You were talking about Kenyon in the late 1960scould you go back to that?
William Heath: Kenyon has this amazing literary tradition. It goes
back to the Kenyon Review and John Crowe Ransom and all the professors
and writers he brought in. My wife and I lived in the old John Crowe Ransom
house. Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell both lived with him at that time,
upstairs, and so actually the place where I lived was where they had lived. I
went to John Crowe Ransoms 80th birthday party, and that whole crew came
backall the famous writers. I met Robert Lowell and Peter Taylor and Kenneth
Burke and, you know, the list goes on. Theres a remarkable list of important
writers who have come out of Kenyon, both novelists and poets. James Wright, one
of my favorite poets, who I never met personally, went to Kenyon. Im sorry he
missed that birthday because Wright was one of the people who really praised The
Walking Man, or at least an early version of it. But he died when I
was in Spain. He wrote to me and said he liked my poems and said, "I hope
we get to meet." But I went to Spain. When I came back from Spain two years
later, he had died.
JM: That was in 1980?
WH: Yeah. It was around 1980 that he died, so I never got to meet him
personally. Its at Kenyon that I really started to be a writer. I switched
over from being a critic of literature to being a writer. And I paid a price for
that all through the 1960s and 1970s because when I kept coming up for a
promotion or tenure, they kept saying, "Well, where are your critical
essays?" And I said, "Well, here are my poems." And they said,
"No one takes poetry seriously," that kind of thing. So I bounced
around in academia to a large degree. I didnt go the straight route. I
didnt publish my dissertation. I didnt publish critical essays. I wrote
poetry instead. But I stuck by my guns, and where I bounced it was fairly
interesting. Kenyon, Transylvania and Vassar were very interesting schools to be
at, at those times. I dont regret any of that.
JM: How did Transylvania affect your writing as
opposed to Kenyon, which was filled with such important literary figures.
WH: Thats right. Kenyon was so obviously and self-importantly a
literary center, and Transylvania had very little literary tradition at all. And
I was the only one there who was doing any writing. I found to my delight that
Robert Penn Warren mentions Transylvania in All
the Kings Men when Jack Burden does his research into the ancestry
and so forthTheres the story of Cass Mastern, who says that at
Transylvania "I discovered that there is an education for vice as well as
for virtue." He goes to Transylvania because Transylvania was where the
aristocracy of the Old South sent its sons. Jefferson Davis went there, among
all the rest. Kentucky was a very poetic place in its ambiance, and thats
what I liked. And there were good poets thereWendell Berry, most obviously,
over at the University of Kentucky. Guy Davenport was there. Jonathan
Greenanother poet who runs his own little press in Kentuckywas there. And
some other people were writing good poetry. It was the time in the late 1960s
and early 1970s when the poetry scene was sort of "in." So there were
coffeehouses in Lexington where I would read in the evening, and people would
smoke their doobies and say "far out," and that kind of stuff. It was
a period when the ambiance of being a poet was sort of neat, and at that time,
my hair was shoulder-length, and I wore Indian headbands. It was that whole
JM: Im starting to picture that. The
headbands and whatnot.
WH: Yeah, I have some pictures from way back then. And Kentucky is
such a distinctive place, at least that Bluegrass Region. I wrote a lot of my
best poems during the five-year period when I was down there. A lot of things
were happening to me in terms of finding my voice as a writer, and I still
locate all that in Lexington more than anywhere else. I think I didnt really
write anything good until I got to Kentucky. It was those Kentucky poems that I
first started getting published, started getting a little recognition. I won
some contests by the Kentucky Poetry Society and that kind of stuff. Thats
obviously little-league stuff. It doesnt add up to much. But its
something. And there were people running literary magazines in Kentucky who took
an interest in me. I published probably a couple dozen poems, at least, during
JM: You recently went back to Lexington to do some
research....Was it May or June??
WH: It probably was June.
JM: June....yes. In fact, we spoke, and we happened to be in Lexington almost at the same time. Close, but no cigar. How was it
going back and seeing Lexington some twenty-odd years later?
What was that like?
WH: Well, its very curious, in light of this novel. The first novel
I wrote, which I hope will get published as the second novel I wrote, is this
book called Devil Dancer. When I went to
Spain as a Fulbright in 1979, I took just the start of that novel with me, and
then I really did the serious writing on that book during two summers in Spain.
I rented a little place down on the Mediterranean in this very striking little
town called Maro. I was the only tourist in the town. I sort of, out of
necessity, could only think about the novel and write. It was at that time that
I completed that novel. And then Ive done, I think, two or three serious
rewrites of it at least since, the last one just this summer where I reconceived
it one more time.
But, anyway, to cut it short, Devil Dancer
is set in the Lexington, Kentucky, of the early 1970s1972, to be precise. And
it focuses on the one hand on the very wealthy Bluegrass horse-farm world. But
on the other hand, it focuses on the dives and the underworld of Lexington, the
world of pickpockets and drunkards and street people and all the rest of it.
When I went back to Lexington, almost all the major sites of my novel are no
more. Theyve been flattened because they urban-renewed the entire downtown
area. Some of its nice, and much of its awful. You know, all the American
cities are now sort of glistening high-rises and then this vast desert around
them, and then eventually you hit the suburbs.
JM: Well, you almost have to set a book about Lexington 10 or 20 years back because there has been such a tremendous change. Highways and interstates jut through what used to be horse country. And of
course, the Reagan revolution and conservative politics have conspired to make
the city "more respectable."
WH: Right. Its losing its funky ambiance. I mean, it still is
pretty distinctive, but it wont be for long. It keeps draining away. It keeps
looking more and more like all the other cities that have lost their souls. But
anyway, you feel that even though its only twenty years ago, youve written
about a lost civilization, in effect. That is a very strange feeling, to go back
to a place.... There used to be a very old hotel called the Scott Hotel. There
used to be a go-go bar called Comers, and in the basement of this hotel,
there used to be Boots Bar. These were very striking dives at the time, and a
lot of my novel takes place in those places. This last time I went back, I went
to the library to try to figure out when they shut down because I wanted to
figure out if I could change the date of my novel. Could I set in the 1980s and
get away with it, or were all those things gone by then? So I did some research,
and most of them shut down in the late 1970s or early 1980s, so I decided to
just stick with my date of 1972, and people would just have to settle for going
back in time a bit. I dont think thats a big problem. But, anyway, the
buildings still stand, so I was able to take some pictures of the old, crumbling
signs and all the rest. I imagine if I go back this year, theyll be gone
because theyve been sitting empty for many years. Theyre still stuck up
there on a little piece of land by the railroad tracks, and you can still see
vaguely Comers and the Boots Bar and the Scott Hotel. Theyre very eerie. I
mean, its like a scene out of Psycho.
JM: Oh, yeah, those buildings, theyre there.
I was in Lexington a few months ago, in fact, and the place has changed so much.
And yet you still have a feeling of what wasI mean, no one thought to put
something else there.
WH: Another very eerie thing is that another main site of my novel is
a place called the Mecca Bar. Its on North Broadway, a block or two up from
the main drag. Mecca Bar used to be a dive, but it had this very old oak
Victorian bar. It had the biggest and most fancy bar of all the bars in
Lexington, but it was in this dive. And I make something of that in the novel.
The Mecca Bar is long gone, but when my wife and I were there this past summer,
we went to a restaurant thats actually just a couple blocks down. They have a
new restaurant there that has a kind of Victorian décor
WH: It could be Deshays. Anyway, as we were eating, we noticed they
had a very fancy bar. And I said to myself "That looks vaguely
familiar," and then I went up and asked "Where did that bar come
from?" And they said "Well, when they tore down the Mecca Bar, we got
it." So the bar that was at the Mecca Bar is now at Deshays. If this novel
ever gets published and people are wondering what did that Mecca Bar look like,
there it is. Its going to be preserved. So thats sort of neat.
JM: After Lexington you went to Vassar. Could
you talk about that?
WH: That was a good experience for me as well. That was a fairly
high-powered school, and there were several of us that got hired that year who
were serious about being writers, and a couple of other people on the faculty
were writers. Eamon Grennan and I were hired at the same time. A very nice
collection of his poems just came out this year from Greywolf. And Frank Bergon,
who is a fine novelist about the West, came a year or two before. Hes the
author of Shoshone
Mike (University of Nevada Press.) For the first time I was with a group
of writers who were young faculty people, and we literally spent hours and hours
a day just talking about writing and literature and what we liked. That was very
stimulating for me.
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