EAT, GRAB TIT, PISS: A CONVERSATION BETWEEN JOE WENDEROTH AND SANDY BROWN
This instant messenger conversation took place on two occasions in late January of this year.
(Fri Jan 26 23:39:11 2001):
Joe Wenderoth: I am here, and I am queer.
Sandy Brown: I am here, and I am unwilling to comment on my queer/not-queer status. So. What is up with all of the beatings mentioned in Letters to Wendy’s?
JW: I didn’t realize there were that many. I would expect a good number in any honest book—not actual beatings or even accounts of actual beatings, but at least fantasies of beatings. It is a sign of the times—of how bad books are nowadays, especially books deemed poetic—that beatings are so few.
JW: Poetic speech is born of a kind of luscious violence. As Stevens says, “it is an animal” inside the man playing the blue guitar—the tune is plucked by the animal’s claws. I think this means it comes from pre-self emotion. In the Letters to Wendy’s the beatings are more explicit because the character is comedic, which is to say, more explicit himself.
SB: What do you mean that the character is comedic?
JW: I think all “characters” are comedic, really. That is, it seems ludicrous to me to settle into an identity (and this means place, occupation, etc.) and to write from or for that identity. The fundamental joke of the book is the forcing of truly poetic feeling into truly ludicrous character/place confines.
SB: To clarify: A poet, for example, can go into a Wendy’s, be in those ludicrous surroundings, and have, you know, thoughts. The scenario in the book is entirely plausible. What makes it unique, I think, is that this very situation is brought to light. There’s a recognition of—how to say?—”I’m not the only one.” The version of the world that so many people agree is the real world, in America, outcasts people who don’t take for granted that this version is the version.
JW: There’s a point when certain grave emotions are rendered preposterous by their surrounding circumstances. I think the impetus for the Letters was, in part, my fondness for the grandiosity of certain 19th-century poets and philosophers—it seems like that kind of grandiosity is no longer possible, like some great wave of Triviality has made it painfully apparent that all such grandiose Efforts at Truth are ridiculous in the extreme.
SB: And so the world, in the book, is presented through the eye of someone who can see into the devices of that world . . . To be there, see it, assess it, question it, agree with it, love it, conspire with it, long for it . . . A simultaneous love for and revulsion toward capitalism and the dumbness it creates. A totally ambiguous relationship with surrounding things. I mean, it rules to be able to walk across the street and get a Frosty, when some people in some parts of Africa are picking grains of rice out of piles of feces, to eat. Because they’re starving. It’s Paradise here. And yet it’s hideous. The other people in the book—apart from the employees, whom the character loves very much—are cruel, dismissive, blank. This seems to me a critique of capitalism—the workers versus those they serve, the workers being beautiful, those they serve being nasty, albeit nice-looking. And then the guy in the booth thinking about bloody stools and the customers’ assholes.
JW: I don’t mean to disparage the ridiculous or the grandiose, or not necessarily. I think that honest attempts at truth necessarily drive one into that realm, and it struck me how few works I read nowadays that are honest in this way. Most seem just to pursue an aesthetics, and they don’t resonate with the world you’re talking about—the postimaginary world, the REAL world, which humbles every imagination by subjecting the imaginer to its nearly unspeakable simplicities—I want to eat, grab tit, piss, etc. So yes, that may be true—love toward the workers, suspicion toward the typical capitalist drone. But so many of the drones maintain something loveable in themselves, and theLetters evidence that, too. When I say it is a comical work, that means it tries to recognize a pretty new insight that is available to beings, which is that our imaginations are woefully inept and sort of limp behind rather crude (though wholly definitive) processes.
SB: Let’s talk about bowels, stools, shitting, and other intestinal concerns. What’s up with the numerous mentions of these in the book? And why just the bowels? There’s so little mention of the stomach. Which seems like a weird little exclusion, given that the stomach is crucial to the eating process.
JW: It’s another joke; that is, a food-peddling establishment always focuses on the intake, as if the intake was all we were. Endless intake, endless vacation. I savored certain subjects because they are what the establishment does not want to recognize as actual. Good question about the stomach. Don’t know.
SB: And why blood in the stool?
JW: That was probably stemming from my own experiences—an intuitive leap allowed me to understand how poignant it would be to describe such a problem to a corporate office. Also, the image, blood pouring from a rectum, seems to me central to the “problem” the author has to face as the book goes on. That is the problem—falling apart.
SB: What if I told you that Wendy, the girl, seems very much a God figure to me in this book?
JW: Wendy is an odd presence—I can’t think of another fast-food place that’s so monotheistic. And it’s odd that she’s a small girl, with no real personality or history.
SB: “Wendy’s is open forever. Wendy, however, will never appear. Wendy will never speak or laugh—she will never give herself away.” Also, the whole 10/17/96 letter—”she holds within herself—radiantly implicit—that orifice which language must have always already penetrated.” “Can you not feel Wendy’s blindness, her exile, as she looks down at you. . . . What terrible thing has she done to deserve exile in such a barren place?” And, “Wendy’s is not just a stop along the way to Nothing. Wendy’s is a way of blocking that way. . . .” Wendy’s as a library without books—”one text, on reserve and on view.” Can’t help but think of the Bible. “This text explicitly organizes the way we feed ourselves.” Yes, it’s talking about the menu above the counter, but again, you can’t really deny the resonance if you grew up in the Judeo-Christian world. Then, when Wendy has all but been forgotten (she doesn’t appear at all toward the end of the book), the character arguably becomes Christ—”These thorns do not become me.”
JW: When I was a kid I used to think of the “you” in songs on the radio as referring to God. I knew, of course, that this was not the writer’s intention, but I enjoyed the different meaning the song got. I don’t know why I did this, but your reading suggests a similar—and productive—thing. Having grown up in the whole “God” idea, one has a tendency to “look for” Him in specificities, and so with Wendy’s . . . the Wendy figure is bound to absorb the most looking. As for the disappearance of Wendy toward the end, and the emergence of the whole Christ thing, I hadn’t noticed that—hadn’t put the presence of Wendy together with a “hope” of some kind. Maybe that was subconscious.
SB: But the “you” in the book is always the person receiving the correspondence, not Wendy herself.
JW: I didn’t mean to say the “you” was Wendy. That’s nice to hear, actually, about the religious narrative you’re intuiting, because I felt that one of the weaker things about the book was the narrative aspect. You know, as a novel, does it work—is a story of some kind accessible from the various isolated events of days?
SB: Shit, it’s supposed to be a novel?
JW: Well, I don’t really care how it is categorized. Says “novel” on the book itself, but this was mostly for shelving. Novels sell better.
SB: Hmm. Epistolary novels are generally between people. But I guess in the continuous absence of response a sort of give-and-take situation does evolve. As George Herbert said, “O! That Thou shouldst give dust a tongue to cry to Thee and then not hear it crying.” And there’s also the anxiety of writing and speaking versus not writing and silence running throughout this—let’s say “text.” Writing to the “sleeping owner who will never wake.” “I love you, even if you don’t understand me, even if you burn my attempts to reach you, even if you are no one, nowhere.” Then, “my visits are . . . pleasing, and maybe writing is just an effort to loiter there.” The letter about feeling the need to be writing even though having just written; the more he’s written, the more he feels he hasn’t written; “In speaking, we only ever lose where we are—we do not secure it.” Give some thought to the character’s here-and-there tension regarding writing/not writing, saying/not saying.
JW: I think that tension is natural to the project of a person who has decided to fill out “Tell Us About Your Visit” cards regularly. To one who has decided to write regularly. Why write? To try to create a sense of having written, which means a true silence, a space wherein what surrounds one is quieted because it is named. But obviously it is a doomed project on some level. It is not doomed only insofar as its failure is pleasing for the temporary body through which it fails.
SB: Well, that’s the most cracked thing I’ve ever heard. Are you demented?
JW: That’s a nice quote, by the way. Good name for a bowling team: The Dust Tongues. Our bowling team is called The Chuff Lavers.
SB: Why is it that you persisted in writing these missives on the comment cards even though you never sent a one of them?
JW: Never sent a one of them! Who told you that?
SB: You did.
JW: I can’t recall what I did right now.
SB: You’re not admitting to not having sent them now?
JW: I am not not admitting to not not having sent them.
SB: Did you regularly frequent a Wendy’s during the course of writing this book?
JW: I did.
SB: How often?
JW: Almost every day.
SB: Mustard-only double-cheeseburger and Coke, coffee, or Frosty, almost every day?
JW: No, mostly just coffee. The other stuff is fantasy.
SB: Coffee appears with such regularity and import in this book that it’s almost a character. Why is that? And, while you’re at it, talk about the other drugs, since whiskey and marijuana and painkillers recur also. Not necessarily in relation to your life, but in relation to the meat and the Wendy-God and the ass-admiring, and the sickness, doctoring, surgeoning . . . all that.
JW: Coffee and painkillers are integral to the day-project, the project wherein one attempts to rise up to a “day” and be manifested in it—and, conversely, to extract oneself from it once the manifesting is done. The whole book is really about the day-project, and so sex and meat and the idea of being operated on is just a way of taking on the day-project. God and sickness, though, may represent the impediments to the day-project.
I like to say that the story told in the book is simple: He shows up, he shows up, he shows up, then he doesn’t show up.
(Mon Jan 29 14:32:19 2001):
SB: I’m here, and today I am so severely, bruisédly queer that my triangle is purple and black. Anyhow, in one of the Letters to Wendy’s, you force your cock into a thick rich Frosty. But aren’t you really attempting to jam it firmly into an equally brown and cold place—the reluctant asshole of the global corporation?
SB: Go on.
JW: I guess there’s something about the publicness of that scene, imagined. The reluctant asshole of the global corporation is equally public, but so rarely openly molested. Why do you say “reluctant,” by the way? I guess I’d say numb more than reluctant.
SB: I guess because it would be reluctant to receive a cock.
JW: What is the cock in the metaphor?
SB: I reckon the cock would represent someone or something “sticking it to the man,” instead of his sticking it to everybody else. The corporations don’t get fucked; they fuck.
JW: Yeah, I can see that. I’d just add that the act is comical to me, also. I mean, the way it implies the “writer” being guided by an intention that must be increasingly and perversely willful. An intention that is increasingly stifled, or caught in a culture that attempts to stifle it. I’d also add that the “reason” given for his behavior toward said Frosty is a mockery of corporate logic on some level—perhaps its deference to scientific gauging of “product quality.”
SB: Can we talk about fries? In the 8/7/96 letter, “I felt such revulsion looking at my fries, each one exposed so much like myself, but even needier, trusting me, my head, my belly, for shelter. There’s no shelter here, friends.” There are moments of such weird little tenderness. And then there’s the letter that ends, “(There’s a fry on the floor.)”
JW: Fries are the most vulnerable and delicate of the products offered. Yes, there is a great tenderness in the book; that’s one of its threads. I think it’s a result of the book’s being less strictly poetic, more open to the postpoetic world of selves enduring in places. The letter you are referring to is a pretty abstract one, but ending with the fry on the floor brings it back to a concrete place/time. This is, in a way, an example of what I mean by the book’s tendency to include the postpoetic—the reabsorption of the poetic moment into the droning on of “real” substances and the delusional everydayness that naturally springs from this droning. Whatever flights of poetic fancy or abstraction one has, one comes back to the fry on the floor. That’s the process. The author of this book takes that project on. He wants to wed the emotional/abstract with the real/physical. It’s bound for divorce every time.
SB: It’s interesting that apologies start emerging toward the end of the book. Thinking of many 17th-century European writers—as well as ancient Greek poets asking that the Muse guide them in not making the book a pile of crap—the apologies usually come at the beginning. And, why does he apologize at all? It’s amusing when he says, “My previous statements were made in haste.” They took place over the course of a year! It’s also unbelievable when he thanks Wendy’s for “honoring [his money] all this time.” Like it was a gift that they accepted his cash. That weird tenderness/gratitude thing going on again.
JW: Haste can be a perpetual thing. One can live in it. I think he was saying that his “passion” was just a sort of neurotic silliness. As for the apologies, I think it’s something like the same thing—a fear that one’s whole campaign, if you will, is sadly and woefully inept, or at least misguided and possibly damaging to the reader, who has had to “follow” the emotions of the Letters as they unfold. Your connection to the ancient apology ritual is interesting—it takes this dude a while to come to that understanding, I suppose.
SB: Joe, some people have taken things in this book to be misogynistic. Have you heard that? Either way, what do you say to it?
JW: First, it’s not nonfiction, not a self-help or how-to book. Second, I think that’s probably a knee-jerk reaction to some of the content, namely the “interest” of the main character in violence and/or violence toward women. This interest is not simple, and what’s more—it honestly articulates a common (nearly universal) fantasy. The interest is not simple because the imagination of gender is not simple, so, for instance, when he speaks of “a wife,” he does not necessarily refer to a woman. I see the gender roles as far from inherent to physiology, and I see the character in this book as fairly sexually diverse in the roles he is interested in playing. He has an interest in being tied down and in being managed and in having three Biggies inside him at once, etc., even as he has an interest in opposite sorts of power-positions.
SB: Violence toward women is a nearly universal fantasy?
JW: Not violence against women—violence (and this means domination, really) toward an other. The word “wife” has historically come to represent the dominated other. This is neither good nor bad, to me—it’s just what it is, a way of playing it. An equally almost-universal fantasy is that of being dominated. I think the crime in history is the equation of woman with “wife”—every person is both “husband” and “wife,” and men are no more powerful in truth than women. Our present “manly” society is a joke—it is composed of the “puny husbands” I mention near the end of the book.
SB: I love it when the comment cards are actually used to make suggestions. For example, that Wendy’s be used for executions.
JW: It’s amazing how rigid “the real world” is—I mean, how there is this perception of certain suggestions being outrageously impossible, as if the way things actually are is less absurd.
SB: The character says, “without hesitation that if Wendy’s ever started to ‘deliver,'” he would end his life. Why so extreme?
JW: He is an extreme dude. A sort of Kierkegaard, but with a streak of Stevens-like honesty* pulling it all back down to earth.
SB: What’s your favorite letter in this book?
JW: My favorite phrase, and this may be the only really lasting achievement in the book, is “nuscle up.” I think the word “nuscle” is the crowning achievement of all my struggles, and it naturally calls out for an “up” to follow it.
Yahoo! Messenger: JW has logged out. (1/29/01 at 4:00 PM)
*Interviewer’s Note: “Who’s the coon? / Asked Wallace Stevens re a photo of Gwendolyn Brooks” (David Markson, Reader’s Block. Dalkey Archive Press, Normal, Illinois: 1996).