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levi-neptuneTwenty years ago, in 1994, the internet was very different from today. This was long before blogging, before the idea of social media (Mark Zuckerberg was only ten years old), and two years before Sergey Brin and Larry Page started the project that would end up becoming Google. It was the year that Lycos and Yahoo! (then known as “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web”) were founded, that someone registered www.sex.com, and the White House, then occupied by Bill Clinton, moved online at www.whitehouse.gov. It was also the year that Levi Asher founded a website called Literary Kicks at http://www.charm.net/~brooklyn.1 It was one of only 2,738 websites occupying a rather uncluttered and unorganized internet, and it survives today as one of the longest running websites around.

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A few months ago, while my Twitter and Tumblr feeds were being entirely overwhelmed by the animated gif version of Tao Lin’s novel, Taipei, and it seemed that it was about to become 2013’s answer to Gangnam Style, I began exploring the Alt-Lit movement, and it struck me that this was a sort of update on the Beat Generation.

With the rise of Alt-Lit, we have seen a group of urban hipsters once again come to prominence and stamp their name on contemporary literature. Where Kerouac and Ginsberg brought spontaneous prose and jazz rhythm to their narratives, Alt-Lit writers have incorporated their own internet age-vernacular and challenged established literary convention.

medium_burroughsemeterbetterIn January, 1968, William S. Burroughs, the notorious author of Naked Lunch, enrolled in the Hubbard Trained Scientologist Course at Saint Hill Manor, in East Grinstead. That year, the brochure fawned over the building’s impressive setting and history. It is written with Hubbard’s unmistakably trite and self-aggrandizing phrasing, not to mention his fondness for the word “free” and its derivatives:

Move the mouse or scroll your iPad screen to the space at the close of Amazon.com “Editorial Reviews” section for Daniel Levin Becker’s excellent Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Harvard UP 2012).

There, you’ll find a repetition of the “Book Description,” from earlier in the page, now inflected with all-too-common Amazon character errors:

The youngest member of the Paris-based experimental collective Oulipo, Levin Becker tells the story of one of literature’s quirkiest movements—and the personal quest that led him to seek out like-minded writers, artists, and scientists who are obsessed with language and games, and who embrace formal constraints to achieve literature’s potential.

“’s” is html code for a right singly quote, and “&mdash,” of course, is the em dash (—). These reverse-engineered impregnations of the Descrption are certainly errors, but also candy-store windows for those who take a sly delight in the structural underpinning of how words on a web page may be “put” there, so to speak, in the first place.

In 1959 William S. Burroughs released his classic novel Naked Lunch, developed the Cut-up Method that was to define his writing over the next decade, and discovered Scientology. By cutting up newspaper and magazine articles, liberally mixed with Scientology pamphlets and poems by Rimbaud, Burroughs and collaborator Brion Gysin were able to cut into the future and steal the technology requisite for the invention of the iPhone and Twitter. The result was a serious decline in the quality of Burroughs’ correspondence.

If remix culture—predicated on both intensified user interaction and a crowdsourcing ethic—offers any clues to the future of publishing Jeff, One Lonely Guy may just be the Starchild of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Put simply, this is a sui generis exploration of loneliness, alienation, and depression packaged and bound—a book that is neither novel nor memoir, neither familiar nor completely strange.

 (The Merry-Go-Round is Beginning to Taunt Me[1])

 

1. Author As [not circus] Dog Trainer (Cris)

You can’t lie to a dog. Or you can’t lie badly. While training dogs, you need to be “telling” them, with both body-language and voice, that they are the center of the universe to you, and that what they do for you—and what you’re doing together—makes you happier, and means more to you, than anything else in the world. They can tell if you’re lying. If you’re unconsciously communicating to them that you’re disappointed or upset because you’re thinking about something else, something offstage—whether your life’s true dilemma or your most current disappointment—they take it on as stress. To dogs, it’s all about them. So the trainer has to be able to convince the dog of that, whether it’s true in the trainer’s larger life or not. Problem is, the dog can usually tell. A good trainer doesn’t have “a larger life.” It’s never “just a dog” and therefore easy to lie to.

OK. Rick Mullin. Your second book-length poem in as many years, Soutine, is due out soon from Dos Madres Press. How are you feeling about everything?

All right. But I need to get involved in another big project soon. Lately I’ve been working on compiling a collection—cleaning up my desk, that kind of thing. I’ve been going back to older work and revising. I’m trying to keep busy. But I’ve got an itch.

 

It’s kind of weird, right?

You know, ending work on a book is like the end of a rather intense relationship. You live in a story for months. Then you have to live with it. Alicia Stallings once said that a poet is never really happy unless he or she is in the middle of a poem. I think that’s true. It’s a very, very happy life living in a story while you are creating it.

 

The two books you’ve written, Huncke, which was published by Seven Towers in Dublin, Ireland last year, and Soutine, which you finished writing this summer, are very different books. Where did they come from?

Huncke surprised me. I had gone, quite reluctantly, to a memorial reading that a friend was hosting for Herbert Huncke. I knew who Huncke was, but I didn’t know much about him. Nor did I care much, really. I have a great deal of regard for Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and other Beats, but contemporary Beat poetry, per se, is not particularly appealing to me. Anyway, I went. And I wrote a sonnet—practice, as I recall—on the way home. It didn’t work, so I switched to ottava rima, wrote ten stanzas and figured that was my poem. Well, that ended up as Canto One, the shortest of a twelve-canto cycle of tales. I warmed to Herbert Huncke in the process. Soutine, on the other hand, I approached fully conscious of the poem as a book-length poem. While Huncke took about two months to write, Soutine took a year. It is also about three times as long as Huncke.

 

Who are these guys?

Well, Huncke was a progenitor of the Beat movement. He innovated the Beat life, as it were, and Burroughs and Ginsberg and Kerouac lived a bit of their lives vicariously through him. He is in their books in one form or another. Soutine was perhaps the greatest painter of the 20th Century. He, Beckmann, and Bonnard are the big ones for me. He was a Russian Jew who painted in Paris and died in a roundabout way as a victim of the Holocaust. He brought the grand traditions in western art into something like the modernist idiom. But he was his own man, which is why he is not very well known. His roommate, Modigliani, a lesser painter who is quite well known, recognized Soutine as a genius. Soutine’s life story matches van Gogh’s for sheer drama, which doesn’t hurt when you’re writing his life story.

 

So, you knew a lot about Soutine, and very little about Huncke when you started these books.

Right. And as it turned out, I did weeks of research writing Soutine and almost none writing Huncke. I used old Herbert as a diving board to write about America. I actually invented my own Herbert Huncke, based on what I’d heard at the memorial reading, which was kind of an all-over-the-place group performance. But Herbert Huncke lends himself to being invented. With Soutine, I put myself into the protagonist’s life. Don’t get me wrong about the research—the book is very much an historical verse novel, but I did not work from notes. Certain scenes and encounters are entirely imagined. Soutine also has a parallel narrative, a memoir describing my discovery of art, of Soutine. It captures certain revelations that occurred in writing the book. Writing it was very much an experience of writing poetry. It never felt like I was writing a term paper. It felt more like I was flying a small airplane.

 

Give me a little bit of the technical stuff, but keep it down.

Sure. Huncke is written in ottava rima, as mentioned, the verse form of Byron’s Don Juan—I invoke Byron, or a Byronic hero, in the first Canto. It is a bit of a picaresque gallivant across a big swath of American history with sections concentrating on art, literature, and music. Somehow I managed to sidestep the Civil War, but nobody’s called me out on that. Soutine I started in blank verse, but I very quickly started over in terza rima. That form ended up having real resonance in the parts with Modigliani, who loved Italian poetry and actually recites from Inferno in the poem. Terza rima, as we know, sustains an epic. My model, really, was Derek Walcott’s Omeros. He used the form very gracefully in that poem.

 

You write almost exclusively in form.

Well put. Yes, I love formal poetry. Writing it and reading it. I compare writing in form to the exercises in art school where you draw without looking at your hand, only at the model. You produce a picture that is entirely yours but that would never have materialized if you kept your brain in the game, measuring the space between knuckles and knowing there are five fingers, etc. The picture is strange, yet familiar. You have to do it many, many times to get the hang of it, but the immediate results are stunning even in the earliest drawings. Similarly, making a rhyme and keeping the rhythm forces you away from what occurs immediately in your head, from what you already know or intend. It internalizes the thought processes, ideally subjugating it to unconscious feeling and experience. That is where the imagined scenes in Soutine come from. The counting, the formulaic part of writing metrical verse is incidental. Writing in form often results in a poem that you could not have imagined writing. But imagination has a lot to do with getting you there! It’s a paradox. A really beautiful one.

 

How about guiding principles? Who are your masters?

Well, I can point to some great ones in music, poetry, and painting with whom I associate an idea or guiding principle. First, there is Duke Ellington, who says we must find a way of saying it without saying it. Then, there is Rainier Maria Rilke, who, I am told, said that the truth is buried under a pile of facts. I can’t find it anywhere, but I believe it to be his observation. Who else would say something like that? And then there is George Inness, the American landscape painter, who reminds us that knowledge must bow to spirit. Put all three together, and there you have it.

 

This from someone who has written two book-length poems filled with facts and things that he knows?

Indeed. But that is the beauty of poetry. The chance to come up with something better. We all have information, knowledge, and something to say. But if we surrender to feeling and experience, the rest becomes something like technique or ink. They are vital to the process almost on a physical or structural level. The verse comes from within. It strives for the truth under all the facts in a way that cannot occur in the writing of prose—I’m a journalist and editorial writer by day. I know. Verse conveys what truth it gleans via a kind of spiritual channel. What moves us in a poem? It is almost impossible to answer that question. It really has little to do with what the poem says. There is a lot of historical information in my two books, but the narrator is pervasive. I record my experience of living the story and I try to subjugate the facts to that experience. The autobiographical tracks in Soutine are there to personalize Soutine’s life and invite the reader to connect with Chaim on a more visceral level than might otherwise occur. I make myself a foil to the hero, which I don’t consider hubristic—I paint, and I’ve lived painting for a log time, during which I internalized Soutine’s art and his story. I’ve been a carrier, so to speak. I have to say that I am very anxious to do this kind of thing again. I have my eyes on Janis Joplin to round out a trilogy. We’ll see. Maybe something will hit me like Huncke did.

 

What sort of future do you see for the long poem?

Well, it has had something of a renaissance with Walcott, Les Murray and David Mason. Mason’s Ludlow is beautiful. I can’t imagine an historical novel on the Ludlow strike that would affect me as deeply as his poem did. Omeros is one of the greatest books I have read, and Murray’s Fredy Neptune is a natural marvel. I have fervent hopes for the long poem. I think we’ll see more of them.

 

Hey, let’s hope so. Thank you very much. You kept the name-dropping down, which was one of my big concerns going into this.

I told you not to worry. And it was nice doing this for once without the sock puppets! Thanks for the opportunity. Keep in touch. And thank you, The Nervous Breakdown!

 

China is a true land of opportunity for white people. It’s no secret that across Asia any fool with a foreign face can pick up a job teaching children to speak English. Places like Korea and Japan are full of these refugees from the West, accumulating massive bank accounts and “working” several hours a week. I’ve spent nearly three years standing in classrooms and pretending to teach. But in China it’s a bit different. The teachers work so rarely and are so few and far between that there are other jobs on offer: rent-a-foreigner, whitey-for-hire, your own personal Caucasian.

William S. Burroughs has led me many places, including to John Waters.

And when Yony Leyser, director of the excellent documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, suggested I invite John Waters to Lake Forest College, my first thought was, why hadn’t I come up with that?

On Wednesday Borders surprised almost no one by filing for bankruptcy. Authors are pissed because the company has not yet paid for the books it sold over the Christmas period. Readers are pissed because another of their local bookstores has bitten the dust.

As a reader it may seem strange that I’ve always had a strong distaste for bookstores. I hate that bookstores have “literature” sections that are a few shelves long, because most of what they sell is not literature. It’s celebrity biographies, books to accompany fad TV shows, and imitations of imitations. For me, they were a necessary evil – a place to visit to sift through the crap and find what you need.

In Dundee, during my university years, we had a handful of bookstores in the town centre, and several littered throughout the West End – the university district. Even by my third year, well before the world economy shat the bed, Dundee’s bookstores were in trouble. They began closing and reopening at smaller premises, with selections more focused on commercial books. The independent stores closed altogether.


Author’s Note: In Part 1 of this post I discussed my tumultuous relationship with my father, and how we finally began to bond once he saw my band perform. He became so hooked on the band, in fact, that he toured with us for a brief period of time and ended up at a show in New London, Connecticut. That night the club was paying my band twenty-five bucks and a case of beer to perform three sets. And since we were all sick it was our mission to get rid of the beer, as we’d already had problems with the cops and didn’t want to compound those problems by driving around in a NyQuil haze with a case of beer in tow.

And so we started our first set…


Part 2:

Sure we were sick as dogs. Sure we were strung out on NyQuil, codeine, Sudafed, and God knows what else. But you know what? My band tore it up that night in New London. The crowd was loving us. My dad was loving us.

Between most every song the band asked beer questions. They were easy questions. Questions like “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” questions. Those beers grew wings. They flew away left and right. By the end of the first set we’d already given away nine of them.


During our break, my dad rushed up to me. He was still sporting those huge anime eyes.

 

“This is the best show I’ve seen yet!” he said. “Can I ask a beer question next set?!”

I was already so grateful for his interest in my music, and how that had translated into a happier, healthier relationship between the two of us. But this was the absolute best.

“Sure, dad. No problem. I’d love for you to ask a beer question.”

Just before the band began their second set, I racked my brain, trying to devise a way to get the audience all worked up for my dad. I wanted them rabid and frothing at the mouth when he hit the stage.

Then I got an idea. Once the second set rolled around, I got on the mic, and said:

“Being in a band is pretty cool. Sometimes you get to meet people you’d never get a chance to meet otherwise. For example, we recently played New York City. While there, we got a chance to meet one of our all-time favorite idols. In fact, we hit it off so well that he decided to come on the road with us. Well, without any further adieu I’d like to introduce you to WILLIAMSBURROUGHS!!!

 

Being a college crowd, the place went absolute apeshit. And seeing as the place was packed, it was balls-to-the-wall, quadraphonic, cranked-to-ten apeshit.

I glanced over at my bandmates. They were howling hysterically. In fact, it was all I could do to contain my own laughter. Sure my plan was a bit coyote tricksterish. But at the time it seemed the best way to get the crowd all rowled up. I wanted my dad to receive nothing less than a roaring standing ovation.

As for my tipsy dad, he’d been standing in the wings, oblivious to what I’d said on the mic. But he definitely heard the applause. As the crowd roared, a smile split his face wide open. He looked at me. Those eyes of his had gone triple anime. He’d never heard so much applause in all his life.

And it was all for him. Well, for William S. Burroughs really.

I motioned my dad toward center stage. “C’mon. They’re waiting for you.”

Still sporting that huge grin, he strolled out.

Mind you, my dad has never read William S. Burroughs. And he looks nothing like him either. So as he neared the mic, the massive, wall shaking, bottle-rattling applause diminished to just one person still clapping and cheering.

Besides my dad, I figured that that was the only other person in the club that had never read Naked Lunch.

Once I let my dad and the crowd in on the joke they were all very forgiving. In fact, they were all quite amused. As for the good people of New London, they welcomed my dad with wide-open hearts. And once my dad asked his beer question and left the stage, that fine crowd gave him the same roaring round of applause.

As if my dad had been William S. Burroughs in the flesh.