If you want to know who John Bennett is and what he’s all about, don’t Google him. There are too many of them. Imposters. You want the original.
Typical of many important writers and artists in America: the real ones remain invisible.
“Will the real John Bennett please stand up!”
The real John Bennett has always stood up for what’s right and wrong in us, this country, the world. Big heart. Loud voice. Immense mission—to get it all down. For you to see what he sees. Like it or not. Think about it.
“What an interesting mind,” a friend once said upon reading some of John’s work.
The first time I found John Bennett was in his small mimeograph book, Anarchistic Murmurs from a High Mountain Valley. Published by his own, small press, Vagabond Press, 1975, Chapbook #1, $1.00. It was lightning on paper. He’s written well over thirty books since then–all kinds of books. Another mark of an original. One form is not enough. Check him out at www.hcolompress.com.
His murmurs have transformed into shards through the years. Just as engaging, illuminating. You can get them from John himself, hot-off and sparking from his interesting mind: [email protected]. They will make your day. Or unmake it.
Though I rarely put things to heart/memory these olden-golden days, there’s a piece from that early book that murmurs in me still.
THE WAY LIFE GOES
Take this for the truth: the ground is wet and the leaves are green and the man next door drives a big truck. The cup on the desk you used to drink beer out of once in a land called Germany (when you were young and foolish) now holds dust, spiders and the stubs of your pencils. But don’t panic. Just take a deep breath and try to realize that this is the way life goes.
Take this for the truth: John Bennett is an underground American original. He’s never going to appear on Oprah or The New York Times Bestseller List.
But if you don’t look for him, you’re never going to find him. Or yourself.
-introduction by Norbert Blei
David F. Hoenigman: What projects are you currently working on?
John Bennett: An ongoing outpouring of Shards–one, two sometimes three daily; not a contrivance, nothing forced, I have almost nothing to do with it, I’m a stenographer…
I’m reading my novel Tire Grabbers into an audio format. Challenging, to say the least…
DH: Why is it challenging?
JB: Reading an entire novel into a microphone is challenging for me, I don’t know about anyone else. And then there is the technical aspect…I got dragged into the world of computers and the web kicking and screaming the whole way. Until 15 years ago, everything I wrote was on a manual typewriter or longhand. And unless I’m working on something big like a novel, I still write on lined yellow pads…
Trying to get my latest novel Children of the Sun & Earth, a kickass affair of Nam vets forming a drug cartel, published. Not a good fiscal climate in which to get a novel published, even one that screams movie! at the top of its lungs…
DH: When and why did you begin writing?
JB: When? First thing I remember writing was a poem when I was seven. Of course I didn’t know it was a poem.
Why? I’d have to go prone on a couch and pay someone $100 an hour to even scratch the surface of that one…
DH: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
JB: Not sure exactly when, but it sure fucked up the process for the longest time ….
DH: What inspired you to write your first book?
JB: Book, not story? Or collection of stories? Or poems? My first “book” was the novel The Adventures of Achilles Jones. What inspired me to write it was three years in the army. Yes, another army novel. Heavily influenced by Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I had two editors at Atheneum contact me separately about stories they’d run across in lit mags, wanting to know if I had a novel. I was just finishing Achilles. I said, “Hell yes!” and sent it off. Being astute editors, they saw the Heller influence. But they also saw that Achilles had a voice of its own. They wanted to publish it, but the bean counters (who were beginning to intrude into the editorial policies of publishing houses about this time) shot it down. Thorp Springs Press, Berkeley/Austin, wound up publishing Achilles…
DH: OK, so what inspired you to write your first: story, collection of stories, poems?
JB: I don’t think one gets inspired “to write” a collection; a collection of anything–stories, poems– is a collection of numerous past inspirations. My first poem that I recall writing, I was seven–something just came over me, a strange sensation, I don’t know how to pin it down. The poem wasn’t “good” but it was pure. My first story…twelve years old, home alone sick, bored, I sat down and wrote a rather conventional tale about a plane crashing in the jungle, and on board is a stunning blond beauty, a dedicated scientist, and a hard-hearted criminal. The natives storm the plane, wipe out everyone but the stunning blond whom they cart off and worship as a goddess. Four years after that, for an assignment in school, I wrote a heart-felt but badly written story about running away from home at the age of 15. Then, probably because my English teacher declared me a genius, I went around for years pretending to be a famous writer and cranking out a string of pretentious stories that I signed J. Bennett Jr. and thought The New Yorker should come to their senses and publish. More germane to your question, I think, is: When did I break free of pretension and write my first true story in the big sense of true and have the chops to render it with grace and style. That would be “The Night of the Great Butcher”, written in Munich (after three years in the army) where I was studying at the university and living in a garret apartment with a wife and son who didn’t speak English (the wife did, the son didn’t) and earning 50 cents an hour washing dishes. I sent “Butcher” off to December Magazine in Chicago and Curt Johnson, the editor, wrote back: “It never fails that the story that makes the issue always comes in at the last minute.” I was in there with an early Raymond Carver.
DH: Who or what has influenced your writing?
JB: Questions like this are too huge to answer. I could start in flinging names, but I’ll refrain…
DH: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
DH: Do you have a specific writing style?
JB: Good question….
DH: What genre are you most comfortable writing?
JB: I’ve become something of an Attila the Hun. I ransack genre. Although a novel can still slap me into line, somewhat. Back in the mid-90s something transpired inside me that was the result of the accumulation of a lifetime of the environment and upbringing you mentioned above, a melting down, a fusion, and the writing began coming out of me in a lava flow which continues to this day. I call this Shard writing.
DH: Can you explain Shard writing exactly?
JB: No, I can’t.
(below are examples of Bennett’s Shard writing)
The face before it gets to the mirror. The face buried in the pillow to muffle the sharp cries of sex with a stranger. The face that is a whirlpool of emptiness. Us. Them. People. Elle. These are the fashions with which we gloss things over.
The El, a sky ride to the next low-paying job. A little side trip while I catch my breath for round two–stop the bleeding, cauterize the wound, put on the mascara. For a transplanted Puerto Rican, the El is an adjective until he puts his token in the slot and takes the ride that shatters his heritage.
My distant past is showing, like the slip of a rape victim. Along the way I learned some grammar, I could decline with the best of them, but they sent me packing. Here, dig this ditch, they said. Dig that long row of potatoes. Skin the cat, file this top-secret document. Somehow I missed out on the lion’s share, and now my shelf life is past pull date.
The war on porn, drugs, cigarettes–these things are almost virtues. The real war is on our looking up too fast and seeing what we’re not supposed to. Even baby food is Triple X under the bright shiny label.
I’ve Got This Friend
It starts young, in our 20s, in my 20s at least, but I may be a diamond in the rough, a turtle with glass eyes, Johnny One Note in an a-cappella world, the hero with a thousand faces. What a cosmic fiasco that would be, if I were all those things, tangled in the branches of a moss-covered oak, a shattered prism.
I mean, you haven’t seen this friend for five years plus and you knock on a blue door in a strange city and an old man opens up. He’s 33 and you’re 33 and you never want to see his face again. But there it is each morning in the looking glass, and so you dye your hair and work out in the gym, all to no avail.
I’m talking the psychology of time, its crude reversal that doesn’t make you young again but yanks you off the primrose path and speeds things up. I’m talking the day memory becomes a closet stuffed with skeletons, Narnia stripped of all its magic.
And that’s not where it stops. It goes on and on, a gray eternal moment, a falling star across the darkened sky.
Do you wonder sometimes about Original Sin? Well here it is–the Joker on a rampage in the bombed-out Metropolis of your longing for the sweet waters of a phantom El Dorado.
DH: Is there a message in your work that you want readers to grasp?
JB: I suspect there’s a message that I’m meant to grasp. I try to stay on my toes.
DH: What book are you reading now?
JB: I fell down the Leonard Cohen rabbit hole about a half year ago and am having a hell of a time getting out again. I’d written Cohen off way back when without really having checked him out–Spencer’s “contempt prior to investigation” at work. Then I saw I’m Your Man on DVD and said “Whoops.” His songs are poetry and his poetry is song–not many people can pull this off. What impresses me is the quantum leap in quality from his early poetry to his later work–Book of Longing, say. Most writers crash and burn by the time they reach 40, hell 30 even. I think Cohen died and was resurrected. He took off like a rocket and is in his prime in his 70s. I saw him in concert in Seattle recently. Hats off to the man.
Junot Dias’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a very fine read. But his short story collection Drown is watery and mannered.
If Denis Johnson had stopped writing Tree of Smoke after the ninth paragraph, where the monkey dies in his hands and he weeps like a child, he would have had something very fine indeed. But, alas…
Tony Hoagland is one damn fine poet…
But who really set me back on my heels recently is David Foster Wallace, about a half year before his suicide. His Infinite Jest–Jesus! The man can take you so deep inside anything, you feel like you are what he’s writing about–tennis players, drug addicts, suicidal playwrights… Foster is another one who demolishes genre. His writing is flow. You can jump in anywhere and be immediately engrossed. Or I can anyway.
DH: Are there any new authors who have grasped your interest?
JB: I don’t know how to draw the line between old and new writers. I just meander around. Is meander around redundant? Who gives a fuck? I meander around and what’s new to me is what I read for the first time. For instance, I’ve never read Tim O’Brien. But yesterday Norbert Blei posted a long quote from O’Brien’s book In the Lake of the Woods on his excellent Poetry Dispatch web page, and I’ll be stopping by the local bookstore later today to pick up a few O’Brien books based on the quote. I try to buy all my books from the local bookstore. Fuck Amazon.
DH: What is the most misunderstood aspect of your work?
JB: Ha-ha-ha! That’s what my old Irish mother who had to drop out of school in the 7th grade and work 14-hour days in a bakery to help keep a family of 11 children and an alcoholic father afloat used to write at the end of her occasional letters: “If you don’t write, you’re wrong,” she’d write. “Ha-ha-ha!”
DH: Any memories of particular works: the writing of, feedback, the thought behind…etc.
JB:This is an invitation to ramble, which I probably do too much of anyway ….
DH: You’ve been called a “small press pioneer,” care to comment?
JB: Booklist dubbed me, a long time ago, “King of the Mimeo Revolution”, which isn’t quite true–we were all kings back then. Most people today, including writers, don’t know what a mimeo machine is. I came into the small-press upheaval in the Sixties on the ground floor along with Marvin Malone of Wormwood Review and Doug Blazek of Olé and a proliferation of small presses with short life spans, in California, mostly, but the strongest, no-bullshit action went down in d.a. levy’s Cleveland. My press was Vagabond Press. I got started in Munich and then hit the road–D.C., New Orleans, San Francisco and Ellensburg. Ellensburg? That’s a long story. I had this 1917 A.B. Dick mimeo machine and a steamer trunk and I could slam that trunk shut and be on the road in a matter of hours.
What I really am is the King of Trial & Error. I have enormous staying power (in all modesty). I’m at my peak and I’ve been riding that wave for well over a decade and see no end in sight except the Big End.
A good way to end this: The Big End. Tragic, to be on the verge of going out in my prime…
About the author:
David F. Hoenigman is the author of Burn Your Belongings.