Hubert Selby, Jr. on Gilbert Sorrentino
My first memory of Gil was a tall, skinny kid with a crossed eye walking down 71st street going to school. We both went to P.S. 102 but we didnt know each other then. By the time I started to see him around the poolroom in the late 40s, he had had the crossed eye straightened. At that time he hung out with a different group than me, but Sals poolroom—the sign probably said, “Billiard Parlor”—was a common meeting ground. I think my particular group took the game far more seriously than did Gil and his friends. I remember one day he jumped up on a table and started dueling with someone with a cue stick. The owner, somehow, didnt see the humor in the scene and got very bugged. I dont know for sure, but he probably told them to get the hell out and not to darken the door again. I can remember that being barred from the poolroom was a major disaster then. But you were never barred for long.
Sometime in the early 50s I became more involved with Gil and his friends and we would go to the old Royal Roost, and later Birdland, on Sunday afternoons to the jazz sessions. At that time I think it only cost a buck to get in and you didnt have to buy anything. And everybody used to fall by and play for hours. One Sunday Dexter Gordon and Alan Eager, played the Chase for 40 minutes. It was really something else. We had some great times there. We usually got dressed up in our one button roll suits, bop ties, and Symphony Sid bop glasses. Man, were we hip.
We used to spend time in the Royal, an all night diner on fourth avenue & 69th street, spending some heavy bread for a cup of coffee and an occasional hamburger. There was a counter man there named Harry (no pun, its for real) who was the most fantastic counterman in the world. In that area of Brooklyn there are about 4 bars per block and when they closed, at 4 a.m., most of the people went to the Royal to get something to eat, so you didnt have the most passive clientele in the world, but Harry could take care of them. He could take a dozen orders at once, get them all straight, and bring them to the table 6 at a time incredibly piled up both arms. He also worked the cash register and always remembered what you had and how much you owed. He was a phenomenon.
And he was a music buff. His schtik was swing, the big bands. Naturally we would taunt him occasionally about bop and he treated our remarks with friendly scorn. Except when we told him Dizzy Gillespes band was getting $35,000 a week to play the Capitol (I think its the right amount and theatre). That would start him blithering. He was always fun to kid and joke with because he never got angry. He was really a square kind of guy, but also Mr. Cool. We spent countless hours watching Harry work and discussing his incredible abilities. Later we spent our nights in a local bar, usually the Melody Room, and I would listen to them talking about writers and painters, and various people I had never heard of. Fortunately I didnt advertise my ignorance and remembered as many names as possible and then during the week I would go to the library and look them up and start reading their books. This can be quite an adventure when you dont know an Ezra Pound from a William Carlos Williams. I can remember being in awe of Gil because he knew so much. I think he was about 7 or 8 years old when he read The Iliad—in English, not the original Greek. Even he has his limitations. Anyway, we would sit in a large booth drinking ale and talking about all kinds of things, feeling smugly superior to the “clods, philistines and obnoxious creatures” of the world. At this time I had a 41 dodge, which I had paid $100 for, that we used as an after hours drinking place. It was quite a car. One headlight was loose and wired to the front bumper and would end up shining straight up in the air, and from time to time we would stop and take off a dragging piece of running board or fender and drop it in an ash can. Shortly before the bar closed we would order 50 bottles of ale and what was left when the bartender was ready to leave we loaded into the car and continued drinking and solving the problems of the world. I think Gil was enamoured with Joyce at this time because he was constantly squinting and talking about losing the sight in one of his eyes. I suspect he had an eye patch in readiness.
I remember one night Gil, and a friend, Jack Cullan, spent the night arguing about the Roman Catholic Church, Jack pro, Gil con. When we finally left the bar and started going our separate ways home Gil shook his fist above his head and yelled after Jack, Even if Im wrong Im right. We all laughed our asses off.
At this time I was becoming more and more serious about trying to write, and was reading the writers these guys were talking about and taking part in the conversations. I remember when Gil got out of the army he moved into a rooming house in Flatbush and one Saturday we moved his stuff from his Mothers place. We sat around his room and he went through his papers, reading his poems and knowing exactly who he had been reading when he wrote each poem. As I think of it now it seems I was impressed to be sitting with a guy who actually spent time writing and had a pile of manuscripts, and, not so incidentally, a small collection of rejection slips. This was the big time. I am also impressed at the fact that he was able to chuckle at his own work. Not putting it down, but just seeing it for what it was; i.e., the work of a teenager whose writing was influenced by everyone he like and respected. He didnt try to pretend to me, or himself, that they were marvelous pieces of poetic originality.
Soon we were getting married and starting to raise families (the first of many) and now the weekends would be spent at Gils drinking beer and talking. About this time I started writing, or more specifically, trying to learn how, and Gil and I would go over everything I wrote and really tear it apart. I think there were times when we would spend an hour discussing why I used this particular word rather than another. Sometimes the criticism was very hard for me to take. I remember one night I left the house and spent the night, what was left of it, sleeping in the park under the tree. Naturally it was summer. Had the weather been cold I probably would have spent the night in a corner pouting. And, not so incidentally, he was absolutely correct in what he had said.
This is when Gil got the idea to put out a small literary magazine. He wanted to the title, Neon, but right now I cant remember exactly why. I was the original publisher of Neon. I put up $13.50, not a penny of which was ever repaid. I guess its time to use it as a tax write-off.
Gil was going to Brooklyn College at this time and had met a few other poets, Sam Abrams and Jack Richardson are two I can remember off hand. There was also Jack the Greek. I think his name was Friewald. Gil started gathering manuscripts from them and others he had been corresponding with. I remember he got work from Australia, but I dont remember the poets name. We typed the stencils ourselves and had them run off, then had a party to collate and staple. That was the first, and only time I drank Manischevitz wine. I can still remember the headache I got that day. I can also remember the excitement of that day. There was a tremendous sense of accomplishment and a feeling that we were doing something important. We had tremendous pride in our little magazine and had a sort of sense of purpose when we took it to bookstores, like the 8th Street, that sold little magazines. In simple mentioning it it seems like a simple job, but an awful lot of time and effort went into it, a lot of discussion and planning. There was a lot of self-importance, but the one thing I remember about the venture was the excitement of being actively involved in the literary world. Being involved with something like that was new and special. Anyway, Neon was started and continued for a few years, about five I think, and is now a collectors item. I should make it clear that although a few of us did some work in getting Neon out, its success was due to Gils creative energy.
One of the things Neon helped do was introduce us to other artists who were into the same things. Gil had been in touch with William Carlos Williams, Paul Goodman, Robert Creeley, Jonathan Williams and LeRoi Jones; then Joel Oppenheimer, Fielding Dawson and eventually a whole crew of people like John Chamberlain, Dan Rice, Joe Fiore, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Diane DiPrima, Ted Joans, Jack Micheline, Joe Early, Tony and Eric Weinberger, Max Finstein, Robert Kelly, John Wieners, Bob Thompson, Bill White, and God knows who else. About this time we started getting divorces (the first of many) and moved to the Village (Greenwich) and the East Side, which was then starting to be called The East Village, and hanging out in the Cedar Street Bar, referred to as the painters bar. We were all working steadily, and seriously, at our art (I was finishing Last Exit) and spent a lot of time at Rois house. He always had a large pad and everybody and anybody was liable to come in from Edward Dahlberg to Cecil Taylor, and everyone in between. In addition to the people Ive already named there was Mark Schleifer, Don Allen, Basil King, Mort Lucks, Morty Feldman, Archie Schepp, Fredie Redd, Ornette Coleman, Paul Blackburn, and others that I can't remember just now.
In thinking about the weekends at Gils, and later at Rois, they remind me of an anecdote I heard Vladimir Horowitz relate. When he was still in his early teens his mother took him to play for Scriabin. When he finished Scriabin told her that her son was a great piano player and that she should see to it that he studied literature and painting and other subjects so he would have a well rounded education so that he would become a great artist. We did not sit around talking exclusively, or even primarily, about writing. Naturally a lot of time was spent talking about writers and books, and paints and composers and musicians, et al, but there was also a lot of time talking about sports and movies and food and clothes and anything else that would pop up. And in between we lived our lives.
The late fifties and early sixties were exciting times in New York. Everything was happening. There was a whole string of galleries on 10th street; there were readings and music in coffee houses and lofts and the Living Theatre; and people like Merce Cunningham and John Cage and David Tudor, and so many others were doing all sorts of things; and of course the Abstract Expressionists were very popular and people like Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollack, William DeKooning, Philip Guston, and the others, were selling very well.
And we were still putting out magazines. In addition to Neon there was Rois Yugen, and he and Diane DiPrima put out The Floating Bear; and there was Kulchur. And we were all very busy. Roi was always writing liner notes and working on a play or a book; Joel was writing a couple of plays; and Gil was writing books of poetry and starting on his first novel, The Sky Changes.
One of the things that is hard to convey is that although there was a lot of communication between and among us, and thousands of ideas were banged about, eventually you end up alone finding out what all the talk really means to you as an artist. After trying to apply your ideas in your own work you start to understand them better and from various angles.
One of our favorite subjects was how people use the impersonal article “the” in referring to, “the wife”, “the kids”, etc., just as they do, “the car”, “the job”, etc., all as if they were inanimate objects. “Yeah, you know on saturday ya shines the car and on sunday ya takes the wife and the kids out for a ride and stop in an eat chinks”.
I dont know what all our talk about this aspect of our culture had on my writing, but it was responsible in great part for me making a decision to remember that people are not inanimate or impersonal and like them or dislike them they are alive and breathing and have value far different and more precious than “the car”.
The other subject we never got tired of discussing was “adjective”. Gil was very strong about “noun and verb, noun and verb”. I know I had never thought about this until I heard Gil talking about it. Up until then I believed what they told me in school about adjectives being beautiful and the more the better. Adjective are, of course, very powerful when used sparingly and with precision, but the foundation is always “noun and verb”. This I guess is one of, if not the, most important lessons for a writer to learn and its one that Gil helped me learn.
Something else that Gil was very intent about was “Dont say it, do it”; and “Its not what you say, but how you say it”.
I believe that Gils genius as a critic lies, in great part, in his ability to read your work from your point of view and not as how he would write it. I have always thought of him as the Ezra Pound of my generation from that point of view. I would try to do something and Gil would see immediately what it was I was attempting to do and through our discussions I would eventually realize things that I did no know were there. He would help me find abilities within me that I never dreamed existed. He has always been a great and positive force and influence in my life as a writer. He was always been my mentor.
Before Last Exit was published Gil wrote a piece called, “The Art of Hubert Selby, Jr.” As I understand it Grove Press sent this out with the pre-publication copies of the book so the reviewers werent on completely unfamiliar ground in writing about the book. Im convinced that this played a very important part in the good reviews the book received.
I left the city around 1965 and went to LA, but Gil and I stayed in contact with each other. As a matter of fact we had more contact then than we do now that Im back and living only an hour out of the city. While I was on the coast he wrote once a month and spoke occasionally on the phone. Now we/re too close to write and too far to phone. But even while living in tinsel land I would send my books to Gil to read before sending them to my agent.
As I said, discussing your work with another writer is very stimulating and rewarding. The exchange of ideas can awaken thoughts you never knew you had, or can help you see an idea of your own, or an experience, in a different light, a different point of view, and can open parts of your memory and brain that you had been unaware of before and see the literary potential in what might appear to be the most insignificant experience or memory. In the beginning it was a straight teacher/student process for me with Gil because I knew almost nothing about literature and writing, and what I did know I was unsure of. Then there was the stage of relating my experience as a reader, and a writer, to the experience of someone with more experience than me which helped me see the possibilities of my own experience and thoughts. This sort of communication with Gil took on an added dimension, one of at times keeping the dim spark within me alive until I could get around to sitting down and feeding it myself once again.
I know too that he has been able to help me because he never tried to impose his point of view on me, but rather to help me look from the point of view of the perfection of my art. That was always the primary concern. Im not trying to say he is perfect, God knows hes not and I could tell you stories, but perfection has always been the goal.
It isnt possible to itemize all that Gil has done for me. He has not only inspired me and introduced me to a world I did not know existed, but his example of enthusiasm and dedication gave me a tangible example to emulate.
I personally wish Gil would write more criticism. It would be refreshing, as well as filling a need, to have someone who knows what he is doing write a so called in depth critique of what is happening in literature today. At least its pretty to think so.
You know, its funny, but one of the things we would poke fun at was the way older people preface what they said, especially when talking to younger people, with “ten, twenty years ago. . . .” Well, now Im talking about twenty, thirty years ago. There seems to be a strange sort of wit somewhere behind this universe.
--Hubert Selby, Jr. (from The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1981)