by Tyler C. Gore
Take a journey into a uniquely American hell with Perdition, D. Selby Fing’s modern take on Dante’s Inferno. Guided by Abraham Lincoln, Fing slogs through the bowels of a bizarre, post-modern underworld, where he encounters a rogues’ gallery of past U.S. Presidents — Ronald Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Richard Nixon among them — as well as other 20th-century icons, including Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Winston Churchill. While wrestling with his own inner demons, Fing witnesses the diabolical (and often grotesque) torments awaiting these historical leaders — vividly illustrated by Seth Goodkind’s red and black drawings — and, from their confessions, attempts to weave a new understanding of “what [being] human can mean.”
Unfortunately, D. Selby Fing did not live to see the publication of Perdition. He committed suicide in 1976, leaving behind two young sons, who subsequently devoted their lives to studying and promoting his work. D. Selby Fing, Jr. — just seven when his father killed himself — maintains a website on which he has posted an anguished recollection of his father’s life and death, and detailed annotations to the first 480 lines of Perdition, often informed by his father’s journals. His younger brother, Y.S. Fing, a frequent contributor to the Washington Independent Review of Books, has been responsible for arranging the publication of their father’s work.
Complicating matters, all three Fings are fictional constructs, pseudonymous personas created and fleshed out by a DC-based writer who borrows their names to author a wide variety of projects.
Tyler Gore: Who is D. Selby Fing, the author of Perdition? I’ve read the bio on the back of the book and the author — your father — seems to be both fictional and dead.
Y.S. Fing: Fictional and dead. There must be some relation there! D. Selby Fing was created as a means for me to separate myself, the writer, from what I was writing. I guess I had matured enough to be able to generalize my experience and found that a nom de plume would provide that separation. But, as with Laurence Sterne, from whom I took the idea of creating a persona, I ended up creating multiple personae, D. Selby Fing, and his two sons, D. Selby Fing Jr. and Y.S. Fing.
TG: I’ll circle back to the fictional nature of D. Selby Fing and his literary sons but let’s talk about Perdition first. Perdition is the first of three parts in The Profane Comedy, correct? What are the other two, and are they forthcoming?
YSF: Limbo and Elysium (which, along with Perdition, parallel Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy), are ready to go. But poetry by itself doesn’t grab people the way that poetry with illustration, and annotation, can. So the vision for Limbo is black-and-white photography because it occurs in a real place, New Bedford, Massachusetts, from 1827-1899. Elysium, which floats in a mystical sky, is to be illustrated with collage pieces, which I have completed and will peddle to publishers as soon as we get somebody to publish Limbo. I’m hoping it won’t take as long to get these next books published as it took Perdition.
TG: Yes, I can imagine that in today’s publishing world, a book-length poem written in terza rima might be a hard sell. It’s a fascinating undertaking — a modern take on Dante with many connected layers as you’ve already hinted at — but possibly lacking the commercial appeal of, say, the latest celebrity cookbook. What was your experience in getting Perdition published?
YSF: Prior to the publishing journey, I felt that, if Dante had enthralled many generations with his words and imagery, I could do the same thing, whether the publishing industry paid any attention or not. The thing to me was to impress the artists, and, as with Dante, inspire them to meditate on my imagery and to consider for themselves what this bizarre, post-modern, anti-heroic journey must mean. If artists respond to it, then the dialogue could go on infinitely. So that’s why Seth Goodkind was such a key player in this. And I’ve arranged with my friend and master photographer James Prochnik to work on Limbo. By the way, Rupi Kaur does quite well with poetry and illustration, so there is a market, even if Perdition is a bit vulgar and disgusting for the mainstream.
As for publishing Perdition, I worked harder on making myself useful to the DC literary community than I did aching for someone to publish the book. One of the reasons I became active in the Washington Independent Review of Books and the Washington Writers Conference was to find answers to questions without the stress of fulfilling my strong desire to be published. I figured, karmically, it was better to help others and learn about the industry that way. So when I had the illustrations and the poem ready I went to two or three houses, and one of them, New Academia Publishing, agreed to put it out. And for that, in part, I have to thank Grace Cavalieri, who is the Maryland Poet Laureate and a hero to me — and many others.
TG: I love Seth Goodkind’s illustrations in Perdition, and for me, as a reader, they often revealed things about the text I hadn’t quite picked up initially. I suppose he’s something of your Gustave Doré, shining a light into the underworld of your work. How did that collaboration come about?
YSF: Seth and I first met when I was 28 and teaching at Silver High in Silver City, New Mexico, and he was in my sophomore English class. He was an intense kid with lots of energy. It was clear to me that he wasn’t going to spend all his life in New Mexico. But we lost touch with each other for some years and came back together through social media, whence I discovered that he was a prolific and intense artist who was also an historian. I saw his grunge aesthetic and his preoccupation with history as exactly what I was looking for in a person with whom I could work, somebody who didn’t need too much hand-holding but could envision Perdition for himself. Win-win. We communicated almost entirely by email and it took three years to bring 30 illustrations together. An extended, but exhilarating process. With each drawing that came in I was confirmed that they’re precisely what is needed to draw people in. And you mentioned Gustave Doré — you know his drawings are HIS interpretation of Dante. He didn’t consult with Dante about what he meant. That’s what I dig about that.
TG: Let’s talk about Dante. The Divine Comedy is a highly allegorical roadmap of a spiritual journey, but — particularly in the Inferno — it’s also a satirical treatment of Dante’s political enemies, as well as other figures. Additionally, it’s a kind of theological treatise on the Christian cosmology of the medieval era. Perdition is rooted in American history, and focuses primarily on U.S. presidents, with Lincoln leading Fing through the underworld, much as Virgil guided Dante. How closely is Perdition patterned on the Inferno?
YSF: I’ve always said that the architecture is at 1/10th scale, that way, I didn’t put too much pressure on myself to try to recreate what Dante did. Dante worked for 20 years on the Commedia. It’s over 14,000 lines. As you say, it’s an infinitely complex thing, which I could never equal. I love Dante, but I wasn’t going to rewrite The Divine Comedy. For one thing, I am not a moralist. Dante wrote the Commedia to tell people how they should behave in order to achieve their own salvation. But in American history, with the church and state as separate entities, I didn’t have to bother with the hypocrisies of Christianity, a secular approach scaled things down considerably. I like that idea of “road map” because the implication is that Dante created it so that other people could follow it to their salvation. I bemoan those who only read Inferno, because they’ve only taken one third of the journey! Read the rest! Don’t you want to achieve your salvation?!
Multiple layer allegory was Dante’s great gift to me, but I mixed it up with my experience, my particular philosophical tendency/preference — irony with love — and attached it to the American bicentennial in order to help Fing better understand U.S. history, the creation of identity in the modern world, the necessity of engagement with our contemporary lives, and love.
And, with Fing and The Profane Comedy, I prefer the word “enlightenment” to “salvation.” Secular, you know…
TG: The phrase “irony with love” is intriguing. Perdition certainly has some notable allusions to religion — explicitly Christianity and Buddhism — but the concept of secularism is particularly woven throughout as a kind of ideal of the American republic. What does a journey toward secular salvation — or, enlightenment — mean for Fing in Perdition?
YSF: Probably a three part answer here, because I could go on about “irony with love.” It’s an idea I took from Laurence Sterne (not that he used that phrasing), in Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey, not to mention his Sermons of Yorick. His idea was that nobody can ever reach their ideal, there are too many human, psychological, moral, pleasurable, etc. complications. This shouldn’t be cause for harsh judgment, but for loving acceptance and understanding. We can never live up to our ideals, but we pursue them because that is our task in life.
Sterne communicated these ideas to Thomas Jefferson, who used them in relation to the devolution of power (from the King of England to the citizens) in the newly created United States. The secular task of this country was to create citizens who could be responsible participants in society, each and every one. Which is why education is so important. (I’m not forgetting that Jefferson enslaved people, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he chalked it up, in his mind, to being one of the few ideals he could never live up to.) But if the government could be organized in a way that it acknowledged ALL people’s weakness, then the checks and balances would provide a constructive response to destructive stimuli.
Fing’s task is a continuation of Sterne and Jefferson, to show people that they have power, if they can discipline themselves with knowledge. Fing’s journey is an absurd, ironic, incomprehensible thing on the surface, but the underlying developments are related to him gaining knowledge so that he can be a better person, he can better engage in his society, he can love better, and attain some personal peace/enlightenment.
TG: With the exception of a memorable cameo by Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, most of the historical figures Fing encounters in Perdition are U.S. presidents, who are subjected to some delightfully disgusting punishments — Reagan, as The Gatekeeper, can’t stop vomiting, JFK remains forever on a operating table with a bullet lodged in his head, Woodrow Wilson does laps in a pool of snot, and Nixon is continually flayed alive by Satan himself…
YSF: When you put it that way, it sounds horrible!!!! Ha!
TG: Yes! And depicted in loving detail by Goodkind! I guess I have two questions about this. One is — what is the lesson here for Fing on his own personal — I was going to say “spiritual,” but let’s call it “secular” — quest? In other words, what do these hellish punishments have to teach him about American history? And the other question has more to do with the composition: Why are these particular presidents in Perdition?
YSF: As to the spiritual lessons, I think Fing is absorbing Foucauldian awareness of the necessity of being honest with oneself about one’s relations to power and disciplining oneself to maximizing the capacities of one’s power in this post-modern world. The grotesqueries are there to viscerally grab people and make them feel that they are going through what Fing is going through. That’s the allegorical purpose, right? It’s not about Fing, it’s about YOU.
Of course, the most recent presidents would be the most recognizable to those in my milieu, but Jimmy Carter isn’t there because he didn’t have the kind of self-over-coming personal weaknesses the others had. Each president was intended to kind of symbolize his times, the excesses, the failures to live up to our ideals. I chose the prominent ones, generally, unless it served my purpose to highlight an obscure one. I also threw in the celebrities and the fetuses because life is ironic. Of course, the conceit is that it was written in 1976, and Reagan hasn’t even been elected yet (nor is he dead!) but all those ironies work together, they reveal a chaos from which the cosmos of Fing’s awareness emerges.
TG: Fing himself is a curious figure in Perdition. He’s not merely an observer by any means. His author’s bio tells us that he was “raised to be a priest” and that he committed suicide in 1976 (which also happens to be the American bicentennial). The bio also mentions his wife, Lilica Del Rio, who appears in Perdition as an analogue to Dante’s Beatrice, the beloved female figure who guides Fing’s journey from a higher plane.
There are some revealing moments in Perdition concerning Fing’s personal history — I’m particularly thinking about that masturbation scene involving Lilica’s hairbrush in a hotel bathroom. So what are we to make of these biographical details? Fing is certainly not an American everyman!
YSF: I don’t know, the idea of Everyman is that Anyman could be him, no? Has every man in U.S. history not masturbated?! I guess what makes Fing an everyman is that he’s flawed, that the people who brought him into the world failed him and he had to make it on his own, with all the brokenness that he was given in his life.
Yes, Lilica is Fing’s Beatrice, but she’s not an angel at God’s right hand, beckoning Fing to proper behavior. And the way I think about that masturbation scene is that, in the scene before, Fing turns his back on fame, because it would be too much of an intrusion on and corruption of his identity-construction. The next scene is him in an embarrassing intimate moment, an ironic consequence to a principled decision.
TG: Now that we’re on the subject of Fing’s personal — and fictional —history, I think now’s the time to bring up the complex author mythology I alluded to at the start of the interview. Your fictional brother — D. Selby Fing, Jr. — has a website that offers a detailed portrait of his father — who killed himself when Fing Jr. was only seven. Fing is portrayed as a grouchy, eccentric, negligent alcoholic, and although there are some fondly remembered paternal moments, he’s certainly not an ideal father or husband. But Fing Jr. also states that his father believed himself to be a kind of messianic figure, an avatar of the American Dream.
How does the website material — extraneous to the published edition of Perdition — inform the character of Fing as he appears in the poem?
YSF: I knew all along that D. Selby Fing was going to kill himself, as I knew, while I was writing Perdition (and subsequently Limbo and Elysium) that the poems would need annotations to explain the madness of the language. This is necessary for all epic poetry! So, like Vladimir Nabokov with Pale Fire, I decided to play a scholastic joke and make the annotator almost as screwed up as the father whose poem he’s interpreting, and mix real interpretation with fictional biographical and autobiographical stuff.
There are two more books after The Profane Comedy, one, The Annotations, introduces D. Selby Fing Jr. and his obsessions and theories. But I also knew that Jr. was too hypersensitive and frustrated by this world and so the notes are finished by Y.S. Fing, the name I write under now. The fifth book of the Fing series is by Y.S. Fing and it’s short stories about the events in Fing’s life that broke him, called Event Horizons. So it’s a big project and hard to describe in writing. There is a lovely Book Launch video on YouTube where I go on and on about it for 55 minutes!
To address your question more directly, the website material is the tip of the iceberg and once I opened up the annotations to the sons, I opened up the possibility of addressing any old thing I wanted to. It was the most free and widest-ranging writing I’ve ever done. And in that vast space, D. Selby Fing becomes a real human being, a person whose life could make a difference to anybody, to many. I want to say that, like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, I created a character who was real, who remains real.
Tyler C. Gore is the author of the forthcoming My Life of Crime: Essays and Other Entertainments (Sagging Meniscus Press), to be published in 2021. He lives in Brooklyn.
Illustration by Seth Goodkind