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Liz Worth on Warhol as inspiration and writing through grief

Liz Worth September 2015It feels strange to be talking about the creative process behind a book I never intended to write. No Work Finished Here: Rewriting Andy Warhol started as a personal experiment, a practice run at poetry. Later, it was as a way to work through grief – or, indeed, live through it.

When I first read Warhol’s a, A Novel, in 2004, I really wanted to like it. I was fascinated by Warhol’s mystique, influence, and creative output, especially since he hadn’t limited himself to one medium, but had crossed over into film, music, and books. When I came across a copy of a in a used bookstore, I felt like I’d found a book that would, somehow, change my life, or at least change the way I look at literature.

The novel comprises transcripts of recorded conversations among an assortment of Warhol superstars – Ondine, Edie Sedgwick, and others. I expected it to be something like reading a Polaroid picture. Though dubbed a “novel,” a consists purely of raw, unedited transcripts, typos and all. The conversations are often fuelled by drugs. According to a’s endnotes, over 100 different voices are captured in the recordings, but only those deemed most “meaningful” are identified. When it was first published, in 1968, some called the book genius, others pornography.

Put simply: a is a tough book to enjoy. But despite its challenges, I knew it had layers. I knew that Warhol’s coterie of artists was innovative, scandalous, and provocative; part of my initial attraction was in trying to figure out what the book was really saying.

It also contains some highly poetic lines and phrases, which were enough to keep me reading; as I did, I started to write certain passages down. Then I started to play with them. I thought, this is what my poetry needs to be: distressed, disjointed, a contrast of images and language, the merger of ugly honesty and fading beauty.

In this way, a became the book I used to push the boundaries of my own writing. I’d been writing poetry for a few years already, but I knew it could be stronger. I knew I hadn’t found my boundaries with it yet.

After I finished reading a, I put it away, along with my notes, and moved on. Nine years went by before I thought much about Warhol’s book again.

Then, in the spring of 2013, my father died. He had been diagnosed with cancer six months previously. Leading up to his death I had become overextended: working full-time, preparing a new book (my first novel, PostApoc), and playing in a band. Between it all, I visited my dad regularly, spending hours each week travelling back and forth to see him.

Within a month of his passing, I’d taken some time off work and broken up my band. I have never been one to use creativity as catharsis, at least not in the moment. But eventually, something told me to start writing. I almost resisted. I had just decided to free up some space for myself and didn’t want to dive right back in. Whatever I undertook had to be something that I could tackle bit by bit.

I recalled the inspiration a had given me so many years before: its dangerous language, its stark confessions and tragic characters. I wanted to find them again. I wanted to write with them again. But this time it wouldn’t be for practice.

I thought of it as a remix project. I started to wonder what Warhol’s “novel” would have been like had it actually been edited, had he actually tried to transform it into a work of fiction. First, I would make a list of the best or most interesting words and phrases on a page, then I would craft them into a poem. To keep myself accountable, I decided to post two poems online every day.

Working in the “as-is” spirit of Warhol, I didn’t allow myself any substitutions or exceptions. If a word I was looking for wasn’t on the page I was working from, I had to figure out something else. I had to work with what I had. I also decided I wouldn’t correct any typos or edit the phrasing, though this meant I ended up only using the cleanest copy from the book.

I didn’t set out to retell the stories of Ondine or Sedgwick or Gerard Malanga, but because I was using their words and stories, some of their experiences inevitably crept into my own work. But I also felt like a was reflecting back some of my own stories.

Of course, this is what it is to create found poetry: it can’t help but start to sound like your own at times, because you become the filter, the one deciding what’s important, re-shifting the focus. But I never thought that I was actually (re)writing a book. Instead, I was simply surrendering to inspiration, finding unexpected joy through the creative process in what would otherwise have been a very lonely, difficult time.

–LIZ WORTH is the author of Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond, 1977–1981 (ECW Press), Amphetamine Heart (Guernica Editions), a volume of poetry, and PostApoc (Now or Never Publishing), a novel. No Work Finished Here: Rewriting Andy Warhol is published by BookThug.