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Baron Wormser’s Latest Novel Invokes the Voice of a Young Bob Dylan

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Published September 15, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.


Baron Wormser - COURTESY OF JANET WORMSER
  • Courtesy Of Janet Wormser
  • Baron Wormser

The hefty full title of Baron Wormser's new novel is Songs From a Voice: Being the Recollections, Stanzas, and Observations of Abe Runyan, Song Writer and Performer. A Guggenheim Fellow and six-time poet laureate of Maine who now lives in Montpelier, Wormser is the author of numerous poetry collections, short stories, essays and novels, as well as a memoir and two books on teaching. With his latest, he manages to combine all those genres into one hybrid text: a plainspoken monologue delivered by the title character, who bears more than a little resemblance to a certain guitar-strumming Nobel laureate.

The result is a work of fiction structured as a loquacious memoir, interspersed with lyrics and poems. It also serves as a lesson on postwar American history and a sprawling meditation on art, music and the role of the artist in society.

Via email, Seven Days asked Wormser about his historical and literary influences — and whether Songs From a Voice's main inspiration is aware of the book.

SEVEN DAYS: Tell me about your process for conceiving the protagonist of Songs From a Voice, Abe Runyan. He's a fictional stand-in for the young Bob Dylan, of course, but his name also invokes Paul Bunyan, the mythical lumberjack, with an Abrahamic flourish. 

BARON WORMSER: Abe is based on Dylan, but what interested me was the legendary dimension of my protagonist, especially the sources of imagination. The bald story — guy from a small town in the upper Midwest writes songs that change the world — certainly seems a legend come to life. So I leaned on the legendary in naming my character — Abraham (biblical), Paul Bunyan (American folklore), Damon Runyon (American writer and creator of characters). My protagonist, as Dylan did, renames himself, creates himself.

I'm not sure what to say about "process," beyond that I've been thinking about Dylan for a lifetime, and this character started to speak to me and through me. After that, I was more or less taking dictation.

SD: I love that idea of receiving dictation, and it makes me think of the lyrics that punctuate the narrative. At first encounter, I wondered whether they might be quotes from Emily Dickinson! Do you see Runyan's verses as a synthesis of sorts, between Dylan, your own work as a poet and other sources?

Songs From a Voice: Being the Recollections, Stanzas, and Observations of Abe Runyan, Song Writer and Performer by Baron Wormser, Woodhall Press, 176 pages. $17.95. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Songs From a Voice: Being the Recollections, Stanzas, and Observations of Abe Runyan, Song Writer and Performer by Baron Wormser, Woodhall Press, 176 pages. $17.95.

BW: I wanted to somehow indicate the nature of my protagonist's lyric proclivities. I wanted to break up the narrative and allow for poetry to assert itself as part of the imaginative landscape. I've been reading Dickinson forever, and that quatrain form seemed suitable.

There's a jumpiness in Dickinson, a leaping quality, an improvising quality, an existential quality that made sense to me. She, of course, had a strong metaphysical agenda, so to speak, but her form derived from ballads and hymns, which is to say — songs. I decided to use her dashes and see what happened. I found myself perceiving the quatrain as a poem unto itself. What could I do in four lines that would echo the prior prose chapter? I liked that terseness and that equivocal relation among the lines. I liked the meter and the rhyme, since my protagonist was devoted to song-meter and rhyme. "Synthesis of sorts" is a fair term.

SD: Besides music and songwriting, much of the novel concerns Abe Runyan's skepticism of authority and the traditional values of postwar America; like Dylan, he uses music as a way to escape all that. As someone born just a few years after Dylan (and in that spirit of "synthesis"), did you find yourself making use of your own feelings from that time?

BW: The book is an homage in part but also a form of historical participation: This is what it was like, and this is how certain people responded to the Cold War, the coming of rock and roll, endemic racism, various forms of cultural narrowness (school, small-town life, the "news"), along with free-floating existential despair alleviated by a tremor of illicit excitement: This all has to change, and somehow we will change it. (Pardon the two colons.) So the book stems from my feelings, my inveterate skepticism and the search for some sort of elsewhere — inner and outer.

SD: Another concern of the book is transformation: Abe Runyan practices his stage leer in the mirror, as he imagines James Dean must have done. And Dylan himself (born Robert Zimmerman, then changed in homage to the poet Dylan Thomas) certainly remade himself, weaving his personal truth with a cryptic (and occasionally plagiarized) self-mythology. As an author of many books in poetry and prose, do you feel that you have ever had to remake yourself (or been tempted to?)

BW: No. Dylan meant to become a public persona. I've never been in that league, nor have I felt that need.

SD: Have you had any contact with Dylan about the book? If not, what do you imagine he would make of it?

BW: The book has gone to some people reasonably close to him, but that's as far as it's gone. He has constructed, as my son likes to say, a moat around a moat — which is understandable. He might be amused. He seems good at being amused, at seeing the absurdities and the graces and how they can go together.

SD: Is there anything else you'd like readers to know about the book?

BW: There is something deeply American about Bob Dylan, and that was a huge impetus to write the book, to create Abe, to try to get at the roots that were there, more or less waiting for someone to come along and tap into them, someone who believed in imagination. That's the kicker — imagination.

It can be very hard for an artist (such as Dylan) not just to believe in himself but believe in the validity of his art. The leap he made into the early songs and then into the songs that are unequivocally artful was a huge leap, as important an artistic leap as anyone ever made in this country. There was danger in that leap and enormous possibility of failure, of falling short. Imagination is routinely shut down on many fronts. Abe's story in my book is that of someone who is proud of imagination and who treasures the myriad sources of imagination — musical, literary, geographical, historical — that the nation gave him. Given the importance of imagination, fiction seemed a sensible way to tell the story.

From Songs From a Voice

Critics write about influences and what I've taken from this song or that song. I've taken plenty. That's the nature of the task — one big stream of music — but in another way I haven't taken a thing. It's more that I've been open to how nothing stays still, how each moment everything is increasing and decreasing even if you can't see it, like the shores of the seas, and how those changes have spoken to me. I used to sit out on a windy October day when I was a boy and watch the leaves fall. My dad would have me rake them, but first I wanted to see them fall. It seemed only fair. I loved watching their fluttering and flitting. Every leaf's flight was different — a show for me. My dad would come by and remind me to "rake not dream." A little sad to make beauty a chore: The raking got done, but I took my time.

I remember first hearing Nat King Cole sing "Autumn Leaves." My mom owned the record. He was the best — his voice warm and full and silken. He sang in French too, which made sense because the feeling — missing someone — was in all languages. And the feeling wasn't speaking. The feeling was singing.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Ventriloquism"

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