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Write a bio about yourself.

William James Austin

I got my start in the music business when I was sixteen years old. Fancied myself a songwriter. One day I took my material to the old Ed Sullivan building in Manhattan. Back in the day, the place was clogged with music publishing companies. One of my stops was Baldwin Enterprises. They weren't very impressed with my songs, but they were thrilled by my ability to actually read and write sheet music. It should surprise no one that very few rock musicians can actually read music. So they hired me to transcribe their various demonstration records ("demos," for those who know the business) onto paper. I was well paid. They eventually agreed to record some of my songs, but nothing came of it.

I did, however, meet many professional musicians, including Robert Johns (real name Bobby Pedricks, who had two big hits: a remake of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and "Sad Eyes"). When I was eighteen, I happened to be in a recording studio with the Vagrants, Leslie West's first band. There was a ruckus and the band walked out. Since they had already paid for the studio time, the engineer invited me to record some of my songs, which I did. The next morning the Vagrant's manager, Shelley Finkel (who went on to promote the Watkins Glen Music Festival, and to manage Marc Breland and Evander Hollyfield), called me. He had listened to my songs, and offered me a contract. So I signed with him, and remained his client for the next several years before flying solo. Within days of my signing with Shelley, he set up an audition for me with Pocket Full of Tunes, Inc., a music publishing company owned by Wes Farrell. Wes had made his fortune as a songwriter ("Hang On Sloopy," and many other hits in the late fifties and early sixties). He liked what he heard and signed me to Pocket Full of Tunes as a staff composer.

I went on to write for various acts, including Lou Rawls, Hammer, a recorded but ultimately unreleased side for Judy Collins, a number of less notable acts, and some unremarkable television. I also did two tours with the old fifties group, The Capris ("There's A Moon Out Tonight"). They were trying to make a comeback in their middle age, and hired me as their band leader, given that I could read and write sheet music and therefore create arrangements for various instruments. I also worked as a studio musician, providing guitar parts for various recordings.

As you might imagine, I shared space with a few famous musicians along the way. Roberta Flack stands out. She and I had a very interesting, and lengthy, conversation one evening at a place called Bill's Music Rentals in Manhattan. She bought coffee for both of us. I was thrilled. Roberta Flack paid for my coffee! A very nice woman.

When I started out I, of course, wanted to be famous. But after ten years or so in the business, I realized two things: 1) there was a good chance I would never hit the big time, and 2) I was no longer very interested in the life with all of its notorious vices. I was a working musician and songwriter and, frankly, I was bored. The same performances night after night. Sharing hotel rooms with musicians who, though brilliant with their instruments, had never read a book. I had dropped out of my first semester of college when Shelley signed me. I decided that it was a good time to get educated.

As it turned out, I loved the academic experience. It was far more challenging than what I had been doing. With the exception of a few studio gigs here and there, I pretty much abandoned my music career. Given that I was always interested in lyrics, I was immediately drawn to the study of poetry. I did well in college and, for my graduate studies, I scored a Fellowship to Tulane University in New Orleans, i.e., a full scholarship plus a small salary. I eventually earned my Ph.D. in Modern/Postmodern Literature with an emphasis in Philosophy, teaching first at Tulane, and then at LSU Baton Rouge (since most university English Departments will not tenure their own graduates, for the sake of diversity, I had to leave Tulane). I also spent a year as an Associate Director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. To add to my lucky streak, I met my wife, Reyna, in New Orleans. She had come to the USA from Caracas, Venezuela, and turned up in one of my classes. So, yes, I am one of many professors who have married students.

In 1989, LSU was poised to grant me tenure. I decided I could not spend the rest of my life in Baton Rouge, LA. I craved a return to NYC, and my wife was more than willing to once again live in the big city. Over the last fifteen to twenty years, there haven't been more than a few tenure track positions, per year, open in the Humanities, with hundreds of Ph.Ds competing for each one. There were two openings that year in New York, one at New York Tech in Manhattan, and one at the State University of New York, Farmingdale, Long Island. I got lucky and scored both interviews, and ultimately two offers. Though Manhattan is my soul mate (I lived in Greenwich Village when I was a musician), I accepted the post at the State University of New York, Farmingdale. The college had just converted to a four year institution. The salary was higher than that offered by New York Tech. Teaching opportunities tendered by SUNY included a greater variety of courses: 19th and 20th Century Romantic, Victorian, Modern and Postmodern Literature, Creative Writing, and the full range of Philosophy courses. Tenure arrived in 1994 (I asked for an early hearing), and I am currently the Artistic Director of the college's Visiting Writers Program.

My first few poems were published in Louisiana Literature, plus a couple of other southern journals and one NYC art magazine, while I was still in New Orleans. The poems were standard fair. My writing career didn't really get started until you published my long poem, "inferno," plus several shorter poems, in two issues of BluR, the Boston Literary Review. By that time I had found my way aesthetically. Both BluR and Richard Kostelanetz nominated me for a Pushcart Prize. My first book of poetry appeared in 1994. Since then I've published three more collections under the UNDERWOR(L)D banner, a book length monograph on Derrida and T. S. Eliot for the University of Salzburg, and poems/book reviews/essays/visual art in over seventy journals and magazines. I've had the privilege of performing my work at several exceptional venues, including universities, the Poetry Project, the Bowery Club, the Knitting Factory, the Ear Inn, the Nuyorican Café, and a shitload of art galleries and saloons. My poetry and prose have been translated into Russian and Romanian, I've appeared on NTV, PBS and Boston/Cambridge television, and the Romanian critic and translator, Stefan Stoenescu, has written a couple of scholarly articles on both my poetry and theoretical positions. I even scored a micro-minute of screen time in a big Hollywood movie starring Dennis Quaid (we had a fine time playing with his two German shepherds on the set). Plus, through the magic of the internet, I've managed to connect with a number of very talented and accomplished writers and visual poets both in America and Europe.

I've been lucky. Life is good! Now if I can just quit the cigarettes . . .

Describe the room you write in.

I converted one of our bedrooms into a study. Reyna and I live in a pre-war building, so it's nothing special. High ceilings, two outsized windows that open the room to the street, modest stereo system, computer, mahogany desk, sofa, oriental rugs, Monet prints on the walls, an old painting by an old friend: Igor Satanovsky, radiator clang when the heat rises, an ashtray that reads, "Get out while there's still time," stables, thirty acres of good grazing land, hundreds of CDs and three burly bookcases gagging on books. Actually, much of the apartment has been taken over by books.

It has been so wonderful to reconnect with you. I've been following your writing for years since first publishing you in the Boston Literary Review/BluR. How do you think your writing has changed since then? Please discuss your UNDERWORLD books. You know how much I love them.

I missed you too.

When I started writing poetry in earnest, I went through several stages: the Ginsberg stage, the Ashbery stage, the Broadway stage. It didn't take me very long to swallow all the available influences and cough up something multi-colored and my own.

The UNDERWOR(L)D books are loosely based on Dante's nine levels of hell, plus a snatch of paradise. Dante's geography, of course, has been exchanged for the dystopia of New York City. The poetry has been described as urban nasty in both content and rhythm -- the whole thing can get pretty ugly at times. Each UNDERWOR(L)D volume contains two parts. I'm currently working on sections nine (a structurally insane novella) and zero. When this volume is published sometime this year, the project will be complete. I can then have lunch which is probably cold by now.

According to a couple of European critics, my major work evinces an original turn, i.e., Baudillaire by way of Derrida. Wouldn't it be great if they were right? I suppose it's possible, since the conventional wisdom has always held that, in the main, the structuralist/poststructuralist project and Romanticism are mutually exclusive. I've always considered this an error of biblical proportions. Derrida, for example, is clearly an arch-Romantic, given his concern with the always "to come." Anyway, as experimental poets go, I arrive by way of de Sade, Lautréamont, Les Poètes maudits (Verlaine's appellation), Apollinaire, Artaud, et al, and their American variants -- which is clearly different from the more contemporarily common lineage of Stein and Cummings, the Joyce of Finnegan's Wake, and like that. Two poles of progressive writing, each providing a necessary tension: Protestant and Catholic, Romantic and Classicist, personal and impersonal, the individual and the "school" or "movement." My end finds its experimental stimulus in voiced innuendo, in pun, in secreted referential and ideational possibilities, while the manipulations of, say, radical formalists usually focus on the more apparent structures. So I'm open to interpretive functions. The work can be explored for meaning, as well as experienced for its visual and phonetic qualities. I do, however, try to make something else happen. Sometimes interpretation acts like someone following clues into an alleyway that forks any number of times. Whereas, normally, the interpretive process formalizes and unifies, its dispersal fractures meaning against the skin of language, such that the poem or essay is not thoroughly dissolved in explication. There remains an excrescence of linguistic flesh, so to speak -- something unaccounted for -- mystery. I'm not talking about the simple disruption of meaning which is, in today's art, quite common. Rather I refer to meaning's dispersal, its secreted existence within itself, within its possible trajectories.

Hence my emphasis on variety. This is not the place for further explication of this bit. Poets who are also philosophy addicts might want to follow the trail into my essays. Or not. Anyway, I like the idea of more than one thing going on, of conflicting styles and methods fighting for dominance, either poem by poem within the book, or within a single poem. I'm also interested in our emotional lives. The conventional understanding of the emotions is that they issue from, and are circumscribed by, the subject. But in fact they mark a place where the subject yields to, and is dominated by, the object, by the object's resistance to rational thought, to comforting comprehension. This reversal is not desire's fulfillment, but rather its confrontation with its own fragility, its ultimate lack of completion, its empty center -- the tragedy of its own existence. There is always something mysterious about the emotions. Much reactive, post-Beat/New York School writing neglects the emotions. So I don't.

The books also contain an ongoing series of essays (some of which have been published in various online and print venues) on visionism, my own go at a theoretical position. As those essays make clear, I admire more than one location along the progressive landscape, and occasionally move to a different neighborhood. One of visionism's "positions" involves the lack of position. With so much already on the table, the innovative impulse may require that both poetry and its collection as book become something like a negative zone, an anti-vicinity for the inadmissible, the discarded, the deviant. Again, a place to collect the various. The simple fact is that originality is quite difficult to come by these days. Certainly the traditional lyric and narrative are now more familiar than familiar (to borrow Baudrillard's phrasing). Equally habitual "avant-garde" maneuvers, as well as the disruption of the conventional referent, have been on the field at least since the 19th century. Nevertheless, if there is any innovation in play these days, it's coming from these artists and, I hope, from me. There is still an intelligent audience for imagery. The unpredictable "vision" is, obviously, a structural innovation. And it goes without saying that a good number of the more radical formalists do astonishing work.

Discuss the role of experimental poetry in today's literary scene.

Well, from my point of view, experimental poetry is the scene, whatever form it takes. As a judge for one annual poetry award, I have to trudge through piles of manuscripts that simply replicate one another. The poetry is formulaic, academic, dry, distanced, without passion. Any one of these poems could be written by any one of the candidates. The craft is certainly there but, as musicians say, it lacks soul. The few submissions that "come on" as experimental are usually l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e derivatives (decades beyond the initial novelty, do we still consider this experimental?), or else "slam" exhibits. The "spoken word" submissions might be quite entertaining as live performances, but too often they don't earn their way on the page. Truth be told, I have my problems with poets contesting, though obviously they've been doing it for a very long time. I've entered some contests and have won, and come close to winning, a few times. What does that mean? What can it mean? It means I got lucky, no more or less. Considering that my work has been censored by one journal and one reading series, I was very lucky.

Truly experimental poetry, the real deal, should drive the art form, and probably does. Even those bibles of literature, the various Norton Anthologies are, for the most part, records of experimentation. Of course the Norton people have certainly missed, and continue to miss, crucial talent. Important innovators have been excluded from, or lost their positions in, the Norton universe, replaced by fairly ordinary yet prize winning poets -- clear evidence that really bright light can blind some editors. Luckily we have Jerome Rothenberg's Poems for the Millenium anthologies which are absolutely invaluable, as is Ron Silliman's In the American Tree. Many of the poets contained in those collections remain unknown, or at best minor figures, to the vast majority of middle class, middlebrow poetry readers. Yet their {the poets'} influence on the genre cannot be overestimated.

What is the strangest thing you've done to find writing material?

Well, I can't deny that my past experiences in the music industry provide for much deviant subject matter. What I didn't experience personally, I observed up close. As just one example, the transsexuals I knew back then have become, in my poetry, a significant indicator of the failure of high modernist aims and yearnings, i.e., the desire to reconstitute the one from the many (both Eliot and Pound mourn the loss of European "catholic" unities -- tough luck, guys). As I look backward, it was the transsexuals' embodiment of difference/differance that made them so generous with their humanity. Consider also that deviance is always both comic and tragic. You really can't have one without the other. It's not a matter of simple contraries, like man vs. woman. The comic occupies the tragic; the tragic occupies the comic. Their identities are mutually contingent, one a-part of the other, one with(in)out the other. They inhabit the same "body," a coeval accord and discord always on the edge of chaos. For my money, there's no better expression of the transsexual than Beethoven's string quartets, Op. 130 and Op. 131. I hope I court this lip of violence in my best stuff.

Who are you reading now? What writers inspire you?

I'm picking up where I left off Proust, at "Swann's Way." My recent reading (since mid-autumn) includes The Brothers Karamozov (for the second time), Crime and Punishment (for the first time), Bataille's Guilty and Cradle of Humanity (on architecture), Kenneth Patchen's Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer (good, but I prefer The Journal of Albion Moonlight), Ashbery's Where Shall I Wander (had the strange feeling I'd already read it), Stein's Mattise, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein (same feeling sentence by sentence!), further selections from The Making of Americans (a masterpiece), the second half of War and Peace (finally), de Sade-Baudillaire-Lautréamont-Corbière-Rimbaud-Apollinaire-Valéry Breton-Artaud (again and again and forever), and lots of Derrida (there's been an avalanche of translations since his death) including, so far, Rogues, Sovereignties In Question (on Celan's poetry), Counterpath, Who's Afraid of Philosophy, Eyes of the University, and an old one, The Other Heading (which is out of print, but still available in hard cover from Amazon's used book sources). Before I die, I will read every word Derrida wrote for public consumption. I'm almost there. I mean that I've read almost everything he wrote, not that I'm almost dead -- no matter what my wife says.

Inspiration? Anyone whose writing may be regarded as deviant, in any way, floats my boat. I've already provided a litany of writers in answer to some of your other questions. Frank O'Hara comes to mind, quite suddenly, due to his versatility, his exploration of various selves. Personality like that could not be contained within a single method. After all, the best bands have always varied their musical styles. There's no reason for poets to play the same tune over and over. I should add that more than a few living poets, writers, and visual artists, who are not yet superstars, give me much pleasure. The creators I've featured in Blackbox usually offer at least an interesting variation on a theme, often much more. Hell, there are many talented people out there, including yourself, if I may say so. I'm privileged to be in their company.

Talk about your book, A Deconstruction of T.S. Eliot: The Fire and the Rose.

Well, as the title makes clear, I deconstruct Eliot, his poetry, plays, essays, plus his Ph.D. dissertation on the philosophy of F. H. Bradley (Eliot never completed work for the degree). The poet's revaluation of Bradley serves as a precursor to Derrida's ideas. As one particular, Eliot rethinks Bradley's concept of "immediate experience," and the result is akin to Derrida's singular treatment of difference. Curiously, Eliot is closer to Derrida than to the structuralists who never quite manage to escape a controlling Logos, a ruling center. He {Eliot} was a great poet. We pretty well understand his psychology, the reasons for his ultra-conservative turn. What more can be said about that except C'est dommage? Anyway, it's a book for those who are well versed in the discipline and history of western metaphysics. You can find it at the 42nd Street Library in NYC, in the NYU library (along with the UNDERWOR(L)D collections at both locations), and in most European university libraries. For that reason it's my best seller. I enjoyed writing it, and the University of Salzburg was nice enough to publish it as part of their Salzburg Studies in English series. My long poems and visionism series also go heavy on the philosophy, though in the case of the poems, it's both betrayed and secreted within all the street patter.

When did you start the literary on-line magazine Blackbox? Why did you start it?

In fact, Blackbox began as a print journal in 1997, originally conceived by me and one of my colleagues in the English/Humanities Department of SUNY Farmingdale. My colleague moved on, but the journal survived, eventually finding its way online. The debut print issue included the Italian painter, Roberto Bocci. Subsequent issues featured Igor Satanovsky, Mikhail Magazinnik, Richard Kostelanetz, John M. Bennett, and Guy Beining. The online version offers an affluence of and artists and styles, from Ron Padgett to Karl Young, and lots of cool people in between and along the edges. In 1997 it seemed like an interesting and productive way to spend some of my time. Still does.

What sort of writing do you look for?

Assuming that beyond a certain point -- "over and above" concerns with the mechanics of basic grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and cogent literary devices -- quality gets pretty subjective, I look for work that seems to me either innovative, or exemplary of a particular tried and true methodology. That's the ideal. I retain a soft spot for vivid imagery, and for a strong individual voice. Reports of the death of the author/subject were, of course, premature. Much current "avant-garde" film is firmly rooted in the subject. Poetry need not swim against the fluidity of the current. There will always be important work created in a variety of ways, atop various philosophical underpinnings. A smart man or woman will remain open to possibilities ("Anything goes" -- so said the Lost Generation). Of course structural experiments get my absolute full attention, especially if there's more going on than the simply clever, or decorative. Frank O'Hara believed that poetry should be at least as entertaining as the movies. The underside of all this is that, unfortunately, we live in a world in which everything ages in a New York minute. Yesterday's fresh is today's refrigerator stink. Blackbox is subtitled "a record of the crash." If all else fails, I'm looking to snag the debris before they collect the dumpster. The organ may be used up, but the goo is still interesting. Look where it's been!

You also are a Contributing Editor for Koja Press. How long have you been involved with this? Talk about this press. When did it start? How did you meet the other editors Igor and Mike?

The original Koja literary magazine was conceived (in the early 1990s, I think) by Igor Satanovsky and Mikhail Magazinnik as a venue for avant-garde writing and visual poetry. If I'm not mistaken, they always thought in terms of Russian-American connections. I was not involved at that time, but I was introduced to Igor and Mike by Richard Kostelanetz. In the later 1990s, the full Koja-press was applied and books scattered among an innocent public. Igor especially is very active in book publishing. Much of the "play-list" is devoted to Russian language writers. I don't speak Russian. However, the English language portion of the program includes several first tier artists, such as Richard Kostelanetz, Bill Keith, and Julia Solis. Richard, of course, is internationally renowned. The late Bill Keith was one of the pioneers of contemporary visual poetry. Blackbox devoted an entire gallery to his memory. Julia's Scrub Station, a collection of Kafkaesque short stories, is the press' best seller through Amazon (the first UNDERWOR(L)D collection comes in second). She is well known for her investigations of underground spaces and abandoned "mental asylums" in both America and Europe. Her book of photographs with commentary was initially published in Germany, in German. Routledge issued the English language version.

What is your biggest challenge as a writer? as an editor?

To create or acquire work that proffers something unique, that rattles some cages. That's it.

You teach at SUNY at Farmingdale. What is one of the most important things you try to teach your students about writing?

This is a tough question. I know I can't teach talent. That might eventually become a project for genetic engineers. Most of my students are young, 18-21, and want to express themselves, their emotions, their pleasures and pains. I see myself as a facilitator. I don't steer them towards writing like me. Ideally I help them develop whatever style/method falls within their comfort zone. For example, many students are most familiar with song lyrics. Their initial submissions to the class are often rhyming lock steps. So I help them discover new ways (for them) of handling rhyme, e.g., internal rhyme, off rhyme. There's always the chance they'll teach me something if I don't dictate. The ones with serious talent -- and I've come across a few -- make themselves known right away. I suppose I "teach" them to write and write and write -- oh, and write. Some reading is also advisable. I imagine that, for the bona fide artist, there is something obsessive-compulsive about the process. The creator can't stop creating, no matter how many neighbors complain.

Something similar holds for significant work. It's the stuff that refuses to go down no matter how many times you flush. Some of my work may be significant. Some of it is likely meant for the sewers.

You've had work shown at galleries. What is that like for you? Talk about your experience with some of the galleries.

I'm getting a quite a lot of pleasure from this aspect of my creative process. But honestly, I don't yet see myself as an expert visual artist. The "genre" is still new to me, so I'm learning, which no doubt accounts for much of the pleasure. I admire the technical expertise of those "vispo" artists who've been at it for a very long time. I try not to imitate them, which leaves me little room to move since they have covered most of what is good about the form. I have managed a somewhat individual approach, but difference doesn't guarantee quality. I consider myself lucky that the "old hands" appreciate some of my work in this area. And I'm more than a little grateful.

As for my experience with galleries, I haven't had very much. I'll be part of a new group show at Gallery 324 in Cleveland, Ohio. The arrangements for the exhibit, much like the previous show at the Durban Segnini Gallery in Miami, are being handled by the curators. I do little more than supply my work. There's also talk of a show in Puerto Rico. So it's all good. The most I can say about my visual/graphic/web art, which I term "photopo," is that there is a very obvious aesthetic connection between it and my poetry, fiction and essays. My wheels seem to hold from location to location.

You've composed and written lyrics for Lou Rawls, Hammer and others. What was that like for you? Have or when did you stop being a musician and composer/songwriter?

Lou Rawls passed away this year. I feel the loss. He was one of the great blues/jazz/soul singers of our time. Anyway . . .

When I first signed with Wes Farrell's Pocket Full of Tunes, Inc., I was thrilled, as most 18-19 year olds would be. I was paid a good weekly salary to sit home and write songs. Once a week I would show up at Wes' offices to play my latest creations for him. He would choose what he considered the more saleable tunes, and book studio time for me. At the studio I would record my chosen ones with a bare bones backup band. These "demos" were then sent to various artists with the hope that they might care to include one or more on an album. I was also performing my own material at clubs in the Village and around the city: Café a Go Go, Café Wha, Nightowl, The Bitter End, Brandy's, Café Bizarre, and the like. At that time my dream -- it should surprise no one -- was to record my own album. I had one shot at that. The Elektra label flashed on my music and wanted to record me, but my manager rejected the deal. Label and manager could not come to terms regarding advance money. No regret since I expected to receive another offer, sooner or later. I might have, had I stayed with it. I must admit that, along with the shit, there were many, many good times. There usually are at the edge of the law. Like most musicians, and with a nod to William Blake, I located that line by crossing it.

I still play the guitar, mostly for my own enjoyment. Of course I can still write songs. One never loses the ability. But I do find poetry and theory more of a challenge. By the time I returned to college I was no longer a star struck kid. I realized that a career as a rock musician was not for me. In the words of B. B. King, "the thrill {was} gone."

When did poetry become a regular part of your life?

Officially in the early to mid 1990s. But I've always read poetry, and most everything else I could handle, from a fairly young age. I also wrote the occasional song, poem and short story in high school. Later, when I became a professional musician and songwriter, my gods were the poet lyricists: Dylan, Lennon, Becker and Fagan, Nyro, etc. So I guess I've been hot for poetry for a very long time.

Gloria, allow me to finish up with sincere thanks for your giving me the opportunity to discuss . . . ME. I had a ball. It's been ten years or so since we connected and I, for one, felt your absence. Červená Barva Press is an impressive project, and I'm honored to be included. My gratitude, also, to anyone taking the time to read this, and to all the talented people out there with whom I am personally and/or aesthetically engaged. Thanks for being there. Shit! My lunch is cold.

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