Writing Without Thumbs: A Conversation with Johnny Stanton and Elinor Nauen

Editor’s note: Aside from him having written the neglected masterpiece titled Mangled Hands, published by Sun & Moon Press in 1985, I was fascinated by Johnny Stanton because there was very little information about him except for that one book, which was described as having had an underground reputation even before its publication. What info I could dig up was immensely interesting; for instance, that Johnny had started a newspaper called Siamese Banana in the early 70s which turned into a press then a “gang.” But beyond these morsels, Stanton was even more mysterious than Thomas Pynchon, having only published a single novel which was virtually unlike anything else I’ve read. Ultimately, I discovered that Stanton was thankfully alive and married to a poet named Elinor Nauen who happened to be active on social media. Not only did Stanton turn out to be an interesting and funny character in his own right, but I was transported to a world I had little to no knowledge of: the New York City scene of literature in the mid and late 20th century (not to mention Stanton and Nauen have a beautiful and powerful relationship). Thus, from Pynchon to possible, I proudly present this interview which is the product of enchantment, research, and a dedication to shining a light on wrongly-neglected writers and their work.

[The following phone conversation was lightly edited for concision and clarity.]

George Salis: The man of the hour! Hey Johnny, how are you doing?

Johnny Stanton: Okay, good.

GS: Thank you so much for agreeing to this. It means a lot to me. So my first question is, while Tarcisius, the 14-year-old Huron protagonist of the novel, has an “other father” in the French priest “Blackrobe,” Mangled Hands is dedicated to “my other father, Neil Boyton, S.J.” As it happens, Boyton was the author of Mangled Hands: A Story of the New York Martyrs, which came out in January 1926 and is a fictional account of Isaac Jogues and others who interacted with Native American populations. Can you talk about your relationship with Boyton and the relationship between these two books?

JS: He was a local parish priest that used to do a lot of things with kids during the summer. He would bring us to this park in Coney Island, Steeplechase Park, and he’d give us free tickets. We’d go in the swimming pool, a saltwater swimming pool. As we came out of the swimming pool he would be there with cheese and Ritz crackers and some juice for everybody and he would bring 30 to 40 kids every weekend during the summer.

GS: So he was like another father for you, a father figure?

JS: Yeah, exactly. Also, I wanted to rewrite his book. I wanted to give it the Burroughs touch.

GS: And when did you read that one? Do you remember?

JS: Oh, when I was in grammar school.

GS: And then was this something that had a big effect on you? Did you think ‘maybe I could improve on it’? How did that go?

JS: No, I just wanted to make another work.

Elinor Nauen: Can I ask a question?

GS: Sure!

EN: Did this have anything to do with Ted Berrigan’s Clear the Range and Ron Padgett’s Motor Maids Across the Continent? Was it the same time that those guys were doing those cutout books?

JS: No, this was before that.

EN: Oh, do you think they got the idea from you?

JS: I doubt it. I mean, it is Burroughs.

EN: Right, okay.

GS: So that was what I was going to ask because there was a review in The Washington Post that described it as a “cut and fold-in method” or a “collage novel.” What was that process actually like?

JS: I would take a lot of texts like Joyce, Ford Maddox Ford, and Henry James, and cut them up and try to make something out of it but none of those guys did anything for me so I reverted to my favorite fantasy, the stories of Conan the Barbarian.

GS: Oh wow. So you didn’t just use Boyton’s Mangled Hands.

JS: (Laughs) No. I used as much trash as possible.

GS: (Laughs) And then you turned it into pure gold.

JS: Yeah, well….

EN: (Laughs)

GS: Don’t be modest!

JS: I was hoping for bronze!

GS: So my next question is about the marketing lingo on the back of the book. Mangled Hands has been compared to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Were these an influence and did you cut them up too?

JS: No, I didn’t cut them up. And that’s more Doug Messerli media production [founder of Sun & Moon Press].

EN: You had read Tristram Shandy though, right?

JS: Oh yeah! I’ve read all of those books. Even the ones I didn’t cut up. (Laughs)

EN: But didn’t One Hundred Years of Solitude come out after? I thought that one came out much later than Mangled Hands.

JS: I don’t think so. I don’t remember.

GS: Do you remember when you started working on Mangled Hands?

JS: Oh Jesus, I don’t know.

EN: It must’ve been the mid-60s.

JS: Yeah. It was slow going.

GS: How long did it take?

JS: I’m too embarrassed to tell you.

EN: He’s gonna tell!

JS: How long have I been married to you?

EN: Too long!

JS: That’s my answer! (Everyone laughs)

GS: Hey, that stuff takes time. You can’t do magic overnight.

EN: So what did it take, like 10 years?

JS: Yeah, probably. I was working and everything at the time. I also had the Siamese Banana Gang and the press.

GS: I can’t wait to talk about that. I recently interviewed Wendy Walker and she took 10 to 15 years to write her first novel because, you know, life gets in the way. You can’t fully dedicate yourself to your work, in most cases at least.

JS: Yeah.

EN: There are different kinds of books that take 10 years or 1 year. I mean, both are fine if that’s how long it takes you. If it takes 10 years, it takes 10 years. Who cares?

GS: Exactly.

JS: One of the things I wanted to do from the cutups and with the background of the Jesuit relations in North America was make a fantasy. A completely different fantasy and I guess I succeeded at that.

GS: I would say so! Your book actually reminded me a lot of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road except even more concentrated in the mythology.

JS: Oh, I don’t know that book, but I will since Elinor has it.

GS: Oh really? And can you talk about any other spirits that animated you as you wrote the novel?

EN: Alice’s tits.

JS: Huh? Whose tits?

EN: Alice’s. [Born in Arizona and raised in Needles, California, according to the Poetry Foundation, ‘“Alice Notley has become one of America’s greatest living poets. She has long written in narrative and epic and genre-bending modes to discover new ways to explore the nature of the self and the social and cultural importance of disobedience. The artist Rudy Burckhardt once wrote that Notley may be “our present-day Homer.”’ Stanton describes a reading given by Notley in a partly autobiographical story titled “Radar Love” (Transfer (ed Gary Lenhart), Fall/Winter 1989/90, Vol 2 #2, and at the end of the reading: “He felt a warm tearing wave of affection between his legs. If only he could make love to Alice, he’d be a much better writer….”]

JS: What? No! (They laugh)

EN: So which spirits? Other books?

JS: Hmm, I don’t know.

GS: Can you talk about your interest in Native American mythology? Did you just make it all up?

JS: No. I went to a grammar school run by the Jesuits. I went to two years of this Jesuit high school before I went to Colombia. The Indians could’ve been cutting off their thumbs and they’d still be writing. A lot was going on. They have tons of books on the Jesuit relations.

GS: And that was about the Jesuits and their interactions with the Native Americans?

JS: Yeah, that’s what the original Mangled Hands is about.

EN: So all those priests who settled my part of the country and Canada were Jesuits? Chevrolet?

JS: (Singing) See the USA, Chevrolet!

EN: All those cars were named after priests?

JS: Buick? Oh, a big Buick. He has a big Buick baby! (Everyone laughs)

EN: The priests in the Detroit area, they were all Jesuits? I didn’t know that!

GS: I was surprised when Elinor told me that you have Irish ancestry.

JS: Oh yes, my parents came over here in 1929, just in time for the Depression.

GS: And were the bedtime stories Joyce, Finnegans Wake?

JS: (Everyone laughs) No, I don’t know if they were more about the transport workers union and their president Red Mike Quill.

Vol. 47 (1967)

EN: And the IRA. His dad was involved in that. They came over the same year? I thought your dad came a little sooner.

JS: I thought it was ‘29.

EN: Oh, could be.

GS: So Mangled Hands is a cutup like you were saying. Do you remember if you had a rigid structure or like you said you were just pulling randomly out of all of these different sources?

JS: Well I would pull sentences from the cutups and if they worked with the fantasy that was going on in my head then I would put them in. If not, I didn’t.

GS: So whole sentences or just fragments or just one word?

JS: It depends.

GS: One thing that was really interesting that also comes from the back of the book is how it said Mangled Hands was passed among New York poets and fiction writers in manuscript form and it had some kind of underground reputation. Can you talk about that?

JS: Well, it had been published in a few places. Colombia Review published a couple of chapters.

GS: I actually remember that Elinor had a magazine, what was it called?

EN: Koff Magazine.

Vol. 48 (1968)

GS: Did you publish any of his pieces?

EN: Our plan for Koff was not to publish people who had already had a fair amount of publishing and I didn’t really know him at that point. We met toward the end of Koff and he was too big time for me, for Koff. I don’t think he would’ve published in Koff, would you?

JS: Oh, take my clothes off for you guys? Oh shit, yeah!

EN: You know what he’s referring to, George? We did a calendar of naked poets in one issue.

GS: Oh I didn’t know about that. That was in Koff?

EN: We had a naked centerfold.

GS: Oh my gosh, competing with Playboy?

JS: Yeah, I thought it was pretty boring myself. (Everyone laughs)

EN: Well, we thought poetry was pretty boring and we thought it would be enlivened by looking at naked men!

GS: So Playgirl Magazine?

EN: Yeah! Playpoet.

“Playpoet” featuring a nude Charles Bukowski among others

GS: So I also found a blog post from Douglas Messerli and he said, “I read just a few sections of [Stanton’s] lost book, Mangled Hands in a magazine, and with great audacity called him up to ask if the book was ever completed. Yes, it’s under my bed, he responded. Please send it to me, and I published it.” How did it end up under your bed?

JS: (Laughs) You know what, I lied. I hadn’t finished it then so I immediately got up and started to finish it.

EN: Johnny had a lot of people living in his house and I think under the bed was probably the only place where it was safe from the kids, right?

GS: So was there a point where you just gave up on it or life got in the way and you stopped working on the project?

JS: Well, it had gotten in the way, yes, because I started working with kids, a kind of social work bullshit.

GS: I’m assuming that took up a lot of time.

JS: Yeah, it did. They were always over at my house smoking grass.

GS: Did you smoke any with them? Peace pipe?

JS: (Laughs) Once I started the Siamese Banana Gang, yeah.

GS: I can’t wait to get to that one. So there was an underground reputation for your book. What was the literary scene in New York like around that time?

JS: It was mostly poetry on the Lower East Side. There was Ted Berrigan, Dick Gallup, Peter Schjeldahl, Ron Padgett. Yeah, and who…Fuck You [subtitled A Magazine of the Arts, which was published by the poet Ed Sanders in the 60s], what was…. Ed Sanders had a bookstore [“the Peace Eye Bookstore, located at 147 Avenue A in the Lower East Side of NYC. The sign was created by noted artist Spain Rodriguez. Peace Eye was a well-known cultural center for its era. Peace Eye also served as a community print center, and was a stopping off point for the underground railroad helping people flee the war. America’s first LeMar demonstrations were organized out of Peace Eye”].

GS: So you were the odd man out as a novelist then.

JS: Yeah. Though I did take a poetry course from Ted Berrigan over at his house.

GS: And that helped you with Mangled Hands in some way?

JS: Oh, hell yeah!

EN: The class was just him, and Ted had him writing a lot.

JS: I can’t remember what else was helpful except that the class made me realize I wasn’t a poet. It was a lot of work. The culmination of the class was me reading at Cafe Metro and I have to say I think Ted was rather proud of me.

GS: Because the book reads like pure poetry every page and that’s the kind of novel I like reading. Sun & Moon Press usually published novels from playwrights and poets. Were those the glory days of publishing compared to now?

JS: For mimeograph publishing. It was pretty cheap publishing. I had started a newspaper called Siamese Banana.

GS: That was the first incarnation, right?

JS: Yeah. I would use electric stencils to get all of the different pictures I would use in the newspaper and it was pretty cheap.

GS: And you wouldn’t be able to do that now if you wanted? Is it more expensive now?

JS: Oh, I don’t know!

EN: It’s just different technology now. All of the poetry magazines were done with mimeo and that might be before your time, George, but you would type it on this blue paper and then there would be a mimeo machine. It was like negatives almost. So then you would run it through the machine and actual paper would come out. We didn’t have computers or any way to make multiples. There weren’t really any copy shops. So that was the way to make multiple copies. The nice thing was that everybody’s poems looked the same. You couldn’t pick a font. It was just the mimeo so if you didn’t put names on things, your poem looked just as good as anybody else’s!

GS: It sort of levels the playing field a little maybe.

EN: Yeah, it really did, and so people would do magazines and mimeo books and then there’d be collating parties because you’d print out 100 copies of each page and then stack them on the table and everybody would go around. That’s why I only have one copy of my first mimeo book and the cover is on upside down. (Everyone laughs)

GS: I bet that could throw readers for a loop.

EN: Yeah, so some of those magazines printed short excerpts of fiction. They wouldn’t print 40 pages because that would be ridiculous to do. It would probably be like a page or two by you, right Johnny?

JS: Yeah, or something small.

GS: That’s what I did with my first novel. I tried to get little pieces in magazines or online here and there just to get something out there while I spent so much time working on one project.

JS: I’d like to talk about who I’d like to see revived. Tom Veitch’s The Louis Armed Story and Ted Berrigan’s Clear the Range.

GS: This is your answer for the question about books that deserve more readers?

JS: Yes!

EN: Clear the Range is supposed to come out again.

GS: What made you choose those two?

JS: Those were things I really liked and they were by friends.

GS: Nepotism!

JS: Oh, sure! (Everyone laughs) I mean, come on, it’s a small neighborhood! You get to know everybody!

EN: Ted’s granddaughters are my granddaughters by the way. Not through any shenanigans, but it’s the nepotism part.

JS: Oh, the truth comes out!

EN: The truth?

JS: The truth! (Laughs)

GS: I’m not familiar with those books of course. Can you tell me a little bit about them?

JS: Ah, no. Go get them! (Laughs)

EN: You know Tom Veitch, he’s also a comic book writer.

GS: Oh, I’ll go get them! So I only have a few more questions about Mangled Hands and then we can move on. Mangled Hands is suffused with dream logic and surreal scenes. How do you view the importance of dreams, particularly in the context of literature?

JS: Not much.

EN: Really?

JS: Yeah, no.

EN: Did you at the time?

JS: I kept a dream journal.

GS: How did that go? How long did you keep that going?

JS: Not that long, maybe a couple of years.

Vol 49 1969

GS: I would say that’s long! I remember I tried doing that and after a couple of entries I was finished.

JS: (Laughs) Then let me change my answer. A couple of days! (All laugh)

GS: I can’t remember who said it, but there’s that adage, “Tell a dream, lose a reader” which I never believed in.

JS: Wow, I never heard that one before!

GS: Do you agree with that?

JS: No, I don’t agree with that. I was a big fan of the Dadaists and the surrealists. Give me a break. I always thought that dreams were pretty cool!

GS: I have to agree with that. So we have a guest question since I like to bring in some people from the community to participate. This question comes from S. D. Stewart: ‘Toward the end of the book, Snake Tooth takes Blackrobe’s poems and stuffs them in the back of his head, then uses his possession of them as leverage to get secret information from Blackrobe. Snake Tooth claims the poems hurt his head and says he knows “at any moment they might fill up the sky.” Yet later he appears to use the magical strength of the poems to help the fishing party catch more fish. When the fishing party arrives back at the village, Snake Tooth returns the poems as promised to Blackrobe, who in turn gives them to Tarcisius. The level of significance of the poems to Blackrobe is clear, as well as their greater power within the mythology of the book. What meaning do you see in Blackrobe’s poems and why do you think Snake Tooth, an apostate who consistently defies Blackrobe’s “saving waters,” still seems to hold a certain amount of reverence for them?’

JS: Actually I think that that might’ve been influenced by John Ashberry and Ted, about the poems. Snake Tooth was getting interested in the religion. He was interested in Blackrobe. Maybe he wanted to kill him, maybe he wanted to have sex with him, I don’t know.

GS: He was an apostate but maybe he still believed. Is that what you’re saying?

JS: Yeah, something like that. (Laughs)

EN: An apostate who still had a relationship with belief.

JS: Yeah, an apostate can be a heretic or someone who was excommunicated.

GS: And there’s only really one instance where we get a glimpse of Blackrobe’s poetry. How did you write that? In juxtaposition with the rest of the book it didn’t feel like poetry. (JS laughs) Not to insult you or Blackrobe, but compared with the rest of the book.

EN: Well, the book was poetry but the poetry wasn’t, in other words.

JS: (Laughs) I plead the fifth.

GS: No problem.

EN: Do you not remember?

JS: No.

EN: (Laughs) He doesn’t remember. The fifth he’s pleading is about memory, not about that.

JS: Well, I’m getting old!

EN: Yeah, we all know that.

GS: So my last question is playful: Where do the dead crabs go? Do you know?

JS: Hmm, I think the beavers ate them.

GS: They were causing a lot of trouble.

JS: Yes, yes, and it worked on a sexual level too.

GS: There was a lot of manhood touching. What made you put so much of that in the book?

EN: He had the fire down below. I can attest to that. (JS bursts into laughter)

JS: Ah, something like that.

GS: Okay, so, moving on, (JS laughs more) Elinor told me that you’ve been getting quite a few tattoos, including a line from Mangled Hands: “I, Tarcisius Tandihetsi, say so”, which is repeated at the end of every chapter. What made you get that tattoo recently?

JS: I got my first tattoo when I was 70.

GS: So how did that start? I got mine when I graduated high school and I’ve only gotten one other since.

JS: Tattoos weren’t as popular when I was growing up in the late 40s and 50s.

EN: Wait, so how did you start then?

JS: It was just this one!

EN: Oh, the Koff Magazine one?

JS: It’s not a Koff Magazine.

EN: No, that was our logo!

JS: That wasn’t your logo. It was the Consumptive Poets one.

EN: Right, so his first tattoo was the logo of the Consumptive Poets which was the publisher of Koff Magazine so it’s the symbol of the American Lung Association, you know like a cross with two birds but the end of it is a pen dripping with a drop of blood. But that is a great question, what made you start getting tattoos?

JS: Oh, I was thinking about you, I was thinking deeply about you! It was probably something you did to annoy me.

GS: Revenge tattoo?

EN: He also has the title of a book of mine tattooed on his back.

GS: And which one was that?

EN: It’s So Late into the Night.

GS: Is it on the lower back, a tramp stamp?

JS: No, the middle back!

EN: It’s very large. It’s as big as the line from Mangled Hands.

JS: And I have a tattoo of the Siamese Banana Gang.

EN: (Laughs) He’s showing it to you! Each time we say a tattoo, he’s showing it. I’m like, okay, he doesn’t see it, but that’s okay! That’s right, he has the Siamese Banana Gang. Somebody saw that and went, ‘Wait!’

GS: Somebody recognized it?

EN: Somebody who knew the Siamese Banana Gang saw that, but maybe they didn’t know you?

JS: I don’t know.

GS: That’s strange. How many tattoos do you have in total?

EN: Oh that’s a good question.

JS: Uh, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven!

EN: No, more than that.

JS: Oh, eight, nine!

EN: That’s it?

JS: Isn’t that enough?

GS: You have me outnumbered. Are you thinking of getting any more?

JS: Only if I get inspired.

EN: Yeah, right now things aren’t really happening.

JS: Yeah. No tattoo parlors are open.

GS: How are you handling the quarantine? You’re still locked up tight?

JS: Yeah and I’m beginning to shake. Ooh, shake it baby! One time for me! (Everyone laughs)

GS: I feel you! I haven’t left the house in two months or more.

JS: Oh, God.

GS: Time is just melting for me.

JS: Yeah, it is strange.

GS: And yet I see people outside my window acting like everything is normal and they’re not doing what they’re supposed to.

EN: Yeah, Florida seems to be…

GS: Really bad.

EN: Yeah. At least in New York most people are pretty—

JS: Oh yeah!

EN: You know, because we’re all on top of each other. Plus I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t known anyone who hasn’t been sick or died so it does sober you up when it’s abstract. I mean it’s sort of abstract anyway and when you don’t know anyone who’s gotten sick it feels like ‘this has nothing to do with me.’ But here, we all feel like it has something to do with us. You really haven’t been out? How are you getting food?

GS: Delivery from Instacart and Walmart delivery.

EN: Oh wow, do you have a big house and backyard and stuff?

GS: No, actually I’m in an apartment complex so I have to take out the trash at night and it’s like Mission: Impossible because I don’t trust anyone to keep their distance.

EN: Right.

JS: Really? Wow!

EN: You know he lives near Peter? He lives in Daytona.

JS: Oh, you live in Daytona? Where is my brother living, New Smyrna Beach?

GS: Well, if you guys are down here when the pandemic is over I’ll buy you a drink.

JS: Oh, good, whoo! (Laughs)

GS: A margarita sounds pretty good.

EN: Wait, you were going to ask something more about Siamese Banana.

GS: Yeah, I have a couple more. So there was actually very little information about you when I was first Googling you and I actually didn’t even know if you were still alive! It was like Pynchon, you’re like a Pynchon figure.

EN: I think it’s because he doesn’t have a social media presence.

GS: Yeah, and there was no bio or anything for me to find. But there was this random thing on a website from 1997 I think it was, where you were describing the history briefly of Siamese Banana.

JS: Oh, right. It was a book about the underground press.

EN: Was that the secret history book?

JS: Yeah, something butter balls.

GS: Because you said you worked at a neighborhood youth center. That was earlier, before the social work or was that related?

JS: Yes, that’s exactly where I was working.

GS: So you had already started working on Mangled Hands by then.

JS: Yeah, I wrote it when I lived on 89th Street.

GS: ‘And a fearless director barked at you (woofs), “Jumping butter balls! (All laugh) You’re supposed to be a writer, why don’t you start a center newspaper?’ Why did that person say you’re supposed to be a writer? Did they know that you were working on this project then?

JS: No, they just knew that I was a writer.

GS: So this person had an influence on you? That was the impetus for starting the whole press?

JS: Yeah, well, starting the newspaper, it turned out to be so great I wanted to publish books too.

GS: What kind of news did you publish?

JS: Oh, things from around the neighborhood. It was completely local to the children center.

GS: And what kind of reception did you get?

JS: I got a lot of laughs. (Laughs)

GS: So it was mostly a comedic newspaper. “If the facts don’t fit, change them.”

JS: Remember, young teenagers can be really snotty or sarcastic. Actually, everybody really liked it.

GS: And that inspired you to take it to the next level?

JS: Yeah, and then I was able to get Joe Brainard to publish his first books.

GS: And I think Elinor mentioned Paul Auster? He made it pretty big.

JS: Oh, yeah. Later on he put out a big book of French surrealist poetry but what I published was a little anthology of French surrealist poetry so it was the start of that big book.

GS: So not his work specifically then, just an anthology he curated?

JS: His translations, yes.

GS: Ah, interesting. I’ll have to see if I can get my hands on that or maybe just go for the big one.

EN: That book is very available. I’ve got it right here. It’s the anthology of 20th-century French poetry.

JS: Yeah, he was talking about the Siamese Banana one.

EN: No, I know, but the big one that I have. Oh, I see. I don’t know if you can get the little one, the Siamese Banana one.

JS: See, it’s not that we have too many books around here. (All laugh) You know how the walls kind of feel like they’re closing in on you? When you’re sitting at the desk with all of the books you’re looking at and they’re coming towards you.

GS: Mine are right at my back. Mine loom behind me. So did you call Paul and say, “You’re mine because I published you first”?

JS: Oh, no! Why would I do that? (Laughs) You know what? He has a book out, 4 3 2 1. There’s a section in there about me and the Siamese Banana Press. I mean he calls it something else. It gets to 89th Street and, well, it’ll be easy to recognize me. I’m the handsome one in the book!

GS: Of course. (laughs) So what are some other notable things you published when Siamese Banana was a press?

JS: Stuff by Anne Waldman and Joe Brainard and a guy from Colombia University, Hilton Obenzinger, David Anderson. It was a good time! Lord Scum’s Hotel by John Weingarten. He was from Colombia too.

GS: How big did this press get? What was the biggest print run you did of a book?

JS: Oh, Jesus. Well 100, 200, I don’t know.

GS: Interesting, so it did take off a bit?

JS: Oh yeah. I think I published around 8 to 10 books.

GS: And that includes some of yours as well? Because I saw some online.

JS: Yeah, one of mine. The Day Our Turtle Was Kidnapped.

GS: They’re a little out of my price range but I’m saving my lunch money.

JS: Jesus, really?

GS: Yeah, it depends. There’s a couple of them floating around.

JS: Uh-huh.

GS: And they’re rare, so. Have you held onto any of these things that you’ve published?

JS: Hmmmm. Some of them.

EN: They might be in that box that Phil brought out of storage. Now I don’t know where that book is. I usually can put my hands on it because I like to look at that book but it’s, I don’t know, it might turn up.

GS: So it went from newspaper to press then finally a gang!

JS: A theater group.

GS: Ah, because when I hear gang I’m thinking more tattoos and chains.

JS: No, only because I have tattoos now! But that’s what we called ourselves. It would be something that I wrote, maybe stories, plays that would be performed behind me while I read.

GS: Where did you do this, at a park or something?

JS: No, I did it at the Poetry Project, on cable television, Off Broadway. [Stanton mentions these performances in the above-mentioned story “Radar Love”: “She had once read with Stanton at a loft in Soho. He had these teenage kids perform stories as he read. They were hilarious: controlled anarchy, spontaneous drama scripted with props, much better than the Living Theater. No Lie. What the hell was their name? She quickly remembered: The Siamese Banana Gang.”]

GS: Very cool. And were you the only one who was writing these plays or were there other people involved?

JS: Well, there wasn’t too much of that going around at the time, no. As a matter of fact, actually one of our best productions wasn’t something by me, it was by Henry Carey, Chrononhotonthologos: The Most Tragical Tragedy That ever was Tragediz’d by any Company of Tragedians.

1971 mimeograph introduced by Ron Padgett and Johnny Stanton. Based on the text of the 1743 first edition of Carey’s Dramatic Works.

GS: That sounds like a lot!

JS: Yeah! (Laughs) It was an 18th-century play.

EN: That was when I met Johnny, when he was in a poets’ theater in 1979 and I was in some poets’ plays. He had directed this play, and that was where we met. I was taking my clothes off in everybody’s plays. My other strength as an actor was fainting. I wasn’t very good at acting at all, but I did two things that people always wanted, taking my dress off and fainting. I would’ve met him eventually because all of our friends were friends in common but that was where we met and soon after that somebody we knew was in a play up in Connecticut and he had a truck because he worked for a moving company and I didn’t have a car at that point so a bunch of us drove up to see the play and I ended up sitting in the front and we were talking. [In Elinor Nauen’s nonfiction book My Marriage A to Z: A Big-City Romance, she writes “Johnny drove us in his work truck and I insisted on sitting up front because I like watching the highway go by. It gave him the wrong idea. The first time we went somewhere together, just the two of us, he almost killed us racing home, thinking he was about to get in my pants. I thought he was a great driver, but when he ran the light at 42nd and First, I knew it was sex not automotive prowess that powered him.”] We just became friends and here’s the shallow part of the story. So Johnny had this big, black beard that covered his whole face and I did not find him attractive. He always asked me out for years and I would hang out with him as friends. Then one day I went to a reading at the church and I said, “Oh! Who’s that over there?” and whoever was with me said, “That’s Johnny!” and I said, “No, that cute guy.” And they said, “No, that’s Johnny. He shaved!” I didn’t recognize him, his grown sons didn’t recognize him. I mean he really looked so different and after that I was like “Okay, I’ll go out with you!” (Laughs)

GS: He came out of the chrysalis.

EN: He did! So now he always thinks I’m shallow because I wouldn’t go out with him until he was cute! But yeah, Johnny is a very unusual person, which you can get from his books. There’s nobody that I admire more. It’s like he is himself every minute without consideration for what people think he should do or not do.

GS: Did you ever write these plays down, Johnny, or are they just lost to the air?

JS: Hmm, I don’t know.

GS: I’ll have to do a little more Googling! So what is your fondest memory of Siamese Banana. What sticks out to you from that history?

JS: Oh, Jeez. The Henry Carey thing because it was a big deal, it was a big production. It was in an Off Broadway theater.

GS: And that was received very well, I’m assuming?

JS: There were a lot of women taking their clothes off there, including my wife, my present wife.

EN: I took my clothes off for about 5 different plays! It wasn’t a lot of women, it was just me! (All laugh)

GS: Oh, my! So as I mentioned earlier, there’s this blog post by Douglas Messerli from June 2019: “I’m almost speechless here. The indescrible [sic] fiction writer Johnny Stanton. […] He wrote a second book, and we typeset it, sending him the proofs, but he pulled it from publication; to this day I don’t quite know why. He’s a true genius. And I loved his company; we went for Chinese in D.C. with Elinor Nauen and he showed up to several of our NYC parties. Johnny where are you? I miss you so much. Mangled Hands is a classic of American fiction in case you didn’t know.” Can you tell me about that?

EN: Johnny continued writing more and more edits in the margins of the galley and he just ended up never sending it back.

JS: Yeah. I didn’t like it anymore. I actually didn’t like writing anymore.

GS: That was my next question. If you continue to write or if you don’t write anymore, what was the decision behind stopping?

JS: I didn’t like it. I didn’t make money at it.

GS: And it just didn’t bring you any more joy?

JS: No.

GS: Did it become a chore?

JS: Uh, yeah, I guess so. That’s a good word. [Answering the question of “Why I Like to Write ?!” in a mimeograph, Johnny Stanton once wrote, “I like to write because I feel a deep need within me every night to express my love and abiding interest in mankind. Each man, woman, and child deserves to be the subject of a great story. I wish I had more time, less sleep. […] Whenever I sit down at my desk to write a story I always try to keep in mind the parts men play as individuals, not as mere abstractions, in the universe that surrounds them. This is exactly the thing that gives history its true and proper value, poetry some of its merit, and the stories I write their only reason for existing.”]

GS: Yeah, once you suck the joy out of something then why continue to do it? What can you tell me about the book you pulled? What was the title?

JS: It was called Sons of Xavier Keep Marching.

GS: That sounds very interesting to me!

JS: Yeah, and then there was another book that I put together called Johnny Stanton vs the Big Guys.

GS: Are these both short story collections?

JS: Yeah. With the second one, I was reading a lot of stories, such as Chekhov, and ones that I really liked I would decide to write a story off of them so in a way it was still part of that cutup technique.

GS: Hmm, but in that method you weren’t actually pulling words or sentences.

JS: Yeah, no.

GS: So kind of like ekphrastic in a way where you look at the paintings and then write a poem based on that.

JS: Right!

GS: Can anyone convince you to publish these?

JS: Well, I would have to find them. I have no idea where they are.

GS: Oh, my! Elinor do you know where they are?

JS: No, she’s still looking for that other book! (Laughs) By the way, it was published by Random House.

GS: So you decided to stop writing. Do you express yourself artistically in any other way? Or just binge Netflix?

JS: (Laughs) Well, I better leave on that note!

GS: Phew, I really appreciate you talking to me, Johnny! And I appreciate your efforts too, Elinor. Thank you so much!

EN: Oh, it’s exciting for me too! A lot of this stuff I’ve never heard before or I haven’t heard for such a long time. It’s kind of a thrill because every once in a while I meet somebody and they’ll say, “Wait, you’re married to Johnny Stanton?”

JS: A woman’s dream!

EN: This is such a great thing that you’re doing, George. I love that these are the kinds of books that you’re interested in and you’re right, the mainstream books don’t need advocates.

GS: Yeah, I feel a communion with these writers because I feel like I’m going to eventually be one of them once my work comes out. It’s inevitable. Another reason is that they tend to write without inhibitions.

EN: Right, it’s what the great Turkish poet Murat Nemet Nejat said, “If no one’s buying the bread you’re baking, you can make it as salty as you want.” (Both laugh)

GS: Exactly, I prefer writers who stay true to their vision, whatever that turns out to be.

Johnny Stanton and Elinor Nauen

Special thanks to S.D. Stewart for helping me track down Johnny Stanton and to Nicole Melchionda for transcribing the conversation.

(Kathy Willens/AP)

Johnny Stanton was born in 1943 in Manhattan, the son of Irish immigrants from Galway. He was an altar boy and Eagle Scout who attended Catholic schools & eventually graduated from Columbia University, where he fell in with many poets and writers of the New York School, including Kenneth Koch, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Paul Auster. He published many of them, some for the first time, in his Siamese Banana Press, which started as a newspaper in 1972 and ended as a performance gang in 1978. He is the author of many short stories and the novel Mangled Hands, neglected by critics yet highly acclaimed by the readers who discover it. He has lived in the East Village for 30 years with his wife, the poet Elinor Nauen, a cat (currently Lefty), and a lot of art.

Image by Jadina Lilien

Elinor Nauen’s books include My Marriage A to Z: A Big-City Romance, So Late into the Night, Cars and Other Poems, American Guys, and, as editor, Ladies, Start Your Engines: Women Writers on Cars and the Road (Faber & Faber, 1997) and Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend: Women Writers on Baseball (Faber & Faber, 1994). Her work has appeared in New American Writing, FICTION, Exquisite Corpse, The World, KOFF, and other magazines and anthologies. She has been a teacher/guest lecturer in writing workshops and classes in colleges, secondary and primary schools, and adult workshops at the Pingry School, Martinsville, NJ, where she was the visiting poet for several years; Washington State University, University of South Dakota, and elsewhere. She is a member of PEN American Center and on the board of directors of The Poetry Project. She blogs here.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below (River Boat Books / corona/samizdat). His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreads, Instagram (@george.salis), and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

9 thoughts on “Writing Without Thumbs: A Conversation with Johnny Stanton and Elinor Nauen

  1. Totally cool interview. I’m from that era and appreciate it very much. My first visit to NYC at the age of 20 was in 1966 and I looked for people like this, to no avail. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What a thrill to read this marvelous 3-way interview. I was given Mangled Hands by a former student when he went off to Columbia for grad school. He’d been wildly influenced by it years before. Hello, Elinor, I recall our modest correspondence from about 25 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

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