Civil Jar editor—and Silver Jew—David Berman talks to Minus Times editor Hunter Kennedy about his new book and his former neighbor James Dickey.
The Minus Times is the long-time gatekeeper to a specific cultural Hades where Barry Hannah and Rob Bingham sit chatting at the bar. Founded by Hunter Kennedy in the early ’90s as a one-page broadside, the zine-like literary magazine grew slightly thicker as the decade progressed. It was heavily informed by a Southern sensibility and displayed an unerring taste in cartoonists, collages, and horse racing roundups by Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich. I also enjoyed the goofy drink recipes on the last page, Will Oldham’s VHS recommendations, and the short interviews—always the same questions—with everyone from the aforementioned Hannah to Harmony Korine to Chan Marshall to Thomas McGuane.
The Minus Times Collected is a great big coffee-table style book, out now from Drag City and Featherproof Books. Within it you will find everything that ever came out between The Minus Timess brown covers. It’s pretty great.
Kennedy spoke with David Berman—former Silver Jew and frequent Minus Times contributor—about the origins of the magazine. Mostly though, they talk about Kennedy’s childhood neighbor James Dickey.
David Berman The Minus Times started out as a one-page mish mash of snips and clips and blips and quips left here and there for anyone and everyone. How did it start? What drove you to it?
Hunter Kennedy Sheer isolation. The epistolary tradition. An opportunity to subvert the newspaper format on a miniscule scale.
DB Were there any precursors that influenced The Minus Times?
HK Poor Richard’s Almanac and The Civil Jar.
DB Were you aware of any other one-sheets?
HK There were a several broadsides and crudely stapled publications floating around Austin during the early days of the MT. The one I remember was Boys In Trouble On The Interstate. I was really riffing off of flyers from SST and Dada collages more than any contemporary publications. But you should also understand that I was working in a dimly illuminated fog.
DB Looking back, it seems like the futility of your distribution method (abandoning small quantities in public areas) really fit the aesthetic of brutal incompetence you were exploring at the time. How many locations would you leave how many copies at? Did you ever stick around to witness a stack being thrown in the garbage?
HK I printed between 3-500 copies and left most of them in the doorways of bookstores, cafes, and record shops of Austin, Texas and mailed the rest to friends and acquaintances. Most probably wound up in the trash, but a few found their way into the hands of college students, musicians, and the drifters who used it for toilet paper. I didn’t care if it was thrown away, because it was a running experiment in chance. A few of years into doing this, a girl I met confessed that she started saving the issues found on the street after I started numbering them. She decided that if there was some chronological order to them, it must have been important.
DB Tell me about your numbers. At which number did you begin to charge money for The Minus Times?
HK I only started numbering the publication with Issue 8 (I think) and did not charge a dime for the publication until Drag City began to do that for me as my publisher with Issue 21.
DB Was it stacked alongside other “literature,” as in sales literature, brochures, and fliers?
HK Yes, the doorways of the Drag were cluttered with tracts like this and directions to the free-sex commune outside Bastrop.
DB Were you getting submissions from locals at that time?
HK A few, like Wasiq Khan, who was always getting into harrowing situations in places like Cuba or Yemen.
DB Did you ever reject a writer who then turned around and threatened to assault you?
HK Nobody ever got that worked up because they weren’t included in an issue.
DB In which cities are The Minus Times most popular?
HK That’s hard to say. Judging from the submissions, I’d guess Chicago and New York, but by the level of individual appreciation, it’s from readers in places like Columbia, S.C. that are far from the cultural capitals.
Some people call them backwaters.
DB You grew up in Columbia and lived down the street from James Dickey. Tell me about the time you went and knocked on his door.
HK Right about the time I became aware of the power of literature, I realized that there was a celebrated novelist and poet living two doors down the street. The fact that he kept to himself in this ranch house on the lake only added to the mystique. At fourteen, I was still too young to know the exact specifics of the stories being told in Columbia about Dickey’s casually scandalous behavior, but the way his name was pronounced in that hushed tone—in case you might accidentally conjure him like some barrel-chested genie—said enough. He really set the example for the writer’s role in the community. I became determined to meet this man who lived by his own rules and broke them when convenient.
DB When did you finally do it?
HK The spring of 1987, when I was sixteen. I finally got up my nerve one Saturday morning and knocked on his door with some poems I’d written. I didn’t know if I would be run off or offered a swig of bourbon—a couple years before he had showed up at our door fairly late on New Years Eve and asked to use the phone. My little brother alone in the house with my little sister and refused to let him inside. Dickey was drunk and pissed off because he’d been kicked out of the house without his car keys or jacket. He insisted it was urgent he use the phone, but Thomas wouldn’t budge. “We’re not allowed to open the door for strangers.” So he just sat there on our front steps awhile, watching his breath plume in the cold. The whole episode just added to the legend of this reclusive neighbor who had penned Deliverance and walked around Columbia with a compound bow. When I came knocking, I kind of expected to get the same treatment.
The door jerked open and a younger man with bloodshot eyes stuck his head out the door. “Yeah?” I told him why I was there, and the door shut. “Dad, you got a visitor.” The second time the door opened, it was James Dickey in his boxers, peering down at me with what must have been a tremendous hangover. I could see the big scar running down the center of his chest, and the divot in his skull from where his first wife supposedly whacked him with a golf club. ”What do you want, son?” I explained that I lived down the street and wanted his honest opinion about some poems I’d written. This was not what he was expecting, but reluctantly agreed to look them over.
DB What was the verdict?
HK I called him the next week and asked what he thought. There was a long pause on the line before he said, “Not bad.” The next time I came by, he invited me inside and showed me his walls and walls of books. I also got to check out his compound bow.
DB Did you keep up with him after you went off to college?
HK I took some poetry classes at Virginia with a poet he had recommended named Charles Wright (my second experience with a great writer, though with a temperament diametrically opposite Dickey’s) and he wanted to see my work. He came over to the house on a Sunday morning, said hello to my folks, and in less than thirty minutes knocked back two stiff Bloody Mary’s and completely re-wrote one of my poems. I’m talking struck out lines and added his own along with a new title. But it is his kind of compliment—he got fired up about one of the lines in there and couldn’t restrain himself. Then he gave me a signed copy of Deliverance and pointed out the blurb on the back by a British critic who said Dickey was as good as Hemingway. “Better!” he exclaimed.
DB What about after college?
HK Every so often he would stop my mother’s car as she passed his ranch house and demand updates on my progress. “How’s that boy?” I was out in Texas and didn’t see much of him for a few years, but he did send me a letter offering to introduce me to a divorced heiress in Houston with a taste for Southern Lit. I actually called her but never heard back. Which is too bad, because I still wonder what she looked like. I picture horn rimmed glasses, tight denim, and lots of hairspray.
DB Did he keep tabs on you all the way to the grave?
HK The last time we met was in December of 1996. I had moved to NYC and gotten a minor freelance editing job at Norton. When I came home for Xmas, my folks told me that Mr. Dickey was really sick, so I called to ask if he wanted visitors. He answered the phone and gasped, “Hurry, son, hurry.” His caretaker met me at the door and led me into the living room, where he was sitting in a stained bathrobe with an oxygen tube up his nose and his blistered feet soaking in a plastic tub. His chair was surrounded by huge stacks of books that he’d been reading from. I took a seat opposite, and he demanded news from my world. What was I writing? Who was I reading? I listed some contemporary writers, and he picked them off, one by one, like they were clay pigeons. Then I stumbled over the title of “A Modest Proposal.” Let’s just say he swiftly corrected me.
DB Did he give you any parting advice?
HK If I was lucky enough to get published, which he thought possible, he wanted to make sure that I was damn well ready when I “tossed my hat in the ring.” Whatever he was dishing out was skim milk in comparison to what I’d face in the publishing world. There hasn’t been a week in the past fifteen years that I haven’t thought about some facet of our conversations, especially his emphasis on discipline. You’ve got to write when you don’t want to write to have any chance of a lightning strike. I doubt I would have had the persistence required to tackle a twenty-year literary project if I had not met him. I only hope one day to be able to pass on the favor.
David Berman is a musician and writer based in Nashville. Read his blog here