When did you start writing Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of An American Genius and what was the inspiration?
Everything probably came together late spring 2008, or thereabouts. I was putting the final touches to another novel that I’d played with for close to 30 years. I wasn’t in any particular hurry to get it done, and maybe for that reason it was shaping up quite nicely. At the same time I was writing a serial novel, some neo-pulp crime fiction, in monthly installments for the entertainment of a few local writers I know. I also had a couple of other pulp fiction projects that were in various stages of development. So it wasn’t like I was looking for something to do. Yet in the middle of all that, at the end of a very manic day in which a lot of writing got done, I took a break. I had been thinking about writing this novel, this kind of novel, for quite some time. It’s the kind of novel a writer would normally be advised against writing. Mainly because it is borderline narcissistic, like staring at yourself in the mirror, and depending on the light or your mood, you’re either admirable or pathetic. I’d had a germ of an idea at the back of my mind, but at that moment when I was contemplating the work I had just completed or left off, the organizing principle for the novel presented itself. The beginning and the ending, in effect, occurred to me.
Why did you write Ode To Sunset?
The motivation was personal, and largely sentimental. I had the notion, the urge to memorialize friends, poets, who had died. To accomplish that, without indulging in biography, I had to write about their element, which is poetry. That which gave them joy and sorrow. Because that’s what poetry does to poets, it makes them happy and it makes them sad. In order to convey the joys and sorrows of being a poet, I needed an agent, a guide to the poetry world, a fictional sentience who is not quite Charles Baudelaire and not quite Charles Bukowski, and who goes by the name of Carl Wendt. And it had to be irreverent, amusing, a satire. My dear departed friends would expect no less of me.
Who is Carl Wendt suppose to represent?
Carl Wendt isn’t any one person or poet. He is a kind of literary composite. He has attributes of Charles Baudelaire in that he is a flaneur or dandy, an old school jazz hipster, and he works the margins of the literary scene as a freelance art and culture critic in a way that Baudelaire did. Also like Baudelaire, and the modern American poet Charles Bukowski, his poetry offends the delicate sensibilities of the bourgeoisie. He is an opportunist the way that Henry Miller is in Tropic of Cancer, always on the hustle, just getting by so that he can devote himself to his art. He’s also Bud Powell in Paris, marking time with his petite vin rouge. And I suppose, capitalizing on the Hugh Kenner quote that serves as one of the epigraphs for the novel, he can, at first glance, be seen as a charlatan, a jive ass. In this sense he is Coyote, the fool, the trickster.
So is he the literary Everyman?
I think Wendt is characterized by his political incorrectness. He’s white, male, heterosexual, he smokes and he’s a drinker. Most of which is no longer socially acceptable in the gentrified literary world. He’s a social dinosaur heading for the bone yard of obsolescence. That he’s a well known poet just complicates his inappropriateness. He is unaffiliated and eccentric, and embodies the antagonism between the sanctioned poets and the proscribed poets.
How closely does Carl Wendt resemble a typical poet?
While I don’t see any poet as being typical, there are some very smart poets on whom Wendt is modeled and whose perspective and experience in defining the American canon has been overlooked, marginalized, because of the workshop industry. They are for the most part not associated with any institution, and are representative of the independent American poets who continue to be part of an antiestablishment community of innovative artists whose credentials are unimpeachable. Many are ignored because they don’t fit into the current faddish mindset of the workshop mentality or they are keeping at arm’s length the intrusive desperation of fame and fortune. Well, fame, mostly, by which I mean celebrity. Everyone can do with a little fortune.
Is Ode To Sunset autobiographical?
Heterographical, perhaps, in that it contains elements of biography, autobiography, literary history, aesthetic philosophy, social satire, improvisation, imagination, exaggeration and storytelling. And it’s also personal in the sense that it is something I know a little about, having worked as a poet for fifty years. Kind of like a retired cop who writes a crime novel. And it allows me to talk about poetry, and poets, and find humor in otherwise weighty material.
Do you think of Ode To Sunset as being representative of literature in the period in which you are writing?
I would like to think that Ode To Sunset is unrepresentative of the period in which I am writing. I am either ahead of my time or lagging far behind. But wherever I am, I find it useful to be out of step in order to gauge my relative position in a world of obsessive scribblers. As the Flann O’Brien quote that also serves as an epigraph implies, a novel is what the novelist says it is, much as Duchamp indicated that art is what the artist says it is. This gives art and, by default, literature an incredible amount of freedom. On the other hand, the playing field has been enlarged and leveled to such an extent that everything appears equal with everything else and this leads ultimately to a loss of perspective. Not only is everything relative to everything else, but everything is subject to change without notice depending on any particularly focus directed at everything.
How do you reconcile being a poet and a novelist, and does either impact the other?
I always think of writing poetry as a house of cards. At any point, the poem can be undermined by its own assumptions and come tumbling down. Writing a novel is more brick and mortar work. Even the wildest experimental prose is built from the ground up. Poems, on the other hand, fall from the sky and because they are so ephemeral, they either are or aren’t. Work in either form doesn’t necessarily influence the other outside of the fact that writing a novel demands so many more words and so, much more time. A poem will sometimes appear as a piece, fully formed from the brow of the muse. A novel is subject to revisions and storytelling codes, and follows a blueprint of sorts. Since I write mostly by hand in a notebook, the prose sketches take up a lot of room and energy compared to my poetry jottings. Also the prose is almost immediately incorporated into the work in progress. Poems can lie unattended in the notebooks for years.
What would you say is your writing style?
The style I find myself favoring might be characterized as naked hard boiled pulp. Not a lot of introspection and inner moaning, letting the events and development speak for themselves. Wendt has much in common with wise cracking private eyes, and as a poet, he is the ultimate private eye, visionary, a loner, knight in tarnished armor, troubadour in the court of the muse. If I were to give it the eight second Mamet pitch, I’d say that it is a cross between A Fine Madness and A Confederacy of Dunces with voiceover by George Steiner.
How many hours do you write a day?
How long I can write depends on how long I can concentrate. Sketching and plotting I do pretty much on the fly—it is a very spontaneous process and hardly seems to take any time at all. The real work of arranging all the elements of the novel usually depends on whether or not I can face what I’ve written. I have very poor work habits. I do try to spend at least a couple of hours a day on the initial structuring of any prose project. Then when it looks like it’s shaping up to meet my expectations, I can spend the entire day thrashing it out, rereading, editing, rewriting until it reaches a finished state.
You actually write by hand. Why?
I do my thinking on paper and act on my thinking at the keyboard.
At what stage in the writing process do you move from longhand to electronic media?
I normally sketch and take notes on a legal pad, a habit I developed when I first started writing. At a certain point, later in the day or later in the week, I’ll review what I’ve written and take the time to transcribe it into the appropriate word file. At this point the more objective writer, the word mechanic, takes over. Writing by hand allows me the freedom of not filtering the language, not judging whether it is proper or grammatical, simply allowing the words to flow unconstrained and find their own level. Once the handwritten text is transcribed I can look for the little surprises as well as the duds which I then use to my advantage, or not.
Do you have any form of ritual preparation before writing?
I have a gamut of avoidance behaviors that I generally run through.
Oh, compulsive checking of email, surfing news feeds, doing just about anything that is not related to the job ahead. Drinking more coffee. Staring out the window. Counting paper clips. Rechecking email. That kind of thing.
Do you revise?
Not in the sense that I have a preconceived idea of what I’m going to write and have to strictly abide by it. What I end up writing either works or it doesn’t. I never go into it thinking I’m going to write such and such, actually have a definition of such and such, but merely knowing I’m going to write at my whimsy and from that vectors and directions will follow. Forward progress is determined by the obstacles encountered, the hurdles I’ve placed there, consciously or unconsciously, to challenge narrative complacency. I have language somewhat imperfectly, a mixture of bad habit, laziness, inelegance, and bilingual confusion. What you see is what you get, a shabby mix of savoir faire and nonchalance.
Has writing this novel offered you any insights into the writing of a novel? Anything that you didn’t know before you started?
I kind of knew this before, perhaps in theory, but it was proven to me in the actualization of this work of fiction. We tend to think of the novel as a closed system with a beginning, middle, and an end. In actuality there is time before the novel begins because the beginning is merely a point in history. There are also multitudes of middles, and time continues as history even after the narrative has concluded. The reality of the novel is never complete, as Joyce has taught us, and is always in the state of being, powered by ambiguity and tangent possibility. To insist on finality is merely a death wish. It’s an example of narrative fallacy. Narrative fallacy arises from attempts to make sense of the world. Novelists employ narrative fallacy all the time. The world makes sense because of our unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.
Looking back on what you’ve brought forward as a fiction to its completion as a narrative, has it taken on a gravity greater than the sum of its parts?
Ode To Sunset works as an accrual of subject matter and its placement in layers rather than as a linear flight of fancy. There is a narrative but it is directed by random twists and tilts outside and beyond causal progression. The novel then becomes a simulacrum of the chaos of everyday life artificially constructed from language, sometimes as sleek streamlined prose and other times as stream of consciousness Rube Goldberg contraptions. It is chaos in search of equilibrium. It is also childishly self-indulgent and self-centered, replete with petty hopes and fears, an all too human oscillation. There are eddies of confusion and breathtaking rapids as the accumulation of matter, physical and metaphysical, flows in its own serendipitous course. Prose requires absolutes, or the appearance of absolutes. Poetry can survive on ambiguities.
How objectively can you view Ode To Sunset?
To begin with, it is nearly impossible to view with any consistent objectivity something that I worked on for over ten years. It is truly a love hate relationship. On the one hand, I see it as inane in the same way that Seinfeld and Friends were inane. Ode To Sunset is similar in its apotropaic absurdity. And I either feel ok with that, the silliness, or I contrive somehow, either through rationalization or editing, to rectify it. Poets are constantly on the verge of becoming anachronisms. They barely made it into the 20th century. How are they going to make it into the 21st century? Ode To Sunset poses the question, “Are you sure you want to be a poet?”
Pat Nolan is the author of over a dozen poetry books, most recently So Much, Selected Poems Volume II, Notebook Keyboard (1990-2010) from Nualláin House, Publishers (2019). He has also published two genre novels, a western and crime fiction, as well as the online serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life of American Genius, available for perusal at odetosunset.com. This interview with the author is condensed from a longer two part interview first published on the Ode To Sunset site.