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Interview with John-Ivan Palmer PDF E-mail
Interview with John-Ivan Palmer
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John-Ivan Palmer’s novel, Motels of Burning Madness, Confessions of a Male Stripper, has just been released by The Drill Press. Palmer, a stage hypnotist, has been an odd figure in the literary world, publishing fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and literary criticism often perceived as performances in the Devil’s Theater. But his approach is that of a pilgrim seeking salvation in self-discovery. He has just completed his latest non-fiction work, Wild Ruins of the Waking Sleep, Experiences in Stage Hypnotism, parts of which have appeared in this and other publications. The interview that follows took place on New Year’s Eve, with Palmer by cell phone en route to a night club engagement and Bradley in Japan.

So you earn your living as a stage hypnotist making fools out of people.

It’s been said.

Are you a fool?
[pause] A fool for love, yes. And it’s gotten me into plenty of trouble.

How does being a hypnotist affect the kind of writer you are?
Whether I eat or starve depends on one thing: my vampiric capture of hypnotic subjects and sucking out the laughs. Not many writers live this kind of life. I may be the only one. I work casinos, clubs, fairs, schools, corporate banquets and take on earth-loads of raw humanity. Make them do stuff the wouldn’t ordinarily do. After a while you tend to see human traits that other people don’t. Billboards of inner secrets. Weak spots for manipulation. Like a carny, to me everyone in the world is in perpetual full body scan. I have to be correct in my assessments almost 100% of the time because the results are the ink on my paycheck. I approach characters in my fiction and subjects in my essays and articles with similar stealth.

Twenty five years ago when you researched Motels of Burning Madness, you were already a successful hypnotist in the banquet and college market with numerous TV appearances to your credit. What was it like to ignore all that and go undercover and work for tips as a dancer in sleazy bars?
Like easing into ice water at 3 a.m. on a chilly day. Contrary to what you might think, dancing naked for strange women was not fun. No entertainer is out there to please themselves. Jollities notwithstanding, you’re a whore, pure and simple. You may not have what they want, but the show must go on with a smile. I was a mediocre dancer, but had the stage smarts to connect with an audience. Other dancers may have been good at pulling one foot up behind their neck while hopping in for a tip, but I could work a crowd in a way they could not.

Why did you do it?
To research the ambiguities of gender and sex. I tried to interview gigolos and male strippers, but because of the women-only policy at their shows, it wasn’t easy for me to get past the front door. If I got a dancer to agree to an interview and they actually showed up, which they usually didn’t, they never had much to say. For them the unexamined life was their life. So to get any insights into this form of human behavior I realized I had to physically get inside their world myself. This was in the early 80’s. The male stripper craze was hot and the standards were low. So I bought a g-string and signed up. For art.

You said it was “not fun.” How was that?
If a man steps out of line with a female stripper she can slap his face and get applause. Even the slapped jerk will love the attention. Obviously it doesn't work that way with women. Things are all corporate now with Chippendale knock-offs and the good behavior that goes with a high ticket price, but in the bare knuckle days of the early 80’s and five dollar cover charges you had to watch for women burning you with cigarettes, or marking you with their fingernails. Most of the women were appreciative, but you never knew who was there as an act of revenge.

You are pitching this book as literary fiction. How do you answer someone who says it’s only sensationalism?
All books are breech born. Their superficial qualities come into the world first. It’s called “the hook.” It can work for or against an author. Remember the book about Mohammad humping a hooker, and before that the kid who masturbated all day? For a lot of people that’s all they saw in The Satanic Verses and Portnoy’s Complaint. Only after time passes do those sensational qualities recede and the important themes emerge. That is, if they’re going to emerge at all. It’s hard to imagine what all the fuss was about with Catcher in the Rye, or Howl. When I first submitted Motels to several New York publishers, they wanted me to dumb it down, turn it into an extended Cosmo article. Make the hook the book. But I didn’t, and that’s why it sat on a shelf for two and half decades.

Have you ever killed anyone?
What! What the hell kind of question is that? Have I ever killed anyone. Where did that come from?

Just trying to break the balls in the rack.
It sure took some, I can tell you that. OK, no, I certainly haven’t killed anyone, although it’s an activity that seems very much in vogue these days. I’ve thought about it, however. A couple of agents. A few hypnotists. Well, more than a few. A crooked stock broker. Yes, they should all be dead. Actually the stockbroker already is. Suicide before I and a bunch of others took the bastard to court. But I had nothing to do with it. When [name deleted] stole my identity and set up a hypnotist website with my photo and his phone number to direct web traffic to himself, I thought of growing some castor beans, extracting the ricin and putting it on his doorknob. But with my luck I’d probably snuff a door to door Mormon.

See? That wasn’t such a dumb question after all.

Since much of your work deals with degenerate show business and people pathologically seeking attention, are entertainers among your readers?
You’re not going to print that last question are you? I hope not. It seems I’ve spent half my life trying to get people to take me seriously. What was your question again? Do entertainers read my stuff? Actually no. Well, maybe one guy, a birthday clown, but I think he’s just being nice because I helped him out one time when he had VD. But no, I don’t write for entertainers. They have their own little subgenre of books, usually illustrated, and sold at magic conventions and joke shops and bought by collectors as part of manicured libraries devoted to just one subject. That stuff can be interesting reading in an oblique sort of way. Like Schaihley’s Memoirs of a Ventriloquist, or The Life and Magic of Billy Bishop. Celeste Evans did a compilation of spectacular magic failures, Has This Ever Happened to You? If you feel like kissing reality good-bye, immerse yourself in the memoirs of Danniel P. Mannix, the sword swallower. Have I ever killed anyone…Were you waiting for days to spring that on me or did you just think it up on the spot?

Both, I guess. Are there any other books you consider belle-lettres written by novelty acts like yourself?
Not many, but a few gold droplets rise up from the bubbling mass. Travis S. D., that’s his real name by the way, a backwards sort of guy, wrote in No Applause, Just Throw Money that today’s young entertainers are more literate than acts of my father’s generation. That may be true, but from where I am in the trenches I don’t see it first hand. Joe Steinmeyer’s essays on stage illusion, Art and Artifice, rival the work of Nabokov, although Steinmeyer isn’t strictly a magician, but an illusion maker for magicians. Card sharp Ricki Jay has done some extraordinary scholarship on mental marvels and human index files. Steve Martin, the comedian, has a literary talent unfortunately clouded by his own pop success on stage. There’s probably more examples in Europe, which has a history of commedia dell’arte merging with high culture. I worked with an exotic dancer years ago, Veronica Vixen, who could, if you don’t mind me saying, smoke a cigarette with her vagina. She wrote poems as refined and complex as those of Elizabeth Bishop or Marianne Moore. Her work was far less widely known than herself personally, and that was to a relatively small audience of connoisseurs. If you step away from the realm of magicians, glass eaters, wire walkers, chain saw jugglers and that sort of thing you pick up a few more talents like Toni Bentley, the ballerina, and her Daughters of Salomé (about the history of strip tease) or Thomas Goltz and his book about performing Shakespeare for cannibals in Africa. Alone. With puppets. Of course there’s Shakespeare himself, who was a stage performer. But now we’re into legitimate theater where things get written down and saved, unlike the histories of people who catch bullets in their teeth or write simultaneously two different messages with a pen in each foot. If you go back to the 19th century one of the great hilarities of all time is Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, the magician who invented the Substitution Trunk, which my parents performed for years.

So who are your readers?
I wish I knew. I never see them. Once in a while I’ll get a letter or e-mail from someone in South Africa, or Singapore, or Pakistan, always some place far away from Minnesota, who has read one of my pieces and wants to know something like the address of Hiroyasu Koga, the guy who cut off the head of Yukio Mishima. Once in a while one of these solitary readers on the edge of civilization will start up an interesting correspondence. Then they recede back into the dust of oblivion and I never hear from them again.

For a number of years you wrote for Your Flesh Quarterly, which Newsweek called “the premier punk magazine with a chip on its shoulder.” Did that help bring you a larger audience?
Not so much for me as for the people I wrote about. I liked their trademark style which was both snide and disciplined. Their logo was a buzz saw blade, but it should have been a surgeon’s scalpel. Your Flesh was devoted primarily to alternative music, not just punk, but obsolete styles and unclassifiable forms from around the world. The writing on that subject was extraordinary in terms of analysis and verbal and conceptual vocabulary. Their authors were high plains drifters shooting from the hip and dealing out swift justice to what they didn’t like. Your Flesh is out of print now and the old issues are collector’s items. I never really fit in, which is nothing new for a show business kid, but I appreciated them tolerating me. I never wrote about music but I did try to offer their readers something inspiring with articles on people like Frank Moore the wheelchair porn star, or the writer Sondra London who tried to marry the Gainsville Slasher on death row. I presented a whole new audience for Brenda Tatelbaum and her Eidos magazine, actually a newspaper, that provided a forum for female Islamic erotomanes. I sniffed glue with Guatemalan street kids while interviewing death squads, which almost got me dropped from a helicopter into Pacaya volcano. So yes, there were some good things about it, including the money, but it took my attention away from more serious work.

Getting dropped into a volcano is not serious?
It might be the ultimate way to attract readers if you’ve already done something significant, which at that time I had not. It was before the stage in my journey where I sought to integrate, as Kathleen Raine put it, the culture-bound ego with the eternal Self.

What do you consider significant?
To this point it’s the book I just finished, Wild Ruins of the Waking Sleep.

You’ve been a hypnotist, a male stripper, a glue-sniffing journalist in Guatemala, a chronicler of fin de siècle shock culture. You write about X-rated ventriloquists, hypnosis to kill people, and performing in a Mexican transvestite show. Would you ever put on lipstick and a tutu and have sex with a cow on the internet?
[Prolonged silence.]

Hello? Can you hear me?
Yea, I’m still here. [Continuing long pause.]

Well what?

Would you?
Screw a cow? Do writers get asked this kind of stuff in Paris Review? I’m a married man, you know.

You get people to do that on stage under hypnosis. Why wouldn’t it be a fair question to ask the hypnotist?
Well, OK. And by the way it’s sheep, not cows, and they’re all sheep. And it’s pantomime.

It does get on the internet occasionally, doesn’t it?
Look, there’s a lot of ways a writer can draw attention to his or her work. It didn’t do Hunter Thompson any harm to shoot his typewriter and set his Christmas tree on fire during an interview with Time magazine. And it wasn’t beneath Josh Alan Friedman to grouse around the used tissues in Times Square peep shows looking for truth. Redmond O’Hanlan camped out in a jungle of flesh-eating ants. You can make a fool of yourself, risk your life, even forfeit your dignity to get attention. But it can backfire. Look at Mishima. He talks some kid into cutting off his head. Now he’s a laughing stock in Japan.

But he has serious readers.
I’m sure he does. But like a suicide bomber he was more in love with death than anything else. I still get e-mails from people who read my article on Koga and tell me how “cool” it was that Mishima planned his own decapitation. If Eliot was right that the past is altered by the present, tell me how that mess artistically altered anything that came before?

What about the cow?

Why do we keep coming back to that? How is it relevant to anything!

You were going to interview the Hump Brothers once. Didn’t they make bestiality films?
How do you know about that?

It was in the stuff you sent me.
Yea, well, I guess that’s what happens when you’re in a hurry. OK, so I thought the Hump Brothers might be a nice feature for Your Flesh. You can imagine how far I got asking around how to locate them. They did this one where a guy who looks like Ginsberg is standing on a stool behind a cow. There’s a feed bag around the cow’s face and a naked hippie chick holding the tail with both hands so it doesn’t swing around and knock the beard off his stool. What the hell are we talking about anyway? We’re supposed to be discussing literature. How did we ever get on this subject?

Power of suggestion.
Very funny. Alright, let me explain my non-relationship with the Hump Brothers once and for all. Ever hear of Rudolf  Schwarzkogler? He reportedly died as a result of intentionally cutting off his penis in a work of performance art. Turned out to be a hoax, but the value was more in the hoax than if he really did it. To me he was saying something about the impotence of sensationalism. My Hump Brothers idea came before the internet when there was still some mystery left in the world. Now a ten year old can Google “screw cow” and get a million hits. I was going to apply a kind of Kantian “disinterested interest” to find in the Hump Brothers something like a higher truth, like Apuleius did in the The Golden Ass, where he relates the woman who has sex with donkeys to the Mysteries of Isis. Of course there was always the possibility I might have failed, like I did with that piece on Jim Bruce and his the castration society, but that’s because all I went for was sensationalism. When you do that you’re chasing nothing, and ultimately failing, even if you “succeed.” So before you ask me one more time, let me tell you, no, I would not have intercourse with a cow and post it on the internet just to draw attention to something I wrote. I would not consider that a success. I may make a living hypnotizing people to think they’re sheep in mating season, but let’s understand I’m not a hypnotist who writes, I’m a writer playing the role of a hypnotist out of necessity. I wear a flashy suit and go on stage to make money so I don’t have to debase myself asking for a grant. --By the way I’m coming to a tunnel so we might get cut off-- When I go back to the motel after a performance, I hang up my show business shoes, take out my books and papers and pursue my quest for life-enhancing paradox in the most foreign, the most secret, the most low, where traces of the beautiful and the sacred, the epic and the tragic are least corrupted by what’s commonly accepted. Of course I’ve gone down the wrong path like I did with…[connection begins breaking up]…even though Veronica Vixen insisted it was only…[breaking up]…not that I…as she…[call ended]

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