The writing of The Name Is Dillinger is just about the clearest recollection I’ll ever have of writing a poem. Especially a long poem. It came on as a dammed up fit of rage, desire, power, and expectation. It was April,1976, a Saturday night, and I was becoming more and more restless. I couldn’t sit down and be comfortable and I couldn’t stand up. I was no good for conversation and pieces of me were beginning to burn up inside. I wanted to go somewhere and I really didn’t want to go anywhere at all. The one thing that I began to realize was that I was just starting to hear this voice that started way back in my throat. It was talking counter to all the ways that I was talking. But instead of the talk coming out, that talk was going in.
I was beginning to recall bits and pieces of SONG OF MYSELF. I was beginning to recall some of the speeches of Martin Luther King. I was thinking about some of the old time Baptist preachers I had heard as a kid those few times I was forced to go to church. And, I was picking up from somewhere in the ether refrains from the old blues songs, I was thinking of Chuck Berry and Johnny Cash and some of Elvis and some of Hank Williams and some of the old time hustlers who used to stop by the hotel and regale my old man with the best of their stories. And, I was reminded of some of the hard time railroad drifters who used to hang around the yards and would stand up on old railroad ties to deliver their apocalyptic speeches about the end of the world. And, I was thinking about HOWL the way it must’ve sounded the first time that Ginsberg read it HOWL was not a direct influence on The Name Is Dillinger though I think some of the intensity is in there, and I was thinking about Ann Waldman’s FAST TALKING WOMAN. The first and only time that I read it I knew I could write something better than that. I knew it because there is no real interior life in this poem as there is in Maria Sabina’s Veladas. There was really only the litany of brag and strut with no blood inside it. I knew I could bring blood to my poem and I knew it was going to be Dillinger and I knew that because Dillinger was already talking the way I knew he had always talked and I realized that I had somehow zoned in, bardo thodoled into his lingo, I was THERE where the rivers converged. I WAS THERE.
And, I really didn’t have to worry about the lines because once I tapped into it the words spilled out the way they had to spill out, all in a rush and a gush and a flood. Saturday night I wrote ninety plus lines, more than I had ever written at one sitting before. And, I knew there was more back there, more in the backwash of the psyche where everything spills together, more that was aching to be said. And, while I had written a few long poems before, none of them were any good. None of them had the feel of authenticity, of having breathed in life, of having blood and dreams. And, somewhere I knew that a poem has to have the ability to dream itself or it isn’t any good, it will never be any good without those dreams.
On Sunday, I didn’t write anything. I just wanted it to build and build and build until it wasn’t possible to hold it in anymore. Monday I went to work at the high school where I taught. Outwardly, I must’ve seemed like a zombie because the poem was consuming me. Eating me alive. Somehow I managed to give quiet assignments each day while I wrote. A few kids were onto what I was doing but nobody bothered me. I think they were all glad to have a breather. I managed to keep a tenuous communication with everyone but it seems as though all I did was write.
The Name Is Dillinger is mostly long lines, almost Whitmanic except SONG and NAME are really very different. In style and voice. For all of Whitman’s energy I don’t think he ever had anything in him equivalent of Dillinger’s rage. Anyway, long lines take a long time to write and back then I was lucky to get two hundred lines a day. And, I was almost in over my head because one voice inside me said don’t worry about how long the poem is. Just let it be as long or as short as it needs to be. The other voice said, fuck that. Let this thing bleed out for all that it is worth. Let it burn rubber. Let it go like an oil gusher. Let it blow the fuck out of the printed page. Let the flow of the words blot out the sun if you have to but let it yell itself out of you or somehow you will get sick with the words that are caught inside you. You will get sick and maybe you will never be able to write anything like that again. Who knows. I wasn’t taking any chances.
And, finally, that’s what I did. I just let it go, I let Dillinger take over. All I did was try to figure out what the lines would look like because I knew what they sounded like as I got them down and then down and then down. It felt as though I had tapped into a voice that was both out there and in here and it wouldn’t be quiet. It refused to shut up. But at the same time I realized that it couldn’t shut up until it had said everything that it had to.
I had never experienced anything like this before. It felt like I was going over a waterfall of words and that I was the waterfall, both at the same time. By the end of the day, I was exhausted and when I slept at night the dreams poured out of me just as though I had opened a psychic wound and everything was pouring out. Blood, dreams, entrails, the nightmare refuse of a life and a time and a culture.
The Name Is Dillinger became my own private hurricane, my own intimate tornado, my own personal inferno. Each day that I got up and began thinking about the poem, began wondering what to write, I realized that it really wasn’t up to the me that lived at skin level. It was up to the me that lived just under the depth of my skin, the me that hid in the myster of my blood, the me that cruised all of my nightmares. That was the one who was writing this poem. That was the one who knew all the lines before I did.
And, when I realized that I let that me alone. I backed away and let him have full control of what was getting down on the page. Because he owned the typewriter, he owned the space where it sat, and he owned all the pages where the words went.
It took five full days of writing to finish the poem. I can even recall the moment when I dropped the pen on my desk and took a long full breath. I used a pen because I couldn’t sit at my teacher’s desk with a typewriter going. It’s one of those few times that I actually wrote anything out by hand and by the time I was done writing my hand was practically numb.
And, I also came away with the nastiest of migraines. There was only an hour of school left, and when that bell rang I thought the top of my head was going to explode. Not just from the pain, but from the heightened sense of the duende that had been pounding through me during the past week and also from the feeling that I think most runners get when they have spent everything they have to break a record. It felt as though I had hit a psychic wall, that I was literally splattered, exploded outward and imploded inward.
Thirty one years ago I wasn’t calling myself an Outlaw Poet, but now I know I became one when I wrote The Name Is Dillinger. The one thing I did know then was that I had wagered that poem against Whitman, against Neruda, against Lorca, against Eliot, against Ginsberg, against McGrath, against Pound.
And, I know I kicked their asses.