By RYAN RITCHIE
An interesting poetry reading happens about as often as a Clippers winning season, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of hack wordsmiths from getting in front of audiences to espouse beliefs that no one but the poet’s mother cares about (and even she doesn’t care all that much). But like the tired cliché says, there are exceptions to every rule, and in the modern era, its goes by the names of Dan Fante and Tony O’Neill.
Each writer recently signed a deal with Harper Perennial and celebrated with a reading last night at Los Feliz’s Skylight Books. The 40 people on hand – comprised mostly of neo-beatnik white guys and college-looking girls with intentionally disheveled haircuts – witnessed a one-two punch of writers destined to make the leap from underground literature’s best kept secrets to mainstream stars.
Dan Fante at Skylight.
Fante, son of criminally neglected author John Fante, began the evening by telling quick tales of his advice for other writers (“keep writing”) and how appreciative he was regarding Skylight’s showcase near the front door of what is arguably the most famous passage from his father’s heralded 1939 novel Ask the Dust. The LA-native-turned-Arizonan read from his latest book of poetry, Kissed By a Fat Waitress, and finished with more poems from his first collection, A Gin-Pissing-Raw-Meat-Dual-Carburetor-V8-Son-Of-A-Bitch from Los Angeles: Collected Poems, 1983-2002. Fante’s gritty and at-times humorous work shined a spotlight on the struggle between the demons that lead him to alcoholism and drug abuse and his uphill battle to become a writer. He read a poem about reading new material to his late mother and her lack of enthusiasm for his work. Titled “Mom at Eighty-Nine,” Fante explained how his mother asked: “Do you still have that phone sales job,” she said –/‘No Ma, I don’t have a day gig anymore – writing is all I do now’/‘Well get one, for chrissake,’ she said – ‘and help me up – I need to use the bathroom.”
On any other night, Fante’s performance would have ended the show. His strong projection, lack of mumbling and overall confidence in front of an audience was a tell-tale sign of an experienced writer comfortable exposing himself before strangers. Fante ended with a plug for 86’d, his latest novel scheduled for release sometime within the next year.
The evening concluded with Irish-Englishman Tony O’Neill reading poems from his book, Songs from the Shooting Gallery: Poems 1999-2006, published on Long Beach’s Burning Shore Press. Clad in a dark green suit, the former Angeleno and current New Yorker briefed the audience on how excited he was for his first major Los Angeles reading before telling tales of his past as a heroin and crack addict, his failed marriages to junkies and his touching tribute to a lost friend in “Hey Randall,” which he dedicated to his L.A. comrades who were gone but not forgotten. The 30-year-old’s poetry and first novel, Digging the Vein, are explicit depictions not of drug use itself, but the inner workings of a downtrodden druggie whose sole purpose is scoring more shit to put in his arms and into his lungs. O’Neill finished the poetry section of the evening with a touching tribute to his wife with a poem titled “Vanessa” in which he said “…and in our bedroom love,/empathy, and great art/pouring from us in endless telepathic waves:/fucking ourselves into oblivion and/short-timing the dawn.”
Tony O’Neill at Skylight.
O’Neill, a former keyboardist for the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Marc Almond and Kenickie, finished the evening with the first chapter from his latest novel, Down and Out on Murder Mile. In his best salesman pitch, he told the crowd that if they liked what he was about to read, they’d love the book, and if they didn’t like it, they’d still love the book.
Prior to his reading, O’Neill answered a few questions via email, which he says he prefers over phone conversations.
L.A. Weekly: You said, "L.A. has a really special place in my psyche, and affects every aspect of my writing, even today and it’s been almost 10 years since I lived there." Can you elaborate on this and explain how/why L.A. affects your writing?
Tony O’Neill: I think it’s a combination of things. I came to L.A. at 18 years old, and I was a sponge back then. My eyes were just so wide open. A lot of the city seeped into me in a profound way. Also there’s such a darkness to L.A., in contrast to the sunny weather and the beaches and the palm trees. I know it’s a cliché, but it really is a city built upon dreams and yet there is this other, temporal city that is invisible to a lot of people… but it’s there, and if you can tap into it… for a writer it’s a fucking goldmine, you know?
In other interviews, you’ve mentioned not being a fan of NA or AA. Are you totally sober or just clean from heroin?
I’ve managed to find my way back to roughly where I was before my heroin habit. I haven’t sworn off any drug, but at the moment I choose not to use needles and I choose not to use heroin or cocaine. But I don’t believe in saying ‘never’ to these things. I have very good friends in NA/AA, and a lot of people in the program showed me nothing but kindness when I was trying to get my life back together. What I don’t like however is this perception in the medical establishment and the media that it is the ONLY way. Of course the 12 steps help some people, but for those that it doesn’t, there should be other options. At the moment these other options are few and far between.
Can you talk a bit about the Mark Twain Hotel, depicted on the cover of Songs from the Shooting Gallery? Did the irony of living in a hotel named for one of the country’s most famous writers dawn on you while you were there?
Well, it did seem an ironically ‘grand’ name for a place that was basically a toxic shit-hole. But at the time I harbored no ambitions as a writer back then. In fact I had no ambitions beyond scoring some heroin, and maybe a rock to smoke. That place inspired a lot of stories and poems, and in retrospect it was definitely ironic. I went back recently, when I was in town for the Book Expo. Rented my old room for the hour. It still smelled the same – like freshly cooked dope.
Most people tell me that writers don't blossom until later in life. How did you not only write in your 20s, but manage to write good books?
Well thank you for that. I suppose a lot of it was that my life was lived during my late teens and early 20s at a very accelerated pace. By the time I was 25 I had already had a few major record deals, and lost them. I had been married three times. I had been homeless, and I had also experienced a lot of easy money. I had toured the world with various bands, and I had been in and out of drug treatment. When I sat down to write my first book I felt a little like a 50-year-old.
Is there a difference between being a novelist and a poet?
My poetry informs my prose, and vice versa. I will go months without writing a poem, and then a bunch will come at once. When one thing isn’t working, it’s important to keep plugging away, and so it helps me to switch form. That’s why I started writing poems in the first place. The book of poems, Songs from the Shooting Gallery is one of my favorite books, because it’s so intensely personal. But reading through it can be a painful experience because everything in there is so raw…
Is Down and Out... a proper sequel to Digging or can readers read them out of order and not feel lost?
They can be read separately. One book does not reference the other, really. Digging the Vein starts in London, and moves to L.A. Down and Out… starts off in L.A. during the worst years of my addiction, and chronicles the move to London and the years I spent in the methadone clinics over there. The only real constant is the narrator. The stories inside are self-contained.
You mention Dan Fante as an influence. How important is it to read with him?
Reading alongside Dan is a HUGE thrill for me. You know, before I had written my first book I had this feeling that maybe nobody would be interested in reading the kind of book that I wanted to write anymore. That kind of novelized first person narrative that people like Bukowski, or Celine, or Frederick Exley, or Henry Miller did seemed totally out of step with the era of million selling “recovery memoirs.” And then I read Chump Change, and it was a revelation. Here was this guy who was totally plugged into that vein of writing, and he was alive and producing his work right now. I first wrote to Dan as a disciple, as a fan, and over the years we have struck up what I consider to be a real, lasting friendship. So this is very exciting for me, as you can imagine.
Your readings in New York often take place in bars. Is this common? What's the crowd like in those situations?
It depends on the bar. There have been some bad ones, where everybody was too drunk, and people were talking and the whole thing has degenerated into me fighting with someone, or throwing my book into the audience in disgust and walking off… but that was more in the early days. You tend to figure out which bar will have what kind of crowd. NYC has a really strong literary scene, so when there is a reading scheduled people do tend to turn up to listen. I prefer it to bookstores because the audience is a little looser, and because people buy me drinks.
Because your work is based on reality, have you experienced any negative feedback from anyone you've written about?
I did have one person that I wrote some poems about write to me threatening to have my legs broken, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. The thing is, I’m always careful to change names, and the person whose character probably gets the biggest trashing in my books is my own. This book will come out in England, and who knows what will happen if my old methadone doctor recognizes himself in there. The thing is, that guy was already making my life miserable when I relied on him for my methadone, so there isn’t more much he can do to me at this point…
Are you done with music?
For the time being. I have no desire to go on tour again. I get a lot of pleasure from playing music for myself, but I do have this sense of having done that already and not wanting to repeat myself. My career in music never really fulfilled its promise, and I get so much more satisfaction from my writing than I did from being in a band. I’m too used to not having to deal with other people’s egos now to ever go back to working in a band situation.
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Is it safe to say your daughter helped you get clean?
Oh sure. My daughter Nico and my wife, Vanessa. You see, Vanessa never came out and told me I had to stop. But there came a point when I realized that the relationship wouldn’t be able to function if I didn’t. So I knew it was time. And in the months following that decision, leading up to the birth of our daughter she basically nursed me back to sanity. It was a very long, protracted and painful process, and if it hadn’t been for her I would probably never have made it to this point. I’m talking months and months of depression, insomnia, the works. When Nico was born… seeing this person that you helped to create looking up at you, totally dependent on you… it confirmed to me that it had all been worth it. I had great parents, very loving and supportive parents, and I didn’t want to let down my own child in that way.
The thought of reading about an ex-junkie was something I wouldn't be interested in, but when I finally picked up Songs I read it straight through -- same with Digging. Do you get this a lot, this sentiment that drug writing is somehow frowned upon because it can come off as bottom of the barrel?
I think that a lot of drug-influenced writing is mired in cliché. I mean, if I have to read another recovery memoir that follows the exact same formula again I’ll scream. So I do understand that reticence. My books aren’t really about redemption, or recovery. In a way they preach a pretty unfashionable view of addiction, which is a million miles away from the propaganda and lies that the likes of Dr. Drew have made their stock in trade. But there are as many ways to write about drugs – which are a pretty universal human experience – as there is to write about say war, or love, or murder. The bottom line is that I don’t believe in salvation – especially the kind that comes at 3000 dollars a month.