Interviewed by Norman Douglas, 10 October, 2010
I met John Farris in 1983, not long after moving to the Lower East Side. Tina Carstensen was a budding poet and a teacher at the nursery school on Avenue D, and she introduced at Vazac Bar on the corner of Seventh Street and Avenue B. Also known as Horseshoe because of its U-shaped bar, actors Steve Buscemi and Mark Boone—then with Squat Theater, as well as regulars at 8 BC, the performance space a couple of blocks away—were two of the main bartenders, along with the brothers Hylfeldt of the new wave band, Tav Falcon and Panther Burns. The spot was a regular meeting place for a group of writers who included Emily Carter, Darius James, B. Cold, and others who frequented Rick Van Valkenburg’s Neither/Nor. But most of what I think of Farris a writer, teacher—and maybe a little of our friendship—can be read in the transcript of the interview we did in mid-October of last year. Tribes was hosting a group reading of The Ass’s Tale by the Unbearables and friends that night. I’m told an old ghost or two dropped by in the early part of the night, but my date and I arrived late so, I can’t swear by hearsay. As long as it took me to transcribe this recording, a few more ghosts may be lurking in wait. Take heed…
FARRIS: I started drawing!
DOUGLAS: What made you start drawing?
FARRIS: Those people downstairs, when I saw what they were doing.
DOUGLAS: Oh, you saw all that stuff in the gallery and figured, “Man, who put this nasty shit up?”
FARRIS: Awful! That shit is ugly, man. I said to myself, “Damn, I could do that!”
DOUGLAS: How long have you been doing it?
FARRIS: Oh, about six years.
DOUGLAS: You still have some poems coming out of you. Right?
FARRIS: I had a show already. I sold some of those heads over there. I do these heads, too. But those are perishable because I didn’t go to the art store and get the last tape. I got it from the hardware store, so the humidity made them unravel. But I sold some to collectors. I sold two to David Hammons, and I sold one to Paul–Andrew’s brother [the Castrucci brothers ran A & P, one of the first artist-run galleries in the early Eighties’ East Village]—and a couple more. I sold those for 150 apiece. And I sold a couple of drawings. My show was called “Dear John,” like “Dear Theo.”
DOUGLAS: Damn! [unintelligible] drawing like [unintelligible].
FARRIS: Oh, you like that? I was ready to throw that away.
DOUGLAS: Are you serious?
FARRIS: Yeah. I’m looking at it, and it’s too narrative.
FARRIS: I didn’t want that.
DOUGLAS: It’s amazing.
FARRIS: Well, there are a bunch of good ones in there. These are all recent. I make somewhere between three and nine drawings a day. So, there’s all kinds of things.
DOUGLAS: Is there a difference between drawing and writing in terms of how you feel about expressing yourself?
FARRIS: Well, didn’t you hear me say–when you first got here–that I was tired? But I can still do some drawing. When you came in, I was kind of grumpy, because I was so exhausted. But that’s the difference. When I’m very tired, I can draw because I don’t have to think about it. I may be laying down. I can even get in the bed. If something flashes in my head, I get up and I do it. A lot of them, I sketch from the morning paper.
The process of writing is involved. I have to think. Drawing, I don’t have to think. That’s it, to make a long story short.
DOUGLAS: So, does it feel more liberating, or is it just a different means of expression.
FARRIS: It’s more liberating. In fact, I think that if I had started this when I was younger–I did _try_ to draw when I was a kid–but my brother, who was two years older than me could draw. But he was jealous of me, and he would say, “You know you can’t draw!” So, I didn’t do it.
DOUGLAS: So, you believed him like a little brother.
FARRIS: Yeah. And I didn’t do it. But if I had kept drawing, I never would’ve… I probably would have written, but my primary thing would be art. That’s how I emote towards it.
DOUGLAS: Your mind would have been totally different now.
FARRIS: Yeah. I don’t go to museums. I have art books. I don’t look at those books. This stuff is in my head. Andrew was just saying that it’s amazing how much I’ve improved. I still love good writing. Not necessarily poetry. I like fiction. I’m talking about literature. Not criticism, history, stuff like that. I like fiction that’s satirical.
DOUGLAS: You’ve always been into satire?
DOUGLAS: How do you think that the pursuit of drawing would have given you a different outlook on life and art?
FARRIS: Well, the satire is probably yet my response to my brother. And then, to people in general. I tend to be satirical about their responses to me. It’s funny, because I’m so grumpy, but humor is my bag. But, I’ll tell you how I started this [drawing]. They were working on this building. They were in here. In fact I was writing another novel. It’s in there [indicates adjoining room]. And I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t write. I was in here while they were working, renovating my whole place. And I couldn’t think. And I started making cartoons. That was the beginning of it. It was a response. Here’s a cartoon right here.
DOUGLAS: [reading] What do you mean you’ve given up Hope? It was only last week you were going to marry her.
FARRIS: It’s a light thing.
FARRIS: I did one…
DOUGLAS: So, the punning is still in there.
FARRIS: Yeah. I did one–my ex-wife came over and took it–but this gentleman’s standing outside and the sign says Toyota and the guy is talking to the salesman and he says “My wife won’t give me a divorce, so I’m thinking of getting her a car.” That was when they were having problems with Toyota. Then, there’s one over there that has this old guy with an older lady–they’re elderly. And he says, “We just got married. We’re going to Viagr–I mean, Niagara Falls for our honeymoon.” I sold a bunch of them. The cartoons and the heads were the hit of the show.
DOUGLAS: Let’s backtrack a bit. Talk about how your relationship with your brother affected you and your life, your art.
FARRIS: We’re both bastards. And we’re bastards from different fathers. And for some reason, I was never told who my father was. Nor was my brother. For some reason, I never asked. My cousin, Robert, he was like a father, and he related to me like that. He didn’t relate to my brother like that. So that created a situation that was contentious.
DOUGLAS: And you still felt that entering into adulthood.
FARRIS: My brother had a problem with heroin. He was a very bright guy. And, you know I went to jail for marijuana. They gave me three years for some marijuana I didn’t even have. This guy, Dick Whalen [sp?]…
DOUGLAS: This is about 1950-something?
FARRIS: 1959. I was over in Sheridan Square hanging with Dick Whalen. His father owned shoe stores. We’re out there smoking pot. And these two guys come up there where we’re hanging out. We’re over in the dugout by Bleecker Street. Over there at Bleecker and West Broadway. Now, these guys are at a table, and Dick says to me–I’m sitting between them and Dick, and Dick says, he says, “Pass this to them.” So I pass the bag for them. It was a brown paper bag. I guess it was a bag full of pot, but I didn’t know. Then he says, “We’re going to go to a party tomorrow.” So we’re going to this party, and we get a cab. We’re going by Abingdon Square with these two guys, Dick Whalen and these two guys…
DOUGLAS: And they roll up on you.
FARRIS: Up pop the rollers with the guns to our heads. “You’re under arrest.” So I say, “You must have made a mistake.” You know, I’m all Ivy League. I’m not going to any school, but I was, I had all the attitude. I was smarter than most of them in that, which was why I didn’t go around there. I was just like my brother.
DOUGLAS: In terms of…?
FARRIS: You know, authority. I would not accept authority, nor definition from anybody. So anyway, they say, “You’re under arrest.” And I say, “You must have made a mistake.” And they say, “What’s your name?” I say, “John Farris.” “Oh, no, we didn’t make a mistake.” Cut to the chase: they gave me three years, and I am seeing the parole board. I’m a good kid, I’m not doing anything, bothering anybody, and I find out that my parole has been turned down. And I’m saying, “Why has my parole been turned down?” They said, “Because your home is not sufficient.” So, I say, “What do you mean my home is not sufficient?” They say, “You don’t have a home. Your mother died.” “When did my mother die?” “July 19th.” “July 19th? That’s my birthday!”
FARRIS: She died on my birthday. She had an insurance policy, which she put in his name. He was supposed to give out the money. He didn’t tell me that she died until he could spend that money.
DOUGLAS: He gave out the money; only he didn’t give it to you.
FARRIS: He didn’t give it to me.
DOUGLAS: He was already a dope fiend at that point.
FARRIS: Hum hm, he was a dope fiend then, too. So, that was basically my relationship with him from beginning to end.
DOUGLAS: What happened to the other dude? He was a white guy?
FARRIS: Dick Whalen?
FARRIS: Nothing as far as I know. They separated our trials. He had a lawyer. I didn’t have a lawyer. You don’t have a lawyer, you go to jail. He’s selling weed. I smoked a joint.
DOUGLAS: White guy?
FARRIS: Jewish. Dick Woolen, W-o-l-i-n.
DOUGLAS: You know where he is now?
FARRIS: You know, it’s amazing. I was on Bleecker Street. It was either last year or the year before last, and I saw him. I couldn’t run after him. I called him, “Dick Woolen!” He turned around. I said, “You remember me?” And he looked and he bolted. If I could’ve run, I would have… they would have put me back in the jail for assault.
DOUGLAS: So, was he all dressed in a suit and everything?
FARRIS: No, you know, casual, upper middle class.
DOUGLAS: So, he copped a plea, blamed it on you, rich Jew, poor black, you took the fall.
FARRIS: Well, they told me it was either 15 years or 3. I said, “I’ll take the tree.”
DOUGLAS: So you got “conspiracy to distribute marijuana.”
DOUGLAS: That shit is crazy.
FARRIS: Well, I didn’t have anything to do with it. You might say I conspired to deliver. But I had no idea. Technically, if I had a lawyer, he would have said, “Hey, my client didn’t know what was in that.”
DOUGLAS: Were they undercover cops?
DOUGLAS: That’s funny that they waited a day.
FARRIS: Raymond and… I’ll think of it. One Irish fellow and one Latino. What was Raymond’s name? That was the Latino. But, I did some writing there, which was why I was convinced I was a writer. They wouldn’t let me take it out for some reason. If it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all. I forget… There was a reason that they told me. Not only did I not have a home to go to, [laughs] they wouldn’t let me take that stuff out. And then, guess what? I go out of there. I have three months left on parole… four months on parole. So I come down here, and I knew a fellow over on Avenue A, 20 Avenue A. I was staying with him. And it was authorized for me to stay with him. One day, I’m screwing this lady. The buzzer rings. It’s the parole officer, black dude. And he comes in and he sees her in the bed, so he says, “Oh, come downstairs for a minute. I want to talk to you.” I go downstairs and he says, “Hold out your hands. Put the handcuffs on me. Took me back to jail.” I had to get rid of all my days, because you can’t have sex–casual sex–when you’re on parole. Now, this woman was a dancer. African dancer. She was dancing with Olatunji. She came to see me every day while I was in there and brought me whatever. When I came out, I felt beholden, and I married her.
DOUGLAS: And then you had your first child.
FARRIS: My oldest daughter. And she had a child, Syphilis Freeman, that’s Morgan Freeman’s son. He never gave her a nickel and I had to support them for five years.
That experience… that whole prison experience and the
Oh! I was hanging out with the Roomettes. They told me they couldn’t hang out with me anymore because there was this big producer guy, and he liked her and he didn’t want her to hang out with me. And she was going to marry him and they got married. That’s Phil Specter, he’s a murderer.
DOUGLAS: It wasn’t her? Not this one you were with. He probably just beat her up and then dumped her.
FARRIS: Yeah, he used to beat her up.
DOUGLAS: That whole experience–you’ve told me about getting busted for pot before–that all comes across in the book really well.
FARRIS: Well, I started smoking pot when I was ten years old. So, I was definitely a pot smoker. No! I wasn’t ten, I was twelve.
DOUGLAS: Yeah, that’s about when I started smoking weed. We met about 25 years ago, in the early 80s, about 84 or so.
FARRIS: Something like that.
DOUGLAS: At the time that we met, or shortly thereafter, after my initial suspicions of your motivations–the which I cannot really pinpoint what those were, other than that I was, that I’ve always been resistant to the race pigeonhole, and I was afraid that that would be part of what was going on. You also had a period where you were hanging with the Muslims.
FARRIS: That was a response to that.
DOUGLAS: You encountered them while you were in prison? Or before prison?
FARRIS: No. I sought them out. I sought Malcolm X. I never liked… I suppose I had my religious period when I was a kid. My reasons for joining them were political. That was in the 60s. I went to the Black Arts after I saw him shot, saw how ridiculous that whole thing was.
DOUGLAS: How did you hook up with Malcolm?
FARRIS: I just went down there and said I wanted to join and they said okay.
DOUGLAS: How long did that last?
FARRIS: Oh, that lasted about a year. He would always be on the road somewhere. I never went on the road, but when he was in town, I was part of his phalanx of (quote) bodyguards (end-quote). [chuckling] You see how effective that was.
DOUGLAS: Was that just for public events, or did you breach the inner sanctum?
FARRIS: Public events. And I have been to his house and all that. He was a busy man. And I could have told him, I– he started that stuff about Elijah Muhammad the week before. And I said, “Uh-oh! He shouldn’t be saying that…”
DOUGLAS: So, it was that quick, the response? Nobody was able to even discuss whether or not that was a smart thing to do: the Talking Bad About Elijah
FARRIS: No. Most of the people in there were disaffected. They had had their differences with Elijah Muhammed. But no one said anything.
DOUGLAS: And no one really anticipated such an immediate and complete, total response
FARRIS: No. I was the only one. And my two daughters were up there with my ex-wife. Right on the stage. And that guy, Reuben pulled out that shotgun. No! Wait! However they were: they came up and they shot him. One had a handgun, and the other had a shotgun. And it was just: WHAM! WHAM! And then, Reuben–they started running–Reuben was Chief Bodyguard for Malcolm. He had a handgun. They shot one of them in the leg. It was all very suspicious.
DOUGLAS: What happened to these dudes?
FARRIS: The guys that did that?
DOUGLAS: The shooters.
FARRIS: They just got out of jail.
DOUGLAS: Just recently? Did they talk about it at all since they’ve been out?
FARRIS: Nope. Nothing.
DOUGLAS: Do you think that there was actual FBI involvement?
FARRIS: Of course. Once you have an organization like that, it couldn’t have existed without that kind of situation. I mean, you just said what I said about smoking pot. You know what they were up to, FBI.
And I was just trying to find my way to what you see me doing right now.
DOUGLAS: So was it a sense of futility and shock that caused you to abandon politics? Or was there something else?
FARRIS: Yeah. I went from there to the Black Arts Theater Repertory School and ran into the Paterson brothers. And the Paterson brothers were–I don’t know where they got things from–they were part of the coterie up there. Bought that up or rented that brownstone.
DOUGLAS: This is in Newark?
FARRIS: No. That was 132nd Street between Lenox and 7th. He would put on plays, do poetry. That’s where I met David Henderson. This book speaks to that. The guy who edited that was at the Black Arts. I was in total awe of them, because they had this kind of militant attitude. I net Harold Cruz there. They were intellectuals I really respected. I respected Harold Cruz a whole lot more than I respected Baraka.
DOUGLAS: Why was that?
FARRIS: Because, as I was starting to say, there was a sort of posture from those guys. But they weren’t going to hurt anybody. I was going to hurt somebody. And I didn’t know why they would talk like that; and posture like that. In fact, what Steve Cannon was laughing about last night at _you_ guys, was there was a guy named Roland Spellings–he was a poet–I think he’s dead now. He used to go around in Muslim clothes, in robes and a turban and all that stuff. And the Hell’s Angels had a motorcycle club on Third Street.
DOUGLAS: Yeah, they’re still there.
FARRIS: Well, he wanted to go– Where were we coming from? I ran into him somewhere. And he told me he was scared to walk up the block. I said, “Man, what is wrong with you?” Now these were these guys who were-you know, they had all this posture. Now, I might get my ass whipped, but I’ll put it up there to get it whipped.
DOUGLAS: In other words, they’re talking all this smack about how they want to get Whitey, but when it came down to it, they wouldn’t even talk to them.
FARRIS: I have a poem in there… I met Joe Overstreet there… This is one of the first pieces of art that I saw there… Let me see… Overstreet… in the front there… And I knew Sun Ra. I was coming out of Sun Ra’s house and I ran into Roland Smelling. Ra and them lived right across the street. That’s how I knew they weren’t bothering anybody. So, that was Joe Overstreet’s portrait of Sun Ra, a fantastic portrait of Sun Ra which I didn’t like… That was another thing I didn’t like. So they asked me to contribute something. And I did. Want me to read it?
DOUGLAS: Go ‘head…
FARRIS: They took Juan away…
That’s really one about that street up there that they named after Pedro Petri rather than Joe Overstreet. And since Joe had contributed some money, David and them… Well this fellow, not David, Ted Wilson, he had elected not to put it in because he didn’t want to offend Joe. But, you know me, I told Joe. It wasn’t negative. This is titled Duet.
after being unloaded from the truck, and unpacked
the masks were lined up row by row and identified
each in its turn, bim bom, dambara, oshunupo
inspected carefully for arawa
then arranged, like with likes
the grapes and if birds allowed pride of place in the lobby
due more too the sheer dimensions
of its size
than to the lifeless snake
dangling from its wooden beak
with huge wings that cast their shadows
over the entire collection.
how proud you were
pointing out this mask or that
adam, the great bird,
the avenging messenger of some god
whose name you stumbled over
hoof and branch.
a prize collection, you thought,
eyeing the rough-hewn wood
for any evidence of blood
like a cork
on a bottle of good wine
“that’s how you authenticate this stuff,” you said,
the stink of blood.”
[unintelligible] makes you crazy, you said,
pointing out sister amunata
talking to herself in her elaborate headdress
her colorful bubal and skirt.
i remember she had three teeth,
and spat her words out like a machine gun
and at no one
inside her borders.
she would let loose a barrage of language
unrecognizable as anything but her own
the few garbled syllables she had at her command
repeated after a pause,
during which she would glare at you
reloading her clip.
it was her own cosmos
with her own gods.
DOUGLAS: Goddamn! They thought they couldn’t understand that.
FARRIS: [indicates drawing] You see David over there?
DOUGLAS: With the horns?
FARRIS: Yeah. He just got a million dollars.
DOUGLAS: For what?
FARRIS: Those flags, for one of those flags. No, what am I saying? Forty million.
DOUGLAS: Forty million?
FARRIS: Yeah, for one of those flags. What’s his name?
DOUGLAS: No, four million. I guess he moved out.
DOUGLAS: Man, Rolando?
FARRIS: I’m not talking about Rolando, I’m talking about the guy who makes the flags.
FARRIS: No, makes the flags… Jasper Johns!
DOUGLAS: Oh, okay!
FARRIS: I think it was forty million.
DOUGLAS: Oh, okay.
So, you spent some time with the Black Arts people. How long did that period last?
FARRIS: That lasted until the grant ran out.
DOUGLAS: Federal grant? State or corporate?
FARRIS: Federal grant. I wasn’t privy to what the conditions were, but they ran out and bought some building and all that. I left my wife about two years after that.
DOUGLAS: So you were together seven years? five years?
FARRIS: Five years. Married. About seven years.
DOUGLAS: So when the Black Arts ran out, that’s when Baraka headed off to Jersey?
DOUGLAS: So, what did you find yourself drawn towards then?
FARRIS: I was working. I was still… I didn’t… in those yers… I was working for her mother, who had a real estate agency and I would go show places. Then, I cut out, went to Mexico
DOUGLAS: You went down there with Red?
FARRIS: Nick Smith.
DOUGLAS: How long did you all hang out down there?
FARRIS: Three months.
DOUGLAS: Were you writing actively? Or were you not really thinking of yourself as an artist at all? Reading?
FARRIS: I was just reading a lot and taking it in.
DOUGLAS: What kind of things were you reading?
FARRIS: A lot of poetry and a lot of art theory. If all that hadn’t happened, before they kidnapped me, I was down there smuggling all the weed I could get my hands on. We were down there in Sinaloa on this turkey farm outside of Culiacan, where they’re killing everybody now. What did they call me? They liked me. Smoked up a bunch of weed. Neither one of us spoke Spanish. Nick spoke more than I did. But I can still drag it out of me, make people understand what I want, what I’m saying. But I was the go-between for Nick and them, because they related to me, you know.
DOUGLAS: So when you got back to the States, was it straight to the City?
FARRIS: Then, I got married again. No, I didn’t get married, but I went through a bunch of women. One of them was Eloise Lofton, the poet. I was experiencing art. I was like an infant. Like people’s children who are artists.
DOUGLAS: Freed of your brother and freed of prison, you were looking for a different path.
FARRIS: I was looking for expression.
DOUGLAS: Do you think you would have defined it that way back then? That you were looking for expression?
FARRIS: No. I was
DOUGLAS: You would have said, “I’m just fighting the fight. Trying to stay alive.”
FARRIS: Well, I would have said more than that. Close to what you said. I would have said that I’m trying to find myself. But no one would have accepted that, so I didn’t say it.
DOUGLAS: Right. To this day, that remains an inadequate response, true as it may be.
When did you sit down and really start to scribble?
FARRIS: After I left the Black Arts. And that, again, was a response. I didn’t like their poetry. It was Ginsberg and Baraka and all of them. And I never really… Like I said more toward introspection, humor, satire, that kind of stuff. And since I’m taking everything so seriously back then, I didn’t even like all that. My beginning to write was a response to that. I had to work through that attitude, and I had to find out who was writing that I liked. Of course, I’m pretending. I read everything. I didn’t stop reading until very recently, man.
DOUGLAS: So, you basically gave yourself a course in the classics: Rabelais, Shakespeare, everything.
DOUGLAS: What contemporary writers did you favor at that time?
FARRIS: I liked a whole lot of them. Mostly the South Americans, the Central Americans. Again, my response to the classical was an examination of its relationship to me, my relationship to it. There again, is the response, my response to that stuff. I’m going to be bad with names when you ask me about contemporary people. I was there, just like you see me with literature now, when I’ve got to that literature in my hand. I’ve read it, looked at it, disliked it or liked it. Derek Walcott was a friend of mine. He was all into everything. You know Derek Walcott?
DOUGLAS: Oh, yeah. What was he, a West Indian, uhh…
DOUGLAS: I must’ve checked him out in the late seventies, early eighties, just before the time that we met.
FARRIS: I was friends with Leroy Clark, the painter. And he painted a lot like Wilfredo.
FARRIS: Wilfredo Lam.
FARRIS: Cuban. He also was a poet. He was a good poet. I really like his poems. He was angry.
DOUGLAS: Mervyn Taylor. I remember reading him back in the seventies, too, back when I was in college. I had Michael Harper back then. You ever read him?
DOUGLAS: I was never too crazy about his work. Some of the shorter things worked once in a while. But I think he was too busy trying to impress his colleagues up in the ivory tower.
FARRIS: Right. That’s all that was. But, I been around. Even when I was a kid. I didn’t belong to anything. I was looking in from outside.
DOUGLAS: What I was driving at a while ago was that, when we met I was in a place where I’d read a good amount of the classics, a lot of contemporary work. But because people would continually try to impress upon me that I would be a great leader of my people…
FARRIS: May I interrupt you?
DOUGLAS: Go ahead.
FARRIS: I didn’t think you were going to be a great leader of my people. I didn’t think you were going to be a great leader of anything. What I thought you were going to be was a bright young black fellow.
DOUGLAS: I’m not saying you, personally. But what I reacted to when I met you was others…
FARRIS: So you fulfilled that in me.
DOUGLAS: Yeah, I projected that upon you.
FARRIS: Projected what?
DOUGLAS: This concept that you were another one of these people who was going to try to make me into this black… What I rejected early on was not the fact of being black…
FARRIS: Well, you remember, I used to laugh at you guys. Right?
DOUGLAS: Yeah. But I was at that point of… I didn’t want a black revolution. I didn’t trust the idea because I had grown up with the black upper class…
FARRIS: That was your response to me.
DOUGLAS: Right. So, as a radical, I already understood that whatever people were pushing for–black lawyers and doctors, businessmen…
FARRIS: I thought you were a bright guy…
DOUGLAS: I didn’t want that to happen because I saw it as not real change in the system. It would change the face of the system, but it still wouldn’t change the class relationships that are at the root of everyone’s problems.
FARRIS: I thought that you were bright, you were writing. I thought you were a bit arrogant. You see? You forced me into that position. One of a kind. Right there, there you are, all alone, fly in the buttermilk. You had to have some response.
DOUGLAS: But, in general, I was never interested in a black president or any of these things, because I felt that none of it would change what I thought was the real problem, which was class relationships. It would just allow certain people of color to become part of the upper class. But it wouldn’t change the fact that the poor of every color would still be the poor. And although the white poor may have a little iota, a bit more privilege than the black poor, the maintenance of the poor and the maintaining of the upper class–even if it was integrated–wouldn’t really change what I saw as the problem. That was the class problem. I just saw the racial problem as a tool to maintain the class problem.
FARRIS: You didn’t see class as a tool of the ruling classes?
DOUGLAS: Yes, I did. I mean, if you had no black people or no white people–either situation–as long as we maintain the class system, there will still be the problem of poverty and the like.
FARRIS: But you were aware of imperialism.
DOUGLAS: Right. I still see that as the problem. Class is the major battle to be waged.
FARRIS: Well, if you ask me right now if I want to be in Africa, I would say, Hell, no. “I will be right here on Third Street where I am.”
DOUGLAS: What I’m driving at by all that explanation of the question is this: did you find yourself in the same position?
FARRIS: You mean, given my situation?
DOUGLAS: Yeah. Once I did overcome that–and it was rather quickly that I realized that you were not trying to impose any nationalist stance upon me—I saw you early on… and I think the fact that ten or fifteen of my peers and I all looked to as our mentor. Some of us were college grads, and I think that without misrepresenting anyone I could definitely say that people like Higginbuckle and Emily Carter and Pamela Dewey and a lot of these kids that were my age, we all saw you as a great writer. You were not in the same place as Amiri Baraka. Baraka, we understood a certain type of greatness, but we were not really identified with the black…
FARRIS: …Not from that school. You all wrote from a different school.
DOUGLAS: I’m not saying that we saw you as having transcended race. That wasn’t the deal. Nobody wanted to transcend or deny race, but at the same time, you represented to us…
FARRIS: I was just beginning to see my way into what I had been looking for.
DOUGLAS: To us, you were emblematic of contemporary literature, what contemporary literature should be. You had this kind of classicism. You had the ability to write in a way that was an acknowledgement of the literary canon at the same time that your work was also infused with contemporary colloquialisms that affirmed your personal heritage. There was no denial of anything, but a perfect blend—in our eyes—of what literature in this time should be. You never rejected the past or said anything like “white writers ain’t shit…”
FARRIS: Well, I never said that throughout that whole period.
DOUGLAS: That’s what I’m saying. Given that we met at the tail end of the seventies, the early eighties, a lot of people were still very conservative, reeling from the failure in Vietnam, the horrors perpetrated by our government here and abroad…
FARRIS: You found me at a time when I was trying to reconcile.
DOUGLAS: Well, to us, you were the perfect writer. To us, there was no one, other than maybe Borges, who measured up.
FARRIS: Oh, I left something out. Instead of going to school, I joined the army, and I punched out the specialist in charge of my platoon. I got an undesirable discharge. That was in 1957.
DOUGLAS: Okay, so before the whole arrest thing.
DOUGLAS: Having been among the Malcolm X crews and the Black Arts crew, how did you reject that kind of attitude? I’m not saying wholeheartedly, nor as a viable force…
FARRIS: I didn’t accept it or reject it. It was just either available to me or not available. And when I say available, I don’t only mean materially, I mean emotionally.
DOUGLAS: At that time, wasn’t it rare as a black artist…
FARRIS: I’ve never seen myself as a black.
DOUGLAS: So that was part of you even before you started working in the arts.
FARRIS: Right. Not in a defensive way or with any baggage attached to it. I just rejected that.
DOUGLAS: You came to affirm something else. Literature as literature. That was a brave posture at that time. Don’t you think?
FARRIS: I understood it. So, as I understood it, it was my language. It wasn’t my cultural experience.
DOUGLAS: Did people come down on you and try to say you should write this or that?
FARRIS: As I began to close in on what I was looking for, the writers that I was interested in were mostly Caribbean. They wrote English, or they wrote Spanish, or they wrote pidgin. Whatever. But they had the same experience I had. They were going through the same thing. People thought I might have been a communist or something. I was never a communist. I was never anything. Just a radical, that’s all. But those were the writers that informed me because, having read the classics and experienced that cultural ouevre and having to digest it from outside of it…
I liked African writers, too. Like Leopold Senghor, and…
FARRIS: Chinua Achebe! I love Achebe… People like that. I could go into that world without all this kind of conflict. And since I was actually born and bred here, it was easy for me to assimilate that into what I am.
DOUGLAS: So, in the sense that the Caribbeans tend to acknowledge their mixed racial and cultural heritage…
DOUGLAS: It’s not a black and white world, but one of many shades…
FARRIS: Absolutely. That’s it.
DOUGLAS: When did you decide to make this neighborhood your headquarters?
FARRIS: I came down here in 1962. I lived with my first wife on this block. Then for a couple of years, I went back up to Harlem, then came back down.
DOUGLAS: With the Black Arts.
FARRIS: I also worked retail in clothing stores. Jerks.
DOUGLAS: When did you start bringing your work out into the public?
FARRIS: That was up in Harlem, hanging out with Leroy Clark and Derek Walcott and those… What was I writing then? Drivel that I couldn’t quite call anything. It had no form. I was looking for a voice. A voice that would suit the aesthetic I had formed. That’s why I had such a bad reputation. The person you’re looking at right now and having this conversation with is not the same person of ten years ago. People thought I was crazy. When I started making these little drawings I was making, I wish that hallelujah. And it wasn’t agony as it is now. An agony to pull that stuff out. If it looked like something I liked, I’d go to bed so ecstatic and I couldn’t wait to get it up and do it some more. And whatever I had done, I didn’t like anymore. People would come by and I’d say look at that, I’m gonna throw it away. They’d say, “No, don’t throw it away.” And so, there was that. Now that I’m starting to be able to express myself like that, it’s kind of a completion. It’s transformed me totally. I have more confidence. It’s something that I really didn’t learn from anybody.
DOUGLAS: What brought you to Life Cafe?
FARRIS: Oh! Breaking up with Sienna’s mother. I had no job. I came to where I knew musicians. They were playing music at Life Cafe. And David liked me and he liked whatever drivel I was writing, so he put me in charge of that and I moved in. It was still kind of half home and half cafe. Home in the back. And I got locked down at night. And somehow I got to meet Rick Van Valkenburg who owned Neither/Nor. Miguel Algarin was there, but I didn’t know Algarin. He was a star. A junkie star. He had his own situation. But they played music there and I knew all the musicians, so I started doing the poetry there. That’s when I met Emily [Carter]. No, maybe I met her at Life Cafe. And I met you.
DOUGLAS: Tina [Carstensen] introduced us.
FARRIS: Yeah, hanging out at Vazac’s.
DOUGLAS: So, jumping ahead but still in the past, when you started to put down the ass’s tale, had you banged out any earlier novels?
FARRIS: Yeah. I was always writing something. I was always writing narrative. That was some good stuff because that was straight from my eye to the paper. And I can’t remember why they wouldn’t let me take that stuff outta there. Maybe it was something I said or that they thought I was saying about them. But I was always writing narratives. I think the first story you saw that I really liked was that thing about Raymundo del Mundo. I was beginning to find a voice then. That’s another reason I molted, released from the Chrysalis, because of that novel. I have another one there. It’s almost finished. What I intended to do was make some money off of that and get this one out. But I got hooked on this drawing. But I like that one, too. And I have new stories that are good. It’s not quite a collection, but when I start writing again, I have work to engage me.
DOUGLAS: Do you see the Raymundo series as a contemporary Spoon River Anthology? It’s more like linked short stories than a novel or novella.
FARRIS: And so is this one. It’s widened, it’s broadened… I’ll show you something if you move this here. I’ll just say this little poem, because it’s local:
NuBlu after dark
all the women in brazil dance
carolina tells me dancing
jiggling her way up and down the bar
cocktails in sensitive counterpoint
to the rhythm of the bateria
a choreography of knees
her feet in casual synchopation of the samba
where I come from
she tells me shuffling
it’s no big deal
first you dance
and then you walk
first you dance
and then you talk
first you dance
and then you eat
first you dance
and then you sleep
and what you dream about when you sleep
is only dancing
it is impossible to do anything in brazil
she tells me with dark eye of a conspirator
pouring me a drink and sitting
it is the curse
of the palmaristas
DOUGLAS: One thing that’s always impressed us about what you did was write a poem, and then you’d see one of us or we’d be together and you would present it to us. It always seemed that a lot of your work, almost everything you’ve written since I’ve known you, has a quality that, consciously or not, and though written on paper, makes these works for the ear; oral works in terms of the way they’re presented to the public.
FARRIS: Personal. Personal. Personal. It’s my stinginess. I don’t really want people to have my work. I want them to accept ME as the author of this. It’s not their experience. It’s my experience and I’m sharing it with them.
FARRIS: And that’s what I want. That was always more important. That’s seeking validation.
DOUGLAS: So, it’s not as theoretical or technical as a question of the written versus the oral.
DOUGLAS: The oral is just a component of the expression seeking validation.
FARRIS: Right. Uhm, here’s a poem. They’re all short.
I climbed aboard at 125th
and rode with them up Seventh Avenue
and across the MacCombs Dam Bridge
where the Giants would play
as he practiced and practiced
and practiced through all the scales
until he could blur them into a blue canvas
first left, and then right, like a slider
past Edgecomb where the rabbit lived
when in town
and the more I get to live with her [unintelligible]
to Saint Nicholas
the measured cadence of the call, an ululation
[unintelligible] his approach by the great John Gilmore on temor
as we headed back to the valley
hard bopping to Walter Davis
slowed to a dirge on piano
the mysterious Ronnie Boykins on bass
the drumming of the magnificent Clifford Jarvis
reflecting the great man’s heartbeat
seven hundred horses
under the shining hood of the Jazzmobile
we’re not idlers
we had not fallen
he was laid back,
there were no empty boots hanging backwards from an empty saddle
if there was a [cason?]
it did not contain a cannon
it was the great Bud himself.
DOUGLAS: That’s a perfect lead in for me to stick my guns about the oral. You just laid out that you are a true acolyte and tyro of the jazz.
FARRIS: Yeah. Mona. That’s Johnny Hodges’ daughter. She had this [socoochie?] monkey.
DOUGLAS: So the novel, The Ass’s Tale—and I’ve seen it said about other novels, them being jazz novels and what not—The Ass’s Tale, to me, in terms of what I’ve read, and I haven’t read everything—it seems like the closest literary manifestation of jazz that I’ve ever come across in my life. I guess that’s why I see it in terms of an oral project. It’s so clearly—even reading it silently to myself—but moreso when reading passages aloud—it’s so powerfully musical that as I read I can’t help almost tapping my feet to the beat. Not constantly, it goes from the beat to the melody and back. Is that a conscious thing or did it just come out that way?
FARRIS: No, that’s my bow. I guess that comes from South American writers. You know who really influenced me a lot? What’s that guy who wrote Autumn of the Patriarch?
FARRIS: Yeah. Marquez. Incredible rhythm. Incredible. I read a lot of writers like that.
DOUGLAS: Is it something you became aware of as you got into the novel, or you started up like that?
FARRIS: No, I started writing in rhythm because those are my instincts.
DOUGLAS: Talk about James Moody.
FARRIS: Moody is a plot device. What he is, is Moody’s Mood For Love. And the animal is looking for love. The protagonist is—as I have been—looking for acceptance. And he hears James Moody and Moody’s Mood For Love. And he says, “That’s a great man.” So, he looks for him. And of course, I think the last line is “And I never did find James Moody.”
DOUGLAS: Instead, he finds…
FARRIS: He realizes himself. He transforms himself into a human being, but he’s still invisible. I don’t remember. I haven’t opened that thing since I… These people have me reading and hearing it, but it was written—just like everything, I put it down. Just like in there, in that review [indicates magazine containing a review dropped off during interview by Ron Kolm, Unbearables editor]. People want to know what you had to say, but I’m already finished with that. I’m thinking about something else. I’m trying to formulate my next move. I hate to start talking, but the drawing’s a metaphor. Even though you can see it’s my drawing, they’re different styles. That’s the way I am.
DOUGLAS: In terms of the final transformation that happens to the ass, is it on a par with what happens to Pinocchio?
DOUGLAS: Is it a device borrowed from Ellison, or a more general idea Ellison borrowed from as well.
FARRIS: It’s a general idea. That’s a whole tradition.
DOUGLAS: He achieves a kind of humility.
FARRIS: Yeah. I loved Ellison. That definition is entirely cultural. But again, It was more personal. I could be inside of that. I didn’t have to be outside in need of a teacher who could explain it to me. What these people in here are just finding out about me is that I don’t want them to tell me anything. Somehow these folks think they’ve invented the world, and that they’ve invented all the machinery of it, and that they need to tell me what to do. I appreciate the comforts but I’m not the guy you can tell what to do. That’s what I said to this woman yesterday. I said, “Wait a minute now,” because we had a meeting that was Friday, “who do you think you are? Who died and made you boss?” The protagonist has a profound humility. That’s why Moody’s Mood For Love is a device. I would love to put that first and foremost.
DOUGLAS: Is it an autobographical…
DOUGLAS: Not even thematically?
FARRIS: I use devices from my own life. But it’s not autobiographical. It uses a lot of my autobiography, my experience, but it’s fiction. I used to go and steal stuff outta cars. That’s where I got that from. There are many many many elements where my autobiography informs the plot, but it’s not autobiographical.
DOUGLAS: Given the current craze for the memoir, do you have an affinity for that form… Do you feel like there’s a memoir in you that could work?
FARRIS: A memoir would be very easy for me. I probably will because I need to spit some stuff out. There are some human beings on this planet who would scream in protest about having been left out. That’s what I’m doing right now. In a way, since I don’t really have anything morally to give anybody, to make the world better. I think a memoir would just be an egotistical thing.
DOUGLAS: Do you think it’s in any way indicative of the culture that this form is so popular?
FARRIS: Well, everybody’s a writer and they don’t have anything to say except what happened to them. Yeah, everybody’s a writer, everybody’s an artist, everybody’s part of the leisure class.
DOUGLAS: Navel gazing.
FARRIS: Yeah, navel gazing. I hope I’m doing better than that. What do you think of this fellow Jonathan Ames?
DOUGLAS: Ames? That weird conflict of egotistical Bravado and self-aggrandizement combined with self-deprecating… Personally, I blame Bob Holman for the whole mess.
FARRIS: Well, don’t get me talking about Bob Holman because I won’t be able to stop.
DOUGLAS: Me neither.
FARRIS: I think he’s a bit of a whore.
DOUGLAS: Yeah. Or a pimp. I don’t know which one.
FARRIS: [belly laugh] Well, he used to be a pimp, but now he’s a whore.
DOUGLAS: I think he did a lot to destroy literature.
FARRIS: He did everything he could to destroy it.
DOUGLAS: The hope that I had for literature in the days when you were doing reading series at Life Cafe, Neither/Nor, Living Theater and so on was totally erased by the poetry slam frenzy. I’ll never forget the time that you did the poetry slam and you were obviously the best one up there and you were trounced by these one-legged, black lesbian dwarves who just whined about their little high school hurt. How high school hurt came to replace literature, I’ll never know.
FARRIS: Bob came and started pimping Pedro Pietri. They were the Bobsey Twins for a while. That was Bob’s entry pass into the underground.
DOUGLAS: Though he made Pietri more of a clown than he made himself.
DOUGLAS: He was careful to do that. Sort of a trained monkey act.
FARRIS: That’s what it was, a trained monkey act. I was ragging on Joe Overstreet for being upset about it. I mean, he doesn’t really care…
this should go with those other two.
Kenkeleba House abuts Pedro Pietri Way.
The Lord of Kenkeleba House
sits high in a turret of his castle
mixing excrement for color.
“A little piss makes a good green,” he says.
“I only like the good shit.
For the blues,
I listen to Miles Davis,
“Looking out that window,”
he says, pointing to where the sign Pedro Pietri Way
is clearly visible, “makes me see red, red
and more red.
It’s too much.
I’d put that guy behind the eight ball if I could.
But he’s dead.
My hair is white.
Around here,” he says,
the purple plainly apoplectic,
“I’m the institution.
When it comes to whirling squares
DOUGLAS: So, in the sense of a Spoon River anthology, you have many local characters in your work. Not that I think one needs to know who those people are in order to comprehend what you’re saying. For a while, though, I think maybe the late eighties, weren’t you consciously engaged in doing a lot of character sketches?
FARRIS: Oh. I refer to my grandmother. The protagonist of that novel refers to a grandmother. This is a real picture of my grandmother.
Chopping collard greens instead of cotton,
Alice stands at the kitchen sink
rinsing the last sand from the leaves
throwing them into a pot of water
in which she had boiled some hamhocks.
She makes spoon bread,
adding the white corn meal to a pan
of chicken broth and onions,
sprinkling in some parched, yellow kernels
from a burlap bag tied with string
and kept downstairs in the pantry.
He hums a high falsetto
interrupted by a grunt of satisfaction
while tasting the result of her efforts
and, catching up her melody,
moves heavily through the stations of her ritual,
routinely pronouncing what should be done or not,
how I could go wrong from making spoon bread
where she learned hers the hard way
back in Alabama.
DOUGLAS: Is there anything else you want to add at this point? Any advice to poets?
FARRIS: Well, I’m just working. That’s all one can do, keep working. Don’t stop.
DOUGLAS: I remember a thing I once said to Tracy Morris years ago, and which she actually acknowledged years later, when she was asking Steve Cannon for advice about writing and he gave her some long Steve answer. I said I got some advice for you. It’s a four letter word: R-E-A-D. Read.
FARRIS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. We have to make the language ours. It’s not ours. I mean, we come here and it’s already being spoken and it’s already being expressed. What we have to do is communicate. So there has to be a commonality of the language. And we still have to find a way to be personal. That’s where the work is. One just has to keep working.
DOUGLAS: There’s what I call the pie in the sky theory of art where these young artists and writers—since my time, maybe before—they have this idea that… Like, I say to my partner’s son, who’s sitting around making cartoons, is what you should do is find all the cartoons that you can, check out what other people are doing, and that will help you. And he says, “I don’t want to. Why should do that?” But I heard it when I was in art school, I heard it when I was with Vibeke [Jensen] over in Norway doing workshops with kids, they don’t want to be influenced by anything. And I try to tell them, “You are being influenced all the time, so you might as well consciously seek out your influences.”
FARRIS: It’s not our language. We have to make it.
DOUGLAS: You didn’t invent the language, you didn’t invent art, so you should go and see what’s been done. Why reinvent the wheel?
FARRIS: See what’s being said, or being expressed. The more information we have, the more stuff changes. But it’s still the same. Here’s this remarkable machine [indicates the laptop Douglas uses to record the interview] is translating everything we say into that format, and you’re not taking shorthand.
DOUGLAS: Nothing new is coming out of it.
FARRIS: No. It’s the same language.
DOUGLAS: It’s a different form that they think is new content. But the content is…
FARRIS: …still the same. Where’s the chicken?
DOUGLAS: There is no new thing under the sun.
FARRIS: There was this communication in your crowd where everyone had something to read. Everyone was writing. And everyone was eager to read what they were writing. It was our own little workshop. It wasn’t that formal. It was just sitting in the bar having a drink and reading our stuff to each other. And I really enjoyed that. I don’t want to name any names, but as a group, I don’t think you have any parallel.
DOUGLAS: Yeah, I miss those days a lot. It’s difficult to find anyone who is on the same level.
FARRIS: That was Punch and Judy, man. Right down to the real nitty gritty. BAM! Over the head! I loved it.
DOUGLAS: Here’s one of the first and last poems I’ve written in a while.
FARRIS: Oh, yeah.
DOUGLAS: Oh, here it is.
I think it’s called “dark road,” but I’m not sure yet.
Children play outside this broke
Down trailer smelling of fecund rot and ruined
Years when old men drank and swindled, burning
Kerosene, gas, farting, blind mostly in third eyes.
Wild deer graze the graveyard shift
Until crepuscule in ditches, by soggy stands of spikenards,
At cattails, munching milkweed on meadows bulging green grass,
Spread seedheads inside purple feces balls round county lines.
Coyotes howl forlorn
Outside your deadbolted doors, yelping
Sadness that the emptied moon adores even
As it hides anew among the winking harvest stars.
Night cats prowling yellow and white
Stripes, hunched on fences, swatting mice, dodging
Lights that roar and wheels that soar heavy, unlike
The giant owl afloat to a dead branch, skittish prey.
Stealthy gray foxes skipping quick
From one side to the other, the white skunk
Waddling sudden surprise the dog smells afar,
Whining to go out and scout its source.
Insects aim into the electric heat, hundreds
Blind to the light webs woven to suck their short
Buzz away, fattening spiders lollygag in corners
cobbled of dirty dust, paint and yucky rust chips.
Squirrels stutter and start and retreat so swerving
Autos spin and smash up. Only rabbits, peeking up, rival
Them for mad dashing through dawn’s dark roads, across
Shifty shadows, like rabid rodents reclassified by men.
A star shooting fast in the corner of my sky,
Then a meteor turns green into meteorite, drop this
Wish into the treetops’ bunched silhouettes
Against the black and blue wrinkling under one eye.
I see whose great gardens grow between the lawns
You people mow, repaving roads and driveways.
I see something long ago, just up ahead, undead,
Alive and kicking in the night, while you encrypt your dreams.
I see the skidmarks on the blacktop, the missing
Box, the six-sided stop, the diamond fork, a woman’s
Crotch missing her hips (my partner says with her two lips),
The yield, the curves, the jittered nerves under my skin.
I see something you can see, a mirror, the floor, windows,
walls. I eat and drink and sleep this glass ceiling, falling
Hope and longing, swishing, soughing, wishing. Well, I
Never had to write a poem, or count, or tome, nor essay,
Because I see all the things we do unthinking steady
Life will not be missed by these little gadgets, bony
Hatchet jobs, a child whose sobs want someone to play
House, some made-up game I cannot name, unspoke of, not forgotten.
FARRIS: I would take the I out. But the last part makes the critique that I gave you very difficult. The first part is very easy since you’re dealing with nature and all of that, I would let the narrative be the eye. That way it cleans it up a lot. Because you don’t have the dichotomy there. It’s easy to do that because you don’t need that. Now, what I would do with the last part, when you become personal, make that “ii.” And that will take a lot of clutter out.
FARRIS: Then it will work perfectly.
DOUGLAS: Yeah, I could definitely see losing the “I see” part.
FARRIS: You can see that?
DOUGLAS: Well, in the first part, the “I see” is not really significant. It could still achieve that. Thanks. That’s what I miss.
FARRIS: Me, too.