WAKEFIELD — Bill Rodriguez, a writer and former New York Times contributor from Wakefield, wants us to pay attention. The theme of taking notice, no matter what of, defines Rodriguez’s latest works — a pair of books that differ in almost every category and yet are united by the idea of being present and acknowledging the world in either all of its beauty or all of its ridiculousness.
“To Survive or Not to Survive, That is the — Poof: A Tale of Finessing Annihilation” and “Double Vision: Photographs and Accompanying Poems/Prose Celebrating the Overlooked” were both published by Rodriguez in May. “Poof,” a comedy told in three parts, centers on the relationship between Farley, an ordinary man and president of his condominium association, and Allen, an alien tasked with determining whether earth and humanity should be wiped out on account of potentially becoming a danger to other planets’ inhabitants upon discovering interstellar travel. “Double Vision,” meanwhile, is a collection of local and world spanning photography shot by Rodriguez over his lifetime, which provides visual counterparts for pieces of prose and poetry penned by Rodriguez throughout the work. The two books ask the reader to take a step back and examine reality carefully, though the means by which each work does so is dissimilar. “Poof” sets out to realize this goal through comedy and farce, while “Double Vision” employs photographs and writing to re-examine potentially overlooked aspects and beauty of everyday existence.
“It’s interesting how being serious and being jocular comes out of the same person, therefore they have to be similar sensibilities in some regard,” said Rodriguez. “I would think of it as again paying attention to the ridiculousness of being on this planet. We look at that in ‘Poof,’ and roll our eyes a bit, and then we take that notion more similarly [in ‘Double Vision’].”
Rodriguez was born in New York City and spent much of his early childhood between Garfield and Passaic, NJ. He wrote his first novel at 14 before attending Northeastern and earning his undergraduate degree in English/Journalism. During his time in college, Rodriguez worked as a newspaper editor for The 128 World — a Boston-based paper covering the area of the locally famed Massachusetts Route 128, and as editor-in-chief at Northeastern News. After graduating, Rodriguez earned his Creative Writing Master’s at Boston University, and spent time teaching English at a preparatory school in California before moving back east to Rhode Island.
He began writing for The Chariho Times in 1977 and by 1987, was serving as editor of The Narragansett Times’ Arts and Leisure section. From 1990 to 2014, Rodriguez was an arts and culture writer for The Providence Phoenix and in 1996, the journalist and writer began contributing for The New York Times as an arts freelance feature writer, mostly covering filmmakers from David Mamet to Dustin Hoffman to Seth McFarlane. Throughout his journalistic career, Rodriguez’s work has ranged from award-winning investigative reporting to theater and restaurant reviews.
Rodriguez says both “Poof” and “Double Vision” came about as a result of the increased downtime from the pandemic. With the former, he was attempting to channel his fun side. Star Trek references, both dirty and dry humor and satirical looks at humanity feature heavily in the work.
“There was a time when I aspired to be wise but now I’m settling for being a wiseass,” said Rodriguez on the writing process for “Poof.” “It was just fun. That’s my personality. I loved writing this book. I was laughing out loud as I went along with it. It was so much fun.”
The novel is split into three sections that follow three different characters as a superior alien race contemplates earth and humanity’s annihilation. Fearing humans may pose a threat to other intergalactic species once we become technologically capable to travel the universe, the book is a comedic examination of what makes humans human.
“I did serious before when I was young and pretentious,” said Rodriguez. “I’m just sitting back and enjoying myself now. As you take yourself less seriously, you take the world less seriously.”
By contrast, “Double Vision” is a 126-page compilation of poetry, prose and photography completed by Rodriguez over his lifetime, with much of the writing portions coming in the past year. In the first chapter of the book, a poem reimagines the mundane task of cutting the lawn as a gruesome execution of the local shrubbery ordered by the tyrannical lady of the land. Rodriguez said the passage was inspired by the book’s central theme — taking notice, paying attention and recognizing the potential for wonder in the seemingly every-day humdrum.
“The book is really about paying attention to things we may otherwise overlook and reminding people of the opportunities to pay attention,” said Rodriguez. “It’s what strikes you as significant — that is the seed for me. It could be anything, any kind of source — something you see or something you feel or something you’re frustrated by, something you appreciate. If it rises to the surface, it’s a way to work on it and express it.”
Along that line, “Double Vision” also features photography — much of it extreme close ups and abstract — shot locally and around the world in locations such as Germany, Venice and Key West. One particular chapter is dedicated to the engravings and design of a wooden Venician door. According to Rodriguez, with his background in writing, and extensive experience conducting interviews and shooting photos for print, photography was a natural extension of his interests.
“Art photography is pretty much the same as journalistic photography — it’s all about, again, paying attention,” he said. There’s a graphic component and you have to learn photographic composition, but it’s always been very enjoyable to do.”
As for the answers to the big questions that paying attention is supposed to inspire, such as will humanity be deemed suitable to continue existing in “Poof,” Rodriguez is not giving anything away.
“Isn’t not knowing much more interesting and satisfying than knowing, in a way?” he said. “When you know something, you understand it as fact, and then that’s it, let’s go move onto something else. Not knowing opens you up. It’s a much more satisfying and honest life to come to conclusions but keep them tentative.”
“To Survive or Not to Survive, That is the — Poof: A Tale of Finessing Annihilation” and “Double Vision: Photographs and Accompanying Poems/Prose Celebrating the Overlooked” are both available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback format.