Home > Research > Interviews > Unspoken Genius (2000)

Unspoken Genius

Real Detroit probes the mind of a true Renaissance man.

REAL Detroit: Why did you start doing spoken word performances?

Jim Carroll: Well readings is just another name for spoken word performance I guess. When the whole spoken word thing happened, you know new things came along like slams and people doing more amalgamating performance art with spoken word pieces. Usually in the old days, performance art happenings, the best ones, were wordless and so it’s just like a combination of both. I come from the old school where I think any poem worth its salt has to work on the page. But I also think it has to have a natural lyrical quality to it and of course it’s much better if you can hear the person read it but I still believe that you have to delineate on the page by the line. It’s just a matter of technique, short lines slow it up and it just defines how it should be read. I have made concessions from what poetry readings used to be.

In the old days there were certain poets whose poems I really liked on the page who were really dreadful readers, which is true to this day. I think John Ashbery is the best poet alive and he’s a really boring reader. At the same time there are other poets whose poems I didn’t like on the page and they were just fantastic when they read. Like Ginsberg, well I liked Allen’s poems on the page, but he was a fantastic reader too. Other beats, more obscure beat poets like Ray Brahms or somebody like that, whose poems I didn’t like on the page but when he read he had that jazz thing happening, but that’s kind of an old school thing.

I’ve made certain concessions. I did this spoken word record in ‘93 with no music, Praying Mantis, I put a couple of pieces on that which worked when I read them but I didn’t put in my next book because they didn’t seem to work on the page. I was doing a lot of readings so I thought, I guess I am writing certain pieces for the ear rather than for the page or for the eye. I’m more aware of it and I guess through rock and roll I learned to perform better.

The other thing I started to get into doing monologues. I’d start out with a germ of an idea that wasn’t written down and it’s more like telling a story. It’s difficult because you’re working without a net, you don’t have any page to resort to; if you go off it’s really bad. You really need energy from the audience for something like that. And a lot of them, each time you do them, some new character comes or you get something different and after a while some of them turn into short stories. You write them out and put (them) through the literary machine. Sometimes they work as short stories, I’m working on some of them now and I’ve done that in the past. Others don’t and you just kind of discard those and it’s just as well. That’s more of a spoken word aspect that I wouldn’t do at a poetry reading when I was young.

But aside from that, the other thing is since I write prose and poems I always usually start with prose pieces, whether it’s a monologue or a piece from a book. The problem is I’ve been working on these novels and it’s much different than from taking things like in Forced Entries that are short diary entries and they read very well It’s hard to read from these books because you could go twenty pages and still not hit the germane parts. There are some parts where I can take little fragments. There’s no real plot or anything, there’s just an image that works as a slice. For the most part I find it hard to read from those. I usually like to read prose pieces and have most of them be kind of funny and then the second part of the reading I’ll read poems which are usually more serious but I’ve noticed it depends what poems I read. It seemed at the last reading the poems were pretty funny too.

Most of the poems I read now are from Void of Course, my most recent book. With poems, it’s like with songs, people have certain favorite ones they want to hear and then don’t mind hearing those over and over again, you’re just reading one time a year. But with prose, people want to hear a different piece than they heard the year before. I don’t know exactly what prose pieces I read last year, but I’ll find out and I won’t read the same pieces this time. I don’t know what the difference is, that’s just my way of going about it. The main difference between spoken word and poetry readings, (spoken word) has opened more doors. I’m not really into poetry slams and stuff. Usually the poems that win, and people will even admit it, are their weakest poems they’re just funny, shocking...

RD: Entertaining.

JC: Yeah. But it brings more people into it and it makes poetry more accessible in different forms and people can just get into it and then once they’re there they can neutralize it from their own taste. In that sense it’s a good thing and all those things are welcome.

The whole thing of spoken word being some phenomenon that’s going to be there with rock and roll is total bullshit. That’s never going to happen, people want a backbeat. I just know from doing both, I could feel the difference from the audience. But there are certain similarities and certain tricks you can bring from rock and roll. Writing a lyric and writing a poem are two different things technically.

It always angered me when critics would refer to the lyrics as poems because they’re very different (even if) in the aesthetic sense you try and do the same thing. But I don’t think that spoken word is going to eclipse music in any sense. I see people incorporating it at different times in a useful way and that’s good. Someone will come along and put it all together in some unique way but I don’t who that’s going to be.

RD: Do you think that poetry has become more accessible to the public?

JC: Yeah. I think so, I mean poetry as spoken word. I think rap has helped do that. In New York there’s a lot of rap guys who go to spoken word venues like the Nuyorican Cafe and they’ve been taken in. At first they was a separation and some antagonism but now a lot of rap guys are just reading their pieces without any music.

I think it makes it all more accessible because poetry readings (are) not something that everybody is going to get into. That’s why I’ll start off with a prose piece that’s funny and more accessible to people who are not used to it (poetry readings) because it’s an acquired taste. I see it with all these kids.

I have this new audience of kids who bought The Basketball Diaries after the movie came out, which surprised me because I thought they’d just see it because of Leonardo or Marky or something. When it went back on the New York Times Bestseller List my publisher and I couldn’t figure out who was buying all these books and it turned out to be all these kids. I soon started to get all these letters from these kids like between 12 and 18 and they would show up at readings. That was great because I always liked kids who were the age when I wrote the book reading it. It certainly brought up some problems for me in the past couple years. Most of the letters I get from kids, they’ve read The Basketball Diaries and then they actually did go out and buy my books of poems and they hadn’t really read poems before and they dig’em. That’s good from another direction. I think it is more accessible now and it is bigger. I just mean not on the level of rock or anything.

RD: When you wrote The Basketball Diaries and when they were subsequently published, did you have any idea the impact they would have?

JC: No. When I wrote them I had no idea but you have to remember when I wrote them I didn’t think about publishing them. I didn’t write them as a dear diary, I did write them for an audience really even if I didn’t know it at the time. I was addressing an audience, I say it right in the book sometimes. But I didn’t think about publishing it because then I got into poetry and pushed that aside.

Then they had a prose issue of this poetry magazine and they asked me if I had any prose, this was when I was about 17 or 18, and I said, "Well I have these diaries I wrote and they’d be kind of camp in a certain way." I remember Ted Berrigan, a poet who was like a big mentor of mine, a big brother, he said, "This is a money book, man."

Then the people at the Paris Review read them and said, "You should send us about thirty pages." So when they were published there I got all these letters from publishers who wanted to do it, but I didn’t publish it then, this was in 1970. I just didn’t think it was a good time to publish it because it wasn’t really a hippie book.

When I started to do music I looked at the diaries, I had been in the recluse period in California for years and I hadn’t thought about publishing anything really. I had to go to New York and I brought The Basketball Diaries with me because I thought that if The Ramones are writing songs about guys sniffing glue and there’s all these pieces about sniffing glue and cleaning fluid in the Diaries, I think it’s much closer to the punk audience. So I waited until then. I guess it was just a thing of timing at that point.

The way its gone on through other generations since then has been interesting to me. The whole thing of the shit in Kentucky and Columbine is weird and I don’t know what that’s about. I can’t account for the impact, the only thing I can think that separates it from other books like that is it was written at the time when I was that age. It wasn’t a book about youth looking back. I mean they are great books like Catcher In The Rye that are written looking back and that’s just coming from another angle. That book certainly has spawned a lot of havoc too. It also may be because they’re in diary form but still read like a novel in a certain way. It lets kids read them (by) skipping around at first.

I remember when I first published it and I sent a copy to Sam Shepperd. He sent me this letter, because he’d read them in magazines over the years. I was living near him in California and I said, "I finally published the fuckin’ thing." He said send me a copy. When he first read it he read them just skipping around and he thought he read them all and then he’d find one he hadn’t read and it was like a bonus. But then he read it cover to cover and he said it had a completely different effect. I thought that was really terrific.

I know when Bantam first published it they did some kind of study on how many people had read different Bantam books for each copy sold and The Basketball Diaries had the most people who read it for each copy sold because it was borrowed from so many people.

Whenever I do booksignings people are always saying, "Could you make this out to so and so because I stole his copy and this is the only way I can become friends again, if I get a signed copy." You know you can pick it up and just read two excerpts and stick it in your pocket and leave. (You can) read it that way and then get a different take reading it cover to cover.

It’s also one of the most stolen books apparently. The guy at Barnes and Noble told me. In a lot of bookstores, with Charles Bukowski and (William) Burroughs and (Jack) Kerouac I think, it’s in the information section because it’s stolen a lot.

RD: Wow, that’s cool.

JC: Yeah it’s kind of cool.

RD: Does it bother you that the Basketball Diaries is your most well-known work?

JC: Yes. That’s why I’m working on these books now. These novels, the one I’m working on now, is in the third person, it’s not autobiographical at all. Of course it bothers me, I mean my first album was the most successful album by far too. I mean that happens. It happened with On The Road, well On The Road wasn’t Kerouac’s first book but the Town and City didn’t sell at all. It happened with Patti’s (Smith) first album, well at least it was more successful commercially. I mean it’s her fans favorite album. I don’t know what that has to do with it, but it pisses me off at times, you know? What are you going to do though?

RD: Do you think of yourself more as a poet rather than a diarist or a novelist?

JC: Yeah I always thought of myself as a poet. That’s what I made up my mind I was going to be when I was like 15 or 16. And you know I had success very early, I was kind of the token prodigy at St. Mark’s (Poetry Project) which is a good thing and a bad thing. Early success can lead to an arrested adolescence in a way which is not good. But I’ve always basically thought of myself as a poet.

With rock and roll it was a complete fluke how I got into that. I was writing some songs for other groups and then, since with punk you really didn’t have to have a good voice or anything, there was a local band all ready-made when I was on the West coast who wanted to do something with me. It just went over really well and then we started to work together. I came to New York and got a record deal. I never would have imagined I would have been doing that.

With prose, I have a sense of prose that brings me enjoyment. Since I’m working in total fiction, the characters are entertaining to me and they’re like real people whereas poetry I’m dealing with taking myself out of my day to day life in a much different way. But actually in Void of Course the poems are much more about dealing with myself than in my earlier poems where they were more erudite in a certain sense. (There’s a lot of) angst, betrayal - it’s not a happy book. (A poet) is just always been what I thought I was and was meant to be. These other things just seem to come up you know?

I think if I was starting all over now being a writer, I’d probably be dealing with film. All the young writers I know who are really talented in New York are all into film. They either write screenplays or directing. Actually I’m kind of working of this screenplay myself now you know, but I can’t throw myself into it like these guys can. Also being around film now I see that any half-ass can direct, you just need a good director of photography, a good cinematographer and you’re fine. So that’s not such a big deal.

When Harmony Korine first sent me a copy of the screenplay for KIDS I read it through and it was like a fucking novel to me I never read a screenplay like that. I read it cover to cover in one sitting. He’d been trying to get in touch with me for years and I called him up immediately and said, "This is fucking great." He’s incredibly well-read but he doesn’t really have much interest in writing novels or anything like that. He published a book of little short surreal pieces but I think that was just because he was doing them and he was hot and they gave him a lot of money for it (laughs). I mean even guys who started out writing books like Sherman Alexie, he’s totally more into film now it seems to me.

Richie Price, who’s a big screenwriter, he’s a contemporary of mine, and he always said when he went out to Hollywood, "You should come out here, man. There’s a fucking fortune just for writing a three page outline." And it’s true, but he could write rewrites really fast and I’m not really that good at that. So it’s a different thing for me. I just feel like if I went out there, I’d just be stuck there so I try to avoid it at all costs.

RD: You worked with and hung out with a lot of seminal people in the art/literary/punk scene, did that influence your work at all?

JC: Well not really. I mean when people started to make it or deciding what their best medium was, I left New York (in ‘73 when Living At The Movies came out) and went to California. (I) was kind of away from that whole scene. I mean it depends on the people. Do you mean the older people like Allen (Ginsberg) or are you talking about people like Patti Smith from the punk scene?

RD: Both, I mean you were sort of in both weren’t you?

JC: Well yeah. Poetry-wise I liked Allen’s poems and I was influenced by his mind. I talked to him a lot about politics and stuff but I wasn’t into the Beats so much poetry-wise. I was more into the New York School guys. The Basketball Diaries kind of has that Beat writing thing, but I wrote that so young.

In poetry I wanted to get away from that. I was a little snot. I wanted to be more erudite and I was more influenced by Frank O’Hara and (John) Ashbery and the New York School who were coming from the French and German poets. But in a way I definitely learned a lot from Allen. Burroughs, out of all those writers, I think I learned a lot reading his books.

But with Patti when I first knew her she had just left art school and she was mainly doing drawings. Then she started to write poems and she would show them to me. She was just starting to put a band together when I left New York. I saw her first couple of shows and I thought, well this is the medium for her. I always knew Patti, just from being with her, had this vacillation from this sweetness to this total rage and magic thing happening so I always knew she was a great performer just from her first poetry reading.

Her poems to me were much better, the words to me, were much better set to music than they were at the page. I think she’s written some good poems and they’re really unique. I could see, this was when she just had Lenny (Kaye) playing guitar and Richard Sole playing keyboards, she didn’t have a drummer or anything.

My only connection when I was in California was reading the Village Voice. In about three years the whole thing was happening at CBGB’s and the Mercer Arts Center and Patti was just a huge star, I mean it surprised me on that level but it didn’t surprise me. She was made for rock and roll and it was made for her.

Then people like Richard Hell, who was Richard Meyers when I left, just hanging around the poetry scene and stuff. I wonder a lot what would have happened if I stayed in New York. If I would have gotten into music too. I don’t know if I would have. My little snot-nosed tendencies (laughs) might have made me say, "No, I’m not going to do that." I think that it was just the right thing for me to do at that time, to get away. That was the best influence for me and just being by myself alone and in the country for the first time in my life and having a dog. My dog was my biggest influence on my work (laughs).

Of course all the poets like Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman who were around St. Mark’s were I guess the biggest influences on me, I learned a lot. But (when) the whole burgeoning of the punk scene (happened), the highlight of my day was going to the post office in this little town in California while everybody was being wild at CBGB’s. I kind of miss it, the fact that I wasn’t there.

All those people were influences on my life and since my life was pretty much so connected to my work, it was kind of the same thing. Just from being with Patti, I had this Apollonian craft thing and she was completely dionysian just let it all blow out. A lot of that rubbed off of me as much as it could, so in that sense it was a big influence just in a personal sense from all those people. But then I was away, so I can’t say it was a huge influence like in a direct literary sense.

RD: When you got started in rock and roll, how did you keep that persona different from Jim Carroll the writer?

JC: I had to put the writer thing aside. I can’t stand doing things in any dilettantish sense and I thought the first thing people were going to look for was, "This is just some fucking pretentious shit" or something. I was really conscious of that and I just thought if I was going to do rock and roll, I just got to throw myself into it completely.

The thing I really always liked best, and maybe that’s why I did side projects often in different mediums, was I liked to learn new things. It was just great learning about music. I always could play the guitar in a limited sense but not well at all, enough to write music to songs. Music always influenced my writing a lot, inspired it and I listened to a song and it would inspire me to write a poem more than it would if I had read a poem when I was a young poet.

But when I started to actually do rock and roll, and certainly when I started to do rock and roll I think the freedom for that was just given to me by what people were doing in New York at CBGB’s. I just felt that I had put aside the writing aspect and just write songs and, like I said, there’s a difference in the craft, but that’s just a technical thing.

It wasn’t really that hard. It was just trying to get the most out of the tension between the music and the lyrics, counterpoint was always really important to me in any art form, either by opposites or cross currents with chords and stuff. I was just learning a lot and put myself into it completely when I was doing it.

And then by my third album and when we were finished touring, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to get back to writing. I didn’t regret it at all, it was a really great time. I felt like I was a musician during that whole period, but I didn’t have a musician’s attitude. The guys in my band they would have toured 360 days in a year. I like performing a lot, but I didn’t like being on the road and all the psychological paraphernalia. It was a lucky thing I started relatively late because all the drugs and things that were available, I would have killed myself when I was younger.

There were certain nights I just didn’t want to be in front of an audience. I didn’t have that feeling (of) no matter how sick you are, when you get on stage you’ll feel great. If I felt shitty physically or mentally ... certainly at the beginning songs would take me out of myself but after a while, doing it night after night, you’d just be performing and you’d have to learn how to be an entertainer. That was a difficult thing to do and I felt uncomfortable doing it. And after a while there were nights that I just didn’t want to be in front of people performing, it wasn’t fun. For the guys in the band it was great. That’s when writing books started to come back into my mind.

RD: Recently you’ve collaborated with younger musicians like Rancid, do you see any difference between the generations?

JC: Not really. They were completely professional and when I did a reading out in Seattle a couple of months ago, I did some songs, these guys from different bands had rehearsed some of my old songs and some new songs from Pools of Mercury, and it was great.

I don’t know, it’s a Seattle thing. I think it’s a real communal thing with musicians there, they don’t backbite. I think that’s the way it was in New York from talking to Lenny Kaye. When I was starting music, it was in San Francisco and most of the bands would really bad mouth other bands and hated each other. And if you got a record deal, they really hated you. It was just this whole jealous backbiting thing. I couldn’t get that because at the poetry scene at St. Mark’s it was always everybody supporting everyone in this real communal way. So it seemed like bullshit to me.

I didn’t really know Rancid’s music when they asked me to do this and I couldn’t believe the guitar playing, it could have been Joe Strummer singing the vocals for all I knew, but that’s just where they were coming from.

The only thing about, and it doesn’t have anything to do with musicians it’s just the technology, I can’t stand digital recording. I just like recording on real tape. I just think that you really lose a lot with all these binary pixels and stuff. It’s just a physical fact that drums and bass just stick on magnetic tape and compress and you just don’t that sound digitally. When I was doing Pools of Mercury it was all digital. Everything going through a computer, it was amazing the stuff you could do. You know in ‘83 vocoders and stuff were amazing to me too, it really doesn’t matter. I don’t like the whole digital thing, I’m much more of an analog person.

RD: It’s more natural that way.

JC: Yeah. Just as far as the musicians, collaborating with them. I collaborated with Boz Scaggs, how weird is that? I just admire people who are really good at their craft. And, like I said, I like to learn new things and if there’s nothing to learn (laughs) there then you don’t learn anything. You just throw it away, but you usually do if you’re looking for it.

RD: A lot of great art whether it be writing, music or painting has been made under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Why do you think that is?

JC: (laughs) I guess because it’s a very lonely thing and because it drives you crazy after a while. I never liked coke when I was growing up. We had a perverse amount of big cocaine dealers who were fans of the band, for some reason. It was a different drug, it was so much purer out in San Francisco. The fact was everyone was doing cocaine then and it was a real musicians drug. It was a real insidious drug. I got to see pretty soon (that) it was kind of demonic in a certain way, real selfish. It didn’t have any warmth to it, it’s a real cold drug. Boy you got me going (laughs).

When I was doing a lot of hard drugs when I was young, that’s when I typed things up. I’d get really neat and I actually didn’t really write that much on heroin. Boredom is the best high to me and that’s when I write best.

I can’t drink at all. I cannot understand like when Kerouac would say, "If you get stuck when you’re writing, just have another shot or something." If I got stuck when I was writing and had another shot, by the second one or maybe one and a half I’d just might be underneath the typewriter (laughs). My metabolism doesn’t work that way, it just knocks me out. So I can’t understand the alcohol syndrome with writing.

I see it with certain writers where they can work for days by drinking and it just keeps them level in a certain way. That’s a genetic thing (laughs). Just like the way with heroin, people always think of it as naughty now. With me, if I did enough I’d nod out or eventually I would after a few hours but (usually) it would give me bunches of energy and, like I said, most of the stuff I wrote then was rewritten later, but it was good for typing up things I had already written and it made me very precise in a certain way and it gave me energy to do this shit work. In the sense of making me precise it would make me see that I was wasting words so it would be good for editing and just getting rid of a lot of crap. But ideas and stuff did not come to me, there was no Kubla Khan thing happening.

Artists are always going to look for some kind of way to break through some other door and you have to move around your consciousness now and then to see things from different angles. Unless you want to go off and be a yogi for 80 years and write maybe one book and it probably won’t be too interesting, then the easiest way to do it just take drugs. Well actually I was thinking of writers I liked that didn’t take drugs, but they were total drunks and that’s certainly a drug.

I can’t smoke grass in New York, I wish I could. I get too paranoid, the grass is too strong. I wish I had crappy grass or something. I could never write on grass either. I wrote one good piece on grass once I think. I loved smoking grass to be able to not write though and just put it out of my head and watch movies and be entertained. In that sense I kind of miss that. Maybe I’ll move somewhere where there’s crappy grass. If this applies to Detroit I don’t know.

RD: There’s crappy grass in Detroit.

JC: Well, that’s what I want! (laughs)

RD: You’ve been called the "Keith Richards" of poets, is that a fair comparison?

JC: I never heard anybody call me that. C’mon (laughs). I don’t know if that’s a good thing. I can’t imagine what Keith’s poems would be like and I’m sure Keith can’t imagine, well he can imagine what my guitar playing’s like - it’s terrible. I’m sure it’s probably coming from a certain presence on stage at times. I take exception to this, well maybe it’s not true, maybe I don’t take exception to it. I don’t know the way I carry myself on stage, you know I don’t think about it consciously, but I remember someone once commenting that I was all over the place. And then I remember someone writing about a benefit for a musician who hurt himself here in New York City and Lenny Kaye organized it and Patti played at it and the Dictators and Marshall Crenshaw. The guy wrote that he’d seen me read a lot but he’d never seen me with my band. But he said that I came off looking so healthy and together and that I was really straight up and I looked really good. So I think I’ve overcome the Keith Richards analogy there.

RD: Well I think this guy was getting at when you started you were the rebellious poet, you weren’t in the classical school maybe because you were so young.

JC: I don’t really see that, that doesn’t just point to Keith. The thing about Keith is completely not giving a shit - well yeah so in that sense it’s like that in a certain way, but I was little snot. I was rebellious in the sense that I wouldn’t show up to readings when I supposed to because I was stoned and shit. Yeah I was a fuck-up too, I was little snotty fuck-up. Yeah in that sense I’ll accept any comparison to Keith. Even flopping around like a fish on stage, I don’t care (laughs). But I was pleased when I saw that review that I looked very healthy and had it together.

RD: Almost as if you had put that past to rest in a way.

JC: Yeah, I was dancing around like Mick (Jagger) instead of falling down to my boots.

RD: Growing up Catholic is there any spiritual aspect that you put in your work?

JC: Yeah absolutely I think my work is very Catholic oriented. I can’t stand the politics of the Church but I’ve always been fascinated by the mythology of the church and the rituals of the church. I once said on some talk show once, I got a lot of shit for it, (that) Catholicism and punk rock were very much alike. What could be more punk rock than the stations of the cross where this guy’s getting whipped and has to wear a crown of thorns and weeps into a veil and leaves his image behind and then gets crucified and rises up? I meant it in a really good way. I just thought the analogy was valid and all these idiots called about it.

But I do think that whole blood as a metaphor for life, Christ’s blood as a metaphor for this kind of homeopathic balm of redemption is just something that’s always fascinated me from when I was young. And also, especially with Catholicism, the feminine side, the whole cult of the Virgin which is not in the other Protestant churches, not just with the Virgin Mary but with Mary Magdalene too. That feminine side, I find it very sweet and it’s also reassuring.

But the hideous part, I mean I liked most of the stuff that came out of Vatican II, but getting rid of Latin was the worst thing that you could possibly do. You can’t have a valid ritual without some kind of mysterious language. I can remember saying the mass in Latin and it was just so fantastic. I wanted to know what these words meant, it still sticks with me. It made me take Latin for six years in school.

I thought that was a big mistake. I think that the Church would be a lot better off with (Latin). It just seemed like some cheap ecumenical conciliation and I thought that it just takes away from the ritual of it and any real sense of ritual.

All these things are ingrained in my work, especially in my poems. There’s a lot of religious imagery either overt or a somewhat more subtle sense. It’s a big part of me. The whole aspect of the Church as politics is a whole other thing. As far as my own sense of faith and belief, I would love to have to have absolute faith but I can’t say that I do. I admire that in a certain way from certain people. I’m going to go into my own sense of faith or anything but yeah just the whole ritualistic aspect of it.

I’ve learned a lot from Buddhism, but I can’t really understand people like Ginsberg going off and becoming Buddhists even though Tibetan Buddhism is really fascinating. I think it’s almost like language. If you’re trained in a certain religion by a certain age you kind of have to walk that path no matter what. It’s just put on you, unless you have some complete epiphany or seizure on the road to Damascus. It would have to be something of that magnitude to really change it around in the sense of it being really integral to your heart. That’s another thing about Catholicism, it has that heart sense to it especially through the cult of the Virgin. It’s not just an intellectual thing.

RD: New York City is also really important to your work and influences a lot of your writing, how do you feel about the sterilized New York of late?

JC: Well it’s terrible. Guiliani’s really out to lunch but I can’t blame it all on Guiliani, I mean the whole cleaning up is all Guiliani, it’s just almost impossible for people to live in Manhattan anymore. It’s just ridiculous. I have friends living in two story houses in L.A. who are paying half what I’m paying for my fucking apartment in New York. And fortunately I make a living from writing. There’s so many writers who are friends of mine who can’t afford to live in Manhattan unless they’ve been living in a rent subsidized place.

Even the outer Boroughs, after Tribeca and Soho got filled up with artists living in lofts then it moved to Williamsburg in Brooklyn and now the prices there are outrageous. I mean Staten Island’s next.

San Francisco’s kind of the same way but even though you’re paying the same amount you get more bang for your buck there.

I felt really blessed to always have grown up in New York but I also felt one of the best times in my life was when I lived by myself in California and I just was able to filter all this learned trivia into some kind of wisdom. Actually, I can write better about New York when I’m outside of New York than I can when I’m here in a certain way, not poetry-wise but prose-wise. So it doesn’t really matter to me where I live as a writer and I don’t make the scene anymore. I don’t really go out. I keep telling myself I should. I was in a real hermetic period for a while but now I’ve moved back downtown. I feel like I should be going out more. Actually I went out last night so that should take care of a month or something.

RD: Do you miss that community of artists that used to exist in New York?

JC: Well I think it still does at St. Mark’s. St. Mark’s had their big New Year’s Day marathon reading like they always do. I did the one last year and it was so packed. It was like playing with a band at some theater somewhere. It was really scary, people were sitting on the stage. This year I missed it because I had the fucking flu. So I felt bad about that.

But that sense of community is still there at St. Mark’s and I do miss it in a certain way and I feel like I should be, in some ways, apart of it but it’s not just a matter of place to go, it’s a matter of intersection of time and place in your life. There was a time when it was the right time and place for me to be in that recluse period in California or to be hanging around St. Mark’s. I don’t feel like this is the time for me now. I go out and I just get worn very quick by things and I just want to split. I’m turning into this boring person.

RD: If there was fire and you only had time to grab three things, what would they be?

JC: Actually I was in an apartment that had a fire about five years ago. I know a grabbed this stash of cash that I had in this place because I had some money that I hadn’t put in the bank. I know I got that (laughs) that was pretty pragmatic. I took these, they're made by Zen monks in Japan, they're kind of like Zen rosaries and they’re carved meticulously, they’re so realistic. They’re these little skulls and you use them every year to say a prayer for each monk or friend of yours that died.

Somebody played to the Dalai Lama "People Who Died" at this Zen retreat and he thought it was a funny song (laughs) and he gave me these things as a present. So I grabbed those, you know you got to take something from the Dalai Lama. And then I took a flashlight too because the power went out.

If I had to take a third thing looking around my apartment, shit. I’d take those prayer beads. I’d take this drawing I have that’s hanging up near the door actually (laughs) maybe in case there is a fire. I guess I’d have to take the manuscript to the book I’m working on. I’d have to take that and hopefully be able to get the notes to the other book too.

The original interview was found at


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