t write very many poems. I pretty much just do them on occasion. I mean literally the classical meaning of “occasion,” when there’s some reason to write. I wrote a few for Godlike, and I wrote one because somebody asked for one six months ago. But I really like the poems I write when I demand them of myself. So, even though I generally write prose now, and have never been very prolific as a poet, I’ve always wanted to write, say, a poem a week. Need to put that on a list of things to do. Glad you reminded me.
How long does it usually take you to write a poem?
It really depends. One of my favorite poems I ever wrote took me about fifteen years. I called it “Across the Years.” I started writing it, abandoned it as a fragment, spotted it many years later, thought of somewhere to go with it, and ended up happy. If I could, I would never publish anything for years. They’re better after they’ve gone cold and you can look at them free of attachment in order to make the last adjustments.
So, you’ve been writing movie reviews. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
I’ve always been interested in movies and in the past couple of years have been writing about directors who matter to me. But about a year or a year and a half ago the editor of Black Book, whom I didn’t know, had the idea of asking me to do a cover story, being a conversation with Snoop Dogg. My daughter was really pissed off that I didn’t do that.
The idea didn’t appeal to you?
Well, I didn’t know enough about Snoop. Or maybe I should call him Dogg. I would have had to catch up on the Dogg, and it didn’t really feel like something I was suited for. But I had a counter proposal, being a movie column… and he said, that’s fine. And we’ve got along great.
Well, it’s a great magazine.
You like it? They talk to a lot of interesting people. But it’s one of these magazines that mostly sells glitz. But, you know, it’s aimed at “youth culture.” It’s not an intellectual magazine, though they are sharp. They’ve been good to me. The editor is a smart guy.
In what ways do you participate in the literary goings-on of New York?
I gave a lecture a couple of months ago on Nathaniel West. I went to a lecture last week that Ron Padgett gave on Pierre Reverdy. I go to readings when I hear about something that appeals to me. Half my friends are writers. But I don’t really keep up. I don’t go to a lot of book parties or pay attention to all the new magazines. I’m pretty much absorbed in my work. But, you know, I get the Poetry Project newsletter, and about once a month there’s something going on that will get me out of the house.
Do you like going to poetry readings?
I’m not very interested in poetry readings. I go to readings to support poets I like, and occasionally I have a good experience. But there’s really no correlation between being a good writer and a good reader. Some are, some aren’t. The other reason I’ll go to a reading is that I don’t know the writer and have never heard them read, but I like their work and am just curious about how my assumptions about them correlate with their actual presence. But I rarely go to a reading because I expect to get something more than I would get from reading the book at home, by myself.
Do you read poetry aloud, to yourself?
You know, it’s only been really recently that I actually became persuaded that it’s a wise thing to do. I always had regarded writing as something that lives on the page. And I know that there’s an American tradition of spoken word, or of poetry as something that’s an oral medium. And I was always skeptical of that. But since I’ve been writing novels I’ve seen that in reading something aloud I can find weak spots that I wasn’t aware of at all. What would happen is, I’d give a reading and come to some passage and just blush, realizing… uh, this isn't working. And I was only able to notice that by reading it aloud.
When is Godlike coming out?
July. Out from Akashic. Well, an imprint of their’s called Little House on the Bowery, which is run by Dennis Cooper.