Some years ago, I was lent a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by a friend who knew of a project I was working on mixing prose, poetry and images. Unfortunately, as we’ve all experienced, sometimes a friend’s book recommendation can be entirely off, but in this case, it was the perfect book to read at that moment in my life. Ondaatje’s combination of poetic adventurousness and archive was invigorating. At first, his investment in this deeply Western story seemed odd for this Sri Lankan-born, Canadian resident. And yet, it shouldn’t have seemed strange at all, as artists are forever exploring, never confined to that which they have experienced or known (for contemporary examples, see Lars Von Trier’s American movie epics or Jorge Volpi’s Eastern European novels.) Unsurprisingly somehow, Ondaatje’s work on Billy the Kid is grounded in the childhood cowboy games he played while living in Sri Lanka. In fact, Ondaatje says he was obsessed with Westerns ever since he was eight or nine years old. Even in Colombo, the myth of the American West had quietly taken root.
His obsession with the Western as a form and with Billy the Kid (and his raucous, violent twenty-one year long life) continued over the years as he moved from Sri Lanka to Britain and to Canada. Eventually he began to piece together this book, spending more time with Billy the Kid and his own imagination as he invented details of his life. He says in an Afterward to the book that he couldn’t afford to visit the West or Texas at the time, so, ever the fan of writing in situ, Ondaatje drafted much of the book in an abandoned barn, and its locale⎯ “the dry smell of past animals, the cobwebs on my pencils…became important.” There were rats, he writes, in the stalls nearby and so that afternoon rats came into the novel. (Ondaatje has spoken in interviews about his predilection for writing in the locales where his novels are set⎯in Italy for The English Patient, in Sri Lanka for Anil’s Ghost, etc.) Eventually, in crafting the book’s final appearance, Ondaatje worked with a designer to include the fictional photography and images (as well as ample white space) that builds an airtight substructure for the book.
I’ve gone into all this detail about Billy the Kid for a few reasons. First, because it shows that Ondaatje’s visit to Houston next week is a kind of imaginative home-coming, a chance to visit the Texas he never got to see while writing his book (though 2011 Houston arguably has even less to do with Billy the Kid than that Canadian barn where he wrote much of the book). It’s also a chance to recognize a non-Texan author for what I consider one of the best lines ever written about the state; it’s become a kind of mantra for me: “The blood came down like river ride / long as Texas down his side.”
Also, I wanted to initially introduce Ondaatje as a poet. He’s written far more books of poetry than of fiction, and yet he’ll forever be recognized as the author of the novel The English Patient, later made into the award-winning movie of the same name. Despite his novelist fame, Ondaatje strikes me as a poet living and writing in a novelist’s world. He has a poet’s love of language, forming it and deforming it, attentive to the most minute details of his artistic material.
Don’t miss your chance to see this Sri Lankan-born poet cowboy next Monday evening at 7:30pm at the Moores Opera House, University of Houston.