Eddie Vega Interview – Ginsberg, Noir and Whiskey

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Eddie with Allen Ginsberg

PDB) How and when did you and Cort McMeel first meet up?

EV)I met Cort in Ireland in 1992. We were attending lectures at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo. Pierce Loughran, who I had met at a local pub on my first day there, introduced us. Pierce had been working as a commercial fisherman but was also an accomplished poet and needed to talk to someone who really understood what that meant. I had sailed as a merchant seaman myself for several years, trying to learn the craft of writing between deck watches and knew firsthand the limitations that modern shipping placed on a writer’s development. While it offered economic stability with plenty of time to read and write, and great raw material, sailing separated writers from other writers, who are often their best editors and teachers. It limited growth. Pierce needed to make a choice and wanted to know how I had made mine.

I told Pierce about a critical meeting with the poet Allen Ginsberg that helped me make my own decision to leave sailing. I had met Ginsberg at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1988, and we talked about the merchant marine. Jack Kerouac had helped Ginsberg get a job as an ordinary seaman in the 1940s, and he had vivid memories of his one year before the mast. So we shared that background. He asked me if I was a poet and if I had any poems on me. I showed him a long-line poem that ran some 20 pages, and he looked at it and said, “You have an ear for rhythm and you can’t be a poet without it, but you use too many syllables. A novelist can get away with fat language, a poet cannot.”

Then he did something remarkable. He took out a fountain pen and crossed out a few words in a stanza and transposed some clauses. In seconds, he had transformed the line into something approaching real poetry. I was stunned at the edits. It was something that might take me several years to discover on my own, if at all. I knew then I had to leave the sea. I wished my shipmates fair winds and a following tide and went to college to widen my literary education and deepen my sense of craft.

By this point in the conversation, Pierce and I had moved from pints of stout to shots of Irish whisky. Moments later, in walked Cort McMeel with the triumphant gait of a quarterback who had just won a game. He went right to a booth where a group of attractive coeds were waiting for him. Pierce said, “You’ll like this guy. I’ll introduce you.”

When Cort saw Pierce he screamed his name. Every head in the place turned. It was something a drunk sailor might do when seeing a shipmate he had thought lost at sea. Very soon, Cort’s blood-alcohol content was at the same level as ours and everyone in that booth agreed to climb the mighty Ben Bulben the next day. But the next day, of that large group, only four of us, Cort, Pierce, a Brit named Declan Kiely, and I made the climb.

Pierce left commercial fishing to pursue writing at Fordham University, eventually becoming an attorney with a London law practice, but died tragically during a bender with a fellow lawyer. The other lawyer died too. I suppose Pierce never really left the sea. There is a fellowship named after him at the Sligo school.

Cort also decided to pursue a writing education, after weighing alternate careers as a professional rugby player and as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. He enrolled in the Columbia Writing Program, where I was in my second year. And our friendship continued from there.

PDB) How and when did you come up with the idea for Noir Nation? noir nation

EV) It began with Dante’s Inferno, which I read in an edition illustrated by Gustave Dore. I was 12 at the time. It was dark and haunting. But I did not understand why I was so drawn to it, and later to noir films, such as D.O.A., Hitch-Hiker, and The Asphalt Jungle, until I read Lorca’s short essay, “Theory and Play of the Duende.”

Duende is the dark goblin spirit that animates the deep song of Flamenco, songs soaked in human misery, and that my mother loved to listen to. It is also the ragged genie that animates artistic and religious expressions about crime and punishment. It is the ax of Raskolnikov and the Necklace of Kali. Lorca wrote that it wouldn’t appear unless it could see the possibility of death and that it loved the edge of the wound.

So in 2005 or so when Cort McMeel asked me to help him edit stories for a crime fiction magazine that he was starting, I was already disposed to working with that kind of material. However, at the time I was steeped in canonical literature, Shakespeare, Homer, and the like, at Palm Beach State College in Florida, and was not familiar with the canon of 20th century crime fiction. I had stopped at Dostoevsky and Poe. Cort cured that with a reading list. So between grading papers, meeting with students, and attending committee meetings, I read the works of David Goodis, Georges Simenon, and Jim Thompson. That proved very helpful in understanding the newer traditions that writers submitting stories were working in. And I had the good fortune of working with several highly accomplished writers that made the process fun, Richard Bausch, Stephen Gibson, who was a colleague of mine at Palm Beach State, and Patricia Abbot. I also worked with the Estate of David Goodis, which gave us permission to publish a story called “Professional Man.” Several years later, James Elroy and Otto Penzler included that story in their definitive book Best American Noir of the Century. So that first issue was very special indeed.

Unfortunately that was the only issue I worked on. My mother was dying 1,200 miles away in Brooklyn and finding it hard to understand the health care system that was swallowing her whole. I studied noir formally; she was living it. I resigned my position at the college and enrolled in the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism to be closer to her.

Back at Columbia, I concentrated on print newspapers, hoping to work for a New York publication after graduation. But while there I was inspired by the online media work of Sree Sreenivasan, the Dean of Students. He’s the Johnny Appleseed of new media, planting ideas that sprout into digital forests. His most fruitful idea, I think, was that community building through online social media is critical to any news venture.

And that idea is what drove me to create several online publications intended to serve niche audiences that, hopefully, would grow over time with an online community building model. It seemed natural that one of those publications should concern crime fiction. By this time, Murdaland was defunct so there would be no sense of betrayal. Then it was a matter of finding a domain name related to crime writing that did not cost a fortune. I tried crime this dot com and crime that dot com and noir this dot com and noir that dot com, but all the cool ones seemed taken.

Then I got on the phone with Cort and he was drinking whisky and sounded three sheets to the wind. So I hung up. I went to the liquor store and got a liter of Johnny Walker Black and gulped down a quarter of it so I could tune into his madness and understand what he was saying. It worked. Only the mad understand the mad. And as we talked about possible names for the magazine, I was checking the availability of the domain names we were tossing at each other. Then he said, “This is turning into a national disaster; I’m going to sleep.” His language may have been sharper than that. In any case, I typed in “CrimeNational,” “NoirNational,” “NoirNation.”

And I said, “NoirNation is free.” And he cried, “That’s it! Noir Nation! Genius!”

PDB) What similarities and differences do you think there are between Noir stories from around the world?

EV) A fascination with transgression that is as old as the first planned murder, the first desperate theft, the first night terror that leaves us shaking into late morning, all occurring in the exonerating yet unforgiving shadows of ambiguity. These are the elements that unify the chaos. Otherwise, there is great variation. The socio-economic status of characters, the settings, the conflicts and resolutions, the value given to suspense, pacing, dialogue, description, the endings, themes, motifs, all these elements vary from writer to writer, from story to story, unless they are working from a template that does not allow for much variation. It’s hard to make generalizations about national noir literatures that are not contradicted by the works created by the writers themselves.

PDB) Noir Nation is visually impressive. Was the look important to you?

EV) Thank you. That is a beautiful and welcome compliment. We kept the readers’ experience at the forefront of every decision about the book design. It was important that information, visual or textual, should be easy to process and pleasing to the eye. We discussed and sometimes debated heatedly everything from the cover art, to the interior illustrations, to the fonts, and the spacing. We also debated the kind of veil the woman on the cover would wear, whether her cigarette should have a long or short filter, whether the cut of her blouse should be more or less revealing, whether the image should be in color or black and white. The cover art by Danda, a Czech graffiti artist, went through about 12 drafts. Those discussions, which occurred via phone, e-mail, and Skype video conferencing proved critical to the success of the design. It helped, of course, that the wife of Alan Ward Thomas, the European editor, owned Butterflies & Hurricanes, a Prague design firm with expert graphic designers who helped us through that process.

 

PDB) How did the poem from Bonnie Parker come about?

Noir Nation does not publish poetry so the Parker piece was an odd ingredient. And like some of my other responses, this one begins farther afield than perhaps it should. It began with my work on Murdaland No. 1. The David Goodis story came unsolicited into my Palm Beach State College e-mail box from a literary agent based in the UK. Our policy was not to accept previously published stories. And so this one should have been rejected outright. But there was no way we were going to reject a story by David Goodis, whose birthday we had used as the serial number on the mug shot logo of Mug Shot Press, Murdaland’s corporate publisher.

We decided to create a special category for it, the Classic Reprint. And that’s how we published it. I thought it would be great to include a Goodis story in Noir Nation No. 1 and went online and tried to find the UK agents, but it turned out that representation had changed hands and was being handled out of California. So I sent e-mails to the agent there and followed up with phone calls. He and I managed to speak once and exchanged e-mails, but it did not seem likely that we would wrap up a deal by deadline, so I started looking for alternatives, and I found it in the Dallas Municipal Archives.

There were images of Bonnie & Clyde’s bullet-riddled car and morgue photos. And then there were these poems Bonnie Parker had typed out and abandoned when she and Clyde were running for their skin. I focused on a stanza that referred to the “Rat-Tat-Tat” of submachine gun fire: “If they try to act like citizens / and rent them a nice little flat, / about the third night they’re invited to fight / by a sub machine gun Rat-Tat-Tat.”

Sounds of gun fire do not offer invitations, only people can offer invitations. Hence Parker was personifying the gun sounds. It’s a literary technique as old the oldest poem. The stanza also exhibits strong control of parallel structure, something even MFA students struggle to get right. Most importantly, it has Duende. And it has more Duende than a ton of books by contemporary U.S. poets who have successfully passed off nano prose essays and diary entries as poetry. Who knew that Bonnie Parker was a poet? The Dallas archives did. And thanks to them, so do readers of Noir Nation.

About VegaWire Media:

VegaWire Media  is a dynamic new company keen to embrace opportunities in the digital information markets.  VegaWire Media publishes electronic trade books in the areas of crime noir, romance fiction, and other popular genres.

Find out more about Noir Nation here.