21 May 2009

interview: tony o'neill

This Kid is on Fire

Jack Henry: I know you are an original member of the Brutalists and understand the origin. What value do movements have? Is a like-minded community or movement important to the suc-cess of individuals within that group?

Tony O’Neill: I think that the idea of joining a group, is probably he antithesis of how most writers feel. We’re a strange, prickly bunch of people, and often we don’t do well in group situations. The Brutalists have a kind of shared energy, and shared sense of purpose, but really it was just away of differentiating ourselves from what was and is going on in the mainstream right now. In

terms of value, it helped us to promote the writing. When we started it, Ben, Adelle and myself were all corresponding regularly, and exposing each other to new writers, kind of bouncing ideas off of each other, getting in-spiration that way. Giving it a name, and launching a movement seemed to be a logical next step. The first notice any of us got in the ‘mainstream’ media was a write up in the Guardian that mentioned the Brutalists, alongside the “off-beat generation” writers and others. The thing is, we were all getting lumped in with various movements whether we intended to or not, so it made sense for us to at least name it ourselves, and retain a degree of control for ourselves. We have always said that Brutalism is a kind of open-ended thing, and that anyone can use the name. I have always been fascinated by the idea of literary movements, or writers getting together to push agendas. It’s a long tradition, and I think it makes the process of promoting your work seem a little less isolated.

JH: Are there earlier movements or schools of writing that the Brutalists take inspiration from? Are there influences outside of writing that are important?

TO: I think that the point about “influences outside of writing” is pretty close ot the mark. I come from a music background, and I take as many music influences in my writing as literary. I feel that there is a real snobbishness with a certain kind of poetry reader when it comes to work which references wider culture. If somebody asks me about poetic influences, why cant I mention Bushwick Bill, or Tom Waits? Why do I have to pretend to like fucking Keates or whatever? Why can’t you apply the energy and DIY aesthetic of punk to writing? I mean it’s all pretty basic stuff as far as I’m concerned, but people seem to think that the very idea of all of that is totally beyond the pale. But also, in terms of literary move-ments I think that stuff like the beats, the kitchen sink realists, and the stuff like Bukowski (that kind of falls in between movements and is quite hard to classify) are all important influences.

JH: You are a great inspiration to many writers having come from the literary “underground” and various NEW MEDIA venues, to a published author on a large, well-respected press. How important are NEW MEDIA outlets (blogs, on-line zines, blogzines, etc) to writers?

TO: They’re vital. I’d go as far as saying that they are now the main source for readers to find new writers. Think about it – when you start off, and you submit your work are you going to submit to a “respected” poetry journal, that will take 6 months minimum to even respond to your inquiry, and if they do you will be printed up in a magazine that has a readership of maybe 2, or 3 thousand? Or will you go to a website that might get more than 5 thousand hits A WEEK, and who will either accept or reject you within a matter of weeks? I mean, it’s no contest. And despite the fact that my new book just came out on a mainstream publishing house, I have no illusions that fucking “Poetry magazine” would touch my work with a barge pole. Why? Because those magazines only publish a very specific kind of poetry. It’s the kind of poetry that people who don’t really read poems assume that all poetry is like: flowery, metaphor-ridden horseshit. I don’t think that there is much of interest in the mainstream po-etry mags, and I go to the internet for most of what I read.

JH: It seems that on-line zines come and go with great frequency, although, of late, I think there are more than ever. As more and more outlets for writers come on-line, do you think this will di-lute the quality of writing as a whole? Is it too easy to get published on-line? Or the opposite. More outlets means more opportunity for good writing?

TO: Yes, the quality of published writing online is of course diluted. I mean, there are so many bad poets and writers out there – that’s nothing new. And there are going to be people who start up online magazines who have bad taste. However, its easier to find writing that you like because you aren’t spending ten dollars or whatever before you find out that everything inside of this magazine is crap. If you don’t find what you are looking for, you disregard it, and move on. And the fact that the interesting writers are able to find their audience now, that they can find a regular platform for their writing, well that for me totally cancels out the problem of bad poems or short stories appearing on the net.

JH: I read a review you wrote about Noah Cicero and a self-published book he produced. It was very favorable both for the writing and the effort of producing the book. A recent article in the New York Times suggested that POD books had limited value. What is your opinion toward self-publishing books and/or print on demand?

TO: Moby Dick was originally self-published. POD is as good, or as useless as you make it. It de-pends what you put between the covers, and how smart you are at marketing yourself. But what POD does do, is that it levels he playing field. Whereas in the past only the wealthiest authors could consider printing up their own book and trying to find an audience that way, now it’s affordable and easy. Sure, a lot of the people who print up their own books have terrible books that should never have been pub-lished. But if for every 100 of these, POD produces just one author with the talent of Noah Cicero, how can it be a bad thing? We can’t look to places like the New York Times for a take on this, because they are on he outside looking in. It’s like asking your grandma advice on how to program a DVD player.

JH: Do you think POD allows for too much product? Is there a glut?

TO: Again, the only problem I have with POD is not that there’s a glut of crappy books (in my opinion there’s a glut of crappy books on the mainstream guys lists too), but that it does allow for someone who is not so talented – but great at self promotion – to get ahead. I’ve seen writers like this – they are mas-ters of self-promotion, and you kind of have to admire their balls, but the books aren’t there yet. But that’s a small price to pay for something that is helping to get genuinely talented authors recognition, and publishing deals.

JH: Brick and mortar booksellers are struggling, as are the major publishing houses. To me it seems that New Media will be the primary outlet for consumers. Actual books may not disappear completely but certainly they will become less dominant. From a writer’s perspective, what is your opinion about the future of publishing?

TO: I think at the moment there is a confluence of things that are all going to shake the industry – the economy is in freefall, and that old model of book publishing if going out the window. I think that this really will affect chains like Barnes and Nobles, and the older, mustier publishers who don’t know how to adapt. I think that all up and coming writers – if they’re smart – will welcome this. I’m always in favor of a kind of scorched earth, rip it up and start again ethos. I’m not going to stop writing. If the entire publishing industry collapsed tomorrow, then the writers will be the ones who survive, because they do what they do because they HAVE to.

JH: It seems that the Brutalists have a certain style which might be described as “unflinching, absolute honesty.” Do you see this style of writing in the States?

TO: Of course – I mean this kind of writing has always existed, and the Brutalists would not deny that they stole more than a few of their moves from American authors. People like Donald Goines, or Clarence Cooper Jr were doing it in the 70s in a very specific way. I mean they were selling a lot of books, but not getting any kind of recognition because they were marketed primarily at back audiences. They weren’t seen as “legitimate”. I think it’s a voice that’s more specific to urban areas, than specific to a particular country. I guess there are more crossovers between British and American writers doing this sort of thing because having lived in urban Britain and urban America, I’d say the differences be-tween us are pretty cosmetic.

JH: Some have suggested that poetry has entered a sort of Renaissance and revival, thanks, in part to social networks such as MySpace or Facebook. How would you respond to this?

TO: Well I’m probably he wrong person to ask, because I’m not on either of them. I think that poetry is experiencing a resurgence because it’s actually a perfect form for our times – quick, immediate, and it fits nicely on a computer screen. I think that we should be planning for a resurgence in the short story too. I do see the benefits of social networking in one way, but in another way when I look at these things it just re-enforces to me how banal most peoples interests are, and I think that the downside of these sites is that it can make stars of the most banal people, rather like reality TV. Now everybody thinks that they’re interesting, and that they have something to say. I find it all a bit depressing. To be honest, I’d rather go to a bar and meet people that way that over a computer screen.

JH: What is the future of “literature?” Does “literature” actually still exist?

TO: I think literature (with a capital “L”) is an overused term. It’s an abstraction to me. I don’t think of what I do as “literature” any more than I strive for it not to be “literature”. Stuff like that; I dunno for a writer I think it’s a consideration that would stifle you a bit. You just have to do what you can do and hope for the best.

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