From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Spring 1999, Vol. 19.1
The following conversation was taped on 18 November 1997. Ed was visiting Cleveland to deliver a talk at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of its special exhibit “I Want to Take You Higher: The Psychedelic Era 1965-1969.” On the 19th, Ed spoke on New York City’s psychedelic scene and performed some poems. The previous evening over room-service pasta and coffee we talked about his fiction.
BROOKE HORVATH: Why don’t people talk more about your fiction?
ED SANDERS: That’s probably because when I travel, I travel as a poet. I perform as a poet, and my choice of life is as a poet, although I’ve been experimenting with long poems that tell stories. In Tales there are the long poems—”Farbrente Rose” and “Sappho on East Seventh”—and in Hymn to the Rebel Cafe there’s “An East Village Hippie in King Arthur’s Court”—another sho-sto-po [short story poem].
If I had the unfortunate task of selecting my own gravestone text, I’d probably say something like “Ed Sanders, American Bard.” I’d rather be known as a bard, which is a poet who takes public stances. But I don’t know why I’m not thought of as a fiction writer. Maybe I need to get a little older so I look more like Mark Twain; then the prose will get more attention.
BH: You’ll have to wait until Vonnegut is through looking like Twain.
ES: I already look more like Twain than Vonnegut does. Vonnegut looks too unhappy, and Twain tried to dress well.
BH: Is it unproductive to focus here on the fiction apart from your other work?
ES: I have no problem with that. Right now I’m writing volume four of Tales of Beatnik Glory, so I’ve had a career as a short-story writer. Writing is a big sphere, and on that sphere are diaries, poems, plays, journalism, dialogues, stories, epics, epigrams, haiku, rhymed quatrains, projective verse . . . and I’m there on that sphere: have pen, will write.
BH: You said a second ago that you see yourself as a bard, one who speaks on public issues. Is that what holds your work together, that particular sense of purpose?
ES: I feel obligated to speak out because of my parents, who were Stevensonian Democrats, and because of my generation, that strange zone between Beat and postmodern where I grew up as a writer. I was trained by Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth . . . Samuel Beckett talking about clawing through the wall with your fingernails, then, when they break off, the pads of your fingers, then the bones. . . .
But I don’t have a broad take of myself, although that may be terribly improper to admit. I see myself as a member of the avant- garde, going into unexplored territory. I’m not over yet. Up to now I have this work I’ve done, that’s all, and it’s embarrassing to me to think of my life as a completed thing. I have many abandoned books, and when I kick the bucket someone is going to find a lot of manuscripts—novels, all sorts of things.
BH: In 1968: A History in Verse you talk about the people who criticized you for having fun in the midst of crisis. What pleasure do you find in writing fiction besides satisfying that need to speak out?
ES: Writing . . . it can’t be called erotic, but it has a kind of thrill. Writing is the skin of the world, and you can drum on it, dance on it, play it . . . it’s a great fun thing to do every morning. As you know, it’s not always fun; it’s also an act of discipline. It’s like a Russian short story about a horrible train trip followed by a lot of fun when you finally arrive at St. Petersburg.
But back to 1968 and the “trap” of hedonism: we have to be hedonistic in a good part of our lives; otherwise, why live? You can’t be just a dreary robot slaving away. So there’s that double life-track of having fun while working for a better world, which was the theme of 1968 on one level. How do you combine the two? Maybe you can’t. But you can’t let only the ferocious carry the political flag to fruition. Clinton has solved the problem by having very well-disciplined pockets where he lets the Other project; he’s a kind of hillbilly Bacchus. Euripides would have had a good time with Clinton—he’d have written a play called “Dionysus in Hot Springs, Arkansas.”
BH: You are routinely described as a Beat. Donald Allen and George Butterick included you in their anthology The Postmoderns, and Lance Olsen has called you an avant-popist. Do such labels mean anything to you? Do you identify your work with a movement?
ES: I’ve always been a scholar in my own pursuits, and I must say that I really didn’t know what postmodernism was when I saw myself in that anthology. So I did research—I did some at your house and in subsequent years to clarify for myself what it was. Understanding postmodern thought has helped with character definition in my short stories. But I feel confused. When I call Tuli Kupferberg and ask how he is, he says “still above room temperature,” and that’s how I feel often: I don’t know about labels, but I feel glad, honored, simply to be alive at the end of a weird century and still creating, still having books come out. I’m so pleased and honored that these things are happening and that as an independent writer not connected to any school—and who hasn’t had a job since 1965—I can afford to put out a left-liberal newspaper, to travel. So apply those labels, I like those labels, because they help define an independent writer. But I’m just a confused, skin-covered mammal at the end of a strange century beset by all my friends’ health problems.
BH: A lot of reviewers of your books talk about an ambivalence they perceive on your part, an uncertainty regarding your attitude toward your subjects: for instance, in Tales of Beatnik Glory, whether you mean glory straight or satirically.
ES: Well, as far as Tales is concerned, there is a shift in tone from volume 1 to volume 2. Volume 1 is more deliberately upbeat and defiant because it seemed to me a period—the early sixties—when the people I was writing about were just that: partisans of beatnik glory. There are some stories in volume 1—for instance, “Mindscape Gallery”—where betrayal plays a factor, as it does in every scene, whether it’s a straight, ultra-right scene or a left-wing or middle-wing scene. Betrayal is a threat, so I brought in betrayal. But my attitude in volume 1 is ebullience. As I said in my introduction [to the Citadel Underground edition], I had come through some very bad years, had written that book on the Manson family that had left me with what we used to call in the Fugs “metaphysical distress.” So I wanted to write about an era I knew and loved—when I was young and came to Greenwich Village in 1958 through the Cuban missle crisis and Kennedy’s assassination. I loved those years and knew I had met many, many interesting people I could combine and weave into stories about the past with each character morphed from ten or fifteen people I knew—things they might have said, clothes they might have worn, situations they could have gotten into. Once I had these characters, I let them do their thing and wrote it down. That’s how I wrote that book, not quickly, but very precisely.
But when I got to volume 2, I faced some issues such as the way the Beat generation tended to treat women. So in a story such as “It’s Like Living with a Mongol,” I focused on the question of how women were sometimes treated like hookers, lookers, and cookers, entities that were supposed to drop everything and start cooking spaghetti. But I meant those stories seriously. I love those people, and I feel very sad now that I’m reaching the end of that decade. Volume 1, you see, went through 1962, volume 2 through ’65, volume 3 from 1966 through 1967, and volume 4 will take me through 1969. Then it’s over. To my horror, one of my characters, Uncle Thrills, gets leukemia and dies. And then there’s the whole urban commune movement, and the question of Kerouac turning against his own generation late in his life, supporting William Buckley and voting for Nixon in 1968. I’ve got to deal with the politics of my people.
I take these stories very seriously and love those characters. I thought of them all, they all have careers, and they are all very alive in my mind, all the dancers and poets and thinkers. They’re real to me still. As I finish volume 4, I’ve got to say good-bye to them . . . unless I pick up on them later, but I don’t know if I’ll have time for that. I’ve got a list of books I want to write, and I’m already fifty-eight. So I’ll have to start triaging off projects to get to the ones I really want to do.
BH: So when a reviewer writes of Tales as John Yohalem did in the New York Times Book Review (9 November 1975)—”Sanders can’t decide whether he is glorying in decadence like a shopkeeper on a spree, or striking the poses of the self-righteously liberated, or putting the whole scene down”—that is simply missing the point, the intent.
ES: Yeah, that’s missing the point. What I wanted to do was to be anthropologically exact, true to the times, nothing said by anyone that would be untrue to the era. For instance, they say that language as a whole changes every six hundred years, but the language of the cutting-edge counterculture, of bohemia, changes every couple years. So—in volume 3, for instance—I wanted to be true to that month in 1967 when “beatnik” was no longer used, and everybody was a “hippie.”
But back to the review you quoted: that’s why I don’t read reviews, man. I was on the cover of Life magazine, but I’ve never read the story inside. I didn’t want to get into one of those weird feedback loops. Oh, sometimes I read them because now there’s this new generation of slash-and-burn types that attack, and I answer the overt attack. I learned from Clinton on that: if you are controversial and the attack is heavy, you’ve got to answer right away. But when someone totally misinterprets what I’m doing or just phones in the review, I forgive.
BH: Tales is an attempt to conjure through fiction the spirit of those times. When you write in the introduction to the Citadel edition that you have imagined places that “should have existed, but never did,” you aren’t saying, “it should have been like this but wasn’t.”
ES: No. Look, some of the stories in Tales of Beatnik Glory are broadly satirical but at the same time catch the essence of something. For instance, I think I very accurately capture the essence of the late fifties/early sixties open poetry readings in the story “The Poetry Reading” [Tales volume 1]. There are two theater groups out there right now doing plays about that time, and they’re using that story as a way of putting people right there. On the other hand, when you use humor, when you satirize, you immediately point out how things might have been different. You make things slightly more grotesque than they were to point out the humor of it.
But again: that book was meant as an act of love. I talk about spiritual things in the book because although I’m not very spiritual, I know a lot of people are, so I talk about ghosts, other things. I’m not personally a believer, but a lot of people are and were.
BH: Satire seems a good word to use when talking about Fame & Love in New York. How did that book come about?
ES: It came in the same flow as volume 1 of Tales. I’d finished the Manson book in July 1971. I was totally devastated by that book, and my wife, daughter, and I went down to where her parents had had their honeymoon in rural Virginia, to an old southern mansion. I sat there for a week trying to decide what to do, wrote a long poem—”The VFW Crawling Contest”—then shortly therafter a long piece about the entrapment of John Sinclair [former chairman of the White Panthers, jailed at the time on a marijuana charge] for the L.A. Free Press. John Lennon read that and made his decision to help.
Then I didn’t know what to do. A year got blown—1972—but by 1973, I knew what I wanted to do. I worked on Tales of Beatnik Glory, and as I was finishing that, I noticed this thing called SoHo. There wasn’t any SoHo then, just lofts—no boutiques, no fancy Guggenheims, no elegant places where you could spend $5 for a cup of coffee. It was illegal to live there then; the lofts still had oil stains from old machinery from fifty years earlier. It was funky, but I could see what was going to happen. I’d go into the Lion’s Head and the same people buying beer were buying cocaine. I decided to study SoHo, do some research. I was reading Balzac, decided to read all of his novels, and then started to write this book called Fame & Love in New York. I knew a lot about rock ‘n’ roll, so I put a band in the book. It’s a book about the problem of being an artist, a member of the avant-garde, and a democratic socialist. What are the problems associated with having a vision of a mixed economy where the government participates a lot in the economy, as in Sweden? And I had this idea of a deadline, like the year 2000. Creative people live with deadlines: deadline to get your record done, your book, you know? How many openings are there where the paintings are still wet and you can’t touch them? So I had this idea of a “glorious deadline” for a real big future. But I had to predict SoHo because it hadn’t even happened until right around the time the book was published in 1980.
The reason I’m babbling on is this: I wrote Tales as an act of auto/psychotherapy so I could feel better about my life and my generation. Then I wrote Fame & Love so I could get off my chest certain things I’d detected in the artistic left that I’d encountered in my experiences with the Yippies and also in 1972 during the Democratic convention. Some of what I was satirizing can be found in 1968: A History in Verse.
So I wanted to have a good time and heal myself. I moved to the country and kept writing and writing. I finally got Fame & Love done, and to my everlasting gratitude Bob Callahan [of the Turtle Island Foundation] took it on, and George Mattingly did a genius design job. I wanted to write a humorous left-wing novel while I still had the chops and wasn’t burned out. While I was writing it, we’d moved to Woodstock. I was removed by then, living in 1974 on a very beautiful farm. By the time the book came out, we’d already bought a house in Woodstock, and I’d become a country boy.
BH: You talk in Fame & Love of a “fear of the fate of Hipponax the Poet,” a “bard of the gutter,” and of the dangers of “smut and spew-spackled scandal.”
ES: Yes, because Hipponax exists only as fragments, and the only reason those fragments exist is because he wrote in limping iambics, an interesting meter. He was a guy who would chase people around in public, a literary version of Don Rickles. But Rickles always smiled and shook the hand of the guy he lampooned in Vegas; Hipponax played for keeps. So his story shows that you’re in trouble if you take on public figures when you don’t have a support system—like Tom Paine taking on Washington. But the reference to Hipponax was also an in-joke for anyone who’d studied classics.
BH: You weren’t warning writers against smut?
ES: No, it’s not a warning. Just saying that if you pursue a certain life-track, you can get painted into corners as a writer.
Usually writers write all their erotic things up to about age thirty, then they harumph off and become quite proper, like Diderot. It’s a tough gig to last thousands of years if your act is raillery and highly charged erotica. The only reason Catullus survived is because his home town saved his manuscripts. So there’s a lesson: always put your erotic poems in your home-town library, where local patriotism and boosterism will keep them from being burnt.
BH: I thought maybe the Hipponax story explained why you’ve stopped listing Shards of God among your publications.
ES: Oh, no—I’m not ashamed of what’s in Shards of God. I don’t care about its erotic material—many of my books have lots of eros in them. It was my decision to omit it from the list of my publications in Hymn to the Rebel Cafe and so forth, but I’ve lots of booklets and other things I don’t list; for instance, I don’t often mention Vote!
But I don’t think Shards is a very good book. I view it as a failure on my part. I had a perfect opportunity to write a book about Chicago in 1968 and the broader cultural issues that came into play in that police riot, which I’ve only thirty years later begun to discuss in things like 1968: A History in Verse. I was afraid to look at that stuff for decades because I was horrified, shocked. What happened in Chicago made me weep for America and led, I think, to Phil Ochs’s suicide. Such injustice.
Shards contains some interesting writing, and I certainly sign enough copies when I’m on the road. It has a certain pizzazz. But I’d never written a novel before, and as a whole it isn’t constructed that well. It just didn’t live up to what I intended, which is partly a critique of my own cowardice for not diving in and doing a real book on Chicago. I didn’t know I could do it. I hadn’t done my book on Manson yet. [Charles] Olson talks about a saturation job—one giant research project to prepare you for all the others—and I hadn’t done mine yet, so I didn’t know how. I was still, not a rock star, but very well known in those days, and I was caught in a weird warp I couldn’t step out of.
BH: It seems to me that you must have had a very clear sense of what you didn’t want Shards to be.
ES: I had had very little experience writing prose except for term papers in college. I had no models except that I knew microscopically a lot of prose—I knew Beckett’s books backwards and forwards—and was very influenced by my study of Greek culture, by the Iliad, the Odyssey, Hesiod, Diogenes. And Chekhov was a big influence, whom I read for pleasure as soon as I discovered him—when I opened the Peace Eye bookstore and got his books from wholesalers. The first story I remember reading was “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” which completely changed my take on literature.
But I had done all the “proper” reading. Allen Ginsberg had told me to read Pierre, which was the Melville you were supposed to read if you were Beat. I read Edward Dahlberg, who became a friend. I liked his prose style; he was sort of an electronic Isaiah. I’d read all the Beat tomes, and my mother had read Dickens to us. So I had a primitive sense of narrative, although I’d never taken any literary classes, any workshops. I’d have rather stuck up a Seven-Eleven than take a workshop. In college I only took what I thought were useful courses: languages, mathematics, science.
And I never read the introductions to anything. I always thought that if the novel couldn’t do it, I didn’t want to read it. It turns out that when I read some of those introductions I sneered at years ago, I probably should have read them. Not all scholars are useless.
But I read like everybody in my generation. We tried to outread each other—it was like a reading contest. From 1957 to somewhere in the sixties there was a mad rush to read more than everybody else. But I can’t spin out a list of narrative sources.
BH: No. I just wondered if you were intent on not being, say, the next John Updike.
ES: What was that novel . . . Couples! I got viscerally angry reading that. No, I didn’t have anything in mind other than wanting to do an act of imagination. I had my typewriter there on Avenue A, had just broken up the Fugs, and didn’t have anything to do, so I started that novel.
BH: I have the impression you are impatient with what’s going on with literary criticism.
ES: I don’t know anything about it. What I know I’ve learned from visiting people like you and reading what you have lying around your house and office, which I do all the time. I go to colleges all over America and always spend a couple hours studying the books in professors’ offices. I was just up at Union College in Schenectady studying the books. Professors always have great books. What we need is a website listing the books in every decent professor’s office.
BH: What’s going on in current fiction that you like?
ES: I read in a very specialized way. I live in my own little maelstrom. I don’t keep up on what’s being written, and I don’t follow the rebirth of narrative, although I think that is happening. Because what is needed now are pathways through the chaos, and writers can be helpful. Who knows what’s going to happen? Whatever it is, it will be unusual, and the task of the writer will be difficult—creating virtual rooms to sit in and participate. Whatever happens, narrative will still be required, and a lot of negative capability, a lot of “just say no.” In a fact-suffused universe, saying no is very important.
What the writer does is, I think, vitally important, although I could be wrong. I do think good writing is still the most intimate way of describing reality. However, I’m fifty-eight years old, don’t have the time to figure out what’s going on in literature, and am going to let others do this new thing that’s going to happen. I have my march orders.