We thought you’d like to read this excerpt from another interview in which David Thomas discusses ‘The Book of Hieroglyphs,’ poetry and punchlines…
DT: In the first draft of the book I said what i really think about poetry – early on in the ‘Read Me First’ chapter. Here it is:
“Poetry attracts to itself the inadequate and mentally ill. Obsessives drone on about their own feelings, emotions and trivialities. (Cats also seem to figure unnaturally often.) Who cares? Tell a story that avoids the Self. Entertain me. Crush me. Make me see. I am shocked by the number of the voluntarily handicapped, the medicated and the professionally unemployed who attend poetry clubs in England. And that’s before we count those incapable of running their own lives without propagating calamity within the circle of their acquaintances, and society in general. The poetry is an abomination, an offense to the history of man on this planet.
“Let us be clear. The accusation is not all inclusive. I admire the work of poets living and dead. Still, the fruit does not fall far from the tree.”
Cooler heads prevailed on me to edit those paragraphs out. ‘Unnecessarily provocative.’ Still, since you ask, I answer. Poetry has a bad name for good reason. Going to a poetry club in England feels like going into a porn shop – something, I’d like to note, I’ve never done, but I imagine the smell of rubber and cheap perfumed ointments.
The Poetry Business is also, largely, a racket – the Welfare State of Literature – a place where crooks feed off the gullible. The number of scams and scamsters is remarkable.
There’s another reason I deny that what I have done is poetry. I describe it in that same chapter. This is a book of pieces of a story, one story. The pieces assemble themselves inside the head of the reader to make the whole. Maybe I have to do it this way because I don’t have the talent to work any other way.
You have to remember that I have spent my entire adult life constructing three minute, really short, short stories that are meant to accumulate over the years to reveal the bigger picture. Maybe I can’t break out of that method. Or, maybe I see something useful in that method that can be achieved by no other means. I suppose that’s the verdict that time will deliver.
Q: You say you hate words but you clearly have a command of them. I’ve been told you often spent hours, even days, working over a single line.
DT: Yes, I command them. I like that notion. They do my bidding. They are my minions, like the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz. They are tools. They are weapons. They are a means to an end. I am well-trained in the craft of psychological manipulation, of making people see what is not there, or not see what is there. I know where all the holes are, the weak joins, the inadequate arguments. I know the tricks of perceptual sleight of hand needed to distract the attention of an audience from those blemishes. I am ruthless. By hook or by crook I will lead an audience down the garden path of my choosing.
Joseph Conrad is a writer I liked as a teenager. I was taken by the idea that English was not his native language. He approached it as an alien. Because of my years making music, particularly Rock Music, I flatter myself that I too approach the English language as an alien. Distrustful, cautious as a snake – aware that others, like me, are out to sell a bill of goods and will use every trick to hand.
I start to read a book and if the author is too obvious in pursuit of his agenda I abandon it. When someone wants to tell me a joke I say, Tell me the punchline first and then I’ll let you know if I want to hear it. Life’s too short. One of the things I learned from my father, as he quoted Walt Whitman to me endlessly, was that if a joke is funny once, it’s funny a thousand times. He was right. Give me the punchline first. If it’s any good the joke will bear up. Give me the conclusion first. Read me the last chapter.
And, damn it, leave out the adjectives!