GD: (Note: I talk about a lot of hard times here. No matter my answers, I don’t want anyone thinking I wish people to feel sorry for me. I am simply trying to be honest and state the facts. I hate sympathy. I long ago came to terms with the tough stuff and, on balance, I am grateful for my fantastic life.)
When I first realized I was a writer, someone who was destined to spend his life writing no matter what else he did, I was entering my senior year in college. I was really at a loss. I didn’t know what being a real writer meant, how it can shape your life, how it can sometimes overwhelm it, how it can destroy a marriage or get you laid, how it can possess you. I wanted to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Now I am just grateful for the gifts that enabled me to move some people and, at times, to have some dignity among the papers that litter my days.
Looking back, I should have become a psychopathic killer. At least that is what some who know of my childhood think. But as the poet Robert Bly told an audience of writers a couple of years ago: “Nobody gives a damn that you had a rotten childhood. Don’t write poems about it. Tell it to your shrink.” (I don’t have a shrink and I despise them and believe that psychiatry is one of the great evils of the 20th Century. It makes people think only of me, me, me or overmedicates them or imprisons them, often wrongly. Perhaps I missed my true calling, since there are a lot of people I would passionately like to see dead….but I have only been involved in the deaths of two of them…and both were in self-defense.)
Okay, so I had a rotten childhood, moving all about the country (eleven schools before I finished high school, always the outsider…i.e. the Yankee in backwoods redneck Virginia, the Eastern ghetto kid among the Mormons in Utah), never learning how to have a friend until I was several years into college, the eldest son of two very abusive parents (both psychologically and physically) who made me feel worthless. (My mother called my third wife shortly after our marriage and said: “Oh, you saint and poor thing…I seriously considered having him committed when he was six.”)…a physical coward…(at the age of five in the slums of Chicago’s south side, I was picked on by an older kid, while I was playing in a vacant lot. I grabbed a piece lead pipe and cracked his skull. I was beaten so badly and so often for it, that I was afraid to fight anyone…until I found football at the age of fourteen. On the football field, I learned it was okay to beat the shit out of everyone and I became a high-school football star and found courage again.). But I was still out of place…unwanted both in my community and in my home… And somehow, that terrible loneliness led me a few years later to poetry…
Oh, yes, there was the mysticism. One night, standing on the back porch of a house in the Virginia woods, talking with a girl I didn’t care about, I heard the trees talking to each other…in tree language…the way trees talk…and I couldn’t tell anyone about it…no one would believe me…so I just put it away inside me…to be joined by other mystical events to wonder at, and that led me to believe that whatever…whoever… I was, I must be from outer space and could, therefore, bear being the mysterious being I was meant to be (although, to this date, at the age of almost 75, I still haven’t figured it out)…and instead of just feeling my own pain….I seemed to feel every body else’s pain…. So I don’t write poems or anything else about my lousy childhood.
I find that I can only write out of love or compassion for the human condition. When I’m angry or hate, I can’t write at all. My aims have always been somehow to find love, to learn to forgive the world although I think that generally man is a savage beast and that there are only a few people worth knowing, and to try to help people, to write poetry or fiction to repay the great writers who helped give me something to live for…to somehow do some good, even though the odds are greatly against that…to save some people’s lives (which I have done on occasion…112 people trapped in a church during the fighting in Lebanon)…to survive despite all the pain (the tree has no right to reject the lightning)…so much for philosophy! Except I do have one overriding morality: That is to try not to hurt anyone. We cannot help hurting people along the way. But to try not to…that is the ultimate stretch and reach.
I was born in Topeka, Kansas from an old Kansas/Missouri family of farmers, thieves, merchants, murderers…just plain folk trying to get by…and I left there at the age of one during the depths of the Great Depression in 1934 and moved to the upper peninsula of Michigan…and then at four to Chicago…then Pittsburgh…etc…and I am dying here in New York City….still writing, but no longer able to act (or barely even walk) because of my infirmities…and I have had one hell of a great life…and I believe I am reincarnated from an ancient Greek warrior/poet named Polycastor, whom I recalled in a dream 40 years ago…and that I am going on to some place else in some other time…in some continuum…or am already there and just remembering back to now…and perhaps my mother was right and I am truly insane…but I function so well and love my children…and still care about all the women I’ve loved….and all the friends… even those who betrayed me…I still love them… Being able to care and dream… even after all the terror… that is the great gift…and sometimes I can almost still hear the trees talking…each to each…and to me.
DS: Before we get into the meat of the interview, you are one of only two of my interviewees (the other being poet James Emanuel) whom I knew before this interview. Like Emanuel, you actually contacted me several years back via email, and we’ve emailed and conversed on the telephone several times a year since. Let me just open things up with these two, admittedly self-serving, queries: first, how did you find out about Cosmoetica, and what prompted you to contact me? Secondly, as you were once in the magazine/publishing industry, why do you think that industry ignores writers of quality- like me and those featured on Cosmoetica, who have a proven audience, and instead publishes only those writers who have gone through the creative writing mills?
GD: I came across your website by accident in another poet’s e-mail about eight years ago, went there, sent you some poems which you were kind enough to appreciate and publish, and I enjoy your various e-mail conversations and know that, even when I strongly disagree with you, you are always passionately telling the truth as you see it with no bullshit…that’s important. Life is too short for bullshit.
Regarding the publishing industry, the quality of education in America has gotten so bad that there are few people around who know how to read a poem or a good short story… so they feel reassured by the credentials (so-called) of those who come out of the writing mills (which have become one of the great curses foisted on literature in America). Honestly, I really think that very few editorial people in the U.S. today really know how to read a poem. Editors are worse than the normal person, because the editors have been trained with false standards, while the average reader just comes to the poem and tries to understand it without prejudices.
return to your ideas on the arts later in the interview. Let us now delve into
who George Dickerson is. You have several online bios at numerous sites, and
your careers are listed as an actor and poet. Yet, you’ve written a play,
numerous works of short fiction, worked as a United Nations diplomat in Lebanon
in the 1970s, and were an editor at Time magazine. How exactly did
you fall into each of these professions? In my real world life, outside of the
arts, I have worked many jobs, but no career, yet all of them are in the same
general fields: retail, wholesale, some telecom work, etc. Yet your jobs have
been so diverse. Is there a single thread running through all of them, with
skills learnt in one field that are easily transferable to another? If so, what
are those skills and which field was your least and most enjoyable?
GD: Most of the jobs I took, I took to eat or pay to raise my children, until I got into the editorial world. I always had to work to survive, being born in 1933 in the depths of the Depression to father with a law degree but who had to sell toilet paper door to door or chip ice for five cents an hour. My parents were too poor to feed me, so they fed me home brew and I weighed forty pounds when I was one year old. Then they tried to suffocate me to death with a pillow because they had no food. (This is a memory that was verified years later by my mother’s brother.) I started work at the age of four, going with my father down to the docks in Chicago to get fresh fruit and vegetables to sell door to door from the back of an old truck he had borrowed. At the age of five and six I sold magazine subscriptions door to door and gave the money to my parents so they would feed me. Shoveled snow, mowed lawns, did whatever work kids could get. At the age of ten, I picked cherries and strawberries with migrant workers in Utah, until my fingers bled and I was caught eating too much of the fruit myself. In high school and college summers, I did a lot of hard labor, digging ditches, laying macadam at 325 degrees off the truck, breaking up concrete with a jackhammer, working in typewriter and gun factories, working as a waiter at night, 19 hours a day…anything I could do to work my way through college…to supplement my scholarship at Yale. After Yale, I worked a few months in a nursery, learning about plants, worked my way around the U.S., even painted a barn and killed rattlesnakes on a ranch in western Oregon, then had the worst job I ever had, selling women’s shoes in a shoe store in Los Angeles (“Stroke my legs a little, will you, honey?”) I learned that most women go into shoe stores just to be touched.
I learned how to work hard and long and never to complain about it, just be grateful you had a job. I taught school for a year and a half in Vermont, then moved to New York with a wife and baby and another baby on the way, so I could read poetry with some of the Beat poets (Gregory Corso, Dianne di Prima, Ted Joans, etc.) at the Gaslight Café in 1959, working at the same time in the advertising department of the Home Insurance Company, where I got fired because I could do a week’s work in half a day. So I got bored and kept calling in sick and fell off the chair laughing when the head of personnel fired me. (I was just so relieved at being able to escape that place.) Oh, I was in the U.S. Army from December of 1953 to the fall of 1954, when I left college temporarily…I got honorably discharged for medical reasons.
But I was 27 before I got my first job in publishing in the summer of 1960…working in the production department of the Macmillan Publishing Company. It was a hot August day with no air conditioning and as I sat down for the interview, my threadbare grey flannel suit stuck to my right leg. The pant leg split open from mid-thigh to mid-calf and I calmly reach down and pulled the pant leg together. The editor said: “You really need this job badly, don’t you? “ (I was supporting my family and was living separately myself in abandoned buildings and some days had only a dime in my pocket.) And I nodded and said I would be the best person he had and he hired me. A few months later, a résumé I had dropped off at “The New Yorker” paid off and they hired me to be a fact checker in their editorial department. (I had also done some free-lance editing and writing for some junk magazines to have some stuff to put on my résumé…and I had won the Yale fiction prize my senior year there for a short story I had written about being locked up in the Army’s psychiatric ward… that story, “Chico” later appeared in The Best American Short Stories of 1963.) Now I was really in the magazine world. I got fired from The New Yorker for forgetting to come into work on an odd Sunday because I had gotten into a ferocious argument with my second wife (an original jet-setter and associate fashion editor for Mademoiselle.) Unfortunately, the editor that Sunday was one I had told to “go fuck yourself” after he had thrown a bottle of India ink on another fact checker’s white suit. But my writing was getting known and I was getting known and I was immediately hired to become managing editor of Cavalier magazine when it was the chief competitor of Playboy. I now knew many top writers and agents and Cavalier wanted me to upgrade the literary side of the magazine….which I did.
I was jet-setting around the world, skiing in Zermatt, Switzerland…interviewing François Truffaut and a stripper for the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris, sharing a Fire Island house with some of the top models…(Veruschka once asked me to run off with her) following my wife around as she discovered and made popular the Peppermint Lounge in New York, and, as she got high shooting up amphetamines from Dr. Feelgood (the one who supplied the Kennedys), hating it all while I wrote more short stories and got my poetry published in The New Yorker and Mademoiselle. And then Cavalier started doing badly and I got fired for being “over qualified.” (That’s what they told unemployment..) I was scapegoated by the editor who got fired himself shortly thereafter.
Now I was well known enough as a writer to get free-lance writing jobs from “The Saturday Evening Post,” “Esquire” (never published), “Cosmopolitan,” etc. I split from my second wife, and one of her lovers, a young, rich jet-setter blew his brains out in Denver, so I got interviewed by a detective, because I was the only one with a motive and his prominent family didn’t want to accept his suicide. So I divorced my second wife (no children), remarried and went off on my honeymoon to Hydra, Greece to spend some time with my closest friend, Leonard Cohen. (It was 1965, the summer that Leonard decided to stop writing novels and become a singer/songwriter.) When my third wife and I came back from Greece, I discovered I was famous enough as a writer that I was being offered a lot of money to write a novel about the world of the fashion models. (I had known some of them intimately.) I accepted and wrote myself into a creative writer’s block, (More on this later.) Meanwhile, Scholastic Magazines decided it wanted to revive Story, the famous literary magazine which had discovered Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, etc. so they hired me to become editor in chief. The first issue was great, devoted to the new violence in America…this was 1967-68…(And I flew to Chicago to have a private interview with Cassius Clay about his views of violence America.., this was when he had his title taken away for not going into the draft). The magazine so horrified some of the school systems, particularly California’s, (which bought Scholastic’s other magazines) that Scholastic was forced to shut it down. Hell, I was becoming really good at getting fired or destroying magazines. (The rule in publishing was that, if you weren’t fired at least twice, you weren’t any good.)
So Time magazine hired me to be their top fiction and poetry reviewer. At first I was in heaven. I was getting paid to read books and write whatever I wanted about them. I wasn’t that interested in reviewing the famous writers or attacking some of their lesser work, I preferred discovering new writers and helping to put them on the literary map… John Irving, Cormac McCarthy, Robert Stone, Don DeLillo, and many of the other well known writers today. Knopf tried to hire me away to be one their top editors; I stupidly refused. The problem was I couldn’t write any of my own fiction or poetry, and then I got a new editor who thought he could rewrite my reviews. He couldn’t, and I told him his own writing sounded like it came off the back of cereal boxes. I walked out of the “Books” section, demanded to be assigned to another section, wrote in most of the other sections of the magazine and ended up in world news for the last year-and-a-half there. I wrote the first cover story on the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. The 60-70-hour weeks were getting grueling and I was getting old fast. I forced my firing (April of 1972). I was now an expert at that. I wanted the huge severance pay so I could go to the race track and play the horses every day and stay out all night playing poker. I started to make a living as a professional gambler.
But one day, shortly before Christmas, my young son came home from pre-school and bragged that he had told his teacher that my profession was “a card player.” That humiliated me. I had to do something else…and I was burnt out on the New York publishing scene. So I submitted my résumé to two jobs advertised in the “New York Times.” This was a huge turning point in my life. The famous young writer, editor, was on the run, anything to get out of New York. I got hired for both jobs…the first was as Press Secretary and speech writer for U.S. Congressman Robert Steele (during the Watergate scandal), and the second one (which came four months later) was to become Head of Press and Publications for UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) at its headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon.
went to Washington, D.C., got my fill of it fast, but learned about the corrupt
machinations of the U.S. government and the coming oil crisis.
(Steele was a straight shooter, Nixon wasn’t, and some of the
congressmen were fruit cakes… like J.J. Pickle from Texas who used to jump out
of his office door at me as I passed, pulling out a little plastic pickle that
he would squeak at me and say: “Hi, I’m J.J.
Have a pickle!”) I decided
I preferred doing something on the world stage, particularly in the hotbed of
the Middle East. So, off I
went (with my family) to change my life forever…feeling mystically that I was
going to the Middle East as part of my destiny to save lives.
The thread through all these publishing jobs was learning to be professional as a writer and editor and learning how to make things (particularly) magazines work, and, of course, figuring out really creative ways to get fired without ruining my future prospects. And I hoped desperately that somehow the changes would bring back my fiction and poetry. I was wrong. The young, brilliant rising superstar writer (as recognized by the industry) had become a few crumpled pages in the wastebasket of time.
The career as an actor happened when I came back from the war in Lebanon with a lot of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and found myself unable to write at all, barely able to function, in fact suicidal, unable to work in an office. I started taking acting classes at the age of 43 at H-B Studio, the professional acting school, just to have something to do…and that led to my success as a stage, TV and film actor. My years of writing and creating fictional characters made it much easier for me to understand the characters of other writers in their plays and screen plays.
I guess, the one thread that leads through most of my better jobs was the love of and power of the use of words.
DS: Let me go
one by one through your careers. Let’s start with poetry. I’ve read that you
studied poetry at Yale University with Robert Penn Warren. Most well known for All
The King’s Men, he actually won two Pulitzer Prizes for poetry, and
that at a time when Pulitzers were awarded more for merit. He’s actually a
good poet. Were you friends with the man, or was he a mentor? What specifics did
you learn from him re: poetry or fiction?
GD: “Red” Warren became the country’s first Poet Laureate. I studied about poetry with him and Cleanth Brooks, the pillars of the New Criticism. They taught that only the poems mattered…not the biography of the poets or the culture. Then I applied to Warren’s small fiction writing class, submitting one of my short stories. I studied fiction writing with him my senior year. We corresponded after I left Yale and he read my first novel and gave me critical feedback on it, saying it lacked the sine qua non of a novel, a strong narrative line. He was right, of course. I published parts of the novel as stories. Red Warren and I kept in touch for a few years and he always encouraged me in my work. He told the Guggenheim Foundation that they should keep their eyes on me for a possible future grant. He was more a mentor than a friend. He helped strengthen in me some of the fiction craft elements that I originally learned in the rigorous writing course at Yale called “Daily Themes.” Unfortunately, (or fortunately), I never showed him any of my poetry, which I was shy about at that time. If I had, I’m sure he would have been of help to me in that area. He was a lovely person, generous with his time. Our loss of contact was my fault.
DS: Warren is
one of many famous people you’ve known throughout your life- a fact I’ll
later touch upon, and one which casts you in a sort of Forrest Gump-ish
type role. But, sticking with poetry, when did you start writing it, and how
long have you written. I ask because we’ve spoken of your several decades long
‘writer’s block.’ How did such a thing occur, and how did your block
GD: I have been blessed (or cursed) with having gotten to know many famous people in my time. Once I won the Yale fiction prized and then started working in the world of the arts and journalism, I was living and working in those worlds of the famous, so it was not at all a Forrest Gump type thing. I was viewed by them as a rising literary star and I belonged in their circles. I met Leonard Cohen in a comparative literature class at Columbia University’s graduate school. He was sitting behind me when I opened at letter from e. e. cummings praising my short story “Chico.” Cohen and I became close friends, sharing our writing every night. Leonard introduced me to the Black actor Roscoe Lee Browne, who also became a close friend and who introduced me to many of the top Black artists of the time, such as Leontyne Price. Through Roscoe, I met Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, Norma Ellis, and spent many weekend at the Millay estate in Austerlitz, New York. I also became a member of John Farrar’s writers group (John Farrar of Farrar, Strauss…later Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), where I became friends with Mark Strand, later to become Poet Laureate.
Regarding the poetry: I really didn’t know anything about poetry until I entered Yale. I was mostly a jock, having been on the varsity football, basketball and baseball teams in high school, with my only real intellectual interest in science, and that helped me, as a Westinghouse Talent Search regional finalist, to win the Yale Club of Virginia’s one scholarship to Yale. But when I got to Yale, I was so culturally backward (my parents were anti-cultural) that I had never read any real literature, read any poetry or even heard the name of William Shakespeare. I thought that Mickey Spillane was great writing. Yale wanted to put me in a remedial English program, which I refused. The first book I read at Yale was “The Great Gatsby,” which blew my mind and changed my life. I took that book into class and plaintively asked the professor if there were any other books like that. He looked at me as if I were someone from outer space….after all, his other students were all from elite New England prep schools. Because of “The Great Gatsby,” I changed my major from chemistry to English. I encountered the poetry of Chaucer, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and started writing my own first poetry…at least 100 poems that freshman year. After all, I still didn’t have a friend or someone else to talk to, so I talked to myself in my poetry. It was all very formalist poetry and all embarrassingly bad. (One of my roommates that freshman year was the fat, class comic named Harvey. I made the mistake of leaving one of my poems on top of my desk. Harvey found it, climbed up on my desk, with poem pressed against his forehead and recited mockingly from it: “Oh, Cloud! Oh, Cloud!” Unfortunately, the humiliation didn’t deter me.)
I later discovered Rilke, Lorca, Yeats, Stevens, the great French poets… I didn’t write a really good poem until 14 years later, since mostly I was trying to be a fiction writer. Leonard Cohen, visiting my apartment in Greenwich Village in 1964, read the poem, “The Coming on of Night,” and said, “You’ve finally done it.” That poem was published in The New Yorker, and got a lot of attention. And soon I was publishing poems in Mademoiselle and other magazines. I ran into Norman Mailer in an elevator and he praised my poetry…I was surprised that he even knew it.
As I said earlier, I came back from half-a-year on Hydra, Greece, where I visited Leonard Cohen and wrote more poetry. I was broke, with a new wife, needed work and my agent, Carl Brandt of Brandt & Brandt arranged a large book contract for me with New American Library/World…a novel about the world of the fashion model. It wasn’t exactly selling out because I had contemplated writing about my times in the early 60s in that jet set fashion world. The problem was I was not used to showing first drafts of my fiction to anyone. They were terrible…a springboard to the much better writing of the second draft. I agreed to hand in the number of words they wanted on such and such a date as long as the editors didn’t comment on it. They agreed…but unfortunately, that was not put into writing in the contract. When the time came for me to turn in 15,000 words, I turned in 25, 000. When 30,000 were due, I turned in 60, 000. I got back a seven-page single-spaced letter from the editor. It was a vicious attack, along the lines of: “Does George Dickerson think when he sits down to write? There’s not one good scene, not one believable or well conceived character….’ I got drunk with my agent. They had violated their agreement and wanted their money back. I tried beginning the book over and it was still lousy. I started again….writing even fewer pages. And finally I froze and couldn’t write a word of it. That started the creative writer’s block both in fiction and poetry. From 1967 to 1984, I was unable to write fiction. From 1967 to 1996, I was unable to write poetry. I lost that huge central arc of my career that should have made me a very accomplished and more famous creative writer.
It was not until my wife and I were leaving Hollywood in 1984, that I suddenly found myself writing “The Man Who Loved Butterflies,” the first story in all those years. It was a beautiful, powerful story, which was the only piece of literary fiction published by “Penthouse” (Dec. 1985) that year. Still the poetry would not come. Then late one night about 3:00 in the morning in January 1996, I got out of bed, went into my kitchen and, without intending to, found myself writing a poem, “Relativity,” on the back of an envelope. I started crying. My wife heard me, got out of bed and came to console me. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Nothing,” I said. I’m crying because I’m happy…I just wrote a poem.” A flood of poems followed, much of it far better poetry than I had written in my earlier years, poems that won me a number of literary prizes and which make up more than half of “Selected Poems: 1959-1999.”
DS: I first came
across your writing from your Selected Poems, 1959-1999, published
by Rattapallax Press, in 2000. Frankly, I had never heard of you as an actor,
and reading of your career in that role, was very skeptical as to the quality.
Yet, there are quite a few good poems, and some excellent ones, as well- some
which are featured on Cosmoetica. However, poetry is larded with bad celebrity
poets from a singer like Jewel, to actors Leonard Nimoy and Richard Thomas (who
played John-Boy on The Waltons), to even playwrights like
Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, and many others. Why do you think so
many celebrities think they can be poets? A friend of mine, Jason
Sanford, opines that people see poems that are only 8 or 10 lines long, and
think, ‘I can do that.’ And because it is not a long thing, like a novel,
and only requires a pen and paper, and not paint, brushes, canvases, nor
expensive film or photographic equipment, it’s seen as something ‘anyone can
do.’ Do you agree?
GD: I regret that some people consider me to be a celebrity actor who decided he could write poetry. Actually, I was a somewhat celebrated poet and fiction writer who later became somewhat of a celebrated actor. I think writing good poetry is very hard to do. I sometimes work for months on a poem. Other celebrity actors write poetry, paint, do sculpture, because they are artists. As actors, they don’t get enough work and their artistic impulses get frustrated and start to dry up so they desperately turn to other art forms to try to fulfill themselves. Whether celebrity actors or not, most people don’t realize how demanding the craft of poetry it is. They see so much tripe published as poetry, they feel that they could certainly write as well or better than that. And some of them can, but it still isn’t any good. And remember, an artist is an artist. e.e. cummings was a painter. David Lynch was a painter who got into films. Each separate art form is a difficult consuming craft in its own right. Even stage and film acting are somewhat different crafts. Excellence in one doesn’t mean excellence in the other. But the artistic urge is the same. I knew a TV and film actor named Fred Beers in Hollywood. He made his living acting, but he was also a sculptor… and I think he was a better sculptor than an actor, but he was not recognized for his sculpture. I am lucky to have been somewhat successful in several crafts.
DS: Yet, despite
its ease in being able to physically do, I believe there is a tacit
acknowledgement that it is, by far, the highest of the arts, for when people
speak in superlatives about art, or even in other fields, they always use
comparisons to poetry- things as ‘pure poetry,’ ‘poetry in motion,’ or
‘poetic.’ Do you think there is some cognitive dissonance between the tacit
acceptance of poetry as the highest of the arts and people’s idea that it is
the easiest art to do? If so, from where does this spring and is there a way to,
perhaps, dissuade bad poets from clogging up the Internet and wasting their
GD: I don’t know whether poetry is the highest of the arts. Maybe so. I do believe that no poem is greater than Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” or Bach’s “Chaconne” or Michelangelo’s “David.” And no matter what language you speak or read in, those great art works are accessible to you, while the poetry of another language is not as accessible, even if you have some understanding of that language. But poetry is certainly one of the great arts. I have tried my hand in most of the arts. I studied painting briefly at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris. I wasn’t any good at it. I sang for a while…I had a good voice, but I wasn’t really a musician. Acting is the toughest of the arts. The more you know and the better you become, the harder it is. That’s why Olivier got stage fright in his 50s. Painting goes back to the caveman days. I was lucky enough to view the cave paintings of animals and hunting at Lascaux, France, before they were shut off from the public. They are haunting. Still, poetry has been more central to the advance of civilization, probably because it was used to carry forth our tribal histories when we did not yet have access to writing or a press to read. The clan storyteller kept alive the trials, tribulations and heroics of the clan members. Rhyme and other poetic devices were used to make the stories more memorable. So poetry was central to our common good, to our sharing of experiences, to our early attempts to grapple with the mysteries, the terrors of the night…the wonder of the stars, the possibility of god or gods. Music and dance became adjuncts to that…visual arts, sculpture and painting were developed to describe the gods, to formalize religions…to use religion to control the populations… But even in that formalization, words were necessary to convey the rituals which bound us together in belief…and the highest use of those words was poetic.
In ancient Persian poetry, the “I” was not the poet, but god or his prophet. The “I” didn’t really become personal until Rousseau and Descartes made the personal “I” important…and then it started to infect and degrade poetry. Freud didn’t help…he made the self all important. (I am not trying to pontificate here… these are just my beliefs and observations.) The more personal the “I” in art became, the more debased the art has become, and the more just anyone felt he could be a poet. After all, it isn’t about the craft any more…”it’s about my feelings and my feelings are all important.” This has also become the central teaching of most of the writing programs… and, from my viewpoint, that is dreadfully wrong. I personally don’t write poetry to express my feelings. For me, a poem is a cup I create for the reader to drink from, to savor the taste of his own feelings, to experience the experiences of others. I try to think of myself as the ancient tribal story teller…I don’t always live up to that goal. No, there is no way to discourage the bad poets, particularly because most of the publications are devoted to their kind of work and reward it with prizes and fame. This is not sour grapes on my part. I learned long ago not to care about what all those people were doing. I write because I love poetry and because I have a debt to the great artists who made my life bearable and filled it sometimes with joy and beauty… I’m not comparing myself to them. I am only out here as a lonely “keeper of the flame.”
DS: I mentioned
your poems being published by Rattapallax Press. You were one of its founders,
correct? How does one get involved in such a venture?
GD: Ram Devineni, a young poet and filmmaker, and Michael Graves, a poet, knew of my poetry and my background in publishing. They also knew that I didn’t think much of the other literary journals. They asked me to join them in creating a magazine to publish poetry by better poets who weren’t getting published. I agreed as long as I could have total artistic control, which I got. I designed the magazine, chose most of the poetry and fiction and created the first four issues. I also picked the name, “Rattapallax,” from an onomatopoetic word coined by Wallace Stevens to describe the sound of thunder (in his poem “Frogs Eat Butterflies, Snakes Eat Frogs, Hogs Eat Snakes, Men Eat Hogs.” My own work (whether poetry or fiction) that appeared in the magazine was chosen by the other editors and Ram, the publisher. When the journal started to get some fame and stature because of its quality, Ram decided to create the Press to publish books of poetry, along with CDs of the poets reading from their work, as we had in the journal itself. This was Ram’s innovation in the industry. I had no part or editorial input in the book part of Rattapallax Press, although I could have. (I did not have the time or energy. To do the first four issues of the magazine took me forty hours a week for two years, for which I received no pay. My recompense was the pleasure of doing it…my desire to help discover which good poets might be out there and give them a platform for their work.) Ram chose me to be one of the first poets published by his book press.
DS: Yet, if one
looks at their website now, it’s
just another hipster wannabe press publishing reams of garbage, and even worse,
abandoning the written word almost entirely in many cases. What has gone wrong,
and how does what they’ve become differ from the initial vision?
Ram and I had a falling out over a number of things.
I chose to resign rather than compromise my standards. Chief among those standards was to find the best work being
done without caring about the author’s name or past achievements or
recognitions. I rejected a number
of famous writers because their work wasn’t as good as the work of some
unknowns. “Rattapallax” was my
baby, my last gift to the publishing world, which
I had to abandon. I knew
that what Ram and subsequent editors (not including Judith Werner, whom I had
trained and hoped to make editor in chief) would do to the magazine. They would degrade its original vision and eventually destroy
it. (It’s the kind of thing that
cost me some of my other publishing jobs, such as “Story” magazine.) I
regret the loss.
DS: Let’s speak of acting next. In looking over your acting credits at several sites it seems you last acted a decade ago. Why have you stopped working; was it by choice, or just the roles dried up? And how did you transition from your career in diplomacy to acting?
GD: I didn’t intend to lose my acting career. In the year-and-a-half leading up to my involvement with “Rattapallax” (in the summer of 1998) I had major leading roles in three independent films, “Broken Giant,” “Ties to Rachel” and “Stranger in the Kingdom.” None of those three received wide, general release. That hurt my career. My involvement with “Rattapallax” and the world of poetry became an obsession and I did not go out to Hollywood (from New York) to pursue my film career properly. I spent the next two years totally devoted to my own poetry and “Rattapallax.” Some agents, casting directors, and directors actually thought I had died. Then my severe spinal problems started and I became physically unable to spend the 12 hours a day necessary to perform in film or TV. Those problems have increased and I am today pretty much a cripple. So my acting career basically ended in 1998. I got involved in professional acting in 1977. I came back from the war in late 1976 and had the PTSD I talked about earlier. I had acted at Yale as an undergraduate, and dabbled in the amateur theatre over the years. I was even cast as the lead character (although I am neither fat or Jewish) in an amateur production in Beirut of Neil Simon’s “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers.” The theatre was blown up a week before opening night. So we did a one-shot performance of the third act on the back porch of the dean of agriculture’s house on the campus of the American University of Beirut (AUB) as grenades exploded in the near distance and planes roared overhead as they landed at Beirut’s airport. So, I long had the itch. After the war, unable to write or work at a normal job, I started taking acting classes at the professional acting school, H-B Studio, in New York. It was just something to fill my time with, something to keep me alive. I started doing off-Broadway plays, one after another for two years, got some work in soap operas. Then, after a six-month stint as the head of the Mafia from New Orleans on “Search for Tomorrow,” they killed off my character. The next day, my wife and I packed up and drove out to Hollywood. I got my first job in TV there in “A Man Called Sloane” in three weeks, then two other jobs, then got hired for the recurring role of Police Commander Swanson in the first season of “Hill St. Blues” and my career took off. My friends, who knew and loved my writing, hated my becoming an actor…so did my third wife who had been with me in Beirut…so I married an actress (Suzanne Hartman) whom I met in a class at H-B Studio. Acting helped save my life.
You are a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild, as well the Academy Of Motion
Picture Arts And Sciences, and therefore get to vote on the Academy Awards,
getting many screener DVDs, etc. What other unions are you involved in?
GD: I am a member of SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild) AFTRA (TV actor’s union), Actors’ Equity (stage actors’ union), the Dramatists’ Guild, the Author’s Guild, a number of poetry organizations (including the Academy of American Poets), as well as AMPAS.
Please go into some detail about what a typical Oscar season is like, how many
films you watch, how you decide what is good and bad, etc. Many people would
like to know what that process is like. Also, what are some of the worst films,
actors, directors, and other fields that you’ve seen nominated, since you’ve
been involved in the process, and are there any votes for a category that, in
retrospect, you regret?
GD: Being a member of the Academy (AMPAS) is both an honor and a burden. It is very difficult to become a member. You gain membership by being nominated for an Academy Award, or by election by your peers. The latter method, by which I entered, is arduous. You have to have significant roles in a number of movies (not TV or stage) of quality. You must be nominated by a member of your branch (actor’s branch in my case) and seconded by another member. Then the leaders of your branch must vote on you. Then the governors of the whole Academy must vote on you. All of them most know of your work and approve of you. You cannot apply. The first time I was nominated, I was turned down. The second time, I was elected. You are elected for life. There are only about 1,350 members of the Actor’s Branch. of the Academy. (This is compared to 120,000 members of the Screen Actors’ Guild and thousands of other film actors.) To have my work recognized by my peers, starting out as I did in my mid-forties, is quite an honor. And I take my duties, which include nominating and voting on the Academy Awards, seriously.
The process of nominating and voting for the Oscars is widely misrepresented, often giving the impression that awards are manipulated by cliques or influenced unduly by studios etc. Yes, there can be influences, such as the predeliction towards rewarding previous winners, or rewarding an actor because too many of the Academy members feel that I’ll vote for this actor this year because he should have won it last year. This can actually be a drawback, with the Academy not wanting to give an actor too many awards…but this is not a desired part of the process. I believe that most of the Academy members take their votes seriously and do it with honesty and diligence.
I’ll describe the process. Most Academy members, especially those in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and London, get to see free screenings of most of the eligible quality films throughout the year. There are about 300 of these English language films, made eligible by being shown in theatres for a certain number of days during the year. Additionally, films showing in the fall and winter in the regular theatres give free passes to Academy members to see the films in their theatres. Plus, the studios send out free VHS or DVD copies of their films (the ones that the studios are behind) to the Academy members to view in their homes. The studios also set up special screenings in screening rooms in some of the major cities. About 80 to 100 feature films fall into this category. This process starts in October. The nominations are sent in to the Academy by its members in January.
Voting members of the about 7,000 total membership in all branches (directors, cinematographers, etc.) are allowed to make five nominations for Best Picture and nominate for achievements in their own branch. An actor nominates for Best Picture, and up to five nominations for each acting award: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. It is the nominator’s choice whether to vote for the nominee as Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor (or both). You nominate in order of your preference, with the first position given the weighted, highest rating. The nominations are sent to an auditing house anonymously. To get a nomination, a nominee must get at least one first place nominating vote, plus be in the top five of all weighted. nominations. After the nominations are tallied they are sent out to all voting Academy members to be voted on. While I nominate for only Best Picture and Best Actors, etc., I can vote in all categories…including costume, editing, sound, script, etc. (19) categories.. The Academy then sets up special screenings for all the pictures which have nominations in any category, as do the studios. In early February, we send in our votes, which again are tabulated by an auditing house. The Awards Ceremonies are held in late February in Los Angeles, with Awards dinners in New York, London, etc. I have been to both the big TV production ceremony in Los Angeles, but in my 19 years of membership, my wife and I have mostly attended the dinner in New York, where we cam eat., mingle with other members, and watch on TV. During the heat of the awards season, I see about 80 to 100 films. I watch some of them two or three times, especially if I am voting on a film that hast a lot of nominations….so I can watch the craft in those categories. I do not vote in a category if I haven’t seen all the nominated films in that category.
Voting on foreign and documentary films is different. The nominations limited by committees who have spent all year judging the films put forward. (A foreign country may propose only one of its films for nomination.) After the nominations are made, Academy members may vote in those categories if they sign in to see the films at Academy movie sites or vow that they have seen a couple of them in public theatres. They must prove that they have seen all five nominees.
The process, unfortunately, allows for people who are not necessarily qualified to vote for the best actor, the best, editor, etc. They may be experts in their craft but not have enough expertise in the other crafts. This allows for some awards that I disagree with, but I would rather have the system as it is than not be allowed to vote in the other craft categories.
It would be inappropriate for me to name actors or films which I don’t think should have been nominated. There are always some each year, but by and large, I am satisfied with the outcome.
My disappointment is usually with Best Picture. For example, my top choices for Best Picture in 2007 did not get nominated. Some of the lesser choices did. At other times, a film will win best picture because two other films (either of which should have won) split much of the vote, while the third picture had a hard core band of supporters that stuck with that film and made it a winner on a small plurality of the vote.
And sometimes the vote is influence by the hoopla surrounding the winners of earlier awards ceremonies…such as the Golden Globes. The Academy actually moved its process up a month, from the end of March to the end of February in an effort to cut down on this influence.
In terms of how I myself vote, I choose the actor or other worker on the film by how well I feel they fulfill the craft involved, how their use of their craft added to or helped fulfill the needs of the film. For example, I vote for the cinematographer not by the beauty of his shots but by how well his shots tell the story and enhance the artistry of the whole film.
I heard many people complain about the nominations for Sofia Coppola’s film, “Lost In Translation,” which actually won for Best Screenplay in 2003. They found the film incredibly boring and felt that there were many more deserving films and scripts, etc. This is a case where some Academy members felt the politics of personal influence came into play. There are also cases where a film or performance may be ignored because the members may have a quarrel with a director or actor, etc. I believe this may have been the case with Oliver Stone’s “Nixon.” There have been campaigns against Oliver Stone in Hollywood (not necessarily connected with the Academy). I thought the film might have deserved a nomination and I thought that Anthony Hopkins gave a towering performance as Nixon and should have at least been nominated. Most of my disappointments come not with those who win but with those who were left out of the nominations, usually I think because not enough people saw their performances before the nominations were due.
However, by and large, I think the Academy does its best, both ethically and artistically, to reward the right people for their work.
DS: What are your thoughts on the recent Writer’s Strike, by the WGA, and how that affected the Oscars and other awards shows?
GD: I don’t think the strikes affected that much the Academy Awards. It did demolish the Golden Globes. The strikes were necessary. I am just hoping that SAG and the producers are able to come to terms, because another strike would be devastating. Many films have been put on hold until the situation with SAG is settled, not wanting to shut down production and have a strike disrupt it.
DS: It seems
your only recurring role was as a secondary character on the 1980s cop series, Hill
Street Blues. Not a fan of cop shows, I watched maybe an episode or two
of that show. What was your role, how large was it, and was it a good
experience? You also appeared in cameo roles on such shows as Three’s
Company, Charlie’s Angels, Little House On The
Prairie, and LA Law. Are there any memorable anecdotes you
have from such times? I also note an appearance in the late 1980s sitcom Sledge
Hammer! I actually liked that show and David Rasche. Any tales from that
GD: Re: “Hill Street Blues:” I was auditioning for a one-day small role of a cop checking in to HQ from a payphone. When I went in to audition, Steve Bochko, the top producer/writer said he had “bad news.” The part had just been cut. However, would I read for this other role. They gave me the sides (the pages) for a four-line part and as I was taking the script out to study it, Greg Hoblitt, the other producer stopped me and said. “I’m sorry, but you have a string on your lapel, and it will just distract me.” There was indeed a small white piece of string on the lapel of my dark suit. He got up to remove the string. I said, “But my mother gave me that string.” He took the string and put it on the coffee table between me and the producers and said, “It will be right here, so you can have it back when you leave.” After I auditioned, I picked up the string and put it back on my lapel. That bit of business helped me to get the recurring role of Police Commander Dave Swanson…Capt. Furillo’s boss. I was hired to be in the last six regular shows of the original 12 shows of the season. Some of the scenes were very substantial; one was a seven-page continuous scene (almost unheard of in TV). I got fired from the show in part because I raised the issue of my billing (where my name was placed in the end credits). That was a no-no in Hollywood. Only agents discuss that kind of thing with casting directors or producers. It was a bitter lesson for someone new to the protocols of the industry. Actually, they did me a favor, because if I had become too identified with the role and the show, I probably would not have gotten the part of Detective John Williams in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” a part that helped boost my status as a film actor.
“Sledge Hammer” was fun to do, but filming got behind, ran late and cost me a better part in a cop show set in Boston. I couldn’t get on a plane soon enough to be there for the next day’s shooting.
“Little House on the Prairie” was a wonderful experience. Michael Landon ran the nicest, calmest set because as he said, “I have to, otherwise the little kids would just freeze up at any sign of upset or tension.” I played the part of a farmer who wanted to adopt only one of two brothers. In one of my scenes, I had a long monologue directed toward Michael Landon’s character in a courtroom scene. In the first take of the master shot with all seven characters, I went through the whole monologue before Michael (who was also directing) said “cut.” He turned to me and said, “George, we’ll have to shoot that over from the top. I should have stopped you right away, but you were so wonderful I couldn’t bear to stop you. The problem is that you don’t know who you are. You went through the whole monologue calling me by your character’s name.” We laughed, did it over and I got it right.
“Three’s Company” gave me a chance to work with John Ritter, one of the great comic geniuses, especially with physical comedy. His ability to turn words into physical comedy was unmatched except by people like Chaplin, etc. The show was tough to do because, unlike most TV shows, it was done in four days, not five or seven, and shot before a live audience as if it were a stage play. We had two days of rehearsal. The third day was dress rehearsal, shot before a live audience. The fourth day was the final production, shot live. They would then edit the third and four days to get the best of what was done.
DS: How did
television acting compare to film acting? Often I’ve read a film or tv star
who loathes one form and loves the other. Also, you have done some stage work,
including a one man show called A
Few Useless Mementos For Sale.
Did you write that? What was it about? And, how does that compare to the
other two media?
GD: I started out as a stage actor and had to learn to be good at that. I learned about film acting by working on New York University student films. I learned TV on the job. All three media are quite different. I like all three. Stage is the actor’s medium. TV is the producer/writer’s medium. Film is the director’s medium. Stage acting is very big…with voice and gestures large enough to be seen and felt by people at the back of an audience with 2,000 people. Stage acting is fast paced. The words are all important. TV acting is like a smaller stage acting, not as fast paced, with climaxes built to the ad breaks. Film acting is the most intense, the smallest and slowest. John Wayne (not a great actor but a great screen persona) was asked what was the key to film acting. He said: “Walk slow, talk slow, and wear comfortable shoes.” Try sometime to talk as slow in real life as Michael Caine does on film. It’s almost impossible. Film acting gets smaller and smaller, the closer the camera gets. The best film acting is in the eyes…with the camera reading your thoughts. What is acted between the words, (the sub-text), is most important. Film acting is as close and intense as if you were in bed with the other actor…unless you are involved with action sequences. Film acting is my favorite. Once you get good at film, it is hard to go back to TV…
My one-man, stage drama, “A Few Useless Mementos for Sale,” was produced in Hollywood ten years after I had done it in New York off-off Broadway as “Fragments from a Broken Window.” Yes, I wrote it and performed it. It was an autobiographical piece about my life in relationship to my poetry and included many of my early poems. I included it in my book: “Selected Poems: 1959 – 1999.” It was tough to do because I had to act myself as a different character from myself. It was an hour-long monologue using and addressing the audience as if it were one character dropping in on my yard sale, with all the objects for sale related to dramatic moments in my life and related to my finding and losing poetry.
DS: You also did
a telefilm called Son Of The Morning Star, about General Custer,
based on the book by Evan S. Connell. You played General William Tecumseh
Sherman. Was it a large role, and did they allow you to raze Georgia?
GD: It was a moderate-sized role. My part was to convince President Ulysses Grant to send Custer out to deal with the Indians one final time…there were three or four scenes, including Custer. The whole show was about Custer’s Last Stand. I enjoyed the role and read five books to research the character of Sherman, who is one of the most fascinating characters in American history. He was a failure at whatever he did until his famous march, which won the war for the North, by cutting off supplies to Lee. By the way, he didn’t burn Atlanta. The retreating Southern troops set the fires to destroy their arms, etc. Sherman and his lieutenants rushed to try to put out the fires. His troops did set other fires on their way across to the sea. After retiring from the army, Sherman went to New York and became a stage-door Johnny, dating showgirls. He became a close friend of Mark Twain and toured America, doing stage shows with Twain.
an interesting writer because his work is so damned hit and miss. The Custer
book was a good work of nonfiction, and his Bridge novels are superb, as is some
of his short fiction; yet his long book length poems, Notes From A Bottle
Found On The Beach At Carmel and Points For A Compass Rose,
are atrocious, his Diary Of A Rapist
is not good at all, and other of his short fiction is bad, as well. It’s hard
to imagine a published writer who seems so unaware of whether his work is good
or not. Any thoughts on Connell as a writer? Also, did you get a chance to meet
and speak with Connell on writing or anything else?
GD: I read the book “Son of the Morning Star” and thought it was excellent. Connell, unfortunately, did not write the screenplay for the mini-series based on the book. He was not around and I did not have an opportunity to meet him.
DS: You also
appeared in some movie sequels, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, and Psycho
II. As I recall, neither of these roles are things you take pride in.
Were they just bad scripts? Exploitation films?
GD: I am very proud of my work in “Death Wish 4,” although it is not wonderful film. I rewrote most of my character’s lines, with the permission of the screenwriter, the director and the other actors. I wanted to make my character not a caricature of the tough cop and succeeded in doing that. It was a great pleasure to work with J. Lee Thompson, one of the professionally great film directors. He directed, I believe, something like 50 films, including “The Guns of Navarone” and “Cape Fear.” I learned a lot from him about film acting, some of the techniques required for working in front of the camera. He was a lovely English gentleman and fine filmmaker. Gregory Peck said that Lee was one of only four directors he could trust. “Psycho II” was a total disaster and very embarrassing for me. I was never allowed to see the whole script before we shot my one scene and I didn’t know what my character was talking about. Also they put me in this western sheriff’s outfit with a cowboy hat that didn’t fit. I felt and looked ridiculous. I wish the footage didn’t exist.
your most well known role on film was as Detective John Williams, in Blue
Velvet, the David Lynch film. I’ve found the few films of his I’ve
seen to be willfully obscure and just plain dull. Blue Velvet is
not a bad film, but afterwards I found it the kind of film I just shake my head
at and forget. If you had a chance, which directors or film projects that you
had a shot at getting would you have loved to work on?
GD: I, personally, think this is the best of David’s films, that it is a strong, psychological thriller dressed up as a black comedy. It certainly is a seminal film and has influenced many of the filmmakers who followed it with their work. I heard of some female filmgoers who went to see it every day for a month. Many find it to be a disturbing work. My manager, an elderly woman, hated it and said the negative should have been burned. My favorite remark by a critic was: “The only person who can enjoy this film is someone who likes to suck dirty socks.” It is the film that David best balanced the bizarre with an examination of the human condition. I am proud to have been in it. My biggest regret is that I lost at least a third of my role in the editing room, the whole central arc of my character’s actions. David was forced to cut the film below two hours and a lot of wonderful scenes got lost.
I would have loved to have played Anthony Hopkins’ character in “Silence of the Lambs.” I regret that many of Hollywood’s top directors died before I had a chance to work with them. I am also happy to have played the character of Doc Goldman in “After Dark, My Sweet,” a strange, death obsessed, closeted gay doctor. I would like to have worked with both David Lynch and James Foley again. I lost three or four of my scenes in Foley’s film in the editing room. That is one of the terrible things about film acting: you don’t have any control over which takes of your scenes are used, or how the scenes are edited to enhance other aspects of the film. The film does not belong to the actor, but to the director.
DS: Let’s step
backwards in your careers, and talk about your time as a UN diplomat in Lebanon.
War permeates several of your better poems, and also, if I recall, contributed
to your writing block. Were you suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),
or as it was known, shellshock? After all, you have told me that you were
kidnapped in that country. How long did it last and what were the circumstances?
GD: Yes, I had PTSD, as I mentioned earlier. My experiences in that war (the 1975-76 Lebanese Civil War) have strongly influenced the rest of my life. Yes, I was kidnapped briefly. I was driving down the Mediterranean coast from Beirut to the Christian town of Damour on a reconnaissance mission for the U.N. It was supposed to have been a day a truce. I was stopped at a flying (a moveable) roadblock by a couple of thugs who were part of a mafia-like group called the Mourabitoun, (meaning the avengers who lie in wait). They grabbed me at random. They put me in a mud-brick hut with two other people, both of whom were killed. I managed to survive because I let them know who I was and they checked me out and were told by their leader that they would eat their balls if they harmed me. I was held for about a day. I have written extensively about this event, in fiction, drama and, now, as part of a screenplay.
DS: Have you
ever returned to Lebanon? Was it similar to stories we read of Vietnam vets who
have returned there?
GD: I was trying to write a novel about the war and got stuck in it in 1998. The State Department lifted its travel ban to there that spring, so I went back with my son (who was with me as a young boy in Lebanon and had to be evacuated from the war with his mother) who in 1998 was now 29. He and I spent a tense week there that March, and were almost shot to death by a squad of Syrian soldiers when my son pulled out a camera to film some of the city’s desolation. Again, we were lucky to get out of there alive.
Man Who Loved Butterflies is an excellent short story, first
published in Penthouse (12/85), you wrote about your experiences
in Lebanon. What was it about, and how much of it was based on reality? It also
was reworked into a play, in the early 1990s, one that almost got produced. What
happened that caused its cancellation? Also, since fiction is art, what
‘truths’ did you discard in favor of narrative ‘lies’ to make the tale
work better as a story?
GD: The short story and the full-length play were both mostly a fictionalized account of my kidnapping. The play was due to open off Broadway in the spring of 1994. It was cancelled a week before opening night because of a disagreement caused by the producer, the wife of the director. I was playing the lead role. It left me very bitter and I walked away from the theatre and have not gone back. There are always things you have to change to make a story or play work. The fundamental events were all factual. I had to change one of the main characters held in the hut. I didn’t discard “truths.” I changed facts to get at the truth.
Of course, I asked that last question to dig at your views on art. Like
me, you don’t believe that ‘art is truth’ bullshit. What is your opinion
on art, in regards to its ability to distill the essence of a situation, be it
in a poem, film, play, story, photograph, painting, piece of music?
GD: I don’t say that art is truth. I think art tries to understand what may be truths in life. Of course, there are many truths (or no truths), often contradictory. Art tries to understand life, or make it survivable, or enable us to endure it. It tries to make experiences capable of being shared by many people. Art is a beautiful lie... Michelangelo had to make one of David’s legs unnaturally long, otherwise the proportions of the statue’s two legs, one of them bent, would have looked wrong.
We are terribly lonely creatures…each of us, uncertain in the illusions of our own identities…each of our identities lost from moment to moment to that terrible trickster, Time…unable to say “hello” without being misunderstood. Art is an attempt to find out what we can share impossibly. Art is an act of defiance against…against…what cannot even be properly named…it is the last refuge of the hopeless. It is the ineluctable shape of delight and even, impossibly, joy… It cannot be attained, only striven for. Art is the ultimate, king’s Fool, who weeps when he takes off his cap and bells. Any attempt to describe it is meaningless…it is only to be recognized. It still shouts, “Yes,” when all else has turned to shit. For all my struggles, I really don’t know anything about art except that it is the only betrayer I trust.
Those in the know, the cognoscenti, claim that Art is a great con man, the master swindler. His rap sheet says his real name is Al and he was born in Brooklyn. He was last seen smoking dope outside of Kabul in a field of poppies. People on the street whisper he was killed by friendly fire.
DS: How did you get you diplomacy job at the UN, since before that you were in the publishing industry? You worked in the U.S. Congress, did you not? You were Press Secretary to former U.S. Congressman Robert H. Steele, a Republican from Connecticut. What exactly does a Press Secretary do, and how did such a job materialize? Also, as we have talked much, you seem to be of a liberal political bent, so was the Republican congressman a friend, or a John Lindsay ‘limousine liberal?’
GD: As I wrote earlier, I answered two ads in the New York Times in the same week. I interviewed with my future boss, at the U.N. Secretariat Building in New York, the week before New Years. I went to Hartford, Connecticut and interviewed with Congressman Steele on New Year’s Day 1973. He asked me to stay all night and write a speech for him. He said he didn’t like me, but if he liked the speech, he would hire me and I had to fly to Washington with him the next day, leaving my car in Hartford and my family in New York. I went with him to Washington. As Press Secretary, I wrote his speeches, his statements for Congress, his press releases. I attended certain Congressional meetings in his place, including the Joint House and Senate Subcommittee on Atomic Energy, where I learned all about the coming oil import crisis. I set up press briefings. I handled visiting groups from his congressional districts, introducing him to them. This was early in 1973, during the Watergate brouhaha. I was a liberal Democrat working for a maverick Republican. It was not uncommon for many of the Republicans to have Democratic press secretaries. Steele was a straight shooter and moderate enough that I could write his stuff without severely violating my own political positions. Steele and I never really liked each other, but we were able to work together.
After four months, the U.N. job came through and I moved my family from Washington back to New York, while I went to Beirut. They had to wait several months for all our FBI full-field security clearances to come through. Then they joined me in Beirut. They arrived in the summer of 1973. Beirut was a wonderful place to live and work in then. That was before the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 and the Lebanese Civil War, which started on April 13, 1975.
official UN title was Head Of Press And Publications For The United
Nations Relief And Works Agency For Palestine Refugees In The New East (UNRWA),
quite a mouthful. One can assume that you’ve seen the Arab-Israeli conflict
closer than most Americans, so do you see any resolution to that problem in the
lifetimes of anyone alive? And, is not Arab tribalism really more of the
problem, because even without the Israelis, the Arab factions would likely still
be slaughtering each other, no?
GD: Although Lebanon did not go to war with Israel in 1973, there were Israeli air strikes on Lebanon, particularly on refugee camps on the outskirts of cities. The Israelis were purportedly hunting down PLO members. Sometimes, when the planes overflew Beirut on bombing runs, my wife, my son and I would duck under the stairs of our building for shelter. The strikes, of course, affected UNRWA’s abilities to provide food, educational and medical services to the refugees in the camps.
Arab tribalism is, of course, a problem throughout the Arab states. It is not much different than the European tribalism that led to two world wars. Linking the problems in Israel and the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip only to Arab tribalism is simplistic. As long as Israel continues to illegally occupy the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (or in the case of Gaza, keep the people in a virtual prison there) and to build settlements illegally, taking Arab land and destroying Arab homes, there will be no peace. As long as Israel tries to own Jerusalem only for itself, there will be no peace. Jerusalem is one of the three cities of the Sunni Haj. There will be no peace until Jerusalem is internationalized and is open to worshippers from all three religions, Christianity, Islam, Judaism. Many of the Jews are passionately against this idea, so there will be no peace. In April of 2002, the Arab states and African Islamic countries, including Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Yassir Arafat’s PLO, made an extraordinary offer, including total recognition of Israel’s right to exist, dropping of all trade barriers to Israel, guarantee of Israel’s border, and peace. It was the opening of the golden door. All Israel had to do was return to the 1967 borders (with some adjustments of land for some of the Israeli settlements) and the use of Jerusalem by both Israel and the Palestinians as capitals of their respective states, and make some accommodations for the loss of the refugee’s homes. It was an extraordinary offer. Israel, with the U.S. backing it up, said “no.” Israel did not want peace.
DS: Since you
have actually lived in an environment where the Islamic influence is strong,
what are your opinions on American policies, post-9/11? Were we right to go into
Afghanistan, but wrong on Iraq? Do you see the Sunni-Shia rift as intractable?
GD: We were absolutely right to go into Afghanistan and absolutely wrong to go into Iraq. The Sunni-Shia rift in Iraq is no more intractable than it was in Lebanon. There will be more bloodletting. There will be more revenge. There will eventually be a settlement between them, if foreign influence (including the U.S., Iran, Turkey, Syria, etc) is gotten rid of. Kurdistan is more of a problem than the Sunni-Shia problem. The Kurds want their own country, which was denied them by the settlements with the Turks and the Iranians following WWI. Part of Kurdistan lies in South eastern Turkey, North western Iran, and possibly even North eastern Syria, as well as northern Iraq. And that latter area (northern Iraq) lies on a huge supply of oil. Iraq has the third largest supply of the world’s known oil reserves. The Kurds in Iraq, under U.S. protection, have had relative autonomy since the first Gulf War in 1991. They are doing well today, except for occasional attacks on them by the Turkish military. The Kurds are not going back to domination by the Iraqis. The oil will give them money to acquire large armaments. War with the Turks is probably inevitable.
prompted your change in career? Also, how did it affect your personal life? You
are now on marriage number four, correct? You also have several children with
different women, five in total. Correct? Did any of your personal relationships
crumble because of this change, or any others you’ve made?
GD: My third marriage was destroyed in part by the Lebanese war. After evacuating my wife and my son from that marriage in late October 1975, I was separated from them for much of the next year. My wife did not want to move with me to Amman, Jordan, where my part of headquarters was relocated. That caused my departure from the U.N. The separation exacerbated other problems in our marriage. My PTSD didn’t help, nor my need to become an actor. In 1977, I divorced my third wife and married my fourth wife. We will have our 30th anniversary this year. I have five children, two daughters by my first wife, a son by my third wife, a daughter by my fourth wife and a son born out of wedlock with a Finnish journalist. The latter son is Dome Karukoski, the Finnish film director. I legally recognized him as my son and we are very close, although he chose not to take my name. Having completed his third film, he is visiting me as I am finishing writing this interview.
DS: Finally, you have mentioned to me that you were involved in security activities for the U.N. in Lebanon, during the 1975-1976 Lebanese Civil War. What exactly were you doing there? And, did your UN duties ever conflict with your status as an American citizen? If so, where did your first loyalty lie to?
GD: My U.N. duties did not conflict with my U.S. citizen’s status. When you go to work for the U.N, you sign away your first allegiance to your home country. When I left the U.N., my first allegiance was returned to the U.S. The U.N.’s member states are signatories to this arrangement.
When the war started in Lebanon in April 1973, the U.N. had no security operations to protect the activities of the eight U.N. agencies operating there, or the lives of its 2,000 international staff and family members. Since, Sir John Rennie, the Commissioner General of UNRWA was the highest U.N. official in the Mid-East, the responsibility for security for all eight agencies devolved on our agency. My immediate superior, John Defrates, Director of Public Information and Contributions, was given the task of organizing the security effort and heading it. Each of the other agencies sent one representative and Defrates chose me to assist him on behalf of UNRWA. This was in addition to my regular duties as Head of Press and Publications. After all, I now had an increasing expertise in the politics of oil, and the politics of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, The West Bank, Gaza, and Israel, having traveled around there to the various refugee camps and field offices. I had a growing network of contacts with members of the international and local presses. I was to use these contacts to help analyze daily the growing nature of the war and the threat to our people and our operations. I was to help in the decision making on the safety of travel or whether or not we should open or close all eight agencies, depending on the escalating threat. Sometimes I had to make instantaneous decisions for people who called and asked whether they could go out and get food for their babies. As the war progressed, I found that the information from my sources was drying up, so I had to go out into the streets with the gunmen and find information to trade with the journalists and even some of the many spies located in the country. This put me at the kind of risk that caused my kidnapping. Sir John and John Defrates could rely more and more on my analysis and information. Unbeknownst to them, I secretly built my own small espionage organization--on the behalf of the U.N. and to help save lives--with voluntary informants in the headquarters of some of the major combatants. (With some of the information gathered from my informants, I blackmailed a Christian militia leader to send in armored personnel carriers to rescue 112 men, women and children trapped in a church during a major battle.) Days as a kind of “spy master” ended when I became too much of a target and left Lebanon a week or so before we evacuated all international staff members. I relocated to Amman, Jordan and took several trips back into Lebanon during the rest of the war in 1976. I left the U.N. after the war ended.
DS: You also
speak languages other than English: French,
German, some Arabic and Italian. Were these learnt early in life, during your
diplomatic career, or whilst becoming an actor?
GD: French and German were learned at Yale. I took the two-year intensive speaking course in German that was still taught by the same four old ladies who taught our spies there during WWII. My French was not as good, but I improved it when I spent a year in France in 1957, writing my first novel. I learned some Italian and Spanish and Greek while traveling in those countries. The Arabic was learned during my three-and-a-half years in the Middle East. I have forgotten most of the languages now because of disuse, except for the French, because I have visited France often over the years. The French came in handy in Lebanon, because that country had been a French mandate until France gave it independence in 1943 and the Lebanese (mostly the Christians) spoke French. It also is the main diplomatic language.
DS: Let’s now
get to you earliest career, at least that which is know, your role on the staffs
of several magazines in the 1960s and early 1970s. I mentioned Time
magazine. What was your role there, and do you ever regret having left that
GD: I discussed this earlier. My first role as Contributing Editor for Time was as their top fiction and poetry reviewer. I chose which fiction and poetry books were to be reviewed and wrote reviews. Eventually, I wrote in many sections of the magazine, and spent the last year-and-a-half there writing world news stories, most notably a cover story about the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. The involvement with world news and politics helped me to get my job with the U.N.
DS: You have
also been published in high profile places like Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan,
and The Saturday Evening Post, as well as having stories published
in the 1963 (Chico) and 1966 (A
Mussel Named Ecclesiastes) editions of The Best American Short
Stories anthologies, which, like the Pulitzer Prize, once meant something
about the quality of the work. Let me briefly digress and ask you where and why
do you think both American fiction and poetry have gone wrong? And what writers
and poets do you think are vastly overrated, and how do you think they’ve been
able to con so many people? Is it part of the NEA system of cronyism, the MFA
writing mills that scam the untalented, both, or both and other factors, and
what are those factors?
GD: Most of today’s poets and fiction writers are overrated. But that is nothing new. Alexander Pope complained about that in his time. Unlike in the 1950s, ‘60s and even into the early ‘70s, today’s publishing world is not governed by the editors but by the sales departments. The salesmen decide what books are to be published and what writers are to be pushed to the giant book chains. There has always been cronyism in university circles (witness Oxford and Cambridge). The MFA writing mills are an abomination. The writer’s conferences are only marginally better. One famous writer (I believe it was Nelson Algren) gave the following as his major address to a top writer’s conference. “If you want to be a writer, never eat at a place called ‘Mom’s,’ never play poker with a man named ‘Doc’ and never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own.” And he left the stage.
It’s always lucky when you get published. “Chico” was rejected by twenty magazines before it was published and then made The Best American Short Stories. “A Mussel Named Ecclesiastes” was rejected by fifteen before publication and then “The Best American…” The top fiction editor of The New Yorker had a meeting with me about the story before rejecting it. He loved the writing but couldn’t believe that “Pony,” the lead female character, or a woman like her, “could exist.” She was too much of a free spirit for him. This was in 1964, a good number of years before Women’s Lib hit the fan in about 1970. I was writing a cutting-edge piece capturing the birth of that movement in a woman, the need to be free and not bound by all the old stereotypical expectations that men had imposed on women. You read the story today and it doesn’t seem that exceptional…after all, we have had almost 40 years of the changes in American women. Back then, my story was revolutionary.
DS: Aside from Time,
two other high profile gigs you held were with Story magazine and The
New Yorker. What did you do there? Why do you think The New Yorker
has also declined in terms of the quality of poetry and fiction it publishes vs.
your era there, and why do you think it fosters such a closed little circle of
writers that it publishes?
GD: I was a fact checker on The New Yorker. It is a tough, intellectual job. For example, I had to fact check all of Alan Moorehead’s “The White Nile” about Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, which the magazine first published. This required, among other things, reading the memoirs of Napoleon’s top general in “French” and checking all the facts stated by Moorehead. I also spent three days in the New York City morgue, interviewing the city’s top medical examiner for a Profile in the magazine. Every fact in the magazine had to be checked for accuracy. If a poet in a poem said he got on a streetcar in Montreal in 1949, you had to verify that there were streetcars in that city then. I got to meet and work with a number of writers at The New Yorker. However, my only encounter with the great stylist, E. B. White, came one day when we met in the men’s room. He asked, “How’s it hanging.” I answered, “Fine, sir, just fine.” I often had lunch at the counter of the coffee shop across the street from the magazine, sitting next to the famous cartoonist, Charles Addams. He was strange, always dressed in his three-piece banker’s suit. He’d mutter things to me like, “The hamburgers are going down hill.” The magazine was developed with a niche audience in mind and chose its writers and editors for that purpose. It continues to do so. Back then, its key, defining, literary word was “urbanity.” Writers who were not “urbane” didn’t stand a chance. I don’t know what the guiding word is today, if there is one.
I was hired to create a new version of Story, which I did. It was a success on the newsstand, but shut down for reasons I described earlier.
DS: Let me speak of some of the topics you’ve written about in assorted magazines. You once wrote a piece on the novels of Herman Hesse. I think that he’s a much better novelist than folk like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, or Ernest Hemingway, but he’s sort of been ghettoized by having been so popular with the Beatniks and Hippies of the 1950s and 1960s. His prose is dense, but builds poesy via the juxtaposition of its images and narrative scenes. What is your opinion of Hesse?
From my piece, if you have had a chance to read it, I admired Hesse.
I had to read all of his novels to do the piece.
I particularly liked his “Siddhartha.”
The whole Time “Books”
section was devoted to the piece.
DS: You also surveyed Black Poetry in a 1970 article The Undaunted Pursuit Of Fury: poets such as Nikki Giovanni, LeRoi Jones and Gwendolyn Brooks. What was the general thrust of the article, and was there any discussion of the qualitative differences between the poets, or was it just a sort of black lumpenmenschen approach?
I wrote it as a news article for the “Books” section, again devoting
the whole section to the piece. I
interviewed all of the Black writers I covered in it, many of them barely known
at the time, i.e. Nikki Giovanni. I
tried to treat the poets in terms of their cultural and political goals and went
out of my way not to compare their work to the body of English or American
poetry, but as the new verbal movement it was. I got into a fight with the
“Books” section editor over it and quit as a reviewer because he tried to
hype things in a subconsciously racist way.
He was new and didn’t realize he wasn’t supposed to rewrite the
reviewer’s work. The point was
that I was trying to alert the white literary community to the fact that the
world of Black poetry existed and that it was blossoming.
You also once wrote an article for The
Saturday Evening Post
called The Strange Eye And Art Of Willem de Kooning. I’ve
always been very skeptical of the Abstract Expressionists- be it the drip
paintings of Jackson Pollack or the monochrome paintings of Mark Rothko.
However, de Kooning reminds me quite a bit of Lucian Freud, and his paintings
seem to have more meat to them, intellectually, as well as displaying real
skill. What was your take then, and do you still agree now?
de Kooning was a major artist, with strong classical training.
I started to build a friendship with him, staying in his house in The
Springs on Long Island, as I was researching the article.
His wife, Elaine, from whom he was separated, did a large portrait of me
which still hangs on my wall. He
struggled hard with his work, sometimes scraping the paint off a nearly finished
painting, and starting over, then scraping off again and starting over.
We were walking down a dirt road together one day after a rain.
I asked him to explain Abstract Expressionism (his genre) to me. He pointed to a puddle and said, “George.
I see the things reflected in the puddle, but I don’t paint the
reflected images. I paint what
those reflected images evoke in me. That’s
Abstract Expressionism.” Bill
told me many stories about his life as an artist.
He despised the critics, saying they would make things up about his work,
then get into absurd intellectual debates over what was made up.
For instance, there was quite a critical debate about Bill’s “Black
and White Period,” when he painted only in those colors.
He laughed about it, explaining the reason he painted in black and white
was, because he and Elaine were so poor, those were the only two colors he could
afford which wouldn’t degrade over time.
I lost my friendship with him because the editors at The
Saturday Evening Post added material about his young daughter without my
knowledge. I had promised to keep
his daughter out of the piece. Bill
never forgave me.
DS: I recall you once telling me about your dealings with Donald Barthelme, the noted short story writer. You agreed with me that his fiction was overrated, but what other anecdotes do you have of him, or any other writers you edited?
I published an early short story of Barthelme’s under a pen name,
because, after I bought the story for Cavalier,
he signed an exclusivity agreement with The
New Yorker. I like the piece I published.
I don’t remember saying he was “overrated.”
DS: And, speaking of editing, you know that I’ve always laid the blame for what is wrong with the publishing industry at the feet of the editors, not the writers, for editors have to know what needs work, even if from a name author, and what work should not be touched, even if from an unknown. We just spoke of writing’s ills, but what the hell has gone wrong with editing?
GD: Editing has deteriorated as the sales departments have taken over publishing. Also, increasingly, writers have refused to let their work be edited…somehow, perhaps because of people like Kerouac who believed that not a word should be touched, writers think their work is sacrosanct. This is a far cry from the days when an author like Thomas Wolfe would bring in his huge manuscripts in orange crates and leave it for his editor, Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, to cut into a long but manageable book. Remember Ezra Pound edited and threw away a third of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” When I was “editing” Rattapallax, I edited the poems and fiction, always with the agreement of the writers. It was only the worst writers who objected. Editors at other literary magazines were astounded and horrified that I would be so presumptuous as to edit a poet’s work. At a poetry reading with a lot of other editors, I once told them: “If you don’t think we need editing, just look at the people around you.” This provoked some uncomfortable laughter.
DS: And, by
extension, since most editors now ‘farm out’ the task of recruiting
promising writers to agents, they pass the buck down to college aged new hires
or coed interns seeking college credits. Simply put, no twenty year old is
qualified enough to discern the quality of a Huckleberry Finn or A
Tree Grows In Brooklyn, if it comes across their desk. This is
how hacks like a Chuck Palahniuk or David
Foster Wallace get an ‘in,’ because their
deliterate prose is no better nor worse than that the college aged readers of
manuscripts can produce. After all, most agents (and editors) I, and my wife,
submit to, cannot even tell the difference between run-on and complex sentences,
a preposition and a conjunction or even the proper usage of a comma vs. a
semi-colon. Even in the overall paring down of books they seem inadequate to
even recognizing quality. All that is cared for is saleability, yet I’ve had
agents admit to me that neither they nor the publishers have a clue what will
sell or not. Would it, given this ignorance of saleability, be a perfect reason
to publish only quality writing? Then, again, most literary agents today- much
less editors, are simply not equipped to evaluate good writing, as evidenced by
the utter lack of quality writing that is published. Even worse, most literary
agents do not even read the work submitted to them.
GD: I agree for the most part. But I think it is counterproductive to waste so much time and energy on this. For my own sake, I try to put it out of my mind. In my time, I have had the very top literary agents. When my last agent closed his office, I submitted my work to a newer, younger agent. Despite all my previous fame and publications and even my literary prizes, he told me he didn’t think he could recommend my writing to an editor. At first I was outraged. Then I just laughed at it. I have said already all the criticism of the editorial world that I want to talk about now.
DS: My wife,
Jessica, insists that literary agents should be called ‘book agents’ since
they seem to lack any real concern for the quality of what they help get
produced. In the old days, however, literary agency was a different beast.
You’ve told me of your old literary agent, since retired, so what were some of
the things done then which have been abandoned now?
GD: Back then, agents spent a lot of time nurturing young writers, helping to build their careers. Many of them cared as much about literature as they did about the money. If that still exists, it is probably very rare today.
DS: Lastly, in
the same vein, what is wrong with criticism today? Yes, there are some film
critics who will diss a film, but this is usually based upon liking or disliking
the film. I can like a bad work of art- like a Godzilla
film or the poetry of Richard Brautigan, and not like great art- the poetry
of Robert Frost or the films of Ingmar Bergman. But I recognize the difference,
unlike, say, a Michiko Kakutani or Harold Bloom. Why do you think criticism
today is so wretched? Is it Political Correctness?
I never read the critics and I don’t intend to.
My work as a reviewer was to explore for the audience what was out there.
Literary criticism has not been a subject of interest to me.
Also, in many review of films or books, you read the critic quoting something
that was not so- about a plot point in a book, or the name of a character in a
film, that is not present. This is a dead giveaway that the critic never read
nor saw the work, and is just cobbling together a review by quoting the errors
of others. Yet, despite the abundance of these ‘smoking guns’- just look how
often the idea or meme of something a Roger Ebert or Kenneth Turan, as film
critics, say gets repeated ad nauseam. Why is the ‘system’ set up that
honesty- a claimed virtue by PC Elitists and others, is denigrated, resulting in
mere advertisements passed off as reviews?
This leads into another pet peeve of mine- the writers and critics who always
speak nebulously of other writers, especially when they admit the overwhelming
amount of published material is garbage. You see it in phrases like, ‘unlike
other writers....’ yet no names are named. Even when a name is named,
as in bad fictionist Dale Peck’s New Republic review of a few
years ago, when he wrote, ‘Rick
Moody is the worst writer of his generation….’ he
ended the piece basically stoop-kneed and retracting that provocative claim.
Will you name me some living, published writers today who are simply bad
writers, and should never have been published?
Many of them, too many to name.
DS: What do you
think of some of the big name literary critics of today: Harold
Bloom, Helen Vendler,
Marj Perloff? To me, they are walking, talking reminders of all that is wrong
with literature and criticism today, and the great need for Mark Twains, Ambrose
Bierces, Oscar Wildes,
H.L. Menckens, and Dorothy
Parkers. I contend that America’s current collective Attention Deficit
Disorder makes a critic’s job all the more important, especially to save good
books from a swift oblivion. Thoughts?
GD: I admired Twain and Menckens and Bierce. They had wit. What has been lost is the perspective of wit.
DS: What do you think about the cliché of the suffering artist (Hemingway, Plath, Rimbaud, Capote). And what of mediocre artists who are more concerned with striking an image, or impressing others with their persona or cult of personality? How much do you think these artistic clichés play into the public’s view of artists? What about those who are unable to critique a work without the biography at hand? Should not the work stand alone, aside from any personal neuroses an artist might have had?
GD: Having grown up in the “New Criticism,” the biographical material is unimportant to me. I didn’t realize Hemingway was one of the ”suffering” artists. Hemingway killed himself when he learned he had terminal cancer. I approve of that ending. His body had scars over 75 per cent of it from his exploits and adventures (small plane crash, for example). He was proud of those scars. Rimbaud was always insane, quit poetry in his early 20s and went off to Africa to become a killer…. The American public doesn’t really like its artists. One reason I love going to Europe is because the Europeans admire artists, even when they are young and struggling.
DS: On an
Omniversica show interview with
poet Fred Glaysher, he stated he believed that in order for change to occur
in the arts a new master has to step forth and ‘bury’ the dinosaurs and
phonies. He also stated that that’s the only way it’s ever been done. This
sounds very much like Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions. I.e.- that new great artists are sneered at, then accepted,
then canonized, just as scientific ideas are. Would you agree with this?
GD: That’s probably true, but not a concern of mine.
DS: Finally, re:
careers, let’s speak of some of your earliest jobs. When I interviewed
journalist and novelist Pete Hamill,
he had a long list of blue collar grunt type work that he did as a young man.
What were some of the more colorful jobs you held, and do you think that such
experiences ‘grounded’ you in a way that those published writers who come
from more elite backgrounds, or who cruise through the MFA writing mills, can
GD: I described these blue-collar jobs earlier. I think that living with the working people and having an intimate knowledge of their struggles is profoundly important for the artist. Look at Van Gogh’s life.
DS: Before we
switch gears into more of your views on things and current projects, let’s
start out at the very beginning, biographically. I’ve read you were born July
25th, 1933, in Topeka, Kansas, as George Graf Dickerson, Jr.
Your father was named George Graf, and was a lawyer. Your mother was Elizabeth
Dickerson (née Naumann). Can one assume you were born out of wedlock? Did you
know you father? What sort of law did he practice? What was your relationship
with him? Was your mother married when you were born, and were you raised by her
husband, your stepfather?
GD: My father’s last name was George Graf Dickerson. This is an error on your part. I was raised by both parents. I was abused and disliked them both. He graduated with a law degree in 1933, the year I was born, in the depths of the Great Depression. He was unable to practice law then, but worked chipping ice, etc. He got a job in the business end of Sears in the late 1930s, then went into the U.S. Naval Supply Corps and rose to rank of lieutenant commander during WWII. While overseeing naval supplies stored in Utah, in the desert, he was also in charge of Italian war prisoners being held there. He tried to practice civil law one year in Virginia after the war. He took the civil case of an old Black woman and lost it. She could only pay him by giving him her goat. He put the goat in the back seat of his new Hudson automobile and drove it home. When he got home, he realized the goat had eaten most of the covering off the back seat. He gave up lawyering.
DS: Did you grow up in Topeka, or a rural part of the state? Did you ever work on a farm, or dream of being a cowboy?
I was born in Topeka, and moved with my parents at the age of one to the
upper peninsula of Michigan and then, at the age of four to the poor tenements
in the South Side of Chicago. I
dreamt of being anybody else but who I was.
Today, crippled, mostly forgotten, I dream of being the person or persons
I once was.
DS: And is it true your mother was a computer programmer? Given the date of your birth, that means she must have worked with punch cards and the like. What was your relationship with your mother? Was she creative? Was your father? Did you express a creative streak as a child, and were they supportive? Often you hear of parents chiding such nonconformist dreams as being unrealistic. Did they want you to ‘be reasonable,’ and get a job where you could ‘make money’? Or did they encourage your pursuit of the arts?
GD: My mother was a very brilliant woman, although she never went to college…a minister’s daughter who had to raise the rest of the family when her mother died in the great flu epidemic of 1917. I had a terrible relationship with her. She didn’t like me. She loved my younger brother. (This really doesn’t bother me any more. It’s just a fact to answer your question.) She was in her 40s when she went in to apply for a job with Aetna Life Insurance Co. in Hartford, Conn. They gave her all the toughest IQ tests that existed. She was off the charts, a math genius who scored higher than all their Harvard grad actuaries. They asked her what she wanted to do. Computers were new then and she said she wanted to do something with computers. So they sent her to New York to IBM to have them train her. She went back to Hartford and set up all of Aetna’s original computer programming. Yeah, it was punch cards.
She also wrote a novel based on her minister father. He was orphaned as a boy, a young German Jew whose parents were killed in a mine slag disaster. He was adopted by a Lutheran family here in America, raised as a Lutheran and became a prominent Lutheran minister. When WWII broke out, he announced he was really a Jew and was kicked out of the church. She never got the novel published.
My father wasn’t creative. I wasn’t creative until I got to college. (My mother wrote her novel when I was in college.) My father wanted me to be a lawyer. I don’t believe he ever read a thing I wrote. When I was working at Time, I made the mistake of going up to visit my parents who were living in a trailer park outside of Storrs, Connecticut. I was 37 years old. That night, my father insisted we take a dreaded father-son walk around the trailer park. To the sound of crickets and tree frogs, he said: “You know I’ve never liked the Jews [he hated them], but I admire the way they stick together as a family. So I’ve been thinking that maybe you should quit your job, whatever it is you do, and come up here and we could start a family business together, maybe a mail-order business selling cheap bracelets from India. What do you think?” Astounded, I said, “Dad, I don’t think my family would like it up here. Besides, I’m a writer.” “Hell, that’s no way to make a living. The Jews wouldn’t do that. We should be as good as the Jews.”
Well, both parents always derided my creative careers. When I ended up in Hollywood in my mid-forties, before I really made it in TV and movies, my mother called me and said, “Still chasing will-o-the-wisps, are you? When are you going to grow up?” They never, ever, made me feel as if I had achieved anything. Even after they had divorced and both remarried late in their lives.
The only thing I did as a child that was creative was when I drew pictures all over my bedroom wall with my mother’s lipstick. I got a razor-strapping for that. Oh, yeah, when I was 10 or 11, I wrote a play for my grade school in Jamaica, Queens, New York, about Christopher Columbus landing in America. I played Columbus. My parents made me feel foolish, laughing at my awkward acting. (I just remembered that.)
DS: I earlier
mentioned that you had been married four times, the last to your current wife.
Were any of them artists and/or creative? And, I know you have several children;
the most well known being a Finnish film director, Dome Karukoski. Is he the
youngest? And, what of your other four children? Have they pursued the arts or
GD: All the women I married were creative as are most of my children. My first wife was an artist. My second ended up designing jewelry. My third wife is the famous children’s book illustrator Victoria Chess. My present wife, Suzanne Hartman, was a stage actress and now paints in oil. My oldest daughter, Rachel, now 50 is a very fine painter. My second oldest daughter, now 48, wrote folk songs. My oldest son, Sam, 40, by my third marriage, is an artist and writer. He also is a master carpenter and until recently was one of the top master carpenters for building the exhibits at New York City’s MOMA (Museum of Modern Art). He is now in art school in Nova Scotia. Dome Karukoski, my fourth oldest child, 32, has just finished directing his third feature film in Finland. His first feature won “Best feature for a first-time director in all of Scandinavia.” My youngest child, Erin, 23, is a talented young writer who recently graduated from Yale and wants to be a film actress. None have been involved in politics.
siblings? Did any of them go into the arts? Do they share your views on life,
politics, religion, etc.?
GD: My only brother, five years younger, is a retired stockbroker. He was a marine jet pilot in Viet Nam. He is a right-wing Republican. We share almost no views, except a hatred for our father. We were once having dinner with another couple who didn’t know us very well. Somehow our childhood came up. I said that our parents had raised us by the popular child-raising book of the time. The book’s theory was that you never held a child except to feed it or change it. My brother added: “Yeah. It was written by the Marquis de Sade.” We also both like golf and women. He always had a golden thumb and cared a lot about money; I didn’t care much about money. He’s a good guy and helped me out during some tough times. That’s about it.
DS: What was
your youth like, both at home and in terms of socializing with other children?
Were you smarter than average? The classic bored gifted child?
GD: I described my childhood earlier. I had no friends. Nobody thought of me as “gifted.” In fact, my second grade teacher tried to flunk me. I was never bored…mostly terrified that I would say or do the wrong thing. I was beaten even when I hadn’t done anything wrong. I got straight A’s in high school, although I never did my homework at home. I either worked or played varsity sports. .
DS: You came
of age right at the start of World War Two. That was also a time of pulp
magazines- sci fi and detective. Did you read a lot? If so, what were some of
your earliest favorites? Name some of your favorite books- be they science or
not, fiction or nonfiction, as well as those you think among the best ever
GD: I read a lot of “Tom Swift” books as a kid. I didn’t have access to a library and we didn’t have money to buy books or comic books or magazines. I don’t even remember having newspapers in the house until I was in high school and then I read the sports pages. My last year in high school, my father had the concession stands at Richmond’s airport “Byrd Field.” At night, I worked there and read some of the Mickey Spillane paperbacks we were selling. I thought he was terrific. He was all I knew.
DS: The 1940s were also a high point for Hollywood films. Did you get bitten with the acting bug then? What were some of the films and directors and actors that influenced you most? Also, did you have a favorite pinup girl?
GD: We lived outside of town and I didn’t have money to go to the movies. I remember going into Richmond, Va. on one Saturday afternoon and seeing “The Perils of Pauline.” I did see a June Allyson film and got a teen-age crush on her. I didn’t really see many movies until I got into college. Years later, in one of my first Hollywood TV guest star roles I got the part of a lawyer. I went onto the set (a hospital room) and there, lying in the bed, pretending to have an injured arm so she could sue, was June Allyson. I thought I was hallucinating. Here was my teen-age crush. Here I was…in the movies with her. I just kept staring until she said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “You…you…you’re June Allyson.” “Of course, I’m June Allyson,” she said. “But you can’t be.” Then I started to laugh and told her about my crush and we both laughed and got on well together.
In college I got to see all the great Alec Guinness black-and-white comedies and Chaplin…and, in New Haven’s theatre, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “An American in Paris.” I fell in love with those films. I wished I was as handsome as Gregory Peck or could dance like Gene Kelly. I lusted after Ava Gardner. I never dreamt that I would one day be in the movies myself. Even in college, I thought I would always be a poor kid just trying to make a living.
DS: Have you
ever read Loren Eiseley?
His supernal prose is as poetic and cogent today as it ever was, even if some
terms are outdated, for he has an ability to tie things back into the personal
makes for such compelling reading.
GD: I was married to my second wife when I encountered Loren Eiseley. She had gone off for the weekend to the Caribbean for a fashion shoot. I was feeling sick and depressed when I woke up that Sunday morning. I flipped on the radio. It happened to be tuned to WBAI. I made some coffee. A voice on the radio was reading a story about floating down a river, about an intimate encounter with nature. I lay down on the floor, sipped my coffee, and just listened. It was Loren Eiseley reading from his “Immense Journey.” It filled me with joy and I fell in love with his work.
DS: Other than your time in Lebanon, did you ever have military experiences? You’d have been just the right age to be a Korean War veteran. Did you serve over there?
GD: I got in a fight with my roommates in the fall of my junior year at Yale (1953). One of them had been bragging about screwing my girl friend, who had broken up with me that previous summer. I got upset about this. They locked me in our common room and read to me for two hours from “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” When they finished and stopped blocking the door, I walked out, went to Hartford and volunteered for the draft. I went into the army on December 1. The night before my unit was to ship out to Germany, I got acute appendicitis and had an emergency operation. They discovered other inflammations of my intestines and kept me in the hospital. I had Crohn’s Disease, but they didn’t know what it was. They mistreated it. After three months they shipped me up to St. Albans Naval Hospital on Long Island and put me in the “death ward” there, a ward for impossible cases. Another girl I had started dating (from Vassar) came to the hospital with a vial of pills and threatened to kill herself if I didn’t go AWOL and marry her. I got the pills away from her, made her see the impossibility of my situation and got her to leave the hospital.
The next day, quite depressed at my situation, I asked to see the hospital’s psychiatrist. I told him about the girl and that I was told by the doctors that I was dying and asked, “What should I do?” The next day, they two MPs for me and locked me up in the hospital’s combination psychiatric and prison ward. They kept me in there for five to six months. I was hemorrhaging blood anally, but they did nothing for me, not even talk therapy. It was a ward rule that ward patients (12 of us) could not lie down on their beds during the daytime. When I finally got too sick not to be in bed, I lay down in bed. So the ward corpsmen put a mattress on the floor in solitary confinement and left me there to die. A Grey Lady (a volunteer who wore a grey uniform) came into the ward with a cart of books. She saw me lying in solitary. (They had left the door open so I could be watched casually from the nurse’s office.) She asked me if there was anything she could do for me. I told her I was dying, that I wasn’t getting any treatment, and could she please get me out of there. She believed me. She could see I was lying in a pool of my own blood and shit.
Then next day, I was released to an open ward and, shortly thereafter, sent home on permanent leave awaiting discharge. The day after I was released, I called the dean at Yale, told him my situation and asked if I could come back to school. He was a great man. He said, “Yes,” reinstated my scholarship and found a single room for me. I spent my junior year at Yale dying, then had my life saved by the acknowledged, world’s greatest surgeon, Isadore S. Ravdin, at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. I received my honorable discharge on October 25, 1954. I actually loved being in the army until I fell ill and they started mistreating me. I loved the camaraderie. All of us recruits were equal and belonged. This was something new in my life.
DS: You moved to New York by the 1950s. Was this as an adult, or had your family moved? Where did you live- in Manhattan or the outer boroughs? As you know, I was born and grew up in Queens, and many people think only of Manhattan as ‘The City.’ You reside there currently, but returned after many years, correct? You also lived in Chicago- when was this, and how would you compare the two metropoli?
GD: I lived for one year in Jamaica, Queens, when my father was stationed in New York as a naval officer. I was about 11. We had bedbugs and had to fumigate our apartment and burn our mattresses. So my father moved us just outside Briarcliff Manor, New York, where we lived until just after the war ended. In upscale Briarcliff, I was made to feel like a kid from the wrong side of the tracks…which I was. But I got lucky, a teacher there saw I was a very troubled kid. He sat me down one afternoon after school and talked to me in a little supply room. He made me understand that I wasn’t bad by nature…that I could be a good kid if I wanted to. He was the first person who, other than a Black nanny briefly in Chicago, made me feel that it was okay for me to exist. Maybe he saved my life. Maybe he was the one who kept me from becoming a psychopathic killer.
After my father was discharged from the navy, my father deserted our family and fled to Richmond, Virginia. My mother packed us up and tracked him down. I went to high school in two places in Virginia…Chester and Highland Springs…where I was the unwanted Yankee in the redneck south. I’ve already told the rest.
When I was in Basic Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, I would spend my weekend passes in New York, visiting Birdland every Sunday night, where I could hear all the jazz greats before driving back to my base. I fell in love with New York. So I moved there after college, first attending a year of graduate school at Columbia, where I was studying comparative literature and writing. After that, whether if was living in France for a year, in Vermont for two years where I taught school, in the Middle East for almost four years, and Hollywood for five years, New York has been my true home. I have had the same apartment here since 1965. It is the apartment where James Agee wrote “The African Queen.” I have seen and communicated with his ghost here. (So has my daughter, Erin.) It is in Greenwich Village, on Bleecker Street, near the corner of Bleecker and Sullivan.
I lived in Chicago between the ages of four and eight. I liked living there. Once my father took me to see the White Sox play. Once he took me to see vaudeville. I remember the smell of the slaughter houses. I have been back only once…the time I went there to interview Muhammad Ali (when he was still Cassius Clay). It seems like a great city.
DS: You have mentioned to me having several black friends in that time, a time where, even up North, there was still de facto segregation of the races. Were you ever involved in any Civil Rights demonstrations? How political were you, and how political are you, now? And, what are your politics now, and who will you be voting for this year, for President?
GD: I wasn’t
involved in the Civil Rights movement. That is a failure on my part.
I wasn’t really political until I started writing about world affairs
for "Time." I didn’t see my Black friends as black and they
sensed that, so the subject didn’t come up between us, as hard as that may be
to believe. We talked about what close friends talk about when there are no
issues between them…struggles with their writing, with their wives…
I always voted Democratic, except when I voted for John Lindsay for mayor. He abolished the need for “cabaret cards” which had kept the Black, junkie musicians from working and performing. He initiated allowing cafés to have tables and chairs on the sidewalks. He was good for the city.
Since Lebanon, I have been political and have continued to study the politics of the Middle East, of oil, etc. I had traveled to Turkey, Iran and Iraq, as well as the other countries I mentioned. The Arab countries continue to haunt me. And now I am ferociously political. I will vote for Barack Obama.
DS: I mentioned
your having black friends when that was not as common as today, and one of those
you mentioned to me, as one of your best friends, was the late actor Roscoe Lee
Browne. I believe he was also best man at one of your weddings, you told me. He
was ubiquitous on television for several decades, had some film roles, but was
best known as a stage actor. Is that where you met him? What commonalities,
other than acting, drew you into each others’ orbits?
GD: I met Roscoe through Leonard Cohen, shortly after Leonard and I became friends. Roscoe was living in the International House, near Columbia. Roscoe and I grew to love each other as friends. I never saw him as black and he sensed that. He was just starting out as an actor. He had been an international track star for the U.S., and then got a job distributing liquor. He had quit that and was studying stage acting. I saw him in his first off-off Broadway play, “Anyone, Anyone,” with James Earl Jones. Roscoe took me to the homes of all the great Black performers of the time, including that of Leontyne Price. We went to her debut at Town Hall. Sometimes he would take me late at night up into Harlem to the Black jazz clubs. We would stay long after closing time and listen to them jam until dawn. They accepted me because I was with Roscoe. This was in 1956 and 1957, during segregation. Roscoe became famous on film, also. Roscoe loved my writing. He took me to Millay’s estate and introduced me to her sister and had me read my writing up there.
So when I got married in April of that year (1957), it made sense to have Leonard Cohen and Roscoe Lee Browne as my two ushers. My brother was Best Man. We were married in a side-chapel of the Cathedral of St. John of the Divine. Looking back, it was probably an extraordinary civil rights statement that I had a Jew and a Black as my two ushers as I was married by priest in that Cathedral, in a Protestant ceremony. But that thought never crossed my mind. We all went back to my basement apartment on West 88th Street, got drunk and Roscoe sat down too hard on my wedding bed and broke one of its legs. He propped up the leg, and pretended it hadn’t happened. Then a fat, Greek sculptor friend of mine sat on the bed and it collapsed. He was humiliated. Roscoe thought it was hilarious. He was a great soul and I grieve for his loss. I had other Black writer friends as well. Color never meant anything to me. Remember, I was always the kid discriminated against, the outsider, the loner. If I had been a Black, I would have had company.
DS: I earlier
mentioned your being friends with a number of other celebrities, In fact, I’ve
mentioned to you before that you could make big money writing a tell-all, since
most of the participants are dead. Other than Browne, the names that stick out
in my mind are musician and poet Leonard Cohen- although you are no longer in
contact, the late playwright Arthur Miller, and even one of Orson Welles’
children. Where did you meet up with these folk, and what other people in the
arts have you been close to?
GD: I am still in contact with Leonard. In fact, we e-mailed each other just a week ago (late June) as he was starting his new world tour in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We are still friends. I am a close friend of Chris Welles, Orson’s first daughter. I met her through her husband who is a close friend. Chris and I have bonded because we are both writers and we share our work. I met Arthur Miller in the mid-1960s. He was a friend of my third wife’s family, who lived in Washington, Connecticut. I met him with them and then Arthur became a friend of mine. He liked my writing and was dismayed when I decided to become an actor, although he did offer to put me in his musical which was about to open at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He and I would talk about ordinary things…giving up smoking, troubles with his tractor, problems he was having with his new play. He would call me and complain about how difficult it was to be a writer. We kept in touch when I went over to the Middle East. Shortly after I came back from there, he invited me and my wife to a small dinner at his house with his wife, Inge Morath, the photographer (an extraordinary person and artist in her own right), and Richard Widmark and his wife.
After dinner, after the Widmarks had gone home, Arthur invited me into his study. He could see that I was very troubled (with my PTSD). I told him that I was suicidal, that I had bought a gun and was trying to eat it. I said the only thing keeping me alive was knowing the damage my suicide would do to my wife and kids but I wasn’t sure that was enough. I said that, because of Lebanon, I had come to see the human race as totally despicable, that we were mostly savages with a thin veneer of civilization.. I confessed that the worst thing for me was facing the fact that I was no better than any of them, except for torture…I could never condone torture. But killing, yes. I had even had to do that. But the worst part was that I had realized that something in me loved the war, the killing, the blood lust and I didn’t think I could live with that. He nodded in understanding. Then I asked him how he could go on living and writing, with all he had experienced, with Marilyn, and the bigotry against Jews, the Holocaust, all the horror he had seen and come to recognize. What enabled him to persist. He said (and I will have to write this from memory), “I feel I have my back against the wall and the savages are just waiting for me to crack. So my writing, my creating, is an act of defiance against them and their world. If I quit, they win. And I refuse to let them win.”
Well, that statement saved my life. He made me understand that we had to go on creating…that it was the only thing left to hang on to…and the most important thing. We had to keep the flame alive. And, although it took me some time, I was able to function again. I vowed I would never do any more work that that didn’t further myself as an artist or help others to do that for themselves and the world. And since then, since 1956, I have only worked as an actor or writer (or as an editor of the literary magazine for no pay). Arthur Miller was a great friend and he saved my life.
I don’t want to talk about any more famous people. I have known more than I can count. Maybe someday, if I write an autobiography, I’ll talk about them.
DS: You are also a bit of a globetrotter, having visited fifty plus countries. You’ve mentioned having lived in Greece and Paris, France. Was this on assignment for one of your magazine jobs?
GD: Most of my travels were on my own, for my own enlightenment or pleasure. Only the ones in Asia were made on behalf of my work there, or to further it.
DS: Let me switch gears, and toss out that old question: if you could sit down and break bread for an evening with folks from the past- scientists or not, which folk would you most like to engage with, and why?
GD: I would like to talk to some of my dead friends again, Roscoe and Arthur, a close writer friend named John Speicher. I would like to ask my friend Aristedes Stavrolakes (Greek writer and sculptor) why he tried to call me right before he shot himself. I would like to ask Albert Einstein if all those different people we were at different times in our lives might be gathered together at some stasis point, so we could be them all at once (I know his answer.). I would like to hear Inge Morath’s laugh one more time. (For the answer to the question you are really asking, I should say Albert Camus and Charlie Chaplin, because of their compassionate humanism.)
DS: We spoke of
your politics, but what of your religion? Have you any, what is it, and to what
extent do you think you Lebanese experience shapes your views on that subject
GD: I believe in God. He has spoken to me and helped me on several occasions. He might have protected me in Lebanon. I could in no way describe Him or pretend to understand what He really is. I despise all religions as promoting bigotry, hatred, wars. I would abolish them all. Lebanon helped to shape that view. If there is a heaven, I wouldn’t want to be in it with any of those people who so ardently believe in it. The most truly religious picture I have ever seen was in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 1957. It was a very large oil painting set in the African jungle. Huge trees took up most of the painting. At the bottom, in a swamp, in a small canoe, were three tiny, thin, Black male figures. They were standing up and staring in wonder, awe and terror at the immensity above them. I looked at that picture a long time and have kept it locked in my memory. I believe that if anything was made in God’s image (I doubt it), it is not man, but the dolphin. I cannot imagine any more sublime or benign creature.
DS: I am an
agnostic and artist, and notice that many artists seem to deny their own
creativity, pawning it off on God, or some other force or demiurge? I call this
the Divine Inspiration
Fallacy. There is no Muse. For better or worse, it’s all me, or
you, or any artist. Comments on its existence, origins, verity?
GD: I would not dare debate or dispute anybody else’s beliefs. I am too humble for that. For myself, I consider any good artistic piece of mine to be a gift. I don’t know where it comes from. When it’s good, it feels inspired. Yes, I can always improve it with hard work and craft. But if it just came from me alone, I would always be able to do it…and I can’t. It’s a mystery to me where it comes from. I don’t know how I went from being a clod of a jock to an artist…or to someone compelled to try to be an artist. Maybe it is God. Or maybe there is some ancient man sitting in the Kalahari Desert dreaming it all, passing it around when he fancies sharing it. All I know is, when it happens, I feel lucky and grateful.
DS: I coined a
neologism I mentioned earlier- deliterate. It’s a term I came up
with in opposition to illiterate. By deliterate I mean the willful
choice to not read great nor compelling writing. To avoid the classics in favor
of reading blogs. To write in emailese rather than proper grammar. Basically, I
claim that deliteracy is far more a problem than illiteracy is. Do you agree?
GD: I absolutely agree. I don’t know what started this “deliterate” movment. Maybe it was the misinterpretation of Ezra Pound’s dictum: “Make it new.” Maybe the fault lies in the rise of the sense of self and the ego perpetrated by Freud, et al. Maybe it was caused by all those so-called critics and reviewers of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s who attacked any writer who sounded like he might have read great writers of the past. All the great artists deliberately studied the masters, imitating them, learning the craft from them, before they dared to exhibit what they could show as their own. Art is never our own. It belongs to all who have tried to practice it. It is the result of all the long history of those who have devoted themselves to laboring in its fields. Fairly recently, they have found bone flutes in caves in France. The flutes, carved in bone, are thirty thousand years old. The notes of the flutes are on a five-tone harmonic scale taken from bird song. The ancient cave men who played these flutes were trying to imitate the loveliness they heard in nature. Need I say more?
DS: On a
tangent, other people claim ‘everyone
is creative,’ yet my wife argues that such a claim is akin to claiming
‘everyone is athletic,’ simply by virtue of exercising one’s lungs during
respiration. What are your thoughts? And does this wrongly based posit account
for why so many people who are utterly lacking in creativity, are suckered into
the Creative Writing Mills?
GD: No, everybody isn’t “creative.” In fact, I think very few people are really creative. Then again, I don’t believe that everybody has a “soul.” Souls are few and far between…otherwise we wouldn’t be hurting each other and destroying nature in the process.
When I interviewed the philosopher Daniel
Dennett I was taken aback by the amount of vitriol he still held for Stephen
Jay Gould, as they were opponents in some evolutionary quarrels. Have you an
artistic bête noir, and if so, who, why, and what is the substance of your
disagreement? Was it personal, or professional- i.e.- a director that treated
you like dirt?
GD: I just disregard people like that. They are unimportant to me. They are just shit I don’t need to step in.
One of the reasons I started this interview series is because of the utter
dearth of really in depth interviews, in print or online. With the exception of
the Playboy interview, such venues are nonexistent. Furthermore,
many people actively denigrate in depth and intelligent discourse, such as this,
preferring to read vapid interviews with 10 or 12 questions designed to be mere
advertisements for a work, sans only the page numbers the canned answers are
taken from. Why do you think this is? What has happened to real discussion, from
old tv show hosts like Phil Donahue, David Susskind, David Frost, Dick Cavett,
Tom Snyder, even Bill Buckley?
Most of those people were victims of the need to make more of a profit,
except for Buckley who was rich enough to do what he wanted.
Poor Phil Donahue was canned for daring to suggest that our impending
invasion of Iraq might be at least partially for the benefit of Israel and it
might be the wrong thing to do. (Of course, he was right.
Ariel Sharon had come to the U.S. in April of 2002 and begged the
neo-cons to take out Saddam Hussein, so that Israel could do whatever it wanted
to do with the West Bank without fear of retaliation from Saddam.)
Donahue was fired the next day. Instead we have jokesters like Bill Maher
who claim that our society doesn’t need poetry, so there’s no point in
having it. I hope you are
accidentally ignoring the in-depth Paris
Review interviews of writers. It
was in his interview that William Faulkner said, “One poem is worth any number
of old ladies.”
We’ve spoken of this before, in emails and on the phone, so let me give you a
stab at philosophy: I maintain that the creative arts are higher than the
performing or interpretive arts, because you are basically starting with less to
work with. In short, an actor interpreting William Shakespeare or Eugene
O’Neill has it much easier than the two playwrights did in conjuring the
drama. Would you agree with that, as someone who has experienced both ends of
the dramatic pen?
GD: In terms of difficulty, acting is probably harder, because you have so many other people interfering with you…the director…the other performers…yourself on a bad day. At least a writer doesn’t have to perform terrifically at the moment on demand. He can put it aside and start over the next day. I really think that writing is easier…although it might be a “higher” art.
Similarly, I posit that writing and poetry are the two highest general and
specific art forms, for writing is wholly abstract- black squiggles on white
that merely represent and must be decoded, whereas the visual arts are inbred,
and one can instantly be moved by a great photo or painting, while even the
greatest haiku will take five or ten seconds to read and digest. Poetry is the
highest form of writing because, unlike fiction, it needs no narrative spine to
drape its art over- it can be a moment captured, and wholly abstractly, unlike a
photo. My guess for why this is so is that since language (at least written) is
only a six or so thousand year old phenomenon, while sight has been around for
600 million years or more, that’s a hell of a head start the visual arts have
over writing. Do you agree with these views? If so, why do you think this is so?
GD: I talked about this earlier….Beethoven’s “Ninth” and Bach’s “Chaconne…” “The Brothers Karamazov” may be unequaled in its fictional exploration of the human condition. I don’t see the point of declaring one art higher than the other. A great poem is a great poem…and not, as Freud might have said, just a cigar.
DS: We’ve also
conversed on creativity and the like, so let me now quote from an essay I did on
literary critic Harold Bloom,
and see if you agree: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1
is the Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ
tests purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add &
subtract basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in
any measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have
this. It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more
deeply- especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And also to be able
to lead observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is
the Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable
amounts- or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the
ability to see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make
good predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of
illogic (Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer,
but impose will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 ,
or Functionary3 .’ I’ve asked this of a number
of scientists I’ve interviewed this question, and, to my surprise, they seem
not to ‘get’ what I am saying, whereas some of the people I’ve known who
have exhibited what I would call potential creative greatness, instinctively
assent to my claim. What are your thoughts on this?
GD: I think I get what you are saying and, for the most part, I agree with you. But I really have nothing to add. Sorry.
When I interviewed Steven Pinker,
he seemed to feel IQ was good at predicting success in life- at least socially,
academically, and career-wise. But my 3 Intellects posit is something I don’t
think he fully got the point of. That is that creativity is wholly ‘outside’
the axis of IQ. In other words, there could be someone with an IQ of 180, and a
Functionary Mind, vs. someone with a 120 IQ, and while the 180 may be better
suited for test taking, the 120 IQ, with a Creationary or Visionary Mind, will
be able to understand concepts at a deeper level. IQ measures narrow problem
solving, but is utterly useless in regards to creativity. To use an analogy:
think of vision tests. The person with 20/20 person may see better and more
clearly than the 20/50 person, in normal light. But the 20/50 person can turn on
X-ray vision. While the vision is not clearer than 20/20 it does see something
the 20/20 will never see. Any thoughts?
GD: My Uncle Dick had an IQ that was off the charts. The one major achievement in his life was during WWII when, in the air force (didn’t make it as a flyer) he helped crack the Japanese code. He was a total failure otherwise in his life, could never hold down a job and died a drunk in prison. A high IQ may be a torment. Uncle Dick was not creative. Success in life has to do with a lot more things than IQ. A lower IQ with a narrowly focused mind may be terrific for success. A higher IQ can often lead to madness. Having a visionary mind does not necessarily have anything to do with IQ. However, I am probably not smart enough to know the real answer to this question.
DS: I know you have told me of a book you are working on, based upon your Lebanese experiences, and that a film option has been made. Exactly how does such a thing occur, business-wise? And is this an adaptation of your story, The Man Who Loved Butterflies? I know that you are in pre-production so do not want to talk too concretely of it- is this for artistic/creative reasons or so that financial backers don’t get jittery?
GD: An option was offered on the now-completed film script of my feature film, “The Errand” (a working title). It is based on some printed work and my experiences in Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. I have decided instead to enter into a co-production arrangement with the other producer/director. We are in the process of trying to raise the $25 million for the movie. We have the director, art director, film editor…all recognized professionals. Only about 10 pages of the 139-page film are based on the story and play “The Man Who Loved Butterflies.” More pages are based on my incomplete novel about the same subject (for which I have about 250 pages). I greatly expanded the original “Butterflies…” material for the film.
Dejan Georgevich, having read my poetry, my story and other material about my experiences in Lebanon encouraged me for two years to write the screenplay. Finally, in February of 2007, I started writing it for Dejan to direct. I had acted in his NYU graduate thesis film 30 years ago and we have been friends since. He is a member of the American Society of Cinematographers. I completed the fourth draft of the film, which will pretty much be the shooting script, in December of last year. I feel the screenplay is the best of all the material I have written about the Lebanese Civil War and my experiences in it. It is much more fictionalized than the other material, although about 85 per cent of the events actually happened. My ex-wife, who was with me there then, says I have really captured the era, the place and the people (although I had to fictionalize all the characters to protect myself legally). I can’t talk more about it here because we don’t want the story to be stolen, which happens all too often in Hollywood. However, if there are legitimate investors or actors out there who would like to find out more, they can e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
DS: Well, good luck with the film, and if you get any success and clout, send some agents Cosmoetica’s way. Now, as we get to the end of this interview, let me touch upon some of your poetry specifically. Late last year I argued with a blogger who was denying the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey with the sort of aspersions, and deliberate deletions of evidence that Holocaust Deniers use. Here is a poem you wrote on that very topic:
(in memoriam for the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915)
Tethered here, collared iron bites my throat,
Gnaws deep my ankle, where the cold forged links
Snarl over the packed earth to the cedar post,
Defining arcs of my circumference,
Just out of reach of your tables and chairs--
This restaurant garden where I can watch
You pop the olives to your sucking lips
And then spit the pits at my sullied fur
While your hairy finger licks up her dress
And probes the sweet flesh of her honeyed nest.
Mock! Mock my fetid breath, my hot red eyes,
My paws that claw the Armenian air!
Warder, brother, beast! Turk, you’ll never know
I see farther than Lake Van’s blood-soaked shore--
Out, out beyond the cataract of light
To where already two of me, unchained,
Loosed by God, lumber up among the stars,
Free to forage the forests of the night.
Here you use a monologue to put the reader in the place of a
fictive collective character. Why did you use this technique rather than a more
straightforward omniscient viewpoint, or that of a specific Armenian or Turk?
Also, you make good use of alliteration and assonance here, a technique that few
poets use, much less use well. Was this a conscious choice, or just a poem that
came out of a moment? Also, what is it that you think impels some people to deny
things like the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and other such atrocities,
even if scrupulously documented? This poem could have easily slid off into
Politically Correct banality. To what degree do you put the message (political
or otherwise) of a poem or story above the art and craft?
GD: In September of 1975, my then wife, Victoria, and my young son, Sam, and I toured Turkish Armenia by car. We had lunch in a garden restaurant of the capital town of Van, where there was a live bear chained there. I felt the bear’s pain, so I put the poem in his mouth, as if his persona could capture the collective pain of the 1915 genocide of the Armenians by the Turks. For me, he embodied the lingering haunt that seemed to inhabit the region generally. At that time, I was taking a few weeks’ break from the Lebanese Civil War and the agony I felt there, so perhaps my “poetic instrument” (a pompous phrase, but one I need to use here) was tuned to discover in the chained bear a symbol for the history of the place. The poem was not written until the late 1990s when the craft of poetry came back to me.
The alliteration and assonance are deliberate. I work hard on all aspects of my poems. Most of my first drafts are terrible. I don’t try to put messages into my poems. I think a poet should not be trying to capture his own personal feelings, but that a poem should be crafted for the reader to feel or experience something…a cup for the reader to drink from. Faulkner was asked in one of the Paris Review interviews about the symbols in his work. He answered that there were no symbols in his work. There are no intentional messages in my own work…only experience, sometimes invented experience…as in my love poem, the villanelle, “A Mist of White Horses.” Several readers of the poem have come up to me and commented about the woman in that poem, how terrible her loss must have been for me. I made the mistake of disappointing them by telling them that the woman never existed, the whole poem was invented. I had never been to the Camargue or seen the white horses there. But I had succeeded because the poem had moved them, which is, for me, the point of art.
I don’t really know why people deny genocides…perhaps because to accept them most profoundly is beyond what is bearable….not just the pain of the event, but the knowledge that we as so-called human beings are capable of such things. The Germans have a word, “Lebenslüge”, which is the great lie we must tell ourselves in order to go on living. Perhaps, other than for political purposes, that’s the reason. For some, perhaps most, it becomes just too monstrous to accept.
what is in store, in the next year or two, for you?
GD: It is a great struggle for me to stay alive from day to day. I would like the strength and the gift of time to complete the novel about Lebanon or my autobiography (which I have not started, except here), and to be able to see my film on the big screen. I would like to spend some more time with my family. I would like somehow to do what I can to keep the flame alive.
DS: Thanks very
much for this discourse, and let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever
GD: Thanks, Dan, for giving me the time and space to talk to your readers. I have tried to be as honest as one can be. I hope your readers will find some satisfaction or enjoyment in reading the interview. To all of them, I would like to say: “Fare thee well.”
*The text of this interview is copyrighted. Questions are © Dan Schneider; answers are © George Dickerson.
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