Robert Polito Discusses His Poetry Collection, “Hollywood & God”

Discussed: Hollywood & God, The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL, 2009

As Director of the Writing Program at The New School* in Manhattan, Robert Polito frequently conducts public discussions with various invited writers and scholars. I’ve attended a number of these over the years, though I’ve never seen Polito himself interviewed. Thus, I was excited to receive an invitation from The Literary Review to sit in the seat Polito usually occupies and move his work into the spotlight. Given Polito’s expansive range of knowledge and interests, it’s fitting that I met with him on an afternoon in late March when he was shuttling between Italy, the Hudson Valley, and Chicago. The interview took place over lunch in lower Manhattan, and focused on his powerful new book of poems, Hollywood & God. But, again, given Polito’s polymathic inclinations, the conversation covered a host of topics, ending with his thoughts on how the concept of “Manifest Destiny” might function in the year 2009.

ALAN GILBERT: Your new book, Hollywood & God, has a striking title that succinctly captures much of the glamour, sordidness, and heretical quality to the work. It also sums up your broad range of interests—from film noir to the prosody of the King James Bible. Can you talk a little bit about the title?

ROBERT POLITO: The working title of the book actually was “Deep Deuce,” also the title of one of the poems. I first heard about Deep Deuce as the shorthand name for a street in Oklahoma City I visited in connection with my Jim Thompson biography years ago. It was the old jazz street; the phrase means, “way down on Second Street.” By the time I saw Deep Deuce there was nothing much left beyond a few foundations, walls, and facades. Second Street and everything around had been destroyed during some mad imposition of urban renewal with the intention of course of building it back up—but there would never be enough money. You can read about Deep Deuce in Ralph Ellison’s novels and letters. When I talked to my friends about the book of poems I was writing, I routinely referred to it not as “Deep Deuce,” but “Hollywood and God,” though never then thinking I could get away with that as a title. So, I already knew those really are the polarities, if that’s the right word for them—the polarities and something like the intersections I was exploring in the poems. I eventually realized “Hollywood and God” was a much more focused and concise title for the materials of these poems than “Deep Deuce,” which additionally would have required I explain it every time I said it aloud. The book tracks a continuum between what might be regarded as transcendence and what we call celebrity culture. But I really stumbled on that title. I didn’t realize right away just how perfect a description it was for what I was doing, and possibly for certain iconic contemporary as well as historical trends and impulses in our life. Because of my Jim Thompson biography, Savage Art, I’m associated with noir, but I came to noir late, really, through Thompson, who I discovered only in the early 1980s. I instantly loved what in noir recalls so many other not obviously noir books I love—like Samuel Beckett, Melville, Hawthorne, Dickinson, or Flaubert. In many ways, I come to noir through Beckett, and I think of noir as these beautiful sentences telling you the most terrible things. The comedy in Thompson also struck me as close to the comedy in Beckett, or even in Celine. I sense a tremendous elegance and wit in Thompson, and also a darkness, and even occasional savagery, in some of James Merrill’s work …in The Changing Light of Sandover, provoked largely by fears of nuclear annihilation and environmental ruin. The relationship between the living and the dead always fascinated me, how could it not? And that’s both noirish and the essence of poetry. I think of poetry as a conversation between us and the dead, the great poets out of the past.

AG: On a panel at The New School last year titled “Mixing Genres,” you spoke about your love for writing that blurs the distinctions between poetry, fiction, and essay. Hollywood & God combines poetry, fiction, and non-fictional elements. Did you consciously set out to write a mixed-genre work?

RP: No, not consciously, at least not at the outset. I didn’t know the form of this book until I was well into it. It took a long time to discover the form. I was telling myself I was going to write a book-length poem about something I called Elvis Presley’s America, whatever that meant, and there are still echoes of that original scheme in this book. I also realized some of the essays I was writing, or wished to write, were circling the same materials I wanted to pursue in the poems. The three essays run along a continuum of autobiographical accuracy, and my hope is that there is an autobiographical continuity in the tone. Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, of course, imported prose into books of poems. But, as I said at The New School that night, I think not only is there a tendency in the most exciting books of the last fifteen years to mix genre all but unclassifiably—I was thinking of Ondaatje, Sebald, Bidart, Carson, Lynne Tillman, Geoffrey O’Brien, Luc Sante, Jenny Boully, Lisa Robertson, Ander Monson, among so many others—there’s also a specifically essayistic impulse in a lot of the strongest recent fiction and poems. When you finish many of the books I most like, you often don’t know exactly what they were: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or an essay masquerading as a poem or as a novel.

AG: The voice in Hollywood & God is at times almost like an actor inhabiting various persona. “Into one life and out another,” you write in the title poem. In your introduction to your Everyman’s Library edition of James Cain, you quote Cain assaying, “But to write anything, I have to pretend to be somebody else.” Was this a conscious strategy in writing Hollywood & God, or is it inherent to how you write?

RP: I think it is more inherent in how I work, and how I think and feel. This wasn’t a conscious strategy adopted for a project. In the Jim Thompson book, for instance, I was fascinated by oral history. I realized early on I should put whatever information I found in the voices of the people I talked to, those who, in a sense, owned that information. What I discovered listening to and transcribing all the tapes was that my sources talked in ways that were so much more original and idiosyncratic than the same information would sound if a biographer flattened it out. In Hollywood & God I was interested in telling other people’s stories in what looks like my voice and my stories in what looks like other people’s voices. I think the shifts of identity in Hollywood & God—the moments where suddenly the narrative voice of a poem gives way to another character—is one of the root elements of the book. Recurrently, I was aiming for a collective or composite voice, and there’s inevitably a lot of collage. At one point in the title poem, I say, “this hour I tell you things in confidence / I might not tell everybody, but I’ll tell you,” but those lines are a quotation from Whitman, from a poem called, interestingly enough, “Song of Myself.” So, the confession is actually his, though it looks like mine, and part of the pleasure in quoting those lines is that Whitman sounds there less like Whitman and more like Gertrude Stein, who’s also quoted in the poem, from a book titled—again, interestingly enough—Everybody’s Autobiography. Often, when it appears I’m talking, it’s actually someone else, another writer, or a movie, song, interview, or magazine article. I think that’s inherent in how we all are, variously individual, fractured and composite.

AG: There’s a lot of identity and even gender switching in Hollywood & God. I think this has something to do with your interest in performance—whether actors or musicians—and the idea that we all play different roles. But it also seems to go deeper than this to a sense of identity as fundamentally unsettled.

RP: That’s absolutely true. There’s something eternally in-process about them, the identities in this book, and I suppose “identity” in general. I think, perhaps because of a century of movies, popular music, and eventually television and the Internet—but Ovid obviously knew this also—there’s a way that when you open your mouth you really don’t know who’s talking, for us—what movie, song, TV program, or memoir we’re inadvertently ventriloquizing. At no moment in history has so much culture been available to people—books, recordings, films, the Internet—what isn’t available? . . . Well, where’s the DVD of City of Sadness? But that’s another question. Our glut of culture and information is important for writing along at least two related strands. First, that glut very much connects to this notion of identity we’re talking about, who we really are, what sort of world we really inhabit, and the resources we need as writers to represent ourselves inside and against that world. Second, I think that glut is probably also the oddest and most persistent tangent of literary modernism. The world the average person inhabits today, and not just mainly as a result of Internet, resembles a modernist work of literature. Our everyday world is full of collage and unreliable narrators; it’s multiple-voiced, and there are all sorts of vernaculars and claims to authority or power to be negotiated. I think we haven’t come to terms yet with the consequences of this. The situation we’re in now is probably similar to one hundred years ago. The transformation that the individual, the self and society went through as result of their new cultural technologies—such as electricity, film, the telephone, the automobile, all the rest—is something that we are playing out on overdrive with our new twenty-first-century technologies.

AG: In the poem “Sister Elvis” from Hollywood & God, a female Elvis Presley impersonator—described in the first person—briefly becomes a priest-like figure. This transformation from secular to sacred and back again seems central to the book and is signaled by its title.

RP: She’s sort of the book in miniature, as I saw it, or at least a distillation of crucial aspects of the book. You have, on the one hand, her insane obsession with Elvis Presley to the point of totally remaking her life in imitation of him. And, on the other, you have her way of talking about Elvis that derives from American religion, particularly TV preachers, and sermons. I was interested in what happens if you pursue that connection and mix those two things together. Or if you put Cotton Mather next to T. D. Rice. There’s also the matter of my own implication in these issues. As I’m fond of saying, just about everything I know about literature, art, even life, I suppose, I learned from The Kinks back in high school and college. So, I wouldn’t deny at all that I haven’t thought, and don’t even now think, of people like Ray Davies, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Lee Wiley, Arthur Alexander, Maria Callas, or Ma Rainey from my own lifetime the way Sister Elvis thinks of Elvis Presley. That’s true of writers and artists, also. Beckett, Warhol, Merrill, Barthelme, Borges—I was nothing in high school and college if not a fan. Some of what I’m saying goes back to the book’s interest in the relationship between the living and the dead. I have sentimentality about my dear dead, starting with family and friends, and moving outward into writers and artists who are a crucial part of my inner life. As I said, it’s sort of how I view poetry and writing, as a conversation between the living and the dead. Hollywood & God is a book of ghosts, starting off with a poem spoken by someone who you discover in the last line of the poem is probably dead. The elegy in there for my father-in-law, “Pacific Coast Highway,” is a poem about what might happen to the spirit in the moment of sudden death. The September 11 poem, “Last Seen,” is a more public reckoning of that same moment.

AG: Your father is a recurring, complicated figure in Hollywood & God. Without necessarily speaking autobiographically, can you say what a father figure might represent for you, as well as for your reader?

RP: My father was a remarkable person in so many ways. He was among the smartest and most decent people I ever met. He worked for the post office in Boston, a supervisor in the old South Station PO, and I loved visiting him there in his office on the mezzanine with the trains, crowds, newsstands, Red Caps, and shoe shine boys bustling below him. In the last years of his life, because he was so good at what he did, he became a troubleshooter sent around from post office to post office. But there was something immensely thwarted and furtive about him that I still don’t fully understand to this day. During high school, when I would talk to him about the books that had been assigned, I noticed that he had read every single one up until a certain moment in time, roughly 1950, and then literally nothing at all after that. After he got out of the service, my aunt once told me that he read five or six books from the library a week. But suddenly that stopped. When my own interests—probably as a consequence of my father’s still-burbling enthusiasm for books—started to move more seriously in that direction, my relationship with him got troubled, competitive and full of anger, with mutual suspicions, charges and recriminations. That coincided with a lot of similar things going on in the world, as this was the late 1960s and early ’70s. We never got back on track. He died when I was in grad school. Our relationship was frozen there until not so long ago, when I realized that if he had lived, that kind of inner-embalming sense of where things were with us couldn’t have persisted and that, oddly, I was more or less where he would have wanted if either of us had been calm enough to see what was in front of us. If he had lived longer, at some point we would have had to deal with each other in different ways. There are multiple father figures in the book, with various, sometimes conflicting histories and biographies. In the Barbara Peyton piece, the father works in Los Angeles, also for the post office, but his moonlighting job is as a bartender at The Coach and Horses on Sunset, whereas my own father’s was at Siegel’s Shoes, a woman’s shoe store with branches in downtown Boston and Quincy Square. I don’t know whether my father ever was in Los Angeles, certainly not during my childhood with me, but that piece is a re-imagining of who he was, and a kind of fantasy accounting for my own interests in people like Barbara Peyton, and the B-movies she was in. Elsewhere there’s more of my physical experience of growing up in Boston. The final piece, “Shame,” is about trying to flip over everything else in the book about my father and come at what it might have been like to be him, why he was the way he was. What I hope comes across is a tremendous honoring of the yearning for family that was in my father, and that I didn’t really see until recently.

AG: You’ve edited two volumes of noir fiction, as well as written a biography of Jim Thompson. You’re obviously interested in tough guys, but I’m also struck by your attention to the frailty of their masculinity and masculinity as a kind of fiction. Can you talk about this?

RP: One of the surprises of my research for Savage Art was that someone like Jim Thompson possessed an almost dysfunctional sensitivity and vulnerability. I was amazed to learn from his two sisters how reluctant he was to do his own true crime  research, because the painful stories upset him so much—his drinking likely comes out of that sensitivity, as do his own violent novels. I think that masculinity in America is not only a fiction, as you say, but a largely pernicious, damaging fiction. I think my father felt he must live up to the role of the conventional American family man, and that was tremendously destructive for him, because his own impulses and inclinations moved in more complicated directions. Also, in Hollywood & God, a lot of times when you first think a man must be talking, you then realize it’s a woman. It’s one of the trap doors of identity and personality that the reader falls through into another psychic, sexual space.

AG: In Hollywood & God, movies are reality, and reality is like a movie. Yet I don’t think this is so much an illustration of Guy Debord’s notion of the “society of the spectacle” but of the way we structure our reality around narratives and consciously or unconsciously inhabit certain roles.

RP: More than fifty years later, The Society of the Spectacle still seems the most convincing media theory and most incisive description of the world we actually now inhabit. It’s extremely hard to be naïve about one’s own and even apparently most impulsive gestures after reading The Society of the Spectacle. Maybe what my book tentatively explores is what it’s like for at least some of us—living or fictional, if that distinction makes a difference here—to speak from inside the society of the spectacle. The psychic consequences of inhabiting a world that is so charged, so volatile, so slippery, so disenchanted. But, as I said, I live in that world, too. It’s not satire. I’m not on the outside taking shots at the poor deluded people inside. I’m one of them. I think we’re all one of them. I don’t know how you could not be one of them at this point. Debord himself ended up a myth—his recent cultural currency is very “society of the spectacle,” isn’t it? He’s next year’s Che Guevara.

AG: In this sense, Hollywood & God isn’t so much a critique of either Hollywood or religion, but instead seems to hold the best aspects of each in relatively high esteem, while at the same time recognizing and describing their dark underbellies.

RP: I think spiritual impulses are essentially honorable, however disastrous or contradictory often is their expression. I was interested in tracking and exploring these impulses across our turn-of-the-century American life, against the backdrop and residues and ruins of my own Catholic childhood, and that meant embodying it, or at least trying to embody it, from as many angles as possible. I think one of the darkest passages in the book is also one of the most spiritually transcendent moments of the book, and that’s the ending of “Sister Elvis.” She ultimately produces this shroud on a napkin after not only cutting herself but convincing herself as well that she’s seeing Elvis’s face in the rain and dirt of a motel window. That moment, like so many other instances in the book, could easily be turned into a joke, but I didn’t view it as a joke. Or just a joke. She’s also like one of the great martyrs, Saint Catherine of Sienna, and all the others that the nuns and Jesuits avidly paraded before us in school. Spiritual impulses are anything but trivial, but neither of course is Hollywood.

AG: The editors of The Literary Review specifically wanted me to interview you for this issue and its theme of “Manifest Destiny.” What form, if any, does Manifest Destiny take in the United States in the year 2009?

RP: Let me try to think about this by trying to talk about Barack Obama. The only figure I’ve ever seen remotely like him is Bob Dylan. Both are totally self-invented people who early on against all possible odds and against any historical, geographical, cultural or even genetic predictions for them possessed an astonishingly large and precise sense of their own destiny. When you read his autobiography, you see that Obama is almost uncannily self-invented. There was nothing inherent about Barry Obama becoming Barack Obama—and it’s not all that easy to locate Barry inside Barack. I’d love to have met him as he was leaving Occidental College to come to New York and Columbia, which is when and where this self-invention seems to have focused. Similarly, I think about Robert Zimmerman coming out of Hibbing, Minnesota, and making himself into Bob Dylan. Both men created a possibility of who they could be and what they might do through their imaginations and wills, and then became that possibility. Obama is also the first president who lives in the same language world that you and I do as writers. He has a sense of craft, but also of historical and rhetorical context, of quick, mercurial allusions, even, as we were saying before, of identity as a sort of collage, and that’s part of what makes him seem so modern and classic at once. There’s something about him that is always thinking of himself and locating himself in other people and the words of other creators—not only on the page, but even more in his speeches. In a single sentence of that speech he gave in Grant Park on election night, he was able to summon King, Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Lincoln without exactly quoting any of them. I have never witnessed anything like it—unless it’s Dylan similarly summoning America’s musical past inside the textures of his songs. Maybe Obama and Dylan represent the flip side of Manifest Destiny, at least historical American Manifest Destiny. Dylan even puns on this in his autobiography, Chronicles: “My destiny was manifest,” is how I remember he put it. During the past eight years, it was almost too easy to view America as a sociopathic parody of Manifest Destiny, a crazed empire on a brutal spree. But Obama is trying to imagine another America, and if what he’s trying to do works, the country that emerges will look entirely different from now. His is a much humbler, much more empathetic notion of what a country and a people are.Yet what Obama accomplished in his own life, with his reinvention of the possibilities of his life, isn’t all that different in design than the Manifest Destiny of a continent, or a nation reinventing itself. Manifest Destiny, as I understand it, involves those same kinds of acts of the imagination and will: these are the possibilities for this space, this nation, and how we will inhabit it. You dig deep enough and all you get is mysteries, wonders and surprises that turn out to be inevitable and destined.

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* Note: Since this interview was conducted for Manifest Destiny (TLR, summer 2009), Robert Polito has moved from The New School to the Poetry Foundation.

Alan Gilbert is the author of the poetry book, Late in the Antenna Fields (Futurepoem, 2011), and a collection of essays, articles, and reviews entitled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight (Wesleyan University Press, 2006). His poems have appeared in BOMBBoston ReviewThe Brooklyn Rail, Chicago ReviewDenver QuarterlyFencejubilat, and The Nation, among other places.